That sentence she said, a few simple words, might as well as been landmines that she had set off in John’s mind. Old memories—recollections of a time he had gotten pretty bugfuck drunk—came back to him. Memories that he never would have thought were capable of hurting again to think of, let alone to stop him in his tracks.
If he wanted to ask her what she meant, she went forward with it anyway, saying, “We never got a chance to talk about that night. What you said.”
He turned to look at her. John closed his eyes, hating the man he had been two decades ago for doing this to him. He released a breath he had not realized had been trapped in his chest. Softly, he said, “I was drunk.” it was the easiest thing to say, also the closest to anything resembling what he could admit.
He was sure he was witnessing something from his nightmares—or was it secretly from his dreams—when Janis tilted her head to the side, her feral eyes flickering with doubt. Doubt and—something else? “Alright Johnny. If you promise me what you said meant nothing, then I’ll leave it. But I can’t shake the feeling—” she paused.
John ached for her to finish whatever it was she was going to say. But something, an old scar covering his heart, perhaps, stopped him from asking.
Instead, he said, “I’m embarrassed that I told you that. It was—” a mutiny, resonating from somewhere inside of him, made him blurt out, “I had a problem around you when I was… when I was a young man. It made me—that is—seeing you in my room like that, it was—” he could feel it, his face growing red, ears getting warm. “Anyway, I wasn’t equipped to have you in my room like that. It made me say some things I regret I said.” Good, redundant nonsese, altogether.
To his surprise, Janis’ expression didn’t change as she gazed at him. She said, “I did not ask you how you feel about what you said. I asked if you were telling the truth, Johnny. Were you telling me the truth that night?” Before he could say anything, her expression softened, and she said, “I hope you don’t think I’d ever—I’d throw away what we have. You accepted me more than I could have ever wished. How could I not accept you for everything you are, John? If I have anything to do with why you’d want to throw this chance to speak the truth out, then...”
He felt it, like he had been choking on some emotion for over two decades—closer, maybe, to three—and she had just opened his airwaves. Like he could taste fresh air for the first time in so, so long. Still, why did he feel like he could hardly take in a breath from the thick weight of some new—no, just long forgotten—emotion balled up in his chest?
Twenty Years Ago
John was a man who was a natural skeptic. One of those things he believed was that alcohol was something more of a cultural “out” for people who would otherwise not have let an urge or an emotion leave them so freely. He was doubtful that liquor was some sort of a lasso of truth, as he had heard on numerous occasions. But if someone had told that to him that night, he would have had to admit that some liquor in the blood had an effect of loosening urges that he would have kept tightened in his heart otherwise. It was a combination of the liquor and the presence of a leggy woman wearing a red dress for his birthday.
Some part of him wanted to believe that it wasn’t just for the occasion, that she had decided to wear it for him.
He hadn’t seen her come in. Oh, how he would have given almost anything to have seen her walk into the packed bar like she had come off of a movie set. Or from his dreams.
When she tapped him on the shoulder and he saw her for the first time, in all honesty he couldn’t comprehend if she were real or a fantasy. Couldn’t blame it on the booze yet, because John had not drunk the massive amount of liquor that would contribute to his lack of coherence and general drop in motor skills at that point. When the woman handed him his gift and spoke to him, it took everything that was in him to not blurt something stupid out. Blurt something out, or reach out and touch her, as if he were afraid that she was an illusion.
Then she was pulled away from him and John was left in a puddle of sweat. None of the people around him mattered. Didn’t matter, either, that he was thirty five years old that day and that everyone here was supposedly here for him. If anything, he was a thirty five year old man and obviously still compelled by a longing that, by all accounts, should have been long gone.
She never once looked back at him, but John watched her as she mingled. God damn, she was good at this, at making everyone feel at ease, important not just to the Initiative, but to her, on a personal level. It was a skill he told himself he would one day pick up, even if it had to rub off of her onto him, nevertheless, unfortunately, it was one he never would properly learn. She smiled, moving in that dress that fit oh so perfectly, and every once in a while he thought he could catch some of her voice. When she laughed, John’s hands tightened around the gift she had given him. It was a wonder he never broke the damn things in that package, as hard as he started to clench it.
Before she got onto the stage, John started to knock back drinks. The warmth inside of him felt like a stabilizer. Like if he focused on the sensation, he could drown out the feelings that started to crowd out every other thought in his head.
Then she got on the stage, looking over the crowd. She glanced over him, he was sure, then launched into a song that felt too on the nose, might have even been a sign to him for how apt it was. As she sang “Perfect Day,” John watched as she finished, wishing that he didn’t love the way she sounded as she gave her all to the music, frenetic with happiness, never once looking at the prompter. This, this was where his feelings for her started, this bravery and charm that she called up so effortlessly. She was the type of person who wasn’t ashamed to admit that she knew a song by heart in front of the people she commanded in a secret Initiative, and she was the type of person who knew so strongly that she was a woman, even if she had happened to of been born in the wrong body, that she risked every bit of her confidence to be up there on a stage in a dress.
John got up, quietly leaving the bar before someone might see him. He had decided, halfway down the hallway, that he needed to go to bed and sleep off whatever he had done to himself. Before he had a chance to make a mistake.
Then he heard her voice. At first he couldn’t believe it was her again. He was so shocked that he sounded drunker than he actually was when he spoke up.
Standing in the hallway, he could examine Janis in that dress without anyone crowding them. Some of her hair was loose and her skin was flushed, giving some realness to an image that otherwise John might have attributed to his imagination. She was tall, yes, but more than that, she had a frame that John could almost feel ashamed he had never been able to realize had been feminine before she had gone through surgery. No, the surgery wasn’t what had made her a woman; she already had had a tenderness, a sensuality that was evident in the soft curves of her body, in the poutiness of her lower lip.
She was a bombshell, and the reality was that John was not a man used to being around someone so potent in their whole being, let alone a woman.
As she steered him to his room, some primal instinct, intent on protecting him from embarrassing himself, compelled him to try to talk his way out of going into the room with her. Tried to stop something that, he would later realize, had surely been eventual.
It didn’t work. Of course. Sat down on his couch, alone with a beautiful woman who was also his idol and yet somehow also so much more, John realized something, in between him opening his present and having her softly talk to him. It was now or never; not in the way that this would be his last chance to do this (although it very well also could have been) but this was the time it was going to happen. He would die or he would finally admit to something that he had once told himself he would—could—never, ever admit to.
And, damn it, John wanted to live , to truly jump for something he wanted, yearned for so much that it left him aching.
He awkwardly fumbled at first, then asked it, both regretting and feeling relieved as the words came out of his mouth. She joked, then understanding seemed to come over Janis. They stared at each other as what John was going to say was, in its own way, said aloud in that moment.
The smile faded on her mouth but that warmth, that look that always felt somehow like home to him, never left.
“Always, Bambi.” She nodded, affirmative, calm.
It did nothing to calm him. To the contrary, the liquor and his emotions made him trip over his words, as if he had been carrying something valuable and had dropped it. It turned what he had always secretly fantasized about into a fucking joke, one that would go on to haunt him.
“I want to—I wanna marry you, once things are calm.” John was horrified to hear his slurring, the mess of his voice. Feared that she wouldn’t take what he was saying seriously, if she thought that he was drunk. Still, he dove deeper, couldn’t stop if he wanted to. “Always wanted to make sure you can’t ever disappear on me again.”
She hardly blinked, looking at him. For a moment, something—pity?—crossed over her expression. She smiled, then laughed a small, ineffectual chuckle. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not ever going to go away again. I mean, I'm old enough to be like, your cool young aunt, and I was like a dad to you once, right?" She held her hand over her mouth, as if something she said physically made her feel bad. Her face was turning red, and almost as soon as the expression came onto her face, she removed her hand, said, "I’m where I need to be, and once we’re done...” she gestured loosely with her hands. “Not like I have anyone else in mind anyways, why not get hitched to my best friend? We could share a bank account—”
In any other situation, if John had been sober, he would have backed down, taken the obvious out that she gave him. Hell, he would have been embarrassed by her reaction, which felt like a mixture of pity and disgust. Should have pretended that it was a joke. But now that he had said the words, alone in a room with her, close enough so that he could breathe the heavy, lush weight of her perfume, John knew he was going to jump and miss, hard, or else he would land in unknown territory.
He stopped her, reaching his hand across the couch as he instinctively wanted to gather her hands into his own. “This is crazy, but I want…” he swallowed, hard, then said, “I want to be with you, Janie. I’m not joking, it’s not because I’m drunk. You're the most beautiful person I know, there's no one like you.” He was running, full force into the land of no return—no, John was launching himself into the no man’s land without any place to land. “I love you.”
At first she just looked at him, a dumbfounded look on her face that said more than she could have. This obviously blindsided her, and if there was a moment that John had ever had where he wondered if it were possible that she ever reciprocated his feelings, then he believed he had his answer there.
The expression changed on her face as she reached over, putting her hand over his own. “I never thought of it like that, Johnny.” She didn’t look back at him, her lips lopsided as she looked deep in thought. “Huh.”
John closed his eyes, thought he was extremely close to just crying. “Alright.”
“Oh, no, no,” Janis added hurriedly. “I just—” she finally looked at him, head on, inescapable. “You can do so much better than me. You know that, right?” She laughed, nervously. "I'm old and all cut up, sewn together..." For a second John thought she was going to start to cry, her eyes shining with what seemed like tears. "Do you know how many girls would love you?"
Was that supposed to be a way of comforting him? John clenched his eyes shut, took his hands out from under hers. “Just forget it.” He stood up, walked towards his bed, grabbing onto the edge of his blanket as he threw himself under it. It felt childish, terrible, but in his inebriated state, John couldn’t think of any other way to try to escape the situation. Knew, anyway, that he would pass out if he tried to storm out of the room.
He said, loud enough for Janis to hear, “It’s fine. Tomorrow, I’ll just have been drunk. Right?” He waited, then repeated, “Right?” When she didn’t answer him, John looked across the room, turning partially on his back.
Janis hadn’t gotten up from where she was sitting on the couch. All he could see of her were her bare shoulders and her shining black hair, faced away from him. She was still, quiet.
Finally, she stood up and walked towards the door.
John wanted to say anything, do anything to get her to stay. Apologize, bleat out his every feeling until she had no choice other than to acknowledge them one way or the other. But he found that after everything, this one blow she had dealt to him had taken all of the fire, the fight, out of him.
Still, something in him clung to the way she paused before she walked out of the room. When she left, Janis said nothing, leaving behind the gift she had given him in more senses of the word than he wanted to think about.
Twenty years later and it felt to John as if he had never left his room back in the underground base. As though Janis had walked back into his life no sooner than she had left it. Two decades spent, covering up emotions with liquor and honest work for the good of humanity—no, John couldn’t lie to himself. He knew what all of this had really been for. If he was honest, he couldn’t deny the teasing Shen and Kelly gave him for his supposedly altruistic motives. He ought to have been embarrassed for his infatuation with a ghost, one who didn't ever, even, really love him back.
She physically hadn’t aged much more than a few weeks from the day she disappeared, but when Janis returned, undoubtedly she found him a broken man in the depths of a complete failure. As she had healed, John felt like he was watching someone come back from the dead, stronger than ever. Had watched in what he only pretended was in passing, her physical therapy with Tygan and some specialists who were there to make sure she would walk again, talk again.
There had actually been a part of him that thought he had grown up. That the part of him that saw too much in every movement she made had gone. In reality, there had only ever been the same old desire, the long shot that he had never truly stopped believing in, wished for. Did part of him believe that she would wake from her long slumber and, on seeing him, declare her own feelings for him? Was he that stupid, still?
Janis could see the struggle on his face, no matter how he might have tried to force himself to articulate something—anything. She said, “I can’t try to deal with whatever there is between us without you telling me what it is. C’mon, John, are we still friends?”
Before he knew it, John’s mouth opened and he knew he was saying something he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of. “After what I said to you, you never told me how you feel about it.”
Janis’ face barely seemed to move, but her eyes were animated, bright. “I don’t know what to think. I guess—it was two decades ago, even though it doesn’t feel like that to me. Thought you would have put any of it behind you.” Her face contorted, as though something stopped her, in the middle of trying to smile. "Would've thought—Johnny would've found some maiden fair to rescue from some muton."
“Then what made you bring it up?”
One of those cryptic smiles etched its way across her face. “I know you better than you know yourself. At least, I used to.”
John sucked a breath in. “Then, did you know how I… that I—”
She interrupted, something flickered in those over bright yellow eyes of hers and the smile that tentatively started on her mouth began to fade. “I had an idea, John. Maybe I knew, that first day we met again.” She hesitated, then added, “I was hoping I was imagining it. Or you’d grow out of it, I don’t know.”
John stared at her in disbelief. “Grow… grow out of it?” He barked out a laugh, although he didn’t even remotely feel like laughing. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”
Janis massaged the bridge of her nose, her eyes slammed shut. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was demeaning or…” She sighed. “I just didn’t think that if that was the way you felt, that you’d still feel that way. I’ll be honest, I don’t know where to go from here.”
That light feeling in his chest felt like it disappeared. It was replaced by a once-familiar sense of isolation. He said, “I know I’m not your type, but I get the feeling you doubt my professionalism. I might be… that is…” Damn it, why couldn’t he just say what he felt, or at least say something that wouldn’t continue to embarrass him?
So he closed his eyes and said what he wanted to say for the last thirty years. “I don’t give a damn if it’s a problem, I had feelings for you twenty years ago. I’m not going to deny that, but you know what?” He stared into her eyes, found a sense of relief, no matter how pyrrhic, in saying what he had always been afraid to say to her. “No matter how I feel now, I promise you—promise—that it won’t interfere with how I work, and will continue to give myself to XCOM.” He took a breath, then said something that made his heart cry out to say. “Even if you no longer wish to be a part of it.”
She smiled at him, but there was a shadow behind the brightness of her eyes that felt like it didn’t leave. “Glad to hear it.”
“Yeah?” John felt it, a primal anger that made him ache to drown it in alcohol. “Then can you do me a favor, do what you’re best at. Leave me alone.”
Janis looked away, a sad curve taking on the shape of her smile. “We’ll talk again.”
John was already turning around, readying to start beating the shit out of that training dummy with renewed vigor. “You can bet on that.”