The house was empty.
She knew it instantly, the silent stillness pressing in on her from the moment she stepped through the door, a deafening quiet that sent a fresh chill through her shivering, rain-soaked body.
Pausing in the dim entryway, Julia bit her lip, suddenly uncertain. All she'd wanted was to get out of the rain— to get home, change, and wrap herself in a thick, soft blanket before curling up on the couch with the heater blazing and a hot coffee in her hands.
Now that she was here, though, she realized that she'd never imagined doing so alone.
"Barbie?" she called, the word echoing softly in the silence, giving her an answer she already knew.
He wasn't here.
Drawing in a brief, steadying breath, she tightened her grip on her keys, and then— without pausing to think or question her decision— she simply turned and stepped back out into the storm.
She found him on Lake Street, his already-familiar build instantly recognizable even through the pouring rain. She didn't expect the immediate sense of gladness and relief that coursed through her at the sight of him, her hand reflexively pressing down on the horn to catch his attention. As he slowed, half-turning toward her, she felt a sudden sense of impatience seize her, her body reacting before conscious thought could intercede.
Shifting into park, she yanked the handbrake and then climbed quickly from the car, scarcely noticing nor caring as the rain once again engulfed her, her attention focused on nothing but the figure ahead of her as she called his name.
Illuminated as he was in the headlights, she saw the immediate shift in his posture at her voice, the tense, ready stance instantly relaxing, his response causing an unexpected surge of warmth somewhere deep in her chest.
"I've been looking for you," she blurted honestly, suddenly realizing that she wanted him to know it, even if she didn't fully understand why. Moving swiftly across the puddle-strewn asphalt, she reached him in just a few quick steps, her eyes focused and assessing as she gave him a rapid once-over through the dim light.
"Yeah," he responded after a moment, a distracted, pensive quality to his tone that lit a tiny flicker of concern inside her, a feeling that was momentarily forgotten as his blue eyes lifted to lock with hers, swiftly searching her gaze as he returned the question. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she began quietly, then paused, pushing her damp hair back from her face as she released an unsteady breath. "It's— it's been a hell of a crazy day."
"I guess you could say everyone went a little crazy today," he agreed in a low voice, making her wonder just what had happened during the riot to cause the heaviness behind his words, her concern returning as she looked up into his somber face.
She wanted to comfort him. She wanted him to comfort her.
She wanted a lot of things she shouldn't want, but finally, she wasn't sure she cared.
For a fraction of a second she hesitated, tiny tendrils of indecision and uncertainty still curling in her gut— and then she simply gave in, letting out a slow breath and allowing all of her reservations to go with it. Stepping in close, she rested her head slowly against his shoulder, one arm slipping shyly around his waist, her fingers closing lightly around the back of his shirt. To her relief, he responded without hesitation, his arm circling her shoulders protectively, his touch warm and gentle as he cradled the back of her head, making her melt just a little more into his secure embrace.
For a few moments they simply held each other, slowly settling into this new connection, until her quiet words broke the silence between them.
"We're gonna be okay," she murmured, the tiniest hint of wonder in her tone as she realized that here— with her cheek pressed against his shoulder and his strong arms around her— she was actually beginning to believe it.
His only answer was to hold her just a little tighter, his chest rising and falling against hers in a steady, comforting rhythm. She couldn't believe how good it felt— how right it felt— to be in his arms, pressed close enough to feel his unsteady heartbeat falling into time with her own.
Maybe it was simply because she couldn't even remember what it was like to be held like this— she and Peter had barely touched in months, somehow having fallen into a lifestyle that was more like cohabiting friends than husband and wife. Not that it was Peter's fault, or hers, really; it had been happening slowly for so long that it was hardly a surprise that neither of them had even realized how much they had changed. Now that she actually looked, though, the proof was everywhere— even in the many photos of them scattered around the house, all from the earliest stages of their relationship, the happy, carefree images simply perpetuating a false truth that she'd willingly allowed herself to believe.
One that, just this morning, she had finally been forced to face.
She and Peter had ended a long time ago; they just hadn't noticed. She loved him still, of course, and likely always would in a way— but the truth was that she hadn't been in love with him for far longer than she'd ever realized.
It had taken her most of the day to recognize the inexplicable feeling that had accompanied the shock and hurt of his letter. It was only once she'd dropped Dodee back at the station and started heading home to meet Barbie that she'd realized what it was, a sudden lightness, an absence of the guilt that had previously lingered like a shadow in the back of her mind whenever Barbie had entered her thoughts.
She'd been relieved.
Her instant, yet carefully-ignored and unacknowledged attraction to Barbie had always seemed like a betrayal of Peter— regardless of how distant their marriage had become— and she had fought to keep it suppressed since the moment she had met him, standing there just yards from the dome that had imprisoned them all.
Now, though— in one sense at least— she was free.
Letting the liberating feeling flood through her, she grasped at a moment of courage, her eyes closing briefly as she slowly lifted her head, the gentle brush of his cheekbone against her temple sending tiny shivers across her skin. Her free hand reached out to curl tentatively around his, her head turning just slightly so that their lips were barely an inch apart.
For one hard beat of her heart, they seemed frozen in place, teetering on the edge; and then they were moving, coming together with an instinctive synchronicity as they closed the gap between them. His lips were warm and soft against hers, his hand closing around hers as he kissed her with a gentleness she had never expected. She felt his other hand pull away from where he had been cradling the back of her head, and immediately missed the contact— only to have it return a moment later, his thumb stroking her cheekbone as his fingers buried themselves in her damp locks, the warmth of his palm like fire against her skin as he deepened the kiss.
More than once since they'd met by the dome— in fact, far more often than she'd like to admit— she'd imagined what it would be like to kiss him, to give into the undeniable heat that sizzled between them, her mind usually conjuring visions of something hot and fast and hungry, with roaming hands and fierce, breathless need.
But this— all tenderness and quiet, earnest wanting, with gentle hands and sweet little caresses— this was beyond anything she'd ever imagined could exist between them, beyond any other kiss she could remember.
Overwhelmed by both the kiss and the strange sense of finality that accompanied it— as if there was going to be no turning back from the path she'd just set them on— she pulled back just slightly, resting her forehead against his as she drew in a slow, wavering breath. Seeming to be having a similar reaction, Barbie simply breathed with her, his thumb stroking gently back and forth across her cheek, a small trail of warmth wiping out the wet tracks left by the steadily falling rain.
After another silent moment, she slowly lifted her head, her eyes opening to lock with his. There was an emotion and intensity to his gaze that made her catch her breath, her skin suddenly burning hot despite the cool rain. Swallowing slightly, she gave his hand a small squeeze, her head tilting just a fraction to the side.
It shouldn't have surprised her that he understood her wordless question immediately, his head inclining in a tiny nod, his fingers tightening around hers as the two of them turned together toward the car, only releasing their grip once they reached the hood and were forced to part.
She'd left the car running, the roar of the storm muted to a dull rumble outside their small bubble of warmth. Neither bothered with seatbelts as she shifted into gear, easing forward slowly through the heavy downpour.
"Where are your things?" she asked after a moment, her words a low murmur, her eyes focused carefully ahead.
She could feel his eyes on her, his intent gaze seeming to pierce straight through her skin. "Still down in the factory."
Nodding slightly— she'd come to that conclusion herself— she wordlessly maneuvered them through the deserted, rubbish-strewn streets, her damp hands slick against the wheel, her mind a tangle of thoughts.
They'd driven for a minute in silence before the thought suddenly occurred to her that someone might be expecting him, that whoever he'd stayed with the night before might be concerned if he didn't return again tonight. Caught up in the thought, she reflexively asked the question that she'd spent much of the previous night wondering about, the words out before she could stop them.
"Where did you stay?"
"My car," he answered simply, and she darted a sharp glance at him, dismay and regret twisting in her gut. When she'd kicked him out the day before, she'd been furious— to be honest, more so with Peter than Barbie himself— but she'd done it assuming that he would find Joe or some other well-meaning resident to offer him a bed and something to eat, not that he would be left to sleep out in the cold, cramped up in an unheated car with no food or bedding.
Looking away quickly, Julia swallowed hard, her throat suddenly just a little tight. He'd noticed, however— his keen eyes yet again seeing more than she'd wanted him to— and reached out to her, his fingers light on her arm.
"Hey, it's okay. I've done it plenty of times before."
She nodded, but said nothing, her hand releasing the wheel to clasp his. She could feel his eyes still on her as he gently squeezed her hand, his thumb slowly trailing back and forth across her knuckles as she drove.
When they slowed to a halt out front of the cement factory a few minutes later, she found herself hesitating, her fingers unconsciously tightening around his as she looked towards the entrance. She had no valid reason to go inside, no way to justify joining him that wouldn't sound like the weak excuse to stay close to him that it was. Feeling ridiculous, she mentally shook herself, firmly telling herself that letting him out of her sight for two minutes was not going to erase this new connection between them, that he wasn't going to suddenly disappear just because she let go of his hand.
As if he could hear her thoughts— or perhaps he just knew her better than she realised— Barbie gave her hand a small squeeze, his voice quietly reassuring as his eyes found hers. "I'll be right back."
Giving him a brief nod that somehow managed to project a far greater sense of calm and confidence than she felt, she slipped her fingers from his grasp. "I'll be here."
She was almost certain she hadn't imagined the slight twitch of his fingers against hers as she pulled away, as if he'd had to fight the reflex to tighten his grip. She definitely didn't imagine the minute pause between him releasing her hand and opening the door, his movements fractionally delayed as if his body was rebelling against his mind. Drawing in a slow breath, she watched him climb from the car, the door closing almost completely behind him before suddenly he was opening it again, tiny droplets of water tracking down his skin as he leaned down to poke his head through the doorway.
"Did you want me to grab your wine while I'm down there?" he asked, just a hint of mischief playing on his eyes, and his words had their intended effect, a grin breaking across her face as some of the tension in her suddenly eased.
"Don't bother," she tossed back, "I'd rather not put my tastebuds through that again."
She saw Barbie's fleeting grin, her heart suddenly stumbling a little in her chest.
"Yeah, that's kinda what I thought," he replied, and then he was gone again, her fleeting sense of relaxed easiness disappearing as swiftly as it had come. Watching him jog through the rain and vanish into the depths of the factory, Julia flexed her hands on the wheel, blowing out a long, slow breath.
Suddenly feeling the need to move, to let out the restless energy that hummed through her body, she abruptly shifted the prius into park and climbed out into the rain for the second time that evening. Pacing the length of the car, she rubbed her arms, the rain seemingly doing nothing to cool the skin that still burned with the memory of Barbie's touch.
Remembering exactly how it had felt to kiss him, to be kissed by him, she felt her skin burn still hotter, her lips and fingertips tingling.
She couldn't understand how she could be so affected by him, how each touch they shared could feel so completely different from anything she'd ever experienced before. A tiny whisper at the back of her mind suggested an answer, but she determinedly blocked it out, refusing to even acknowledge the possibility. There was, however, one thing she did know; kissing him had opened a door inside her that she'd previously kept carefully locked and barred, and now she'd not only strode straight through but she'd slammed it hard behind her, each new touch they shared only sealing it more firmly shut.
Whatever they'd started, she knew there was no going back now.
A tiny, breathy laugh escaped her lips, the sound containing just a trace of panic, and she lifted her hands to her head, fingers sliding into her damp locks as the heels of her hands pressed hard against her temples, as if she could force the jumble of thoughts and feelings into order if only she held tightly enough.
How could something she wanted so much also terrify her so completely?
Releasing an unsteady breath, she forced herself to drop her hands, settling instead for folding her arms across her chest as she turned to lean against the trunk of the car, unwilling to let Barbie witness her having a minor breakdown.
Especially not one that centered around him.
When he emerged from the factory just moments later, she wasn't sure if she heard or simply felt his approach, her head instinctively turning toward him. She saw the flicker in his eyes at the sight of her waiting in the rain, a shifting mixture of surprise, concern, tenderness and heat that quickly settled into something steady and mild as he crossed the short distance to the car, his pack slung over one shoulder.
Straightening, she popped the trunk and stepped aside, her eyes roving over him almost hungrily, as if it had been hours and not scarcely two minutes since he'd disappeared inside.
Once he'd hefted the pack into the trunk, she pushed the lid closed, their eyes meeting through the falling rain. His gaze was even, unwavering, revealing no hint as to whether he was affected by the same storm of emotions that raged inside of her, or whether this change between them even meant the same thing to him as it did to her. Forcibly pushing the thought away— she really didn't want to think at all anymore— she silently moved past him, her fingers brushing against his arm in a brief, feather-light touch as she headed back around her side of the car and slipped smoothly into the driver's seat.
As soon as the door closed behind him, she slowly backed up and turned around, maneuvering carefully in the wet. Once they were safely back onto the road and headed for home, Barbie silently reached across to settle his palm lightly at the back of her neck, his thumb finding the knot at the base of her skull and massaging gently. Biting her lip at the flood of heat that rushed through her veins at his touch, Julia fought the urge to close her eyes, her hands tightening around the wheel as she forced herself to focus on the road.
It felt like an eternity later when they finally pulled into the driveway, Barbie's hand slowly drawing from her neck as she killed the engine, her skin suddenly cold without the gentle warmth of his palm. Pulling the trunk latch, she climbed out into the rain, waiting silently while he grabbed his pack and rounded the car to join her, the two of them walking together to the front door.
Unlocking it, she stepped through, then kicked off her soaked shoes as she waited for him to follow. Carefully re-locking the door, she turned to find him placing his recently-removed boots neatly beside her small heels, a small puddle forming where he stood. Smiling a little at the sight— even despite the nervous tension that curled in her stomach, the ever-increasing pounding of her heart— she moved silently to the stairs, knowing he would be right behind her. Bypassing her own bedroom, she headed instead into the room she already thought of as his, skirting the bed to turn on the small lamp on the nightstand.
Then, turning, she watched him place his pack carefully on the floor, his eyes never leaving hers. Rounding the end of the bed, she paused before him for just the briefest moment, trailing her fingers lightly against his arm before she continued past him, leaving him alone in the room without looking back.
While he'd made no move to stop her, she thought she'd heard just the smallest sigh follow her out of the room, causing another tiny smile to curve her lips. When she stepped back through the doorway just moments later with two thick towels in her hands, she found him standing just where she had left him; though now his eyes were downcast, his shoulders bowed, his whole body seeming defeated, drained.
He looked up swiftly as she entered, and for the briefest moment she saw his eyes flash, a complex fusion of quickly suppressed emotions. Swallowing slightly, she silently crossed the room to where he stood, her eyes still fixed on his as she held up a towel in one outstretched hand.
His fingers brushed gently across the back of her hand as he accepted the towel from her, a growing warmth in his eyes that caused a fresh flutter somewhere low in her belly. Drawing in a slow, steadying breath, she stepped just a little closer, pausing only for a split second before lifting her own towel to brush softly against his cheek and jaw, then continued down his neck to the collar of his shirt, her movements slow, tentative, only her tight grip on the towel hiding the tremor in her hands.
She saw the movement of his Adam's apple as he swallowed hard, a momentary trace of hesitancy in his movements as he raised his own towel, brushing the cloth gently against her forehead before replacing it a moment later with just the lightest press of his lips. Her eyelids fluttered, her body going still as he touched the towel carefully against her cheeks, her chin, her nose, his lips following in its wake to press gentle kisses to the newly-dried skin.
Forcing her eyes open, she met his steady gaze, then slowly drew her towel along the damp curve of his neck and up into his hair, her nails pressing into his scalp through the cloth as his kisses headed steadily downward, his mouth leaving a trail of warmth along the arch of her throat. After several silent moments, his lips lifted away from her skin, the half-formed protest that rose in her throat silenced by the gentle pressure of his hand at her shoulder. Understanding his intentions, she gave in, lowering her arms from his neck to turn around slowly in his grip, his chest now mere inches from her back, his warmth radiating through the space between them.
Carefully, gently, he placed the towel over her hair, his fingers pressing through the material to massage her scalp in slow, steady movements, causing a tiny, involuntary moan to escape her lips. After several long moments, he gently smoothed the towel down over her damp locks, gathering them to the side as he pressed his mouth to the exposed skin of her neck, his lips finding the sensitive spot just below the hollow of her ear. Her response was unthinking, instinctive; tilting her head, she all but offered herself up to him, the movement half-permission, half-plea. When his lips found her pulse point a moment later, she let out a shuddering breath, knowing he could feel the frenzied beat that raced beneath her skin.
Letting her eyes fall shut, she drew a slow breath, then slowly lifted trembling hands to tug at her jacket, shrugging off the damp garment in one careful motion. As it dropped to the floor beside their feet, she turned slowly to face him, her eyes opening to lock with his, their gazes holding in a silent moment of communication as they hovered on the edge.
And then she simply shifted forward, eliminating the space between them, her arms curling around his neck as she brought her lips to his. His arms came around her instinctively, naturally, as if he'd held her a hundred times before; one wrapped tightly around her waist, pulling her closer, while the other cradled her head in a way that was both gentle and firm, protecting her and claiming her at the same time. Giving herself over completely, she deepened the kiss, the taste and feel of him flooding her senses as he kissed her back hard, both of them slightly hurried, almost desperate, as if this was a moment they'd been wanting for years rather than days. Holding back the moan that threatened to spill from her mouth to his— she was on fire already, burning with his kiss, but god, she needed more— she slid her hands down his chest to fumble with the slick plastic of his buttons, a faint flicker of triumph flaring inside her as she managed to get them all free and push the sodden shirt back off his shoulders, the suddenly-exposed skin of his chest warm against her fingertips.
Reluctantly tearing herself from the kiss, she lowered her eyes to his broad, tanned chest, allowing herself to stare the way she had wanted to that very first night, this time embracing rather than quashing the tight curl of wanting in her gut. Feeling his unsteady breathing feathering against her hair, she leaned down just slightly, touching her lips to the small hollow at the base of his throat, his grip tightening briefly on her waist. Lifting her lips from his skin, she grasped her almost-forgotten towel in unsteady fingers, brushing it slowly across the firm expanse of his pecs before deliberately sliding it downward, skimming over his lean abdomen, feeling the muscles contract under her touch. As she reached the top of his jeans, she smoothly popped open the button, feeling him flinch as she slipped her fingers under the waistband and around to his back, dragging her nails lightly against his skin.
A low rumble vibrated in his chest, his words never making it to his lips as they once again covered hers, claiming her mouth in a way that was both passionate and possessive, a paradox of tenderness and fire that left her breathless. Releasing her waist, he slipped one hand between them to swiftly unhook the single button that fastened the front of her shirt, then slid his hand underneath, his palm hot even through her camisole. Reaching down to help him, she yanked at the shirt, impatient for the feel of his hands on her bare skin. Within moments her shirt had joined his on the floor, the camisole promptly following suit, leaving the dark lace of her bra exposed.
This time it was he who broke off the kiss, her small moan of protest going unheard as his eyes immediately fell to her chest, his grip tight and breathing ragged as he stared. Then, lowering his head, he traced his lips from the angle of her jaw to her collarbone, his mouth hot and wet against her shoulder. When she curled her arms once more around his neck, clinging to him, he simply reached down and lifted her against him, taking her full weight easily. Wrapping her legs tightly around his waist, Julia buried her fingers in his still-damp hair, her lips pressing against his forehead as he turned around, moving them over to the bed.
Despite the tension in his hard body, the urgency of his mouth on her skin, he handled her carefully, lowering her gently onto the duvet like she was something fragile and precious, a treasure that he couldn't believe he held. Sliding one jean-clad thigh between hers, he held his body steady above her, her back arching instinctively to meet him as his lips ventured lower, mapping her skin with a tenderness and care that left her trembling.
Biting her lip, she held back a moan as one callused palm slid across her stomach and up across her ribs, slipping underneath her back to unclasp her bra with long, deft fingers. Within moments the lacy fabric was gone, his mouth already intent on warming the newly-exposed skin. This time her moan would not be suppressed, her fingers tightening their grip on his hair as she arched against him, her chest heaving with ragged breaths.
As if sensing her need, Barbie lifted his head, his lips capturing hers in a heated kiss that stole her breath. Digging her nails into his muscled shoulder, she kissed him back hungrily, her other hand running from his chest to his abdomen before reaching for the zipper of his jeans.
At her touch, he tensed, his lips tearing briefly from hers, his breathing shallow.
"Julia," he panted, a question he didn't seem to know how to phrase.
"Yes," she whispered harshly, her lips finding his earlobe, his jaw, his throat. "Yes, I'm sure."
For a moment he was still, his eyes clenched shut, his body taut with carefully restrained need. Then, his eyes opened, blue and intense as they met and held hers. Lifting one hand, he cupped her face— and somehow they both seemed to settle slightly, his gaze softening before his lips lowered once more to hers, kissing her gently, carefully, their previous rushed pace slowly subsiding into something sweeter, more real.
When he pulled away a moment later, she let him go, her eyes watching his every movement as he slowly straightened, his broad, muscled frame looming over her, his hands lingering for a moment at her hips before she gave him the slightest of nods. His eyes never leaving hers, he carefully unbuttoned her jeans, his hands gentle as he slowly slipped the damp fabric down over her thighs and calves, leaving her in only a small pair of dark lace panties.
For a moment she felt exposed, vulnerable, a frisson of fear spreading through her veins— until she saw understanding and tiny hint of apprehension lingering behind his own eyes, felt the tenderness with which he pressed a small kiss to the bare skin of her ankle. Feeling a tiny smile form on her lips, she lifted herself on her elbows, then tilted her head, glancing pointedly to his jeans before flicking her gaze back up to meet his.
His breath escaped in a small huff, a sweet almost-laugh that made her grin. Shooting her a wry look, he obediently unzipped his jeans and carefully stepped out of them, revealing a very tight pair of dark-gray briefs. Shifting slightly, she held out a hand to him, and he came without hesitation, his lips finding hers instantly as his body settled once more above her. For a fleeting moment, she smiled against his lips, then parted them, steadily deepening the kiss as his hand drifted down her side to her waist, fingers curling in the waistband of her panties.
It was then, with his lips covering hers and her body pressed tightly against his, that she felt it; it was then that she finally just knew.
Whatever this was— whatever was between them— it wasn't just a product of circumstances, or convenience, or simple attraction.
It was real.
And as the storm outside continued to rage, the storm that had roiled within her finally fell silent.
Thanks for reading!