AUTHOR'S NOTE: I felt so bad for taking an inordinate amount of time for such a short chapter, so please have this one! More notes are at the very end :)
The phone rings.
Kirsten sits on the edge of her bed. Fingers sink into the fabric either side of her body, toes barely scraping the floor, and she leans forwards, eyes peaking next to a curtain of lank, lifeless hair. Dry lips scrape against teeth that pull them inwards, then sink, ripping at skin until she tastes copper in her mouth.
The phone continues to ring.
As she blinks a single tear breaks away from the corners of her eyes, trailing downwards slowly, tauntingly, tearing open her skin as it does. Not a sound ripples out of her closed throat, none to match the grating of the phone that goes on and on and on.
The answerphone blinks, and as soon as Sandy's voice begins to play Kirsten runs from the room.
Seth's music has stopped; whilst unaware of just how long she has been sat, watching the wall and counting the cracks in the paintwork (just three), she had not heard the boys leave – now, however, though she presses against the wall in the hallway and looks outwards across the living space to the back garden, at the sun that has set and moonlight that blazes through glass panels, she realizes that it must have been time enough for them to disperse. That Ryan must have accomplished something Kirsten did not would ordinarily bother her – she is his mother, failure that label has bestowed one way or the other – but now it provides her solace. A small, brief flicker, the beginning of a flame on a damp and desperate campfire in the midst of a lowly wood – and against the ringing of the phone, and the tones of Sandy's voice, Kirsten forces herself to smile.
Pulled out of her fractured train of thought, Kirsten steadies herself, eyes narrowing as she peers around the corner and steadily approaches. The voice is muffled but clear enough decibels break through the sturdy wooden frame and it does not take her a second to figure out just who the voice belongs to as she gets ever closer.
"I know you're in there!"
Nausea swells, and her stomach churns and even as she leans against the handle and pulls it open she thinks, blindly, stupidly, that it isn't the voice whose body it belongs.
"Julie, what are you doing here?"
Her friend's bright red grin stretches an impossible mile across her face; hair almost immaculate, chin raised, a perfect painting of an imperfect woman, yet she strides past Kirsten with an air of righteousness only Julie Cooper-Nichol can possess. Her voice rings out an immiscible force; there have been countless hours, particularly of late and most certainly earlier on this afternoon, where Kirsten had wished she could drown it out – but it was a fact as blatant as any scientific knowledge that one did not simply ignore Julie Cooper-Nichol, particularly when said aforementioned individual had something to say.
"I've come to keep you company – and don't you go throwing me out, I've ordered food – something you can eat, thank you very much. I'm not so old that I haven't entirely forgotten what it's like to be pregnant." Julie's eyes gloss over and Kirsten instinctively folds her arms across her chest – brandishing such an action that does absolutely nothing to hide the small swell of her stomach.
"That's very kind of you Julie," she pauses – and it is kind. "But I'm really not hungry."
She is hungry, but it is not for anything sustainable.
Julie rolls her eyes, somehow managing to keep that perfect imperfect grin perfectly level, yet at the same time absolutely radiate ripples of empathy and warmth. "You don't have to pretend to me." She waits until Kirsten begrudgingly closes the front door, hesitates to walk into the kitchen until the click echoes through the entryway, until she turns, her voice substantially lower. "I know I'm not the easiest person to be friends with – and I haven't always had your back. I'm not going to let you go through this alone, Kiki."
It isn't the name that causes the tears – Kirsten loathes it, and it doesn't matter how little or how often she tells either her Dad or now Julie that she is not a pet to be labelled with a nickname that belongs in a child's candy store. They still give it. It is not even the fact that Julie, for once, has thought of someone else's needs, has considered that they just might matter a little more than her own. It is the fact that Julie, for all her wrongs, is doing something right – and not just because it is the right thing to do, but because she clearly wants to.
Tears spill and Kirsten sucks in a sharp breath. She sees Julie's head incline clearly to the side before her friend crosses the empty space in a matter of seconds and wraps her arms around her. "Come on, Kiki. I hear one of your sons has a spectacular DVD collection. Surely there's some God-awful rubbish we can watch whilst we eat." Hands rub her back, and she inhales sharply once more; the air cuts against her windpipe, and as she tries to swallow it pushes out another wave of tears that fall silently into her friend's shoulder.
A few moments pass before Kirsten eases herself away. Julie plants both hands on Kirsten's shoulders, lips pressed downwards. "I know you can't eat sushi, which is really all anyone seems to eat around here. I ordered pizza – seemed like a safe bet, and it's been a while. Cal doesn't like that kind of takeout. Ah –" Julie's hands fall as the doorbell rings. "I ordered before I left. Let me go grab it, and you make yourself comfortable, alright Kiki?"
Kirsten does not have time to respond before Julie vanishes, purse firmly in hand. She blinks unsteadily, a few winks enough until she hears the door open, until she follows Julie's instructions and settles herself on the sofa. Julie's intentions are so wholesome, Kirsten doesn't have the heart to tell her that pizza was not a safe bet in the slightest; pizza was Sandy's thing, their thing, the food that brought them together, along with bad wine and a disastrous taste in classic cinema. She sinks into the cushions as the remote shakes in her palms, beaded heavily with sweat – and though the memory tears down her defences as if they were nothing but a wet paper towel, congealing and gathering into a lumpy, solid mass at the pit of her stomach, it also infuriates her. That Sandy has chosen to neglect not only his marriage but his children, his life, but more than that – his memories. Twenty years of a life built from the ground up, and now he was taking those twenty years away, poisoning everything that ever makes her think of him – intoxicating wine, pizza, bad movies, poor haircuts, broken mail trucks. Was it fair of him to take those things and leave her in the ruins of a broken, abandoned city? A desolate wasteland with nothing but torn pictures and ripped paintings and memories that evaporate into dust?
Perhaps Julie was not at all wrong. Perhaps she needs this, needs to try and eat something to make new memories out of it. To consider the life she protects within her body (and, because, of all the damn things that could be appealing, pizza is something she desperately craves).
"Here we are!" Julie's heels are easily heard before her voice, but it isn't difficult to best that. Kirsten adjusts herself, fixes her weight so she is not seemingly melding into the fabric of the couch, and takes the boxes from Julie's outstretched arms. "I'll go pour us some drinks – what do you fancy?"
"There's some ginger ale in the refrigerator." She was about to say: unless Sandy has drunk it all, but stops herself, concludes the sentence with a grateful smile, and pries open the box as it slides onto the coffee table. Julie re-joins her swiftly, placing both filled glasses down either side of the box. "I really don't know about Seth's DVD collection."
"Yes, Marissa has mentioned on a few occasions he is particularly – mindful of it."
"Possessive, seems to be the word you're looking for."
Laughing feels good. She isn't quite sure why she feels guilt for doing so.
"Well, there are lots of – superhero? Films. One about zombies… I think Marissa mentioned this one to me once. Looks pretty fun?" Julie waves a red box around and Kirsten grimaces at the first mouthful of pizza.
"We'll go with that one." Shaun of the Dead. Not truly her film of choice, but perhaps that was something else that was needed – that Julie coming over was not what she would have chosen, but in the short, intrusive (admittedly for the best) time her friend had occupied every available space in the room with her sheer presence, Kirsten had almost felt a swell of comfort at the kindness afforded to her when she so desperately needed but did not wish to ask for it.
She almost forgets – as the film begins and Julie begins to talk endlessly about her plans for the Newport Group – about Sandy, about how he should have been home but wasn't, about the realization that he was undeniably somewhere with Rebecca, shielding her from hurt; she almost forgets about the rain as it picks up traction, as the speed of the downfall increases monstrously, as it batters against the windows; she almost forgets about the absence of her sons – though she has long since accepted that Seth is growing up and that Ryan can and will take care of him.
She almost forgets the hurt as Julie leaves with another embrace, another promise to call and see you tomorrow. Almost forgets her intrusion into Seth's DVD collection as he and Ryan return home and the movie is long since replaced back on the shelf – that it is so bewildering such luck should befall her, even though the grandeur of the disagreement would be little more than Seth saying that they should have watched that one first.
She almost forgets the empty room, even as she climbs into bed, as she wraps the covers around her.
Almost forgets – until she sees the blinking of the answerphone message, and, stupidly, foolishly, reaches out to press play.
"Kirsten, honey – it's me. I'm so sorry I can't be there tonight. The road closed up with flooding and it wasn't safe to travel off-road either. You know I would do anything to be back with you tonight. I'm staying in a hotel, but I'm fine. I'm so sorry, my love. I wish you were there so I could hear your voice. I promise I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."
She almost forgets who he is with until he says: I'm staying in a hotel.
Because he isn't staying there alone.
When she no longer forgets, even the covers can't help steady her tears.
The phone rings long after Kirsten wakes. She has been out of bed once, to throw up what feels like the entirety of the pizza when enough time has passed for it to digest comfortably in her body. Unable to persuade herself to shower, to even dress, she found her way back to bed, though the significant emptiness on the other side weighted more than the press of another body, and she remains stagnant, eyes fixating on the picture, of herself and Sandy with their arms around one another and the smiles not even a storm could break.
As if by sheer will, the phone rings again. The rain is harder outside than it was yesterday, and it almost drowns out the echo, though it is entirely plausible her own deniability in the phone even ringing for Sandy's return has made her so accustomed that it is nothing more than white noise.
Tentatively, Kirsten reaches out. Her hand is already thick with sweat and she swallows as she answers, pushing the phone against her ear. "Hello."
She hesitates, eyes closing as tears openly flow downwards. "… Hi." She won't give away her tears. Clearly, Sandy no longer knows who his wife is.
"I tried ringing you last night."
A few times. One message.
"I know – I uh… I got your message, but I passed out pretty early. It was a long day at the office." Except she hadn't needed to work at all, but would he know that? Would he be able to sense her lie?
Sandy answers almost immediately, yet she hears the slight edge to his tone that feels ashamed. Is it possible? Possible he feels shame? "Oh, well – I was hoping that the rain would have stopped by now, and then they said the road had opened up, but –"
"Right," she responds, a breathless laugh – and it is amusing, and it is clever, isn't it? "The conveniently washed out road."
A silence fills the air between them, wedges the distance farther apart, thickens the wall that builds between them both.
"Believe me when I tell you," it is the first time he seems assertive, not avoiding, not ashamed – the first time in the last few days that he seems anything but determined to keep to his word. "I'm walkin' home if I have to."
Kirsten opens her eyes; vision blurs and she blinks away the shaky residue of tears, blinks until the picture of them both steadily forms, like an image slowly rising to the surface of an ocean.
"Just get home," she pleads, and her voice breaks; there is a crackle in her endurance disguised only through a timely placed swallow. "One way or the other."
She hears him sigh. More silence. More nothingness.
"I'll see you soon."
As she hangs up, Kirsten forces herself out of bed once more. There is a heavy clatter from downstairs, a crash and something that sounds horrendously like something smacking against a hard surface. Ordinarily, a team of two, Kirsten and Sandy would almost teleport to the source of the noise – but now she uses it as motivation, to push herself up and to her feet. To shower, to dress, to be normal and put together and not as if she wishes to bury herself in the covers, to throw up even though there is nothing to throw up.
When she eventually makes it downstairs, she finds Seth and Ryan sitting on a sailboat, and she pauses, mid-step, and cannot help but to smile – swiftly hiding it behind a stern look of reapproval. "I'm not going to ask why there is a boat in my living room."
"It's an objective correlative, mother – I'm getting Summer back."
"His grand gesture." Ryan chimes in, though he looks about as out of place as the boat does. Kirsten shakes her head, eyebrows raised – though she should demand they move it, there is untameable gratitude that laces every syllable that falls from her mouth. They are, in every wrong way, making her feel a little more right.
"Ah… right. Well," she turns more to Ryan – and she realizes, then, perhaps full of shame herself, that her adopted son's relationship with her sister isn't as terrible as she first conceived. That she needs to make this right, too, if she is going to go through the pregnancy alone. "Lyndsay called as I got out of the shower. The test results are in; she wants us to go with her."
Kirsten thinks it is an awkward journey; Ryan offers to drive, and that would have been sensible given how she feels the need to pull over every five seconds and be sick – but that awkwardness pales in comparison to that which awaits them in the waiting room. Lyndsay sits precariously on the edge of her chair, shifting, imbalanced, and Renée looks brazenly into her lap and back at anything that isn't Caleb or her daughter. The aforementioned business mogul looks accosted to even be here, whilst Kirsten settles herself, smiling warmly and outwardly but undeniably not inwardly. Thankfully, as she grasps and swallows slowly, hiding another uncomfortable wave behind a small gulp of water, the focus is elsewhere.
A few further awkward exchanges pass; short sentences follow even shorter glances and Kirsten watches Lyndsay retreat inwards, her eyes welling.
"Lyndsay, no matter what happens here, you will always be a part of this family."
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Caleb responds, his first comment that does not seem to depend on what someone else can offer as a topic of conversation.
The Doctor enters not a moment later, and everyone rises to their feet. As the results are read, a wave of relief washes across the room; it's hard to miss, as Kirsten smiles and Caleb beelines for his proven daughter. Illegitimacy does not seem to factor; she catches the line and holds the door open as they slowly disperse into the hallway.
Ryan gravitates towards Lyndsay, and Kirsten finds herself wrapped in another embrace – this time from her father. "Thank you for having lunch with me yesterday Kiki. I hope you're feeling a little better. We should celebrate – properly when you do." A pause, as his eyes drift upwards towards Lyndsay. "We'll arrange something. Or perhaps I could ask you to?"
Kirsten nods assuredly. "We'll figure something out, Dad."
The goodbye is less awkward in the parking lot than it was in the room, and as the door closes to the car Ryan once again offers to drive back.
"It's alright but thank you. Are you sure you want to come back with me?" They should have had this conversation sooner, she realises, now that they are speaking about it without explicitly stating the elephant in the room. Dancing around an issue as to not permeate the air with anymore awkwardness, that they have had their fill of that already for one day.
"Yeah – I think I'll let her go back, go and see her a bit later. She said she still had packing to do and I don't want to overwhelm her."
"You're growing up too fast, Ryan." Kirsten smiles as she starts the car. "It's a good thing. You've come a long way."
When they return home, a familiar song drifts from upstairs, and Kirsten turns to Ryan with a weathered look on her face.
"I'll handle it," Ryan smiles lopsidedly before he takes off, and Kirsten leans back against the closed door.
Kirsten exhales deeply as the footsteps rescued enough that they vanish. She removes her jacket and hangs it up before entering the kitchen, where the phone waits, blinking at her from the holster on the wall.
Instead of pressing play immediately, Kirsten brings the phone to her ear and listens as Sandy's voice filters through the plastic.
"Hey, honey. I've just left and I'm on my way home. I'll see you really soon, I promise. I love you."
Her eyes close and something swells in her chest. Kirsten replaces the phone back and opens her eyes only to be greeted by a further, thicker blur, which she hastily wipes away with a brush of the back of her hand. Shaky, tentative hands reach for a glass and another bottle of ginger ale – just about the only thing she can safely keep down – and she pours it, watching, as the liquid slowly fills the contents of the glass, the bottle emptying just as fast. He had called an hour ago – perhaps he was almost home? Nearly here? Should she get some food in, some –
Kirsten swallows her mouthful and straightens her shoulders. She inhales as much air as her lungs will fill before expelling it in a heavy sigh, until every inch of her lungs is empty, until she fills them again, this time steadily, gradually, taking her time. She does not need to provide comfort for him. Sandy has said enough times everything she has wanted to hear and more – so what has happened to make him be this way, now? When she was crying out for him to leave Rebecca alone and he did not, why listen now? Why at this moment, when the Heavens were opening? What did he do?
She leans against the kitchen counter, facing out towards the back garden. Rain beats furiously against the window and she wonders, briefly, if the pool will fill up enough to wash them all away. Ryan passes her briefly on his way to the pool house – she has asked him, with Sandy once, if he would like a room in the main house, because she doesn't want him to feel as if he is a mere accessory to the family – but he insists it's fine. A look pauses between the two and Kirsten gives a sad smile of acknowledgment.
"I tried. He's wallowing." It's an apology that isn't needed. Kirsten laughs a little breathlessly.
"He'll be alright."
"Yeah, hopefully. I'm going to – well, attempt to hide out for a bit." Ryan ducks out and the sound of biblical rain briefly fills the kitchen until the door closes, quickly shutting it off. When Kirsten eventually moves, she feels damp lines tracing towards her jawline and wonders whether or not Ryan noticed and, if he did, if he simply chose not to say anything.
The ringing of the phone wakes Kirsten. Unlike before, where she was already staring at the picture of herself and Sandy, the sound jostles her violently awake. Eyes snap, blurry, and before she reaches for the phone she searches for the time; late evening glares back at her, but with the rain as fierce as it is, how was she to tell?
Fingers grasp the phone and pull it towards her ear. She prepares herself, then, one hand moving instinctively over the swell of her stomach – prepares for him to tell her that something else has gone wrong.
"Kirsten! Oh, I'm so glad you picked up."
She says nothing, eyes closing, and tugs her lower lip between her teeth.
"I had a small accident – skidded off the road, but I'm fine, and I'm on the bus, and I'll be there in an hour."
Fear turns to apprehension – a different sort of terror, that shoots like wildfire through her veins. Fear that something could have happened to him, but instead of that being placed by relief that he is okay, that he has not been harmed, in its place stills nervousness; like water steadily turning to ice.
Sandy took the bus. He is coming home.
He says he loves her and she stares at the picture, as if silence will answer for her. It is everything she has wanted to hear in the past few weeks, all bundled together. It is everything she needs, but all too late.
As she makes it to the hallway, Boyz II Men continues to blare down. Ryan is pulling over another hoodie – if anything, as she smiles at him, Kirsten vows to actually purchase proper weather gear for this single eventuality.
"Do you need a lift?"
She realizes quite suddenly that for the majority of the journey she has been on autopilot. Ryan clearly was unnerved to speak and Kirsten was not fairing much better, and with the rain as torrential as it is, it takes every amount of concentration that is not the merely recycled instinct to keep an eye on the road in front.
At least I brought an umbrella.
Her mobile rings as she steps out of the car and opens the umbrella; Kirsten glances briefly at the caller ID; Julie, staying true to her word, but she pushes the phone away. The sickness in her stomach and rising fast to her throat has nothing to do with pregnancy; it climbs, like dipping into ice water, from the tips of her toes as she locks the car, creeping up her legs, her fingers that curl around and hold the umbrella steady against her chest, clings to her eyelashes and, for the first time, stops further tears from joining the brief splatters of rain that catch against her skin.
Kirsten's heart lodges firmly in her throat; suddenly, the open parking lot seems a lot smaller, a lot more confined. She braces her shoulders against walls that do not exist, yet she fully expects them to, fully anticipates and feels them closing in around her as breath leaves her lungs faster than she can keep it there. Faster than she can fill them to capacity and exhale, deeply, properly.
The rumble of the bus reaches her long before she sees the headlights on the rounding corner. It's a surprise, too, that falls in slow motion, as she stares upwards and sees her husband peering out the window. Their eyes catch and she has to hold herself, fingers curling in her coat pocket; resists to hold her new life protectively against whatever awaits her.
He is alone.
Sandy coming closer doesn't make it any better; doesn't stop the walls from closing or the tingling in her fingertips and the waves and waves of nausea that have absolutely nothing to do with the baby. He stops, a little bleary-eyed but glistening with warmth, and she wants to embrace it – oh she needs it, but she needed it then and he didn't want to give, so why does he want to now? What has he done?
"You took the bus." Kirsten says, eventually, because no-one else was filling the silence and there wasn't anything else to say. She was too frightened to ask.
"I told you. Nothing is keeping me from you." Sandy doesn't seem guilty in the sense of someone having had an affair – but, as she has realised, quite alarmingly and humiliatingly, she does not know her husband at all. Not anymore.
Kirsten's breath catches and lodges and tears form and she is – for the very first time – grateful that the rain is as heavy as it is.
(Does he know her enough to see it?)
"Is it over?"
"I promise you – it never started."
He seems so sure. Is he sure? Is it real? Sandy begins to close the space between them and Kirsten swallows, the walls still pressing inwards and the weight on her chest crushing. He hesitates, and she doesn't move, does not dare to shift any closer.
Sandy comes to her.
His lips are tentative, soft, drenched with wet from the rain yet gentle. His eyes flicker open to hers as he brushes gently, almost asking, asking her permission.
Kirsten crumbles a little, then. She wants to badly to believe him that she willingly ignores the wedge driven firmly between them both. The hand not holding the umbrella securely over their heads reaches around his shoulders as she instigates another kiss, a little fiercer, a little more desperate.
The kiss that was meant to solve everything only makes her want to cry even more.
AUTHOR'S NOTE (2): Thank you for reading this absolute monster of a chapter! This scene makes me cry every. single. time and I do not see that changing anytime soon.
I do need to thank a few people I was not able to message:
My guest reviewers: thank you so much! I was fearful this fandom, in particular, was a little quiet on the fanfic side, but I haven't been able to get this idea out of my head in quite a while. I believe one of you reviewed the first two chapters one after the other, so I think you are the same person! Even so, I massively appreciate your reviews! It truly motivates me to keep writing (even though I would/will anyway).
Sandra - I almost cried when I read your comment; I feel so blessed that you think this is an excellent fic already. I adore our little "moral center of the universe" couple; I wish the writers had given them more screentime, particularly towards the end. Time to fix that! I plan to keep writing; this is planned out as a hefty novel-length saga, and we are barely out of the front door yet!
I'm not quite done torturing poor Kirsten. It breaks my heart to see her so sad, but ugh, that kiss in the rain.