A/N: This is a little birthday present for anonymouslyaddicted. Happy Birthday, girl! Sorry it's angst not smut.
Not ashamed to say I stole the title for this fic from a bottle of wine. I hope you like it.
She sits in the pool of dim light spilling from her desk lamp, trapped between two worlds.
One dead, the other powerless to be born – she thinks that's how it goes.
Except she doesn't think it's entirely true right now. The poets might know how to write a pretty line, but Elizabeth has always made it a point to determinedly inhabit the world in which she finds herself.
Better to fully inhabit this one than find herself pulled back to the one that no longer exists, and which still causes her pain in its absence.
She runs her fingers over the smooth leather strap wrapped around her opposite wrist. In this world, she has a husband thoughtful enough and sweet enough that he takes the time to get her a replica of her father's watch, a husband who always makes time for her and who has remembered her talking about how she always loved this timepiece and so found a way to make it real again.
That's the thing she should be focusing on.
Not the absence. Not –
She looks up to see Henry's silhouette in the doorway, and he gradually comes into focus as he walks towards where she sits behind her desk in their home office. "Hey," she greets him.
"It's late, I'm going to bed. You coming up?"
She gives him a smile. "In a minute," she says, and means it. Because she always makes time for him, too, when she can.
He nods and leans down to kiss her cheek. "See you up there."
He makes his way across the room and is almost at the stairs when he stops and turns back for a moment. "Don't be too long," he tells her, nodding at the watch wrapped around her wrist to divert her attention to the lateness of the hour. "It's almost midnight."
36 years ago
The light spilling over her books is not nearly bright enough by which to see without straining her eyes, but it's as bright as she can have it without alerting her parents to the fact that she's still up despite it being long past her bedtime.
Drastic times call for drastic measures.
Elizabeth Adams has an important test the following afternoon, and she really needs to study.
The teachers have put a lot of faith in her, letting her take the advanced mathematics test with the older students to see if she's cut out for the more challenging course next year, and she is determined that she isn't going to let them down.
She just needs to make the most of every single minute, make sure that she learns everything she can to –
Busted. She's faced away from the door so she can't see the expression on her father's face, and isn't sure from his tone exactly how much trouble she's in. She plays it cool. "Hi, Dad."
"What are you still doing up?" Unexpectedly, he doesn't sound mad. The way he speaks, he sounds like he knows exactly what she's still doing up at this late hour.
"Studying," she says. He can't be mad about that, right? It's not like she's stayed up talking on the phone or broken her curfew or whatever else teenage girls get into trouble for. She's trying to learn something so that she can progress at school.
She chances a look over her shoulder to see her dad in the doorway, shoulder leaning against the jamb. He taps his wristwatch. "It's late."
She could play this one of two ways. One: deny all knowledge and pretend that time has just run away from her. It's not a great option. She has tried it before and she hasn't fooled anyone. Which leaves option two: the truth. "I know."
"You're still up." Her dad comes into the room and sits down at the end of her bed, the mattress dipping audibly under his weight.
"I need to do well on this test," she says.
"You will," he answers, before she has barely finished her sentence.
"No, I still have so much –"
"Elizabeth." He holds up his hand and cuts off her protest before it can even start. "You will do well on your test." He says it like it's a certainty. "But you will do less well if you are exhausted from staying up all night studying things you've already learned. Go to sleep now."
She sighs, knowing that he isn't going to leave her room until she is in bed and her lights are out, and no doubt he will be able to tell from his room at the other end of the house if she tries to get up to study again. Elizabeth gives in, flicking her book closed and standing from her desk chair to join her dad at the end of the bed. She sits next to him, feels his comforting presence beside her. "What if I fail?"
"You won't. And you won't gain anything by asking what if now." He presses a kiss to her hair. "You'll be fine."
He's so… matter of fact. So certain. Like he's sure. Sure that she will ace her test, that she will be fine, just because he has said so.
She supposes she has no reason to doubt him. He has never failed her before. She leans into him. "Thanks, Dad."
He wraps his arm around her and holds her close. She feels her muscles start to relax, her eyelids starting to droop. She reaches out and touches his wrist, fingers sliding over the leather strap of his watch and the cool, glass face of it, wanting to see the time.
Her dad turns his arm so that she can see it, and the light from her desk glints off the smooth surface, illuminating the small clock face that has always fascinated her. "Look," he tells her. "See the time? Elizabeth, it's almost midnight."
34 years ago
It's almost midnight.
To begin with, she wasn't sure how long she was supposed to wait before deciding that something wasn't right but now, she knows – something isn't right.
They're just having fun getting ice cream, she told herself at the beginning.
Then: Maybe they stopped off somewhere on the way home.
Maybe the car broke down. Maybe -
It was almost like a game, seeing for how long she could keep the excuses going. After all, there were plenty of perfectly reasonable explanations why her family might not have made it home yet.
But then the worry started to sink in.
Sixty seconds in a minute. Sixty minutes in an hour. And how many hours have passed since her parents and brother left now?
Elizabeth isn't sure exactly, but she knows it is too many, knows they should have been back before it got dark, and it has been dark for at least three hours now.
The clock is almost at midnight by the time a car swings into the drive.
Not their car. Not the car her family drove away in and, as it pulls up to the house and she opens the door to greet it, she sees it doesn't contain her family, either. She doesn't recognise the adults in the front seat, but she does recognise the uniforms.
Trapped between two worlds, she thinks, as though she already knows, before the police officers have even opened their car doors, before they've even spoken a single word.
She can see the expressions on their faces.
Then the back door opens first and snatches her gaze away from the officers and she watches her brother climb out and then stand there, looking at her. She hadn't seen him in the car before. He looks like he's lived one thousand lives in the hours he's been away.
"Where are mom and dad?" she hears herself say, even as she instinctively knows. She already knows. She hears the unintended accusation in her voice as she questions Will for information.
… two worlds, one dead…
She bites at the inside of her cheek to try to stop herself crying in front of the police officers.
"I'm really sorry," Will says, and it will be more than three decades before she really understands exactly why he says it the way he does.
Inside the house, a clock chimes out for midnight.
Her alarm clock flashes the arrival of midnight when she finally steps into the bedroom she shares with Henry and starts to prepare for bed.
The lights are already out and so she's careful to be quiet, not wanting to disturb her husband if he's already managed to fall asleep. Elizabeth gets ready quickly, pulling off her clothes before pulling on an old t-shirt and climbing into her side of the bed.
She shifts to get comfortable and feels the bite of the leather strap wrapped snug around her wrist, lifts up her arm so she can study the watch in the dark, the clock face illuminated only by the light from her alarm clock as it glints off the cool glass cover.
She thought she would never see her father's watch again.
And, she supposes, that's still true. This is not his watch. The one she remembers seeing on his wrist every single day. She remembers him teasing her as a child, telling her that he carried the whole of time on his arm, keeping it safe for everyone – and by everyone he had meant their family. She remembers grabbing at his arm and dragging it down so she could see the time that he carried.
She still likes that notion, and with the passage of time the memory has become bittersweet instead of simply bitter.
Her father carried time with him – until his ran out.
Now she carries it for him, and for her mother, too.
Tears press at her eyes and spill over quickly to run in rivulets down her temples. She leaves them there.
"Babe?" Henry mumbles sleepily in the dark, one hand reaching out and fumbling for hers. His fingers close around the watch and tug lightly, encouraging her to roll over so that he can hold her hand to his chest. His thumb strokes both the leather and her wrist like they both bring him comfort.
Or maybe it's her heartbeat that he's looking for.
Evidence of the time she still has to give.
"What time's it?" he asks, not even halfway awake.
Elizabeth settles against him and thinks how much her dad would have approved of Henry. "Late," she answers. "Or early." This time of night could be considered either. "Go back to sleep."
The room is filled with silence but as she loses herself in memories, she imagines that the tick of the watch is loud in the silent midnight.
Three years' time, or thereabouts
It's well after midnight when Elizabeth trails Henry through the door of their bedroom, her fingers linked in his and a feeling cloaked around her that hovers somewhere between panic and excitement, but that is threatening to tip into unavoidable exhaustion at any moment.
She isn't sure exactly for how long she's been awake, but she'd put the guess at somewhere close to forty-eight hours.
And Henry – Henry has been awake for that long, too, has been right at her side during these mad days, and from the slump of his shoulders as he enters the room ahead of her, he looks just about ready to drop.
But when he turns to her, he has a soft smile on his face and his eyes are alive with pride even as he's blinking rapidly from fatigue. "Madam President," he says, and his smile widens when his words make her blush.
She thinks she needs to get over that. Get used to it. Because it's all official now. She's taken the oath while the world was watching, and she has given her first orders, and they have just spent the night travelling between her inaugural balls before coming back to this, their new bedroom in the White House, and yet answering to that title still feels like it belongs in a different world. "It's going to take a while, I think," she mutters.
Henry seems to get it. "You have four years to get used to it," he says, easily. "And then probably four more after that, as well."
Four years, maybe eight. So much time and yet barely any at all.
It's weird, she thinks, how time sometimes stretches and at other times contracts, how sometimes it does both at the same time, how it applies to times that are both good and bad. How the night she learned her parents had died was never-ending and yet gone in a flash. How this night is, too.
Henry reaches out to wrap his fingers around her wrist, pulling her a couple of steps closer so she's flush up against him and he can wrap his other arm tight around her waist. The leather watch she has worn every day since he gave it to her shifts against her skin as he flexes his grip, and maybe it's the movement or maybe the occasion, but it makes her think of an earlier version of that watch sitting securely on her father's wrist.
Carrying time with him until abruptly it ran out.
She looks down at the watch with tears shimmering in her eyes. "I wish my parents could see this," she says.
Instead she carries time with her in memory of them, and with it she'll do her best to change the world before that time runs out.