YOUNG MAN’S FANCY
By Hedeia


“‘Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were…’” I paused, then closed the book firmly for emphasis.  “See? I just don’t understand the appeal.  But there you go…he’s probably just caught in Scarlett’s charms.  Like the Tarleton twins.  And look what happened to them!”

We were curled around each other on the blue chair, four legs entangled on the ottoman.  Technically, I suppose, the chair was intended for one person, not two good-sized, full-grown men, but John and I had spent years perfecting furniture-sharing – beds, chairs, couches, some particularly memorable episodes on tables…you name it, we shared it.  What can I say? We liked being close.  And as winter chugged along, melting its way slowly into spring, we conserved body heat and kept our thermostat charges down with intense, studied snuggling.

Oh, but I’m not complaining.  Believe me.

“John.” I nudged him.  “It’s literary proof.  Your favorite kind.”

“Tris, I’m not sure how relevant the book is,” John said mildly, shifting both of us slightly.  He had that my-legs-are-falling-asleep look about him.  You can’t snuggle in the blue chair too long without getting pins and needles, but some things are worth a little discomfort.  

“It’s relevant.  He calls him Scarlett for a reason, doesn’t he?  And I have to say, I think that’s kind of weird.  Scarlett…I don’t know…” I trailed off.  “I can’t believe you got to meet him,” I finished, unable to keep a trace of envy out of my voice.

“I bumped into them,” he reminded me.  “It was a coincidence.  And you’ll get to meet him on Thursday; we’re having dinner with them—yes, I DID tell you,” he said when my face registered shock. 

“I guess I blocked it out,” I muttered.

John sighed, then shifted us again until I was mostly on top of him.  He wrapped both arms around me, leaned back in the chair and sighed.  “Tris…you’re being very Gemini again…I thought you DID want to meet him?”

“I do.  I think.  I don’t know…did you like him?”

“I only met him for a minute or so,” John said patiently.  “Just like I told you the last few times you asked.  But Dana seems to like him.”

“Yeah, well.”

John swatted me lightly and hoisted me partway off his lap with a grunt.  “Come on, cranky.  Up.  I’m starting to lose all sensation below the waist.”

“Well, we can’t have that now, can we?”  I purred, wriggling to face him and pressing my lips to his.  I gave him an exploratory kiss. Mmm. Expedition successful.  Call me Champlain.

John fended me off gently.  “Up if you don’t want to cause permanent damage,” he warned and I heaved myself off the chair with a heartfelt sigh.  It was almost SPRING.  This kind of season does things to a man! 

John rose to his feet and cracked his neck pointedly.  “I’m getting too old for this.”

“John!”

“Let’s just move it somewhere slightly more comfortable,” he said soothingly.  “More conducive to two bodies that are no longer twenty years old.”

“How about a rest home?” I snarked. 

He stared without answering for a moment, then swatted me with blinding John-speed and John-accuracy.  I yelped but it was drowned out by his mouth as he tipped me backward, apparently bent on convincing me of his youth and virility.

Not that I had ever questioned it.

But I wasn’t going to complain about the demonstration, either.

Ah, Spring.

* * *

We ended up tangled up on the bed afterward, and I was falling asleep quite comfortably cuddled against John, more than a little tired from the exertion (maybe I WAS getting old?), when my beloved pragmatist broke through my haze of satisfaction with a distinctly UNromantic request that I go brush my teeth and put on pajamas. 

SOME people think sleeping in the buff is normal.  SOME people even find it sexy!  But not John “staying warm is key to staying healthy” Winter.  No, he requires nightclothes made of some sturdy, FDA-approved, flame-retardant material like flannel.  Or fleece.  Or steel wool.  Not that the bulky pajamas he insisted on got in the way when he was in the mood…

…thank goodness.

Cates, WHAT is the matter with you?  I asked myself as I brushed my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror, happily still naked as a jaybird.  Here I was with nothing but the nasty on my mind, and I was spouting clichés left and right, too.  Ack!  There went another one.

There was no doubt about it.  The vernal equinox might be a few weeks away yet, but around here there could only be ONE explanation.

Spring had sprung.

* * *

I was wearing my blue fleece pajama bottoms, engaged in a search for the top.  “John?”  I looked up, only to be hit in the face with the other half of my PJs as John tossed it to me.

Tops.  What can you do with them?

“Sorry, honey.”  He untangled it from my face.  I unbuttoned it and then paused, glancing at John. 

“Do you really trust this Scarlett guy? Do you think he’s good for Dana?”

“Tris.  I met him for two minutes.  I don’t even know him.”

“Exactly!  That’s my point!  We don’t know him.”

John nodded.  “I’m going to go brush my teeth now, darling.  Come and get me if you feel like making sense.” 

Very funny. 

Encouraged by the invitation, though, I lounged against the bathroom doorjamb and watched John brush his teeth.

Surely watching such pedestrian hygienic activity shouldn’t be a turn-on?

I mean, especially in a not-that-young-anymore man who’d already performed, if I do say so myself, quite impressively less than an hour before?

I resisted the urge to pounce on him with a mouthful of Crest.  Spring was going to wear us out if we kept this up.  After all, we’d already experienced joy in the morning earlier today, and only the thirty blocks between our offices had kept us from attempting afternoon delight.  Surely this wasn’t normal!

It was fun though.

I grabbed John and treated myself to a refreshingly minty kiss. 

“Tris…are you all right?”  He peeled me off.

“I just can’t resist baking soda and peroxide,” I confessed. 

“You’re very good for an old man’s ego,” he said, knotting damp fingers in my hair and kissing me thoroughly.  “But I have to admit, I’m exhausted…can we save it for the morning?”

“You’re NOT old,” I sulked. 

“Tris, it’s March already.  Only a few weeks and I’ll be—”

I put a hand over his mouth.  “You’re only as old as you feel.  How old do you feel?” I asked, running my other hand slowly across his chest, down the firm expanse of his belly…

“Right now? About fourteen,” he growled, then grabbed me and executed an impressive caveman maneuver that ended up with both of us clear across the room on the bed.

We weren’t going to be getting much sleep for a while.

* * *

“Are you putting something in the water?” John asked sleepily an hour or so later, brushing the hair out of my eyes.  I shifted a little, wrapping my leg around him.

“It’s the weather.”

“Damp?”

“Nooo…springy.  Almost spring.”

“If this is almost spring, I don’t know if I can make it to April.”

“We’ll work on building up your stamina,” I assured him. 

“Is that a threat or a promise?”  He ran a hand down my back, then pinched me gently.  “Put some clothes on so we can go to sleep, unless you want to spring something else on me.”

It was tempting.  But I crawled off him reluctantly and went in search of my pajamas.  How was I supposed to get dressed in a timely manner when my clothes ended up tossed all over the room?

Again, NOT that I was complaining.

I just didn’t feel much like complaining tonight.

“NOW can we go to sleep?”  John asked, pulling the comforter around us both and reaching to turn off his light. 

“Wait!”

He paused, hand on the switch. “What?”

I shrugged, not ready to call it a day yet.  (There I went again.  Cliché after cliché.  My editor was going to kill me if John and my nighttime activities didn’t do it first…)

“How was your day?” I asked sweetly.

“It was fine.”

“You didn’t tell me anything about it!”

“We didn’t have much time to talk about our days, sweetie,” he pointed out.  “You interrogated me about Dana and Scarlett for a while, then quoted Margaret Mitchell, and then attacked me – not,” he said quickly, “that I’m complaining.”

I smiled in spite of myself. “You’d better not be.”

He kissed my nose.  “Or what?”

I didn’t think either of us could withstand a third time, so I rolled over to his side, reached across him, and flicked out his light.  “Or nothing,” I said, curling up on him. 

“Mmm.”  He stroked my hair.  I love the sounds he makes when he’s falling asleep.

“I told you about the crocus, right?” He asked me, voice heavy with near-sleep.

“What crocus?”

“I saw a crocus in the courtyard this morning…I thought I told you…” he was fading fast.  The “courtyard” of course is the strip of grass in the alley between our building and the one behind it, but “courtyard” sounds better than “random poorly planned strip of land,” don’t you think?  It grows, for the most part, beer bottles, gum wrappers, dandelions in the summer, and, as winter turns into spring, the most exciting part of the changing seasons, the herald of a new era, the prophet Elijah of the messianic springtime sunshine…

“The first crocus?”  I sat up, yanking John with me.  “You saw the FIRST CROCUS and you didn’t tell me?”

“I thought I told you…I meant to tell you…you were very distracting tonight, sweetheart.”  John tried to lie back on his pillow but I had a grip on his shirt.

“I have to see it.  Let’s go see it.  What color was it?  Where was it?”

“We’re not going to go see it.  It’s the middle of the night.  Pale blue and about a foot behind the lamppost…can I go back to sleep now?”

“No, I want to see it…please, John…”

”It’s too late,” he said, pulling me against him.  “We’ll go look in the morning.”

“It’s not even eleven o’clock yet!” I pointed out, affronted.  “It just seems later because of all our…activity.”

“Tris…it’s dark and cold…”

“It’s dark and cold at four p.m. too and we still go out then!  Please,” I begged.  “Pretty pretty please…with a cherry on top…”  I stopped, horrified.  “John, look what you’ve done to me!” I cried.  “I’m regressing!  ‘Pretty pretty please?’ Next I’ll be saying ‘It’s a free country’ and giving you cootie shots…” I trailed off.

“No more sugar for you,” John said, kissing my forehead.  “You’re entirely too hyper.  All right, we might as well put your energy to use…I suppose…but we’re having an early night tomorrow, kiddo.”

“Yes, John,” I said dutifully, lunging for my shoes.

He really is a good sport, my John.

* * *

I flew at him in the elevator and hugged him tightly.  “The first crocus…I can’t believe it…”

He gave me a squeeze and disentangled me.  “Behave.  We look suspicious enough.”

Honestly.  John can be SO conservative.  We WERE wearing coats over our pajamas!  We were wearing shoes!  And we each had a flashlight.

Perfectly natural.  And we paid GOOD maintenance money for our co-op and I saw nothing wrong with doing a little garden checking at 11 at night.  Perfectly natural.  Perfectly civilized.  I smiled at a woman walking her dog along our corner, making sure not to make too much eye contact.

That, unfortunately, would NOT be natural.

We walked in a very civilized manner to the courtyard, only to find that the crocus was harder to locate at night than we’d expected.  John crouched over a patch of damp grass, careful to keep the tail of his trench coat out of the mud, balancing on his heels and aiming the flashlight as he searched for the flower.  I could hear him mumbling to himself.  “Six years…and people ask me how we keep the romance alive…”

I kissed his head from above.  “I love you.”

“I know,” he said teasingly.  “And I can’t blame you…”

“John!”

“I love you too.  Would I be doing this if I didn’t?” he asked pointedly, waving his flashlight around the darkened alley.

“No, I guess not…”

“Found it!” 

“Where?”  I yelped excitedly, then dropped onto my knees next to him, then leapt back to my heels as the wet soil soaked into my pants. 

Oops.

I eased back onto my knees (if the pants were ruined, they were ruined!) and with one finger touched the crocus gently, reverently.

It was pale blue, bordering on lilac, standing straight and lovely under the dual assault of our flashlight beams.

It was nearly glowing.

It was SPRING.

Something twisted inside of me.  Or maybe it was something UNtwisting, something that had been quietly waiting and hurting during these long, cold months, purpling my prose and lengthening my face.  “John,” I whispered.

He kissed my cheek, face against mine.  “Pretty, isn’t it?”

It was that.  And so much more. 

I stared, wishing I could figure out what I felt. 

After a few moments John spoke.  “Come on.  Let’s get you out of those muddy pants,” he said affectionately, ruffling my hair with his still pristine hand.  “And to SLEEP,” he said firmly when I perked up at his words.  “You couldn’t still be…”

“That’s a very personal question,” I said primly, pulling away. 

He laughed and hooked an arm around my neck, pulling me against him as we walked back to the front of the building.  If the doorman didn’t think we were crazy yet…

“Nothing’s too personal for me, babe,” he assured me, ushering me ahead of him through the glass doors. 

Did I mention how beautiful the crocus was?

The FIRST crocus.

Spring was really coming. I couldn’t believe it.

It took all my self-control, but I managed to wait until we were in the elevator before I pounced on John and kissed him my thank you and my love and all the other feelings that were battling for control inside of me.

I really do love spring.

* * *

“Spring roll?” Dana asked politely, passing the plate.  Thai food.  It was probably Scarlett’s idea.  There’s never much on the menu for me.  And the restaurant was on the east side and I’d been late meeting John at his office and we’d missed the cross-town bus and had to take a taxi and…

Suffice it to say the meal wasn’t starting out too well.

And we were only up to the appetizers.

“No thanks. I can’t eat them,” I said, offering the dish to Scarlett and nobly refraining from tipping its contents into his lap.

“What CAN you eat?” Scarlett asked, with what I swear was a smirk.

“Oh, you know.  Puppies.  Babies.”  I leaned a little closer.  “College students…”

Dana laughed uncomfortably.  John caught my eye across the table and fixed me with a firm look.  I smiled innocence back at him.

I was already NOT a fan of Scarlett.  Word on the street—okay, word from Dana—was that they’d met almost as soon as Dana moved uptown, more or less onto the Columbia campus.  He wanted to check out Morningside Heights, he’d said, see if he could make it living there.  His friend Cath’s roommate had moved out and she had space for him.  It was fun having Dana only a short subway ride away—almost like the first summer we’d met, when he was interning for the Sun.  Only now he was working for a professor with some complicated German name, helping him with his research.  Living up there, surrounded by his friends, we saw him less than we had during the crisis months—but if the quantity of our visits was fewer, the quality was certainly greater.

But then there was Scarlett.

Green-eyed Scarlett, of the journalistic background and lousy Latin grades.  Naturally John was nice to him, but John never has been as good a reader of people as I am.

Okay, he’d probably say he’s not as suspicious as I am, but he’s biased.

Don’t get me wrong; I wanted Dana to be happy.  Just not with someone untrustworthy.  Not again.  And this Scarlett…

“Dana tells us you write for the Spectator,” John said to Scarlett, handing me a satay and just as smoothly whisking away the sauces.

No fun.  I hate eating out.

“Yeah, I really like it.”  Scarlett smiled at John.  Apparently he knew who was worth glomming onto around here.  “You’re at the Manahatta now, right?  I’ve read some of your work…great stuff.” 

AND who was worth flattering.  Well, congratulations to Scarlett.  He’d probably go far in the rat race.  I looked critically at his face.  His eyes were very green, not a touch of hazel, just like Mitchell predicted.  The name Scarlett fit him perfectly, I suppose.  He probably had her track record with men, too. And his lashes were appropriately spiky and black, although – was that clear mascara I saw?!

What a faker.

“Thanks, that’s nice to hear.  Sometimes I miss the grind of a daily paper, though,” John said, winking at me.  I recognized his attempt to draw me into the conversation and ignored it.

“So, Dana, how long have you two known each other again?” I asked pointedly.

“About three months,” Dana said lightly.  “I mean, since we grew up…but then there was camp…”

“Camp?”

“It turns out we went to the same camp in the Catskills for two summers! How funny is that…we were only about nine or ten…but Scarlett remembered.” Dana smiled warmly at him and Scarlett grinned back. 

Ew.

“Do you live in Harlem too?” I asked Scarlett politely.

“Morningside,” Dana corrected me.  “If you’re in the know, you’re supposed to—”

“Morningside, sorry.” I interrupted him.  “Scarlett?” I asked sweetly.

“I live in the student housing,” he said, still looking at Dana.

“Do you have a single?”

John coughed.  “Tris?  Can you pass me the peanut sauce?”

“With pleasure.”  I handed it to him and he caught my hand before removing the china dish from it, then gave my fingers a warning squeeze.

I chose to ignore it.

“It’s such a coincidence that you two managed to meet again.  How did you track him down, Scarlett?”

“Cath introduced us,” Dana said, looking slightly confused.  “I told you that. And then he—”

“Oh, I remember now.  A very happy coincidence.”

Dana shot me a look.  “Yeah…”

“What’s your real name, Scarlett?”

He didn’t take his eyes off Dana.  “Hilary,” he said, without looking at me.

“Hilary?” I asked in disbelief.

Dana forced a laugh.  “I’ve told him we should form a support group for guys whose parents didn’t realize they were giving their sons names that had been taken over by the female community…”

“Hilary Shea,” Scarlett said.  “And what’s YOUR real name?”

“Tristram,” I said with dignity.  “He was a knight of the round table.”

Scarlett grinned, still looking affectionately at Dana.  “I’ll bet you got teased a lot in elementary school.”

I made a face of insincerity at Scarlett, which he wasn’t supposed to see, but he managed to tear his eyes off Dana for a moment and caught my sneer.

Unfortunately John saw it too.

“Would you excuse us for a moment?” John asked politely, pushing his chair back.  “We need to feed the meter.”

“But we took a c—” I broke off.  John was giving me a Look across the table.  “Oh.  Okay.”  I stood up and followed him, trying to ignore the voices we left behind us.

“It takes both of them to feed a parking meter?”  Scarlett stage-whispered.

I knew I hated him.

“Shh,” Dana admonished.  “They’re just very close.”

I snorted to myself, straining to overhear more as John towed me out the door.  We walked a few feet from the restaurant before he stopped and turned to face me, not saying anything.

“What?”  I asked.  “I didn’t do anything!”

He frowned.  “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing.”  He stared at me.  “I just don’t like Scarlett, okay?”

“It IS okay that you don’t like him,” John said.  “But it’s not okay to behave so rudely, especially to Dana’s guest.”

“I don’t like him,” I repeated.

“I understand that,” John said patiently.  “But it’s still no excuse.  He’s Dana’s friend and you need to act as if you have SOME manners.  Surely your mother taught you better than this.”

“My mother threw a vase at your head the first time you met, John,” I reminded him.

“All right.  Well.  That was a poor example.  Surely I taught you better than that, though.”

“I guess.  But I don’t trust him!”

John put a hand on my shoulder.  “Honey.  We can talk about this at home.  I know you’re not happy about it, but just bear up for the rest of the meal, all right?  Behave yourself and we’ll talk later, I promise.”

I shifted tactics.  “I’m cold,” I told him pitifully, wrapping my arms around myself. 

He looked unsympathetic.  And this was JOHN.  He wages war on chills.

“Next time you haul me outside to yell at me, can I at least take my coat?” I persisted.

“Next time I have to haul you outside, we’re going home, and being cold will be the LEAST of your problems.”

Ouch.

“And am I yelling at you?” he asked, eyebrow raised.  It was a rhetorical question really.  John’s not a yeller, never has been.  If anything he gets still calmer when he’s frustrated with me.  I think if I ever did something REALLY horrible he’d probably just get calmer and calmer until he slipped into catatonia. 

“No. I’m sorry.  Can we go back in now? I’m hungry…”

“Tris, I’m serious that we’re leaving if you keep this up.”

“I’ll be good,” I assured him.

“Thank you.”  He put an arm around me. “And it’s fifty-two degrees; you are not cold.”

I leaned against him.  “Can we go home soon?”

“Tris, the main course hasn’t even arrived yet.”

I shrugged.

“Come on.  I’m looking forward to my drunken noodle.  Let’s go.” 

I let him usher me back into the restaurant.  John has this thing about standing back to let me through doors first.  To an outsider it probably looks incredibly polite and genteel – the very essence of John.  I have my suspicions however that it’s rooted in certain incidents in our past.  But bolting AND wandering off were techniques I’d given up on years ago.  They never helped my case much anyway.

“How’s the meter?” Scarlett asked sweetly when we sat down again.

“Just fine, thanks,” I said as politely as I could muster, trying to keep the loathing out of my voice.

The food came and I pushed mine around my plate.  The fun had gone out of eating for me years ago; what I could handle was restrictive and plain and that gave me lots of time at dinner to let my mind wander. 

I caught Scarlett staring at me and gave him my fakest smile. 

Bastard.

* * *

“Can I get up now?”  I called from the bedroom. 

I could hear John shaking out his paper.  “Depends. Are you finished acting like a spoiled brat?”

“Are YOU finished acting like an ogre?”  I countered.

“That answers my question, thank you.  No, you can’t get up.”

Ugh.

I turned over, putting as much flounce into it as I could.  I was BORED.  John had sent me to bed the moment we’d walked in the door, go directly to bed, do not pass Go, etc.  It was barely nine o’clock and I was NOT tired.

“John…” I called again a few minutes later.

“Tris, we’ll talk when you’re feeling more human.  Until then I’d like you to think, please.  Compose your thoughts because when we start talking I’m going to want some answers.”

I pressed my face into my pillow.  He can be so MEAN.

I woke up when the bed shifted under his weight.  He sat down next to me; I rolled over and buried my head in his stomach.

“What’s going on, sweetheart?”  He tangled his fingers in my hair, smoothed it out again, then ruffled it up from the back.  He never can decide.

“Nothing,” I muffled into his shirt. 

“Tris.”

“I don’t like Scarlett,” I said finally.  It was starting to become my rallying cry. 

“I understand.  You do need to behave with basic civility though.  You know that.”

“I know.”

He pulled me up, settling me against him, leaning back against my pillows.  “Why don’t you like Scarlett?”

I shrugged.

“Just not your type?”

I smiled in spite of myself.  “I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

I played with the cuff of John’s shirt where it rested against my stomach.  He gave me a reassuring squeeze.  “I don’t trust him.  I don’t like Dana being involved with him.”

“I’m not sure we’ve really given him a chance yet, hon.”

“Why should we?”  I burst out.  “Look what happened last time!  How can Dana trust any—I mean trust him?”

“Tris, this isn’t a Victorian novel and Dana isn’t your average fainting 19th-century heroine.  And it’s not a Harlequin either, although,” he poked me.  “The last few days around here have been nearly worthy of the new Blaze imprint…”

I couldn’t help chuckling.  A woman John graduated with was an editor at Harlequin, and John loved surprising people by tossing off his unlikely knowledge of the genre.

“You know what I mean,” he continued.  “All that romance novel garbage about one true love…and broken hearts…and never trusting anyone again…waiting around when you’ve been betrayed for a shining knight to save you…” He put a hand over his heart, fainting-heroine style.  “Honey, Dana’s 22.  He’s young, he’s healthy, and he’s just discovered a new part of himself AND learned that admitting that part makes it exponentially easier to meet guys.  He’s not going to sit at home and mourn, and that’s healthy.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Give him some credit, Tris.  He’s a kid.  He got burned.  It happens.  It happened to most of us at one time!  Yes, it was an unusually rotten way to have it happen, but he’s pulling through and he’s the better for it.  So whether or not you like Scarlett and whether or not it works out with him, Dana deserves your faith in him.”

“I do have faith in Dana, John, just not in Scarlett!”

“Well, you don’t have to have faith in Scarlett.  But you do need to consider Dana’s feelings.  He looks up to you.”

“I encouraged him the last time,” I said quietly.

“Oh, Tris.”  He leaned over me for a moment, then chuffed against my hair with a sigh.  “Listen to me.  They didn’t get together because of you and they didn’t break up because of you.  None of it was your fault.  We’ve been over this.  And we’ll go over it as many times as you need, but I want you to hear me.”

“I’m listening.”

“Good.  What happened last year was in no way your fault.  Dana loves you and respects your judgment, which is why he wanted you to meet Scarlett.  But he didn’t bring him to dinner with a ring, Tris.  They’re playing it slow and safe, just like they should be.  And we need to let them enjoy themselves and each other.  I KNOW you think you’re protecting Dana; at least I hope that was your motive because I’ve never seen you treat someone like that without a reason. And it’s inexcusable no matter what, but I understand what pushed you.”

“Still listening…” I said.

“Tris, Scarlett’s not some warrior knight looking to sweep Dana onto his horse and save him.  Dana doesn’t need to be saved – he never did.  Right now they’re just two kids having fun and enjoying each other’s company, and I think they both need that.  So in that way, honey, I DO think they’re good for each other.”

“Why do you keep calling them kids,” I grumped.  “We’re not THAT old.”

He touched his lips to the top of my head.  “Speak for yourself.  You know in a few weeks I’ll be—”

I turned around and kissed him before he could finish the sentence.  It was a very enjoyable few minutes before he drew away, nudging my chin up and kissing along my jaw line.

“Mmm…you make me feel so young,” he sang against my neck, tickling the skin and making me laugh. 

It’s impossible to finish a conversation around here once Spring has sprung.

Not, of course, that I’m complaining…

* * *

Of course, we weren’t the only love-struck pair on the Upper West Side.  That weekend I bumped into another happy couple outside Zabar’s.

We ducked into a nearby coffeehouse to chat.  Dana’s idea, of course. Chatting with Scarlett was right up there on my to-do list with non-anaesthetized dental surgery.

We had to push in past an amorous couple in the doorway who apparently were having trouble breaking apart.  They didn’t let our entrance interrupt their making out.

Gross.

And it made me miss John.

“Ah, spring,” Dana said cheerfully, shooting a glance toward the kissing cousins as we sat down. “When a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…hey, who said that anyway?”

I shrugged.  “It gets re-quoted so often, who knows?  It was probably God.”

Dana giggled. 

“I think it was Tennyson,” Scarlett interjected brightly, instantly doubling my hatred of him.

“And not just love,” Dana observed, “love SONGS.”  He nodded toward the speakers.  Smashmouth’s cover of “I’m a Believer” was blasting un-subtly across the coffeehouse. 

Dana nudged Scarlett, who gave him a private smile. 

Nauseating.

“I like the Monkees’ original better,” I said icily.

“The Monkees rule,” Scarlett said.  “I used to have a crush on Mickey Dolenz.”

“When, in utero?” I snapped irritably.  “Aren’t they a little before your time?”

Scarlett blinked, looking surprised.

“I mean, shouldn’t you be regaling the talents of the New Kids on the Block or something?”

“Give yourself some credit, Tris,” Dana said with a forced laugh.  “You’re not THAT much older than us.”

“Nine years,” I said stiffly.  I looked pointedly at Scarlett.  “That’s a LOT of life experience.”

Dana shot me a sideways glare.  I remembered that I was being a bit rude and decided, VERY nobly, to change the subject.  “So, um, how’s Professor Goebbels?” I asked Dana.

“Goethals,” he corrected.  “Very funny. And he’s fine.”  His face cleared as he discussed it; Dana’s easily distractible if you bring up something he’s enthusiastic about.  “…and I’m going to go with him to present the paper at Harvard next month,” he finished with a smile.

“After we kick their asses in basketball,” Scarlett said with a grin.

“Oh, does Columbia have a team?” I asked innocently. 

Scarlett gave me a strange look. “Yeah…”

“How nice.”

“Do you have something against Columbia, Tris?” Scarlett asked, his tone perfectly friendly.  I resented it anyway.

“Well. It’s just you’ve had an awful lot of scandal recently, haven’t you?  Those professors…pedophilia…murder…” I shook my head.  “Pretty horrible.”

“That was Yale,” Scarlett said, enunciating very clearly.

I shrugged.  “Same diff.”

Scarlett exhaled quickly between pursed lips, a gesture I recognized.  It was one John made when dealing with difficult people…his own personal count-to-10 device. 

But what was Scarlett doing using it?  And to me?

Scarlett interrupted my thought process.  “Gotta run,” he said apologetically.  “Class in half an hour.”  He turned to give Dana a quick peck, but Dana, in a move for which I gave him grudging credit, hooked an arm around his neck and lengthened the peck into something MUCH more unpleasant to watch, but admittedly probably much more pleasant to take part in.

I looked away.

“Nice seeing you again, Tris!” Scarlett tossed off on his way out the door.

“Likewise,” I muttered.

Dana was glaring at me.  Sheesh, the kid must have been taking glaring lessons from John.  Was EVERYONE mad at me these days?

“What?” I asked defensively.

“Can’t you be a little nicer to Scarlett?”

“I didn’t do anything to him!”

Dana rolled his eyes.  “Oh, come on, Tris.  You’ve been on his case since you met.”

I shrugged.  “He’s just a little…”

“A little WHAT?”

I ignored the question.

“Look, Tris, you’re the only one with a problem.  John likes him.  He told me,” Dana said smugly.

John “Benedict Arnold” Winter.  He WOULD like Scarlett.  John likes EVERYONE.

“And Shosanna and Evan and Cath…everyone likes him but you.”

“When did they meet him?”

“Last week, at Shosanna’s Thank God You Didn’t Move to Canada party,” Dana reported.

Hmph.  What did his friends know?  “Yeah, well. They liked…other people too,” I pointed out, knowing he would realize what I meant.

“Not Shoshanna,” Dana replied.  “She hated him from the get-go, remember?”

Arg.  “Look, Dana, I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into…”

“I’m not getting into anything.  I’m…seeing someone, okay?  It’s so not a huge deal.  Take a chill pill.”

“That expression is SO five years ago,” I snapped.  “Did you pick it up hanging around the dorms?”

“Fuck you,” Dana said evenly.

“I wish you’d talk that way in front of John once in a while,” I sulked.  “HE thinks you’re so sweet.”

“I am sweet,” Dana responded primly. 

“If John were here he’d wash your mouth out.”

“I thought he didn’t do that,” Dana said, puzzled.

“He doesn’t.  I mean, he hasn’t.  But he hasn’t heard YOU yet, sailor boy.”

Dana laughed and the mood lightened somewhat.  Thank goodness, because I did NOT want to talk about Scarlett anymore.  He just couldn’t be trusted!  Why didn’t anyone believe me?

Tris Cates was on the case now and I was NOT going to let another November happen to Dana.  Once was enough.
We parted ways at the subway stop.  “I’ll call you Monday,” Dana said, Metrocard in hand, starting down the steps.  “Oh, and Tris?”

I turned around.  “What?”

“By ‘Monday,’ I don’t mean ‘never,’” he said, shot me a mischievous grin, and disappeared down the stairs.

* * *

Unfortunately John didn’t seem to share my protective instinct.  “If Dana noticed you have it in for Scarlett, then you’re probably not being subtle OR courteous, Tris,” he said, refusing to take my side.

He can be SO unfair.

“But Scarlett…there’s something about him,” I said darkly.  “I don’t know.  Maybe he has a criminal record.”

“Tris, he’s a baby,” John said.  “What could he have done in 21 years? Juvie records are sealed anyway.”

“Not if you know someone,” I said.  “Sergeant Callaghan owes me a favor…”

“What are you going to find out, that he stole a pack of Juicy Fruit from Gristede’s when he was five?  Honestly, Tris.”

“Fine,” I muttered.  “But you’ll be sorry if he turns out to be a hardened criminal.”

“No,” John corrected.  “YOU’LL be sorry if you keep giving Dana a hard time about him.”

“But John…”

“Tris.  Just give Scarlett a chance.  I know you’re concerned for Dana but he’s a tough cookie and hassling Scarlett is just going to make him resent you.  So BE POLITE.  Even if you have to fake it.  Got it?”

“Yes Master,” I said, sidestepping his swat out of sheer habit.

But the protective feeling only grew, along with annoyance at Scarlett.  He needed to get OUT of the picture.  John went to his office for a couple hours Sunday—some urgent editing business, for which he was deeply apologetic—and I stayed home, sulking instead of sourcing, or washing the brunch dishes which was technically what I was supposed to be doing.

The bell rang around two—Dana, with a sack slung Santa-style over his shoulder.  The doorman didn’t even buzz him up anymore. 

I swung the door open and found myself suddenly bursting with hostility.  I don’t know what it was—Dana’s face just looked so sweet and happy and I couldn’t bear thinking of what Scarlett was going to do to him.

“I’m surprised you’re not washing your clothes at Scarlett’s,” I snapped in greeting. “Doesn’t he have a machine in his psycho single?”

Dana had an open invitation for laundry at our apartment ever since he’d moved uptown.  I loved having the machines in our apartment—two years ago we’d splurged on them, forgoing a vacation and some extras that year, but it turned out to be more than worth it.  I never once missed slogging to the basement of our building schlepping piles of clothing, Tide, dryer sheets, and seven pounds of quarters.

“He does NOT have a psycho single,” Dana said sharply.

I shrugged.  “If you say so.”

“What’s your beef with Scarlett, Tris? I don’t get it.” 

“I don’t like him.  What’s to get?”

“You never gave him a chance!”

“Yeah, well, remember what happened the last time I gave one of your prize heifers a chance?”

Dana looked away.  “That’s not fair.”

“Then you can find somewhere else to do your laundry, somewhere they approve of your love life.”

“John said I can do my laundry here anytime I want,” Dana said, his voice high and thin.  I felt like a bully.

“Well, John’s not here, is he?”

Dana dropped his laundry sack.  “WHAT is your problem?” 

“Nothing! Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

“Because YOU keep acting like something crawled up your ass and died,” Dana snapped. 

“Don’t let John hear you talk like that,” I mocked.

“John’s not here,” Dana mocked back.  “You’re going to have to think for yourself.”

I didn’t feel like a bully anymore.  I’d forgotten Dana could give as could as he got. 

“I do think for myself,” I said, my voice starting to shake.

“Yeah, silly me.  If you thought like John you wouldn’t be acting like such an asshole.”

“Get out.”

“I was just on my way.  And you can get off your high horse, Tris, because you are in WAY over your head.”

“Pick a cliché.  You’re not making any sense.  Why don’t you call Scarlett and get his expert Ivy League advice?”

His face darkened.  “You can suck my—”

“Tris?”  John walked into the living room, set his briefcase down gently by the coat hooks.  “What’s going on here?”

“I was just leaving,” Dana said; shouldering his laundry bag, he pushed past me.  The apartment door closed with a click.

John turned to me, face bewildered but calm. “Tris?”

“What were you saying last night about how Dana isn’t a fragile flower?” I asked shakily.

He didn’t say anything, just put his arms around me. 

I don’t know where he learned it but he always knows the right thing to do.

“He’ll probably call soon.  He’s not into holding grudges,” I told John later that evening, as we finagled dinner out of our refrigerator contents.

And when he DID call I planned to give him a piece of my mind.  As if on command, the phone rang then.  Mouthing a “SEE?” at John, I snatched up the receiver.

“Did you want to finish your sentence?” I inquired into the phone, remembering how he’d spoken to me before storming off.  “Just what part of you did you want me to suck? …. Oh.”  I could feel my face blushing a deep red.  Slowly I handed the receiver to John.

“It’s your mother.”

* * *

“I wish Dana would call.”

“Why don’t you call him?”  We were lounging on the bed, one of John’s arms looped around my shoulders, the other holding “War in a Time of Peace.”  His hands are very strong from all that one-handed reading he does, which of course is both a good and a bad thing.

I shrugged.  “Are you mad at me about your mother?”

He kissed my forehead.  “No.  She thought it was funny.  But that IS why we have caller ID, to avoid situations like that.  Next time, a little forethought please.”

Good thing it wasn’t MY mother.  She would have shit a brick.

“Watch the language,” John admonished, tapping my thigh with his book.

Had I said that out loud?

“I can tell what you’re thinking,” he teased.  “And just because Dana curses like a sailor doesn’t mean you have to.  You ARE supposed to be a bit older and more dignified.”

“Oh, will you get OFF your age kick,” I snapped irritably.

“Hey,” John said, giving my shoulder a gentle shake.  “There’s no call for that.”

He waited.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

He pulled my head down and kissed it.  “You’re calling Dana.”

“YOU said I should cool off first!”

“You’re not cooling, you’re stewing.  Call him.”

“Why should I?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do, because you’re upset about the argument, because you KNOW it’s the right thing to do, and because I said so.”

“You can’t make me,” I challenged, feeling silly about it even as I spoke the words.

“Want to find out?”

Ugh.  I rolled away from him in a huff and grabbed the cordless off my nightstand.  I punched in seven numbers without enthusiasm. 

“Dana?”  I sat on the end of the bed, drawing my knees up and wrapping my free arm around them.  “I’m…yeah, me too,” I said in relief, all my anger from earlier somehow dissipated.  I took the phone to the kitchen and chatted with Dana as I snagged a bottle of water from the fridge.

Being mature sure made me thirsty.

* * *

It wasn’t over, of course.

I WISH stuff got solved that quickly.

Dana didn’t dump Scarlett.

Scarlett didn’t dump Dana.

Dana didn’t hate me either, which was probably good and, according to John, very very tolerant of him.

And I was STILL stuck with the Springtime assignment from hell.

I leaned back in my office chair, dangerously far, propping my feet up on my desk.  It was one of the very few perks of John’s leaving the newsroom.  I could sit in a yoga pretzel on top of my computer monitor and Glen wouldn’t flinch, as long as I turned in my stories by deadline and didn’t get arrested by the mayor’s private security force again.

(which I can EXPLAIN and was SO not my fault)

I clicked the intercom on my phone.  “Bergin.  I need inspiration.”

Mel glared at me from two feet away, where she sat.  “I hate it when you use the intercom,” she reminded me.

Of course. That’s why I did it.  Hello!

For a smart woman, Mel can be kind of slow. 

She also looked kind of green around the gills.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing, but I’m still not switching stories with you.”

“My assignment SUCKS,” I informed her.

“Get over it,” she responded heartlessly. 

But I couldn’t.  I HATE fluff pieces like this one.  “Diverse couples”… “unique New York romances” … blah blah blah. 

Let me start again here.  Perhaps I’m being unclear.

And bitter, because Glen’s on this new kick about how my writing needs to be CLEARER.  “Like crystal, Cates! Think crystal!”

At least I could amuse John by imitating Glen for him at night. 

Glen is NO John.

And my writing is far from unclear, thank you.  NOR is it repetitive.  Glen’s just bitchy lately because his wife has been spending so much time with their decorator and…

Oops.  Did I say that out loud?  Not like me to give in to petty gossip.  Sorry.

But I’m getting distracted.  My point here…oh yes, the assignment.  Continuing his trend of giving me the crappiest stories he can, Glen was making me write a lame lovebird feature for the first day of spring.  Which left me only a couple of weeks to find interesting couples in the city worthy of the pages of the Sun. 

No crime.

No scandal.

No undercover work!

Just…love.

How lame an assignment is THAT?

Meanwhile Mel was chugging along, covering the budget talks, which admittedly weren’t my thing, but at least they were NEWS.

I don’t like writing features.  I’m not a human interest-y kind of guy—it’s not my fault!  Just a personal preference.

“Write it anyway,” Glen had said callously when I attempted—with the utmost respect and dignity of course—to explain to him that this assignment didn’t really suit me.

“Don’t torture Glen,” John had said heartlessly when I pointed out to him the unfairness of the situation.

So I was stuck writing the feature.  God knows I couldn’t afford to lose my job—financially OR mentally!—so pissing off Glen wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Mel, on the other hand…

She didn’t write my paycheck and she didn’t assign my stories.  So I pissed her off regularly, because it kept my days interesting.

This afternoon I was throwing paperclips at her.  Not the most mature thing, maybe, but the sun was shining into the newsroom, Glen was out of the office, and I wasn’t feeling very conscientious.

Mel, sweetheart that she is, put up with it, too.

I’m lucky I’m surrounded by such tolerant people.

“What am I supposed to write about?” I groused to Mel at lunch, over salad bar concoctions at the Korean deli down the block. 

“Interesting couples! I don’t know, how hard can that be?” she asked irritably. 

Sheesh, just because the comptroller wasn’t returning her calls…

“Can I write about you and Josh?” I asked eagerly.

“NO,” she said immediately.  “Please.  Our reunion is fragile enough as it is.”  She winked at me though to soften her words.  I knew it was stronger than she let on.

“Why don’t you write about Simeon?” she suggested.  “A very sweet little girl named Justine gave him some conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day….”

“You’re letting Simi grow up to be a breeder?” I asked in my most scandalized voice.

She shrugged.  “It’s the deviant influence of nursery school.  I’ll have a talk with him.”

“Seriously, Mel…”

“Seriously, I don’t know!  Tris, this is hardly the hardest assignment you’ve ever gotten, what’s the big deal?”

“It’s not news,” I muttered.

“Oh, stop being such a princess and get to work.”

Remember when I said I was lucky to have such sweet, tolerant people in my life?

Cross Ms. Melinda Bergin OFF my list.

* * *

Then again, I might have to cross John off too.

I never thought it was possible for John to lose his patience, but…

“Tristram, you never gave me this much lip about a story back when I was your editor.  WHAT is it about this one?”

“I can’t do it,” I whined shamelessly, batting at the newspaper on the couch with my feet.  The Metro section floated to the floor.

“Stop that.”  John scooped the papers away from my toes, folded them up and deposited them in the recycling bin.

“Hey, I was reading those!”

“In the morning it’s news, at night it’s history,” John informed me with a straight face.

“John!”

“Tris, you don’t read with your toes, and you were making a mess.  Sit up and tell me what’s going on with this story.  And please tell me that you’re not making Glen this crazy at work; HE does have the power to fire you you know…”

“I know.”

He sat down at the end of the couch and flicked on the reading light.  “What is it?”  He caught me under the arms and tugged until my head was in his lap.  I didn’t object.

“I just don’t know what to write about and it’s a stupid assignment.” 

“It sounds like an interesting assignment to me.”

“It WOULD,” I said darkly, staring up at the ceiling.  I didn’t know John back in his cub reporter days, but I can picture all too well the kind of eager, conscientious, I’ll-write-anything positivity he must have radiated.

I probably would have hated him back then.

“Tris, look at it as a learning experience,” he began and I exhaled sharply. 

The famous Tris, Look At It As a Learning Experience speech.  John could take this one on the road, he’s done it so many times.  He could be the next Richard Simmons, motivating the nation to Look at the Big Picture and Keep Things in Perspective.

Also he’s one hell of a dancer.

“Tris? Are you listening to me?”

I hastened to reassure him.

“Honey.  You’ll feel better when you have more of the sourcing under your belt.  Use your imagination.  Have fun with it!  And be thankful there’s little opportunity for getting arrested,” he added.

Sheesh.  Some people never forget anything.

“I don’t want to write about couples.  Didn’t we get enough of that on Valentine’s Day?  Since when is the first day of spring ANOTHER Hallmark holiday of lust?”

“Hey, I don’t remember you complaining about lust on Valentine’s Day, Tris…”

I blushed, remembering.  He had a point.

“Speaking of couples, have you talked to Dana lately?”

“He e-mailed this morning, said he was busy with the project but we’re supposed to have lunch later this week,” I said, then suddenly blinked as it all came into focus.

There should have been dramatic music.  I needed dramatic music.

It all made sense!  I could figure Scarlett out, sort Dana out, keep my job, and keep John happy. 

Tris Cates, you are a genius.

* * *

It took a day or so to formulate my plan.  Meanwhile I met Dana for lunch.  He was carrying a sheaf of papers and spent the first ten minutes bitching about the professor he was working for, but it was good-natured bitching and Dana seemed happy and chatty.  I steered the conversation carefully away from contentious issues (read: Scarlett).  Besides, if my plan went well then soon enough it would all be over.

Still our conversation drifted to my story – and then toward relationships in general.
“I mean, how do you know someone won’t turn out to be totally crazy,” I said, “like, um… you know…”

“James,” Dana said.  “You can say his name, Tris.  It’s not a dirty word.”

Not much.

“And his craziness was no surprise,” Dana said, rolling his eyes.  “Believe me, I’m a LOT more aware of the warning signs now and Scarlett is NO James.”

I glanced at him.  “Is it weird to…?”

“Talk about him?” Dana asked.  I nodded.

“I’m not pretending he never existed,” Dana said.  “That’s not dealing with stuff, Tris.  That’s…that’s the cowardly way out.  The easy one.  Shut out your mistakes and your responsibilities, pretend they never happened, and never face what you did.  That’s not my style. He…happened, you know?  And it sucked.  But he’s a part of my history.”

“A rotten part,” I interjected, unable to help myself.

Dana smiled.  “Yes. A rotten part.  A case of seriously poor judgment on my part, but what can you do?  It’s not like falling for a loser is the dumbest thing I’ll ever do.  It’s not even the dumbest thing I’ve ever DONE,” he clarified.  “Far from the most embarrassing bad judgment, Tris…I mean, I had a pair of fluorescent green high-top sneakers in fifth grade.”

I smiled a little, unwillingly.

Dana leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially.  “And I wore them with bright orange Hammer pants.”

Okay, that did it.  I laughed.

Dana did too.  “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to block him out! We study the rotten parts of history too, don’t we? Y’know, otherwise you repeat it, and all that.  Well, that’s what James is.  An ugly part of my history.  He’s…” Dana paused.  “He’s like the French and Indian War.”

“I was an English major, Dana,” I said.  “You’re going to have to enlighten me here.”

“Okay.”  He leaned forward, folding his arms on the table.  “So.  Wars are lousy and awful and people are miserable and they do terrible things, but we still learn from them and don’t forget about them and they’re still part of history…which part don’t you get?”

“Why the French and Indian War?”

“Oh.  I just kind of like it.”

“Huh?”

“I mean, doesn’t it sound like the French and Indians were fighting each other?”

“I guess so…”

“But they were on the same side, see?”

I shook my head slightly the way you do after a sneeze.  I loved having the old Dana back, the high-energy Dana, the fun Dana, but sometimes he moved too fast for me.

“James is the French and Indian War,” I said slowly, trying to understand.

Dana grinned. “Something like that.”

“And Scarlett?” I asked, breaking my own rule not to talk about him.

Dana looked away shyly, stirring his coffee.  “Time will tell. Right now though…” he blushed.  “He’s the Renaissance.”

* * *

I steeled myself to do it that evening and holed myself up in the kitchen to make the call.  It had to be done, after all.  I needed to find out more about Scarlett.  Look at how HAPPY Dana was lately…I couldn’t let him get burned again.

“Hi, um, is Scar—I mean Hilary—oh, hi, Scarlett.  It’s, um, Tris from—”

“Why are you calling and asking for me?  I’d think from all the comments you made about my psycho single that you KNOW I live alone.”

Oh. Okay. So we were off to a good start.

“Look, I’m sorry about all of that,” I said, trying to keep the reluctance out of my voice.  “You see, I’m working on this story, interviewing different types of couples around the city…”

We arranged to meet at Mariani’s the following day and I tried not to feel like a heel.  I was only trying to help, after all.  I knew what I was doing…right?

John walked in as I hung up the phone.  “Who was that?” he asked casually. 

I jumped guiltily.  Damn, he’d been quick in the shower.  And I knew “No one” would sound suspicious.  “Dana,” I said quickly. 

“Mm.  How is he?”

“Fine. He’s fine.” 

“Everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” I said defensively, pulling away when he reached for me.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“NOTHING!”

“Hey,” he said, voice sharp enough to quiet mine.

“I’m sorry,” I said automatically.  “I just…I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what?” he asked, looking genuinely confused.

“I don’t know!” I snapped.  God, I hate keeping things from him.  I get so mixed up.

“Tris. What’s going on?”

“No-thing,” I repeated, enunciating each syllable carefully.  I headed for the living room and he followed me.  Grr.

“Do you want to tell me what brought on this attitude?” he asked mildly. 

“WHAT attitude?” I snarked, hearing how I sounded and hating it, but not sure how to stop it.  “Sheesh, I forgot I’m not allowed to be in anything but a perfect mood.  Maybe you’d like to leave me over it?”

He moved too quickly for me to figure out what was happening until it was too late.  Before I could catch my breath I was staring at the carpet, gasping to catch my breath. 

“Let’s get one thing straight,” John said crisply above me.  “I don’t care HOW upset you are, you do NOT hold that over my head or throw it in my face.  It is NOT a weapon and it’s disrespectful to me and to our relationship to use it as such.  Do you understand me?”

I kicked.  “Let me up!”

“Not yet,” he said through gritted teeth, reaching under me to unbutton my pants, his movements swift and frustrated.  My slacks and then my shorts were yanked unceremoniously down to my knees. 

“I am NOT James.  I’m sorry that unfortunate mess of a man did what he did to Dana, I’m sorry for how it’s affected you, but I am NOT James, I never have been, and I never could be.  And I will NOT allow his inability to function in this world to damage OUR relationship,” he said firmly.  It wasn’t the first time he’d recited this mantra.  “If the only time you can hear that is when my hand is talking and your backside is listening, then that’s the way we’ll have this conversation until you understand it.”  He punctuated the lecture with sharp smacks.  The sting built quickly and I cried out.

“You can consider this fair warning,” he continued.  “Leave is now a four-letter word and this is exactly how we’re going to deal with it when you toss it off in that rude manner.  Understood?”

“Yes!” I yelped.

“Do I treat you or this relationship with that kind of disrespect?”

“No,” I answered automatically, but it was heartfelt too.  I guess he heard it because after a few more solid smacks he stopped and lifted me to sit on his lap.  I maturely refrained from howling as my heated rear made contact with the hardness of his thighs.  He held me firmly by the shoulders.  “I’m very serious about this, Tris,” he said.

Yes. He’d made that impression quite well, thank you.

“I know. I’m sorry,” I said quietly, scrubbing moisture out of my eyes.  “Really.”

He nodded and helped me readjust my pants, then pulled me back down against him.  We held each other in silence for a few moments.

“What was that about?” he asked finally.

Arg.  “I had lunch with Dana,” I said.  Well, it was true!  “We were talking about…James and stuff. I don’t know…” I trailed off. 

John sighed and kissed my forehead.  “Tris, if you need reassurance or want to talk, you know I’m here.”

I blinked guiltily.  “I know that.”

“It’s not the topic, darling.  You can talk to me about anything.  But we’re not going to make light of this issue.  All right?”

I cuddled against him.  “Yeah.”

* * *

The guilt stayed though.  I was trying that night to toss and turn in an unobtrusive way, but of course John is a master of detection.  He rolled over in bed and put a hand on my forehead.  “What’s the matter?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t feel great.” 

He moved his hand to touch my stomach.  “All right?” he asked gently, sort of our code for “Are you going to toss your cookies on our nice down comforter?” 

I nodded.  Years of practice; the tremors help me predict when the quake is going to come.

He kissed my forehead.  “Turn over, sweetie.”  I did, burying my head in my pillow as John slipped a hand under my pajama top to rub my back.  Slow circles, pressure toward the small of my back.  We’ve perfected this dance over the years, but he’s always had a natural touch.  My stomach settled a bit and my eyes grew heavy.

The green alarm clock numbers flicked over from 1:16 to 1:17.  I saw this very clearly as I lurched out of bed and hurtled toward the bathroom.  John was on my heels, perhaps jolted into action by the momentum of the bedsprings. 

I knelt in front of the bowl, sure my insides were being ripped out.  Faintly I heard running water, grew aware of John behind me, holding a cool damp cloth to my forehead.  One arm looped around my chest, supporting my weight.  My arms shook.

I squinted, pain flashing through my head when John flicked on the bathroom light.  “Shh.”  He moved the cloth to cover my eyes.  “It’s okay.”

A century passed before he helped me to my feet, flushed, ran me a mouthwash in the sink.  I rinsed and spat painfully; the inside of my mouth felt torn.

“John…” my voice sounded far away.  He tightened his arm around me, wiping my face. 

“It’s okay,” he said again.  “No blood.  You’re fine.”

He supported me back to bed, settling down and pulling me against him very gently.  My whole torso felt bruised. 

“I didn’t do anything,” I whispered. 

He kissed my temple.  “I know; it’s all right.”

I hadn’t.  I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything I wasn’t supposed to; I was certain of that.  I wanted John to know too.  I tugged at his sleeve.

“John…I swear…”

“Honey, I know.  It’s okay.  Calm down.”

“But why…”

John sighed.  “Tris.  You are literally worrying yourself sick over this.  It needs to stop.”

Tears filled my eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

“Ssh.” He kissed me again.  “Listen to me.  You NEED to back away from this.  You are making yourself sick.  It’s just going to end up hurting you.  I want you to stop.  No more obsessing over Dana’s relationship and no more interfering in it.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, but…”

“No buts.  I want you to back away from it.”

“I can’t talk to Dana anymore?” I asked tearfully.

John cupped my cheek.  “Don’t be silly.  Of course you can talk to him.  But I don’t want you worrying over Scarlett OR causing problems between them.  I mean that.”

“Okay,” I said shakily.

“Promise me.”

I sniffled, then flushed remembering the appointment I had for tomorrow afternoon.  “John…”

“Tris,” he said firmly.

“I promise,” I whispered, feeling terrible.  I coughed and the acid burned the back of my throat.  “John…”

“It’s okay.”  He pulled my head into his neck, stroking my hair.  “Close your eyes; you need to get some rest.”

With little choice, too exhausted and depleted to argue, I fell asleep again in his arms.

* * *

Guilt tore at me the next morning as John fussed over me.  I woke up feeling punched in the stomach, the typical hangover I got after nights like the one before.  John supervised a breakfast of white toast, ordered—he would have said reminded—me to keep up my clear liquids throughout the day and finally released me to the 96th street station with a kiss that made me want to stay home.

John’s warning the night before to back away from Scarlett rang uncomfortably in my ears as I walked to our rendezvous that afternoon.  Scarlett was waiting for me outside, lounging rather insouciantly against the storefront.  He was wearing a green toggle coat and his cheeks were very pink from the wind.  For a moment I saw him as outsiders must, as Dana might—young, attractive, with a kind and open face.  Good company.  Maybe even a good friend.  His eyes brightened to see me (a rather optimistic reaction, really, considering our history).

The warmth of the cafe was a relief after the bone-chilling cold outside; I nearly had to physically restrain myself from ordering a hot chocolate.  I finally requested a steamer; Scarlett surprised me by ordering the same thing.

I raised my eyebrows and he flashed me a disarming smile.  “I’m allergic to chocolate,” he said.  “Used to make me crazy as a kid…I was always the only one drinking strawberry Quik…”

I flushed.  No wonder he’d been interested the other night in my eating restrictions.  I hadn’t realized it was empathy rather than scorn.  Oops.

“But I guess you’ve adjusted…”

“Kind of.  Dana loves chocolate but he’s a good sport about it when I’m around.  It’s been a long time but I CAN still remember the way it tastes….”

“Oh, I hear you,” I assured him.  “Between us…sometimes I like smelling people’s coffee breath.”

Scarlett cracked up.  He had a surprisingly infectious laugh.  “I don’t know if you can run for public office after admitting that…I’ve got blackmail material….”

I was surprised how caught up we got in the small talk.  I’d downed half my steamer and learned numerous amusing facts about the contentious editorship at the Spectator when I realized I hadn’t really been carrying out the farce of the interview.

I leaned back in my chair.  “So tell me about you and Dana.”

At the mention of his name Scarlett’s eyes brightened again.  They were beautiful eyes, I observed.  They actually tilted at the corners like cat’s eyes, a brilliant green.  The more I looked at him the more apt his nickname seemed.  “Um.  What do you want to know?  I think he’s great.”

“I agree,” I said, smiling.  “Tell me about how you met.”

“You know Scarlett’s living with that girl Catherine…well, we took a Bio class together when I was a soph, and she introduced us…she didn’t know we knew each other from way back, but it was funny to find out.  Anyway, she knew I was looking for a Latin tutor this semester.”

I nodded encouragingly.

“And then we found out all this other weird stuff we had in common…and Dana’s a great teacher.”

“Yeah?”

“Ita vero,” Scarlett said with a grin.  “So I aced my next Latin quiz, we got to talking more and…” he blushed.  “Is that what you wanted to know?”

“More or less.  So, ah, is this your first relationship?” 

Scarlett looked a bit taken aback but recovered quickly.  “No.  I came out freshman year, dated a guy sophomore year for six months or so….”

“How did it end?”

He really was a pretty good sport, but this should seal his fate.  I waited for him to put the final nail in his own coffin.  He was probably a serial abandoner, just like the last winner Dana had chosen.

“I killed him,” Dana said, deadpan.

My head shot up.

“Kidding!” he said.  “Come on, I have to conduct interviews a lot too, and aren’t the surprising answers the most fun?”

I smiled a little in spite of myself.  “No, really.”

“Really we just realized we wanted different things, he wanted to sow more wild oats than I did, it was no big deal.”

“Whose decision?” I asked suspiciously.

“Mutual,” he said crisply.

“Do you still talk?”

NOW was the crunch question.

“Sure.  He was in my Lit Hum class all through sophomore year and he’s suitemates with a friend of mine.  We stay in touch.  We’re friends.”

Oh.

“I…thought this interview was about Dana and me?”

“Y-yes,” I stumbled.  “Um, back to you and Dana…”  Damn, what else could I ask?  Scarlett was a tough nut to crack.  If I kept pressuring him for his dark secrets I’d probably find out he won the Nobel peace prize at age fifteen or something.

Scarlett nodded at my blank notepad.  “Aren’t you going to write anything down?”

“I have a good memory,” I lied, then jotted down a few notes for image’s sake. 

“You know,” Scarlett confided, a twinkle in the bright green eyes.  “When we first met, I wasn’t sure if you liked me….”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“I don’t blame you though.”

“Huh?”

“I know all the shit that went down with Dana and that guy, last year…I think it’s natural you’d be worried about the next person he gets involved with…”

My face felt hot.  “Yeah, well.”

“I don’t have designs on him. I promise.”

I looked up and he grinned again.  “I mean, not the BAD kind.”

I laughed in spite of myself.  “Look, Tris, I know you love him and I know you’ve been a really good friend to him.  So if you want to hate me, you can go right ahead and it won’t make me think any less of you or of Dana but…if we’re going to be seeing each other, maybe we could have…a truce or something?”

“A truce?”

“I like Dana.  I respect him.  We’re friends.  And I’m NOT crazy…I won my single fair and square in the housing lottery, I’ll have you know,” he teased.  “I could promise you I won’t screw Dana over but that won’t change anything, I know.  Just…give me a chance, okay?  If not for me, then for Dana.”

I blinked, suddenly feeling very ashamed.  “Yeah. Okay.”

He stuck his hand across the table and I grasped it.  It was large but fine-boned, almost delicate, and he had a surprisingly firm grip.

We shook warmly.

“So,” he said, just about quadrupling my guilt.  “Should we get back to the interview?”

* * *

Dana stopped by the newsroom the next day; in midtown on an errand, he wanted to revisit his old stomping grounds.  He perched on the edge of my desk.  I tried not to be nervous, but I was all too aware that Dana was blissfully UNaware of what I’d done.  Oh well.  Hopefully Scarlett would keep it to himself.

I turned his hand over. “What’s that?” I asked of the fading ink on the back of his hand.

“We went to Corpuscle last night,” Dana informed me. 

“On a school night?”

“God, Tris, you’re getting old.  Scarlett doesn’t have any Friday classes…not that it’s any of your business.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly.  “Look, I don’t want to fight about him,” I offered, trying hard not to feel guilty.  “So, um, how was Corpuscle? Did you get raided?”

“That was last YEAR, Tris.  And it was fun.  You should come next time.”

‘Thanks,” I said.  “But I think I’m a little too old for spending half the night gyrating with half-naked, sweaty strange men.”

“Tris,” Dana said seriously, leaning a little closer.  “You are NEVER too old for that.”

I smiled.  “At this stage of the game I’m happy spending my nights gyrating with just ONE strange man, thank you.”

“You two are SUCH an old married couple,” he observed.

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” Dana assured me.  “Nothing at all.  But you WERE 22 once, weren’t you?”

I grinned in spite of myself.  I’d done my share of gyrating…let’s see…22…I’d just started journalism school…just ended a relationship…the whole world had been in front of me and I’d been determined to take advantage of it.  I’d lived hard and loud for two years and loved most every minute of it.

Then I met John.

I felt my face grow hot, remembering.  As much fun as those nights at Corpuscle-style clones had been, meeting the man who made me want to forgo them for quiet tête-à-têtes and long walks around the Central Park reservoir had been a revelation.

Different.

Each lifestyle, each stage right for each time in my life. 

I felt a bit guilty again, thinking of my plan.  What was I doing?  Was I screwing up Dana’s natural patterns? 

“Tris?”  Dana stared at me across the table, concerned.  “What are you thinking about?”

I blinked hard to focus.  For a moment his visage swam in front of me and he was the Dana of several months ago, miserable and in shock, skin pale, eyes swollen, face aching with betrayal and confusion.  I blinked again and there he was, rosy and bright-eyed in front of me, his gaze clear and strong.

What had I done?

“Tris?”

“Nothing, it’s fine,” I assured him hastily.  “I was just getting distracted with thoughts of…gyrating.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Dana said lightly, breaking into the kind of smile I’d worried I wouldn’t see again—wide, natural, full of something like joy.  “Happens to me all the time these days.”

It took a moment for that to sink in.  I felt like a villain.

“Dana? We didn’t re-hire you, did we?”  Mel strode over, kissed him and glared at me.  “Do you EVER do any work?”

“Bite me,” I told her cheerfully.  “My story happens to be going very well, thank you.”

“Hey, Mel…looking a little chunky there,” Dana said, eyeing her midsection.

“Dana!” I cried, horrified.  He didn’t know her as well as I did; I’d once nearly had my eyes scratched out when I suggested VERY tactfully that perhaps peach wasn’t her color. 

But Mel just laughed.  “I was wondering when someone would notice,” she said.  “Cates here isn’t exactly the observant type, I guess…”

I colored hotly.  “Mel, you’re not…”

“Almost four months now,” she said softly. 

I jumped up to give her a hug, then pulled away quickly.  “Ack!  Did I hurt it?” 

“No, Tris.  It can withstand hugging, don’t worry.”

“This is fabulous!” I told her honestly.  “Wait – have you broken it to the prince yet?  And do you know what it is?”

“Yes and no,” she said.  “And honestly? I’m hoping for a girl…I’m not looking forward to teaching another little boy how to pee standing up.”

Secretly I agreed with her.  I wasn’t sure I could withstand another bris.

“This is awesome,” Dana enthused.  “Can I baby-sit?”

“Anytime,” Mel assured him. 

Ah, spring.  When a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love and…well, more bluntly, also mating season.  And apparently Mel and Josh had been busy.

I pushed aside my guilty thoughts over Scarlett and Dana.  No one needed to know, right?  We’d just focus on the good news for now.  I gave Mel another hug.  “Name it after me!” I suggested.

“I’m not that cruel,” Mel retorted.

* * *

“John?” I called, wandering into the apartment that night. 

“In the kitchen,” he responded.  I walked in and hesitated by the refrigerator.  There was a peculiar expression on his face.

“I got an interesting call from Dana today,” he said simply. 

I regarded him nervously.

“He called for you but we chatted…he wanted to know why you hadn’t told him you were writing about him and Scarlett for your couples piece.”  He paused, looking at me very closely.  “ARE you writing about them?”

I cracked of course, and told him everything. 

Not that he hadn’t figured it all out already.

We ended up in the living room, where I spilled the remaining details amidst a lot of embarrassment.  Telling the whole story at once I could hear all the places I’d gone wrong.  Still though I HAD had the best of intentions!  It seemed very important right now to remind John of that.

John shook his head.  “Lying to Scarlett and Dana and to me, false pretenses of an interview…that’s an ethical misjudgment if nothing else, young man.  You took advantage of your position and Scarlett’s good nature.”

“I was wrong about him though!” I offered eagerly.  “I see that now.  So…”

“That doesn’t change anything and you know it,” John said.  “Your behavior was dishonest and sneaky and you showed a remarkable lack of faith in Dana, not to mention disregarding a promise you made to me NOT to pull anything like this.”

I fiddled with the buttons on my cuff, my face hot. 

“Is Dana mad at me?” I asked finally, knowing the answer.

“He’s not exactly happy with you, Tris.  Of course,” he smiled slightly.  “That’s a toned-down version of how he put it.”

I flushed a little more, thinking of how Dana probably HAD put it.  Poor John is more the type to say “heck.”  I wondered if his ears were still stinging.  “I was trying to look out for him! Really!”

“Honey, I realize that.  Dana realizes that too.  But that makes it worse, not better.”

“But—”  I paused, confused.  “What do you mean?”

“Tris, Dana’s only a few months out of a very unfortunate relationship, where someone who couldn’t take care of himself tried to dictate Dana’s life, tell him what was best for him, convince him he couldn’t live without him.”

“And then he bailed,” I added.

“Yes. Exactly.  And Dana knows now he can count on himself…and the good people in his life.”

“I just didn’t want him to get hurt again!”

“I hear you, sweetheart.  But you can’t live his life for him or make his decisions for him.  I don’t know what’s going to happen with Scarlett; no one does.  But I DO know that whatever happens is up to Dana and Scarlett, not you or me or the lingering memory of James’ psychosis or anyone else.  Do you understand?”

I shrugged. “Yes, but if we’d stopped him from getting together with James….”

“That wasn’t our responsibility, Tris.  James had everyone pretty well fooled, but what he did was his fault, not ours.  Even if he can’t accept that, we all know it.  Honey,” he took my hand.  “You told Dana about Nathaniel, right?”

I looked at my lap.  “Yeah.”

“Well, what if some well-meaning friend had decided to wrap you in protective gear after that happened?  Keep you from dating anyone else?  Taken a stick to all your next lovers?”

I smiled a little.  “I wouldn’t have met you.”

“No, you wouldn’t have…and you wouldn’t have learned to stand on your own two feet either, or use your own judgment about people.  Tris, if you stop Dana from ever dating again, he’ll never get hurt again, that’s true.  But he’ll also never find the right person…never learn from finding the wrong people…never experience all those amazing and terrifying and just plain fun parts of love.”

“I know you’re right,” I said quietly.  “I just…I just wanted to keep him from more hurt.  You know? After what James did to him, after how he misled him and then betrayed him, I just wanted the best for Dana.”

He leaned back and patted his knees.  I took the invitation and slid onto his lap.  He looked straight at me, holding me on his knee, his expression incredibly serious.  “Then you can see, can’t you,” he said quietly, “that telling Dana you know what’s best for him and overriding his opinions on that matter is the absolute worst thing for him right now.”

There are different kinds of writers.  But John has always had a way with words, a gift for communicating.  A way of phrasing things—simple, concise, clear—so that you can’t escape the truth of his words.  The truth of these words hit me hard, nearly knocking the wind out of me. 

“Oh God,” I said, burying my head in his shoulder, realizing what I’d done.  “I’m such an idiot.”

“You love Dana and you wanted to do what was best for him,” John said soothingly.  “It’s not easy to see what you’re doing wrong when you don’t have distance or perspective.  Sometimes you need to get that distance to realize…or accept advice from someone who has a different perspective.”

I sniffed hard.

“Which is why,” he continued firmly, “I told you not to interfere, Tris.”

“You were right,” I mumbled against him.  “I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.”

“What am I going to do?”

He rubbed my back.  “As for us, we’ll sort it out.  I’m not worried.  And as for Dana…you need to talk to him.”

“I’ll apologize,” I said quickly.

“Good,” John said.  “I know you were worried that Dana would end up betrayed, but Tris,” he said quietly, his voice devoid of blame or anger but devastating nonetheless because of its sheer ring of truth, “…you were the one who betrayed him.”

There was nothing else to say.

I cried softly into his shoulder, overwhelmed by how badly I’d screwed up.  How could things go so wrong when I’d had the best of intentions?

John just rocked me, not saying anything.  After a few minutes he hugged me tightly, then took my shoulders and eased me back.  “Up,” he said quietly.

I stood without enthusiasm but without protest.  It was pretty black and white.  I knew I’d screwed up and I knew I could have avoided it if I’d listened to John in the first place.

I fumbled at the waist of my slacks; all too soon I was staring intimately at the couch cushion.  My shorts joined my pants at my knees.  I winced as if preventatively, knowing what was coming.  John rested a warm hand on my bare backside. 

“Tris,” he said softly.  “I don’t tell you to do or not to do things for no reason and I don’t do it just because I like hearing the sound of my own voice.”

“I know,” I mumbled into the cushion.  “I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing and listen,” he continued.  “I think I ask reasonable things of you and if you have a problem with my requests you have plenty of opportunity to air your dissent BEFORE you actively disobey me.  Am I making sense?”

“Yes, John,” I said quietly, feeling thoroughly ashamed.  I hated making him feel like an ogre, I really did.  He was so sweet most of the time…more often than I deserved it, to be honest.

“I had good reason to tell you not to interfere with Dana and Scarlett, Tris.  I knew something like this could happen and make a lot of people unhappy.  And now here we are having to deal with the aftereffects.”

I refrained from pointing out that if the aftereffects bothered him that much I was perfectly willing to let him forgo the spanking.

But somehow I knew that wouldn’t go over well.

And even more I knew we were doing the right thing.

I’m not as good at this as John is.  Not yet. But I’m better than I used to be.  When something is right, it just…FEELS right.

And this was right.  John and I, we were right.  Together.  We were where we should be. 

This wasn’t my favorite position to be in with him, not by a long shot. 

But even in the middle of this, I knew I was loved.  And I loved him back.

“I AM sorry, John…”

“I know you are sweetheart.  And that’s enough for me, and we’ll take care of it, but other people were hurt by your actions too.”

“I know,” I said miserably.

“It’s all right.  One thing at a time.  Why are we doing this, Tristram?” he asked briskly, all business again.

I admit I was grateful for it.  It was too easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I’d done.  But this was John’s gift—he broke problems down to their simplest elements and solved them.  Perspective.  My John had perspective.

“You told me not to interfere with Dana and Scarlett’s relationship and I didn’t listen,” I recited tearfully.  “And I lied to Scarlett so I could…”

“Hold on, that’s enough for now.”  His hand punctuated his words, lighting up my backside.  He spanked sharply but not as hard as he could have, a signal the spanking would be longer, slower.  Swats landed again and again, increasing the heat and discomfort and as much as I knew I deserved this, as active a participant and partner as I was, I wriggled instinctively against the building sting.

“John!”

“Why should you have listened?”

“Because we have a deal,” I whimpered.  “And because you were right…”

“And?” John asked, embellishing his question with two harder-than-usual swats. 

“And because I said I would,” I admitted, tears coming faster.  “I’m sorry…”

“Can I trust you to keep your word, Tris?”

“Yes!”

“Does it really mean so little to you to promise me something?”

“No! …I’m sorry…I thought I was doing the right…thing,” I sobbed.

“I know you did, which is WHY I told you that you were NOT to interfere, Tris!”

I just cried into the couch cushion.  I knew he was right.  I knew I should have listened.

“What about lying to Scarlett?”

“I shouldn’t have…I shouldn’t have done that.  I didn’t mean to hurt Dana,” I added, coughing helplessly around the tears.

“You’ll apologize to both of them,” John said crisply above me.  “But I’m more concerned with your disobeying me.  Can I expect you to disregard any request with which you don’t agree?  And to withhold your disagreement and demonstrate it with action instead?”

“No! I don’t do that…usually…I mean, I didn’t mean to…”

My backside was on fire and my throat hurt from crying so hard.  My eyes stung nearly as much as my rear.

“Getting involved was hurting you, Tris.  I asked you to stop because I knew it was the right thing and because I care about you.”

“I know…”

He stopped talking but his hand didn’t stop whacking for another minute or two.   By then I would have promised not only to obey all future requests, but also to skate naked at Rockefeller Center if it would make him happy.  Damn but he was getting TOO good at this.

He stopped then and the hand that had lit up my rear gentled and stroked the burning skin.  Very softly, but I cried harder anyway.  He let me lie over his lap, calming down, as he stroked my back and bottom.  Finally he lifted me partway up and resettled me against him, wiping damp hair off my forehead.

“I screwed up,” I said when I could talk again, my voice thick with tears and hoarse.

“Yes, and we took care of it,” he said firmly against my hair, kissing the top of my head.  “It’s not the end of the world.”

I lay against him, utterly exhausted.  He just made soothing sounds, petting me gently, surrounding me with the kind of love and security only John can provide.  I didn’t know how I could keep loving him more every day, every time we averted a crisis and every time we recovered from one.

I just knew that I did.

* * *

“Of course I forgive you,” Dana said quietly the next day.  I lay on my stomach across the bed – really the most comfortable position I would find that day – cradling the phone against my ear.

“I really am sorry,” I repeated gratefully. “And I…”

“Scarlett told me about the truce,” Dana interrupted.

“Oh.”

“And he said he had a good time with you.”

“Me too!” I said quickly.  “That’s what makes it suck so much.  Honestly, I didn’t mean to screw up with him.”

“You didn’t.  Scarlett’s fine. He’s looking forward to getting to know you better,” Dana added slyly.  I groaned inwardly.

“Great,” I said as sincerely as I could manage.  In all honesty it wasn’t that insincere.  I could almost admit at this point that I LIKED Scarlett.  Well. Not quite, not yet.

“Tris, I know you were trying to look out for me. But…”

“Step off. I know.”  I blushed.  “I will from now on, I promise.”

I could hear the smile in his voice.  “Just don’t step TOO far.  I like having you around.”

“So…are we okay?”

“Yup. We’re fine. It’s history.” 

“Like the French and Indian War?”

Dana laughed.  “With slightly fewer casualties,” he said.  “But you’ve got the idea.”

* * *

“Stop the presses!” I called gleefully a few days later, shutting the apartment door behind me and jogging into the living room.  “Get your pa—oh, you already have one.”

John was stretched out on the couch, the Sun opened to my article.  “I couldn’t wait.  I picked one up on the way home.”

He moved his legs to let me sit, then stretched them across my lap.  “But THIS copy is especially for you,” I explained, handing it over.  He took it, flipped it open to my article. 

“What’s this?”

“See, I marked the parts I want you to pay special attention to,” I told him with a grin.  He scanned the page; streaks of neon orange highlighted sections of the text.

“My own copy.  Thank you, sweetheart.”  He shook the paper out dramatically, then began to read aloud in that wonderful deep voice.  If he ever leaves the Manahatta my man could make a fortune in voice-overs.

“ ‘Born in 1899 and married in 1922, the Gutensteins’ lives span three centuries, their union bridges a millennium—and their love story is timeless.’”  He paused.  “Powerful stuff.  And you said you weren’t a romantic.”

“Keep reading,” I ordered.  “Do you know they still live in the same apartment on Riverside Drive where their kids were born?  They’re too adorable, John.  Neither one is over four and half feet tall at this point, but they still get a kick out of each other….”

“Touché, darling.” He returned to the paper.  “‘Today, 80 years after their wedding, the memory of Ida Gutenstein’s white lace dress—financed by working extra shifts at the Union Dress Factory on the lower East Side—still brings a glint to her husband’s eye.  “She was the most beautiful girl in the whole city,” Saul Gutenstein recalled, then after what can only be described as a Look from his wife, added, “Still is, I tell you.  Still is.”’”

He read the rest of the section silently.  “It’s beautiful, Tris.”

I took the paper out of his hands and removed his reading glasses.  “A week until D-day—or is it B-day—do you still feel old?”

“Darling,” he caught my hands and tugged until we lay side by side, pressed up against each other.  “I feel positively juvenile.” He kissed me deeply.  “Have I told you lately how incredible you are?” he asked.

“Mmm.” I shook my head.  “Tell me again.”

He nuzzled my neck, one hand sliding down my chest, hovering at my waist.  “How about if I just show you?” he suggested.

* * *

The sound that woke me up later that night was soft and persistent.  It took me a moment or two to place it as I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, a near-full moon spilling shadows across the room.  Puzzled, I drew back the covers and padded to the window. 

The pavement below was dusted with white frosting and Jack Frost had etched faint pictures on the window glass.

“John!” I whispered sharply but he was already awake and behind me at the window.

“It’s March!” I told him accusingly.  “How can it be snowing?”

He put an arm around me.  “It’s a meteorological miracle.  Come back to bed, darling.”

“Seriously…March is supposed to come IN like a lion, OUT like a lamb…this is very irregular…”

We watched the snow drop, lightly, for a few moments, our heads together.  It wasn’t exactly sticking snow, and it didn’t fall so much as flutter to the ground, half of it melting before it even touched blacktop.

John squeezed my shoulder.  “Come.  We have a while before the alarm goes off.” 

I let him tow me back to bed.  “Think we’ll have a snow day tomorrow?” I asked, snuggling down against him. 

He ruffled my hair.  “Nah. It’s not even lake effect.  Now sleep, please…”

Breathing behind me, deeply and evenly, John settled me down with very little effort.  It’s a talent of his.  I was about to drift off when something occurred to me.

“John!”  I pulled away.  “What about the crocus?”

“Hm?”  He falls back to sleep much faster than I do.  “What are you talking about?”

I swung my legs over the side of the bed.  “It’s SNOWING, John.  It’s going to kill the crocus.  We need to go and get it!”

“Freeze,” he said quickly, suddenly much more wide awake.

“Yes, exactly!  It’s going to freeze if we don’t do something!”

“Not the flower, YOU,” he corrected firmly.  “Get yourself back in bed, right now.”

“John!”

“Tris, it’s…3:56, and it’s snowing.  We’re not going anywhere.”

“But John…”

“No.  Tris, I mean it, back in bed.”  He patted the mattress next to him.

I stayed where I was, feet on the floor, not quite brave enough to stand up but not ready to give in yet either.

“Do I have to come and get you?” he asked mildly.

“John, we NEED to go! Please,” I said, tears starting, not sure why.

He held out his arms.  “Come here.”

I kicked at one leg of my nightstand.

“Tristram.  Move.”  I jumped slightly at his tone, then wriggled back onto the bed and rolled toward him.

“What?” I muttered.

He pulled me the rest of the way into his arms and half on top of him.  He was so warm and comforting I didn’t realize I’d left my rear vulnerable until his hand descended without warning, swatting me twice.

“Ow!”  My hand flew back to protect myself.  Heartlessly, he moved it out of the way and swatted me again, hard.

“How do I feel about acts of rebellion in the middle of the night?” he asked calmly, looking me right in the eye—which wasn’t very hard, since our faces were about half an inch apart.

“But you weren’t listening to me!” I cried, stung.

He swatted me again.  “That is NOT the way to get me to listen, is it?”

I buried my head in his neck.

“Is it?”

“No,” I muttered.

“Thank you.”  He shifted, pulling me tighter against him.  “I’m listening, Tris.  I’ll always listen to you.  But we are NOT going anywhere until the morning.”

I rubbed my forehead against him.  “John, we have to…”

“Sweetheart.  It’s not even four am.  What do I have to do to get you to sleep through the night?”

I shrugged disconsolately.

“Are you ready to go back to sleep now?”

“John.”  Tears filled my eyes again.  “The crocus is going to die.  It’s not supposed to snow.  We need to go save it.”

“What do you mean?”

“The snow’s going to kill it.  I want to go and pick it; we can bring it up here and then the snow won’t…you know….”

“Honey, that doesn’t make sense.”

I sniffled into his neck.  “I know I’m being silly, I just…”

“You’re not being silly. Just think about it though.  Is it worth bringing it in here when it will die out of the ground anyway?”

I swallowed.  “What do you mean?”

“Tris, listen to me.  If we leave it in the snow, it might die, yes.  It could also live.  But if we go and pick it now and bring it back here, it WILL die.  For certain.  Do you understand?”

I nodded into his neck.  “But…”

“But it’s hard waiting.” He kissed my forehead.  “I know.  Go back to sleep, Tris.”

I wriggled against him.  He makes so much sense though, my John, he really does. “Not…tired,” I mumbled. 

“Not much.”  He laughed slightly, rumbling against me.  “Sleep, baby.  It’s an order.”

“Yeah, what isn’t,” I murmured, but I was already half asleep.

* * *

I flung open the terrace doors the next morning and was nearly blinded by the sun.  “This weather is CRAZY!” I called toward the bedroom, where John was measuring the angle of his tie with a straight-edge, or whatever it is he does in the mornings to make him look so perfect by the time we have breakfast.

Myself, I prefer throwing on my clothes…more time to relax.

“Tris, close that door!” John called back to me.

Ha. As if anyone can relax with Saint John on call in the morning.  He does everything but make us raise the colors before breakfast.

“Tris!”

I closed the door hastily, but not before a gust of cold wind swept in and nearly turned my lips blue.

Well. It WAS very sunny.  “John…”

He appeared, looking crisp and well-rested and nothing like we’d had a middle-of-the-night conference the night before.  Meanwhile I was certain I could have traveled around the world simply with the bags under my eyes.

“Good morning sunshine.”  He kissed me.  “Ready to go?”

We were meeting Dana and Scarlett for breakfast before work.  Admittedly not our usual social engagement schedule, but I wanted to reissue my apologies in person. ASAP.

Far be it from John to argue with any plans that have to do with my Making Amends and Taking Responsibility. 

It was too early for the morning elevator rush; we rode down alone and I took advantage of the twelve floors to remind John, non-verbally, just how much I loved him and how very delicious he looked in the mornings.

I pulled away reluctantly when we hit the lobby.  John groaned.  “We have GOT to move to a high-rise,” he muttered and I giggled.

I saluted the doorman cheerfully and followed John into the bright, cold morning.

“Wait!” I called as he started to turn left.  He turned back quizzically.  I grabbed his hand and towed him back toward the courtyard.  “I have to check…”

He followed me obediently.  “Okay, but Tris, remember the weather got pretty rough last night.”

“I know, I know.  I just want to see.”

One foot behind the lamppost.  Pale blue.  I winced, preparing for the worst, then skidded to a stop.  John stopped behind me, hands on my shoulders.  It HAD been frigid last night.  Snowy, and none too pleasant.  A little flower was no match for that sort of onslaught.

Yet there it was, a bit bent, a little more ragged than it had been the last time I’d seen it, but still there.  Its pale blue petals were more open today, arching toward the sun. 

It had made it through the night.

Slowly I tilted my head up, following its path, shading my eyes with my hand.  The sun was brilliant this morning, lighting up the courtyard, rendering the pale shades of the crocus glowing and bright.  The weather was chilly, but it felt somehow…different.  The breeze was sharp but sea-scented, gentler than winter wind. Spring was here.

The sun felt warm on my face.

I linked an arm through John’s, drew him back to the sidewalk.  “Come on,” I said, blinking a little in the bright light.  “Let’s go meet the lovebirds.”


END.
I know I said they wouldn't be back, and I didn't think they would be.  But a hint of spring showed up and suddenly John and Tris were writing themselves again.  I can't deny them that, not after all they've done for me.

I will say this story probably wouldn't exist if not for the many wonderful, enthusiastic and supportive letters all of you sent after "Longer Than Always." Not all swan songs are permanent, I guess, but then few things are.

Enjoy.
Thanks and huge hugs of relief are due to D, who has now read -- and seen -- it all.

She will be properly thanked in another piece currently underway.

Love you, babe, even if you're not a genre girl. ;-)