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what the truth used to be (what the truth is now)

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She can’t feel anything.

Everything around her is a blinding, unending white brightness that makes her head ache. She tries to take a breath and her mouth fills with snow that stings her gums and collects, painfully cold, in her throat. Choking and desperate for air, she runs. Runs as fast as she can. There has to be an end, a wall, something real here besides herself.

Her skin starts to freeze over and turns paler with each step that she takes. She slips on what must be a patch of ice and feels herself plummet down, down, down. There’s nothing beneath her anymore, where she’s sure there was ground to land on is now an endless abyss in which the temperature drops the deeper she falls. No sound comes out when she tries to scream. Just more snow gathering on her tongue, into her nose now, causing her vision to spot as she claws at her own face.

The space is eternal, but nevertheless, Jackie is trapped.

The cabin floor groans as Jackie shoots up and a nervous squeak makes its way out of her windpipe. She’s never been happier to feel her lungs drawing in oxygen.

Instinctively, she reaches for her face, placing a hand on her own forehead and feeling the heat of blood pumping steadily. She glances over at Shauna to make sure the other girl is still sleeping soundly before clutching her face in her hands and letting herself cry.

Jackie wants to forget all about that night outside. She'd rather not remember dangling dangerously close to death, thank you very much, or feel the remains of the cold biting at her extremities. But every night it comes back to her, souring the appeal of sleep and leaving her with dark circles that her remaining stash of makeup isn’t doing much to hide.

She quickly dries her cheeks and drops her arms when she feels the body next to her shift. A warm hand weaves its way into Jackie’s, entwining their fingers together. In the darkness, she sees a set of eyes furrow with worry.

"You can cry. It's okay. I'm here."

Lying back down, Jackie allows the tears fall freely, thankful to feel Shauna’s arms quickly wrapping around her.

-

It’s supposed to be a short-term thing, the two of them cuddling together. Jackie’s so fucked up that first night, both mentally and physically. She’s afraid to sleep alone. Afraid to be cold. Shauna senses it and lugs her blankets down from the attic (Jackie’s frostbite is miraculously mild according to Misty, but the girl still whines that it hurts too much for her to climb the ladder), spreads them in front of the fire and gathers Jackie in her arms. Mumbles “I’m so sorry” with soft kisses to her temple that feel like the touches of an angel. On nights when Jackie isn't feeling grumpy, she brushes Shauna’s hair out of her eyes and murmurs back her own apologies.

It’s supposed to be short-term. No one was supposed to fall in love or anything.

But sometimes, life just likes to fuck you over.

Case in point: here they are, enduring a winter spent surviving in the forests of Canada when Jackie is supposed to be living it up at Rutgers. Shauna would be holding her hair back when a frat party got a little too exciting, and Jeff would come to visit on the weekends. It had been all planned out on Jackie’s mental vision board, a pink and green room for them to spend the next four years of bliss in. Life wasn’t supposed to get so complicated. When Shauna had come running out drenched in guilt to drag her in from the snow, Jackie could tell she was thinking the same.

Everything has to change at some point.

Things with Jeff hadn’t been great for a while, if she’s being honest. He was pushing and pushing her to sleep with him and Jackie kept stubbornly resisting. She wanted it to be special. But, no, that wasn’t it, was it? Deep down she just didn’t want it to be with him. Jeff got impatient. His eyes wandered. He’d asked her for Shauna’s number once, and she’d been just so happy that he was making the effort to bond with her best friend.

Jackie should’ve seen the signs, really, but then again she’s always been pretty clueless about most things.

Sometimes you just don’t realize that anything has changed. It comes creeping up on you, and before you know it, things are unrecognizable from what they were just weeks before. Change doesn’t give you a warning.

The one thing Jackie has never wanted to change is her friendship with Shauna. But they'd both worked to screw that one up, hadn’t they?

It’s a hard pill to swallow: her boyfriend cheating on her with the most important person in her life. Or maybe the real pill should be that the most important person in her life is someone other than her boyfriend. Maybe if she had realized that earlier, they wouldn’t be in this mess, Shauna would have felt proud to tell her that she got into Brown instead of feeling stifled, Shauna wouldn’t have stabbed her in the back, Jackie wouldn’t have—Jackie wouldn’t have almost frozen to death, feeling unloved, the most important person in no one’s life. But it all happened, dominoes falling one after another.

“What would you have done if I’d died out there?”

“Jackie, why—“

“Did any part of you—did you want me to, just a little?”

The thing about stuff that changes, Jackie’s learned: none of it ever really goes back to normal.

Their relationship gets pieced back together into something that will never fully resemble what it was before but does its best. They wrap bandages around it in the form of closeness, afraid to let each other out of their sight, losing their grip on any remaining sense of object permanence. After Jackie has the nightmare for the first time (almost grateful that she wakes up in an uncomfortable sweat, welcoming the sweltering heat that warms her body), Shauna is there. Hand slipping under her shirt, thumb rubbing smooth circles on her stomach, prepared with years of knowing just what to do to slow down Jackie’s pounding heart. Except her heart doesn’t slow this time; it picks up even as her fear gives way to sleep. Why is it beating so fast?

Regardless, it makes sense to extend their arrangement until the dreams subside and Jackie can sleep soundly through the night again.

They don’t. She can’t. And Shauna stays.

A few evenings tangled together in front of the fire stretches longer.

Jackie starts to wear Shauna’s clothes the way she used to wear Jeff’s, relishing in the way it makes her look and feel like she is someone’s. She wonders every now and then if Shauna would’ve worn her letterman jacket, had she not come back inside; it’s morbid, but Jackie thinks she would have wanted that. To still be with her in that way.

When Taissa tells her about the almost-abortion on one of the rare occasions Shauna leaves her side to help forage, Jackie's shoulders are crushed with the weight of guilt. She once again is forced to reckon with the knowledge that she is as much at fault for Shauna's mistakes as Shauna is for hers. And if Jackie had lost Shauna, what then? How would she have lived with that?

It almost happened, whether she’d intended it or not. Because of her, because they’d reached a point where Shauna would have rather died than faced her. Jackie understands Shauna more, suddenly, feels her heart fall further into empathy. Both of them had almost gotten themselves killed and damned the other to the guilt of it.

Pressed together that night, Jackie places determined kisses on Shauna’s neck, on her forehead, on the corner of her mouth.

“We can’t ever let each other get like that again, okay? I don’t want to lose you. I love you too much to lose you, Shipman.”

They continue on like that, night after night for six weeks: woven together in warmth and gentle kisses, naturally progressing to be passed between their lips. No one brings it up. It’s just short-term, after all. Just until they’re both okay again. Just to reassure how much they can’t stand to chance letting each other go. Nightmares and baby kicks and anything else that causes one of them to wake is soothed by caring arms and a promise of protection, of something that is learning it has always been unconditional. Skin-to-skin, they take on the dark together.

Jackie was never supposed to fall in love with Shauna like this.

But she didn’t, did she? When she gets down to the nitty gritty of it, she’s just missed the signs again. She’s been in love with her for so much longer, maybe even since the very first gap-toothed smile Shauna had given her in grade school. It only took a few near-tragedies for her to realize it.

And that's where that change idea comes back, Jackie finally understands. You can spend most of your life completely sure of who you are, but somewhere down the line you look back and see you were never quite sure of anything at all, and by the time you realize what the truth is now, life is already fucking you over. You can’t go back. You can only succumb to the changes taking place, no matter how much you’ve resisted and resented and replaced. Sometimes it lands you where you were meant to be all along.

-

Jackie wipes the last of her tears on her pajamas while Shauna pulls her ever tighter against her body. Her bright white purgatory feels farther away than it did ten minutes earlier. She nuzzles into the crook of Shauna's neck and wills herself to relax.

“Do you ever wish we could go back to the way we were?” Shauna mumbles sleepily against her forehead.

Jackie sniffles and studies the outline of Shauna’s jaw before kissing it softly. “No,” she says, finally. “I think…I think this was a long time coming. I think we stopped being the way we were before we even ended up out here.”

“Yeah. I think so, too.”

The last thought Jackie has before drifting back asleep is that the cold and the nightmares may continue to scare her, but change no longer does. She is content to be forever changing, as long as she does it with Shauna Shipman, intertwined.