The Wisdom of Hindsight

I own nothing but the plot, which most of you will not like. I have already accepted this and steeled myself against your reviews. (wink) I repeat, try to keep an open mind.

Richard stared down at the coffin, unable to truly comprehend what he was seeing. His best friend was dead. It seemed unbelievable but the body was hard to ignore. She still looked beautiful, her barely-tamed red hair shone, though her eyes, what Richard has considered her best quality, were closed now. Closed forever.

He listened to the sound of mourning, sobs and weak laughter as someone remembered something particularly wonderful about Caroline. There had been so many things, he could not pick what to say. Beside him his one-time nemesis, Annie Spadero wept unashamedly.

"I'm so sorry, Annie," he whispered, not taking his eyes from Caroline's prone form.

"So am I," she replied, her voice tight.

"I should have been there, to protect her," he said. He felt so overwhelmingly guilty at that moment that he was physically ill. It had been his anniversary party that Caroline had been going home from. He had offered her a ride; she had said she would catch a taxi. She had been mugged just outside their upscale building and bled to death in the alley, not thirty feet from where Richard slept.

"Yes," Annie said, to tired to really accuse him. "You should have." With that she turned to go to Caroline's mother, who hadn't stopped crying since she'd gotten the news.

Richard stood by the coffin still, a white rose in his hand. For purity, because Caroline had been so pure of spirit that he had always felt brighter just by association. He sighed, trying to think when it had been that it all went wrong with Caroline. Their friendship had dwindled away, burning brightly in his memory but never quite living up to reality's cold light. It seemed that she was constantly holding back when they were together and he, being such a naturally introverted character, had only closed off more in the wake of their new, less open, relationship. Besides that, it seemed that he saw her less and less. There was always some new distraction, a new place or thing that Julia wanted to try. It seemed that whenever he and Caroline made plans, he always wound up breaking them. He regretted allowing that to happen to them, though it was much too late now.

"I cannot believe this," Julia sniffed, returning from the bathroom. "Carolina was so young." She pushed her hair back, away from her flawless face. "It really makes you think about the future. We are all so fragile, really." Richard nodded, not really listening. Julia seemed to sense that and responded by engaging him with a question. "When is the service? Tomorrow?" Richard nodded again. Julia sighed, looking around as the majority of the mourners filed out of the room. It was past ten, the time at which the viewing was supposed to end. Even Mrs. Duffy had left, along with the rest of the family. "Richard, I think it is time for us to go."

"Not yet," he said, his eyes fastened on Caroline's unmoving features.

"They will be closing up soon," Julia told him, her voice soft and inviting. "There is nothing more you can do here."

"He could be with her," Annie said, stepping from the shadows to accuse the black-clad man.

"Her corpse, you mean," Julia said. Her blunt manner was not unusual, a product of learning English as a second language, but it seemed shockingly inappropriate in the sorrowing room. Richard looked outraged, but before he could respond Annie beat him to it.

She sneered, lashing out at the woman that she blamed for most of Caroline's unhappiness. "Well, you would know everything about being dead inside. Do you feel anything anymore?"

"Why should this upset me?" Julia asked. Her voice was calm but her eyes flashed angrily. "I only knew Carolina through my Richard." She put a slight emphasis on 'my'. "And I only barely know you through Carolina."

"It should upset you that a kind, decent, loving person is dead, especially since you made her life hell while she was alive," Annie spat. Richard closed his eyes, wanting to ignore the entire exchange but knowing that was impossible.

Julia snapped her fingers, as though just remembering something. "Ah yes, I remember what I heard about you now. You are the whore that lives- lived, next door. No wonder you are so upset over Carolina, she was-how do you say- paying your wages…"

Richard was almost too offended to do anything but shake with rage. Annie was not so inhibited. She threw herself at Julia, employing all of her strength to wound the woman as quickly and as badly as she could. Julia gave almost as good as she got, however. By the time Richard pulled them apart Julia sported a busted lip and bloody nose while Annie had some new scratches across her arms.

"I cannot believe that two grown women would behave in such fashion," Richard hissed, too upset to yell. "Especially at Caroline's funeral." He fixed his wide, angry gaze on his wife. "I am extremely disappointed in you, Julia. You insulted my friend's memory and provoked another one to attack. Your behavior would be disgraceful in any situation, but in this one it is inexcusable."

Julia, for her part, looked completely disheveled. Though the blood on her face and her mussed hair did detract from her beauty, it did nothing to blunt the glare she sent Richard's way. "I will not be spoken to in such a way by my husband," she almost yelled.

Richard turned his back on her to help Annie stand. "Please leave, Julia. I don't think I know you anymore." He waited in the deafening silence until her furious footfalls faded away and the slamming of the door was only a memory. "I'll take you home," he said, reaching out to take his one-time friend's arm. She stiffened, and for a moment he thought she was going to jerk away. Instead she folding into him, crushing herself to his chest.

"I told her not to go to your stupid party," Annie sobbed, her arms tightening around him until it was almost painful. "I told her, it was a waste of time," Richard held her closer, ignoring the stabbing pain that her words evoked in his gut. "You'd only hurt her again!" Her voice rose, accusing and harsh, "You always hurt her!" She began to hit him, though she was too upset to really do any damage and soon she merely dissolved into more tears. "You always hurt her," she said weakly against his chest.

"I know," Richard replied, thinking of those flashes of pain in Caroline's eyes each time he had been carted away by Julia or broke their plans to fly off to Aspen, spur-of-the-moment. He had thought it was disappointment and, sometimes, that he had only imagined it, but it had happened every time. He cradled Annie closer, allowing his own tears to slide down his cheeks. He wept for Caroline, for Annie, and for himself; for all the pain that these misunderstandings and careful lies had caused, he wept. When it was over, he felt refreshed, almost reborn.

"I'm sorry, Richard," she said softly, pulling back from him. "I know it wasn't your fault entirely. She asked me to go with her, but I told her no. I just couldn't take seeing her broken down from another night of pretending. I told her that if she went, she would go alone." Her eyes sparkled with more tears, though these she kept inside. For the first time, Richard understood why men found Annie so attractive. She was beautiful in her confidence, but in her vulnerability she was breathtaking. "Maybe it is my fault," she whispered. Big brown eyes begged him to make it better, just for a little while.

"Oh Annie," Richard murmured, leaning down just a little to press his lips against hers.

It got out of hand, as those things were wont to do. What started out as comfort turned to passion before either of them realized it. They went back to her place and neither felt guilty, least of all Richard. Annie was a comfortable familiar warmth, even if he had never looked at her in that way before. It wasn't love, but it was loving. He felt cared for, as a person and not as an object. And as he fell asleep, his arms wrapped around the woman he had long ago termed 'the Whore of Babylon', he finally felt at peace.