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You don't see me

My eyes are closing, I swear you can't see me

I want you close, but my arms are holding me back

I wait for you, but hold my eyes shut

 

 

Beth would've sworn that she was doing a great job.  At first, anyways.  She had been practicing for years, living under the same roof with Dean.  She would smile brightly while she passed him his bagged lunch and accepted his kiss on her cheek, like the runner up at a beauty pageant.  Lacquered like a mindless porcelain doll, with her blush and her lipstick and her eyeshadow.  Going through the motions was something she was used to.  It was etched into her bones at this point.  She excelled at shoving her feelings down, burying them and crawling back to the surface with dirt under her fingernails, confident in her ability to smooth over the earth, so that it looked undisturbed.  If there was a class on burying feelings, then Beth Boland was the tenured professor teaching it.  

 

It's easy, she told herself.  Just pretend like everything's fine.  You're cool.  Not bothered.  Unphased.  Chill. 

 

That last adjective bounced around her head in a different voice.  One that was deeper and gruffer.  A voice she heard in her head countless times a day.  It was the one she heard when she felt lacking in any way, when she needed a boost in her abilities.  It made her feel steady and calmed her down.  Not that it was important, but as well as it being her motivational soundtrack, it also happened to be the voice she heard late at night, when she was too wired from working on the plans for the city's new dog park or swimming pool.  It was the one that promised acts of pleasure, and it worked like a charm.  Once she had uncurled her toes and lowered her back out of it's rigid, slightly demonic arch, she would immediately fall into a deep sleep.  No one needed to know that though...it would be another thing for her to casually sweep under the rug. 

 

It's all good.  Everything's fine.  This was the new mantra that she needed.  You are Beth Boland.  Unflappable mother of four.  Baker of the best pies in Ashfield.  City Councilwoman.  Most talented creator of counterfeit bills.  Nobody can see how scared you are.  How the thread you're hanging on to is a few strands leaner than a piece of dental floss.  Least of all, HIM.  

 

Yes, she and Rio had been on pretty good terms as of late, which was...strange?  They had been adversarial for so long now that at first, Beth didn't even know where to begin being anything else.  When it came to their relationship, there were only a few settings and changing to a different frequency was sure to cause several disruptions in the feedback. 

 

But like one of her pastel coffee mugs said:  Nevertheless, she persisted.  It would seem that Rio was far more comfortable settling into a new rhythm with her, and when she saw how easy it came to him, she tried not to prickle with irritation.  Instead, she rose to the challenge, like she always did.  She accepted his friendship with the fervour she normally set aside for parent council, or more recently, city hall.  She wasn't going to let Rio win their "friendshipping" competition.  Then one afternoon, she had gone to meet Rio at the bar and found him in the back shooting hoops.  He had challenged her to a game, which of course she knew he would win, but again, there was no way she wasn't going to rise to the occasion.  After an hour of putting up what she hoped was at least a passable level of athleticism, she was sweaty and out of breath, but she was also having fun.  She was having fun with Rio.  She was enjoying his teasing, and the sneaky touches he slipped in under the pretense of trying to grab the ball or block her.  She revelled in his laughter and the rare glimpse of the man without his guard up.  Although, these days, the glimpses were becoming less rare.  The realization hit her like a ton of bricks:  she had been so busy trying to beat him at being nice and friendly, that she hadn't even noticed when her competitive nature subsided, and a genuine feeling of warmth took up residency within her instead.  She liked having him around.  It was comfortable to have him sit in her kitchen, watching her bake, his large, elegant fingers wrapped around a freshly brewed cup of tea.  It was good for both of them.  It was important to note, however, that it was strictly friendship.  Nothing more.  

 

You don't see me, but come here close

Tear my hands down, pull of the blinds

Look me in the eyes

 

She hadn't seen him for a few days, not since her life had changed suddenly and drastically.  When he stepped into her kitchen on that bright and sunny afternoon, she steeled herself, making sure that the feelings of panic she was trying her hardest to suppress were contained beneath the surface of her carefully constructed facade.  They didn't need anything to put strain on their fragile, budding new friendship, so she smiled like everything was good.  Listened intently as he talked about their business, nodding at the right moments.  She answered his questions, smiled at his jokes, asked about his week.  The whole rehearsed scene flowed flawlessly.  Five stars.  Tony award winning.  

 

It was when she had resumed the task of folding the laundry that was overflowing from the basket perched on the kitchen island that he really studied her and her breath caught in her throat.  She didn't like how closely he was watching her.  Not someone as perceptive and intuitive as Rio.  If he stared for too long, she knew he was bound to uncover a few hidden truths.  It was like he was the Indiana Jones of knowing exactly what she was thinking and feeling at all times, no matter how hard she tried to hide herself from him.  If she could pull this off, there was nothing she couldn't do.  

 

She silently prayed he would look away for even a moment, but he watched her carefully for a few more agonizing beats, his dark eyes doing that annoying sparkly thing they always did.  Then he took a deep breath, as though he was about to ask her for an impossible favour (it wouldn't be the first time), but instead of demanding something ridiculous, the question he posed was hilariously mundane.  

 

"What is it, mama?" he asked, his voice steady and strong.  The inquiry sounded so comforting and mild that she was tempted to burst into tears, throw herself into his arms and seek comfort in them.  She was desperate to hear him whisper words of support as he held her close.  God, how pathetic, she scoffed inwardly.  Like he didn't have anything better to do with his time than to murmur to her lovingly and trace soothing patterns into her skin.  

 

Beth took extra care to ensure that her sculptured mask of harmless indifference was in place before she widened her eyes, quirked up her lips and batted her lashes at him.  "Nothing!" she breathed, adding a jovial lift of her shoulders.  "I'm good!"  Easy breezy.  Totally inconspicuous.  

 

Rio smirked and clicked his tongue.  "Nah, there's somethin' going on in that pretty head a' yours."  He leaned forward and tucked his chin into his hand, like she had seen him do many times before.  "Tell me..."

 

"I said I'm good," she repeated, a little too forcefully.  She cringed inwardly when she heard the lack of saccharine breeziness in her tone, replaced by prickly insistence.  He was so infuriating with his razor sharp insight.  The slightest provocation, and her walls were at serious risk of crumbling.  He was going to ruin everything

 

A part of her felt a slight thrill that he knew her so well.  During her marriage to Dean, she could be on the verge of tears, slaving over a pot on the stove, and her husband would prance around, oblivious to her misery.  Rio only had to stare at her for a few minutes and the wedge that was his intense stare could crack her wide open.  It was touching that he could read her immaculately, sure, but it was also annoying as hell.  To flee from his scrutiny, she turned abruptly and busied herself with the leftover dishes in the sink.  She scrubbed furiously, hoping Rio would drop his line of questioning and return to the unassuming chatter about the day's events.  

 

I know you're something

I know you're something real

Lately I'm haunted

These shadows hold me here

 

Even in the relatively short time that they had known each other, Beth knew that there wasn't a chance that Rio would stop picking at the scab she was so steadfastly trying to ignore, now that he had noticed it.  Her mask had fallen on the ground and shattered into a million pieces, and Rio being who he was, was quick to scoop up the largest pieces and hold them out of reach, rendering her unable to fully repair her disguise.  

 

Suddenly, he was behind her.  He pushed into her personal space, like he often did, and when he bent down to murmur in her ear, she shivered.

 

"Come on, Elizabeth..." he muttered, his warm breath on her neck summoning hundreds of goosebumps.  She knew he would notice.  He would also probably see the slight tremor in her hands that had been ever present lately.  She clenched her hands into fists and swallowed the catch in her throat that formed whenever he was near.  

 

She breathed deeply, fighting the urge to lean back into the cage of his arms, bracketing her on both sides as he leaned against the counter.  She wanted to bury her face in his neck and inhale the familiar scent of his cologne.  A smell that never failed to make her mouth water.  She wanted to pull his face down and kiss him.  Peel his clothes off.  Straddle him right here on the kitchen floor and forget about all the fear and panic that was plaguing her.  They hadn't gone there again.  Beth knew it was a terrible idea, even with how much she wanted him sometimes (okay, all the time, pretty much).  They were doing so well.  Sex would only muddy the waters again.  It didn't matter if sometimes Rio looked at her with so much heat in his gaze, that she wondered if maybe he was fighting it too.  Like it was always on the table...also, coincidentally, a fantasy of hers...

 

She abandoned that line of thought quickly.  Too much tension already.  Instead, she opted for a moment to indulge in the what ifs.   What if she did tell him what was going on?  What if he was there for her?  What if he did want to help her?  What if, what if, what if?

 

A feeling of warmth stirred deep within her when she thought about these made up scenarios.  Was it so crazy?  He had really upped his game recently.  Maybe underneath all their animosity she had missed the potential for other things.  Things of a more positive nature. 

 

Then, her worried mind supplied her with the other, more sinister what ifs, and her blood turned to ice in her veins, anxiety clawing at her throat and chest.  What if he laughed when she told him?  A cruel smirk causing the crinkles around his eyes to appear.  The ones she usually loved to see whenever he threw a beaming smile at her, momentarily disarming her with all of his perfect pearly teeth.  Make a snarky comment, remind her that Karma was a bitch and she had come to collect the debt that Beth owed her.  He would saunter out of her kitchen and leave her feeling infinitely more alone than before.  Then they would go back to where they were so many months ago.  Back when she felt legitimate fear whenever she saw him.  So motivated to save her own life that she had invented one that they had created together in order to delay his wrath.  When the only thing she ever saw in his eyes was his anger towards her.  So eager to teach her a lesson that he had taken an innocent instead of her.  

 

Oh god, no.  She couldn't tell him.  She wouldn't.  Never.  She would make up something stupid, like Dean was being unreliable.  Yes, that would work.  Rio loved trash talking Dean...

 

Resolved, she turned to face him and let out a small, bitter chuckle.  "It's Dean," she told him, hoping the jagged remains of her mask would stay in place long enough to convince him.  "He's just been switching his days with the kids a lot and causing a disruption in my schedule.  I'm trying to be civil but --"

 

She was interrupted when Rio huffed and shook his head, pushing away from her.  Of course he didn't buy it.  She didn't know why she even bothered.  

 

"Okay darlin'' he said, nodding slowly, almost like he was talking to a child who was doing their best to deny that they had eaten the last cookie.  A flare of annoyance licked at her insides.  He was basically confirming why she couldn't tell him anyways.  A triumphant told you so echoed in her brain and nagged at her.  

"Just thought we could be honest with each other now, that's all..."

Here we go.  Beth fought the urge to roll her eyes as she watched the well practiced physical manifestations of his manipulative, guilt trip act fall into place.  The shrugged shoulders and the sullen bottom lip pushed into a pout. 

 

"Well, it's hard to if you don't believe what I'm telling you."  Beth resisted the temptation to climb up onto her high horse, especially because she was lying to him. She did, however, match his condescending tone with her own, one she normally reserved for her children (or her ex husband).  One she rarely used on Rio because it was usually the overture for an argument.

 

"What you're telling me ain't the truth," he volleyed back at her.  She sighed, heavily.  She was going to start marking her calendar to keep track of how many days they could go before they inevitably locked horns.  They had been on a impressive stretch, damn it.

 

"Believe what you want."  She turned away from him, shaking her head.  She was too exhausted to argue with him right now.  There were so many other things she had to focus on.  Despite their recently good track record, there was a part of her that wished she could get in a round or two of verbal sparring.  It usually got her fired up.  Made her feel alive.  Caused her thighs to clench together and her belly to flutter.  Nevertheless, she was afraid she would crack if they fought now.  Anyways, he seemed to be on his way out, and she wanted to hasten his departure. 

 

Screaming underwater, SOS

Can you hear me calling, SOS

Did it to myself now I need your help

Alone and overboard yelling SOS

 

"I'll be around if you get up to feelin' like telling me," he offered, tapping his ring on the counter before heading towards the door.  In spite of the situation, Beth couldn't help but marvel at how different the man standing before he was to the one she had first known.  This Rio didn't cajole her or threaten her until he got what he wanted from her.  He wasn't going to push.  He was softer.  Easier.  Didn't want to start a fight over nothing.  Wasn't worth it.

 

Fuck, it made it so much harder to fight her hunger for him. It made her want to attach herself to him.  Press against him and lose herself in his touch.  Beg him to help her forget the harsh reality of the world she was currently living in. 

 

He stared at her again for another drawn out moment as he pressed a hand down onto the door handle, eyebrow raised expectantly.  Beth tsked and prepared to have the last word when the high pitched tone of her phone pierced through their standoff, its vibrations on the solid surface of the kitchen island startling her. 

 

Inwardly, she screamed.  She knew who was calling, but hoped she was wrong.  This was bad timing.  She could see from a distance that the caller ID wasn't displaying the school's name, so it wasn't one of her children calling to shirk the rest of the day's lessons with a "tummy ache" or a "sore throat".  She could see it wasn't the number for city hall and it wasn't Annie or Ruby.  She had been expecting this, and she knew it was all over if Rio could see the caller's identity. She watched as his eyes turned to the screen and everything felt like it was moving in slow motion as he reached to pick it up and hand it to her.  

 

"Don't!" Beth cried, but it was too late.  Fuck, she was stupid.  In her attempt to perform her "everything's fine" routine for Rio, she had forgotten to put her phone in her pocket, thus avoiding the imminent uncovering of everything she was trying to hide.  Of course, it was so typical of her to get flustered by his stupid face and his nice smell.  I deserve this, she thought to herself unkindly.  

 

It was too late.  Beth watched with dismay as Rio's brow furrowed and he looked up at her with a frown, a look of confusion (and maybe concern?) in his dark eyes.

  

"Why is the oncology department at Henry Ford calling you?" he demanded, his tone soft but forceful.

 

 Beth looked at him with wide eyes, struggling to find the right words to keep her lies covered up.  The phone continued it's persistent chirping, knocking Beth out of her stupor and she grabbed it from him.

 

"I have to take this," she whispered, blinking back the tears she was so afraid would come if she breathed a word of this to him.  She turned and practically ran from the kitchen, scurrying down the hallway and shutting the door of her bedroom.  She knew she would never forget the look on Rio's face as she shut him out.  Stricken.  Anxious.  Afraid.  

 

"Hi, sorry, yes this is Elizabeth Boland...."

 

 

My hands are shaking, nobody's been here before

Oh, will you see me, is it enough?

Will you wake up? Pull back the blinds

Look me in the eyes

 

She sat in silence for a long time after she ended the call, staring at herself in the mirror, wincing at how tired and worried she looked.  She didn't know how long she had been like this, but she hoped that her kitchen was now vacant.  She prayed that he had given up and gone home, or to the bar, or wherever.  She'd call him later...

 

As she padded back down the hallway, cautiously peeking into the kitchen, there he was, sitting on the couch, his phone in his hand.  Except he wasn't looking at his phone.  He was studying her intently, a frown etched deep within his handsome face.  He had stayed.  Waited.  Wasn't leaving without an explanation.  Honestly, she wasn't even remotely surprised.

 

"Elizabeth," he started, firmly stating her name, leaving no room for resistance.

 

"I have to get dinner started," she choked out, still trying to dodge his questions.  

 

He stood up and stalked towards her, his jaw clenched.  There was a glimpse of the old Rio. The one that equally scared and thrilled her.  He again moved right into her space and crowded her against the kitchen island.  

 

"Quit playin'" he ordered, his voice a deep growl, "and tell me what's going on.  Right now."

 

Something in her broke.  She had run as far and as fast as she could from his scrutiny, but now he had her cornered.  She knew she had to surrender.  There was nowhere else to flee.  She took a deep, shaky breath and told him everything.

 

I know I want you but I'm drowning in fear

i know I want you but I'm drowning in fear

I know I want you but I'm drowning in fear

 

It was just a small lump, but it may as well have been a bomb ticking away in her chest.  It felt dangerous and threatening.  They found it during a routine mammogram, nestled on the lower side of her left breast, next to her armpit.  They ordered a biopsy immediately, although told her to remain calm.  Benign lumps were common.  It was probably nothing to worry about.  No need to tell everyone and get them all riled up.  Ruby would insist on coming back from Nevada, and Annie certainly had enough on her plate with her upcoming trial.  She obviously wouldn't tell Dean until she absolutely had to, and she really hadn't wanted to tell Rio.  This wasn't something she expected him to deal with in the slightest.  

 

After a few stressful days of waiting, they had called her back to the hospital and told her the news she really hadn't wanted to hear. The results were back, and it was cancerous.  She had breast cancer, and she had to laugh at the irony of it.  She had assumed that death would come for her in the shape of a loaded gun.  One from Rio.  Maybe not anymore, but now she imagined Nick sending someone again, except this time it wouldn't be a tender little shoulder graze.  In the end, it was something painfully normal, shocking her with the suddenness of its appearance.  Something that had nothing to do with her constant proximity to danger.

 

Rio's face remained relatively impassive as she told him everything.  When she finished, he wiped a hand over his face and a huge burst of air left his lungs, as though he had been holding his breath for a long time.  He slumped on one of the island stools, and rolled his shoulders back.  Beth had only ever seen him like this once before - when she had told him she had miscarried.  The set of his shoulders carried the same saddened weight now, his head hanging with resignation.  She thought back to the first time she had laid eyes on him, in this very spot.  He had seemed so young then, so virile.  Now, in this moment as he sat beside her, he looked decades older.  She felt a rush of guilt.  The aging process had probably sped up exponentially the moment he met her.  Elizabeth Boland, the constant thorn in his side.  

 

"So now what?” he asked, quietly.  Beth watched him, slightly in awe.  Was he upset?  Worried about her?  Was the fluffy, warm scenario of what ifs playing out in front of her, instead of the cold, hard one?

 

She turned to grab the Bourbon from the liquor cabinet, and poured him a healthy dose.  He knocked it back without hesitation, and took the bottle from her, refilling his glass.  Oh god, he is worried, she realized, her heart pounding in her chest.  He really did care.

 

"The doctor told me it's actually pretty straight forward if it's just the lump.  They'll remove it and give me a few blasts of radiation to make sure everything is completely gone, and then I just need to be monitored more closely in case it comes back..."

 

She hoped she sounded optimistic.  Rio listened carefully and threw back another glass.  He sat silently for a few beats and then turned to her again.

 

"What do you mean 'if it's just the lump?'"  Ah, there was the catch.  That was the really scary part.

 

"Well, the cancer could have spread.  Metastasized to my lymph nodes or my lungs, for example.  That's when it's a bigger problem.  One that's not so easily fixable.  One that can't be fixed at all, really..."  That was the part Beth was trying not to think about.  What if they hadn't caught it in time?  

 

"They need to run some scans before we know for sure," she told him.  "That was them calling to confirm my appointment for next week."  She reached for the bottle of Bourbon but he slid it away from her quickly.

 

"Nah," he snapped, shaking his head.  "No more drinkin'.  You need to stay healthy right now.  No booze.  Just green smoothies from now on."

 

Beth scoffed, and tried again to grab the bottle from his hand, the action causing her to practically fall into his lap.  

 

"If I'm already dying, I should get to have what I want," she joked, trying to lighten the mood, her body stretching across the surface of the island.  Instead of conceding, she heard him emit an angry snarl and suddenly his hands were around her shoulders.  He hauled her upright and pulled her in close so that he could glare down into her eyes.  

 

"You ain't dyin'" he rumbled. "You're sick.  There's a difference."

 

The look in his eyes was so fierce, it took her breath away.  She had never seen him so furious.  Not when she threw the keys at his face or when he slid in next to her at the bar the night he returned from the dead.  Not even when he was cuffed in front of her, shoved down on the picnic table after she had betrayed him. That look was all kittens and rainbows compared to the one he was levelling at her now.  

 

She didn't know what to say.  Finally, she squeaked out a small "okay", hoping that would appease him.  It seemed to work, and he relaxed his grip on her.

 

"I'm serious," he reiterated.  "Take care of yourself from now on.  Lots of rest, good food, exercise, all of it.  You need to be here for all those babies.  For your sister, and your girl..."

 

He swallowed, turning his eyes away from her, staring hard at his empty glass.  "For me," he finished, so vulnerable Beth couldn't help but let out a small gasp.  He wanted her here.  Maybe for a bigger reason than she made him a lot of money?  She felt like she did the night he came to offer her his help, when he sat in the same seat he was occupying now, and told her all she needed to do was ask.  He had surprised her then, but now she was passed surprise.  She was in total and complete shock, but for the first time since this nightmare began, she felt a small flutter of delight at the thought of him having real, true feelings for her.  

 

The journey ahead of her may be long and strenuous, though, she reminded herself.  Why would he want to put himself through that?  It was too much to expect him to want to be by her side through this, not after she had shot him.  Nevermind all the stealing and the few instances where she'd gotten him arrested.  They were business partners, and although she now considered him a friend, he didn't owe her anything.  She didn't expect him to hold her hand or offer words of comfort.  Not after everything that had happened between them...

 

"Rio," she started, gentle as she prepared to let him off the hook.  "You don't want to be involved in all this.  If I really am that sick, then it'll be --"  but she never finished.

 

His mouth was on hers and he kissed her hard.  His hands pulled her close and he closed his fingers tightly around her arms, before lifting them to cup her cheeks, holding her in place as he licked into her mouth and nipped at her lips.  Recovering from the suddenness of his kiss, Beth melted against him and allowed herself this small moment of bliss.  

 

When he finally pulled away, she let out a small moan of displeasure, feeling bereft without the exquisite feeling of his mouth on hers.  She could taste the Bourbon and felt slightly raw where his stubble had scraped against her skin. 

 

His hands stayed on her cheeks, cupping them gently as he tilted her head up to look at him.  "Don't tell me what I want," he panted.

 

"Sorry," she breathed, reaching for his lips again, but he pulled away with a chuckle.  It was something that always slightly disarmed Beth: his laugh.  He was a dangerous man, intimidating and commanding.  He always carried a weapon.  He was feared by many people in their city, and probably more even further than that, and even with all that, he giggled.  The man giggled like a school boy whenever he laughed. It was simultaneously adorable and perplexing for Beth. 

 

And contagious.  She couldn't help but giggle herself as she looked up at him.  "What could possibly be funny right now?' she teased.

 

Rio didn't answer her right away.  Instead, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and opened up his calendar.  "Oh, I just need to mark the day I got an apology from Elizabeth Boland,' he joked, his thumbs moving quickly.  

 

"Shut up," Beth snapped, but the command lacked any venom.  She snatched his phone out of his hands, setting it on the counter.  

 

"A national holiday," he suggested, his mouth curving  up into a smirk, while his hands slid down to settle on her hips.  She smiled back at him and he pulled her closer.

 

"We've been through so much, mama," he rasped, his eyes losing their playfulness and turning serious.  "We got this too."

 

Beth's heart beat so hard against her chest it was almost painful.  "Really?"

 

Rio nodded, chewing at his lip.  "In sickness and in health."

 

Beth laughed and shook her head,  "Those are marriage vows."  He laughed with her and Beth felt lighter than she had in a long time.  He was with her.  He had meant it when he promised an alliance that night, back in a time and place that felt like it was a hundred years ago.  All those times she had insisted they were partners, it felt real now.  In more ways than one.

 

Rio shrugged.  "Feels appropriate."

 

I'm finally ready, help me up out of here