"Hey," she said, but really, it was more.

"Hey," he replied, because it was his staple and it felt comfortable. He needed comfort right then, and he thought that she probably wouldn't break under it, either.

She couldn't manage a smile at the familiarity, but she tried. Her eyes closed of their own volition before she pried them open.

"Ever just want to sleep forever and never wake up," she said. Her words didn't climb up in pitch at the end, didn't ask a question, because she knew the answer already.

He didn't answer because he knew she knew what he would say. And finally, after a pause that hadn't been as weighted as it should have been, he said, "We're quite the pair, aren't we?"

A smile lifted the bare edges of her mouth-lipstick has been too heavy a task that morning, and nothing matched so well with black as bare lips-but failed to stretch its little delighted arms into her eyes. "Always have been," she murmured.

He nodded softly, one time, and studied the ground beside the bench on which they sat. The grass was brown and dead and mud seeped out from between the blades. She noticed some offending soil on her Good shoes, the ones she'd deemed nice enough on which to spend seventy-five dollars, though money wasn't a main concern of hers anymore.

"What are you doing?" she asked, because there was nothing else to say and she'd never been talented at improvisation.

His hand, familiar and callused, scraped away a layer of skin from his face. "I'm not too sure, really. Numbers and a desk, I think. Or something."

With concern that also flooded back in a familiar wave, she said, "You don't sound happy."

"Happy is a relative term." A far away look found its way into his sky-blue eyes, which suddenly turned-not dark and stormy like an angry storm determined to blow through but more like—a defeated gray sky that knew it wouldn't get the chance to rain, so it just wouldn't try anyway. It scared her.

Again she found herself at a loss for words, but thankfully, he broke the silence.

"I read one of your books," he remarked, and the cloudy look departed slightly.

This time, a bit of a smile graced her own blue eyes. "Which one?" she asked, desperately hoping it wasn't the one with him under a pseudonym, or the other one with him as a love interest for a main character who, like she did at the same moment, had a habit of pulling at her necklace chain, no matter how sterling the silver or how expensive the jewel.

Confusion overcame her when he looked down, embarrassed, but dissolved when he looked up, staring at the steeple, high and almost frightening ethereal, and replied, more quietly than before, "All of them."

"Oh." Now confusion had dissolved and surprise clouded her brain. Stupidly, without the normal filter that she employed, she couldn't help her asking, "Did you like them?"

"You're my favorite author," he said quickly, and although it wasn't an answer, it was good enough.

"Thank you," she said, because she thought it was appropriate. It was okay when the New York Times called her books "brilliantly crafted with a deft use of the English language any modern author should envy if he does not already" and said that she was "destined to become the next Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald…talent this great can only be rationed out once in a generation, and clearly, Loess received every ounce of it," but she had never been gifted by personal praise such as this.

Mainly, she knew, due to the fact that he'd never told her he read her books before.

He should have said "you're welcome," maybe, or maybe he shouldn't have. She knew little about etiquette, skipped over Miss Manners' column in the Sunday paper although all her friends warned her that, at twenty-six, she'd be expected to know about wedding gifts and dinner parties.

She knew a lot more about funerals and missed chances, she thought, and anyway, Miss Manners was probably a Republican, which was, of course, a capital sin.

This time, the lapse in conversation lasted so long that his voice wasn't familiar anymore by the time he said, "Can you believe this bullshit?" in a voice she vaguely remembered from high school.

"I can't," she said, and it was the truth.

He sighed and she could see it, bright white against the dark snow clouds in the sky. "Do you blame him as much as I do?"

"Probably more," she answered. "And myself."

"It wasn't you. I know that. And it wasn't me, and it wasn't-" he stopped to consider briefly what exactly the correct terminology was, but failed to produce anything-"her. It was…he had to break someday."

"At twenty-seven? You, or I, and even she would have been there had he said the word." Her words almost hurt rising from her throat, laced with bile and acid.

"He wasn't happy." It couldn't be that simple, she thought.

"You're not happy," she said.

"I'm a different kind of not happy. He had everything he'd ever wanted, and he still wasn't happy. He needed-more." His voice threatened to break before his last word.

"Death isn't more. Death is…a way of not trying."

"I know." His voice was soft and almost reverent, perhaps recalling, as she was, a similar conversation more than ten years ago.

"It was his choice, I guess," she said, but she didn't believe it.

"This whole thing is bullshit," he replied, and her hundred-thousand-dollar NYU creative-writing degree vocabulary couldn't have said it any more eloquently or coherently.

"What have you always wanted?" she found herself saying before she could stop the words, and she cursed herself once again.

He was silent for so long she guessed that he had chosen to simply not answer; he disproved her by replying, sad and quiet, "A chance."

"At what?" It took no effort-an inherently inquisitive nature aided her in these situations as much as it almost killed her.

"To be, you know, happy. To be-everything." He looked her in the eyes for the first time and communicated all the words he'd always been to scared to say-to be like him, to have love and life and family, to care, to give myself up for another person, to think about someone else first, to stay far away from numbers and desks and do something that doesn't make me wish for pink slips every Friday afternoon.

Courage was something she'd known all her life in short, intense stints during pivotal, important moments. When she'd written her first query letters and been rejected, she'd cried for an hour, and then written one more, pouring into it every last desperate emotion she felt. They published her, and she was a best-selling author, and she was living her dream in a Fifth Street apartment in New York City with a computer right next to the window so she could turn off all the lights and write in the glow of her city.

He hadn't moved far from their hometown, four hours away in the more industrious Pittsburgh, but he was farther than she was. In most ways, at least.

Pooled inside her, built up for moments like these where her stomach dropped and the wind lifted her hair off of her neck and she felt like she was really on her first upside down roller coaster with the steady hand of the guy with whom she'd been in love (or at least so she convinced herself) making her butterflies even more raucous, her courage poured up her trachea, out her mouth and into the air with a stunning command of her deepest, most vital fears.

"Would you like to visit New York with me? Instead of going back to work tomorrow." Her clarity surprised her, and she was suddenly grateful for that hundred-thousand-dollar NYU vocabulary that had failed her in previous moments.

"I think," he began, and stopped. "I think maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea." And he looked at the steeple again, and his eyes were gray again, and she could tell that that had not been what he had meant to say when he first opened his mouth.

"All right," she whispered, feeling as if her stomach had burst and acid burned all her middle organs.

"Wait. No. Wait. Um. Does the, can I. Does. Well." His stuttering was almost adorable, almost adorable, but falling short on frustrating. "It sounds like a better idea than going ho-back to-it sounds like a better idea." It was his turn to barely muster a smile, and she closed her eyes again, this time out of relief and promise.

"Good. That's-good. I'll pick you up-are you staying at the Sheraton?"

He nodded.

"I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at nine. What room?" She felt her face smiling giddily, and she thought, I'm giving it all away, but if he'd read her book, he'd know anyway.

She knew, really, he'd known before that. But it didn't matter.

"Three-oh-six," he replied.

"Nine o'clock. I've, um, gotta get rested for the drive, so-I'll see you then." She stood, tightening her scarf so she wouldn't do something stupid, like hug him.

"Goodnight," he said, and looked in her eyes again. They were the sky-blue she remembered, the same color as hers.

"'Night," and she walked away with that, anticipation almost causing her to squeal like she hadn't in years.

It wasn't familiar anymore, but she had the feeling that it might become familiar very quickly, very soon.

And that was okay, too.