You Ever Wonder Why?
Author: Erin (erinm_)
Characters, Pairing: Team NIH, Kate and Lisa (mention of Jack, Kim, Tesha, Therese, Stephen's parents, Carla and an OC)
Rating: PG, on the angsty side. Sorry... :\
Summary: In Mutation, Stephen told Miles: "I lost someone very dear to me..."
Warning: pre-series, during and post- *Written with the assistance of Table 01 from Prompt Challenge 01 at stephen_natalie on LiveJournal. Timeline and tense shifts... I think you'll keep up, though.
Disclaimer: The original characters belongs to NBC and their respective actors.
Everyone at the NIH knew that Stephen Connor took only one day off a year. He made no great production of it, and no one talked about it; it was simply known that he wasn't available. One day he was in the office, the next he wasn't and, the following day, he was in at the crack of dawn, as always.
Natalie and Frank always knew where to find him on that day, but both of them agreed never to have to need him, unless absolutely necessary. And, even then, it had to be absolutely necessary. Anything that needed the attention they couldn't give could wait one more day.
Kate burst into Natalie's small workspace holding a folder, demanding to know where Steven was. She couldn't find him in any of the usual places around the campus and she couldn't understand why no one seemed to be concerned by his absence.
Natalie offered to take the file and Kate demanded that, since Stephen was the team leader, he had to see it first. Natalie countered that Stephen wasn't available to look at it and she was quite capable of keeping track of the folder. Kate then accused Natalie of covering for Stephen and stormed out.
Natalie chased after her and pulled her into the library to remind her of the date, which caused Doctor Ewing to lean back against the bookshelves with a heavy sigh. The contents of the report had her so distracted that it hadn't occurred to her.
She apologized for snapping at Natalie and handed the folder over. Natalie skimmed the report and glanced up to Kate with wide eyes and a look of near-horror. She had always hoped this day would never come, but it seemed nature was saying otherwise.
Natalie directed Kate to find Frank and tell him it they'd reached "absolutely necessary" and she'd be back with Stephen.
Stephen Connor never took his birthday off; it was just another day, as far as he was concerned. Most people liked the idea of being off, giving them time to relax and have a good time with their friends, and such. Personally, he thought it made much more sense to take the day after one's birthday off, just in case the celebrating got a little out of hand.
Due to the unpredictability of a case, the Connor's had an understanding that any celebrations would be postponed until the moment he had returned home. Luckily, timing had always worked out in his favor so that he was in Maryland on Jack's birthday.
Frank had a specific set of days he always requested and, unless there was a major medical emergency, Stephen could manage four whole days without Frank Powell. Every year, on the Saturday after Tesha's birthday, there was a barbeque in the Powell's back yard. Friends and family were always invited – and beer was never turned away.
Every year, invitations went out, whether they were needed or not, and, every year, Stephen arrived at work to find a handmade invitation – a masterpiece of construction paper and crayon – sitting on his desk.
Two years prior, Frank had informed Stephen that the youngest Powell had developed a crush on a certain doctor with blue eyes, which prompted a week of Stephen only referring to Frank as "Dad."
Stephen always showed up with cookies from Lisa, a simple present for Tesha and beer for Frank. And, every year, after about an hour, he would pull Tesha aside and apologize for having to leave early.
Kim always gave him a hug and a kiss and Frank walked him to the curb, watching until the El Camino cleared the corner. Frank and Kim both knew it wasn't really Stephen's scene, but they both appreciated his attendance.
It was the two days a year Stephen didn't take off that no one knew about. Well, Frank knew, but Frank knew everything. Kate knew, as well. Miles also knew, without actually knowing he knew.
Stephen was in before sunrise on those two days, holed up in his office and pouring through paperwork. He never spoke to anyone and rarely even left the room. He didn't answer the phone and he barely looked up from his desk.
Frank was always at the first table in library, keeping an eye on his best friend though the glass walls of his haven and breaking through the barrier around two with lunch in tow. Kate was always in the hallway, offering to check someone's results because she had a free minute or because Stephen was "right in the middle of something."
Miles, Eva and Natalie never thought much of it – except for the whole 'Kate being nice'-part – but there was something about the fact that they never spoke to him all day that made them wonder. Well, Miles not so much, simply because he hadn't known Stephen that long.
He was sitting in the cafeteria with Eva and Natalie on one of the two days, when Frank breezed through with two sandwiches. Natalie mentioned to Eva that Kate was being overly nice that morning and Eva told her that, if something came up, she was to go to Kate first.
"Maybe he's just busy today," Miles suggested, knowing that there was something else going on. Stephen wasn't exactly an open book, but there was definitely a different air in the building that day.
"His wife was here this morning," Eva said in a hushed tone. Natalie looked up at the mention of Lisa and Eva nodded. "She was here for, like, twenty minutes," Eva continued, raising an eyebrow.
"Maybe she was in the neighborhood," Natalie offered. He hadn't said anything – and it wasn't really her business - but she knew the signs well enough to know that Stephen was in the midst of a separation. Eva leaned back and reached for her water.
"Well, whatever they were talking about, neither one of them looked very happy," she said with a shrug. Natalie raised an eyebrow in Eva's direction.
"Have you ever seen Stephen look happy?" she asked, reaching for her own drink. Eva made a face as she considered it and had to shake her head.
Stephen sat on his heels on the other side of the doorway as he listened to Frank talk to Tesha on the satellite phone. He was leaning against the wall and his head was resting on his knuckles while his elbows were propped on his knees.
He knew how much the girls meant to Frank and Stephen hated himself for putting Frank in the position, knowing that it had been far closer than even he'd admit. Lifting his head up, Stephen looked up at the ceiling and let himself slide down to sit on the floor.
It was getting harder.
The second day, Stephen was trying to distract himself. For whatever reason, he wanted to pull out the photograph from its resting place. It never saw the light of day, but he couldn't bring himself to get rid of the small snapshot.
He had a picture of Jack sitting on the bookcase behind his desk, and another of Jack and Lisa. All the pictures he had were always of Lisa, Jack or Lisa and Jack. Sure, there were one or two of him with Jack, but they were few are far between.
He never cared for being photographed, but Therese always managed to pull him into the shot at the last second. Those photos always came out slightly blurry, so their father would demand another one. Stephen always stood still, making a face just before the flash went off and getting a look from his father.
They would eventually get a decent picture, once Mister Connor complained that film wasn't cheap and here they were, wasting good picture space. In the end, those pictures had been Stephen's favorites.
He'd been in his office all day and had noticed Natalie and Miles pacing back and forth in the hallway a few hours before. He assumed they were trying to decide how much anger would be sent their way if they bothered him, but they never found out because Frank found a way to distract them.
Stephen pulled open the desk drawer and reached for his wallet, holding on to it for a moment before flipping it open and turning it to one side. Closing his eyes for a moment, Stephen swallowed and reached into the plastic slip, grabbing the edge of the back-to-back photos.
His jaw clenched slightly as he set the wallet down and let his thumb push the top photo to one side, as if he was fanning out a deck of cards. With his other hand, Stephen pulled the photo sitting between the two out and gently laid the other two on the desk.
His hand moved to cover his mouth and Stephen leaned into his palm as he stared at the image.
Frank usually swings by Stephen's apartment to pick up the mail and the paper he knows Stephen never reads. That morning, he's running late because Kim has the flu and he has to get the kids to school, so Natalie offers to go over because it's really not that far out of her way.
Stephen and Jack have been out of town for a few weeks, the elder Connor making good on his promise in Colima. Natalie pulls only one day's worth of mail from the box on the wall and nods to an older woman who's headed out the door with her small dog.
Inside Stephen's rather small apartment, she can see the stack of mail on the counter and the still-unpacked boxes along the wall. She remembers it taking a few months before she even considered unpacking anything after her divorce – she left the house, opting for her own, new space, free of memories – and, out of habit, she picks up the jacket hanging over the arm of the couch.
She's not sure if there's a specific place for the piece of clothing, but Stephen can always move it when he gets back, so Natalie doesn't worry as she pulls a hanger from the closet behind the door and hangs the jacket next to one of his heavier coats.
Realizing she's cleaning up Stephen's apartment, Natalie laughs and decides she best leave before she actually starts cleaning. A random thought draws her to the kitchen and she pulls open the fridge and reaches for the small bottle of milk on the top shelf.
Rolling her eyes, Natalie doesn't even try to smell it and taps the faucet on, letting the water heat up before she pours the contents down the drain. The boys still have two weeks before they get back, so she'll make sure to have fresh milk in the fridge upon Stephen's return.
Deciding that Stephen also probably didn't think to take the trash out – and knowing Frank has probably been using the place as a temporary bachelor pad before returning home each night – Natalie searches the cupboards for a new trash bag and replaces it with the currently half-full bag.
Setting the bag near the door, Natalie's eye catches a box of random junk and she can't help but take a peek. There's a bowling trophy from 1989, a baseball... random pieces of Stephen's life that are in need of a shelf. She blinks, seeing a hint of color and leans forward to reach further into the box.
Her fingers graze the fabric and she pulls it up just enough to confirm that it's a baby blanket and Natalie smiles, thinking Stephen would be the one to keep something like that. A second later, her brain registers that the bottom of this box is an odd place for such a precious item.
The next second, Natalie blinks, finally realizing that the blanket isn't blue.
He shouldn't be sitting there.
He should be anywhere but there.
He looks at her and tries so hard to see anyone but her.
It would be easier to look away, but he just can't.
When she wakes up, he'll have to tell her that she's all alone.
There's no one.
No one to read her a bedtime story... no one to kiss her goodnight.
No one to teach her how to drive a car, see her off to the prom...
All the things Maggie would never do.
He shouldn't be there, but she's alone.
So he sits with Carla.
Lisa's finally asleep and Stephen's been awake all night, staring at the little person lying in the crib. He just wants to pick her up, but Lisa keeps telling him to leave her be and smacking his hands whenever he reaches for her.
Her little nose scrunches up and her little fists curl up and he can't not smile. Reaching a hand down into the crib, he runs a fingertip over her tiny knuckles and smiles again as her tiny fingers wrap around his one.
He thinks she'll take after her aunt. And he can hear Therese laughing at him.
When his sister got sick, Stephen didn't understand what was wrong. The doctors were supposed to be smart, so they should be able to figure out what wrong with her. And they had no clue.
His mother created a bubble around herself, as did his father; both believing whatever they needed to within that bubble to make it through the day. They never talked about it, and Stephen never asked.
Deciding no one would tell him what had happened to Therese, he would just have to learn for himself. So he studied harder than he'd ever studied before and took all the classes he needed to take and worked his way through college.
He fell in love and got married and continued to study because he knew what the loss of his sister did to his family and he never wanted anyone else to know what that was like. Still, he continued to search for what killed his sister.
He knew it all, he could solve any problem and everyone knew it. Determination did that to a person. When Lisa told him she was pregnant, he pushed himself to be even better.
Maggie was everything.
And it never occurred to anyone to ask why there weren't any women in the Connor line... nature always provided boys.
He'd been on the other coast, helping solve a mysterious illness, when Lisa called, telling him that something was wrong with Maggie. With the infinite possibilities of what could be wrong with her, Stephen Connor could only think of one: the one he hadn't solved yet.
That was the day Stephen's bubble appeared.
Lisa Connor climbed up into the attic with Jack's sleeping bag in one hand and his gear bag slung over one shoulder. She always gave him through the first month of school, because the weather usually was still holding. The day before, however, she'd awoken to a snap in the air and knew he wouldn't be getting any more backyard camp-outs that year.
Setting the sleeping bag down on top of the box of Easter decorations, Lisa took a second to glance around the small space and frowned. There was quite a bit of stuff up there that she really didn't need to be hanging on to and it was probably time to give the past the old 'heave ho.'
Moving to the other side of the room, she picked up a random lamp shade and rolled her eyes, wondering why that was even being kept. She spotted the Christmas tree, a rolled carpet that didn't match the new paint in the living room six years prior and an old television set.
Some of the boxes were hers, some Jack's old toys and even a few boxes that belonged to Stephen. She flipped up the lid of one of those boxes and saw a collection of old books and pulled one out to give the back cover a quick read. Shaking her head at the ridiculous synopsis, she laughed and replaced the book, then pulled the box toward her to see what was underneath it.
Lisa propped the box against her knee and reached over to look in the lower box and, seeing a collection of throw pillows, she pushed the upper box back and pushed her hair off her face. Maybe she would worry about a 'spring cleaning' in the spring.
She turned around to head back downstairs and her eye caught the edge of the trunk, next to those two boxes and underneath the one, according to the marker on the side, containing Stephen's old train set. She lifted the heavy box and gently set it down on the floor, then kneeled in front of the trunk, wondering when she'd last opened the thing.
Her fingers moved over the latch and her breath hitched slightly as she tried to decided whether or not to open the trunk. As she lifted the lid, Lisa's eyes took in every item in the box in the matter of half a second. Slowly, she reached for the small stuffed bunny and her breath caught again. She set the white ball of fluff down and picked up the pink and blue dress.
Knowing it was a bad idea before she did it, Lisa brought the fabric up to her face and breathed in. It still smelled like Maggie, after twenty years locked up in the dark attic in a box. She blinked and swallowed, knowing she had no tears left to cry after all this time. That didn't stop her chest from hurting any less, however.
Still holding on to the dress, Lisa reached back into the box for the photo album, tucked between the blanket and the side of the trunk. Most of Maggie's things, they had given away after the funeral, simply because neither of them could deal with the constant reminder. Well, she'd gotten rid of them in the hopes that it would bring Stephen back from whatever place he'd gone to.
She knew that Stephen blamed himself and she wished that she could blame someone. But life and nature and fate had decided for them and, no matter how much she hated that fact, there was nothing she could do. And there was nothing Stephen could do, either.
She made sure that Frank knew, because he was Stephen's best friend and Frank had come to her, not understanding why Stephen was working himself to death on recent cases. He knew about Therese, but the past few cases were the first he'd worked that involved children and Stephen's behavior was worrying him.
When she found out that she was pregnant with Jack, she didn't tell him right away, opting instead to wait until she'd reached fourteen weeks and having an AFT test. She felt horrible praying for a boy, but she knew that neither of them could go through that again.
The news of a baby boy broke through Stephen's thick wall and he did everything he could to make sure they were both healthy. Lisa knew that Stephen loved Jack beyond anything else in the world, and he was a good father... but he wasn't the same man. She feared he was trying to not get attached to Jack, expecting the boy to be ripped away from him the second he got too close.
Sometimes she wondered what their lives would be like if Maggie hadn't died. Would they still be married? Would they have Jack? Would they have had more children?
Jack didn't know about Maggie, because they'd never told him. Stephen's father still didn't even acknowledge he'd lost his own daughter, let alone his granddaughter – the men barely even spoke to each other anymore – and her own parents had accepted her request to say nothing to Jack.
She knew it wasn't fair to Jack, but she couldn't bear to see the look on Stephen's face at the mention of her name. Her stomach knotted at the memory of the last fight. She was so frustrated and tired and, in one moment of unfiltered rage, she told him that the marriage had died the day Maggie did.
She hadn't meant it, of course, but there was no taking it back. They were both to blame, because they each dealt with the loss on their own; never together. Now, here she was, sitting on the attic floor and staring into a box of memories that should be good. Why couldn't she remember the good memories?
Finally having the courage to open the photo album, Lisa found out that she did actually have a few more tears left; but these were happy tears, for once. There, on the page she'd opened the book to, was a picture of Stephen and two-and-a-half-year-old Maggie, matching blue eyes and her curly brown mass of hair against his not-quite-starting to go grey-blonde.
That was her Stephen...