Happy Birthday csiAngel!
A/N For the purpose of this story, Burns never existed (or, rather less cruelly, he just never met Gillian).
Wherever We Go, We'll End Up Here
It's a windy February morning, and the temperature has dropped even lower than the day before. She wraps her scarf tighter around her throat, wishing she had a cup of hot chocolate in her hands right now to ward off the chill.
It's dark, too, for the daytime; she hates that. Even the coldest winter days can be bright with sunshine, but days that are dim and gloomy make her mood sink a little.
She walks up the steps towards the house, and hesitates only briefly before knocking on the door. He answers quickly; he must have been nearby, or seen her coming.
"Hey." She sees and hears surprise, and a flicker of pleasure.
She gives him a brief smile. "Hi."
"Do you want to come in?" He holds the door open a little wider. "You look freezing."
"Thanks," she says, gratefully stepping into the warmth. He closes the door behind her, and offers to take her coat. She rids herself of her outer garments, watches as he carefully hangs them on the hook by the door, then follows him into the kitchen.
"Would you like a drink?"
She's dying for a hot cup of something, but that will only slow things down. She can't talk to him properly while he's boiling the kettle or making tea; she'll have to wait until later to treat herself to a steamy beverage and a dose of caffeine. "No thanks." She sits down at the table, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
"Okay then." He sits down also, and a beat of silence is followed by the question he's wanted to ask ever since he saw her standing on his doorstep. "Why are you here, Gill?"
"There's something I need to tell you, Alec." She takes a deep breath. "I'm getting remarried."
Eight months ago
"Good morning Dr Foster... You look happy," Torres noted, a hint of suspicion in her voice.
Gillian laughed. "Am I not allowed to look happy?"
"You met a guy?"
"Ria... not all happiness for a woman is related to men. You should know that."
"I do, I do." The younger woman nodded. "But that smile," – she pointed at Gillian's face – "is definitely about a guy."
Gillian merely shook her head with a small chuckle and started walking towards her office, leaving Torres and her suspicions in the hallway.
As she waited for her computer to load up, she allowed her mind to drift back to the previous evening, and couldn't suppress a smile. Ria was right – she was happy about a man, and it had been a long time since she'd allowed herself to feel that way. She typed in her password, humming absentmindedly, and reflected on last night's events.
They had walked by the river, holding hands, and she couldn't remember the last time she'd felt that kind of happiness. It wasn't something that you could get from watching a comedy, eating a delicious piece of cake or shopping with a friend. It was the mixture of feeling like a shy schoolgirl with a crush and an attractive woman at the first stages of a relationship; she was nervous and yet relaxed, exhilarated yet comfortable, happy to be with someone she could talk to and laugh with. It all just felt so easy – the conversation, the gentle flirting, the tug of attraction that was both physical and emotional. This is how it's supposed to be, she had thought as they continued their stroll. This is how it's supposed to be, falling in love.
She worked for almost an hour without interruption, save for the ringing of the phone, and was just thinking it was time for a coffee break when she heard a gentle tapping at the door.
"Hey," she greeted Cal as he stepped in without waiting for an invitation. "I was just thinking about you."
"Oh yeah?" He grinned flirtatiously as he walked towards her. "Anything about me in particular?"
"As it happens, yes." She smiled as she stood up and pushed a piece of paper towards him. "This is a letter from your editor. She thought it best to approach me, rather then you, seeing as how the letters she sends addressed to you have an unfortunate habit of getting lost."
"Tragic, isn't it? The postal service these days really sucks."
She waved the paper again, and with a sigh he took it. "Sort it out, Cal. And in future don't make promises you can't keep."
"Yes, boss," he said, the playful tone of his voice overriding the sarcasm. She walked to the door and he followed her out, and down the hall to the break room. "So how are you doing today? You okay?"
"Yes, Cal," she said, automatically getting two mugs out of the cupboard. "I'm okay."
"More than okay, I'd say, given that look." He gestured to her face. "In fact, I'd say you're beaming."
"I'm not beaming!" She laughed. "I'm just... in a good mood, that's all."
"I see." He watched her prepare their drinks; coffee for her, tea for him. "And what is it that's got you so happy?"
She turned, a teabag in her hand, and smiled at him. "His name is Daniel."
He watched, over the months, as her happiness grew. As it did, so did his own dissipate, as though they were two children perched on a see-saw. The higher she flew, the lower he sunk. He hated himself for it, of course. His best friend was happy and he was miserable about it – it prompted feelings of guilt, remorse, self-directed anger at his own inadequacy as a friend. He couldn't stop it, though. He drank more during the evenings where she'd mentioned his name five times in every sentence; he slept with a nameless blonde the night after he caught her showing Torres the necklace he'd given her; he punched a wall less than an hour after she admitted to him that she and Daniel were in love. He'd washed off the blood, he'd explained away the scrape to his concerned daughter, he'd looked for solace in the bottom of a bottle, but found nothing but his own sorrow and regret.
His mind had become a constant whirl of thought and activity, oscillating between cursing his luck that the woman he loved had fallen for another man, and thinking that she was better off without him. He loved her, therefore he wanted her to be happy – and who was it who made her happy? Who was the man with the steady, non-dangerous job, the nice house and the friendly smile? Who was it who bought her gifts that were thoughtful and not showy, who made her laugh, who had lifted her spirits so much you'd almost have thought the Gillian Foster of old had been miserable and depressed? Him. Daniel. The man she loved.
He'd never seen her fall in love before, but in those months, he did. He watched her smile grow brighter every day, saw how her step was lighter, her voice more cheerful, her mood almost always good. He saw how her eyes lit up when she mentioned Daniel's name, and he saw – although he was loathe to admit it – that the man she'd chosen was a good guy.
The nights started getting colder, Christmas lights began to appear, and still there was no sign of this relationship waning. Thoughts he'd had that things would fizzle out between them (thoughts that, when he was feeling more like a martyr than a selfish bastard, he'd wanted to banish) were fading, along with the last shred of hope that he'd been holding onto. He couldn't quite let it go, though, that last little shred. He clung to it desperately, waiting for the moment when things would suddenly become clear, when he'd hear her say, "I don't love him, Cal, I love you. I always have." There was a chance, there had to be; the smallest, slimmest, tiniest chance, and he held onto it.
Until December 24th.
She'd always loved December. The approach to the holidays was always filled with so much light and celebration; everywhere you look there are parties and decorations and bright lights. The atmosphere may be a little more hectic, but it's a positive energy, a spirited kind of frenzy. She enjoyed watching people dash from one shop to the next, overloaded with bags of gifts and Christmas wrap, she loved seeing people ice skating in the park, couples holding hands, children waiting in line to see Santa.
With Christmas just around the corner and a new man in her life, she felt happier than ever. It sounded cliché, but it was true – even with Alec she hadn't felt this lightness of spirit, this comforting feeling of happiness. It had only been a few months, but dates had turned to weekends, kisses to love making, and whispered confessions of love in the dark were now open and honest displays of feelings – "love you!" tacked onto the end of their goodbyes or see you laters.
The only downside to her otherwise wonderful relationship with Daniel was the negative impact it had had on Cal. She'd turned the possibilities over in her mind a thousand times: Was he worried she'd be less focussed at work when in a relationship? Was he just being a concerned friend, afraid she'd be hurt like she was by Alec? Or was he simply jealous? That option was one she was reluctant to explore, but on nights when she couldn't sleep, or in moments when the silence in her office seemed too much to bear, she allowed herself to consider the reasons for his jealousy. In the end, she chose to believe that if there was any jealousy emanating from him, if it was the green-eyed monster who dictated his dark moods, then it was because his best friend had found a fulfilling relationship, and he hadn't. He just wants what I've got, she thought, satisfied with the logic of that assessment. He's lonely, and he wants someone to love. He wants what I have with Daniel with someone of his own. That didn't erase the unease his unhappiness brought her, but she convinced herself that it was the reason. And that, in time, when the right woman came along, things would right themselves, and she could get the old Cal back, instead of the shadow of the man she'd been working with for the last six months.
"I was going to wait until tomorrow."
She stopped, her spoon halfway to her mouth, and replaced it in her bowl without taking a bite. "Wait until tomorrow for what?"
"To give you this." He reached into his pocket, and she hurriedly began shaking her head.
"No, no! Daniel! You can't give me my present now! Tomorrow is Christmas Day, you have to give it to me then!"
"This isn't your gift, Gillian," he said quietly. "At least, it's not your Christmas gift."
"Then what is..." Her voice faded to nothing and her eyes widen at the shape and size of the box now being placed in front of her. "Is that...?"
As he flipped the lid of the box and she caught sight of what lay glittering inside, she felt like her life was about to start all over again.
"Gillian... Will you marry me?"
She didn't hesitate; who does when the man they love asks them to marry him? "Yes," she said, smiling as he slid the ring onto her finger. "Yes, I will."
He was alone. His attempts to convince Emily to stay with him for the duration of the festive season had failed; he hardly blamed her for not wanting his dark mood to dampen the holiday spirit. She'd tried, which he appreciated, to cheer him up, and he'd seen the tug of war of emotions inside her when he broached the subject. She wanted to lift his mood, felt guilty about leaving him alone during the holidays when he was already depressed, kept pointing out that her mother wouldn't be alone, therefore she should stay with him. At first he'd wanted it; he'd welcomed her change of heart about her plans because, selfishly, he wanted his daughter with him on Christmas Day. He knew it would ease the pain a little, having her around. But he knew, in his current state, that he was not fit company for a teenager – for anyone, really. So he'd changed his mind, just as she was changing hers and deciding to stay – and had encouraged her to go, while wishing, as he uttered the words, that he didn't have to say them at all. But he had.
She'd promised to Skype him on Christmas morning, and when she returned from Chicago on the 27th had said they'd have a Christmas day of their own – a proper Christmas dinner, presents under the tree, the works.
He'd nodded and smiled and watched her pack her bag, the hollow feeling only growing as the days passed, and more people in his life seemed to step a little further away.
So Christmas Eve night found him alone, his only companion a bottle of scotch, watching a movie whose title he couldn't remember, and which seemed to be lacking largely in plot and talented actors. When the doorbell rang at what a quick glance at his watch told him was almost eleven o'clock, he felt a slight lurch in his stomach. Was everything okay? Had Emily been in some sort of accident? He'd only spoken to her a few hours ago on the phone, and she was safe in Chicago with her mother. But who would be calling on him now?
When he opened the door and saw her standing there, he felt the all-too-familiar mix of emotions that only she could elicit. Happiness and sadness marrying together – the thrill of seeing her, the simple pleasure of being in her company that was always coupled with the crippling blow of realisation that she wasn't his – only she could make him feel that way.
Her face was flushed, her eyes bright; in his surprise he initially misread her expression, and hurriedly asked her what was wrong.
"Nothing's wrong, Cal," she said, and he saw the smile grow and realised he wasn't looking at fear, but happiness. Pure, euphoric happiness. She held out her left hand. "Everything is right."
The moment he saw the ring was the moment the final shred was gone; the last piece of hope that he'd been clinging to fell away, like the last leaf of a tree, floating gently to the ground as winter creeps in to steal it away.
That was the moment that he knew: he had lost her forever.
She felt her chest tighten when she saw his eyes drink in the sight of the engagement ring on her finger. She wondered if coming here was a mistake; hadn't she attributed his morose attitude over the last few months to feelings of loneliness brought on by her own successful relationship? She'd made the diagnosis, and she'd tried to make things easier – not talking too much about Daniel in front of him, making sure they still spent lots of time together, doing the things they always used to do, so that he wouldn't feel his best friend had abandoned him for her boyfriend. But when Daniel proposed, when she'd accepted and slipped on the ring and cried tears of joy, the first thing she'd wanted to do was tell her best friend. She wanted to tell the world – shout from the rooftops that she, Gillian Foster, was in love and getting married – but the most rational impulse she felt was to go to her best friend; tell him her news, let him be happy for her, accept his congratulations and his hug and share this moment, this joy, with him.
"Congratulations," he said quietly, and she felt the chill of the night air seep a little deeper into her bones. There was no hug, no kiss; no smile, even, despite her apparent joy. All she saw on his face was utter misery, and she wasn't even sure he was trying to hide it.
That was the moment that she realised she'd been wrong all along; the truth she hadn't wanted to consider, that his jealousy wasn't for her relationship, but for her, was now staring her in the face. She had gone to see her best friend to tell him she was engaged, and now found herself staring at a man who loved her, who had just been told, unequivocally, that he would never have her.
January brought snow; deep and thick and heavy, a blanket that covered the whole city and brought life to a virtual standstill. Trapped at home with her fiancé, she should have felt content; he commented on the romance of their situation, but her returning smile was half hearted. She didn't want to build a snowman, she didn't feel like drinking hot chocolate with extra marshmallows, and when he suggested they start discussing the wedding, she felt herself stiffen.
"I'm sorry." She shook her head. "It's just... the last couple of weeks have been difficult."
"You've been distant," he said, reaching out for her hand. "Can you tell me why?"
"I think..." She felt a tear start to form, and wiped under her eyes quickly before it had a chance to fall. "I think Cal might be... in love with me."
"I see." His eyes sought hers; such a deep chocolate brown, she'd often thought she could drown in those eyes, in their kindness, their warmth.
"Things have been different between us for a while. Ever since..."
"Since you met me?" he guessed, and she nodded.
"I thought he was just lonely, jealous that I'd found someone and he was still single. But the night you proposed, when I went to tell him... I saw a man in pain, Daniel. My news – our engagement – it hurt him."
He rubbed a hand along his chin, deep in thought. "Gillian," he said, eventually. "I know Cal is your friend, and you care about him, but I don't want his issues to upset you. Or us."
"You don't understand... he's my best friend, he's my... he's..." But the words would not come; there seemed no sentence long enough to describe what Cal meant to her, no adjective that could accurately convey who and what he was, and no way, in that moment, for her to explain what she'd felt that night, standing on his doorstep and reading the pain in his eyes, or what that meant to her. She'd abandoned all hope, long ago, that he could feel such things for her; it was accepting that that had allowed her the freedom to fall in love with Daniel.
"It's difficult," he said quietly, reaching for her hand. "I understand, Gillian, I do. And I feel sorry for the man. Unrequited feelings..."
"Love," she interrupted, her voice a little shaky. She'd buried this hurt, this turmoil, for over two weeks – now that they were finally discussing it, it all threatened to spill out. "I think he's in love with me."
"You think – you don't know for sure. But, Gillian," he shifted in his seat, twisting his body to face her more fully. "I do think you should leave the Lightman Group."
"What?" She pulled her hand away from his, shaking her head. "No, no, I can't!"
"You're a gifted psychologist, Gillian, you don't need Lightman holding your hand to advance your career."
"That's not what..." She bit back the angry words she wanted to fire at him – it was the first time in their relationship she'd actually felt angry with him, or frustrated. Minor tiffs had been so rare, and so insubstantial, they'd passed quickly and only served to prove, in her mind, that their relationship was healthy but in no way damaged. "We work well together," she said, clenching her jaw slightly. "I like the work we do."
"Really?" he asked. "Or is it that you just feel you have to stay with him, out of loyalty?"
"I can't leave him," she said quietly. "You need to understand that."
He exhaled slowly. "You know, Gillian, when I first met Cal I thought he was an idiot."
To his surprise, she smiled. "He doesn't always make a good first impression."
"He certainly didn't seem taken with me."
"He was just being protective..." Her voice trailed off as the excuse she'd given for Cal's behaviour, the reason she'd told herself he was being that way, suddenly sounded inadequate and empty.
"He was jealous," Daniel filled in, and she nodded wordlessly. "So what does this mean, Gillian? He's your friend, he's in love with you, we're getting married, you want to keep working with him... how is that even going to work?"
She stood up, brushing a tear from her cheek. "I don't know." She walked to the door, and started pulling on her boots.
"Where are you going? Gill, you're not going out in this weather."
"I have to see him." She reached for her coat, but he was beside her in a second, his strong arms tugging the coat away. "Stop it!"
"Gillian," he said firmly, and she reached for the coat again, fresh tears pooling in her eyes. "Listen to me," he said as she continued to pull at the coat.
"I have to talk to him."
He wrenched the coat away, then picked up the phone and tossed it at her. She fumbled but caught it, her hands shaking. "So talk to him. But you're not driving anywhere. You think I want you dying in a car accident?"
She swallowed, and looked down at the phone in her hands. "I need to see him. Face to face."
"Then you wait," he said simply, and picked up her car keys, and his, from the table by the door.
She watched him leave the room, and angrily kicked off her boots. While she knew he was only looking out for her – the roads were treacherous, and she wouldn't want someone she loved driving in these conditions – she was frustrated all the same.
Falling in love with Daniel had been so easy; he was attractive and friendly, they had lots in common but enough differences to make conversations interesting, he had a good sense of humour and really cared about people, especially her. It had all just been so natural, had happened so quickly; it was like sliding into a pool of warm water. Her relationship with Cal had been far from easy over the years, as had her marriage to Alec; more like jumping into an ice-cold lake, on occasion, and she relished the chance to be in a relationship that was much more open and honest and simple.
But ignoring Cal's feelings wasn't an option, and although she admitted that Daniel was right to prevent her driving on the icy roads, she also knew that, the first chance she got, she was going to go and see Cal and talk this out. They'd hardly seen each other over the holidays, and he'd encouraged her to take some time off in the new year. But she couldn't keep pretending nothing had changed between them. She had to know the truth; as difficult as it might be, she needed the when and the why and the how questions answered, and she couldn't wait much longer.
Two days later she was on his doorstep. She didn't ask to come in, he just held the door open and waited for her to enter. When she was divested of her coat and boots and was standing in his living room, she finally let the words come.
"I need to know." Her voice was raw, heavy with emotion, and the dark circles under her eyes suggested lack of sleep – restless nights of tossing and turning, or merely laying still, too full of thought to drift off.
"If you're in love with me." The boldness of her question almost made him want to laugh, but he hurt too much to laugh, so he simply shook his head in disbelief.
"What?" How could she ask him that, now? He had spent so long wishing for it, praying for some miracle that would make him worthy of her, only to find her Prince Charming riding onto the scene and sweeping her up into his arms. He'd spent hours cursing his silence, her own foolishness – how could she not have seen the truth? – and the million things that kept them apart, including her new fiancé. He never dreamt she'd be so bold as to use the L word in this way – to actually question him about his feelings, approach the matter as if it was something they could discuss – doesn't she know they can't? Can't she see that they're teetering on the brink of something, and if they push too hard they'll both fall headfirst off the cliff? Speaking the words aloud makes them more real, and loving her like this hurts too damn much already, he can't have her making it worse by opening up the wounds, pouring the salt of her honesty and curiosity onto them, demanding answers to questions he wants to forget even exist.
"I need to know, Cal," she implored, her eyes burning into his with an intensity that forced him to look away.
"Does it matter?" he asked, avoiding her gaze. He felt her reaction, though. He didn't need to see her face to know her expression, he didn't even need to be in the same room as her half the time to feel her emotion, leaping through the air towards him, burning his skin with its heat.
"Of course it matters." She spoke quietly, but the words were heavy, as though dragged from her throat with great effort, and he forced himself to look at her.
She faltered, then; what was the answer to that question? He'd wrong-footed her, somehow – she'd come expecting one of two answers, and had tried to prepare herself for either, but she hadn't expected this. The tables were turned around, he was questioning her and she didn't know what to say.
"Will you leave?" He was trying to sound curt, but the fear in his voice was there, she heard it – the dizzying fear of abandonment and betrayal that he'd carried with him ever since his mother's suicide. Her heart ached to hear it, and she instinctively stepped towards him, her hand outstretched.
"Never," she said, maintaining eye contact as she uttered the word, her hand finding his shoulder. "I just need to know."
"If you stay..."
"There's no 'if', Cal," she told him firmly. "Regardless of your answer, our partnership will continue. Unless," a sudden thought seized her, "you don't want it to?"
He sank down into the chair, forcing her to release her limp grip on his shoulder. "Do I want you to leave...?" He spoke as though asking the room a question, or perhaps just himself.
"Gillian, if you left me, I don't know if I could survive."
She felt relief flood her veins; his heart was breaking and she was feeling relief – the guilt hit her like a thump to the chest. But she couldn't deny being pleased that he wanted her to stay, that he'd spoken honestly with her. He hadn't admitted that he loved her, but his confession that he couldn't survive without her was confirmation of something, at least.
"I won't leave." She sat on the sofa, her body angled towards his, her eyes scanning his face. "I promise."
"You already have," he said sadly, and she felt another wave of emotion wash over her. She was feeling too much, all at once; a thousand feelings jostling for attention, and she didn't know how to address them all. She felt sad, happy, hurt, worried, confused, relieved, sympathetic, flattered, guilty, and about a hundred other things that she wasn't even sure had a name.
"I don't want to hurt you," she said, and he tilted his head to look at her as he registered her use of the present tense.
"You mean... you didn't want to hurt me? When you started dating, then agreed to marry, Daniel?"
She swallowed. "Well... yes, I do mean that. And now... and any time, Cal. I never want to hurt you."
"I know it wasn't your intention, love," he said softly, and she realised she hadn't heard him call her love for a long, long time.
"You still haven't answered my question."
He leant towards her, his face a picture of sadness and regret, and she didn't move as she felt him gently brush his lips against her own. She knew she should be thinking of Daniel – should be horrified with herself for letting another man kiss her when she had a fiancé who loved her. But the kiss didn't feel like a betrayal; she hadn't kissed him back, although she'd allowed those few seconds when his lips were on hers to pass without stopping him, but mostly it was because she knew what this kiss meant. He wasn't asking her to leave Daniel, he wasn't asking her anything at all. He was simply telling her, answering the question just like she'd demanded.
"What... does this mean, for us?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, as though speaking any louder would make all of this more real.
"Well, that's your choice." He matched her tone and volume, sitting back in his chair, hands folded in his lap.
"It's not that simple."
"Then I'll make it simple for you, Gillian. I love you. And whatever you want from me – friendship, romance, a big white wedding and a ring on your finger – I will give to you. I want that with you, and more. But if you don't – I will respect that. I'll understand it, because I know Daniel's a good guy, way better for you than me, and I want you to be happy. I won't be at the church, I won't toss confetti on you and your new husband, I won't be there smiling as you walk down the aisle. Don't ask me to watch you marry another man, because I can't. But my love, and my support, and my friendship – you will always have."
"I never wanted to make things difficult for you, Gill. I wasn't even going to tell you how I felt, but you came over here, and you asked me outright, and I decided I'd had enough of lying about my feelings for you."
"You never said anything before I met Daniel... or didn't you feel this way then?"
"Gillian." He laughed, but it was the shortest, saddest laugh she'd ever heard. "I fell in love with you the day I met you. And every day since then. The littlest things you do – the way you tuck your hair behind your ear, the way your eyes light up at the sight of something sweet and sickly with about a thousand calories, the way you tell me off when I've crossed the line. I fall in love with you about a hundred times a day, Gill. It didn't stop when you were married before, it won't stop when you're married to Daniel. I can't control it. But I'll bury it. I'll try to hide it, I'll make damn sure it won't screw up your marriage. Because if you love him – if you really love him, if he's the one you can't live without, if you love him even half as much as I love you – then you need to be with him, Gill. Marry him, and be happy. Please."
She reached for his hands, then got up off the sofa and sunk to the floor at his feet. She rested her head on his lap, felt him tentatively rest a hand on her back, and she began to sob.
She listened to the crunch of her feet across the frosty grass, shoving her hands deeper into her pockets as she shivered in the cold. Fresh air was what she needed, now; it helped to clear her mind, and always seemed to make difficult decisions easier to make. It added clarity, somehow, and that was what she needed when faced with one of the biggest decisions of her life.
She was in love with a good, kind, honest man who loved her and wanted to marry her; why did it suddenly not seem like enough?
She walked on further, her breath visible as she exhaled loudly.
It took over an hour, and she was freezing by the time she got home and eased her aching limbs into a hot bath. It had taken over an hour, but she knew. Not who she loved; she'd always known that, because the difficult, complicated answer was both of them. But she understood that love, now; she had grasped what it meant, and she knew which man she was going to spend the rest of her life with. Perhaps she always had.
"So who is he, then? This man you're going to marry?"
She bites her lip lightly. "Cal."
He can't hide the anger, but he keeps it brief. "I'm not surprised."
"I just want you to know that there was nothing going on while you and I were still married. I didn't want you hearing our news and thinking that we'd been..."
He nods, but remains silent. She can hear the wind rattling at the window, and allows her gaze to sweep the small kitchen, with its shabby cupboards, messy units and uneven tiles. She thinks back to their marital home; warm, cosy, comfortable. She hates to see a man she once loved fall so far, but she knows now that she can't be tied to him anymore, that she has to let go for good and move on with her own life.
"It was inevitable, wasn't it?" he asks, breaking the silence.
"You and Cal." He gives a bitter laugh. "I always knew there was something between you two. I know you said you didn't cheat," he says quickly, pre-empting her interruption. "And I believe you. But I always knew he'd swoop in and claim you before the ink was even dry on our divorce papers."
She shakes her head. "It wasn't like that. We haven't even been together that long, really. Things were far from simple."
"Oh? So you didn't divorce me and then realise you'd been in love with him for years?"
"Actually... no. I was engaged, briefly, to another man."
"What?" His shock is evident, she's hardly surprised. Hearing the words spoken aloud, it doesn't seem like it's her own life she's discussing. Engaged at Christmas, broken up a month later, engaged to another man just three weeks after that. It sounds like the plot of a film she'd turn her nose up at or a book she'd deem unrealistic. But there it is – the decisions she's made in the last few months, laid out in simple terms and short sentences.
"It didn't work out. I realised I love Cal; we decided to get married. In June."
He shrugs. "Maybe just in case you change your mind again? Find someone else you want to marry instead?"
She frowns. "That's not fair, Alec. You don't know the situation. It's a lot more complex than it sounds, and Cal and I have... a long history. He's not some guy I just picked up in a bar; he's been in my life a long time."
"So why'd you agree to marry someone else, if you're so in love with him?"
Although he'll never know it, his words echo those uttered by another man in her life, just a few weeks ago, and she finds herself transported back to that moment, reading the hurt on his face and the anguish in his voice.
"Why did you agree to marry me, then, if you're in love with him?"
She wished she could explain it properly, wished she could find the words, but knew they would not come. "It's complicated." The inadequacy of the sentence made him scoff. "It's not as simple as me falling out of love with you one day and in love with Cal the next; and it's not that I never loved you. I did. I do."
"You're still in love with me?" He was confused, of course he was. They'd met and fallen in love in a matter of months, he'd proposed on Christmas Eve and received a delighted 'yes', followed by hurt over the fact that her best friend was in love with her. And now, here she was, handing him back the ring he'd given her, trying to explain that her best friend's love for her was, in fact, not unrequited at all.
"Yes, I..." She wanted to distil her feelings into a neat paragraph that she could recite to him, have the complexities simplified and the many, many strands of her life all woven together into a tidy blanket that she could spread over everything to make it all make sense again. "I do love you," she said, trying to keep her voice steady and even. "But Cal is the one I..."
"Love the most?" he interjected, shaking his head. "I don't understand, Gill. How can you love two people at the same time? You always believed that was impossible."
"I did," she agreed, her voice quiet. "But my love for you, and my love for Cal, are very different. You were – you are – the person who saved me, in many ways. You're the first person I fell in love with after my divorce, you're the person who reminded me what it was like to fall in love, and made me realise that it was possible for me to feel that way again." She reached for his hand, entwined their fingers, and was relieved when he didn't pull away.
"So why are you leaving me?"
She exhaled slowly. "If things were different, I truly believe we could have had a good life together. You make me happy; it was easy, being with you. Loving you. You were easy to love."
"Is Cal easy to love?"
She considered this. "It's... different. I can't explain, not as effectively as I want to. And I'm sorry. You deserve more than this, but..." She shook her head. "I realised, when I was talking to Cal, how much I loved him. And that our love wasn't just platonic, it wasn't something I could overlook, it wasn't something that would ever fade into the background. I was confused by those feelings – I knew I loved you, and any thoughts I'd ever had about possibly being with Cal I'd buried long ago. But I took some time to think, about you, and Cal, and what you both mean to me. And I realised - I can't live without him. Realising that, that was the moment. The moment I knew that, however much I loved you, my love for Cal had the depth and the power and the intensity that I've never found in any other relationship. And that is no reflection on you," she said desperately, as he pulled his hand away.
"So you love me, you just love him more?"
"No you're not."
She stood up, legs shaking. "I never meant to hurt you. Please believe that."
He sighed. "I do believe that, Gillian, because I know you. You'd never intend to hurt anyone, yet here we are. With you walking away into the arms of another man, and me left with a broken heart. And I don't believe you're sorry about choosing him over me."
"I'm sorry," she said again, "that I hurt you."
"Just answer me one thing, Gill," he said, and she nodded. "Are you doing this because you feel sorry for him? Because he loves you, and you care about him as a friend, and you think it's just easier this way? To stop him feeling hurt and alone?"
She understood why he'd think that; perhaps that's how it looked to him. It was crucial, though, that she made him understand this. "No," she said firmly. "I was confused, when I found out that Cal was in love with me. I was worried it would affect our friendship, and the business. I couldn't see a way forward, I didn't know what we were going to do. And then I realised why I was so confused. Because I didn't understand the timing of it all. I discovered his love for me just when I'd got engaged to another man; it didn't make any sense. But then I accepted his feelings for me, and I began to understand my own. I realised that I love him, too; then I had to make a decision. My love for you, and for him, are different, as I said. I needed to work out what to do next and the decision was..." Saying it was easy sounds cruel, but she knew he needed the truth from her. "I knew I was making the right decision, choosing to be with Cal," she said. "I hope you can understand that. It's not about pity, or sympathy, or loyalty. I'm in love with him, he's my..."
She'd never used that word; for all her romantic notions and love of romance fiction, she'd spent her life shying away from words like soulmate. She believed in love, but she didn't know that she believed in destiny, or soulmates. One of her closest friends lost her husband in a car accident, and never thought she'd love again. Three years later, she did find someone else, and they married and had a child. Which one of those two was her soulmate? Couldn't it be both? Yet, if she were ever to use the word soulmate in regard to her own life, there was only one name that it could ever be applied to.
"We belong together," she said, and while the sadness in his eyes broke her heart, she knew she was doing the right thing.
"I guess this is goodbye, then."
There would be no false promises of trying to stay friends, no begging for her to change her mind, no repetitions of apologies, he'd heard it all before. She hugged him briefly, hoping he would glean from that how sorry she was that she'd hurt him, and how much she did wish him well for the future.
She watched him walk away, but the tightness in her chest was mirrored by a lightness that came with the realisation that the final barrier between her and Cal was gone. There was nothing standing in their way, now, unless they let themselves be dragged down by their past, and she was determined not to let that happen. From now on, it was all about the future.
"So why are you telling me about this engagement? You didn't tell me about the last one."
She bristles at his words, but tries to keep her voice calm and warm. "There wasn't really time."
"Too busy doing what, exactly? Thinking about cheating on your fiancé?"
"Alec," she says, her voice a little louder. "Please."
He sighs. "I'm sorry. I just don't see why you've come to me with this now, Gill."
Because she's closing a door, she's speaking the truth, she's pushing aside the last part of her past and hurtling towards the future she wants. "Because there was a lot going on, when I was engaged to Daniel, a lot of things I was sorting out. Things with Cal were... complicated. Now, they're not. We're together, we're getting married, and I wanted to tell you. And now I have." She stands up. "Goodbye, Alec. I hope you find the happiness you're searching for, too."
"Like you have?" There's no malice in his question, she reads genuine curiosity in his eyes. "This is definitely what you want?"
She smiles softly. "Yes."
Part of her was surprised when she saw the ring, but another part of her had been expecting it. He'd mentioned marriage, the night he admitted he loved her; hadn't she known, all along, that this was where they were heading?
He was nervous, which she found adorable; she didn't doubt his conviction in her love for him, but things were moving quickly, and she supposed he feared that she would think marriage was too much, too soon.
They'd had a quiet but romantic Valentine's Day, and two days later he was down on one knee in her living room, offering her a ring, and his heart.
"Didn't want to propose on Valentine's Day, it's a bit cliché," he said, and she laughed. She laughed, and she cried, and she assured him that it wasn't too fast. They'd been moving towards this for a long time, without even realising it; they'd been building a life together even before they labelled what it was between them 'love'.
As they lay in the dark, limbs entwined, her eyes on the ring and a smile on her face, they discussed when to marry. He made it clear it was up to her; if she wanted a long engagement, he would wait. "You're worth waiting for," he said, kissing her softly.
She smiled. "I think we've both waited long enough, Cal. I'd marry you tomorrow. But..."
"I've always wanted a summer wedding."
"You and Alec married in October," he recalled. "Did you want a summer wedding then?"
"Yes," she admitted.
He didn't push it, just kissed her forehead and smiled at her. "Summer wedding it is, then."
She snuggled closer to him, rested her head on his chest and felt the steady beat of his heart, and felt like she'd truly found home.
She steps out onto the street, the rush of the cold wind feeling less abrasive now. She's done what she set out this morning to do; she's closed a door to the past, and she's looking to the future. Alec thought her and Cal being together was inevitable, and perhaps it was. She'd lived in denial for so long that falling in love with someone else didn't even strike her as a deviation from the path she was on. She'd given up, much earlier, on the idea that they could find a way to each other, and heading in the direction Daniel took her was easy and straight forward. But it wasn't right.
She knows people have made judgements about her decisions over the last few months; she knows it looks odd, announcing her engagement to one man, breaking up with him and revealing she's dating another man, then just a few weeks later announcing that they are now engaged. Her ring finger was bare for little over a month before it had a different engagement ring on it, and she recognises that if she'd heard a story like that, she'd make judgements too, however much she would try not to. It's a natural reaction. But she knows the truth about her relationships, and the complexities of love. She recognises the contribution that Daniel made to her life, and she's grateful for the time they spent together, and the love they shared. Now, though, she knows that Alec's words were true; her love for Cal is so deep rooted and immovable, not even agreeing to marry another man first could stand in their way. No matter where they had to go first, and the decisions they made that sent them veering off course, they ended up right where they were supposed to be all along – together.
A/N Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the story. It was something of a departure for me – I've never really imagined Cal and Gillian getting married, and I don't particularly enjoy fics where they do. I also worried about how Gillian's actions and decisions might be perceived, and that readers might not find her actions believable and in character. When this idea came to me, though, I knew I had to run with it, and I've tried hard to make this believable, to show the complexities of her feelings and how Gillian herself recognises the unusualness of the situation. Anyway, I hope the story 'worked' for you, reviews very appreciated :-)