So what changed?
Curled up outside in her giant coat, her red-and-black Reebok high-tops tucked underneath her, she seems smaller than her public self, more slight. She says she was mad at Brown for a really long time. "I wanted him to know what it felt like to lose me," she says. "To feel the consequences of that." She figured she'd never want to see him again after what he did. "So when that shit came back" – meaning love – "it hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, God, you've got to be kidding right now. But I got real with myself, and I just couldn't bury the way I felt."
She knew she'd be opening herself up to all kinds of criticism by getting back with him. "But I decided it was more important for me to be happy," she says, "and I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of that. Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake. After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I'd rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it."
Can I be honest? I ask her. I'm not your friend. I don't pretend to know what's going on in your life. But I think, like a lot of people, when I saw the two of you getting back together, it really upset me.
She nods. She understands. "When you add up the pieces from the outside, it's not the cutest puzzle in the world. You see us walking somewhere, driving somewhere, in the studio, in the club, and you think you know. But it's different now. We don't have those types of arguments anymore. We talk about shit. We value each other. We know exactly what we have now, and we don't want to lose that."
Sure, I say. But we also see him cursing and threatening people. We see him getting pissed and breaking things. And we think, "That guy hasn't changed."
She nods again, closes her eyes. "I know it comes off like that. And it doesn't help. For a long time he was really angry, and he felt like he couldn't get away from it, no matter what he did. But there's so many reasons why I ever reconsidered having him in my life. He's not the monster everybody thinks. He's a good person. He has a fantastic heart. He's giving and loving. And he's fun to be around. That's what I love about him – he always makes me laugh. All I want to do is laugh, really – and I do that with him."
And you honestly think he's changed?
"Of course everybody has their opinion about him, because of what he's done," she says. "That will always be there. But he made a mistake, and he's paid his dues. He's paid so much. And I know that's not a place he would ever want to go back to. And sometimes people need support and encouragement, instead of ridicule and criticism and bashing."
Sure, I say. But that's not your job, right? You don't have to be the one to do that.
For the first time, she looks at me dead-on. "Wait," she says. "You think I'm here to rehabilitate Chris? No, no, no. That is not my purpose. Trust me. I could have done that from the jump if I thought that was my job. My job was to take care of myself – and I did. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think Chris was ready."
A lot of people want to believe that, I say. They're just worried about you.
"I know," she says, calmer. "And trust me – it makes me feel great to know that people care. I guess it's just something that will show with time. There's nothing I could say that would convince you right now. But we're in a great place. And I can't ever see us going back."
What if it looks like you might be?
"Listen," she says. "I'll tell you right now: I don't have to take it. If he gives me that again, here's what I give him: nothing. I just walk away. He doesn't have that luxury of fucking up again. That's just not an option. I can't say that nothing else will go wrong. But I'm pretty solid in knowing that he's disgusted by that. And I wouldn't have gone this far if I ever thought that was a possibility."
Rihanna knows what people think. That she's a statistic, she's a cliché, she's naive, she's deluded, she's a classic victim. And maybe they're right. But that doesn't mean she's a pushover, and that doesn't mean they should mistake her love for weakness. "I could never identifywith that word, 'weak,' " she says. "I couldn't have come out of this if I was weak. No way."
It's getting colder now. The sun has set. Inside the girls are still chatting, and Rihanna goes to get dressed for rehearsal.
"I know her," her mom, Monica Fenty, tells me. "I'm very proud of her. She has her head on straight. I have to let her make her decisions, and I can only sit back and hope and pray for the best. But that's something that amazes me about her: her ability to make the right decision."
A couple of days earlier, at dinner, Rihanna was talking about her old house, the one with the pool that looked like a lake, and how she knew it was time to let it go. "It was just too many problems," she said. "It had leaks. It got a lot of mold. Literally every two weeks there was something else coming up. I got so many clear signs that I was supposed to get it off my hands, and I just didn't. I didn't want to. I really loved it. I put a lot of thought into it and the design of it; I made it mine. But finally it got to the point where it wasn't livable at all, and I needed to sell it."
"That sucks," I'd said, not really thinking – it just felt like one of those things you say. But she stopped and looked at me in a way that made my throat catch.
"No," she said firmly. "It didn't suck. It was fine. Because I wanted to do it, but I didn't know if it was the right thing. But then I did, and I was like,'Yes. Good. Gone.' "
This story is from the February 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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