featherxquill: (Helen sky)
[personal profile] featherxquill
Title: After the Storm
Fandom: Losing Chase
Characters: Chase Phillips, Elizabeth Cole, Jason Phillips, Original Characters (mostly gen character study, with dashes of femslash and het)
Rating: PG
Summary: After that summer, Chase Phillips and Elizabeth Cole move on with their lives, but their time together affects them both in important, sometimes surprising ways.
Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] mammothluv for Yuletide 2010. Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] an_fhanai for being the Bestest Beta Ever.




I.


Elizabeth drove the red sprite for years.

It was a temperamental car, breaking down at random and then failing to start, leaving her stranded on the side of the road, sometimes waiting and waving her arms when another driver passed by, other times setting off on foot for the nearest town. Elizabeth remembered wading through fields, timothy grass and foxtails tickling her palms, and finding tiny villages tucked in behind the trees. Once, she came across an overgrown cemetery seemingly in the middle of nowhere: weathered headstones and tough little wildflowers and nothing around for miles.

In a way, it was like the car had taken on a little piece of its owner’s spirit (Chase would always be its owner; in all the years she drove it, Elizabeth could never think of it as her own): it was sometimes difficult and often unpredictable, but it never failed to offer Elizabeth new and interesting experiences. She was twenty-eight when she sold it to a nineteen year-old girl in ripped jeans and a tank top, whom she hoped would have as many adventures in it as she had.

That was the year Elizabeth moved to Boston. Her father had passed away—a heart-attack while he was out in the fields working, doing what he loved—and once the will was settled, the house was sold and Elizabeth was no longer bound to the town she had grown up in and the place where her mother had died. It felt like freedom, though of course Elizabeth would not go too far away from her sister. So she moved to the city.

*


After Richard left, Chase stayed on the Vineyard. Her intention had always been to grow old there, and she saw no reason to change her mind now that she was alone.

The first few months weren’t easy. The house was empty and silent, full of ghosts, and Chase felt keenly the destruction of her family. Her elder son resented her and her younger son didn’t quite understand what had gone wrong, why Mom wasn’t coming back to the city with them to make their school lunches each morning. And Elizabeth was gone, too, and that was the worst blow of all. Her family torn asunder because Chase had fallen in love with a woman, and she didn’t even get to keep the woman.

The depression came back, heavy and dark and sapping her of energy until it was almost impossible to get out of bed, but this time she had no one to cook her breakfast, no one to wash her clothes, no one to buy her cigarettes. So she dragged herself into the shower, into clothes, and at first that was all she could manage, but eventually she found the energy to go to the store. Eventually she found the strength to make a phone call, and she found a psychologist in New Bedford, on the mainland, and made an appointment.

I’m gay, she said to him one day. It was such a powerful thing, admitting that. Realizing that. The words came with a huge sense of relief and release, because they meant that the problem wasn’t that she didn’t have her family, or that she didn’t have Elizabeth, but that she’d been trying to fit into a mold her whole life, and it was the wrong one. It meant that what was wrong with her was inside, a problem of acceptance, and that it wasn’t reliant upon the actions of anybody else, but under her control.

Armed with that knowledge, she began to heal.

*


Elizabeth had never been to Boston before, but it reminded her of her college days in Yonkers. It was a loud, colourful mosaic of a place. Some of the buildings were tall, glassy things that glittered like mirrors; others were stone, curving and beautiful and hundreds of years old. The streets were lined with gas lamps, and underneath the ground the subway rumbled. The streets were full of people on foot and on bikes, speaking to each other in a cacophony of accents and languages. In her soul, she would always be a small town girl, but Elizabeth’s heart did love the city.

For the first two weeks, she stayed with some friends she’d known in college, sleeping on their floor while she searched for an apartment and a job. The first was easy enough, the second not so much. Back home she’d written for the local paper, stories about the community and the people she’d known all her life. She thought it was experience, thought it counted, but when she tried to find a job in the city the editors looked at her like she was crazy, like some kind of little country hick paper was any kind of credential. So instead she wrote freelance, penning articles for indie magazines and publishing one or two articles a month. She supplemented her income looking after people’s children, and she loved it. Nanny by day, author by night, and on the weekends, whatever she wanted.

She’d never been a party girl in college. Sarah Lawrence had been strict on the academia, and Elizabeth had been shy, so she’d barely done more than have a few glasses of wine too many and the occasional joint. She wasn’t a party girl in Boston, either, but she did go out. She’d had a boyfriend in college, but after Chase she was uncertain of herself, and there were things you just couldn’t explore in the small town you’d been born in.

*


Chase didn’t come out to people often, but when she did, she found the island’s residents accepting. This was a New England town, and the way people showed they cared was by not making a fuss over something that was none of their business. It was a pleasant surprise for Chase, who had been a summer-only resident for so long that she had forgotten that the beating heart of the island was quite different from the country-club set that descended on the place in season.

Not that she didn’t need the summer crowd. There were regulars every year, but there were also newcomers and day-trippers eager to explore the island, and Chase knew every cliff face and spectacular view and secluded swimming spot. She started offering tours, first two or three people at a time, then seven or eight, and they would tell their friends, and within a few years she had a steady stream of people eager to be given the Chase Phillips tour of Martha’s Vineyard.

When she wasn’t doing that, she gave sailing lessons, mostly to girls who wanted to learn and liked the idea of being taught by a woman. Of course, there was the occasional whisper about her being alone with them, but Chase was prepared for that and refused to let it bother her. She could sail to Nantucket by the light of the moon, and if girls wanted to be shown how to do that by someone who wouldn’t condescend them because of their gender, then goddamn it, Chase would teach them.

*


There were girls. Two, three, maybe four of them. Number one and number two were just kisses in bars, when Elizabeth was drunk enough to be brave and go for it, and they’d been soft and sweet, but they hadn’t answered any of her questions. Three and four had been more, not quite so drunk this time but warm in the sheets, back arching and fingers between her thighs and her mouth going oh. But Elizabeth could never let them go down on her, and she could never do it herself, and there was definitely something missing.

She realized what it was when she started working as a nanny for a glamorous career woman called Jane, who’d had children late in life. Her daughter was six and she was nearly fifty. One day she came home earlier than Elizabeth was supposed to finish, and she said no, stay, I’ll help you make dinner. She tied an apron over her business suit and started to chop vegetables. They were making chicken pot pie, and Elizabeth made the dough while Jane made the filling, and they moved about the kitchen they both knew well. Elizabeth passed the garlic from the fridge and Jane retrieved the flour from the pantry, and there was a silent camaraderie between them as Jane stirred and Elizabeth kneaded, and then Jane turned to say something and burst out laughing because Elizabeth’s forehead was streaked with flour and there was a circle of it on her nose.

And Elizabeth felt a pang, an ache like the one she’d felt that day playing croquet in the garden with Chase, only this time Elizabeth realized what it was. It wasn’t romantic love, wasn’t sexual desire, it was the kind of love a daughter felt for a mother. She’d missed all those rituals growing up—cooking together, reading stories, playing games, shopping—and it was the mother/daughter bonding experience that she craved. She had loved Chase, she realized, but the way she’d loved Chase and the way Chase had loved her had been two different, incompatible things.


II.


One year, one of Chase’s tours is a group of teachers on sabbatical keen on seeing the lakes and observing the island’s fragile ecosystem close up. Their particular interest lies in a certain type of water beetle that once flourished on the island but is now dying out, and they want to study the patterns of insect life over a period of months. One of the teachers is a buxom, redheaded woman called Ingrid, and she listens to Chase talk about the island in a particularly attentive way.

The first time they kiss is in Chase’s living room, with ice cubes melting in their drinks and talk of the island forgotten. It is the first time Chase has kissed a woman who wants it, a woman who kisses her back, and it is the most beautiful and most natural thing she has ever done.

They make love right there, on the sofa where Chase lay for days and watched television as a child after she had her tonsils out, where Jason and Little Richard bounced up and down pretending to be pirates. Where Richard hugged her close during the Friday night movie and where Elizabeth stretched out with her feet in Chase’s lap and read Austen to her when she was low. All that and they add themselves to it, their sweat and their scent and their gasps for breath, their kisses and Chase’s exploration of so this is what a woman feels like.

Chase has lived on Martha’s Vineyard all her life, but even so, that afternoon she feels she’s come home.

*


Elizabeth meets Jeff in the year 2000, three years after her arrival in Boston. They shop in the same grocery store, and Elizabeth recognizes him vaguely as someone she’s used to seeing over the zucchini. One winter day she puts her scarf down at the check-out and doesn’t realize she’s left it there until there’s a man running toward her in the parking lot, waving this teal sash like a flag.

You forgot, he says, but he’s out of breath so he can’t finish the sentence, and she takes the scarf from him and twines it about her throat with a soft thank you, and then they’re standing out there in the cold with Elizabeth’s cart trying to roll away and her car trunk open, and he offers to help her, and she can’t say much at all so she accepts.

After her groceries are packed away—and it’s winter so there’s no need to worry about things spoiling—he asks her to join him for a coffee. She does, and by the time she gets home the seafood bought earlier in the afternoon and forgotten on the front seat is iffy, so she throws it away, but it seems a small price to pay for an afternoon of laughter and phone numbers exchanged on napkins.

*


Ingrid stays on the island for a year. She stays to study, but at the end of the summer her fellow teachers move on to find other ecosystems, so she comes to live with Chase. During the winter there’s no sailing and no tours, so Chase is at home a lot. She does a few shifts a week at the diner in town to tide her over, but she has plenty of time to listen to Ingrid talk about water and bugs and conservation, and the subject fascinates her.

They go walking together through wind and beach grass, sometimes slipping their fingers through each other’s and sometimes not, but they talk a lot and Chase feels her brain being stretched for the first time in a while. Ingrid uses big, scientific words and Chase doesn’t know what they all mean but she gets the idea, and she helps Ingrid take water samples from the nearly-freezing ponds and photographs of wetland plants in their winter dormancy.

Summer comes and leaves again and it’s time for Ingrid to move on. She is due back at her school and she has her research papers to publish, and she invites Chase to come with her to New York, but the island is a part of Chase’s soul, so she declines. They part amicably, with a soft kiss and fingers through the hair and maybe I’ll come back, someday. Chase doesn’t doubt that Ingrid means it, but she knows it for a lie. People move on, lives happen.

And Chase has a new passion. She joins the Conservation Society, attends town meetings. Together with other residents she fights against rezoning and encourages sustainability, and it’s Martha who’s her lover in the end, with her stones and her beaches and her amazing storms.

*


They marry in ’02, Elizabeth and Jeff. It’s a quiet thing at the magistrate's office, just them and Jeff’s parents and a few friends. Elizabeth wouldn’t have minded a white wedding in principle, but in practice her sister is the only family she has in the world, and even though Katherine is no longer committed, she doesn’t travel easily and large gatherings give her panic attacks. It seems better to have something small that she won’t feel she has to attend.

It is wonderful anyway. Elizabeth's dress is simple and her bouquet is small, but there is so much love in that room. Their hands grip each other’s and when the justice of the peace marries them they lean in to kiss, and Jeff tastes of mint and it’s tender and beautiful and Elizabeth swears she can hear church bells ringing in her head. Afterward they all go out to dinner, and the air is full of laughter and the sound of wine glasses clinking and Elizabeth thinks I have a family again, and it is such a huge thought that she has to excuse herself from the table so that no one can ask why the bride is suddenly teary.

They are happy together. A few months after the wedding they buy a place together. It’s not quite in the city but it’s not too far away, and on the weekends when they aren’t working they paint it and pick out furniture. It feels like they’re nesting, though for what purpose Elizabeth isn’t entirely sure. She’s certainly not ready to have children, and she’s not sure she ever will be. Some days she thinks that she is—she adores children, absolutely adores them, and holding her own baby in her arms would be amazing—but then she remembers phrases like postpartum depression and family history of mental illness, and it scares the hell out of her.

So she keeps looking after other people’s, and writing for magazines. She never made it onto the full-time staff of any publication. She concedes now that that would have taken far more ambition and drive than she ever possessed. One day, she’s writing another tedious magazine article on a subject she doesn’t care about, and the little boy she’s looking after runs over to her to show her that the color-changing markers she bought him really work, ‘Lizabeth, they really work! He waves his drawing at her and she catches it, and he bounces on his toes as she examines it and pronounces it a masterpiece. His grin is huge and infectious and Elizabeth laughs as he bounds back to the table to create another.

Laughs, and then stops, aching for a moment because it’s like the last time, when she was standing in Jane’s kitchen making pie and realizing that she was looking at her life all wrong. Writing doesn’t give her joy, she realizes, moments like this do—the smiles on children’s faces and their exuberant desire to experience life. This, she thinks. This is what she really wants to do with her life, and she’s been doing it ever since she graduated.

In the summer she makes enquiries, and the next year she is back at college, studying to teach. This time she attends the University of Massachusetts, in the city, because she and Jeff don’t want to move so soon, and they have both grown to love Boston.

She is coming out of class one afternoon, chatting to another student, when someone calls her name. She turns, and there is a boy walking toward her—young, maybe late teens, tall and skinny with shaggy brown hair.

“Elizabeth?” he says, again.

“Hi,” she says, but there is a question mark at the end of it, because she doesn’t recognize him. Maybe he looks familiar, but she can’t place him.

“It’s Jason,” he says, and when she’s still looking at him blankly a few moments later, he adds, “Jason Phillips. From Martha’s Vineyard. You were our Mother’s Helper.”

And Elizabeth is smiling, and it’s cracking her face open, and it turns to a laugh, and then she’s covering her mouth and then her hand is over her heart. “Jason,” she says, eventually, when she can speak again. “My God, I... What are you doing here?”

He smiles. “I go to school here. Arts and Design. What about you?”

“Teaching. I mean, studying teaching. Career change. Turns out I kind of like working with children.”

Jason laughs. “You must be good at it. I remember when that kid Winston pushed my brother off the dock, and you said he looked like a jerk from the moment you saw him. I loved you for that.”

She’s getting over the shock, and now she’s just amazed. Jason had been nine years old when Elizabeth first met him, that summer. Elizabeth wonders how much he remembers, how much he'd understood about what happened that year—his mother’s illness, her recovery, their...well, whatever it had been. He'd been very young, but he had always struck Elizabeth as the more perceptive of the two brothers.

“What’s Little Richard doing these days?”

Jason laughs again. “My God, what a trip to hear him called that. He started making everyone call him Rick as soon as he started junior high. He works in a music store, and plays in a band. Lots of angry guitars and attitude, like you’d expect.”

Elizabeth smiles. It is the kind of thing she might have expected of Richard, though she’d always thought that the anger and attitude he’d displayed over the summer she’d known him had been natural for a pre-adolescent in his situation. Probably the events of the summer hadn’t helped ease it, either. Richard had certainly seen what was going on, even if he hadn’t understood.

“What about you?” Jason asks. “What have you been doing, apart from deciding on a career change?”

She extends her hand. “I got married last year. It’s Elizabeth Mattingley now.”

His eyes widen. “Wow! Congratulations!” She sees enthusiasm there, but also surprise, and she thinks she’s right about him being the perceptive one.

“How’s your mom?” she asks, finally deciding that it’s a safe question.

“She’s well,” Jason says. “Really well. Still lives on the island. She’s into all sorts of conservation stuff now, and she gives sailing lessons in the summer. Last time I visited she had a friend staying there, but I’m not sure what’s happening with that, now. She’s really happy, though. Not like she was before you came.”

Elizabeth smiles, but she doesn’t know what to say.

“You should write to her,” Jason says. “She’d love to hear from you.”

Elizabeth does.

Dear Chase, the letter begins; I drove the red sprite for years...

*


Chase knows there’s going to be a storm, the day the letter arrives. She can see it in the sky and smell it in the air as she walks to the mailbox. The hairs on her arms are standing up and she can feel it down to her toes.

She sifts through the mail as she walks back to the house, barely looking where she is going. When she comes to the letter with the handwritten address, she flips it over and stops dead in the middle of the path when she sees Elizabeth’s name staring back at her.

She traces it with her fingers, that name: a neat ‘E’ in careful print, and all the letters so clearly defined. Touches the fingers to her lips, marvelling at the way that name, even after so many years, has the power to take her breath away. She stands there staring at the envelope until thunder rumbles over her head, and that brings her back to the world. She hurries inside.

Setting the letter on the coffee table, Chase climbs the stairs. She walks from room to room, closing windows and making sure the ones already closed are secure. She takes the bucket from the cupboard under the bathroom sink and sets it on the floor below where the leak in the roof is, and then she walks downstairs again and secures the doors.

The storm rumbles, crashes. Chase curls up on the lounge. By the time the first raindrops spatter against the windows, she is so engrossed in Elizabeth’s letter that she barely hears a thing.

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