|HOMO HOMINI LUPUS
"The US Mail is entirely TOO accessible," John was wearing an unusual-for-him scowl as he tossed a thick cream-colored envelope onto the table, its contents spilling out.
"An invitation to join the Quill Club," I scanned the letter. "Congratulations, that's pretty…elite. Who recommended you?"
"No one who knows me particularly well," John said, frowning.
Right. John Winter, defender of the common man, was not exactly the Exclusive Club type, was he?
Except, of course, for our very exclusive club of two. Of which he was president, you know.
(And I'm the king.)
"The Quill Club isn't the worst of them," I commented.
"The Club isn't just restricted in theory, Tris," John said, still glaring slightly at the letter. "It's restricted in practice. And as I recall, the current Chancellor" (he couldn't seem to help a facial expression somewhere between a smirk and a grimace here) "is none other than your not-exactly-favorite…"
"Corbin Spengi?" I grabbed the letter. "Let me see that." I looked at the letter again. "John? Does he seem to be…crawling out of the woodwork more these days?"
"The woodwork…the swamp…something like that," John said.
"Well, that just about seals off any chance for my membership, doesn't it," I said brightly. "Gee. That hurts."
John gave me a half-smile.
"But you can still join," I pointed out. "I mean, you're in the Inner Circle and I'm not."
"It's not that I won't do anything without you, Tris, first of all. And second, you could certainly be in the Inner Circle if you wanted to obey its by-laws. As I recall, there was a certain unpleasant incident involving Howard Wei-"
"One of us in the Inner Circle is enough," I interrupted hastily before I could be reminded of what really had been a simple accident, and could have happened to anyone.
(How was I to know Howard had a rare iguana allergy?)
"So you're going to rip it up?" I asked, still handling the envelope.
"Come on, Tris," John said good-naturedly. "What would that teach anyone?"
"Ah, silly me." I handed him back the envelope. "You're going to write them a letter and explain why you're turning them down. Enlighten them? Tell them off?" I asked, maybe a bit too eagerly.
"Well." John turned the envelope over in his hands, frowning slightly. "Some people aren't enlightenable, as we both know, but that's no excuse for not trying, is it?"
"Of course not," I agreed. "John…do you think this…do you think Corbin's back in society? So to speak," I corrected quickly. I don't really know from society, you know? I only own one pair of non-fleece gloves and they're, um, not exactly the kind you'd wear to Cotillion. They're more the kind you'd…
"Why?" John interrupted my blushing. "Have you heard something?"
"No. Just…curious, I guess. So…you're going to write a letter?" I tapped the envelope.
"Certainly. Not saying anything at all would be…"
"Honorable?" I kidded.
John grinned. "About as honorable as silence usually is. Silence is -"
"Silence is ugly," I cut him off. "Silence is death."
John tapped the top of my head lightly with the offending envelope. "That's right; they don't call you Speaks-Your-Mind Cates for nothing."
"They don't call me that," I objected.
"Well, I know that, darling," John said with a smile. "But what they actually call you isn't really suited for polite discussion, is it?"
* * *
"Tris, can I call you back in -"
"Corbin's here, John." My voice sounded strange to my own ears. Hollow.
"Hold on," he said, a double meaning as only John can make and I tried to. I really did.
We sipped hot lemon-water and watched the crowds walk by, huddled in the corner of Manger a few blocks from the office.
"Glen's moving upstairs," I recounted the facts dully. "Your old desk, John. And Corbin…"
"I can't work with him, John." I wrapped my fingers around the mug. They were trembling and the warmth of the liquid soothed them. A little.
Then John's hand was on mine, gently loosening it on the hot cup and wrapped both of my hands in his.
"John…" my voice barely sounded familiar. "What am I going to do?"
* * *
I clutched the terrace railing that night, stared out over the water, past the twinkling bridge lights.
Corbin was out there now, quietly invading my universe, making me choose.
Me, who hadn't done anything.
…but would end up paying the price anyway.
"What are you doing?"
I didn't turn around. "Thinking."
"Tris, it's too cold for that kind of thinking." John materialized next to me and put an arm around my waist. "Back inside. Come on."
I gripped the railing with one hand. "I do my best thinking out here."
"Not when it's thirty-one degrees," he said more firmly. I let him tow me inside, stopping to lock the terrace door with a decisiveness I didn't particularly care for.
"Listen to me," he said, somewhat unnecessarily since I was already doing so, and with a fair level of wariness too.
I dropped obligingly onto the couch, shivering a little. He tossed me the chenille throw from the ottoman. "Tris, I'm not going to let you destroy yourself making this decision."
"I don't want to make it!" I snapped back.
He exhaled shortly. "Sweetheart. I know you don't and I wish you didn't have to, but you do."
"You make it if you're such an expert," I tried to spit the words out but I choked somewhere in between, and before I could blink John was beside me and I was in his arms. It was much warmer there. John beats even chenille, any day.
I spoke into his neck. "You can't make this go away, can you." There was no question mark there, and John knew it.
"I can't, babe." He rubbed my shoulders, his strong fingers digging into the tense spots, loosening my muscles. "And you can't either, but you can start to fix it - and to heal - when you make your choice."
"I can't do it, John," it hurt to talk about it. Hurt almost too much. "I can't. Every time I…God, John, it's like tacit approval to stay there and I can't. Do it. I can't!"
He kept rubbing silently, letting his hands speak for him.
"And it's not fair." I knew the tears weren't far from starting. "I love the Sun, John, you know I love it. Ten years! But I can't let him…I can't…"
I drew closer to him, curling my legs across his lap. The words over, I was satisfied for now to be stroked and warm, to try to force the more unpleasant thoughts away.
Except John didn't put up with denial. Or abdication of responsibility. Or any of the simpler solutions to this sort of problem.
It was one reason why I loved him and, at this moment, also a reason I wanted to strangle him.
Except I couldn't live with someone I didn't respect.
And I couldn't put my life into the hands of someone who wasn't…well…who wasn't John. It's not that he's perfect. Far from.
But he's good, my John.
And simple as that might sound, it's a pretty rare thing.
* * *
I was feeling less forgiving of his nobility when he ordered me off the terrace in a rather imperious manner the next evening.
"You're early," I scowled at him.
"And you're skating on thin ice," he replied, sliding the door shut. I winced; when John pulls out the clichés, I know we're heading nowhere good. "In fact, you're standing on thin ice. Clean up that water, please," he said, frowning at the puddles my shoes left on the living room floor.
"I would have wiped my feet if you hadn't dragged me off the terrace! You clean it!"
Not the wisest comment for the situation, probably.
I blotted the water up, blinking back tears, then took the hand John offered - somewhat reluctantly - and let him tug me into the living room.
"What are you doing?" I drew my hand back.
"I'm sorry. I thought it was obvious." John pulled me off balance and into his lap, which was actually rather nice although I wasn't going to tell HIM that. I leaned against him; I was chilled, after all, and his sweater was warm and soft. "We're going to talk about when you're going to make this decision, and then I'm going to spank you, and then we're going to poach some chicken for dinner, and then -"
"Okay, you can stop now, before you get to planning our retirements." I scowled and he kissed me around the protruding lip.
"About your decision, Tris…"
"You said it was mine to make!"
"I did and it is. But the timeline is mine."
"No, Tris. You're not going to make yourself crazy over this. I won't let you."
"I can't help it!"
"Maybe not, but I can. Three days, Tris."
"What? I can't decide in three days!"
"You've been eating yourself up for too long now."
"John. My career's on the line here!"
"And your life's on the line here," he said, and as often when he says something crucial, his voice was achingly quiet.
I closed my eyes. "Okay…" I mumbled, and slid off his knee.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I said okay!"
"I know you did." He tugged me back to him by my belt loops, a rather irritating habit of his. I really have to remember to buy pants with smooth waistlines. "But we're not finished here."
"It's not fair to spank me for stressing out," I said appealingly, but didn't convince even myself, really.
"I'd never spank you for stressing out." John gestured at my khakis and I glared at him, then none too quickly started unleashing my braided belt.
"Well, that's what it seems like," I muttered.
"Does it really?" John asked conversationally as I pushed my pants down with no enthusiasm and took the hand he offered me.
I felt like sticking my tongue out. No, of course it didn't REALLY seem that way, but what did he expect from me?
"It's too cold for terrace meditation, Tris. I told you that."
"I do my best thinking out there," I tried again lamely.
He rested a hand on my hip. "If you need to think so hard that you'd disregard the freezing winds and put your health at risk, then you need to rethink your thinking priorities."
I shook my head a little to clear it. "Huh?"
John smiled suddenly, his beautiful Crest ad smile, catching me off guard. "Come here, you." He drew me over his knees, squeezing me around the waist on the way down.
"Three days, babe." He lowered my shorts, lifted my shirt out of the way. I wriggled a bit. "And if you disobey me about the terrace again, I'm going to get the door child-proofed."
"I can open child-proof doors, John," I pointed out, even though I usually refrain from disagreeing with him in this position.
"Yes, well." He rested a warm hand on my exposed skin. "Getting it Tris-proofed would be terribly expensive…not to mention difficult to find a handyman tricky enough."
I tried hard not to smile, then my mouth twisted into a grimace as his strong hand slapped down firmly. I closed my eyes tightly, giving in to the warm wool weight of the familiar arm across my bared lower back, the familiar feel of his thighs under me and the all-to-familiar sting of his hand across my backside, the sting, the flooding heat.
"My decision, your schedule!" I yelped, as requested, then sighed with relief as John rested the palm he'd been vigorously exercising and rubbed circles on my back instead.
Cross-training. Typical John. He likes the benefit of exercising individual muscle groups in turn.
I breathed slowly, calming down a bit. I considered some very different muscle groups we could put to work later tonight.
Because odd as it sounded, considering that I was in considerable discomfort, I was suddenly flooded with purpose.
Three days. I had three days.
John righted me and I wrapped my arms around him tightly. "Thanks," I said, even though I hadn't quite stopped crying yet. It was the kind of relief only John can give me, the leveling out of the worst bumps, the resolution to get through when we work together.
It was my decision. It was on his schedule.
It was our life.
* * *
I sat up in bed, wincing only a little, and pushed the covers off.
"What about having class?" I slapped on the light switch on my side of the bed.
"For the record…class is never synonymous with sitting by while injustice happens," John said calmly, flicking the light off from his side and rearranging the covers over both of us. It was my third sit-up since we'd gotten into bed.
"Some people call that class!"
"And some people call 6th Avenue, Avenue of the Americas, but that doesn't mean they're right. Or logical, or even decent. Tris…sleep."
He held out his arms and I settled into them.
* * *
"I can't do this." I lay on the couch, most of me on John, his solid weight comforting underneath me.
"Okay then. I don't decide. I let it go. How's that?"
"Is it you?"
"I don't know; why can't it be?"
"Because I know you," John said quietly. "I've known you for ten years, I've lived with you for six, and we wouldn't have this," he gestured around, "if you weren't that sort of person. I know you, Tris."
I blinked, didn't respond.
"You're not a silent person. You stand up, you stand behind, you STAND, Tris. And you know how much I respect that about you."
I did know.
I glared. "It's not fair."
"It's not," he agreed. "So…let's take your friend's question. Which would you rather? To be right, or to be happy?"
"Neither!" I exploded. "I want NOT to have to make this decision!"
John laced his fingers through mine. "See, I do know you. I know that no matter how upset you are, you'd never split an infinitive."
I sniffed. "Even if I felt…badly?"
John poked me in the ribs and I smiled in spite of myself. "My ears, my ears," he moaned.
"Sorry." I subsided against him. "John, I don't know what to do…"
He brushed my hair out of my eyes. "You'll make the right decision, Tris."
"How do you know?"
"I told you, I know you. And I trust you."
"I really, really hate this."
I blinked tears out of my eyes. "I…do know what to do."
"But why do people suck so much?"
John sighed. "Homo homini lupus."
I could feel him shrug under me. "Sorry. My Top Handbook says I'm supposed to pull out the Latin during tough situations. You know, to make a really Toppy point."
"How very Hobbesian of you." I paused. "Any more advice to offer?"
"Ubi sub ubi?"
"That is NOT what you said the other night," I reminded him.
"Well, for special occasions…"
"I love you," I said suddenly. "Amo, amas, amat and all of that."
"And I love you."
I sighed. "Then why can't we just fix this?"
John pressed his lips to my temple briefly. "What do I always tell you?" he asked gently, no accusation in his voice. I knew what was coming, but I wanted to hear it again anyway.
Which he knew.
Which is one of the thousand reasons he's pretty damned amazing.
"If I could fix it, I would," he said, the words as familiar as his voice. "If I could make everyone in the world do what would make us happy, I would. But I can't. I'm here for you, though…"
For anything I need, and for anything we can do together. I know the rest.
* * *
"But I met you at the Sun." I twisted the tail of my shirt in two fingers. That's one problem with home phones these days, no cord to fumble with when you need fumble-fodder. My stomach was coiled enough for all of Bell Atlantic, though.
John untangled my fingers gently, folded them through his. I stared very hard at his socks. He was silent for a moment.
Then, "Come and look what I found today."
I let him lead me by the hand into the little room, where he'd taken down one of our photo boxes.
I dropped onto the daybed. "What is it?"
He placed a photograph in my hand.
"Oh my God," I said immediately. "That hair!"
John grinned. "Right. It would be another few years before you got hair-product veto power."
I shook my head. "I should have offered it then as an act of public service."
John rolled his eyes. "I don't recall the early 90s being a particularly fashionable time for you either…"
Huh. He had a point.
Hairstyles aside, it was a great picture and I had no memory of its being taken. There was the newsroom, looking - well, pretty much the same, except for the old beige telephone system, these days sleeker and blacker. Our Macs were Apples then, but John still looked positively Johnish in his picture, only half-looking at the camera, a pencil behind his ear, holding a legal pad in one hand and making his classic "Get on that right now!" gesture with the other.
(Sometimes I think he misses making that gesture! So I let him do it in private.)
I don't think John knew the picture was being taken. I'm on the other side of the shot, laughing, with a female hand on my arm that I assume is Mel's. I wish her head had shown up in the picture; I remember she had HUGE hair back then and I could have used some blackmail material…
"That was my first year." I handed the picture back to John.
He smiled. "I know."
"I thought it was this incredible place - I guess it was, then…"
John watched me, not saying anything, one hand on my shoulder.
"Tempora mutantur," I said, shaking my head.
John ruffled my hair. "And how."
* * *
"Tris…" Glen stood beside my desk, shifting uncomfortably. "Can't we all work together?" But he sounded resigned.
"No," I said honestly. Then I sighed, feeling sorry for him. "Glen, you know this is different."
He suddenly became very interested in the budget list on the corkboard behind my desk. I barely heard him say "Yeah, I know," but he did say it.
Part of me would have liked to wait until the office emptied out to pack up and leave; another part didn't want to leave under cloak of darkness…and the third, sensible, part knew that the newsroom never actually emptied out.
And so, packed bag slung over my shoulder, I paused, my hand on the door I'd opened and closed so many times over the years.
"Why do some people suck so much?" I'd griped last night. "And why do WE have to be the ones who don't? It's not a fair setup, John! Some people get to do rotten things, and we get to clean it up? I just don't get it."
"You do get it, or you wouldn't be able to verbalize it like that, Tris. You just don't like it…which is completely reasonable."
"We sit in the car on line for the toll, and one stupid SUV cuts everyone off. And doesn't even have E-Z pass! While everyone else sits there! What makes that one person able to do that? If everyone did it, there'd be anarchy. But as long as most people do the right thing, a few bastards can get away with sucking. And they know it."
"It's unfortunately true. But you can pull your car out, Tris. You can cut everyone off. Or you can do what you know is right. It's always your choice. It's just that some people make…well…sucky ones. But it's always your choice to take a stand. And yes, as we both know, NOT making a choice is a choice too."
I pushed the door open and let it swing shut behind me.
The wind was cool on my face as I crossed the wide avenue. My cell buzzed against my pocket and I checked the caller display before flipping it open.
"You really did it, hm?"
"I really did," I said. The words tasted good, somehow.
"Nolite te bastardes carborundorum," Mel said.
I grinned in spite of myself. "Never."