Disclaimer: Don't own. If I did, poor Jackie would suffer less. And Donna more. Just 'cause.
Spoilers: Through 8x03, specifically for 4x01, "It's A Wonderful Life" and various episodes throughout the series.
Author's Notes: I know I'm not the first to spin my own take on the whole "It's A Wonderful Life" plot, but this got in my head and wouldn't leave, so here it is. It's not exactly fluff, and it's not exactly Christmas-y, but, hell, you could have gotten that from the title.
Not Wonderful, But It's Life
It was Christmas again. Bright lights and brash commercialism and deceitful propaganda about "peace on earth, goodwill to men" and "there's no place like home for the holidays" and "God rest ye merry, gentlemen." What the hell was that supposed to mean anyway?
Scrooge had the right idea, Hyde thought, as he was locking up the record store at the end of a long day of hectic, last minute Christmas shoppers. Bah humbug and get bent.
"Oh! I'm not too late, am I?" The worried inquiry behind him came from the last voice Hyde needed to hear at the end of his drag of a day.
He turned slowly to face her. Jackie Burkhardt was wrapped from head to toe against the cold of a Wisconsin winter. Of course, this being Jackie, that wasn't enough to stop her from looking absolutely perfect even with the extra twenty pounds of clothing. Her black, fur-lined snow-boots met red leggings which led into a calf-length black skirt with a slit up the center, which revealed precious inches of her perfect legs—legs he had memorized every particle of in the years they had belonged as nearly to him as they did to her—and up into indecipherable layers of red and black shirts and jackets which made her look both cozy and festive. Her red scarf and beret set off against the beauty of her dark hair, and the cold had given an extra glow to her face and sparkle to her eyes.
He noted all this in seconds, hiding his reaction behind the impenetrable depths of his dark glasses and his Zen mask. He hated himself for noticing at all, for cataloging everything she wore, every look on her face, for still finding himself so entranced by all those things he was supposed to have forgotten. And, irrationally, it made him hate her; she must know what she was doing to him. She did it on purpose, damn it.
It was that thought which made his, "Yup. Closed," come out even colder and more clipped than he had meant it.
He knew her reaction even before he saw it. Had he been blind, he still would have seen it in his mind's eye. One shoulder sagged, one foot stamped with childish impatience, and her lower lip protruded in the most annoying, manipulative, evil, endearing, beautiful, sexy pout ever seen in this world or any other.
"Pleeease, Steven, can't you let me in? It will only take a second, I promise! I forgot to get Donna a present, and this will be my last chance, and, since she's not like a normal girl and never uses all the pretty things I buy her, I'm giving in and getting her one of your silly albums."
And there it was: a whine, an order, a couple of minor burns, and Jackie expected him to just let her have her way. Like always. And on this occasion, he couldn't find it in himself to argue with her. It was cold, and he was tired, and Christmas seemed more depressing this year than ever before—and he was not going to attempt to reason why—and so without bothering to answer, Hyde turned and unlocked the door.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she squealed, throwing her arms around him from behind.
Hyde unconsciously raised his hands to caress the cold, tiny hands wrapped around his chest. His eyes closed as he savored the simple touch. This was closer to her than he had been in months. Not since…
As if the thought entered their minds simultaneously, they both broke away, nearly jumping to opposite sides of the doorstep. Jackie looked at her feet, scuffing her perfect boots against the icy stoop.
Hyde cleared his throat. "Whatever, man. Just don't get her Aerosmith. That's what I'm getting her."
Jackie waved her hand airily in response, before entering the store ahead of him. Hyde flipped on the lights, and she started to flip through the LPs without another glance in his direction. From experience, Hyde knew that Jackie's "only take a second" meant at least a twenty minute wait, so he took a seat by the counter, pulling a magazine off the pile and pretending to read it while stealing glances at her whenever he was sure she wouldn't notice.
Not that he made a habit of watching Jackie. Not anymore. He was happily married now. Well, "happily" being a relative term, meaning "not feeling an overwhelming desire to jump off a bridge in the near future." But since that day his stranger of a wife showed up, Hyde had scarcely been in Jackie's presence at all, and never alone. He wasn't sure if he was avoiding her, or she him, but it was a system that had been working admirably well for them.
Until now, when he couldn't stop looking at her. He supposed he could be forgiven; her back was to him, her form slightly bent over the rows of records, and even the most impartial observer had to admit that Jackie had a fine ass. Unfortunately, it wasn't her ass he was staring at. He was enamored by the simple things, like watching the way she impatiently flipped her hair back over her shoulder every few seconds when it fell in her face, obstructing her view. Or the way her perfectly manicured nails—and he just knew her toenails, obscured by boots or not, were painted the exact same shade of scarlet—drummed a steady rhythm on the counter next to her. Or the—
DAMN IT. He wasn't supposed to do this anymore. He was married, for Hendrix's sake. Whether he remembered them or not, he had taken vows, and he was pretty sure he was violating some pretty huge one by lusting after his ex-girlfriend. Jackie had to go. Now.
"Hurry it up, will ya?" he snapped at her.
Jackie whipped around to face him, fury giving her face another shade of beauty. Crap, couldn't she ever look unappealing? Even for a second? "Don't rush me!" she shot back. "It's not my fault there's nothing in here but nasty, scruffy potheads like you. Where's your ABBA, your Andy Gibb, your David Cassidy?"
Hyde let a foul word out under his breath as he got to his feet and stomped across the room, advancing menacingly close to Jackie. He glowered down at her and saw a moment of fear cross her face, before she recovered herself and assumed another classic Jackie pose, hands on hips, chin jutted defiantly high.
"Well…?" She stretched the word out in haughty impatience, as though she fully expected him to lead her to a secret room full of life-sized Donny Osmond cut-outs and signed Captain and Tenille albums.
He didn't know whether to hit her or shove her back against the counter and take her in all the ways he pretended he hadn't been dreaming about over the past six months. But instead he just pushed her aside—more roughly than he would have if all his willpower hadn't been committed to keeping his lips off hers—and grabbed an Alice Cooper record that had been staring Jackie in the face the last ten minutes.
"Here," he muttered, propelling it into her arms, whether she wanted it or not.
Jackie looked like she was considering telling him off for his manhandling of her, but she thought better of it and merely stared down at the album cover. Her perfect little nose wrinkled in distaste. "Eww, he's scary, and someone should tell him Alice is a girl's name. Why would I want that?"
"You wouldn't. Donna would. She's been in here every day this week playing that record." Just take it and go, he silently willed her. Because if she stood there much longer, looking so damn good and smelling so damn sweet and being so damn untouchable, all the Zen in the world wouldn't be enough to keep him away from her.
After the most offensively long moment in the history of time—and Hyde felt disturbingly like Forman as he thought that—Jackie released a weary sigh. "She has no taste at all. One only needs to look at her big, clomping man-boots to see that."
"So does that mean you'll take it?" Hyde asked, perhaps a little too eagerly, as Jackie looked up at him, suspicion lighting in her eyes.
"Why do you want me to buy this record so much, Steven?" Her eyes widened in presumed understanding. "Oh my God! You want me to get her a present she'll hate, don't you? That way, when you swoop in with a present she really likes, you'll seem like a better friend. Christmas presents are not acceptable burns, Steven!"
"Don't be so paranoid—"
Jackie, though she would deny until her dying breath that she could possibly be guilty of such a sound, snorted. "That's rich, coming from you."
"Whatever. I don't care if you buy the freakin' record or not, Jackie. Just so long as you get out of my store in the next thirty seconds!" His Zen, always tenuous in her presence, had deserted him yet again when he needed it most.
He saw the shock and hurt flash across her face and then the tears start to swirl in her mismatched eyes, and he knew himself to be the lowest life-form on the planet. He remembered suddenly how much he used to hate when Kelso made her cry. When had he become that guy, the guy who couldn't do anything except hurt her?
"Fine!" she shot back, rallying her courage. "You know, I had hoped that, despite everything, you and I could maybe still be friends. But I guess even that would be asking too much from you. Expecting you to act like an actual person, a human being with real feelings, what could I ever have been thinking? Keep your stupid record!" And without waiting for a response, she flung it back at him and turned on her heel, running from the store.
The door slammed behind her with a bang only slightly softened by the tinkle of the Christmas bells hanging from it. Spurred on by the sight of her pain, Hyde had his hand on the doorknob before he thought better of chasing after her. Instead, he grabbed those deceitful bells—all their ringing was simply a false approximation of holiday cheer perpetrated on the unsuspecting consumers by the corporate-run Christmas conspiracy—and hurled them across the room. They slammed into a box of records and slid to the floor, their chimes sounding out a slow and painful death.
But even that did nothing to relieve Hyde's frustration, as he sank, wearied, into a heap by the door. Why did he always do this? He wished he could take those words back. He wished he could take back his marriage, and his jealousy, and his silences, and everything he had ever done to hurt her. But it was inevitable, really. He and Jackie had been a bad idea from the start; as he looked back on it now, he was positive they had never done anything but hurt each other. She ripped him apart with her thoughtless words and careless flirtations and too-high expectations, and in return, he made her cry. A lot. This was just one time too often.
"I wish I'd never kissed her," he mumbled to himself. "I wish I'd listened to my head and left her alone that summer."
"Oh, here we go again! Why is it that whenever I get sent to this charming little town, it's always because some dumbass is all torn up over a girl. What, there aren't any real crises in the world for me to handle tonight? No civil wars? Oppressed masses in Cambodia? Not even a guy with an overwhelming desire to throw himself off a bridge?"
Hyde looked up slowly. A rotund man in an all-white white leisure suit and sporting a goatee stood before him. Hyde rubbed his eyes as if expecting the man to vanish. Nope. Still there. "I could have sworn this place was empty."
"We're not big on doors where I come from."
Bemused, Hyde rose to his feet. "Did you happen to find that bag of 'oregano' in my office?"
"No, but now that you mention it, we should definitely visit that topic again before the night is out. My guess is you'll be needing it after what you're about to see." The man released a loud laugh that could only be described as demonic.
"You've got it backwards, man. We visit the stash first, and then we see stuff."
"Not tonight, my friend. Tonight is the night when wishes come true, your own personal Christmas miracle, by order of the Big Guy."
"And I thought you were the brain of the group." The man in white shook his head sadly. "Even the skinny kid didn't take this long to catch on."
"Forman?" Hyde was increasingly confused. This would all make sense if he had paid a visit to the stash today, but the store had been too busy even for circle time—which might explain why today had been such a waste. "What's he got to do with this? He's in…wait a minute. Is this some kind of long-distance burn?"
"Damn hippie kids," the older man muttered. "Haven't got a clue what's really going on."
"The government! You're from—"
"For the love of all that is holy, would you just shut your trap? Here's how this works: you make a wish, it gets heard, somebody up there hates me, and here I am. I'm an angel, and you're about to get a glimpse at a life without that dollface you just sent running out of here."
"Whatever, man. Look, the nuthouse is about two miles down the—"
Yet again, Hyde was cut off mid-sentence, though this time the "angel" didn't say a word. He just reached out and put a hand on Hyde's shoulder, and suddenly they were no longer standing in the record store but back in Forman's basement, directly behind the TV and facing the ratty, old couch. On which Jackie was sitting. With…himself? Only it wasn't Hyde as he was now, but the Hyde he had been the summer Donna and Kelso ran off to California. He could tell because of the beard and the fact that he was watching TV with an equally bored looking Jackie.
"What the hell, man?"
"Generally speaking, we don't like that word. Why doesn't anyone ever say 'what the heaven'?" A look at Hyde's face prompted him to go on, however. "You wished you had never started anything with the lovely Miss Burkhardt here. We're here to make that a reality. Watch."
With nothing else he could possibly do, Hyde did as he was told.
"Another old lady," Jackie was griping. "She can't even reach the wheel!"
"I can't watch The Price Is Right again. I just can't," Hyde heard himself say.
"This summer totally sucks. There's nothing to do."
And then there was the moment he remembered. The turning to look at Jackie, the sudden tension in the air as they sized each other up, the move-in for a kiss—but in this version, at the last moment, Hyde pulled away.
"Uh, what do you say we lock Forman out of the house in his underwear?"
For a moment, Jackie seemed thrown and slightly disappointed, but she recovered without a serious loss of face. "I'll get the camera." They both rattled away up the stairs as though nothing had ever happened—or almost happened, in this reality.
Hyde turned back to the Angel. "So that's it, right? One big cosmic mistake fixed."
"Oh, keep watching, you frizzy-haired moron. It's just getting started."
In the time it took Hyde to blink his eyes, he was standing outside in the Forman driveway. The gang was gathered around Kelso's van, and everyone was hugging Kelso and Donna, welcoming them home.
He saw Jackie and Kelso off to one side, and she was looking up at him with her arms crossed and her brows raised. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself? Running off to California like a stupid, cowardly, bastard dumbass! Well…? Hmm?" And she was so very much Kelso's Jackie and not Hyde's Jackie that Hyde had to turn away and look at something else.
Which is when he saw Red and Kitty welcoming Donna home—well, Kitty was welcoming her home; Red just grunted in her general direction—with absolutely no regard for the fact that Eric had crossed the country against their expressed wishes to bring her back.
"Still not getting it?" asked the Angel, who was studying Hyde's reaction rather than the scene in front of them. "See, since you and Jackie weren't making out that summer, Kitty didn't catch you making out, and since you weren't caught, Jackie never told on Eric, and they never found out what he had done."
Hyde shrugged. "So life is better for everyone because Jackie and I didn't get together. Forman escaped a foot in the ass, Jackie and I escaped lives of misery and pain. Everything's copasetic, man. Can I go home now? I don't know if you've heard, but I've got a hot stripper wife there waiting for me."
"Sorry, no short-cuts on this tour. Next stop: graduation."
"Uh, we didn't actually make graduation, man."
"In this life, you did. But no more spoilers! Spoilers are bad. Here's a scene I'm sure you'll recognize."
And in a whirl that left Hyde feeling like all the trippy things he'd seen in the circle were perfectly commonplace, he found himself standing in the middle of their pre-graduation campout by the lake. Only, true to form, some things were just a little bit different. For instance, he wasn't glowering at Kelso or throwing his guitar on the fire. He was simply watching Kelso and Jackie through his expression-hiding glasses, while they cuddled and made disgusting cooing noises at each other.
The observing Hyde merely snorted from his position by the Angel. "Figures she'd take him back. He was always the one she wanted."
"Well, don't we suddenly know everything?" the Angel shot at him, in a falsely reassuring tone.
"What? Just look at them, man. This was what was meant to happen, what would have happened if I hadn't screwed things up by kissing Jackie."
"Ah! So everything that happens in this reality is what was meant to happen, huh? You're really going to appreciate what happens next then."
Hyde turned back to the scene. The gang was dispersing. Eric and Donna were whispering something to each other, before quietly sneaking off, one at a time. Laurie announced she was going for a walk, and Fez soon ran after her. Kelso and Jackie, meanwhile, retired to their tent for one of the nauseating public trysts that always marked the rare times when they were getting along.
"Good night, Steven," Jackie said quietly, as Kelso pulled her away.
Hyde grunted an unintelligible response, before slinking away into the woods himself, a six pack of beer dangling carelessly from his hand.
Hyde followed himself—and didn't that sound far out?—the short distance to the lake. He had just settled down on a grassy bank to brood and drink himself into a stupor when the sounds of muffled sobs reached his ears.
He paused for a moment, listened, then shrugged, and popped open his first can. But the noise continued, and with a sigh of frustration, he finally got up and followed it until he came upon a most unexpected person.
"Laurie?" he questioned, looking down at the hunched figure in the grass. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"No, no, get away! It's all wrong! I'm tainted, do you hear? Tainted!"
"Hell, Laurie, any sailor on leave could tell you that." Hyde smirked at his own burn. But as this piece of comforting wisdom didn't provoke an abatement in Laurie's histrionic sobbing, Hyde crouched down by her side and continued, "I know I'm gonna regret asking this—and you'd better not think this means in any way that I care, I'm just sick to death of those noises coming out of your mouth—but what's wrong?"
"I…I…no! It's too awful! I can't say." Which, in Laurie speak, generally meant she only needed a little more coaxing to spill everything.
"Okay, then," said Hyde, standing and turning to go. "See ya."
"I saw Eric naked!" Laurie blurted out.
"Ah, man, I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was serious." There was finally sympathy in Hyde's voice as he took a seat by Laurie and wrapped an arm around her shaking shoulders. "Here. You'll be needing this." He handed her one of his precious six-pack.
"Thank you, Hyde," sniffled Laurie, accepting the offering and wiping her streaming face on the towel wrapped around her. "I can't tell you how glad I am you showed up. I was so shaken up by this whole thing I was about to have sex with that creepy foreign kid who's been stalking me through the woods."
She didn't bother lowering her voice, and a rustle in the bushes behind them showed she had been overheard. "Blast! Foiled again! Damn you, Steven Hyde, damn you!" And Fez went streaking by them.
Hyde laughed at his friend's misery—as any true friend would—and took a few chugs of beer before gritting out, "You're not gonna want to talk about it now, are you?"
"Ugh, no! Bad enough I had to live through it. I just want to kill the pain with alcohol and meaningless sex. And since Kelso is taken at the moment, I suppose you'll have to do."
"As appealing as your forthright honesty and complete whorishness is, I'm gonna have to say no. I make it a general policy not to be anywhere Kelso has already been."
"Why? Did you catch something from Jackie?"
There were very few times in life when Hyde was caught completely off guard. This was one of them, and there was no disguising it, either, as he had just taken a drink and found himself spraying the ground with it as Laurie's barb struck home.
"Jackie? That obnoxious, little, rich girl cheerleader? I never touched her, man! She's not my type. At. All."
"Uh-huh," returned Laurie, with a mixture of indifference and disbelief. "Then why were you her crying shoulder when she found out about Kelso and me? And why did you hit that guy for calling her a bitch? Which is true, by the way. And why did you spend all of tonight pretending not to watch her and then come off here to get drunk alone?"
"And when did Dr. Evil become Sherlock 'Slutty' Holmes?"
"Even a slut has eyes." Abruptly realizing her mistake, Laurie added, "Not that I am a slut. Or if I am, I'm a reformed slut. I have mended my slutty ways."
"Whatever, man." Hyde turned away, nursing his beer in silence.
Laurie, as befitted a lady of her sterling reputation, waited thirty whole seconds before asking, "I can see you don't want to talk about it, so ready for that meaningless sex now?"
Hyde shot her a look, took one last chug of his beer, tossed the can away and stood. "Sure. Why not?" The two walked off into the woods, Hyde's arm draped familiarly around Laurie's shoulders.
The observing Hyde stayed behind with the Angel, a look of horror laminated to his face. "You're telling me if I didn't end up with Jackie, I would have sex with Laurie? But she's the devil, man!"
"Actually, Lucifer prefers not to acknowledge any connection to Laurie Forman; he has a whole disclaimer about it, if you'd care to see," the Angel returned flippantly.
"I'm gonna catch something, aren't I? I'm gonna die, or my balls are gonna fall off. There's gonna be some kind of oozing sore. Damn it, man, what are you doing to me?"
"You're doing it all to yourself, man. But if it makes you feel any better, you don't catch anything."
Hyde sighed with relief, a relief that was short-lived as another blink found him back in the Formans' house, in Laurie's lurid purple room, and staring at this other version of himself, who was numbly repeating the most dreaded of all words:
"Pregnant? Pregnant? Pregnant?"
Laurie was standing, staring him down as he sat upon the bed in a state of shock. "Yes, Hyde, pregnant. See, sometimes, when a boy and a girl love each other very, very much—or, you know, get drunk and have sex in the back of a van—"
"How do you know it's mine?"
"Oh, real nice, Hyde."
"What? It's not my fault you're such a skankoid."
"Look, I'm not any happier about this than you are. Do you think I want my children to have shag carpeting on their head?" She looked ready to cry at the very thought. "But facts are facts, and now we have to deal with this."
"And how do you expect us to do that?"
"Well, you're going to marry me, of course," Laurie answered brightly.
"Like hell!" Hyde roared.
"But, Hyde," she responded, putting on the baby voice that her father loved and everyone else abhorred, "you can't expect me to bring this child into the world alone, can you? What would Daddy say? And you don't want to disappoint Daddy, do you, Hyde? Not after all he's done for you—taking you in off the streets, giving you a home. Why, if it wasn't for him, who knows what would have happened to you?"
"Well, for starters, I wouldn't have ended up married to a whore," Hyde shot back bitterly, but even in his comeback, he was admitting defeat. His shoulders sagged even more, as he mumbled, "Let's get this over with."
Side by side, Hyde and Laurie marched resolutely out of the room and down the stairs. The other Hyde remained behind, sinking onto the bed and unconsciously mimicking the dejected pose his counterpart had been in moments before.
"Laurie and I get married? And have a kid?"
"You don't need to look so down about it." The Angel gave him a sympathetic pat on the back. "We're almost sixty-five percent certain it's yours. Well, at least the first one. The odds decrease a bit after that."
"We have more than one? You mean, we stay together?"
"Of course. I mean, you wouldn't want to disappoint Red. He's more than just your father figure. He's your boss, too."
"I work for Red? What about the record store?"
"Never had it. Never met W.B. It was Jackie who finally convinced you to meet your real father, remember?"
Hyde searched his memory. "I just did that to make her shut up about it. I would have met him eventually anyway."
"No, you wouldn't have. Not this Hyde, not without Jackie. Jackie was the one who convinced you family was important; she gave you hope that people could actually love you, that not everyone was out to hurt and abandon you. This Hyde doesn't have that. This Hyde—this version of you that you want to be—has Laurie."
"Poor bastard," Hyde breathed. Even without being taken to the scenes, he could see it all. The shrill shrew of a wife Laurie would be, the partying, the constant knowledge of her being out with other men. He had been suspicious of Jackie's fidelity; what a paltry concern that seemed now. A childish jealousy born out of his fear of abandonment, of being unworthy of love, as she had told him so long ago. But with Laurie, there would be none of that. No jealousy, because there was no love. And no fidelity for the same reason.
"Poor bastard, indeed," the Angel commiserated. He snapped his fingers, and suddenly they were standing in the middle of the checkout lanes at Price Mart.
"Price check on Aisle Three, price check on Aisle Three," the alternate Hyde was intoning into the store's intercom system.
"I work here?" Not even any of the horrors Hyde had witnessed so far had prepared him for this one. "When you said I worked for Red, I thought you meant at the muffler shop."
"Red doesn't have a muffler shop."
"What are you talking about, man?" Hyde tried to follow this logic. In what way could his and Jackie's not being together have stopped Red from fulfilling his dream of owning his own business? He finally gave up and turned to the Angel to have this explained to him as well.
"Think back to graduation. None of you made it, in your memory, because Fez had taken the van and run off with Laurie. In a world without you and Jackie together, you slept with Laurie, but obviously didn't run out and marry her first thing. So you all made it to graduation, and nobody embarked on the series of shocks that brought on Red's heart attack."
"My knocking up his baby girl didn't do that?"
"Well, he always liked you better than the foreign kid," responded the Angel, and Hyde couldn't deny the truth of that. "No heart attack meant that Eric left for college the way he had planned, and Red never had the money for his shop."
"And I work at Price Mart," Hyde mumbled, glaring at the beaten-down version of himself who so docilely checked other people's groceries.
"So, ready to take back that wish yet?"
"Can I do that?"
"Sure, what do you think all this is for? A trial period, of sorts. Happiness guaranteed, or your wish back."
Hyde thought for a moment. His life in this reality did seem monumentally screwed. But, on the other hand, a wife you didn't love couldn't stomp all over your heart. And being married to a whore wasn't so much worse than being married to a stripper. The Red situation kind of balanced out; he didn't get his muffler shop, true, but he was in better health. Eric actually got to go to college, which meant Donna probably did, too. And Jackie couldn't possibly be as destroyed as he had seen her when she told him she was swearing off men for good. He had brought her to that, and Hyde wasn't there to wreck her in this dimension.
"Nah, this looks like a good life to me," he answered, putting up a nice Zen front. "I think I'll keep it."
Instead of responding to Hyde, the angel looked skyward—or ceiling-ward, rather—and yelled, "See? What did I tell you? All that circle-time has damaged their brains. No sense left in these guys. Why you make me—" A frighteningly close peal of thunder struck Hyde's ears, as lightning flashed before his eyes. "Right, right. Whatever you say, Boss."
"Come on, you're getting me in trouble," the angel spat at Hyde and, grabbing his hand, whirled them off to a new and—for once—quite foreign scene.
They were in some kind of conference center, and a large banner hung from one wall proclaimed, "Welcome Back, Class of 1979!" Strange music, involving keyboards and a tinny, electronic sound, came from the band in the corner. People Hyde dimly felt like he knew underneath the bulky shoulder pads and weird hair-cuts wandered around, talking, laughing, drinking.
Hyde quickly spotted himself across the room. He was several years old, several pounds heavier, his hair was thinning a bit, and frown lines were already forming around his mouth. Laurie stood at his side, hair so big it seemed to tower above her head like a separate being.
"Hyde, I'm bored," she whined at him. "I'm going to see if I can find anyone here I know."
Hyde snorted, taking another drink of his beer. "I think you'd have a harder time finding someone you haven't 'known.'"
Laurie didn't bother answering. She just flipped him off and walked away.
"Well, it's nice to see that after all these years you're still treating my sister with the love and respect she deserves."
Hyde grinned, turning to face his oldest friend in the world. "Hey, Forman, see the husband finally let you out of the house."
"And while that once might have burned, your words have lost all power with me," Eric replied, in a mock supercilious manner, "ever since I realized they come from a place of deep-rooted suffering. It's all right, Hyde. Let the pain out." He put a hand on his friend's shoulder, which was quickly removed when Hyde frogged him.
"I swear, you two haven't grown up a day since the seventh grade," Donna said, coming up beside them. She gave Hyde a quick hug and kiss in greeting, before stepping back to Eric's side.
They were wearing matching wedding bands, Hyde noted. "So Forman and Donna actually did get married."
"How do you know they won't in your world?" the Angel warned. "You can't make your decisions based on how your friends' lives turn out. They have their own choices to make, their own actions for which they'll be held responsible. The story of Eric and Donna is no more finished than the story of you and Jackie. No story is ever finished until you reach 'the end,' and, in life, the only 'the end' is death, so I guess what I'm really saying is: shut up and watch."
Suitably chastised, Hyde shifted his attention back to the reunion with his friends. Fez was currently approaching them. At least, he thought it was Fez. It was hard to tell, what with his hair a long and wild mane, and his outlandish clothes—if clothes they could be called—looking like something out of National Geographic.
"Fez! You're back!" Eric reached out and embraced the foreign exchange student as though he hadn't seen him in years, which, apparently, he hadn't.
"Yes, yes, I have returned to you, my American friends," Fez announced, putting his hands on his hips and posing dramatically. "When the INS dragged me away from this fair hamlet, despite the heroic struggle I waged, no doubt you thought you would never see me again. But here I am. I have battled Whitey, and I have won."
"Seriously, Fez," said Donna, "what happened after you got deported?"
"I returned to my people, and they have made me a god," Fez boasted. "They are in awe of the things I have learned and have given me a harem of the most beautiful women…and many goats. My people have a love of the goat."
Donna's brow furrowed as she contemplated the age-old question. "Who exactly are your people, Fez? Where are you from again?"
Fez's reply was drowned out, however, as a dark, little blur burst into the scene, with a shriek of, "DONNA!" And Jackie launched herself into her best friend's arms.
"Uh, hey, Jackie," Donna replied more half-heartedly, as she tried to extricate herself from the clinging embrace.
As suddenly as she had latched on, Jackie released the tall redhead, though she still clung to her hands as she bounced excitedly on her heels. "How have you been? It seems like ages since I saw you! What have you been up to?"
"Well, I've been writing some pieces for—"
"Uh-huh, that's wonderful. So happy for you—I'm on TV!" Jackie interrupted, not even pretending to listen to a word Donna had said.
"Wow, Jackie, that's pretty great," Donna replied, as she knew she was expected to, all the while rolling her eyes toward Eric and Hyde.
"Yeah, I know, isn't it? Michael and I host a morning show out of Chicago. It's currently seen in five markets, but if the ratings continue to increase, by this time next year, we could be national! Oh, and I was named most attractive morning talk show host in the greater Chicago area—two years running!"
"Sounds like you've got everything you ever wanted, Jackie. I'm happy for you. You know, Eric and I are pretty happy as well. Our son Reggie just turned—"
"Ugh, kids! I can't believe you were willing to lose your figure that way, Donna. Especially when the end result is just a sniveling, whiny—" She abruptly stopped as she registered the looks on the faces around her. "Though I'm sure little Robby is just darling. Any pictures?"
"Did it with her, and did it with you, and, hell, I'd do it with you again." Michael Kelso came strutting up to the group, tallying his various high school conquests on the way. "Hey, guys. Isn't this reunion awesome? I mean, everybody here is uglier than me! It's just like high school."
"Michael!" Jackie snapped; all joy had instantly departed from her face at the appearance of her husband. "We were having a conversation here; go away, you're ruining it."
"Huh," remarked Eric, in an aside to Hyde and Donna, "what do you know? It is just like high school." Donna laughed; Hyde merely watched the pair without comment.
"DAMN, Jackie! This is my reunion, too!"
"Actually, it's just your reunion," Donna pointed out. "Jackie was a year below us."
Jackie turned her infamous death glare on her friend. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"Uh…oh look—Rhonda! Hey, Rhonda!" Donna sped off, dragging Eric behind her.
Kelso's eyes passed over Fez, and then he did a double-take. "Whoa, Fez! I didn't recognize you under all that hair! Are you in a rock band now?"
Fez sighed deeply. "Oh, I cannot lie to that face. I confess—I am not a god."
"That's okay, little buddy. Every band needs a keyboard player."
"Wait," said Hyde, who had stayed even when Donna and Eric had split. "So, Fez, what about the whole harem thing? Was that a lie, too?"
"Yes. Yes, it was."
"And the goats?"
"Don't judge me!" Fez screamed and took off for…someplace else.
Jackie clucked her tongue as his quickly retreating figure. "Poor Fez. I think they sent him off to a land with no candy. Or porn."
"Don't be silly, Jackie. There aren't any places without porn!" Kelso rolled his eyes and resumed his ocular scan of the room. "Yup, did it with her. Whoa, hope I didn't do it with her, 'cause she's a fattie now."
"Michael! I'm standing right here! What is our rule about this?"
Kelso slumped down, like a puppy that's been kicked and is therefore more eager to please than before. "As long as I can see you, you're the only girl I wanna do it with."
"And if there is the smallest, tiniest chance I'm gonna get caught, I shouldn't cheat," recited Kelso, his forehead wrinkling as though remembering it all was too hard for him.
"And…oh, oh yeah! I'm always going to get caught, because I'm not smart."
"Very good. Now go get me a drink."
"Whatever you say, honeybear." Kelso dutifully headed towards the open bar. He hadn't half-reached it, however, before he was waylaid by a voluptuous blonde and stopped to flirt, his mission forgotten.
Jackie just sighed and shook her head.
"Aren't you going to yell at him?" Hyde questioned. They were the only two left, and he still showed no sign of leaving.
Shrugging, Jackie turned to face him. She, of all of them, seemed the least aged since high school. Her hair and clothes had evolved to fit the changing styles, but she was still as beautiful as ever. But there was something different about her, harder, colder. Jackie Burkhardt had been a spoiled princess; Jackie Kelso was an ice queen. "I've learned there isn't much point. By the time you catch him with your third assistant, you stop hoping he won't cheat and resign yourself to hoping he won't cheat in front of a live studio audience." She paused, as if suddenly aware of having said too much, then added, "But you understand. You married a whore, too."
Hyde nodded in appreciation of the burn. "But I knocked mine up. What's your excuse?" While on the surface, it seemed like a retaliatory burn, there was an honest curiosity buried somewhere in there, and Jackie apparently recognized it.
She frowned up at him. "For marrying Michael, you mean?"
Hyde concealed his concern in typical Hyde fashion, a half-nod, half-shrug.
"I suppose…" Jackie bit her lip, betraying a rare nervousness. "I suppose because…do you remember that time when I broke up with Michael because he was cheating on me with your skanky wife? Even though she wasn't then—well, she was a skank, obviously, but she wasn't your wife yet." Hyde didn't seem to know how to respond to that, but Jackie had no trouble carrying a conversation all by herself and went on without waiting for an answer. "You went with me to the mall, remember?"
"You bought me boots," Hyde affirmed.
"Right. And you told me I could do better than Kelso. You told me I would find someone great."
"Ah yes. I was full of profound wisdom even then."
"Yeah, well, I never found him, or he never found me or something."
There was a veiled meaning in her words which was matched in Hyde's reply. "Maybe by the time he went looking, you were already gone."
Jackie raised an eyebrow and replied coldly, "Or maybe he had his chance—a series of chances—a whole summer full of chances, and he never took one."
"Yeah, well…" Hyde stopped and cleared his throat, pulling back into Zen mode. "But you're happy, right? I mean, the show, and the awards, and…and…everything."
"Of course," Jackie said, replacing her own front, a dazzling, deceiving smile. "I couldn't be happier. I mean, what is love, really? Nothing but heartache. Who needs it?"
"Not me," Hyde seconded. He raised his beer bottle in silent salute to her logic.
"Right. And not me, either. And we both couldn't be happier."
The Hyde watching the scene felt the pain of a knife in his gut. There it was, that same hollow tone he had heard in Jackie's voice the moment she had declared she was done with men. The thing he was certain could have been avoided if only he had never gotten involved with her.
"You get it now?" the Angel said softly beside him.
Hyde blinked, and suddenly that room had melted away, and he was back where he had begun—in the middle of his record store, a few nights before Christmas, wishing he had never opened his heart to Jackie Burkhardt.
"Yeah, I get it. We're screwed either way."
"Er, that wasn't exactly…"
"No, man, it's true. I mean, Red's right. You're born, you work hard, and then you die. People aren't ever meant to be happy. It's just one more lie to add to the pile of bullshit that's forced down each of our throats from childhood to keep the masses from—"
"Would you just shut up?" the Angel moaned. He had clearly reached the limit of his patience. "You can hide behind these conspiracy theories all you like, Steven Hyde, but the truth is you know what it feels like to be happy. Let me show you happiness." He placed a hand on Hyde's forehead.
A barrage of images flashed through Hyde's mind, one after the other, so clear, both in the picture and in the remembrance of the emotion of that instant that they might have been happening all over again.
…Jackie in a pretty lilac dress, kissing him gently on the cheek in gratitude for taking her to the prom…Jackie sitting with him on the hood of his car, inching closer, wrapping his arm around her shoulders…Jackie kissing him, mouth moving against his, skin molding, hands touching, heat and wet and feeling so good he wants time to stop…Jackie in his lap, the gang all around, and they're not doing anything, but her presence and scent and smile are filling him with something he's never known before, peace, contentment, all he ever needs is this…Jackie curled up next to him, asleep, her breathing regular, hair wild, mouth open, a little drool coming out, and she's never been so beautiful, and she's never been so his, and he just wants to live and die right here, because he's never known anything so right as her love…
Hyde stumbled back, away from the Angel's touch and all the scenes he needs to forget and longs to remember. "So what? There's nothing I can do about that now. It's gone, she's gone, and I think it's pretty crappy of, well, whatever kind of thing you are to come along and remind me of all that."
"Well, suck it up and get used to it, because this is your life, Mr. Hyde, and all the wishing in the world can't change it. Only you have that power." In a final flourish, the Angel snapped his fingers and disappeared.
Hyde stood alone in the record store that night for a long time.
Christmas Day had arrived, and, while many things were still unsettled in Hyde's mind, he had come to a number of conclusions. First, he needed to change the locks at the store, because apparently any lunatic off the street could walk right in. And also, much as it pained him, it was probably time to cut back—just a bit—on circle time, because he was starting to have delusions even when he wasn't high, and that could not possibly be a good sign.
But while he was able to soothe his frazzled nerves by (nearly) convincing himself it was all a bizarre dream, some things refused to be reasoned away. Primarily, that he had to do something to make things right with Jackie.
He didn't want to get back together with her, of that he was sure. Not right now, maybe not ever. Sam was good to him, and she deserved a chance at least. He wasn't going to just throw her into the street. While that would be a really great burn, it was Christmas, after all. Plus, she was hot.
No, he and Jackie had been given their shot—several shots, actually—and now wasn't the time to go back to what had failed so miserably in the past. But the vision of a life without Jackie, even if it had all been a figment of his imagination, was too terrible to contemplate. He wanted her in his life. He needed her there. She was a part of what made him who he was, and losing her completely would be like losing an arm or a leg, or, even worse, his shades.
She wanted to be friends; she had said so. Now he realized he wanted that, too. He just needed to find a way to tell her that without, you know, having to actually say so in any way, shape or form. So he determined to accomplish this goal by using a language Jackie understood better than any other: presents.
But finding a way to give it to her was proving a challenge. He had rejected putting it under the tree. While perfectly innocent in and of itself, it was something only Jackie would understand—if anyone did—and the idea of being quizzed by Sam about keeping secrets with his ex-girlfriend was not to be contemplated. Strangely, he would have felt Jackie more entitled to grill him about Sam than the other way around. But he chose not to read too deeply into that; preserving the friendship was important, the rest could wait.
Mrs. Forman had the whole gang over for Christmas; she was missing Eric more than ever with the holidays upon them and was determined to fill the house with cheer—or as close to cheer as Hyde and his friends ever came. Naturally, Jackie was included in the invitation, but she always made it a point to avoid both him and Sam, so no one thought it all that strange that she wouldn't even look at Hyde throughout the day. No one but Hyde, who couldn't stop looking at her.
He knew she felt him watching her. There was a tension in her shoulders that showed she was not as at ease as she pretended to be, and she was the first one to say goodnight that evening and head home. No one paid much attention to her as she left, and Hyde found his opportunity to slip out after her without notice.
"Hey, Jackie, wait up," he called, as he caught up to her at the edge of the Formans' porch.
She stopped walking, but her back went rigid as she turned to face him. "Steven, whatever this is, can it wait until tomorrow? It's Christmas."
"So that's what all the fat men in red are about."
"Steven…" Jackie whined.
Hyde sighed; he couldn't blame her for not trusting his intentions, so he might as well not bother making light of them. "I know it's Christmas, Jackie. That's why I got you this." He pulled a small, wrapped box out of his jacket pocket.
Jackie simply stared at it, and then at him, and then at the present again, as though she didn't know what to think.
"I never thought I'd see the day Jackie Burkhardt wouldn't want a present," Hyde said lightly, hoping to get at least some reaction from her.
"Wha—why? What is it?"
"Okay, see, the thing about presents is, you have to open them before you find out," Hyde coaxed her, taking one of her hands in his and placing the box in her palm. "Go ahead, Jackie. I promise it's not a burn present; it's just a present, present."
Her fingers appeared to be shaking, as she gently disengaged the wrapping paper, letting it fall forgotten onto the icy ground. A long, thin jewelry box was revealed, and she turned away from him before she would open it. Hyde found that rather frustrating, as he would have liked to see her reaction—that was the only fun part of giving a present, right? One would think someone who loved gifts as much as Jackie did would know the etiquette of receiving them better.
He heard the box pop open, but there was still no typical Jackie reaction, no squealing, no jumping for joy. She just stood there, looking down, her profile half-revealed by the odd shadows cast by the porch light.
She stood there so long that, despite himself, Hyde got nervous. And he couldn't even pretend not to be. He cleared his throat. "You get it, right? A grasshopper charm bracelet because—"
"Because it's what you called me when you taught me zen. Yes, I get it." Her voice was firm, but her eyes were oddly moist as she turned to face him. "What I don't understand is why. Why did you get me this, Steven?"
Damn it. Why couldn't she ever be satisfied? She was always saying she wanted a gesture, so he gave her a gesture, and now she was forcing him to explain it. He didn't want to explain it. He didn't want to have to tell her everything she meant to him. He didn't want to have to tell himself everything she meant to him. As usual, she was pushing too hard.
Hyde shrugged. "It's Christmas, Jackie. Everyone gets presents at Christmas."
She just stared at him in silence for a long time, as though she was pulling from his mind all the words he wouldn't—couldn't—say out loud. Then she smiled, and Hyde let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Well, thank you, Steven. It's lovely."
"Whatever," Hyde shrugged again. But he smiled back at her.
"I have something for you, too," Jackie said, as she rummaged around in her purse. "I got it for you a while ago, but you were so mean to me at the record store, I decided you didn't deserve a present. And, anyway, I was afraid you would think I was being…well, I think you'll get it now." She produced a package from her purse, square and slightly larger than the one he had given her. "Merry Christmas, Steven."
Surprised and intrigued, Hyde unwrapped the gift to reveal one of those lame, glass Christmas ornaments. He couldn't imagine why Jackie would get him such a present, until he noticed the inscription: Steven & Samantha's First Christmas Together. A spasm gripped his throat, as he looked from the ornament up into Jackie's face, so beautiful and tragic and forgiving, and he realized that all the nice little lines he had always drawn up in his head for his relationship with Jackie had never mattered and would never matter, because she wasn't just part of him, she was the heart and soul of him. She was his happiness personified.
"Jackie, I…" The words stuck in his throat.
She shook her head and closed the gap between them, and before he could question what she was doing, she had pressed her lips against his. More than a peck, but only a mere brushing of lips, a mere moment of bliss and losing himself in the taste of her, and then she pulled away. She gestured above them. "Mistletoe." And sure enough, some thoughtful person had hung a sprig of mistletoe over the entrance to the Formans'.
He smirked and raised an eyebrow. "It's still there, you know."
She laughed, and it was like the sun had suddenly broken through the impenetrable Wisconsin winter. How long had it been since he had heard her laugh and really mean it? "Good night, Steven. Merry Christmas." And with a twirl of her head, she was off again, though this time her step seemed light, her gait that of the joy-filled Jackie he used to know.
Hyde watched her go, before turning to enter the house. Somehow, his foot caught on a patch of ice, and as he struggled to keep himself upright, he lost his grip on Jackie's gift. It went plummeting to the ground, where it shattered against the merciless cement.
He stared down at the remains of Steven & Samantha's First Christmas Together. Slowly, a smile worked its way across his face. He didn't believe in cosmic mistakes anymore.