Characters: Jack, Renee, Larry
Summary: “Jack, wake up.” He could hear her scooting closer, the sheets rustling. “Come swimming with me.”
Warnings: AC for sex and language
Disclaimer: Not mine, not mine, not mine (It’s fun to chant it).
A/N: Under the cut. However, all three of these fic(lets) are AU to the max and pretty damn fluffy. If that is not your tea, thank you for flying leigh57 airlines, and have a nice day;)
A/N: Oy. Just keep in mind that these were never written with the intent for anyone to actually see them. I can’t begin to compete with the epic loveliness of the ‘smushfucks’ adrenalin211 posted here. But I keep my word, so here are three of the email fics I wrote for her. I don’t even know how many AUs I have going in my head now, but in the first story Larry never died. My Jack characterization is a little different than usual, taken more from how we see him behaving in the first half of S7. Aside from that, the usual warnings when you read my stuff apply. The fic for
Balancing on one wounded wing
“Why did we have to come to this thing again?” Jack shifted inside the stiff collar of his off-white dress shirt. His fingers itched to reach up and loosen his tie, but even with the demure pinstripes on his deep grey suit he almost felt under-dressed in comparison with the rest of the people milling around the cavernous ballroom.
Renee took a sip of her champagne and rolled her eyes at him. “You-” She poked the tip of her finger into his chest. “Should stop whining, because I told you you didn’t have to come.”
“Right,” he mumbled, swallowing champagne for something to do. The sweet bubbles lingered, fizzing in his mouth. “Sorry.”
“Well you’re here now, so be nice,” she said, waving to a blond woman across the room. “And try to smile every now and then?”
“You wanna give me a schedule?”
“Shut up. It’ll be over before you know it.”
“I doubt it,” he retorted, glancing at the sea of people moving around him in vaguely coordinated confusion. It was Larry’s 15th anniversary with the FBI, and this was supposed to be the ‘fun’ part of marking the occasion. Multiple conversations and the big band music floating from the PA system created what seemed to Jack nothing more than a headache-inducing din.
Maybe Renee was right, and he should have stayed back at the apartment. Now that he was standing here, watching hundreds of men in dark suits and women in shimmery fabrics, he felt like an idiot for his insistence on accompanying her. It was just . . . fuck. He still didn’t like the way Larry looked at her, the way his voice softened and he smiled more whenever she was in the room. He knew it was ridiculous, that Renee had ended the relationship with Larry almost before it started. Although he and Larry had figured out how to work together with only the occasional low-level disagreement, something about the guy still bugged Jack. Inevitably (now, for example), he was annoyed by his own reaction, and the entire subject made him want to take a five-mile run.
Renee touched his arm. “I see Marie. She transferred to San Francisco a couple years ago and I haven’t talked to her since she left. You’ll stay out of trouble if I leave you alone for a few minutes?” She didn’t bother to restrain the sarcasm in her tone.
He laughed. “I’ll be fine. Enjoy yourself. I’m gonna find out if they have anything else to drink.”
“Okay.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to his cheek. “I’ll check on you in a little while -- make sure you’re not hiding under a table or something.” She walked away, the raspberry scent of her shampoo hanging in the air for a few seconds after she melded into the crowd.
Jack remained where he was but followed her with his eyes. The classic ‘little black dress’ she’d chosen for the occasion hugged every curve on her body. He watched the movement of her hips as she walked, his eyes sliding down to the back of her thighs and the curve of her knees. A couple nights ago, he’d held her still while his tongue wandered over the exact place he was looking at now, listened to the sharp intake of breath and the oh she’d let slip, her back arching off the sheets.
This was not a good line of thought to pursue in a room full of people. Jack cleared his throat and took another sip of the disgusting champagne, pulling his eyes away from Renee and searching for the most boring topic he could think of as a distraction.
A woman standing in a cluster of people to his left asked, her voice rising as the sentence ended, “Did you see American Idol last night?
Yeah, that would do.
“You know what I want?” He leaned his cheek against her hair and drew her closer with the arm that held her waist. She was warm and a little drunk. After the insanity of the past week at work (a bomb threat at the Pentagon and the tense conclusion of a four month sting to intercept a bioweapons sale), it felt good to see her without the tight jaw or a hand nervously wiggling her favorite green pen. Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ drifted from the speakers hidden somewhere in the ceiling, and Jack wondered who the hell had chosen the wildly eclectic selection of music that had been playing all evening.
“To go home, take off the damn tie, and put on a pair of jeans?” Renee squeezed his fingers where they interlaced with hers, and he knew she was grinning even though he couldn’t see her face.
“I want to unzip your dress,” he whispered, enjoying the way he felt her go a little still in his arms. “And unhook your bra.” He rubbed his thumb over the inside of her wrist as they danced. “And run my finger all the way up your back until you do that little shiver thing you always do when I get to your neck.” He knew he should shut the fuck up and take the conversation in a different direction, but he couldn’t stop himself. “I get bonus points if you make that noise, the one you were making the other night when I-”
“Jack.” She was squeezing his hand so hard now that it hurt, his fingers crunching together, but her reaction was worth it. “Will you stop? I’m gonna turn all red.”
“That’s my favorite part,” he replied, low against her ear. His voice was going husky, another sign his own game was backfiring.
“Well not in public.” The song wasn’t over, but he could feel her trying to put some distance, however small, between her body and his. “We can do whatever you want when we get home. But if you don’t cut it out-”
He felt a light tap on his shoulder. “Bauer, are you seriously not going to share her even at my damn party?” Jack turned his head to see Larry, eyes bright with enjoyment and the multiple drinks well-wishers had been pushing on him all evening.
Jack swallowed and backed away from Renee, grateful that Larry’s sudden appearance had at least temporarily derailed this conversation. “She’s all yours,” he replied, tamping down the automatic resistance in his chest. He raised an eyebrow at Larry. “But watch your hands.” His tone was light, but when his eyes caught Larry’s for a second, Jack knew he’d gotten his point across.
Larry smiled and shook his head as he pulled Renee into his arms. “Relax, Jack. We both know you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Jack walked back toward the open bar, grinning at the irritated expression on Renee’s face.
“You didn’t have to say that to Larry.” Renee pushed the door open and fumbled for the light. “It was his party! He just wanted to dance. He doesn’t-” She threw her handbag on the floor. “He knows how things are.”
Jack rubbed the shiny tip of his shoe against the carpet. Now that they were alone in the echoey quiet of their apartment, he pretty much felt like an ass. What had he been trying to prove? That he ‘won?’
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” He clenched and relaxed his fists and studied the stripe on his pants, not wanting to look at her right now. She kicked off her shoes and went into the kitchen, clink of ice and rush of tap water. Jack stood where he was, waiting for her to decide if they were done talking about this. After a minute, he could hear her footsteps behind him.
“Do you still wanna unzip my dress?” He felt the gentle pressure of her chin on his shoulder.
“Of course I want to unzip your dress,” he chuffed, still not turning around. “Do you want me to?”
She circled him and took his face in her hands, rubbing her thumbs across his cheekbones until he finally lifted his eyes to hers. “I’ve been looking forward to it all night,” she whispered, the words barely out of her mouth before she was kissing him, her mouth warm and open, her tongue tasting his lower lip before she drew it softly between hers, sucking.
Jesus Christ. He still wasn’t used to implied permission, to going from zero to a hundred and ten in two seconds flat. His tie was almost unbearable now, his body reacting so quickly that his clothes felt uncomfortable everywhere they touched him.
“So take it off,” she said, still kissing him like she couldn’t get enough, that little humming noise in the back of her throat, the one that flipped his stomach over, made him want to hold her wrists down on the bed while he slid in and out of her body.
He unzipped the dress, heard it swish to the floor as he fingered the strap of her bra. Everything felt hot, and all he could think about was the fastest way of getting his skin on her skin without this ridiculous shirt and tie in between.
She interrupted herself mid-kiss to mumble, “Jack.”
“Yeah?” He was trying to kiss her and unbutton his shirt at the same time.
“Relax. Slow down.” He felt her fingers softly working the knot of his tie. “I’m a foregone conclusion, believe me.”
He never got tired of the smell of her skin.
She was naked on top of him, hair sliding across her shoulders as she kissed his neck. He could feel the inside of her thigh rubbing against him, teasing, but when he tried to hold her hips so he could push up and slide into her, she shook her head, grinning as she pulled back to look at him.
“Wait a second,” she whispered, kissing him again.
“I’ve been waiting-” he muttered, distracted by the friction of her body against his. “All night.”
“So you can wait a couple minutes longer,” she retorted.
He took a deep breath, willed his shoulders to relax into the bed. She was never boring -- he had to hand her that. Sometimes she went after sex so fiercely that he could barely keep up, lightheaded and breathless while he reminded himself that she wanted him to let go, forget about control. Other times she liked him to rub her favorite vanilla-scented oil all over her back and legs and then do the same thing to him, even though by the time she was finished he’d be three strokes of her hand away from that place where he was willing to plead (to do anything, really).
She never made him.
“Okay, okay,” he acquiesced, kissing her as his palms wandered over the back of her thighs, the curve of her ass, up the smooth slope of her back into her hair, and down again. He distracted himself from his desire to flip her by noticing everything about her body as his fingers traveled. The rise of her shoulder blades, the soft skin of her inner thighs, the way her breathing sounded heavier, more uncontrolled, with each pass of his hands.
Finally (thank god), he felt the warmth of her hand closing around him, stroking (up and down, and oh god her thumb across the tip of him, over and over) while she drew closer. “I’m good now,” she said, lowering herself over him, and he shut his eyes, because he’d long ago accepted that no matter how many times they did this, he’d always forget how goddamn good she felt.
She tightened her legs over him, her forehead touching his shoulder, rocking her hips against his in instant rhythm. “God, I didn’t-” She cut herself off and stopped moving. He stilled, waiting to see what she wanted. “I need to slow down,” she gasped, laughing a little.
He couldn’t help himself. He reached for her hips and moved up into her, encouragement (just a little). “Why?”
“So what?” he whispered, pressing into her, harder this time. “Let go.”
“Yeah?” She turned her face into his neck and began to move, letting his hands synch her body with his.
“Yeah.” He seemed to be down to single syllables.
Renee’s fingers squeezed his shoulders, and he tried not to think about the tiny gasps she had no idea were coming from her throat. After a second she said, “God, Jack. I can’t-”
He took it all in -- the way her whole body tensed around him before dissolving into contractions, her breath on his neck, the way she trembled as he held her. She paused, just breathing, and when she began to move again he closed his eyes and gave up trying to hold anything back. He pressed up into her, nothing left in his mind but the desire he’d been reining in all night, watching her on the dance floor in that damn black dress. “Renee. Jesus.” He tried to breathe, release burning through him like brush fire.
When he opened his eyes again she had her head on his chest, and her fingers were playing lazily with his hair. “That was more fun than the party,” she mumbled.
He laughed. “I can’t decide which outfit I like better.”
“Liar.” Her voice was sleepy now.
He looked up at the ceiling in the half-lit room. Now that he could concentrate, he realized that all he’d had to eat at the party were two of those spinach puff things and half a glass of champagne. He touched Renee’s cheek. “Hey.”
“Hmm?” She didn’t move.
“Did you-” He wanted to laugh at himself, ignoring the fancy catered food because Larry’s attitude pissed him off. “Eat anything? I’m hungry.”
“Course you are,” she said, rolling off of him and burrowing into the pillow. “You were too busy making sure Larry kept his hands above my waist to try the quiche.”
“I’m sorry.” The room felt unnaturally quiet to him.
“Jack.” He felt her fingers, soft on his ribs. “Forget it. But maybe next time could you relax a little and remember it’s a non-issue?”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “I haven’t tried to do this for-” The click of the ice-maker startled him. “A long time.”
“I think-” She snuggled closer again, shivering a little. “You’re doing fine. But-” He felt her fingers on his jaw, and she tilted his face until his eyes were looking into hers. Her expression was amused, but something else hovered behind the levity. “I love you,” she said, her voice quiet but firm. His chest made that funny movement that still fluttered through him every time she said those words.
“I love you.” He reached down to pull up the dark green sheet and the comforter, draping them over her shoulders after he dropped a kiss on her chest.
“Why are you getting me all comfortable?” She sat up. “I thought you were hungry.”
“I thought you wanted to go to sleep.” He made sure to keep his eyes above her neck.
“I do.” She smiled, pushing the covers away and reaching for her shirt. “But I’m gonna call and order a pizza with toppings all of my own choosing and turn on that DVD about the rain forests Kim sent.” She threw his dress shirt aside, searching for some other item of clothing. “If you want to eat jalapeno and onion pizza, you can join me.”
He grinned, crawling out of bed and reaching for his boxers. “I must be starving, because that sounds good.” He grabbed the jeans thrown over the back of the recliner. “But you’re actually going to watch that DVD right now?”
“Jack, will you just shut up? You know you’re gonna watch it. When was the last time you didn’t watch anything she sent you, including that documentary about the Mayan calendar? You love those things more than she does!”
“Okay, okay,” he grumbled, pulling a t-shirt over his head. He watched as she slipped her legs into black sweats.
She walked toward the hall, stopping in the doorway to glance back at him, pulling her tousled hair out of her shirt. “What do you want to drink?”
He couldn’t explain it, but his throat was tight. “You choose,” he said. “Doesn’t matter.”
“If you hurry, I’ll give you a back-rub before the pizza gets here,” Renee said, tossing him a smile before she vanished down the hallway.
He stood for a few moments in the dim light of their bedroom, looking around at all the tiny things he realized were slowly becoming . . . normal for him. Her brush on the dresser. The alarm clock turned backwards so she could see it from the bathroom. Her bras drying on the towel hanger. Her gym socks on the floor by the bed.
“You’re missing the credits!”
“Coming.” He rubbed his face and stood for one more second, looking at one of the pictures on the corner of his dresser -- Teri in Renee’s lap on pre-school graduation day, tiger-stripe face paint on Teri’s cheek and electric pink frosting on Renee’s, both of them looking at each other and laughing.
Walking down the hall, he already knew how the rest of the evening would go. They’d sit on the couch, Renee sideways with her legs in his lap, eating pizza and drinking Diet Coke (she never chose anything else unless he specifically asked), both of them focused so they’d remember details when they Skyped with Kim tomorrow night. Then they’d wander sleepily into the bathroom, brush their teeth without turning on the light, and he’d smile when Renee twisted her hair up into a towel just to wash her face, like she always did.
She’d pull off her socks and her sweats and crawl into bed in her t-shirt, sliding over next to him, back to his chest, drawing his arm over her body because she was always freezing when they first got in.
And he’d rest there, his face in her hair, inhaling raspberry and contentment until the slow, quiet, rhythmic rise and fall of her chest told him she was sleeping.
Only then would he shut his eyes and let his mind wander. If he couldn’t sleep, his thoughts would sneak away to the dark places, to all the nights when time had gotten stuck in some horror realm in which the only realities were thirst, pain, and terror.
And he’d pull himself back with the knowledge that he’d wake up in the morning to find the edge of her shoulder still tucked into his chest.
You make me feel less crazy when otherwise I’d drown
The smell of the waiting room made her nauseous. Renee stared at the pile of outdated magazines (stuff like Golf Digest and Better Homes and Gardens from last year) on the table beside her, wishing she’d stuck to coffee and skipped the bowl of oatmeal squares she could now feel swirling in her stomach. But when she didn’t eat, Jack got that look on his face, so.
“It’s gonna be at least an hour,” she said, her eyes tracking Jack as he paced from one corner of the room to the other and back again. “Why don’t you get some coffee or go pick up a present for Kim’s birthday?”
He stopped, looking at her with one of those expressions that sent all sorts of mixed messages. “You don’t want me to stay?”
“That’s not what I said.” She sighed. “You hate it here.”
The phrase didn’t quite cover Jack’s reaction to the hospital. She despised the weekly trips to the doctor, but coming with her sent Jack into borderline panic mode. He never said anything about it, but his face was always white, his jaw set, hands clenched, and he could never manage to sit down for more than thirty seconds at a time. Though it was odd to have memory gaps, she couldn’t be sorry that her last image of the morning she was shot was Jack’s arms around her in the cab, the conviction of his voice in her ear. She knew that for him, the video played much longer before the fade to black.
If the way he slept was any indicator, there was no fade.
Two months later, he still jolted awake at unpredictable intervals, shaky and disoriented. Most of the time she pretended to be asleep when she felt his fingers, feather light on the curve of her shoulder. He’d hold them there until she’d taken four or five breaths. It was only when his breathing didn’t calm down that she’d turn, hating the pain that exploded from her chest when she tried to twist, and run her hand up his arm, over his shoulder until she touched the edge of his jaw. It’s okay. Go back to sleep.
And he’d always apologize.
She fucking hated that.
“I’m fine,” Jack muttered, dropping into the chair beside hers.
“I just don’t want you to feel like you have to-” She fiddled with the zipper of her purse. “Babysit me.”
“Are we going to have this conversation every time I bring you here?” he asked, his body suddenly still.
“Maybe?” Oh god -- was she going to cry? She hated everything about these trips. Jack’s anxiety, her inability to govern her emotions for more than twelve seconds, the way his body felt too close to hers and too far away at the same time.
None of it made sense.
He pulled her hand into his lap, holding it between his. “The thought of leaving you here scares the shit out of me,” he said quietly, “But if I’m making you uncomfortable . . .” He trailed off.
A tear slid off her chin onto her shirt and she swiped her face irritably. “Goddammit.” She breathed deeply, trying to calm down before she made herself feel sicker. “I just wanna know when this is going to get less weird.”
“When what’s going to get less weird?”
“This!” She gestured around the room, as if that explained everything.
“Could you be a little more specific?” His thumb was sliding up and down the inside of her wrist now, and although she knew he meant the motion to be soothing, it was anything but. She could feel the flush climbing into her cheeks, the prickle of goose-bumps rising on her arm, the cascade of heat that washed up the inside of her thighs no matter how hard she tried to make it stop.
Fuck. All she wanted was to be in control of one thing. “I want to do this by myself,” she whispered, looking down at the place where his thumb touched her arm. “I do. Every time you bring me here, I think you should leave, because you hate it. It reminds you.” She rubbed at her damp eye, wondering how shitty she’d look now with blotchy cheeks and smeared mascara. “But then I think about you actually walking out the door, and I feel so-”
“Stop.” He put his hand on the side of her face. “Even if I did, I’d spend the whole time looking at my watch, probably texting you to find out if you were finished yet.” He smoothed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Do me a favor?”
“Remember what I told you.”
“Told me when?”
“When you said that you weren’t going to hold me to any of my promises.”
Her eyes flew up, meeting his. Her face went even hotter. “Jack. You didn’t tell me anything.” It was the first time they’d acknowledged that conversation since she was shot. She could feel her heart accelerating.
“Yeah,” he whispered, his eyes holding hers. “I did.”
She sat there for a minute, just looking at him, letting that one sink in. His face was inches from hers, and all she wanted was to lean forward and put her lips on his, make him open his mouth to her, kiss him until he made the noise he’d made that morning (low hum from his chest to his throat, the vibration that had sent her right over the edge). He hadn’t touched her like that in two months, not even once.
“So what-” She swallowed. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m where I want to be. The fact that we can’t-” He cleared his throat. “Fuck.” He leaned his head back against the wall, squeezing her hand.
“Please finish what you were saying,” she said, her voice low even though they were the only ones in the waiting room.
He sat up again and leaned closer, his mouth next to her ear. “I want to touch you. All the time. Is that actually what you’re worried about?”
“Well maybe-” She bit her lip, suddenly feeling like a complete idiot. “It’s hard to tell. You never try to-”
“Because if we start I won’t want to stop,” he muttered, cutting her off.
He shook his head. “Why did you think I wasn’t touching you?”
“I don’t-” She looked at his face, took in the way he was watching her, the way he always watched her, as if someone could carpet bomb the place and he’d just be annoyed at having to refocus. “I don’t know what I thought. It’s strange to sleep with someone for two months and never . . . “
He smiled and glanced down at his knees. “It’s not forever.”
The door clicked open, startling her. “Ms. Walker?”
She grabbed her purse and stood up, tightening her fingers over his hand, still linked with hers. She leaned over, ignoring the slight stab of pain. “You’re right. It’s not forever. But I’ll ask how long.” When she stood up, she noticed that the nausea vanished.
Before she followed the nurse down the hall, she glanced back at Jack. He was still watching her with that concentration that could take her apart in three seconds flat, but his face wasn’t white anymore. She threw him a teasing smile and let the door shut behind her.
The elevator doors slid shut and Renee pressed the button for the lobby. She felt the slight lift as the downward motion began and looked across the otherwise empty elevator at Jack. “You’re really not going to ask me, are you?”
“Ask you what?”
She wanted to laugh, and she probably would have if his expression hadn’t been completely serious. The second she’d walked into the waiting room, he’d hit her with all the usual questions: What did she say about your scar itching? Is it okay that you roll on your side sometimes when you sleep? When are they gonna let you go off the preventive antibiotic?
But he hadn’t said a word about sex.
Renee forced herself not to smile and replied, “When we can have sex.”
“I assumed you’d bring it up if you-” He paused. “When you felt like saying something.”
The elevator slowed and came to a stop. A split second before the doors opened, Renee caught Jack’s eyes, unable to keep herself from grinning this time. “She says we can.” She walked out into the lobby, her boots tapping the marble as she moved toward the revolving doors. Her smile only grew more uncontrollable when the doors almost shut on Jack before he noticed it was their floor.
You said the clouds, they look like angel wings
He was sleeping so lightly he felt the mattress move before he heard her voice or felt the brush of her fingers on his bare chest.
“Jack, wake up.” He could hear her scooting closer, the sheets rustling. “Come swimming with me.”
He rubbed his face and squinted at the clock on the bedside table. 1:30. He pushed up on his elbow and looked at her, sitting cross-legged beside him on the bed, vibrating like an over-caffeinated five-year-old. “Swimming? It’s the middle of the night. You said you were coming to bed as soon as you finished the chapter.”
“It’s too hot to sleep,” she replied, quieter now, her body going still save the hand that stroked his forearm. “I can’t breathe up here.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He sat up, taking in the sheen of her skin he could see even in the near-darkness. She was wearing only underwear and a cotton tank top, and her hair was twisted into an unbalanced ponytail. “I’ll call about the air conditioner first thing in the morning. This was supposed to be a vacation.”
“It’s fine!” she exclaimed, leaning over to drop a kiss on his chest. “But right now I’m going swimming.” She jumped off the bed. “You coming?”
He shifted uncomfortably, boxer briefs sticking to his sweaty thighs. “Yeah. Just a second. Let me grab my suit.”
“Forget the suit.” She turned in the doorway, looking at him, and he couldn’t help the way his eyes drifted down the outline of her body, absorbing the way her tank top wrapped around curves that hadn’t existed when she’d been released from the hospital a few months ago. Apparently, that alfredo sauce he kept working on was worth something. “Come on! Nobody’s around for miles.”
She disappeared down the hallway; he could hear her footsteps tapping on the wooden stairs, quick and light, and after a second, the slam of the screen door that led to the back porch of the Adirondack cabin they were renting. He’d managed to pick the week when upstate New York was in the middle of the worst heat wave of the summer, which had been fine until the air conditioning quit when he was grilling last night’s salmon. She’d been working her ass off in her new position at CTU LA, and he’d only wanted to give her a break, take her someplace without a constant barrage of information and demands, where the only electronics were a grill and a hot tub.
He stepped onto the back porch, surprised by the warmth of the wood under his feet. No wonder she hadn’t been able to sleep -- it had to be at least 80. He jogged down the short flight of stairs and across the lawn toward the dock. The sky was clear, stars everywhere and the ambient glow of a moon that would be full in another day or two. He glanced down the dock to see Renee with her back to him, pulling off her tank top.
“Renee, what are you-” He stopped, because she’d stepped out of the underwear, too. She looked over her shoulder and shot him a grin, one of those smiles that rearranged his insides on the spot because she never looked at anybody else . . . like that. Yanking her hair out of the ponytail so that it swished over her shoulders, she walked to the very edge of the dock and paused for only a second before she dove in. The splash echoed in the stillness, and Jack took a few steps forward, found himself holding his breath until she resurfaced a few moments later, further from the dock than he’d expected, wiping water from her face.
“My god, Jack. This feels so good. Come on!” She threw herself onto her back and stroked out into the lake. He watched her body, the way her arms stretched behind her effortlessly now, the surprising strength of the kicks that propelled her away from him. From far away, he heard what he assumed was the hoot of an owl, and the sound hovered in the thick air. He hesitated, watching the white of Renee’s skin flash in the water as her form grew smaller. Then he shoved his boxers down his legs and kicked out of them, shivering despite the heat when the summer breeze hit his sweaty skin.
He took a deep breath and dove in.
The water closed over him, a delicious wash of cool comfort. He swam to the surface and scanned the ripples on the lake. Fifty yards away, Renee was treading water again, and the moon was so bright he could see her watching him. “Think you can catch me?” she asked, and the laughter in her voice skipped over the water.
“Oh, I can catch you,” he shot back, his body humming with the knowledge that when he did, it would be his hands on her skin, nothing in between.
“That’s what you think,” she taunted. Turning, she began to freestyle away from him.
It took half a second for him to realize that he’d better get moving. He threw himself forward in the water, arms lifting in arcs just like they’d taught him in the Marines, raising his head to breathe only when necessary. After fifty strokes or so he looked up to see how he was doing.
Damn, she was fast.
The sparkles of white skin were closer than when he’d started out, but not by much. He smiled and went for it again, determination doubled. The next time he looked up, he’d closed more of the distance, but she didn’t show any signs of giving up. Suddenly, it hit him how far away from the dock they were, how long it had been since she’d eaten anything, the way sometimes, even now, she was fine one second and shaking from low blood sugar the next. Side effect of the long-term antibiotics, the doctor had told her. Supposedly it would wear off, but nobody knew when.
“Renee,” he yelled, irritated as fuck by the way his heart was pounding. She’d probably get mad. She hated anything she could classify as coddling.
“What?” she called back, but she slowed down.
“Could you-” Fuck it. “You’re scaring me.”
She stopped swimming away from him, but she didn’t move toward him either. The breeze brushed over his damp hair, and all at once the water felt oppressively warm. He forced himself to remain stationary, treading water while he waited to see how she’d react this time. After a few more seconds, she began stroking slowly in his direction, and he exhaled, long and shaky.
When she was maybe twenty feet away she dove under, water rippling where her feet had vanished until she appeared right in front of him, so close that her foot brushed his leg. Her voice was soft and low. “You worry too much, you know that?”
He shook his head, his voice doing that thing where it went randomly unpredictable. Her hand touched his face, warm and wet. “I’m okay, Jack. I was a lifeguard in high school.” Her eyes scanned his, and something she saw there must have softened her even more, because she said, “I didn’t mean to scare you. Sometimes I forget-”
“It’s not your fault,” he mumbled, looking at the smooth skin of her shoulder.
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then she closed it again and quirked an eyebrow, moving in until her face was inches from his, staring at his lips for so long that he could feel his body responding to her breathing, her eyes, to the way that even in the darkness he could see every freckle on her face. She leaned in and kissed his mouth open, water dripping down her cheek, sliding off her tongue and onto his. He forgot to kick and slid into the water up to his chin.
Renee pulled away, the edges of her mouth tilting up. “Come on. Let’s swim back to the dock and dangle our feet in.” His eyes tracked her as she kicked away, her naked back and shoulders outlined against the dark water.
On the dock, Jack swirled his feet in the water, thigh to thigh with Renee. He listened to the quiet, to the low hum of cicadas and the occasional faraway birdcall, to the ripples in the water and the breeze that rushed intermittently through the tall trees above them.
Renee reached back and grabbed one of the towels she’d apparently thought to bring with her. Taking one end with her left hand, she wrapped the other around his right shoulder. He could feel her skin on his upper arm, and he shivered. “Cold?” she asked, grinning because she knew the answer.
“No,” he whispered, leaning in to touch his mouth to hers. He could feel her kiss everywhere, streaking over his skin, but he backed away and settled for a hand on her neck, his thumb gently massaging the tension he could feel there.
“Have you never been skinny dipping?” She leaned into his fingers, blotting her face with the end of the towel.
“Not that I remember. But there were a few nights in high school I don’t remember at all.” He smiled, and his eyes couldn’t help tracking a rivulet of water that slipped from her hair over her chest and onto her stomach. He stopped himself from touching her scar. “Why are you such a pro at it? Is this what you do when I wind up helping someone build a deck on the weekend?”
She burst out laughing, and his throat constricted, because even months later his system wasn’t inoculated against the spontaneity of that sound, the raw joy that always rose in him the moment he heard it. He still remembered the first time, in the hospital, when she’d been reading some terrible romance novel he’d found in the lobby gift shop. He blinked himself back into the present and focused on her voice. “Yeah, you got me. When you take off on a project I strip and jump into the Pacific while the other thousand people hanging out on the beach watch.” She shoved her shoulder into his, still grinning. “I grew up in rural Indiana, Jack. We didn’t have anything else to do on Saturday nights.”
He drew her closer, dropping his mouth to her shoulder. “We should do this again tomorrow night,” he said, kissing her skin. “Why do you smell so good when you just jumped out of the damn lake?”
“You’re just-” She rubbed her fingers through the hair at the base of his neck, playing. “Prejudiced.”
“Not true,” he said, and this time when he kissed her he held her head, opening her mouth with the gentle pressure of his lips, his tongue soft but insistent. He could feel her smiling.
“That . . . is just gonna make me straddle you, and this dock will give us splinters.” She pulled back and stood up, letting the towel fall. Holding out her hand, she said, “Come on. Couch is more comfortable.”
He pushed himself up and linked his fingers with hers. Walking across the cool, damp grass, it occurred to him that there was nothing he did not love about this moment. The moonlight shadows, the shimmering leaves, the water cooling his skin as it dried, Renee’s warm fingers wound so tightly into his he could feel the soft tap of her pulse, the promise of her body covering his on the couch.
He didn’t even bother to latch the screen door when it smacked shut behind them.