Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/5819011.

Rating:
Mature
Archive Warning:
Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Category:
F/M
Fandom:
Bates Motel (2013)
Relationship:
Norma Bates/Alex Romero
Character:
Alex Romero, Norma Bates
Additional Tags:
Hurt/Comfort, Love, Sex, Kidnapping, Drama
Stats:
Published: 2016-01-25 Words: 7571

Doomed in the End

by

Summary

She never imagined he'd be the one who'd leave her. He never imagined a world in which he could not protect her. Life has a way of upending the best laid plans. We're all doomed in the end, right? [For Grave. Set three days after 3x10. Alternating POVs. Rated M for sexual content.]

Sometimes I thought about the early days. When Norman was fresh and new in the world, a little bird without feathers. I'd held him to my bare skin so often that he forever smelled of the lavender oil I pressed behind my ears and on my pulse points. Dylan would wander into the nursery now and again—still a baby himself, really, too young to be touched by the disappointments and the bitterness—and bury his nose in his brother's mop of soft brown hair.

"The baby's a garden," he cooed.

I found it charming, and accurate: Norman was the flower in all of our heads, the one bright spot in the rapidly descending dark. I'd gathered Dylan up to me that day, and he tucked his dusty blond head against my rib cage, and for a few hours we all slept, the three of us. A mother and her two children, safe from the world and safer still in their bed.

They were my great loves. My sunny little toddler and the lavender-scented flower in our garden.

But it was different with Norman. He was tender and sweet and free of the sins of Dylan's father. That was the crux of it, I thought, the great divide between Dylan and myself: he was forced upon me, while Norman was all mine. My choice, my creation, my little wish made manifest in a squalling, squirming bundle of plump skin and baby-smiles.

No matter what life threw at me, I'd always have him. I'd always been so sure of it. It was inescapable, unavoidable, an intractable pact I'd made with the universe when I gave up my body to carry that one precious little human into consciousness.

Chaos, yes. Pain and hurt and the grand shit-show of life: yes, yes, yes. I could deal with it all, swallow every horrible spoonful of it. But Norman was mine. My flesh and blood and a piece of my very soul, and there was endless safety in that.

Until, suddenly, there wasn't.

Until a string of pearls and a box in the ground and a flash drive and Bob Paris.


 

Despite the ever-present gloom and torrential downpour he wore nothing but jeans and a black t-shirt. Face and arms brown from three days under the nigh non-existent sun. Sweat-drenched, and visibly tired, though it wasn't yet 10 a.m., he stood on my porch without a word. Swiped the back of his hand across his forehead; glanced behind me into the house; frowned.

"You still haven't found him?" I asked. My voice seemed to startle him, and I watched him blink multiple times, brows knitting together like he hadn't understood me. But then he shook his head, leaned back against the porch railing with a sigh.

"No trace of him."

"It's been three days."

"That's how these things go, Norma."

"Great," I said. I crossed my arms in front of me—half out of annoyance, and half because no matter how cute or woolly my sweater, the Oregon weather had yet to reach a reasonable temperature—and sighed. "Bob Paris can murder two girls, make everyone's life miserable, not to mention—" I lowered my voice to a hiss of a whisper, and leaned in towards Alex so he could hear me, "—he has all the evidence and motive he needs to hurt my son and I, thanks to you—"

"Norma—"

"—And he just gets to waltz off into the sunset?"

"Listen to me, alright? He's not waltzing off anywhere. If he were out there, the search party would've found him by now. But he's not—"

I'd waited for three days while Alex, a slew of deputies and several civilian volunteers roamed the woods and docks and shore searching for any trace of Bob Paris. They'd turned up something of a clue in some grainy CCTV footage, but that had offered nothing more than a glimpse of his face as he purchased some rope and some fishing lures.

That's what I couldn't stand. That smug, slimy, weaselly little bastard was off somewhere warm and sunny, drinking rum out of a coconut and torturing innocent little fish with lures he probably had personally blessed by Satan. Meanwhile, I had to scrounge and scramble and hustle just to keep a roof over our heads and my kids safe. But 'safe' was an increasingly abstract concept these days.

"God, Alex, what am I supposed to do? Just wait around for him to ruin all of our lives?"

"He's not going to ruin anyone's life, Norma."

"I wish they'd just find him. Arrest him. And then he could turn on Norman and I and it would just be done, you know? We wouldn't have to wait and wonder," I said. I felt tears burn the back of my eyes, but I tried to blink them away. There'd been too many tears over too many nights, and I was too damned tired. Maybe even as tired as Alex looked, with the shadows under his eyes and his face fallen into something between resignation and sympathy.

"Norma, please. You're not listening to me."

"You're so tan."

"What?"

"It's not even sunny and you're already tan. I can never tan," I said. I sniffled as quietly and unobtrusively as I could, rubbed at my nose idly. Determined not to cry. To not give in to this. Whatever this was. "I could be running naked through Cancun and I'd just burn. But you walk outside for five minutes in a rainstorm, and every soccer mom within a hundred mile radius wants to know where you get your spray tan."

"Norma," he said, and I could tell he was trying to keep his patience. Something in the barely restrained sigh in his voice, the way his hands flexed at his sides. He looked … not nervous, exactly, (I couldn't recall a time when I'd ever seen Alex Romero look nervous) but wary. Or maybe just tired. He'd been traipsing around the forest for three days, after all. Probably just wanted to get home to bed, and here I was rambling on—

"Wait, what about Mexico?" I asked.

"Mexico?"

"Mhm." An idea was coming to me, bit and pieces, just a scrap of a whim. "Cancun. Or not Cancun; too many tourists. But I'm sure there's lots of beautiful cities, and I could learn Spanish. Even though I was never very good at remembering—"

"Norma, what are you talking about?"

"Mexico," I said again, annoyed with his inability to follow my train of thought. "We could go there. Norman and I, I mean."

"That's not necessary."

"Dylan too. He won't want to leave Emma, I know, but I'm sure if I explained the situation he'd be more than willing. Or I could just buy him a ticket. He'd go if I bought him a ticket, right? Even if I didn't ask first."

"Norma, stop."

"Everybody goes to Mexico when they're in trouble, right? No extradition? I don't know, something like that. Hell," I said, shifting my weight from foot to foot, "I bet Bob's there right now. Probably opening a seedy nightclub and terrorizing the local hookers. God knows he did enough of that here."

"You watch too many movies." The anger threaded through each word startled me. I didn't try to say anything. Just watched him shake his head, huff out a sigh. Push off the railing and move in close to me. Close enough that I backed up a step. "It doesn't work like that. At all. The Mexican government extradites all the damned time. Christ," he said, a bite to it. Harsh and exhausted and somehow unexpected. "Cops laugh whenever a fugitive flees to Mexico. We laugh, Norma."

"I was just—"

"Because it's asinine. It's predictable. They see that shit on some old movie and think they've found their golden ticket. And then less than a month later the Mexican police or the FBI have them in handcuffs and we all go out for a beer because it's the easiest arrest we've ever made."

I didn't respond. Neither did he; just narrowed his eyes, jaw set hard. We stared at one another for what felt like an hour but was probably only a minute or two. Gridlock.

But then I heard a soft, high-pitched hiccup escape long before I felt it; and then the burning was back, like blistering behind the eyes. Too many tears to stop. Or maybe I was just too tired of trying to stop them. Or maybe there was just nothing else left to do.

Whatever it was, I watched his face fall when the first sob hit, and he tried to reach for me but I shied away, shoulders shaking.

"I'm not an idiot, Alex," I said, though I could barely force the words out. My throat was uncomfortably tight, inflamed and sore, voice gritty.

"I know that."

"I mean it. I'm not. I just don't know what else to do."

"You don't need to do anything," he said gently. And this time, when he reached for me again, I let him pull me into his chest and wrap his arms around my waist. "That's what I'm trying to tell you."

"How can you say that? You know what Bob can do to us. What he will do to us."

"Bob's dead."

It didn't immediately register. One second my head was tucked under his chin and he stroked my back, trying to soothe me, and the next my tears were frozen in place and I stared up at him, frowning, trying to figure out if was serious.

When I didn't respond, he continued. "Bob can't hurt you. Not ever."

"You found his body?"

He shook his head.

"Nobody will find his body."

"Then how do you know…?"

"I killed him." But he frowned at my silence. Confused. Wounded, maybe. Or just convinced I was in some sort of shock and didn't fully understand him. "For you."

Silence.

"So he couldn't hurt you."

Silence.

"Or Norman."

Silence.

"Norma," he said, finally, "I need you to say something. I need to know you understand—"

The sound of the slap ricocheted out into the open air. Sharp, startling. He certainly looked stunned. But I slapped him again before he could so much as open his mouth. Once, twice, three times. And when it occurred to him to reach for my wrists, to pull me to him so I couldn't hit him anymore, I was already screaming at him, swearing, kicking. Squirming in his grasp until he slung an arm around my waist and pushed me up against the front door.

"What the Hell is wrong with you?" he asked. Bewildered, agitated. The more I squirmed the tighter his grip, just to the point of pain. I'd have bruises tomorrow.

"I can't believe you!"

"Are you insane?"

"Three days! Three days you let me sit here and watch you run around with your ridiculous search party!"

"I didn't have a choice, Norma. There's still an open investigation and I had to make sure—"

"You let me sit here and wonder and worry and agonize over every siren or phone call, waiting for him to be found, waiting for the police to show up and handcuff Norman and … and … just get out!"

"Norma, calm down."

"Don't you tell me to calm down!" I wriggled a hand free, and shoved him hard. But I didn't slap him. Just leaned in close, our faces a mere inch apart. "Get out," I said again. "Leave! I don't want you here. I can't believe you'd let me spend three days crying my eyes out, terrified for my son."

"Are you serious?" Eyes wide, face still but angry, tone incredulous. He let go of my other wrist but didn't back up, no matter how much I shoved him.

"Do I not look serious?"

"I did what I had to do, Norma. For you, and for Norman. And for myself. Much as you might like to believe otherwise, I can't just do whatever the Hell I feel like whenever the mood strikes. I'm surrounded by deputies, and the DEA, and a whole Hell of a lot of people that would like to take this entire town down. I had to cover my ass in order to save yours. I'm sorry that didn't fall in line with your preferred schedule."

"Just get out!"

"Fine." I watched him stomp down the stairs, shoulders rigid, and for one brief second I was struck by the absurdity of all this. Of this town and my anger and the Big Daddy of White Pine Bay offing some little bastard just to keep me safe. I wanted to laugh it all off. Or maybe run to him, and hug him, tell him I was sorry. Kiss his cheek and his forehead and his well-shaped mouth and thank him again and again.

Instead, I turned and stepped inside my house, and shouted at his back:

"Oh, and thanks for killing a man, Sheriff!"

"Keep your goddamned voice down!"

I slammed the door.


 

Norma Bates was going to be the death of me.

At least she would be if these three shitheels didn't finish the job first.

I hadn't seen them coming. A rarity in my world, and one I could only blame myself for, although Norma and her aggravating antics certainly had a role to play. Leave it to that woman to distract me enough that I failed to notice the telltale sound of rushed footsteps behind me. Only after the bag slipped over my head and someone managed to pull my arms behind my back and lock them into place with a zip tie was I able to retrace everything that led up to that moment and see all that I had missed.

Hindsight's a bitch.

To add insult to injury, they'd caught me less than ten feet from my front door. Which meant they knew who I was (not just my position as sheriff, but my name, my address, and enough details of my daily life to estimate when I'd be home, if I'd be alone, and how best to gain the upper hand), and they had a plan.

Plans seldom worked out for the individual in restraints. Less so when said individual was a cop. Took a lot of balls to launch an assault on law enforcement. A hallmark of the professional, in a way. Amateurs almost never attempted it, and when they did it was never successful.

So, no point in fighting. Not yet. You had to know how to pick your battles in this business. When and how you landed a decent punch decided how long and how well you lived. Sometimes you had to suck it up and take a dive in the first round to win the match.

"Don't worry, Sheriff." A low whisper. Soft, calm, definitely male. "Our employer just wants to have a brief chat."

My back hit the floor of a van; I heard the doors slam shut immediately after. Hands bound too tightly, no way to wriggle free. They'd covered my face with the bag before attempting to touch me, thus circumventing any direct attack I might make. But nothing else. No threats, no scuffle, no violence. They'd relied on sheer man power—three to one, element of surprise, blinded, arms behind my back before I could react—to take me down without a fight. And now, not a sound. No chatter, no radio, just the quiet of the road: gravel beneath the tires and the occasional passing car.

This wasn't good.


 

"What do you mean he's missing?"

"We don't have many details at this time, ma'am. Has Sheriff Romero contacted you within the past seventy-two hours?"

"No, I haven't heard from him since Monday." Four days. Four days since he'd stood on my porch and told me he'd killed Bob Paris. For me. And then I'd slapped him and screamed at him and slammed the door in his face.

"I see. Well, please let us know if you hear from him."

"Wait, that's it?"

"Ma'am?"

"Don't you 'ma'am' me, Deputy. Sheriff Romero is missing, and you're just calling to see if he's sent me a postcard?"

"As I said, ma'am, we lost all trace of—"

"How do you lose a sheriff?"

"We believe he's been abducted."

"Abducted?" I asked. "As in kidnapped?"

"That's correct."

I had a hard time imagining anyone getting the jump on Alex. He always seemed so calm, so self-possessed. Like he owned very room he walked into. Hell, he probably thought he did. Something of a God complex on that one. Not to mention a barrel full of control issues. If I had to deal with one more of his uptight lectures I'd—

"Well, do you have any leads, for chrissake?"

"I'm afraid I can't share that information, Mrs. Bates."

"Then what good are you?" I hung up as dramatically as I could. Which was not very dramatic at all, because smart phones ruined everything. No way to slam a phone down to indicate your annoyance. Technology was ruining my ability to inform people of how incredibly obnoxious I found them, and it was starting to really piss me off.

But there were more important matters at hand.

"Mom?" Dylan asked. I turned to find him hovering in the kitchen doorway, watching me carefully, a wary half-smile painted across his face. "Everything okay?"

"Not really, honey."

"Your hands are shaking," he said, nodding to the hand still holding the phone.

He was right. My hands trembled uncontrollably. My stomach felt like it might burst, or maybe implode, or some horrific combination of the two. Everything tied up into edgy, nervous knots. And a pain in my chest I couldn't really place. Just an amorphous ache that popped up within the last two minutes.

"It's okay. It's just—"

"It's just what?"

"Alex is missing."

"Sheriff Romero is missing?"

"Yeah. Well," I said as I steadied myself with a palm on the counter—I suddenly felt dizzy. Probably just needed to eat something—and offered what I hoped was a calm, reassuring smile, "technically the deputy said 'kidnapped.'"

"Jesus Christ. Nobody has any idea where he is?"

"I don't know. They wouldn't give me any details."

Dylan stared at me for a long moment, his expression unreadable. But then he slowly walked across the room towards me, and slid his arm around my shoulders, hugging me to him.

"I'm sure he'll be fine, Norma. I mean, he's the last person on the planet I'd want to fuck with, you know?"

"Yeah, I know."

"Romero can take care of himself."

And yet I would've given anything for him to walk through the door and deliver one of his uptight lectures.


 

Difficult to keep track of the days. Three, maybe four. No windows meant no daylight to monitor, and though I tried to chart the comings and goings of my captors, they didn't seem to have a set schedule.

But it didn't matter now.

Now I just tasted blood. From my teeth or my gums or maybe the back of my throat. Hell, maybe my lungs. I couldn't tell anymore, hadn't been able to for a while. Tried to spit it out but couldn't make my mouth work. Couldn't even roll onto my side, a sharp, cracking pain in my ribs whenever I moved. Easier to stay on my back, or at least it made it easier to breathe.

"You've done a lot of damage to this town, Sheriff." Some faceless shit stalking around me, clucking his tongue. I couldn't make out their faces anymore. Too much blood and too much swelling for me to see properly, so I gave them numbers. This was number three. Six in total, although eventually they all blended together in my mind.

Who they were didn't matter. They were merely tools. Who they worked for … well, that was another matter entirely.

"It's been my pleasure," I said. I was impressed I could still speak. Too many hits to the throat and jaw, could hear it in my voice, each word raw, formed with struggle.

"You dismantled our economy. You had to know people wouldn't like it."

"Economy's fine. Just had breakfast at the diner last week. Plenty of businesses thriving."

"Still a clever prick, huh?"

I heard the scrape of his boot on the concrete seconds before he landed a kick to my stomach, but it didn't have the impact I imagined him striving for. There'd been too many identical assaults over too many nights, and so I winced and groaned and coughed out the last bit of air with the force of it, but that was all.

"Jesus," he said. "We worked you over pretty hard. You've lasted longer than most."

"Thank my father for that."

"Oh, we would. But you've either killed or locked up half the front runners in our business, Sheriff. Your own father included. And then you just had to go and call in the DEA."

"You people amaze me," I said, groaning as I tried to push myself up, adjust my position. But I didn't have the energy for it, strength lost hours ago, and I gave up. Settled for a shuddering, aching deep breath. "You run drugs and guns and girls, kill anyone who gets in the way, pay off cops and threaten officials, and then have the audacity to be surprised when you're treated like criminals."

"You tolerated us fine for quite some time."

"People change."

"Obviously."

A fist or a boot or maybe a goddamned crowbar across the blade of my cheekbone. I couldn't tell what it was. Hell, could barely feel the pain. Just felt my head snap to the side, what little vision I had left swimming and blurring into a shapeless gray mass.

"Honestly? This isn't even personal. A lot of people I'd much rather kill."

Another hit.

"Your interference was annoying, certainly, but I've never been a fan of killing cops."

Another.

"But everybody works for somebody, you know? I gotta put meat on the table and pay for my kids' education. Sending 'em to a real nice private school this year."

And another.

"Boss says this is what I gotta do, man. You understand."

When I was a kid I never thought I'd make it to thirty. The old man would probably get drunk one night, fall asleep with a lit cigarette, burn the house down with all of us in it. Or maybe his gun would "accidentally" go off, and later the papers would run a small story about the Romero family and their unfortunate run with murder-suicide.

But then I hit thirty, and though my mother was dead, I'd somehow made it through. A deputy rapidly rising through the ranks. My coworkers called me "heavy-handed" because I never missed the opportunity to beat the ever living shit out of drug dealers or rapists or wife-beaters. Was tired of their shit and their reek and their poison in my town.

So, I thought, there's no way in Hell I'll make it to forty. Some piece of shit will take exception to a cop ruining his business or protecting his wife and kids, and he'll find my house and wait for me to come home and then: game over.

But I made it to forty. And then I just stopped giving a fuck. Stopped waiting for the sword to drop.

There had been a certain fearlessness in assuming death was near; with nothing to lose nothing really mattered, and thus you put your head down and went about your day and dealt with whatever you needed to deal with. Useful.

Fearlessness eventually evolved into freedom. And it was with freedom and a careful gaze and swift justice that I ruled White Pine Bay.

Until Norma Bates and her beauty and her desperation, and the way she looked at me: like she needed me, like she thought I could do anything. And how being needed was utterly intoxicating, and how readily I found myself believing I would do anything. For her.

"Hey, man. You still awake?" A hand on my shoulder, roughly shaking me. But I couldn't see, and didn't try to respond.

I didn't mind dying, that was the truth of it. I'd never courted it; I possessed every biological urge to survive, and the skill to generally do so. And so I didn't fear it, but I regretted it.

I kept thinking about how I wanted—no, needed—to see Norma again. She needed to know where my guns were, the suitcase of cash I kept under the floorboards, how to get into my safe.

"Jesus Christ, Sheriff. Most of the guys I deal with are dead by now."

I should've taught her to shoot. I'd never gotten around to it, and on the rare occasion it occurred to me I was too concerned she'd get drunk one night and do something stupid like off a construction worker or council member.

"This'll be a lot easier if you just relax and let it happen."

There we ways in and out of this town, roads no one knew about. Not even the cops. Should've taken her down there. Should've given her a gun. And money, and my jacket, and the keys to my house and my car and—

"Just let go, man. Fighting it only makes it worse."

I shouldn't have turned the drive over to the DEA. I should've killed Bob weeks earlier. I should've called in a goddamn construction company and paid them to fill the pit in her driveway. I should've reinforced all the locks on her doors and had the Mercedes repaired and listed her as my beneficiary.

"It'll be over soon, brother."

I should've protected her more.

But Dylan would protect her now. I knew he would. He had to.

I needed him to.

Because we were all doomed in the end.


 

When I was a little girl my mother told me that life was lived in the spare moments between our days. That stretch of hours in a hospital waiting room. The five minutes you stand outside of a funeral parlor, trying to decide if you're ready to go in.

I hadn't agreed.

"But Momma," I'd said, "life is supposed to be about happiness and the people you love."

"You think that now, baby girl." She'd coughed out a laugh, the ever-present cigarette burning down to a column of ash between her fingers. "But you'll see. People talk about the happy times and the smiles, but it's all bullshit. Life is holding someone's hair when they're vomiting their gin and tonic into a public toilet. It's cleaning up their shit when cancer rots their bowels and they're too weak and broken to do it themselves."

"But Momma—"

"You listen to me, girl. You pay real close attention: in the end, nobody cares if you went to their party. But everybody cares when you tell them they look pretty the day their husband leaves them."

And for the first time in what was probably my entire life she looked at me, eyes blue and clear but watering, and smiled a sad, helpless sort of smile, like this was the one and only gift she'd found herself capable of bestowing upon me.

"Make the hard choices, Norma Louise. Do the things nobody else does. Pay attention to the time between your days."


 

"How'd you find him?"

"Anonymous tip lead us to an abandoned slaughterhouse. They kept him locked in one of the killing floors."

"Any leads on who did this?"

"A few. But we're leaning towards a group of distributors with connections to Nick Ford."

"Jesus," I said, and I heard my voice wavering, throat thick with tears I'd been fighting back all morning, and I tried my damnedest to shove them back down. I didn't know Deputy Walker from Adam, and considering I'd hung up on him the day previous I didn't feel we had the sort of lasting relationship that entailed sobbing hysterically onto his shirt. "He looks so … broken."

Alex, sedated and bandaged and hooked to endless machines and monitors, slept silently in the room beyond. Had it not been for the olive skin, lush black hair and the deputy's constant assurances that this was, in fact, Sheriff Romero, I never would've recognized him.

"If we'd arrived any later he'd be dead." Deputy Walker cleared his throat, visibly shaken. For a long moment he looked like he wanted to say something he shouldn't, like there were details he wanted to share, or a name he wanted to let slip. But instead, he simply said, "Four days is a long time."

"Can I go in and sit with him?" I asked.

"Yeah, go ahead. Doctor said he'd be out for quite a while, though."

"That's fine."

I waited for Deputy Walker to leave, and then made my way down to the coffee machine in the hallway just past Alex's room. He liked espresso, but as the machine didn't offer any I settled for French Roast. Black, and too strong—it smelled burnt to me—which was exactly how he took all of his coffee. Once I settled on mine (breakfast blend, full of cream and too much sugar) I walked back to his room, and set the cup down on the table beside his bed.

I wanted him to have something warm, and familiar when he woke up. And even if woke up two days later, and the coffee was freezing cold, some nurse could microwave it or get him a new one and he'd know that someone had been here, even for just a few minutes. That he hadn't been alone.

That someone knew how he took his coffee.

"When you wake up I'll make you all the awful coffee you can drink," I whispered. I reached out and took his hand, tried to ignore how much my fingers trembled, and stroked the skin, careful to avoid any cuts or bruises. "And I'll make you eggs and bacon and you can read the paper and roll your eyes at whatever I'm talking about."

I leaned over to press a kiss to his temple; tasted blood and iodine and something inherently sterile that existed only in hospitals; whispered into his hairline.

"But you have to come back to me."


 

I wasn't unaware that I made for a miserable patient.

Not horrible at first, certainly. Two weeks of recovery and pain killers and entirely too much sleep had a way of morphing assholes into angels. But eventually the asshole wakes up (usually around the time the wounds start healing and energy begins to creep back into the blood) and is suddenly restless and bored and telling anyone who will listen that he wants a steak and an espresso and today's local paper.

"Looks like you're leaving us today, Sheriff."

"It's about time."

Jaquelyn, the nurse I'd had every morning since my arrival at St. Bridget's Hospital, always impressed me with her ability to blatantly ignore me. Not even my deputies could pull that off, though I had no doubt there were plenty of mornings in which they were on their knees begging God for the strength to deal with their hard-ass boss.

"Yes, I'm sure you'll be very relieved to go home," she said.

But what she meant was: "Thank Christ. Please don't ever come back. Ever. I will hand you all my cash just to keep you from returning."

"I don't suppose there's any coffee in this godforsaken place, is there?"

"I'll see what I can do."

Translation: "You're a miserable old bastard, and I am beginning to wish I'd slipped you an overdose last week."

"And when's the doctor coming in? I can't leave until he signs my release papers, and I need to go see someone," I said.

"Someone?"

"A woman."

Jaquelyn paused. And then a soft, amused snort as she shook her head.

"Give her my sympathies."


 

"You never came back."

His voice startled me so badly I let out a high-pitched shriek. Spun around, wide-eyes, to find him standing on my steps, face a mixture of amusement and apology. I'd been sweeping the porch, oblivious to his approach, and now clung to the broomstick like it was a sword.

"Jesus, Alex! You could've said something earlier! Announced yourself. Or cleared your throat. Something."

"Sorry."

Cast on his left wrist. Face no longer swollen and raw, but still bruised. Cuts taped together. Bottom lip split, half-healed. But he wore his leather jacket and his stoicism with the same sure, confident stride he always had, and it hurt to look at him. His strength and his bravery contrasting with the plain, physical evidence of his morality. And, in a way, I'd never thought of his as human.

He was Alex Romero, the Big Daddy of White Pine Bay. He got hit and shot and came back for more. The idea that someday he might get knocked and never get back up never registered. Until now.

"You look like Hell."

"You never came back," he said again.

"What?"

"To the hospital." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, stared at me with an evenness I found alarming. Not accusatory, exactly. But curious. And maybe a little hurt. "Walker told me you were there constantly the first two days. Before I woke up."

"Oh. Oh, that. Yeah, you know, I was there for a while."

"He said you barely left. Kept bringing me cups of coffee and leaving them on the table."

"I just thought you might be thirty."

He didn't say anything.

"When you woke up."

"But you left before I woke up."

"Someone had to be here for Norman, and Dylan hasn't left Emma's side. Christ, Alex," I said, a sigh evident in my voice, "I do have things to do that don't revolve around you."

"I understand that." Calm assurances were not the reaction I was expecting. "But I thought you'd come back. When Walker told me you'd been there, I mean. I kept waiting for you to come back, but you never did."

"Well, you could've called and asked me to come."

"But you never called, either."

"Alex, what do you want from me?" I realized I'd been brandishing the broom in front of me the entire conversation, and let it clatter to the ground. Pulled my sweater tight around me, arms folded across my chest. "I'm glad you're up and around. I'm glad you're doing okay." And I was. Of that there could be no doubt. But I wasn't in the mood for yet another Romero inquisition. "I just had things to do."

A long stretch of silence. Both of us in our respective corners, him watching my face with his usual careful, catch-all gaze, and me doing my damnedest to simultaneously make eye contact and avoid look at him.

Impossible, sure, but I'd dealt in impossibilities my whole life.

Finally, he moved up the last few steps until he stood directly in front of me and I could feel the heat of his breath on my cheek. But his nearness made me look down, nervous, and I fiddled with my thumbnail. Not wanting to back up, exactly, but unsure of his intentions.

"I'm glad you're okay," he said. A tentative thumb traced over my chin, and down the length of my neck. "I was worried."

"You were worried? You almost died, Alex, what the Hell were you doing worrying about me?"

"I used to think," he began, but then stopped, looked off into the distance, frowned. "I used to think," he said again, but slowly this time, like he wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to say, "that being a cop was enough. You go through the motions, you do your job, and that's it. You go home. The day's over, you've earned some rest, and that's your identity. That becomes who you are."

When he didn't continue, I chanced a quick peek up at his face. Lost in thought, it seemed, or maybe just guarded.

"Alex." Softly, barely a whisper. "I don't understand what you're telling me."

"But it's not enough. Not at all. It gets you through, it lets you fool yourself into thinking you're alive and doing precisely what you're supposed to be doing, but then something comes along and you realize what a fool you've been the entire time. How stupid and how blind and how—"

"Alex, stop. I don't—"

"I thought I was going to die, Norma," he whispered. And then his palm cupped my cheek and he leaned in without hint or question and pressed his mouth to my temple like it was essential to his survival. "I was sure they were going to kill me, and I was alright with that. Wasn't much else for me to be, really." Each word sent his breath, warm and oddly soothing, gusting against the side of my face; he made no move to back away, and I didn't try to encourage him to do so. "But I couldn't stop thinking about who's take care of you."

"I don't need anyone to take care of me," I snapped, the anger instant and rising, and I tried to push him away he just grabbed my wrists and pulled me tighter against his chest, his mouth buried in my hair as he continued:

"—That's the only moment I was afraid. Wondering who'd protect you if I couldn't."

I stilled when he said it. Frozen, and all too aware of the way my heart was rapidly picking up, beating against my ribs, forcing my breath to wisp out in short, stuttering gasps.

"Because that's who I am. That's who I've been from the day I first saw you, even though I didn't know it at the time, never could have guessed it. The moment you moved into town I became the man that guards your gate, Norma Bates. And that's why I killed Bob. Everything else is just…"

"Just what?"

"Static."

He let go of my wrists, wrapped his arms around me. Anticipating the tears even before I felt them coming. But come they did, wet and hot and salty on my tongue, dripping onto his jacket and my chin, until my body was shaking with them, and his hands were in my hair and he whispered to me, words I couldn't even make out and didn't attempt to, and he gently rocked me and soothed me until, somewhere in the fray, I could choke out a sentence.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"For what?"

"For not coming back."

"It's alright."

"It's not. I know it's not. I just—I just never wanted to see you like that. Not you."

"Shh. Norma, calm down. You're shaking." And he was right, I was. Not just the tears, but a fear I had pushed out every moment of the day since Deputy Walker had called and told me he was missing. Something that I had fought as best I could, distracted myself with chores and errands and stupid romance novels Dylan had lying around (which I found charming and hilarious at the time, but Dylan assured me he had bought them for Emma, and while that's perfectly plausible I refused to believe him), because I could deal with just about anything, but not that.

"I never thought something would happen to you. I mean, I've seen you bloody and bruised after beating somebody up. I've seen you get shot and then get up again the next day like it's no big deal. You always just seemed too you to ever really get hurt. And the idea that someone could just grab you off the street and then I'd never seen you again, I couldn't—"

The words poured out, one after another, thick and muddled in my sobbing. I wasn't sure if he could understand me; he kept making small, soft inarticulate noises meant to comfort, cradling me against him and nodding whenever I spoke, but I couldn't tell how much sense I made.

"I should've gone back. I should've been there every second. But I couldn't see you like that, I couldn't let myself think about how close I came to losing you."

"Norma," he whispered. Just my name. Nothing else. Because, maybe, that was enough. Maybe that was all we needed.

"And I never wanted to admit that I—"

His mouth crashed in on mine before I could finished, swallowed the sentence whole. And I should've pushed him away, and told him what I meant to say. I should've worried about his tender ribs and the bruises on his face. But instead I sighed into him, all the tension and the fear leeching out in that one single, simple kiss, and when his hands found my thighs and he hoisted me up—it must've hurt, I was dimly aware of that, he'd barely been out of the hospital three hours, for chrissake—I wrapped my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips and let him carry me up the stairs.

Slowly, careful of each step, with the occasional hissed breath whenever the combination of movement and my weight caused him pain. But he never stilled, never set me down, never complained, only traced my jaw with his lips and kissed the line of my neck, and by the time we got to my bedroom some shadow of his former energy returned, because he threw me down on the mattress, both primal and playful, and the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile at my trill of delighted, surprised laughter.

Kneeling at the foot of the bed, he managed to shrug off his jacket only to grab my thighs and pull me roughly to the end of the bed. Leaned down to gently kiss my ankles, trace the curve of bone with the tip of his tongue as he slipped the strap of my shoe off my foot. Followed by running his fingers up my legs until he found the band of my stockings, slid them down and off.

It was only when my skin was bare that I felt the roughness of his cheek-he needed to shave, though I certainly wasn't complaining—scuff up the side of my calf and the tender flesh of my inner thigh. For a brief moment his hand ghosted up and over my hip, across my abdomen and, though I thought he'd dip down lower, slide his fingers until my panties and inch them down, instead he pushed himself up onto the bed, forever careful of his weight above me, and went about undoing the buttons on sweater with his teeth.

"God, Alex, I—" My fingers tangled in his hair, and my back arched the second I felt his teeth gently close around a still-covered nipple. Teasing, and sweet, he chuckled against my body; laughed louder still when I swatted his shoulder. But then he as serious, urging me to arch my back again so he could slide the sweater off my shoulders, and inch my camisole up my stomach and chest, kissing each rib as he went, until finally he reached my bra. Didn't bother removing it, just nipped and licked and kissed every inch of flesh he found, pulling the cups down until I was exposed, and vulnerable, but utterly safe with him.

I kissed his jaw while he hovered above me, removed his flannel shirt, and while I thought he'd toss it to the side he merely draped it around me, so that I was both naked and covered—my shoulders warm but breasts bare, skirt slid up around my hips and stockings long gone—and pulled me under him so that he could lean down and kiss me hard, nip my bottom lip so that I whimpered against his mouth.

And before I could think, or respond, he grabbed my hips and rolled me into my belly, one hand snaking up my spine so that he could adjust his shirt, make sure that my shoulders were covered and I was warm enough (a hark back to a previous conversation, I realized, but once upon a time he'd always why I always wore sweaters and I'd mentioned my shoulders forever getting cold; because that is what Alex Romero did: he listened) and though I opened my mouth to say something he startled me with a sharp slap on the ass.

A hand around my throat, not squeezing but holding; claiming. And his chest against my back as he bent down, until his mouth was pressed against my ear and his breath swept over my skin. The room smelled close, like us, like our heat and our musk and our need. And his bit my earlobe enough that it stung, though pleasure outweighed the pain, and he kept his voice at a low, smooth whisper:

"I love you."

"Alex, I—"

"Shh." His free hand slid over my hip, up under my skirt, his fingers under my panties—pausing to tease a moment before he pulled the fabric down. A knee urging my thighs to spread for him. "I love you, Norma Bates," he said again.

I heard the metallic click of his zipper, felt him adjust slightly as he freed himself from his jeans. But his right never left my throat.

"I want you to beg me for it."

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