"We're not lost." Wilson leaned forward slightly, peering at the nearest road sign as they rolled to a stop at the intersection.
House let his head clunk against the passenger-side window. Wilson had gotten wise to his tricks somewhere around the Mason-Dixon line, so escape was a pretty faint hope. The only options left were either to bash his skull to fragments against the safety glass, or simply drop dead of apathy when Wilson took the same left turn at the same 7-Eleven for the third time in a row. House was the one who wanted to avoid the soul-crushing despair of pretending to care that John House was dead, and even he was beginning to think that the genuine and honest suggestion of a right turn might be the only way they'd ever escape this traffic moebius strip.
Maybe after all these years Wilson had learned to read House's mind, because he shot a dark, suspicious frown at the 7-Eleven and signalled right. House clamped down on a loud sigh of "Oh my God, finally." They turned on to a quiet, tree-lined street. The GPS attached to the dash chirped, "Direito, sete quilômetros."
"This is your fault," Wilson muttered.
"Oh, who buys a GPS with factory settings in Brazilian Portuguese?" House asked. Spanish, at least, he'd understand. He could have 'helpfully' translated until he'd turned them in so many circles that Wilson would have driven them back to Princeton before he noticed. The androgynous, modulated voice directing them had an accent House couldn't pin down. If he'd known, he would have played a better prank. One that was reversible outside an authorized dealership.
"Direito, um quilômetro," the GPS offered.
Wilson compressed his lips, looking prepared to navigate by dead reckoning. House spared a wishful thought for a backpack full of camping gear and enough dehydrated meals to last a month. Or a compass. Wilson hesitated at a four-way stop and the car behind them gave an impatient tap of its horn. Wilson frowned and headed straight through the intersection.
They were so lost. "I can't believe you drugged me," House said. Again. Despite a cup of strong coffee, the world blurred at the edges, a little distant, and House hadn't had the compensatory fun of getting drunk. Or enjoying Cuddy's hands on his ass when she'd stuck him with that needle.
"Otherwise you wouldn't have come," Wilson said, his stock answer at this point, after they'd driven two hundred miles out of their way via a police station's booking room. He squinted at the road. They'd circled around to the four-way stop again, this time from the other side. "Esquerdo," advised the GPS.
"Make a choice for myself?" House asked. "I thought you'd given up telling me how to live my life. Or that's what I took 'we're not friends' to mean, coming from you."
Wilson tightened his hands on the steering wheel. House fought the insane urge to fidget and start drumming his hands on the dashboard. After a day in the car together, pushing him at every opportunity, he'd worn Wilson thin. It was an uncomfortable victory, one that left him staring at the seams and cracks in Wilson's armour. His suit was rumpled and his jaw muscles tensed every time House shifted. He stepped on the gas and pulled a completely un-warned-for left. "I am not interfering."
"Yeah, I've always suspected chloral hydrate is the work of a disinterested acquaintance." House stared balefully out the window. Maybe he wouldn't act like a child if Wilson and Cuddy didn't treat him like one. Or maybe Wilson and Cuddy wouldn't treat him like a child if he didn't act like one. That argument was too deeply entrenched to be shifted over one minor kidnapping charge. If House was being honest--a trap he hated, but that he sometimes got mired in despite himself--it was good to know that Wilson cared. If he wanted to pretend he was going to these lengths for Blythe's sake, House would let him. They both knew the truth.
A well-groomed lawn drew up on their right. Facing straight ahead, House didn't acknowledge it, as if that would keep Wilson on the road to nowhere, but the tasteful setting of the funeral home was impossible to miss. Wilson sighed with relief and parked across the street. With slow deliberation, he switched off the ignition and turned to House with a dark, portentous stare. House met Wilson's eyes and let it show: his defeat, his baffled anger, all the years of bitter, blunted dislike; just how much he didn't want to grieve a man who wasn't even related to him. Wilson's face softened fractionally, but one pathetic look from House didn't touch his determination. Maybe he'd spent the summer growing a spine from stem cells Amber left him. Maybe he thought that he knew what was best for House, one last time. Either way, when he climbed out of the car, House gave in and opened his door too.
His leg spasmed as he stood up. House reached down to rub the muscle, controlling it with a grimace. His back ached from the hours in the car. Pain shot down his sciatic nerve as he straightened, hip to calf to spine, then radiated up and knotted in his right shoulder. If Wilson thought it was another deliberate stall, he didn't mention it. Maybe he knew it was real, which only proved that they were friends, no matter what Wilson had decided. But House was finished with begging, with apologizing, and with acting like the accident was his fault.
Wilson, his face set in a closed blank, came around the hood of the car and handed him a tie. House took it, a lynching rope in somber blue silk. By now, he doubted Wilson would stop at wrestling House to the ground and garotting him with the damn thing if House made one more false move. House handed over his cane and leaned against the car as he lifted his collar up and slipped the tie around his neck. Tying the knot without a mirror was awkward as hell, but he got it done. Wilson kept his cane out of reach while he moved in to straighten the knot and even the tails. He tugged House's collar into place with a fussy look on his face.
"I don't know how many times I have to tell you, asphyxiation's not my kink," House said at last. The pressure against his larynx was the least of the revenge Wilson could have taken, but it wasn't any more more pleasant because of that.
With a 'don't embarrass me in front of your mother' warning look, Wilson handed over his cane. The unspoken contract was perfectly understandable; if House took the cane, he was promising to behave. At least for the next five minutes. A quick study of Wilson's face showed that he wasn't budging. House scowled and pulled at the cane. Wilson relinquished it, and they turned in step to cross the street to the funeral home.
House sucked in a breath as if it would defend him against what they were about to face. The sun warmed the back of his head and his shoulders, and the trees hadn't even thought about turning yet. The first brush of fall had cleared out the still, muggy weather of a Kentucky summer, and left behind a dry, spicy heat. The funeral home, Shady Groves or Peaceful Glen or Somnolent Garden or whatever it was called, was a rambling, colonial building with a wide veranda inside a colonnade. Saplings dotted the pristine green lawn, planted in honour of whatever dead people wanted to be reincarnated as acorns. It was exactly the kind of solemn, self-satisfied atmosphere that House hated, with its implication that everybody died in hushed dignity and was buried in stately ceremony with a watercolour wash of non-denominational religion brushed over the entire proceedings. The funeral home workers probably envisaged God as an anthropomorphic, unsatisfied father with impossible standards and no more communicative ability than a water buffalo, who sat on his oaken throne and judged everybody who set foot inside.
House wrinkled his nose at the stairs. Wilson had been keeping him on a short leash during the trip, doling out Vicodin at the prescribed rate of one pill every four hours. That dosage hadn't cut through even the superficial pain for years. Any last-minute delay was a point for his side, so House took the humiliating, but longer, route up the wheelchair ramp. The front doors stood open, taking advantage of any moving air. With Wilson, a solid shadow just behind his shoulder, blocking his retreat, House walked inside. The dark wood panelling cut the morning sunlight to dimness, and several slow fans waved the air into motion. Knots of Army officers, grey-haired and straight-backed, stood sentry around the hallway with wine glasses in their hands. There had better be an open bar around here somewhere. House hadn't been surrounded by this many crisp uniforms on deluded patriots since college provided an unanswerable escape from John House's postings. Like convenience store rentacops, they all had their eyes on him, waiting for him to make a wrong move. House set his face in a sneer, and, once his eyes had adjusted, he looked around impatiently for Blythe.
The person he saw instead made his heart stop. House's mind felt wildly blank, words and feelings darting away from his grasp like minnows. "Stacy," he said, on some kind of auto-pilot. The instant he'd seen her, his breath had rushed out as fast as if he'd been punched in the gut, and suddenly it wasn't his leg that had him leaning hard on his cane. Wilson couldn't have known. If he had, House would kill him. Dragging House to John's funeral was one thing, but forcing an encounter like this--no, it wasn't Wilson's style. Behind him, Wilson had frozen too. House glanced at him quickly for confirmation, and got it--Wilson's gape was as stupid-looking as House's had to be.
Stacy stood in the center of the hall as if he'd somehow dreamed her into existence. She was wearing a black dress, one that he remembered, that stayed in the back of her closet, to be pulled out and agonized over at each close-but-not-that-close funeral, and eventually kept for just one more serious function. She looked beautiful, and it wasn't fair, to find her here, her skin picking up the glow of the sunlight streaming in from the door behind him. Her eyes dark with makeup but also tiredness, as though her sadness was real. It had to be more real than his, for her to have come all this way.
"Greg," she answered, and stepped forward, as if it was the only thing she could think to do in this moment. Her mouth had opened when she saw him, her eyes shining with a soft dismay. She had to have known that he'd be here, but she looked as stunned as if they'd run into each other on Mars.
House swallowed. Some part of his mind was still windmilling for an explanation. The last time she'd appeared in his life out of nowhere, he'd felt the same shocked flood of memories; seeing her knocked the props out from under the dam he'd built so carefully to hold them back. His heart raced and his stomach knotted with the same butterflies that had kicked up when he realized he'd forgiven her, after all. At last, and when it was far too late. He was always too late around her. Too late to forgive; to late to tell her to pick him, love him, no matter how he tried to send her away.
Last time she'd shown up she'd had Mark's X-rays in an envelope under her arm. Now there was nothing, no reason, and yet she was there. In some weird reversal of a gunslinger's duel, their steps matched as they walked towards each other, until they met in the middle of the wide, hushed hall. Wilson cleared his throat and took a discreet step sideways, leaving them with some illusion of privacy. Despite the murmur of conversation around them, House felt like they'd met in an abandoned building. He was close enough to breathe the familiar scent of her perfume and to see the slight tremble in her eyes, to read her pulse there.
"Hello, Greg," she said, and her voice was level and smooth. Whatever she was feeling, she wouldn't let it show easily. "I'm so sorry about your father."
House twisted his face into a grimace. The first year they'd been invited to Leavenworth for Christmas, Stacy had tried the same argument on him that Wilson had. House hadn't fallen for it then, either. Love as a biological imperative didn't fly in his case. "Thanks," he said. "But you know better than that."
"All right, I'm not sorry, if that helps you more," Stacy said. She hadn't wanted to believe it at first, but he'd worn her down with the evidence. That didn't mean she'd be willing to acknowledge the truth out loud while they were surrounded by John House's army buddies and second cousins. She paused, and House couldn't help tracing every line of her face in his mind again, as if there was some detail he might have forgotten. Her mouth was set in a wide, sad line, and her eyes were dark with uncertainty. "I didn't know you'd be here," she said.
House's shoulders tightened. He was good at reading her, although he was out of practice, but no matter how sincere she seemed, he couldn't believe that. "Mom asked me to come."
"That's not a guarantee of anything, with you," Stacy said.
His thoughts were still moving in slow motion, but the possibilities were limited. "She called you," he said. He couldn't believe it. Blythe had always approved of Stacy, but at the same time, she had a firm grasp on reality. Blythe had taken her time hoping that their separation was temporary, but she'd finally accepted that they weren't getting back together. House shook his head. Whatever Blythe's reasons, apparently she hadn't let the possibility of this awkward meeting slow her down. "Would you have come if you'd known I'd be here?"
"I knew John for five years," Stacy said. "He was nearly my father-in-law."
House could feel his frustration rising. Her impenetrability, her calm, was a front and he knew it, but he couldn't reach past it. He could see trepidation in her eyes, but not of him, not for him. Something else. "You have a father-in-law," he said, probing. "Although I can see how you got mixed up; he's already dead. Never had an opportunity to make nice at a funeral?"
"I'm not here to make nice," Stacy said, sarcasm touching her words. "I'm here for Blythe."
House took a breath that felt like his first since he'd seen her. If she was getting sarcastic, then he was affecting her. He felt like she'd left him twisting like a worm on a hook, and the only way he could fight back was to push for a reaction. "Did you bother to ask why she invited you, or did you just hop a plane?" he asked. Stacy wouldn't have come simply for a father-in-law who wasn't. They'd never been close. House avoided trips home, and Stacy knew better than to suggest them. Their schedules had rarely allowed for vacations, and when they did, the last thing House wanted was to ruin his time off with her by adding in family. Stacy had known John, but to think that she was grieving him eight years since she'd seen him last was a stretch.
"She knew the last place you'd want to be was here," Stacy said. "She wanted somebody around who was on her side. And even if you showed up, I think she knew that wouldn't be you."
The low, huffy tone of her voice was familiar too, familiar and perversely welcome. House had survived more than his share of family events by needling Stacy and concentrating on her heated, sparking replies more than on the deadly dull reunions going on around them. "She wanted somebody who knew the truth," he said, hitting on an answer that made sense and feeling it click into place. Aunt Sara was 'on Blythe's side' as much as anybody, but even she believed that House was John's son. Stacy was a neutral party, someone who could be trusted to keep the secret and share the burden. House set his jaw. If that was true, then this wouldn't be some fly-by-night funeral attendance. Stacy would be at the house for the wake, running interference with the family. "How long are you staying?" he asked.
"Overnight," Stacy said. "I have to. I can't--"
"Won't Mark be waiting for you?" House interrupted. They'd been talking long enough for Mark to roll up, either to rub their marriage in House's face or to check up on Stacy's loyalty. "Or is he here? I noticed a beautiful wheelchair ramp out front..."
"Mark's walking is fine," Stacy said, clipping the words out precisely. Pissy. "His physical therapy went really well."
House tilted his head, charting her ire. Her eyes gave her away. That anger hid sadness, guilt, disappointment, and the down-turned corners of her mouth confirmed it. "He's not here, is he?" he asked. He took another look around the hall. He couldn't have missed another crip in the place. He wouldn't even have asked, if he hadn't been so distracted by seeing Stacy in the first place. "Bad etiquette, bringing the wrong son-in-law to a funeral. And he can't like it very much that you're staying away overnight at a place I might be--"
"I'm not with Mark any more," Stacy said, quickly and firmly, as if that might shut him up.
House stared at her in frank disbelief. He squeezed the handle of his cane, feeling the heat of his hand reflected, although the rest of him felt suddenly cold. "So there's somebody else," he said, ruthlessly suppressing anything resembling hope. "Less history--"
"Actually there is," Stacy said. "Somebody else."
No more than five seconds' absurd optimism before the boulder crashing down the slope caught him in the chest. "Have you crippled him too?" he asked, reaching for cutting cruelty. What the hell did he have to hope for? Seeing Stacy for five minutes was a chance to be reminded of how much he'd fucked up, not to be given second--third--chances. "The timing seems suspiciously right."
Stacy raised her chin, but otherwise, accepted his remark as if she hadn't counted on any better. He hated when she did that--when she showed him just how far he was living down to her expectations. "Only emotionally," she said. "He's with your mother."
House frowned. That couldn't be right. "You left your boyfriend with my mother? I thought you were here to support her, not show her how easily I can be replaced."
"I wasn't the one showing her that," Stacy said, raising an eyebrow to remind him he'd had to be dragged here, as if he could have forgotten. She nodded behind him, and House turned around.
Blythe caught his eye from across the room, and left the group that had screened her from his view. Great. She'd given him this moment with Stacy, and hadn't even considered rescuing him. That more than proved that this was her fault. She was carrying a little boy, smiling at him gently as he babbled at her. House's eyes narrowed. Who brought a toddler to a seventy-plus Army veteran's funeral? Rachel's kids were all older. House didn't have any other second cousins that age.
As soon as Mom reached them, the boy stretched his arms out for Stacy with a wide, beaming smile. Stacy smiled back and took him easily out of Blythe's arms, bending to kiss him and letting him pat her cheek with one small hand.
House's heart stopped for the second time. The boy's eyes were Stacy's eyes, honey brown, lightened only a shade, enough to be called hazel. His hair was chestnut and curly. The long face, the straight nose, the stubborn chin--those were all more than familiar. Two years. Maybe a few months shy of two years. House could do the damn math.
Tears stood out in Blythe's eyes when she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and tugged him close. House hugged her back in a daze. "Greg," she whispered in his ear, her voice slightly choked, as if he'd intended to answer a prayer she'd stopped hoping for. "I had no idea."
Staring at Stacy over Blythe's head, House couldn't swallow past the gravel in his throat. "Neither did I," he said.
Over the sound of polished shoes clumping against hardwood as the mourners stood up to watch the pallbearers pass, the organ lurched into a hymn. House was on his feet largely due to the iron grip Wilson had on his elbow, urging him to stand up. Wilson hadn't loosened his hold since he'd dragged House away from the open casket, with the bloody fingernail clippers safely tucked into a specimen bag in his pocket. Wilson's expression had been thunderous, but as soon as they'd turned back to the audience, his features smoothed out. Normally House could expect a lecture, but maybe they'd drifted so far apart that Wilson wasn't prepared to waste his breath. House was sulkily glad; he'd have his proof, and Wilson could back up his actions with words and leave.
Stacy stayed while the pews cleared. Apparently she was enough of a chaperone for him, because Wilson lifted his hands in an I'm not touching this gesture and headed for the doors. House lifted his head long enough to see Blythe carrying the baby out of the chapel. Wilson joined her, put a comforting hand on the small of her back, and led her out to the bland sandwiches and bad coffee that had been set up in the reception room during the service. At least there was someone Wilson could comfort. Someone he could be proper for. House was just so glad that Wilson was fitting in. His oncologist's colouring camouflaged him perfectly at a funeral.
"Very touching," Stacy said. "Using your last moments with the man who raised you to do a DNA screening."
House walked past her, combining a shrug with a rolling step leaning on his cane. "Like you didn't want to stick me the second I came in the door," he said. It seemed to be his day for wily women bearing needles.
Stacy turned with him and matched his pace, her face calm and composed. "I know you would never admit you had a son without a chromosome analysis staring you in the face," she said. "But I knew. I didn't need more than that."
It looked like House's stunt with John's corpse had tipped them back onto even footing. She might have had his baby and not told him, but House desecrated the dead. It wasn't even a toss-up. "That's touching," he said. "A very touching lie. If I offered you a drop of blood you'd be mailing it to a lab that does overnight work. You don't care what you feel. You need a notarized affidavit that'll hold up in court."
"Are you offering to let me near you with a needle?" Stacy asked, arching one eyebrow in smooth interest. They paused at the chapel door and she turned to face him. She was biting her lower lip lightly, and her coat was folded over her clasped hands in front of her, where they wouldn't show a tremble. The service had given her time to gather herself, but underneath her shallow control, the agitation was still there. "I'm sorry you had to meet him like that," she said.
House winced and looked around the hallway. He wasn't going to get rescued. Wilson had jumped ship and Blythe was part of the mutiny. Outside the open doors, the pallbearers were loading the coffin into the hearse. The funeral home employees had deftly herded the guests into the reception room. Dust motes danced in the air, though the sun had moved high enough not to shine in. Beyond a small table displaying a picture of John that House was itching to turn back to face the wall, his decorations in a velvet display, and a small bouquet of nasturtiums, they were alone. House didn't want Blythe to be hurt by the prissy whispers, but it was too late to stop the nosy questions. That was on Stacy's head. House already had a policy of avoiding family gatherings. He wouldn't be hurt. He just wished Stacy had thought about what it meant to Blythe before pressing a magically-appearing grandson into her arms.
"If you didn't want me to meet him like that, why bring him at all?" he asked. The fact that he had a son--that he had a son with Stacy--refused to enter his mind as a fact. It was still a supposition, a what-if. Had they used a condom that night? He thought not, but he'd assumed she was using something. As a doctor he knew better, but all he remembered of that moment was how much he'd wanted her. He'd ached for her. Making love to her had been an affirmation, that Stacy hadn't wanted to leave him and he hadn't wanted her to go. He'd finally forgiven her, and she'd known it in that moment.
"I never meant for you to know at all," Stacy said softly.
House gripped his cane tighter, bitterness burning in the back of his throat. There was a space between them here, more than simply the two feet that separated them. It was denser than air, something House couldn't reach through or past, as if Stacy was standing on the far side of a mirror. "Was this your compromise on life with me and life with Mark?" he asked roughly.
"Life with Mark didn't work out," Stacy said, with subtle irony.
House knew better than to think she'd admit anything about her failing marriage, after he'd done his best to poke it full of holes. Frustrated, he shifted his weight, tempted to go sit in the car, except that Wilson might take it upon himself to come and fetch him like an errant five-year-old. When Stacy tilted her head towards a small settee against the wall, House let his curiosity get the best of him and followed her. He eased himself down beside her, hating how awkward his pain made him in front of her. The damn bench didn't support his back, and he couldn't stretch his leg out, but he'd feel like an idiot pacing in front of her, as if he was conducting an interrogation. He placed his cane between his knees and twirled it from one hand to the other, to give himself something to stare at. "You could have seduced him within a month," he muttered. "Made the timing work. Complained about going into labour early."
"That doesn't really work with modern medicine," Stacy said. House watched her out of the corner of his eye. She perched more than sat, her back straight, her legs crossed primly. Probably feeling as uncomfortable as he was. It wasn't much of a comfort. "And how could I have framed that? I'm sorry I just came back from cheating on you, honey, so let's have a roll in the hay?"
House's lips twitched into a smile before he had time to take it back. "You'd be surprised how often that's worked for Wilson."
Stacy gave him a level stare, trying to tell him he wasn't funny, but she only ever gave him that look when she was trying not to laugh. She relaxed fractionally, her shoulders lowering with a tired breath. "I couldn't do that to Mark. I told him the truth."
"And he dumped you. Stand up guy."
"No," Stacy said simply. She turned to study him, her hair falling over her shoulder as she shook her head. "Mark and I loved each other. I made a mistake--"
House met her eyes quickly, then determinedly fixed his gaze on his cane. There was a painful lump behind his sternum, and he rubbed fretfully at his forehead before setting his shoulders and ignoring it. He'd been the one to tell her it was a mistake. He'd sent her away. He could hardly resent her thinking the same.
"Greg." Stacy put her hand on his wrist, squeezing gently. House stared at her hand, memories tugging at him. Her skin had softened over the years, and her veins had gradually become more prominent. Part of him wanted to link his fingers with hers and feel more than the warmth of her touch through his sleeve, but he shrugged her away. Nothing was going to happen and they both knew it. Stacy sighed and took her hand back. "Working at the hospital was a mistake. Letting myself fall for you was a mistake. And not because I still loved you, but because I should have known you'd turn and start running the other way as soon as I got interested."
"I asked you to make a choice," House said. There was plenty of history she could rewrite in her favour if she wanted, but he'd never let her take back the moment when she'd pretended it would work to turn him into her bit on the side, while keeping Mark tied up with her apron strings.
"I remember," she said. "Simple, but not easy. And not right."
House frowned at her, searching for some clue in her steady, serious expression. "You're saying you should have stayed with me?"
Stacy shook her head. "What's the point in saying what I should have done?" Her mouth flattened. "If I'd stayed with you and found out I was pregnant, would you have wanted me to have the baby? Your baby?"
House dropped his gaze. "No," he said. He'd never wanted kids. Never wanted to complicate his life, never wanted to be responsible for screwing someone else over. Wilson had accused him of working to ruin the lives of everyone he was around. He was right. House wrecked people. Bad enough that Wilson wanted him out of his life, but at least Wilson could leave. A kid wouldn't have that chance.
Stacy swallowed, nodding her head the way she always had when she refused to cry in front of him. "Mark did. Mark wanted kids. It nearly broke us up when I said it wasn't something that was important to me." She paused, so long that House looked up again. She met his eyes, fiercely, determined. "When I found out I was pregnant, he wanted me to keep it."
House squeezed the shaft of his cane until his knuckles ached. Mark knew. Whether he'd wanted kids or not, the chance to get one over on House had surely had a part in his calculations, the hot satisfaction of tearing him down a peg--whether House knew or not--contributing to his so-fatherly feelings. "Would you have had an abortion?" House asked quietly. "If that was what Mark wanted?"
Stacy's voice softened to match his. "I don't know."
House knew. If Mark wanted Stacy that badly, enough to raise House's kid, then he never would have asked for something she couldn't give, something she didn't believe in. Even when it was the medically sound decision. A pregnancy as late as that was damn dangerous. With a sudden sharp pang, fear struck House in the chest, even though Stacy was fine, and sitting right next to him. She could have died, the chances of the kid having Down's or something worse had been ridiculously high. Furious at his own irrational care, House said, "You haven't gone to church in years--"
"I didn't go to church when I was with you," Stacy said, anger sharpening her voice. "You need to stop freezing me in time, as if I couldn't have changed after I left you."
"You haven't changed," House insisted. The confirmation cross lay in the notch between Stacy's collarbones. The polished silver gleamed brightly against the thin skin of her throat. House had kissed her there so many times, moving up the column of her neck to find her lips again, when they were locked, breathlessly, together.
"Pro-choice means..." Stacy trailed off, then continued as if there could have been no other answer. "I made a choice."
"For Mark," House said.
"And for you," she said. "Do you think I never wondered? What our family could look like?"
House shook his head, as if he could dislodge the thought. There were plenty of things he'd never been able to give Stacy that he knew she'd wanted. A trip to Paris was only the most obvious and the most easy. A boyfriend who didn't insult her colleagues at work functions, a man who was there for her even after his leg wasn't--those were things he should have given her and hadn't. Children, though, had never been part of either of their plans. Stacy had never made thinly-veiled suggestions or speculations, because her work was as important to her as his was to him. She'd never cooed over baby blankets or adorable moppets in the park. And if she hadn't changed, then he hadn't noticed, all those years. "You never wanted kids before," he said, confirming it to himself.
"I left my job when Mark got sick," she said. "And part of what I realized was that I could be happy even without being made partner. With only working forty hours a week. If I'd done that when I was with you, I would have gone insane, waiting for you."
House moved restlessly on the padded bench. He'd made her lonely; he'd heard that accusation more than once. That was nothing he could have changed, and she knew it.
Stacy breathed out slowly and leaned back. "I was lonely with Mark, too," she said. "In the end. But when I had Caleb--"
"That's his name?" House looked up quickly, before pressing his mouth shut. He didn't need the details. As long as the kid was just some appendage of Stacy's that she'd grown like an extra head in the years since she'd left, he would be easier to dismiss.
"Yes," she said, with a soft, glowing smile. "After my grandfather."
"No middle name?" House asked, a hint of devilry moving him.
"What, after you?" Stacy asked sardonically. "Mark was forgiving, but not that forgiving."
Caleb Warner. House tried to push it out of his mind. She'd caught him in a trap. Either she'd never wanted kids, and he had to admit that she'd changed, or she had, and he'd missed something about her so fundamental that he couldn't say that he'd known her at all. He didn't like thinking that a baby could make her less lonely, that she'd been missing something so mundane, so traditional. Stacy wanted different things, had wanted different things. He hated the idea that he'd left a hole in her life, one that he hadn't even known about. He couldn't stand not knowing what had happened, all the details that had led her here. "Why did you bring him here?" he asked.
Stacy smoothed her skirt over her knees and let out a slow breath. "I got Blythe's phone call and I had to make a decision," she said. "There aren't a lot of options when you're a single parent."
"I hear kennels offer fair rates," House said.
Stacy eyed him sideways. Five years ago she would have slapped his shoulder, but five years ago she would have laughed. "I'll keep that in mind for my next jet-setting vacation," she said, and her sarcastic tone was nearly as good as the slap would have been. "I didn't mean to rub this in your face. I didn't think you'd be here."
"Wilson had me drugged," House said.
Stacy raised an eyebrow, but it was the only sign that the idea fazed her. "Sounds like he knows you."
"Trying to claim you weren't in on the conspiracy?"
"I'm not surprised Wilson went that far," she said. "That's how he cares."
If Wilson cared, he wouldn't be leaving. House kept that to himself; he wasn't going to brag that he'd finally found the limits of Wilson's selflessness. "He wasn't my father."
"He raised you," Stacy said softly.
"If you can call it that."
"I didn't say he raised you well." Stacy leaned forward and reached for his hand again, curling her fingers around his. "Blythe tells me John was sick for months."
"Comprehensive renal failure brought on by diabetes," House said. John hadn't been a candidate for a kidney transplant, and dialysis every three days wasn't exactly a long term plan. The end had come after a stroke. Wilson liked to think that House didn't care, and he was right, but not caring was different from not knowing. "Very simple."
Stacy smiled wanly. "Please don't tell me you judge your friends and family by the complexity of their illnesses."
"I don't. But he was neither."
Stacy nodded. Out of everyone he'd talked to about John's death, she was the only one who accepted that she'd never get anywhere with that line of attack. House had been hating John for forty years and saw no reason to stop now. Stacy didn't expect him to be a better son, and the relief from that tension was as surprising as realizing it was there. House found himself relaxing. He turned his hand over so that their palms met, feeling the same tingling warmth that had always followed her touch.
They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the dim rise and fall of conversation from the reception room. The fans squeaked overhead. A strand of hair brushed across Stacy's forehead in the lightly moving air. House wished he could push it away with his fingertips and tuck behind her ear. Stacy saw him looking, and asked, "Are you angry?"
"How could I be angry?" House asked evenly. "You took a sperm donation. What you did with it after that was your business."
"Oh, please," she said. "By that logic you'd have forgiven me for taking a muscle biopsy. Even if I hadn't taken a decision out of your hands, you'd still find a way to be angry if you wanted to."
The mention of his leg made him tense, throwing up an immediate wall of resistance. "Difficult to find a way when you didn't notify me."
"See? You're mad," Stacy said, nudging his knee with hers to soften the accusation.
House shrugged. It didn't matter if he was angry or not. His chance to object had passed along with the first trimester. "If you'd wanted something from me, you would have asked two years ago."
"Twenty-one months," Stacy said softly. "His birthday's in November."
House smiled painfully. "Call me when you start counting in years."
"All right, you're right," Stacy said. "I know how happy that makes you." She looked at him searchingly, but House kept his face blank. Stacy looked back towards the reception door. They'd missed most of it, for which House was grateful. He'd go in at the end and steal enough cucumber sandwiches to live on until dinner. Stacy sighed. "I don't need anything from you. I made the right choice for me at the time. Mark would have raised Caleb as his son, nothing would have been missing. And no matter how brilliant a child you might father, I don't think he would have figured out the truth at the age of twelve! But now--"
"Nothing's changed," House insisted. He wasn't that interested in participating in her cajoling him into a relationship with a two-year-old. Neither of them would enjoy it. "You can still tell him you went to the sperm bank. Tell him his daddy left him."
Stacy faced him, intent, speaking more quickly. "Greg, it's not him I'm worried about. I love Caleb. I'm there for him. The question I'm asking is, do you want to be there for him too?"
House pulled a grimace that Stacy could never mistake for a smile. "Nope."
Stacy deflated slightly, and she frowned, peering at him as though there might still be a chance that he'd had a personality transplant since he'd seen her last. "I thought you might think about it a little harder. Today of all days."
"You mean, today, when we celebrate the fact that my biological father and I were in the same room, and it was for some guy's funeral that neither of us liked all that much?"
"He was here?" Stacy asked. Curiosity coloured her voice.
"Third row back, on the right. Grey hair," House said.
Stacy's mouth opened as she placed him. "Oh, my God. I thought he was a relative."
House gave her a sarcastic smile, and Stacy rolled her eyes, this time giving in and slapping his shoulder for getting smart. "Then, yes," she said. "Thanks for putting it so succinctly."
"If you were waiting for a different answer--"
"God, no." Stacy shook her head. "Heaven forbid that anything be easy around you."
"Only simple," House answered.
Stacy stood up and gave him a tender, ironic look. House's heart swelled, with hope he didn't want, with the thumping, throat-stopping realization that she loved him; that she'd always love him. He was the guy. And that was exactly the complication that neither of them could afford. "Greg, you don't let anything be simple that you don't want to be," she said, and headed for the reception room.
House couldn't help himself; he smiled as he watched her go.
House kept his legs sprawled in front of him when the reception started breaking up. He'd always had an instinct for pissing off the military. The officers in their pressed uniforms, hats tucked regimentally under their right elbows, tried to hide their withering glances as they passed him. A few let the sneers touch their lips as they pointedly walked around his protruding feet. House might as well be telepathic, because it wasn't hard to read their minds. Can't believe that's John House's son. Needed discipline then and needs it now. John deserved better. No respect; couldn't even say a few decent words at the man's funeral.
House blew out a slow breath when he caught sight of Wilson trailing behind the crowd. After the march of a dozen colonels, Wilson's casual stance with his hands in his pockets looked like a slouch. For all the military mourners were supposedly honouring John House with half-mast flags and crisp salutes, Wilson was the only one who looked like he belonged at a funeral. The invisible weight of all his pining for Amber rounded his shoulders and left his eyes hollow and haunted. Blythe had cried during the service, quiet tears that marked her loss, that she dabbed away with a tissue, and erased as if they'd never been. House couldn't imagine her giving in to wracking sobs. She and John had lived together fifty years, but her grief felt sedate and measured, as though she'd chosen how much to show and how much to feel. With sneaking, uncomfortable relief, House was glad she hadn't made more of a fuss, and then felt guilty for being glad. That was a trick only his mother could manage, and another reason he hadn't wanted to be here. She'd looked gently sad, dignified but bearing up, to the approbation of all the other officers' wives. House wanted to believe it was true, and despised himself for preferring the lie.
But Wilson looked wrecked. Too many amens, too much God is my shepherd talk. He'd been shattered by his own tight control these past few months. Fuming, House looked anywhere but at him. If there'd been a bar nearby House would have dragged him to it, poured a slug of whiskey down his throat, poked and prodded and insulted until Wilson finally cracked. That was what he needed. To be furious. To be fucking angry. At House if he needed to be, and House was pretty sure he did. If Wilson could just throw a punch or take a baseball bat to a windshield, hell, dump House on his ass and kick him while he was down, then maybe some of the reminders of Amber's death, written on his face like brands, as fresh as the night he'd pulled the plug, would finally be eased. House pushed himself to his feet when Wilson arrived in front of him, relieved and resentful that walking beside Wilson camouflaged his rolling gait. House pushed forward faster, and Wilson kept the pace.
If Stacy hadn't shown up, maybe House would have picked apart Wilson's last thread until he admitted what he was actually feeling. Instead they went back to the car in stifling silence. House didn't miss Wilson's curious look inviting him to share, but he ignored it, and Wilson accepted it. Why the hell he couldn't just stay, House had no damn idea. They worked together. They understood each other. Who cared if the world called that friendship or not? It'd always been enough before.
Wilson unlocked the car doors and House grimaced past his wince at folding himself into the passenger seat again. The car had been parked in the sun and the seats burned through his trousers. Wilson turned on the air conditioner, and it whined and struggled to shift the hot, stale air. He better have gotten better directions to House's parents' place than he'd had to the funeral home. House frowned out the window. His mom's house, not his parents'. A carsick knot tightened just above his stomach. It didn't matter. They could always follow the trail of vultures bearing casseroles.
The house wasn't a place he'd ever lived. He'd barely visited in the past three years, since John had finally admitted that he'd retired and he and Blythe had bought the place. It was small, not really built for hosting a wake for curious hangers-on. Wilson dropped House off at the curb and circled the block to find a parking spot. House dragged in a deep breath and stretched his shoulders. The house was a white, two-storey frame building, with a porch wrapped around the lower storey. Would've been nice to believe that his parents had agonized about getting a place with that many stairs, but House didn't believe it. They knew he wouldn't be visiting, and if John had spared a thought for his leg it was probably to think that the steps would be good exercise for him. Builds character--a better character than House had ever proved he could build on his own.
He started up the walk, smiling tightly at the women his mother's age bringing sympathy in the form of food and false concern in the form of gossip. There was another portrait of John in the hall, and a buffet of cheese platters and butter tarts in the living room. John's bar had been opened up for the betterment of the people he'd left behind. House's throat was dry. He would have loved to get a bourbon from whoever was pouring the generous measures, but he wasn't going to act like some kind of host for this stupid custom. Blythe had invited them all; they were her friends to deal with. House climbed the stairs instead, pausing every few steps and pretending he didn't need the rest. He wanted to lie down on the guest bed and stretch out his back, locking the door against Wilson, Blythe, Stacy--
He grimaced in disgust when he heard the wail. The kid. Upstairs, Blythe's bedroom that she'd so recently shared with John was at one end of the hall, then the bathroom, a smaller bedroom, and then the larger guest bedroom at the other end. House paused outside the small bedroom and peered around the half-open door. He should have known that Stacy would have Caleb here. It was the room that might've been his, if John and Blythe had lived here when he was younger. Stacy held Caleb on her hip, swaying in place to rock him. Caleb hitched his breath and then let loose again, his face red and crumpled with sobs. Stacy kissed his temple, and paced back towards the door. Her eyes widened when she saw House over Caleb's head. Expression guarded, she turned away from the door as she kept rocking him. The sign to keep moving was crystal clear; House wasn't wanted here.
Face set in a scowl, House glanced towards the guest bedroom, then back to the head of the stairs, where the clink of glasses and din of conversation drifted up, but he didn't move. Stacy stroked her hand through Caleb's fine hair, her mouth pressed near his ear as she murmured lulling words. Gradually, Caleb's crying softened to hiccuping, exhausted whines, and he rubbed at his eyes with his tiny fists. His head dropped to the crook of Stacy's neck, his small shoulders shuddering with leftover sobs. House hadn't seen her in so long, and he'd never seen her like this. The sight of Stacy's hand rubbing circles on Caleb's back through his shirt twisted inside him. It had nothing to do with him, but the memory of her touch surged up anyway. He knew how gentle she could be, how her hands soothed. Stacy's gaze touched his each time she turned around. The longer he didn't leave and didn't interrupt, the tight, stubborn look on her face faded. Caleb gave a soft, quivering sigh, and he relaxed so completely that he looked like he'd been half-melted on Stacy's shoulder. Stacy shot House a warning don't you dare look, and then she lowered Caleb to the center of the pull-out bed. She tucked a blanket printed with cartoon octopuses around him. For a minute longer, she sat beside him and kept her hand on his back, counting his breaths.
Caleb settled with a sigh. Stacy closed her eyes for a moment, and then, as if she was coming back to herself, she stood up slowly. She came to the door, glaring at House like he might eat her young, and pushed him back into the hall. Over her shoulder, House could see the boy's lips moving in an echo of sucking, until he worked his tight-balled fist out from under the blanket and stuffed it in his mouth. House didn't realize he was holding his breath until Stacy let out a careful breath and closed the door.
"He missed his nap this morning," she said. "At least that didn't start during the service."
House nodded, as if he knew a damn thing about it. He glanced at the closed door. "You're good at that."
"It's a skill," Stacy said. Her voice was low, for the baby's sake, but House could hear the intimate note in it. He didn't know if she was pleased at his compliment, or if she was simply glad that he hadn't limped screaming in the other direction. "I'm good at picking up skills after a few years of pulling all-nighters. It's how I became a lawyer."
House let out a breath and dropped his head. The fast, strong beat of his heart made him feel ridiculous around her, for being so easy, so affected. The urge to tell her how good it was to see her half-strangled him. Letting go of his defences in front of her was about as smart a move as unzipping a life vest in a hurricane, but his curiosity had always outstripped his sense of self-preservation. "Are you happy?" he asked.
Stacy lifted her eyes to his, startled. House swallowed, and met her gaze, holding himself stupidly open while she studied him. Stacy knew where she could slide in the knife, but the habit of trusting her was dangerously easy to fall into. "As a mother? It's..." Her smile teased him, and she leaned closer. "It's not much different from living with you. He's demanding, loud, doesn't care what I need or want half the time, interrupts, gets food everywhere--"
The corners of his mouth twitched upwards. It wasn't the first time she'd compared him to the under-five set. But it didn't answer the question, only raised new ones. Had she expected him to come upstairs? She'd never tried to coax a commitment from him with her pregnancy, but she'd had Mark then. Alone, she might be looking for--or at least wondering--if catching a glimpse of one mommy-and-me moment would reverse his attitude. House let his glance steal over her face. When he'd known her, Stacy wouldn't have done any such thing. If she wanted something, he'd hear about it. But he couldn't quantify how much she'd changed, and it left him awkward and uncertain.
"But he's also the sweetest thing in my life. And when he smiles--" Stacy stopped and laughed quietly. "I'm sorry, you don't want to hear this."
House didn't know what he wanted to hear. More than evasion; more than some attempt to make him think he'd love babies if only he gave them a chance to tug at his heartstrings. "You didn't come for Mom," he said, his mind racing over the possibilities. Helping Blythe was all very selfless, but that was more Wilson's gig than Stacy's. She'd avoided her share of her family's funerals. Why would she drag herself, and Caleb, halfway across the country for his? "You never could have known I wouldn't be here. You knew Wilson would try to drag me here."
The softness on her face disappeared in a heartbeat. "How exactly could I know that?" she asked. "The last I knew, he was leaving the hospital."
House blinked. "You knew?"
Stacy's eyes flashed with anger. "We're friends, Greg."
Friends with Wilson usually translated to accomplice. House had discounted Wilson because his shock at seeing Caleb had seemed sincere, but Wilson had hidden bigger things from him before. Like his entire harebrained scheme to leave Princeton, as if the bohemian element added something authentic to his grief. "Is that what this is?" House asked. "He's running out of my life so he tries to drag you back in?"
"He never asked me to come," Stacy said sharply.
House rolled his eyes. If she was pissy because he'd ruined a sweet moment, then she'd deluded herself into forgetting exactly what he was like. Doubly so if she thought he wasn't going to call her on her rationalizations about what had brought her here. "Wilson doesn't have to ask," he said. Wilson wouldn't admit to anything if House confronted him, but Stacy would give him up if House pushed. "He thinks I need a live-in conscience."
Stacy tipped her head to one side and pinned him with a flat, skeptical stare. "He thinks you need a friend."
"Then he shouldn't leave!" The words burst out of him before House could haul them back. Whether Wilson left or not wasn't the point. Wilson couldn't run away from his problems any more than House could run at all. He'd stop somewhere and they'd catch up like they'd been tethered to him with rubber bands all along. And that had nothing to do with Stacy or why she was here. House glowered at her, teeth clamped together. He'd fooled himself. Trying to sweep aside Stacy's self-justifications, he'd circled around to Wilson again.
"Talk to him," Stacy said. And apologize for whatever you've done, her tone implied, but at least she stopped short of passing judgement on what she hadn't been around to see. "I'm not here because of Wilson. I'm sorry for him, but I never knew his girlfriend. I'm sure she was lovely--"
House scoffed. Yeah, Amber Volakis the lap cat. He started a muffled beat of his cane tip against the carpet. This was pointless. He'd heard the same advice from Cuddy. It hadn't worked then and it wasn't going to until Wilson admitted he was screwed up.
"But for all I knew she could have been another Bonnie," Stacy said. "If he was rescuing another woman before realizing that's all he wanted to do..."
"No," House said grudgingly. Amber had been good for Wilson, but House wasn't interested in hashing out the point or discussing his role in it. None of that had anything to do with why she was here. He should have believed that much. Stacy wouldn't have come if Wilson had begged, unless she'd wanted to.
Stacy sighed. She stepped into his space and wrapped her hand around his on the handle of his cane, pressing down until he stopped thumping. "Greg, I know you," she said.
House grimaced. That was what he was afraid of.
Stacy arched an eyebrow, reading the thought easily. "And I know you'd like to pull out all my reasons and go through every one. But can't we just spend tonight acting like this is what it is?"
"And what is it, exactly?" House asked, frustration roiling in his stomach. Stacy might not want anything from him long-term, but she was here for something. Some sign, or hint, or clue. She was testing him, and House didn't know what the answers were, let alone whether he wanted to give the right answers. Was the grand prize some chance at a life with her? They'd crashed and burned twice before. The kid was more than a complication, he was a deal-breaker. Stacy had to know that, so what else was she waiting for?
"A chance to talk." Stacy's thumb rubbed the back of his hand, and she let go slowly. "A chance to meet Caleb."
House screwed up his face into a pained smile. He could go to Princeton-Plainsboro's pediatrics ward and make nice with a random two-year-old and he'd know as much as he'd learn about Caleb in a day. From what he'd seen, the kid was largely pre-verbal. Spending five minutes with him wouldn't make them father and son. "What do you want?" he insisted. Once, he would have been certain of his diagnosis, but now, she'd thrown everything he was certain of out the window.
Stacy shook her head and backed away, from him and from the question. "If not for you, then for Blythe," she said. "Ignore him all you want, Greg. She's the reason we came." She went past him to the top of the stairs. "If you're going to stay up here, you can call me if Caleb wakes up," she said. "If that's not too suspicious a motivation." With a level, challenging stare, Stacy headed downstairs.
House glared after her. For a long moment, he hesitated outside the closed door. The last thing he wanted to do was wake the kid up and call down Stacy's wrath on his head. Without a paternity test, a visual examination wouldn't tell him anything he didn't already know. It would only prove to Stacy that he was interested, that he wanted to know more. With a frown, House limped to the guest bedroom. Slowly, he lay down, and slipped into a murky, pain-shot nap. With half an ear, he listened for Caleb's waking cries.
The guest bedroom was a sauna by the time House struggled back to wakefulness. Under his button-down, sweat trickled down his ribs. He'd forgotten to open the window, and the curtains drawn across the panes barely cut the flood of summer sun across the carpet and bed, leaving him sticky and flushed. House pushed himself up and braced himself against the mattress, taking stock. His stomach grumbled, and his throat was dry, but House didn't want to risk running into any straggling guests if he made his way to the kitchen. Grabbing his cane, he got to his feet and opened the bedroom door. His suitcase was sitting outside the room, against the wall. Wilson must have packed it, since this little adventure had been his idea. House poked at it with his cane, wrinkling his nose at Wilson's idea of fashion, but he picked it up and tossed it on the bed. They were only here for one night, and Wilson had included a pair of jeans and a selection of House's milder t-shirts along with, more pointedly, his best blazer and his electric razor. House pulled out a change of clothes and then went to the door again, listening. The house had settled into a slower, more relaxed rhythm; no stilted conversations or clink of cutlery from the living room. A glance at the clock showed it was five o'clock. He'd slept through the wake. Good.
Shower first, then food. Making his way down the hall, House passed the open doorway of the second bedroom and saw that the fold-out bed was pushed back into the couch, leaving some open floor space scattered with a few blocks, a stuffed octopus, and a stack of board books. House recognized some of Stacy's luggage beside the couch, along with newer suitcases and a brightly-patterned diaper bag. If Caleb had cried, House hadn't heard him. Another point against him bothering to make any pretense of fatherhood.
The first sound of the shower nozzle turning on would alert the house that he'd woken up, but that was inevitable. House cupped his hands under the sink faucet and drank gulps of cold water, then stepped into the shower cubicle while the spray was still lukewarm. It felt cool against his heated skin, sluicing away the grime from the trip and the sleep from his nap. He washed perfunctorily and got out, scrubbed his hair dry with a towel, and pulled on jeans and a t-shirt.
Cautiously, he worked his way down the stairs, gripping the bannister in one hand and his cane in the other. Wilson's suitcase was perched beside the living room couch. Putting himself out so that House got the good guest bed--maybe that selfless streak of his hadn't been entirely squelched. Stacy, too--she was obviously planning to squeeze onto the fold-out bed with Caleb. If she really hadn't expected him to show up, Blythe must have offered Stacy the guest bedroom to start with. So everybody was making concessions for the cripple. Another conspiracy. Damn them for knowing how to work around him: no one had asked, no one had made a fuss, they just quietly worked around his leg like it was a matter of fact instead of pity. Worse, they'd treated him like they knew they'd have to work around his petulance the same way.
House didn't deserve their care, and they knew that too. Stacy had figured it out first, and Wilson had finally woken up to the fact. Blythe might be his mother, but even she'd counted on him to skip out on her. Angry, left without a direction to lash out in that didn't make everything his fault, House headed for the kitchen to raid the fridge.
Blythe stood at the sink, running a dish towel over one of the good plates. The dishwasher was running, a low sloshing hum, but the good china would never see the inside of it. House's chest squeezed down on his heart, holding him in the doorway for a long moment, before he shook his head and gave in. Crossing the linoleum, he took his spot on her right, and took the plate and the dish towel out of her hands. The sink was full of soapy water, and House scowled down at it, feeling like he'd just regressed to the age of fifteen. House didn't know if he'd hated this chore because John never helped, or if he'd hated that his mother got stuck with cleaning up as well as cooking and John didn't care. Either way, doing the dishes had become associated in his mind with a resentful mixture of guilt and long-suffering impatience. House dried the plate and set it aside, then took the next one that Blythe passed him. "Where's Wilson?" he asked, hoping that she'd treat the question as if he'd asked after Stacy too.
"He's gone to the store for a few things," Blythe said. "We'll need cream for coffee tomorrow, and I ran out of butter." She smiled up at him. "Thank you for helping, dear."
House grimaced. Some help. A few dishes, when he'd avoided everyone at the reception and the wake. Blythe knew how to grab him by the guilt and twist. She wanted him to drag everything with Stacy out in the open, then. Or else she was giving him room to keep his thoughts to himself, but House suspected she'd be disappointed if he did. "Mom, why did you invite her here?" he asked.
"Greg, this past year hasn't been easy for me," Blythe said. She handed him a plate and waited until he'd met her eyes to let him take it.
House pressed his lips together and scowled at the pattern of yellow roses around the edges of the china. "I know," he said shortly.
"You don't know." Blythe ran her cloth over the plate she held carefully. "You chose not to know. Well, I'm not going to be angry about that. I expected you to be here for the funeral, but it wasn't for me. I wanted you to come for yourself."
House nodded grimly. He was a terminal disappointment, pretty much worthless as a son. They could agree on that. It didn't mean he'd had any need to mourn John House, or that sitting through the service had caused him to have an epiphany of forgiveness and make him realize what a little shit he'd been all those years. "I came," he said. "I'm here."
Blythe let out a skeptical hm. "James said he had to bring you himself, or you wouldn't have come."
Apparently chemical restraints hadn't come into that conversation at all. But detailing exactly how forcefully he'd had to be dragged would only make him look worse, and it felt like he'd be telling on Wilson like a five-year-old kid. Besides, he drugged me first wasn't a game of chicken he could play against Wilson and win. "What does that have to do with calling Stacy?"
"Don't you think she had a right to know?" Blythe asked calmly. She'd finished the plates, and she turned sideways at the sink to watch him.
As if that was the issue. House dried the last plate and set it on the stack with a loud clink. "I don't think Stacy is big on people's rights to know."
Blythe reached out and touched his arm, concern caught on her face as though she couldn't decide whether to reprimand him. "Greg, are you still angry with her about your leg?"
"No," he said briefly. "But something like that doesn't change. It made her life easier for me not to know, so not knowing was good for me."
"You're acting like she's done this to deliberately hurt you."
House shrugged off Blythe's hand and moved to the kitchen table, gripping it as he sat down on the wooden chair. He didn't think that Stacy had done this to hurt him, but her intentions and the obvious outcomes were so far apart that there had to be more of an explanation. She'd known how he'd react if he came, and she hadn't made any provision for it. Maybe she'd thought it through, but part of her had wanted to tell him. To shock him. Otherwise, she wouldn't have made this choice. "She didn't have to tell me," he said. "She could have stayed home, or left the kid with somebody."
Blythe stayed at the sink, crossing her arms as she watched him. "She wanted Caleb to know his grandmother."
"He's two." How many times were the two of them going to use a toddler as a smokescreen for what they really wanted themselves? "He's not going to remember you."
"But I'm going to remember him," Blythe said calmly. "Greg, what does it matter if she did this for me? Didn't I deserve to know?"
"I deserved to know," House said, and immediately snapped his mouth shut. That was what Stacy wanted him to admit. She'd had it in her mind that if he wanted to know, then he wanted to care. It was a false equivalency, but an easy step for her to take, and it looked like Blythe was on the same path.
She crossed the kitchen and sat down in the chair next to him. Her features were soft, her blue eyes cloudier than he remembered from his childhood, but he knew she was more than capable of standing up against him, or John, or anyone. It was all the times she'd chosen not to that grated in his memory. "Are you going to be a family?" she asked.
Of course it came down to that question. All the other issues vanished when there was a possibility to hook him up in a relationship and declare him solved. Throw in a white picket fence and his leg might spontaneously regenerate. "Mom--"
"Because I will be." She gave him an even glance. "I might not be what you wanted in a mother, but I can be a grandmother to Caleb."
House shook his head. It wasn't that easy. Did she think that she'd finally have a grandchild to spoil at Christmas? Stacy wasn't going to come running to Kentucky for every holiday, and Blythe couldn't interfere with her life either. It was simplistic to think that knowing the secret could change the circumstances. Caleb already had a family.
"I don't have to be close," Blythe continued, speaking over his silent objections. "I don't have to be overbearing for Stacy, but I can have pictures and send toys. If that's as much as I can be in my family's life, then I can accept that."
"Is that what Stacy wants?" House asked. He wasn't acting from any obscure impulse to defend her. Stacy could take care of herself, and that was the point. One decision didn't make a family. That was exactly what she'd proved to him. Nobody knew better than he did that Stacy could move on and cut ties if that was what was best for her. Some day, she'd find another Mark, some guy who wanted kids and didn't care about the past. All of which meant the past had to keep its nose out, and that meant Blythe as much as him.
"I think she chose to let me know." Blythe sighed. "Greg, have you ever thought that this might be for me? With your father gone?"
"I'm still here," House said defensively.
Blythe's steady gaze picked apart the lie like an autopsy. "You're here less and less, Greg. Two years ago at Christmas--"
House went as still as if his heart had stopped pushing blood through his veins. "Wilson told you," he said, his voice so rough that he had to swallow against the scratch in his throat.
Blythe's eyes brightened with tears. She lifted her chin and asked him steadily for the truth. "I could tell you'd been drinking when you called," she said. "James had to tell me something."
Fury sank into House's stomach until he felt frozen and sick. He wondered if Wilson had detailed every moment of House's experiment with alternating current as well, or if maybe Cuddy had called Blythe up for a chat about that incident. He wanted to storm away, to find Wilson and ask if in his best judgement House should bother drawing another breath without oversight, but it was pointless; he already knew the answer. Wilson didn't trust him, and House had proved him right too many times to bring any weight to his own argument. Wilson would laugh in his face if House tried to tell him that some things were sacred, throw every interference of House's back in his face. Who'd tracked down Wilson's brother when Wilson had tried to hide him? Who had given the third degree to every woman Wilson had ever looked twice at? Deserve didn't enter into it, just tangled debts and hurts they wouldn't let each other heal.
Blythe looked away at last and reached across the table for a box of tissues. She took one and pressed it to the corners of her eyes. "Greg, I worry so much for you," she said, the slight thickening of her voice the only sign of her tears. "I know you don't like me to. So I worry from a distance. But to know that there's a part of you out in the world...that there's someone I can care for..."
She might as well admit that she'd given up too. She'd better just hope that stubborn assholery didn't breed true, or she wouldn't get what she wanted out of Caleb either. Why not just dump the mangy old mutt out on the side of a highway and pick up a wide-eyed kitten from a box on the way home? Fury finally helped House find his voice. "What part of me is that exactly?" he asked. "And since when does the DNA matter to you?"
Blythe caught her breath, and stared at him like he'd slapped her. She'd never said a word to him that summer about his father, and he didn't expect her to start now. John may have given him the silent treatment for four months, but Blythe had stayed quiet for his entire life about the one thing that mattered. She knew he wasn't John's son but she'd never treated him as anything but. He'd never thrown the words in her face before, but she didn't disappoint him; she ignored them like he'd never spoken. "You don't let me love you, Greg! But I can give Stacy and Caleb something."
"You don't know that's why she's here!"
"If she's here for you, then that's between the two of you," Blythe said. "I know what I want, what's important to me."
"Doesn't it matter to you that she never told me? That I'd never seen the kid before today?" House pushed his chair back and got to his feet, stamping the end of his cane against the floor. "Or did convincing yourself that you're related to him override reality?" For all he knew, that was what Stacy expected. Mark's parents were dead, and so was Stacy's mother. Maybe she'd gone looking farther afield for a grandmother. If Stacy wanted a kid all along, then who was to say she didn't want a normal family to go along with him?
Blythe stared up at him, not giving an inch. "I know you aren't going to like hearing this, but I think that family is more important than the truth!"
"I've known that all my life," House said coldly. "And I've never stopped hating it." He turned on his heel and limped out of the kitchen, leaving her to whatever illusions she was still trying to hold on to about him.
House waited in the bedroom, stretched at full length on the bed, until the creak of floorboards downstairs told him that Blythe had left the kitchen. A few minutes later, the front door opened and closed. House got to his feet and twitched the curtain aside from the window. Blythe had a scarf tied around her head to keep her hair back, and wore a pair of gardening gloves. She disappeared around the side of the house, and when she came back into his line of sight, she was carrying a brown paper bag. Tulip bulbs. House remembered those from a dozen falls. Blythe was the only one who'd ever cared about the garden, setting order there as much as inside the house. She speared her trowel into the prepared beds, tossed handfuls of meal into the small holes, and placed the bulbs after them. When the first green shoots appeared next spring, House wondered if she'd remember all the frustrations she was burying today.
His stomach clenched with hunger, and House took the opportunity. Wilson must be getting back soon, and Stacy would appear from wherever she'd gone. House refused to join them for dinner. The weight of that much awkward silence would probably crush him like a bug. If Caleb so much as smiled in his direction, Blythe would take it as an omen that he was cut out to be a daddy, and with Wilson's natural sentimentalism about House's relationships, he couldn't expect any support from that quarter either.
Slipping downstairs, House went to the kitchen as quickly as he could. As he'd suspected, it was filled with do-gooder neighbours' sympathy gifts and leftover funeral catering. He piled a plate high with meatloaf and sandwiches. He'd have taken a bottle of beer or wine if he'd had a spare hand, but it was probably just as well that he didn't. Escaping back upstairs was a long, painful climb, but the extra exercise had the side benefit of forcing the knots and cramps out of his muscles from the car trip. House pushed the door shut with his cane. Wilson had the common decency to pack his iPod, and House put in the earbuds and dedicated himself to ignoring the world until he was at least three states north of here.
His plate was empty and the shadows had lengthened across the room when he heard the knock at the door, above a bitching drum solo. From where he was sitting on the bed, House raised his eyebrows but kept his eyes closed, tapping out the rhythm on his knees.
House screwed his face up. Wilson would have to be more persistent than that. Wouldn't want anybody to suspect that House was trying to force his life-ruining presence on him.
A second later, a tug on the earbuds signalled Wilson picking up his iPod and shutting it off. House took the buds out and tipped his head back against the wall, opened his eyes, and stared at Wilson evenly. "I've heard you can drag a horse to water, but you can't make it enjoy a night of family togetherness," he said. He paused, considering. "Wait, is that the saying?"
Wilson pursed his mouth, but if he was angry, it was well-hidden behind his tired disappointment. Somewhere along the way, he'd taken off his suit jacket and tie, leaving his shirt wrinkled and limp from the hot day, open at his throat and sleeves rolled up. "House, I..." He stopped and looked around the room, finding a wicker chair with a hand-sewn pillow on the seat behind him. He tugged it to the foot of the bed and sat down. "I wanted to tell you that I didn't know," he said.
"Is that supposed to be news?" House asked. "You've had your head up your ass all summer."
Wilson's eyes smouldered, and House tensed, waiting for the explosion. It had to come sooner or later. He'd counted on it, waited for it, for some rattling stone to shift the avalanche of Wilson's repression. His grief was boring, and House knew Wilson was not boring. The denial was getting seriously old. If having someone to aim at would kick Wilson out of the murky depths of his depression, then House would paint a target on his chest. He was sick and tired of being told to treat Wilson's emotions with kid gloves. If Wilson wanted therapy, he should go to a therapist. House wasn't comforting, he wasn't sympathetic, and the world damn well knew it. He wasn't going to change because Amber had died, and Wilson wouldn't either. It'd been four months. Wilson was ready for something new.
The spark didn't catch. Anger clouded Wilson's face, but he was still putting House first. Like he'd ever manage to leave as long as he was doing that. "I didn't talk with Stacy much after she left," he said. "I accused you of trying to be miserable, but--" He stopped, with an exasperated huff. "I warned her too, and she jumped in without thinking. I was angry at her for leaving."
House nodded, giving Wilson a brief, stretched smile. One thing was clear. Whether they'd had a conspiracy or not, Wilson very clearly thought that House needed at least one of them overseeing his life. He saw himself putting House back together, like a well-cracked Humpty Dumpty, and he figured House would shatter again without Wilson around to act like glue. "Not telling each other the important things really deepens a friendship," House said.
The bait sank without a trace. Wilson shook his head, sitting back with a lost, bewildered look on his face. "I swear I didn't know. I don't know what to think. You have a child."
House's temper flared. "No. I have a two year old semen sample."
"He's your son!"
That was exactly the kind of simplicity House hated. The hypocrisy was overwhelming. Wilson had wanted him here for Blythe's sake, yes, but ultimately because he credited John with raising House; with being his father. If DNA didn't matter for House, what the hell did Wilson think it had to do with Caleb? "He's Stacy's son," House said briefly. "He would have been Mark's son."
Wilson gaped at him. His so-called friendship with Stacy was only as strong as their mutual concern for House, which meant not very in recent years. House could easily believe that Stacy had passed on the casual day-to-day news without saying a word about being pregnant, and Wilson had been satisfied as long as Stacy kept up the superficial contact. "They were actually raising him together? After...everything?" Wilson stopped and peered at him more closely. "Doesn't that tell you something?"
"No." House didn't bother trying to tamp down his annoyance. At this rate, maybe it would be better if Wilson ditched him after all. House didn't want him gone, but the fact that Wilson now had another topic to lecture House about, one that was by no means his fault, made him itch with impatience. "What am I supposed to infer from that?"
"That she cares for you." Wilson blew out a breath and sat back. "In some sense," he temporized. "That she cared enough to have your child."
House sneered at the mountain of evidence Wilson apparently thought could be so easily waved aside. "I think it means we forgot to use a condom and she wasn't on any birth control because she and Mark weren't having sex."
Wilson scrubbed his hands through his hair, bereft confusion written on his face as if House's thought process was too alien to follow, let alone comprehend. "You can't think that her only intention..."
"I don't think she intended anything, and when she found out, she didn't do anything," House said. "Not making a decision is the same as making one."
"Yes, but this was life-changing," Wilson said, his expression pleading earnestly for House to give a shit.
House shrugged. "Didn't change my life," he said with forced lightness, hauling back on his irritation.
"Whether you want it to or not, it is going to change your life." Wilson's frustration was growing out of proportion to the argument; he looked like he wanted to tear his hair out, to shake House until he understood. "If you'd open up and let it."
Wilson might as well cut to the chase and demand that House admit that Stacy leaving had shredded him as thoroughly as Amber's death had hurt Wilson. That the chance of having her back, with instant family included, was something House had to want. If House had really loved Stacy, then it followed that he had to want her back, as badly as Wilson wanted to believe that loving Amber meant that he deserved her back. The fourth time had been the charm, and Wilson had been robbed of the chance to prove it true. He'd latched on to House's second chance like someone drowning grabbed a spar to float on. "Why should I do that?" he asked. This was such bullshit. Wilson's motivations weren't any purer, his blathering about happiness nothing but a reflection of his own empty, broken hope. "Once burned, twice shy. Fool me once..."
"This isn't like your leg!" Wilson said, his voice rising to the edge of a shout. "This is a human being!"
"Who Stacy hid from me!" House snapped back, bitter anger flooding past his control.
Wilson clamped his mouth shut against whatever tirade he'd had at his fingertips, although the fury in his eyes didn't burn any less darkly. "So you are angry at her."
If that was what Stacy had sent Wilson upstairs to discover, it had been a wasted effort. House's anger didn't matter; it wasn't relevant. They'd all go home tomorrow and this little family reunion would be over, sheared away from the rest of their lives like it had never happened. Anyone who hoped for more or different was fooling themselves. "I'm angry that everyone thinks I need to change who I am because I know something different about the world than I did yesterday," he said. "This is not my decision. This is Stacy's responsibility."
Wilson subsided, as if invoking Stacy's part in this whole mess had sapped his argument and his anger. "She's not asking you for anything, is she?"
"No," House said, pushing his advantage with sarcasm as harsh as rock salt. "Which is why you need to stop asking me to. I didn't knock you up."
Tiredly, Wilson rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, and then he stood up heavily. He set his chair back in its corner and went to the door, moving like every muscle was bruised. "So you don't want to try," he said. "I should have known." His glance swept over House with stark, caustic pity. "Tell me how that goes, House. When you can't be bothered to try with anyone, until no one is left."
If there was one thing Stacy could sympathize with Greg over, it was making nice. Networking for her job was one thing; when she chatted up the partners or a good contact at a firm party, there was a competitive edge to everything she did, each glass of wine she accepted or joke she laughed at. Greg had never appreciated that aspect of his work, and he'd been stuck in a ghetto for years before Lisa had seen his potential and sprung him from infectious diseases. Stacy, meanwhile, knew who to smile at, and saw her career taking off. But deflecting curious, gossipy questions from Blythe's neighbours and John's relatives had never been on her list of favourite activities. All the worse was not having either Greg or Caleb to distract attention from her. Greg had always rescued her at parties she hated. Rescued was his word, and she'd never admitted to it, but there had been times when he'd stepped in and dropped a conversational bomb that she'd been grateful for. It was just all the other times that he'd danced on her last nerve by pretending he didn't know when she was pursuing a goal that he'd just sapped with a badly timed remark. Caleb was a different sort of shield, and Stacy would answer how old is he? and does he sleep through the night? a dozen times before anyone would push farther. That didn't work well when she was sitting in Blythe's living room, not married to her son, not engaged, not even in a relationship with. The questions tangled quickly, until she felt half-strangled in them.
The crowd was already thinning when Stacy heard Caleb cry. She excused herself and hurried upstairs. When she opened the door, Caleb was standing right behind it, struggling with the knob. He'd be opening doors soon, and wasn't that a scary thought. She'd have to babyproof more of the apartment. "Oh, honey," Stacy said, picking him up. "Did you wake up in a strange room all alone?"
Caleb dampened her shoulder and the side of her neck with his tears, but since she hadn't abandoned him to the terrors of an unfamiliar room after all, he was beaming and giggling again soon. Stacy didn't want to leave Blythe alone with her guests, but the fact was that she had James, and Stacy needed more to distract Caleb than the small stack of toys and books she'd packed. She sighed. Yes, it was an escape. Yes, she was no better than Greg, locked in his room like a sullen teenager. But she felt like she hadn't breathed a full breath in hours, and wouldn't until they were home again. "Do you want to go to the park?" she asked.
"Park!" Caleb said in delight, pointing at the door.
Stacy stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head. "It's a different park," she told him. "I didn't bring our park with me." She pressed her nose against the side of his head, breathing in the smell of baby shampoo, the sweet-sour tinge of old milk and zinc cream, and the unmistakable odour of a full diaper. She hadn't been able to bring Caleb's plastic potty, so they'd regressed back to diapers full time for the trip. She'd have to start his routine over again when they got home, and that included his sleep schedule. He hadn't napped at all this morning because of the service, and then he'd slept late when she'd finally gotten him down. Propping him on her hip, she dug through their bags until she found his shoes, and wrestled them onto his feet one at a time. After a quick diaper change, she carried him downstairs and found Blythe in the living room. "I'm going to take Caleb out for a little while," she said. If Blythe suspected that it was an excuse, the only sign of it was a long look and a kiss for Caleb, which he returned with his lips carefully pursed.
Stacy took a direction at random when they went out. Caleb wriggled until she let him walk by himself, while she kept carefully on the side closest to the road. He didn't need a park at all. A ladybug on the side walk, a squirrel chattering from across a lawn, the hollow bonging sound that the streetlight made when Caleb slapped it, were all more than enough amusement. Stacy crossed her arms as they walked along, one eye on Caleb, crouching down to talk to him every time he held up a twig or a leaf for her inspection. The breeze was just enough to keep off the full heat of the afternoon sun. The neighbourhood was filled with small houses on well-kept lawns. It looked like the place where young, professional families would live. A place with good schools, with a community center waiting just around a corner. Two boys, maybe ten, passed them on bicycles, and Caleb stared after them in astonishment. A few months ago, he wouldn't have noticed other kids, but now he was beginning to play with the others in his daycare class. Soon he'd be asking questions more complex than "What's that?" and more than anything, Stacy wanted to have the right answers for him.
They stayed out until Caleb showed signs of wanting to sit down on the pavement and not get up again. Stacy carried him most of the way back to Blythe's house, although he was getting heavy by the time they got back. The guests had gone, and Stacy relaxed, feeling like a traitor to her own motivations. Greg would certainly have something to say about that, if he weren't still in hiding.
Blythe had warmed a casserole in the oven, along with cooking some peas that James had picked up at the store. The four of them sat down at the kitchen table for dinner.
It was awful. Any tension that had dissipated with the funeral guests came back in full force. Caleb had to sit on a stack of phone books, and Stacy was constantly terrified that he'd tip off the stack and crack his skull open. Caleb soon realized he could reach farther, and started grabbing at everything on the table until they moved dishes and pots out of his reach. James looked terrified and ill-at-ease from being in such close proximity to such a healthy toddler.
"Spoon!" Caleb yelled, drumming his on the table at top volume. Half his peas were already on the floor.
Stacy grabbed the spoon out of his hand before he could hit something breakable, and Caleb looked at her in shocked betrayal, tears springing to his eyes. Stacy grit her teeth, considered the alternatives of Caleb shrieking and fractious as she tried to teach him to eat nicely, and Caleb banging on the table with his spoon.
"Be nice," she said, and gave the spoon back, feeling like a terrible mother.
Caleb took one cautious bite of the single pea he managed to get into the spoon, and then made a face and scattered the rest of them from his plate with both hands, shaking his head. He started drumming on the table again, and added a chant of "Spoon! Spoon!" at the top of his lungs.
"He certainly is like Greg, isn't he?" Blythe said airily.
Stacy clamped her mouth shut. She felt like she'd been punched in the chest, with no air left to say one word in her own defense. Blythe couldn't possibly have missed how loaded that comparison was. Stacy took a deep breath, stared at James as if he might support her, but he gave her a terrified leave me out of it look, and she had to admit that was fair. "He's away from home," Stacy said finally, with a forced smile, and held back from noting that Greg seemed to have picked up his talent for disingenuity from his mother. She focused on Caleb, trying to step around every landmine that dinner conversation with James and Blythe might stumble over. "Yes, it's a different spoon," she said, holding Caleb's hand to load a mouthful of mashed potatoes onto the spoon. Maybe she could get some of the food inside him instead of smeared in his hair. "Your other spoon is at home. This is a special spoon."
Caleb accepted the bite thoughtfully, and then pointed his spoon authoritatively at Blythe. "Who's that?" he asked.
Stacy closed her eyes, hiding the way her heart stopped. She should have seen it coming; it was his second favourite question, directly after What's that?. "That's Grandma," she said, with a calm she didn't feel. Uncertainty heated her face, but she couldn't back down now. Not after seeing how grateful, how happy, Blythe was with that simple name.
"Grandma," Caleb said doubtfully, picking up on her hesitation. It didn't last. He turned to Blythe with a wide grin to show her his strange new spoon.
Blythe beamed back at him. "That's lovely, dear."
Caleb nodded, and counted her firmly among his many admirers from the service. "Who's that?" he asked, pointing this time at James.
Stacy sighed, and started gathering another bite of mashed potatoes. "That's Uncle James," she said. Might as well be hung for the sheep as the lamb.
James choked, as if he'd swallowed the wrong way. He shot her a reproachful, wounded look. Stacy tilted her head. She wasn't looking forward to answering James' questions, almost as much as she worried over what Greg thought. She'd been evading him for so long that it was second nature by now. From the beginning, Stacy had determined that Greg shouldn't know. She didn't want--and didn't expect--his approval or his blessing. If she'd said one word to James, she might have well have announced it from the roof of Princeton-Plainsboro as far as Greg was concerned. Instead, it had been so much easier to send James a few carefully worded emails every month or so, whenever one of them remembered. She'd kept him up to date about Mark's progress with physical therapy, her own prospects at work, and the weather. More than that would've been an engraved invitation to Greg to drive up to Short Hills. Stacy hadn't been ready to deal with that. She still wasn't, but she was here now.
At the moment, all she could be grateful for was that Greg was upstairs. If Caleb had pointed to him in turn with an innocent Who's that?, Stacy could only imagine the shocked silence that would fall as everyone waited for her to make some sort of claim. She could just imagine Greg's dumbfounded look, his temper, if Caleb wanted to know who, exactly, he was. He wasn't Daddy; that name was taken. But Mark had left months ago. Caleb didn't look for him any longer. Didn't miss him, probably wouldn't remember him. That didn't mean Stacy was willing to erase his place in their family like that. Greg wouldn't want it, anyway.
It wasn't long after dinner that Caleb started rubbing at his eyes and whining. Stacy picked him up and rocked him. She sang to him quietly, acutely aware of Blythe and James listening in even as they pretended not to, until Caleb's head rested on Stacy's shoulder, heavy and warm, and she took him upstairs.
Stacy climbed the stairs slowly, doing her best not to jostle Caleb awake. She paused at the top of the stairs. The guest bedroom door was firmly shut. Stacy nuzzled Caleb's hair and went to the small bedroom with a sigh. The house wasn't large, but thank God, it had enough rooms for each of them to escape the others. The small room Stacy had taken when it became clear Greg would need the bed if he was going to be even remotely tolerable to James tomorrow, was actually her favourite. It was Blythe's sewing room now, one bookcase full of boxes and bags of neatly organized scraps and threads; there was a half-finished quilt folded beside the pull-out couch. A Singer sewing machine and a chair were tucked under the small window that gave the best light. It was the room that felt most lived in, most comfortable, most like a home.
Stacy knelt down and lay Caleb down on the thin mattress. As soon as she pulled him away from her warmth and put him on the bed, Caleb woke up, bleary and whiny. His face twisted into tears, and he started wailing. Stacy got him into his pyjamas at last, even as he pulled at them and tried to wriggle away. "Do you want a song?" she asked him.
Caleb nodded, a miserable look on his face.
"Then you have to be quiet to hear, don't you?"
Caleb gave a hitching, trembling breath, staring at her with wide, hurt eyes as if she was asking far too much of him, but he sniffled and nodded again. Stacy picked him up into her lap and sang to him, rocking gently. After that, she picked up the nearest board book from the floor, and read to him about puffer fish, and dolphins, and octopuses. Caleb pointed out all his favourite pictures and asked "What's that?" for each of them, even though he knew them by heart and would turn back if she skipped a single one. Stacy murmured the animals' names to him. Caleb seemed comforted that they might be in a strange house, with strange people, where he didn't get his own spoon to eat with, but all the pictures still had their right names. His leaned against her, heavier and heavier, until he was drooling gently on her sleeve past the fist pushed halfway into his mouth to suck on.
Stacy lay him down gently, and tucked him in. She felt exhausted, battered, as if she'd been tossed overboard into a series of rapids, and had struggled against the currents and the rocks under the surface, until she'd finally come to shore here, in the low lamplight of Blythe's sewing room, with her hand circling Caleb's back as he sighed and settled more deeply into sleep.
The first Mark had known of Stacy's pregnancy was when she'd dug through her purse and pulled out a crumpled, half-empty pack of cigarettes to drop in the trash. There was another pack in the bathroom, under the sink. As pointless as it was, Stacy hated smoking in front of Mark, even though he had to be aware of the smell of smoke wafting from the vents when she tried to hide it. She threw out all of the cigarettes, frowning at the packets lying on top of the rest of the garbage in the trash can. She felt guilty as hell and yet too stubborn to hide what she was doing.
Mark didn't miss what she was doing. He wheeled up to her, his hands resting easily on the wheels, and smiled at her as if it was the end of their problems, instead of the beginning. "You're quitting?" he asked.
God, she knew what that question meant. It had nothing to do with the cigarettes. Mark acted like they were the barometer of her stress, the only outward sign of how she felt about them. It wasn't the nicotine she was quitting; it was closing the door in his face when she needed a moment alone. It was escaping him while she dealt with her feelings alone. Stacy nodded, her heart in her throat. "Mark," she said, "there's something I need to tell you."
She spent three months of her pregnancy wanting a cigarette so badly she could taste it. Not the first three months. Her periods had been irregular for the past year, maybe a week of spotting followed by three months of nothing, then her regular flow. Her doctor said it was perimenopause. Hormones weren't a good idea with her history, so she had her IUS removed. With Mark getting sick, she hadn't had time to think about a follow-up appointment. They'd moved to Princeton so quickly that finding another doctor wasn't on her radar. It wouldn't have been necessary. Greg would probably notice any symptoms before she did, and be sure to tell her his conclusions whether she wanted to hear them or not, without the bother of finding a new GP.
It was over a month after they were back in Short Hills before Stacy was able to stop running herself ragged over the move, calling contractors to make their home handicap-accessible, and talking to friends and colleagues about finding another position. The low-level nausea could have been stress, or an ulcer, or simply too much coffee. Worn out, feeling dull and weighed down by too much work, by too many feelings she couldn't show to Mark or even acknowledge to herself, she finally made an appointment with her doctor.
"Is there any chance you might be pregnant, Stacy?"
Stacy opened her mouth to automatically say no, already shaking her head, but what emerged instead was, "Oh, my God."
Her doctor raised her eyebrows and sat back, waiting.
"Oh my God," Stacy repeated, lifting a hand to her breast bone to feel the sudden thunder of her heart. "No. I can't be."
"It sounds like you can," her doctor said gently.
Slowly, horrified, Stacy shook her head again. No. It was too much. Everything came back. How Greg's shoulders had tensed under her hands when she admitted she hadn't told Mark. His ultimatum, delivered so quietly, and cutting so deep. How she'd promised, promised to stay, only to have him send her out of his life. Chest tight and burning, Stacy gulped back a sob, but the tears squeezed out of her eyes. She crossed her arms across her chest, feeling the rough rustle of the paper gown, the suffocating vise around her lungs and heart. Distantly, she was aware that her doctor had wrapped an arm around her shoulders, but the touch didn't reach her. Guilt twisted inside her like a tangle of barbed wire, drawn taut, digging in. All the confessions she'd made, all the reparations she'd tried to make, they hadn't even touched the hurt she was about to cause, all over again.
There were options. Her doctor offered to explain them, but Stacy shook her head. Her tears had dried, and she felt cold, but steady. There was no point in being anything but honest, with Mark and with herself. She half-expected him to leave her at the first mention of her pregnancy. Their marriage was fragile as a soap bubble, and this news felt like the pin that would pierce it. Stacy wasn't ready for Mark to take her hands, lean forward, and press his forehead against her shoulder. "Stacy," he said, his voice hoarse. "I don't care how it happened. Just stay."
Stacy wrapped her arms around him, turned her head to press her lips against his neck. She didn't know how long she held him, his wheelchair drawn up to the couch where she sat, their knees interlocked, but he didn't let her go, and she didn't want him to.
The next few months passed in a wash of exhaustion. Stacy felt as wrung out as when Greg had first come home from the hospital, furious, resentful, and caged by his pain. She rolled her eyes when she found herself making the comparison, but it was true. She was drained, emotionally and physically. She felt like she was dragging bricks chained to her heels and ankles, strapped to her shoulders. Worst of all was the feeling that she'd burst into tears at the drop of a hat, over nothing. Meals were a battle every day, well into the second trimester. Going to work each morning felt like climbing a mountain, reaching the peak, and then finding another cliff rising above her.
"How do women do this?" she asked.
Her doctor smiled sympathetically. "This is a change of life baby," she said. "You're twenty years older than most first time mothers."
Stacy rubbed at her temples, wishing she didn't feel every minute of her age. "Is he going to be all right?" she asked. They'd done all the tests as soon as it was safe, and there hadn't been anything worrying in the chromosome analysis, but Stacy couldn't forget that she'd still been smoking until she found out, that she'd had a glass of wine some evenings, and nobody could say if that was safe.
Her doctor sighed. She'd brought up her concerns, but there was nothing Stacy could do at this point except take all the care that she could. "Take it easy," she said. "Get off your feet. Get as much maternity leave as you can."
Stacy forced a smile. "He's probably going to be as stubborn as his father," she said. As strange as it seemed when she remembered Greg's part in this, she didn't think of him often, but Greg wouldn't let anything stop him, and Stacy couldn't help placing her hopes on the baby being the same.
Her doctor tried to joke about that with Mark, when he showed up at the next appointment. Mark's smile flattened, and Stacy bit her lip, feeling like she'd stabbed him again with a careless joke. He'd marvelled over her thickening waistline, and feeling the baby kick, but sometimes she surprised a bitter look on his face. She never should have said anything, hinted at the baby being Greg's. Mark didn't acknowledge it, but she knew he felt like he'd stolen something that should be Greg's; as if their happiness was the only revenge he could ever expect to take.
Stacy didn't want that to be the reason he stayed. But most of the time, Mark only showed delight at each new stage of her pregnancy, kissed her when she came home, his hand spreading easily over her stomach as a greeting to the baby, as if nothing was wrong.
Caleb was born early. Stacy's labour started, stopped, started again, the clenching pain growing with each passing hour that nothing happened. She couldn't help thinking of Greg, his days in the hospital when no one had any idea of what to do for him. Concerned, her doctor gave her something to move the labour along, and Stacy accepted an epidural as the contractions sharpened.
Through the haze of exhaustion and drugs, Stacy heard the buzz and murmur of doctors consulting over her body, numb from mid-back down. She clutched at Mark's hand, concentrated on his eyes above the mask he'd been given to wear. "You're doing great, Stacy," he said, squeezing back just as hard.
"His pulse is getting a little low," her doctor said, in the let's not panic the laymen voice that Stacy hated from doctors. "Stacy, you're doing just fine, but we don't want to wait any longer. We're just going to get him out, all right?"
Stacy shook her head, but she didn't object when she realized they meant a C-section. She felt blurred, hazy, and Mark's hand gripping hers was her only tenuous connection to the firm feel of reality. She couldn't swallow past the dryness in her throat. She couldn't feel what they were doing to her. Everything happened quickly, but felt like it was passing in a languid, distant blur.
"Stacy," Mark said, and she opened her eyes. The crinkles around his eyes were joyful, his voice brimming with happiness. "Stacy, he's perfect. Five pounds, eleven ounces..."
They laid him on her breast for only a moment, before they took him away for tests and observation, to monitor his heart rate and his breathing. Her doctor wanted her to stay in the hospital longer than most mothers, longer than most of them recovering from caesarians, but despite her age, Caleb was perfect. Small, but healthy. A fighter, just like she'd predicted. Mark came every day, with toys and flowers, bringing Caleb to her as she learned how to nurse him.
Perfect couldn't last. When she came home, all she wanted was to lie in bed, either sleeping or wishing the pain of the healing, itchy, aching incision would let her sleep. A cold, slippery spell set in around Thanksgiving. Mark had gone back to work right on time for college application season, leaving him swamped and short on patience. He did his best, but he was confined to his wheelchair. He didn't have enough hands to hold Caleb, warm a bottle, and navigate around the house, let alone cook or clean or take care of her. Stacy had to force herself out of bed and take care of both of them, when she hadn't recovered enough herself. They got a cleaning service weekly and ate cold delivery food every night that neither of them could find the energy to cook, until Stacy never wanted to see a container of Chinese food again. She tried to nurse Caleb, but her milk was slow to come and missing even one day's feedings reduced her supply until Caleb turned away from her breast, frustrated and wailing and hungry. She kept trying, but they had to supplement her milk with formula, and that only made the problem worse.
In the middle of the night, when Caleb woke up screaming for his feeding, Stacy would open her eyes to silent tension, feeling Mark lying awake beside her. She'd never have asked him to get up and negotiate the dark house, with his walking still uncertain, and his wheelchair transfers a strained, difficult process that he resented needing her for. But by the time Caleb was sleeping through most of the night, with a late feeding at midnight and an early one at six, Mark was using his wheelchair only on longer days, and a cane when it was rainy or they weren't certain of the terrain before they arrived somewhere. Stacy's breath caught involuntarily when she heard the tap-tap of his progress through the house, or when she noticed his shoulders slumping as he put his weight on the cane. Most days he was able to walk, which made those rare moments all the more surprising, for their unexpectedness. Stacy found herself jumping at Mark's approach, feeling that somehow it was Greg, appearing out of nowhere to demand explanations.
"How am I supposed to live with someone who expects her ex around the corner all the time?" he asked, when their fights devolved from chores and work and exhaustion to the problems underneath. Stacy shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. She couldn't promise him something she didn't know herself if she could give.
What Mark needed was a lack of history. And he was right. She'd dragged her history into his life and for all it had saved him, it had taken just as much away.
Despite the fights, time helped. Mark's physical therapy was having good results. By the time Caleb could get up on all fours and rock eagerly, nearly ready to crawl, Mark was able to get down on his knees and play with him, which Caleb loved. Stacy healed gradually, in more than just her body. She'd recovered from the caesarian in a month or two, but the toll on her emotions took longer to fade, until one day she woke up and, instead of stumbling through the day feeling like warmed-over death, she found the energy to scrub every surface, file every paper, and make a massive grocery run to restock all their cupboards. When Mark came home, she was nearly at the end of her reserves again, but he took Caleb from her and told her to relax. He sat down in his wheelchair and held Caleb in his lap, and rolled around the floor until Caleb was squealing with glee. Without Caleb weighing her down, Stacy was able to throw together a quick meal. They all ate together at the unburied kitchen table. Caleb bounced happily in his high chair, and Stacy smiled at Mark, lifting her wine glass to clink against his.
It felt like they'd turned a corner, like things could only improve. Caleb was sleeping consistently through the night, and they were looking around for a daycare space for him so that Stacy could go back to work. Their tense silences gave way to talking about their days, about Caleb's first attempts to pull himself up by their coffee table and shuffle along. At night, they rolled closer together to murmur in low voices. Stacy sighed in happiness when Mark wrapped his arms around her, feeling the weight and heat of him as solid as a promise. The casual kisses they exchanged when they were both flying out the door in the morning had time to grow and deepen, until she found herself wanting him; wanting the way they'd been. The night they first made love again, after so much time and hurt, was slow and quiet, building slowly to a climax that sang through her body. Stacy felt like she'd been given back to herself, like the last piece in the puzzle.
She lay next to him, watching him sleep the way she did sometimes with Caleb. She wanted to feel him close, to know he was there, and hers.
Summer came early that year, and warm. Stacy felt like she'd been stumbling blindfolded through a maze for months. The blindfold had finally loosened and fallen away. Their problems hadn't disappeared--she was still trapped in the maze--but she could see where she was going, and that Mark was with her. When they argued, there was a reason for it, and that in itself was a relief. Even better, they could set their fights aside when they needed to. With a laugh, or a hug, they agreed to put things off before they became hurtful. They found time to be together.
Mark was getting his strength back, and the warmer weather made walking easier. He spent more and more days without even his cane. Once his high school let the kids out for summer vacation, he had more time to spend with Caleb, allowing Stacy to ease back into work. By the time school started in the fall, Caleb would be nearly nine months old and ready for daycare.
Princeton was behind them. When Mark kissed her, easily, tender, Stacy felt forgiven and trusted. Making love to him was no longer an act of expiation or guilt, but simply coming together because she loved him. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his shoulder, his throat, and cried out when the feeling of him inside her overwhelmed her. Stacy pulled him closer with her legs encircling his hips, until they were tangled as closely as she could make them. Mark's weight on her was a reassurance, an anchor. She tasted his sweat, stroked her hand down the runnel of his spine, and let her breathing slow.
"Stacy," Mark whispered into her ear as his muscles relaxed completely. "Stacy, let's do it. You and me."
Stacy turned and kissed his jaw, the corner of his mouth. "What do you think this is?" she asked, amused, her voice murmurous and peaceful. She cupped his cheek to see his eyes. The lamp from the bedside table shone on his face.
"I want to have another baby," Mark said.
Stacy brushed her fingertips along his eyebrow, to his temple. He was still hot inside her, gradually softening, and the aftershocks of her pleasure left Stacy warm, content, wonderfully filled with his body and his scent. "What?" she asked, at first not even understanding what he meant.
Mark lifted his shoulders and propped himself up on his elbows, most of his weight still on her. He kissed her palm, and after a breath, he said, "A brother or sister for Caleb."
"Mark..." Stacy shook her head, wishing she didn't understand. She touched his mouth, the crinkle of his forehead, trying to feel how serious he was. She wanted not to talk about it. Not to have to consider it. "We've only just made it back..."
"But we're here," Mark said. His mouth curved into a smile and rocked closer to her. "And it was worth it."
Stacy held her breath, lungs compressed. For months, depression had pressed down on her, slowing every move and every thought. She'd been so lost. Mark knew that. She didn't want to believe that he hadn't seen her. "I might not even be able to get pregnant," she said. Her throat nearly closed around the words. "Mark, it's too late."
"We can try," Mark said. "I know it might not happen. But we could get lucky."
Lucky. Stacy wanted to scream, but she was stifled, and she was too frozen to even move. "I can't," she said. She'd been too old already the first time. He couldn't believe that this would be healthy for her. "I never wanted kids..."
"But you changed your mind. You love Caleb." Insistent, as though loving Caleb was proof that she'd changed that deeply. He'd heard her refusal but he didn't want to believe it. Stacy couldn't find the words to answer, and after a long moment, Mark pulled out of her and rolled onto his back.
The sudden cool air made Stacy shiver. No matter what he was saying, how impossible it was, she didn't want to let him go. Curling up beside him, she nestled her head against his shoulder and rested her arm on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breaths. "It's a big decision," she said, past the knot in her throat. Somewhere inside her mind she was shouting no, but she couldn't lose him over this, not when they'd finally gotten back together.
"The kind you're best at not making," Mark said quietly, turning his head away from her on his pillow.
A bolt of anger shot through her at the assured bitterness in his voice. He wanted to believe the worst of her instead of listening to the reasons that should have been obvious. Stacy pushed herself up on her elbow and stared hard at him. "Mark, tell me honestly," she said. "Why do you want to have another baby? Is it really because the three of us aren't enough?"
"I didn't say that," he said. He met her eyes, but his posture was stiff. Her question had struck a nerve. "I thought you'd be happy."
"Don't put that on me," she said. He couldn't be that blind, or that self-deceptive, to think that her pregnancy had been some kind of joyous lifetime event instead of a marathon through quicksand. "I was the one who was pregnant."
"And I was crippled!" he said, flinging one arm out to point at the wheelchair that still occupied a corner of the bedroom, for the bad days, the times when he didn't know the terrain ahead of time. "But we're better now."
"Then there's no reason to go back!" Stacy shook her head, wanting to push at him, to shake some damn sense into him, or force out his real reason. They were living in a house of cards as things stood, guarding against the tiniest upset that would bring everything crashing down. What in hell made him think that another baby would make them happier, or more harmonious? There was something more that he wanted. Stacy bit down hard on her lip to stop from shouting the accusation. "Is this because you need to get some final one-up on Greg?" she demanded.
Mark laughed shortly. "That wouldn't even help, would it?" he said. "You couldn't look for House in my son. You couldn't pretend to yourself that you're living that life."
"The only life I want is with you," Stacy said, but she couldn't keep a note of anger out of her voice. Although his ACP had never progressed, and he'd healed, the paranoia had never entirely left him. For a year she'd done nothing but show that she loved him, that she wanted to be with him, and he still clung to his insecurity. She understood why he might not trust her, but that was no excuse for the way he hadn't listened to a word she'd said.
Mark didn't answer directly. He never had, but until now, Stacy hadn't admitted to herself how much it hurt that he'd never acknowledged her apologies. She'd silenced herself by remembering that he wasn't obligated to forgive her, but even so, it hurt. Mark reached over and snapped the light off. Hiding from her. Telling her this conversation was over, too. "I'm telling you what I want," he said. "Or doesn't that matter?"
"Of course it does, but Mark..." Stacy closed her eyes. "I can't go through that again." She was just starting to get back to where she had been at work, and the assignments she was getting were like so many pats on the head. When she'd been struggling every day for the energy to get her work done, she hadn't had time to be offended, but now the idea of the mommy track grated. If Mark asked her for something that would restrict the work she could do, she'd be just as bitter as he was, and that was no recipe for them staying together. "I've just convinced the partners that I'm not going to disappear for another maternity leave."
In the dark, Mark's voice sounded even more hollow. "So work is more important than my baby, but less important than his."
"It's not that," Stacy insisted. "I have a baby. We have a baby. I'm not looking for more than that!"
"And I am."
"Mark," she whispered, but he didn't answer. Stacy pressed her lips together and rolled to her side, facing away from him. She could feel the slickness between her legs, and finally, she got out of bed, the air icy against her bare skin, and went to the bathroom to clean up. When she came back, Mark's eyes were closed, but his eyebrows drew together, and the tension in his muscles didn't dissipate. He wasn't asleep. He was ignoring her.
Sleep was a long time coming. What Mark wanted had never been more important than her body, herself. He'd never treat Caleb any differently because he wasn't his own son. She'd seen the smile on his face when he fed Caleb his bottle, or spooned apple sauce into his mouth. He sat on the floor, encouraging Caleb to leave the safety of the coffee table and wobble across the steps of open floor between them. He waved Caleb's rattles to watch him grab for them, tickled his belly to hear Caleb's chortles. There'd never been the least hint that he neglected him, or loved him any less.
But it seemed the same wasn't true of her. Mark was still trying to prove something. Her reassurance and her closeness wasn't enough for him. Some nights, Mark pressed for sex even when his pain or his mobility made it difficult, so that he had to give up, frustrated, halfway through. Stacy wanted him, tried to encourage him, but his frustration touched her too. The moments when she'd felt they were finally settling into each other's orbits again passed, and as much as they both kept reaching, they couldn't grasp, couldn't hold what they'd had. It was sex, not making love. As if Mark was finding her limits instead of respecting them. Stacy started pulling away.
Not long after that, lying in darkness with the silence thick around them, Mark said to the ceiling, "So that's it, then."
Stacy cradled her head on her arm, wishing she could see more of him. It wasn't only the darkness that hid him from her. It was like a cloud had come between them, all the bad faith and wrong intentions rising up between them. "Mark, there's nothing you want that I wouldn't try to give you. But not this."
Mark nodded, staring at the ceiling. He'd started looking away from her again, their shared smiles fading, the gentle moments rebuffed instead of welcomed. "It's not enough that I want it."
"It's not enough when you don't have a reason," she said.
"You never wanted kids before they were his," he said. His voice roughened, taut with anger. The air between them felt cold and charged.
Stacy hadn't wanted to believe that was this was. Some pissing contest that he still hadn't won in his own mind. Whatever he was wrestling with, it wasn't her, and she was tired of being wrong. A year and a half was too long to wait; all the nights she'd ached for his forgiveness, and now he'd moved the goal line, demanded more. A baby wouldn't satisfy him, if nothing else had. She could have his child, put herself through all that pain again, and it still wouldn't be enough. She knew that already, and she wasn't going to put herself through hell just to satisfy him. That was one lesson she'd learned. She needed a place to stand that was hers alone, and even if it meant losing some part of the life that she'd built for herself, it meant something to be free, to be herself, to be safe from someone else's anger, no matter how justified. Greg had taught her that. "Mark, if that's all this is about--if the only reason you want me is to get back at Greg--then I don't know why you're here at all."
"You're right," he said, with a bitter laugh. "You're right. There's no reason at all."
He walked out of the house the next day, and called her that evening from a hotel, halfway to his brother's home in Pennsylvania. He'd need her support with the medical bills. He wouldn't contest custody. And he wasn't coming home.
The light from the window dimmed, from a washed-out gold to grey. Stacy watched the pattern of shadows from the leaves on the tree outside fade into the twilight. Caleb's soft murmurs and the small slurps as he sucked his fist were soothing. He wasn't the only one who needed to reach out for something familiar when they were so far from home. Stacy sighed. A good guest would go back downstairs, talk with Blythe and James, catch up on their lives. But without the distraction Caleb provided, the questions would get too personal, too quickly. She wasn't interested in reliving her life for their curiosity.
The house was quiet enough that Stacy heard the light click of the guest bedroom door opening. Speak of the devil. Greg's curiosity was what she had braced herself for when she'd decided to hop a plane to Kentucky on only two days' notice. The problem was, she didn't know whether she was trying to shield herself against it, or if she secretly--even to herself--wanted to give in and answer his questions. That was one thing she could count on with Greg. He might be fine at lying to himself, but it wasn't something he permitted in others. Plenty of times she'd hated him for it, and she wouldn't be surprised if that was what had finally driven James to leave. But there were times when Greg's standard of honesty, as hypocritical as it was, had helped her find within herself what she really wanted. When she'd left him, it had been because of that. You're miserable with me, he'd accused her. Every day he'd asked her why she bothered to stay, when he only hurt her, when he hated what she'd done. It hadn't taken long before she'd run out of excuses, run out of ways to love him and stay with him. Leaving had hurt, but it had been honest. She doubted it was what Greg had wanted, but honesty between them had always cut both ways.
Stacy didn't know what she expected. For Greg to walk right on by? Maybe the only reason he was breaking his solitude was to use the washroom or steal more food. When Greg appeared in the doorway and paused, though, she wasn't surprised. His hesitant, uncertain manner brought a lump to her throat. Greg hated being in the wrong, and hated apologies even more, but he'd always offered them when he'd decided, sometimes after weeks or months, that they were warranted. His shoulders hunched, his wary step just across the threshold, all reminded her of those moments. Stacy straightened her back and shook her hair back from her face, although she kept rubbing Caleb's back. This early in the evening, he might still wake up, and if he did, he wouldn't go down again for hours. That was a convenient excuse for the reassurance, at least. No matter what Mark did, no matter how he left her, she never felt like she'd lose Caleb. Yet bringing him into Greg's orbit felt like a danger, as if Greg's questions or his anger could tear her family apart, even when it was only the two of them.
Greg waited a moment, but Stacy refused to give him an opening. If he wanted to talk, then the burden of starting a conversation was on him. Greg swallowed, and looked around the room, not directly at Caleb, when he asked, "He's asleep?"
"For now," Stacy said, keeping her voice light.
Greg nodded, avoiding her eyes. Stacy wasn't sure if she wanted him in or out, and Greg seemed at a loss for words, so she simply watched him. It was a technique that won her more than a few legal battles, keeping her cards to herself. She took a steadying breath, her eyebrows drawing together slightly as she studied him. Greg looked older, more than two years could account for. She'd been surprised then too, when she brought him Mark's patient file, at how much he'd changed. He limped heavily, even when he was doing his best to prove to her that nothing mattered, that his pain couldn't slow him down. The lines had deepened around his eyes and mouth. Now, it was worse than that, as if time passed more quickly for him, as if he'd aged two years for every one since she'd seen him. It was never easy to ask him about his pain, but Stacy wished he would tell her what those years had been like. She wanted all the stories from his skin; he was never one to share, but it always felt like she could draw out his history with a touch, from the tension under his skin, from the knots in his muscles.
It had been too long to think she could still know him like that. Nearly a decade, and God, that made her feel old. But Greg hadn't changed so much that he was opaque to her. If Greg didn't charge head-first at an issue, bellowing the entire time, it was about the only sign she trusted that he was being serious. He stepped into the room like it was a minefield, placing his cane as carefully as if the floorboards might collapse under him if he put his full weight on it. He pulled out the chair from the sewing machine table and met her eyes before he sat down. Stacy raised an eyebrow at him, but she didn't order him out. If Greg had gotten past the bluster, then he might actually want to talk.
And maybe pigs could fly. "Have you and Wilson arranged my life for me?" she asked. James went upstairs earlier, and came back down not long after, anger set in the corners of his mouth, eyes dark and tired. As much as Stacy knew James could be a sweetheart, he also had the bad combination of mama bear protectiveness and a streak of martyrism a mile wide, both of them directed squarely at Greg most of the time. Whatever was best for her wasn't likely to be on his radar. He put Greg's interests first, well ahead of his own. He'd accused her of leaving him to pick up the pieces, and he was right. He was the reason Stacy knew she could leave. Greg had James, but Mark had only had her.
"Wilson thinks my leg wouldn't hurt if I had a two-year-old remora attached to it," Greg said. He lifted his eyes to her, a quick glance, that showed her just how out of place he felt. But it was also one he'd used before, to show he was sincere while calculating her emotions, working out how much it was safe to push her.
"It doesn't quite work that way," she said drily. She was determined not to give away too much. If Greg wanted anything, it had to come from him. She'd crossed half the damn country on the chance that he might show up, that he might care. If he didn't, her life wouldn't change. If he did, then she wouldn't be satisfied with manipulation. He'd tell her what he meant, or she wouldn't listen to a word.
Greg lowered his head. His thumb fiddled with the handle of his cane. The saddest part was that he was good with kids. He'd always been good with them. Straightforward, honest, never awkward. Their parents never liked him because he spoke his mind to their children, directly, and didn't care what they were old enough to hear or understand. But he hadn't even asked to hold Caleb. And he wouldn't, Stacy knew. He'd admit a dozen truths before showing how sentimental he could be. "Have you told James about John?" she asked. When they'd been together, James hadn't known. Hearing that John wasn't Greg's father might stop him from beating a dead horse. A family wouldn't cure anything for Greg. Stacy could only be relieved that she had learned better than to offer him a son as a placebo.
Greg nodded, but his posture stiffened. Stacy let the topic drop, let the silence grow. Quiet, with Greg, had never been the problem. She loved him best when he didn't feel the need to speak--to rant, to pick at flaws like scabs, to question until the topic stretched and snapped. Her palm warmed on Caleb's back, and she could feel Greg watching her. "Is that really all you came for?" he asked suddenly.
Stacy frowned at him sharply. "What else did you want me to have come for?" she countered.
Greg shrugged, setting himself to be disagreeable. "You're not with Mark any more. You have my kid. You're on your own, working..."
Stacy tilted her head. "So you think I'm trying to trap you?" she asked, falsely sweet. "This was all a ruse to serve you with a parental support suit?" God, the two of them. She blamed James for this just as much. Acting as if she was helpless without a man in her life.
"No," Greg said, shifting on the chair. He looked about five seconds from running away, leaving whatever had brought him here unsaid.
"I don't think you understand, Greg," Stacy said. The tightness in her chest tried to rise into her throat, but she pushed it down ruthlessly. "You were right. We'd be happy...maybe for a long time. Maybe not. But--" She smiled at him tiredly. "I don't think you want to change diapers or do toilet training. I don't think you could stand it if Caleb touched your piano." She looked away for a moment and shook her head. She wasn't going to ask Greg to change, but even if he could, it wasn't the problem. "I don't think I could stand Caleb living in the same house as you, with the way you hide Vicodin everywhere." She sighed, hurting for him, hurting still from the pain she'd caused him. "I know you think my showing up is some sort of fairy tale..."
Greg frowned ferociously. "Since when have I believed in fairy tales?"
"I know you don't." Stacy met his eyes, the sad dip of his head, the face she knew so well. God, she loved him. But that wasn't enough. "But you think that I do."
"I don't," he said, but he'd hesitated.
Stacy drew in a breath. "I admit, I wanted to see you," she said.
Greg lifted his chin, as if he could study her better from a different angle. "You wanted to know if you made the right choice."
"What right choice?" she asked. "I make choices every day. I could have stayed with Mark. I could have told you when I found out I was pregnant and asked what you wanted. But I didn't. Maybe it was the wrong choice, but I'm doing this alone." The conclusion she'd come to wasn't any easier to say because it was the truth, and her voice wavered slightly. "And even if I was with you, I'd be doing it alone."
Greg's adam's apple bobbed, and he dropped his gaze. She heard the heavy, rough breath that he took, and when he met her eyes again, it was to nod.
Stacy nodded back. So far, he'd been honest with her, and the longer he sat with her quietly, without pacing or trying to interrogate her, the more she was ready to cautiously reach out for more. "But we don't ever really say goodbye, do we?"
"What do you mean?"
It was like walking on a rope bridge across a chasm. The knife was in his hand, and the strands holding them together felt thinner with every step she took. "Now that you know I have him, you're going to be curious," she said. Greg could pretend to James, or his mother, that Caleb wouldn't make a difference to him, but she knew better. "You're going to want his test scores and hear whether he loves lacrosse."
"Sports preference isn't genetic," Greg interrupted, as if that fact invalidated everything she was saying.
Stacy stopped. Why did she always feel like sticking her tongue out at him when he made an asinine remark like that? She glared at him instead, for making her feel immature. If he was uncomfortable, he could use his words and say so. "You know what I mean," she said. "It's going to eat you up inside to have Caleb with me, doing who knows what. You might not want to raise him, but I don't know that you trust me to do it."
"Of course I do." But the signs of his impatience were growing, in his shifting weight and deepening scowl.
"Greg, you don't have to google stalk his preschool to find out what clay animals he's made this week," Stacy said. "There are other ways to keep in touch."
Greg stared at her doubtfully, as if the occasional chat was looming in his future like a bear trap. "That's what you want?"
Stacy shook her head and let her gaze drop to her lap for a moment. Caleb wouldn't miss anything growing up with only one parent. As for who his father was, there was more to it than DNA, and she didn't need to debate with herself where the truth lay. But Caleb wasn't going to stay two forever. "I think if he's anything like you then some day he's going to get curious, and he's going to ask," she said gently. "What I want is your permission to tell him the truth."
Greg sat back as if she'd threatened to snap irons shut around his wrists. "And show up in my life again when he's, what? Eight? Fourteen?"
Stacy pressed her lips together. She was so tired of him assuming the worst, of acting like she'd sprung a trap every time she asked something of him. "I want it to be up to him," she said. "And if he comes to find you, I want you to promise me one thing."
"Hugs and fishing trips?" Greg sneered.
"A conversation," Stacy snapped, and then pulled back deliberately. If he made her wake Caleb, she was dumping his son in his arms and showing him exactly what he hadn't been subjected to for the last two years. "One conversation, Greg. Tell him whatever he wants to know. Your side of the story. Why you weren't there--why I wouldn't let you be." If she didn't come off well in the story, so be it. This wasn't for her. This was for Caleb. "Blame me if you want. But be honest with him."
"You're attributing a lot to him already," Greg said.
Stacy ground her teeth together to keep back her anger. Greg would do better to have some damn faith, and understand that Caleb would want to know the same things that Greg and figured out about John. Stacy could explain as much as she wanted, but that wouldn't be enough if Caleb was curious. He'd always wonder, unless Greg agreed to put aside his pettiness for one minute and give someone--his son--a straight answer. Something John had never given him, and a chance to show that in the same situation Greg could be the better man. "I'm telling you what I'm hoping for," she said. "And I know how hard that is for you, so I'm giving you enough time to prepare the lies you think would be better for him."
"Not just about him," Greg said. "You're assuming I'll be around then."
Stacy nodded, a heavy weight settling in her throat. Greg's age had never struck her so forcefully. With the Vicodin and his liver, with the way he drank, it was possible that Caleb would lose another father before he'd had a chance to know him. She didn't want to imagine Greg dying, but it was a possibility she'd faced before, and while she wasn't reconciled, it was no longer the complete impossibility it had felt like once. "It's only a promise," she said. "I know you don't mind breaking those."
Greg was quiet for a moment, and then he nodded, meeting her eyes infintesimally. Stacy's breath caught. It was the only acknowledgement she'd get. He'd fight if she backed him into a corner. Greg rubbed tiredly at his eyebrows, and then stood up, staring down at his hand on his cane before he glanced at her again. "Wilson took the couch," he said. "I think he's still punishing himself for me killing his girlfriend."
"Maybe he's being a good friend to you," Stacy said, repressing the urge to roll her eyes.
"Wilson isn't my friend," Greg said, with a stiff, meaningless smile. "So he says." With a flash of his usual manner, he said, "Of course I dragged him out on a road trip of self-discovery that should set him straight, but..."
Stacy swallowed hard. Greg believed her. He'd accepted what she'd told him, on some level, or he'd still be trying to interrogate her. She wished, somehow, that he had pushed for more. That he'd wanted something himself. Stacy stood up, glancing back at Caleb before crossing the room to him. She hadn't missed the way he'd looked at her today; hadn't escaped the flutter of her heart when she was close to him. Standing close to him, her arms crossed against the possibility of his rejection, she said, "So what you're saying is...you have the guest bedroom to yourself."
Greg met her eyes steadily. In the darkening room, the blue of his eyes shaded to grey, and the solemn dip of his mouth made Stacy bite her lower lip slightly. "Last time..." he said, his voice ragged as he searched her face for what she was asking. "I didn't know it was the last time."
"What would you have done differently?" Stacy asked.
He lifted one hand to touch her elbow. It was such an innocent touch, and yet Stacy felt it like a brand, hot and inescapable. She'd wanted to see him. She'd wanted to hope. "You could find out," he said.
Stacy glanced back. Caleb was bundled warmly in the center of the bed. He slept through the night now, although at six AM she'd be learning all over again what the crack of dawn meant to a toddler. She turned back to Greg, wanting to stroke his face, feel his mouth on hers. She remembered, still, their kiss in Baltimore. Her whole body had opened up, unfolded, the pleasure rushing in a way it hadn't with Mark. He was good, and she'd loved him. But there was something with Greg; the burn of his stubble against her lips, the softness of his kiss despite that. Her body yearned towards him, every point peaked and alert, alive with pleasure. The aching slowness of it, the burn of wanting more, when Greg only offered the slow discovery of what they'd once had. God, he turned her on. It wasn't fair, but nothing about Greg was. "One last time?" she asked drily. "Is that a line?"
"It's not a promise." Greg's face stayed serious, not expecting anything. Only offering. One last time. She hadn't known, either, that it would be the last time. That it would be the beginning of so much more. "Stacy..."
Stacy held her breath as she went with him, stepping out of the small sewing room together. She left the door cracked open, in case Caleb cried. There was a light on downstairs in the living room, but outside its glow, the upstairs hallway was in shadow. Part of her wondered if Blythe and James were talking, or politely allowing the fiction of silence. They both had their own ideas of what Stacy and Greg should want, what would be best for the two of them and for Caleb, but Stacy couldn't see them as conspirators. They each had the warm, but self-contained, demeanour of people who have learned that their problems are their own, and that sharing or feeling too much was unseemly. Maybe they were ignoring the problems altogether, leaving James with a book and Blythe with her crocheting, both pretending not to care about whatever conversations were happening upstairs.
Greg stopped on the landing and reached out to her. Stacy slipped her hand into his, her fingers brushing against his palm before folding into his warm, gentle grip. She couldn't help smiling up at him. It wasn't the first time they'd be sleeping together in his parents' house, but the last time, they'd been together, visiting in-laws. This felt illicit, like sneaking around in high school. The slightest creak of the floorboards sounded like a shot, although it couldn't have been louder than their breathing. Greg bent his head, his mouth touching hers in a brush too light to be a kiss, as if he wanted to be sure, wanted her to close the last of the gap. They were still on the landing, and Stacy wasn't interested in getting caught, and having to invent explanations that would be taken with far too much smugness. She pressed her lips to his, firmly but briefly, and then laughed quietly and shoved his chest, pushing him towards the end of the hall. The guest bedroom at least had the advantage of being on the far side of the bathroom. They wouldn't have Blythe's bed on the other side of the wall.
Greg drew her against him once the door clicked closed behind them. Stacy wrapped her arms around his shoulders and buried her face against the side of his neck, and everything changed. It wasn't like high school, and it had nothing to do with Blythe or James' speculations. It was entirely about holding Greg, tightly enough to remember him. She breathed in Greg's skin-warm scent and squeezed her eyes shut, resisting the tremor in her throat as she pushed her air out slowly. Ridiculously, she wanted to cry, to cling to him, all the things she'd promised herself she didn't need from him and wouldn't demand. But Greg was holding her just as closely, and she could hear the rough note in his breathing.
Last time had been frantic and yet achingly slow. They'd rushed together like they couldn't believe they had the time, pushing into each other like every kiss needed to be the deepest, every touch the most arousing. Everything blurred together, the struggle out of their clothes and the rush to have him inside her, when she felt like she'd been waiting for years, instead of the week it had been since their kiss in the airport hotel. Stacy remembered Greg's hand, all but crushing hers, as if he was afraid he'd lose her if he let go, and the the pleasure-dark blue of his eyes as he moved over her. It had seemed so damn important to keep watching him as she came, as if reaching her peak entirely while holding herself entirely open to him would stand in for a promise.
Stacy lifted her face, one hand finding Greg's cheek to guide him into a kiss. With her thumb, resting just under his jaw, she felt him swallow, and then his mouth covered hers. It felt like the first drop on a rollercoaster; like plunging into a deep, heated pool. Warmth spread from her core to the tips of her fingers and down to her toes. Nerves fluttered in her stomach and tingled between her legs. The rough hint of Greg's stubble scratched her lips, but his tongue was warm and so welcome. Stacy wanted to feel all his textures, from the softness of the hair at his nape to the raspy whorls of hair on his chest and stomach, to the full smooth press of his penis in her hands.
She felt like she could kiss him forever. Eyes closed to concentrate on each exploring swirl of his tongue, breaths meeting moistly, desire kindled and coaxed by the spread of his palm clasping her hips to his, Stacy's tension ebbed. As long as they were talking, there had always been the danger that he'd take offense, or just run away into himself where she couldn't reach. Body to body, she knew how to draw him out; how to find the signs of what he felt. His mouth curved into a hesitant happiness when he pulled away, and Stacy smiled back. "You really were holding back last time," she teased him, stroking her hand down from his cheek to press against his chest.
Greg laughed softly, but it didn't last. "Stacy, are you sure?" he asked.
"Does this feel like I'm not sure?" she asked lightly.
"No," he said, his smile appearing again, although he tamped it down, as if he was afraid it gave too much away. "That doesn't mean you're going to like me tomorrow."
"I'm tired of worrying about tomorrow," Stacy said. An edge of frustration spiked up, but she asked calmly, "Can't we just...be together? Why can't that be enough?"
"Let it be what it is," Greg said, his sardonic tone twisting her words. "Are you sure you know what that is?"
"Stop asking me about my choices," she said. "If there's one thing I know, it's that I can survive them." She sighed and watched her fingertips playing with the buttons on his shirt. "Greg, if this is too hard for you..."
Greg smirked. "Oh, it's hard for me, all right."
Stacy pushed back to give him a sarcastic smile. "Greg, I'm serious."
He shook his head, and looked down. "Wilson would want me to be serious," he said, with a slight scowl.
"Don't hide behind James," Stacy said. James' personal life shouldn't be anybody's example, Greg's least of all. She might be guilty of wanting Greg differently--wanting him to change--but she knew better than to ask that of him. James' opinion was the last she wanted to hear, especially parroted as an example of what they should do. They'd both left should behind a long time ago. "Tell me what you feel, right now."
Greg's eyebrows lifted, the dent between his eyebrows smoothing for a moment. "I love you," he said.
Her breath swept out, and her mouth opened without a single word springing to mind. Greg's gaze, open and clear, demanded nothing, and that made it feel like an expectation.
"But that's not enough for you," he went on, with that direct, ruthless honesty that made so many people hate him. "Because you've changed. I don't think we've wanted the same thing since you got married."
Stacy wetted her mouth, and nodded shakily. "It's enough for now," she said. "For me. If this is what you want."
"Stacy," he said, moving forward to kiss her again. "I want you."
"Yes," she whispered, and met his mouth easily. They still fit. His arms around her waist, hers around his neck, careful of their balance for his leg's sake. It felt like coming home, even if Greg would be the first one to remind her that no one could go home again. Stacy sighed and relaxed into him, glad that she'd changed out of her dress before taking Caleb out. She pulled back only long enough to slip her light sweater over her head, and then concentrated on Greg's button-down, opening it inch by inch. Between kisses, Greg unclasped her bra, his fingers firm as he stroked her back. Stacy paused, letting out a low moan, as he massaged the tension that gathered along her spine. Slipping her hands under his t-shirt, she pushed it up, until he took one limping step back and stripped it off, his button-down going with it. Skin to skin, they kissed again. Stacy gave herself over to the sensation, her nipples tightening at the brush of Greg's chest hair, the sparks of feeling sliding between her legs.
They'd already survived the surprise of passing years. Greg's muscles were softer, his movements stiffer and more pained. He hadn't changed since then; he was still lean and solid, although she knew it was more from eating too little and using his shoulders as much as his leg when he walked than from any attempt to stay fit. She'd always loved the shape of him, his height, the thickness of his chest, and she kissed him deeper as she explored his body. Last time, he'd called her beautiful, marvelled as he touched her, despite how she'd aged. For a moment, Stacy wished she still had that body, the one from before Caleb. Her nipples were larger and darker, and blue veins showed through the skin of her breasts. They swayed lower and heavier now, and she couldn't forget the scar below her navel. Her pregnancy was written on her body, and Greg wouldn't miss the signs. She wondered if he'd mind being reminded of Caleb right now, or if he'd frown at the changes as if they proved how much her goals and desires had diverged from what they'd had together.
He didn't say anything. But his eyes travelled over her, taking her in, discovering who she was now. Stacy unzipped her pants, let them fall off her hips, her panties going with them. She tiptoed to the bed, and lay down, raising her eyebrows at Greg to invite him to join her. Greg grimaced and looked away from her as he hop-limped to the bed, and sat down heavily. He let his cane fall against the bedside table, then unbuttoned his jeans and maneuvered out of them. Stacy didn't say anything. It was the worst time to comment, when Greg was slowed up by his leg, and, even after all this time, when he was about to show the seamed depression in his thigh. Once he was naked, though, he lay beside her without hesitation.
"Greg," Stacy said softly, leaning over him to kiss him, her hair brushing his chest. "I love you too, you know."
Greg chuckled, his chest rumbling under her hand. He stroked her back, pulling her against his good leg, until they were tangled together. "But do you hate me?" he asked.
Stacy kissed the corner of his mouth, tasted him thoughtfully. Greg allowed the kiss, but more cautiously. He lifted a hand to tuck her hair back behind her ear. He was still smiling, but it was wary, waiting. He'd forgiven her, but it had taken him years. She'd hated him for hurting her, for blaming her, for interfering with her and Mark. But time had passed for her as well. That much bitterness was too much to hold on to when there were more important things in her life. Stacy breathed in. "No," she said. "Not any more."
Greg's eyes gleamed in the dimness. He didn't smile, but touched her gently, his hand flowing from her cheekbone, into her hair. He pressed her closer, and kissed her fervently again. Stacy answered eagerly, her hands searching out his body, finding the places that he loved to be touched. They were older now, their responses coming more slowly, but she wanted that. Too immediate, and it would feel like nothing but sex. She wanted the feeling of having lived with him through the changes that impressed themselves on his skin. She wanted to believe they could spend nights like this forever, learning each other deeper with each day. With her hand, Greg guiding her, she felt him harden under her encouraging strokes. Greg kissed her, everywhere, following her muffled cries until she was bright enough with desire to accommodate him.
Greg hitched onto his left hip, sliding closer to cover her. "Should I be worried?" he asked, with a smile that nearly broke her heart. Of course it would be now that he acknowledged Caleb, admitted to being his father.
Stacy shook her head. "My period just finished," she said. It was getting rarer as time passed. The one before had been months ago. The chances that she was fertile were nearly non-existent. But even if she still had her regular schedule, it would have been too soon for her to ovulate.
Greg kissed her, accepting, trusting; that alone meant so much. Stacy cradled him closer as he eased inside. Greg's breath hitched, and he rocked closer. Stacy gasped, cupped his face, and kissed him. Making love to him was nothing like before. It was only like now.
He came first, the warm pulse and his soft groan making her feel powerful and loved. Stacy massaged his shoulders, enjoying his weight and his closeness. After a minute, his heartbeat slowed. He lifted his head and smirked at her. He reached down between them, and Stacy brought his fingers to where she wanted him. With his slowly softening erection still inside her, he followed her lead, until Stacy dropped her head and arched her back, a cry rising to her lips as she rocked up and rubbed against him. And, gently, they parted.
Stacy tugged Greg's arm around her stomach, and rolled to her left side, knowing it was a direction he could follow her. Greg kissed her shoulder and wrapped himself around her, his warmth easing and calming her. Stacy closed her eyes, so glad of him, of his nearness.
"Stacy," he said, his nose pressed close to her ear.
"Yes?" she asked, hoping he wouldn't demand more of her than she could give.
Greg hesitated, and then said, "My father died."
Stacy opened her eyes. If Greg could grieve for John, no matter how little, then there was hope for him and Caleb. He could believe that there was something to fatherhood between DNA and being there, some combination of history and family that could be negotiated, instead of dismissed as black and white. Greg would give what he could. Maybe more for her than for a baby he hadn't known, but that was enough. That was his promise. She hugged his arm tighter and leaned back into his body. "I know," she said. "I'm sorry."
Stacy woke up some time after three. Greg had rolled away and spread out, his torso caught in a twist of the sheets, arms flung over his head, and one bare foot sticking out over the edge of the bed. Stacy sat up, holding a pillow that had warmed to her body temperature, and studied him in the gray darkness. Greg slept restlessly, shifting every few minutes, looking for a position that didn't set off his pain. He woke easily, slept shallowly, sometimes paced for hours between catnaps. Before morning, he'd open his eyes and find her gone.
Stacy tried to convince herself it wasn't abandoning him. He'd felt so good, but he'd been the one who hadn't wanted to give any guarantees. He'd understand why she couldn't stay; it was the same reason he couldn't decide to pick up his entire life and move to Short Hills to be with her. Besides, she needed to use the washroom, and she wanted to check on Caleb. Stacy pulled her pants and sweater on, carrying her underwear, and ducked out into the hall. The lights were off downstairs. She had to ease her way down the hall, hoping not to stub a toe and give the game away entirely. When she came back to the sewing room, she held her breath as she slipped in the door.
Caleb had crawled halfway out of his blankets, so that he was lying almost entirely against the arm of the pull-out sofa. Quietly, Stacy changed into a softer shirt, and lay down beside him. She took his small hand in hers, and he closed his fingers lightly around her thumb, as he had since the day he was born. Hugging him close, Stacy let her eyes drift shut. Her thoughts wanted to circle her head, one on top of the other, demanding answers she couldn't give. She hadn't come here to ask Greg to be a father. That didn't make it any easier to see him. Would she regret it, years from now, to know she could have tried? Was she a coward for not demanding more of him, or simply realistic? What was it about Greg that brought all these questions to the surface, when for the past two years she'd lived her life happily, or as close to it as she could get?
Making love didn't bring any answers. She'd known it wouldn't, but the temptation had been too much. And maybe part of the appeal had always been the moment of self-deception, when she could pretend that she could have him forever. That she wouldn't have to give up her life now to chase the fever dream of a life she couldn't have. She didn't know if Greg had indulged her, or if he'd had his own reasons to pretend.
She was up early in the morning. Caleb was delighted to find her sleeping next to him, and smacked her squarely in the cheek to show it. As soon as her eyes opened, Caleb leaned forward to give her a careful kiss with moist lips, on the same cheek, and beamed at her. "Mama!"
Stacy smiled, tickled him to hear his laugh, and then got them both ready for the day, sticking to Caleb's routine as closely as she could. He babbled in her arms on her way downstairs. Stacy rubbed noses with him and tried to shush him for James's sake, glad there was a door between the kitchen and the living room. Once Caleb had some Cheerios and watermelon slices in front of him, cut up the night before, he was happy enough to eat them, occasionally holding up a piece of fruit and asking for her opinion, or input, before he devoured each one. "More?" he said. "More please."
"More fruit?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Eer-ohs, eer-ohs, eer-ohs."
She poured a few more Cheerios on the table in front of him. He wasn't hungry any more, he just wanted to play. He pinched each Cheerio between his thumb and forefinger and made piles and designs out of the others, murmuring softly to himself as he found each one its proper place.
Stacy sat beside him, her hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, eating her own bowl of cereal. She asked Caleb questions about his Cheerios, and if he'd liked staying at Grandma Blythe's, and told him they'd be going home today. Caleb looked up occasionally, meeting her eyes with the solemn, curious look of his that reminded her so much of Greg. Then he'd break into giggles, and the familiarity would vanish.
She expected James to make his way to the kitchen next, woken by Caleb's exuberance. But he'd seemed exhausted all day yesterday, more tired than a day's drive, although that many hours in the car with Greg would try anyone's patience. No, it had been the deep weariness of months. Stacy would have called it overwork, if she didn't know that Wilson threw himself into his cases after every divorce. She'd heard the story of his girlfriend, the woman killed in a bus accident. Even Greg seemed to think James had loved her. Grief sat strangely on him, when all the times before he'd been able to smile quietly and smoothly shift the topic away from his divorces. He'd always sparred with Greg about the women in his life without seeming affected, needling back as if he enjoyed the game. This time, he'd been the one left, the one broken. Stacy hadn't been close enough to feel she could offer any true condolences. But if it had been that easy, then James wouldn't be talking about leaving Princeton. The idea of Greg alone, without him, worried her more than she wanted to admit. She didn't want to interfere, but maybe she could call Lisa and ask her to keep an eye on him. On both of them.
Blythe was the next to make an appearance. She was dressed, carefully made up, as if she was hosting another wake for John today. The last time Stacy had stayed with them, Blythe had been more casual, and she was sorry that the three of them--or at least she and James--counted as company, not family. "Good morning, dear," Blythe said. "Did you find everything all right?"
Stacy smiled and nodded at Caleb's careful towers of Cheerios. "Yes, thanks."
Blythe found the coffee she'd made and sighed as she poured herself a mug. "Did you get a chance to talk to Greg?"
Completely without meaning to, Stacy found herself blushing. Blythe kept her gaze on her mug, but smile turned knowing for a moment. They couldn't have been that loud, but then, they hadn't exactly been discreet, either. She was flustered, but she was enough of a lawyer not to have this conversation entirely on Blythe's terms. "I never meant to disrupt his life this way," she said, keeping her voice neutral but firm. She should have known it wasn't Greg's expectations she'd need to manage.
Blythe came to the table and sat down beside Caleb. She stroked his hair, and he looked up at her with a wide smile and held up a Cheerio for her inspection. "Is that good, Caleb?" she asked.
He nodded vigorously and offered it to her.
"Oh, thank you, that's wonderful," Blythe said. She nibbled on it, showing him how tasty it was. Stacy laughed. At this rate, she'd have Caleb trying to press individual Cheerios on her for the rest of the morning.
"How are you doing?" Stacy asked her. She'd hardly felt close to John, but during the service yesterday she'd still felt on the edge of tears, and James' eyes had been red. Blythe had cried, with quiet, desperate dignity. Greg had sat, glowering and sullen, refusing to stand for the hymns or bend his head for the prayers. But that was Greg.
Blythe reached for Caleb, and when he raised his arms for her, she lifted him onto her lap. He accepted the change easily, focusing on his Cheerios. He'd had yesterday to meet her, and he knew her as someone who would reliably give hugs and fruit when asked, which was all Caleb asked of anybody in his life. Stacy tried to picture Greg holding him with the same enjoyment, and forced herself to stop. "I had a year to get used to his death," Blythe said quietly, hugging Caleb. "And I still can't believe he's gone."
Stacy nodded. "If there's anything I can do..."
"You came," Blythe said. She sat back, her gaze sharpening, and her air of being nothing more than a gentle hostess disappeared. "I know how difficult it must have been," she said. "How difficult it is. And with Greg showing up...I hope you know I didn't mean to meddle."
Stacy laughed softly and looked at Caleb. "I'm pretty sure I win the award for that."
Blythe shook her head. "Don't think that I don't understand," she asked.
Stacy's heart stopped in her throat. Blythe had never admitted, never by a breath or a word, that Greg was right about his father. If she was going to admit anything, it should be to Greg. It was the one thing he'd needed to hear from her all these years. But Stacy couldn't demand that Blythe make her confessions where they were needed most. Sometimes, the words simply had to be said, and accepted, instead of torn to pieces for their unsatisfactory truth. Blythe reached down and took Caleb's hands in hers. She led him in patticake, chanting the rhyme quietly, before she looked up again.
"I didn't love him," she said. She met Stacy's eyes directly, but not defiantly. "If I had, maybe I would have left John."
"Why didn't you?" Stacy asked.
Blythe looked away, stroking Caleb's hair again. "How can you say who you love and who you don't? I was lonely--it sounds like such a cliche. John was never home. We moved four times in three years. There was no room--no room for me. I should have known better, but..." She smiled at Stacy. "Romance gets the better of us, don't you think?"
God, it did. Stacy pressed her lips together, holding in a thousand questions. Was Blythe telling her this only to absolve herself? Did she think that Stacy would forgive her, if not one else would, for Caleb's sake? As some kind of resolution for her own mistakes? Stacy didn't want to be complicit in Blythe's story, but she was; she was the woman Blythe was describing, caught in a trap of her own making. Her choices had been easier, fifty years later, but no less complicated.
Blythe breathed in deeply. "John never treated me badly. Whatever Greg believes, John only saw what he did as discipline. And I saw a man raising a son who wasn't his. If he was harsh, how could I blame him? And Greg could be so difficult, so defiant. He pushed me as much as his father. Do you know..."
Stacy drew in a swift breath. "Yes?"
"I never saw his father in him," Blythe said. "His biological father. And I never saw John. All I saw was myself. I was always angry. So angry with the rules that I had to break them to prove that I was even there."
Stacy reached across the table and held Blythe's hand. Blythe smiled at her, her eyes bright with tears. "How can I blame you?" she said, her voice catching. "How can I judge anything you do?"
Squeezing Blythe's hand, Stacy leaned forward. "I do want him to know you," she said. She did want Caleb to have someone he could call Grandma, although the safety of distance appealed to her too. Cards and presents kept the tie without the bondage, gave them both the best of a situation that had no best-case resolution.
Blythe smiled, as if she understood the caveats without explanation. "Thank you," she said. "But, Stacy, I'll understand if even that's too much." She raised her eyebrows. "Do you know, he was there?"
"Greg pointed him out," Stacy said. She hadn't seen him from close up, and although she was curious, she had to admit that DNA wouldn't give all the answers.
"I didn't even say hello," Blythe said. "It's been a lifetime. I had my family. What could we possibly have to talk about? I've all but forgotten who I was when I was with him." She shook her head, as if wondering over her own decision. "He might have been hurting as much as me," she said. "And I didn't even say hello."
Stacy was determined to wear Caleb out. Their flight wasn't until the afternoon, which left a few hours before they needed to be at the airport, and she wanted him to at least have a hope of sleeping through the flight. After breakfast, she packed their bags so that they'd be ready to go, and then told him it was time to go to the park.
James appeared in the living room doorway as she was kneeling to get Caleb's runners on his feet. He leaned against the door jamb, watching her--or maybe Caleb--with a fond, somewhat detached smile. He was dressed more casually than yesterday, in his McGill sweatshirt, sleeves bunched up at the elbows, and a pair of khaki trousers. Stacy raised an eyebrow at him, wondering if he'd admit what he wanted. "Did you want to come for a walk?" she asked.
James stood up straight and cleared his throat. She thought for a moment he might beg off, but then he nodded. He probably wanted to ask her all the questions she'd dodged last night. What are your intentions towards my best friend? If they were still friends. She expected a few about Caleb too, of the what were you thinking? variety, but she didn't plan to justify herself on that score. James could have an opinion on Greg, but not on Caleb.
They left the house and Stacy herded Caleb in the opposite direction from the walk they'd taken yesterday. Whether or not they found a park, the scenery would be different. As they crossed the lawn, Stacy glanced up at the second-storey windows. Some part of her hoped that Greg wasn't watching, because she had no idea what he'd make of this. Another collusion discussing him, no doubt. As for Blythe's neighbours, they'd make their own assumptions. Caleb stumped along in his little-boy walk, one arm pulled up above his ear to hold Stacy's hand, and she walked shoulder to shoulder with James. Stacy supposed they looked like a family, and as much as she liked James, she couldn't help feeling how wrong that was. Even though James must have had patients as young as Caleb, which Stacy didn't even want to consider, he seemed gingerly awkward with Caleb's active fascination with the world and his constant stream of almost-language, interspersed with a few understandable sentences.
When they reached a small green lot at the end of the block with a swingset and a low, wide slide, Stacy let go of Caleb's hand and let him run across the grass. "Are we far enough from prying ears now?" she asked, as they watched Caleb inspect the first of five steps up to the slide platform, like a climber planning his route.
"What do you mean?" James asked, with a guilty look. He looked as nervous as if Greg might have bugged one or both of them.
Stacy couldn't really blame him; it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. "We have half an hour, at most, before he's going to want a snack," she said, gently, but not unironically. James could sometimes take some pushing before he moved past dutiful small talk, even with her. "If you wanted to talk."
A pained expression crossed James' face, like he was holding back a sigh. "Are you really going to stay out of his life?" he asked finally, as though it was something he longed for and, at the same time, couldn't imagine at all.
"Yes," Stacy said calmly. She kept her eyes on Caleb, on his knees on the slide's third step, apparently too distracted by a pebble to make it the rest of the way to the platform. Part of her was ready to dart forward and save him from a fall, or from swallowing the piece of gravel he'd found. After two years that was second nature, and she could still concentrate on the conversation. "Or hasn't that been clear for the last two years?"
"You're here now," James said.
Stacy gave him a sceptical look. "You're the reason he's here now," she pointed out. "Whose fault was this exactly?"
James pressed his lips together. "It was his father's funeral," he said. "You would have dragged him here too."
"Greg hated him," Stacy said, and then paused. She'd always been on James' side of the fight when it came to making nice for family before. Maybe distance had tempered her, or else she'd just gotten tired of fighting Greg's pig-headedness. "All right, yes, I would have nagged him to come. But I wouldn't have drugged him."
James shot her a dark look. Maybe she was too defensive, but it felt like an accusation of hypocrisy. Back then, she'd certainly had access to different forms of leverage than James could use. Sex had always been a convincing argument. But that didn't mean she would have drugged him if erotic promises hadn't worked.
"You think I didn't learn my lesson?" she asked. "Greg hated me for interfering. His body, therefore his stupid decisions." She crossed her arms against a cool breeze. "That's why he's not in my life any more," she said quietly. "Because I can't watch that. I can't not try to help, and he doesn't want my help."
"So you're giving up on him?" James asked.
Anger caught her by surprise, a sudden, squeezing bitterness. She'd decided to give up everything for Greg, her marriage, her job, her friends in Short Hills. He'd demanded that much loyalty from her, and she wrestled with herself before deciding to offer it to him, only to have him turn up his nose at it. She hadn't had time to even turn around before he'd changed his mind. James must know that; he'd seen her packing to leave, and it wouldn't have been long before he dragged the story out of Greg. But, with a glance at him, she could see that he wasn't asking to be malicious. His eyes were shadowed, sadness etched in the unhappy curl of his mouth. It wasn't her giving up on Greg that bothered him. Stacy breathed carefully, pushing aside her own years-old hurt. "I had a choice to make, and if I'd made it right away..." She had to stop, swallow past the tightness in her throat. Greg's disbelief still hurt. "But that's Greg for you. He doesn't give you time. And if you jump in the wrong direction in the first moment, he doesn't trust you again after that."
James' sympathy, if he was even thinking of offering any, would always be tinted with his care for Greg, whether they were friends or not. To get a hold of herself, Stacy walked briskly to the bottom of the slide. Caleb had finally made it to the top, and he jumped up in down in excitement. Stacy smiled at him and held out her arms, waiting for Caleb to sit down carefully and push off, squealing in delight as he slid down into her hug. He wriggled away after a second, and ran back around to the steps.
James stayed where he was, but when she glanced over at him, he grimaced an apology. "I'm leaving the hospital," he said.
James' eyebrows lifted. "You're not...going to try to change my mind?"
"It's not my decision," she said. God, didn't she have enough of those? Enough to make her own mistakes, without pretending she knew best for anyone else. Saving Greg's life had been her moment of interference. Of selfishness, if that's what Greg wanted to believe. She'd only wanted him alive, and she wouldn't apologize for that. Arguing James out of whatever he'd decided would be nothing but meddling. "I presume, since you know Greg and Lisa, you've heard all the arguments you want to," she said drily. "More than you want to."
James smiled, but it didn't hold any humour. "I can't...live my life there. The way it was."
Stacy wished she could take his hand, the way she had with Blythe, but James' whole body radiated a self-contained fragility that warned off any touch. "I didn't know her," she said. "But I know you loved her." That much she could believe, whatever her own misgivings about James' usual trend in relationships. "I just wish you could keep living, instead of being held back by something you can't change."
"You think it's that easy?" James asked, with a pained scoff.
Stacy shook her head. She straightened up after catching Caleb a second time and faced him squarely. "No. I think it's terrible. I think it will eat you up inside for weeks, or months. God, it's been seven years, and I still think about it. Whether I was right." She'd been right for her, even if it meant losing Greg. Sometimes she still doubted whether she'd been right for him.
"It's not the same," James said stiffly.
Pain never was. Stacy believed him, but there was still a sceptical part of her who wondered if James would romanticize his loss as much as he'd always romanticized happiness. "If you're looking for some sign that leaving can be the right choice..." She nodded at Caleb, who was running a lap around the slide structure on chubby legs, just because running was fun. He'd love it even better if she pretended to chase him, played tag until he was so worn out he could barely stand, laughing all the while. "I got out," she said. "And I love my life. But that doesn't mean the pain goes away. So if you're running--"
"Did you think you could leave with a clear conscience, as long as I stayed?" she asked. "James, I can't take your place."
He laughed shortly. "Isn't that what you did with me?"
"James, I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm sorry you went through that. But that doesn't mean it was the wrong thing for me to do. And if it's right for you to leave Princeton, then it's right whether I'm there or not."
"But you won't be." James sighed and lifted a hand, as if he could scrub away his exhaustion. "Last night...I hoped..."
God, she hoped he didn't expect details. James tended to get into trouble when he equated sex with love. Greg needled him relentlessly about that; about his morals. Stacy supposed they'd seemed mercenary to him, in love but not interested in marriage, exclusive without caring for definitions. This time, she did cross the space between them, and took his hand. "I love him, whether I'm with him or not," she said. "Last night was for both of us, when neither of us was expecting more." And apparently they'd been the only ones.
James slipped her hand out of hers. He was frowning, and whether it was anger or pain, she couldn't tell. "How can you leave him?"
Stacy shook her head. "Are you asking me, or yourself?"
Tight-lipped, James turned away. Caleb came running and crashed into Stacy's knees, wrapping his arms around her knee. Stacy bent to pick him up, and in silent agreement, she and James started walking back.
The feeling between them had changed since they left. If she'd confided in James from the start, maybe he would have done the same. Or maybe not; James had always been more comfortable with superficial conversation. It was Greg he was comfortable with, if there was anyone. When they were both foundering, Stacy couldn't have kept him afloat any more than she could have done more to keep herself afloat. She felt sorry for James, and that couldn't possibly help. He needed more than distant friends and appearances. But she hated to think that what he really needed was Greg.
They walked in silence. Even Caleb didn't protest when Stacy carried him instead of keeping to his slow pace. The day was cooler than yesterday, though not by much. There are sprinklers shushing over a few lawns, fall flowers blooming in the gardened borders around others. Greg had grown up in neighbourhoods like this, when he hadn't been overseas. Stacy lived in an apartment now, in the city to lessen her commute. When she was with Mark, she wanted something like this neighbourhood; a house big enough for three people to have their own spaces. The apartment she'd shared with Greg had alternately felt overfull with the two of them, steaming in their anger, or so empty, when she wanted him there and he was, inevitably, at work. But the times she remembered best were when they felt comfortable there. The two of them, dancing around each other in the kitchen, or Greg playing the piano while she worked at the desk in the living room. Room enough for two. Maybe that was all she had room for in her life, because Stacy couldn't imagine inviting someone else into Caleb's life. The two of them were enough, and they were happy.
She was happy. Visiting suburbia made her nostalgic for choices she hadn't made, but she knew better than to expect happiness to come included in the price tag of a two-bedroom detached. She wasn't lonely without Greg, or without Mark. She wasn't incomplete. The life she had was the one that, right now, she wanted.
She smiled, amused. Greg would be pleased to know he was still the arbiter of a correct decision in her life. It took seeing him again to know it. He could make her life so full; so overfull. And he could make it empty, simply by being cruel. She could be cruel too, and with him, it always felt more like a defence than an offence, although she knew she could hurt him just as much.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" James asked as they got back to the house, his good nature taking over.
Stacy shook her head. "I'm mostly packed," she said. Her rental car is parked at the curb, and it only took a minute to bring her bags down and load them into its trunk. Once everything was packed, and she'd tidied the sewing room and folded away the bed, she found Blythe and said goodbye.
Blythe hugged her close for a second. "Don't be a stranger," she said, her composure in place as if it had never broken.
"I'll be in touch," Stacy said, and squeezed her hand.
The last thing to go was always the diaper bag. Stacy changed Caleb, who'd begun to rub his eyes and fret. He'd probably fall asleep in the car on the way to the airport, and wake up right on time to be cranky during the flight. She'd have to put up with the judgement of the other people on the plane, and remind herself that she used to be one of those people. By the time they were home, and Caleb fed his dinner, she'd be too tired to get even the minimal amount of work done that she'd promised her boss when she'd suddenly asked for these emergency days off. But that was tomorrow's worry.
James held the door for her on her last trip, when she had Caleb on one hip and the diaper bag over the opposite arm. She paused and kissed him on the cheek. She felt the urge to mother him with advice, and stifled it. She didn't want to be responsible for his choices. She didn't want to be the first person in his life to tell him that it was okay to be sad. He wouldn't believe her, anyway. "Send him out, will you?" she said. "If he'll come. I'm not saying to tranq him."
James nodded. "Goodbye," he said. "And...I'm glad I saw him."
"Thank you," she said. "I am too." It was good to know she wasn't alone. As cautiously as she'd sometimes treated their friendship, she was happy to know she wouldn't have to lie to him any longer. More than that, she was glad that more people than just Greg knew. He couldn't pretend to himself that none of this had happened.
She played with Caleb on the grass, putting off strapping him into his car seat. A few moments later, Greg came out of the house. He squinted against the sun, as if the beautiful weather had personally insulted him, and then crossed the lawn towards her.
Stacy stood up, her stomach suddenly full of butterflies. Greg looked just as ill at ease, as if they were both on the verge of blurting out everything they hadn't had time to say in two days. It wasn't over between them, and Stacy thought maybe it never would be. But for now, they had to get back to the lives they'd made without each other, whatever the future might bring.
"Goodbye, Greg," she said. With a smile, she reached up to cup his cheek, rasp her thumb against his beard. Greg stepped into the embrace and leaned down until their foreheads pressed together. Stacy could smell his shampoo, and under that, the scent of his body; the familiarity renewed last night. It would be so easy to wrap her arms around his neck and ask him for everything she promised herself she'd never ask for. She didn't want to leave. But wanting wasn't enough; wanting wasn't fair to either of them. They both needed to be realistic. "Don't forget me," she whispered.
"I was about to say the same thing," he said, with a hint of a smile.
"Don't forget Caleb," Stacy added, with a bit more asperity, pinning him with an expectant stare. Greg stiffened, and Stacy stepped back. "Greg, just remember. You were good."
"Not being there?" Greg asked, as if he couldn't imagine her complimenting him for anything but his absence.
"We were good," Stacy said. He'd forgiven her, and she'd been able to do the same. What was left, after that, were the good times, the years of her life when she'd lived with him and couldn't imagine her life any other way.
Greg wrinkled his nose. "I blamed you and drove you away."
Stacy sighed. Greg wasn't exactly good at letting go. She wasn't much better herself. She could forgive the hurts, but forgetting was another level altogether. For the two of them, there was no such thing as a clean slate. "Last time," she said. She swallowed against the prick of tears in the corners of her eyes. If only it was easier to convince herself this was right. "I needed to hear that a decision could be simple."
"And then I drove you away," Greg repeated, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
Stacy smiled, and couldn't resist stroking his cheek again. Even the thought that Blythe and James might be watching from the living room windows couldn't stop her. She'd left him once, he'd forced her away the second time; this time, after finding him, it felt like they were leaving on terms that wouldn't fester. "You were right," she said, her smile deepening, teasing him. "I know how much you like to hear it."
Greg let his arm fall around her waist. His gaze was steady, clear as a fall sky. "I don't," he whispered.
Stacy caught her breath, meeting his eyes. All her longing, all her sadness, was there on his face. She'd always loved his focus, when he cared to give it. Like she was his whole world. "You were right," she said softly. "Now let me be right, too. Go home with Wilson. Apologize to him if that's what he needs to hear." She stroked her hand back to his nape, feeling the softness of his hair. "I know you know how. I know it will mean something to him."
Greg's eyebrows drew together. "And if he leaves anyway?"
"Then forgive him," she said. "It worked with me."
"So well," he said, rolling his eyes.
Stacy laughed, and lifted up to kiss the corner of his mouth. Greg relaxed into the kiss, drawing it out. At their feet, Caleb whined, and tugged at Stacy's pants, wanting her attention again.
They both looked down. For the first time, Greg reached down and picked Caleb up into his arms. He examined him, for all Stacy knew, searching for some sign only he could see that would prove he wasn't his father, or for some other medical defect that no one had ever seen a trace of. Her heart beat harder, anxiety crowding her throat. Doubtfully, Caleb looked at Greg--still a stranger to him--and his face crumpled with worry, the first step before he decided whether he should break into sobs. Greg must have seen it, because his laser stare softens, and he handed Caleb over to Stacy. Caleb immediately buried his warm, slightly snotty nose against her neck.
Greg lifted one broad hand and cupped the back of Caleb's head, and stroked his hair back from his face. Stacy stared at him, her heart giving one painful squeeze. Greg leaned in, and kissed her again, his lips warm and firm, leaving her breathless. Before he pulled away, he dropped a gentle kiss against Caleb's temple.
"Goodbye, Stacy," he said.
Stacy smiled tremulously. "It's only the last time until it isn't," she said.
Greg nodded and stepped back. Stacy was glad to turn to the car, opening the door and strapping Caleb into his car seat, as an excuse to hide her face. She climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine, feeling her own goodbye closing her throat. She put the car into gear and pulled away, her last sight of Greg a blur in her rearview mirror. Neither of them had made any promises. Greg would scoff at her, but Stacy didn't care. She could hope; she always had. Driving away, she touched the soft skin of Caleb's temple where Greg kissed him, and imagined a future without goodbyes.