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Callie found her in the orchard. She watched her girlfriend for a moment, noting the slump of her usually strong shoulders, the defeat that was evident in her stance. "What are you doing out here?"
"Just remembering." Erica's voice was heavy, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders, and her girlfriend supposed that it was.
"Were you close?" A light hand on her back, wanting to let her know that she was there, that she cared, but still a little wary of whether Erica really wanted her there, or if she needed some space. Eleven months into their relationship, Callie's early missteps sometimes made her feel uncertain with the woman she knew now she could never live without.
The shaky sigh that preceded Erica's reply told the story more than the words did. "Very. Not really. It was complicated."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Feeling a little more certain that Erica didn't want her to go away, Callie took a small step closer to the blonde, resting her hand more firmly in the small of the her back, feeling the curve of Erica's spine beneath her fingers.
"I don't know what there is to say."
"Say anything." And then, afraid of pushing too hard, the brunette added, "Or nothing. Just I'm here."
The two women stood in silence for a long time, sheltered by the boughs of apple-laden trees, and feeling the chill of the fall breeze as the shadows began to lengthen. Eventually, Callie broke the silence. "Do you want to go inside?"
"I used to come out here with my cousins some weekends when I was growing up. They'd all run straight into our grandmother, but I used to come out to see Grandpa. He was always out here, and, he never said it, but I know he loved that he was my favorite."
"He knew how lucky he was to be loved by you."
"I don't think that was it. I think it was- He was always overshadowed by her. He was quiet, unassuming. He never really said anything unless he meant it, but when he did talk everyone listened. You met my Grandma. She never stops talking. I think he liked knowing that, she might always be louder than him, the center of attention, but that didn't mean he wasn't noticed."
"He sounds a lot like you."
"I'm not as good as he is. Was. Fuck." The expletive was whispered, but it carried a pain that Callie hated to hear in the blonde's voice, whatever the reason. She moved closer, nestling into the blonde's side, and wrapping her arms around her body; the instinct to comfort far stronger than any fears that Erica might not really want her to be there.
"I'm so sorry, baby."
Erica leant into the embrace, resting her head against Callie's, accepting the reassurance offered in her girlfriend's arms. "You'd have really liked him, Cal. I wanted to bring you out here, but it never seemed like the right time."
"If he was anything like you, I'd have loved him."
"He taught me so much. We'd spend hours out here, and I'd help him with the trees. He showed me how important just paying attention can be."
"One of the cornerstones of what we do."
Erica shifted slightly in the brunette's embrace, turning so she could really lean on her girlfriend, burying her head in Callie's shoulder, as though she were about to cry. The tears that the Latina expected didn't come though. Instead, she felt the warmth of Erica's breath wash across her throat, could almost feel the brush of her lips on her neck as the blonde murmured, "He was so proud of me when I got into college."
"Did he ever doubt it? You're smart as Hell, Erica."
"I needed the scholarship. Without it, we never could have afforded for me to go."
"It doesn't sound that complicated. It sounds like he loved you. Loves you."
A slight sniff was the only indication that Erica wasn't holding herself together as well as she was trying to pretend she was, and Callie tightened her arms, wanting more than anything to soothe away the pain. "I don't know what happened, but while I was at college, we just we drifted apart." The brunette felt a splash of liquid against her collarbone, and slowly started stroking the older woman's back, wishing she could take the pain away, but knowing that she couldn't. "I stopped coming back to Madison, I barely even came back to Virginia at all, and he well, he never really trusted technology. I don't know what happened." The tears were coming properly, and Callie's face was scrunched against the onslaught of her lover's pain. "Then I graduated, and I was so busy, all the time. I kept thinking I'd take vacation and come back here, but I could never seem to find the time. And then, I met you, and I so wanted to bring you here, to introduce you to him. You're everything he would have wanted for me."
"Except for, you know, the girl part."
"I don't think it would have made any difference. If you were a man, you'd be everything he wanted me to have, and well, he wasn't always bothered by the details. You're good to me, and that's all that he would have cared about."
"He sounds like an amazing man."
"He was. And I never told him I was sorry for drifting away."
"I'm sure he knew, Erica. That's what kids do. We grow up, and we move away, but we don't stop loving our family. He knew that."
"I wish I could believe that."
Callie took a slight step back, loosening her grip on Erica so she could slide one hand beneath the blonde's chin. She frowned as she looked at the anguish in deep blue eyes, the tear tracks that ran across the blonde's cheeks, but she held her gaze, trying to communicate her love through their locked eyes. "Listen to me. I believe that your grandfather loved you, and he was proud of you, and that he wanted you to be the best you can be. He wanted you to follow your dreams, because he loved you, and that's what we want for the people we love. He wanted you to be happy. Are you happy? I don't mean, right now, but, are you happy?"
Her throat feeling swollen with tears and regrets, Erica just nodded.
"Then you did everything he wanted you to do. And he's proud of you, baby. Like I'm proud of you." Leaning in, she let her lips brush lightly across Erica's, not caring that they were sticky with the residue of the tears that had run across them while her face was buried in Callie's own neck. "And he loves you, like I love you."
Her voice trembling, effused with sorrow, Erica tried for a joke. "Hopefully not like you love me."
Callie smiled and kissed her again, soft and gentle. "As much as I love you then. He loved you, and he wouldn't want you to torture yourself like this."
Slowly, still looking doubtful, Erica nodded, a shiver running through her as she realized it was getting cold. Callie noticed the tremor and, laying one last kiss against her girlfriend's cheek, she whispered, "Let's get you inside. And they can all tell you how proud he was of you, like they were telling me before you disappeared."
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