"Stop thinking," Dylan whispered now, unwittingly echoing the sentiment I'd expressed that first time almost nine months ago. It had been slightly less than nine months ago, but felt like an entire lifetime. In a sense, it had been.
"I–" I opened my mouth – to say what I didn't know, and it didn't matter anyway, because he swooped down and kissed me again. He was rougher than he usually was, his lips moving with a kind of desperation that hadn't been present since the earlier months. I'd tasted his despair then, and I tasted it again now.
Something had happened to remind him of Talia, and he was trying to drown out his pain through actions.
I let my hands trail over his belt buckle, unfastening it easily with months of practice. He gave a little growl when I broke away to push his pants, together with his boxers, down his legs.
"You're overdressed," he said when I was back at eye-level. As if to emphasise his point, he lifted the edge of my tank top and yanked it over my head.
I struggled out of it, responding breathily, "I can change that."
At that, he grinned a wolfish grin that shot straight to my heart, one that was a world of difference from the vague smile he'd sent Bertha at the café. He didn't smile like this often, which meant that when he did, I was basically putty in his hands. "Let me."
When all the pieces of my clothing had joined his on the carpet, I pushed him back onto the bed and clambered on top of him. Not to be outdone, he anchored his hands on my waist and rolled the both of us so that I was underneath. I arched an eyebrow, but didn't say a word. He was in one of his moods, and the best way to deal with it was to let him have his way.
I hadn't been lying when I'd told Bertha and Mary-Jane that Dylan and I rarely spoke. We didn't speak. We didn't need to. Feeling his skin on mine, his heartbeat beneath my fingers, feeling him alive and knowing that the sensations he evoked in me were proof that I, too, was alive – that spoke more than words ever could.
When it was over, Dylan rolled off me and we lay silently, side by side, for a little while. I closed my eyes, waiting for the surge of guilt to come. When it did, it was only in the form of a mild twinge, not the flood that it had been eight and a half months ago. And that scared me. She was my sister, my other half – how could betraying her come so easily?
I couldn't let myself forget that Dylan was hers. I shouldn't.
When I opened my eyes again, Dylan was already on his feet and halfway done with dressing. My lips twisted into a grimace. "Can't wait to leave?"
He pulled his pants on and stood staring at me. "Don't be stupid." His tone was brusque, a far cry from the way he'd been speaking earlier. He really could be a jerk sometimes. Talia had probably not seen this side of him – that is, until that night when they'd had that blistering argument over me. It seemed that I always brought out the worst in him. Sometimes I even wondered if all those years when we'd been best friends had been just a series of events I had hallucinated.
Sometimes I missed our friendship so damned much. Did growing up always have to mean growing apart?
I gritted my teeth in exasperation even as nostalgic sadness swamped me. Just five years ago, I wouldn't have believed we'd be here one day, almost strangers but not, sniping at each other. Then again, I wouldn't have believed I would have lost Talia so early, either. Sometimes life didn't give you lemons. It had given me death. Death of a sister, death of a friendship. This thought made me feel bitter. "I really can't deal with your mood swings," I snapped then.
He fixed me with a long stare that seemed to bore right through me. "I could say the same about you," he finally replied.
I sat up, taking care to wrap the sheets around my body, even though it was a little too late for modesty around him now. "Okay," I said, starting to feel the temper rising in me. "Let's have it."
"What?" He found his shirt and threw it on.
"What the hell is up your ass?" I demanded. I hadn't really wanted to ask, but his attitude was grating on me. And I couldn't forget that he'd come to seek me out, not once, but twice. This had never happened – our encounters in bed had always been by chance. He must have been hurting to have sought me out like that. I couldn't just let it – him – go without an explanation, even though I usually enjoyed the way we operated on a strictly need-to-know basis.
He didn't reply. I found myself leaping up, pulling the sheets from the bed in my haste, and grabbed his arm when he was just about to leave. He turned around to look at me, and this time the fire in his eyes was burning. He was furious, and I didn't know why. "I know what you were doing back there. Don't ever do that again."
I was bewildered. "Do what?"
"Use me to forget some other guy." He glared at me, and I knew he'd seen Rick come into the café. Like everyone else – everyone but Rick's girlfriend, that was – Dylan probably thought I'd slept with the slime-bag at that party. We had been making out at a pretty well-lit spot, after all.
I didn't know what to say, because he was right. I had been using him to forget. Just not in the way he thought. But instead of saying that, I retorted, "As if that's not what you do to me every single time we fuck." It was the first time I'd said it out loud, but goodness knew I'd thought it many times.
He blinked. "That's…"
"Different?" My tone was challenging. What hypocrisy.
"Not true," he finished. He turned away, running an agitated hand through his hair, as if dismissing the conversation from his mind.
"Really?" I couldn't let this go, even though I knew I should. I was breaking our unspoken set of rules by delving into this topic, by even daring to acknowledge what we were doing at all. "What do you call this, then? Or maybe you're not trying to forget her, but using me as her substitute?"
I saw his fists clench. "Don't, Tara," he said softly, a warning in his voice. I knew what he was saying. Don't open this can of worms.
Still, some masochistic part of me persisted. "Do you see her when you look at me, Dylan?"
"No." But he still didn't look at me.
Reaching out, I cupped his face and forcefully pulled him to face me. The sheet slid from my shoulders and pooled around my feet, but I was beyond caring. We stared at each other for a moment, eye-to-eye. "Look me in the eye, Dylan," I whispered, even though he was already doing so. "I have her eyes, don't I?"
I saw his pupils dilate – whether from shock or something else, I didn't know. "Stop it!" In the next moment, he'd shoved me away and leapt halfway across the room to get away from me. He had his back to me, but he was breathing heavily and I saw his jaw clench. He swiped a hand over his face, taking deep breaths as if to calm himself. After a while, he said, "You haven't eaten, have you?"
I could've resisted his obvious bid at changing the topic, but his reaction had already given me the answer that I'd dreaded. "No," I said instead, sinking back onto the bed. Almost as an afterthought, I picked up my clothing and started pulling them on. I needed to move, to do something. Anything but sit silently and let this newest discovery fester in my mind.
He let out a long breath, moving closer to the door. "Come over," he offered without looking at me. "I'll make you something to eat." How he'd known that I hadn't had dinner was beyond me, but then he'd always been observant.
"Okay." I'd managed to get dressed, but still I sat on the bed, the lump in my throat gnawing away at me. Shit. I was going to cry. I bowed my head and blinked furiously. It was one thing to suspect, but another entirely to have that suspicion confirmed.
Dylan turned sharply. He must have heard something in my voice that hinted that not all was right. He came over and knelt in front of me. He placed his fingers beneath my chin and tilted my face upward until he could see my eyes. I scowled at him just as a tear broke free and ran down my cheek.
I jerked away and swiped at my eyes angrily. He was the last person I wanted to see me cry. So he'd been using me as a replacement for my dead twin for the past nine months. So what? It was just sex.
"Tara," Dylan murmured, but I angled my body away and refused to look at him. I heard him sigh, then felt his warmth envelope me. He'd gotten back on the bed and was holding me to his chest. He could be really gentle if he wanted to. That was probably why Talia had fallen for him. She would've been so shocked to discover that he could kiss and fuck with such ferocity… Then I checked my thoughts, because I wouldn't be having angry sex with Dylan if Talia had been alive. He had probably been gentle with Talia. Maybe her death had flipped a switch within him. I would never get gentle sex with Dylan. But I could have this.
And even before the thought formed fully in my mind, guilt swamped in. Dylan's gentleness wasn't mine to have. But he was alive, I was alive… and Talia was dead. I deserved this much… didn't I?
I'd loved him first.
I sighed, closing my eyes to keep these bitter thoughts at bay. What right did I have, to be blaming Talia for going after what – or who, in this case – she wanted? She had already given so much to me. She had stood up for me that night, had taken care of me. And she had died in my place.
It should have been me.
If I'd been the one who'd died instead… Talia and Dylan would have mourned, sure, but then they'd have gotten over it and lived happily ever after. My parents would've coped better. My mother wouldn't now be crying all day and my father wouldn't be spending so much time at the office, trying to escape the demons at home. My family wouldn't be falling apart.
I wouldn't be falling apart.
"Do you wish…" That it had been me? I trailed off. Even the crassest person wouldn't give a positive answer to a question like that. And Dylan was far from crass. Before this, before our friendship had fallen apart, before he had turned into this moody stranger, he had been the nicest guy I'd ever met. The best guy. And he had been Talia's. Now, he'd changed and she was dead, but he was still hers. I knew, deep down inside, that my closeness with him now would only be temporary. Just like it had been temporary in the past.
Friendships didn't last – not when love was also present, but in just one side of the equation.
Dylan was quiet for a moment. "I wish for a lot of things," he said finally.
Giving up the struggle, I snuggled into him, turning in his arms enough so that I could bury my face into the crook of his neck. He smelt faintly of sweat and sex and cologne and a scent that was all his own. I loved that smell.
He touched my cheek softly, the first bit of gentleness I've had from him since we'd stopped being Dylan-and-Tara and he'd become a part of Dylan-and-Talia. "But probably not what you're thinking."
"How do you know what I'm thinking?"
He shifted. He tried to look into my face but failed, since I still had my head on his shoulder. "I know I blamed you for it," he said finally, in wry acknowledgement, "but it's not your fault."
Those were words I'd needed to hear, but now that he'd given them to me, I was far from satisfied. No matter what anyone said, I knew, deep down, that I had contributed to her death. It would always be my cross to bear. I also knew, without him ever having to say it, that Dylan blamed himself fiercely, probably more than he blamed me. "It wasn't yours, either," I said softly.
He was silent. I knew he didn't believe me, and I sighed.
"Do you still feel guilty?"
His arms fell away and I tried not to miss the warmth too much. "About her…"
"About us," I interrupted. I was done rehashing the what-ifs of Talia's death. No matter how much we wished, Talia would never come back.
"I…" He sounded at a loss for words. "We…" Then he exhaled heavily. "Yes."
"Me too," I whispered.
He was silent for a long time, before it came out in a whisper – the reason he had sought me out today. "It's almost August." He tried to say it lightly, but his voice wavered.
And immediately, I knew what he had been talking about. The twelfth of August – the day Talia had died one year ago.
All of a sudden, I couldn't breathe. I was appalled at the reminder – not just because of the meaning it entailed, but also because it sent a tremor through me that made me want to bury my head back into the covers and never surface again. I'd managed to block it out for weeks now, but his words brought everything crashing back down.
My grip on him tightened, and his arms came back up around me in response. "Damn you," I muttered. Damn him for bringing it up. Damn him for putting the guilt squarely back on my shoulders.
And then he moved, so suddenly that I didn't expect it. Before I knew it, he'd pinned me to the bed, and his mouth was moving over mine. "Fuck that," he growled in between kisses. "I don't want to think anymore." He left my lips and started moving downwards, kissing my neck. This was what inevitably happened when we thought about her. I arched into him, welcoming it. Welcoming him.
"We can't keep doing this," I said softly. But I didn't want to think anymore, either. My fingers, in direct contradiction to my words, trailed a path down his chest to cup the most important part of his anatomy through his boxers.
He inhaled sharply at my light touch. His eyes had darkened and his pupils were dilated; I could tell he had already shut off his thinking processes. There would be no stopping today. "Tomorrow," he promised, as he pressed his body against mine to push me backward onto the bed. "We stop tomorrow."
My fingers were already engaged in the act of divesting him of the clothes he'd just put on. Tomorrow. Tomorrow sounded good.