Corday/Romano. “Do you believe in the laws of karma?”
PG-13 for language. Minor warning for un-PC terms employed by our beloved but insensitive Romano.
Through season 10, but obviously goes AU after Freefall.
Summer heat soaks through black silk and hardened grief, staining her skin with sweat. She holds Ella close, the child’s weight a memento, a burden; a bulwark against the finality of this day.
A river of sympathetic faces and understanding glances and the age-old useless words flows by her, does not touch her. Neither least nor last comes Robert, taking the hand she extends and speaking her full name in a low voice.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” he says simply, and for the thousandth time that day she wants to cry.
Later, she finds him finishing a conversation with Anspaugh in a corner of the room, and, when they’re alone, tells him what she’s been bursting to say to someone. “I’m leaving, Robert.”
He stands very still and says carefully, “Leaving?”
“I’m going back to England. My father offered me a job at his hospital, and I’ve decided to accept.”
His face is impassive, but the brittle set of his expression gives away the disappointment beneath. Soberly and kindly, without a hint of flirtation, he says, “Then America will be the worse for it.”
Elizabeth shifts Ella’s weight to one hip. “I never thanked you for everything you did, after I found out about Mark,” she says quietly, cuddling against her daughter’s blonde curls for a moment to avoid eye contact.
Romano shakes his head as if to deny that he did anything. But they both know what he’s done, what it cost him.
“I thought we’d made it,” she says after a moment. “I can’t understand it, we were almost happy – why to Ella, why to him –”
“Elizabeth…” he says, shaking his head.
“He was a good man,” she insists. “He suffered more than anyone should have to. At my hands, too.”
Romano does not refute this last. “Lizzie, you’re a surgeon,” he says, not unkindly. “You see it every day. People get sick, people suffer. It never makes sense.”
“I know,” she says, but there are questions in her eyes still, and neither he, nor anyone else, can answer them.
“Do you believe in the laws of karma, Elizabeth?”
He’s smirking, but it’s a façade. She thinks that it’s best not to respond, knows him well enough to hear that he has more, much more to say. Her eyes stay focused on the ravaged flesh of his left arm.
Robert prods her, anyway. “Eastern philosophy, influence of past actions on your future life?”
Curtly, “I know what it is.” Her coolness complements his fiercely contained desperation, as she continues her work. The damage is expansive and messy and it hurts her, somehow, to look at it. For the first time in her career it takes effort to keep her surgeon’s hands steady, but she does it.
“So I can be a jerk,” he says, “so what? I’ve always honest. So I can be a jerk. So what? I've always been honest. Brutally honest — bruised some egos, hurt some feelings, maybe provoked a few tears, but you know, honesty's a hell of a lot more than most people can claim…” A pause, and she feels her hands slow to a stop before he says, “I don’t deserve this.”
A long burning silence follows, and until Elizabeth looks up she has no idea that Romano the Great, Romano the incurably sure of himself, is waiting for her to agree with him. Her lips part, searching, as she tries to form words for what she hoped would remain unspoken. Hasn’t she – jokingly yes, but vocally, and often – wished other bodily misfortunes upon him, so many times before? Hasn’t he, less jokingly, torn people down, ruined their careers because he could? And now here he is, career ruined – and here she is, witnessing the wreckage.
“It’s not over yet,” she says after a silence that gives her away, easily read by the man who’s always understood much more than Elizabeth wanted him to.
“Ah, but if it were,” and his sarcasm has its usual bite, but his smirk is almost generous, “if I’ve lost the arm, then I deserve it. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Oh, Robert, of course not.” She puts down the bandage she was wrapping around his hand and looks him straight in the eye, saying gently, “If I thought you deserved to lose your arm, I would have sent Dr. Edson in here to bandage it up.”
He grins and volleys, “Oh, I see. The fact that you deigned to bestow your immeasurable skills upon me is proof to the contrary.”
“Exactly.” She grows serious – doesn’t he need that, after all? – and says, “No matter what happened in the real world, Robert, when we were in an OR together I never held anything but respect for you. For your talent. You should know that.”
Sober, Romano nods slightly in acknowledgement. Elizabeth goes back to working on his arm, but when she looks up at him, once in awhile, she catches the dark, fervent, searching gaze that he has unswervingly fixed on her face.
“You’re back.” The voice is scratchy, with a little less of the usual bluster.
“I’m not chased away that easily, you know.” Elizabeth smiles, settling down on a chair beside the bed.
“Yes you are,” he says, “I’ve always managed it without much trouble.”
“You must be losing your touch,” she offers lightly.
He picks at the sheets, the sheer physical energy that always animates his body only barely contained even when he’s like this. “My touch is not what I’m losing,” he says gruffly. “I was off my rocker yesterday.”
“Well, drugs will do that.” She can’t meet his eyes.
He pauses. “So, I hear you came to the operation after all.”
“Of course I did. I promised you I would.”
“I’m too old to get excited about promises,” he says. “They get made, they get broken. Things go on.”
“Have you ever seen me break one?”
“I’ve never seen you make one.” Seeing that he’s won the first round, he jokes wanly, “But hey, who wants to miss Rocket Romano getting his final kick in the ass from fate?”
“No one thinks that way.”
thinks that way.” He eyes her knowingly. “Except you, huh? That’s what you’re about to say.”
She sighs and plays along. If he wants biting sarcasm, that’s what he’ll get – hard to muster though, when all she wants to do is to make him feel better. Somehow. “Time was I’d have been at the head of the line to watch you go under the knife, Robert.”
He laughs, and as soon as the laugh comes, the pain flares up, his arm, hand, everything that should be gone but remains like a ghost in his brain. “Christ, what did you use to sever the thing, ten pounds of TNT?”
“Does it hurt?” she says, immediately looking for a nurse to administer a morphine drip.
“No, stop,” he says, wanting this visit unsullied, wanting to be able to pretend to himself, later, that she wasn’t here as a doctor at all. “I’ll get – some other doctor. Later.”
“Okay,” she answers helplessly. “Only, you don’t have to be tough about this, Robert. It’s such a difficult procedure.”
“Really?” he snaps. “I’d forgotten, what with my long hiatus from surgery, that amputation
can be a little traumatic
“Oh, all right,” she snaps right back. “You’re much more agreeable on the morphine.”
“And your bedside manners haven’t exactly sweetened over the years,” he retorts.
“Go ahead, teach me,” she answers pleasantly.
He smirks. Stalemate.
Elizabeth lifts herself from the chair with a small grin. “I’ll be by later.”
“Hey, Lizzie?” he says, when she’s almost gone.
Lifting his shoulders, he blurts out a grudging little, “Sorry. …You know what for.”
She shakes her head. Another smile, so quietly bright it mesmerizes him through the physical, mind-numbing pain in his arm. “No, I don’t.”
A jagged, angry hole greets her eyes when she passes the trauma room and, seeing Romano standing alone inside without any apparent purpose, enters tentatively. The window has been broken.
She’d heard whispers on the fly, put them out of her head – assumed she’d misheard. So it’s true then; it had seemed ridiculous. She stares, aching. “You did this,” she finally says quietly.
He slumps a little and jokes weakly, “A fool and his hook, easily parted. At least that piece of crap is good for something.” Changing the subject with his usual negligible subtlety, “So did you have a nice coffee with Dorsett, last night?”
She can hardly form the words. “It was fine.” (Oh, more than fine. Can he read it in her face, that best-sex-of-my-life afterglow? But of course he can, Robert, he has always read people’s worst secrets like brands on their face. Too smart, now, for his own good.)
“Good, good.” He stares at the hole in the window, meditative now, catlike. He’s lying in wait for an opportunity to insult her and this new Robert, this unrecognizable man with demons too strong for him to control, is better at the game than he was when he was a human being. “I’m surprised you held out this long. He’s been after you for months.”
“Well, I was after him too,” she fires back, anger flaring. “I wasn’t caught and trussed up like a prize duck, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“No, although I wish I’d come up with that fine piece of imagery.”
“Oh, shut up
,” she says crossly.
surprising; he stares at the window, the stump of his left arm so hideously bare.
Only then, left in silence to think about Robert and his arm and his anger, does she make the connection. All this must have happened after she left – after she left him at the desk, and walked away with Dorsett. She can’t look at his face, can’t confirm what she sinkingly realizes is true.
But he says casually, “At least the arm I have left can still throw like no man’s business, huh? The thing went through the window like it wasn’t even there.”
“Robert, stop it,” she finally says, choking a little. “You’re hurting me.”
He turns on her, eyes dark with the pain that surrounds him like an aura these days, that has become a visceral sensation for Elizabeth every time she is near him. Hurting you
? they say; no, it’s you, it’s always you hurting me. “I didn’t touch you. I wouldn’t, would I? Jokes aside, I’m not a fool.”
“No,” she agrees softly, regretting everything that’s just come out of her mouth. It isn’t her fault that he’s hurting, yet she’s asking him to absolve her, and how can he? They aren’t in this together.
“And I don’t want to hurt you, Elizabeth, I don’t even know how I could have.”
She leans over the counter, fingers to the bridge of her nose. “No, I… I know. I don’t know what I meant.”
Belying his earlier words, he rests his palm on her head for a moment, tenderly, as if smoothing her hair. Edward Dorsett’s touch didn’t break her heart like this, didn’t make her feel like she was being torn to shreds inside. Elizabeth recoils from him, soundlessly, and as she leaves the room, she feels like a swimmer fighting a powerful, dangerous current.
Elizabeth is reapplying her lipstick in the ladies’ room when Romano strolls in, his gait casual but his face dark and set. He doesn’t notice her, and she, noticing the expression and the rage emanating from him, says nothing.
When he starts shaking the tampon machine, however, as if trying to detach it from the wall, Elizabeth comes closer and queries, “Robert, what did that dispenser ever do to you?”
“Nothing.” He grits his teeth. “Nothing at all. It’s just another innocent victim.”
“Robert, what’s the matter? Why are you in the ladies’ room shaking the tampon dispenser? And why do you look like you’re three seconds from axe-murdering the entire population of Chicago?”
He meets her eyes. “Well, I guess it’s poetically just after all, in a really trite Greek-tragedy sort of way, that you should come along and witness this.” To her puzzled face he bites out an explanation, nodding to the tampon dispenser. “My hand’s in there.”
“What—” And indeed, when she checks, she can see that his precious Utah arm is gone.
He can hardly bear the scrutiny; to face her is impossible; so he sets his face hard as a rock and stares at the wall behind her.
Instantly sobering, she checks the latch on the top of the dispenser. “Here,” she says quietly, pulling a bobby pin from her hair. “I think this will open it.” It takes only a few seconds of fiddling before the latch pops open.
Romano reaches in himself to take the prosthesis. As he straps it on and she, silent in the face of this humiliation, tries not to look at him, he breaks the awkward silence by saying, “I didn’t grab those women on purpose.”
She looks at him, startled out of her discomfort. He adds wryly, “You’re the last person I should expect to believe that.” He shakes his head. “But I wouldn’t – ”
“Robert,” she interrupts. “I know.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he says after a pause – recovering his usual humor, but with gratitude in his eyes. “If I were going to grab them, I’d use the hand that still has sensation.”
Elizabeth throws up her hands, growls at him, and leaves. Behind her, she can hear him chuckle.
She finds him at midnight, in a dimly lit alcove behind the ER, in an alley where the doctors don’t venture. The last place she looks and she finds him, just before she was going to give up. He is standing, his back against the wall, staring listlessly at some undefinable point on the ground.
Elizabeth’s knees collapse beneath her at the sight. She grips the brick wall with bare trembling hands, steadying herself and just – staring. Making sure, no hallucination. He’s here.
He hears her sharp breath and looks up in time to see her nearly fall. Her face is paper white, her expression frightening even in the watery illumination trickling from distant streetlights. “Lizzie? You alive over there? Because your face is just the right color for someone who’s been dead for a few hours, and I’d hate to have to break in a new sparring partner this late in life—”
“Robert,” she breathes, still shaky. “You’re okay.”
“Yes,” he says irritably, although now that she’s a little calmer it’s evident to her that he isn’t looking much better than she is. “Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
“Oh. Good. That’s – really good.” She can barely string together a few words. “I thought that –” It seems too ludicrous and terrible to say out loud, the thought that once it crossed her mind had seemed an inevitable truth, sending her on a frantic search through the hospital.
He grows very still as she tries to get the words out.
“Well, no one had seen you,” she says, standing up taller and looking down at her hands, “since the cho—since it fell eight hours ago, and Morris said that he was talking to you in the ambulance bay and… and…”
“Oh. Christ.” He sees the tears gathering in her eyes. “Christ, Elizabeth. Don’t do that, I’m fine.”
She sits, hard, on the ground, her head in her hands. But she feels him, hears him come closer to crouch by her. “I was shaking like a goddamned leaf, even before the thing fell,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be much use, me trying to help out, when I’d end up admitted for PTSD and adding to the long list of patients everyone would be dealing with. So, uh… so I just left. Not the most valiant of choices, but I wasn’t thinking so clearly.”
“Well…” Her fear and hysteria are making her cross. “You should have realized that someone would put two and two together and get scared. I don’t see why you’re so self-centered.” More tears. Even anger can’t prevent them.
He laughs her off, recognizing irrationality for what it is. “You know, for someone who was allegedly so worried about me being squished like a bug, you seem pretty upset to find me alive and kicking.”
She laughs and leans her head back against the wall, meeting his smiling eyes. “I never claimed I wasn’t ambivalent about you, Robert.”
“Funny how that works,” he says dryly, settling down next to her, their arms just touching. Minutes and minutes pass and she’s glad for the almost undetectable contact, glad to have physical confirmation that he’s here, alive, with her.
At last he says, his voice dropping nearly to a whisper, “It nearly did happen, you know.”
“The chopper. It nearly got me. I was standing just under it when it fell and…” He sighs. “For a second I didn’t move out of the way. I couldn’t.”
He shrugs. “It seemed so fitting. Being put out of my misery by the very same thing that caused it.” He rolls his tongue inside his lip, wry and tough now that all the danger is over –now that she’s next to him, reminding him just why he finally decided to save himself. “It would have been a really good joke, on the cosmic scale too. And right now I’m in need of some laughter.”
“Then watch Saturday Night Live, don’t jump under a flaming helicopter,” she says, getting cross again.
“I moved, didn’t I?”
“I’m glad,” she says quietly.
He can’t help but smile at her, this woman, the love of his life. The silence continues, warm and bright and friendly, and he concentrates on the sight of her slender hand, resting on the ground. I am alive, he thinks; and she came for me, and I am alive.
They watch the TV in the lounge, separated from the hysteria outside. Elizabeth had just finished a consult when the news came in; Romano was drinking his coffee; and, curious, they had turned on the news.
“Good heavens,” she says when she sees how close the tank is to County. “Does that lunatic actually intend to…?”
“It appears so.”
“I don’t believe this,” she mutters.
“Well, Lizzie, if this is it,” he remarks after a moment in his perfect deadpan, “I couldn’t think of a better person to die next to.”
She doesn’t bat an eye. “The feeling is mutual, Robbie.”
A moment later she sneaks a glance at his reflection in the microwave door. His jaw has dropped slightly – Rocket Romano, the unflappable. Slowly she turns her head to look at him with arch nonchalance, her point made. Not quite as fond of nicknames now, are you, Dr. Romano?
After another moment, he grins. “Okay, you win. Elizabeth, from now on, as long as that
never comes out of your mouth again.”
Elizabeth thinks about this and then smiles back. “No, I think you win.”
“Because,” she explains, turning back to watch the TV, “after all this time, I don’t mind Lizzie. Not from you.”
Without warning Romano throws the door of the surgical lounge open and stalks in, his mood, as usual, seething with anger that Elizabeth can feel across the room. He has been cursing to himself, but he stops when he sees her sitting on the couch.
“Lizzie. Sitting all alone in the dark, are we?”
“Do you have a problem, Robert?” she asks curtly.
He’s much calmer, now, with a ready victim for his rage. “No; do you?”
“No,” she retorts, too quickly.
It doesn’t take him long to notice what’s sitting on the table, sparkling ironically. “I see,” he said. “A certain brand-new piece of jewelry is seeming a little less like a gift and more like a fetter, is that it?”
.” She wants to be alone, because right now she hates herself even more than she hates him. Dave was so sad when she called him (too fraught with the need for escape to wait till she got home), but so resigned. As if he’d expected it all along. Even after she had said yes, just a few days ago, he had seemed incredulous – and now she was proving him right.
“I assume you were the one who broke it off?” he says.
“Assume whatever you want,” she says tightly.
“I’m not surprised.”
She takes the bait. “And why is that, exactly?”
“Because.” He’s been coming closer and closer through this exchange. “You’re going through the motions. There’s something hardened about you, something fake – like it’s all a game, and whoever falls first, loses. You win every time, don’t you? Except three years ago, with Dorsett, and that was quite a slap in the face wasn’t it, but you know better now—”
He stops when Elizabeth’s hand snaps across his face. The color rises to his cheek where she hit him, but the smug arrogance is still in his expression.
“No,” she says, and her voice is as brittle as a sheet of ice. “That
is what a slap in the face feels like, Robert. Perhaps since you fancy yourself such a sage, you should consider moving to Psych. You’d certainly be of more use there.”
A twist of pain mars his superior smirk, and she turns away, leaving him to sink down onto the couch in the dark.
But within minutes, the grapevine passes to Elizabeth what she didn’t know before. Whispered, gleefully, from doctor to nurse to doctor, the news has travelled around the hospital in the minutes since Romano retreated to the lounge.
Stalking back into the lounge, she shuts the door behind her and stares evenly at Robert.
“Come back for another round?” he asks, wearily.
She pauses. “Kerry fired you.”
He laughs mirthlessly. “I guess they figure I can’t sue if I’m maltreated by another cripple. Anyway, I haven’t actually been fired, so much as… relegated. I’m supposed to be moving to the procurement department. They’ll pay me to hang out in an office cooling my heels till retirement. Or I can quit, which is the hoped-for result of this whole maneuver. It’s, uh… it’s brilliant, actually. Exactly what I’d have done if it happened to someone else.”
She comes closer to kneel as she has done once before, in the shadows at his feet. His voice drops nearly to a whisper. “Lizzie, what do I do now?”
Elizabeth shakes her head, looking up into his eyes and falling into their depths. “I don’t know.”
There are so many reasons to leave him here. She’s done it before; it’s what he expects, and what, today of all days, she should
do. To stay here, when she’s so desperately lonely, when he’s so broken, would be the biggest mistake of her life.
Robert doesn’t move, waiting for Elizabeth to make a decision, the decision she always makes. But Elizabeth can’t go this time – can’t leave and she doesn’t know why, except that this moment is dangerous and consuming and it has been inevitable since the moment she met this man. Slowly, slowly, she rises onto her knees and takes his face in both hands. He turns his head slightly, resisting the feather pressure of her palms – then leans down, closer to her, and just as suddenly jerks away. “You should go.”
“I can’t, I – I need you, Robert—”
“Yeah, well, I’ve needed you for years; I promise you, it’s livable. Don’t be stupid, Elizabeth, this isn’t what you really want.”
She seeks his lips, an almost kiss; he resists again, but they’re close enough that his breath warms the side of her mouth. “How do you know?” she asks, and when he hesitates she knows he’s lost the battle.
Elizabeth has a penchant for big mistakes.
It’s been three days, and they haven’t looked each other in the eye yet. Elizabeth catches up to him in the parking lot as he’s leaving, gathering her courage. He keeps walking, forcing her to keep up; looking at him, watching that compact strength as he walks, she wants
him. Inescapably, and it chokes the words right out of her.
“Lizzie. Great opening line, are you always that witty?”
“I try.” She takes a deep breath and, lost, says the first and stupidest phrase that comes to her. “Do you want to get dinner?”
He almost stops walking when he hears that, his feet scuffing on the cement beneath. What a novelty, she thinks, to throw him off his guard. “No,” and his voice is hard.
“Because,” he says, “I know you. I know every inflection of your voice, and what that’s telling me right now is that you still have no idea what you want.”
“I’m hungry,” she says. “That’s what I want, food. And you and I need to sort this out.”
“There’s nothing to sort. We both know it was a mistake. And don’t argue with me; I can read what you think like a book.”
“I know it.”
“So it’s been sorted out, and you’re free to walk away.”
Elizabeth stares at his back when he begins to take his own advice, and before he can take a second step, she has reached out to stop him, her body deciding again on something her mind can’t quite understand. Romano stops walking at the light touch of her fingers on his wrist, his body still turned from her, but with every muscle taut and aware now.
This is what she realizes now, years later than she should have: that he will never be free to walk away from her, no matter how many times they each try to go.
“I’m not walking away,” she says, and he turns to meet her eyes. “If I’m going somewhere, if I’m moving at all, it’s only towards you.”
Once, when her pager goes off while they’re dozing in her bed, he says, “Don’t go.”
She leaves his embrace, and his hand slides along her back and falls only when she is too far for him to reach. “I have to.”
When she stands beside the bed, shrugging on her bathrobe, she looks down at him. He doesn’t meet her gaze; this is one of those moments of terrifying fragility, when all his resentment is barely contained by the sinister set lines of his face – that constant, unfair, helpless fury at Elizabeth, for not sharing his misfortune.
“I hate you,” he confesses at last in a quiet, clear voice. “Sometimes I can’t help it.”
“I know that,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.”
But it does. Not really because they’re sleeping together but because sometimes, at the end of a hard day, she knows that there’s only one person she wants to see. Because sometimes when she wakes up, she can tell that he’s already been awake for minutes or hours, watching her face as she sleeps; and because sometimes this feels like the last chance for both of them.
It matters. Of course it does.
Once, he tells her he loves her.
“Maybe you think I’m not capable of loving you the way you deserve,” he says. “And maybe you’re right, but you have to know that I do love you, the best I know how. You know, before all of this happened, I was born to my career, destined for the top – but now I’m all yours. For the rest of my life, whatever I am, whatever’s left of me – all belongs to you.”
He kisses her forehead and after a moment adds, “And you’ll never know what that means, know how to belong to someone else. You can’t, can you.” He examines the sharp chiselled lines of her face. “Of course you can’t. You wouldn’t be Lizzie Corday if you could.”
Another pause. “I guess that’s that, then.”
Elizabeth slumbers on, undisturbed.
She opens her porch door to find Robert, standing in her porch and looking out into the night. “I talked to Ella,” she says harshly. “I found her crying in the kitchen when I came home.”
He doesn’t move.
“What happened, Robert?”
“Didn’t she tell you?”
“She said something happened while you were washing dishes together.” That his arm, the prosthesis, had brushed Ella – and that she, startled, had flinched away. A tiny movement, but it had electrified both of them, and Romano retreated leaving Ella to fret over it.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“If it doesn’t matter, then why did you leave her all alone to worry about it? You made her cry, Robert!”
“I’m not her babysitter,” he answers sharply. “She could have talked to Chris.”
She was prepared, coming in here, to talk to him. To be with him, to comfort him if he would let her, or just to sit beside him – she knew, she knows, what turmoil might lurk behind the shadows of his eyes on a night like this. Now she gives in to another, baser urge. “Let’s get one thing straight, Robert,” she says. “I trust you with my daughter. I trust you because you have a mysterious, inexplicable affinity for children that doesn’t seem to translate into an affinity for any other human being.”
He turns to face her in stony defiance, his anger more sinister in the dim light. Elizabeth doesn’t back down, although she is suddenly, painfully aware that after all this time the man standing before her is a stranger. “But you made her cry tonight, you made her feel like she had done something wrong, and you didn’t help her to understand. And if you hurt her again, I promise you, so help me God—”
“All sorts of physical and spiritual violence, I know, I know,” he sneers. “I’ve been witness to your maternal fight-or-flight instincts before, you know. It’s not a pretty sight.”
She hates him intensely at this moment, him and his insufferable superiority. “Oh, you haven’t seen anything
yet,” she says with ice in her voice.
“Then I’ll be sure to let my true, inhuman nature off the leash next time I see Ella and you can demonstrate. And you’ll be vindicated, because all the bullshit you still think about me will—”
“Vindicated?” she repeats. “Robert, out of all the men I’ve seen since Mark—”
“All the many
men,” he mutters childishly.
She stops, her face hot with fury. There is no elegant phrase she can think of. “Fuck you, Robert. Fuck you and your puritanical American stupidity. What difference—”
“—Why don’t you save the sweet talk for the next guy who comes along?” he interrupts smugly.
“The next guy?” She wants to hit him, to throw him bodily through the glass window he’s so intent on looking through. “The next guy, Robert? Do you want to know what I was about to say? I was going to say that none of the other men was ever allowed to just walk into the house and tuck Ella into bed when I wasn’t around. You’re the only one. You bloody idiot.”
Romano’s been staring at her, stricken; and he breaks in so suddenly that his peremptory demand overlaps with her insult,
She sits down on the nearest chair. Hard. “What?”
Romano exhales, surprised at himself: he had resolved not to get carried away – not to ask for more than she could give. “I didn’t mean to ask you like this,” he says. “I don’t know if I meant to ask you at all. But you said that. So I said… that.”
“Are you really asking me that question? Now?” she says, feeling unreasonably angry at him.
He stares, again, and recognizes in her face everything that he knew, and dreaded, he’d see. It’s not just fear and it’s not really “no” – there’s sadness there, too. Maybe for him. She’s imagining a ring on her finger again, imagining making promises she’s already spoken once, and broken. She’s wondering how they got here, wondering how their tenuous, unspoken, untried version of love could be enough when all the hope and faith in the world didn’t stop the inevitable last time.
A long silence: and she comes to understand that she will not have to answer his question because he knows already that she can’t.
When he passes on his way out of the room, all of this still unspoken, she reaches up to touch his hand. He doesn’t linger.
“We have to talk,” she says, coming into his bedroom one night, unannounced.
He isn’t happy to see her, but Elizabeth cannot be quite unwelcome, no matter the time. He hadn’t been doing anything, anyway; just sitting on his bed and watching the news before going to sleep. “No, we don’t,” he says out of instinctive contrariness; but he flips off the TV anyway.
“I haven’t seen you in days.”
His eyes slip closed; he’ll never get used to hearing that earnest note in her voice. “Miss me?”
“Yes,” she retorts plainly. “Every second.”
Romano smiles. “Me, too.”
She comes to sit next to him and takes a deep breath. “It’s too soon, Robert.”
He knows what she’s talking about, of course. “Two years is too soon?”
She shakes her head but says, “Yes.”
Romano puts his hand on her knee, absently. He can feel how lost she is; it’s the only thing he always gets right, this wordless understanding of her, no matter how distant the two of them are. “It will always be too soon,” he says. “I know you; you’re a cynic at heart, you’re – your mother’s daughter, I guess. Faithless, and you’ll never be ready to hear that question.” He rolls his tongue inside his lip and adds as matter-of-factly as he can, “That’s where I come in. Right?”
“What, am I wrong? Did you get into this thing with me of all people because you thought we were going to, to, get married and have lots of little red-headed babies? No. You got into this because it had exactly that impermanence that you wanted. Because it seemed impossible that it would go this far.”
“Well, I’m not leaving,” she snaps. “I’m here, and I’m trying to fix this.”
He gives her a long, long look: Elizabeth, this woman, this dream. He doesn’t even know, really, if she loves him or if it’s just that he’s the only guy close enough to reach her. And if she does love him, it’s not enough: she’s permanently poised for flight, she’s always waiting for history to repeat itself, too smart or too scared to give her heart away. (It doesn’t matter. They keep telling each other this about so many things, and of course it’s a lie. But it’s also the truth, he thinks, because what is there in this world that matters enough to make him leave this woman?)
“I’m not leaving, either,” he says. (I’ll never leave.) Never, because after all the damage that’s been done, after everything he’s lost, he knows that he would choose it all over again in a second if it meant he ended up right back here.
Will you wait for me –
she wants to say – will you prove me wrong, darling, please, please prove me wrong about everything.
…I’ll never leave.
Elizabeth turns her head to meet his eyes. “So what do we do now?” she asks softly.
He lifts his hand to her porcelain cheek. “Nothing,” he says.
Elizabeth feels his hand on her face, and she remembers the way he drew her in, piece by piece. Since the moment he first touched her she’s been lost, and every time it happens she feels herself pulled further from where she started. And she’s never had a good reason to believe in anything, even – especially – in him, but reason means nothing and faith, even less, next to the tenderness of his touch on her cheek.
So she closes her eyes and presses her lips to the inside of his wrist, and they abandon the words that they never got right anyway. And it feels almost like falling in love used to feel, back when she remembered how.