Disclaimer: No own, no sue. Quote is from The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost.

x

The Yellow Wood

two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both
and be one traveller, long i stood, and looked down one as far as i could
to where it bent in the undergrowth


They kiss in the break room, quickly and covertly. Lloyd's the one who initiates it and Julianne can't say she's surprised, not really. It reminds her all too much of another time in this room, but she tries to forget about that. Lloyd pulls back, nervous, eyes scanning her face and looking like he's just done the stupidest thing of his life.

From there, things diverge.


Julianne doesn't feel the same way.

In that moment, she tries to. In the seconds hanging between that kiss, in the gap between his lips and hers, she tries so hard to feel the same way. She knows she could – she knows she has the capacity for that kind of emotion, and she knows Lloyd is deserving of it. He is smart, and he is kind to her, and he is not really all that bad looking, really…

But Julianne can't do it. She can't lie to herself that way, and she certainly can't lie to him. She doesn't feel the tremors in her stomach when she looks at him, like she does with (other people, she supplants quickly, before her brain can provide a dangerous name) guys she likes. He doesn't make her nervous, he makes her feel safe. And that's good – and that's great – but she doesn't feel the same way.

There's a dark and frightening part of her that murmurs she can do better, and the worst bit is, Julianne knows it's true. She's broken, and bruised, but she can be fixed and she can walk out of here, and she was going to be a Marshall; she deserves a love that doesn't consist of anxious prison visits and awkward, clumsy embraces with a man who's so much less than a man. She cares about Lloyd, and she never won't, but she doesn't feel the same way.

It's been about five seconds now, and she hasn't moved or spoken or anything. Lloyd is looking horrified at his boldness and tripping over an unspoken apology, and she's nodding it away. She still doesn't say anything. She isn't going to hurt him. She isn't going to lie.

Lloyd's plastered a bashful smile across his face, and is running his fingers through the hair at the back of his neck. Sorry, he says. I don't know, I just got a bit – it's being penned up in Maybelle, you see, and you're really pretty –

It damages their friendship, but it doesn't ruin it. Eventually, that awkwardness, it vanishes, and Julianne turns up to the office one morning to find that the bond between them is stronger than it's ever been. Lloyd's got a new look in his eye when he looks at Erica, and Julianne feels proud and pleased for him every time she or Ray or Charlie tosses him some backhanded compliment. He talks her through every stumbling block she comes up against, and she suggests ways he can try not to alienate everyone he meets. Neither of them have ever really been confident, and they laugh, on occasion, of what might have happened if they two of them had become a they. It would have been so awkward, they agree. So foolish.

She pretends not to notice the final, backwards glances he gives her every time he heads back to the Maybelle van, and she tells herself over and over again that she did the right thing. Most days, she believes it.

Some days, so does he.


2. Julianne isn't sure. She backs up a little, and there's hesitancy all over her beautiful face, and suddenly, Lloyd is brave.

"You don't have to be frightened," he says, and he thinks the elbow is probably a non-threatening place to put his hands. Familiar and comforting but non-threatening and she can push him off at any time, so that's probably okay. He lights his fingertips against her blouse, barely putting any pressure against her skin.

"I'm not," Julianne says, and oh, this girl, oh, this woman, she looks him right in the eye when she says that, and Lloyd believes her.

"I know." He drops his hand and takes a half step forward, then leans back. He can't decide between closeness and distance. He can't find the right words to make his point. He just knows he has to do this. "Julianne, I want you to know…how I…" How I what? Feel? Are you going to be that cliché? Really?

Julianne brings her fingers to her lips, still not taking her eyes off him. "Lloyd," she says, carefully, delicately. His name weighs like gold on her tongue, he thinks, and he could listen to her say it for the rest of his life. Which is, admittedly, pretty pathetic. For a scientist, he's always been a little…over-romantic.

It comes from growing up alone with fairytales, he thinks. False expectations.

"I'm not –" Julianne pauses, like she isn't sure what she is trying to say. Lloyd's halfway to backing down, turning away, telling her it doesn't matter, that he didn't mean anything by it. He's hit by a sudden wave of guilt (why are you doing this to her? Why are you making her make this decision? This isn't fair on her, this isn't healthy) and he almost crumbles, there and then, but it's at that moment Julianne drops her arm to her side and takes his hand in hers. "I'm not sure I know how we're going to do this."

He imagined, when he thought about this sort of thing happened, that she'd be bashful. He imagined she'd be as awkward and as clumsy as him, as uncertain of herself and her own heart, but she isn't. She looks up at him, looks him dead in the eye, and she's smiling. It's a faint smile, sure, but it's there, and it's confident . This broken angel, she's fixing up her wings a bit more every day.

He starts to stutter something out (he's never sure, exactly, what) but she cuts him off with a swift, second kiss. It's charming and chaste and perfectly Julianne, and whatever poetry is in his soul makes Lloyd sure he can fall in love with this girl.

He's got to go back to Maybelle all too soon, and they're still a little new at this whole thing to do much more than clumsily hug goodbye. Ray looks a bit suspicious and Shea has the I-know-exactly-what-I-am-talking-about-on-the-journey expression plastered all over his face. She calls him twice that week, and every day the week after, and on the third week, she comes to visit.

That's when Lloyd calls it off.

She looks beautiful when he sees her. She's wearing her hair down, and that in itself speaks volumes. She meets his eyes uncertainly at first, because she isn't at home here, and she isn't safe. Lloyd's proud, for a second or two, about how well she's handling all this. She holds her neck erect and ignores the sidelong looks and catcalls thrown in her direction. She has eyes only for him, and a soft smile, and softer skin when she reaches out and lets him take her hands in his.

She is radiant and incredible and the sort of woman Lloyd has spent his whole life dreaming would give him the time of day, and maybe she's broken and flawed enough to love him back, but Lloyd can't do this.

He cannot do this to her and look himself in the eye.

"Jules," he says, and there's a crack in his voice that his self-control, that his precision, that four years of med school, didn't iron out right. She looks at him and her eyes are clear and startling, and Julianne Sims is better than this.

She knows what he's going to say before he says it. They hold hands for ten minutes, and he runs his fingers all over hers, trying to memorise every whorl and crease in the skin. Even for these ten minutes, he's cheating by having her here. He's cheating something out of the whole dark, disgusting mess he's landed himself out, and Lloyd Lowery has a poker face that can't be matched but he isn't willing to bet Julianne, not for any stakes in the world.

She kisses him goodbye. It's their thirteenth kiss (unlucky for some; he's been counting) and it is, he is sure, going to be their last.

Maybe there's a glimmer, somewhere down the line, but Lloyd doesn't think so. Guys like him, and girls like her…the world only throws pearls before swine once before the pighand gets fired.

But he tells himself maybe one day anyway, because God, he's got to have something to hope for.


3. Lloyd holds position a few inches away from her face, looking worried, looking nervous. Julianne stares up at him, and is sure that she cannot live without this.

It isn't, she reflects later, as she gives him a secretive kiss on the cheek to bid him farewell before he's out the door for another goodness-knows-how-long, that she can't live without being with him. No; what Julianne is sure of is that she cannot live without Lloyd Lowery in her life. She has come to depend, almost without her realising it, upon the gentle guidance he's been giving her. He is always, always there for her, come hell or high water, and even when she chews him out or talks him down, he's there telling her how well she's doing, how far she's come, and that's…she needs that. He can help her. She needs him to help her.

She can't bear the thought of him turning away from her, if she'd stepped away from him in that moment. She cannot stand the idea of sitting in the office every time they're needed and feeling as if she is among strangers. She can't do that, and she doesn't have to; with Lloyd by her side, Julianne doesn't have to feel afraid. And she is sure…it is not so hard, she thinks, to grow to love someone. It's not like she sees him that often, anyway. It's not like, it's not as if, it's not the same as…

And so, the explanations start.

It's alright at first, their pseudo-relationship. They have a long talk on the phone, a couple of weeks after that first kiss, and they sort of sort out where they're going with all this. He respects her opinion, Julianne thinks, he defers to her and asks for her judgment and suggestions. They go with his recommendations in the end, because after all, he's the one at a disadvantage here. He's the one in prison. She owes it to him to allow him this.

Lloyd is kind, and doesn't press her – not emotionally, not physically. He lets her make all the first moves, lets her set the pace. He puts her in complete control, but it isn't frightening; she can feel him guiding her the whole way, his hand at her back and his lips at her ear, murmuring advice, whispering encouragement, telling her everything is going to be alright. Telling her, you can depend on me.

For Lloyd's part, he doesn't realise what he's doing until it's far too late for him to extricate himself from it. The words come naturally, the ones that make her trust him, and the assurances and the support and the gentle, guiding lines he lays down steer her so slowly towards the place he wants her that, at first, he's oblivious to his own machinations. Then, slowly, he starts to see.

By that point, she is completely dependent on him. Her face lights up whenever he looks at her, and she's turning to him for support in simpler and simpler tasks. At first, it was endearing, but now, in the cold light of day, Lloyd can see it for what it is. This relationship – this thing they have, this whatever-it-is – isn't healthy. Julianne thinks she's getting stronger, but she isn't – she's falling apart, she's coming undone, she walking backwards. And Lloyd is the one holding her hand all the way down the path.

It's in their interests to keep you afflicted, he had told her, and he realises too late that it's in his, too. Because Julianne is beautiful and Julianne is brilliant and Julianne could be anything she wants to be, except for the crippling array of disorders that have locked her up in her gilded tower. Julianne could, Lloyd is certain, have any man she wants.

If he was stronger, he would push her away. Slowly, gently, but he would push her away. He would step back, he would make her better instead of validating her constant need for his approval, he would trust in her to love him back if that was what made him happy. If he was stronger, Lloyd would do the right thing.

He has never been strong. He's a coward and he's frightened and he's facing another fifteen years, minimum, in prison, and there's no life for him after that. No practice, no happy ending, nothing to go back to. His credibility ruined, his expertise out of date – there is nothing waiting for Lloyd outside those prison gates except the smell of food he can't afford when he walks past restaurants on his way home, because he doesn't have change for the bus. The only thing – the only thing – Lloyd has got going for him right now is Julianne.

He needs to push her away, but God forgive him, he can't. He can't cut his last lifeline, not now, not in the middle of this, with nothing ahead and so little behind…

It makes him sick. He makes him sick. And it's as inevitable as the tide or the rising of the sun, because Lloyd Lowery is a genius, and Lloyd Lowery has a hundred reasons at the tip of his tongue why it's alright really that this carry on.

He'll be the death of both of them, and he hates, deeply, violently, that he's so okay with that.


4. Lloyd is hesitant and Julianne, while unsurprised, is still thrown by the fact that he actually came out and kissed her, and they stand there, in the empty break room, staring at each other for a good few seconds. The silence hangs in some strange kind of awkwardness that's never existed between them before, and there's an instant where they both feel that, and that's the instant they both think, screw that.

Because, Julianne thinks, why should it be awkward? They are sensible enough to deal with something like this, however the future unfolds from this moment, and she cannot – will not – lose a man who is fast becoming her closest friend over something as foolish as a kiss. She has let her insecurities, her uncertainties, define too much of the last five years, and she is done.

Because, Lloyd thinks, why should it be awkward? It's a natural expression of a commonly experienced human emotion, it's a progression of their relationship, it's an invitation to treat that Julianne can accept or refuse at her discretion. He's looking at a bleak grey wall for the foreseeable future and she's become this blazing, brilliant spot of light in his life, and why should he not try? Why should he not be worth her?

They both start to talk in the same breath, and the words get muddled over one another in the awkwardness they've both refused. Julianne's cheeks look a little red but Lloyd is sure his aren't faring any better, and neither of them is frowning. Neither looks perturbed. Julianne runs a hand up over her hair, tucking an imaginary strand back into place, and her eyes are searching for something in Lloyd's face that he doesn't know how to give her. He doesn't know what she wants. But, by all he's ever sworn by, he knows he'll try to find out.

"Lloyd –"

"Julianne –"

Those are the first words they actually manage to sound out properly, and they sort of pause after that. They've both got so much to say, so many problems with this whole thing that need to be recognised, and Lloyd, he feels like he's got so much to confess. He wants to tell her: I'm not right for you, if you do this you'll be giving up so much, I can't promise you the things you deserve, I'm going to move mountains to make you happy if you give me this chance. What he lands on is much less eloquent:

"I'll try, Jules. Whatever it takes, I'll try."

She looks at him for a beat, and a small smile breaks over the lost sea of her face. "You don't have to be so dramatic, all the time."

He half-laughs, breathless, a little nervous, but she isn't pushing him away. "I can do that. Anything else?"

She raises her eyebrows. God, Lloyd thinks, she has eyes as wide as suns, and twice as glorious. "Are we…making terms?"

He shrugs, uncertain, and his hands have found his way into his pockets. He's taller than her and suddenly extremely aware of it. He feels like he's seventeen and trying to fit in with a high school crowd he kids himself he's grown out of, when the truth is he never even grew in – stooping, pock-marked, skinny and smarter than it's worth his while being, lonely as hell with nothing even close to a happy home to go back to. But here, instead of kids with cruel smiles, it's Julianne, and she's putting her hand on the line where his jaw meets his neck, and tracing the stubble there with something like wonder on her face.

He isn't worth this, isn't worth her. But he's done with letting things that don't matter stop him. And by the look in her eyes, so is she.

"I – if you think…if you think we can make this work, Lloyd…"

He nods, and it's a bit sudden so she goes to move her hand away, but he catches it. "Yes. I mean, no, I mean, this is probably going to be a disaster, but – but Julianne, I am so, so willing to try this. If you give me the chance, I swear to you, I'm not going to let you down. This could go all to hell, but I promise you –"

She cuts him off there, with her finger against his lips. "Okay," she says, and that's that.

It is, of course, not without its problems.

For one thing, it's hard to get any time alone. Actually, it's hard to get any time at all. So at first, things kind of creep along, and it may as well be as if nothing else had happened. But for Lloyd, it's enough. She writes, and on occasion, she calls. They open up a bit more about the things they've never had the chance or impetus to mention before. Lloyd finds out that she used to play hockey, but not very well, and he tells her that he has always hated chess. Julianne never wanted a pony, but she did read books on the wild west and the kind of revolvers they used back then, so Lloyd tells her the oldest memory he has of his father, and of his father's gun. He tells her he's got a thing for Indian food, and the next time a case comes up, menus for curry houses are mysteriously the only ones to hand.

Then comes the time the whole team, all six of them, ends up holed up in some shitty hotel in Nevada for three days. Shea (who hasn't shut up about the damn thing since he clocked on to what had happened) decides to be helpful and kneecaps Lloyd, leaving him incapacitated. Julianne and Charlie stay back that day, until Lloyd hits on a lead they'd all missed up until then and Charlie is out the door like a shot. Lloyd knows he should be much more worried about the guy they're chasing, about what could happen if Ray or Charlie walked back in, but Julianne is suddenly very close to him and she smells amazing, even in the heat. There's a lingering sense of nervousness because neither of them is really experienced here, but Julianne takes the lead. They're both achingly aware of how few opportunities like this they're going to have, and it's more than disappointing when they're cut short, but Lloyd carries that first memory of her, pressed up against him between sheets and sweat, for the rest of his life.

There are a lot of problems left, he knows. A lot more things to crop up and try to ruin it, tear apart this shred of gold he's somehow uncovered, but he's accepted that. He isn't going to give up; the world is going to have to tear this one good piece of luck away from him. For perhaps the first time in his life, Lloyd Lowery has something to actually work towards.

Sure, he thinks, the smart money would never be on them. But Lloyd's never been one for safe bets.