"But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again."*
As a fan of the book, Jax's read that passage more than a few times - the first time as a high school kid in Charming, the last time as a grown man hundreds of miles away in San Diego - and while he could admire and appreciate the writing, the passage had never really affected him before. But now, riding his bike on a Northern California freeway, speeding towards Sacramento - only a few exits away from the town he'd once called home - the recollection of those words blast through his brain with such force they steal his breath.
It's been fifteen years - a decade and a half - since he dropped his cut on the reaper table, blacked out his ink then rode out of Charming for good. Fifteen years since he said goodbye to his mother, his Brothers and the legacy that'd been mapped out for him since birth. Yeah, he'd be lying if he said he didn't miss the people he left behind, that he didn't sometimes wonder what would've happened if he'd never left – but not once had he ever been tempted to go back, not even for a second.
"You have to make a choice." Tara had tossed that ultimatum at him from the visitor's side of the jailhouse glass, forcing him to make the toughest decision of his life. He chose her, and the universe rewarded him generously for it: a family he loves more than anything, an unexpected yet thriving livelihood and every day spent without the fear of dying bloody or getting locked up in prison for life.
He chose her and in return, she's given him a beautiful life.
Yet lately he's been plagued with a strange restlessness that's been more than a little unsettling. Suddenly, it's as if his perfect world's not quite so perfect, and he's not sure how to fix what's bothering him.
It all started last week while chauffeuring a pack of noisy kindergarteners and an over-stimulated toddler to a kiddie soccer game, followed by an excruciating post-game celebration hosted by the parents of the team's goalie. Not that he didn't enjoy the time with his sons - hell no, he adores his boys and relishes every second with them; with Tara away at a conference, he'd been more than capable of single-parenting for a few days. No, it hadn't been the little boys that'd sent unease burrowing in his brain, but the big ones.
First, it'd been Steve, father of Abel's new best friend who'd carpooled to the game with them then, then during the game and the post-game party, there'd been Dylan and Brandon and another half-dozen cashmere-sweater-wearing, plastic fuckers who yammered non-stop about investments, HOA's, country club golf and other mind-numbing shit. Since Abel started his new private school, they've been pulled into a world more upscale and privileged than Jax'd ever known before…a world he doesn't belong to or even wants to join.
Yeah, Tara's a pediatric surgeon and he's got a pretty good job so they're definitely better off than their days as cash-strapped kids who shared a one room apartment above a garage. But since Tara's practice services low income patients and he works for a public university, they weren't rich by any means - just comfortable enough to raise their kids with more security than either of them had growing up. But was life so comfortable now that he's forgotten who he was?
Once he used to be a total bad ass, commanding both fear and respect everywhere he went. Was he destined to turn into one of those white-collar puppets checking for Wall Street updates on his Smartphone, trading in his flannel shirts and hoodies for silk suits and cable knit cardigans, replacing his Harley with a Tesla? Fucking Christ.
If listening to those pompous clowns wasn't bad enough, hanging with them broke open the floodgates to memories of another time, of another group of men connected by the life they loved - vivid memories his old life that he'd pretty much locked away since leaving to be with Tara. Over the years, his past would creep in now and then - sometimes Tara would mention Piney or something would remind him of his parents or Opie or Bobby or even Tig - but since that chapter in his life was over, the flashbacks had always been brief. Until now.
Now Jax can't stop thinking of them: how they're doing, if they're still running guns - fuck, if they're even all still alive. And he wonders if they ever think of him. Shit, they would've laughed their asses off if they saw him at that party surrounded by what looked like the preening cast of a fucking Polo for (middle-aged) Men magazine ad.
It's not as if he doesn't have any post-SAMCRO friends - he's been tight with Nero and a couple of guys from the garage for years; besides Tara, Nero's been his best friend since Jax first showed up in San Diego looking for her. Once Jax moved in with Tara, Nero had been more than just a landlord - offering Jax a job at his garage then giving him flexible hours once Jax decided to go back to school. And even when Jax's career trajectory meant leaving Nero's garage, they stayed close.
Unfortunately, in recent months he hasn't been able to spend much time with Nero or join in the Harley rides with the guys at the garage. His days had become a blur of work and meetings, of the boys' school and day care, of play dates and birthday parties, of family meals and reading bed time stories. Not that he's ever minded, nothing matters more to him than Tara and their sons. But since that shitty afternoon with those vacuous douchebags, he's had a bug up his ass over confronting what might be his future self.
So when this work trip to Sacramento got scheduled, Jax opted for the eight-hour ride on his Harley than the quick flight. He needed some time alone to think. When he told her, Tara had raised a brow since he hated spending time away from her and the boys - but knowing him better than anyone, she'd instantly understood his need for space and simply nodded.
At the thought of his wife, his shoulders relax and a slow smile spreads across his face.
"Wow, we did it…" Her dazzling smile had to be the second happiest in the universe - second only to his.
"…'bout time," he grumbles, trying to scowl at her but fails miserably as euphoria pumps through every cell in his body; nothing could wipe the huge shit-eating grin off his face. Hauling her against him, he brushes his lips against hers before lifting her hand to press a kiss to the warm gold band he'd slid on her finger just moments before. "So how does it feel…wife?"
The word glides off his tongue like honey, a burst of potent sweetness that melts his insides to mush - and then swamps him under a big fucking wave of relief. When he showed up on her doorstep in San Diego a year ago, he fully expected that they'd get married right away. He loved her, she loved him; he'd walked away from the MC life she feared to live a normal life with her - what could possibly deny him what he's wanted since pretty much the day they met? But despite eagerly welcoming him to move in with her and constantly telling him that they belong together, she hit the brakes at tying the proverbial knot.
At first, it'd pissed him off that she didn't want to elope to Vegas with him during their early days in San Diego, even though she'd assured him that they'd get married one day - that there wasn't any rush, they had their whole lives ahead of them. It didn't take him long to realize that her hesitation bred from her own insecurity rather than any uncertainty about spending forever with him - the scars of what happened with Opie and Donna still festered. Not that she still carried a torch for her ex-boyfriend - she was quick to assure him - but Tara knew better than most that feelings could change over time; she'd lost her father's love when her mother died and then Opie's when he fell for Donna.
But Jax knew for damn sure his feelings for her would never change; shit he had a back covered in black ink to prove he loved her more than anything in the world, a sentiment that she echoed back at him often enough to keep him happy - that, and a whole lot of steamy hot, naked sex.
It was right after a quick, yet scorchingly intense fuck in a library study room when she popped the question; while he desperately tried to gather his scrambled brain cells and calm his ragged breathing, the love of his life slipped on her panties then casually suggested they take a trip this weekend to so he could make an honest woman of her.
And he couldn't say "Fuck, yeah" fast enough…Which is how he wound up in this rustic little chapel in Laughlin, Nevada married to the most beautiful girl in the universe.
Those gorgeous green eyes twinkle up at him as she tweaks his goatee with her fingers. "I feel like the luckiest woman ever," she purrs, her rosy lips curving impishly. "Although I'd like to get luckier…"
Envisioning his wife's naughty little smile - the one that's turned him into a panting, horny teenage boy for nearly two decades - his grin broadens. She'd flashed that smile at him just a few hours ago when she'd dragged his bare ass from their bed for another round of crack-of-dawn fucking on their porch swing. The swing had been a house-warming gift from Nero, who'd wryly suggested they install it in the backyard to avoid putting on a show for the neighbors or security cameras. They'd both flushed crimson at the time, but no level of embarrassment or fear of voyeurism could stop them from regularly watching the sun rise and set in naked, orgasmic bliss.
Jax's lips twist into a rueful smirk as his dick swells against his fly. Even several hundred miles away, Tara Knowles-Teller can still fire him up like no one else ever.
His eye catches the sign marking the freeway junction exit that would lead to Charming - how many times had he made that turn? A thousand? A million? It'd been such a knee-jerk reflex since the day his dad taught him how to ride. But since his move to San Diego, he'd pretty much avoided this route - most of his trips to Northern Cal had been to San Francisco, which was another freeway entirely. And he usually had Tara riding behind him.
Tara…meeting her had to be the best thing that ever happened to him. They've had a few bumpy moments here and there but, on the most part, life's been pretty fucking perfect over the past fifteen years. And despite his fucked-up little identity crisis, he wouldn't change a damn thing.
Gunning his engine, he speeds past the exit to Charming towards his original destination. The sooner he can get there and finish his business, the sooner he can get back to his family.
"I can't believe what I'm fucking seeing…"
Looking up towards the all-too-familiar voice, Jax nearly chokes on the water he'd been drinking at the sight of the towering mountain of scruffy hair, tattoos and leather striding towards him. Christ, he could say the same thing. After feeling such a strong pull of home for the first time during yesterday's ride, it's more than a little jarring to see the person he missed the most standing just a few feet away.
Somehow he manages to recover from his shock and sign the final few books, smiling weakly as he returns them to the eager students before rising to face the man who had once been his brother in every way but blood.
"I can clean up here, Dr. Teller," the young bookstore employee pipes up behind him, flushing pink when he turns to thank her. Tara always teased him about his effect on co-eds, that they'd be mooning over him even when he's a 90-year-old geezer getting wheeled around by their great-grandkids.
"Dr. Teller?" Eyebrows raised, Opie nods at the promotional poster of Jax hard at work on his laptop (courtesy of Tara's phone photography skills). "You got to be shitting me."
Scratching his short beard, Jax shrugs a bit self-consciously. When they were kids, he and Opie always used to make fun of the nerdy egg-heads at school; now he's pretty much sitting on top of nerdy egg-head mountain. "Guess school didn't suck as much as I thought," he admits. "Tara talked me into applying; when I got in, I just kept going to class…wound up with a PhD."
Shaking his head in apparent disbelief, Ope just stares at him. "Well you look the same - except for that short hair - and sound the same, but…" He glances around the bookstore at the book signing promo posters on the walls and the stack of hardbacks on the table with Jax's face plastered on the back cover. "…the rest of this…holy shit."
You look the same…Funny, Jax could echo that about his old friend, dressed in old baggy black jeans, black hoodie and all-too-familiar black skullcap. Not that he's one to talk with his same old wardrobe of jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts, motorcycle gloves and white sneakers. Despite the huge changes in his life, he's pretty much dressed the same - encouraged unconditionally by his better half, who loves her scruffy biker boy.
Jax steps closer for a better look at the man he's known pretty much since birth. Okay, there's definitely some changes; after all, it's been fifteen years. They're both more bulked up than their teenage selves - Ope, no doubt from the physically active MC life, and Jax from daily visits to his boxing gym (which he'd taken up as a distraction when he quit smoking years ago) and keeping up with his active family. But while Jax now buzzes his hair short, Opie's has grown way longer than it'd been when Jax left Charming. And there's now the Vice President patch prominently adorning his cut.
But the most striking change had to be his friend's eyes. Gone was the friendly, affable brown gaze glinting with trust and humor that Jax remembered - replaced by the ruthlessly cold, guarded expression of a man who's seen and done too many unspeakable things. The look of Clay and Tig and the other patched men of SAMCRO.
"Well it looks like I'm not the only one hanging out in college bookstores," Jax drawls, trying to discern how happy his former best friend might feel about this surprise reunion. They hadn't parted on bad terms - but not exactly good either. "What're you doing in here? SAMCRO now dealing text books?"
Opie's stony expression wavers as his lips twitch. "Looking at some of the price tags these fuckers are charging, that might not be such a bad idea." His eyes drift from the book shelves back to Jax - zeroing in on the Jax's gold wedding band. "How's Tara? You didn't fuck up your chance with her, did you? Fifteen years is a long time to deal with your bullshit."
Chuckling, Jax shakes his head. "We're good..." Although he wonders what she'd think of him running into Opie like this. He can't imagine she'd be thrilled with him having any SAMCRO contact; even after all these years, he knows the Club still scares her. With that in mind, he should say a quick goodbye and get the hell out of there, but…
Rubbing his temple, he considers hurling his laptop across the room then stomping it into fucking dust. The goddamn piece of shit can't seem to hold a battery charge anymore and he's sure he forgot to save the latest changes to his work. Fuck, fuck, fuck…And the screaming baby in the next room doesn't help the pounding in his head.
"Do you ever regret coming here? Leaving your mother…Charming…SAMCRO…for all this chaos?"
His anger vanishes instantly when he spots her standing in the doorway. Even after all these years together, she still sends his heart soaring into overdrive so that he forgets about anything and everything but her.
Rising out of his chair, he savors the sight of his wife holding their two-year-old son. He enfolds them into his arms, stroking her velvety soft cheek with his fingers before pressing a kiss to their baby boy's silky blond head.
After years of being so careful about not starting a family until ready, they'd gambled on fate with an impulsive bareback fuck at the beach and wound up with the prize nine months later. Abel had been born during Tara's second year of residency and Jax's third year of grad school - not exactly perfect timing given their crazy schedules and strained finances. He'd expected to be much more freaked out by the whole thing, but instead found himself enthralled by her pregnancy and excited by fatherhood.
Gazing into Abel's bright blue eyes - so like his own - Jax feels his heart swell to near bursting. "No, Babe," he brushes his lips across Tara's forehead as his hand drifts to caress her newly expanding belly. "I don't regret a thing. If anything, I wish I would've left with you."
Her pink lips curve into a soft smile. "But you did leave, and you're here now. That's all that matters."
"There's a bar across the street." Opie gestures towards the door. "I could use a drink...care to join me?"
Jax rubs a thumb across his wedding ring as he eyes his old friend. There's a reason all this shit's happening right now; even his rational, science-loving Tara believed in serendipity…she'd want him to see how this all played out. "Yeah, that sounds good."
While writing one of his books, Jax spent some time researching muscle memory - how people can perform activities they haven't done in years, whether it's riding a bike or playing a musical instrument or even martial arts, because their bodies remember the past practice.
Sitting with Opie in the near-empty dive bar, Jax realizes those same motor responses could apply to long lost friendships. After ordering drinks and some bar food, Opie asked him if he still rode and suddenly they were young Jax and Opie again rattling on about Harleys - all the bikes they rode, repaired and aspired to own - with details of everyday life sprinkled in.
While they polished off a pitcher of beer and a jumbo platter of wings, Jax gushed about Tara - his brilliant neo-natal surgeon saving babies every day, their darling little boys - five-year-old Abel and three-year-old Thomas, and the third baby due in three months (after two sons who look like him, Jax's really hoping for a girl who's a mirror image of her gorgeous mother).
In turn, Opie told him about being married to Donna for 14 years and their two kids - including a 13-year-old who needed him to drop her off at junior theatre camp at Sacramento State, which was why Opie was on campus when he saw the posters for Jax's book signing.
"I still can't believe you fucking write books for a living," Shaking his head, Opie takes a drag of his cigarette. "But then I guess I shouldn't be surprised…you and your old man couldn't stop reading them."
Well Jax certainly hadn't planned on becoming a professional writer; he'd been jotting shit down - thoughts, ideas - since he was a kid but never thought about doing more than scribbling in his notebooks. Tara had been the one to take note of his work - constantly encouraging him until one day he found himself enrolled in a community college writing class, which eventually set him on the path to a bachelor's degree then a graduate degree, to publishing his first story and then another and another. Although not a New York Times best-selling author or anything like that, he's happy that his short stories and novels have been regularly added to college reading curriculums and lists of top literary reads.
But as happy as he's been over his success as an author, Jax's been most proud of his not-as-public accomplishments. He's parlayed his literary success and academic clout to work with state officials in overhauling and improving the libraries in juvenile detention centers all over the state; the main reason he's in Sacramento now was to finalize funding for another two years. The book signing had been a favor to the Dean at Sac State, who worked with him to secure that funding.
Yep, Jax Teller, literary bad ass. Ope would lose his fucking shit laughing over that.
"So everyone else is good?" No longer able to resist asking, Jax stares at Opie expectantly. Just because he'd chosen a different life, chosen to walk away and be excommunicated didn't mean he ever stopped caring.
Opie downs the rest of his beer; wiping his mouth on his sleeve (just like the old days), he eyes Jax thoughtfully as if trying to decide how much to divulge - part of SAMCRO's code is that you don't say shit about the Club to anyone on the outside. Like Jax. Shrugging, Opie lights another cigarette. "All good."
Although unsatisfied with the answer, Jax opts for a little safer territory. "How's my Mom?" At Abel's soccer game, it hadn't been just the plastic Ken doll dads that set his brain on edge. Along with the parents and siblings, there'd been a few happy grandparents cheering excitedly for their favorite little players. It'd made him think about Gemma, just like the day Abel was born and then again when they welcomed Thomas to the family - how she'd love to meet her grandsons, how his boys might like to know they had grandparents (if you counted Clay) just like the other kids. And soon there'll be another baby…
"Same as always." A fond smile tugs at Opie's lips; Gemma's always been more of a mother to him than his own. "Bet she'd love to know she's got grandkids," he echoes Jax's conflicted thoughts. "She and Clay have been taking care of Lowell's kid while the idiot's in rehab again."
Despite his somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, Gemma had been a good mom - they may not have seen eye to eye on everything, but Jax knew she loved him. He's happy that she's found an outlet for her maternal instincts, such as they were.
Opie's phone rings, ushering in the outside world. Frowning as he glances at the number on the screen, Opie hops out of the booth to take the call outside. Jax knows that he can't talk Club business in front of an outsider - especially an excommunicated outsider. Waiting for Opie to finish his call, Jax wonders how crazy it would be if he rode back to Charming with his old friend. Just to say hi to the guys and Gemma. Totally fucking crazy and Tara would absolutely flip, but…
"Sorry, I gotta go." Whatever the caller had to say, it must've been some seriously bad shit news given Opie's stricken face leeched of all color except for red-rimmed eyes; his big hands shake as he grabs his sweatshirt and cut then bolts towards the door.
Leaping up, Jax throws a wad of cash on the table and sprints after him. "Ope!" he calls out repeatedly, only to be ignored each time. Undeterred, Jax follows him to a campus parking lot and manages to step in front of him before Opie can get on his bike. "What the hell's wrong?"
For a split second, it looks like his old friend might slug him given his thunderous expression and raised fist; instead, Opie's shoulders slump as he swipes at his eyes. "It's Donna…she's been shot. They're taking her to St. Thomas."
"Holy shit, I'm so sorry Ope." Helplessly, Jax watches the big man struggle with his composure. "Maybe you shouldn't ride alone; I can go with you..."
"No." Opie barks, shaking his head. "You need to stay away from that shit, Jax. For your own good." Sidestepping Jax, he heads for his bike. "You have a great life now…hang on it. Hang on to Tara…" He closes his eyes briefly then straps on his helmet.
Staring at his old friend, Jax swallows hard as a heart-stopping realization stabs at him, freezing the blood in his veins - had he made a different choice, had Tara made a different choice - it could've been him getting the devastating news that Tara had been gunned down and was fighting for her life. A red mist coats his vision; he'd fucking kill everyone in the whole goddamn world if anything happened to her.
Forcing himself to snap out of his painful haze, Jax stalks towards Opie and pulls the big man into a bear hug. Fuck SAMCRO, Opie will always be his brother. "She'll be okay, Ope. No way the Donna I knew would ever let go of you." He thumps Opie's back reassuringly before pulling away. Reaching into pocket, he fishes out one of his business cards that he brought on this trip and extends it to Opie. "Fuck rules, Bro. If you need anything, call me. Any time."
Opie hesitates for a moment before accepting the card. Tucking it into his pocket, he nods at Jax. "Thanks. Take care of our girl." He smirks ruefully before gunning his engine and riding away.
"What's wrong, Baby?" Those gorgeous green eyes darken with concern as she gazes up at him, her soft fingers stroking his cheek.
After saying goodbye to Opie, Jax had quickly checked out of his hotel and rode hell for leather back to San Diego, back to his family. It'd been nearly midnight when he got home, but thankfully Tara had stayed up to wait for him. He'd dropped all his shit and rushed over to her without bothering to shut the front door. Plucking her off the couch, he'd wrapped his arms around her as tightly as he could (given her condition) and devoured that luscious pink mouth like a starving man.
Although that's exactly how he always greeted her after any absence, his ever-astute Tara could always tell when something's off with him. Gazing down at the beautiful girl he's loved since he was sixteen years old, Jax lifts her hand and kisses her wedding ring. "I'm good," he replies. And it's the truth - for the most part. "But I do need to tell you something…"
Unwilling to let get go of her for a second, Jax tugs her along with him to lock the front door then up the stairs to their bedroom. Plopping down on the chaise, he pulls her on to his lap and buries his face in her dark hair. Remembering Donna and Opie, he squeezes her tight. "I love you so much, Tara. You have to know that…"
"I do know that, Jax. I love you, too." She rests her forehead against his. "Tell me…"
And so he spills his fucking guts to her - divulging his fear of losing himself, of going soft and turning into a goddamn Steve-Brandon-Dylan clone…about missing his old family - blood and Brothers…and about running into Opie in Sacramento.
Tara's silent while he unravels his story, but her arms remain twined around his neck, her lips brushing his cheek - exorcising all the tension that'd been escalating inside of him. Jax's whole body sags with relief at her reaction - he'd feared that she'd be hurt that he hadn't talk to her about his problems, not to mention sorely pissed that he'd even considered setting foot into Charming.
Their relationship may have started on rocky terrain - marred by secrets and lies and misunderstandings - but from that painful past they forged a powerful bond; Jax and Tara - they were one, a single oh-so-connected unit that nothing and no one could ever split apart.
She cups his face in her soft hands. "Baby, don't ever worry about losing sight of who you are. Because I won't let you forget…Jackson Teller, you're a beautiful man and a total fucking bad ass who I fall more in love with every single day. Besides, I bet none of those 'plastic fuckers' ever knocked up his wife in a Harley dealership bathroom."
Jax snorts with laughter and rubs her swollen belly - six months ago, they'd taken a new model out for a test drive, then she'd dragged him into the bathroom and fucked him senseless. He presses his lips against hers, smiling when his baby girl (he's sure it's a girl) kicks against his hand.
Gemma and SAMCRO were the past, and in the past they need to stay; hearing what happened to poor Donna had been a tragic and sobering reminder of how ugly life could've been had he chose a different path. Hopefully one day Opie will call him with the news that he's taking his family and getting the hell out of the MC life.
"No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don't."**
The passage pops into his head as he glances over at the framed photos decorating the dresser - his favorite was a family shot that Nero had taken of them: Tara and his boys laughing while he squeezed them in his arms, a big ass grin on his face. And soon they'll need new family pictures - he can't fucking wait.
For the millionth time, he sends up thanks that he made the choice to be with her fifteen years ago. Tara and their kids - that's his family now, his future. It didn't fucking matter whether he wore hoodies or three-piece suits, just as long as he had the love of his life by his side.
*You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe
**The Stand by Stephen King
AN: Sorry it's taken forever for me to finish, thanks for your patience. My brain kept spinning in so many different directions - more about Abel and Thomas as well as Opie and Donna - but I had to remind myself that this was Jax and Tara's story, their journey to be together. Anything else would've been a distraction, and I'd never finish.
Thanks again for sticking with me!