Marcus thought that I didn't know how careful he was being with me. He was wrong. I let him think that he was being sneaky because honestly… well, it felt good to be taken care of by him. When he was careful with me, it wasn't because he thought that I was too fragile to handle real life. I knew that he just wanted to protect me from everything because he cared. He would have done this whether or not my life had been in a sharp, downward spiral. That made it sweet, rather than annoying and unbearable.

I started to fix my life, piece by piece. I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was thinking something techy, like software design. I signed up for my first semester of non-general education classes and spent my spare time working on learning programming languages with Carson, who was already fluent in a couple- R and Java, with a little C. I had spent a lot of my senior year of high school learning C++, so I was at least able to return the favor a little.

One day, I drove Carson to my place after work. He and I were both all kinds of gross because, come on, restaurant work is disgusting. I hooked him up to our wifi and took a quick shower, then unearthed my ex-boyfriend box from my closet. It had various clothing articles in it that had been left in my room and never returned. Probably Carson could find something to wear in here. I put the box in the bathroom with a fresh towel on top and went out to the living room. "You 're welcome to take a shower. You can use my soap and shampoo- they're the pink rose-scented ones- and there are clothes in the bathroom with a towel. I don't need the clothes back." Probably it seems a little strange for me to offer this, but… well, have you ever worked in restaurants? They put this bone-deep need to cleanse in you, and you're slimy until you obey. It's awful.

Carson did look a little uncomfortable, but he nodded and headed to the bathroom. He had been over enough times that this could have been a lot weirder than it was… and besides, it wasn't like I was going to jump in there with him. It was just a shower. Meanwhile, I booted up my laptop and pulled up java. Carson had been showing me how to make games. I was working on a very simple one at the time, where you shoot a ball across the screen and get points for every time it bounces off of something before it made it to the goal. My point counter was broken and I was determined to figure out the solution without getting help.

It didn't work out. Dvorak, the kitten, started attacking a blanket that was hanging off of our couch, getting all tangled up. It was absolutely, utterly adorable. I lay down on the floor and waggled my fingers through the blanket. Dvorak tackled them and got his claws stuck. So cute.

A knock sounded at the door a few minutes later. I was still playing the blanket game and didn't feel like getting up. "It's open!" I shouted.

The door opened and shut. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that it was Marcus. I beamed and launched myself at him. "Hi!" I said.

Marcus hugged me tightly against him. "Hi there. What were you doing on the floor?" Dvorak was obscured by the blanket. Then it started wriggling and Marcus said, "Oh, of course. The kitten."

I nodded enthusiastically. "You should keep playing with him so I can get back to work."

Another glance at Dvorak showed him dangling upside-down on the blanket by his claws. Marcus raised his brows. "I don't think he needs anything but the blanket for help. Besides, I was thinking that maybe we could go grab a bite to eat. Maybe Mexican?"

I grimaced and heard the sound of the shower shutting off. This was about to get awkward, fast. "I actually have company right now. I can't leave."

Marcus' expression froze. "Oh." He took an automatic step backwards, toward the door. "I should have checked with you before coming over."

Oh, him getting all weird and awkward on me was the last thing that I needed. Besides, I loved the spontaneous drop-bys and didn't want them to stop. "No, it's fine, really. I'm glad you're here."

Marcus didn't look like he believed me. I was about to say more, but the bathroom door opened and Carson emerged. His hair was still dripping water a little and he was still in the process of pulling his shirt down- a shirt that was slightly tighter than what he usually wore. This didn't look good. I glanced anxiously at Marcus and saw that his whole expression had turned glacial. "Marcus, this is my friend Carson. Carson, Marcus." I had hoped that making the introduction would help, somehow, but of course it didn't.

Carson walked over to us and shoved his hands in his back pockets. "Hi." He was looking Marcus over curiously. I had long since told Carson all about what Marcus and I used to be. It was natural for him to be curious.

Marcus didn't know that, though. He drew himself up to his full, towering height and set his jaw. He almost looked… angry.

I didn't think I'd ever seen anger on him before. He wore it well. He looked strong, confident… masculine.

I needed to defuse Marcus quickly. I stood on my tiptoes and gave him a lingering kiss. When I pulled away, I stayed wrapped around him and said, "Can we do a late dinner? I'm going to be starving later. Carson's here to help me with programming, but I think we'll be done in a couple of hours. I'll call you? And can we do Italian? Lorenzo's?" Lorenzo's was a nice place. A no-jeans kind of place. It was where we had gone for our first date.

Marcus was still bristling, but far be it from him to deny me anything. "Of course. I'll see you later." He pecked my cheek and left.

I leaned back against the door and sighed. "That was unpleasant," I said. "Sorry about that, Carson."

Carson grinned. "Don't apologize. That was funny. He was really jealous. You go, Flo."

I rolled my eyes. Stupid men. "Thanks," I said flatly. "Now, could you help me? My game is broken."

Carson pulled on one of my curls. He was always doing that- he liked the way that they sprang back up. I tolerated it, since complaining would only make him do it more. "You've got it."

Normally, Carson and I would have played some game together or watched something or gone for a walk before I drove him back to his car. Today, of course, that wasn't going to happen. I couldn't keep Marcus waiting. Probably he was driving himself crazy. I hoped he wasn't too worked up… though it was nice to finally be the one walking on eggshells, rather than causing others to walk on them.

Marcus had me drive to his apartment, and from there he would drive us to the restaurant. I hadn't been to his apartment yet- he had only just moved in- but I was familiar with the complex, so getting there wasn't an issue. I had barely put my car in park when Marcus came bounding out of his building. He must have been waiting by the window. I still beat him to his car, which was unlocked. It gave me a chance to carefully arrange my rose-print skirt so that it lay nicely. I crossed my ankles in front of me and did my best not to look as nervous as I felt.

Marcus threw himself down into his seat, buckled himself in, and pulled out of the lot without looking at me. He was still riled up, I thought. This would make for an interesting dinner. I examined him while he drove. His dark hair was getting a little shaggy- he could even tuck some of it behind his ears. His brow was furrowed. He smelled just like always- earthy, almost like a forest might. He had on a dress shirt that I had bought him, one that was black with pinstripes the color of his eyes.

"Hi," I said quietly after my assessment was complete.

Marcus let out a breathy laugh. "Hi, Florence. You look beautiful."

I wasn't sure how he knew that, since I still hadn't seen him actually look at me, but I knew better than to point that out. "Thanks. You look… nice." Wonderful, really, but who says that to her ex? I was bad at silence. "So work was good today. We started a new special and people are really buying into it. Tips are up."

Marcus glanced at me, a small victory. "That's good."

"Yeah, it is. And I've been looking into finally getting out of community college after this year, so that will be good. I mean, it's good to save money up and all, but… well, I'm just not challenged like I want to be. Er… what are you going to be doing next year?"

Marcus shrugged. "I'm not so good at planning, Flo. I'm not even in classes right now." Marcus already had a well-paying job. He was a mechanic at his uncle's car shop. It was a job without any real upward potential, but at least he was stable while he figured things out.

"Oh." A heavy silence fell. Thankfully, the drive was a short one. We arrived minutes later. Marcus offered me his arm as we crossed the parking lot. I took it, using it as an excuse to walk a little closer to him than I usually would.

We were seated almost immediately, in a booth per Marcus' request. I was glad for it. This way I could see him properly, could be close enough to him. "Talk to me," I said.

Marcus frowned. "I'm sorry, Flo."

"Is this about Carson?" I asked. His answer was interrupted by the waitress coming to take our drink orders. Marcus got water for himself and asked the waitress to bring me Italian soda without consulting me first. He didn't have to- it was my very favorite drink.

When the waitress walked away, I looked expectantly at Marcus. "Are we going to do this now?" he asked. I nodded, keeping my eyes fixed on his. "Fine. Yes, it's about Carson."

"Because he was at my house with me. And because he was wet and attractive. Yes?"

Marcus scowled. "I didn't find him that attractive," he said seriously. "Definitely not my type."

"Not my type either," I said. It was hard to hold back a smile. "But Marcus, you don't get to be upset even if he is. You don't get to be mad at me even if I'm doing nasty, naughty things to him. You and I aren't together."

"Don't be ridiculous, Flo. Please take this seriously."

"I am."

"You know- you must know that I… I've been waiting to have you back ever since the day I left. And I'm okay with waiting longer, if that's what you need… but not if you're using that time to be with other people."

"Is that an ultimatum?" I asked.

Marcus shrugged. "Ultimatums are stupid. That's just the truth."

I noticed Marcus' posture for the first time. He was hunched in on himself, eyes downcast. This kind of upset was uncharacteristic. Marcus was too mellow for this kind of thing. I was being mean to him. Guilt settled over me, pressing down on my chest and choking up my throat. I reached for his hand, but he moved it away. "Marcus, I don't want anyone but you. Surely you know that." I went for his hand again, and this time he let me take it. With my other hand I lightly ran my fingers through his overgrown hair; it kind of suited him, I thought.

"What was he doing there?" Marcus asked.

I smiled at him. "That's a bold question, Marcus. He's been helping me learn programming. I want to go into computer science. Some kind of design, I'm thinking. But I needed to have something to enhance my applications to those programs. I'm hoping for scholarships. They'll be much easier to get if I have some games built and some codes written that I can submit."

Marcus' brows raised. "Really? That sounds great. And you know, there are a lot of men in that field. You're going to drive them nuts."

I grinned. "Sure am."

Our drinks arrived and once again, Marcus ordered for the two of us. Always, when we came here, we split ravioli and chicken marsala. It was good to fall back into our old habits. Comfortable, like putting on an old favorite pair of jeans.

"I'm sorry," Marcus said quietly. He scooted closer to me and kissed my forehead.

"Don't worry about it," I said quietly, squeezing his hand. "It was a strangely nice change, you being the irrational one for once."