Trigger warning for this chapter: mentions of suicide and emotional recover from losing a loved one to suicide.
Prompt: "I need you."
In the two decades since his mother's death, Alex Romero had worked more than his fair share of suicide cases. For his first few years on the job, he avoided them when he could, but as a young deputy trying to prove to his colleagues that his father had nothing to do with his career, that wasn't always possible. So when his father's voice crackled over the ancient radio in Alex's patrol car one afternoon, requesting backup at the scene of an apparent suicide, Alex didn't miss the nervous glance his partner gave him as he responded to the sheriff's request.
As soon as Alex got home, he threw up and cried himself to sleep on the bathroom floor.
No suicide affected him like that again, until Abby Morrison's.
Somehow Alex kept it together until he asked Jameson to take it from here, rushed out of the garage as nonchalantly as he could, and slammed his SUV's door closed. Only then did he start hyperventilating, Abby's lips, blue from carbon monoxide, accosting him when he squeezed his eyes shut to shake himself out of his inexplicable panic. Determined to block memories of Norma, of the night he found her in the same condition, Alex was defenseless against the older, deeper wounds broke through. Images of his mother's face on the morning he found her replaced Abby's, and he suddenly wanted Norma so badly that he couldn't tell whether his chest pain stemmed from his struggle to breathe or his need to hold her.
In hindsight, he knew how reckless it was to drive in such a state, for he hardly remembered anything about the time between leaving Abby's house and pulling up to his own. He only knew he had to get home, set eyes on his wife, feel her warm skin under his hands. On autopilot, he shut off the engine and stumbled out of the vehicle but neglected to close the door. The gravel skidded beneath his dragging feet until he stepped onto the first of countless stone steps separating him from Norma. For once, Norma's obstinate refusal to lock the door during the day served a purpose, for his hands trembled so that he wouldn't have been able to fit his key in the lock.
His relief at hearing her singing in the kitchen nearly bowled him over.
When he thoughtlessly swung the door shut, he cut off Norma's melody. "Alex? You're home early!" Her voice drew him in like a tractor beam, but when he reached the kitchen doorway, he froze. She stood at the stove, only half facing him, her blue apron covered in splotches of flour.
"I just put the cake in," she said, wiping her hands on the dish towel that hung on the oven door. "So if you came home to sneak a peek at your birthday cake, you're out of luck." When she finally faced him, a frown and furrowed brow replaced her blinding smile. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Unable to answer her, Alex crossed the kitchen in four strides and wrapped her up so tightly he had to remind himself to loosen his hold. Norma, baffled but willing, rubbed his back and slid her fingers into his hair when he turned his face into her neck. Just as suddenly, Alex pulled back, shaking his head and cursing himself for scaring her. "I—I just—" Norma's hands slid up his arms to cup his face when his voice broke. "I need you."
"I'm here. Come here." With a gentle tug, she guided his head back to the crook of her neck and held him while he broke. The only other time she'd heard him cry was in the early days of her recovery, when she overworked herself without considering the terror in Alex every time she coughed or couldn't quite catch her breath. Their argument dissolved into tears before Norma realized what she'd done, and they ended up in a sobbing heap together on the kitchen floor.
"Come on, let's lay down for a bit, hmm?"
Her voice brought him back to the most pressing cause of his pain. This pain never really stopped. Twenty years ago, it latched onto his heart and didn't let go until it became a part of him, until he had no choice but to live with it. Some days, its grip on him loosened so much he thought it had finally let go. He'd have so many days when he could watch Norma sleep just to marvel at her, not to study the rise and fall of her chest, days when he could laugh with her without thinking how much his mother would have loved his wife, days when his hatred for his father let him appreciate the love in his life.
Then, on days like today, the pain closed around his entire heart like a fist and squeezed.
With a gentle pressure nothing like that in his chest, Norma led Alex out of the kitchen, but he didn't realize where she was taking him until he felt the upholstery on the couch beneath his hands. Norma sat next to him, her own eyes shining, patted her lap with one hand, and reached for him with the other. Before she could touch his head, he laid it on her lap. Desperate to be as close to her as possible, he rolled onto his side to press his face into her stomach, still covered by her apron, and wrap his arms around her middle. Only when he settled did Norma begin carding her fingers through his hair.
"I'm sorry," he sobbed.
"Don't be sorry," Norma whispered. "Just…when you can, tell me what happened."
What happened. What hadn't happened. What could have happened. All these possibilities haunted him, but he settled for the facts.
"This young woman, Abby Morrison, committed suicide." He felt Norma's gasp. "Suicides don't usually get to me, but this…" While he paused, Norma waited patiently, at least some of her questions answered. "She was a single mother, and her kid—her kid found her. He couldn't have been more than…five? Six?"
Norma's fingers stuttered in his hair before they settled in the strands, cradling him closer. "Oh, honey."
"He's going to have questions, and the only person who can answer them is gone." She's gone. She's gone. She's gone. Apparently he started saying this out loud, because Norma shushed him gently and turned his face to the side so that he could look at her, ground himself in the moment instead of dwelling on the horrors he saw when he closed his eyes. "I had to come home. I had to see you. I had to tell you—tell you that I love you so much."
"I know, honey. I know."
Gripped by a sudden urge to wrestle a promise from her, Alex pushed himself up so that he could look her right in the eye. "You have to promise to talk to me, okay? I know Norman being put away has crushed you, and if you're feeling depressed or—"
"Alex, Alex, stop. Stop. That's never going to be an issue, okay? I would never—after everything—" She cradled his face in her hands, and he nuzzled his face into one of her palms, unable to look into her brimming eyes. "Don't go to any more of those crime scenes okay? I thought we agreed that it's too soon—"
Too soon after her near-death experience. Not for the first time, he hated himself for demanding her attention when it was she who nearly died, she whose son nearly took his own mother's life. But the possibility of losing the only person worth living for had taken Alex right back to the days after his mother's death, when he couldn't understand how she could do what she did.
Waiting at Norma's bedside, unsure if they would get the chance to make up, her last words to him ringing in his ears, Alex understood Theresa Romero better than he ever had.
"I promise I'll tell you everything later, but right now, I just want to be here with you." When he risked a peek at his wife, she was studying him with her brow wrinkled and bottom lip between her teeth. After an eternity of silence, she climbed onto his lap, settled her knees on either side of his hips, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Alex returned her embrace and buried his face in her neck, breathing her in with her wrapped around him.
"Be with me all you want." Norma pressed kisses from the base of his neck to the crown of his head. "I'm not going anywhere."