A/N: Wow... Um, another year, another update, huh? Life has been too hectic to afford me much time to continue with "Fire and Ice" until lately, and I know this long interim period between chapters has a number of you feeling pretty dismayed. Inspiration struck me pretty hard last night, and as a result, the final couple of pages came out of me in a flourish. I make no promises for the future, as I'm at a bigger crossroads with this story than you know. Ironically, the newest "Star Wars" installment has put a lot of interesting thoughts into my head, and I'm just going to have to sort things out and run with it. But yeah... "Revenge of the Sith" is worth seeing if you're any kind of "Star Wars" fan at all. Fantastic, awesome story marred only by some really terrible acting (What? Padme and Anakin are supposed to be in passionate, desperate love? Coulda fooled me, man...). Anyway, before I go off on a tirade, if you ever want to talk shop with me, feel free to click on my profile to get my AIM screenname. I'm around.
I woke up the next day alone. Both of my parents were at work and Tom was at school. My head still felt heavy when I lifted it off of my pillow at what turned out to be 12:03 PM, and what had still been a constant hammering in my skull when I fell asleep had subsided into an insignificant ache overnight. I felt much the same way, having endured what felt like the be all and end all of bad days over the past catastrophic week. The empty house was silent as a grave, and in the stark daylight, I felt like it was all behind me. I was getting out of bed, crawling out from underneath the wreckage. The damage was done; now all I had to do was pick up the pieces and start putting them back together.
It struck me that things could never possibly be the same again. Super-glue and all the care in the world doesn't hide the seams and cracks in your mother's broken porcelain vase; there are always a few chips and there is something inherently flawed and offensive in its appearance. People know damaged goods when they see them – they know if the puzzle piece doesn't really fit, if the soundtrack is out of sync. They put that dented can of soup right back on the shelf and don't think twice about it.
I'm just fucking bargain bin trash now. Just beautiful, I thought bitterly as I studied my haggard reflection in my vanity mirror. The swelling had gone down some, but I still had a nasty knot in the back of my head from my father and my hair was stringy and unkempt. I looked like I needed more sleep and maybe some more sun. I observed some fresh blemishes on my typically clear complexion, and my nose and forehead were shiny. Every line and crease seemed to be amplified under my scrutiny, and I couldn't bear to look at the "new" me anymore. I turned away and stripped off my clothes, tossing them onto the unmade bed.
You and your damn vanities, Jacinda. No wonder everyone thinks you have a stick permanently stuck up your ass, I chastised myself as I walked down the hall to the bathroom.
After brushing my teeth, I stepped into the shower stall and ran the tap. I sighed as I waited for the hot water to kick in, and I let my mind travel back to the beginning of the week. Life was fairly peaceful, and I didn't dread Payne's class or her stupid marriage project. JC and I would work together diligently, and he would tease me about my perfectionism over the assignments. Everything had to be just so, he told me, or else I'd go out of my mind obsessing over it. I told him about the awesome action movies I watched over the weekend, and he said he always knew I was nothing but a fighter. He thought it was funny that I liked the villains so much more than the heroes. I pointed out that I still rooted for Batman, though, and he said he'd be Bruce Wayne to my Selina Kyle any day. I asked if that meant he thought I was catty, and he just laughed.
Some Bruce Wayne, I scoffed as I turned on the showerhead. Bruce Wayne may not have been entirely reliable, but at least he had a sense of nobility. Bruce fucking Wayne wouldn't rub my face in a mistake I corrected.
I felt my jaw set as I relived my humiliations and anger all over again. Fight after fight – the physical and emotional violence I endured, all the hurt and pain that followed, the distress that accompanied owning up to my mistake, and the torture I faced for telling the truth after all. It was one thing to be duly punished for an error, but an entirely different matter to be derided and ridiculed instead. JC and everyone else could mock me, but at least I managed to do something right for a change. I could get over it. Once the swelling and tenderness in my cheek and lip went away, I'd forget all about it.
I heard JC's voice in my head, telling me that I was inhuman and that I more than deserved to get mine, and I wondered if what I did was so horrible that it warranted so much hostility from a guy who, just the other day, seemed to almost care about me. Maybe that was part of the problem – I let him get under my skin, I let him mean something to me, and then to be so boldly rejected...
Fucking asshole, I thought caustically, but the words just didn't ring true. I couldn't ignore the fact that he was the one who always seemed to extend the olive branch after our disagreements, nor that he actually did his share of the work in Payne's class without complaint when it was his nature to do exactly the opposite. During that stupid basketball game, he was quick to shove all notions of competition and rivalry aside when I tripped over him – something I very likely would not have done myself – and I could feel a sense of tenderness in him that I hadn't felt before he helped me off the floor. He held me upright after Tom hit me, and though I obviously wasn't thinking about it at the time, I was met with resistance when I broke free from his arms. There was something undeniable in these little shows of affection, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't just pass them off as reckless fancy.
"Save the waterworks for someone who actually gives a damn, Princess." "Hello, beautiful." "Every time I see a flicker of humanity in you, you go and put out the flame! I hope you get what's coming, you stupid bitch!" Just as soon as those words ran back through my head, any residual sentiment I may have held for JC was instantly quashed and I grew angry all over again.
I spent the rest of my day feeling listless and subdued, and not even the bouquet of flowers and lengthy note of apology from my dad or the chocolate milkshake Tom brought home from Johnny's could cheer me up. Rather, they just made me all the more acutely aware of my injuries and how lousy I felt. I ducked away into my bedroom after a family dinner fraught with tension and attempted to read some Jane Austen to get my mind off of everything, but I couldn't focus on the text. I had a Dave Matthews Band CD playing quietly in the background and I briefly took refuge in the music.
I felt the knot in the back of my head self-consciously and frowned. It turned out that I only had a mild concussion, which wasn't anything to worry about, but the doctor was very suspicious about it and that only served to make me more upset. I didn't want it to get blown out of proportion, and though I shouldn't have been hit in the first place, it wasn't a huge deal to me. Mom was a basket case, however. She sat with me during the doctor's examination, and every time he left the room, she gushed over a new worry. First, it was a DCFS investigation, then court, then foster care. Her constant prattling made my head spin, and I finally quieted her when she became convinced that she would never see me again.
"Just stop, for God's sake," I said firmly.
She quieted abruptly and furrowed her brow in concern. "You know he didn't mean it, sweetie. Your father... He gets a little out of control sometimes. He can't help it; he—" she began.
"—had a rough childhood, I know," I interrupted. "You tell me that every single time he gets like this."
"He means well, he really does, Cindy."
"Oh, I'm sure he only had the best of intentions in mind when he tried to knock my head in," I retorted sarcastically.
She sighed in exasperation. "If you had just—"
"If I had just what? If I had just been more levelheaded, more calm? If I had just lied? If I had just stood there? If I had just kept my big mouth shut? That might work good and well for you, but it doesn't for me. I did the right thing, okay? Actually, I take that back. The right thing would have been to tell the truth from the get-go, but I'm not the freaking idiot you all take me for, and I knew that Dad would've destroyed Tommy over the truth. Then Tom had to— never mind. Just defend your husband again."
"Cindy, I'm not trying to defend what he did."
"Then stop acting like it."
"I know he doesn't always show it, but your father loves you dearly, and I know he's sorry for what he did. He just doesn't know how to say it."
"Yeah, so he's having you say it for him. If he loves me so much and he's so apologetic, he can tell me himself, though I already know he won't."
"No more talking, all right? My head's killing me, and I don't feel like going through this all over again. I'm done."
A deep frown set into Mom's features, and her lips appeared even thinner as a result. She looked about as helpless as I felt, though nowhere near as angry. It seemed that she and I were always playing this game with each other. Mom would try and stick up for my father and his dumbass argument du jour, while I insisted that he was incapable of feeling anything towards me but antipathy. Eventually one or the other would finally declare a cease-fire, but nothing was ever solved. She would give me a look full of hopelessness and disappointment while I ended up just as cross as ever. We maintained our silence throughout the rest of the examination, and when Tommy drove me home, I didn't say a single word.
I sighed. I was still peeved at my mother, but spending the day on my own had taken off the edge and I was able to talk to her civilly for a few minutes while I helped set the table for dinner. Dinner itself was a whole other matter, of course. Nobody dared to speak for fear that the precarious balance of calm reinforced by our silence would be thrown askew. Though we did our best to hide it, our emotions ran deep and I was not the only one concealing strong opinions. My brother intermittently looked up from his spaghetti to glare at my dad and vice versa, while I sighed every once in a while and nibbled on some garlic bread. Mom's idea of a peace offering was to force everyone to second helpings of everything on the table, and it was a relief when I finally cleared my plate and got to escape to my bedroom, where I continued to dwell.
A knock on my door disturbed me from this reverie, and I felt myself frowning in displeasure. I really wasn't in the mood for company, but I was in no position to deny my intruder access as it was unofficially decided that I no longer had any grounds for being angry since apologies had been distributed. It was an unwritten family rule that the pain and anguish caused by fights and misunderstandings were rendered null and void after the party or parties at fault apologized. Though I was still justifiably angry with everyone, the peace treaty had been drawn up and it was my duty to at least pretend things were okay again.
"Come in," was the halfhearted command I issued as I paused the CD playing in my stereo system.
To my chagrin, it was my father who stepped inside my little pastel palace and eased the door shut behind him. "Is it all right if I take a seat?" he asked, gesturing to the chair tucked underneath my desk.
I nodded in acquiescence as he turned it towards my bed, and I looked away, fiddling with my watch awkwardly. Discussing anything with my dad was always uncomfortable for me because the both of us were so headstrong and confrontational. Sometimes the friendliest of discussions turned into battle royales, and my heart would palpitate in nervous anticipation whenever he tried to talk to me. It always struck me as sad how edgy his voice made me feel, and though he was occasionally capable of showing affection, I often felt him insincere. The few heartfelt conversations he'd had with me are often awkward and have the tendency to raise more questions than they answer.
It's just that he has this tone of voice that incites anger in me more than anything or anyone I've ever known. It's threatening, accusatory, and belittling all at once, and it is the cause of every fight we have. I feel like he's backing me into a corner, and I threaten, accuse, and belittle my way out of it, mirroring his bad attitude every step of the way. Sometimes I thought he spoke to me just to fight, using that fucking voice knowing how much it pissed me off, and the notion that he might use my ire for sport only made me more resentful of him. It was no surprise to me how wary I felt when he cleared his throat to speak, and though I was sure he had no intentions of starting a row with me, I didn't rule out the possibility of it happening.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
Like a bloodhound on the trail, I sniffed out traces of The Voice, laden with a hint of mocking and condescension. My blood pressure began to rise, and I fought the urge to be petulant. How the fuck do you think I feel, you bastard? came to mind, but "Eh… I've been better," came out of my mouth.
He nodded, the corners of his mouth turned down, and he sighed. "I'm sorry, Cindy. It's not fair what I did to you, and it's not healthy. I know I say this a lot, but I'm trying hard to be a better father to you and your brother than my father was to me, and it's really tough sometimes not to follow his example. When you grow up in an environment like that... It makes you do the wrong thing sometimes. It's not an excuse–"
Then stop using it like one. And you know what? Grandpa didn't hit me last night, Dad. You did, I thought bitterly.
"– but it shows you where I'm coming from."
Yeah – Hell.
"Sometimes, though… Sometimes you and your brother make me very angry, and when I get that frustrated, I don't know how to handle it. Sometimes it comes out like it did last night, and I promise it won't ever happen again."
Yeah, like I haven't heard that one before...
"Your mother and I decided that it would be a good idea for me to see a therapist for a little while. I'll, y'know, see if it takes, and hopefully things will change around here. I just want you to know that I love you very much and that I never intentionally hurt you. I only want what's best for you, and this ordeal has made me realize that I can quite often be an impediment to that end. I just ask for your patience while we all work through this together, as a family."
I nodded, cynically wondering how long his sense of personal responsibility would last. I almost scoffed at the fact that he deemed this a "family" endeavor when he was the crux of the problem, and ultimately its sole solution. I admit that it took me by surprise that he was going into counseling, and it made me feel some reassurance. Perhaps by taking out his frustrations on a psychologist, he would feel less compelled to knock my skull in next time something of this magnitude happened.
Just when I thought it was safe to return to my sulking and half-assed attempts to read Sense and Sensibility, he began to speak again. He had a bad habit of letting a pause draw out to the point where you were lulled into thinking the conversation was over before digging right in again. He particularly liked to do this to me when I was trying to eat something, and every time he did it, I always thought I should've been wise to it by then. I still wasn't wise to it. And even worse, he just had to ask a loaded question, too.
"Now, would you explain exactly why you're in this mess to begin with?" he asked.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit... I knew I was taking too long to answer, but I was having a hard time trying to turn a phrase that wouldn't offend him or spark another argument. "Um... I'd rather not say," I replied in spite of knowing full well that I was toast.
"Bullshit, Jacinda," he said gruffly.
Fuck off, you jackass. I don't have to explain myself to you. "It's complicated."
"Then it's a good thing I'm not an idiot."
Oh, for fuck's sake, man, let it go. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Tommy asked me to."
"Oh? And I suppose if Tommy asked you to jump off a bridge–"
"– I wouldn't," I interrupted angrily. The Voice was back with a vengeance, and I could feel my heart rate rise as I tried to control myself. "It's just that the two of us knew exactly what would happen if we told the truth. They'd toss Tom into a suspension room and they'd keep him from playing the next game or two. Well, considering the Notre Dame scout was going to be at the game that day, we both figured it would be imperative that he play." Because you would have killed the two of us if he didn't, you jackass.
"You felt that you would blemish your permanent record, the only thing you had going for you, so he could play for the Notre Dame scout? And then you felt that turning the tables so that he ended up suspended for the state quarterfinal was a better decision?"
FUCK YOU! "That wasn't part of the bargain," I replied simply, pursing my lips to hold in the multiple objections I had to his questions.
"There was a bargain?"
"He said he'd do anything for me if I did him that favor, and, knowing how much Notre Dame football means to you, I took him up on it. I asked him to confess to the administration himself, and to make a long story short, he refused and in doing so, really pissed me off. I took matters into my own hands, and the rest is history. Not that it mattered, because he is playing in the quarterfinals anyway."
"That's not what he told me yesterday." The Voice had morphed into accusatory mode, and I was not about to let him call me a liar again.
"That's what he'll tell you today," I said tartly.
His gray eyes narrowed, and I hoped that he was willing to show a little more restraint than me. "Why did you want him to confess?" he finally asked.
"That doesn't matter now, either. JC's still mad at me."
I hadn't realized right away that I had mentioned JC by name, so I tried to conjure up an answer that discouraged any more questioning. JC was the last person I wanted to think about at that moment, and it wasn't going to do me any good to reexamine his behavior any further. "Just the guy that Tom was aiming for."
"That's it?" he asked skeptically.
"That's it," I affirmed with a nod of finality.
He eyed me warily, and upon realizing that he wasn't going to get anymore information out of me, finally quit his interrogation, leaving me with a "love you, honey" that fell upon deaf ears.
Yep, that's it. That's abso-fucking-lutely it, I thought bitterly as I picked up my book again and started to read.