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And I say "I love you"

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It was like a dream, in the way that you never question the dreamworld. He should have known something was wrong the moment Erin was there to help him pick his tie. He’d even walked over to her and asked her. One moment she was telling him “I never do go to university, do I?” before jumping out of his life forever. The next she was helping him pick his tie for his date (it was a date) with Stevie. And he hadn’t questioned it.

But now he did. He drove home after dropping Ira off at his house, and thought. He’d said goodbye to yet another one that afternoon -it never came without its share of grief, no matter how unpleasant their company- an accidental death that had been misconstrued as suicide. But that lady would have never left her family, and the part of River that knew this but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why… that part of River had gotten her talking to him. Until he’d figured it out, at which point she’d gone back into her house along with her grieving yet grateful family, waved at him as the door closed, and River knew he’d never see her again.

Never again.

But Erin had come back. And Riley had come back. And they didn’t seem to want anything. They’d been... supportive, even cheerful. At peace. Now, sober and relatively clearheaded, it disturbed him how much they’d changed, the way Erin was always chipper and eager, how the bite had drained out of Riley’s voice. Rosa would have said it was something positive. River wasn’t sure, himself. One thing he had going for him was that at least his voices stuck to a pattern. It was true that some of them were problematic, but there was always a reason they were there, a reason they’d never overstayed until now. He could manage a pint and a smile just fine these days, making them go away stood low in his list of priorities. But any change meant he needed to keep his guard up, and this… It presented a special kind of problem, didn’t it? How do you lay to rest those you have buried?

“How do you pacify the calm?”

“Screw you, Mr. Magoo,” Stevie said.

He caught her eyes in the rearview mirror, and she was smiling that playful smile of hers. He smiled back, and it turned into a chuckle. She laughed. A claxon and a curse later she was gone. It wasn’t until his apartment’s door clicked shut behind him that he realized that she’d not only been there, she’d been back. Back for the first time since she’d said goodbye from his backseat, no, since she’d said… But he hadn’t questioned it, even as he’d just been thinking about it he hadn’t questioned it, because you never question the dreamworld.

*

They were watching Titanic. “Looks weird,” Stevie said through a mouthful of popcorn. “Look at that. I think you’re the only guy in this city running a VCR in this kind of monster. How’d you even hook it.”

River grinned. “AV cables haven’t changed.”

“Still, you can tell this wasn’t meant for HD. Couldn’t be any blurrier if I squinted.” She illustrated her point by doing it, first at the TV, then at him. That cracked him up.

“Who’s Mr. Magoo?” he said, and she poked him on the nose. He snickered, and had his arm halfway up to poke her back when it dawned on him -or should he say it came back to him?- how out of place this was. How wrong.

She smiled sadly. “What?” she told him. “I tell you I love you, now I can’t drop by for a movie?”

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I solved you.”

She frowned, and it almost broke his heart. She tsked and shook her head. And then she was gone, him with his hand still raised. He lowered it. The process took more steps than it should have.

*

“You done goofed, friend.” It was Riley.

From the corner of the room, Erin looked at him disapprovingly. River turned around and stalked into the next room, only to find them there, too.

“What do you want?!” He screamed it. Dr. Cream hadn’t shown his face for a few months now, but days like these, River wondered if he even had to.

“We don’t want anything, Mr. Magoo. It’s not ‘bout us. Ever thought of that? It was never about us.”

“We’re dead!” Erin called after him. “And when you’re dead, you’re dead!”

Another room, his bedroom, and Stevie on the bed. She was wearing a fuzzy pink robe with matching slippers. No make-up. She looked completely at home, and the longing that tugged at his chest was almost a physical thing.

“Stevie,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.

She nodded towards him. “Close the door, will ya?”

He did. He walked over to the bed, and sat by the headboard. Stevie moved and put her head on his lap. He grabbed a lock of her hair and started twisting it around his finger.

“What are you so afraid of, River?”

What indeed.

“You’re changing,” he said. “Last time I feared I might lose you, and now I… will you ever go away?”

“That’s what you want, River? Me to go away?” She touched his face, running her knuckles over his cheek. He wanted badly to lean into that touch but didn’t, even as he held tightly onto that lock of hair, he didn’t. He stared at her, and tried to hold that image of her in his mind.

Somehow, he knew this meant he was getting worse, not better. Riley was right, this was never about them. He knew his manifests were a crutch, a way to put some distance between himself, and things that were easier to look at than to think about. They’d always served a certain need, and what did it say about his needs, the way they were changing?

Was this what he needed? What he wanted? To live in the company of ghosts that wouldn’t go away? Friendly ghosts. Lovely ghosts. She smiled up at him.

She was dead. She was dead and he’d never had the nerve to tell her. That was the only truth. This here, it wasn’t her. It had never been her, it could never be her.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “Because you can’t make me go, can you? You don’t know how to.” She said it with a tenderness that didn't fit.

On the other hand, who did it hurt? As long as he could manage that pint and that smile, who did it hurt? And yet he was afraid. So terribly afraid of how things had changed.

“I love you,” she said. “And you say…?”

He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head, helpless. “Please,” he said.

But she wouldn't budge, would keep it up with the caresses, and the weight of her felt so real. "I love you," he said at last. "I say I love you."

She went away, then, leaving him alone with the rumpled sheets and pillows. But he could feel the weight of her on the other side of the bed that night, could feel her gaze following him everywhere as he went to work then to Rosa’s then to dinner with Ira the next day. He tried not to look at her, nor to Erin nor Riley. To speak only to the living. Somehow, it was easier now that they weren't a ticking clock. And when he came back home, she was still there.