Spark Gap

"Damn." The word left a little patch of fog on the office window, he was standing so close, and it felt good to say it, even being the only one around to hear. "Damn."

There were ripples of ice in patches on the outside of the window, and Andy shifted a little to look out at the city through one. No cars on the roads, even here.

Freak weather. Bizarre freak weather. Cincinnati wasn't Santa Fe, but it wasn't exactly the frozen north, either, for all that it looked like it right now. If he weren't so disappointed, it would even be pretty. It looks alien and hostile, but it shines. Everything's coated with a thick layer of ice, curving and clear, and the rain is still falling, percussive and wet, hitting the window as pellets and drops in turn.

Though there was only an hour between getting dropped at the station and the time he'd meant to head to the airport, it had been enough to trap him. The car service had called to say they couldn't come, and he can't blame them - he wouldn't want to drive in this, either. Not for love or money, definitely not so some other guy could get out of town. The flights are canceled anyway.

The prospect of sleeping at the station is better than in a terminal, but there are places he'd rather be. Like his apartment. But he won't be getting back there anytime soon unless he wants to walk, which he doesn't. He'd only come to this side of town to hand off the dog, and it had seemed easier to meet the car here than to head all the way back to the apartment. It's fine, though - the sofa in his office isn't half bad, as places to sleep go. He's used it before.

It's barely past six, but the station is almost silent. Kind of eerie, really. The monitors are still on in every room, but they're turned low enough that they're only producing a muted hum, just enough to reassure him they're still broadcasting. The sound of the wind beyond the windows is louder.

Anyway, he knows the place isn't deserted. One of the engineers is supposed to be around someplace, Bucky most likely, to change out prerecorded broadcast tapes over the holiday. It's just going to be the two of them here, though - the doors into the station are locked, and reception is dark.

Andy turns away from the window. Moping in Carlson's office isn't going to do him any good, and it's colder in here than the rest of the offices, with all the windows pulling winter in through too-thin glass. He should probably see if there's anything around that can serve as dinner, maybe make a pot of coffee. Figure out what to do with himself the rest of the night.

First order of business is to see if Bucky's around - better to find him right away than surprise him when he thinks he's alone. Too many ways that could go wrong to spare time thinking about.

Andy wanders out through reception and down the hall. He'd been pretty sure someone'd left a tin of holiday cookies in the office, on top of the filing cabinets maybe, and sure enough, there they are. They're dusty-tasting, dry and sweet, and he holds one between his teeth, grabs the empty coffee pot, and heads for the bathroom. He's knocking crumbs off his shirt, not paying attention, when he steps back into the hall and nearly knocks over Bailey, which is...unexpected.

It's just as surprising for her, to judge by the yelp-jump combination she manages.

"Hey. Hey, Bailey, it's just me." He grins, reaching a hand out to steady her. "Sorry. Guess I should be making more noise."

She's got a hand pressed to the center of her chest, like she's trying to push the surprise back down, forcibly slow her heartbeat. She smiles, wavery and bright, so it must work, at least a bit.

"Hey Andy. I just. Well, I just didn't expect." She stops to breathe, and starts again. "Well, you know."

"Yeah. I didn't expect you either. What are you doing here? And isn't Bucky supposed to be here someplace?"

"Oh! Yes, well, I'm Bucky. I mean, I'm covering for Bucky." She shoves her hands in her hip pockets and rocks back a little on her heels, smiling at him. "Bucky wanted to spend the holiday with his family, and I, well, I can't get back to Chicago until after the holidays anyway, so why not?"

"Huh." Would have been nice to know that, but maybe they'd run it past Carlson instead. Sounds like Bailey got herself conned. Or was just too nice for her own good and really didn't mind pulling an all-night shift on Christmas eve.

Bailey was looking a little uncertain, now. "It's good experience, anyway. Don't you think?"

"Oh yes. Good experience, staying up all night, bored, switching out tapes every ninety minutes." And now she looks crestfallen. "Bailey. Come on, think about it. What are you gaining out of this? And what were you going to do if something went wrong?"

She doesn't answer for a minute, then lifts her chin a little and says, "Nothing's going to go wrong." Like it's the final word.

He laughs. "Have you looked outside?"

Bailey's a good kid, and he'd rather be stuck with her for company than with Bucky anyhow, so he lets her off easy, in the end. It was a nice thing to do, taking over the shift, if she really didn't mind, really wasn't giving up other plans.

The tiny coffee pot's half full by the time he retrieves his duffel from the lobby and drops it next to her desk in the office. No sense in keeping to his own office, sofa not withstanding, when she's stuck out here through the night.

He's rinsed out a couple of mugs and is shaking them dry over the bathroom sink when she comes back from Carlson's office.

"You weren't kidding, that's a real storm. I haven't seen ice like that since college."

"You've got one up on me, then." He hands her a mug and they head back down the hall. "I've never seen anything like this before. Not in person, at least."

The pot's full, and the coffee doesn't exactly smell good, but it's no worse than usual. The heat counts for something.

"In Chicago - I mean, I'm not a storm expert, or an expert on winter or anything, and we didn't get stuff like this very often, but - an ice storm, that's - well. That can be pretty bad."

"Hmm." Andy shrugs, takes another sip of the coffee. The Cremora box is empty. Sugar? "How bad could it be?"

"You know how heavy ice gets?" She waits after that. Waits for the penny to drop.

Oh. "Power lines? Aren't they mostly underground downtown?"


"Okay." He sets his coffee down on the closest desk. "We should be ready, just in case." He looks up at the ceiling for a minute, speculative. "Food. Heat. Light. Let's see what we can find."

He winds up leaving her the rest of the station and goes through Mr. Carlson's office, Jennifer's desk, and his own office himself. It's one thing to go through their drawers himself, but entirely another to let a member of staff rifle through their belongings, even if it is Bailey.

He hadn't been able to hear the rain in the general offices, but it's a constant muted sound in the in the lobby, the wind loud as it whistles past the building. They're pilfering the desks for candles and flashlights, looking for extra coats just in case, food if they happen across any. There's an old afghan tucked into one of the bottom cabinet drawers in his own office, a huge brown and cream thing that was there when he took the job. It's clean enough, so he tucks it under his arm and pulls the sofa cushions up, tossing them into a pile to take into the offices. They won't have enough for a pillow fort, exactly, or even for a couple of makeshift cots, but it'll still be warmer than sitting on the floor.

He finds a pack of emergency candles in Jennifer's desk, and a heavy utility flashlight next to the lobby's first aid kit - but the bulb barely glows before it flickers and dies. Andy screws open the top to find the batteries inside are corroded, not even worth switching around to milk for a little more light. He lets them slide into the trashcan next to her desk with a clunk and sets the empty casing next to her phone so she'll see it next time she's in. No light but the candles, then. Well. With luck they won't lose power anyway.

He stacks the cushions on the floor next to Bailey's desk and goes back for Carlson's overcoat, just in case. There's nothing in his own bag for cold weather - just the down vest he hadn't bothered to take off when he'd come in that afternoon, back when he'd still expected to be boarding a plane.

Bailey's only managed to find her own coat, but that's fine. The office isn't warm - the station is the only suite in the building that has people steadily working in it over the holidays, so the building manager hadn't seen fit to keep the heat up at the regular level - but it isn't so cold that they have any real grounds for complaint. Anyway, she did find someone's box of Cup-a-Soup, and a box of Crackerjack, and they still had some cookies left.

"More coffee?" They make another pot, and then they run the machine again for hot water. They drink the soup together, cross-legged on the cushions. It's thin and salty, and man, Andy could really go for a beer, but wishes and fishes, after all. Eventually he tips the cold mug toward himself and gets up to make another pot.

Bailey watches the clock, gets up to change the tape, does it again, and it isn't even 10 pm.

Andy winds up telling her stories about jobs he's held, station after station. It seems like the right thing to do. It's the kind of thing they never really have time for otherwise. He's trying to give her the benefit of his own experiences, but the stories all come out sounding homesick.

She gets up again and comes back from the booth with a battered deck of cards. Bailey shuffles like a cardsharp, and it's nice to see her doing something with some confidence for once. She's resumed that cheerfulness she puts on, the kind that almost seems natural and almost seems forced but never quite manages either, the kind that's all faltering can-do attitude.

It's work. Sitting here with Bailey is work. And she's a nice girl, but damn it, if the airport hadn't been shut down he'd be landing in Albuquerque right about now, gritty with jet lag and soaking up the sunshine and nearly home.

She catches him in a sigh as he thinks of it. He doesn't need to talk about it, though, so he lets himself glance over at the clock, lets her catch him at that. Because he's tired, sure, and she's tired too, and that's the easy answer.

Bailey doesn't say anything, and for a minute he wonders if she's waiting for him to speak. But she just frowns for a moment, barely a moment, before setting the cards down, tapping the edges into neatness. She stands, and looks down at him. It's a considering look, but then she shifts her weight nervously and looks away, off to the side. "I've got an idea." Her eyes flick toward him again, then away. "I don't know what you're going to think about this idea."

And that's...not very promising, really. But now he wants to hear it. "Okay, try me."

"Well, no, I mean - I - well. Stand up." And she lifts her hands, gesturing up, up at him, so he does, a little bewildered, but still game.

"All right." And he smiles at her, a little, patient and questioning, giving her time. He just needs to get his balance back, that's all. It's not the company he resents, it's the situation.

She turns to look around the office, and walks over to the space between her desk and Herb's. "Over here. I need you to come over here and close your eyes."

"Bailey..." Warning. This isn't a direction that's looking like a place he wants to go.

Her eyes widen for a moment. "Oh. No! That's - don't worry." She smiles and says, "Listen. I found something before, but I don't think you should know who it belongs to, that's all. So I need you to stand here with your eyes closed so I can get it."

Huh. Okay. Weird, and maybe still not a direction he wants to go, but he can go with this for now, anyway. He stands in front of her and crosses his arms, waiting.

"Close your eyes." He sighs and shuts them, feeling stupid, but if it makes Bailey happy, and it makes the time pass, there's no harm in it.

He jumps when he feels her hand on his arm, and his eyes open.

"Hey! Close your eyes," she says, giving him a little shove, chiding. "I need to turn you around so you don't know which direction is which, okay?"

Oh. Okay. "Yeah, fine. Do what you have to, Bailey."

She leads him around in a circle, turns him once, twice, a half-circle in the other direction, around again. Her hands are a soft, warm pressure at the center of his back, his shoulder. She stills him, then a moment later there's the quiet screech of a drawer behind him. Then another to his side, and then behind him again.

And then she's back, turning him again, guiding him a few steps forward, a few over, another turn. And he's disoriented, but he trusts she's got a good reason, even if the reason is just a mystery, a distraction from the fact that it's Christmas Eve and here they are, trapped far away from their homes and families. With that thought as contrast, he's suddenly grateful to her, and it's such a pang that he takes a moment to open his eyes again when she tells him he can. They're back by the nest of cushions, and wow, he really doesn't know which desks she opened.

He looks at her, and she's meeting his eyes, now. She looks wary and tense, and his attention shifts to her cupped hands, held out in the space between their bodies.

"Huh." Not what he expected. A rolled up baggie full of crumbled weed, a red Bic lighter, and a graceful little wooden pipe - a tiny, slender thing of dark wood. Hers?

It doesn't matter, really. He looks back up at her face, shuttered and still, waiting on his reaction. Bluffing at bravery. He hadn't known Bailey could bluff. He could fire her, right now. Not that she could leave the building, really, but boy is she ever taking a chance. Or maybe not - he doesn't really know where it came from, after all. And she can still claim she's just turning it over, though just barely.

He can feel his own smile, crooked and tired, as he reaches to lift the bag gently out of her hands. The nerves show in her eyes then, just for a moment, before relief replaces it as a fraction of the tension in her shoulders slips away.

How had he not really seen that before? He's always taken her earnestness and drive at face value, but it's obvious to him now that those qualities are bound up in the way she's always wound so tightly, with too much to prove and too little standing in an office dominated by Herb and Les.

It will be nice to see a little more of that tension fall away, he thinks, as he sits back down and starts unrolling the bag.


Andy wakes up stiff the next morning, a little disoriented, and itchy where his face is pressed against the office carpeting.

"Ahem." He opens his eyes to see Les' shoes, inches away. He rolls to his back, Carlson's coat sliding away from his shoulders, and stretches, grinning up at Les' appalled expression. Then he gets it: Les. Of course. It isn't that he's sleeping on the office floor, it's that he's sleeping across the tape marking off the imaginary walls of his private office. Andy sighs and rolls to his feet.

"Sorry, Les."

"Well. I'm sure - you were sleeping, and I'm sure you didn't mean it. And anyway. Well. Good morning. Merry Christmas."

Andy smiles at that, smiles at the room, at Les' off-kilter unflappability.

Les mimes opening a door and settles himself for the day. Andy looks down at Bailey still curled up on the sofa cushions, completely covered in afghan with only her hair visible, breathing quietly, regularly, still asleep.

"Hey. Hey, Les - the roads are open?"

"Hmmm? Yes, of course. I'm here, aren't I?"

"Well, I don't know. You can be pretty determined."

Les preens a little at that, but Andy keeps talking, "How about the airports? Any news about flights?"

"Oh, yes." Les shuffles through the papers on his desk, but the guy just got here, so who knows what he's looking for. "Aha!" He flourishes a paper, then tucks it hurriedly back under a file. "Flights will be resuming at noon."

Yeah, all right - he'll call the airport from his office. And the car service. And his family. "Thanks, Les. Merry Christmas, okay?"

Les nods, attention back on something the teletype machine is spooling out.

Andy leans down to lay a careful hand on the curve of Bailey's shoulder beneath its covering of lumpy brown yarn. She breathes deep, half awake, and he says it again, soft and quiet, leaning in close. "Merry Christmas."

She hums a sleepy acknowledgment and curls tighter into the cushions. Her hair is fanned out across the floor, across Les' wall, and Andy draws a careful finger down the outer edge of the tape, pushing the strands back toward the center of the room so Les won't have a reason to wake her.

He straightens, grabs his duffel, and heads out.

Written for Yuletide 2007.

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