"Play back this tape, I swear you'll see
I only wanted you to be with me.
Kill the last romantic,
Then come back for me."
~Easyworld, "Kill the Last Romantic"

November 1998

She flipped the tiny cassette with her fingers in the dark of the living room. The moonlight coming in from the balcony door gave the room an eerie blue-black tint to her surroundings, a color she loved and feared in equal measure. This color had been good to her. This color had been cruel to her. This color gave an odd shine to the cassette. The cassette felt weird on her nails every time they made contact. Her nails were in desperate need of a manicure. Maybe if she flipped this thing slowly enough it won't make a sound. Maybe if she flipped this thing quickly enough, it'll make a loud enough noise to wake Will up. Maybe Will was awake and had his ear to the door. Maybe Will was oblivious. She should be oblivious.

Funny how your train of thought runs off the track at every chance when you know you have an important decision at your feet, waiting to be picked up, waiting to be paid attention, waiting to be made.

Grace has had this cassette in her possession for roughly four years, and if she could tell you exactly what was on it, she would. But honestly, this is all she knew about what she held in her hands: the voice of a flame she had chased around for years was on the tape, a message that had been left on her answering machine four years ago, a week before she had finally told Danny that she would go out with him (and look where that got her). She knew that it was left after she had effectively ended whatever it was you could call their connection, and she knew the first three words of the message—"Gracie, it's me…"—before she frantically stopped the playback. She didn't want to know the rest, for fear of going back on her decision; she had been weakened at that point, she knew that much, but there was no way she was going to let that voice transfix her once again. It had gone on long enough.

Thirteen years ago, she met the one person who sparked a fire that would never go out, no matter how hard she tried to extinguish it. Karen Delaney—no, sorry, Karen Walker, she actually married the son of a bitch that started all of this in the first place—was a force to be reckoned with, always had been. But under the original guise of a friend, for however short that window of time she used the guise was, Grace couldn't see through what Karen had been feeding her.

It didn't make sense at first; they had only seen each other intermittently, large amounts of time would pass before they randomly met. Later on, shorter amounts of time would pass before they would hear each other's voices again—Grace had broken down and given Karen her phone number after they had expressed their frustration at the lack of appearances in each other's lives. But she got sucked in. It was Karen; everyone got sucked in. Thirteen years ago, it would have been nice to have that information. Thirteen years ago, she should have known that she would get tangled in the web.

But thirteen years ago, she probably would have willingly tangled herself anyway. It would make sense, it would be the logical conclusion; she's willingly tangling herself now, years after the fact.

She thought she was dreaming two months ago, when Karen walked into her office—and god, she hadn't aged a day in the four years it had been since that last night, but she did look broken down, unlike the vibrant, nothing-can-hurt-me woman that had originally introduced herself. Thousands of thoughts were running through her mind in the silence that lingered after Karen's heels had ceased clicking on the hardwood floors; she got the wrong address, she completely forgot about the woman she was staring at in the time they had been apart, she was going to tell Grace off for reasons she wasn't completely certain of. But Karen took a step forward and spoke in a meek voice, the only voice that really seemed appropriate here. "Grace," not Gracie, not now, not after everything crumbled, "I need this favor. Please."

Karen saw the ad in the paper Grace had placed for an assistant. She needed a place to get away from Stan for a while, and she'll do the work, she promised. She just didn't know where else to go, who else would actually take her on for the reasons she had. Grace had laughed, was working up a tirade, when Karen put her hand up to revitalize the silence. She chose her words carefully. "You've obviously moved on, unless that picture on your desk is some sort of oddly misplaced decoy. " At that moment, Grace had looked at the framed photo of herself wrapped in Danny's arms, as if she had to make sure it was still there. "You don't have to speak to me unless you absolutely have to. I'm not asking for anything more than sanctuary. And trust me, the last thing I wanted to do was ask you for a favor. I didn't want to put either of us in that position. But every other place I've tried laughed in my face. I had to try."

In that moment, she flashed back to the moment they met. After that disaster of a proposal, after having her heart broken, after being faced with it once again and in a blind fury, ran to any place that wasn't the one she was currently in. After calming down enough to see that a complete stranger had stopped to help her, for reasons she didn't understand but didn't question. She couldn't tell in that moment if the look in Karen's eyes was a result of sympathy or pity, but at that point, she didn't care. Karen was someone she could talk to, and although the circumstances were different, someone who knew where she was coming from.

It was comfortable. It was nice. It was enticing.

They slept together that night. Just once, they had promised each other. Do whatever you want and leave, at least there was an element of comfort and control. But then they ran into each other again. They made the same promise again. It was a cycle they couldn't get out of, not that they truly wanted to. And then the inevitable, followed by the breakdown.

And now, it could potentially start all over again.

She didn't know if she could handle that.

Grace saw the look in Karen's eyes, and despite her better judgment, she hired her on the spot, told her she could start when the weekend was over. On the surface, Karen was right. Grace had moved on with a man who had stuck around long enough to no longer be considered rebound. And until she had broken up with Danny, it seemed like their little arrangement at the office would be okay, like it could actually work out for the both of them. But then she was single again, and Karen was right there, directly in front of her. She couldn't help but let her mind wander.

Which brought her to tonight, her breaking point.

It wasn't as if she had let go completely. This thing had consumed her for thirteen years, and the fire was still blazing, even if she didn't want to admit it. She remembered those nights in blue-black Manhattan darkness, the bars and cigarettes, the moments when they actually tried. They brought her feelings that nothing else could. Which made her all the more frustrated that she had to face Karen every day (had to, as if she wasn't the one who set it into motion).

And all the silence, and all the skating around the issues, and all the false polite smiles had gotten to her. She wanted to tell Karen everything she didn't the last night they had together. There were no words that night, at least not from Karen and very little from Grace; it was easier to get her point across that way. The woman she was, the woman Karen had transformed her into, the woman she was now. It wasn't fair to put that solely on Grace's back. Karen deserved some of it, too.

God. She was making Karen out to be some wretched woman. That wasn't at all how she started out. She was a friend, but enough of a stranger to tell her personal things without being judged. She was a desire, something that was unexpected, but also unattainable. She was an intended one-night stand, something to help ease both of their woes but something to never happen again. She was a reunion, multiple times, that never got old and was always sweet. She was a repeat offender, making both of them into liars. She was a beautiful possibility. She was a deceiver. She was a breaker, smashing whatever was in her path. This was who Karen Walker was, start to finish.

But the main problem with the entire journey into Karen, from point A to point B? You could never fully figure all of that out until you were already in it.

And even though she had been with other people during the time that Grace had known her, it always came back to Karen. With Matt, with Paul, with Chase, with Danny, it always, always, came back to Karen.

Grace looked at the cassette in her hand and let out a sigh. If she was going to do it, she might as well do it now. She got up from the couch and tiptoed through the hallway, stopping at Will's door for a moment to listen in. She didn't hear any movement coming from the other side, but that in no way meant that she was safe. She walked to her room and shut the door quietly behind her before tossing the cassette on her mattress and digging out a box from underneath her bed.

She still hadn't gone through the things she packed when she moved out of Danny's apartment since Will took her in, but she knew exactly which box held the object she wanted, an old grey answering machine she had since she moved into her first apartment after college without roommates. This thing had played the messages of first dates and nagging parents, of best friends and apologetic souls. It had known Will's voice like it was its own, and it had helped in the erasure of it all, just so it could start over. And this time, it was going to play one final voice.

She put the cassette in the answering machine she had taken with her—she was the one who bought it in the first place; it was rightfully hers, and Danny had the cash to spare to buy another one—and pushed the play button.

"Gracie, it's me…"

And just like that, with the sound of Karen's voice filling the room and the sensation of worry that Will would hear, thirteen years came rushing back to her all at once, and they wouldn't stop.