Juliet came to James' house in the evenings after work. It started out as recon: laying out what they'd learned about their neighbors, reviewing the progress (lack of progress) in their search for the others, going over their roles again and double-checking each other's stories for weak points. One night he had Dharma macaroni and cheese on the table when she arrived. The next she showed up on his doorstep with fresh vegetables from the community garden. Over time, recon over dinner became dinner with daily recaps—funny stories about the people on security detail or teasing about the beating hands took in the motor pool.
Eventually she stopped leaving right after the meal. He would insist on clearing up the dishes, and she would dry them. Once after a particularly grueling day she was exhausted enough that he told her to quit making herself so useful and take a load off instead. She made her way to his bookshelf, and when she left for her own bungalow, the book she had chosen sat on the coffee table waiting for her to come back.
Settling into opposite chairs to read became part of their evening ritual. He'd never spent so much time with a woman without touching her. Not that he hadn't thought about it. Motor pool or not, Dharma soap and moisturizer were miracle workers. But on the whole he was all right like this, without the work of impressing or being impressed. Companionable. Cozy.
Big change from the last woman he'd been around this much, with all her bluster and passive-aggressive manipulation. He could always tell when Kate was feeling unsettled—if she wasn't lashing out and doing her best to shred his ego she was dropping him like a stone and racing off to Jack.
Juliet's thoughts went running, not her body. He could see it happen in her eyes. An odd thing, watching somebody run away from you while she was staring you down at the same time, and it made him want to do what he never wanted to do when Kate ran: follow.
One night he looked up from his book and caught her staring at the closed curtains, feet tucked under her and chin resting on the heel of her hand.
"Whatcha thinkin', Blondie?" It was a simple enough question, but it had taken him weeks of catching glimpses of her faraway looks before he could come up with the guts to ask it. He wasn't used to having to be the pushy one.
He'd been a con man too long not to recognize a lie when he heard it. He lowered his head and smirked at her over the top of his reading glasses, waiting.
"It's my sister's birthday."
She'd never mentioned a sister. Come to think of it, in all the months he had spent on this crazy rock, the topic of family hadn't come up all that often with anybody.
"Older or younger?"
"Older." Juliet grinned wryly. "Today she's six." When she turned to him, her eyes were shining with the threat of tears, and her nose was a little red. But she turned to him anyway.
"Pretty young for a big sister." A few words closer, but they must have spooked her because she backed away again.
"Yeah." Her gaze drifted down to the book on her lap. He watched her stare at the same page for several long minutes, then slapped his own book closed with one hand. She jumped.
"Well?" he asked.
"Are we gonna have a birthday party or not?"
She said it as though it was a name he knew, and he picked up on her tone. "Who else if not for Rachel? Just because she ain't here don't mean we can't eat cake."
"I guess not."
James rummaged through one cupboard, then another. "It would sure help if I had cake mix."
"I have some," she said. "I'll be right back."
He worked quickly while she was gone, pulling out the two tall candles he had snuck out of the supply room and dashing outside to pluck a few flowers from the bush in front of the bungalow.
Juliet returned with a box of cake mix and canister of frosting, relinquishing both into his outstretched hands. She surveyed the table in admiration, but instead of complimenting him on his decorating skills, she asked, "Isn't it a little boring for a six-year-old?"
He shrugged. "I used up all my pink streamers for Jin's birthday."
"So," he tossed over his shoulder as he broke an egg into the mixing bowl, "tell me about this sister we're celebrating."
He mixed ingredients as she told him about Rachel: about how they used to fight a lot when they were little but their parents' divorce brought them closer; about how Rachel supported her through her own divorce; about Rachel's cancer and infertility and how hard Juliet fought against both; about being stuck on the island with the Others, tied by the promise of Rachel's continued health if she'd just agree to stay; about the last time she saw her sister, on a flickering video screen from thousands of miles away; about her nephew.
By the time James slid the cake into the oven, Juliet's nose was back to its proper color and she was one hundred percent present, with him.
"Thank you, James," she said. "I really appreciate it."
"You brought it over," he shrugged. "All I did was stir it up a bit."
"I don't mean the cake."
"What are friends for?"
He was surprised by the ferocity of her answering embrace. She must have gone longer between friends than he would have guessed. He tightened his arms at the deep sigh that spilled out of her, and for an instant she squeezed back just as hard.
When she pulled away, her eyes were shiny again. "I think I want to read for a bit now, if that's okay with you."
"Sure it is." He returned to his usual spot on the couch and somehow it felt natural when she brought her book over and settled in next to him, her head on his shoulder. Her breathing slowed and the pages began turning at a steady pace. The scent of baking filled the bungalow.
"I'm glad I didn't leave," she said quietly, fingers poised to turn a page.
"Me, too, Blondie."
He meant it every way possible.