Warnings: Sex; language. If you object to the idea of Jack and Renee having sex, you’ll want to run away now. Far, far away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Summary: “He looked at her, pale and exhausted, and thought about trust and risks and how many times a person could break before the damage was irrevocable.”
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters. Please don’t sue me for making them do things I’ll never be lucky enough to see them do on TV;)
A/N: For this fic, I could create a preamble longer than the fic itself, but I won’t. Just try to remember that I’m a newbie and my Jack is a work in progress. Thanks to Adrienne, J, Erin, Katie, and Jess for all the wise words and for listening to my daily (hourly? nanosecondly?) spazz attacks. And to everyone on my flist who has been super encouraging, thank you, too.
The story takes place an unspecified amount of time after Season 7, and is not in any way based on spoilers.
The first time they had sex, it took five minutes. Start to finish.
When he reflected on it later, alone in his apartment, sipping a freezing beer that oozed condensation onto his palm, Jack didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or impressed. Embarrassment won by a landslide once he’d replayed the experience until the mental images began to blur.
One part remained vivid no matter how many times he hit rewind.
The way her voice, achy and surprised, breathed his name when her body arched unexpectedly into his. His own amazement when her movement and the vibration of her voice hit him in exactly the right place and he had no alternative but to let go, eyes closed. Falling.
The beer was lukewarm by the time Jack took another sip. He’d done a lot of things in his life, but he’d never realized that one experience could hold so many labels simultaneously.
Uncontrollable yet gentle.
Awkward but erotic.
Terrifying and lovely.
The second time they had sex, they were trying to watch a movie. Renee recalled vaguely that the plot related to government corruption and something about oil profits.
They didn’t even take off all their clothes. Only the necessary ones.
Jack’s hands, hot and rough on the oversensitive skin of her stomach. The sound of her zipper coming apart. Her earlobe in his mouth as his jeans hit the floor.
She thought it was probably best he didn’t say much, because his voice alone would make her come right there.
His palms stroked her back as she shook in his lap, wondering how it was possible to feel as if he were everywhere at once, in her and on her and over her and under her.
She pressed her face into his shoulder when she came, muffling the involuntary noise she felt rising from her chest.
His voice was a whisper against her throat, before she could breathe enough to speak. Don’t do that next time. I want to hear you.
Her body was still contracting, but she wanted him again.
The third time they had sex, afterwards, when they were still sweaty and partially entangled in his bed, she asked about his scars. How he’d managed not to lose his mind.
Jack felt his core body temperature plummet, though the back of his neck was prickly and uncomfortably hot. He said something vague, dismissive, inane.
Renee’s face froze within seconds. He’d seen her look at dozens of other people that way.
Never at him.
The conflicting responses engaged in open warfare inside his brain made him nauseous, but his vocal cords were apparently on coffee break.
Renee got out of bed without looking at him, quickly and quietly searched the floor for each of her discarded pieces of clothing, and went into the bathroom.
She was dressed and gone inside two minutes. The sound of the front door closing echoed repeatedly in Jack’s mind.
She hadn’t slammed it. She’d closed it so softly that he wouldn’t even have heard it if he hadn’t been holding his breath, waiting for the click.
The fourth time they had sex they were drunk. Larry had gotten a promotion, and the department threw a huge dinner at the Westin. Her desire not to go alone was strong enough that she’d sucked it up and asked Jack to go with her.
She had to admit he looked great in a tux.
They’d taken a cab back to Renee’s apartment after way too many cocktails, consumed mostly out of boredom and the desire to avoid the inherent discomfort of attending Larry’s promotion dinner together. Renee remembered laughing so hard that she couldn’t unlock the door, though she had no idea what had been so funny. Jack had taken the keys and conquered the deadbolt, then tripped over a chair when he followed her into the kitchen to make coffee.
She remembered him laughing then, the way the sound of it engulfed her like one of those color washes that splash across the screen in artsy films. He had come up behind her when she was fumbling for the coffee filters, his hands on her shoulders, stroking down her bare arms to her wrists. He lifted her hair, kissing the back of her neck, her shoulders, down her spine toward the zipper of her dress.
He was still laughing when he put his mouth against her ear and asked, his words hazy with alcohol and desire, “How do you unzip this fucking thing?”
The fifth time they had sex they were supposed to be working. Larry had reluctantly agreed to bring Jack in as a consultant on a domestic terrorism case, only because they were understaffed and he already had the required security clearance.
Jack remembered the endless pots of coffee, watching the clock creep past three a.m., papers all over Renee’s couch and coffee table. Renee had snapped at him for something idiotic and immediately apologized, rubbing her hands over her eyes and her face to wake herself up.
She’d gone to the kitchen for a glass of water and then disappeared into her bedroom for a few minutes. When she walked back into the living room, her hair was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail. She was wearing yoga pants and one of those workout tank tops. He couldn’t see a bra strap beneath it.
His throat went dry.
Goddammit. He’d been focusing fine as long as she was wearing the suit.
Five minutes later they were on the floor completely naked, at his insistence this time. He couldn’t leave the tank top alone.
He was inside her, and he didn’t realize until much later exactly how fully everything else . . . vanished.
Fingers interlaced with hers, he held her arms over her head, his mouth wandering over her collarbone, her jaw line, her ear, sometimes barely touching her, occasionally pausing to draw a tiny pattern with his tongue or place a kiss on the curve of her breast.
She was restless as hell underneath him, but it only made him smile, because he knew she could free herself in a heartbeat if she wanted to. So he kept it up until she made this intoxicating hum in the back of her throat and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He closed his fingers more firmly over hers and relaxed the pressure on her thighs so she was free to move.
She did, immediately. He gave her the reins now, his hips moving with hers until all he could sense was the smell of her skin and the ache that tightened inside of him every time she lifted her body beneath his.
Is the rug hurting you?
God, no. Don’t-. She swallowed, looking at him as if focusing were hard.
I’m not gonna stop.
Jack sat in standard-issue five thirty p.m. Beltway traffic, his left elbow jutting out the open window. The late September sun warmed the car enough that he was slightly sweaty, but he liked the open window, the smell of asphalt and exhaust. The air conditioner inevitably made him too cold anyway. NPR droned in the background, the news roundup he’d already heard once this afternoon.
The creeping pace of rush hour removed the usual necessity for total focus on driving, and Jack found himself wishing that things would speed up so that he’d be forced to pay more attention. Instead, his mind wandered, thoughts inevitably sinking into the same worn grooves he’d been unsuccessfully trying to avoid for days.
Lately he’d been thinking about a lot of things against his will, and it was beginning to piss him off more by the minute.
His cell rang in the console beside him, and he flipped it open without even checking the caller ID.
“Jack, it’s me.”
His stomach did a bizarre backflip he chose to ignore. “Hi.” He braked to avoid driving into the shiny blue Mercedes in front of him. “I’m on my way to your place right now. I might be a few minutes late though. Traffic’s even more of a bitch than usual.”
Renee was silent for a split second too long. He glanced in the rearview mirror and switched lanes. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just-“ He could hear her breathing. Too rapidly. “Can we skip tonight? Work was hell. I haven’t even left yet.” Jack smacked the radio button to silence NPR while he waited for her to continue. “I think I’m gonna go home, toast a frozen waffle, and go to bed.” Her voice was higher than normal. Strained.
“You okay?” The fingers of his free hand gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles whitened.
“I’m fine. Just really tired. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She disconnected before he had a chance to respond.
He threw the phone back into the console and jammed his finger against one of the buttons to his left, watching peripherally as the window slid up and slowed before coming to a stop. He turned on the air conditioning and loosened his tie.
He hadn’t seen her for two weeks.
She’d been working eighteen hour days while he’d been babysitting a bunch of counter-terrorism tech analysts down at the Pentagon.
Very nine to five. Very boring.
Tonight he’d had a plan that went something like this: order Chinese food, bring it to her apartment, say something about his behavior when she’d asked about his scars, and prove that he was capable of spending more than ten minutes alone with her without removing a single article of her clothing.
Tall order, maybe, but he was determined. Had been determined. Now he was hot, pissed off, hungry, and stuck in traffic. He hit the radio button again but left the volume low, background noise rather than information. He was already in the far right lane, a hundred yards from his exit, when he abruptly changed his mind and hit the left blinker, merging back into the sea of cars as the air conditioning finally began to chill the sweat on his skin.
Renee leaned her head against the fake wood paneling of her apartment building elevator, so drained that remaining vertical was a challenge. Her shirt stuck uncomfortably to her back; she found herself longing for the time – probably at least a month away – when she’d be able to make it from the parking garage to her door without breaking into a sweat.
Her stomach grumbled irritably, which didn’t surprise her given that the only thing she could recall ingesting today was a super-size snack bag of Lay’s salt and vinegar potato chips and a Diet Coke. She mentally surveyed the probable contents of her fridge. Nothing. She hadn’t been grocery shopping in weeks. “Shit,” she muttered, as no one was there to hear her.
She didn’t want to think about Jack.
Didn’t want to think about why she was sleeping with him when they’d never even gone out alone for drinks. Didn’t want to think about why she’d turned down dinner invitations from three very attractive and very eligible men in the past two months.
But although she’d been successfully redirecting her thoughts ever since she left work, they were now in open rebellion. She sighed, glancing above the doors and watching the number on the digital readout slowly rise.
She hated dating. Always had, even in high school. Was that even the name for what she and Jack were doing? Her coworkers would probably have labeled their current status ‘fuck buddies,’ a phrase that would have made her laugh if she weren’t in such a bitch of a mood.
The ping of the elevator startled her. When the doors slid open, she stepped into the hallway and turned left to find Jack sitting on the floor beside her door, a brown grocery bag in one hand and a tattered section of the Post in the other.
“I know you’re tired. I’m not staying,” he said all in a rush. He held the grocery bag out to her, the top of it neatly folded over. “I brought Chinese. I wasn’t sure what to get, so there’s beef with broccoli and vegetarian fried rice.”
“You have a key.” She took the bag, smelling the spices even through the smooth paper.
“I know.” Jack rubbed the back of his neck. “Bringing you Chinese food didn’t feel like a good enough reason to use it.”
Renee wished she had a free hand, because the beginning of a headache was throbbing in her temples and pressing at the back of her neck. “Well could you use it now? My hands are full.”
Jack fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his keys. She noticed that besides the car key, there were only two. Hers and his.
He opened the door and held it for her. “I’m gonna go then. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
He was already turning when she said, “Jack. Stop. Come in and help me eat this. I just need a shower and ten minutes alone, and I’ll be fine.”
He hesitated, his hand on the edge of the door. “I didn’t come here so you’d invite me in,” he mumbled quietly.
She couldn’t stop herself from smiling at the way he could be infuriating and irresistible at precisely the same moment. “I know. That’s probably why I’m inviting you. Come on. I’ll get you a beer.”
A few seconds passed. Renee watched his face, wondering what the hell was going on behind his eyes. She’d never known someone quite so impossible to read. She was ninety-seven percent sure he was about to make some excuse and leave when he suddenly let go of the door and walked inside, letting it fall softly shut behind him.
He knows she doesn’t hear the door open, because the overhead fan is on and she’s leaning back, facing away from him, smoothing the last of the shampoo out of her hair. She has one of those see-through shower curtains; it smudges the outline of her body. Just barely. He thinks he should say something, let her know he’s there, but it’s quiet now and he finds the silence unbelievably soothing.
There’s never time to be still.
She’s so unguarded now, but he can tell she’s tense from the way she holds her shoulders and rolls her neck sideways as the water runs down her arms.
She’s beautiful, and the fact that he’s noticing makes him want to run, shutting and locking each door behind him as he goes, perhaps welding them closed as a final precaution. He’s surprised, actually, the way the last few months have made him begin to remember, in odd flashes and isolated fragments, what it was like to be a normal human being.
When he got back from China, he didn’t think about sex for over a year. When the idea slowly crept into his mind again, it remained for him an abstract concept, something that was a hell of a lot of fun for his former self and for other people, but that concerned him about as much as gaming the brackets of the NCAA tournament.
He didn’t care.
She makes him care.
If it were only about sex, that would be frightening enough.
But it isn’t.
He has no idea why tonight is different, why even watching her naked in the shower he’s more scared than he is turned on, why all of the sudden he’s realizing exactly how close she is. None of that changes the fact that since she called off their ‘date’ he’s had something to prove.
He wishes he knew whether the proof was for her or for him. Or perhaps what he was proving. That would be a good place to start.
He steps forward because he’s never going to do this if he doesn’t do it now. “Hey.”
She turns, surprised but not scared, and looks at him. For maybe thirty seconds they stand there, staring at each other, the silence so complete he can hear himself breathe, and in that space Jack knows why he doesn’t run.
She’s okay with silence.
She doesn’t look upset, but she said she wanted time alone so he has to ask. “Do you want me to go?”
“No.” She pulls the curtain back. He’s yanking off his shirt and he knows she’s watching. He balls one hand into a fist, hard, trying to fight the panicky feeling that surges through him whenever he’s sober and about to let her get this close. He’s still not used to combining the before and after versions of himself, and right now he wonders why the hell she’s so willing to let him use her as the ultimate human experiment.
He pushes off his jeans and boxers, forcing himself to relax under her gaze. He’s already hard from watching her, and when the warm spray hits his skin at the same moment her hands land on the muscles of his upper arms, he swallows and closes his eyes.
She traces her palms up the back of his arms, leaning into him quickly. She might as well get this over with. She’s exhausted, hungry, overworked and pissed off at life, and that’s the list without even adding whatever the hell she’s doing with Jack into the mix. She decides not to think about that, which is sort of amusing given the current circumstances.
She doesn’t want to have sex, especially in the shower. She wants to eat some variety of nutrient free food, have a glass of wine, and go to sleep. Although she doesn’t normally adhere to the school of thought that dictates it’s nice to put out just because the guy feels like it, something in Jack’s attitude makes her reluctant to hit the brakes this time. He’s been different from the moment she walked out of the elevator, an expression behind his eyes she’s never seen before and consequently can’t categorize or name.
In any case, he’s all focused intensity, and the fastest way to the brownies and the wine is probably a shower quickie. Given that he’s turned out to be exceptionally good at this, she figures she can live with that.
She reaches for his face, moving to kiss him, and that’s when everything tilts sideways.
“Renee. Stop. I didn’t-” He closes his fingers around her wrists, lowering them to her sides. “That’s not why I came in here.”
“It’s not?” She studies him, confused, while he lets her go and reaches for the shower gel on the shelf behind her head. She watches as the liquid pours into his hand in an expanding circle. She has no idea what the hell he’s doing.
He rubs his hands together, slipping them under the water once so the gel turns into a whipped creamy lather. Slowly, he begins to rub it into her skin.
He starts with her shoulders and the back of her neck, working gently at the knots between her shoulder blades. She leans her head into his chest without meaning to, because she’s so tired and his hands feel so good.
He massages her lower back until she can feel herself breathing more slowly, more deeply. She watches the movements of his arms and chest, the water slipping across his skin. His stomach tightens when she puts a hand against it to steady herself, and she smiles.
Jack pours another generous helping of shower gel into his hands, but this time when the soap becomes foam, he reaches for the inside of her knees, his fingers pressing into the tight muscles at the back of her legs. Her back pushes more firmly into the soaking shower tile.
He’s still not looking at her.
His fingers work gently at the inside of her thighs and she bites into her lip as his palms move upward, just a few inches. She’s holding her breath.
He stops, resting his forehead on hers. His lips touch her mouth. Twice. Just enough to make her want more.
He slips his index finger inside of her, and while what she really wants to do more than anything is press herself into his hand, she says in what she hopes is a normal tone of voice, “Jack. I’m okay. You don’t have to-”
His free thumb brushes over her lips. “I want to.” He pauses, his finger still inside her, moving just enough that she can’t quite manage to keep her hips still. “Let me. Please.”
She nods, leaning her head against the concrete cold of the tile. It’s the only thing left in the room that seems to have solid form. Her eyes have just slipped shut when she hears his voice, a gravelly vibration against her ear. “Will you look at me?”
The flush she’s hated ever since she can remember rises up from her chest. “Jack, I don’t-”. She’s trying to breathe, but the circles he’s drawing with his finger are expanding. “It’s too-“
“I know. That’s why. Please.” Is his voice shaking? She doesn’t know anymore.
But he’s said ‘please’ twice so she opens her eyes, her face still flushed, and presses her palms into the tile.
His face is inches from hers, the steam drifting around them. One thumb strokes her cheekbone as he slides another finger inside of her. The heel of his palm hits her in the perfect spot and she gasps involuntarily.
“Yeah?” He smiles. “Okay.” His voice pulses through her in the tiny room. “Don’t move.”
He’s winding her like a clock, but she stays still, somehow knowing he’s not going to stop. Her body is shaking now, so close, his fingers and his hand rocking in a rhythm so perfect she couldn’t improve on if she did it herself.
It takes all of her concentration, but she holds his gaze as she feels the almost unbearable tightness, the ache moving into the outer edges of explosion. Jack. God. I can’t- Is she talking? Then his hand moves against her, one more time, and she’s over the edge, her hands gripping his shoulders as his face goes out of focus. But she can still see his eyes, read the expression of pure wonder that flashes there for a fraction of a second.
It’s then that she realizes this Jack is a lot more dangerous than any of the incarnations she’s encountered before.
The muscles in her legs become abruptly unreliable and she feels Jack’s arms slip around her waist, pulling her against him. He’s wet and hard and trembling; she wants to ask him why but she’s too overwhelmed, too scared. The steam moves in erratic patterns and her heart feels unnaturally loud in her chest. She takes a deep breath, another, and gradually the room tilts until it’s a couple degrees off at most.
Jack smoothes his hand over her back. “I’ll get you a towel.”
“No. Your turn.”
He shakes his head, grinning, his voice a rough-edged murmur. “Trust me. That was close enough.”
But she already has the shower gel in her hands and the moment she strokes him, he’s moving against her fingers. He reaches over her head and rests both hands on the tile, looking down to watch her as she touches him. She does the same for a moment, and her mouth turns up at the corners when she hears him whisper, “Like that.”
So she keeps her hands in motion over and around him; he’s thrusting impatiently into her palms now, the gel and water making it easy for her to slide her fingers back and forth.
Suddenly she stops. “You’re cheating.”
His head snaps up. “What?” It’s only one syllable but he’s still out of breath.
“I looked at you.” She has no idea what’s making her so bold tonight, and she hopes he understands that she’s asking not as a challenge or some sort of quid pro quo, but because everything about this moment seems to be taking place in a slightly variant reality. There’s a surreal quality to all of it that’s electrified the air since the second he opened the door. That has to be the only explanation for her unexpected hit of courage.
His body absolutely still, he stares at her, and she’s glad, so glad, that for all the things she does not have in this life, she has this. Jack doesn’t look at anyone the way he’s looking at her.
He smiles, the kind of smile that makes her stomach do all the crazy things it hasn’t done since high school. She feels like an idiot, but possibly the most powerful idiot in the world when he says, “Promise not to stop and I’ll do whatever you want.” His eyes lock on hers.
“I promise,” she murmurs and moves her soapy hands again, faster this time. His breathing is so loud now that she can’t hear the fan, and she knows she’s flushed again from the intimacy of the eye contact, but this time it doesn’t matter. For this infinitesimal slice of time, she’s unafraid.
His body tightens and he thrusts into her hands, hard. His eyes still on hers, he whispers in that voice that sends electric shocks to her nerve endings, “Renee. Jesus.” Then he’s coming all over her fingers, the warm surge from his body mixing with water and soap suds as she lets him use her hands to ride it out.
His eyes are unfocused for no more than five seconds, but in those five seconds Renee learns something she didn’t know before.
She learns what Jack looks like when he’s fully absorbed in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future. Just now. She thinks it might even be possible that in this five seconds he’s happy, but that might be overreaching.
After a minute, he moves his hands away from the wall and places them gently on either side of her face, drawing her mouth to his. His tongue is hot and smooth where it slides along hers, and she can taste the dark beer he was drinking before he came in to join her. He kisses her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids, then rests his forehead on hers. He pulls her flush against him, arms around her waist, and hers automatically slip around his neck so that their bodies are touching at every possible point of contact. Renee can feel the rapid thudding of her heart and his, and while they’re not beating in tandem, the rhythm sets up an interesting counterpoint.
Harmonious rather than clashing. She likes it better this way.
The fan hums, the steam drifts, and they stand there under the misting spray. It’s too much effort to move, and they’ve both lost track of time.
“You want more decaf?” Renee sat curled into the corner of her couch, arms around her knees, holding her coffee mug with both hands.
Jack looked sideways at her from the other end of the couch. “Yeah, but I’m too lazy to get it and I don’t want you to get it for me.” He leaned his head back.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m getting some anyway,” she retorted, standing and extending her arm for his cup.
He watched her walk into the kitchen, dressed now in baggy sweats and a hoodie, her hair still damp from the shower. She pushed a button on her CD player, and music from a jazz album he didn’t recognize floated out of the speakers. His eyes followed her as she moved, tossing the empty Chinese food containers in the trash, sticking a couple of glasses in the dishwasher, and finally filling the two coffee mugs.
She turned the kitchen light off but left the music on.
When Renee settled into the couch this time, instead of hugging her knees to her chest in the posture he’d become used to, she stretched her legs out so that her feet landed in his lap.
His body stiffened instantly, instinctively. Her feet were out of his personal space in nanoseconds. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I forget sometimes. . .” Her voice trailed off and she stared into her coffee mug as if maybe the answer to the question, “Why is Jack totally fucked up?” might be swirling in there, mixed with the half-and-half she had added.
Jack took a swallow and softly cleared his throat. “Put them back.”
She looked up. “What?”
“Put your feet back.”
“No.” She paused. “It’s fine. Tell me about work today.”
“It was boring as shit. If averting the next terrorist attack depends on these geniuses, we’re all fucked.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “And it’s not fine. I’ll let you jerk me off in the shower but you can’t put your feet on my legs?” He rubbed his free hand over his face.
“Why don’t you ever ask me what the hell we’re doing here?”
“Probably because I don’t want to know!” she shot back, moving so quickly in her irritation that her mug slipped and coffee sloshed onto her sweatpants. “Goddammit.”
He reached for the paper towel that was squished into the cushion next to him and handed it to her. She snatched it, dabbing at her pants without looking at him.
“Will you put your feet back?”
He sighed. From her perspective it was probably a damn good question. “Because I like them there.”
“Right. That’s why you jump every time I touch you when we’re not having sex.”
“You asked me about my scars.” Nothing like jumping right in. He’d never been a fan of preamble.
She swallowed. “I should have known that you weren’t ready-“
“You’re right.” He cut her off. “I can’t-” He flexed his free hand, open and shut. “Dammit,” he muttered under his breath.
She sat quietly, her eyes still guarded, but he noticed that she wasn’t holding herself as rigidly as she had been sixty seconds ago. Okay, good sign.
He took a deep breath. “I can’t talk . . . about China. Yet.” She opened her mouth to respond but he shook his head, vehemently. “Wait. Let me finish.”
She fell silent. The second hand on the wall clock behind her head rotated forward, and Jack frantically cycled through possible ways to explain what he wanted to say. He was so accustomed to acting, not speaking. Whatever they were doing here, for him it was starting all over again from the top. Human Communication 101.
“When I got back, I didn’t think I’d ever talk about it. To anyone.”
“And now?” She was absolutely still.
His throat felt heavy. “Now I think-” His eyes stung, and he stared at the floor instead of at her. “I think I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk about it, but I wish you’d still be here when I can.”
Everything seemed to slow down. He didn’t dare look at her, so he scrutinized the microscopic fibers in her carpet as he listened to the faraway wail of an ambulance and the last snaps of the coffeemaker as it contracted on cool down.
A few seconds later, he felt the thud of her feet in his lap. A wash of an emotion so unfamiliar he’d forgotten its name flooded through his chest and into his face; his throat was so tight he couldn’t swallow.
He stared at the same square inch of carpet for at least five minutes before Jack heard her say, her voice quiet and sleepy, “Well I’m pretty comfortable right now.”
He finally turned to look at her. She had burrowed even further into the corner of the couch, her damp hair almost blending in with the burgundy cushions. Her eyes were shut, her face relaxed. Pulling in a breath, Jack closed his hands over her bare feet. Her skin was freezing in contrast with his warm palms, and he instinctively began to massage her feet, attempting to warm them. After a moment, the edges of her mouth tilted up in the tiniest hint of a smile, and the knot in Jack’s throat slowly began to loosen.
He sat there long after the CD had come to an end, long after the coffeemaker had turned itself off, long after Renee’s breathing had evened out into a slow, soothing rhythm.
He looked at her, pale and exhausted, and thought about trust and risks and how many times a person could break before the damage was irrevocable.
When she rolled over into the couch and mumbled something unintelligible in her sleep, he realized that she wasn’t going to get up and go to bed. He walked quietly around the room, checking the thermostat and turning out lights. Finally he leaned over and picked her up.
She didn’t move except to lean her head into his shoulder, and he made a mental note to glare at Larry for longer than usual the next time he saw him. As he carried her down the hallway to her bedroom, he thought that tonight, instead of making himself responsible for everyone, he’d try to remember what it felt like to be responsible for just one person.
The obnoxious drone of her alarm jolted Renee out of a near-comatose sleep. She slammed her hand down on the snooze button without opening her eyes, wondering when the hell she’d turned the stupid machine up so loud. She hugged her pillow, cursing inwardly that she still had to make it through one more day before it was finally the weekend.
She didn’t bother to look at the other side of the bed. Although she’d made it as clear as she could that she wouldn’t mind and might even like it if Jack were there in the morning for once, he inevitably vanished, leaving her apartment neater than it ever was when she stayed there alone.
It depressed her to wake up to an immaculate kitchen, without so much as a coffee mug or a wine glass out of place, as if he were trying to erase any evidence that he’d been there at all.
Suddenly she heard a muffled thud that sounded as if it came from the general direction of the kitchen, followed by Jack’s distinctive, “Goddammit.”
Renee walked down the hall and turned the corner. Jack stood at the counter in front of the toaster, wearing only his jeans, his hair damp from the shower. A half-empty glass of orange juice sat to his left, and he was buttering a piece of toast.
“You stayed,” she blurted out.
He glanced over his shoulder. “I was really tired. I hope-” He broke off, refocusing his attention on the toast in front of him. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah.” She paused. Figured what the hell. “It’s nice to-” She squeezed the fabric of her t-shirt until her fingers hurt. “I’m glad you did.” She walked over next to him and leaned against the counter. “How’d you get me out of my hoodie without waking me up?”
He looked up at her, his smile almost shy. “It wasn’t that hard. You were out.”
“I’m not surprised. Last night was the first time in two weeks I got home before midnight.” She glanced at the clock. “Shit. I should be leaving in twenty minutes.”
Jack put the knife down and handed her the plate of toast. “Sit down. I’ll get you some coffee. Then call Larry and tell him you’re coming in late.”
“Jack, I can’t-”
“Yes. You can. You could hardly stand up last night.”
“Well that was your fault.”
“You don’t have to tell Larry that part,” he retorted, deadpan, and it was so unexpected coming from him that she stared at him in surprise for a second before she grinned.
She sat down at the table, pulling one knee up and wrapping her arm around it while she grabbed the toast with her other hand. Before she took a bite she said, resigned, “I have to go to work, Jack. I’ll get a break tomorrow.”
Putting a mug of coffee by her plate, Jack sat down across from her. “Half an hour. Long enough for breakfast.” He reached out and trailed the back of his index finger over the inside of her wrist.
She shook her head, muffling her smile in her coffee cup.
Forty-five minutes later, Jack watched, amused, as Renee stood by the door with one shoe in her hand, pulling her almost dry hair out of the back of her blouse and scanning the floor, agitated.
“What are you looking for?”
“My other shoe. Shit. I am so late.” She stuck her right foot into the shoe she was holding.
Jack searched the floor around the entryway and spotted the heel of her shoe, sticking out from underneath the paper he’d dropped last night. “It’s right there. Under the paper.”
She snatched it up and yanked it over her foot, grabbing her bag with the other hand. “You’re going to work, right?”
“Unfortunately,” he muttered.
“Okay.” She paused with her hand on the doorknob. “I’ll see you. . . later.”
“Renee.” He took two long steps, closing the distance between them. He could feel his internal alarms activating one by one with each inch he moved forward, but he did his best to tune them out by concentrating on the goal.
She was standing there impatiently. Rushed. Tired.
He put his hands on either side of her face and moved to kiss her when she braced her hand on his chest, halting him. “Jack. Christ. You don’t have to kiss me goodbye at the door.”
“I know,” he murmured, drawing her face closer.
He could taste her toothpaste and feel her smile when his mouth closed over hers.