Toeing The Line
Descending the last of the steps, I stumbled into the living area over to the couch, where I promptly collapsed, a huge heap of exhausted person.
Turning the page of his newspaper, Dad didn’t look away from his reading as he asked, “Is he asleep?”
“Yes,” I answered, sinking into the cushions of the couch. “Finally. After three hours of incessant crying, he sleeps.” I threw an arm over my eyes, hoping to block out the afternoon sun streaming in through the open curtains. “Could you close the curtains? I’m not going to be able to sleep with all that light.”
I didn’t need to see Dad’s face to know that he was frowning. All the same, when he lowered the newspaper to grace me with a curious look, I couldn’t help a small, inward smirk. “Why aren’t you sleeping upstairs? You do have a room, you know.”
“That my son is currently sleeping in,” I said, rolling onto my side so I didn’t have to crane my neck to look at him.
“I fail to see the problem in that. After everything that’s happened, I would have thought your bed has never looked so inviting,” Dad reasoned as he regarded me.
“It does look comfy,” I agreed, subconsciously stuffing my hands underneath the throw pillow, “but I don’t want to run the risk of waking him up. Not after all the trouble I went through trying to put him down.”
A furrow appeared in between his greying brows. “Why would you wake him up? I didn’t think that you snored.”
“I don’t,” I conceded with a short nod, “but I don’t want to risk it. No,” I continued as I snuggled into the cushions, finding it hard to fight back a sigh of contentment. It might not have been my bed, but it was still comfortable enough. “All I want to do is sleep until I’m eighty.”
Dad chuckled. “Good luck with that, sweetheart.” With a shake of his head, he shook open the folded newspaper and resumed his reading. “Tell me how that goes for you.”
“Only if you close those ruddy curtains,” I retorted, giving into the fluttering of my eyelids and closing them.
I took the additional darkening of the room as my father’s agreement to terms.
When I woke up several hours later, my face was pressed into the pillow, my limbs sprawled across the expanse of the bed. How I had gotten into my room and managed to almost-suffocate myself in my sleep, I couldn’t be certain, though I had a sneaking suspicion my dad was the culprit. With a low groan, I rolled onto my side, the springs creaking underneath me as I turned. If I didn’t know that the bed was unnaturally creaky, I would’ve thought it was trying to tell me that I needed to shed the extra baby weight. Not that it would be delivering a message I already knew to be entirely too true for comfort.
It was difficult to blink the cloud of sleep away from my eyes, but once I managed, I focussed my attention on the clock situated on the bedside table. Though it wasn’t as late as I expecting, more time had passed that I would have liked, especially when I remembered that I had agreed to letting James drop by the house later on tonight.
Another groan, this one much longer and louder than the last, escaped me, but for an entirely different reason. I was stupid for agreeing with him, but after the hopeful look he sent me, the earnestness in his voice, and my knowledge of the unspoken bond between father and son, I couldn’t deny him. Not for one second. But if he thought his annoying slag of a fiancée was stepping one foot into this house, he was dead wrong. I might be kind enough to extend an invitation to James, but when a she-devil was involved, I couldn’t put my son at risk.
Speaking of my son…
I pushed myself onto my elbows and peered into the far corner of the room, where Jack’s crib was situated next to my old desk, which was cluttered with sheets of parchment, stacks of books, and old photographs. From what I could see, which was very little, he was still sleeping or at the very least, lying away very quietly. I debated my next course of action. If he was sleeping and I stole a peek into his crib, he would wake up. He always did. But if he wasn’t sleeping and I slipped downstairs for a much need cup of coffee, he would be left in the dark all by himself, staring helplessly at the ceiling or at the prison-like bars of his crib. And I couldn’t very well have that on my conscious.
Sighing, I rolled out of bed, shivering when my feet touched the cool hardwood. I grabbed the faded red jumper I must’ve discarded sometime during my sleep and pulled it over my head as I shuffled into the corner. I was careful as I peered into the cot, but as it turned out, I didn’t need to exercise any caution as he wasn’t laying there. Panic seized me until I realised that Mum or Dad must have come into the room and grabbed him before his cries could wake me up.
I had such great parents.
After a quick poke into the bathroom to see just how haggard I looked (it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. A few slaps to either cheek brought colour to the surface), I exited the quiet sanctuary of my room and headed down the stairs. Though I knew my son was in good hands, I couldn’t help blowing out a breath of relief as I watched Dad adjust Jack on his lap, pointing out various plants in a picture book and saying each of their names.
The bottom step creaked as I settled my weight on it.
Mum looked up from her cookbook, which was thrown across her lap. “Ah, look who’s awake. Did you sleep well?”
I shrugged and noticed that the tension in my shoulders had left. “Well enough.”
She flashed me a satisfied smile before returning her attention to the cookbook.
I migrated over to Dad’s armchair in the corner of the room and sat down at his feet. “How’s he doing?” I asked, absentmindedly picking up one of Jack’s small feet and pressing a kiss into the arch of it. His responding giggle made a wide grin appear on my face.
“He’s okay, I think,” Dad said as he lowered the book to look at me. “And he seems to like looking at the pictures. He keeps making grabby hands at some of the plants.”
I snorted. “That’s probably because he wants to eat them,” I commented as I gave Jack’s foot a small shake. “Isn’t that right, pumpkin?” I couldn’t help myself; I kissed his fat foot again.
Jack squirmed in Dad’s lap, a delighted giggle slipping through his lips. I raised myself onto my knees and held out my hands to him. His reaction was immediate; much like his response to the different plants in the book, he flexed his fat fingers in my direction and squealed. Grinning, I reached out for him and scooped him up in my arms.
“How’s Mummy’s favourite boy?” I cooed, littering his face with kisses. While Jack giggled and squirmed in my arms, making a swipe at my hair, I looked back at Dad, who was reading the book to himself. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Like he hadn’t read the book a hundred times before; he used to read it to me when I was little. “Has he eaten yet?”
“No,” Dad answered distractedly. “I don’t think he has. Ask your mum, though. She’s the one who stole him.”
Getting to my feet turned out to be a bit of struggle, what with a baby in my arms who was keen on pulling as much of my hair out of my skull as possible, but I managed after a few attempts. It was similar to how I had to get out of chairs when I was pregnant with Jack, rocking back and forth to gain enough momentum.
I repeated my question to Mum, who shook her head. “No, he didn’t want to eat when I tried. I could help you, though, if you want. You still look tired,” she said, closing the cookbook and getting to her feet.
“I’m fine, Mum,” I insisted as I walked towards the kitchen. “I don’t need anymore sleep.”
She frowned, not entirely convinced. “You were awake for nearly forty straight hours, Mara,” she said with a distinctly patronising tone. “I think it’s safe to say that you could do with a few more hours of sleep.”
Pausing in my raid of the fridge, I looked over my shoulder at her and shook my head in negation. “No, Mum, I can’t.” Once I found the bottle of pre-made formula I was looking for, I delved a hand into the pocket of my jeans and withdrew my wand.
“And why not?” Mum asked as she placed a hand on her hip. “You’ve been in that hospital for as long as Jack has. You’re sure to be exhausted; you need sleep if you want to be the best you can be-”
I flicked my wand at the bottle and muttered a warming spell. “Because,” I interjected, my words tainted with impatience, “I invited James over, and he should be here relatively soon,” I said, subconsciously confirming my own fear.
Mum’s hand fell away from her hip and she quirked a brow at me. “You invited James over to the house?”
“Yes,” I said with a nod, setting my wand aside to test the temperature of the bottle on the inside of my wrist. It wasn’t warm enough, so I cast another spell. Her eyebrow rose higher on her head and I cursed under my breath. “Well, no, I didn’t invite him over -”
“You didn’t? Then why in the name of Merlin’s mother is the twit coming over here?! Imposing little-”
“Mum!“ I exclaimed, squeezing my eyes shut and trying to regain control of my breathing. “Okay,” I started after a prolonged moment. “So maybe I did invite him over, but only because he looked like a pathetic little puppy dog when I was leaving with Jack.”
Mum rolled her eyes and muttered something about that being my excuse for everything, which made me frown. However, I didn’t comment on the matter as Jack tugged at my hair harder, alerting me to the fact my wand was still pointed at the bottle, the formula inside it starting to bubble.
“Shit,” I cursed, casting my wand aside and picking up the bottle. The plastic was hot underneath the pads of my fingers, but when I tested the formula on the inside of my wrist, it was cooler than I expected. Still hot, but not hot enough to scald Jack’s mouth. When I offered the bottle to him, Jack gave another one of his excited squeals before making his customary grabby hands. I couldn’t help smiling as he sucked down his dinner.
“So,” Mum said, snapping me out of my fascinated staring, “when is James gracing us with his presence?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just told him to stop by sometime tonight.”
She nodded briefly before her eyes narrowed. “He’s not bringing that fiancée of his, is he?”
Again, I shrugged. “I’m not sure. But if he does,” I added hurriedly, seeing the thunderous expression on Mum’s face, “neither of them are coming inside. I don’t want that slag in my house. I mean, your house,” I corrected at her pointed look.
“If he does…” she threatened lowly.
“Mum, he’s not going to bring her,” I assured her, sounding much more confident than I actually felt. A quick glance at Jack told me that he was perfectly fine. “He has more sense than that.”
Mum snorted loudly. “If you say so.”
“I do say so,” I retorted needlessly, but Mum was already distracted by something else in the kitchen.
I was sitting in my bedroom, dangling toys above Jack’s head and watching in amusement as he tried to grasp them with his pudgy fingers when the door bell rang. Dread twisted my stomach into a complicated knot as I waited for Mum or Dad to open the door. There was no way I was going to venture downstairs to greet him, even though I was the one who suggested he come over so we could talk about things. I did, however, push myself out of bed and tip-toe towards the door in an attempt to overhear what was going on downstairs.
As I listened, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Mum was all talk, no walk.
I’d been expecting a fair amount of carnage - or at least a tongue lashing, but the moment Mum opened the door, you would’ve thought she was greeting her long lost son. I listened as they exchanged merry greetings, James inquiring after both of my parents. Mum’s response was much warmer than Dad’s, who sounded like he was trying very hard to not say something disagreeable. I smiled; trust Dad to assume the protective father stance when I wasn’t even around.
I didn’t even realise that Mum was leading James up the stairs to my bedroom until the floorboards creaked underneath their feet. Eyes widening, I made a mad dash towards the bed, leaping onto it rather ungracefully and scrambling to find the toy I’d been dangling over Jack’s head. I had just found the ring of colourful plastic keys and started shaking them in a rather showy display when the door was pushed open.
Thanks for knocking, Mum, for all you knew, I could’ve been naked.
As soon as he stepped into the room, the tension intensified. Like someone had wired my body to the circuitry in the walls, every single one of my nerve endings sparked to life. Suddenly, I was paralyzed, left to gape at James as he crossed the threshold into the room. The nearer he got to the bed, the more I wanted to scramble away. Get as far away from him as possible because, at this rate, I would give him anything he wanted, if he just asked.
Swallowing thickly, I attempted to arrange my face into a mask of composed nonchalance, to give myself the same blasé air Sophie carried with her like an umbrella everywhere she went. Tried being the operative word here, people. My face might not have betrayed me, but as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, the charade was ruined, the illusion shattered.
“H-hi James,” I stuttered pathetically, my mind reverting back to the last time we were together in the same bedroom. Subconsciously, my eyes wandered to the left, where Jack was trying to roll onto his side to grab the set of keys I had apparently dropped. We couldn’t let that happen again.
His responding smile was muted, almost bashful, and I found myself colouring slightly at his expense. He lifted a hand and tugged at the collar of his shirt, which made me sigh in relief. It was one of the few signs that emphasised his discomfort. For some reason, my panic lessened at the thought of James being as unsure of this meeting as I was.
Slipping his hands into his pockets, James leaned back on his heels and returned the greeting with a simple nod of his head. I couldn’t decide if he was quiet because he was experiencing the same juvenile feeling of nervousness that accompanied being locked in the same room as the opposite sex or if he was still mad at me for, you know, not telling him about his child. Silently, I prayed it was the former.
“So,” I hedged, drawing both of my legs onto the bed and folding them underneath me. “How’re things?”
His laugh was short and abrupt, a jagged, sarcastic edge taking away from the delightful sound. It was difficult to refrain from frowning. “Are you serious, Mara?” he asked, his tone and raised eyebrows hinting at his incredulity. “You’re honestly asking me how things are?”
“When you put it like that, you make it sound stupid,” I commented sourly, pulling a face.
“That’s because it is ridiculous,” James retorted, equally acerbic. I was on the verge of replying when he added, with a defeated sort of sigh, “Things are…not well.”
A bubble of hope welled in my chest. “Trouble in paradise?” The words slipped out of my mouth before I could help it.
Surprisingly, James chuckled again, though this time it sounded more like his natural laugh instead of a dry, sarcastic one. The bubble grew fractionally; I liked this James much better than the sourpuss who’d walked into my room. “I wouldn’t say trouble,” he responded evasively, leaning a shoulder against the wall behind him.
“But there’s something…not quite right?” I continued hesitantly, not wanting to ruin things. It might not have been what either of us wanted to talk about, but it was talking, and I would take all of the words I could get from him.
“I’m just going to take a guess and say that she’s angry.”
James bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, she’s angry.”
Picking up the keys Jack was still struggling to grasp, I shook them over his head. His exuberant response was immediate. “With you?”
“No, not with me,” he dismissed, pulling his gaze away from me to stare longingly at Jack. “She’s angry with you.”
“Me?” I repeated dubiously. “What in the hell did I ever do to her?”
“Aside from the hide the fact her fiancé is the father of your child from not only her, but the man in question?”
Damn it. The frown returned. “You have a point,” I conceded with a sigh, dropping my hand low enough so the key ring was within the reach of Jack’s chubby fingers. He made a mad swipe at it, but didn’t get it. “If anyone should be angry with me, it’s you, James,” I added.
He snorted. “I can’t say I disagree with you,” James said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
“So, are you?”
He quirked a brow, folding his arms over his chest and aligning the length of his spine with the wall. “Am I what?”
“Mad at me?”
James shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he answered truthfully, the faintest of grimaces appearing between his brow.
Sighing at his obvious discomfort, I met his gaze briefly and wordlessly, I scooted over on the mattress to make room for him. He crossed the short distance between the door and the bed in two quick strides, perching himself on the edge of the bed. James was far enough so that we weren’t touching, but not far enough that I couldn’t feel the heat radiating off his body. It took all of my willpower not to plant a hand on his chest and push him backward onto the mattress. Well, that and our infant son, who was gumming the plastic ring enthusiastically.
We sat in silence for several minutes, both absorbed in watching Jack. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was easy to see that something was wrong. There was a strain between us, a tension. Things would never be as easy as they used to be, when we would sit around for hours on end, not uttering a word, but we didn’t need. Back then, we were connected on every level, capable of communicating with simple glances and short smiles. Now, there was a canyon between us, which kept filling up with all the things we didn’t say, all the steps we missed in our elaborate dance around each other.
I didn’t realise James had picked up the key ring and started shaking them over Jack’s head until the chubby boy let loose a delighted squeal of laughter. Smiling softly, I picked up Jack’s foot and ran my knuckle along the curve of his foot. His laughter doubled, happy to be with his parents at the same time.
“I miss us,” James said suddenly.
Startled, but not all-together displeased, I looked up, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear to keep it out of my face. Our eyes locked and inwardly, I sighed, knowing in that very moment, though I agreed with him full-heartedly, we could never go back.
“I do, too,” I admitted quietly, quickly averting my gaze back to Jack.
“I wish there was a way -”
“To go back to the start?” I finished with a rueful smile. “I wish we could, but I’ve made damned sure that we’ll never be able to.”
At his questioning glance, I gestured towards Jack, who stared up at us, completely obliviously to the situation at hand.
“If I had been straightforward with you from the start, maybe we could -” I paused to shake my head. No, even if I had told him about my pregnancy - about Jack - things would have never gone back to the way they used to be. It was impossible. We were way beyond the point of no return; had ventured outside of the realm as soon as I leaned forwards to kiss him at the bar.
James relinquished his hold on the keys and gave them to Jack; he shoved them into his mouth and began to gum them with gusto. “We have to talk about it sometime, Mara,” he said softly, the hurt and confusion and pent-up frustration leaking through.
“We already have,” I countered.
“No,” James replied, “we haven’t. Not properly, anyway.” He shifted his position on the bed so that he was facing me, one knee resting on the mattress while the other dangled over the side, his foot on the floor. “We only talked about the after, not the before and,” he paused to clear his throat, colour rising to his cheeks, “during.”
A flash of his lips against my neck, along my shoulders, his tongue tracing the length of my collarbone and dropping lower, was accompanied by the illicit sound of his deep moan. Flustered, I shook my head, banishing the image from my mind. Now was not the time for that. It would never be the time for that.
“Do you really want to do this now, James?” I questioned, once again lifting my eyes to his face. I search the contours of his face, the depths of his eyes for any sign that he was ready for this. That we were ready to have this talk, forgoing all of the attempts to restore our friendship to its previous state. “You’re getting married in a little over a week.”
His expression was one of earnestness, but his eyes flared with determination. “That’s exactly why I want to do this; why we have to do this.”
Was he implying what I thought he was implying? Was he admitting that he, too, knew there was - still could be - something between us? I tried not to get my hopes up, knowing that it would only lead to disappointment.
James licked his lips and, again, a burst of memory assaulted my senses. It was all I could do to bite into my cheek to prevent a moan from escaping. Dear God, what was happening to me? Surely it was the lack of sleep. That was the only reasonable explanation for my reactions to his simple gestures.
“Mara,” he said, reaching forwards to take my hand between his own. My pulse spiked at the feel of his touch, the rough calluses against the tops of my knuckles sending a thrill through me. I hoped to Merlin’s mother that he couldn’t feel the blood quickening in my veins; that would be embarrassing and then some. “I have to know - you have to answer me honestly.” He licked his lips again and blinked owlishly. “Do you?”
Still have feelings for me? went the unaskable question.
I felt the blood rushing away from my face as I gaped at him, my eyes wide and my mouth unbearably dry. “James,” I breathed raggedly. “I c-can’t-”
“Mara,” he repeated, dropping his tone so low I had to lean forwards to hear him properly. We were close enough that if I tilted my head, the tip of my nose would brush against his. I could feel his breath, hot and damp, against my lips; it made my head spin, my heart rate climb. At this rate, I didn’t care if he could feel my heartbeat skipping like a jovial schoolgirl. Didn’t care if my palm was beginning to sweat within his grasp.
I stared into his charming hazel eyes, admiring the random flecks of gold and the soft sheen of silver that seemed to lurk near the back of his irises, only noticeable from such a short distance. Vaguely, I wondered if Sophie had ever noticed…
With a jolt, I pulled back so abruptly, I nearly toppled off the bed. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea to get as far away from James as humanly possible. Slipping off the bed, I stumbled to my feet, scrambling backwards until my lower back collided with Jack’s cot.
“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, trying to inject a note of fury in my voice, though my vocal chords betrayed me. Instead of mean and assertive, my voice was breathy and flimsy, cracking halfway through from the dryness scratching the back of my throat.
Guilt descended upon his features faster than I could imagine. One moment, his eyes were glossed over, his lips poised into the slightly impish smile they always swept into right before he kissed a girl, and the next, he looked as though a bucket of ice water had been tossed over him, drenching him right down to the core.
“Oh, Merlin, Mara,” he moaned pathetically, dropping his head into his hands. “I’m such a prat. I swear, I didn’t mean it. It’s just - you were so close - and it felt - you looked so beautiful when you were watching Jack - and I don’t know!” He leapt to his feet suddenly, his fingers twisting around his hair. “I just don’t know, all right!”
I took a shaky breath, bringing the hand resting over my still-rapidly beating heart to my hair. Brushing it back from my face, I avoided his gaze. “I think you should leave.”
“Yeah,” he nodded in agreement, rising to his feet swiftly. “I think I should too,” he muttered more to himself than to me.
“I’ll bring Jack by your mum’s tomorrow afternoon,” I said in a rush, wanting nothing more than for him to leave my bedroom. To get out of my house, bringing those feelings of lust and want and desire and every other word with him. “I’m sure your mum wants to see him.”
“Dad, too,” James tossed in uselessly. Clearing his throat, he continued, “Right. I’ll get going. See you.” Bending down, he dropped a kiss onto Jack’s forehead and muttered something to him, which caused the little boy to giggle and give an excited kick of his legs. I only started fighting the smile when my cheeks started hurting.
As soon as the door clicked shut, Jack started crying. Frowning at the sound, I rushed over to him and scooped him up off the bed, cradling him against my chest. As he cried, I rubbed circles into his small back, wishing I could join him in crying, but knowing that I had absolutely no reason to.
A/N: Right. So, that was the chapter. I know the ending was a bit abrupt, but it was a trifle difficult, trying to transition from a scene like that to one of complete normalcy, so I decided to save the next attempt at a visit between father and son (and mother, of course) for the next chapter. Of course, now that Mara’s venturing into James’ territory, that means you know who could possibly show up as well! Anyway, let me know what you thought about the chapter in a review; I’d love to hear some feedback! You’re the best!
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