Characters: Jack, Renee, Larry (in flashback)
Warnings: Language, spoilers for everything through 7x21. As usual with my fics, if you dislike the idea of Jack and Renee being romantically involved, you should without question be reading something else.
Summary: "Late at night, long after Jack had gone and Renee jolted awake from another nauseatingly vivid nightmare, she would wonder why they couldn’t touch each other anymore, why even standing too close to him made her feel overheated and panicky."
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters. If I did I’d kill them off so they’d let me stop writing about them;)
A/N: This fic was meant to be approximately three scenes long. And then it wasn’t. Now it’s epic. I don’t want to scare anybody away, but I felt compelled to say something.
Thanks to dealan311, catch22girl, and kcountess for all the help with background/canon info. Thanks to lowriseflare, adrenalin211, and poeelektra for the “savage” betas, with extra special granola bars to Katie for the line I adore and to Adrienne for not killing me. You guys just. Just. JUST:)
At first, the dreams were terrifying but vague.
Heat. Smoke. Darkness. Shouting. She couldn’t make out the words or identify who was yelling. Sometimes a sudden feeling of weight. Suffocation. Sweat and panic as she gasped for oxygen that wasn’t there. At the exact moment she was sure her chest would explode, she woke up, sucking in air so quickly it made her lightheaded, sweaty hands clutching her sheets.
After a few nights the haziness vanished, replaced with a level of specificity Renee hadn’t achieved in nightmares since she was a child. The feel of her body rolling, hands bound behind her as they smacked the earth. Plastic over her face. No air. Dirt hitting her body through the filter of plastic. Jack’s eyes as he wielded the shovel. In the dream he didn’t look as he had when he’d actually buried her.
He looked as if he wanted her dead.
The FBI psychologist had said this would probably happen.
In the aftermath of the dreams, her heart racing and her face sweaty, Renee would walk quietly into the kitchen, pour herself glass of water, and lean back against the counter, trying to breathe. For the first three nights she went back to bed, only to repeat the process all over again an hour or two later. By the fourth night she gave up, throwing herself on the couch with a book. She might as well be close to the ice water when it happened again.
The fifth night, she dreamed about Larry.
Gunshots. Blood. Larry on the ground, a horrifying gurgling sound coming from his throat. Her own hands on his wound, trying to stop the bleeding, but it was too much. Blood everywhere. Warm, sticky, covering her hands and his vest and the asphalt. Larry’s terrified eyes, moving back and forth, trying to warn her of something.
She turned around to face Jack, holding a shotgun. She saw and heard the explosion before she jolted awake.
Her whole body was trembling, her sheets damp to the touch. Not even fully awake yet, Renee fumbled for her cell on the bedside table, flipped it open, and hit Jack’s number. Her stomach clenched violently as she listened to the mechanical drone of the rings. She dug the fingernails of her free hand into her palm, savoring the physical pain as a distraction.
The phone clicked. “Renee? What’s wrong?” His voice was soft, still groggy but already concerned.
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“Renee.” Louder now.
She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. You were sleeping. I thought-“
“Stop apologizing and tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s nothing. I can talk to you in the morning. I don’t-“
“No. You can talk to me now. You didn’t call me at three-thirty to discuss tomorrow’s debrief.”
Her shoulders relaxed, slowly. She took a few deep breaths, still unable to bring herself to articulate the dream’s horror.
“Renee. Start talking or I’m on my way over there right now.”
“I dreamed that you killed Larry,” she said, the syllables strung together so tightly that her sentence sounded like one very long word.
Jack sighed into the phone, and Renee stared at the window, watching the slivers of light from the streetlamps that snuck in through the levelers. She felt suddenly ridiculous, embarrassed, and childish.
“I shouldn’t have called you. You’re not even well yet. I’m-” She rubbed a clammy hand over her face and through her hair. “I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow.”
“If you hang up I’ll be over there in fifteen minutes.” Jack’s voice resonated with that steely conviction Renee knew better than to fight.
She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t hang up either. Her face was still burning – with embarrassment now, not fear. Tomorrow night she’d leave her cell in the kitchen. Maybe if she had to get out of bed and walk down the hall in order to call, she could skip the part where she made a complete ass of herself. She had a gun by her bed, for god’s sake.
After a few seconds, Jack said quietly, “I still have dreams about China. Not all the time.” He paused, and Renee could hear the sheets rustling as he shifted in bed. “Not as often as I used to.”
“So it gets better?” Her voice sounded high and off-key. Her chest ached.
Jack was quiet for a minute. “You get used to it.”
“I can’t sleep in my bed,” she whispered, suddenly so tired she didn’t know how she was sitting up.
“I know,” Jack replied. “I wind up on the couch sometimes. Or in a chair.”
Renee fell silent, staring absently at a long red scratch on her arm. She had no idea how it had gotten there.
“If you-” Jack stopped. “Do you want me to come over for awhile?”
Renee shook her head vehemently before remembering that he couldn’t see her. “No. No. I’m fine. I’m sorry I woke you up.” She silently cursed the way her voice shook when she was upset.
Renee swallowed. “Are you all right? Still improving?”
She could have sworn she felt a smile in his voice. “Yeah. The physical therapist says I won’t be a hundred percent for at least a few weeks, but I’ve already been able to cut down on the medication.” He chuffed into the phone. “They keep yelling at me for doing too much.”
“How uncharacteristic,” Renee retorted, leaning back into the couch.
“Can you go back to sleep?” Jack asked quietly.
She didn’t want to lie. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve got the meeting first thing in the morning. I’ll talk to you then.” She tried to shape her words with more conviction than she felt.
“My cell’s on.”
“I’ll see you in a few hours.”
“Yeah. Good night.” She was already yawning.
“Night.” She heard the click as Jack snapped his phone shut.
Renee yanked the quilt from the back of the couch and pulled it over her bare feet. She closed her eyes and thought about nightmares she’d had as a kid. Standard stuff, she assumed. Being chased down a dark alley by one of the menacing faces on the evening news. Surrounded by a sea of people at some nameless crowded amusement park, unable to find her parents anywhere, panic descending with each passing second.
She opened her eyes in the twilight glow of the room, glad she hadn’t known then that nightmares could be like this.
She couldn’t stop staring at the brown coffee stain. The conference room looked as it always did in the minutes leading up to a big meeting. The shiny faux wood paneled table was neatly set with glasses of water at each seat, refill pitchers lined up in the middle at regular intervals. Nondescript grey sliding chairs encased the oval table. The room was already too hot, so Renee pressed the digital display on the thermostat down a few degrees.
She walked back and stood in front of the chair again, looking at the stain. No one else would have noticed it. Why would they? She and Larry had been the only two people in the room. Maybe a month ago? She wasn’t sure. Time collapsed in her mind right now. How many hundreds of throwaway moments – conversations she couldn’t remember – had taken place in this conference room?
Still, Renee recalled one tiny scene as vividly as a high definition youtube video after you hit the little “play” triangle. A moment she had forgotten until now, and under any other circumstances would likely have forgotten forever.
She wished life had a “pause” button.
Larry – uncharacteristically late and flustered – barging into the conference room, one hand clutching a pile of plastic-covered briefing packets, the other holding an overfilled Styrofoam cup of coffee.
He’d moved to drop the packets on the table when his foot caught the edge of a chair. The packets landed more or less where he had intended, but the coffee splashed out of his mug, right in the center of his seat at the head of the table.
“Perfect,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes.
Renee reached for the packets and began distributing them. She shot him an evil grin. “That’s what you get for not bringing me any.”
He glared at her, but she could see the amusement beneath his attempted rancor. “If you want to clean this up for me, I’ll be happy to get you coffee. I’ll even put in that disgusting fake Irish cream crap you like.”
She looked up from the packets, shaking her head. “You can clean that up. I’ll get my own coffee.”
His smile couldn’t have been clearer in her mind if he had been standing two feet in front of her. Renee looked away from the barely perceptible brown stain nobody else would ever notice, wondering what people would think if she took a perfectly good chair out of the conference room and gave it an elevator ride downstairs to the dumpster.
God she was losing it. If only she had taken Larry up on his offer and cleaned the stain up herself, it would have been gone entirely. She wouldn’t be staring at it now.
“Renee?” She felt a hand on her elbow and jerked back instinctively, startled.
“Sorry.” Jack’s voice was subdued.
Crap. “It’s fine. You just-” She broke off, swinging her eyes down his arms to his hands. He was hardly trembling at all, the muscles in his arms and legs almost relaxed. For a second her throat felt as if she’d eaten an atomic fireball too fast, but she swallowed past it. “You startled me.”
Jack nodded his head in the direction of the breakfast buffet spread out on a long table against the back wall. “Don’t you want something to eat? You’ll need it if you want to live through this meeting.”
It took no more than a glance at the danishes, bagels, cream cheese, and butter to flip her stomach upside down. She quickly averted her gaze. “I’ll stick to coffee.” Now probably wasn’t the time to inform Jack that the nightmares and insomnia came as part of a complete package which also included her sudden inability to eat anything besides Froot Loops, tomato soup, and microwaved vegetarian hot dogs.
Jack walked over to the table and picked up a wheat bagel, dropping it onto one of the thin white paper plates in front of him. He poured himself a large cup of coffee before turning back in her direction. When he was a few feet away from her he said, very quietly though they were the only ones in the room, “For six months after I got back from China, I couldn’t eat anything except plain noodles and this chocolate soy protein drink.”
Renee stared at him and he returned her gaze, his eyes sober. Finally she looked down at the floor and took another swallow of coffee.
Jack stepped closer. “It will stop.”
She could feel tears stinging the back of her eyelids, so she was almost grateful when the door opened and a group of people wandered in, already involved in conversation so meaningless to her that she didn’t even attempt to follow what they were saying.
Before anyone could sit down, Renee deliberately crossed to the other side of the table, far away from the chair she knew she’d stare at anyway. Jack followed her a few steps behind, taking the seat to her left. More people drifted in slowly. Within a minute or two, the whole conference room bubbled with overlapping conversations.
In the middle of all of it, Jack leaned his head toward hers and said, his voice so low she could hardly make out the words, “Do you play chess?”
She turned, brows knitted in confusion. “Chess? No. Why?”
“I’ll teach you. Tonight around eight?”
For the first time since Larry’s death, she felt the beginning of a smile forming at the edges of her mouth. “Okay. Bring beer.”
“Good.” Jack leaned back in his chair and switched his focus to the head of the table.
Renee sipped her coffee, into which she had managed to put way too much sugar. She decided not to think about why in that exact moment she felt the way she used to feel at the end of each semester, as she threaded her way through rows of desks to the front of the classroom. The satisfying slap and creeping euphoria as the last exam book hit the table and she walked out the door.
Jack’s offer to teach her chess wasn’t the same at all.
It just felt. . .
Jack showed up at 7:56. Renee knew because she’d looked at the clock a minimum of twenty-five times since 7:30. He brought his chess board and a six-pack of beer so dark you could probably have floated quarters on it, and he spent the next three hours patiently explaining the intricacies of the game to Renee.
He also repeatedly kicked her ass, but despite her competitive nature, she found herself surprisingly unconcerned.
At eleven-fifteen, Jack rinsed out his bottle of beer and asked, “Where’s your recycling?”
“Under the sink.” She nodded toward the cupboards.
He tossed the beer in with a jarring clank. “Want another shot at me tomorrow night?”
She grinned. “Okay. Same time.”
Pulling on his jacket, Jack turned to look at her. For the first time that evening, his tone was solemn. “Renee.”
“Yeah?” She fiddled with the pawn in her hand.
“It’s never going to bother me if you call in the middle of the night.” He looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to, no one who had any idea-” He opened and shut his hand. “Let me help if I can.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Her words sounded quivery and the back of her neck felt hot.
Jack paused at the door for a moment as if he were about to say something else. Apparently he decided against it because he said, “Good night,” and walked out, shutting the door softly behind him.
She stood for a long time looking at the wood grain on the door, wishing . . . she didn’t know.
Over the next couple weeks, Jack and Renee slipped into an unintentional routine. Every night around eight, he showed up at her apartment. At first he only brought alcohol (more for her than for him, although he didn’t say that). But one night when she answered the door he held out a brown paper bag, which he’d intentionally left open. The smell of cilantro filled the hallway.
She ate an entire black bean burrito and the side of Mexican rice. Jack smiled when he picked up the empty Styrofoam container to throw it in the trash, but he didn’t comment.
His phone rang just as they were about to start their game. He glanced at the caller ID. “It’s Kim. Do you mind-”
“Of course not!”
“Hi.” Renee didn’t look up, but he could see her smiling as she carefully set the pieces on the board.
“Are you busy?” Kim asked. She sounded uncertain.
Jack got up to throw his own leftovers in the trash. “Why do you always ask me that? I’m never too busy.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt something.” Jack sat back down on the couch and paused, noticing that Renee had wandered into the kitchen. She seemed to be looking for something. After opening a few cupboards, she pulled out a box of tea.
“Renee and I were about to start a chess game. It can wait. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I have to take Teri to day care for the first time tomorrow.”
He could hear the tight edges in her voice, how close she was to crying. He knew her well enough to be aware she didn’t want that, so he decided to deflect. “You went to daycare.”
“And look how screwed up I turned out!” she retorted, but the laughter had returned to shape her words and Jack felt his shoulders relax.
He rubbed his hand over his face. “If you don’t upload those new pictures soon, I’m gonna fly out there and steal your goddamn camera myself.”
He could hear her switching the phone to the other ear, talking softly to the baby. “I completely forgot. I’ll do it tonight as soon as I get her in bed. I swear.”
“It’s fine. I just want to get my walking papers from Dr. Macer and the physical therapist so I can come see you.” For the first time in several minutes, Jack surveyed the room for Renee. She had vanished.
“I know. I can’t wait!” Jack couldn’t help thinking how much Kim sounded almost the way she’d used to when reading him her Christmas list or anticipating one of those horrifying boy band concerts. “But-”
“But what?” He looked down the hall, listening for signs of Renee. Nothing.
“We might have a surprise for you. Maybe.” Kim laughed. “Of course I can’t shut up long enough to keep it a surprise. It might not work out, but if Steven can take off a few days after next week, we might come visit you first.”
He cleared his throat, which was inexplicably dry. “I’d love that.” He paused. “Kim.”
“Yeah?” The baby made a soft noise into the phone, and Jack blinked, still overwhelmed by trying to picture his daughter with a child.
“I’m glad-” He stopped.
“Me, too. I’ll talk to you soon, okay? I love you.”
“I love you too, baby.”
He threw his phone on the couch and walked down the hall. Renee stood in the doorway to her bedroom, staring at. . . . . He couldn’t figure out what she was staring at.
She jumped, and when she turned to him her face was already flushing. “Sorry. I thought you were still on the phone.”
“It’s your apartment,” Jack said, a hint of amusement bubbling up under the thick surface of concern. “You okay?”
With the bright, wide, shiny eyes of someone who’s trying not to cry, she said, “Sure. I was-” She pushed her toe into the carpet. “Thinking.”
Jack was on the verge of pushing her further, but at the last minute he checked himself. “Ready for the game?”
“Absolutely.” She followed him down the hall.
A few nights later she beat him at chess for the first time, laughing out loud and drowning out Van Morrison’s cover of “Comfortably Numb.”
When Kim called in the middle of a game, Renee knew who it was before Jack even opened the phone. His face transformed when he looked at the caller ID, as if twenty years of time evaporated from his features and he was still that guy running after his daughter as she tried to navigate a two-wheeler.
Jack inevitably gestured to Renee not to move when he was on the phone with Kim, but sitting on the couch while he listened to the gorgeously mundane details of his daughter’s life felt voyeuristic to her. So she’d clean up the kitchen, put in a load of laundry, change into sweatpants and a t-shirt if she hadn’t already, and try to pretend the sense of comfort that surged through her as she listened to Jack’s voice was only a result of her proxy joy in his happiness.
He smiled more in one phone conversation with Kim than he had in their entire acquaintance.
At one point it randomly occurred to Renee that the more Jack talked, the less she drank.
There were several things they did not do, regardless of how late Jack stayed or how many games of chess they played.
They didn’t discuss her dreams, beyond acknowledging their existence.
They didn’t talk about Teri, Larry, Tony, Jack’s time in China, or Renee’s current stubborn refusal to attend the mandatory sessions with the FBI shrink.
They didn’t touch each other. Jack sat on one end of couch, Renee on the other. The chessboard separated them, neatly lined with pieces waiting to be manipulated at their will.
Late at night, long after Jack had gone and Renee jolted awake from another nauseatingly vivid nightmare, she would wonder why they couldn’t touch each other anymore, why even standing too close to him made her feel overheated and panicky.
Ultimately, she filed this phenomenon under the new category she had loosely labeled Really Weird Things I Do Now. Also included in this list were things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, sitting with at least one empty chair next to her during meetings, and working through lunch even if it meant eating a dry Kashi granola bar at her desk, washing it down with Diet Coke. She had to mainline caffeine a minimum of every two hours, since while the eating issue had improved, the insomnia hadn’t.
On the day Larry’s ex-wife came to collect the few personal things that remained in his office, Renee made certain to leave long before Emily was scheduled to arrive. But first she snuck in and, as quickly and quietly as possible, fumbled through the one pathetic box on his desk until she found the mug she had given him at last year’s office holiday party. It said, “Fuck Off Until I’m Caffeinated,” and she’d meant it as a joke. She’d never thought he’d actually use it.
But he had.
She stuffed the mug in her handbag next to her cell, which was lit up with “missed” calls from the FBI psychologist.
Jack leaned over in front of the tiny fridge in his hotel room, scanning the contents of the mini-bar. The diminutive bottles lined up before his eyes, irritatingly orderly. He pulled out the one labeled Dewar’s, satisfied somehow that there was now a gap, a flaw in the lineup.
Renee had called at seven-thirty – exhausted, angry, and apologetic. She was stuck at work overseeing a data analysis snafu and had no idea when she’d be home. He’d known who it was before he managed to dig the phone out of his pocket, because he’d set her a unique ringtone a few days ago. He justified this with the argument that if she called again in the middle of the night, he’d know who it was before he started searching for the phone.
Now it was after ten.
His head ached, probably because he hadn’t bothered to eat. Jack walked over to the bed and threw himself down on top of the shiny taupe bedspread. He looked at the bottle in his hand, fingering the smooth paper of the label. He reached for the remote on the bedside table and jammed his finger into the power button. A reality program about dancing. Talking heads on cable news. Antiques Roadshow. Three different porn channels that must have been a gift from the FBI, who was generously footing the bill for his hotel until he got medical clearance from Dr. Macer to leave the DC area.
He clicked off the TV.
What the hell was wrong with him? He’d spent thousands of nights alone in his life. In Africa, before his time with Carl, solitude had become almost a source of pride with him. Sometimes he’d gone for days without speaking aloud to anyone. At night, when he’d drop the one bag containing everything he owned in the world and crawl underneath an uncomfortable blanket, he’d told himself it wasn’t that hard.
At first he’d thought a lot about Audrey, Kim, sometimes Teri. But gradually, with his trademark discipline, he’d trained himself to focus on the present. If he was okay for one minute he could be okay for five, ten, thirty, and so on. It was good enough.
Had been good enough.
Jack opened his palm, studying the bottle for a moment. He twisted off the cap and swallowed the liquid inside in three burning gulps. He shouldn’t be drinking, especially alone. Even at Renee’s he sipped at the wine or beer because he knew she wanted to drink, and under the circumstances he figured the AA speech could probably wait. She never drank more than a couple beers or a few large glasses of wine, and he was still of the opinion that the problem would most likely self-correct.
Within thirty seconds, he felt the alcohol working its way through his system, the pleasant haze that shaved off all the sharp edges. Unfortunately, it also encouraged his mind to wander in a way it rarely did when he was sober.
He thought about the night he’d figured out what was going on with Tony. The night he’d stood there yelling Renee’s name into the comm, greeted with nothing but static. At the time he’d been running on instinct, adrenaline and dopamine. Now he remembered the feel of his tired shaky muscles taking the steps, his eyes frantically darting from body to body. The twisted sense of relief each time it registered that one of the dead or wounded wasn’t Renee.
The most vivid memory was calling her name repeatedly, the way time slowed down as he waited for a response he didn't get, the panic that had wrapped itself around his spinal column and began to twist, tighter and tighter.
Until she’d answered back. Jack. Jack! He’d taken off running, but it wasn’t seeing her that had released the tension inside of him and allowed him to breathe at regular intervals rather than in short staccato gasps.
It was her voice.
He lifted his left arm, squinting in the dim light to look at his watch. Ten forty-five. He rubbed his eyes, wishing that before he’d hung up earlier he’d casually asked her to call him when she got home. To let him know. . .
He picked up his cell, tapped “contacts,” and clicked to R. His finger was about to depress the button when he snapped the phone shut and tossed it toward the end of the bed. This was insanity. It had to be the scotch. Still, goddammit if he didn’t feel like he had on one of those nights in another lifetime, when he’d come slamming in the door all excited to tell Teri something, only to find the house dark, empty, and silent.
Jack sat up abruptly, rubbing his hands harshly over his face. Where the fuck had that come from?
He needed coffee. Quickly. He dialed room service from the phone beside the bed, ordered an entire pot, then waited quietly, perched motionless on the edge of the bed.
After four large cups of coffee he called her anyway.
“Jack? What’s wrong?”
He hadn’t checked the time. He glanced now. 12:14. Shit. “Nothing. You sounded really tired earlier. I wanted-”
He could hear her quiet breathing on the other end of the phone, and he couldn’t stop himself from wondering if she was already in bed. If she’d changed out of her work clothes. If she was wearing the Georgetown hoodie he’d spilled pad Thai all over last week. If she had on those ridiculous patterned polartec socks.
If her feet were bare.
He couldn’t blame what he said next on the Scotch, because that had been two hours ago and he’d mainlined an entire pot of coffee in the interim.
I wanted to hear your voice. "I wanted to make sure you got home."
Silence. Jack listened to the conversation and muffled laughter of a couple walking by outside his door. He did a mental check to verify that he was indeed on the fourteenth floor, because he was halfway convinced that if she didn’t say something in a second he might have to jump. If so, he wanted to accomplish more than breaking his leg.
Then she said, her voice more tentative than he’d ever heard it, “I was just about to call you.”
He exhaled slowly, counting to ten in his head. Leaning back against the bunched up pillows he said quietly, “Tell me about your shit day.”
“It’s your move.” Jack grabbed another handful of microwave popcorn from the bowl next to him and stuck a piece in his mouth.
“Oh! Sorry.” Over her crossed legs, Renee leaned closer to the board, concentrating on the orderly squares. After only a few seconds she moved her knight into a transparently vulnerable position.
“Kicking your ass is no fun if you make it that easy.” Jack wiped his buttery fingers on a paper towel. He scanned her face, wondering if it was his imagination or if she actually was paler than usual. “You want to call it a night?”
The words had already escaped, floating in the air like a strange invisible ribbon, when Jack realized how much he wanted her to say no.
“No! I just-” She sat up, uncrossing her legs. “Can’t concentrate on the game.” She rubbed absently at the end of her fingernail. “Maybe I’ll make some coffee.” She picked up the chess board and set it on the coffee table.
“I’ll do it. Where are your filters?” Jack walked into the kitchen, pushing aside the simmering gratitude that he wasn’t instead reaching for his jacket and the doorknob.
“Cupboard above the sink, to the left.” She yawned, and although he was facing away from her, Jack could hear her jeans against the fabric of the couch, picture her scooting around like a little kid, trying to get comfortable. He began to scoop the coffee into the brown paper filter, breathing in the scent that never failed to calm him.
He’d learned a lot of inconsequential things about Renee in the last few weeks. She never sat with her feet on the floor. She only wore socks if it was really cold. Given the choice, she liked to eat food with her fingers. She listened to music almost all the time.
And although she laughed more easily than he would have predicted, the sadness lurked, not in the foreground, but not receding either. Stable. Steady. Jack randomly remembered one of his brilliant alcohol-soaked analogies a month or two after Teri’s death. He’d wondered if grief eventually wound up like contacts, something you couldn’t shed and still function, that would always be capable of flaring up over a stray eyelash or a speck of dirt.
The idiocy of the connection made him smile now. He clicked the coffeemaker to “on” and turned around to find Renee stretched out on the couch, one arm behind her head, the other holding a folded copy of Newsweek. The edge of her shirt had ridden up on one side; he could see a tiny sliver of skin where her waist curved towards her ribs. Jack paused, leaning into the counter until the edge of it pressed uncomfortably into his back. He watched the rise and fall of her chest as she scanned the magazine, the way the light caught her hair when her shoulders lifted.
What the hell was the matter with him? He vaguely remembered Dr. Macer saying something about the biotoxin removing behavioral filters. Yeah, that was probably it.
“Jack?” His eyes traveled quickly up her body to find her staring at him. The moment hung there, weighted, uncomfortable.
She flushed slightly, but she didn’t pull down her shirt.
Goddammit. “How long do you think McGann is going to let you get away with dodging the counseling sessions?” He subconsciously held his breath as he waited to see if she’d let it go.
Renee made a face. “I went to the first one.”
He exhaled. “And it was so bad you can’t live through four more?” Jack hesitated, not sure where to sit, but she solved the problem for him by pulling up her legs to make room.
“You’re the spokesperson for counseling now?” she retorted. Her voice was louder than he’d expected, her tone edgy.
“No. I assumed you want to get back in the field.”
Her posture softened. “I do! I’m sorry. I shouldn’t-” She stared at the ceiling, and Jack could see her eyes becoming shiny. “I can’t stand the way she looks at me.”
“See someone else then. When I did the mandatory sessions to kick heroin, I went through three different people before I found someone who didn’t make me want to shoot myself within five minutes.”
“At the moment you’re the only person who doesn’t make me want to shoot myself within five minutes, and I don’t think the FBI psych unit is taking applications.”
Jack felt like a very small child handed something beautiful but fragile, torn between the desire to turn it over and around, examine it from each possible angle, and the impulse to hold it very still so it wouldn’t break.
He had no idea what to say, so he got up to pour coffee.
He called her at work to check in, sporadically at first, but with increasing frequency until the brief calls were a daily occurrence. She could have written a prototype:
“Did you get any more sleep?”
“Not really. It’s fine.”
“Still the dreams?”
Silence. “Yeah. Usually.”
“You’ve stopped calling.”
“I can’t call you every time I have a nightmare Jack. When the hell does it end? I could be having them in five years and by that point we’ll be sharing a rubber room.”
“I could think of worse things.” She ignored the funny, unexpected movement her stomach made at the combination of his words and his tone of voice.
Change of subject. “How’s the therapy going?”
“Better than Dr. Macer expected. I think I get to cut back to three times a week after Friday.”
“That’s great, Jack.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you tonight. Indian or Thai?”
“It’s your turn to choose. But if you don’t let me pay this time I’m breaking your arm. Don’t think I can’t do it.”
The chuff that always reminded her of swinging so high her body went above the top bar, defying gravity for a split second before she smashed back into the curved seat with a neck-jarring snap. “For the moment. Don’t get used to it.”
She didn’t think about this either. Instead, she thought about data analysis, the astronomically mundane nature of her current desk job, and when the hell they were going to let her go back to field ops. Probably when she decided to actually attend the mandatory counseling appointments her new boss had set up for her.
It was late, long past eleven, and Jack was on the phone with Kim when Renee dropped a wine glass into the porcelain sink. Startled by the noise, he glanced up quickly, hearing Renee’s muffled “Shit” as she looked down at the mess of shattered glass.
“Hang on a second, Kim.” He held the phone against his side. “You need help?”
“No. Not at all. Stay out there until I check the floor though.” She walked down the hall and Jack paused for another moment before putting the phone back to his ear.
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
Jack heard Renee come back into the kitchen, the clank of glass on glass as she began to pick up the pieces. Still, her tone of voice and body language screamed back off, and Jack had learned early on that it was best not to mess with that unless he had a very good reason. He relaxed into the couch, listening to Kim tell him how Teri’s determination far outweighed her coordination when it came to her attempts at walking.
It wasn’t until he’d been absorbed in the conversation for at least another five minutes that he realized the entire apartment had gone silent. He pushed himself up a touch on the couch, shifting his gaze to the kitchen. Renee stood near the sink, leaning forward slightly and holding her arm at an awkward, unnatural looking angle. It took Jack a second to realize that blood was running from her hand all the way down her forearm, dripping off her elbow onto the sparkly white porcelain.
“Kim, I have to call you back. I love you.” He slapped the phone shut and quickly took the four strides between the couch and the kitchen. There was an expanding pool of blood in the sink, mixing with the water she had used to rinse the wine glasses. She stared at the red liquid with an unreadable expression, her eyes glassy, unfocused, and filled with tears.
She didn’t move or make any perceptible attempt to respond.
Shit. “Renee. Let me see your hand.”
Jack closed the last step between them, thinking only afterwards that he probably should have glanced at the floor to see if the glass had landed there also. But he grabbed Renee’s hand and pulled it toward him, her blood hot and sticky on his fingertips. The cut on her hand was clean but nasty-looking. She wouldn’t need stitches, but he had to find a bandage. When he rotated her forearm to make sure she hadn’t cut herself anywhere else, his presence finally seemed to register. She turned in his direction and lifted her eyes to look at him; he realized her entire face was shiny with tears. They slid down her neck to the hollow of her throat.
In the tiny moment when her eyes caught his, Jack remembered all the reasons he had long ago chosen to keep his distance from people. This. This was why he needed to stay away. He could hear his own voice in the hospital. What do you want from me?
He switched his focus back into the safe zone. Action. Despite his multiple shortcomings as a human being, he could bandage her hand. “Where can I find something to fix this? I think we’re past Band-Aid territory here.”
He thought for a second she might not answer, but it was more as if her processing speed had been sliced in half. “I think I still have a first aid kit under the bathroom sink.” Her voice was flat.
“Good.” He released her wrist, his hand already covered in her blood. He tried not to think about the day he had shot her, about the geometric pattern he’d watched spread out on her neck while he shoveled dirt over her plastic-covered body. He tried not to think about what would have happened if Bill and Chloe had gotten there five minutes later, but it was as if someone had thrown him straight from a deep sleep into numbingly cold water.
Everything inside him was awake now, when he hadn’t been aware it was sleeping.
He silently thanked somebody for Renee’s preparedness, because the kit was exactly where she had indicated. When he walked back into the kitchen, popped the kit open and ripped into a bandage, she still hadn’t moved a centimeter. She was shaking now. Fresh tears slid off her chin onto the smooth skin of her neck and chest.
Her arm felt cold as Jack turned on the tap water to wash the cut. She didn’t react when he poured dish soap all over the wound and worked it into a lather, making sure to rinse all the way down her arm to where the trail of blood ended at her elbow. Jack pressed a paper towel firmly against the cut as he watched the last of the blood slip down the drain, taking a few glass shards with it.
“I can’t stop wondering what he must have been thinking.” Her voice cracked every few syllables.
Idiotic platitudes flashed through Jack’s mind.
It would have been over in seconds.
Maybe he wasn’t even conscious.
He placed the plastic-backed gauze bandage over her cut, tearing the surgical tape with his teeth.
She continued anyway. “He would have known.” Her breath came in exhausted gasps, and he could feel the rapid tap of her pulse where his fingers held her wrist. “And he couldn’t tell us. He would have blamed himself, Jack. For us. For me.”
Jack put the last strip of surgical tape in place, evaluating the result for a second as he surveyed the neat white square. A tiny touch of red had already soaked through – an amoeba-like shape on the plastic backing – but he could tell the bleeding was slowing.
He held her wrist to keep it elevated, taking her chin in his free hand. He tilted her face toward his. At least a minute ticked by before she finally raised her eyes to meet his gaze. “Renee.” His voice was low and soft, his lips barely moving. “Stop. You have to stop.” He glanced past her toward the cabinets, then back at her eyes. “I told you in the van, it was my fault. If anyone gets to carry that, it’s me.”
She looked at him for another long moment, then stepped forward and rested her head on his shoulder, just as she’d done in the hospital. Her breathing was still hitched and uneven. This time, instead of only touching her back, he wrapped his arms around her ribcage and drew her toward him.
After a few seconds, her arms slipped around his neck. He could feel her tears where her face touched his skin. Renee’s body relaxed. As her heart rate gradually slowed and her breathing became quieter against his chest, Jack couldn’t help hating himself for the tiny flash of gratitude that even if it had taken this, he was finally allowed to touch her again.
Forty-five minutes later they were both half vertical on the couch, half watching a cooking show on TV. It must have been after one. He’d never stayed this late before. Jack turned his head to glance at Renee and realized for the first time since they’d sat down that she hadn’t left the customary distance between them. She was maybe a foot and a half away. He briskly rubbed his face and stood up, hoping to divert his attention from the path down which his mind seemed determined to wander.
He stood in front of her, blocking the TV.
“Hey!” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I was watching that.”
“Right.” He reached for the remote on the couch next to her leg and flipped off the TV. Tossing the remote aside, he extended his hands. “Come on. I should go home and you should go to bed. What time is it?”
Renee yawned. “Late.” She put her hands in his.
He closed his fingers over hers and gave a tug. A small one, or so he thought. Jack later wondered if his subconscious had deliberately undermined him. Whatever the reason, the force he exerted on her arms must have been more than he’d intended, because when she stood up, her face was approximately six inches away from his, rather than the two feet or so he had planned on.
He looked at her lips without meaning to. A second later, he tried to release her hands.
She was still holding on.
He needed to get out of there.
He shifted his gaze to a neutral fixed spot just beyond her shoulder, but not quickly enough that he wasn’t already wondering what she’d taste like if he kissed her. If she’d open her mouth or resist. If she’d let him keep doing it.
The quiet was almost unbearable.
Jack could feel her looking at him, hear her breathing, and finally he forced himself to look at her again. Her expression was indecisive, as if she were trying to figure out an algebra problem but couldn’t quite make the pieces fit to solve for x. But she was too close and she wasn’t moving. Maybe it was exhaustion or residual confusion from the biotoxin, but Jack was three-quarters convinced that if he looked at her forehead, he’d find the label Half a Decade of Things Jack Isn’t Allowed To Want written there.
In permanent ink.
Slowly, a tiny smile crept over her face, and she moved in, another inch or two.
Fighting the sensation that he was underwater, Jack pulled his hands from hers. His voice thick and unsteady, he said, “Renee, we can’t-“
He felt her finger on his lips and god help him all he wanted was to put it in his mouth. Obviously he was losing his mind to be thinking about this when less than an hour ago she’d been sobbing in his arms.
“Jack.” She withdrew her hand and moved her face even closer.
“Yeah?” He was surprised the single syllable had volume.
Time went circular. The moment that must have existed in between her words and her movement disappeared. Her mouth was on his, her hands in his hair. Her tongue moved gently over his lower lip, and Jack could almost feel the give inside him when he understood there was no way he was going to stop unless she told him to.
All of it.
Touching another person like this.
The feel of her skin under his fingers as his hands slipped beneath her shirt, over the curve of her waist and up to skim her shoulder blades. The combined scent of her shampoo and lotion or body spray or some damn thing she was wearing on her neck, all vanilla and want. The feel of her tongue dancing around the edge of his, his body tensing in response. The taste of red wine, mint tea, and trust. The sound of her involuntary hum when his hand wandered around to the front of her shirt and he smoothed the backs of his fingers over the satin of her bra.
The fabric felt twenty degrees cooler to him than anything else in the room.
Abruptly, Renee pushed his hands away. Despite the surge of disappointment, Jack couldn’t deny the simultaneous rush of relief. It only lasted a second. Renee yanked her shirt over her head, tossed it on the floor, and put her hands on his face again, pulling him toward her. One strap of her bra had slipped down, and he couldn’t resist running his tongue along the curve where her neck met her shoulder.
She kissed him again, and he told himself that in another minute he’d stop. Her tongue traced the roof of his mouth. Maybe two minutes. Her hands tugged at the hem of his shirt. Without thinking, he lifted his arms and let her pull it over his head. He knew the room had to be cold – Renee always kept the thermostat low – but he felt violently sunburned.
When she had thrown his shirt on the floor in the general direction of her own, she paused for a second, though her fingers continued to draw distracting shapes on his stomach, twisting everything that ached until he wasn’t sure how he managed not to stop her.
Probably because he didn’t want to.
She looked right at him then, holding his eyes. She wasn’t speaking, but she might as well have been. I know what I’m doing. Don’t fight me. Please.
He arrested the movement of her fingers, his words a gravelly whisper. “It’s your call. But if you keep doing that I’m not going to be able to stand up much longer.”
“Let’s not stand up then,” she replied, pulling her hands away. She stroked her palms up the back of his arms and laced her fingers behind his neck.
“Hang on,” Jack muttered. In one swift motion, he grabbed her waist and lifted her toward him. Her legs locked around his back. He shut his eyes for a second, trying to absorb the sensory assault of having her half-naked body wrapped around him. She was so close now he could smell the essence of her skin beneath the vanilla.
“Bedroom,” she whispered against his mouth, before she knitted her fingers softly through the hair at the nape of his neck and began to kiss him again.
Jack walked her down the hallway, surprised that motivation was obviously overpowering any residual weakness from the biotoxin. He could barely feel her weight.
The insanity inspired by the first few minutes of touching had slowed faintly. With each step, he kissed her. Again and again and again. His lips on one corner of hers, then the other. His entire body vibrated with the noise she made when he softly sucked her lower lip into his mouth.
When they reached the bedroom door, Jack couldn’t stop himself from pulling back fractionally. “Renee.” He was hoarse. “One word from you and I’ll stop.”
“You’re insane,” she replied succinctly, her breathing rough and uneven. “If you leave now I will break your arm.”
When they’d done parachute jumps in special ops training, there had always been that sliver of a moment, standing in the door of the plane, where Jack had a nanosecond or less to do one final check, a split second evaluation before his feet pushed off and the decision was irrevocable.
He looked at Renee now, flushed and beautiful, her eyes shiny with some emotion that might have been joy if he had any experience in recognizing it.
Jack took two steps forward and slammed the door shut behind them.
Then he closed his eyes, pushed off, and fell.
The overwhelming drone of helicopter rotors. Headlights the only break in the darkness. Larry. Bleeding. His hand on the wound, trying to speak. Tony walking toward him, as if in slow motion, but still making confusingly rapid progress. She sat strapped in the helicopter, the dead chopper pilot beside her. She clicked open her seatbelt, but it wouldn’t unlock. She flung her body against the determined fabric, screaming Larry’s name. After a moment Tony’s body obscured her line of sight, and she watched in immobilized terror as he took the last few steps before leaning over Larry’s now motionless form.
She snapped awake when she saw Tony extending his arm.
Renee looked at the ceiling, wiping irritably at the tears that slid down the side of her face. Her back was coated with sweat, her heart skipping beats the way it did when she overdosed on Starbucks to make it through a particularly grueling meeting.
She could hear Jack’s breathing before she turned to look at him; she felt almost ambushed by relief that he was still here, though he had said he would be.
He was on his stomach, his arms under the pillow. The sheet he had pulled over both of them last night had slipped down, and she could tell he was cold by the way he hugged the pillow. She surveyed the thick scars spread out over his skin, glad that this time he couldn’t see her face. She knew he’d read her immediate reaction as revulsion, but that wasn’t it at all. She couldn’t figure out how someone could survive whatever had created those scars and still be the person who, a few hours ago, had put his hands all over her so gently it almost hurt.
Renee pulled a handful of the sheet into her fingers; the cotton felt cool on her clammy overheated skin. She should leave him alone. He was probably exhausted.
But she’d been dealing with this by herself for so long and this time he was here.
She rested her hand on his back, softly, and that was all it took. He pushed himself up. As the nightmare misted away and reality came back into focus, Renee almost smiled at his face in that moment. Whatever his expression was – and she couldn’t quite name it – it was worlds apart from the cynical, apathetic, closed-off version of Jack she’d met a few minutes after eight on the day that reorganized her existence.
Jack reached out, touching her cheek with the back of his finger. “Same dream?”
“More or less.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
He smiled. “You just wanted to wake me up.”
“I guess-“ She shoved her damp hair off her forehead. “Yeah.”
Jack murmured, “Come here.”
Without hesitation she pushed herself across the small space that divided them. Her head landed on his chest, cold as she had thought on her flushed cheek. His arm slipped over her waist, and his fingers began to make slow, soothing circles on her back.
Outside, Renee could hear the hum of tires spinning on pavement, the distant drone of a plane on approach. Inside, she heard Jack’s heart, much slower than hers.
She shifted closer to him, sliding one of her legs between his. “So it gets better?”
“You know that’s not what I said.” His hand drifted up to smooth her hair away from her shoulders. “I said you get used to it. But-” He fell silent.
Jack swallowed. “Someday when you think about Larry, his death won’t be the first thing that comes to your mind. You’ll think about something funny he said. Something he did that annoyed the shit out of you.”
She closed her eyes. She wanted to ask Is that what happened to you?, but something inside her wouldn’t make the words.
His hand came to rest on her hip. “Do you want me to get you a glass of water?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
Even in the near-darkness she could taste his concern. “I don’t know. Eventually.”
“Okay.” He surprised her then by taking her chin in his hand and lifting her face to his. He kissed her mouth gently, twice, running his thumb back and forth over her cheekbone. Finally he reached down and pulled the sheet over both of them.
Within five minutes, Jack’s breathing was slow and rhythmic beneath her cheek. Renee stretched one arm further across him, resting her hand on his ribs. She looked across the bedroom, observing the way the shadows shifted as headlights passed by outside.
On the first day of finals week her senior year at Georgetown, when she should have been studying like mad, she’d let her best friend talk her into ditching everything for one last overnight camping trip at Shenandoah National Park. They’d hit Skyline Drive just as the sun was setting. Renee remembered jumping out of the car and scrambling up the trail to get the best possible view, throwing herself down on the ground to watch as the entire sky went up, an explosion of pink, orange, and indigo. The chill of the wind as it snuck into her jacket. Campfire smoke drifting from various directions.
The knowledge that somehow – although she was doing exactly the opposite of what she should have been – it was unquestionably the right choice.
She closed her eyes.