Disclaimer: Not mine, not profiting, etc.
A/N: Thanks to my wonderful beta Caitlin.
From the Wreckage 3.5/Epilogue
Noreen leaned against the front desk, holding the glossy foldout map gently with both hands. It was a world map, marked carefully with what looked like a finely pointed black sharpie—neat circles and precise letters—accompanied by a small square envelope with one lonely name on the front. Jasper. The tall man with copper hair, Edward, he had told her, had asked her to give the two items to her guest when he checked out.
"Please, it's—important," he'd said earnestly, green eyes wild and bright.
"Of course," she had replied, feeling oddly compelled by a complete stranger for the second time that week.
He'd thanked her twice with the same earnestness before walking out briskly with his head titled downward. As if, for whatever reason, he thought it best to avoid a second glance.
She was still staring intently at the map when the tinny chime of the bell pulled her attention away. She checked in the new guest with minimal concentration as she mulled over the nature of the two men's relationship. Normally, she kept a respectful distance from her guests' personal affairs—she was a professional, after all. But after the tight, distracted way Jasper had returned to the hotel, she had a feeling that he had been far from all right. That and Edward's curious coming and going, and she didn't know what to think. The combined weight of concern and frustration pressed against her temples. She wished she could find out what had happened, but she knew it was not her place to ask.
She absentmindedly picked up the map and then dropped it on the desk again as she fell into the rolling chair that squeaked under her weight. An itching restlessness began to creep down her spine as she rolled to the window and saw Jasper's motorcycle in the lot, parked hastily in a diagonal with its front wheel twisted to the right. In that moment she thought about her son Sam—he had outgrown Sammy a long time ago—and that she would never allow him to ride, let alone own, a motorcycle. Then she reminded herself with a wry smile that he rarely listened to her anyway. He'd also stopped telling her how he spent his days, although she never stopped asking. She'd convinced herself that it was normal. Children outgrew their moms too—it was a reassurance because no one was to blame, and she avoided questioning the explanation too deeply. Still, she called twice a week, sometimes during her shift and sometimes from home with the lights off and the TV muted.
She heard footsteps coming down the hallway, approaching the lobby, and her heart clenched like it did when the phone rang and she hoped it was Sam. A middle-aged man with a receding hairline and round glasses passed by without a glance in her direction and the air swooshed out of her lungs in disappointment, just like it did when she picked up the phone to find that it was not Sam, just another telemarketer. She realized that in her anticipation she had jumped up from her chair, and slowly sat back down, embarrassed even though no one had seen.
Resting her forearms on the desk, she studied the map and picked out Michigan from the shapes and lines. There was a dot where Ann Arbor should've been with an arrow pointing to it and capital letters that spelled out you are here. Her lips twitched into a smile. Then she became lost in the constellations of pinpoints and strange names that overlaid the shapes of the continents, some separated by distances that she could bridge with a thumbprint. She moved her lips silently around the names of a few places in Europe and Africa before abruptly clamping them together again and shaking her head.
"Good afternoon, Noreen," said a quiet voice with a faintly detectable Southern accent.
She jumped a little in surprise and looked up to see Jasper, leather jacket slung over one shoulder, smiling differently today, as if he were finally comfortable with feeling happy. She stuttered a hello while attempting to push away the map discreetly, guilty for analyzing it so closely when its intended recipient hadn't even seen it.
"I'm sorry for interrupting," he continued with an apologetic tilt of his head, "but I'd like to check out."
"So soon?" She mentally kicked herself for the obvious disappointment she allowed to color her question.
"It's… time," he replied slowly, as if deciding that the real explanation was too long or perhaps too personal to disclose.
"You just feel it in your bones, huh?" she filled in to save them both from awkwardness.
"Something like that." His tone made her realize with some surprise that he regretted his discomfort with giving her a better reason. If only they'd had a few more early morning conversations.
"Well, before I forget," she said, moving quickly away from the dangers of what ifs, "your… friend, Edward, asked me to give you these."
She passed the map and the letter to Jasper, hoping that he wouldn't wonder why the former was already unfolded. His eyebrows knitted together in confusion as he looked at the envelope and then at the map. Something must have clicked then, because his expression softened and his lips stretched into an understanding smile.
"Thank you, Noreen," he said softly, eyes remaining on the contents in his hands for a few more seconds before sliding to her face.
She supposed there was nothing more to say, but in that fact she was content—one look into Jasper's eyes was enough to give her the closure she so strangely needed. And she would've been a fool not to notice the differences. There was nothing hard and barren left in those eyes, and whatever ugliness had stained their depths was purged now. He no longer had the wary restlessness of a man who searched endlessly for an escape. No, now she detected the tentative optimism of a man who finally remembered, without fear of disappointment, how hope felt—like every day could be a little better than the last.
As she turned to her computer to pull up his information, she found her attention drifting back to Jasper, pulled along by the irresistible impulse to understand his transformation. He had returned to the stiff, glossy sheet in his left hand and, with his right, was gently tracing the creases. His face held a certain intensity that she realized she'd seen before—when Edward had made his strange request. Carefully, knowing that Jasper could look up at any moment, she studied him a little more closely and then caught herself before she could suck in a breath too loudly. She abruptly returned to the task at hand, her fingers on the keyboard only moving half as quickly as her thoughts. She of course had no idea when Jasper and Edward met, knew nothing about their history, if any existed, but she was convinced that there was something that connected them. A thread thick enough, running deep enough, to invoke the emotions she had seen play across Jasper's face. Like fallen leaves caught in their last dance with the wind just before the first snow. There was a certain tragedy, a conscious loss of something remarkable that he could only imagine now, but also the promising anticipation of things to come.
"You're all set, Mr. Hale," she said with a final click of the mouse and a melancholy she could not prevent from settling in the pit of her stomach.
"Thank you again, Noreen," he said as he folded the map and tucked it away, along with the unopened letter, into his belongings. "And please, call me Jasper. I'd like to think we've moved past the formalities."
"Well, then, Jasper," she smiled, all the while wondering, with foolish, unguarded hope, if he meant that he would come back someday, "good luck, wherever you're going."
"The same to you," he replied as he stooped to grab his small luggage bag.
The last Noreen saw of Jasper Hale was his smile, brimming with gratitude that she had no idea she deserved, much less earned. Perhaps even more remarkable was that he looked more lovely and more familiar than she would've ever imagined.
Later, when she decided to call Sam to ask him about his day, she curiously felt the absence of a heaviness she hadn't known she'd carried until now.