"So, where does he think you are right now?" he asks, after she has been seated and handed a glass of wine. She smiles ruefully, burying her nose into her glass.
"Having dinner. With… friends."
He tilts his head, leaning back in his chair.
"Of female variety?"
"Well, I didn't specify," she chuckles. Her fingers are playing with the stem of her glass, now resting on the white table cloth. Staring right at him, she clearly anticipates his next sentence.
"But it was implied, I presume."
She nods gravely, "Yeah, it probably was." In the ensuing silence, she brushes an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She really doesn't have much to add to this. He won't let it go, though.
"And if he knew you were having dinner with me instead?"
She sighs. "He'd—"
The restaurant is moderately crowded today, the altogether not uncomfortable silences in their conversation filling up with the occasional clink of silverware against porcelain.
"Did you order?" she asks, wondering why she has not been presented with the menu yet.
"For both of us, by any chance?"
Again, he confirms this.
"So you knew I was coming?" She registers the somewhat smug smirk on his face and rolls her eyes. "Of course you did."
He's not really sure when or how this dinner date was arranged, but it seems to him that he was expecting her to come. It also seems to him that they are supposed to have many things to discuss, but right now can't think of any that he would be justified in digging up. Or that he'd particularly care to bring forward again. Still, she seems to read something into the way he is regarding her, as she raises her eyebrows in question.
He tries to dismiss her with a slight shake of his head, letting her know that it is nothing, but she's adamant.
"Nico, is there something that you feel the need to comment on?" she asks and he knows that they are thinking about the same thing. The same person. And no, he doesn't really feel the need to comment on it, not out loud, at least, but she seems to need for him to do so, so he indulges her.
"Fine," he picks up his water glass and sips from it slowly. "In the spirit of our newly minted camaraderie, am I allowed to tell you that Donnally is not the man for you?"
"Oh?" At least she is still sitting next to him.
He wonders whether he could go even further than that or whether he has already made a big enough mess. What he could say is that Donnally never should have put her in the position where she was essentially the one who had to decide whether he went to San Francisco or not. For all his niceness and boy-next-door charm he sure can be dense.
He doesn't say all that, though. He most probably has no business even knowing that Donnally did that. Instead he opts for the more abstract.
"Because Donnally, once he manages to make up his mind, is perfectly safe and secure and stable."
"Nice alliteration you've got going there, Careles," she interrupts, and he tries to pick up on how bitter the subtle undertones in her voice are. Not dangerously so, he concludes. Not yet.
"Thank you," he deadpans, "And, understandably, that is what you think you need in your life after the period you have had."
"But?" She picks up her wine glass again, only to stare into it.
He wills her to look up at him for his next statement and when he doesn't answer right away, she does, probably out of curiosity.
"Dani, you didn't want safe and secure even when you thought you did."
"What is that supposed to mean?" she asks and this is the moment when the food decides to arrive, costing him the opportunity to gage the temperature of the question. She takes a bite out of the truffle ravioli he had picked out for her and he takes a chance on honesty, something that hasn't let him down with her yet.
"You might have not known that he was cheating on you, but I refuse to believe for one moment that you didn't know what kind of a man he was."
"Are you trying to say that I am attracted to bastards?" she asks, looking up from her food with a frown.
"No," he shakes his head, "that's not what I am trying to say. And you know it."
She sets her fork down on her plate and contemplates him for a moment. He has taken a knife to his medium rare steak and is inspecting the piece of meat he has speared onto his fork. All this would be just fine, a nice theoretical exercise on her personal life, if only she hadn't already thought about all the things he has been saying. Especially that bit about knowing Ray. That one she has thought threadbare.
"You know," she muses, picking on the corner of the table cloth, "that's what gets to me the most about all this. I'm supposed to be this almighty… people-whisperer – how come I did not see what was going on under my own nose? Probably for years. Thinking back now, quite possibly from the very beginning."
Now he sets his cutlery down as well. "If you were your own patient, why would you think you didn't see it?"
She frowns,"Well, that's easy – because I didn't want to see it."
"In my experience," he tilts his head, looking at her softly but seriously, "more often than not, the simple answer is the correct one."
She looks at this man who seeks clarity above all else in life and thinks that, for a change, that would not be a bad code to live by. It's not that things have never been clear for her, nicely black and white, or simple. It's that the decisions she makes, one way or the other, have real, emotional consequences, ripple effects everywhere around her, that tend to make everything murky again. And sometimes it's just so damn simple and easy to do the completely wrong thing.
"Yes, but" she nods gravely and shrugs, "then again, you, my man, tend to oversimplify things."
His eyebrows rise. "I do?" he asks, alert and curious.
"You do. Swift, simple, clean solutions to messy situations – if you can't solve it quickly enough you make it go away." She raises her finger and, scrunching up her nose, points it at him. "That is why I was needed. Not that you'd actually be able to admit that."
"That sounds about right, so I, in fact, have no trouble admitting it," he states. She doesn't quite believe him, but is not about to stop him from humoring her either. Instead, she squints at him for a moment, when she thinks he isn't looking. Just for the record.
"As for knowing who he was," she says thoughtfully, prompting him to look up from his food again, "I'm not sure. I mean, Ray Jay came along so quickly. It's like, one moment I'm in high school, worrying about the history final and getting the perfect perm, and the next moment there he is, sitting in his high chair in the kitchen of our tiny apartment, looking up at me like I'm supposed to know what to do here. Maybe I just didn't have the time to even begin to consider who Ray was." She stops for a moment, thinking back over all these years that have somehow slipped past. Almost nothing is the same anymore, and so little has turned out the way she thought it would, but she finds that she can't really bring herself to regret anything. "I hardly knew who I was yet."
"You put people together like a picture puzzle, Dani," he says, and she kind of understands what he is getting at. These moments, when she figures out what's really going on, how somebody's mind really works, who they really are, are like magic even to herself. Everything suddenly just… fits. He's saying that she'd accepted the creative scam artist part of Ray, if not the douchebag cheater, without even acknowledging it. But, again, it's not as simple as that.
"I went to school, studied and read books for years, Nico, to be able to do what I do," she says, flipping her hair back in frustration. "And I can say with absolute certainty that my husband did not turn out to be who I thought he was. I did not see any of this coming."
He studies her for a moment, then asks, "Who did you think he was?"
"What kind of a man did you think you were married to?" he shrugs.
"Well," she considers his question, "a funny, kind, sometimes reckless man. A good father to my children, a good provider. A man with a huge ego, which I sometimes had to tiptoe around just to make things easier for all concerned, and an insatiable hunger for the bigger and better and higher and newer, but somebody who could be incredibly tender and considerate when I needed him to be. I never thought he was perfect, but he was exciting to be around and I thought he was good for me."
"And now?" he asks and instantly she know what he wants her to see.
"Alright," she concedes. "Now I think that he is all of those things, plus a douchebag cheater. Which kind of puts a different spin on so many other things, doesn't it?"
"A lot can change in seventeen years."
"Yeah, I think in our marriage, the thing that changed most, maybe the only thing that changed, was me."
Taking a longer look inside her wine glass again, she snorts, in such a way that he can't really tell whether she finds her thoughts funny or sad.
"What?" he asks, smiling carefully.
"I was just thinking that it's probably a blessing in disguise that I didn't find out about the womanizing ten years ago," she explains. "What would I have done, with a 5- and a 7-year-old and half a degree? I can't help but wonder whether I would have actually stayed with him, regardless, and, seriously, that thought just sends a cold shiver down my spine now."
"I suppose you would say that everything happens for a reason."
That probably came out more fatalistic than he had meant for it to, she muses. She doesn't think that the reasons people have for doing things necessarily justify their actions and he knows that. Just like she knows how he feels about them.
"You don't really care for the reasons people have." It's a statement rather than a question.
"I really don't," he agrees. "Not as long as the end result is the same."
"For me, the motivations are the most important things. If I can figure them out, I can start to find a way to help." People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons and somebody has to be able to tell the difference.
He nods, moving his hand so that, for a moment, it hovers over hers resting on the table, then pulls it back without a comment. "I know," he says. "That's also why I know you are not attracted to bastards."
He is probably right, she thinks. Matt isn't a bastard. Neither was JD who never pretended to be anything other than he was – extremely taken with her but in a completely different place in life, And neither, she is pretty certain, is Nico, though he is doing his damnedest to keep her from finding out.
For all his purported honesty, he obviously isn't beyond a certain amount of obfuscation and omission, but she is still left wondering whether he thinks she has compromised herself. Even with all the commotion going on the night he had come to tell her that TK had been shot, she hadn't missed the way he balked for a moment when he saw Matt coming down the stairs. She wonders whether that was because he had been disappointed in her – after all, not mixing her professional and private life had been quite a well-stated matter of principle for her – or because there was something more there.
She frowns at her suddenly empty wine glass and looks up to spot a waitress and indicate her need for a refill. Only now does she notice that her dinner partner is drinking water.
"You're not drinking?" she asks, raising a suspecting eyebrow.
Glancing at his glass, he shakes his head, "No, I still have some driving to do tonight. You, I'm guessing, didn't take your own car?"
"No, I coerced RayJay to drive me over," she chuckles. "What are children for, after all?"
He shrugs, something unexpectedly serious flashing in his eyes for a moment. "I wouldn't know."
The slight smile that she gives him is part apologetic, part encouraging, and completely something he doesn't need right now. It is, of course, his own fault for letting too much slip, but it's not so much her almost certainly unconscious need to always understand and support that he minds. Rather, he regrets that his comment seems to have carried her away somewhere, to something or, even worse, somebody else. He tilts his head, hoping that she wanders back soon. When she finally looks at him again and speaks, it's as if he only partially gets his wish.
"I'm afraid that I am starting to lose faith in my ability to hold on to the things that are good in my life." She sighs, furrowing her brow, as if this detour in thoughts is frustrating her as well. He tries to figure out where that comment came from and somehow manages to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.
To that her head snaps up, as if she hadn't even thought of this before and for some strange reason he feels grateful for this. Donnally is fine and well but, in his opinion, at least, not someone who should be overly occupying anyone's thoughts.
"Yeah, that too, I suppose," she contends. "But more generally – peace of mind, sense of belonging, love."
It's not that he doesn't get where that kind of insecurity comes from, but she really needs to know that she's wrong. So much has changed for her that it is understandable how she doesn't realize that she actually has more balance in her life now than she has probably had in ages. Her life is more honest now, her relationships with the people close to her are more honest; her relationship with herself is more honest, and he doesn't see how that could be a bad thing. He is not really good at reassuring people, but he is willing to give it a try this time.
"You're not, Dani. Some things in life you just can't control."
She snorts. "Says the man who has never met a situation he couldn't fix."
At this he has to laugh, partially out of relief that he has somehow, without quite realizing how, managed to lighten the mood.
"True," he admits, "but what I don't particularly like to advertise is that some fixes can only be temporary." He seems to catch her somewhat off-guard with that.
"So why tell me?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.
His smile is warm now. "Because I can't hide it from you – you already know it," he surrenders another admission.
"Maybe if you'd focus a little more on the cause than the effect, you'd get a bit more permanent results," she offers.
For some reason, her suggestion brings an image of a vast mine field to his mind. The situations that would warrant such emotionally loaded poking he doesn't really care to stir up. The rest of them , he thinks, are not really worth it.
"No," he vehemently shakes his head, "some situations really are beyond repair – I have to keep fixing them just to keep them contained."
He'd rather not think about this right now. It is frustrating as hell how some things just refuse to stay behind him. He knows what she'd say to this – that he is the one who is carrying it all with him, that he is the one who is unable to let it go, but he firmly believes that once things have settled themselves into a permanent mess, the most constructive approach is to just accept it and do your best to keep it from spreading.
"Come on, Nico," she sighs, mock impatience in her voice, "what would it cost you to try to shift your viewpoint just a little?"
"Are you trying to fix the fixer, Dani?" he shoots back.
She looks at him for a moment, then shakes her head and takes a small sip from her glass. Their meals are finished now, the cutlery neatly folded to the sides of their cleared plates. She pushes hers aside, supporting her elbows on the table.
"You know, contrary to popular belief, I can't really fix anybody," she says. "I can merely help people see what they have to do to fix themselves."
"You have faith in people," he states.
Again she raises an eyebrow, leaning back slightly. "Is that an accusation?"
"No, that is a fact," he explains. "That is the essence of what you do. I would even say that it's who you are." She is still eyeing him suspiciously, so he feels the need to extrapolate, "It's a good thing, Dani. I have come to observe that if you expect people to behave predictably, they're likely to do just that."
He sees several thoughts slide across her expression, but in the end she settles for another small frown and a contention, "You really are a mystery. A veritable heap of contradictions."
"Coffee?" he asks. He is leaning back in his chair now, legs crossed under the table.
Peeking at the clock on the wall, she sighs. "No, I think I'd better be getting back home."
"I'll drive you." He stands, helping her up from her chair.
She is steadfastly staring out of the car window as they drive through the dark city and he would put her sudden quietness down to being tired if she didn't squint every once in a while, a clear sign of the thinking process taking place in her head. He tries not to spy, but can't help the occasional glances in her direction. The succession of streetlights slides a shadow across her face at rapid intervals.
They are almost halfway to her house when she finally speaks.
"I think I need to break it off with him."
This startles him. He thinks so, too, but he can't really fathom why she would share that consideration with him. It seems to imply some sort of a liability on his part, one he is not really in any position to accept right now.
"Look, Dani," he begins, "I hope you're not doing this because of—"
"Oh, no, I'm doing this because of me," she interrupts him quickly. "I think that the moment just passed for Matt and me. There was something there at some point, but… We missed our opportunity to let our relationship develop naturally and I can't just jump into another commitment right now. I mean, the ink on my divorce papers isn't even dry yet." He can feel her eyes on him even as he keeps his on the road. "You, Nico, are a whole different can of worms. One I'm sure we'll be opening sooner or later."
He knows she is right, even if the thought bewilders him somewhat.
She waits patiently until he circles the car to open her door for her. It is unnecessary, both from a practical and an esthetical point of view, but she accepts it as part of the way his attitudes translate. Part of what their relationship is becoming.
She can't help but wonder whether he is cultivating it on purpose, even a little.
"You said that I didn't want safe and secure?" she asks as they walk up to her door.
"Excuse me?" He turns his whole upper body to face her.
She isn't bothering with repeating the question. Instead she asks the one that was really on her mind. "What kind of a man do you think is for me, then?"
He considers this, tilting his head to the side.
"Based on past examples, someone who is a bit of a challenge," he states. "Someone who can surprise you. Someone you can't be quite sure you'll be able to hold on to, but are having a blast trying to." He looks at her with a benign smile, an eyebrow raised. "Someone with at least a modicum of light and shadow."
Reaching the door, she lays her hand on the knob, then turns around, smiling at him. "Doesn't that sound like you?" she asks.
His smile widens as he reaches out his hand to cup the back of her head and pull her forehead to his lips.
"Good night, Dani," he says and turns to leave.