hi everyone. i found myself longing for some angsty, also kinda fluffy stuff and i wanted to finally sit down and contribute something to the - rather small - if/then community so... here i am and here it is. any line you may remember from the musical is absolutely intentionally there bc this is 100% canon. i raised the bar to high T/light M for the first time EVER so be nice lol. would love to read your thoughts on this so feel free to leave a review.
i hope you're all staying safe and healthy and happy. enjoy this little something.
Disclaimer: i own nothing. or do you really think i would've killed josh?
I Never Knew
She didn't think much about him when they first met, that sunny day in the park so shortly after she'd arrived. He was just a little bit of an (apparently lonely) creep and she was a (maybe?) rather good-looking woman his age without a ring on her finger or a man on her arm. Or woman. Or whatever the hell the people had dug out of the gender-box these days. He was just making a very bad attempt to get her number or get her legs to open—or probably both. And that was all she thought of him at that time. But then she met him again -and hullo! What an awkward meeting- and Kate just wouldn't let it all go. And she had to admit that—well, what are the odds to meet the same man twice in two days—once in Central Park and once miles and miles away on a train? And although she didn't believe in signs (and never had), she couldn't deny that this was rather strange.
"What if he's crazy?" she asked Kate, back turned to him, and trying to keep her voice as low as she could. "What if he's going to rape me as soon as we turn a corner?"
"And what if he's the best thing to ever happen in your life?" with a hand on each of her shoulders, Kate shook her a little. "Geez, Liz, take a chance! This—this might be it! What's there to lose?"
Liz gave Anne, who was standing behind her girlfriend, a helpless look but the woman only shrugged.
"You're never going to let this go, are you?" asked Liz, though only slightly annoyed and Kate grinned in a way that couldn't mean anything but yes.
Liz reached for the phone in the pocket of her jeans. "If I'm a drug addict in two weeks, you're paying for rehab."
And, with a triumphant smile, Kate plucked the phone right out of her hands and handed it to the man next to her. "Directly into the phone, please."
There was something in the way his lips twitched a little as he bowed down his head to stare at the display of the phone that seemed oddly intriguing but still, when he handed her the phone back, she didn't even look twice to find out what his name was but simply tucked it back into the pocket of her jeans.
"It was great to see you again," he said with a small smile, almost as if unsure if he was being too obtrusive.
"Right," Liz's fingers wrapped a little tighter around the handle of her bag. "On a subway on our way to Brooklyn, such a great way to meet again."
But he didn't back away at her -somewhat defensively- snappy answer. "I hope to hear from you."
He didn't look back when he turned to get off the train. No desperate try to catch sight of her one more time, no shy attempt to lock eyes with her.
In another world, (one in which she wasn't so pessimistic -she liked to call it realistic, though-) she might've found his behavior strangely intriguing enough to stare at the newly saved contact in her phone and debate whether she should call him or not. But in this world, she didn't think of him again, didn't even file the memories of him in a virtual box labeled 'unimportant' only to shove it to the very back of her mind—simply because she didn't really have any memories of him.
The newly saved contact in her phone wasn't touched and, in a matter of days -if not hours- became, to her, one of the contacts she'd saved years and years ago and had simply forgotten to delete.
He faded away before he'd even started to leave a mark.
One week later, in a twister of on-going, unfortunate events, Liz found herself at a table at the Starlight Café in Central Park, opposite to an immensely boring, immensely self-centered man (he was the third these last four days, thanks to Kate and her sudden affinity with Tinder and platforms equally as pathetic) and was sure she'd die an unexpected death of boredom when he entered and turned out to be her life savior.
He was the first familiar face she'd seen ever since Kate, Anne and Lucas had disappeared ten minutes after finishing their coffee (so much for 'mental support') and she figured that if she'd approach him right now, he'd be the only one who wouldn't look at her like she was a crazy person. Or at least, she told herself, the chances were much lower.
So, she bolted out of her seat and rushed across the room to throw herself into his arms as if she'd known him for several years and had missed him for more.
And he stuttered his way through the -pretty short and one-sided- conversation they had with the date Liz had forgotten the name of to excuse themselves and make a run for the door, and Liz couldn't have been more grateful that he was there.
As soon as they left the café, a breathless laugh escaped her and she struggled to slip her right arm into the sleeve of her coat while balancing a cup of coffee-to-go in her hands. "Oh, God. Oh, thank God—thank you! Um…"
Her eyes found his and her steps paused for a second as she looked at him questioningly.
"Josh," he said -and didn't sound even the slightest bit hurt. "The name's Josh."
He smiled. "And you owe me dinner."
Again, she paused. "I owe you…? You know, some people might consider this rude."
"Some people," countered Josh. "don't hug complete strangers and muster up a whole life story in three seconds to get out of a date."
"It was a terrible date," argued Liz with a twinkle in her eyes that was neither intentional nor controllable. "And don't say you're not glad it was you I ran up to. You wanted my number and you wanted me to call you. And, judging from the situation I was in, I might've fucked everything my parents have drummed into me as a child and run up to whoever would've walked through that door. I could've ended up dead in some corner."
"But instead, you're with me," Josh grinned. "Safe and sound."
Liz raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't exactly call this 'safe and sound'. We're outside and this is still New York City. As long as I'm not locked in a second-story apartment with a double lock, I wouldn't rate my situation as 'safe and sound'. According to statistics-"
But she stopped herself before she could fall into the pit that's her fact-checking ramblings and let the built-up tension (inquisitiveness) rush out of her in a long, shuddering exhale.
"Dinner," she said with a smile. "You're right, I do owe you that much."
She pushed the straps of her bag further onto her shoulder and tucked the bag under her arm. "Where do you want to go? Or are you busy?"
She stopped in shock by all sudden. "Jesus, did I interrupt your plans? You weren't there for no reason, right? God, I'm so sorry, I-"
But Josh laughed and shook his head. "Don't worry, I'm free for tonight."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," was all she said -and although she was completely serious, Josh laughed again and she thought that, well, perhaps he wasn't just some lonely creep that wanted to get into her pants but rather was just a man in his mid-thirties or forties without a ring on his finger or a woman on his arm that had spotted her in the park and thought they might hit it off together.
So, she let him decide where they'd go for dinner -she still felt a little guilty for thinking him to be so crazy- and later on, she typed her number into his phone and watched him laugh when he saw that she'd typed a heart after her name (Liz, not Elizabeth).
"Call me the next time you need an escape route from a bad date," said Josh right before they parted.
Liz blushed a little -something she hadn't done ever since graduating from college- and handed him his phone. "I'll be sure to think of you."
And she did. Think of him, that is. She thought of him so much on her way up the stairs that she didn't notice that the lights in Kate's apartment were still on -primarily because the woman was waiting for information on the date. She was deep in thought, thinking about the way he'd smiled, the way he'd laughed, the way he'd carefully traced the silver prongs of his fork—as if they were the fragile petals of a flower.
And, as she found herself unable to stop thinking about him, she pulled her phone out of her purse and searched for his contact. There was a smile on her lips as her fingers moved in a furious pace across the keyboard.
Would you like to be the date that I don't have to escape from, next time? ;) -L.
And the response only served to deepen her smile.
As was to be expected, Kate absolutely flipped when she found out about the fortunate turn of events that night and almost dropped Liz's phone on the floor when she ripped it out of her hands to look at the many texts that had followed the first two.
Anne, though feigning disinterest and boredom, leaned over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of the display and her lips twitched into first a grimace and then a smile.
"I told you, Liz, didn't I tell you?" quipped Kate happily (triumphantly). "It was a sign."
Liz rolled her eyes. "I still don't believe in signs, Kate. This changes nothing. It was a coincidence. Do you know how many people walk through Central Park every day? Around 68,500. That's about 17% of local residents who go there every day, so-"
"Okay, okay," Kate held up both hands. "I get it; you're not changing your mind. But, Liz, you met the same -extremely handsome- man three times in one week! And he's not a stalker or a pervert!"
"You can't be sure."
But Kate simply chose to ignore that comment. "He's a rarity in New York City!"
"I'm sure he'd love to hear you talk about him as if he was some kind of old painting or something."
Kate shrugged and grinned, finally handing Liz her phone. "Perhaps he's an art nerd. You have to ask him."
Standing in front of the dimly lit front door of the house, Liz fumbled with her keys for a second and tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear.
"Do you like art?" she asked suddenly, and a grin curled the corners of her lips upwards as she saw Josh's forehead wrinkle in confusion.
"Art?" he asked. "Like… paintings? I don't really think about that, you know. Why do you ask?"
Finally, she turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. "Oh, I don't know, it just came to my mind."
She stood, one hand on the side of the door, the other tucked into the back pocket of her pants, in the doorway and looked at him with a slight smile. "Would you… like to come in?"
He looked quite surprised there for a second as if not having expected it in the least. "I-I would."
Liz smiled. "I mean… for 70 to 85 minutes."
She turned, starting to climb the stairs, and heard him close the door behind her with a small chuckle. "That's a good range, I guess."
She couldn't help the smile on her lips. "Makes me wonder what a bad range would be."
In the corners of her eyes, she saw his foot two steps behind her and, strangely, she didn't feel uncomfortable at all. Because- well, that tended to happen to her sometimes; that she would feel uncomfortable with a man walking close behind her up the stairs. But she didn't feel that way then, with him so close behind her. He'd given her no reason to, after all.
"Well," she could hear his smile in his words. "Two to five minutes would be a bad range, for example, because then, I'd have to have some sick skill to down a glass of wine in a minute without it going straight to my head. And 180 to 200 minutes just seems too short to start a real, heavy conversation but too long to stay on meaningless small talk all the time."
He paused. "Not that any conversation with you is meaningless."
A laugh escaped him ("You have far too much to contribute for that") and failed to notice that she stopped in front of the door to her apartment, bumping straight into her back. "Oh, sorry."
She shook her head, grinning, and stepped back to open the door. "It's alright. Come in."
She was -annoyingly- excited (anxious) about his reaction to her apartment at that time -she couldn't help but think that he, as a doctor who'd served several times in the army, was probably used to better living situations- and tried to capture every single expression, analyzing and interpreting it while they moved on through the hallway into the living room.
But it turned out that her excitement (anxiety) had been totally unjustified because, well, it seemed that being a doctor in the army didn't exactly make you a billionaire. Or had your income written in five-digit figures. No, Josh didn't seem bothered by anything in the least. In fact, he was quite content, sitting opposite her with a glass of wine in his hands and a small smile on his lips, talking about whatever the hell came to their minds. And when, at last, they'd reached their limits of the small-talk-kinda topics and slipped into a more personal conversation, he didn't seem (too) bothered by her way of holding back.
"I mean, I like you, but- we just met," she said carefully when he asked. "Let's not kid ourselves."
He didn't move, didn't even blink. "Let's not."
And to Liz, it was completely unnerving, and she put her glass down and stood, steps falling quickly as she began to pace. "And the odds of two single people in their thirties in a major American urban center- look, start with the single population, factor in divorce rates, consider the transitory nature of an urban populus…"
"I get it."
She hadn't noticed until then that he'd, too, risen to his feet. "The variables are daunting."
Liz pursed her lips. "I might say 'prohibited'."
"The deck is stacked."
"It's not that I don't like you," she said carefully, her eyes wandering up and down his body, taking in the way he crossed his ankles even though he was standing, how he tilted his head to one side.
He nodded as if understanding completely. "You just don't like our odds."
A beat of silence left her mind vacant of all thoughts for a second. Now, had she fucked up again? Had she just blown her chance to get to know this man better than she'd been able to through her half-hearted attempts in two dates?
"You're right," he said -and in such a clinical voice that she just had to look him in the eyes, if only to see if they, too, suggested him to be completely unbothered. "The odds aren't exactly on our side. But then again, as you said, we're two single people in our late thirties, so when are the odds ever not against us?"
(She almost said "Divorce fees" but managed to hold herself back just in time.)
He uncrossed his ankles to take a seemingly aimless step forward. "So, yeah, I might be the worst person you've ever come across. I might be a gambler, a perv, a drug addict who only wants your money… this is New York City, after all."
"Extremely reassuring," Liz murmured but Josh either didn't hear her or chose to ignore her.
"I could be a wanted criminal or a homicidal maniac on the run. Or I could be a millionaire in disguise or the one that finds a way to cure cancer," he took another step, this time clearly aiming towards her but still, Liz didn't feel even the slightest bit threatened. "I could be one of many men that you dated once and could forget twice. Or I could be the one that you didn't know you were waiting for to arrive. You don't know that. You can't know that. So perhaps, you sometimes just have to—take a risk, you know?"
Her feet had stilled and now she stood there as if nailed to the ground with both hands on her hips. "I'm not good at that at all."
"But I am."
She knew that he was going to kiss her before he'd even leaned in and her mind was reeling because what if he's dangerous? What if he only wants my cash? What if I'm gonna end up hurt?
But then his lips touched hers and they were soft and gentle and caring and her entire body tingled in sensation and, although it was only for a second, she suddenly didn't care about the what if's anymore because even if she did end up regretting all of this, if she did end up getting hurt, this would be worth it.
She knew that she would never regret this at the latest when their soft kisses turned into hungry ones, when she gasped into the open air and dug her nails into his scalp. When her hips bucked against his mouth and her thighs quivered and the words coming out of her mouth were nothing but groaned ooohs and aaahs and breathless oh god-s. When she had to hold on to the bedstead behind her because she didn't know how to deal with this passion and this lust and this climax of emotions and longings.
She knew when soft, caring movements became frantic, when their mouths met in hot, wet kisses and her legs wrapped around his hips. When she cried out against his chest and shuddered underneath (or above) him and when he knew just what he had to do to make her come harder than ever. She knew when he held her down and quite literally fucked her senseless and when she took the lead and did the same to him.
She knew when the white spots slowly disappeared in front of her eyes and they lay together, hair damp and chests heaving, and she took his hand and squeezed it and laughed quietly at the absurdity of the former Her for thinking she might ever regret any of this.
"I love you."
In another world, (one in which she wasn't 38 and divorced and hadn't wasted almost a decade and a half with another man at the West Coast) Liz might've been shocked to hear him say it. She might've been speechless for a few seconds and would've managed only a slightly awkward response. But instead, she squeezed his hand a little harder and said, "I love you too."
And their kisses lingered longer for a while.
It was a shock, to say the least, to find out she was pregnant. At least that's what Josh's face suggested when she told him at her birthday party. Or perhaps the shock wasn't directed at the news she'd told but rather at the memories of that surgery he'd had to do.
Either way, shock quickly forged into excitement.
"Surprise," said Liz with a smile and tried not to look too amused at the expression of utter disbelief on his face.
"You're—okay. Wow. How?"
Liz raised an eyebrow. "Well, doctor…"
"No, no," Josh shook his head. "I mean, we were safe, weren't we?"
"We were but apparently New York City Transit novelty condoms not so much."
A grin appeared on Josh's face. One that he didn't seem to be able to hold back. "Wow. It's—wow. This is huge news."
He paused to look at her. "What do you think, the good or the bad kind?"
"I don't know, it's just such a surprise."
He nodded. "But -and I know you don't believe in signs- perhaps this means we- we should see this through."
Liz's brow furrowed for a second. "'This' as in the baby?"
"No. I mean—of course! The baby as well but I was talking more along the lines of… us."
And Liz opened her mouth to respond but at that exact moment, David entered the room, asking for cake and they decided wordlessly to table this conversation for later.
The words lingered on in the cold air of the dark night up there on the rooftop with the stars dancing above them, hidden behind thick clouds and the lights of the city dancing below them and Liz turned in his arms to look up at him. There was no smile on his lips but one in his eyes and she could feel his nervousness buzzing off of him although he tried his best to hide it from her.
Liz tilted her head to one side. "Do you think the odds are on our side?"
A grin tucked at Josh's lips. "You never know."
She shook her head. "No, you really don't."
Liz had failed to notice until then that her hand had absently come to rest on the non-existent swell of her stomach but now that she sank against his chest and smiled into the fabric of his shirt, she let them dance across her skin quite intentionally.
"Marry me," she said and felt him tense up beside her. "Although that's not really a question, I'm answering with a yes."
And really, how could it have been any different?
They married two months later when the swell of her belly was still practically unnoticeable, and the fees of the churches hadn't yet risen to their full extent. They'd decided on a small ceremony -if only to avoid a three-hour reception and an overcrowded dance floor- and Kate was Liz's bridesmaid and David was Josh's first man. And, of course, Liz dreaded having to call her parents and thus, put it off for as long as possible and even called Oren before them, who -thank God- declined gratefully and wished them all the best for the future. But in the end, she simply couldn't delay it any longer and so, had to listen to her mother saying things like "well, perhaps there's hope for you this time" and had to restrain herself from hurling the phone across the room. Her father, though, turned out to be quite happy for her. It was him who led her down the aisle, of course, and held her hand rather than her arm because the arthrosis in his elbow made it impossible for him to bend his arms like that.
"You look happy," he whispered into her ear when they were waiting for the door to open and let them in.
"I am happy," Liz smiled. "This just feels so right."
And her father didn't say anything to that -either because he didn't want to ruin her mood or because he, too, thought that this might be the right thing to do—that he might be the one. Because she hadn't said that it had felt right when she'd married Oren.
But here, right then and there, in this church and with that man to her side, standing at the altar to get married, to be together till death did them apart, she felt like this was the very first thing she did in her life that felt absolutely right and would never turn out the wrong way. Every bad decision she'd ever made, every wrong corner she'd ever turned suddenly faded into the background because this—this was going to be what she'd always -though sometimes unconsciously- longed for. And when the weight of the thin, silver wedding band pressed against her ring finger and they looked at each other and said, "I do." She was sure she'd never doubt anything about this—about them—ever again.
And, since both of them -as she'd learned- were pretty decent dancers, they were later on able to lead the first dance without giving much thought to their steps and rather talking to each other in hushed whispers.
"Let's call him Jacob," Josh whispered into her ear.
Liz frowned. "First of all; how do you know it's a he and second of all; don't you think that one J in a family is enough?"
"Let's call him Jacob," insisted Josh.
"Because I like the name," he whirled them around, led her safely through a turn to the left, one to the right.
"Well, okay. I think I can live with another J," Liz smiled into his shoulder. "But if it's a girl, I'm gonna be the one to choose the name."
"Fine. But please don't make me regret that decision."
"I'd never," she laughed.
The song was slowly coming to an end and when it did and they'd received their deserved applause, they stood to the side and he wrapped his arms around her, one hand gently grazing the tiny swell of her belly. "I love you so much."
Her heart jumped in her chest. "I love you too, Josh. More than you'll ever know."
"Oh," she could hear the way he smiled in his words. "I think I do."
Real, true love, Liz decided, wasn't shown when people were at their best, happiest, most beautiful self but rather when they were at their worst—and still loved each other. So, she knew for sure that this was her one true love when she was lying in a hospital bed, panting and screaming and squeezing Josh's hand so hard that they both thought she was going to break it. But when Josh said so, the only thing she gritted back before another contraction hit her was, "Stop fucking crying, Josh! This fucking baby is tearing my entire body apart so if you want to complain about your fucking hand then go outside and never come back!"
Although she'd never openly admit it, Liz had realized that she'd been extremely emotional ever since the sixth month of the pregnancy and she found several times that she definitely outdid herself with the number of curse words she could squeeze into one sentence. But really, what did people expect when she was literally pushing an 8 lbs. child out of her body?
She was sweating and cursing, and her feet and legs were swollen, and she was unable to say anything but "fuck (you)" and "I'm gonna die". She was screaming (one time at the poor midwife who just wanted to 'check down there' and almost dropped the shiny, silver tool she'd held) and almost breaking Josh's hand, but he still stayed at her side and kissed her temple and said, "I love you, Liz, you're doing great."
And he didn't leave when she snapped, "Great, and I don't love you, you fucking bastard! This is all your damn fault, oh—my—god!"
He breathed along with her when the midwife told her to and she hated him for that because she hated feeling so out of control but loved him for it too because she did need that guidance right now. He squeezed her hand back when the midwife told her to "Push. Now, Mrs. Vaughan." And her whole body arched -as far as that was possible in her current state- and her head tilted back and her jaw snapped open to let out the loudest, most pained scream either of them had ever heard (actually, Josh had heard worse—not that he'd ever tell her). And he was there all the while by her side, never once stepping away except to go to the bathroom -which perhaps happened three times over a course of 18 (!) hours.
"I hate you," she gritted out between pants, almost in tears. "Fuck, Josh, I hate you so much!"
After that, everything was more of a blur than anything had ever been before. She remembered terrible pain and screams and tears rolling down her face and then- and then there was a 7,5 lbs. heavy baby boy with pale skin and no hair and the tiniest fingers she'd ever seen. And they put him down on her heaving chest and she tried to lay completely still and marveled at the beautiful baby before her.
"Hi there," she whispered in a high-pitched voice and trembling, too, out of sheer joy and exhaustion. "Hi, Jacob."
She felt Josh squeeze her hand (so, she hadn't broken it, then) and he kissed her head and touched the baby's face with two fingers and said, in tears, "God, Liz, I love you so much."
And of course, it went without saying, that they loved their—their—child, their Jacob so much—they'd never known loving someone so much was even possible.
The second child came two and a half years later after being in labor for one and a half hours and they named him -of course, it was another boy- Cooper because it was Liz's turn this time and she refused to "get another J or E". Anne got to be the godmother of him -since Kate had dealt the I-was-your-friend-first card with Jacob- and David got to be the godfather -since Lucas had simply decided that Jacob and he would hit it off right away- and everyone was ecstatic, to say the least.
They returned home from the hospital and Liz stood in the doorway to their new apartment (Josh had been promoted at the hospital and the apartment they'd lived in before was far from family-fit) and smiled at the scene before her; their two-and-a-half-years-old sitting in his father's arm and looking down at the baby in the carrier in awe. It was everything she'd never known she'd wanted, and it filled her with so much joy that she felt her heart burst with happiness.
"The baby stopped crying," Liz whispered, carefully closing the door behind her. "And Jake hasn't started yet. Let's have wine while we can."
She shuffled through the hallway into the kitchen, beckoning Josh with her.
"Man, that sounds great," she heard him say a few steps behind her. "Listen, Liz, I have to ship out."
She almost dropped the bottle of wine she was holding, the door of the fridge snapping shut. "Ship out?"
She turned to face him, standing in the doorway with his hands fisted at his sides and looking very sorry for her too. "Josh."
He looked down at his feet for a moment. "They want me with the second brigade with forced traumas because I didn't go last time."
She heard the words he said, knew they had some sort of importance, some sort of meaning to them that was probably supposed to calm her down or give her information, but all she could think about was he's shipping out to a fucking war zone.
"Tell them no."
"I can't tell them no," Josh took a guided -almost careful- step toward her.
"Yes, you can!" Liz slammed the two empty glasses of wine on the table. "You write them an email 'Hell no'."
"I used up my last apparel when we had Cooper."
"Then just quit!" She raked a hand through her dark hair, smoothing out the wrinkles in her suit pants as if it would help any of this.
"When?" she interrupted him. "When, Josh?"
He looked almost -no, definitely- guilt-ridden. "I report in two weeks."
Liz flung both arms up, turning to slam her hands onto the smooth kitchen counter.
"How would anyone join the army?" She gritted out, trying to hold back the damn tears that were welling up in her eyes.
"I wouldn't be the person I am now if I hadn't-"
She shook her head "blah, blah, blah" and yanked the door of the fridge open to put the wine back inside. There was nothing to celebrate anymore.
"I would've never been a doctor, I would've never been in New York, I would've never met you-"
"Stop," she raised a hand almost as if to lash out at him. "Just- just stop, Josh."
She didn't look at him—couldn't look at him. Because there were tears in her eyes, threatening to spill and hatred in her heart and so, so much worry and love and it was slowly ripping her in two.
"God," she breathed out, raising both hands to her face. "I hate you so much right now, you know?"
He shifted from one foot to the other. "I do."
"No, I don't think you do," she shook her head. "I hate you so, so fucking much, Josh. You can't just—leave."
In the corners of her eyes, she saw him step toward her, nervously wringing his hands. "Liz, I- I emailed your mom about coming to stay for a while."
"Oh good, there's worse news!" she bit out, an unamused snort leaving her lips right along with her words as she pushed past him into the hallway. She felt like she just couldn't be in the same room as him right now.
But, of course, he followed her with hurried steps and an urgency to them that made her want to run.
"I won't be anywhere near the action, Liz," his voice sounded close behind her. "I'll be in some air-conditioned tent miles away from everything."
Her steps faltered there, and she whirled around to face him again—no, for the first time since he'd told her the news, and her hands curled into tight fists.
"Shut up!" she snapped. "Just shut up, Josh! I can't listen to this bullshit anymore. You could just say no! You could just tell them that you have two little children—the children, Josh! –and a wife and fuck their stupid war! But you and your pathetic fucking need to save the world! God damnit!"
She turned again to head into the living room, almost slamming the door shut behind her but remembering the baby that had finally stopped crying after what felt like hours and managed to hold herself back.
"How could you do this?!" She hurled at him as soon as he'd stepped into the room. "To me?! To the children?! We've built a life for ourselves, Josh, and you're leaving just like that! Why? And what the hell for?!"
He opened his mouth to say something, but Liz cut him off before he'd even begun. "No, don't apologize! Don't even talk to me, Josh. Jesus fucking Christ!"
Again, she pushed past him, out of the living room and through the hallway into the master bedroom and closed the door behind her with a thud—and this time he was smart enough not to follow her.
Sinking onto the edge of the bed, she raked her trembling fingers through her hair and tried to take a few calming breaths. Inhale, three, four, five—and exhale, three, two, one. The tears were still there, though, pricking in the corners of her eyes and practically mocking her.
She knew that she was selfish in her ways right now—wanting him all to herself and to stay and never to leave and ship out again, when he was actually there to save lives—sometimes those of small children. But she couldn't help it. She needed him, though she'd never wanted to need him, and she loved him so damn much that it hurt.
For the first time since their wedding almost five years ago, Liz stayed on her side of the bed, curled up with her back turned towards him and refused to wake him when she found herself unable to fall asleep.
Seeing him in his uniform -that stupid fucking uniform- brought another surge of anger and she scoffed, furiously, and turned away from him.
"Liz…" he said and sounded so regretful and so sad that her heart almost would've broken for him—if it hadn't broken for herself first.
Instead, her lips remained pressed into a thin line.
"No," she gritted out, focusing on the knife in her left hand that sliced a carrot into even pieces.
She heard him shift behind her, heard him put down his large bag. He seemed at a loss as to what to say for a moment. But then-
"I- I promise you I'm gonna return," he said, and her heart skipped a beat. "I love you, Liz, and I know that you love me too, no matter what you're saying right now."
"Ha!" Liz whirled around; eyes gleaming dangerously. "Don't tell me how I feel, you have no freaking idea! Fuck, Josh, I promised myself to never do something again where I might end up getting hurt but now- you're clearly going to hurt me. And I've made another fucking mistake that I'd promised myself not to make."
His face twisted, then forged into utter exasperation. He took a step toward her, pain written all over his face and pity, too. "Liz…"
But she pulled away from his outstretched hand. "Don't touch me! God, Josh, if you're willing to leave me—your family—over this, then I seriously don't know what you're still doing here. You know the way out. Go! Leave now—you're going to leave either way, so who cares? I'm more than capable to take care of myself—of us. I've done it before, and I'll do it again. We don't need you; we've never needed you. You're driving me crazy anyway."
He took another step toward her, but she shook her head. "No, Josh! Leave! Just- just go!"
Perhaps it was the fury in her eyes—perhaps it was the guilt in his—that made him step away. He lingered on for a second in the kitchen doorway but then bent down to pick up his bag, turning away, away, away—for six months, perhaps eight, perhaps ten. Away from her, away from their children, away from their life together. There was a pang in her chest that made it impossible for Liz to breathe. And so, she pushed away from the kitchen counter, voice hoarse and shaky. "Wait! No!"
And for the first time in two weeks, she couldn't control the tears anymore that threatened to spill and eventually did and didn't want to control them either because—God, he was leaving.
His arms were strong and warm around her and he smelled like him but in a soldier uniform and she cried into the fabric of the jacket and held onto him for dear life and didn't know how she'd ever be able to let go.
"Josh," she croaked into his ear. And again, and again, and again. "Oh, Josh. Don't. Please, Josh."
He cupped the back of her head, holding her close. "I'm sorry, Liz. I promise, once I'm back, I'll never go again."
And she, foolishly, believed him.
Four months later, a sunny week in July marked the fifth anniversary of their wedding and for the first time since his department, Josh found the time to actually sit down somewhere -she couldn't think of a single spot where because in his texts or (rare) emails he'd briefly spoken of gunfire and explosions in the far distance but she and the children could hear nothing like that—not even faintly- and do a video call. He looked tired even with the bad quality of the call (due to hundreds of miles in distance and the fact that he was in a fucking war zone and who expected the internet connection to be good there?) and it tore Liz's heart in two while mending it at the same time because she could hear his voice and see his face.
"Five years, huh?" he said with a lopsided smile as Liz sent the kids off to play. "Who would've thought?"
She laughed a (perhaps) slightly teary laugh. "Not me. Not in a hundred years. But… you never know, right?"
"No," he shook his head, grinning. "You don't. And that's a good thing, don't you think?"
Then, she nodded.
When late at night the doorbell to their apartment rang, Liz couldn't think it to be anyone else than a pizza deliverer who'd turned to the wrong door. Her steps were light and energetic—she'd finished marking assignments hours ago and had sat down to read a book and have a glass of wine and her mood couldn't be damped. Or so, she thought.
Because when she opened the door to reveal a uniform -brown and moss-colored and not that of her husband- her face fell, right along with her mood and her heart.
And every distant thought of good moods left her in a shaking exhale.
"Y-yes?" she whispered when really all she wanted to do was slam the door right in his face.
There was a notion in the back of her head, a poisonous voice whispering nothing but horror in her mind.
"Mrs. Vaughan, I'm very sorry to tell you that…"
She'd often wondered if she'd be able to take an 'I'm very sorry' in the same sentence as 'dead' for a genuine one. She'd often wondered if she'd be able to say 'thank you' or anything else at all. But really, she couldn't. She wasn't even able to listen to what the soldier was saying -it wasn't Josh and that was enough for her not to want to listen to him- let alone comprehend the words coming out of his mouth.
He spoke of medical facilities and second shifts and saved lives but the only thing that Liz heard was the water that dripped down from the broken tab in the kitchen down the hallway. Plop, plop, plop. Josh is dead, dead, dead. Josh was supposed to fix that fucking tab once he was home.
Josh was supposed to come the fuck home and not leave her heartbroken and alone. Josh was supposed to not fucking die in a stupid attack of another nation on a battlefield of a stupid fucking insignificant war. Josh was supposed to keep his damn promise.
Seconds passed in a blur and she could feel her lips move, saw his lips move and wanted nothing more than this to be Josh and their lips to move together instead of his lips to never move again.
There was something about saying sorry, saying she was alright -it passed her lips far too easily- saying goodbye. Then, the door fell shut and Liz turned, her entire body shaking.
"Oh God," her voice sounded foreign to her own ears. "Josh- oh, God."
She'd never known such pain. She'd never known such hatred. She'd never known she could love someone so much and then hate him even more. But now- Josh had left her. He'd left and he wasn't coming back. She'd never see his face again, hear his voice, feel his lips on hers. She'd never hear him say 'I love you' again. She'd never get a chance to say it back one more time—she'd never get a chance to say goodbye or say 'fuck you for leaving'. Josh was gone—dead, and she hated him so much for it—and didn't even want to hate him. She wanted- she wanted him to come home. She wanted him to be here in her arms and hold her and tell her it was a stupid fucking joke that he'd now realized was the worst prank he could've thought of. She wanted to be furious and not speak to him for a week.
She wanted not to love him so that it wouldn't hurt so fucking much.
But instead, she found it impossible to breathe and her entire body—every ounce of her being—hurt.
Hot tears were spilling down her cheeks and she didn't know how to stop them, didn't know how she'd ever stop them. She briefly considered going outside and walking into the on-going traffic—if only for a chance to see him again one more time. And then slipped down the wall in her back and curled up on the floor and cried as she'd never cried before. For the one—the one—and for the sudden self-destructive forces in her mind.
How she'd ever be able to live her life without him—she didn't know. She didn't want a life without him. He was the one thing she'd done right. And the children. The children.
They couldn't lose a father and a mother at the same time. They couldn't grow up without both their parents. She'd brought them into this hell-hole of a world that took fathers from their children and lovers from their counterparts, and she'd see them through too. She owed it to them.
And Josh owed it to them too but he- he left without so much as a heads-up or a warning or an 'I'm so sorry'. And she had to be the one to stay behind and pick up the pieces he'd left for them. That fucking bastard. But she loved him, still.
She came to regret so much. All the time she'd wasted, thinking him to be nothing but another run-of-the-mill creep of New York City. All the time she'd wasted, being unsure of herself and of them too, doubting the genuineness of his intentions and the lasting of their love. All the time she could've been in his arms but chose to argue with him instead.
She learned, with time, that missing someone almost to the point of hate and loving them too didn't exclude one another. They could go hand in hand rather well, actually.
She learned that moving on didn't mean forgetting but forgiving and that, sometimes, wounds never fully healed.
She learned that life without him was hard and seeing her children grow up without a father was harder. She learned that crying herself to sleep each night could become a part of the new normal and that every single person had a frighteningly persistent self-destructiveness inside of them.
She feared the part of herself that had her not checking before crossing the street, not stopping at a red light, walking closer along the edge of the platform. But she found out that her fear of forgetting was much greater.
Because sometimes, she found that memories of him were fading—fading when all she wanted of them was to stay forever, imprinted on the edge of her mind, burned into the inside of her skin.
Almost half a year after Josh's death, Liz received a message from an unknown number. Something about an unsubscribed telephone service, a run-out phone number and a pre-recorded auto answering message. There was an audio attached to the text and when she played it, she felt her heart stop.
"Hi there," said Josh. "I'm sorry I can't pick up my phone right now. But perhaps you should leave a message, tell me something about you—maybe we're gonna be good friends one day. After all… you never know, right?"
"Mommy?" sounded the voice of five-years-old Jacob. "Mommy, why are you crying?"
Slowly, as if in a trance, Liz raised her hands to her face, fingers catching the tears that were spilling down her cheeks as she turned to Jacob—Jake—and stared right into the eyes of his father, blue and deep and beautiful. He'd come to look a lot like him—Josh and she sometimes didn't know whether it was helping her or pushing her further down.
"I just- I just miss your Dad so much sometimes," she said with a teary smile and cupped his cheeks, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "But it's gonna be alright. We're gonna be alright, aren't we?"
But of course, Jake, as a five-year-old, couldn't really answer that question and simply tilted his head to one side and blinked once, twice and said, "Do you think we're ever gonna see Dad again?"
In another world (one in which her husband's death had left her to be bitter and angry for all eternity), Liz would've rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Certainly not while we're alive, and that's a good thing!"
But instead, the smile on her lips widened and she tilted her head.
"Well, you never know."