Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://download.archiveofourown.org/works/7238653.

Rating:
Mature
Archive Warning:
Choose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Category:
F/M
Fandom:
Bates Motel (2013)
Relationship:
Norma Bates/Alex Romero
Character:
Norma Bates, Alex Romero
Additional Tags:
Sex, Love, Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Romance
Stats:
Published: 2016-06-18 Completed: 2016-08-09 Chapters: 2/2 Words: 19989

First Taste of Afterglow

by

Summary

Alex Romero and Norma Bates live out the first promising, precarious, and precious days of their union. [Two-shot. Events span scenes in 4x03 and 4x04. A conglomeration of requests, written for Kristen, Ali, Lenore, and probably a few others i forgot to mention. Rated M for sexual content. Younger viewers beware Part II due to extended scenes of aforementioned sexual content.]

4x03

My father once told me it was the fear that killed. "The freeze," he called it, "that goddamn flinch." It was the ice in the spine that took hold of a man when he stared down the barrel of a rifle; the boxer's urge to back away from an incoming right hook.

"It'll find you when you least expect it. You can damn well count on that." It found him in the Bay of Pigs, eight years before I came into the world. And, later, in unfamiliar New York streets, before my mother steered him towards the green and the quiet and the damp of Oregon.

Now and again, he said, he even felt it when peering through a hunting scope, the few seconds before he pulled the trigger and took a buck or a boar down. "A different sort of fear. Pity, maybe." He was a heavy-handed cop, never afraid to take the first shot. I'd pointed that out, and he nodded, unconcerned. "It's easier with people"—a fact I should've found alarming but would, decades later, come to agree with—"but this? They're incorruptible, animals. Sometimes it feels like a crime against God; killing something purer than man." And then he pulled the trigger.

That, of course, was the lesson.

"You put your head down, boy. You barrel through it." Pull the trigger. Lean in to the blow. Don't lose your footing. Don't let pity overwhelm you and warp your common sense.

But we'd never shared the same sense of fear, my father and I. If his circled above his head-a kettle of vultures comprised of failed invasions, lost native soil, and a murderous guilt hidden behind a deceptive form of pity—mine was a quiet voice that seeped through cracks in walls and the open space beneath doors.

It was a fear that whispered about my mother's smile (distant, faded, dangerous), and a reactionary wariness of vulnerability that drove me into plenty of beds with plenty of women but never much beyond that.

And, now, it was a sense of dread twisting in my gut as I sat at my kitchen table, fresh coffee steaming in a cup in front of me yet left untouched, and stared at the wall clock ticking down the seconds of my bachelorhood.

In less than an hour I'd be a married man. Leave the comfort (and privacy) of my home, move into hers. Into her world, in point of fact, one in which she'd only ever allowed me breech the periphery.

But it wasn't real. The marriage, the shared house, the joint life. Needed to remember that; temporary. Utterly temporary. She'd said so herself a mere two days ago, standing on my porch, offering to sleep with me as if it were an inconvenient but obligatory exchange (the sting of which had yet to fade): "I'm not asking for a real marriage."

I shook my head, took a long swallow of my coffee, tried to push the memory out. It'd brought with it a fresh wave of pain, the instant, white-hot lash of a whip against bare skin that I tried to block out but ultimately failed.

"Christ," I whispered aloud, shook my head again. Trying to clear it, or at least distract myself. "What the Hell were you expecting?"

Not a genuine proposal, no, I wasn't that desperate, not that much of a damned fool. But—what? Vulnerability, maybe? A certain amount of respect or openness or need? Hell, I didn't even want to marry her—didn't want to marry anyone, for God's sake, not again—but initially I'd felt the thrill of her trust in me. That she came to me, to my door, to ask for my help in such a private, personal, tremendous matter meant something. I couldn't articulate what, but I'd felt it, and I'd been seconds away from agreeing when she'd continued on, slaughtering whatever trace of hope had been brewing.

"Not a real marriage."

"Just on paper."

"Come on, I know you're attracted to me. I'll sleep with you."

But then the fear—not mine, but hers—the very next day. On her porch, minutes past the downpour that left her driveway a mess of muddy gravel and the pit beyond a watery deathtrap. I'd asked her, again and again, to tell me if she was afraid. Damn near begged. And she shook me off, and shook her head, and shook away the rain, too, just like she always did. Told me to stop being ridiculous, of course she wasn't afraid of her son, what was I thinking?

I stood on her porch, watched her disappear into her house. Listened to the door click shut. And I heard that goddamn whisper again, like some grinning ghoul standing behind me, offering secrets and threats. The same voice I heard in the days leading up to my mother's death; the one I'd been too young or too fucking stupid to listen to.

Never again.

So, now it was marriage.

To Norma Bates.

In an hour.

"Christ," I whispered again. I drowned the rest of my coffee in a single gulp, and thought about how nice it would've been with a slug or four or twelve of bourbon.


I knelt in front of my bed, suit jacket removed and folded neatly on the mattress so as not to assault it with layers of ancient dust and dirt, and pulled out the small metal lock box I'd stored there years ago.

The tiny key rested next to a St. Christopher medallion I wore under my clothing. I loosened my tie, pulled it out of my shirt and up over my head. Unlocked the box, tilted back the lid.

Any keen burglar would've been disappointed; birth certificate, residency card, passport, expired driver's license, and a rosary wrapped around a bible inscribed with the name Theresa Reyes.

Three weeks before she died, my mother called me at two a.m.

"Alex, you know where the papers are, yes?" The papers meant her various personal effects and records, things she'd stashed away in an drawer in her bedroom.

"Yeah, Mom, I remember. Why?"

"Don't let your father find them," she'd said, after which she promptly hung up.

Tired, and young, and a few beers in at that point, I'd laughed it off; a nightmare or the medication or a glass of brandy clearly spawning paranoia. She'd sleep it off and be fine in the morning, I told myself.

Yet here it was, splayed out in front of me:

The Last Will and Testament of Theresa Reyes, I thought bitterly.

I'd stormed the house hours after her death to find them, too furious with my father to let the grief pour in, rifled through every drawer in her bedroom until I found them. And I'd never allowed him to get a hold of them, though I wasn't sure what she'd been afraid of, but that hadn't stopped him from putting her name on that godforsaken ledger.

I shuffled around in the papers, pushed the bible aside until I found the ring. Smaller than I remembered. Needed to be cleaned. Made me think of her hands on my forehead when I was small, and feverish.

She'd tucked me into bed one night, nearly forty years ago, stared at me thoughtfully while she twisted the band around and around on her finger.

"It'll be yours someday. You can give it to someone special."

I'd nodded, the way kids always did, and promptly forgot about it once it was time for a story and a kiss goodnight.

Someone special never came, not for me. There were those terrible few months with Jasmine, the week-long afterglow fading into misery. And after that nothing but a long string of one-night stands, a useful fuck-and-fly dynamic, and the occasional lasting, but casual, connection.

Never thought I'd get married again. Never had the drive. And this? This wasn't forever. Marrying Norma Bates was throwing oneself in the lion's den with no illusion of getting out alive.

I'd do my time, Norman would get help, and she'd file the divorce papers the very next day. My second marriage ending quickly as the first. Something funny in that, I thought, though I couldn't particularly pinpoint it.

But I turned the ring over and over in my hand; I thought of my mother, and the wistful way she'd whispered, "someone special," and how all throughout my twenties, even when her days were spent in the solarium of the nearest psychiatric ward, she'd begged me for "a daughter to love, and grandchildren, too," and how I'd never given her either.

"Well," I said, staring at the ring, "she's definitely special."


I was nearly fifteen minutes late by the time I pulled out of my driveway and hit the main road.

Norma would be pissed.

I glanced at my gas tank; full. I'd tell her I nearly ran out, had to stop at a station. Nothing too conspicuous, and certainly nothing as direct as, "I spent an hour this morning in a fit of anxiety and painful rumination over our impending fake marriage. But you look nice. Did you sleep well?"

But I was keenly aware of the ring in my pocket, seemingly heavy, yet it weighed nothing at all. Kept telling myself, over and over, that this was the right thing.

She was special. God help me, but she was. And that, maybe, was all I had to offer my mother's memory and all the things she'd wanted for me.


"Sorry I'm late, I had to stop for gas."

"No big deal. It's not like we're doing anything important here."

She had a way about her—an arch of the brow, an edge to her tone, forever finding the one thing to say that would grate—that immediately set my jaw hard, teeth clenched. Made all the worse by her beauty; she was stunning, and today even more so, though her suit was simple and her makeup sparing.

Stunning, and aggravating.

I slid onto the bench next to her, managed to keep my mouth shut. This needed to look real, after all, and the last thing conducive to about-to-be-newly-wedded-bliss was an hour long bicker session in the middle of City Hall.

Across from us a young couple sat, nigh entwined, whispering about whatever it was youth and love birthed into the world. Norma watched them too, and for a long moment we sat, quiet, lost in what I felt was the mutual awareness of all that we were not and all that we never had.

And maybe that was what drew me to her, no matter how much I tried to resist. Our pasts separate, and unique, but rocky and painful and teeming with the ghosts that haunted our nights. Young love had never existed in our worlds, not really, because we had never been young.

Or, perhaps, that was only me. Emerged from the womb with my arms crossed, my father had said. So, maybe it was all bullshit. Maybe I was too old for the world the moment I was born, stripped of the right to a childhood or the flush ripeness of young adulthood.

But Norma … Norma was something else. A child and a woman and something flighty, something magical and mercurial and dangerous to my sanity, an intoxicating blend of hope and need and scars she wanted to keep hidden but that I wanted to kiss.

I glanced away from the couple, moved in towards her slightly. Took in her profile, the delicate features, the startling blue of her eyes, and tried to keep myself focused by remembering how goddamned irritating I'd found her less than 90 seconds ago.

"Can you lean into me a little? Like maybe we've made physical contact before this morning?"

It took a moment to realize she was nestling herself into my side. Only when I felt her hair brush across my jaw did I glance down, vaguely startled to have her quiet so close to me. Head on my shoulder, chest pressed against my side, there was an uncomfortable level of familiarity; I'd only expected her to angle her body towards me.

I tried to keep the frown off my face. It felt intentional, how far she took my simple request, like a jab in the ribs, like she wanted to make everything as awkward and difficult as possible. And I held my breath, because somewhere underneath I was afraid I'd run my fingers through her hair and breathe in her perfume and her skin and forget the absolutely essential piece of knowledge I held to like an anchor: this wasn't real.

I clung to that. Wanted to carve it into my ribs and tattoo it on my chest and repeat it like a sacred mantra over and over and over.

It felt real, that was the thing. She leaned against me, and her breath was soft but slightly too fast, the telltale sign of her anxiety, and she smelled like all the summers of the youth I never had, and I wanted to kiss her forehead and whisper reassurances and promise her everything would be fine. That I would fix everything, whatever the Hell that meant, and so she need never be afraid of anything again.

Dangerous, that urge. Dangerous to get too comfortable with her touch, to let that damned drive to protect and provide seep in.

"This is weird," she said. Shattered whatever tender, wistful train of thought I'd been perilously close to allowing in.

I shut my eyes, shook my head. Could feel a headache brewing, a dull throb at the temples that only she inspired. But I merely wrapped an arm around her, pressed my cheek to her forehead so that she could hear me above the din around us.

"I'm sorry last night was so hard. You're doing the right thing for him."

"I hope so."

Her voice was soft, laced with all the unspoken terror I'd known must've been swimming beneath the surface but never inquired about. I tightened my grip on her shoulder, glanced down.

Briefly, I wished she would've looked up at me. Let me brush a stray curl from her face, press my mouth to her temple, as if my presence could wipe away her maternal concerns.

"Sheriff Romero? Norma Bates? We're ready for you."

Norma startled beside me, eyes blown wide. Reminded me of a raccoon caught rifling through trash; alarmed, annoyed, and ready to flee at a moment's notice.

"You ready?" I asked, softly.

"As I'll ever be."


"We are gathered here to join this man and this woman in matrimony, which is an honorable estate and is not to be entered into lightly but with great reference and discretion. From this day forward, you will belong entirely to each other. Together in mind, together in heart—"

"You can skip this part," Norma said. I shot her a sideways glance, incredulous-but-not. Nothing was ever particularly unbelievable when it came to Norma Bates. "We know all this."

"She's nervous, Connie," I said, ignoring Norma's pointed stare (and what I thought may have been a swift but soft kick to my ankle), and gestured for Connie, who appeared exhausted and bewildered after a mere three minutes of dealing with us, to continue.

"—Together in heart, together in soul, for all eternity. Alexander, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? Do you promise to love, honor, and protect her in sickness and in health, till death do you part?"

"I do."

"Norma, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? Do you promise to love, honor, and protect him in sickness and health, till death do you part?"

"I do."

"Do you have the rings?"

I nodded and reached into my pocket, only to become aware of Norma staring at me, wide-eyed and alarmed, fondling what I assumed were her empty pockets.

"I, ah, I've got hers, Connie, mine's getting adjusted."

Norma's face softened, a Thank You painted clear as day in her gentle non-smile and a sweet, if not playful, roll of her eyes.

I slid my mother's ring slowly onto her finger, tried to keep my face even, ignore the way my heart rate suddenly kicked up a notch. To shove away how authentic it felt, how real and solid and wanted it felt, even though I'd never wanted to get married—I'd told myself that how many times over the years?—and most importantly, to keep any and all hint of this away from Norma. No need to make her panic. Not now, not when it was so crucial to everything we were striving for.

But her face, the open awe and the tinge of confusion and something almost affectionate beneath it all, got the better of me. I let my thumb ghost over her knuckles, squeezed her hand slightly. And when she looked up at me I smiled, in spite of myself.

"By the authority invested in me by the state of Oregon, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."

I'd thought of kissing her nearly every day for the two years I'd known her. Even that first night, when Shelby and I pulled up to the hotel, and she'd been a beautiful but curious new presence in our town.

I'd thought of kissing her even when I was certain she'd murdered Keith Summers, when she showed up at the dock, dressed like the star of a 40s spy thriller.

And I'd thought of kissing her every goddamn free moment I'd had since then; in the car and in he shower and in the office and in the quiet private moments when the bourbon and the memory of the scent of her skin and the way she bit her bottom lip when nervous drove me to settle in bed and get myself off.

But this wasn't real. False, fabricated, untrue.

It was untrue when I took her face gently in my hand, felt a twist low in the gut when she looked up at me, soft and nervous and trusting, and yielded to the press of my mouth.

I kissed her like I did in every fantasy and desire and daydream; deep and long and gentle and made of everything that I was and everything I wanted to give her and everything the brilliant, terrifying, impossible future had to offer us.

I kissed her, and it wasn't real, and when I pulled away she leaned towards me, into me, before catching herself, startled, turning back to Connie, and none of that was real, either.

So I smiled at Connie, and patted Norma's hand, and shoved down the terrifying, unshakable, electrifying knowledge that I'd never done a single thing more authentic in all my years on this beautiful, bewildering rotating rock.


"Thanks for doing that."

"You're welcome." I placed my hand on her back as we reached the bottom of the stairs, directed her gently to the side. "So, I'll be over after work with my stuff, okay?"

"What stuff?"

"You do realize," I said, leaning in so that she could hear me despite the need to speak quietly, "that I have to move in with you."

"…Yeah, okay. Of course."

"Norma, it has to look real. I'm an elected official. I need people to trust me, okay? I'm not supposed to be cutting legal corners and marrying somebody—"

"Have they met you?"

"Funny," I said, and the look on her face and the warmth flooding my own made it more than clear: not remotely funny at all. "Hey, this was your idea. It wasn't mine. You wanted to do it."

"Yeah, yea—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you gotta commit to it, okay? It's not a joke. What we're doing is illegal, I could easily lose my job. Not to mention I've already got enough people pissed off at me who would love to see me get in trouble for something. Including the DEA. So-"

"The DEA investigates fake marriages?"

I turned away from her, glanced out towards the parking lot, jaw clenched. That goddamn flinch. "Don't make me regret doing this," I said, the implication being I found her difficult banter exhausting and annoying.

A good cover. Much better than acknowledging the sharp sting when I heard "fake."

"Okay, fine, I get it. I get it. Yeah, sure, move in."

"It's gonna be fine." I lowered my voice, softened, the previous tension slowly fading as I took in her face; a little lost lamb, nervous in what she must've felt was the land of wolves. "I'm an easy roommate, I work a lot. And it's not forever."

"Okay," she said, a bit too quickly.

"Alright? See you tonight, okay?"

"Okay."

"Alright." Just beyond my left shoulder the young couple I'd noticed earlier swept out the double doors, lost to their marital bliss. Concerned for the stable appearance of my new union, or so I told myself, I leaned in and pressed a quick, if brusque, goodbye kiss against her mouth. She looked so utterly startled when I pulled away, I asked, "You alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"Alright, I'll see you tonight."

And as I headed toward my SUV, shrugging out of my jacket so I could change into my uniform in the backseat, I realized the day's faithful mantra, This Is Not Real, found itself warring with a new contender: Love, Honor, and Protect.


Seventeen minutes to pack four bags, two extra side-arms, and three bottles of decent bourbon. Jarhead efficiency.

Twelve minutes to lock down the entire house. Windows latched, shades drawn, safe and lock boxes and hidden compartments secured.

Four minutes to stand on my porch, a sort of extended farewell to the privacy I'd maintained for so long, and think about the strange, nigh jarring turns my life had so recently taken.

Twenty-three minutes to drive to Norma's house. Our house.

30 seconds to feel the first prickle of irritation at what felt like the hour it took her to answer the door.

"I'm going to need a key."


Dylan's room was small, stripped bare, little more to recommend it that a single bed and a short chest of drawers, but then I'd never needed much space.

I hauled my bags up to the room immediately, let them fall carelessly to the ground. Nothing particularly fragile.

But the first order of business was shoving the bed from the middle of the room to the corner wall; I liked facing doorways head-on, with a clear line of sign. The old marine instincts, maybe, or the years of patrolling and breaking up domestics and drug deals. You had to see what was coming to survive.

Not that I was hugely concerned about anything here. Hadn't liked the idea of Norma staying alone with Norman, but with him tucked away securely in Pineview, there was a certain sense of ease settling about the bones of the house.

I stashed my clothing in the drawers, not really bothering to fold them, and made it a point to tuck one of the semi-automatics I'd brought beneath a pile of shirts. Guns had a way of coming in handy in this town.

Glanced up at the mirror above the dresser, stared at myself for a long moment. I looked tired, I realized, kind of gray around the eyes. Nothing a decent meal and a good sleep wouldn't take care of. But it made me think about how everything had been gray, before this.

Before Norma, anyway. Back when life was nothing but a stretch of years filled with rote activity where my soul—any sense of soul, whatever the Hell that meant—should've been.

My life had been painted in blues and grays since I was a kid. The wallpaper in my mother's room was the gray of death and my father's favorite shirt was a blue that reminded me, somehow, of decomposition. I found little beauty in it, and when weariness chipped away whatever ideals I'd maintained in my early years on the force, eventually the world and everyone around me faded into static.

Easier to ignore that way, to go through the motions. I paid attention on the job—an absolute requirement, unless you were looking to get knifed in a back alley or lose a shoe-in conviction on the local wife-beater—but beyond that it was mechanical. Nothing but nothingness, really.

She reminded me of spring. That was the truth of it, what caught me off guard. Not a spring I had lived, but the memories of spring I had inherited from my mother's stories—a Cuban spring—made of color and fragrant air and the ocean.

She was made of color and a softness I'd never possess but was nonetheless drawn to, and it made itself known in everything from the sway of her skirts to the way she painted her lips a muted baby pink to the trill of delighted laughter she so often thrilled me with, though she seemed unaware of the effect she had.

I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, snapping me out of my wandering interior monologue, and I flipped it opened.

"Romero."

"Alex? It's Parker."

"Oh, hey, man. What's going on? Everything okay?"

Parker Wescott had grown up in White Pine Bay, just like Bob and I. We'd spent the majority of our collective childhoods roaming the back alleys behind bars to steal a cigarette or laugh at the drunks collecting on the sidewalk after last call. At least until someone's mother came to collect her son and shoo the other two home.

He was a good buddy, Parker. Decent guy, stayed clean, far out of the drug business. We hadn't hung out together in a couple of years, but we were friendly whenever we ran into one another. Would have to make it a point to look him up in the near future, head out to Starling Lake, do some early morning fishing.

"Heard you go married. Never thought I'd see the day."

"Ahh." News made the rounds fast in this town. Connie probably told Marge while at the diner for lunch, and once Marge knew, everyone knew. "Yeah, took me by surprise too."

"Who's the lucky lady?"

"Norma Bates, I don't know if you two—"

"The woman that runs that motel?"

"That's the one."

"Well, shit, brother. I've seen her around. You got lucky."

I grinned, and shouldered the phone to resume unpacking the last of my things. "I definitely did." Norma's beauty was a source of pride, and fascinating, and irritation; half the time you wanted to be angry with me, but five seconds of staring into her face left you weak-kneed and pissed at yourself for being so easily distracted. And it drew people to her, though she remained oblivious, and I wasn't remotely surprised Parker had taken notice.

"So, listen, we're just about ready to set up for dinner service." Parker owned and ran Ilardi, the town's best—and most expensive—restaurant. "But why don't you take the wife out for dinner? Best seat in the house, on me."

"Hell of an offer, Parker, thanks. Very generous. I think we'll take you up on that."

"Sounds good. And congrats again on the vows."

"Thanks, man. Catch you later tonight."

He hung up just as I set my mother's bible—the last of the stuff I'd brought—on top of the dresser, though this was more a matter of sentimentality than any spiritual pull.

I took a good look around the room; simple, clean, small, practical. All that I needed.

Glanced in the mirror again, ran a hand over my jaw—hit more stubble than I preferred, decided to shave before heading down to talk to Norma—and shrugged out of my jacket so I could change into something more appropriate for the occasion.


Halfway down the stairs I could hear Norma in the kitchen, rustling around in what I assumed was the refrigerator, followed by what could only be labeled aggressive chopping.

"You making something?" I asked, and though I was certain I'd made plenty of noise on the way down, almost positive there was no way I'd startle her, she whipped around as if I'd sneaked up beside her and poked her in the ribs.

"No, I'm just getting started." She turned her back to me without another word, and resumed chopping.

I got it. I really did. The whole thing was strained, and strange, and awkward. So I rolled my eyes, more for my own benefit than anyone else's, and continued. "Well, it's gotten around town we got married." Even with her back to me, her grimace was plain as day. "My buddy's offered us the best table at his restaurant. It's on the house."

Nothing. A brief stretch of silence, her body so still it was borderline unnerving to watch. And then back to the chopping.

"C'mon, Norma, might as well go have a free dinner."

"I don't—I'm sorry, I don't think I can. I … I … I've just got a lot on my mind, and I'm so worried about Norman. And I know this is stupid, but this is the third time that I've been married and I'm never going to be good at it. And this isn't even real! So I just can't go out in public and act like I'm happy."

Back to the chopping. Angry; aggressive; an excuse to avoid looking at me.

I move to stand beside her at the counter, though she made no move to turn towards me until I reached out and gentle angled her in my direction.

"That's what alcohol is for." I said it as softly, as gently as I could muster; soothing a frightened bird with a broken wing attempting flight. "Get dressed, okay? We're going to dinner."

Her lower lip trembled slightly when she looked up at me. I felt one of her hands curl over my bicep, the fingers tracing over my skin, closing near my wrist. Clinging, almost. Though when she looked at me I saw the reflection of what, in another life and with another woman, I might've called trust.

The thought warmed me, though I was careful not to let it take root too deeply; this isn't real, I told myself again.

It's not real.

It's not real.

It's not real.

But then I thought I caught the barest flicker of a smile quirk up the corner of her mouth, and I gently squeezed her shoulders and broke away to get ready to go out, because if I didn't I was prone to pulling her into me and burying my nose in her hair and whispering all the forbidden things my better judgment had kept locked away for so long.


"See? Alcohol just makes it all so much easier."

"I can see you're gonna be a great influence."

A bottle and a half in, we'd yet to make it through the entree before the alcohol hit our blood and the cacophony of the restaurant faded into a pleasant, blurry, warm din.

"So," I said, topping off her glass with another round of champagne, "this is your third time being married?"

"Yep."

"Okay, it's my second."

"Oh, my God. Someone married you?" She said it with such a straight face, such gentle bewilderment that I had to swallow my mouthful of champagne quickly, almost gulping it down, to avoid coughing out a wet laugh over the both of us.

"I was in the marines," I continued, though her laughter was reason enough to fall silent so that I could drift to the sound of it, "well, I was stationed in Camp Pendleton, in Southern California."

"Yeah?"

"And I met, ah—she was the sister of one of my buddies. And we hit it off, married two months later, divorced six months after that."

"What happened?"

"Oh, shi—" I cut myself off, keenly aware of my surround, and settled into a shrug. "I realized after about a week that I'd made a terrible mistake, and I just became really impossible to be around. I know, very mature. And then she left me."

"Aw." She smiled through her sympathy, and it struck me that she didn't look very sympathetic at all. More plainly amused.

"What about you?"

And then the smile faded. The laughter and the alcoholic glow of the evening crumbling bit by bit, second by second, as I watched her face grow still with the pain of memories she probably didn't want to share.

"Um… I, uh, I did not have a great home life. My, ah, my high school boyfriend, um, knocked me up and I ran off with him and had Dylan, and it was not good." Carefully, slowly worded, her face beautiful but contorted with what read as misery with each sentence. I already regretted asking; thought of telling her to stop, that she didn't need to go any farther. But then she continued, and some drive I'd long had to know her, really know her, forced me to keep my mouth shut and merely take it all in. "And then about two years into it I met Norman's father, I thought I was in love, we had affair, um, Dylan's dad found out about it and he left me, and, um, I married that guy. Sam. He was an asshole. And then he died."

We stared at one another, unsmiling, unmoving, the weight of all that had been said and, most importantly, unsaid hang between us, the air thick with it.

But then she smiled, a giggle bubbling up from down deep—rising blood alcohol content to the rescue, and seconds later we laughed together, not really sure what the joke was but not caring, either.

"You really cannot make this shit up."

"No, you couldn't," I said, the grin so wide on my face I was almost embarrassed.

Almost. Too lost in the moment to give a shit.

"Well," I said, "here's to two people who really know how to choose. Cheers."

"Cheers."

Glasses clinked, sips swallowed. And then the simple question that was famed for getting its recipient into trouble:

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, we're married."

"Okay, who the Hell do you sleep with?"

I couldn't have been more surprised if she'd up and slapped me, and the evident shock on my face merely made her laugh harder. "What?"

"I mean, you know, you must be sleeping with someone all this time."

"I have people I see."

"Ooh, that's cryptic. Is it anyone I know?"

"Possibly. It's a small town." No way in Hell was I telling her a damn thing. Not a single name. Not even the beginning letter of a name.

"I want names."

The cherubic smile she flashed almost made me want to give in.

Almost.


"You alright?"

"Yeah, s'just sooner or later I'm gonna break my neck on those stupid stairs. Hey, look! More stairs."

Neither of us in any condition to drive, we took a cab home. A miracle we'd made it up the stairs; nearly five minutes of laughter and heavy breathing and helping Norma find the black leather sling-back she'd lost somewhere "around step #38," according to her, we were practically exhausted once we'd hit the front door.

She's already headed for the second floor as I locked up, but she was unsteady on her feet, wobbling as she ranted on about all the "goddamn stairs" (as she'd said in the cab on the way home) she had to navigate.

"Woah, woah." I rushed over to place a steadying hand on her back as she swayed, slung an arm around her waist. "Woah, wait, let me help you up."

"Like an Olympic sobriety test."

On hand holding her elbow, the other hovering tentatively above the curve of her waist, I helped her scale the stairs.

Tried to ignore the urge ripping through every nerve in my body to glide my palm from her waist to the swell of her hip and down over her thigh. Just to feel her, know the intimate shape of her.

Instead, I said, "You alright?"

"Yeah."

It didn't take long to get her into bed, though she refused to undress, and instead settled for kicking her shoes off dramatically, sending each one spiraling through the air to the other side of the room. Wouldn't even let me turn down the quilts for her.

Sprawled on the bed like a happy, drowsy puppy, I caught myself staring at the length of leg revealed beyond the hem of her dress. Prayed she hadn't noticed—and if she had, she made no mention of it—and moved to sit next to her on the mattress, grinning as she giggled about this and that and nothing at all.

"You sure you're okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine! I'm fine, I just had a little too much wine."

Her hand on my shirt. A fluttering of long, slender fingers ghosting along my collar and the buttons running down my chest.

I watched her as she played with the fabric, tracing from the front to my bicep and then back down into her own lap, a warm, welcoming smile spreading lazily across her face.

And that's what this was, I knew that much. A welcome, an invitation, a hint to make the first move. Not drunk, but alluringly intoxicated; that was the game to be played.

One I wanted to join her in, no doubt. But still that memory of my porch: "I know you're attracted to me. I'll sleep with you." The flatness of it, like a slap in the face. Close enough to resignation and disdain that, despite the wonderful evening and way her fingertips tugged at me, I felt a small but sharp stab in my rib cage when I thought of it.

"Alright," I said, not unaware of the serious tone I'd adopted, "well, you go to sleep then." I stood up, tried to ignore the look of visible hurt flicker past her features.

"…Okay…. Fine."

I smiled, half an effort to soften the blow, and half the helpless adoration she drew out of me.

"Goodnight," she said as I turned to leave the room.

"Goodnight, Mrs. Romero."

Pause.

And then:

"I'm keeping my name!"


The alcohol lured me into a deep, dreamless sleep. Woke up shortly before my alarm was set to sound, and was thus afforded a luxurious few minutes to listen to the birds and stretch lazily in bed.

As the fog cleared, I thought of her. Of last night. Of how goddamned badly I'd wanted to accept what she'd tried to offer me. Every nerve in my body had screamed at me, urge me to bend over and kiss her, strip off the lace and the silk of her dress with my teeth, until we fell into the warm, clumsy lovemaking champagne had a tendency to inspire.

But I needed her to want it. To want me. Not merely give herself up to the booze and the heat of the moment.

Not after everything that we'd said, and done. Not when I still felt the urge to flinch whenever she said "fake marriage," or I remembered her attempt to lure me into a marriage of convenience with sex.

And so I'd slept alone, kept company only by the fantasies I had created and maintained since the first moment I'd met her, the ones that left me restless and uncomfortable and unbearably hard at six in the morning so that I had to slip into the shower before work and take care of myself, the heat and the agony of it driving me to bury my head in my bicep and groan as I spilled into the hot water.

Today it was worse. Today I knew, finally, at least in some vague sense, what the indent of her waist would feel like under my palm, and how she smelled like plumeria and rose oil, and how my skin would prickle under the teasing tips of her nails. Which meant I spent twenty minutes in that goddamned shower, shivering and shuddering and biting down on my bottom lip so as not to wake her with any noise, mind racing with old need and new sensory input.

By the time I was finished my legs felt shaky and my lungs ached from the rapid gulping down of one breath after another, but I hadn't woken her and I managed to dry off, get dressed, and even make some coffee without getting too distracted by the daydreams sliding through my mind.

About halfway through my cup coffee, it occurred to me that someone needed to fill in that damned pit. And, as it so happened, I had a buddy working a local construction gig that owed me a favor.

He answered on the third ring.

"Hey, it's Alex."

"Romero, how's it hanging, brother?"

"Just fine, Mark, just fine. You?"

"Can't complain. Ain't nobody listen if I did."

"Yeah, I hear that."

"So what's up?"

"Look, I only have a minute, need to head out to work. But you remember that favor you owe me?"

"Sure, brother, what can I do you for?"

"Friend of mine runs the Bates Motel, has a pit that needs filling in."

"Bates Motel? That joint over on Whitecrest Avenue?"

"That's the one."

"What sorta pit we talking?"

"Pool excavation gone horribly wrong."

"Ah, that shouldn't be too bad. Just need a couple of guys a few decent shovels, and we'll—"

"No," I said, perhaps a bit too quickly. "No, you're gonna want a bulldozer for this one."

"A bulldozer? What sort of pool was this?"

"A badly planned one."

"Right. Yeah, got it. Look, I got some shit to go around here, but I can round up a few fellas and be over in a couple hours. That work?"

"That works. Thanks, Mark."

"Later, Alex."

I finished my coffee in one long swallow, rinsed the mug, set it in the sink. Pocketed my phone, located a pen, and scribbled a note to leave atop the coffee maker for Norma when she eventually wandered down stairs:

Good morning! Enjoy the wedding present.

Got some guys to fill in the pit.

See you tonight.

A.


A stack of paperwork, camel piss coffee, and a sandwich from the worst deli in town.

Work was tedious, and dull, and endlessly boring, and yet the day had never quite sped by so quickly before.


Already dark by the time I pulled into the Bates Motel driveway. I'd swung by my house after work, eager to get a few crucial items, only to be slowed by Rebecca's unexpected arrival. That, more than anything else, was what drove me to load up a duffel bag with the cash I'd long ago hidden beneath my floor. Couldn't have an angry ex-girlfriend digging up details of a murder and subsequent cover up. Especially not when so many people in town would've loved to watch me hang for it.

"Norma?"

Silence. Just the empty house, cold because she'd forgotten to turn the heat on before she'd left, and thus the perfect opportunity to find a place to store my cargo.

Basement seemed as good a place as any. And I'd just found what I thought a secure location when I heard the front door swing open, and the click of her heels on the floor above my head. Then, descending the staircase.

I double checked my hiding spot—make sure the bag was securely zipped, the furnace door locked into place, albeit as quietly as possible—and then rounded the corner to find Norma wide-eyed and on high alert.

"Oh, it's you! I got scared. Norman's the only one who's ever down here."

"Mm." I nodded, put my hands on my hips, waited for her to continue.

"What were you doing?"

"I was looking for somewhere to do my laundry."

"Just give me your laundry, I like doing laundry," she said, so immediately and so insistently that I smiled, remembering our original set-to over my laundry when I'd stayed in room 11. Of course, in retrospect, that encounter held a certain charm I hadn't felt at the time. But my smile must've seemed off to her somehow, because she watched my face intently, eyes narrowed all the while, and finally asked, "is that the truth?"

I didn't like lying to her. Lying came easily to me. It had to, what with the family I'd come from and the job I'd entered and the town that nigh swallowed me whole. So I could do it when I needed to, that was never the question, and even lying to her face was, in the grand scheme of things, a Hell of a lot easier than most of my undertakings. But I didn't like it, and the moment she looks at me with that open, curious, yet slightly suspicious smile, I opted to tell her the truth.

A truth, in all fairness, I knew she wouldn't believe.

"No, actually, I was hiding a bunch of money down here."

"Yeah, that's funny." She smiled at me, amused and content. Made me want to reach out, trace her cheek with my thumb. "Okay, c'mon, I'll make us something to eat."


Roasted chicken, watercress salad, winter fruit compote topped with crushed nuts and cinnamon.

We ate in silence, nothing more than the occasional scrape of silverware on the porcelain dishware.

The house smelled like her perfume, and her skin when she brushed past smelled like soap and clean, cold night air.

And nothing needed to be said.


In bed, in the dark of night, alone, I thought of her face and her thighs and the curve of her breasts under her dress, and I wrapped my hand around myself until there was nothing left, just a panting exhaustion and the shiver of nerves sated but nonetheless missing her caress.

I fell into sleep almost immediately. A first in my life, and a testament to the peace I found in her presence, no matter how much she might toy and tease and wind me up.

Two nights under her roof and I didn't need three shots of bourbon and an hour of shitty pay-per-view porn to drift off.

No nightmares, no dreams.

Just peace.


Apparently up long before I rolled out of bed, I walked downstairs to find breakfast ready, albeit cold, set out on the table with a note:

Alex—

Errands to run, then going to see Norman.

Just pop your plate in the microwave.

You know where the syrup is.

Norma.

She had a penchant for overfeeding me; eggs, bacon and pancakes spilling off an already large plate.

But I didn't mind. I liked it, if I were totally honest. Liked the way she dashed around the house, fussing over small details and throw cushions and laundry, made my breakfast every morning and my dinner every night. Reminded me of another life, an ideal sort of life, had I been a different sort of man.

Strange, how suddenly here, in her house, all the things I'd thought unobtainable for myself—all the things I never dared let myself want—seemed like new and intriguing possibilities.


House still empty when I'd gotten home from work, I stripped out of my uniform, showered, changed into something casual, and went about making dinner for the two of us.

I didn't possess Norma's skill in the kitchen, but I knew my way around a skillet and a butcher's knife well enough. And the steaks I'd picked up from the store on the way home didn't exactly require special treatment; a good, crispy coating a coarse-ground salt, a green salad and a slice of cake (also bought at the store, because while I could pan-fry an excellent New York strip I sure as Hell couldn't bake) made for simplistic luxury.

And, I hoped, a relaxing break from constantly being the one chained to the stove cooking for two boys and a new husband.

I'd just set the steaks out on the counter to bring them up to room temperature when I heard the front door open and shut. Not a slam, and no subsequent calling of my name to see if I was home. Just an eerie silence that unnerved me enough I wandered into the hall to see what was going on.

"Norma?" She didn't respond, but when I rounded the corner I caught a glimpse of her and stilled immediately, skin prickling up at some invisible threat of danger; she pressed herself to the door, shoulders hunched forward, as if she could disappear into herself if she merely tried hard enough. A wounded little bird. "What happened?"

"I went to see Norman."

I moved closer to her, and when she turned to me her eyes were brimming with unshed tears, the waterline red and irritated.

"I'm sorry."

"I begged him for forgiveness. He told me he had no feelings for me. It was like he was a different person. He's never been like this, ever."

"He's an eighteen year old kid, and he's mad right now. Okay? He's gonna get over it. You did the right thing."

The moment I put my hands on her shoulders she folded herself against my chest, arms curled beneath her and head tucked against my shoulder.

"It's so scary. All of it."

I stroked her back and her hair, cradled her to me as gently and yet as securely as I could.

This was what I was built for, I thought. I loathed seeing her upset. A single tear or the first flicker of agonized contortion to cross her face cracked my rib cage until only dust remained, and a hole where my heart used to be. But it was her need that drove me, the way she clawed at me, desperate and raw, like she needed something to anchor herself to the ground. And it was my need to be needed that constantly hurled up together, never stronger than in a crisis, no matter how much I wanted to deny it.

"And not just how he feels about me," she whispered through her tears and hitching breaths. "If he says things, things that he needs to say, then I could lose him forever."

Things he needed to say.

Samuel Bates.

Blair Watson.

I'd always known, hadn't I? Even through the lies and the bluster and the bullshit, the clean polygraph. It was always there, beneath. Waiting for me to push past how desperately I wanted to believe Norman.

No, not Norman.

Norma.

But it didn't matter now. At least not within the realm I was capable of influencing; whatever would be, would be. I'd simply be here to pick up the pieces whenever she needed me.

So I drew her in tighter, stroked her hair, told her what I'd been telling her from the moment it was suggestion Norman visit a hospital:

"You're doing the right thing."

Slowly she calmed. Hitching breaths and tender little hiccups fading to longer, deeper inhales. Shoulders no longer trembling under my hands. And a shift in the air around us, subtle at first, until I felt her lift her head, a gust of warm, moist breath against my neck.

Hot suddenly, the room sweltering. Made me want to fuss with my collar, wipe away the beads of sweat now forming on the back of my neck.

When I dared to look down at her, her eyes met mine, pink little mouth a mere inch from my own. Tempting, and open to my advance, that much as clear. I leaned in before I caught myself, and it took ever ounce of willpower I had not to close the distance between us and kiss her, the force of it making my hands tremble.

But she was so often flighty, so unsure, and no matter how much I tried to steel myself to it, I couldn't bear the thought that she'd change her mind at the last minute, pull away, throw me out. So I held myself still, neither advancing nor withdrawing, and breathed her in. Her skin and her sweat and her perfume and something intangible, something I'd never be able to articulate, something that was simply, intractably her.

Eventually, however, she closed the space between us. My eyes drifted shut two seconds before I felt the timid press of her mouth against mine, and then her fingers pressing into my jaw, urging me closer, and what began as something soft, and sweet, and hesitant, quickly evolved into desperation and want, hands sliding around my neck, her breathing rapidly picking up its tempo.

I pulled away quickly. Too quickly, according to every inch of my body that wasn't my brain, but no matter the tightness in my chest I managed to speak.

"I don't think we should do this yet."

"I want to do this."

My gut went hot, weak, the moment she said it. Veins on fire, like my blood brought with it a non-corrosive acid, something merely to flush the skin and prime the nerves.

"Don't," I whispered. Took a deep breath; it was a struggle to keep my breathing calm, and even. "Don't play with me, okay?" I sounded sure but underneath I wanted to beg her. Because there was no turning back if she pushed me, I knew that. If she continued I'd eventually—in very short order—give in, and lose myself to it. To her.

I'd wanted her so badly, for so long, and the nigh overwhelming urge to sweep her up into my arms and carry her off to bed was at war with the knowledge that if she panicked, if she backed away from me and shut me out the next morning, I'd be devastated.

A devastation I wasn't sure I'd come back from. And as I didn't like losing a sense of my control and autonomy, I found it fucking terrifying.

But still she pressed against me, arms twining around my neck, pulling me closer, her mouth trailing moth-like kisses along my chin and jaw and the corner of my mouth.

"I'm not," she whispered, brushing her bottom lip against my cheek, the sensation making every hair on my body stand up, skin almost painfully sensitive. "I'm not."

I let her turn my face into hers, but hovered my lips just beyond the reach of her kiss. "You sure you want to do this?"

"I'm sure I want to do this right now."

It swept in like a flood; the dam crumbling under the force of dynamite.

I kissed her, or she kissed me, or the order of things was simply lost to the fray. I slid my fingers through her hair and cradled her hair, and she kissed me like I was oxygen and water and every essential, life-giving element available to man, enough pressure and enough frenzy that I felt her teeth scrape my bottom lip, tasted blood, and didn't mind one damn bit.

I bent at the waist, hooked an arm under her knees, hoisted her up with ease. By the time I hit the stairs her arms wrapped smoothly around my shoulders and she buried her face in the crook of my neck.

It didn't take long to make it to her bedroom. In the short distance we'd traveled, frenzy had given way to calm. It lingered on the air between us, a welcome reminder of all that we'd traversed, how far we'd come.

When I set her down she stood before me, eyes never leaving mine, and slowly reached a hand up to cup my face. I watched her as he trailed her thumb over the blade of my cheekbone, down over my head, back up and across my forehead, as if trying to memorize me. Her hand eventually drifted past my mouth, and I touched her wrist, stilled her, kissed the tip of each finger and the base of her palm.

Quiet beyond the windows. Beyond the curtains I'd once been able to see everything threw, had stopped at stared at nearly a year ago when she'd been undressing one night and lust won out over my reason.

I leaned down, snaking an arm around her waist to draw her closer, and her hands instinctively clasped around my neck. I was keenly aware of the way her chest pressed against me, her body heat and her breath on my skin. She moved towards me as if she thought I'd kiss her, but instead I nuzzled my face into her hair, breathing her in, and whispered:

"Anyone can see right through these curtains."

That earned me a high-pitched, delighted, if incredulous laugh, and she landed a solid swat against my bicep. But then she was serious, angling her face towards mine, voice nothing but a breathy hint in the space between us.

"I don't care. Let them see."

Not enough oxygen in the room; everything thick and hot and fragrant with want. Hard to take a deep breath. I felt dizzy, and the brush of her bottom lip against mine gave me a head rush so intense it bordered on uncomfortable. A good excuse to put my hands on her hips, anyway, spin her around so that her back was facing me.

"I want to undress you." I kissed her neck as I said it, voice soft, enjoying the way she shivered with the gust of my breath. I nipped her tender little earlobe, carefully so as to avoid pain, kissed her temple and the side of her jaw, and all the while I was fussing with zipping on the back of her dress.

I parted the teeth one by one, slowly inching it down her spine, following the tab with my lips and teeth and tongue, leaving faint, pink marks in her smooth, pale flesh. I knelt behind her, took the opportunity to slip my hands up and under her dress, over the apple-like curve of her ass. And when she tossed her head back and moaned, I nuzzled my face against the bare small of her back, scuffing my slightly rough face over her skin.

My fingers traveled to the band of her panties, sliding beneath the satin with ease, nothing more than a teasing trail of a touch ghosting past her clit and the heat and the wetness I already felt building.

"Alex, please," she whispered. She hissed in a breath, and I knew she too suffered the lack of oxygen we'd created. "Don't tease."

Shivering when I stood and pushed her down onto the mattress. I tugged the straps of her dress down over her shoulders, didn't remove her bra but scooped out her breasts so that they rested free and unrestrained above the underwire.

She yielded to my weight atop her instantly, thighs spreading wide and on instinct, so that her dress rode up her thighs. Watched me, pupils blow wide but eyes half-lidded, as I slid my fingertips up the inside of her thigh, hooked a thumb over the waist band, slid them down and off one leg so that they dangles carelessly off her left ankle.

She was clawing at my shirt by the time my hips settled into position, her legs adjusting around me. Managed to pull my shirt off in one simple motion, her hand gliding down my chest, as I reached for fly.

"You're so beautiful," I whispered. I bent down to place teasing, plucking kisses all over the roundness of her breasts and her tiny nipples, now stone-hard with need. And then I was free of my jeans and her hands were on my shoulders and my back, the nails digging into flesh, pulling me towards her, and she made the sweetest, most soliciting little mewl when I slid into her. Buried my face in the crook of her neck, groaned.

It was slow, and warm, and gentle, and everything I never thought I'd have until this precise moment. "Christ," I whispered, "I've wanted you for so long. Want this for so long."

She echoed back in her own private language; a series of moans, subtle at first and growing in intensity with each thrust.

My hands were everywhere: her neck and her jaw and the beautiful fertile swell of her hips and the creamy thighs that wrapped around waist when I began to increase my tempo, thrust into her hard.

What I couldn't reach with my hand I worshiped with my mouth, my lips traveling from her to her breasts to the wrist that waded past my face as she moved to grab a fistful of my hair, and for a long while it was just that. Just us, breathing in one another, our sweat mingling, our bodies finding a joint rhythm and moving beyond it into our pace as need evolved into unthinking desperation.

She echoed my ever gasp for air with a moan. Whimpered my name when I gathered her wrists in my hand, held them above her head. Spread her thighs like warm honey when I altered my angle so at to take her harder, deeper.

Moans turned to gasps turned to an inarticulate, beautiful string of vowels I couldn't make out and didn't care to. And when I began to lose my pace, when I felt my body tremble with the impending force of it, I kissed her hard on the mouth and whispered her name over and over again, rolling my hips against hers to better glide her clit against my pelvic bone, and only when I felt her shiver beneath me, felt her body tighten and clench around me as she reached the peak of her orgasm did I let myself tumble over the edge.

My grip on her wrists tightened, the force of each thrust hard enough to rattle the headboard, and when I spilled myself inside her I groaned her name and her beauty and my love in the crook of her neck, and lost myself to each wave of completion until there was nothing left.

Until it was nothing but sweat and flesh and exhaustion and her sweet little mouth pressing a tender kiss against the shell of my ear, and she whispered something that sounded like "Alex, hold me," but I couldn't quite make out, and it didn't matter at all because the moment I rolled off of her and on to my side I slipped my arms around her waist and pulled her into me, cradled against my chest, away from the world and every sadness that would steal her from me, and I pressed my mouth to her forehead and told her she was safe.

Chapter 2

Author's Note: Part Two remains in line with 4x04 until the Winter Festival, with which I've taken my fair share of creative liberties.

Readers under 18 beware heavy sexual content in the last two scenes.

Also, while I had several requests to write Part Two from Norma's POV (and it's a wonderful idea, and I'd love to use alternating POV on another piece!) this two-shot was always planned to utilize Romero's voice through its entirety.  My apologies for any disappointment!

Love to all the beautiful loves who've stuck with me for the year (or soon to be year -- August 18th!) I've been writing for this fandom.

And, finally, it's my birthday on August 10, and the greatest gift I could possibly imagine would be to see more fanfiction!  I know there's so many talented writers who lurk as readers, but this fandom needs all the beautiful writing it can get.  So to all those who read and enjoy and wonder, "Should I try writing something?"

Yes.  Yes, you should.

All my love.

APT.

xxx


 There'd been a time, long before Norma, in which I believed I'd never truly sleep. Sleep was the realm of children, and the happy, and I'd stopped being happy long before I aged out of childhood.

Insomnia had been an ever-present enemy (or ally, depending upon the day) for as long as I could remember. Only when a doctor told me, about eight years into the job, that I needed to start making up for the sleep debt lest I keel over before forty-five did I explore other avenues.

Alcohol, usually. Drunkenness reserved for off days and family memories, I'd learned to drink enough that the world blurred and my bed seemed … not welcome, exactly, but certainly a better option that staying on my feet. And if that failed there was always trash television and long nights spent stretched out on the couch, watching boxing highlights or bad porn.

But it was different now, I thought. The very first thought of the day, in fact, the idea seeping its way into my head through the haze of sleep and dawning awareness of light beginning to creep through the curtains.

I'd fallen asleep with her in my arms the night previous; one moment memorizing every inch of her, her scent and her taste and the way she whimpered softly when I kissed the line of her neck and gently nipped the skin at the hollow of her throat, and the next pulling her to me and burying my nose in the splay of her hair and drifting into a dead, dreamless sleep.

I shifted onto my back, stretched, worked out the kinks in my limbs, though mostly it was just a pleasant exhaustion. The sort of well-earned, bone-deep exhaustion that came from a brilliant fuck, though that word was no longer suitable. Not for Norma Bates, anyway. I'd always been quick to label my various activities as casually and crudely as possible, if for no other reason than nurturing my ability to detach.

But she was something different. I'd known that all along, and though part of me cringed at the hideous cliche, a bigger part of me sank into an easy, happy peace at the knowledge that we hadn't fucked. We had, though I'd never used the phrase before, made love.

Shaking off the last remnants of fogginess, it took a moment to realize she wasn't in bed beside me. Her smell, yes, the warmth of her skin practically etched into my brain, the feel of my arms around her waist locking itself away into my muscle memory. But the woman herself was nowhere to be seen.

I propped myself up on my elbow, glanced around the room. Her side of the bed made up beautifully, corners neat and tight, pillow fluffed. Almost as if I'd wandered in here last night, crawled into her bed and slept alone.

"Norma?"

No answer. I strained to hear any other possible movements in the house, thought I caught some sort of metallic clang from down below—probably the kitchen, I figured—and decided in that very instant to simply let it go.

Yes, I'd wanted to wake up with her in my arms. Of course I had. It'd been damn near a dream since the moment we'd met and she refused to let me into her house without a warrant: I'd wanted to throttle her, kiss her, and hold her to my chest in the quiet dark of my bedroom. And now, finally, I'd gotten what I always wanted.

Or almost, anyway.

"There'll be time for that," I whispered to myself as I threw off the covers. Work in 90 minutes; needed to get up and get moving. "I hope."

I smelled breakfast long before I rounded the corner to find her in front of the stove, apron tied around her waist, hair already curled and lips beautifully, subtly, pink.

"Hi," I said, walking into the kitchen and adjusting the button on my sleeve.

"Hi!" She looked startled to see me, half-spun around, spatula in the air. Her voice just a clip too high, words strung together tightly. "Good morning! I made you breakfast."

"Oh, thanks." I made my way over to her, expecting—or perhaps just hoping—for an affectionate greeting. A kiss or a smile or her head tucked into my shoulder as she nestled against me, but there was none to be had.

She was busy the moment I walked in, I realized, a flutter of movement this way and that, courting any and every excuse not to look at me, move too close to me.

"So," she said, her back to me as she poured coffee. Intentionally ignoring, I thought, my nearness. No matter that I turned to watch her, arms at my sides, waiting. "How about you just sit down and enjoy. Here's some coffee. I gotta do some errands."

I waited until she tried to brush past me towards the stove to reach out, sling an arm around her waist, turning her towards me. Her eyes widened when I pushed her gently against the counter, trapping her between it and my body, and I waited to speak until she finally looked at me, her expression laced with something that almost looked like fear.

"I'm not sorry about what happened."

"Okay …." Her voice was soft, hesitant, her face a mixture of emotions I couldn't quite place, at least in their current jumble. "I'm not either."

It took her a long moment to meet my eyes again. Her gaze strayed from mine to my lips, my forehead, anywhere that wasn't me, really, afraid of … what? I wasn't sure. I only knew that as soon as she'd said it, confirmed what I'd hoped and chased away what I'd dreaded, the world could've instantly ended in a blaze of fire and chaos and it wouldn't have mattered one damn bit.

There was only her face, and the blue of her eyes, which had, finally, turned toward me. Flighty and hesitant and bordering on something that could've been affection or terror, in that moment I could've sworn she was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. But, then, that was hardly uncommon; she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, so much so that she haunted me, both awake and dreaming, a constant presence in my otherwise dreary world.

I tilted my face down towards hers, a gentle solicitation; I didn't want to move too quickly or frighten her. But she tipped her face up, her mouth meeting mine, and though it was soft and careful at first, almost overly so, it evolved into something else all together. Something made of heated breath and warm skin and my hands sliding over the curve of her ass. I felt her palms on my neck, her fingertips pressing into the side of my face, and for a minute I thought this was it, that we'd torn down the wall she'd struggled to erect between us from the day I stood on her porch and asked her how her husband died.

But then her hands trailed to my shoulders, down my arms, and though I leaned in when she pulled away she turned her head, almost regretful, and offered a nigh imperceptible sigh.

"I can't do this." For one horrible moment it looked like she was going to cry, and I fought to keep the disappointment off my face. "It's too much."

"Okay. Okay," I whispered, wanting to reassure her or soothe her, and warring with the urge to pull her into some sort of comforting embrace.

"But you sit down, and, um, and eat, because it's not gonna be as good cold. Okay?"

"It looks delicious." Laid out on the table was more food than I could eat in a day; bacon, sausage, a stack of pancakes, coffee and juice.

"Good," she said, rushing over to scoop fresh scrambled eggs from pan to my plate.

"It's a lot."

"Well, you're a big guy."

I decided to let that one go—her nervous rambling suggested she wasn't exactly thinking through every sentence tumbling out of her mouth, and I didn't want to sour a decent morning—but then she just kept on.

"I mean, big and tallish, not—" she drifted off briefly, and I was not so successfully fighting the irritated expression paintings its way across my face, but then she continued, "well, I just didn't want you to be hungry."

I sat down to eat, keenly aware of her watching me, puttering around behind me. Anything, it occurred to me, to avoid sitting with me.

I tried to fight the hurt off. Not that it was such a grand insult. Really, it was nothing more than a twinge of disappointment, really, crushing out the bit of hope that perhaps we had finally turned a corner, that here and now we'd come to a new understanding.

But, then, everything had always been two steps forward and two steps backwards with her. To expect anything less than her mercurial nature to manifest in its full glory was, at best, ridiculous.

So I shoved that hope down somewhere quiet, somewhere private, not so much killing it as storing it for later, took a long swallow of orange juice (and felt vaguely uncomfortable as I did it, because I couldn't quite shake the feeling of Norma's stare boring into the back of my head) and speared a mound of eggs.

"I think he need a joint checking account," I said. "I think it'll look more real." That much was true. It would look more real, certainly. But mostly I was just scrounging around for any semi-neutral topic that might lead us gently into more sensitive material.

"Okay," She agreed so readily, without drama or fuss, that I nearly swiveled off my chair when I turned to look at her. "Yeah. No, I think we need to make it look real."

Our eyes met, and though it was little more than 20 seconds it felt like it could've stretched on for hours. Because it felt real, that was the thing. The inescapable thing. For all her push and pull, the back and forth, we'd been married a grand total of three days and now here, at her table, it felt as if we'd dated for months, planned a lengthy engagement, walked down the aisle in an elaborate ceremony attended by friends and family.

The night before she'd shared herself with me, her fears regarding Norman, that precious vulnerability that I'd waited ages for her to trust me with; we'd made love in the blissful quiet of her room; I'd slept with her in my arms; and now I ate the breakfast she'd prepared, already dressed in my uniform, an hour away from work but wishing the day could stretch on that I'd be allowed to stay in her presence.

But then it passed, and so I nodded, turning back towards my plate.

"Yeah, well, I'll stop by the bank."

"Okay."

"It might be a good idea if we, uh, we showed up together at that winter thing tonight."

"What winter thing?"

"Oh, you know, downtown?" I asked, turning back around. "With all the lights and stuff? The Winter Festival." I felt like I was rambling, but her wistful smile was enough that I wanted to continue. "Want to come with me?"

Casual, I thought. Keep it very fucking casual. This is not a loaded question. I am not officially asking you to be my date. This is not a real marriage.

Not real, I repeated in my head.

Not real.

Not real.

Not real.

Over and over again.

Sometimes you had to remind yourself of the basics. Especially when every fiber of your being was screaming at you, shaking you, telling you the opposite.

Especially when you kept glancing at her, at your mother's ring, and and the words "my wife" held an endless and joyful appeal.

Her face changed, the smile slowly fading into something else, and my absolutely loaded question was followed by what I hoped sounded like a calm, neutral rationalization, but was in fact a panicked ramble.

"I think that's a good, you know, public place to make an appearance."

"Sure, no, I … I would love to come, but, um," she said, and by the rush and the hurry and her eyebrows twisting together in a confused frown, I knew the answer was essentially: Hell no. "I just haven't been to see Emma, and it's a long drive, and I was gonna do it today, and I probably won't be back." Pause. "In time."

"Yeah, okay, no problem." My disappointment didn't flash across my face; my voice stayed even. And I was goddamned proud. Still, it was time for a rapid change of tactics. "How's Emma doing?"

"She's doing very well, Dylan said. Um. Yeah, she's off the oxygen." She sat down to my left, her smile wide and beaming, head tilted.

Irrepressible joy contained in that smile. The maternal Mrs. Bates. The wounded survivor who'd huff and puff and blow your house down if she felt you threatened her or her children, but would also give you the world if she thought, even for a moment, you were on her side.

"Wait, Dylan?"

"Yeah, he's been down there with her the whole time."

"They're together?"

"Apparently. It's weird how people aren't at all together and then all of a sudden they are."

We let it hang there, the poignant accuracy which had so little to do with Emma and Dylan. And when she smiled again, not shying away from my eyes, I slowly set down my fork and reached for her hand.

Her fingers were small and tapered, fit all too easily with mine, and I'd loved that contrast. Had loved it ever since that afternoon in Room 11, when drunk and tired I'd relented (not that I had much choice) to her efforts to take care of me. I'd stroked her hand and marveled at the delicacy of it, the beauty, slim pale fingers that would never be anything but utterly female against mine.

And now I took her hand again, gently, tracing my thumb across her palm and her fingertips. I'd always liked my hands—not attractive but functional, made for handling firearms and knives and taking down those who needed to be taken out—and suddenly they had a new purpose, I realized. Their only purpose now, perhaps, to protect her.

It was a promise I'd made silently long before I'd ever understood it, had the ability to give name to the feeling she evoked whenever I was near her.

But now I sat, gently toying with the ring on her finger, stroking the soft smooth back of her hand, and I knew nothing would ever be more real, more important in its clarity and simplicity, than the present moment.

"Um, I'm gonna go and get dressed because—" Norma was out of her chair halfway through her sentence. Though she hadn't yet pulled her hand away from me, her body language was awkward, difficult to read. "—it's a very long ride to Portland. But, um, you have a great day at work."

And then she was gone, removed from my presence. Or, more accurately, removing herself from my presence. Either unwilling to acknowledge or playing blind to my silent, gentle request for a kiss—the way I'd gently tried to steer her towards me as she stood, angled my body towards hers.

I watched her leave without a word. Only when I heard the door shut and the deadbolt lock into place—when I was absolutely certain she was gone—did I mutter aloud, "Shit."

Once upon a time Norma Bates was little more than an agonizing frustration. Yes, she was beautiful. Yes, she was bewitching and bewildering and half the time I wanted to ask her to dinner as much as I wanted to arrest her.

But this? This was something new.

Or, Hell, it wasn't new. It was just brighter now in clarity—a stunning, thrumming awareness—perhaps for the very first time—that Norma Bates could wound me.

Truly wound me, not just aggravate me or leave with a parting barb that would fester under the skin for a few days.

I'd sought her trust and her vulnerability for over a year. And she'd given it to me finally, or at least a piece of it. But what I hadn't expected was how utterly vulnerable that made me.

I sat at the kitchen table for a solid twenty minutes after she'd gone. Ate my food, washed my plate, tidied up the kitchen. Straightened up my uniform, headed out, locked the door.

It wasn't until I sat in my SUV, the engine running, that I realized I hadn't taken a deep breath since she'd left. My heart hammered with it, my skin felt raw, jumping with nerves, and somewhere beneath it all simply … ached.

She'd pulled away from my affection, and though I understood it—too much, too fast—it hurt like Hell.

"Shit," I whispered again.

Work passed by at a snail's pace. Odd to acknowledge that I preferred a domestic dispute or even a murder to the relative safety of paperwork, but it'd always been that way.

Some men came out of the marines and sought peace and quiet; I craved both but, at least with work, I preferred activity. The station was a necessary evil that came part and parcel with my job, but had I the option I would've been on patrol whenever possible.

A mere thirty minutes before I was due to sign out for the day, my phone chimed.

We need to talk.

Not hitting on you….

But this is IMPORTANT.

Rebecca.

I fought back a sigh; I wasn't particularly in the mood to see her, especially considering how our last encounter ended. But I did need to set up the joint account. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.

And, anyway, seemed as good an excuse as any to cut out a bit early on an otherwise dull, dragging day.

"Alex, always nice to see you," Rebecca said. I hadn't bothered to respond to her message, yet she'd been waiting near the door when I pulled into the bank's driveway. "Wasn't waiting for you," she'd assured me when she caught sight of me, but I didn't particularly believe her.

"I got your text. What do you want?" I asked. She led me into her office at a brisk pace, ushering me and shutting the door in a manner I found both odd and not remotely subtle. Whatever the Hell this was about, it needed to be good.

She angled around her desk, brushing past me as she did so, and I thought I caught a smirk as I took a step back. As if she thought I'd been startled by her beauty and her nearness, as opposed to annoyed by the physical contact.

"I'm gonna ask you a direct question," she said, settling back into her chair. "Did you kill Bob Paris?"

I couldn't fathom a question that would've surprised me more. Especially not from her. But years on the job—and years dumping bodies and cash and facilitating the various activities in this town I couldn't avoid no matter how much I loathed them—had instilled one Hell of a poker face.

"I'm not going to dignify that with a response, Rebecca." Resisted the urge to rub the bridge of my nose. A headache already brewing; for the longest time I'd thought Norma the only individual capable of exhausting me so quickly, so thoroughly. But that had been before we were married, back when Rebecca and I still met every Tuesday and Thursday evening at a shitty bar on the outskirts of town. "What is it? What's your end game here?"

"Okay, look." She leaned forward in her chair, suddenly conspiratorial, voice dropping to nearly a whisper. "I … I know that you told me to let sleeping dogs lie, right? But there's three million dollars lying around in a safety deposit box that Bob just left behind. No one knows about it because I laundered it for him. It's under a fake name."

"So, why tell me about it? Why not just take it?"

"I—I can't. Look, every safety deposit box requires two keys. The bank—" she swiveled in her chair, leaned over to rifle through a drawer until she turned back around, holding a small bronze key in her hand, "-has one, and the box renter holds on to the other. Now I'm betting that Bob doesn't have his key anymore." Pause. She leaned back, cool and collected, eying me from head to toe, as if we shared some great, unspoken secret. "I think the man who killed him has it."

I shook my head, ran a hand over my face. Wanted to sigh, but resisted. "We shouldn't be talking about this."

"Look, Alex, I didn't know what I was getting into with Bob. I—he was—it was fun. But he's gone now. So this money could be very useful. For both of us."

"I don't have the key," I said, as emphatically as I could, ever ounce of exhaustion and frustration and weariness seeping into my voice.

Convincing, I thought. Or convincing enough to urge her to calm down, look elsewhere. But she merely scoffed, put out, sure of my guilt and irritated by my silence, until finally I shook my head again and turned to leave.

"By the way," I said, hovering at the door, "I need to open a joint checking account with my wife, so if you'd send me the forms? Okay? Name's Norma Louise Bates. B-A-T-E-S."

"Yeah, I know how to spell Bates," she snapped. Looked like she wanted to say something else, but then seemed to shrug it off. An almost sad smile when as she said, "Have a nice day."

"Okay. Thanks, Rebecca."

"Norma?"

The house was empty, and I was glad. The drive from the bank had been tense, too many thoughts running through my head. I wasn't prone to anxiety; I preferred action, and all action—even misguided or correct action—had a way of alleviating nervousness.

But this? A safety deposit box, a key, three million dollars. This was information I hadn't had, and I despised not having a clear picture of just what I was getting myself into.

Killing Bob hadn't been rational. Not moral, not just, not anything but sheer desperation borne of love. I'd killed men before, certainly, and always had a reason for doing so. A good reason. A reason that, at least in the court of public approval, would've cleared me of judgment.

But Bob Paris's death was the product of nothing more than aching to see Norma Bates smile, safe and secure in the knowledge that she and her son would be protected.

I didn't quite know what to make of that, how to rationalize it all to myself, and so I hadn't bothered trying. Merely pushed it out of my thoughts as best and as often as I could, and tried to refocus on what mattered: Norma.

And that meant making damn sure Rebecca Hamilton wasn't going to cause too many problems.

Down in the basement, I dug around in the furnace and pulled out the bag I'd taken from Bob that night. Scrounged around through the stacks of cash until I came upon a stash of documents. And sure enough, taped inside a fake passport, was a key that was, I had no doubt, identical to the one Rebecca had showed me earlier.

"Shit," I whispered. A recurring theme in my day, it seemed.

The drive back to the station was calmer, easier. Had a better idea of what I was facing, the small details I'd missed. Had the key in my pocket, and was slowly forming a plan to deal with Rebecca. Not that it'd take much. Money launderer, yes, but hardly a criminal mastermind. And I didn't think she'd push it too far.

Best to just hide the key—not in the house, that was for damned sure—and be done with it.

I'd left my favorite suit in a garment bag hanging on my office door, and it was for that than I'd come back. Seven p.m. and the station was already dark. Not empty, of course, but down to a skeleton crew, the hallways leading to my office unlit.

I was just about to slip into my jacket when I heard my phone vibrate, rattling against my desk top. A glance at the screen confirmed an unknown number.

At least it wasn't Rebecca, I thought, with a speck more vitriol than I'd expected.

"Yeah, Romero."

"Sheriff Romero, this is Special Agent Howard Collins with the DEA."

I wanted to groan. My last encounter with the DEA has been a beautiful but unpleasant woman who seemed to despise me as much as I despised her digging into my affairs with Bob Paris. But instead of groaning, I shifted the phone against my shoulder and shut the door. The Sheriff attracted a surprising number of prying eyes and eager eavesdroppers.

"I'm following up on the Bob Paris case," Agent Collins said, "and Agent Babbitt suggested you might be of some help."

"Yeah—I've told her everything I know." I paced around my desk to the window, glancing out into the dark beyond. The Winter Festival had been in full swing for over two hours, and I'd be expected to make an appearance soon.

"I understand. As with all these things we've followed the money trail and have reason to believe Bob was laundering cash. We think he might've been doing it through the local bank. White Pine Bay Federated?"

Well, shit.

Like I said: a recurring theme.

"Do you have evidence of this?"

"Just looking into it at this point. Do you know Rebecca Hamilton?"

Shit, shit, shit.

"Yeah. Yeah, sure, she's a manager."

"And how well would you say you know her?"

"Oh, not well." I walked from the window to my desk, as if somehow that would help me end this phone call sooner. This was, at best, an inconvenience. And one that would have to be dealt with carefully. "I, ah—full disclosure, I do have an account there. It's the only bank in town."

"Of course, I get it. But do you know her personally?"

"No. No, just through my business at the bank because my account's there. Why?"

"Would you have any reason to suspect her of money laundering?"

"I've never had reason to suspect her of anything. You think she's involved?"

"We believe she had a personal relationship with Bob Paris. We're just going down the road at this point."

"No, I understand, of course. Of course. Well, uh, please let me know if I can be of any help."

"Thanks for your time, Sheriff."

I hung up, glanced around the room. This was bad, no doubt about that, though the severity of the issue would only be revealed with time.

Needed to contact Rebecca. Meeting at the bank seemed the best, least conspicuous idea. Would have to warn her, walk her through this, coach her on questions she might have to field in the coming days.

For now, however, I just needed to make the rounds at the festival.

I taped the key to the underside of my desk drawer. Hardly original, I knew, but it would do for now. And, most importantly, keeping it here removed Norma from any involvement.

I'd been there maybe an hour when I ran across Donald and Corinne Crowley. Nice enough folks, heavy investors in the various Police, EMT and Fire Brigade charities. I'd played a few rounds of golf with Donald over the years, though we'd never much caught up beyond that.

We made the usual small talk: weather, sports, how their kids were doing, what Corrine, whom I seldom saw around town, had been up to.

Enjoyable enough, really. I was never much for glad-handing, but it was a necessary part of my job, and the better things were going at work—or, in this case, at home—the easier it was to keep my patience, relax, simply enjoy the evening for what it was.

A flicker of something in the near distance caught my eye, and I glanced over. At first I didn't believe it, it seemed more a hearty wish than anything else. I'd wanted her to come with me tonight. Desperately, in fact. And it would've been easy to spot her in the crowd; a pretty blond woman could, if I pretended well enough, resemble her.

So, for a moment I thought it was that. Just me, and my damnable wishful thinking, and the lingering sting of her earlier refusal.

But then she smiled, head tilting like a curious cat, twirling her parasol over her shoulder, and the noise around me utterly died. Lights fading into nothing. Even the sweet, easy banter of the Crowleys failed to make it through the haze suddenly enveloping my brain.

A fog, essentially. But a warm, joyful fog, one that forced me to stare at her, to take in the boots and the beautifully tailored coat and the subtle makeup and also just her, an irreplaceable, unmistakable essence that made her Norma Bates.

It was what gave her her otherworldly beauty, I realized, though heretofore I'd never been able to pinpoint it. More so than her finely carved features, or the appealing curves of her body. It was something unspoken, intangible, but forever present.

A glimmer of something intoxicating that made it hard to breathe whenever one looked at her.

"Excuse me," I said, quickly focusing my attention back on the Crowleys. "It's good to see you guys." I shook Donald's hand, then Corrine's. "Thank you."

These events made meet and greets short, pleasant, and easy to leave. Everyone wanted a piece of you, this dynamic was common knowledge, and so no one was overly demanding with your time.

Norma watched me walk towards her with a cocky, amused smiled. Too aware of her beauty, and too aware of my eyes, I figured, roaming over her face and her legs and everything in between.

"You look beautiful," I said, once I was in front of her, though the words didn't come immediately; I spent a solid thirty seconds staring at her, trying—and failing—to keep the stupid grin off my face. "I thought you weren't gonna come."

"I heard there was funnel cake."

Christ, I thought, because she smiled. A smile I had seen more and more over the past couple of days, once that had always meant the world to me, hit me low and in the gut like an unfair punch in a boxing ring, something that stole my breath away and, more accurately, tore to shreds any idea of free will I'd been foolish enough to harbor.

She smiled—at me, because of me, or maybe just because of the goddamned funnel cake—and I would killed a thousand Bob Paris's without thinking, or caring, or spending a single wasted second on self-justification or rationalization.

"C'mon, Mrs. Sheriff," I said, and this time I didn't bother to hide my obvious pleasure. "I'll set you up."

She let me lead her to the confectionery stand, one arm looped through mine, and with each passing second that deadly, obsessive narrative kept pulsing through my head:

I had, and would again, kill for that woman.

Gladly, and without hesitation.

And maybe that meant I wasn't the man I'd always thought myself to be. Maybe that meant I was just like my father after all.

But then I handed her the funnel cake, and said, "Here you go," and she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling in the most darling, child-like way, and I didn't give a single goddamned shit about my father, or my morality, or the corpse at the bottom of the lake.

"Thank you."

"Mhm."

She ate, picking at the cake with her fingers and humming her pleasure as I directed her towards the hot toddy stand.

"Ooh, yum."

"Here, hold on—" She gestured for me to try a bite but I waved her off, waved over the man at the counter. "Can I get two of those?"

"Mm, that's good," she said, still focusing on her cake. Delighted, the way a little girl delights over birthday cake and wrapped presents. I waited for her to brush her fingers off, and then handed her the drink. "I've never had a hot toddy. What's in it?"

"Ah, I'm not sure. Cinnamon, I think. Whiskey …" I said, softly, and her nigh startled glance almost made me laugh. "It's mostly whiskey."

"I like whiskey."

We tipped our cups towards one another, a silent cheers, and I watched her over the rim as we simultaneously took a drink.

I wanted to ask her if she was happy she came, no matter that she'd only been here a few minutes. Everything in me wanted to sit her down in a corner and pester her with questions: isn't this fun? Aren't you happy you came? Did you come for me? Because you wanted—

But I wasn't about to give into the urge, an asinine reflex left over from my insecure teenage years, nervous around the girl I liked. Hadn't done that shit in decades and wasn't going to start now, no matter how tempting.

"Sheriff!" Luann Anelli, one of the station's assistants, popped up at my side, chipper and startling and dragging my attention away from Norma, which I resented but tried to cover with an easy going smile. "They want a picture with you." She gestured towards the photographer to my left, surrounded by a small group of people.

"Oh, okay." I nodded, and Luann headed off immediately. More fires to put out, I figured. The assistants and 911 operators usually fielded the chaos at these events. I turned back to Norma, apologetic. "I'll be right back." Stressing the right back, because no matter how much she seemed to be enjoying herself, I was still half-convinced something would alarm her and she'd vanish before I could make my way back to her.

"Okay, Bigshot."

I paused, narrowed my eyes at her, a flicker of a private joke passing between us. Her wide, amused grin the best reward I could ever ask for.

As was expected, I shook the right hands, and thanked them for their support, mugged for the camera like a good, obedient public figure. Didn't want to upset the people rooting for me, after all. That is to say, the active voters who expected to be reassured of my fondness for the town and desire to protect all who inhabited it.

And that had never been a problem—I was fond of this town, no matter the shit I struggled to keep together, too many balls in the air every single day, and I did want to protect my citizens. But what the Hell that had to do with festivals and a photographer, I'd yet to figure out.

Still, you had to put in the time. Do your job, whatever minute detail that involved.

I smiled through the flash and the conversation, but somewhere along the line caught sight of Rebecca. Specifically, Rebecca talking to Norma. And I didn't like it one goddamned bit. Not that I felt she'd pull anything overly obnoxious—although it was impossible to tell at this point, everything jumbled in the chaos of my new marriage and Bob's death—but I wasn't in the mood to deal with her. Not now, not here, not in front of Norma.

"Alright, thanks so much," I said, once the last picture had been taken and the glare of the flash dimmed from my vision. I shook the required hands and made my leave. "Excuse me."

Norma and Rebecca were mid-conversation when I approached, though I hadn't arrived in time to really make anything out.

"Hi, Rebecca."

"Alex, I was just introducing myself to your bride."

"Huh. Well, good, I'm glad you guys could meet." I wanted to lean over and kiss Norma on the temple, pull her against my side for a quick embrace, but decided against it. Instead, I turned to Rebecca, the first properly serious note of the evening, and said, "There's some bank business we should talk about later."

"Okay, well, look, you know where to find me."

Norma's smile flickered briefly, just enough that I noticed. Enough that I noticed her tilt her head towards Rebecca, an eyebrow raised, but nothing said.

"Okay," I said, eager to direct Norma elsewhere. Anywhere but here, really. Wanted her to myself as soon as possible. "Um, the photographer wants a picture of us together." I put my hand on Norma's arm, urging her in the desired direction.

"Oh, sure! Yeah." Norma turned to Rebecca, flashed her a sweet smile. "It was very nice to meet you."

"Pleasure was mine," Rebecca said.

I didn't bother saying anything. Glanced over my shoulder towards Rebecca with what I hoped was the universal expression for "we'll talk later," and then proceeded to head over towards the photographer's station.

"It'll just take a minute, be real quick."

"Oh, yeah, don't worry about it," Norma said. We stood in front of the camera, hot toddies still in hand, and she nestled into my side for the picture.

I could still see Rebecca out of the corner of my eye, something resembling sadness on her face all too evident. Felt a flicker of guilt; I'd never wanted to hurt her, though our relationship had been casual, on-and-off, and never meant to last. Or so I'd thought. And I certainly didn't want her to wind up on the wrong side of the DEA.

Which meant we'd have to meet up soon, handle what needed to be handled. I may not have loved her, but I sure as Hell wasn't going to throw her to the wolves.

For now, however, there was nothing in my world but Norma. In this one evening it was her, and purely her.

Save, perhaps, for the glare of the flash as she smiled and the man behind the camera pressed a button and made us immortal.

We strolled around the festival arm in arm for a long while, drinking one too many hot toddies, discussing everything and nothing, and none of it was the least bit important or serious.

There was no mention of Norman, or my job, or the problems we'd faced. We were, for perhaps the first time, completely at ease, making the sort of nonsensical small talk happy couples so often engaged in: utterly pointless, endlessly thrilling.

To me it signaled the arrive of a new turning point. Trust, yes, absolutely, but also sharing the simple pleasures of life. She let me buy her drinks and pastries and asinine little trinkets from this stall or that, delighting over each one and reaching up to tug on my coat collar affectionately.

Now and again someone would wander over to shake my hand, compliment me on my new bride, exclaim over Norma's beauty. All of which she drank up, eager to play coy, to smile and bat her lashes and shake hands, ducking under my arm and squeezing in against my side whenever a male gaze lingered too long, pinching me lightly in the side as she smiled up at me, confirming she'd noticed, and enjoyed the attention.

And confirming that she was here with me.

Fuck all of them, I thought, more possessive and predatory than I should've been proud of, but I was proud nonetheless.

Eventually she caught sight of the dance floor, and pulled me by the hand in that direction. I didn't bother protesting, could tell from the way she marched towards it that it had been decided: we were going to dance.

I couldn't complain. Wouldn't, even if I'd had cause to. It was the perfect excuse to feel her pressed against me, one hand on my shoulder while I held the other, letting my fingers trail over her ring and her skin, thrilled by her nearness and the arm I wrapped around her waist.

"So, who's Rebecca?" Of course she would've noticed the tension. And of course she wouldn't let it go.

"Just someone I knew before I met you." I could see the question before she asked it: one of those people you see? But she just shook her head, nigh imperceptibly.

"Uh huh."

"Remember when I first met you?" I asked. Maybe a little too eager to change the subject. "On the porch at the motel that night?"

"Yep, my heart stopped. Mostly because I thought you were going to arrest me."

"No, I missed that opportunity."

She laughed, a high-pitched trill of a giggle that I felt reverberate through every nerve in my body. I pulled her closer to me as we moved with the music, all too aware of the lingering trace of perfume on her neck, her breasts pressed against my chest, the blue of her eyes.

We stared at one another for a long while. Lost track of time; only her eyes existed in that moment, and our joint breathing.

"But I guess—I guess it all turned out okay in the end, all things considered," I said eventually.

"I think so. You think it's all gonna be okay?"

"Kind of." A pause. And then a slow, reassuring smile. "Yeah, I do."

"I hope so."

"You worried?"

"Sometimes."

"Don't be." I twirled her before she could respond, the flutter of her coat and another trill of laughter the only sound. But then I pulled her back to me, and leaned down to kiss the tops of her fingers and whisper, "I'd never let anything happen to you."

Something in her face changed in that instant, though I couldn't immediately put my finger on what. All the strut and the playfulness leeching out of her, until her eyes were wide and her face still, and I was just about to ask what was wrong when she leaned up on her toes and pressed her mouth to the pulse in my neck. A quick, electric jolt of heat at the contact, unexpected but very welcome.

"Come with me," she whispered.

And again I wanted to ask he what the problem was, make sure I'd heard her correctly, but for the second time in the evening she was practically dragging me by the hand behind her. Suddenly urgent, moving through the crowd as fast as possible, until she found a quiet, secluded area behind one of the game tents and pulled me into the corner.

"Norma," I began, "what are you doing—"

She swallowed the sentence in a kiss, her mouth instant and demanding, hot with her rapid breath. She nipped my bottom lip a bit too hard, though in the shock of it all I didn't mind one damn bit.

I felt her tugging at my coat, trying to pull the collar away from neck, and within seconds her lips met the tender skin there and I felt that familiar shock again, a trail of heat down each limb, so that every nerve buzzed with anticipation and want.

My hands tangled in her hair, caressed her waist, her hips, her ass. Anything I could get a decent grasp on, really, wanting simply to be close to her, enjoying her mouth too much to protest.

Her boldness in such sharp contrast to the hesitancy this morning I was almost certain this was it, what I'd been telling myself all day. We had crossed a threshold. This was, for us, the beginning of something new and spectacular and real, and I—

"Norma," I gasped, startled, because she had snaked a hand under the waistband of my pants, slipped beneath my underwear until the coolness of her hand made contact with my skin, wrapped around me without pretense, and set a languid, torturous rhythm. "Jesus," I whispered, "we can't. I can't. There—there are people everywhere."

But she just chuckled against my neck, tilting her chin up to better flick her tongue along my ear lobe, obviously pleased when I groaned.

"You worry too much, Sheriff," she whispered. She didn't slow down, but rather tightened her grip just enough that I had trouble catching my breath, and I felt her smile against my skin when my hips started moving of their own accord.

I needed to get a grip on myself. Get a grip on this. But her thumb was searching out every sweet spot and tender nerve I never knew I had, and her teeth were nipping along the line of my jaw, and I was barely holding back a series of groans as she teased me, my body a damnable traitor, hips thrusting helplessly against her hand until finally we were about to reach the point of no return.

"Norma," I gasped, struggling to gulp down as much oxygen as possible, to calm down, though it was a useless pursuit. "If you don't stop I'm going to—"

And then … nothing.

Cold air where the warmth of her body had been; my body on the edge of climax only to be denied, untouched, so that I sagged against the wall of the tent, wide-eyed and shaking, gasping for air, while she smiled at me, amused.

Impish, was the word that came to mind. Or would later, as I wasn't exactly thinking clearly.

"Well, then," she whispered, more a purr than anything else. She zipped up my fly, letting her fingers teasingly trace over me, humming her pleasure over the fact that I was still achingly hard, near orgasm, straining against the fabric of my pants. "You'd better buy me another hot toddy."

We didn't last long at the festival after that. Mostly because I couldn't focus, all the noise and the lights and the bluster drowning away until there was only her. Her skin, which I kept trying to touch—drawing her close to me so I could kiss her temples and her neck and sneak my hands up under the hem of her coat in search of a bare knee or thigh.

She'd laugh, and push me away, playful and pleased with her power. Drank her hot toddy at such a maddeningly slow pace I was half tempted to drag her off to my SUV and ravish her in the backseat.

But eventually she took pity on me. Or, perhaps more accurately, she enjoyed the idea of tormenting me on the drive home. Which was precisely what happened.

One moment I'm holding her, telling her how beautiful she is beneath the glare of the festival lights, and the next she's whispering that she wants to get out of here, go home, somewhere quiet. Somewhere private.

Minutes later we were in the SUV. I did 10 over the speed limit, which she found amusing. But not amusing enough to restrain herself; she clicked out of her seatbelt, despite my initial protest, and leaned over to suck on the tips of my fingers as I tried to steer. Ran her nails up the length of my thigh so that I shifted, uncomfortable and aroused and trying desperately to focus on the road as she did everything in her power to ensure I couldn't.

But then she bent down, her mouth hovering just above my zipper, and I had to slow down, gently push her away.

"Christ, stop," I said, though my voice was shaky, unconvincing. "I can't drive like that."

Not that it mattered. We were minutes away from the house, and she settled herself against my side, rolling her eyes over my concerns about her seatbelt, and amused herself with toying with my zipper. The teasing nearness enough that I was still hard, still ready—achingly so, in fact—but could nevertheless navigate evening traffic without getting us killed.

I carried her up the stairs, mostly because I wanted to get up said stairs in a hurry, a fact that had her laughing and squirming in my arms, joyful and eager to play, peppering my neck and the side of my face with soft, plucking little kisses.

At least until we got to the top.

Suddenly it was slower, deeper. I set her down and she unlocked the doors, pulled me by the hand so that I had to move in closer to her, her breath ghosting along the base of my neck. She was still opening the main door when I leaned down to kiss her, press her back against the door frame, her hands reaching up instinctively to clasp onto my coat collar.

I cradled her face and her neck, and though our kiss has begun gently, slowly, it deepened with each passing moment, until I was half-concerned about my weight hurting her (though she made no protest and so I didn't move) and I drew her tender bottom lip into my mouth so that I could suck, gently, enjoyed her heated little gasp and the way she tugged urgently on my coat, trying to bring it down over my shoulders.

We got it off eventually, let it fall to the floor. I was focused on the sweet warmth of her mouth, wanting to experience her lips and her skin as long as I could, but she stopped me gently, fingers on my neck, and leaned around me towards the light switch, whispering against my ear, "I want to see you."

I was all too happy to oblige her, and thrilled—and flattered—by the statement. And anyway, she was back in my arms soon enough, pressed against the door frame once again, smiling into our kiss, her hand on the back of my neck, pulling me as close her as possible.

We lost track of time in that moment, or at least I did. I couldn't say how it lasted, only that I kept my mouth on hers long enough that when we broke apart each of us struggled for air, gasping with the force of it, and when I met her gaze there was a hazy darkness in her eyes. Pupils blown wide, lips swollen and bruised from the pressure of my mouth, and when I whispered, without hesitation, "I want you," she merely nodded and reached for the buttons on my shirt. Tugging hard enough that I heard fabric rip—didn't care in the slightest—she stripped me of my shirt, unzipped my fly.

Her mouth was everywhere, and though I was used to taking the lead in the majority of my sexual encounters—and, indeed, most of my encounters with Norma—she was bold and hungry and insistent, and I was all too pleased to let her hands roam my body and her mouth leave a wet, thrumming trail down my chest to my stomach.

I heard her mumble something as she knelt in front of me, pressing her cheek against my thigh, had to ask her to repeat herself.

"I asked if you'd lay down." She gestured to my coat lying on the floor, and the meaning was clear. "On your back," she clarified.

I nodded, gazing down at her, pausing just long enough to cup her cheek in my palm. Her eyes drifted shut and she leaned into it, and then smiled up at me.

I knelt down and spread my coat across the floor, a welcome warm buffer between my skin and the hard, cold wood. I stretched out on my back, per her request, eyes never leaving her, hands already reaching for her, and she obliged by slipping off her coat.

"No," I said, shaking my head, when it was halfway down her back. "Take your dress off. Leave the coat on." Her eyebrows flicked up, a smile curling one corner of her mouth. "And the boots."

If she thought it an odd request, she made no show of it. Merely stood to undress: the coat first, and then the dress, so that she was nearly naked before me.

"Bra and panties too," I said. My arms were folded beneath my head, and I felt oddly comfortable on the floor, simply watching her, eyes raking over her body and taking in every movement she made.

I thrilled when she giggled at my request; felt my breath hitch in my chest when she undid the clasp of her bra, hooked two thumbs in her panties to slide them over her hips and down her legs, stepping out of them and kicking them off to the side.

Bare to me, she smiled at the intensity of my gaze. Drinking in her blatant power over me, I thought. She bent down to the retrieve the coat, slipped it back on but left it open in the front—exactly what I'd wanted.

I reached for her again, and this time she took my hand, kneeling down beside me, leaning over to kiss the base of my stomach and slip the tip of her beneath the waistband of my boxers, chuckling when I hissed in a breath and fought to still the arch of my hips.

I helped her tug down my pants, and the boxers immediately after, but stopped her before she slid her leg over me.

"No, the other way," I said. It took her a minute to catch my drift, but then she smiled, a single brow flicking up, playful, and she turned her back to me as she straddled me, leaving me with a view of her legs and boots and the coat, which proved lovely to gather up around her hips so I could watch the swell of hips-to-waist and the curve of her ass as she lowered herself atop me.

I groaned as her weight settled against my hips, and she echoed with a soft moan. Stayed still for a long moment, letting me run my hands up her back beneath the coat, along her thighs, eager to touch her, absorb as much of this quiet, simple pleasure as I could. And then she moved above me, slowly at first, so that all I was initially aware of was the heat of her, enveloping and soft and delightfully wet.

But then she found her rhythm, faster than I'd expected, my hands latching onto her hips, half in desperation and half in ecstasy, as she rode me, moaned for me, whimpered every time she moved, until those moans alchemized into my name, a tumbling, trilling chant that I could barely hear over my own heartbeat and all the nonsense I echoed back to her in response.

It didn't make any sense, of that I was sure. Declarations of love and her beauty and how much, how absolutely desperately I needed her, and this, how much I wanted to touch her and take her and fuck her, how much I wanted to give her everything.

She reached back to fasten her hands over mine, digging my fingertips into her skin, still chanting my name, and soon the pressure was too much, the heat of her overwhelming, and the moment I felt her let herself go, her body clamping down on mine so tightly it was nigh uncomfortable, I lost myself to the force of it and spilled inside her, her body still writhing above me as I echoed back her name, and my love, and all the dark beautiful secret things men confessed to women in the height of their pleasure.

She didn't collapse on top of me so much as fall back, coming eventually to rest against my side, both of us panting, trembling, skin on fire yet freezing from sweat mingling with the house's cold air, and as I held her I thought about how we'd have endless nights just like this.

How I'd give her everything she ever asked for, and spend my days in pursuit of her happiness, her pleasure, he joy.

And how nothing would ever harm her or take her from me.

Not so long as I was around.

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