He stops in the nearest Starbucks, and for the next half an hour the two of you are sipping coffee in silence. You’re watching the streets rush by. Anything is better than scrutinising his car and trying to discreetly study him. Everything inside his Rover is familiar, it’s a terrifying deja-vu – as if nothing had happened. There are small differences, though; and you can’t help but take notice. His hair is shorter. The car air freshener is different. He didn’t take sugar in his coffee.
“With all this hustle, I’ve seen very little of Killian recently. How’s he doing?” That’s how it’s done, Wren. Relaxed tone, meaningful question. He sounds sincerely interested, and not just filling in the silence in the car.
“He seems to be doing well. The school is progressing well. And he’s very happy with Lan.” There is a note of defensiveness in your last statement.
“Good.” John nods, his eyes on the road. “I’m glad.”
“You don’t object? After all, Lan is a Thrandon.”
“Well, thankfully, he’s not Montague, and Killian hardly ‘hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear, beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.’”
Seriously, that’s a low blow! Quoting the Bard in this voice of his! You’d like to stay unaffected, but for that you’d need to be made of bloody stone.
“Deadre is very pleased with this development, so you know.” This is the first time since he came in into your flat to pick you up that his tone is unpleasant. “She likes to seem liberal and open-minded.” His sister is the last person you’d like to discuss at the moment.
You keep quiet and twist the empty cup in your hands.
“So, what’s our plan for Elvig?” he asks, and you stare at him in shock. What?! ‘Our?’
He throws a quick side glance at you, and then his eyes are back on the road. He’s absolutely flipping calm!
“What do you mean by a ‘plan for Elvig?’” you mumble, and he smiles melancholically.
“He clearly wants us both in the Institute. So, the question is do you want me there?” You’re impersonating a guppy, and he continues, “Wren, I’ve managed to stay away from you for seven months. As I said last time, you have my number, and if you ever need me, I’m here for you. But if you decide to move to Rivendell, and at the same time, you don’t want to work with me…” He trails away in a pointed tone, and shrugs.
You want to ask him if he wants to work in Rivendell, but then you understand the wisdom of him not elaborating on it. He doesn’t want to push you. And you are, after all, a people pleaser, and a ‘Dr John Thorington pleaser’ more so. It’s been only nine months or so since you broke up… and perhaps, it doesn’t even matter how long it’s been. Perhaps, it’ll never change.
You look at him askance. He’s carefully driving, and then you see that he’s listening. He’s actually listening to you.
Long ago when it was just the two of you, when it wasn’t about work, or the bleeding wedding – there would be just the two of you, in bed, and it didn’t matter if you’d shagged, or not, it was just about lying together and listening to each other. Some new film, a book one of you read as a child, random thoughts on weather, on life, and universe, and everything… Once, you were lying, your cheek pressed to his tee covered chest, and your finger was tracing the print on it, and he suddenly announced that when he was a seven, his favourite dinosaur was the stegosaurus, because when they found its remains for the first time, its brain was so small, that archaeologists assumed that perhaps there was another one somewhere else. The two of you laughed about the stegosaurus, and then you kissed him, and everything was right in the world, because you listened to each other.
“I might consider moving to Rivendell,” you start speaking in a small voice, and with each word you sound more and more assured. “The lab is just… depressing. I feel like the focus of research has shifted, and I feel limited. Also, Maya is clearly determined to end me. I get it, there can be only one Queen Bee there, but she’s properly rabid these days.”
You peek. He’s still listening. You wonder if you’re supposed to talk that much. Do ex-girlfriends talk that much about their personal affairs? How about ex-fiancees, who broke it off couple weeks before the wedding?
“And no, I don’t want to work with you,” you add, and sigh. Might as well go all in. It’s true. This ride is the best proof that you can’t look at him without feeling like you have a surgical chisel lodged under your ribs on the left side.
He nods and smiles some soft joyless smile.
“Thank you for being direct, Wren.” He then turns to you and the smile grows warmer and wider. “Cheer up. You got through the worst – the honest refusal. As my therapist says, voicing out a healthy choice is always a victory.”
“Therapist? You have a therapist?” Your eyes boggle. You’d never in your life imagine this!
“Well, it isn’t a solution for everyone, but it works for me. It was clear I needed to find some way to avoid the second attack. Therapy helps.”
“I’ve noticed the change…” you mutter, studying his profile. “You’re much more outspoken.”
“Thank you. And I’ll let Dr Harris know. I’m sure hearing this from you would count as my homework done.”
That seems to conclude this excruciating discussion, and the two of you slip into that kind of talking when it’s hard to remember later what it was about, but at the time it’s interesting, and exciting, and surprisingly easy. You talk about having a place of your own for the first time in life, and he laughs and asks if you colour code your groceries in the cabinets. You snort and tell him that only the grains and the three kinds of sugar that you have. He tells you about a short trip to France he went to last month, and how it rained, and how in Paris he always feels like the second Eiffel Tower because he’s taller than everybody. You’ve heard this joke before from him, and you nod and chuckle, because you’re imagining him plod through Paris streets, water dripping off his long nose.
You arrive to the mansion; couple other cars are unloading at the same time; and you go up to your room to change for dinner.
This is the dinner where you meet Mik Beornsson, and everything changes – again.
Mik Beornsson is the head of a privately owned Swedish biotech company specialising in skin cancer treatment research. He’s huge, loud, and disrespectful. He asks questions that make everyone uncomfortable, and his strange pale eyes shift between the guests.
“What a beastly man!” Elvig’s daughter whispers into your ear, and you give her a supportive sympathetic smile. He’s just asked her whether she’s going to marry her ‘old man,’ or she’s ‘OK with living in sin.’ She’s indeed dating a man much older than her, but of course everyone else avoids the topic. He thought his joke very funny, if one is to go by his loud laughing.
“And you, Ms Leary? What are your plans in life? You can’t hide in Maya’s lab forever. She’ll make sure you dry up and shrivel.” He points at you with his fork. “No one likes an ambitious talented young thing in their backyard.” He booms a sharp laugh.
“I’m considering a postgraduate program, Dr Beornsson,” you answer in a polite neutral tone. “I’m still to determine the topic of my research, but I’ve been looking into…”
“How about that, Thorington?” the Swed interrupts you, and turns to John. “I’ve heard you’ve given up all your research to give her space. And now she wants to go back to studying. It’s your chance to be useful to her again.”
The table is silent, and you see Elvig put his fork down. He opens his mouth to interfere, when John speaks in an even inexpressive tone.
“Firstly, that would be a conflict of interest. Secondly, she is in the room.” He then looks at you and smiles. You return the smile.
“Conflict of interest? And it wasn’t one before when you worked together?” The Swed scoffs. “And by the way would you leave the project you’d been working towards half your life for someone else?”
“That’s enough, Mik,” Elvig starts, but the Swed smacks his hand to the table. There are about fifteen more guests at the table, and everyone twitches.
“I’m just asking what everyone had been thinking! Don’t shut me up, Hugo,” Beornsson snarls, and turns back to John. “Would you have done it for anyone else besides a very sexy ex, Thorington?”
Their eyes are locked, and you once again understand it’s not about you. It has happened so many times before that all you do at this stage is just shrug and ignore. Again, some old rivalry, someone stealing someone’s girlfriend, or a contract, or something like that.
“I’d do it for anyone who’s dear to me.” John’s voice is completely relaxed, and the guests are frozen in shock. So are you. “And if you don’t learn to behave, Mik, I’ll move you to the children table.”
Beorn barks another of his laughs that sound like a bear roar.
“You’re a tosser, Thorington, but you’ve got style, I’ll give you that. You and your little ginger are off the hook. I have plenty of other… victims here.” He picks up his fork and pops a piece of artichoke into his mouth, giving you a wink.
The dinner continues in peace, and after it, while everyone is chatting over nuts and cheese, you notice that John is nowhere to be seen.
You bump into him at the back garden terrace half an hour later, when you come out to get some fresh air. He’s sitting in an armchair, and lifts his eyes at you.
The next chapter is the last one (or perhaps, the penultimate) in this story. Remember, I promised a melancholic, yet hopeful open ending? That would be it.
But since most of you voted for the resolution of John and Wrennie’s story, there will be either another story, or a series of one shots after that.
You should be proud of yourselves, my duckies. You’ve survived the angst. Now only the good stuff is ahead of us.
Love you all.
Thank you for writing this story with me.