Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://download.archiveofourown.org/works/5696305.

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:
Love, Sex, Romance, Hurt/Comfort, Drama
Stats:
Published: 2016-01-11 Words: 5287

Only In Orbit

by

Summary

"I wonder if he knows how easy it is to love him. And, also, how impossible." Norma, forever caught in her world of private ghosts, finds herself equally trapped in Romero's orbit. [For Deb. Rated M for sexual content.]

He smells like leather and fresh coffee and sandalwood. It's in his blood, I think, an inherent and inescapable part of him. He's a man of clear, distinct tastes, and he wears this like a badge, or maybe just a signature. His scent is like a flare on a dark highway road: it tells me he's waiting ahead long before I see his face. And once I round the corner, and I find him there, I know what to expect:

Leather jacket. Espresso (drip coffee only when there is no other option, I've learned; he prefers it strong, with a dash of cream but no sugar). He keeps his hair short because he can't be bothered with anything else, but the line of the trim is always clean, and flawless, bordering on military precision. He's a man of details, but presents simplicity to the world: he's also a man of masks.

The interior of his SUV is always spotless. So is his office. But he desperately needs a housekeeper at home, and in the four months he slept in Room 11, it was an endless nightmare of empty bottles and takeout boxes, clothes strewn everywhere. He holds a grudge over my attempt at doing his laundry, but forgives the murder of Keith Summers and the lies I constructed to keep him out and keep my children safe. I don't think he ever really watches television. Doesn't seem to read much, aside from the local paper. Instead, he listens. Observes. And whatever he picks up he keeps to himself until he finds it useful to do otherwise, and then he surprises you with the depth of his knowledge and his unassuming generosity.

I know he prefers bourbon over whiskey, and whiskey over beer. His kitchen is huge and well-stocked, but he never cooks. He somehow (though I have yet to figure out how, exactly, this is possible) hates chocolate. He likes fishing, and red meat, and sometimes he wishes he had a dog. His clothing is understated but always clean and well-fitting. He owns a single watch, and he only wears it out of necessity; finds the idea of forever being a slave to time irritating.

He is, bizarrely, unaware of how beautiful he is. You see it in the way he moves, how he holds himself: he's sure of his strength and his power and his stillness, but oblivious to the sharp line of his jaw and the high curve of his cheekbone and his perfectly-formed mouth. Bemused whenever he catches someone staring at him; he assumes it's an affront and not affection, or attraction, and reacts accordingly. Maybe that's why he seems so dour, at least at first. Before you know him. Before he lets you in.

But then he lets you see him bleed, see him smile. He laughs at your dumb jokes every now and again. Stops by after work to ask about your day and your children's welfare. When he knows you're sick he has the deli downtown deliver chicken stew and rice pilaf and mountains of fresh fruit, and then refuses to take credit for the gesture. He doesn't send flowers, it's not in his nature, but he holds every door and puts his hand on the small of your back when you walk and positions himself between you and every stranger on the street until he's sure of their intentions and your safety.

He protects what he loves because the words don't come easily to him. He's not the sort of man who can just show up on your porch and tell you that he loves you, that he wants to take you away from it all. There are no exotic beaches and fruity drinks with Alex Romero, no diamond rings or promises of Happily Ever After.

Instead, he fixes the hinge on your back door. He drives you to the doctor when you're too unwell and your children are too busy. He gets your son out of a speeding ticket. Chases away the unruly guests in your motel. Calls up a few old friends to swing by and fill in the pit in your driveway.

He kills the men that threaten you.

But he's used to playing the stoic, to being the one that shuts the world out. And so when he opens himself to you, and tries to gently pull you towards him, he's confused when rebuffed. Thrown, and wounded, like he's lost his compass. Yet he's not an individual accustomed to giving up, and so he tries again, and again, and again. And he frowns, trying to read your face and your tone when you turn him away, but leaves without complaint when you ask him to.

And you know he'll be back tomorrow, because that's the sort of man that he is.

And when he's gone you think—no, I think—about all the things that I'd like to tell him. In another life, maybe. A perfect life.

And I wonder if he knows how easy it is to love him.

And also how impossible.


 

"Christ. Get down from there."

"Oh, hush, Sheriff. It's fine."

"It's not fine. It's dangerous, and if you fall you'll break your neck."

"How sweet," I cooed. "The Big Daddy of White Pine Bay clucking over me like a hen."

Alex looked as annoyed this time around as he did the first time I whipped out that particular nickname. But now his hands were on his hips and he glared at me from the ground, a good two-and-a-half stories below me, and despite the distance and the fact that I had to strain to make out each sentence, I could feel the displeasure radiating off him.

For all his gentle moments and protective inclinations, I'd never met a man quite so suited to being pissed off all the time.

"Norma, come down. Now."

"Excuse me, Sheriff, but I have a motel to run, and two boys to raise, and somehow I have to keep a roof over all our heads. Which means somebody needs to fix this roof."

"Call a contractor."

"I don't need a contractor. I need ten minutes and a hot glue gun to get this slat set in place, and then we're good to go."

"I'll call a contractor, alright? Just climb down. Slowly."

"Too late," I said. I waved the glue gun in the air, relishing my triumph. "Slats have been glued. Cracks have been patched. Waterproofing is … well, I'll get that done later."

"Yeah, great job."

"I know! And all without a contractor."

"I'm sure you're very pleased."

"I am. I really, really am. Of course, I could've done without the sour-faced lawman hovering on my front porch."

"Lawman? What is this, a western?"

"Pfft, no. Cowboys aren't nearly so frightened of everything."

"I am not frightened of everything," Alex said, slowly. Deliberately, like he was having difficulty not raising his voice or charging up the ladder to throttle me. But the mental image made me giggle—quickly cut off into a series of crude snort-laughs—which only made him narrow his eyes further, mouth set into a hard, flat line. "Forgive me if I don't want to peel you off the concrete when you inevitably lose your balance and fall to your death."

"There's that uplifting sentiment I needed today." I gathered up my tools, shaking my head all the while. "My God, Alex, I bet baby bluebirds sing with unrestrained glee when you wake up in the morning. Rainbows must shoot across the sky whenever you step outside."

"Ha." He didn't laugh, not really. "Very cute."

"You're such a ray of sunshine I'm surprised Disney hasn't turned you into a princess."

He made a noise somewhere between a groan and a curse. Folded his arms across his chest. The surliest of men, Alex Romero, and yet he stayed rooted to the spot. Watching my every move as I tiptoed along the slope of my roof, made my way towards the ladder.

"C'mon, Alex, that was funny," I said.

"Debatable."

"Ooh, we're back to one-word answers, are we?" I tucked my skirt up against the side of my thighs and swung a leg over the ladder. "I must be in deep this time."

"That's not a thing."

"It is, though."

"I do not give one-word answers as some sort of indication of my—"

"You do, though."

"Christ."

"See?"

"Norma."

"See? I told you."

"Norma—" I heard the sharp intake of breath the very second I felt the bottom of my shoe slip against the steel rung, and I had to scramble to keep balance on me decent. "Jesus! Be careful, would you?"

"Aw, look at you. So sweet. So worried. Would you catch me if I fell?"

"Not funny."

"I'm serious!" Only six feet or so off the ground, I stretched out my arms and let my body sway back away from the ladder.

A child's game; a teasing game. When I was a kid I'd run around the playground with Caleb, balancing on curbs and seesaws, forever poking at him, prodding him to chase me, catch me, save me. Every little girl a princess in her own castle, I thought. We learned it early: dropping tissues and toys and tripping over the tiniest things until the boys swarmed in and came to our aid.

Not much different in adulthood, really. Men could be such bendable, predictable things. Either monsters or saviors, and Romero fancied himself the latter, even if he'd never taken the time to articulate the thought.

"So, Alex, are you going to catch me?"

"Norma." Stern. Unamused. A warning.

I let my foot dangle off the ladder, let my body move with the force of the wind.

"Well?" When he didn't answer, I shrugged. "Have it your way."

He did catch me, to his credit. Or as much as was required: I jumped, with every intention and ability to land on my feet. But he startled nonetheless and by the time I hit the ground his arm was around my waist and he was pulling me back against him, eyes wide with alarm.

"Jesus, Norma, that's not funny. It's not—I—are you alright?"

"I'm fine." I laughed, at least in the first blush of it, because his nearness and his worry delighted and confused me. But then I turned to look at him, and his face was so still, so serious, that all the humor died instantly, utterly sucked out of our private moment. How a man who almost always had a gun strapped to his side could be so concerned by everything was a mystery; one that both warmed and frightened me.

"I'm fine," I said again. I put a hand on his chest, pushed back slightly, just enough to put some space between us. His hands didn't relax, however. Rather they tightened around my upper arms—not enough to hurt, merely enough to make his intention clear—and he held my weight against him.

"Don't do that again." Voice low, tone one of chastisement, but beneath it all the undercurrent of fear.

I thought of what he'd told me that drunken evening in Room 11. About his mother. And all the unspoken things he never drew attention to but hung between us in silent understanding: the holidays and birthdays and simple cold nights he spent alone or in the company of a bottle of bourbon.

"I mean it," he said. "Don't do shit like that. I hate it." So afraid of losing what he cared about; he was accustomed to loss. And like all those who grew up nursed by tragedy he faced it head-on yet the threat of it kept him up at night. Hence the bourbon and the late nights in his office and the permanent shadows etched under his eyes.

Still, he could open himself to it. His face told me that much. His hands on me and his arm snaking around me and the way he suddenly leaned towards me, to kiss my mouth or my forehead or just bring me closer to him. Forever the brave one. Forever trying, in his way, to let me know how much he cared for me.

"Alex, stop."

And he did. He always did. At the first word or the first sign, his hands fell away and he stepped back, and he wanted to argue but instead stared at me, silent and stung and wanting to reach for me.

"Norma, I just want—"

"I have some things to do around the house, and it's getting late. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

He nodded. Observed, silent and still. And then turned and walked down the steps towards his SUV.

I was not unaware that he assumed I was blind to his affection. That's why he kept trying, over and over, day after day, in his small, unusual, yet dependable way to show me.

But I saw it. I always had, deep down.

He just didn't understand: I couldn't be brave like him.

He bared his scars that night in Room 11, but I kept mine locked away. Away from him and my children and the nightmare creatures lurking out in the woods beyond the highway.

The world praises shining a light in the darkest corners of our lives.

If you ask me, Pandora should've kept that damned box shut.


 

The air smells like rain when he's gone. I can never tell if it's nature or just the effect his absence has on my world. Without him the storm clouds roll in, that much is certain. Most days I ignore it; I've transversed hurricanes and avalanches behind the privacy of closed doors. I can tolerate a little loneliness.

So I tell myself. Again and again.

Some days it's harder to believe than on others.

I think about the chaos of my childhood now and again, and the bizarre little ways those raised in the trials of destruction try to patch together our personal narratives. The tricks we use to cope.

How foreign it must all seem to outsiders, how strange, how curious.

Caleb had alcohol and joints and knives, and all the scars to prove it. But I had home decor magazines and long sprawling lists of recipes and party themes and how I'd decorate my bedroom once I ran away, once I got married, once my husband bought us a little house with a big garden and too many windows.

The dining room table would be too big, and seat too many people, but I'd find ways to fill it. And I never could chop onions without crying, but I'd never minded tears. There'd be fairy lights tangled in gauze curtains above my bed and all the sheets would smell like lavender.

One, two, three, four, five…

Numbered lists as long as my arm. Places I'd go, things I'd do, people I'd love and kiss and pets I'd have and all the beautiful things I'd fill my life with.

I collected little trinkets too. Shiny things, beautiful things, worthless things. An unusual bottle cap, an amusingly colored rock, an old broken watch, a single brass earring.

I carried them all in my pockets like a secret treasure. Ran the tip of my index finger over them when fear was high and my heart was pounding out of my chest and some all too real threat was knocking on the door.

And when the screaming shook the walls of my home, or when Daddy was on a tear, or Mama had one too many cocktails, or Caleb grabbed my arm too roughly that horrific, fateful day, I recited all the places I'd see once I was free: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Paris, London, Barcelona.

On and on and on.

I'd tried to tell these stories to John once upon a time. And, later, to Sam. But their blank looks and their inability to understand or contribute to my precious, painful, private inner world made me hate them. And then, later, when I knew who they truly were, I hated them all the more.

And so, like so many things in my life, the tales were lost. The dreams shattered, or simply abandoned.

What was it the bible said? Something about how we all must put away childish things.

But then I think of Alex. About how he couldn't care less about little homes or big gardens or dinner parties, but how he'd give them all to me if I just asked.

Alex Romero would serve me my every dream on a silver platter if I only let him in, gave him my truth and my stories and my trust.

But I also think about my father. And Caleb, and John, and Sam, and Keith Summers and Bob Paris and every face of every man that's entered into my world and torn it all to shreds and left me to pick up the pieces.

And I stay quiet, and make french toast for the boys every morning, and try to ignore how good Alex smells when he leans in close to me, or how warm his hand is on the small or my back, or how easy and good it feels for the 2.5 seconds I let myself relax into him and his beautiful, heartbreaking, dangerous stability.


 

It was late when he called—somewhere around three in the morning—and later still when I arrived at his front door.

Already half a bottle in. Hadn't shaved in a day or so, his face dark and rough, but his eyes warm.

"Did I wake you?" he'd asked, voice gravelly over the receiver.

"No, I couldn't sleep. It something wrong?"

"I need you to come over."

I'd sped the entire way, because when the Hell did Alex Romero ever need something? But he was jovial and energetic, despite the hour and the alcohol in his blood, and he ushered me in enthusiastically.

"You came."

"Of course I did. Is something wrong?"

He shook his head. Locked the door behind us, and I noticed he'd installed a second deadbolt. Hadn't had that when I'd broken in to find the flash drive.

"Norma-proofing your house, huh?" I pointed to the lock.

"You can never be too careful. Blonds are tenacious."

"So I've heard." Just a bit unsteady on his feet. I watched him walk into the living room and sit, cross-legged, on the floor. Bottle beside him.

The man favored a good drink, but I'd only ever seen him drunk twice. And, now, a third time. Seldom the result of something good.

"So what's up?" I asked.

"Anniversary."

"Oh? What are we celebrating?"

"My mother's death."

"Oh, God. Oh, Alex, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean—"

"No, no." He waved me off, unconcerned, a lazy half-smile spreading across his face. "No, it's okay. You didn't know. Just come sit." He patted the floor next to him. "Sit me with me. Have a drink."

I settled next to him, casting a longing glance at his extremely comfortable couch, and folded my legs under me. No glasses to be found, but it didn't matter. He passed me the bottle with another charming, lazy smile, making a small, pleased sound in the back of his throat when I took a long sip.

"It still hurts after all these years, doesn't it?" I asked. I offered him the bottle, but he waved it away.

"Sort of." He stretched out across the floor, legs extended and hands folded behind his head, and with his back flat against the floor and his shirt pulled right across his body I couldn't help but notice the curve of muscle his shoulders and arms, the width of his neck and strong slant of his jaw. "It's a different sort of pain, I guess."

"Different how?"

"I don't know. I guess—I guess when it's fresh you feel it the most. It demands to be felt. At least once the denial and the shock wear off." He yawned, relaxed. A lion sunning himself on a rock; comfortable, utterly at ease, and despite the seriousness of the topic and his usual stoicism, he seemed almost … happy.

The booze, probably. It always lightened him up a bit. For such an imposing man, he was an adorably charming drunk.

"But then later," he continued, "it's not so sharp. It's not easier, exactly. But it's more like a shadow. Follows you around instead of leading the way."

"I wish I had more shadows," I whispered.

He glanced up, distracted by the thought, and when he spoke his hand was on mine, thumb tracing circles over my knuckles.

"You have more shadows than anyone I know."

"No." I shook my head. It hurt to look at him; his eye contact unflinching, gaze too strong, too sure, too loving. Made me want to cry, and though I could feel the heat of tears at the back of my eyes I just squeezed them shut until it passed and, at least for the moment, I felt I had a solid grip on it. "That's different. I don't have shadows. Just ghosts I keep trying to outrun."

"'Life's a graveyard.'"

"What's that from?"

"Something my dad used to say. But he was full of shit." He rolled onto his side, propped himself up an elbow. I felt rather than saw his fingertips brush my cheek. "You could tell me."

"Tell you what?" I didn't open my eyes. I was afraid to, though I couldn't put my finger on why. My heart was slamming against my rib cage, and I tried to swallow the mounting panic down.

"About all your ghosts."

"Ah, you don't want to hear about that." I opened my eyes to find him mere inches from my face. He studied me intently, glancing between my lips and my eyes and occasionally up to my forehead, as if trying to figure out what I was thinking. Stroked my hair, wound a single curl around his finger. "I could tell you happier stories."

"I don't want the happier stories."

I rolled my eyes.

"Everyone wants the happier stories."

Time, like that old stupid cliche, felt like it came to a screeching halt when he leaned in and kissed my cheek.

"I want you to be happy," he whispered, trailing his lips along my jaw bone, ghosting kisses here and there. "But that doesn't mean I only want to hear the happy stories."

His nearness was intolerable; the idea of him pulling away even more so. It felt like the world would collapse if he moved away; it felt like my chest would crack if he continued.

Buttons. He always found my buttons. Sometimes blindly, sometimes knowingly, he pushed and prodded and sought me out, circled me like a predator or a lover or some combination of the two. And, worst of all, all he ever wanted was for me to let him in. To give him my secrets and my faith, to let him in as openly and readily as he had begun to open himself to me.

"Why do you have to be so beautiful?" I asked. Because he was. With his stupidly beautiful face and his strong warm hands and how painfully obvious his love was. How desperately he offered himself to me. How all he ever seemed to want was to protect me.

"Why're you always running away from me?"

I was crying. Well, no, not crying, exactly, but the tears were there and I was only half aware of them but he saw them, and his lips were on them before I could react, parting just enough that he could kiss them away and taste the salt and my skin.

"Just stay here tonight," he said. His palm cupped my jaw, thumb gently stroking the length of my neck. "Don't cry. Just stay here."

"I can't."

"You can." He kissed the corner of my mouth and the bridge of my nose and the expanse between my brows. "You can. Just trust me. Please."

"I can't."

"I'd never hurt you."


 

I wonder sometimes if he thinks it's easy. To walk away, to pretend I don't want him. To pretend like every cell in my body isn't screaming at me, telling me I need him, that he's it, that there are no other men like him. At least not here, not in my world.

There are moments, a spare slip of a few seconds, in which I let myself wander and ramble and dream.

I wonder about the weight of him in bed next to me, if he's a generous lover. If he'd make breakfast in the morning; if he even knows how to cook. I wonder what my name would sound like on his tongue when he's about to come.

I wonder if he'd propose.

If we'd have a little house.

And a big garden.

But, then, I already have a house. And a garden. And there are too many windows, and my sons peer out from the inside, and all my ghosts peer in from the world beyond.


 

Dark already when he pulled into my driveway. The sheriff's department SUV, but he was in plain clothes, just jeans and a shirt and a leather jacket tossed into the back.

He caught me as I swept the porch in front of the office, ignored the two guests chatting happily behind us.

"Let's go somewhere."

"At this hour?"

"It's only seven."

"I have things to do, Alex."

"Do them later."

"What about Norman?"

"What about Norman?"

"I—God, you can be so annoying, you know that?"

"I've heard," he said. "Now, are you coming?"

"Coming where?"

"Portland."


 

It's cold but we leave the windows down. He drives without music, and I hold my hand out the window, making waves in the night air.

Everything smells good out here, like moss and pine and clean water and rotting wood. Like how the world was supposed to be before we came in with our concrete and our stone and our ugly housing developments.

It carries into the city as we pull off the freeway, just an hour or so on the road, and the scent of the woods behind us blends into tobacco and exhaust and Chinese restaurants selling crispy duck over mountains of rice, and in the dark it occurs to me that this is the most beautiful town one could hope to be in.

Lights and tall buildings and people wandering the streets, and even the man begging on the corner seems happy in the cold and dark, as if it were all no mind to him.

We pass brightly lit boutiques and cheesy car dealerships and college bars and archaic bookshops open all hours, and we don't say a word. Maybe because we don't need to. Maybe because there's nothing to say.

For the first time I notice a small silver chain around his neck; some sort of saint medal, though I can't make out the face or the name. It's tucked under the collar of his shirt, and he's unaware of my stare.

He drives calmly, happily, like the road soothes him.

And he still smells like sandalwood and coffee and leather.

And when he takes us up a long winding road, and pulls off to park in a patch of gravel that overlooks the whole of the city and beyond, I think about how impossible it is to love him.

And how easy.


 

He was both rough and gentle. Some men were slow and sweet. I'd had a few of those, and they were lovely. But they weren't Alex.

Alex was tender, yes, careful not to hurt or force or frighten, but he was a demanding lover, insistent and confident and primal.

He knew I didn't bend easily but he was so careful of my breaking

My legs wrapped around his waist, his jeans pushed down his hips. We didn't bother undressing; we merely climbed into the backseat, my dress bunched up, and he pulled my panties to one side, his mouth on mine the whole time. Hands on my ass, supporting my weight, holding me tightly to him.

It was sudden and unexpected and completely perfect. The heat of a single kiss evolving into a maddening need for one another. No wasted time, no wasted words; he buried himself inside me the moment I nipped his ear lobe and whispered, "I need you."

But he slowed. Took the time to kiss my wrists when I reached up to tangle my hands in his hair. Traced my collarbone with his mouth. And when he slid the straps of my dress off my shoulders, and scooped my breasts out from the cups of my bra, let them fall gently over the under wire, he sucked on each nipple until the skin was tight and sensitive and I squirmed beneath him helplessly. His thumb on my clit the entire time, a frantic but careful motion, my body bucking under him, squeezing around him. And when lust finally won out over patience, he thrust into me hard, again and again, the force of it a thrill up my spine, through my limbs, so that I nuzzled my face in the crook of his neck and bit his shoulder until I tasted blood and whispered his name like a prayer to my personal God.

It was cold, the night air pressing in, but he used his body to cover me, shield me, the weight and warmth of him a certain safety I'd never expected, and I bit his lip when he leaned in to kiss me, my arms snaking around his neck, because all I wanted was to cling to him like this, to let him take me as his nature demanded, the dominant and protecting force in this chaotic and messy world.

It was rushed, and rough, and there was little romance. It was need colliding with love and fear and something precious and terrible that I couldn't name, and when his hands tightened around me and I could feel his rhythm begin to change, could feel his breathing quicken and hear my name in his throat, new and better and strained with the impatience of lust, I knew there would be a thousand more nights like this.

Slower nights, and sweeter nights, where there were words and moans and declarations and something resembling a Hallmark moment in the middle of the erotic, but for now we didn't need any of it.

The orgasm was sudden, a shivering surprise, followed by his mere seconds later, so that we rocked together, trembled together, locked together while I trilled out my pleasure and he groaned low and steady, his voice twisted in a certain sort of agony. And I heard my name as he came, his fingers tangled in his hair, and I was still shuddering when I felt him kiss my jaw and my forehead and my temple, and he whispered his love and his devotion and all the not-so-secret things he'd been desperately trying to place at my feet.

Arms around me, securing me to him, he rolled us like a shark, until he was on his back, stretched out across the seat, and I rested comfortably against him, head on his chest.

I could see the stars through the skylight, and he traced patterns on the skin between my shoulder blades.

And it seemed wrong—cruel, even—to interrupt the clean silence, but I couldn't help myself:

"I don't know if I can tell you about my ghosts just yet."

"We can wait until they're shadows."

"What if they're never shadows?"

"I'll wait as long as it takes."

"But what if—"

"As long as it takes, Norma."

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