Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://download.archiveofourown.org/works/6612616.

Rating:
Mature
Archive Warning:
Choose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Category:
F/M
Fandom:
Bates Motel (2013)
Relationship:
Norma Bates/Alex Romero
Character:
Alex Romero, Norma Bates
Additional Tags:
Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Love, Sex, Romance
Stats:
Published: 2016-04-21 Updated: 2016-06-13 Chapters: 2/? Words: 7015

The Trick is Not Minding That it Hurts

by

Summary

He doesn't know what it is, exactly, but Sheriff Alex Romero is certain something haunts Norma Bates. Concerned by her erratic-and increasingly desperate-behavior, he sets out to uncover the source of her distress, and along the way must confront the reality of his feelings for her and the long-buried guilt over his mother's death. [For Caitleg23. Rated M for sexual content.]

Part One

Note: This is a short series that spans both Season 3 and Season 4.  Beware of impending S4 spoilers if you've not yet seen the episodes.


 

136 Days Before

The witching hour had come and gone, leaving in its wake the first traces of dawn, an inescapable reminder than I'd yet to sleep.

Stationed in my favorite leather chair, I watched the clock above the window whisk away the minutes of my life.

3:58.

3:59.

4:00.

I'd settled in with a glass of bourbon around midnight, and what I'd meant to be a single drink and twenty minutes of quiet turned into three quarters of a bottle and four hours of nothingness. A half-sleep, really, eyes open and mind wandering here and there, but mostly just a mental stillness—rumination eased by the alcohol—that allowed for something resembling rest.

Sleep had never proved restful. Too much time spent trying to drift off, and the more I tried the more bullshit my mind conjured up to keep me awake. Then came the dreams, or nightmares, if I was particularly unlucky, and by the time six a.m. rolled around there wasn't enough caffeine in the world to ease the sort of hangover I'd experienced nearly every day of my adult life.

To be fair, it'd been less of a problem recently. Which was not to say I suddenly found myself sleeping like a baby each and every night, but rather that I'd recently become aware of the fact that, on the nights I had prolonged interactions with one Norma Bates, even if those interactions were exhausting and aggravating and generally unpleasant, I didn't dream.

I toyed with the idea of crawling into bed. Maybe I'd get lucky with the bourbon and the impending sunrise (I'd always found it easier to sleep in daylight, though what that revealed about me I couldn't say) and be able to nap until the garbage trucks rolled up beneath my window.

But before I'd so much as set my drink on the table next to me, there came a loud knock.

And then another.

And another.

I stood; craned my neck to peer through the small window embedded in the door; caught a flash of mussed blond hair; sighed.

Norma. Pounding on my front door so hard, so insistently, I thought she'd break it down.

"Alex," she said, breathless, as if she'd run here or I'd kept her waiting for hours, when in actuality it took less than a solid thirty seconds to cross from chair to door and throw it open. "Didn't you hear me? I've been knocking for hours."

"Hours?"

"You said if I ever needed anything I just had to call and here I am and you leave me waiting, and—" Words rushed out one after another, the syllables slurring together in a vaguely incoherent mass of sharp T's and long S's, but it wasn't until she swayed on her feet, nearly slumped against the door frame that I caught the first whiff of alcohol.

"Are you drunk?"

"Define drunk." She giggled, though her expression hadn't softened. Still staring at me with a pinched frown, eyes narrowed at the space between my browns. Annoyed, it seemed, that I'd had the audacity to leave her on my porch for hours.

"How much have you had to drink?"

"I don't know, a couple of shots."

"A couple?"

"Yes, Alex, God. Like three or four. Maybe five."

"That's not a couple, Norma, that's—"

"Can I come in, or not?"

I thought, briefly, about refusing. Telling her to sit on the porch, wait while I called her a cab: "Go home, Norma. Get some sleep." Tempting.

It wasn't that I minded her showing up unannounced, though I certainly wasn't thrilled by the hour, but now and again I wished she'd seek me out when everything was fine. Just to say hello. To ask about my day.

But as no one shows up on a cop's porch at four-something in the morning, half-drunk and semi-belligerent, unless there's a serious matter at hand, I held the door open wider and gestured for her to come in. Steadied her uneven stride with my hand on her lower back.

She settled herself on the couch. Squirmed out of her jacket, kicked off one shoe—a beige leather pump—and let the other dangle loosely from her toes.

"So," I began, once the door was shut and locked and everything was once again (relatively) quiet in my home, "what's wrong?"

"What makes you think something's wrong, Sheriff?"

"It's four in the morning."

"So?"

"Norma." I ran a hand over my face, managed to hold back another sigh. "I'm tired." Not entirely true. Reasonably tipsy. Aware of the need for sleep. But not tired, exactly. "Just tell me what's going on."

"I'm trying to get Norman into a hospital. A nice one."

"You're worried about him?"

She nodded, and I watched her eyes flick from her shoe to me to the bottle of bourbon on the table next to my chair. "I think maybe he's getting worse." She swallowed hard. An attempt, I thought, to fight back tears. "Whatever that means."

"That's why you're here? You need help with him…?"

"What?" She glanced back to me, blinked, confused. But then she shook her head. "Oh, no. No. He's fine. I took him to a doctor last week, they gave us something that's supposed to help him sleep. Seems to work okay." She broke off, pointed to the bourbon. "Mind sharing?"

I poured her a drink silently. Sat down on the couch with her, bottle still in hand. Winced when she drowned the entire glass in one go, held it out towards me for another.

"What, no lecture?" she asked. Not a harsh tone. Just on the edge. Teasing, with intent. And she was watching my face the whole time, the same way I'd been watching hers while she drank; trying to gauge a reaction, discern a motive, work out something resembling a clue as to just what the Hell was going on.

But I just shook my head, poured her another drink. She was already drunk, after all. No way I could let her drive home, though I'd noticed her Mercedes haphazardly parked in my drive when I'd opened the door, and I wasn't thrilled that she'd driven over here.

That particular "lecture," however, could wait until she was sober.

"It's good," she said, tossing back the second shot, gesturing for another. Frowned when she saw me hesitate. Relaxed when I topped her off; rolled her eyes when I told her to take this one slowly. But she took a small sip, an almost mocking obedience, and smirked over the rim of her glass. "Not that I know anything about bourbon. But this tastes like it matters. Like it's expensive."

"It was a gift."

"I'll bet." Another sip. She was still dangling her shoe, twisting it back and forth on her toes. It was distracting, kept drawing my attention, which drew my gaze to her ankle and her legs and only when I realized she was staring at me, a lazy smile stretched over her face, did I look away, clear my throat. "I bet you get a lot of gifts, Sheriff."

"I suppose so—what're you doing?"

She'd set her glass down. Flicked off her shoe. Leaned in against me, sudden and without warning, so that I could feel the heat of her against me, fingers sliding through my hair, a hit of warm, moist breath against my neck.

"All those grateful people. All those women." Her lips pressed against the pulse in my neck, made me keenly aware of my rapidly skyrocketing blood pressure. "You rush in and save them, right? And I bet they're just dying to repay you."

"Norma, that's not—this isn't—"

I heard the tips of her nails brush the fly of my jeans before I felt her fingers fumble with the zipper. I reached for her hand, to still her or stop her or simply push it away, but she slid the tip of her tongue against the line of my neck—paused long enough to chuckle sweetly against my skin when I hissed in a breath—and nuzzled gently against my cheek.

"Just relax, Sheriff." She trailed a series of lazy kisses along my jaw. Kissed the corner of my mouth. Hummed her pleasure when my eyes drifted shut, despite how desperately I was trying to get a handle on this.

Trying—and failing—to calm down, take a deep breath, stop hyper-focusing on the way her breasts pressed against my chest through the flimsy fabric of her dress or how her hair smelled or the way my heart was beating so fast my ribs ached.

"Norma, stop," I whispered, the words strangled in the effort to speak. But then her mouth was on mine, soft and soliciting, the tip of a hot, wet tongue tracing my bottom lip, and my hands were on her waist and she was climbing into my lap.

Her fingers slid beneath my jeans; I pulled away from her mouth to kiss every inch of flesh revealed by her low-cut neckline; she pressed her cheek to my ear, moaned softly. And when I felt her hand wrap around me and I groaned, she giggled and nipped my earlobe and whispered, "I always felt safe with you."

"What?" I leaned back so I could better look at her, though she took the opportunity to kiss me again, and I had to gently push her away so that she'd answer me.

"Don't look so concerned," she said, another little riff of laughter bubbling up. "I just wanted to thank you."

It felt like a slap. Like a bucket of cold water tossed into my face. And no matter how sweetly she kissed my cheek and jaw or how utterly intoxicating the hand at my groin felt, nothing could get the sound of her voice out of my head, an endless repetition that killed whatever intimacy I'd felt brewing.

One-sided intimacy, I realized.

"Stop."

"C'mon, Alex, it's fine, just let me—"

"Norma, stop." I clamped my hand around her wrist, maybe a little harder than I'd meant to. Pushed her off my lap until she was once again settled on the cushion, staring at me, wide-eyed.

"The Hell is your problem, Alex?"

"Why are you here, Norma? What is this?" I didn't want to be angry. No point in it. Raising my voice wouldn't help anything, losing my temper wouldn't get a decent answer out of her. But I couldn't help it, no matter how much I tried. Could only feel the heat rising in my neck and face. Made me want to throw open the windows and the doors, get some fresh air.

"Alex," she said, softly, as if I'd hurt her somehow, "calm down, okay? Jesus, it's not a big deal. I don't care if we—"

"This isn't a game," I snapped. I was on my feet the moment I said it, pacing around the couch, trying to keep my hands still. Keep my shit together. "You can't just show up and here toy with me whenever you fucking feel like it."

"I'm not toying with you, for God's sake. Don't be so dramatic."

"Bullshit."

We stared at one another for a long moment, the silence stretching between us. But then her face crumpled up, tears spilling down her cheeks, and she hiccuped something that could've been "I hate you" or "you don't care" or any one of the countless barbs she'd thrown at me over the past few months, and I felt the anger drain out of me instantly.

I didn't want it to. Anger felt safe, especially around her. A sturdy shield to keep the distance between us. But her tears and her need and her desperation ruined me, wrecked me, stripped me of whatever armor I'd managed to construct over the years. And I hated it, truth be told. Hated the vulnerability and how readily I would've done anything she asked me and how we both saw it, clear as day.

"Christ, Norma," I whispered. I watched to touch her, to reach out and gather her up to me, hold her until the tears stopped and she was calm, but I kept my hands at my sides. "What's going on? What's this about?" I sat back down on the couch, though kept my distance. "Just tell me what's going on. Please."

"It's nothing." Her voice was nothing but a heartrending little squeak, and that did me in. Absolutely killed the last bit of self-restraint I'd clung to. I put my hand on her shoulder, and the second she leaned into my touch I pulled her in to me, against my chest, and she dissolved into another round of tears.

But she let me soothe her. Or try to, anyway. I stroked her hair and her back and whispered whatever came to mind. Asinine things, nonsensical things, things that contained no rhyme or reason but might calm her enough that she could talk to me.

After a few minutes the sobs subsided, replaced by the occasional hiccup or little cough.

"It's nothing," she said again, though now she wrapped her hands around my wrists tightly, as if looking for some sort of anchor.

"It's obviously not nothing." I said it as gently as I could, not wanting to upset her further. "But I can't help unless you tell me."

"You can't help." She shook her head, took in a shuddering breath. "It's just … sometimes I start thinking about my mother, and I get like this."

"Your mother?"

"Mm." She pulled away from me just long enough to grab the glass of bourbon she'd temporary forgotten on the table, but returned to me soon enough. "She was so unhappy. I think she blamed us for everything. Like, if Caleb and I hadn't come along, then she could've been free. Maybe left our father, done something with her life." She took a sip, and when she paused her tone was firm. "She hated us."

"I'm sure she didn't hate yo—"

"You don't know," she snapped. But then she softened. "Just … just trust me. I would've given anything for her to be happy. But I don't think she ever really wanted children."

"But that's not your fault," I said. An asinine, pointless comment, but the only thing I could think of to say. "You know that, don't you?"

"Sure. Sure, you know. But, I mean, Norman made me so happy. Maybe he was the only thing that ever brought any joy into my world." A pause, and then: "And Dylan, too, though I maybe didn't realize it until now. But sometimes I just think: why couldn't we do that for her? It's not like we wanted her to give up everything for us. Couldn't she find a trace of something in us to love?"

"If she couldn't, then it as her loss."

"Mm, I suppose." Alcohol or exhaustion slurred her words, and she as growing increasingly drowsy and gentle. Nestled against my side, she tucked her head under my child, fingered the button on my jeans, though this time it was playful, nigh tender, and utterly free of sexuality. "You never talk about your mother."

"I've told you just about everything there is to know."

"No. No, you told me how she died. But you never talk about her."

I didn't say anything. Just stroked her back idly, hoped she'd drift off to sleep sooner rather than later.

She didn't.

"It hurts too much? Is that it?" she asked.

"I try not to think about it."

"About her, you mean?"

"Her. The way she died. My father. All of it."

"And you can do that? You can shut it out, just like that?"

"Sometimes."

"Must be nice."

"It's harder around you. You remind me of her."

I felt her shift, looked down to find her staring up at me, tears dried and eyes intent, curious.

"Is that a good thing?"

"It's not a bad thing," I whispered. I traced my thumb over her chin, up across the blade of her cheekbone.

She frowned a bit, biting into her bottom lip. And I thought I saw the tears build again, or at least the first threat of them, but she shook her head and shook them away and leaned down to kiss my shoulder through my shirt and whispered, "Do you hate me for it?"

"Hate you?"

She merely nodded. Didn't try to meet my eyes.

"Sometimes I wish I cared less," I admitted. "But I can't."

We fell into silence again. I wasn't sure if she didn't hear me or simply didn't care. Or, Hell, maybe it didn't warrant a response. But it was a peaceful quiet, free of tension or the rush to fill it. Just our breathing slowly syncing up, and her hair brushing my chin and the tips of her fingers traveling from my jeans to the buttons on my shirt, looking for something to touch, to keep her stable, in the moment.

"Alex?" she asked after several minutes.

"Hm?"

"You'd help me if I asked you to, wouldn't you?"

"With what?"

"I mean, you'd protect me. If I needed you to."

"Norma," I said. I hooked a finger under her chin, tilted her face up towards mine. "Protect you from what?"

"Nothing." She said it quickly. Too quickly, in point of fact, and though I wanted to argue she rushed to continue: "It's just that I … I don't ever really feel safe. But it's not so bad with you. That's all."

Silence.

"So, you will, right?"

I didn't like where this was going. Or, rather, I didn't like all that I felt she wasn't telling me. But the rim of her eyes were red—alcohol and the late hour and some secret thing tugging at her—and she looked at me with such open need that I couldn't bring myself to push her. Not now, anyway.

"Of course."

"Promise."

"I promise."

Chapter 2

127 Days Before

I often thought of my mother when night fell. Easier to block it out during the day, endless activity to capture my attention. If it wasn't a drug bust then it was a domestic dispute, and if all else failed there were court dates and paperwork and deputies eager for praise or in need of scolding.

Needed to keep moving. Like a shark, I realized. Something I'd heard from Bob Paris: "You gotta keep moving, Alex. Like sharks do, you know? They stop swimming, they die. Maybe you're the same way."

Years ago, that conversation. Eighteen, maybe nineteen. We'd been bullshitting about girls, football season, and how I'd never felt fulfilled in school or at home. Not when everything seemed motionless, static.

Less than a year later I'd realized he was right. Dropped out of college and enlisted in the marines.

Calmer days, as ridiculous as it sounded. The marines ran on startling efficiency, each day planned weeks in advance. Unless you were batched and shipped out to some desert, you always knew where you'd be. What was expected.

Follow the rules, clean your gun, keep your shit together and your cot made up with hospital corners, and you were golden. Do your rounds, show up for P.T. without a grimace, and nobody gave a goddamn how much you drank on the weekends, or if you clocked in for duty one morning reeking of stale cigarette smoke, cheap perfume, and beer.

Spent a good few years that way. Thrived on it. Liked my sidearm and my bunk mates and the simple clarity my job required.

Then I hit 24, stationed in California, as it were, and the call came.

"It's bad, Alex," my father said, voice hushed over the dim roar of indecipherable background noise. A hospital, I'd discover later. "She wants to see you."

Family leave, my superiors called it. A few tacked on Emergency in what I'm sure they thought was kindness and I found to be an insult.

It'd be another year before I understood how right they were. How that call was the harbinger of pain; the beginning of the end.

Now, when the phone rang and jarred me from sleep at 3:27 a.m., the twenty-two years following my mother's death primed me for what was almost always the inevitable.

"Alex?" I hadn't even had time to say hello before Norma started in. "Alex, I need you. Please. It's urgent."


"You came."

3:49 a.m. when my SUV pulled into the Bates Motel driveway and I ran up the stairs, taking two at a time.

I'd been in bed, albeit wide awake, when she called. Threw on the nearest thing I thought, though wasn't entirely sure, was clean. Drove fifteen over the speed limit the entire way through town, narrowly avoided ramming into a deer on one of the winding back roads.

"But why are you out of breath?"

"What's wrong?" I asked. Came out rushed as I gulped down a bit of air. Needed to stop with the damn bourbon. You'd think I'd smoked a pack a day for twenty years the way my heart was hammering again my chest. "What's happened?"

"What do you mean?"

"What's happened?" I asked again. I had my sidearm but little else, and though I was glancing around the side of the house and down into the parking lot (hadn't seen anything there, either) the area seemed oddly still. Probably wouldn't need it; was pleased enough to have it, all the time. "Is it Norman?"

"Is what Norman?"

"Norma," I said, trying—and failing—to keep the impatience out of my voice, "you called me in the middle of the night and begged me to come over. You said it was urgent. What's the problem?"

"It is urgent. But nothing's wrong. I just wanted some company."

"Company?"

"Mhm." Her ready smile turned into a soft frown, eyebrows pinching together as she properly took me in. I watched her eyes scan over me, head to toe and back up again, and when she once again landed on what I assumed was my wary expression, she put a hand on her hip and scoffed quietly under her breath. "Did you run over here? You're sweating. And panting."

"Ran up the stairs."

"I've seen you run up the stairs plenty of times. Never seen you like this afterward."

"When a woman calls me at three in the goddamned morning and tells me she needs me and that it's urgent, I assume there's a problem. So I took the stairs a bit faster than normal, Norma."

"Well, there's no problem."

"Obviously."

"God, don't be so snippy. Every time I see you you're in a bad mood. It's like you don't know how to be happy, even for the tiniest second. Can't you just relax?"

I narrowed my eyes at her, leaned back against the porch railing. Took a minute to catch my breath, to really fill my lungs with the cool night air. Fragrant already, though summer had yet to hit in full bloom. Oregon air always struck me as open, and clean, and laden with the scent of moss and the night-blooming jasmine that had a surprisingly way of creeping along the sides of highways and old buildings.

For for a long moment I wanted to say, "I can't believe you," only I could believe her. And part of me wanted to say "Fuck this," or maybe even "Fuck you," because I hated this. Hated it.

I hated the way she called and, no matter the hour or the circumstance, I was ready and rushing towards her without a second thought. I hated the way she said I need you, and how every syllable of that brief sentence thrilled me, killed me, lit up every nerve and desire and ancient drive to protect and provide so that I was nigh helpless whenever she uttered it.

I hated that I couldn't even be angry with her for this, for rousing me out of bed at nearly four in the morning, because I was the one who failed to ask questions.

I hadn't asked: what do you need? What's wrong? Are you alright?

I had only said: It's okay. Don't be afraid. I'll be right there.

And all because of those three simple words: I need you.

But I couldn't tell her any of that, so I settled for, "I'm going home, Norma. Goodnight."

I kicked my weight off the railing and started down the steps, ignoring the way she called after me until, mid-way down, I heard the first trace of alarm crack through her voice.

"Alex, please. Please? So there's not a problem, so what? Why do men have to fix everything? Just because nothing's wrong doesn't mean I don't need you."

"Why? If there's not a problem, then why—"

"It's just so quiet."

"That's not a reason."

"It's the only one I have." Pause. I let my eyes wander of her; the mess of delicate, curly blonde hair. Blue satin robe, nearly matched her eyes. Nearly. Nothing could ever truly match them, not really. And the slender hands that so frequently clutched at me; slapping me or pulling at my jacket or snaked around my neck when she wanted someone to hold her but refused to vocalize it. "I don't want to be alone. I don't have a better reason than that, okay? It's too quiet, and Norman's sleeping, and I want you to stay."

I nodded gently, though in the dark she couldn't see me, and thus she asked, "Please? Don't say no, Alex, not to this."

I'd decided to stay from the first moment I pulled into her driveway, I realized. I'd assumed something or someone frightened her, hurt her, and I had every intent of sleeping on her couch, sidearm within reach, until mid-day.

Saying no, leaving, it was all a bluff. A way to convince myself she didn't have any power over me.

A ridiculous goddamn lie.

And I wondered, briefly, if she knew it.


Norman fast asleep, courtesy the latest round of sedatives, we were free to rustle around her kitchen, rather unconcerned with noise. She'd had the radio on when I walked in, some station I'd never heard of playing old music I didn't particularly care to listen to, but she seemed happy enough with it, and as she turned it down once we settled in it didn't bother me much.

Raspberry sorbet in a small crystal bowl (for her), black coffee with a slug of whiskey (for me). I sat on the kitchen counter while she sat at the table, seemingly only half-aware of me as she ate.

After five minutes or so, tired of listening to a song I loathed, I made my best—and pathetic—attempt at small talk. "So, Norman's been sleeping well?"

"Are you seriously asking me if my son's been sleeping well? Like, what is he, a toddler?"

"No, I just meant—"

"Honestly, you sound like one of those judgmental moms at a playground. 'Oh, is your kid doing his nights yet? No? What a shame.' Next you'll be asking me where I get my highlights."

"You get highlights?"

"Do you get lowlights?"

"I don't even know what lowlights are."

"No? Your hair's pretty dark for a man in his late forties."

"And? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Does the station keep a stash of L'Oreal for Men in the backroom?"

"Don't be a smart ass, Norma. That shit's not funny." But I was smiling despite my best intentions, the corner of my mouth curving up no matter how much I tried to keep an even expression. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Not even a tinge of gray, Sheriff. Either that comes out of a box or you're hiding a history of black magic."

"It does not come out of a box."

"So, it's not—Oh, wait. Oh, my God," she said.

"What?" My coffee cup mid-air, hovering an inch or so from my mouth, I felt my smile die instantly. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, my God," she said again, bringing a hand to her mouth, eyes wide with alarm.

"What?" I asked again, my tone laced with evident concern. I slid off the counter, set my coffee cup down on the counter, touched her shoulder. "Tell me what's wrong."

She shook her head silently, as if unable to speak. Her fingers still pressed into her pursed little mouth, and I was seconds away from asking her for the third time what was upsetting when she looked up at me, the corners of her eyes crinkled with amusement.

"It's not from a box," she said.

"What?"

"Oh, my God. The Big Daddy of White Pine Bay goes to a hairdresser." I didn't say anything. Just stared at her, face set hard, hand lingering on her shoulder. "Admit it!"

I wasn't admitting shit. Just glowering, eyes narrowed, trying to think of something clever to say but failing.

Somewhere, underneath, I had the ridiculous urge to tug her hair, like a little boy in the schoolyard who pinches the girl he's had a crush on for weeks. Juvenile, and asinine, and the millionth example in one evening of the power she had over me.

A power I detested, and attempted to ignore at every turn.

"You're blushing," she said, snapping me out of my furious internal monologue. And she was right, too, I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks, my skin no doubt flushed, because I was embarrassed. Not by the conversation but the lack of control I had over myself in her presence.

How easily I lied and fought and rushed to her side. How easily I killed. All because she looked at me with the first hint of tears in her eyes, offered me her fear with the wide-eyed faith—if not downright expectation—that I would find a way to soothe it.

"I'm not blushing," I said, quietly.

"You are—"

"You're beautiful."

She paused, visibly thrown. Lips pursing into a frown I found strangely alluring—I wanted to kiss the pulse in her neck until she shivered and moaned softly and that frown was eradicated—each delicate curve of her face cinching together.

It's an expression I'd seen countless times; her annoyance, the borderline anger, the I-don't-know-what's-happening-here-but-I-already-dislike it expression, and while at times it frustrated me tonight I found it charming. Merely another piece of the puzzle that was Norma Bates; the complete package of a woman I cared for beyond my own comprehension, and each scar and whim and instinctive, knee-jerk tantrum was infuriating and exhilarating.

"What?" she asked, eventually. That single word nearly half of our shared vocabulary tonight, apparently.

"You," I whispered, tracing the tip of my thumb over the curve of her chin. Her eye widened, but she didn't pull away. "You're beautiful."

"Because I think you dye your hair?"

"No." I chuckled, shook my head. "But also, yes. In a way."

"Which way is that?" she asked, but by that time my thumb ghosted from her chin to her cheek, and her voice lowered, softened, and she shied away from my gaze, the first hint of a blush rising to the surface. "I mean, you know, you don't need to tell me. It's fine. Everything's fine—"

"Norma."

"We're just bullshitting around, you don't have to take everything so seriously."

"I don't know how to explain it," I admitted. I shrugged, let my hand fall away from her face—she still hadn't met my eyes. "It just is."

Finally, after a long stretch of silence, she peeked up at me, the blue of her eyes half-hidden but a tumble of blonde hair. She blushed fully when I swept it off her forehead.

"That doesn't bother you?"

"Sure it does. All the time." She watched me intently as I lowered myself into a chair across from her. Felt the urge to take her hand in mine, smooth the pad of my thumb over her knuckles. I'd always loved her hands; small and delicate in my own, the fingers long but slender, I was silently and secretly thrilled whenever she touched me. "Sometimes I hate it. But I've stopped questioning it."

"Alex, I…." Voice barely above a whisper. I thought she might confess that she felt the same; some intangible pull drawing us towards one another. Or, maybe, that she'd lean in against me, let me touch her, hold her. Instead, her face crumpled into something that looked precariously close to tears, and said, "I'm tired, Alex. I'm so tired. I just want to sleep."

Dark shadows beneath her eyes, no doubt about that. I'd assumed … what? That the late hour was responsible? But as I looked at her I saw only the telltale signs of long-standing exhaustion: lines etched around the corners of her mouth, brows pinched together, and those goddamn dark circles. So purple they reminded one of bruises.

"Alright. Okay, Norma. Then you need to sleep. So why am I here?"

"I told you. I wanted company."

"At the price of exhaustion?"

She bit her bottom lip, glanced off towards the side, as if unsure of what she wanted to say. But then she shrugged, a lazy, nigh helpless lift of one shoulder, and cocked her head to the side when she said, "I was hoping you'd stay the night."

"Why didn't you just say that on the phone?"

"I thought you wouldn't come."

"And letting me think something was horribly wrong was a better option?"

"I didn't want to risk you saying no." Another shrug. "You always come when I really need you."


It took twenty minutes to get her upstairs. She hemmed and hawed each time I suggested it, even going so far as to get up out of her chair and flit around the kitchen—dishes need washing, somebody should clean out the old greens from the refrigerator, I think I should put a load of towels in the laundry before sleep—until finally I'd manage to corner her, literally blocking her erratic path with my body until she stilled, looked up, and sighed.

"You need sleep," I whispered, hands securely on her biceps. Not tight, exactly, but not about to let her dash off in another direction. "That's why you wanted me here, isn't it?" She nodded. "Then let me help you."

Ready to drop by the time I directed her up the stairs, she nevertheless made it to her dresser. I stood outside in the hallway just beyond her door, my back against the wall, as I listened to her rifle through drawers. The sound of fabric on skin, zippers, the clack of heels thrown in the corner of the room.

I listened, and I waited, and I tried not to think. About how it was nearly five in the morning—I was supposed to be at work in three hours, but I didn't particularly see that happening now—and how there was a beautiful, fragile, impossibly strong, unusual woman undressing a mere four feet from me. A woman who needed me, or at least believed that she needed me, and depended upon my swift arrival whenever she called.

Of course, I also tried not to think about how much I needed to be needed. That was the thorn in all of this, the sliver of a thought I'd held at bay as long as possible. The one goddamned truth I refused to let in.

"You can come in now."

She was already settling herself into bed when I walked in, and despite my best intentions I froze in the doorway when I caught a glimpse of her.

The barely-there silk, more a mockery of my weak self-control than a proper nightgown, slipped over her breasts, down her sides. I watched the hem, plastered alluringly to the pale expanse of her thighs, disappear under the quilts when she pulled them up to her shoulders.

"Alex? Are you okay?" If she'd caught me staring—caught the shortness of breath or the tunnel vision or the way I couldn't stop clenching and unclenching my fists—she made no mention of it.

"I'm fine," I said. Or, rather, snapped. Embarrassed, the words rushed out all at once, harsher than I'd intended. "I'm fine," I said again, softer this time. Shrugged out of my jacket, set my sidearm and its holster on a chair beside the dresser. "You want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?"

"No."

"No?" I walked to her side of the bed, pulled the covers up near her chin, as she'd done with me that day I'd been drunk and lonely and wrecked by too many family memories and a rage I couldn't contain. When she'd driven me back to the motel, tucked me in, shied away from my haphazard affection. "I thought that's why you wanted me here?"

"No, I mean, I want you to stay the whole night. Or day, I guess. In here. With me."

"Norma, I don't think—"

"In this bed."

I wanted to say, "I don't know if that's a good idea," but her fingers slid around my wrist, tugged, urged me down towards her. And even that wasn't enough until I saw the first shimmer of fought-back tears, and heard her delicately whimper, "Please."


I didn't know how long we'd slept. An hour, maybe two. The sun was nothing more than a pale, dim light beyond the curtains when I rolled onto my back, stretched.

Still fully clothed, save the shoes I'd shoved under her bed. It felt safe, having the denim and flannel as a barrier against her warm skin and the cool silk. Not that it saved me when she nestled up against my side, the tips of her fingers sliding past the buttons of my shirt, seeking out tender and responsive flesh.

"You're awake," she whispered, her voice not much more than a gust of warm air on my neck. I felt the skin prickle every time she breathed, my eyes already wide open, locked onto her ceiling. Trying to focus.

"Mhm."

"Did you sleep?"

"A little."

"Me too. Really well." A soft little yawn, she nuzzled her face into the crook of my neck, the tip of her nose cold to the touch, a contrast to the sudden brush of her lips over my pulse.

"Well," I said, all too aware of how I sounded—strangled, unsure, strung tight, "you should try to get back to it."

"Your heart's beating so fast." She was right. I could barely hear her over the pulse roaring in my ears, and when she pressed her lips to my neck, kissed the pulse full-flush, without hesitation, I felt my hands shake. Dig my fingers into my thighs to keep them still.

"Norma, don't," I whispered. The air was thick between us; the room smelled close, like her perfume and my sweat and the mutual want building with a fire and a rapidity I'd been ill prepared for. "This isn't a good idea right now." But then the fingers that had toyed with my shirt suddenly found their way to the fly of my jeans, her nails tapping and tracing over the metal teeth, and though I could barely feel it hear nearness was overwhelming, and I tried to bite back a groan. Failed. Felt her thrilling trill of a laugh against my jaw, and the series of delicate, pecking kisses that followed.

"I think it's a great idea."

Electricity thrummed through my body; every nerve on fire, every inch of skin buzzing, humming with the need for her. But it was only when I felt her hand slide beneath my jeans, beyond the fabric of my boxers, the pads of her fingers cool and gentle and searching, that I clamped down on her wrist, shook my head.

"Norma, stop." Voice breathy, the words a mangled jumble of gasps for air. "I need you to stop." Didn't sound overly convincing, not even to myself. But I didn't let go of her wrist.

Her hand had stilled but she pressed her body in closer, didn't stop kissing my neck. "Why?"

"Because," I said, pausing to suck in a deep, rattling breath. Trying to get a handle on things. Trying to keep my shit together. "Because if you don't, I won't be able to bring myself to stop you."

"But that's—"

"And I'd never forgive myself for it," I said, and she stilled completely. Pulled her back to look at me, really look at me, for perhaps the first time since I'd shown up on her doorstep hours previous. "Not tonight. Not like this."

I watched her face for a reaction. Watched rejection collide with fear and hope and curiosity, each flicker of emotion displayed with stunning, heartbreaking clarity in her eyes. But all she asked was, "Why?"

"Why did you want me to stay here tonight?" Finally, I let go of her hand. Let her draw it back, cradle the wrist as if I'd hurt her, though I knew I hadn't.

"Because."

"Because why?"

"I just wanted to feel …"

"…Safe?" I ventured.

She said nothing, but nodded. Slowly, softly, warily.

"Then don't ask me to ruin that. Because you'd hate me tomorrow."

"No, Alex, I wouldn't, and you—"

"You would. And I'd hate myself."

Silence. Just her stare; wide-eyed, guarded, confused.

"Now," I said, adjusting position to better look at her, and put a bit of needed distance between us. "Tell me why you're scared, Norma. Please. Tell me why I'm here."

And when her face crumpled into a pained, desperate, heartrending ball of tears, and she whimpered something that sounded like my name, distance was forgotten and I pulled her fully into my arms and stroked her and told her how everything would be all right, everything would be okay, because of all the people I had known, she was certainly the last to be doomed in the end.

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