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Thread: ***NEW***Stand Still, Look Pretty (Gwen/multiple pairings), decidedly AU

  1. #1
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    Post ***NEW***Stand Still, Look Pretty (Gwen/multiple pairings), decidedly AU

    Title: Stand Still, Look Pretty"
    Rating: overall—PG-13, PG for this one, I think
    Warning: angst, mildlanguage, mentions of sexual situations (both squicky and not?)
    Pairing/Characters: Gwen/Julian (I know…I feel like I need a nice long scrubbing too, lol), Jonathan Hotchkiss, other characters, mentions of Ethan, Sheridan, Alistair, Crane children, nods to Sam/Ivy, Ethan/Theresa, Sheridan/Luis, even a tiny hint of Gwen/Fox if you're really searching
    Word Count: 1,519.
    Summary (for chapter): Gwen's nineteen (almost twenty), still idealistic, still eager to prove herself to the father who's only ever wanted a son, when she meets Julian Crane for the first time.




    ~1~





    xxx
    Julian
    xxx





    Gwen's nineteen (almost twenty), still idealistic, still eager to prove herself to the father who's only ever wanted a son, when she meets Julian Crane for the first time.

    He's an attractive man, a man that carries himself with a certain sense of entitlement, and his eyes linger on her as her father makes the introductions.

    Gwen's palm itches with the inclination to withdraw when Julian's lips brush across the back of her hand, but she doesn't, because she senses the importance of this meeting, the subtle warning in the hand her father lightly places against her shoulder, even if she doesn't fully comprehend it (yet). She's relieved when her father dismisses her with a cool kiss to her temple, and she drifts to the other side of the room, welcomes the distraction of an old boarding school friend, even if she writes off most of the nonsense spilling from her loose lips as ridiculous gossip.

    "I heard he's on the lookout for another Mrs. Crane, a newer, sexier model," Buffy giggles. "He's not too bad on the eyes; old, but filthy rich. It seems the Cranes own this quaint little hamlet of yours, Gwennie. Do you think I should audition for the part?"

    Gwen wants to roll her eyes but doesn't (Julian Crane has children their age, has a son two years older…had a son, she reminds herself as an afterthought). Instead, she watches from afar the conversation between her father and Mr. Crane with renewed interest and pushes back at the tiny inexplicable ball of lead she feels starting to sink to the pit of her belly. In her distracted state, she (thankfully) misses most of Buffy's inane
    chatter, but a vaguely familiar name draws her back.

    "It's a shame about Ethan. He really was quite handsome," Buffy sighs with regret. "You knew him, didn't you?"

    Buffy doesn't give Gwen the chance to answer, rambles on. It's just as well. Gwen reflects on the few, brief times she'd made Ethan Crane's acquaintance (Bennett now, her brain corrects half a second later; the scandal had been splashed all over the Harmony Herald, had reached across state lines and easily found its way into the halls of her sorority house), and his easy, genuine charm. Hindsight makes it all the more obvious. Ethan had possessed an innate warmth that his so-called father lacked; instinctively, Gwen knows this to be true, though her one and only encounter to judge Julian Crane by is mere minutes old. Her brown eyes flit to Buffy's animated face, and she shakes her head with a soft murmur of disagreement, "Not very well."

    Buffy briefly looks disappointed but she bubbles on, oblivious to Gwen's wandering attention. Blessedly, a mutual friend arrives, one more inclined to join in on her musings, and she barely notices when Gwen answers her father's silent but commanding summons from across the room, departs their company.

    "I'm sorry, but I have to go," Gwen apologizes, though the leering look Julian Crane doesn't deign to disguise makes her want to turn and walk in the opposite direction for as far as she can. As such, her feet are leaden as they carry her to her father's side, and her heart hammers inside her chest as she looks up at him uncertainly. "Yes, Father?"

    Jonathan Hotchkiss clears his throat, looks anywhere but in his daughter's eyes. "Mr. Crane has a proposition for us, one that will satisfy both of our needs."

    Julian Crane's lips curve slightly, smugly, and he lifts the drink in his hands to his mouth, sipping, before he smiles at Gwen in a show of (threatening) teeth and confidence. "One you absolutely cannot refuse."

    Gwen's nails bite into her clenched palm with the dawning realization of the role chosen for her, and she wills back the scream that wants to force itself past her betrayal-tightened throat in favor of a brave, brittle smile of her own. "Tell me about this proposition of yours."




    ~*~


    They marry on her twentieth birthday in a lavish spectacle.

    Gwen feels less like a bride than a helpless, captured animal paraded down the aisle by the father that would not give her away but sell her to the highest bidder (we're going under…this is our only chance to hold on to the company, to continue living the way we're accustomed to). Her stomach is a ball of nerves, her palms clammy as they tighten painfully around her bouquet of roses. Her eyes dart furtively around the grounds, looking for a means of escape, but she is unfamiliar with the Crane Estate, has never stepped foot on it until this very day, and the eyes watching her stay her. In them, she reads a myriad of emotions (awe, pity, disgust, cold determination), and she hands her bouquet off with trembling hands. "I take thee…"

    The ceremony passes in a haze, and she finds herself Mrs. Julian Crane before the sun sets on the horizon.

    The reception is not so much a celebration as a parody of normalcy, and too soon, Gwen is alone with her new husband on their wedding night.

    Somehow, she endures.


    ~*~



    Life as Mrs. Crane is not without its luxuries, and Gwen convinces herself they're comfort enough. Still, she settles uncomfortably into the role and longs for another.

    Julian's sister becomes a friend, her closest friend, and she hers.

    In Sheridan, Gwen recognizes a kindred spirit, one that refuses to give up hope, and she draws strength from that determination. Her husband's children stay away, and the house staff are too formal, too close-lipped, and it is only them (Gwen and Sheridan), Julian, and Julian and Sheridan's father in the Mansion with its abundance of rooms, its shadows and secrets.

    The days are long, the nights even longer.

    Gwen welcomes her husband's abdication from their bed, ignores the evidence of his adulterous indiscretions. His infidelities give her the small glimpse of respite that she needs to survive, to carry on, so she allows them, secretly revels in them.

    Then Sheridan reconnects with Ethan, discovers her own place outside of their gilded prison, falls into the possibility of love, real love.

    "He's works for the Harmony PD, Gwen, and he doesn't care if I'm rich, isn't in awe of the Crane name. In fact, he hates it. But I think he likes me. I like him, too."

    And the charity events, the beautiful clothes, the pearls and diamonds clinging seductively to her throat are not enough; they never really were.

    Gwen realizes it then, no longer can deny it though her valiant heart rebels against it: the girl, the woman Gwen Hotchkiss thought, imagined herself to be is in danger of extinction.

    Slowly, she's falling apart.


    ~*~



    Piece by piece, Gwen loses herself in the lie that is her cruel reality (time leaves her behind).

    The company goes under anyway, and her father comes to visit her one day, pleads for her forgiveness. "I can't live with what I've done anymore. Please. Please understand…"

    Her husband orders him gone, and for once, Gwen doesn't take issue.

    It is the last time she sees her father alive.

    He suffers a massive heart attack less than a month later, and Gwen reads about the ruins that were all he left her mother (a few pages back there is an engagement picture; looking at Ethan Bennett's so-very-young fiancée, she can't help thinking…once upon a time, I was that young, that full of hope, too) in the paper.

    At his funeral, dry eyed and knuckles white, Gwen can't help feeling a tiny bit of satisfaction over the knowledge that (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) her father had died feeling remorse, guilt, something, over the utter hell he'd manipulated her into accepting as her life.

    It's a human thought, one that proves that girl, an older, wiser version, perhaps, still lurks inside her somewhere.

    It doesn't matter, though.

    She's still damned.



    ~*~



    Gwen's twenty-seven, not quite as young, definitely not as idealistic, when she takes her first lover into her marriage bed.

    Her husband is a womanizing lush, a distinguished drunkard perhaps, but nevertheless…if he isn't clueless, he doesn't pretend to care.

    She's lonely, and though the children have returned, linger in the doorways (ever present in the shadows) eager for death to take their grandfather, make them wealthier still, she's an entity unto herself, alone, tired of her solitary existence.

    The gardener is clumsy (but sweet—he wipes her tears when she cries), and his hands are work-roughened.

    He snores quietly when the act is over and drapes a long, ropy arm over her waist, but Gwen doesn't remove it, is surprised by how much she doesn't want to.

    Others follow (her stepson is all-too willing), and it's a different kind of loneliness she feels when she realizes she doesn't recognize herself anymore.

    She's lost, adrift in a sea of cruel circumstance.

    History repeats itself, and a baby is born.

    But this time…this time they both know the score.

    He is her salvation. He is her punishment. He is her son.

    She names him Jonathan.







    ~*~




    Sorry for starting yet another new story on you, dear readers.

    It's an affliction I just cannot help.

    LOL!

    On a more serious note, I've had a rough couple weeks, and whenever that happens my ideas tend to be a little darker than usual, so...stuff like this fic happens. Trust me, it's either this or torture for the characters in my other fics.

    So...I hope that first chapter didn't totally turn you off from this story. Don't ask me to tell you what compelled me to write this particular pairing, because I absolutely do not know.

    This fic, in my mind, is the Gwen is the little black dress of Harmony fic.



    The main idea behind it is ten lives Gwen did not live on the show (with ten different men of Passions-hooboy!), which automatically veers it into AU territory.

    I already have the other nine guys in mind, but if there's someone else particular you want to read about, feel free to leave me a message and tell me.

    Feedback is always welcome! In fact, I adore it and survive on it.

    I'll be updating this story as time and inspiration allows.

    In the meantime, I hope you check out some of my other stories and leave me a shout-out.

    I'm leaning toward Sam/Ivy for the next installment of 25 Days of Christmas (the little story collection I hope to finish before next Christmas, lol).

    Thoughts?

  2. #2
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    Post Re: ***NEW***Stand Still, Look Pretty (Gwen/multiple pairings), decidedly AU

    Title: Stand Still, Look Pretty
    Rating: PG, I guess, for this part
    Warning: angst, language, adult themes, UST
    Pairing/Characters: past Gwen/Ethan, mentions of Ethan/Theresa, Chad/Gwen (friend)ship, mentions of past Whitney/Chad, mentions of Jonathan Hotchkiss, Luis, Sheridan, more
    Word Count: 6, 832
    Summary (for chapter): Gwen takes the decision out of Ethan's hands, sends him back to Harmony with signed divorce papers and his ring (and Theresa), stays on the West Coast. Part One of Two, possibly more. See above word count, lol. There's a reason why this chapter is such a long time coming…Chad and Gwen's relationship just kept…evolving. I can't explain. I guess I kind of fell in love with writing them? Hope you enjoy them even half as much.



    ~2~



    xxx

    Chad

    xxx






    Gwen takes the decision out of Ethan's hands, sends him back to Harmony with signed divorce papers and his ring (and Theresa), stays on the West Coast.

    Ethan doesn't put up much of a fight. In fact, he
    actually seems relieved for it all to finally be over. His grief over Sarah is there, sure, but it isn't at the forefront, isn't what it should (by all rights) be.

    They say their goodbyes at the hospital, with Chad waiting to drive Ethan to the airport, meet the others.

    Gwen climbs into the back of a cab an hour later, and for a long while, with the meter running and the driver watching her with thinly veiled curiosity, they simply ride. Her left hand is bare and trembling as it settles low over her rounded belly, and the tears spill, unchecked, down her cheeks beneath the morphing shadows of the towering palm trees as she ponders that last goodbye.

    The guarded glimpse of sadness and compassion in Chad's dark eyes had been brief but true, real in a way Ethan's had not.

    The knowledge, though painful, is enough to strengthen Gwen's resolve (if not mend her breaking heart), and her other hand joins its twin on the mound of her abdomen, cradles protectively the life still flourishing there, despite the odds. "What about a house on the beach?" A moment later, she sighs, murmurs into the yawning silence, "It's just you and me now, Sweetheart. Your daddy…he's gone. I hope I'll be enough, love you enough, for the both of us."

    The driver looks at her oddly but doesn't say a word, and the cab continues on its way.

    It is a small gift that Gwen accepts with a thankful, watery smile (and returns with a generous tip, later, when they finally reach their journey's end). Casting her eyes to the shifting landscape outside her window, she whispers softly so only she and her daughter might hear, "It was the right decision, Sarah. It was." The baby kicks lightly against her palms, and Gwen feels a sort of peace descend on her troubled soul.

    It would seem that Sarah agrees.





    ~*~



    Gwen builds a new life for herself and her daughter, a good life. She makes new friends, finds herself a job that reminds her (of something she had forgotten along the way) that she was (always) more than just Ethan's long-time girlfriend, his second-choice wife; she's intelligent and savvy, and she can be successful on her own. She is successful on her own.

    Chad is the last person she expects to see again (well, not the last…but close to the last), and when he quite literally runs into her one morning, outside of the coffee shop where she always picks up a fortifying cup of caffeine to start her day, it's most definitely a surprise.

    His hands are gentle as they steady her, his smile apologetic. "My bad…I wasn't watching where I was going. Wait a minute…Gwen, is that you?"

    His hands fall away with his smile, and Gwen wonders when she became the villainess in her own life story, rues the day she ever met Theresa for perhaps the (five hundred) thousandth time as Chad remembers where his loyalties lie, and the warmth in his eyes flickers to a low-banked curl of heat. "It's okay," she lies smoothly, even though it's not. She's got a very important meeting in less than half an hour, and her blouse is ruined, completely unsalvageable; Gwen doesn't have time to deal with this quite literal run-in with her past, and she tells him as much, lets him off the hook. "Don't worry about it, Chad. I was distracted, too. I have a meeting, and I'm running behind…"

    "And you don't have time to play nice with another one of Theresa's fools," Chad finishes for her, his smile again apologetic.

    His words ring with resigned acceptance, affection in the face of obvious disappointment, but affection just the same, tried and true and still there. "Chad," Gwen attempts to interrupt.

    "It was nice seeing a familiar face," Chad continues on, though he knows Gwen doesn't really buy it, doesn't fully believe him. "Don't see too many of those 'round these parts no more. Maybe we'll run into each other again. I owe you a cup of coffee."

    You don't owe me anything, Gwen wants to say, but she doesn't. Instead, she blurts out a confession, a maybe invitation, "8 o'clock."

    "8 o'clock?" Chad echoes her, clearly confused.

    "I grab a cup of coffee, every morning before I go to work, at 8 o'clock," Gwen explains. "If you want…" she trails off uncertainly, feeling foolish and wanting desperately to take the words back, but it's too late. Like Chad said, he is a familiar face, in a city woefully short of them, and she's ashamed to say she still misses that. "You know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything. I really have to go." She rushes away, without giving him another chance to speak, barely makes her meeting.

    The next morning, 8 o'clock on the dot, Chad's waiting for her at a little table tucked away in the back corner, with a steaming jolt of liquid adrenalin just the way she likes it (she doesn't ask how he knows). He's there the next day and the day after that and the day after that, each day his smiles a little more real. He tells her about the new, raw talent he's scoping out; in return, she only hints at the life she's carved out for herself with Ethan's leaving.

    It's a start, just enough to build upon, and build upon it they do, until Gwen has the most stunning revelation.

    Chad isn't just Theresa's friend or Ethan's friend anymore; he's hers, too.





    ~*~




    Her hair a messy blond knot at the nape of her neck, her clothes rumpled and bedraggled, Gwen flings open her front door before the insistent knocking can waken her feverish daughter and feels all the oxygen flee her lungs, swears her heart stops right there, inside its bony cage. "Chad? What are you…" She quickly abandons that question for another line of questioning when she realizes he is riveted on the precious bundle cradled in the crook of her arm. "Why are you here? How did you even find out where I live?"

    Chad's dark eyes lift to focus on her face, probing and conflicted, and he absently answers her, as his hands stray unwittingly to the sweaty blond strands matted against Sarah's forehead. "You weren't at the coffee shop; you're always at the coffee shop. I asked some questions, made some calls. Is this…"

    Gwen bites her lip, shakes her head, pulls him inside in one fluid motion. She leans heavily against the closed door as Chad stares at them both. For the first time in months, she can't fully read the look on his face, and she doesn't know what worries her more: the return of the slight distrust in his dark eyes or the way she feels about that distrust.

    Sarah drags in a labored breath, turns her face into the cool curve of Gwen's neck, tightens and relaxes her tiny fingers.

    Gwen holds her breath when Chad settles his fingers gently against her daughter's brow, strokes the fine hair there, and seconds later, swears under his breath.

    "She's burning up."

    "Her pediatrician swears it's nothing too serious, but I couldn't just leave her," Gwen finally finds her voice again. "I was on my way to run her a cool bath when you knocked."

    Chad draws his hand back, squares his shoulders. "Which way?"

    Gwen lips slide against Sarah's hot skin, slacken in her confusion. "What?"

    "Your bathroom," Chad answers shortly, concisely, not waiting for her answer as he steps deeper into the safe haven of her house. "Which way?"

    Gwen lets him draw the bath water, watches him roll up his sleeves, positions Sarah in his arms as she tenderly wipes her down with a dampened cloth.

    "That's it, Little Bit," Chad encourages when Sarah blinks open bright brown eyes, struggles to focus on his unfamiliar face. "Open those pretty eyes of yours." He takes the cloth from Gwen's hands when she sags against his side in exhaustion, croons soothingly to the restless little girl as she frets and cries in uncertainty. "You're okay. You're okay," he says, over and over again, until even Gwen believes it, and the fever, mercifully, breaks.

    Sleep's insistent fingers drag Sarah under again, but this time she's peaceful, blond hair soft as silk, tucked underneath Chad's stubbornly set chin.

    He's got questions only she can answer, and Gwen knows he deserves more than evasions and ill-formed lies, so she starts at the beginning, the simple truth that had led her to make such a life-altering decision, and she makes no apologies. "Sarah deserved more."





    ~*~



    That first admission opens the floodgates, and Gwen tells Chad everything: how she'd changed her mind the moment the nurse placed her beautiful little daughter in her tired arms, called Ethan thousands of miles away, only to get his voice on an answering machine (with Theresa and Little Ethan giggling in the background); how she'd called again, only to hang up with a startled jolt when Theresa herself had answered; how she'd finally poured her heart out in a letter, pleading Ethan's forgiveness, telling him how beautiful their Sarah was, asking him not to hold her sins against her when it came to loving their daughter, not to let the feelings he no longer had for her interfere with being Sarah's rightful father. She finishes with a painful admission, but she won't allow herself to cry (she'd promised herself no more tears over him, them). "He doesn't want her, Chad. He doesn't want any reminder of the life we led to intrude on the life he's built with Theresa."

    Chad shakes his head in disbelief. "That doesn't sound like my man Ethan."

    Gwen recoils slightly; she can't help it. She stands up, leaves the sofa, puts some much needed distance between, curses herself for feeling like she could trust him with this tiny little piece of her heart she keeps so closely guarded. He was Theresa's and Ethan's friend first, after all. "That little girl asleep in there," she points down the hall, to Sarah's nursery, "doesn't know her father, has never met him, not because I never gave him the chance. I did, Chad."

    Chad rises to his feet, takes a step closer to her, holds his hands up in apology when she takes an answering step back. "Whoa. Hang on. I'm not sayin' you didn't…I'm just sayin'…maybe Ethan didn't get the letter."

    "He got the letter, Chad," Gwen insists. "Sheridan handed it to him herself."

    "Sheridan knew?"

    Gwen wraps her arms tightly, protectively around her body, shakes her head, for as much as she had trusted Sheridan, cherished her as a friend, she had fallen under Theresa's spell, too, and her loyalties were torn. "Sheridan knew only that I wanted to apologize to Ethan, not for what."

    Chad makes a last-ditch effort to defend his friend. "Ethan wouldn't deny his own child."

    "For Theresa?" Gwen responds, heavy sadness in her brown eyes. "He would. He did."



    ~*~



    Gwen goes out of her way to avoid Chad for the next several weeks (the coffee at the little kiosk at work is terrible, a dreary sludge she pours in the wastebasket beside her desk after a few, forced sips). It doesn't take much of an effort, because he avoids her too. She starts to wonder if she made the right decision—letting him in. She's surprised by how much she misses him, but work and Sarah help with that.

    Sarah starts walking. She wobbles and she stumbles but stubbornly, she never gives up (she's all smiles).

    It's a milestone Gwen wishes Ethan were witness to, a milestone that should be shared, but there's only her, and the old doubts creep in, make her question her ability to be everything for her daughter. Not for the first time, she worries she's just not enough.

    But, if Sarah shares the same worries, wants for anything, it doesn't show. She's a happy child, outgoing and independent.

    Gwen hopes that confidence carries her through life's inevitable disappointments. She prays that it will.





    ~*~



    Gwen doesn't see Chad again until Sarah's birthday.
    The last guests are leaving (her next door neighbor Violet and her young son, a couple of friends from work, Jo and Heather), and Sarah's purple party dress has smears of icing all over it.

    Jo smothers a grin when she sees Chad, glances not-so-covertly back at Gwen.

    Gwen gently pushes her out of the door with a roll of her eyes, feels herself blushing when Chad's eyes linger on her a little too long as the ladies giggle their way to their car.

    "Friends of yours?" Chad poses, waiting patiently on her doorstep for her to invite him in. Glancing down at Sarah, all big brown eyes and silk-soft blonde hair as she tips her head back to stare at him, size him up, he lets his smile reign free. "Hey, Little Bit. A little birdie told me it was your birthday."

    Gwen doesn't ask how he found out; she knows he'll just give her that semi-infuriating little smirk, won't give up his source. When her daughter gives him her seal of approval by grinning up at him and holding out her arms to be picked up, she decides it doesn't much matter anyway.

    They pick their way through the presents and gift wrapping strewn all over her living room floor, find the couch, and Sarah's sticky little hands immediately dive into the bag Chad has perched enticingly on his opposite knee.

    Gwen's not at all surprised when she sees the gift. Of course, it would be something musically related considering the source, and she dryly thanks him. "Thanks a lot."

    "What?" Chad shrugs with a small grin. "It plays music." He demonstrates, and Sarah soon mimics his actions to near-perfection.

    "It makes noise," Gwen corrects him with an answering smile, because it's the first present today her daughter's enjoyed more than the gift wrapping, and she simply loves all that bright, shiny paper. An amusing little competition breaks out between the two of them (what Sarah doesn't score in style points, she makes up in sheer jubilation), and Gwen finally decides her ears have had enough. "Seriously, thanks," she tells Chad, giving him a look of total exasperation that finally earns his pity.

    Thankfully, Sarah is easily distracted, and she toddles off, still a little unsteady on her feet, as the two adults sharing the room with her struggle to meet each other's eyes without her presence between them as a buffer.

    It takes Chad's admiration of Sarah's new motoring skills to break the ice. "Damn, when did that happen?"

    "A couple of weeks ago," Gwen murmurs, watching her daughter with a proud smile. "I've always heard it said, but I've never really appreciated it until now…they really do change so much, so quickly when they're little. You miss one day, and you…" she trails off, catches him watching her with an unreadable expression on his face, and for the first time, meeting his dark eyes, she feels a little frisson of awareness course through her veins. "I didn't think you were coming back."

    "Me either," Chad admits reluctantly.

    Gwen sucks in a startled breath at his honesty, starts to withdraw, only to have him pull her back with his actions, with his words.

    "Hey," Chad places a gentle hand on her knee. "Don't do that. Don't feel like you have to hide yourself from me. Don't." His hand moves from her knee, captures her hand, won't let go until she relaxes, threads her fingers through his own.

    "Chad," Gwen begins, but he won't let her speak, cuts her off with a proclamation that, while not new, still cuts her, clear to the bone.

    "You were right."

    Gwen knows, just knows, what he's referring to, but still, she has to be sure. She has to hear the words, painful as she knows they will be. "About?" she prods, and Chad, mercifully, doesn't keep her in suspense
    long.

    "He got the letter."



    ~*~



    Suspecting something is one thing; there's still hope in the unknown. Knowing it for sure? Knowing it for sure takes away that hope, is the most dichotomous sort of torture, because yes, it hurts (God, does it hurt…and she cries, promise be damned), but it's freeing in a way, a blessing in disguise, because, for the first time, Gwen feels like she can let Ethan and all they had and didn't have go, really, finally.

    Chad becomes something of a fixture in their lives (so much so that Jo stops teasing her, stops flirting with him, because whatever they are or aren't, they're important to each other, and Jo's a different breed from Theresa).

    Gwen puts him on her (extremely) short list of emergency contacts at work, approves him to pick up Sarah from her daycare in the highly unlikely event she cannot. They share coffee and secrets and dreams, and Violet (helplessly annoying, lovably neurotic Violet) takes to including him on all her invitations to Gwen, dinner parties, barbecues, even the children's play dates. It's all very domestic, all very couple-ish, and Gwen can't help teasing Chad, just a little bit, even though a small part of her, a very small, hidden part, recognizes the danger in it, the longing for something she's come to believe neither of them are suited for (Whitney and Ethan are but two examples). So she pushes and she pretends, plays the part she needs to play, pulls information out of him with her questions. "This new assistant of yours…is she single?"

    "Don't matter," Chad just shrugs, waves at Sarah, still sleepy-eyed but smiling as she spots him from her hiding place at the end of the hallway, scoots into the living room to join them.

    "Oh?" Gwen leaves the question hanging, finds she can't look away from his eyes (that say so much, too much in that moment, tiny and unguarded).

    Sarah crawls into Chad's lap, snuggles into his strong, secure embrace, yawns as she presses her bare little toes into his denim-clad thigh. She leans heavily into Chad as his gentle fingers smooth the bumps in her rumpled blond pigtails, eyes her mother with disinterested affection that makes Gwen laugh softly and shake her head.

    "Sometimes…" She doesn't finish the thought out loud, doesn't think she can, because he's staring at her, stroking his big hand up and down Sarah's short legs, from skinned knees to wiggling, fanning little toes, and suddenly, it's too much and not enough and everything in between. The slow-burn awareness that Gwen's spent so much time ignoring has flared, gained strength and intensity when she wasn't paying attention, and the moment stretches, sags with all she won't let herself say. She stands up, scoops Sarah from Chad's arms, soothes her daughter's sleepy whimpers with kisses to her warm skin. "This little monkey needs to get back to bed."

    "Gwen," Chad stands up with her, stays her with a hand upon her shoulder.

    Gwen stops him with a smile, soft and a little bit sad. "It's not a good idea, Chad. Whatever else you've ever thought of me, trust me on this." She turns toward Sarah's room, away from him, and his shining, serious eyes. Gwen feels him behind her, struggling to form the right words, and she shakes her head, the action much firmer, more controlled than her voice. She avoids the issue altogether, and he lets her (wisely or unwisely is a point of contention they will argue, later, much later) "It's your turn to buy tomorrow."

    "8 o'clock," Chad promises.

    When Gwen returns, Sarah asleep in her bed again, he is long gone.






    ~*~



    Thousands of miles away, in the middle of a conference call with some potential investors, Jonathan Hotchkiss has a massive heart attack, is dead before the ambulance even makes it to him. Gwen hangs up the phone in shock, her mother's voice still echoing harshly in her ears.

    "There was nothing they could do. He was already gone."

    Sarah and Lucas play in the kitchen, pots and pans (that she rarely uses) serving as their drums, spatulas and spoons as their drumsticks, oblivious to the daughter mourning a (neglected) father just feet away.

    Gwen rakes her hands through her blond hair, bites her lip (bites back a building sob). She paces the living room, picking up scattered toys, tossing them on the sofa, rearranges the pictures and books on her coffee table. Finally, she picks her cell phone back up, presses a number she's been studiously avoiding for the last several weeks, last couple of months, really, and waits for him to pick up. An annoyed female voice answers ("It's her."), and then he's there, on the line, and all she can say is his name, needy and full of unshed tears, "Chad."

    Chad takes one look at her when she opens the door not even an hour later, packs up Lucas and escorts him to his waiting nanny next door.

    Sarah hangs back like a reluctant little cloud, watches her mother with wary brown eyes that are startling and wise. "Why you sad, Mommy?" she asks, chews fretfully on the end of one of her corn silk braids (her hair is long, straight, flowing finely through Gwen's fingertips as she combs it in the mornings, the nights).

    Gwen absently tugs the braid from the worried pout of her daughter's mouth, groans as she lifts her to her lap. Her legs are long too (she's the tallest in her preschool class), and they drape across Gwen's knees, bump against the coffee table. She opens her mouth, but she can't find the words, because her daughter may be losing the roundness of her baby face and she may be all skinny arms and legs and long blond hair, but she's still young, too young to understand the pain of regrets and the turmoil of a life left behind. "Just let me hold you for a while, Baby."

    Sarah complies, is generous, is still, is quiet, is (almost) everything her mother needs in that moment. Then the doorknob turns, and Chad enters the cavernous silence of the house. The pinched lines around her pink mouth disappear, and she slides from Gwen's lap, throws her arms around Chad's waist, lets him tug affectionately, teasingly at her braided pigtails. "My mommy's crying," she tells him, this time chews worriedly on her bottom lip.

    "Sarah," Gwen protests. "I'm not…" But the evidence is right there on her fingertips, wet and irrevocable, and the dam just breaks, right there. Her grief barrels through the flimsy barriers that are left behind, and suddenly, she's sobbing, and she can't stop.

    "Little Bit, why don't you go pick out your pjs?" Chad cups Sarah's blond head in his large hand, propels her gently but firmly in the direction of her bedroom.

    "But it's not even dark outside," Sarah stubbornly protests, digging her heels in. Her objection loses much of its fire when he looks at her, long and hard and expectant. "Okay," she mutters, dragging her feet on the way to her bedroom.

    Chad sits down beside Gwen, removes her hands from her face, holds them, squeezes them with his own. "Talk," he says simply, searching her reddened eyes with his own.

    Gwen does.



    ~*~



    The funeral is small, somber; Gwen recognizes only two of the attendants (her mother makes a brief appearance, Sheridan stays until the end). Her tears have all run dry by the time they lower her father into the ground, and her mind drifts to that morning, and a conversation with her little girl, soft and sweet in her ear but oh so far away ("We had pizza for breakfast, Mommy. I picked off the baby fishies."). She smiles faintly with the memory, and Chad's half-hearted attempts to defend himself, and her lips are still turned curiously upwards when Sheridan finds her, opens her arms for a hug.

    "I'm so sorry, Gwen," Sheridan tells her, punctuates her remorse with a squeeze of her arms around her.

    There are tiny lines of worry around Sheridan's eyes, phantom strokes of regret ghosting the sad line of her mouth, and Gwen knows she means it, knows she's always meant it, but love and Luis and learning how to tiptoe that line between staying true to herself and accepting the changes that being a part of a family, truly being a part, inevitably bring about have gotten in the way. "I know," she murmurs into Sheridan's slim shoulder, squeezes her tight in return. When Gwen draws back, there's relief in those familiar blue eyes, gratitude, and she can't help hugging Sheridan again, drawing her close (they both need this, they do). "I know," she repeats.

    Sheridan takes her to the Book Café; they catch up over coffee. "Luis says he's okay with adopting, and I believe him. It's just…"

    She pauses, and Gwen reads so much in those shimmering blue eyes, feels guilt for the unspoken resentment she's favored Sheridan with (for accepting Ethan's love of Theresa, for caring for her, loving her even, as a part of the family she'd always craved for as far back as Gwen had known her, could even remember), gathers close the tattered remainders of a friendship she'd once reveled in. She takes Sheridan's hand in her own, holds on. "He won't love you any less, Sheridan, if…" She leaves the rest unsaid, but Sheridan hears it anyway; she can tell by the wet sparkle of her eyes.

    Sheridan bites her lip, looks away. "I gave him a baby once," she whispers. "I guess some things aren't meant to be." Shame creeps crimson across her cheeks, and she squeezes Gwen's hand in silent apology. "Gwen," she breathes. "I'm so sorry. Sarah…"

    Gwen feels so many things, so many, in the silent moment that builds, ebbs between them, but her thoughts are scattered (the letter, she doesn't know, Ethan, how could he keep Sarah a secret, a shameful hidden secret, oh God), and her words, the particular words fighting to form on her lips would feel like a betrayal, and that's not what Sheridan needs, not right now. Someday, Gwen promises herself. "Maybe not then, maybe not right now, but someday, Sheridan."

    Sheridan nods, wipes the tears from her cheeks, apologizes again. "Some kind of friend I am. You've just buried your father, and all I can talk about is myself."

    "It's okay," Gwen tells her, and really. It is. She wants so much to return the favor, so much to open up, so much to spill the secrets of her heart (they are many, some known, some yet undiscovered), but it isn't the time, nor the place. "I needed the distraction just as much as the company."

    "Oh, Gwen," Sheridan sighs in response. "I've missed this. I've missed you."

    "I've missed you, too."




    ~*~


    Chad's waiting for Gwen when she lets herself in, pockets her ring of keys. He watches her with his dark eyes, reaches for her with his gentle hands when she stalls, hesitates to cross the last few steps to meet him, and Gwen aches with the knowledge that she wants that, wants to take his hand, wants to accept the comfort he's silently offering. She's worked out a few things during the long, lonely journey back (lay-overs are good for thinking, if nothing else), but she doesn't think either of them is ready to confront those things tonight. She knows she isn't. So she settles for a soft hello. "Hey. I thought I told you not to wait up."

    "I didn't," Chad answers her with a low whisper, smirks, nods to the small bundle curled up beside him, the cloud of blond hair obscuring the little face she loves and knows so well. "She did," he continues. "At least," Chad quickly amends his statement, "she tried to."

    "Oh, Sarah," Gwen sighs, her heart both full and breaking in that instant, because who could choose not to love this beautiful little girl, her little girl (Ethan really is a bastard, she thinks blindly, one of the worst kinds). She kneels in front of them, steadies herself with a hand upon Chad's knee, strokes Sarah's tangled hair from her face. Her kiss is light against her daughter's smooth, silken cheek, but her heart is a heavy, leaden thing within her chest when she rocks back on her heels, meets Chad's dark eyes. "You should have made her go to bed."

    "Don't think I didn't make that suggestion," Chad's lips quirk. "Little Bit didn't think too highly of it."

    His comment brings a smile to Gwen's trembling mouth, the truth of it, the prideful affection in it (that's what orders are to her daughter, mere suggestions, and they're all guilty of indulging her; this time, though, she really can't muster up any complaints). "She looks so peaceful," she murmurs, her eyes drawn again to her daughter. "I don't want to wake her."

    Chad grins at her weak denial, covers the hand on his knee with one of his own. "You do."

    "I do not," Gwen rejoins, only she's grinning, too. She flexes her fingers beneath the cover of his hand, feels her heart stutter and pick back up a staccato beat when he threads their fingers together. Her skin prickles with what feels like tiny electrical currents, zipping and cascading up and down her nerve endings, and she looks up from her perusal of Sarah's beloved features to find him looking at her, staring at her (as if it's the first time he's seen the real her, the complete her). A second, and then the look is gone from his dark eyes, replaced with something else entirely, and Gwen puts forth a half-hearted plea. "Chad, don't."

    Chad (wisely, knowingly) ignores her.

    Gwen doesn't mind, not in the least.



    ~*~



    Gwen's a drunken mess the first time she gives in, the first time she admits to someone (other than herself) that Chad's not just a friend to her, that he's more.

    "I knew it!" Violet crows, arm outstretched, alcohol spilling over the edges of her glass. "I knew it!" She bounces in place, ignores the critical glare Charlotte sends her way, grabs onto Jo's arm with her free hand.

    Jo is equally unsurprised, calm, but happy (maybe relieved is a better word). "Finally. She admits it," she looks to Heather, rolls her eyes.

    "We've been waiting years for you to make your move on him, Honey," Heather admits to Gwen, places a gentle hand on her arm when she attempts to hide her face behind her hands. "He likes you. He likes your kid."

    Gwen drops her hands, sees nods all around the room (even Charlotte's nodding, while maintaining that aloof sort-of glare that makes it clear she's only tolerating their company for the sake of her fiancé, Violet's best friend), groans, and attempts a denial. "He doesn't like me."

    "Trust me," Violet's teeth gleam at Gwen behind her (3rd) glass, "He likes you. I'm a shrink. I know these things."

    Charlotte rolls her eyes, and Heather and Jo share a knowing smile ("Really, Gwen…we like her, but your neighbor is such a flake.") while Violet continues to babble, increasingly nonsensical in her own drunkenness.

    Gwen just wants to curl into a tiny ball and melt away. "He doesn't like me that way," she insists in a small, morose-sounding voice. "Sometimes, I'm not even sure we're friends." Charlotte's eye roll is directed at her this time, and Gwen really can't fault her. It's no surprise to her when Charlotte stands up, mutters something about calling herself a cab. "Okay," she sighs, a little more dramatically than she normally would (it's the alcohol, her birthday, the thought of spending another night alone in her bed that does it). "We're friends, but that's all we are. He has a girlfriend."

    "Who happens to hate you," Jo helpfully inserts. Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she makes a little humming noise in the back of her throat that sets Gwen's already frayed nerves on edge. "Could it be because…"

    "Don't finish that thought," Gwen warns, standing up quite suddenly, swaying slightly on her feet. "You, either," she jerks her head toward Heather and Violet in quick succession, regretting it only seconds later, as it feels like her fuzzy brain is slowly oozing back and forth within the confines of her skull.

    "I'm just saying," Jo bravely forges ahead, her caramel eyes dancing. "Who's over there right now, looking after your kid, when he could be painting the town red with his bitchy girlfriend?"

    "Chad is," Violet giggles into her drink.

    "Violet," Gwen grits her teeth, already heading for the door. She half-stumbles into Charlotte as the other woman is gathering her things, mumbles an embarrassed apology.

    The rest of the women are twittering with laughter behind them, and Charlotte is shaking her head. "Morons. The whole lot of 'em."

    Gwen nods her head in agreement, looks up sharply (and promptly regrets it) when she realizes Charlotte isn't finished.

    "Including you."

    "Excuse me," Gwen sputters.

    "You heard me," Charlotte mutters. "Have you ever considered maybe he does like you that way, and that's the reason his girlfriend is such a bitch. And I'm not even a shrink," she huffs in parting, pushing through the door and stalking down the walkway to the waiting cab parked at the curb.

    Gwen can only stare at her, open-mouthed, as the cab pulls away, her brain having difficulty wrapping around the idea.

    And it's not just the alcohol.




    ~*~



    Chad's girlfriend finally ends things; it isn't pretty (Gwen's blond, yes, she can be a bitch, sometimes, but she is not now, nor ever will be, prissy).

    They sit side by side on Gwen's front porch steps, peer up at the night sky and the faint glow of the city lights, listen to the distant sounds of late-night traffic as they pass a sweating bottle of beer back and forth between them. It's the last of a six-pack she bought with him in mind the last time she invited everybody over, there's nothing else but wine he doesn't particularly care for on her shelves, and so they share (while her daughter sleeps, dreams, inside). Gwen's feeling melancholy. Chad's…Gwen can't really tell what Chad's feeling. She watches him out of the corner of her eyes as she takes another long sip from the bottle, spills her secrets into the darkness. "I never liked her."

    The corners of Chad's mouth curl up, but he doesn't turn to look at her, doesn't say a word, not yet. He just laughs into the night, short and harsh and knowing. His fingers bump awkwardly into Gwen's when he takes the bottle, linger. He peels absently at the label, waits for her to continue.

    "She was such a…" Gwen stops herself short, wishes she had the bottle in his hands to stare down into, begins again. "She was just…I don't know, wrong."

    "Compared to who?" Chad questions.

    He won't say it (Whitney), never utters her name, but Gwen knows he still thinks about her, knows he can't just shut off his feelings, just as she can't pretend Ethan didn't mean the world to her once upon a time. Still. "Chad."

    "Don't," Chad warns her, pulls another long draught from the bottle at his lips. "Don't," he repeats, staring fixedly ahead.

    His dark eyes jerk to hers when Gwen reaches for the bottle, tucks it away, out of sight behind her, and there's something powerful in them, something so intense and filled with such self-loathing, Gwen feels the very air around them grow instantly heavy, strained, and her throat goes dry.

    "Maybe it wasn't her that's wrong."

    "No," Gwen pushes out, rests her hand upon his heavy thigh, twitching with barely controlled anger and resentment, a live wire humming dangerously beneath the trembling heat of her palm. She grasps futilely at the whisper-thin threads of reason, but this conversation is rapidly spiraling into something deeper and darker than either of them has ever bared between them (and she's bared plenty), and she doesn't know what to do, can't compel her tongue to form the syllables that will stop this, this painful, stark ugliness.

    "Maybe it's me," Chad's confession escapes into the stifled air between them. "Maybe it's always been me. I'm wrong. I'm damaged."

    Gwen doesn't realize her fingers are digging into his skin, painfully so, until his hand is wrapped around her wrist, too tight, and she's falling awkwardly into him, bracing herself on his knee, struggling to meet his eyes as he continues, whispers his shameful confession (I fell in love with my own sister…who does that?), makes her heart hurt, and oh, oh, she wants to kiss the pain from the tortured clench of his mouth, gentle his jaw with her hands, but she can't, she won't, because he's still talking, still confessing, and she realizes there's more, more, and he isn't finished with his sharp and cutting words.

    "Maybe that's it. Maybe that's why I just can't turn it off, ignore the way I feel…"

    His words hang in the air between them, like a heavy, dragging mist, and Gwen's heart feels, in that moment, as if it will beat right out of her chest, throbbing and sore, and God, how did she let this happen? He's not talking about Whitney anymore. She never saw it coming, curses him for reawakening her dormant heart only to grind it to dust between his fists all over again.

    "We're both damaged goods, Gwen. Two wrongs don't make no right." Chad's hand relaxes, warms hers briefly before he sets it back in her own lap, and he's standing, staring down at her with something akin to regret, before he softly says his goodbyes. "Give Little Bit a kiss for me. Tell her…" he trails off.

    "Tell her what?" Gwen asks thickly, ignoring the sting of tears prickling the corners of her eyes, focusing on a spot just above his shoulder, picking out a particularly bright star (it is a star, dammit, not an airplane, not just pretty city lights in a fading twilight sky), anywhere, anything but his face, and the shame in his eyes when he looks at her. "Tell her what exactly, because right now, I…Chad, what the hell are you doing? You didn't know." Gwen shakes her head, feels her eyes drawn helplessly to his familiar face (how had it happened, how had it become so…so much to her, to her daughter?) "You fell in love with her, but you didn't know. Explain to me how that has anything to do with whatever the hell you feel for me, for Sarah."

    Chad kneels before her, his hands find her face, her tears wet his fingertips as they spill helplessly from the fringes of her lashes, and his lips trail across her cheek, hover over her tremulous mouth before they break away, migrate to her feverish forehead, linger there. "Tell her I have to go away for a little while, figure some things out, learn to trust myself again. Tell her it won't be forever. I will come back. I will," he insists when Gwen doesn't look convinced. "I'll make what's wrong right again, and then…"

    "Then what?" Gwen whispers, curls her own fingers around his strong hands.

    "I'm not Ethan," Chad says meaningfully.

    "I know," Gwen nods, because he isn't, never has been, and damaged goods or not, she doesn't expect him to change overnight, doesn't expect him to be able to write off his feelings for her or her daughter (they exist, she can read it deep in the recesses of those dark eyes). "I'm not…"

    Chad presses his mouth to hers, gentle but insistent, chaste but full of restrained emotion, silencing the rest of her words. "I know," he echoes her words back to her, combs a heavy strand of blond behind her ear. "I know," he repeats, and the first hint of a smile appears on his face when her mouth searches for his, her warm breath bathes his face. He stops her just short of kissing him, pulls her into a hug, tight and close and so right he almost changes his mind (but he doesn't…he has to screw his head on straight, owes it to them, owes it to himself). "Give me a little time? Trust me?"

    Gwen doesn't know who she surprises more with her answer, him or herself, but she repeats it as her arms fall away and he backs down her sidewalk, disappears into the darkness like he was never there. "I do. I do."







    ~*~




    So...thank you guys for indulging my crazy imagination.

    LOL!

    No, really. I know this is pretty off-the-wall (but, hey...I warned you it would be AU, with Gwen playing the part of the little black dress of Harmony), but I'm enjoying it. I only hope you are too. Even if a few characters from a show I watch from time to time happened to sneak on in there, timelines all wonky and whatnot (that sentence, good grief...).

    Thoughts, feelings, feedback all welcome.

    Mistakes are all mine.

    P.S. Just a reminder...this entire fic is an exercise in different alternate lives, loves Gwen could have had, had something, however small, in the Passions timeline changed. So things in this story won't always match up with what happened on-screen. Should be self explanatory with the AU label, but I just wanted to make sure.

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