A/N: In Chapter 3 of Lost and Found, Jude asks about Maren and Alex says "There was one night a few weeks after..."
This is that night.
Alex felt like his chest was filled with ice. Ever since Jude had walked out, he felt strangely cut off from the rest of the world, like he was surrounded in fog he couldn't quite escape, and he was slowly suffocating in it.
He kept going to classes, kept getting his work done, and replied to e-mails and text messages with a tone of detached formality. He didn't talk to anyone about her or what had happened. When his mother called to ask if he and Jude were finally going to get around to setting a date any time soon, he successfully fought back a wave of grief that bordered on panic and said, strangely calmly, "There won't be a wedding, Mum. We are no longer engaged." and hung up, replying to her calls with short "I'm fine" text messages until she eventually stopped calling. "I'm fine" became his standard response as everyone he knew slowly found out, accompanied by a smile he hoped seemed, if not happy, at least reasonably okay.
He told himself he was dealing with it, but he wasn't. He was trying to bury it, and it was strangling him. When he was alone, he would catch himself lost in thoughts of Jude with Tommy, or, equally painfully, thoughts of himself with Jude, and realize he'd been zoned out for half an hour, torturing himself with it. Everyone seemed concerned, but no one seemed to know how to talk to him about it.
One evening, two weeks and five days after the end of his engagement, there was a knock at his door. Startled out of thoughts of Jude that were so realistic he swore he could feel her breath on his neck, Alex got up from the couch, where he'd been sitting with his head in his hands. He stumbled to answer the door, fixing his slightly mussed hair before reaching for the doorknob. He opened it to reveal Maren. "Oh. Maren. Hello." Her expression became increasingly sad as she took in his appearance.
She'd expected him to be a mess, unwashed hair and clothes, piles of dishes in the sink, maybe something knocked over or broken, but from what she could see, his apartment was meticulously, almost creepily, clean. His shirt was pressed, his hair had been washed and combed, a smile was plastered on his face, and it was so much worse than if he had been living in filth and answered the door in tears. He looked thin, almost gaunt, and there were dark circles under his eyes as though he hadn't slept in weeks. And his smile. To say it didn't reach his eyes would have been a colossal understatement. It looked more than forced. It looked desperate. "Oh, Lexi." She breathed.
His plastic smile began to slip from his face as he saw her cutting straight through his façade. "I'm sorry, Mare, this isn't really a good time. Maybe you can come back later." He started to close the door, trying to fight back the wave of emotion.
"No." Maren said firmly, putting her foot in the door and keeping it open. "I am not leaving." Her expression had hardened, and she looked almost angry.
"Maren." Alex said, not smiling anymore. "Please go."
"Not a chance." She pushed past him and into the flat.
"Maren!" Alex protested. She ignored him and walked to his kitchen, putting her purse down and starting to look through cupboards. He sighed. "My mum sent you, didn't she."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. "She may have been the one that told me what happened, but she didn't send me anywhere. I sent myself." She opened the cupboard that had glasses in it.
"What are you doing?"
"This is sick, Alex." She gestured around her to the immaculate kitchen as she grabbed two large wine glasses and set them down on the counter.
"What? It's perfectly clean."
"Exactly." She said as she opened more cupboards, standing on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. "Aha!" She said, pulling out a bottle of wine and looking at it.
"What are you doing?!" Alex protested again.
"Pick your poison." She said, setting two bottles of wine on the counter next to the glasses.
"I don't want to drink." He was getting angry now. "I use that in food."
"I came here thinking" She said, opening one of the wine bottles and pouring a glass, "that I was going to have to pick you up off the floor. I thought I gave you some time to wallow, and I was going to tell you to start getting up and moving on."
She shot him a glare. "I see now" she continued "that I'm going to have to knock you down before I can pick you up."
"What are you on about? Knock me down? That makes no sense."
"Doesn't it?" Maren raised her eyebrows
He just wanted her out, before the wave of emotion broke through the dam and crushed him. "No! I'm fine. If I'm fine, why would you try to make me less fine? There's no logic in that."
"Lexi, you're not fine. You're not facing this. You're bottling it up, and it's going to rip you apart."
"I did face it."
Maren's eyes filled with a cold determination that scared him a little. She crossed her arms and stared at him, hard. "Face what?"
"Face. What." She said.
"You know what." He said, panic starting to bubble up in him as he figured out what she was doing.
"Everything. All of this."
"Not good enough. Say it."
"What she did."
"Who did what?"
"Maren!" He protested.
"Jude." She said, and he flinched.
"Get out." He tried to say it calmly, pointing in the direction of the door, but his hands were shaking.
She took a step towards him instead. "Jude is gone!"
Another step. "Jude left you for Tommy! They left together on tour!"
"Get the hell out of here!" He was shouting now.
"Your fiancée fell in love with someone else, Alexander!" She shouted over him.
"Shut up!" He snapped and lunged forward in an entirely uncharacteristic burst of violence, needing to make her stop talking. He brought an arm down to hit her, but her reflexes were fast from years of martial arts training, and in two swift moves, she had him pinned against the counter, holding his arm behind his back. He let out a surprised laugh that was almost a sob.
"Lexi." Maren said quietly, letting him go. "Jude–"
"Jude is gone." He said in a low voice. "Jude didn't have the decency to leave me for him. Jude called me by his name. I ended it." He turned to her, growing increasingly agitated as he spoke. "Jude got who she wanted. Jude did not fall in love with someone else, she was always in love with someone else! Our whole relationship was a fucking lie! Jude is gone! Jude has who she wanted all along, and I'm alone!" His voice broke, and he turned away. "Jude is gone." he whispered. Maren wordlessly grabbed the glass of wine and handed it to him. "Well there you are." He muttered. "You've knocked me down. I'm an idiot and I believed she loved me even when I should have known that she loved him. Everyone else was trying to tell me." He looked at her. "Do it. Say 'I told you so.'"
Maren sighed and poured a glass for herself. "Naomi Menkowitz." She said quietly.
"What?" Alex looked confused.
"He was sleeping with Naomi Menkowitz."
"Naomi was in his Chinese class. I knew her. We studied together. We went out dancing together. She was my friend. And Jake was sleeping with her for over four months."
"My ex-fiancé. We were together for two years." Maren was staring into the wine in her glass. "I loved him. He told me he loved me. He told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. But he was sleeping with Naomi Menkowitz. And you know the worst part? I completely should have seen it. Our friends knew. My flatmates knew. Our goddamn professors probably knew. He was over at her place all the time. To 'study'." She paused, biting her lip. "The man that I loved, the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, he fucked another woman for four months, and I honestly had no idea." She laughed mirthlessly. "A month after he proposed, I walked in on them. But, stupid me, I believed him when he told me it was a one time thing, a mistake, and eventually I actually forgave him. Everyone knew but me! All of these people I thought were my friends; they all knew, and no one told me! After another three weeks, Naomi finally grew a conscience and told me the truth."
She sighed. "When I told him we were over, do you know what he said? He asked 'even if I stop seeing her?' as though it was some kind of big fucking surprise that I wouldn't immediately forgive him as long as he promised monogamy. And to top it all off, I found out last week that he's marrying her." She looked up at him. "Suffice it to say, Lexi," Alex was staring at her open-mouthed. "if I said 'I told you so', that would make me a bit of a hypocrite."
"Naomi Menkowitz." Alex said after a moment, still staring at her in surprise.
"Naomi fucking Menkowitz." she repeated.
Alex let out a little laugh, and then another, and then he couldn't seem to stop. "Sorry." He gasped between bursts of laughter. "I know it's not funny, I just... I can't stop..."
Maren was hurt, at first. She had just shared the story of her biggest heartbreak and humiliation, and he was laughing? But as she watched him, a smile started to pull at the corners of her mouth. "Alexander" she giggled. "have you gone completely mad?"
"That" He could barely speak for laughing. "is definitely a possibility."
"Did you just get drunk off holding a glass of wine?" Maren asked, and they both dissolved in laughter. It really wasn't that it was funny so much as that she just couldn't stop laughing, and, before long, they were both on the floor. After a moment, Alex noticed with surprise that his laughing had turned into crying, and that fact in itself was actually kind of funny.
"Are you crying?" Maren asked, her laughter dying down.
"it's possible." He said, laughing through the tears.
"Oh, Lexi." Maren laughed, though she tried not to. "Don't cry."
"This is quite possibly the most pathetic thing I've ever done." He observed, then muttered "Except maybe the part where I begged her to lie to me, and tell me she loved me more than him. Dammit."
Maren stood up, grabbing the glasses of wine, and sat back down next to Alex on the floor. She handed him the glass. "To being pathetic"
"Ha. To being pathetic." Alex wiped the tears from his cheeks and they clinked their glasses together. Alex took a sip, but Maren downed half of her glass in one gulp. Alex laughed.
"Thirsty." Maren shrugged.
"To being thirsty." Alex said, and drank the rest of the wine in his glass. Maren laughed and got the bottle, refilling their glasses. Alex clinked their glasses together and said "To Naomi fucking Menkowitz."
"To Little Tommy Q!" Maren retorted.
"Touché." Alex muttered, but said "To being the second choice." and drank.
"To cheap wine."
"Cheap wine?" Alex looked offended. "You think this is cheap wine? For your information, this is very expensive wine, and I do not appreciate the implication that I–" Maren was cracking up, and Alex realized she was teasing him. He rolled his eyes. "To drinkingvery nice wine like it's cheap wine." He took the bottle from her and drank directly from it.
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Maren laughed.
"When was the last time we got drunk together?"
"Is that what we're doing?"
"You tell me." she held up the empty bottle. The second one was in Alex's hand, almost half-empty.
Maren's words were starting to slur, and Alex laughed. "Fair enough. And we didn't exactly drink much..." Alex ran a hand through his hair, thinking. "But yeah, I guess the last time we really got sloshed would have been right after you turned seventeen, the night before we went home for Easter holiday. Ben and Will snuck in that god awful wine and them and us and Rose and Liza drank it in my room and felt so rebellious. D'you remember?"
Maren grinned, the memory coming back to her. "You were afraid I'd drink too much and die of alcohol poisoning so you kept taking the bottle from me!"
"You're so small!" Alex protested. "Can you blame me? I was concerned!"
Maren rolled her eyes. "Overprotective."
"Whatever." Maren took the bottle and pretended to take a huge gulp, though she only really drank a little, knowing that Alex was right. Her size did make her tolerance for alcohol fairly low, and she was pretty drunk already. The last thing she wanted was to pass out on his kitchen floor.
"Your funeral." Alex said, and finished his glass.
"Wait, was that the year my dad broke his arm, then?"
Alex nodded. "Must have been. That's why we were a day later leaving than we expected."
"Oh, right! Everyone else went back to their own rooms because they were afraid of missing curfew, but I was on the list as having left already, so I stayed."
Alex grinned. "You hid in the cupboard when they came round to check. You kept giggling the whole time, Ben and I were convinced they'd find you, but they didn't."
"Such rebels, we were." Maren laughed.
"Alcohol makes you do stupid things." Alex stuck his tongue out at her.
Maren looked very serious, suddenly. "Stupid things like losing my virginity?"
Ben had fallen dead asleep, having had more to drink than either of them. They had been snogging, fully aware that they were now effectively alone. Maren's head was slightly fuzzy with alcohol, and they had... What? Gotten carried away? Gone farther than she'd expected? Yes. But not farther than she had wanted. She had loved Alex. Loved him with everything she had to give at seventeen years old.
"Stupid things like not waking up until my mum walked in on us in the morning."
Maren winced at the embarrassing memory. "Oh lord, I thought she was going to have our heads."
"No." Alex shook his head. "She was furious at first, and surprised, obviously. You remember the awkward car ride back home, but, you know, she never told your parents. I don't even think she told my dad. She wasn't angry." He looked into his empty glass. "I think in her mind at the time we were good as married anyway."
Maren laughed, a little bitterly. "She was wrong about that one."
"Maren," Alex sighed. "I didn't break up with you because we had sex."
She sighed too. "It really felt that way, Alex. You wouldn't talk about it, you would barely look at me! And then two weeks later you told me you didn't want to be with me anymore. What was I supposed to think?"
"It wasn't about that. I never regretted what we did, it was just... My mum wouldn't shut up about it. The whole of Easter holiday." Alex mumbled. "How perfect we were, how we were going to be so happy. She was pretty much picking out names for our kids, Mare, and I..."
"And you started to think that we weren't together because we wanted to be, but because it's what everyone else wanted for us." Maren finished. "I know. I figured that out. I get it." She shook her head and smiled. "I got over it a long time ago." She pulled herself up from the floor by the counter and stretched. "Ow. Your kitchen floor is not exactly comfortable." She looked at the clock, which read 23:55. "Dammit." She muttered. She went to grab her purse and stumbled, steadying herself on the counter. "There is no way I can drive."
Alex stood too, and was watching her with a strangely intense expression. "Then stay." He said quietly.
She waved a hand dismissively. "No, it's alright. I can call a cab. I'll get my car tomorrow." she took her phone from her purse.
Alex put a hand on her arm, and she looked up. "Stay." His face was closer to hers than she had expected, and it caught her off-guard. She set her phone and purse back down.
"Right, well, I suppose it isn't as though I've got anything urgent to do tomorrow morning, and you have a couch."
"Maren." He looked almost sad. He placed a hand one the side of her face and whispered. "Stay."
"I said I wou-" He kissed her, cutting her off. She pulled back in surprise just far enough to look at him. "Alex." She whispered. "What are you doing?" She could smell the wine on his breath, see the details of each of his unfairly long eyelashes. The closeness of their faces was so strange and so strangely familiar.
"I don't know." He breathed. "I'm sorry." He started to pull away.
Maren hadn't thought she felt anything for Alex anymore, but something made her pull him back. "No, it's okay. Stay." She said, kissing him and wrapping her arms around his neck, and once she had, they couldn't stop. It gave her the sensation that she had tipped some sort of balance, and now they were falling, rolling downhill.
She didn't think about it for too long, though, because his hands were on her lower back, pressing her tight against him, and his lips were on her neck, and between these sensations and the fuzziness from the wine, her brain had no room to think coherent thoughts. He lifted her onto the countertop and she wrapped her legs around his waist without hesitation. She quickly determined that in her current state she had neither the patience nor the dexterity to undo the little buttons on his shirt, so she just pulled it apart, hearing the strangely satisfying sound of buttons popping off and hitting the floor.
It wasn't until Alex's fingers were on the button of her jeans that he hesitated. He pulled back, breathing heavily, and whispered "Stop, stop. Wait, Mare." She did, and he murmured "Is this... okay?"
That was, she thought, what he had said that night when she was 17. She couldn't be sure, but there was a vague echo of memory to it. She nodded and looked into those big green eyes of his. "But only if you want to, Alex."
He answered by kissing her. He started to move back, and for a second, she thought he was pulling away, and started to release her hold on him, but he kept hold of her and lifted her off the counter. Apparently Maren was not the only one stronger than she looked, because he carried her, legs wrapped around his waist, to his bedroom.
The light woke Maren, and for a minute she was totally unsure of where she was. She slowly became aware, first, that she was naked, second, that this was not her bed, and third, that her head hurt like hell. As she opened her eyes, the events of the previous night came back to her. "Alex?" She asked groggily, noticing that the bed beside her was empty. Surely he hadn't simply left?
"Hi" his soft voice came from the side of the bed, behind her, and she turned. He was sitting in a chair, fully dressed, his hair damp from a shower. His expression was serious, but strangely unreadable.
"Good morning." She sat up against the headboard, keeping the blanket wrapped around her, covering her chest. Sober, and in the light of day, she was suddenly uncomfortable being naked in front of him. The light pierced through her eyes and she groaned. "Oh God, my head."
"There's a glass of water on the bedside table." He indicated with a tilt of his head. "You should have some." She did as he asked and drank the whole glass. "You can shower, if you want." He said, kindly, but also somewhat formally. So he did feel awkward about it. Shit. Of course he did. "Your clothes are here." He stood and placed the neatly folded pile of her clothes on the end of the bed. "I'm going to go make something for breakfast." He glanced at the clock. "Nearly lunch, now, I suppose." He smiled at her, but there was still tension in his face.
"Thank you, Alex."
He nodded and left the bedroom.
Maren showered, agonizing the whole time over how much Alex regretted having slept with her. He had just ended an engagement, after all, and to sleep with him, her best friend, really had been stupid. What horrible timing.
After having dressed in her clothes from the night before, she went to the kitchen, where Alex had made omelettes. Of course he had.
There was a long silence that grew increasingly uncomfortable until Alexander broke it, saying softly, "I'm sorry."
She sighed. "You regret last night."
"No!" Alex insisted. "I mean, not really. It's not that I regret it, it's that..."
"You're not over Jude." Maren finished.
Alex looked pained. "When I woke up this morning, for a second I thought you were her."
"Sorry to disappoint."
He winced. "No, I do care about you, it's just–"
Maren shook her head with a little laugh. "I'm kidding. I get it, Lexi. Don't feel bad. It's only been three weeks."
"Two weeks, six days." He muttered.
"It's alright. To be honest, I don't even know that I'm really over Jake yet, and it's been months. I understand. The timing is horrible for so many reasons."
"I do care about you, Mare. A lot. But to make you my rebound would be doing you a grave injustice. So for now I think we need to just be friends and I need to take time to try to move on and then maybe–"
"I'm going to India." Maren interrupted.
"we can see if– hold on, you're what?" He was completely taken aback.
"I'm going to be doing some work in India, for a few months. I'll be volunteering teaching maths and English at an under-funded primary school."
"You're... wow. When do you leave?"
"One week from yesterday. And I get back in May."
"May? So that's..."
"Five months." She sighed. "I know I should have said something last night, but it just... didn't come up."
"Five months." He asked, still trying to get past the shock of that.
"I know. But this way, we both get our time to work things out, and when I come back we can try to figure out what this is. Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's something." She sighed again, remembering the Alexander that had answered the door last night, clean and plastic and repressing all of his emotions. "Do you think you can start trying to get up and get over her?"
He smiled, a real, warm, Alexander smile. "Now that you've knocked me down?"
"And hopefully picked you back up a little too?"
He nodded. "No more not dealing with it." He looked around at his flat, at all the places where Jude had left her memory. "Danny and Ashleigh are getting engaged, and he told me yesterday he's selling his flat. I think I might buy it."
"I think that's a really good idea."
He smiled again. God she had missed that smile. "Come here." He enveloped her in a warm, tight hug. "Thank you, Mare."
"Any time, Lexi."