Alright, people. Here we are at the end. I'm highly appreciative of those of you who saw this one through. I always am. I hope you enjoyed it and that you find this final chapter fitting and satisfying, of course.
As I mentioned before, I have a story that I should be starting pretty soon. And even though I've definitely given a few false retirements before, I really think this is going to end my Spashley fan fic career. Maybe it'll be time to find another epic couple and have my way with some other characters for awhile. Who knows? But I'm extremely excited about the new one-probably the most excited I've been about a story-and it should be pretty long.
Anyway, thanks again for reading. I hope I see you over at the other story. Oh, which reminds me. I was thinking of finally posting on livejournal so that I don't have to spend time re-formatting my stories for every site I post to. But I'll leave that up to popular opinion. Let me know. And, here we go...

"Hi," she says with a trademark smile and a clear bag of vegan cinnamon doughnuts thrusting forward into my shameless hands, "here's the bribe."

"I love bribery," I reply, stepping aside to allow her entrance and waiting for the familiar scrape of her heels on my floor. There are times when I find slight, fine scratches that lead from my door to the couch and from the couch to my bed that I know are the fault of one or more of her one-million pairs of heels. And I like it. I like that there's proof of her in my apartment. A map that tells me she knows where she is when she's here.

"Yeah, well…" she shrugs, still smiling until I see her eyes focus in on Chelsea. Then the smile begins to falter and she grabs my arm as if she's bracing herself for unexpected news. Her fingers slowly wrap and tighten until it almost hurts.

"Uh-huh. And this," I say, gesturing nervously at Chelsea as she waits with a somewhat amused smile, "is my friend, Chelsea. She's visiting for a few days. I um…yeah, this is Chelsea."

Chelsea stands quickly and strides confidently over to where Ashley is gripping my arm—though her fingers are beginning to loosen and I can feel my blood circulating there again—before briefly resting her hand on Ashley's shoulder, "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah…um, nice to meet you too. I just…I had no idea that Spencer had company. She didn't even—"

"She never does. She never, ever does."

I sigh, "Not true in the least."

"Girl, please. I know you, okay? And you probably didn't even remember I was flying out until this morning."

"Wow, also untrue."

"I was exaggerating, obviously. But you know how you are, Spence. Come on, now."

It's Ashley's turn to look amused, her head moving quickly back and forth between the two of us like she can't believe that she's not the only one who can actually see me. But then she shakes her head and shrugs, "I didn't mean to interrupt anything. And I can still go if…if you guys were planning on doing the friend thing. I mean, it's your first night here."

"The 'friend thing' consists of wine and like, talking about school. If we're feeling particularly rebellious, we might open up a bag of tortilla chips. Trust me, you're fine."

"She tells you no lies," Chelsea agrees, plopping back down onto the couch and wrapping herself up in my favorite crocheted blanket, "and it's not my place, but I encourage you to join us."

Ashley opens her mouth to speak, but then remembers and looks at me for confirmation.

"Of course," I say, pointing towards multiple pieces of reject furniture, "sit. You want wine?"

"Yes, please."

"You want your favorite glass?"

"What's my favorite glass?"

"My Captain Planet glass."

"What?" she asks, her face scrunched in temporary confusion.

"Ash, the one with the…wait, look," I say, walking over to the cabinet where I hide it and taking it out to show her.

"Oh, yeah," she says, smiling and moving her arms around excitedly, "I'm glad you remembered."

"I always remember. It's you who forgets."

"Yeah, well only one of us needs to remember, so whatever."

Chelsea laughs quietly, watching our exchange with a single knowing nod, "You know the story behind that glass?"

Ashley shakes her head and I feel my shoulders tensing. I move them around in tiny windmill shapes until Chelsea speaks again. I wish she'd look at me just once so she could see my eyes and the way they want to tell her to remain quiet on this.

"Okay, well when we were younger, Spencer was like, obsessed with her brother. I mean, she wasn't weird about it or anything, but if he had something, she sort of secretly wanted it. I guess that's how it works with brothers and sisters. I wouldn't know. But anyway, Glen had this collection of glasses with characters on them…cartoons and whatever. And oh my God, Spencer wanted that collection so bad—which is ridiculous because she wasn't even into any of that stuff, right?"

Ashley's staring at me. She nods at Chelsea but really, she's staring at me.

"This story isn't as good as I remember it being," Chelsea says, standing up, "but anyway, one night she made me go in Glen's room while he was sleeping and take the Captain Planet glass. I guess he never noticed, or if he did, he never mentioned it. I still have the shirt that she gave me for getting that glass for her. And I'm proud to say, that yes, it still fits."

"Nice," Ashley says with a slight smile.

"Right? Anyway, I'm going to the bathroom."

Chelsea walks down the short hallway and half stumbles into the bathroom. I can hear her laughter as she closes the door harder than necessary, and I laugh too. But it's so obviously nervous and intended to distract that Ashley just sighs at me.

"I know that hearing or like, talking about him upsets you, okay? So, I just want you to know that if you ever want to tell me about it, I'm here. And if not, we don't have to talk about it. But I want you to remember that I know a little about what it feels like to lose someone too."

"I know."

"Okay. That's it. I just wanted to make sure that you knew," she says, staring at me with wide eyes.

I hear the faucet running in the bathroom, a sign that Chelsea would soon be collapsing on the couch and this moment between Ashley and I would be quickly transformed into a lighter, more easily navigated moment for three. I didn't want to leave her words floating in the air. I wanted to let her know that I had received them completely.

"I do. And it might take time for me to…but I'd like to assume that we have it. Time, that is."

I thought back to my two watches, the newer one sitting on my nightstand ticking away.

"Of course."

There were loud footsteps and then, "Okay, who's up for a movie?"

Ashley laughs. Shrugs.

"Anything you want, Chelsea," I say, running my hands through my hair and walking over to the kitchen to retrieve her a tall glass of water.

She nods quite seriously before replying, "I want a nap."

Thirty minutes later, Ashley and I had half-carried, half-dragged Chelsea's sleeping body to my bed. When she was tucked in fully clothed and horizontal at best, we looked at each other and laughed.

"I should go," Ashley whispers.

"I wish you could stay. Something tells me she's not going to be the best conversationalist tonight and as usual, I'm wide awake."

"Do you ever sleep? Like, seriously."

"Sleep seems to come easily when I have work I should be doing. So yeah, I sleep all the time."

"Well, maybe we…I don't know."

"What?"

"Do you maybe want to go for a walk or something? I mean, it's still pretty early, right?"

"9:30 is considered pretty early for most adults, yeah."

"That's what I thought," she says with a smirk, "but since you're the more mature one out of the two of us, I thought that…"

"I'm not even going to let you finish that because it's going to be sarcastic and mean, and you can be both of those things while we're walking. Come on," I say, grabbing her hand and pulling her towards the door.

"Wait, let me grab my purse."

"Will you actually be making purchases on this walk?"

"What if I see something I want to buy you? Like a more pleasant disposition or some actual wine glasses?"

"God, you're so funny. I always forget how funny you are," I say with a raised eyebrow, attempting to stop the spread of a smile.

"I'm hilarious. How could you forget?"

"Too busy focusing on other things, I imagine."

"Like my hair?"

"Exactly."

We walked down my block, hand in hand. It should've been the same, but it wasn't. There was no anxiety as we gently swayed into each other. We smiled openly, no longer fearing that a smile would give us away as being too intrigued or too interested or too amused. We were all of those things, and we both knew it. Saw it reflected in each other's faces. And there was no New York. Just a street that I walked down so often that I could probably maneuver it in my deepest—rarest—sleep. But there were still strange strangers and dancing conversation and heads thrown back in honest laughter.

"So, let me ask you a question," I say, gesturing at a bench.

"Uh-oh," she replies, sitting next to me, "should I brace myself?"

"No, no, no. It's nothing…it's not like that."

"Alright, then ask."

"Okay, so you know I finally present my film in a couple days, right? And they do this big thing whenever you present. It's like…there's food and champagne and I go up on stage and introduce it and most likely make a complete idiot of myself, of course. Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to be my date. I guess more like, would you please be my date?"

"I'm your girlfriend."

"Uh-huh…"

"You know I've been waiting for this for like, months. Of course I'll be your date. I was going to be there with pom-poms and balloons whether you had invited me or not."

"I don't think pom-poms are going to be necessary, Ash. It's not really a pom-pom moment."

"You should've said something earlier then, because the pom-poms are bought. I've lost the receipt somewhere in my room, I'm sure and they cost at least $2.50 plus tax. You don't want me to waste my money, do you? That wouldn't be cool."

"Yeah, sorry. It's just not that kind of scene, I'm afraid."

"Then you owe me $2.50…plus tax."

"I'll write you a check."

"Cash only, sweetheart," she says, and punctuates her absurdity with a wink that I laugh at despite myself.

"I'll see what I have under the couch cushions and get back to you."

"The fact that you just asked me such a ridiculous question sort of makes me want to sleep with you. Is that weird?"

"Why is that question ridiculous?"

"Spencer, I have plans to be at or a part of every major event in your life for as long as you and I can stand to be in the same room. Maybe even after that depending on how dramatic the breakup is."

"I feel warm and fuzzy inside."

She laughs, nodding enthusiastically, "Right?"

"Alright, so now tell me why asking a supposedly ridiculous question would make you want to sleep with me."

"Because you're pretty adorable sometimes. And that was an adorably ridiculously question."

"Well, if you remember, I have a pretty intoxicated visitor crashing in my bed right now. I mean, we could try working around her but…"

"I remember. And sorry, but I don't like threesomes."

I hesitate before I ask the question, because before, this would've meant something different than it does now. Before, it would've been laced with judgment instead of honest amusement. "You've never had a threesome? Somehow that surprises me."

She shoves me playfully, "I never said I hadn't had one. I said I don't like them. And unlike you, I determine what I like after I try it."

She gets it. Throws in a dig to let me know that she realizes how different things are between us now, as well. Not within us. Just between us. Though we were probably both working on the "within."

"Then what was the shove for?"

"I've been waiting for an excuse to shove you for like, days."

"Oh, that's good. Constructive."

She sighs dramatically, looking at her shoes, "Could we maybe go to my place then? I have a bed, a couch, a floor…a shower…"

"But isn't that rude? I mean, isn't it rude for me to go fuck off to my girlfriend's place while my friend who's in town to hang out with me sleeps off a bottle of wine?"

She doesn't answer right away. Instead, she turns her head north, toward the flickering light of a bar's gaudy neon sign for a moment and then swings it quickly back as though she has an answer. But her mouth still doesn't open to allow words to exit. She simply stares at me, her eyes intense and her lips turning upward.

"I don't know, Ash."

"Yes you do."

"I just…it feels rude."

"Just an hour."

"We'll say that now, and then the hour will end and we'll somehow validate even more hours when in fact, we could just wait the couple of days that Chelsea is here and have copious amounts of sex after her departure."

"What if I can't wait?" she whines.

"Are you serious?"

"Hey, I'm sorry if I can't help but find you sexually attractive, okay? God only knows why. But right now at this very moment—on this extremely romantic bench—I sort of want to be in your pants. I mean, not on this bench, but..." she says before shrugging and raising a perfectly-plucked brow, "well, actually…"

"One hour. That's it. Then I have to go home and pretend that I'm capable of being a good hostess."

"That's all I need."

And she was right—technically. As soon as her front door slipped closed with a soft click, her hands were ridding me of my t-shirt. There was no grace. No pretense. She simply pulled up and over as quickly as she could, already thumbing one nipple with her right hand as the left discarded my shirt somewhere far across the room.

"Just an hour," she says, as if she's reminding herself not to be late for something. And she must, because she wastes—if that's what it is—not a second more before her hands are expertly working in an anxious, desperate, confusing frenzy to pull down my track pants. For a moment I think of Chelsea's comment about them in the airport and smile, but I can feel it vanish when Ashley gives up (or finally gives in) and leaves them lingering around my thighs. If I try to move, I'd fall. But moving doesn't seem to be an option anyway.

"There's not enough time," she whispers directly into my ear.

And of course there is. It's just that the three seconds it would take to maneuver me out of them as I stand pressed against the door are three seconds she wants to dedicate to something more important.

"Is there enough time for a bed?" I ask, focusing my attention to the door handle that digs into my hip every time Ashley moves into me.

"No."

"A couch?"

"No."

"Oh, I know. A loveseat?"

She makes her point by sliding her fingers underneath the thin cloth of my underwear and rubbing her fingers in a series of small shapes against my clit.

"Fuck," I hiss, slamming my head backwards and hitting wood—hard, "a warning would've been nice, you know."

She grins, slowing her fingers slightly, "I have you propped against a door with your pants halfway off, Spencer. Should I have sent you an e-mail? Rented a float?"

I tried to think of a clever retort, but she made it impossible. Her fingers made it impossible. They were circling agonizingly slow now. It felt like junior high, when you let the first person nice enough to you to be called your "boyfriend" (or girlfriend, for the lucky ones) round a couple bases in his basement under the pretense of watching a movie. You don't know if it's right. You just know it's happening. But Ashley wasn't a thirteen year-old boy hiding wood under a blanket. Her misses were all on purpose and somehow that made them right. I could feel just how right on the insides of my thighs as she spread the evidence around as if to show me.

"Maybe we don't have time for you to fucking tease like this either, huh?" I ask, trying anything to will her hands further down and inside.

"Yeah," she replies, licking a hot trail from my collarbone all the way up my neck, "I think we do."

"Ashley…"

"Spencer."

"Come on," I say, thrusting my hips forward once.

"That's not very convincing."

Her fingers stop moving altogether. Instead, she presses her index finger against my clit with a significant amount of pressure. I know because I watch helplessly as she does it. At first the feeling is nearly perfect—like walking out of the cold shade and into the reach of the sun. I feel an endless stream of muted pleasure so overwhelmingly simple that I almost can't stand it. But then the insistent craving for more of something returns and I thrust forward again. More forcefully this time.

"I don't need you to show me," she says, removing her wet finger and bringing it to her mouth, "I already know."

She closes her lips around it, and her eyes slip closed as well. The soft moan she releases is what does me in.

"Then fuck me. Now."

"That's better."

"What's better?"

"Tell me. Tell me that you want me."

"You know I do."

Her eyes soften a bit. "But I still like hearing you say it."

"I absolutely fucking want you. I left my friend—who I haven't seen in a million years—alone. And it's totally feasible that she could wake up and think I've been abducted, so that I could get fucked against the most disagreeable door ever by my girlfriend who couldn't wait two days so that we could make love against something soft and reasonable. And despite all of that, knowing that she wants me makes me feel like the luckiest person in the entire world—literally. Sometimes I look at you and I still can't believe it."

"You've earned yourself a bed. Lift," she says, bending down to help me take off my pants completely.

"One more hour."

"Oh my God. I told you this was going to happen."

"No, I told you this was going to happen," I say, stretching my arms so that they wrap around her waist and bring her closer.

"Whatever. Someone said it."

For a few minutes I can tell that we're both slipping in and out of the first stages of sleep. That stage where you can't tell if you're dreaming or just delusional.

"What time is it?"

"It's late. You should probably go," she says, sitting up to look at her clock, "yeah, it's definitely late."

"What time, though?"

"It's like, almost one-thirty."

"What?"

"Spencer, are you kidding? You've been shutting me up with your mouth every time I try to tell you it's time for you to go home."

"Oh my God. I'm the worst friend ever."

"I wouldn't go that far. I mean, you're a pretty horrible friend but the worst?"

"That's extremely helpful."

"Alright, let's get you out of here," she says, jumping out of bed and reaching to pull me up, "come on."

"Fine."

I allow myself to be pulled out of bed, knowing it's been accomplished when my feet land on a magazine and a water bottle.

"Whoa, watch out," she says, steadying me and laughing as though her minefield of a room is perfectly normal.

"One day I'm going to trip over something in here and break my neck, you know."

"Actually, no, you won't. Because it's getting cleaned tomorrow—while I'm at work."

"You're hiring someone to come clean your room?"

"I have to. If someone else doesn't do it, it won't get done. And I need it to get done because…well, I just need it done."

"Why is that?" I ask, reaching for my clothes. They're lying on a pile of colored pencils. I'd ask why, but there's really no telling in this room.

"It's hard for me to throw stuff away. I don't know, maybe I'm a hoarder or something."

"How many hoarders do you know who only hoard shit in one room, Ashley?"

"Maybe it starts in one room, genius."

"Oh, I see. Okay. You're a hoarder then. But anyway, I'll text you when I get home," I say, leaning in to give her what's originally meant to be a quick kiss. Instead, it heats up before I can stop myself and soon we're making out and shuffling backwards towards the edge of her bed.

"No, no, no, no," she says, pulling away.

"Right, okay," I reply, shaking my head, "I'm the worst friend ever, by the way."

"You know what? You're right. Now go."

I plant a quick kiss on her forehead and make my way down the hallway. It takes every part of me to force myself to open the door—especially when I think back to a few hours ago when I was being pressed against it and she was...

I always hate the leaving.

"You realize that you're the worst friend ever, right?"

"Uh-huh. I'm completely aware."

"Good."

"Sorry. How long have you been awake?"

"Oh, just like forty-five minutes or something. It's perfectly fine, though, because it gave me time to…you know, think or whatever. You know how much I value my time to think."

"Of course," I say, plopping down next to her on my bed, "and what was on your mind, kid?"

"I hate when you call me that. But anyway…"

"I know you do. That's why I do it."

"I had to process the whole 'meeting Spencer's girlfriend' thing. I mean, it's not like it's something I've gotten to do before."

"True."

Chelsea smiles, grabbing my hand, "I like her."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, she seems really cool. And you can tell how much she likes you after spending an entire five seconds in the same room with you two. It's insane the way she looks at you."

"She's…"

"And not only that," she says, cutting me off, "you look at her the exact same way. I think by this time next year, I'll be a bridesmaid."

"Oh, who do you know that's engaged?" I ask, hitting her with a pillow.

"Trust me, kid. You two are a big deal."

"You think so?"

"You don't?"

"No, I mean…I hope we are. But I can't say that I don't have a few lingering insecurities. She and I are still very different people and sometimes I can't for the life of me figure out what it is that keeps her coming around…calling me her girlfriend. It's like any moment that look she gives me is going to turn into something else and she'll admit that this entire thing is a reality show prank or whatever."

"Wow. Insecurities, indeed. Maybe it's because you're smart and hilarious and gorgeous. Ever think about that?"

"No, because that would make me a narcissistic prick."

"Gotcha. Alright, well think of another way to remind yourself without thinking about how awesome you are all day because it's true."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Then there's also the fact that I don't know how to make myself talk to her about Glen."

"Why do you think that is?"

"Because I don't talk about him to anyone. I haven't…like, ever. I worry that getting into all of that will just bring up shit that I haven't dealt with yet."

"It will. And that's exactly what you need. Come on, you know that."

"I guess so."

"Sorry, Spence. There's no way around it. This is a good thing," she says, reaching for her water glass, "now, let's figure out who's going to deliver me food at two in the morning."

"It's like high school all over again, huh?"

"Sure. Only you're not in the bathroom taking a pregnancy test."

"Thanks for that, Chels."

"No problem."

I was having serious Ashley Davies withdrawals by the time I dropped Chelsea off at the airport a couple days later. She made it a point to remind me not to screw things up with her, of course, as we stood outside of my car holding luggage and promising each other not to wait so long the next time. But we both knew we would. It was the way we worked, she and I. We took our nostalgia in small doses and tried to maneuver through the present as best we could.

I wanted to call Ashley immediately. Break every hands-free driving law in existence if that meant I got to hear her voice. She had refused to interrupt my time with Chelsea any further, promising that when we finally got to be alone again it would be completely worth it—all this coming from a girl who initially couldn't wait even a second longer before leading me back to her apartment and forgetting all about the mere concept of a houseguest.

However, my film presentation was in just a few hours and I still had to get ready, write the speech I had been putting off for weeks, and hyperventilate in a dark corner while cursing myself for refusing to fill my prescription for Xanax out of some sort of strange memorial to my brother.

I hated public speaking, hated watching people's facial reactions to my work, hated staring at a dark screen waiting for validation that I had chosen correctly when applying to film school. And in these moments, I can't believe I didn't go into pharmaceutical sales. But oh yes, the memorial to Glen.

This was all a lot of sacrifice for a guy who wasn't even around to appreciate it.

I haven't even taken in the aesthetics of the room before I see a gorgeous brunette blushing and clutching a champagne flute. She walks over to where I'm standing and grabs my hand. I squeeze back, hoping she doesn't feel that I'm shaking.

"How long have you been here?" I ask, noticing that the room is just starting to fill up with people.

"Thirty minutes, tops."

"So, you showed up an hour early?"

"Uh-huh. Pretty much."

"You're insane."

"Excited, Spencer. I'm excited."

I looked around the small auditorium, releasing one deep breath after another in an attempt to calm my nerves. Ashley stood in front of me, a slightly worried look on her face and hands free of pom-poms—thank God.

I had spent the last two hours trying to figure out what to say. How do you introduce a film that you started making a year ago as some sort of therapeutic tribute to a brother who you'll never be sure you knew at all, who died in a war that he knew nothing about before stepping on foreign soil? What can you say?

I came up with a few sentences, but none of them conveyed the point well enough to be said in a roomful of people who wanted to be both moved and ultimately, impressed. Before I left my apartment, I had managed to spill a Vitamin Water on the paper my "speech" was written on anyway. The ink had spread across the wet desk and dragged the words with it, stretching them out into a fading mess. It was an improvement.

"You look really, really nervous," Ashley says, interrupting my thoughts, "do you want any water or anything?"

"Yes, but instead of water, could I get a bottle of arsenic?"

"See, those two things aren't really the same…"

"Oh, I had no idea."

"Look, you're going to be fantastic. And even if you're not, you look fantastic and that always makes me feel a lot better."

"It makes you feel better that you look fantastic or that I look fantastic?"

"Actually, both of those make me feel a lot better on a daily basis."

I laughed a bit, and it felt good. It made me feel a little more like myself.

"I'm glad you're here," I say, rocking our hands back and forth, "it's the only thing that's helped."

She smiles, and it lights up her entire face, "Good, because I need to ask you something."

"It was the only thing that helped."

"Oh, shut up," she says, dropping my hand, "it's just that…this is so weird."

"What?"

"No, not this. I meant that I haven't asked anyone this question before and it feels weird."

"Okay…"

"Alright, look, you and I spend a lot of time together and if we're not together then we're wishing that we were and…and at first it made me feel a little codependent. I didn't know if it was a good thing that I always wanted to be around you. But lately I've kind of figured out that it's not like I have to be around you, you know? I just want to be. Because if something funny happens—for example—and you're not there to see it, I just picture your face and wonder what you'd…this is a terrible example. Whatever. My point is, I like being around you. But I'd be content just knowing that if I needed to see you, all I would have to do is go home. I love when you've been in my apartment because everything smells like your laundry detergent and your coffee cup's in my sink and it's…it's the way it's supposed to be, I think."

"So, what are you saying exactly?"

"I'm saying that I had my room cleaned because I want it to be our room."

I'm taken aback, and I shake my head in order to gather the thoughts that are scurrying around and creating too much noise—which she obviously takes as a sign that I'm saying no.

"I understand," she says with a sad, tight-lipped smile, "it's a really big step."

"I love you."

"What?" she asks, looking as shocked as I feel.

The words had tumbled out of my mouth so naturally that they were in the air before I even realized what had happened. I had never been the first to say it—ever.

"I'm sure you heard me the first time, but um…yeah, I love you. And of course I'll move in with you. Even though I'm completely insulted that you didn't even entertain the notion of moving into my place."

"You're serious?"

"Uh-huh."

"Wow," she says, blinking quickly before pulling me in for a bone-crushing hug.

I fight through the pain out of pure adrenaline. No matter what happens with my presentation, I have Ashley. I get to move my strange trinkets and my record collection and my stack of notebooks into her apartment—our apartment and wake up to her eyes staring back at me, wide and bright. It made the validation of an audience filled with classmates I had only spoken to twice and an assortment of people from other programs that were probably receiving extra class credit for attending seem a lot less important. A lot less daunting.

"Kate's going to flip the fuck out," I say, finally sparing my skeletal system any further damage by separating myself from her surprisingly strong, pilates-toned arms.

"Oh my God, I know. We'll have to give her the news via speaker phone so she can just go ahead and tell both of us at once how she's the best matchmaker ever."

"Sounds like a plan, but um…I've got this whole film thing I've got to do so I guess I will see you afterwards. If I've passed out, just shake me or something. Kick my face, maybe."

"Got it."

"Cool," I reply with a nod, walking down the aisle towards the small stage.

"Wait, Spencer," she says after I've walked only a few feet.

"What's up?"

"I love you too."

Her face reminds me of the night in New York when she seemed nervous, yet excited and I was tripping over my words just to be standing in front of it.

"Well, of course."

"You're such an asshole."

"Well apparently, you love it."

"Apparently."

The applause did nothing to slow my racing heart as I walked over to the lectern. Then it turned into a frightening, nightmarish silence and I felt like crying. It was hard to see over the lights, and the faces became featureless circles as I stood on the stage, waiting for this to all go horribly wrong.

But soon, all of those faces turned into my brother's, and suddenly it was as if he was there. Maybe he was. And I felt a calmness that I hadn't felt in a very long time. The silence became comforting. It was exactly what I needed, in fact.

"Hello, everyone. First of all, I want to thank you guys for coming because I fully realize that TBS is showing "First Wives Club" again tonight so I know it's a bit of a sacrifice. But um…this film has been a labor of love for me. It was fueled with an energy that only a lot of Fanta can provide and also, the memory of my brother…who died in Iraq. I didn't get to know him the way I would've wanted to and I guess this is my way of at least knowing as much as I can about what took him away from me. The film's not some documentary on the war. Because I don't think there would've been any originality in that at this point. Instead, it's about young people who have made the decision to fight and the fear that goes along with preparing to go take a chance with your life. I think that's an experience that a lot of us can't really comprehend. So, that's what this film is about and I hope very much that I've achieved my goal, here. That goal is to make my brother proud. And maybe a few other people as well. I don't want to over-talk this thing because you know, it's basically a glorified Power Point with some fancy sound effects. However, my heart's there and they tell me that sometimes that's all that matters. So without further rambling…"

I left the lectern, taking a deep breath as the clapping returned and I finally made out the features of a single face. Ashley sat in the front row, her eyes watching me for moments after the lights were lowered, and I could tell that she was waiting for a sign that I was okay. I smiled at her, and watched as her shoulders lowered in relief. She quickly mouthed an "I love you," and I smiled with unedited happiness before we both turned towards the screen and held our breath, waiting.