A/N: Thank you to those who reviewed the last chapter; a pox upon your house if you did not.
West Wing fans - particularly Josh/Donna 'shippers - will recall the titular theme song of this chapter as the closing music to "King Corn," which is unequivocally the best episode of television produced in the past decade, from cinematography to sound editing. The Ryan Adams song in question was matched perfectly, shot-for-stanza, with the end sequence. I will cease gushing now. But any fan of ER ought to watch West Wing, as watching them both offers a very interesting window into John Wells' process.
Thanks to Essy for betaing. Please be advised that this chapter is meant as a contrast to the last chapter and therefore contains the opposite of fighting. It starts with the same letter, though.
Srdjan's oldest daughter, Sofija, gets married the first weekend of October, so Luka and I drive down to Connecticut while Joe stays over at Isabella's. I work myself into a complete wreck the night before, given that it's the first time we'll both be away from Joe, and Luka has to reassure me in about twenty-seven different ways that he's going to be fine and that he'll probably be delighted by the whole experience, since they're apparently going to the aquarium tomorrow. He also shoots down my concern that Joe will like it better at Isabella's, what with a day full of penguins and turtles, and promises that if that does happen, it's not as though we can't win him back with cake. I have nightmares about it anyway, and when we drop Joe off with Isaac and his husband Miles the next morning, I subtly mention that he shouldn't have too many sweets. At least, I think it's subtle. I catch Luka shaking his head a little and exchanging a glance with Isaac that suggests otherwise.
"What was that all about?" I demand as soon as we're in the car.
"What was what?"
"You and Isaac gave each other a look. And not the kind like when he's checking you out."
He looks over at me for a second. "He checks me out?"
"Oh, honestly, Luka. Anybody with a pulse checks you out." I don't actually think he's trying to make it out like he's humble or something, I really think he's that dense when it comes to how people behave around people that look like him. It's simultaneously cute and annoying. "What was the look?"
He shrugs. "You're a little neurotic. That's all."
"I am not."
"It's okay. I like that about you. It's sweet, actually."
I'm not reassured. I change the subject instead. "So, do you know Srdjan's daughter well?"
"Mmhmm." He's quiet a moment as we turn onto the highway. "I used to, actually. I haven't seen her since she was little."
I hear the tone in his voice – this slight trace of melancholy, something, and by now I know what it means, even if he's not aware that he has a tell. I wait a few minutes for him to elaborate. I don't want to drag it out of him, and I won't, not with things like this. I don't think I get to make demands or judgments about what the right thing is here.
He breaks the silence, finally. "Srdjan and Vesna used to live a street over from us, in Vukovar. Sofija and Jasna would play together, sometimes. Sofija was a couple years older, but they never really seemed to mind."
I reach over and slide my hand under his and lace our fingers together. He brings both our hands up to his mouth and kisses the back of mine, very gently. "Is it…" I trail off. "If it's hard for you…the wedding, I mean…just tell me, okay?"
"Yeah. But…I don't know. I was thinking about it, and as much as I wish Jasna were here, getting married, growing up…it will be nice, I think."
"What do you mean?"
"I can at least be there at this wedding. It's…I can have that picture, at least, of what it would have been like."
I keep wondering if hearing him say things like that will ever not be painful. I guess it's good that it is, because in some strange way it feels like every time I hurt for him, maybe it's a little pain he doesn't have to feel as much. I know that it has no logical bearing and I'm not big on the whole idea that prayer or compassion or karma or whatever else has much of a physical effect, but still – I'd rather feel it than not.
We go up to our room to change and shower as soon as we get to the hotel, and he lets me shower first since getting ready for him is basically running his fingers through his hair and putting on pants. I'm still just working on getting dressed when I hear the shower go off, and then about a minute later, footsteps.
I turn around to see Luka with a towel wrapped around his waist, looking at me sort of open-mouthed and stunned.
"I…don't think I've seen that dress on you before."
"We don't exactly go a lot of places that call for black tie."
He moves towards me. "I sort of figured…you'd wear a suit. You usually wear suits." He rests his hands on my hips. "Not that I don't like it, I just…"
I tilt my head up to look at him. "You're drooling." Which, admittedly, is the reaction I was going for when I decided not to wear a suit.
"I can't help it." He leans down and kisses me gently. "You're beautiful."
"I have to finish getting dressed." I push him away reluctantly. "You need a cold shower?"
He shakes his head and grins at me. "It's okay. I can wait."
Still, I can feel his eyes on me the entire time I'm getting ready, and I have to keep reminding myself to focus on what I'm doing – it's been a long time since it was like this. We still flirt, sometimes innocent, sometimes not, and it's not as though there's a lack of passion between us, but this, the attention, him making it known that he wants me…even times when we're interrupted by Joe or the phone or whatever else and things keep getting in the way of finishing what we've started, it's different. There's a sort of intimacy that I don't think I realized I missed this much, and knowing the whole time I'm putting my hair up that all he's thinking about is taking it down makes me a little…well, giddy. Every time I catch his eye, it brings me back to the night of Neela's wedding, and him driving me home, and how it felt like we were doing this balancing act. I kept thinking how much I wanted him to touch me, just make contact, but being terrified that if he did, the whole charade of friendship would be over in a second, and I thought that might have been how he felt, too, but I couldn't be sure and the thought of losing him completely seemed like too much of a risk. Although I guess in retrospect, there was an inevitability about that night, like no matter how much we tried to ignore it, it was going to happen.
We head down to where the ceremony is taking place and take our seats, and it's all very sweet and subdued – the groom is very cute, standing up front with this ridiculous grin that gets bigger every time one of his groomsmen takes their place next to him and claps him on the back. Even though they're young, I get the feeling that there's a lasting quality to the relationship, because I remember my first wedding and we both smiled enough, but nothing like that. And I remember my second one, and it wasn't quite as overt, but I can remember the look on Luka's face and there's something, looking at this groom, that's similar.
Everyone stands as Sofija starts coming down the aisle, Srdjan looking very much the proud father and at the same time, shooting glances at the groom as if to say, "you hurt her, I'll kill you." I feel Luka squeeze my hand and I look up at his face and see it, this sort of flash in his eyes, and I know that what he's seeing isn't Srdjan and Sofija, but himself walking Jasna down the aisle. I wait until we've sat back down and slide my arm around him, and he leans into me and looks at me, and he doesn't have to say it, but I know he's glad that we're here, together.
The reception is not quite as subdued. I mean, it starts off that way, but between the open bar and the live band and some impromptu folk dancing, things escalate pretty quickly. At one point I see Vesna dragging Katarina and what looks like a very chagrined teenage boy out of the ballroom by their wrists. I glance at Luka. "So this is how they party in Croatia, huh?"
He shrugs nonchalantly. "No. This is actually pretty quiet for us."
"Remind me never to let Joe out of my sight when we visit."
"I don't know – they get into trouble, but no more than over here."
"Says the man who stole a boat when he was a teenager."
He puts his head in his hands. "Srdjan told you?"
"He came over to say hello while you were in the bathroom. Somehow the subject of your bachelor party came up."
"We got married young," he says defensively. "And so…we had my bachelor party at a time when maybe we weren't the most mature. We brought it back in the morning."
"You mean after you all woke up drifting downriver?"
He shakes his head. "I'm going to kill him."
I laugh. "It's okay, Richard's sister planned mine. I think she forgot who she was doing it for, because I would not have picked the strip club as a venue of choice."
"You get a lap dance?" There's a glint in his eye.
"I honestly don't remember." I don't remember much of that night. Or the honeymoon. In all fairness, I'm not sure Richard did, either. There were an awful lot of drinks served in coconuts. "You know, I think the best part of the whole surprise wedding thing may have been that Neela never got a chance to throw me a party."
He stands up, grinning. "Come on. Dance with me."
I sigh but let him pull me up. "Just promise you won't dip me."
About thirty seconds after we get to the dance floor, the song changes, and I recognize the intro to "For Once In My Life." I peer up at Luka, who gives me an innocent look. "What?"
"Must be a coincidence." He pulls me closer, so that my chin brushes against his jacket as I crane my neck.
"Uh-huh." I'm close enough that I can feel his heartbeat. "You slip the band leader a twenty?"
He disentangles his hand from mine and brushes a lock of hair off of my face. "No." The corners of his mouth twitch.
"You gave him a fifty, didn't you?" He bites his lip and tilts his head down towards me. "So that's what, two, three songs?"
The kiss is probably a little inappropriate, in the middle of the dance floor at someone else's wedding, but I'm not all that concerned. He rests his forehead against mine. "You'll just have to keep dancing with me 'til you find out."
We leave the party a little before midnight. I ask Luka if he thinks we're being rude for leaving early, but he assures me that knowing Srdjan and his family, the party won't wrap up until dawn, and we're perfectly fine leaving when we do.
I think we're inside the room about four seconds – my hand is actually still resting on the lock – when Luka's hands are in my hair and I'm being walked backwards and up against a wall. He kisses me and I just sort of tense up, not out of a lack of enthusiasm, but because I wasn't really prepared. He pulls back, looking horrified. "I'm sorry, I didn't – "
"No." I reach up and let my hand rest on his jaw. "I'm not – this is good. I was just a little surprised."
He looks at me a little sheepishly, and then he slows down a little, kissing me gently and undoing my hair, and I realize it's the first time he hasn't actually asked permission, whether it's some sort of nonverbal hesitation or outright question, since Croatia.
It was after I'd arrived, on the drive to his brother's house, and I'd made my declaration that talking sooner than later was probably best - he hadn't really said much after that, and then, sort of out of nowhere, he announced that he didn't care.
"You - what?"
His eyes are on the road, still. "I don't care. I thought about it. A lot. Whatever happened - just, if you tell me you still love me and you want to be with me, that's enough. That's all that matters."
And of course, I'd said yes, that I did still love him and want to be with him, because it was true. I think I was sort of shell-shocked, though, given everything and how much he'd pushed for me to tell him, but it seemed like this was the best thing, if it was what he wanted. If it meant I could keep from hurting him more than I already had, that was what mattered. And I figured I'd handle it, what had happened, and put it behind me and he'd never have to know. It seemed easier for both of us, so I told him I was fine with that. And I was, sort of, but the longer we stayed in Croatia and the more looks Niko and everyone would give me, the guiltier I felt. Looking back, the fact that I managed to avoid drinking was a damn miracle. But I did everything I could to put forward the appearance of being fine, of being normal, and I guess I succeeded in fooling him, because about three weeks after I'd gotten there, he made a move on me. Which, I mean, was perfectly innocent and gentle and the fact that he'd waited that long said a lot, but the moment he touched me I sort of flinched, like instead of his hand on my waist, it was cold metal. I think he was too wrapped up in the fact that we hadn't been together in eight months to notice, though, and I tried with everything I had to fight the unease and to just be okay with what was happening.
"Abby." He keeps repeating my name, this sort of desperately sweet murmur that should have me melting in his arms, but instead, I'm just struggling to lose myself in the feeling – stop questioning, stop thinking, just focus on the way his fingers fee running through my hair. If I can just focus on something, anything that reminds me of how safe I used to feel in his arms, it'll all be okay. He's backing me closer to the bed and he starts undressing me, slowly, gently, but I feel exposed as my shirt comes off and it's strange, because I've never felt that way with him. He moves closer and I try to keep my own hands from shaking, taking off his shirt, fumbling with the buttons. I tell myself that if I can just give him this, make it through, then the barrier will be broken and I can stop being afraid. Except right now, if feels like I'll never really stop feeling that way, because the weight of his expectations and his wants feels like it's crushing me. I get the shirt off and press my nose to his chest, just trying to breathe him in. It's comforting, it's safe, and I've missed it so much, missed his smell beside me in bed, on the sheets, on my pillow. And I keep reminding myself that he'd never hurt me. Not in a million years. And to just breathe. He settles me back on the bed and his hand goes to my waist and I can't stop it, don't even realize it until he's pulled away, but I flinch, and he notices this time.
And in that moment I realize that when I did what I did that night, I gave something away that I can't get back. At least not yet. My body, my pride, my dignity, whatever it was, it's gone and now I realize that I can't do this, can't give Luka what he needs because it won't get better, it'll get worse. It'll just widen the wound, and every time my husband touches me I'll remember this, remember giving myself to him when I didn't really want to.
His eyes are on me, and I can see the shock and the confusion and even some anger in there. "Abby?"
"I can't do this." I grab at my shirt and make a lame attempt to cover myself. "I'm sorry, I just…it's not you, I just…I can't do this, Luka."
I don't realize I'm crying until he hands me a tissue, his weight creating a dip in the mattress. "You can't what?"
Breathing seems like a monumental task right now, and I try, but end up with a half-sob, half-cough. "I can't make love with you, Luka. Not now. Not like this."
"Like what?" His voice is low, almost wary.
"I thought I could, I just wanted to do what was easiest for you and I really did try, Luka, I honestly did because all I want is to keep from hurting you, but I can't…" It hits me then what the real problem is, and why I didn't get it before is a mystery, though maybe I was just trying to not see it. "I can't go back to the way we were. We need to talk, about a lot of things, things I maybe should have said a long time ago, and I need to be honest about everything that's happened because I need to know that you'll love me anyway."
I think that for all the pain that came out of it, from my inability to just let go and move on, it was right, and if I'd just tried to go along with it, at best, we would have eventually gotten back to a place where things were okay on the surface and we just buried everything that hurt. And at worst, I'd have relapsed. Whether it was a few days or a few months, I think if I'd tried to bury one more thing, and been with him when I wasn't ready, it would have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
Looking back, there's a part of me that's just a little proud for realizing that, and standing my ground. And there's a much bigger part that's grateful that I got the chance to find out that he did love me anyway, even if it took awhile for him to get past the hurt.
I reach up and stroke his jaw. "I love you."
"I love you, too." And then I'm up against the wall again. He reaches behind me to undo the zipper of my dress, and despite the fact that I should probably take care to hang it up, or at least not step all over it, I let it slide onto the floor and sort of shove it aside with my foot, and then make sure it has company in the form of Luka's pants and jacket. There's a lot of heavy breathing and tugging at clothes and it's lucky I'm pinned to the wall because if I weren't, I have the feeling I'd be dealing with a concussion. He lifts me up and I wrap my legs around his waist and he murmurs something in Croatian that sounds incredibly sexy, although he could be reading stock reports for all I know. I don't really care, though. I kiss him, and he shifts me between him and the wall and I just hold onto him and let everything else go.
It's hard and fast and even though it should probably be awkward given the logistics, it's not. It's perfect - what we both needed, I guess, or wanted. Or both. He's still holding me and I'm just sort of limp and letting him do the work of standing for the both of us, and I hear my voice come out a little bit hoarse. I don't recall screaming, but really, anything's possible. I wasn't particularly focused on anything besides Luka. "It's been awhile."
"Hmm?" He's breathing like he just finished a marathon, but I'm pretty sure we only got to the room a couple of minutes ago.
"Since we've done...this."
"You mean...against a wall?" Clearly, his brain isn't back to full speed yet.
I laugh. "I meant...seizing the moment, I guess."
"Hard to seize the moment when you've got a baby."
"Mmhmm." My eyes are still closed, and I have the urge to just curl up in his arms while he's holding me like this and go to sleep. The urge fades suddenly, in favor of a realization. "Wow."
"What?" I reluctantly let him set me on the floor.
"I didn't think about it...but this is the first time we've been alone since Joe was born."
He gives me a sidelong glance as he hangs my dress and his suit over the back of a chair. "Really?" He says it like he's fully aware of the fact.
"That's why you wanted to spend the night."
He shrugs, and slides his hand over my hip and around to the small of my back, pulling me up against him. I don't flinch. "I didn't think of it either until a few days ago."
"You could have given me a heads up, you know. I'd have brought nicer pajamas, at least."
"Or…you could just not wear any."
"There's a thought."
He kisses me again, and we fumble our way to the bed and he lays me down, and then there's a shift from that sort of desperation and need to seize the moment to just…being, I guess. He runs his fingertips down my ribcage and hips and I can feel his breath on my neck. Slowly – almost painstakingly so – he lets his mouth trace my jugular vein, across my clavicle and carotid artery, and I know he can feel my pulse racing, until he stops at the top of my sternum, barely touching me, but still it's such an electric feeling, being here, making love with him, because I was so terrified that everything that happened last year would be too much to get past, and we wouldn't ever get to this place.
His eyes are on me the whole time, and when we both come, clutching each other, he whispers to me in Croatian that he loves me, and it sends shivers up my spine because now I understand what he was saying to me every time he'd whisper it when we made love, what he couldn't say to me in English. "Volim te," I murmur.
We lie there, after, my head on his chest, his fingers stroking up and down my back, and it dawns on me that whether either of us intended it or realized it, this is kind of our honeymoon – it's not exactly Hawaii but it's us, alone, just being together and enjoying the kind of intense intimacy that most people imagine defines a honeymoon but most people probably never get. And maybe we'll still go away somewhere, but at least for me, this is enough, more than enough, really. I guess it's fitting that someone got married tonight, even if it wasn't us, and I'm not sure Luka realized what he was doing, exactly, when he had the band play Stevie Wonder, but it fits.
We always did make good use of other people's weddings.