A/N: I'm totally messing with history here, folks. Lucky didn't die, and, because of that, Elizabeth's entire existence was different. That doesn't mean, though, that things never get the chance to right themselves. Though she and Jason don't meet up and become friends in August of 1999, a few years later, fate steps in. With this story, I must warn you that Elizabeth is very much different, on the surface, from the woman we've watched (or have stopped watching in some cases... including my own) all these years. For one thing, she has a potty mouth, so, if you don't like swearing, cover your eyes. :-P Also, even though most of us are comfortable enough with violence... considering the fact we're interested in a couple who's one half mob enforcer, the violence presented in this story is not mob related. Other than that, I don't think there are any other ways for me to attempt to scare you off from reading. ;-) So, if you do take the chance, enjoy! On one last note before I shut up and post, I just wanted to thank everyone who is reading and responding to my challenge submissions. It's wonderful to feel so embraced despite the fact that I've been MIA for months now. Happy New Year, everyone!

~Charlynn~

On Leave
A Liason Holiday One Shot

CFFC09#3: I'll be Home for Christmas

The best thing about Jake's during the holidays was the fact that she didn't play Christmas carols. Whether it was because she knew half of her patrons were untraditional celebrators, like himself, or too depressed to listen to promises of family, love, and happiness, Jason wasn't sure. Truth be told, he didn't particularly care what her reasons were. He just appreciated the decidedly non-Christmasy atmosphere.

Everywhere he went, he was assaulted with reminders of the holiday. The roads were busier due in part to the hustle and bustle associated with December 25th, Kelly's changed their menu, and it was damn near impossible to walk anywhere without bumping his head into some kind of dangling decoration. And, while he wouldn't necessarily consider himself mean spirited or, as Carly liked to call him, a Grinch (which she had made sure to explain by forcing him into watching some ridiculous movie with a hairy, green man), he also didn't understand why everyone made such a big deal over a single day.

So, when late December rolled around every year, he started to spend even more time at Jake's than he usually did. The bartender didn't mind. Because of the holiday season, she was busier anyway and appreciated him keeping an eye out for any unwelcome trouble, and, for a season that was supposed to be represented by good will and kindness, Christmas certainly brought its fair share of bar fights to the seedy yet welcoming dive. If he was there when one broke out, Jason simply took his frustration with the entire holiday concept out on the poor, unlucky bastard stupid enough to raise his fists in the bar.

The place was pretty quiet, though, on that particular evening. Just a few die hard drinkers remained, along with himself, drunks who spent all their nights wetting their sorrows with cheap booze. Jake was behind the counter, content to habitually clean each and every single one of her glasses, none too concerned about any of her patrons getting out of control on that Christmas Eve night, but he still kept his eye on things. Despite nursing his own beer and dominating the pool table, Jason watched... like always.

Or, perhaps, he simply was looking for an excuse to remain at the bar all evening. Already, he was running late. Though he didn't personally see the point in celebrating the holidays, there were people he cared about who did, and they expected him to, at least, make an effort to meet them halfway. That was why he had gone out to lunch with his sister earlier that day, why he had given Carly his credit card and allowed her to buy herself something nice with his money, and why he had braved the stores himself to pick Michael out a new toy. At the moment, the people he considered his family were at the hospital Christmas party, but, once they returned home, Jason knew Sonny would expect him to be at the penthouse, ready to eat whatever impossibly fancy meal was placed before him.

But that was the last place Jason wanted to be. Though he respected Sonny too much to say anything, he always felt as though his boss included him in his family's holiday celebrations because he felt guilty, his lingering doubts about whether or not he stole Michael and Carly from the enforcer manifesting themselves, and, though he always enjoyed seeing the innocent joy Michael displayed when opening his gifts on Christmas, he wasn't his father anymore, and, if he were honest with himself, forgetting that he wasn't, even if only for a few minutes, hurt too much.

So, he waited. He pressed his luck, pressed the limits of time upon him, hoping that something would happen that would require his immediate attention. If there was a fight and Jason had to break it up, maybe even help Jake clean up her bar afterwards, that Sonny would understand. His absence from Christmas Even dinner would be forgiven. However, no matter how much he wanted to avoid the penthouse that evening, he also wouldn't resort to lying, and he knew he was cutting it close. Already, he'd have to ride like hell to get to the towers on time, and, if he didn't leave soon...

Glancing up from his game of pool, Jason attempted to find the small clock Jake kept hanging behind the bar, wanting to figure out exactly how much longer he could stall, but, instead of seeing the timepiece, he found his gaze blocked by a body – a body which had previously not been in the bar, a body who had managed to somehow slip by him unnoticed, a body he wouldn't mind staring at for however much longer he'd be at the wateringhole.

The woman was petite, lithe, but even in her stationary position, he could see her strength bubbling underneath the surface. She was a barely leashed inferno of energy and rage but curvy enough in all the right places that someone with too much liquid courage coursing through their veins would still attempt – and fail – to pick her up. And, when they did, little miss tight jeans and skimpy top would become even more trouble than she already was.

Jason sighed in relief, his previous commitments quickly forgotten. Never, would he have predicted the tight package before him to be the very thing that saved him from dinner at Sonny's that Christmas Eve, but she sure as hell was more attractive than some drunken, disorderly dock worker, and who was he to argue with such a salvation? Smirking to himself, he picked up his bottle, grasping it lightly between just his thumb and forefinger, tipping the remaining dregs of his beer down his suddenly parched throat.

Who knew he had been such a good boy that year, because, apparently, there really was a Santa Clause.

Nodding towards an occupied Jake who still managed to see his signal from across the room for another beer, Jason went back to his game of pool, meticulously if not automatically striking the cue ball. Although he knew he appeared completely absorbed by his actions, really his attention was solely focused upon the brunette at the bar, both watching her and watching out for her simultaneously, and, though he was prepared to eavesdrop if necessary, the for some reason familiar woman didn't bother to whisper or hide her conversation with the bartender.

"Well, would you look at what the cat drug in. What's a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this on Christmas Eve?"

"I'll take some tequila, Jake, and don't bother watering it down. I'll be able to tell."

Jason couldn't help but notice how the young woman failed to answer any of Jake's questions, instead simply changing the subject as she took a seat at the bar. Unconcerned about any of the numerous gazes pointed in her direction, the brunette pulled a basket of peanuts over in front of her and started to fiddle with them, simply sifting them through her hands but not once lifting one to her mouth. As soon as her drink was before her, she pushed the basket aside and slammed the shot, never once grimacing at the taste of the strong liquor.

He could see the surprise working its way onto the bartenders face as she watched her newest customer down the straight tequila without flinching, but, like the professional she was, Jake never said a word, simply poured the girl another shot. "You wouldn't happen to have any limes back there, would you?"

"Fresh out," Jake lied. He knew her answer was a lie, because he had personally found her an entire crate of the out of season fruit earlier in the week, but that didn't stop him from sighing silently in relief anyway. The last thing he needed was for the woman before him to put on that kind of show. The greasy louts littering the bar were already too interested in her as it was; performing tequila shooters for all to see would just add fuel to the already blazing fire.

Trying once again to engage the customer in conversation, Jake asked, "it's been a few years. Where have you been?"

"Three," the woman clarified. "And here and there."

"Elizabeth..."

As soon as Jake said the girl's name, Jason saw the brunette's face flash before his mind. Though he hadn't of known her well, he was familiar enough with her. She had been his sister's best friend years before, and she had dated Lucky Spencer before the two of them left town together after they graduated from high school. The last he heard she had been living in New York. Emily had told him she was an artist of some kind, and, though he wished her and the Spencer kid well, he hadn't thought of her since. But the person before him was not the shy, tentative girl he remembered from years ago. Although he had no doubt her face looked the same if not slightly older, that was where the resemblance to her former self started and stopped.

"Look, I didn't come here to make small talk, alright, Jake," she snapped, glaring testily at the bartender. "I just wanted a drink."

"Of which you've already had two." For several minutes the two women stared at each other, obviously in some kind of showdown, but, eventually, it was Jake who caved, pouring Elizabeth a third shot of tequila. "That's your last one until you either eat something or tell me why, after all these years, you show up in my bar on Christmas Eve." Stubbornly, the brunette reached once more for the basket she had just, moments before, shoved aside. "And peanuts don't count," Jake warned her.

Frustrated, Jason watched as Elizabeth slammed her shot, slapped the small glass back on top of the bar, and stood up. Despite her slight stature, she never swayed an inch. "Fine, I'll take some cheese fries," she surrendered to the older woman's will, "but, in the meantime, I'm going to dance a little. Is that alright with you?"

"Just keep those pretty heels of yours off my pool table, and we're golden, Liz."

As the angry spitfire sauntered off, Jake met his gaze across the room once more. In her glance, he read so many things: confusion, fear for someone she obviously thought something of, annoyance, and a warning that he better keep the girl safe or else. Jason simply nodded to show her that he understood, that he agreed with her. In response, Jake popped the tab off another beer for him before disappearing into the back to make the requested fries.

At that point, he had pretty much given up all pretenses of pretending he was still playing pool. Instead, he simply crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against the table, intent upon watching the trainwreck before him. Even if he wasn't worried, though, that Elizabeth was about to get herself into a jam she couldn't mouth her way out of, his eyes still would have been drawn to the brunette.

As she danced, he hungrily observed the obvious ease in which her tight body moved. Maybe it was the alcohol coursing through her system that made her hips so loose and her arms so graceful, or it could have simply been that she was a good dancer, but, for whatever reason, he enjoyed the show she put on. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. Elizabeth, however, seemed unaware of the attention she was attracting. Either that, or she just didn't care. It was evident that she was simply dancing for herself, relishing the few minutes of uninhibited freedom.

Unwelcome, thoughts of his own past came surging into his mind as he watched her move rhythmically to the music. The sheer release she was obviously experiencing in the moment reminded him of the rush he would feel whenever he train surfed or raced his bike dangerously fast along the cliff roads just after his accident. With those recollections came ones of feeling trapped and misunderstood, enraged towards everyone and everything without knowing exactly where his irritation came from.

What the hell had happened to sweet, little Elizabeth Webber to make her so miserable, because, no matter what she said or how flippant she tried to act, Jason could sense the absolute misery rolling off of her in waves?

He couldn't contemplate his question for long, though, because, while he was realizing a few things about the brunette, another customer had started to come on to her. For an unmoving second, Jason watched as the drunk pawed at Elizabeth, grabbed at her, attempting to pull her into a dance she obviously didn't want. At first, she simply tried to tell him no, that she wasn't interested, but the man was persistent, his actions becoming cruder and more rough with every passing touch.

Pushing off of the pool table, he was steps away from grabbing the drunk and pulling him off of her when Elizabeth spoke up, her voice cutting through the room like a swift, northeasterly wind. "Back off, blue eyes," she warned him, and, though he didn't understand her reference besides knowing his eyes were blue, he knew she was talking to him, "or I'll break your nose after I'm finished breaking this loser's."

He stopped immediately, his feet both tense and perched for action, but the drunk wasn't as smart. Despite her size, Elizabeth Webber's voice spoke of a steel, gritty determination no one would want to mess with... except, evidently, the man who tightened his grip around her wrist and attempted, failing to do so, to pull her even closer towards him. "What'll you mean you'll break my..."

That's as far as he got with his question before a small fist crushed into the front of his face, blood splattering from the drunk's smashed nose instantaneously. Although worried about retaliation and ready to step in if such an action was necessary, Jason grinned at the sight before him, enjoying the other man's pain and Elizabeth's smug victory. He watched as she walked several paces backwards, putting some much needed distance between herself and her former aggressor, never saying a single word. Instead, she just crossed her arms, mimicking his former stance.

"You're a fucking bitch," the man with the broken nose split out, his discomfort littering the words and tone of his voice. "Crazy, too."

"You should leave," Jason warned, leaning menacingly in the drunk's direction.

"What the hell, man! I wasn't the one who just punched somebody."

"No, but you were the one who wouldn't take his hands off a woman when she asked him to. Where I come from, you just got off easy."

As if realizing for the first time just who he was dealing with, the bleeding man's eyes widened in fear before he scurried off, swearing underneath his breath as he mouthed off several empty threats. Whether it was the sight of blood or simply a desire not to cross either the enraged brunette or the equally dangerous enforcer, several of the bar's other patrons slipped out quietly as well, leaving Jason and Elizabeth even more alone in the tavern than they had been previously.

Surprising him, Elizabeth took a seat, gesturing for him to join her as she called out for Jake in the back. "Hey, when you bring me out those fries, you might want to bring out the mop, too. One of your regulars made me break a nail."

"Ice, too," Jason added, eliciting a confused frown from the woman across from him. Lowering his voice so just the two of them could hear, he explained, "for your hand."

"Unless you want me to hold it while we paint with melted water down your naked chest, there's no need. My hand's just fine."

"Elizabeth," he persisted, "you just broke that man's nose."

"And just because I'm a girl, that doesn't mean I don't know how to hit. If three years in the army has taught me nothing else, at least I know how to throw a punch."

It was then that Jake joined them, depositing Elizabeth's cheese fries in the center of their table. Playfully glaring at Jason, she complained, "me, I asked her several times point blank where she's been for the past few years, and I get bubkiss. You simply sit there with that pretty, stupid look upon your face, and she tells all. You, Morgan, have quite a way with the ladies. Now, if you could only get here to eat, too, then I'll really know you're a miracle worker."

With that, the bartender walked off, shaking her head and muttering to herself about stubborn blockheads and something that was meant to be. He didn't know what she was talking about, and, in the moment, he could have cared less, because Elizabeth Webber was sitting across from him, head collapsed in the palm of her left hand as she casually played with the food before her and glanced up at him through her thick, smoky lashes. For the first time in his life, he wanted to know what someone was thinking more than he wanted anything else in the world. He should have been frightened by the realization, scared off. He should have paid Jake for his beer, grabbed his jacket, and lit out of there like death itself was nipping at his heels, but, instead, he simply picked up a cheesy fry, ate it, and asked, "so, the military, huh? Never would have pegged you for that."

"Why?"

Her blunt question caught him off guard, but he knew that his response would determine whether or not Elizabeth stayed and talked to him or ran away and looked for an outlet for her rage and confusion elsewhere. He didn't want her to leave. "Because the girl I remember..."

Standing from her chair, Elizabeth interrupted, "was Lucky Spencer's sweet, innocent girlfriend. Yeah, I know."

"What I was going to say," he spoke up before she could walk away, "was that the girl I remember didn't seem to be a big fan of violence."

"Oh." Sitting back down and actually looking contrite for her outburst, she said, "well, sometimes it's necessary."

"The war," Jason questioned.

Elizabeth laughed, waving his suggestion away. "Oh, it's utter bullshit. No, I was talking about me planting my fist in Mr. Grabby-Hands' sniffer. The fucker had it coming."

"I never said he didn't."

"But, yeah," she shrugged a single, surprisingly bare shoulder given how frigid it was outside, "the whole serving my country on the battlefront thing wasn't my initial intention." As if needing to alleviate her sudden somber mood, Elizabeth reached across the table and took Jason's practically full beer right from his hands. Draining a good half of the bottle, she gave it back to him and winked. "So, why are you here instead of out looking grumpy at some cheery, holiday festivity?"

Before he could respond, despite not knowing what he could say that could possibly satisfy the feisty brunette, she plowed forth, answering her own question. "Me? I just couldn't take it anymore. God, it's like they don't get it." Running shaking hands through her loose, wavy hair, Elizabeth explained, "day in and day out, I either put physically broken people back together or cut them up to the point where they'll never be whole again, and then I come home for Christmas, and they just expect me to sing carols, and smile pretty, and open presents, and I can't. And do you know what Lucky got me for Christmas this year?" Chuckling without mirth, she revealed, "a god damned necklace. He was so excited for me to open it, for me to like it, that he had me open it tonight before the hospital party. What the hell am I supposed to do with a fancy necklace in Iraq? It's not big enough to shield bullets, that's for sure.

"So, I skipped out, ran away. I told Lucky that I had to go to the bathroom and never returned." Self-deprecatingly, she mocked, "Little Lizzie can tiptoe her way through a field full of land mines, but she couldn't hack it for two hours around people who love her, people who want the best for her. How pathetic am I?" Again, he wanted to say something, anything that would reassure her and dim the loathing he could see present in her expressive gaze, but, before he had a chance to open his mouth, she beat him to the punch once more. "You're a good listener, do you know that? For some reason, I like talking to you."

He took a sip of his beer, oddly aware of how intimate the action seemed to be since she had drank from his bottle just minutes before. "Maybe I like hearing you talk."

Elizabeth pursed her lips and folded her arms over her chest, leaning back in her chair to appraise him. "Well, aren't you a real charmer."

Unable to prevent the laughter from bubbling up, Jason chuckled. "I can honestly say that's the first time anybody's ever called me that."

"Maybe they're not paying close enough attention, or," and, with that, she leaned closer to him, dropping her voice, "maybe you aren't as nice to them."

Not knowing how to respond, he stood up, dropped a few bills on the table for Jake that would cover both of their tabs and give the bartender a nice Christmas bonus, and asked, "want to get out of here?"

"What I want is to do something so loud I won't be able to hear the sound of dying men and women anymore, but leaving sounds good, too."

Taking her hand in his, he tugged her after him, picking up both their coats on the way out of the bar. "What would you say if I could offer you both?" Smirking, he didn't wait for her to answer before leading her outside.

) ~ (

They rode for hours, Jason pushing the limits of his bike harder than he had in years. If the woman behind him would have kept screaming and laughing in sheer abandonment the way she had been earlier, he would have done anything, even destroy his motorcycle, to prolong her escape, but, eventually, she became quiet, the wind, and the speed, and the rush of the bike no longer working to distract her, and he could feel her arms tightening around him in silent communication. She wanted him to stop, and Jason only hoped that she was ready to completely let go of her detached mask and really talk to him.

He brought his Harley to a standstill just shy of the bridge, its tires disturbing the otherwise picturesque dusting of light, fluffy snow. Without explanation, he turned the bike off and stood, once more offering Elizabeth his hand as he led her towards their destination. Astonishing him, she trusted him enough not to question where they were going or why he had taken her to the middle of seemingly nowhere. It had been so long since someone had trusted him so easily, so explicitly, and he found that he had missed knowing such unflinching faith.

Neither of them spoke until they were standing over the edge of the bridge, looking down into the partially frozen creek below. "It's been a long time since I've been up here," Jason revealed.

"I like it. It feels like we're the only two people left on earth." Leaning forward, despite the snow, Elizabeth rested her coat clad arms on the bridge's wooden railing. Taking a deep, bracing breath, she said, "so, I'm sure you're curious how I got myself into this mess. That's why you brought me here, right, so we could talk without interruptions?"

Jason simply shrugged. "If you want to tell me, I'd listen, but the only reason I brought you here was because I thought you might like it. When things become so messed up inside my head that I can't think clearly, I come up here."

"Oh," she whispered. "Thanks." For several minutes, they just existed, the only sound between them the slight trickle of the water flowing by beneath their feet. With his hip resting against the railing, Jason just watched her, noticing that she fidgeting with her gloves and fingers the entire time. When she finally started to talk, her voice was low, contemplative, as if she was trying to recall memories from her distant childhood and not something that had happened just a few years before.

"After high school, Lucky and I moved to New York. We had this crazy dream of being free there but together. He'd play guitar, and I'd paint, and it'd be perfect. Except, it wasn't. Nobody cared about some fresh faced teenager's idealistic paintings, and people were more likely to kick Lucky's guitar than they were to offer him a few bucks for playing on the street corner. Eventually, I got a part time job busing tables at a coffee shop, and I'm pretty sure that Lucky resorted to pickpocketing in order to pay our rent.

"By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was sitting in our shoe box of an apartment in Brooklyn eating Raman noodles for dinner for the forty-seventh day in a row. It was so cold that I could see my breath, and the pipes were frozen, so we didn't even have running water. I had run out of names for our puppy-sized rats, I was sick, and all Lucky and I did anymore, at that point, was fight. So, without telling him, I got the emergency money out that I hid in my tampon box and took a bus back to Port Charles. I didn't even leave a note."

Grinning ruefully, she revealed, "my grandmother was less than pleased to see me, especially after I told her why I was there. I explained to her that I had learned my lesson, that I had realized the bohemian lifestyle wasn't for me, and that I wanted to go to nursing school, but she just told me to talk to my parents and see what they said. When I called them that night, they laughed. They laughed for so long and so hard, I could hear the tears in their voices when they told me no. They said that they knew what I was up to, that they knew I planned to take their money and run back to New York and my shiftless boyfriend, living off what was supposed to be nursing school tuition for the next year.

"Looking back, maybe it was my own fault. Growing up, I had always ridiculed my family's obsession with medicine, swearing up and down and left to right to anybody who would listen that I would never be a doctor or a nurse, so, when I sprung my idea upon them, I was probably hoping for too much to think that they would take me seriously. Foolish or not, though, I was also stubborn, so, on the very next day, I went down to the recruitment office, signed up for four years in the army in exchange for nursing training, and never once told my grams or my parents what I was planning to do." Turning to face him for the first time since she started to talk, Elizabeth challenged, "see, that guy back at the bar wasn't so far off when he called me crazy."

"You weren't crazy then, and you're not crazy now," Jason argued. "You had a problem, and you found the best solution you could given your situation. Maybe you didn't think too far ahead, but, when you're hungry and desperate, not many people do."

"For the first couple of years, it wasn't bad. In fact, I liked being in the army," she revealed. "For a girl who always hated rules, I seemed to excel for some unknown reason. The pay was decent. I banked some of it and sent the rest back to Lucky in New York. After I wheezed my way through basic training – who know my teenage smoking rebellion would come back to bite me in the ass so soon? - I still had free time to draw, and, best of all, I got to see some of the world, to travel. I lived in South Carolina during my training, and then the army sent me to Guam, then Berlin until 9-11 happened, and I was immediately shipped off to Iraq and the front." Twisting around, she took a step closer to him and met his gaze unwaveringly. "For more than a year, I've lived in hell, experienced horrors I never even imagined possible, and then the army decides to give me a leave for Christmas, and they send me back here where I'm expected to act like the girl who left town three and half years ago. There's something wrong with that picture. You know, it would have just been easier to stay in the damn desert. At least there, I know what to do, I know how to act, I know who I am. Here? I feel like that fifteen year old girl Lucky found raped and bleeding in the snow on Valentine's Day again, lost, distanced from my own body as though I'm looking down upon myself."

Without second guessing his instincts, Jason whispered, "when I woke up from my accident, everyone expected me to be the same, the way I was before, but I didn't remember being Jason Quartermaine. Hell, I didn't remember anything. All I knew was that I wasn't him, and I didn't want to be him. I was angry, and confused, and I hated people telling me what to do or what to think. So, even though it's different – it's almost like, whereas I hadn't seen enough of the world yet at that point, you've seen too much, I know what it's like to feel as though you don't belong but, at the same time, not want to be able to fit in even if you could again."

"What'd you do?"

"Me," he questioned, lifting a hand to rub absently on right temple. "I lashed out, broke things, hurt people, tried to hurt myself."

"Hence, me going to a bar and looking for a fight," Elizabeth teased, offering him her first genuine, sincere smile of the night. It was a small, crooked grin, but he liked it better than any of her previous, too bright, fake attempts. "Did it work?"

"Not at all," Jason replied. "The only thing that helped was making a place, a life for myself. I made a couple friends, got a job, started to learn about the world instead of allowing the people in it to tell me things. It wasn't perfect, and it took some time, but, eventually, I stopped caring about how I felt and just felt things." Shaking his head, he complained, "that didn't make any sense, did it?"

"More than you'd think." Accepting her response, he shrugged, and they both turned to lean against the bridge's railing once again. "So, a life, huh? If only there was a store where a girl could buy herself one of those pesky things."

"Have you given it any thought what you want to do when you get out next year?"

"A part of me thinks that I should just make a career out of the army," Elizabeth responded, sounding glum, "because, by the time my four years are up, will I even be fit to work amongst regular, normal people? Physically, I'm probably more capable than most of the nurses who work at GH. If it can happen on a battlefield, I've treated it. I can do anything the triage doctors can do, but my bedside manner consists of rummaging through an open chest wound to find a soldier's dog tags. I don't make small talk, and I certainly don't offer my patients empty promises. If I went to work at a civilian hospital, the only floor I'd be mentally and emotionally fit for would be ICU where the majority of the patients are in comas, and I wouldn't be able to handle so much downtime, so little action. But I can't stay in either. If I do, those last few pieces of who I am will slip away for good, and all I'll be left with is this empty shell that I don't recognize."

"What about your art? Could you go back to painting once you get out?"

"Jason, when I close my eyes, all I see are dying or already dead people. If I even managed to somehow get a showing of my paintings, I'd scare everyone away. They wouldn't say, 'oh, that Elizabeth Webber is a talented young woman.' They'd say that I was fucking out of my mind, and they wouldn't be too far from the truth either. No," she sighed wistfully, "I definitely won't be able to paint for a living, at least, not for a long, long time. And that's just the start. My bigger problem is figuring out where to go once I'm released from active duty."

"You're not coming back here?"

"To what, live happily ever after as Mrs. Lucky Spencer, inheriting the Spencer family home and raising a bunch of kids? Fat chance of that happening!" Looking out into the woods and refusing to meet his gaze, she admitted, "the only reason I'm still with Lucky is because I'm too afraid to break it off with him, not because I need or even want him, but because there's a part of me who still believes that I owe him for saving me all those years ago."

"Elizabeth, Lucky didn't save you," Jason argued vehemently. "He might have helped you, and he might have cared for and about you, but you saved yourself. Plus, he made the decision to help you on his own. No one forced him to. The only person you owe is yourself. Do what's right for you and to hell with everyone else."

"That's why I don't plan on coming back. If he doesn't know where I'm at, then he won't be able to find me, and, if he can't find me, he won't be able to guilt me into pretending I'm still the same girl who promised him forever a lifetime ago. The problem is that I don't know where I want to go other than that I don't want to end up here... or in a desert."

"Well, if you change your mind, I'll be around... and so will my bike. Plus, Sonny always needs someone to take care of us guys when we get hurt, someone discreet but who knows their stuff. It'd be more exciting than a hospital but not as dangerous as the military."

Elizabeth snorted. "Like Sonny would even recognize me right now."

"Maybe not," he admitted, "but he's always had a weak spot for pretty, willful women. He's married to Carly now, you know."

When Elizabeth giggled joyously and loudly for several moments after his comment, Jason couldn't help the proud grin that he felt transform his own stiff, cold face. It felt so good to give her even a moment of peace, of happiness, and all he wanted to do was make that feeling last for her for as long as possible. At the same time, though, it was getting late, and, despite her spunk, he could tell that she was exhausted. "Come on," he suggested. "Let's get out of here."

Skipping along beside him, she asked, "where to next?"

Instantly, Jason came to a complete stop only to pivot so he could see the woman standing beside him. "I thought you'd want to go home, maybe get some sleep."

"Uh, I would kill for eight hours of uninterrupted rest. It's what I wanted the most for Christmas. Back in Iraq, between the bombs going off, the miserable whimpering of the injured, and my own nightmares, I'm lucky if I get two hours a night, and I thought it'd be so simple to just come home and crash in a big comfy bed, but it's too quiet at the Spencer's, and, when I close my eyes, all I can see is this little boy, probably no more than two, standing outside his bombed out house, crying, and filthy, and covered in dried blood as he holds onto his dead mother's dress, calling for her so much his tiny voice is hoarse. And then I'm afraid that Lucky will touch me, that he'll want to hold me and comfort me, but how could he when he doesn't even know who I am anymore? It feels like I'm sleeping with a stranger, and, being with him, is more lonely than when I'm by myself."

Once more, he held his hand out to her. "Do you trust me?"

The only answer he needed was the feeling of her gloved fingers sliding over his palm.

) ~ (

"You live here," Elizabeth questioned as Jason ushered her into the half empty apartment building on the docks that he shared with a few other tenants. "I always thought this place was condemned."

"It's better than Jake's," he simply said.

Surprised, the woman beside him demanded to know, "how exactly?"

"Quieter," Jason answered. "Closer to work. I don't need much – just a place to crash, shower. Sometimes, I read here."

In silence, they walked up the three flights of stairs that led to his one room apartment. As Jason unlocked the door, allowing Elizabeth to enter before him, he watched as she observed her surroundings, biting her lip the entire time as she took everything in. Finally, she teased, "if this is your way of convincing me of the benefits of the mob lifestyle, Sonny should definitely consider making somebody else his pitchman. This place is horrible." He shrugged. "However, it is warm."

"When the radiator stops working," he told her, unsure as to why he was sharing with her such detailed information when she would only be there with him for one night, "all you have to do is bang on it a few times, and then the heat will start coming up the pipes again."

"You could be a professional handy man," Elizabeth teased him. As she walked about the room, running her fingers over the spines of his books, sitting in his one chair, studying the view from his window, he waited for her next assessment. "The light's good."

"I like the sounds of the lake at night," Jason admitted, unsure of what to say about the light, so he changed the subject. "When the water's choppy, you can hear the waves, and, on calm nights, you can hear the boats' fog horns and the men unloading when a cargo ship docks. It's quiet but never too quiet."

"You don't have a Christmas tree, though. I might not be spilling over with holiday cheer this year, but even I think this place needs a tree."

He shook his head in amusement. "Don't like them. They look better outside, in the woods, with snow on them."

"You just think that because you've never seen one of my trees before. Some paper chains, some popcorn and cranberries, maybe an angel at the top, and you'd be singing a different tune, my friend."

"We'll see. What about the place?"

"Well, it might not be pretty, but it works for me," his guest announced. Before he could question her statement or begin a discussion on sleeping arrangements, he watched, shocked, as Elizabeth started to undress, completely at ease in his presence. He found the situation both slightly emasculating and reassuring, for he was glad that she felt comfortable enough to be so vulnerable before him but hated the fact that she was so obviously unconcerned about anything physical happening between them.

Silently, he stood there, arms hanging loose at his side, mouth suddenly dry as, inch by inch, she revealed her body to him. Her gloves and scarf were the first to go, quickly followed by her coat. Sitting down on top of his bed, Elizabeth effortlessly unzipped and removed her high, leather boots, rolling the ends of her slightly damp pants up in the process. But the action was almost pointless, because, once she stood back up, pulling a small, concealed gun from her waistband and setting it aside, she stripped those off, too, toeing her socks off in the process as well. By the tie she pulled her sleeveless, black blouse over her head, tossing it to the floor and revealing that she wore nothing but a slightly sheer camisole underneath, no bra, Jason wouldn't have been able to say anything even if he had wanted to. Rather, he simply stared, amazed, as the spitfire from just hours before crawled tentatively under his blankets dressed in nothing but her plain, utilitarian underwear and a practically non-existent top.

Several minutes stretched by between them, the awkward stillness growing, shifting, and expanding with every passing moment until, finally, Elizabeth nervously asked, "Jason, is everything alright? If you want me to leave..."

"No," he rasped out, his voice harsher than he intended. Swallowing past the lump in his throat and shoving aside his insistent, painful attraction towards the brunette, he said, "I'm fine, just... I'll sleep in the chair."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're too tall, too big to sleep in a recliner all night, and besides..." If he wasn't as aware of his senses, Jason never would have been able to hear the next words out of Elizabeth's mouth. "I don't want to sleep alone."

"If you're sure..."

Turning over to rest on her side, her small, fragile hands tucked under her chin, she replied, "I wouldn't have embarrassed myself by saying anything if I wasn't."

Quickly, he moved to switch off the lights so he could undress before Elizabeth changed her mind. He really didn't want to sleep in the chair, and, even if nothing physical was going to happen between them that evening, it had been a long time since he'd shared a bed with a woman, and, in that moment, Jason discovered that he missed the simple pleasure. However, he also knew that stripping off his clothes in front of his guest would not have been a good idea, for it was one thing to hide his attraction to her with a thick, sturdy pair of jeans on; it was quite a different matter to do so while only wearing a pair of boxer-briefs.

Scooting into bed and pulling the blankets over his legs, Jason was caught off guard when Elizabeth immediately moved closer to him. After he was settled down on the mattress, his head resting on his pillow, she reached behind her for his arm, pulling it so that it was wound around her, insinuating that she wanted him to wrap his body around her own. He obliged, rolling to his side. As soon as his chest brushed against her back, Elizabeth used her same hand to lift his left leg and position it over top of her own and snuggled so deeply into him, he knew it would be impossible for her not to feel his arousal. When she sighed in comfort and contentment, though, Jason knew she wasn't offended or put off by his reaction to her near nudity and close presence.

Twisting her head around, she peered up at him through heavily lashed eyes. "Tell me a story," she whispered softly, pleadingly.

"I, uh, I don't know any."

Unlike with anybody else, Elizabeth never asked him to make one up. Instead, she questioned, "you read travel books, right?" He nodded his answer. "Well, then, tell me something you've read about Italy."

"I can do better than that," Jason revealed. "I spent about a month there a couple of years ago. I could tell you about some of the things I saw."

The woman in his arms sighed dreamily. "If there was only place in the world I could go to, I'd pick Italy."

He didn't ask her why she didn't, why she wouldn't go there in a year's time when she was released from active duty, because he understood. It was her dream, something she had wanted for so long that, if she did go there and it wasn't as special as she thought it would be, then she'd be more than disappointed; she'd lose an entire piece of herself. And, after spending the evening with her, he knew that she also feared what her new self would think of Italy after her old self had spent so much time fantasizing about it. Someday, she would get there, he had no doubt, but not yet.

So, instead, he pulled her yet closer to him, astonishing himself when he dipped his head down far enough to rest it in the gentle hollow of her shoulder, allowing his lips to brush back and forth against the silkiness of her skin as he talked, as he told her about the glass blowers, about a little church he found in Tuscany, about how the light there was different than anywhere else in the world. And, when her breathing evened out, telling Jason that she was finally asleep, he simply closed his eyes and followed her, hoping the morning would never come.

) ~ (

One Year Later...

She didn't know what she was thinking. Instead of following her instincts and running as far away from Port Charles as she could, Elizabeth had been stupid enough to go home, to make her first stop after landing at the military base in Virgina upstate New York. Despite every single bone in her body screaming at her to turn around and fly, drive, walk in the opposite direction, here she was nonetheless. It had to mean something.

Unfortunately, though, the only person she could have asked about her little problem wasn't home, his door locked to her, keeping her from the only place she had felt any semblance of peace since leaving for Iraq two years prior. While Elizabeth knew that it was still early, that Jason could have been out anywhere, and that she could go looking for him at Jake's, or Kelly's, or even at Sonny's penthouse, she also knew that, the less she moved about town, the less of a chance she took at being seen by someone she didn't want to know that she was back.

Reaching up to her hair which she had precariously tucked back with half a fist full of bobby pins so it wouldn't be in her way, Elizabeth removed one of the tiny, metal wires, contemplating it for several minutes before tossing it back over her shoulder and opting, instead, to pull out the gun she still carried tucked inside the back of her pants. Though she was no longer in the army, she had gotten used to always having a weapon on her. Whether or not she would eventually allow her license to expire remained to be seen, but, for now, the heavy metal pressed into her back was a comforting reassurance she wasn't yet ready to part with.

Plus, it sure as hell came in handy when one wanted to break into somebody's place.

Aiming the pistol at the heavy, steel door's lock, Elizabeth fired, hitting her mark, only to swivel around, gun still poised ready to fire, when a decidedly pissed off voice yelled behind her, "what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"You're not Jason," she answered, lowering her weapon but not yet putting it away.

"Yeah, no shit," the man answered, moving towards what was obviously his apartment door. "Guess I won't be needing these now," he muttered, shoving his keys back into his pocket. Readdressing her, he stated, "Jason moved out about three months back, said he needed a place where a friend of his could stay if they wanted to. Plus, there was something about a tree, too, but I really wasn't paying much attention. All I know is that the guy gave me his place, allowed me to stay here for free despite the fact that he had the rent payed up through the end of the year. I didn't really care about why he wanted to move."

"Could you tell me where he moved to?"

"Sure," the man agreed affably. "Harbor View Towers, everybody knows that. He's got himself holed up in the penthouse across from Mr. Corinthos. While back, Jason was pretty cool. He'd hang out with us guys at Jake's, play some rounds of pool, but now he just goes for rides on his bike and hides out in his big, empty apartment. I mean, the dude's got all that space, all that room, and all he buys is a couch, a pool table, a desk and chair, a fridge for his beer, and the biggest bed I've ever seen. It's weird."

"Doesn't sound so weird to me. What else does a person really need?"

Too caught up in his own thoughts, the guy, evidently one of Sonny's guards, continued, "the only thing we can figure is that this friend of his must be a chick, and he's waiting for her to decorate the place."

"What if she's not the Suzy-Homemaker type, though?"

"Huh," he asked her, bewildered by her question. "I don't... what do you mean?"

"What if this friend of his isn't the decorating type?"

Suddenly, the young man grinned widely. "So, you're her, huh, you're Jason's mystery woman?"

Laughing, Elizabeth further shocked him by putting her gun away and reaching out to patronizingly pat the guard's cheek. "Thanks for the information, but, between you and me, I wouldn't go around revealing the boss' address to any pretty face that shoots down your door. You might find yourself out of a job before you can even take over that apartment's rent payments... or worse."

Walking away, she left the building quickly, using the back alleys and less traveled streets to make her way towards Harbor View Towers. Halfway there, she made a quick stop, picking Jason up a sort of belated housewarming present. Twenty minutes later, by the time she made it to the upscale, private apartment building, she was surprised when she was allowed to pass through without being forced to wait while Sonny's men cleared her presence there, but Elizabeth wasn't someone to look a gift horse in the mouth, so she went with it, riding the elevator up to the very top floor and cursing the too bright, too loud Christmas carols being pumped out through the lift's sound system. Next time, she'd promised herself that she'd take the stairs.

After knocking, she waited only seconds before Jason's penthouse door was opened. "So, a little gopher told me you'd moved," she greeted him, leaning casually against the door frame.

Without any malice behind his words, Jason complained, "the guards shouldn't give out my personal information to any pretty face who asks."

"Hey, that's what I said," Elizabeth remarked brightly. Shaking off her grin, she thrust the bottle of tequila she had just purchased into his arms. "This is for you," she stated, walking into the expansive, bare apartment without invitation but knowing she didn't really need one. "Congrats on the new digs."

Shoving his hands into his jeans' pocket, Jason shrugged. "It'll do."

"The heating?"

"Don't have to bang on the pipes any more."

"What about the light?"

"Even better than the last place," he told her. "And there's more room, too, in case someone wanted to paint some disturbed, scary pictures of dying or already dead people."

"Ah, but I guarantee you that that you can't hear the lake from all the way up here," Elizabeth guessed.

"No, but I bought a sound machine, been listening to the ocean for the past few weeks. Kind of prefer it."

With that, she took several steps towards the man across from her, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him so tightly her feet came off the ground. Before she could even blink, Elizabeth felt Jason's arms reciprocate her gesture. Pulling back slightly but unwilling to leave his embrace, she teased him, "leave it to you to have the oddest credit card statement ever. Seriously," she mocked. "A mob enforcer buying a sound machine? If your rivals found out about that..."

Whatever she was about to say was cut off and immediately forgotten when Jason leaned forward and nipped softly at her bottom lip. Before he could rethink his actions, she kissed him back, at first content with just brushing her mouth against his own but quickly needing more as she whispered her tongue against the seam of his lips until he opened them and allowed her entrance. She was about to protest when he broke the embrace, but the question he asked her prevented the words of complaint from forming.

"So, really, do you like the place? Could you maybe see yourself hiding out in here with me until you figure things out?"

She knew it was his way of saying he didn't want her to go but that he would support her even if she decided she needed to. In that moment, Elizabeth knew she wasn't going anywhere, though, Port Charles and everyone in it be damned. "Well, that all depends," she answered, using her abdominals to pull her dangling legs up to wrap around Jason's hips. As he walked them towards the stairs, eventually taking the steps two at a time in his haste to reach the upstairs, she plastered the most sincere, truthful look upon her face that she possibly could, allowing her words to hang between them for several tense, silent moments before she continued.

"Do you have any limes?"