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i've been a lot of things, i'm proud of just a few (but none of them compare to being someone next to you)

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Being fired doesn’t have the impact Gerri thought it might. Years spent fearing the event, and it happens in five minutes, a meeting with the new board, her computer taken away, her phone collected on her way out.

Publicly, it’s called retirement, Waystar Royco’s senior counsel taking time for herself, making room for new blood, her successor already in place, a lawyer she doesn’t even know. She’s given a bonus to leave without fuss, a hefty check to buy her silence. They did the same thing to Bill, to George, to hundreds of people before her. She isn’t the first, she knows how it goes.

There was a moment when she thought things might be different, when Kendall blew everything up, when Roman was named COO, when her name was still on the piece of paper calling her head of the company. And then none of it mattered, the board seizing the opportunity, wresting control of Waystar Royco, naming whoever they wanted, someone from the outside, someone without the last name Roy. And they let them do whatever they wanted.

It only took a month before she was called into the CEO’s office. How quickly things move. Everything she’s allowed to take with her fits into a small cardboard box and she tries to pretend like it isn’t demeaning.

She leaves town, the urge to shed her skin takes her upstate, into a large house with a backyard, neighbors she can’t hear through the walls. But she still hears about Waystar Royco, can’t escape the gossip and the texts and the notifications on her phone. She likes the space, likes to wake up in the morning and see the sun rise, no buildings to block her view. She likes to go out at night and see the stars, so bright and clear.

But it doesn’t feel like enough. She wants more space, more land around her, wants to be able to go days without seeing another person. Weeks, maybe. She’s spent her life with too many people, never spent it with herself. It’s surprising, this desire to simplify, to become anonymous. There was never the opportunity, not once she met Baird, not once she had daughters, not once she got in bed with the Roys.

She ends up in Montana because she dropped a pin in an atlas and finds a town of nine hundred people, farms and ranches as far as the eye can see, if her Google search is to be believed. There’s a general store and a diner and a beauty shop, there’s a bar that’s only open on the weekends, and a town hall that’s old and sagging, with park benches in the main room.

She books her first plane ticket in thirty years, does it all on her own without any help, and has no idea if it’s a good deal or not, just knows it’s first class and she can look out a window. There’s a layover in Chicago and she gets a bagel that tastes nothing like the ones from New York delis. She sleeps on the second flight, rents a car at the airport and drives an hour south of Bozeman, her phone’s GPS blipping in and out as she weaves through the mountains. There’s a small one-car bridge over a river, and then she sees the sign for Emmett, Montana. Population: 925.

The motel has a vacancy sign, rooms for seventy-five dollars a night. The bed is old, the wifi nonexistent, but Gerri thinks she likes it. Likes looking out the window and seeing mountains and horses and sheep. She walks by the river in the evening, a half-heartedly paved path that must go on for miles.

In the morning, she gets breakfast in the diner and she can see herself here, can picture this being her life. Fog rises off the grass, off the river, everything smoky and eerie and beautiful. There are roosters crowing, sheep farms buttressing the town. She asks the waitress if any properties are for sale, gets pointed towards a house two streets down and told to ask for Jim. The coffee is $2.75 and the directions are free.

Jim takes her to a large property, few acres of land, wooden fence lining the perimeter, and a small barn, faded red, a weather vane teetering on the roof. The house itself is big, old, creaky, a wall of windows, just facing the fields, mountains behind, the river off to the left. It feels too perfect, too easy, but it also feels right. She signs her name on a stack of papers, and Jim drops the keys into her waiting palm.

She’s not running away from the company, from her old life, but running towards her new one. It feels good, like a sweater that fits perfectly when she tries it on, like a shoe lacing up just right.

Gerri sells everything, her furniture, her clothes, most of her jewelry. A few rings, some worn button-ups and jeans, that’s all that gets stuffed into her duffel bag. She buys a car, enjoys spending the money she’s spent years earning, and drives west, days and days on the long, flat roads, shedding her skin in the summer sun.

She watches the world pass by from her porch, a warm coffee mug held between her hands while the sun rises, a glass of whisky resting on the wooden steps while it sets. She goes into town and eats lunch at the diner. Sometimes she walks, and it takes an hour, just her feet thumping against the dusty road. Sometimes she drives and leaves her car parked behind the beauty salon all day.

“Gerri Quinn,” she says, when people ask her name, holding her hand out to shake. It’s been years, decades, since she used that name, but it still fits, a little tighter in some places, looser in others. She gets to know Maggie, who owns the diner, and Joseph, the doctor who doubles as the town veterinarian. She finds friends and allies and people who don’t have any idea what she did before.

It takes another year before she buys a horse. Buys two, because she doesn’t want them to be lonely. There’s a sixteen year-old girl that mows for her once a week, a big riding mower that Gerri doesn’t want to learn how to drive. She buys rubber boots and learns to muck out her stables. She gets a shovel and clears out her driveway in the winter, on the days when there’s nothing to do but wait for the plows to come through.

There are town meetings every month, and she makes a point to be there, to sit in the back and listen. It’s nice, hearing their problems, seeing the solutions. Everything seems simpler when her livelihood isn’t on the line. She gets in trouble when a sheep farmer stands up and asks for help with a business agreement. Her hand moves faster than her brain and she’s volunteering before she knows it. His name is Pete and he just wants help understanding the lawyerly lingo being tossed around, wants another pair of ears in the room with him while they negotiate the price of wool.

And then she gets a reputation for helping, for being smart and capable. She takes meetings in the town library and makes notes on index cards, until the general store starts carrying legal pads for her. She helps with real estate transactions and tourism disputes and gets in touch with organizations working to help the often-overlooked indigenous population. And not once does she ask for payment.

The last time she earned a paycheck, it was for covering things up, for burying bodies, for silencing people. This work is so different from her old life. It’s helpful and she doesn’t know the last time she was helpful, not for something meaningful, anyway. She has enough money to last her lifetimes, enough cashed paychecks covered in other peoples’ blood that she doesn’t want it anymore.

She gets an office, just a one-room building next to the general store, and she gets a dog, a fluffy spotted mutt named Fred that lopes around after her. She walks through the pound and ignores the golden retrievers, the bouncing animals eager for affection, eyes fixing on the scruffy dog that sits in the back of his cage and just looks at her with dark sad eyes. He’s young when she brings him home, but he’s got clownishly large feet and lanky limbs and she knows he’s going to be big, going to take up space in her empty house.

He comes with her into town, he follows her around the fields, he makes friends with the horses. And once, just once, when he looks up at her with those dark, sad eyes, she thinks, “I should’ve named him Roman,” and it’s like a punch to her gut, a familiar song she hasn’t heard in years with all the same weight of the first time she heard it. She pushes the feeling away, pushes it with all the water going under the bridge, lets it catch the current, lets it flow away.

It’s good, her life. And she doesn’t need anyone else beside her.

-

Roman spends a whole fucking year looking for Gerri, a solid year searching for “Gerri Kellman” on Google, even going to the fucking New York Public Library to use their newspaper archives and their databases. It’s only when he overhears Shiv and Tom having the same shitty argument they have at every holiday, Tom moaning about why she never changed her name to Wamsgans (like Siobhan Wamsgans trips off anyone’s tongue), that he thinks to look up her maiden name, finds a wedding announcement for Geraldine Quinn and Baird Kellman, a young and hopeful bride next to fucking weirdo Baird. He doesn’t let himself think about how pretty she is, how she’s always had those clear as fucking blue sky eyes.

And then he sees it. There’s a photo, in some small local paper, grainy and small, black and white, but those he knows those light eyes and that smirking mouth, remembers the last time she twisted her lips at her and called him a fuckface. He’d recognize her anywhere, though everything else is different. She’s like Rebecca of Shittybrook Farm, hair all curly, pulled back off her face, a few strands falling across her forehead. She’s got on jeans and a button-up shirt, and she’s standing next to a horse, caught in mid-laugh. He prints out the photo and puts in his wallet, looks at it every day.

A week after he gets fired, after he gets pushed out, he finds her address. He buys a plane ticket to Montana. He gets a rental car that he’s not even sure he remembers how to drive. Takes him five whole minutes to remember that he’s gotta press down the brake to get the car out of park. Another two minutes to find the emergency brake.

His phone barely gets service, but he pulls up the directions to Gerri Quinn’s house, worries, not for the first time, that it’s all gonna be a hoax, that she’s got some fucking high level witness protection shit to keep all the Roys away.

His fingers tap against the wheel for the whole hour-long drive, and the only radio station plays some kind of hillbilly music. He’s gonna get a CD of it for Kendall, wrap it up in a big red bow and leave it on his doorstep, a whole yeehaw flaming turd to remember him by.

He gets passed by a semi-truck and then another and he misses sitting in the backseat. He drives over a river and enters Emmett, Montana. Population: 986. The main part of town lasts two minutes, he’s through it before he can even blink, and then he turns down a thin country road, winding into fields, and pulls up to a large house, a gravel driveway with a beat-up old Jeep, the name Quinn painted on a mailbox. He thinks it’s in her handwriting, can’t imagine her with a paintbrush.

The weather is idyllic, a perfect fucking summer morning, all dewy grass and crisp air, the sun just poking out over the ridge of the mountains. He leans against his car for a moment, hands stuffed in his pockets, wonders if Gerri’s being held hostage out here, if she can even get the Wall Street Journal delivered.

One breath, two breaths, three whole fucking breaths, just like his therapist taught him, and his hands lay still against his pants. The steps up to the porch are creaky and he wonders if his foot is gonna go through. Can’t imagine Gerri’s house would be in disrepair, nothing about her ever was.

A knock to the door, loud in the quiet morning, and there’s no answer, just an echoing dog bark in the distance. Maybe Gerri’s dog. He’s never had so much as a hamster, not even a goldfish. Just that one day at the Kellmans’ with that weird ass tortoise. Closest he ever came.

He’s deciding whether to leave, whether to stay, when he sees her and it’s like a fucking vision, the sun behind her head, a halo of curls, an angel on horseback, and his heart just drops right to the bottom of his balls. He can tell when she sees him, when she realizes who he is. She slides off the horse, boots and jeans and a flannel shirt, and he can’t help but stare at her.

He hasn’t seen her in ten years and it’s like looking at a stranger, that golden hair shot through with silver, a few more wrinkles around her eyes, laughlines she never had any cause to make when she worked for the Roys. She pats the horse on its rump, a motion that makes his dick twitch, just a little, and makes her way through the grass.

“I guess Gerri Kellman really is gone,” he calls out when she gets close, this person he hasn’t seen in ten whole years. He wants to tease her, to make her laugh, but she just looks at him with those blue eyes. He doesn’t know what he was expecting, what he was waiting for. His hands twitch because he thinks about giving her a hug, sees her eyes dart to his fingers. She never fucking missed anything, she apparently still catches it all. Sharp as the point of her country-ass boots, all covered in mud.

He can’t look away from her, can’t look at her anymore. She’s what he’s been looking for, and she’s not anything he expected. So he scuffs at the dirt, at the grass that’s staining his shoes. “This is new. I don’t think we have this back home.” Squints back up at her, sun in his eyes, sun in her hair.

“Your home,” she says, in a fucking pointed tone, and he feels his feet go numb. It’s not his home either, not anymore. Hasn’t been his home in a long time (maybe ten years, maybe since she left, he doesn’t want to think about it, not too much). He’s ignored it for a while, just used the company jet to take him to another house in another city and tried to pretend like any of it fucking mattered.

Her boots are muddy, and his shoes are scuffed, and it’s already so different from anything they’ve ever done together. She wipes a hand on her thigh, a little self-conscious. He’s never seen her like this. She’s never been so unpolished in front of him, her curls in disarray - a far cry from those New York City blowouts and five hundred dollar blouses. He wonders what her hair feels like now.

“I have to -” she gestures at the field, and he doesn’t know if it’s something with her horse or if she’s eager to get away from him. Thinks maybe she doesn’t want to give up the time, the energy right now, not even for him. Assuming she ever wanted to see him again anyway. Who even fucking knows what she wants.

“Can’t believe you’ve been hiding that ass all these years,” he says, says it before he can stop himself, the smirk already on his lips. It’s so easy to flirt with her, so easy to make her blush and stutter, just like the first time.

“It’s always been right where you could see it, if you bothered to look,” she tosses back, over her shoulder and all he can do is trail behind in awe. It’s not a long walk, to the trough, she can see where Boris stopped to graze, reins dragging on the ground. She nears him, clicks her tongue and his head lifts, whickering softly, the sound like a fucking aphrodesiac he never knew existed. “Got to get his saddle off, then old Boris here can find Natasha in the back field.” She pats his necky, shining like velvet in the morning sun, and Roman finds himself envying a horse.

“Boris and Natasha? What are we, Moose and Squirrel?” Put his whole shitty foot in his whole fucking mouth, too easy to fall back into the pattern they once had, the idea that they could still be a team, even after all these years. Maybe she’s not even looking for a partner. Maybe she got married. Maybe maybe maybe. He clears his throat. “So you’re really doing this - this whole...This fucking farm thing?”

“I have been for ten years now.” They’re in the barn now, and she slides the belt loose from the saddle, drapes the blanket over the stall door. It’s practiced, every gesture easy and smooth, just like she was when she stood at the front of a courtroom, just like when she weighed in on things, bent over a phone on a private jet and made decisions that made millions.

“I didn’t know,” Roman says, leaning against the empty stall door, the smell of horse shit and grass tickling his nose.

“Well, that’s not my fault,” she says, even though it is, at least a little, and he thinks she knows it. She’s been hiding, out here in Montana, in this life she’s created for herself. Maybe hiding is the wrong word for it, maybe she’s just been living.

“Okay, Gerri Quinn.” The blush that rises to her cheeks gives him hope. She brushes at Boris, rubbing circles against his back, doesn’t look at Roman, and he knows it’s because he’s right, because he’s caught her out, right there. It’s the first time he’s said her name, her real name, the one she was born with. There’s a thrill that runs up his spine at that, a little bit of enjoyment at saying her name, and from her sharp eyes, he thinks she likes it too. He still knows her, better than anyone, even with years and miles between them.

-

There’s something about Roman Roy standing in front of her, saying her name that makes her stomach warm, makes her belly churn with pleasure, with excitement.

Momentary pleasure is chased away by loneliness, something she hasn’t felt in so long. Because she loves her life here, loves her ranch, and this town, and the mountains and the river, and everything that she’s built. But no one here knows her dark secrets, all the things she did before. They just think she’s a good person, all the way down to the ground. People care about her and root for her and want her to marry the widower doctor and have a happily ever after, without knowing what that means for her.

And here’s Roman and he’s been with her in the good and the bad and now he’s here, right in front of her, looking at her like she’s something special. She has to stop herself from staring at him too, from licking her lips like a coyote at a chicken coop. He’s different, white in his hair and wrinkles lining his forehead. But he’s the same, too, those lanky limbs and boyish bounce, too much to fit in that hunching frame, still trying not to take up space.

And then it’s too much, hits her like an air conditioner falling from twenty stories up. To have Roman here, looking at her, in her barn. The collision of her old world and the new one. “Let’s go into town,” she says, one more brush to Boris’ hide, urging him back to the fields.

She holds her hand out wordlessly and Roman drops his keys in her palm; how easy it is, to communicate with someone who knows you. His rental is nice and polished and so similar to the hired cars back in New York. It’s bigger than her Jeep, heavier. She adjusts the mirrors, rolls down the windows, keenly aware of Roman’s gaze on her. They’ve never been alone in a car together, not in the entire time they’ve known each other.

It isn’t a long drive, but she wants to save Roman from walking in loafers that aren’t meant for it. She fiddles with the radio dial - it’s tuned to some god-awful country music station - and finds NPR. Quiet classical music tinkling through the car speakers. He’s quiet, more so than he’s ever been, than she’s ever known him to be.

When she looks over, he’s staring at her hands, his own fingers tapping at the window frame, the breeze making his hair flap across his face, unruly, boyish. He feels the same next to her, like an ally in the front seat, but she’s different, jumbled, older.

She pulls into one of the few open spaces in front of the diner, knows they’ve caught the end of the breakfast rush, that coffee’s just about to be made fresh, that there won’t be too many people to see them. Knows the whole town will be talking about her visitor by the end of the day, though.

“Hey Gerri,” Maggie says, looking up when they walk in, the bell above the door jangling, and Gerri affords her a small smile, lips already more contracted, like she’s being pulled backwards to the way she was ten years ago. She’s pouring them coffee before even have time to slide into a booth in front of the window, looking out over the whole of town, all three blocks of it.

Roman looks like he might jump out of his skin, his fingers clasping the coffee mug like a lifeline, muttering a thanks to Maggie as she sets it down in front of them. “Anything to eat?” she asks, and Gerri shakes her head tightly. “Coffee’s on the house today.” And then she leaves them alone, a fact for which Gerri is endlessly grateful. Or maybe she’s irritated. She can’t decide if she wants to be alone with Roman or if she wants endless interruptions so they can dance around everything until he decides it’s time to go. The idea that he might want to stay flutters briefly in her mind, until she shoos the thought away.

“So,” she says. “What have you been up to?” It’s a genuine question, she doesn’t have any clue, has expended so much effort towards not looking him up, not keeping tabs on him. She knows what he’s been doing from the news, like anyone else might. A vague idea that he made a few deals, that he found a way to succeed, even without her. She doesn’t know if he’s made himself better, though.

He deflates a little, a sad birthday balloon from three weeks ago. “You don’t have, like, a news alert for my name? A daily email about the life and times of Roman Roy?” She can’t tell how put out he is, really, just shrugs her shoulders, isn’t ready to tell him that she couldn’t keep an eye on him, from a thousand miles away, that it had to be a clean break or nothing would’ve broken at all.

She’s spent ten years fighting the pressure of even the subconscious need to atone for everything she spent her entire career doing, and part of the punishment has been living in a town where everyone thinks she’s a good person. Enforced separation from her old life means she truly doesn’t know which direction Roman went without her, further into the corruption, or transcending it, like she always thought they might be able to do together.

“Well, you didn’t keep up with me either, so let’s call it even. You can fill me in over coffee. Or dinner.” It’s delicate, an invitation, and she doesn’t know if he’ll accept. His coffee’s almost empty already; he sucked it up like a vacuum.

“I wasn’t hiding,” he returns, and she tilts her head, twists her lips. “I didn’t, you know, fuck off to the mountains.” He sounds hurt, betrayed, and there’s a tight squeeze around her heart. The one person she didn’t want to leave, the person she had to leave the most. And she doesn’t have an answer for him.

His mouth opens like he’s about to say something else, like he’s going to tell her what he’s doing. What he’s been doing. Like there’s a secret on the tip of his tongue.

Then the door to the diner opens, air rushing in behind the man who enters. It’s Joseph, and Gerri feels her heart sink, even as his lips tip up into a smile.

“Hey! Gerri! Saw you in the window!” He’s so jovial, so open. So opposite to the man who sits across from her. He leans in and presses a kiss to her cheek without a second thought, and she thinks she can see Roman’s chest puff out, his dark eyes darting back and forth between them. Gerri can tell Joseph’s waiting for an invitation to join them, to slide into the booth next to her, his thigh touching hers.

There’s nothing she wants less in this moment. He’s just so nice and more than that, he’s good and she can’t find her way to not resenting that sometimes. Especially with Roman Roy across from her, the only person within five hundred miles to know the worst things she’s done. The silence stretches and it’s just three people taking turns staring at each other, until she finally says, “This is Roman. He’s - he’s an old friend.” What’s the word for what they were? What they are? Is there anything? How can she sum him up in just one or two syllables?

Joseph’s smile cracks ever so slightly, just a small twitch, and the break in the facade almost makes her like him more, in this moment. He’s perfectly lovely, but he’s not anything else. He doesn’t laugh at the news with her, she’s never heard him say the word ‘fuck’ and he’s never called her drunk. Maybe that’s enough for some people, but after an hour spent in Roman Roy’s presence again, she knows it’s not enough for her.

“It’s an unexpected visit, but it means I can’t have dinner later.” A perfunctory dismissal and the smirk on Roman’s face is almost intolerable, like he thinks he’s won something. She kicks him under the table, boot toe connecting with shin, and he flinches, but it doesn’t make his smile go away.

“A shame,” is all Joseph says, but his face is carefully blank and Gerri knows that look, perfected it herself once upon a time. “See you at the barn tomorrow night?” Roman’s eyes go wide at that, like he’s been given a gift he just doesn’t know what to do with it, and Gerri just knows that as soon as they’re alone again, he’ll explode.

“We’ll see,” she answers primly, but knows she’ll be there, knows it’s expected. It’s her town now, it’s what she does.

The bell on the door tinkles as Joseph leaves and Roman’s mouth is already open. “A barn?” He’s incredulous, he’s excited, he’s practically giddy. It looks good, on his forty year-old frame, still a hint of the boyishness she left behind. She’s still not sure what he’s done, the path he’s taken, not fully, but it’s good to see that he isn’t broken. Not anymore than he was before.

“Yes, Roman. You’ve been in my barn,” she says, pushing away the blush at any possible double meaning, Roman’s eyebrows already raised. “People have them out here.” She slides her mug away, ready to leave. If she’s got to pick the lesser of two evils, she’d rather have Roman judge her life than her town.

The drive home is as quiet as the ride out, windows down and music playing. She steals glances when she thinks he’s not looking, only gets caught twice, but he doesn’t say anything. Just drops a wink, sly and smarmy, and god help her, she’s still charmed. Years later, she’s still charmed.

She parks the car to the side of the garage, up on the grass. Fred bounds down the stairs of the house when she gets out of the car, paws hitting her thighs, and she breathes him in deep, nose pressed into his fur. “This is Fred,” she says, when Roman comes around the back of the car, bends down to meet him. She leans against the car, the black paint warm in the sun, and watches as Roman holds his hand out for a sniff.

“Staying the night?” she asks, because she still doesn’t know what he’s doing here, how long he’s staying. He’ll tell her when he’s ready, he’s never responded well to a push. She thinks she wants him to stay, thinks she’ll be disappointed if he leaves.

“I can get a hotel,” he says, movements jerky, not looking at her, and there’s a flush of relief that that, and she smiles. The only hotel in town has three rooms and there’s not much to them. She can’t imagine Roman on the beds there, squeaky box springs and sagging mattresses, threadbare blankets and flytape in the windows.

“Don’t be an idiot,” she says, voice sharper than she means. Softens with a smile. “You can stay here.”

“Is there room in your bed for me and Fred?” Gerri looks down at her dog, sad, dark eyes so like Roman’s. Two lost creatures that have found their way into her home. A stopping point for lost souls. “He get the left side? I’ll take the middle? Little spoon?” Roman’s got that impish grin, like he knows he’s pushing at something, fumbling back into what they used to be without even thinking. It would be so easy, she thinks, just to let him.

“He sleeps wherever he wants. And you can have the guest room.” It’d be easy, but she’s not ready, not yet. She doesn’t even know what he’s doing here, doesn’t know how long he’s staying. She doesn’t make a decision, not without all the facts. He smirks at her, always smirking, like there’s something else he knows, like there’s something at the edge of everything he’s saying. She tosses him the keys and he opens the trunk.

His duffel bag is so small, just a little bag. His whole life, just there in his hands, all he needs for whatever this trip entails. That company made both of their lives so small. It felt so big when they were there, on the inside, but it’s tiny, in reality, when it all falls away. No one will recognize him when he walks in the door, no one knows the horrible things they’ve done. There’s good and bad to that, how easy it was to hide the hurt they caused. How much they hurt themselves at the same time.

“You know,” he says, as they’re walking up the stairs, their shoulders almost touching, Fred at their heels. “I was fired too.”

-

The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them, like a fucking bomb dropped before the go sign. Gerri freezes on the steps behind him, he’s already almost at the door. He turns to look at her and there’s sun in those curls and shit, it’s just like a painting. Like some fucking Titian babe on a farm.

“What?” Her voice is sharp and clipped and he’s heard it too many times to be entirely comfortable. He drops his bag on the porch and walks back down to her, meets her on the middle step.

“I. Got. Fired.” It’s still unbelievable to him, unreal that Roman Roy, son of Logan Roy, could actually be fired from the company named after his whole fucking family. The words sound like a joke, his lips turning statements to sarcasm, his mouth twisting ideas with black humor because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.

“Were you caught with your dick out in a meeting?” Her brain, her big, giant idea machine, has caught up, and her feet have too, standing next to him once again. Hand on the door knob, ready to let him into her home. He wonders if she kept that leather couch, the one they used to - it doesn’t fucking matter if she kept it, but he feels like it might be like seeing an old friend. He wonders if there’s still a stain on one of the cushions.

“They don’t fire people for that anymore,” he says, “not since the nineties. Like, who hasn’t had their dick out in a meeting, you know?” The door is open, there’s that look on her face like she’s being unwillingly charmed by him, and her house is comfortable. Maybe even, like, cozy. There’s no leather couch and it doesn’t look like her place in Manhattan at all. Fred disappears up the stairs and Gerri points him to the guest room, leans against the doorframe while he sets his bag down on the bed.

“Will this suffice?” she asks, a twist to her own lips and it’s good to see.

“Passable at best,” he says, but he thinks he might sleep better here than he ever has in any of the houses owned by the Roy family.

“What happened, Rome?” Her voice is that soft gentleness that makes his stomach turn to a big glop of jelly. He doesn’t know how to tell her what happened, how it was fifty million things that all became one big thing that he wouldn’t have stopped even if he’d been aware of it. He doesn’t know how to tell her that she asked him to be more, and so that’s what he tried to be. And then she left. And every day after, he asked himself what the fuck Gerri would do. Being beside her made him grow, but her leaving made him grow too.

“You showed me it was a Jenga tower, all, like, teetering and too tall. And I just wanted to pull out a brick I probably shouldn’t have. Like knock it all down.” He couldn’t believe they went through the hearings and the fucking murder mystery dinner on a yacht and just never stopped doing the bad shit. And then Gerri left. And then there wasn’t even lipstick on the whole fucking Royco pig anymore.

Gerri just hums, a soft noise between her lips, a rumbling from the back of her throat. She pushes herself away from the doorframe, still as inscrutable as a shit-covered mirror, and goes back outside, a silhouette lit up by the sun.

“You’re saying it’s my fault that you got fired?” she asks, when he catches up to her, while they walk out towards the fields. He doesn’t know where she’s going, doesn’t have the right shoes to follow her, but he’s going to walk beside her anyways.

“Fuck, Gerri, it’s not a pointing fingers game. It’s like. You showed me how the magic trick worked and then I stopped seeing the magic. That’s not anybody’s fault. Santa Claus isn’t real and Waystar kills people, you know?” There’s a blink of confusion in her blue eyes - still so fucking blue - and then it’s like she’s relearned his language, things all slotting back into place.

He tried to be good, tried to be someone Gerri might be proud of, and the company got rid of him too. And now he’s here. The fucking island of misfit toys, out here in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, Montana. Gerri’s staring at him, the way she used to in meetings when he had, like, one good idea, caught her off guard. And her hand moves like she’s going to touch him and he doesn’t know if he can take that, honestly, doesn’t know if he wants her pity. Doesn’t know if pity is what she’s handing out today.

“So you’ve got two horses. Do you have any chickens? A cow? Do you sing that song from Oklahoma every morning?” He pitches his voice low and starts to sing the opening line, walking backwards away from Gerri, further into the field, grass tickling at his ankles.

They spend the day outside and Roman sweats through his shirt. Not even one fucking cloud in the sky to give him a break. He’s probably going to get a sunburn from this. But his damp shirt and his red cheeks kind of fade away when he looks at Gerri. She’s relaxed, in a way he’s never seen. Her shoulders don’t live by her ears, apparently, and those curls.

She spent thirty years of her life straightening her hair every day and Roman never knew. Or maybe she wore a wig the whole time. Who fucking knows. But he likes the curls, the way they catch the breeze, the way they fall around her face. He wants to pull at one, to see if it will spring back into place.

She’s a fucking superhero out here, to this town, doing all this free legal work for them. She skates around specifics, isn’t bragging, but he can tell. From the way she got free coffee at the diner, to the way that Joseph fucker looked at her. She’s a big deal. He’s always known it, the knowledge lodged in his heart.

The sun moves in the sky and Roman doesn’t even know what time it is as Gerri leads him back to the house, tells him to sit in the living room while she makes them dinner. He didn’t know she could cook, figured she lived off take out and personal chefs or whatever the fuck, but he’s not going to sit in the next room and miss the opportunity to watch her at work. She hands him a beer and tells him to just stay out of her way.

Watching her move around the kitchen is the same as watching her move around an office, the same elegance, the straight neck, the fucking poise. She owns every room she walks into and never talks about it, and Roman can’t stop staring. They’ve been together for twelve hours now and she still takes him by surprise every time he looks at her. Her intelligent eyes fixed on him when he talks, her brain working behind the scenes. He’s never been seen so clearly by someone else.

“Taste this,” she says and holds out a spoon, pulling him into her orbit as he bends to put his mouth against the wooden edge. It’s good, tangy, warm.

“Not bad, Rachael Ray,” he says because that’s the only TV cook he’s ever known the name of, and Gerri just rolls her eyes.

“Make yourself useful and put plates on the table. Glasses too.” He pokes around her cupboards and drawers until he finds what she’s asked for, never anything on the first try. It’s all so domestic, like some Brady Bunch fantasy, the two of them here. He’s never had to set a table in his whole damn life, just manages to put a knife and fork on either side of the plate and hopes for the best.

The sun sets behind them as they eat dinner, golden light in her hair and her countenance hasn’t changed.

They leave the plates to sit on the table and Gerri pours them each a glass of whiskey to take out onto the porch. He thinks he understands her life, a little bit, sitting on the steps and watching the sun set. Her eyes catch the warm light, she’s all golden tones and warmth.This. This is something that makes sense to him.

“So,” she says, leaning back in her chair, looking down at him with eyes much kinder than he deserves, “What’s next?”

-

It would be very in character for Roman to appear at her house with no plan in place, just fleeing the scene of the crime and hoping she’ll pick up the pieces. She wouldn’t even mind doing it, if she’s honest, as long as she doesn’t have to ship him back home, still battered and broken, just slightly wiser for the experience.

He’s looking up at her with those dark eyes, swirling the whiskey in his glass, the wide-eyed boy king she left behind. “I don’t know, do the horses need a bedtime story?” Wry, distant, the things he never grew out of. She just stares at him longer, holds his gaze, waits for him to break. He always did, with her.

“Do I need a plan, like, right now?” He looks helpless, the way he did at the very start of everything, when she actually made him think, when she stopped spoonfeeding him.

“You need something. Are you going to go back and do shit? Or are you moving into my guestroom? Mucking horseshit?” The words come out faster than her brain moves but when she catches up to her speech, it’s fine and true and she’d let him live in her guestroom if it meant he didn’t go back to that company.

He mumbles something that sounds distinctly like “I need you” and she’s not sure what to do with that. She reaches out and nudges his side with toes, nail polish red and chipped.

“Fuck, Gerri. What do you want from me? You got fired and you left everything behind. Can’t I want that too?” He’s learned how to shutter his face and she thinks he learned that from her. She’s proud and frustrated in equal measures. The sun moves behind the trees, and his eyes are just a little too unreadable even though they belong to this man who complimented her ass earlier in the day.

Finally she looks away, looks out at her driveway, leading down to the dusty road, the sheep in the far distance on the next farm over. She can see Roman follow her gaze, and he’s quiet when he says, “I bet your therapy cost more than mine, with property taxes and whatever.”

And she just laughs because he’s right. He always found his own way to talk about things. It took a little bit to fall back into step with his vernacular, but she still speaks Roman fairly fluently, it turns out. She looks back to him, those dark eyes flashing a little now, something besides sadness there, something like hunger. Surely it’s just nostalgia, or memory, or loneliness, or or or

A thousand people could have shown up on her porch today, but she thinks Roman is the only one she’d let stay.

“Why didn’t you take me with you?” His voice is plaintive, almost lost to the breeze, but she’s always been tuned to his frequency. She feels baffled by the question.

“Take you where?” She was fired unceremoniously, he was entirely entrenched, it was his family and it was that family and she had no idea where she was going in any definition of the term, let alone with whatever they were doing romantically at that point.

“Here. Wherever. Just. With you.”

It hits her, right in her chest, the squeezing of her heart, her hand unconsciously rubbing at her skin through the thin fabric of her shirt. Perhaps she underestimated herself, maybe for the first time. She just thought she was his filing cabinet and the mole woman and didn’t think the rockstar needed her after all.

Whatever romantic overtures there were never felt as serious in the way that their business partnership was serious and she thought that’s why it worked, and why it seemed easy for him to leave behind when she was gone. She never thought he wanted an escape hatch, and she can see his face flush, the immediate embarrassment, to be vulnerable when she had no idea.

He stands, turns to face her, hands shoved in his pockets. “Fuck, Gerri, I asked you to marry me.”

“I didn’t think that was real. You asked Tabitha to marry you, there was that time we had to pay off Binky, or whatever her name was, just to break off the engagement. What’s real, and what’s just Roy family bullshit? Same packaging, different kid.” If she had a dime for every time one of the Roys wanted someone to cut their dick off. Maybe they know each other too well, they’ve known each other too long.

“It was real. For me, anyway.” He runs a hand through his hair and the white hairs glint in the dying sun. “You could’ve been Meghan Markle and I would have Prince Harry-ed everything. Given it up.” It must take him such effort to say that. She drains her glass, the burn at the back of her throat pushing her up from her chair, down the porch steps, to stand next to him. She’s still shorter than he is, but their hands fall to almost the same place, and it’s easy enough to slide her palm against his, for just a moment.

“Bedtime, maybe,” she says, even though she’s not tired, and she doesn’t mean it as an invitation. Maybe a whole day together after so long apart was too much all at once, maybe they need to ease back into being around each other. Roman’s hand vanishes from hers, only the memory of his clammy touch left behind.

Fred follows her up the stairs and she can hear the sound of running water through the floorboards, the first time she’s had someone else in this house in years, her daughters the only visitors before that, turning up their noses at dirt and dust and a small town general store. “It’s all right, Freddie,” she says, as her dog looks at her with questioning eyes, not used to the new noise. “He’ll be here in the morning.” She pulls the quilt up around her ears and hopes that it’s true.

The smell of burning is what wakes Gerri, something filtering up from downstairs. She just manages to remember to grab her bathrobe, tying it around her waist as she goes down the stairs and into the kitchen, sees Roman standing over her stove with a frying pan and a helpless look on his face.

“Let’s leave that for Fred and we can go to Maggie’s,” she says, hand just skimming Roman’s waist as she leans around him to turn the burner off. He hands her the pan and the spatula, and she can see pieces of eggshell stuck in the middle of everything. Maybe not for Fred after all. “Go get dressed.” She shoos him out of the kitchen, the spatula an effective directive tool, and runs water over the ruined eggs, pushing them down the garbage disposal.

She catches sight of herself in the mirror on the way back up the stairs, curls flying everywhere, tired face, wishes, not for the first time, that this could be her life twenty years ago, not now, where there doesn’t seem to be enough time to enjoy it all.

They all climb into the Jeep and Gerri rolls down the windows, Fred’s nose immediately popping out, his ears flapping in the wind as they trundle down the driveway. “They don’t usually burn the eggs at Maggie’s,” she says, “but people will stare at you. An outsider to the town.” There’s a smile on her face and she thinks it might assuage the panic on Roman’s, at least a little.

When she parks the car, it’s in front of the beauty salon, in front of her office. There’s a small sign in the window that says “Quinn Law” and she looks furtively at Roman to see if he’s noticed, doesn’t know whether to feel shame at how far she’s fallen or pride at how much she’s built on her own. He’s looking out the other window, one hand idly petting Fred’s head.

“I have to grab something in, ah, there. Why don’t we meet at Maggie’s ten minutes? Just down the street.” She points in case Roman lacks an internal compass, in case he forgot where they got coffee less than twenty-four hours ago.

She pauses at the door to her small office long enough to see Roman stop at the front of the general store, peer in the window, and then step inside. Fiddling with her keys, she finds the one she needs and opens her own door. The sunlight filtering in through the windows shows the dust motes in the air, and she moves behind her desk to flip through the papers she’s let stack up too long.

Fred curls up on his bed in the corner, chewing quietly on his favorite bone, bought primarily because it didn’t emit a shrill squeak. She doesn’t know how long she spends looking through things, doesn’t look up until she sees a shadow darken the doorframe, Roman standing there, watching her, a new baseball cap making his face even more shadowed than before.

“Quinn Law, huh?” he asks and steps inside, the stitching on his brand new cap reads Emmett Otters. He looks infinitely more casual, more boyish, and there’s that low feeling in the pit of her stomach again. “Just picked up something from Tom over in the general store. Said I couldn’t leave town without supporting your baseball team.” It’s not even a good baseball team, but now Roman knows Tom, and he’s wearing that hat and smiling at her and for just a moment, it’s like things all slide into place, like a telescope focusing, before her worry makes it go fuzzy again.

“I just have to find something and then we can go to breakfast,” she says, buttoning herself back up, her gaze back down to the files, glasses perched on the edge of her nose. Roman sits on the edge of her desk, picks up a folder of his own to start leafing through, legs swinging, feet dangling. Gerri tries to remind herself that this is just his stopover, that it isn’t real, but it doesn’t stop her heart from beating out a what if.

-

Her office is shitty compared to where she ruled at the top of the Royco building. It’s not even an office, just a big room with tables and a desk. But she’s there, and she looks just the same in a way that makes Roman want to jump out of his skin. So he picks up a folder and pretends to read for thirty seconds, until he actually starts reading.There are stories, to the people of the town that he hasn’t really seen. There are farmers who can’t pay the rent on land being sold to them at prices too high and there are cases of domestic abuse and women who don’t feel safe and Gerri’s taking them all, has everyone filed away until she can help. Like. There are real people here. He never really thought of anyone as people, not really, not before.

She’s busy, busy in the way that, once upon a time, he would’ve interrupted with a text message, maybe an eggplant emoji or the finger pointing to the finger hole and a wink. And she would’ve sent back a middle finger, and he would’ve known she was at least thinking about him. But he doesn’t even have her phone number, and for once he feels like maybe her work is more important than him. So he picks up a stapled packet of papers and slouches over to the easy chair in the corner.

The whole time he reads, he can’t stop thinking about the policy of “NRPI” at Royco, just replaying it in his mind, knows that the bad guys in these cases, the people Gerri’s fighting, that’s what they did for so long and what they protected and it was such horrendous bullshit and here she is, fighting harder than she lets on for the opposite.

He looks up, when he gets to the last page, and she’s got a pen in her mouth and Fred is all curled up in the corner, chewing on something that looks fucking disgusting, it’s all so familiar and routine and practiced and Roman thinks for the first time, maybe he’s missed out on something.

“Okay,” she says, finally, dropping her pen, and pushing back from her desk. She tilts her head towards the door and Roman finds himself moving before he even realizes. Fred’s on the move too, and apparently they’re both trained to her minute gestures. “Breakfast.” Roman’s stomach grumbles in response, and she just smiles. She holds the door open for Roman and tells Fred to stay behind and guard the place, a pat to his head, a scratch behind the ears.

“Good to see you again, Roman,” Maggie says, pouring them coffee while they sit down, the same booth as yesterday. He shoots a look at Gerri - he’s only introduced himself to two goddamn people in this town, and she just ducks her head and smiles. Gossip moves even faster here than the top floor of Royco. “Hi, Gerri. Eating today?”

At Gerri’s nod, Maggie drops two menus on the table, heavy and laminated, just the littlest bit sticky too. “So, bottomless mimosas for brunch? Salmon and avocado eggs benedict?” Gerri flicks the paper coating from her straw at him. No mocking her town, that seems to be her baseline rule now. “How do you like your eggs?” He asks because he doesn’t know. There are so many things he just...doesn’t know about her. He wonders if they hadn’t taken a left turn into phone sex so quickly, if he’d been able to have some semblance of self-control, if they would’ve become something different all together?

If they would’ve had breakfast together every day, if he would’ve learned that she likes - “Over easy. Runny yolks.” Gerri doesn’t even open her menu, just drinks her coffee and waits for him to decide.

He ends up ordering waffles that come with a side of toast and some bacon. When Maggie sets their plates down in front of them, Gerri gives her a soft, genuine smile, and Roman can’t think of a time when she smiled at him like that. They never had a chance to be together when it was easy, without people above them and everything melting down all the time. Maybe in the dark or maybe never, always a wryness, always a twist to her lips. The one time he can think of is that day forever ago with his shirt buttons. The closest it ever felt, before any of it was even real.

When they’re alone again, as alone as they can be in the diner, in the middle of a crowd of people who keep staring at them, Gerri fixes him with her stern gaze, pointed and direct. The softness towards Maggie is gone, it’s all edges and business, the way he knew her way back when.

“So. What is this Roman?” she asks, cutting into her eggs with the side of her fork and he knows he’s not getting off easy. “You stay for a night, I buy you a five dollar breakfast and then you fuck off home to the family?”

“This breakfast is only five dollars? That’s a steal.” He tries for unaffected and bland, pretending that Gerri saying ‘fuck’ for the first time since he’s been there doesn’t make something inside of him twitch. He grabs a piece of bacon from Gerri’s plate and she lets him, watches him chew, waits him out.

“I mean, I was fired, so. Like, whatever, you know?” Gerri’s lips are pursed, her eyes squinting at him, trying to figure out what he’s saying. Like he even knows. “Dear old daddy doesn’t even come to the office anymore, Kendall’s ego means there’s no room for the rest of us, and Shiv’s, like. She’s not a part of it.” She’s got Tom and her life and a fallback. She turned away from things when it all went further into the shit, and she didn’t take his calls when he got fired.

“So it’s what? You’re done with your whole family? Goodbye Roys, hello Montana?” The muscle memory is to sass her because for all the years that have passed, he’s still who he is, but he thinks they’re both trying to say things, both trying to find out things, without having to actually say the hard stuff. It’s probably important to try and meet her on that level rather than be a bruised baby about it. He tosses his toast on her plate, watches her sop up the yolk with it, a quirk of her lips in thanks.

“You know,” she says, “Nobody here has even heard of Logan Roy. Remember when we thought the world blew up? What mattered here was that there wasn't any rain for two weeks, not some deal between the Roys and the Pierces.” It makes him relax, a little. The stares are because he’s with Gerri, not because of anything else. But also makes him feel like nothing they did really mattered. He wants to do something that matters.

He looks out the window, stalling for time. It’s quiet here, there’s not a meltdown in sight in this town, and he’s unaccustomed to the sight. “What do you do for stress around here? Like, let one of the horses out just to see if it’ll trample someone? Is a heavy rainfall considered a catastrophic event or like are people blowing up Japanese rockets over here too?”

Her goddamn eyebrow lifts at that and something clicks - she’s turned into a person who could talk about rain and lack of rain and horses running free. Catastrophes mean more than a couple of missing thumbs.

It’s no frills, but she’s made it nice and hers and she’s clearly just so fucking happy with this life she’s created from nothing. Not nothing, exactly. Piles of blood money from the Roys turned into something good. He knows it’s entirely irrational but the hurt that she didn’t take him with her rears its head. Maybe he could’ve been having this life with her for the last ten years. And he never would’ve expected that he’d want it, as recently as driving up the road to her house yesterday, cursing the dusty road and the middle of nowhere and the smell of horse shit.

“I don’t…” He casts about for the right word. “I’m not, like, a small town kind of guy. Or. I don’t think I am.” Gerri’s face closes, the light blinking out from her eyes and he immediately wants to fix it. “But I feel like maybe. Ah. Fuck.” He runs a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. “I want to stay. Maybe. If you want. Fucking hell.”

As quickly as her face shuttered, it brightens again, and it makes his dick twitch, makes his stomach thrum. The idea that he’s the one who made her face look like that. She wipes at her mouth daintily and pushes her plate away. “Long distance consulting work, maybe. I’ll get better wifi at the house. Or run a nonprofit - you’ve got at least a semblance of experience to validate that choice. And, as much as you might hate it, the cache of your last name doing something completely different would fuck shit up. And that’s not entirely a bad thing.” She’s gone into problem-solving mode, into fixing everything, she’s jumped five years into the future and he’s there with her. It’s a surprising gift, light and delicate as a fucking bubble, just blown his way.

“Okay. Okay. Okay okay okay.” It’s all too much and he wants to dump the salt shaker on the floor or throw his plate across the room because fuck, it’s hard being open, even when it gets him what he wants in the end. He almost wants to kiss her but he can’t take any more stares, thinks the townspeople might even fucking applaud it.

“If you’re staying,” she says, carefully, hitting every syllable, drawing out the words, “it means you have to come to the barn tonight.”

He doesn’t even know what the fuck that means, but he nods, knows he’ll go wherever she takes him.

-

Ostensibly it’s a fundraiser to repair the walking bridge over the river at the edge of town, but there’s a gathering in someone’s barn every summer, any excuse will do. Gerri even hosted one, a few years back, helped raise money to repaint the general store. A project she could’ve funded straight out, but overpaid for punch all night instead, giving money where she can to a town too proud to accept favors.

“What’s at the barn? Is it a weird sex thing? You dirty minx!” He’s got such a smirk on his face and for all that they’ve just said, the last ten minutes full of more meaningful words than anything in the last twenty years, she’s reminded of the boy he still can be.

“It’s a town fundraiser. And there was sex once, but the sheriff shut it down pretty quick.” She leans back in the booth, crosses her arms, a smile on her face and a challenge in her eyes. “So, what? Five hundred dollars a hay bale? Checkered linen tablecloths? I didn’t bring my tux.” She chuckles at that, thinks of Connor somewhere raging about cold butter and clogged buffet lines. If that’s all he knows, it’s no wonder there’s nothing but mockery in his tone.

“Just wear what you have on, Roman. We don’t need to bring anything but ourselves. And a pie.” She thinks his eyes might pop out of his head at that. Who knew that the idea of Gerri Kellman making a pie would be the thing to shut him up. But Gerri Quinn makes pies all the time, is known for her cinnamon apple, and her homemade crusts.

She tells him to stay out of the kitchen when they get home, doesn’t know if she can take his presence lurking around the corners of her periphery while she’s trying to roll out dough and slice apples. She replays their conversation from the diner, the strained quality of his voice when he said he wanted to stay. The dough might get overworked, in the end, but it helps to clear her head.

When the pie’s in the oven, she calls through the window that she’s going upstairs to change, has a flash in her mind of doing that for years to come, secure in the knowledge that he’ll be there, that he’ll be listening.

For once, she misses the convenience of New York City’s salons and shopping. Everything in her closet looks dowdy, though yesterday, she wouldn’t have thought twice about pulling either of her two dresses out and putting it on. She picks the blue dress, ties her curls back with a thin matching scarf, swipes red on her lips and tells herself that it doesn’t matter.

The stairs creak as she walks down, and she freezes at the bottom step, because Roman is playing with Fred, a rubber circle in his hands as he tugs at it, Fred’s tail wagging as he pulls. Roman changed his shirt, crisp and black, his hair shot through with silver, and a smile on his face as Fred playfully growls. Domestic. He makes it look easy.

She takes another step, the creak making Roman look up this time, and his mouth drops open, gratifyingly quickly. His eyes are so dark, but this time, he’s not at all cryptic, like he’s taken off a mask, is willing to show her everything. And what she sees makes the pit of her stomach warm, a slight throb between her legs.

“You look,” he swallows, “good.” Fred manages to pull the ring from Roman’s slack hands, takes it back to his bed and watches them both, resting his muzzle on his paws.

“Is that an honest compliment from Roman Roy? And a clean shirt, too. Will wonders never cease?” He stands, meeting her at the bottom of the stairs. She reaches out to fix his collar, just slightly askew, her fingers touching his chin, the stubble scraping just a little. His eyes flash and she clears her throat, moves past him. They have to get through the whole evening first. It’s too early to throw caution to the wind.

“So, what will we be doing tonight? Line dancing? Barn-raising? Horseshoes?” Roman asks as they walk to the car, opening the driver’s side door for Gerri, a gesture so casual, like he didn’t even think twice. She wonders when he learned how to be chivalrous. Somewhere between puberty and getting fired.

“As flattering as your image of small town life is, it’s not quite as bucolic as all that,” she says, pulling onto the main road. “There is...dancing. And hay bales. But at absolutely no time do we form a line.” She neglects to mention that three years ago, they did have a line-dancing night in town. After six glasses of punch, even she was convinced to join in.

It’s at the Douglas’ family barn, swept out and cleaned, only five dollars to come in. Lights hang from the rafters, hay bales set around a makeshift dance floor, stalls empty for the time being, tables with food and drink, a dollar a plate, a dollar a glass. There’s a fire pit outside, people already filtering around the property. And Gerri just looks at Roman, looks to see what he thinks.

His eyes are wide and giddy and she grasps his hand, pulls him further in. “Let’s get a drink.” Two dollars slid across a table, two plastic cups handed back, and Gerri ladles bright pink punch into them, hands one to Roman. “It’s strong.” He looks delighted as he takes a sip, so taken with the idea of a heady small-town drink, moonshine and juice and swirled together in a bowl.

Everyone seems to know who Roman is, says hello. Gene Douglas asks how long his visit will be, and Roman stutters over his words, unsure of the answer. “We’ll see how he takes to the mountain air,” Gerri says, leaning across Roman with a smile, gets a slight tap to her lower back in thanks, the touch of Roman’s fingers hitting just there enough to make her blush.

She leads them to a bale of hay, settles on the edge, enjoys the discomfort on Roman’s face as he adjusts his seat. “You’ll never avoid hay scratching your ass,” she says, “Forgot to ask if you’ve got an allergy.” They were always so worried about allergies for Roman, pale and small as a child. Just cat hair and pollen, nothing special. Pale and small because that’s just who he is. Who he was. Not quite as small now.

“I had to take this bullshit society dance class when I was eight,” he says, eyes trained on the dancefloor, couples moving around in tandem. “Dirty Dancing but like. Fifty fucking times worse. Shiv was my dance partner, which made it even more terrible. She stepped on my feet on purpose. Broke my pinky toe.”

“It’s a miracle you survived such a traumatic experience,” she says, nudging him with her shoulder. “And that you’ve got all ten toes.” She’s about to say something else when Tom of the general store taps her shoulder, asks her to dance. Roman shrugs, lets her go, and she pretends there’s not a pang in her heart that he’s not the one who asked her to dance.

The music picks up and Tom makes her laugh, spinning her around the floor, kicking up dust from the hay, and she can see Roman watching. For the first time, he looks out of place, dark New York black, shirt buttoned up to the top. Everyone else looks light, looks free, and his eyes are so dark. But it makes him easy to find, her gaze always going to him, his gaze constantly on her.

The music fades into another song, and Gerri moves to another dance partner, another friend careening her around the floor, another laugh escaping her lips. She only stops when she sees Roman stand, slowly, brushing hay from his jeans, a decision made. He moves through the crowd, like no one’s in his way, like there’s a tether tying them together. He holds out his hand for her and it’s the easiest thing to slide her palm against his.

She stares at their joined fingers because she doesn’t want to look into his eyes, not yet. She knows the desire she might find there, feels a little thrill of chaos, like she might lose control, because she knows the desire inside of her too. It’s strange, to spend so much time alone, to be happy in that solitude, and then to find contentment in the way another person fits against her.

She doesn’t know the song that’s playing, doesn’t know anything, really, except for the feel of their hands together. And when the music fades out, he lets go of her hand, only to slide his fingers to her waist, to pull her hips square with his. Her hand falls to his shoulder, thumb just a hair's breadth from touching the bare skin of his neck.

They haven’t said a word, not for ten minutes. It feels like the first time they haven’t filled a silence with their words, with banter and friendly barbs. There have been companionable silences and little quiet moments, but she gets the sense that Roman is expending a certain amount of control, putting forth effort towards not fucking this up. There’s a delicate bubble arising between them, and it makes Gerri feel like she should be holding her breath so as not to disturb it.

For everything they’ve been through, for all the times she’s seen him shudder as he comes, the vitriol dropped from her lips, there’s a closeness here she’s never felt with him before. A tenderness, too, his hand so delicate against her waist, fingers moving against the curve of her spine, making a shudder run through her, one she’s certain he notices, though his face is absent of its usual smirk.

He pulls her even closer, she can feel the point of his hips against her own, her face sliding against his, cheeks meeting before she turns her head, cheek against his shoulder, and he smells of hay and sweat and the sour punch. He smells like Roman, too, like the man she’s known his whole life, a smell that’s familiar and distracting and chaotic, and she just breathes it in deeper.

His fingers twitch a little, pressure just there, the heat of his hand evident through the thin fabric of her dress. His dark, dark eyes aren’t hiding anything from her at all as he drops his hold on her, hands by his side again. In the banging silence between songs, Gerri ducks her head to avoid his gaze, a curl falling into her eyes. His fingers twitch again, like he wants to reach out and touch her, like he wants to brush it back. It’s the shyness, the boyishness, of his gesture that makes her smile, what makes her grasp his hand again, and lead him from the dance floor.

-

“Let’s go home,” she says and it makes his heart stutter, almost makes him trip over his feet, because it’s home and it’s her and fuck it sounds good. What are the chances he could be this lucky? People stop them as they go, and the guy from the shop where he got the baseball cap remembers him, and he thinks his name is Tom, and he smiles and it gets easier the more he does it and maybe this has been the secret all along.

They drive home, her hands on the wheel, those capable fucking hands are all he can think about. He can’t tell if something’s really changed, if things are different, or if it’s just the hope he’s let himself feel, for the first time in ten long, shitty years.

Rumbling up the gravel driveway feels familiar now, the lights on in the living room make it all look so idyllic and like an actual place someone might want to live. A place someone might want to come home to.

Gerri pours them a drink when they get in and he still doesn’t know what to say, hasn’t said a single fucking word since he held her on the dancefloor, because he just knows he’s going to say the wrong thing and she’s going to turn him away or laugh in his face or tell his father where he went. So many disaster scenarios, it’s hard to pick which one might happen.

Their fingers touch when she hands him the glass, and it makes him feel like he’s in high school again, like some kind of pimply teenager too scared to talk to the head cheerleader. She’s got that little smile on her face, that kind of smile she gives to people she likes, and her hair falls into her face again. Her curls are in her face, and who gave her the right to have curly hair like that.

Before he knows it, his hand is brushing it back, he’s touching her, and she’s just got those clear blue eyes looking at him, and she doesn’t seem to mind.

And she doesn’t seem to mind when he leans in to kiss her because he just can’t wait, because he’s still got all the control of prepubescent kid, but she’s kissing him back, doesn’t seem surprised, doesn’t seem upset. Fucking Gerri, always one step ahead of everyone else. Maybe she assumed if he stayed for longer than an hour that they’d end up here one way or another.

Before she left, before everything went even further down the shitter, they only did this one or two times, face to face, dick out, pants off. Not that his pants are off or his dick is out, but he’s willing to be it’ll end that way. This kind of...thing. It was new or rare or whatever, and it’s like some weird romance novel that’s bringing them back together, in the middle of nowhere, in the living room of her beautiful house. It’s not like picking things up where they left off, because they’re making out, because her tongue is in his mouth, and he’s not about to get banished to a bathroom, to pant against the door.

When she pulls away, he tenses, because he doesn’t know Gerri Quinn like he knew Gerri Kellman and doesn’t know and he doesn’t know what she’s going to say. But she just cocks her head towards the stairs, and leaves him to follow in her wake. Because fuck it all, she still knows he’s going to follow her wherever she goes. Ten minutes or ten years behind her, but he’ll be there.

Her bedroom is nice, and he’s never seen where she sleeps before. When he was a kid, he and Kendall joked that she slept in a coffin, a vampire working for their father. Now he knows that she has a fluffy quilt and slippers by the bed, and more pillows than one person needs. He bets he could feel like he was being choked by a cloud, if he fell asleep there.

She’s unbuttoning his shirt before he can really register what’s happening, and he fiddles with the button at the top of her dress, and they’re just a mess of arms, all tangled up and it’s awkward and it’s fine and it’s terrible and it’s wonderful and he just wants to pull her dress off over her head. It’s like uncovering something new, where they don’t owe anything to anyone but maybe, just possibly, they owe something to each other, and it’s the kind of commitment they’re maybe okay with. That maybe he’s okay with.

With all their assignations before, everything was so covert, even if he’d practically yell about it at the breakfast table. No matter what they did, it was always like this kind of a specter of everyone else floating out there in either. The consequences and the company and all of it. But there’s absolutely no one but them now. And Fred, but he’s downstairs, asleep with a bone under his snout.

Her dress is on the floor, and she’s already stepping out of her underpants, no shame in her movements, no hurry either, just calm and methodical, like she’s been ready for this to happen for days, weeks, years. His jeans stick against his shins and he has to kick them off his feet, has never felt so much like an idiot as he does in this exact moment, Gerri watching him with that bemused smile on her fucking face, tossing her bra onto the ground too.

And then they’re both naked, pale in the moonlight and he kisses her neck. She tastes different, tastes of punch and outdoors and campfires and New York seems like another world. Completely different. He’s never slept with Gerri Quinn before.

She tilts her head and there’s a hum at the back of her throat. He walks her until her legs hit the bed, they fall back together, fall in a pile of limbs and flesh and she’s so warm and her lips are just. He’s seen them twist and smirk and smile but he’s never seen them like this, well-kissed and lovely, her cheeks pink, her eyes sparkling. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen, and he feels like his dick is just going to fall off with the sheer amount of want all bottled up inside.

She straddles him, a thigh on either side of his hips. “Finally putting all that horseback riding to good use, huh, Quinn?” he asks, and the blush that colors her face is enough to last him for weeks, if this were the last good thing he’ll ever get. He thinks she likes her name - her real name - on his lips. And when she bends down to kiss him again, a hand on either side of his head, he has to use every fucking ounce of restraint to stop from devouring her, from biting her, from coming right there.

His dick twitches against her ass, against her thighs, and she rocks back against him, lifts her hips, looks down at him, waiting for him to decide. Because somehow she knows and somehow she gets it, and when he thrusts up into her, it’s like coming home too, but to no home he’s ever been to before.

“Fuck. Gerri.” The words come out in spits and stutters, and she squeezes something and it makes him lose his whole fucking mind because it feels so good. Her hands move against his chest, nails and fingers sliding along his skin, and the only thing he can do is reach up and pull the tie keeping her curls at bay, lets them free, lets them fall into her face.

She pushes against him, her stomach muscles flexing, the soft flesh at her waist moving too. She pushes back and tosses her head, and he just wants to touch her, her hair, her arms, her thighs, her breasts, he wants to touch it all. She looks so vibrant and alive, more than she ever did in the city, the brains behind everything, making deals and keeping people out of jail. Making a new life made her whole, and the knowledge of it is what makes him come, what makes him thrust up once more, a guttural moan, a bitten off shout. She rocks forward again, gyrates her hips, and then she comes, too, that hum at the back of her throat, louder and stronger than before, a sound that he will replay in his ears forever. She’s been waiting for this too.

When she kisses him again, a familiar peck to his lips, a promise of something to come, a tease that makes him feel giddy. She rolls to the side, looking wanton and spent, contentment on her face. “Like riding a bicycle,” she says, and her voice is soft and wild and throaty and if he were twenty years younger, he’d be ready to go again, to push into her and make her shout with desire.

As if reading his mind, she pats his cheek, lets her hand rest there, a comforting weight, a reminder that she’s there, that this is real. “We have time,” she says, a promise - a real fucking promise and he’s going to hold her to it. They have all the time in the world, they’re going to get fucking fat on time.

“You can sleep here, if you want,” she says, “or the room downstairs. My feelings won’t get hurt if you need some space.” He trusts her on that, she built a whole life on needing space, wouldn’t begrudge him the distance of one floor. And she trusts that he’ll be there in the morning. But the pillows on her bed are soft and deep, and the smell of her, musky and happy and good, it’s all enough to keep him here, at least for now, at least for the night. This is where he wants to be. Her hand drops from his cheek, and she turns on her side, away from him, face towards the windows, moonlight on her hair.

He pulls at one curl, watches it spring back into place. “Good night, Rome,” Gerri says, sleepy and muffled in the pillows. He pulls the curl one more time, gently, thinks he’s just like it, stretched and pulled out of shape, but falling back to where he should be.

-

Her bed is crowded, when she wakes. The warm weight of Fred, laying across her feet, his gentle snores, his quiet breaths, his drool against the quilt. It’s familiar, it’s comforting. And then there’s Roman next to her, his back to her, his face pressed into the pillows, one leg kicked back, the flat of his foot against her shin.

It isn’t familiar, not yet, but she thinks, in time, it will be. They have years of mornings like this left. The sun rising slowly in the sky, no clouds on the horizon. Roman grunts in his sleep, turns his face, and he looks so boyish and young, eyes closed, no wrinkles on his forehead. She doesn’t really know what he’s like in the mornings, beyond the early days in the office, Roman petulant and puerile, fucking up things just for the fun of it. Brushing his hair away with one delicate finger, she can’t decide whether to wake him or let him sleep.

The decision is made for her as his eyes blink open, sleepy and dark, a moment of confusion before it all comes rushing back in, the desire back in his eyes, a flash of want that makes her belly throb. When he kisses her, it’s rough and sweet all wrapped up, like he’s trying to devour her, like he’s trying to save her. His hands are in her hair, tangling it around his fingers, holding her close.

Their bodies align so easily, like puzzle pieces finding their place. She can feel him against her bare thigh, warm and heavy, thrusts her hand between them to slide against his cock, to hold him, rubbing her thumb against the tip. He groans at that, a sleepy sort of protest that doesn’t mean anything except “Keep going,” and the hand not currently wrapped in her curls grasps her waist, slides down her hip, between her legs, where she’s already warm and waiting.

The flick of his thumb against her, the push of his forefinger, his middle finger, it makes her grunt, more noisily than she has in ages, and she can’t stop the involuntary push of her hips against his touch. He makes her lose her rhythm, sliding up and down his length, but it doesn’t make him any less responsive, hardening against her palm. She spreads her legs, scissoring them across her bed, hitting his knee, making him yelp, making him laugh, but giving him more room, giving his hand more space to play with.

One elbow propping him up, one between her thighs, and he swallows her moan in a kiss, bites at her lower lip too. There’s an ease to this, finding their pace with their hands, moving feet disturbing Fred, sending him down the stairs to slurp loudly from his water bowl. She wonders if they’ll be hungry for each other like this forever, or if it’s just because this is new and different and special and they’ve been living such other lives for so long.

When she comes, she presses her mouth against his bare chest, the sparse hairs there tickling her lips, and she thinks her teeth might leave a mark, thinks he might not mind. Can just imagine him bragging about it to Joseph in the middle of town. The thought makes her smile, she doesn’t mind, so much, the idea of Roman claiming her, knows it’s just as much that he’s bragging about how he’s been claimed by her.

“Let’s make breakfast,” he says, another kiss to her lips, morning breath and all, pushing away from the bed, finding his shirt from the night before and pulling it on.

“And if you burn it, we can go to Maggie’s,” she replies, following him down the stairs, reveling in the sound of his laugh, the promise of tomorrows in his happiness.