The room was unnervingly quiet—so much so, that it was virtually possible to hear every breath taken. Everything was at a standstill as everyone tried to process Rose's unexpected appearance and the implications it brought. All eyes were still focused on Rose, especially John's. His mind was raging with so many questions, but he was unable to voice any of them. All he could do was breathlessly utter one word.
"Hello," she said, her voice hovering just above a whisper.
Harriet finally broke away from her spot and walked over to Rose. "I'm sorry, Rose. I assure you, I didn't know they were coming over this evening," she said worriedly as she placed her hand gently on Rose's shoulder.
That action was all it took to break the stalemate and start everything into motion.
"What do you mean? Could one of you tell us just what exactly is goin' on?" Donna demanded. She looked over at John, completely at a loss over his silence. He was uncharacteristically still and just continued to stare at Rose, almost as if he didn't quite believe that she was really there.
"I-I've…well, that is…," Rose attempted to explain, but her gaze was so fixated on John that she found it almost impossible to articulate anything of any sense. She could see the questions behind his eyes, but at the same time, his expression was indecipherable. It was that uncertainty that worried her. Fortunately, Harriet came to her aid as she continued to fumble her words.
"Like I said before, there's nothing going on. Rose simply needed somewhere to stay for a few days and we were more than happy to help her."
"You've been staying here? With my family?" John asked, finally finding his voice. He reluctantly broke his gaze from Rose and turned his attention to Harriet and Wilf, his expression and voice tinged with anger as he said, "And you didn't think to tell anyone? To tell me?"
"It wasn't our place to tell anyone anythin'," Wilf answered firmly. He could see the emotions within John building. Wilf glanced at Rose and could see in her eyes that her own turmoil was deepening at the direction events were taking. His heart went out to both of them—clearly, this wasn't the reunion either of them had anticipated.
John scrubbed his face and scoffed, "Not your place? You thought it was your place to hide her from everyone. "
Harriet narrowed her gaze at her nephew. "John, I don't care how old you are—you watch your tone! This wasn't some elaborate plan. We didn't go about trying to deceive anyone, so you need to calm down befor-..."
"Calm down?!" Donna shrilled.
Jack put a hand on her shoulder. "Donna, stay out of it," he said firmly.
She whirled around on him. "Don't tell me to stay out of it! He's spent the past two, almost three days, runnin' himself ragged trying to find her, and here they-..."
"This situation has nothin' to do with you, Donna," Wilf said, looking at her squarely.
"Didn't have anythin' to do with you either, but that didn't stop you from meddlin'," Donna spouted hotly.
Harriet moved towards Donna, pointing an admonishing finger at her. "You listen here, young lady-..."
"I will not! I'm not a child and I will say what I want! Do you know how…"
The argument continued to escalate as the four of them continued to argue about who should have told whom what and why not, and so forth. None of them noticed when John went over to Rose, and taking her hand, left the house.
oOo oOo oOo
They had been walking for well over fifteen minutes, and John had yet to say anything. Not one single word. His uncharacteristic silence unsettled Rose. The only comfort she had was that, in all that time, he had not let go of her hand. He held it tightly, almost as if he was afraid loosening his grip would cause her to disappear yet again. When he had first made to leave the house, Rose was terrified that he was going to sail past her and leave without a word. She wouldn't have blamed him if he had—after all, she herself had done that very thing to him. But when John grabbed her hand and laced his fingers with hers, she felt that fearful tension release its hold on her. Now here they were, aimlessly walking hand in hand with so much to say between them, and yet neither one of them doing anything about it. From somewhere within her, a well-hidden courage slowly emerged and broke the silence.
"H-how…how angry are you?"
Her words brought them to a halt. John turned his gaze to her. His eyes held so much, but still he remained silent. Rose held his gaze, her own eyes pleading for him to say something…anything. He turned his eyes forward and exhaled softly. His eyes then trailed down to their joined hands, causing him to smile. He tugged on her hand, motioning for them to continue walking. Rose felt certain that this was the worst form of torture. She was finally ready to talk things through, and yet it seemed that he had no desire to broach the issue between them. The irony was not lost on her. As they continued to walk, she realized that their surroundings were becoming familiar—they were nearing Tony's school, and she saw John leading her into the little park they had sat in and eaten chips.
Rose couldn't help the smile that started to curl at her lips. "Did you plan on comin' here?"
He glanced at her before looking around at the darkened park. "Honestly? No. I just started walking…and then I saw this…" Again he went silent, remaining fixed in place.
Rose was too full of nervous energy to just stand there idly next to him. Very reluctantly, she released her hand from John's and hesitantly began to walk forward. She forwent the bench, instead choosing the emotional comfort of the swings. She sat down and swayed gently, her feet anchored in the gravel and her gaze firmly directed downward. This was not how she imagined their reunion playing out.
Any other time y'cant get two words in edgewise…
Rose couldn't handle the silence any longer and said the first random thing that came to mind.
"Never realized Harriet lived this close to the shop."
John bristled at the mention of Harriet and Rose knew instantly she had spoken unwisely. He finally walked over to her, taking the swing next to her. They sat there for a few moments, faintly swaying in silence.
After what felt like an eternity, John turned to look at her and spoke. "Why did you do it?"
She knew what he meant. "I…I needed some time."
"I needed to…to think about…," she trailed off, still unsure of how to go about saying things.
"About what?" John pressed, desperate to understand.
"About…everythin'," she sighed.
His eyes saddened at her words. "And you couldn't do that at home? Where I could at least have had the peace of mind knowing where you were?"
She shook her head at his questions. "No. I knew if I stayed, I would never truly allow myself to be honest about things…never allow myself to be honest about how I felt…'bout you. I had to take a step back." She felt tears prickling her eyes, but she held them back. It was too early in the game to break down.
"So…you ran away to my aunt? How does that help anything? How do you even know her?"
SHe could hear the building frustration of uncertainty in John's voice. Rose let out another steadying sigh, knowing she had to be completely honest if this was ever going to work. "I didn't know she was your aunt at the time. I met her years ago, when my dad was in hospital. I saw her cryin' and I went over to her, just to sit with her. She looked so…so broken."
Rose glanced up at John as she said this, hoping to gauge what he was feeling. She could see his eyes had gone soft and warm. It gave her the encouragement to go on.
"I saw her by chance at the hospital a few days later. She came up behind me…scared the life outta me. She saw…she saw my face, what happened…," Rose trailed off, her body tensing as she remembered how she had 'earned' those bruises Harriet had seen.
John furrowed his brow, confused as to what she was saying, but at the same time, having a nagging suspicion as to what she could mean.
Rose couldn't bring herself to look at him as she spoke. "Jimmy had…he didn't just rough me up. H-he…he beat me. Usually could hide the bruises with makeup, but this time…it wasn't….," she let out a ragged breath as the tears began to fall, "it wasn't enough. Harriet saw 'em, saw the brace on my wrist…and she…she helped me."
Rose looked up at him and could see his eyes coal black with rage. She remembered how he had looked when she had told him she was knocked around; so she wasn't surprised to see this level of anger after admitting the abuse was deeper than she had let on. Rose forced herself to push through the emotions building and continue her explanation.
"She helped my family, too. Helped us out with dad's treatment. Made it so I didn't have to leave school. I hadn't seen her in years…not since…not since my parents' funeral. Pushed her away…but then, when all this happened, I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. I had her address from all the letters she'd sent me. I remembered how safe she made me feel, and I knew no one would think to look for me there. I swear I never knew she was your aunt. Not 'til the night I showed up and saw your picture," she said in earnest.
When Rose looked at him, she could see John believed her, causing her to let out a relieved breath.
"You never answered me from earlier…how mad are you?" Rose was anxious for his answer. There were so many possible outcomes for this scenario, and the unknown made her physically ill with worry.
John's eyes locked with hers for a brief moment before turning forward and he began running a hand through his hair. She could tell he was weighing what exactly to say. After what again seemed like ages, he turned back to her and answered.
"I'm…I'm not mad. To be honest, I'm not sure what I am. I'm relieved that you're okay. I went everywhere trying to find you. Couldn't sleep. Called everyone I could. Drove your neighbors completely insane trying to find you. Pretty sure they think I'm some kinda stalker."
Rose couldn't help but giggle at that.
"I just…I just wish you'd talk to me. Really talk to me…let me in. Just…help me understand why you keep running from me. Please." His eyes pleaded more than his words ever could.
Rose held his gaze, tears once again fighting to break free. She hesitantly raised her hand, hesitating briefly before finally giving in and cupping his cheek, stroking it gently with her thumb. She heard his breath catch and saw his eyes widen at her gesture. She gave him a small smile, and then, slowly removed her hand, never breaking her gaze. She saw his disappointment at the loss of her touch.
"I'm not good at this…obviously," she said as she gave a soft yet harsh laugh. "I've never…never really let anyone in. And I'm not talking about Mick or Martha, or even Tony. It's different with them…they're family. Wasn't always like that. See, Jimmy was the first serious boyfriend I'd had and when he…well, I got good at protectin' myself. That kinda pain is hard to get over…and I cou—," her voice broke as her tears began to fall, "I couldn't even think about lettin' anyone near me again. I've not had the easiest life…and I'm not trying to use that as an excuse…honestly 'm not. It's just that…when y'feel so much pain, ya try to find a way to deal with it. You go with whatever makes the pain go away…or at least, what makes it hurt less. Mine is…was keeping everyone away."
Unable to tolerate the loss of her touch any longer, John reached over and took her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. Rose looked at their joined hands, then back at him. A few more tears fell as she gave a small squeeze and smiled at him. She knew she had to keep going—she had to tell him everything while her courage was still going strong.
"When…after Mum and Dad died…I shut down. I know I did...but I didn't care. I focused on takin' care of Tony, takin' care of Mickey and Martha. I couldn't—wouldn't let anyone else near me…not truly. I mean, I have a few friends, but not anyone really close. I don't really share anythin' of value with anyone. Much better at takin' care of people than being taken care of. But…," she trailed off. What she had to say next involved him and it still frightened her a little.
John gave her hand a slight squeeze and smiled, trying to encourage her. "But what?"
Rose let out another steadying breath and focused downward, afraid she'd lose her nerve if she looked at him. "But…when…when I met you, it got very, very hard to keep you away. At first, I just tried to say I loved how much you and Tony got along, how much you two adored each other. But…it started to get difficult being 'round you, because…because I couldn't keep you away from me…it wasn't easy anymore. Ya kept gettin' closer and it…it didn't just scare me…it terrified me. And I tried to fight it…fought it as hard as I could but then that night…do y'know why I left after our dance?" she asked, finally looking up at him. The look he was giving her caused her head to swim and her heart to practically beat out of her chest.
John shook his head in response to her question.
This time, Rose held his gaze, unwilling to lose the feelings his eyes were eliciting within her. Tears began to fall again as she spoke, "Was 'cause I realized that you broke through. That there wasn't anythin' there to protect me anymore. You were so close and I didn't know how to handle that…didn't want to handle that. I couldn't risk gettin' hurt again."
John's eyes saddened at that last remark. "I would never hurt you, Rose," he said with absolute resolve.
Rose nodded. "I know that…in all honesty, I knew that then…but, that didn't stop me. No matter how badly I might have wanted it to. Even when I found out about your book…I was furious but I knew deep down you wouldn't hurt me. But I tried to use that anger to finally push you away for good."
John let out a breath and ran his free hand through his hair. "The book... Rose, I promise it's not-..."
"It's okay," she cut him off, "Y'don't have to explain…I read it."
John's eyes grew wide with surprise. "You re-…how did you read it?"
"Went to Jack. Told 'im he it was the least he could do. Didn't really give 'im choice."
John smiled and gave a faint snort at finding out about Jack's involvement. It didn't surprise him. He felt uncertainty creep into his chest as he went to ask his next question.
"So…what did you think?"
Rose took a moment before answering. Her voice was low and full of emotion as she said, "It's beautiful…but…"
"But what?" he asked, anxious to know where she found fault.
"I-I don't think I deserve half the things ya said 'bout me. I'm not worth that much."
John's eyes hardened at that. "Don't you ever say that! Not ever again, understand? You have more worth than I could ever put into words. You mean so much to so many. You're everything to your family. You're everything to me," he said, his eyes dark with emotion.
Rose thought she had already seen the depth of his love before, but as his eyes remained fixated on her, she realized that everything else paled in comparison to what she was now seeing. Rose released his hand. John went to grab it again, but she shook her head. Instead, she slowly reached for his face, cupping it in her hands. In his eyes, she could see the expectation, the hope, the longing. Tentatively, she leaned forward and gently pressed her lips to his. Rose could feel the slight surprise her actions had caused him, but that didn't hold him back for long. John reached his hand up and cradled her head, pulling her closer. At the sense of utter completion, she felt her heart swell and tears streamed freely from her eyes.
As her courage grew, so did the intensity of the kiss. The awkward angle caused John to slip off the seat and kneel into the gravel, which quickly corrected the situation. Rose gripped his shoulders tightly, desperate and eager to close the distance between them. Time stood still for them as the kissed deepened, conveying everything they were to each other—everything they wanted. When they finally broke away, they rested their foreheads together, neither willing to relinquish the touch of the other.
"So, can I take it you kinda like me?" he asked, smiling and clearly out of breath.
Rose kept her forehead to his as she shook her head 'no.' John pulled back at that and looked her in the eyes, waiting for an explanation.
"No…I love you," she said, tears rapidly streaming down her cheeks as she finally said the words she'd been longing to for so long.
John's face lit up as he broke into a slow but brilliant smile. He gently kissed her again, and again rested his forehead on hers.
"That's very good news. 'Cause it just so happens that I love you, too."
"Yeah? For how long?" she whispered.
He leaned back just enough to allow him to look her in the eyes. He cupped her cheek, gently stroking it.