Simplicity revisited

He comes up behind her slowly, lovingly, and leans his chin against her shoulder as his arms find their way around her waist. She's decked out in a nightgown that's all silk and not too much length, and his bare thighs can feel the bottoms of her butt cheeks beneath the dress.

"What are you doing, baby? It's late..."

He shouldn't have asked. He knows what she's doing. She gets like this sometimes in the middle of the night, when she's been thinking too much and working too hard and she's not quite ready to settle in for the night.

He doesn't have that problem, really. He sleeps just fine until she leaves the bed. And he waits a few minutes before going to retrieve her. Every time, because he knows that she likes to think she hasn't woken him.

"Couldn't sleep," she murmurs gently, reaching up a hand until her fingers brush his cheek. "I think I'm hungry."

He blinks into the bright white light of the refrigerator interior, knowing that she's not hungry at all. "You want a piece of fruit or something?"

She shakes her head slowly, painstakingly, as though every movement hurts her a little. "No, too cold. I want something warm."

To any other guy in the world, it would sound like an invitation for hot sex on the kitchen counter, but he knows her well enough to detect the hint of desperation in her voice.

"I've got instant oatmeal in the cupboard."

She hesitates, her fingers frozen on his jaw. "What flavor?"

He fights the urge to sigh, to drag her back to bed and force her to sleep so he can re-enter dreamland. "I think it's one of those variety packs."

She nods slowly. "That'll do." The door to the refrigerator closes quietly, and she turns in his arms to get the full effect of the embrace he's been offering. "Which cupboard?"

"The one on the left," he answers thickly. "I'll grab it." He sidles over and lifts her onto the counter, reaching an arm up to open the door just left of her. He pulls down the remaining oatmeal, and she hands him a bowl.

"Would you?"

"Always," he assures her, filling the bowl with water. There is silence in the dimly lit kitchen as he prepares her food, but he's used to the routine by now. She'll talk when she's ready.

"I'm sorry I woke you," and she means it. She can't control her mind sometimes, when it wanders late at night and she starts to freak herself out for worrying about whether or not she'll be able to "do it again."

"You didn't." It's not true and she doesn't believe him anyway, but it makes him feel better to say it, to reassure her. There are times when he feels like it's all he can do to lie a little.

Silence again, and he knows that she's not going to argue with him tonight. Tonight, it will be easier. Tonight, he won't have to push her.

The microwave beeps, and he removes the warm bowl and hands it to her with a tired smile. She already has a spoon ready.

"Smells good," he remarks. She glances up at him with a small, tentative smile.

"Yeah, it does. Thanks."


She stirs it around for awhile, and he knows she's thinking. He takes the opportunity to grab himself a seat on the opposite counter and hopes she won't be long. He leans his head gingerly against the cupboard and realizes that he could sleep here. Here is nice. Besides, he's okay as long as she's in the room.

She takes one bite before she sets the bowl back down, and he knows that it's the last he'll see of the oatmeal until he has to do the dishes in the morning. Unless guilt gets the best of her and she does the dishes.

"It was long."

He glances up expectantly, and she sighs. "In the studio today, I mean."

He nods. She's building up steam, and he doesn't want to interrupt until she's ready.

"We're recording something new now, something some producers sent."

He cocks his head to the side, interested.

"The's pretty, but..."

The silence is his prompt, and he takes it. "Not yours."

Her blue eyes grow wide, and he bites back the smile that threatens to surface as she finally explodes. "Exactly! And the words were all wrong and the melody isn't mine and I can't make it mine and I don't know what the hell I'm doing here anymore, Alex. I fucking hate singing about love. I feel like I'm stuck in some alternative universe where they expect me to be blonde and pretty and 'Genie' and shit again, and I'm so not ready for that, but I don't want to do another Stripped because I'm not nearly as angry as I used to be and no matter how hard I try to explain it they don't get it because there's no fucking way to tell these people that I don't do image and mold and all I'm looking for is just some kind of..."

"Middle ground?" he interjects expectantly, and she nods.

"Yeah, middle ground. Something not too hard, not too soft, but something that I can feel. Something that I can make other people feel. Something..." She trails off, unable to think of the right word, and he braces himself against the edge of the counter with a knowing smile.

"Something warm."

She glances up in surprise, and her smile blooms slowly. "Something...yeah, something warm."

"Something like oatmeal," he offers amusedly. She allows a small chuckle, and he knows she's going to be fine.

"Oatmeal. Yeah." She looks down at the floor and laughs to herself before meeting his gaze again, doe-eyed and beautiful and every bit his. "It's impossible, isn't it?"

"Oatmeal?" he clarifies with a grin. "Nah, it's easy. You just pour a bunch of water on it and stick it in the microwave. I could make more, ya know..."

"Asshole," she laughs, reaching out to smack him. "You know that's not what I mean."

"Yeah, I know."

She clears her throat softly, gently, tentatively. "I don't know...I guess...I like it, I mean, and...and I want to sing simple, because I have more of an appreciation for simple, and I'm sick of all of this pre-packaged bullshit about sex and drugs and rock 'n roll. I want to change the face of things again."

"You will," he assures her, and he's never been more sure of anything in his life because he knows--knows, as he sits on a counter at two o'clock in the morning basking in the dimly-lit glow of domestication--that she changed the face of him.

"I want to tell people about us."

He waits.

"I want to...I want to sing us. Is that stupid?"

He laughs gently and reaches out to caress her cheek. "Not at all. Corny, kinda, but not stupid."

She arches an eyebrow pointedly. "You sing me Billy Joel over the phone and you think you have the right to admonish people for being corny?"

"No admonishments," he assures her with a smile. "I'm kinda touched, actually."

She snorts, but she's smiling. "I want to sing simple. I want to sing kitchens and oatmeal and neon lights from the refrigerator and two o'clock in the morning. What the hell is wrong with me, Alex?"

"You haven't picked up a pencil yet," he replies easily, leaning back against the counter with a smirk.

She frowns at him, and he can see a bit of the familiar fire in her blue eyes. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"Means that you can sing simple," he shrugs. "You can sing anything you want to sing, Chris. You know that. You've just gotta ignore all the noise that those assholes are shoving in front of you and write your simple down."

She stares at him for a moment, studying him, drinking him in, wondering how she got so lucky. Finally, she stares at the ground. "I don't know the right words," she admits quietly.

"Sure you do. Just trust yourself."

*      *      *      *      *

The phone rings her ring on the seat beside him, and he shakes his head in amusement as he snatches the cellular.

"McLean," he answers tersely as soon as he reaches the red light.

"It's me," she sighs breathlessly.

"You're late," he deadpans, unable to keep the smile off of his face.

"So are you," she retorts, and he laughs, because she still knows him.

"Guilty as charged. So what's your excuse?"

"I took your advice," she laughs. "I have a track for you, too."

"You bringin' it home?"

"Nah, I'm going to let it gel here so I don't have the urge to work on it," she admits. "I'll be home soon, actually."

"But you haven't left the studio yet because you wanted me to hear it," he finishes. "Stop stalling and play the song, Chris."

She giggles. "Okay, okay, just a sec. Here you go..."

Don't go changing to try and please me
You've never let me down before
Don't imagine you're too familiar
And I don't see you anymore

Her voice flows over the words like the satin of her nightgown on his skin, and he pulls into the driveway and closes his eyes for a moment, allowing a small smile of satisfaction to cross his face as he realizes that he's happy enough to enjoy such a corny gesture. He's happy enough with her, with him, with them that the song is the sweetest thing he's ever heard.

Damn, she can sing.

Her voice is back in his ear before he can blink, and she's laughing. "Well?"

"That is the most ridiculously beautiful thing I've ever heard."

"It's Hallmark, I know, and I have no idea whether or not it'll end up on the album or anything, but I feel...I feel free now, you know? Less pressured. Like I'm using his words to find my own and all that."

"I'm glad. You're going to feel pretty pressured if you release it, though. Billy's going to be pissed that you upstaged him."

"Hardly. I needed today, though. Nice release."

He smiles, because she's happy and he can hear the absence of exhaustion in her voice and he knows that she's good and that makes him good. He's always amazed at that. Even last night, when she wasn't good and he was worried, he wasn't worried about them. He's sure about them, about the way they are. And they're good, he knows that much. He's beginning to think that they'll always be good.

"If you come home, I'll make sure you get another release," he flirts.

She giggles, and he knows by the excitement in her laughter that it's been a damn good day at the studio. Good enough that there won't be any oatmeal this evening.

He glances in the backseat and grins at the new box of oatmeal that's tucked inside a plastic grocery bag. He doesn't think there will be oatmeal this evening, but he's got some. Just in case.

"I love you," she sighs, and he gets out of the car to prepare for her homecoming.

"I love you too," he replies. "Oatmeal and all."

"Just the way I am, right?"

"Yup. Just the way you are."

Read the prequel, Just The Way You Are