Characters: Jack, Renee, Janis, Larry in flashback
Summary: Arms wrapped around the lower half of her body, she closed her eyes and silently chanted (picturing the words in her head, large font and bold print), I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.
Warnings: Post S7 AU. Language, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide. PLEASE NOTE: While there are a million fics darker than this one, it does contain multiple references to suicidal thoughts, cutting, self-harm, and attempted suicide. If this is not your tea, please do not click the cut.
Disclaimer: They’re not mine. Later, rinse, repeat.
A/N: Under the cut.
A/N: This is my (probably futile) attempt to make a little sense of the wild contrast between S7 and S8 Renee, particularly in light of the deleted scene from 8x09 where Renee and Chloe talk about why Renee didn’t return Jack’s phone calls. Ginormous thanks to adrenalin211 and lowriseflare for fantastic beta work and moral support way above and beyond the call of duty.
The title is taken from ‘Little Fire,’ by Patty Griffin, feat. Emmylou Harris. The video is here if you’re interested. Gorgeous song.
The first time he called, she was sitting in a small, wood-paneled, windowless room, twisting her index fingers together under the table while she listened to the legal terms of her dismissal from the FBI.
No subsequent employment with any law enforcement agency . . .
Any violation of the terms in the confidentiality agreement will result in a warrant for your arrest . . .
Contributions to your IRA will be terminated, effective immediately . . .
Renee spread her toes inside the unyielding leather of her polished black pumps and wondered why she’d bothered to dress so sharply for her own execution.
Her phone vibrated against her hip. Once, twice, three times. Was it five or six before it went to voicemail? The buzzing on her skin merged with the buzzing in her brain, until she felt as if the whole room was jostling back and forth.
“Sign here please, Ms. Walker.”
She stared at the 8 ½ by 11-inch rectangle on the table in front of her, white contrast on dark wood.
Why don’t we have any goddamn 8 x 11 paper? Larry had always yelled, three long strides from his office door to the administrative assistant’s desk.
It’s 8 ½ x 11, she’d always called from her office (smirking), but he never remembered. Not once.
She picked up the pen and signed her name on the thick black line, slow and neat.
She looked up. “Are we done here?”
The anonymous suit who had droned out her instructions retrieved the paper from the table, scanned it, and nodded. “We’ll call you if we need anything else.”
“You do that.” Her feet hurt even more when she walked to the door and her toes slipped down into the pointed tips of her shoes.
Outside, she stood for a long time, studying the architecture of the building where she’d spent the past decade of her life. Some kind of soaring bird dipped behind one corner and reappeared a few moments later, wings outstretched and motionless, tilting up and down when the wind changed. Looking at the reflective grey feathers, Renee wondered what it might be like to start at Point A and wind up at Point B, forward progress with no effort at all.
She turned her back on the building, walking fast with the wind smacking her face, and she was three blocks away before she remembered the missed call. She dialed voicemail, expecting another message from Janis or maybe that fucking Post reporter who had somehow gotten her cell number and wouldn’t stop asking questions about the Wilson ‘rumors.’
Renee. It’s Jack.
She stopped walking. I’m still in the hospital, but I have my cell.
His voice crackled, strength of the sound waves changing with each syllable. Call me back when you have a few minutes. A pause. Breathing. Thanks.
On the Metro, pressed to the wall by a woman wearing nauseating floral perfume and carrying three overstuffed shopping bags from Neiman Marcus, Renee listened to the message five times. She had been so sure that-
Don’t say anything at all.
Finally she pressed seven, returned the phone to her pocket, and watched the walls of the underground tunnel flash past in the darkness.
The second time he called, she was standing in front of Larry’s grave. The sky – sparkly, blue, cloudless – reminded her of 9/11, of the creepy sensation that the weather might have developed a twisted sense of humor.
Larry’s gravestone was small and basic, engraved with his name and the years of his birth and death. No flourishes.
Renee studied it for a while, the rising curve of the rs, the rounding of the a and the o, until the letters begin to swirl and blend.
When I go out there and get my head blown off, make sure they cremate me, okay? I don’t wanna take up space when I’m dead, he’d said (grinning) when the two of them were pinned down behind a dumpster in some shithole alley in Southeast. Cover me. Now.
She’d leveled her weapon and nodded. Why don’t you try not to get your head blown off so I won’t have to worry about it?
I’ll see what I can do.
In the chaos following Larry’s death, she’d never had the chance to call his father and tell him about that conversation. One more thing she’d failed to do. One more thing she’d managed to fuck up.
She rubbed her hands over her face and stuck them in her hoodie, walking back toward her car through the thick fertilizer-enhanced grass that dampened her toes over the edge of her flip-flops.
In the car, she turned her phone back on to discover another missed call from Jack. Her finger was on the call button when she caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror. Unwashed hair pulled back in a ponytail because she hadn’t bothered to comb it. Chalky skin, raw and flaking in patches because moisturizer took too much effort. Red, bloodshot eyes, silent testimony to the insomnia and the crying jags.
A walking emotional implosion – just what Jack needs to help him pick up the pieces, she thought, sarcasm so thick it echoed in her head. God, she wanted to talk to him. But she couldn’t-
She took her finger off the ‘send’ button and dialed voicemail.
Renee. It’s me again. His voice was quiet, but stronger and steadier than the first time. Less shaky. I’m still in the hospital, but Kim’s husband is trying to work out a discharge for me by early next week. Silence for a beat. Chloe says you left the Bureau. I’d like to hear what happened. High-pitched giggles in the background, followed by muffled shushing. I have to go. Hopefully I’ll talk to you soon.
This time she hit seven before the obnoxiously even automated voice on the phone could start giving her instructions.
The third time he called, she was submerged in her bathtub, holding her breath, wondering what it would feel like to drown. The muffled sound of her phone, distant and distorted, didn’t register until it had rung four or five times (Was it in her green sweatshirt – the one with the pockets? She couldn’t remember the last time she’d used it).
She didn’t surface until her lungs burned so hot on the inside that it felt as if someone had thrown a match down her throat.
When she’d dried off, pulled on a worn t-shirt, and crawled into her unmade bed (ignoring the grumbling protests of her stomach, because eating required motivation and there was nothing in the fridge anyway), she checked her phone.
Missed call. Jack.
The suffocating sensation returned, only she wasn’t holding her breath this time. She swallowed, pushing past that feeling that she’d taken too many pills and forgotten the water.
Renee. It’s Jack. Chloe told me- His side of the connection was quiet this time, no voices or background hospital chatter. She told me what happened with Wilson. I hope- Renee brought her knees up to her chest and squeezed a corner of sheet into a ball. I hope you’re okay.
She slid the phone shut and shoved it under her pillow. Arms wrapped around the lower half of her body, she closed her eyes and silently chanted (picturing the words in her head, large font and bold print), I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.
The fourth time he called, she was sitting (fingers interlaced, hands in her lap so she wouldn’t fidget) on the edge of the overstuffed chair in her hospital room. She’d hated that chair since the second she arrived three weeks ago. It was soft, cushioned and comfortable, covered in neutral taupe fabric – nothing wrong with it exactly. Maybe she hated it because it almost made the room feel like home, and she lived in perpetual terror of feeling at home here for a nanosecond.
Nick, one of the day shift nurses, walked in with a clear plastic bag in his hand and a folder stuffed with papers under his arm. He held out the bag. “Congratulations. You get your things back.”
“Great. Thanks.” She forced herself to pull her fingers apart and take it. The only contents were her cell phone, a ballpoint pen (what the hell?), and three mangled sticks of Orbit Spearmint gum they must have pulled from the pocket of her jeans the night she cut herself. Her own clothes (black long-sleeved t-shirt, boot cut jeans with worn knees, a boring white bra and a green string bikini), washed and folded neatly on the bed that morning, had been a surprise.
She didn’t remember anything until somewhere around the end of day two, when they’d eased her off the tranquilizers.
“I don’t-” Her face flushed, and she could feel sweat condensing on her palm where the clammy plastic touched her skin. “Have my wallet. So-”
Nick glanced up from where he had been scribbling on her chart. “Relax. Cab fare’s on the house.” He clicked the pen a couple times. “Are you sure there’s nobody you want to call?”
“Yes. I’m sure. Can we get this done?”
He shook his head. “Still as cuddly as you were in group.” He wrote something else on the paper in front of him and said, “Read the bold print in the blue box and sign below it.” He held out the clipboard. “And you know you’re required to be back every Tuesday for-”
Her cell rang, so loudly that she jumped, shoulders tensing. Fuzzy through the scratched plastic, she could make out Jack’s name.
“You can get that,” said Nick, turning toward the door. “No rush.”
Renee bit back a retort. She could just hear that conversation. Hey Jack. Can I call you back in five? I need to finish checking myself out of the psych ward . . .
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll call back.” She straightened her spine, wiping her free hand on her jeans before she reached for the clipboard. “Where do I sign?”
In the cab on the way to her apartment, she dialed voicemail, her hand shaky. Low blood sugar, she told herself. She’d skipped the mushy oatmeal and canned fruit cup that morning in a moment of celebratory rebellion.
Hey. It’s me again. She watched the cars glide by her window, colors flaring and evaporating as they rushed past. I’m in New York now. He gave that tiny chuffing laugh she remembered; before his next syllable her eyes were full and stinging. Stephen seems to think the treatment here will get me to L.A. faster. It makes Kim happy, so I don’t care. He paused, a long quiet space this time. I’ll be back in D.C. next Tuesday. I could do lunch or . . . whatever works for you. Because- He coughed a couple times, cleared his throat. Forget it. Bye.
She slid the phone shut and was about to tell the driver to let her off at the corner so she could go to Starbucks (hospital coffee sucked – all she wanted was the largest possible cup of the horribly leaded variety. It wasn’t as if she’d been doing a lot of sleeping anyway) when she remembered that all she had was a fucking cab voucher. She couldn’t even pay for coffee.
So she stayed silent and tried to think about positive things, like her counselor had told her. When the cab stopped in front of her building, all she’d been able to come up with was having her own shampoo back – the kind with the detangler, the kind that smelled like coconuts and the beach.
The fifth time he called, Renee was facing Janis across her freshly-polished coffee table, compressing a ceramic mug beneath her fingers while she tried to remember the bullet points from Small Talk 103: Filling Up Time With Meaningless Subjects. (Her shuttle for NYC left at five-thirty a.m. Everything she wanted to keep from her DC apartment had, in the end, amounted to one large suitcase of clothes and toiletries and two small boxes of books she’d had shipped.)
She liked Janis. They were, or had been . . . friends? Close acquaintances? Whatever. But the suffocating concern – the fact that in Janis’s eyes, she’d gone from Head Bitch In Charge, the woman with all the answers, to someone who deserved unrelenting pity and badly concealed supervision – it was a bit much to deal with when she’d just put a decade of her life in the garbage or donated it to Goodwill.
Renee took a huge sip of her hot chocolate and tried to ignore the state of her fingers, cuticles picked at until there were scabs and raw, swollen red areas. She concentrated on keeping her body still, controlling the natural bounce of her knee or wiggle of her ankle.
“How was the hospital? Are you okay?” Janis asked, slicing the bullshit like she was ready to slap on some mayo and a piece of tomato and stick it in a sandwich.
“It was fine,” Renee lied. “They have those green Jello cubes you love.”
“Right. Okay then. Next topic.” Janis reached for one of the chocolate-chip cookies she’d brought and took a bite. “What do you think about the new job?”
“Sorry. It’s been a while since . . .” Renee grabbed a cookie, surprised at how good the dark chocolate and butter tasted. She’d been living on Vitamin Water and angel hair pasta with a little olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
“Don’t be. It’s fine. Are you nervous?”
“No,” Renee answered without thinking, realizing as she spoke that it was true. “It’ll be good for me to get out of here, do something different.” She couldn’t decide if that part was true or if she’d heard it from her counselor so many times she’d been brainwashed into believing it. Besides, what were they gonna do? Fire her?
“Good for you, maybe.” Janis smiled, swallowing some cocoa. “The woman they brought in from San Diego to replace you is a total bitch.”
Renee used her mug to cover the grin she couldn’t quite muffle. “Really? I assumed they’d hire someone who could calm everybody down after Larry died and I torched my career. Was it an internal-”
The ring of her cell cut her off. She didn’t remember setting it that loud. “Sorry. Just a minute.” She found the phone where it had slipped between the couch cushions.
Wrapping her hand around the display to make sure Janis couldn’t see, she said (wishing she could banish the tightness that had crept into her voice), “My tax guy. I’ll call him back.”
“It’s not Jack?” Janis asked, munching her cookie and staring at Renee with that infuriating expression she always got when there was no question she knew more than anyone else in the room.
Renee was quiet. She set the cookie back on her plate and rubbed her fingers with the peach and green flowered napkin (Janis had brought them) until it began to disintegrate, tiny white pieces falling to the floor (she’d have to clean up every last one as soon as Janis left). “How did you know?”
“He called me last week.”
“Why are you surprised? You won’t call him back.”
The phone made the jarring voicemail beep; the back of her neck felt clammy. “Did you tell him about-”
“Of course I didn’t tell him about the hospital. But if that’s what’s worrying you, you know Chloe O’Brien has that information.”
Renee rubbed her palm into her jeans.
“Why won’t you talk to him? It’s obvious he wants to talk to you.”
“He warned me,” Renee said, pressing the sounds through vocal cords that were seriously pissing her off right now. “He tried to tell me not to push the envelope with Wilson and-” The swirling in her stomach made her regret the half a cookie. “I didn’t listen.”
“My guess is he’s not calling . . . however many times he’s called so he can give you a lecture.” Janis kept her eyes serious, but Renee caught the quirk at the edge of her mouth.
“You’re right. I’ll call him back,” she lied again.
“Sure,” Janis retorted, stacking the paper plates and napkins. She walked over and threw everything into the trashcan under the sink. “I’ll let you finish packing. I’m glad you agreed to . . . . I didn’t want you to leave without saying goodbye.” Then all in fast-motion, a quick hug and a squeeze of Renee’s hand, and the door clicked shut.
Renee grabbed her phone off the table and dialed voicemail. She turned on the tap to fill the teakettle while she waited – maybe that lemon chamomile stuff she’d picked up at the organic market yesterday would make her stomach stop lurching.
It’s me. I talked to Janis. Renee rubbed the raised terrycloth of her dishtowel between her fingers. Why did he always tell the truth? Why couldn’t he get mad, be an asshole, make it easier to ignore him? She says you’re moving to the city tomorrow. My treatment won’t be finished for a few more months, so- The water running into the kettle overflowed onto her hand. Maybe we could have coffee. She could hear a PA system in the background; maybe he was at the hospital right now. Anyway, have a safe trip. Bye.
She put the phone on the counter, watching the display until it went dark. She dried her hands until the skin between her fingers chafed. When the teakettle whistled, she jumped. Heart knocking, she stuck the stupid phone in her pocket and opened her cupboard so she and the ghosts in this apartment could drink tea one last time.
The sixth time he called, she had just quit her job.
She sat in Dean & Deluca, swirling her spoon in the mug, watching the tiny whirlpool appear and wondering what the fuck was wrong with her.
It was a miracle that Kristen (her now former boss) had hired her in the first place.
If you level with me, we’ll get along fine, she had said. You didn’t quit the Bureau, did you?
That’s all I wanted to know.
She’d moved everything to a tiny studio in Morningside Heights. Three weeks later, on a frantic Thursday afternoon at the firm, she’d hung up after an exasperating (and pointless) conversation with an unpleasant (but well-paying) client, walked into Kristen’s office, and quit without notice.
She’d never quit without notice in her life. Even when she’d finally found an alternative to the horrifying job in the nursing home kitchen she’d had when she was fourteen, she’d followed protocol. Obeyed the rules. Given them two weeks.
The phone startled her (was that shit ever going to stop?); she dropped the spoon into the cup with a metallic clatter. She yanked it out of her pocket (pin-striped dress pants, almost like the ones she’d worn to pull Jack out of the Senate hearings) and squinted at the display, exhaustion blurring her vision.
Her thumb slid toward the green button but she caught herself, counted to twenty-five and waited for the ringing to stop. She’d been about to order one of those heart-attack inducing lemon poppy seed muffins, but when the server came by, Renee asked only for a coffee refill. She flicked her ragged fingernail over the beveled edge of the Kahlua flavored cream container before she dialed voicemail.
It’s me. I’m leaving for L.A. tomorrow. Only for a week. But I thought- In the background Renee heard a miniature laughing voice say, Grandpa, get off the phone. You promised you were gonna help me finger paint! Jack replied (clearly trying to hold the speaker away from his mouth), I am. I’ll be right there, sweetheart. He cleared his throat. Sorry. I thought . . . I’d call before I left. A long silence, as if maybe he was thinking of adding something else, but all he said was Bye.
Her thumb hit the 9 to save the message as if it wasn’t taking orders from her anymore. She shoved the phone to the bottom of her bag to distance herself from temptation, or at least slow herself down if she changed her mind in a flash of weakness.
It didn’t matter that the desire to talk to him was so real it might as well have been sitting in the seat across from her, stirring coffee in comfortable counterpoint.
Didn’t matter that she’d had to squeeze her fist closed to prevent herself from hitting the call button.
Didn’t matter that each time she heard his voice she felt a clamp around her stomach yanking her back to the warehouse where she’d watched them wheel him away, his eyes holding hers until the tears she couldn’t stop anymore made the faraway stretcher fuzzy.
He’s got Kim, she told herself, twisting an empty sugar packet into a roll. A granddaughter. A family and (as soon as he gets well) a home. The last thing he needs in his life right now is a barely functional human being who forgets to eat, can’t sleep for more than an hour at a stretch, and apparently can’t hold down a job for a goddamn month.
She drank coffee for another couple hours, until she was jittery and nauseous, fingers trembling against the warm handle of her mug. Then she threw a generous tip on the table, grabbed her bag (still zipped shut to sequester temptation), and walked out to hail a cab to take her ‘home.’
The seventh time he called, she was passed out on her couch wearing the same plaid pajama pants and worn out navy t-shirt she’d had on for . . . two days now? Three? The phone jolted her awake and she sat up too quickly, an unpleasant stab slicing through her right temple. She glanced at the clock.
The first time in months she’d slept more than a few hours (the infomercials must have finally done the trick) and she had to wake up to what was probably a robo-call from the DNC?
She grabbed the phone.
His number on her phone was as good as ice water on her face. It rang twice more and she held her breath in the ensuing silence, waiting for the voicemail chime. The pause stretched for so long she was pretty sure he hadn’t left a message this time when she heard the beep. Shoving away the blanket that covered her legs, she dialed.
It’s me again. Listen I’m- His voice was so quiet. Not gonna call any more. Not because I don’t want to. But I don’t . . . want to bother you. She could hear him sigh as if he were beside her on the couch, no noise or interference on the other end of the connection. Could you . . . just leave me a voicemail? I won’t pick up. I promise. I need to- More quiet. I don’t know. One message. Please. I won’t pick up. He didn’t say goodbye.
She pointed the remote at the TV to turn off whatever horrible talk show was playing silently, flickering off the coffee table, and jammed her right thumb into the call button. Her heart slammed, loud and insistent, as she waited through Jack’s brief voicemail greeting. Even so, the beep caught her off guard, and she sat for a second, paralyzed, before she said all in a tumbling rush (the words felt jammed up in her mouth), I’m sorry. I’m such an ass. Call me back and I’ll answer. I promise.
Every surrounding sound amplified itself by a factor of fifty as she watched the display and waited. The slight electric hum from the lamp beside her. Water running in the apartment next door. Voices in the hall, intermittent bursts of laughter. Her own breathing, rapid and choppy even though she was sitting very still.
The phone rang.
“Hi,” she managed, impressed that it came out above a whisper.
“Hey. You didn’t have to do that.”
The rough softness of his voice traveled down her neck, live current to the tips of her fingers. She’d been prepared for the rush of relief (his voice on the other end of a live connection, more concrete proof that everything she’d sacrificed that day had salvaged something). What she hadn’t been prepared for was the hit of joy, lightness that made her feel as if staying connected to her couch required concentration. “Yes, I did. I’m sorry I never-”
“Please don’t apologize. I’m glad . . .” He trailed off, and she could hear a faint repetitive noise, like maybe he was tapping a pencil against something.
“Jack, listen. I need to explain what-”
“You don’t owe me an explanation for anything. I wanted to-” He paused. “Could we meet just for . . . coffee? I understand if you don’t have time.”
“I have time.” Her face felt warm.
“Can you meet me at the Starbucks on Broadway and 116th in an hour?”
She calculated. Shower, blow dryer, flatiron, a little makeup, cab. She’d have to hurry, but . . . “Yeah. I’ll be there.”
“I’ll see you then.”
She chewed the edge of her lip since he couldn’t see her anyway. “Yeah?”
“Thank you.” He disconnected before she had the chance to respond.
She sat for another minute, quiet, hands on her face to cool the flush. Then she dashed to her dresser, praying she had a clean pair of jeans stuffed in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.
Fiddling with the shower’s water temperature so she wouldn’t freeze, Renee remembered her first few field ops after she’d joined the Bureau, back before everything got jumbled, back when everything was black and white and easy. She could picture herself sitting in the dusty van, Kevlar cutting into her side when she leaned over to adjust her boot, her body all vibrating bottled energy – five parts terror, ninety-five parts anticipation.
She’d almost forgotten . . .
Twisting the knob to make the water a little hotter, she stepped in.