Pt. 3 – Home Is Where The Heart Is
He shook his head. "You're here to stay?" he murmured incredulously and watched her as she nodded. "Why do this, Joie, why?"
Her brow creased in confusion. "Why not? I wanted to come home."
"Home? Is this home?"
She cringed inwardly at the tinge of bitterness in his voice. "Yeah, yes it is," she whispered, her voice barely heard in the night breeze.
"Then why'd you leave home?" his eyes held hers, his gaze intense. "I want explanations, Joie, not excuses. God knows, I've made up more than plenty of excuses for why you left to tell to myself. To make myself feel better. And somehow, none of it," he swept out his hands, gesturing. "None of it was enough."
"I'm sure it wasn't." She started fiddling with her hands, like how she always did when she was nervous. She looked at him as her gaze travelled downwards and settled on his wrist. "You're still wearing the watch I gave you," she smiled.
He glanced down at it and shoved his hand into his pockets, hiding it from. "Yeah well, I needed something to tell time," he said, his voice laced with a little sarcasm as he looked away.
Joie sighed. "You know how we'd always use to hang out?" Without waiting for an answer, she went on. "We started out such good friends. You'd poke fun at me, and we'd joke around. I taught you to play guitar, and you introduced me to different types of music."
One corner of his mouth lifted slightly as he thought back to those times. "And then you'd called me Baby James."
She smiled wanly. "Yeah, that too."
"And I really hated it, because I didn't want to be just that for you. Hil and Soph, they could call me that all they wanted, but not you." The wind blew a strand of Joie's hair out from behind her ear, and he fought the urge to reach out and tuck that strand back into place. "So I'd call you Bethy in return because I knew you hated it too."
She swallowed, trying hard to get rid of the growing lump of emotion in her throat. "I was afraid, James."
"Of what? Me?" His forehead crinkled.
"In a way, yeah. You- you just intimidate me, James," she started fiddling with her fingers again. "You made me feel a lot of things all at once."
He blinked once, twice. And when his eyes reopened, she could see that they had glazed over with confusion. "So, you ran away?"
"I needed time to myself. To understand things. To work out my feelings. To see if I had fallen for you."
"And hell, like you couldn't do all those things in Wilmington? You could have told me! I could have given you some time!" The confusion turned to rage; he could feel one year's worth of pented-up fury surfacing. "You didn't need to pack your bags and leave, god dammit!"
"James, I- "
"What? You couldn't trust me enough to tell me all that? You think I couldn't have handled the fact that you weren't ready for a relationship with me yet? Or what Joie? Did you still think I couldn't have seen things your way? I wasn't mature enough? I was still a baby?" His eyes blazed with anger as he practically spat the last word out angrily. "You were there with me, you smiled at me, and then the next day you left without a word? That's pathetic, Joie. You ran. You ran away! What do you want me to say to that!"
He just watched her play for a little while. It made him feel peaceful, like he was at ease, in sync with the world for just those few minutes. Her voice soothed him, it ran over him like soft silk. He had fallen in love with her ages ago, although it had only taken him until recently to realize that he had. And tonight, he was reminded once again why he had. Things were so simple when he was only around her. She made him feel things that no one else had ever made him feel. How could that be? She had a boyfriend, and he was currently seeing someone as well. How could something that was supposed to be wrong, feel right?
Suddenly she looked up, and spoke. "James," she said, nearly making him jump out of his skin.
He smiled, and walked back into his house, basketball under his right arm. "You looked so good here in my house, on my couch, playing my guitar," he said easily as he sat down next to her.
She flinched. "I came by to give you something."
He took the wrapped parcel and stared back at her quizzically. "It's not my birthday."
"Yeah, but I saw it and thought you'd needed it. Since you always ask me for the time. It's gotten a little irritating," she laughed.
He laughed with her and unwrapped the present. "Damn, and there goes my chance to talk to you everyday." Putting the watch on, he reached his other arm around her shoulder. "Thank you."
She playfully batted at him before she settled comfortably in his arms, just like she usually did. "Ass."
He glanced back at her. Something was amiss, she didn't look like how she usually did. Something just wasn't right, like she wasn't happy. "You okay, Joie?"
"Not really." She stared back up at him, her glassy blue eyes drilling deep into his soul.
His protective instinct kicked into gear and unknowingly, his fists clenched. "Is it Michael? Did he hurt you?" If that scumbag ever so much as laid a violent hand on you, he thought, I'll give him a taste of his own medicine.
"No, no." She shook her head. "It's nothing like that, really. It's just that recently, I don't feel as close to him as I used to. It's not there anymore. And I've tried really, to get that feeling back again. And I feel horrible sitting next to him, pretending that I'm the same person that he fell in love with, because I can't, and because I am not that same person-"
"Hey, slow down," he squeezed her shoulder. "It's okay."
"No!" her voice came out a few pitches higher than normal. "It's not okay."
"Shhhh," he whispered into her ear, calming her down. "Let me make it okay," he said as he slowly rubbed her back in circles. She fit so perfectly into his arms, that it seemed like a match made in heaven from the very beginning.
For a long while, neither of them spoke. They just sat there, the both of them.
Finally, James broke the silence. "Can I tell you something?"
She moved around to face him. "Anything."
"Joie, I- " he paused shortly, nerves getting the better of him. "I think I've fallen in love with you."
She stared back at him, letting his eyes bore straight into her, straight to the middle of her soul. It sent shivers down her spine. He could always read her, especially when it mattered the most. And there were no words that she could possibly have said back to him in that moment. Instead, she just smiled up at him, and laid her head back on his chest.
And they stayed that way for a few hours, him cradling her in his arms, and her listening to the beating of his heart.
She bit down on her quivering lower lip, feeling tears well up in her eyes. This had been going on for too long. She just needed to get things off her chest.
"You don't have a word to say to that, don't you? I knew it. I just knew it," he threw up his hands in exasperation, turning around to walk away. "I don't know why I'm bothering."
"That night when you told me how you felt," she said quietly, her voice carrying just the very slightest tremor. "After I'd gone home," she paused, shuddering a little in the cold. "Michael proposed to me too."
James stopped short in his tracks and felt his heart skip a beat. Without turning around, he opened his mouth, but he couldn't muster the words out. Finally he managed to croak, "You ran away with Michael?"
"I left with him, yes."
James felt his heart crumple. His body felt hollow and suddenly, he had lost all feeling in his bones. "So why are you back here? To invite me to your wedding? Way to push the dagger deeper, Joie. I would never have known that you had this sadistic nature."
"I left with him, James, but not before I refused his proposal."
He turned around slowly to face her, shoving his hands into his pockets. "You refused it," he said softly under his breath, but somehow it came out more of a statement to himself rather than a question to her. A statement to reassure himself.
She folded her arms around herself; suddenly she felt colder than ever. "I turned him down. That night after what you told me, I was confused. I didn't know what I wanted. But I knew that I didn't want to be with him."
He stared at her, not knowing what to say, what to do, or even what to feel. Instead he let her carry on.
"You know, more than anyone else in the world that I love music, don't you?" When he nodded, she continued on. "I was going to tell you that night that I had gotten an album deal with Epic Records. I was going to tell you, before I told anyone else, because you meant that much to me, James. But then-" her voice cracked and a single, solitary tear starting trickling down her left cheek. "You told me that you had fallen in love with me. More than anything, I had wanted to hear it. And I couldn't bring myself to do it, to tell you that I was leaving."
She rubbed her hands together, trying to warm herself up. "And then, that night, as I was going home from your house, I decided not to leave after all. I decided to stay in Wilmington to work things out with you. But as I neared my house, Michael was waiting there for me on the doorstep. He proposed."
"And you said no."
"I said no," she repeated. "He wasn't right for me. He was my best friend first and foremost, and was never going to be anything more. He took it pretty well, actually. We sat down that night, just the both of us on that doorstep and just talked. We just talked the night through. He told me about how his band had gotten a deal to tour the States and Europe, and we spoke about our dreams since we were little. About how we'd always dream we'd play to sell-out stadiums and crowds that were screaming so loud until you couldn't hear yourself. That light I saw in his eyes when he spoke about music, I once saw that very light in my own eyes when I looked into the mirror." She smiled wistfully, as more tears streamed down her face.
"I saw it too," he said softly, as he looked at her. "It was who you were. And who you are," And as he spoke those words, suddenly, he began to understand a little. Just a little, but it was somehow quite enough.
Joie smiled. "We spoke for ages that night. And as he was about to leave, a car drove by. And in it, was Amy."
He frowned. "I broke up with Amy the very instant she turned up at my place," he said quickly, firmly. "If that was why- "
"No, no it wasn't," she said, cutting him off. "I had no doubt that you would have. I had faith in you," she smiled up at him. "Amy wasn't the point, she never was an issue. But she got me thinking. She was blonde and beautiful and curvaceous and gorgeous. She was the type that you would date, James. Not me."
He started to object, but she held up a hand. "I need to say this James. Just let me." When he nodded, she went on. "It wasn't jealousy, but it was my own inadequacies. I didn't feel good enough for you, or good enough for anyone else, for that matter. I saw that I didn't know enough about myself. I didn't feel confident enough in my own skin. The only time when I had felt confident, was when I had my music with me. And just realizing that, was enough for me."
She took a step closer to him. "I left with Michael, and I became the opening act for his band on their tour. I learnt so much. And I learnt to love myself. Because, James, I realized that I can't love another person unless I learn to love myself first."
He felt tears in his own eyes as he reached down and lifted her chin gently, pushing her to look at him, as he used his other hand to wipe away the tears from her eyes. She looked so torn apart, so sad, that it hurt him inside too. He reached for her, pulling her close to him with one arm as she continued crying. His other hand traced soothing circles on her back just like he had that night, one year ago. Her body shook violently in his arms as she cried on, her tears wetting the front of his shirt. "I don't know why it was so difficult for you to love yourself because it only took me a heartbeat to fall in love with you," he said softly. "And that heartbeat changed all things, because I never fell out of love with you."
She looked up with him, her eyes red while her cheeks glistened with tears. And all he could think was, how beautiful she was. "I'm sorry, James. For everything."
"It's okay," he smiled at her. "It's okay."
"I want to stay, James. Will you forgive me?"
He pulled her back to him again, this time feeling his own tears run down his face. "It will be difficult, but I promise I'll die trying."
But somehow, as he held her in his arms under the moonlight, and as she laid her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat just like that night, he already knew that the answer to that question was yes. It always had been, even before she had asked it. Because he always knew that she'd be home. And now that she was, nothing else mattered.