Phew, I'm here again! I'm sorry it took a while. Let's just say I had slight artistic differences with myself.

Anyway, here's the final chapter. It's this long, because it kind of includes a built-in epilogue, too.


20. Tears / Words

A morning in May. The world so young the way it always seems, sunshine after weeks of rain, things glimmering, the air well-nigh tangibly clean. Birds chirping brightly and a silly little dog running around a fairy garden. She's playing tennis by herself, trotting this way and that with the ball between her teeth, pretending she's being wildly chased. She can go on for a long time and then just quit, lie in the fresh damp grass and pant and laugh at the whole world. Dogs really know many things we haven't got a hunch about.

One idiot in mud-stained jeans sitting on the front porch steps of a fairy house holding a piece of paper and staring at it as if he saw his own puny reflection in it. Maybe he does.


Dolph,

Thank you for a fantastic show. You're even more brilliant than I thought you would be. I know it may not look like it, but I'm really glad to see you again. I'm sorry about the other night here and the other other night at the bar (you may not remember it that well, but I was a real bitch then, I think I insulted your boyfriend, too, but I didn't mean to, because he seems like a nice guy). I'm sorry about everything. You know. And I don't want to intrude on your life or confuse you or anything, but maybe we could try being friends again one day? If you don't want that, I understand, but if you do – please be patient with me. It isn't easy for me to ask for that, but nothing seems to be as easy as it used to be, anyway. I'm afraid I'm a little lost with my life.

I've missed you.

~ Tristan


All of a sudden I'm a hundred years old. Worn and sore. Demented, too.

I think about that moment in my dressing-room six months ago. Sitting there and holding the envelope, engulfed by horror.

What did I imagine I'd find in it? What was I so fucking afraid of?

How could I even feel horror? A night like that, with all the fresh hope and shine and dreams coming true, roses in my arms, the afterglow of that perfect peace and happiness I felt on stage?

And like in that nightmare where I stop crying and call him and tell him to please come back and take me home – his home – and save us both from pain and misery, I now see myself opening the envelope and reading the quickly scrawled words and smiling at them and living on under the influence of their sweetness and sincerity instead of fear – all these months, knowing – how easy everything would have been –

I can't even feel bitter for what I did in real life. I'm finally so far gone I must have made a full circle around myself and nothing can surprise me anymore. I'm just numb.

So that's how it goes.

Five years ago, nightmares happened and it was all my fault.

Now,

In November, Tristan wants to be my friend again and asks for my patience, only that, and I ignore it, don't even want to know what he has to say –

In December, he's kind to me when I'm sick and even tries to talk to me and I just stare at some fucking biscuit crumbs and say nothing –

In February, I throw a ridiculous crying scene and whine I don't want to be considerate"I hate being nice to you."

In April, I disappear in my vicious emptiness and practically assault him and then walk out without a word.

In May – I do nothing.

Until he calls me one day and asks for my help with something all too sad and all too important.

God alone knows what made him do that. He must have known I'd just bawl like a three-year-old all the time and not find anything helpful to say and be sorrier for myself than him and probably run away when he most needed me. He must have known I'm not the kind of friend he can trust. He must have known it ever since that time a million years ago, when I stopped talking to him because I was so certain Grandma would kill me for being in love with those fucking Hugo Boss pants of his. Why does he keep trying?

Is he just very stupid?

Heaving a pathetic hundred-year-old sigh, feeling faint and feeble, I stand up and call for Lilla. We go back in, and I give her breakfast and fresh water and she eats quickly so that she can start her daily morning fox concert. I make myself a cup of tea to relieve my gradually creeping head-ache and sit down. Think.

And don't think.

And think again.

The noisy weight of guilty memories pressing my mind so hard there's no hope for my head-ache to be relieved any time soon.

I'm afraid I'm a little lost with my life.

A little? It must have got worse since then. How much worse? Could I have changed things if I'd only done what every normal human being would have done and read the fucking letter?

I've been lost, too, worse and worse. What could I have done? How can I help anyone find their way when I'm blindly wandering in the dark myself?

But is there anyone on this planet who knows precisely where they're going, anyway?

What can we do?

What can I do -?

I don't know. I just don't –

I don't know anything, I can't do anything.

Perhaps I should stop trying and accept the fact that I'm not the kind of person who's supposed to do anything. Simply throw my hands up and tell everyone else to do the same. I'm just a useless moron, good for nothing. You shouldn't expect a thing from me, not a thing

"Morning."

Tristan stands in the door-way. He's wearing his own clothes and the immovable brittle shadows are back on his face. Impeccably polite and proper but far away.

My chest tightens. Today's better but in completely a wrong way.

"Morning", I mumble, afraid that every impersonal word we say will get us more lost. "Did you sleep alright?"

"Yes. Thanks for letting me stay the night." He's clearly decided to forget how he stayed the night. I wonder if he thinks he slept on the sofa. "I should probably go."

I wish I could tell him that yesterday's "I'm so sorry I'm like this" doesn't have to be – mustn't be – covered with the perfect smile today. I wish I could remind him of my promise to help, sort it out, make it alright –

But I can't. There's no way how. We're back on our different shores and the distance is longer than ever before. There are sharks in the water. Hungry ones.

I should have guessed it would be like this, but nevertheless the blistering disappointment hits me right between the eyes.

"I was just about to make breakfast", I say flatly. Numb. In a way I wish he'd just go and leave me alone – because I'm numb and also raw and sore and disoriented and sad and my fucking head aches more when I look at him – but I can't stand the thought, either. I want to keep him here until everything's good again – "There's some vile instant coffee, if you like – "

"Thanks, but I really should be going." Tristan walks in the room and picks his things from the table. I don't ask where he "really should be going" before seven o'clock in the morning. None of my business, anyway, isn't that pretty fucking clear to us. He slips Shrimp's collar in his back-pocket as if it didn't mean much and smiles once more. "Sorry about yesterday. And thanks for your help."

All the cracks have closed and it's cold again, even in sunlight.

Especially in sunlight. Even if it twinkles in the tiny stars on his ears and reveals that secret almost red glow in his hair, only ever visible in certain light. Even if the rain should be over. Even if I spent all those nights calling and calling for him and waking up to realize I'd never see him again and yet he's here right now, close enough for me to touch him if I only knew how –

Especially in sunlight.

"It was nothing."

I have no idea what else to say – for some reason it's hard to even move my dry insensible lips enough to speak.

"Well, see you."

"Yeah. See you."

Even as the words come out of my mouth, I can't believe in them. Last night I thought there was hope, some little glints of it, that there had to be, but now I can't find anything. Maybe this is the moment when there's really nothing left. Maybe it's too late. Maybe we simply can't see each other anymore and shouldn't even try.

The memory of the old ripping pain vivid and consuming and everywhere in me, I sit and listen to Tristan walk in the hall, open the front door, close it –

A sudden violent gut-jolting revelation –

Wherever it comes and why now, I will never know, but it jerks me awake and shatters my numbness once and for all –

God, what the fuck am I doing?

I jump up on my feet and run out of the house without even stopping to put any shoes on.

Tristan is just about to turn the key when I yank the car-door open.

He looks confused for two whole seconds before the well-practised cool indifference takes over. "Uh, what?"

"Come back in", I plead with an urgency I've never heard in my own voice before. "I don't want you to be alone."

A polite half smile that makes my throat thicken and eyes singe. "I'm fine."

"That's a lie", I practically snarl, my helpless frustration suddenly beginning to spill over, the anxious agony of so many months, so many heart-aching nights of scratching my arm and wondering what the hell is going on – "You're not fine. Get out of that car and come back in. I'll make you breakfast."

There's a dark flash of that intimidating skilful defiance in Tristan's eyes. His mouth twitches in irritation or embarrassment or both or maybe something else, but then he forces another horrible smile and says: "Dolph, I appreciate your concern, but I'm alright. Just a little – shaken – after yesterday – "

Oh God. Appreciates my concern? The fuck he does.

"That was the single stupidest thing I've ever heard, even if I count everything Grandma's told me", I say, struggling to keep my voice down since it's a quarter to seven and this is a family-friendly neighbourhood. "I don't think it's logically possible that you've been a little shaken after yesterday since November. Or longer."

"I'm fine." Tristan undoes his seat belt with an exasperated gesture and gets out of the car as if to stop me from looking down at him. That icy flare is clearly there, burning frosty holes on my face – Of course. The surest way to piss him off is to call him stupid and repeat something he just said to prove it. "It's been a stressful year and I've had a bit trouble sleeping, but that's all. I simply need a little rest, and I'd rather not burden anyone else – "

The final click in my head –

"Oh, for fuck's sake. You'd rather not burden yourself with anyone else", I fiercely cut in, grasping his arm not very gently, now trembling with this anger frustration sadness insufficiency horror anguish sheer misery (love) –

And the words come, they keep flowing out of my mouth even as my voice breaks and cracks and eyes well up so that I can't even see – I can't stop them, that horrifying but so right something simply drives them out of me, every single word I've been holding back for so long –

"I understand. It's just fucking awful when people want to be there for you, isn't it? When they're worried and feel sorry for you and wish they could do something to help. I know it's fucking humiliating not to be fine. And, since I've been weak my whole life, I can't even imagine how much harder it must be for you, who used to be so brave and strong all the time. But you're not strong now – you know you aren't – and, let me tell you, struggling to be brave is just fucking pathetic – Please stop. Don't you realize I can see right through you? Tristan, I know you. I know that when you're fine, you don't have to go around trying to convince people you are. When you're fine, you're – luminescent. Now you're just dimmer and dimmer every day. I want to know why. I don't want to hear another 'I'm fine' or 'I appreciate your concern but' or 'I'm sorry to bother you with this' or 'Not that it's all that tragic, really' or 'That was nothing' or 'I've had a tough day or week or month or year or life or whatever else" – I want to hear the fucking truth – I want you to burden and bother me with it, and don't think for a second I'm trying to be all friendly and compassionate here. I may be worried out of my wits because of you, but I'm being completely selfish. Completely. I – I miss you so much, I can't even say, I've missed you all this time, I never stopped – I want to know what's happened to you so that I can help you out of it, I promise I will if you just let me – please – I want you to quit fading away because I can't bear to watch it – because I need you – There's no one else for me, Tristan. Just you. Nothing functions without you. Whenever I try to console myself by imagining this happy world where my life's beautiful, you're in it. The best thing I know – You can't disappear, I won't allow it – I'll – I'll do anything – just please let me – "

Words running dry, my hoarse wretched voice fading away and the sunlight and some new stupid uninvited tears filling my eyes – and for a fleeting endless moment there's nothing but a strange, shaking, exhausted relief –

"Dolph -?"

Tristan's voice breaks the spell, but I can only hear that one timid lonely question mark hanging in the air. I don't know what cracks his cold shell, I don't know if it's my words or my tears or my nearly bruising grip of his thin arm or something else entirely – and I can't really notice it happen, but all of a sudden I'm holding him so tightly our wan bones might get entangled and he's desperately clinging to me, and through my thick senseless daze I slowly realize he's crying, collapsed against my shoulder, quietly but inconsolably, as if over many, many different unspeakable sadnesses at the same time.

Too overcome with everything to have a single coherent thought in my head, I merely wonder at the cold damp roughness of the street under my bare feet, instinctively burying my face in Tristan's hair, breathing in the bitter-sweetly familiar scent, closing my eyes, just feeling this, slowly running my fingers up and down his back.

It must be the end of a long-winded and painful battle. For what and who won, I can't say. Neither can he, I think. Maybe there are no triumphs or defeats at all.

But it's over.

Perhaps it's stopped raining. Or perhaps the whole world has stopped, because these early sunlit minutes pass, one after another, and we simply are, leaning on each other because we're both far too tired to stand on our own two feet, and there's nothing but this. Nothing but us. We're the only things that are real, everything else is imaginary.

Two silly homeless souls in an unreal world, so lost but not that far away to be found. Who cares if it's dark and we can't see the way, as long as we can sense each other there? Hold hands through it, one day?

"What is it?" I whisper when a thousand years or maybe just a couple of heart-beats have passed and Tristan's sobs into my rather damp-feeling shirt are becoming less and less frequent and I feel him gradually relaxing against me, calming down, finding the rhythm of my breathing, so warm and close and here.

He lets out a shivering sigh before thickly mumbling: "I'm just so unhappy – and I don't know how to be anything else – I must have forgotten how it's done – how to enjoy my life – and I'm nobody when I don't play the piano and I'm so ashamed of myself because of it and everybody I used to know looks at me as if I was dead and lying in a coffin and sometimes I really feel like that and Granny died three years ago and Shrimp now and I have no one to talk to and – and I miss you, Dolph – I miss you terribly – but that's just stupid, I was happy for twenty-two years without you, and then – two months with you, and the rest of my life becomes fucking worthless – And I know it's ridiculous to lie and pretend and gloss over things. I'm so sick of it, I always listen to myself sound like this fucking stupid wanker and wonder what the hell is wrong with me, but I just can't stop, my head's all fucked up and I can't admit it – Please don't let me go home, I can't stand it there all alone, it's like all those times when I was little and my parents were working late and I had to switch on all the lights and turn on the telly and radio and everything and still there was something awful lurking in the corners. Only now it's not a fucking blood-thirsty clown or whatever, that something awful – it's actually me – "

I have to smile, immensely sad and foolishly giddy at the same time. Bewildered. In some dark sorrowful way, the sobbing Tristan reminds me of the drunk Tristan who insisted on calling his dog the sweetest person in the world and the glowing stage Tristan no spectator could tear their eyes away from and the glorious wide-eyed Tristan I always made love to. That unearthly, open, oddly child-like innocence.

Maybe we belong to each other because neither of us never grew up. Because we're so fucking retarded.

And at last I'm certain – He's real. He has to be. I could never have imagined anything like him in a million years.

"Fuck you, Dolph. You actually made me cry. I never cry – "

"I think it's good for you", I say, gently stroking his hair, the stardust shimmering in my eyes brighter than the sun. "I would know, wouldn't I?"

"Yeah, you would, since it's like a hobby of yours." Tristan chuckles wearily, lifting his head off my shoulder and looking into my eyes – his salt-rinsed but so beautifully blue – smiling slightly through the shadows. "I seem to have blown my nose into your shirt."

A smile that makes me smile back. God, it's really stopped raining. I could dance up and down the street, even if it's scratching the soles of my feet. Perhaps it's stupid and naïve to feel giddy and happy and foolish and grateful when things still are a tangled mess and we both know it's certainly going to take more than a well-slept night and a sunny morning to solve it and you don't simply change from wrecked to happy in a blink of an eye and all the demons are still on the watch, but –

Hey, isn't naïve stupidity really the only way to survive in this world that's fucking ruthless even if it now sort of glimmers?

Besides, what's not to feel giddy and happy and foolish and grateful for? After all those nightmares, I managed to do something right. I didn't let Tristan drive away.

This time, I saved us. I know I did.

We find ourselves sitting on my front steps, shoulder to shoulder, squinting our eyes in the sun and the shockingly blue sky and wondering if all this won't disappear, should we breathe too daringly.

"I must confess I read your letter this morning", I say, bravely defying our wondering breath-hitched silence. "For some mysterious reason I've just been carrying it around in my pocket since November."

Tristan sighs and snorts at the same time. "Makes sense. Just the kind of incomprehensible thing you'd do."

"True. I'm sorry. There's been – a lot going on in my head. I hope reading it means I'm ready to start being more comprehensible or something."

"Well, it was a stupid letter, anyway. I could have just walked in there and said those things to your face, but for some reason it seemed absolutely impossible at the moment. That's the sort of guy I've turned into. A fucking coward. And don't you become too comprehensible", he says, all of a sudden grinning. Only a little, a spark or two, but for real. "I have something to confess, too, and it's much worse and even stupider and embarrassing as hell, but since I already cried all over you, I think I don't have any face to lose. So look – " He puts his hand in the pocket of his trousers, takes out a small object and hands it to me. "I haven't committed a crime like this in twenty years – "

I stare at him in disbelief for a short moment before bursting into rather uncontrollable laughter.

"You stole my imaginary dog – " I barely manage to wheeze between the mad chortles I can't stop even if I really don't know what's so excessively funny about it.

"Don't verbalize that concept – "

"And I specifically wrote my name on him to prevent him from being stolen!"

"Yeah. I noticed", Tristan says wryly, but now helplessly joining my demented cackling. "DOLHP."

For a few glorious minutes, there's not much to do but laugh. At this, everything, nothing, us. The whole fucking world.

"I had major spelling issues when I was little", I say, eventually calming down but still grinning with the wondrousness of my aching sides. I haven't laughed like this in months. Possibly not since that rainy night five years ago. "My first library card belonged to D-O-L-F A-N-D-E-R-S-N – which was my very best attempt at writing my name."

"Well, my library card says Tricks N. F. the Great, and I'm still using it. Good thing they have those self-checkout machines." Tristan rolls his eyes, looking exactly like his old self for a moment. "Uh, would you kindly consider forgetting all about this?"

"No. Why did you try to filch my best childhood friend?"

I already know the answer. The reason why I left the dog on the bedside table in the first place. I could never have dared wish for it to work so well. But of course it did. My sweet Tristan. Despite everything, he still hasn't lost his faith in what other people say isn't real.

"I didn't mean to filch it. I just sort of absent-mindedly put it in my pocket for a second and then forgot. It looks just like Shrimp." He heaves a sad sigh and leans his head against my shoulder. "Poor old Shrimp. You know, I started saying good-byes to him weeks ago, knowing there wasn't much time left, but still I can't – It's silly to be so very woebegone over a dog."

"I think it would be sillier not to be", I say gently. "Dogs make better friends and family members than most humans."

"They do", Tristan admits with a wan little chuckle. "Dad bought Shrimp to me when I was really messed up after he and Mum got divorced. It didn't take long before I realized my mother wasn't half as rewarding company as a puppy – Oh, sorry, I forgot she's your boss – "

"Well, I can't imagine KB as anyone's mother and would be way more fucked up than you if she was mine."

"Too bad, because she totally wants to adopt you", he notes gloomily.

I feel a stressed little knot in my stomach, thinking she might not want that any longer, what with me acting like a rotten carcass in drugs, these days. I quickly shrug it off.

"You can borrow him if you like", I change the subject, giving the dog back to Tristan. "He's fine company. I used to imagine he was a real dog. I put him in a cupboard and – "

"He came to life?"

"Yeah. I could see him wag his tail."

Tristan raises his head, smiling bitter-sweetly to me. "Not everyone has that gift."

"No", I agree quietly, joyful in a worn, weary way. After everything – all I've done – it's still so very simple for him to make me feel – special. Compelling. Worthwhile. Not the freak but the fairy-tale creature.

Suddenly it dawns on me.

I'm going to have to stop hating myself. The only thing standing between us as well as between me and the rest of the world is the repugnant creature I see when I look in the mirror; its reproachful glare following me everywhere, its harsh voice always ringing in my mind louder than any encouraging words, its intense hostility darkening everything I try to do or be. I know it can be exorcised, since I already did, once. It only came back because a lie wasn't enough to keep it away. Maybe the truth is.

Or maybe Tristan is. Who knows how easy it would have been if he'd had more time to save me? But now I won't just sit back and wait for him to do that. I have to fight for myself. And him, too. I have to return the favour I never had the courage or understanding to return.

"Speaking of gifts not everyone has – " I start cautiously. "Why did you give up playing the piano?"

Tristan stares unreadably at the imaginary dog on his palm for an undefinable moment before sighing lightly, looking up at me and saying without any embellishments: "I told you the truth. I lost interest in it. In everything, really. They said I was clinically depressed, but I'm not sure. What does that mean? It's like an illness that can be cured. Well, I saw a therapist, took SSRIs, all that, and, yes, eventually I seemed to get over the worst phase – but I didn't get my life or my self back. I only learned to fake it so that other people wouldn't worry. I've basically been faking it for years."

"When – when was it?"

Am I brave enough to hear the answer?

"After that car-accident. I broke my left wrist in it." Tristan instinctively looks down at his hands, his expression now only bitter. "Lucky me, I could have been killed or crippled or brain-damaged, but no. I only had a few bruises and scratches and strains and that fractured wrist. What a stroke of luck for a pianist. So the next six weeks – post-traumatic stress, going through it over and over again in my head, never sleeping, every anxiety issue I'd ever had coming back, soreness and aching everywhere, one forearm in a cast, an entirely broken heart and absolutely nothing to do over all those hours I'd used to spend playing the piano or being with you. I could see no reason to live, so for a while I probably needed professional help. The antidepressants and therapy fixed what could be fixed, but the rest – Hopeless. To be honest, I didn't have the courage to start playing again. I kept thinking my injury had ruined my career, but that wasn't true. I could have got over it if I had tried. It wasn't impossible, but I told myself it was. I don't know why. Now I'm just wandering. Trying to appear normal. Sometimes I am. I'm normal, but – I'm not me. I would never have given up."

No.

"Oh God. I'm sorry, Triss – " I'm not brave enough, but I have no choice. "That accident – What happened?"

To my surprise, he smiles that kindest smile I know and curls his warm fingers around my lonely hand. "Hey, no matter what my dear friend Peter might have told you, it wasn't your fault in any way. You have to understand him, I was in a terrible state that night and he was afraid I'd – done it on purpose after fighting with you or something crazy like that. But it wasn't my fault any more than yours. That other driver had basically more alcohol than blood in his veins. The fucker just appeared out of nowhere and crashed into me and there was nothing I could do."

"Pete – told you?" I ask feebly, my head swimming in a rush of simultaneous relief and shame.

"Yeah. In last November", Tristan says, his tone laconic but hand gently squeezing mine. "I can't say I wouldn't have preferred to know sooner – or that I've liked him very much since then – but at least things make sense now. Don't worry about it – "

"Of course I do." I slip my hand from his grip, stand up, take a few aimless steps, desperately fold my arms to keep the demonic cold away. One of my most vicious ones, filling me with terror even in broad daylight. Yet I'm fighting it, hoping it will lose the power it holds over me if I force it into words – "You have no idea how horrible I've felt because of it. Having these nightmares – night after night, running to the hospital to tell you how sorry I am and how much you mean to me but always knowing I'm too late. And even if I now told you those things, on my knees and using the prettiest words I could find – I still know it's too late. You shouldn't trust me. Jesus, just think about these past months – The last time we met I was dreadful to you just because I was so frustrated and hurt and angry about my stupid family. And that time in February I was watching you at the restaurant and thinking you looked so pale and sad and feeling so worried and scared, but the next thing I knew, I was wailing to you about everything I thought was wrong with my life and how miserable I was. And when we first ran into each other at the theatre, I noticed full well how unhappy you seemed but simply chose to be so very wounded by your behaviour instead. And now we were supposed to be talking about you and, look at me, I'm clearly whining about myself again – See the pattern? I'm so fucking selfish. I really do care about you, but when it matters, all I can think about is me and my pathetic feelings. Of course, afterwards I realize what I did and feel horrible, but it's simply too late. It's always too late – and maybe I can't change – You know, maybe I'll always disappoint and betray you because I'm so fucking weak."

My demon, staring at me, its merciless eyes tearing me apart.

"Dolph – " Tristan rises, comes closer and wraps his arms around me, the most solacing embrace you can think of, a tender kiss on my forehead, it alone enough to make the demon's daunting gaze falter. "You silly thing. You never give yourself a break, do you? Wouldn't you say you were entitled to be hurt when I consciously hurt you? I did, mind you. And haven't you got the right to feel bad and behave a little irrationally because your family abandoned you the way you would never have abandoned them? Called you a fucking demon to your face? I also remember you looked pretty pale and sad yourself in February. I remember being worried and scared, too, watching you – and so relieved when you told me what was wrong. And that night – Do you seriously think I haven't felt absolutely abysmal for what I did? You were so upset, and I just got mad at you and said awful things and then stormed away and left you all alone crying in the rain when you would have needed me the most. That was what you'd call a selfish thing to do. Selfish and cruel. I don't even know how I could be – I guess I just felt so – Scared. That was my worst fear – you making a choice between your family and me. I always knew I'd lose. But I should have stayed with you nonetheless, because even if you didn't want to be with me, I loved you more than anything else in the world and needed to take care of you. I've never forgiven myself for leaving. I can still see you there. I hate Pete and Hedda and your grandmother and parents and everyone else who's ever been unkind to you – and it kills me time and time again that I have to hate myself for the same reason. I used to imagine I'd save you from everything that made you sad and scared. That I'd love you so well you wouldn't have to cry or wake to your nightmares or think so little of yourself. That I'd make you see what I saw when I looked at you. But I couldn't. I just abandoned you and made it worse. And got what I deserved. What were you supposed to do, if not walk away from me and never come back? You're not selfish, Dolph. You just haven't been loved enough. It's very easy to care about other people when you can always trust they care about you in return. Besides, I'll never forget how kind and sweet you were to me yesterday, when I couldn't even find the words to ask for it."

And even in the middle of the worst sadness I've ever felt – as if something heavy and hard in my chest all of a sudden turned swift and light as a dragonfly and flew away. Something only Tristan can do to me.

The repugnant creature is entirely exorcisable. With Tristan. And the truth. The truth that all these demons and fears and wordless dark things like guilt matter very little now that I realize I'm not alone with them and never was.

"You're wrong", I croak through the worst sadness. Without fear and guilt holding my soul hostage, it's actually fucking wonderful to be very, very sad. And happy. And miserable and overjoyed and fucking stupid and alive. "You're wrong and a bit of an idiot. Please forgive yourself and stop thinking you should be such an invincible superhero archangel perfect Saint Tristan. Be mortal for change and hate me a little. And then forgive me, too. No one could have saved me then. You got as close as was humanly possible, you made me happier than I'd ever been, but I still couldn't trust you'd really want to stay with me. I didn't think I could ever ask for that. It wasn't a choice between you and my family. It was a choice between me and my twisted self, and that demon won and would have gone on winning no matter what you did. Perhaps the only thing you could do was to leave me alone with my struggles. I'm so sorry it had to hurt you like that. I'm sorry for everything. But I told you already – yesterday, I wasn't being kind and sweet to you – just completely selfish – I need you, because now I think you could save me – and perhaps I could save you – I want to, because my world is such a fucking dreary place without you – Please come back and stay – "

"I'm here –" Tristan whispers – and whatever fear still remains in me, it disappears into those words – and, sobbing and perhaps sort of laughing too, somehow – I'm not sure, my tears might be from either or maybe they came on their own, who knows, I don't care – I shift in his arms and pull him closer to me, forgetting everything we may or may not have done, blindly searching for his mouth –

finding it in a way I've never found anything before –

It's gone. The demon. I kiss him. My Tristan, truly mine.

My hands in his hair, his hands rising to caress my face, our mouths lost and longing and desperate and tender and lunatic and clairvoyant, tasting of salt-water – the ocean after the storm – saying more than all the words in our vocabulary can express. No travelling but staying when the world and its ghosts gradually dwindle away and disappear.

Relief. Salvation. Glimmers of trust despite all the reasons there should be none. Hope.

Belonging.

And when it ends, we're still here, warm and silent in the glowing sunlight and – terrified –

It wasn't about any worldly want or need. The kiss. Maybe it wasn't even about what you'd call love. It was something else –

Something to do with souls. Finding and losing and searching and longing and fighting and dying and living.

"Well, I think you're pretty sweet, anyway", Tristan mumbles – because it's something too immense to dwell on for very long. Hearts might stop. "You can't change my mind about that."

I snort wearily, resting my forehead against his. "Fine, be a delusional moron."

"Gladly. What happens now?"

"Breakfast, at last? I'm hungry."

"Honestly, I'm not, but – "

"I'm sure we'll find a way to fix all that. Don't worry about anything."

"I won't if you won't."

We know it won't be easy. We know it will take more than one morning of redemption, when the sun warms your face and something else warms your soul and you're still seen and understood and accepted. More than crying and talking and talking and crying and laughing and kissing.

It will also take more than planting a little rose bush on a great dog's grave and being forced to listen to a stolen CD full of yourself playing nocturnes by Chopin, and buying the latest album of your old favourite band you'd forgotten everything about and suddenly finding one perfect song and slowly dancing to it in a silly little living-room with your silly little boyfriend when the warm summer night is darkening in the fairy garden. More than laughing a little more every day.

More than staring at yourself in the mirror and insistently smiling at that stranger every morning and trying to get to know him again and telling yourself you're fucking brilliant every time you go on stage and then trying to forget all about it and just quietly listen to yourself, understand and accept over and over again, and enjoy – More than being praised by a critic from the local paper of Even-God-Doesn't-Care-Where after a show where you yelled every word like a madman only trying to out-yell a thunder-storm. Young Dolph Anderson gives a warm, intelligent and charming performance –

More than buying a house no one in their right mind would ever invest in and finding yourself up to your ears in debt but laughing at everything – because laughable things are the best of things and probably spending the rest of your life repaying the mortgage of a rotten old dump is just hilarious – and deciding to renovate the bathroom and change the kitchen cupboards while you're at it and suddenly just saying: "Hey, Triss – move in with me for real."

("Is that because you want to see me here every day or because I have plenty of money?"

"Your money, of course. I've decided to go from a real estate owner to a kept man."

"How scandalous."

"Well, actually I want to see you here every day. I can pay for myself. However, if you want to own parts of this house – like that creaky step or the blood-looking stain on the bedroom wall or a couple of mice in the cellar – feel free to purchase them."

"I don't think that's how real couples deal with cohabitation. But sounds great. I'm in. I want that creaky step, and once it's mine, you'll have to pay rent for stepping on it.")

More than a professional actor reading you a dozen bed-time stories when you can't sleep. ("Ha ha, I don't think we're nearly depressed enough for The Happy Prince just yet.") More than waking up in the middle of a nightmare to the feel of warm arms around you and a whisper to your ear: "Shh, I'm right here, Dolph."

More than giving yourself time to rest and heal and find out what you want – discovering for the first time in your life that wanting things isn't easy – and secretly going to your father's place to play the piano when he isn't home and no one can hear you and then realizing you want people to hear you again and finding yourself in more and more certainly ringing notes and remembering all the places you could play to yourself and suddenly noticing one day that you've begun to sing again, everywhere and without thinking. More than beginning to wonder what way to choose and understanding that wandering around isn't that bad, either. More than "Killer Queen" and Chopin.

More than emptying that stupid old box under the stairs and laughing and crying and talking about everything you should have forgotten but are fucking glad you didn't, because it's entirely dreadful but sort of amazing as well – remembering stupid door-slamming ghosts ("You never had any idea how close to completely freaking out I was. I seriously thought I'd summoned it with my stupid jokes!") and black sparkles and so fucking much fun in hell and how incredibly drunk you were and what smelled expensive and diamond parrots and the song about becoming a prostitute and fucking everybody ("You little idiot, if you had bothered to actually listen to it, you'd have realized it was one of the soppiest love songs ever written.") and blitzkrieging and all Dolph Anderson crying scenes and windy walks by the lake and poor little Shrimp who wouldn't roll over and that fucking prick Saint Paul and inane childish nonsense and utterly delicious corruption ("It's pretty obvious why I fell for you so madly. No one had ever called me a fucking moron in bed before.") and happiness and fear and how you can be haunted by the same demons without ever knowing and fatal errors and things that wouldn't go right but perhaps weren't meant to go, because now you're slowly surviving them and making it to the shore and leaning on each other and looking at the bright blue glimmering waves after the black storm and trying to understand and feeling stronger in a new way you could never have learned without being miserably weak first.

More than calling your sister and saying: "I forgive you."

("You forgive me? Excuse me, Rudolph, I was angry with you!"

"Well, be angry with me about your stupid wedding. I don't really care. But I forgive you anyway.")

More than fresh air and good food and nice old and new friends and great music and ducks in the park. More than finding more and more ways to be wholesome and nice to yourself, going swimming every week and seeing an acupuncturist and trying herbal medicine for change and sleeping a lot and reading all your old favourite books again and being terribly lazy all day as often as you can and coming up with a million new stupid inside jokes. More than always saying "I love you" at the most improbable moment.

More than quietly sobbed and tearfully accepted apologies after countless frustrated moments and absolutely wrong words and stupid quarrels and cold eyes and banged doors and disappointments and insufficiency and selfishness and distrust. More than accepting rainy days and emptiness and not knowing what to do. More than forgiving for the same old things time after time. More than apprehending you never need to say "I'm so sorry I'm like this" or "It's too late".

More than sudden sweet smiles and breathtaking flashes of long since forgotten wonderment and almost secretly entwining your fingers in the dark after the lights are turned off, not daring to speak or even breathe because falling in that first and only love again is just fucking frightening. More than holding each other in silence and sometimes learning to breathe more bravely. More than searching salvaging kisses and gentle caresses and giddy chortling and knowing there's time and things will happen the way they want to and that's wonderful.

More than red roses on your opening night – alive and free on stage – and drinking champagne with your date and being really great and really shining and having dinner at a nice Italian place and exchanging demonic grins over the table and calling each other sweet prince until you're choking on silly laughter and going warm with flickers and kissing under a lamp-post and in the taxi and at the gate and on the steps and in the doorway and in the hall and upstairs and in the bedroom and on the bed and in it. More than tears on your faces when you don't know whose they are. More than rediscovering each other's sounds and melodies and brilliant tastes and perfect scars and just precisely right touches and heartbeats and warmth and trust and and being there in every imaginable way. More than adoring and cherishing and treasuring and – because you are both so lost and broken and nothing is still quite certain – saying things like I love you I want you I need you I have waited for so so so long again and again and again. More than looking into each other's eyes and seeing. More than gasping with the gloriousness of it all.

More than finding your way –

But it doesn't take much more, really. Once you realize happiness is often simple and perfect but rarely flawless, you don't need to wait for That One Day when all things are solved and it finally begins.

Suddenly it's a cold Saturday afternoon in December and a few snowflakes are pirouetting in the air and we're wandering lazily around the Christmas-lit city with Lilla who absolutely hates her new winter jacket but has to wear it because she's just been stripped.

"Come on, at least you're pretty and not a weird lump of fur", Tristan tells her. "Be a brave girl now. That's a nice coat. If one of us should lie down on the pavement and whine and scratch, it's Dolph – and look at him walking like there's nothing to it!"

"Ha ha. For the record, my coat is nice."

(A rather unexpected practical aspect of living with Saint Tricks – First his clothes didn't like my cupboard and we had to drive to IKEA to buy a fancy wardrobe with sliding glass doors and everything so that all the stupid trousers and scary shirts and immaculate jackets and ridiculous hats would feel comfortable. Then there was a picture of a homeless severely unhinged tramp attached to my interview in the Culture and Entertainment section, after which my favourite jumper mysteriously disappeared and was never located again. The culprit couldn't be identified, but my main suspect bought me a positively brilliant cashmere jumper for my birthday. An admirable tactic, I must admit, but I don't think he realized I would of course wear such a warm lovely easily pulled on pleasant thing every day.)

Tristan rolls his eyes. "Except that it's mine and was nice when I was seventeen and didn't realize I looked like Paddington Bear in it. Not that that look doesn't suit you, Liebling. Hey, now that we're still close to a grocery store – What are we going to eat tonight?"

"Well, as you may remember, it's my first free Saturday night in a million years, so – "

"I'll make pizza."

"Good boy."

"You two can wait here while I quickly pick up cheese and other stuff. Wine?"

"Obviously. I won't get my head chopped off today. That's worthy of a little celebration."

"No, what's worthy of a little celebration is the fact that you won't be snogging that what's-his-face today."

"What? It's more like I'll be drowning my sorrows because I miss Ben so – "

"Alright, children. Just be good and stay right here and don't talk to strangers. If a psychopath tries to kidnap you, scream. I'll be back soon."

Tristan goes in, and I stay waiting with Lilla, probably grinning a little foolishly to myself, all warm and tingly with him laughing at me. I don't think I'll ever again take that for granted. Or being called Liebling even if that isn't exactly my thing. (Although secretly I like it.)

Lilla gives up lying on the pavement and whining and scratching, grows bored and begins to yap at a grim-looking old gentleman who doesn't look very pleased. I pick her up and show her the window of the near-by toy shop, where tiny little Christmas elves are driving tiny little trains. Okay, the grim-looking old gentleman and some other passers-by give me a quite interesting stares, but I know my silly dog. She's never seen anything more utterly fascinating than this.

Well, neither have I, to be honest. It looks really, really nice. Lilla and I would definitely like to go for a walk in there. We'd take Tristan, too, even though he thinks Christmas creatures are creepy. Except for reindeer with glowing noses, I hear.

I hear about it every day...

But this isn't creepy one bit, it's all so nice and friendly and gently colourful and magical. The elves are smiling and waving their hands and their reindeer are smiling and nodding their antlered heads and the snow sparkles on the rooftops of the cosy little houses and the trains are bright red and –

"Dolph?"

I jump a little and turn around. Two of the most improbable people in the world. My parents.

I haven't seen them since April. Seen or called or heard of in any way. But they seem the same. Somehow older than I remembered, perhaps.

"Oh, hi Mum. Dad." I set Lilla down and let Mum kiss me, trying to get over the hilariousness of the fact that they, of course, found me admiring tiny little Christmas elves. Despite their best efforts, poor Rudolph still hasn't grown up. "What brings you here?"

"Fred Holden's funeral was today", Mum says. Her friend Elaine's husband who had cancer, you see. "We're staying at this lovely little hotel close-by. Now we're shopping and having dinner somewhere nice. We're leaving home tomorrow."

"Oh, I'm sorry about Fred", I say, even if she made it sound like the best trip ever.

Lilla politely wags her tail at Dad, who'd look more pleased if he'd come face to face with a mass-murdering terrorist dressed up as Paddington Bear and said mass-murderer's gigantic pet tarantula on a leash wearing a winter jacket.

"Thank you, darling." I notice Mum looking at me in a slightly odd way. Could it be it? Does she finally see me shining? "How are you? It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess so. I'm fine. Great, actually."

"How's your work?"

"Just brilliant."

"Oh, Elaine mentioned there was a nice article about you in the paper. She thought you seemed like such a bright young man."

"Really? Well, thank Elaine for me. Uh, how are things in Clayhill?"

"Fine, darling. We're alright, and Grandma's been having a little trouble with her hip again, but she's alright, too."

"That's good." An immobile Grandma is always good.

"So, are you coming home for Christmas?" Mum asks hopefully. So that it would be a cosy little Christmas card with all the Andersons gathered together around the tree again, having a nice time and being all idyllic, bells and candles and angels, peace on Earth and good will to men –

Sometimes this woman's hopefulness comes dangerously close to schizophrenia.

"Well, uh – " I begin, sort of hopefully, too. Hoping that a good excuse not to go would just jump out of my mouth once I open it. Then I realize I don't really need any excuses. "No. I'm sorry, Mum, but I'm not coming to Clayhill. I'm not planning to celebrate Christmas at all this year, and I'm going to spend my holiday in my own home with people who actually like my company, eating what I want, doing what I want, not fighting with anybody and not listening to Grandma insult me by raving about some deranged morons who think they've seen the light."

I might just be imagining it, but I think Dad looks at me now. Actually looks at me. Probably for the first time in twenty-six years.

Mum looks like I just single-handedly cancelled the whole holiday. "But darling – "

"Maybe next year. We'll see."

"Well, if you change your mind – "

"I'll call you."

"Fine. Well. We'd better then. See you, Dolph."

"See you, Mum. Dad."

I watch them walk away, older than I remembered. I should feel something, but I really don't.

"Hey. I told you not to talk to strangers."

Tristan seems to magically appear with his shopping bags, looking as if he just stepped out of that lovely toy shop window, bright sparkling eyes and sweet smile and warm red woollen scarf, Lilla jumping up and down at the sight of him. I can tell he saw us but didn't come closer.

I realize there's only one thing to be done –

"Mum! Dad! Come back for a second!"

Another one of our demons. A nasty individual, two-headed – one for me and one for Tristan – but can only be defeated and banished by me. Almost six years ago it nearly ate us.

"Yes, darling?"

"I'd like you to meet my boyfriend Tristan." I slip my gloved hand in his, without fear, smiling. "We've actually been living together since September."

They're unbelievable dimwits, my parents, but they must see it. They must see I've found someone. Someone brilliant and friendly and beautiful and intelligent and charming and absolutely perfect for me. They can't help but see and stop hoping for me to be saved, because I already am and it has nothing to do with them or the world they live in.

Of course, like all the things you're irrationally terrified of, after a few dreadfully awkward minutes it's done and doesn't really look like much, and Mum and Dad are going back where they belong, and we're standing on the street, more than a little bewildered.

"Oh fuck." Tristan begins to laugh. "I was biting my tongue so that I wouldn't say: 'I can see where Dolph gets his good looks from.' That would have been a bit too cruel."

"I told you I'm a fairy changeling."

"I officially believe it now."

"I think they do, too."

A demon gone, you can easily fill the void it left with jokes and laughing and think it wasn't such a horrible demon, after all. But you know the truth.

And we go home, listening to silly music in the car, singing along, the winter's evening softly darkening the sky and the world seeming a very forgiving place right now. I close the gate behind us and look around, all of a sudden slightly choked-up with all this, because it's a completely ordinary moment – Lilla scratching the door and barking at Tristan who can't find his keys quickly enough, our Pagan Mid-Winter Feast lights twinkling in the cold garden, the light snow-fall gentle on my face – and the following moments will be completely ordinary as well, making dinner, eating and watching a movie, cleaning the kitchen, having another glass of wine, going to bed – and it occurs to me I can no longer see a difference between happiness and my real life. No parallel universe, mad or sane, no nightmares about waking up, no need to escape from anything, no loneliness or fear –

This is enough.


I guess I'm now soppily thanking all of you who have managed to bear with me this far. I really am. Thank you.

I'll be back soon, I hope.