A/N: Yep, this is a tag for "Grace Period". Which is certainly among the best episodes they ever did. I know that a lot has been written about this one already, but I simply couldn't get this idea out of my mind, so I had to sit down in front of my computer and type this. Wanted to post this ages ago, but has been acting funny again…anyway, here it is.
You know, it was actually a funny incident how this plot-bunny came to me: A friend of mine visited me one evening, bringing with her a story of her own that was also about "Grace Period"(It's Robin Baby, and her story will be up soon. Go and read, it's great!) I just saw the title and I immediately was struck with an idea of my own. After she'd left, I immediately sped to my computer and wrote this down. Then I read hers, and found they go really well together. So, this is how this story came to be. I really hope you'll like it. Btw, thanks to Robin Baby for inspiration and beta-ing! You rock!
And yeah, it's truly about Tony and Jeanne. I like the two of them as a couple, though there seem to be a lot of people around who don't. Well, I don't mind. Whatever one likes. I love watching the relationship between them develop, and I love how Jeanne influences Tony's behavior.
Anyway, enough said. On with the story!
But before I forget: The usual disclaimers apply.THOSE WHO REMAIN
If you can get through the twilight, you'll live through the night. Dorothy Parker.
She was sitting on her couch, listening to R.E.M, whose song 'Everybody Hurts' had simply been striking a nerve with her this week, and was reading a book. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. A romantic tale set in rural England. Just what she needed at the moment.
It was a quiet evening. She had come home after her shift at the hospital ended, ate some leftovers she found in the fridge. Settled in the living-room.
Nobody was with her. Nobody had disturbed her for hours. Tony hadn't been over for days. Not since she sent him away because he hadn't been able to say 'I love you'.
It was good the way it was. If he couldn't say these three little words, then she'd be better off without him. At least for the time being, she told herself. She'd been so sure that he was feeling the same way as she did. It hadn't hurt her to tell him. It made him happy, or so he'd let her believe. Why couldn't he say it? Drive away all the doubts. The uncertainty that made evenings like this a horrible exercise in endurance. When would she give in and call him? Or go to bed, maybe crying a little because she missed him and wanted him to be with her?
It had been six months now. Six wonderful months of being in love with a wonderful man, who was everything she had ever dreamed of. If he could just tell her….
'Knock, knock, knock.'
Who would want to visit her so late at night? She could think of only one person, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to see that certain one just right now. All this pain and this longing. It left her raw and vulnerable.
Sighing softly, she laid her book aside, standing up to open the door. Sure, it was Tony.
He looked miserable. It was the one word that immediately came to her mind at seeing him. Tie slightly askew, eyes slightly red. This wasn't the immaculately dressed man that she was used to. It also wasn't the playful Tony she encountered at home, early in the mornings after a pleasant evening.
What was it that was hiding in his eyes?
He looked like…
"I love you, Jeanne."
There it was. She couldn't believe her ears, and yet, it was so. She felt as if the floor beneath her feet was giving way. He had said it. "I love you." The words were almost echoing in her head. She couldn't think. And so it was pure instinct that made her come up towards him, reach for him, and close her arms around his torso. His kisses were deeply desperate and she hardly felt the tears that came to her eyes unbidden. She only noticed the terrifying need with which Tony clung to her. Tears that were seeping into her pajamas. His tears.
She didn't know for how long a time they stood there on her threshold, clutching at each other. Tony's long frame was shaking minutely in her embrace, and she tightened her hold around his body. What had happened, she asked herself. What terrible thing? This crying and shivering wasn't brought on by his declaration of his love… Something…
Minutes passed. And the tremors running through the man that had just told her that he loved her didn't cease. If she was honest, she was beginning to feel a little frightened. What was wrong with him? She wasn't used to him being like that.
But finally he released his tight grip on her and lifted his head from her shoulder. She looked into his eyes, still shining with tears. She'd never seen him cry before. What had taken him so close to the brim?
He didn't say anything, though, and she knew suddenly that for today she must be the strong one. Tony was raw tonight, not her. Had bared a part of him that she'd begun to doubt she'd ever see. His heart, his feelings, his soul. It wasn't just the three words. It was everything. The courage it'd taken for him to come to her in the middle of the night, the final declaration of his love. But most of all the desperation in his embrace, in his tears.
She reached up to caress his dark hair. It was so soft underneath her fingertips.
"Come in," she said then, stepping aside to let him pass as she'd done so often whenever he came to see her.
He hesitated for a fleeting moment, then crossed the threshold only to stop one step into her living-room, uncertain. So different than any other day, when his stride was purposeful and he sure of himself. Only on one other occasion he'd been remotely like this, Jeanne remembered suddenly. When he'd told her that he wanted to wait with making love to her because he didn't want to screw things up this time because he hoped to finally have a relationship that actually deserved the name. He'd been nervous then, hesitant and shy. A little embarrassed even when he'd told her. But what was wrong with him tonight?
His words had made her lose the dread that had nestled so deeply in her stomach and her heart. That the next time she saw him he'd tell her 'goodbye' instead of 'I love you'. That it had been what had made her cry away tissues and meals and nights. But now?
Closing the door, she looked at him once more as he was standing there, slightly fidgeting with his hands. Another uncommon thing. Tony didn't fidget. Ever.
What could she do, Jeanne asked herself, feeling uneasy. She hadn't exactly pictured this situation like that, with him not madly tearing her clothes from her body, and not dragging her off to the bedroom, whenever she'd imagined the moment of him finally having worked up the courage to tell her how he felt for her.
Once more she sighed softly. It couldn't be helped. He really seemed to be needing her tonight. And actually she didn't mind. 'This is love,' she thought as she stepped around in front of him and took one of his hands, tugging slightly. "Come," she repeated. "Sit down for a bit." And like an obedient dog – or rather, completely drained, devoid of all energy – he followed her to the couch and sat, at a slight press of hers at his shoulder.
Jeanne kept standing for a moment, watching him, then turned to go into her kitchen as an idea came to her mind. "I'll be back in a moment," she said, trying to sound as normal as possible. "Make yourself at home."
But when she returned some minutes later with two steaming mugs of hot cocoa in her hands, he hadn't even unlaced his shoes yet. 'He looks….shell-shocked', came to her mind, but she denied that instantly. Tony was too strong for that. He'd explain in a minute.
She sat down on the sofa, cuddling close to him, feeling an immense, inexplicable surge of relief when he moved slightly to accommodate his body to hers and let his head sink to her shoulder. For a moment she felt the tension in all his muscles and sinews, but then being with her seemed to catch up with him, and he seemingly relaxed, nestling even closer to her.
In a moment of unwavering tenderness and love for the man right next to her, Jeanne did nothing than simply breathe in his scent, revel in his warmth, and enjoy his presence. All the lingering dread she'd endured since climbing that wall more than a week ago was slowly draining away. Now he was with her, and whatever bothered him they could deal with. His seeking for her, coming to her instead of curling up alone in his apartment to deal with his pain, made her certain that it wasn't about her or them. It was something different.
Remembering the cups of hot cocoa, she reached for one of them, took his hand that was laying atop her left knee and closed his fingers around it.
"Drink," she commanded softly. "My mom always said that even the Mayans used it to comfort and ease hurts. I'm not too sure about that, though, – she wasn't too big on history – but I've noticed it helps when you simply feel awful."
"Thanks," Tony replied slowly, his voice a little hoarse from his tears. "I…"
"Don't talk," Jeanne admonished him quietly. "I'm here with you. Relax. We can speak about everything later."
She felt him nod against her shoulder, seemingly grateful for her suggestion. He took a cautious sip from his mug and licked his lips.
"That's good," he announced then, a little wonder in his voice.
"Mayan medicine, you remember?" She chuckled softly.
"Yeah…," Tony confirmed slowly, his voice trailing away, leaving unsaid what he had obviously intended to add. She decided to let him be and not ask.
He took a few more sips of the hot beverage, its warmth seeping into his bones, making him drowsy. Jeanne could feel him relaxing even further, his head heavier on her shoulder, his weight settling against her. She reached up to caress him again. Soft, slow strokes over his hair, his left cheek, his forehead. They'd talk after he'd slept a little, shed a bit of that exhaustion that was coming off him in waves.
His eyes were already closed when he unexpectedly said something. Something she couldn't quite get as his words were a little slurred and he was mumbling into her shoulder.
"What did you…?" but suddenly she was able to piece together what he'd said, and it chilled her to the very bones.
"I should be dead." His voice totally, stunningly calm.
"What…," she stammered, tightening her hold around his body. "What do you mean?"
He replied in that same, calm voice, his words clearer now as he'd turned his head a little. "Gibbs told me."
She waited a moment for an explanation that didn't follow. What had his boss told him?'
"He told you what?" she prompted then, needing to know his answer. What in the world made him think such an atrocious thing?
"We were supposed to be on duty this weekend. We," he said, his tone just on the verge of breaking. "Our team. It wasn't supposed to be Paula. Gibbs wanted a change of shifts. It shouldn't be her who's dead now. It should have been me instead."
The last words had his voice cracking. Quiet sobs were wracking his body once more. "Why did she have to die?" Tony looked at Jeanne with tears in his eyes. "It's so horribly unfair. It shouldn't have been her."
He was almost choking on his words, and everything Jeanne could do was hold him. Although his words didn't make too much sense to her, it was obvious that whatever had happened had been bad. Really bad.
Patting his head a little awkwardly, she pulled him closer to her, prying the empty mug from his fingers.
She knew about death, had told relatives their son, wife, or mother had died during surgery, hadn't even made it to the operation theater. But she'd never held someone in her arms like that. Someone who meant the world to her, and poured out all his grief so that she could make it better.
"Tony," she said quietly, but broke off almost in the same instant. What could she say to ease his pain? It wasn't as if she could make things undone, bring this Paula back. He'd never even told her of a woman that name, though she clearly was important to him. Maybe they'd been friends, and now she was dead, killed by whatever and whomever she didn't know.
And so, helpless as she felt, she wrapped her arms around Tony, stroking over his back, his trembling shoulders. She wasn't aware of the little, comforting noises she made, meant to put him at ease.
He was shivering, his heart beating fast and hard in his chest.
She simply held him close to her, suspecting that was all the comfort she was able to offer, not knowing anything about duty changes, Paula and how she'd died. Maybe he'd tell her sometime. But not tonight. Tonight was about Tony.
Absentmindedly, she watched the hands on the great grandfather-clock opposite her move, ticking away the minutes she was hardly aware of passing. After some time, she noticed, though, Tony seemed to calm down a little, the tremors wracking his body not as strong as before, his sobs becoming quieter, his breathing slower. He was recovering a bit from the emotional havoc he was going through.
Carding her fingers through his soft hair, she waited for another two or three minutes before she began to speak, though she wasn't sure about what she actually wanted to say. He was almost completely still now, lying in her arms as if devoid of all energy he might have had.
"I'm glad," she said in a firm voice, "that it isn't you who's dead now."
At his immediate noise of protest, she held up her hand, effectively silencing him.
"Don't you dare say otherwise," Jeanne continued, her tone a little menacing for a second. "I love you, and it'd be the last thing in the world for me to wish to see you dead. Even if somebody else were alive in your stead. You are everything to me, Tony, and I mean that, really everything. I need you; you, alive, breathing, warm. Not dead and cold and still. Can't you imagine how I'd have felt if it'd been you? Instead of having you here with me, of hearing the most desirable words a man can say to a woman, I'd have to go to your funeral…Imagine that!"
Jeanne broke off, her outburst having taken her almost by surprise. She hadn't planned on saying all of that, was stunned at the ferocity of her words and feelings.
Tony seemingly was so, too, because he didn't even try to say something. He only looked at her with slightly big eyes that glittered a little with an unrecognizable emotion in the dimmed light of the living-room.
Taking a deep breath, Jeanne continued, a little calmer now. "I really love you, Tony, you know that?" She pressed a gentle kiss to his dark hair. "If Gibbs asked for a free weekend, then he certainly had his reason for it. As far as I know him from about what you told me, he wouldn't just do something like that because it simply came to his mind on Friday morning. He had a reason, and a good one for that matter. And even if he hadn't had one, it still wasn't you who was supposed to be there. It still was supposed to be the other team. It's called fate, you know?"
At these words Tony turned his head to catch her eyes again, and she held his gaze. Absentmindedly, she brushed her hand over his forehead, tracing the line of his eyebrows with one finger.
"Yeah," she said then. "Fate. I know you don't really believe in it. Nor do I. But I know that it wasn't your call to die. You're alive and well and I thank God for that immensely."
At his curious look, she insisted: "Yeah, I do thank God. Can't hurt, can it?" She grinned weakly, her expression matching his.
"Things might still have gone differently," Tony said then slowly and thoughtfully, "if we'd been there instead of Paula and her team. Maybe nobody would be dead then."
"No one will ever know, will they?" Jeanne asked quietly. "You can't make things undone. Gibbs wanted to have a change of shifts, and he got it. Paula took it. It will always be like that. Never different only because you want it to be so."
Jeanne paused, clearing her throat. "I'll say it only one more time," she told him, her voice almost steady. "I love you. I'm happy that you're here with me. It's terrible that Paula and the others had to die, but still I'm awfully glad that it wasn't you because I don't ever want to lose you."
Shyly, she glanced down at her lap. She'd opened her soul to him, and somehow she didn't dare looking at him right now. What if her words had been too much for him? After all, he'd only just found the courage to tell her that he loved her.
But then she felt the touch of his fingers under her chin, tugging it upwards so that she could meet his eyes. They were much clearer now, she noticed just as he closed the distance between them to kiss her.
His lips on hers… it was desperation that made him cling to her, and her to him. Wild emotion fuelled their kiss, the meeting of their tongues. A strange feeling of near loss she'd never experienced in this way guided her hands down his body to tug his shirt free of his waistband. She simply needed to feel more of his warm skin. Needed to trace the smooth expanse of his back and the light wisps of hair on his stomach.
Both were breathing heavily when they separated again, with Tony resting his forehead against hers, their noses not quite touching. Her hands had stilled at his waist just above his pants, content with feeling his being alive, not needing anything else for the moment.
"Thank you," Tony whispered quietly, one of his hands sneaking to the back of her head, caressing her hair. "That was just what I needed to hear."
Too overcome by emotion, Jeanne didn't know what to answer. But Tony apparently hadn't expected a reply. He simply remained sitting as before, close to her, breathing calmly now.
And what she'd already experienced once this evening – and countless times before in these six months – she was now allowed to again. He was slowly falling asleep, the day having cost him all the energy that usually kept him going. She loved it when he was so close to her that she was able to feel his body becoming heavier, his breathing deeper, his muscles relaxing. It made her want to protect him from all the evils in the world, to shelter him from all harm, and above all, to keep him at her side forever.
Slowly, his head was sliding to her shoulder once more, settling there comfortably.
"You don' mind?" he mumbled almost indistinctly. "Don' wanna move. You're so warm. 'm so tired now. Feel like I could sleep for a year."
She softly patted his shoulder and brushed her lips over his forehead. "Don't worry. You sleep and everything'll be better tomorrow."
A slow nod, his hand moving to seemingly seek hers. Tenderly, she grasped it, intertwining their fingers.
"You be there?" Tony murmured in a low voice.
Jeanne smiled, full of love. "Certainly."
A soft sigh was the only answer he gave. He appeared to have fallen asleep.
Tomorrow, she mused, they'd worry about everything, for now it was enough that he was in her arms, content and protected. The only thing she needed to consider, she thought with a fine smile, was how to get him more comfortable sooner or later, because he was still wearing his shoes, suit, and tie, and the couch surely wasn't the best place to sleep in with as tall a frame as his was.
'Half an hour won't hurt, though,' she amended, selfishly relishing in the sensation of his body against hers. Softly, she let her head fall back against the backrest, intent on relaxing a bit for now, knowing fully well that her simple words of earlier hadn't made Tony's worries vanish into thin air. Not at all. But maybe they'd helped. And there was still tomorrow.
Feeling Tony lightly stir in her embrace once more, Jeanne opened her eyes again, looking at him.
He was smiling softly. "I really meant what I said before," he whispered, only half awake. "I do love you."
With that, his eyes were slipping closed again, and he was already asleep when she leaned in to kiss his lips. Neither he nor her noticed the quiet tears of joy making their way down Jeanne's cheeks.
After that, both of them slept, R.E.M. still playing softly in the background.
A/N: Comments? Criticism? Praise? Whatever, please tell me!