Shades of Gray
Disclaimer: CBS, creators, producers, etc., own all recognizable characters, not me; I'm simply borrowing them. Anyone you don't recognize belongs to me.
A/N: The prequel to this story is: Inexplicable
Shades of Gray
Perched atop his bike, Tim took a moment to survey his surroundings before dismounting. It never failed, every strip mall that dotted the outskirts of the city looked exactly the same, and this one, populated with the usual occupants, was no different. There was nothing in particular he was looking for, but his sharp observational skills, honed over time at countless crime scenes, provided a necessary diversion. An opportunity to fix his focus on something concrete was exactly what he needed right now. It didn't matter that he was merely delaying the inevitable. He needed the time to gather his wits, and if that meant putting off for a few more moments, what he'd been putting off for months, so be it.
The nondescript office directly in front of him held his attention. A large planter positioned by the door, and undoubtedly placed there to offer a cheerful welcome to all who entered was filled with an assortment of colorful blooms. From where he sat, it was all that distinguished this office front from any of the others that lined this particular strip. Its occupant was identified in neat, hand painted script on the outside of the lone picture window. Tightly closed drapes effectively kept prying eyes from seeing within, and automatically heightened his instinctive distrust by doing so.
Unable to avert his eyes, he swept his gaze across the expanse of glass. Resolutions and Divorce Mediation was boldly lettered in black, with "we specialize in peaceful conflict resolution" positioned underneath in smaller script. Squinting, he noticed the sun reflecting off a small brass sign to the side of the door. He supposed the name Cheryl Remington was engraved in the metal. Something about that peaceful conflict claim, its arrogance perhaps, along with the planter of perky, colorful blooms and the shiny plaque turned his stomach. Or maybe the knowledge that he should be sitting in an uncomfortable chair inside that very place while he peacefully dissolved his own floundering marriage was what was turning his stomach.
Turning his scrutiny elsewhere, he was surprised to see so few cars and no foot traffic at this end of the lot, especially since it was early afternoon, but maybe the services offered by these particular businesses: divorce mediation, credit counseling and a travel agency that looked like it had seen better days, didn't get the volume of traffic the ones at the other end did. He focused his attention on the lone vehicle parked beside him. Close enough to peer inside, he'd managed to keep some distance between them, as if that was some unwritten rule they had agreed upon. Close, but not too close, and isn't that what led them here in the first place?
The model, chosen specifically for its safety record was gleaming in the mid-day sun. Peering inside, he felt the immediate, familiar tug upon spying the car seat in the back. And that was all he needed to get his body in motion. Hoisting himself off the bike, he strode determinedly forward. In a sleepwalking daze for far too long, there was nothing dazed about him now, not when his own passiveness had cost him the best part of his life. Whether or not there was still time to salvage the mess he'd made wasn't going to be determined from this side of the door. He had no choice but to walk inside, no matter how much it turned his stomach to do so.
"Good afternoon. Can I help you? Do you have an appointment?" the overly friendly receptionist asked him as he shuffled into the empty waiting area.
"My wife is here," Tim told her, mindful of the fact that when he last checked his watch he was officially forty-two minutes late for this appointment his wife had arranged a month ago. Judging by the lack of cars in the lot and bodies in the seats, he was surprised it took a month to get in to see this 'peaceful conflict resolution' specialist. Of course, never was soon enough for him, making him question for the umpteenth time why he ever agreed to this solution in the first place. But they'd be traveling down that road soon enough, right now he had to get past this receptionist.
"Oh, I see," she said eyeing him with displeasure. Gone was the friendly grin and voice full of hospitality. "Do you realize that your appointment time has passed?" she asked in an icy tone. "Mrs. Speedle arrived at the appointed hour. Are you aware that she has tried calling you several times?"
"May I just see my wife… please," Tim asked, over emphasizing that last word and trying his hardest to remain cool despite his growing irritation. He'd have enough to deal with when he met Calleigh's fury head on, he didn't need it from this stranger.
"Certainly. Follow me," she said, with the smile plastered back on her face. She'd probably already correctly deduced that Tim was about to get an earful. He followed obediently as she knocked on the closed door and announced his arrival.
The petite blonde rose stiffly from her seat to her full 5'2 facing him as he entered. There was no question she was angry, her eyes were blazing and her mouth was set in a thin, tight line, but he knew her well enough to know she would do everything in her power to maintain absolute control. Nervously, he cleared his throat before addressing her, but she beat him to it. "Tim, where have you been? Do you know how many times I've tried to call you? Is your phone even on?" she fired at him in a coolly impersonal voice.
"Yeah, I do," he said sighing deeply. "And I'm really sorry. I should've called you. I realize that. My phone was off. I'm sorry," he said shrugging, realizing the futility of his words. "Cal, I need to talk to you. Alone." he added in a low voice, cognizant of the fact that they weren't alone.
"We had an appointment. You knew what time you were supposed to be here and how important this was," she said with an almost imperceptible tremor in her voice. He nodded, swallowing hard. Her anger he fully expected and could handle, but her upset made a quivering mess of his insides.
"I know," he said dropping his eyes.
"Well, Tim, Calleigh is correct, this was an important meeting. It sets the tone for how all future proceedings will transpire. Our time today is almost up, I'm afraid." The sound of his first name being used so familiarly by a complete stranger rankled him. Casting a sideways glance in her direction, he met the sharp and assessing eyes of Cheryl Remington. Studying her with a mixture of unease and suspicion, he quickly noted her neat, prim appearance, along with the congenial smile plastered on her face, despite the disapproval he was reading in her eyes. What is it with these people and their forced, artificial cheerfulness? Do they not realize what they do for a living? "Perhaps we can spend our last few minutes discussing how this behavior affects our ultimate goal. That is, Tim, if you're willing to cooperate and participate now that you're here." There she was again addressing him by name, only this time he couldn't help but hear the condescendence in her voice.
"I don't think so," he said as he shot her a look of contempt, before he turned his attention back to his wife. "Calleigh, please, can we talk?" he asked, although to his ears it sounded more pleading than anything else. She studied him carefully and he shifted his weight uncomfortably. The walls were closing in on him and the need to flee the small, windowless room was powerful. The sense of purpose that had guided him through the doors in the first place was all that was keeping him where he was. Swallowing hard, he raked his hands through his hair, uneasy in the silence of her intense gaze. Having an audience multiplied his discomfort by a hundredfold.
"Fine," she said without emotion. He nodded, and dropped his head, breathing deeply, his relief palpable. "Cheryl, I'm sorry this didn't work out today as we planned. And I'm sorry that your time was not put to better use," Calleigh said, turning her attention from him. Glancing up, he could see the tension marring her delicate features. This only added to the guilt load he already carried. "Could my husband and I possibly have a moment alone?" she asked in her best authoritative voice.
"If that's what you think is best," Cheryl answered, not masking her doubt. "I'll close the door on my way out."
He waited until Cheryl closed the door behind her before speaking. "I'm sorry. I know I owe you an explanation," he said, walking closer to the table.
She took a step backwards, threw her shoulders back, crossed her arms in front of her chest and eyed him critically. "I'm listening," she said sharply. "And maybe you can start with why you were this inconsiderate and irresponsible today, because I happen to know for fact that you were not at work."
"I was with Ali," he began by way of explanation. At the sound of her daughter's name, a flash of panic crossed her eyes. Her instant and uncontrolled reaction was one he recognized and understood as only he could. Automatically, he reached for her arm, and squeezed it reassuringly. "Everything's okay. She's fine," he emphasized, catching her eyes. "I just wanted to see her. I didn't get to see her yesterday and I had some time this afternoon. I had some new books for her."
"Then, you didn't get a call, this was just a visit?" He nodded. "And it couldn't wait until after we were done here?" she asked, seemingly confused and, if he had to guess, more than a little annoyed now that her moment of worry had passed.
"No, it couldn't," he said firmly. "I wanted to see her. I didn't plan on missing this meeting, but when I got there she wasn't very interested in going down for her nap, so we read some books together. Maybe I just wanted to forget about this meeting for a little while. Obviously, I lost track of the time."
"Obviously," she said, giving back his sarcasm.
"I put her down and waited till she fell asleep, which she wasn't in any hurry to do," he shrugged.
"Not when she's happy to see you and you bring her new books," she sighed. "Tim, I just don't understand. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to prepare for this meeting? Not to mention, rescheduling work, making sure Ali was fine with the sitter, all just to sit here with absolutely no idea if or when you were going to show up or why…"
"I can't do this Calleigh. I should've said something before now…" he interrupted.
"What?" she broke in.
"I can't go through with this," he said, breathing deeply when the words were finally out.
"I don't understand," she said, holding her hand up. "What do you mean you can't go through with this? The mediation? We agreed this was the way to proceed. Are you saying you want a lawyer?" she asked as her voice rose an octave.
"No, no, not that." he said, shaking his head. "I mean any of this. I don't want this divorce." Restless, he shuffled his feet, walked to the chair, but stepped back from it, changing his mind about sitting.
"You're telling me this now?" she asked, incredulous. His eyes were on her moving hands while she spoke. He focused on the gold band she still wore. It was easier than watching the painful display of emotions visible in her eyes. "And what, this was something you arrived at on the ride over? Tim, you can't possibly be serious, can you? I mean, even for you this is too much. Why would you do something like this? How am I supposed to respond? Did you consider me even once in your last minute decision making?" There was no attempt made to disguise her hurt and bewilderment, and knowing he was the cause cut him deeply.
"No," he sighed feeling beleaguered. "This isn't something I arrived at on the ride over, as you so put it. And yes, believe it or not, I did consider your feelings in all this. Maybe, I just hoped you'd be willing to talk about this some more instead of rushing to divorce. I wanted to talk to you before today. I realize I didn't pick the best time, but lately, you haven't exactly been receptive to me. Avoiding me is more like it. Probably not the ideal condition for this kind of a discussion, wouldn't you agree?"
"Why Tim, why now? Not once in the past three months did you even try talking to me. Not once did you tell me this wasn't what you wanted. Not once." Sighing wearily, she pulled out the closest chair and slumped into it.
"You're right," he conceded, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I should've, but you haven't exactly made that easy have you?" he asked, narrowing his eyes at her.
"Don't Tim," she commanded, sitting upright. "Don't put this on me. You are the one who checked out of our marriage."
"This… this isn't easy for me, none of it is," he began, not hiding his frustration.
"And what? This is somehow easy for me? Have you forgotten that I have been a part of this as well?" she asked, raising her voice.
"No, I haven't. And I haven't forgotten that you came to this solution," he spit that word with derision, "pretty quickly, if you recall."
"And you agreed with me, Tim. Have you forgotten that?" she quickly countered.
Heaving a heavy sigh of frustration, he could feel the tension in the room increasing as well as the walls continuing to close in. He wondered what Cheryl, 'the specialist in peaceful resolution' thought about the non-peaceful conversation heating up her harmonious office. Turning his attention back to his wife, he knew they needed to get past this part if they had any chance of breaking down the walls they'd erected in the past few months. It wasn't going to be easy and it wasn't going to be pretty. "You're right. I agreed and maybe for a brief time I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do, but it's not, at least not for me, and not for Ali, either." Watching her expression, he could see the wheels turning as she tried to fit this together in a way that made sense.
"Tim, is that what this is about, Ali? Are you afraid you won't see her?" she asked, her voice full of emotion. "Because you know I would never keep her from you. Ever. You can see her whenever you want. Even if we're not married, you are still her father, and always will be. She needs you in her life, no matter what happens to us. I promise you that." The sincerity and pain in her voice were heartbreaking.
"I know that Calleigh. This isn't about Ali. Well, it is, but not completely. This is about us, what we have, what we had," he said, his own voice close to breaking. "The two of you… you're my family." He swallowed hard over the lump forming in his throat. "You and Ali, you're all I've got, all that matters. I'm just not willing to walk away. I can't do it Calleigh, I'm sorry. I know how hard it was to come here today, at least I know what it was like for me to walk through that door, and I shouldn't have waited until now, but I can't give up without trying." This time he grabbed the chair, yanking it out from under the table and slumped hard into it, holding his head in his hands. This was harder than he thought. He just wanted a chance to talk to her, but she was right, he'd had all the time in the world and he did nothing. Nothing. His body shuddered as he drew in a sharp breath.
"I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say," she repeated in a confused, sad voice.
A rapping on the door startled them both, instantly reminding them of their whereabouts. Cheryl poked her head in the room. "I'm sorry, I don't like disturbing you, but I do have a meeting here in about five minutes," she said awkwardly.
"We're ready to leave," Tim said. He walked to where Calleigh sat, pulled out the chair for her, and with his hand lightly on her shoulder, he guided her out of the room. He ignored Cheryl's reminder to reschedule, as well as the curious stare coming from the receptionist. When Hell freezes over, he thought to himself. A heavy silence shrouded them as they made their way outside to her car. His temples throbbed from the strain and his stomach remained a jumble of knots, but now free of those claustrophobic confines he could finally breathe easier.
"She was sleeping when you left?" Calleigh asked, closing her eyes as she leaned against the vehicle.
"Yeah," he nodded. He sidled up to her, inhaling her familiar scent as it surrounded him. "She was pretty worn out. From the looks of things, she'd been having a busy day. Blocks were pretty much everywhere," he chuckled.
"She got her blocks out?" she asked, brightening.
"Yeah. The ones that snap together and the plain wooden ones," he answered, grateful for this brief respite. "She was pretty excited to show me how she could stack a couple," he said with a small smile, unable to mask his pride. "Her fine motor skills are improving. She was less frustrated with them."
She nodded, smiling as well. "Every day she's doing something new. It's good to see, a relief, really. I was so afraid she was going to lag behind."
"Nah. She's smart, Cal, really smart. She constantly amazes me. She's not even two and she already knows so much," he said, shaking his head. "Her mind is really quick. She just needed a little time to catch up. She's been through a lot." They both fell into a thoughtful silence.
"I'm sorry we have to go through this," she said, her voice cutting through the quiet. "It was a mistake, our getting married. We did it for the wrong reasons."
"I don't want us to give up," he countered, wondering if it sounded like pleading to her ears.
"Ali will always tie us together, but that doesn't mean we should stay married. She can't be what keeps us together," she said with certainty. The sound of thunder startled them both. A few sprinkles followed and by the looks of the sky, the heavy rain wouldn't be far behind.
"We need to talk about this. I need to talk about this. Is there anywhere we can go? Someplace away from here?" he asked insistently. He could see the doubt in her eyes. There was no question he was offering too little too late, but right now, that plus desperation was all he had. "Please?"