Day 4: Dichotomy
Allison had never been foolish enough to think that her world would immediately right itself once she'd had her mind all to herself again. But she'd also never counted on her journey back to normalcy being so damn hard. That type of thinking had been foolish and uncharacteristically shortsighted she could now admit. But that moment of clarity, dragged kicking and screaming from the dark recesses of her psyche like a recalcitrant child, made her feel worse, not better.
Because nothing that she was doing seemed to be working. Despite the mental pep talks that had kept her awake long after she'd climbed into Jack's big, safe bed at night, the mostly unsuccessful attempts to stay busy during the day and the unflinching support of those who loved her, she felt as if she was on a merry-go-round. Like she was going around and around in endless circles, not able to stop long enough to get her bearings or to even take a proper breath.
As determined as she was to beat Beverly at her own game, deep down, she was terrified that in the end she would wind up the loser. And the thought of losing anything to that woman ever again made her stomach churn.
That was one of the things that she was having the most trouble reconciling. It was the thing that snuck into her dreams at night. The singular issue that made it hard for her to open up to Jack despite his concerted, well-meaning effort to get her to do so.
The threads of her life—as complicated and messy as they could sometimes be—were undoubtedly her own. But she'd learned the hard way that her control over it was tenuous at best. And completely non-existent at worse.
"Coming to bed?"
The deep voice broke into her troubled thoughts easily, as warm and comforting as the low flames dancing in the fireplace. She pulled her eyes away from their hypnotic, yellow-orange glow and shifted her gaze to the stairway. Dressed for bed in a pair of dark-blue pajama bottoms and a light-gray t-shirt, Jack was standing on the lower landing gazing down at her steadily. His blue gaze held equal measures of expectation and caution, and Allison couldn't blame him for his reticence.
After yesterday afternoon, after he'd so blithely brushed off her attempt to provide him with the same comfort and solace that he'd been so unselfishly bestowing on her these past few days, things between them had been a little…tense. The atmosphere hovering over last night's dinner and this morning's breakfast had been uncomfortably dark and brooding.
They had spent the long day carefully tiptoeing around each other, their normally easy camaraderie buried under stilted conversations about nothing even remotely important. Conversations that had been polite almost to the point of absurdity.
For tonight's evening meal they'd tried something different, however, spreading their dinner across the thick glass coffee table and allowing a baseball-themed movie to fill the void with the welcome babble of canned, digital voices.
That had been well over two hours ago.
And now, after disappearing upstairs shortly after they'd restored the living room to its usual pristine condition, here he was, trying to coax her to bed. His timing was impeccable, she thought with a small, wry smile, readjusting and tucking the soft charcoal-gray throw more snugly around her bent legs. He'd come looking for her just when she'd seriously begun to consider spending a solitary night on the large white couch.
"Not yet," Allison finally replied, rather proud of her ability to force a lightness into her tone that she definitely didn't feel.
"Do you have any idea when you'll be coming up?"
Although his face remained impressively neutral, she could hear the displeasure in his voice, see his discontent in action as he leaned against the railing in front of him and gripped it tightly. Her eyes shifted downward, not missing the way that the blood was quickly abandoning his long, lean fingers, leaving them as pale as moonlight as he squeezed the blond wood a little bit harder as he waited.
"No," she answered honestly with a small shake of her head, although in this case, she doubted she'd get any points for it. He didn't want honesty right now—he wanted to be placated. Instead, she picked up the thick paperback book that was propped open on the cushion beside her and held it aloft. "I'm going to stay up and read for a while."
Almost immediately, all pretenses of relaxed casualness disappeared from Jack's features as his face clearly broadcast his dissatisfaction. A deep groove—the one that only appeared when he was trying hard not to frown—had forged an unforgiving path between his eyebrows and his lips had flattened into a grim line.
His eyes jumped from her face to the paperback, slowly skimming the silvery-gray cover and gently broken spine before returning to her face. His knowing gaze lingered for a moment before flicking to the fireplace and then back again. "Read, huh?"
She felt her body tense as the realization that he had caught her daydreaming—though such a romantic-sounding word hardly described where her thoughts had just taken her—poured over her like a cold, unforgiving rain. But, really, she shouldn't have been surprised.
Jack rarely missed anything.
"Yes, Jack," she replied, letting a hint of the irritation that had begun to unfurl inside her sneak through. "Read."
He placed his hands on his hips—another sure sign of his own growing agitation. "Allie, you look exhausted." He paused then sighed heavily and continued, "You need to get some sleep. Some real sleep."
"And I will," she insisted, looking away. "In a little while."
She knew he was right, of course. Knew that her exhaustion was making her irritable and irrational and exceptionally hard to live with, but she wouldn't yield. She couldn't yield. There wasn't much she'd been able to control lately—her mind, her work, her dreams—but this…this was one of the few things that she had complete autonomy over and she clung to that scant bit of power with selfish determination.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him standing there, uncertain yet thoughtful as he processed an answer that she knew he'd fully expected, but was in no way happy with. Hands still resting on his trim hips, it was apparent that he was torn between going on to bed without her or staying and pushing his luck just a little further.
Allison wanted him to head off to bed, to leave her alone with her thoughts, but she knew this man. Probably better than she knew herself; and there was no way that he would leave her. Not when it was so obvious that she was suffering.
At that particular moment, it was a quality that she both loved and hated.
Finally, Jack shook his head, the gesture heavy with exasperation at her stubbornness. Stepping down into the living room, he crossed to the sofa on bare, silent feet.
"Allie," he said softly as he sank down onto the cushion next to her, angling his body to face her. His hand, tender and reassuring, lit on the gentle curve of her right knee. "Are you afraid that you'll have another nightmare?"
Chest tightening slightly at the mere mention of her recurring bad dreams, she almost laughed aloud at the question. Was she afraid? Hell, she was afraid of a lot of things lately, but she wasn't about to admit it. She wasn't about to give the dreaded fear even more power than it already had over her by letting it out of its carefully constructed cage.
At least not tonight.
She was being irrational—slightly paranoid even—but for right now, in this moment, at this time, it was the only way she knew how to cope.
Sighing quietly, she set the book back beside her thigh, amazed that the lightweight object could suddenly feel so heavy and cumbersome.
Absently, she ran her fingers over the smooth, glossy surface, the repetitive motion strangely calming as she gave Jack her eyes once more. "Jack, I know you mean well. But I really need to you to give me some space on this...okay?"
The flicker of hurt that flitted across his face was unmistakable, but it was gone so quickly that Allison would have missed it if she hadn't been studying him so intently.
"I'm fine, Jack," she interrupted before he could say anything more, involuntarily pulling back and wedging herself further into the corner of the sofa. She watched dispassionately as his hand slipped off of her knee and fell to the cushion between them.
In a cruel twist of irony that didn't escape her notice despite her frustration, she mentally cringed the second the words left her mouth. Jack had said that very thing to her just yesterday and she'd been left feeling cold and unsatisfied. But when presented with the opportunity to use them herself, she'd jumped at the chance without a second thought.
Or an ounce of guilt.
She'd lost count of how many times she'd said those words over the past few days—to Jack, to Kevin, her friends, Senator Wen. They'd become so automatic that they were spoken without thought or feeling or any real meaning.
Her original intent had simply been to ease everyone else's anxiety. To make them feel less uncomfortable and guilt-ridden about what had been done to her. But when she'd learned the amazing scope of their power, she'd wholeheartedly and selfishly embraced them. They'd become a shield against the rest of the world. Protecting her against pity, guarding against unwanted questions, heading off well-meaning platitudes before they could even be born.
But she'd found that they were slowly losing their clout. They were becoming weak and benign, sounding hollow even to her own ears. And judging by the continued souring of his expression, it was an assessment that Jack was in wholehearted agreement.
"You're fine," he repeated with a nod, his eyes aimed at a spot somewhere over her left shoulder. His voice was low, almost as if he was talking to himself; and when his eyes returned to hers again, they were as serious as she'd ever seen them. "To be honest, Allie, I'm not so sure about that."
It was his turn to cut her off. "When I came downstairs just now, you were in another world. Just…staring into the fire, not blinking or moving. You didn't even hear me call your name." He widened his eyes in emphasis. "You were just…gone. In a place where I couldn't reach you."
Not exactly sure what to say, Allison didn't immediately answer him. She knew that Jack meant well, that what she was currently going through was hurting him nearly as much as it was hurting her.
But the knowledge didn't make it any easier.
"Jack," she said quietly, speaking loudly enough for him to hear her, but only just. "What are you afraid of?"
"Excuse me?" His confusion was palpable. It was clear that her question had caught him off guard.
She hadn't intended to ask it, but now that she'd put it out there, it made all the sense in the world. It was one of the greatest mysteries in the universe to her, something that she'd always wanted to know, but had never worked up the nerve ask him.
"We're all afraid of something," she said, eyeing him carefully. "Just what is it that scares you?"
He hesitated for a beat before responding with a measured, "Plenty of things, I guess."
"Things like…?" she pressed when he didn't elaborate.
Jack shifted uncomfortably. "Well…I'm afraid that one day, some mad scientist at G.D. will finally figure out a way to blow Eureka off the map."
A small flame of irritation, hotter and brighter than any she'd felt so far tonight, flared up inside her. While she knew that the town's ultimate destruction was definitely one of Jack's long-standing worries—one that he never failed to remind her of every time some Global experiment went horribly awry—that wasn't the kind of fear she was talking about.
And he knew it.
Shaking her head, she chuffed out a humorless laugh. "It's not that easy, is it? To talk about your fears?" Holding his gaze, she leaned forward a little. "Your true fears? Your weaknesses? Your failures?"
His answer, this time, was immediate. "No…it's not."
"So then try to imagine what it's like when everyone around you is trying to get you to open up. Trying to get you to talk about something that you just want to stick in a box and shove into the farthest, darkest corner of your mind."
"I don't have to imagine; I've been there and it sucks."
"And yet, that's exactly what you're asking me to do."
Jack sighed. The sound was tired, but resolute. "Only because I know from personal experience that pretending that nothing is wrong is the worst possible thing you can do." He reached out hesitantly, his fingers lightly grazing the skin on the back of her hand where it rested in a small, balled fist on her knees. When she didn't pull away, he stroked his thumb gently over the smooth skin between her knuckles and continued, "And I know it won't be easy, but that's what I'm here for." His small smile was as tentative as his touch. "And I've always been told that I'm a great listener."
"But not so great at sharing…right?" Allison slid her hand from beneath his, bracing herself against the guilt that was blazing a hot trail from her head to her heart. As much as she hated it, her frustration—with Beverly, with Jack, with Senator Wen, hell…with herself—was winning out, and she couldn't seem to stop.
"That's not true," he protested, but his words lacked conviction. They both knew that he wasn't being completely honest.
With her or with himself.
When he remained silent, she shook her head and closed her eyes. She wasn't really surprised. As long as she'd known him, Jack had never been crazy about discussing his innermost feelings. It had taken four long years for him to finally admit how he felt about her, after all. And to this day, he'd never really let her see the depths of his grief after her very real—and nearly permanent—brush with death almost a year ago.
Oddly enough, his emotions were usually always so plain to see, his animated eyes, easy-to-read features and evocative body language giving him away every time. But he'd always been a pro at hiding his pain and anger, as if letting his two most base emotions see the light of day would somehow weaken him.
Allison knew that she hadn't been the most forthcoming person on the planet either over the years—hell, it had taken the hallucination of her best friend and his ex to admit that she was afraid of losing him—but she was well aware of her shortcomings and didn't hold any delusions on that front.
Jack, however, seemed to revel in his obvious state of denial.
"Allie," he finally said, his low voice sounding impossibly loud in the heavy quiet of the room, "I just want to help."
"I know, Jack, and I appreciate it. I really do." Her eyes slid over his face, silently pleading for him to understand. "But you can't fix this for me. Not this time."
He pressed his lips together tightly, but thankfully, instead of arguing further, he gave her a slow nod. "Okay," he agreed reluctantly, "but…I can't promise that I won't try again tomorrow."
And she did.
Because he wouldn't be the man that she'd fallen in love with otherwise.
A/N: This story is slow in coming, but I'm determined to finish it. Once again, thanks for all the reviews, favs and follows. And a special thanks to everyone for your saintly patience.
And yes, I have shortened my name. Rolls off the tongue a bit more easily, I think.