Title: Hidden Beauty (chapter 3 – (Strangeness and Charm) )
Author: Kurukami
Feedback: Very much wanted.
Category: Angst/romance.
Distribution: Please do not distribute or archive without permission.
Disclaimer: Barbara Hall is the creator of "Joan of Arcadia" and CBS owns it. I own nothing of importance in this matter. Please don't sue me; I'm broke enough as it is. : )

Author's note: Spoilers up through "The Election" (2.05).

The cool steel doors of the elevator threw back a murky, distorted reflection of what stood in front of them. Around her, a handful of people stood in the not-quite-stillness that seemed to always dominate trips inside these dismal little hollows. The silence was broken only by the sighs and shuffling of feet and rustling of clothing that groups of strangers made when pushed into close proximity.

Despite being in the midst of a crowd, Grace Polk felt as alone as she'd ever felt in her life.

In the wake of her visit to see Joan in her hospital bed, a numb feeling had come over her. Her limbs felt disconnected and apart from her senses, and the hollow emptiness knotting her belly spoke to a void that she didn't think food would fill. It was as though everything around her had become distanced from what she did, as though the pale girl with dark eyebrows and raggedly cut blonde hair that looked back at her from the elevator doors was just an image on a movie screen.

Adam had chosen to stay with Joan, and though Grace couldn't blame Rove for that she still envied the closeness that had blossomed between he and Girardi in recent weeks. Instead of the three of them allied against whatever the world might throw at them, it was like they had become a pair while she doggedly marched along beside them, feeling more isolated with each couple-y thing they did. Joan's collapse earlier today – had it really been less than eight hours ago? – had only thrown the whole situation into sharp contrast within her mind after the fear for her friend's welfare had ebbed. And she couldn't bring herself to simply push the feelings away, like she had for so many other feelings before. Too much lay between them – trust, respect, joy, memories both pleasant and sad, and fondness for both of the others – for her to be willing to simply give it all up.

The elevator dinged Grace out of the labyrinth of her thoughts as the doors slid aside. The hospital's lobby was virtually deserted this time of night. She stepped out beside the two others who had actually ridden all the way to the ground floor, staring around dispiritedly as they walked away down opposing corridors. Walking outside, past the paired sliding doors that always made her think of spaceship airlocks, the late spring air was crisp on her face as twilight approached.

She didn't want to go home. Not yet. The day had been trying enough without having to be anywhere near her father's calm, accepting apathy or one of her mother's unpredictable, alcohol-induced binge-moods. She needed balance, needed to think, needed to walk and lose herself in music, needed to find a way to lock away the emotions that tightened her throat like a garrote.

Motion caught her attention from the corner of her eye, and she turned. Oh, great. Atom Boy. He was leaning down into the window of a decrepit junker of a station wagon that she dimly recognized as his older brother's, making conversation. Must be nice to have family that actually cares what you think, and where the whole house actually feels like sanctuary instead of just one corner of it. Luke straightened up, turning back towards her, and as the station wagon pulled away from the curb he moved over towards her, shoulders ever-so-slightly hunched in that perpetual weighed-down posture he always seemed to fall into even when he wasn't hauling around a locker full of textbooks.

"Hey," he said quietly.

"Hey yourself."

"You OK?"

"Of course I am," she said with a frown, and turned away from the hospital to start walking. Sure you are, whispered a voice inside. Hollow and lonely and head filled up with thoughts of the past instead of the summer ahead, yup, you're grade-A fine, Polk. Behind her, the sound of sneakers whispered on the asphalt of the parking lot as Girardi scrambled to catch up to her, and they walked together quietly for a short while.

It was strangely … comfortable.

Naturally, the quiet didn't last.

Luke started filling up the quiet with random observations and non-sequiturs, adroitly sidestepping mention of the day's events with a subtlety that she once would've thought beyond him. He spoke of the history of concrete and how Romans were the first to widely use it (which sort of made sense given the sidewalk they were ambling down), and of optics and the refraction of light off varied materials (which kind of tied in as the fading rays of the setting sun shimmered off downtown's buildings), and then veered off on some weird monologue about the properties of subatomic particles (quarks being the foundational elements of all matter and having all manner of bizarrely named "flavors").

Listening to Girardi usually filled Grace with a blend of emotions – curiosity (since he usually had something intriguing on his mind) mixed with impatience (since he took forever to get to most of his points), together with a splash of "huh?" (when his thoughts went off on tangents she'd never even considered) and a sprinkling of inner serenity. She wasn't quite sure how he managed that last bit, given how abrasive she usually felt towards the world. Tonight, though, as the path they were walking under the darkening sky lengthened, letting his words wash over her loosened knots in her shoulders she'd been almost too numb to be aware of. They wandered up streets and through parks and down alleys, as hours passed and the sun's light vanished beyond the western horizon.

Eventually, Luke fell into an awkward silence as they turned left off the boulevard into an alley downtown. Grace glanced at him, a faint smile tugging at her lips and thoughts trickling back from the comfortable mental stillness she'd found as they walked. Her neck and shoulders, so rigid with tension earlier, felt almost fluid now. Endorphins from the walk? Or …

I don't know what it is about him, but somehow I feel like I can relax when I'm near him. The thought crept unbidden into her mind. She stared off down the stretch of alley between buildings as they walked, considering it. No. Can't be. He's just some guy. I'm not letting someone get that close to me again. Loneliness is better. Better than a few brief weeks or months of believing that there's comfort and honesty in the world, better than anguish curling in my stomach like broken glass and lasting so much longer.

But… Curiosity teased at her. He actually had taken a stand for her more than once. That time in Lischak's class, a few weeks before Joan had decided to go all Jerry Springer on Rove's sculpture. The brief moments at the semi-formal, overhearing Friedman's insinuations and Luke's quick defense of her. And she still didn't know what exactly he had meant to imply by giving her that rock last week as a gift. So … why not try to talk? She moistened lips dried by the night air, decided to take the indirect approach, and threw her words out towards Girardi like a challenge. "You didn't have to walk with me. You could have gone with your brother."

He seemed almost surprised as she broke the silence. "It seemed ungentlemanly."

"That's not a word."

"Besides, I like walking. Although this is a lot of walking… uh… do you always walk this much?"

She half-smiled, slipping back into the easy rhythm of conversation they'd shared a few times before. "It's how I do my thinking."

"That's why you're so smart."

Her warm mood shattered like a beaker dropped on the chem lab's floor. Smart? That's like saying someone's 'nice' – just some empty pleasantry that doesn't mean a damned thing. She glared at him and spat, "I am not 'smart'."

"Of course not, I, I didn't mean smart, I meant – intelligent. Not the same thing."

Nice recovery, Atom Boy. "I like the quiet when I walk," she shot back waspishly, then winced mentally. Oh sure, Polk, like he'll believe that after he just spent the last hours delivering a doctoral thesis's worth of words without me getting fed up.

"Of course. Which you're, uh, probably missing right now, with me talking." There was a brief pause. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him crane his head skyward. "Stars."

She rolled her eyes. Not another tangent. What do I have to do, draw him a map with a highlighted route? Do all Girardis lack radar? "Don't mention them."

"Oh, uh, no, I wasn't going to. You know, it's virtually impossible to see them, even, in the age of light pollution, you know—"

Apparently they do. She turned around abruptly to confront him. "Why did you give me that rock?"

"It's a geode."

"To me it's a rock. Why?"

"It was a, a gesture of … friendship." He stumbled over his reply, hesitating, unsure. Friendship. OK. Fine. "Possibly courtship."

"Courtship?" She scoffed and raised her eyebrows in cynical disbelief, then smiled sardonically. "That went out with the corset or the Walkman or something."

"I don't follow trends."

Wait a second… "Did you break up with Glynis because of me?"

"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous."

"OK. I won't, because that would be ridiculous. So let's… not go there."

"Right." Friendship. Fine. I can deal with that. She turned away to walk home, vaguely disappointed for some reason she couldn't pin down, and then heard the words that spilled out of him. "Why is that ridiculous?"

She turned around to stare back at him. "I'm friends with your sister."


"I'm older than you."

"A year. Eight months, actually."

What do I have to do, bludgeon him with the obvious? Hold up a huge blinking neon sign? She stalked back towards him impatiently. "I have a reputation. I worked hard to build it. Do you know what my reputation is?"

"You hate me?"

She blinked, brow furrowing as she stared at him, astonished he could think that. "I'm anti."

"OK. Anti what?"

"What've you got?"

"So you're never going to fall in love."

"I'm never even going to fall in like. And I'm certainly not going to be courted by some – " she fumbled momentarily for an appropriate phrase " – rocket-head geek. I mean, if it got around school that you were giving me things – "

He cut into her diatribe without a moment's hesitation. "What do you care what people think? I mean, if you're 'anti' – shouldn't you like the idea of us if you're so 'anti'?"

Whoa, this is so not where I expected this conversation to go. She stared at him for a moment, seeing the belief in his gaze, then looked away, unable to hold eye contact but trying to hold a strong front against him. "I'm not that anti."

"Oh, so you're moderately anti." His quick, sardonic retort cut through her standoffishness like a cat digging its claws into her leg.

"Look, geek – "

"And besides, you know, love is irrational! It's like this anaesthetic goes off in your brain eliminating all reason so that the act of procreation can occur – "

" – hey, hey – "

"It's a natural state of imbalance built into the whole system, you know? A chemical reaction necessary to the conditions required for Darwinistic evolution – "

"Look, I am not into you! Got it?"

They stared at each other for a long second before he replied, "Yeah."

She confronted him with her gaze, felt the emotions coiling inside her, saw the fervor and certainty in his stare that she'd seen so many times reflected in her bedroom mirror. And suddenly, she didn't want to let this moment go. There was some connection between them, a thread of shared emotion and need that pulled at her and that she didn't want to push away the way she'd done on so many other occasions. It was like seeing a part of herself that she hadn't even known was gone – the innocence and optimism that she'd tried to bury in herself as the years dragged by and disappointments piled up one after the other, matched with the drive and intense feeling that she always kept close.

Her arms reached forward to draw him closer, one hand cupped around the back of his neck and the other around his shoulders, and for a endless, all-too-brief moment she existed only in sensation. The soft touch of his lips against hers, the vulnerability and intimacy and trust of pulling his slender body close, the texture of the thin t-shirt she wore pressed against her belly and breasts by his proximity, the comforting feel of his arms embracing her, the warmth that grew between their bodies in the space of the kiss, the scent of him – shampoo and soap mixed with the distant tang of sweat and the faint fading aroma of aftershave.

It felt like it went on forever, and yet was over all too soon. When they finally broke from the kiss, there was a warmth in the core of her that hadn't been there before and that she couldn't remember feeling in … years. Has it been that long since I was honestly content even for a brief moment?

The silence between them lengthened as she looked at him smiling at her. Finally, Luke simply murmured, "Wow."

Grace just stood there, arms still around his shoulders, a shy smile tugging at her lips. "Yeah."

She wouldn't let Luke walk her home. That was too much honesty too soon. Memories of Becky's horrified face turning towards the door to escape kept haunting her at the thought of letting someone inside.She walked home with him instead, feeling like she was floating in the aura of energy that still thrummed through her from the closeness they'd shared. Luke gave her his IM number and she told him that she'd message him tomorrow. She shared a brief kiss with him (after a nervous glance around to see that no-one was watching), and then she walked away from him across the smooth sidewalk.

Strangeness and charm. That was one of the tangents Luke had gone off on earlier – something about flavors of quarks or some other bizarre, nonsensical topic. Most of the time she didn't understand half of what he said. For some reason, though, that pair of words lingered in her mind. Together they seemed to exemplify quite a bit of why she'd suddenly felt compelled to reach out to him, pull him into her arms, kiss him. It wasn't that she was some bubble-headed twit whose inner thighs went warm at the thought of a pretty face; she'd always held herself above that. It so wasn't the aftershave; she wrinkled her nose just at the memory of the more pungent stinks he'd used to slather on. It wasn't the intelligence that burned in him like a magnesium flare, despite the appeal of someone who could string three words together coherently. It wasn't his blond hair, or the line of his jaw, or the lean slender shoulders, or his semi-androgynous not yet peach-fuzzed features.

Maybe it was his eyes, holding the same certainty hers had. That, combined with the intensity of emotion, standing up for something and arguing his opinion despite all the arguments presented against it, but still possessing that innocent charm that she could barely find in herself anymore.

Strangeness and charm.

A smile tugged at the edge of her mouth as Nick Drake wound down and she topped the slope of the hill, turning back to look at the route she'd walked this long evening. In the darkness of night, streetlamps cast pools of illumination against the black, the modern-day pale imitation of the warmth and comfort of the sun.

Her parents' house was only a block away. Shelter against the night wind that was already sliding chill fingers inside her jacket. A promise, however thin and meaningless experience had proven it to be, of warmth and comfort. Grace slowly walked forward, the energy that had filled her stride earlier dissipating. Tonight, like all too many nights before, she didn't want to go home. Didn't want to entomb herself back in that atmosphere of deception and apathy, hypocrisy and weak-willed acceptance of what was. Pale imitations of real emotion, of warmth and comfort.

She blinked, shaking herself free of her thoughts, and looked up to find herself on the sidewalk in front of her house. Her father's car was pulled up into the driveway, but most of the lights were off. Maybe they'd gotten her phone message about Joan, maybe not. Grace couldn't find it in herself to particularly care whether they were worried.

She slipped in through the door as quiet as she could. A quick glance around confirmed there were no parental units waiting in ambush, ready to heap guilt on her for her so-called shortcomings. She slid across the darkened living room like a shadow, stopped at the foot of the stairs, and saw her mother quietly sitting in the kitchen counter with a bottle and a half-empty glass. So. Nothing changes. I wonder if she even noticed I was gone?

Grace went up the stairs in silence, hearing the television droning softly in her parents' bedroom, and locked herself inside her room. The yellow walls, layered with posters and slogans and signs salvaged from junkpiles, were comfortable. Familiar. But tonight… tonight they didn't fill her with the same feeling of sanctuary that they usually did. The sound of the television still buzzed dimly through her bedroom door, and she pulled on her headphones to drown it out with her own rhythms.

The music helped somewhat, led her back towards that balance and sense of comfort she'd felt earlier that evening. She peeled off her boots, hung up her jacket, and leaned cross-legged against the bed's headboard, letting her eyes drift upwards and away from the chaotic mess that her corner of the house always seemed to gather up. Inside, she reached for the memories of the evening, trying to get back to that place within herself that could understand optimism and hope and comfort.

Feeling the ghostly memory of Luke's lips on hers, she dreamt of the serenity she had found in those moments, and for the first time in a long while felt as though she'd come home.