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A Long-Awaited Thaw

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Cory's first mistake was that he took Jane for soft.

Not that he could be faulted. She hadn't even brought the right clothes for the weather, had had to borrow some before they headed out to see the place where he'd found Natalie. A city girl who was the only person stationed close enough to be sent out to the rez. He'd loitered around while she changed into something more appropriate, his thoughts on the girl he'd found in the snow. Her and his own girl. No matter how long she'd been gone, his daughter's absence was a hole that would never be filled, and later he would tell Martin the same thing; "Bad news is, you'll never be the same. You'll never be whole. Ever."

In the end, though, Jane had stood up. Not just for Natalie, but for herself. She'd struggled to live outside of that trailer, had survived a gun battle and then the airlift to the hospital. And she'd never asked him what he'd done out there in the hinterlands, how he had taken the boots off the one who'd fled and then forced him to try and make his way back. He wasn't proud of it. Cory wasn't a violent man, but he'd wanted that bastard to know a little of what it was to be so close to death, but with the chance that he could live. But when she didn't ask, he told himself that it was because she didn't want to know, and he was content with that. Because he didn't want her to know either.

When she came back, the spring melt had come, and he was bemused but pleased at her return. He fixed her some coffee in his little kitchen while she stared through the window at the lack of snow. They didn't talk much, though she told him a bit about how she'd been, what she'd been up to. By then, Wilma and Casey had moved to Jackson Hole and he wasn't seeing his son as much. She had a new boyfriend, who he'd met once. He was glad for her, that she was moving on a little. She'd left and he'd stayed, and he'd stayed because he couldn't leave.

Cory said goodbye to Jane with a handshake and a half-smile, quietly impressed by her courage and her will to do what was right. He watched her tail-lights until they disappeared, feeling an odd sort of melancholy. A different sort of melancholy than the one that usually hung over him.

The second time Jane returned, he was told before he saw her. Though Cory wasn't tribal police, he'd worked with them unofficially often enough that the new police chief had accepted his help in finding dumb kids and tourists who got lost. He had the feeling something had happened, something bad enough that she was made to return to the rez, but he didn't ask and she didn't volunteer the information. The weather was frigid again, snowdrifts piled high in front yards and on either side of most of the streets. He hadn't thought twice about asking her to stay with him. As an out-of-towner, Jane hadn't remembered that there wasn't much for accommodations during the really cold season, when people from the cities with too much money and not enough sense came in to do things that swim naked in ice water. He had considered it a bit before offering her the other side of his bed, but the sound her back had made was a larger incentive than anything else, even his own comfort. Or even discomfort at sharing such a small space with another body after so long.

When her attempt at a choke hold woke him, he'd reacted on instinct, pinning her to the mattress while trying to pry her fingers off of his throat. Height-wise, he wasn't much bigger than she was, but his years doing his own sort of fieldwork had made him sinewy and strong. Jane had apologized as best she could, looking down into her cup when he handed it to her. He'd done her the favor of not asking about it, the reasons, because he had the feeling he already knew. There were things that could happen to women, and he didn't want to pry at Jane's trauma when it was so close to the surface. His personal misery still hovered, but it was buried under a layer of time and distance.

He watched her leave again, once she'd done what she'd come to do and had been released from the hospital. He'd sat with her, and he'd told himself it was because she'd nearly died - again - and he didn't want to lose her because she was a friend. Cory was a quiet soul, made quieter by his losses, and he'd held Jane's hand while they wheeled her from the ambulance into the emergency room. Minor frostbite, four cracked ribs, a concussion, twisted right ankle. He'd sat with her until she woke up, sometimes holding her hand, but when she returned to full consciousness he was deliberately paying attention to the old TV that was bolted to the wall.

Please be okay. I won't be able to stand it if you don't leave here on your own two feet. Please be okay. Please.

Not that she hadn't been through worse, and he made up for the sentimentality by not saying 'be careful' or 'take care of yourself' when she left. He waved goodbye from the parking lot of the police station, the tightness in his chest something that took days to go away. It was alleviated - somewhat - when Casey came for a visit, and when Wilma dropped him off she stayed for a while. She hadn't been in the house in a couple of years, and Cory was unsure of where to put himself. Finally, he sat down at the round kitchen table after pouring fresh coffee for both of them.

"You seem different."

Wilma said it cautiously. They'd stopped knowing how to talk to each other, and when she left it was almost a relief. He'd shrugged, discomfited. It was because he'd told her about Emily, what a good girl she'd been. He had to think that, that he'd opened the welded-shut door for Jane because she reminded him of Emily, because otherwise... Otherwise what?

"It was a long week. It'll be good to have Casey here for a few days."

The visit went well, and when he sent his son back with his mother he was taking full breaths again. More balanced.

The season had changed when Jane returned for the third time, and this time Cory waited until she requested his help. He'd heard she'd lost ground with the locals; law enforcement was never fully welcome on the rez no matter the reason, and he knew she would have an uphill battle after what had happened the last time. But when she asked, he helped, maybe more than he should have. But the people who lived there knew him, and he wasn't an official anything. That they knew what had happened to Emily, and subsequently the rest of his life, was something he never took advantage of. He thought of his daughter often enough; using her memory to get them to talk would have been anathema.

When it was over, a snowstorm buried the basin, and she couldn't go home. Again, she bunked with him when the snow hit, and the cold she got made her too sick to do much besides paperwork. Cory made soup for her and stocked up on orange juice, spent most of the time cleaning his guns and making bullets. Sometimes he would feel her eyes on him where she lay on the couch, a blanket tucked around her. It was the first time in a long time he''d had someone in the house for any length of time, the first time he'd felt comfortable having someone in close proximity.

Cory held Jane''s hand just a little longer than he had to the afternoon she left, and when he let go of her hand and gave her upper arm a squeeze, her smile when she returned the gesture made his stomach bounce up into his rib cage before settling again. He thought he managed to cover it pretty well, though.

A week later, she called just as he was getting into the house, and he answered the phone on the sixth or seventh ring. "Lambert residence."

"Cory?"

Jane sounded uncertain, a rarity from her. When he looked at the clock, it was just past six. "Hey! Uh...hey." She'd never called him at home before, had usually sought him out without phoning first. He sat down on the couch. "You didn't relapse, did you? Get a new cold?"

She laughed quietly. "No, I'm fine. I just...ah..."

She fell silent, and he found himself picturing her sitting in an apartment he'd never seen, maybe with her feet tucked under her. Cory waited, listening to the soft sound of her breathing. His jeans had a hole in the left knee. He picked at the loose threads, pulled some of them free.

"I was wondering if you'd want to come up this weekend. We could hang out, see a movie. I don't know."

Oh, thank you.

Because he would never have said it, and maybe she knew that. Cory took his hand away from the widened hole in his jeans, put it on the arm of the couch. His voice was neutral when he spoke, but his stomach was back renting space in his rib cage. "Yeah, I could...I could make the drive. The snow's still here, but it's not that bad. Not as bad as it was. Ah..."

When he looked up, he saw the picture of Emily and Natalie on his desk, above the mess of maps, paperback books and other detritus. He would never know all of it, the Why or even the Who. And he still wasn't whole, would never be whole. What he'd lost could never be replaced. But the girl - the woman - on the other end of the phone made him feel something he hadn't felt in a long time.

Like he might be able to be happy.

"You got a second bedroom?"

She laughed again, the sound shy. "No. But my couch isn't as bad as yours. I want to see you, Cory."

And then he had to not answer for a minute, because they'd both been through a lot since they'd met, and this would not be easy, especially if she really was the official agent in the basin now. But there was a world of difference, a galaxy of difference between being whole and being a shadow. Cory cleared his throat.

"Are you sure, Jane?"

"We're friends, right?"

Cory closed his eyes, let out his breath. Nodded, though he knew she couldn't see it. He hadn't been out of the valley in a while. Friends. Just friends.

Sure.

"Make up the couch. I'll call you before I leave." A long pause. "Jane?"

"What?"

He let it wash over him, the warmth the hope in her voice gave him. Like a flower turning towards the sun it hadn't seen in several seasons. "Nothin'," Cory said, and his voice was stupidly husky. "We can talk about it when I get there. It'll...it'll be great."

Friends. Right.