You’re standing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, wrapped in your shawl. It’s September, and you can smell Autumn in the air. The porter offered to get you a cab, but you explained that you’re from the party inside, and just needed a break.
The door behind you opens, and John steps out, engaged into a conversation with a man whom you vaguely recognise from the Rivendell presentation. The man’s leaving, they are hastily finishing their amicable conversation, and you’re awkwardly stuck in front of them on the sidewalk. You have to endure yet another ‘no, thank you, I don’t need a cab’ explanation. You are half tempted to actually agree and leave. The man’s finally in a cab, John waves to him, and you cowardly edge towards the door, hoping to sneak in without talking to him.
“Are you alright?” he asks behind you, and you cringe. You turn around and meet his attentive eyes. “Hello.”
“Hello.” You give him an unnatural smile. “Lovely evening.” His eyebrows jump up from your daft remark. “Congratulations.” You sound unsure. Is one even supposed to offer congratulation to a retiring person?
“Thank you. I’m officially old now.” His eyes are gleaming with some merry light. “Wren, you seem distressed. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah… Just… I don’t like parties, you know,” you mumble your half arse excuse.
“No, you don’t. You don’t get to get drunk and make unreasonable choices. And I doubt you’re here to see whether I’m senile or feeble.” He pushes his hands into the trousers pockets. “Which is what most of my guests are here for.”
“You have made a surprising move. They are all wondering.” He nods, and then throws you an impish look from the corner of his eye.
“Wondering? Of course I am. But unlike the others, I don’t feel you owe me an explanation.” He smiles to you softly, and looks up into the smoky sky above him. There are of course no stars, but you know his interest in astronomy. And you know him. He’s seeing the constellations in his mind.
“I did it for you.” He looks down at you, his face calm and open. “The project is your life, your career, your future. You need to be able to build it the way you want, without looking over your shoulder all the time. Without people wondering whether I had any hand in any of your achievements.”
“But… What?” There is some strange buzzing in your right temple. “Have you considered asking me? If I need it? If I want it?” Here you go. You can’t fucking believe it! It’s just the same story again! Him making a decision that directly affects you, and you’re supposed to… what? Thank him?! Admire him for it?! Give him another chance?!
“It was my decision.” He’s still completely open and almost serene. “I can’t work with you. I can’t be near you. I don’t want to one day come to the lab and see you with Anderson, or any other man. And I don’t trust myself. I can’t be sure that if I’m near you, I won’t do something… harmful, in an attempt to manipulate you, to get you back. I’m just making sure that I’m not around to arse up your life again.”
You’re staring at him, your mouth ungracefully half open.
“I’m not making a sacrifice, Wren. I’m doing what I think is right.”
“I don’t know what to say…”
“You don’t have to say anything. On the other hand, if you want to talk about it, you know my number. The line is always open for you.” He waits a few seconds, in case you have something to squeak, and then he nods to his own thoughts, and goes back to the party.
You decide it’s time to take that cab and go home.
The next seven months are the calmest time in your life. After a while, it starts feeling like that film with Bill Murray. You work Monday to Friday; you spend Saturday cleaning and cooking and shopping; on Sunday you sometimes hang out with Killian and Lan who seem happier and more and more disgustingly mushy every day; sometimes you hang out with Thea, but she’s once again on good terms with Jimmy, which means you see her much less now.
After the initial shock of the conversation at the retirement party, you processed what he said, and you feel grateful. Until he left, you didn’t realise how tense you were – jumping when a door would open, dreading project meetings, always worried that ‘Thorington’s ex doxy’ is all people see in you.
You are Wren now. Wren Leary, an excellent specialist in biochemistry, single, independent, a ginger. You have your work, you have your flat. You’re saving money on your bank account. You have hobbies. You’ve started drawing and painting again. There is a new Yamataki grant everyone is talking about, and you’re considering entering the competition. The focus of the research isn’t exactly what you’ve done before, but you can study, and manage it, and diversity is always good, isn’t it? And a bit of challenge would be nice too. You wouldn’t want to stagnate in your academic career. You’re starting to look into postgrad schools as well.
You make two trips to Rivendell Institute, for the project, and hang out with the students you met there during that eventful presentation. Elvig is continuing his attempts to ‘seduce’ you to switch labs, and you let him. It’s flattering, and you prefer to keep your options open.
It is his interest in your academic capacities that leads to him inviting you to his birthday celebration. It’s a week in his country house, ‘only family and friends’ he says, but you don’t believe him. You’re neither, and nonetheless you’re provided with a car sharing companion – also, not a friend or relative of Elvig’s – and you are to be picked up at your place at seven o’clock in the morning. You take a week off, pack your suitcase, and at six fifty there is a buzz into your door.
You do know who your car sharing companion is, but the view of him – stylish denim, a brown leather jacket over an olive jumper, and suede Timberlands – hits you to the temple like a sledgehammer. You’re so mesmerized by the soft smile in his bright blue eyes that you forget your meticulously prepared line of behaviour.
“Morning, Wren. Do you need any help with your bags?”
You mumble a ‘good morning, John’ and point at your small suitcase. This is going to be a long ride.