Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cambridge Connections - Chapter Twenty Nine


Arrival and Departure


With four hours to go until her flight left, she sat down and began an email to her mother, with the subject ‘Final email from across the pond.’

Hi mum,
Just a final quick note from me to say that everything is packed up and I’m just about to leave for the airport. Claudia has shipped me off with a load of food in case the meal is horrid, and a contract practically signed in blood to keep in contact with her when I’m back home!!
Also, I heard from Alex yesterday… We’ve been having a bit of an email-reconciliation, and I’m glad to be back in touch with him. Anyway, we’ll see how things go when I’m back in the UK.
I’ll text you when I land, and I’ll see you tomorrow, or today, or whatever time it is for you there!! So confused…
Lots of love,
Sam xxx

Check-in was a blur. She had some kind of conversation with the girl at the desk about going home, and what she’d been doing in Canada, but it rapidly became a vague shadow, even as she went through security.

Even the fact that the occupants of the two seats next to her were a father travelling with his small daughter didn’t seem so bad, and she even forgot to be nervous on take-off. All of these events were taking her closer to the runway at Heathrow, to the endless miles of corridors in the terminal, to border control, and then to the arrivals lounge. Would he even be there? Might he just chicken out and leave her there?

Shut up and go to sleep, she scolded herself as the Atlantic Ocean rushed past, however many thousands of feet below, switching the overhead light off and lowering the soft eye-mask that Claudia had given her as a ‘flight essential’ over her eyelids. England inched closer as they travelled at five-hundred-and-whatever miles per hour over the deep, blue water.

She woke with a start and thought for a wonderful moment that she had slept through the whole flight, but it turned out that the five year old was throwing the mother of all tantrums. It appeared to have been going on for some time, because the father looked like he was about to wither away from either embarrassment or exhaustion. Sam realised that something was digging into her thigh and looked down to see that it was a small plastic doll. Fishing it out before it became an integral part of her leg, she held it up and said to the girl, hoping she would hear her over her wailing. “Hey, does she belong to you?” she asked.

Her little, freckled face lit up and she stopped crying. She grabbed the doll from Sam’s hand. “What’s your name?” Sam asked as the father, in his late thirties, tossed her a grateful look.

“Serena,” she said, shaking her little mousy-coloured pigtails.

“Like the tennis player,” Sam smiled sleepily.

“Yeah,” she giggled. “I’m going to be a famous as well when I grow up.”

“Are you?” she said, eyeing the reams of paper and pencils rolling around the tiny, fold-down tray. “Can I have your autograph then, so that when you’re a superstar I can say I met you once on a plane?”

The girl seemed delighted at this proposal, and drew out a pink pencil from her collection and did some indecipherable doodle on a scrap of paper. “Here!” she said in triumph.

“Thank you,” Sam said, folding it up and sliding it carefully into the book she'd taken out but not opened yet.

The girl then turned around and announced to her father that she needed to go to the toilet, and Sam took the opportunity to put her mask back on and try and get some more sleep. They still had three hours to go.

Passport control took an absolute age. It seemed like the entire world was waiting airside at Heathrow, all crammed into the little roped-off lanes and clamouring to be let through. When she finally made it to the little sentry box, she practically flung her maroon passport at the guard and hopped nervously on the spot. Would he be there?

Of course, the baggage took another million years to be offloaded and put onto the carousels, but that might just have been her anxious impatience stretching out the time. When it eventually lumbered into sight, her huge rucksack was battered and bruised, but it hadn’t disintegrated completely during the flight. When she finally saw it on the luggage carousel, she tried to heave it off, but had to let it go again as it was too heavy and awkward to lift from the moving track. An enormous and very helpful man with a Canadian accent stood next to her and grabbed it by its retreating strap and said, “This yours?”

“Yeah, thank you,” she panted, slinging her arm through it and heaving it onto her back with a thud.

And then she bolted for the arrivals hall through the ‘nothing to declare’ corridor and arrived on the airward side of the barriers. Decorum, Sam, she scolded herself. Don't behave like an escaped rhino. She scanned the faces for one in particular.

She stopped. Her legs unable to move her forward. He was there; he was right there. Alex was sitting there in his chair, wearing that NASA t-shirt from their very first encounter and a pair of dark jeans. He held up a piece of white paper in his hand. On it, in thick black Sharpie, she could see that he had written, "White flag." Her heart lurched. It had been months since she'd seen him, and the way that the muscles of her heart contracted suddenly, making the blood sing in her ears, confirmed for her exactly what her answer to his email really was. Yes.

She barrelled at him like an RPG, dumping her backpack yards from where he was, and flung herself at him. She was still standing, but her arms wound around his neck, and she clamped him to her. Then, regardless of what a spectacle they were making of themselves, and without untangling herself from him, she climbed onto his lap, legs dangling back over his wheels, and she took him – wheelchair and all – into her embrace. His little sign fluttered away like a moth in a forgotten room, and landed, blank side up, several yards away from them, abandoned, no longer needed.

"Oh Sam," he whimpered, his hands working all over her, over her back, her shoulders, scooping her head in his massive hand, unable to hug her quite enough. "Sam, I'm so sorry."

"Shh," she breathed into the thick, dark hair behind his ear. "I know. I've read your email enough times to know that."

"I'm sorry," he whispered again, unable to stop himself. He was cradling the back of her head in his huge palm, and he pinned her to him. In fact, she discovered he was holding her to him so tightly that she physically could not draw back. She felt his chest heave up like a wave in a stormy sea, and thought with a jolt that he was in tears. In fact, he had just given the kind of dry, sobbing gasp of a man who truly regrets his actions. "I'm sorry," he muttered again into her hair.

"Alex, shh," she said, forcing her head back to reveal his face where he'd buried it somewhere between her collarbones and her breasts. "Didn't you hear me? I know you are. Come on, let's get going."

He gazed up into her face for a moment or two his eyes dark, glassy, his hands frozen, soldered to her waist by what looked like confused disbelief. "You mean...?"

She felt a trickle of icy water run through her happiness, and she said evenly, quietly, "I didn't say you were forgiven. Just that I know you're sorry."

His shoulders slumped, and his hands slid from her waist and landed quietly on the push-rims of his chair. He gave a single, mute nod of understanding, and leaned back against the low-slung backrest. He wasn’t wearing his KAFO’s, she noted.

She knew it was time to stand up. Placing her hands on the sides of his head, where the black waves swirled around his ears, and pulled herself down, planting a kiss in the centre of his forehead. A shuddering breath left his lungs, but he stayed silent.

Swinging her leg off him, she stood and turned around, walking over to collect her bag from where she'd abandoned it, before airport security could cart it off and disembowel it, mistaking it for a threat. The most hazardous things in it though were a week's worth of unwashed socks. She heaved the rucksack onto her back, letting it land with a painful thump against her spine. She turned back to look at him and her heart did a little dance. He was so painfully attractive, it was hard to remember how angry she’d been with him, and for how long.

As she re-joined him, he looked up at her and said, "I know you said you had a train ticket, but my offer of a lift home still stands..."

Indecision ripped her clean in two. Sitting on the train, alone, tired, and after all this, seemed more unbearable than she could stand to imagine, and yet climbing in the car and sitting with him next to her for the two hours it would take to drive from Heathrow to home, was again almost too much to think about.

"Whatever you decide," he said, swivelling the chair round on the spot with a practiced ease that, despite herself, she found incredibly sexy. He glanced up over his left shoulder, gave her bag a pointed look, and added, "If that's heavy, you can sling it on my lap if you like."

She smiled at his alternatively gallant way of asking if he could take her bag. Still so thoughtful, she mused fondly. "I've just got it lodged up there, thank you, I think I'll leave it," she paused, "As for the lift..." she took another breath, "My mum is expecting to pick me up from the station, and I don't think she's really ready to hear that I'm talking to you again, let alone climbing into a car with you. She'll worry."

Alex wasn't able to keep the disappointment from his face and from slumping his shoulders. "Sure."

"Wait," she said, laying a hand on the top of his solid shoulder. Alex stopped pushing his wheels, his arms like great pistons falling quiet. "That doesn't mean I don't value what you've done today." There were people milling around them in anonymous streams, all intent on leaving the country or returning home, none of them taking any note of the pair who had halted in the middle of the arrivals lounge. "Thank you."

His lip trembled slightly for a second and he turned his dark eyes away, his mouth then setting itself into a hard line while his dark brows buckled in an effort to keep his emotions inside. He swallowed visibly. "I had to see you," he mumbled. "I know it's selfish, but I had to see you." He began to move away again, following the exit signs.

"I'm glad... I'm glad you had the courage to do it. I don't think I would have done in your shoes."

His palms clamped against the smooth rims and he slowed, and he fixed her with those piercing eyes again. "I can't tell you how many times I talked myself out of coming today..."

She smiled and said with a small gulp, "It's been really hard not seeing you. I thought about you an awful lot."

A watery smile crept across his face, but his eyes were still hard, focussing inward. As she watched, she thought how Alex seemed different; altered by his actions in a way that was more fundamental than she had expected, the discovery of which was both a relief and a bit of a worry to her. Have I been harder on him than I ought to have been? He will have been hard enough on himself, she mused as she recalled the dark shadows which had hung under his eyes like mourning dress the last time she'd seen him.

Their progress through the hoards of vague-eyed travellers was slow but steady. The rolling walkways presented no challenge to Alex in his chair, and he seemed glad to have a brief rest. His gaze lingered on his knees, hands on the rims of his chair, rocking himself back and forth; his version of pacing.

As they neared the end of the rolling walkway, they both knew they were about to be were confronted with a choice: one way led to the car parks and the other to the trains. The black and yellow airport signs hung like a sword of Damocles at the junction ahead. Sam was nearly boiling over with emotion when Alex wheeled skilfully off the end of the belt and moved away toward his exit. Was he deliberately not looking at her, not waiting for her? What was that great, broad, silent back telling her? 

She thought for a horrible moment that he was just going to head straight for the lifts without ever stopping to speak to her, but he slowed, coming to a halt right under the 'car parks' sign. He had made his stand. He swivelled on the spot and finally, his eyes found her face. "Will I see you again?" he croaked, those eyes like polished onyx.

Her answer flew from her lips before she could stop herself. "Yes," she breathed. Taking half a second to compose herself, she swallowed and added, "Yes you will. I'm not sure exactly when, but you will."

Alex's eyes glittered again, but he smiled. His voice was thick with sadness though as he said, "I'm glad."

She glanced at the digital clock that seemed to be tapping its fingers at her as its orange diodes flicked through the seconds. "I'd better get going or I'll miss my train."

He nodded.

She leaned down and put her arms around his shoulders in a more reserved hug. "Thank you for coming all this way. It means a lot."

"Uh-huh," he muttered, sounding choked. "I'm glad," he repeated.

Sam hitched the rucksack up her back a little more, hoisting it up by the straps, and muttered, "I'll see you." Turning on the spot before she could become choked up herself, she almost ran towards the steps of the bridge which led eventually to the trains. She did not look back.

The faint 'ping' of the lift doors reached her above the tramping of footsteps and she suddenly stopped at the top of the stairs. What the hell am I doing? she thought wildly. Clattering back down the steps, her rucksack bashing and clanging against her like a tinker's pack, she scuttled towards the doors of the elevator. The silver doors closed with cold indifference as she rushed for them. She dithered on the spot, repeatedly mashing the call button in a frenzied panic. It was clearly and obviously not going to come back for her. She made for the stairwell beside the lifts, but she had no idea which level he'd parked on. She dashed back up to the lifts, thinking to see where it had stopped by following its progress on the little screen which displayed which floor it was on. It paused on -2 and she darted for the stairwell again.

Scurrying down the stairs, she nearly fell head-over-heels twice, and both times she was forced to clutch the bannister wildly to stop herself tumbling down and hurting herself. "Slow down," she whispered.

By the time she had plummeted to the car park at level -2, she was beginning to panic again. What if he'd not got off there at all? What if someone else had just got in instead? She shot out of the stairwell into the grey, dimly lit, concrete car park. It was only after ten seconds of letting her eyes roam wildly over the rows and rows of parked cars that she realised he'd have parked in the disabled bays, close to the elevators. She whipped around; she recognised the top outline of a black BMW sitting half-concealed behind a couple of other cars. But there was no one beside it and what little she could see of the driver's side seemed empty. "Alex," she breathed to herself in despair.

She took a few steps towards it, her hope not entirely crushed, and as she rounded the end of the car next to the BMW, she saw a dark form hunched beside the driver's door. It was Alex, slumped forward, with his head in his hands, sobbing like a lost child. She slithered out of the straps of her enormous rucksack, and set it silently on the concrete beside the boot of his car. Stepping soundlessly up behind him, she ran her hands up his bowed back and slipped her arms around his neck, hugging him from behind.

He jumped a mile at her touch. Looking first to his right, and then round to his left. "Sam!" he exclaimed. His face was stained with tears and his eyes were pink and bloodshot. "What are you doing here? What about your train?"

"Screw the train. I'm coming with you," she said in his ear, gripping his neck and chest tightly.

He was unable to turn the wheelchair because she had locked him in place with her arms. "Damn it, Sam," he panted as he found he couldn't move. "Let me go for a second will you? Let me look at you."

Unwillingly, she released him, and his hands flew to the rims, spinning with the speed of a ballroom dancer so that he was looking, staring, at her.

"You..." he couldn't finish his sentence. He smeared the back of his hand roughly across his cheek.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking down at him. "You came all this way, and I just freaked out. I should have said yes straight off."

He reached his hands up to her face and she found herself leaning forward to take him in her arms again. Her lips found his and everything around her vanished. There was nothing outside that kiss, and it told her that everything he'd said in his message was true. He did truly love her, and only her, and he was truly, truly sorry.

Alex's eyes sparkled when they parted. "Let's get going then," he blustered, clearly embarrassed at having shown quite so much emotion.

Sam stood there for a second, taking longer than usual to come back to her senses. "Sure," she croaked at last. "Alright to chuck my bag in the boot? Or do you want it on the back seat?" She didn't know if he'd want her to take his chair to the boot like she had done before when she'd been a passenger, or whether he'd feed it in pieces onto the back seat behind them.

"Er, no, you're good to put it in the boot," he said as he turned around again in the space between the disabled bays, and he transferred rapidly to the driver's seat.

She took her time, giving him his space to dismantle the chair and heave it onto the back seat, and removing the risk of being smacked in the face with an errant wheel or something. When he was in, she slid into the passenger seat and looked at his flushed face.

He stared at her for a second, then closed his eyes and breathed out. His hands were shaking, resting on the still muscles of his thighs, and she saw again that he wasn't wearing his KAFO's underneath his thick jeans. "I know a simple 'thank you', for giving me a second chance, doesn’t really cover it, but still...” He squeezed his right thigh between his fingers and his thumb which made his leg straighten just a little, before releasing it and carrying on. “I... I should have let go and trusted that you did truly see past all this -" he smacked the back of his hands on his numb thighs. "And that you weren't compromising or screening what you saw. And I'm sorry. For all that, and the rest."

He looked up at her, seeking reassurance in her face and she smiled, but she said nothing, sensing that he still had more to say.

"Rachel and I -" Sam winced internally at the name but kept her face passive, "- were never going to be right for each other, and you needn't worry about that. I don't - and honestly I never really did - want her. I only want you, Sam. I'm so sorry my actions caused you so much pain, and after you've done so much for me."

She smiled. "Alex," she began, but found that the rest of her sentence had evaporated off her tongue, and she couldn't go on. She started over. "I know that. I know that now. I'm not saying I'm not hurting about it, because I am -" she held her hand up as he looked like he was going to interrupt her, an anguished look haunting his brows, "- hear me out, please." He looked chagrined and promptly sat back into the seat, right knee jumping a little. "But I've had eight months to think about it and to get over it. The former gave me no trouble," she said dryly. "The latter has proved harder. But... I think actually my overriding sentiment about the whole thing is jealousy."

Alex's eyes widened, incredulous. "What?"

"I'm jealous of her. I'm jealous that you could turn to her so easily, and not to me. That's what hurts me the most, I think. That you couldn't tell me how you felt, and that you could tell her. I'm not blaming you," she added swiftly, "I'm just jealous that she understands how you feel about... about your body, and about your disability, and that I don't, not truly. And I probably never will."

He sat there, stunned for a moment. His lips parted, but only breath came out. He tried again, his eyes like liquid onyx. "You... oh Sam, you're still taking this on yourself, aren't you?"

She shuffled in her seat. "Maybe you're right," she said. "But you can't deny that that's the real reason you were in that situation in the first place, can you? That you weren't comfortable talking to me about it?"

He swallowed again, his Adam's apple dancing nervously in his throat. "No, I can't. But that was my fault, Sam. It was my fault for not letting myself trust you. You never put a foot wrong. Never."

She smiled, and then sighed, rubbing her forehead with her index finger. "This is going to take more untangling than mulling it over sitting in an airport car park."

"Yeah," he chuckled. "It probably will.” He fished beneath him for the keys, realising he’d sat down on them in his hurry to get in the car. “Let's get going." He turned the keys and put the car in reverse, sliding slowly and carefully out of the parking bay. She'd forgotten what it looked like to see a car guided by hand controls, and let her eyes fix on the movement of his palm and fingers, allowing herself a little Star Trek smile as she remembered how the controls were more like a fighter jet's than a car's.

She sat silently as Alex concentrated on getting out of the labyrinthine car park, but once he was headed towards the motorway, Sam asked, "Are you happy with the way to my parents' from here or will you need a map-reading elf?"

He smiled, truly smiled, for the first time since she'd seen him, and he tossed a quick look askance at her, saying, "Always need an elf..."

She laughed. All the memories and good times and fun coming coursing back to her in the wake of that one little phrase.

Alex’s eyes were still crinkled at the corners as he added, “But no, I’ve got the satnav set up from last time. You should rest; you must be exhausted.”

“I need to phone my mum to tell her I’m not getting the train…”

He looked awkward for a moment. “Ah, we probably should have done that before we set off…”

She knew he was trying say that a degree of privacy would have made that phone call easier, but it was too late for that. She drew out her phone and dialled home. Her mother picked up and her voice was so full of joy and so loud that Sam thought Alex could probably hear every word, even over the noise of the engine. “Oh Sammy!” she boomed. “You’ve landed then. Have you got your bags and everything?”

“Yup,” she said, wondering how on earth she was going to tell her what was going on. Best just to go for it. “Listen, mum, I… er… I’m not getting the train back…”

“What? Why not? Is everything alright?” Her mother’s voice had become frantic in a heartbeat.

“Yes, everything’s ok. Listen, you know I told you I’d got back in contact with Alex…?”

“Yes,” her mother said slowly, the adrenaline clearly still mounting.

“Well, he mentioned in his last email –” she neglected to tell her mother that this email had only been sent a day or so before she'd left Canada, “– that he wanted to come to the airport when I landed.”

“He hasn’t…?” she fumed, apparently unable to finish her question.

“He has. And we’ve spoken.” She shot a look at at Alex, who was concentrating very hard on the number plate of delivery HGV ahead. “He wanted to drive me home. It’s a good chance to talk some more. I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”

“Sam, are you sure about this? I think you should get the train…”

“Too late now,” she said testily. “We’re half way down the M25.”

Her mother sighed. “Be careful, Samantha.”

“Always,” she said, softening her tone a little.

“See you soon then.”

Alex tossed her a glance as she hung up and put the phone away, and said, “I take it I won’t be treated to the fatted calf when I drop you off?”

“From her tone, you’ll be lucky to get just the cold shoulder,” she smiled sadly.

“I can see her point,” he said, eyes back to reading the road again.

“She doesn’t know the half of it though.”

“That’s probably why she’s so cross…”

“True,” she yawned.

“You just snuggle down and I’ll get you home. We’ll worry about the reception party when we get there.”

She chuckled, yawned again, and closed her eyes. Suddenly that tiredness she’d felt on the plane caught up with her again and she nodded. “Mmmm,” she murmured, burrowing down into the seat. Sleep reached up for her from its velvety darkness in a matter of minutes, and she found herself lulled towards it by the motion of the car, and by something else. It took her a while to work out exactly what it was, and she was right on the edge of consciousness when she realised what it was. She smiled: it was Alex’s subtle cologne.

The next thing she knew, Alex’s hand was on her shoulder and she was surfacing from a dreamless sleep. She blinked. The sky was a different kind of blue now, and out of the window she could see the big fluffy clouds that form by the seaside, and the car was no longer moving. She recognised the leafy hedges and painted fences. He had brought her home.

“We’re here,” he murmured.

She sat up slowly, coming round and blinking blearily.

There was a movement at the front door of the house, and her mother came marching down the garden path as with the intent and determination of a charging bull. Sam looked worriedly at Alex and said, “Maybe hang on a minute?”

He looked at the incoming missile and nodded. “No argument there…” he muttered.

She smiled, stepped out of the car and scuttled around. Her mother stopped, as though astonished to see her child all in one piece, and then threw her arms around her in a hysterically tight hug. “Oh Samantha!” she cried, cradling the back of her head in her hand. “I’ve been so worried. I wish you’d got that train!” She let go of her and made a move to the car, rapping her knuckles on the glass of Alex’s window. “You!” she snapped. “You should have stayed away from my daughter!”

“Mum!” she shrieked in surprise and alarm as Alex leaped back, shocked, away from the glass. “Mum, stop!” She grabbed her by the arm and practically yanked her away from the window. “We’ve talked about what happened – we both understand everything now, and we’re working on moving forward. It’s not what you think. Let me tell you about it all later, when we’re inside.”
  
Her mother took a while to stop twitching. Sam ushered her back in through the front door and handed her over to her father, who looked surprisingly understanding. When he’d taken Helen into the sitting room and told her to sit down, he returned to the hall and said softly, “I heard what you said to her. I’m glad you and Alex are working all this out.” He paused, scratching the back of his head thoughtfully. “Seven months too late, if you ask me, but better late than never.”

She was shocked. “You mean…?”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “I’ve always liked the lad, and I knew from what you told us at the time that there had to be something more to what happened than just him cheating on you…” He hugged her and when he’d released her, he said, “You’re too good for anyone to cheat on. Anyway, I'm glad you're back safely. You look..." he paused, eyeing her up and down, "A bit thinner?"

She smiled sadly, glancing down at her legs. "Yeah, I seem to have lost some weight over there."

"We can soon put that right," he smiled. "Now, are you going to invite your chauffeur in or are you going to make him turn straight round and drive another three hours back up to Cambridge?”

“But what about mum…?”

“I’ll handle your mother. Invite the boy in.” And he turned on his heel and, as Sam was heading out of the front door, down the two tiny steps, she heard her father say, “Why don’t you go upstairs? Sam’s inviting Alex in, and they need this time to be together without us. This is their problem. Not ours. Come on…”

Sam returned to the car, and said, “You want to come in?”

He smiled, reached for the frame of his chair and then stopped, adding, “You sure it’s safe?”

“If you can make it up those front stairs again, you’ll be fine. Mum’s stowed away upstairs I think."

He ducked his head around her to look at the front steps and said quietly, "I'll need your help this time; I don't have my sticks or my braces with me."

"Just tell me what you want me to do."

Alex turned and fished the other bits of his chair out and assembled it rapidly. When it was ready and waiting for him, he paused before transferring, puffing a sigh from his cheeks. Then, without sharing his thoughts with her, he chucked his right leg unceremoniously out of the footwell of the car. Knowing they both needed for her not to retreat to a 'polite' distance any more, she continued to watch him as he reached out for the cushion and then hoisted his body over to the chair. As he lifted his shoes back onto the footplate, his right knee danced momentarily before he quashed it with a firm hand. Then while he was sorting himself out and closing the door, Sam fished her rucksack from the boot and heaved it onto her back with a soft grunt.

"Good to go?" he asked, locking the car.

"Yup." She could see how nervous he was underneath the calm fa├žade, and she nodded with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She might have still been sore, but it was damned good to see him again. She headed up the path first, and when they neared the shallow, narrow steps, she said, "I'll just ditch this in the hall..." When she'd slung it down out of the way inside, she nipped out again and said, "Ok, how can I help?"

His cheeks gave him away by flushing a delicate pink, but he acted perfectly composed as he said, "If I turn so that I'm going up backwards, could you grab the horizontal bar across the back of my seat? I could probably do it without you there, but with nothing to grab onto for balance, I might end up on my arse..." he gave a nervous little chuckle at the thought of him on his back, which made her smile too. He was beginning to relax into their new arrangement of openness a little.

"Sure," she said, reaching for the thin bar of strong metal. It gave her a real and sudden rush to touch his chair again; it felt so intensely personal, like she had her hand in his back pocket or something.

Alex did all the donkey work, and she just provided a bit of extra lift and stability. "Thanks," he murmured as he spun on a sixpence at the top and popped skilfully over the threshold into the hall. He paused there, looking uncertain, palms running up and down his quads. His cheeks were still pink, and she thought the colour was actually growing as he opened his mouth and said, "I, er, I have another favour to ask..."

"What is it?" she asked, wondering what else he could need.

His hand rested on his knee which had begun to shiver again. "I should, well, um, yeah, I should probably use the bathroom... it's been, well, it's been a bit too long really..." He still looked hesitant, and she wondered why, and why he was  so embarrassed.

"Only problem is..." he continued, "I remember the size of your downstairs toilet from before..." he looked pointedly at the door on their right. "And I know I can't get my chair through that doorway, and even if I could, the chair wouldn't really fit beyond that..."

Adrenaline pulsed through her. "What I need to do then?" she asked, trying to sound calm.

He chewed his lips, mirroring the insecurity that was clearly gnawing away at him inside. "If I get to the doorway..." he forced himself to continue, "If I get to the doorway, and you're already inside, I... you..." he broke off again. Rallying suddenly, he took a breath and ploughed on, "I could loop my arms around your neck and use you to pivot onto the seat. I'm heavy, but it would only be for a few seconds..."

She smiled, thinking in relief, You made it sound like we were going to have to do a Cirque du Soleil trick to get you in there! "I'm stronger than I look," was all she said though.

"Thanks," he mumbled, muttering, “I’m sorry.”

She laughed, understanding his reticence. “If we’re going to make this work, and last, we’re going to have to get used to joint problem-solving.” He grinned at her in agreement as she stepped past him to open the door to the tiny room and went inside, watching him line up as close as he could to the doorframe.

“Now seems as good a time as any to start…” he smiled.

His wheels were only a centimetre or two too wide for the space, and she saw clearly how torturous this was for him, but he still managed another brief smile. He freed his feet from the footrest and set them on the floor.

It was only a ninety degree turn and a quick shuffle backwards from the doorway to the seat of the toilet, but she really hoped he wouldn't be too much for her to carry.

He smiled nervously, and said, "Here we go..."

She grinned back, now eager to feel his arms around her again, this time in a different context. He reached his arms up around her neck, and she braced herself, saying quietly, "Say when..."

"Chocks away," he whispered, and she straightened.

His hips hung pendulously from the end of his spine, dangling weirdly, and she thought she saw him try to brace his weight on his left leg but it just couldn't take it unsupported, and it buckled and began to bounce. She swung around, using the doorframe to assist her in bearing him. The hardest thing wasn’t the taking of Alex's full, and not inconsiderable, weight, but the way he clung to her in mild panic, meaning she couldn't see where the seat was.

"Am I lined up ok?" she grunted, preparing to lower him.

He glanced over his left shoulder and said, "Perfect."

The fear that she was going to drop him doubled, and she was terrified of sending him slithering to the floor, so she sped up as they neared the seat, but he practically yelped in unguarded panic, "Careful!" at her, tightening his clinging hold around her neck so that he nearly choked her.

"There," she grunted as Alex landed perfectly on the seat.

 Both his legs leapt up into spasms upon impact, his right leg stretching straight out, pressed against hers, while his left knee bobbed gleefully next to it. He let go of her immediately, shuffling his weight on his hands which made his right leg set itself back down onto the ground. He looked up at her through his dark lashes, reluctant to meet her eye. "Thanks, I've got it from here," he said, obviously keen to be alone again, and she turned to go. "Actually," he added suddenly as he remembered something, "Stupid me, can you pass my rucksack over?"

She glanced briefly at his chair and said, "Am I ok to... you know... move it?"

He chuckled kindly. "Of course."

Returning his smile as she realised this was the first time she'd handled his chair as a whole entity, not a collection of separated parts, Sam released his brakes like she’d seen him do, and pushed the chair back just enough to get out and close the door. She fished the bag from the back of his chair, handed it to him with a smile, and then left the room. "Just shout when you're done," she offered as a retreating comment, pushing the door to.


***


Alex burst into action the moment the door had clicked shut. It had been over five hours since he’d cathed, and he was dangerously near his own limits. Other SCI’s could probably manage longer, but his endurance was not that good. Of course, he could have transferred from his chair to the floor and scooted over to the toilet on his arse, before heaving himself up onto it, but all that gymnastics was a bit risky with a full and rather weak bladder. He dug the cath from his bag and ripped his jeans open as quickly as he could safely manage. This is so much easier in my chair, he thought sourly as he tried to stuff the drain down between his legs into the bowl of the toilet. It wasn't the first time in six yeas he'd had to do it this way, or ask for help, though it had been a while. Hindsight allowed him to smile as he recalled that the last time had been during his final year of undergrad, when he'd been almost blind drunk in a college bar, and he'd had to get a friend to take him to the men's room because there was no disabled bathroom. 'As a para you'll have to abandon some of your pride some of the time': that was what James had once told him in rehab, and it was true. He hated that it was true, but it was a fact of life, and had been for nearly seven years, and not acknowledging it had nearly cost him his relationship with Sam.

Once the procedure was over, he washed and cleaned himself and the cath thoroughly, chucked it into a couple of spare, sealable plastic bags and stuffed the lot back into the rucksack.

He sat there for a good few minutes, working up the courage to call out to Sam. It suddenly felt like rehab again, when he had needed assistance with everything. Stop it, he chided himself. “Sam?” he called quietly, checking one final time that everything was in place.

She didn’t appear immediately, and when she did reappear, he heard her voice on the other side of the door. “You good to go?” she asked without opening it.

Bless you. “Yeah,” he croaked.

Her hand tweaked the door handle and she came in looking sweetly shy. “Same thing in reverse?” she asked, stepping inside and lining his chair up for him behind her.

“I guess,” he said, trying to be brave. If I’m uncomfortable, she’ll feel worse, he thought. And then she might panic and drop me

“Set the brakes?” she asked again, with a kind of clinical coolness to her question.

“Yeah, thanks.” He forced himself to relax his frightened muscles a little as he reached up for her shoulders, and tried to enjoy the closeness this time. After all, it had been eight months since he’d even seen her, let alone touched her. No fear, he told himself. Sam smelled amazing; even after hours of travelling and being cooped up in a plane, she still smelled intoxicatingly beautiful. He breathed that in, concentrating on the slightly vanilla scent that rose from her skin, and not on the fact that his whole weight was dangling from this tiny, perfect creature. He didn’t spasm this time, perhaps because the pressure on his bladder had gone, and when she set him down, she didn’t pull back with quite as much nervous haste.

Lingering a second or two longer, Sam moved her cheek closer and planted a soft kiss on the side of his head, sending electric tingles down his entire body. He released the brakes, and reversed out of the doorway into the hall to let her out, with his feet still dragging on the floor. Once they were both in the hallway, he said, “Sam, I know it’s been ages, but…” he paused, nerves and uncertainty racing each other through his system.

“But what?” she asked, standing in front of him with her right ankle bent outwards so that her foot was on its side. He seemed to recall that she called that ‘knife edge’ in taekwondo. And she did it when she was apprehensive.

“Let me hold you?”

"You just did," she smiled.

"Yeah, but not like that..." he  replied as he lifted his feet back into place.

The smile that dawned on her face initially set him at ease, but she bruised that happiness when she said, “Not now.” It was only a few seconds longer until she spoke again, however. “Let’s get on the sofa and talk and snuggle properly.”

The rugs in the hallway offered him a little resistance, but he had other things to focus on, to spur him on, and he proceeded into the living room with Sam close behind him. Once in front of the sofa, he looked at her, and she nodded. Here. He transferred at one end of the sofa, shoving his chair back and out of immediate site round the sofa arm. Once he’d got himself settled, spine nicely stacked with a quick pump of his arms, she climbed onto the cushions next to him and without hesitation, lay back into his arms, draping her body across his lap, looking up into his face while her head nestled in the crook of his arm. “I’ve really missed this,” she said, her voice crackling like an old record. “Really missed it.”

“And I’ve missed you too,” he replied, his voice a little husky. "Sam, I'm so sorry," he whispered, cradling her beautiful body in his arms. "I'm so sorry I hurt you."


***


She reached up to his face, his left eyebrow, and traced the outlines as she had done when she'd been unable to sleep in Canada. "You did hurt me," she said, watching him wince as they returned to that more painful topic again. "I'm not going to lie. Seeing you with her, seeing someone else that intimate with you, really hurt." His eyes were deep wells full of anguish, and his hand shook a little where he held her. Whether it was anger or embarrassment, she could be sure.

He let his head and his eyes drop to the floor, as his whole body deflated, sinking into the sofa, hands resting limply beside the soft denim of his jeans. “I’m sorry. And part of me can’t help thinking you never should have replied to that email…”

She shuffled fully upright sliding from his embrace and kneeling on the sofa beside him, and put her hands on his still knees. She looked up into his face, searching his scar, his lips, his eyes, for a trace of softness. All she saw was raw sadness, pain and hurt. This was what he'd kept inside since the moment he'd seen her at the airport. “Alex,” she whispered, looking at him through her long, dark lashes. “Alex, I love you. I want to be with you, you hear me? With you. Don’t you get it? The only time I’m not hurting, not feeling alone, frightened, and utterly, nakedly vulnerable is when I’m with you.”

Something dawned in his expression but he continued to stare blankly. “But…” he looked from his knees to where his pale hands were now balled into fists. “But this…” His head snapped up and he looked completely baffled and helpless. “This is never going to change. I know this is where our problems started – with my hiding this from you – so look at me now, really look. You’ll have to put up with this every time you look at me. I’m not trying to be melodramatic or self-pitying, but… I’m never going to be at the top of anyone’s ‘most eligible bachelor’s list’ or whatever…” and the bitterness in his voice was painful to listen to. “And you need to decide if that is something you’re ok with. If you’re ok with helping me haul my ass to the toilet every time we encounter somewhere that’s not accessible…”

Now we come to the heart of it, she thought. She stood suddenly, keeping her back turned away from him. “You’re right. You’re not at the top of my list.” She gazed out of the window at the garden beyond for a moment before looking back at him.

He looked hurt, despite having started this whole thing off.

“You're not at the top because I don’t have a list. I never had a list. I didn’t want anyone, Alex, remember? I never ever wanted to trust anyone again.” She could feel her eyes blazing fiercely. “I hated men, and relationships, and trust; I was going to live the rest of my life alone, and gladly, because in my experience all people ever do is hurt you and betray you. But being with you was so much fun, and you treated me like I’ve never been treated in my whole life. I was all in with this; I risked everything, and then when you…” she paused, the pain of seeing him with her returning with all the force of a kitchen knife to the heart, “When I saw you with… with Rachel, I… I thought I’d proved myself right, proved that you were just like everyone else.” A hot tear burned on her cheek and she brushed it angrily away. “But I gave you another chance, Alex. I put aside everything I’d taught myself to believe, for you and the chance to be with you, indefinitely, and now you’re trying to throw that back in my face, all because you’re in a wheelchair? You’re really still going to let that be the excuse for not trying? We work together, Alex, just as two human beings, two 'people in love'. Everything else is just stuff.”

Dark eyes glistened in front of her, and he blinked once. 

“Sam,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.” He didn’t appear to have the strength to raise his eyes to look at her face any more. With a soft touch, she brushed her fingers against his cheek, wiping the hurt expression away like a speck of dirt on a museum statue.

“Alex.” Her voice was gentle now. “No more apologies. I don’t know that I can completely forgive you just yet…” her words were calm and even, but she let the shred of rising hope in her chest carry audibly in her tone. “But –” that word looked like it had suddenly became the best conjunction in the English language, “ – I do know that I can’t face a future without you in it.”


***


His eyes were still closed; it was disbelief that had sewn them shut this time. He felt her light touch on his scar, her palm cupping his cheek, and then her warm breath on his lips, heralding the approaching kiss. Her lips moved so slowly and lightly on his that he couldn’t react for a moment. His breath started to come quickly, and he felt it rasping his throat. He reached a hand up to her head, cradling it in his big, rough palm, while the other slithered around her waist and drew her to him, into his answering kiss. Her strong thighs straddled him, and in moments she was fully on his lap, facing him, legs hooked around his torso.

She pulled away for a moment, drawing breath, and said, “You’d better treat me right from now on, Alex Norwood.”

“Oh I will. I promise.”


THE END



Or is it? Stay tuned for a little bonus episode next week...

32 comments:

  1. I am so sad to see this end. That being said, the end was just right!

    Please do post that bonus. In the meantime, I'll likely reread this all the way through, and likely whenever I need a good read.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Cheers,
    Havocmangawip

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad you're going to go back and re-read it! Don't forget to point out stuff if I've made any mistakes/continuity errors!!

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  2. I'm ready to die of devness now, thank you : )

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    1. Don't die... wait til the next chapter at least...

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  3. . . . lets out at held breath and sighs with relief . . . thank you, thankyou for the bonus!

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  4. Such a wonderful story, you're an excellent writer and should absolutely publish more! Your story is moving, romantic and well written, thank you!

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    1. What a lovely thing to say! Thank you. I'll let people know if I release it (or anything else) on Amazon.

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  5. Although I'm sad to see the story end, this last chapter was fantastic with some very nice devvy moments! Thank you for such a marvelous story!

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    1. Glad it went down well, and thanks for commenting

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  6. Rose I cannot believe that your story is over now. My Fridays are going to seem so quiet without your two enchanting characters, but I'm super excited that you've included a bonus chapter ( do we finally get *that* scene we've all been hoping for? ), but i'm not going to wish next week coming any sooner becuase then that will be the end.

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    1. Thank you! The bonus chapter is up now, so hopefully you'll be happy, but don't forget to let me know either way

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  7. OMG!
    I'm so addicted.
    Too good to ever end.
    Thank you

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    1. What a wonderful comment! Thank you. Sorry it ended...!

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  8. No!!!! NOT THE LAST CHAPTER?! I'm so incredibly sad. I freaking LOVED this story. YES YES YES I want more!!!
    Tc

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    1. I'll give you more Tc at some point, I'm sure. Glad the story went down well with you. Thanks, as ever, for your comments.

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  9. Thank you for the story, sad to see it end.

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    1. Thanks Athira - always nice to have support from other writers on here.

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  10. This has been a wonderful journey with you, Alex and Sam!
    You can create wonderfully romantic scenes and great characters!
    Definitely hope to read more from you in the future!
    Thanks,
    Anne

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    1. Anne, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I'm glad I made it feel real for my readers. You'll hopefully see more from me at some point; I've got about three stories I could post up here, but they're so rough at the moment they'll take a while to sort out.

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  11. I have loved this whole story, such great characters and brilliantly written. I'm sad to see the end of Sam and Alex but looking forward to whatever you have in store for us next.

    Thank you

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    1. Ah Beth, thank you. As I've said in another couple of comments, I do have more, but it'll be a while. By the way, I *still* want to know what happens with Oliver and Freya....!!!

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  12. Beautiful story! I echo some of the other comments in that I'm sad to see it end, but I loved reading it!

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  13. Ugh. Can't be over! Say it ain't so!!! ::sniffles:: the boy with the same name as me, the boy with similar issues as me....::goes to snuggle with her sam:: she and alex best work it out in your mind! My Sam is the best thing that ever happened to me. Wanted to knock some sense into the both of them for most of that! Thank you for sharing! Loved every moment. ( And yes, his name is sam and mine is Alex...gender reversal)
    Aka

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    1. Ha, what a coincidence with the names!! (My) Sam and Alex's relationship is based on my relationship with my partner, so I'm glad I translated just how special they are to each other....

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  14. I'm looking forward to reading more stories from you Rose!

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  15. So, so good. I have loved this story.

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  16. This story has had me looking forward to the next chapter since day 1. Thank you!

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    1. You're very welcome. It was a lot of fun to write, so I'm glad the enjoyment spread to the readers too!

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