Thank you so much to everyone for reading and reviewing this story, I'm so glad to know people are enjoying it! I hope you like this slightly trippy, flaky final chapter...
The kitchen felt small, too small as she looked at Henry, watching him stand in front of her with an expression of shock on his face, slack-jawed and temporarily mute as he took in what she had said.
It may have been cruel to cut and run, but Elizabeth needed to get out. She felt constricted and exposed and vulnerable, and her instincts were telling her to back away, to find some space. She picked up her glass and swallowed the rest of the wine, self-medicating even as she knew it wasn't the best idea. The glass was quickly abandoned next to the sink as she took a step back towards the kitchen door. "I need a break. I'm going for a walk."
She left Henry standing stunned in the kitchen, her heels striking loudly against the tiles as she moved quickly to the exit, her pace faltering only slightly as the alcohol in her bloodstream made itself known and she bumped against the doorframe on her way to the front door.
Outside. Being outside would help. The air would feel good, she would have space and time to get her thoughts and feelings in order and then she could go back and talk to Henry and they could get everything straightened out.
Except she couldn't just go outside for a walk like a normal person.
Going outside for a walk would mean DS agents following her and wanting to know where she was going before she went there so they could clear the route. They may just be doing their jobs but the very idea of their presence was currently making her feel claustrophobic and controlled.
Where the hell could she go to be by herself for ten minutes when wherever she went she had security following her and everyone knew who she was? Elizabeth stopped dead and whirled around. "Damn it!"
Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes, a couple breaking free to trickle down her cheeks as she thought about the irony of suddenly being surrounded by security when earlier in her office with the Bulgarian foreign minister she had felt wildly on her own even in a building full of people. She stood next to the stairs near the front door, undecided, feeling like she was on the edge of freefall.
Heavy footsteps behind her. "Elizabeth!" Henry jogged to catch up with her and his hand grasped her shoulder to turn her to face him.
She let him turn her, could feel his hands on her biceps but wasn't really fully with him as thoughts and emotions whirled through her mind.
Then Henry, still stuck on their conversation in the kitchen, said, "What do you mean you can't talk to me for the same reason?"
It brought her back into the moment and he sounded so confused that she could have laughed if she wasn't feeling so off-kilter and tinged with desperation. "Because how am I supposed to talk to you when all you think about when you look at me is that I remind you of your failure? How am I supposed to open up to you when you think that about me?"
The response was swift and adamant. "That's not all I think about when I look at you. I promise you that's not all I see." He held her a little tighter and leaned down to look her directly in the eye. His voice was softer when he spoke again. "Baby, most of the time that doesn't even register. I promise. It's one thing, a thing I'm working on. You know that. Right?"
The instinctive – and honest - answer was yes, but the stress of the day and the wine she had drunk and the memory of the Bulgarian foreign minister's hand brushing against her neck coupled with the memory of Henry's recent resentment towards her stopped her from voicing it. Elizabeth pulled away and went into the office, heading for her desk and then using its sturdy surface to hold herself up as she looked down at the papers and books piled there.
She heard Henry follow her, but his footsteps this time sounded wary, and he stopped a good couple of metres away from her like he was being careful not to spook her. "I'm sorry for making those jokes about you cheating on me with that slimeball minister."
It seemed like they were always rehashing the same damn arguments. "You already apologised for that," she said, squeezing her eyes shut and hoping the darkness would provide her with the illusion of space. Then in the spirit of diplomacy and hoping to get quickly to better ground, she gave credit where credit was due. "And you didn't know what happened."
"I know. But I think it might help if I explain."
There was a part of him that thought maybe he should back off, give Elizabeth some space for a while when she was obviously feeling a little cornered and overwhelmed.
But Henry feared if he backed off now, they wouldn't get back round to talking about it, and there would be something new to grow and fester between them – and he couldn't allow that to happen. Not when they had been making such great progress since the whole mess involving Dimitri had been sorted, and not when the topic at hand was so important.
And not when he knew a lot of the responsibility for Elizabeth's reluctance to talk to him about it rested on his shoulders – and not just because of the joke.
He took a tentative step closer, keeping a bit of distance for now but hoping to lessen it a little bit. He watched Elizabeth's shoulders tense beneath her dress as she heard him move but she relaxed again after a moment and so Henry held his ground. He was aware that trying to justify his jokes over what he had come to think of as the fake husband photo may not be considered the best strategy following what she had just told him about her meeting with the man, but he thought that the explanation might help.
It might at least make Elizabeth feel less vulnerable if he opened himself up right along with her.
"I know those jokes were stupid," he said. "And knowing now that he made a play to get you to sleep with him makes me feel like a sleaze, but… I felt like I could make a joke about you cheating on me because I know you never would. I could make the joke because I'm confident that we're solid. That we're good. It could be a joke because I know it's never going to be reality."
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts and trying to think how to put into words the second part of what he wanted to say. He could feel a slight tremor in his body as he willed himself to keep it together. His anger towards the Bulgarian minister for his vile presumption, the fierce love and protectiveness he felt towards Elizabeth and the worry and pain and guilt that had collected over time all swirled within him, and he thought he maybe understood a little of what his wife was currently feeling even as his experience of events – past and present – was different. He told himself to focus on the good, because the good was what they used to reinforce their foundations.
He had meant what he said: he was confident that he and Elizabeth were good, no matter what they might be trying to deal with.
Elizabeth turned around then, his words apparently having bought him a hearing as he had hoped they might. Her expression was still a little guarded but the look in her eyes gave her away; she wanted the connection just as much as he did, no matter how annoyed with him she might be. She leaned back against the desk and watched him across the distance.
Henry took a deep breath; it was important to get this right. "And also…" He trailed off and shifted uneasily on the spot.
"And also?" Elizabeth prompted him when words failed to materialise after several long seconds.
Now or never. Just say it, Henry. "And also I know that a lot of the blame for our problems lies with me. And the thought that you might feel even for a second that you have to look elsewhere for intimacy or comfort is just too awful to bear. It was easier to make a joke than to face up to the fact that I caused you pain you didn't deserve."
There was silence for a long moment after Henry finished speaking.
Elizabeth shifted her weight against the desk, processing. She blinked and the room tilted, the wine she had drunk having the opposite effect to the one she had been hoping for. She had been hoping it would make her just unsteady enough to make the off-kilter world seem straight again, a cheap fix to make her feel better temporarily.
Truth was she was in denial that the only real fix was the long way round.
She was aware that the quiet was dragging on and while Henry was waiting for her patiently, she could tell he was desperate for a response. She thought after his confession that he deserved a good one.
She pushed away from the desk to close a fraction of the gap between them. "Well, I'm pretty sure I deserved a little bit of it," she said. "But thank you for saying that. I needed to hear it."
Part of her was pleased that he seemed so worried about her feeling neglected and restless in their relationship; she felt it was only fair after the heartache he had put her through. Most of her, though, just wanted things to be OK again. They had been getting there, she thought, in recent weeks. Things had been getting better even if wounds were still barely-healed and raw. Then the stupid Bulgarian foreign minister came along and shook everything up in more ways than one.
The memory of the day started her stress levels rising again and Elizabeth was unable to stop her face from crumpling. "I'm sorry for walking out on you before, but today… Today was awful."
She swiped at her eyes to force away the tears that once again started to well up, and when she next looked up Henry was standing directly in front of her, an expression of indecision on his face as he debated whether or not she would welcome physical contact. Needing her husband more than she needed to nurse her still-tender pride, she gave him the answer he was looking for and stepped into him, resting her ear over his heart as she slid her arms around his waist. His own arms came up in an instant to hold her tightly, squeezing her to him like he was afraid if he let go she might run away.
"I know," he murmured into her hair. "I know, it's OK."
Henry pressed a kiss to the top of her head and then pulled back slightly so he could press another one to her forehead, his hand sliding up to cup the back of her head, fingers rubbing softly against the strands of her hair. His other hand rested at the small of her back, holding her against him, sure and strong and steady.
Elizabeth stood in the circle of his embrace, feeling the beat of his heart against hers and his chest rising and falling with each breath in time with her own. For the first time all day she felt centred and secure. She wondered if she could have got there faster if she had called Henry as soon as she had chucked the sleazy minister out of her office.
But she had felt like she was always the one needing him, reaching out, and she had felt the need to protect herself, make him wait for a little while. Now she felt the need to make sure that she and Henry were on the same page. She tightened her arms around his waist, the better to feel him pressed against her. "For what it's worth, you're the only one I want comfort and intimacy with."
She could feel his smile as his lips still rested against her forehead, brushing against her skin as he spoke. "For what it's worth: likewise."
"Tomorrow will be better, right?" She really needed to hear Henry say that it would be, needed him to get that she wasn't just asking about the day after a terrible meeting with a sleazy politician and awful jokes version of tomorrow, but their tomorrow. She needed to know that they were on the right track, that they would keep working together to get back to where they wanted to be.
Henry drew back just enough so he could look down and see her face. The smile on his own face was soft and certain. "Yes," he said simply.
She returned his smile and felt a little of their normal easy lightness returning, even as complex and difficult emotions hovered just below the surface, slightly better for the hard conversation they'd just shared, the things they'd drawn out of each other. She thought that the lightness was getting easier each time; it was getting easier again to find their way to normal after dealing with a problem. She thought that a new day would help even more. "Good," she replied. One eyebrow quirked up and it felt almost natural to fall back into a pattern of familiar loving banter. "In that case, I'm going to bed to make tomorrow get here quicker. You're welcome to join me if you like."
It was a peace offering, of sorts, even if her forced enthusiasm fell somewhat flat.
"Oh, that's an offer a man can't refuse," Henry teased along. Then he stopped abruptly and hurriedly backtracked as he realised what he had said. "And of course by a man, I mean me. An offer I can't refuse."
Elizabeth held her tongue just long enough for a look of panic to start to spread across Henry's face. She shoved him lightly in the shoulder. "Don't worry, no one else gets that offer."
He smiled back at her. "A fact that makes me inordinately grateful." He sobered slightly. "I love you, you know? More than anything."
"I know. I love you, too."
Henry dipped his head to kiss her gently and there was a tenderness in his touch that made Elizabeth ache. He lingered for a minute, his lips pressed to hers; everything felt suspended until she shifted against him, breaking the kiss and making time start moving again. Her head was pulsing and she leaned more of her weight onto her husband, squeezing her eyes closed. The stress of the day and the alcohol she had drunk and the difficult conversation she'd had with Henry conspired to drain her of her energy.
She was just so damn tired. She was sure everything used to be so much easier, but couldn't remember exactly when.
"Come here," Henry said, even though she was already there, had always been there, even though she had never gone away anywhere in the first place.
A brief flare of ire at his unintentional suggestion that she was the one with somewhere to come back from.
Then Henry tugged her closer again, arms strong around her, and she was reminded why she would never consider going anywhere – reminded that, no matter what might have come before, Henry hadn't gone anywhere, either, and she was sure he never would. They were solid. They were good, memories of failings and photos and sleazy ministers be damned.
They'd stumble their way together to the end point.