Author's Note: Many thanks to Essy for betaing and Bree for letting me bounce ideas/thoughts off of her while simultaneously refusing to tell her what I was actually writing. Thanks also to the wonderful powers that be/were for letting me take their characters out for one more joyride. Not that they actually know or care, but still. Grateful all the same.
To clarify, this is going to be a multi-chapter piece. Updates will most likely be at my usual snail's pace.
This chapter picks up immediately after "The Book of Abby" ends. The story title and following quote (which inspired this story) are from Jed Whedon's song of the same name, the chapter title is from Peter Gabriel. Reviews srongly encouraged.
"It's a fresh start, or a sad ending..."
"The Book of Love"
There's this overwhelming sensation, as we pull away from the ambulance bay, of how much we're leaving behind here – the memories, the people, the history – and at the same time what's in front of us. I don't say anything for a while. I can't, really, since there's nothing that can really be verbalized. Instead, I watch out the window even after I can't see County anymore, until we pull onto Lake Shore Drive, and Luka breaks the silence. "How was it?"
"It was…" I sigh. "Your typical Thursday, I guess." He smiles at that. "I all but gave some kid the go-ahead to off himself, I freaked out at the nurse's disciplinary board, I bit the new chief's head off, and somehow, everyone but Morris found out about me leaving without me saying a word."
"Sounds like County to me." He smiles, and I sort of have to wonder at what point things like that stop sounding ridiculous and start sounding mundane, and if it's something we should worry about.
"I'm going to miss it." I toe off my shoes and throw my headband in the back seat. It's going to be a long ride. "I never thought I'd say that, but…it's true."
I rest my head sideways on the seat so I'm looking at him, and think maybe I underestimated how hard it was for him to choose to leave. "Haleh showed me something."
"There's this wall, where they stick all the magnetic name plates from our lockers. She caught me trying to make off with mine, and so we went and she had me put both of ours up there."
He frowns. "Both of ours?"
"I just would have figured…I don't know, maintenance would have taken it down by now."
"Yeah, well…someone got to it before they did."
"I see." He reaches his hand across to lie on my leg, and I slide mine under his and lace our fingers together. Luka nods to the rear view mirror, and I turn around to see Joe fast asleep and drooling down the front of his shirt. "Think he'll sleep through the night?"
"You're joking, right?"
"You should sleep, too."
"I will." I squeeze his hand. "Once we're past Chicago."
His thumb strokes mine, and I do think he gets it, how big this is for me, leaving Chicago – I've been here half my life. It was the first place I ever really felt like I was home, with him and Joe in our apartment, and even though it used to be his place, with other women, from the moment we brought Joe home, it never felt like anything but ours. I don't know how long it's going to take for Boston to feel like that, but I keep reminding myself that it doesn't matter where we are, as long as it's us – me and Luka and Joe.
That's my home – wherever they are.
I wake up and for a second, don't know where I am. It takes a minute or so to get my bearings, and I ask Luka through a very unladylike yawn where we are.
"Can you be a little more specific?" I squint out the window, but there aren't any signs. It feels more than a little disconcerting.
"About a half hour from South Bend, I think." He shrugs. "I'm just doing what the GPS says."
I stretch in my seat and turn to look back at Joe, who is still very much out. "Bored?"
"I'm okay. I was enjoying listening to both of you talk in your sleep."
"I don't talk in my sleep." I'm losing count of how many times I've said that, now.
He smirks. "Right. I forgot."
I jab him lightly and reach into the back where he put a cooler full of drinks and snacks and pull out a bottle of water. "Want anything?"
"Cup of coffee would be good."
"I can take over for awhile if you're tired."
"Nah, I'm fine. I'll let you know, though." He reaches out and I pass him the water bottle. "Maybe in an hour, we can stop for gas and switch."
I unfasten my seatbelt and prop my feet up on the dashboard. He gives me a look. "What?"
"Put your seatbelt back on."
"I'm a grown woman, you know." I put it back on, anyway. "God, this reminds me of when I was a kid and Maggie would pack us up and we'd drive until she found someplace she thought looked good. She'd always say 'this feels like home' and it would drive me nuts."
"I promise not to say 'this feels like home' when we get to Boston."
"I don't want to be one of those people who says 'Chicago' when it's not actually Chicago. Or Boston, in this case."
Luka gives me a funny look. "Why does it matter?"
"It just…does. You probably used to make fun of people who said they were from Dubrovnik when they were from some smaller town nearby."
"I never did, and I don't think anyone would do that."
"I'll bet you they did. You were just too cool to pay attention, because you were really from Dubrovnik."
He just shakes his head, and I get the impression that this is one of those things about Americans he'll never get, along with the home shopping channels and comic book conventions. "Want to play 'I-Spy'?"
"It's dark out, for one thing. And for another, we're not ten."
"Okay, so, the license plate game."
"How do you even know what those things are?"
"I don't know. I think…Alex?"
I roll my eyes. "I always said that kid was trouble."
"Oh, come on. It's fun. It makes it go faster."
I stay quiet for a few minutes, hoping he'll give up, but he keeps glancing at me with that earnest expression he has that is damn near impossible to say no to. "Fine. I spy something…I don't know. Um…dark?"
"Hey, if you're not going to take this seriously – "
"I'm taking it very seriously. I spy something dark."
"That's not a color."
"Well, I'm sorry. My options are kind of limited to 'dark,' 'pitch black,' and 'the moon.'"
"Fine." He sighs. "Is it…the car in front of us?"
"Okay…is it…the car next to us?"
"You know, you don't seem to be taking this very seriously, yourself."
"It's hard to narrow it down without something more specific."
I yawn again. "Okay, dark and…handsome."
He grins. "Is it me?"
"Come on." He gestures out the window. "You can't see any other drivers to know if they're handsome or not."
"So how – oh." He chuckles softly. "Can you even see Joe? I think you have to see the thing for it to count."
"I see." He seems amused. "Okay, I spy something…" He looks around the car conspicuously. "Brown."
"How did you know that?"
"You looked right at me before you said it. It was sort of obvious."
He looks a little put out, and I don't know whether to find that ridiculous or adorable. A little of both, maybe. "What did you and Eric used to do?"
"When you were driving, I mean."
"Oh. I mean…when he was a baby, I used to read to him in the back to keep him quiet. When he got a little older, we'd play cards, Go Fish and Old Maid and that kind of thing. Sometimes we'd make a list of things and whoever spotted them out the window first won."
"What kinds of things?"
"You know…silly stuff. A cow, a factory, a billboard, whatever. He'd always cheat, though, and say he saw it while I was looking the other way."
"Niko used to do that – it wasn't a game, but when we'd ride the train with my father, he'd always say he saw something while I wasn't looking. Once he said he saw a green chicken."
"A green chicken?"
"Yeah." He shakes his head. "I was convinced there were green chickens roaming the country, after that. I kept trying to find one."
"How long did it take you to figure out they didn't exist?"
He glances at me. "Actually, they do."
"What? No they don't."
"That's what I thought, so I bet him fifty dinara he couldn't show me one."
"I lost fifty dinara, and Niko had to spend the next three weekends helping our grandfather on his farm as punishment for painting that chicken."
We get to the motel outside of Toledo just after one in the morning and I get in the shower while Luka deals with Joe, who burst into tears for no apparent reason as soon as we got out of the car. By the time I get out, Joe is quiet and just on the verge of falling asleep on Luka's shoulder.
"Here. I'll take him, you shower," I whisper. Luka nods, and passes Joe to me who barely notices, just burrows his head into my neck.
I rub his back for a few minutes and go to put him in his portable crib, but, of course, he clings to me and sort of howls in protest, so I lay down on the bed with him and recite The Very Quiet Cricket from memory, which does the trick. I don't realize I've fallen asleep, myself, until I open my eyes to see Luka reaching over me for Joe.
"I didn't mean to wake you," he murmurs as he climbs in next to me.
"S'okay." I roll over so I'm pressed against his side, my head on his shoulder, and he moves his arm around my waist. It's been this thing, since he moved back in, both of us needing to be close to each other, physically. Making up for lost time, or maybe just subconsciously realizing that life is short and wanting to make the most of it. Whatever it is, there's been a lot of touching, purposely brushing against each other and holding hands and more than one shared shower that had nothing to do with being green. And some less innocent stuff – I think since we broke through that particular barrier that night it came crashing down on the both of us how long a year is and how much we've missed one another.
He kisses my head, very gently, and I can feel his breath on my cheek. "I set the alarm for seven."
"I can take the first shift, if you want." He makes little circles on the small of my back.
"You're a very good husband, you know that?"
He chuckles. "I try."
Luka makes good on the offer to take the first driving shift, although my plan get some extra sleep ends up being abandoned in favor of sitting in the back with Joe, who is pretty put out to be shuffled out the door and straight back into his car seat at an hour when he'd normally be wearing his breakfast and watching Elmo and Big Bird. After a solid half hour of Joe wailing and refusing to be placated by books or toys, we end up pulling off at a strip mall and Luka goes in and comes out fifteen minutes later with a portable DVD player and a stack of Sesame Street and Disney movies.
"We probably should have thought of that sooner," I point out as we get back onto the highway. Joe is happy and quiet in the back clutching the player and looking a little bit glassy-eyed. It's not that I like the idea of sticking my child in front of a screen to keep him quiet, but if I have to choose between that and ten hours of trying to keep him entertained on the road, this seems more humane for all involved.
"Think we can re-wrap it all for his birthday?"
I shrug a little. "I don't think he'll really care as long as he gets to rip the paper off of them." Especially if we shove everything in a box big enough for him to crawl inside. My son likes cheap thrills.
"We should try to go tomorrow to get his bed."
"Mmm." Joe's impending big boy bed is still not a subject I'm totally comfortable with – we agreed that it didn't make sense to move his crib to Boston when he'd need a new bed soon anyway, so we ended up donating it to the same women's shelter where the furniture from Luka's…whatever it was….went. They were beside themselves, which was great, but I still haven't really come to terms with it, myself. It feels too fast, I guess.
I thought for a minute or two there, when we were talking about it, that we were going to have to get into the whole issue of whether we should still have one around, just in case one wasn't actually enough, but I'm not sure it even occurred to Luka, which for whatever reason, I don't know, I guess confuses me. And stings just a little. I mean, I know he said one was enough, but for whatever reason I never really thought we'd officially made that final decision. And it's not that I necessarily want another baby, I guess part of me just needs to feel validated somehow by Luka wanting that with me.
All of which is, of course, completely screwed up. Still, though – I guess at some point we'll have to talk about it, considering it falls into the category of wants and fears and neuroses that don't do much good being buried. Right now, though, I'm trying to just work on actually talking to Luka about the things that are going on in the present, like Joe growing up at an alarming rate and moving to a new city and starting a new job.
"Promise me if he begs for a race car bed, you're not going to make me be the bad guy who says he can't have it."
"Why can't he have a race car bed?" I can see worry lines on Luka's face, like this is extremely troubling information.
"Uh…because they're ridiculous and completely impractical?"
"As long as he can sleep in it, how else is it supposed to be practical?"
I'm starting to get the impression he wants a racecar bed of his own. "He's two. Ideally, we can get him a bed that will last him for a long time. Like, with detachable rails, or something."
"To keep him from falling out in his sleep."
"He needs rails?"
I take the coffee cup from the center console and take a sip. "Yes. They make beds that are adjustable to grow with the child. It makes more sense than getting him a plastic toy to sleep in for two years before he outgrows it."
"He won't outgrow it."
"He's already tall for a preemie. Which means he takes after you. In two years, he'll probably be taller than me."
Luka rolls his eyes, but he reaches over and squeezes my knee. "I think you've got at least ten years before that happens."
"Okay, fine – no race car bed. We'll get him a practical bed with rails and adjustments and whatever else."
"It just makes more sense that way."
"Yeah, you're right. It's fine."
We drive in silence for a few minutes, except for the sounds coming from Joe's movie, and I sneak a look at Luka, who seems strangely…I don't know. Disappointed, maybe?
"Did you want to get him a race car bed?"
"No." He shrugs. "I just…I wanted to get him whichever bed he wanted."
It takes a minute to register what he's actually talking about, but I get it, finally – he wasn't there, last year, for Joe's birthday, and considering it's this weekend, the bed was going to be his present, something to make Joe happy. Something special.
"If he really wants a racecar bed…I guess it wouldn't be the worst thing." I rub Luka's shoulder a little, and he leans against my touch very slightly, like he knows I get it. "Sensible can wait."
"I've never been to a national park," Luka announces when we stop for lunch.
"It's not a national park. It's a state one." I take Joe out of his car seat and manage to pry the portable DVD player from his hand, despite his protests. "You can have it back after lunch, okay? We're going to have lunch now."
"Buzz," Joe counters.
"Buzz and Woody will be here after lunch. Park now. Come on, Froggie wants to look at the lake." I take the stuffed frog from where it was squished between Joe and the car seat. Poor thing was clearly deemed inferior to technology.
"Froggie?" Joe looks mildly interested.
"Yup. Froggie wants to go to the park." I hand him the toy.
"Okay," he concedes with a little sigh. Luka grins, clearly amused by the dramatics.
We follow signs to a picnic area, and Joe is clearly over Toy Story in favor of the wonder that is nature. "Peanut butter or tuna?" Luka asks Joe.
He shakes his head. "You can have chips after your sandwich. Do you want peanut butter or tuna fish?"
"Chips!" Joe squirms around in my arms and I set him down on the bench and raise an eyebrow at Luka, who should know better by now than to be offering a choice, since Joe will invariably choose the third, unapproved option.
He gives me a sheepish look in return and then unwraps a tuna sandwich. "Here. When you finish, you can have chips."
"Now chips!" Joe pushes the sandwich away.
"I think maybe you were right about those terrible twos," I inform Luka and take a peanut butter sandwich for myself.
"No kidding." He looks back at Joe. "Okay, I'm going to eat the tuna, and Mommy is going to eat the peanut butter. So no more sandwiches."
"Nope. We're going to eat the chips because we had our sandwiches." Luka takes a bite of tuna.
"All the chips," I add.
"Share chips?" Joe eyes me, like he knows I'm the weaker prey, more likely to cave.
"Nope. No sharing. Not unless you eat a sandwich."
I can see Luka struggling not to laugh, sort of hiding his smile behind his sandwich. "Nope."
Joe looks back and forth between us a few moments while we eat, like the little wheels are turning. Neither of us says anything for a few minutes, and eventually he tugs on the sleeve of my shirt. "Sandwich."
"Sandwich please." He looks a little defeated.
"Tuna or peanut butter?"
"Fishy please." 'Fishy' is Joe-speak for tuna fish. I glance at Luka, and he just grins.
Yeah. We've got this parenting thing down.
I'm really starting to feel it by the time we reach Albany – the exhaustion of driving fourteen hours on six hours of sleep, the monotony of the scenery, the stiffness of being in the same position for so long. Joe is blissfully asleep after an afternoon tantrum – not that I could blame him, I mean. Being a toddler and being stuck in a car this long has to be awful, and I was having serious regrets about this whole road trip idea, even if it is more practical in terms of getting the car and our basic necessities from Chicago to Boston.
Luka, for his part, is holding up better than either of us. He says something about being comfortable with it given his childhood riding trains, but I also think it's that he has a lot more patience when it comes to these things. The journey is the reward sort of stuff, I guess.
Right now, heading into hour ten of the day and hour three of being behind the wheel, I'm working at not holding that against him.
I glance over at him, sleeping with his mouth open, snoring just a little, and I can't really help smiling. He's really very cute when he sleeps. Or, okay, he's always cute, but when he sleeps, there's this sweet sort of quality that he exudes. Angelic, I guess. I assume that's where Joe gets it, because I've been told more than once, by more than one person, that sleep very fitfully and almost like I'm pissed off.
He shifts in his sleep, and I have this memory, of the first time I ever woke up next to him, after that night I went to his hotel room. It's one of those things I remember perfectly, not just the details, but the feeling, because I felt this very distinct and sort of jarring combination of absolute safety and terror at once, waking up with his arm draped over me. I think the terror part had something to do with how good it actually felt to be there, and I was not exactly a trusting individual back then and still sort of scorched Earth in the aftermath of the divorce. I think waking up and feeling a warm body next to me and actually feeling connected to him was disconcerting, because I wasn't expecting to feel something for him and I did.
Someone in the next lane honks, and Luka wakes up with a sort of grunt, and rubs his eyes before assessing me. "What?"
"What?" I counter.
"You have that look on your face."
He yawns. "Like…I don't know how to say it in English. Like you're remembering things."
"I have a look for that?"
"You have lots of looks," he murmurs.
I laugh a little. "Uh-huh."
"It's true." He touches my arm gently. "So was it a good one?"
"A good what?"
"Oh." I shrug, and for whatever reason I'm a little embarrassed. "Just…thinking about when we were first together."
"I was thinking about how it felt the first time I woke up next to you."
He smiles. "Good, I hope."
"Good." I glance at him. "A little scary."
"It was…I don't think I expected to feel the things I did. I hadn't felt them for anyone in a long time."
"Yeah." He looks down, and then back up at me, a little smile on his face. "I didn't, either."
"Plus…I mean…" I shrug. "I was also disconcerted by…you know…the sex."
He looks a little alarmed. "What? Why?"
"You…um…don't go getting an inflated ego or anything, but…certain things hadn't happened a while."
I roll my eyes. "Come on, Luka."
"I really don't…" He blinks. "Oh. Oh."
"Wait – you really hadn't…"
"Richard and I barely had sex the last year of our marriage, and when we did, it was not particularly enjoyable." Passionate, yes – there's was hell of a lot of passion derived from the anger both of us were hanging onto, but angry sex is not particularly conducive to pleasure, at least for me.
"I didn't…realize that."
"I didn't think it was something I should really announce."
He's quiet for a few minutes, and then glances at me expectantly. "What made you come that night?"
I give him a look. "Um, the usual things, I mean – "
He laughs. "Sorry, I meant…bad choice of words. I meant to my hotel."
"I was worried about you. I didn't know where you were, and I just…I wanted to make sure you were okay. I mean…I kept trying to call you, but you never answered. And you didn't show up for work, so I…was worried."
"Because…because I cared about you."
He shakes his head, and he has this look on his face like he almost doesn't believe me. "I thought…I figured you would be better off without me."
I sort of wish we weren't trapped in a car right now because this is one of those moments where it's difficult not to be able to kiss him. I take his hand, instead, and twine my fingers with his. "I wouldn't have been."
I'm asleep as we pull onto our street, and Luka wakes me gently. I look out the window, just trying to take it in. It has a weird sort of familiarity to it, even though I've only been here once, briefly, when we came here to look at places a few weeks ago. There are flowering trees on some of the lawns and nice cars in the driveways and a few houses have toys in the yard – it's all very suburban, and I feel almost like I should be creeped out by how Stepford it seems but I'm not.
Instead, it feels somehow…I guess almost peaceful, like shelter in a storm. Like part of me recognizes, on some level, that this is a fresh start, in a lot of ways. We're not burying the past, or trying to forget, but…something else. Moving forward, maybe. Like we're finally opening a new chapter, after trying so hard for so long to stay in the one we're familiar with. And even though I feel like I should be scared out of my mind, all I can think about is that I'm so overwhelmingly grateful to be here, with Luka and Joe.
We pull into the driveway – our driveway – and Luka reaches over and squeezes my hand. "We're here."
"Yeah," I murmur, and squeeze back. I look at it – our house – for a minute, just taking it in. I've never owned a house. It makes me feel grown up, in a weird way.
Eventually I look back to him. "I'll get Joe."
"No, I can…" He trails off, looking sort of lost.
It takes me a minute. "You're not carrying me over the threshold, Luka."
"How did you – "
"You had that look on your face like you wanted to do something silly and romantic. We're already married. I can walk."
"Yeah." He shrugs kind of sheepishly. "Okay, you're right."
We sit in silence a few moments, just absorbing it, that we're actually here. That this is home.
I remember the moment we walked into the apartment in Chicago with Joe, it just felt…I don't know how to describe it. Warm, comfortable, I guess – all the things that a home is supposed to feel like, except I hadn't felt that way before. It just felt…right, somehow. Like I was finally right where I wanted to be.
I look at the house in front of us and try to imagine it'll feel like that, soon.
I take off my seatbelt and lean across and he gets the picture and meets me halfway, kissing me back, one hand on my knee and the other in my hair. "Welcome home."
He leans his forehead against mine, his nose pressed against my cheek, and I can feel his eyelashes on my temple. "Welcome home, Abby."