Saturday, October 26, 2013


John almost didn’t let Meghan leave.  After he’d woken up twisted around her, the clothes they’d gone to sleep in lost beneath the blankets, he almost insisted that they both stay there forever and Roberts be damned.  That lasted a hot second.

“He’ll kill you,” she laughed, rolling on top of him so the sheet slipped down around her waist.  “You won’t be able to walk for a week.”

John considered the view hovering over him: long, dark bed-head waves, endless creamy skin and breasts that more than filled his outstretched hands.  “I could live with just laying here.”

Meghan was about to make a sassy reply, punctuated by how naked they were, when her phone rang.  It was on the dresser next to her purse where she’d left it last night in a daze of tears.  “You should get…,” John started.

“It’s James,” she interrupted.  He had his own ring tone, one he’d chosen because it was the most annoying option on her phone.

John frowned.  “Then don’t.”

She didn’t.

When he finally got downstairs, teeth brushed and gym clothes on, John found Meghan at the stove.  Her back was to him, one hand on her hip.  She wore just the t-shirt he’d lent her the night before - it barely reached the bottom of her backside.  John sometimes forgot she was so much taller than other girls he’d known.  Now with her long legs on display he knew it would be hard to ever forget.  He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.

“Mmmmm, I could get used to real breakfast,” he said, looking at the pan full of eggs.

Meghan had been thinking since her phone rang.  Was James checking up on her?  Worried?  Did he know she wasn’t at her parents’ or Lucy’s, though she hadn’t said where she was going?  There was no voicemail.  She was concerned about him, and that made her mad.  James was not her boyfriend, after all. Tapping the spatula on the counter did not help.  She put down the battered utensil and turned to face John.

“Could you get used to me staying over more?”

John’s eyebrows shot up.  “Really?!”

Meghan’s little storm of anger disappeared just like that.  He was so…  perfect, she thought.

“I’d like to,” she said.

“I’d love that.”

“I’ll make breakfast,” Meghan offered.

John, grinning like a fool, moved the pan off the burner and backed away from the stove with her still in his grasp.  “Nope, don’t care.  Low on the list.”  He continued frog-marching her out of the kitchen into the front hallway to the side table.  In a silver dish, underneath his own keys, was another set on a plain green tag.

“I had these made for you.”  

Meghan looked at the little ring dangling from his finger.  It was like a glass slipper and she felt an embarrassing princess swoon coming on.  “When?”

“Mmmmm, day we met?” he joked.  She pinched his side and he flinched.  “When I saw you in a bikini?”  She tickled him again.

“Okay!”  John pinned her arms.  “The first time I came home and you were waiting outside.  I told you I would.”

He had in fact promised her keys on more than one occasion, since she had a tendency to be sitting on his doorstep, like a package from Amazon.  Meghan had never thought he was serious.  She was learning now that unlike most guys, John meant what he said.  He followed through.  That brought to mind a lot of past conversations - she’d have to think back if she’d missed any other important announcements.  

John waited for the kiss he knew was coming, and it was worth it.  Meghan looked him squarely in the eye and pulled his mouth down to hers, holding his gaze until the first brush her her tongue zinged through his body.  Her fingers knitted into his hair while John’s went shamelessly for the hem of her oversized shirt and the bare skin he found underneath.  He remembered everything about the night before: waking up as they moved together, even in sleep wanting nothing more than her.  Meghan was his real-life dream and now she was promising more.  

“Thanks, John,” she said quietly, a blanket statement to cover everything in the last day.

He smiled.  “Now what was that about breakfast?”

James guessed Meghan wasn’t coming to the gym.  He’d noticed her sneakers in the front hall and called to see if he could bring her stuff.  No answer.  She was probably sleeping in, warm and safe in a place where she didn’t have to be near him.

It killed him that Meghan had said no - even if he’d expected her answer, James was so unsure of what he wanted that he’d doubted his expectation and kept quite a bit of hope alive.  It was made worse by Meghan’s kindness.  James knew guys who broke up with girls they’d dated for mere weeks with more fireworks and drama than a lifelong relationship coming apart.  Those were the kinds of girls James usually met - clingy and aggressive, one wandering eye away from burning his clothes on the lawn.  No wonder he wanted someone safe.  But unlike those girls, Meghan wasn’t an all-or-nothing deal.  Even after a no, she was coming back and he’d have to settle for that.

For now.

James didn’t lose well.  And he certainly didn’t give up.  He’d never have made it to the NHL that way.  There were still things he could do - the right things, ones Meghan also happened to want.  If they just so happened to sway Meghan’s opinion, well he’d certainly be willing to let her reconsider.

James got out of his car at the gym and saw John crossing the lot.  Tavares confused him - he’d come so close, so easily to being with Meghan.  It was totally unexpected.  But John was just a kid and so square, James thought.  Maybe that was why he’d rebounded easily; he was naive and optimistic enough to think he’d find another girl like Meghan.

“Hey, John!” James jogged a few steps to catch up.

Ugh, John thought.  He didn’t want to like James but he couldn’t help feeling bad, knowing everything.  And Neal could be cool when he wasn’t being a douche, which lately was much more often.  Neal came closer, his long hair flopping beneath his Blue Jays cap.

“Congrats on Olympic camp,” James said.

“Yeah, you too.”  John offered a handshake.  “Know what this means, right?”

Neal nodded.  “Yup.  Robs is going to kill us.”

Gary certainly tried.  Between bouts of gasping and wishing for the stillness of death, John kept an eye on James.  He was a little quieter than usual, maybe, but that could be the inverse push-ups and weighted hip thrusts.  Stamkos had his head down too, getting through drills.  John wondered if Steven thought about Kaylynn during workouts.  And lunch and driving and movies and showers too.  Definitely showers.  Was it normal to think about a girl as much as he thought about Meghan?

“DUDE!” Neal barked.  John blinked back to real time and found two current NHLers and one retired staring at him like the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys.  

“Are we boring you?” Gary asked patiently.

“Nope.”  John leapt into place beside the boys.  “Sorry.”

Roberts smiled.  “Not yet you’re not.”

Meghan heard keys in the door and flinched, nearly spilling the lemonade in her hand.  She had showered and dressed, trying to be normal, then waited for James to walk through the door and decide what life in this house would be like from now on.  There was a tumult in the hallway, followed by a loud thump.  She approached the noise and found a big, James-shaped heap on the floor.

“He is evil,” a low, pitiful voice said.

“Rough day?”

James rolled onto his back, feeling for all the world like he’d been hit by a truck.  An upside-down Meghan came into view.  She looked great from this angle - all exaggerated curves in a snug t-shirt, hair falling forward like a 3D movie.  He’d been dreading the moment when he saw her again, saw his foolishness and failure in those lovely green eyes.  At least like this there was no seriousness in their meeting.

“That gym is a human rights violation.”

Meghan could have melted.  Every muscle in her body was releasing in order of importance, from her neck down her spine to the pit of her stomach.  They’d all been braced for the impact of James’ arrival, only he hadn’t come back swinging.  Instead he was a pile of curls and clothes with sneakers sticking out the bottom.

“Think of all the goals you’ll score.  The screaming fans and intermission interviews and calendars with puppies you’ll sell,” she gave him a lopsided grin.  James returned the favor, reminding Meghan that he really was gorgeous enough to get into trouble without her.

“You say that to all the boys.”

She helped him up, grateful for the effort he was making to smooth this over.  It was a one hundred eighty degree turn from the scene leaving this very room last night and Meghan knew it took a lot on James’ part to be selfless, when he was used to being selfish.  His hat had fallen off - he pushed a hand through the unruly mop.

“I’m gonna go to Quebec for a couple days - Subban’s got a golf thing he invited me to.”

“Oh, uh….”  Meghan was taken aback.  She hadn’t heard about a golf trip, which meant James hadn’t made plans before today.  Before last night.

You don’t have to go, she almost said - it was the right response.  But maybe James disagreed.  Maybe he didn’t want to have to see her every day right after she rejected him, and this effort was all he had in him.  A wave of nausea rolled through her stomach.  If he left, he’d have time to get over it.  She’d have time to get brave.  And she would be able to see John.

“Are you sure?” she asked.  “I can go to my….”

“No, no, it’s fine.  I want to go.  Really.”  James was not lying.  He needed to be away from his life in Whitby to see it clearly.  There were things he wanted to examine - things that made girls like Meghan not want guys like him for a boyfriend.  And there was Meghan, herself.  James needed to figure out if he wanted her or not.  He couldn’t decide that with her showering and changing and sleeping in the next room.  Maybe he’d get over this crazy, brand new, out of nowhere idea that he was in love with her.  Or maybe he’d figure out how to change her mind.

Meghan had been reading James’ eyes for years, since they so often said what his mouth would not.  She saw honesty there, and fatigue, and a little bit of the emotional wreckage from the night before.

“You hold down the fort here,” he said.

“Okay.”  Meghan knew she wouldn’t spend a single night here once he left.

James sighed with relief.  She stepped aside and he moved past, each afraid to touch the other.

“Wait, did you tell Robs?” she asked.  “Because I’m not doing that.”

James looked over his shoulder.  “Oh you’re standing in for me at workouts.  Don’t worry.  Stamkos’ll beat you, but Tavares is kind of a pussy.”

Meghan rolled her eyes at James’ back, her pity already evaporating.
“Honey, I’m home!” Meghan called, peeking around the side of John’s front door.  It was sensationally weird to let herself into his house, especially when he was home.  Every light was on and she could hear the TV.  He walked into the entryway wearing a t-shirt and shorts, barefoot on the hardwood floor.  Those thin lips she liked so well were trying not to smile.


“Hi.”  Meghan carefully shut the door behind her.

John stayed put, ten feet away.  He had never seen Meghan uncomfortable.  Sure she’d been nervous to meet his parents and awkward when Neal was around, but those were outside forces.  This was a place she’d been plenty of times and he was the only one here. Still she set her keys down carefully on the table and her duffel bag underneath.

Big bag, he thought.

Meghan saw him looking at her suitcase and felt sheepish.  She hadn’t exactly explained the situation.  “You said I could.”

“Yeah, of course.”

But that wasn’t all.  “James went away for a few days.  I thought I might test your hospitality.”

The idea of a few days together had not seemed weird until she was walking John’s the place like she owned it.  That was the very problem with James’ house: she lived there.  Right now he could not live with her, so he had to leave.  It made Meghan unsteady; in truth, she had no place of her own.  Her parents would welcome her back but that seemed like defeat to a college-educated woman who’d lived overseas for a year.  Instead Meghan felt like she should earn her spot and had done so over fifteen years of friendship with James.  Only that was in question now.

“A few days?”  John’s voice pitched up at the end, more than a question.  It sounded a lot like a slot machine dropping into place - one, two, three, JACKPOT!

Meghan pressed her lips together and nodded.


John jumped on her like a puppy.  Meghan’s knees sagged - he’d just caught her, now he was holding her up.  She laughed weakly; he found her mouth and silenced it.  John kissed her until she felt steady in his arms again.

“Stay as long as you like,” he said, trying not to whoop.

“I can only make a few kinds of breakfast,” she warned.

John pulled her toward the living room.  “That is a few more kinds than me.”

They went right for the giant chair, the one where they’d spent that precious first hour of their unofficial relationship kissing.  John settled in next to Meghan, one arm around her shoulders.  She curled in and put her head against this arm.

This is what couples do, John thought.  They didn’t run to the bedroom for sex because someone had to leave, or act in public like they weren’t together.  For all the things Meghan had given him, this was the one thing he’d never really had with her: time.

They watched some TV.  Sam called.  John gave Meghan a look, she nodded.  Ten minutes later, Sam rang the bell.

“Hey… John.” he said when she opened the door.


“You’re much prettier than I remember.”

She laughed.  “Thanks.”

“And smaller.  Is it gonna be weird now if I ask to sleep over?”

“Stop hitting on my roommate!” John yelled from inside.

Sam put a six pack of beer in the fridge while John made a salad.  They ate dinner to an episode of Breaking Bad then played a few rounds of Halo 4, at which Meghan was terrible.  Sam suggested strip video gaming.  John promised to teach Meghan how to play.

Before she knew it, it was after eleven o’clock.  Sam yawned.  It made him look like a mouse, as did most things.  

“Can I get that golf book from you?” he asked.  When John went upstairs in search, Sam turned to Meghan. “He told me what happened.”

“Oh,” she said.  Of course guys talked about girls.  John probably told Sam more than he told her.  He probably told his friend everything.

“OH SHIT!”  She shot out of her seat, running into the hall.

“What?!” Sam called after her.

Meghan ripped the phone from her purse - no missed calls.  She punched up the contacts, scrolled for a second and hit send.  “Answer, answer, answer….”

“Hey baby!”

She sagged against the wall at the sound of PK Subban’s voice.  He was too cheery for anything to have happened.  “Hey, is James there yet?”

“Yeah, he’s taking a shower.  We’re going out in a bit.  You wanna come?  Break some speed limits, you could make it.”

“No, thanks.  I just, um - remember that picture I sent you?  Me and John?”

“Tavares?  Yeah, I remember,” he said loudly.  “That lucky fool.”

“Don’t tell James, okay?  He doesn’t know.”

Silence.  Then a sigh.  “Why do I get the feeling I’m going to regret this?”

“Please, PK.”  Her heart thumped so loudly it took the volume from her voice.

“Okay, Meg.  I got you.  I’ll handle Nealer.”

“Thank you.”  

“You can owe me one.  And tell Tavares I said ‘don’t fuck it up.’”

Meghan disconnected and looked up. Sam stood in front of her with a glum expression on his kind face, shaking his head.  “As the best friend, this is the part where I tell you that John is worth it.”

“I know,” she said.

“And he really likes you,” Sam added.  “A lot.  Maybe too much.  Like you’ll crush him if you change your mind.”

Every word was a little knife driving into Meghan’s stomach.  Trying to be kind to James was making her a coward to everyone else.  Maybe her balance was tipped the wrong way - shouldn’t John be the most important person here?  More important than herself?

“I won’t,” she whispered.

Sam reached out and rubbed her shoulder.  “That’s what he said.”

John’s footsteps sounded; Sam and Meghan stepped apart and shook it off.  With the borrowed golf back in hand, Sam headed out to his car.  John locked the front door and turned around.  The look on his face was so happy it kicked Meghan in the gut.

“Just us,” he said.

She smiled back.  “Finally.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


James cut the engine and stillness fell over the boat.  Meghan was behind the cockpit, legs stretched out and her back to the armrest of a bench seat.  James sat in the pilot’s chair behind the center console and turned it to face her.

“This is the opposite of your house,” she smiled, following the white stripe of the moon’s reflection across the flat black surface of the lake.  “No one wanted to go out?”  

James shrugged.  Stamkos had dropped Kaylynn’s name early, saying they had plans.  It wasn’t as if Steven really understood what getting the Olympic camp call meant anyway - he was born and bred a star, this kind of accolade came naturally to him.  James hadn’t felt much like drinking the night away - this wasn’t a moment he wanted to forget.

“I thought this sounded better.  Feels like I haven’t seen you much.”

Meghan was surprised by the melancholy note in James’ voice.  Instead of crowing with joy, even his posture was a little guarded.  She lifted one bare foot and gently pushed it against his knee.  She joked, “You miss me all year.  Now I see you every day.”

Without knowing what he wanted to say to Meghan, it was hard for James to have a plan.  He wanted to spent time alone with her and slow down a summer that was flying by.  But just talking could be dangerous when there were things he wasn’t sure he meant, and definitely didn’t want to say.  “It’s different.”

“I know,” she admitted.

“This whole summer’s different, Isn’t it?  Stammer’s got his girl, you’re off with Lucy….”  James pushed a hand through his hair.  “It feels like the season, in Pittsburgh.  It’s either going out with the guys all the time or nothing, staying home.”

“We’re just growing up a little.”

He reached up by the instrument panel for his beer.  It was hard to think about growing up when his recent memories were full of girls like Becki.  “Maybe that’s the trick.  These guys - Crosby, Stammer, Tavares - they’re so serious.  They have been this good forever.  I don’t know if I belong with them.”

“I know it,”Meghan replied.  James gave her a shy, crooked smile.  She moved down the bench until she was sitting across from him, their knees touching.  They had both known the Olympic invitation was coming, but watching an avalanche happen didn’t keep you from getting buried.  The day was here and the news was big.  No way was she letting James feel unworthy of his biggest honor - not when she’d seen him work hard all his life.  Meghan also knew he’d never share these doubts with anyone else.  When he was worried or vulnerable and just needed to be reassured, that was her department.

“You deserve this.  I know last season was tough - every team is onto how good you are.  It isn’t easy standing behind Crosby all year then spending summer with league leading scorers and Hart nominees.  But you belong on the Olympic team as much as they do.  Maybe more.”

“More than a leading scorer and a Hart nominee?” he said, keeping the sarcasm light so she’d know he appreciated the idea.

Meghan wasn’t having that either.  “James, no one noticed you until you made them notice.”
His eyes settled on her face.  She always saw right through him.  He couldn’t be sad or mad or even proud and nervous without Meghan reading right to the heart of it.  Things seemed to get even quieter, with no land or other people around for miles.  For a long, painful heartbeat he waited for some kind of permission to do what he so badly wanted to do.  It never came.

So he did it anyway.

James leaned forward and kissed Meghan, catching her mouth all at once.  He held the back of her neck, lips closed in a desperate attempt at chastity when he really wanted to scoop her into his lap and hold on tight.  It was a spark, flaring from nothing into bright life all at once.

Then it was over.  She broke away gently, the kiss coming apart in pieces like cracked glass.  When she opened her green eyes, they were almost sad.  James sat frozen and shocked at his own brazeness.

Meghan bit her lip, tasting his kiss even as she erased it from her mouth.  Her breathing was surprisingly steady.  In a small voice, she said, “You have to stop doing that every time you get scared.”

“I’m scared of losing you,” he admitted without flinching.

Meghan’s heart sank.  As much as she tried to play James off like protective big brother, a part of her had known, and feared, this was coming.  Now he was inches away, all light eyes and long lashes, that mop of hair curling in the humid summer air.  Only stars and fish had seen that kiss - what happened now was up to her.

“I….” he started to say.

“Don’t,” Meghan whispered.  “Please, James.”

He stopped.  That mouth that had just pressed to hers zipped shut, swallowing whatever words were to follow.  She didn’t need to hear them anyway.  Meghan forced herself to hold his gaze despite the confusion and hurt she saw there.  

James felt stupid and humiliated.  He hadn’t wanted to say the wrong thing so he’d gone and done something worse.  He wasn’t even sure it was what he meant, but the fear of losing Meghan was now more real than ever.  

She didn’t back away. “I used to think every time you left that I would lose you, all those seasons you went to Portland and Dallas.  I used to hate you for leaving.  But it never happened, James.  It’s not going to happen now.”

So she said.  James couldn’t help wondering if he’d just kissed himself past the point of no return.

“I should have known back then,” he said, a growl of frustration in his voice.  “Everyone always said, ‘You and Meghan, what are you waiting for?’  I just… I didn’t believe them.”  

He examined his hands.  They’d been attached to his body all these years, they could have reached for Meghan at any time.  She took them now, separating his long fingers and wrapping them around her own.  “You would have known, if it was right.  I think I would have known too by now.”

Her hand fit into his perfectly, which seemed unfair.  James asked sadly, “You don’t even want to try?”

Meghan looked at the boy she’d known forever.  Only his body had changed, the heart was still the same.  James had always believed he could do something because other people saw his potential.  Now he was asking her to see the possibility that he could become what she wanted.

“I’m not the girl for you, James.  But if you want to find someone like me, you have to let them see you like this.”

“There are no girls like you.  Girls just see money,” he said sullenly.  A lot of players married their high school sweethearts because that was the last person to ever know them before things changed.

“Not all of them.”  Meghan freed one hand and rubbed his shoulder.  “I’m sure some girls just want your body.”  He laughed softly; it was the sound of Meghan’s heart piecing back together.  Her fingers moved to his jaw, lifting his head.  “And definitely your beard.  Maybe not this hair though.”

James scoffed and pulled her hand away.  Meghan let him.  The movement carried with it the promise of her skin against his and endless, increasingly private moments. If she’d just say yes then he’d have everything, right?  He could stop looking at all his happy friends and thinking happiness seemed like a lot of fucking work.

“It would be so easy, you and me.”  

“But it shouldn’t be easy.  Look at Steven and Kaylynn.”

James had thought about that a lot.  “He’s a mess over that girl.”

“He loves her,” Meghan said.  No one, not Steven himself, had confessed as much but she didn’t need to be told. One look and Meghan knew that Stamkos was far, and happily, gone.  “It gets messy.”

“Have you ever been in love?”  James was so sure she hadn’t, hoped he was right.


“Then how do you know this isn’t it?  You are my best friend.  I can be good - I would be good to you, you know that.  I wouldn’t mess around.”  The words were flowing, a last-ditch effort.  He might as well try everything.  “I was a jerk before because I was jealous.  Seeing you with John….”  Just the thought of Tavares made James’ chest tighten.  He pushed it away.  “I could make you happy, Meghan.”

“You already do.”  Her voice faltered, tears tickling her throat.  She blinked at the sky to get them under control.  

“Well that should be my responsibility.”  He paused, afraid her tears were contagious.  “You always believed I could do anything.  I wish you believed in this.”

“I wish you’d believe in yourself.”  Her vision blurred, smearing lights against the dark sky and water.  “You think it would be easy because I’m already here, all that beginning stuff is over.  But that part is so much fun.  You could sweep some girl off her feet - God, you’d be so good at it!  And you would get swept up too, like the big puppy you are,” she laughed weakly.  “None of this hot shot, show-off stuff.  Just an amazing guy falling for a girl who is lucky to have him.”

“And who gets to have you?  Some guy is going to be okay with me breathing down his neck, waiting to prove he’s not good enough?”

That was her chance.  After all this talking, Meghan just had to say one word: John.  But she couldn’t.  Bringing John up now would undermine everything she’d told James.  All her truths would ring false.  James would see John as the reason - the only thing standing between him and his best friend.  James would never believe that Meghan was as scared and confused as he was, as worried about the long run, because she knew how it felt.  Meghan was falling in love with someone else.  It would be so easy to say John’s name now and get it all out there.  But in this case, letting someone down easy was not an easy thing to do.
She squeezed her eyes shut.  A few tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Some fantastic guy,” she corrected.  “Who is more than good enough for me.”

James huffed.  “Not good enough.”

Meghan still held one of James’ hands between hers.  She turned it palm up and spread his fingers wide.  He had big, strong, capable hands, the metaphor for a guy you’d trust with your future.  It killed her that James never let anyone in close enough to see that he could do what he said.  He could be that guy.  But he wasn’t yet and he wasn’t for her and Meghan had never been more sure that James was not the love of her life.

“I know it would be easy.” There were plenty of things she could admit in return for James’ candor.  “I have thought about it.”

“You have?”  

Meghan made a face, but it quickly faltered when she saw James’ serious expression.  How could he not know?

“Did you come home this summer and just discover that I am a girl?” she asked, playful despite the tears.  He smiled thinly.  “Frankly, I’m offended that it never crossed your mind.”

James laughed - only Meghan had the ability to do that, make him feel better at a bad time, even when she herself was crying.  “I noticed before.”

“People said the same things to me - ‘Ooooh, you and James.  Better lock that up before he hits the League.”  Meghan rolled her eyes.  “As if going away would change you.”

“It did,” he admitted sullenly.  In many ways for the better and a few for the worse.

His elbows rested on his knees, hands hanging toward the center.  Meghan circled her fingers around his wrist.  It was as much to touch him as to keep him from touching her.

“Not to me.  You are still my best friend,” she said.

James lifted his eyes.  He had so much to lose.  “Promise?”

“Promise.”  It was all she could say.  In that moment, Meghan wished she wanted James.  He deserved someone great, someone dedicated to him.  Which was why she couldn’t do it.

They were quiet for a while.  James drove the boat around a bit for something to do, Meghan managed half a beer.  Without discussion they turned inland.  Docking the boat was a quick and practiced chore, then they were back in James’ Mercedes heading home.

Inside the car was even quieter than out on the lake.  Meghan looked at his profile in the scattered lights of the road.  “Did I ruin your big day?”

“No,” he said.  She’d been honest and caring and protective of his heart - all the things James was asking her to be.  It just didn’t have the ending he’d written.

She sighed.  “I’m really, hugely, almost disgustingly proud of you.  And I’m going to be insufferable during the Olympics.  Wherever I am.”

He glanced over and saw her smirk.  The only thing better would be if he could kiss it off her face.  “You’d better be.”

At home, Meghan walked slowly to her room.  They’d ended on an okay note but it still felt very much like an end.  James’ house seemed suddenly huge, like there was space for her to fill and she wasn’t up to the task.  He kicked off his shoes and plopped down on the couch.  Five minutes later she came down with a backpack in hand.

“I’m gonna go,” Meghan said.

James had guessed she might.  He’d have enough trouble sleeping without her so close by, wondering if something else or something more might change her mind.  “You don’t have to.”

“I know.  It’s just for tonight.”

He got up and opened his arms.  She folded into his chest like a life preserver, just enough to keep him afloat.  James hugged her for a long time before kissing the top of her head and letting go.

“Night, Meg.”

It was not her most dignified moment.  It hadn’t been the easiest drive.  Meghan felt relieved at finally having done it and absolutely horrible about hurting James - if nothing more than his ego at being turned down by the person who knew him best.  If she didn’t want him, who would?  Meghan knew it would take time for him to believe otherwise.  Now that she’d done one awful thing, it was time to make up for another.

Every song that came her iPod seemed aimed right at her heart, raking those already-raw emotions a little deeper.  She let Tristan Prettyman say it best:

We won't break if we let go.
You and I already know
We were bound to be set free eventually.
So, here we are now
You can say anything

If I could have it go any way, any way it'd go like this
Take it back to a couple years yesterday to our first kiss
In that moment I loved you,
This isn't how I ever saw it going down.
In that moment I loved you,
I wish I knew then what I know now.

Then Meghan shut off the radio.  It was barely eleven o’clock when she reached her destination.  Lights flickered behind the living room curtains.  She rang the doorbell and started counting.  At four she wondered if she should’ve called first.  At seven she wondered if he didn’t want to see her.  At eight, John opened the door.

“Hey,” he said, genuinely surprised.  

Meghan burst into tears.

“Woah, okay,” John laughed nervously, pulling her into his arms.  “Are you okay?”

She nodded, sniffling.  John pieced through the day - she’d gone out with James, now she was here, like this.  His blood started to bubble.  “Did something happen?”  

“No, no.  Nothing bad.  I just…,” Meghan drew in a ragged breath.  She hadn’t expected to react like this.  Tears were fresh in their ducts from earlier, just waiting for the call.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”  He stroked her hair, soothing his own reaction away.

“No, it’s not, John.  I should have been here before.  I wanted to be..”

“Well you’re here now.  Am I going to have to carry you inside again?”

That got a wet laugh.  Meghan followed John into the kitchen, where a box of tissues sat by a pile of mail.  She wiped her eyes.  John stood close by, one hand on her back and watched her carefully.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

He touched his knuckle to one wet track along her cheek and whispered.  “I have no idea how to handle a crying girl.  Is there something I should be doing?”

Meghan giggled at John’s awkward honesty.  With a deep breath she tried to get her voice under control.  “I told James I don’t want to be with him.”

John closed his eyes.  One side of his heart was elated.  The other hated to see Meghan hurting for any reason.  He folded her into a hug, gentle and firm, and resolved to stand there in the kitchen as long as she needed.  Which wasn’t long.

“I didn’t tell him about you, not yet.”  The words tasted bad in Meghan’s mouth, like necessary medicine.  “Please don’t be mad.”

“But you will,” John said.

“I will.  I wanted to tonight but…,” her throat got tight again and tears resumed burning.  Meghan hissed at the pain.  “I could only hurt him so much.  I needed him to believe me - that this isn’t about you.  He’ll be mad later but not like this.  This was so sad.”

For the first time since he laid eyes on Meghan, that day she kissed him so harmlessly in the gym, John felt bad for James.  Neal had set this whole thing in motion with a joke and ended up losing something he hadn’t even known was so important.  If there was anything John could understand, it was the fear of losing Meghan.  Faced with that seemingly inevitable future for himself, John was glad she’d done what she could to soften the blow.  Hopefully she’d be so kind if it came time to end his hope too.

He took her upstairs without a word.  She didn’t protest when he gently pulled the shirt over her head and unbuttoned her shorts.  Normally it would have turned him on to undress her, but right now John just wanted to make her feel safe.  He found the softest shirt in his closet, helped her into it and followed her under the covers of his bed.  

Meghan curled in and anchored her arms around his waist.  She didn’t want to talk - every explanation sucked, every turn of conversation hurt.  It was hard to remember she’d done the right thing over how bad it felt.  John’s silence was just another gift in the long line of things he’d given her since they met - not material things, but intangibles like patience and space.  Meghan knew she’d tested the limits today and hoped they were not yet broken.  She found his mouth with a strong, solid kiss and tried to say thank you that way.  Then she closed her eyes, nestled against his body and fell asleep.

Some time in the night, Meghan woke just enough to feel John’s hand pushing up her borrowed shirt.  His fingers on her bare skin brought every nerve to life.  She turned toward him - he seemed to just be waking too, surprised to find her hands along his spine.  Without knowing if she was still sleeping, Meghan pulled John on top and fumbled at what little clothing they wore.  He was hot to the touch, his shaft throbbing in her palm.  Meghan guided him to the spot and John took over, pressing her legs wide and his tip between the folds of her body.  The warmth and wetness he found were real enough.  Sinking into her, he closed his eyes and muttered something that sounded a lot like I love you.  Neither of them would remember.  His hands found her wrists, holding them over her head while he moved inside her.  Pinned to the bed, Meghan could only meet his thrusts with arched back and eager hips, the push and pull matching John’s ragged breath.  He came first with a gasp, equal parts pleasure and surprise.  Knowing she could do that to him, that John wanted her so badly he’d take her more aggressively in sleep than ever in waking, put Meghan over the edge right after.  She cried out, the only sound between them too loud for the night.  They fell silent together again, bodies tangled and eyelashes fluttering, quickly back to sleep.