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The Edge of the End

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"Maybe Leslie and I are just a thing of the past."
"To the future?"
"Cheers."

We tried and tried to loosen the knots
Thinking once we're untangled we'll be better off
But it's these failures and faults that hold us together

When he thinks about it, really sits down and faces up to it, Jake realizes he's been chasing after Leslie Bennett for going on five years. He started the day he met her and he just never stopped.

There's a cliché for everything; on the one hand, "If you love something, set it free," and on the other hand, "You have to fight for the things you love." Well, he's been fighting five years—maybe four, to be fair. There was a year—was it a year?—when she stopped fighting him.

And thinking about it like that tears his heart apart. He knows what he said to Malachy—that maybe it was never actually there—was a lie. He knows it was there. She, well, he knows that what they had was real. But he sits by himself drinking whiskey and he thinks about how many times she pushed him away, and he wonders how he kept going.

Because, sure, it started as a game, hard to get, teasing and flirting, but damn if he didn't trip head over heels into the most painful love he's ever known. And treating it like a game, he could pretend it didn't faze him. He does that with almost everything, doesn't he? The truth is he's wanted her more than he's wanted anything in his entire life, and he's ached with it for years, years. The taste of it she'd let him catch would just make it stronger, the ache.

And then she left him for good, or as good as good. She left their actual, functional relationship for another man. Sure, a man she was married to once. It didn't matter to Jake, because if what they had meant as much to her as it did to him, she could never have let him go. So he accepted that it didn't. It had meant something, but not enough. The one thing in his life that he'd given his entire self to, the one woman he had committed his whole heart to, had chosen someone else.

And it's hard to come back from that. By the time he said what he said to Malachy, it had been months and she hadn't even stayed with the guy. Which meant she chose nothing over him. He was as good as nothing. Less good.

Jake isn't one to despair. He isn't one to take things to heart. But this one got into his heart and tore it apart.

Better or worse but what else can we do?
And better or worse I am tethered to you
If it's not either of us, tell me
Who are we fooling?

He spends nights, when he can't distract himself with work, sitting in his office chair with a glass and a bottle of whiskey. He doesn't know how to move on because he's never really had to move on before. Teenaged love affairs, sure. It doesn't really compare.

Admittedly, he's losing his grasp. His days get rougher and rougher. Hangovers, lack of focus, a bit of a hygiene problem. Malachy confronts him, and Jake insists he can do his job just fine. Rose confronts him, and he insists he isn't hurting anyone but himself.

It shouldn't be a surprise, one night, when the knock at the door is Leslie Bennett himself. He's well into the bottle at this point, and just says, "This is the worst possible time, I think."

She barrels in anyway, standing firm in the middle of the room; his words slur enough that the first thing she says is, "Because you're drunk?"

Jake waves his hand dismissively. "And about a thousand other reasons, but sure, let's go with that."

"You're losing it, Jake."

"Oh!" He laughs edgily. "Am I really? What a surprise. What a strange turn of events."

"Are you angry with me?"

He doesn't respond, wandering around the room to be anywhere but near her.

"You can't—Do you blame me for this, Jake?"

"Oh no," he says, and that much is sincere. "I blame myself. What a bevy of errors in judgement I've made. I don't know how I'm still standing here."

"Why, Jake?"

He busies himself with something or other on one of the desks, moving papers around and dropping pens into cups. She watches him and waits, and eventually he says, "I've never had to do this before."

"Do what?"

His back is to her and he straightens it, considers his words. "Five years, you know? It wears on a man. It wears him down. I've never had to…"

"Had to what, Jake?"

He turns back to her and his expression is bleak. He looks her straight in the eye and says, "I've never had to try to move on from someone I loved so much. I've never loved anyone so much. I don't know if I can do it."

Leslie is shocked speechless, her mouth opening and closing like a fish gasping for air. But she doesn't inhale.

She steps forward then, twists her hand in the front of his shirt and follows as he backpedals away.

"I've never known Jake Doyle to give up because of a…"

"A woman? Something so shallow and expendable, right? They always have been. But not you. Five years, Leslie. Five years. I'm trying to let go."

She releases his shirt and steps back to the centre of the room, never turning away.

"I can't watch you destroy yourself, Jake Doyle. Not over…"

"Over what, now? I didn't make myself clear enough?"

"Not over me, Jake. I'm not worth it."

He starts to laugh, a desperate, edging on hysterical laugh.

"I'm not, Jake. I've never had a successful relationship in my life. I'm difficult and broken and I never can give you what you want. I'm not worth this."

Jake tips his head back and sighs, from deep within his core. "Why do I love you, then, Leslie? After fighting your walls and defenses and half-hearted refusals for five years, why do I still love you? I can't imagine there's anything worse to you than what I've already seen—no offense intended. I've seen it all and still you're the only person I ever wanted to plan a future with. So does that matter? Whatever reasons you have for not being good enough, do they matter? They don't, Leslie. They're just more reasons for you to say no to me and push me away. But I don't need pushing, I'm going. So don't even bother."

Two fat tears roll down Leslie's cheeks but before Jake can do more than pick up his foot to step forward she smears them away and holds up her hand, wards him off. Her voice is strong when she says, "You're not going anywhere. You're stuck and you need something to push or pull you out of this rut you've got yourself in."

He looks a little incredulous. "You know that can't be you, Leslie."

She closes her eyes, her expression one of defeat. "Well I have to try, don't I?"

"Why, Leslie?" He tosses her words back at her. "Why bother? Why not just let my family handle it?"

"Because I am your family." He opens his mouth to argue and she cuts him off. "Because I love you, Jake. If I can help you I have to do it."

Eyes closing, Jake sinks against the nearest surface, letting the desk hold him up as the strength goes out of his whole body. "I don't think you can, Leslie. I think you should leave."

She bows her head, truly defeated, and does as he says.

This beautiful tangle that's bruising us blue
Is a beautiful knot that we just can't undo
Together we're one, but apart, tell me
Who are we fooling?

Jake takes a few days—more like a week—to sober up and clean himself up physically. He showers and shaves and sleeps every night because he is working toward something, something where he wants to look less half-dead and more charming and easy; more Jake.

He still feels half-dead, to be honest, but only emotionally.

When he can look at himself in the mirror again, and it's not perfect but he needs to do this as soon as he can, he shows up at Leslie's door—after shift, long enough after that she's settled in and had her dinner.

When she opens her door—and it takes a time, a time he pictures her standing behind the peephole with doubt in her soul—she looks not surprised but wary.

Jake holds up his hands, one of which holds a tray from Hava Java, and says, "Sober and unarmed, Sergeant."

Without a word, and without much enthusiasm, she opens the door and waves him in. He knows his way around (of course he does) but he waits for her to offer him a seat. This she does without words as well, just as she accepts her cup of tea with an inclination of the head.

The nerves beginning to present themselves, Jake clears his throat and says, "Well," and she watches him with her head tilted, her eyes terribly sad. He clears his throat again and says, "Well, I decided to accept your help." As her brow begins to furrow, he adds, "Not—I don't mean I'm here to ask for your help. But I'll take the help you gave me that night." She still watches him, uncomprehending, and he says, "Motivation."

"I'm glad I could help, Jake," she says softly. "But why are you here?"

"Well, like I said," and he loses the burst of stamina that got him that far. "Um, motivation. In the way that… In the way, well, I don't know, in fact I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, but," and he stops, grimacing, Leslie's face showing only confusion and maybe a little concern, like, You got off the booze but did you get on to something else? Not sure this is an improvement, Jake.

"Ah," he says, and gives up on whatever he just failed to do, focusing on saying exactly what's in his head. He stares at his knee and says, "The reason I'm here, Leslie, is you said you love me, and I need to know exactly what reason you have for us being apart now and forever if you do. I need to know that and then I will leave you alone for that forever, I promise you that."

He looks up then, and the tears are rolling down her cheeks, but she waves dismissively, wiping them away without much concern. "They come when they wish, don't pay any attention," which is of course impossible for him, so he rises slowly, approaches her cautiously because he will stop if she tells him to, and he sits down beside her.

"I don't want to make you cry," he says, "but I need to know this if I'm ever to move on. If you want me to move on."

The tears keep coming and she puts her hands up in the air, a helpless gesture, and doesn't speak yet.

He waits and he stares at her hands because he wants to hold them so bad and he can't look at her face because he'll want to fold her into him and he can't do any of it. He can only sit beside her and feel the magnet pull of her and hope that his closeness soothes some part of her even if she won't admit it.

"I don't have a very good answer for you, Jake," and her voice makes him jump, so focused on the pull he'd been. "It's a hard healing I'm doing now, and I know it's a hard healing you're doing now too. I have to do it alone, I know, and I hope it will lead to a less broken person but I can't be sure of that. I haven't said anything to you because…" and she gestures with one hand, a vague gesture that doesn't really mean anything but makes sense to both of them.

Heart in his throat, Jake says, "That doesn't sound like a no, Leslie."

She puts her face in her hands. "If I could say no to you and mean it, I would say it, Jake, because I know you need to move on. But I can't say it, I can't say it." Her shoulders shake and he can't refrain from putting his arm around her shoulders and curling her close to his side. "I've lied so many times to you, Jake," she says into his sweater, "to myself too, and I thought it would be for the best. Somehow I can't lie anymore. Not to you."

She hasn't fought him yet so he puts his other arm around her as well, holding her as close as he can. Her hair under his chin and her shoulder pressing into his side, Jake can't believe he'll have to let her go again. The ache in his heart presses out and throbs in his extremities (not the dirty ones, get your minds out of the gutter) and he closes his eyes for the short moments he gets to feel this.

"Do you think," he says, "Do you think there's a way for you to move on from that—" He won't say Callum's name, "—without cutting me out completely? Or without, I don't know, without cutting that connection in your brain?"

He can practically feel her thinking in the silence that follows, and again he wishes he would never have to let her go. She doesn't reply until she has her answer fully formulated and he loves that about her.

"I don't know, Jake. I don't know how I'm going to feel a few months from now. I don't know how long it will take or what it will change in me."

"But…?" he says, just a tinge of hope.

Leslie finds one of his hands and curls her fingers around the edge of it. She squeezes and then seeks out the nooks between his fingers, locking their hands together and bringing her other hand to sandwich his between them. He can just barely see the side of her eye, see as she watches her hands do this, and he sees when she closes her eyes, so he closes his too.

"But," she says, eyes closed, and then all in a rush: "But I love you, but I wish I'd never left you, but I would be with you right now if I could, but I'm broken, but I don't want to give you false hope, but I'm not worth your pain."

"I think I'll decide on that last bit," he says quietly. His heart is singing and crashing at the same time, like a symphony of violent waves at the base of Signal Hill.

"And the rest?" she says, her voice high, and he can feel her holding her breath.

"I'd rather wait for you than do anything else in the world."

'Cause real love is hard love
It's all we have
It's a breakneck trainwreck
It's all we have

It does take months. As in eleven months, as in one less than a year, but he doesn't like to look at it that way, so he says months.

They work together with real affection, real ease, because for once (or maybe twice) in their entire lives they're on the same page. No pressure from Jake, no innuendos or suggestion or inappropriate physical contact, because he respects her process and he loves her so much, so much, he will do whatever it takes. And fewer walls from Leslie, fewer defenses, because she can feel his respect and there's nothing to fight here, nothing at all.

She has to get Callum out of her system. Usually when people say that, when they "get someone out of their system," it means sleeping with as many people as possible; Leslie isn't like that. Mostly she works a lot, and allows the Doyles to be her surrogate family, and goes for drinks at the Duke once or twice a week. Normal life, really, perfectly average, but she also journals and spends nights raging against a world and a man who would do this to her, weeping over all she's lost. It's a process.

There isn't so much that changes about her during the day, for Jake to see. She does smile more; sometimes she will unconsciously lean into him when they're talking and he has to freeze, make a conscious decision not to move because he would without even realizing it. They talk, maybe more than they ever have before. She tells him about her trip home (once, in eleven months) and her sister (engaged, but Leslie isn't sure about the guy) and sometimes even work (more office politics than job talk).

And as the time passes her face softens more and more, when she looks at him; until there is a look, one his family notices and is all too happy to point out to him. He looks down and smiles and shrugs, but secretly there is a hope in his heart and it is growing, not decreasing.

One night, there's a knock at his office door. Leslie hasn't had to knock in months, so when he opens the door to see her it is a surprise. A smile automatically takes his face, but as he absorbs the way she is dressed, the care she took with her hair and makeup, the smile drops away until he is gaping, just a little.

She smiles and ducks her head (her perfect hair falling across her perfect face) and says, "Are you gonna invite me in or wha?"

He steps back and waves her in and says, "I didn't realize you still needed an invitation," then follows her into the room looking a touch gobsmacked. She sits primly and he circles her, studies her from every angle, says finally, "Something different about you, hey?"

"Can't you tell?" she says coyly, and he steps back, puts a finger to his lips, like he's really considering it, appraising her the way he would a painting. "I'm just kidding, b'y. C'mere, read this," and she's pulling a folded piece of paper out of a pocket he didn't even realize she had.

She's sitting at a desk chair so he rounds the table and leans his backside against it just in front of her. He takes the paper, eyes still on her face, and she nods at it, gesturing Go on.

Journal

November 25, 2014

My dear journal, confidante, whatever you are. I've decided and it's final, today is the day. The big day. The day we've all been waiting for. The day I tell Jake I love him. Well, remind him? Anyway, I say it right to him and I tell him it's now or never. The time to seize, er, uh, I haven't quite worked out the wording. And if he tells me it's too late, he's over me, God forbid—no, I mean it, God forbid that because I'm thinking it now and I might have to upheave into a toilet. Well, God forbid that and if it does happen I guess I've got another job ahead of me, but I've learned from it and I'll be better.

Anyway, that's what we don't want to happen. To keep me from upheaving, here's the ideal result: I tell Jake I love him and I tell him it's time for us to be together and he takes me into his arms and he tells me he loves me too and we'll live happily ever after, we will, because God knows we've earned it.

Okay, Journal. Pray to the saints for me because I'm off. And I guess I'd better take this page with me.

She gives him enough time to read it and she gives him a moment more and when he doesn't move, she stands up and takes the paper out of his hand and plants her feet on either side of his. Being that he's tall and she isn't and he's leaning back and she's standing up straight, his face is about a mile away from hers and she wraps his shirt up in her fist and tugs until he's standing up.

"I said I'd say it to your face, Jake Doyle, and I'm as good as my word," she says sternly, head tipped up, and Jake's face doesn't give anything away. She puts a hand on each of his shoulders and takes a big, dramatic breath all the way down into her stomach, and then says, "I love you, Jake Doyle. I've probably loved you my whole life, whether I realized it or not. And I'm ready to be with you. Now. If you'll have me."

He watches her without moving, without twitching a muscle, except his lips press slowly tighter and tighter together.

A couple trembling breaths go into and out of her and then she says, voice losing some of its strength, "And, and if you won't, well, like I said, we'll be—we'll be friends, just like we are now, and—"

Without moving anything but his head, Jakes leans down as far as his neck will go and kisses Leslie on the mouth, awkwardly because the angle is all wrong until she tilts her face up to him and they can kiss fully. Jake takes his hands from the desk they're leaning back on and wraps his arms around Leslie's waist, all the way around until his hands are on opposite sides of her waist because she's small, so small, and he needs her close, so close. After a squeeze and with hardly a pause, he moves his hands down to her thighs and she pushes up on cue, wrapping her legs around his waist as he shoves himself back onto the desk.

She fits into his lap like she was made for it, and he doesn't censor his thoughts for the first time in a long time, a low groan easing out of him as her bum settles against his crotch. She starts to press back on his shoulders, and he tenses his abs, resisting.

"On the table?"

Her smile is so serenely innocent he nearly loses his mind. "No good?"

He lies back instantly, ignoring the sting in his spine and shoulder blades. "All good, all good!" he says quickly, and her smile twists a little. Slipping her fingers under the hem of his shirt, she pushes it up as she stretches forward over him, pulling the shirt off over his head before kissing him again.

"You," he says, and she cocks an eyebrow before sitting up again and… sliding her fingers under the waistband of his jeans. He twists his hips slightly, reaches a hand toward her, says more insistently, "You."

"Yes, Jake. Me." She unbuttons his jeans, peeling open the fly and reaching a hand inside.

"Oh," he says. "Please."

Leaving her hand where it is, Leslie leans forward again, putting her mouth on his and letting him get one of his hands up under her shirt. He fumbles, flipping past the tank top layer and shoving his hand under all the fabric to get at her skin. He pushes the shirt up quickly and she lets him slide it up over her free arm, tug it over her hair and on to the other shoulder, and Leslie squeezes once before releasing her other hand and shaking the shirt onto the floor.

Jake's hips buck at the squeeze and when she looks back at his face he's got his bottom lip between his teeth. He shifts his hips again and says, "Can you—How—" and Leslie gets a firm grip on the waist of his jeans and shorts, tugging down just enough before getting up on her knees and sliding on to him. She's wearing nothing under her skirt and Jake's eyes roll back in his head as he groans.

For her part, Leslie lets her head hang down, her hair covering her face, as she gets used to the feel of him inside her again. She reaches up to take off her bra, and Jake reaches for her face, brushing some of the hair out of the way and sliding his hand along her cheek and behind her neck, pulling her down to kiss her again. Now Leslie lays her abdomen down on top of his, her breasts pressing against his pecs, and just that and the change in angle has him writhing a little.

"Leslie," he says. "Seriously."

"Mmhmm," she says back, her tone breathy, and shifts her hips on his. "Seriously."

And they get serious, because she's not cruel. It's like a memory and a dream and reality at the same time, and the table under Jake's back and Leslie's knees keeps them grounded.

When they've settled and they're breathing slow, Jake says, "Ow."

"What?"

"Ow. Ow."

"What?"

"The table. It's hard."

There's a pause.

"Now it's hard?"

They both freeze for an instant and then they're laughing so hard they can't breathe, Jake saying "Ow. Ow" every five seconds. Leslie scoots to the edge of the table and dangles her legs, then turns back to Jake, eyes shining as she laughs. She reaches a hand out to him. "C'mon, you big baby. Obviously you can't handle a big… hard…" and she just dissolves into laughter, tears leaking from her eyes. Jake is practically in the middle of the table, folded in half and crying and laughing and saying "Goddammit ow" over and over.

He's laughing too hard to move, so Leslie stands up and walks around the table and pushes him across. Eventually he falls over the side with a massive BANG and the room goes suddenly silent. When Leslie makes it back around the table, she sees him crumpled on the floor and staring at the ceiling.

"Funny enough, that did not hurt less."

Leslie stares at him for a minute, looks him up and down, then says, "Anything important?"

Jake frowns and smirks and says, "No, nothing important. Lucky enough for you," and he puts his hand out to be helped up. "Where'd you be if you went and broke the most important part of me? Hey? And you just got it—me—back, too."

"Ah, yeah," Leslie grunts, dragging him up from the floor. "Mighta hit your head there, though. Guess we got lucky."

Once on his feet, Jake very gallantly wraps his arm around Leslie's back and dips her, as if he's ever waltzed, and he smiles a smile far too soft and sweet for the interaction they've just been having. "I'm fine," he murmurs, and the heat rises in Leslie's face.

"All right, not fair, let me go."

He does, chasing her for a kiss first, and says, "Hungry?"

Leslie watches him warily from a few feet away. "I could eat."

He holds his hand out to her and her mouth struggles against a smile, before she gives in and dips her head, moving forward to link their hands and hang on to his arm. "Some gentleman, wha?" she gripes good-naturedly, before they both realize they're naked and decide to put some clothes on first. After a little hanky panky. It's only natural.

So we're back here again

Turning away from the edge of the end

Arm in arm