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Don't Be a Stranger

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The invitation is waiting for him in his mailbox when Kurt gets back from Christmas vacation. It's wrapped up in a plain white envelope, hand-addressed, and he can't help but smile at the care she took with it. Jane could've just called and left a message with his voicemail, or texted with the relevant details. But instead she sent out a card.

He tucks it, along with the rest of the mail he received over the last few days, under his arm as he heads up to his apartment with his bags. He spent this past weekend at Sarah's, celebrating a rather nice Christmas with her and Reade and Sawyer (marred only by a few uncomfortable hours with Sawyer’s dad), and he's still feeling good from the weekend. Once he gets inside the apartment, he leaves the bags by the door, and tosses the rest of the mail onto the table. He keeps her card, and takes it to the couch.

The details are the same as they've been the last few years, for every New Year's party she’s thrown that he hasn’t attended: festivities start at eight, food will be provided, bring your favorite bottle of booze, and stay however long you want. But his invitation includes something more than the usual. It's just a short note, scribbled at the bottom in Jane's quick little chicken-scratch, but it tips the scales:

I really hope you can come. Would love to see you before the year's out.

He stares at the addition, knowing she didn't put it on anyone else's card. He thinks back to the last time he saw her, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, when he'd dropped a bunch of old children's books at her house for her young son as a belated birthday gift. He remembers how kind she'd been to him, how she'd hugged him when he arrived and left, even though he'd silently ignored her every attempt at friendship over the past few months. But that’s Jane: kind, always kind—sometimes to a fault.

He can still recall her parting words to him from last time, the hopes she’d admitted to while they were alone in the hall, her husband and son out at the park: I just want you to know that I miss having you around, she'd said. I know things are different now, but... You don't have to be such a stranger.

He remembers now, as if watching a film of the moment in his mind, how he had said yes. How he had promised not to be so distant. And how hopeful she had looked at the effort he put forth.

I really hope you can come. Would love to see you before the year’s out.

His eyes trace over the curves of her handwriting, following the entreaty from one end of the card to the other, and he knows before he even makes a conscious decision that he’ll be going. He misses her too. Even if things are different, he still values her friendship, her kindness. And it’s only New Years, after all. It’s just a party. He can get through one party, surely.

 


 

“Jane. Jane.”

She jumps at the sound of her husband’s voice, tearing her eyes away from her phone. The screen is still blank. No messages. No calls. No texts. It’s 9 AM on December 31st and Kurt still hasn’t said anything.

“Sorry,” she says quickly, meeting his eye across the table. “Did you say something?”

Oscar bites back a sigh, his eyes, too, drifting over to her phone. He knows what she’s waiting for, and he hopes to God she isn’t waiting in vain like she has all the other times. “Look, Jane… I just wanted to say—don’t get your hopes up about tonight, okay? You know how he is. If he doesn’t come, please don’t take it as an insult—”

“I won’t be insulted,” she brushes off at once, turning her attention to their son, seated at her side, chattering away in half English, half gibberish, as he messily enjoys a bowl of applesauce. She focuses on cleaning his cheeks and chin for a moment. “And he’ll come,” she adds firmly, once she’s finished. “So don’t worry about that.”

“I hope he does,” Oscar agrees. “But…”

He lets out a breath, watching as her eyes fall back to her phone as if magnetized, not seeming to hear him speak. He would spend any amount of money it took to get Kurt Weller to show up this evening. He would sacrifice whatever was necessary. Anything to get through one single party without seeing that look of disappointment hiding behind the happy face his wife puts on for all the others.

“All I’m saying, Jane, is don’t let it ruin your night if he doesn’t show. All the rest of your friends will be here, remember.”

She turns back to their son, nodding along as if in agreement, but he knows her too well. She loves all her friends, yes. But there can only be one best friend—no matter how absent he might be.

 


 

Kurt lingers at the liquor store far longer than usual, as if he has to think to make his pick. This is his last chance to back out, he knows, and he spends a good five minutes staring at a bottle of Lagavulin scotch, wondering if this really is the best plan. Every time he thinks of chickening out, he remembers how graciously Jane welcomed her into her home the other month. And every time he thinks of that visit, he remembers who was absent and why it was only half as uncomfortable as it would’ve been otherwise.

In the end, he grabs a bottle off the shelf and heads to the cash register. Her husband isn’t so bad, he reminds himself. He’s actually very nice, and incredibly polite. And besides, if Kurt’s memory serves him, Oscar will probably spend most of the night goofing off with Tasha, and Kurt will hardly have to talk with him. The most he’ll have to do is make small talk for a few minutes when they say hello, and then maybe later, between sips, as the night is winding down. And if Kurt learned anything after Jane’s son was born, it’s that he can handle drinking with her husband. That is one thing, in fact, that they actually do rather well together.

 


 

It is just after nine o’clock by the time Kurt rings the bell at Jane’s building, and he’s relieved that with every step he takes towards her apartment door that the noise emanating from inside only gets louder. Everyone must already be there by now: Sarah and Reade, Patterson and Borden, Tasha, maybe Allie too, if she’s in town. Though his first instinct is to knock, he beats it back; friends don’t knock, they walk right in. And he is trying very hard to be her friend again.

“Oh my god! Look who actually showed up!”

Tasha spots him first, shouting across the living room and directing everyone’s attention. He clutches the brown paper bag holding his bottle of scotch and hopes to God his embarrassment isn’t making itself known on his face.

“Does this mean the boss is actually gonna have a social life now?” Tasha continues, not lowering her voice in the least. (She’s had a few already, he can tell. Just like Tasha to pre-game a low-key New Year’s party.) “Is he going to stop spending every night sleeping at work? Should I be saying my goodbyes—is the world about to end?”

“Shut up, Zapata,” he replies, making his way over to the kitchen to deposit his alcohol on the counter with the rest, grateful to have something to do. “And don’t get out of hand spreading lies—I don’t sleep at work every night.” He sets his bottle on the counter and turns back to the group. “Only on Tuesdays.”

The effect is immediate—everyone laughs; what tension there is is broken. Reade pulls Tasha and Oscar back into conversation; Sarah returns to whatever she’d been saying to Allie and Jane. Kurt watches them all for a second, the awkwardness melting away as things move back to normal. Jane separates herself from Sarah and Allie, and when she comes over and hugs Kurt, he somehow isn’t surprised. Even her affection has become normal again, and it makes him wonder when in the world it ever stopped being normal. He hugs her back, and as they exchange well wishes for the coming year, Kurt catches a glimpse of her husband in the background, smiling at them. When Oscar mouths Thank you to Kurt over his wife’s shoulder, the agent actually manages to smile back.

 


 

It only takes a couple hours, and Kurt has caught up with Zapata in the drinks department. Judging from the level of noise in Jane and Oscar’s little apartment, the rest of the party has caught up, too, and he grins, feeling that familiar camaraderie that always comes with getting drunk with a group of people. If they hadn’t already all been friends, he’s certain they would be now.

The scotch goes down easy—it always has—and as the night rushes on, Kurt finds himself drinking far more than usual. At first, it’s just to loosen up, to make small talk come easier. And then, he keeps drinking just because it feels good. It’s been a long time since he’s drank this much, and he savors being able to do it here, safe with his friends who don’t care, who don’t judge, who are eagerly meeting him drink for drink.

By the time Tasha starts lining up shot glasses, he’s just on the cusp of being too far gone. She brandishes a bottle of vodka, calling the rest of the party around her.

“It’s only a half hour to midnight!” she shouts, ignoring the shushing noises from her hosts as she uncaps the bottle and begins pouring—one for everyone in the room. “Better make the end of this year count!”

Kurt laughs at her enthusiasm along with everyone else, but doesn’t make a move for one of the shot glasses. He doubts anyone else in the party will, either—well, except maybe Patterson and Allie. The rest of them are fully grown adults. Or apparently not. As he stands back and watches, Sarah’s the first to reach for hers. Then Reade. Patterson, Allie, Oscar, Borden—all the hands reach out and grab a glass. He laughs again when only two are left, and decides, Why the hell not? He takes one as his own.

Every eye in the room turns to Jane, but she holds up her hands, begging off with a shake of her head.

“There’s a child in the house, if you recall,” she reminds them all, saving a pointed fake-glare for her husband, to which he grins. “One of us has to remain an adult here.”

Boo! Don’t be a chicken!” Tasha starts the cry, and the rest take it up, Chicken, chicken, chicken, to which Jane rolls her eyes.

“Oh, take your shots and leave me alone, would you?” she calls over the din, turning towards the back of the apartment. “I’ve got a child to take care of, and I won’t let you no-good drunks bully me into being a bad mom.”

“Hey, baby, don’t worry,” Oscar calls after her as she leaves the room. “I’ll take yours for you!”

“Oh, wow,” Jane deadpans over her shoulder. “I’m so charmed. How chivalrous of you.”

“I try!” he shouts back amid the laughter, and his wife’s dismissive wave before she disappears down the hall.

Tasha raises her glass, they all mimic her, and in a second, they’ve all swallowed their shots, Oscar quickly following up with his second. He hisses at the burn, shaking his head like a wet dog, and mutters something about having always hated vodka.

“Just one of the many sacrifices of marriage,” Tasha teases. She goes about pouring a second for herself, and when Sarah and Allie signal, she grins and pours more for them, too. For some inane reason, Kurt lets her refill his as well, and he knocks it back like water.

“Hey, speaking of marriage…” Patterson leans exaggeratedly to the side to make sure Jane’s gone, and then pounces on Oscar, squeezing his shoulders from behind his chair. “When’s the next baby coming, huh?”

Oscar snorts, shrugging her off. “Hey, don’t look at me. Not my decision. Absolutely not my decision.”

“Bullshit,” Tasha laughs.

“You have to have to have a second, at least!” Patterson cries, voice rising with conviction as if not doing so is a personal affront. “Growing up an only child will make you spoiled rotten—just ask Robert, he knows!”

Across the room, Borden frowns at her. “Is that a comment on my upbringing or my profession?” he asks, but Patterson is already barreling ahead, not bothering to stop and answer.

“It’s scientifically proven,” she continues. “Only children equal spoiled brats. You can’t raise a spoiled brat. You need to have more kids—for Anthony’s sake!”

“Oh, really?” Oscar laughs, tilting his head back to look up at Patterson. “For Anthony’s sake, huh? You sure not for your own?”

“I will admit, I like babies, yes,” she smiles, and then squeezes his shoulders again, before ducking around his chair to meet him eye to eye. “But come on—be honest here, you’re among friends. When’s the next one gonna come? You can’t fool us. We know you want more!” Patterson reaches out a hand to ruffle his hair. “More Brenton babies!”

Oscar shakes his head, batting her hand away and waving the others off with an easy smile, but it’s clear in his eyes—there’s no convincing necessary, no more discussion to be had; it’s already been decided. They’re trying again.

As the others start clapping and cheering and stamping their feet, Kurt does his best to try and join in, at least with a smile or two. But he isn’t sure anymore, if he’s doing it right. After foolishly trying to keep up with Tasha’s indestructible liver all night, he’s having a hard time staying in complete control of his body. It’s been a long time since he’s been this drunk. A very, very long time. He mutters an excuse no one pays attention to, not with babies suddenly on the horizon, and hurries out of the room.

 


 

Their apartment is rather spacious for New York standards—two bedrooms, a full bath, and a kitchen-slash-living room—but it seems minuscule, somehow, when Kurt has this much alcohol in his system. He can’t remember the last time he got this drunk, and he curses himself for trying to keep up with Tasha. What had he been thinking, doing that here, in Jane’s home?

He puts a hand over his eyes, leaning against one of the walls for support as he attempts to clear his head. Reade’s in the bathroom, he remembers suddenly with what he hopes isn’t an audible groan. So he can’t go there to detox. Jane’s with her son, and even if she weren’t, poking his head in Anthony’s room is out of the question. So that leaves only one room.

 


 

Kurt has been inside Jane and Oscar’s bedroom before, and so it is not entirely unfamiliar to him when he opens the door. In fact, he was inside the room earlier tonight to drop off his coat with the rest, so the space, while intimate, is not technically out of bounds. If anyone were to walk in after him, he could just grab his coat from the pile on the bed and say he was on his way out.

He steps inside, shutting the door behind him, and leans against it, finding himself face-to-face with that bed. It is large enough, and the room small enough, that it dominates the space. There’s nowhere else to look.

Kurt can still hear the ruckus down the hall, and as he leans against the door and stares at Jane and Oscar’s bed, he finds himself wondering how long it’s been since they last had sex in it. This morning? Afternoon? Last night? He wonders if she's pregnant again already, or if they’re still actively trying. How many more children are going to follow the first? He remembers what she said to him the other month: If Oscar had his way, we'd already have two kids and be working on a third.

He stares at the pictures of the family on the walls of their bedroom and he wonders how one man is lucky enough to find the love of his life twice, and keep her forever; he wonders how another is so unlucky as to lose her twice, and for good.

He had chances, he knows. This could be his life now, if things were different: Jane could be his wife, that baby down the hall she’s checking on could be theirs. He could have all this—but instead, he has nothing.

When’s the next baby coming, huh?

His mind circles back again, and he wonders once more if she is pregnant already. She probably is. He thinks of her not taking her shot earlier, and he finds he can’t remember if he saw her drink at all during the evening. Maybe she did and his mind is erasing the memories as it spirals. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was staying sober nor just for her firstborn, but for the child that is soon to come.

I really do miss being pregnant sometimes.

He thinks back to the other month, to the conversation he had with her alone in her apartment, and he wonders if that was what pushed her to talk to Oscar about another baby. Clearly her husband had wanted one—more than one. But what had made her want the same? Had she always? Or had he, Kurt, had some sort of hand in it? Had he, yet again, accidentally pushed her further and further away?

He’s pacing, weaving, at the foot of the bed, so lost in thought that when the door opens, he nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Hey.”

He looks over and suddenly Jane is there, peeking her head around the door as if this is his bedroom she’s walking into and not her own. Her mouth twitches into a frown when she notices him lingering by the bed piled high with coats.

“Don’t tell me you’re leaving already—it’s barely a quarter till, Kurt. You can stay fifteen more minutes, can’t you?”

A moment ago, leaving was all he’d wanted to do. But seeing her standing there, seeking him out, worrying after him, he doesn’t feel so much like fleeing anymore. She’s asking him to stay. Why would he ever say no to that?

“Not leaving,” he says quickly. “Just… I wanted some privacy for a second.”

She nods, smiling now, like she understands. She steps into the room, pulling the door shut behind her.

“It can be loud with all of them here, I know.” She tips her head back towards the hallway with a smile. “I have to say, you and Anthony are holding up remarkably well. I’m impressed.”

“Oh, you know…”

Kurt tries to say more, but nothing comes to mind. The rush of warmth he’d felt a moment ago when she’d stepped into the room is rapidly fading. He can’t escape the pictures around him, can’t escape the reality engulfing him. What is he doing here? Why had he agreed to come to this stupid party? Why does he keep subjecting himself to things that make him so unhappy?

And why, why did he drink so much tonight?

He reaches out a hand, steadying himself against the bed. Too late, he remembers whose bed it is, and he jerks away, stumbling into the dresser as he loses his footing.

“Easy there,” Jane calls, and she’s at his side so quickly it’s as if she’d always been there. She leads him back to the bed, and this time he doesn’t shy away, this time her arms are around him, and he can’t focus on anything else except how long it’s been since they last touched.

“C’mere, you drunk,” she chuckles, easing him onto the mattress. “Sit down before you fall down, okay?”

She settles next to him, keeping a steadying hand on his shoulder, and he closes his eyes, reveling in it for a moment. She mistakes his smile for drunken nonsense.

“You’ve had a lot tonight, special agent.”

He bobs his head in a nod, his eyes opening slowly. “I have had a lot tonight.”

“Now that I think about it…” She laughs to herself. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you drunk before. Not once, not in all the years I’ve known you. Is that weird?”

He shrugs. “Not really. I try not to get drunk too often. Bad history, you know.”

She nods solemnly, the humor disappearing from her face. “I understand,” she whispers.

He’s supposed to leave it at that. He knows this, somewhere in the back of his mind. He’s supposed to stop talking, they’re supposed to sit here for a moment more, and then they’re supposed to rejoin the party. She’ll put on a smile and he’ll put on a smile and that’ll be that.

But he doesn’t feel like smiling anymore.

He doesn’t feel like doing anything anymore, least of all lying about how he feels. He turns his head towards her, giving himself a few seconds to focus. She’s been so nice tonight, with him. So thoughtful. For the hundredth time, he wonders what in the world he did to deserve her, only to remember that he doesn’t deserve her. To look at his life, one might think he doesn’t deserve anything.

But why doesn’t he deserve anything?

“Do you ever think about how unfair life is?”

The words are out of his mouth before he can so much as account for them, but he doesn’t care. He watches her face as she frowns, watches as she shifts her body towards his in concern. She looks so beautiful, still—he doesn’t understand it. What person looks this beautiful when she frowns?

“What do you mean?” she asks. “What’s going on? What’s unfair?”

He shakes his head. He can’t explain this to her, not to she who has everything. She’d never understand.

And yet somehow the words come tumbling out anyway.

“Sarah and Reade are getting married. Patterson’s moved in with Borden. You’re…”

He trails off. There’s too much to say there, too much he doesn’t even want to talk about.

“Hey...” She reaches out, squeezing his hand tight. “Don’t worry about all that, okay? Don’t worry for a second. You’ll find somebody, I know you will. It’ll just take a little time.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t need to find anyone.”

“Oh yeah?” She grins, leaning closer in curiosity, bumping her shoulder against his. “Got someone already, have you? Where are you hiding her, then? When do I get to meet her?”

He thinks about lying. He thinks about shrugging her off and going back to the party. He thinks about doing a lot of different things. But in the end, he only does one thing. One thing he hasn’t done in years. One thing he’s wanted to do all night.

He kisses her.


 

to be continued...