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Fic: That's How Years Roll Away (Eli/Grace)
nice handstand nerd
lowriseflare wrote in _onceandagain
Title: That's How Years Roll Away
Pairing: Eli/Grace
Rating: M, for some sex
Word Count: 6057
Summary: She knows it's a bad idea. It's a terrible idea. He smells like beer and some other smell that's just Eli, that she'd know in a dark room.




The lease on her place in Boston doesn't start until the fifteenth, so when Grace gets a third call from Lily suggesting a trip home, she doesn't really have an excuse not to go. She hasn't spent more than a couple of days in Chicago since undergrad and as the plane lands she finds the skyline is oddly surprising to her, a book she hasn't read in awhile. She presses her fingertip against the glass.

"You're thin!" Lily says, as soon as Grace gets into the car at the curb. From the withering look they get from the traffic cop Grace can tell her mother has been here a long time already, idling in the Honda beneath a sign that reads NO STANDING. "Have you eaten?"

Grace drops her purse on the floor between her feet. "Hi, Mom."

"God, that's awful of me to say to you first thing. I'm sorry." Lily grabs Grace's face and kisses her, both cheeks and then forehead. "Hi, gorgeous daughter. I'm really glad you came."

She shakes her head and smiles as Lily pulls out into traffic, closing the distance toward home.

*

They order Chinese the first night she's there, Lily peppering her with questions about the classes she's going to be teaching in the fall, Rick wanting to know what her new apartment is like. Liza sits on her knobby knees at the table, looking almost shockingly like Zoe as she methodically picks every bit of green stuff from her wonton soup. Liza is six now, an honest-to-God person with friends and opinions and homework. She uses words like "frankly". It's unnerving.

Grace offers to clean up, and she's loading the dishwasher when Eli lets himself in through the back door with a giant bag of laundry. "I know I said I wouldn't do this anymore, but--oh!" He looks surprised to see her, though she's pretty sure somebody would have mentioned she was coming. "Hey, you."

"Hey, Eli." She wipes her wet hands on her jeans and stands on her tiptoes to give him a hug, his stubble scraping the side of her face. The last couple of years she can't get over how adult he looks, everything about him more defined, like he's finally grown into his body.

Not that she spends a lot of time thinking about his body.

God.

Eli is--holy crap, they are getting so old--Eli is twenty-seven, a bartender at a pub in Wicker Park, where he works until four-thirty in the morning being charming and gregarious. Grace thinks it would be impossible for someone to have a life that is more different from hers. "They're both upstairs trying to convince Liza to go to bed," she tells him, then motions toward the cartons on the counter. "You hungry?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods?" He grins, poking into the containers. "How long you in town for?"

"Couple of weeks. I'm homeless 'til my lease starts."

"Boston, right? You know, I've never been."

"You'll have to come visit," she says, knowing full well he won't, but Eli nods right away.

"Absolutely." He gets a fork out of the drawer, bumps it closed with his hip. "I'm there."

Grace smiles in spite of herself. She sees him two or three times a year now, holidays. The summer, sometimes. Whenever someone dies. He shoots pithy replies to the epic group emails Lily sends them all every week, and every once in awhile Grace gets a text about a band or a song to check out that may or may not be going to everyone in his phone book, it's hard to tell.

She always listens, of course. No matter what it is. A lot of times they suck but now and then he'll recommend a treasure and she'll keep it on repeat for days, thinking of him and trying not to with equal intensity. Her boyfriend in New York caught her at it once: "My sister used to listen to songs over and over when she liked a dude," he said, lifting Grace's hair to kiss her neck as she made dinner.

"Well, I do like a dude," she replied, turning around to face him, and that night she deleted it from her iTunes.

"Jessie said she saw you not that long ago," Eli tells her now. He's leaning against the counter with his ankles crossed, finishing off the kung pao. His t-shirt is a soft-looking gray. "In New York. She said you seemed happy."

Huh. "Yeah," Grace says slowly. A few years ago it would have been completely unthinkable for Jessie to describe her even that generously--the two of them nearly killed each other in Australia, and they didn't speak almost the whole time Grace was at Brown. She supposes they've both mellowed since then: Jessie is studying anthropology at Bard, has become the kind of girl who wears leggings and drinks a lot of chai. Which is fine. Grace likes chai. She likes Jessie, too, more than she ever thought she would. "Yeah, I was."

"Well, you look good," Eli says, pointing with his fork. "I like your hair like that."

"Oh." She touches it, self-conscious. It's longer than it used to be; she's got some bangs that she pushes to the side. "Thanks." His own hair is buzzed nearly clean off, which Grace has always thought makes guys look like skinheads but of course on Eli it looks good, intriguing, like he's too into whatever he's into to bother with things like shampoo. They stand there for a moment, breathing. Grace wonders for the hundred thousandth time how old she is going to have to be before she's over this. She'll be twenty-five in the fall.

Rick and Lily come down once Liza is asleep and the four of them watch some crime procedural while Eli waits for his laundry to be done. It feels like an alternate universe. Actually it feels like it did when they all first moved in together, although Eli was never really around back then, always out with somebody or other. Grace's first instinct was always to stay in, retracting her limbs like a turtle. Still is, really.

"Are you all right?" Lily asks her finally. "You keep fidgeting."

"Heroin withdrawal," Eli explains somberly, and Grace laughs.

*

He kissed her, once.

It was right before they left for Sydney. Eli didn't come to Australia and Grace didn't want to, either; she had wild fantasies about the two of them living in the house together, fending for themselves, him playing his guitar while she read on the couch like some modern day amalgam of the Boxcar Children and La Boheme. She had this notion that he was going to turn out to be a really wonderful cook.

Oh God, that is so humiliating to remember.

Anyway, Judy threw them a goodbye party that summer, the house teeming with people, the kitchen full of food. The only empty room was the garage so that's where Grace was sitting, sulking in the backseat of her mom's SUV. She'd been there close to an hour when Eli wandered in, holding a beer. "There you are," he said, leaning in the open window. "Hermit."

"Better not let your dad see you with that," she said, realizing too late that she sounded like a narc. Not that it mattered, at this point. Not that any of it did.

Eli shrugged. "What are you doing in here?"

"Hiding." She shifted to make room as he opened the door and got in next to her, pulling her bare feet up onto the seat. "What are you doing in here?"

"Looking for you."

"Right."

"What?" Eli asked. He made a face like he knew she thought he was full of shit and he didn't entirely appreciate it, shaking his head a little. "I was."

"Eli." She wondered if it was even possible to be seventeen and so completely exhausted, if she was actually a thousand-year-old oak tree or something equally ancient. "Why?"

That was when he did it, the sudden press of his mouth on hers, the hand that wasn't holding the bottle cupping the side of her face. It was over almost before it started. She didn't even remember to close her eyes and when he pulled back she was staring at him, stunned, a moose in the middle of the road. "Sorry," he said immediately. "Oh, God. Fuck. Grace. Sorry."

"No!" she said, too loudly. Thoughts without words skittered at the sides of her brain. "Just. Please don't apologize." She could feel her heart thumping at the back of her throat. She felt like she'd just climbed the rope in gym, although she'd never actually had to do that. Whatever. They looked at each other. She tried not to breathe too audibly. "I've wanted you to do that for like, forever."

"I know," he said, and she cringed, but then he hesitated and Grace remembers thinking how young he looked. It occurred to her that she was older now than he'd been when they first met, which seemed impossible. He was so far ahead of her. "I've been thinking about it for a long time, too."

"Are you serious?" she asked, and he opened his mouth to say something, but Lily poked her head through the door from the basement.

"There you are!" She looked at them oddly for a moment, then shook her head. They were moving across the planet in three days. "Gracie," she said. "I know you hate me, but you don't hate Judy, so it would be nice if you could at least put in an appearance upstairs, hmm?"

She looked at Eli, then back at her mother. She felt very, very warm. "Yeah," she said. "I'll be right there."

They never talked about it again. She sent him one email from Sydney, hey how are you it's cold here, and never heard back. When she saw him at Christmas it was like she had made the whole thing up.

And that was that, she told herself. She supposed it had been inevitable, all that weirdness between them, everything a little fraught. Probably the wrongness of it was the appeal for him, one more way to rebel.

As for Grace, well. The appeal was sort of obvious, wasn't it?

She carried him in her pocket from Chicago to Australia, all the way around the world and back.

*

So, she's home. She does home stuff. She has lunch with Judy, takes Liza to the library and gets enormous stacks of books for them both. She goes food shopping with Rick. In New York she was living on her stipend and it's nice to throw things in the cart without checking what they cost first, tallying them up in her head. Her independence is hard-won, and she holds it tight in her fist like a talisman; still, it's not the worst thing to be taken care of for awhile, doted on. Her wash appears folded into neat piles on the bed in the guest room.

"It's so nice to have you here," Lily says, coming up behind her as she brushes her teeth.

"It's nice to be here," she replies automatically, and it is.

*

By Thursday she's restless. Rick and Lily are at work during the day; Liza's at camp learning lengthy songs to sing at dinner. Grace is sitting on the couch drinking her third cup of coffee and reading the New Yorker when her phone dings: Lunch? Eli wants to know.

Well, shit.

Sure, she texts back, after staring at the message for like a full minute. Pick me up?

She flings herself into the shower, changes her outfit twice. She's just gotten her hair caught in the blow dryer when the phone rings. "Hey," she says, grabbing it off the toilet tank and trying to sound nonchalant. She wrenches the knot out of the dryer; the whole bathroom smells like burnt hair. "Are you here?"

"Sadly, no," says Taylor, sighing dramatically. "I'm just calling to see how you're faring in America's Heartland."

Grace grins. Taylor was her freshman (sophomore, junior, senior) roommate at Brown; on the first day of orientation she gave Grace a giant hug and said, "I promise never to have sex with a boy you like." That seemed like as good a basis for best-friendship as any, at the time, and in the six years since Taylor has kept not just that promise, but countless others. Grace knows she lucked out.

"I'm hanging in," she says now. "I can't talk, though. I'm having lunch with Eli."

"With Eli? Shut up."

"You shut up. I'll call you later."

"Yeah, you best."

Hearing Taylor's voice is enough to chill her out a little, so that sitting across the table from Eli an hour later she can actually remember why she got such a miserable crush on him to begin with--underneath all his bullshit, he's a genuinely good guy. He's easy to be with, slouching comfortably in his chair and telling her about the crazy customers he gets at the bar, the bands he works to bring in. "You should come down and see me while you're here," he says, over burgers and curly fries. "I'll buy you a drink."

Grace has a pretty good idea of the kinds of girls for whom Eli buys drinks on a nightly basis, but she bites anyway. "I...will be sure to do that," she says, trying to sound convincing.

Eli shakes his head, a smile pulling at the edges of his rosy mouth. "No you won't."

"Well, you never know. I might surprise you yet."

"You surprise me all the time," he replies. It's almost under his breath, a throwaway line, and before she can respond he's moved on. "So high school English, huh?" he asks. "Are you going to be Ms. Manning?"

"Oh, God, I don't know." Grace takes another sip of her beer. She's poking at her lunch rather than actually eating it, which she knows makes her incredibly lame. Once she and Taylor spent a whole night trying to come up with a list of date-safe foods, and the only thing they could agree on was grapes, which is unfortunate because it's hard to get a plate of grapes in a restaurant. Not that this is a date. God. "I guess."

"You'll be a good teacher," he says, all confidence. Someday she'd like to ask Eli how he got to sound that way. "You tutored me, remember?"

"Oh yeah," she says, as if she didn't until right this moment. You know, she actually hasn't changed at all since tenth grade and she doesn't quite understand it herself, the gravitational call back there. Grace hated high school with ferocity, that feeling of being perpetually flayed open, everything lost in some consuming fire. She doesn't understand the draw.

("It's obvious," Zoe said, on the phone from her dorm room at Tulane. "You got it in your head that you're going to save some girl's life with books.")

"Well, more power to you," Eli says. "You couldn't pay me enough money to go back to Sinclair."

"What?" That is one hundred percent not what she was expecting to hear from him. "I thought you loved it."

"Seriously?" He shakes his head. "No way. I was such a fucking sad sack all the time."

"You were not! You were, like, more popular than Jesus. And this is the Midwest."

"Uh-uh." Eli is laughing, running a hand over his bristly head. "I pretty much hated everybody. And honestly, I was kind of a douchebag."

"Well, that's true," she says, smirking at the look he shoots her. "But again: more popular than Jesus. In the Midwest."

"I mean, okay, sure." He shrugs, finishing his french fries and starting in on hers. "It's nice to be popular. I know you're sitting there thinking I should go fuck myself. But all that it really means is that everybody's watching you all the time, waiting for you to fuck up. Which I did, if you recall. With enthusiasm."

She pushes her plate toward him. "Panache, really."

"Exactly. And everybody knew. Honestly, I spent four years wishing I could be invisible, like nobody knew who the hell I was. Like--" he breaks off, shrugging again.

"Like me?"

Eli makes a face. "I always knew who you were."

"Which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that your dad was boning my mom."

"Oh, gross." He laughs, shaking his head a little. "Anyway, it doesn't matter now. That's the biggest mistake you make. Thinking that who you are in high school has any kind of bearing on who you are in life. I mean, look at me, right?"

"What about you?" Grace always used to wonder about Eli, how much of that weird hide-and-seek vulnerability was real. "You just told me how much you like your job."

"No, I do, I do. I like it a lot. I just mean...I don't know. I'm a bartender. I'm not exactly living the dream, is all."

You could, she wants to tell him, but hesitates instead. "I don't think anybody is."

"I don't know about that," he says, nodding at her. "Big city girl."

Something about the way he says it opens that yawning gorge in her rib cage, her breath whistling through. "Right," she manages, crossing an arm over her chest. "That's me."

"That's you. Can I ask you something?" Eli leans forward, like he wants to be certain she's the only one to hear. "Do you, like, feel different? Now that you're a quote-unquote adult?"

Grace almost laughs. "No," she says finally, ducking her head a little, as if she hasn't been giving herself away for ten years. "I feel exactly the same."

*

She brought a guy home for Thanksgiving exactly once, her junior year of college. She knew him from the paper at Brown, where she was the A&E editor: a nice Jewish boy from Brookline, Massachusetts with a Darwin Fish bumper sticker on the back of his station wagon. He'd been a youth outreach volunteer on the Kerry campaign. Grace thought Lily would die of delight.

Eli was in a shit mood the whole weekend, monosyllabic and borderline surly. He left meals early, skulking in and out of the house at weird hours. Even Liza, who was three that year, couldn't get anything out of him resembling a smile. Grace knew it had nothing to do with her--she'd figured out a long time ago that Eli didn't expend one calorie of mental energy on anything she did or didn't do--but she couldn't help but feel like she was catching the brunt of it anyway, ignored or snapped at every time she turned around. Maybe he was using again, who the hell knew. Rick sighed and talked around him; Zo and Jessie kept their distance.

On Saturday night she came downstairs to make popcorn and found him digging through the fridge for leftovers, the sharp pleats of his backbone visible through his shirt. "Hey," she said cautiously, earning nothing but a growl in response. Grace rolled her eyes. She didn't understand why he was hanging around, if he was so miserable here. He had an apartment in Lakeview. Probably had a girl there, too. "Do you have something to say to me?" she blurted finally.

She was expecting denial, but Eli turned around and looked her right in the face. "I don't like that guy," he said.

Grace blinked. "What guy?" she said dumbly. In that first second she honestly had no idea who he meant.

Eli made a face like she was an idiot, then nodded toward the ceiling. "That guy."

He wasn't serious. There was absolutely no way he could be serious. Grace almost laughed, except it wasn't actually funny at all. It was...the opposite of funny. "Why not?" she managed, after a moment.

"I just don't," he said, like it was his prerogative, like that was all the reason he required. "He's too..." Eli trailed off, shrugging. God, what an ass he was sometimes. "Something."

"Literate?" she supplied.

That was the wrong thing to say. She'd meant it to be bitchy, sure, but mostly she was joking--that was their schtick, right? Kidding around, only not. They stared at each other. Eli had this look like she'd just slapped him clean across his face.

"Okay," he said, and she actually watched him shut down, saw his whole carriage change. "Fine. You know what?" He shook his head, pulled his jacket off the kitchen chair. "It's none of my business anyway."

"Eli," she said, with no idea how she would follow it up. Stop. Don't. Please. It didn't matter, in the end: Eli was already gone.

It hasn't, like, kept her from having relationships. This thing with him. She doesn't even think about it that much anymore. It's just another fact about her, a freckle, some small mark on her body she notices now and again.

*

She offers to sit for Liza so Rick and Lily can go to dinner and a movie. Grace feels bad for Liza sometimes, an only child for all intents and proposes, the sole object of all that parental attention. She thinks she would have been lonely growing up without Zoe, though she never would have admitted it in a million years. Zoe is nineteen now, pre-med: turns out she's a freaking genius in math and science, which Grace finds sort of intensely awesome. She always hated that stuff in school.

She and Liza play Barbie and have organic mac and cheese for dinner, then read Eloise before bed. Liza has it almost memorized. "Maybe tomorrow I'll pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute!" she finishes gleefully, and Grace gives her a big smooch before she turns on the night light. For a long time Grace thought she didn't ever want to have kids, but Liza has sort of made her reconsider.

It's still really early for Rick and her mom to be back, so Grace is surprised when she hears the key in the lock a little while later. "Sold out?" she calls, coming into the foyer, but it's only Eli, a six pack of Sam Adams in his hand.

Well. She supposes it's never been only Eli.

"Hey," she says. She's weirdly embarrassed he caught her here, like she's still fifteen and home on a Saturday night. She's wearing sweatpants and an alumni t-shirt from grad school; Liza played with her hair for awhile before and it hangs long and knotty down her back. "More laundry?"

"Clothes are clean, actually. But my dad mentioned you were watching the kiddo." He holds up the beer. "Thought maybe you wanted company."

"Oh." Grace blinks. She promised herself a long time ago that she was going to stop trying to guess what goes on in Eli's head, but still. Still. "Yeah, absolutely."

They hang out in the kitchen for awhile, Grace perching on the counter. The beer bottle is sweaty in her hand. He's standing beside her, his hipbone just grazing her knee. "So do you come over here a lot?" she can't resist asking. She doesn't understand what kind of game he's running, here. It feels like she's forgotten how to read.

"Not really." Eli shrugs.

"Just couldn't wait to see my face?"

"Maybe. I don't know." He doesn't say anything else for a moment and she thinks the subject is closed, but then he does that little exhale thing he does, not quite a sigh: "I always liked talking to you, you know that?"

She actually did know that, although when it comes to girls easy to talk to has always fallen somewhere below good at arm-wrestling on Eli's list of priorities. She's always liked talking to him, too, is the truth--the weird, circular way his mind works, how he talks around things instead of about them. How there's always a certain amount of extrapolation involved."Yeah?" is all she says.

"Yeah." He goes into the fridge for two more beers, talking to the back of the top shelf. "You just always struck me as somebody who's...not much for bullshit."

Grace laughs. "Are you kidding me? I majored in English Lit. All I do is bullshit."

"You know what I mean," he says. "Like, with personal stuff."

"All those times we talked about personal stuff?"

"We did!" He passes her the bottle, her hand landing on top of his. "Didn't we?"

Actually what happened is he talked about the girls he liked, and she listened. "Uh-huh. Speaking of personal stuff, you know what I always wanted to ask you?" She nudges at his shoulder. "Did you ever hear from Carla?"

"Carla?" Eli looks completely blank for a second--holy crap, if he doesn't remember who Carla is after everything that happened, then--"Oh, God, Carla!" He shakes his head. "Nah. No, she moved on to greener pastures pretty quick, I think."

What a bitch that girl was, looking back on it. "God, I was so jealous of her," Grace says, without even thinking--or just, thinking out loud, or--shit.

Eli cocks his head to the side. "Oh yeah?"

Crap, crap. "Shut up," Grace manages finally. "She had really nice clothes."

Eli raises his eyebrows, grinning. God, she is so busted. "Right."

"She did!"

"Yeah, I'll take your word for it."

"Do that."

They're quiet for a minute. Grace runs her thumb over the mouth of her beer bottle. There are padding footsteps on the stairs; a moment later Liza appears at the kitchen door, small face puffy with sleep. "Gracie?" she calls, then sees her big brother. "Hi Eli!"

"Hey, Gremlin." He opens his arms and she goes to him eagerly, climbing him like a tree. Grace looks away, out the window, at the photos on the fridge: it's always felt weird to her to watch him with Liza, like their relationship is a private thing. She doesn't know why. It's like this with Eli, quick hungry glances out of the corner of her eye.

"Can Eli put me back to bed?" Liza asks, once she's had some water from her High School Musical cup and chatted to them about her dream. She's looking at him adoringly, monkey arms wrapped tight around his neck.

Grace almost laughs. "Whatever you want, kid."

He carries her upstairs and Grace leans back against the cabinets, picking at the label on the bottle. Lily keeps the university station on the radio in the corner and some sad song she doesn't recognize calls out softly through the house. Grace can feel something rumbling toward her as sure as if she had her dark head pressed against the ground. She should try to get out of the way.

"You still in here?" he asks, reappearing a few minutes later, coming to stand between her knees. "Whoa. Serious face."

"Sorry." She hands him the bottle, and he finishes it off. "Thinking."

"About?"

"Self-preservation. You get her down?"

"Yeah, she's out. Grace." His hands land on her thighs, his fists opening and closing. "Look. I don't want you to think I came over here to--that I'm trying to--" He shakes his head, huffing out a little breath. "I'm not trying to be a dirtbag."

That makes her laugh, she can't help it. There's a lot of overflow, here.

"What?" he asks, smiling a little like he doesn't exactly know what to make of her. Like he never really has. "Can I ask you something? What is it about me that makes you think I'm bullshitting you one hundred percent of the time?"

Grace wrinkles her nose at him. "Experience," she deadpans.

"Ouch," he says, leaning forward a little. His temple presses against hers. "Yeah."

"Yeah. Look, Eli--" She turns her head to face him and his mouth is right there and she kisses him first this time because she wants to, because she has wanted to for ten years. She knows it's a bad idea. It's a terrible idea. He smells like beer and some other smell that's just Eli, that she'd know in a dark room.

It takes half a second for him to react and then he kisses her back, hard, groaning a little at the back of his throat. Oh, God. Oh, God. "Is this okay?" he mutters. His eyes are closed, still, his eyelashes skimming her face.

Does a bear shit in the woods? she thinks, which makes her laugh again. He looks at her, alarmed. "Yes," she says. "Sorry. I'm--" Panicking. Baffled. In the worst, ugliest kind of love with you. "Nervous."

"Why nervous?" he asks, pushing her hair off her face. His voice is so quiet, his breath on her neck. "It's just me."

"Yeah." He's a good kisser. She knew that already, somewhere in the back of her mind, but she thought maybe she'd made it up. He's got her bottom lip between his teeth. She rests her hands on his shoulders; his pulse beats fast beneath her thumb. "Eli, she says, and she knows she is about to ruin this but the truth is that every time she's been lonely in the last ten years she's been thinking of him someplace in the back of her mind and she feels like she needs to put that out there, to call to that girl she used to be. "If this is about doing something you're not supposed to do. Or proving that you can, just." She swallows, her mouth against his jaw. "I already know that you can. Okay?"

"Oh, man." He pulls back, green eyes shockingly bright. "You think I am such a schmuck."

See? Ruined. Grace wonders if maybe she had to destroy it, if she's afraid to get anything resembling what she wants. "No, I don't, I don't--"

"Grace. I..." He trails off, shaking his head. "Whatever asshole thing you think I feel about you. That's not what I feel about you. I swear to God. I'm not going to lie to you and say I know what it is. I don't know what it is. It's fucked up. I don't know. But it's just always..."

"There."

Eli exhales, eyes flicking toward the floor and back up. "Yeah."

Yeah.

She reaches out and grasps his wrist, tugging him back to her, lacing her fingers with his. "Come upstairs," she says quietly.

Eli's eyes widen; he's got the same look on his face that he did a hundred years ago when she knocked on his door and told him she wanted to get high. You surprise me all the time. "Are you serious?" he asks, and when she nods he kisses her again, his long body flush against her. He lifts her off the counter like she's not any heavier than Liza, taking on all her weight. "We don't have to do anything."

A horrifying thought occurs to her. "Do you want to?"

"Yeah, Grace." Eli nods, his Adam's apple moving beneath the skin of his throat. "Yeah, I want to."

Grace has never actually lived in this house--Rick and Lily bought a new one when they got back to the States--and she's staying in one of the guest rooms on the second floor which she supposes is a good thing, since the idea of doing anything like this in the bedroom she grew up in is enough to completely break her brain. She locks the door behind them. They stand there for a minute before he catches her mouth, taking his time with her, his fingers up and down the inside of her arm. She thinks he can feel how skittish she is. She wants him so badly.

There's a light on the dresser but for the most part it's dark in here, shadows in the hollow at the center of his torso. It's been a long time since she's seen him with his shirt off and she traces a tattoo on his chest, wondering if there are others, if there's a story here. He's incredibly solid. Eli reaches up and works the hook on her bra; his hands are big enough to circle her rib cage almost all the way around and she wonders if he can feel the vehement beat of her heart again his palms. Her body is fine, she's mostly gotten over that stupid teenage bullshit of thinking she's hideous, but still she isn't breathing as he pulls her t-shirt over her head. "Grace," he says, his head falling to the side as he looks at her. "Gracie."

"Eli." It's very, very important that she doesn't cry. She swallows, takes a breath slow enough not to shudder. "Come on."

They fall backwards onto the bed, sliding between sheets that will smell like him for the rest of the time she's here. He's touching her everywhere, his hands are all over her, places she never in a million years thought they'd be. He's hard; she can feel him warm against her thigh. "Fuck," he says suddenly, and she breathes in hard; she has never felt so cold so fast. "Shh. Sorry. Grace." He closes his eyes briefly, soothes a hand over her hair the way you'd calm a startled horse. "Do you have--anything?"

She stares at him for a moment before she realizes what he's talking about. Oh, goddamn. "No."

"Shit." He thinks for a moment. "There are probably some in this house someplace."

"Eli!" She elbows him in the stomach. "That's disgusting."

"Sorry. I'm just saying."

"I'm not going to look for condoms in our parents' bathroom. And anyway I don't think there would be."

"Okay, okay, enough. Well," he says, hesitating, his dark eyebrows knitting together. His chest is flushed a rusty red. "Are you on...?"

"Yeah," she says slowly. "But are you...?" Oh, God. Oh God, please don't make her finish that sentence.

Eli snorts. "See? You do think I'm a schmuck." He kisses her ear, biting a little. "I'm clean, Grace. If that's what you're getting at."

"It's a little bit what I was getting at," she admits, and he smiles like he's onto her. "Okay," she says, and reaches for him, pulling him as close as she can. "Okay."

There is something so bizarrely reassuring about his body, the long lean planes of it, flat and open like the middle of the country where she's from. It's quiet. He's easy with her, watchful, supporting his weight like he's worried he's going to break her if he doesn't take care. "You're not going to hurt me," she promises him finally, and it's only then that he starts to move.

"We have to get up," she tells him a little while later, listening to the sounds of this strange house settling. She reaches a hand back and grazes her knuckles over his belly. "They're going to be back any minute."

"Yeah." Eli doesn't move. Grace remembers being small and warm from the bathtub, wrapped in a towel and held. "Come to my apartment," he says.

"Tonight?"

"Yeah."

She glances over her shoulder at him: you surprise me all the time. His eyes are very, very dark. "And do what, exactly?"

"Well." He presses his hips against her a little bit, playing. "I don't know. Hang out. Talk to me."

Grace rolls over to face the ceiling, one hand in her crazy hair. "What would I tell them?"

"What does it matter what you tell them? You're twenty-four years old."

"It would matter if I told them the truth."

"Well, yeah." He grins. "Don't tell them the truth. Grace," he says, quiet like the summer, his soft mouth over her neck. "Just. Come with me."

"Eli." Grace sighs. She knows the adult decision here, obviously. She's moving back East in less than a week. They've made enough mistakes for one night. He is her goddamn motherfucking stepbrother, world without end, and this is never in a million lifetimes going to work out the way she's always wanted it to.

"Yeah," she says, looking over at him in the pale pink light. "Of course."

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Ahhhhh! At last! That's fantastic, exactly the episode I was always waiting for, and very well written! I'm in complete agreement with the schools and majors you picked for them all, too.

Hee, I'm so glad you liked it! I was kind of always waiting for it, too, and I don't know what just hit me this week that I felt like I might as well just write it myself. I had such a good time imagining futures for all of them :)

Also, because I'm a creeper, I checked out your journal and saw that you're a writer type--do you write fic?

I don't write fic, although for some of my grad school classes I have to write parodies of stuff we've read which often amount to fan fic. How'd you get into Once and Again? Hope you don't mind that I friended you--I'd love to keep reading your pieces!

I was super into Once and Again while it was on--my sister and I had a standing date to watch every week (to this day I occasionally get a random text from her that says, "That's a pretty dress"). I hadn't really thought about it that much since the finale, though, until I got super into Shane West on ER this past spring and wrote a crap ton of Ray/Neela fic. So now...here I am! Grace is one of my favorite TV characters of all time--she's so prickly and sad and fifteen. Gah.

What about you?

And friend away--I'll go ahead and friend you back :)

I watched it religiously while it was on, too, and now I occasionally dip into it on DVD. I was in high school when it was on, and the show was honest and merciless in a way that was so much what I needed then (and probably now, too). I absolutely saw myself in Grace (although, like Grace, there were so many parts of Jessie that I wished were part of me). And I love Judy! And Karen! And let's not forget ELI!!!

I was in high school, too, and oh MAN you are so right about how easy it was to identify with the characters, and about how honest it all was. I feel like I watched half of that show with my hands over my face periodically yelling things like, "Oh, GRACE." But I mean...life is like that, too.

Also: Amen to Judy. I loved Tiffany, too. And Henry Higgins (right? That was his name?). And yeah, Eli Sammler, my perfect high school boyfriend. Also my perfect 24-year-old boyfriend, evidently.

this was really amazing and very fulfilling. Not only could I see all this, but the entire fic, I kept thinking how right your story felt. I really enjoyed reading this!

Oh man, thank you so much! That's so nice to hear. I love this pairing so ridiculously much, and it makes me all smiley when other people are into it, too. :)

*FLAILS LIKE A FLAILY THING* Perfect. The dialog. The cuteness. The angst that doesn't feel like angst but is totally angst when you're a teenager. OH, SHIP! You captured the heaviness of them. Just. Perfect. There's an ethereal way to how Grace feels like she carries this burden on her shoulders alone. For TEN YEARS. She was seriously emo and I hated her at first but then as the show progressed she became my fave. So defencive and so bristly but only because she's soft and mushy on the inside. Oh, Grace! BTW, have you seen what Julia Whelan looks like LATELY?

...back to the fic. Things I loved: The glimpses of what happened immediately after the finale (why is s3 NOT on dvd yet?!) interspersed with the present tense of the story. The inner dialogue of the italicised words played as the B&W segments of film. Whenever they're near each other they automatically revert to that teenage feeling with full knowledge. ...and I could ramble on and on and on... ETA: I mem'd this.

Edited at 2009-09-25 11:05 am (UTC)

OH OH I am so glad you liked this. This fandom is SO TINY, and it's such a treat to find somebody who wants to smush these guys as much as I do, somebody else who has stuff to SAY about them. I just love it. There is still so much to unpack.

Also: JULIA WHELAN YOU ARE SO PRETTY! Good job, girl. Would that we all turned into such swans.

That was just perfect! I loved it! Thank you :)

*squee*

Oh my god, you write Eli/Grace *and* Ray/Neela. I just found this story and I found your Ray/Neela last week. I'm too lucky.

This is really good. Thank you! Please write more!

Hee, thank you so much! There is definitely more to come.

Just re-read and there is no other fic more perfect than this. It's like breathing shallow in the deepest part of the ocean. No good can come out of the most natural thing to do.

I just re-read this for the quadrillionth time and only now picked up on the fact that they know what they are regardless of the anomolous feelings they prompt in one another and it really is kind of like being addicted to a certain kind of drug. Destructively blissful and they probably do this every eight years or so no matter the status of their respective relationships and omg. so. fucked. up.

they probably do this every eight years or so no matter the status of their respective relationships

THAT IS MY FAVORITE IDEA EVER. <3

YOU SHOULD WRITE IT. *IS NOT EVEN TRYING TO BE SUBTLE*

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