A/N: I intended this fic to be canonical, but the awesomeness of last week's AJ/Liz scenes kind of alters the AJ and Elizabeth events here. Also, I hope you like my interpretation of Elizabeth Webber. She is probably one of my all-time favorite characters, ever.
The title and theme of the story come from My Morning Jacket's Knot Comes Loose, which is totally my song for this pairing. I love them so! Hope you enjoy!
She has been many things to many people.
Victim. Survivor. Lover. Liar. Whore.
Although recently, she has been able to focus on herself. Also, her boys, for they are her greatest loves. They are so beautiful, so precious, but she knows they are not complete. Not whole.
There is a gaping hole in her heart, and the muscles there contract and tighten around the abyss. At times, she feels knotted and crusted over, like bread that is several days too old. She thinks nothing else can get in, that she lost the chance to have something special, and that she does not deserve such opportunity. Every time something comes along her way, she screws it up, and it leaves her hurt, lost, and alone.
So, when she feels herself about to be sucked into the vortex of tragedy that has defined her life, she reaches for Cameron and Aiden, hugs them tight, and tells them that she loves them with every fiber of her being.
They are all she needs, really.
Of course, living in Port Charles, someone returning from the dead is as expected as the sun rising in the East. But when the ghost is staring at you, bleeding rather nastily from his face, and speaking to you as if you are old friends, things get a little confusing.
"Elizabeth…" he says, way too slick for someone as beaten up as he appears to be. "It's been a long time."
By confusing, she means irritating.
Everything floods back into her, all at once. She is lucky her nurse's training and motherhood have taught her to multitask, to perform when contradictory impulses fight for dominance. Because right now, she needs to go into nurse mode, not kick-AJ-Quartermaine-in-the-balls mode.
So, she remains calm, cool, professional. At least until Starr Manning leaves the room.
Sonny should torch his things, she thinks, and she says this out loud. For all the times he hurt Emily, the Q's…
She really, really wants to jab him many times with the needle she is holding, but she decides to attack him with the truth of his past.
"Every time you came home from rehab, every time you were begging for forgiveness, Emily would tell me, and she believed it, that you had changed."
Except, this time, things may have changed.
She is not sure how a conversation that began by hating AJ Quartermaine ends with him smiling at her and giving her an old picture, an adorable one, of him and Jason.
She keeps it in her locker at the hospital, looking at it again after AJ storms out of the Nurses' Ball meeting, hurt and angry.
That is when she realizes she wants to keep her implied promise to Monica, and to herself.
She kind of wants to be AJ's friend.
"You've got my heart. That's a permanent lock."
Love is wasted on the young.
No. Ultimately, that isn't fair. Not to Lucky. Not to her.
They had always been together in the back of her mind. She recognized that they fell in love in the middle of her own personal devastation. Her soul nearly destroyed, her body violated, Lucky Spencer pulled her out from the wreckage of dirt and bushes and freshly fallen snow. He reassembled her, helped her piece herself back together slowly, agonizingly.
With him, she became whole again. She was reborn, thanks to him. From then on, Lucky Spencer remained in her DNA. She thought what they had was forever.
Then she died, in the middle of a fire that took his life.
Or so she thought.
Lucky came back to her, but nothing was the same. He had changed. She had definitely changed.
He was still in love with the girl who crawled out from the bushes that horrible night. She couldn't fault him for that. But she wasn't that girl anymore. She didn't want to be that girl anymore.
The worst part was she just didn't know how to not be that girl.
Finally, when the sheen of her victimhood crashed, she was laid bare and exposed, with all the lies and mistakes she made with Nikolas etched across her face...
"That goes way past wrong… It's sick."
Lucky wasn't lying about that.
It is a strange thing, stirring her Grams' famous spaghetti sauce in front of this man who shot his father in the back, and shot his brother too.
But she knows, although she doesn't understand the hows or whys of it, that AJ Quartermaine returned to Port Charles with a mission. To prove he's a better man.
Her sons' cackling tells her he's trying to be a better man. Apparently, he is telling them another horrible joke, some atrociously funny knock-knock number he probably heard from Edward when he and Jason were younger…
The thought of AJ and Jason playing together, carefree and young, tickles her heart. She feels a warm swoop in her belly that can't be all attributed to the heat of her stove. A smile crawls slowly across her face, and she thinks back to the picture he gave her.
"I think they like me," AJ says as he refills his glass with more ice water. "It's great, you know." He takes a sip of water, and she hopes he didn't see her jump in surprise when he reentered the kitchen. "They might be the first two people in Port Charles who don't actually hate me on sight. That's… new."
She laughs and winces at the comment. "Present company included."
AJ stares at her over the rim of his glass, and promptly squeezes his eyes shut, visibly embarrassed. "I didn't mean… Elizabeth, when I showed up at the hospital, you had every right to… to-"
"No, it's okay." She goes back to stirring, secreting her growing smile at his fumbling awkwardness. "I fully admit I was wrong and judged you way too harshly." She turns and flashes him a sly look. "Poor thing, coming in all beat up by Sonny, and here I was, waving around a needle menacingly in your face and dredging up the past." She sticks out her bottom lip, a fake pout.
AJ walks over to her, his expression humble and open. Far more vulnerable than she ever expected. "I hope you don't still feel that way now. Do you?"
The look of expectation, of hopefulness drenching his face, loosens something in her chest. She relaxes, and keeps her tone teasing.
"Let's see: I just gave you some sterling advice on how to handle cranky aunts who refuse to relinquish delicious, corporation-saving relish recipes, and now you're about to enjoy my Gram's famous Bolognese. So, no. I've definitely changed my mind about you. For the better, I might add."
That small, sweet grin AJ has, the one filled with charm and uncertainty, winds across his lips. "Thanks… I'm really glad. For the record."
For just a moment, she catches her breath. She does not know why.
She lets him try the sauce, the first taste from her spoon.
"Zero red wine, in case you were wondering," she whispers into his ear. "For my boys."
The grateful look he gives her is thanks enough.
With Ric, everything was like staring directly into a solar eclipse.
It blinded her. Literally, for a time. Figuratively, for sure. Everything he did had two purposes. Passion ran through Ric's veins. It was mapped into his blood, and his passion infected everything he touched.
Passionate rage and anger against Sonny? Absolutely.
Passionate love for her? Did she even need to answer that question? His love was dangerous, all-consuming. She lapped it up, fed it, needed it because the danger thrilled her.
It scared her sometimes, how it devoured her until little was left.
"You know me a lot better than anyone else has in a very long time…"
Except she didn't. She thought she did…
"You know my deepest, darkest secret."
"And, what's that?"
"I'm not a very nice person sometimes… But not with you. You're in my heart. In a place all your own. Nothing to do with anything but you or me. I'd like to keep you there."
"That's good. Because I'd like to stay."
She replayed that conversation over and over in her head. For days and weeks and years even. Sometimes, when the mood hit her just right, she'd find herself crying, shoulders hunched, hand pressed to mouth, tears spilling down her face over everything that was beautiful with Ric Lansing.
All of which eventually burned.
AJ's flowers are beautiful. Every one passing by the station stops and stares at them, flashing her broad grins and gesturing frantically with their fingers between the bouquet and her.
Somehow, everyone knows they're for her. Whether they know they're from Dr. Quartermaine's eldest son is another question altogether, but she keeps the card nearby. She is certain Steven Lars has yet to run his big yap to the rest of the staff, and she wants to avoid Felix or Patrick or Sabrina, lest any of them snatch the card out from under her and uses it to entertain the locker room when shifts change. Gossipy birds they can be, especially Felix. Patrick will tease her privately, and Sabrina would, most likely, wax poetic.
She is surprised when AJ calls.
"You won't believe how hard it is coming up with just the right bouquet for an amazing woman like you." AJ's voice is charmingly cocksure. It's a tone that leaves her feeling pleasantly uncomfortable.
"I, um… I hope you like them."
Suddenly, something shifts in a few seconds, and he is back to that awkward, tentative thing he does. She makes a conscious effort to ignore it, even though it's really hard, and she really can't ignore it completely.
"They're gorgeous! I love them. They're totally unnecessary."
Except that they weren't unnecessary. When the hell was the last time she received flowers from anyone? Ric? Lucky? Jason?
She laughs. She cannot remember. Nor can she remember having a phone call, out of the blue, with a guy who was simply checking up on her to make sure she was okay and to thank her for a perfectly innocent spaghetti dinner. With zero expectations attached.
Now, here she was, having a rather jaunty conversation with a recovering alcoholic who once kidnapped three children and shot his own father in the back. And, she genuinely likes him.
Where the hell was that coming from, Lizzie Webber?
Later, at the end of her shift, she in the locker room, with the vase holding AJ's flowers resting at her feet. She goes back to her locker and she sits on a bench while holding the picture again. Picture-AJ is young, his eyes are bright, his smile wide and charming and that perfect AJ grin. Almost Cheshire Cat-worthy, but his arm around his younger brother, as if protecting him from the rest of the world, as if assuring him that he has his back, that he will always have his back…
She realizes it is the first time she has looked at the picture and not seen Jason's face first. That she was focused on AJ's practically the whole time.
In the long list of people she screwed over in her life, Jason was surely toward the top of her list.
Ultimately, though, what's worse? Sleeping with the brother of her husband? Or switching paternity tests results on her sometime-friend/sometime-lover?
No. None of those transgressions compare to opening up an envelope to reveal one son's paternity test results, and losing the life of another son under the wheels of his drunken grandfather. Her mistakes. It was always her mistakes. She paid for them with Jake's life. Some wounds will never, ever heal. Valentine's Day, 1998 and Jake's death.
There are no bandages big enough to heal those hurts.
With Jason, though, she acted the fool. She saw that now. Balloons and pushiness… she had tried to guard herself against that type of behavior. So junior high, so petty and juvenile. She explained it to herself that she had reached her breaking point with Jason. She thought she could see his passion for her, but no. It was too late.
Always it was the wrong time for them. Their lives were always on the brink of meeting, of coming together, but they were only points of intersection. When he was in her orbit, no one else mattered. When he was away, she was left searching for answers. The whys. The hows. She couldn't say. Maybe it was the way he spoke to her, all whispered provocations and assurances. Made her believe he would one day be hers.
But their lives were little more than parallel roads, running side by side, rarely touching. When they did cross, they created glorious things like sweet Jakey.
Yet, even the most glorious of creations burn fast, and die young.
Such was the story of her love for Jason.
She wonders a few times whether the pull toward AJ was a way to keep remembering Jason, to feel close to him. Hell, even to Emily.
Except… no. It is not. Those thoughts rarely cross her mind.
Once she works past the uncanny resemblance between AJ and Jason, from the hair to their faces, to the posture, to the way AJ reaches out to touch her arm right before she leaves, then the differences are stark.
While Jason was ice and steel, AJ is all fire. All anger and temper and obsession, with heat that touches everything around him. He says exactly what he's thinking, at least he does around her.
He sometimes doesn't know when to stop talking, and that's when he gets all awkward.
She smacks herself for letting those stray thoughts slip in. Those are the kinds of things that can get her into trouble.
AJ comes by to see her the morning after Steve's attack.
"You're taking care of yourself, though. Right?" He leans across the desk of the nurse's station, pressing close, almost into her sphere of personal space. But he does not come closer. "You ate something today? Because I just want to make sure, now that your brother's okay, that you're okay too."
His eyes bore into her, making her feel pleasant and uneasy all at the same time. Again.
"Of course I ate," she says, keeping her voice light, airy. "Like…" She thinks back. There was a cup of coffee from the cafeteria vending machine. Maybe a bagel, or was that yesterday? She's not sure. She barely left her brother's side, only to go back home and be with her sons. Then it was straight back to the hospital for the early morning shift.
Her stomach drops and grumbles loudly, discontentedly.
AJ raises his eyebrow and smirks. "Did I just hear that?"
She sighs. "Maybe I had a cup of coffee. I think."
He slaps the counter with his hand, playfully, although it startles her. "That's it. You're going to lunch. My treat."
"AJ, I can't just leave."
His smirk widens. It is a wicked expression. "Okay, okay, that's fine. I'll just find your supervisor and tell her it's shameful that they make their nurses work hours and hours on end when they're clearly in weakened states."
She flashes him a look of horror. AJ yelling at Epiphany on her behalf would not a good day make. "You wouldn't."
"I don't mind throwing a little muscle around here. Being the son of the chief of staff has to get me pretty far. Especially when I really, really want something. Right now, that something," he says, leaning forward, the mischievous look on his face punctuated by a wink that nearly knocks her backwards, "is to make sure you're taken care of."
Keeping her composure, she presses her lips tightly together in mock exasperation. "Anyone ever tell you you can come on a little strong?" She arches her eyebrow.
"I've never been known for subtlety."
She gets someone to cover the rest of her shift, and they make for Kelly's.
The place is almost completely full, but they find a table in the back and order sandwiches. Eating makes her realize just how food-deprived she really was. She wolfs her ham and brie down before AJ can finish half of his.
"Oh my God!" he exclaims. "I knew you were hungry, but… wow!"
She blushes. "Sorry. I'm so used to eating fast. Between raising two boys, catching a vending machine lunch in between breaks, I've stopped trying to savor and enjoy my meals. Also, I guess I was starving."
AJ laughs and wipes his hands. He rests one on the table, quite close to hers, and suddenly, she is seized with the strange urge to touch it. To touch him.
"No. I… um, I think it's good you have a healthy appetite. I'm just wondering where it all goes. You're so… so…"
His cheeks redden considerably, and she realizes that Jason never, ever did anything like that. Blushing in front of her.
"So what?" She bats her eyes innocently at him. When he gets like this, all she wants to do is tease him a little.
"You're so…" He waves his hands, gesturing at her. "Um, petite. It's polite to call a woman petite, right? I haven't missed the etiquette boat for the last 7 years, have I?"
She throws her head back and laughs, heartily. It feels so good to laugh with total abandon. Grasping his hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze, she smiles at him. "It's a compliment, don't worry. Thank you for saying I'm petite."
Except now, AJ is looking at her, and his look, his fiery blue eyes, send spikes of heat through her body. Her toes tingle and her chest blooms with warmth because he's looking at their now touching hands and back up at her face.
His eyes rest on her lips.
She finds herself stuttering some nonsense about nothing in particular, and her thumb pats the back of his hand before she reaches for her napkin.
It was just one of those awkward moments people have, she tells herself. Banter, banter, banter… touching hands, staring at lips.
Friends do that all the time with each other, she rationalizes while he pays the bill. She's sure of it.
Although the skeptical laugh in the back of her mind tells her otherwise.
What started as drunken kisses and jealousy spiraled into something dark.
For her, Nikolas was simply wrong. A package of wrong stuffed into that muscular body, and it kept being wrong even though she gave in to the physical aspect of their relationship.
Why she did it, she cannot say. Except it felt oddly liberating to indulge in a trainwreck. Something where she was doing the wrong thing, the sinful act. She wasn't a victim here.
She was the perpetrator.
When Lucky discovered the affair, he tore her apart. His anger was deserved, that she couldn't deny.
Later, she replayed their vows in her head, uttered so long ago, in that church on their first Valentine's Day together…
"You've got my heart that's a permanent lock. Everything that I am is in love with you."
They were so young then, and their love seemed so pure, so beautiful. So perfect.
Life came in between them. She changed. She wasn't a victim anymore. Yet, she didn't know how to not live with Lucky in her life. Same with Jason.
They wanted that girl who was pulled from the bushes. They wanted the girl whose life was always on the line. It was the easiest way to keep them in her world, because losing them was not an option.
Until free will intervened and Lucky decided that he needed to find himself.
Until fate intervened and left Jason, shot, in the Port Charles Harbor.
It wasn't until a few weeks later, while in the middle of a conversation with Sabrina about Patrick, that she realized she could find herself again. Rebuild a little at a time. She could be a mother, a friend, a listener. It was much easier than reliving drama after drama that always seemed to be present in her life, drama that had become an all-consuming, vicious cycle.
So, she became counselor of the heart for the other nurses at the hospital, a friendly ear to listen and not judge, and she learned to be free from her past...
This is where she was when AJ collided so unexpectedly into her life.
In the short time she has gotten to know him, she discovers AJ has a softer side.
He is insecure, probably from years and years of being told youarentgoodenough,and youwillneverbegoodenough. How this handsome, rich, powerful man can think so little of himself would be beyond anyone else's comprehension. Sure, it's crazy, but she understands that insecurity. It was integral to her formative years, as she lived in Sarah's shadow. AJ was older than Jason by a couple of years, but he was always messing up, failing to live up to his family's expectations. His family was defined by their ability to destroy AJ to keep the Quartermaine legacy intact.
The thought wraps itself inside her chest. She can feel it, as it tries to worm through the knots still tied tight in her heart.
She pulls out the picture AJ gave her, the picture she carries around with her and uses as a bookmark in her latest chick lit book. The corners are starting to wear and she makes a silent vow to bring it to the nearest copy shop and get it laminated immediately.
She holds the corner of the picture up to her lips, the corner next to AJ's head. For some reason, she has taken to studying his face in that photograph. Not for any deeper meaning, other than she misses him when he's not around.
In a way, she will be forever grateful to Ewan Keenan for helping her break through her grief over Jake. Sure, the man turned out to be a psychopath in the end, but he was effective when he needed to be.
Now, her bond with Cameron feels stronger than ever. She is thankful that Aiden is too young, though, to feel the effects of abandonment of the only father he has ever known.
She is not mad at Lucky. Well… she tries to not be mad at Lucky, as he proved to be more Luke's son than Laura's in the end. Every time she gets mad at him for leaving his sons behind, she remembers all the pain she put him through with Nikolas.
Her sons suffer from the mistakes she made. Honestly, what a fabulous mother she turned out to be! Abandoned by her own parents when she was a teen, ignored by all because she was "Sarah's sister," she has apparently come full circle by actively running off their only father.
Then, she reminds herself that it was Lucky who chose to leave, to break the cycle between them.
It is both their faults, to be fair. So, she tries to make it up to her sons by being the best mother she can be. To make sure her sons always feel her love. Through her, they will know they are never alone, that they are never second best.
And that she will never abandon them.
They are dancing now. The song is soft guitars strumming, and gentle drums drumming.
AJ's cheek rests against the top of her head. She finds herself wishing she wasn't so short, or AJ not so tall. Maybe they could've danced cheek to cheek.
She has also stopped kicking herself and wondering where those thoughts come from. If her heart tells her she wants to be near AJ, to touch or to feel him next to her, she will simply go with it.
She smiles. "Best date, ever."
He pulls back a little, but stays close enough to her that she can count his eyelashes if she wanted to. "Really?"
"Uh-huh," she says, hoping that her smirk comes across more flirty than snarky. "At least you're not trying to kidnap me."
"Well," AJ replies, shrugging, "that's comes after the dessert course. I hear they make a damn fine creme brulee."
"So no kidnapping until creme brulee. Got it." She nods and laughs and AJ laughs with her, tilting his head forward ever so slightly, closing the gap between them.
He is tantalizingly close. She feels, does not see, his hand reach up to cup her cheek. His eyes, lowered yet again, seek her lips. She watches his face, daring herself to not ruin this moment with doubts and fears and nerves.
She can see a thousand words falling on his lips, all dying to ask for permission to come closer.
With her heart beating a rapid tattoo, she knows it is on the verge of bursting. They've reached that point; a decision must be made. If she lets him in, they could undo each other. Then again, if she lets him in, they could continue building each other up. The foundation is already there. Mutual respect and admiration. What more appropriate thing to do with a foundation than try to build something new and wonderful on it. Risky? Sure, but she cannot ignore what her heart, once so tightly bound, is now trying to tell her.
To try again.
So, she gives him permission to come closer. Not with words, but with action. She closes the gap herself. Moving almost too fast for the moment, she pulls him forward, gently tugging on his shiny, black tie, and she leans into the embrace. Her lips find his.
For a moment, her breath stops as she realizes they are locked together, arms, lips, and hands, while the music fades away.