There’s a time for everything. A time to kill, but no one can fight forever. A time to heal from wounds that are physical. A time to weep for the wounds that cut deeper, that hurt longer and harder than any physical pain. A time to mourn for the friends we lost. A time to dance with friends regained. When war and peace overlaps, sometimes only friendship can see you through. It hurts. It bleeds. But real friends are worth it. Real friends are worth everything.
Jack opened his eyes and didn’t recognize the room around him. It was early morning. The oh dark thirty kind of early morning where the only people awake were those with ill intent or those guarding against that ill intent. He was in a bedroom. Or maybe a dressing room. Nobody would ever buy a bed this hard and uncomfortable for their home on purpose. A screen on one wall showed news coverage of a suspected gang war in the streets. The talking heads had no idea what was going on. Jack wished them luck figuring it out.
Then the smell of Chinese food hit his nose and Jack’s stomach growled like a volcano ready to blow. He rolled off the bed in a swift, smooth motion and stepped over to the table where ten steaming paper boxes full of aromatic food waited. He tore them open and his stomach nearly did a flip as it recognized the food in front of it. The chicken wings went first as Jack grabbed them in shaky hands and tore the meat off the bones with his teeth. Stars exploded behind his eyes as the food hit his stomach like a bomb.
He sat down hard on the chair he belatedly realized was there and closed his eyes against the pain that was oh so good. He needed food so much it hurt. The wave of pain faded away and he opened his eyes to examine the other boxes for a few seconds. Then he grabbed a fork and tore into the general’s chicken, the sweet and sour chicken, and the spicy chicken one after the other. They went down quick and he felt his starving body converting the food to fuel it could use. He paused as the last of the spicy chicken went down and looked around again. Egg rolls. He smiled and wolfed them down next. There was no meat in them, but they were good filler and tasted good. Then he demolished three boxes of beef, ignoring the cooked and limp vegetables in them.
“Whoa,” a voice said from behind him and Jack turned to see Julie sitting on the bed. Jack’s mouth fell open as the lingering hunger in his belly just melted away at that sight.
Julie leaned forward on her knees, feet splayed out behind her. Long blonde hair lat flat and tangled on one side, and drool ran down her chin. She blinked sleep out of her eyes and a knee-length nightshirt hung off one shoulder while the other shoulder bunched up against her neck. He hadn’t seen her looking so unglamorously messy in over ten years. She was beautiful. All he could do was stare.
“What?” she asked and looked around.
He just kept on staring.
She looked down at the long shirt riding halfway up her legs and blushed. One hand flashed down to pull the shirt down while the other pulled the shoulder up, and the shirt stretched under her twin assault to reveal pretty much every one of her very nice curves. “Don’t look at me like that!” she shouted.
He just kept on staring.
She squirmed under his gaze, and then threw herself into a roll that revealed almost every last centimeter of her long legs before she disappeared behind the bed. She remained still for several seconds. He didn’t move. Her head finally rose over the bedside, hair sticking out in every direction. “Would you stop looking at me like that?” she asked plaintively.
“Why?” Jack asked and just kept staring.
The shoulder of the rebellious shirt fell down again as she finally met his gaze. “Because…I just woke up,” she whispered. “I’m…I’m…”
“You’re beautiful,” Jack whispered and every square centimeter of skin the shirt revealed turned bright red. She ducked back behind the bed and the sound of fingers running through hair filled the room.
Then she looked back up over the bed, her hair was only slightly less messy than before. But her eyes froze on his chest. “Whoa.” Her voice was soft and full of everything that had ever made him love her. Tenderness, amazement, and just a hint of the strength he remembered in there.
He looked down and realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He wasn’t wearing pants either. All he wore in fact were some exercise shorts and a mass of bandages covering far more of his body than he was entirely happy with. He’d taken a serious beating the day before. Had it really been that long ago? He followed her gaze to the angry red welts peeking out from under one of the bandages that had fallen off. He touched it and felt the heat. It was still the night after the battle. His body was still busy regenerating the damaged tissues.
“Is it…is that normal?” Julie asked and came to her feet. The nightshirt fell off her shoulder again as she walked around the bed.
Jack tore his eyes away from her and let out a long breath. “Every time I get shot it is.”
Julie stepped up to him, looked him in the eyes, and placed one hand on his chest. It burned hotter against his skin than the angry welts and he closed his eyes. She traced the edges of the bandages with an electric finger and blood pounded through Jack’s mind. “They had guns. Why?”
Jack licked his lips. “They didn’t have guns,” he said in an attempt to take his mind off everything she made him want to do right then. “Just really bad Chinese knockoffs.”
Julie’s eyes narrowed, her mouth pursed, and she pulled her hand away from his chest. Then she set her jaw and punched him, hard, in the shoulder that was miraculously free of bandages.
Jack gasped at the strength in her farm girl muscles and tears filled his eyes.
“They shot you!” Julie shouted and punched him again. Then she glared into his eyes. “I treated every wound! So don’t give me that bull about puny weapons! You almost died!”
She hit him again and Jack realized that she wasn’t going to stop. Seeing him half dead had obviously been more traumatizing to her than being half dead had been for him. She was apoplectic that he could be minimizing the threat. She was going to keep hitting him, and that hurt, so he tried to think of some way to calm her down. But he knew from long experience that it was easier said than done.
Jack reached out to enfold her in his arms and pulled her in close. She resisted him, fists balling hard into his chest. Her hot breath tickled his chest and she pushed against him. It was like a mouse trying to push a cat away. She squirmed and pushed, but he held her tight against his body. She demanded that he let her go. She questioned his parentage. She strained with all her might.
Julie finally stopped struggling and rested her face against his chest. He felt her eyelashes brush him and knew she had closed her eyes. She remained still for several seconds, sucking deep breaths in and letting them back out again. He felt the cool air pulling on his skin, followed by the hot air from her lungs pushing him back. Her hands relaxed and then balled up again, fingers moving back and forth across his chest.
The smell of strawberries drifted up to his nose. Something warm and wet ran down his chest. Julie sniffed and pulled her hands in tight. Her breathing grew ragged, and she pulled in a long desperate breath. Then she let it out in something that was almost a sob. “Don’t you ever…do that…to me…again,” she half-sobbed into his chest.
That got him. She was a real firecracker. She could make sailors blush in more languages than Jack could count. But hearing her cry was more than he could take. It had been when he didn’t know why she cried. It had been worse once she trusted him enough to tell him. He’d felt as helpless as her at first. He hated that feeling. He hated anyone that made her feel that way. And now he was the one doing it.
Jack closed his eyes, brought one hand up to her neck, dropped the other to her waist, and cradled her. “I’m here, Jules,” he whispered into her ear, tears running down his face to mix with hers. “I’m here.”
They stayed there for an eternity, crying softly into each other’s arms until they regained their composure. Julie finally pushed against his chest and leaned back to give him a long and hard look. Then her hand reached up, snaked around his neck, and pulled him towards her. He tasted strawberries on her lips for a split second. A second. Two seconds. The kiss ran into eternity and a small part of his brain screamed that he needed to breathe. It was a very small part and he ignored it completely.
The door opened “Well, that’s finally…” a voice began, and those three words were more than enough for Jack to recognize the owner. “Julie!” Alex shouted in an outraged tone.
Julie’s eyes went wide and she pulled away from Jack in a flash. “Nothing happened!” she said to her cousin in a rushed tone. “We didn’t do anything!”
Jack turned to see Alex standing in the doorway. She was everything Julie wasn’t in that moment. Tall and elegant, long brown hair perfectly styled. The blue jeans could have been painted on, while the western shirt hung loose. She was amazing, and she gave Julie a very pointed look.
“I don’t know,” Alex said in a doubtful tone. “That looked an awful lot like something right there.”
Julie’s skin blushed bright red again. “We…just woke up,” She whispered.
Alex played her gaze across the debris that was left of his meal.
“I…just woke up,” Julie corrected.
“I see,” Alex said and aimed her raised eyebrow at Jack.
Jack shrugged. “I was…hungry. When I smelled the Chinese…well…” He waved at the destroyed containers and shook his head with a rueful look. “I never thought I’d be so hungry I’d miss a beautiful girl in my bed,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. Julie blushed again and moved back to the other side of the bed, looking for something to hide behind.
Alex just shook her head.
Jack’s stomach growled.
Alex nodded and strode over to pull another chair up to his. She sat down next to him and began to study his chest. Then she raised one hand and electric fingers began to remove bandages to uncover more angry welts that had been open wounds mere hours ago.
“So this is what it’s like for you?” Alex asked.
Alex shook her head. “You were half dead when you stumbled in…now…”
“Now I’m just half starved,” Jack completed with a chuckle.
Alex nodded and ran the hand up to his shoulder. It left a path of electric fire in its wake. “Do they leave scars?”
“No, I’ll never get another scar.” Jack ran his finger over a long white scar on his lower abdomen. He’d gotten it as a teenager when they’d snuck into an after hours pool party and he’d snagged the fence. “But that will never go away. I’ll never age another day until the day I die.”
“Are you really still that boy?” Julie asked as she scrambled back onto the bed to look at them.
“No,” Jack answered with a smile aimed at her. “I’m better now.”
Julie snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Still full of yourself, I see,” Alex said with a shake of her head.
“I prefer to think of it as confidence.”
“Of course you do,” Julie whispered.
“Is that why you keep bringing other women to see us?” Alex asked.
Jack blinked at the shift in conversation. And then he remembered the reason he was there. He came to his feet in a smooth move and looked around for his uniform. “Where’s Olivia?”
Alex smiled. “She’s resting. It’ll take her a while to heal though, so I tucked her in for a long nap.”
“We need to go.”
“We thought you might say that,” Julie said with a smile of her own. “So we hid your uniform.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Alex said.
“You don’t know who we’re dealing with.”
“You mean the Hurst family and their friends?” Julie asked.
Jack frowned in confusion. “How…do you know?”
“Please,” Alex said with a shake of her head. “You think some random stranger directed you to our back door by…what…chance?”
Jack’s mouth hung open as she suggested the impossible.
“Jack, Jack, Jack,” Julie said with a good-natured sigh. “You really are slow today, aren’t you?”
“He just got shot. A lot of times,” Alex said with a shrug. “And then you seduced him.”
“I did not!” Julie protested.
“Please.” Alex rolled her eyes. “Next you’ll tell me you weren’t about to jump his bones.”
“I wasn’t! We were just…talking…and…um…” Julie trailed off as she looked for something to say.
Alex raised her eyebrow at Julie again.
Julie blushed again, but then sucked in a deep breath and struck a determined pose that made her look even more amazing. “I didn’t start anything! He did!”
“Wait,” Jack finally said as his brain caught up to their argument, and the two girls turned from arguing with each other to look at him. “You…You’re involved?”
“Of course,” Alex said with another roll of her eyes.
“Charles contacted us a year ago,” Julie added with a smile.
“There was a friend he said needed some help,” Alex clarified.
Jack blinked. “The man…in the suit?”
Julie smiled and held her hand out, palm up. Alex frowned but pulled a bill out of a pocket and laid it on Julie’s hand. “She bet that you’d need one more question,” Julie explained with a pleased smile and slipped the bill inside her nightshirt.
Jack scowled at her. “I’m so happy to fund your gambling habits, but we need to go.”
Julie shook her head. “Nope. Not gonna happen.”
Jack smiled at her. “You healed me. I’m better now. So you can’t stop me from leaving.”
Alex smiled and proved him wrong. Her lips tasted like peppermint, and that was just not fair. But two people could play that game if they wanted to. Jack wrapped an arm around her waist, pulled her in close, and gave her a serious kissing right back. Her body melted into him for a second that went on for eternity before she began to push him. He didn’t let go. Then she dug a nail into one of the welts and he released her with a gasp of pain.
“Stop that,” she ordered in a voice of iron.
“What?” Jack returned in protest. “You started it!”
Alex crossed her arms and stepped back to give him a solid look at her stubborn expression. “Are you here to stay?”
“What?” Jack asked as he brain tried to catch up with whatever she was talking about.
“You still don’t understand,” Alex said and turned away with a disappointed shake of her head.
“What are you talking about?” Jack asked again.
“We’re not a one-night stand.”
“What?” Jack shook his head to clear it. Alex wasn’t making any sense. “You…never…”
Alex shook her head again and let out a long breath. “Look. We’ll always be here when you need us. We owe you that. But you left.”
Jack just looked at Alex in disbelief as the adrenalin of yesterday began to pump through his limbs and brain again. He’d been shot he didn’t know how many times, and now this. Now she was accusing him of leaving. A distant part of his mind told him to shut up but it was oh so distant, Alex was right there in front of him and he could finally say what he’d wanted to for so long. “You boarded that bus! You left! I waited for you! What more was I supposed to do?”
“You were supposed to come with!” Julie shouted and Jack turned to see tears in her eyes. “But you didn’t. Why?”
Jack had to lower his eyes. He just couldn’t meet them. But he couldn’t admit he’d been wrong either. “Because Nashville was your dream.”
Alex snorted and crossed her arms at him. “We haven’t been in Nashville for years. Try again.”
Jack sighed. “Minnesota was home. I wanted to grow old with you. There.”
“You can’t grow old,” Alex said with a shake of her head.
“I didn’t know that back then!” Jack shouted back. “This!” He shook his hand like he was trying to tear it off. “This stinking immortality was never my plan! Fighting this fraking war was never my plan! Getting ambushed on Alpha Centauri was never part of any of my plans!” He stepped up to Alex and placed a finger in the hollow of her chest. “You were the only worthwhile plan I ever made in my life. And look how well that turned out.”
“Why didn’t you call us?” Julie asked in a quiet voice. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because you never called me.” Jack let out a long breath.
Julie looked at him in disbelief. “Haven’t you ever listened to our songs?”
“Of course I have,” Jack said. “I own all your albums. Everything you’ve released!” Then he laughed. “And a lot of stuff you haven’t.” He ran his fingers through his hair and laughed again. “I’m your biggest fan.” His voice broke on the last word and he looked down. He didn’t want to be their biggest fan. He never had.
“And you’ve never really listened to them?” Alex asked with a shake of her head.
Jack rubbed his temple and sighed. He just couldn’t fool them. He only had two choices now. Remain silent or say the truth. As a boy he’d been taught that the truth would set him free, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Or painless. He finally cleared his throat and looked back and forth between them. “If I’d asked you to come back home?” he tried to finish the question but it locked up in his throat.
“Yes,” Julie answered the half finished question without pausing to think.
Alex remained silent, considering the question far more carefully. “We would have found a way,” she said after a few seconds.
He was right. It was the one thing he’d feared. They would have given up everything to be with him. And he would have given up almost anything to be with them. Jack let out a long breath and smiled. He stepped away from them with the best casual motion he could manage at the moment. “And that’s why I never called.”
“What?” Julie asked in confusion.
“I never could have lived with myself if you’d done that.”
Julie frowned. “You’re not making any sense.”
Jack smiled. Of course he wasn’t making any sense. Not to her. She thought with her heart first. It was one of the things he loved about her.
Alex pursed her lips and Jack saw the gears turning in her mind. She was getting it. She could see the logic. It was one of the things he loved about her.
“You were born to sing. You’re the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Jack paused, ran his fingers through his hair again, and tried to aim a wry smile at them. “I saw that from day one. And then so did everybody else. I couldn’t ask you to come back after that. This is what you were born to do!”
He met their gazes and saw understanding in them. Understanding and disagreement. And then they stepped forward, wrapped their arms around him, and buried their heads into his shoulders. “You really are an idiot,” Alex whispered.
Jack usually would have protested that. But he was hungry again. And he was tired. He lowered his head and the smell of their hair filled his nostrils as memories filled his mind. The smells of forests at night. The sounds of water lapping against a beach. The sight of full moons reflecting off still lakes. The warmth of bonfires on cool autumn nights. The feel of ample hips under wandering hands.
He stood in the middle of a room with his arms wrapped around the two girls that had meant more to him than anyone else in all the worlds and found himself lost in memories he wished could have gone on forever.