Teasers & Deleted ScenesWashington, D. C., October 27, 2008
Daphne Worth knows better. But she sits on the couch beside her wife in the half-unpacked living room, her laptop open on her knees, and every so often she switches away from her solitaire game and hits refresh one more time.
Even though she knows the blank white webpage with the one line of text at the top is not going to change.
That's probably healthier than her other option, which is rereading his last page of comments on her LiveJournal over and over again, and feeling the little sting every time she sees the black strikeout through his name.
She did something wrong, somewhere in that conversation. She doesn't know what it was, or wasn't. She doesn't know where she said it or didn't say it. But somewhere there, in black and white in the comment thread, is the evidence of how she failed him. She can tell it's there when she re-reads, even if she can't find it. There's a moment when his tone changes, when the defenses go up again, bright-edged and brittle.
Before then, they'd been having a conversation. He'd been as open as he'd been in months. And then he'd closed up like a jack-in-the-box, and she'd lost him.
She hopes she hasn't lost him for good.
Tricia is pretending to watch The Daily Show, feet tucked under Daphne's butt cheek, lying sideways so she pointedly can't see the computer monitor. Every so often her toes curl, a goofy sort of caress. Daphne reaches out left-handed and rubs Tricia's calf.
Because Tricia's here and Daphne can say it, she says, "I love you."
Tricia mutes the television. She stretches her shoulders back against the arm of the couch and says, "It's on him, you know. This isn't about you." She pauses. "You know how he feels about you."
One good abandonment of media distractions deserves another. Daphne shuts the laptop and bends down to slide it under the edge of the couch. "I know," she says, and even she can tell she doesn't sound like she believes it. She squeezes Tricia's leg, and closes her eyes. "I just wish--"
"You wish it never happened."
Daphne nods. Her eyes sting. She doesn't bite her cheek to keep from sniffling because Tricia will bang her on the arm if she pretends she's not crying. "Everything has been a trainwreck since--"
It's 11:30 at night. Jon Stewart is signing off. Stephen Colbert's intro is a lot more tolerable with the shrieking eagle silenced. There's no reason for anybody to be ringing the doorbell.
Much less knocking on the door.
Daphne's already on her feet by the time it registers why somebody would knock instead of ringing. Because he knew she would recognize the knock. Because he wanted to give her a moment or two to arrange her face or decide to pretend she wasn't home.
Because he was giving warning, and he didn't know--unless he'd guessed--that Hafidha had IMed her the flight information the second he'd gotten on the plane to come home. If he still thinks of it as home.
If he's planning on staying.
Daphne glances wildly at Tricia, looking for moral support, direction, something. Her heart thumps in her chest at an easy hundred and ten. Zero to panic reaction in one tenth of a second.
Tricia swings her feet down and stands up, so much more stately than Daphne. "Go answer the door," she says, vanishing barefoot towards the kitchen.
"Right," Daphne says, and turns to face it.
She steels herself before she checks the peephole. That glimpse is enough to kick her pulse into even higher gear. She pushes the handle and yanks the sticking door open.
He looks--good. Okay. Rested, for Christ's sake. Fresh haircut. A little less skinny, even, like somebody's been stuffing cake down his throat. His backpack rides his right shoulder, his right hand hooked through the strap. A duffel bag hangs at the end of his left arm. The bags and his shoulders are spangled with rain.
The fact that he's not dead makes her want to hit him, and they stand facing each other over the threshold for five or ten seconds before he clears his throat and says, "This is the part where I grovel."
"Fuck you," she says, and hauls him over the threshold by his coat. She hugs him, hard, while he drops the duffel and lets the backpack slide down his arm. It bangs her knee before he lets go of it and kicks the door shut behind him. She hears him flip the latch and then he's hugging her back, hard, smelling of airplane and Metro and cheeseburgers and rain. He's a damp armful of broomsticks and gristle wrapped up in a harsh black wool coat way too wintery for the weather, the only padding between them the squish of his sweater. Cool air clings to him like an envelope.
She sobs, and since Tricia's not here this time she bites her lip and shoves her face into his shoulder. His hand goes halfway around her skull when he tentatively cups the back of her head.
"Does this mean I can stay?"
"At least until I'm done killing you," she says, and gives him a squeeze before she steps back. "Come in, sit down. Where'd you go?"
"Vegas," he says, which is the truth.
She wants to ask if he's starving, but it's such a loaded question these days she doesn't dare. Besides, offers of food might be outside the new boundaries, whatever those boundaries are.
He glances at her for permission and shrugs the coat off. Underneath, he looks professional-casual, new jeans and a button-down shirt under a cranberry cable-knit sweater. Respectable for traveling. She pretends not to notice the fanny pack, or the fact that he doesn't strip it off and drop it over the chair by the door with his coat. She reaches out to take his arm and stops.
His shirt-sleeves are rolled up to mid forearm, the ridge of cloth forming a pair of retaining walls that keep the sweater rucked up above them. She hasn't seen him with his wrists uncovered since he got out of the hospital, and now for two or three seconds she stares.
Olive skin, browner than it has been. He got some sun, then, in Vegas. But what draws her gaze like a magnet is the liver-red scars, some surgical and some from the shackle galls. He's been taping his wrists at the gym, hiding them there, too.
They're ugly, but she's seen worse. The right wrist looks inflamed, skin reddened as if chafed and shiny as if oiled. It takes her a moment to realize that the darker-brown lines in the middle of the angry patch aren't more scarring, but ink.
She yanks her gaze away, realizes they're standing by the sofa, and lets her legs sag under her so she thumps down on it. If she did that in front of her father, he would give her a look.
"Sorry," she says. "Chaz, I--"
He shrugs, and folds himself up like a Jacob's ladder to sit down beside her. "My own fault. If I had just... not tried to hide them, everybody would be over it by now." But it bothers him. His voice thins a little in mid-sentence, as if his throat doesn't want to let the words pass. Tomorrow, she thinks, the sleeves will be buttoned again.
She glances to the right, toward the hallway to the kitchen, where she can hear Tricia shaking beans into the coffee grinder. When she looks back at Chaz, he's grinning, lips stretched over crooked teeth. "I saw on your blog you won the bet."
"I wasn't smart enough to bet anything!"
"There was beer involved in the making of that wager."
He was there; of course he knows that. For a dizzy moment she wobbles between then with him, and now with him, and sees in the past six days a chasm she can't bridge. She thought she knew him. She hadn't thought he would ditch his friends like a dog slips a collar.
But he came back. That's enough solid ground to start.
"So... You read the blog." It's a hedgehog thought, hard to touch. He was watching from out of sight.
"Just this morning." His left hand covers his right; his left thumb stretches toward the inflamed patch, stops, tucks under his fingers instead. He frowns. "You don't have to leave me coded notes on the internet. It's okay to say those things to me."
"I couldn't say anything to you. You weren't here. And as far as I know, saying things like that was what made you leave."
His head jerks up. "You didn't make me. People leave. It happens."
Oh. It's like the strobe-flash of lightning. Oh, Chaz.
The coffee grinder stops growling; she hears Tricia knock the results into the filter. So many things she can say, and so many of them exactly wrong. "They can. Sometimes they don't have a choice. Like my mom. But at least I got to say goodbye to her."
And maybe that's the point: he didn't get that. If he has to hurt, at least he'll have company. But back when she thought she knew him, she would have said he didn't take comfort from other people's pain.
She can see when he hears what she's saying. His eyes close like fists, and his fists open to let his fingers clench white-tipped on his thighs. She wants to take it back, and bites her cheek so she won't try to do it.
His indrawn breath sounds like something being dragged. "I was... I didn't want to do anything I'd regret." He blinks, and she barely sees the shine in his eyes before it's gone. "So instead I did something I regret." The corners of his mouth deepen, twist until they form the frog-grimace she'd once made fun of. She might never have seen it again. The thought feels like an Xacto knife blade loose in her chest cavity.
"You mean that doesn't always happen? Dude, I must be doing something wrong."
He smiles, but he doesn't laugh. He reaches for his right wrist again--is that ink?--but his hand changes direction, abrupt and graceless, and scratches his nose instead. "You don't have to let me off easy."
"I'm not letting you off. I want--" I want to yell at you for hurting me. But I never yell, because that leads to hurt all 'round. Why does that sound familiar? In the kitchen, the refrigerator door opens, and she remembers.
"Chaz. You know the fight Tricia and I had, after the Fourth of July barbecue?"
He nods, wary.
"It was about... She said I didn't have to be real for everybody, but I had to be real for her."
He draws his feet in against the front of the sofa, hikes his shoulders. His mouth is thinned and crooked. "Daph, I don't think--"
"I know. You don't-- Nobody's in a position to ask that from you. I'm just saying, you don't have to choose between 'Everything's great' and 'I'm going to go away and come back when I can pretend everything's great.'"
He meets her eyes, and his voice is mild when he says, "I wasn't going to come back."
"I know." They all knew, though she's damned if she's sure how, exactly. No one said it aloud. Even so, hearing it from him has the force of a kick. "Thank you for doing it. Saying goodbye isn't my absolute favorite thing, but it beats the alternative."
"Goodbye?" The word rises to a squeak at the end, which she's pretty sure he hadn't intended.
"It wasn't like I could have missed what happened last week. If you don't want to do the job anymore, it doesn't matter that we think you're doing fine." She almost says, under the circumstances, but that would be faint praise, and unfair. "I could tell you that it doesn't matter where you work, that you're still my best friend. So, okay. I can still be your friend if you're in Vegas, too. We don't have to live in the same city or--"
She hadn't mean that, hadn't meant to offer that. She sounds desperate, and she knows exactly what will happen if she gets grabby: Chaz will vanish like smoke waved by a hand, insubstantial, leaving not even a ghost of warmth. And it hurts that he left and she hasn't forgiven him, but it hurts even more to think that he might become somebody she used to know, and wonders what ever became of.
"Harpy," he says. "I didn't come back to say goodbye."
That stops her dead, a flare of hope and then more anger. If you get angry at the hope, it goes away, and you don't have to live with it getting dashed. "Then why did you come back?"
"I came back because I'm coming back." He shakes his head and knuckles his mouth. "If Falkner hasn't filed any paperwork yet. But I wanted to talk to you first and make sure..." He takes a deep breath. "I wanted to make sure it was okay."
She sits back against the cushions, hands between her knees. Her knees are covered in blue cotton flannel printed with white clouds and yellow stars. Her pajamas. She totally doesn't care. She doesn't care how Chaz sees her. "Okay?"
"If you don't want me to come back, I understand." He looks down. "I know I blew it. I'm sorry. I just never had anybody who would care if I came back, before. Or who wanted me around if everything wasn't great."
It's not his voice she hears in her head when she realizes what he means. It's her dead brother Kenny's, mocking and condescending. Arch. Shocking though it is, Daffy, there are whole countries of the world that do not revolve around you. But he'd always been at the center of her family's orbit.
Had it ever occurred to Chaz that something might revolve around him?
She clears her throat, because it needs doing. "You didn't want to presume."
"People project their own drama on others," he says. "I was tired of being a burden."
This time, it is his voice she hears, plain as if he'd spoken it out loud. It's her profiler nature, but it doesn't change what she knows.
Because it's her job, she knows what to say. "Nobody ever wanted you before."
His mouth compresses, as if his lips could hold the words inside. She sees him make the choice to speak. "Unwanted kids, right? It's its own cliché. Most people are too polite to say it to your face. Maybe it's the attachment disorder talking--"
"Chaz," she says, "don't be an idiot. You don't have attachment disorder."
"I have the diagnosis," he says, dryly.
She wants to hit him for a different reason, this time. "Yeah, and that's worth exactly whatever the diploma-mill graduate who hung it around your neck got paid. You're not a burden. And you don't have to be perfect all the time."
"Don't I?" He elevates one eyebrow like Mr. Spock. "You think I don't know what people say? Villette was always weird, but since he got hurt, he's a fucking basket case. Would you trust that with a gun?"
His voice is a cruelly accurate mockery of a flat mid-Atlantic twang, and she wonders when he learned to do accents. "In case you had not noticed, Stanley 'Blaze' Murchison does not speak for the entirety of the Justice Department. Thank God. And when I tell Hafs he said that, he's going to wish I'd just put itching powder in his shorts."
She'd meant it as an empty threat, but Chaz flinches. "Don't," he says. "Don't even joke, please. He may have said it, but other people were thinking it. And they're going to keep thinking it no matter what I do. They expect me to break. And they've got no damned sympathy for any expression of the struggle not to, because it reminds them that it could happen to any of us. Projective denial is fucking ugly, okay?"
She reaches out, finally, and manages to touch his forearm, above the rolled cuff so she's stroking only cloth. "They're scared."
"They think I'm tiresome," he says.
She smiles. "Funny. I feel the same way about them."
He leans forward over his knees, splays his hands out in the air in front of him. She eyes the angry patch of skin again. It really looks like ink. Because he's hunched forward, when he turns his head to look at her, it's parallel to the floor. His trimmed, shining hair flops into his eyes, and he sticks out his lower lip and blows it aside. He says, "When you were Down the Hall, did they know you...that you kept secrets from them?"
"Probably. Everybody has secrets. They maybe even guessed mine. But there's a difference between guessing and being told."
"But...you told us."
She snorts. "If I hadn't, you would have thought I didn't trust you with them."
A muscle pops into relief in his jaw; a tendon pulls tight in his neck. And she remembers his words: I promise to never make you regret that you trust me. This is where she lost him in that on-line conversation. This is the thing that hurts too much to touch.
Under a clatter of plates from the kitchen, she tells him, "It's my choice, who I trust and how much. Don't you dare try to protect me from myself. I'm a goddamn grownup."
Her heart's trying to climb up her throat. That's the problem with stuffing emotions: the cork blows out of the bottle at the worst possible moment. Like, when you're so glad to get your best friend back you can't help but snap at him and lose him forever.
If he were the coyote they call him, his ears would be drooping. He ducks his head between his shoulders. "I didn't mean to be a patronizing, patriarchal dipstick."
He doesn't meant to be funny, either. She can tell. But the phrase is too much for her. She tries to turn her giggle into a cough.
"And I won't do it again."
Tricia squeezes down the dark passageway with a tray and three bottles of beer, sweating necks slotted between her spread fingers. "Thank God you're back," she announces, and clanks the tray down on the coffee table. "I was scared to death we were going to have to plan the kitchen remodel without you." She hands him an open beer. When he reaches for it, she catches one of his fingers, holds on, and stares into his face. He stares back.
It occurs to Daphne to wonder, Is that about me?
Chaz nods, a jerk of the head. "That hallway's got to go."
The tray is heaped with pastrami and smoked turkey, split bagels, jars of brown mustard and mayo, deli salads, olives. A carafe that smells like heaven and three coffee cups beside it; caffeine to go with the alcohol. Even to herself, Daphne hadn't admitted why she'd kept the fridge full of food for a week. But Tricia had guessed. Break out the feast. He's come home.
"Mangia," Tricia orders. "If the luggage at the door is anything to go by, you haven't even been home yet."
Daphne blinks. Tricia shakes her head at her. "Some profiler you are."
Chaz's grin is shy but genuine. He reaches for a salt bagel, and Daphne catches herself sneaking another glance at his wrist. Dammit, Daphs. Just ask. She looks him in the eye. "Chaz? Is that a tattoo?"
"Yep." He devotes himself completely to spreading mustard.
"You got it in Las Vegas?"
Smoked turkey. "Uh-huh."
For the third time in one evening, she wants to hit him; it's a record. "Conformist."
He glances up, startled.
"Well, all the other climber boys have ink."
He lowers one eyebrow and flattens his mouth. "You're being mean."
"So are you!" She hands him the potato salad in apology and asks, gentler, "What is it?"
Chaz ducks his head. This time he touches the mark lightly with a fingertip and frowns as if the contact stings. From the inflammation, it probably does. The tone of the ink is only a little darker than his suntanned skin. When the hurt fades, it'll be nearly invisible.
He says, "Cultural appropriation. Chinese character. For--" He clears his throat. He's still hoarse when he says, "'Sufficient.'"
By her estimate, it's near the healed fracture in his wrist--maybe directly over it. She reaches, and is surprised when he doesn't twitch away. In her own turn, she brushes her index finger over the character, feels the heat of fresh injury, the slickness of lotion and lymph.
It wasn't something she said, or didn't say. She would have done anything to fix the broken thing that made him leave, but anything she did would have made it worse. He had to do it for himself.
Her chest hurts, and her throat, but she doesn't cry, because that's not what he needs from her now. Breathe in, breathe out, move forward. "'Sufficient,'" she echoes. "Yeah."