Characters: Jack, Renee, little Teri
Summary: He’d always assumed that on the off chance he ever made it back to this place, he’d be alone.
Warnings: S8 AU, hurt/comfort, language
Disclaimer: They’re not mine, but it’s super fun to borrow them.
A/N: Under the cut.
A/N: These are two ficlets that connect in my head for whatever reason. They started out as responses to the Makeout Meme, but as usual, me + Jack/Renee fic = brevity fail. I’m putting them up because the lack of fic on the comm has me so bummed. As ever, thanks to lowriseflare for reading and support and to adrenalin211 for kicking my ass.
Title is taken from lyrics in Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Water’s Edge.’
“Damn. You weren’t kidding.”
“About what?” Jack takes his eyes off the dusty path for a second to glance at Renee. She’s reclined in the passenger seat of the battered brown F-250 he rented, bare feet on the dashboard, right elbow hanging out the window. The wind lifts her hair and he grins at the array of freckles (briefly broken by the strap of her deep blue tank top) that cover her shoulders.
“About this place being in the middle of nowhere. I haven’t seen another car in twenty minutes.” She pulls a potato chip out of the bag between them and sticks it in her mouth, crunching. “Is this even a road?”
“Sort of.” He swerves to avoid a foot-deep rut. “You probably won’t see another car until we go back. We’re on private property.”
“We are?” She turns her head toward him, and he can tell without moving his eyes that she has that focused look, the one she gets when she’s this close to putting the pieces together. “Whose property?”
“Jack, what are you-”
“My father owned a lot of shit when he died. I’ve gotten rid of most of it, but . . . ” He’s not sure how to finish that sentence, so he lets it fade away as he takes the sharp left turn that brings the river into view. Water kicks up foam and spray as it rushes over the rocks.
“Wow.” Renee’s sitting straight up now, her feet on the muddy floor mat. “Holy shit. Can we stop here for a minute?”
“We can stop here for as long as you want.” He pulls the truck another hundred yards ahead and brakes, tires tossing up dust. “This is what I wanted to show you.”
Renee jumps out and slams the door. Still barefoot, she runs to the edge of the river and leans over, cuffing her jeans. In seconds, she’s wading through the shallows. He watches, sun hot and prickly on the back of his neck, as she makes her way out to a large rock that sits maybe twenty yards into the river. With one calculated leap (he still holds his breath when she does things like this, not that he’d cop to it in a million years -- she’d kill him) she’s up on the rock, twisting her hair into a ponytail and looking over her shoulder. “You coming?”
“Yeah.” He kicks off his shoes and yanks up the cuffs of his own jeans, walking out to meet her, the water cool and soothing on his tired, dusty feet.
He pulls himself up beside her and looks around. Whipped up white on the water, brown-red ridges on the distant rocks, blinding blue sky that doesn’t seem to have an endpoint.
He tries to breathe slowly, suppressing the instinctive panic as he allows the memories to surface. Some of them rise up whole, like the day Cheng executed Hong. Others bubble in fragments -- thirst so severe he’d drink the dirty dishwater they brought him, blistering burns on his skin, spike of cracked ribs when he tried to inhale, hovering terror that Cheng might not be lying about Kim.
He’d always assumed that on the off chance he ever made it back to this place, he’d be alone.
Instead she’s here, knees drawn up to her chest, chin resting on her forearms. Anyone else, he thinks, would have asked him five questions by now.
She hasn’t said a word.
“This is what I thought about.” His voice cracks; he’s not surprised. He rests a hand on her foot and adds, “In China.”
Her head snaps up, and when her eyes catch his they don’t let go. He watches the pain that drifts there, in her expression, and he wonders if he’s wrong to withhold, if her imagination makes it worse than the truth of what happened.
Then he realizes the idiocy of that idea, because every day he was gone, every day he woke up still breathing, he knew dying would have been easier.
They don’t talk about it.
Even though he wakes up once or twice a week, sweat-soaked, gulping in air or screaming Kim’s name. Even though Renee sometimes stirs hot chocolate on the stove (The microwave doesn’t make it as hot, she insists) at 3 a.m., sits by him at the table while he calms to the hum of the fridge and the heat of her hand on his arm (to be fair, this ritual is often treatment for the horrors in her dreams, too). Even though she sees his scars when he gets dressed, or when she touches them with mischievous, teasing fingers (overwriting, not erasing) until he’s breathing hard into her mouth.
In the end, bringing her here was the only thing he could think of, a way to confront the clusterfuck without dealing in details.
“I don’t blame you. It’s where I-” She rubs her finger over the thin white threads that stretch across a hole in her jeans before glancing back up. “This is where I would have gone, too. In my head.” She scoots sideways until her arm is flush against his, shoulder to elbow.
Every time she touches him, it’s a validation of his choice to stop running, a reminder that human contact doesn’t have to hurt.
Later, after he’s made sure to douse every persistent ember of the fire he built, they throw a sleeping bag on the hard bed of the truck and slide in. She slips her freezing feet in between his ankles (just like she does at home), and searches for his fingers in the dark. He stares up at the stars scattered everywhere across the sky, crazy bright collections of light he can never see from their balcony in L.A.
After a long quiet, she whispers (even though there’s no one around for miles), “When they had you, all that time, did you ever really think you’d make it back here?”
He leans over and kisses her. Even though he’s experienced the rush of her mouth touching his hundreds of times now, she still tastes like she did that first morning.
Like a gift.
He lets her go and glances back up at the sky. “But I didn’t think a lot of things.”
“Grampa, I can’t find my mitten!” Teri’s voice rises to an anguished shriek on the final syllable.
Renee watches as Jack strides over to his granddaughter, clapping snow off his gloves. He kneels down in front of her. “It’s okay. Where were you when you dropped it?” He slips his hands free and rubs Teri’s tiny fingers between them.
“Over there I think, when I fell.” Her shoulders hitch, and she points toward a nearby grove of pine trees with her still-covered hand.
“I’ll find it,” Renee says automatically, although what she wants to do is go back inside the ski lodge and drink three cups of hot chocolate, then curl up in front of their suite’s fireplace and finish the crossword she started last night, feet in Jack’s lap to keep them warm.
“Thanks. I’m gonna take her inside and find Kim, if that’s okay. She’s kinda had it.” He swings Teri up in his arms and Renee can’t help smiling when Teri buries her face in Jack’s neck, blond hair a sparkling contrast to his black ski jacket.
“Yeah. I’ll be right in.” She trudges in the direction Teri indicated, realizing that she can’t feel her fingers or her toes. She can literally watch the sun sinking -- bands of pink, purple, and orange criss-crossing the sky, the shadows on the slope stretching. Scanning the white snow for any stray flashes of fuchsia, she blinks away the grit in her eyelids.
She didn’t sleep last night. Could be the unfamiliar location -- she has no idea -- but the nightmares that stayed away for months have resurfaced, fierce, a horrifying subconscious invasion she finds herself powerless to repel. And it’s worse this time, because the prolonged absence of the visceral dreams made their sudden, violent return unexpected. She feels defenseless.
Renee shakes her head, snow sliding out of her hair onto her parka. Find the fucking mitten. Then you can go inside. But after ten minutes of walking in circles, around and through the trees where she and Jack saw Teri stumble, she sees nothing but snow and pine needles. The bright colored bands of sky are gone now, replaced with the pale grey that will fade to a stunning midnight blue she’ll be able to see from the suite’s curved bay window. She swallows, blinking again and again, furious at the tears she can feel washing into her eyes.
She jumps and looks up sharply. Jack’s walking toward her, hands buried in his pockets.
She clears her throat. “No, still looking.”
“Hey. What happened?”
She ignores his question and takes a few steps away from him (safer), wills the tears to vanish. “It’s got to be somewhere around here.”
“Renee. Stop. Look at me.”
“No, just help me find this damn thing so I can go inside before my toes freeze off.”
He pauses. “Okay.” After scanning the ground for a minute, he moves a few feet away and bends over, snatching a fuchsia scrap from the snow. “Found it.”
“Great. Let’s go.” She’s shaking now, Molotov cocktail of cold, fear, and frustration.
“Hold on.” Jack takes her arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She squeezes her frozen fingers into a ball inside her mitten.
He studies her. “Well come here for a second. You’re freezing.”
Before she knows what’s happening, she’s not only in his arms but inside his coat, heat of his body against her chest and the down jacket a protective covering around her back, like wings. She presses her mouth into his neck and breathes him -- aftershave, sweat, chocolate Teri must have smeared there when he was holding her.
“I know you didn’t sleep,” he whispers, tightening the coat. “Will you tell me, later?” He kisses her cheek, three times, his lips so warm they almost sting. “Please?”
Her words are stuck, but she nods.
She still forgets, sometimes, the kind of cold that isn’t permanent.
The kind that can melt.
Later, stretched out in front of the fire, sipping hot chocolate with her legs thrown across his lap, she’ll tell him. When she goes to sleep, she’ll have the same dream. Vladimir, the glass, his fingers yanking her hair, the lazy smirk on his face as he pushed her down. She’ll wake up crying, Jack’s hands on her face, his voice an irresistible force, pulling her back from that edge.
I’m sorry. It’s okay. Breathe. You’re okay. I know.
She’ll let Jack strip off her sweaty pajama top and curl her into his chest.
Then they’ll play the game she started that first morning, right before her body gave up.
Tell me one good thing you remember. One thing, from before.
And she’ll fall sleep with Jack’s hand on her shoulder, calm cadence of his voice completing the thaw.