Annie is going to be late.
She knows her family won’t believe it given her history, but this time, it’s really not her fault. Jack was supposed to have the day off work. Four whole days in a row, starting Christmas Eve, actually. Since he hadn’t asked for any special favours after the ordeal on the bus, it had been hard for Mac to say no when Jack finally requested some time off for the holidays.
Of course, that hadn’t stopped him from calling to ask Jack to come in, albeit apologetically, just when they’d finished loading the car for the drive to her hometown.
She wouldn’t be annoyed if it were a genuine emergency, but Annie thinks she’s entitled to be peeved at having to wait around because LA’s finest couldn’t find some paperwork from Jack’s latest case.
Besides, it’s not like her mother will hold their delay against Jack: the hero cop who not only saved her daughter’s life, but also might be her chance at “finally” having a grandchild. No, the blame will land squarely on Annie, who will hear all about it. At length.
Which is exactly what she tells Jack once he returns to her apartment, documents found and passed off to the right hands.
(Not quite exactly. Annie hadn’t mentioned the whole grandchild part of last month’s conversation with her mother—they’d only been dating four months, after all—so she leaves it out of her rant.)
Thankfully, when they finally set off for Phoenix—just a few hours later than intended—the weather forecast still looks good. Annie is confident that they’ll still get to her parent’s house in time for dinner.
It won’t stop her family from reminding her that she arrived late all through Christmas, but that was probably always going to happen. After all, Annie had been the one to insist on driving there, despite her mother’s regular reminders that a flight would be so much faster.
It’s not that her family haven’t been understanding since a madman tried to blow her up—twice. They’ve been extremely supportive, especially considering none of them even live in California.
Her parents—two people who have never travelled anywhere without months of research into the best deals and planning every detail of their itinerary—had arrived on her doorstep only two days after the bus. Her sister Cathy was calling every other day for a while, no easy feat considering the time difference with England, where she was studying, not to mention the cost of international calls. Even her brother Brian, who only remembers to wish her a happy birthday after he’s been reminded by their mom, actually called her twice in one week to check in.
Her extended family reached out too—cousins, aunts, uncles, even a second cousin on her Dad’s side who’d moved to Australia when she was in middle school that Annie had forgotten she had.
The support had been nice to begin with, but quickly grew overwhelming when what Annie really wanted to focus on was getting her life back to normal. So, she’d been glad when the initial outpouring started to fade to just the immediate Porter family and a few, genuine friends (not the random classmates she hasn’t spoken to in years, who assumed she was famous now that she’d been on TV and could give them a taste of the limelight).
However, as much as they still try to sympathise, their ability to actually understand Annie and her lingering anxieties has diminished as the months have passed. No one has come right out and said that she should have gotten over it by now, but Annie’s heard the implication more times and from more people than she would like. Only her parents had kept quiet on Annie’s continued avoidance of public transport.
Until her mother realised that meant her daughter was refusing to fly home, at least.
“What do you have against the airport?” her mother had demanded, as if she had forgotten that Annie had never liked the airport, even before circling that runway for— God, how long was it?
It felt like it had been at least an hour, but she doubted that they’d been at the airport for that long, all things considered. She had been reliably informed they hadn’t even been on the bus for three hours total, and yet it felt so much longer in her mind, each moment stretched out and overlapping the next and impossible to keep straight.
It’s like that now. The memories have started to blur together, so sometimes, she mixes up their correct sequence. Annie’s had to sort the small details in her mind in relation to the big moments. Ortiz trying to be a backseat driver: that was after she’d gotten them as far as the airport. Jack complimenting her driving came after they got onto the freeway, but before Helen died.
At least Jack understands Annie’s desire to make the journey by road; he didn't bat an eyelid when she stated her intention to do all the driving. That wasn’t a surprise, though. He’d been the one to hear her out a week after the dust settling when, despite her stubbornness, she’d realised she couldn’t face taking the bus to work anymore.
Thinking about it now, almost five months later, maybe it was weird that she hadn’t gone to one of her friends’ apartments instead. There were people she’d known much longer, should probably have trusted more. Yet without even considering it or wondering if he’d be at home, she’d walked the extra two miles from the bus stop nearest her place to Jack’s apartment. Jack had handled her sudden appearance just as well as she’d known he would even then, making them coffee and listening to her fears and frustrations, not giving advice she didn’t want.
The next day, he’d started driving her to work himself, even though it was out of his way. He’d said it was just until she could figure out what she wanted to do—if she really wanted to go to so much effort for a job she didn’t even like—but Annie thought he would’ve done it forever if she asked.
She did have one job she liked, but her freelance graphic design gigs barely brought in enough for a weekly coffee, never mind enough to pay the bills. Waitressing wasn’t great, but it was steady and there had to be a place that wouldn’t complain about her missed shift even after they’d seen televised confirmation that she was being held hostage.
(Apparently, if she had time enough to make out with her boyfriend after they’d miraculously survived derailment in a subway car, she had time to get her ass to work.)
Once Annie let herself ask her friends for help, Sharon was actually able to get her an interview at the café where she worked. It was slightly better pay, though for fewer hours, but Annie could use that time to work on her portfolio. The biggest upside, once she got the position, was that she was able to get lifts to work with Sharon for the two months until she got her driver’s licence back.
The day Annie could start using her car again, she physically felt a weight lift off her shoulders.
Cathy had found it odd that Annie was so excited to have her car back. Though her older sister could easily comprehend Annie preferring her own car to taking the bus, she was concerned that being back behind the wheel would raise uncomfortable memories of that morning.
Perhaps it should have, but it never did. Her car handled much better than the bus for one thing, but for another, being behind the wheel again gave Annie a sense of control. One that remained even when she got stuck in traffic.
While Annie and Jack had been alternating who did the driving on dates, Annie was certain she needed to be behind the wheel for this much longer trip. Jack had only replied that she should tell him if she needed a break and he’d take over. He must’ve known she wouldn’t, but it was nice he offered anyway. The drive won’t be without its challenges, but she’s positive that she can handle it.
However, focused as she’s been on her own journey, Annie realises fifteen minutes into their drive that she perhaps hasn’t paid enough attention to the trip from Jack’s perspective. She’s told him all about the Porter family, of course; all the details that he couldn’t glean from that brief meeting with her parents when they came to LA, back when she and Jack were still so new to their acquaintance themselves. Those were easy things to remember to share.
What she hasn’t thought of is what it will be like for Jack to be the passenger in this long road trip.
He’s been chatting with her perfectly normally—asking more questions about her family’s Christmas traditions, telling her how Norwood had stupidly misplaced the files he had handed in last night—but she can see it in the way Jack fidgets, readjusts his shoulders more than necessary. She wants to get Jack’s mind off of it, but as soon as she sees the turn off for LAX, Annie remembers she hasn’t been in a vehicle this long since the bus, and she grips the wheel tighter, immediately tense.
She tries to shake the feeling off, but obviously not quick enough to pass Jack’s sharp eye.
“You all right?” he asks, and she can feel him staring even as she keeps her gaze glued to the road.
“I’m fine,” she says, quick.
Annie sees Mrs. Kamino more often than anyone else from the bus—Annie’s job is on the same street where she works—and her kind voice suddenly flashes into Annie’s mind, reminding her, “We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.”
It’s not that Annie’s afraid to talk about it—and she’s certainly discussed that day with Jack more than anyone else—she just doesn’t want to talk about it right now.
“Are you?” she returns, sneaking a quick glance at him before she returns her eyes to the road.
“Yeah.” His response is much steadier than hers was, but there’s still a niggling doubt in her mind.
That breaks when he suddenly says, in a lighter tone, “Have I told you about the Christmas my mom was sick so Dad and I tried to roast the turkey unsupervised, and we almost burned down our house?”
Annie snorts. “No! How old were you?”
“Too old for it to reflect well on me,” he replies, low but amused.
“Well, now you have to tell me!” Annie says, laughing.
Jack, of course, obliges. She doesn’t stop laughing as he relates the story, and he’s already into the next amusing family anecdote before she recognises what he’s doing.
Over the last few months Annie has learned that Jack Traven is a man who needs to be doing something—he needs a purpose. And right now, his resolve to get Annie through this drive has clearly overtaken any restlessness at having to sit still for six hours.
She bites down on her smile at the realisation. It warms her that he's willing to share so much of himself just to help her relax.
Annie starts offering up stories of her own, and the rest of their drive passes with so little incident that she almost doesn’t notice that they’re nearly at her parent’s house until they run into traffic just twenty minutes away from their destination.
“Typical,” she huffs at the unwelcome interruption.
He knows she doesn’t require a response so he just settles a warm hand on her knee, his thumb rubbing circles over the sliver of skin that peeks out from under her dress. The motion soothes her, and Annie finds herself moving a hand off the wheel to rest on his, curling underneath his fingers.
Jack squeezes back briefly before the cars in front of them start to crawl forward and he says, low, “Both hands on the wheel, ma’am.”
The fact that he'd used that voice on her in bed last night is more than enough to get her giggling again.
It’s slow progress all the way to the Porter house, and Annie lets out a deep breath she didn’t realise she was holding as she pulls up in front of the drive. “Well. Here we go.”
“It’ll be okay,” Jack says as she’s unbuckling her seatbelt.
“I know.” Which is true. Complaints aside, she is looking forward to spending time with her family.
“Okay, then you might need to remind me a couple times.”
Laughing, Annie leans forward to peck him on the lips before getting out of the car. She takes larger steps than necessary to stretch out her legs as she goes around to the trunk. Just as she’s unlocked it, the front door of the house opens.
“Hi, Dad,” she calls out, abandoning their bags to walk briskly up the path to meet him as he steps out.
“Hi, pumpkin,” he returns, wrapping her up in a hug.
It’s a nice moment.
“Is that really where you’re parking?”
And so much for nice moments.
“Dad,” Annie protests, stepping back. He’d always been very precise with his driving, but the Porter kids had all believed he’d cease critiquing theirs once they passed their tests. That was not to be.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that your Uncle Simon is driving down in his van tomorrow? He won’t have enough room if you park there,” her dad explains. “And do you see how many cars they have?” he adds, gesturing to the house to the right. Those neighbours had only moved in this year after the Taylors decided to retire closer to their kids, so Annie can’t quite remember the name of the new tenants.
“All right,” Annie agrees begrudgingly to his first point, already knowing why they can’t encroach on the curb space to his left. However, her dad hasn’t finished with the new neighbours.
“Four cars!” he exclaims.
“Yes, I can see that.” Annie nods, though a cursory glance shows only three currently parked.
“What do they need four cars for when only three of them live there!”
It is not a good sign if they’re already getting into neighbourhood squabbles before they’ve even stepped inside the house. “I’ll just go repark the car,” Annie says, taking a step back, only to bump right into something. Someone, actually. She hardly has to turn her head and check to realise Jack has already got all the bags out the car.
She really hopes he didn’t overhear all of that.
“Sir,” Jack says with a nod to her father.
Her father extends his hand, so Jack puts down two of the bags to shake it.
“Jack, I told you to call me Martin,” he notes with mock sternness.
“Yes, sir—Martin,” Jack corrects.
From the look on his face, Jack clearly isn’t certain whether her dad is joking or not, so Annie does her best not to giggle while she fishes around in her pocket for the keys.
“Why don’t you bring those in?” Martin gestures to the bags, before turning back towards the front door.
Jack starts to gather up the bags again, clearly about to follow until he notices Annie slipping back down the path the other way.
“I’ve got all the bags,” he points out.
“I have to repark,” she calls over her shoulder. “I’ll just be a minute.”
It doesn’t take her long to shift the car forward, though she’s very careful not to let so much as her bumper edge into Mrs. McClusky’s drive and restart a property boundary war—they did not need a repeat of the Christmas of ‘91.
Surprisingly, Jack is still stood in the middle of the path, all five bags in hand, as she gets out of the car once more.
She looks at him slyly. “What are you doing?”
“Jack,” she teases, sidling up to meet him. “Don’t tell me you’re scared to spend a minute alone with my parents?”
“I’m not scared,” he replies, almost pouting. “Just… cautious.”
Annie snorts. “Seriously? Jack Traven—cautious? I’m gonna have to tell Mac that one.”
“Cautious,” Annie repeats, shaking her head.
“I was just waiting for back up,” he retorts, a smirk on his face.
“Now, I know you’re bad at that too,” she points out, though the implication does make her smile.
They had a fight on that very subject about a month after they started dating. Jack had come home with a bullet graze on his arm as if it was nothing. It probably was nothing to him, but it had terrified Annie. She had grown familiar with the other scars that lined his body, but this fresh cut was a sharp reminder of not just his dangerous job, but her first-hand knowledge of just how reckless he can be carrying it out.
Since, he has been making an effort once she explained how scared it makes her. Annie realises a little bit of caution might not change anything; she knows all about Jack’s friend Harry, not to mention other officers he’s lost—none Jack was quite as close to as Harry, though losses all the same—but knowing he's trying helps her sleep better on the nights when they’re apart. Mac told her himself that Jack is at least attempting to be more careful in the field, and Jack does check in more often when he knows a case will make the news.
Being with someone in Jack’s line of work—especially someone like Jack Traven—means she’s always going to worry, but she likes that they can joke about it now too.
“Pass me some of those,” she asks, trying to prise at least one of the bags out of his hands. “We should get inside before he notices how long we’ve been out here,” she adds, with a nod to how her dad’s left the door ajar.
Relenting, Jack passes her two of the bags and steps back so she can lead the way.
The door has only just swung shut behind them when Martin asks, “How was the drive?”
He’s standing in the doorway to the living room, watching sports on the TV. At least he’s probably too distracted by the game to notice their lag in getting inside.
“It was good,” Annie replies as they put the bags down and start taking off their coats.
“Jim said there was traffic when he tried to go to the shops this morning.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t too bad,” Annie says, hanging up their coats on the hook.
“We weren’t sure what time you’d get here in the end.”
Annie is all prepared to apologise for their delayed arrival, but Jack jumps in before she can.
“Sorry we’re late, it’s totally my fault,” Jack explains, “Work called and –“
“Oh, no, don’t apologise!” Annie’s mother says—words Annie doesn’t think she’s ever heard from Ruth Porter before—emerging straight from the kitchen opposite the living room. Although Ruth isn’t wearing her customary apron, Annie spots the light dusting of flour on her mom’s hands just before she wraps her up in a hug.
“Hi, mom,” she says, gratefully resting her head on her shoulder.
“Hi, sweetie,” she replies, but the embrace is short-lived as she swiftly turns to Jack.
“We’re so glad you could come, Jack,” Ruth tells him warmly. He’s barely returned the greeting when she adds, “And don’t worry about being late, your work is so important,” before pulling him into a hug too. She says something else, but her words are muffled by the fact she’s buried her face in Jack’s shoulder.
Annie has learnt Jack isn’t a natural hugger, especially with people he doesn’t know well, but he politely suffered through an extended embrace from her mother when her parents came to visit her in LA, so he’s at least expecting it this time.
“What was that, Mom?” Annie asks, hoping to distract her into cutting the hug short.
Ruth keeps her arms locked around Jack, but turns her head to reply, “I said, Isn’t that right, Martin?”
Eyes still firmly fixed on the television, Martin responds, “Yes, dear.”
“Mom, what’s on your nose?” Annie tries, only now noticing the smudge.
“What?” That finally makes Ruth step back from her daughter’s boyfriend. She presses a finger to her nose and lets out a surprised, “Oh!” when she sees a dark, sticky substance stuck to her fingertip. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Jack!”
“It’s fine,” Jack assures her as Annie tries to rub the transferred smudge off Jack’s shirt with her finger. “I was going to change anyway,” he adds, laughing.
Ruth goes to inspect her face in the small hallway mirror, presumably to wipe off the rest, though before she can get there, Martin leans forward to do the job for her. After licking his thumb clean, he notes, “Hmmm. Needs more salt, Ruth.”
Once she’s dabbed her nose clean with a tissue, she lightly whacks his elbow for his comment. “Weren’t you watching this game last night?” Ruth asks, frowning as she notices the screen behind him.
“Highlights,” he explains.
“Sorry,” Annie mouths to Jack as her parents start to bicker over his television choice, but Jack only shakes his head, his eyes smiling in amusement. He lifts an eyebrow at something behind her, and Annie is confused until he takes a step behind her to dust off the back of her dress.
The flour has disappeared from her dress by the time Ruth shoos her husband into the living room and turns back around to them.
“Would you like a drink? You must be so tired after all that driving!”
Annie opens her mouth to respond, but Ruth is already listing all the available drinks options, even more choices than usual, as she ushers them into the kitchen.
A quick, shared glance is all it takes for Jack and Annie to settle on coffee, and Annie starts to head straight for the machine on instinct but pulls up short at the scene spread before her. Her mouth hangs open in shock. “Mom, what is all this?” she exclaims.
She’s always known that Ruth Porter believes that holidays should be less about presents and more about cooking and consuming copious amounts of food—it’s a philosophy the Porter children hadn’t appreciated much when they were younger, when all they wanted was more presents to open and fight over, but they definitely do now. Their mother is an excellent cook.
Still, Annie doesn’t think they’ve ever had such a large spread for Christmas Eve. Not when none of the extended family have come down yet and there’s the big Christmas dinner to prepare.
“What?” Ruth asks, looking around nonchalantly.
“Is this prep for tomorrow?” Annie wonders.
“Some of it. Jack, I hope dinner will be okay for you,” Ruth adds. “Annie said you’ll eat everything.”
Annie blurts, “I didn’t mean for you to make everything.”
“Annie,” her mother clucks while Jack chuckles.
“This all looks great, thank you. And thanks again for having me.”
“Oh, it’s our pleasure,” Ruth says, setting the coffee machine to brew. “It’s been so long since Annie’s brought anyone home for the holidays—I was starting to wonder if it would ever happen again.”
She and Jack have been over their dating histories already, but Annie blushes nonetheless, especially when Jack smirks at her, adding, “Oh, really?”
“Oh, yes. How many years has it been now?” Ruth wonders aloud, collecting some mugs from the draining board. As soon as her back is turned, Annie elbows Jack, which he returns, and before long, they’ve devolved from there all while Ruth tries to work it out. “Well, it was after Cathy moved out the second time, but before Ben started dating that girl who made clothes—what was her name again?”
“Tara,” Annie supplies as she and Jack both return their arms to themselves just in time for her mother to turn back to them.
“Tara,” Ruth nods. “I liked her.”
“Yeah, me too. I wonder what she’s up to now?” Annie adds brightly, more to distract her mother than this ex-girlfriend of her brother’s having made a significant impression. Anyway, better to get it out now. Annie doesn’t think Brian will be interested in hearing about her; he and his much more serious girlfriend Gabrielle had only split up a few months ago.
“Hmmm.” Ruth retreats into her thoughts as she starts tidying up some of the vegetable peelings on the counter.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Jack asks.
“Oh, no, there’s not much left to do. You should just both relax.”
“I guess we might put our stuff away,” Annie suggests and Ruth perks up.
“Of course, I should have thought of it.” Ruth comes up from behind the counter and leads them back to the hallway where they pick up their bags. Annie isn’t sure why she needs to be led to her old bedroom, but when her mom starts pointing out some of the features of the house she figures Ruth just wants to give Jack a mini tour and doesn’t question it.
She realises that perhaps she should have when Ruth comes to a stop in front of Catherine’s bedroom.
“And you’ll be in here,” she says, opening the door.
Jack takes the bags in, but Annie blurts out in surprise, “But where is Cathy sleeping?” Cathy’s room is pretty much the same size as hers, so there doesn’t seem any reason to switch, even if anyone else is staying over tomorrow.
“She’ll be sharing with you,” Ruth replies as if it’s obvious.
The slight tilt of Jack’s head is the only acknowledgement that he’s heard before he thanks Ruth politely and puts the bags down. Still, Annie knows he wasn’t expecting this—she certainly hadn’t been and would have told him if she was.
“Mom, can I have a word in the hall, please?”
Once the door has cut Jack off from the impending argument, Annie hisses, “Really, mom? I can’t share a bedroom with my boyfriend?”
Ruth's brows knit together in confusion, and she takes a few steps further into the corridor to reply, “Well, I don’t see why it’s such a surprise. When you brought Dan home for the holidays, we did the same thing.”
“That was like ten years ago, Mom—I was in college!”
“So? You’re not exactly married, Annie.”
Annie resists the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m also not a child. You know, it’s not like Jack hasn’t stayed over at my apartment in LA.” It’s not something she and her mom talk about a lot—or ever—but Annie had thought it was pretty obvious they stayed at each other’s places frequently.
However, Ruth stands firm. “Whatever you do at your house is your business, but when you’re in my house, you have to abide by my rules.”
The kitchen timer goes off before Annie can come up with a rebuttal, and her mother jumps on the excuse to leave the conversation and flit back to the kitchen. Annie huffs but knows already that whatever she says won’t matter. “Your house, your rules” is her mom’s stance on most things. She had never liked them excessively swearing in her house, but once her children had places of their own, Ruth didn’t comment on it if they did so in their homes.
With this in mind, Annie trudges up the stairs to her bedroom to drop her bags before going back to check in on Jack. Without thinking, she pushes the door to her childhood room open when a female voice yells, “Can you knock!”
“Sorry!” Annie calls out, stepping back quickly. She hadn’t seen anything.
“It’s okay,” the voice says, easier this time.
Peeking in, Annie finds her sister finishing off buttoning her shirt, a towel loosely wrapped around her damp hair.
“I thought you were Brian,” Cathy explains with a grin, dropping the towel on the bed so she can come over for a hug.
Dropping her bags, Annie rushes forward and returns the embrace excitedly. Not that it isn’t nice to see the rest of her family, but it has been over a year since she’s seen her big sister. “Hi!”
“Hi! It’s so good to see you.”
“You too! How was your flight?”
“Long,” Cathy sighs. “But I feel more awake now,” she says, reaching back for her towel when they break away to start patting her hair dry. Annie watches enviously as she sinks to perch on the mattress; her sister’s hair looks amazing only just partially towel-dried while when her own always looks ridiculous until she’s put her hairdryer to work on it. “So, how’s Jack?”
Ignoring her sister’s pointed grin, she says, “Okay, I think. I should probably go check on him though.” Annie can’t quite keep the fretting out of her voice.“Already?” Cathy laughs. “I would’ve thought a SWAT guy could handle more than just five minutes with Mom and Dad.”
Annie rolls her eyes. “He’ll be fine with them—it’s just I hadn’t realised Mom would do this,” she explains, gesturing vaguely between them. “Making me share with you as if I don’t practically live at Jack’s apartment already.”
Her sister is not as sympathetic as Annie had hoped. “Come on, you really thought Mom would let you two sleep in the same room? Especially when Aunt Linda and Aunt Louise are coming tomorrow?”
“Wait, they’re both coming tomorrow?” Annie demands, shocked. “I thought they weren’t speaking ever since Aunt Louise dumped Uncle Simon’s friend in the middle of their double date?”
“Oh, Mom says they’re still not speaking to each other. But when she told them you were bringing Jack for Christmas, they both decided ‘they simply couldn’t miss it.’”
Annie flops onto her side, her head falling onto her pillow just before she groans.
“It’ll be fun,” Cathy says with a smile as she starts rooting around in her suitcase.
“For you and Brian, maybe,” Annie mutters. In a huff, she tries to kick off her boots, but at this angle she can’t quite manage it.
“Oh, is Brian here?” Cathy wonders.
Annie frowns, sitting up to better facilitate the removal of her boots. “Huh? I thought he came down yesterday.”
“Yeah, but some of his friends from high school came back for the holidays this morning, so he went to get lunch with them. I thought he might have come back while I was in the shower.”
“Mom didn’t say.” Annie shrugs, then throws her newly-freed boot over her shoulder towards the wall that connects to her brother’s room. The landing thud is followed by silence.
“Guess he’s not back yet.”
“Jack, it’s me,” Annie calls out, knocking on Cathy’s—for the time being, Jack’s—door. Pushing it open gently, she finds Jack sitting on the bed. He’s traded his green shirt for a blue one, and is hastily straightening the contents of one of the cloth bags they’d brought with them.
“Hey,” he smiles up at her, attempting nonchalance, as he swiftly shuts the bag and lowers it to rest against the foot of the bed.
“You weren’t trying to sneak a peek at your present now, were you?” she asks, taking a seat right next to him.
Jack stares at her, open-mouthed in indignation. “I’ll have you know I resent that accusation.”
“Hmmm. Let me see the bag then, Traven.”
Jack’s jaw works for a second before he moves the bag closer to her, holding it open for her to peer in.
The top looks undisturbed, but when Annie leans over him, enjoying his warmth against her side, to get a better look, she notices there’s another item stuffed down the side, in a different wrapping paper to the ones she put in there.
“What’s that?” she asks, reaching over, but Jack quickly pulls the bag out of her grasp.
“Now who’s trying to get an early peek at their present?”
Unable to come up with a retort, Annie relents. “Fine,” she says and then bites her lip. “So, I’m sorry about this whole separate rooms thing. If I had known, I would—well, I don’t think I could have got her to change her mind, but I would have told you at least.”
“It’s okay,” Jack assures her. “It’s the kind of thing my Mom would do too, at least if my Grandma was going to be round.”
That wasn’t the impression Annie had of her, but she supposes the one phone conversation they shared—insisted on by Jack’s mom once she learnt all of Annie’s family would be meeting him at Christmas—isn’t enough to tell.
“So, it still beats being in LA?” she asks. It had felt natural to invite Jack home for Christmas when she’d learnt his parents were going to be on a cruise they’d planned a year ahead, and he hadn’t made any plans. Still, even without the excuse of giving him somewhere to go, Annie thinks she would have asked him anyway.
Maybe it was odd that she’d been so sure she wanted to bring Jack home for the holidays after only a few months of dating, when she’s had more long-term boyfriends that she never invited—if not odd, then at least noticeable as far as her mother was concerned—but, then again, nothing about the pace of their relationship has been ordinary.
“Of course,” he says, punctuating it with a soft kiss to her lips.
He starts to retreat, but Annie doesn’t let him go far. Bringing her hands up to run through his short hair, Annie returns the kiss, dragging this one out. Jack doesn’t take much persuading.
Annie feels herself relaxing as they trade kisses, her shoulders losing some of the tension that always builds when she returns to her parents’ house. One of Jack’s hands is a warm presence on her thigh, while the other wraps around her waist, pulling her as close as he can in this position. She’s just considering sliding into Jack’s lap when her mom’s voice rings out.
“Annie, Jack, your coffee is ready!”
Annie sighs against Jack’s lips as she pulls back ever so slightly. Ruth Porter must have some kind of sixth sense.
“Guess we should go out there, huh?” Jack says, voice rough.
“Yeah,” Annie confirms, though she gives him a final peck before pulling back completely and calling out a response to her mom.
Jack straightens her skirt while Annie tries to smooth his hair back down now that she’s mussed it all up. They’ve just stood up, when Annie hears her mom’s voice again, this time clearly directed at her sister.
“But you’ll catch cold if you don’t dry your hair!”
Annie laughs as Jack picks up the present bag to add to the pile under the tree. “You ready for what’s guaranteed to be an interesting evening with the Porters?”
Between introductions with Cathy, and Brian when he comes back, it doesn’t feel like that long before they sit down for dinner. Annie was nervous about Jack getting grilled at the dinner table, but perhaps she should have had enough faith in her family to know they’d be more welcoming than interrogative—on the first day at least. She doesn’t hold out much hope for him escaping the inquisition from her dad’s sister-in-law Linda and Linda’s sister Louise tomorrow, but this might ease him into it.
She knows Jack’s not unfamiliar with crazy family antics, but his is on a much smaller scale than hers. Plus, his mom’s side didn’t celebrate Christmas; he’s never experienced the kind of manic family Christmas the Porters have.
Christmas Eve dinner is always nice when it’s just them. This year, since Cathy was able to come home for the holidays and Ruth isn’t spending the majority of it pretending she isn’t sulking over her eldest child’s absence, that’s especially true.
Of course, since they’re rarely all together Annie realises she’s forgotten how much they talk over each other.
Ruth tries to put second helpings of everything onto Jack’s plate as Brian starts talking about his friend Jason’s new car. Unfortunately, the make only serves to remind Martin about their new neighbours latest addition to their driveway, and he expands on his complaints from earlier.
Worried her dad is going to rant for ages, Annie pipes up, “So, Mom, Dad—you guys hear much from the Taylors since they moved away?”
“Your Mom and Bonnie talk all the time.”
Ruth nods, seemingly satisfied by the amount she’s piled onto Jack’s plate as she tucks back into her own, hardly touched, first serving. “Yes—you know, they just had another grandchild.”
“Is that the third?” Martin wonders.
“Fourth,” Ruth supplies with a pointed glance down the table at her own children.
Annie quickly looks across the table for some support from her siblings, but they haven’t noticed, too busy squabbling over the almost empty gravy boat.
“You don’t need any more, you’ve basically drowned your food already,” Cathy notes, trying to wrestle the jug from Brian’s grasp.
“Not my mashed potatoes,” he complains.
“There’s more gravy in the kitchen,” Cathy says. “You can refill it when I’m done.”
“So you go get it after I finish this.”
“Brian, Cathy,” Ruth says sternly, “I think other people might like some gravy too.” She doesn’t name him, but her head tilt is obviously directed at Jack.
“That’s okay. You know, I don’t mind getting the extra from the kitchen,” Jack offers, gesturing to the door behind him. His chair is closest, and he even starts to stand, but Annie knows her mom will object before Ruth does.
“Oh no, you sit, Jack,” she replies quickly, fixing a look on her eldest and youngest child together. After a moment, she concludes, “Brian, you go get the extra gravy.”
“Ha!” Cathy crows triumphantly, pulling the jug from his hands to empty the gravy over her food.
“Why me?” he pouts.
“Cathy helped make dinner,” Ruth states simply. As a frowning Brian scrapes back his chair, she returns to her earlier line of conversation as if it had never been interrupted. “You know, Bonnie and I have a regular Thursday call, and she’s always so punctual that I was worried something had happened when she didn’t ring at our usual time last week. But then it turned out it was because little Jessica had surprised them. Nearly two weeks late she was, just like Cathy.”
“Cathy?” Martin wonders. “I thought Brian was the one who was late.”
“Brian was only a few days late,” Ruth clarifies as he promptly returns to the table, second pitcher of gravy in hand. “Cathy was two weeks late.”
“But not Annie,” Martin adds.
Cathy’s mouth is full of food, but Annie can see the smile forming on her face. Brian smirks as he helps himself to an overwhelming amount of gravy. Annie’s grip on her fork tightens. They all know where this is going.
“Oh no, not Annie,” Ruth replies. “Annie was born right on her due date.”
Annie tilts her head to the right and when she meets Jack’s eye, she mouths, “Wait for it.”
“Only day Annie’s been on time for anything,” Martin chuckles.
“There it is,” Annie finishes to Jack as the rest of her family join in the laughter. It’s not unkind, but she’s heard the joke so many times, it’s stopped being funny.
Jack sends her a soft smile before reaching across the table to take the offered gravy jug from Brian’s hand, depleted though it is.
“Hey, Mom, I couldn’t see what’s for dessert,” Brian says, mind somehow already on the next course.
Annie’s turned her attention back to her plate when she feels Jack’s left hand slip to her knee. He squeezes reassuringly, and just like earlier in the car, it does help. She’d like to return the gesture, but that doesn’t seem possible at the dinner table without her mother noticing—and possibly thinking something scandalous is going on. They’re not even allowed to share a room; who knows what could go through Ruth Porter’s head? So, she just catches his eye again and smiles her appreciation.
“I’ve baked muffins,” Ruth tells them all, thankfully oblivious to the placement of Jack’s hand.
“No trifle?” Martin asks, suddenly starting up from his plate.
Annie’s amused by the mild terror on her dad’s face at the prospect of a Christmas holiday bereft of trifle. The smirk fades from her lips when she notices Cathy’s eyes lingering knowingly between Annie and Jack before returning to her carrots.
“We’ll have trifle tomorrow, Martin, just like always,” Ruth explains. “You do like chocolate muffins, don’t you, Jack? I think Annie said they were your favourite.”
Pleased, though unsurprised that her mother has remembered this bit of information, Annie remains quiet while Jack assures her mom he does and thanks her. Brian, however, does not stay quiet.
“Is everyone going to get their favourite dessert?” he mutters. Ruth fixes him with another look.
“If you wanted pecan pie, you should have come home for Thanksgiving.”
After they’ve finally finished eating, Annie, Jack and Brian are put on washing up duty, having been the only ones not to contribute to the cooking. Annie doesn’t exactly mind. This might be the only chance for her and Jack to get some one-on-one time—it’s never been hard to convince Brian to renege on his chores—over the next three days. Once all the extended family arrive, it will be even harder for them to get any privacy.
However, it’s difficult to drop hints to her brother when he’s too busy talking to Jack to pick them up. At least he’s not trying to do some weird, macho interrogation on him; Brian just seems genuinely interested in Jack’s job.
They decide to split up the task, Jack washing up while Annie and Brian divide the drying and putting away between them. They already know where everything goes and can hopefully get the chore done faster, but they’re only half done when Annie starts to feel like the third wheel. Despite Jack’s attempts at pivoting the conversation to Annie a few times, Brian’s interest in her attempts to move on from waitressing and into graphic design full-time is limited. She doesn’t blame Brian for that, considering there’s not much to tell; a few small commissions, many unanswered job applications and one unsuccessful job interview do not make a great story. So, she lets Brian carry on with his questioning into the logistics of being a SWAT officer. Jack doesn’t seem fazed by them, even when they go past the things that Annie’s already asked about, and into the details she finds less interesting.
It’s only when they’re putting away some of the crockery that lives outside the kitchen that Annie has the chance to give up on the hints and explicitly request a moment alone with her boyfriend.
Brian doesn’t seem to understand why she’d want to.
“What, the six-hour car ride wasn’t long enough?” he jokes, putting the bowls she’s passing to him into the side table. “Since when did you get so clingy?”
“I’m not clingy!” Annie protests. “I just want to check in with him. I didn’t know Mom would make us sleep in separate bedrooms.” They hadn’t been able to go over that detail properly before dinner.
Brian just shrugs, as unsympathetic as Cathy. “Why do you think I always spent the night at Gabrielle’s house?”
Annie thinks this over for a minute. Despite spending most of Christmas and its surrounding days with Gabrielle at the Porter house the last few years, her brother had in fact typically left with his ex-girlfriend at the end of the evening. She’d always assumed that was to spend some time with Gabrielle’s family too, but apparently not.
“Jack seems cool, though. You warn him about Aunt Louise yet?”
Biting back the quick retort that she would have if she’d had even five minutes alone with Jack since arriving, Annie only says, “I’m hoping she won’t be that bad if she goes easy on the eggnog.”
Brian snorts. “Yeah, like anyone could keep Aunt Louise away from the eggnog.”
It should be easy to slip away once the family’s gravitated back to the living room and settled in front of the TV, but once she’s there, it’s hard to leave.
Her mom decides to check on some of the prep for tomorrow’s meal before heading to bed and enlists Brian to help. Annie’s not interested in the sports show Cathy & their dad picked, just sketching idly in her notebook rather than watching, but Jack looks suitably engrossed, so she’s not going to pull him away just yet.
Annie’s busy shading her latest drawing when Cathy yawns loudly. “Think I’m going to head to bed,” she says, standing. “Night, Dad, Jack.”
While the guys return her goodnight, Cathy gives Annie a look that has always meant she wants her to follow. So, two minutes after she’s gone, Annie flips her sketchbook shut. “I think I might go to bed too. You all right?” she asks, looking at Jack.
He nods, only briefly averting his gaze from the television. “Yeah, I’ll probably go after this.”
“Oh, there’s a good show on after this too, Jack. About tomorrow’s basketball games,” her dad pipes up.
“Okay,” Annie laughs. “I’ll leave you guys to it.” Her dad’s not looking, but it still feels a little awkward giving Jack a quick kiss before wishing them both goodnight.
“Everything all right?” she asks when she reaches her bedroom, where Cathy is pulling boxes out of her suitcase.
“I need you to help me wrap Christmas presents,” Cathy explains.
“What?” Annie exclaims. “Since when did you get so last-minute?”
“I just had so much coursework to finish before I left.”
“This wrapping paper looks familiar,” Annie notes, settling on the floor to start wrapping.
“It’s what’s left from mom’s stash in the cupboard. Here, this is an easy one to wrap,” Cathy adds, passing a book to Annie before settling across from her with another present.
Annie would protest her supposed inability to wrap gifts, but her jaw drops when she examines the present. “Is this for Dad?”
“Yep,” Cathy says smugly.
“Can you wait until he’s opened his other presents to give him this?” Annie asks as she carefully handles the beautiful second-edition book, significantly fancier than the well-loved copy of the same story Martin used to read to them as children. “If you go first, mine and Brian's gifts are going to look like shit.”
Cathy laughs. “What did you guys get him?”
“I don’t know about Brian, but Jack and I got him whiskey.”
“Well, since he didn’t have Gabrielle to help him with the shopping this year,” Cathy notes, “I’m gonna guess Brian’s gone back to his old standby: socks.”
“I hope so,” Annie remarks. “I didn’t pack enough socks.” After a pause filled with the crinkling of paper, she says, “So. What do you think of Jack?”
Cathy immediately smirks. “Wow, I’m surprised you held that in so long. I thought for sure you were gonna ask me on the way back from the toilet earlier.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention it yourself,” Annie counters. “You’ve never exactly held back your opinions on my boyfriends before.”
That’s exactly what her sister does, though, staying quiet for a long moment. Finally, Cathy says, “Jack seems… nice. Scissors, please”
Nice is not a word Annie would ever pick to describe Jack. Intense maybe. Quiet, but smarter than he gives himself credit for. Moody sometimes, but always kind. Almost freakishly tidy. Someone who cares so much about other people that Annie worries it's going to get him killed one day.
But not, simply, nice.
“Seriously?” is all she can muster as she hands over the scissors.
Cathy sighs heavily. “He just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you normally date.”
Annie bristles, but it's not like she hasn't thought the same thing. Hasn’t wondered if they'd met at a bar and started talking, would she have been interested in dating him? What would they have even talked about? Annie had always vetted potential dates by figuring out if they had similar interests, and then came along Jack who she knew would risk his life to save hers before she knew his favourite song.
She lets herself picture it for a moment; he’d have had a few drinks before making a move, and his smile would have got her for sure, but maybe some of the things she likes about him best now—his steadfastness, his surety—would have come off then as cocky and brash.
Annie doesn’t want to admit any of that, though. “Jack’s a good guy,” she replies stubbornly.
“I can see that,” Cathy says easily. “I just think”—her hesitation means Annie knows she’s not going to like what her sister is about to say next—“you don’t have to date him just because you're grateful.”
Annie stares open-mouthed at her sister for a minute before furiously averting her gaze to the package she’s still trying to wrap. “I’m not even going to respond to that.”
“Annie,” Cathy starts, but when she still doesn’t look up, her sister puts her stuff down and scoots across the floor to sit next to her. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” she says, resting her head on Annie’s shoulder.
Even though she’s still mad, Annie finds herself leaning into Cathy on instinct. “I know.”
“I just meant that— Mom and Dad clearly already love him because he saved your life and all—and obviously, I'm glad about that too—“
“You really sound it,” Annie interrupts.
“Hey,” Cathy says, digging into her side. “Come on. I only meant that it’s not the only thing that’s important. The bus will always be this big thing that happened to you, but it’s not your whole life. Most of the time, being with someone isn’t a life or death situation—it’s just about the little things, you know?”
An unkind thought about her sister’s perpetual singledom runs through her head, but Annie bites it back. She knows Cathy means well, and she gets what Cathy is trying to say too.
It’s not like she and Jack have never butted heads over small stuff. He gets annoyed when he finds her cheat cigarettes, even though she really does mean it every time she says she’s going to give up smoking, and at how lackadaisical she is about tidying up. Just like she gets annoyed when he brings up the tidying thing in her apartment or she has to remind him, again, to recycle instead of just putting everything in the trash.
“Why didn’t you ever say any of this when I talked to you about Jack on the phone?”
Cathy shrugs. “It seemed like more of an in-person conversation. And, to be honest, you don’t talk about him like…”
“Like what?” Annie demands, defensive once again.
“Like a new relationship. Like, ‘Isn’t my boyfriend adorable? He did all this cute stuff!’”
Annie recognises the voice Cathy puts on as that of her best friend Charmaine, and it makes her laugh. “What do you want to know? That he drove to three grocery stores to get my favourite ice cream when I didn’t get that job at the magazine? That he taped over old game film to record my shows when I was sick?”
“Yeah,” Annie confirms.
“That’s totally stuff I want to know!” Cathy exclaims. “I mean, forget saving your life, a guy who can deal with your weird ghost show addiction, now that’s a keeper,” she finishes, making them both laugh.
Annie wouldn’t say she had an addiction to horror shows—and to be honest, the spooky ones don’t make her jump as much as they used to. It's almost a relief when they do. It’s good to know she can still feel fear at something she knows is made up even after everything that happened. Jack doesn’t get it at all, but he’ll still watch them with her, his dry commentary far more entertaining than the scripted narration.
“How come you don’t tell me stuff like that?”
“I don’t know.” Annie shrugs. “I guess, when we first got together it was like— We’re not famous, but sometimes people will recognise us from the pictures those tourists took, you know? And they’re usually nice—like ‘Oh, you’re so cute’ or whatever—but it’s still weird, you know? That random people care we’re a couple.”
“So, you just didn’t want to talk about your relationship with anyone?” Cathy surmises.
“I don’t mind talking about it sometimes, but some things… I guess I don’t talk about them because they’re for me, not everyone else. Does that make sense?” Annie adds.
“Yeah, I think I get what you mean.” Cathy nods. “I wasn’t trying to make you think it was a bad thing that he wasn’t your usual type. And, hey, it’s not like those other guys worked out anyway, so… ”
“Yeah, exactly,” Annie laughs.
“I love you,” Cathy says with a squeeze round Annie’s middle. Annie hugs her back.
“Love you too,” she returns. “Even more when you’re not questioning my taste in boyfriends or getting me to wrap your gifts on Christmas Eve—“
“All right, all right.” Cathy makes sure to nudge her before moving back round to where she’d been sitting before. “I promise I’ll run defence if Aunt Louise tries to get some time alone with Jack tomorrow.”
It’s after midnight, when Annie tiptoes down the stairs and through the hallway, trying not to wake anyone. She’s heading for Cathy’s room, but it’s not to get her sister so they can go sneak a peek of the Christmas presents like they did as kids.
Annie winces at the loud creak as she takes her next step, but her eyes open quickly when she realises the sound hasn’t come from beneath her feet.
“Annie,” he replies, voice surprisingly even considering she’s caught him with his hand in the cookie jar—or the jelly equivalent of that.
Standing at the other end of the corridor in his dressing gown, Martin holds a bowl in his left hand and the spoon in his right is halfway to his lips, a heaping mound of red wobbling on the silver.
“Is that the jelly Mom was setting for the trifle?” Annie asks.
Her father’s jaw works for a moment as he considers his options. “I won’t tell on you, if you don’t tell on me,” he finally says with a raised eyebrow.
Annie’s not outside Cathy’s former bedroom door just yet, but her intention is obvious.
“Deal,” Annie agrees.
He nods and wanders off to the living room.
She waits until he’s out of sight to take the few remaining steps to the door and tap gently.
When a groggy “Yeah?” comes through, Annie pushes inside just in time to see Jack turn on the bedside lamp.
“Hey,” he says, rubbing his eyes.
“Hey,” she returns, shutting the door gently behind her. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I wasn’t asleep yet,” Jack says, though his voice is deep enough that Annie thinks he wasn’t far off.
“Are you all right, Annie?” he asks as she slips under the covers.
“I’m okay,” she replies, settling down on the pillow next to him. It isn’t as good as the one in her room, but she isn’t about to risk getting caught again by going back for it.
He presses a kiss to her lips before drawing her closer. “Did you have a nightmare?” he murmurs.
Oh. They were happening less frequently now, the last one at least two weeks ago, but Jack had seen her through enough of them to know how bad they can get. She could take the easy road out and say yes, but Annie doesn’t want to.
“No, I’m fine. Are you okay? We haven’t really had a chance to talk since we got here.”
“I’m good,” Jack replies. “I thought today went pretty okay, actually.” He would think that. Despite Annie's assurances before they came, Jack had been convinced he'd get a grilling from someone in her family. Even in the dim light, she can see the surprise on his face that they already like him, are already willing to let him into so many family stories.
“I think so too,” Annie agrees, placing a kiss on the bit of exposed collarbone under his sleep t-shirt.
“You know, I don’t mind if you want to stay in your room with Cathy while we’re here,” Jack adds. “I know how much you were looking forward to catching up with her.”
It’s true, and she did like catching up with her sister. After she’d finished her grilling, at least. But as much as she loves them, her family can be stressful, and for better or worse, Jack has become Annie’s touchstone in stressful situations.
Considering she’d just defended her relationship to her sister, she decides to tell Jack the truth.
“I was, but… I missed you too,” Annie admits.
“Is that okay?”
“Yeah.” Jack grins, shining in the darkness. “That’s okay. Though,” he adds, “I was looking forward to not having to fight you for the covers.”
“Ah!” Annie cries, low and protesting at this recurring debate. “I do not steal the covers.”
“Seriously, I can borrow one of the recorders from work if you want me to prove it to you,” he suggests even as she wriggles away from him. Her t-shirt rides up as she does so, making Annie giggle when his hand flutters up the side of her bare skin.
“Jack!” she shrieks when he tickles her again, this time clearly on purpose. “Don’t tickle me,” she commands, quieter, “or we’re going to get caught.”
He relents at that, and Annie finishes twisting around to face the door and trying to get comfortable.
“Do we need to set an alarm for you to get back in the morning?” Jack wonders, reaching up to turn off the lamp.
“Nah. Brian’s always first up Christmas morning and we’ll definitely hear him heading to the TV,” she explains.
As she closes her eyes, Jack’s arm comes to rest on her waist as he settles in behind her. It’s quiet until he whispers in her ear, “Hey, Annie?”
Without opening her eyes, she replies seriously, “Do not make me laugh again, I might get hiccups.”
“I missed you too.”
Biting back a grin, Annie moves her hand from the top of her pillow to tangle with Jack’s fingers, pulling until his arm is wrapped tight around her. She doesn’t turn around when she says, “What have I told you about getting mushy on me, Traven?”
Annie can hear the smile in Jack’s voice when he returns, “You started it.”