Finley & Seb

“Finley Rhodes, as I live and breathe.”

Finley jumped, startled by the deep timbre of his voice, unsure if she’d heard a ghost or if, in fact, the one person she never wanted to see again had shown up at her art studio.

“Sebastian?” She asked, though she knew very well it was him. The voice, the hair, the smile, the rough hands, the jeans — oh, the jeans…

He didn’t outright respond to her, but the laugh he gave her was answer enough. It was the loud and boisterous sound she’d grown accustomed to over the years — first from afar, when Sebastian had no idea who she was and dated his way through the girls’ volleyball team, then up close, when he’d called to her from atop the water tower and told her how he’d liked the view.

The view was her. He liked her. The thought still thrilled her, caused her to smile involuntarily — like now, when he was standing in front of her and laughing and staring at her in awe and curiosity.

A look to which she’d grown accustomed, a look that she found comforting even now, five years out from their relationship.

“Sebastian Graham,” she said, smiling at him warmly. No matter what had happened between the two of them, he was still Seb and she was still Fin. Their paths had crossed by happenstance when they were seventeen, when life was simple, and they’d never quite disentangled from each other.

“I came here because I saw this painting at Nora’s,” he said, referring to a restaurant in town (their town, she corrected internally) to whom she’d sold a few of her paintings. “The waitress couldn’t remember the name of the artist but gave me the card for your gallery.”

He then produced a small business card, one of her very own, from the pocket of his jeans. She stepped closer and chuckled because, sure enough, it was one of the first ones she printed — without her name. So Seb truly didn’t know it was her business, her paintings, that he’d admired enough to trek to New York and track her down.

“I see that,” she replied, her voice cracking as it always did around this boy — truly, now this man — because he had a tendency to make her weak-kneed and starry-eyed and caused her mouth to dry up like the Sahara Desert in the middle of a heat wave.

“So it’s you?” He asked. “It’s you whose work I’ve been admiring?” He didn’t wait for an answer before smiling that boyish smile he always did, and laughing loudly again, that boisterous, loud laugh of his that got them in trouble when they were in high school and sneaking around — out of the house, out of class, out of school entirely.

Finley spotted her agent, Lexie, poking her head out of her office in the back, clearly disturbed, but also curious as to who was causing such a commotion in the art gallery at ten in the morning. Finley just shrugged in response, but could see the question in Lexie’s eyes, and she knew she’d be spilling it all later. Better grab wine, she reminded herself. And food. Their gab-fests were nothing without a little red wine and a lot of potato chips.

“So what can I do for you?” She asked Seb, seeing the curiosity and awe in his eyes again and wishing, not for the first time, that she could crawl inside his head and listen to his thoughts. He was still an enigma to her, a mystery, one that she could spend hours getting lost in — and did just that when they were younger and she was enamored with him and caught up in his intrigue and mystique.

“Well, I wanted to buy a painting actually,” he told her. Sebastian, for all his masculinity, was very much caught off guard by this turn of events. He’d simply liked the painting when he saw it at Nora’s, and figured a weekend in the city wouldn’t hurt. His girlfriend, Ruth, had taken off. He couldn’t blame her. He was a mess, and the cause for his anguish was standing not five feet in front of him, not doing a thing but waiting for an answer to her question. “My dad sold me the winter cabin, and I’m redecorating.”

He left out the part where Ruth had been helping him redecorate when she’d finally left, having decided she didn’t need his constant mood swings anymore. To be fair, she’d been listing all the reasons why the bear-skin rug should go; and the bear-skin rug was most definitely staying, thanks in no small part to the weekend Sebastian and Finley had spent tangled up in each other on it, forgetting the world outside or the fact that they had an expiration date that was looming over them.

The day Finley left for New York wasn’t unexpected, but that didn’t make it any less painful to let her go. Sebastian realized, though, as they stood in her studio, that it had been the best decision for her. Their small town had nothing for her, nothing to contribute to her dream of painting and opening a gallery of her own. Nonetheless, that had been the end of them, and neither of them had looked back.

Except for when they did.

“Redecorating the cabin?” Finley asked. “Out with the old and in with the new?”

“Pretty much,” Sebastian said.

“Hope you’re at least keeping a few things,” Finley told him, making her way to a corner in the back of the gallery. “That bear-skin rug has a lot of memories.” She gestured for him to follow.

Seb could only chuckle at that point, knowing that she was remembering that weekend with as much clarity as he had over the years. She’d told her parents she was staying at a friend’s house. He’d told his parents absolutely nothing, because they were too busy to care what he was doing.

Finley stopped in front of a wall of paintings, all of which she’d produced during her first year of art school. The one she’d sold to Nora’s had been a gift, but the owner, Bree Lynn, had refused, and she’d received a check the following week.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“This one,” Sebastian said, pointing to an identical painting to the one in Nora’s. It would look good on the wall in the great room, the room where he’d entertain friends and family, the occasional female companion, who would undoubtedly ask about the artist, at which point he would trip over his words and wonder how in the hell he’d turned into a teenage girl.

Truthfully, though, that was the effect Finley had on him. She had spent most of their relationship talking, willing him to open up more and wishing he’d let her in. He’d spent most of their relationship wishing that he could be more open with her, but realizing there was something holding him back. Fear, his mind whispered. You were afraid.

“I’ll get this wrapped up for you,” Finley told him, breaking him from his thoughts. She made a move to walk away but he stopped her, placing his hand on her wrist, the place he always reached for when he needed her.

“Do you want to get out of here?” He asked, unsure where this courage had come from — certainly not from him. He was scared shitless when it came to Finley Rhodes, unsure of himself, not quite clear on who he was. Away from her, he survived on his looks and false bravado; with her, though, he was a mess. He was both terrified and in awe of her.

Finley hesitated only a second, thinking over the consequences of such an action. Could she take the day off? What would that mean? Why was he asking her to go somewhere? Where had he been? How had he been? What did all of this mean?

And then she decided for once to not think through her options, to examine how she felt about this. She decided to just do it.

“Let’s go,” she said. “My coat’s in my office. I’ll meet you out front in a few.”

Seb could only nod, hoping not to convey how confused he was by her answer. The Finley he knew would never have just taken off with him.

But maybe she’d changed. The thought chilled him, wondering why she’d changed, when she’d changed.

But he didn’t have long to think.

“Ready?” Finley asked, hanging a right out of the building to meet up with him. She was covered head-to-toe in paint-splattered clothing, and yet she still looked as radiant as she did the first time he saw her at the top of the water tow.

The view from up here is great.

“Ready,” Sebastian said, taking her hand in his, like it was something he did everyday. He didn’t care, though. Today was apparently a day of courage for both of them, it seemed, Finley ditching her tendency to overthink and Sebastian finally embracing his feelings.

Finley, for her part, was calm on the outside. She was a wreck inside, though, unsure if she’d made a mistake. Thinking was her forte. It was what she did. She made lists, she pro’d and con’d everything until she came to the best conclusion. This, though, was unfamiliar territory. Sebastian had wrecked her heart years ago, and now here he was, holding her hand and walking with her down a crowded city street. What had she been thinking?

The answer was out of her grasp, in part because he was so close. All thinking went out the window when it came to this man, it seemed — like the night she climbed the water tower to take in the view, breathless but proud of herself for making such a gutsy move. Sebastian’s presence made it all the more worth it to climb to the top of the water tower — even though, as she’d realized as soon as she got up there, the view was her.

You’re even prettier up close.

“Where to?” Seb asked, unsure of his surroundings. He hadn’t exactly thought this through. That was to be expected, though. He rarely, if ever, thought things through. When they were together, Finley was the responsible one. He’d been floundering without her.

But she was here now.

“How about we go to Serendipity?” She asked. “We could get frozen hot chocolate. Have you ever had it?”

Sebastian shook his head. “Doesn’t frozen hot chocolate kind of defeat the purpose?”

Finley grinned at him. “You’re in for a treat, Seb.”

His heart warmed, hearing her call him by his old nickname. “I trust you, Fin.”

She smiled as they walked along, turning corners at the last minute before coming up on the small venue. It was one of her favorite haunts — her and the millions of other people who visited New York. She’d come here many a night her first year of school, when she missed Sebastian and didn’t know how to cope. One of the waitresses had befriended her, and she’d lived on those frozen hot chocolates until her heart had finally somewhat healed.

But with Sebastian, it was never truly over, and her heart was never really healed.

They sat at a table in the back, huddled together as people bustled in and out. “Two frozen hot chocolates,” Finley ordered when the waitress approached. Sebastian kept Finley’s hands in his as they sat at the table, and she was taken back immediately to the days when it was just them against the world. They belonged to each other, really. Sebastian was hers and she was his. But they weren’t built to last.

“There was never a happy ending for us,” she muttered as they sipped on their frozen hot chocolates.

Sebastian froze at the words. No matter how true they were, hearing them come from her mouth was a shock. He nodded sadly, unsure of what to say — if there was anything he could say, really. “Yeah,” he finally said. “I know.”

Finley bit her lip, her thoughts still reeling as she remembered all the fights they had that first year. They weren’t even together at the time and they still fought. When she came home that summer, they resolved to never speak again. Up until the last hour, they’d kept that promise.

But he was always in her head. And her heart.

“This is really good,” he told her. “I didn’t even know what to expect, but it was nothing like this.”

Finley laughed. “This is why I had to deal with the freshman fifteen. These and the burgers from Shake Shack.” She paused, looking down at her drink. “Do you want mine? I’m too full to finish.”

Sebastian had already finished his drink, and gladly welcomed Finley’s. “This is delicious. You don’t mind if I drink yours, too?”

“Have at it,” she said.

They stayed at Serendipity for an hour or so more, but never again mentioned their failed relationship.

“Where to now?” Sebastian asked. He was clinging tightly to Finley’s hand, and she was on top of the world, soaring, just with his touch.

She thought for a second before an idea came to mind. “Do you want to come over to my place? I have something to show you.”

He’d never agreed to anything faster.

Finley’s apartment was only a few blocks away, but they took a cab anyway, knowing it would be faster than the two of them, heavy with frozen hot chocolate and memories of how she and Sebastian used to be.

They took the stairs to her apartment two at a time. By the time they reached her place they were breathless, but they were once again relaxed. Finley had taken the time to really think over this situation, and Sebastian had stopped thinking about it so much. Once back in their respective roles, they found themselves in a companionable silence, filled with the happier memories of their time together.

“This is the she-wolf den,” Finley announced as she unlocked the door. It was a tinier space, but she didn’t need much outside of a place to sleep and a place to paint. She’d converted her second bedroom into a studio of sorts when she first moved in.

“She-wolf den?” Sebastian asked, amused. “You’ve got a great view, I’ll admit.”

Finley smiled. “The view from the roof is much better.”

“Is this the part where you lure me to the roof so you can throw me off as payback for how shitty I was to you?” Seb joked.

Finley rolled her eyes. “Please. If I were going to kill you I would have slipped some arsenic into your hot chocolate.”

Sebastian laughed his loud laugh again, and Finley’s heart warmed not for the first time that day. She grabbed her iPod from its charging station and gestured toward the door. “You haven’t seen New York City until you see the view from the roof.”

Seb could only follow her — happily so, he thought to himself — out the door and up the steps to the roof. Finley placed her iPod on the dock and turned it on, before joining Sebastian on the edge of the roof facing the city. They could truly see everything from there. It was a sight that warmed Finley’s heart even on the coldest days.

Even when she felt her heart breaking a little as she stood next to the man who still held it in both of his hands.

“Having fun so far?” Finley asked.

Sebastian could only nod. He wanted to say something meaningful, but all of his thoughts were mush around this girl, and the fear that once gripped him so tightly he’d lost her was back in full force. He couldn’t open up to her even now, and it killed him.

“It’s crazy,” he finally said. “This morning I was just coming to buy a painting, and now I’m standing here on the roof with you.”

Finley smiled. “This morning I was just taking inventory, and now I’m standing here on the roof with you.”

They stood in a companionable silence as they watched the city unfold before them. It was just past noon, just in time for the tourists to take over. Finley could spot the outsiders easily, with their backpacks and baseball caps and maps in hand. She’d been that unfamiliar with this place once, but now it was home.

A welcome feeling.

A song came on then that they both knew, and the duo looked at each other with knowing eyes.

“The song we lost our virginity to,” Sebastian said, his voice light.

I lost my virginity,” Finley amended. “I’m still not convinced you even had one to begin with.”

Seb could only laugh yet again, and Finley found herself transported back to the first time she heard him laugh. It was so loud, and yet everyone around her acted as though it was a normal thing, for someone to laugh so loud they made the walls vibrate. She held her hand out to Sebastian, gesturing to the square in the middle of the roof that was adorned with flowers.

“I don’t dance,” he told her honestly, but he still took her hand.

“You will,” she responded, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“This song is so stupid,” he muttered as they swayed in the middle of the square.

“And yet, we had sex to it,” Finley replied.

“To be fair, we both had fantasies of doing it to this song,” Seb reminded her. “You were the one who said it was cliche to play Nine Inch Nails.”

“And you were the one who said Boyz II Men was overplayed,” she retorted.

“So Disney it was,” Sebastian said with a chuckle.

“Not just any Disney, though,” Finley said. “Mulan.”

Sebastian tightened his grip on Finley’s waist. “And now every time I hear this song I get aroused.”

“Some day I’ll make a man out of you,” Finley whispered, gripping Sebastian’s forearms just as tightly as he gripped her.

The song ended just as quickly as it began. Finley had forgotten she’d even had it on her iPod, but of course it would play when she was with Sebastian. This was a day of happy accidents, and the song was no exception.

“Can we go to the Empire State Building?” Seb asked. “I’ve always wanted to go.”

“Of course,” Finley told him. “Let’s do it. I’ll grab my things.”

And that was the end of the discussion. Sebastian had surprised himself by even asking, and yet the ask was so off the cuff he really wasn’t. He wanted to go to the Empire State Building, sure, but it was such an out-of-towner thing to do. He was certain Finley wouldn’t go for it.

But Finley hadn’t been to the Empire State Building in ages, and it seemed fitting that they go. The site of many a doomed love story, the Empire State Building stood tall against the backdrop of the city, and the tourists flocked to it. But still, the view was fantastic, and if there was one doomed love story playing out in New York City on this day, it was Finley and Sebastian’s.

They took another cab to the Empire State Building, holding hands the entire time. Sebastian couldn’t find a reason not to hold Finley’s hand, and though Finley knew this day would ultimately break her heart, she was certain she didn’t want to be holding anyone else’s hand right now.

They paid their fee once they got there, and took the elevator to the very top. In Seb’s opinion, the view from Finley’s apartment was way better than the view from here. But that had little to do with the actual sights and more to do with the girl he was holding. He couldn’t hold her here, and it terrified him that that made him upset.

“The view from up here is fantastic,” he told her.

Finley giggled, and Seb shot her a quizzical look. She looked up at him. “Do you not remember what you said the first time you saw me? At the top of the water tower?”

The view from up here is great.

The words floated through Sebastian’s mind and he smiled, recalling now how he’d called out to her from there, how he’d invited her up to check out the sights. How breathless she was when she finally made it up, and how breathless he was when she finally made it up.

“You really were much prettier than I imagined,” he admitted.

Finley smiled at him, then snuggled herself under his arm. The wind from the observation deck wasn’t bad, but she nonetheless felt a chill, perhaps in no small part thanks to the man standing next to her.

“This day,” she mused. “I never thought I’d see you here.”

“I never thought I’d see you… ever,” Sebastian told her honestly. “We were pretty done the last time we talked.”

“We still are,” she said.

They still were. The reality came crashing down on both of them at the same time. Sebastian tried his hardest to not think about it, to live in this moment with his girl — and she was, for all intents and purposes, still very much his girl — but it was no use. What would happen when he left New York? What would happen if Finley ever came home? Where did they go from here?

“I’m supposed to be the introspective one,” Finley reminded him. “What’s got you in your head?”

“This day,” Seb said to her. “This day has been great, and I never thought I’d see you again, and I don’t know what happens to us when I leave. And I realize that is the girliest shit I’ve ever said to another person, but it’s true. I’ve got you back in my life, Fin, but what happens after today?”

Finley could only nod in response. She’d had some of those same thoughts throughout the day as well, but they were only fleeting, hypothetical. Now, though, it seemed they were even more relevant. The day would soon be winding down, their time gallivanting in the city would come to an end. And where would that leave them?

“My train leaves at eight tonight,” Sebastian told her, reading her thoughts, and knowing she was just as panicked as he was. They hadn’t seen each other since the summer after her first year of college. This chance meeting had rocked them both, and yet they both knew that it had happened for a reason.

“Let’s just see what happens,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about a label for us right now. Let’s just spend some time getting to know each other again. It’s been awhile.”

Finley let her mind settle a bit, let his words seep into her bones. He was right. It was only two now. They had time. They had time to do anything, really, like…

“Do you trust me?” She asked.

“I think we’ve already established that,” Seb told her. A smiled tugged at the corners of his mouth, and she couldn’t help but smile along with him.

“I have an idea of where we can go next,” she said, holding her hand out to him again. He took it readily following her to the elevator and taking it all the way down. They laced their fingers together as they made their way back outside, down the sidewalk. They stopped for lunch at Shake Shack, though Seb was only too happy to order a soda instead of a milkshake. From there, he followed Finley to a small strip of shops, one of which had the words TATTOO written above it in glowing lights.

“Seriously?” He asked. “We almost got them after prom and you chickened out.”

“I’m feeling a little braver now,” she admitted to him, tugging him along with her as she made her way into the tattoo parlor. “Still the same thing?” She asked him. “Initials?”

Seb hesitated for a second, awed yet again by this girl, the girl he’d fallen irrevocably in love with when he was seventeen. “Sure you’re not going to regret this?”

She shook her head. “I could never regret you.”

And it was the truth. For Finley, Seb was the end of her love story. He had been for the last five years, even if they hadn’t spoken to or seen each other for four of them. Finley loved him, and she was sure he loved her too.

And whatever happened until he left would happen, she realized. Perhaps they’d talk again after he left; perhaps this would be it. If this was going to the end of their story, then it was going to be a good one.

“Initials it is,” he said, breaking her from her thoughts.

The tattoo artist just stared at them with a bored expression as they talked fonts and whether they were doing middle initials. Ultimately, they opted to not do middle initials, but were sold on typewriter font.

It hurt, but not as badly as she anticipated. Finley held Sebastian’s hand as the needle dug into her wrist. It wasn’t excruciating, but she nonetheless enjoyed the feel of his hand in hers. When Sebastian’s turn came, he still held her hand, but he didn’t flinch, in part Finley guessed because he’d already been through this, judging by the cross she spotted on his left arm. Seb’s  grandfather had been a minister. She could only guess he got that to honor him.

The duo headed to Washington Square Park after that, spending their last few hours together with their feet in the fountain. They held hands, talked about everything under the sun (he finally told her about Ruth, and she finally admitted that there had been no one else since him) and shared even more laughs. Being together was what they both needed, though neither of them were willing to admit that. Sebastian because he was too proud, and Finley because she was too scared. Nonetheless, Finley found herself losing track of time, and she was sad when the time came to head to the gallery to get Seb’s painting, then on to the train station. Sebastian held her hand the entire cab ride to the station, but neither of them made a move to do anything more intimate than that. It was too much, too soon. They could both agree on that.

“This is me,” he said, gesturing to the platform. Finley could only nod, feeling the lump rising in her throat as they stood in the middle of the massive train station. She felt lonely already, felt Seb’s absence even though he was standing right in front of her. This relationship of theirs had been difficult, to say the least. And yet it had been worth every fight, every tear. For all the pain they’d caused each other, Finley knew they’d also brought each other love — something that had been sorely lacking in each of their lives.

But Finley also knew it was too much to ask Sebastian to move to New York, and she knew she was never going back to their town. Their town held too many memories, too much pain, and there was nothing there for her. So she did the one thing that she knew neither of them were brave enough to do.

She kissed him.

Seb was taken aback initially, unsure what was happening, why it was happening, but he quickly caught on and kissed her back. This is goodbye, he thought to himself. He held her tightly, knowing this was the last time he would do so. He loved her, and he knew she loved him, but he also knew any relationship between the two of them was doomed. She wasn’t moving back home, and he couldn’t move to the city, what with all he had going on. The stars were yet again not aligned in their favor.

And damn, did that hurt.

“There really never was a happy ending for us,” he muttered to her as he pressed his forehead against hers.

Finley could only nod, recalling the words she’d said earlier. The truth hurt so much, and yet it needed to be said. They would only hurt each other in the end, and neither of them wanted that. And then she did the one thing she swore long ago she would never do again.

“I love you,” she told him, shocking her system but warming her heart.

See, you can be brave. She nodded, acknowledging the silent voice inside her head and her heart. This would hurt, but she would be brave.

“I love you, too, Fin,” Sebastian replied. “Always will.”

“Always have,” she added, smiling at him.

Seb could do nothing more than kiss her one more time before making his way to the train. He stopped just before boarding and turned around, and Finley felt seventeen again, felt the thrill of the first time he called out to her. The memories and feelings rushed over and through her. She clung to them, clung to this memory, of the boy she loved so dearly but couldn’t have as he boarded a train and left her — this time probably for good.

“I’ll see you soon,” he mouthed to her, and she could only nod.

Finley smiled at him and nodded before turning on her heel and making her way out of the train station, far, far away from the boy who had shaken her world up nearly five years ago, and continued to do so each day since. Even when he knew the odds were stacked against them, he was willing to believe that perhaps their time would come. He was willing to tell her he’d see her again. He was willing to hope. So she would be willing to hope, too.

Because what was love without hope?


Coming Home

“What in the world… when did you get a dog?”

Piper kneels down in front of Anakin, my labradoodle, and scratches the back of his neck. He leans in to her, ducking his head in appreciation. This is his weakness: strangers who offer him affection and treat him like the little prince he is.

“Anakin,” I tell her, and she shoots me a curious look. “Because he’s so light and dark.”

My explanation sends my friend into a fit of giggles, though it’s absolutely true. My dog is light in color and dark in behavior – ruining my good towels one moment and fetching my mail the next. He’s my companion, though, and for that I am eternally grateful. He loves me without reason…

A welcome change from the last man I loved.

“I can’t believe you really did it,” Piper tells me. “You actually walked away from him. I mean, changed your number and everything.” She pauses. “Thanks for that, by the way. I tried to call and was notified by an automated response that your number was disconnected.”

I shrug. “I had to make a clean break, Pipe. Goodness knows I wasn’t going to be able to make it out any other way.”

She nods, settling on the floor with Anakin’s head on her lap. “I think he’s still scheming to get you back.”

“He can try,” I tell her, taking a seat across from her on the floor. “But it’s not going to happen.”

“It’s really over?” She asks me.

I nod, folding my knees against my chest. “It’s really over.”

Anakin sighs and rolls over on his side, his head still perched on Piper’s lap. I look out my window to the small village I call home.

Italy has been everything I never knew I needed. Living in a quiet town, away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities like Rome, allowing myself time to heal from all the things Jake and I went through — separately and together. I needed a new start, and this place fit the bill. No one knows me here but the lady at the market and the boy she sends to delivers my groceries. My anonymity is a saving grace from a world that still plasters my pictures on the front of magazines because of my connections.

Connections like the girl sitting in front of me who’s been my best friend since before we understood the significance of the term.

“Does he know you’re here?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No. No one but Hadley knows I’m here.”

“You didn’t tell Charli?” I ask.

She looks to me with an expression that tells me I already know the answer to that question. “And have her husband try to extort the information from her? I know better.”

I nod, processing the information. “Good. That’s good.”

“Is it so bad that he just wants to make sure you’re okay?” She asks me after what seems like hours of silence.

Is it? I ask myself that question at least three times a day. He’s tried to contact me to no avail. My number has changed, and the only four people with my location have been sworn to secrecy.

“Jake has never been about the just,” I say. Piper looks at me in curiosity, but I can only shake my head. “He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m okay. He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m settling in.” I take a deep breath, willing myself not to cry over this – over him – for the millionth time. “He wants to know where I am so he can make another grand gesture, fly halfway across the world and beg me to come back to him, ask me to marry him to show how serious he is. And then I go back to him, and he’ll cheat on me again, and I’m left wondering what I did wrong.”

Piper takes a moment to process this information, patting Anakin’s head as he eyes me with bored interest. He’s heard me say these exact words before – to Charli and her husband, Ben, Jake’s brother, when they’ve asked me for my location just so Jake could know I was fine. If the dog could talk he’d probably be able to recite my soliloquy at this point.

“The problem has never been about me,” I mutter, and Piper looks at me sadly. But I can only shake my head again, shaking the sadness away. “Jake… he wants to make sure I’m okay, but he also wants me back. And once he gets me back, he thinks he can do whatever and I’ll be okay with it because I love him. Which I still do, by the way.”

It’s been seven months since I left and I still feel him in my bones. I’ll probably always love him, will always feel like he’s a part of me, but I have to love me more. I have to decide that my wellbeing is more important than his desires. Too long I put him first, made him the center of my universe. And now… now it’s my turn to be the center of the universe.

“He was never going to stop,” I tell Piper, who continues to listen to me, allowing me this moment to let my emotions out – emotions I’ve left buried since the first time Jake broke my heart. “He was always going to be that guy. He either can’t or won’t change. But I can. I can finally say that I’m done with feeling this way. I can walk away, stop doing this to myself.”

Piper nods, her sad eyes welling with tears as she continues to pet the dog. Anakin stares at me with tired eyes, clearly accustomed to my outbursts. He’s heard this song and dance before, and he’ll hear it again.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize things had gotten bad again,” Piper tells me. “I thought things were fine.”

I shrug. “Jake and I were always good at faking it, putting on a show. For a long time we both believed everything was fine. But I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t. He was always going to hurt me until I stopped letting him.”

“Do you regret leaving Ian?” She asks me.

I shake my head, not even hesitating. “He wasn’t the one for me, either.”

And it’s true. He was perfect, really, but our relationship was always about being safe. I didn’t want safe – not when Jake was always lurking in the shadows. Ian didn’t want safe, either – no matter how much he claimed he did. Our relationship was one of convenience. We both knew the clock was going to run out on it.

The doorbell rings and I buzz up the boy who delivers my groceries. He looks between Piper and me when he arrives before resigning himself to the fact that my life is a mystery, taking his tip with him as he walks out the door. Piper shoots me an amused look but says nothing. We fall into one of our token companionable silences. Neither of us needs to speak. I’ve said everything I need to say and she has asked everything she needs to ask.

The sun is sitting pretty up in the sky, flooding through the window to my living room floor. The top floor is such a me thing to do – no matter how much I loathed living in the penthouse when I was younger, now it brings me peace, tranquility, a tall tower away from the rest of the world. I stare out the window at the little town. I can’t stay here forever, I know that. I’ve thought of leaving, but I’m not on a schedule to get back. I’ll go back when I’m ready. Even my mother believes this is the right step for me, staying here until I’m finally at peace.

And yet that’s a timeline I’m not sure even exists. I think again on my relationship with Jake, and how even now I can feel him so deep in my soul I don’t think I’ll ever get him out. I wasn’t one for soulmates when I was younger, but Jake changed all of that for me. He threw all my perfectly laid plans out the window when he came into my life.

And he did the same thing the day he ruined it all.

I squeeze my eyes shut once, twice, three times and try to calm my breathing, but Piper notices and is by my side in an instant, Anakin trotting along behind her to flank my other shoulder. “God, I loved him,” I whisper through my tears. I focus on the fact that I used past-tense to describe those feelings when, in fact, they are still very real. “I love him still,” I amend, but even that doesn’t calm my anxiety-ridden soul. My heart is tattered, my mind is a minefield, and it’s all because of him.

“Why did he have to do it again, Piper? Why?” I ask, feeling the sobs overtake me. My body shakes as I cry for what seems like the millionth time over this man. This man who doesn’t care, who probably never cared.

My friend has no answers, though. She would have to crawl inside his mind, a feat I was never able to accomplish in the twelve years we spent together. He kept himself hidden away from me, from our relationship, never quite able or willing to let me in.

“I don’t know,” she tells me, her voice as weak and shaky as mine. She rubs my back soothingly, and I lean into her, the way I always did when we were little and she’d comfort me when my parents were fighting and my thoughts were too loud. I take a few deep, calming breaths and try to center myself – a meditation trick I picked up on a weekend getaway with my mom in India. I find my center and focus on it, allowing peaceful thoughts into my mind. I feel peace incrementally, seeping into my bones as I curl up next to my dog and my best friend, both of whom are wrapped around me.

“Maybe I won’t ever know why Jake strayed,” I say to Piper. “Maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe… maybe this was a lesson I had to learn.”

“Maybe,” Piper murmurs against my hair. She releases me, perhaps feeling my calm within her own bones now, too. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do: be calm, not only for myself but for my friends as well. Maybe this calm is supposed to make us all better. I know Piper could use some calm, with her wedding fast approaching and deadlines closing in on her at the label. I felt her stress the moment she walked through my door. She didn’t need a runaway best friend, but she dropped everything to come and find me.

“Maybe also… it’s just a thing,” she offers. “You had to learn eventually that he wouldn’t change, but he also had to learn that he couldn’t continue his behavior. He lost the best thing that ever happened to him – believe me, he knows that – and now he’s learned that you aren’t coming back.”

And she’s right. My heart knows that I won’t come back to him and his toxic love.

But my heart also knows that I do have to go back home. I can’t stay hidden away forever.

“So let me guess…” I begin, smirking at my friend. “You’re here to see if I’ll be back in time for the wedding.”

Piper shoves me playfully, then toys with the ring on her finger. She’s much older now than the first time she was married, to a man who swept her off her feet. She needed him at the time, she says. And now she needs Jeremiah, the man who cautiously swooped in and showed her that love could be calm and good and stay in one place – that love does not mean always being caught up in the moment.

A lesson I learned the hard way.

“You can’t stay away forever,” she tells me. “Might as well come back for the wedding.”

I know she’s right. I know wholeheartedly that staying away means Jake finally managed to break me, that he’s taken the city I love – my city – away from me, and that he’s won. I can’t let that happen for a number of reasons, chief of which is the fact that I’m not broken – at least, not as broken as I used to be.

Not as broken as he thinks I am.

“I’m not giving this place up,” I tell her. “I may need to come back here after the wedding.”

She shrugs. “Maybe we’ll all need to come back here after the wedding. You, me, Hadley, Charli, Harper. Maybe we’ll all need a breather.”

“I’m certain your husband will have an issue with that,” I remind her.

She smirks at me. “He gets it. You all come first in my life. You’re my village.”

I smile at my friend, knowing she’s telling me the same thing: that my home is the city, but my home is also her, and our friends, and my stepsister. My home is not just a place, but a state of mind, with my favorite humans by my side. Jake could show up unexpectedly anywhere in the city, which makes me nervous; but he’ll never have my best girlfriends. Because they have always had my back, even when the city didn’t.

“I’ll have to pack,” I mutter to her, and I feel her calm even more, hear her release a heavy breath in relief. “And Anakin can’t stay here. He’s coming back with us.”

“Of course he’s coming along,” she tells me. “He hasn’t met the rest of the group yet.”

I roll my eyes as I move to stand to my feet. Anakin eyes me cautiously, awaiting my next move. The last time I packed in front of him, he jumped in my suitcase and whined until he realized he was coming along. I anticipate the same reaction from him this time as well.

But he’ll be by my side. So will my friends. So will my city, to an extent – because it is also Jake’s city. He can have his parts, and I’ll have mine.

Like my village – my family, my friends, my dog. He can’t have those. They’re mine.

And I’ve got a lot more to fight for than he does.