Characters: Jack, Renee, Kim, Stephen, Little!Teri, Chloe, Karen
Summary: Slightly angsty/very smushy snapshots of Jack and Renee in a post S7 AU.
Warnings: Language; sexual situations. AU and a touch cracky. If you dislike Jack/Renee smush or prefer your fic without humor, definitely skip this.
Disclaimer: They’re so not mine, which often makes me cry because I can’t make them do what I want;)
A/N: Under the cut, because it’s long.
A/N: In my usual style, I managed to turn something that was supposed to be a short goofy fic into a 7000+ word. . . something? Parts of this are definitely crack!fic, so if that’s not your thing, skip it. The universe here is meant to be coherent but there are lots of gaps, so be prepared for logic to take a vacation. The ficlets that follow are for poeelektra (the first two) and adrenalin211 (the last two), based on Five Things prompts I asked for. The first blip in the coffee section also covers a meme from long ago for marinw, because this is probably as close to Jack/Bill fic as I’m ever going to get. Thanks to Jess, Katie, and especially Adrienne for reading this in bits and pieces and putting up with my relentless headdesking when I couldn’t get it right. Also, thanks to cybertoothtiger for reading and commenting on part of a draft. Turns out I can’t write well enough to take your advice, but I tried!
My next fic will be filled with nothing but angst. Promise. Everyone will betray everyone else and then die a horrible death. True story.
Five Things Jack Will Never Tell Renee
Every night before he goes to bed, he finds her phone, checks the battery, and plugs it in if it’s down to one bar. Most of the time she remembers, so it’s only once every three weeks or so that he has to search all over the apartment for her charger. He always gets up before she does, so he can unplug it and put it back wherever the hell she left it. Given that she leaves it everywhere, he figures trying to remember every now and then is a good substitute for crossword puzzles or fucking Sudoku.
If he’s too tired or missed coffee that morning, and he’s been staring out the window of the same van for two hours, so sick of waiting and inactivity that he wants to punch something, often the sound of her voice on the comm is all it takes to wind him down a notch. It reminds him that the job isn’t everything, that finally he has a life to look forward to when he walks away at the end of the day. It also closes his throat sometimes, but he doesn’t tell her that either.
He spent a week prepping and rehearsing his “If you want marriage and kids and a traditional life, I understand, and I won’t do anything to stop you” speech. He had to deliver it sitting down, because he was so fucking scared she might actually take him up on it.
He misses Teri. All the time. Sometimes it’s worse now that he’s watching their granddaughter grow up in front of him. Unexpectedly, she’ll make a face so much like her grandmother’s that he has to put his hand on something or dig his fingernails into his palm. Then he’ll watch the little girl kneeling next to Renee on the couch, leaning over a Franklin book, and wonder how the hell he manages to stand there and not be crushed by the emotional tsunami so powerful he’s amazed nobody else can see it.
The first time Renee told him she loved him, he wanted to say it back right then. He just couldn’t talk.
Five Things Renee Will Never Tell Jack
She knows he screws with her phone.
The night Kim called to tell her Jack was probably going to make it, she went into the kitchen, pulled a dust-covered bottle of tequila off the top of her fridge, unscrewed the cap (took her a second because her hands wouldn’t stop shaking), and drank a relatively ridiculous amount straight from the bottle. Then she threw herself down on her bed fully clothed, holding fistfuls of the down comforter in each hand and gazing at the ceiling for three or four hours, the random smile sliding across her face again and again until finally she was so drained that her hands relaxed and her eyes slipped shut.
When he’s home and she’s getting ready for bed, she always waits to change until he’s in the room with her. Apparently something about this situation brings out her inner exhibitionist, which for god’s sake is usually buried pretty deep. Still, it’s irresistible, how regardless of what he’s doing (reading, brushing his teeth, going over a file), his eyes snap up the instant she pulls off her shirt. Also, it often makes her want to push him down on the bed and put her mouth all over whichever part of his skin is closest.
If there’s a full moon, or she slept for two hours, or she’s PMSing, or she’s pissed off at him for something, or one of her college friends just posted another endless Facebook spread of her six-year-old’s birthday party (fifty-eight pictures of the same child, usually having moved about a millimeter between shots), she wonders, just for a second, what their kids would have looked like. Then she rubs her eyes so hard it hurts, turns off her computer, and goes for a long run.
One of her greatest sources of happiness in this life is watching him with Teri. There’s something about his face when he’s near his granddaughter -- no filters, no reservations, no holding back. When he’s with Teri and he laughs, sometimes Renee has to turn aside, get a glass of water, find a way to distract herself. Part of her breaks into pieces every time she sees them playing Tic Tac Toe or reading Goodnight Moon, because the picture inevitably reminds her she’s witnessing something Jack’s wife will never see. It’s not fair, and the truth is that if it were in her power to change the situation, she’d give him back.
Five Times Renee Accidentally Provoked An Erection (and one time she did it on purpose)
“If Callahan doesn’t come out of there in fifteen minutes, I’m going in. She can take me hostage. At least she has air conditioning.” Moving with unexpected speed, Renee grabs one of the water bottles from the floor of the van, unscrews the top, and dumps at least half of it over her face and hair. “It’s hotter than hell in here.”
Jack watches as several drops of water trail past her temple, over her cheekbone, and down the side of her neck before disappearing into the emerald green hem of her shirt. He crosses his ankles and looks out the window.
“Are you Mr. Bauer?” The man looks ridiculously young to be a doctor, but Jack tries not to think about that.
“Yes. What’s her condition?”
“She’s fine. The bullet barely grazed her arm.”
Jack breathes out, his shoulders relaxing. “What about her head? She lost consciousness for at least a minute.”
Dr. McNair (so it says on his name tag) looks down at the chart in his hands, flipping the top page back. “Yes, and at first we were concerned about that. But the CT scan is completely normal. My assumption is that it was a coincidence. She’s dehydrated, and when I asked her the last time she ate, she had to think about it.” He fixes Jack with an even, condescending stare. “She needs to take it easy for a few days. I talked to her, but I hope you’ll help the message sink in?”
“Good. She says she needs to speak with you.”
“Thank you.” Jack pushes open the door to the room, averting his eyes immediately when he realizes Renee is sitting on the edge of the bed in nothing but jeans and a hospital gown that leaves almost nothing to the imagination. He only caught a glimpse, but the outline of her deep green bra is already seared into his memory.
“Jack. What the hell happened? Did you find Tyner? When can I get out of here?”
He walks toward her, keeping his eyes above her neck, immensely grateful that he’s holding his coat in front of him. “Calm down. We got Tyner. And apparently you need to be better about eating your Wheaties, or whatever those fucking commercials say.”
“Those commercials are like twenty years old, Jack.”
“What’s your point?”
She smirks, shaking her head. “Nothing. Can we go?” Her eyes dart around the room, searching for something.
“What are you looking for?”
“My shirt. What’s left of it.” She pauses. “It’s there by the sink. Could you grab it for me?”
“Yeah.” He retrieves the shirt and gives it to her, clutching his coat even more tightly with his free hand.
“The movie’s over, Jack.”
He opens his eyes and blinks a couple times, Renee’s living room snapping back into focus. He’s halfway horizontal against the back of her couch, legs stretched in front of him. He’s been here a lot recently. Truthfully, he’s not quite clear on what they’re doing, and he’s pretty sure she isn’t either. What he does know is that being here increasingly reminds him of staring down a very dangerous animal through a potentially unpredictable fence.
“I didn’t expect you to love it that much,” she says dryly.
“I loved it. Especially the part where some stuff happened at that place.” He yawns.
“Uh huh. Where’s the remote?”
He turns his head slightly. “Over here.”
“So turn off the TV.”
“You turn it off. I’m unconscious.”
“Fine.” She leans over his lap, and in a nanosecond he is definitively no longer sleepy at all. Her jeans stretch over the curve of her ass, inches from his hand, and her breasts press through denim into his thigh. She’s up in half a second, clicking off the TV and strolling toward the kitchen. “I’m gonna have to make you coffee to get you off my couch, aren’t I?”
He clears his throat, glancing around in a panic until he spies the polartec blanket she tossed over the end of the couch earlier. Grabbing it, he throws it over his lap and says as nonchalantly as possible, “Coffee sounds good. You should turn up the heat, too. It’s freezing in here.”
“This is such a goddamn waste of time,” he mutters under his breath, flexing both hands open and shut as he glares at the overenthusiastic martial arts instructor standing at the front of the room. “I need to get the data analysis on MetroTech from Chloe.”
“You’re just worried I might take you,” she whispers. “That’s why you tried to partner up with Briggs.”
He chuffs. “I tried to partner up with Briggs because it’s fun to screw with him. Take me down in ten seconds if it gets us out of here. Please.”
When the bouncy instructor gives the signal, Renee lunges. He has her arm in a split second but she’s too fast for him, twisting against his grip with remarkable force and pivoting so that her foot catches his ankle as her knee slams into his.
He smashes face down into the mat a beat before she lands directly on top of him, breathing quickly. She’s got his one of his arms firmly pinned behind his back, and he can feel the curves of her body covering his, the thud of her pulse through her shirt.
He swallows and whispers, “Could you wait a second before you get up?”
Out of the corner of his eye he catches the flush that climbs up her chest into her face.
“Sorry,” she mutters, relaxing her grip.
She strolls into CTU at 8:53 on a Wednesday morning wearing the same navy blue cashmere sweater she was wearing the first time they had sex.
Jack recalls the satiny slide of the fabric on his palms, how he pushed it up impatiently, all in a rush to touch the heat of her skin underneath. He remembers the material on his fingertips as he moved it aside to press his lips into her shoulder, her tiny gasp when the warmth of his tongue flickered over the hollow of her throat. He closes his eyes just for a second against the image of her arms lifted over her head, the sweater floating out of his hands as he flung it aside and watched her hair fall back onto her bare skin.
Oblivious, Renee tosses him a quick smile as she shrugs out of her coat and goes to pour herself some coffee.
He’s glad he’s sitting down.
Chloe walks by, glancing up from the stack of papers clutched in her arm. “Jack. Are you coming? The meeting starts in like two minutes.”
He clenches the fist she can’t see and replies evenly, “Yeah. I’ll be right there. I-” Think of something, asshole. “Have to make a phone call.”
She looks at him funny. “Well hurry up. None of us need Hastings’ attitude if you’re late.”
“I know.” He swallows again, groaning inwardly when he realizes that Renee’s following Chloe up the stairs.
He exhales, slowly.
At least her pants are different.
“Do you see anything?” Her voice cracks a little, and he can hear the end of the word shifting into a yawn.
“No. Still nothing. You should ask Hastings why the hell he’s so convinced something’s going on here.”
She huffs. “Well I would. Except that he went home half an hour ago and left me in charge. I’m the only one on this, Jack. Maybe I pissed him off with that comment about his tie yesterday.”
“Yeah. Well I’m the only one left on the comm in this damn van. They’re all playing poker.” He glances around at the other four agents in the vehicle with him.
Reyes smirks before she says, “Call.”
Renee pauses. “Your comm unit is the only one on?”
“Yes.” The S is still vibrating across his tongue when he abruptly recognizes the quality in her voice and realizes he’s just made a grave tactical error.
“Really.” Her voice is already a fifth lower.
Oh god. He is so fucked. Maybe if he doesn’t say anything she’ll shut up.
“Because if you’re the only one listening, I could catch you up on some things I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
He curls his toes inside his boots and remains silent.
“I was going to save the surprise for your birthday, but I think now might be more fun.”
She pauses again. He’s holding his breath.
“I went on the pill last week. Which means that tonight . . . the condoms can stay in the drawer.”
The air in the van feels inexplicably thick. He hasn’t had unprotected sex in . . . god he doesn’t even remember. Since Teri. The thought alone makes him flushed.
“Oh!” Renee continues, her voice still low but deceptively innocent. “And I don’t think I showed you the outfit I bought last time I went shopping with my sister. When I went home last month?”
He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, never quite so grateful to have a computer covering his lap. He moves it a little, relocating it strategically.
“It’s hard to describe because there’s not that much to it, but it’s kinda this emerald green satin and lace deal.” He wonders how he can have goosebumps when he’s painfully overheated. He hears her breathe in before she continues. “I don’t usually go for stuff like that, but it made me think about . . . what you’d want to do to me if I put it on.”
He stares intently at the dirty tile on the floor of the van, cursing himself for confessing the complete thing he has for her skin against any shade of dark green. His back is covered with sweat, and his throat is very, very dry.
“I thought since it’s been such a long week, tonight when we get home I’d put it on for you, light some candles, run a bath with that vanilla stuff you like, and then . . . well then we can do whatever you want.”
He’s so hard that his jeans hurt now, and all he can think about is how goddamn good it’s going to feel to peel her out of whatever fucking outfit she’s describing, push her down on the bed, and slide all the way inside of her, no barriers. In his imagination, he already hears the noise she’ll make when he presses her into the mattress, his thumb in her mouth.
And as quickly as she started, she stops. “Sorry. I’m being mean.” He hears her sigh, and there’s laughter in her voice when she says, “Besides, I’m getting myself all worked up too, and that wasn’t the objective. I’m just so bored.”
Jack counts to five before he answers her, to be sure he doesn’t sound as if someone has his balls in a vise. “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine here.” Oblivious to his discomfort, the others laugh as Martin manages to fold with a winning hand.
“I’m still looking forward to later,” she murmurs. He can picture her, antsy in her seat, rubbing her thumb against the edge of the desk.
“Me, too,” he replies, thankful no one is paying enough attention to notice the residual huskiness in his voice.
Five Times Jack and Renee Had Coffee
The morning of Bill’s memorial service, the sky is an oppressive grey and rain rushes down in sheets that change direction with the wind. Given the phenomenally fucked up nature of the day Bill died, Jack half expected the weather to embrace irony and bombard them with crystal blue sky and blinding sunshine. Apparently the weather either doesn’t do irony or doesn’t care, because it’s so wet Renee has to stand by his chair with an umbrella, holding it for both of them because he’s not strong enough to keep one upright on his own. Normally this would bother him, a lot, but under the circumstances it’s just another thing to add to the list of shit that seems irrelevant.
The pastor speaks, loudly enough to be heard over the deluge, but the words drift past Jack, ashes or leaves. Like everything else since he woke up in the hospital, the service seems not quite dreamlike but not quite real, caught in some in-between limbo that makes him want to smash his head into a wall or cut deep into his own flesh to make sure he’s still there. Kim’s presence is the only thing that keeps him grounded, but she flew back to LA for a few days and now he’s here, out of the hospital for the first time, staring at the three by seven foot space that holds the body of his former friend.
When the service is finally finished, Karen winds her way through the crowd and stops in front of his chair. Her skin is paler than usual beneath the black wool of her suit and her eyes are red, but she stands straight, shoulders square. “Jack. I’m so glad you came.” She extends her hand; he forces himself to press past his exhaustion and clasp it in his. Thank god she went for the right. That one works better.
“You postponed the service for me, Karen. I wouldn’t be anywhere else. I’m-” He’s what? Sorry? What the hell can he say in a situation where words mean nothing? Goddammit. “I don’t know what to say.”
Karen smiles, faintly. “You’re here. That’s what I wanted. You don’t need to say anything.”
“I tried to stop him,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry he didn’t listen.”
“I’m not.” Karen squeezes his hand gently, then lets it go. “You have a daughter, Jack. A granddaughter, too. Bill did what he wanted to do.”
He has no idea what else to say, so he swallows and falls silent.
Karen glances sideways and says softly, “Can I call you in a few weeks, Jack? There are a couple of Bill’s things I think he’d like you to have.”
“Of course.” His voice is hoarse, and it hurts more to talk now than it has since he woke up.
“I’ll do that then.” She turns her eyes to Renee. “I’m Karen Hayes. I assume you’re Agent Walker?”
Jack’s thankful he can’t see Renee’s face when she says, “I’m not an agent anymore, Ms. Hayes. But yes, I’m Renee Walker. I wish we didn’t have to meet under these circumstances.”
“So do I.” After a beat, Karen grins unexpectedly and says, nodding her head toward Jack, “You’ll make sure he doesn’t drive?”
“Definitely.” Renee’s reply is tinged with the slightest hint of laughter, and for that second it’s okay again, the atmosphere feels solid and real.
When Karen walks away, Renee turns to Jack and looks at him for a minute before she asks, “You ready to go?”
“If I have to go back to the hospital right now I’ll shoot myself.”
“Then let’s not go back. I never specified how long you’d be gone.” She casts a melancholy smile in his direction. “You wanna get some coffee?”
Jack throws an irritated glance at his trembling left hand. “I’m not sure I can make it in the door.”
Renee extends his cane toward his right hand and reaches for his other arm. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll drive through at Starbucks.” She’s pulling him up; he always forgets how strong she is.
“Only if you let me pay.”
“You have money? How’d you work that out in the hospital?”
He chuffs. “Kim gave it to me before she left. Payback for all the times I was in charge of her allowance, I guess.”
“Fine. You can pay then. Let’s go.” She holds his arm so firmly that for once he can walk without being afraid of falling. She’s concentrating so intently on keeping him up that the umbrella slips, but even when the rain washes through his hair, down the back of his neck, and soaks into his shirt, he just keeps walking, silent.
When she found out that Jack was coming back to work at CTU, Renee was happier about this development than she wanted to admit. A lot happier. Honestly though? Since he arrived it’s been nothing but weird.
It’s not that they can’t work together. They can. It’s fine. If anything has remained from those insane twenty-four hours of enforced togetherness, it’s their eerie ability to predict each other’s movements and thought patterns. This is probably why – even with the bizarre discomfort that now encloses them like a bubble whenever they’re in the same room – she’d still choose him over anyone in the field. It might be strange or occasionally awkward, but at least it feels safe. Still, since his return he’s vacillated unpredictably from distant and curt to overprotective and hovering to shy and almost tongue-tied.
In the hours before dawn, when she’s having another one of her special bouts of insomnia, she thinks about the magnets she used to play with as a child, how she could never figure out why if she flipped them one way they’d instantly snap together, but if she turned one around, nothing she did could make them touch.
Earlier this morning she took two bullets to the vest when what they thought was a standard intel-gathering op went all to hell. She went down of course – that shit hurts – but it was no big deal. Her ribs would be bruised and sore for several days. Not a problem. But Jack came running over, frighteningly white, breathing funny and pulling up her shirt to check the vest before she could even suck in enough air to whisper, “I’m fine.”
As soon as he realized he backed away, his color changing as quickly as his attitude. Now they’re back at CTU. It’s after eleven p.m. and he hasn’t said an unnecessary word to her since. Her head throbs from where she hit the ground and she keeps forgetting about her ribs, wincing when she twists sideways. She kind of just wants to go home, wrap a package of frozen peas in a dish towel, and fall asleep on the couch with the freezing vegetables as a pillow against the back of her neck.
Instead she’ll probably be here until three or four a.m.
She glances over at Jack, who’s staring intently at his monitor, his jaw so tense it’s almost twitching. She should leave him alone, be angrier that his mood swings are giving her whiplash, but she’s so emotionally exhausted and something about him seems so lost that she can’t work up the energy to be mad.
Instead she goes over to the coffee maker and pours two huge mugs, dumping a bunch of half and half and Sugar In the Raw into hers and leaving his black. She forces herself not to slow down as she walks up to the station where he’s working.
Sitting the mug near his left hand, she watches the steam rise and says quietly, “We’d probably get done faster if we worked together. I assume you’re going through the bios Chloe pulled?”
“Yeah. She could only narrow it down to forty-five, and I have to read everything. The Mathison connection could be anywhere.” He doesn’t look at her, but he says after a pause, “The help would be nice. Thank you.”
As she takes the chair he pushes toward her, she tries to ignore both his formality and the fact that he stiffens when she sits down. He tilts the monitor in her direction, still not even glancing sideways at her. She kicks off her shoes and forces herself to focus on the screen.
At least five minutes pass before Jack mutters abruptly into the layered silence, “You scared me this morning.”
She’s so surprised he actually admitted it that she doesn’t know what to say for a second. He’s squinting at the LCD, the light illuminating the exhaustion that blankets his face. “I know,” she says carefully. “Probably not one of my smarter moves. I didn’t think until it was over.”
“It worked,” he shoots back curtly, his voice louder now. If she didn’t know him better she’d think the subject was closed. Finally he turns sideways a little, his eyes catching hers for the first time since she walked over. “I don’t know-” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
His expression deconstructs her a touch, because it’s confused and sad and scared and vulnerable, and she realizes she’d better not blow this. If she screws up, the next ice age might begin before she gets another opening. She tries not to allow that thought to freeze her synapses or her vocal cords.
“Yeah.” He finally reaches for the coffee she brought him and takes a large gulp as he waits for her to continue.
“I don’t know either,” she says quietly. It isn’t what she meant to say. Maybe. Shit.
“I made you uncomfortable. This morning.” He slams the coffee back down on the desk, a tiny wave sloshing over the side to create a walnut-colored ring around the base of the cup. “I didn’t mean-”
“No!” she exclaims, cutting him off, unnerved by how shrill she sounds. “You didn’t. It’s just that-”
“What?” His voice is so soft now she can barely hear it over the hum of the copier in the corner.
“Let’s get this done and go out for a really early breakfast.” Her sentence tumbles out so quickly that when he doesn’t respond for a second she wonders if her jumble of words was lost in translation.
He picks up his coffee again, rummaging for a napkin in the drawer next to him. Finally he says, “Okay.”
“Okay.” She presses her toes into the floor and returns her eyes to the screen.
“But it’s my treat,” he adds.
“Nope. You paid last time.”
“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.” She knows he’s trying to sound stern, but his jaw has relaxed and he’s stopped opening and closing his left hand.
“Fine. You’re lucky I’m hungry. Can you pull up that last one again?”
He taps the mouse twice, and this time when she leans toward the monitor he doesn’t draw back.
He leaves half an hour early for work, determined to make sure he has enough time to wait in the Starbucks drive-through line. Idling behind a dark blue Prius, he reads the menu board and tries to decide whether she’d prefer the pumpkin spice or her standard half-shot of vanilla. Can he tell them to go light on the syrup in a pumpkin spice latte? He has no idea, given that all he ever drinks is the coffee of the day with a little half and half if he’s extra motivated.
Last night, following one of Renee’s particularly insane tactical moves (of course it worked, goddammit) they had a spectacular fight about his over protectiveness, the end result of which was him saying a fuckload of things he now wishes he hadn’t and sleeping alone for the first time in over three months.
He knows he was wrong, that he can’t treat her differently, that she has every right to be angry. It’s just that when she pulls shit like that, he can’t shut off the images that bubble up into his consciousness no matter how hard he tries to quash them. Her white skin on concrete, blood spreading out in a pool beneath her. Her hands cuffed behind her back while some dickhead holds a knife to her throat and slowly cuts, because she won’t talk.
He swallows and shakes his head, blinking to clear his vision. None of this is going to get him anywhere. Finally the damn Prius pulls ahead so he can order.
When he walks into CTU, he’s holding two huge coffees and staring at the floor a few paces ahead of him, still rehearsing his lines. He rounds the corner of Renee’s desk and starts to speak without even looking up. “I’m sorry. About last night. I shouldn’t have-”
“Jack.” Her tone is firm and neutral.
“Will you please listen? When you’re out there and I’m not, I can’t stop thinking about all the possible outcomes, what could happen if everything doesn’t go down as planned, and-” He shifts his weight to his other foot, still not ready to meet her eyes. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“Jack.” This time she sounds. . . almost amused?
“I brought you coffee. It’s pumpkin spice, but I asked them to go easy on the syrup because I know you don’t like it too sweet.” He extends the coffee and finally looks up to find two pairs of eyes looking at him, one in barely suppressed amusement, the other with an expression he couldn’t begin to describe.
“Chloe.” He says her name like it’s a full sentence.
She stands up, gathering an armful of papers from the edge of Renee’s desk. “I’m gonna-” She pauses, her eyes darting from Jack to Renee. “Not make up something really stupid that you both know I’m not doing.” She pushes the chair behind her out of her way. “I’ll call you when I get the file decrypted, Renee.”
“Thanks, Chloe.” Renee rubs her temple, looks at Jack, and takes the coffee out of his hand. “That was smooth.”
“Yeah.” He’s not quite sure what he can add to that, so he doesn’t add anything.
“I’ll drink the coffee, but that doesn’t mean I’m talking to you.” She takes a swallow and angles her chair a touch more in his direction.
“Okay.” He tips his own cup back to have something to do and instantly burns his tongue. He hopes hers isn’t quite that hot. “I’ll see you at the briefing then.” He turns to leave, wishing he believed this day could only go uphill from here.
“I thought you weren’t talking to me.”
“I’m not. But I will be by dinnertime. You want to bring Thai? Or we could just heat up the leftover lasagna I made the other day. . . “ Her voice trails off, but suddenly he finds it easier to expand his chest all the way, to take in an entire breath of air.
“Either way,” he says softly. “Let me know when you start talking to me again.”
“Okay.” The ghost of a smile no one else on the planet would probably notice flickers at the edges of her mouth. “The coffee’s really good.”
“That was the idea.” He sits a Starbucks napkin on the edge of her desk and walks away, finally able to concentrate on the briefing for the first time since he woke up.
She stands in the twenty-third floor hallway of the midtown Sheraton, two cups of steaming coffee clutched in each hand and a present wrapped in pink, yellow, and orange Dora paper tucked under her left arm. Knocking is going to present a logistical challenge, but this isn’t what provokes her inertia, keeps her stuck to the floor as if someone had super glued her shoes to the burgundy patterned carpet.
She’s exhausted, so tired she’s nauseous. The nerves flipping her stomach this way and that aren’t helping; she’d rather be almost anywhere else than here, standing at the door of Jack’s family’s hotel suite. Last night she and Jack had. . . well it would have been a fight if he hadn’t abruptly grabbed his jacket in the middle of her sentence and said, his voice low and deliberately controlled, “Last time I got this angry I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have, so I’m leaving before it happens again.” He shut the door behind him before she could put together any sort of reply.
She already knows it’s her fault, how wrong she was, that she never should have tried to create a logical argument out of her own insecurities regarding her place in his life. It’s Teri’s birthday and he wants her at the party. The end. She wishes she knew why the thought of spending time with Kim and her daughter sends her into an instant confidence crisis like nothing else on this earth. It’s not like her, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
She didn’t really go to sleep last night – maybe dozed off for fifteen minutes or so a couple times – and even if she wasn’t with him she knows Jack didn’t sleep either. So not only is she a winner for acting like a complete ass, but he probably feels like shit when he’s trying to enjoy his granddaughter’s birthday party.
All this navel-gazing is only postponing the inevitable, so she pulls her shoulders back and awkwardly leans forward to knock her elbow into the door, several times. Through the wood she hears laughter and footsteps. A second later Kim appears, grinning. Her face sobers a touch and she can’t quite disguise her surprise, but her eyes remain warm when she says, “Renee. I’m really glad you came. Come join the madness.”
Renee steps inside and immediately locates the source of the giggling. Jack’s flat on his back on the floor, holding Teri over his head, his fingers tickling her tiny ribs. Her blond hair moves back and forth in waves as she laughs, and something inside Renee rearranges when she notices how steady Jack’s arms are, how his muscles don’t tremble even slightly as he swings his granddaughter in the air.
“You’d better tell me where you put it,” he says, tipping Teri upside down and sounding approximately as threatening as a panda.
“No!” she shrieks. “It’s a secret!”
“Is that so?” He tilts her back up so she lands sitting on his stomach. “I guess I’ll just have to tickle you until you tell me.”
When he gets the crook of her arm she dissolves into laughter again, yelling, “I’m not telling.”
Kim rolls her eyes. “This could take hours. Let me hang up your coat.”
“Thanks.” Renee sits the coffees on the table by the door and extends the present toward Kim. “I brought this for Teri. I didn’t miss the opening, did I?”
Kim shakes her head. “No. But I asked Dad to tell you not to bring anything.”
“He did,” Renee says quickly. “But I was out shopping and-”
Kim smiles, taking the present and glancing at the paper. “Thank you. She loves Dora.”
Renee slips off her coat and hands it to Kim, still fighting the urge to turn around and disappear into the elevator. She can’t remember the last time she felt this unsettled by something so patently unthreatening.
“I need to check the cake.” Kim shoots a look in the direction of the kitchenette. “Hopefully Stephen hasn’t killed it. I’ll be right back.”
“Sure.” Renee stands uncertainly, picking up her coffee and taking a sip if only to occupy her hands. Coffee is actually a horrible plan at the moment; the last thing she needs is to be more agitated and jittery.
When she looks out into the main room again, Jack’s eyes meet hers immediately. She can’t read his expression at all, and this only intensifies her suffocating sense that this was probably a terrible idea.
But he asked.
He pushes himself up from the floor, moving Teri back until she’s perched on his thighs. “Why don’t you go see how your cake is doing? I’ll be right back and we can play Hullaballoon like I promised, okay?”
“Hullabaloo, not Hullaballoon!” She grins, pushing her hair out of her face as she stands up. “Okay. Mommy said I could help frost the cake. You wanna do the sprinkles?”
Jack drops a kiss on her cheek as he stands up. “They’ll look better if you do them, baby.”
“You always say that,” she retorts over her shoulder as she runs out of the room.
Jack walks toward Renee, his eyes holding hers as he moves. She still can’t begin to guess what he’s thinking. When he stops a few feet in front of her she whispers, wanting to make sure Teri can’t hear, “I was an ass. I’m sorry.” Her throat hurts. “I brought coffee.” She picks his up and holds it out to him.
He closes his fingers over both the coffee and her hand. “Thanks.”
He doesn’t let go.
“Jack.” She blinks, so frustrated and exhausted she has no idea what she wants to say, but goddammit she needs to say something.
He leans over, his lips barely brushing the curve of her cheekbone. “Don’t. You’re here. We’ll deal with the rest later.” He lets her hand go and tips back the coffee.
She’s not sure how he does that, continually manages to surprise her when she’s convinced she knows what to expect.
“Grandpa!” Teri comes flying out of the kitchenette, stopping suddenly when she sees Renee standing by the door. “Hi Renee! The cake’s almost done. Mommy made a really funny-looking Dora.” She looks accusingly in Jack’s direction. “You didn’t say she was here!”
“She just got here!” he exclaims, ruffling her hair.
“Renee, you wanna play Hullabaloo?”
Renee hasn’t even opened her mouth when Kim yells from the other room, “Honey, I’m pretty sure Renee would rather sit and drink her coffee, okay? We can play later.”
Teri’s face falls, but she doesn’t say anything.
Jack takes another huge swig of his coffee and sets it back on the table. “It’s okay, sweetie,” he whispers. “Your mom’s just trying to be polite. I’m sure Renee would love to play, wouldn’t you?”
He looks up at her and she almost bursts out laughing when she catches the unmistakable gleam in his eye. She doesn’t even want to know what kind of game this is.
Jack nods toward the main room. “Go get the game set up. We’ll be right there.”
“Okay!” Teri bounces toward the couch, calling into the kitchenette, “Renee says she wants to play!”
Renee hears Stephen’s laughter as he retorts, “I’ll bet she does.”
Jack steps toward her, sliding his open palm from her elbow to her wrist, touching his fingers to hers for a moment before he leans in and whispers in that low, teasing tone he knows turns her knees and her brain into jelly, “Payback’s a bitch. You ready?”
She wakes up to the intermingling scents of coffee and Jack’s skin.
“Hey.” His voice is soft against her ear, stubble and damp hair brushing her face. Her eyes aren’t even open and her whole body is already protesting the idea of crawling out from under the mound of covers, but she has to admit she can’t imagine a better way to be forced into consciousness. “Time to get up.”
“No. I’m staying here.”
“I made coffee.” She can hear him smiling.
“So I’ll drink it in bed.” She rolls sideways, pushing herself closer to him.
“We have to be at work in an hour.”
“Somebody kept me up way too late last night,” she mumbles. The smell of the coffee is growing stronger; she’s really tempted to stop screwing with him so she can sit up and drink it.
He scoffs. “That’s not quite how I remember it.”
“Uh huh.” She grins, sliding her hand out from under the covers to rub a circle on his lower back. “All I wanted was to go to sleep-” She swallows when she hits the waistband of his boxer briefs and realizes that’s all he has on.
“You are full of shit.”
She hears the clink of a coffee mug on the nightstand and feels his lips on her neck. “Okay. Fine. Maybe I was a tiny bit glad to see you.” He’d come back from a two-week visit to LA just before midnight, and in truth she’d more or less attacked him.
“Seemed like it at the time,” he murmurs, his mouth sliding down to her shoulder.
“Come back in here with me.”
“Not a chance. I’ll never get out.”
“Five minutes.” She moves her finger inside his boxers to stroke the crease of his thigh, one of the places she knows makes him crazy. A tiny groan escapes before he catches her hand. “That is not helping your five minute argument.”
“Sorry.” She finally opens her eyes. He’s looking down at her, his own eyes lit with amusement and desire. She knows they have to go to work, that there’s so much to do they should probably be there early today, but really she just wants the five minutes.
“I’ll be good.”
He pulls the covers back, pushing her over a little as he slides in. “I don’t believe you. I’m just giving in anyway.”
He lifts her arm toward him, kissing the inside of her elbow three times before his tongue slips out to trace the curve.
She breathes in so quickly it almost makes her cough, pulling her arm away. “Now who’s playing dirty?”
“You started it,” he retorts.
“Yeah. I did.” She reaches for his face, touching her lips to his, inhaling coffee and aftershave and the warm smell of his skin, skill damp from the shower. After half a second he’s kissing her back, his hands wandering slowly under the covers, warm calloused fingertips on her ribs, her stomach, her thighs. She rubs her thumb absently over his chest, tracing a scar before she puts her mouth against the hard angle of his shoulder.
She loves this.
It’s not going anywhere and they both know it. But for five minutes before she pushes back the covers, takes a few sips of the coffee he made her, and drags herself to the shower, she can forget about all the rest of it. Blood, death, exhaustion, compromises. Hopelessly imperfect solutions to intractable problems no one will ever figure out how to solve.
She kisses him one last time, her tongue skimming over his. “Okay. You can go now.”
He laughs. “Can I?”
“Mmm hmm.” She sits up, holding the blankets to her chest because honestly she isn’t trying to torment him.
Jack runs a hand down her arm and stands up. “I’m getting dressed now. You stay a minimum of ten feet away.”
She grins, lifting the mug from the bedside table. “I’m getting in the shower. I’ll be ready in twenty minutes. I promise.”
He doesn’t say anything, and for another minute she sips her coffee as she watches him pull on his jeans and slide his blue Henley over his head.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she says quietly.
“You’re welcome.” He shoots her a mischievous grin. “It tasted better than I expected.” He walks out with a pair of socks in his hand, closing the bedroom door behind him.
She has no idea why, but as she looks at Jack’s grey hoodie hanging over the back of the chair where she threw it last night, she randomly recalls an in-class assignment her Psych 101 prof gave one dreary Tuesday afternoon when she was at Georgetown. He’d asked them to make a list of everything they wanted in life, numbered from most to least significant. Renee’s surprised by how clearly she can picture herself, notebook flipped open, writing on college-ruled paper with the blue Bic fine-point pen. He’d given them almost half an hour, so she just kept going.
She hears the profs voice, rising over shuffling papers and distracted whispering undergrads. “Keep the sheet with you. If you can check off even one of your top three at any point in life, you’re way ahead of most people.”
Outside the bedroom door, she hears Jack in the kitchen, pulling a glass or a plate out of the cupboard to grab a quick bite before they leave. She takes a final sip of coffee, savoring the bitter warmth. Eventually she shoves the covers aside and pushes herself out of bed. NPR drifts through the crack in the door; Jack always listens over breakfast.
On her way to the shower, she grabs a clean towel, smiles just a little, and thinks, Yeah. I am.