Hi :) This oneshot takes place late in season 6, a little while after Izzie's departure. It's my take on the roadtrip Alex promised Izzie - but without her. This is my first attempt at writing for Grey's Anatomy, so I'd love to know what you think - reviews would be much appreciated! Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it :)
"We could take a road-trip. Stop in Iowa. See some corn."
"Doesn't your mom live in Iowa?"
"Yeah. I think she'd like to meet you."
Alex has driven, eyes on the road, with only a brief stop to catch a few hours' uneasy sleep in a lay-by, for twenty-six hours and forty minutes, and so far he has done so with a head empty of thoughts and eyes blind to anything except the road in front of him.
It's only as he turns onto a road he recognises, more of a track really, strewn with stones, his tyres bumping over random clumps of grass, that he lets out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding and relaxes his iron grip on the steering wheel. For a second, she's in the car with him, blonde hair streaming in the breeze from the open window, laughing, eyes lit up with happiness as she glances sideways at him, tongue caught between her teeth.
Alex allows himself a small smile. Izzie would have loved it here. The trees, the sunshine, the warmth. And his mom. They'd have got on like a house on fire. For a second, he can see it all. Dusky evenings out on the front patio, the last rays of the dying sun glancing off the surface of the lake as they sit and talk. His mom would be fashioning wind chimes out of cedar branches. Or weaving, or making wood cuttings, or whatever her latest idea was. Izzie would admire her handiwork, would maybe try it herself, before abandoning the attempt with a laugh and shaking her blonde curls out of her eyes. Alex's mom would ask all the right questions, about surgeries, about friends, about family, and if – when – she saw the shadows flicker in Izzie's eyes, she'd smile at her and offer her another maple cookie, and turn the conversation to something else. And when Izzie excused herself, tired after their long drive, his mom would put her hand over his and nod, a twinkle in her eye, and he'd feel her approval a thousand times over.
A stoat ripples across the road in front of him, and Alex blinks. He knows there's no-one in the passenger seat, not Izzie, not anyone. But he doesn't look, because he doesn't want to see it. Right now, he can pretend that the setting sun in the corner of his eye is a curl of blonde hair, that the gentle sound of the babbling brook alongside the track is a lilting laugh, that he is not alone.
Alone. That's what it comes down to, now. Sure, he's got friends, and mentors. But no matter how much consolatory tequila Meredith can offer him, no matter how much therapeutic abuse he can hurl at Cristina, no matter how much encouragement Shepherd and Sloan can give him, none of it can make him feel any less crushingly alone right now. For all he'd said, he hadn't realised quite how much he had relied on Izzie, how deeply he had needed her, until she was gone. Until he'd told her to leave.
His mom wouldn't understand that. When you love someone, you hang on tight. You hang on so tight your damn knuckles go white, and you never give up. He doesn't remember when she told him that, or why. He just remembers the conviction on her face. He'd never be able to explain to her why he told Izzie to leave him. He doesn't even really know, himself. Just that it shouldn't have to hurt that much. And, most of all, that had it been the other way round, had he been in her shoes, he would never have left in the first place. He wouldn't have been able to. Nothing fate could have thrown at him would have torn him away from her, as long as he had the breath left in him to beat the crap out of the universe. She'd just neatly cut her ties and left. That was why it hurt. And, deep down, he couldn't trust her not to do it again. That was why.
Alex spends the next couple of days by the lake, fishing for salmon and swimming, diving into the crystal clear water and hauling himself back onto the warm, smooth rocks to lie in the sun and let the beads of water evaporate from his skin as he drifts, eyes closed, to a world of his own.
It's not as if he grew up here, or anywhere like here. His childhood was one of fighting and shouting, broken bottles and purple bruises, his father's whiskey-fuelled rages and the terrible, heaving sobs that followed them, full of the remorse that he couldn't articulate, that he struggled to cope with, that he drank to forget so that eventually he didn't feel it any more. Alex's mother had managed at first, had got the kids dressed and fed, sent them to school in the morning and kept the house running, after a fashion. But there was only so much she could take, and when the rings of exhaustion around her eyes became permanent and she started to leave the oven on or the bath overflowing, and the kids appeared at school with unbrushed hair and no money for lunch, that was when the authorities stepped in and the rest, as they say, was history.
Now, Alex likes to think they've got through it. He still feels responsible for his family, still makes sure his mom takes her medication and keeps an eye on his brother and sister, whether they realise it or not. But things are better now. Even after everything that's happened, since his brother flipped out and...well. It hasn't been easy. But it's bearable. And, really, bearable is all Alex's life ever has been. For a little while, for a few shining moments, life had been good. With Izzie, everything had fallen into place. And even then, even when she'd gone and got cancer, which was horrible and frightening and so, so typical of his life, they'd been all right. He remembers what she said that night, that night when he realised that it didn't have to be hard, that not everything was supposed to be difficult, that some things were just right. "I care about you," she'd told him. "I care about you and I'm not going to go crazy. And I'm not going to try and kill myself. And I'm not going to stop caring about you, no matter how hard you push me away." The irony of it would make him laugh if he didn't feel as if his heart was shredding to pieces just thinking about it. Crazy she might not have been, and Alex would have beaten the crap out of anyone who'd suggested it, but conversations with your dead fiancé beat any number of hysterical pregnancies hands down. And yet how could she possibly have known? How could she even for one second have known how things would turn out, that in the end, she was going to hurt him so much more than anyone else ever had? Her promises had given him absolution, had allowed him to love her as he always should have, and then, in the end, they had lain in shards at his feet, along with his pride and his fragile faith and the pieces of his shattered heart.
She had healed him, and in return he had loved her so much that life without her ceased to make sense. And then she'd left, and the firm foundations she'd built beneath his feet had crumbled into sand, and the fortress she'd pulled down, brick by brick, from around his heart, had picked itself up and hardened, once more, into flint.
One afternoon, Alex finds his mother sitting on the porch step, shelling peas. She looks up as he approaches, one hand shading her eyes from the sun. Around her neck hang wooden amulets and mismatched beads, each of which, if he asked, would have a story just waiting to be told. But Alex sits down, without saying a word, beside his mother and reaches into the bowl for a handful of peas. She nods her thanks, and for a moment there's silence, save the rustling of the grasses and the caw of a blue jay hidden among the trees. Eventually, without looking up from her work, his mother brings up the subject he's been waiting for.
"You said there was a girl."
Alex doesn't answer for a moment. The pod splits open in his hand, spilling cool green peas into his cupped palms. "There was."
His mother offers him the bowl. "Past tense."
"Yeah." He scuffs his sneaker on the edge of the step. "She...left. A while back. It was complicated."
"Well, if you've got a story, I've got the time." Her patient voice stirs emotions in Alex which he hasn't felt for a long time. Suddenly he's a child again, and she is his mother to whom he can entrust all his secrets and know that she will keep them. So he confides in her. He tells her everything. He tells her about the moment he first saw Izzie, how stunningly, incredibly, spellbindingly beautiful he thought she was. He tells her how much joy she got from her work, how good she was with her patients, how loved she was by everyone who met her. He tells her about the late-night, tear-soaked baking sessions, the tequila she kept beneath her bed for when things got too much, the edge she had that made her tough. And then he tells her about the cancer, and the chemo, and the way she tried to hide it from her friends. He tells her that he married her. And that he loved her. And that no-one he's ever met in his whole life has made him happy like Izzie Stevens did.
And then he stops.
The peas are done, by now. His mom has been quietly shelling them as he's been speaking, and now there is a pile of discarded husks at her feet. She fingers one of the amulets around her neck, and looks out across the water, deep into the forest that borders it on its far side. A breeze ruffles the surface of the sapphire lake.
"You know why I like this place?" Alex shakes his head mutely, and his mom contemplates him for a moment, her expression unreadable. "It's like it washes you clean. You come out here and, whatever crap it is you're trying to escape from, it's like it doesn't exist. It makes it better. You stay out here with me a while, Alex. Let the lake work its magic." She pauses and looks at him sharply from under the brim of her wide hat. "She leave you?"
Alex shakes his head. "I told her to go." Normally he would spit the words out. He has done, before now. To Meredith, to Cristina, to Lexie, when they've tried in their different ways to comfort him, to be there for him, to look after him in a way that he will never allow anyone to do again, since she stopped doing it. But today the words are different, and he thinks that his mom is right. This place is good for him. Today he can say those words without bitterness or regret or self-loathing, just with a sense that, however painful and terrible and heart-breaking it was to say them to her, he was right to do so.
"You couldn't do it anymore?" His mom puts his hand on his knee, and reads his silence as assent. "You're better, you know," she says after a moment. "Better than you were. You can't see it right now, but I sure as hell can. I think she mended you, Alex. I think she put you back together when you didn't even know you were broken."
"She did," he mutters, feeling his voice shake with an unaccustomed emotion he tries hard to suppress. "She did, and I loved her for it. But I deserved better than the hell she put me through, and it was her who taught me that."
His mom nods, and for a moment a tear glints in her eye. "Of course you deserve better," she tells him, and he is surprised to hear her voice crack slightly as she speaks. "I'm so proud of you Alex. You're a good man, even if you don't always like to show it. You're good at what you do, and you care. Of course you deserve better. Doesn't mean you have to like it." She pauses, and he finds himself amazed at both her impassioned praise and the ease with which she has accepted his reasoning. He was expecting to be told he'd thrown everything away, wasted his chance, turned tail and run away from happiness. But instead, his mother understands. She understands why he did what he did, and she understands the agony he feels about having to do it. She squeezes his hand, and for a moment, he lets her. Then she smiles, somewhat sadly. "I'll tell you what, Alex, that girl must have been something special."
Alex smiles slightly, feeling some of the bitterness ebb away. "You'd have liked her, mom. You'd...really have liked her."
She inclines her head. "I'm sure I would." For a moment, there's silence. Then, looking away from him, she continues. "It's not easy for you, is it? To let someone love you. It never has been. Ever since you were a kid. There aren't many people you'd give that chance to."
"One in a million." His eyes start to sting, and rather than look at her face he studies the ground beneath his feet. It's peaceful out here, by the lake, and for the first time he feels a twinge of regret that he can only stay a few days. His mother made herself a life here; why shouldn't he? But, he reminds himself, he has a life of his own. He has friends, and a job, and a house with reliable central heating and a microwave. He doesn't kid himself; he knows that the city is where he belongs, really. He'd go mad stuck here forever. But sometimes the peace and quiet, the closeness to nature, the solitude, is exactly what he needs. And sometimes, childish as it may sound, his mom is exactly who he needs.
After a while, his mom breaks the silence that has settled over them. "Want to know what the old legends say about this place?" she asks.
Alex nods, watching a lizard skitter over the shards of a broken plant pot. "Go on then."
"They say..." Her hand strays to the string of beads around her neck and she winds them between her fingers like some kind of talisman. Alex, who has never held any faith with these things, finds himself strangely, inexplicably transfixed. "They say that this lake holds the spirits of the people we've loved and lost. That we can reach them. They say that it only takes faith. Faith which we don't always realise we have. If we want to see them, if we really want to see them, they will come."
To hide his unease, Alex laughs. "Nice story, mom." She smiles knowingly and takes his hand in hers, and together they sit on the porch step as the shadows lengthen and the minutes stretch into hours and the golden afternoon turns slowly into purple twilight.
When Alex wakes the next morning, he feels instantly that something is different. The last tendrils of an escaping dream flutter before him in a haze of sunshine, and the warm breeze drifting through the open window touches his cheek like a whisper. The pillow beside him is cool and slightly damp, and when he puts his face to it he can smell the lake.