There's nowhere on earth like Rome in the springtime. The air is filled with the scent of lilacs, the sun rises early and sets late —much later than Eliot is accustomed to in Boston this time of year— and there never seem to be any clouds in the sky. In Rome you can walk just about anywhere in the city within two hours: everything is accessible without relying on anything but your own two feet, and Eliot has never liked being dependent on anyone or anything but himself. The springtime attracts tourists, too, milling throngs in which it's easy to lose yourself, to become another faceless part of the scenery. No one looks at you twice in Rome, especially if you walk at a casual pace, if you let yourself trail along the lungoteveri, soaking in the sun's rays reflecting off the water and up into the hanging branches of the chestnut trees that have been planted all along the banks of the Tiber and form a protective canopy over the sidewalk.
Rome has always been a haven, the once place Eliot has never agreed to work a job in his life. Rome is large enough for him to be anonymous, small enough to offer him a home inside of its massive, ancient walls. The first thing he did nearly four years ago was buy himself a condo in Piazza Dante, a place he would never would have been able to afford before, no matter how steep his previous fees. Buying in the heart of the old city is all but impossible except for the incredibly wealthy, these days. But with the money they earned after the Dubenich job, it felt almost like an afterthought —or would have if it hadn't been the first thing he did with the money. The rest of his team have different names for that job, but Eliot's always found it easier to classify his work by client name, listed alphabetically in a list that he keeps at the back of his mind. That list has a twin —all the target names, also sorted alphabetically by last name. He doesn't tell anyone about the list. Not Sophie, not Nate, not any of them. Occasionally he lets the list scroll down in his mind's eye, just to remind himself of who he really is.
The condo is in a building that got renovated a few years back, but he had the kitchen refitted anyway when he bought it from a professor of social economy and his wife. Their daughter was moving out to go to Canada and study medicine at McGill University, and they decided a small house in the country was where they wanted to be. She was a painter, and Eliot turned her studio into a dojo, though most would never use that term to describe the scattering of exercise mats he has in there. He left the walls as they are, spattered with occasional dots of oil paint. He likes the paint there, it reminds him that there was life here before him, that there'll be life long after he's left. He's kept one of her paintings, too, painted all in earth tones. There's a woman in the foreground, staring off into the distance, unaware of a shadowy figure in the background, indistinct even to the viewer who can see it. Strangely, the figure isn't ominous, though he figures in all of the artist's paintings that Eliot has seen. He's just there waiting in the wings, in the darkness, watching.
First thing in the morning he takes Via Machiavelli to the market at Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. It's the other reason he chose Rome, apart from the total independence it affords him —readily available fresh food year-round. He's thinking of trying his hand at a seafood dish, just to change things up a little bit. He's been eating a little too much red meat, courtesy of not much else being good in Boston unless you're overly fond of clam chowder. Eliot likes clams, but not really in chowder. The locals who haven't fled in the face of the sudden influx of European tourists during the Easter holidays are all shopkeepers and stall owners, and all of them are accustomed to having strangers with odd accents trying to make purchases. No one bats an eyelash at his awkward attempts at Italian, and most are usually pleased that he's making the effort to speak the language rather than expecting others to speak English. He argues cheerfully with Pietro, owner of the fish stall, about the price of scampi.
“I miei scampi non sono tanto costosi, ” Pietro chides him earnestly from behind a pile of gleaming silver-scaled fish. “They are the best in all of Rome! Comunque, because we are friends, I give you a good price.”
“Va bene, grazie, ” Eliot inclines his head, hands over more Euros than he's accustomed to in exchange for the bag Pietro hands him. He’s not used to having to struggle this much just for food. “Alla prossima! ”
Everything here feels like it's a good-natured argument. Everyone has an opinion on what sort of pasta he should be using to cook this new meal, and all of them are contradictory. Pasta choices are vitally important here, they make or break a dish in a way that would be incomprehensible to the average American, accustomed to exactly three choices in pastas on a menu: spaghetti, macaroni and linguini. Eventually, amidst a flurry of shouting from all sides, he settles on angel hair as an antipasto, maybe with mushrooms, figuring the scampi will work better on their own with a scattering of fresh vegetables and herbs rather than incorporated into a pasta dish.
“The porcini are looking like your best bet.”
Eliot is fingering a bushel of parsley, doesn't give so much as a start at the sound of Sophie's voice. He knows her 'real' name, the one she told them last year, but he finds himself still thinking of her as the woman he got to know as Sophie. Sophie is the woman with whom he’s worked for three years, the woman he trusts to have his back, not the person whose name still feels alien on his tongue. Her silhouette is unmistakable, even half-hidden behind a fruit stand. She knows he must have spotted her when she first came into the market place ten minutes ago, but she's only approached him now. He wonders just how hard that decision was for her. If their positions were reversed, he might have turned tail and run, refused to engage rather than risk losing. Then again, if their positions were reversed, he thinks he wouldn’t have had to follow her to another city.
“I thought you were still in San Lorenzo.” There's an accusation behind the words, and they both know it. Eliot is no one's fool —it was obvious that there was someone else in Nate's bed, and Sophie's perfume is distinctive.
She picks up a small tomato, turning it over in her fingers, green leaves brilliant against the smooth red skin. Her nails are beautifully shaped, with a transparent coat of varnish, fingers otherwise unadorned. She's wearing a saffron-coloured blouse with a hint of ruffle at the cuffs and collar under a pale spring jacket and a matching skirt, hair loosely pinned away from her face. On anyone else the clothes would look ostentatious, but they manage to make her look entirely at home and like an exotic fruit all at the same time. Like a mango, maybe, he thinks, until he realizes he's being ridiculous.
“It's a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there,” she says lightly, gaze still fixed on the tomato in her hands.
“How did you find me, Sophie?”
“I know you,” she says simply.
“He went home.”
There's a story behind the words that she may not ever tell him. A wistful, nostalgic story filled with past happiness and maybe not as many regrets as there might have been otherwise. He doesn't know what any of it means, doesn't know why he's standing in this marketplace watching her fingers caress the taught skin of a ripe tomato instead of leaving her where she is, instead of telling her to go home too.
“They went with him.”
She puts the tomato back, orders a pound in perfectly-accented Italian, hands the small filet bag to him, and the subtle fragrance of the fruit makes his nose tingle pleasantly. For a moment her hand lingers on his arm, her fingers brushing against the skin there and making the fine hairs stand up in spite of him. She's probably playing him, because that's who Sophie is, but there's no real question in his mind about what he'll say when she asks to go home with him.
The sun is still bright in the evening sky as they walk back, and Sophie climbs the stairs ahead of him as though she's the one who has lived here for years, rather than the other way around, her heels clicking against the heavy stone of the stairs. She's always been able to read Eliot like an open book, stops in front of his door without his ever having to tell her which apartment is his, and waits for him to unlock the door and disable his security system. He lets her in without a word, hands her a coat hanger for her jacket, heads to the fridge where there's an already-open bottle of a white wine they both like. It wasn't opened for her benefit, but she doesn't need to know that.
Sophie slides into a chair at the kitchen table while he sets out his purchases on the counter —scampi to the left of the stove, by the sink, all the vegetables and the fresh pasta to the right. She sips at her wine, watches him as he sets two pots of water to boil on the stove, pulls out his wooden cutting board, gives the vegetables a cursory rinse before taking up his knife. He's always prided himself on his knife work, knows that she's watching him, watching his hands as they wield the tools of his trade. Knives are like people, he thinks, the way he always does when he's preparing food: it's all about the context. The tomatoes leave clear, wet marks on his fingers, and he brushes aside a few stray seeds. It's the scent of parsley that he enjoys the most, leaves and stems chopped so finely that the original plant is no longer recognizable except from the taste and aroma. He arranges the vegetables and the herbs in neat piles, sorting them by colour in a way that's pleasing to the eye.
He doesn’t miss how Sophie averts her eyes for just a moment when he drops the scampi in the boiling liquid, but she doesn’t flinch away, doesn’t leave the room. Eliot knows about being a bad person with a good heart. Sometimes it’s easier to feel a pinch of sympathy for an animal than it is to feel badly about bilking someone of their life savings, about breaking someone’s legs because you’re being paid to do it. Eliot is accustomed to having blood on his hands at any given time. In his rare introspective moments, he sometimes thinks that it never truly washes off.
While the scampi are simmering in a court-bouillon he tosses the newly-cooked angel hair pasta in a skillet along with the mushrooms and just enough garlic to enhance the whole without overwhelming it. A drizzle of olive oil. Sophie opens his cupboards as though she already knows her way around his kitchen. In a way, he supposes she does. She knows him, knows how he would arrange his few possessions. He doesn't have much furniture —a bed, a sofa, a table and a few chairs— because he prefers to spend his money on his kitchen. She picks out his favourite china and a tablecloth to match, slips out of the room in bare feet to set the table out on the tiny balcony that looks out on the inner courtyard. She finds tea lights and holders, pulls out the cloth napkins he keeps neatly folded in a drawer, along with napkin rings made of delicate bone china and painted by hand that he found in an antique shop two years ago. It's not because she thinks any of it is romantic. He knows this in a way that he's pretty sure none of the others would understand. Setting a beautiful table isn't about the romance, it isn't a means to an end. It's simply a question of appreciation, making the meal pleasing to the eyes, the nose, the palate and the tongue.
He puts the plates down on the table, holds her chair for her automatically, looking at her hands as she smooths her skirt behind her legs before sitting, crossing her ankles under her chair. They haven't spoken a word since they came in over an hour ago, but it hardly seems to matter. There's no reason to, not yet. Eliot doesn't like to speak unless he has to, and for once Sophie seems to feel as though she doesn't need to take refuge in a constant barrage of words. The scampi are perfectly cooked, the delicate meat melting against his tongue, the hint of lemon he squeezed over them sour against his taste buds in direct counterpoint to the mildness of the crustaceans. She doesn't compliment him on the food —the speed at which she's demolishing her scampi is praise enough— and spends half of the meal looking out of the window at the plant-filled courtyard, the other half looking at him with a small smile playing on her lips. He’s always liked the fact that she never feels compelled to fill the silence between them. Silence has never been Eliot’s enemy. Inevitably, though, she's the one who breaks it.
“We want you to come back.” Her voice is like music, like water burbling over rocks on a stream bed.
She tilts her head ever so slightly, and his stomach twists. “All of us.”
“Don't play me, Sophie.”
Her teeth worry at her bottom lip, eyes downcast. Sometimes he indulges the notion that she doesn't realize she's doing these things, that she can't help using every trick at her disposal to get what she wants. It’s just her nature, like the scorpion in the story that stung the fox carrying to land, condemning them both to drown. Sometimes, when he's at his most paranoid and cynical, he lets himself believe that she always knows exactly what she's doing, that the scorpion just found a better, drier way to get to the other side of the river. He doesn't know which thought makes him feel worse.
“I don't want you to do anything you don't want,” she says finally.
“Why didn't you go with Nate?”
She toys with her fork. “I'm not what he wants. He's not what I want.”
“Not how it looked from where I’m standing.”
“Then you're not very observant,” she says dryly, and damn if that doesn't hit a little too close to home.
“So what do you want?” It comes out blunter, crueller than he intended. Maybe he should have inflected the 'what' or the 'you,' rather than the 'want,' he thinks belatedly. Inflection is everything. He learned that from Sophie.
He’s not surprised when she doesn’t answer. He fetches a bowl of strawberries from the fridge, cold and crisp, sprinkles icing sugar on them more for the decorative effect than for the taste, wonders if he should bother slicing and arranging them on a plate, or if it would be more effective to serve them as is. Sophie takes the decision out of his hands by bringing in the empty plates a moment later and filling the sink with soapy water.
“You cooked,” she nips his protest in the bud before it even leaves his lips, plunging her hands in the water. She moves the green dishcloth –part of a set his aunt crocheted for him years ago that have withstood the test of time impressively well– in slow circles over the plate, halfway absorbed in her task, yet keeping an eye on him at the same time. For a few minutes, there’s only the quiet sound of water, swirling and moving, flowing and dripping. The skin of her forearms is smooth, spattered with droplets of soapy water.
She’s not going to ask for what she wants –it’s not in her nature. She turns her head a little when he comes up behind her, laughs quietly when he feeds her a strawberry. Her tongue darts over her lips, redder now than they were before. She washes a second plate, puts it into the rack to dry. She hasn’t asked why he doesn’t have a dishwasher in this state of the art kitchen because she understands precisely why he chooses to wash all his dishes by hand. She places a wineglass upside down in the rack, the last drops of water clinging to the stem before trickling down along the bowl.
“You could always dry, if you’re going to stand right there,” she suggests, her tone playful but subdued, hesitant. She’s as nervous as he is, about this thing between them. Neither of them have ever really understood it.
He slides his hands over her hips, moves them to her waist, lets his breath tickle the nape of her neck where her hair has been pushed to the side, and is rewarded with the smallest of shudders –imperceptible if he weren’t so close to her. It’s a familiar dance, the music well-known to them both, but she’s been moving to her own beat for months now and he’s not sure she wants him to cut in and take the lead anymore. Eliot isn’t stupid, he knows he hasn’t kept his feelings nearly secret enough, not from her, though he supposes none of the others know. Sophie is good that way, has always been gentle with the few things he let slip through. She reads people in order to survive, knows when she needs to be aggressive, when the gloves need to come off, and conversely knows which hearts are easily bruised, need to be cradled in her hands, fingers interlaced to keep the outside world at bay.
He barely realizes when she twists in his arms to reciprocate his first, almost chaste kiss, her hands roving up his back, relearning the curves of his musculature. She tastes of strawberry and the remnants of the Sauvignon Blanc he served with the scampi, sweet and slightly tart against his tongue. He pushes her up against the counter, neither of them seeming to care that she’s getting dishwater all over her expensive skirt, deepens the kiss until it feels like he’s drowning. She wraps her legs around his waist, lets out a soft sigh of pleasure as he nips at the spot where her neck joins her shoulder, as his hands caress her thighs, move to cup her ass, pressing her close and inhaling the flowery scent of her perfume.
Sophie lets herself be carried back into the living room, her fingers nimbly unbuttoning his shirt, pulling it out of his pants before moving to his belt. He stops her before she can get much further, sucking just a little harder at her neck as he pulls open her blouse, shimmies her skirt down over her hips. She’s beautiful like this. She’s always beautiful, but never moreso than now, in the first flushed moments before they lose themselves entirely, her eyes dark and bright with desire, her whole being attuned only to him.
The first woman with whom he ever had a serious affair after Aimee was of the opinion that any man worth his salt should be able to provide a woman with her first orgasm before ever moving below the waist. She was a good woman –wicked in all the right ways– with a wit to match her figure, which was killer, even by his standards. She kept him on his toes the entire time they were together, and every Christmas he gets a very inappropriate card from her that he keeps tucked away in a small box in a drawer. He can’t help but think fleetingly of her no matter who he’s with, no matter what they’re doing, and Sophie is anything but a casual fuck. She’s already writhing under him, fingernails digging a little into the skin of his shoulders as he puts teeth and tongue to the best use he knows how, gasps and bucks under his attention. He catches her hands in his when she tries to reciprocate by unbuttoning the fly of his jeans –doesn’t want this to be over anytime soon, murmurs as much in her ear, and she settles back with a contented sigh, even though he’s sure the thin carpet must be rough on her bare back.
She’s wet already when he moves down her body to apply first his fingers, then his tongue to her clit, keeping her on the razor edge of climax with gentle licks and twists of his tongue, enjoying the quiet moans he’s eliciting from her, the involuntary movement of her hips.
“Eliot,” her back is arched, head back, exposing the long line of her neck, “Eliot please…”
Sophie doesn’t talk much when they’re together –words are too much of a weapon for her to want to talk when they do this– but it’s almost enough to send him over the edge. Her voice sends a thrill of arousal through him and he captures her mouth in another slightly desperate kiss this time, lets her shove roughly at his jeans until they slide down his hips and he’s able to kick them off before she rolls them over, straddling him, breasts swaying gently as she moves. He wraps his hands around her waist, trails his tongue between her breasts, tasting a faint tang of perspiration there, let out a groan as she lowers herself onto his dick, lip caught between her teeth, eyes rolling back in her head for a moment at the sensation. It’s all he can do to keep himself from thrusting against her as hard as he can, to anchor himself against her hips until he leaves bruises. He doesn’t think she would mind, but that’s never been part of what they have and he doesn’t want it to be, and that’s the last conscious thought he has before she deliberately steps up the pace. His world narrows down to nothing more than Sophie’s eyes, staring into his, her hands tracing burning patterns on his skin, her wet heat against him. There’s nothing except her, hot and lambent in his lap, her breath sweet on his lips, hips rocking in perfect counterpoint to his own. He feels her clench hard around him moments later, and his own orgasm takes him almost by surprise, tearing a moan from his throat as his vision whites out.
They’re tangled together inextricably. If he were a man given to metaphor, he’d think it was a physical representation of the emotions that hold this relationship together. He’s not sure who reached for whom first, isn’t sure that it really matters. Her leg is hooked around his knees, his arm around her shoulders, her hair tickling his neck. He’s starting to become aware of every single fibre in the carpet on his living room floor, scraping gently against his back. The scent of lilacs is wafting in through the open balcony doors, the evening breeze gentle on their cooling skin. In a little while they’ll make it to the bed, sleep with the window open to the sounds of the city at night. In the morning he’ll make coffee and she’ll curl up on his sofa with her cup and keep looking out the window before getting dressed and letting herself out.
Sophie stirs in his arms, as though reading his thoughts. “Will you at least think about it?”
Eliot can’t stay in Rome forever, no matter how much he wants to right now. He finds himself gazing up at the painting on his wall, of the woman, wonders if she’s looking through a window at the street below. Wonders what she’s been staring at all these years, and if her questions have been answered. If she knows that she’s safe where she is, and that’s why she’s let her guard down, so that anyone can see all those emotions playing on her face, can see right through her to what’s truly important.
He thinks Sophie might actually be reading his thoughts, because after a moment she speaks again. “It reminds me of you.”
He doesn’t answer that. “I’ll come back. Soon. But not right away.”
She rests her head on his shoulder, her breathing already beginning to even out into the rhythms of sleep. “One step at a time,” she agrees.