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A Great and Mighty Wonder

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A Great and Mighty Wonder

After she bails him out, whatever it is between them starts to change. She's decided that she's not going to think about the money, and he's apparently decided that he's going to stop hiding it. Both choices are more difficult to enact in light of the other, but both parties are keen to move forward unblemished, and unbiased by past events. She counts the pre-Christmas break out as a win-win scenario. It's not quite the way she'd have chosen to humble him, but, she thinks, it's kind of nice having a millionaire in your debt.

He keeps trying to find ways to repay that debt. He tries three times, actually.

The first time, he writes a cheque while they're putting on their coats at the end of a long shift. It makes her uncomfortable that he can literally transform the value of paper on a whim, knowing – not just hoping – that it will be honoured. No running to the bank after work, frantically signing his name to the thin slip, depositing it just before five, and praying that his landlord will be too lazy to cash his rent cheque before the middle of the month.

She refuses him, putting her hands up, trying to forestall him, and her growing irritation, as he pushes the paper into her hands. She's completely weirded out by the way he casually wields a chequebook, and the way it makes her feel like a sleazy easy loan company. She imagines herself setting up shop in a dying, inner-city plaza, and is reminded too much of visiting her cousins, touring their neighbourhood on bikes during the summers.

He backs off when her protests become forceful, though, and slams the door to her locker. He tries to follow her, maybe to apologize, but he gets his scarf caught in his own locker, and she's gone before he can catch her.

The second time is funny. It starts off as a joke. She's halfway through an evening shift, just beginning to feel the pangs of a missed dinner, when he comes in to start his overnight. He's well-rested, and cheerful, laden with a plastic bag full of Chinese takeout, and she knows it's more than the thirty-dollars worth they packed away last time.

She tilts her head, glancing at him suspiciously to let him know the game is up and she's on to him. He just grins, his loose gait giving his movements a cavalier confidence as he steps around her into the lounge.

“It's on me,” he teases, and she amends her opinion of his attitude.

It's not confidence. It's arrogance – the graceful, condescending kind that's indicative of his upbringing. To the manor born. It's nothing like the posturing and overt displays of machismo she's used to; seven brothers and a large Italian family gives her ample material to compare it with. No, this arrogance is subtle. It's quietly exercised, and quietly felt, but altogether more effective because it's just so...polite. And insidious, she thinks.

Now, there's an adjective she's pretty sure no one has ever associated with John Truman Carter the Third, before. Manipulative. Deceitful. Dishonest. Those seem fair enough. And charming. Somehow, he still manages to make her smile, and she shakes her head at her own willing indulgence of him.

So she signs off on the chart she's holding, replaces it in the rack, wipes her patient from the board, and slips into the lounge after him. She stands there, her hands on her hips, but not at all upset, watching as he sets out thin cardboard containers bursting with kung pao chicken, sticky rice, and egg rolls.

“What're you doing?” she asks.

He looks back at her over his shoulder as he leans across the table to retrieve even more containers from the warped plastic bag.

“Dinner,” he says, all wide-eyed innocence.

Well, she thinks, she can't match his naivety, but she can still play to it.

Her eyes widen, and her brow lifts quizzically. “For whom?”

“Us,” he says, still with that sly grin.

“What if I don't want to have dinner with you?” She replies, and his smile drops. He's panicked, worried he's overstepped, and his intentions, despite their transparency, have been misread.

His focus divided, his hand slips. An open box of rice goes ricocheting off the table, taking an order of edamame with it. It's too much to hope for the damage to be minimal, and sure enough, beans and rice are distributed liberally around the base of the table, the grains sticking more to the short knots of carpet than to each other.

“Oh, man,” he says, instinctively bending to collect the mess. Then he recalls her presence behind him, and her late refusal of his company. He turns to her, looking up at her from where he's crouched, his hands clumsy with nerves as he scrambles to collect now empty cartons. “Sorry,” he says, though she's not sure if he's apologizing for the food, or it's current habitat on the ground.

Sweet, she adds. Charming, and sweet in a kind of inept, dorky way.

Taking pity on him, she joins him on the floor. He's still holding onto an unopened container, and crouching, probably to avoid grinding anything into the fine wool fibres of his suit. Her scrubs though have seen far worse, and she goes to her hands and knees to peck at the scattered mess.

“Alright,” she groans, sounding as inconvenienced as possible. “Budge over. Let me help.”

She begins collecting the food into a pile, one hand cupped as the other snatches at the carpet, depositing beans and pods in her hand, going for the larger pieces of edamame first. She senses his hesitation beside her, and she smiles at him.

“You going to join me? Or am I expected to have to slave for my meal, like Cinderella?”

He jumps at the question, tossing the containers he's holding onto the table above them, and scraping wide furrows in the carpet, trying to collect the rice in a few broad sweeps.

“Sure,” he says. “Yeah, yeah, I got this. Just give me a minute, and we can eat. Or you can eat. I mean, you can eat now, and I'll just, um, get this.”

His nails catch at the carpet, pulling the fibres taught, and launching bits of rice, and whatever other detritus the shoes of his colleagues have dragged in, into the air, scattering more than he manages to corral.

He pinches little pyramids of rice into his hand, looking around for the garbage bin. Spotting it near the door, he retrieves it, and drags it back to the table. He flicks his wrists in an attempt to rid his hands of the masticated rice. Her quiet giggles break into gutsy laughter as she watches him flail, sliding his fingers up and down along the plastic liner. His face has fallen into sober lines of concentration totally incongruous to the situation, and she sits back on her heels too shaken with mirth to be worried about the spilled food.

“What?” he asks, his hands still splayed along the edge of the bin.

“Nothing,” she says. “You.”

She stands and joins him at the bin, overturning her hand and watching the edamame disappear neatly into its depths. She grabs a paper towel from beside the sink, brushing the few clinging grains of salt from her palm, and hands the cloth over to him. He twists it around his fingers, his eyes never leaving her as she seats herself at the table, hunting for some chopsticks.

“Just leave the rest. It'll be easier to pick it up after it's dried. Come eat.”

He tosses the paper into the garbage, burying the edamame beneath the stained white towel – a suitable shroud for fast food, she notes – and joins her at the table. His long limbs, and eager smile remind her of her younger brothers, and she remembers he has an older sister, too. She doubts he spends half his paycheck trying to buy her approval with shitty Chinese takeout, though.

But oddly, though she's eaten from this particular restaurant many times before, she's pretty sure the chicken has never been as tender, the egg rolls never as crisp, and the rice never as sweet as it is tonight. She thinks he must have tried to pull a fast one on her, and when they're sitting in their chairs, sated and drowsy, she musters up the strength to rifle through the bags to find the receipt. The name across the top of the paper is the same as it's always been, even if she feels her gut twist at the numbers printed along the bottom.

“Hey,” he says, playfully snatching it out of her hands. “My treat, I said.”

“John, that's more than a treat.”

She staggers to her locker to retrieve her wallet, carefully counting the worn bills tucked inside. Though it's exactly the amount as she left home with this morning, it provides little comfort. She calculates the amount that ought still be in her account, and weighs the possibility of depositing the change in her wallet against putting the majority of it towards dinner. She runs her fingers over the smooth, green face of a bill. Her heart is pounding, and her gut begging her to just let him have this one. But her head is smart. It tells her that everyone is allowed to eat, that she'll just have to pass on the novel she'd been eyeing for a month, and maybe put off drinks with Elizabeth and Carol for one more week. Dinner with a friend was a reasonable expense, and it wasn't as though she splurged every day. So she takes a deep breath, and hands him the bills.

“Here,” she says, her arm outstretched, her voice high and nonchalant. “That's for my share, though I think I managed to pack away more than.”

He looks dismayed, his eyes taking on that whipped puppy look she hates so much, and he licks his lips, a refusal tiptoe on his tongue.

“Come on.” She shakes her arm, and the bills flutter. She hopes he'll be tempted by them irresistibly, like a disdainful kitten pulled into play by a ball of yarn.

“I'm buying,” he says, perplexed and annoyed by her insistence.

“No, really,” she plies. “I appreciate it, but I ate way more than you did, and it's only fair.”

He looks at her, considering but clearly unconvinced.

“Come on,” she repeats. “I'm starting to feel like this is the most awkward morning after, here. Can you please just take the money?”

He grins at that. “Well, I resent the implication that it'd be awkward.”

“John,” she warns, but she's smirking too.

He folds his arms across his chest, resting them on the table in a way she knows he thinks looks complaisant, but is obviously defensive, and protective. He doesn't want to fight, but he's going to be stubborn about this, she can tell. His head is cocked, and he plays with a lone chopstick, twirling it inexpertly across his knuckles. His mouth is still curved upward, but he's thrust his lower jaw forward, his teeth grinding out his rebuttal like flax between stone.

“It's my treat,” he repeats.

He's sulking, and she can hear sirens down the street. She doesn't have the time, or inclination to argue with him, but she really doesn't want to be treated like she's a kept woman. Especially when she's not even his woman to keep. So she shrugs, and pockets the money, smiling until her eyes crinkle.

“Fine,” she says. “Your treat.”

And his expression changes to one of surprise. He obviously wasn't expecting to win so easily. The ambulance is in the bay now, and he too has heard its wailing, so he stands, packing away the rest of the food, and sorting the utensils for later.

Somehow, Kerry's bizarre administrative omniscience has alerted her to their whereabouts, and she sticks her head through the door, as short and sharp as ever.

“Carter, Anna, multi-victim MVA pulling up. Stop loitering, both of you, and get out here. You can flirt on your own time,” she shouts, the last punctuated by her crutch as she smacks it against the door, navigating inelegantly back to the lobby.

John ducks his head to hide a blush, stacking boxes on top of each other.

A stray, irate, “Carter!” pierces the warm comfort of the lounge, and the previous leisure of his movements is lost as he surges forward toward the fridge. He swings open the door, dumping the leftovers inside, letting them settle on the salads, sodas, and condiments leftover by other people, like sand over stones.

Anna shoves the remaining trash into the order bag, depositing it in the bin now back by the door. There's still rice all over the floor, but it'll have to keep. Either they'll come back later, and clandestinely tidy up, or they can deny any involvement in the carnage. They'll sort their story out later.

She grabs her stethoscope, and props open the door, waiting for him to join her. The cords of the instrument fold into lines entrenched in the plastic through wear, and she pockets it. Her hand brushes against the money she'd stashed there moments ago. It's warm from her body, just begging to be spent, and she looks back at him, wondering if she should offer one more time.

He's distracted. Like a greyhound at the gate, he's anxious and eager to escape, searching his locker for supplies. He's still got his suit jacket on, and he's frantic to switch it out now for the long white lab coat, wishing he'd had the foresight to do it before he'd stalled over dinner and was late for his shift. Three minutes shouldn't count. He pulls the coat out of the locker, shoving his arm through one sleeve, tugging at the bunched fabric at the elbow with his other hand. She stands at the door, watching the whole farce, amused as he trips over to her. As he drags the coat across his shoulder, and slips his left arm into the second sleeve, she drops the cash she carries into his gaping right pocket.

Hours later, and she hasn't seen him since. After the MVA they were slammed, and they're still recovering the field. She stops by the desk to pick up a couple x-rays that have just come back, and when she slides them from their oversized envelope, a few wrinkled bills fall out after them. There's a note written on the sickly green border of one that she doesn't remember being there before. It says, “Nice try,” and she purses her lips, rolling her tongue inside her mouth to keep herself from voicing her only half-feigned annoyance.

She sees him watching her from down the hallway, and she throws him a glare and a sarcastic little wave. I got the message. He nods. His head lifts his whole bearing upward, pulling him toward the ceiling. Flashing her a quick thumbs up, he ducks into a trauma room, and she goes back to her patient.

But she gets off work long before he does. On her way out she tucks the bills through the grate in his locker, along with a note reminding him that defacing federal currency is illegal, and she can't afford to bail him out twice in one holiday season.

She thought it funny, and a bit clever, but the next day he's withdrawn, and even though he stops by Doc Magoo's for breakfast, he doesn't offer to bring anything back for her.

The third time doesn't really count at all.

It's Christmas Eve. They're standing in the ambulance bay, and it's snowing, and she's forgotten her mittens in the lounge so she's got her hands tucked in the crook of his arm. The tree his grandmother sent is illuminating the faces of doctors and nurses gleefully flinging snow at each other. It's fresh, clumpy powder speckled with the grit of the street and everyone's dodging it partly because it's a game, and partly because they're adults who know they'll be doing their own laundry when it's over.

But he's looking at the tree, so she looks at him. He's smiling painfully, as though he's somehow offended by it. She thinks, sure, it's a bit ostentatious but it's a kind enough gesture on its own. Maybe he finds it incriminating though, and that's the problem. She thinks that's a bit paranoid of him – she's looking at it, and she knows who it's from, and she still is thinking more about the number of lights, and the practicalities of removing it, and the little shiver that spins and twists in her chest as it conjures up horribly cliche, but wonderfully charming images of yuletide bliss. She's definitely not thinking about the Carter family Christmas, mountains of presents, and formal dinners attended on by dozens of staff whose children wait at home for Santa Claus without them. Well, she hadn't been. And she seriously doubts anyone else cares to either. Except perhaps, him. He sees his family looming over him, the twinkling lights resting on abrasive, needled arms that reach out for an embrace. She thinks about how long and how diligently he hid his wealth from her, and she wonders if he'd done that to anyone else. Did he lie about it to everyone, or was she alone in the dark?

Carol knew. But Anna's noticed John has a sizable blind spot where she's concerned. It's not quite equal to the deification of Benton he practices, and which she doesn't quite get, but Carol gets a level of unthinking respect typically reserved for older siblings. She recognizes it from experience, though all but her youngest brother grew out of it halfway through high school. Even now, she still gets the occasional call from Marco, asking for her advice, or opinion, though she usually has to drag his purpose out of him. That's what it's like with Carol. She's seen John watch her, seen how in traumas he'll glance at her every so often, and verify his next step in her movements. And she's watched Carol, noticed that when he stumbles she's there, calmly delivering the hint he needs to get through a tricky procedure. When he walks out of a difficult trauma she follows him. Not right away, but she always knows where to find him. She speaks to him the way one negotiates with a child, the way Anna used to put Marco to bed. It's half coaxing, half soothing in a voice that's the offspring of pragmatism and compassion. It's that same marriage of traits that makes her a good nurse. When she speaks to John, she speaks directly to him. She's aware of his background, but it factors into her opinion of him no more than the location of his locker, or the colour of the chairs in the waiting area; she can identify them, but they are more indicative of happenstance than character. So she's circumspect without thought, and John likes that.

But Anna can't help noticing that his locker is right in the middle of the row, and she wonders if that was intentional. What does it say about his need to be surrounded and attended to, or is it there for the opposite reason? Is it there to compensate for the fact that he rarely is the centre of anyone's attention elsewhere? Is that what makes him clumsy too, constantly colliding with the world in an attempt to affirm his own existence? And she thinks that she's probably over thinking this. The locker was probably assigned, and he probably has poor spatial awareness, and his family's wealth is probably no reflection of him. Or her. And this is exactly the line she has a hard time walking, as much as he seems to struggle in defining it.

The tree shines over them, stars in the branches like the watchful eyes of the cosmos, but these fiery souls are much less ancient and far more present. He turns to her, and the lights are reflected in his own eyes, individual golden pinpricks piercing the brown of his irises.

“So, you got any plans tonight?” he asks.

He inhales through his teeth, bracing himself against the cold, and her answer.

“Yeah, I plan to be alone.”

It's not a rejection, she doesn't mean for it to be a rejection – just an escape route. She's a long way away from Philadelphia, and she doesn't want to get sucked into any festivities. She doesn't want to fall into a jovial group of colleagues, and pile into a dimly lit bar, vying for the seats most proximal to the alcohol, staying until it's late, and the walk home is cold and the long winter night is empty enough to hear the maudlin thoughts that follow her echo and ricochet in the silence. She doesn't want to hang off a rigid arm and stiff smile at someone else's family function, defending her job, her education, or her upbringing as she would be compelled to do, even to the most open crowd. She wants to go home, put on her pyjamas, and watch old movies from the nest of duvets she drags from her bed for such occasions. That's her plan. She worries his are more along the former lines, and she wants to head him off.

But then he says, “Do you want some company?” And she has to double check.

“Don't you have family plans?”

“Oh, I think I've had enough family for one day.”

He smirks, but she looks back at the tree and thinks, maybe he has. So after he's rid them of Henry with an early Christmas gift, she invites him to follow her home.

There are rules, which she explains to him as they walk along the El platform. He grins into his collar, and nudges little piles of snow onto the tracks. She's reminded he's not the most graceful of people, and he makes her nervous, standing so close to the edge with his hands in his pockets.

“Careful,” she warns him. “You'll slip.”

He looks at her, then back at the tracks, frowning like he's seeing something else. But then he smiles, spins on his heel, and walks back toward her, an insouciant swagger to his step.

“No, I won't,” he says. “And these rules seem a little strict. Don't I have any say in what we watch?”

“Absolutely not,” she insists. She's amazed, and a bit amused at his audacity. “My tradition, my rules. You may observe, but you may not interfere, because I am doing you a favour.”

“I feel like I'm an intern again,” he laughs.

“You are an intern again.”

“Don't remind me.”

They ride the train, accompanied by the caterwauling chorus of the tracks, and even though it's not the gentle peal of sleigh bells, there's still something festive about the rocking carriages, and the warm light that illuminates the interior of the car, turning the windows to mirrors in the dark. They're watching the couple down the way swathed in bright winter jackets. Hands overlap as they swing round a pole, locked in their orbits. At the other end of the car, a lonely woman sits with her hands clutched in her lap. She sniffles, and swipes at her eyes every once in a while to disperse the tears. Somewhere in the middle, they sway against each other.

At her apartment, she tramps through the door with no thought of delicacy, stamping her feet on the rug, and kicking her shoes off. John follows more hesitantly behind her. His gloved hands run over the leather strap of his bag, as he hangs back in the doorway. She turns to him, catching him glance around the room before his gaze darts to the floor. She's self-conscious because she knows what he must see, but the sudden intensity with which he's studying her boot mat makes her think that he knows that, and he's trying to assuage her worry. It must be a struggle too, because he's one of the nosiest people she's ever met, so focusing his attention on a single square foot of his own business is quite a feat.

She sighs. This strange truce is never going to work if at least one of them doesn't get the stick out of their ass. It's not going to be him since she's pretty sure it's inborn, so she drops her bag, and her pride on the ground by her shoes, a small puddle forming as the snow melts. She's a woman, and she's from a large, Italian family; she's used to making compromises. And hey, her apartment is kind of cozy. It may not be a Louis Sullivan original, but it's warm, and most of the outlets work.

Her coat is tossed over the arm of a second-hand armchair by the window, and she heads toward her bed to grab her duvet.

“Drop your stuff, and get to work on some popcorn,” she throws over her shoulder as she goes.

The room is open, and the single screen she erected does very little for privacy. She feels more naked now than she did when he was here last and she'd been dragging dry cloth over still damp skin. Then, he'd been preoccupied examining a box of Pop-Tarts. She wonders now if he'd ever seen a Pop-Tart before, and if he'd been more confused by how to eat it, than offended she'd expected him to.

She hears him shuffling around behind the screen. Cupboard doors swing open and shut with a hollow thud as the cheap particle board connects with the sagging frame of the shelves.

“Where am I finding this popcorn?” He calls to her.

“Uh...” She closes her eyes, trying to visualize her meagre pantry. “Second shelf, first cupboard left of the sink.”

She waits until she hears a triumphant, “Ah!” then continues gathering her bedding. Using her feet, she slides some of the debris of her life under the bed, magazines and medical journals slipping beneath her. What a mess.

Whatever, she thinks fiercely. He knew what to expect when he asked. Or he should have. Whatever.

She emerges from behind the screen, her arms full of the fluffy, marshmallow folds of her coverlet. He's sitting on her couch, his knees practically folded to his shoulders. He should look uncomfortable, and it's true he does look somewhat awkward, but that's more of a state of being for him than a product of circumstance. Mostly, he seems relaxed. His shirt sleeves have been rolled to his elbows, and he's sitting in his suspenders and sock-feet like he's always been there, and he's got the box of Pop-Tarts in his lap, and an impish grin on his face.

“Popcorn's in the microwave,” he says. “I thought we could start with these.”

She smiles, walking over to him and burying him beneath the blanket, a deep drift of snow in her own equally counterfeit living room.

“Breakfast for dinner? I like it.”

She strides over to the VCR, and slides a tape into the open maw, the tongue of the machine having been snapped off during one of her many moves. Her couch is transformed into a fluffy white bank, and John emerges from beneath it looking tousled, and bright. Without her permission, her mind supplies a few enthusiastic adjectives to describe his appearance. Her chest tightens, infatuate for a beat. First she feels excitement, then the sensation is quickly subsumed in guilt, followed by confusion. She's not forgotten about Max. She left him behind in Philadelphia, but he's managed to follow her to Chicago, if not literally, then definitely emotionally, and she's not sure if she's happy about that, or if it just makes her resentful. Not that Max is relevant, and she wonders why she's thinking about him at all when she should be reminded of Marco.

Maybe it's because she just finished a long shift, and she's a bit dizzy from the constant changes in temperature as she's shuffled between one building and the next all day, so she's cutting herself some slack, and she's definitely done analyzing.

John grabs the remote – of course he does – and hits play. The diffused black and white images of the past illuminate the room. The microwave beeps, and she retrieves the bag of popcorn, letting it dangle like a bauble from her outstretched hand. The smell of synthetic butter surrounds them in small, streaming jets as she joins him on the sofa. His fingers twist at the plastic foil containing a pair of Pop-Tarts, and he offers her one.

“Here,” he says.

He removes a pastry from its casing, and passes it to her. It's the second in the package, she notes, as she recognizes his gentlemanly discretion in taking the first, having left it slightly gored in the unwrapping.

“Bon apétit.”

“Yeah, I'm not sure this is the kind of cuisine that phrase is intended for,” she teases.

“Well, merry Christmas, then,” he says.

When he smiles, his eyes look sad, but the lines of joy that radiate from them stretch to the edges of his face in deep, sincere crevices, like riverbeds to channel the overflow of happiness his eyes can't contain. It makes her glad, and she knocks her Pop-Tart against his in a toast.

“Merry Christmas,” she replies.

They make it through It's A Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, and are halfway through Bringing Up Baby when he stops responding to her running narration. She looks over, meaning to goad some response out of him, and encourage him to resume his duties as co-commentator. Quite without her permission she sees that somewhere between Hepburn and Grant slogging cross a river and pausing to dry their socks on the other side he's fallen asleep.

She's flush against his side, his right arm is wrapped against her shoulder, and his head is tilted back against the low cushion of the seat behind him. When she holds her breath, she can hear him breathing softly. He's not quite snoring, but his neck is extended enough to force a thin, rasping passage of air. She's quite comfortable, however she knows he won't be in a few hours.

“John.”

She pushes against his chest. He's warm in the way it seems all boys are, the palm of her hand is suffused with his heat where it's placed against the thin cotton of his dress shirt.

“John,” she says again, but he doesn't rouse.

He only shifts a little to the side, and turns his head toward the source of the sound. A few barely coherent words slip past his lips, and she thinks she can catch the suggestion of a melody in it.

“I can' gi'e you anything bu' love,” he sighs.

Ass, she thinks. He has seen this movie before.

She debates waking him with a good sternal rub, but decides to be merciful – spirit of the season, and all that. Instead, she pulls away from him, standing, and stretching as the hours of inertia announce their end. There's popcorn in her hair, and in her collar, and bits of it toboggan down the blanket as she moves, like children on Sundays after church. He's covered in it too, having obviously lost the battle to her, and she picks pieces off him as best she can in the dark. She can't remember when it was that the lights had been extinguished, or who had actually done it, but she curses them now as she stumbles around her coffee table, trying to collect the offal of the evening without breaking an ankle, either hers or his. She tosses popcorn casualties into the empty bowl, eating a couple of the less crushed looking pieces, and pushes the table a little ways away to give the couch more leg room. She plucks a couple ratty cushions from the floor at her feet. They're small, and lumpy, and if she's going to let him stay – which she is – she might as well be a considerate host.

There are two pillows on her bed, and she grabs the softer of them, bringing it back to the sofa. With her hands supporting either shoulder, she carefully slides him down until he's lying almost prone along the seat, his head nestled against the pillow. His long legs are bent at the knees, and they hang off the edge of the sofa, but there's nothing she can do about that. She takes the wool throw from the armchair by the window, crocheted by her mom when she left for college, and drapes it over him. He's not stirred again, and she's satisfied with the work she surveys, so she collects her duvet, and draping it over her shoulders like a caped hero, she dives into bed and falls asleep.

He's still there the next morning. They both are scheduled to work, but it's cold and she makes a fuss about taking the El that has just enough vehemence in it to be taken seriously. So he runs home to get his car, arriving back at her apartment in the same instance her grandmother calls. She pleads and protests while her Nonna fusses and frets her way through a conversation, and in the end she knows she's lost because she's somehow found herself calculating the cost of a flight home on Christmas. John's grinning and shifting on the balls of his feet, framed like a holiday print in the arch of the door. His hat and jacket are still dusted with snow – the discussion with her grandmother had been mercifully, or maybe pathetically brief.

“No place like home for the holidays,” he says.

“Do you always speak in song?” she wonders, disturbed at the delight he's taking in her misery.

“Only at Christmas,” he vows. “It's the most wonderful time of the year.”

“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” she huffs, hustling him ahead of her, and slamming the door shut behind them.

He's got the radio tuned to some god awful station that's made the decision to host two straight hours of holiday cheer in the week leading up to Christmas, and it's just her luck, and his cunning that it happens to coincide with their drive to work on this day. It's a rule in her family that shotgun picks the music, but right now she wants to be indulged without explanation, without having to fight for the enforcement of a rule he'd never had to live by. But he's no mind reader. So instead she sits in a sustained state of petulance while he hums and bobs his head to the music. His gaze leaves the road for brief moments to gauge her response, which only serves to irritate her further. She wants to lean her head against the window, but the ridiculous idiosyncrasies of a Jeep make that impossible to do with any measure of poise, and she's pissed.

“Why do you have a Jeep?” she demands.

“Huh?”

They're halfway to the hospital, and between sets on the radio, so she doesn't think it's any great favour to ask that he grant her enough of his attention to save herself from repeating a simple question. But he's looking at her blankly, distractedly, more concerned with the road (which is good), and the radio ad (which isn't), than with her. She repeats the question slowly so she doesn't accidentally slip and kill him, and so that he'll have no reason to miss her words.

“Why do you have a Jeep?”

His brows dip as they strain to come together at the bridge of his nose, and he looks concerned that he really has missed something important she's said.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“A Jeep,” she clarifies. She's not going to spell this out for him. “Why do you have one?”

Though he doesn't quite catch her meaning, he can sense her lining him up in her sights. He tilts his chin to the side, as if to diminish the target he presents. Has has hopes of yet deflecting her imminent thrust with a glancing parry rather than being forced to defend against a broad attack.

“To get to work,” he says, knowing it's the wrong answer. It's the only one he can offer.

“Right.” She shakes her head, and for a minute even she thinks she's past it. But then she mutters, “In a Jeep,” under her breath, and then she's shouting at him. “Don't you think that's a little childish? What's it supposed to be, some kind of camouflage? Like if you drive a shitty car no one will know that your shoes cost more than my apartment?”

He's sitting there dumb, and there's a brief lull as his shock fades to sullen shame. She's ashamed as well, but she holds onto her anger to save her dignity, and she refuses to watch him watch the lights change. She doesn't expect an answer. When it comes she wishes he hadn't said anything.

“No,” he says. “I just like Jeeps. I thought it was cool.”

“Really. You thought it was cool.” She draws the words out like taffy, sweet and sticky, feeling the sentiment pull taught, and break off. When she speaks again, it's from a distance. “Simple, and shallow – I can see that.”

He doesn't say anything, but she hears leather creak as he adjusts his hands on the wheel. The lively chatter of the radio host reaches her ears, and the holiday music resumes. She rolls her eyes, but refrains from flicking it off. It's one thing to dare a conflict, tease at it like a thread in a ragged edge of cloth, but it's another to declare an outright challenge. Cutting the radio might cross the line. Apparently he feels the same, because the radio stays on, and the rest of the drive is spent silent in the serenade.

At the end of her shift, he's waiting for her at her locker. They might as well be in high school for all the emotions the sight of him standing there evokes in her. He looks up when she enters the lounge, and she does her best to avoid his hopeful gaze, marching across the floor, spinning the dial of her lock, and efficiently liberating a few small necessaries from within. She's quick, and she's almost got her coat on when his hand is thrust beneath her nose, flapping a plain white envelope at her like a demented, one-winged bird.

“What's this?” she asks. She doesn't want to talk about this morning, either to continue their discourse, or apologize for it. She'd probably have more success in avoiding it if she could conjure up some levity. It's great to know that intellectually, but applying that theory proves more difficult than she'd hoped, so she's settling on a tone that's a hybrid of passive-aggression, and dismissal.

“A plane ticket,” he says.

He's direct, which is unusual for him, and she's so surprised that she nearly takes the proffered package from him without question. But then she looks down at it, and inhales, the vast, weightless feel of exasperation flooding her lungs with the oxygen. She will not be bought. Neither her forgiveness or favour.

“John,” she begins, resigned to a fight.

“No.” He cuts her off. She leans back to face him, her jaw set. He's staring at her earnestly. There is no guile in his expression, and while she can typically count on him to have some devious trick lurking in the curl of his mouth, there's none there now. “Please,” he says, “please, just let me do this.”

She swallows, and grits her teeth. “Thanks,” she says. Her voice is gentle, and she takes the ticket from him in what is probably the hardest act of kindness she has ever had to perform.

“It's not bail,” he says, sounding utterly relieved to have completed the transaction, “but it's something.”

He's kindling the spark of mischief once more, and she recognizes it as his defensive reflex to ward off the varying degrees of sentiment which seem to threaten his delusions of self-sufficiency. She laughs with him, anyway.

“No, it's not,” she agrees. “Actually, it's kind of the opposite; you're buying my way into custody.”

“Come on,” he says. “It's family. They can't be that bad.”

“You've no idea,” she says. And then, because she's some kind of masochistic idiot, or possibly because she's completely lost her mind, she follows that statement with the most baffling thing. “Do you want to come with me?”

She takes some comfort in the fact that he looks as nonplussed as she feels, but she's said it, and he starts to look too hopeful for her to retract the offer.

“Do you want me to?”

“Yeah,” she says. And oddly enough, she finds that's true.

It's a short flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, but they take full advantage of the in-flight snack. At the airport, Anna had called her father, and gotten her Nonna on the line instead. She'd been only too happy to hear that Anna was bringing a boy with her, and vociferously commanded the both of them to refrain from spoiling their appetites before they arrived. But the day had been mutually exhausting, the hospital packed with the injured, the ill, and the infirm, and even the little packages of saltine crackers are too much temptation to resist.

There's the sharp, high pitched squeal of plastic as they tear into their paltry snacks, and they have ninety minutes to down enough coffee to keep them up for the rest of the year. She teases him about how he takes it – black with one sugar. He cringes when she stirs heavy cream into hers. On their third cup, they swap, suffering the predilections of the other in the glorious pursuit of science, hoping to prove one definitively worse than the other. He smacks his lips, complaining as the cream coats his tongue and neuters the bite of the brew. She takes a tiny sip of his, winces, and promptly declares the experiment over. The results are inconclusive.

When they touch down, her brother is waiting. They left from the hospital to guarantee John a seat on the same flight, so while she has an overnight bag, he's only got the suit he donned this morning, a set of scrubs they snatched on the way out, and the spare change he always keeps in his locker in case of accidents, the latter two of which he managed to fit into his satchel. At the gate, Joe kisses her, and hefts her bag over his shoulder, ignoring her protests. John shakes his hand, and she can see them sizing each other up. It's a source of curiosity for Joe that she should be so spontaneous in her invitation of a guest. And John, she knows, knows little of her family, except that she has seven brothers, and she suspects he's trying to construct a chronology in his mind. It's a good effort, but likely impossible with his limited pool of data. It's sort of funny to watch, the two of them trying to outdo one another in their attempts to appear casual, and collected – a non-threat. At the same time, she sees Joe's knuckles go white, and John cover a wince as they shake hands neither willing to submit, to expose a weakness ripe for exploitation with a whole dinner still to come. They smile, and nod, and she starts for the car without them.

“Okay, when you're done asserting your masculinity I'm ready to go,” she says, a smug quirk of her lips swiftly bringing an end to their game.

At least John has the grace to appear chagrined. He tucks his chin, and steps back, distancing himself from her brother, and she notices how he lets his emotional tendencies play out physically as well. She's not a psychologist, but she wonders if everyone gives themselves away like this; if she does. Not that she has anything to give away. Joe just smirks, then glances to John as if sharing a private joke their gender entitles them to. John grins backs. Boys, she thinks.

At the car, the competition of chivalry continues. Joe stows the light bag he insisted on carrying, and John scrambles to open the back door for her. She throws her purse on the seat, then turns to Joe as he approaches the front, the keys swinging from his fingers. She snatches them out of the air, and gestures for him to get in.

“You coming, John?” She asks, as she slides into the driver's seat, tugging at the cool bar of metal below, and drawing herself forward. The press of Joe's knees at her back disappears as she moves, and John ducks into the passenger seat beside her. “Belts,” she reminds them.

Then she turns the engine over, and drives home.

They pull into the driveway of a small house with a large oak tree on the lawn, and a warm, yellow porch light that, Midas-like, turns the grey brick of the house to gold where it spills against it.

Her step-mother and grandmother are on the porch before she's got the car in neutral. They lean over the balustrade, and wave madly. The moment her foot connects with the concrete stairs to the house, they're there, overwhelming her with their embrace, helpful hands weighing her bag down as they fight to take it from her. Joe's escaped inside, using her arrival as cover. But John is swept up with her, kissed on the cheek, and ushered through the doorway like a wayward child.

Inside, she's met by a kaleidoscope of siblings, and cousins, the faces changing with each revolution she makes around the room. There's Uncle Aldo and Aunt Flora, and all their kids. Her cousin Gio has a strong arm around the waist of a short man with thinning hair, and bright blue eyes, and over sounds of the welcoming din, she can hear her shouting out that he's her fiance Alan, or George, or something equally nondescript. Nonno is sitting by the fire, directing the twins, Nicky and Vito, as to the proper way to build a fire. Sam runs by, pursued by three young girls, already won by his quick grin at eight, nine, and ten years old. She's been unfrocked, and her coat's been hung somewhere out of sight. She's somehow managed to taste three of the dishes being prepared in the kitchen, and she's lost track of how many times she's said the word “friend” in the past thirty seconds.

It's as though she's been submerged in a sea of people, and she tries to surface to see if she can spot John in the flotsam. She catches sight of him being unwound from his scarf, his hat and gloves being deftly done away with as he's pulled down into yet another embrace. His cheeks are red with lipstick and warmth, and as her Nonna fights through the crowd for what has to be her fifth introduction in as many minutes, she doesn't think she's ever seen anyone look so delighted to be drowned.

“I warned you!” she calls out to him.

Even in the torrent of noise she can still hear him laugh.

Once they've been divested of their bags and outerwear, they make their way through the house, a tight little coupling buoyed along by the crush of people. There are a few questions about Max, what he's up to, and why he's not here tonight. She doesn't hesitate to inform everyone they've broken up, and while there are a few murmurings of disappointment, John's presence quickly makes up for any deficiency Max's absence may imply about her. He's polite, and attentive, winning the approval of her family as they navigate thorough the crowds.

Her step-mom clutches at his arm, anchoring him as though he were a passing ship that may drift away at any moment, and sends meaningful smiles to her Dad. Nonna plucks at his hair, and his clothes, scolding and praising the both of them by turns. Raffi is too busy in the garage with her cousin Andrea to do much more than wave when they stick their heads in, but there's a pleased little tilt to his head when John comments on the make and model of the car they're bent over, admiring of their work. Nicky and Vito slip right past them, offering John a conciliatory pat on the shoulder as they go back to where Nonno sits. Leno brings them drinks, Marco tails them discreetly, and Sam smiles through the kitchen door as they pass, pointing jubilantly at the athletic-looking brunette burning sauce on the stove in front of him.

“My wife!” he mouths widely at them.

John gives him a thumbs up, and just like that, they're friends. She elbows him in the side, and pulls him along to meet her Aunt Claudia and her daughter, Alice.

Her family is exhausting, and she's pushing him, testing him, wanting to prove to him that this isn't the Christmas she wanted, that she'd much rather be back in Chicago, and she wouldn't be at all offended if he realized the same thing and hightailed it back to the city, or a motel, or anything to escape her crazy family. All lies, of course. Though there is something appealing about skipping the party for another movie date – night, she corrects herself. But John doesn't seem to notice her challenge, rising to it without thought. He's funny, and engaged, and he remembers everybody's name, and he has this way about him that when you speak to him it seems like no one else exists. Or is that just her? He's not the most focused person so it's difficult to make a study of it. But here, in this environment, he seems calm, and in control. At home.

They make their way outside, finally evading the suffocating good will of her family. They collapse against the oak tree, her in a thin blouse, and him still in his suit jacket. Neither of them had been able to find their coats – probably her Nonna' s doing – but the warmth of the house still clings to them, and they don't notice the cold.

“I told you,” she says, laughing. “I told you my family was insane.”

He laughs too, and knocks his head back against the trunk of the tree in an overplayed gesture of exhaustion.

“Whew,” he agrees, “I knew you had seven brothers, but I didn't know you had even more parents! Is it just me, or did I meet your grandmother at least ten times?”

“It's not just you. And it wasn't just her; everyone was checking you out. They tend to be a little overbearing.”

“They're protective,” he says, shrugging. “It's not a bad thing. But, to be honest, I don't think I'm up to any fights for maidens fair tonight, so I hope I wasn't too much of a disappointment.”

He's being very forgiving. Despite the poise he'd been conducting himself with, she can't imagine she's made it easy for him. She's tried very hard not to. And she knows she would not have fared nearly so well had she been dropped in the middle of someone else's Christmas chaos, so she feels she can probably cut him a little slack without losing any ground in this strange war only she seems to be waging.

“Not at all.” she says. “Listen, I'm sorry I kind of sprung them on you like this. I bet it's not the kind of family celebration you're used to.”

He drops his head, and kicks at the base of the tree, making little divots in the hard earth.

“No,” he says, drawing chilled air in through a slight smile. “No, I like it.”

The frost hasn't permeated the topsoil yet, but the freezing temperatures have made the ground brittle, and the edges of his leather shoes make sharp furrows where they chip at the dirt. She leans back, and watches him, running her hands along the wide span of tree behind her. Her nails are short from work, but the same environment has also made her fingers dexterous. She works them into the grooves of the trunk. Little pieces of bark come off in her hands, and she cradles them in her palm, flicking bits at his head. He flails at the air, fingers spread, his hand moving like the switch of a horse's tail, trying to rid himself of a pest. It's inelegant, and ridiculous, and she does it again. Then again. One hits him on the cheek, and he wipes at it, catching the damp sliver in his hand. He stares at it, and she knows he's trying to discern its origin, but it looks like he's never seen wood before, and a veritable guffaw of laughter is launched from her throat.

He looks up at her, sees the incriminating evidence she holds, and a wicked, wicked expression blossoms across his features.

“Oh, you are so dead!” he cries.

He lunges forward, and she shrieks, dropping the bark, and twisting away from him around the tree. The pursuit is sudden, and fierce. She races around the yard, over the neighbour's porch, and through several gardens evading his grasp. He's quick, but she's agile, and she teases him, letting him get close before dancing out of reach again and again. It's a silly game, but neither tire of it. They only stop when her porch light flickers, and her Nonna's enraged voice echoes out across the lawn.

“Anna Christina, you come back inside at once! Basta! You have no coat, and you are waking the whole neighbourhood. Are you six years old that you need me to be telling you this? Mannaggia! Get inside!”

Obedient, but unchastened, Anna leads the way back to the house. Her Nonna glowers at her, propping the door wide open against her hip, as though she doesn't trust her granddaughter not to miss the entrance.

“Sorry, Nonna,” she says, breathing hard. She bestows a gentle peck on her grandmother's cheek, which does little to soothe the disgruntled noises of lip smacking, and teeth sucking.

John nods at her, and voices a thoroughly abashed, “Sorry, Mrs. Del Amico,” while squeezing by, taking care to avoid eye contact, and stick as closely to Anna as possible.

Somehow, this muttered apology succeeds where Anna's sweetness did not. Her Nonna smiles at him, and pats his arm fondly.

“Not you, dear. You're a guest. And I know how persuasive my Anna can be.”

He's just as surprised as Anna at this shift, but smart enough to recognize the importance of a powerful ally in a foreign land.

“It's true, Mrs. Del Amico,” he says, diplomatically. “I should know better, but she's very hard to resist.”

Her jaw drops, but she recovers quickly enough that when he looks over at her she's got a lone eyebrow raised in scepticism, and a knowing curve to her mouth. Apparently, he's also smart enough to recognize the only time he can lay down lines like that without being contradicted.

They sit down to dinner, everyone crowded around her grandmother's table. It seats ten, but with a little convincing, they've persuaded it to fit twice as many chairs around its perimeter. There's a kid's table in the kitchen, and voices ring out back and forth between the rooms as parents try to police their children from where they've been permanently installed. At sixteen, Alice sits grumbling in the kitchen, more than a bit dismayed that she's yet to graduate to the big table. The way Anna sees people piling in, it's doubtful she ever will.

Sam's saved them seats, and he grasps John's shoulder amiably, as he introduces his wife, Jessica. For her part, Jess seems recovered from her earlier state of panic, but she throws a resentful glance or two at a particular gravy boat halfway down the table that brings into question the veracity of her calm. Marco sits across from Anna, his wide, practically permanent smile coaxing a matching one from her.

“Where's Grace?” she shouts.

“Broke up,” he replies, though he doesn't appear at all upset by it, and Anna's not terribly surprised.

“Heart breaker.”

He shrugs. “Business is booming.”

Her father manages to evoke some semblance of peace, and he races through a festive blessing. Then, the forks are lifted, the sauces are passed, and the joyful noises of home are renewed. And she can't believe she almost missed this. At her right, she sees that John is laughing with her brother, and drinking deeply from his glass, and she's so glad he didn't miss this either.

“Hey!” Marco calls from over the mashed potatoes.

She turns to him, smiling. His mouth is full of food, but it does nothing to stem the flow of his conversation. He jabs his fork in John's direction before loading it up on his plate, using his fingers while Nonna isn't looking. He's been keeping a watchful eye on them all evening, and though it's unnecessary and inappropriate, Anna's touched by his devotion. She readies herself for his final verdict, expecting the usual amount of brotherly disapproval.

“Hey what?” she prompts.

“I like him.”

Her grins falters. She wasn't expecting that, and a cold weight slips from the back of her throat to her pelvis in a straight, heavy line.

“We're not dating,” she says.

The words sound cruel to her ear, and she's not sure why. She's been refuting their relationship with good humour all evening to a variety of responses. Her step-mother had ignored her, her Nonna dismissed her, Gio seemed offended, and Dad seemed relieved, but confronted with Marco's approval she feels guilty. She glances over at John, still happily engaged in conversation with Sam.

“Oh,” Marco continues, drawing her attention back to him, and stuffing another mountainous forkful of food into his mouth. “Why not?”

“I don't know,” she says. She sighs, gripping her own utensils, and lifting her chin. Her smile is tight and defiant. “Because we're not.”

“Okay,” he says.

He examines his plate. There's still a significant pyramid of turkey, and his winter greens have yet to be touched, but the gravy has all been absorbed. He stretches over the table, his arm reaching across his Aunt's plate, and she smacks it in admonishment. Anna's resumed eating, revelling in the tantalizing aromas of a meal that hasn't come from a box, distancing herself from any consideration she might be tempted to give her love life. But Marco's still thinking. The gravy pours from the boat in a thick stream as he coats the entirety of his plate.

“So you just brought him home for Christmas as a friend?”

Her knife squeaks against her dish as she tenses.

“Yep,” she confirms.

“And he came as a friend?”

“I guess so.”

“To our family's Christmas? As a friend.”

She nods.

“Is he one of your patients, then? From psychiatry? Or -”

“Or what?”

“Nothing. Just saying. He didn't come as a friend.”

He slides a slice of meat through the pool of gravy, and leans low over his plate. The warm liquid runs off the back of the turkey as it disappears, and Marco's mouths twists a little in distaste.

“This gravy tastes weird,” he announces.

She hears Jess groan, and Sam pulls her against his chest, jostling her affectionately. John laughs with him, and moves to top up her own glass before she even notices it's dwindled.

“Everything's wonderful,” he proclaims.

The conversation moves on, and the evening with it.

They go three rounds, more if you count the wine, which she's a bit afraid to. It's been flowing freely all night, and they've only managed to escape it's soporific effects through the mass consumption of holiday fare. Still, her knees are beginning to feel fuzzy. She kicks her feet out beneath the table, knocking a heel against the legs next to her. The legs knock back. A subtle, and refined series of kinetic messages are passed between her and her partner with increasing speed. After she launches a particularly enthusiastic kick at her partner, John's forearm slips, his spoon slides along the edge of his plate making the porcelain ring out.

“Ow,” he mutters, more in indignation than injury.

Anna laughs into her génoise. He looks over at her, and they hold an assignation above the good china. Then, her Nonna speaks to him, and he responds as though his attention had always been with her. It only encourages Anna's joyful convulsions, her composure splintering as his is expertly reclaimed. When the moment passes, she leans into him, whispering conspiratorially into his ear.

“You're really good at this,” she says, her wrist sweeping a tight arc that encompasses the roomful of her closest family. All of them are strangers to him.

“This isn't my first rodeo,” he says like it's an embarrassing confession. “My parents have dinner parties like this all the time. Well, not like this,” he stammers. “This is great.”

But she knows what he means, and it's nothing to be embarrassed by. He shouldn't be embarrassed.

She rests her fork across her plate, closing it, and considers him. He patiently abides her study, waiting in silence.

“You didn't come as a friend, did you?” she asks. She thinks that she's being pretty direct here – a head on offensive push at last – but he's regarding her with utter confusion.

“That's what you invited me as,” he responds, his brow drawn, and his mouth turned in a contemplative frown.

For a second, she's frustrated, and ready to fight. But she realizes that there is no battle in this. You can't fight an enemy who has already been converted to your cause. As he has been. She's tested him more than once, more than twice, and he's done exactly as she's asked. He's not pushed, and he's not bullied, and he's never presumed to think she owes him anything.

She thinks about the cheque, and the Chinese food, and the plane ticket on Christmas day, and realizes it's the opposite. All these weeks, and he's only been trying to repay her. To restore balance. Equality. One hundred dollars is nothing to him, but it's more than she's got to spare. And he knows it. She may not have told him much about herself, but he knows this much. So he's gone out of his way to ensure there's no bond of debt between them of any amount, as uncomfortable in deficit to her as she to him. Because that's how she feels. He's been a perfect gentleman, and more importantly, he's been a good friend.

And fuck, she realizes all at once. I've gone and changed my mind.