She glanced over from the passenger seat at him and tried to remember how exactly he'd conned her into this. Dinner with her parents. Talk about a nightmare. She had a sudden flashback to the brief, but loud argument over it followed by wild, passionate sex against the kitchen wall and dimly remembered exactly how he'd talked her into it. Still, she felt the impulse to wring his neck.

"How about you stop plotting my death while you're sitting next to me," Wes suggested, the south winding through each syllable. She tried not to laugh, or even let him see her grin in the dark. He was in the doghouse and as such he was not to be encouraged.

"You're still an asshole," she retorted around a barely restrained chuckle.

"Yes, yes, but you're stuck with me," he shot back. She finally submitted to her fate and slumped in the seat.

"Can't you let me hate you for at least ten minutes?" she asked, trying to distract herself from the nightmare she'd somehow agreed to. He glanced at her and chuckled as he looked back at the road.

"Keep dreamin' baby,"

"If I didn't value my life, I'd hit you right about now," she told him, amused.

"All bark and no bite," he teased.

"No bite, huh?" she said, considering. "We'll see about that when you're sleepin' on the couch for the next decade."

"Actually, the couch is quite comfy and I wouldn't have to fight you for the blankets all night," he said with a grin in his voice.

"Screw the couch, you'll be sleeping on the porch," she told him tersely, but when he started chuckling in reply she couldn't help but join him.

Z

She felt so awkward, so clumsy, so stifled. She was back in the once place she'd always sworn she'd die before she ever went back to. She glanced down at her plate, and watched her hand shake. She swallowed hard. This place still made her queasy. She clamped her hand down around her fork, only to poke at the vegetarian lasagna and the questionable green things beside it. Perhaps, at one time in their sad, sad existence they were vegetables. Maybe.

She glanced across the table at Wes. After this is all said and done that man is so dead, she thought. No sex is worth this bullshit. She poked at the 'food' a moment longer before she felt her mother's eyes on her. The old eerie feeling that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end when she was a child she quickly realized she hadn't outgrown as it skittered up her spine like a live thing. The other woman still scared the living shit out of her. She immediately realized she was appearing rude, silently rejecting her mother's cooking. But she found that she was half afraid it was poisoned and half afraid it wasn't. Either way it's gonna kill me, she figured. But her fear of the older woman and the dark memories that she had kept locked in her head prompted her to take a bite, chew, and swallow.

"Mackenzie, you didn't answer the question, dear," her mother chided her, her voice oozing syrupy sweetness, intending to send Wes 'I'm just a harmless old lady' vibes. Kenzie felt her head jerk up, her shoulders jump back – 'mustn't slouch, darling' echoing in her head.

"I'm sorry, Mother," Kenzie replied automatically. She found herself mentally scrounging for a logical reason to have ignored her mother. The only answer she was finding was she had no excuse, logical or otherwise. But Kenzie knew she couldn't let her mother see how much she was still terrified of her. "I just remembered where I left that manuscript I've been looking for. What was the question?" Kenzie eyed her mother and watched as the other woman's eyebrows went up. Kenzie tried to swallow her rising panic.

"Manuscript? You're still wasting your time writing?" Her mother demanded, her face twisting into a wicked sneer, the harmless old woman veneer forgotten. You idiot, Kenzie thought, berating herself. "It was bullshit then and it's bullshit now. When are you going to do something useful with your life?" Wes cleared his throat loudly. Kenzie looked at him and mentally begged him for an escape. He deliberately leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, watching the rest of them watch him.

"With all due respect Ms. Wells," he drawled, his Southern upbringing showing. Kenzie idly licked her upper lip, trying to decide what exactly her man was going to get himself into this time. "what she's doin' with her time nowadays ain't none of your concern."

"And what is she doin', cowboy?" Her father piped up, attempting to mock Wes' accent. When Wes smirked at the other man, Kenzie slowly placed where she'd seen that look on his face – only a few times before. The most recent time, that smirk had been the beginning of a fist fight.

She looked between the two men and swallowed nervously. Her father was not known to play fair and Wes did everything, even fought, by his own code of conduct – fair all the way, right up 'til the other guy played dirty.

Z

"Is there a reason you couldn't tell me 'well, honey, I'm scared shitless of ever going back to that house'?" Wes asked slowly. Kenzie found she couldn't look him in the eye.

"I don't know, the whole dignity factor gets me every time," she muttered as they got back to the hotel they were staying at. One more night and goodbye road trip from hell. He shut the engine off and caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger and made her look at him.

"Darlin', you honestly thought I wouldn't look at you the same if you admitted you were afraid of your folks?" Wes asked, sounding almost wounded. Kenzie winced.

"That's not what I meant. I meant, hell, I don't know what I meant," Kenzie finally admitted. She paused and started again. "I guess there's just a few things I don't want to ever admit aloud and that was on the list." Even in the dim streetlight, Kenzie watched some series of emotions flutter across his face, each one more aggressive than than the last.

Z

I rolled onto my back in the dark, startled when in doing so I didn't bump into Wes. I let out a breath and sat up, my back against the headboard. I drew my knees up and set my arms comfortably across them. I liked to think I could have company when I couldn't sleep, but be damned that when I needed him – the man was elsewhere.

I smirked to herself, alone in the dark. There were a lot of nights he could say the same thing about me. Even though it had been a week since I'd seen my parents, I seemed not to be able to sleep the night through. Seeing them had really screwed something up in my head, really stirred up the darker regions of my memory.

Instead of trying again to sleep in our empty bed, I flipped on the lamp by the bed and got out of bed. I eyed the alarm clock's beady, red numbers. Four in the morning and I was already awake. This just wasn't right. Huffing out a breath I walked out into the hall and shuffled into the kitchen. I set up the coffee pot, stepped up to the window above the sink, and peered out. It was still bleakly dark, the dim street lamps shone like meek little beacons in the foggy morning air.

As the coffee pot began to sizzle and hiss I walked away from it and wandered into my makeshift office. Might as well use of the insomnia and get some work done. Eyeing the mess of printer paper and post-its and little notes scrawled out on envelopes I groaned inwardly. But I unveiled my laptop while I decidedly ignored the rest of the mess on the desk and the bigger one on the floor. I then found my way back out into the kitchen.

I filled my 'I'm a writer, what's your excuse?' mug with fresh, piping hot coffee and started for the living room. I walked straight to the provisional entertainment center, popped a mixed disc into the dvd player, then turned toward the couch. As I leaned in to turn on the side-table's lamp, Maybelle decided it was a good time to begin to beg for attention, rubbing up against my exposed ankles. I switched on the light and set down the laptop and looked at the big tortoiseshell who stared up at me with green-yellow eyes.

"Good morning to you too," I said to the cat as I sat on the couch. "Nice to know I'm not the only lonely one." I had to grin at her as she took my words an invitation to jump onto the couch and then onto the back of the couch to rub against the back of my neck and to purr loudly in my ear. I reached up a hand and petted the presumptuous Maybelle.

I opened my laptop and just as the computer started processing under my sign-on the front door unlocked and then opened. I eyed him as he shucked the blue jacket and poured himself a cup of coffee.

"What are you doin' up this early?" he asked me finally.

"Uh, making sure Maybelle here is behaving herself," I muttered, looking back at my computer as I opened my current chapter.

"For someone who sells fiction for a livin' you're a lousy liar," Wes told me, walking into the living room. He sat on the arm of the couch, coffee cup in hand.

"Don't know what you're talking about," I said keeping my back facing him. I managed to finish a whole sentence on the word processor before he took the rubber band out of my hair, letting it down to poof and curl. He always did it. If we were alone and my hair was previously in a ponytail you could count on it being out of that ponytail within minutes. He did it just because it got a rise out of me. I sighed and leaned my head back, resting the back of my head on his thigh, forcing me to look up at him.

"Couldn't sleep, could you?" he asked, playing with my hair.

"Not a damn wink," I confessed. "So, how was work?"

"Work was work," he told me as I watched some anonymous emotion cross his face. I looked at the wall at the far end of the couch for a moment. I covered his hand, as it stilled in my hair, with my own and brought the both of them down my cheek to brush my lips over his knuckles.

"That obvious, huh?" Wes murmured as I glanced back up him. I moved my head just in time as he stood up and joined me on the couch. I set my laptop on the side-table and looked at him. Not a whole lot of people could see past the good ol' boy act he liked to put on but a long time ago he'd accidentally let me get my foot in the proverbial door.

"You're slippin', gorgeous," I teased, but the look on his face was enough to make me think about cutting my tongue out. "Well, I was trying for a little levity. Now I'm sort of regretting the attempt." I didn't know whether to try to comfort him or to stay very still and not make any sudden moves and for the love of god keep my yap shut. I'd never seen that look on his face in the entirety of the five years I'd known him. Granted, that wasn't a horribly long time but that look spoke volumes and each volume bothered me more than the previous. I swallowed and thought about opening my mouth. I really didn't want to aggravate the situation or his mood for that matter, but I wondered if just letting it drop would do more damage than opening my mouth and inserting my foot. But there were things that Wesley just did not talk about and his job, most days, was among those things. I took a deep breath and mentally said a little prayer that this wouldn't end badly.

"You look like you feel like you're walkin' on some thin ice," Wes commented quietly. Aren't I? I thought absently, but the accuracy of his comment, like they always did, made me feel exposed. I mentally shook off my own insecurities to deal with his issues. I mean, I always had insecurities lurking beneath the surface and twice as many when I was with him. When again would he be vulnerable enough to talk about what was really bothering him?

"Wesley," I began slowly. I winced as I watched him wince when I called him by his full name. Stupid, stupid stupid, my brain yelled at me. "I really don't want to poke at you when you're obviously feeling thrown and I think a little lost. But since we've established that some thing's eatin' you, I can't rightly just ignore it like nobody brought it up. " I stopped and forced myself to loo k at him as he sat there with a lost, little boy look on his face. He caught me looking at him and looked at the floor with sudden interest.

"So, now would be a great time to say if you even want to talk this," I said evenly, trying to at least sound calm even if I wasn't. And I wasn't, 'cause I was sitting watching the unshakable shake, the unmovable move. Sure, he got good and pissed under the right circumstances but helpless? Oh hell no.

"Me losin' it is scarin' you," he said, his voice empty of emotion as he continued to stare at the floor.

"I wouldn't say scaring, but worrying me a little, yeah," I said trying to gauge just how much he was 'losin' it'. He looked at me and looking at him looking at me like that, that scared me shitless, because there was nothing of the man I'd come to know, love, and trust behind those eyes. Physically it was still the same person but it was like he'd switched off the Wes persona. Who was looking out of my husband's face at me I had no clue. Quickly I realized I didn't care. All I knew was I was violently frightened by the man sitting next to me.

While I was upset by the look and the sudden change in body language, the look was nonetheless familiar. I was damn sure Wes had never looked at me that way but the look was still very familiar. And as I had learned as a child, I ignored the pounding in my ears and the sudden sweaty palms, and began to assess the situation completely different from how I had been. I was suddenly that little girl again, scared for her life.

And then I placed that expression. My mother donned it like a favorite hat whenever we were alone. No amount of therapy could wash my memory clean of my childhood nor all the memories that were scarred into my body and mind. But as it had in early puberty, my fight or flight instinct switched from flight to fight.

The fear was still there but it was muted by a red glaze of unsatisfied rage. He was bigger and stronger than me and in a fair fight I'd be the loser. But the anger that flushed through my mind only had one question: just how dirty was I willing to fight. The only answer I had was whatever it took to survive.

"An old friend and I ran into each other when I was picking up a pack of cigarettes. It was not an accident," Wes's voice said. I forced a nod like I understood and I stood up. Or I began to before Wes's hand shot out and latched on to my arm and yanked me back down. I dully felt something in me snap as I landed on the couch next to him. He didn't remove his hand from my wrist.

"It wasn't an accident, so fucking what? Look, Mr. Split Personalties, you wanna get physical to work off your emotional problems? Good for you, but don't fucking touch me," I said, all venom and no emotion. He didn't blink. The red haze in my head only intensified as I realized I couldn't stop myself. Someone had made physical contact with me and forced me to become defensive. Abuse victims that had done a great deal of obscene, cruel, and unusual things to survive becoming defensive was dangerous because I knew damn good and well I'd win one way or another. Before or after I seriously damaged the man I loved I wasn't sure. Moreover, I wasn't sure I would regret it.

"There's a reason you don't know my past. But apparently my past knows my present," he told me icily. "And you have no idea how dangerous that fact is." I shrugged because at that point I really couldn't care less what the hell he had to say no matter how important it was or wasn't. I started to get back up and I turned and looked him in the eye.

"You want a bad situation to get worse, keep holding on. I'm not sure what I'm capable of right now, and that's a bad thing because I'm a bit of a sociopath and I do know I and excessively willing to damage your person," I said quietly. He didn't let go. Suddenly all I could hear was my breathing and the pounding in my ears as I reached across myself and grasped one of his fingers and bent it back until I heard a gratifying snap.

Z