Title: The Weight of
Fandom: The Pretender. Spoilers for the whole series plus movies.
Notes: Okay. So. Here it is. This is the second half of the mini-Pretenderthon from August 2006 for Julie Fortune. She wanted an angsty encounter with Jarod and Ms. Parker. Huge thanks go to everyone who's had a hand in beta'ing this and/or yelled at me to finish it. It's taken a year and a chunk, but here it is. (Pieces, Icarus, Jill, Thalia, and Pen RULE.)
Summary: Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Cue the epilogue.
In the end, it starts as it always does. A lot of misunderstanding, a few bullets, and now they're standing in the middle of a field sixty miles north of Boise. He shakes his head and watches her rental car burn merrily in the noonday sun. Ten miles from the nearest telephone.
Not that walking ten miles bothers him.
Unable to help himself, he glances over at his companion. The one who'd recently been shooting at his head. Again.
"You know I don't have a car out here."
"Of course you don't," she grimaces before glancing down at her pumps. They're not hiking boots or athletic shoes, but they're as close to a flat as she gets. She's not in a skirt though. "How far?"
"Ten miles." He shrugs and shoves his hands deep into his pockets, wishing he had some gum. It's an odd thought. But he's stopped cataloging his new and odd thoughts years ago. He smiles a little sadly.
Everyone had to grow up some day.
"Damn." Her sigh is quiet and annoyed, but not sharp. He's not the only one who's tired. "Time to hike then."
He nods. "Time to hike."
They walk. Really, it's the only thing they can do.
He doesn't try and start the conversation. Ten years of starting conversations has clued him in that if he does it, she'll get cranky. If she talks first, there's a better chance they'll still be talking in five minutes time. Not a great chance, but a better one.
It's a mile before she finally breaks.
"Did you have to set this up in the middle of nowhere Idaho?"
His lips twitch. "This was one Pretend I didn't think you'd find, Ms. Parker. Your comfort, or lack there of, wasn't really a concern."
This isn't strictly true, and she glare she throws him says that she knows it.
They keep walking. Shoulder to shoulder, they trudge down the road. It's not an uneven trip. All-told, the terrain is relatively smooth. There are hills, but not dramatic ones, and the worst part of the whole thing is going to be the distance with the shoes they currently have.
That and the fact that it is ten miles to help, and the sun only has a few hours of light left. Pleasant weather or not, it's Idaho in spring and the nights can get cold.
He breathes deep, taking in the clean air. It's not a bad day. The Pretend had gone well. Better than expected, to be fair. The bad guy is vanquished and good had won the day. Even with Parker's interference, things had ended well. They're even in a temporary truce.
Things are fine.
There's no reason that he should feel so... old.
None what so ever.
Damn, he's gotten bad at lying to himself.
"Why do we keep doing this, Parker?"
It's the forbidden question. The Holy Grail of their entire relationship in seven short words.
She flinches, and he waits for the lie. He doesn't have to wait long.
"Because there's nothing else we can do. There's no way out of this, Jarod. There is no happy ending."
He sighs and keeps walking. The sky is a brilliant, open blue above him, and the air is warm enough to be comfortable. All in all, it's a beautiful day to be walking with a beautiful woman. He thinks that if things were different...
But he always wishes things were different.
He doesn't look at her because he isn't that brave.
They start arguing about Puccini roughly three miles in. He has no idea how they even get on the subject since they had been mindlessly blowing through their normal script about the Centre and its evil ways. It is such an old song and dance that they didn't even need to concentrate on it. He'd been tempted to start arguing her part just to mix it up a little, but instead they'd somehow started talking about opera.
Like pretty much everything else they ever talked about, it ended up as a fight.
Which is odd because they're both fans.
"Are you high? Madame Butterfly is the most amazing piece of music ever. Ever."
"You obviously haven't listened to La Boheme enough."
She is glaring then. Stomping along in a way that made it obvious she'd forgotten about her feet and how they were probably blistering up nicely. In profile, she's a work of art. All dark lines and perfect angles that are never truly highlighted except when she's angry or happy. He thinks it's a damn fucking shame that he has more memories of her angry. And that it won't change. Ever. "Whatever. The tragedy in La Boheme is just kind of silly after a bit."
"Like Madame Butterfly is much better. Please."
"You're not backing up your opinion with facts there, Jarod." She waves a hand, dismissing him and his arguments like they are nothing in the grand scheme. He sobers just a little then. Let his eyes go distant before turning to sweep the rolling landscape. Just hills and grass and darkening sky.
She catches it though. She didn't always, but she did right then.
"Oh, what? Why are you pouting now?"
He sighs, the weight of ten years worth of arguments and assumptions and missed everything pressing down on him like sand. He's been noticing it a lot more lately. That all their conversations eventually end up with them squabbling and her lashing out. He's tired of it.
"It's nothing, Parker."
"For Christ's sake, Jarod, don't get all mopey and enigmatic on me about fucking opera. Moreover, ones we've both seen?" She raises an eyebrow and waits for him to nod. He does and she snorts before drawing her self up and crossing her arms. "Out with it."
He tilts his head then, watches her glaring at him, and knows with absolute certainty that she has no idea what's going on his brain. At all. He blinks and shakes his head at her.
He wonders if they even know each other anymore, or if they're still trying to see the lost children they once were. But then, it's getting harder and harder to remember that quiet sad little girl, especially with Ms. Parker always in front of him.
He never admits, not out loud, that the way she looks holding a gun has anything to do with him always coming back.
Some days he wonders what would happen if he Pretended to be himself. So far, he's never tried. And if he's honest, he hopes he never has to.
He just smiles, glossing everything over and winds her up about musical form.
He tries to Pretend that everything's okay.
They keep walking.
They find the broken down cabin at dusk.
"God, this is so fucking cliché." She attempts a sneer, but her limping gait is worrying, and there's none of the usual venom in her tone. "How far?"
He shrugs and jogs up the stairs to test the door. The porch is surprisingly solid under his feet, but the door takes little effort to force. "Far enough that it would be stupid of us to bypass shelter. And you need to get off your feet."
It's a testament to her exhaustion that she just grunts and shuffles up the stairs behind him. They'd stopped actively arguing – possibly an otherwise unheard of feat – an hour before. Oddly, the silence hasn't been tense, just tired.
The cabin isn't much. A small great room with an open kitchen along one side. There's a fireplace on the far wall and next to a dark door that could be to a bedroom or a bathroom. Here and there are what Jarod assumes are chairs covered in sheets and a few tables. Dust and debris of age are everywhere, but there's also no smell of mold or mildew. Not the best place he'd ever bunked down, but certainly not the worst.
"Abandoned vacation cabin," he mutters for her benefit before moving to tug off a sheet. She snorts a 'Convenient!', and he hears her moving slowly behind him. He spares a smile as she clatters through the cupboards, and doesn't let himself muse at what a good team they make. He's known that for years.
The couch he unveils is dusty but looks clear of animal droppings, so he shrugs and shakes out the dust cloth some more.
Behind him, pipes groan and cough, and when he looks over, she's poking at the sink.
"We've got water." She makes a face and shakes one of her hands as if something disgusting is on her fingers. "Of a sort. Probably a well that hasn't been used in a while."
He nods and moves over to the fireplace. A little grunting, some unflattering contortions, and a lot of gyration of an ancient poker later, they have an open flue. He is, expectedly, filthy and sweating, and when he glances over and catches her flopped on the uncovered sofa, he has to squish a little flicker of annoyance.
It's only after he notices her flexing her suddenly-bare feet that he remembers the blisters and feels a little more guilty.
"Did you find anything in the cupboards?"
She shakes her head and flexes her arches with the ball of her hand. "A few bowls from 1972 and a mystery can that's probably been here since the place was built. So, unless you've got some kind of ration bar in your jacket, we've got squat for food."
He breezes by her and flips open a few of the cupboards she'd been poking through earlier. Sure enough, there were two large, lime-green plastic bowls. He takes them over to the sink and makes a show of rinsing them out. Unsurprisingly, the well water is startlingly cold. "Sorry. Left my pack three miles in the other direction of your car."
Behind him, she makes a noise that's half dismissal and half wincing pain. "It's going to get cold tonight, you know."
He nods. Then remembers that she's not facing him. "Yeah, I'll go check out the wood situation in a few minutes. But first..."
He wends his way around the side of the couch, two mostly full bowls of cold water gripped carefully. By the time he sets them down, kneeling in front of her, she's got her Max Meara pants rolled up to her knees and her shoes kicked off.
Her feet are torn and bleeding in places when she finally slips them in the cold water, she groans in a way that leaves him feeling like the school boy he never was. That doesn't stop the nurturing instincts he's spent the last ten years fostering.
Her legs are smooth under his hands as he runs them up and down her calves, trying to ease the tension.
"Careful," he grunts as she hisses. "I need to go get some wood so that we can heat some water up. If we leave you in the cold water too long, your legs are going to cramp."
"Believe it or not, Jarod," she snaps the words out. Sharp and strained, they flow over him. "I have a grasp of basic biology. I may not be a medical genius, but I'm well aware that cold muscles crap."
She is in pain and tired, and even if that weren't the case, he knows he's been on the receiving end of more verbal killing blows than anyone else in her life. These word's aren't even foothill in the Himalayas of Parker anger.
He sighs and continues rubbing her calve. They probably don't even qualify as a speed bump, actually. She grunts at him before squeaking and then leaning hard into his shoulder. He runs his fingers back over the skin behind her knee, automatically looking for the sensitive spot. He finds it
"I'm okay." She removes her hand from his shoulder and leans back. Looks away.
He nods and stands, stretching his back out from the crouch before turning and walking away. "Yeah. I'll get that fire wood."
Much later, he tells himself the hand in his hair is only an accident. Later, much later, he needs it to be.
She'd been right about the weather.
By the time the fire's laid and crackling, there are lines of frost running along the edges of the windowpanes. It's early April, but it's also northern Idaho, and the mountains are never far away.
He's sprawled out on the floor facing the fire, his back tucked up against the couch. He's down to his t-shirt because the wood in the woodpile had – against all odds – been hardwood, and the heat being thrown out by the fireplace is enough to bring a slight sheen of sweat to his face and exposed arms.
Because it's her, Parker's lounging next to him in nothing but his button-up dress shirt and looking all the world like it's the most comfortable pair of pajamas ever sewn. The wires on that particular image cross in his head and he concedes that, probably, that makes no sense at all. She's comfortable in what she's wearing because it's probably familiar.
Men's shirts are familiar sleepwear for her.
Something small and petty in him twists a bit, but he's used to that angry little part of his reptilian brain that starts screaming whenever Parker's within ten feet of him. Or talking to him. Or when he sees pictures.
He groans mentally and thumps his head back against the arm of the couch.
"Stop staring at my ass." Her tone is almost bored in the quiet of the cabin. It startles him because in the last few hours neither of them have been very chatty. 'Hold this' or 'you're doing that wrong' is hardly sparkling conversation, but at least they hadn't initiated any screaming matches, and he's glad of it.
He knows he's walking a line tonight. It's one he's danced on for the last few years; an exhaustion that he never would have believed possible.
When did all of this become so... tired? He crosses his arms and lets it go for the moment. "I'm not staring at your ass."
He's actually staring at her thighs.
"Whatever," she grunts and throws up her legs like some kind of twisted pinup girl.
Suicide Girl, he thinks, and it's not that hard for him to imagine her in leather and evil heels. He scratches at the hardwood underneath his fingers. Bites his lip.
"Why are we even here, Parker?"
She jerks, tosses her hair over a shoulder and glares. Behind her, a log pops and sinks deeper in hearth. "What are you babbling about?"
It's the same. It's the fucking same as it always is and he just can't do this anymore.
"Nothing. Nothing at all." And for the first time, despite the skin and the anger and the tantalizing enigma that is Parker all wrapped in his own clothing and right in front of him, he looks away. And means it.
And for some reason, she knows.
"What is fucking with you today?" There's a thump and then she's above him, backlit and strangely furious. "It's like you're not even here anymore!"
He stares up at her, face impassive and body relaxed. "Maybe I'm not."
She snorts and kicks him. Hard.
"Ow, what the- ow!" She keeps kicking him – deadly and controlled - until he's up on his feet and shoving her away. "Will you stop that!"
"No." She kicks at him again but misses. It's half-hearted. "You've been quiet all day, and considering you spend most of my life trying to talk my ear off, I'm calling a what the hell is wrong with you?"
"God, Parker, can't I just not want to talk to you?" He sighs and runs a hand through his hair, backing off. And because she is who she is, she doesn't let him get away with that. She never has.
"Yeah, because I always get a choice with you."
He just folds his arms across his chest and watches her. Waits, because he's never done this before. It's never occurred to him just to stop. Could it be that simple?
Turns out, it is.
"You are sofrustrating." She screeches before reaching back and slapping him, hard, across the face. There's enough force behind it to knock him back a step and for his vision to swim a little. It's not the first time she's ever resorted to violence, but itis the first time she hasn't been drunk, and there isn't a gun involved.
Strangely, it makes a difference, and the aftermath, he lets himself reel a little.
She glares at him, panting and glorious in the firelight. It's almost criminal, he thinks, how good she looks. They are of an age – he's always liked that phrase – so he knows that she's hitting fifty just as hard as he is, but he can't really tell. She's still Parker, angry and lost and fighting everything in her path with no real plan for what's after.
He knows she stopped believing in after a long, long time ago.
And suddenly he's tired of this too. Of the chase and the game and staring at her and not wanting her with every other breath.
It's a surprise then, that when he moves forward to finally, finally take this one thing, she's right there with him. Moving at him like a snake that's had enough, thank you, and then she's in his personal space and he's in hers. He's angry and she's angry and he can taste all of that in her kiss, feel it in the hard lines of her body as she twists herself into him and around him, and one of his hands is in her hair while the other is pulling her tight to his chest.
There is so much in this moment that he can't process all of it. It's like a burst dam behind his eyes, where all he can do is hang on to her and kiss and stroke and feel.
It's the whimpering that snaps him out of the rush of the moment and brings his brain back online.
Her mouth is on his, and it stuns him a little how his body is remembering her, even if they've never actually done this ever before But she is hot and pushing him back against the door, tearing at his pants and shirt like they're on fire.
Jarod only notices after he hears a ripping noise that he's doing the same thing to her. It doesn't stop him, if anything he pulls at the cloth that much harder. The tensile strength of modern cotton is considerable, and he knows the bra and panties are going to be silk because that's so her, so he settles for moving things out of the way and pushing at her just as hard as she's pulling at him.
He breathes her in, all the while keeping his hands and tongue moving. He knows that she wouldn't appreciate tenderness, at least not from him. Not now. Maybe in another ten years, the thought drifts through his brain, but he lets it go because even in ten years she'll be fighting.
Her nails dig into the nape of his neck and he breaks the kiss to just moan and watch the starbursts in front of his eyes, and it's too much and too hot and then it's her back that's hard against the wall and his teeth on her neck through his stupid, fucking shirt.
Her moan is softer than his, but strangely deeper. That's probably fitting.
The skin of her legs is softer than he expects it to be. The slide of his hand up her thigh and over her hip is fast and so damn good, and then he's lifting and bracing her, letting her balance open on his own thigh, they're both groaning and grunting without anything approaching shame. His hand pulls away the scrap of fabric covering her sex, and then his hands are between her legs, brushing lightly.
He watches her watch him, her face flushed darker than it was when they were screaming at each other. She doesn't look away. Not once.
And then he's kissing her again, harder than before, even as his fingers are soft and teasing. He wants her wet and ready when this happens, and by the feel of her, he's still got a little work to do. His free hand shoves away cotton and rucks up the dark cloth to run over the skin of her stomach and up to her breasts, and then the room goes a lot dark and he's gasping for the ceiling and God in twelve different languages because her hands have managed the snap on his jeans, and holy fuck, Parker's giving him a handjob.
And suddenly, he doesn't care. He needs this. More than air and more than reality, right now he needs this. Drops his hands and shoves her up higher against the wall. Later, he'll be surprised that he managed to hold her up like that, but adrenaline is a powerful thing. He checks her, pushes his fingers in and pulls out every bit of moisture he can, spreading it up and over the lips of her sex and clit.
It's enough, his brain screams, and if the scratching and growling she's doing is any indication, Parker agrees with that assessment. Her grin is feral and angry in the firelight, and she's the one lining him up and clenching at him before he's even pushed into her. He's covered in sweat – hers and his – and she's got an arm wrapped firmly around his neck, and then she just pushes down. Sinking.
Thirty plus years in coming – maybe longer, because, yes, the Center is that fucked up – and he's inside her. He doesn't hit bottom and likes it. Parker's always had depths he couldn't touch. Why not in this? Why not?
He pauses, trying to absorb the moment, trying to imprint this as best he can because this is the first time, and they will never, ever have this moment ever again.
"Fuck," she pants into his ear, ever the sentimentalist, and shimmies her ass just enough to make them both groan. "God, what are you fucking waiting for?"
You, he doesn't say, and when he looks up and directly at her, he knows she knows it. She is flushed and disheveled up against the wall. Rumpled in a way he very rarely sees; a way that is downright foreign for her on every level.
They are staring at each other, in the middle of fucking against a wall. In Idaho.
"I didn't used to lie to myself," she blurts, surprised. "At least, I didn't know I was when I was doing it."
"Is that going to change?"
Her eyes aren't soft. There's very little about this woman that is. For a brief moment, he lets the image of the pretty ten year old merge with the woman. It doesn't fit. He still doesn't know how X became Y.
And because he's old enough – aware enough – he lets himself finish the thought. He doesn't want to know.
He blinks at the sudden wrenching pain in his chest as the last bit of whatever is keeping him tied lets go. He doesn't want to know.
He doesn't let her answer, and the surprise in her eyes when he pushes deep and starts moving says more than he wants to admit. She's not the only one good at distraction, and they've left so much unsaid between them that this really shouldn't matter. She'll figure it out eventually.
Her nails are on his back and he's moving, his fingers reaching down and rubbing lightly, but firmly on her clit. Pushing and kissing, and it's dirty and wet and everything and nothing he'd ever imagined. She's taller than other women he's been with and that helps keeping balance. She's also a bit less flexible and they have to rearrange their legs so neither of them falls over.
But it's good. So, so good.
When she screams, he finally closes his eyes.
She doesn't say his name, and he doesn't say hers.
They don't cuddle.
They're stretched out in their earlier positions, her on her stomach on the loose sheets in front of the fire, oblivious or unconcerned with her naked skin. She's watching the fire dance and pop, not flinching when the occasional cinder floats free of the hearth.
He is next to her, propped against the dusty sofa, his toes millimeters from her hip. He knows that if he wiggled his foot, they'd brush against her, but who they are hasn't changed.
She's never liked him touching her, even when she was the one holding on.
"This doesn't change anything."
She starts, surprised by his voice. Glances over her shoulder and idly curves up one of her calves. It's a pose that would sell no end of skin magazines, he thinks. The backlit curve of her strong chin, contrasting with the rounded, bare curves of her shoulders, back, and ass.
Once upon a time, he dreamed of her like this. Not this, exactly, but a moment like this. Suddenly, he feels very, very old.
"That's supposed to be my line," she says, her mouth curving in a predatory grin that doesn't reach her eyes.
He realized, months ago, that nothing much did anymore.
"You need a better scriptwriter."
She laughs at that. Low and lazy, it rolls across the cabin, catching on the jagged bits of the plan slowly hatching in his mind. It's incongruous to everything that they are. So much so that he lets himself reach out.
He sits up and runs a hand up the slope over ass and over the dip of her spine. He watches the skin catch and give a little under the calluses he'd built up over the course of his last pretend. Three months as a mechanic.
Maybe this is how Thomas' hands looked on her.
He bites his lip, watching her shiver underneath his hands before settling down over her. Drags a kiss up her shoulders and closes his eyes to her needy groan.
He works his mouth over her back and shoulders, the salt of her sweat and the last dregs of whatever scented oil she'd used that morning lingering on his tongue and in his nose.
It is the gentleness that breaks her, he knows. Kindness unasked for and unwanted. He wants to give this to her, because he knows it will be his last.
Her shoulders shake a little under him when he turns his head and nips her ear lightly. He doesn't know what she's thinking or feeling, but the gasping noises she's making are edged with something he's not letting himself name.
"I'm tired of this," he whispers into her hair. He doesn't want to know if she's crying because that's a fragile new tie that he can't afford. Not anymore.
He kisses his desperation onto the back of her spine and tells himself she knows what he means. Her shoulders are shaking, just a little, by the time he makes it to the base of her neck. He kisses everything he can reach, until she lifts a leg and he pushes into her again.
She's still wet from earlier, so it's an easy slide. She raises her hips a bit, altering the angle and then his hands are bunched on the scarred wood of the floor, flexing and releasing.
She doesn't turn around, and that's easier for him. He doesn't have to look into her eyes. Instead, she just runs her hands up and down his forearms, adjusting his fingers on her skin here and there. They don't say anything because they don't need to.
When it's over, when she's whimpered and he's grunted and this intimacy that is a goodbye ends, they still don't say anything.
She drifts off, presumably listening to him breathe. He just lies next to her, staring at the back of her head and watching her sleep.
He dresses and leaves long before she wakes up. He's sure of that. Careful in the dim and dusty light of the cabin, he pulls on his clothing quietly. Doesn't put his boots on until he's off the porch. It used to bother him to get dirt on his socks. Some kind of unspoken taboo that is wrapped up in the idea of hygiene and How Things Are Done.
He acknowledges the thought while tying off his last lace. Necessity always makes people do things they think they shouldn't. He smiles a little. Too wrapped up in the dark pit that's opening in his stomach to let himself laugh.
He doesn't know if he's ready for this. Ready to let all of this go.
He knows he has to. Knows it like he knows that he's almost fifty years old, and that for his own sanity and heart and for the twenty to thirty years he has left, he needs something of his own. Something he's built, and that he can't have that until he really, truly walks away.
It is time.
She is right. There is no happy ending.
He stands then. Stretches in the cold morning air, and takes a deep breath. His first, he thinks whimsically. Not his last.
He knows that he has to make sure. Has to wait until she's safe from this little adventure. He might be leaving, but he has to end this as cleanly as possible, or he'd be back inside of a week, if just to check and make sure she got out.
So, he walks away, but not far. Waits through the birdsong and the sunrise, and Parker walking out onto the porch looking sad and lost and tired before going back inside. Watches as one then two hours pass, and waits as a little blue Dodge Neon speeds through the trees and down the gravel lane, hitting every pot hole.
She exits the cabin again, back straight and face hard. She is tall and perfectly groomed in the morning light, if a little ragged. Doesn't look like she spent the night in a cabin with no electricity or running water.
He watches from the ridge of a foothill as Broots exits the car. He can't hear what they're saying, but he thinks she seems quieter than usual. Broots doesn't flinch or look badgered. Then again, it's been ten years. Maybe he knows better now.
She gets into the Neon, eyes scanning the nearby landscape.
He knows she knows he's watching her. He always has.
It's time for that to change.
He turns away before he sees her search the horizon for him. Makes his way down into the lowlands, shoulders curiously heavy. He doesn't look back.