Disclaimer: I don't own Orlando Bloom or any living person depicted in the story. They deserve my utmost respect.
All my love to the muses and bouncers of this chapter: Una, Terri, Chris, Ali and of course, to the mother of all beta readers The Sorceress Viv.
It was late morning when Verena finally woke up.
Orlando had let her sleep as long as she needed, considering the events of the previous night: her breakdown and flight to the park, his rescue-action, the second breakdown at his apartment with the following recovery and their long, thorough, tender lovemaking in the early hours of the day. Now he stood leaning against the doorframe, watching her wake.
Verena stretched beneath the sheets, yawned, and took a personal inventory: a light headache, latent but manageable, was pounding in her skull, and she was, sore in places that hadn't ached in a long time. Much too long. Then she remembered.
Her eyes sought Orlando and found him standing at the doorjamb. As he smiled at her, Verena blushed.
The sight of V blushing, sleepy, disheveled, and still naked made Orlando feel a bit more confident. He had been dreading the moment she would wake up, remember, and maybe regret. She hadn't said a word yet, but she hadn't run away or yelled yet either. He took that as a good sign.
"How are you feeling, V? Should I fetch you a cup of tea?" he asked, digging into his actor's bag of tricks to appear easygoing; he flashed her his brightest smile.
Verena's thoughts raced through her head aimlessly as she tried to sort her thoughts and find a smart thing to say. In fact, she still had to get a grip on what happened last night before she could even begin to think about what-now.
"Hmmm yes, please. And do you have any painkillers? Or maybe my purse?" she managed to say.
"Both. I'll get them for you," he answered and left towards the living room.
Meanwhile, Verena stood up and slung the bath-towel around her self. She needed clothes, she thought. And she needed to know what to say to Orlando when he came back to the room. V sat down on the bed again. What now?
Orlando returned to the bedroom with a glass of water in one hand and her purse in the other. He sat next to her on the bed and gave her both.
Their eyes met, and though it was a bit awkward, both held the other's stare.
Verena gathered courage and started: "Orlando, about last night..."
He felt his smile freeze on his lips. He had to admit he was scared to hear the next part of whatever V had to say. But he was not ready to hear regrets or apologies.
"If you prefer to forget last night, V, I'll understand. Just say so and I won't mention ..." he started saying, but she interrupted his speech.
"You won't mention our lovemaking? Because we made LOVE, Orlando. You and I both know that. And we exchanged words of love. But even if I know it would be much wiser to leave it be ... I don't think I can. I would have to never see you again. I just can't bear the thought of working with you and keeping my distance, not now that I know the feeling of your hands, or your lips ... or ... FUCK, Orlando. I am all messed up!" she said, hitting the bed in frustration.
He looked at her, wondering how to go
on. In the end, he decided to just lay it all out there: his feelings,
his hopes, his vulnerability.
She looked up to him and gave him a hesitant smile. "That is what I am most afraid of."
"Let's give it a try. Give us a chance," Orlando said softly.
"And what if it doesn't work? It isn't only you and me who know about it, and if we mess up, we could just wipe the slate clean and move on ..." Verena started to reason, but Orlando took her hand and interrupted gently.
"You know I would never hurt you or ZoŽ. I love you and I love her," he said.
"But what if it goes all wrong?" Verena asked again, not finding any more powerful reasons to convince them not to give in to what they both felt.
"And what if it goes all right?" Orlando asked, his smile growing a bit wider as he recognized he was gaining ground.
Verena gave in. Not because she felt trapped, but because she felt great in that exact moment: close to Orlando, cherished, wanted, and irreversibly in love.
"Okay, Orlando. But can we please take it slowly ... and let ZoŽ and us ... get used to it? I don't want to hurt her. And ... I just don't know ... Are you okay with that?"
"Whatever you wish ... as long as we are together," he replied, pulling her close and kissing her. Verena closed her arms around his neck.
It was almost too good to be true.
Later, Orlando and Verena left the flat to pick up ZoŽ from Samantha's place. Verena wore some of Orlando's clothes: sweat pants, a Harley Davison T-shirt and a baseball cap. They had decided to get the little girl before going to the hotel to retrieve V and ZoŽ's luggage.
On the ride over, awkward silence settled between them.
Leaving Orlando's apartment and entering the real world gave both the feeling of having left their own private desert island. They were having to adjust to reality, but they were also seeing everything in a new light. Overnight their whole world had changed.
V was silent on the drive to Samantha's place. Orlando threw glances at her now and then but didn't break the silence. Just after parking in front of Sam's front door, he reached out and clasped V's hand. Their eyes met.
"Are you alright? We can still ... well you know, forget about last night. Any regrets?" It cost him a lot of effort to say that, but he had to give her a way out, if she needed one. He didn't want to force her.
Verena's face was pale, and for an instant Orlando saw something like fear flicker in her eyes. But then she smiled, not the power-chick smile that Verena the Professional flashed at people, but a young girl smile that reached her eyes and made her look so very much like ZoŽ.
"No regrets, Orlando. And I think I will remember last night for the rest of my life," she said. Leaning closer, she caressed his face.
"Then let's face the lions, love," he replied. Without another word, they climbed out of the car and up the front steps to Sam's flat.
After the first awkward moments, when Verena hadn't known how to react to Samantha's welcome hug, everybody let themselves be carried away by the joy of being together again. And the knowledge that Verena was well and safe and with them.
ZoŽ held her mother closely, not letting Verena out of her sight. V, relieved that Samantha didn't ask about what happened the night before, thanked Orlando's sister for her help in taking care of ZoŽ. Then she began the lengthy task of gathering her daughter's belongings.
Samantha saw Verena's unusual awkwardness and didn't comment. But her brother's face told the story: the adoring look with which he was following V's progress was enough. There had been some evolution in the relationship between the two of them in the last 24 hours. Whatever it was, she could see that Orlando was distracted.
"So you would actually walk out naked to the park?" she asked innocently, to gauge his reaction.
"Hmmm yeah," was her brother's answer.
"You are bloody gone, Orli. So I will not even try to get your attention now. Are ZoŽ and V moving back to your place?" she asked.
"Yes. So I can keep an eye on V," Orlando explained.
"Aaaaaaah, now you are keeping an eye on her?" teased Sam.
Orlando blushed to the roots of his hair. "I convinced her. Things have taken a ... twist."
"So you two are together?" she insisted.
"Kind of. Yes. I think so. I hope so," sighed Orlando. If it were just that easy. But he didn't have a chance to continue the conversation, because just then ZoŽ bounded into the room, already chattering.
"Mamma told me we are going to live with you in your apartment again, Orli. Are you happy? Will you and Mamma be able to work together?" asked ZoŽ.
Orlando took the little girl in his arms and held her close. "Yes, munchkin, we will work things out. And I am terribly happy to have you back at my place. Both of you," he said.
The girl nestled her head in the curve of his neck. "Oh yes, Orli, I am very happy too. I missed you before. I wish I'd never have to miss you again."
"I'll do my best to keep us together, princess. I promise," he said, kissing the child's head.
Samantha's heart almost broke at that. This was serious. She wondered how far Orlando would go to keep his promise to that little girl.
It was very much like their life together when they'd first come to London. They fell into a comfortable routine, finishing up the last days of filming and even planning some time off. Together.
But a difference hung in the air, was present in every minute of the day for Verena and Orlando. Through the day, though V tried to keep their interaction as normal as possible, there were those little moments when their skin touched, either unintentionally or in a hidden, tender caress. Each contact sent a message telling them that their bodies hadn't forgotten the night before. All the nights before. At night, when ZoŽ slept and they were alone.
V had insisted on going to sleep every night with ZoŽ in the guestroom they shared, just like before. But deep in the night she would come to Orlando's bed, where he would be waiting for her. They would make love until they were sated and happy, or maybe just hold each other close, enjoying the moment and the growing certainty that they belonged together.
Close to dawn she would wake up and return to the guestroom and the bed she shared with ZoŽ.
Orlando asked her why they had to play the part. Verena had been clear: ZoŽ shouldn't know they were together that way, at least not until they figured out themselves if they had a future together. And Orli accepted it,even though he hated pretending in front of the munchkin.
Little did they realize it took only one look at them as a couple to understand what had developed between them. They weren't obvious, but both when they were both together they radiated a kind of awkward carefulness that was hard to miss.
But even in the midst of such growing contentment, Orlando sensed that something wasn't quite right. Verena was still holding back, and it was obvious to him that her past was still an open wound. He sensed she needed closure on Stephen and Chechnya and that maybe once she put the past behind, she would be able to focus on the future. Their future.
It took him some preparation and negotiating, calling in favors and pulling strings, but when all was set, Orlando's main concern was whether Verena would agree with his idea.
It was a cool night, and they were sharing his bed. Dawn was approaching and soon Verena would return to the room she shared with ZoŽ. Orlando took a deep breath and knew he had to speak then.
"V? Are you awake, love?" he asked. He felt her breath on his chest, where her head lay. Her whole body was fitted against the side of his, and he felt her slight movement.
"Huh, yes? Is it time?" she answered sleepily.
"No, we have a moment yet," he said and kissed her forehead. There were few moments when he felt Verena was as trusting as she was right then, so he reveled in the instant.
"Do you remember when I told you about falling off the balcony and breaking my back? Well, at the time, for a while I thought life was over and I would never be able to live a normal life again. I was lucky that I got a second chance, and now I am enjoying every minute of the time I have. But I was just thinking ... some time after the accident I went back to that place. I didn't hang myself out of the window or anything, but I was there, and I looked down and faced my fears. Verena, I think you should do the same with Chechnya and Stephen."
He hadn't been certain how she'd react, but he'd planned for some possible scenarios. What he hadn't planned for was the deep silence that followed. Dreading saying anything that would upset her further, Orlando just pulled her closer and waited.
Verena took her time and finally gave a deep sigh before she answered: "I am not sure I can. I have been running away from it all for so long ... and it still haunts me, throws me out of balance, interrupts my life. I am scared."
"I know, love, I know. But this time you wouldn't have to face it alone. And if in the end you just can't do it, at least you would know you'd tried," he urged, knowing he had a small chance of convincing her. Verena had to decide to get through the experience; no one else could do it for her.
"You would face it with me?" she asked, looking up at him.
"I would. Of course I would. If you want me to," he said, and his hand caressed her back reassuringly.
V looked into his eyes and wondered if Orlando was aware of how transparent they were. She could look through those eyes straight into his soul. And into him. He had planned something; she felt it in her bones. But strangely, it didn't upset her. Whatever it was, he had done it out of love and caring. For her. She was still amazed at the fact that he was with her, making it seem like he had always been there, and she could no longer imagine not having him at her side.
"So what is the plan? I don't think traveling to Chechnya is a possibility. I don't plan on returning there, ever," she said.
"I ... organized a visit to the photo exhibit in the Four Seasons Hotel. I thought, if we could go there, when no one else was, we could see the pictures and maybe, we could, together, get rid of the demons," explained Orlando. When he had planned this it had sounded brilliant. Why did the whole idea now seem stupid? He could see the shadows in her eyes again, almost like the night in the park.
Verena closed her eyes. He was right: she had to stand up to face the memories and get over it. Still, the whole idea touched her so deeply that she felt her heart clench with fear. But she wouldn't be alone. This wonderful man was going to be there right at her side. "Yes. Let's do it. When?" she said.
"Today, if you wish. ZoŽ could stay at Sam's. This afternoon, after the shooting. Is it really okay?"
"Yes," Verena repeated, and she snuggled close again. Outside, the darkness was clearing. A new day was rising.
Verena never asked how Orlando managed to have the ballroom where the exhibit was still being shown, closed to everyone but them for a whole hour. The Four Seasons was one of the most important hotels in London, and yet he had had a public exhibition closed off to visitors. For her. It must have cost him a lot, both in money and influence. But there they were.
They had arrived inconspicuously in a cab and entered through different doors. Verena had refused to take the risk of paparazzi seeing them together and spinning another tale about him. But they met inside, in front of the tall doors to the exhibit. Orlando took her hand, and they entered the room together. The room was exactly as Verena remembered it. At least the sensations were exactly the same as last time, except for the warm, firm hand that was holding hers. Orlando's presence gave her the strength to start at the top of the row and review the pictures she herself had made six years ago.
He stood quietly beside her and waited. Eventually, she started describing each photo: the moments, the subjects, the angles. The things she had been trying to convey.
She showed him photos of two small boys in the fields outside Groszny, dirty, hungry orphans hiking the country for food. The old women harvesting half grown potatoes among burnt carcasses of Russian tanks near Nazran. And the teenagers enlisted by the secessionist forces, young men armed with machine guns and proudly smiling into the camera. She had seen them again, as corpses, a couple of hours after taking the picture.
Orlando was observing her more than the images, waiting for a sign that she might break down. But she didn't. Still he felt the way her whole body was trembling and tense as a stretched wire. She held on to his hand like it was a lifeline.
As he saw the pictures and heard Verena's
descriptions of the circumstances under which they were taken, his respect
for her and her work grew even more. He had always thought that war correspondents
must be tough, insensitive people to be able to endure and work in the
middle of mankind's worst nightmares.
Over her shoulder, Orlando saw Stephen's face. There wasn't much of him in ZoŽ ... that smile, though. It was his munchkin's smile.
Only after a few moments did he realize that Verena was speaking, softly, as to herself. "He shouldn't have died, you know? It was his last assignment in the red zone. He was coming back to his wife and children. And he was the best of the best in the business, a great man, and an outstanding friend. He should have lived. I had no one to come back to. But he gave his life for mine. It shouldn't have been like that. It was wrong! I don't deserve to be here."
There it was. Verena loathed herself because of Stephen's sacrifice. Orlando was shaken by the force and the pain of her words. He gathered courage and walked up behind her. Slowly, he turned her away from the image until she was looking up to him.
"Listen, V. If he did what he did, it was because he believed it was right. He believed in you and loved you, and you shouldn't diminish his sacrifice by doubting his decision. Ever. Stephen knew that you have so much to give to the world, and that it wasn't your fate to die there. You had to be saved. For ZoŽ. For life," he told her.
Verena's tears were now running freely down her face.
Orlando pulled her to his chest and whispered. "Let it go, let him go. For good."
That night, ZoŽ slept peacefully, and Verena, as always, waited for midnight and then crept to Orlando's bed.
They didn't make love. Instead, they just lay in the dark, listening to each other's breathing, thinking about the afternoon.
Though Verena had arrived home with a thick migraine, she was in control of herself. Orlando had given her painkillers and let her sleep.
Both were so exhausted by the experience that they missed dawn.
So it was Orlando who woke up to movement at the foot of the bed, and through groggy eyes he saw ZoŽ climbing up, wedging herself between him and the still-asleep Verena.
The child looked at him, sleepy as she was, and smiled. "I like it here. May I sleep here too?"
He sighed. Whatever was to come, they should seize the day.
"Sure, love. Come in."
Once he had woman and girl tucked in he embraced them both and fell asleep.