It was a tense meal. Silence filled the space between the three of them, broken only by the sound of forks scraping against the plates and the occasional far too loud request of 'pass the dinner rolls' or ' more green beans please' followed by an automatic and meaningless 'thanks'. None of them made eye contact and when it happened by chance they were quick to look away. There was so much to be said, conversations waiting that were more than a year overdue. He had missed too much, gone through too much to know where to start and neither John nor Rose was willing to throw him a lifeline. If anything, Rose looked almost as anxious as he felt, an alarming change from her usual controlled, almost emotionless demeanor. She was as good at hiding what she felt as he was bad at it. John looked angry of course, he was in his teens, wasn't he, and wasn't every boy angry at that stage of their life?
Jack knew that he had been angry most of the time when he was the age John was now. Maybe he was projecting, maybe it wasn't normal for a teenager to be angry. He looked at Rose, hoping for some hint of what he was supposed to say and this time she relented.
"John's been having trouble in school again," she kept her voice even, almost upbeat, possibly to reassure that the trouble wasn't anything too bad.
Jack got the message, or at least he thought he did, "What sort of trouble?"
He directed his question at John who slumped down slightly in his chair, "It's nothing."
"Hey, it's got to be something, otherwise it wouldn't be trouble, right?" This seemed enough like what was supposed to happen at a normal family meal that he let his guard down. He could handle this, being a father, even if he had spent the past year avoiding all contact with them while he tried to make sense of everything.
The look John gave him spoke volumes. Contempt, exasperation, all boiling down to the message of 'you don't understand and you never will'. That look reminded him of why he hated children. Not all children, not John of course, or Sunny or George or any of the other kids he had rescued from Desperado, just most kids, kids from developed nations who never knew real want or real fear and reminded him of everything he had been through even after all these years. Kids like John, but not John. Never John, even if he was part of what Jack had been avoiding by staying away from his family. He just needed time to come to terms with all that had happened.
"He's been getting into fights in school," Rose prompted, doing what she was best at and trying to take control of a situation on the edge of disaster. That was what she was best at, balancing on the edge of catastrophe without ever ending up in danger herself from working for the Patriots to maneuvering through the collapse of the American economy and the rise of global chaos. Jack had to wonder if that skill of hers was why they endured together. She could take all the darkness in stride because it would never touch her. No situation existed that she was unable to escape from. He loved and envied her for that.
"I'm not –" John started to protest, but Jack cut him off, ready to get back into the role of being a father.
"What have I told you about getting into fights?" Jack regretted the words the instant he heard himself say them. He had phrased it poorly, using 'I' instead of the safer 'we'. What he had said about fighting was bound to be different than what Rose had said, even if he couldn't recall exactly what he had said, if anything at all.
John didn't miss it either. He slunk down farther in his chair, putting his chin level with his plate he muttered almost too quietly to be heard, "That it's not over until someone's bleeding on the ground and if I don't – "
"That's enough," this time Rose cut him off, "Let's keep the conversation pleasant."
The rest of the meal took place in an awkward silence so dense and oppressive that it felt suffocating.
John finished first, pushing away from the table without asking to be excused and storming off to his room.
"I don't know what to do," Jack sighed, not realizing that he had been sitting there with his hands clenched into fists until he forced himself to relax.
Rose gave him her best comforting smile, one of the ones that almost reached her eyes, "It's because he misses you. He needs you to be there for him, even if he's not going to admit it."
"Yeah, right," he spoke just a bit too sharply, but Rose never even flinched. They knew each other too well at this point. With any other couple their relationship would have been long past the breaking point, Jack knew enough about normal people to know that, but they stayed together for no reason that he could see or understand, "I've ruined it, haven't I?"
Muffled noises came from John's room, sounds that he couldn't quite place.
"He's been after me to get him a TV for his room, Last month I finally gave in," Rose offered in place of an answer to his question, "He practically lives in there now, playing videogames and talking to his friends. He's got enough friends at school that I don't worry."
It wasn't that she was trying to be evasive, he knew her well enough to know the little tells when she was deliberately avoiding answering a question. She was trying to be reassuring when neither of them knew what he wanted reassurance about. John was just a convenient subject for the conversation. Jack cared about his son and wife, he knew he did because of how he felt about them, all of what he felt, good and bad.
The volume of the television got louder, causing Rose to roll her eyes.
Jack laughed, understanding exactly what was going on, "He's trying to get a response, isn't he?"
"Yes," Rose smiled back, "He's like you that way."
"Nah," Jack leaned back in his chair, "I'm better at it than he is. More practice and between you and all the counselors I went to when I was young I know all the tricks. Or do you want me to go confront him like he wants?"
"What do you think?" Rose countered, placing responsibility back on him.
"Honestly?" he stopped to give the question some thought, "We're probably the two worst people to be raising a kid."
"I know," Rose looked down at the table as she spoke, not because she was unable to look at him, but because she was so used to keeping up the act she always put for the rest of the world that it took her time to remember that she could drop it around him, "But he's going to turn out okay. We'll manage together, somehow."
There, they had both said what needed to be said about that part of the situation and it was time for them to move on to the real conversation, the one that they had been waiting for all through dinner. Now they were going to the point of no return, where everything was laid out and picked over until they had an answer.
What he was about to say was something he had been dreading because no matter what the outcome it was going to be difficult for him. He felt like he should have been shaking, but the cyborg body he was in right now didn't allow for such delicate expressions of stress. Thanks to his decision to stop using any sort of inhibitors he was a mess of emotions, many of them contradictory. He almost regretted that decision, missing the sort of dull, drugged state of near stupor to once again having all the worst parts of him pushed to the surface again. When he was properly, artificially, regulated he was a much easier person to be around, but with the numbing of the bad came the loss of the good. During those times he felt dead, only going through the motions without actually feeling anything positive or negative. It had let him be a good husband, getting a job to provide for his family and do all the right things, but even properly numbed and deluded he had started to drift back. Now he felt alive again, a mess, but alive.
The sounds from John's TV were louder than ever. Whatever videogame he was playing, it sounded violent and he had rap music blaring over it all. Jack couldn't make out the exact lyrics, just that they were distracting and offensive, as was the nature of the music. Rose looked at him expectantly, letting him know he had been too quiet for too long.
No sense in trying to soften it then, better to just get it out, "When you say together what do you mean? Together with me here or the two of you together with me just sending money when I get paid?"
"It would be better for John to have a father, but if you don't think you –"
He slammed his hand down on the table, open palmed so there was more noise than force, effectively stopping Rose mid justification. She could be such an evasive bitch sometimes, he'd forgotten that, or maybe it was one of the things he had tried to ignore about her, just like she ignored all the things wrong with him, or at least all the things he had let slip. Right now he was showing some of those things more freely than he liked, but maybe it was time she knew. Maybe he'd been lying to himself for too long. The things he'd been doing lately, it was harder than he remembered to compartmentalize work and family.
"I gave you two choices," he started again, "Pick one or the other."
There was no way he was going to let her put that responsibility on him, not when he didn't know the answer himself. He wanted to be John's father, to be a good father, but he also wanted to protect John, especially from people like himself. Rose had shown him that the most effective way to do that was for him to not be a part of their lives, but without her he had fallen into a near suicidal madness.
"You don't scare me Jack," she looked him right in the eye, finally dropping the act and allowing him to see through the mask she wore so much better than him.
"Really?" he had no idea where he was going, challenging her like this, but it felt good and maybe that was reason enough, "You were never afraid?"
"I didn't say that," she remained sitting, even as he stood up to lean across the table at her, "You don't scare me right now."
He was doing the same thing as John, trying to provoke a response, but like he had said earlier, he was better, "There was a time that I wanted to kill the two of you. I spent a lot of time thinking about which of you was going to have to watch what I did to the other."
"That was because of all the lies I told when I left you," it was a statement, not a question, delivered in a calm, even tone with no room for doubt, "But you're not going to do that now."
So she did know him better than he had wanted to think, but that was what she was good at, reading people. It had been her job after all, he was just a project that she had taken home and…and something had happened maybe between the two of them, maybe between her and the Patriots. It was hard for him to believe that she could love someone like him, damaged as he was if she knew him as well as she thought she did.
"I nearly accepted Armstrong's offer. Some of what he said was reasonable. I even agreed with parts of it," he cited a more recent transgression, not bothering to mention that what had stopped him was thinking of John and her rather than everyone else who would suffer.
"But something stopped you," she smiled at him, a sad, tired little smile to let him know that she was getting bored with the direction conversation. The message was clear, she expected him to get to the point he was trying to make or drop it all so that they could go back to pretending.
That left him with only one thing, an ongoing truth that he had been loath to admit for years, even to himself, "I enjoy what I do. I'm not talking about anything noble, like how I'm helping protect people unable to defend themselves. That's just a side effect. I like the violence, I like the killing."
She couldn't have surprised him more if she had reached across the table and punched him in the face.
"You know?" he repeated dumbly, feeling the situation starting to spiral out of his control, "Since when?"
"Practically from the start," her smile was anything but sweet, yet somehow perfectly embodied what he loved about her. Not just the shallow, superficial things that he pretended to like about her, but the dark, poison love that had made him want to kill both her and himself when he had thought that it was over between them. This was the woman he had wanted to kill and kill for.
"How?" he had been so careful back them, dutifully ashamed of who he had been and using every trick every psychologist he had ever been to taught him so he could keep it that way. Rose was a master at reading people, true, but if she had known from the start did it mean she was so dutiful in following the Patriots orders that she was able to pretend to love a sociopath or did it mean that she actually cared about him?
"Remember the first time we had sex?" she urged softly, still letting her true self show through, the parts of her that were almost as dark and wrong as his entirety.
"Yes," he answered too quickly even for himself to believe what he was saying.
"You're not that good at blocking things out Jack, even if you pretend you are," there was some small trace of pity in her voice, genuine too, which made it all the worse, "Tell me what you remember."
"It was your idea," he had no idea why he was trying to absolve himself of responsibility when earlier he had been trying to convince her that he was every bit as horrible as he truly was, "We made love in your bed because I didn't want to take you to my place for the night, but I didn't want to be alone either."
"Jack," she laughed, warmly, lovingly, "Please don't beat yourself up over it, just tell me what happened."
"It was the only time you let me be on top," he offered, hoping that she'd let it drop at that. If that was when he had slipped up and revealed himself to her he didn't want to think about exactly what he must have done on that frantic night. He didn't trust his memories of it at all, especially since he hadn't even been thinking about Rose for most of it.
"Yes, it was, but why?" she smiled, leaning in a little.
She was teasing him, he couldn't believe it, she was teasing him, and about something like that. He looked away and muttered something vague about his not being very good in bed.
"I'll give you that. Getting you to do anything was like pulling teeth, especially after that first time, which is why I know you remember," she coaxed gently, much in the same way she did when she was trying to get him to make love to her.
"Alright, alright," he put up his hands in defeat, "I tried my best, to do everything right, but I couldn't help myself. My mind started to wander and I ended up thinking about another time. I don't want to talk about that though."
He hoped that what she recalled was far more romantic than what he was fairly certain had happened, given that he had been trying desperately to think of things to keep it up, anything other than the incident that had been the cause of just about every poorly repressed fantasy since he had hit puberty. Of course the harder he tried to push that incident from his mind the harder it was not to think about it until it was the only thing there.
When he had been a child he and some of the other boys had a bit of fun with a woman they had caught during a raid on some small village or another. They had taken turns holding her down and doing the best they could with her. She was much older than any of them, old enough to be his mother, which had been an important part of the fun, playing at being men. Young as they all were they couldn't do much and it was mostly just violence. As inept as they were at being men, they were enthusiastic with their violent game and she died or passed out before he gotten his chance with her. That had been the end of the game, but they talked about it for weeks afterwards, boasting about what they had managed to do to her. It had gotten them a great deal of respect from the boys, even if he had never gotten to do much more than hold one of her legs and watch.
"You started out saying and doing all the right things, but you were just going through the motions. You had your eyes closed and I could tell you were a million miles away even as you tried to make love to me. I could see it all because you wouldn't let me turn the lights out. You were muttering sweet nothings the whole time, which is exactly what they were, until it was just so many sounds, then out of nowhere you smiled," she smiled at the memory and for a moment Jack felt a flicker of something not quite hope and not quite dread, "You opened your eyes and looked right at me and said 'my turn'. I could tell you weren't seeing me, even with your eyes open, but at that moment you were there, more there than you'd been since the beginning. You got rough after that, not that I minded. I enjoyed it, getting the chance to really see you, even if you left bruises all over my chest from grabbing me so hard and I thought you were going to strangle me at the very end."
"I'm sorry," he muttered, slumping down in his chair just as John had earlier. He was sorry too, just not in the right way. He was sorry about frightening Rose, but not about the rest of it, not about thinking about the game or even for what he had done to the woman "I didn't want to scare you. I appreciate that you kept trying though, even if you had to be on top so you could get away if I lost control again."
"Jack," she reached across the table and took his face in her hands, running her thumbs along the line where synthetic skin met real flesh, "Sometimes you're your own worst enemy. It's not about that and you're not as horrible as you pretend you are. You were a wreck the whole rest of the night, shaking like a leaf and so frantic that I was afraid to let you drive home. I had to sit up the whole night with you on the sofa, just holding you with every light in the house on."
"So why did you…" he trailed off, putting his hands over hers, "Why did you stay with me after that?"
"Because I saw the real you and I was selfish enough that I wanted to know you, all of you, even if you didn't want me to. Besides," she slipped her hands out from under his to run a finger across his lips, "You're remembering it wrong. Whatever story you made up for yourself about me wanting to escape is just you projecting. You were the one who insisted I be on top from then on. That's why I was never afraid of you, even if you were. I knew you didn't really want to hurt me."
He gently pushed her hands away, "Didn't I just tell you that I was ready to kill both you and John?"
The threat was more playful than anything else, a test just to see if she was sincere.
"Yes, but you didn't and since then you've had plenty of opportunities," she teased back, managing to grab the front of his shirt and start unbuttoning it before he could stop her. As always she was the one initiating the romance and for once he was willing to go along without a struggle. It was like meeting each other again for the first time and falling in love all over again, except this time it was real, no masks, no pretending, just the two of them in their entirety.
"Alright, you've got me there," he laughed, "but don't you think John might hear us?"
"He's in his room playing videogames and chatting to all his friends through a headset," she had moved on to unzipping his fly, undeterred by the reminder of her son being just down the hall, "The house could fall down around him and he'd never notice unless the power cut out."
"That's good," Jack pulled her in close, hugging her against him far tighter than he normally did. For once, despite the deadened involuntary responses that typically came with the civilian model cyborg body he was in he was ready without any of the usual coaxing it took from Rose, "Because we're going to find out if you were serious about you wanting to know me and loving me despite everything."
"Oh?" she arched a quizzical eyebrow.
"Yeah," he effortlessly shifted his grip on her, holding both her wrists together with one hand and holding his pants up with the other, "You're probably going to get pretty loud."
"Am I now?" she was calm despite the obvious threat, more than calm, she was excited.
He smiled wickedly at her, "I'm going to be on top this time. Feel free to scream and struggle if I get rough."
Without another word he started pulling her roughly toward their bedroom. Rose followed, silent but eager.