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“So,” Dave put his chin in the palm of his hand, leaning closer to her across the table. “When are you going to let me take you out on the town?”

“We’re on the town now, Agent Rossi.” Erin Strauss sipped her wine. She shouldn’t be drinking but tonight she didn’t give a damn.

“I've been here four times, I've asked you out three times, and…does this constitute turning me down?”

“All four times you’ve been here we’ve had dinner. It’s been quite lovely.”

“We've had a guest.” Dave said.

“He's your best friend.” Erin reminded him.

“Yes and…” Dave stopped. “Oh shit.”

“What?”

“Are you and Jason…? I never intended to step on anyone’s toes, least of all his. He’s my best friend. I just didn’t know…”

“Jason and I are just friends. He’s been with Nora for the longest time. If he's your best friend then you should know that.”

“I knew that; I knew about Nora.” Dave sighed. “You’ve got me twisted and I like it. As for the asking out, they say the third time is the charm and this is the third time so…”

“It’s very nice of you to ask, Agent Rossi.”

“You can call me by my first name.” he replied. “I don’t mind.”

“Its very nice, David, but I'm really busy.”

“How do you feel about lunch? You're busy, I understand completely. When I'm busy I often forget to have dinner. But I never forget to have lunch. I love lunch, how do you feel about it.”

“You aren’t one to give up are you?” Erin asked.

“Quitting is for quitters. I'm not a quitter.”

Jason came back to the table from the bathroom. Dave slid over in the booth so he could sit down. He looked at the both of them, felt as if he might be interrupting something, but didn’t say a word. Dave had been trying to ask Erin out for over a year; Jason knew that.

She’d politely declined but he wasn’t giving up. His best friend did his best not to encourage or discourage. One thing you had to know about Dave Rossi…he was going to go after what he wanted. This time around he seemed to want Erin Strauss.

“Should we get the check?” he asked, breaking the slightly awkward silence.

“That’s a good idea.” Erin replied. “I need to get home anyway. I have papers to grade. And I'm already taking you out of your way Jason so I feel guilty.”

“I told you not to worry about that.” Jason flagged the server.

“I could give you a ride if you'd like.” Dave said. “I don’t mind going out of my way.”

“Thanks, but…”

“No thanks right?” Dave asked. “You like saying that don’t you Dr. Strauss?”

“It might seem that way but I don’t.” she smiled. “I mean that.”

“You don’t drive?” Dave asked.

“I do but I have some night vision issues. I haven’t driven at night for a couple of months now. I miss coming and going as I please.”

“It has its advantages.” Dave said.

When the server brought the check, he pulled out his platinum Amex card. Dave wasn’t a big spender, he didn’t feel the need to show off, but he had been their guest all day. Now it was time to return the favor.

“I insist on paying the tip.” Erin said as she went into her purse.

“Let her.” Jason said. “Erin really means it when she insists.”

“Alright.” Dave conceded. “I had a great time tonight. Maybe we can all do lunch on Thursday.”

“Thursday is my busiest day of the week.” Jason said. “I don’t think I can make it.”

“What about you Erin? I'm sure we can find a way to fill in the gaps of conversation without Jason.”

“I don’t talk that much.” the professor gave his best friend the eye.

“You did that on purpose.” She said.

“I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Don’t look at me.” Jason said. “I really have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Fine, I will have lunch with you on Thursday David.”

“Excellent.” He smiled. Then he signed the check and they left the restaurant.

It wasn’t that late and Georgetown was still bustling. Dave and Jason shook hands and Dave pulled him into a hug.

“I don’t see you enough.” He said.

“You're the internationally renown writer. You’ve been kind of busy.”

“I promised to never get too busy for my best friend. We’ll make plans soon. Have Nora come to DC…we’ll do something together.”

“It'll have to wait until summer and the end of classes at Barnard.” Jason said. “She’s carrying quite a load and we haven’t seen much of each other.”

“You're still crazy about her?” Dave asked.

“Yes. I've been crazy about her for close to a decade. Sometimes I think I'm just crazy.”

“No comment.” Erin said.

“I will see you on Thursday.” Dave said. “I'm truly looking forward to it.”

“Yes, I’ll see you.”

They went off in different directions. Erin slipped her arm in Jason’s as they made their way to his car.

“So the third time was the charm for him?” he asked.

“He put me on the spot.”

“You’ve said no to people who’ve put you on the spot. If I recall you actually enjoy doing so.”

“I…”

“What?” Jason nudged her a bit.

“I like him, OK? I have no idea why since he's such a cocky egomaniac.”

“Some women are into that.”

“I don’t get the whole women dig jerks thing.” Erin said. “And I'm not saying that he's a jerk but…it’s not a date. It’s just lunch.”

“Dave is a great guy; I've known him forever. And yes he can be a cocky egomaniac. But he's also brilliant, funny, caring, and attentive. He could be good for you.”

“Jason, don’t even joke.”

“I'm not joking.” He looked at her from the corner of his eye.

“And I'm not listening. We’ll have lunch, say goodbye, and that will be all.”

“Alright. I won't push you into anything more, you're going through enough.”

“Yes I am. I really appreciate you carting me around.” She said.

“Don’t be silly; that’s what friends are for. You’ve always had my back and now I have yours. How do you feel today?”

“I feel fine.”

It wasn’t a lie exactly. Erin did feel fine. One would never know that she had an inoperable brain tumor. And they didn’t know because she wasn’t telling. Jason knew, as did a select group of loved ones and close friends.

She hadn't even told her mother yet. Keeping it was so damn hard but Erin remembered what her mother went through caring for her father when he was terminally ill. She couldn’t put that on her again. Joanna Parkinson-Kane was going to be upset when she realized she’d been kept in the dark but Erin would tell her soon.

One person she didn’t plan on telling was David Rossi. Who in their right mind started a whirlwind romance when doctors were giving her nine to fifteen months to live? Maybe if she was lucky it would be two years. She’d been to four of them and the diagnosis was pretty much the same. A Grade 3 Astrocytoma was rare and it was usually fatal.

It was also known as a butterfly tumor that would spread and eventually kill her. To barely be 50 and feel your mortality was no easy feat. Erin Strauss lived her life with dignity. She planned to die the same way. There were always miracles but she wasn’t holding her breath for one.

***

“It’s just lunch sweetie. Seriously, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

“You know it’s more than lunch. And don’t Monty Python me.”

“How is it more than lunch?” Ursula asked. “You and I are having lunch right now. I don’t see how this will be any different.”

“You're a girl…and he’s not. That’s just a start.” Erin said.

“Really, that’s your answer?”

Dr. Ursula Kent laughed. She’d been Erin’s best friend for a long time and was a tenured professor in the English Department of American University. Many moons ago she wrote a novel, Empty Planet. It, along with the mediocre movie that followed, became cult classics. There were some who called her the Harper Lee of the sci-fi genre.

Ursula wasn’t one of those people. There were publishers still pushing to get another book out of her. Sometimes you only had one and Ursula was quite proud that Empty Planet had been hers. She used an alias so she could live the rest of her life in anonymity.

A few years ago she was discovered but still managed to downplay the whole thing. It was something to be proud of but not base her whole life around. Most fans respected that. Still, a sci-fi con or two a year never hurt. Talks were in the works for a film remake. This time Ursula planned to be at the big table.

“Ursula, I shouldn’t be…getting attached is a bad idea.”

“I didn’t say to get attached. Lunch is sometimes just lunch.”

“He’s asked me out three times. He's attracted to me.”

“Of course he is.” Ursula ate her sandwich. “You're amazing, Erin. You’re smart, beautiful, worldly, and you're pretending not to be interested. Men love that shit.”

“I like him.” Erin said.

“Men love that as well.”

“You know I don't have the time to make this anything.”

“David Rossi isn’t asking for forever. He's asking for lunch and I'm glad you said yes. It’s altogether possible he just wants to test drive a fancy car. And you better say yes. You deserve happiness.”

“I am happy.” She sighed. “I'm as happy as I can be given the circumstances.”

“Sex will make you happier.” Ursula reasoned.

“I'm not prepared to argue with that. David is a decent guy. Despite being an egomaniac and surely a cocky bastard, I like him anyway. He’s not at all my type but there's something there. I don’t want to hurt him.”

“So tell him.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Erin shook her head. “I'm going to lunch and then will politely brush him off. It’s for the best.”

“Well at least you'll get a nice meal out of it. Where is he taking you?”

“We’re going to Equinox. He left me a voicemail this morning.”

“Their tuna or calamari is luscious.” Ursula smiled.

“They also have some of the best crab cakes from a non-seafood restaurant in the city. I'm not sure what I'm having. I don’t plan those things in advance.”

“Well if you're going to brush him off please just have a nice time on Thursday.”

“I will do my best.” Erin nodded.

“No, you will have fun. Just promise me Erin.”

“I promise. I cross my heart and all that stuff.”

Erin did it for emphasis. Then she focused on her salad. She knew Ursula would encourage her to go for it; live a little. A little was all she had left and it wasn’t fair to bring someone else into that. Dave didn’t look like the type who wanted to watch her fade. No one wanted to see that. Erin didn’t even want to see it. She was one of the few who had no choice in the matter.

***

Mom, are you alright? Do you need anything?”

24 year old Nora Strauss walked into the master bedroom. Erin was lying in bed with her eyes closed, her black cat cuddled beside her. Nora’s stomach dropped. She knew her mother was alive, could see her breathing, but the way she was lying scared her. Nora had no idea what she would do when the day finally came. No one wanted to think about things like that. It was closer for her than for most.

“Mom?”

“I'm alright sweetheart.” Erin spoke in a low voice and didn’t open her eyes. “I just have a headache.”

“Did you take your medicine?”

“Mmm hmm. It’s taking a little longer to work than I’d hoped. I'm OK though.”

Nora wanted her to say that with her eyes opened but knew that she couldn’t. She wasn’t going to start crying again. It wouldn’t help a damn thing. She really had cried enough tears. There would be more later, of that Nora was sure. Right now she just needed to help her mother.

“I’ll leave you alone.” She walked over, bent, and kissed Erin’s forehead. “Goodnight Mom; I love you.”

“I love you too.” Erin took Nora’s hand. She opened her eyes. Even though the bulb in bedside lamp was 40 watts it still hurt. But she wanted and needed to see her daughter. “Sweet dreams.”

Nora smiled though it was hardly in her. She squeezed her mother’s hand and left the room. Erin took a deep breath and exhaled. Then she did it again. It felt has if her head was splitting in half.

She wanted to curl into a ball and cry her eyes out. Crying would just make her head hurt more. Instead Erin inhaled, exhaled, and stroked Sasha’s head. It was taking the medicine a long time to work…she should've taken it earlier. Luckily the headaches weren't that frequent; the problem manifested in other ways.

The doctors told her that as time progressed, as the tumor grew, they would be more frequent and powerful. Anything more than this and Erin was sure it would kill her. It would eventually kill her. And here she was making lunch plans with David Rossi. What was she thinking? It didn’t matter, right now the pain made it impossible to think anyway.

***

“Are you alright?” Dave asked as he held his chair.

“I can tell you that I've heard that one a lot in the past few days.”

“You look amazing but just a touch peaked. Is it the weather change?”

“I'm fine.” Erin put on her picture perfect smile.

“Are you sure? You could’ve rescheduled if you weren't feeling like yourself.”

“I suffer from migraines. I had one the other night but I'm fine now. Thank you for asking.”

“You have migraines and night vision problems?” Dave raised an eyebrow.

“They say it’s all downhill after 50 and I'm barely there yet.” Erin replied.

“I should hope that’s not true. I passed it a while back.”

Erin smiled again and sipped her water.

“I think my class was quite impressed with you.” she said.

“I can be an impressive guy.”

“I think what I like most about you is your modesty.”

“Oh yeah.” Dave smiled. “I want to be your boyfriend. It’s a little silly to say at our age but it’s also silly to hold back. I could say lovers but that basically implies that we’re only bunk buddies. And of course I could be your husband but we’d have to get to know each other better.”

“So as my boyfriend we can be virtual strangers?” Erin asked.

“I want to get to know you…and then be your boyfriend.”

Before she had a chance to respond their server came to the table. She blathered on about lunch specials, recommendations, and desserts. Dave ordered a glass of scotch. Erin wanted a cocktail more than anything but had to go back to campus after this. Not to mention that alcohol didn’t really mix with her meds. She didn’t want to push it. They needed time to look at their menus so Anna, at least Erin thought her name was Anna, walked away.

“Who even knows if we’re compatible?” She said opening her menu. It was crazy to even contemplate this. She was just making conversation.

“We can follow the three date scenario. If you're not completely enamored with me by then, I’ll just try harder.”

“Can we do the not so cocky bastard scenario?” Erin asked.

“You intrigue me.” Dave said. “I just want to know you. I want to know you well and see your smile. There's something about you…I would explain it better if I could. I'm usually really good at explaining things. That’s how I know there's something about you. You make me kinda tongue tied.”

“You're a writer David.” Erin tried and failed not to smile. “You should do better.”

“You call me David.”

“That is your name.”

“Everyone calls me Dave. I don’t mind…that’s my name too. When you call me David it feels special. Do you have a nickname too?”

“My name has four letters and one syllable, so no.” she shook her head.

“I can think of one if you'd like. I'm good at that kind of thing.”

“No thank you.”

Anna returned with their drinks. Erin ordered the calamari and artichoke salad. Dave wanted the steak Oscar, medium rare.

“Jason said you were writing another book. Will you tell me about it?”

“Right now it’s a pipe dream; I have the backing of my agent, editor, and publisher. I have a beginning, an end, and some amazing characters in my head.”

“It sounds as if you're well on your way. Do you have writer’s block?”

“Bite your tongue.” Dave did the sign of the cross to ward it off. Rarely was he superstitious or religious but this was his writing and he took it seriously. “It’s missing a very integral ingredient.”

“What?” Erin asked.

“There's no amazing woman…yet. I can hear her voice. I see little glimpses of her face sometimes that I can't hold onto. It’s like the sun is in my eyes. I need her, she is the story. At least I think she's the story.”

“I thought you wrote true crime books. Why do you need characters in your head?”

“While I'm not fond of that term, I typically do.” he said. “This is something else entirely. You're never too old to try something new.”

“What are you trying?”

Anna brought lunch and Erin thanked her. She then declined fresh pepper. A refill on her tea sounded perfect though.

“I'm writing a novel.” Dave said.

“Oh you were talking about a novel. I feel silly.” She laughed a bit. “I get it now.”

“If it goes well, and the characters click, this could be a quadrilogy.”

“You’ve been looking to use that word in a sentence haven’t you?” Erin asked.

“For decades as a matter of fact.” Rossi grinned and Erin did as well. “See, there's that amazing smile. I love it.”

“Thank you.” her face went neutral again. “Are you allowed to tell me what the novel is about?”

“It’s just a pipe dream, as I said, but I know the main character is in the FBI. At the end of the story he’ll leave the Bureau though I’m not sure if he's leaving or being politely escorted.”

“They politely escort people out of the Bureau?” Erin asked.

“It’s been known to happen. My kid thinks he should give it up for fatherhood. I think it would make him a more multi-faceted character if he's juggling too many plates. Its like what's going to happen if they all fall down?”

“You just said your kid.”

“Mmm hmm.” Dave nodded as he cut into his steak. It looked fantastic.

“You're a father?”

“I am.”

“Well do you want me to beat it out of you, David?”

“We’re just getting to know each other. We shouldn’t talk of spanking yet. But I am certainly willing to revisit the conversation at a later date. I promise.”

“I said beat not spank. Now shut up and tell me about your kid.”

“I want to know something about you, Erin Strauss. I didn’t invite you out so I could talk about myself all afternoon. There are those who believe I enjoy nothing more but I want to know you. What made you choose Criminology?”

“Truth?” she leaned on the table, which surely made her father spin in his grave. Then she smiled.

“That’s the way I like it.”

“It started with Charlie Starkweather. I was nine years old and my father watched a special with me on his crimes. I asked why someone would do something like that. My father said there were cruel people in the world and sometimes those were the ones who looked the most normal. Those words sent me on my journey. I can admit to being obsessed with the Green River Killer. I always said I would join the FBI and solve it.”

“You wanted to join the FBI?” Dave asked.

“Many, many moons ago yes.”

“What stopped you? The Bureau would've jumped through hoops to have you.”

“In the end, the research and theory side was more intriguing to me. I'm my father’s daughter after all. And, you better not tell a soul this,” Erin lowered her voice to whisper. “Blood makes me sick and lightheaded. Small amounts I can handle. I won't faint from cutting myself. But FBI levels would have me looking for the nearest trashcan to heave my guts. Ahh, this is lovely lunch conversation.”

“I'm enjoying it. So you chose academia?”

“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. My father was an academic as well. He taught at the University of Toronto and Columbia University. Political science and theory was his passion. The minds of killers, along with slightly squeamish things, were a bit of a hobby. Now, tell me about your kid.”

“Her name is Ashley. I didn’t name her that; her mother did. I would've preferred something more unique. There are four Ashleys in her class. There aren’t any Annabellas or Felicitys. Those are good names too.”

“You're right.” Erin nodded. “You didn’t get a say on names?”

“No. This is a long story…are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“I've been married three times.” Dave said.

“I find myself not at all shocked by that admission.”

“Carolyn was my first wife.” He smiled. “We loved each other very much; it was awesome and intense. After some serious losses we decided to go our separate ways. We both started focusing so much on our careers…hers took her all the way to San Francisco. Carolyn never remarried but always wanted children.

“When she adopted Ashley she asked me to be her godfather and I said yes. Carolyn passed away almost five years ago. I've been taking care of Ashley ever since. It’s not always easy but we make it work. I think the kid takes pity on me.”

“You travel so extensively but take care of a little girl?” Erin asked.

“Actually she’ll be fourteen in August and Mrs. Beardsley has been a godsend in both of our lives. Are you a mother?”

“Yes. Nora is 24 and Teddy is 20. I've had many accomplishments in my life but they are my greatest achievements.”

“And their father…”

“He's traveling around the world saving lives. Eli is a pediatric oncologist. We've been divorced since Nora was twelve.”

“So you're not seeing anyone?” Dave asked.

“Currently,” Erin shook her head. “No.”

“That’s the perfect reason for you to be my girlfriend. It's one of the perfect reasons.”

“Nothing is perfect, David.”

“I’ll grant you that. You should still let me woo you. I'm a fabulous wooer.”

“I have little doubt about that.” she rolled her eyes but smiled.

000

She was holding his hand though Erin had no earthly idea how that happened. They were walking together under a big black umbrella back to where her car was parked. There was little conversation but Erin felt comfortable with that. She had so much on her mind. She didn’t know if the headache creeping around her skull was the usual reason or something else altogether.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Dave asked. His fingers laced with hers and he stroked her knuckles.

“I love rainy days.”

“So do I. It’s the perfect weather to stay tangled in each other under the sheets.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I was thinking but I can't say you're wrong.” Erin stopped walking. “I'm parked in this lot.”

“Can I see you again?”

“David…”

“It sounds like you're going to say no. I’ll respect any choice you make but it sucks.”

“You're a very busy man. You're trying to write a novel and raising a child. I'm sure you don’t have time for frivolous things.”

“You are not frivolous. I will make time, Erin. We’ll just have dinner…anyplace you want.”

“I don’t care where.” She shook her head.

“You'll have dinner with me?”

The hope in his eyes made her smile. David Rossi was a thrice-divorced ladies man. Erin had no idea if he wanted a little summer lovin before disappearing. He asked her to be his girlfriend on their first date that wasn’t even a date. Erin didn’t have time to build a relationship.

“Yes.”

“The rest of the week and next week is busy but the end of the month is clear. I’ll call you and we’ll talk. You can call me too; I don’t mind at all.”

Erin nodded. She smiled when he held her hand to his lips.

“I’d love to kiss you.” he said.

She wrapped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer. When her lips touched his, Erin felt the electricity course through her bloodstream. She trembled as Dave deepened the kiss. Erin moaned into his mouth, totally forgetting for a moment that they were out in public.

“I’ll see you later.” She colored just a bit while pulling away from him. “I need to go.”

“Drive safely.”

“I'm fine in the daytime.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes.” Erin nodded.

“OK, c'mere.”

She couldn’t, didn’t want to, fight the pull of his gravity. It had been some time since Erin had been kissed. Even still, she remembered it and it had nothing on Dave Rossi. Words were failing her…they did that sometimes.

“We’re outside.” She whispered with his lips still on hers.

“So we are.”

“We shouldn’t be making out outside like love struck teenagers.”

“Does this mean I have to let you go?” Dave asked.

“Yes.” Erin nodded.

“I had a wonderful afternoon.” he stroked her face.

“So did I.”

“We’ll have dinner and it'll be wonderful too.”

“OK, we’ll have dinner. I’ll see you later.”

Erin kissed his cheek, ducking from under the umbrella and walking quickly to her BMW. She turned back to look at him; Dave held up his hand to wave. Her smile was genuine, this afternoon had been lovely. Maybe making dinner plans wasn’t the best idea she ever had but there was something about him. There was too much happening right now…adding David Rossi would likely be dangerous.

***

“You didn’t have to do this.”

“It’s not as if I was forced or anything. I wanted to do it.”

“You wanted to do this?” the teenager gave him the side eye.

“Yes, I did. You're going to have a handful of graduation dresses in your life. I want to be there when you buy them. Forgive me for being overly sentimental.”

“It must be an Italian thing.” Ashley said.

Dave smiled, pulling on one of her plaits. They were in Forever 21 at the Fair City Shopping Center not far from their home in Fairfax, Virginia. Dave was a bit uncomfortable in the store. Some of the girls walking around were barely older than his kid and really needed to put some clothes on. A few of them were with their mothers.

Dave didn’t have an appreciation for 30 and 40 something women who still dressed 20 something. Acting your age was sexy. There were a few diamonds in the rough but he kept his eyes to himself today. He was thinking about Erin Strauss. He couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“Are you sentimental enough to get me some summer stuff?”

“We’ll do that after graduation.” Dave replied. “Today we need to buy a dress.”

“I'm not overly fond of dresses.”

“I know but you're going to look beautiful. Now stop looking at that stuff and check out the dresses. If you don’t like them we can go to other stores.”

The mall was crowded today; it was always crowded. Even though it was Sunday that didn’t stop people from shopping. The place was filled to capacity with shoppers, gawkers, and lollygaggers. There were times when Dave was sure he’d rather stab herself with an ice pick than be at the mall. A father’s work was never done.

“Lets go to Macy’s.” Ashley looked around the store in dismay. She got many of her favorite clothes there but it wasn’t the place for graduation dresses. She got her dress for the father-daughter dance at the department store.

“That’s my girl.” Dave smiled.

“There's just nothing here for me. And speaking of your girl…”

“We were?”

“Lunch and soon dinner with a woman?” Ashley asked. “Is she pretty? Is she awesome?”

“How do you know about these things?” Dave countered.

“The walls talk.”

“They do not, but Mrs. Beardsley does.”

“I should know these kinds of things about you.” Ashley reasoned.

“Why?”

“Reciprocity.”

He looked at her and smiled. She was a truly amazing kid. Dave wished her mother was here. He wished Carolyn could see how her little angel turned out. Ashley was nearly 2 when she was adopted.

They removed her from the home of a drug-addicted mother. Her father was doing life for murder; she’d never even met him. Carolyn promised that she would give the little girl a wonderful life. It wasn’t just about toys and gifts. Ashley would get a quality education, see the world, read big books…she would do more than exist.

Then Carolyn took her own life. She wanted to be there for Ashley, but the ALS was tearing her apart. It wasn’t going to stop until there was nothing left. She couldn’t do that to her daughter. Carolyn took control.

Ashley missed her everyday but tried to understand the disease that took her. She knew nothing about the suicide. She also did her best to cut Dave a little slack. He’d never been a father and was doing his best. Five years later they were making it work.

“You're too smart for your own good.” He crossed his arms and pretended to grumble.

“It’s your fault…Mom’s fault. It’s mostly Mom’s fault.”

“Haha.”

“So are you dating her?” Ashley asked as they walked to Macy’s.

“We had lunch together and might have dinner this week. I’d like to think of her more as a colleague.” It was a lie but his teenage daughter didn’t need to know that. She’d probably figured it out on her own anyway.

“How is she a colleague? You technically don’t work anywhere.”

“She might help me with my novel. She teaches Criminology at Uncle Jason’s college. We met because I guest lectured in some of her classes. She’s quite brilliant; I want to pick her brain.”

Ashley snickered and her father nudged her. That only made her laugh more.

“You're much too young to be thinking about what you're thinking about.”

“I'm just concerned about you.” Ashley said. “It’s been a while since you’ve dated.”

“I'm doing my best to be a responsible parent.” Dave replied. “That means parading a bunch of nameless, faceless women around you is unacceptable. That doesn’t necessarily mean I'm a choir boy.”

“So the ladies man title still stands?”

“No comment.”

He did his best to conceal his smile behind his facial hair. This might be a long afternoon but it was worth it to spend this time with his daughter. She was growing up too soon. It was only a matter of time before the teenage life took precedence over togetherness with Dad.

***

“Oh wow, I haven’t done this in so long.”

“What's that?” Dave asked.

“I haven’t indulged in ice cream. I've just been so busy, working and getting things in order…” Erin sighed. “It’s just been a while.”

Dave and Erin were in Constitution Gardens on the National Mall. Darkness was just beginning to fall as they watched lights rippling off the Potomac. He’d taken her to dinner at Capital Grille, which was a bit fancier than Erin expected. She wore a lavender cocktail dress with a purple sweater so she fit in well with the slightly overdressed atmosphere.

They took a walk afterward. It felt so good to hold hands with someone and just enjoy their energy. They didn’t even need to talk. They ended up at DC Scoops for ice cream before coming to the park. Erin didn’t plan to tell Dave but as first dates went this one was great. Cookies and cream made it even better.

“School ends this week right?” Dave asked.

“Finals were actually last week. This week I've been grading, reshuffling internships, and cleaning my office.”

“Do you have summer plans?”

“I plan to relax.” Erin said. “I don’t do it often enough. I don’t do it at all really.”

“I just never got that vibe from you.” Dave grinned. “You seem as if you relax all the time.”

“Haha David.” She smiled and hit his thigh.

“I probably don’t have much room to talk. I come out of my skin if I'm not busy all the time. The life of a leisurely writer is not the life for me. I actually considered returning to the FBI at one point but with Ashley that would just be too much. I could end up teaching, like you.”

“Where would you teach?”

“I’d return to the FBI Academy. It would require me to come out of retirement so I could get my credentials back. I also have a friend, Alex Blake, who teaches. She's in the FBI, teaches linguistics at Georgetown, and does a few ASL courses at NVCC in Manassas. She told me they are always looking to fill spaces with quality professors. Someone with my credentials could really boost the Justice department there.”

“I’ll never be able to say enough wonderful things about teaching and what it’s been to me. You weren't kidding when you said you wanted to do new things, were you?”

“No.” Dave shook his head. “What about you? Are you interested in trying something new?”

“I’ll be on sabbatical next semester.” Erin said.

“Are you going to be writing? I know a lot of professors take time off to write great educational works. It’s hard to conduct classes, mentor students, and write at the same time.”

“I won't be writing.” She managed a smile as she shook her head.

I’ll be dying David; Erin almost said it aloud but filled her mouth with ice cream instead. It was hard. It was so hard to talk to him with this deadline looming over her head. Even though she was an intensely private woman it was hard not to talk to him about it.

“There's a spark in your eye.” He smiled too. “You're going to be doing something, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps we can talk about it later.”

“Alright. I want you to know that I've read some of your work and think you're an amazing writer. I read Lust and the Female Killer and Charles Starkweather: Primetime’s First Killer. Both were fantastic.”

“When did you read those?” she looked at him. The way Dave looked at her sometimes made Erin nervous. Not that he would try anything but that he would try something. It was weird…it really had been too long since she’d experienced this. She hardly knew what to do.

“When Jason suggested that I guest lecture in your class I wanted to know what kind of academic I had on my hands. Impressed is a serious understatement, Erin. I thought you were brilliant…I think you're brilliant. To find out that you were also breathtaking was just icing on the cake for me.”

“And now we've entered the laying it on thick portion of the evening.”

“We’re just getting there?” Dave asked. “Damn, I thought that was hours ago. I like you.”

“I know.” Erin nodded.

“You're supposed to say that you like me too. Of course if you don’t like me then that’s fine too. It’ll be a daily struggle but I can move on. I think I can move on. I'm not entirely sure I’ll be able to move on.”

“I just have a lot going on at the moment.”

“Should I back off?” Dave asked. “I'm just as good at that as I am at laying it on thick.”

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

“We could just throw caution to the wind and plan our third date.”

“How do you feel about Shakespeare?” she asked.

“I love the tragedies.”

“Shakespeare under the Stars is showing Branagh’s Othello in two weeks. We could have a picnic; make a real evening of it. They do it at Carlyle Square in Alexandria.”

“I should put it out there that it could be impossible not to kiss you while picnicking.” Dave said.

“So noted.” Erin nodded.

“I actually want to kiss you right now.”

“You talk a lot about what you want. What about what I want?”

“I want to hear all about it.” he replied. “This is a mutually beneficial thing where we both experience…”

Erin cut him off with a kiss. There was no doubt she liked hearing his voice but her desire to shut him up trumped her desire to listen. She caressed his face, coaxing his lips open with her tongue. Erin had no idea how long they would sit on a park bench and kiss. Time didn’t seem to matter in moments like these. The feelings were too wonderful.

“Damn.” Dave whispered as their lips came apart.

“I concur.”

Dave wrapped his arms around her, pulling Erin closer. He was trying to have some kind of decorum but she made him heady. She looked good, smelled good, and tasted really good…David Rossi was ensorcelled. He was like a giddy teenage boy when Erin was around and sometimes when she wasn’t.

This was surely a crush. If Dave wasn’t careful it would flatten him. She was worth it. He wanted Erin; all of her. He wanted her body and her mind. It wasn’t just about kissing and the thought of something more. Erin would be good for him and Dave wanted something good. He thought he could be good for her as well.

000

“I appreciate the ride.” Erin glanced at Dave from the passenger seat.

“It’s not a problem. Did you get a diagnosis for the night vision problems?”

“Yes, my vision sucks.”

Dave smiled. He was taking her to Chevy Chase, Maryland in his metallic blue Mangusta. He was a lover of fast cars, always had been. This $90,000 Italian beauty captured Dave’s heart from the moment he got behind the wheel. With Anita Baker on the radio and the homecoming queen beside him, it was all good.

“You don’t wear glasses.” He said.

“I do when I read. My vision just went blurry when I was driving one night. The doctor told me to be safe that I had to stop driving at night. Since then I've depended on the kindness of friends…and FBI agents.”

“Former FBI agents actually.” Dave corrected.

“Right; former FBI agents. Forgive me for that.”

“I could probably forgive you for anything. Damn, was that laying it on too thick?”

“Just a little.” Erin put a little space between her thumb and forefinger.

“I'm sorry.”

“No you're not.” Erin smiled, spontaneous and genuine.

“I am. I mean I'm not…but I am.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“My kid is graduating in three weeks. It’s on a Thursday but she's having a celebration on Friday. Thirty invitations were sent out. I don't know how many people responded but it must be an acceptable number or Ashley would've been upset.

“Anyway, would you like to come? Jason will be there and possibly Nora too. I want to have some adults with me so that music by skinny guys in pop bands doesn’t drive me absolutely crazy. I just want you there.”

“I’ll check my calendar and see. I have some unbreakable appointments and engagements but I’ll be there if I can.”

“Great.” Dave smiled.

“So I'm going to meet your daughter?” Erin asked.

“Yes, but please don’t think I'm trying to pressure you into anything serious. I’ll introduce you as a friend. She sort of knows about you anyway. I think she's putting glasses against walls.”

“What does she know about me?”

“I told her that you're my colleague. You might help me write my book.”

“Nice save.” She smiled.

“It might be fun though.” Dave said.

“What's that?”

“If you helped me write my book it might be fun. I'm thinking about possibly setting it at a University. I happen to know a lot of professors. I happen to really like one.”

Erin reached over and stroked his hand on the steering wheel. She absolutely could not be crazy about this man. It was a little late for the pep talk considering she’d been feeling the flavor of David Rossi since he first guest lectured her class over a year ago. Maybe Erin should've accepted his first dinner invitation…things were so different then.

“Penny for your thoughts?” she asked.

“No, I don’t want to be slapped.”

“Why do I have a feeling you would really enjoy that depending on who’s doing the slapping?”

He grinned, glancing at her before putting his eyes squarely on the road.

000

“Hello there.” Erin smiled as she sat down on the couch beside her son in the den. She kissed Ted’s cheek.

“Did you have a nice time?”

“Hmm?”

“Mom, I know you were on a date. I don't know why you wanted to hide it but…”

“I'm not hiding anything. It wasn’t a date; it was dinner with a colleague.”

“Well you look beautiful anyway.”

“Thank you sweetheart.”

“Which colleague did you have dinner with?” Ted asked.

“His name is David Rossi. He doesn’t teach at American but he guest lectures there on occasion. I might help him write his novel.”

“Really?” Ted looked at her.

“Mmm hmm.” Erin nodded.

“Oh my God, Mom, that was totally a date.” When Ted grinned he looked just like Erin. “Help him with his novel? Is that the middle aged way of saying he's showing you his etchings?”

“Middle aged? That’s not nice at all. Anyway, you know that my dating someone right now would be a really bad idea.”

“Don’t do that.” he said, his smile disappearing.

“What?”

“Don’t let cancer ruin the conversation.”

“It might do that; I won't deny it. But it also makes it real.”

“I don’t want to make it real right now. I want to make fun of you, laugh, and one day look back on this conversation with a smile on my face. I won't do that if we start talking about cancer.”

“OK sweetie.” Erin put her arm around his shoulder and kissed him. “I'm sorry.”

“Its alright, none of this is your fault. The cancer is real and I know it. We all know it.”

“Maybe I did go on a date tonight.”

Erin would've said almost anything to make him smile again. Ted managed a little one.

“I knew it. Where did he take you?”

“We went to the Capital Grille, but we really are just friends. He’s a good man; also a writer. Someday there will be a novel.”

“Gotcha.”

“What did you do this evening?” she asked.

“I didn’t do much. I just read and watched TV. I do have plans tomorrow with Tim.”

“Speaking of showing you his etchings…”

“One day I'm going back to Columbia.” Ted said.

“You're going back to Columbia in the fall. I'm pulling a Mom override where that’s concerned. You worked so hard to get there Ted. It means so much to me to finish what you started.”

Ted deferred the second semester of his sophomore year of college. He had to come home. His mother was sick and he needed to take care of her. Ted knew that he couldn’t watch her die. It was going to change him in a way he never wanted to change.

But he couldn’t leave his sister alone. Since their father left it had always been the three of them. Ted wanted it to be that way in the end too. But his mother wasn’t going to let him do it. He didn’t have it in him to fight her at the moment.

“Long distance relationships aren’t easy. Tim loves DC and wants to stay here…I can't blame him.”

“If it’s meant to be then it will be. I happen to think you and Tim are perfect for each other. He loves you, supports you, and has from the beginning. I have faith in this, sweetheart.”

“I'm trying to do the same, Mom. I'm trying to have faith in a lot of things.”

***

“She invited her to Ashley’s graduation party and we’re going to see each other later this week.”

“That’s good.” Jason said.

“What?”

“What what?”

“Gideon…”

“I didn’t say a word.” Jason held up his hands as they ran around the track.

“I've known you more than half of my life. You think you need to say something. You don’t think I should pursue this?”

“Whoa, I didn’t say that.”

“Do you know something that I don’t? Did Erin say something to you?”

“Erin surely doesn't talk to me about romance, particularly hers. She hasn’t said anything about you since she accepted your first lunch date.”

“She said something before that?” Dave asked.

“She asked me if you ever gave up. I told her not usually.”

“I don’t just want to take her to bed.”

“That’s good to know.” Jason nodded.

“I have to say that I don’t plan on turning down sex if it comes my way. But that isn’t the reason I'm seeing her.”

“She's amazing.”

“Exactly.” Dave pointed to his best friend. “She's holding something back though.”

“Well you haven’t known her long.”

“I know but…you ever get that vibe.”

“I get lots of different vibes about many things.” Jason replied.

“I think Erin wants to tell me something but can't. Do you have any idea…?”

“No.”

“That was quick.” Dave looked at him.

“I'm friends with both of you. I don’t want, no scratch that, I will not be in the middle of anything. I mean that whether it’s good or bad.”

“You're like a brother to me.”

“You already have four brothers and countless problems with all of them.” Jason said. “I would rather be your best friend, thank you.”

“So you're not going to tell me if something’s going on with Erin?” Dave asked.

“I don’t know if there's anything to tell. I'm not a fly on the wall of what you and Erin are doing. If you want to pursue it, pursue it. She’s a genuinely incredible, beautiful woman. She’s difficult to get to the center of but that just makes me like her more.”

“Yeah.” Dave smiled.

He hadn't talked to her in a week and was going through withdrawal. She told him last Thursday that she was going to see her mother in Manhattan for a little while but would be back in a few days. Dave had enough to keep him busy. He was being a dad, actually started scribbling some new ideas for the novel, and was planning speaking engagements for the summer. Still he thought of Erin.

She didn’t call him while away. It wasn’t as if she had to. But he wished she would've at least once. Dave could’ve called but let her do her thing. He knew Erin’s father had been gone for seven years. Being with her mother was important to her. He didn’t need to interrupt family time. As the guy she went out went twice, even if they had been acquaintances for a year, that wasn’t his place.

“I'm going to pursue it.”

“You always have my support.” Jason said.

“And you're sure there's nothing you want to tell me?”

“Nora isn’t going to be able to make it to Ashley’s party. She already made plans to visit her parents in Florida. We’re going to spend the rest of the summer together…that’s the good news. The current plan is to commute between here and Brooklyn.”

“I hate you.” Dave smirked.

“No you don’t.” Jason shook his head.

“If we were women you'd be telling me everything. I’d be overwhelmed with information but you give me nothing.”

“Don’t generalize women.” Jason said.

“OK. I'm sorry.”

Now Jason smirked. He knew Dave wasn’t a sexist pig, even when he was a regular pig. He was just pushing his best friend’s buttons to see what he could get. Jason wasn’t giving in. He knew that Erin liked Dave.

He didn’t know how little or how much, just that she liked him. He also knew she didn’t have a lot of time. Surely Dave didn’t know that. Jason just refused to get involved. He had no right to tell Erin who to disclose her personal business to. He also knew that no matter what he said, Dave was going after what he wanted.

“Let’s soon do as men do.” Dave said. “The women we adore aren’t around; we should hit some strip clubs and have overpriced drinks and lap dances.”

“Please tell me you're joking.”

“I'm joking. But Aaron has been calling me. You know if he's calling then its getting bad because he's a workaholic. We’ll grab him, Morgan, and Spencer drink. I’ll give a call and find out if they're in town Friday. I'm seeing Erin on Thursday. We’re doing Shakespeare under the Stars. If it doesn’t rain that is.”

“Nora and I saw Looking for Richard last summer.” Jason said. “It was terrific. Do you have rain check plans?”

“I was thinking movie night at my place. Except…”

“Ashley?”

“She wouldn’t give me five minutes alone. You know she got her curiosity from her mother.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Beardsley could take her out.” Jason said.

“It’s a school night.” Dave reasoned. “I don’t want to go there. I’ll probably just take Erin for coffee and conversation. I definitely don’t mind spending a few hours talking to her. The news said it’s probably going to rain.”

“I'm sure whatever you do you’ll have a good time.”

“And there's nothing you want to tell me?” Dave asked.

“Nope. Well, we need to do another mile.”

“I don’t usually pull this card but I'm an old man.”

“You're only as old as you feel.” Jason said.

“Considering the precipitation in the air, right now I definitely feel my age.”

Jason picked up his running and even though he sighed, his best friend followed. Even when it was tough, and today it sucked, Dave knew how important it was to keep his body as sharp as his mind. People weren't interested in a bump on a log and he never wanted to be one.

***

“Is the water still hot?” Erin asked as she walked into the kitchen.

“Yes.” Joanna Parkinson-Kane watched her daughter make herself a cup of chamomile tea. When she sat down at the table with a pack of cigarettes and a small ashtray she gave her the look of disapproval that only a mother could muster.

“Don’t do that Mother. A cigarette cannot kill me.”

Joanna sighed, reaching across the table for Erin’s hand. She gave it a squeeze.

“I should've told you sooner.” Erin said.

“I'm sure you had your reasons. Is that why Teddy left school in February? I was really worried about him…afraid it might be drugs or something. I know he's not the type but it was all so sudden.”

“I didn’t want him to do that.” Erin replied. “I told him that he’s got to go back to school in the fall. It doesn’t matter what condition I'm in. Columbia is his dream and I won't hold him back from that. He just wants to take care of us. Ted takes that ‘man of the house’ speech that Eli gave him when he left seriously. It’s not easy to watch your kids give up their dreams to take care of you. It hurts even more when they can't make it better.”

“That’s something I know firsthand.” Joanna said. “I know this is a silly question but did you have a second opinion?”

“I've had four opinions actually. They were pretty much all the same; Grade 3 Astrocytoma. The only difference was on how long I could live. I've heard everything from six months to two years. Quality of life goes down significantly as the tumor spreads and takes over. I rounded it to maybe having a year or so of some kind of quality.”

“That’s something else I know first hand.” The older woman nodded solemnly.

“I am so sorry to put you through this again.” Erin sipped her tea and lit her cigarette.

“I should be worried about you, not the other way around love. Are you sure you got the right opinions? No offense to Washington but New York has excellent doctors. Did you consider Memorial?”

“I went to Memorial. It was my third opinion; she was the one who gave me 15 months to two years unless the spreading intensified. After I got the initial diagnosis at GW I went to University of Maryland, which is ranked #11 in the nation for cancer. Then I went to Johns Hopkins, which is #1 and then finally Memorial, which is #2. It’s not going to change.”

“How do you feel right now?” Joanna asked. She couldn’t bear the idea of Erin in pain. This would get worse before it got better. Joanna would have to summon all of her strength.

“The tea and cigarette make me feel relaxed. I doubt its real but I'm going to take it. Did you know Mother that at one time ecstasy was prescribed by doctors for temporary depression; they used to give it to terminal cancer patients to make their last days happy.”

“You're not on ecstasy, are you?”

“No Mother.” Erin smiled as she shook her head. “I have enough drugs, I don’t need that. Sometimes you're not supposed to be happy. There are plenty of things to bring me out of the funk and remind me that I need to live. I need to love as long as I can.” She took a long drag of her cigarette.

“Quality of life is important.” Joanna said. “Have you talked to Nora about…?”

“Absolutely not.” Erin shook her head but this time she didn’t smile.

“She's not a little girl anymore, Erin.”

“I'm not taking my own life. And if it ever gets to the point where I seriously consider it, I have no intention of putting my children in a losing situation.”

“You have to forgive him, Erin.” Joanna said.

“I forgave him for dying a long time ago, Mother. He couldn’t stop what was happening to him. It’s been a little harder to forget the rest of it.”

Erin’s father had terminal pancreatic cancer. Erich Kane was in a lot of pain close to the end and chose to take his own life. He surely wasn’t the first person to do so. What hurt Erin is that he and her mother sat them down to talk with them about it. They wanted to discuss what was coming with Erin and her twin brothers, Benjamin and Alexander.

She didn’t want to know; she was their child. While not being a little girl anymore, Erin didn’t want to know that her father was committing suicide. It was one of the few times in her life that she truly lost her shit, as Ted would say. Inconsolable, she fled the Central Park West condo and didn’t come back for most of the evening. That conversation was the last thing her children needed. Erin hadn't felt that helpless before or since, even when she faced her own mortality.

“Erich did what was best for him and I'm sure you will too sweetheart. Whatever you need I will always be here for you.”

“Thank you.”

“You never have to thank me…I gave birth to you.”

“Yes, and if I recall the story you were in labor for nearly twice the time that you were with the boys.”

“I was 25 years old giving birth to an eight pound infant.” Joanna said smiling. “I thought I would die. It’s why I waited five years to do it again.”

“We both made it.” Erin squeezed her hand again.

“And we will make it through this as well. The end of the story may be written but more of the middle is yet to come. There are some interesting chapters ahead, Erin.”

“I pray everyday that you're right. I also pray for your strength and resolve.”

“You already have it. You always have and always will.”

***

“Hello!” Emily held up her arms when Dave opened the door.

“You're insane.” he grinned.

“I love you too.”

She walked over the threshold, throwing her arms around him. Dave hugged her back. He hadn't seen her in a while. It was good to see her now.

“Why are you so excited?”

“It’s a beautiful day.”

“It’s pouring, and it’s nighttime.”

“I thought you were seeing someone.” Emily said. “You should be pretty amped.”

“And where did you hear that I was seeing someone?” Dave asked.

“It’s all over your kid’s Facebook page. Well, not all over but she posted it. ‘Pops may have a girlfriend; maybe, maybe not. Colleagues officially has a new definition’.”

“I'm going to smother her.” he mumbled. “That doesn’t explain your excitement.”

“Its Friday night and I'm here to kind of, sort of babysit a thirteen year old. She might be the coolest teenager on earth but I'm still babysitting. Hell, even Mrs. Beardsley is going to Bingo. Bingo can be happening, especially Old Town Bingo.”

“I always assumed Bingo was a euphemism for something dirty. Anyway, long distance relationships can be a bitch.”

“I'm not in a long distance relationship.” Emily shook her head.

“Have you informed Clyde Easter of this?”

“Shut up.” She folded her arms.

“Aunt Emily!” Ashley exclaimed as she came bounding down the stairs like six kids instead of one. “Did you bring the rated R movies?”

“I've got a bone to pick with you.” Dave said as he watched her hug her godmother. When Carolyn passed away and Dave became Ashley’s legal guardian he asked Jason and Emily to be her godparents. If anything ever happened to him he knew that the two of them would always take care of her. It was the first he ever considered that something might happen to him. Leaving the FBI, though difficult, doubled his safety chances.

“I just got here; that’s impossible. The rated R movies thing was mostly a joke.”

“I'm talking about posting on social networking sites that I have a girlfriend.”

“Oh um…” Ashley held onto Emily. “I'm just spreading the love, Pops; sharing the joy.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.” Dave said. “You're misinforming the public which consists of, for the purposes of this conversation, your school friends who shouldn’t know my business anyway.”

“My bad?” she put it in question form and smiled.

“I hate Facebook and I'm letting you have that blog thingie by the skin of your teeth. Update on your life only and not mine. Are we clear?”

“Yes.” She nodded.

“I need to go; I don’t want to be late. You two have fun tonight.”

“Bye.”

Dave kissed Ashley, grabbed his umbrella, and left the house.

“He totally has a girlfriend.” She said after the door was closed. “She might come to my graduation party.”

“Where are you getting your information?” Emily asked.

They walked into the den with their arms around each other. It was going to be a real girl’s night. Who knew how long Dave would be out drinking and having fun? Mrs. Beardsley didn’t usually get home from Bingo until around 11 o’clock. That would give them time to watch one movie, maybe even two. They would talk about boys, girls (Ashley told her not to tell Dave about that), sports, friends, and anything else the teen felt like chatting about. Emily would avoid questions about serial killers and Clyde Easter.

“Mudgie Budgie!” Emily called to the dog.

The Chesapeake Bay retriever baked happily. He jumped off the couch and rushed to her. Emily crouched down to pet him.

“Can we make root beer floats first?” Ashley asked.

“That sounds good.”

“While we do that you can tell me all about how the handsome Interpol agent who’s in love with you is doing. Its so awesome Aunt Emily…like dating James Bond.”

“I don’t think so.” Emily laughed as they walked into the kitchen with the dog trotting behind.

“I’ll tell you everything I know about the supposed colleague.” Ashley said.

“You're going to do that anyway.” she gave the teen a friendly poke.

“OK, her name is Erin and I think she's a criminology professor…”

***

“Don’t go.” Dave smiled as he held both of her hands in his.

It had been a great afternoon and evening. No one could blame Dave for not wanting it to end. They both made it through the meeting of teenage Ashley relatively unscathed. It was surprising but counted as a victory.

I'm so sorry I'm late.” Erin walked into the backyard with Mrs. Beardsley. The party was hopping; a DJ played music that Erin didn’t know. It was alright because all the kids there did. There seemed to be more than thirty but it was difficult to do a headcount. Then she realized that she had no idea which one was Ashley.

“Is everything alright?” Dave hugged her and kissed her cheek.

“It’s fine. My son dropped me off so I hope you don’t mind taking me home later.”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to you staying.”

“David…”

“Oh my God, is this her?’ a bubbly blonde jumped into her space and scared the hell out of Erin.

“Hey Monkey, mom and I raised you better than that.”

“You're not allowed to call me Monkey in public.” Ashley said.

“And you're not allowed to invade someone’s space without saying excuse me.”

“Touché, Pops; I'm sorry. Excuse me, is this her?”

“I'm Erin Strauss…and you must be Ashley.”

“Ashley Louise Seaver.” She extended her hand. “It’s really nice to meet you.”

“Ditto.” Erin shook her hand.

“I’ll leave you two to hug and kiss and stuff. I have to entertain the masses.”

“Go.” Dave smiled and pointed back out to the lawn. Then he turned back to Erin. “Do you want a beer, soda, water, or something?”

“No I'm fine.”

“My arms are still around you.”

“I noticed. It’s only a matter of minutes before all the kids notice too. Where’s Jason?”

“He’ll be here soon. Don’t worry, he wouldn’t leave you alone with me.”

“I think I can handle you, David Rossi.” She smirked.

“I think you already have.

Erin smiled when Dave pulled her closer. He put her arms around his waist and put his around her neck. She sighed, relaxing her body against his. She really liked the feeling of her body against his.

“I had fun today.” She whispered, holding back a moan when he kissed her neck.

“Me too.”

“Your daughter is delightful. I can see a lot of you in her.”

“Her mother’s probably not thrilled about that.” Dave said.

“You’ve been married three times but still managed to stay friends with your first wife?”

“Carolyn was one of my best friends. We went through a lot together as a young couple. You don’t just let a person like that leave your life.”

“Now she's gone but she gave you something amazing. She gave you Ashley.”

“Carolyn was a firm believer that what we leave behind is a testament to how we lived our lives.”

Erin nodded. She moved her hands up to caress his face. Dave closed his eyes as she leaned in to give him Eskimo kisses. When her lips touched his, Dave held her tighter. The kiss was deep and passionate. Erin was definitely no slouch in the kissing department. He really could spend all day with his lips glued to hers. Breathing meant nothing when he could do this instead.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes.” He nodded.

“What will we do if I stay tonight?”

Dave grinned and rolled his eyes, which made Erin smile.

“It’s still early so we could cuddle in bed with a movie. We could lay a blanket out back and watch the stars. I could sit you up on the counter and make you sigh my name. I could make you scream it.”

“David…” Erin put her head on his shoulder.

“You asked and I answered. Just stay with me. We’ll do whatever you want to do, Erin.”

“Door #3 is a viable option.” She said.

“Please don’t tease me.”

“You like it when I tease you.”

“You're right.” Dave nodded. “I like you, Erin Strauss. I like you a lot.”

“I like you too.”

“Is that so bad? You don’t sound too happy about it.”

“Just take me upstairs. Take me upstairs and make love to me, David.”

“And you'll stay the night?”

“Its very unseemly to hit and run.” Erin replied.

“Can I carry you?”

“How's your back?”

“I guess we’re about to find out.” he scooped her up in his arms.

000

“Do you mind if I smoke?” Erin asked.

Afterglow was quite nice; it had been a while. She liked Dave’s bedroom though she wasn’t there for decorating tips. It was filled with beautiful wood furniture that looked antique. There was leather furniture as well, a desk chair, loveseat, and settee. He had a California king-sized bed where the huge dog was sleeping when he brought her into the bedroom.

The dog’s in here.” As soon as Erin’s feet touched the carpet she slipped out of her flats.

“You're not a dog person?” Dave asked.

“It’s not that, necessarily. I just…is he going to stay and watch? That would be a little strange.”

“Mudgie, couch.”

The dog looked up at him but didn’t move. Dave looked at Erin; she seemed amused by the exchange. As a cat parent she knew it quite well.

“Mudgie,” this time Dave wolf whistled. “Couch.”

He got up from his nap, reluctantly jumped down from the bed, and went over to the couch.

“There are some days when he's confused about who’s king of this castle.”

“I see that.”

“Please excuse the interruption in sweeping you off your feet.”

“Shut up.” Erin laughed, taking his hand and pulling him close. She started unbuttoning his shirt.

“Yes ma'am. You're sexy when you're forceful. You're sexy all the time.”

She walked with him toward the bed. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what she was doing; it had just been a while. OK, a long time…a long, long time. Ursula was right though; Erin deserved this. She deserved the giddiness and the euphoria that came with sex. She deserved to feel it with Dave, who wanted her as much as she wanted him.

“Smoking is bad for you.” he said kissing her collarbone.

“Shall I make you a list of things I regularly do that are bad for me?”

“You can do that. I’ll particularly like it if it’s dirty.”

“I need my cigarette.”

“Go woman, but don’t go too far.”

Erin smiled and kissed him. Dave moved over on the bed. She got up, wrapping the sheet around her. Turning back to grab her purse, Erin covered her eyes.

“David!” she exclaimed.

“What's wrong?”

“You're…oh my God!”

“What do you expect? You stole my sheet.”

“Please cover up.” Erin said.

“OK.” He smiled and grabbed the blanket from the bottom of the bed. “I'm covered.”

“Thank you.” she uncovered her eyes.

“You didn’t quite strike me as the shy type.”

“Cocks are ugly. They're useful but not really attractive. True story.”

Dave laughed as Erin took a cigarette from a sterling silver case and lit it. She walked over to the large picture window. Darkness in Fairfax was as beautiful as darkness in Chevy Chase. He had a lovely view.

“I’ll need to be home at a decent hour in the morning.”

“Of course.” He nodded.

“I'm not trying to run out of here, I just…there are medications I have to take. I didn’t bring them with me. I don’t want to forget.”

Actually she did want to forget. Erin would do anything to forget but when the memory loss came it was close to the end.

“You don’t have to explain, Erin. I’ll take you home whenever you want. I’d like to make love to you several more times before that happens though. If you want to this is.”

“I don’t want you writing a check that your body can't cash.” She turned to look at him. “That’s not why I'm here, David.”

“OK. So, once more tonight, again tomorrow morning and I get to hold you in my arms in between.”

“It’s a deal.” Erin smiled.

“Please come to bed.”

“I should call my daughter.”

“Do you need to use my phone?” Dave went into the nightstand drawer and pulled out an ashtray.

“No, my cell phone is in my purse.”

Erin went over to the side of the bed. She took one deep inhale before putting the cigarette out. There as a framed picture of a woman and little girl there. Erin recognized Ashley. The woman must have been Carolyn. She was quite beautiful, and clearly died too young.

Erin was torn over loss of life and wondering whether his other two wives were beautiful. David Rossi had three wives; holy hell. She let out a squeal of delight when Dave grabbed her around the waist. He pulled her into bed, kissing her breathless. Erin ran her fingers through his thick salt and pepper hair.

“I need to call my daughter.” She repeated.

“Does that require letting you go?” Dave asked.

“Mmm hmm.” She nodded. “It also means no funny business.”

“Should I cross my heart?”

“Yes.” Erin nodded kissing him.

Dave held her tight, rolling them on the mattress as the kissing intensified. Erin laughed.

“David…”

“I'm gonna be good…cross my heart.”

He moved off her and Erin leaned down for her purse. She felt some vertigo, playing it off as best she could. Luckily almost anyone would get dizzy bending over backward. Dave cuddled close as she settled back on the bed. Erin pressed two to call Nora’s cell phone.

“Hi mom.”

“Hey sweetheart, I'm just calling to let you know I won't be home tonight.”

“Are you alright?” Nora asked.

“I'm fine…staying with a friend.” Erin slapped Dave’s hand away as it moved under the sheet.

“Alright. Do you have your migraine medicine?”

“Yes, but I feel fine.”

“What about your other medications?”

“I’ll be home in the morning. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Well, are you…?”

“Nora sweetie, who’s the mother and who’s the daughter?” Erin asked laughing a little.

“I'm sorry Mom.” Nora laughed too. “I just get nervous.”

Erin knew that was Caretaker’s Syndrome. She also knew that she was going to say anything about it in front of Dave.

“I’ll be home in the morning. If your brother asks, I'm at Ursula’s.”

“Ted told me that you might be dating.” Nora said. “Why don’t I know anything about this?”

“I'm not commenting. Goodnight, sweetheart, I love you.”

“I love you too. Goodnight.”

Erin hung up, putting her phone on the nightstand. She turned in Dave’s arms. He smiled and it made her do the same.

“That was almost funny business.” She said.

“Please forgive me.”

“Yes, I can tell how terribly sorry you are.”

“Are both of your kids still at home with you?” he asked.

“They come and go as they please; both in relationships. And Teddy is going back to Columbia in the fall. I just want to lead by example…they always call if they're going to be out all night.”

“You're a good mother.” Dave said, moving to get her out of the sheet.

“He says as he undresses me.” Erin slipped her arms around his neck.

“Actually, you're already undressed. I just intend to pleasure you.”

“You make it sound so…awesome.” She smiled.

“It will be, for the both of us.”

***

“And then he…mmm, it was just…” Erin closed her eyes, smiled, and ran her hands through the water.

“I just bet it was.” Ursula laughed, putting a bookmark in People like Us.

“I mean four times.” She held up four fingers. “I haven’t done it four times in the span of 24 hours in…wait, I have never done it four times in the span of 24 hours. Not even that little while when I was with Bruno and you remember how virile he was. And it wasn’t just straight cock sex…oh my God, did I just say cock sex?”

“You absolutely said cock sex. I think it’s my new favorite term that I have no reason to use.”

“Really though, I mean really, have you ever had a man’s face between your thighs and his hands squeezing your breasts and he’s totally stimulating every pore and you scream until you're hoarse?”

“I can't say that I have.” Ursula shook her head.

“OK, not a man.” Erin said.

“Oh then yes, I have.”

“He's wonderful. Dammit, I wish he wasn’t so wonderful.”

“After the Bruno fiasco you don’t want another not wonderful man, Erin.”

“It wasn’t a…”

Erin sighed. She couldn’t truthfully say that her relationship with Bruno Hawkes wasn’t a disaster. He was brilliant, handsome, rich, and absolutely full of himself. He was good in bed but not much else where Erin was concerned. He was controlling and when pushed to the limit, Erin pushed back.

Bruno hit her so hard that night he knocked her off her feet. And that was the end of their relationship. He tried, for nearly six months, to convince her to take him back. It just wasn’t worth all he’d put her through. Erin was relieved when he took a job transfer to London. She never saw Bruno Hawkes again.

“I definitely don’t want another not wonderful man.”

“I know.” Ursula nodded.

“He's wonderful, Ursula.”

“I heard.” Her best friend managed a smile. “Here's the truth of it sweetie, none of us knows how long we have. You have a timeline and you know that some not-good times are ahead. Hold onto to the good times with both hands.”

“In theory I would agree.” Erin said.

“You social scientists and all your damn theories. That has to get tiring.”

“It’s just not fair to die on him. It’s not fair to die on anyone but the people that I love know what's coming. David is flying blind.”

“So tell him.”

“I can't.” she sighed. This was what happened. Erin would think or talk about Dave, which would cause a burst of happiness. Then she would remember what was yet to come. There was very little happy about that. “His wife died suddenly, well his first wife did. I can't put him or his daughter through that pain again.”

“You're putting the others you love through it.” Ursula replied. “You know that I know none of this is your fault. You didn’t do a damn thing to give yourself a brain tumor. Believe me when I tell you there are days when I wish that I was as clueless as David Rossi. What happened to his first wife? How many times has he been married?”

“Three times.” Erin said.

“Damn, seriously? I mean he's attractive, rich, and…well I guess that’s all you have to be these days. The sanctity of marriage is alive and well.”

“He has an enormous cock.”

“For some women that is impressive.” Ursula said.

Erin laughed and raised her hand.

“Do you have any plans for the holiday?” Ursula asked. “I'm really glad this is one of the ultimate federal holidays because I told Rachel that if she worked one more day when she really didn’t have to then I was divorcing her.”

“I was there when you said that.”

Ursula and Rachel Harding had been together for over a decade. They met at an ultra boring dinner party that Ursula dragged Erin to. When she saw Rachel across the room, just like in the movies, she wanted her. Ursula Kent always got what she wanted.

With gorgeous auburn hair and bright blue eyes, Rachel was the ultimate catch. It didn’t take long for her to fall just as hard as Ursula. Neither one let the 18 year age difference get in their way, though there were those who thought of Rachel as a trophy wife. Rachel never dignified it with a response.

Ursula told people that her wife was the ultimate prize so call her a trophy all you want. Her “prize” worked hard at the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. She was one of the many liaisons working to make sure all federal agencies were on the same page. Those kinds of jobs didn’t have hours.

“What are your plans?” Erin countered the question with one of her own.

“We’re taking a long weekend at the cabin, Friday through Monday. I start summer classes on Wednesday after the holiday and I just want some quiet time. Rachel wanted to hang out at home and go to the Harbor for the fireworks on Sunday. I have no desire to be around people.”

“I love you, Ursula.” Erin smiled.

“That goes double for me. Do you have plans?”

“Nora Bennett will be in town so David asked me to join them for a foursome.”

“That’s quite a bold move considering you haven’t been seeing each other for long.”

Erin burst into laughter. She balanced herself so that she wouldn’t fall into the pool. She’d been relaxing for almost an hour on a blowup lounger. Ursula’s pool had always been one of Erin’s favorite summertime places.

“You seriously have a one track mind.”

“It’s a beautiful thing.” Ursula smiled.

“Foursome means wine, dinner, conversation, and fireworks.”

“Will the fireworks take place before or after Jason and Nora leave?” Ursula asked.

“Stop it. I'm not talking to you anymore.”

“I just love making you smile. What are best friends for if not that? Will you spend the night with him?”

“I don't know.” Erin shrugged. “His housekeeper will be on vacation but Ashley might be home.”

“If I were a 13 year old only child of a wealthy single father I wouldn’t be home.” Ursula said. “But that’s just me.”

“We’ll see. I think as much as I've been fighting it I just want to enjoy being with him. Whatever time I have left, Ursula, I just want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy the fireworks and all.”

***

“So I'm definitely going to do the camp.” Ashley said. “Its lacrosse camp so it'll mix sports, violence, and girls in short shorts. It’s a win-win.”

“What did you just say?” Dave looked up from his laptop at his daughter.

His glasses hung off the bridge of his nose. Ashley sat Indian style on the floor of his study. She’d been doing that since she and her mother moved into Rossi’s mansion six or so years ago. Tonight she was eating a bowl of Frosted Cheerios and watching cartoons on low volume. It looked like Johnny Bravo. Dave was well acquainted with cartoons she loved.

“I'm gonna do the camp.” Ashley repeated. “Liv’s gonna do it too so we’ll do it together. I think lacrosse might be good for me.”

“You and Liv spend a lot of time together.”

“She's my best friend and has been like forever. You and Uncle Jason spend a lot of time together.”

That was true; Dave couldn’t and wouldn’t argue with it. And what if Ashley did have more than friendship feelings for Olivia Hopkins? He was always going to love her no matter what. It wasn’t really the gay thing that was freaking Dave out at the moment, it was the sex thing.

Ashley was too young for sex. Kids grew up too fast and he struggling to catch up. His little girl was about to leave him in the dust. He needed to take hold of her collar. Not too tight of course but Dave still needed to hold on.

“Well what do you need me to do? I didn’t prepare for anything because in May you said you probably weren't gonna go.”

“You need to write a check.” Ashley replied. “Mrs. Hopkins took my application over to the sports center when she took Liv’s.”

“Who filled out the application?” Dave asked.

“Mrs. Beardsley. You were busy so I asked her to. The director tried to get peevish about not getting paid upfront but then he saw your name as my parent. Mrs. Hopkins said he was falling all over himself to say oh sure Agent Rossi can pay on the first day of camp.

“I know how much he travels for work. Oh please.” Ashley rolled her eyes. “You’ve got more money than most people…they should make you pay upfront. It’s kinda like actors and singers getting free drugs. What the feez?”

“What is a feez?”

“It’s just a saying.” Ashley looked back at him and smiled. “Can we have stir-fry tonight?”

“That sounds good to me.” her father replied. “So, lacrosse camp?”

“Yeah. Oh, and I'm gonna hang out at Liv’s for the holiday weekend…if it’s OK.”

“It’s OK. Do you guys have plans?”

“We’re going to the park for picnics and fireworks. Nathan might be there.”

Nathan Harris was another one of Ashley’s friends. She had a ton of them and Dave always tried to remember names and bios…her mother had been much better at it. He remembered that kid because he was weird. Not weird enough to set off red flags but they were yellow. Dave wanted to keep his eyes on him.

“Is Erin going to come over to keep you company?” Ashley asked. “Since you're home alone and all.”

“Uncle Jason and Nora will be here too.” Dave said. “We’re having an adult night.”

Ashley just laughed and Dave pointed at her. That only made her laugh more. He shook his head, going back to his laptop. So many things for the novel were coming together. Dave couldn’t believe that the characters starting speaking to him out of nowhere. This was new to him though he’d been writing for a long time. He wanted to get it all down just in case this novel writing thing was a fluke.

“You really like her, don’t you Pop?”

“Erin?”

“Yes.”

“She's wonderful. I'm enjoying getting to know her. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and I don’t want you to either.”

“I'm not.” Ashley shook her head.

“Are you sure?” Dave asked.

“Yep.”

Dave didn’t believe her. But the truth was that he was probably getting ahead of himself too. He was completely enamored with Erin Strauss and pretty much had been since they first met. Something in the back of his mind told him it wasn’t going to work. Dave couldn’t figure out why but there was something.

In the end that unknown something was going to keep them from being together. He wanted to know what it was; wanted some control over stopping it. The giddiness of being with her coupled with that feeling often left Dave feeling drained. He should probably stop while he was ahead but as long as she let him he would be there.

***

“You guys don’t have to run.” Dave said, sipping his wine.

“We’re not running.” Nora said. “It’s been an awesome evening but I'm so tired. I just got in last night and that was after my flight was delayed almost three hours out of Fort Lauderdale. I just want to get into a bed and have sweet dreams.”

“I don’t think that’s…”

“Shut up Dave.” Jason said it with a smile on his face.

“I'm just saying…”

“No, you're not saying anything because you're not talking.” Jason said.

“Hey, I do want to hear something. Jason tells me that you're teaching this summer.” Nora said.

“This summer?” Erin looked at him. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“Well that’s because it was just dropped on me.” Dave said. “It’s a seminar at George Washington University called FBI in the Media. Max Ryan was going to teach it but had to pull out at the last minute, which is probably good for the students since he's an egomaniacal douche. He got stuck on a deadline for his latest true crime book and couldn’t devote five weeks to the class. So he called around and Alex Blake suggested me. Max hates me but he asked anyway. I said yes. Its no big deal, just two classes a week for five weeks.”

“That’s a big deal David.” Erin squeezed his hand. “It’s wonderful.”

“I’m looking forward to it. I had to rearrange some of my schedule but it was worth it. It puts me at home for most of the summer while giving me something to do so I won't slowly go insane.”

“You're going to be great; I'm sure of it.” Nora smiled, showing her amazing dimples.

“Thanks Nora. C'mon,” Dave stood too. “I’ll walk you guys out.”

“Erin, it was great to see you again.” Nora kissed her and gave her a hug. “I’ll be here all summer. We have to get together, we’ll talk.”

“I have more time on my hands than I usually do when you visit.” Erin said. “We will definitely do that.”

“You're not going to need a ride home.” Jason leaned to kiss her cheek.

“David will take me.” she replied. “I think I might have more of his delicious cherry cheesecake first.”

“So I'm not allowed to make slightly lewd jokes with your girlfriend but you're offering to take mine home?” Dave asked grinning. “What gives, Gideon?”

“I'm just double checking.” Jason said. “And she was my friend before she was your girlfriend.”

“I'm not his girlfriend.” Erin shook her head.

“Don’t listen to her…she's had too much wine.”

“I'm stone cold sober.” She pinched him. “And you know it.”

“Obviously we need to have a conversation about semantics.” Dave looked at Jason and Nora. “Don’t be alarmed; she's crazy about me.”

Erin just rolled her eyes. Jason and Nora laughed as Dave walked them out of the house. Alone on the deck Erin got her pill box out of her purse and took a Valium. She had been prescribed a small dosage a few months ago to help her relax. Erin had been feeling really anxious lately and though she knew why she didn’t want to think about it.

She’d been avoiding taking the anxiety drug for two weeks but she couldn’t anymore. More than a few times tonight she wanted to take Dave aside and tell him she had a brain tumor. She wanted to tell him that she was starting to care about him. She needed to stop this relationship before anyone got hurt.

But Erin didn’t say a word. She just put on her mask, filling all the spaces with conversations about books, music, summer plans, and small talk. Jason surely felt her anxiety but he kept his mouth shut. This wasn’t fair to him either, putting him smack in the middle of this thing with her and Dave.

“I took a Valium.” She said when he walked back onto the deck.

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting to hear that.” Dave’s face registered concern.

“Don’t worry; it was a really small dosage. This isn’t going to turn into an afterschool special. I've just been feeling…I wish I could put it into words. I need to relax and when nothing else helps this does.”

“Maybe I can help.” He sat down next to her at the table again.

“You do help.” Erin smiled. She was in her purse again. She grabbed her cigarettes and Dave nodded. She could tell he didn’t want to but it was only the third cigarette she’d smoked in front of him in six weeks. Erin was surprised when he reached into his back pocket and came out with a lighter. “You're always a gentleman.”

“Thank you. You can tell me what's wrong you know?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” She shook her head. “OK, I've had some anxiety issues for most of my life. It’s a side effect of being a ridiculous overachiever. I'm fine though, I promise.”

“You don’t know me that well yet. I get that you don’t want to open yourself up to scrutiny or being hurt. I need you to know that I’d never do that Erin.” he took her hand. “I’d never do it on purpose I guess I should say since sometimes we’re all capable of inadvertently hurting the people we care about.”

“I don’t know if we should have this conversation.” She slipped her hand out of his.

“Did you have a good time tonight?” Dave asked, changing the subject while not changing it at all. Something was going on. Dave was usually really good at reading people but Erin Strauss was the most complicated maze he’d ever dropped himself in the middle of. There were high walls all around. He couldn’t find his way to a clear path.

“I did. You know one of the things that allowed me to let you in a little bit was Jason.”

“Oh this I have to hear.” He smiled, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair.

“I adore Jason; known him a long time. If you're his best friend you can't be all that bad. He wouldn’t want to be around anyone who could damage his psyche for very long. I know how precious it is to him.”

Jason Gideon’s nervous breakdown 13 years ago was pretty well known. He’d worked some of the country’s most horrifying cases with the Behavioral Analysis Unit. He and Dave worked side by side for a lot of years. Then on a case in Boston, a decision Jason made ended up getting several agents killed. He took almost a year off after that.

When he came back he was never the same. When it happened again in Flagstaff, Arizona and a college coed died, Jason had to walk away. What most people didn’t know was that he never had a second nervous breakdown…he walked away before that could happen. Dave respected him for that. So many around them didn’t know their limits.

“I'm a great guy.” He said.

“And as I've said before, so modest too.”

“What are you anxious about tonight?”

“I like you.” Erin replied. “It makes me nervous.”

“Valium nervous?” Dave raised an eyebrow.

“Have you ever met someone, not known them long, and they make you want to do things that are unlike you?”

“I think I have.”

“Sometimes I'm with you and I just have this feeling that I should share everything.” Erin said.

“I want to listen if you want to talk.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“So tell me one thing, anything you want.” Dave said. “I’ll do the same.”

“You first.” Erin smiled as she took a deep inhale of her cigarette.

“A lot of people think I've been married three times because I love being in love. I can't say that that’s not true…it might be true. But I do know that I hate being alone. That’s not why I'm with you; this is different. When I'm alone I think too much, remember things that I don’t always want to remember. When I'm with a woman I care about I can think about her and us and good things. The problem is that when it turns bad, it multiplies my bad thoughts by too much to calculate.”

“My ex-husband was my first real relationship. Before that I was too busy fencing or debating or learning. After we divorced I threw myself into work, which I’d always done. Then there was someone else but…” Erin cleared her throat. “I don’t want to lose myself in another man. I love being Erin. She’s messy and complicated sometimes but I've gotten very used to her.”

“So you don’t want to see me anymore?” he asked. “You’ve been anxious all day trying to find a way to politely break up with me? And here I am making stupid jokes about being my girlfriend when this is more like the poor cat trying to get out of the clutches of the overzealous Pepe le Pew.”

“You just made a Merrie Melodies reference.” Erin said.

“It’s a gift.”

“I'm not trying to break up with you, David. I'm trying not to fall in love with you.”

“Do you mind if I ask why?”

“I have a brain tumor and I'm going to die.”

“And you accuse me of laying it on thick.” He smiled. “No one would ever believe that. You have to say you’ve accepted a tenure track position at a foreign universe or that it turns out you're not as divorced as you thought you were. The divorce one is good…I know that one from experience. Don’t ask.”

“I wish more than anything that I could tell you it was a joke.” Erin said.

“Back up Erin; tell me what's going on.”

“I have a brain tumor. The doctors have given me anywhere from nine months to two years depending. No one knows, it can decide to be aggressive or not. I don’t get to make that choice. The truth is that they usually are and it’s virtually inoperable.

What kind of irresponsible person gets involved with someone, someone with a child, when they have a death sentence?” she asked. “You just kept pushing. I'm not blaming you; a part of me didn’t want to say no anymore. I didn’t want to say no in the first place but I did and that’s it. I thought we’d go to lunch, realize we had nothing in common, and move on. It didn’t happen that way.”

“A brain tumor.” Dave whispered. He reached over for her hand. His was trembling…he wasn’t going to try to play it off. He couldn’t play it off. He was in shock, falling through space and desperately grabbing for something to hold on to.

“It’s a Grade 3 Astrocytoma, not that you have any idea what I'm talking about.”

“I do, a little bit.” He nodded and seemed unable to stop. “I'm not leaving you, Erin. It doesn’t scare me away.”

“It should.”

“It scares me, God knows it does, but it doesn’t scare me away. I'm already in. How long have you known?”

“I got the diagnosis in March.” She replied.

“How many opinions did you seek?” he asked.

“I got four, and they pretty much all said the same thing. I can't let this define me. I don’t want…it was physical painful to hold back anymore. I think I almost blurted it out six times over dinner.”

Dave smiled but it was sad. He stood her up from the chair, wrapping his arms around her. Erin exhaled and gripped him tighter. He had no idea how he didn’t break down right there. The tears came and Dave did nothing to stop them. She caressed his face, wiping them away as fast as they came. Erin kissed his trembling lips.

I'm so sorry.” She rested her forehead on his.

“Please don’t apologize to me. Just tell me what you need.”

“I needed you to know. I felt like a liar. I needed you to make a decision, for you and for Ashley, knowing the whole truth. She already lost her mother. I couldn’t put her through that again.”

“Carolyn was sick too. It was ALS.”

“Oh David,” she tried to pull away but he was holding on. “We just can't…”

“I'm not letting you go. We can do this.”

“How? The ending is always the same and its not they all lived happily ever after.”

“So we give up something so good because the end is going to be bad?” he asked. “What about right now? What about next month, the month after that, and even the month after that? If we only have a moment I still want it.”

“Its not always about what you want.” Erin replied.

“Well what do you want?”

“I just don’t want the people I care about to hurt.”

“That’s impossible. They're going to lose you…it’s gonna hurt. But it’s not going to happen tonight.”

“What's going to happen tonight?” Erin stroked his cheek.

She didn’t want to think about cancer anymore, dying, or being alone. This felt so good. It felt better than anything in a long time. It came at the worst possible time but it was here.

She didn’t want to lose it either. Her rational mind told her that walking away was best for everyone. Her heart said not a chance in hell. Erin wanted to listen to her heart. She didn’t do that very much.

“We’re going to enjoy every single moment we have together. We’re going to kiss, touch, and hold onto each other. You’ll whisper my name and I’ll moan yours. Nothing will come between us because the truth of the matter is we’re crazy about each other and want to express it. We need to take every moment we have left and express it.”

“Yeah.” she nodded.

“Yeah.” he kissed her.

They went into the house and up to the bedroom. There was nothing left to say. Dave knew the truth and it didn’t change a damn thing. It hurt. It actually felt as if he’d been shot in the gut.

This woman, this beautiful, intelligent, vibrant woman was dying. No one could tell her just how long she had. So he would give her tonight. He would lay her down and make love to her. He would make her feel as if they were the only two people in the world and everything was fine.

It was better than fine, it was perfect. And when Erin finally slept, Dave would slip out of the bed. He would go downstairs to make a phone call. They kept him on hold for over ten minutes but Dave didn’t hang up. Usually his patience was razor thin but this was one of the most important things he might ever do.

“This is Dr. Shepherd.” Derek answered the phone.

“Hello Derek, its David Rossi.”

Agent David Rossi? Wow, it’s been a very long time.”

“How are you?” Dave asked.

“I'm well. How are you?”

“I'm curious.”

“Whatever I can do; you know that.”

“I need you to tell me everything you can about Grade 3 Astrocytoma and if there's a chance in hell of operating on one.”

“Some days I can say that I never saw things coming, even if I did and just didn’t want to.” Derek said. “This, I did not see coming.”

***

“You know I couldn’t tell you, right?”

“Yeah.” Dave nodded.

“Look at me Dave; tell me that you know I couldn’t tell you.”

“I know.” Dave looked at him.

“Are you going to be alright?” Jason asked, putting his hand on his best friend’s shoulder.

“I'm still in shock.”

He’d come to Jason’s apartment in Georgetown to beat the hell out of him. 30 years they’d been friends, and they’d had their share of disagreements, but never once had he thought of throwing punches. Today he wanted to kill him. Dave had to hurt someone. He had to make someone hurt as much as he did.

When Jason opened the door he just began to cry. He cried like a baby but didn’t give a damn. And his best friend held him until the emotions passed. Then he poured him a glass of whiskey. It was barely afternoon but neither man cared.

“It was shocking for all of us. No one expects to hear it from someone they care about. It just started with the migraines. The doctor gave her medicine but they didn’t go away. I told her to get an MRI…I'm sure other people did as well.”

“How can nothing be done?” Dave asked.

“Brain tumors are quite tricky. Even benign tumors can be dangerous. They can become malignant or press on something important, making them difficult to remove. And with Astrocytoma, it’s rare they can remove the entire tumor. It ends up growing back.”

“But that doesn't mean you don’t take the chance. Wouldn’t you rather do that than just take the death sentence?”

“You can't ask me.” Jason shook his head. “I'm not the one with the brain tumor. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to ask Erin. I'm sure she’s gotten every bit of advice she could before she made the decision she made.”

“There might be another option.” Dave said.

“Don’t do this. Don’t make yourself crazy when there's nothing you can do about this tumor.”

“There might be something I can do.”

“What?” Jason was skeptical.

He knew Dave, knew he was a control freak. If there was a problem then he was going to solve it. It was what drove him for years in the BAU. And when it came to people he loved, he was even worse. Jason remembered the helplessness during Carolyn’s battle with ALS.

There was no cure…it just came and destroyed. The suicide nearly killed Dave. If not for Ashley, he may have just given up. He didn’t want Carolyn to take that option, begged her not to.

So she waited until he was on the road to do it. When Dave came home it was too late. She was dying and there was nothing to do to fix it. He couldn’t fix the illness or her option to take control. Jason wanted to make sure that he respected Erin’s right to take control.

“I'm not going to talk about it until I make sure it can happen.”

“OK.”

“I'm not being a control freak.” He said.

“Did I say anything?” Jason asked.

“You don’t have to; I've known you forever.”

“Just make sure that you respect Erin’s decisions. Make sure you don’t waste time chasing impossible dreams. This is the time to enjoy being together.”

“I'm going to see if she’ll go away with me.”

“When?”

“It’ll probably be in a couple of weeks. She’s busy, I'm busy, but we need to make the time. Speaking of…where’s Nora?”

“She went for a walk. We normally do that together but when you called she decided to go out alone. I know that she knew something was wrong. She’s giving us a little privacy.”

“I shouldn’t be ruining your time together.” Dave said. “You hardly get to see her as is.”

“We make up for it when we’re together.” Jason said.

“How do you do it? How do you live 226 miles from someone you love?”

“We do what we have to. Nora is living her dream; I can't say that I love her and ask her to give that up. And I love her very much.”

“So how do you deal with the distance?” Dave asked.

“We just make it work. Are you telling me that you're in love with Erin?”

“I'm not telling you anything.” He shook his head. “I have to save her.”

“You don’t have that power.”

“I can't lose her.”

“I wish more than anything that you didn’t have to. Erin has been my friend for a decade…I don’t want to lose her either. I don’t want to think about not being able to have lunch with her or talk criminal theory with her. I don’t want to think about how Nora and Ted or her mother are going to go on after she’s gone. This is agony on all of us.”

Dave honestly didn’t know if he could go through this again. What happened with Carolyn almost destroyed him. Losing people was never easy, it wasn’t supposed to be. But it was too soon for Erin. She had so much life left to live and things to accomplish.

She had moments to savor. Dave wanted to savor all of them with her. He had no idea how he’d fallen for her but he had. He was crazy about her and losing her wasn’t an option. Dave wasn’t giving up without a hell of a fight. He sighed, looking at his best friend.

“I can't fix this.” He said.

“No.” Jason squeezed his shoulder.

“But I can try. Jason, I can't just let her go. I can't give her up without a fight.”

He nodded and knew that there was no way that he could stop Dave from doing what he felt he had to. Sometimes the battle was all that kept you going. But it wasn’t a good idea to make this his entire focus in life. He had a child and other things going on. This was why Erin didn’t want to go out with him in the first place. David Rossi was an all or nothing kind of guy. This relationship with Erin was all in.

“I need to go.” Dave jumped up.

“Where are you going?”

“I don't know. I just need...I’m gonna drive around for a little bit. I need to find something to do with all of these feelings.”

“OK.” Jason nodded and walked with him to the door. They were both surprised to see Nora on the other side.

“I almost knocked on you.” she said, walking in with a little smile. “Hey Dave.”

“Hi Nora, how are you?”

“Well thank you.”

“Will you call me later?” Jason asked.

“I don't know, but you'll hear from me soon.”

“Alright.”

Dave rushed out of there like a bat out of hell. Jason turned to his girlfriend.

“I bought you a chai tea latte.” She said.

“Thanks.” He took it and kissed her cheek.

“He's not OK, is he?”

“No.”

“Is he going to be OK?” Nora asked.

“Normally my answer to a question like that would be only time will tell. Unfortunately time will be the enemy in this case.”

Nora nodded. She took his hand, kissed it, and pulled him over to the couch. Jason put his arm around her, holding her close. He was glad they were together right now.

He wanted to do his best to hold up his best friend and be there for Erin. Jason just didn’t know if he had the strength. Nora would fill in all the holes in him, just like she always did. How lucky was he that she could give all of her love to such a damaged man?

Jason had come a long way since he’d left the BAU a decade ago. Now he faced a whole new set of obstacles. Erin had even more though and he would do well to remember that. Just holding Nora tighter, Jason exhaled and waited for the latest storm to pass over them.

***

“I've met someone.”

“Well I surely didn’t believe that you suddenly wanted to spend 50% of your time with Aunt Ursula.” Ted smiled.

“Haha, you're such a funny boy.” Erin threw a balled up napkin at her son.

“Are we talking about David Rossi?” Nora asked.

“Yes.” She nodded. “While this isn’t exactly the most ideal time to jump into a relationship, I also know that life throws ridiculous things at you for a reason. It threw me a brain tumor and then it threw me David. I seem to be stuck with both.”

She and her children were having dinner on the deck. Twice a week they made sure to have dinner as a family. They'd been doing that since Erin and Eli were still married. Crazy schedules usually meant odd hours but that rule was rarely broken. Even for a couple of years after the divorce Eli had dinner with them once a week. Then Eli took his show on the road. Christmas was the only time his children were guaranteed to see him.

“Does he know about the cancer?” Nora asked.

“Yes. I told him when we were together over the weekend. It wasn’t easy for either of us but he says he's standing by me. Right now he’s says he's standing by me.”

“You don’t believe him?” Ted asked.

“I do believe him. It’s just not an easy decision to make. It’s a decision of theory until you're right in the middle of it. I care about him and I'm willing to be selfish today. We’re just going to have to take it one day at a time.”

“OK.” Nora nodded.

“I just wanted to tell you guys.” Erin put on a smile.

“You deserve it Mom.” Ted said. “You haven’t been with anyone since Bruno Hawkes. You weren't happy then.”

“You're too perceptive for your own good.”

“I came by it honest.”

“Will we get to meet him?” Nora asked.

“He's coming over tonight to watch a movie.”

“Is that code for something?”

“Edward…”

“I'm just playing Mom. You were just warming us up for the big show.” He said.

“Things will be just fine as long as you’re your normal, lovely selves. He's looking forward to meeting you.”

“What time is he coming?” Ted asked. “I'm meeting Tim in ninety minutes for a late movie and snack.”

“He should be here any minute actually.” Erin said.

“You're glowing.” Nora said.

She knew that Erin had gone through so many stages since the diagnosis in March. To see her happy, even if it only lasted for a while, was a good thing. This was tough on all of them. But Nora needed to remember to look past her own grief and sadness. Her mother was the one waking up everyday with a brain tumor.

“I feel good. I don't know how long it'll last…”

“Just eat it up, Mom.” Ted replied. “Don’t think about time.”

“Speaking of eating it up, I got key lime pie for dessert. It’s from Potomac Pastries, your favorite bakery.”

Erin was about to swoon when the doorbell rang. Her heart started beating really fast and her palms were sweating. She had no idea why she was so nervous. Her kids were wonderful, and cordial. Even if they weren't overly fond of Dave they would be respectful and kind. She really hoped they liked him.

“Do you want me to get it, Mom?” Ted asked standing up.

“No,” Erin stood as well. “I’ll get it. Nora, perhaps you should cut four slices of pie.”

“OK.” She nodded.

Erin walked into the den through the sliding glass door and then to the front door. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and smiled. When Dave saw her he did the same.

“Hello there.” she unlocked the security door and let him in.

“Hey. Is it safe?”

“Is what safe?”

“I don’t want your kids to see me ravaging you.” Dave wrapped his arms around her. “It wouldn’t be the proper introduction.”

“They're outside on the deck.” Erin gave him a peck on the lips. “Nora bought key lime pie for dessert.”

“I like key lime pie.” He smiled. “Damn you smell good.”

“It’s called Pleasures, David.”

“It most certainly is.”

Laughing, Erin kissed him. He held her just a little too tight and that was OK with her. She wanted to hold on too. She wanted to hold on to everything.

“I admit to being nervous.” Dave whispered. “I'm not often nervous.”

“I think they’ll like you. Even if they don’t you’ll never know.”

“How won't I know?”

“My children are quite cordial when they want to be.” Erin replied.

“So they’re good actors?”

“Yes, when they need to be. C'mon, let’s go outside.”

“One more kiss.” Dave pulled her back when she tried to walk away, kissing her smile. Erin sighed against him and it excited Dave. He needed to bring himself down. He didn’t want the Strauss children to think he was just there for one thing. “OK, now I'm ready.”

“Are you sure?” Erin asked.

“Yes.” He nodded.

She took his hand, lacing her fingers through his. They made their way onto the deck just as Nora was putting out dessert. She smiled and it made her look just like her father. Both of Erin’s children had dark hair like Eli. Ted had blue eyes but Nora’s were brown. They danced when she smiled.

“Nora, Ted, this is David Rossi.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Nora extended her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Nora.”

“Hi.” Ted shook his hand.

“Hello Ted.”

“I hope you like key lime pie.” Nora said. “I cut you a slice.”

“I do, thank you.” he went around the table and sat down with Erin. “It looks delicious.”

“I bought it at Potomac Pastries. It’s Mom’s favorite bakery.”

“I'm addicted to their red velvet cupcakes. I hold back because I should be watching my weight. I guess that doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No vague cancer jokes.” Ted said.

“So noted.” Erin nodded.

“So do you guys have plans tonight?” Dave asked.

“I'm going to the movies with my boyfriend.” Ted said. “What movie are you and Mom going to watch?”

“I don’t have any plans,” Nora said. “But I do have to turn in early. I have work in the morning.”

“I don’t know what your mom and I will watch.” Dave said. “I'm going to leave that up to her.”

“Good luck with that.” Ted smiled. “Mom is notoriously bad for never knowing what movie to pick.”

“I'm not that bad.” Erin looked at Dave.

“I don’t mind. I'm here to spend time with you. We could spend all night bickering about what movie to watch and I’d still have fun.”

000

“Can I say something without your getting angry at me?”

“Uh oh, that sounds like trouble. What did you do?”

Erin laughed as she relaxed in his arms. They were in her den, on the couch watching Gaslight. It had begun to rain so Erin kept the sliding glass doors open. The scent of summer engulfed the entire room.

She loved it that way. Something else she loved was Dave stroking her back and her hair. Being in someone’s arms, being in his, felt so good. Erin didn’t know what he was going to say but it better not ruin the moment. She didn’t want to ruin anymore moments.

“I needed to talk to someone. I had questions, concerns, fears, and even more questions. I know how much it took out of you to even tell me so I didn’t want to put that burden on you. No one wants to become the public service announcer for brain tumors.”

“You're not a burden.” Erin shook her head.

“I spoke to someone who could help.” Dave said. “It’s possible that he can help you as well.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know a fifth opinion could be overwhelming; I get that. I know you don’t want to hear the same shit, different day but this could be different.”

“My diagnosis isn’t going to change, David. Do you know how long it took me…I'm still dealing with it.”

“I know. I shouldn’t even be bringing this up.”

“And yet…”

“Your diagnosis isn’t going to change but your options could.” Dave replied. “Your prognosis could change.”

Erin sighed. She couldn’t be upset with him. Everyone she told about the tumor did the same thing. They all tried to save her; find a miracle cure. She couldn’t blame them as the alternative was rather bleak.

She remembered doing the same when she found out her father was terminal. Erin just didn’t expect to hear this again. She wasn’t going to share the information with anyone else and her loved ones were slowly accepting it. The roller coaster ride of false hope wasn’t a good one.

“I could say so many things right now, but I won't.” she said. “You're a wonderful guy; I appreciate your effort.”

“Could you just hear me out?” Dave asked.

“Once…I’ll hear you out once David. Promise me?”

“I promise.”

“I'm listening.”

“I called Derek Shepherd. He knows everything there is to know about brain tumors. He’s like the Derek Jeter of neurology and…”

“You know Derek Shepherd?” Erin asked. “Are you talking about the Derek Shepherd, from Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital?”

“Yes.” Dave nodded.

“You know Derek Shepherd?” she repeated.

“Yes.”

“I need to know how the two of you ever crossed paths.”

“The short version is that I worked his father’s murder.” Dave said. “It was a long time ago but I kept an eye on Derek and his sisters. He always told me if ever needed anything. I needed something. He wants to see you, Erin. He wants to see the tumor and determine if there’s anything he can do.

“The truth is that there might not be. Surgery might be an option but not a cure. It could give you three to five years instead of less than two but you know that already. I know that you made your decisions. I know that they were based on information from informed, intelligent, medical professionals. Now you can consult the best.”

Erin didn’t speak for a while. She cuddled close to Dave again, letting the conversation sink in. Whatever happened she wasn’t going to get her hopes up. Even one of the top neurosurgeons in the country couldn’t necessarily perform miracles. Derek Shepherd was arguably at the top of that list.

Getting a consult from him was next to impossible, which was why she hadn't in the first place. But Erin had tried. She tried and failed. Now this door was opening. Who in their right mind would turn down the opportunity, even if it was to hear more from the same?

“I refuse to get my hopes up.” She said.

“That’s a good plan.”

“I want to be angry at you for even bringing me here.”

“I’ll accept that anger but I believe I did the right thing.” Dave said.

“Doctors at Memorial told me that surgery was an option, though not a cure. Because of the way your average butterfly tumor spreads it’s nearly impossible to remove the entire thing. They could get 70%, maybe more, and then there would be radiation. In some instances there could be chemo after that.

“I could get another 2 or 3 years but how much of it would I spend sick in bed or a hospital? The tumor starts growing back as soon as the treatment’s over. It might even be more aggressive in its attack. Not to mention that aggressive cancer treatment can cause other cancers. The last thing I need is a brain tumor and blood cancer.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?” Erin asked.

“Yes. Carolyn had ALS. She didn’t even have options; 100% death in every case.”

“How long before…?”

“It was a little over two years with her. The disease began to attack more aggressively and Carolyn made the decision to…”

“You don’t have to say anything more.” Erin gently put her hand over his mouth.

“I do understand.” Dave said.

“Yeah I understand that too.” she cuddled closer again. “I’ll go to Seattle.”

“We’ll go to Seattle.”

“David, you don’t have to do that. I’ll be OK on my own.”

“I'm not letting you go through something like that by yourself.” he reasoned. “I know there isn’t much I can do but I can hold your hand. You don’t want to get the hopes up of the people you love but you're not going alone. I chartered a plane for next Wednesday.”

“You chartered a plane?” Erin looked at him. “Just how wealthy are you?”

“Its not P. Diddy money but I do alright.” He smiled.

“Well what about your class? I know you have other things to do this summer.”

“I canceled the class. There will be other opportunities; this is more important.”

“OK, now I'm mad at you.” she moved completely away from him on the couch. “You were excited about this class. It was a new opportunity for you. What happened to trying new things? I don’t want to become your burden and I damn sure don’t want to be your project. I won't allow that to happen…I’ll walk out of your life first. I mean it, David.”

“We’re really going to fight about this?” Dave asked.

“We’ll fight if we have to.”

“Erin, I said that I wanted to try and experience new things. It’s been so damn long since I've opened my life to someone. I want to be with you and get this right. I stopped trying a long time ago because failure was kicking my ass. I promise that I'm not going to hover or…OK, I'm not sure I can make that promise. I just need to do this. I want to do this for you because of what you’ve done for me.”

“You need to understand that you don’t control this situation.” She replied. “You might not be able to save me.’

“I know.” Dave said.

“No, you don’t.” Erin shook her head. “You're so used to being the hero in your story. But this is my story. Everyday I have to remind myself that this is happening and it’s the end. It’s…” Erin sighed when her voice began to crack.

“It doesn’t have to be the end.” He pulled her close, caressing her face, and pressing her forehead on hers. “It might be but this is one more option.”

“I already said yes.”

“I don’t want you to be mad at me.”

“Brain tumor doesn’t exempt me from being mad at you. It might not last as long but…”

Dave cut her off with a kiss. She might be mad at him, he’d live with it, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to kiss her. Erin moaned into his mouth, wrapping her arms tighter around him, and allowing him to pull her on his lap. The kisses deepened when Erin straddled him.

“I hate you.” she murmured when their lips came apart for a moment.

“But I'm sexy. Tell me I'm sexy.”

“You first, Agent Rossi.”

“Oh, you're sexy baby.” Dave’s hands moved down to grip her hips and cup her ass. “You're sexy and you know it. I damn sure know it.”

Erin threw her head back and laughed. It made her slightly dizzy but tonight she didn’t care. His kisses made her dizzier. It was the perfect kind of dizzy.

“Let me make love to you, Erin. Let me make love to you right here.”

“The movie…”

“We both know how it ends.” Dave began to unbutton her blouse. “How this might end is a wonderful surprise.”

“Mom? I'm sorry to interrupt, Mom.”

Erin practically screamed, blushing profusely when her daughter walked into the room. Nora didn’t want to see anything. She was happy for her mother and mortified at the same time.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She said.

“It’s alright sweetheart. David had a reckless streak that can be difficult to control.”

“Its true.” he smiled. “I'm sorry, Nora.”

“I just wanted to say goodnight.” She didn’t quite smile back.

“Goodnight.” Erin said. “I love you.”

“I love you too. Goodnight, Agent Rossi.”

“Goodnight, Nora; it was nice to meet you.”

Erin glared at him when Nora walked out of the room. Dave could see it in her blue eyes. She wasn’t angry, she was crazy about him. The feeling was mutual.

“You're a troublemaker.” She whispered as he pulled her close again. “I have no idea what I'm going to do with you.”

“Let me whisper it in your ear…I think you're going to love it.”

***

She was nervous but that seemed silly. Erin had actually been nervous since they got on the plane earlier that afternoon. She didn’t tell her family what was happening. They just thought she and Dave were taking a long weekend away. It was a five hour flight to Sea-Tac airport so even though Erin knew better she had a glass of wine and tried to relax. Dave held her hand and she even managed to doze off but it was never for long.

“You're shaking.”

Erin didn’t know how long they'd been in the air when Dave broke the silence. She looked at him with tired blue eyes. Sleep was difficult the night before knowing she was about to put herself through this again. Hope was a beautiful but dangerous thing. Erin wanted to hold onto it even if the rope was tethered and frayed. The answer might be the same but only a fool would turn down a chance to have Derek Shepherd examine their tumor. Erin Strauss was no fool.

“I can turn down the thermostat if you'd like.” Dave said. “The cabin gets colder when we’re in the air.”

“No, I'm fine. It’s a side effect of some of the medication I take.” Erin tightened the blanket around her shoulders anyway.

“Alright.”

“Derek Shepherd is really going to look at my brain?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“He's arguably the best.”

“Yes.” Dave nodded.

“But I'm not getting my hopes up.”

“We probably shouldn’t.”

“We?” Erin raised her eyebrow and looked at him.

“Well you're here and I'm here so…we.”

She just smirked, but squeezed his hand tighter. Then she rested her head on his shoulder. The brain tumor was top priority or surely Erin would've freaked out about how quickly she and Dave Rossi became ‘we’. There wasn’t a lot of time to waste but still…we was a pretty big deal.

“I don’t even know your middle name.” she said.

“You want to know my middle name?”

“Yes.”

“It’s Alphonse. It was my grandfather’s middle name. What’s yours?”

“Camille; it’s my mother’s favorite film. She had a thing for melodramas. When I was a little girl we would curl up together on Saturday night and watch classic films on public television. We might be moving too fast, David.”

“So we’ll slow down.”

“OK.” Erin nodded.

She didn’t quite believe him but now wasn’t the time to focus on it. If she was lucky there would be more time to do so in the future. If not then it didn’t matter how fast they moved. The plane landed in Seattle at four o’clock PST. Dave got a rental car; he was only comfortable in an SUV or sports car. So he put their bags in the back of a Cadillac Escalade before driving straight to Seattle Grace Mercy West. Erin put her hand over his as he cut the ignition.

“I'm not ready to go in yet.” She said.

“Take your time.”

“I need a cigarette.”

“You can't in the rental car; I'm sorry.”

“Wow, a rule breaker like you and you care about smoke smell in the car?” Erin asked smiling.

Dave parked close to the entrance and they got out. It was raining, what else was new, but it wasn’t too bad. Leaning against a pillar, Erin took a deep breath before lighting a Marlboro Mild. She smoked with one hand and held Dave’s with the other.

“Do they really calm you?” he asked.

“Who knows?” she shrugged. “Today I’ll answer yes.”

He kissed her temple. She was shaking again; it was the medicine. It was also the weather and nerves. Erin smoked the cigarette down to the filter and then they went into the hospital. Once admitted, she was taken to her room. The nurse left her alone with Dave.

“I’ll go into the bathroom to change.” She said.

“I’ll be here.”

Nodding, Erin disappeared behind the door. Dave took his iPhone from his hip and checked for voicemail. There was none, also no text messages. He hit one and listened to the phone ring.

“Hello, Rossi residence.”

“Hey Mrs. Beardsley.”

“Good evening Agent Rossi. Have you landed safely?”

“Yes, we’re in Seattle. Is the kid around or did she run for the hills as soon as I left?”

“No, she's here. Hold on.”

Dave held on and within a few minutes he heard Ashley’s bubbly voice.

“Hey Pop.”

“Hey kid. I just wanted to let you know that Erin and I landed safely in Seattle.”

“OK. Bring me back something cool. Oh…and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” she giggled.

“You truly have a one-track mind. I'm not taking the blame for that.”

“You don’t have to. It’s totally hormones. Most kids my age are fascinated and grossed out by the idea of their parents doing it.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Dave replied. “I have to go kiddo but I’ll call everyday to check in.”

“I'm gonna be fine.” Ashley said. She was used to him going. First when he was with the BAU, before he was even her dad, and then traveling with his books and other business after her mom died.

“Well be good to Mrs. Beardsley.”

“Cross my heart. I love you.”

“Love you too, kiddo. Bye.”

Erin walked out of the bathroom just as he was hanging up. She wanted to give him a little privacy for the phone call. She would call her own children later though she had no idea what that conversation was going to be like.

“Is Ashley alright?”

“She’s fine. She said…”

“Agent Rossi, you must have a picture of Dorian Gray in your attic. Minus the salt and pepper hair you look exactly the same.”

“You look like a grown man and that’s not fair.”

Smiling, Dave walked across the room and embraced Derek Shepherd. He’d walked in with a beautiful, bright-eyed blonde. She was a doctor as well.

“How are your sisters?” Dave asked.

“They're doing well. Some are better than others but…”

“You don’t have to tell me. They’re seven in my family.”

“You must be Dr. Strauss.” Derek came and shook her hand. “I've been looking forward to meeting you.”

“I think you mean you’ve been looking forward to meeting my tumor.” Erin said.

“Is he nice?” Derek asked.

“There are days when he's an absolute son of a bitch. The jury’s still out on today.”

“Well this is Dr. Grey and she's on my Neuro service. She’s been assigned to your case so that means…”

“That means she’s my bitch.” Erin smiled.

“Something like that.” Meredith smiled. “Anything you need, any questions you might have Dr. Strauss, just ask.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Grey. You look too young to cut my head open…if it comes to that.”

“I’ll just be assisting…if it comes to that.”

“Could you tell me all the medications you've taking since the original diagnosis?” Derek said, looking through the medical files that had been faxed over that morning from George Washington University Hospital.

“I took Dilantin for a while; I had some seizures in the beginning.” Erin said. “They started after the diagnosed migraines. The side effects were bad for me so I stopped taking it. The seizures ebbed. I take Topamax for the migraines.

“Those side effects can be brutal as well. I take Valium to relax but that’s infrequent. It’s mostly for my own benefit; I don’t like being on a bunch of controlled narcotics. There’s Agretal for my balance and vertigo issues and Halcion for insomnia.”

“Alright. Dr. Grey is going to ask you some more questions and then she’ll take you down for an MRI. After that we’ll have all the answers we need.”

“Woo-hoo!” Erin gave a mirthless cheer. It betrayed the stomach churning hope she felt inside her belly.

“Is he really here?” Dr. Mark Sloan poked his head into the room.

“Mark Sloan. I should've known you two were still together. Some things never change.” Dave hugged him. “You still getting yourself into too much trouble?”

“Why would you think…?”

“You're too handsome and mouthy for anything but.” Dave looked at Derek. “Are you still looking after him?”

“When I don’t want to push him into traffic, yes.” Derek nodded.

“What brings you to Seattle?” Mark asked. “I almost didn’t believe the rumor.”

“There are rumors?” Derek asked.

“Whispers about one of the most famous FBI agents in the world gracing our building.” Mark replied. “I suspected it might be you.”

“Well I don’t like to brag…”

“Nonsense, he loves it.” Erin said smiling. “Get the nurses together for an autograph and photo session.”

“I'm Dr. Mark Sloan.” He smiled as he approached Erin. He put on his killer smile; she was a beautiful woman. “Plastics.”

“I hope you're not trying to pitch me something.”

“Oh no, you're a very beautiful woman, believe me. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re often mistaken for up to a decade younger than your real age and can't keep the men off you.” he was smiling again. “But there's nothing wrong with a preventive nip, tuck, or push here and there. Most women go for the breasts first. I've been on the front line of an innovative and amazing new lift surgery…no implant required and…”

“Get out Mark.” Dave pointed to the door.

“Was it something I said?”

“Usually.” Derek smirked.

“It is good to see you, Dave.”

“You as well.” Dave nodded. “I'm glad to see you both grew up to make good.”

“Dr. Strauss, relax and we’re going to take excellent care of you.”

“Thank you Dr. Shepherd.”

Erin nodded and did her best to relax in a barely comfortable bed. It was crazy but Erin never thought of a hospital as a place to recover. It was a place to die. Whether she was going to do that in about a year or not, she planned to do it nowhere near a hospital. Nothing about it said dignity and sometimes she wasn’t even sure it tried to. TV dramas were nowhere close to real life.

000

“I'm not asleep.” Erin murmured a few hours later as she opened her eyes.

“I knew that.” Dave sat in the chair by her hospital bed.

“You just sat there. You haven’t spoken in over an hour.”

“I don’t have to talk all the time.” he smiled. “Anyway, the rain is relaxing. I'm sure you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

“If I ever have another MRI in my life it will surely be too soon.”

“I'm sure.” Dave took her hand and kissed it.

“I just want Meredith to come back.” she said. “I need the answer.”

“They’ll be here soon.”

“I'm mad at you.” Erin glanced at him.

“I know.” He nodded. “I adore you though.”

“Just don’t let me get my hopes too high.”

“No matter what happens you’ve got me.”

“Woo-hoo!”

“Sarcasm, thy name is Erin Strauss.”

He leaned over to kiss her lips just as Derek and Meredith walked into the room.

“Am I interrupting?” he asked.

“Yes.” Dave mumbled.

“No, Dr. Shepherd.” Erin smiled and gently pushed him away.

Derek pulled over the portable light box over and put the MRI on it.

“While nothing about brain tumors is average, this is what a typical Astrocytoma looks like. Its spider-like tendrils,” he pointed to them. “They grow and attach to parts of the brain. That’s why they are difficult if not impossible to remove. The surgeon faces the real chance of striking something important, which could cause severe side effects like blindness, loss of memory, or diminished motor skills.

“They’re referred to as inoperable based on size or risk involved in surgery. Sometimes there’s the option of removing a portion of the tumor. Along with radiation and chemo it could give a patient another two years or even longer. Astrocytomas tend to be more aggressive in regrowth though as I said all tumors are unique. They're beautifully unique.”

“OK.” Dave said.

“You said that’s what a typical Astrocytoma looks like.” Erin said. “What does mine look like?”

Derek put the other MRI up on the light box.

“This is your tumor.”

“You’ve got a bit of a smug look on your face. You're trying to suppress a grin but hardly can.”

“I'm sorry Dr. Strauss. I surely have no intention of being smug.”

“Just tell me why my tumor is so unique.” Erin crossed her arms. She didn’t want to play games. She wanted the information and wanted to go home.

“The sides of you tumor are more rounded in shape than a typical Astrocytoma. It hasn’t spread to other areas of the brain. That makes it easier to cut around and remove. I think we can get all of it.”

“What did you just say?” Dave asked.

“He said he can remove my tumor.” Erin replied. She looked at Derek. “That’s what you said, right?”

“That’s what I said.” Derek nodded.

“Oh my God.” Dave covered his mouth. “This is why I brought you here. He’s the best.”

“Slow down. I want to know the risks.” Erin said.

“All surgery has risks and brain surgery is doubly so. Your tumor is tricky because it covers parts of both the parietal and temporal lobes in the cerebrum. Many motor functions, speech, hearing, memory, sight, and use of the extremities…they're covered in some way, shape, or form in this area.”

“One false move and I could be blind without the ability to walk or talk?”

“That’s a worse case scenario, Dr. Strauss, but the answer to the question is yes.” Derek replied. “I can remove this tumor. I'm not saying that because I'm an egomaniac. I'm saying it because I have confidence in my ability as a neurologist and in your resolve as a patient.”

“Have you ever done it before Derek?” Dave asked. “Have you ever removed an Astrocytoma?”

“That’s a trick question.” Erin said. “There are different grades of the tumor. Have you ever removed a Grade 3?”

“I've removed a dozen Grades 1 and 2. I've performed about a half dozen surgeries on Grade 3s, one of which I removed completely. The rounded edges we see in your tumor are rare. I'm not reckless, Dr. Strauss, and I wouldn’t risk your life to put on a show. I want to try and give you another 20 years with your family.

“The decision is totally yours and I understand your apprehension. You’ve dealt with dying from a brain tumor for five months. In a few hours I've given you the possibility of living without it. Please take some time to think about it. I don’t want to wait more than 48 hours because…”

“Tumors are tricky.” Erin finished his sentence.

“Yes ma'am.” Derek nodded.

“I’ll make a decision soon. I just need some time to think.”

“Of course; I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thank you so much Derek.”

“You're welcome.”

“Dr. Grey, could you stay for a moment?” Erin asked.

“Sure.” Meredith nodded.

“David, I need to talk to the doctor alone.”

Dave nodded and walked out of the room. Erin sighed, looking at Meredith. She was young and beautiful with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and willowy figure. Though they didn’t look much alike, Erin couldn’t help but think of herself 20 years ago. Her whole life was ahead of her and full of promise. Now she lay in a hospital bed making the toughest decision of her life. She thought she’d done that in March…if only.

“I want to know the truth. On paper Derek Shepherd is one of the best. How is he in the operating room?”

“He's even better.” Meredith replied. “He's here to save lives and you couldn’t be in better hands.”

“He's a miracle worker?” Erin asked.

“He can do this, Dr. Strauss. He really isn’t saying that to impress you, and he doesn’t sell false hope. I surely don’t expect you to trust him on faith but his success rate speaks for itself. His dedication does as well. Take your time and weigh your options.”

“Meredith, I'm out of options. I either die of a tumor, die trying to get rid of tumor, or live without one. I just don’t want to end up living what’s left of my life with extremely limited capacities. Am I crazy for wanting all or nothing?”

“No.” Meredith shook her head. “You’ve been yourself for nearly 50 years, for better or worse. Who else can you be?”

“That sounds sadder than I intended but yes. I appreciate you listening to me.”

“Sure. We also have some wonderful psychologists and psychiatrists here on staff if you want to talk. You just have to let me know. None of us think this is easy for you.”

“Thanks, but I'm OK right now.”

“I could send someone around in the morning.” Meredith suggested. “You can tell them to go away if you want, nicely, but I could send them.”

“That might be a good idea.” Erin gave a small smile.

She leaned back against the pillows as the young doctor walked out of the room. Erin tried not to feel so overwhelmed but it was hard. She didn’t have a lot of time to make a life changing decision. That was the story of her life lately; not enough time. This could give her more. This could end everything completely. Derek Shepherd was the best; she kept repeating those words.

“Is it alright for me to come back in?” Dave poked his head in the door.

“Oh God yes, I'm sorry. Get in here.”

“Have you figured out what you're going to do?”

“Yes, I'm going to think. I'm going to think a lot and I probably need to do that alone. Then I need to do it with my best friend. Could you hand me my purse?”

“Here you go.” Dave handed it to her and kissed her. “I should get out of here for a little while anyway. I need to get some dinner and check in at the hotel. I called and they didn’t give our deluxe suite away.”

“Do you think you could bring me some real food?” Erin asked. “For some reason I'm craving lobster. I hope it’s not a last meal mentality.”

“Don’t think like that.” he kissed her again. “I’ll bring you something delicious and get every patient on the floor jealous.”

“OK.” Erin tried to smile. Dave went to walk away but she held onto his hand. He sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling her into a hug. “I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Yes.” He caressed her face. There were a lot of things he wanted to say but now wasn’t the time. Erin had a lot on her shoulders. Dave wasn’t going to add to it.

He brought her there, gave her another option. His job was done for the time being. Anything else he would do tonight would involve food, hugs, and quiet support. He didn’t have to talk all the time. “I’ll be back.”

Nodding, Erin dug her cell phone out of her purse and opened up her contacts. She didn’t even know if she could use a cell phone in the hospital. She remembered back in the day that it would flummox machines, possibly putting patient lives in danger. But surely there would be a sign somewhere if they were forbidden. Dave had used one earlier when he called Ashley. So she slid her finger across Ursula’s phone number and listened to it ring.

“Hello darling.”

“Hey Ursula, what are you doing right now?” Erin asked.

“I'm sitting at my desk going over the reading list for my British Lit class. If you're prepared to take me away from it I’ll love you forever. Where are you?”

“I'm in Seattle.”

“Oh right, the romantic getaway with Agent Cock Sex.” Ursula laughed. “You know I really like that term. Never give me a term I like…I just don’t know how to stop. Would it be wrong to work this into my next novel? Why are you calling me; is everything alright?”

“It’s not exactly a romantic getaway.” Erin replied. “You're writing a second novel?”

“I’ve been writing a second novel for about a decade.” Ursula said. “But lately, I've been feeling something stirring in my belly. I might be writing a second novel. But you didn’t call me to talk about that. What’s going on?”

“I just need to talk to you. It’s really important.”

“You can always talk to me. I’m listening; what's up?”

***

“Hello? Mom, are you alright?”

“I'm alright, Nora.”

It was 3 a.m. where Erin was and she couldn’t sleep. She thought she’d made a decision and now it was time to call her family.

“Why are you calling so late? It has to be 3 a.m. where you are. Did you forget something at home? Are you ill?”

“Sweetie, please stop asking so many questions and just listen to me. David and I didn’t come to Seattle for a vacation or some romantic getaway. I came for a consultation with Dr. Derek Shepherd.”

“What?”

“Nora, he can remove my tumor.”

“What?”

“I know it’s a lot to hear…”

“Mom, your tumor is inoperable.” Nora said.

“No, my tumor is difficult. It has rounded edges, not spider tendrils and Dr. Derek Shepherd can remove it.”

“Where are you?”

“I'm in Seattle at Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital. I called because I need you, your brother, and your grandmother here with me. I'm going to have surgery. I'm going to have the tumor removed.”

“Where's Agent Rossi?” Nora asked.

“He's back at the hotel.”

“So he took you to Seattle to get your tumor removed? You did this without even thinking about Ted and I?”

“I was actually thinking about everyone I love, Nora. And I haven’t done anything.”

“I don’t understand.”

She could hear the frustration in her daughter’s voice. Nora was a lot like her mother and grandmother. She had questions and she sought answers. She was straightforward, didn’t pull punches, and didn’t like bullshit. It was funny to Erin because she’d been that way since she was a little girl. Erin couldn’t blame her for the tone and behavior but the argument would have to wait.

“I’ll explain it all when you get here.” Erin said. “You have to get your brother, pack a bag for about a week. At eight a car is going to come and take you to an air strip in Silver Spring, Maryland. They’re already getting your grandmother from New York and she’ll meet you on the plane. The flight is about five hours. A car service will meet you at Sea-Tac airport, take you to the hotel, and then David will bring you to the hospital.”

“OK.” Nora nodded. She had so many questions, thoughts about what was going on at the moment, but she had to wake up Ted. They were going to Seattle and Nan was going to be with them. “We’ll be there.”

“Thank you sweetheart.”

“Mom, I don’t want to be difficult but you can't make this decision alone. We’re a family and David Rossi isn’t part of it.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with David.”

“Are you sure?” Nora asked.

“I'm sure. And we are going to make the decision, as soon as you get here. I love you.”

“I love you too Mom.”

Erin hung up the phone. She leaned back on the pillows and exhaled. It was going to be OK. Nora, Ted, and her mother would see this was the right decision when they got here and talked to Dr. Shepherd.

This was her chance…this was her chance to live. It was a miracle but there was still a long way to go. There could be radiation and possibly chemo after. There could be sickness; a long road to get back to the Erin she was right now.

But a lifetime was within reach. Erin could almost touch it with her fingertips. Even though sleeping was going to be difficult, she needed to try. Today was going to be a very long day.

***

“She hates my damn guts.”

“Erin?”

“No, her daughter.” Dave shook his head.

“Nora?”

“Yes.”

“Why would you think that?” Jason asked. “Didn’t you two just meet?”

“The egotistical side of me wants to say it’s because I did something she didn’t.”

“Dave, that’s ridiculous.”

“I know its ridiculous.” He sighed, leaning on one of the pillars outside Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital. “This kind of thing almost always is though, isn’t it?”

“Please tell me that you have another theory.”

“She doesn’t want me giving her mother false hope. She doesn’t want her mother risking what precious little of her life she has left for some dude that just swept into her life.”

“Now that’s believable.” Jason said.

“You agree with her?”

“I'm going to hang up on you if you say that again.”

“But you have to see where I'm coming from. You see where I'm coming from right?”

Jason did see where his best friend was coming from. The possible good news from a top neurologist brought with it fear, doubt, and worry. It seemed improbable that someone could just come in after five months and make everything alright. They’d all, not just the Strauss family, resigned themselves that they were going to lose Erin soon.

They tried to make life go on like normal but the truth was that nothing would ever be the same. Dr. Shepherd could be a miracle worker. Jason looked him up and he was surely one of the best. That didn’t mean Nora should just trust Dave Rossi. She didn’t know him and the last man her mother was in a relationship with was a manipulative bastard in a sweet disguise.

To think her mother may have fell for it again, and this time was willing to go under the knife for it. This wasn’t breast implants, Botox, or even an appendectomy. This was the most important decision Erin Strauss would ever make. No one who loved her wanted it to be her last.

“What are you thinking?” Dave asked. “I can hear you thinking over the phone.”

“You can hear body language?” Jason countered. “You are the greatest profiler of all time. We’re going to have to take that arguably from in front of your name now.”

“Gideon…”

“I'm trying to make you laugh.” he laughed.

“I'm not laughing, but you are.”

“You and Nora are strangers. I think it might be better just to assume that she doesn’t feel anything about you. Don’t make this about you. She’s been dealing with her mother’s impending painful death.

“She’s been caring for her, her brother, and her grandmother. That’s a lot on the shoulders of someone who isn’t even 25. Now she has to deal with this. Nora isn’t the kind to go off half-cocked without facts and proof. She’s confused and scared now…its time to rely on the one thing that never fails her.”

“So Derek should be more concerned for his life than I should?” Dave asked.

“Something like that. She’s definitely going to interrogate him. I'm sure he can handle it.”

“And if it makes her feel better than it'll make Erin feel better too. I didn’t just do this for me Jason.”

“Who did you do it for?” he asked.

“What the hell kind of question is that?” Dave sounded hurt. “I did it for Erin.”

“I believe you.”

“Do you?” Dave asked, his tone slightly angry.

“Yes…I do. You would've done it for anyone you love. You would lay down your life for family or a friend. People think you’re hard, and you’ve got a hard ass shell but for loved ones you can always be depended on. And after what happened to Carolyn you damn sure weren't going to let it happen to someone else’s mother. It’s just a mere coincidence that you happen to have feelings for her.”

“I adore her.”

“I know.” Jason said. “I've known you for quite some time and I can't remember the last time I saw you so smitten. Despite all the obstacles I think you two are good for each other.”

“Tell Erin that, OK?”

“Forget it.” Jason laughed again.

“What would I do if I couldn’t vent to you?” Dave asked.

“Pay someone to listen to you bitch.”

“You know that I'm always here to listen to you too.”

“Yes, I do. I'm fine here. As a matter of fact I have a beautiful, loving, most likely naked woman in my bed tonight.”

“And you're on the phone with me?”

“I'm not going to leave you in crisis to get laid.” Jason replied. “But we should probably end this. You need to get back upstairs and be with Erin.”

Dave knew he was right. It didn’t matter if Nora Strauss glared at him the entire time, he would be there for Erin. He wanted to be with her while she made this decision and went through this surgery. This couldn’t be about anyone but her and what was to come after.

“I’ll be sure to call you after the surgery tomorrow.”

“Give Erin my love.” Jason said.

“Have you talked to her?” Dave asked.

“Yes. She didn’t say much except that she was having the surgery and was trying to put her faith in Derek Shepherd.”

“Alright, I’ll let her know you're thinking of her.”

“Goodnight, Dave.”

“Goodnight.”

He hung up the phone, walking back into the hospital. Going up on the elevator Dave thought about spending this last night with Erin. He wasn’t going back to that hotel room, where he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. He had to be here. He had to hold her hand. Maybe that was for him but he had to do it anyway. In her room Dave found Erin alone with Ted.

“Where are Nora and your mother?” Dave asked, coming over to kiss her cheek.

“Nora’s interrogating Dr. Shepherd.” Ted replied. “Nan went along to keep her from scaring the poor guy to death. Can I talk to you for a minute, Agent Rossi?”

“Sure. C’mon outside.”

They walked out into the hallway. Ted looked behind him and no one was coming. Then he turned back to Dave.

“Why didn’t she just tell us?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Dave countered.

“Why didn’t she tell us she was coming to Seattle to see a doctor?”

“She didn’t want you to get your hopes up. She didn’t want to get her own up.”

“Yet now she's willing to let him slice her brain open?’ Ted asked.

“He's the best. He’s done this before and been successful. I think it would be crazy if you all just nodded and just knew it would be OK. We’re supposed to be scared, supposed to doubt…but Derek is going to remove that tumor.”

“There are so many bad things that can happen in that operating room.”

“I'm trying not to think about it.”

“Do you love my mom?” Ted asked.

“I don’t think…”

“Are you falling in love with her?”

“Yes.” Dave nodded. “I’d prefer if we didn’t talk about it. That’s not why I did this. Even if we weren't seeing each other, Erin is an amazing person that I've gotten to know while doing some guest lectures in her class. I knew someone who was an expert in neurology. Even if we were just friends or colleagues I would've gotten her in to see him. She has a lot of life left to live.”

“Except that as her colleague you probably would've never known about her tumor.” Ted said.

“That’s true. So I guess it’s a good thing that we’re more than colleagues.”

Ted didn't say anything else. He just gave a small nod and went back into his mother’s hospital room. Nora and her grandmother were coming down the hall. Nora walked right past him without saying anything but Joanna stopped and smiled.

“You're David Rossi.” She said.

“Yes ma'am.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” she held out her hand.

“I wish it were under better circumstances.” Dave shook it.

“Actually these are good circumstances. My daughter’s life is about to be saved.”

“Derek Shepherd is the best.”

“I know. I read all about him on the way here. Is that plane yours?”

“It is most of the time.”

“When there's more time I’ll ask more questions.” Joanna said.

“I look forward to it ma'am; I promise.”

They went back into the room. Dave said he was going to take them back to the hotel to rest.

“We should stay here with you, Mom.” Nora said.

“No sweetie, resting is probably a good idea.” Erin smiled. “That’s all I'm going to be doing. I’ll see everyone bright and early in the morning. Give me hugs.”

Nora and Ted threw their arms around their mother and Erin held them for a long time. If this worked she wouldn’t have to let them go for a long time. She would be there when Nora finally married her longtime boyfriend, which she could do if she didn’t have to constantly care for her mother. She would be there to meddle in Ted and Tim’s love life.

She was going to take her mother to Italy and spend a whole week pretending to be a displaced countess and her loving daughter like they always laughed about. She wouldn’t have to miss shopping trips and phone calls and eventually grandkids. Erin was doing this for herself; she certainly didn’t want to die. But she was doing this for what she was holding onto…no one was ready to let go.

“I love you.” she whispered to them both, kissing Ted’s cheek and then his sister’s.

“I love you, Mom.” Ted said.

“Love you.” Nora held back her tears. “We’re going to see you before the surgery, right?”

“Absolutely.” Erin nodded.

Then she hugged her mother. Joanna sat on the side of her bed and held her oldest child. She told her sons that Erin was in Seattle getting surgery on her tumor. She hadn't told them that there was a good chance that the entire thing could be removed. Joanna was almost afraid to say it aloud; didn’t want to jinx anything.

“I love you, Blondie.” Joanna smiled.

“I love you too, Mother.”

“Get some sleep. You need your energy for the morning.”

“I'm going to be knocked out…I don’t need any energy.”

Joanna smiled, giving her the look only a mother could. It was the same one that Erin frequently gave Ted.

“Get some rest. And if you can't sleep for any reason, call me.”

“I will.” Erin nodded. “But you better be asleep.”

“I'm going to try.”

Joanna kissed her and got up from the bed. Dave was next. He kissed Erin and squeezed her hand.

“I’ll be back.” he said.

“David…”

“Don’t argue with me. You’re not going to be alone tonight. I'm not going to keep you up all night. I want to be here to hold your hand. I need to be here.”

“Alright.” Erin nodded. “Maybe we can tell each other scary stories and the first one to fall asleep gets their hand put in water.”

Dave smiled, kissing her again. Then he left. There would be time to talk; time to deal with other things lingering in the air. Tonight and tomorrow would be about making Erin better. What happened after that could only happen if she was there.

***

“Ashley!”

He wasn’t usually one to shout out in public but she was all the way across the field. Jason parked his Chevy Suburban as soon as lacrosse practice ended and there were teenage girls scattered everywhere chattering. Ashley was in deep conversation with an African-American girl and a redhead with pigtails. Whatever they talked about it seemed to be of the utmost importance.

“Ashley!” he called out again.

She turned, protecting her eyes from the sun, and finally recognized him. Then she waved.

“Hey Uncle Jason! Here I come.”

She went back to her conversation as Jason leaned on his SUV. She grabbed her backpack and came running toward him.

“What are you doing here?” Ashley asked, throwing her arms around his midsection.

“Mrs. Beardsley had appointments this afternoon so your dad asked Aunt Nora and I to pick you up.”

“Hey Aunt Nora!” she rushed to the passenger side to kiss her cheek.

“Was practice good today?” Nora asked.

“It was great.” She climbed into the backseat as Jason got in the front. “I think I might be really good at lacrosse. St. Monica’s has an awesome team. I doubt if I can walk on, lots of girls are clamoring for spots, but I have a good chance with hard work.”

“So you’ve accepted St. Monica’s?” Jason asked.

Ashley hadn't been thrilled when Dave signed her up for the all-girls high school in Fairfax. He surely wasn’t sending her to Fairfax High. It was a great school, no doubt, but it wasn’t what Carolyn wanted. She wanted only the best where her little girl was concerned. St. Monica’s was the best. And though Catholic schools were different than when Dave was coming up, he visited and thought it would be a great fit for his kid.

“What choice do I have really? They do have a great social studies and history program that’s AP. Olivia’s going too so I'm not going to be alone. And I can probably sleep through mass, though you're not allowed to tell my dad I said that. I've got years to freak him out with reckless boy behavior. Knowing I'm not around them 8 hours a day is good for his blood pressure.”

“Other than graduate school at Columbia I've gone to girls’ school my entire life.” Nora said. “It’s an education I wouldn’t give up for anything.”

“You even went to girls college?” Ashley asked.

“I went to Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts. Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath, not to mention countless other amazing women, graduated from there. Have you read The Bell Jar?”

“No.” Ashley shook her head.

“We’ll buy a copy today.”

“OK.” The teen smiled.

“Are you hungry Ashley?” Jason asked. “I thought we might have lunch. Then we can go to the bookstore before dropping you off.”

“Oh yeah, I'm starved. I've been looking for a neutral location to interrogate you about Erin Strauss.”

“What?” Jason looked at her in the rearview mirror. He looked at Nora. She had a whimsical smile on her face. “What do you mean?”

“I need to know all about her. My dad isn’t giving me any information beyond name, rank, and serial number. You two work together at American so you know stuff about her, right?”

“Erin and I are friends. We do work together, yes.”

“So you know stuff about her?” Ashley pressed.

“She's a very private person.” Jason replied. “I'm not sure there's anything I can tell you that your father hasn’t already.”

“Does she like kids?”

“She likes kids.” He nodded. “She has two of her own. Where do you want to have lunch?”

“Can we go to Friendly’s? I want a big sundae for dessert. Is Erin really going to help my dad write a novel or is he using that as an excuse to spend time with her?”

“It could be a bit of both. The novel is really important to your dad.”

“So Seattle is a romantic getaway?”

“Absolutely.”

“Uncle Jason…” Ashley pouted a bit. “You're pulling my leg.”

“Why do you think that?”

“It was too easy to get it out of you.”

“The truth is that enjoy each other’s company. Just what that means I'm not sure because I'm doing the best I can to stay far away from the personal aspects of their relationship.”

“Why? They're both friends with you. If it implodes they might battle for your allegiance.”

“No sweetie.” Jason shook his head. “Adults don’t do that.”

“They do it all the time in romantic comedies. Don’t they, Aunt Nora?”

“I don’t watch very many of them.” Nora said. “That does seem to be one of the most prevalent plot points though. We really don’t know about your dad’s relationship with Erin. They’re friends and maybe that’s all right now.”

“Hmm.” Ashley thought about it for a while. “I'm just going to have to keep an eye out and see what's going on. She seems totally nice but it just feels off somehow.”

“How?” Jason asked.

“I don't know. I want Pop to be happy and he seems that way since Erin came along. I just don't want him getting hurt. People don’t realize it but guys can be devastated by breakups and broken hearts too. It’s not just a girl thing. Listen to an N*Sync album…they sing all about it.”

“That’s true.” Nora nodded. “I mean I don’t know about N*Sync but men can be saddened by breakups. I'm sure everything is fine with the two of them. If it isn’t they’ll work it out like grownups.”

“I might ask her a bunch of stuff when I see her again.” Ashley said. “I won't interrogate her but I want to make sure things are kosher. If I don’t look out for my Pop who’s going to do it?”

“I'm sure he’ll be very grateful.” Jason replied, barely able to suppress his grin.

***

Derek and Meredith walked into the hospital room together. Dave Rossi and the Strauss family sat vigil by Erin’s bedside overnight. She’d gone in to have the tumor removed almost 24 hours ago. It had been a long and delicate surgery. While in recovery Erin was given enough drugs to keep her asleep for a while.

Rest was needed to properly recover from that kind of assault on her body’s most sensitive organ. The sedatives and pain meds would wear off soon, though there were plenty of IVs to keep Erin good for the next few days. Derek came to her bedside, gently opening her eyelids. He moved a small flashlight over them. The pupils dilated and that was a good sign. That meant Erin had sight.

“Erin, its Dr. Shepherd. I need you to open your eyes if you can. I know we've given you some powerful drugs but I would like you to wake up for just a bit. I need to ask you a few questions. I promise not to take too long. If you can hear me I need you to open your eyes.”

Her eyes slowly opened. They appeared slightly unfocused and she didn’t look around. It was a good sign that she heard him though.

“Erin can you hear me?” Derek asked.

“Mmm,” she seemed to nod without moving her head.

“I need to ask some questions. I know you're lethargic; only answer what you can. Are you ready?”

Erin nodded without moving her head again.

“What's your name?” Derek asked.

“Erin Strauss.” She whispered.

“When is your birthday?”

“February 18th.”

“What is your father’s name?”

“Erich Kane.”

“Can you tell me what 6 x 4 is?”

“18? No, it’s…its 24.”

“What's 5 x 8?”

“40.”

“What's 15 + 7?”

“22.”

“What's today’s date?”

“I'm not sure.”

“What year is it?” Derek asked.

“2010.”

“Who is the President of the United States?”

“Not Bush.” She replied.

“Erin, can you tell me the President’s name?”

She didn’t answer but Derek kept going. He asked her to follow his finger, which she did relatively well. He went to the left, right, center, and then up and down. Derek tested feeling in her fingertips and the palm of her hand; it was all there. There was also feeling in her toes and the balls of her feet.

“Thank you Erin.” he smiled. “Close your eyes and get some more rest. You did really well.” he turned to her family, putting on his doctor poker face.

“Why couldn’t she say the President’s name?” Ted asked.

“She just had surgery and is groggy. It could be 48 hours or so before her skill levels return to normal. It can even be a week or two in some cases.” Meredith replied. “We did surgery on her brain and it doesn’t take kindly to being disturbed. It could take some time for all the pistons and nerves to return to full function. In some cases they may not.”

“What do you mean they may not?” Joanna asked. “We’re strong people; tell us what you need to tell us.”

“The good news is that we’ve fully removed the tumor.” Derek said. “Astrocytoma can be tricky but everything we saw on the MRI is gone. The other news is it may be a week or so before we know how her brain handled it. It could be even longer…Erin may not realize she can't do something as well as she used to until the next time she attempts it.

“She can see, hear, comprehend simple questions, and basic long term memory seems intact. There is sensation in her feet, hands, and digits. Short term memory and difficult pronunciation are shaky but that’s normal right after surgery. Unlike on TV it’s a process that we monitor over a week to ten days.”

“Can you just repeat the information about the tumor?” Nora asked.

“The tumor is gone.” Derek replied. “Depending on the MRI tomorrow six weeks of radiation might be a good idea just to make sure the cancer cells are destroyed. Cancer cells reproduce at a rapid rate. The next 48 hours are about keeping her comfortable, relatively pain free, and getting another MRI. She just needs to rest.”

“Thank you so much, Dr. Shepherd.” Joanna hugged him. Then Ted and Nora jumped in. Derek hugged them back. He was used to enthusiastic family members. They had angry ones screaming for vengeance beat by a mile. Derek understood them too.

“Dr. Grey will be in every couple of hours to monitor her progress. If you have any questions she can answer them for you. Agent Rossi, can you walk with me?”

“Sure.”

Derek and Dave walked out of the hospital room together.

“I guess I owe you now.” Dave said.

“Are you kidding me? I doubt I can ever repay you for properly getting the scum that killed my father off the street.”

“We’ll call it even then.”

“I can do that.” Derek smiled some.

“Can you tell me her prognosis?” Dave asked.

“It’s good. The tumor has been removed, which is miraculous. We plan to monitor motor function, speech, and memory limitations. They're all possible; probable where the memory is concerned.”

“How bad?”

“She could have some short term memory loss.” Derek replied. “This could cause her a lot of frustration. But the brain is unique and beautiful…it could heal without impediment as well. We just have to wait and see. I wish I could give you direct answers but that’s premature and irresponsible.”

“You’ve given me the best answer. The tumor is gone.”

“Yes.” Derek nodded. “The next 48 hours are all about rest for Erin’s body and brain. We’ll wean her off the post-op sedatives and on Day 3 do a post-op MRI. Days 3-7 will be full of small brain tests. Dr. Grey will be asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of poking. It’s all for the best.”

“How long will she be in the hospital?” Dave asked.

“It could be a week to ten days, barring complications. After we take a look at the MRI we can determine what's next.”

“I’ll leave that all up to you and Erin. Thank you so much Derek.”

“You're welcome.” Derek shook his hand. “I’ll be around, popping in from time to time charting Erin’s progress.”

Dave nodded. He went back to the hospital room. Joanna was tired so Ted wanted to take her back to the hotel suite to rest.

“Are you coming with us, Nora?”

“No Nan.” She shook her head. “I’ll take a cab back later. I just want to be with mom for a little while.”

Joanna kissed her daughter and hugged her granddaughter. She gave Dave’s shoulder a soft squeeze before she left. He looked at Nora. She made him nervous but he tried to remember what Jason said to him. They were strangers. It wasn’t supposed to be easy…he had to get to know her.

“Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” he asked. “Are you hungry?”

“Actually, and don’t tell my mom this,” Nora lowered her voice. “I would love a clove. Would you like to step outside with me, Agent Rossi?”

“Sure.”

He nodded. Nora grabbed her purse and they walked out of the room. Down the hall and on the elevator they didn’t speak. Under the overcast July sky, Nora lit a clove that smelled like vanilla. She sighed, sitting down on a bench.

“If anything would've gone wrong I would've killed you.”

“I believe you.” Dave said. He sat down beside her.

“I'm glad because I do mean it. I love my mother very much. When she and my dad divorced and he went off to save the world…she’s all Ted and I have. And she takes care of my Nan. My uncles live in New York City but its mom who’s always there for her no matter what.”

“I know a little of what you’ve been going through these past few months. I lost my wife to ALS five years ago. I know what its like to get a prognosis that knocks the wind out of your sails. I know what its like to plan a funeral in your head and watch someone you really love lose hope.”

“How come no one else told her surgery was an option?” Nora asked. She wanted to ask Dave which wife had ALS but that was rude. “Those doctors weren't hacks….she went to Johns Hopkins.”

“Derek Shepherd isn’t reckless but he's innovative. Often doctors done want to take a risk of that magnitude. And a patient weighs how much time they get for letting someone slice into their brain. Now the tumor’s gone. Your mom doesn’t have to worry about counting the hours.”

“Well thank you.” Nora couldn’t quite look at him when she said it. “Thank you for knowing Derek Shepherd.”

“You're welcome. I really care about your mother.”

“I saw that on our couch.” A small flicker of a smile moved across her face.

“Well yes, but we’re just…”

“I don’t want to know, Agent Rossi.” Nora held up her hand. “My mother is a grown woman, even though I worry about her. She’s a wonderful judge of character so I surely won't judge who she spends her time with. It’s none of my business.”

“Maybe you can have a talk with my daughter about that.” Dave smiled. “She thinks everything is her business.”

“How old is your daughter?” Nora asked.

“She’ll be fourteen next month; about to start high school.”

“Oh, then she's absolutely right…everything is her business.”

“I was afraid that might be the case.”

***

Dave was alone with Erin when she woke up. Meredith was there, pin pricking different parts of her body to see how it responded to pain stimuli. So far she was doing quite well.

“Stop poking me.” she mumbled slowly opening her eyes.

“I'm sorry Dr. Strauss.” Meredith smiled and wrote something in the chart. “It has to be done.”

“Hey Erin.”

Erin looked in his direction, eyes drowsy and unfocused. She managed a smile.

“Hey.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Meredith asked.

“Yes.”

“Sense of humor…check. What's your name?”

“Erin Strauss.”

“I'm going to give you four words that I would like you to try and remember. The words are napkin, Thanksgiving, apple, and pencil. Who is the current President of the United States?”

“Obama.”

“What is 4 x 8?”

“32.”

“What season is it?”

“Summer.”

“What city are you currently in?” Meredith asked.

“Washington, DC.”

“Can you repeat the four words I gave you earlier?”

“Napkin, apple, um, napkin…I'm sorry I don’t remember.”

“Its alright.” Meredith placed her hand on Erin’s arm. “You just woke up; it’s OK Dr. Strauss. Do you know why you're in the hospital?”

“I'm having a tumor removed.” Erin replied.

“Do you know when?”

“I think some days ago. I already had surgery.”

“Yes ma'am. I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Erin nodded. She looked at Dave and he was smiling.

“Why did she ask so many questions?”

“They're checking your memory, speech, and elementary cognitive functions. The poking…”

“She said pain stim…pain something” Erin replied.

“Do you know who she is?” Dave asked.

“Now you're asking questions.”

“I would love for you to answer for me.”

“She’s Meredith. Her name is Meredith. Did he get the tumor?”

“The tumor is gone. Later today or tomorrow you'll get another MRI to see how your brain looks. Then there will be a week or so of questions while possibly discussing radiation options.”

“No radiation.” Erin managed to shake her head.

“Just take it one day at a time. Let Derek do his job.”

“After the MRI you have to go home David.”

“What? I don’t want to…”

“I know but you have to do. Wait, that didn’t sound right.”

“I think I know what you meant. Why do I have to?”

“My family’s here and will look after me. Then I need to go home and…” Erin couldn’t wrap her mind around the word she was looking for. Dave could see the frustration on her face.

“Recover.”

“Yes.” She nodded slowly. “Please listen to me. We need some space.”

Dave didn’t think they needed space. But he remembered that Erin said they were moving too fast on the plane. If she wasn’t going to die now then she didn’t need to rush things. And he knew that she needed to rest and recover.

He didn’t need to be hovering over her while she did that. He wanted to be there. He wanted to be with Erin. But he wasn’t going to do something that made her unhappy. That definitely wasn’t a good idea with what she was facing at the moment.

“OK.” He nodded, leaning to kiss her forehead. Dave caressed her face. “I’ll do what you need me to do.”

“I need to thank you.”

“No, you don’t. I didn’t do this for your thanks. I did it because I care about you. I just want you to be there for your kids and your mother and a job that you love so much.”

“You're the good guy.”

“Sometimes I am.”

“Always.” Erin drew his face close and kissed him.

Then she started to doze again. The surgery had really drained her. Erin knew she would get her strength back but right now sleeping was all she cared about. Dave would be there when she woke up; they would talk again. There was time now. There was all the time in the world. Even if there wasn’t, just feeling like there might be gave Erin the best sleep she’d had in months.

***

“You look fabulous.” Ursula said.

“I don’t think I look any different than I did three weeks ago. OK, I actually had hair three weeks ago.”

“Oh yes you do look different, darling. You look cancer free.”

Erin smiled. She and Ursula were lying on the couch in Ursula’s study. It was a rainy day so they didn’t get to relax by the pool. It was a glass of wine and the couch, which suited them both fine. Three weeks passed since Erin had her tumor removed and two weeks since she’d come home to the DC area.

The tumor was gone and she opted not to have the radiation treatment since there was no sign of the cancer in blood tests. Derek told her to take proper precautions but she didn’t want to put her body through it if she didn’t have to. A miracle had been handed to her…Erin wanted to take it and run.

Bald was weird in the mirror, yes, but she accepted it. She also had two amazing blonde wigs matched to her style and preference. Erin never thought that would be something on her lists of things to purchase. Her short term memory was still a bit sketchy and there were also vertigo issues. Those things might never go away…she did her best to deal with them. Other than that, she felt great.

Now instead of taking a sabbatical from work in the fall to focus on getting her affairs in order, Erin had plans to write. It had been so long and she really looked forward to it. She wanted to do a paper on Criminology and modern media. The class Dave was supposed to teach over the summer gave her a few ideas.

“I feel great today.”

“How's your memory?” Ursula asked.

“I put up a dry erase board in my kitchen. I write things that come to mind. Sometimes I forget them later and have to look at the board and sometimes I don’t. My doctor said that can be as much a product of age as the surgery. I do what I have to.”

“And drinking alcohol is OK with the vertigo medicine?”

“It will be today.” Erin held up her glass as if giving a toast and sipped her Pinot Noir.

“Have you talked to David?”

“We spoke when I came home from Seattle. I asked for space and he's been quite unlike himself in giving it to me.”

“What do you need space for, darling?” Ursula asked. “You're crazy about him.”

“I'm…”

“You're what, Erin?”

Ursula said it in that tone. It was the know it all tone that drove Erin crazy. But they had known each other a long time. Ursula knew more about her than almost anyone. Erin didn’t have a lot of friends. It was OK; she had to be herself no matter what.

But Ursula was her best friend. They weren't just colleagues. They cared about each other as people, looked out for each other, took up for one another. And they could say things that no one else could say. They said it even if it drove the other person crazy.

“We moved too fast…you can't deny that.”

“I slept with Rachel the first week I knew her. Now she’s my wife.”

“It’s not the same.” Erin said.

“Why isn’t it?”

“You never intended to marry Rachel. It’s great that you guys have this wonderful thing you have but the night of that party you said you just wanted to bend her over your knee and treat her like a bad girl. Those were your exact words.”

“You're leaving out the red lingerie.” Ursula said.

“Ahh yes, we cannot leave that part out.”

“It’s an important element of the fantasy. I don’t think you and Dave moved fast at all. It’s not as if you said you loved him and want to backpedal. You like each other…its no crime Erin. You like sex with him and that’s damn sure OK. I don’t think that had anything to do with the brain tumor.”

“I just need to get my thoughts in order.” She said. “I have to figure out how to spend a life I thought was almost over. I put so many feelings aside and they’re all flooding back.”

“I can understand that. What did you tell him?”

“I told him we were moving too fast. It’s been a long time for me, Ursula. Even if I hated the idea of being alone I felt so unsure after the way things happened with Bruno. I have to figure out how to be part of a unit without losing myself again. I really like myself.”

“I like yourself too. Dave Rossi likes yourself.”

“If it’s meant to be it will be.” Erin said.

“If you neglect it, it could wither and die.”

“Can we not use that analogy please?”

“You know what I mean.” Ursula gave her the look. Erin wondered how she could have no children and be such an expert at the look.

“I know what you mean.” She nodded. “I'm not going to neglect it. Time to change the subject.”

“I think we should be eating. Lazing about is always more fun when you're eating.”

“It would require getting up from the couch.” Erin said.

“I've considered that. I'm weighing the pros and cons.”

“If we call for delivery then we won't have to get up until the doorbell rings.”

“I need to teach my cat to answer the door.” Ursula drank more wine.

“If Uhura learns anything else I will start to fear her.”

“I already do.” Ursula laughed. “Which one of us can reach the phone without getting up?”

“We’re a bit pitiful.” Erin stretched her hand. “Ooh I can.”

“So how does Greek, a movie, and more uncomfortable discussion about David Rossi sound?”

“All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening.”

***

“The lamb looks gorgeous.”

“Yeah, it looks good. Nora isn’t a big fan though so I don’t cook it much. She told me that she doesn’t like the smell. I want something a little different this time. Too much red meat isn’t good for us and chicken can get boring. You should get some lamb though.”

“Ashley is allergic to it and I don’t like eating alone. What's Nora doing today?”

“She, Erin, and Ursula went to a luncheon and reading by Sasha Yurchenko. He’s world renown for his epic love poems of doom.”

“Nora likes epic love poems of doom?” Dave asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No.” Jason shook his head. “She likes dressing up, lunching, and passionate discussion of dramatic works.”

“And she went with Erin?”

“Yes. Maybe I should go for fish…it’s been a while since I did seafood. Perhaps lobster might be better. How long has it been since you talked to Erin?”

“Three weeks; it’s been almost four. We talked after she got back from Seattle so she could tell me how she was doing. She reiterated nicely, that all she could do at the moment was focus on recovery. I got the hint.”

“So you haven’t called her at all?” Jason asked.

“Don’t say it that way.”

“In what way am I saying it?”

“You're saying it like I had a choice in the matter.” Dave replied. “I'm buying the porterhouse…it’s a good cut. When I feel like hell steak makes me feel better. That’s a beautiful cut of meat.”

“Marinate it in a barbecue sauce, hot water, spicy brown mustard, pepper glaze with a dash of honey. After 48 hours you grill it; it will change your taste buds.”

“I love that you're the only person I know who might be an even better cook than I am.” Dave said.

“I'm also not saying it as if you had a choice in the matter.” Jason said. “You do of course, you always do, but…I'm not saying it that way.”

“We’re having two conversations at once.”

“Mmm hmm.” Jason nodded.

“That could be confusing.”

“I find it is with other people. What's that?”

“It says alligator.” Dave replied. “I've never eaten it before.”

“Me neither. Just call her Dave. You can call her and ask how she's doing. Friends do that all the time. Ask her how she’s feeling, how the kids are, or if she’d like to have lunch. I know what you're doing and why you're doing it. I also know what she's doing. But that’s what I think about it. Excuse me, can you tell me what the alligator is like?”

“Its Cajun style.” The woman behind the counter said. “Its spicy, has a little kick, but I wouldn’t call it hot. A lot of customers love it in soup or with some rice and veggies…stir-fry is quite popular. I like it broiled but it’s not a meat that gets tender like pork.”

“What about a marinade?” Dave asked.

“I wouldn’t recommend it.” she shook her head. “It takes away from the Cajun flavoring and might not mix well. Like turkey, alligator isn’t a well-flavored meat without a lot of help.”

“How does it sell?” Jason asked.

“It comes in steaks, sized like filet mignon. It also comes in cubes for soup and strips for stir-fry.”

“I’ll take four steaks.” He looked at Dave. “Nora loves new things and she loves spicy food.”

“And I should call Erin?” he asked, getting back to their other conversation.

“Yes. But you knew that already.”

“I just want to do this right.”

“I know…and you will.”

“I’ll call her.” Dave said nodding. “I should've done it already. I just don’t want to seem too aggressive. She knows that I care about her…stalking isn’t my thing.”

“She cares about you as well, so you both need to make it work. You’re both a little miserable without each other.”

“Has she said anything to you?” Dave asked.

“No.” Jason shook his head.

“But you think she’s miserable?”

“I also mentioned you being miserable, David. I'm using the term in a bit of a universal way. She’s not happy. She’s happy to be alive, yes, and happy to be with family and friends. But she's not happy. I know you're not happy.

“When you get back together you'll both be happy.” He didn’t say ‘and I won't be smack in the middle just like a thirteen year old girl predicted’. Jason wasn’t quite smack in the middle; they weren't using him to funnel messages or making him choose sides. He was just trying to be a good friend to two people who’d always been there for him. “What kind of wine goes with alligator meat?”

“I would think a nice Pinot Grigio like Russian River Valley, Ecco Domani, or Santa Silvana. Santa Silvana is really tasty with a light, slightly spicy meat. Do we sound like an old, married couple?”

“Yes.” Jason nodded as they walked to the register together. “And considering we’re going to the wine store after this we’re going to look like one as well.”

“Bring it on.” Dave smiled, slipping his arm in his best friend’s.

***

“Mom?”

“Yes?” Erin looked up from her laptop. It was a humid August night and she was relaxing on the side deck. On her computer was research for her paper. Next to it was a cup of chamomile tea and a Marlboro Mild that was quickly burning out.

“I'm going to be leaving in about an hour.” Nora sat down at the table. “I just wanted to check on you. How are you feeling?”

“I feel fine.” She took off her glasses and put them on the table. “I'm a little tired but I think that’s the humidity more than anything else.”

“How's the vertigo today?”

“I haven’t experienced any. But I'm taking the pills. They're supposed to prevent or diminish the feelings. It’s probably still a good idea not to make any sudden movements. I don’t want to end up on the floor.”

“Good plan.” Nora smiled.

“How are you, sweetheart?” Erin asked. “I think it’s about time this relationship goes back to me asking you too many questions.”

“I'm good. Deacon is looking for a bigger apartment and I've been helping. He really wants to live in the District, which I'm not that big on. But he thinks a lot of the apartments in Northern Virginia and Maryland are blah. That was the word he used, blah. He wants a neighborhood; he wants flavor and history and color.”

“He's going to ask you to move in with him.”

“He already has.”

“So what are you still doing here?” Erin asked.

“I asked for time to think about it. I surely didn’t think you'd be big on my living in sin, though that wasn’t one of the reasons I needed time.”

“Young people aren’t the same as when I was young. I know cohabitation is what they do. There’s nothing wrong with two people who love each other living together.”

“I want to be married, Mom. I want to be married to Deacon. At the same time I refuse to blackmail him with the cohabitation thing. I don’t want to convince him to marry me. He should want it as much as I do.”

“It’s always more fun when a couple is equally into each other.” Erin said. “I know that Deacon loves you. Men aren’t an easy species to make sense of.”

“Dave Rossi told Ted that he was falling in love with you.” Nora said. “He told him at the hospital before the surgery.”

“What?” that caught Erin off guard. She certainly didn’t expect Nora to bring up Dave. It was quite an interesting turn since she’d almost managed to get her mind off of him tonight. Almost.

“I know that you haven’t seen him in a month or so.”

“Nora…”

“What? Have you seen him?”

“I've been recovering.” Erin replied. “Dave has a lot of things he needed to do as well; we’ve both been busy. We thought giving each other breathing room was for the best. We’re not in a serious relationship, we just…” somehow she didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

A month was still a long time not to see each other. She missed his face but didn’t know how to tell him. She didn’t know how to tell anyone. It had been so long since Erin had done anything like this. She didn’t necessarily think that she was better alone. Sometimes it was just easier than putting it all out there.

“If you care about him, which I think you do, then you should be with him.” Nora said. “I know you weren't in a serious relationship but that was then and this is now. You’re not on a deadline anymore and this could be something nice. I'm not telling you what to do, Mom, just what I think.”

“You are telling me what to do.” Erin smiled. She put out the cigarette, which she’d barely smoked. “I had the impression that you didn’t like David.”

“I don’t dislike him.” Nora shook her head. “I just have to get to know him better. Things were moving so quickly, and I understand why, it was just a lot to take in.

“You hadn't really been in a relationship since Bruno and I hated his guts. I didn’t want the time you had left being spent with some prick that didn’t deserve you, Mom. I don’t think David Rossi is a prick. I also know you feel really strongly about him and that’s important to me too.”

“I don’t know how I feel.”

“Maybe you should just see him again. I bet the spark is still there.”

Erin had little doubt of that. The spark was there for the past year when she was keeping him at arm’s length. She thought of Dave every single day. It wasn’t that Erin was ignoring it or pushing those thoughts away.

The space thing was truthful. It had only been a month since she had brain surgery. For the most part, life was slowly returning to normal. But Erin had to wrap her mind around surviving and thriving. Her brain and body were still recovering.

That needed to be her top priority. Dave would be there when she felt like herself again. Maybe she should at least call and say hello. Her memory and speech were still a little muddled sometimes, though her speech was getting better. What if words failed her?

“I need to ready.” Nora stood. “Is there anything you need?”

“I'm fine. Are you going to stay with Deacon tonight?”

“Probably.” She nodded. “I’ll make sure to call. Ted is with Tim.”

“I know. Have a great night, Nora.”

She kissed her mother’s cheek and walked back into the house. Sighing, Erin looked down at her cell phone. Then she picked it up. She didn’t want to play games. It was hard to be damn near fifty and have such conflicting and overwhelming feelings. She really liked Dave but didn’t like rushing.

They'd already slept together, it was impossible to go back to just being friends. Erin wanted to be more than friends anyway. She just didn’t know exactly what that meant. There was a nice middle ground somewhere for her feet to settle on. Erin was just trying to find it.

This is Dave; leave a message after the tone.’

“Hi David. I wish I had something else to say since its been a month but I think hi is a decent start. Call me when you get this message. Maybe by then I’ll figure it out. Bye.”

***

“What are they called again?” Dave asked as the song faded. He turned into their cul-de-sac.

“The Violent Femmes; and the song is Blister in the Sun.” Ashley replied. “They're old school…from back in the day.”

“No, Bob Dylan is from back in the day. So are Smokey Robinson, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. Even Blondie is from back in the day.”

“I love Blondie!”

“They're a decent band. I've never heard of Violent Femmes.”

“You should try them Pop, its good music.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Dave said. “And I’ll take the occasional car trip. Kids and their parents aren’t supposed to listen to the same music unless it’s true old school.”

“Please don’t pull out the Rosemary Clooney records.” Ashley made a face. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

“Haha. There's some music we can both tolerate. You like The Eagles and I kind of like the angry girl with the long hair.”

“What? Who’s that?”

“Um…Jagged Little Pill. I think that’s what it’s called.” Dave said. “I like her.”

“Oh, you mean Alanis Morissette. Yeah, she’s kinda old school too.”

“No, she's not.”

“What about the Pretenders?” Ashley asked.

“Yes, they're old school. You can't be old school if your albums came out in the 90s.”

“You have too many rules for this. But that makes The Cure old school.”

“I'm not a fan but yes, The Cure is officially old school. They just earned it.”

Turning into his driveway, Dave was surprised to see the BMW parked in front of the garage.

“Whoa, did Mrs. Beardsley get a new car?” Ashley asked. “Holy moly, I wanna ride.”

“That’s not Mrs. Beardsley’s car.”

“How do you know?”

“Its Erin’s car.” Dave said.

“Do you think she’ll give me a ride? It’s awesome.”

Dave smirked at his daughter as she unbuckled her seatbelt. He cut the ignition; Ashley got out of the Suburban. She opened the back door and grabbed all of her shopping bags. St. Monica’s required uniforms for all students, which actually weren't too bad looking.

Ashley needed clothes and accessories for hanging out. She dragged Dave to the mall. There was Forever 21, Gap, Hot Topic, Skechers, and Brooklyn Industries. Dave got his one bag from a cigar shop.

“Maybe she will if you ask nicely.” Dave replied.

“Why is Erin here?” Ashley asked as they went into the house.

“I honestly don’t know. I'm going to find out though.”

“Can I find out too?”

“You can go upstairs and put all that stuff away.” he pointed to the stairs. “I mean put things in drawers and closets; nothing on the bed and floor.”

Ashley gave him a look and Dave gave her the look back. Then he playfully popped her butt before she walked upstairs. Taking a deep breath, Dave walked into the den. Erin stood up from the loveseat. Mudgie was sticking close to her.

“He's not so bad when he’s calm.” She said.

“I didn’t know he did calm.”

“It’s a learned behavior. I hope you don’t mind that I just showed up. Mrs. Beardsley let me in and said you'd be back soon and I could wait. She’s making dinner.”

Dave walked over to her, wrapping her in his embrace. A part of him wanted to kiss her breathless but held back. Just holding her was good enough for now. It seemed like forever since he had. The scent of her perfume was as intoxicating as ever. Dave exhaled when Erin held him just as tight.

“Do you want to stay for dinner?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you want to stay for breakfast in the morning?”

“We’ll see.”

“Are you prepared for a veiled interrogation from the kid?” he held her tighter.

“I think I can handle it.” Erin said.

“She might have the CIA beat.”

Erin smiled, pulling away so she could look at him.

“I know we can't go back to the beginning, David, and I don’t even want to. I just want to enjoy this. We shouldn’t move so fast that our heads spin. I like it nice and slow.”

“Double entendres thy name is Erin Strauss.”

“Do you agree with me?” she asked.

“If you mean about nice and slow then the answer is absolutely.”

“David…” Erin kissed him softly. Then she kissed him passionately. “I want to know if you agree on all of it.”

“I just want you.” he caressed her face. “I want to be your friend and I want to be your lover. I want to laugh with you, cuddle and watch movies, and talk about all the things you find interesting.

“I'm crazy about you…think I made that abundantly clear. However you want to do this, we do it. What matters most is that we do it together. I think we’re really good together, Erin. I've missed you and don’t want to lose you.”

“Well you're here and I'm here so that’s definitely together.”

“How have you been feeling?” Dave asked. He took her hand, leading her over to the couch.

“I've been good. My short term memory has its moments. Sometimes I’ll be mid-sentence and lose my train of thought or can't come up with the word I'm looking for. The worst part is it’s sporadic so I don’t know when it’s coming.

“I'm still taking the Agretal for my vertigo and spatial issues. Also, I'm rather bald.” She touched the blonde wig on her head. It was definitely something Erin was still getting used to. “But since I'm tumor free I'm never going to complain about that.”

“You look beautiful.” He smiled.

“How are you, David?”

“I think I'm going to write a novel. You inspired me to jump in with both feet.”

“Funny that you mention that because I think you inspired me as well.” Erin said. “I'm going to spend my sabbatical writing an academic paper on Criminology and Modern Media. It’ll be like the Hannibal Lecter-fication of America.”

“That sounds brilliant.” Dave leaned in close to her.

“Does it really or do you just want to kiss me?” Erin smiled, surrendering to his feelings and her own.

“Hi!” Ashley walked into the den grinning. Mudgie rushed to her and nearly knocked her over. This was nothing new. “Hey Mudge.”

“Hi Ashley.”

“How are you Dr. Strauss? It’s been a while; I wasn’t sure you'd be back.”

“Here I am, and I'm fine. If it’s OK with you and your dad, you can call me Erin.”

“It’s OK.” Dave nodded. “Erin is going to stay for dinner, kiddo. We’re having steak stir-fry.”

“Oh cool. We have plenty to talk about. I'm gonna go and harass Mrs. Beardsley now.”

“No extra snacking…and take the dog.”

“OK. C'mon, Mudge-sicle.”

The dog followed behind her, happily wagging his tail. Dave focused his attention on Erin again. She was smiling and it made him do the same. Damn, he just wanted to take her upstairs and be alone. Dave almost felt bad but he’d pretty much wanted to be naked with Erin from the first time that they shook hands.

“I'm glad we have more time.” he said.

“Me too.” she nodded. “These past five months since the initial cancer diagnosis have been a little chaotic. Now that there's time, I want to know the entire David Rossi. The 30 second version is great but I want more.”

“What do you want to know first?” Dave asked.

“Tell me what you think of me.”

Dave laughed. He took her hand, kissing it. Erin hugged him again and knew she wouldn’t have to let go. There were more milestones to come but they would all be happy ones. She was going to get her second chance, at life and with David. Erin didn’t plan on wasting either one.

***