i. New Year's Eve
In preparation for the big night, the Rammer Jammer is closed for lunch, but Zoe ignores the sign and shoves the door open anyway. If they'd really meant closed closed, they'd have locked the door, right?
"Wade!" she says as soon as she spots him, sitting behind the bar with his head resting on it. Even Wade can't be drunk at two o'clock in the afternoon, though, so she forges ahead. "I'm so glad you're here! I ordered a case of Moët Chandon for Joel, because it's his favorite and I am an awesome girlfriend, but it got stuck in a snowstorm, and all Frank has is Cook's, and I am not ringing in the new year with…" She trails off as Wade looks up with a pained expression. And not the usual pained expression he gives her these days—the one she's sure means she's as cute as she is infuriating—but bloodshot eyes, rapid breathing, the real deal. Zoe's Hippocratic Oath kicks in. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, sure, I'm fine," Wade says, waving a hand at the phone lying next to him. "I just found out that apparently my shipment of champagne is also stuck in a snowstorm, but hey, no problem, it's only New Year's Eve, and I run a bar, so. I'm sure nobody'll notice."
Zoe winces. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh," Wade mimics. "And my carburetor is shot so I'm not gonna be making any supply runs anytime soon, and Shelby's been advertising that damn midnight champagne toast at Fancy's for two weeks now. And if that ball drops and my bar is empty, I'm not gonna make payroll next week." He scrubs a hand through his hair, and from the way it's standing on end, it's not the the first time he's done that. "Lyla's sister and her new baby are staying with her for the holidays, 'cause they don't have a place of their own yet. I'm supposed to tell her to just live off tips for a few weeks till we get caught up?"
"Hey, hey." Out of reflex, she reaches out to put a soothing hand on his forearm, her mind already halfway down the path of a new plan. "Look, we can fix this. I'll borrow Lavon's car, and Joel and I will raid every liquor store in Mobile. You call in the troops and get whatever mixers you can, and we'll meet back here in a few hours. Okay?"
Wade blinks at her like he's fighting his way back to the surface, nodding slowly. "Right. Lavon's car. Right. Okay."
"Breathe, Wade. It's gonna be fine." She plants one foot on the bottom rung of a stool and leans across the bar to whack him on the back, which prompts him to check out her cleavage, so he must be feeling at least a little bit better. She rolls her eyes, and he grins at her, though the genuine gratitude in it seriously throws off his usual leer.
"Thanks, Doc," he says. He takes a deep breath; his color is starting to come back. "Lemon always handled this stuff before, and I just kinda…"
"Freaked out?" Zoe fills in. "Hey, I know from pre-party freakouts. I started them at a very precocious age."
Wade snorts at that, then shakes his head ruefully. "Man. Owning my own bar was supposed to be all body shots and no last call."
Zoe laughs. "Yeah, well. By this point in my career, I was supposed to be featured in both The New England Journal of Medicine and Vogue, and be married to Ryan Gosling." She throws her hands up to either side. "Surprise!"
"Funny where people end up, ain't it?" Wade asks, quieter, in a way that telegraphs pretty clearly that he's not talking about career choices. And oh, man, he has got to stop looking at her like that, because she's with Joel, she loves Joel, Joel is amazing, even Wade thinks Joel is amazing, and—
"Champagne," she says, backing away. "Shops. Closing. Meet you back here."
In mid-flee, though, her inner micro-manager pipes up and she spins back to remind him about the mixers. She catches him with his eye on the back door, and her heart sinks; she knows that look.
"You're going to be here when I get back, right?" tumbles out of her mouth before she can stop it.
The reaction flashes across his face, defensive-hurt-angry. Then he swallows hard and ducks his head like he deserves it, which, okay, he kind of does, but Zoe feels like crap for it anyway. He looks back up, shoulders squaring. "I got people's paychecks riding on this, Doc. I'll be here."
"Wade, I didn't—" Zoe starts, not even sure what she's going to say, and he just interrupts gently,
"Stores are closing," and heads back to grab his coat without another word.
She's worried that it's going to make the whole night awkward, but when she and Joel get back with an SUV full of bottles, Wade's in full-on Plan B mode. He's rigged a champagne fountain from a rain gutter, a fishing pole, and medical tubing that Zoe recognizes from her own office, and he's got some idea for another mixology contest that's going to stretch their limited bubbly supply as far as possible. Tansy has been recruited for decorating duties, and Dash has dragged a piano into the corner.
"And that sounds a hell of a lot like the cavalry!" Wade calls out when he spots her, Joel, and the team of Wilderness Scouts they've recruited as packhorses. He grabs a half-case of Chandon as it goes by and stashes it under the bar. "For you, buddy," he tells Joel cheerfully, and then he's right back into the fray.
Of course, the whole place ends up packed to the gills (literally, what with the fish hanging on the walls). At midnight, it rains brightly-colored packing peanuts from the ceiling, and Zoe laughs and wraps her arms around Joel and kisses him as the new year dawns. When Joel swings her into a slow dance afterward, Zoe sees Wade standing in the corner, proudly surveying his handiwork, one arm tight around Vivian. They both toast her with their champagne glasses; Zoe smiles back and holds Joel closer.
The next morning, Zoe gets up early, leaves a bottle of water and some ibuprofen on the bedside table, then heads out to dig through Lavon's garage until she finds the sign she'd given to Wade, that horrible night. She'd stolen it somewhere into her second consecutive post-breakup bottle of wine, and she'd almost destroyed it in the Great Wade Kinsella Purge of 2013, but she hadn't quite had the heart to do it. Not least because she'd had no idea where to recycle neon in BlueBell.
She hauls the sign out, dusts it off, and makes her way to the Rammer Jammer. The sign on the door says "Closed for Recovery"; when she peers through the window, she can see several stacks of glasses still waiting to be washed. She grins and shakes her head. If it was her, she'd have had a hangover breakfast ready, but… baby steps, she guesses, and maybe the staff deserves to enjoy their New Year's Day, too.
She leaves the sign in the back office, with a note:
This may not be the official name, but it's true anyway.
Congratulations and happy new year.
ii. Valentine's Day
"But it's almost Valentine's Day!" Which is so not the point—the point is that Joel is putting his last three neatly-folded pairs of socks in his suitcase, and the bureau drawers are empty—but it's what comes out of Zoe's mouth.
Joel latches the suitcase closed with his usual calm, steady determination, then comes to sit facing her on the bed. "I'd say you could still come with me, but I know you can't." He takes her hands. "But I really, really wish you could."
"Isn't BlueBell enough small-town life for you to write about?" Zoe grips his fingers until her knuckles go white. "Why do you need to see a bunch of them? Can't you just read about them? You love reading!" She's grasping at straws, and they've been through all this a dozen times over the past few weeks, and yet. It feels impossible not to go over it again, like if they just talk about it enough, they're going to find some loophole where he can do his Kerouac thing and she can keep watering her roots and they can still be together.
He leans in and kisses her on the forehead. "I'm so sorry, Zoe."
Somehow even the eight millionth tears still sting when they swim into her eyes. Biology is such an asshole sometimes. "I'm sorry, too." She sniffles as Joel eases back again. "Besides, it's my fault, really—I brought you here to this stupid amazing place. If we'd stayed in New York, you would've been happy with bagels and hipster cafes forever. I created a monster!"
"I'll never forget it," he tells her, smiling his sweet smile, and how can she help but wish him well when he says stuff like that?
So Joel's suitcase stays closed, and Zoe's stays under the bed, and she ends up spending Valentine's Day (and, fine, the couple of days after) holed up in her room, bolstered by a steady diet of sympathy pies that AnnaBeth delivers faithfully every afternoon on behalf of the town. There may or may not be some midnight raids on Lavon's ice cream supply. Once an appropriate mourning period has been observed, she washes her hair, puts on her sparkliest top, and ventures out to the Rammer Jammer for lunch. She is going to be calm, reasonable, gracious, and fabulous.
Predictably, the conversation stops dead when she walks in, then starts up again about ten decibels higher, and all at once:
"Zoe! It's so good to see you out and about. And... showered."
"Never trust your heart to a city slicker, darlin'."
"You know, he always reminded me of my sweet baby boy, Sammy; he—"
"It's just like I always say: if you love something, set it free. That's what I did with my turtle, anyway."
"Dr. Hart, I was wondering if you would look at my nephew's, um, toe. He's an optometrist, and he's single."
Calm and reasonable lasts approximately nine well-wishes and three pats on the arm and/or back, after which Zoe breaks in, to prevent her head from exploding, "Thank you all so much. Will you just excuse me for a second?" and climbs up on a chair.
"Hi, everybody!" She totters on her heels, drawing the attention of the handful of people who aren't already watching her. Fabulous, dammit. Gracious and fabulous. "I just wanted to say that I wholeheartedly appreciate all of your support during this difficult time, but I'm going to be fine. In fact, I am fine! I am great. So please feel free to redirect your pies to the truly needy." She pauses, then amends, "Though if whoever made that amazing macaroni and cheese casserole with the breadcrumbs wanted to send me a few more of those babies, I think it might be totally worth the damage to my arteries. Okay? Okay. Thank you!" And she manages to clamber back down to solid ground without falling on her face or flashing anybody, which is a victory in itself.
At the bar, Wade tucks away the towel he's been using to dry the dishwasher-damp glasses and slides her a generous pour of wine. "It ain't Daisy Jo's macaroni and cheese, Doc, but since I didn't get to make my contribution to the cause before, I hope I can get this one in under the wire."
"Thank you—I'll allow it." She makes herself sip delicately, though what she really wants to do is gulp. God, breakups suck.
Wade moves away, and Zoe's heart sinks a little—Lavon is at a meeting and AB is at work and Rose is in school and Joel is gone and Zoe's room is very, very empty—but he only grabs his stack of pint glasses, which he proceeds to move several feet down the bar until they're close enough that Zoe could almost touch them, if for some reason she wanted to touch a bacterial breeding ground. He pulls the towel back out and starts drying again, and she gives him a questioning look.
"Light's better over here," he explains, deadpan. "Health code stuff, you know how it is."
Zoe smiles into her wine. "Mmm. I see."
There's quiet after that, or at least as quiet as things ever get in the Rammer Jammer. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Wade shake his head quickly a couple of times like he's warning people off. Zoe can feel the tension between her scapulae start to unkink, slowly; she doesn't want to be alone, but she doesn't want to answer any questions, either.
"I just," she says after a few minutes, still into her wine. "I had a plan." Which is like an engraved invitation for mockery from Wade of all people, but she can't help it, she's an external processor.
To her utter astonishment, though, he just keeps drying glasses. "I know you did, Zoe."
He rarely calls her that, especially these days—it's usually "Doc" in that half-affectionate, half-insulting way that he's perfected, or sometimes "Doctor Hart" when he's mad. Her eyes start to sting again. Wade slides her a napkin.
The next time a handsome, wealthy stranger strolls through BlueBell and asks her out, she gives him her most charming smile, thanks him politely, and says no.
iii. The BlueBell Invitational Cornbread Cookoff
By the end of the night, Zoe finds herself performing the rare baking-related walk of shame across the town square: honey in her hair, cornmeal in her underwear, and a sincere desire to never see another piece of cornbread for the rest of her life.
She comes around the corner of the gazebo and finds Wade stretched out on the steps, thumbs hooked in his pockets, staring up at the stars with blissful disregard for the pitched battle going on in the tent not thirty feet away. He raises his eyebrows at her, and she can practically see the smartass remarks jockeying for first place in his brain.
He opens his mouth.
"Don't," she says darkly. "Do not say a word," and she hears his laughter behind her as she stalks away.
She makes it about half a block before she starts giggling, too.
iv. The Miss Modern Traditional BlueBell Pageant
Zoe has to admit that the First Annual Miss Modern Traditional BlueBell Pageant is something of an improvement over the Miss Cinnamon Cider Pageant, in that Rose doesn't cry, and no one yodels. And, fine, the evening gown competition has been replaced by an essay competition, and the winner's prize money goes toward either a scholarship or a business loan. But it's still pitting young women against young women at a very vulnerable time, and Zoe would have objected to that fact if she hadn't become immediately obsessed with Rose winning. Sometimes she thinks this town is the worst possible thing for her hyper-competitive streak.
"Thanks again for helping out, Zoe," AnnaBeth says after it's all over, as they're gathering up empty plastic cups and unused ballots. "I know that you were kind of… conflicted over the whole thing, especially since it was Lemon's pet project and all."
"Well," Zoe answers, "I'm not going to be joining the TrueBelles anytime soon"—it's going to be so long before she can say that without air-quotes, maybe never—"but it turns out that being a strong, independent single girl means a surprising amount of free mental energy. And since Lemon wanted to use her terrifying powers for good, or at least less evil, for once, I figured I should positively reinforce that. For the benefit of the sisterhood." Lemon's pre-pageant speeches to the TrueBelles and contestants had involved a lot of appeals to sisterhood.
AnnaBeth shakes her head, smiling in a bemused and proud way that goes right to Zoe's heart despite herself. "I swear, I don't know what got into that girl while she was away, but I like it."
"She does seem to have been possessed by the spirit of someone very slightly less wackadoo," Zoe's willing to concede.
"Once or twice I almost thought I caught you two having fun together," AnnaBeth goes on blithely as she angles a chair back into place.
Zoe barks a laugh. "Um, if what you're referring to was Lemon barely tolerating me, as opposed to actively plotting my downfall, then sure. But you might want to keep the receipt for the BFF necklaces, there, sister."
"Just saaaayin'," AnnaBeth sing-songs, and Zoe's about to respond when Wade strolls into view, with a twenty-year-old guest judge from Mobile hanging on each arm.
Zoe glances around automatically for Vivian—sure, she might've initiated the mature and reasonable breakup for mature and reasonable reasons that miraculously had nothing to do with Wade screwing anything up, but that doesn't mean she'll want to see Wade covered in ladies not a week later. However, she's nowhere to be found, so that's.
Well, that's… Zoe can't really decide what that is. Good, in the sense that Vivian isn't there to witness Wade being an ass; bad, in the sense that now Zoe doesn't have a good enough excuse to march over and tell him off for what an ass he's being. She settles for making a disgusted noise instead.
"What?" AnnaBeth asks, but she catches sight of Wade halfway through the word, if her wrinkled nose is any indication. She glances back at Zoe. "You okay?" she asks quietly.
Suddenly, Zoe finds herself focusing very intently on stacking each and every piece of dinnerware from the table in front of her. "Ha!" she scoffs. "Of course I'm okay, why wouldn't I be okay? He's the one who isn't okay. He's like a national… what's the opposite of national treasure? National anchor? Wade Kinsella is a national anchor. And not in the sexy Brian Williams way, either."
She can hear AnnaBeth sigh. "He was so sweet with Vivian, I honestly thought he'd turned over a new leaf."
So had Zoe, which had made her beam with vindication on some days, and seethe with jealousy on others. Disappointment and vindication is an even worse combination than that, apparently. "Come on, AB," she snorts, past what feels like jagged pieces of ice in her throat. "Wade doesn't have new leaves. Wade doesn't even get new socks unless somebody makes him."
Another sigh. "Well. I guess we'd better—"
"I'm going to take these inside," Zoe interrupts, gesturing with whatever's in her hands, and heads for the cabaret theater as fast as her Tania Spinelli heels will take her.
Half an hour later, she's laid waste to the streamers on the front of the theater and is on her way to let the stage decorations feel her wrath when she hears Wade yelling at someone, and she stops so fast she almost falls over.
"This is your fault!"
Zoe shrinks into the shadows of the stage-left wings, peeking around a creepily-smiling Southern belle mannequin so as not to miss the show. Whatever's upsetting Wade, she's sure he deserves it.
It turns out he's yelling at Lemon, who beat Zoe to the decoration tear-down, judging by the stack of paper flowers on the table behind her. She's got her hands on her hips, and Zoe can't believe she's rooting for Lemon, here, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and somebody needs to lecture Wade on his terrible life choices.
Wade seems to be the one doing the lecturing, though. "You did this!" he hisses, accusatory finger aimed right at Lemon's perfect string of pearls. "You and Tansy, you broke me."
Lemon does that fluttery eye-roll thing she does and turns back to her pile of crepe paper. "I'm sure I haven't the faintest idea of what you're talking about."
"The hell you don't," Wade growls. "Before y'all got involved, I would've been back in the saddle within twenty-four hours of a breakup. Now I got two pretty girls all over me and all I can think about is what's gonna happen when I wake up next to one or both—" now it's Zoe's turn for an eye-roll— "of them tomorrow." He throws his arms out to either side. "I am not the kind of guy who gets all twisted up thinking about tomorrow, Lemon!"
At that, Zoe kind of wants to stomp out of her hiding place and shake him till his teeth rattle, but Lemon just pivots around again in a swirl of circle skirt. "Look. I know better than anyone that sometimes the future just happens to you, no matter how hard you try to prepare for it."
"Or manipulate it," Wade mutters sulkily.
And wonder of wonders, Lemon actually laughs. "Or that," she agrees. Then she reaches out and rests a hand on his crossed arms. "I also know that you don't like expectations, of yourself or of anyone else."
Wade hunches his shoulders and makes a face like a kid staring down the barrel of a tetanus shot. "C'mon, it's been a bad enough day without you goin' all Oprah on me."
"All right." Lemon retracts her hand immediately, spine straightening. "We'll just stick to the facts, then." She starts ticking off fingers. "In the past two years, you've continued to care for your father, you've taken full responsibility for a thriving business that's central to this community, and you've managed to embark on relatively long-term and serious relationships with two intelligent, successful women—though if you ever even think about telling Zoe Hart I said that, I will make your life a living hell until the day you die."
Wade cracks a smile at that, and Zoe allows herself a silent but triumphant "HA!" to her new mannequin friend.
"And," Lemon goes on, "on top of all of that, you now seem to be reluctantly avoiding your previously-established pattern of drowning your sorrows in cheap alcohol and empty sexual relations."
"Great," Wade snorts. "So I've ruined myself for booze and sex. Yay me."
"Oh, don't play stupid, Wade, you don't do it as well as you used to," Lemon says sharply, but it's more like a sisterly poke in the arm than a slap in the face. Who knew Lemon Breeland had a soft side? "My point is that you don't have to worry about whether you can make a solid future for yourself, because you have been. The only question now is whether you're going to keep doing it." She leans in to kiss his cheek. "And nobody can decide that but you."
And with that, she gathers the rest of her decorations, sails through the sea of tables, and sweeps out the front door.
Zoe has to hand it to her: girl knows how to make an exit.
In her wake, Wade seems to just... deflate, like he's had all the air sucked out of him, complete with giant sigh as he collapses into the nearest chair. He rubs both hands over his face, and when they drop away, he looks exhausted, and sad—sadder than he ever wants to let people see him. The sharp pain in Zoe's throat from earlier seems to have migrated to her chest now, and is rapidly spreading into an ache; she desperately wants to hug him and tell him that she'll do whatever she can to help him, that everything's going to be fine.
There's that whisper in a dark corner of her mind, though: the one that says maybe he doesn't want comfort from her, maybe she's not enough, maybe he'd take the comfort today and then jump into bed with some other girl tomorrow. She's spent the past several months determinedly spackling over the Wade-shaped hole in the most vulnerable part of her heart, and she's not sure she can handle taking a sledgehammer to it again.
While she's still caught in indecision, Wade sighs again, braces both hands on his knees, and levers himself upright. A few seconds later, he's gone.
Zoe slumps against the wall. "Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with that?" she asks the mannequin.
It just keeps smiling.
v. Official Mayoral Engagement Celebration Day
It's a little weird, and therefore completely fitting, that the centerpiece of Lavon and AnnaBeth's engagement party is Lavon signing the town-sponsored bill to declare Mayoral Engagement Celebration Day an official town holiday.
"Thank you all so much for this great gift," he says, when the ink is dry and the cheering has died down to a dull roar. "AnnaBeth and I couldn't be prouder to count you all as friends, to be a part of this town, and to have the opportunity to help continue to build it." He squeezes AnnaBeth closer, where she's tucked up against his side, and she looks up at him with tears in her eyes and an incandescent smile on her face. Zoe, watching from a few feet away, beams until it feels like her face is going to beam right off.
"So without further ado…" Lavon continues, and AnnaBeth throws up her hands and yells,
With most of the town in attendance, the manor house is as full of frantic activity as one of Tom and Wanda's beehives, but the energy and goodwill are so pervasive that it feels to Zoe more like bobbing along on the current of the world's happiest rapids. She gets hair tips from Shula, checks out a Wilkes relative's lumbar spine, sneaks Rose half a glass of champagne, beats George at quarters, helps serve about ten thousand pieces of AnnaBeth's (award-winning, sigh) cornbread... and that's all within the first two hours.
When Lavon slides into her path, looking dapper as usual in his suit and plaid trilby, she hurls herself into his arms with equal parts enthusiasm and champagne buzz. "I'm so happy for you! This makes all the times I caught you and AnnaBeth doing unhygienic things in the kitchen totally worthwhile."
Lavon laughs as he hugs her back, lifting her off her feet and then setting her carefully back down. "Thanks, Big Z. Though if you want to talk about unhygienic things in the kitchen, I'm pretty sure that's a pot and kettle sort of a situation."
Zoe nods appraisingly. "That's fair, that's fair." She finds herself glancing around for Wade as she says it, but he's nowhere to be seen.
"Any news on that front?" Lavon asks, leaning closer and lowering his voice.
And there isn't, but that doesn't mean Zoe couldn't go on for an hour and a half, easy, about her lack of news. This is Lavon and AnnaBeth's day, though, and she's determined not to make it about her. It's kind of a new thing she's trying.
She pokes Lavon in the stomach instead. "You know, even when you and AB are married, you're still gonna be my best friend."
Impossibly, his smile seems to stretch even wider. Zoe has to fight the urge to squint in the face of it. "You'd best believe." Then he shudders theatrically. "No more of those chemical peels, though, Z. Promise me."
"But Lavoooon," Zoe mock-pouts, "now I have to take back your wedding present…."
He laughs, right on cue, and she gives him another hug, then reaches up to shove his shoulder. His bicep, really, because he's a million feet tall and she's not entirely un-tipsy, but close enough. "Now go get back to your guests, Mr. Bridegroom Mayor."
"Yes, ma'am," he answers cheerfully, and does what he's told.
After that, it's a blur of increasingly delicious champagne, a kitchen fire averted, some juicy gossip, a pet frog: your basic engagement-party staples. It's a perfect night, all in all, at least until the current washes Zoe up in the shadows at the top of the stairs overlooking the parlor; she's busy creeping on the happy couple when she feels heat at her shoulder, and realizes that Wade is folding himself up next to her, beer in his hand.
"Oh," she says. Where the hell did he come from? Was he in the vents like a freaking alien? "Hi."
"Hi," he answers. He waves with his beer bottle in the general direction of Lavon and AnnaBeth. "Am I interrupting some kind of best-woman ritual thing, like, cramming before the big test?"
Zoe laughs, and she's relieved that it's only got a tinge of hysteria in it. Suddenly she'd give anything for a time machine that would take her back about two glasses of champagne. "No," she says, "nothing like that. It's just… they're just…"
"Good," Wade pronounces, with finality.
"Yeah," Zoe agrees. She lets her forehead rest against the slats of the railing in front of her. "Really good." She and Wade share a few more moments of silent, companionable spying on their friends, she starts to hope that maybe she'll make it out of this with her dignity intact, after all.
"Got a postcard from Shakespeare the other day," Wade offers eventually. "You get one, too?"
"Yep." She shakes her head, disbelieving. "Beaver Creek, Montana. That's really happening."
Wade snickers, of course, and raises his bottle. "To Beaver Creek."
"To Joel," Zoe corrects, bumping his shoulder with hers, but she clinks glass against glass anyway. "Vivian said to tell you hi, by the way."
"Ah." Wade's glance skips away to the far wall. "Tell her I said hi back. She's gotta bring that kid by the Rammer Jammer soon."
"She said the same thing." It's not completely easy yet, between Wade and Vivian, but they're trying, and Zoe loves them both even more for it.
Because, by the way, that's another thing she's trying: admitting (to herself, anyway) that she's crazy in love with Wade. Of course, her ideas of what to do about loving Wade have so far mostly been undercooked plots involving short skirts and high heels, which Wade seems to be generally immune to at this point. Weirdly enough, Wade seems to be immune to most women these days; she's seen him take out a girl or two since that afternoon at the pageant, but that's about it. Either he's got some incredibly secret, passionate affair going on, or he's decided to stop looking at orgasms like points in some cosmic video game, and Zoe's not honestly sure whether that's good or bad news for her.
But at least she knows how she feels now, and according to a certain Great American Hero, knowing is half the battle. Though it's also the half the battle that tends to lead to a lot of late-night cookie dough binges, a lot of erratic and frankly irrational behavior, and no sex, so. That half of the battle kind of sucks, it turns out. But the knowing. The knowing is… something.
She chugs the rest of her champagne.
"Whoa," says Wade, watching her now, eyebrow cocked. "Slow down, there, Doc. What's goin' on with you lately, anyway? Somethin' you wanna get off your chest?"
Zoe bites her lip on laughter that definitely has more than a hint of hysteria in it. But even with that perfect opening, she can't close the deal, her throat crowded and her heart thundering with everything she wants to say. Panicked, she looks down into the parlor again, hoping for some sort of miraculous, non-lethal medical emergency. That's when she sees Tom and Wanda kissing in a corner, and alcohol-fueled inspiration strikes: maybe Wade's had the right idea all this time.
Before she has the chance to second-guess it, she hooks a couple of fingers in the collar of Wade's dress shirt, pulls him deeper into the shadows, and lays one on him with everything she's got.
He kisses her back at first, because new leaf or not, he's still Wade, and his thumbs on her jawline are perfect, he tastes like cheap beer and she can't get enough, he still knows exactly the right head angle and exactly which spot on her lip to catch between his teeth, and she's missed him—
When he pulls away, she's completely unprepared; if it weren't for his hands moving to her shoulders, she'd be flat on her face in his lap.
"Wha?" she manages, eloquently. "But. Why?"
He licks his lips, and she can tell it's taking everything he's got to hold back the smirk. She should find that annoying, but in this case, it's totally justified—that was a hell of a kiss, and she's feeling smug about it too. But his eyes are still wary, and he asks, "So, just so we're clear… this isn't some drunk-single-girl-at-an-engagement-party thing, right? Because I have enjoyed my share of those experiences, believe me, but I think you and me passed that exit quite a ways back, and I'm not really interested in any more detours."
Zoe just blinks at him for a few seconds, her brain still tangled up in champagne bubbles and the heat of Wade's hands on her. And unfortunately, the part of her higher functions that comes back online first is the part that sounds a lot like her high-school therapist, and wants to know if Wade is right and she's just letting herself get caught up in peer pressure and societal expectations, and if she's really done everything she can to maximize her self-actualization as an individual, and—
Even more unfortunately, Wade doesn't know that she's actively engaged in telling those brain functions to shut the hell up because they've been over this a million times, and therefore: "Oh, you have got to be kidding me," he breathes, obviously interpreting the worst from her silence, then jerks to his feet and and stomps down the stairs before she can get out so much as a "but my high-school therapist was terrible."
She goes after him, of course, but the whole main floor is packed and her shoes are precarious and he's already halfway up the path to his place by the time she even makes it off the back porch.
"Wade!" she calls out. "Wait! I didn't mean… it's not what you think!"
He doesn't even slow. "Don't kid a kidder, sweetheart—I invented 'it's not what you think.'"
"Wade. Wade!" The stupid soft dirt is murder on her stupid heels. She's never going to catch him. "It's not just tonight, okay?" she yells desperately.
That brings him to a screeching halt, though he still doesn't turn around. "What?" he asks over his shoulder.
"I just…" Zoe flails her hands at her sides, just sober enough to realize what a giant loser she's about to sound like, and just drunk enough not to let it stop her. "I've been trying to find a way to talk to you about this stuff for weeks now, okay? I broke that lightswitch in my house just so I could ask you to come fix it. I wore all my cutest clothes to the Rammer Jammer. I even thought about trying to quarantine us together for something—people always end up talking about their feelings in quarantine on TV, have you noticed that?—but Lavon wouldn't let me. The truth is," and she's stumbling and panting her way up to him now; he's facing her but she can't read his expression, "the truth is that I wanted to try again, with us, but I wanted the timing to be right, I wanted it to be perfect, and I was so scared, Wade, I was scared that I'd waited too long and you didn't care about me like that anymore, didn't want me like that anymore, and then there was tonight and the champagne and everyone was so happy and I just—" and then she has to stop because he's kissing her, oh God, he's kissing her again, and maybe it's not too late.
This time when he puts some space between them, he's not even trying to hide his smile. "Okay, Chatty Cathy, my turn. One: for the record, the day I stop wanting you is the day I've been in my grave for about a month."
Zoe can feel her ears heat at that; it's the part she's always doubted the least—because, well, Wade, Wade and the vast variety of positions, locations, and fantasy roles they've done it in—but it's still nice to hear, after all his jerk-ass games about her alleged inadequacy in the sack.
"Two," he goes on, "I did everything I could to stop loving you over the past year, and none of it took, so while I may not be a super-scientist like you, I'm gonna go ahead and call that condition incurable."
"I—" Zoe starts, but Wade holds up a finger.
"My turn. Three, while I appreciate and would definitely like to revisit your very crafty efforts to seduce me, did it occur to you at any point, in all this lightswitch-fixin' and ensemble-wearin', that maybe you could just tell me how you felt? You know, with actual words?"
There's a pause, and Zoe gives it about point-five seconds before she bursts out, "Can I talk now?"
He hesitates, like he's running down a mental checklist, then half-shrugs. "Yeah, okay, shoot."
"Okay." She reaches up to grab his hands. "First, and most importantly, I love you too." Saying it out loud feels like skydiving, held up by one fragile parachute with the whole world spread out in front of her. But the look on Wade's face is worth every terrifying word. "I tried not to, too, but I do. I never stopped. And I know I should have just said I wanted to get back together, but. I have issues, okay?" He laughs, and she giggles, too, leaning her forehead against his. "We have issues. But I'm trying."
"So am I," Wade tells her, and there's a hot thread of intensity in it that makes her shiver. "Zoe, you have to know that I'd cut off my arm before I'd hurt you like that again."
"I know," she says, even though she can't know, not for sure, nobody can. But then he doesn't know if she'll hurt him, either, so they're both taking a leap of faith. She kisses him, hard, tears trickling out of her closed eyes. "And besides," she sniffs, "my plans totally could have worked. Since when are you interested in talking about feelings, anyway?"
His grin slips sideways into wicked. "Well, now, that's a fair point. But," and he leans in to press his lips to the pulse point on the right side of her neck, "it just so happens that for quite some time, I've been wantin' to tell you a lot of things."
"Mmm," she answers, only a little strangled. "Intriguing." God, he should teach an anatomy class, with the way he seems to be able to find every single nerve ending she owns. She angles herself closer to make sure he has unrestricted access.
"Oh, it's very intriguing," he agrees, voice dropping into its lowest register. He starts mouthing his way down her neck, slow, deliberate. "I could tell you, for example, that you are the single most infuriating, most fascinating, most warm-hearted, most all-around amazing woman I've ever met. And I've met a few."
Zoe feels the flush spread all the way out to the tips of her toes. She clears her throat. "Pretty good start," she says. "What else you got?"
He doesn't answer right away, busy dipping his tongue into the hollow where her collarbone meets her shoulder, then working his way back up toward her ear. "Well," he says finally, about mid-sternocleiomastoid, "there's also the fact that after I fixed that lightswitch next to your bed, I couldn't sleep right for a week, thinking about how you feel when you're all sleepy and naked."
She makes a noise that comes out halfway between a purr and a laugh. "Back at you on that one. I really… mmm. I really feel like we're making progress here. What else?"
"How about…" He stops long enough to take her earlobe between his teeth, fingers of one hand splayed over her back to support her as she melts against him. She's not going to have any bones left by the time he's done; she'll be a medical mystery. "How about how every time you came into the Rammer Jammer in one of those outfits of yours, all I could think about was taking you into the back and peeling it off of you."
"That's… very interesting, too," Zoe manages. She can't take it anymore; her hands slide down to untuck his shirt, then slip inside. She can feel his muscles shift, and there's something weirdly reassuring about that, everything where it should be, solid ropes under warm skin. He smells like the same soap he's been using since the first day she drunkenly made out with him in his car.
"You got no idea." Wade's breath catches as she runs her nails lightly along the bottom of his spine. "Sometimes," and now the fingertips of his free hand are wandering, trailing up the inside of her thigh, and his mouth is right at her ear, "sometimes, in my mind, we didn't even make it into the back," and that's it, Zoe has to take drastic action or she's going to end up orgasming in full view of Lavon's begonias.
She catches Wade's hand barely in time. "Gatehouse," she orders him. "Bed. Now."
"See? Now you're talkin'," Wade says breathlessly, and smacks her on the ass as they both scramble toward the warm light of impending sexy times.
Of course, her shoes are still built for style rather than speed, which means that she's several steps behind him when he huffs impatiently, turns back, and hauls her up into his arms.
"You know, my high-school therapist wouldn't approve, but this whole picking-me-up thing is pretty hot when you do it," she says, hooking her arms contentedly around his neck and nipping at his jaw for good measure.
"But you're all travel-sized," he grunts as he navigates the stairs. "How's a man supposed to resist that?"
She decides she's taking that as a compliment, especially because as soon as she opens the door for him, he breaks all of their previous land speed records getting her to the bed.
"I love you," she says, unbuttoning the absolute minimum number of buttons necessary to yank his shirt off over his head. He sinks down to mouth at the skin over her collarbone; she can feel him shiver as the words sink in.
"Love you, too. And if you're not naked in the next ten seconds—"
"You're going to punish me?" she asks, complete with innocent batting of eyelashes, and he groans.
"Holy hell, woman. You're gonna be the death of me."
"That's statistically unlikely."
He's got her bra off now, and she squirms under him, trying to get enough space to unbutton her skirt. "Leave it," he gasps, "too long," and he yanks her panties down and off, pins her hips to the mattress with his hands, and buries his tongue between her legs like he's dying of thirst.
She can't help it; she kind of yells, and if it weren't for Wade's hands, she'd be a foot off the bed. He hums against her.
"Fuck, I missed this. You taste so fucking good."
"Wade," she moans desperately, trying to tug him back into place with her feet.
"Sorry." He looks anything but, but dips his head obediently, and oh, fuck, speaking of setting land-speed records, she's right on the edge.
"Yeah," Wade is murmuring, half-incoherent against her, "yeah, that's it," and then he stops talking altogether and slides two fingers inside her, crooking them just like she needs it, in and out, his tongue working ruthlessly—
She's afraid it's entirely possible that Lavon's begonias end up scandalized after all.
It's hard to care, though, when she drifts back to earth to find that Wade is naked except for a condom, and he's crawling—prowling, practically—up her body with that look he gets like she's the only thing he wants to do for the rest of his life. Still weak from her orgasm, she spreads her legs anyway; she wraps them around him as he fills her. Her head falls back and her eyes drift closed.
"I love you," she says, with her whole heart in it, and she feels him shudder, full-body this time.
"Say it again," he demands, thrusting deep, making her eyes snap open. He's watching her still, hungry, open. "I love you so much, Zoe. Say it again."
She winds her ankles around his calves, anchoring him as he moves. "I love you," she tells him, "I love you, Wade Kinsella, I love you, I love you," and she keeps repeating it until she doesn't have the breath to talk anymore.
i. Sex Quarantine Day*
It's a busy night, and then a busy morning, and what with one thing and another (and another), it ends up being almost noon when Zoe crawls back into the bed, still trailing her favorite silk blindfold scarf.
"Ugh," she groans as Wade flops down next to her. "Someone's probably going to come looking for us soon, and we haven't even done 'traveling aerialists looking for a partner' yet."
"We need a plan," Wade says, one forearm over his eyes, sweat in a fine sheen on his skin. "What was that genius idea you had about quarantine?"
"Oh, right!" she exclaims. "Quarantine, of course. That will totally work. I'm a doctor, y'know." She can hear Wade snickering as she hangs face-down over the side of the bed, searching for her phone. She emerges triumphant, though, and taps the shortcut to dial Lavon.
To her immense relief, she gets his voicemail. The fewer questions asked, the better. "Hey Lavon," she starts out as seriously as possible, "I just needed to let you know that Wade and I are in quarantine, so we need total isolation for the next forty-eight hours. But don't be worried or anything, we'll be fine, it's just… um… metho… cylio..." She's starting to flounder, brain scrambled with sex and sleep deprivation. Abort mission! the voice in her head is saying. Evasive maneuvers!
And then she sees Wade grinning at her in the way he does, like he can't quite believe how ridiculous and adorable she is, and she can't help it: the happiness bubbles over into hysterical giggles. "Oh, okay, fine, it's sex quarantine," she tells Lavon's voicemail. "I'm sorry. But it is. You should know. We're so totally in sex quarantine. So, um... bye? Love you! Awesome party, congrats again, BFFs 4eva!"
"Wow," is all Wade says as she hangs up. She sticks her tongue out at him, but allows him to confiscate her phone and toss it toward the nearest pile of clothes. Of which there are many, because Wade doesn't believe in hangers, or drawers. Too bad for him that Zoe's already fantasizing about how cute a little bungalow bureau would look over there in the corner.
For now, though, she's content to let Wade pull her back into his arms. His naked, naked arms. Which are naked. She readjusts her head on his chest, enjoying the view and letting her hands wander a bit. It's all right there, after all, and she's been doing the look-but-don't-touch thing for way, way too long.
"I'd like to state for the record," she says, "that the last year has provided incontestable proof that I do still love you even with your clothes on. But man." She watches her fingers slide over ridges and valleys. "The abs. I really missed the abs."
Wade nods solemnly, or at least as solemnly as he can when she's right on the edge of tickling him. "Thanks for clearing up the record. But since it's been awhile since you've seen me without clothes on—" he pauses to stretch like a cat—"maybe we should just stay this way for now. You know, re-test the hypothesis."
"If you're trying to turn me on by talking about hypotheses, it's totally working," Zoe informs him as she leans up to meet his mouth. It's too soon for them to go another round—honestly, they may need Gatorade and protein before even attempting it—but she lingers over the kiss anyway, relishing the slide of skin on skin and the joy of not wanting to be anywhere other than exactly where she is.
When she's done, she flops down happily on Wade's chest again, and he lets out one of his pseudo-cowboy hoots at the ceiling.
"Damn, Doc. You really are gonna be the death of me. But what a way to go." One hand curls companionably over her ass.
"This should be a holiday," Zoe decides. "If Lavon and AB can have a holiday, we can too, right? Sex Quarantine Day. I bet we'd get more support than you think."
Against her cheek, Wade's chest shakes with laughter. "Yeah, that's the part that scares me."
"I'll start the petition tomorrow," she muses, then shrieks as Wade flips her underneath him and starts dropping kisses anywhere he can reach.
"Better get to celebratin', then."