TANGO UP ON SUNSET
SUMMARY: A dreamfic, sorta AU, sorta "what-if", sorta alternative ending. Joe Gillis has a dream about that fateful New Year's Eve, but it seems different. All the events in his life seem to feel different after the dream… but is it enough to change his outlook? And how good a shot WAS Norma, anyway…?
RATING: PG. Just because the movie is. And the show probably is as well.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Norma Desmond, Joe Gillis, or Max Von Mayerling. The fic idea is essentially mine, but I stole the tango scene, and the random bits of dialogue, from the show/movie. It was inspirational. That tango scene is one of my new favourites of musical theatre, I think.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I succumbed! The world's first, apparently, SB fanfic is being born. Just for the record, I'm absolutely certain that we never get told exactly how old Joe is, so in this I'm making him thirty. The libretto describes him as "early thirties", so really, the twenty year gap between him and Norma isn't that large. Therefore, it makes him born, more or less, in 1920 or 1919, since SB is set 1949-1950. And with my limited knowledge of early movies, I think my history works. I know, for example, that the original 'Nosferatu' was made in 1918, and the first, silent, movie of "The Phantom of the Opera" (starring Lon Chaney) was made in 1928. So if Joe was five years old in 1925, it's probably feasible he'd be forced into seeing a silent movie with his parents… which might, perchance, star a twenty-year-old Norma Desmond…
Anyway, without further ado (mainly because my brain hurts now), I present my first, somewhat pathetic, and hideously clichéd, attempt at SB-fic… please R&R so I know there are more of us out there…
PS: Many thanks to Sweet Thing for the beta/comments/encouragement. It's her fault this is here on FFN =)
Tango Up On Sunset
© T'eyla Minh, April 2002
"Once - you won't remember - if you said 'Hollywood', hers was the face you'd think of," Max had said; Max, in all his wisdom and his respect for his mistress, who believed Joe Gillis was probably too young to even remember her in her glory days.
But Joe remembered, just barely. Heck, he was just turned thirty himself, and he'd seen his fair share of movies as a kid. That's why he was a writer, after all. He'd grown up in the golden era of cinema, and all he'd ever wanted to do was write something that might, one day, star one of the 'greats' in the title role. Along with his name in the opening credits. "Screenplay - by Joseph Gillis…"
Most of those movies, admittedly, had been 'Talkies'. In amongst them, though, there'd been a couple of the old silent epics. At the tender age of five, seated between his parents, and bored out of his skull, Joe remembered seeing one of them. The movie didn't interest him in the slightest, back then, but he recalled, vividly, his mother crying above him for no apparently feasible reason. When he asked her what was wrong, she said nothing, merely dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, and sighed, staring at the silent face on the screen. Joe watched with her, unable to read the white-on-black words that soared above him, yet miraculously able to understand what was going on through the soulful eyes of the woman who replaced them.
At five, Joe Gillis was already under the mysterious spell of Norma Desmond.
His mother was a huge fan, with a collection of clippings and photographs that almost put Norma's own to shame. Joe grew up surrounded by her image… but as her memory faded amongst her public, and as his mother's tastes changed to Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, and countless other stars, the pictures diminished. By the time he was ten, in fact, family photos and albums crammed with other idols had replaced Norma.
At thirteen, although he didn't remember it, he loved her. They were cleaning out the old boxes of junk for stuff to sell, and, in the bottom of the final box, in a cracked frame, was a picture, the only one left in the house - Norma, pale, monochromatic, and beautiful, staring longingly at some invisible horizon. By then, Norma Desmond was all but forgotten. Even Joe's mother was unable to recall her name, and Joe was left with a picture of a mysterious woman with whom, for a year, he became completely obsessed. Until his father finally threw the thing out. Two months later, she was forgotten again.
Joe, until that moment when Max inadvertently jogged his memory, had cast the entire situation to some deep, dark recess of his brain. "Once - you won't remember…" But God. He remembered…
The months passed. New Year came and went. Joe was trapped - in Norma's mansion, in her life, in the walls she put up around herself, and, for reasons he couldn't begin to fathom, in her heart. As each day came to a close, as the weeks drew them closer to her unarranged meeting with De Mille, the possibility of escape seemed further from his grasp.
One night, Norma, calmly, yet with her usual proud delivery, announced, "Tomorrow, we shall pay Mr. De Mille a little visit. I've waited quite long enough."
Max merely smiled. Joe suppressed a sigh, knowing this would happen eventually. "Norma, don't you think you ought to make an appointment-?"
"No." She silenced him with a wave of her hand. "Cecil B. always has time for me. Max! Make sure the car looks presentable. We have to impress him."
"Yes, Madame". There was his familiar nod, an automatic movement after so many years. Joe often wondered if Max even realised he was doing it.
"Oh, Joe, darling; I'm so happy. You'll come with me, won't you?"
"Of course," he said, because there was no other answer Norma would accept. "After all, that script of yours has my mark on it, too. I'd hate to have it fall into the wrong hands."
"In Cecil B's hands, it'll be treated like gold dust; don't you worry about that." She smiled. It was a smile of such utter joy that Joe found himself smiling with her. She wrapped him in an embrace that smelt musty underneath her perfume, and he had no choice but to return it. Then, she said, "Thank you, Joe. None of this would have been possible without you."
"I know, Norma. I know."
That same night, he had a dream. Like a movie flashback, it was New Year's Eve once again; the same band, the same music, the same drinks on Max's trolley, Valentino's terrazzo, and Norma's tango. The ingredients for a cocktail of disaster and lies. Unwillingly, Joe relived the entire evening in his mind. Everything was the same, just as he remembered it, right down to her sparkling diamante gown and the gold cigarette case. But… somehow… everything was also very different…
Norma holds out the present to him and awaits his reaction. Joe is stunned, once again, by her endless generosity to him.
"Oh, shut up," she chastises him when he refuses to take it. "Open it. Read what it says."
And when he does, what he sees surprises him "Mad about the boy…" It's rather flattering. To think that Norma Desmond, rich beyond his dreams, 'the greatest star of all', could have developed something more than mutual respect for him… he's a writer… he's nothing… Snapping it closed, he turns away to look out of the window. Another dead branch falls into the empty hole of a swimming pool.
"Yes; and you do look absolutely divine."
He turns back. She is gazing ahead, not quite at him, and not quite through him; she is the anonymous face in the photo, his two-month teenage obsession, for the briefest of moments. Joe blinks back the memory, then slips the case into his pocket; he doesn't want to hurt her by not accepting it. And he does need a new one, after all; actually, he needs one, period. "Well, thank you."
Excited as a child at Christmas, Norma explains about her tiled floor. Joe always forgets how many stars she used to know, now that she's an everyday part of his life, and the mention of 'Rudy Valentino' sends his head spinning. She expects him to dance… with her? And on the same floor as Valentino? He can't. He wouldn't dare to dream of such a thing.
Norma, of course, will hear nothing of the sort, and she sweeps him into an impromptu tango lesson. He resists at first, the cigarette case message echoing in his mind along with the faded memory of the old photo… but she looks so happy. Deep down, he already knows nobody else is going to arrive for her party. He can tell by the way Max is oh-so-slowly moving ever closer to the wall, away from the tiled dance floor. He can tell by the way Norma isn't checking the clock every few seconds, like hostesses do when they're expecting other people.
And with the persistent pressure from her hands - one on his shoulder, one in his own - she manoeuvres him across the terrazzo. It takes mere seconds for him to pick it up. Soon, they fall into step with each other, moving slowly. Norma, in her own, obscure way, informs him he's staying for another year. Joe, watching his feet, making sure he isn't making any mistakes, can hardly argue with her. Curiously, he feels no desire to, either.
"Mad about the boy…" He sees it, now. Or rather, he allows himself to see it. The way her eyes follow him around the room, the way she seems to almost worship the very ground he walks on, the way she finds any small excuse to take his hand, or touch his face. Mad about the boy…
He has to stop. He knows he has to stop her before she really does fall in love with him. She is fond of him, of course; she claims to need him, and she's been living as a recluse, with no human contact besides Max for who knows how long. Now, here she is, sharing her house with another member of the human race: a man, useful to her because he knows about the workings of modern Hollywood; a boy, essentially useless, who is young enough to be her son.
Unfortunately for Joe, he also knows his own weaknesses. He has a tendency to automatically fall for any girl who claims to love him. 'But if she does love you,' a little, irritating inner voice says, 'then so what? You've got nothing to lose.' He ignores it. He's already being showered daily in trinkets; he refuses to use her affection against her for his own ends. He has to convince Norma this is a bad idea to even contemplate, before it's too late. This is a woman who might not survive having her heart broken in the future.
They stop dancing for a while as Max hands them refreshments, and sip sweet champagne while Joe attempts to be a voice of logic. Norma isn't listening; she looks attentive as her gaze follows his random, nervous meandering in front of her, but she's not paying any heed to what he's saying. There she is again - the lovesick girl from the photo.
Caught up, suddenly, in a moment of supreme insanity, brought on by a deadly cocktail of music, champagne and mixed-up emotions, Joe takes her by the hand and tangos, he hopes, like Rudolph Valentino himself. Norma, captivated, laughing as he dips her dramatically and their noses touch, assures him once again that next year will be the perfect year.
He can hardly deny her a perfect year, now, can he?
The dance ends again, and they sit together on her couch, Norma breathless and laughing at his apparently limitless energy. Joe tries to stop himself asking the inevitable; he fails miserably.
"So, when are they supposed to get here?"
"Who?" She was still laughing. It is a laugh that has been bottled up for far too many years.
"The other guests."
"There are no other guests. Just you and me." She smiles warmly. "I'm in love with you. Surely you know that."
Oh, yes; Joe knows, all right. There's nothing he can do to stop it, now: he loves her, for the simple fact that she loves him. It's utterly beyond his control.
Norma is waiting for some kind of response, becoming more and more agitated. "What is it? What's the matter? Is it that you don't love me?"
How, and what, can he tell her? "Norma…"
"I… what I'm trying to say is-"
"What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you. Say it." He says nothing, realising how annoyingly good she is at reading his body language. "Say it!"
Still, Joe remains silent. He doesn't trust himself. In her growing frustration, and anger at herself, he realises, she slaps him. He stands up in his shock and takes a step away from her; Norma follows suit, taking his face in her hands a moment later. In her eyes are a thousand apologies. Not knowing where to even start, she gives up and releases him, heading for the staircase to flee to her room. She breaks down in tears before she reaches it, and collapses at the foot of the marble steps, sprawled across them, a sobbing heap of diamante. Joe's heart aches. How had he never noticed before how fragile she was?
"Oh, Joe," she manages to blurt out between sobs. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."
From his position, it takes only a few steps to reach her, but she's already furious - with herself, at him. She hears him approach. Before he can say or do anything, however, she sits up and rounds on him, glaring at him from the floor.
"Well, why are you still here? Aren't you just going to leave? Go on, get out of here. Go. Go!" With that, her sobbing increases and her head vanishes inside her arms again.
Joe kneels near her on the bottom step, takes her by the shoulders, and gently coaxes her to look at him. In her tear-streaked face is etched a curious hope beneath all the anger. We didn't need words. We had faces…
There's nothing left for him to say, except: "Happy New Year." And, timidly like a child, he kisses her.
Norma's eyes, those same eyes which had moved his mother to tears, and captivated him seventeen years ago, now search his own for any insincerity. She finds none.
"Happy New Year, darling…"
In a second, her arms are around his neck, pulling him closer. She returns the kiss…
Joe awoke the following morning feeling incredibly disorientated. What day was it? Was it January 1st all over again? The dream had been wrong; New Year's Eve had been a shambolic and unmitigated disaster, not some bizarrely twisted version of Happily Ever After.
What worried him most was that he felt different somehow. Instead of feeling sorry for Norma's fruitless quest to retrieve her stardom, he understood and was sympathetic; rather than dreading the impending visit to Paramount, he found himself looking forward to it.
He shook off all his strange feelings, dressed quickly, and went downstairs to pour himself a drink. He put the curious dream behind him, passing the whole thing off as a result of too much Martini and the weird effect his room tended to have on him. Norma's boundless enthusiasm had infected him, too, probably.
The 'Room of the Husbands', however, continued to irk him. For starters, he wasn't her husband, no matter what she might think. He did understand that she wanted him close to her - and no doubt Max was strangely grateful for that as well - but the house had many other rooms, several just as close to her own, any of which would have sufficed. Joe could always sense the previous occupants of the room bearing down on him whenever he was in there. He felt somewhat unworthy. But, he figured, he'd had very little choice in the matter.
Max would do whatever Norma wanted, unquestioningly. Whether he liked Joe himself or not (and it was impossible to tell), if Norma wanted him in the room next to hers, Max would move all of his things in there. Joe was powerless to fight either of them… and when it boiled down to it, he suspected power was one of the things she thrived on.
Joe considered the past few months. He had gone from mistaken intruder, to employee, to lover, faster than he could work out the details. Norma had complete control. Once, she had been able to move an entire audience to revered silence by saying nothing; now, she could make Joe's resolve crumble with a single glance.
And yet, despite it all, despite the manipulations and the constant emotional blackmail, Joe found himself incapable of leaving her. If Paramount did like her script, by some miracle, then he was very curious to find out what the finished product would look like. It might be his big break, after all. On the other, more plausible, hand, if they hated it, he'd be left to pick up the pieces of Norma's life. A life that, with him, she was fairly happy with. A life that she expected she'd share with him for years to come.
It was stifling, even in the huge mansion. He was well aware that the whole thing was a dangerous game on his part, and he should have just walked away that very first day. Now, it was too late to leave. He was encased in the situation.
But, he figured, at least he was getting paid for it. Surely Norma realised he didn't love her. Surely she'd worked it out by now. He was nothing more than her editor; their relationship, as far as he was concerned, while more than professional, wasn't as serious as she seemed to think. However, Joe's certainty of that was diminishing daily, and he began to see what was really happening. He was only playing along for as long as it took. Why, suddenly, did he feel terrible?
Why he continued the charade, he'd never know. Wasn't it just as cruel to deceive her than to break her heart or let her know the truth? When it boiled down to it, he didn't like any of the options laid out before him. She was too fragile to be broken again, and he was too weak to stop the deception. He liked her, yes, was even fond of her... and she adored him. She needed him, so she said. And so he'd be there. He'd offer kind words, and a shoulder for her to cry on, and gentle kisses that she'd all-too-gratefully return, believing that he loved her.
If deceit was all it took to keep Norma happy, then he could provide it. Even if he hated himself every minute for doing it.
While he was mulling all of this over in the lounge, Norma emerged. He heard the regular clack-clack of her heels before he saw her. She appeared, with her usual majestic air, on the landing, and Joe was momentarily stunned. She was dressed smartly for the occasion, all in black with white fur. In fact, she seemed far less extravagant than usual, but for some reason, Joe had only just noticed how breathtaking she always was. In her presence, he suddenly felt even less worthy than he had before.
His reaction must have been obvious, because she smiled, proud and a little self-conscious, before descending the stairs. Joe set down his glass while she did so, and waited for her to approach. He seemed to be rooted to the spot. She stopped two feet from him, her smile still there, now more amused.
"Joe, dear, close your mouth. Anyone would think you were trying to catch flies."
He snapped his jaws shut and grinned a little sheepishly at her. "I'm sorry. It's just… I guess I never…" He floundered, then conceded defeat, shrugged, and jammed his hands firmly into his pockets. He felt about ten years younger than usual, for some reason. "You look beautiful, Norma." Beneath her blusher, her cheeks darkened a little at the unexpected praise. "You'll knock 'em dead today."
Genuinely touched, she closed the space between them. "Thank you, darling." Joe was now blushing furiously as Norma placed a chaste, yet infinitely tender, kiss on his cheek, then swept off again in search of her butler. "Max?!"
He lifted a hand to his face, wondering why, all of a sudden, the spot where she'd kissed him tingled, and why he'd only just noticed how tall she was. In heels, she came a full two inches taller than him, and, although he wasn't a giant, he wasn't exactly short.
He didn't have much more time to think about it, since he was immediately bustled out and into the car. The journey passed quickly and relatively quietly. He felt strangely proud (and worried because of it) when Norma grasped his hand tightly as Paramount loomed up ahead. Max's accurate observation about her eye shadow irritated him; Max was a perfectionist, for starters, just like Norma, and secondly, he'd noticed it before Joe had.
Come on, Joseph! he told himself. What's wrong with you today? It's just the same old Norma, chasing her dream of a comeback.
Finally, they got inside, thanks to 'Jonesy' pulling strings for Norma. Clearly, there were still some people who adored her even among those who'd forgotten her. And finally, she was meeting with De Mille. It was time.
Norma was hesitant; she hadn't seen De Mille in years and she was nervous. Stepping out of the car with Joe, she still hadn't released his hand, and she did so somewhat reluctantly as she approached the studio door.
"Won't you come along, darling?"
He shook his head. "It's your script. It's your show. Good luck."
"Thank you, darling." She held her arms apart, inviting him to hug her. He did, and she kissed him before letting him go and waiting for De Mille to emerge to meet her. Joe watched from around a corner for a few seconds, realising how much she needed his strength in this. He was happy for her - no matter what the outcome of the meeting, at least she'd have had her meeting, and gotten some hope from it.
Norma and her ex-director disappeared inside Stage 18, and Joe could do nothing but hover and hope for the best. He found himself secretly plotting Cecil B. De Mille's demise if he upset Norma in any way. Then, Betty Schaefer appeared, and his attempts to avoid her completely failed. Immediately, he became lost in her ideas and persistence that he help her, and before he knew it, he'd arranged to phone her about "Blind Windows".
A week later, they were working together.
Joe knew all too well that what he was doing was wrong. He was betraying Norma's trust, sneaking out when she probably needed him the most, and working nights with Betty Schaefer - the 'studio smartass', who would only be 'another woman' in Norma's opinion, and that was if he ever plucked up the courage to tell her. He felt as if he'd been travelling a great journey, and had suddenly gotten set in a different direction. His train had switched rails when he wasn't looking, and Betty was the signal master.
Only a few weeks before, he'd found himself growing ever fonder of Norma. The days up on Sunset seemed less long and tedious, the house was becoming less foreboding, and his bizarre lifestyle was almost beginning to feel normal.
And then, along came Betty Schaefer with "Blind Windows", and turned his world upside down, while at the same time bringing him crashing into reality once again. He was torn between Norma, who couldn't live without him, and Betty, who probably could, but with whom, for the first time in his life, he was genuinely falling in love. Obligation and temptation did not mix well. He could only keep his secret from Norma for so long; he had a sneaking suspicion she already knew. She would be jealous. She was dangerous and fragile at the best of times; Joe knew her jealousy would not be pretty.
Betty was blissfully oblivious to his lifestyle, and hadn't even guessed, when she'd read the cigarette case, what was really happening. But then, who would? Ironically, when 'Norma' was nothing more than a name engraved in gold, she's been suspicious… when she became a person, when the mystery was gone, she put it behind her. How might she react, Joe wondered, if he'd revealed Norma's true identity?
More to the point, and far more importantly, how would Norma react if she found the script?
Then, of course, she had found it. Amazingly, Joe had survived it. Naturally, she was deeply suspicious… but her overwhelming trust in him overrode her doubt. She didn't pursue the matter, to his surprise. He suspected that she wanted to continue as normal, despite the tension that was building all around them. Joe could feel it - sooner or later, something was going to happen, something monumentally catastrophic - but Norma chose to ignore it.
Joe found that he had no choice but to do the same…
Bombshells kept right on dropping in Joe's life. To think that a year ago he'd hoped for some kind of excitement; now, he wished fervently that he could return to his familiar mediocrity. He didn't like surprises. He also didn't like having to be constantly deceptive and on his guard.
So, now he was sneaking back to the mansion - something which had been happening regularly since his writing partnership - whistling somewhat smugly to himself, hoping like Hell he'd get away with it, and wanting nothing more at that moment than to run off with Betty and live a normal life. Trust Max to appear at exactly that moment…
Was there no end to the weirdness of Norma's existence? First, the chimpanzee corpse when he'd arrived… 'Salome', the awful, awful script that she had such hope in… and now this… "Please understand. She was my wife…"
Max and Norma. It made too much sense. Why else would he still be hanging around? Why else would she be so fond of him, and put so much trust in him? And the 'Room of the Husbands'… Max had slept there once, years ago. No wonder Joe could still feel that overseeing presence in there. It was all over the house! Max Von Mayerling was watching his every move, waiting for him to hurt Norma so that he could turn him out. At the same time, he was obviously glad to have someone else to take the brunt of her tantrums. If Norma was happy, Max was happy… and he'd waited long enough for it to happen.
This final revelation was enough to convince Joe that he had to get out of that place, and his decision was further finalised by his discovery of Norma on the phone to Betty. That was when it all started going hideously wrong.
In a few short minutes, he lost everything. Norma's trust in him was shattered, Betty was terrified of the unexplainable change she found in him, and all he had left was his damp apartment in Dayton, and his severely neglected typewriter.
As everything began to crash around him, his emotions collapsed along with what passed as his life, and left him sobbing for a multitude of reasons he couldn't even start to figure out. He was well aware that Norma was crouched on the landing, and had been for some time, watching him with Betty, and observing him - what was left of him - at that moment. She had heard his contempt for her in his voice only seconds before… and yet, despite his betrayal, she still wanted - and expected - him to stay with her. She was utterly unaware that, at the same time she thought he would stay, he was already determined to leave.
He cleared his head and regained what there was of his composure, put on a determined expression, and headed for his room. Norma watched his approach, reaching out a hand.
"Thank you, thank you, Joe. Thank you. Thank you."
Her hand recoiled when she saw the look of contempt on his face, which he had failed to conceal. He was no longer even sure who that contempt was for - Norma, or himself. He walked straight past her, and refused to look back. His New Year dream had been recurring lately with regular monotony, each time more vivid and persuasive than the last, until he was unable to work out which memories were real, and which were purely in his subconscious. He knew that if he looked back, the deeply repressed memory of the photograph would resurface, and he would be lost forever. She was a Siren, a Medusa - luring him with her silent song, and casting him to stone under her gaze.
Joe was through with being needed, and thoroughly fed up at his own weakness in her presence. There had been life, ordinary and broke though it was, before Norma Desmond; there would be life after her, the same life, preserved and encapsulated until his return to it.
Determined now, he took up his typewriter and a small suitcase (containing what she called his 'filling station shirt'), and headed back downstairs. Max had joined them by this point, hiding in the shadows.
Not entirely aware of his words, Joe rattled off the truth to Norma, as Max watched on, helpless. He said his final goodbyes, and marched towards the front door.
He heard a bang, but thought nothing of it, despite the niggling half-memory of something she'd mentioned a few days ago about a revolver. He was halfway across the garden, and could see the gate and the road beyond. He'd have to hitch a ride; he wasn't going to steal her car. Two more shots - he'd realised by now that's what they were - rang out. He felt a searing, sharp pain, then keeled over forwards, and the last thing he saw was the water of the pool as it came rushing towards him…
In the darkness, Joe Gillis became slightly aware that he was being jostled about, as if his bed had been put on top of a tramcar with him still in it. He was also very cold, and very wet, and his shoulder and leg were absolutely killing him.
His eyes shot open with a jolt of memory. He'd been shot. Shot… but by who? The guys after his car? No… it was someone else… he was sure he should know who.
Briefly, he wondered if he was dead. All he could see was a slightly fuzzy, bright light. Then he realised he wouldn't be in pain if he was dead, and surely, he'd be floating around with a harp, not lying on a stretcher.
His brain ached too much to make sense of why he knew that, but all of his senses slowly came back, one by one. His eyes began to focus - the light was being filtered through some kind of fabric. If the pain in his shoulder was anything to go by, he could definitely feel things. He could smell what was obviously pool water on himself, and taste blood in his mouth where he must have bitten his cheek. Finally, he heard the distant sound of sirens… police sirens…
He sat straight up, a lot faster than he probably should have, tore off the sheet that was covering his fully clothed and soaked body, and scared the life out of the two men carrying him. Luckily, they managed to regain some composure, and set him down on the floor before they dropped him. Wincing, he managed to get to his feet.
"What the Hell happened?" he demanded.
"Calm down, sir," said one of the men. "You were shot."
Joe fingered his shoulder wound gingerly. "I can see that! Why was I on the stretcher? And what's with the sheet?"
"Gillis. Joseph Gillis…"
"Mr. Gillis, you were found floating face down in a swimming pool. It was assumed you were… well… dead."
"Dead?" He was stunned, and also slightly annoyed. "Do I look dead to you?" The two men were clearly out of their depth, unused to apparently dead bodies suddenly leaping to life, and they exchanged nervous glances. Joe circled them, limping, attempting to ignore his injured leg. "Could a dead guy do this?"
"I guess not…" said the second man. "Lucky for you, Miss Desmond was a bad shot. It was the pool that-"
"Oh, God… Norma…" Joe put two and two together. The cop cars, the news crew, the stretcher, the bullet wounds… she'd shot him. She'd shot him because he tried to leave… In a flash, he realised the full extent of his actions - he'd driven her to this, and he had to make it up to her. He grabbed the lapels of the nearest man. "Where is she?"
"Still inside." Joe made to leave. "You can't go in there, sir!"
"Why the Hell not?"
"They've come to take her away."
His mouth dropped open. "For what?"
"Murder… um… your murder."
"It looks like they're in for a little surprise, then." With that, he hobbled as fast as he could back to the huge house. There was an insurmountable quantity of officials surrounding the house - that's what happens when you're famous, he figured - and a fair amount of reporters. He fought his way through the buzz of people until he reached the hallway of the house. He noticed a group of photographers taking pictures of the bloodstained pool, and inside were camera crews, news commentators, and two policemen waiting patiently for Norma at the bottom of the stairs.
Joe couldn't see her at first for cameras and equipment, but he could see Max. The dapper, serious man had tears in his eyes, as he tried to fight off a wave of utter desperation and failed. His respect and adoration for her were all too clear. He could do nothing now but watch as they took her away from him.
Then, Joe spotted Norma. She was lost in her own world, no longer focussing on reality as she descended the stairs, gracefully, majestically. She was Salome at last, and he could tell that was exactly what she believed the cameras were for. And, judging by the look on Max's face, that was exactly what she'd gotten informed.
As soon as she reached the bottom, the two policemen took her by the arms, carefully. She frowned in annoyance, then sought out Max.
"Max? What's going on? Tell these oafs to get off me."
The butler, looking older than he ever had before, held his composure enough to reassure her. "It's all right, Madame. They're just here to take you to the other set."
"Yeah, Miss Desmond," said the more sympathetic-looking of the two policemen. "Come on, we'll have to go in the car."
Reality hit Joe like a tonne of bricks and he came out of his frozen stupor, lurching and limping forwards.
Norma's eyes flashed brief recognition. Max seemed about to faint, and overjoyed to see Joe for possibly the first time since they'd known each other. The two cops frowned. "This is a crime scene, mister. Now, I don't know how you got in, but you're gonna have to leave."
"Don't you recognise me? I'm the guy they just fished outta the pool."
They took in his bedraggled appearance, the blood staining his suit, and his now prominent limp, and came to the logical conclusion. Luckily, it was also the correct conclusion.
Max regained his senses and took action, walking up to the policeman in charge and looming over him. "I believe," he said, somewhat menacingly, "that there is no charge against Miss Desmond now."
The man nodded, nervously. "Sure…" He nodded to his two deputies and they released Norma again. Then, very quietly, the whole befuddled party began to file out, the reporters now frantically chatting amongst themselves about the non-death of the great star's victim. When silence had descended, Norma's grasp on reality seemed to follow. She became gradually more aware of where she was. Like an amnesiac, she looked slightly dazed, completely unsure of what had just happened.
She spotted Joe, and remembered something; it was difficult to tell what, exactly, but it both troubled her and caused some flicker of relief.
"Joe… is that you?"
He stepped into the light so she could see him better. "Yes, I… I left. But I came back."
"You left? Where did you go?"
"It doesn't matter."
"But you came back?" She knew there was something strange about that, but couldn't quite put her finger on it. Joe was now carefully making his way over to her, trying not to limp or draw attention to either of his wounds, as she hadn't yet noticed them. Focussing all of his energy on ignoring his pain and staying upright, he very slowly managed to reach her. Max was watching him, knowing he was in agony, and unable to do anything at that moment for Norma's sake.
Joe stood as tall as he was able to in front of her. He could see she was still struggling to grasp onto a rapidly diminishing memory. Then, he lifted his good arm to touch the side of her face, gently. "Yes, Norma. I came back."
Something had worked. In a matter of seconds, she was back; whatever she was trying to remember, however, had completely escaped her. He let the hand drop.
Norma took his face in her hands and ran her thumbs along his cheeks, a gesture he remembered from many months ago.
And then, he gave up. His knees finally buckled beneath him and sent him crashing to the floor, pain shooting through his shoulder and leg. He cursed as he hit the ground. Norma was kneeling next to him almost immediately as Max also rushed over to help, and between them, they escorted him to the sofa. Norma took in his appearance for the first time, somewhat appalled.
"Darling, what happened? You're soaked through."
He shivered as the cold hit him, adrenaline used up for the time being. She was already checking for fever, the back of her hand to his forehead. Joe had considerably little time to come up with an answer, and the look on Max's face suggested that the truth was not an option."
"Well… it's pretty silly," he said. "I fell in the pool."
As she removed the shawl that formed part of her makeshift Salome costume to lay over him, she said, "Don't lie to me, Joe. I can see the blood, you know." She looked closer. "You've been shot! Max! Call the doctor, tell him it's an emergency."
Max nodded and picked up the phone, and Norma returned her attention to Joe, who was, by this point, fighting to remain conscious. "You didn't let me finish, Norma. I did fall in the pool, right after… right after those guys who wanted my car shot me. Lucky for me, they were both terrible shots." Well, that had been his own original assumption, after all. "I guess they thought I was dead…"
He didn't hear her reply as he fell into exhausted unconsciousness.
When he finally came around, he was feeling warmer, dryer, and in much less pain. The doctor had just finished and was now talking to Norma near the front door, apparently reminiscing. Joe's leg was bandaged and his arm was in a sling, and he felt slightly woozy, he assumed from some kind of painkiller.
Max was standing, or rather, looming, over him, his expression grim. Joe rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes and looked up at him. "Max."
The butler said nothing for several seconds, and was just about to leave when he decided to confront him after all.
"Do you love her, Mr. Gillis?"
Joe was taken aback by the direct question, and in his hesitation, Max cut him off. "Well, I-"
"I only ask you because… because I still love her. I have always loved her. I could not bear to see her alone before. So I need to know… do you?"
Joe thought carefully, and decided on the truth, as best he could explain it. He cleared his throat. "I almost did… before Betty came along, I know I might have eventually…" He stopped, and tried again before Max's unimpressed glare pierced his skull. "But… Betty's gone now. So… I guess… I suppose, to answer your question honestly, not yet. Not in the way she wants me to. Everything she's done for me, I can never repay that. At least, not in cash. She deserves something… give me time, Max… maybe one day, I will. At the very least, I can say that I understand now, and I'm back, and I do love her enough to try and love her more…" He finished rather expectantly, awaiting judgement. Max seemed only mildly satisfied by his answer.
"Very well," he said. "But know this, Mr. Gillis: if you hurt her again, I will see that it's the last time you ever do."
He was gone, and Joe's head reeled for a moment. He was still far too drained to think properly. He sat up on the couch and ran a hand through his hair, just as Norma let Max show the doctor out. She had freshened up, and came to sit next to him, wrapping a blanket around his shoulders and almost burying him in cushions and pillows.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Better. The doc did a great job."
"Yes. He's an old friend of mine. Delightful man."
That would be another of those husbands, then, thought Joe. He moved his slung arm experimentally. "Any idea when I can take this thing off?"
"He's coming back in a week or so to check on you. Until then, lots of rest." There was a brief moment of silence. She brought her legs up underneath her, getting more comfortable. Joe knew, almost instinctively now, how she craved even the slightest physical contact. He squeezed her hand.
Max watched them from the other side of the room while he prepared the drinks trolley.
"Joe?" she asked, sandwiching his hand between hers.
"Who were all those people, before?"
Joe glanced at Max, who silently warned against the truth again. He sighed to himself. "It was a news crew, reporters. It seems someone at Paramount must have let slip about "Salome". They were all desperate for a story from you. I mean, it's not every day that a great star makes a… return. But Max and I, we… we got rid of them."
Max brought the trolley and they both took a glass.
"Oh…" she said. "Well, thank you. Both of you." She raised a glass in a toast. "To us."
He hesitated a mere second. "To us."
She kissed him lightly, and then sipped from the glass. Joe watched her. It was as if the entire incident had never occurred. In fact, he knew that, eventually, when all of his scars had healed, he'd probably forget, too.
He yawned absently, which brought Norma's attention back to him.
"Are you tired, darling?"
"A little. Been a long day." He started to get up. "I guess I'll go to bed."
She seized his shoulder to stop him. "Oh, stay here. This couch is comfortable enough, and I won't have to watch you limp up those stairs."
He conceded defeat and stretched out lengthways on the sofa, using her lap as a pillow, while she pretended that hadn't been her intention all along right from the moment she'd sat down. Once he was settled, she rearranged the blanket, and began to tousle his hair softly, motherly nurse and affectionate lover all at once.
Lying there, he began to lapse into sleep, calmly. Norma looked down at him after a while, to check if he was still awake. He was, just about.
Only just aware of his surroundings, he murmured something resembling a reply.
"Do you…" she began, then decided against it.
"Do I what?"
"Do you… love me, Joe?"
What was with everyone asking him that question lately? He nodded, as best he could. "Of course I do."
"Then tell me. Tell me you love me."
He was too exhausted to argue with her, and wanted nothing more than to sleep. In his semi-comatose state, for the last time, he saw the cracked photograph again. He was a boy who adored a star, and nothing else mattered, and with complete sincerity, he said, "I love you." Then, he drifted off into unconsciousness, unaware of the radiant smile that broke onto Norma's face.
In the permeating shadows of 10086, Max observed them both, remembering his own days married to Norma with unashamed fondness. They had been wonderful days. Even the time spent with just the two of them before Joe's arrival had been good. Max knew some part of him should be jealous of Joe for taking up that space in her heart, but he found instead, as he watched them, that seeing her happy again was all he needed.
Her perfect year had finally arrived. The script would never get shot, Sheldrake only wanted her car, her fans had deserted her, and, for a few weeks at least, the house would be bombarded by press and phone calls. Despite it, even if she knew all this, or remembered the truths Joe had revealed, she was blissfully unaware of her own bizarre existence. Joe, on the other hand, was completely aware of it, but had accepted it nonetheless.
For that, Max respected him. He had not expected him to be so strong when he drove into their lives six months ago. Maybe, if he could accept it, he really did love her… and even if he didn't, yet, he would eventually. For the moment, they both believed that he did, and that was enough.
So, Norma sipped her champagne, lost in her thoughts, and she watched the man asleep with his head in her lap. And he dreamed of New Year's Eve, gold cigarette cases, and tangoing on Valentino's terrazzo with a great movie star.
Because, up on Sunset Boulevard, reality didn't matter any more…
A/N: Phew! It's over. And I apologise for the horribly convoluted ending. It's not as bad as the original ending, trust me. And the weird thing is, I intended to do a Norma-centric fic… but Joe just appeared. Anyway. That's it. The first SB-fic in the universe… Voila!