She'd sat down on the (briefly) familiar bed and was slipping off her shoes when something on the bedside table caught her eye, and her breath. A small tin of cocoa butter, the stuff Michael used to smooth his string-calloused fingers in intimate moments, that small considerate gesture that never quite got crushed along with everything else. It was there in its old place, the place it had disappeared from months before she left. She'd always assumed he just took it with him on the road, for use with all the others. She had no way of knowing that by that time he'd completely abandoned it, along with any kind of consideration. She reached for the tin as if she were handling a ghost.

My God, it's the same one. Well I don't suppose that kind of stuff goes stale… maybe just the reasons for keeping it handy.

She turned the container over in her hand, not opening it, knowing it wasn't here for her. Even she hadn't known until a few hours ago she'd be coming to the house again, instead of meeting with Michael and Peter on some neutral ground. Yet here it was, casually handy, the metal surface slick from recent use. This small considerate gesture, once the last gasp of a rotten relationship. Now marking the progress from getting it all wrong to getting it right.

"Just not with each other."

She stood up and looked around the room, realizing it really didn't look familiar to her anymore. Her art work and books were gone, packed up in boxes downstairs and waiting, maybe, to mark her own progress. He was right, this was his place now. And they'd both paid a fortune, in their way, for him to keep it.

What the hell am I doing here?

She left the room without looking back, and almost collided with Mike where he stood in the hallway outside the bathroom, looking pretty much exactly like she felt.

Another first, she thought, this time with no trace of irrational hope or bitterness.


He'd been rummaging in the bathroom drawers for rubbers, not having needed them for so long he couldn't even remember where he'd kept them. Shit, do they go bad after a long time? Christ knows we don't need any holes… not again.

That was the first pause, but it didn't quite clear his head. As he continued searching in the linen closet, the notion of the two Very Different Reasons why he no longer needed rubbers snuck into the back of his mind. The first was, in the infrequent times he spent here in the months before Phyllis left, it was usually her in the bedroom and him on the sofa in the music room. When they were in the same room, any activity requiring rubbers was not on the agenda.

Now the Second Reason stepped up, and that one stopped him cold.

Rubbers were a lost relic here because Morris, with her "magic pills", had made them obsolete. Which reminded him of that night in her hotel room in Chicago, where that last, physical piece of the puzzling connection that had already snared them was prevented by… a lack of rubbers. And how it didn't much matter at the time, because that last physical piece was the last part of the puzzle they were still putting together, and they could get to it later, because so much more was already there. Which, in turn, reminded him of how things went on for days, even weeks, without that last physical piece being an issue or an obligation, until it made its presence felt the first time she'd come here. And even then, he'd thought it would be postponed by… a lack of rubbers. But in the end it was not, because of Morris's magic pills. Which, in the end, dropped the last piece very nearly in place, making the puzzle that much closer to complete. And here he was, one leftover rubber away from scattering the pieces all over the place, just when she was getting comfortable with the first picture he ever really wanted to be part of.

What the hell am I doing here?

He left the bathroom without closing the drawers or doors, and almost was run over by Phyllis as she came out of the bedroom, her face looking more like his than any blonde fashion model's had the right to, the evidence of carelessness removed and her mouth tidied up for goodbye.

"If you'll give me a hand with my boxes, I'll be going home now."


The sun was rising as Mike went back in the house, not having watched her drive away. Once inside, he went straight to the phone and dialed his service. If he knew for sure Morris had called last night when he hadn't, it might help him figure out what to say. But the only message was from Peter.

"Mr. Tork asks that you call him as soon as possible," Michelle the night operator told him. She sounded a little awkward.

"You sure that's all?"

"Well Mr. Nesmith, it's a little… well I don't know if I should. Really he meant what I said but he said it, just, ah, in different words."

"It's okay, sunshine, you're just the messenger. Gimme all of it."

"The exact message is, 'Call me now, asshole.'"

In spite of everything, Mike almost laughed. "Well that about says it all. What time did he call?"

"Just after midnight."

"Thanks, Michelle. You're doin' a great job, darlin', don't know what I'd to without you."

"Uhm, thanks Mr. Nesmith, goodbye."


Just after midnight… three a.m. in New York. Yeah, that was just about the time he thought he'd heard the phone ring, but he and Phyllis were a little busy at the time, wrestling and swallowing tongue on the enormous cloud-soft sheepskin that Bonnie had bought to celebrate the Emmy nomination, because she knew he liked having soft things next to his skin.

He didn't need one of Morris's crystal balls to figure out what she did next. She'd called Peter to see if he was hanging at his place for the night. And Peter would have called the service, demanding a phone call to explain what new and different way of getting it wrong had just been discovered. There were few things Peter hated more than hypocrisy, especially when practiced by his friends.

It was no secret that Peter knew Phyllis was coming to the house with "getting it right this time" on her mind, because she'd told him when he called her to see when the three of them could get together. Mike knew it because Phyllis had told him, she'd told him, Jesus, and even then he'd been too stupid to pause for thought, or to wonder how Peter had responded to that. Well, he didn't have to ask, did he? He knew goddamn well what Peter would have said, and in the jumped-up dumbass old-mistakes-new-again heat of the moment, Mike had not wanted to hear it any more than Phyllis had.

As he dialed Peter's number Mike knew pretty much what he'd hear. Morris could take her best shot at him after this, but Pete would get there first. Hard to tell who deserved the honor most.

For the first time in Mike's long experience of fuck ups, he was almost looking forward to the upcoming ass-kicking. It might not be penance, but it could be the closest he'd get to it. Whatever way it went, The Hard Way was getting harder by the minute.