bi - na - ry / st - ar
a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common barycenter.
Bourbon and hand-me-down stories. Few things were more predictable than small town bars, and Harold's was no exception. A gin joint ninety years out of place, trapped in the memories of prohibition, it thrived on low stools and high prices, poker tables tucked away in corners behind velvet curtains, pretty waitresses that smiled by rote but never looked you in the eye.
My father had been a regular and I'd tagged along, too young to drink or wander the town by myself, though in retrospect I didn't know if he'd much care had I slipped out the back door and made it down to the harbor to go fishing. Would've been preferable to stumbling around the local drunks, vaguely acknowledged, privy to conversations I never should've heard but was not invited to join.
It was there I learned the truth about my mother, long before my father sat me down to explain why she wouldn't be home for Christmas or, later, why I wasn't allowed to climb up on the bathroom sink and peer into the medicine cabinet. She was a point of interest for the locals, though they harbored enough sense to keep their mouths shut around him, all the tantalizing details I'd craved during her various absences in my young life suddenly cut off with a clearing of a throat and a long sip of alcohol when he passed by.
But that was years ago. Decades, in point of fact, though now and again my blood alcohol's slow climb lulled me into a false sense of primacy, the days when everything was fresh and raw and new, youth serving to heighten the pain of it all, whereas age would eventually temper it to something of a dull ache.
"Roy, you fucking liar, you didn't get hit with agent orange."
Laughter and the din of the small crowd around me snapped me back to the present, and I shook my head, squeezed my eyes shut long enough to clear the blurred mosaic of memories and images slowly piecing together in my mind, and finished the last dregs of my bourbon before signaling the waitress.
I leaned back in my chair, my attention drifting to the conversation occurring at the table across from me, not particularly interested but thankful for the distraction.
"Did I say that? No, I didn't, you goddamn drunk. What I said was, I turned purple in Vietnam. The fuck said that had shit to do with agent orange?"
"I guess I just assumed."
"Goddamn right you did. Fuck that. Agent Orange, my ass. It was the goddamn avocados."
"Ate 'em every day. Couldn't get enough. We didn't have that shit in Michigan. Not back then, anyway. So I land in Vietnam and I see these weird trees everywhere, and then I finally get some leave, head to Saigon, and this pretty girl hands me—"
"Pretty girl? Shit, you mean a hooker?"
"The fuck else would I mean, Ted? We're talking Saigon, not Barcelona. Like some sweet village girl's gonna hang around a G.I.? Speaking of—sweetheart, can you top this off for me? Right, that's great, thanks. Anyway, like I was saying, hooker or not, this pretty girl hands me an avocado, and it's the first time I've ever had one. Delicious! I'm obsessed. And it's the first time I've been with a girl like her, too, if you catch my drift, so this goddamn avocado is starting to morph into something almost sentimental. And when I get back to the barracks I realize all those ridiculous looking trees are avocado trees, and I spend the next three weeks plucking 'em off branches every change I get."
"And then you turned purple?"
"Right. Woke up one morning and my hands are covered in this rash-like shit, and my arms and legs are all swollen and purple, and I'll admit, my first that was, 'Fuck me, that orange shit got me, I'm gonna die in the barracks like a fuckin' moron.'"
"See? It was a reasonable assumption, asshole. Yelling at me for thinking the same damn thing."
"Right, but it wasn't Agent Orange, thank you. So my second thought was, 'Jesus Christ, that pretty hooker back in Saigon gave me something, so now I'm gonna die just for the sake of a good time.'"
"There are worse ways to go."
"Well, sure. Sure there are, Ted, but that's not really the point. When you wake up looking like a fuckin' eggplant, your first thought is not, 'Thank you, sweet Jesus, for letting me have one last sprint in the sack before I die.' It's 'oh fuck me, no, please, I'm gonna die and I still haven't washed those socks and my momma's gonna kill me, none of which matters because I'm doing to die.'"
"Plus, the whole purple thing. Can't have an open casket like that."
"Exactly, Ted. Exactly right. First you die, then you break your Momma's heart further because you're too damn ugly to put on display for a proper funeral. And we're Irish, you know, we're all about funerals."
"I get it, Roy. I'm Italian, you know, we're the same."
"Right. Good to know. Anyway, like I was saying. Eventually I manage to get my ass to the infirmary, and everybody's in a panic, because they're thinking the same thing, you know? Agent Orange, or an STD, or some tropical virus nobody's ever heard of. And then they get me on a gurney and the nurses are all sweet-like, talking to me like I'm their little brother or something, because they're sure I'm gonna die. There's IVs, and tests, and people running everywhere, and somebody trying to keep my calm, and after a few hours of this shit the doctor comes back all grim-faced, and he sits down, leans over to me. The bastard's so serious I'm sure this is it. T-minus 30 seconds, I'm off to meet my maker. Right?"
"But you didn't."
"'Course I didn't. Sitting right here, aren't I? Jesus, Ted, sometimes, I swear, you—Christ. Okay. Anyway. So this doctor leans over, and I'm preparing for the worst, and once his mouth is, like, half an inch from my ear, he whispers all gentle and shit: 'Son, I'm pretty sure you're allergic to avocados.' And he's trying to be quiet to spare me the embarrassment, I guess, because let's just say I've been a bit theatrical due to what I assumed was my rapidly approaching death, but he's not quiet enough, because I very distinctly heard a giggle from one of those nurses, and I didn't even need to look up to confirm that. I was just like, 'Doc, please, be merciful and put one right between the eyes, would you?'"
"But he didn't."
"…No, Ted. No, he didn't. But once that story made it around camp I sure as shit wished he had."
"Alex," Bernard, who'd tended bar nearly as long as I'd been alive, waved a hand at me from behind the bar. "You hearing this shit?"
"Sure, Bernie," I said. I nodded towards the two men at the table—Roy and Ted, apparently, faces I'd seen but never properly encountered until now—and quietly thanked the waitress once she eventually made it over to fill my glass.
"Shit, you're the Sheriff, aren't you?" Roy asked.
"So they say."
"I've seen you around here," he said, tipping his glass towards me, a friendly, if somewhat boozy, gesture. "What're you doing here at this hour? Kinda late for you, innit? Hell, I think you're usually heading out by the time Ted and I roll on in."
Bernard nodded. "That's true, Alex. Bit odd to see you here. Never have been much of a night owl, unlike your old man."
"Night owl? Shit, what time is it?" I asked.
"We passed last call forty minutes ago."
"And you're still serving?"
"This is Harold's, Alex. Who's gonna make a fuss?"
"You, and your Daddy, and every other cop in this town have all, at one point or another, popped in here for a slightly-less-than-legal drink. Nobody's gonna shut us down."
He's not wrong, I thought. Not at all. We'd all been operating on a shadow system in this town, hadn't we? From the beginning, maybe, or at least long enough I couldn't remember when it all started. Some said my father ushered it in; others claimed it'd been in place long before he ever arrived. Long enough to date back to the founding families.
But I just said, "That's probably true, Bernie," because that was a rabbit whole I didn't want to fall down, there was too much to get lost in, and thus I stood to leave. "How much do I owe you?"
"On the house tonight."
"That's kind, Bernard, but no need."
"With all do respect, Sheriff," Bernard said, squinting at my face intently from behind the bar, "there is. You look like shit."
The mirror behind him confirmed as much. Grey around the edges, it seemed to me. Not just age but a pervasive sense of misery, dark circles beneath my eyes the telltale sign of … what? A shitty day at work or a wife that loathed me or a marriage that was never supposed to be real, yet was, and now may have very well crumbled into dust within the confines of my office.
And how long had I been here, anyway? Took off straight after my shift, damn near broke the speed limit trying to get here as quickly as possible, drink away the memory of Norma's face mere hours earlier. Something so close to what felt like hatred I had to block it out just to get through a stack of paperwork, the words echoing off every dim corner of my mind.
"You've crossed a line, and you're never crossing back. I will never trust you again."
She'd ignored the texts that followed. Didn't answer when I called. Left me stewing in my office, in all the implications and the anger and the worry, the question that left me both breathless and speechless: was she right? Had I, finally, gone so far that there was no going back?
I didn't regret it. Requesting the intake forms from Pineview, talking to Dylan, taking all the steps I could to place myself between Norma and what I viewed as absolute, inescapable harm. Her presence ensured that my identify altered, evolved, built itself upon the bedrock of protection. Protection I'd been too young or too foolish to offer my mother; protection my father simply failed to provide. Protection that I would, come Hell or high water, give her.
That was love, at least as far as I was concerned. You took the knees and the elbows the world had to offer, you collected the bruises in place of someone else, and you told yourself you were damn lucky for it, too. That it was a goddamn privilege, even on the days frustration mounted and exhaustion got the better of you and you called it a burden.
Maybe it was a burden. And a privilege. And a challenge and a monstrosity and a gauntlet of every scar we'd collected both together and as individuals, the wounds between us serving only to declare us a binary star.
"Christ," I whispered. Ran a hand over my face, skin rougher than I would've liked—needed a shave, and a shower, but was too drunk to drive home for one—and cast once last glance at myself in the mirror. Alone. That was the word that came to mind as I stared at my reflection. Utterly alone; a status I'd once actively sought and now, somehow, because of her—her eyes and the tilt of her smile and the way she reminded me of memories I'd forever craved but never had—it struck as intolerable.
"Thanks, Bernie," I said. "We'll catch up next week, I'll buy you a beer, yeah?"
"Sure thing, Alex," he said. "Now go home and get some sleep, would you?"
I drove north, taking the back roads. North into winter, I thought, into the glut of snow and the cold and the realm of Boreas. North to the Bates Motel, and to a house where I was most likely no longer welcome, and a woman I wasn't sure would greet me with affection.
I'd crashed out in my SUV for a few hours, though for precisely how long I couldn't say. World still dark when I woke up, Harold's parking lot now empty. No attempted thefts in the night, no matter how vulnerable a lone, drunk, sleeping man might be; a certain usefulness to being the Sheriff, though God knows it hadn't stopped bullets or knives or the people who chose death over prison.
Not yet seven a.m., according to the clock on my dash, and by the time I pulled into the motel's gravel drive my chest felt tight with a nervousness I wasn't accustomed to and didn't care to experience in the future.
Something about control in that, if I were honest, if I bothered to really probe down deep, accept the answers I churned up. Somewhere along the line, after my mother's death, no doubt, I'd fought to shut myself off. What doesn't get in can't hurt you, and if nothing hurts you nothing drives you, and if nothing drives you, you're the one in control.
Which is what I'd grown accustomed to, really, the years spinning on as I worked my way up, first the marines and then the Sheriff's Department, moving from rookie to boss faster than a moth moves from cradle to grave.
"A. Romero displays excellent control in violent situations," one performance review read.
"Interrogation technique excellent. Romero, Alex, proves to understand the essence of controlling the flow of conversation to promptly reach confession," claimed another.
Control your flinch when an assailant lunges for you.
Control your anxiety response when you reach for your side arm.
Control your temper.
Control, control, control.
Control every goddamn element of every goddamn day until you've banished every threat, beat down every hint of harm, ensured that all are safe and no one will leave you, not by death or foolishness, because if they leave you you may very well have to face the fact that you are not made of stone, that you have not successfully kept the world out, no matter how much you'd like to believe otherwise, and that there are people—or one person, at the very least—who are capable of ripping your world to shreds with the blink of an eye.
You control, and she rebels, because it's her nature. Her beautiful wild tender terrifying enthralling nature. Because she was never yours to control to begin with. And even though you tell yourself that's not what you're doing, not really, you're just taking care of her, you're doing what you've always done, she looks at you with scorn and pity and a trace of amusement, and shakes her head and tells you to knock it off: of course that's what you're doing, good intentions or no, and haven't you figured it out by now?
She's lied and fought and killed, she's a lion in her own right, and while you may climb the mountain with her, don't ever think you're the one carrying her to the top.
"Jesus," I said aloud to no one but myself. "Even in my head she tells me off." And then I smiled, both nervous and caught up in the humor of it all, because it was so perfectly her, and even alone in the cab of my SUV I felt her with me. Still angry, no doubt, but probably waiting for me to vault up the stairs and walk in her door and hack our way through the vines of our private jungle, because that's all we knew how to do, though despite ourselves we made it work.
The house was dark and though I was tempted to let myself in ultimately I thought better of it and knocked instead.
No sounds from the interior, no flickering porch light, no signs of life so far as I could tell. The sun was just beginning to crest above the horizon, not visible in the sky though the flush of dawn's pink and purple haze had begun to creep its way through the trees. Norma probably asleep, or in the shower, and I'd wind up standing on her porch for the next hour or so, cold and irritated so that when we finally spoke I'd be short, cantankerous from my hangover and present lack of coffee. Wouldn't do at all.
My key hit the lock just in time for the door to swing open, Norma standing in the doorway, hair still mussed from sleep, dressed only in her robe and slippers.
"Alex?" Voice rough from the remnant of dreams, eyes rimmed red from what I assumed were tears. "What're you doing here? What time is it?" And then, before I could open my mouth to answer her, a preemptive hush: "Keep your voice down, Norman's still sleeping."
"It's around seven, I think. I just wanted to talk. Did I wake you?"
"No, I've been awake for a while. Thought I might make Norman some breakfast."
"And he's … doing okay?" I asked. I stepped forward a bit, peered into the hallway behind her, though she shuffled into my line if vision immediately, hands on hips. Visibly annoyed.
"He's fine. Is that what you're here for? Checking up on my son?"
I felt the stab of aggravation, fought to tamp it down. "No," I said, harsher than I'd intended. I took a deep breath, forced myself to relax, and tried again. "No, that's not why. I wanted to take a drive."
"Yeah, I thought we could go somewhere and talk."
"And we're just ignoring the fact that I said I never wanted to see you again?"
"That's not exactly what you said."
"Oh, my God." She rolled her eyes and sighed, exasperated by my apparent idiocy. "It was implied."
I stared at her for a long moment, face carefully blank. She'd struck a tender nerve, the deepest fear I'd spent the entire night and more glasses of bourbon than I could count attempting to pretend didn't exist.
Anger I could handle. Hurt. Irritation. Words flung around and doors slammed and the belligerent, adorable way she glared at me whenever she was silently calling me an ass. But the threat of being cut from her life was something else altogether.
"Was it?" My voice was soft, more quiet than I'd preferred, hinted at too much vulnerability. It felt like weakness, and I hated it. "Was it implied?"
I watched her watch me, eyes flicking over my face, trying to find an even place to land. Eventually, carefully, more gently than I'd expected, she asked, "If I said it was?"
"I'd leave." I shrugged. "If that's what you want. It doesn't change how I feel, but if I have no choice in the matter I can't fight it."
"Okay, fine. So how do you feel?"
"I'm pretty sure you know already, Norma."
"So? Maybe I don't. Maybe I want you to tell me anyway."
"Okay," I said. "Then come with me, like I asked. I want to show you something."
She glanced over her shoulder, up the stairs, to where I assumed Norman was sleeping just beyond the closed door.
"I can't, I told you."
"Norman will be fine for a couple of hours. Leave him a note." And then, as an afterthought, or maybe just my better judgment (finally, belatedly, almost annoyingly) creeping to the surface, I said, "Please."
A glut of trees and ice gave way to bare, recently salted roads winding through the low hills just beyond the town proper. She sat silently next to me, bundled up in her coat, making waves in the rushing air with her hand. I'd cranked up the heat so she could roll down the window without freezing, and though now and again she made some sound, a hum or a ha or an inarticulate murmur about something that caught her attention, the ride was pleasantly quiet, and companionable.
Soon enough I pulled into a short driveway, parked in front of the detached garage just left from a squat, two-story house that proved neither beautiful nor dilapidated, but rather assaulted once with its pervasive sense of mediocrity.
"Where as we?" she asked. She leaned forward in her seat, slipping out of her seatbelt to better squint up at the building, nose wrinkling in distaste.
"A few miles outside of town."
"No, I mean, what is this place? Do you own it?"
I shook my head. "Come on, I'll explain more inside. I want to show you around."
We crunched up the small concrete pathway, and I reached out to steady her, make sure she didn't slip on the ice. I felt, rather than saw, her eyes narrow when I reached into my pocket and produced a key, slipped it into the lock and flung the door open, gesturing her inside ahead of me.
"So you don't own it, but you have a key?"
"It's my Dad's place."
Her double-take was instant, and adorable, and I bit back a laugh. "Your Dad's? Why are we here? I thought you hated—"
"I do," I said quickly, waving her off. "But this is the house I grew up in."
"It's the house you—" Eyes wide, she trailed off, glancing from me to the non-descriptor, beige walls surrounding us.
"You can look around, if you want. Not much to see these days." But she nodded, and wandered down the hallway towards the living room, and I watched her delicately tiptoe through the maze of old furniture, now engulfed in enormous white dust covers, a concession I'd made for my mother's sake when my father was locked up, never mind that at the time I'd sworn I'd never return.
"There's no pictures in here!" she shouted at me from the living room. She'd moved past my line of sight, and I had no urge to go retrieve her. I'd always loathed this house, from the early days, when I was a kid ducking away from my father's rage or crawling into my mother's bed to cheer her up, and especially now, when all that remained was dust and memories I didn't want to dredge up and all too tangible echo of human pain that clung to every surface. Didn't want to go exploring through areas I already knew by heart and had no great desire to be exposed to once again.
"No," I shouted back, "took them down when my Dad was arrested."
"So I don't get to see baby Alex? That's disappointing. What's the point of even being here, then?"
"I'm sure I can dredge up some old pictures for you back at the—" I'd been about to say the house. As in, the house I'd lived in before we were married, which no longer felt like my house but a storage unit I'd owned for years. "—my house. Got some shoved in a drawer, I think."
"Mm. Never been overly sentimental, huh?"
"Plenty sentimental. Just not overly so."
"Oh, I see," she said, her voice suddenly to the left of me, muffled by more space and the presence of a load-bearing wall, and I realized she'd moved beyond the living room into the depressing brown and yellow kitchen my mother both loved and abhorred. "Are you implying I'm overly sentimental, Sheriff?" Pause. "This color scheme is awful." Another pause. "No offense!"
I laughed, surprising myself; a rare feat in this house. "My mom hated it too. She loved being in there, loved cooking, but she wanted to repaint it. Was always asking my Dad to tackle it on the weekends."
"But he didn't?"
"No," I said. My tone was sour, and I knew it, and I didn't give so much as a single shit. "No, he didn't. And," I added, an afterthought, "I'm not implying you're too sentimental. I just handle myself differently than you do."
"Pfft, right." I didn't need to see her to know she was rolling her eyes, long fingers in the air, waving away the thought as if I were the biggest moron she'd ever had the displeasure of encountering.
The click of her heels across the linoleum informed me she was leaving the kitchen and heading back to the living, and after a moment her head popped around the corner. Evidently done with her tour, she strolled back over to me, hands in her pockets, face still serious but mood visibly brighter, though she had yet to admit it.
"So, in your estimation, how do I handle myself?"
"I think you—"
"This should be entertaining."
"Would you let me finish?"
"Sorry! Sorry. Please, go ahead, Sheriff."
I took a deep breath, refusing to get annoyed, precisely because I knew she was intentionally goading me into it, and began again. "I think you keep yourself open to the world in ways I never could. You still try. Constantly, over and over again, opening yourself up and letting it all in, even though it's dangerous, even though people—"
"Alex," she whispered, and I stopped, distracted from my train of thought, and glanced up. Her face was soft, eyes large with something could've been tenderness or sadness or some combination thereof, but she shook her head, a finger to her lips.
"Okay," I said gently. "Okay. Come on, this isn't what I wanted to show you." She let me take her hand and lead her up the stairs, floorboards creaking beneath our feet with every step.
In the hallway on the second floor, there were four doors to choose from. A bathroom, which was not of concern; my mother's room, which I avoided at all costs; my father's room, which was once a den but turned into a bedroom once my mother banned him from her bed and, later, her personal space in general; and, finally, nearest to us, my room.
I opened the door and we stepped in. Untouched since I was a teenager, there wasn't much to spark anyone's interest. A row of books I'd long since lost interest in, posters of 80s era movie stars whose names I'd forgotten but faces I still found beautiful, a small bed, and various meaningless trinkets I hadn't cared enough about to bother taking with me when I left at seventeen.
"It's cute!" she chirped, obviously more delighted to be here than I was.
"It's not much."
"It's very … you. I mean, maybe a little more colorful? But God, Alex, even as a kid you were stoic. Look at this!" She pointed to the bookshelf in the corner. "Hemingway. A bunch of books about boxing?" She glanced at me quizzically, head tilted like a puppy, then continued. "Kafka, Neruda, Fitzgerald. All so serious. Couldn't you have a stack of Playboys like every other teenage boy?"
"I had plenty of Playboys, thank you."
"You did?" Her interest perked, she turned to me, wide-eyed and eager. "Where are they? Under the bed?" Moving towards the bed, she pulled up the mattress to peer beneath. "C'mon, I want to learn the young Alex's many secrets."
"Not under the bed," I said, mildly. "I am not sharing my vintage Playboy stash with you. And anyway, that's not why I brought you up here."
"Then why?" It was the first proper thread of exasperation I'd heard from her all morning, the first true hint that whatever pleasantries and fun we'd shared over the forty minutes hadn't thawed the chill of our fight.
I walked across the room to the corner by my dresser, knelt down, and pried up a loose floorboard. Same technique I'd used in every house I'd ever lived in an adult; old habits died hard, it seemed.
I reached into the floor and pulled out a small metal lock box. Relatively new, it lacked the dullness and the dust of everything else in the house.
"Here," I said. She held it patiently while I rummaged around my pocket for the key. Finally, after what seemed like ages, I found it, and unlocked it for her. She lifted the top careful, arching a confused brow at me before turning her attention to the contents.
It took a moment, but eventually her eyes widened, confusion replaced by shock, replaced quickly thereafter by something that, if not exactly made of understanding, contained enough of it that she peered up at me, soft and open, and whispered, "Is this…?"
"A picture of my mother?" I nodded. "Only one I have. I mean, I'm sure there's others, somewhere. I haven't found them, though. Think she hid them. Towards the end she couldn't stand to have her picture taken, would run out of the room whenever there was a camera around. Found this in my Dad's dresser a few years back. Didn't want him to have it."
"Why keep it here, though?"
"I can't look at it too much."
"She was beautiful. And you were adorable," she said, softly. She fingered the edges of the photograph, now worn with age, murmuring quietly to herself as she stared at it. "It's fitting, isn't it? The only picture you have, but it's the best picture you could ask for."
She wasn't wrong: my mother, still young herself-maybe even a bit too young-held me, wrapped up in her arms, as we both stared at the camera. Neither of us smiling, but no trace of sadness to be found. It was a picture made of possibility, both of us young and curious and bound together by love, the most natural, inescapable love known to humankind, the bond of mother-and-child, our world and our dreams untouched by my father's chaos and the tendrils of mental illness that lingered on the periphery but had yet to make contact.
"I became a cop because of her."
Norma looked up, brows knitting into a trace of a frown. "Not because of your father?"
"No. God, no. Never him. I just …" I trailed off, glancing out the window to recalibrate, take a deep breath, try again. "She died when I was in the military. Down in California. And I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life at that point. I wasn't drifting, I always had something to do, some sense of stability, but long-term?" I shook my head. "No clue. And then I got the call that she was gone, and everything just solidified."
"Mm, I don't understand, though. Why did that make you want to come back? You don't talk about your dad much, but when you do, it's not usually flattering. Why come back here, work in the same building?"
"I wanted to be close to her. He had her cremated, even though she wanted to be buried, but he scattered her ashes locally. I guess I thought it might help, being here."
"Oh, Alex, I'm so sorry. Your Dad sounds—"
"To Hell with him. He's not who matters. She does. You do. And I became a cop because I thought I could—I don't know, I just—I thought I could do something. For people like her. For the ignored, and the forgotten, and the abused, and the vulnerable. I came back here with all these lofty goddamn ideas, that I could make a difference, that I could do something useful for a change."
"You do make a difference. This whole town runs on—"
"This whole town is a corrupt wasteland. Thanks to my father. And now, thanks to me."
"No, Alex. No, absolutely not. You can't take on that kind of responsibility. You inherited everything, you didn't have a choice. You had to make everything work."
"Maybe." The room was hot, or so it seemed to me, and I shifted in my jacket, suddenly uncomfortable. "I don't know. I tell myself that I make the right choices, I do what I need to do, and that's it all different, that I'm nothing like him."
"You're not anything like him." A flare of protective anger. I felt her hands on my arms, fingers digging into the leather of jacket, a vehemence that touched me. "Life is so hard, it's so complicated. And, God, I get so mad at you sometimes. But I've always thought you were the sort of man who did what needed to be done. And from the sounds it, that's nothing like him."
"Even when it comes to you?"
"What?" She stared at me with such open confusion I wanted to laugh, or lean in to kiss her, or at the very least gather her up to me before it all gave way to anger, or resentment, and she remembered why we were here, that not hours ago she was banishing me from her life and slamming my office door.
"You said I'm the sort of man who does what needs to be done. Does that include the days you think I'm being an intrusive, controlling ass?"
"You are an intrusive, controlling ass," she said, eyes narrowing to suspicious, semi-guarded slits. But she didn't remove her hands from my arms. "But it might include those days."
"I want you to be happy," I said, voice low. I leaned in to kiss her forehead and, to my delight, she didn't push me away. "And I want Norman to be happy, because that's important to you. But above all, I need to protect you."
"Alex, I'm fine. I keep telling you that! I can protect myself. And I can protect Norman. And," she added, an obvious concession to lighten my mood, "I can even protect you."
"No one can protect everyone, Norma. I speak from experience." She opened her mouth to something but I silenced her with a quick, firm kiss. "I tried," I whispered against her skin. "Tried, and failed, and it'll haunt me until they put me in the ground. Just like this house haunts me, and that picture, and all the memories you want me to share but I can't bring myself to talk about."
"I get it. Alex, I do. I really do. There are lots of things I can't talk it."
"I know." And I did. How could I not? We'd defined our relationship on an equal mixture of connection and secrets, exposing ourselves strategically or in moments of weakness, but more than anything bound together by all the things we couldn't say, the hidden fears and scars and tender bits of flesh we'd learned to hide from the rough hands of public view but yearned, privately, to give to someone, no matter how impossible it seemed.
"I know," I said again, and this time I cupped her face in my hands, my thumb tracing the delicate point of her chin, and I kissed her forehead and her temples and the sharp blade of her cheekbone, and even the tender translucent skin of her closed eyes, and eventually wrapped my arms around her until she was pressed to me, nestled against my chest. Safe with me, or so I told myself. I pressed my face against the top of her head, the scent of shampoo a welcome perfume, and mumbled into the wild blond curls engulfing my face. "We can talk about Norman." Which was not, to be fair, an apology or an admission of guilt or even a concession to demand, but a desperate plea, a last stretch for control. "But please, please let me do what I need to do to keep you safe."
"Because I could barely handle losing her. Losing you would end me."
"You're not going to lose me." She whispered it against my chest, the words muffled by cloth and skin and the blood I'd gladly shed to ensure her happiness, and I held her tightly, unrelenting, trying to memorize as much of the moment as I could.
I didn't know if I was forgiven. I wasn't sure what we'd do with Norman, or where the day would take us, or what the next year would hold. But, here, surrounded by the ashes of my past and our mutual ghosts—the families we no longer had, the memories we didn't share, the wounds that defined us despite our protests otherwise—we were together, and in that there was comfort, and surety, and love.
Love in both this life, and the next.
A/N: I've been away for quite some time for personal reasons. And this, I think, will be the last the piece of fanfiction I write. But endless love and thank yous to the people who read my writing, and shared theirs with me, and made the past year and a half in the Bates fandom a truly wonderful place to be.