babyjosephine: (a kiss)
[personal profile] babyjosephine posting in [community profile] thedirtyverse
8 January 2008. An update of the original reunion from last year.

Alice was undecided. Undecided and, as it was developing into over the course of the week, uncomfortable.

So she was sitting by the window and staring at a cup of milky tea. Her stomach was in too many knots to appreciate the smell or even the sight of it, but she was hungry in a sick sort of way—she hadn’t eaten today, and barely touched supper the night before. As the week wore on, and the undecided and uncomfortable swelled and swelled and swelled, she was quickly and efficiently being robbed of her ability to ignore them.

And that reason alone was what brought her to her feet.

She dumped out the cup and turned the kettle upside down in the sink, casting occasional glances over her shoulder, as though she was being watched.

This whole week she had felt similarly. Off. And not even off so much as back to feeling something she had learned to live without, and confused about why it was there again. Why it was happening now. In the middle of so much nonsense with her father and her mother, she had to feel Robert again.

That was five days ago, at least. Nearing six, just as it was nearing six years since she had last felt him at all. Since he had last been here. Since he had left her and their son (a son she rarely saw now, because of him) to deal with the mess that followed him after his pre-planned and very deliberate death.

She was at a point of general (if self-imposed) indifference now. The anger didn’t feel quite as terrible as it had before. But lately she had been lonely, watching her mother with her husband—a husband who wasn’t solid enough to kiss or touch or feel beyond a chilling cold. It rekindled all sorts of thoughts—where was Robert? How much longer was she going to be going through life without paying it any attention?

And then—and then suddenly he was there. At the back of her mind. Gnawing away at her thoughts and decisions as though he was just across the hall. She waited for him, sickened by excitement, but he never came. So she quickly convinced herself that it was a hoax—

But how could it be a hoax? She knew him. She knew how he felt. It was forty years old (forty six, if she dared include the last wasted decade). He was more familiar than her parents.

She waited, then, and waited for five days. And with each hour that passed without answer, without any answer at all, she felt more and more permanently trapped in what was fast becoming another nightmare.

He would come. He would have to come. Why would he come back if not to see her?

She didn’t think she wanted to know.

So she sat down again.

Up in Alnwick, Alice and Robert's only child was also sitting.

He was sitting and thinking and looking at the phone, which looked back at him, its LED screen blinking the time. Across the table from him, his father sat, not looking at either one of them, Fabian or the telephone either one.

Robert's heart ached.

Robert was afraid.

Fabian knew that, and Fabian had had enough. Suddenly, he rose, grabbed the phone and walked out to the front room, moving brusquely and harshly and startling Robert, who jumped in his seat.

"– I'll be back," he called to his father, and then banged his way out into the garden, dialing his mother's mobile as he walked.

Alice, hundreds of miles away, jumped in her seat, as well. Her phone was across the room, in the kitchen, and it echoed around her silent apartment.

At first, she almost ignored it.

But this late, it was likely to be one of her brothers, so she stood up and reluctantly picked it off the counter.

That it was Fabian almost made her drop it.

She immediately answered.

"Baby?"

"Mum? Hi." Fabian swallowed. He wasn't sure how to do this. His father had been in a frenzy, knowing he needed to be there but afraid to approach his mother – he'd been saying things in his sleep – Fabian felt lost.

This was worse than the time he had accidentally told his mother he was pregnant.

"I'm – listen, I know things are crazy there but – do you think you could come up to Comus?" Might as well bite the bullet, about two or three seconds at most after saying hi.

Comus all but confirmed it.

No, Comus confirmed it.

Fabian would have come here if he wanted to talk to her about something--if he had gotten in trouble or if he had trouble with Rosie's mother. While her son used the house more than Alice ever did, they rarely went up together, and certainly didn't holiday in the early evening.

"I could--I won't be there for several hours. Is it an emergency?" Just in case. Just in case it wasn't Robert.

Was it an emergency?

Well, not quite. He couldn't argue that it was genuinely an emergency. Everyone was perfectly healthy, even if his father was acting like he was strung out on methamphetamines (rather: pacing a lot, spontaneously manifesting in the yard for stress release, muttering to himself, talking in his sleep, twitching, sweating). And even if his father was tweaking, it wasn't really an emergency.

"Nope. Take your time. No need to charter a helicopter." Even if that would be really cool. "Even if it would be really cool if you did."

Alice couldn't help laughing a little. She was too anxious to really allow herself a moment of relief long enough to appreciate the silly things her son said, but she still laughed.

"Okay. I think it's too short notice to charter a helicopter but I'll be there as quickly as I can, all right? Do you have the girls with you?"

"Only Ilaria. I'm not sure where she's gone off to right now –" In truth, he thought she might have been playing with Robert's shoes, or trying to trip him, or trying to figure out who he even was. Fabian hadn't had much luck explaining it to her yet.

"Okay. All right." Alice was nervous again--or had it ever stopped? "I'll be there soon."

"Where a given value of 'soon' indicates 'six or more hours' – drive safe?"

"Yes. I will. Okay. I'll talk to you around midnight, I guess."

That seemed so far away, and in fact was so far away that Alice couldn't collect her thoughts long enough to feel okay with the prospect of it. She could imagine herself in a prolonged state of panic and the thought of it almost made her call Fabian back to ask what was going on. Maybe knowing would be better than weighing all of the options.

But she didn't. Putting her phone away and pulling on stockings, boots, and her jacket, she gave her apartment an anxious glance, as though she would never be back here again, and went to her car.

And the drive was ever bit as bad as she thought it would be. Twice she had to pull over and just breathe. Her heart was throbbing uncomfortably in her chest, her neck was aching, pulled tight by tension. The feeling, the feeling of Robert was not improving--it was growing stronger, meaning she was getting closer. Meaning he would be there when she got there.

And she wasn't sure she was ready for that.

What would she say? He had destroyed their lives when he left. Their last two weeks together were miserable, full of fights and anger. Their last conversation--she couldn't even remember it. And then there was the neverending flashback of a boy in the bed where her lover had been. A boy who looked so much like him, but was no older than her son.

It was mortifying. The whole thing was mortifying. Here she was, finally in remission, trying to gain back some identity, some weight, some hope, and all of it was going to be dragged forcibly back to the past. To the very worst time in her life. To something she didn't think she would ever really forgive Robert for doing.

The more she drove, the closer she got, the fresher the wounds felt. Suddenly she was angry, and then the anger would subside and she would think of having him again and her eyes would well--and then she would get angry again, and wonder why he hadn't come to her, why it was their son calling her up there, and why Robert had left at all. The messages she had to address. The funeral she had to arrange. The obituary she had to give to her son to finish when she had nothing nice to say. The fact that Robert's betrayal had wedged between Fabian and Alice and their relationship was strained at best, nonexistent at worst.

Something it had never been.

And then, before she was ready for it, Alnwick closed in around her. It was dark, the sky was cloudy, and winter was more visible here. Snow lit the ground in patches, falling lightly over the countryside and already melting.

Alice slowed. Their were lights on in Comus House. Blasted, bloody, fucking goddamn Comus House. It felt like an earthquake when she stopped the car. Robert was pushing on her lungs without so much as laying a finger on her. She almost got back in the car--she hesitated at the open door, put her phone on silent--

But she couldn't do that. She wasn't like him. Robert. That man.

And that was why she walked to the door. And why she didn't do anything other than stand in front of it.
Inside, Robert, Fabian and Ilaria sat in the foyer on chairs. Well, Ilaria had been on a chair – she had then slid down onto the floor, as she had absolutely refused to go to bed. That didn't mean she wasn't mostly asleep.

Robert looked like he was about to choke. Felt like he was about to choke, too. He didn't know how to talk to Alice – Alice, who he loved like nothing else but couldn't, couldn't face, not now, not when his life had been over and he never knew how to tell her, not when there were so many secrets between them, not when he had suspected her of –

But it was all behind him now.

He could breathe again.

Get past it.

"You should get the door for your mother," he whispered.

"She'll yell at me for Lari being up."

"She won't." Robert didn't think she would if she was too busy trying to throttle him. Or send him back. What if she sent him back? What if she didn't want him anymore? That – that would be enough to have him turn and go again, he was certain. He would last as long as Alice wished and only that long.

It was Fabian's turn to inhale deeply, and not ask his father how he knew where Alice was, but instead walk past the cloakroom, to the door, and open it, looking drawn and tired.

Fabian was a relief. The door's opening had sent her heart into her throat, as she expected Robert to be there.

But of course he wasn't.

Of course.

"Hi, sweetheart," she said, more hesitant than she had ever been with him before--because things just weren't like they were before. She didn't lean in to hug him, but all she wanted to do was hold him until he fell asleep.

Her mouth was so dry she couldn't swallow.

"Lari isn't still awake, is she?"

Of course, Fabian wanted to groan.

"Uh –" Papa said you wouldn't scold me! "She sort of is, I mean, she wanted to stay up and wait for you but she's asleep on the floor in the front room."

With Papa.

Oh, fuck.

"With Papa."

Whatever scolding Alice was prepared to do was immediately eviscerated by the two words Fabian chose to use at the end of his admission.

With Papa.

If she hadn't known, if she hadn't suspected, if she hadn't expected it, she would have turned away right then and run to the car. But she knew, and Fabian telling her in his roundabout, yet quite direct way, only managed to lodge the fear deeper into her chest.

Of course he was here. She could feel him just as she could feel the winter air biting at her face and bare fingers.

Why had he come now? Why had he ever left? And why hadn't he gone to her?

She was devastated, furious, and elated. Six years of being lovesick and crying for him were nothing when faced with the reality of him, and she hadn't even stepped inside the house. In a flash, she was angrier than she was anything else, and in that moment her face went blank, blank to the point of coming out cold, and she took a deep, dagger-sharp breath. "What do you need?"

Fabian had been the one to ask for her, and Robert was still as good as invisible.

"Well –"

Fabian, suddenly, wasn't sure. He had been afraid for both of his parents, mostly for his mother being alone – no, mostly for his father acting crazy, and for being there at all – no, for both of his parents. He didn't really need anything except to see everything okay. Everyone together. He wasn't sure what the answer was.

"– He needs you," Fabian chose carefully. "And you weren't here and he was afraid of disrupting you and didn't want to go to where you were, apparently, and has just been hiding here because he's an idiot and thought we'd all push him away and I was tired of waiting."

Fabian might as well have said he didn't, he was joking, go home.

The wires of every unpleasant emotion were crossing and re-crossing, and twisting, and breaking. She was nodding, suddenly, shallowly, her eyes wet and her heart beating in her ears until her ears rang.

"He said all that, did he?" From her tone, she was more than skeptical. She didn't believe it. Didn't want to believe it, either. Using their son as a vehicle to move his thoughts--making their son a middle man. Hadn't he done enough damage when he walked out on the boy before he had even turned eighteen?

"Well –" Fabian felt like a broken record. "– no. The only thing he said was that he was afraid of disrupting you. I interpreted the rest of that. He kept saying he needed you in his sleep last night."

"He wasn't afraid of disrupting me--"

No, she wasn't going to get Fabian involved in this. She wasn't going to snap at him, or redirect her anger at the wrong person.

Her hands were shaking, and she looked past Fabian's shoulder as though searching for the man she never thought she would see again. No one was there.

Again, she started to shake her head, raking her fingers through her hair as she did. She looked away, off into the dark, and pressed her lips tightly together. She was having difficulty swallowing, and when she blinked, tears fell. She wiped them quickly, always somewhat wary about crying in front of her son, and bit her lower lip.

"What's there to disrupt?" she whispered, as whispering was all she could manage until she cleared her throat, bridled her anger, and looked at Fabian again.

"And driving here--I should be expected to drive here? This--this isn't a disruption?"

"I wasn't afraid of disrupting you!" Fabian, at a loss, wasn't sure what the right and wrong things to say were. At all. Even remotely. He was seconds away from actually wringing his hands, not an action he was ever really inclined to do. "I'm sorry, that was entirely the wrong thing to say, I don't know, apparently the weirdness that's going on magically is making him act weirder, maybe being dead made him go insane I don't know."

Alice couldn't believe they were talking about a man who had been out of her life for six years. She had gone out of her way to try and make a life for herself that could stand on its own without signs of him around every turn, but even now, she remembered him whenever she went anywhere, did anything--and perhaps it wasn't remembering. Perhaps it was noticing his absence.

It had been a rough six years, full of things even her son didn't know, and memories of trying to cull the chaos so that he wouldn't notice. But she had failed, and their lives had been a mess, and then his life had taken him away, and Alice's life had become a daily nothing. A plain, pathetic, daily nothing. Work. Work. And work.

She had work tomorrow, in fact, but now didn't know how she would get there in one piece.

She hadn't yet stepped into the house.

"When did you get here?" she asked, clearing her throat again.

"Me?" Did she mean him? Or did she mean his father? "I – yesterday evening, when I brought Lari up to check on things, and she was crying for takeaway and ... yesterday evening."

It had been a mess all by itself; his getting in with Ilaria and running into his father. There had been a lot of staring and blinking and awkwardness and even crying, and Fabian hadn't demanded any answers. Everything was too raw. Too uncertain.

"Are you sure," Fabian added, "that you want to freeze out on the porch?"

Alice said nothing. She was instantly transformed from furious to petrified, and it showed on her face.

She looked off to the side, turning a little as though she was going to walk back to her car, and stopped.

"Mum?"

Fabian swallowed.

She couldn't just leave!

Alice nodded.

Alice had forgotten the question.

“All you’ve had is takeaway? Do you want anything else?”

Robert couldn’t be real.

"We had takeaway yesterday." Fabian couldn't blame her for being confused; he didn't even know what day it was. "Uh, and we had ... lunch ..."

Crap.

Supper.

Knew he forgot something.

"You haven't eaten since lunch? It's midnight!"

No, she wasn't going to do this. Scolding Fabian was not why she was here.

"Okay." She sighed and nodded, forgiving him already. "Okay."

"I was a little shaken up! He's so – nervous and shaky and whatever's going on it's having a bad effect on him, and, like, I don't know what to do or say and I just kept reading to her until she fell asleep. And then woke up. And then fell asleep. And then – okay what, what are we okaying." What his mother had actually said caught up with Fabian.

Alice shook her head. "It's okay, Fabian. It's okay. Just--give her something before she goes to bed."

She was starting to doubt Robert was even in the house, despite how she felt him. It left her feeling heavy, resigned, and she wanted to leave again. But if he didn't come for her, her life would be all but over. He was Robert, and she couldn't remember her life without him.

What he was was afraid.

Robert, more than anything, didn't want to upset her. He didn't want to interrupt the life she might have had; he hadn't ever let himself look, really. Not really. Not to see her with whoever it was she was always talking to when he had eventually had enough, given up. Before Cyrus' death, even. Before anything. Or maybe it was the start of everything.

He glanced over at Ilaria, curled up around a jacket, asleep on the floor underneath Fabian's chair.

He held his breath for half a second.

"I will," said Fabian.

That was when Robert, shaking a little, looking almost shellshocked, stepped into view behind his son.

He didn't say anything.

He couldn't say anything.

He just wanted to know she was there. (He knew she was there.) That she was okay. (He knew she wasn't.)

Alice was just going to reach out and touch her son's face, to step by him and into the house, to wander to the kitchen and feed her grandchild, to wait for Robert as she felt she had been all along, when she saw him.

He looked the same--the same man she remembered. As though he had been there all along.

Seeing him was both the best and worst thing she could imagine, and in a split second, Alice was in tears, hands racing to her own face to stifle a muted, "Oh, god."

A response like that and the only thing Robert could do was the same – silently, though, tears suddenly streaming down his face, otherwise unmoving, simply staring at her and drinking the sight of her in. Breathing her in. She was there and she was real, and he wasn't sure at all how to respond to it – did he step around Fabian and pull her into his arms? Did he step back? Did he speak? What –

Fabian, simply, walked around his father and got out of the way, eliminating an option.

Robert stood still for another split second and then, inhaling, just stepped forward and extended a hand out, as if to touch her face, and paused, hand held in midair about a foot away.

Alice didn't look up again for nearly a minute, her fingers pressing into her face and keeping it mostly hidden as she sobbed on the brink of hysterics. This was too much of everything and not enough of anything that made sense. She wanted to fall to her knees or curl up on the ground, or beat her fists against Robert's chest until he disappeared.

And yet he was here, wasn't he?

Here. Why? And for how long? And why hadn't he come to see her? And why had he left her? Was this his idea of a joke?

Suddenly, she looked up, and when she looked up and saw his hand, she first backed away, then turned so that he couldn't touch her. And yet she wanted him to touch her--and yet...

"Why?" she asked him, and it wasn't a whisper. It wasn't a plea. It wasn't weak and delicate. It was a question aimed at Robert and the rest of the world. The whole world and all of the stupid shit it had done to her and her family all at once. "Why!"

Robert didn't know.

In part, Robert didn't know the question. Robert didn't know why what. Why was he here? Why had he gone? Why something else, something he didn't know?

But in the end, there was only one answer.

Only one thing he could say.

And he knew the second it sprang to mind, and in the half-moment between when it sprang to his mind and when it sprang from his lips, that she would have something to say to it that he didn't want to hear. Something about how he'd never been there when the opposite was true, or that he wasn't when it was most important, or something, anything, that wouldn't feel right, and he knew it and he was afraid of it and yet there was only one answer to why:

"I need you." Past, present, future and always; it would eternally be the truth. Even before he knew her, he needed her. He would always need her still.

Alice was sobbing, and it only grew worse when he spoke. And then it turned into a terrible sort of laugh. "You need me," she said, barely able to look at him because looking at him felt--it just felt too much.

She believed him, and yet it was so hard to remember that. So hard to remember why. Six years had colored her history with him, and she wasn't ready to fix it.

"So you sit here--you sit here waiting for me to come crawling back, is that it?"

"No!" Of course he hadn't – of course he hadn't, had he? Was that what he had done? That wasn't what he'd meant at all. He didn't know what he meant. He didn't know anything, and everything was off. His hand, still midair, was shaking.

He didn't know, now, what she would do.

Maybe she didn't want him back at all. Why would she, anyway? She hadn't needed him then, and she didn't still need him now.

"I just had not wanted to ... this is where I started life before, and where I started life again. This is how it was. And then I ..."

I just had not wanted to interrupt your life. And then I was afraid to find you again. Afraid to not be wanted. Afraid to be pushed away.

"And then you what?" Alice's hands were shaking so badly that she couldn't control them enough to wipe her eyes dry, so she gave up and took another step back. "This place is more important than coming to London? This place? This place is more important than me? Than your son?"

She laughed again, shrill and uncomfortable and filled with the sort of rage that pushed past all attempts at censoring. This had been the worst six years of her life; she couldn't stop.

Without skipping a beat, without leaving room for Robert to respond, she carried on; "Oh! Oh, right, no, of course it is! Why would I even fucking ask!"

"I did not want exactly this! I did not want to face your rejection in favor of whatever else you choose to fill your time with as you had before!" He didn't want to yell, but he couldn't help it – again, what he felt came flying out of his mouth before he thought to stop and censor himself, and his tone was sharp, snapping.

She had been keeping secrets, after all.

"I did not want to meet whoever it was you were keeping a secret before I crossed! I did not want to interrupt the life you had made for yourself without me!"

Alice knew Robert was angry with her before he left. She had been unable to explain what was going on. There was a lot going on. She understood he was frustrated. But she didn't know he had assumed this.

"What?" she asked, almost cutting him off. "What? What the fuck are you talking about?"

The phone calls.

"The--oh, Christ." She tried to wipe her eyes again but she was still trembling. She didn't want to tell him what had happened to her, what had gone wrong. But if he was trying to tell her off for seeing someone after he left--because surely that was what he meant! "You fucking left me! If I made a life without you--did you hope I was sitting and pining away for you? Is that what you hoped?"

Never mind that she had.

"Of course not!" How dare she! How dare she – but he couldn't say that to her. Even in this anger he couldn't say that to her. Even in this loud, uncontrolled sudden hostility he didn't know how to rein in, no matter how much he wanted to.

At least Fabian had silently taken Ilaria off upstairs to her room, where they couldn't hear the yelling. (He didn't want to hear it, and he didn't want his little girl to, either. He didn't even want to know.)

"Of course not." More evenly, that time. "I would never wish anything of the sort on you. Never. And I was not – it was not you! I had not meant to be leaving you – I never wanted to hurt you, I never did, you needn't actually believe that, I do not expect you to, but you must hear me say it. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to be away from you! But you –"

Would get along fine.

Were seeing someone else anyway.

Were working and living and settled and happy, and everything was just and safe and he wasn't as important as he had been.

None of that had actually mattered, in the end – or, really, it was that all of it had. All of it had mattered and then some. And he had been so, so tired.

Robert wasn't tired anymore.

Robert was only alone.

Alice was standing in what was fast becoming a heavy, horizontal snowfall.

"Then what? I don't understand!"

She still couldn't believe she was looking at him, and hearing his voice, and every few seconds she felt like rushing into him and begging for him to touch her, but then the anger would swell and she would feel like running.

"What did you think would fucking happen if you left me? You left me with your son! Remember him? Remember how old he was? Seventeen, Robert! Seventeen fucking years old! I told him on his birthday that his father was gone--and don't--don't even mention what I had to fucking do to convince people that I hadn't fucking chopped you into little tiny pieces and hidden you in the walls. Not being anything but the mother of your child really did not help--it didn't help! I had no rights! I had nothing!"

"I wasn't really thinking about the law at the time!"

He had fallen in the sort of despair that didn't let him think about anything. He had killed. He had let himself be tricked. He felt his life was over. He felt he didn't matter. He felt tired and worn out. His wife was cheating on him. His son rarely talked to him. He felt lonely, he felt so settled that nothing was going on around him at all, and that nothing would need him, because he was old and he was tired and his son rarely talked to him and his wife was cheating on him and he had killed.

"I'm so fucking glad for you, then! Do you know what it's like to tell your son he has to write his own father's goddamn obituary? Because all I could think of saying was how much of a prick you are!

Her face was red, there was snow melting on her hair. She couldn't believe he would wave such privilege in her face. "For over a year! A year! All I got were calls asking where the fuck you went--one thing after a goddamn other! Lawsuits! Threats of lawsuits! No one fucking believed you would just disappear! And Fabian--that was it! I've seen him a dozen times in six years because of you!"

Her voice caught.

A glow flashed on and off, once, around Robert's head. The chandelier in the foyer shook. He wasn't even noticing it.

"It's not like I planned it! It's not like I wanted you to suffer! I wasn't thinking, I couldn't think anymore!"

He wanted to turn and run upstairs, he wanted to turn and run upstairs and disappear and die again. He thought he had been ready to live. He thought he wanted it more than anything. But the last thing he wanted – the very last thing he ever wanted – was to fight with her. With his Alice. The light of his life. His one and only true love.

Who wasn't any of those things anymore.

"But you did it!" she screamed. "I wasted my life on you and you left me to rot!" Her voice was climbing, climbing higher. "You left me!"

"You pushed me away!"

Well.

She did.

Not entirely. He couldn't blame her entirely. He couldn't really blame her at all. He couldn't have blamed her then, either – not even for hiding things from him. Not even for keeping secrets. Not even for wanting someone who wasn't old and tired and ready to break. Who broke, despite all hopes.

"How? How!"

They had fought; they had fought over everything. She was too afraid to tell him what was wrong but surely it wasn't so terrible that he would leave her because of it.

Right?

"Everything I said was a point of contention! Everything I felt and everything I did and you were busy with work and that I understand, busy with work was a state of existence I often found myself in but I never thought, I never thought that between work and me would be someone else that you kept hidden!"

There. He'd said it. That was out. Again.

"And I couldn't tell you – I couldn't say to you that I had answered the phone, that I had heard vague messages of 'could you return this call' that didn't tell me anything, that sometimes people hung up when I answered, hearing a man's voice instead of yours – or asked me to take a message – to have you ring – of course I didn't –"

Robert inhaled. He tried to think over the last six years, and found himself, instead, with the last six minutes.

"– and is that really all it was to you?" Could he actually say this? "Wasted?"

Alice’s face fell. It was a slow fall, from inconsolable betrayal to this. Gentle shock. Horror. And then indignation.

“You—you think I was sleeping with someone else?”

Robert's response was hesitant, timid, quiet, his voice shaky, his face ragged: "What else was I supposed to think?"

Alice was shaking her head before he had even finished.

This was her fault, she knew this was her fault. She had felt the tension rising over it six years ago, but was too scared to tell him. Not until she was sure. Not until it was real.

"I wouldn't--Robert."

Suddenly her eyes were wet again, and she blinked against the snow blowing near her face.

She had to tell him. She couldn't believe he would accuse her of being unfaithful, but she knew she had done him wrong. She had needed him then. She wanted him to take care of her. She cried for him when she was in pain and she fell asleep with her body pressed between as many pillows as she could find, trying to emulate his body, his weight against her.

She opened her mouth, looked out into the yard, closed her mouth, looked back at him, then looked away again.

"I had--" It was too heavy to say.

She looked at him again, really seeing him, and wanting to run to him, because he was back, and she loved him. Loved him and hated him and wanted him and wanted to be rid of him. So much all at once, and so hard to find where to go.

Shaking her head again, she wiped her eyes. "Cancer."

I didn't ever want to think you would died on his lips; he knew she knew that, after all. He knew she knew he hated the thought. It was a thought that had poisoned his relationship with his dearest relative, too, albeit the other way around. He and Dawn had fought about that, and fought until it escalated into every problem they'd ever had with each other, and they hadn't spoken since.

That hurt him, too.

Hurt him but he and Dawn were both too scared and too stubborn. And this – this was Alice. His own stubborn Alice, who he wouldn't let out-stubborn him this time. He had determined he would get her back. Win her over again.

But he had thought he was fighting with another man.

Not this.

Not a violent, wicked disease that he had fought a thousand times before – if only she had told him –

Robert drooped, almost entirely.

And then, before she could even think to resist him, moved swiftly, hand finally finding its way to her cheek and his arms wrapping around her entirely. He'd let go when she yelled, pushed him away, slapped his face – he'd let go when he stopped both of their tears from spilling anymore – he'd let go when he had to.

He just wanted to hold her close and push everything that had ever hurt her far away with his touch.

He knew he couldn't, but he had to try.

Alice didn't even struggle. At first she thought she might, but when she felt his hand on her face, she moved closer until he was all around her. And she wrapped her arms around his neck and held on, almost climbing into him as her toes left the ground, and started crying again. Sobbing without restraint this time, six years of weight behind her, forcing it all out. Six years of weight, and the feel of Robert again. The touch of him. The smell of him. The relief, that she wouldn't have to keep making a life out of what felt like nothing. That someone would be there.

Someone she loved so much she could hardly stand it or stomach it or endure it. Someone she suddenly wanted to climb into and onto and search until she found his skin. Being without Robert, without anyone for so long, and the need for him was overwhelming. The closer she got, the more it burned. She raked her fingers over his back, holding onto his shirt and onto him.

"I love you," Robert whispered into her hair, breathing her in, refusing to say I'm sorry; he would say that over and over and over again and he knew it, but nothing was as important as her knowing he loved her. She had to know. He would drown her in his love if he had to; in a way, that was what he was trying to do, holding her the way he was. "I love you and I'll never leave you again."

Robert may not have apologized, but Alice had wanted to since she first lost him. She spent far too long wondering what he thought of her when he left; regretting all of their fights, wishing she could tell him what was happening. And now she had, and here he was, and she could fix it.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry--I'm so sorry." She looked at him held his head in her hands, pushing her fingers through his hair. Here he was. Back with her. And she had missed him for so long that she couldn't do enough to show it to him now. She wanted to pull him to her and keep him there and feel him. Run her hands over every inch of him and drink him in. "I love you. I love you and I need you--"

She found herself unable to keep talking, and her mouth worked wordlessly for a moment while she tried to put everything into words. But she couldn't.

It gave Robert the chance to kiss her, at least, or potentially instead; there was no real need for words when they could understand each other perfectly, right? When they could feel what the other was feeling without even having to think on it? When they were always aware of where the other was, so long as they were on that same earth? As far as Robert was concerned, that was all that mattered then.

She needed him, and he needed her, and so he kissed her. Chastely for about a second, seeing if she'd stop him, afraid that she might, and when content that she wouldn't, deeper still until the only thing he was sensing at all, even peripherally, was Alice. Alice's mouth and Alice's tongue and Alice's breath and Alice's arms around him and Alice's nails in his back and Alice's fingers in his hair and Alice's face and Alice's smile and Alice's perfect form and brilliant ideas and wonderful company and everything that had ever been good about her. Thoughts of what hurt and what ached and what was not resolved and the trouble of the magic in the air were completely pushed aside in favor of nothing but her. He had never needed anything but her and he never would again.

Six years was an awfully long time. When Robert kissed her, Alice felt it, really felt it for the first time since his disappearance. For over a year she had been sick, tired from chemotherapy, tired from moving, tired from life. For the next five years she watched her son distance himself, fall in with people so much older, have a child, have another child. And all the while she thought nothing about what she was missing, because she didn't have the energy to search and the interest in remembering. Remembering hurt.

But Robert was kissing her now, and the six years without him were alive and obvious in a way they had never been before. She had never loved anyone like she loved Robert. Not her parents, not old lovers--only her son rivaled the attachment. But only rivaled it. Robert was a physical part of her--she was convinced of it.

She kissed him like she was trying to climb inside him. This wasn't about sex; this was a need beyond satisfaction. Alice had to have him, all of him, and it was driving her closer, making her hold fast to him like he would disappear from her grip. Whether or not she was scared he would was out of the question, now. She was driven only by how much she missed him, and how much she needed him.

They broke for air but closed in again, and at Robert's lips she reflexively whispered his name and realized then that she was shaking again. Too many things were on her mind all at once, and only instinct was worth following.

She kissed Robert without saying anything else, but spoke again just seconds later, in a rapid whisper, as though she couldn't control her thoughts (and wouldn't, even if she knew how); "I want you. I want you, I want you, I want you," she said, her eyes closed and lips just brushing his. "I want you inside me. Robert."

While Robert's immediate mental response was to damn anything in his way and acquiesce to her desires – because as soon as the words were out of her mouth there was nothing else he wanted more in the world – in only another instant cold uncomfortable logic washed over his ardor. Not to say that it quelled it any; his interest was as obvious as ever if not moreso, emotionally and physically. But he did have to pause to think about the plan that had immediately sprung forth.

Because no, the porch was not the right place for sex, no matter how he wanted it. Not the porch, in the snow. Not the foyer, on the floor, against the wall or on the stairs. None of that would do, or could do, because it was ... was it too fast? He didn't want it to be too fast. He needed her like he needed air. There was no consideration required; it was a pure and simple fact that there was no Robert without his Alice. And he wanted her every bit as much as she wanted him – needed him – he was certain of it.

So it couldn't be too fast. They'd been together for so long he had to strive to remember moments without her in it, so long memories of the distant past inserted her as if she had been there all along, so long they were two halves of a whole and nothing was too fast, because being apart wasn't the same thing as starting over.

They weren't starting over.

Just becoming complete.

"Yes," he whispered, and then, "I know – I agree – Fabian."

Robert didn't even know which of the beds were made up anymore, how the place looked anymore, if anything was the way it had been,a nd he didn't want to startle Fabian, didn't want to cause trouble – and didn't care. He was entirely absorbed by his desire to satisfy her every urge and his at once. And so Robert wasn't, entirely, certain what he even meant ... so instead of waiting for a response, opted for another kiss in between statements.

He could kiss her for eternity and be fine.

Alice was going to answer, but kissing distracted her. He was new and familiar and she pressed into him and gripped his shirt until her nails pressed into her palms.

"Just go upstairs," she whispered, breaking her hold to touch his face. She couldn't stop touching his face. The face she remembered, and not the cold, tired boy who had left her.

On the tip of his tongue was I can carry you.

He had planned to ask her if she wanted to be carried, had planned to say something along those lines, anyway, had planned to do a million things when he saw her again in general ... instead, Robert laughed. A shaken but joyful laugh that he couldn't help but let out. A purposeless laugh, maybe, reacting to nothing, but as far as Robert was concerned it was reacting to everything. Plain and simple he was as happy as he could ever remember being, and so without asking, he scooped Alice up into his arms.

"All the way up?" he asked, softly, in between gentler, chaster kisses more suited to be breaks in conversation. Where their room had been. Where, unbenknownst to him, it still was – Fabian hadn't touched a thing, except to straighten and dust.

Alice was smiling, now, and it grew gently between each kiss.

"All the way up," she said softly, smoothing her thumb against his cheek, then tracing it over his lip.

Whatever would happen tomorrow, whatever she would wake up and feel, she wasn't thinking of it now. She wasn't thinking of the potential for this to change again. She wasn't thinking of how she would handle it when the shock wore away. Every step Robert took was only in the moment, and it wasn't worth spoiling it to think of anything else.

Robert was careful on the stairs.

There were a lot of them, and they curved a few times, but he'd been climbing them as long as they'd been there (not being Comus House's first set of stairs under any circumstances) and could easily do it with his eyes closed and a hand on the bannister. Instead, his eyes were open, but his hands were busy holding Alice; steadying her in his arms, tracing the contours of her face, running fingers through her hair.

He had trouble believing this was even real. The physical sensations had to be real – her presence, their mutual desire, the sound of her voice, the touch of her hands – he could feel them. And her words, they needed to be real, too, because as much as he was aware of her voice he was aware of what she was saying. And that meant that it all had to be real. That he was really there. That she had really been sick, not trying to push him away – and he pushed that thought out as quickly as it came, breaking all his concentration on everything from thoughts to stairwell in order to pause on a landing and lean back against the wall and kiss her again, a genuine, long kiss as opposed to the short-and-sweet required by walking.

Just taking a break.

"Don't tire yourself out," Alice whispered, her fingers gently poised on his face. She had lost a lot of weight, but she felt slightly guilty for having him carry her all the way to the top of the house, even if it was his idea. And even if it did make kissing him a lot easier, and she found that she couldn't stop kissing him, and punctuated every word with her lips against his.

"I won't," he replied, and kissed her again, and for no reason he could possibly discern chose to repeat himself: "I won't. And I won't drop you, either."

This was emphasized with pretending to lose grip on her for about a second once he'd started climbing the stairs again; pulling his hands away and letting his mind hold her half an inch lower than he had been. He made an equally-pretend 'eep!' noise before scooping her up again.

And, between that and another kiss, "See?"

Alice laughed, and Alice wiped her eyes, which had grown suspiciously wetter, and Alice nodded. "Don't disappear on the way up, either," she said, looking a little awkward even as she said it.

"If I am at all inclined to do so, it will only be from the rest of the world with you in my arms." Behind a door. Behind the door at the top of the stairs. To be quite a bit closer to her and quite a bit further away from the rest of the world and away from all of the problems the world might present.

And away from what they might fight about.

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The Dirty Life Universe

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