Meg was exhausted. The trip from Stanford to Chestnut Hill had been plagued with so many problems, she never thought she'd see this side of the country again. There had been moments when she'd been convinced that she'd end up celebrating Christmas Eve from a plastic chair at an airport somewhere in Connecticut, at best, and Montana at worst.
Whoever had invented holiday travel had clearly been a sadist with a mean streak. By the time she got her bags up to her old room at her parents' house, half the gifts she had hauled in had been pushed to the various corners of each bag and were squished all to hell. She eyed the package with the crystal candleholder for her mother, afraid to even lift it out of the bag, too scared she was going to hear the tell-tale clinking of broken glass. She could barely even find her underwear in all the mess, and she had been convinced she'd packed lightly.
She gave up on the whole unpacking business, choosing to strip down and shower, instead. She'd deal with the bags later.
Every bone in her body screamed bloody murder when she let the hot water beat down on her. Airplanes were meant to be somewhat comfortable, she had always thought, but when you had a bum leg and a hand that ached as a default state, nothing short of a bubble was going to be comfortable for long. Add an unnecessary four hours to a six-hour trip, and you had a very pissy law student.
But at least she was home now, and she took the time to be grateful for her own bathroom, and her own soap, even if it smelled strange to her now, like coming home to a different you. She'd been finding that feeling more and more amidst the familiar corners of their house, seeping in through the woodwork, wafting in from the kitchen, sneaking up on her through the curtains in her bedroom.
It was their first Christmas back in Chestnut Hill after nearly eight years, and their first as the former President's family. Former President. Meg closed her eyes against the spray of the shower and let the hot water scald her skin. It felt like a release and she let the exhaustion wash down the drain along with the grime. Her knee ached something awful, her hand gave off the tell-tale pulsing of overuse, but it was all right, because she was home.
By the time she came downstairs, the lights had been dimmed, but despite the late hour, everybody was assembled in the family room, quiet but happy, at least to her eyes. The fire crackled, and it all looked so serene and unfamiliar after so much turmoil, Meg couldn't help snorting at the change in outward appearance.
Her mother raised an eyebrow. "Amused, Meg?"
Meg shook her head, and walked over to the couch, shoving at Steven to move over. He grumbled, but when he saw her rubbing her knee, he slid over, pressing poor Neal up against the other end. Meg sank down onto the cushions, and pulled the ottoman closer with her good leg to rest the other one on it. Her mother was still looking at her kind of expectantly, so she shrugged even as she said, "You guys look like an L.L. Bean ad, that's all. What to get the family that has it all!"
Her mother shook her head in that special, Meg is giving me a migraine way, but her father laughed.
"Try for a bathrobe – they're a best seller."
He looked good, she thought. Relaxed. Younger, somehow, even with half of his hair gone salt and pepper already. The lines around his eyes and mouth were smoothed away in the dim light, and he looked happier than she'd seen him in years. Her mother was pressed up close against his side, her glass of wine leveled precariously between them.
"By the way," her father said matter-of-factly, "Preston got in while you were in the shower. His plans changed last minute, and we asked him to spend Christmas with us. He's upstairs right now, resting, I think."
Meg kept her face neutral through the news, but her heart clenched a little bit. After losing his mom earlier in the year, Preston had mentioned visiting distant family for the holidays when they had talked last time, but that had been right around Thanksgiving. Things had gotten kind of hectic for her after that, and she was pretty sure that being the right-hand man for the Minority Leader meant that if Preston's holiday plans were to change, he would have been spending his Christmas down at his desk in D.C. and not up at Chestnut Hill with them. But, apparently, Christmas without Beatrice Fielding was no Christmas at all for Preston. She nodded and simply left it at "Cool." The more the merrier.
"Yeah, 'cause you are seriously boring these days, Meg," Steven piped up. "At least Preston appreciates my college tales."
Meg rolled her eyes and shoved at him with her elbow. "If you were to get interesting, I'd totally listen, jackass. Stop winning all those games and acing your tests, and then we'll talk."
There, that was going to be the closest she was going to get to complimenting Steven or letting him know just how damn proud of him she was. Otherwise, he would have been impossible. As it was, he turned his smug smile towards her and waggled his eyebrows.
"That's because I'm the greatest, right, Neal?"
Meg shifted so she could see Neal's expression, and true to form, his eyebrows already lifted in a questioning expression. Even at fifteen, he was still the sweetest kid she knew. Somehow the shared sarcasm and flippancy of her and Steven had left no mark on Neal, skipping him by entirely. His soulful eyes searched hers out, and she just rolled her own in Steven's direction and gave Neal a private smile. She'd missed him so much in these last few months. These snatches of family time were never enough to catch up with anyone. Steven was a pretty big believer in talking on the phone, even if the conversations mostly consisted of his bragging or the constant sounds of instant messenger in the background as she tried explaining to him how her Ethics of Law class wasn't going to get him out of a pop quiz. But Neal hated the phone, and never really learned to talk on it – he only ever listened.
"Shove it," she told Steven and then found herself leaning on his shoulder anyway, marveling at how huge he'd gotten even in the last few months, her head fitting against him at a steeper angle, finding a lot more muscle underneath.
"Wow, I'm wounded," he replied, dripping sarcasm, but then subsided. Neal turned the page of the book on his lap, and her parents just rolled their eyes at them. Nobody felt much like talking. The fire crackled over the ticking of the grandfather clock. Preston must have gone to sleep for the night, because she couldn't really hear anyone upstairs. It was weird that he was up there, in their guest room, and she had not seen him in months.
She listened to her parents murmuring to each other indistinct enough to become white noise, and the rustle of Neal's book, and she must have dozed off, because the next thing she felt was a kiss on her forehead, and when she opened her eyes, her father was leaning over her, one hand in a loose grasp of her mother's.
She started to ask what was happening, but yawned, instead.
"We're going to bed, kiddo. See you in the morning," her Dad smiled.
"Don't stay up too late, we're up early tomorrow, okay?" her mother murmured and patted Meg's good leg through the afghan. Meg didn't remember putting it over herself.
"Okay, g'night," she mumbled, and then woke up for real. Her hand ached a little, and she flexed the fingers to get a little life back in them. Steven was already gone – she hadn't even felt him move, when did he get so stealthy? – but Neal was still sitting on the opposite end of the couch. He looked like he was lost in his reading, but there was a line of tension in his shoulders, and his eyes weren't moving over the pages. He looked like he was maybe waiting for something. Meg waved her parents off and turned towards him, tucking her feet up underneath herself. The cushions rearranged themselves around her. She'd really missed this couch.
"You're not tired?" she asked, trying to find a tone that wouldn't scare him off. Something was up with him, but Neal was hard to ask things out right. Sometimes skirting around the issue worked best. She'd been really good at it back in college, but she'd turned a bit rusty in recent years.
He looked up at her and shook his head. His bangs fell in his eyes, and he pushed them back behind his ear before saying, "I'm happy you're home."
Meg's stomach flipped over. She smiled. "Me too, kiddo. I've missed you."
He bit his lip and fidgeted with the pages of his book, worrying them with his fingers. That was weird, because Neal was usually fierce about keeping his books in the best condition he could, even if they'd already been dogeared to hell by somebody else. "I missed you, too," he finally said.
Oh, what the hell. "How have you been, anyway? Everything all right?"
He shrugged and pulled his legs up, trapping the book between his body and his knees. "It is, I guess. I just."
Meg waited, keeping her face neutrally interested.
"Look, I can't tell Mom and Dad, but you're always, I don't know, I can tell you things, and I really need to talk to someone, to you, so." It all came out in a rush, like he'd been practicing. Meg's brain went into overload, trying to come up with what could be so bad that Neal couldn't even tell their parents. Was he in trouble? Was he getting bullied? They hadn't ever had to deal with that, which was both a surprise and a blessing, but high school was hell, and Neal was – Neal. Soft and earnest and really fucking vulnerable. She couldn't imagine what other kind of trouble he could be in.
"What is it, honey?" she asked as gently as she could. Her heart betrayed her by beating hard against her ribs. She wondered who she would have to beat up, and how quickly she could find them.
Even in the low light of the room, she could see him blush. He cast his eyes down and at first it looked like maybe a trick of the firelight, but the next second, his face crumpled and one tear after another splashed down his face. Meg let out a noise – she hadn't even felt herself move, but the stab of pain in her knee told her otherwise – and she was across the couch, gathering him up in her arms as Neal choked out a sob and fell face-first into the crook of her neck.
"Shh, shh, Neal, it's okay, it'll be okay," she found herself saying even as her mind whirled and she disbelieved her own words. She hadn't seen Neal cry in years, not since the summer he got in trouble for accidentally shop-lifting juice from the 7-11. He'd been ten then, and the clerk believed his story immediately, but it hadn't been enough to make Neal feel better, and he'd holed up in her room and cried on her shoulder for hours about how he hadn't meant to, it'd been an accident, he hadn't, he hadn't meant to –
"Meg, Meggie, I can't – I don't know how to –" he sobbed into her neck now, and she felt the hot splash of tears run down her skin and soak into the collar of her robe. She hugged him closer, hard enough that it was probably difficult for him to breathe, but she had absolutely no idea what to do, or say, or even think. She rocked him back and forth and waited for him to come to it on his own.
It felt longer in coming than her entire trip home, and how strange was it that she had started out in her apartment just a mere twelve hours ago? It felt like days had passed.
Finally, after what was probably a mere five minutes stretched into an eternity, Neal loosened himself from her hold and turned his tears into quiet sobs, subsiding. She kept her good hand on his arm, trying to soothe him into talking. She couldn't see his eyes still, but she knew when the change came, because he slumped against the back of the couch sideways and sighed in that way that meant he was preparing to talk. His cheeks were streaked with drying tears.
"I –" He tried, then stopped and hiccupped. Meg hated how the human body could betray you sometimes. The stab of sympathy was almost too much for her to take.
"Yeah?" she asked quietly, just to show she was all ears, she was there.
"Meggie, I think I'm gay." On the last word, he lifted his chin and looked her straight in the eye. As soon their eyes met, Meg knew that she had already known. Known all along, maybe even longer than Neal himself. She couldn't help the relieved smile that escaped her, and when Neal caught it, his eyes grew wide.
"Oh, Neal," she said and realized that it had come out almost as a laugh. Which – which was wrong, and she didn't want him thinking she found his suffering even remotely funny. "Oh, Neal, that's – but that's okay!"
His eyes turned pleading. "No, it's not! It isn't, and I don't – I don't know what to do, Meggie, I never –"
"Neal, honey, wait, wait, wait." She leaned forward and took his face between her hands. He looked utterly miserable, and it took all of her strength not to fly into a rage that a kid like her brother had to suffer needlessly like this. She breathed in and out, and quickly counted to five. "First of all, being gay is totally and completely okay. Okay? There is nothing wrong with it. And second of all, oh, Neal – Mom and Dad will be fine with it!" She was absolutely sure of it; her mother hasn't spent decades being despised by the Conservative Right for nothing.
Neal dry-sobbed and shook his head. "No, it's not, and they won't, and Mom will be in so much trouble and it'll be all over the papers and – and –"
He was right, she suddenly realized. Not about their parents, but she hadn't considered the paparazzi and how they would hound Neal if the news ever broke. And who wouldn't want to tell on the former President's kid for a quick payoff? Her heart clenched and she hated everything for one vile second.
Then she gathered all of her strength and scooted even closer to Neal, as if closing the distance would beam her thoughts directly into his mind. She slid her hands down to hold his, and looked him in the eye. "Mom is no longer President. That part doesn't matter, she's done. Nobody can hold anything against her anymore, she's proven everything she needed to prove." And then some. Meg squashed the thought down. "All that matters here is you, and we love you. No matter what, okay?"
He dry-sobbed again and lifted his gaze to meet hers. "What about – all the papers, and – and Nick –"
So, there was already a Nick. Meg tried to picture the other boy, and she couldn't even get as far as a general figure before a fierce protectiveness swept over her like a dark shadow. "Nick?" she asked carefully, feeling the shaky ground under her. "Is he your – I mean, are you –"
Neal shrugged with one shoulder. "He isn't. He's – I mean, he – kind of kissed me."
Meg felt the first tug of a smile; her kid brother. "Kind of?"
Neal bit his lip, but she saw the beginnings of a tiny grin. "Well, you know… Yeah. We kissed, I guess." His face was radiating embarrassed heat.
She asked, "You like him?" feeling like she was treading on the world's most fragile eggshells. Neal didn't look her in the eye, but shrugged with his entire body and then sagged down, like a resigned rag doll.
"I do. Yeah."
Meg scrunched up her mouth, and squeezed his hands. "Hey, that's a good start, kiddo. Does - does he like you?" God, please don't let him be a dick. Neal wasn't equipped for this, not yet, dammit.
Neal colored deeply and nodded surer this time. "Yeah, I think so."
Meg breathed out. "Well, good. Good." She looked out at their room, and their things, and wondered just how protected could they be in this house they'd known all their lives. Even if no other psycho kidnappers or assassins had gone near them for years, their hearts could still break and ooze out of their chests through the cracks. That's how it felt sometimes, and even when the cracks were at their thinnest, when they all seemed better and less broken, these walls could not protect them from this.
She looked back at Neal's huddled figure, giving off such misery and confusion and warmth, and couldn't stop herself reaching out and gathering him back up in a huge hug. His skinny arms came around her in an instant, and she realized for the first time that he had finally grown up. They none of them could protect him anymore.
"Listen," she whispered, her chin hooked over his shoulder. He was tense in her arms, and she skidded her hand up and down his back trying to soothe him out of his worry. "I love you. Thank you for telling me. It means – it means a lot to me that you did." She kept her voice quiet, because it was their secret. For now at least.
"I wanted to," he whispered, sounding just like he had when he was five and scared of Steven's vicious teasing. Steven. Oh God, she thought. She was certain that he wouldn't react badly, exactly, but Steven could be rough going at first. This was sort of new territory for them all, she realized.
She squeezed Neal tighter and moved back just to see if he was still crying. His face was half-hidden beneath his bangs again, but his cheeks were dry. She swept his hair away, then hooked one finger under his chin. He dragged his gaze back to hers.
"I'm glad you did." She watched him carefully for a second, trying to gauge if now was the time to mention their parents again. It was at the tip of her tongue, but another look into his eyes changed her mind entirely. "You okay?" she ventured instead.
He bit his lip, chewed the question over. "Yeah, I – I'm tired, I think. I should go to sleep." He forced a smile, and then, because he was Neal, it turned genuine and nearly happy. "I'm so glad you're home, Meggie."
Her stomach churned with guilt and boundless affection. "I am too, Neal. I missed you like crazy."
He darted out and gathered her in his arms in an awkward half-body hug. "I missed you, too," he said in a fierce whisper, and then let her go, lifting up to his knees and scrambling off the sofa. "Mind if I go?"
She looked up at him, skinny in his plaid pajamas. "Sure, get some sleep. Wanna talk tomorrow?"
He made an aborted movement with his head, like a shake and a nod all at once, and settled on a "Maybe, yeah." Good enough. It had to have taken all of his will to tell her in the first place.
"Okay, kiddo. Sleep tight," she said, and squeezed his hand before watching him stumble out of the room and up the stairs. It was like an invisible line of tension snapped as soon as his steps retreated, because Meg felt her entire body sag backwards into the couch. She felt utterly and completely drained.
What she really wanted, she realized, was a glass of wine. In fact, as soon as the thought materialized, it was all she could imagine. A nice cold glass of chardonnay, and possibly a book before bedtime. She was tired, but she didn't think she could fall asleep even if she wanted to. Her mind was too keyed up, every thought swirling in her brain like buzzing flies, snapping viciously at her synapses as if trying to wake them up.
What if, she thought as she levered herself off the sofa and walked barefoot towards the kitchen, Nick wasn't really interested in Neal as Neal at all? What if, she considered as her stomach clenched into a tight knot with the remembering of her own hellish experiences, it was all a ploy to get the "quiet, reticent teen," as he'd once been described by the Huffington Post, to spill his teenaged guts and then skewer him all over the blogosphere? It wasn't unheard of, and in fact, it was exactly the sort of witch hunt they had all come to expect and despise from the combined years of public living?
Some small rational part of her brain knew that it didn't really make sense – after all, how would they even know Neal was gay if he hadn't said anything to anyone? It was a hell of a chance, sending in a mole to kiss a high school kid and wait for a reaction. It was, in fact, the sort of conspiracy theory that she'd railed against in her classes, but what was rational when it came to your fragile baby brother with a confused heart? Growing up was hard to do at the best of times, without having to throw in a sexual identity crisis and an overly public persona into the mix.
She shook her head and opened the fridge. She really did know her mother pretty well, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the Chardonnay was already chilled to perfection by the time she got to it. Meg smiled despite herself and lifted it out, turning to grab the wine glass off the counter.
She hadn't bothered turning on the light, but that had probably been a mistake, because when she saw a shadow descend down the back stairs and enter the kitchen, she nearly screamed. She had almost forgotten that Preston was in the house, the knowledge pushed into the back of her mind by the talk with Neal, and now she kind of considered it a win altogether that only the smallest startled wheeze escaped her throat. She'd held onto the wine, but only because her hand had seized up in fear. "Jesus!"
"Meg?" Preston walked all the way into the kitchen and she couldn't make out his expression, but it looked like he was just as surprised to find her occupying this space as she had been with him.
"Oh my God, Preston, you scared the hell out of me!" She pushed the fridge closed with her good foot, and leaned hard on the counter. The bottle of wine clunked against its surface when she set it down. "Holy Jesus," she swore for good measure. She uncorked the bottle with one shaking hand, her left one holding the wine glass in place and preventing a spill as she poured.
"I'm sorry," Preston replied quietly, and walked a step forward, so that when she looked up, the light from the hall illuminated his face. Meg set the wine down too quickly and some spilled onto her hand.
He looked – different. Tired. Drawn, maybe, and thinner, like he'd missed a few key meals somewhere. But that wasn't even the main thing that startled her. He was wearing a t-shirt and – she checked with a quick sweep of her gaze – jeans, something she couldn't ever remember seeing him wearing. It made him look so normal, and human. It was totally weird. In all the years they'd known Preston, she had never seen him wear jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe jeans with a button-down, on super-casual days. Maybe a t-shirt during a tennis match.
She realized that she was staring, and dropped her gaze. Her hand was getting cold from the glass she was clutching. She looked back up, trying to act normal, and nodded her head in the general direction of the family room. "I'm planning on getting tipsy and not thinking about much," she started, wondering when she had made that particular plan. It had involved a book before. "Want to join me?"
That was something else she hadn't planned on, but now it sounded pretty good to hear ears. She hadn't seen Preston in months, not since the summer and her internship down in D.C. They would have an occasional lunch together, but had both been so busy that it had felt like no time together at all.
Her knee was starting up the familiar ache – hello, fucked-up knee, my old friend – and so she didn't wait for Preston to answer, and just made her sluggish way over to the family room, sinking onto the couch gratefully.
Preston didn't take too long in following, and came in with a glass of wine in hand right after she'd gotten all of her toes safely covered by the afghan. Her toes were always getting cold in New England nowadays.
He sank down onto the other side of the couch, and it was odd how it had seemed a lot larger when Neal was sitting in that same exact spot. Preston took up more space, somehow, not even so much in size, as in presence. Meg didn't scoot back, but she tucked the heel of her good leg closer to her body. Her other leg she stretched out between them. It didn't touch Preston, but she couldn't really move it around much. She was conscious of it now, too conscious to try and find a better position. She resolved to stop over-thinking, though her foot twitched a little with the effort of not moving.
In the light of the room, Preston did look older, but less haggard than she'd imagined in the darkness. The warmth in the room filled his face out, made it look calmer. Maybe that was the smile he was giving her.
"So," he said as he settled in, and his breath dragged a little on the exhale.
Meg took a sip of her wine and felt it all the way down to her cold toes. "So," she echoed, and it wasn't a tease so much as an invitation for Preston to continue, because she felt like she'd talked herself out for the day. Neal's confession was still so fresh in her mind, she had to physically restrain herself from spilling her own guts. Another funny thing that happened around Preston – she was never usually one for gut-spilling.
"How are you?" he finally asked, voice low and calm. He took a careful sip from his own glass.
Meg searched for a good enough answer. She settled on, "More or less fulfilled."
Preston raised an eyebrow. "Is that supposed to be descriptive?"
Meg shook her head and sighed. "No. Descriptive would be something along the lines of tired, confused, and –" she broke off before the last word escaped out of her. She wasn't really all that lonely, she didn't think. She really was more or less fulfilled at Stanford, especially with Beth back at her side. But now that she was back here, the whine at her chest which had been just a quiet background the last few months had turned up several notches. And she hadn't felt it kick in until Preston's inquiry.
"And?" he pressed lightly.
"And – tired. Did I mention the tired?" She took another sip. "And how is life in the fast lane treating you?"
Preston rolled his eyes in a way that showed it wasn't Meg who'd caused it, but the life itself. "Fast. And vaguely ungrateful."
She laughed. "Well, that's D.C. for you. She's a very difficult mistress to please."
"Got it in one," Preston remarked, sounding impressed. Meg felt the wine spread warmth through her chest.
It was so good to see him, and so good to see him nearly relaxed. She sipped more wine, and felt her body curling into the couch more, being molded against its shape. When she looked back up at Preston, he was watching her back, and her stomach whooped like a traitor, because she couldn't remember the last time anybody had looked at her like that. It was like being crushed under a heavy wave. Meg blinked and dropped her gaze, but it betrayed her, as well, because the next second she was looking up at Preston again, and it had gotten much too quiet for much too long.
They'd never talked about this, but she knew, had known, that she wasn't in it alone. But between their ridiculously busy and elaborately difficult lives, Preston's loss, Meg moving to the other side of the country, and that whole "known him since I was a kid" thing, it never occurred to her that they would. Sure, it drove her insane on days when they talked and her chest hurt from missing him, but it had become just one of those things that would stay closed up and tucked away for the sheer fact of it being less complicated that way.
The thought that maybe they were almost there terrified and thrilled in equal parts. She fished for something to say that would break the tension, because she wasn't sure they were ready to deal with it, maybe, or maybe she was just scared, and the first thing that came to mind and bypassed her filter was, "Neal was down here a few minutes ago."
Preston's expression changed like a penny dropping, and if she didn't know him as well, she might have even felt insulted at the bland and polite interest on his face. But she did know him, and she knew a careful Preston when she saw one. His only question was a raised eyebrow.
She fished for a better explanation than the truth. "He's – adjusting."
"High school stuff?"
Meg nodded and bit her lip.
"He did seem a little keyed up when I saw him."
Meg couldn't help the smile. "Neal was keyed up?"
Preston cracked a smile of his own. "In his own Neal way." The smile turned inward, and he frowned. "Is he all right?"
"Yeah. I – well, I can't really tell you. I'm sorry." A secret was a secret. She would rather go without oxygen than betray Neal's hard-earned confidence, even to Preston.
"I understand." And he did. Meg knew that. Preston always understood. He always got it, even at her worst moments, he'd always known.
"You couldn't pay me to be back there," Meg admitted quietly. Being in her twenties was kind of confusing, but being fifteen, daughter of a politician, and figuring out how to fit the newly-engaged hormones into her life now felt like a nightmare she'd barely lived through.
"High school was designed to weed out the weak," Preston agreed seriously, but she saw the smile lurking at the corners. She took another sip of her wine to cover up her own grin. Preston mirrored her, and for a little while, it was just the wine, the silence, and the dying fire in the grate.
Meg was floating a little, not so much tipsy, as just bone-tired from a day of travel and barely any sustenance. She set her nearly-empty glass down on the end table and shut her eyes for a moment. She felt, rather than heard, Preston lever himself up off the couch, and her eyes flew open.
"Water?" he asked quietly, and reached for her wine glass.
"Oh, yes, please," she replied, and smiled a little guiltily. Preston just quirked his mouth at her and headed off with their glasses. Meg settled deeper under the afghan, and let her head rest against the back of the sofa. She squinted at the dark window, trying to figure out what was beyond it, and then before she knew it, she had flicked the lamp off, and was plunged into a quiet snowfall.
The room was bright with it, calm. The fire threw shadows across the walls, and the snowflakes outside were fat and probably wet and sweet, too. There was nothing like spending Christmas Eve blanketed with fresh white snow, hidden under an afghan. She smiled and didn't stop until she heard Preston's feet padding across the floor.
"Thanks," she said quietly as she accepted the water. "Wanted to see the weather," she explained, gesturing at the turned-off lamp.
"It's nice," Preston said in a solemn whisper, settling back onto the couch. "Quiet."
Meg nodded and put her glass down onto the end table after a deep sip. She was glad the table was on the side of her good hand. The glass barely made any noise as she set it down, despite her hand shaking. "Preston." She hadn't known she would say his name.
"Meg," he answered quietly in a way that maybe suggested more than just her name.
She allowed herself to look at him for a long while with nothing but a foot of distance in between them. She felt ready, after all. Her stomach churned as he watched her back carefully, like he was waiting for something. She supposed he was waiting for her. The moment stretched between them, and it was like the one earlier, only now she knew she didn't want to change the subject. She didn't want to let the moment drop.
"Preston," she repeated, and her voice sounded off to her own ears. Low-pitched and shaky, because she was nervous, dammit, and a little scared. It was weird how this was all she wanted, all she'd been able to think about, if she were to be honest with herself, but there it was, this tremble that started out somewhere in the vicinity of her belly, and moved outward into her chest and then her limbs and she was the one waiting now, because Preston hadn't answered her, hadn't said anything at all. Without realizing it, she pushed her bad hand up against her chest, as if hiding the hard beat inside her skin.
Preston reached out with one hand and laid it tentatively over her raised knee, his thumb skimming over the bend. She felt the spread of his fingers all over her skin there, covered as it was by two layers of fabric. She couldn't rip her gaze away from how his hand looked, dark against the navy blue afghan, and when she finally did look up, he was watching her back and she felt her heart jump in her throat.
The silence around them weighed her down with the heaviness of inevitability. All she had to do was shift up, lower her leg, set her bad foot down onto the floor, and then – then she had to lean forward a little, meet him halfway –
It was a math problem from middle school – if two trains are headed towards the same destination, one with the speed of x, and the other x times two, where will they collide?
Her mouth touched Preston's at exactly half past her knee. All her nerves awoke like from a dream, because Preston kissed her back, dry lips against her own, and then not dry, not dry at all, and Meg felt all her breath slam out of her with the tentative touch of his tongue to hers. He smelled like their shared wine, and airports, and a lot like her entire life, familiar and strong and heart-clenchingly good.
She opened her eyes when he pulled away for a breath, and his eyes were closed, eyebrows drawn into a line of tension. She brought her free hand up to touch his shoulder, and felt the contact reverberate everywhere. They'd hugged so many times, and touched a thousand more, but this was so different, like a whole new life. She slid her hand further up his arm and inward. His collarbone was hard, the muscle underneath it pliable. She felt his pulse jumping beneath her palm, and pressed harder. His voice broke around her name.
"Preston," she said, and then ran out of words and kissed him again and again, until his arms were wrapped around her middle, and his chest was flush with hers, and she was dizzy with the release of finally knowing. He trembled a little against her, and she almost laughed at how much this felt like being a teenager again after all, but fuck, like so much more.
Meg's brain tried to nag at her into stopping, and maybe actually talking, because it was huge, this thing between them, like a bomb exploding, maybe, but then her thoughts switched off, and all she could do was hold on and try not to jar her crappy knee as she brought him even closer. They neither one of them could stop now, it was inevitability itself, and they didn't stop until there was no more air left for them to use, and then she clutched his shoulders as they sat there gasping and sharing breath.
Preston. It was Preston.
She stared ahead of her and watched the ghosting of the snowfall shadow-puppet across the ceiling. Preston breathed hard into the crook of her neck a few times, making all the hair on the back of her neck stand up in shivers, then pulled back and looked her in the eye.
"Meg, we should…" He paused, and frowned. Not upset, she thought, just thoughtful. Working through it. That was okay. She had to work through it, too. "We need to talk."
She agreed, but –
"Not tonight." He opened his mouth to protest, so she squeezed his shoulder a bit to preempt him. "Tomorrow. We should tomorrow, okay?"
He sucked in one cheek, but eventually nodded, his eyes closing. She felt his shoulders loosen a little under touch. "Okay. Good." He opened his eyes and gave her a slightly uncertain smile, like he wasn't sure where the smile should land. She had always loved his smile, and so she answered it.
She also took a chance and, feeling only a little awkward, kissed him gently on the mouth. He answered her kiss automatically, meeting her halfway before she even got there herself. She shivered and clutched at him the tiniest bit.
"Good." Her head reeled. She wasn't sure she would ever get to sleep now at all. She might be forced to walk through Christmas Day as a human-like Zombie. "The former President spends a quiet Christmas back home in Massachusetts, surrounded by her loving husband, two sons, and Zombie." And Preston Fielding, family confidant.
It took some effort in getting themselves up and off the couch in one piece. Meg kept snagging her traitorous fingers against Preston – his side, or his wrist, or hip. He kept squeezing her fingers as he helped her up, gently and without much fanfare. She still managed to trip a little when the afghan wrapped around one of her feet and sent her stumbling.
"Meg? You okay?" Preston was right there by her side, holding her steady with his hands on her waist. He'd done that before, too, but now his hands seemed larger, encompassing not only her waist but dipping a little lower, into the space where the small of her back turned outwards.
"I'm a little – fine, I'm good," she said, because she was. She was excellent.
He brought her closer, and now they were standing lined up chest to chest, or maybe chest to mid-section, because he was tall. Meg looked up, caught his gaze. "Tomorrow, after all the – festivities are done, right?"
Preston looked at her seriously, barely even blinking. He was beautiful. "Yes. Tomorrow." Her breath caught in her throat again when he leaned down and kissed her hard and quick. She panted despite the chill of not having the afghan to burrow under anymore. Her heart felt fit to bursting.
"Tomorrow," she nodded, and squeezed his fingers where they were wrapped around her waist.