"No way, I don't believe you!"
"It's true. I was fourteen years old and there were two of them."
"At the same time?" Jo raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
"Yup," Jackson took a swig of his beer and donned a smug grin on his face. "And I knew exactly what I was doing."
"And here I thought you were a soft pillow sex kind of guy. But a threesome for your first time?" Jo huffed a laugh. "I'm not going to lie. I'm impressed.”
"What about you? What was your first time like?" Jackson asked, sporting a carefree smile.
"Well, I was sixteen years old and it was in my car, so it sucked," Jo chuckled. "It was uncomfortable and with some guy who was four years older than me. So you'd think by that point, he'd know what he was doing, but the poor bastard didn't know shit. He did not care that it was my first time at all. As soon as he finished, I kicked him out and drove away."
"That's horrible," Jackson busted out in laughter. "I'm so sorry."
"Oh, the sad thing is that's not even the worst sex I'm had," Jo winced in self-pity. "I've had some pretty horrible sex throughout the years."
"Okay, that's enough about bad sex," Jackson leaned back against the couch. "What's the best sex you've ever had?"
"Alex," Jo responded easily. "Every time with Alex." She stared off into the corner of the loft and let her eyes wander to the drawer where Alex had kept her ring hidden after she'd rejected his proposal the first couple times. It was the same drawer she'd deposited the rings after she'd taken them off. “I’ve had great sex with other people. Hell, I’ve had great sex with you.” Jo paused and allowed her eyes to flit over to the bed that she and her ex-husband used to share. “But there’s just something about sleeping with the one person you love more than anyone. Every time with Alex was just a reminder that he was it for me. And I just wish I could turn back time and feel that again. Feel the love. Feel the closeness and safety. But I can’t. I won’t feel that way ever again.”
Jackson observed Jo silently for a few moments. He knew the few months had been difficult for her in many ways. He knew she wasn’t healed all the way yet, and quite possibly, might never heal completely. But hearing her speak only highlighted just how deeply affected she was by it all. In all honesty, it reminded him that he was also still healing from past wounds.
“I know how you feel. I felt that way with April,” Jackson sighed sadly. “And all I can think is that I really screwed it up there. I was so busy trying to convince myself that I didn’t need her to be happy, that I ended up losing her because I couldn’t make up my mind over what the hell I wanted, what I believed in, who I was… and now that I finally figured it out, she’s married to the same guy she left me for in the first place.”
“How the hell did we get here?” Jo scrunched her face in confusion. “We’re hot people. Why are we moping around about our exes?”
“Because we both lost the loves of our lives,” Jackson deadpanned, earning a dry chuckle from Jo.
“Hey, you still have a chance though. April is around. She didn’t go anywhere. You see her all the time. And if history is any indicator, you two are a pair of magnets that always find some crazy way back to each other. It’s not too late,” Jo stood up from her spot from the couch. “I need something stronger to drink. You want some vodka?”
“I’m good. Another beer would be nice though,” Jackson looked lost in thought for a moment before speaking. “It is too late, Jo. If I could go back in time and change things, I would’ve gotten my crap together and gotten April back in an instant. But she’s married now.”
“You and I both know that doesn’t mean anything,” Jo spoke quietly. She finished pouring her drink and downed a shot of vodka, clearing her throat. “What’s taking Link so long? He said he was on his way with the pizza half an hour ago.”
“He probably was just leaving the house when he called and said he was on his way,” Jackson reached for the beer Jo held out to him. “Thanks. I remember those days, of being a new parent and all.”
“How’s Harriet by the way? It’s been so long since I’ve seen her, since you know, the pandemic,” Jo sat back down on the couch opposite Jackson.
“She’s doing great,” Jackson’s face pulled up into a grin. “She’s talking so much and getting into all sorts of trouble. She’s a big fan of Taylor Swift’s music, and always dances when she hears Lizzo. I haven’t seen her as much as I’d like to since I’ve been working in the hospital pretty much nonstop, but she’s good.”
“Last time I saw her, she was walking around with a piglet stuffed animal that she refused to let go of,” Jo chuckled.
“Yeah, April got her that,” Jackson grimaced. “We came to the agreement that Harriet would be raised Christian and get to spend two weeks every summer at the Kepner farm since she’ll be attending French preschool and start sitting in on the Fox Foundation board meetings once she turns fifteen. The joys of co-parenting.”
Jo let out a laugh, “Well, I think you’re doing a pretty good job.”
The pair was interrupted by a knock at the door, “That must be Link with the pizza.” Jo stood up and sauntered over towards the door, huffing in annoyance when the knocks grew more insistent. “I’m coming!”
“Jeez, you said you’d be here with the pizza almost an hour ago. What took you so long?” Jo spoke as she unlocked the door and slid it open only to freeze in her tracks. “ Alex?”
Convinced she was hallucinating, Jo slammed the door shut in his face. She stared at the door silently for a few seconds, leading Jackson to come up beside her, startling her as he put his hand on her shoulder. “Jo, who was that?”
“ Jo, look I know I’m probably the last person you wanna see right now and I don’t deserve for you to even hear me out, but all I’m asking for is a few minutes. Please ,” Alex knocked once again.
Jackson’s eyes grew wide as he realized whose voice was on the other side. He glanced at Jo who looked up at him with what seemed to be a scared expression on her face. Realizing that she wasn’t going to do anything Jackson spoke, “What do you want? Do you want me to get rid of him? Do you want to talk to him? You let me know what you need.”
Jo opened and closed her mouth a couple times, unsure of what to say. In the weeks since Alex had left, she had run every scenario in her mind, praying that there would be a moment where he’d come to his senses and show up at her door. She’d rehearsed what she’d say to him in the event of his return. But now, with only a sliding door separating them, Jo had been rendered speechless.
Shaking her head of the thoughts bombarding her brain, Jo wordlessly looked at Jackson in hopes that he would get the message and open the door she didn’t seem to have the strength to pull open herself. Jackson nodded once and took her place at the door, pulling it open to reveal Alex’s mouth open in surprise.
“Oh,” Alex closed his mouth and squared his jaw, looking down to the ground in an effort to camouflage the pained look that flashed on his face. “I’m sorry. I’ll go.”
“No man, stay. I was just leaving anyway,” Jackson grabbed his coat from the rack by the door and gently clapped Alex on the back. “It’s good to see you.”
Jo reached out for Jackson and pulled him back inside. Her eyes widened frantically and her voice came out in a panicked whisper-yell, “What are you doing? You can’t leave. I can’t, Jackson.”
“Jo listen to me, yes you can,” Jackson placed his hands on her shoulders, squeezing gently. “You know that talk we just had about what we’d do if we got another chance? Well, this is yours. I know he hurt you and put you through hell, and you don’t have to take him back, but I think you owe it to yourself to get closure. You need to heal and you can’t do that if you let him walk out that door without talking to him. You’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what he might’ve said and what you could’ve done differently. Trust me, I know. You can do this.”
Jo closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “You’re right. I can do this.”
They were interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, “I know, I’m late. I’m sorry it took so long. I was about to leave the house when Scout puked all over my clothes. I had to bathe him and myself. But I’m here now so—“
Link stopped dead in his tracks, pizza in hand and looked at the figure standing in the open doorway, “You son of a bitch. What the hell do you think you’re doing—“
“And that’s our cue to leave,” Jackson held an arm out and began to guide Link back down the steps. “We can eat the pizza in the car.”
“No. No, this isn’t okay. He can’t just waltz back in here and pretend like it’s all okay,” Link yelled angrily. “Do you know the kind of pain you put Jo through? You swore up and down to everyone that you would never hurt her. And now what? You’re trying to walk back into her life after ripping her heart out? Well, over my dead body.”
“Link, that’s enough,” Jo warned. “It’s fine. You can go.”
Link’s unhappy expression did not go unnoticed. He didn’t want to leave her here alone with Alex. He wanted to protect his sister. But it was becoming more obvious that Jo didn’t want him there. Link sighed, “Fine. But I’m not happy about this.”
“Come on man, let’s go,” Jackson motioned for Link to walk in front of him as they disappeared out the front door.
Finally alone, Jo walked back inside the house and downed another shot of vodka. She watched as Alex stood awkwardly outside, “Are you going to stand in the doorway all night or are you going to come inside?”
Alex hesitated before walking inside the house with a guilty look on his face. He didn’t think he’d ever be back there. The moment he’d sent those letters he thought that was it. He’s never set foot into the loft again, he’d never see Jo again, he’d never truly be home again. It was a tough pill to swallow, but he did it for his kids.
The plan was never to stay in Kansas and leave behind the only family he’d ever really known. It wasn’t in his plans to keep the kids a secret from Jo. It wasn’t in his plans to lie to Jo and tell her he was going to Iowa instead of the truth. It wasn’t in his plans to have the twins in the first place. It wasn’t in his plans to have kids with a woman who wasn’t Jo. But yet, here he was, standing near the door feeling like a stranger in his once home because he decided to make a mess out of a situation that could’ve been handled very differently.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d let me in,” Alex treaded lightly.
“Neither was I,” Jo answered honestly.
“So, you and Avery?” Alex’s bad attempt to see if she had moved on or not didn’t go unnoticed.
“Not that it’s any of your business anymore but, no. It’s just sex. Believe it or not, I am not emotionally healed enough for that. I don’t move on from a seven year long relationship like it didn’t mean anything to me,” Jo chewed on her lip. It was taking everything not to look at him. Not to lock eyes with him. Because Jo knew that the moment she spared him more than a glance, she’d be reduced to a puddle of tears. Whether they were sad tears, angry tears, or happy tears, she didn’t know. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” Alex took a couple steps closer to where Jo stood behind the kitchen table. He held his hands up in a show of harmlessness, trying not to startle or agitate her. “I—I don’t even know what to say.”
“Why don’t you start with why you’re here,” Jo crossed her arms in front of her. “Because last time I checked, you left me to go frolic around in Kansas with your ex wife and kids. Shouldn’t you be there with them? You know, there’s a pandemic outside. When was the last time you were tested?”
“I was tested two days ago and I drove here so I didn’t have any contact with anyone unless it was to buy food,” Alex replied easily.
“You drove all the way up here?” Jo’s voice inflected in surprise. “Why? You said you have everything you always wanted. Why would you leave that?”
“Because I miss you,” Alex sighed heavily. He looked up at the ceiling in an attempt to keep his composure. “And I know that it’s not fair to say that but I do. I miss you every damn second of the day. I can’t go more than a few minutes without thinking about you and regretting the decisions I made that led us here. The moment I dropped those letters in the mailbox at the post office, I wanted to take them back. I wanted to reach in and pull them out and run all the way back home and be here with you. But it was too late. What was done was done.”
Jo glared at him angrily, “What was done was done? That’s the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard. You could’ve answered my calls. You could’ve talked to me. You could’ve come home. You could’ve not sent me divorce papers in the mail without even giving me a choice in the matter. You could’ve explained the situation and I would’ve dropped everything to be with you. Why? Because we were married, Alex. We got married for better or worse and I never once thought that you’d be the one to break those vows. You had my full and complete trust. Ever since that first kiss you’ve held my heart in your hands. You know how hard that is for me. You know how hard it is for me to trust people. But you didn’t care. You treated my heart like it was collateral and made me feel like all those years—all the love we shared—wasn’t real. Because if you loved me, if you truly loved me the way you said you did, you would have never hurt me like that. That’s not love.”
“I did love you, I swear Jo. None of that was ever a lie. When I said I loved you, I meant it. Every single time. I still love you,” Alex’s eyes practically bore into Jo’s soul. “I love you. And I’m sorry I messed it up, I messed us up. We were great, perfect even. We were happy and in love and we wanted to start a family, but I was an idiot and I screwed it up. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make it up to you for doing that, but I’m here because I love you. I’m doing what I should’ve done the first time around. I came home and I’m talking to you and I’m giving you the choice that I took from you when this all happened months ago.
“Because I realized that I could have the best, sweetest, smartness kids on this farm in the middle of nowhere Kansas and a great job as the Chief of Surgery at a children’s hospital, but none of that will ever matter as long as I don’t have you. Because I’ve been miserable and I tried to act happy for my kids, but now we’re in the middle of a pandemic and I don’t even see my kids anymore. I’m at the hospital every day dreading having to go home to an empty, quiet apartment with generic white walls. I hate it there. Everything single thing about it. I’m a stranger to my own children and in the process of trying to be there for them, I lost the most important person in my life, you. And I don’t expect you to take me back, hell, I probably wouldn’t take me back. But I miss my best friend. I miss your smile and your laugh. I miss the way your nose scrunches up when you get upset. I miss that dog face you’d always make when you tried to get me to agree to something you knew I’d have trouble agreeing to. But it didn’t matter how much I hated the idea of whatever you had planned because the moment I saw that face, I couldn’t say no. I miss the sparkle in your eyes whenever you’d get excited about a really cool case or surgery. I know that I haven’t done anything to deserve your love or forgiveness, but I’m not going down without a fight. Not this time. So, you don’t have to decide anything right now, but I’ll be here, waiting for you to make your choice.”
About halfway through his speech, Jo lost her fight with her tears. Wiping her face quickly, she looked up at Alex with a devastating expression on her face, “I need time.”
“I know,” Alex nodded and brought his hand up to his face to wipe a few of his own tears off. “I’ll be here until you decide. I’m not leaving. Take as long as you need.”
After their conversation, Alex walked out of the loft quietly, not indicating where he would be going for the night. Jo assumed it was Meredith’s. He always went to Meredith’s house when they went through rough times. But with Mer in the hospital because of covid, Jo wasn’t too sure if he’d end up there or not.
Shaking thoughts of Alex out of her head, Jo began getting ready for bed. She had just gotten out of the shower when her phone rang.
“Hey. You okay?” Link’s voice filtered through the speaker. “ Do you need me to come and kick him out or beat his ass?”
Jo let out the slightest chuckle, “No. Everything is okay. You don’t need to come over.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going to take him back. Don’t you remember what he did to you?” Link's disdain and distrust for her once husband was evident in his tone. “You deserve better than that, Jo. You don’t deserve to be anyone’s second choice.”
Second choice. Now that was a concept that she’d struggled with long before she and Alex got married, let alone when they got divorced. Time and time again she felt like the second choice in Alex’s life, and time and time again he’d grovel his way back to her and she’d give him another chance to fix things. He would swear that nothing could ever come between them, until it did. Until it lodged itself in between their peaceful little happy bubble and shattered the edges of it as if it were the most fragile piece of glass. It was a cycle that she was caught in and it was getting very old.
“I don’t know,” she finally answered after some time. “I—I don’t know what I want or need right now other than just some time to figure out what exactly the hell it is I’m feeling. Because I can’t seem to form my thoughts into coherent sentences. But I do know that you threatening to knock him out and telling me that I deserve better isn’t helping.”
“I’m sorry,” Link apologized. “I’m just protective of you. I don’t want to see you get hurt again.”
“I know. And thanks. It means a lot,” Jo paused. “Look, I’m exhausted and I’m going to go to sleep. I have to be at the hospital at five in the morning.”
“Yeah, okay. Goodnight.”
Truthfully, Jo did not have to be at work that early. But she also didn’t think she could stand another minute on that call with Link. All she wanted to do was lie down and stare at the ceiling as she tried to make sense of her thoughts and feelings that were bubbling under the surface. Sighing heavily, Jo turned on her side and allowed herself to finally break down. It was too much. Alex returning was too much. She was just starting to fill the void he had left behind. Although she’d never get used to his absence, she’d started slowly but surely crawling out of her pit of despair and had maneuvered into a state of numbness, which wasn’t all that better from the intense depressive state she’d been in a couple months ago.
Eventually, sleep caught up with her and Jo was able to fall into a somewhat restful slumber. When she awoke in the morning, she’d forgotten for a split second that had ever left. She reached beside her to touch him only to find his once side of the bed empty. Standing up, Jo readied herself for the day and was about to walk out the door when Levi walked in.
“Uh… Jo. Did you know that your ex husband is sleeping in his car outside our building?” Levi asked as he pulled off his jacket.
“I just got back from the hospital and I was surprised because I saw a car in front. I went to go check it out because it looked like the car was on. Karev is in there, knocked out in the backseat,” Levi’s confused expression mirrored the one on Jo’s face.
“He stayed,” Jo whispered quietly.
“Nothing,” Jo shook her head. “I’ve got to go to work. But check on him in a few hours and bring him some water or a sandwich.”
“Okay…” Levi looked at her strangely. “Do you wanna tell me what’s going on?”
“Honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on,” Jo let out a breath. “He came back and he said he loves me and apologized. He said he’s not gonna leave without a fight and he’ll wait until I’m ready to talk to him again.”
“Listen, I’m all for forgiveness and starting fresh, but Jo, he hurt you so bad. I care about you and I don’t want to see you back in that state. You still aren’t fully healed,” Levi spoke gently.
“I know,” Jo closed her eyes. “I don’t want to talk about this right now. I’m going to the hospital. Just, make sure you give him something to eat later. And let him in if he wants to shower or use the bathroom.”
The following days consisted of more of the same. Every morning Jo would wake up to find Alex asleep in his car and every evening, she’d return to see him eating dinner either in or outside his car. She knew he entered the house while she was gone. She could tell by the presence of his toothbrush and toiletries in the bathroom. She could tell by the stray t-shirt hanging out near the corner of the loft.
It was the fourth night when Jo couldn’t stand to sit in the loft alone knowing he was outside anymore. At about seven o’clock, she grabbed her purse and jacket and walked out the door, passing by Alex who was wordlessly working on something on his laptop. He looked up at Jo striding across the parking lot, not taking his eyes off of her until she stood outside her car door. Climbing into her car, Jo drove off and ended up in the first place she could think of.
Jo walked up the steps and knocked on the door, waiting for the person on the other side to answer. After about a minute, the door opened to reveal Jackson.
“Hey. What’s up?” Jackson asked.
“I brought booze,” Jo held up a bottle of tequila.
“That bad, huh? Okay, come on in,” Jackson stepped aside to let her in. He observed her for a moment before speaking again. “Just letting you know, I have Harriet tonight. She’s sleeping in the bedroom.”
“That’s fine. We can be quiet,” Jo leaned forward and captured Jackson’s lips in a kiss. “I need this.”
They didn’t get very far when Jackson realized that something was wrong, “Hold on. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. It’s fine, just keep going,” Jo responded.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. You’re not here right now,” Jackson pulled away. “Your brain is in a million other places.”
“Did you think that maybe I’m here because my brain is in a million other places?” Jo huffed and sunk down onto the couch. “This, what we have here, is good. There are no feelings, no expectations, nothing messy. I just really need to have no feelings right now because I feel like I’m going to explode with the amount of feelings threatening to burst out of me.”
“Oh. So, that’s what this is about,” Jackson nodded his head in understanding.
“What?” Jo furrowed her brows.
“What happened between you two the other night?”
Jackson did not need to elaborate. Jo knew exactly which two people he was referring to. She just hated that they had gotten close enough that he could tell what was wrong with her. Jo hung her head in defeat, “He wants me back and told me that he still loves me.”
“Do you still love him?” Jackson took a seat beside her and waited for her response.
“Yes, Jackson. I’m always going to love him. We talked about this,” Jo huffed in annoyance.
Jackson shook his head, “No, I mean… right now, in this very moment he says he loves you. What do you say?”
“I love him, too. But I hate what he did to me,” Jo confessed quietly. “I love him… so much. So much that sometimes it feels like my heart is going to burst because it can’t contain the amount of love I have for him. I thought I lost the love of my life, Jackson. I grieved him. I grieved my relationship. I came to the conclusion that I would never experience love like that ever again. I treated it as if he’d died. And now he’s just back? He put me through hell just to come back and try to worm his way into my life again? If he doesn’t stay with Izzie and those kids, then what was the point of it all? What was the point of the pain and the tears? All of the hurt I experienced, the destruction of our relationship… it was all for nothing. And I don’t know if I can get past that… But I love him. I love him, Jackson and I just want to be able to love him the way I used to love him. I don’t want to love him from afar.”
Jackson looked at her for a moment, “What are you going to do? Are you going to take him back?”
“I don’t know,” Jo cradled her head in her hands. “I don’t know what I should do. I don’t know what’s right.”
“I don’t think there’s a right answer. And I don’t think you should rely on what other people would do in your situation when making your decision. Screw what everyone else thinks. Do what you think you can handle. Do what you want to do. Alex is giving you a choice, a choice that he took from you the first time around. And your choice can be to let him go, but don’t let everyone else’s opinions rob you from making that choice,” Jackson sat on the edge of the couch and waited for Jo to say something.
“He’s been sleeping in his car for the past five days and it’s killing me,” Jo let out a breath. She stood up and faced Jackson. “Thanks, for everything.”
Understanding the duality of her words, Jackson’s lips curved up into a smile, “You’re welcome.”
Jo had begun making her way out the door when Jackson called out to her.
“You’re making the right decision.”
Finally feeling as though she was in control of her future, Jo smiled, “I know.”
He wasn’t quite sure at what point he’d fallen asleep, but sometime around eleven o’clock, Alex woke up to the sound of the passenger door opening. He startled out of his sleep to find Jo climbing into the car, hair freshly washed, wearing a large t-shirt and sweatpants, a blanket in hand, and the most nonchalant expression on her face. Furrowing his brows in question, Alex watched as she silently sat down in the seat beside him.
Jo reclined the seat back and turned on her side to face Alex. She stared softly at his confused face and felt herself truly relax. After some moments of just staring at each other silently, Jo reached out her hand across the center console and grabbed Alex’s hand.
Jo watched as he let out a soft sob. Alex brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it lightly, not bothering to wipe the tears that were falling. Feeling her own tears make their way down her face, Jo exhaled and used her free hand to pull the blanket around her a little tighter. Once the tears were gone, Jo and Alex closed their eyes, reveling in the familiar closeness.
And for the first time in months, both of them slept soundly.