Tertiary
Acepilot

AN – This is it, the finale, the last chapter of Tertiary. Of course, now I've set myself up for a whole lot more fics to follow, because I simply love these characters too much to let them go...but this, the fic that I have been working on for nearly half-a-decade, this I can finally refer to as finished. It's a load off my mind. There'll be a longer note at the end, but for now, just enjoy Chapter 15.

Sorry about the delay on this chapter, by the way. It was meant to be finished much sooner, but I had some family crises in the interim which caused unfortunate delays. My sincere apologies to all those who I left hanging...

Initially, this was only the scenes set during Christmas, but on reflection I went back and added the scenes in Phil and Lor's hotel room – I think they flesh the chapter out and just make it better all-round.

For anyone wondering about what's been going on with Phil during the same time frame, you might find the one-shot You Were the Only One in the Room enlightening. It's Phil's Christmas. This is Lor's.

Disclaimer – Nope. Four years gone by and it's still not mine. At the rate things are going, though, I might be able to afford to buy KlaskyCsupo, though. We'll see how it goes.

8 – - - - 8

Chapter 15
...That Would Lead to My Wreck and Ruin

8 – 8 – 8 - 8

I smile as Lil and Chuckie, proud new owners of a bouquet and garter respectively, are dragged up to the seats of honour and showered with confetti and other debris. Reggie looks mildly put out that she failed to catch the flowers – more because she thinks her sporting ability should give her an advantage than because she actually wanted to be married next. Dil is whispering things rapidly in Chuckie's ear that are causing him to turn the colour of a tomato while Kimi pats Lil on the back in congratulation before striding over to me.

"Disappointed?" I ask as she joins me in leaning on the bar.

"Nah," she says. "I've got enough flowers."

"Don't want to be the next one married?"

"Not particularly," she says. "I'm really happy for you and Tish and everything, and I definitely want to be married some day, but I guess I just haven't found...the right thing yet. The right guy, the right time, the right...whatever."

I nod. "You never think...what if?"

She looks at me strangely. "What if what?"

"What if...you know. Phil."

She laughs, loudly. "Oh, god, me and Phil. I haven't seriously thought about that in ages. I mean, I've thought about it a fair bit today, obviously, but I got over Phil long ago. I was probably over Phil before we broke up."

We've never really talked about this, it occurs to me. The closest we came was the discussion we had before the ball – she all but said that she knew Phil loved me, and that was as far as it ever went. Some part of me has often wondered why she never fought harder for him.

But another part of me has never really wanted to know. And, maybe, I shouldn't. Her and Phil is something that I'm not a part of, that I was never a part of. Tish once said to me that the reason he'd not told me that he and Kimi had broken up was that it was his life, not mine or ours, and it's true that their relationship is still something that I've never wanted to interfere with. She left Phil for her reasons – I'm sure I was one of them, and that's not ego talking as much as just plain sense – and they're really none of my business. It would be like when Tish asked me why I left Tino, why I didn't try harder to make it work between us – for Phil and Kimi, it wasn't right. It was right for a time, for the time and place that they were in, but it wasn't right forever. The same as it was for me and Tino, or Phil and Susie, or Mrs. T and Dixon. But eventually you find someone with whom it seems right, forever. Like Tish and Tino, like Susie and Angelica, like me and Phil.

"Well, I hope you find the right...thing, out there somewhere."

She nods. "I'm sure I will."

I wrap her up in a hug. "Thanks. For everything."

She returns my affection with an even more crushing embrace that I can feel clear through my body. "You're welcome. Now don't you have a honeymoon to be getting off to?"

"Indeed we do," Phil's voice comes from over my shoulder. "So if you'll just see your way clear to releasing my wife from that choke hold you've got her in, we'll be on our way."

Kimi laughs before letting me go, stepping around me and flinging her arms around Phil, her heels meaning for once she doesn't have to stand on tip-toes to reach up and plant a kiss on his cheek. "Go and have a wonderful life, Phil."

He nods and smiles, hugging her in turn. We can't just do handshakes – we're all too close for that. "You too, Kimi."

"I will," she says, keeping one arm around Phil's shoulders and grasping my upper arm with the other. "Now get out of here, you two. Before they get you dancing again."

I turn and look out over the reception, filled with friends and family, who have all been such a huge part of my life in so many different ways – who have all left some kind of fingerprint on my life, most of them having all left some kind of honking great handprint on my relationship with the man standing next to me. My eyes are drawn to Tish, Tino and Carver, standing over by the head table, hovering at the edge of where Lil is being serenaded by one of my brothers and Chuckie is being propositioned by Reggie. The three of them took me through so much, helped me through what seemed like every crisis of my young life. And a few of my older life as well.

8 - * - * - 8

So, it's come to this.

"You look terrible," a familiar voice opines from the open doorway.

"Merry Christmas to you too," I tell him, not getting up from where I'm slumped on Kyle's bed. My room is occupied, still, so I've appropriated one of my brothers' for the moment. I wanted to come home, slump and mope, so that's what I've done. My childhood bed was unavailable, so I've taken the next best thing.

Carver finally steps through the doorway and looks around for anything resembling a clean surface. "I was on my way over to Tino's, thought I'd see if you guys were done. I seem to remember you guys always finish up the Christmas thing pretty early."

"Penny and Kirk announced they're getting married," I tell him. "There was much rejoicing. Particularly from my Mom. I think she's a little traditional to tolerate their whole living in sin thing for too long."

"Wow, so you'll finally be like my sister or something. Cool."

I shake my head. "I don't think it works like that, Carv."

"Is Kirk your brother?"

I nod. "Yes, obviously."

"And now, he's going to be my brother-in-law, which means that he's my brother too, which means you'll be my sister."

I think about this for a moment before just groaning and sitting up. "I'm still sure it doesn't work like that. But okay. Whatever will make you stop making me think, alright?"

He looks at me concernedly. "Are you alright?"

I groan in frustration. "No, I'm not alright. I've got no idea what I am, but it's not alright."

"You want to talk about it?" he asks, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

I sling my legs over the side of the bed and sit next to him. "No. Yes. I don't know."

"Well when you've got it sorted out, you let me know, alright?" He shakes his head. "Seriously, Lor, I'm not quite sure what's going on with you lately, but I just want to know you're alright."

"What do you mean you're not quite sure what's going on with me?"

"Every time I've talked to you for the last few months, it's like your head's off somewhere else. I mean, I know I'm not the most observant person on the face of the earth, but even I can tell when something's going on in the life of one of my best friends. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were –"

He pauses. I pause. He's got it, I know it.

"You're not pregnant, are you?"

I grab the pillow off the bed and smack him across the face with it. "No! You idiot! Why would you think that?"

He holds up his hands in pathetic defence as I rain feather-filled blows down across him head and torso. "I dunno. I thought, maybe...it might explain things."

I shake my head. "God help whatever woman ends up lumped with you for the rest of her life."

"I don't see myself ending up with anyone for the rest of my life. The whole marriage thing seems like a bit of a dud deal to me, but hey – whatever floats people's boats."

I go to correct him – but who am I, really, to be selling the benefits of marriage when I can't even make a basic relationship work. Thompson was a high-school mess, Tino and I broke apart in a catastrophic fight and now I've run away from the most serious possibility for a relationship I've had yet.

"Carver, can I ask you a personal question?"

He shrugs. "I kind of figured we were well into that sort of territory by now, anyway."

I nod. "Yeah, I guess we are. Do you really think it's impossible to make something work...forever? For the rest of your life? Or do you think it's all just temporary? That long-term relationships are just...a pipe dream."

He seems to think seriously about it for a moment – resulting in an expression that I've seen on his face very rarely. "I don't know. I think that I can't see myself ever settling down with someone like that. I don't know how it would work. But then, that's me. I guess I see marriage and that kind of thing and I think of my parents, of Tino's parents. It puts me off a bit, I guess. I sometimes wonder how Penny and I grew up in the same house, with the same parents, with the same fights. Yet she wants to go and marry Kirk. Maybe she's just found something I haven't, I guess. The same thing that your parents have found, or Tish's, or Bluke and Christie – "

"Bluke and Christie?"

"Yeah, they're getting married next year. Didn't you get the alumni newsletter?"

"Apparently not," I admit. "Anyway, so you don't think it's impossible?"

"Eh...I think it's not for some people. I think it just a case of finding the right person at the right time. It's entirely possible I met the right woman while drunk out of my mind at school or something and made a fool of myself in front of her – "

"Who, you? Never happen, my friend."

" – and if the peanut gallery is finished with the commentary, may I continue – and I'll never meet her again or she'll always think of me as the guy who serenaded the statue of Hippocrates with Doctor Doctor with my underwear on my head – "

"Sorry, what?"

"Long story," he tells me. "Anyway, so I'll never get to be with her, because it wasn't the right time. But sooner or later, you'll meet the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, and bang, that'll be it."

"Hmm."

"You want to go over to Tino's now? It's still pretty early – just gone 11am. We could probably just catch breakfast."

"Do you ever think about anything other than food?" I ask, rising from the bed and letting my joints ease with a satisfying cracking noise.

"I could swear I thought about the judicial system for a moment the other day, while my hot-pockets were in the microwave."

"You're a special friend," I tell him.

8 - * - * - * - 8

"Are we going to do the carry-across-the-threshold thing?" I ask Phil as we come to our hotel room door.

He looks me up and down then gazes at the bellboy behind me, who is carrying our bags. "If you think you can lift me," he says, pushing open the door and letting the bellboy in. "Come here," he says, holding out his arms. "I can't believe you're seriously asking for this."

"It's romantic," I tell him.

"Since when are we romantic?"

"We dance, Phil."

"Yeah, but that wasn't romantic when we started," he points out. "When we started, that was like…a sport."

"Keep telling yourself that, babe," I soothe, running a hand up and down his arm. "Besides, every now and then, I kind of like this sort of thing. You know, traditional moments of you showing your manly strength."

"I have to get you to move the TV," he points out, but takes a deep breath nonetheless. "Alright, here goes."

A second later, before I even really know what's happening, his arm sweeps my legs out from under me and he catches me – just barely, but it gives me a reassuring surge of confidence that he didn't just drop me outright – before marching into our room, thankfully not smacking my head on the doorjamb.

To be honest, it's not all that comfortable and I think I'm not imagining that his arms are starting to tremble a little from holding me up, but there's a sense of…something, something I can't quite name, in the idea of being carried into my marital bed by my husband. It's something special, something that transcends the mockery we heap on traditional romance. It's a beautiful moment, and something I'm glad we shared.

The bellboy coughs lightly. "Will there be anything else?"

Phil sighs at the breaking of the moment. "Lor, there's a five in my pocket."

"You could put me down," I point out, reaching down and pulling a crumpled note out of his pocket, which I hand to the hotel employee, who makes a prompt escape.

"Not there, I couldn't," he says, tensing his muscles for one last charge, walking us over to the bed and laying me down on it. "Tonight we're doing things right. Or traditionally, anyway."

"Sounds like a plan," I agree, grinning up at him as he places a hand on either side of me, caging me in on the bed. "But does that mean we don't get to try this thing I read about in – "

He cuts me off. Pleasurably.

8 - * - * - * - 8

It's been almost a month since I've been in Tino's house, and clearly something has happened while I've been gone – for one thing, the colours are all different.

"What happened here?" I ask, shrugging off my jacket in the doorway. "Did Tino's mom re-decorate again?"

"Tish and Tino are doing it. Some sort of present to her," Carver explains.

I raise an eyebrow. "Huh. Really."

"Yeah, well, since Tish came back home to finish her doctorate locally, she's been reconnecting with everyone. Among them, Mrs. Tonitini. She roped Tino in to work on this whole decorating project with her. It's strange, but it keeps them amused."

"Good to hear it," I tell him, looking around. So, Tish found a nice, innocent way to spend time with him. I'm glad. I was kind of worried that it would end up being something that never happened for them, but now I think they might be in with a fighting chance.

One of the objects of my thought appears at the top of the stairs, wearing an old pair of overalls and with a smudge of paint on her cheek. I'm reminded strongly of Phil – I guess the smell of fresh paint does that to me now – and the events of last night flash strongly through my mind. No, I'm not going through that. Not again. I'm here to not think about this.

Tish mercifully distracts me. "Hey guys, thought we heard you. We're painting the upstairs bedrooms. You want to come up and see?"

Carver and I exchange a quick glance-and-shrug, before mounting the stairs and trailing Tish into what was once Tino's bedroom – and I have to resist the urge to cover my eyes, as the entire room is now an alarming shade of cyan. "Wow."

"We wanted to try something different," Mrs. Tonitini explains from near the window, where she is doing some fine work with a small brush. "Though maybe this was a bit much."

"I voted grey," Tino tells us, in a precarious position up a ladder, trying to finish rollering the roof. "But I was accused of being safe and boring. Me! Safe and boring! Can you imagine such a thing?"

And I laugh.

Quite loudly, actually. Probably louder than I should, drowning out everyone else's chuckles at this statement, and immediately becoming the most out of place person in the room. But I can't help it – it's funny. It's a joke about us, it's a joke about our fight, it's a joke at our expense. It's the first time he's ever joked about our fight – it's the first time he's ever mentioned what we fought about – and it's a relief, a weight off my shoulders.

I realise quite quickly, however, that I'm probably being perceived as overreacting, and curtail my chortles. Tino doesn't seem to mind, however, sliding down the ladder and wrapping me up in a hug. "Merry Christmas, Lor."

"Happy holidays, Tino," I return, holding him tight.

And then everything that's happened between us – and, more pressingly, everything that happened between me and Phil – comes crashing back into my mind with the force of a freight train, and I pull back a little, turning to hug Tish, who is staring up at the ceiling that the object of her affection has just finished painting.

"Yes, indeed," Mrs. Tonitini says, laying down her paintbrush, "merry Christmas to all those who celebrate it. And as long as we've got everyone here, we might as well pack in the painting for the day. What do you say, kids?"

There are cheers all round at this idea and we all leave the brightly coloured room. Tish retreats to Mrs. Tonitini's room to change, while Tino heads into the bathroom (his room being impractical to keep stuff in at the moment, of course), while Mrs. Tonitini leads me and Carver to the lounge room.

It's not quite such a riot of colour in here – it's been painted a more sombre maroon that goes quite nicely with some new cream furniture. "Why are you doing up the house, Mrs. T?" Carver asks, looking around. "Tino told me you three were working on it, he just didn't mention why."

"You're not selling the place, are you?" I ask, looking around for any evidence of packing.

She laughs. "No, no. I don't think I could ever give the place up, to be honest with you. No, I just...needed a change. You know, you get to my age, with no-one to come home to or anything, sometimes you just need something different in your life. And besides, it's meant having Tino and Tish around a lot more, and that's something I've really missed these last few years. You get used to something – like having you kids around – and you don't notice it so much until it's gone."

I feel a strange pulse of guilt rush through me, though it's ridiculous – she's never expected me to drop by and visit or anything, especially not since Tino and I broke up – but still, I feel sorry for her being alone, and with the four of us (who, let's face it, used to occupy a great deal of her time) scattered around the country for so long, I can see how she'd get lonely.

I wonder how I'd survive as a divorcee. Would I be strong like her, finding ways to occupy my time and go on to date other people, or would I become one of those bitter old spinsters, cursing Phil's name until the day I died and never moving on?

Well, it's progress. At least I'm thinking of him as my potential husband.

I told myself this morning that I didn't know why I wouldn't go with Phil – or why, more specifically, I wouldn't stay with Phil. The idea that I couldn't have begged off Christmas this morning was ridiculous – I could have rang, said, "Hey, Phil and I have gotten together and we're going to Christmas at his place, I'll be home tomorrow," and no-one would have batted an eyelid. Christmas at my house was over by 11, took a whole of two hours out of my life, and Tino, Tish and Carver would have certainly understood a slight shuffle of my priorities. Tish most of all.

The reason I couldn't stay with Phil was because I was scared, scared of us becoming what Tino and I are now – awkward conversation, awkward hugs, awkward existence. And I can't have that with him. I can't.

I need to know that it wouldn't be the end of our friendship if we broke up.

"Hey, Lor," Carver says, waving a hand in front of my face. "You still with us over there?"

I shake myself out of it. "Yeah. Sorry. Drifted off for a second."

Mrs. Tonitini nods. It's incredible – all these years of knowing her, even now I'm practically an adult, and I still think of her as Mrs. Tonitini. Don't know why it is, but I just can't bring myself to even think of her by her first name, much less address her by it.

"A lot on your mind today, Lor?" she asks, sitting down in her traditional armchair while Carver and I share the couch.

"I guess so," I admit.

"She was asking about marriage and destiny and stuff before," Carver tells her.

I turn and sock him on the arm. "Some confidante you are!"

"Hey, I didn't know it was some big secret."

I roll my eyes at him. "No wonder conversation is a lost art."

"Is this about Phil?" Mrs. Tonitini cuts in.

I spin around so fast I catch my own ponytail in my mouth. Over the last month or so I have actually taken to wearing it braided for special occasions – a raft of college Christmas parties, basically – but it's Phil who braids it for me and I didn't think it would be terribly appropriate to ask this morning.

"How did you know that?"

"I didn't realise it was some great secret," Mrs. Tonitini explains, "after Thanksgiving, I thought you two were together. Or about to get together, anyway."

"Were we that obvious?" I ask.

"Yes," Caver offers emphatically.

Mrs. T rolls her eyes at him, but turns back to me with a more sombre look on her face. "Well, a bit, but we had a big chat about it after you and Tish left the room. He and I talked."

This is all coming a bit fast for me. "You spoke to Phil. About me?"

"About a lot of things," she admits, pushing a bowl full of sugar-free candy on the table toward me and Carver. "Try the mint patties. You can't even tell they've got winterberries in them instead of glucose."

"Why does everyone try to distract me?" I ask, despairingly. "Did I really used to have that short an attention span?" I turn to cut Carver off before he can say anything. "Don't answer that. You were at least as bad as I was."

He shrugs and nods, accepting this statement. Good thing too, the smarmy bugger.

"We talked about you, yes," Mrs. T cuts back in. "He was feeling a bit distraught over hurting your feelings and betraying your friendship at Thanksgiving. He needed some help coming to terms with things."

"I'm over that," I assure her.

"Then why aren't you two together?" she asks, picking up some sort of 'sweet' and biting down on it. I'm satisfied to note that even she looks somewhat put off by it and decided to play it safe and not sample any myself. "I mean, you're in love with him, aren't you?"

I roll my eyes. "I like the way everyone has this worked out. Yes, I'm in love with him. Yes, we're together. Sort of."

"Sort of?" Mrs. T asks, raising an eyebrow. "How does that work?"

I sigh. "We sort of got together. Last night. We haven't really had a chance to talk much about it. I don't exactly know what's going on with us. I just know it's kind of...complicated."

"Why is it complicated?" she asks, settling into the chair a bit more comfortably. She looks like she's getting set for a long chat, and I'm not sure if this bodes well for me or not.

"Because it is, alright? We're both just out of long-term relationships –"

"You and Tino broke up in June. Or April, depending on how you read the situation. And he and his girlfriend have been broken up for two months. If you two took some sort of step together into a new relationship, I doubt it was too soon."

"As long as you're ready, there is no too soon."

Both Mrs. Tonitini and I turn to face Carver. "Where the hell did you get something like that?" I ask.

He shrugs. "I dunno. Came up with it myself."

"That's almost deep, Carv," I commend him. "Tell me you don't use it as a pick up line on girls who've just been dumped."

"Only once," he assures me.

I just roll my eyes.

"Anyway," Mrs. T begins, trying clearly to bring this conversation back on what she has determined to be the right track, "you and he are in love with each other, and yes, I guess it hasn't been that long since he broke up with Kimi, but...well, if you've...done whatever it is you've done, and trust me, I'm not so curious as to ask for any details here – then I've got to ask – what complications could you be looking at now?"

I grip the arm of the couch quite hard. "I'm just worried, alright? I'm nervous, and worried, and scared, and this is a big deal for me, and –"

"Who's up for – " Tino walks into the room, a broad smile on his face and his hands spread wide in front of him, now wearing his nice Christmas clothes instead of his relaxed, painting ones. He stops short when he sees me attempting to tear the couch apart, the knowing look on his mother's face and the concerned gaze on Carver's. "- presents?" he peters out.

Tish appears at his shoulder in the doorway, and surveys the scene herself, before looking at me worriedly. "Is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine," I assure her, rising from the seat. "Presents sound good," I agree. "Can someone help me get mine? I left them in the car?"

Carver gets up to help, but Tish pushes him back down. "Don't worry, Carv. I'll give her a hand."

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth – huh – Carver sits back down and relaxes, before Tino grabs him by the shoulder of his shirt. "Nice try, Carver. I need help in the kitchen."

"The world's gone strange," he mutters, before rising reluctantly. "Alright, alright. I'm coming. Just tell me you don't want me to garnish anything."

"Oh," Tino groans as the cross over toward the kitchen, "and here I thought you'd do such a great job twirling orange rind."

8 - * - * - * - 8

"Wow," I gasp, slumping back onto the bed. "Wow."

"So it's true," Phil groans, rolling to the side before falling down so as not to crush me. "Susie's been telling me for years that it's better after marriage but I figured she was just getting old and losing her memory."

I laugh, reaching up with a forearm and wiping the sweat off my forehead. "Well, we've certainly set ourselves a high standard to go on with. Up for the challenge?"

"Oh, I've got nothing better to do for the rest of my life," he tells me, tracing a fingertip over my face from forehead to chin. "I think I'll give it a go."

"Good," I tell him, reaching down and pulling the sheet up over our bodies, snuggling into him a little as I do so. "So, what did you do today?"

He raises an eyebrow at me as he wraps an arm around my shoulders. "Well, I got up, had some breakfast, married you, and for dinner, I had – you wouldn't have believed this fish, seriously, it was just cooked like – "

I whack him on the chest. "You nuntz. I meant what did you do while you were getting ready?"

He shrugs, breathing slowly starting to return to normal. "Paced a lot. Got the pep talk of a lifetime from Susie. Got glowered at by your Dad a lot. You think he'll ever start to like me?"

"We can hope."

"Anyway, I guess I just waited. Thought a bit about us. A lot about us, to be honest with you. Where we're going, that kind of thing."

"Strange," I tell him. "I spent the afternoon telling people where we'd been."

"Nostalgia gets the better of you, huh?" he jokes, stretching his whole body along his spine – a habit he's got after sex. I don't know if he even realises he's doing it. "I guess I was just impatient. I wanted so badly for us to be out there, getting married." One of his hands, running lightly up and down my upper-arm, reaches across and plays with the necklace – other than my brand new wedding ring, the only thing I've got on. "I know it took me a while to propose, but once you said yes, I just wanted to be married to you so fast."

I watch as his fingers twirl the opal setting between his fingers. Most men would have proposed with a diamond ring, or even any sort of ring, but not Phil. It wasn't traditional, but as has been pointed out to us many times before – we're not exactly traditional kinds of people. "I guess it feels like we've been so close to being married for so long now, that it's nice to have just made it…real."

"Real," he agrees, nodding, watching the twirling opal with a slightly blank expression, suggesting he can't really see it. "Wife. You're my wife."

I can totally empathise as I had this moment myself only a few hours ago. "Yep. Lauren Patricia DeVille. Has a certain ring to it, don't you think?"

He leans down and kisses me on the shoulder. "It'll take some getting used to."

"Doesn't everything?" I remind him. "Everything about being married will take some getting used to."

"Some of it I'm very much looking forward to, though," he tells me, running a hand through my hair, just starting to dry from the sweatiness we'd worked ourselves up into before. "Like getting used to sex as a married couple."

"That'll take a lot of getting used to," I agree, rolling on top of him. "We'd better practice."

8 - * - * - * - 8

Tish and I exchange a look and a chuckle before I lead her out to where I've parked my car. Well, my car for today. Phil's car, actually.

Making the drive in Phil's car was a big mistake, it turns out. Everywhere you might think to look there are CDs, and they all, rather annoyingly, remind me of him. Tapestry was a big mistake – when you're trying to tell yourself that you don't want to go from being friends to lovers, songs like You've Got A Friend, Natural Woman and Way Over Yonder are the last things you need to be hearing. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow worked better on that front.

I ended up following it with a Phil Spector compilation, to remind me of the perils of getting involved with anyone long term at all. Especially someone named Phil.

I pop the boot and start shuffling the presents around a little, trying to work out how this is going to work best. "Alright, do you want small, funny-shaped and heavy or big, flat and light?"

"Small and funny shaped works for me," Tish tells me. "So, what happened with you and Phil?"

I roll my eyes. "Can't keep a secret in this town, can you?"

"We lifted the carpet upstairs," she tells me. "You can hear everything."

"Ah," I say, lacking anything better to say as I start loading her up with presents. "So you already know what happened with Phil."

"No, not all of it," she tells me, a frown on her face. "Tino wouldn't let me listen to all of it."

I grin. "He's such a gentleman like that. How's things on that front, anyway?"

"Things are good," she tells me, shuffling the presents a little to try and keep from dropping them all. "We're…well, we're decorating his mom's house, which has been fun. He's been spending his weekends home to help out, and so I've been seeing him a lot more."

"Sparks?" I ask, trying to judge whether the Adidas 50th Anniversary UNO set for Carver should go in with the presents I'm carrying or the ones Tish has.

"Too early for sparks," she says. "But there's flint."

"Glad to hear it," I tell her, tucking the card deck into my pocket.

"Hey, don't think that you're getting out of this question. What happened with you and Phil?"

"We slept together," I tell her, aware that evasion is getting me nowhere – and besides, what I said before does hold true – you can't keep a secret in this town to save your life. Mrs. T knows, Carver knows, and within minutes Tino will know. The idea that Tish wouldn't find out is laughable.

And besides, I kind of want her to know. After all, if there's anyone who might understand what I'm going through, it'd be her, right?

"I'm worried," I tell her, speaking into the surprisingly persistent silence – she hadn't said anything to my earlier revelation, which startled me a little.

"What about?" she asks.

"A lot of things," I tell her. "I guess…well, I guess I'm really just worried about how Phil and I will…end."

She raises an eyebrow over the pile of presents I've inflicted on her. "Aren't you getting kind of pre-emptive, there? Sounds like you've just barely begun before worrying about endings."

I groan as I use the weight of the presents I've chosen to carry myself to push the boot shut. "Well, relationships end, Tish. I mean, look at you and Peter, look at Tino's parents. Look at Carver's parents. Look at me and – "

"Tino," she finishes for me. "That's what this is really all about, isn't it? You and Tino, and how you ended. Badly."

"I don't even know that it's about how we ended," I correct her. "It's about what it's been like since. It's about losing…something, something that was there that was completely separate from our relationship. That closeness, that love – platonic, friendly love – that we used to share. I worry that we'll never get that back."

Tish shakes her head. "Okay, yeah – you and Tino had problems. Maybe still have problems, sure – although you guys did manage to joke a bit about your break up before – if that's not progress I don't know what is."

"Point taken," I concede.

"While I've been on the receiving end of a few pep talks of this kind myself lately, I think the only piece of advice I can give you at this point – and this is in all seriousness – is that you need to talk to Tino about this."

We start walking back toward the house. "Really?"

"Essentially what you're stressed about here is what happened in the past between you and Tino, but you're letting it influence any possible future you could have with Phil. I think you need to avoid doing that, but to do so, you've really got to have this conversation with Tino, not me, not Carver, not Tino's mom, and not anyone else."

I catch up with something she said a moment or two ago. "Who's been giving you pep talks?"

She shrugs. "Kimi Finster."

I pause, and she doesn't, resulting in her getting ahead and having to turn back to face me. "Kimi Finster? Phil's ex-girlfriend?"

"It's not as weird as it sounds," she tells me. "But one thing led to another and we've become really good friends. She and Tino are quite close, and she's been helping me…work out ways to become closer to him. Having been there somewhat in the past herself."

I guess there's a certain truth to that. "Well…okay. I hope you and Tino get there."

"I hope you and Phil do too."

"Yeah."

8 - * - * - * - 8

"There's a note," Phil's voice comes from the other room of our far-too-opulent, one-time-only suite.

I raise an eyebrow. "I sent you in there to get ice-cream."

"It's attached to the ice-cream," he says, shutting the fridge door.

"What's it say?"

"It says, 'I told Susie you two would go for the unhealthy stuff first. Go check the fruit-bowl. Angelica.'"

I let out a snort of laughter before reluctantly getting out of bed and crossing to where our luggage is stacked against the wall. I pull out Phil's old Flames shirt – my preferred piece of sleepwear, something I stole not long after we got together – and pull it on, tugging my ponytail out of the neckhole after me. "Well, you can't say they don't know us."

"True," Phil agrees as I walk into the lounge-room/kitchenette. He's placed the ice-cream on the table next to the fruit bowl – along with the note from Angelica – and he is now reading another, somewhat longer, piece of paper that had presumably been attached to an apple.

"Alright, what did they have to share so badly that they wanted to interrupt our wonderful honeymoon?"

"Dear Phil and Lor," he begins, sitting down at the table. I circle around the table and place my hands on his shoulders, reading over his shoulder but allowing him to read the note aloud anyway. "We wanted to wish you good luck on your marriage and help you get off to as pleasurable start as possible. So we've managed to get some reservations changed – putting you in a half-decent hotel, for a start, rather than that cheap tourist trap you were going to go to – and fixed you up with a slightly longer honeymoon than originally intended – an extra week, in the end. Dil will meet you tomorrow with the extra clothes and the new tickets – we raided your closets. Reggie's got you covered at the Caller, Lor, so don't worry, and your mother has agreed to come out of retirement to run the Java Lava in the interim, Phil. Go and have a good time, and consider this your present from all of us. Love from Susie, Angelica, Lil, Tish, Tino, Carver, Dil, Chuckie, Kimi and Reggie." He takes a deep breath. "P.S. Phil, before you say anything about how we shouldn't have wasted the money, after everything you did to help us when we were starting out…we know it wasn't money or anything, but the support you and Lor gave us was incredible. And this was just a way for us to say thank you. So enjoy it and don't worry about anything. We'll see you when you get back. Susie and Angelica."

"That's sweet of them," I comment, leaning down and kissing Phil on the crown of his head.

"Yeah," he agrees, reading the note again to himself before putting it back down on the table. "It was." He turns to face me and looks me up and down. "I didn't know you brought that shirt."

I tug on it a little, slightly self-conscious. "Of course I brought it," I tell him. "No-one got me lingerie to knock your socks off with, so this is pretty much it. I hope that's not a problem?"

He laughs. "Lor, you're my wife, standing there looking extremely dishevelled from an extremely pleasant evening of our first love-making as a married couple, wearing nothing but a long shirt – not to mention a long shirt associated with the one man I ever had the slightest crush on. If you were any sexier I'd need to lie down."

I roll my eyes. "Well, I'm all for you lying down," I tell him, taking his hand with one of mine and scooping the Phish Food ice-cream and spoons up with the other. "But I might need to take the shirt off. Wouldn't want to get ice-cream all over it."

8 - * - * - * - 8

"What is it, exactly?" Carver asks, rotating his gift from Tish in his hand. "I mean, my instinctive answer is I like it, but I'm really not sure what purpose it's meant to serve."

"It's a toy," Tish explains, pushing one of the pieces of metal on the complicated, rounded contraption in Carver's hand. He jumps slightly and puts it down quickly on the table as the entire toy begins moving, seemingly of its own accord. "You can change the pieces around, alter the shape it comes out as in the end, that kind of thing. I thought it might go well in your office. Very industrial design-y."

He smiles as the toy folds in on itself before blossoming out into a flower shape and finally sitting still. "Interesting. I like it."

"Good," Tish says, sitting back on the couch again, reclining next to Tino – who has turned slightly red from the proximity of her.

"Well, we've just got one left," Tino's mom announces, "and it would appear to be for Lor from Tino."

I smile at Tino in thanks as I accept the gift passed along the line to me. "Thanks, T." I unwrap it slowly – I'm sure everyone's aware that I'm not quite with it this afternoon, but by the same token, they're all aware why as well, so I don't think they're holding it against me.

I unwrap Tino's gift – a CD. And it's not Chum Bukkit.

"I wanted to get you something different this year," he tells me. "I know Phil has what seems like every CD in existence, but hopefully this is something new for you. I think you'll like it."

I turn the CD over in my hands – Augie March's Moo, You Bloody Choir – and read the name of the first song.

"Thank you, Tino," I tell him. "It's perfect."

I get up and lean over to give him a hug on the couch. He squeezes me back in turn and smiles at me broadly. "I'm glad you like it. Have you heard of them before?"

I nod. "Once."

"Some writer friends of mine were big fans of theirs, we went to a concert of theirs in San Francisco last year. It was pretty incredible."

"I'll listen to it on the way home," I promise, marvelling at the craziness of the world.

"Are you okay?" he asks, reaching up and taking my hand where I stand over him.

I shrug. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking about some stuff."

He raises an eyebrow. "Are you sure? Do you need to talk?"

I try to formulate a response, but before I can, I hear a throat clear behind me, and I realise that we're still in the lounge room, with Carver, Tish and Mrs. Tonitini a captive audience.

"Maybe later," I tell him. "Thanks for the CD."

"You're welcome," he reaffirms, still looking at me slightly strangely, but smiling through the confusion. "Merry Christmas."

"And a joyous Solstice to you," I respond.

Tish chooses this moment to distract the situation somewhat by suggesting we retire to lunch – an idea upon which I jump like a shot. Awkward conversation with Tino can wait until we're good and fed.

8 - * - * - * - 8

I lay on my side, watching him. My hair came loose at some point in our most recent frenzy of activity and I have to raise my head a little to pull it out from under my shoulder, where every slight move was making me tug on it. He's lying, on his back, next to me, breathing in and out softly – he doesn't snore, he doesn't breathe heavily enough to make any noise at all, really – his torso and face gleaming in the moonlight. This is my husband, this is the person I will wake up next to every day until one of us dies. This is it for me.

He doesn't open his eyes before he speaks, and I nearly jump a foot in the air. "What are you staring at me for?"

"Just getting my kicks," I tell him. "You're quite pretty, you know."

"I knew you only married me for my body," he tells me, rolling over onto his side to face me. "Are you okay?"

I shrug. "I've just been thinking. About stuff. The past, and things."

"Don't get too fixated on the past," he tells me. "We're meant to be doing this whole 'looking into the future' thing, I thought."

"Nothing wrong with remembering the past," I point out. "I was just thinking about college."

"Can't believe it's nearly been…wow, three years, since we graduated."

"It's only been two years and…well, yeah, I guess eight or nine months, huh?" I bask in that thought for a second. "Braid my hair?"

He groans as he rises up to sit on the bed, but nods and reaches for the lamp, letting his neck crick before pulling me closer so he can braid my hair as requested. "One day you're going to have to learn to do this yourself," he tells me.

"Why? I'm always going to have you to do it for me now. It's why I married you."

"I thought it was for my body?" he sounds hurt.

"Just let you think that," I tell him as he takes separate sections of my hair. "You never told me why you learnt to do this, anyway."

"It was a trade off," he tells me. "I got to watch the hockey instead of studying if Kimi got to give me a makeover. It seemed like a good trade at the time."

"Are there photos of this?" I ask.

"For the amount I paid, there better not be," he says.

I laugh at that, and we sit in silence for a moment as he fixes my hair. Since I started keeping my hair long – about four years ago now, I realise – he's always been the one that did this for me. It never seemed weird, even when we were friends – it was just something he did for me, because we were friends. The idea of learning to do it myself never crossed my mind. On the few occasions when he couldn't – or wouldn't – do it, I would just tie it back.

"Do you not want to do this any more?"

He stops, mid-movement. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, does this bother you, me getting you to do this? Should I learn how because there might be a day when you won't do it any more?"

He resumes his task, albeit somewhat slower than before. "Are you worried I'm going to leave you or something?"

"No," I tell him. "We just got married, for crying out loud. But…well, it is something I might worry about. What if, some day, you want me to have short hair again, or get just plain sick of braiding my hair for me – or cleaning it out of the drain, or whatever. What if you want me to change?"

He sighs. "You're incredibly insecure, you know."

"I know."

"I could care less if your hair is long, short, medium length or gone altogether. I mean, I like it long, don't get me wrong – and I like doing this for you. It's a nice little moment of intimacy and closeness that's very much just ours, you know? But you're my wife and I would love you no matter what your hair looked like. I just think you should learn how to do it because it would be a useful skill for you to have in your repertoire. For example, if we have a daughter someday, do you really want her to go to school any tell everyone her Daddy braided her hair for her?"

I chuckle. "Might be interesting."

He reaches over to the bedside table and picks up a tie from where it was discarded during our love making before. "There you go."

"Thank you," I tell him, turning to kiss him softly. "This is really forever, isn't it?"

"It really is," he says. "I'm not letting you go."

"No, you never would."

8 - * - * - * - 8

"Hey."

I turn to face Tino from where I sit at the kitchen table. "Hey, T."

"How's it going?" he asks, crossing to the fridge and pulling out a tall pitcher of cordial.

"About as well as can be expected," I tell him.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I chuckle. Despite what Tish said, to be honest, the last person I can see me talking to about this is Tino. "I don't know how much you'd want to know about this, Tino."

"Try me," he suggests.

I shrug. "Alright. Phil and I…kind of got together last night."

He nods. "And?"

I raise an eyebrow. "And…you're not shocked, hurt, or anything by this news?"

He shrugs in return. "Should I be? I mean, Lor, we broke up…six, eight months ago. I know that you were never with him when we were together, and therefore it's really nothing for me to have an opinion on if you choose to be with him now. Did you want me to be upset?"

"No, of course not," I tell him. "I know, you and I are in the past. It's just…I'm confused, Tino."

"What are you confused about?" he asks, bringing the pitcher and two glasses to the kitchen table, pouring us out the drinks.

"A lot of things. I'm scared of what's happening with me and Phil. I'm scared of what happened with me and you, and the ramifications that has for me and relationships. I'm scared of what happens to everybody's relationships, I guess."

"You should only be worried about your own relationships, Lor, because they're the only ones that mean anything to you. I mean, look at my parents relationship. Or hell, my Mom's relationship with Dixon. I could look at her and her track record, and say, hey, love stinks. But I don't like to do that – I like to see that as being part of her life, and my relationships are part of mine, and what happened to her doesn't have to happen to me."

"What about what's happened to you in the past?"

"What do you mean?"

"What I'm worried about, with regards to Phil, is the idea that we're going to turn out like…well, that we're going to become like you and I. Tino, you were so much to me. You meant so much to me. You were a bright spark in my life all the way through high school – and when we were together, for most of the time, you were a wonderful boyfriend. But when we broke up, I lost that. I lost the boyfriend part, which was sad, but necessary – but what was worse was that I lost you as friend – I know that we said we would stay friends, but I don't know how well it worked – because for months now you and I haven't been able to have a halfway decent conversation. We don't call each other on the phone and talk about our crappy days anymore, we don't exchange friendly little e-mails anymore, and all the time we're around each other, it's just plain awkward.

"And, don't take this the wrong way, but as much as you meant to me…Phil means to me to – perhaps more. That doesn't mean I loved you – or love you – any less than him, but it's different and it means so much to me, and the idea that I might lose him and everything he means to me is more than I can bear. If I have to live with that kind of awkwardness with him, if he's never going to be there again to talk to…then what am I going to do, Tino?

"I was so scared, going to college, away from all of you for the first time in…forever, really, I was so scared that I wasn't going to fit in, find any friends, that I was just going to want to come home and back to what was safe and secure and never really get out and start my life. But what happened was that I found Phil. And in this huge, scary place, starting this massive, frightening new life, he was there with me, for me. Tertiary education can make or break you but he wouldn't let it break me, and I wouldn't let it break him, and that friendship isn't just anything – it's everything. For me. When I got bad grades, he was there. When I got drunk, he held my hair back. When you and I broke up – " my breath catches in my throat, and it's the first pause I'm conscious of making in minutes – "he was there for me. He helped me get through everything. And I can't lose that. I can't risk it ending with him and me the way it ended for us. Because then who can I turn to?"

Tino takes a deep sip of his drink. "So, basically, Lor, you're scared."

I exhale. "Yes. That's it in a nutshell. I'm scared."

He reaches over and grasps my shoulder. "Lor, I love you, you know. But you're an idiot."

I stare at him, too shocked and emotionally shattered from my recent outpouring to be amused or even bemused. "What?"

"You're so…worried, about all these possibilities, you're looking so far off into the future at this idea of what might happen in a worst case scenario. Lor, I can't believe that I'm about to say this, to you of all people, but…"

I'm on tenterhooks, "What?"

"Stop thinking things through so much. Live in the moment, Lor."

My world comes crashing to a screeching halt.

"You're so worried about everything going wrong in the future. What you've forgotten is what is here now. This is a man who loves you, who you love, who wants to share this incredible part of life with you. I know you're scared of the future, but…what if it does work out? Hell, even what if it doesn't work out – do you really want to deny yourself the chance to have this shot at an incredible relationship, no matter what the outcome?"

I'm still pretty dumbstruck by Tino telling me to be more impulsive, and I can't quite bring myself to answer.

"And…I know things have been kind of strained, between us, lately, but…do you realise that you just completely opened up to me about a major problem you're having in your personal life?"

Huh. I hadn't noticed.

"I know that we've still got a ways to go, but…we'll get there, Lor. We'll be whole again. Well, as whole as we were before, anyway. And one part of that is moving on. Putting the past in the past and finding…what's out there for us next."

This shakes me from my stupor slightly. "Does this have anything to do with house decorating?"

He blushes slightly. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."

I laugh a little at the picture he presents of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I think she'd be good for you, you know."

He shrugs. "We're just friends. Not saying that…well, given enough time, and closeness, and…maybe given a chance – "

"Take my word for it," I tell him. "Make a chance."

He nods. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Are you going to take a chance?"

I take a sip of the drink he poured for me. This morning I woke up with Phil by my side, and it seems like a lifetime ago. This morning I came tearing into town, torn by indecision on where I wanted my relationship with Phil to go. But now I know that it's too late to go back – we've crossed some kind of line. I guess the question is am I able to risk being hurt, to risk losing him as a friend, even temporarily, somewhere down the line, in order to take this shot, to try to be something…else, share something with him that I might never get to share with anyone else?

There's a knock at the door.

Tino rises. "I wonder who that could be?"

I get up, somewhat numbly, and follow him out into the entryway, where Tish is coming from the lounge to answer the door, but she backs away as Tino comes up first. He pulls the door open, and over his shoulder, I see Phil – standing there, clad in his finest shirt and slacks, his favourite boots and, for some reason, a tall, black top-hat.

He sees me over Tino's shoulder and Tino is instantly moving out of the way, ushering a reluctant Tish back into the lounge-room. I step forward into the space that Tino has vacated, facing Phil up close for the first time in what seems like so long.

"Hey," I say, unable to come up with any better words.

"Hey," he responds, reaching out and grabbing the doorframe with one hand. "How're you?"

I sigh. "To be honest with you, I don't know."

"Me neither," he says, letting out a strong exhalation and looking at the floor. "I've been talking a lot today. Doing a lot of talking to people, to be honest with you. And everyone seems to keep saying something to me – well, nearly everyone, anyway. 'If you love something, let it go, and if it's truly yours it'll come back to you. If you love somebody, you should be happy with their choice – no matter what – because you love them enough to let them go."

He raises his eyes and looks at me, straight on. Here's the part where he tells me he'll respect my decision, that he's going to let me go to make up my mind – I didn't fool him for a second this morning when I told him I would come back – he knew I was running away to think.

"Well," he says, "it's all complete and utter bullshit."

For the second time in twenty minutes, I'm struck speechless.

"If you love something, you shouldn't let it go, you should hold it to you, because you know that it's right. If you love somebody, really, and you know they love you, then you know what will make them happiest is being with you, because no-one will ever love them like you do.

"I know that you're scared of what could happen and you're scared about things changing between us, but things changed between us a long time ago, and we just took so long to admit it. I'm not going to tell you that we're destined to be together forever because I'd be lying through my teeth. But I know that you are more perfect for me than anyone I've ever met and what we have is something so special that we can't pass it up because there's a chance it won't work out. And I know you said you'd come back to me, but I also know how scared you were, and I couldn't bare to let you go on not knowing that I love you so much that hell, I'm scared about us not working out, because I don't know how I'll go on if I lose you, but that I want us to be together too much not to try."

He seems to have run out of words at this point, and we just stare at each other for a moment, before I finally find my voice. "You're wearing a top hat."

He stares at me in disbelief before reaching up and pulling the hat off his head.

"I love you," I tell him. "And when I told you this morning that I was going to come back to you I was…I wasn't lying, but I was scared and I wasn't sure what exactly I was going to come back and do. Up until about ten minutes ago, I still didn't have any idea."

"Do you know now?"

I nod, stepping down onto the front step. "Yes. I do."

I kiss him.

We break apart for air some time later. "Thank god," he whispers. "I was scared."

"So was I," I admit. "But no more being scared from here on, right? Because that's what we've always done for each other. We take the big, scary life-changing experiences, and we help each other through them. So that's what we're going to do. Right?"

"Right," he agrees.

I kiss him again.

This time when we break apart I see Kimi over his shoulder, leaning on the car. "Hey," I call to her, waving her over before slapping Phil on the shoulder. "You didn't say you'd brought anyone? How long were you just going to leave her standing there?"

He looks at me, once again, in disbelief. "I was getting there! There were things that needed to be said."

I shake my head at him, but before I can retort Kimi has joined us. "So, have you guys got everything sorted?"

I nod, not releasing Phil from my arms. "I think so."

"Good," she says. "In that case, I better get heading back home. They'll be expecting me for dinner."

"Oh no you don't," I tell her, grabbing her by the shoulder with my free hand. "Come on in and share some Christmas with us."

"Yeah, come in," a voice comes from behind me, and I turn to see Tish and Tino standing there, Tish smiling brightly. "It's good to see you again, Kim."

"You too, Tish," Kimi says, stepping past us and wrapping Tish up in a hug. "Happy Chanukah."

"Merry Christmas," she returns.

"You two know each other?" I ask. "Since when?"

"Oh, not long," Kimi says, before turning to Tino. "Hey, T. How're things holding up in Oakland?"

"Boring without you, Finster," he says. "Hope New York is panning out."

"Better by the day," she agrees. "Sure there won't be any objections to me coming in?"

"No, no," Tino says. "The more the merrier. Besides, you can meet Carver."

The three of them wander in to the house, trading stories of decorating houses and living in New York and how Christmas Day has been for everyone. I turn to Phil, who looks stunned at this turn of events. "So, your friends and my friends are becoming friends. Who would have thought it?"

"As long as they don't trade blackmail material on us, I'm cool with it," I declare, wrapping an arm back around his shoulders. "Come in?"

He nods. "Yes, please."

I kiss him softly. "You sure you're ready for this?"

"It's just Christmas. I think I'm prepared."

"I mean…everything."

He smiles at me. "Ready and waiting."

8 - * - * - * 8

Epilogue

There's something special about sleeping next to someone. Really sleeping next to someone. I remember the first time I deliberately…slept, next to him. It was a few days after Christmas, December 30th, actually. We'd been flying on this incredible high for a few days – I doubt we did anything for a few days after getting back from Bahia Bay but talk and have sex – lots of sex. Lots of talking. On the 30th, we sat up after eating dinner - I was watching movies, he was painting, we were talking. It got really late and, to be honest, it wasn't like either of had slept much over the last few days. So the next think I know I was being shaken awake on the couch, where I had finally succumbed. Phil was standing over me, a smile on his face. "Come on," he said. "Let's go to bed."

I got up and stretched, watching as he yawned and stretched a bit himself, before trudging off to his room, obviously pretty tired himself.

It was then that I paused, uncertain.

We had shared a bed every night since Christmas Eve, but always in the aftermath of sex, naked and curled around each other. Tonight there did not seem to be much possibility of that, as we were both practically walking unconscious. Did this mean we were not going to sleep together? Should I stay in my own bed tonight, or was he expecting me in his? I had only once slept with someone without making love first – the one time when Tino and I were fighting. I guess it's not so surprising, really, but I'm a college student, with only one longer-term relationship, and that long distance. How did a non-long-distance mature relationship work? Were we going to sleep next to each other? Should I get my pyjamas, or should I just go in and sleep naked? Do I need to bring my own pillow?

He stepped back out of his room, dressed in his favourite pair of long sweatpants and an incredibly worn-looking, over-large Calgary Flames supporters top, so old as to be faded a dull orange with a badly peeled 14 on the sleeve. He observed my paused body with a quirked eyebrow. "Quicksand?"

This jolted me back to life, and I turned to stare at him. "Huh?"

"Did you stand in a patch of quicksand?" he asked, still watching me with what was quite clearly amusement. "Do you want me to throw you a vine?"

I realised instantly how ridiculous I must look, standing there in the hall seemingly without purpose. "A rope would probably be better," I suggested, trying very hard to act like nothing out of the ordinary was going on.

He smiled at me, a genuine, loving smile of the kind I'd become so used to over the time I'd known him but that now meant something else entirely. My stomach did a little kick-thing. "I don't think we've got any rope at the moment."

"But we would be okay for a vine?" I asked, deciding playing along is easing my nerves somewhat. This is something I'm used to, something I can deal with.

"Lousy with the damn things," he tells me, crossing the hall to the bathroom but walking quite wide of where I'm trapped in the quicksand. "Well, if you ever get yourself unstuck, do come to bed."

I sigh and nod. Right. Come to bed. His, I think. But definitely bed.

I finally walked into my room, very conscious of my breathing. I'd barely been in here for days, and it shows – the place was neater than I've ever known it. I pull my one clean set of pyjama-like-clothes out of the drawers and get changed, slowly, still amazingly aware of everything I'm doing and how significant it might turn out to be. I've got to think about this less, forget about it, just…be. I am going to bed. Just…to bed. Phil's bed.

One thing at a time.

Our bed?

One thing at a time.

I cross quickly from my room to the bathroom and find him still in there, extracting his contacts with care and trying not to wince or poke himself in the eye. He smiles at me in the mirror before kissing me softly on the forehead as he leaves the room.

I go through the motions of brushing my teeth and flossing and letting my hair loose, brushing it a little in what is becoming an increasingly blatant stall for time. Finally I set the brush down and sigh, staring myself down in the mirror. "Alright, McQuarrie. You're going to go in there, you're going to lie down, and you're going to sleep. You have turned every single step of this relationship into a massive, dramatic production, and you're not going to let this become another one. You're going to knock it off. You're just going to go to sleep. Next to your boyfriend. Now get over it."

I left the bathroom and returned to his doorway, taking a deep breath before slipping inside, as if I'm trying to escape from something. He was sitting up in bed, reading glasses on, trying to slog his way through a book he got from someone for Christmas. He looks up as I enter the room, slowly walking, one very deliberate step at a time, across the floor.

"Are you alright?" he asks as I finally reach the bed.

I nod. "Yes. I think so." Focus on anything but pulling the covers back and lying down next to him. Anything at all. "I don't think I've ever seen you in that shirt before."

He raises an eyebrow at the topic of conversation, but lets me steer it there. "I picked it up when I went home for Christmas. I've had it for years."

"It shows," I tell him. "It looks very comfortable."

And then, I'm lying there, next to him, in his bed.

"It is. My Mom got it for me. Took me and Lil to a Kings/Flames game when we were, like, five – she was encouraging us to experience all sports, to get a taste for them, find out what we liked. I knew from the moment I saw it that I loved hockey, but especially, I wanted to be exactly one person out on the ice – Theoren Fleury. Hence the number 14 on the shirt. She was a bit miffed – she wanted me to be a Kings fan, so we could go to the local games, but no – I was a Calgary fan, from that moment on. Anyway, when I outgrew that one, I made her get me another – and then another – even though he hasn't been on the team for years and years, I still have to have his number on it."

I nod. "So that's where the craziness began."

"Hey, you don't here me criticising you for watching football. Talk about craziness."

"Actually, I do hear you do that. A lot."

He looked at me over his glasses. "Well, no-one's perfect." He yawned widely. "This book is very, very boring and I'm going to vote three pages as being completely satisfactory for tonight."

"Sounds like a plan," I told him, nodding slowly. Alright. One step at a time.

He reached over to his bedside table, placing his book and his glasses on top of it before turning off the lamp. "Good night, Lor," he said, kissing me softly.

I pressed back in return. "Good night."

We lay there in silence, undisturbed, very separate. I'm not sure if I'm on the right side of the bed. I normally lay so sprawled across my own bed that I don't know what side of the bed I would nominally sleep on. So I lay very still, trying not to encroach too much on his side, where he seems comfortable.

"Lor?"

"Yes?"

"Are you alright?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because you seem…distant. Literally."

I sighed. "I'm not exactly used to this."

"We've been doing it for nearly a week now," he pointed out.

"Yeah, I know," I conceded, rolling onto my side to face him. "But it's different. The last few nights we've just…fallen asleep, together, after…well, you know. But this is just…sleeping. Together. It's something different. It's something more…intimate, somehow."

"You're putting a lot of pressure on what is usually a fairly relaxing activity."

"Shut up," I suggested, reaching out and shoving him on the shoulder, lightly.

I let my hand linger, rubbing gently against the shoulder of his shirt.

"You just have to find a way to be…comfortable, I guess," he told me. "Don't think about it. Just…be comfortable. And sleep."

My finger traced random patterns on the fabric of the shirt. The contact is nice. "I do like this shirt."

He opened an eye and peered at me in the darkness. "I don't like the sounds of that. This is my shirt."

"Did I say I was going to do anything to it?"

"No, but that's the same tone of voice that you got when eying off my piece of Christmas cake at Tino's."

I shuffle closer to him, tucking my head into the crook of his neck. "I think it would make me comfortable."

He exhaled slowly. I felt it on top of my head, but it wasn't annoying. It was somehow soothing, knowing he was there and that close. Not that there could be any confusion about that – he was everywhere in this tiny little two-person world we were sharing.

"Well, we'll see how you go getting it away," he suggested, wrapping an arm around me. I let my other arm fall across his chest, possessively wrapping myself around the shirt. And him. "For now, good night."

"Good night," I echoed.

When you've spent as long sleeping next to someone as I have to Phil, you become very conscious of when they're not there. About seven months into our relationship, he went to an art fair in Boston for a few days and I found it incredibly difficult to sleep alone again. So I'm not surprised to discover the reason I've woken up at 5am is because he's not on his side of the bed – he's not in the bed at all.

"Phil?"

There's a momentary silence, before a voice calls out, "I'm in the other room."

I rise up from the bed and pad softly into the lounge room, where he's sitting, legs tucked under himself on the couch, watching infomercials on TV. He looks up at me apologetically as I walk in. "Sorry, Lor. Flying makes me nervous."

"We don't fly until four this afternoon," I point out. "And we're at a hotel near the airport to make sure it's easy to get there."

"I know," he says. "It's not rational."

"You're nuts," I tell him, sitting on the sofa next to him, resting my head on his shoulder. "What are we buying this fine, still-dark-out-morning?"

"It's some kind of slow cooker," he tells me, pointing out something that is now happening on the screen. "You see how the kid is getting some soup? That soup's been there, for five hours – not overcooked, but it's still piping hot."

"Oooh." I coo appreciatively.

Twelve hours into my married life, and I'm sitting with my new husband on a hotel couch watching the Home Shopping Channel and discussing slow cookers. It's not exactly a fairy-tale beginning to a marriage, but I can think of worse things to do with the rest of my life.

Because, no matter what we're doing – going on our honeymoon, braiding my hair, watching infomercials, dancing, or sleeping, or anything – it's all a part of stuff we do together from here on out, and with that criteria, I think I'll do just about anything.

"Want to see what they're selling on Danoz?" he asks.

"Of course," I tell him, kissing him on the cheek and nudging him until he raises his arm, allowing myself to tuck in under it. "Just wait, there's more…"

8 - * - * - * - 8

The End

8 - * - * - * - 8

Alright, the ending came to me very late at night and is kind of weird, but here's why: Tertiary is ultimately about two people who go through something together and come out the other side – together. The entire story is about them doing things together, helping each other through every bit of life and sharing life with each other, in ways that only Phil and Lor know how. And I wanted to show them not just doing big stuff together, but it's doing little things together that really make a relationship work. My favourite chapter of this story is Chapter 12 – the conversation the pair of them share on the couch is one of my proudest moments in fanfic.

In regards to Tertiary, there are a few elements to clear up. First: some thanks: everyone who reviewed any of it at all – I can't name everyone, obviously, but I'd especially like to thank for their support Acosta, Brooke Summer Valentine, Ceig and Fletty, who stuck with me for years, and everyone who came to this fic as I brought it home very belatedly.

Secondly: music. Phil in this fic is a massive music fan, because I thought he would be considering where I took his character. Phil in the Road series was a teacher – to try something different this time, I decided to take Phil down the road of "What if he'd fallen in with the art crowd at high school?" I figured he would have been a painter, a creative and occasionally frustrated soul. The 'arty' people at High School also have a tendency to be massive music snobs. I've raided and plumbed the depths of not just my own music collection, but countless other people's as well, and I thank them for their patience and recommendations. Twelve of the key songs from the fic can be found in the Tertiary soundtrack playlist over at Youtube. Other than those songs, though, I'd also like to note the influence of The Dirty Three, who served essentially as a 'score' for this fic (especially the She Has No Strings Apollo and Ocean Songs albums), and the albums Bat out of Hell (Meat Loaf), No More Shall We Part (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd) which have all at different times been vital to my continuing writing.

Thirdly: time. I began this fic in early-mid 2006, at an Internet café on the beach of Woy Woy. The original concept I had was a fic where Arnold, Phil and Tino met at an interschool sports carnival and became friends, and that evolved into the fic we now know as Tertiary (I would like to point out that Tertiary was only ever meant to be a temporary title, but it has very much stuck). The fic as completed here draws on every bit of influence I came into over the last four years. I think if I had finished this fic four years ago, it wouldn't have been nearly as good as it is now, so I'm happy to have traded off endless delays for a better product in the end.

Fourthly: the follow-up. Well, several follow-ups, actually. I'm really still enjoying exploring these characterisations, and Lord Malachite and I will be producing a follow up series, entitled From Here On, a sit-com inspired series, which I hope we will have some elements of to share with you all in the near future. As well as that, there are several back-stories we plan to explore (Tish's, Susie's, Phil's (to an extent) and others), and I hope you enjoy them as well.

Which really brings me to, last, but certainly not least, Lord Malachite. I originally described this fic as originally vaguely planned (and then called Up and Down and Back Again) to Lord Malachite in an e-mail long before I ever published a word of it. The fact that he has stuck with me through four years of false starts and slow progress – essentially, actually, going up and down and back again with me – and is still happy to work with me on the sequel speaks wonders for his fortitude and dedication to what, at times, must have seemed like a lost cause. He has improved this fic in a million little ways – some tweaked dialogue here, some continuity fixes there, talking me out of some bad ideas and coming up with some great ideas himself – and I can't thank him enough for everything he did for me.

I hope you've enjoyed this story. One last time, do please review. I do love the feedback, it makes me strive to be a better writer.

Keep your eyes out for
From Here On – written by Lord Malachite and Acepilot
Coming soon