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If We Die Before the Snow Falls

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1.

Claire is cold, her teeth chattering, but she still gives him an upbeat smile. It isn’t the snow she’s afraid of- half sure that like everything else it would barely put a dint in her mortality.

Jack trudges beside her, his hands stuck in his great coat. He’s glad for the cold, prefers it to the warmth of Mexico. There was less forgetting, more drowning in heat and tequila. It wasn’t the same. It was still alive at the edges, and pain whispered in the cheap hotel rooms bathed in blood red sunsets you’d never see in Cardiff.

This far north in Canada, everything is dead. There are a few animals. There are the pine trees, or he supposes they are pine trees.

There’s him, and there’s Claire, leaving footprints in the snow. Whatever is driving them is far away, still tagging restlessly behind them. The desire isn’t to find warmth, to try to stop the numbing feeling that starts in their hands, creeps into their feet until the cold is past cold. He sees it in Claire’s eyes- the desire is to let the cold have them, to fall forward into the snow until they sleep. At least for awhile.

2.

She’s seventeen and older than anyone he’s known besides the Doctor. Jack prefers it when she pretends otherwise, talks about missed dances, except it is obvious that they don’t matter to her anymore.

She never says the word home. She never talks about her family. Instead she talks about things that she should be doing or thinking about according to her age, deliberately creating the story of a girl who is still growing up in Odessa, Texas.

She wants to be normal. Jack can relate to that.

They stop when it is too dark to continue. It’s stupid to pretend that walking during the night would change anything. They aren’t going anywhere. Sometimes he barely remembers why they are here, why they are together. Then Jack thinks it doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t really want a why. His causes died a long time ago, and all he feels is the weight of them pressing on his thoughts, weaving themselves through his dreams.

It makes him think of a poem that he can’t remember. Something about dreams deferred, something about rotting in the sun. He doesn’t even remember the when or the where or the how of that.

Claire is looking out over the fire he made. She seems glad for it. “The thing is, I don’t want to die,” she says finally, and he can tell she’s in one of those moods she gets into. Self-reflective, sad. Like she’s watching her face stare back at her on an ice covered pond. “I just wish I could.” Her voice wavers a little with the final words, but she’s not close to crying. She would if she let herself.

And as contradictory as her words are, as much as he wishes she wouldn’t say them, he feels that odd shared recognition they’ve developed with each other spread through him. It makes him watch the fire with her. “I don’t know whether I want to die or not,” he says honestly.

“But you want the option at least,” Claire fills in.

Jack doesn’t say anything. There’s no good way to explain how he should have died a long time ago, and now there’s no fixing that mistake. There’s still years that he shouldn’t have existed, shouldn’t have been around to interfere. That he’d try death if it didn’t make him feel like he was a coward. That sometimes not having the option is just as easy anymore. Nothing changes. Nothing that’s happened will be changed. It’s just wrong, and it’s always going to be wrong.

Claire crosses her arms over herself, like she can feel what he is feeling. She knows it too though. There is no fixing the past. There’s no gaining anything back.

There’s only the future- white, blank, stretching on until it disappears from sight.

---

There are the things that words can’t say.

When they find the cabin, dry, abandoned, there are no words to mutually agree to stay there. There’s just both of them looking around, not leaving, meeting each other’s eyes for a moment before Claire starts peeling off her wet clothes and Jack starts making the fire.

He watches her skin as the fire starts up, the flecks of light that reflect off the water still clinging to her. She’s all of seventeen, too old for her body. He admires the way her leg curves, muscles shaped from walking and years of cheerleading practice.

Claire glances at him for a moment. She knows the things he said, those first few nights- anything to avoid talking about what they were really thinking. She remembers how sex was painted as a career, a pastime, something that could be chased after like fine art or a great glass of wine. At least that’s the way she chose to take it, surrounded by tacky hotel paintings, sitting next to a man she didn’t know.

She doesn’t say a word as she looks at him, but he gets up, walks over to her. His hands are a steady weight on her shoulders. She makes sure to keep her head held up in a gesture of self-assurance.

His kisses aren’t affectionate. Claire doesn’t want affection. She doesn’t know what she wants.

It’s part of what she can’t say about this situation, some underlying theme she can feel running through her.

She knows where the beginning is. In a New York apartment with relatives that still ghost her thoughts and haunt her dreams. It’s in the fact that when Jack’s hands run over her arms, she thinks of the dark eyes of her uncle.

Claire doesn’t even realize she’s on the bed until the rough material rubs against her bare back. For her, the meaning of this situation goes back to the fact it was in a New York apartment that her uncle with the dark eyes was the first man to touch her- the first man she’d wanted to. That Claire can still taste him if she thinks about it, can recall the exact feel of the plush couch and the coldness of his hands as they parted her thighs.

That moments before that, she’d changed herself. She’d been Claire, cheerleader, adopted daughter with a politician father who made her feel like she was nothing more than a pet he was overly fond of. She didn’t want it. Because she could say to Peter, who hadn’t changed on her, who treated her like she had her own mind- like he respected her… She could finally say, “He’s not my father, so you’re not my uncle.” It didn’t change their genetics, but it changed her. Saying those words changed her. “He’s not my father, and you’re not my uncle.”

And Peter had gaped at her for a moment, a loss of words, and she could see him starting to defend Nathan in his head. So she’d kissed him. She’d kissed him because he was her, because she felt him inside of her and not in the sexual ways that she’d seen kids at high school chatter about- some secret they’d acted like they were the first people to stumble upon.
He was a real part of her. He was inside of her, or she was in him, but it made her a different person.

She was lost when Peter took her. The more immediate moments when the sensation of Jack touching her floods through her system, where for a moment the world is cries and cold against her skin and him between her thighs- it isn’t anything. Claire isn’t anyone.

That moment back in the past, she’d given Peter everything she had. He’d taken it because he wanted it. Because he loved her even though he knew he couldn’t. Afterwards, his head resting on her chest, his fingers running over her body as if he was checking she wasn’t going to disappear- Claire is still living in that moment. When she had everything she knew she could never keep.

---

In the morning, Jack doesn’t say anything. They both get their clothes on and continue walking. There’s a light snow falling from a grey sky overhead.

There are moments when Claire thinks stupidly they could head to some place with a funny name, like Happy Valley-Goose Bay she saw that on the roadmap, and by virtue of the name she could be happy there.

Eventually they’ll get farther north than that. She wonders if they’ll hit the Arctic Ocean. In a bout of morbidity, she puts her hands in her pockets and asks Jack, “Do you think if I threw myself in the ocean, I’d come out alive somewhere? Or do you think I’d end up frozen somewhere or stuck at the bottom of the ocean or something?”

He gives her a look, like she’s nuts and he shouldn’t even consider the question. Then Jack looks like he’s really giving it some thought. “Could happen either way,” he says. “Or, you could just end up as fish food.”

“I doubt Shamu’s going to eat me,” Claire says dryly.

“I suppose not,” Jack says with a brief grin. It’s a small flash of who he is- or at least who he’d be if he were happier. Claire likes it. “You could be found in the future, and they’d thaw you out in the fifty-first century, and you’d live a whole new life.”

It sounds appealing to Claire. “Why the fifty-first? Isn’t that a bit far away?”

“Not as far as you’d think,” Jack answers, stuffing his hands in his great coat.

“Doesn’t matter. That wouldn’t happen, and I’d be dead by then,” Claire says. She thinks about death too much.

He gives her a look that tells her the same thing, and she catches the envy laced through it. “You’ll be dead too, by then?” Claire tries to say it more than ask it.

Jack shakes his head. “Don’t know.”

It occurs to Claire that all they really talk about is not dying. Perhaps because that doesn’t change. She swallows, opens her mouth to suggest they do something different. She stops herself. “I wish I had a hamburger” is all she says.

It makes Jack smile again, briefly.

---

Jack spends most of the day lost in his thoughts. It’s the effect of all the snow, blank, white. There’s nothing else to think about. He’s sure that’s why Claire likes it, like her inner landscape and the frozen ground they travel on all feel the same to her.

She was the one who choose the destination, “north” said like she didn’t care. She’d had her arms crossed over herself that night in the hotel room. The only reason they’d even vaguely trusted each other was because there wasn’t anyone else to trust. They were the same, in some fashion, and that was something. It was the only thing either of them could let themselves have.

Jack doesn’t tell her anything about himself. She doesn’t volunteer a whole lot. He knows that she has enough of her own problems that it is just as well to stay silent. He wouldn’t want to tell her anyways. Because either she understands, and he has to live with that; or she doesn’t, and the latter just makes him feel more isolated than he already is.

It’s hard to explain how that works. How a seventeen year old and him have an understood silent company, how they remain separated and stick together to avoid being alone.

Maybe it shouldn’t make sense. Men should die. Girls shouldn’t be able to throw themselves from buildings, untangle their limbs, and get up like it never happened. He knows people talk of evolution, of the human race changing, but it shouldn’t work like that.

Jack knows he mostly feels like that because he wishes he could change it for her. Except he can’t. It makes him want to laugh bitterly, because he hasn’t been able to do anything for anyone. He’s led people into death. Even in his thoughts he leaves out names now, but he remembers the images of them.

Sometimes Claire looks at him, and he can watch the sympathy take over her features. Neither of them says a word, but he looks at her, and they know-

They know that the ways they are the same goes past being able to lie themselves under a train in the morning and watch the sunset in the evening. That they share a world of loss, a world that they can’t change by existing.

When he reaches over to kiss her, she lets him without any sort of protest. His fingers tangle in her hair as he pulls her closer. He doesn’t have to worry about losing her. He’s never had her.

She ends up with her back against a tree, and there’s the sound of snow falling off of branches. Even with the cold, they somehow manage to get enough of their clothing off.

He can feel the places were her skin is cold and wet from the snow. Inside, though, she’s so warm. Jack can feel that warmth, under his fingers, past the cold outer layer of her skin. She tilts her head back and he can taste the warmth along with her pulse.

There isn’t anything to their relationship. There’s Jack, and there’s Claire, at best, but the rest… there’s nothing to dissolve apart, to take away. Even the sex is just sex. There’s no meaning. She doesn’t think of it any different than walking in the snow with him.

They let themselves be actions. They let the words they don’t say dissipate into the air like their breaths. Maybe they don’t want to be anything else.

Maybe they tried existence, and it didn’t work. Now it’s just life- the softness of her skin, the sound of her voice- something purely physical. A mechanical working of their systems that won’t stop even if they let it.

The way Claire looks at him after they finish- bodies still joined, catching their breaths, the half-surprised blue of her eyes- makes him feel like they’re both waiting to get tired enough to do something else.

What the something else is, though, Jack wouldn’t know. The snow is like the empty white of a paper, and if he knew what to put on it, he would. But the things he has to offer don’t coincide with fresh starts or sudden bouts of realization that change the composition of his thoughts, who he is, or where that naturally leads him. His life is better like this, open without going anywhere.

The only other thing left to do, he can’t.

---

They sleep by a frozen creek, and Claire looks up at the stars. They look at the constellations together, and he tells her about the ones he remembers, thinks about the ones that will change, their stars fading out.

She’s fascinated, and when he leaves off, she starts telling him about the ones she remembers. Orion. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. “They’re bears,” she tells him. “My dad…” Claire lets her voice trail off.

Jack looks over, but he doesn’t press her to finish. She looks glad for the unspoken courtesy, shifts herself on the ground. “And that’s all I know,” she says finally.

Looking at the sky makes Jack think of the Doctor. Makes him think of things longer past than they ever should be. He doesn’t tell her that he knows more, just keeps staring at the sky.

Claire rolls onto her side. She regards him for a moment before she lies back down, puts her head on his shoulder. There are things that can be said here. “I want it to be different” or “I just want it back”, but instead she sighs, a weary sound, a resigned sound.

He puts his arm around her. The ground is hard beneath their backs, and it isn’t the best place to sleep. But it’s quiet. It’s isolated.

There’s only her, curled around his side, blonde hair tickling at his jaw. She seems so young with her eyes closed, so young he almost feels like he doesn’t know her.

Except the cold, barren land no one walks but them- she can’t be seventeen. She can’t be any age.

---

The light comes slowly. Sometime during the night snow has fallen again, and their bodies are covered with a thick blanket of it. The fact that they didn’t wake up during the nights speaks volumes about how used to the cold they’ve become.

Their feet and arms are numb, the rest of them is slowly getting there. It takes awhile for Claire to wake up, her body protesting against her. She doesn’t know why she ignores the little voice that tells her to sleep. Maybe she’s afraid of waking up at twenty-five in some hospital in the middle of nowhere. Maybe sometimes she is afraid of getting older.

This morning is particularly hard. It’s not the snow that’s landed in her hair and is making everything around her white. It’s simply the process of waking up on some mornings. The mornings with moments, right before she wakes up, that she’s still Claire Bennet. She still has a father who loves her. She doesn’t know everything she has to lose. When she wakes up with that feeling, it’s like she can’t breathe her chest hurts so much.

Jack takes care of packing things back up. He doesn’t seem to mind when he’s doing most of the work. Claire wonders if it is because she’s young. She wonders if it gives him something to do besides think.

She still remembers the train wreck, standing up amongst the dead people without a scratch on her. Surveying the bodies and then suddenly realizing there was someone else standing up and watching her.

If Claire thinks back, she remembers him on the train, big coat, old-fashioned looking clothing. Laughing with people, looking alone amongst the crowd he’d gathered. An odd hesitation in his smile when he stopped laughing that seemed to say more than anything he did with words.

Claire, physically alone in her cabin, hadn’t watched for long. She knows how to feel alone wherever she is… in a crowd, in her own family. It is comforting to have the evidence of her aloneness all around her. To see the lack of people.

Except, meeting his eyes over the bodies of the people she’d seen living just minutes before, it occurred to her that suddenly she wasn’t alone. Not really.

It wasn’t like finding herself. That would make it a love story, and it’s not. It’s not about anything, except for the things that are gone. The ghosts of whispers that tell her to go back. About walking twenty miles a day with the only person who’d ever know that part of her that was left after she’d given everything else away.

Their curse and their blessing, and only they know which one it truly was. When Claire looks at Jack she sees herself. It makes him something to her that almost no one else can be. It makes her wish she could love him, absently, when she’s not really thinking about it.

---

He watches her legs shake all day, and Jack knows she’s getting tired. Claire doesn’t say so, but he’s watched the days weighing slowly down on her. She might heal, but she isn’t invulnerable.

She keeps her head down, her arms around herself. He barely knows her name. He knows she can heal from a train wreck. Beyond that she could start making up details, and he wouldn’t know the difference.

Not that he’s much better. Jack never knows who he is. He’s still carrying around some other man’s name, some other people’s war. All he has left are memories of people who let go, who did the one thing he couldn’t do, and if he has an identity, it’s the faces and names of the dead.

So what could he be to a seventeen year old, desperate enough to distance herself from her demons that she’s willing to be nowhere, do nothing, half-freeze to death in a tundra- with him, no less? What did he ever have to offer anyone?

Claire looks up and over at him, like she can sense his thoughts. Her eyes look even more clear contrasted with the snow. Jack looks back at her, and for a moment they both look like they want to say something.

He takes the large breath first, and she follows suit. Let the moment pass, easily, before they go back to facing ahead. The wind is harsh, starting to sting at their faces, and he can see her trying to shield herself more from it.

It’s gotten colder, and Jack knows it is just going to keep getting colder the farther they go. If he were a decent human being, he’d tell her to go back to her family, that nothing could be as bad as this. But he isn’t a decent human being. He likes the company. He wants to pretend they share the same level of loss, pretend she has as little left as he does. It’s petty. He knows it is.

It’s the only way he can justify keeping her here, by making her more like him than he knows anyone ever could- ever should- be. Those are the only sort of people that can survive around Jack. The only people he doesn’t have to worry about changing. He’s learned that lesson. It’s not something he wants to learn again.

He makes them both stop when the sun is almost completely above their heads, and Claire sinks to the ground. Her teeth chatter silently, and he can tell she’s trying to hide it.

Jack doesn’t say anything as he kneels beside her. He can feel the cold too, creeping into his muscles, making breathing hurt more than it should. If they could warm up a little, they’d both feel better, but there hasn’t been a chance in a long time.

He makes a decision not to care about the snow that’s going to stick to his coat and the damp that’s already seeping through the material and sits down. He wants to be on an even level with her. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Jack asks, his voice softer than it’s been in a long time.

Claire looks up at him, her blue eyes unreadable. “I don’t know,” she answers honestly. “I don’t want to go back yet.”

It’s an answer, the first answer in the closest thing to an honest conversation they’ve had. She shifts so that her body is facing him. “Are you going to? Keep on?” she asks.

Telling her she’s the only reason he’s here is more than he wants to admit. It sounds like there are meanings there he can’t give her. He doesn’t want to realize he cares about her. It’s too much to say out loud.

He doesn’t want to care about anyone. It never ends well for him.

“I don’t know,” he answers finally.

They look towards where they will be walking, and it looks unendingly the same.

---

The sun is halfway towards the ground, and they are still sitting and watching the land around them. “I can’t feel my feet,” Claire tells him. She’s shivering, but she sounds more at peace than Jack remembers her ever sounding.

Jack can feel the cold making his muscles ache. It was better walking. He doesn’t know much about freezing, hypothermia, or even how it would work with people like them.

She nestles into his side, and he can feel the slight tremors of her body. “Don’t you forget… before you freeze to death?” she asks him.

“Wouldn’t know.” It’s one of the few ways he hasn’t died yet.

Claire closes her eyes against his shoulder, and he moves it enough she opens them again. “It’s not like it matters if I go to sleep,” she tells him.

“No one would find us out here,” he tells her.

“Probably not,” Claire agrees. “I don’t think I care.” She doesn’t. It’s not just the cold setting in.

Jack wonders if he’d stay frozen up here. It’d be so close to death. For a moment, the idea seems to contain the world in it. Safe, absolute.

“Why are you up here, Claire?” he asks. Jack doesn’t figure nice unspoken boundaries matter if they freeze to death. He’s half mad at himself for taking her up here. It’s fine for him to die. He’s not seventeen. It’s long past his time.

Claire doesn’t speak for a long time, and for a moment, he’s afraid he’s let her fall asleep. “Everything back home,” Claire says. “It wasn’t what I wanted.”

“So you wanted this?” Jack asks skeptically.

“I wanted my uncle,” Claire says, the self-remand and the bitterness silently mixing together. She looks over. “Not quite what you expected from me, is it?”

Jack reaches out to lift her chin, feeling the skin under his fingers. He looks over her face. The details of her don’t matter, he realizes. She’s something simpler than that. “So what’s your story then? Since you’re going to ask mine,” she asks, her blue eyes watching him defiantly.

“There was someone,” he says, because if he doesn’t get it out fast, it isn’t going to come. “I got her involved in something that got her killed.”

“Did you love her?” Claire asks, the defiance in her eyes fading into one of the few looks of sympathy Jack’s ever been able to stomach.

For a moment they just look into each other’s eyes, not in the way people in the movies would do it. It’s something that has nothing to do with passion or commitment. It’s never been a love story. Love stories don’t start with people meeting each other’s gazes over the dead bodies of their fellow train passengers. Claire fits in between the lines of all of that. A sort of complement to the tragedy- not of his life, but of himself. She stands besides all of the things he’s lost and will ever lose, besides the mistakes he made then that keep him awake at night now; her own mistakes, her own loss, making it seem for the first time like maybe this is just the story of human suffering.

That people die. That people lose people. That it isn’t his fault.

His voice is tight as he says finally. “It was the last thing I could bear.”

Claire is watching him, and she gives him a nod, her eyes full of understanding. He knows there was a point, before she left to get on that train, before she left wherever she had been, when she was bearing it. Then something happened, and she wasn’t. So now she’s here.

He puts his arm around her shoulder, and she leans into him. After a long moment, he forces his muscles to work and pulls her to her feet. He knows she understands what he’s saying. Not here. Not now. Not yet.

It’s the biggest statement Jack’s ever made in his life.

3.

Civilization feels different than Claire remembers it. More alone now than it was before, as if she can’t get used to her and Jack feeling like two separate people again.

The hotel is simple, charming. Nothing like the extravagance of New York, and Claire is thankful for that. Jack paces about the room like he can’t quite readjust to walls again. They weren’t made to be civilized people, she thinks.

When he turns to her, she has to admit how relieved it makes her feel. She doesn’t understand it, but she doesn’t understand anything anymore.

Claire doesn’t say anything about how far he ended up carrying her- after she gave out those last few days. She knows he doesn’t want her to. She thinks he knows, anyhow, when he catches her watching him. Claire knows she can be transparent. It surprises her when people tell her otherwise.

Neither of them has bothered to say what they are doing after this. The first few days they spent ordering whatever food struck their fancy. Sleeping with their windows open, clothes off, him pressed against her back. They’re purposely delaying doing anything else.

She knows she’s going to leave him. That it is going to be a mutual parting. Claire wants to tell him sometimes that he changed her just as much as Peter did, but there aren’t words for those sorts of things. Sometimes the only things they have to say end up in touches and looks, and if she didn’t feel so much like him, then Claire would have thought this was where she was supposed to be.

Except the restlessness is starting to creep into her limbs. Jack’s the one that finally whispers in her hair. “So will you go back?”

“No,” she says, simply. It is funny how fresh New York stays in her mind. “What about you?”

“Nothing to go back to,” he tells her, and she wonders if she could say the same thing as honestly.

Claire feels the cold wind breathe over her skin. “I was thinking Alaska,” she says.

His hand brushes lightly over her shoulder like it is thinking. “What about you?” she asks after a long silence.

“I don’t know,” Jack tells her. “Somewhere else.”

She wants to tell him she wouldn’t know where she’d be without him. Where she’d be if she had gotten up from that train wreck by herself. That, for the first time, New York is a possibility again, however vague, however distant.

Claire doesn’t say any of that though. She just takes his hand, pulls his arm around her. She knows she isn’t going to feel this again. She knows that it existed in a place without any sense of time or names or meaning.

Already the names and the meanings are starting to come back. Already she is starting to try to put a name to it, but Claire knows the moment she calls it love, she won’t be able to leave it.

So she doesn’t.

They don’t say goodbye when they leave. He pays for the hotel. Standing outside, they look at each other for one last time. Claire smiles despite herself. After she turns around, she forces herself not to look back.

It is snowing. She decides she’s going to Mexico. She’s tired of the cold.