A/N: Thanks for the reviews/read/faves/whatever, hope you enjoy the story! :)
"Chris, I'm going downstairs to get a cup of coffee, you want one!"
"You just had one with breakfast," Chris calls out from the bathroom where he's towel drying his hair.
"I know, but it was crap, whoever made it should be ashamed of themselves. They should go to coffee school and learn how to make a decent cup," Stephanie yells back.
"I'm good, I'm not caffeine dependent like some people," he jokes as he hears her laugh softly in the other room.
"Hey buddy, I'm your girlfriend now, which means you chose me and wanted to be with me, that means you take the good with the bad, got it?" Stephanie tells him, and now he's laughing too. He likes that about their relationship. They can laugh with one another so easily. Maybe that whole friends before relationship thing was right all along. He's never done it that way before, but it all feels so natural.
The girls he dated before Stephanie, he usually met them at random, struck up a rapport, and then it was dating, dating, dating, then break up, oops, sadness, and the like. With Stephanie, there was something established ahead of time. There was a foundation there, and where he thought it was a lame cliché when he first heard someone tell him he should be friends with someone before dating them, he could see the merit in it now.
"Fine, if that's the way it has to be, do you want me to pack your things?" he asks her. He can practically hear her growl all the way from here, and suddenly she's popping up in the doorway. "Damn it, Stephanie, way to sneak up on a guy!"
"What, are you going deaf?" she wonders, snapping her finger near his ear, "I'm not exactly Miss Graceful over here. I've been told I sound like a clomping rhino when I walk."
"Who do I have to beat up over a comment like that?" he asks her, pretending to look really mad. "Nobody calls my girlfriend a clomping rhino!"
"My brother, so get at him!" Stephanie wraps her arms around his bare waist and teases her hand across the top of the towel banded around his waist. "You make quite the delicious picture here, Mr. Irvine. If I wasn't going through caffeine withdrawal, I may have to steal away your virtue."
"You could steal it any day," he kisses her forehead. "Go, go get your coffee so you can be a real, functioning human being."
"You sure you don't want anything?"
"I'm sure," he kisses her lips this time. "Be back soon though, I don't think I can go more than five minutes without you at this point."
"Pathetic, you, sir, are pathetic," she leans up to press a kiss to his cheek before she disappears again. He hears the door close behind her and he goes back to drying his hair. He throws the towel on the counter before wandering into the bedroom. There's a knock at the door, and he wonders if Stephanie forgot something, maybe her key since she's knocking.
He walks over, throwing it open and he's surprised to find Paul staring back at him. "Oh, uh, hey, I thought you were Stephanie."
"Wait, isn't this Stephanie's room, that's what—" It dawns on Paul what must be going on here, and he turns a fetching shade of red. He licks his lips a little bit in and looks away, as if trying to compose himself. "She's not here, is she?"
"No, she's not."
"I wanted to talk to her, just…about the divorce and everything, but actually," he sighs here, then takes a deep breath, composing himself. "I wanted to talk to you as well, do you have a minute?"
"Sure, let me just not have this conversation naked," Chris gestures towards his towel. Paul nods and comes inside, taking a seat on the couch while Chris goes back to the bedroom. He dresses himself quickly before heading back out into the living area. He ends up leaning against the doorway, wanting to keep some distance between him and Paul.
He doesn't think Paul is going to beat him up or anything. Stephanie has insisted that the divorce is mutual, not to mention, if Paul wanted to beat him up, there had been plenty of opportunities before this one, and Paul has not take the initiative to start anything with him. Still, Chris wants to keep a little distance just in case. There can never been too many precautions in a situation like this.
"So, um, yeah," Chris starts lamely, not really knowing what he's going to say.
"It's not anything bad," Paul assures him, and it does little to ease Chris's mind. This is going to be awkward for a while. He doesn't know how long it will be awkward, but it's going to be. Essentially, these two men are tied together by Stephanie. He doesn't think Paul never loved Stephanie. In fact, he really thinks the opposite. If you know Stephanie, you can't help but love her. Her personality and magnetism is too strong. He just doesn't think Paul loved her in the way a husband should love a wife.
"Okay," Chris says, but makes no attempt to move from his position. "So what is it then?"
"I think we both know Stephanie is pretty special," he wrings his hands a little as he looks up at Chris. "Neither one of us is stupid, neither one of us is blind. Stephanie is a special human being. It's what drew me to her in the first place. I think everyone that meets her falls a little bit in love with her. I think I fell a lot in love with her. I know you did. I don't blame you for this or anything, I think it was inevitable. I love Stephanie, but it's just as a friend. I thought…well, you know how she is. It's so easy to get caught up in her world, but it was never my world. I was just along for the ride, and when I got tired, I just kept leaving her because we had nothing in common. But she has a lot in common with you. I saw it when you were friends. I guess I knew on some level I was losing her."
"She didn't cheat on you," Chris feels compelled to say that.
"I know, she's not that type of girl," Paul shakes his head, "but just treat her right, okay? I'm not trying to be overprotective dad on you or anything like that, it's just…Stephanie deserves the entire world. She deserves to have everything good in every way, the whole works. I want that for her, I know she wants it for me too, but I don't have anyone she can talk to right now, but she does, so I'm telling you, don't ever take her for granted."
Chris's eyes snap open as he stares up at the ceiling. He remembers an important conversation with Paul, one that took place a long time ago. Paul is telling him to take care of Stephanie, and there's something that twists inside of him. He failed Stephanie. He told Paul he would always take care of her, that he would be good for her, that he would make her life perfect, but he failed. He failed her, but he's trying to change it. He turns over and looks at the empty space next to him.
It has become increasingly lonely as the days go by. He keeps hoping one day he will wake up and there she will be, lying next to him, that smile on his face that he now knows is reserved for him. He falls asleep to that face, smiling at him through a dream. When he opens his eyes, her ghost, or the memory lingers just enough that he can picture what she looked like here in his bed, their bed. He was supposed to give her the world, but she didn't have the world. He only has a thin shred of hope that his past self will succeed in doing what he couldn't.
"I never would," past Chris answers, shaking his head. "Stephanie is incredible."
"Okay, I'm just glad we understand each other," Paul nods. "I want her to be happy. That's all I really want for her, I know it's cliché to say that, but it's what I feel. I just want to make sure she's moving onto a better guy for her."
"I like to think she is," Chris responds without malice or smugness. "But I gotta ask, how did you know about the two of us? Did Stephanie tell you about us?"
"Yeah, of course she did, I'm surprised she didn't tell you."
"She might have," Chris shrugs, "she says a lot of things, usually I'm just staring at her, stupefied over why she would want to be with someone like me."
Paul laughs and nods like he's been there before, "She does have that affect. Anyways, I better go, but can you let her know that I wanted to talk to her. Things are pretty much at the end, and I just want to make sure that she's okay with how things are going."
"I'll definitely let her know," Chris takes a few steps forward and extends his hand towards Paul. Paul stands from the couch to take Chris's hand, giving it a firm shake. It's not like they're passing along Stephanie like she's some sort of object, but Chris almost feels like Paul is entrusting Stephanie with him.
"And Stephanie and I are going to stay friends, I think we'd be great friends, but I don't want you to feel jealous over it or anything."
"No, dude, I don't really care, Stephanie's her own woman, she can decide who to be friends with. Just cut it out with the sex and we'll be good," he jokes, easing the tension. Paul laughs and jerks his thumb towards the door, signaling he's going to leave. Chris nods and follows him, watching as he leaves. He heaves a sigh of…something, he's not sure what exactly, but he feels better somehow.
Stephanie returns about ten minutes later, a coffee in hand, and a croissant hanging out of her mouth. Chris looks at her like she's crazy and takes the pastry out of her mouth. "Thanks," Stephanie says, I was just holding it there while I opened the door."
"We ate breakfast already," he reminds her.
"I know, but it just looked too tempting," Stephanie's eyes light up as she leans in for a kiss. "Did you miss me while I was gone? And word to the wise, you should always say that of course you missed me because I'm your girlfriend."
"Of course I missed you," he relents as she takes back her pastry, taking a big bite out of it. "Paul was here while you were gone, only for a few minutes. He was looking for you. He just wanted to make sure everything was okay on your end regarding the divorce."
"Cool, cool," she stands there thinking for a moment before she sits down at the table in the corner. "Was everything okay between the two of you? There were no fisticuffs I hope."
"No, we were actually civil towards one another. I don't hate the guy or anything. I kind of like him since he was willing to give you a divorce without any of the messiness that can usually accompany them."
"Ahh yes, such a sacrifice."
"Well, it is to me," he tells her, staring straight at her. She blushes under his scrutiny and takes a sip of her coffee. "Sorry, am I making you uncomfortable?"
"No, just…it's nothing," she tells him, ducking her head a little, but he catches a smile on her face. "You're just…you're just a really great guy, and I love being with you and everything. You make things…it's different with you."
"It's different with you too," Chris tells her, walking over and kissing the top of her head. He gets what she's trying to say without saying the words. He knows they're not really ready for them, not right now. He can feel it though, and he knows she can feel it, but the words can wait. They can wait until a later time.
Chris so desperately wants the memory of her words. He does not have them yet. He feels them, he feels his love for Stephanie with every fiber of his being. It has not diminished, and he does not think it ever will. There is too much feeling still stirring inside of him for it ever to diminish. He knows he's changing the past, but it's not fast enough, and the one memory he's so desperately searching for still has not come to him. He wants to hear her say the words. He wants to remember. He needs to hear her say she loves him.
Just once…he can live for now with just once…