Characters: Jack, Renee, Kim, Stephen, Little Teri
Warnings: Sex, language, brief violence. AU – Post S7; spoilers through 7x24. My usual disclaimer about Jack/Renee smush applies, especially in this half of the story. No really. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you dislike it, run.
Summary: "He thinks about plans and fear and hope, about the future tense and how he’s using it again whether he means to or not, and how Renee is at least fifty percent responsible for that."
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters. They own me. It’s embarrassing, really.
A/N: Well, it is what it is, because I’m done messing with it. Kay, Katie, and Adrienne – this part especially would never have been the light of day without your (literally) endless encouragement. Thank you!!!
Again, I’ve included the song list in order within the fic itself. However, the last one totally got away from me, so everything that takes place at Christmas goes with the final song. Yeah it doesn’t make sense to me either;)
Thanks to Adrienne, a songs link: Songs for Not Dark Yet 2/2.
1) Cry – James Blunt
2) Lighthouse Light – Redbird
3) Those To Come – The Shins
4) Don’t Let Go – Sarah McLachlan & Bryan Adams
5) Turn Me On – Norah Jones
6) Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream – Blue Rodeo feat. Sarah McLachlan
He doesn’t remember when he started thinking in the future tense again, but somehow it’s become normal to hear Kim and Renee say things like When you come back for Christmas or After you move to New York. He’s still uncertain about his decision to take the UN job, but he can’t stay in one of Kim’s spare bedrooms forever. Factoring other people into his decisions doesn’t come naturally anymore.
He hasn’t made plans for so long he feels out of practice; it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Hope still feels so fucking dangerous.
He’s sitting in his bedroom at Kim and Stephen’s, skimming a terrible mystery novel while he waits for Renee to call. The phone calls have been part of his routine since he got here, but they’ve stretched from five or ten minutes at the beginning to forty-five minutes or an hour now.
They talk about her job, politics, Kim, Teri, the books they’re reading, the asshole who keeps hitting on her at work (Jack fully plans to maim the guy when he gets back to DC for his three month assessment with Dr. Macer), the food-processor infomercial that’s always on at two-thirty a.m., the weird recipes she’s been trying that inevitably result in way too much food for one person, how he can finally walk three miles without stopping, the fact that she doesn’t actively hate the third psychologist assigned to her for mandatory counseling.
He’s been trying pretend it doesn’t mean anything.
But two nights ago he was this close to asking her what she was wearing. Obviously, Dr. Macer was wrong and he has in fact lost his mind.
Downstairs he can hear the quiet hum of the TV, Stephen and Kim’s laughter floating up the stairs at intermittent intervals. Teri’s asleep in the room next to his. Every night, after he’s finished with the standard bedtime routine, he walks into her room and stands by her crib, soaking her in. There’s never enough to fill him up. Her tiny eyelashes, the way she sniffles sometimes when she rolls over, the white polar bear that’s never more than a foot away from her. It hurts, but the good kind.
He hasn’t experienced that for so long.
The phone snaps him back into the present; his book slides off his lap as he flips it open. “Hey.”
“Hi. Are you busy?”
He laughs. “Hell no. Save me from this piece of shit novel I’m pretending to read. This guy can’t research detonators before he writes a book about an explosives expert?”
Normally this would earn him at least a courtesy laugh, but she’s silent. He sits straighter. “Renee?”
“I’m here. Sorry. It’s been a weird day.”
Another long pause, but he waits this one out. Finally she says, her voice at least a fifth above its usual range, “I need to tell you about Wilson.”
Jack rubs his jaw, grasping for the right response. “I’ll be back for my checkup in two days. You wouldn’t rather do this face-to-face?”
“No.” She exhales so loudly he can hear it. “I figured out last night that I’d rather not look at you while I say this, but I need to tell you. I can’t keep putting it off.”
His body tenses as if preparing for a physical blow. “Okay.” He can still hear Kim and Stephen laughing. The clash with the timbre of Renee’s voice isn’t lost on him. “I’m listening.”
“I tried stress positions,” she says quietly. “Cuffed his arms behind his back and pulled them up.” He could swear he hears her heart beating, but he knows that’s impossible. “I dislocated both of his shoulders, but he still wasn’t talking.”
He remembers the way he used to feel every time he had to read Romeo and Juliet again in undergrad. He knew how the story ended, but every time he heard it, there was some illogical hope that this time it might be different.
“He just kept looking at me. The pain was so bad he had trouble breathing, but it seemed like-” She coughs. “I don’t even know. Like he was laughing inside.” He wraps his free hand around a portion of the comforter and closes it into a tight fist. She's so upset now it would be hard to understand her if he didn’t know her speech patterns so well. “I kept thinking about Larry on the gurney, all the blood. About all the people who died in that apartment building. About the planes and what almost happened on the Metro.” The volume of her voice slips up and down at unpredictable intervals.
Renee’s quiet for a minute. He hears the click of the TV turning off downstairs. “So I blew off one of his kneecaps.”
Oh shit. “Renee-”
“No, Jack. Shut up. Let me finish.”
He obediently falls silent.
“After that he was ready to talk. He gave me everything. All the names. I just stood there and watched him bleed.” Her voice is thick now; he can feel the tears he knows she’s fighting. “Eventually I figured out he’d given me everything he had, so I called a medic.” He hears her jagged breathing. “And President Taylor.”
He has no idea what to say. I understand? Because he does, but everything’s inadequate.
Now that she’s gotten it out, she stops fighting the tears. He can hear her hitched sobs, the way she gasps in air when her body allows it. All he wants is to be in the same room with her.
“Janis was right,” Renee whispers.
“Larry. How he-” She’s crying so hard now she can’t control her voice. “Wouldn’t have wanted me to do it. But I couldn’t-” She stops. “Just let Wilson go. I didn’t know what else to do. I can’t stop thinking that-” Her breath catches violently. “He’d never forgive me. Part of me thought I was doing it for him, but-”
“You did what you had to do. How many people would have died if Wilson’s group had been allowed to keep working?”
“I keep telling myself that, but-” Her breath comes almost in hiccups, and only a few of her syllables rise above a whisper. “I hear Larry’s voice in my head. The disappointment. I have to live with that now. I don’t think it’s ever gonna stop.”
“Yes it will.” The uncontrolled anguish in her voice makes him feel sick. “Or at least it will get quieter.” He doesn’t want to lie.
For a long time she says nothing, and he sits, looking at the blue paisley pattern on his bedspread. Eventually she murmurs, “I wish you were here.”
His throat feels as if someone is squeezing it, hard. “I’ll catch a plane tomorrow.”
“No!” She’s almost hysterical again. “You’re coming back in two days. I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t breathe,” he says quietly.
“Just stay on the phone with me for a minute.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
It must be at least five minutes before she speaks again, but he can tell she’s winding down by the way her breathing quiets, a slow decrescendo. Eventually she says, “I’m so tired. But if I shut my eyes, everything I just told you plays back in my head, over and over.”
For half a second he wishes he could bring himself to say something about China, but he knows he’s not ready to go there. Not yet.
Even for her.
He settles for the only other thing he can think of. “Let me read you some of this book. You can help me count the ways this guy would already be dead.” He’s grasping at straws, but he can’t teleport and he can’t hang up the phone when her voice is still shaking and her breathing still erratic. “If this won’t put you to sleep, nothing will.”
He reopens the book and begins to read aloud. The vocabulary is ninth grade at best, so his voice switches to autopilot while his mind drifts. He thinks about plans and fear and hope, about the future tense and how he’s using it again whether he means to or not, and how Renee is at least fifty percent responsible for that.
The second he hangs up, he’s calling to switch his reservation. She rearranged two months of her life for him. Two days of his is nothing.
She’s been crying on and off for two hours. Her nose is stuffed up and her head hurts. Telling Jack the truth was the right choice – she knows this – but now that she’s finally acknowledged the emotional shitstorm that was that thirty-six hour period, she can’t get anything inside her to settle down again.
When she hears a knock on the door, she mumbles, “Shit.” She sits for a minute, wiping her eyes with damp fingers that only serve to smear her tears around.
Maybe whoever it is will go away.
Another knock. Fuck. She pulls up the hem of her shirt and rubs it over her eyes, then finally gets up.
She throws open the door, expecting one of her neighbors or one of the polite guys in suits who always sneak in to hand out biblical literature.
All she gets out is, “Hi!” It’s embarrassing how much it feels like Christmas morning to her.
“Hi.” He adjusts the duffel on his shoulder. “You look like hell.”
“I’m fine. Come in.”
He walks through the door, drops his bag on the floor. “I didn’t fly back early for the ‘I’m fine’ shit I could have gotten on the phone. So will you cut the crap?” His tone is much softer than his words.
Honestly, she means to answer him. But it hits her all of the sudden, the violence with which she’s missed him, the fact that he came back early just for her, the way his eyes haven’t moved away from her face for a second since she opened the door. Without thinking, she walks right into him, wrapping her arms around his neck.
The tears come back.
She can’t breathe. Again.
He hesitates. Then he pulls her closer, one arm firmly around her waist, the other rubbing softly up and down her back. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “Breathe. We’ll talk later.”
She’s so tired of feeling like hell.
He keeps stroking her back, and the rhythmic motion slowly calms her breathing. She should let go, but she doesn’t want to, so she stays right where she is. When he goes to pull back she shakes her head. “Could you please keep doing that, just for a minute?”
He smiles into her neck. “Yeah.”
So he doesn’t stop, and in another minute she realizes her entire body is warm. She can’t remember the last time everything didn’t hurt. His hands feel so fucking good. She kind of wants him to keep doing this forever. Or-
She wants him.
She almost laughs at the way this feels like a revelation to her, the way their entire relationship is so ridiculous, so backwards.
Moving only a touch, she kisses his neck. Once. Again. His skin is so warm. She slides her mouth up to his jaw line, but when she gets there, his hands still. “Renee-”
How the hell can she tell him? She presses herself into him and kisses his ear.
“Renee.” Louder this time. He backs away a little, lifting his hands to hold her face. She wants to look away because she knows she’s flushed as hell, but she doesn’t. His eyes quietly scan hers. She knows she should open her mouth, say something.
He keeps looking at her, thumbs moving softly over her cheeks. She can hear the tick of his wristwatch near her face. Her heart is racing.
Finally she whispers, “Jack. I need-” She can’t make herself say it. Her cheeks get hotter. “I need you to-”
His lips touch hers.
She’s lost within seconds. Kissing him feels like the definition of want. She doesn’t know how to get enough. Want doesn’t run out. It’s not finite.
“This isn’t why I came back,” he murmurs into her mouth, his thumb rubbing her bottom lip.
“I know.” Her words are barely a breath.
“Take this off.” He’s already pulling at her shirt.
She’s never found clothing so frustrating. All the buttons, zippers, hooks. It feels like an hour and a half before her hands finally slip into the waistband of his boxers as he guides her towards the couch.
Once he’s over her, inside her, she slows down. His hands anchor her shoulders; she’s glad because she feels as if she might fly apart otherwise, like there’s so much lift inside her that gravity could fail. He moves her body with his as he kisses his way leisurely over her chest and up the inside of her throat, stopping when his face touches hers.
“I missed you,” he murmurs, and that’s all it takes.
She comes apart in his arms to the vibration of his voice on her skin and the feeling of being surrounded by everything safe. She’s still drowning when she hears him say her name through the haze.
It takes a while for her to stop floating, so she lays very still and tries to memorize each detail – Jack’s ragged breathing, his calloused fingertips absently stroking her thighs, how his skin smells just like it did the day she walked into his hospital room and realized he wasn’t going to die.
She’s still so shell-shocked. Her default assumption is that anything good could be ripped away in an instant.
Suddenly she notices he’s trembling, and the reminder makes her cold again. “You’re shaking.”
“It’s not the biotoxin.”
She takes a second to let that one sink in. “You’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” He finally looks at her, smoothing her hair away from her face. “I didn’t expect-” He breaks off. “I should know better by now.” He grins, touching her chin, and she’s melting all over again.
“At least grab the quilt so you stop shivering.”
He rolls off of her to reach for the blanket. She runs her hand over his hip and across his stomach before letting it come to rest on his chest. Even now, part of her can’t believe he’s here, naked on her couch, not just a voice at the other end of a sometimes-fuzzy cell connection. She can’t stop touching him, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“What time is it?” he asks out of nowhere.
“I don’t know.” She wiggles until she can make out the green glow of the microwave clock. “Ten-fifteen.”
She raises an eyebrow. “You have a date?”
“Yeah.” He drops his head to her shoulder, kissing her once before resting his lips there. “No, I just-” Pause. “My hotel reservations aren’t until tomorrow night. I should call.”
She’ll never get over how polite he is, how presumption isn’t in him. “You want to go to a hotel?”
He shifts, glancing away from her. “That’s not what I said. But just because-”
“Stay. Please.” Could she sound any more needy right now? “Unless you don’t want to. I want you to.”
His mouth turns up at the corners. “I want to. Trust me.”
Trust me. She turns her head into his shoulder and closes her eyes.
“I’m starving. The peanuts on the plane didn’t cover. . . that.”
His expression makes her want to burst out laughing, but she bites her lip and says, “There’s microwave popcorn. Want me to make some?”
“I don’t even get the real thing?”
“You just got the real thing. Do you want microwave popcorn or not?”
“Yeah. But I’ll make it.” He straddles her for a second getting up; she wonders if she’ll ever be around him now without constantly feeling as if her skin is on fire. He searches the floor for his boxers and pulls them on as he walks toward the kitchen. She’s suddenly so exhausted, so comfortable, that even the slightest movement feels like pushing against concrete.
“If you’re really hungry we can call for takeout,” she says sleepily. “There’s a Chinese place a couple blocks from here that’s still open.”
He’s already pushed the button on the microwave when he turns to look at her. “The popcorn’s fine.” She feels her eyes drifting shut. Suddenly Jack’s voice is much closer to her than his body was what seemed like only seconds before. His hands close over her shoulders, pulling her up. “Renee, come on. Get up.”
“Why?” she protests.
“Because if I leave you here for ten more seconds you’ll be asleep, and I’m not strong enough to carry you to bed yet.”
It occurs to her that two months ago he wouldn’t have admitted that, so she lets him pull her up. With the quilt wrapped haphazardly around her shoulders, he guides her down the hallway. When they reach the bed, he holds her around the waist as he leans over to pull the covers back. Finally he lowers her onto the mattress. “Lift up your shoulders. You’ll be more comfortable without the quilt all bunched up.”
She does as he asks, mumbling, “I’m fine. Go get your popcorn.”
He shakes his head, throwing the quilt aside and pulling the sheet and a light cotton blanket over her. “You took care of me for two months straight. It never occurs to you I might like to return the favor?”
Fair enough. “You’re hungry. I’m not being a very good hostess.” She can’t keep her eyes open anymore.
His voice is soft and warm next to her ear. “There’s not a guy on earth who wouldn’t eat microwave popcorn for a month if he got that kind of reception. Go to sleep.”
She lets herself slip under, stirring only slightly when he finally comes back down the hall, clicks off the lamp, and climbs into bed with her. She remembers feeling the heat of his arm on her stomach, pulling her closer, and the gratitude that tonight, she’s not alone.
At 4:53 a.m., he sits at her kitchen table, his thumb tracing the handle of the coffee mug in front of him. The birds are already chirping, the sky lighter than it was when he gingerly reached for the coffee filters, trying to be as quiet as possible.
It’s been years since he watched someone sleep, but when he snapped awake over an hour ago, he couldn’t help himself. The picture still floats in his mind, glossy and vivid. Her hair spread haphazardly across the off-white of the pillowcase. The rhythmic rise and fall of her shoulders, shifting the light on her skin. The curve of her waist and hip he’d tracked until it vanished beneath the sheet. He’d gotten out of bed when the urge to touch her became so powerful he couldn’t trust himself not to wake her up.
“Planning your escape?”
She leans against the wall at the entrance to the kitchen, wearing the black t-shirt she pulled off him last night.
“No,” he chuffs. The conviction in his voice surprises him. “I probably should be. Did you put that on just to make me crazy?”
“No!” she exclaims, a flush rising up from the neckline of the shirt in question. “I put it on because-” She hesitates. “Forget it.”
She shakes her head; the flush has worked its way to her ears. “Too embarrassing. You made coffee already?”
“Yeah. I was awake anyway.” Sucking in a breath so deep he can feel his chest expanding, he blurts out, “I just watched you sleep for half an hour.” When her eyes widen, he glances down at the smooth wood grain on the table before lifting his gaze to hers again. “Top that.”
“It smells like you,” she murmurs, her response so quiet the hum of the central air almost drowns it out. She doesn’t look at him, but he can see her smiling, just a little.
If he remembers correctly from another lifetime, this morning after awkwardness would normally have him planning the smoothest possible exit strategy, but if there’s one thing he’s learned from being around Renee, it’s that she rewrites his rulebook without his permission approximately every ten minutes.
She still hasn’t looked up when he walks over to her and takes her face in his hands, lifting her chin until her eyes finally catch his. He looks at her for a long, quiet moment, soaking in the way that somehow, although he knows she’s as scared as he is, everything on her face tells him she’s one hundred percent willing to take the risk.
He kisses her then, pressing her up against the wall, enjoying rather than fighting the way his entire body wakes up the second he touches her. His breathing is already uneven when he backs off, resting his forehead on hers.
“I think we’re both screwed,” he whispers.
Something inside of him lifts when her laughter bubbles over and she answers, “Me, too.”
She’s been staring at the same spot on the uniform linoleum floor for at least five minutes. It’s dark brown and almost round, save the little bubble that branches out and breaks up the perfection of the circle. She doesn’t know what it is – coffee, hot chocolate, ice cream. She only knows it’s easier to look at the spot than it is to look at him.
He’s sitting next to her in an identical beige plastic chair. He hasn’t said a word since he came back from checking his luggage and handed her a steaming cup of coffee. She’s still holding it; she wants to take a sip but her throat feels too tight, as if the liquid might get stuck and not make it all the way down.
He never did get a hotel.
Instead, they’ve spent the past week inhabiting the same ten square feet of space unless he had an appointment with Dr. Macer. A couple days ago, when they were watching TV late at night, she’d realized that her legs had been draped over his ever since they sat down. She’d asked suddenly, “Is this bothering you?”
“Ever since you got here, some part of my body seems to be touching some part of yours.”
He’d smoothed his thumb over the curve of her ankle, shooting her the grin that never failed to make her stomach do that instant falling thing. “No, it’s not bothering me at all.”
Now his touch startles her, a hand on her shoulder. She looks up. “I have to go,” he says quietly. “My flight’s boarding in a few minutes.”
She hadn’t heard the announcement. “Okay.” She stands up, trying to breathe against the cinder blocks someone apparently just stuck on her chest. This is all so ridiculous. She’s going to see him again in a month at the most.
She grabs her purse, wrapping her hand tightly around the strap. “You remembered your book, right?”
He smiles. “I did. And that’s the fourth time you’ve asked me that.”
“Sorry.” She wants to look at the floor again, at the spot, at her shoes, at the little old lady with slightly purple hair who was sitting across from her a minute ago.
He reaches for her hand. “This is why I wanted to take a cab.”
“Stop!” she exclaims, pleasantly surprised her voice has that much force. “I can’t wait to hear about your new job. I’m glad you’re going.”
He reaches for her, pulling her into his arms. She wants him to let go, because she swore she was going to get through this without crying and she’s almost made it. He whispers against her hair, “You’re a better liar at work. It’s a good thing, too, or I think we’d both be dead.”
Holding her face in his hands, he touches his lips to hers three times in quick succession, just enough so she can taste the coffee and his aftershave. Her sheets smell like him now. Part of her wants to run home and stick them all in the wash so she doesn’t end up sitting on the couch with her face in his pillow. She hasn’t been this stupid since she was seventeen and Jared Ballinger broke up with her three days before prom.
“I’ll call you when we land.” His voice cracks on the last few syllables. He’s not crying, but his eyes are glassy and she can tell he’s making an effort not to look away from her.
“Okay.” She feels as if there are a minimum of twelve things she should say right now.
“Bye.” His voice is down to a whisper. He touches her face one more time before finally reaching down to grab his carry-on. Then he quickly walks toward security.
He doesn’t look back.
She watches as he moves through the metal detector, collects his bag, and walks down the hall, his distinct shape growing smaller with each step. The coffee’s burning her hand a little, but she doesn’t bother to move it.
Renee forces herself not to stand there for one more second. She’s concentrating on the sound of her own shoes hitting the linoleum when the text alert on her phone goes off. She fumbles for it in her handbag, flipping it open and blinking a few times before she can read the display.
It’s Jack, and it says only, “The 23rd.”
Her eyes sting and everything hurts, but she smiles a little when she realizes the knot in her throat is small enough now to drink the coffee he brought her.
She’s a sadist.
Someone should have warned him.
She’s straddling him on his bed, wearing nothing but a see-through white t-shirt and a green cotton bikini. On her, it’s more erotic than any ensemble Victoria’s Secret could hope to concoct.
He pulls at the hem of her shirt. “Let me take it off.”
“In a minute.” She leans forward, sliding her body up and down over his as her tongue moves in circles over his chest. One of her hands skims along his inner thigh, up and down in a way that ratchets up the longing inside him with each pass.
She caught the red-eye from Minneapolis/St. Paul last night, a final family visit before she starts her new job. In the cab on the way to his apartment, she whispered all the things she planned to do to him once they got there, but she was asleep on his shoulder five minutes later. It was all he could do to navigate both her and her luggage into the elevator.
Now it’s almost noon and obviously she woke up with nothing on her mind but making him lose his. When her mouth replaces her hand on the inside of his thigh, he debates whether he is actually too proud to beg.
Right at this moment, he’s thinking probably not.
Her lips move upward and he breathes in sharply. “Renee.”
She sits up. “Yeah?”
Her eyes dance with teasing laughter. Part of him pretty much wants to flip her over and pin her, but the other part pauses, taking in the joy of seeing her happy. She’s having fun, and he can’t bring himself to stop her.
But maybe he can level the playing field a little.
He takes her right hand, drawing it gently toward him. Slowly, he slips her index finger into his mouth, sucking softly on her skin as he moves his tongue over the curve of her knuckle. He feels her surprised, barely audible oh! all the way down the back of his neck.
Watching her eyes, he knows the exact moment when he has her, when her expression transforms from teasing laughter to something darker and less controlled.
“That’s not fair,” she says quietly. She pulls her finger out of his mouth and raises her arms over her head.
God he loves her.
He hasn’t said it yet, but he will. She knows anyway.
He yanks the t-shirt over her head and watches the way her hair splashes back across her shoulders. He sits up and draws her closer. “Screw fair,” he whispers, kissing his way from the side of her neck to the edge of her lips. “I haven’t seen you in a month. We’ll do slow next time.” His hands are already pushing the bikini lower on her hips.
“Okay.” Even having her voice back in the same room with him is so much better than he remembered.
On the phone, something is lost.
When she finally lowers herself over him and stretches out, skin to skin, he closes his eyes and presses her face into her neck, breathing her in, feeling the rapid flutter of her pulse against his mouth. He’s holding her hips so she can’t move much.
“Let go,” she protests, her mouth soft as it touches his.
“No. Stay still for a minute. Trust me.”
“I don’t want to stay-”
“For me. One minute.”
“One minute,” she murmurs. “That’s it.” She pulls back just far enough to look at him, her face warm and flushed. He feels her body relax against him.
Slowly, he slides his hands up the back of her thighs, fingers gently rubbing every inch of skin until he reaches the top and turns around, slipping his hands to the inside of her legs on the return trip to her knees. She begins to tremble, and he can feel her struggling not to move, not because it’s a contest, but because it’s what he asked her to do. On the third pass she makes a humming noise that rises from her chest and makes him even more crazy because he knows it’s involuntary. On the fourth she finally breathes, “Enough.”
“Yeah.” He shifts his hands to her shoulder blades, rubbing her back as he adds quietly, “I can’t stay still either.”
Her fingers grab his shoulders as her hips press him into the mattress. He closes his eyes, listening to the way her breathing changes, the tiny hmmmmm he wishes he could bottle. He hears her say, Jack. Jesus, as her body shakes against him and her knees tighten over his thighs.
There is nothing sexier on the goddamn planet than holding her while she comes in his arms. He loves the way her attitude about everything else in life extends even here. She’s so honest, so unashamed of how much she wants this.
He’s the one without control now, and he doesn’t care. Hands wrapped around her ribs so he has an anchor, he arches into her, fast. At the last second he wraps his arms all the way around her body, pulling her as close as he knows how, her damp skin hot against his. He’s not even sure she can breathe, but he can’t help it.
Renee. God. He lets himself go, riding the rush and pressing up into her until he’s too relaxed to move. He holds her like that for a long time, his hands sliding absently over her back and through her hair. It smells like strawberries.
She lifts her head and kisses him, still a little out of breath. “I missed you.”
“Shut up,” she mumbles into his shoulder, and his chest tightens when he realizes how relaxed she sounds. Happy.
Finally she rolls of off him and sits up. “I’m thirsty.” She retrieves her t-shirt from where he tossed it on the end of the bed and pulls it on. “You want anything?”
He shakes his head. “I’m good.”
He listens to the sounds of her in his space – the cupboards opening as she looks for a glass, the clink of ice in the cup, the water running, her bare feet coming back down the hall. It’s weird, the way he used to crave solitude and now he . . . doesn’t. He can’t count how many times over the past month he’s hung up after talking with Renee or Kim and thought about how quiet everything was. And not in the good way.
Renee crawls back into bed, drinking the last few sips of water before she sits the glass on the nightstand. He can’t stop watching her. “What?” she asks, burrowing back down into the covers and pulling the quilt up to her chest.
“Nothing. I’m-” He shakes his head. “Glad you’re here.”
“We should get up.”
She yawns. “Why?”
“Because it’s almost one? You said you hadn’t been to the city for a while. Isn’t there anything you want to do?”
She smirks. “We already did what I wanted to do.”
She still catches him off guard with that stuff. Sometimes he wonders if he’s forgotten how people act when they’re not running from something. “Besides that,” he clarifies, touching her fingers.
“Not really.” She pauses. “I need to start looking for an apartment, but I wasn’t planning to do that today.”
Though he’s never talked a lot, he’s always considered himself an articulate person. Like everything else, she turns that upside down. He’s an idiot. Why wouldn’t she be planning to look for an apartment? He never asked her if she wanted to stay with him. After the week in DC he sort of assumed. . .
Shit. Does the fact that she’s bringing it up mean she wants to get her own place? He truly has no idea how these things work anymore. He’s clueless.
She wrinkles her forehead. “What’s wrong? I know you’ll be working. You don’t have to help. I just didn’t want to start looking until I was actually here.”
“No, it’s not that.” He pauses. “Do you want your own apartment?”
The room is suddenly very quiet. He can hear the tiny click of his bedside alarm clock. Renee looks as if she’s trying to solve a math problem that’s a touch above her comprehension level. After a second she says, “That feels like one of those questions that doesn’t have a right answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I say no, I’m needy and presumptuous. If I say yes, I don’t want to stay with you.” He hasn’t seen her this serious since she finally unloaded the Wilson mess on him.
He can feel his heartbeat in his ears, a weird rushing. “I guess I figured that since-” He breaks off, trying to decide if there’s a better place to start. Ultimately he decides to stop screwing around, say it, and deal with whatever blowback brutal honesty earns him. “I wish you’d stay here. If you want to.” He must sound like a teenager negotiating the verbal physics of asking the head cheerleader to a dance.
She twines her fingers with his, looking down at their hands before her eyes meet his again. “I want to. You just hadn’t said anything and I know how you are about privacy. Being alone.”
“You’d be surprised,” he says quickly. “I enjoy it a lot less than I used to.” He smoothes his thumb over the inside of her wrist, soaking up the pleasure of being able to touch her again. “I blame you.” After a second he adds, “I haven’t lived with anyone since Teri. I’m probably terrible at it.”
She leans back into the pillow. “I haven’t lived with anyone since college. I can almost guarantee I’ll be terrible at it. But-”
“I’m not trying to scare you. But it seems a little ridiculous to be catching a cab to somewhere else at three-thirty in the morning when I don’t want to be somewhere else anyway.”
“You’re not scaring me,” he murmurs.
“It doesn’t worry you at all, the thought of us living and working together?”
“That’s it? Just ‘no?’”
“It worked out pretty well the last time we tried it.” When she still looks skeptical he adds, “I’m sure we’ll fight occasionally, but the making up part is fun, so I’m fine with that.” He pushes the blankets back. “I’m gonna take a shower. Feel free to join me if you ever decide to get out of bed.”
He turns the water on as hot as it will go, smiling when he hears the click of the doorknob turning not thirty seconds later.
She fiddles with the zipper of her suitcase, glancing around the unfamiliar room and wishing she couldn’t hear through the wall. She’s eavesdropping without meaning to; it makes her tense and uncomfortable.
“Dad. What’s wrong? Did you forget something?”
Jack’s voice is low. “Not that I know of. Kim, you didn’t have to put us in the same room. I can sleep in the guest room.”
Silence for a second. “You’re joking, right?” Renee can hear the amusement in Kim’s voice.
“No. I assumed that’s where I’d sleep.”
“Dad, you guys live together.”
“That doesn’t mean-”
“Does she sleep in the guest bedroom at home?” Kim’s teasing tone both amuses Renee and makes her cringe. She’d do anything to escape the rest of this conversation, but there’s only one way out of the room.
Jack pauses. “No.” Renee presses her lips together so she won’t laugh out loud.
“I didn’t think so. Why are we having this conversation again?”
“This isn’t our apartment, sweetheart. I don’t-” Renee looks at the stack of fluffy deep blue towels on the end of the dresser and wonders how Jack plans to finish his sentence. She can practically see him rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”
“Dad.” The teasing tone is gone now, and when Kim speaks again, Renee’s stomach starts to hurt. “I know you think this bothers me, because of Mom. Because of. . . whatever. It doesn’t. I like her. And you know what I like even more?”
“I’ve never seen you as relaxed as you are when she’s here. You don’t fidget. You don’t always look as if you’re waiting for something. It’s-” Renee realizes she’s holding her breath and exhales quietly. “Nice. So get over it and go put away your stuff before Stephen gets back with enough Indian food to kill us all, okay?”
“Okay.” She hears Jack moving towards the door and quickly grabs a shirt from the top of her suitcase so she’ll look busy when he walks in.
God this is weird.
She’s never been able to sleep well in unfamiliar beds.
She opens her eyes for the third time since they crawled in at midnight, squinting into the darkness to make out the red numbers on the alarm clock. 3:27. Excellent. The house is quiet save the lulling drone of air flowing through the vents.
Jack’s side of the bed is empty.
She tiptoes down the stairs, worried about waking Teri despite Kim’s insistence that the child sleeps through anything. No matter how warm the welcome has been, Renee can’t shake the feeling that she’s an intruder, that she doesn’t belong with Jack in his daughter’s house on the most family-centered holiday of the year. She made the case for each of them to go home, but Jack was adamant about how much he wanted her to spend time with Kim and Teri. She thinks they’re wonderful, she does. It’s just that every time she stands next to Jack in Kim’s house, she feels like a technicolor reminder of his wife’s absence.
It’s not her place. At least not here.
She finds Jack in the kitchen, sitting on one of Kim and Stephen’s tall barstools that scoot up against the overhanging counter. He’s looking at an undefined point in space somewhere near the fridge, idly stirring some steaming beverage. The spoon makes tiny clinks against the mug with each rotation.
“You know if you really didn’t wanna sleep with me, you should have lobbied harder for the guest bedroom.”
Jack looks up and sighs, pulling out the stool next to him so she can sit. “You heard, huh?”
“It was a little hard not to. I wasn’t trying.”
“I know. I should have taken that entire conversation somewhere else. I’m sorry.”
She grins, scooting up on the stool. “Don’t be. It’s cute when you get all old-fashioned.”
“Shut up,” he mumbles, but she can see the tiny smile flirting with the edges of his mouth. She’s not gonna lie – it’s a rush to have someone so entirely wrapped around her finger. She thinks maybe she likes it a little too much.
Jack touches the small of her back, pulling her over and rubbing gently. “I made hot chocolate. The milk’s probably still warm if you want some.”
“That sounds great. I’m freezing.” She gets up to grab a mug, filling it with milk and dumping in more Quik than is probably healthy or necessary. Screw it. “You’re not much help with the freezing part when you keep disappearing,” she adds. Her tone is light, but she wants to know what’s going on with him, why he doesn’t seem to be able to settle down when he’s been looking forward to this vacation for months now.
“What type of stuff did you put on your Christmas list when you were a kid?” he asks, sipping from his mug that’s decorated with a snowman pirouetting around a frozen pond. The incongruity of the image makes her smile.
“Um.” She wiggles onto the stool again, her thigh pressing comfortably against his. “I wasn’t into dolls or craftsy stuff or a lot of the things people usually give girls. I liked Legos, puzzles with a lot of pieces, books that were probably way above my maturity level.” She takes a sip of her drink, and damn if that extra chocolate doesn’t taste amazing. “What about you?”
“I wanted to build everything. At first it was Legos and Lincoln Logs, but then I got really into models, especially planes. I’d spend hours in my room making sure I didn’t screw anything up, so when I was finished there wasn’t a drop of paint out of place.” He takes another swallow of hot chocolate and adds quietly, “Ironic given what I do now, isn’t it?”
“Don’t do that. Please.” Faintly, she can hear Elvis singing, “Why Can’t Every Day Be Like Christmas.” Kim loves Christmas so much she leaves the radio on 24/7, even when no one’s in the kitchen to listen to it.
“I’m sorry. I’m in a really strange mood.”
“So talk to me.” She’s proud of herself for saying it; a few months ago she probably wouldn’t have.
“I would if I knew how to explain it!” he exclaims, more vehement than she expected. “I’m not sure-“ His hand covers her knee. “You don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth. When Dr. Macer put that needle in my arm, it seemed . . . right. Like when everything had been analyzed, it was the only logical conclusion.”
Her whole abdomen tightens. She isn’t sure she’ll ever be able to hear him talk about that period of time without feeling vaguely as if she might throw up. It conjures for her images of herself, standing quietly in the warehouse long after they had wheeled him away. She’d stared glassy-eyed at the exact place where he’d disappeared from her field of vision, somehow sure the excruciating pain inside of her had to have some sort of physical manifestation.
Suddenly she feels the anger, not intense, but present. “So you’re sorry now? That Kim did what she did?”
His eyes widen and he reaches out to wrap his hand gently around the back of her neck. “God, no.” Pause. “Shit. Not at all. Maybe it’s just that-” His thumb moves in a circle under her ear, and he’s looking at her now with that expression she can never fight, no matter how angry she is. “I think this season reminds me of all the gifts I have that I don’t feel I deserve. Kim, Teri.” His voice catches. “You.”
“You know how I feel about that,” she whispers. “You never think you deserve anything. That’s why you’d be dead now if Kim hadn’t decided you were an idiot.” She pauses, but she’s on a little bit of a roll now. “Maybe you were at peace with the idea of your death. But I wasn’t. Kim wasn’t.”
Her throat’s doing that thing where it tightens up and her words sound funny. “I never told you this,” she continues, words uneven, “But after you talked to Kim I almost pulled her aside and asked her to give you the treatment anyway. Even though you didn’t want it.” She looks at the speckled grey granite of Kim’s counter. “I didn’t know her well enough, didn’t think it was my place. And I was trying really hard to respect your wishes. But I wanted to beat the shit out of both of you, whatever it took to force you to change your mind.”
“I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe it was selfish and I was trying to rationalize-” He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
She stares at the steam still rising from her hot chocolate, wishing she weren’t thinking about any of this on her favorite holiday of the year.
“Part of me isn’t sorry,” she blurts out.
He rubs a hand over his eyes as if that might clear up his confusion over her apparent subject change. “Sorry for what?”
“The day I met you. The day everything went to hell. The day Larry-” She breaks off, breathing in deeply, trying to steady her voice. “If that day hadn’t happened the way it did, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. And I don’t-” The guilt feels like a physical presence again. It hasn’t been this bad in months. “Want to be anywhere else.” She pauses. “What kind of awful person does that make me?”
He’s quiet for a least a full minute, and she only loves him more for not trying to pretend he doesn’t know what she’s asking and why it matters. He says softly, “Nothing that happened that day was your choice. It’s not wrong to look for one positive thing, to be grateful that something good resulted from such a fucked up mess.”
His hand slips to the curve of her shoulder, squeezing gently. “Come on, it’s Christmas Eve. Let’s go back to bed. I’m sure Teri will be up at six.” He pauses. “What if she doesn’t like anything we bought her?”
Renee slides off the stool. “We bought her at least ten different things. The odds are high she’ll like at least one of them.”
He slips his hand into hers as they walk toward the stairs. “You’re sure?”
She grins in the near-darkness. “I’m pretty sure.”
He hasn’t celebrated Christmas since Teri died.
He can’t quite believe the number of things he’s. . . not forgotten exactly. Maybe just pushed so far into the back of his mind he had no idea they remained. The smell of coffee, bacon, and raspberry pastry. Christmas music drifting from the wireless speakers Stephen has built into the living room. At the moment it’s Stevie Nicks’ version of “Silent Night.” The Christmas tree sparkling with hundreds of tiny lights, each one glowing with a mini-halo. He has to sip his coffee quickly when he notices that Kim still has at least five of the ornaments she made in grade school.
It feels a little like thawing, he imagines.
He’s reclined into the corner of Kim’s huge couch, feet up on the coffee table, sipping his second extra-large mug of coffee. Teri was up at five-thirty. Now she’s by the tree in her snowman footie pajamas, pulling at the present Kim’s holding.
“It’s not even your turn, pumpkin. Can you give this to Renee?” Teri pauses for a second, then obediently walks over and hands the present to Renee. She stands there, looking at the box expectantly.
“Would you like to help me open it?” Renee pushes her hair behind her ear and takes another large sip of coffee. Teri nods. “Okay. You take that end.” Renee sits her mug on the end table and begins to rip at the paper. Jack watches their hands working in tandem, the shiny red, green, and gold blurring in his vision.
Renee finally pulls the cardboard box open and lifts out the contents, carefully. It’s a framed photo of Jack and Teri. Nothing posed, just the two of them by the swingset in the backyard. Kim says with a shy grin, “You were saying how you wanted one for your office, so I thought-” She shoots a look at Jack. “You have no idea how hard it was to find one where he’s actually in the picture.”
“I can guess.” Renee looks up smiling. “I love it.”
Teri’s already back by the tree, bouncing with the desire to move it along so it will be her turn again. Kim pushes aside a huge box that has to be some kind of toy and pulls out a smaller flat one. “Take this to grandpa, baby.” She glances at Jack. “This one’s from Renee, in case you can’t see the tag before someone starts ripping off the paper.”
He watches his granddaughter run toward him, already so much more steady on her feet than she was when he first saw her. She hands him the box and climbs automatically into his lap. “So you’re opening all the presents?” She giggles and reaches for the end of the box.
“Just this end,” she clarifies, her consonants still fuzzy.
“Okay.” He rips at the tape, letting Teri pull the paper away before he opens the box.
It’s a shirt. A standard striped shirt for work. Nothing special.
Only it is, because now he flashes back to what must have been more than a month ago. He was sitting in bed with Renee, reading while she leafed through a catalogue. He’d glanced over occasionally, mostly out of amusement at the models’ white teeth and relentless cheer. When he saw the shirt in front of him he’d said something like, “That one’s nice.” She’d responded with a noncommittal, “Um hmm,” and he’d gone back to his book.
“That is the one you liked, right?” The uncertainty – the fact that even after all this time she can still be so unsure – makes something inside him ache. He still has to figure out how to navigate gifts, the ones that come in boxes and the ones that don’t.
“Yes. It’s great.” He wraps his fingers over her bare ankle and leaves them there, watching the surprise that washes over her face.
An insistent beeping from the kitchen cuts through the overhead music, and Stephen clicks off the video camera. “Quick break. I have to put the turkey in the oven.” He walks toward the kitchen, calling over his shoulder. “Hey Kim. Did you leave the stuffing in the fridge?”
She pulls Teri’s hand away from another present, handing her a new stuffed dolphin as a substitute. “Yeah. I’m right behind you. The sweet potatoes have to marinate.” Picking Teri up, she walks past the coffee table, “Renee, were you gonna show me that recipe you found with the. . . what was it that sounded so disgusting?”
Renee grins. “Rosemary and turmeric. You don’t have to try it on Christmas, though!”
“No, it’s the perfect time.” Kim transfers Teri to her other hip. “Then if it’s as awful as it sounds, we all suffer together. Come show me.” She disappears into the kitchen.
Renee stands up to follow, trailing her fingers over the inside of Jack’s arm. She catches his eye for a second. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” He looks at her, still wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and pajama pants, a touch of yesterday’s eyeliner smudged under her eyes. “I’m great. You?”
“Good.” Impulsively, she leans over and kisses him, barely long enough for him to taste the coffee she’s been mainlining since she crawled out of bed. “I’m gonna go help Kim.”
When she leaves the room, it’s suddenly quiet again. Jack stares at the tree, focusing on a star Kim brought home from school in second grade. It’s decorated with silver, red, and green glitter, and in the middle it says in the painstakingly neat cursive only second graders can create, “Merry Christmas Mom and Dad. Love, Kim.”
He thinks it’s surprising how much one person can hold, and that maybe there’s some sort of terrible irony in the fact that he wouldn’t appreciate this life handed back to him so much if the first one hadn’t been wrenched away.
Then he thinks he’s getting way too weighty for Christmas morning.
“Dad!” Kim yells from the kitchen. “Will you go downstairs and see if you can find a light bulb for the stove? This one just blew.” He hears her laughing. “And take Teri off the table while you’re at it?”
He stands quickly, throwing one more glance at the tree. “On my way.”