Sere Nere (Black Nights)


Disclaimers: Not mine. No money made. “Law & Order SVU” belongs to Dick Wolf & Co. All I own is my brain that concocted this little story, which I lay personal claim to.

Pairing: Alex/Olivia 1st Time

Timeframe: post-“Loss” (yep, another one of those). Not considering the events depicted in “Ghost”.

Rating: G to kind-of-R. vanilla with a sprinkle of salt.

Archives: Passion & Perfection, Eye Bags and var[title] only

Banner: made with screencaps by angharad

Beta Thanks: to Meredith for the editing and all the late nights it took; to Caren for her comments, to E.B. for her unbeatable language mojo and to “Eagle‑Eye” Maria for her typo‑spotting.

Note: there is a reference to the musical “Oklahoma” in here, but all you need to know is that Laurey is the female and Curly the male lead in the piece.


di sere nere
che non c’è tempo, non c’è spazio,
e mai nessuno capirà…
Puoi rimanere?
– perchè fa male, male
male da morire senza te.

[Tiziano Ferro, Sere nere]

*****

It was warm, very warm for a spring day. The faded sun blind of Ed’s Diner shielded the usual early afternoon crowd from the bright light, if not from the heat. The opposite side of the street, where the sun had warmed up the pavement and heat was radiating off the colored house fronts, lay empty as if holding a siesta by itself. Sunbeams reflected off the huge windows of the large office building on the corner that also housed Marivaux & Mendenez, Translations Services, most of whose employees were currently enjoying a late lunch and lots of iced tea at Ed’s.

“One more week like this and I’ll be ready for another vacation,” a dark-haired man with fashionable beard stubble stated, adjusting his tie. “How are we supposed to get the French version done by Friday?”

“Well, Ludovic… I suppose you’ll have to be really nice to Caroline,” a curvy blonde with a cutely freckled face replied. “Right, Lynnie?”

“Sure,” the addressed – a pale brunette with dark-framed glasses – agreed absently, staring up at the sun blind overhead while the crowd around her chuckled. It must have been a bright, warm red once, she thought.

“The last time I was nice to Lynnie, she told me I had no chance with her, period,” Ludovic said with a mock scowl, drawing more chuckles. “Also, she actually enjoys working on these legal reports.”

“That’s because I actually have a brain, Ludovic,” the brunette allowed with a small grin.

“And because her type runs more towards… oh, I don’t know, how about that one over there?” The blonde suggested, drawing everyone’s attention to a tall woman in a green skirt suit who was exiting the office building just then.

“Forget it, Michelle,” Ludovic offered immediately. “Not Lynnie’s type.”

Michelle crossed her arms over her chest. “And how would you know that?”

“Because she always says no when you suggest someone to her,” Ludovic pointed out.

“He’s right,” Caroline conceded, shaking her head at Michelle. “No.”

“Fine,” Michelle sighed, still surveying the attractive stranger who had to be in town on business. She took in the vividly green skirt suit the woman wore. “It’s the green, right?”

“No,” Caroline said with exasperation. “It’s just no.”

“Oh well.” Michelle shrugged in defeat, swirling the ice cubes around in her glass. “Who could wear that kind of green anyway? No woman would ever look good in it.”

Caroline looked up, catching a flash of green as the woman walked past them. “I don’t know,” she murmured, more to herself.

~~

Even to someone raised toward exactly this sort of social event this function is stiff and boring. Smalltalk muzak staged in anthracite colored dresses and champagne colored dresses, interspersed with a few daring examples of rosé. I smile without enthusiasm and wish I could yawn instead as I survey the perfectly understated sea of subdued tones around me, my own choice of charcoal gray not being any exception. Why am I never urgently needed in the office when I really want to get away from something? – Probably because half of my office is here.

I’m contemplating the ice cubes in my glass, listening to them clink against each other, when a sudden flash of green draws my attention.

At first I don’t recognize her, and when I do, it is by her hair and I almost spill my drink.

Her hair is short, and it looks even shorter in contrast to the long gown and a room full of chignons. She looks good with her hair. In fact, she looks better than good. The first words that spring to my mind are ‘damn sexy’ and I focus on my drink, surprised at myself.

I’ve never seen her in a dress before. I’d probably have expected her to be somewhat awkward, given her everyday demeanor, but I was wrong.

She is walking up the stairs to the next level when I look up again and there is a sensual kind of confidence about her that makes me look twice. I’ve never seen her like this. She walks as if she knows that she is wearing the only green dress in this entire room, and at the same time, as if she was completely unaware of it.

Her hair is just a bit too tousled to rate as plain elegant, her strides are just a touch too long to go unnoticed, and her pose is just a tad too comfortable to let her disappear within the crowd.

And the dress… The dress is really, really green. And she looks really, really good.

~~

“You go get the next pitcher, Benson. I’m beat,” John Munch announced, leaning back into the booth with a grin.

“You already got to see me limp in, Munch. Don’t press your luck,” Olivia replied, sliding deeper into her own seat. “No way I’ll hobble over to the bar when each of you guys, unlike me, hasn’t pulled a muscle chasing down Herring today.”

“That was quite some stunt,” Fin agreed readily. “You been secretly training for the Marathon?”

Olivia flashed him a grin. “Nah, I’ve always been this good.”

“Guess that means your partner is paying the next round.” Elliot pushed his empty beer glass away from him as he got up and patted Olivia on the shoulder. “After all, you’ve given us a reason to celebrate. Herring is booked and we’re off on time.”

“Perhaps you’d like to hobble over to the bar after all,” Munch suggested, nodding in the direction of the counter. “Because the cute brunette there has been looking at you for the better part of the last hour and she seems to be in a mood to celebrate, too.”

Olivia wanted to brush him off in reply, telling him that his observation skills were off the clock, as well, but she found herself already glancing over at the bar out of sheer reflex. And then she forgot about her remark when she was met with a charming smile and a pair of clear, intelligent eyes. Eyes that were looking at her intently from behind black eye frames.

Before she even realized what she was doing, Olivia smiled back.

~~

Another face, another pair of eyes – blue, not gray – and another pair of dark eye frames. “Detective.” Her look is demanding, and she doesn’t even smile.

I know this expression well, countless times I’ve stood in front of her desk, arguing my point while she is looking up at me with reserve, leaning back to survey me intently.

I don’t know how many times this exact scenario played out, but now I wish I had counted them so that I knew at least that bit of trivia to recall her by. There are so many other things I don’t know about her. Where she is. How she is doing. What her name is now.

Other things, I’ve learned in the past nineteen months. Like the fact that I miss her, up to this day. Like the fact that being around her was something I cherished, even through the fights and the frustration. That her absence has left a void behind that still remains unfilled – and that it’s not a professional issue at all. Casey does a good job.

And I still miss Alex.

For the first few months, I saved her every night.

I was quicker. I saw the gun sooner. I pushed her down in time. I covered her. I took the bullets. I raced down the car and caught the shooter, and she never got hit. She never left.

Being deprived of looking at her was like a physical ache. It was crazy since we’d never been that close, and since, even though I was aware of her beauty, she had never been more than a safe, fleeting fantasy. Alex Cabot was unattainable, back then just as much a now.

After the first grief was over, I put myself through all the scenarios starting with “if only”, trying to place the blame and make some peace with her parting. If only we had caught Velez. If only she had given up the case to the Feds. If only the shots had missed her. If only I had been more alert and covered her in time. If only I had saved her.

After a few months, I stopped dreaming about her every night, although it still happens every now and then, to then haunt me for days. Thinking of her has lost the edge of despair. Now it has become a ritual that, despite the loss it implies, has become so familiar to me that it is almost soothing. It’s a place I visit when things get rough. I allow myself to think of her on hard days, when I need the memory – need it to remind myself that there are things that can still reach me, and that once, I knew it all and that it was tantalizingly close: Intelligence, dedication and beauty. Strength, attitude and elegance. I didn’t know what a luxury it was until she was gone.

It was just a fantasy, just like it is now. But it still hurts to think that I may never see her again.

~~

The fan circling overhead didn’t do much to lessen the heat. Rather, it was providing the residents of the office with stiff necks from the draft. Michelle had left for the day already, taking her latest project home with her, which made the pale brunette the sole occupant of the room. Caroline Roberts, the engraved plaque in the corner of her desk read.

Gingerly rolling her head from one side to another, she tried to loosen some of the tension. It was late, but she didn’t mind the longer hours, preferring to work at the office instead of using the study in the spacious quiet of her house. Perhaps it was a habit she had preserved, or the fact that it was still strange to live in a freestanding house all on her own, even after more than nineteen months.

Shifting her shoulders, she winced at the knots she felt. She would have kicked off her shoes and stretched out her legs, but still hesitated for a second before doing so, years of maternal lectures on what was socially appropriate carved into her like an automatic reflex. Shaking her head at herself, she slowly shed her shoes. It wasn’t as if she had a public position anymore. Or any press-sensitive social functions to attend. Or even a family she belonged to.

She didn’t need to look at her calendar to know that today, it was 19 months and 17 days since she had last seen her mother. For lunch. 19 months and 12 days since she’d last had an authentic espresso doppio ristretto macchiato, down the block from the courthouse, at Luigi’s. 19 months and 11 days since she’d been forced to give up on her job as an Assistant District Attorney.

She crossed her legs underneath the table, absently staring at the pastel print Michelle had put up on the opposite wall.

19 months and 9 days since she had last seen Olivia.

Sliding deeper into her chair, she uncrossed her legs again.

~~

She sits on her desk, comfortably. She owns her space, the whole room around her. It’s such a typical gesture for her that at times, I wonder why she even has a chair when she seems to prefer to sit atop or perch against her desk, oozing that self‑assured casualness that always throws me a bit for a loop, but not unpleasantly so.

The first time I saw her like this, my immediate thought was: My mother would never have me let sit like that.

Align your knees, Alexandra. You’re a lady, Alexandra.

It’s the culturally conditioned body. I own rooms in other ways, by sorting bodies into appropriate and inappropriate poses, and automatically assuming the most appropriate one, channeling my aim through that pose. Harnessing it. It’s not even a conscious action anymore, but I am reminded of it as I look at her sitting on her desk, feet casually resting on the neglected chair.

I can’t help staring at her, legs comfortably set apart over a desk corner, forearms propped loosely on her thighs, hands tangled together in the middle. Relaxed, and confident. It’s natural to her.

My feet are set perfectly next to each other, the pose as natural to me as the casualness to her.

I still hear my mother’s voice: Hold your purse like this, Alexandra.

I have to smile, looking at Olivia sitting on the desk across from me. She is combing a hand through her hair, only succeeding in making it look even more tousled than before. I know she can hold any purse if she wants to, wear about any dress – I’ve learned that she’s very versatile when it comes to looks – but this is how she is the most comfortable. This is how she sits when she feels at ease or at home, and it’s perhaps why I enjoy it so much.

~~

The neon sign at the end of the murky alley was flickering on and off in irregular intervals, barely illuminating the doorway Roger de Santiago had been sighted disappearing into half an hour ago.

“Sorry for ruining your evening,” Elliot said, casting an apologetic glance at his partner in the dark of the car.

Olivia shook her head, more to ward off the chill than anything else. “Don’t worry, El. I don’t mind.” Apart from fact that the dressy spaghetti strap top was a bad choice of clothing to sit in a cold car with, and that in these pants and these heels, she’d have to leave any sprints to Elliot.

“But I do,” Elliot stated. “I was so glad you went out. You haven’t been on a real date for… well, just about forever.”

Olivia tried to count back in her mind and gave up. She had simply been too busy to see anyone, she reasoned. Not interested enough. Aloud, she said, “It wasn’t such a hot date. Just a nice evening.” Which hadn’t been Diana’s fault, really. She was smart, beautiful and charming. And very interested. Olivia shrugged. “Lukewarm.”

Elliot tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Do I know her?”

Olivia looked at him. “Remember the brunette from the pub last week?”

Elliot nodded, thinking that the woman had seemed a lot more than lukewarm. Classy and smart and very attractive… Elliot put two and two together. “Cute glasses,” he finally commented.

A few moments passed. “Yes,” Olivia then conceded quietly.

They hadn’t even been friends, and yet she was seeing her eyes every time she tried to kiss someone else.

She stared ahead at the empty doorway, appreciating that Elliot didn’t say anything else. They sat in companionable silence, with the neon sign across the alley still flickering on and off.

~~

She leans against the desk, perched with a hip, the curve an alluring contrast to the hard angles of the tabletop. I have to look up to see her face – following the line of the narrow skirt and the parade of tiny buttons up the front of her blouse, the two topmost of them undone. A hint of shadow and cleavage, accentuated by the arms crossed over her chest. Her hair falling in perfect layers around her face, the tips curled inward. There is a slight quirk to her lips, and her eyes are incredibly blue.

“Good morning, Detective.”

I swallow as her voice echoes through me. In this moment, I know that she is the most alluring woman I have ever seen in my life.

At first I thought that it was only physical. Body chemistries feeding off each other. Add the slightly antagonistic energy we had, making for a safe dig between us, and she was the ideal object for a little safe projection, without any risk of ever growing out of hand. – I never expected to like her, too.

It isn’t just a physical thing. The attraction runs deeper. I reasoned with the commonplace of ‘opposites attract’ for a while, but are we really that different?

I don’t mean the whole ‘woman working in a male dominated field’ thing – although that is a valid point, too. I don’t mean the entire class issue, either, because I know that it would be an issue, if I ever racked up the courage to actually ask her whether she’d like to go out with me sometime.

Of course it could be said that she’s privileged, with her background. But she has to function in a tighter social corset, too. There is no risk I’ll end up in the gossip column if I go out with a beautiful woman. Unless the woman in question would be her.

I don’t have that kind of abstract distance to keep at work: I can fight with her about the search warrants she won’t give us, but what does she do if she wants to fight the paragraphs? I can yell and rage. I can reach out and comfort. How does she deal behind the poise?

At first I thought she simply didn’t feel it, but I’ve seen the façade crack a few times too many. It’s just as hard on her, she’s simply in a different position.

But even if we fight in different places, and with different weapons, the way we go about things is similar: The passion. The strength. The dedication.

~~

“How about going to the opening party of the spring fair on Saturday?” Michelle asked enthusiastically while she prepared to leave the office for the day, shoving the files she wanted to look through at home into a large, orange shopper. “That is, if we can get reduced tickets, but since the office is sponsoring this year, it should work out for us.” Caroline was looking at her skeptically, and she shook her head. “No roller coasters or shooting booths, not ever again. I promise.” Last year’s foray into spring amusement, along with trying to set Caroline up with Ludovic, which had culminated with him trying to win her the biggest prize at the shooting booth, had been disastrous. “It’s just a bigger kind of party. They even have some guitar serenade concert, and you like that kind of music, Lynnie.”

When she, after refusing an invitation to a rock concert, had told Michelle that she preferred quieter styles, like chamber music, she had more thought of the lute recitals she had heard at Juilliard, or the piano sonatas evenings, or the cozy retro jazz club where they had a singer that sounded just like the late Ella, and she’d always imagined she’d take someone special there one day.

But the latest Met production or the next Lang Lang recital at Carnegie Hall were so far away from her now that it was hard to imagine she’d have gone there if she were still in New York. If she still had season tickets. If she still had a name that could buy them.

Forlornly, she looked up into Michelle’s expectant face and decided that she could just as well give the guitars a try. It might not be an Isbin concert, but it would be an evening less in the lonesome quiet of her house. It might even be fun.

She thought that if she still were Alex Cabot, she’d invite Michelle and Nick to a chamber music night at Juilliard, trying to show them what she meant. And who she was. Aloud, she said, “That’d be nice.”

“Great.” Michelle smiled broadly. “Nick will come, too, and Ludo said he’d bring this mystery girl he met.” They shared a knowing smile before Michelle leaned against her desk, canting her head to the side as she peered down at Alex. “I guess I shouldn’t ask Elena from the Accounting Firm on the third floor to join us?”

Alex arched an eyebrow. “Elena?”

“The new one. We saw her at Ed’s the other week,” Michelle said a tad too innocently. “She’s currently single. – I could ask her not to wear green.”

Alex blinked. “How do you know her name already?” She shook her head. “Scratch that, how do you know she’s available?”

“I have my ways.” Michelle grinned. “So, should I ask her?”

Alex shot back an exasperated glare, but she was grinning as well. “Let’s keep it limited to the guitars for now. It’s not even May yet.”

“Okay,” Michelle agreed, pleased with the reply. Caroline didn’t smile a lot. And when she did, she always seemed far away. “I’ll try to get the tickets on my way home.” She waved at Caroline, already half out of the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow – and don’t stay in here all night again, Lynnie. Your headache’s only gonna get worse.”

Michelle was right about that. The dry air was still giving her headaches, and the chill of the newly repaired fan wasn’t helping. The air was always dry here. Even when it rained, which was a rare occurrence.

She missed the rain. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine the clouds, the steady raindrops, the humidity, the soft gray skies and the tang of salt when the ocean was close. April in New York. Any season in New York.

She missed New York. She missed herself.

She missed the New York cultural life, and having the money to experience it. She missed Olivia. She missed being a Cabot.

Her mother. Olivia. Arguing in court. Soirees at the Met. Coffee at Luigi’s. Olivia. Her work. Her career. Her political aspirations. Being in the public eye. Olivia.

She missed Olivia.

And she hadn’t even known how much she’d miss her.

Looking herself down, she remembered that she was wearing the red sweater, the one that they had given to her at the safe house in the very first week. She hadn’t even been able to pull it over her head then because she couldn’t lift her arm. The agent had picked the color at random, but it was one of the brownish reds that had always looked so good on Olivia.

She doubted that the color looked good on herself.

It was one of her favorite pullovers.

~~

The light rap on my office door interrupts me in mid-sentence and I look up to find you leaning easily against the doorframe as if right out of a fantasy I shouldn’t have – short hair slightly tousled, arms crossed over your chest, a red knitted pullover with a white t-shirt showing underneath and my first flash of thought is how I want to pull them both over your head and toss them across the office, kissing my way down your neck. My fingers tingle with the urge to reach out and tousle your hair some more.

I should really put a stop to the overtime for a while and get some sleep. Fantasies like this belong in dreams that fade away when the alarm sounds, and not in my office.

You cock your head to the side. “You want to go grab a bite?”

Oh, yes. But instead I calmly say, “Sure.” And I don’t even look back at my files – files that are actually demanding my undeterred and immediate attention – as I follow you out of the office, admiring the way your jeans cling to your hips and I wonder how snugly the t-shirt you wear underneath your pullover fits you.

We end up at some hole in the wall deli, eating wildly spiced soup and tiny sandwiches and black olives, and you’re in a good mood. You smile a lot and it’s making your eyes sparkle, and every time you pop an olive into your mouth, I feel butterflies in my stomach.

Later, you insist that we walk off the food for a block or two and I’d agree to just about anything. Perhaps it is the beer, but I can feel the heat in my cheeks when you hold the door for me and I have to brush past you out into the street. My hand accidentally touches yours, and when I look down, your fingers are tangled with mine and I don’t let go.

I look up into your face, slowly, afraid of what I’ll see written there. You still hold onto my hand and my heart is beating wildly, until I see that you’re smiling and you gaze at me as if you don’t know whether you’re dreaming or not, and then everything fades away except for your eyes that are dark and warm and deep like velvet stars and autumn fires.

I distantly feel you tug on our joined hands, and we stumble into each other. Your lips are soft and taste of wild spices, but your mouth is sweet and your tongue is hot and smooth against mine.

I couldn’t tell upside from down if I had to right now.

We’re leaning against the wall of the dark alley, the rough bricks scraping across my suit jacket. Smells of exotic dishes are wafting out onto the street from the deli and mix with the scent of your skin when I bury my face against your neck. You’re so intoxicating I can’t think anymore. My hands are unsteady when I trail them down the expanse of your back.

“You’re driving me crazy,” you murmur close to my ear and your voice is hoarse. I feel your breath on my skin and my legs threaten to give way under me.

I need you.

I pull you closer against me, one of your thighs pushing in between mine, but my skirt is narrow and we’re still in this alley and I want you somewhere where it’s just you and me and where I can shed this suit, and where I can see you.

I take you home to my place. The red pullover doesn’t make it past the hallway, ending up somewhere on the hardwood floor between the apartment door and my bedroom. Your t-shirt does indeed fit you snugly, but I don’t have more than a moment to appreciate the fact because you’re impatiently pulling it over your head and tossing it away and then you’re tackling me onto my own bed.

You leave me breathless. You are both passionate and playful and your body is sleek and smooth and strong, and melting into mine as I touch you, and your hands are moving over my skin confidently and tenderly.

You look at me, and your eyes are dark and soft. “Alex,” you say. “Alex.”

And I can only stare at you. Slowly, I rake my fingers through your hair. “You’re so beautiful,” I whisper, and I sound as stunned as I am. And then I lean in to kiss you again.

Beautiful.

I jerk awake when my head falls forward and my pen drops to the floor. Fumbling to pick it up, I look around my office disoriented, finally checking the time. It is late. I must have dozed off sometime after Olivia asked me whether I wanted to go grab some dinner.

I said I still had to work. I told her good night and never left my office.

I should have gone with her. I wanted to. I want to every time.

Another night stolen from me, I think, a night with her in some hole in the wall deli with brick walls and beer from small bottles, and faded Bollywood posters lining the counter. And I want that night, and every other night, too.

~~

Gingerly, Olivia placed the ice pack against her temple. “Ouch.”

“Sorry – does it hurt much?” Elliot winced sympathetically. “I really thought you had seen the door.” As it turned out, he had been wrong and when he looked around at the dull noise behind him, he’d seen his partner on the other side of the glass door holding her head.

“I’ll live,” she reassured him, angry at her own clumsiness. “Everyone will assume I’ve taken up boxing, of course, but that’s better than telling them that I…”

“You walked right into that door.” Elliot shook his head in puzzlement, worry evident in his tone. “Perhaps you should pull fewer doubles for a while and catch some real sleep. – There wasn’t anything distracting out there, and I even called out to you to watch it.”

“It’s not your fault,” Olivia waved off Elliot’s guilty conscience. She moved the ice pack a bit to the side, pulling a face. “Besides, a nice bruise will cover up the bags under my eyes really well.”

“You’re heading out of here on time tonight, Liv.” Elliot’s tone brooked no argument. “I mean it. – Whatever were you thinking about?”

Olivia shrugged. “Nothing.”

It had been nothing, after all.

Merely a business woman walking around the corner, tall and slender, wearing an expensive skirt suit. She carried a newspaper under her arm and a coffee in her hand, and blonde hair – that exact same shade of light blonde – was falling onto her shoulders, half obscuring her face.

Alex…

It didn’t happen as often anymore. But is still happened, every now and then, catching Olivia all the more unguarded. A laugh reminiscent of hers at the next table in the pub. A similar gait on the courthouse floors. Someone walking by wearing her perfume. Flashes that made Olivia’s pulse race, where for one blissful moment she thought it was her – before reality and reasoning caught up with her and she knew that it couldn’t be Alex.

Some months were worse than others. Still, nothing ever was as bad as those first few weeks where every tiny detail – a pair of black eyeglass frames in a shop window, the faded photo from the last Christmas party in the corner of the squad’s bulletin board, walking past Alex’s former office – seemed to choke her with such a sense of loss that she couldn’t breathe. It was then that she realized that she didn’t really have anything of hers to put her memories to – no photos, no tokens. She had some now, thanks to a trip to the DA’s office news data archive and its very patient custodian – a small video copy of public statements by ADA Alexandra Cabot that had been deemed politically relevant enough to be stored away for future reference, and some copies of news articles. If the custodian had wondered why she was getting such impersonal things to put together an obituary on a friend and colleague – which was what she had told him – he had been tactful enough not to comment on it. She must have looked as pathetic as she felt.

~~

I remember falling for her. Rather: the moment I realized that I was falling for her.

I knock on her office door, it is late in the evening already, and she finishes writing the phrase she is working on before she looks up. Her desk light is dim, and I can’t see her face, all I see is the fall and shine of her hair, and how the light casts a gentle glow over it so that it looks like pale, shimmering gold. – I am still puzzled as to when phrases like that made it into my vocabulary when she looks up, blinking behind her glasses against the light falling in from the doorway behind me. She adjusts her glasses and there is a slight smile playing about her lips as she looks at me and I feel like a teenager with a first crush.

She oozes class and elegance, and now she smiles fully and I can’t think.

This is an idea I shouldn’t even have, a fantasy I shouldn’t even entertain. She’d never go out with me, even if I were a man. For fun, perhaps, if she’s into that – she must be, if she dates at all, since she doesn’t do serious relationships, much like me – but she’d never look at me the way I am looking at her. She’s a Cabot with high political aspirations and a conservative family behind her.

Even if she were gay, and interested, she wouldn’t go out with me. She’d be stupid to do so, and perhaps it’s better this way. I’d rather not be the cliché cop affair of some career oriented uptown girl.

It’s not just her career plans. It’s also her background.

I am not ashamed of myself, of who I am, or where I am. Whatever struggles I may have are my own. But when I try to see myself with her eyes, I don’t know what she sees, and that makes me hesitate. I don’t have her picture book Park Avenue family. I’ve never had a father. I don’t have a mother anymore. I don’t have her kind of education or money. – Would she look down on me? Would she pity me? Would she simply consider me some lower class thrill?

The expectations placed on her are so different from what I know. When she, offhandedly, mentioned her debutante ball – once, after Munch had talked her into a third beer – I laughed. And I only realized that she hadn’t been kidding when she looked at me squarely.

Oh, Alex.

When I was sixteen, nobody made me wear white gloves and smile at smarmy men in suits. At age sixteen, I kissed Keira Mendenez on the rooftop, bought beer with a fake ID and was home after midnight most nights.

I wonder what she was like as a teenager. If she had a bad perm on her prom night – I guess she probably looked perfect – or braces. Or if she was lanky and awkward when she started Law School – although it is hard to imagine her awkward at all, ever – or if she ever went through a rebel phase with her hair dyed red.

And I know I’d have found her adorable either way.

~~

“Caroline, wait!”

Turning around, she saw Esteban from the Accounting Firm catch up with her.

“Listen, I managed to get two free hours on the tennis court tonight and we still need a fourth man for a double – Ludo said you play?”

“Not anymore.” She shook her head regretfully. “I badly dislocated my shoulder and had to stop.”

“Ludo said something like that, but he said it was about two years ago…” Esteban flashed her his most beseeching smile. “You sure you’re not up for a little training game? We’ll take it easy.”

“I’d like to, but I’m really out of it.” She sighed. “Thanks for the offer, Esteban, but I have to pass.”

“All right.” He nodded. “Too bad though – Another time, perhaps? I dislocated my shoulder twice myself, and can play just like I used to.”

She shrugged evasively. “It wasn’t really treated that well at first.”

It was a meager excuse, but Esteban accepted it with an understanding nod before he took off. He, like most of the small circle of people she had closer contact with here, believed the rumors about her divorce – which belonged to Caroline Roberts’ back story – having been an escape from an abusive marriage, her former husband disagreeing violently about the separation.

The rumor fit well with the battered and withdrawn woman who had moved into town twenty months ago, and Michelle’s wild speculations about the abusive ex‑husband still following Caroline’s trail had kept any questions at bay. It had also given her a very good further cover. Of course, Michelle with her vivid imagination also believed that the actual reason for the violent divorce had been Caroline’s coming out – her proclivities were a fact that Caroline had, even if with great reluctance, shared after the disastrous try on Michelle’s part to set her up with Ludovic. The possibly dramatic back story also made Michelle, though generally having a more conservative stance on the ‘gay agenda’, as she called it, very supportive of the reclusive colleague and her individual pursuit of happiness.

Alex shifted her shoulders, feeling the familiar twinge running through the right at the movement.

Not dislocated.

Shot.

No tennis this year, either, and possibly not ever again.

~~

”Did you ever play sports, Counselor?”

I’ve run into a baseball debate between the detectives of my squad and while Munch and Elliot are still arguing, you are grinning at me now. I shrug as I reply, “Just the usual.”

You cant your head to the side. “Tai Chi and kick boxing,” you guess teasingly.

I shake my head, trying to file away the images of you at either of these disciplines for leisurely contemplation on my part later on. “Tennis and golf.”

“Tennis?” Your grin grows wider and you’re casually looking me over as if assessing my suitability for the sport. I feel warm, even though I know that this look doesn’t mean anything. Not to you.

“I’ve never tried that,” you say and it’s on the tip of my tongue to offer you a lesson, just for fun, but it’s not as if we’re on that kind of footing with each other – I can’t just drag you off to the tennis court at my mother’s club. I wish I knew you well enough to be able to do just that without having to offer you any explanation as to why I’d like to spend time with you. As things are, I don’t even know whether you’d agree to it in the first place.

“Oh, I used to play a lot,” I answer instead. I imagine you in a tennis outfit, but can’t get past the image of a tennis polo shirt stretching across your chest, buttons splayed apart. It’s not getting any cooler in here.

I can think of a few other things that you’ve probably never tried and that I wouldn’t mind sharing with you, but I don’t tell you that.

I don’t tell you how Eileen Vanderbilt looked at me on that late summer morning in the Hamptons when I was sixteen. It was almost September and the thing I remember most is that the grass was still wet with dew against our ankles – we always went for a few balls before breakfast – when we walked off the court. Eileen’s family owned the property next to ours and the tennis court was theirs. She was two years my senior, and every time I saw her in her little white tennis outfit with the sleeveless polo shirt I didn’t want to be the well-bred society girl I was.

That morning, it was different, and she smiled when she leaned in and I kissed her and she tasted of dew and sweeter yet, and her eyes were green like the grass.

These days, I am partial to brown eyes.

You wouldn’t wear a tennis skirt, I reason. You would wear navy blue running shorts. I know you have a pair. A rare reward of being called in at ungodly hours is that you never know what Detective Benson might be wearing – it could be a backless dress, or a pair of running shorts. It was before seven a.m. that morning when I arrived at a potential diplomatic disaster of a crime scene on the upper East Side.

The call jolted me out of bed, but it obviously caught you in the middle of a jog already. For a moment I wonder how early your mornings are and what you might look like in your pajamas and with sleep-tousled hair, but then I’m distracted by the actual sight of you as you turn to greet me. The hems of your running shorts are barely grazing the top of your thighs and I can count the seconds my eyes need to travel up the length of your legs. A hooded, sleeveless top is clinging to your upper body, and the fabric is darker between your shoulder blades where it is sticking to your skin.

I push my glasses back up firmly.

You casually comb sweat‑matted hair out of your face with your fingers and I try to look away and am, again, distracted by the way the hemline of your shorts is brushing against your toned upper thighs. I feel thirsty.

“Alex, I didn’t know you’d be here.” You sound slightly embarrassed, shifting your weight from one bare leg to the other.

…Here? I’m not here. I’m on the floor of a gym with your body falling into me and your naked thighs tangling with mine. I easily reverse our positions – which would never be that easy in reality, not with how toned your thighs are and with your training in holding down guys much larger than me… I’m sure you’d never even think of me this way, desirous and a little reckless, but in my fantasy you do and I look down into your face, and you smile. “Nice move, Counselor.”

You’re sexy when you’re formal.

“What about this one?” I murmur, your naked thighs against mine making it hard for me to concentrate on anything else, like speech, and I lean in and kiss you and you taste sweeter than dew or anything else…

I clear my throat. – No gym. No running shorts today, either. We’re at the precinct. Munch and Elliot are still arguing about baseball and you and I are having a harmless conversation about perfectly appropriate physical activities. Like tennis.

I smile. “Do you play any sports, Detective?”

~~

“Where’s the victim?” Olivia asked, stepping from the elevator that was covered in cushy wall-to-wall carpet. The hallway the uniformed cop pointed her along was no less elegant, dominated by marble columns and high ceilings.

“Liv – there you are!” Elliot stepped out of a doorway, waving her over with a gloved hand.

She nodded, stepping into a spacious antechamber beside him. “What do we have?”

“Lauren McCoy, thirty-four, partner in the company here.” Elliot pointed towards the adjoining office. “Colleague found her in the morning. Looks like a rape that escalated into murder. – No robbery. Seems he was just after her. Maybe he stalked her.”

“So he knew she was working late,” Olivia guessed, snapping on a pair of gloves as she stepped over the threshold. “Oh, shit.”

Lauren McCoy had been a beautiful woman, and she retained that beauty even in death. She lay sprawled across her office desk, one arm dangling off the edge, the wrist at an awkward angle. Her pencil skirt was bunched up around her hips and torn at one side, the matching jacket and blouse ripped open. Between reddish bruises, a diamond solitaire was still nestled in the crook of her neck, partly tangled in light‑blonde hair that was only slightly matted with blood, fanning out around her head like a distorted halo.

“Definitely not a robbery,” Elliot stated, pointing at the Cartier watch still attached to a slender wrist.

A flash of light on the black carpet caught Olivia’s eye and she bent down to pick up a pair of black eye frames, its twin set of embedded stones sparkling in the light. One of the glasses was splintered.

“Liv?” She heard Elliot’s voice from far away. “Are you okay?”

“The donuts…” she still managed to choke out, before she dashed from the room with her hand pressed to her mouth.

~~

“New glasses?” It’s the first thing I ask when Alex walks into the observation room. I’ve never seen this particular pair on her, and I think I’ve memorized them all.

“Yes,” she says, sounding surprised and she smiles, pleased that I noticed. She draws the black frames off her nose, contemplating them closely for a moment and I take note of the double C engraved discreetly into the side. “At first I wasn’t sure whether they’d be too flashy for me.”

“Are you kidding?” ‘Flashy’ in ADA Alexandra Cabot’s book apparently extends to a double set of tiny Swarovski stones set along the edge of the frames. I think they look elegant and appealing, but that might also be due to the fact that Alex is wearing them. “They look great on you, Alex.” You look great. You always look great.

She smiles again and I wish I could keep her smiling like that all day. “Chanel Spring Collection?” I guess, venturing a little further into the personal small talk.

She arches an eyebrow at me. “Admit it, you’ve been pilfering Munch’s crib exemplar of Vogue again.”

That actually makes me laugh, and then we both smile at each other and I can see her eyes sparkle behind her glasses.

Perhaps it is that sparkle, or the smile, but it seems as if I’m closer to her all of a sudden, even though I’m still standing in the same place, and so is she. There is a feeling of infinite possibilities when I look at her.

I wonder what she would say if I were to ask her out, right now.

Sometimes, I ask myself whether a successful relationship in our line of work is even possible – we all ask ourselves that question at some point – or whether it’d be better to content myself with a fantasy that can’t be hurt.

My general belief has always been that the job excludes big romances, period – unless you’re damn lucky, like Elliot. But for the rest of us, I don’t hold out much hope. Because people don’t know how to deal with what we do, and half of the time, we don’t know how to deal ourselves. Because seeing attraction and sexuality all gone wrong day in, day out can kill any magic and any trust. Because a job taking place in between abuse victims and sick perps doesn’t further the courage to believe in love, or the possibility of a successful relationship at all.

But then there is Alex. And even though she doesn’t know about it, sometimes I wonder whether it could be more than a fantasy. Because she knows the job. She understands what it does to people. And yet she can still smile at me in a way that makes me think that there are infinite possibilities.

And even if it makes me vulnerable: She makes me believe in things again.

~~

“Come on Lynnie, it’s just a radio show,” Michelle had argued. “I’ll get you the album for your birthday, but you simply can’t skip the office party!”

But to her, it wasn’t just a radio show and she hadn’t relented. Rather, she was, after having hastened home early, sitting comfortably in front of the radio with a glass of wine, her eyes closed, enjoying the Met live broadcast with near religious attention.

It felt like New York. It felt like Alex Cabot.

It was the closest to Lincoln Center she got these days.

Letting the tragic opera love story wash over her, parallels to her own life suddenly didn’t seem so far away: the woman forced to leave everything behind because of a tragic accident, living under another name and in constant fear for her life; by tragic circumstances losing her lover to the whims of an unforgiving fate that also made the lover believe she were dead…

She had lost her life to a case – her life, her family and a lover she hadn’t even had. And the heroic certainty of having done the right thing, of not having caved in, sounded hollow to her ears when she measured it against her losses.

She missed New York. She missed the humid heat of the summers, but most of all the walks in falling autumn leaves. Their colors, and the feeling of walking into a warm house from the rainy cold, shedding soft black leather gloves. The fireplace in her mother’s library. The crispness to the air that also signaled the approaching holiday season. Functions and balls. Dancing.

Dancing with Olivia. Entertaining the risqué thought at all was enough to send a tingle down her spine and she leisurely tried to imagine a dress she’d want Olivia to wear; she’d guiltily fantasized about dancing with her the night she’d seen her in that black backless number, picturing her hands resting on all that invitingly framed bare skin.

She asked herself what Olivia might wear if she were to invite the detective to the opera. She imagined Olivia dressing up for her. The backless black dress. The green dress. Something red and low-cut.

Tousled hair, a knit pullover and a white t-shirt underneath.

She wondered if Olivia would enjoy going to the opera. Where Olivia might take her on a date in return. Whether Olivia’s friends would accept her – especially Elliot and the squad, not as an ADA, but as someone who belonged with Olivia. Whether Olivia would still look at her the way she had the night she had left. Whether Olivia could fall in love with her.

She didn’t know whether it could even work, but she knew that she would want to try.

It was sheer irony that here, she could be out in front of her office if she chose to, and that now there wasn’t anyone to be out for anymore.

The break between the first and second act shook her out of her musings, and she absently listened to the commercials in between. She wondered whether Olivia would go to the opera with her, if she asked her. And whether she should simply have asked her back then, when she still had a chance. Some days she couldn’t believe she hadn’t done it.

Sure, she had bravely argued that going out with a cop, and a female cop at that, wouldn’t be a smart career move, being in the public eye as she was. And surely she was right about that – that bit of gossip, falling into the wrong hands, might very well have meant political suicide. But did she really care about those political ramifications anymore?

The doorbell to my house is ringing and I wonder whether I forgot a social call. I walk downstairs towards the entrance in my bare feet, expecting an impatient Michelle or a sheepishly grinning Esteban, but when I look through the spyhole – I always do, the agents at the safe house drilled that into me beyond return – it’s neither of them.

It’s her.

Leather jacket, knit sweater, snug jeans, short tousled hair. She looks a bit nervous, fidgeting, but then she looks up as if she knows I am there on the other side of the door and I see her eyes and her eyes are large and calm and deep.

I hasten to unlock the door, my fingers are trembling and my throat is parched. I feel dizzy. Finally, I manage to pull the door open and she looks at me. She looks at me just the way she did when I left. When I last saw her.

Suddenly, my hair is blonde again and I look inexplicably great, even at this hour, and she is wearing a leather jacket although it is much to warm for it in the weather here.

She says, “Alex”. She says my name and it’s like rain in the desert.

“It’s over,” She tucks her hands into the pockets of her jacket and she’s so close I can see every single one of her lashes. “He’s dead.” She looks at her feet for a moment and I think she shot him herself, perhaps. “There’s no more threat against you.”

And then she looks at me and I see her eyes, and then her lips, and she says, “Please come home.”

And I say yes.

If I ever saw her again, I’d say yes to many more things. Deli dinner, and squad sport events, and a nightcap at her place after dinner, and seeing her in that green dress again.

I’d say yes even if she didn’t ask. – Or I would ask her. If only I saw her again.

At first, it was “when I see her again”, then it became “if I see her again”. Now it’s “if I saw her again” and I am afraid of the day where I will say, “If I had seen her again…”

I am so homesick. This is not my life.

My life is courtrooms and skirt suits and not listening to the Met broadcast, but being there. My life is five-hundred delis on the block for a hasty late lunch, and fighting tooth and nail with my squad over a search warrant, and then having coffee with them. With her.

I am sick of not being me. I am homesick for my life. Homesick for her.

They took away my life. If ever faced with this choice again, I’d give up the case, or take the risk of getting killed, or extinguish an entire cartel on my own.

I’ve learned what being lonely truly means. And I’ve learned that there are things worth dying for and things worse than dying. I wouldn’t give up who I am again. I wouldn’t put my family and friends through this again, and I wouldn’t put myself through it again, either.

~~

“You know I can’t give you a warrant on that.” Casey’s patience was wearing thin as she looked at the detective who was pacing through her office.

“What? We have his prints on the hallway cupboard right next to her office!” Olivia tossed the file onto the desk angrily. “The tape was from that cupboard!”

“Did you find the tape roll?”

Olivia stopped her pacing for a moment. The silence answered Casey’s question. No, they still hadn’t found the tape that would link Benedict Connor to Lauren McCoy’s murder, but Olivia knew that she and Elliot were right about him. All they needed was a warrant for his apartment; Connor was the type to keep trophies.

“Olivia.” Casey waited until the detective looked at her. “Connor has his own office on that floor,” she then continued pointedly. “Which makes it his hallway, and his supply cupboard, too. His prints on it don’t prove anything.”

“I can’t believe you won’t give us a warrant for his apartment.” Olivia’s stance was belligerent. “Six different colleagues have reported that Connor had issues with Lauren being his boss.”

“I don’t like Connor, either. But his alibi is solid.” Casey shook her head. “Put a dent into it – any kind of dent – and I’ll get you your warrant.”

“He works in this place – he’ll know how to get past the doorman and the surveillance cameras.” Olivia resumed her pacing. “That rat bastard is playing us. He raped and killed Lauren McCoy. And we both know it.”

“I told you, I don’t like Connor, either,” Casey said regretfully. “But your ire won’t help us. I need evidence, and like this, you’re no use to this case.” The look she gave Olivia wasn’t unfriendly. “You’re too involved.”

“Too involved?” Olivia shouted incredulously. She raked her hands through her hair in a gesture of frustration. “He raped and killed her in her own office because he couldn’t deal with the fact that she was a hell of a lot smarter than him. Perfect case to be calm about!”

“Olivia…” Casey began, her tone appeasing.

But Olivia didn’t let her finish. “Damn it, Casey, don’t you care at all?”

“Damn it, Alex, don’t you care at all?” I’m yelling at her, and I don’t care. I can’t believe she’s going to deny us the search warrant because of a stupid formality. “This is no god-damned paragraph chess. – Don’t you think about the victim at all?”

The sudden silence I’m met with indicates that I have hit a nerve, but I’m not finished yet. “Don’t you care about justice at all?” She doesn’t have any idea of what we’re dealing with. She was at some fancy concert when this case got called in. She wasn’t crouching in a muddy cellar next to a bloodied and frightened Viola Johnson, trying to calm her while waiting for the stupid backup to show up. Because without any equipment, we couldn’t break the handcuffs the bastard had used to chain her to the heating pipes. “Why did you even become a lawyer?” I can’t get the image out of my head. The pipes. The cuffs. The chafed wrists. When Alex first saw her, Viola had been taken care of, cleaned up and dressed. “Is it only some fancy family tradition your dad wanted you to continue? Great challenge!”

There is a long pause while she sits there, and I pace restlessly through her office.

“Actually, it was quite a challenge, Detective,” she finally says and her voice is eerily quiet. “The women in my family may be expected to study law, but not to become lawyers.”

Her reply has me dumbfounded enough to make me lose track of my ire. “What for then?” I ask. I’m exhausted, and frustrated, and angry, and I can’t make any sense of all this right now.

“To meet and marry lawyers.” Alex’s voice is clipped and if I wasn’t so angry and tired, I’d realize I’ve struck some old hurt. “You may think I don’t care, Detective,” she then says coolly. “I think that you’re tired. – And I think you should know better.”

I want to bristle at her tone, but I am so damn exhausted. I slump down into one of her chairs.

Much later that day, we’re all in a better mood. Munch has struck gold while canvassing and found an eyewitness who picked the bastard out of a lineup. We have him. Also, Viola’s boyfriend has flown in and she could leave the hospital already, with him.

We’re sitting over our beers, relieved and exhausted, and trying to forget about the images I know I’ll see for nights to come. It’s one of the rare instances where Alex has joined us. She’s sitting next to Fin and is nursing what has to be at least her second drink. She doesn’t look at me and I haven’t spoken to her since my outburst in the morning.

I grab my glass and slide from the bar stool, and I swear I hear Elliot snicker as I make my way over to Alex. When she looks up at me, I can see that she’s been through the wringer, as well. I heard Liz tear into her earlier, something about a pending case, when I was about to knock on her door with the good news about our eyewitness.

“Sorry about this morning,” I say and I look at my glass as I sit down next to her. “I was frustrated, and I took it out on you.”

“I was frustrated, as well,” she says, and her hair falls into her face as she looks down at the table where she is toying with her drink. “I get frustrated just like you do. I only lack the convenience of an ADA to yell at.” She looks at me now, an eyebrow arched, and with a half smile, and I realize I’m forgiven. I also realize that what I said this morning really hurt her.

“I shouldn’t have said all that.” I’m staring at my glass again. Even if I don’t know why Alex studied law, it’s a good thing she did it anyway. “You do a damn good job, Alex.”

Her smile at that is so pleased that I could kick myself for my outburst in the morning all over again. The day’s tension seems to seep out of me, finally, and I don’t know if she’s been inching closer but I think it’s probably been me, involuntarily, but we’re sitting a little closer together in the booth and I realize that I am smiling, too.

For a while, there’s companionable silence and I am simply enjoying this – that she has gone out with us, that I am sitting here with her, that we aren’t fighting, and that I made her smile.

“So, why did you study law then, if it wasn’t to meet a lawyer?” I finally ask and my voice is quiet even though I am grinning at her.

If Alex is surprised at the question, she doesn’t show it. “I like law,” she says and her eyes are on me, and they are calm and clear and blue like a mountain brook, or at least that is how I imagine one. I’m counting the beers I’ve had. Mountain brooks indeed. “And I like arguing,” Alex adds and only at second glance I see the mischievous sparkle in her eyes. I like her like this.

“No kidding,” I murmur into my beer, but she catches on to it anyway and I’m a bit startled when she nudges me in reply. It must be her two or three drinks, I conclude, because I can’t remember Alex ever initiating much body contact. I know it because my body would remember this feeling.

Also, I hadn’t noticed that we are now sitting right next to each other.

“And it’s about justice,” Alex concludes thoughtfully. “That’s why I became a lawyer.” She leans back in the booth a bit. “And also, Detective, because that way, there’s the chance of someone meeting me.” Her tone is dry, but she is grinning and I don’t really know why. Before I can put my finger to it, though, she smoothly has the question redirected at me, asking me why I signed up with the police, and I like the way she looks at me as she asks.

She knows about my father already, so I find myself telling her about all the other things. How we didn’t have the money for a fancy college, or the credit rating for student loans. And that I had no chance at a scholarship with my average grades – I often missed out on classes and homework because someone had to pick up the slack at home. I try to tell her about the need for independence and being able to rely on oneself and one’s strengths, and I see understanding in her gaze, even though she doesn’t know what it feels like to grow up on a block like mine. And how it ultimately made me want to do something for the kind of women who lived in the apartments around us and who had to put up with abuse on a daily basis.

Alex’s eyes are on me the entire time.

Only much later, when I try to walk off the slight buzz from my beers for a few blocks, it hits me. She didn’t study law to meet and marry a lawyer, she said. — “…and also, Detective, because that way, there’s the chance of someone meeting me…” — But who runs around law schools trying to find a lawyer to settle down with? I stop in my tracks in the middle of the street, stuck on the image of a row of smitten female law students gazing at Alex adoringly.

Alex on a dinner date with a woman, one in a lovely dress and she is looking at Alex from underneath her lashes, and the watch on Alex’s wrist gleams in the light as she reaches for her purse to pay.

Alex coming home after a long day in court, and a woman is helping her out of her coat in the hallway, kissing her hello and saying that dinner is ready.

“…the chance of someone meeting me…”

I recall Alex’s sly grin and my heart misses a beat or two.

Alex… and women?

~~

Knocks on her door tore her out of her sleep and for a moment, she looked around herself disoriented before she realized that she had dozed off on the couch over the news.

She hastened to the door, but walked the last few steps quietly and looked out through the spyhole first, the gesture so much a routine now that she could almost ignore the tiny bout of fear that always accompanied the maneuver.

“God, Lynnie, did you just fall out of bed?” Michelle asked with amusement, her arm linked through Nick’s.

“Off the couch, actually,” she replied, her voice still gravelly. Not the best condition to visit the evening spectacle at the home garden show. “I’m sorry. Just give me a couple of minutes, all right?”

She asked them in to wait, a thing she had needed more than a year to offer, always afraid that something about her house would give her away, would show the synthetic nature of her life. The colors that weren’t really hers. The lack of photos and souvenirs.

Catching a look at her mussed hair in the vanity mirror, she smiled wryly at herself. Michelle was right, she really looked as if she had just fallen out of bed.

For a moment, she surveyed herself critically. She wished she could dye her hair blonde again.

She wondered how Olivia might have her hair these days, whether she had let it grow out yet a bit further or whether she had decided to cut it short again. She had always liked it short.

Downstairs, Michelle and Nick were talking in the living room, and she remembered how Michelle had asked her why she didn’t have any family photos around when she had first made it past the entryway, only to nod tactfully when Alex had replied that she had made a clear cut between her past and her present. Michelle assumed since that Caroline’s parents and family had sided with the abusive ex-husband.

Alex thought about the lifeless flower stills on her living room walls and wished she had one of her family’s paintings to put up instead. Or a poster sized picture of Olivia.

Although that was something she would rather have put up in her bedroom. Olivia to look at first thing in the morning, with the dreams still close by and her body still warm from sleep.

She only had dream images now, and they faded quickly. Sometimes, during the day, she couldn’t even recall Olivia’s face, as if her memory was a limited stock and she had used it up already. And the more she tried to conjure her up – the exact shade of brown of her eyes, the curve of her lips, the line of her neck – the more the image seemed to escape her.

Then again, the memory simply overcame her at moments, intense enough to leave her gasping. Triggered by a smell or a sound, her mind’s eye would paint Olivia in front of her so clearly that she felt she could reach out and touch her, only to find the image gone again all too soon. She could never make it last longer – her own memory seemed to elude her grasp, fading and losing its colors the way old pictures did.

She wished she had a picture, just one. It wouldn’t even have to be a poster. She’d content herself with a badly taken passport shot or a newspaper clipping – anything. Something that she could hold in her hands to recall Olivia by, something that would remind her that it had been real, and that she hadn’t simply dreamed her other life when the relived tendrils of it vanished into nothingness when she woke.

She was the most alone in the mornings.

I know what you look like in the morning. It’s how I can pinpoint the very moment I realized that I was attracted to you, one very early morning after we’d fought over a case the night before.

It’s early, nobody has even bothered to switch on the full lights yet. I’ve never seen it so quiet in here. I’m at the precinct on my way to work already, hoping not to run into any of my detectives. Tempers still have to cool a bit from last night, mine included. Which is why I didn’t call about having forgotten my shawl when I angrily stormed out of here last night, but am here to stealthily pick it up myself. I don’t need another comment from Elliot about my paycheck in relation to my choice of cashmere accessories, or another of your reproachful looks while you murmur something about my minions having to carry not only my cases but also my winter wear after me.

I don’t get lucky. Or perhaps I do. It seems I’m not the only one who spent the night over the case file because you are sitting at your desk with your head resting on an open copy of said file, sound asleep.

My shawl is draped over the edge of your desk and I almost overlook it because I’m looking at you. Your mouth is slightly opened, and your breaths are calm and easy. You look relaxed, and I think how I’ve never realized that one of your eyebrows forms a higher arch than the other. Your eyelashes are long where they rest on your cheeks, and I feel a tingle in my stomach when my eyes follow the shape of your lips – the widely swung, even bow of your upper lip, the full, smooth curve of the lower…

I jump back guiltily when you stir in your sleep.

You don’t wake up, not yet. Cragen will be here any minute now, and I should take my shawl and leave. But then I am thinking that you probably wouldn’t want the guys to find you like this, and my hand is already reaching out to gently nudge you awake before I can stop myself.

There are still tingles running through my stomach and I can’t find any of my ire at you from last night. Instead, I reach out to lightly to touch your shoulder. Your body is warm with sleep through your sweater.

You mumble something unintelligible, still fast asleep and I marvel at the sudden twinge of tenderness I feel. It is simply absurd after last night’s fight.

Your eyelids flutter open and I can’t hide my smile. “Good morning, Detective.”

At that, you jerk upwards. “Wha…?” You look around yourself wildly and then your eyes settle on me. “Alex?”

Your voice is hoarse and deep and I can feel it resonate through my entire body. There’s that strange tingle again, and I’m afraid I’ll blush.

Your eyes are unguarded – heavy, dark and liquid with sleep. It makes me wonder what you’ve been dreaming about. You try to sit up straighter, blinking the sleep away, but with your hair sticking out in every direction and that slightly disoriented look, the tough cop act fails you. God, you’re cute.

You swallow and my eyes are drawn to your lips again. Why did I never notice that you have the perfect mouth? Another tingle runs through my stomach, dangerously low.

“…Alex?” You are looking at me expectantly and I realize that I must have missed something you said.

Now I am blushing.

And I know I’m done for.

~~

“Son of a bitch had the tape roll in his car!” Sliding into the seat across from the ADA, Olivia pushed a report copy across the table. “Forensics already matched it to the remnants we found on Lauren McCoy’s wrists.”

Casey had to smile at Olivia’s triumphant expression. “And now you owe the folks at Forensics a beer,” she guessed.

“Or three,” Olivia admitted. She motioned at the waitress for a coffee before she pointed at the report again. “There were still traces of her lipstick, as well. – Can you believe he stored it in the glove compartment?”

“He won’t believe what’s in store for him after being so stupid.” Casey looked very satisfied at the outcome as well. Then she nodded, her expression more serious. “You were right about the car, Olivia.”

Olivia shrugged it off. “Yeah, but I was wrong about the apartment.” That hadn’t been one of her better moments. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

Casey all but snorted. “As if I haven’t yelled at you before.” She shook her head, smiling. “Don’t worry about it. Besides, I’ll probably make good on it next time. – So, can we go over your star witness statement for Wednesday sometime this afternoon?”

Making up with Casey was much easier than it had ever been with Alex, Olivia mused as the conversation went on. Probably because fighting with Alex had been a lot worse. It had been unsettling on a larger scale. But then, making up had felt a lot better, too. The feeling of seeing her smile slightly behind those arrogant glasses of hers again. Or to watch her argue a case in court and forget about the clashes they’d had while putting it together, and instead enjoy the fact that this woman was, ultimately, on their side.

Of course, disagreeing with Casey might also be easier because they were lacking that set of purely personal undercurrents that had always been there between Alex and her. Olivia didn’t have a crush on Casey.

Alex had been a crush, once Olivia had gotten past the first, wary impression of Alex being too young, too posh and too inexperienced to be any good with SVU. And too beautiful.

And while Alex kept and perfected her skills of aggravating her squad at times, she also gained experience and, eventually, Olivia’s respect, if only for her tenacity. But when Olivia had been ready to admit, if grudgingly, that Alex did her job well, it had already been about more than just the job. She had grown accustomed to having Alex around – to her confident attitude that, when applied in their favor, was actually quite enjoyable, or to the only slightly annoyed, challenging look she gave Olivia when the detective started to bargain for a warrant. And it had been a good feeling to revel, just a bit, in Alex’s grace and her intelligence, her strength and the passionate intent that was well concealed behind the cool society air.

And then it had changed already, even though Olivia couldn’t have said how it had happened. She only knew that when she was ready to admit her crush to herself, Alex had already become more than just that. An idea to secretly hold onto when cases went bad. Someone she knew would be there with them, even when things didn’t turn out in their favor. Someone who was there in the morning even when they had been fighting the night before.

Alex had always been around. Nodding at her in wry commiseration at another date having gotten interrupted because of work. Sitting next to her on the bench outside the courtroom over a bad case, waiting for the verdict, without saying a word. Alex had even been there for her after her mother’s death – not outwardly comforting, but very mindful of her. It wasn’t the lilies she had sent, although the gesture had been appreciated, but that she had more or less bullied Donnelly into switching witnesses on two pending cases to give the detective some space. She had never mentioned it, of course. Neither had Olivia.

Alex had been so much more than a fantasy.

And yet, there had never been anything. Olivia took a sip of her coffee. There hadn’t been anything at all. And thinking about it now wouldn’t change a thing. There was no use in romanticizing her memories. Alex wasn’t the type to be into women anyway. And if she were, then probably into some perfect blue blooded Park Avenue femme with a row of debutante balls under her belt instead of a gun on her belt.

There had never been anything.

~~

It’s nice and comfortable and I don’t want to leave here… but something is landing on my shoulder. At first I think it’s butterflies, but I’m sitting on the rooftop and I’ve never seen butterflies on my block. I expect someone to shout from downstairs but the voices are soft. There is still this something on my shoulder and just when I think that the touch is too heavy now to be butterflies, I realize that I am waking up.

“Wha…?”

I jerk awake and need a moment to realize I must have fallen asleep at my desk sometime during the night. I blink against the light, still sleepy, and the first thing I see is the curve of a waist, nicely clad in something tailored with dark pinstripes. I glance up.

Sharp blue eyes. Those glasses. A slight quirk to her lips. “Good morning, Detective.”

She is smiling now, and I try to wrap my mind around that fact. Last night, I yelled at this woman and told her that she needed to grow up, and to get real, and whatnot, leading to her icily recounting paragraphs and Court of Appeals decisions and telling me to get real myself. The last I saw of her were the backs of her heels storming out of here and I was mad at her all night. And frustrated. And so angry that I couldn’t sleep but went back to work on the case.

I must have fallen asleep after all and now she stands here and she is smiling and I’m not even mad at her anymore.

For a split second, before the day comes and takes me out of this state between sleep and wakefulness, I think that I should ask her to go out with me.

The moment passes, and the day swallows us up, but when I see her again later, in her office, that stray thought lingers at the back of my mind, startling me.

She has taken her glasses off, they’re dangling from her fingers and she is thoughtfully chewing on one end. Even that looks elegant when she does it. – Is that an additional open button on her blouse? I can see the vague outline of a collarbone and I wonder when I started to look at her like this.

I want to…, I think, but I can’t say what it is that I want. I feel thirsty.

Alex.

You make me see I’m still normal. That I still have normal impulses, normal reactions. That I’m still human. That I can still feel honest-to-God attracted to someone. Work hasn’t killed or corrupted that yet. There’s something inside me that is untainted when I look at you.

I look at you and I desire. Wholly. Purely. Joyfully.

If nothing else, I’ll always be grateful for that.

~~

“Gracias, Caroline, that is such a great gift.” Esteban was smiling broadly at her, happily holding the gift certificate for a set of hours on the tennis court in his hands. “You’ll have to play at least one of those with me!”

“You know I can’t, with my shoulder,” she said regretfully, charmed by the enthusiastic thanks for her gift. She would have loved to give him a new racket instead, she knew he could have used one, but those had become gifts she couldn’t afford to make anymore. Sometimes having to live on a relatively frugal salary still felt like a big impairment. She remembered the first weeks of trying to reorganize her grocery shopping habits, actually looking at the price tags. It had been humiliating.

“I know this great sports doctor,” Esteban offered, the energy and decisiveness in his large dark eyes ringing at something, leaving her aching. “I’m sure he would look at your shoulder for free if I asked him to.”

“That is very kind of you, but I couldn’t do that,” she protested, panic rising within her. No doctors. Doctors meant having to undress, and exposing her gunshot scars. That first winter, the agents had barely left her to her own devices, she had been struck with the flu and she had needed weeks to fight it off on her own because she had been too scared to see a doctor. The scars hadn’t even been fully healed then. “Believe me, I’ve tried every kind of doctor already,” she hedged. “To no avail other than adding to my frustration. – It’s a very sweet idea, though. Thank you.” She aimed an unfair smile at Esteban that placated him instantly. She thought how she’d never have called an idea ‘sweet’ before she came here. “I’m sure the color will look great on you,” she said, nodding at the simple dark polo-shirt she had wrapped the certificate in, trying to make her gift look a little bigger.

“You think so?” He almost blushed at her compliment, holding the shirt in front of him.

“Sure it looks great,” Michelle called from across the room where she was perusing the buffet table. “Lynnie should get you the matching pants for Christmas!”

The party crowd laughed, and now Esteban was blushing indeed and she felt sorry for him. Esteban was such a gentleman, he’d never have made such a remark himself and while he didn’t know that she was gay, she was sure he wouldn’t come on to her unless she encouraged him. She shook her head at Michelle. “Stop embarrassing the birthday boy!”

“What?” Michelle laughed, shrugging. “It’ll save you the worry of finding him a Christmas gift.”

Alex couldn’t prevent her smile from slipping. Christmas was a bad time.

Especially because the family theme of the holiday hit home all the more when sharing an office with Michelle, who loved holidays of any kind, especially when she could go overboard with little gifts and kitsch decor. And a work place setting didn’t stop Michelle from bringing her favorite holidays into the office as well. On the contrary.

Last year, Michelle had put up a little Eiffel tower, purple and sparkling, in the middle of their desks. She had even placed a little Santa hat on top and had then, to top off the arrangement, woven a tiny, colored light garland all around it. And since the light garland had come in a double pack, she’d woven the other around the brush picture of two dolphins in pastel relief that hung over her desk.

Alex had seriously been contemplating wearing sunglasses to work for all of December. She had been really glad when Christmas was finally over.

~~

I miss the Brose mother has in the salon. And the Chagall sketch in the entry hall. And the Roederstein that used to be in father’s office and that my mother gave me for my apartment. I wonder who has it now. If Mother gave it away.

My things. I have no things that are mine, and I am nobody’s daughter anymore. Nobody’s lover. I was nobody’s lover when I left New York, either, but… But.

I wonder if Olivia would have liked the Roederstein.

Christmas times are horrible.

Last year, I lied about going away to see friends and hid out in my house in front of the TV. I caved in by nightfall, lit three candles and cried my eyes out. And then I drank Michelle’s gift of dreadfully sweet spice wine, the entire bottle – which was shaped like a Santa boot, no less – and then I had to take Advil to counter the headache. I wanted to call my mother so badly. I already had the first digits dialed.

But I hung up again, and cried even more at the image of Mother alone on Christmas Day. Sometimes I think that if Michelle had given me a bigger bottle of spice wine, I would have called my mother that night.

The first year, Christmas wasn’t that bad. It was bad in another way. I was drugged and scared – full of painkillers, trying to fight off the flu, and still terrified of my own house, the yard around it, all the space that was unmonitored by a doorman. Every tiny sound would wake me up and paint feverish nightmares of guns pointing in through my windows and, this time, finishing the job.

The second year, I was awake and lucid and I knew just how lonely I was. It’s not as if I’m socializing much here in general, but that night I realized what it means to be truly alone.

Christmas is a horrible holiday when you have nobody to share it with. Nobody to give gifts to. Nobody to call.

Why didn’t I give her the gift I had for her back then? Granted, we weren’t particularly close, unless you’d count the arguments where we got into each other’s faces, literally, or the solidary quiet when we were waiting for a verdict, but there was respect.

I knew she was alone for Christmas, with her mother gone. She’d be with Elliot’s family, I had heard that, and I was relieved to hear it although I was still thinking about her, wondering how she would feel without family on such a family holiday.

If I had known then what it feels like, I’d have given my gift to her, regardless. And I’d have at least called her on Christmas Day to wish her a happy holiday. Even tough-as-nails Detective Benson would have appreciated that.

Respect was enough of a reason to give her a gift, I argued, or wasn’t it? Attraction was a more logical reason and so I didn’t give it to her, for fear of making a fool of myself.

It was a peculiar gift, anyway – a pair of dark brown leather gloves, smooth and finely padded. You had come into the precinct blowing at your hands in the middle of December, your fingertips nearly blue with cold, cursing and complaining about how some rat perp must have stolen your gloves at the morning’s crime scene while canvassing. Your cheeks were bright red from the cold and I remembered how your old gloves had been pretty worn down, some kind of dark wool, definitely a favorite pair. When I saw the leather gloves the next day, I simply bought them on impulse, but then I chickened out and just sent the squad the usual goody basket for Christmas. Like my mother always does with the servants. She even has a little package for the mailman.

I had the wrapped gloves with me at my mother’s over Christmas, and then I left them at her place, in the guestroom closet, too embarrassed to take them home with me again.

Sometimes, I still see the image of Olivia blowing at her freezing fingertips, her cheeks red from the cold.

I wish I’d have given her the gloves. At least some piece of me would be around her that way, even if after a while, she wouldn’t really think anymore about who had given them to her. But perhaps once in a while, she would, and she would have to think of me for a moment.

I wish I’d have given her the gloves.

~~

Olivia only looked up from the paper she was frowning at – checking the ridiculous limits on the warrant they had just been granted – when she was already bumping into the body that had unexpectedly appeared on the courthouse steps in front of her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, before she recognized the figure and had to tilt her head back to look Trevor Langan in the eye. Still with the ridiculous hair, she thought.

“Not a problem,” he replied smoothly, looking at her for a second longer, his long coat open, showing off an expensive pinstripe suit with a perfectly matching tie. He was already brushing past her, down the stairs, and Olivia found herself looking after him. Even his shoes were ridiculously polished. He walked towards a woman who seemed to be waiting for him at the end of the stairs; Olivia only noticed the short skirt and long, dark hair, and how she looked at him, and the big, too big, smile he flashed at her in return.

Bastard, she thought, tightening her grip on the paper cup of coffee in her left. He had apparently forgotten about Alex just fine, unlike herself. And that although he had been going out with Alex. Unlike herself.

In the back of her mind, an image of Alex appeared, Alex in a low-cut red dress and she remembered very well how low-cut it had been because her head had been swimming with all that exposed skin and curled hair and the deep red of the dress. And with the revelation that ADA Cabot had more curve to her body than her work attires had ever hinted at. She looked better than every damn fantasy Olivia had ever had, and she looked like that for Trevor Langan. Dining with the enemy, she had called it, blurting it out right into Alex’s face and Alex had not been amused.

Why Trevor?

Not that she wouldn’t have held a jealous grudge against any possible candidate, but it could hardly get any worse than Trevor. Trevor with the ridiculous hair and flashy smiles and damn expensive suits. She remembered his smug smile from the night at the restaurant, Alex’s dress and that smile, a smile Alex would have to shower off her body. If that was even what she wanted. Olivia felt a pang of protective jealousy even now. Oh, she had known his look. She had looked at Alex enough herself, albeit a whole lot less obviously and a whole lot more respectfully, to know that this was the ultimate fantasy – the most tempting and most chauvinistic scenario there could be: to try and imagine how to melt that ice. To unravel that poise. To break through that cool composure of hers. To imagine Alex coming undone in her arms.

Only when Trevor and his companion had disappeared into a cab, Olivia realized that the small accident had splashed her coffee all over her jacket. She cursed.

It’s on my way up the steps to the courthouse that I notice the shadows between the columns to my right. It’s late, but I still need to see Alex about the hearing tomorrow – we’ll probably fight over how to proceed, but that is okay. I think I’ll ask her if she wants to grab a bite with me while discussing the hearing, she’ s been in court all day and will be hungry. I haven’t had dinner yet, either – the donuts Munch dragged in earlier weren’t really edible – and I’m counting my luck that she isn’t planning on another fancy dinner with a defense attorney. That was quite the shock the other week, seeing her with Langan, and then I couldn’t get her dress out of my head all night.

If she wants dinner, she can just as well have it with me. I’m at least working on her side. And I don’t have hair like that.

The shadows to my right are moving, a tall man is reaching for the hand of a smaller woman, his shape half obscuring her, but I can see that she is wearing a knee-length skirt and her polished heels are glinting in the low light. They’re leaning towards one another, it seems, and then they’re moving towards the stairs, and the moment I recognize Trevor, he moves to the side enough that I can see the woman with him.

You.

And he has your hand in his.

For a moment, I am frozen where I stand. From the corner of my eye, I see you turn and look over your shoulder, as if the lack of movement and the outline of another person on the stairs had drawn your attention, but I’ve already moved up and in between the columns and you can’t see me.

But I can still see you, the way your open coat is gently moving about your body in the wind, it is a mild night, perfect for a date, the hemline of your skirt is just a little longer than the hem of your coat, and there is the sound of your heels on the stone steps disappearing into the street noise, and I wonder why I feel sick all of a sudden.

I’ll have to tell Munch to never get donuts at that place again.

I’m leaning against one of the columns, trying to get my breathing back under control, I’m not quite certain when it started to go faster, when steps are sounding on the stairs behind me.

“I’m sorry,” I hear your voice. “But I need my briefcase, I still need to go over a few files later tonight. – I have to be prepared for my hearing tomorrow.”

“That’s all right,” Trevor answers, and I can hear that flashy smile in his voice.

I turn and push loose from the column and I see him standing there, tall, but now he has his hands to himself since yours are on the door. My movement must have alerted you because you are suddenly looking into my direction and I step into the light a little further.

“Olivia?” There’s surprise in your expression and I see you put two and two together in your head; there’s not much reason for me to be here this late unless I wanted to see you about something. “Was there something about the case?”

I’m trying to judge whether that tone of voice is cool and annoyed or cool and professional. “It’s about the hearing,” I say, stepping closer, my hands in the pockets of my jacket.

“Oh – of course.” You nod at me and then you turn towards Trevor. “I’m really sorry,” you say and I don’t hear that much regret in your voice. “But we’ll have to cancel the dinner – sorry as I am, but this hearing is crucial for my case.”

For a moment, Trevor looks as if he is about to protest and I take yet another step closer. Closer towards you. He relents. “Too bad.” He shrugs, his posture deflating a bit. I don’t know what he had planned for tonight but I’m not sorry for putting a big dent into it. “I’ll call you,” he says. He hesitates for a moment as if he wants to linger for a quiet goodbye with you, but I’m not stepping away.

Finally, he walks down the stairs, with measured steps, and you look at me squarely. “Jealous?”

That came out of the blue. “Wha..?” I wheeze, too surprised for a smooth denial.

You step closer, you’re standing right in front of me now. “Yes or no?”

My head is spinning. I look at my feet. At your heels. At the hemline of your skirt. My stomach is clenching. “Yes,” I murmur.

For a few unbearably long moments, there is silence. Then your hand is reaching for me, tilting my chin upwards so that I have to look at you, the gesture achingly gentle, and your eyes are incredibly soft and blue. “There’s no reason for you to be jealous.” Your expression is serious. “It’s you. – Don’t you know by now?”

I can’t breathe, overwhelmed with the sensation of your fingertips on my skin and then you lean in, Trevor hasn’t even fully walked down the stairs yet, and you lightly kiss my lips, the touch so sweet and tentative that I’m not sure whether it really happened or whether I only imagined it, so I reach for the lapels of your coat, and slowly pull you closer, and then I am kissing you back.

And you’re kissing me back, and there are roller coasters in my stomach and butterflies in my chest and sparks going off in my head, and no silk has ever felt as silky as your tongue against mine. We tumble back against a column and I don’t care if Trevor sees us or if anyone else does. I don’t want to ever stop kissing you.

But at some point we do break apart because I feel my legs giving way under me, and I want to look at you. Your eyes are wide and full and intent, and your lips are a bit more red than a minute ago, and when I swallow reflexively I can taste your lip gloss on my tongue. You’re tugging on my hands, pulling me towards the stairs.

I stumble after you, your hand in mine, and if I were sure of my equilibrium, I’d pick you up and twirl you around. We’re headed down the stairs and then I remember. “Your briefcase…” I sound as dazed as I am and you shake your head at me, telling me you’ve got everything you need, and then we’re sitting in a cab, I don’t even know where we’re going, but you are still holding my hand and for all I care we can drive right through to Boston.

We end up at your apartment instead. I don’t see much of it because you keep kissing me and my eyes are closed – I couldn’t keep them open if I wanted to, and your hands are in my hair and we barely make it to your bedroom. My breaths are coming so fast that I think I’ll pass out on you at any moment, but then your hands are on my belt, and your movements are slow and gentle, making me aware of every tiny detail. My heart is beating out of my chest and your eyes are so warm. You hair is falling into your face when you trail kisses up my stomach and in my mind I can see your fingers, long and slim, as you link them behind my neck, and pull me on top of you.

I can still think that I’ll never move from this place again, and then all I know is your scent and your pulse beating underneath my lips.

You don’t take off your glasses and your hands on my hips are like a caress even though you just hold me. “Please,” you moan, but I’m the one who is melting away here.

Oh, that voice.

You know what you do to me, it’s not that hard to see, not with how I’m looking at you, and you playfully arch an eyebrow at me. “Detective?” – God, you’re so sexy like that.

When I first heard you speak, I was surprised because I had expected your voice to be much lighter, and higher, and surprised at how the deepness and confidence of your tones rolled through me, at the resonance I felt.

Alex.

She never came back. She probably didn’t need her briefcase that night after all, and I watched her disappear with Trevor, and the next day, when I told her I’d been looking for her the night before, and asked her how her evening was, she just looked at me from behind her glasses as if she could see right through me. “It was all right, Detective.” Her tone warmed then, and she smiled at me. “Thanks for asking.”

I’d do just about anything to hear her voice again. Even if again, I’d have to see her disappear down the stairs with somebody else. Even with Trevor.

~~

Shots rang out through the office, making her jolt half out of her chair and she reflexively cowered away, awkwardly leaning into her desk. A feeling of iciness spread through her, from her right shoulder all through her body.

“Oh, darn…” Michelle cursed from her workplace across the room, having spilled her soda over her keyboard in shock. “I should have remembered the stupid memo.” Only then did she look at her officemate. “Lynnie? …You remember the memo? Construction work next door? They’re starting today. Obviously.” Caroline didn’t laugh, though, and Michelle’s tone was suddenly uncertain. “Lynnie, what’s up? – You’re as pale as a…” She trailed off, taking in the death grip the other woman had on the tabletop, the tips of her fingers starkly white.

“I’m fine. – Stupid me,” Alex laughed unconvincingly. “I completely forgot about that memo. The noise caught me off guard.” Her voice was eerily thin.

“You sure you’re okay?” Michelle looked at her oddly, clearly not convinced. “The way you jolted just now, you’d have thought it was gunfire…” Now it was Michelle who paled. “Jesus. – Tell me he didn’t!”

“I’m okay,” Alex repeated, forcing herself to breathe slower. This shouldn’t have happened. “Really, I’m okay.”

“Okay,” Michelle echoed, accepting that Caroline apparently didn’t want to talk about it. Of course, she wouldn’t want to recall a memory that made her jump out of her seat still years later. “I’ll get you a glass of water,” she suggested instead, feeling helpless. She knew that Caroline’s ex-husband had been abusive, but what this scene just now hinted at made Michelle feel really nauseous. In her opinion, stuff like that belonged in soap operas. She threw a last tentative glance back at Caroline, who was clearly still struggling to get her breathing back under control, having wrapped her arms tightly around herself now. She wondered if the ex‑husband had only threatened Caroline, or pulled the trigger for real.

Watching Michelle slip out of the office with a very concerned expression, Alex felt bad for letting Michelle believe that the supposed ex-husband had abused her in yet another way. Alex had worked with enough abuse victims during her SVU days to be ashamed at being treated with that same kind of mindful care. She was feeling as if she was mocking their hurt with her stupid facade. She carried no wounds on that front. She had, thankfully, never had to experience any abuse in that regard, and Michelle’s quietly understanding concern was embarrassing her.

Alex had never had a violent partner. In fact, she hadn’t had any kind of involvement in years, and she had most certainly not been with someone when she had left New York – much as she had to admit in retrospect that there had been someone whom she would have liked to be involved with, even if at that time, she hadn’t done anything about it.

And here, nobody knew it anyway. Here, everyone believed her to have fled out of a violent marriage and attributed her general wariness and her habit of keeping to herself to the fact that reaching out to people again after such a traumatic experience had to be hard.

It was with the same quiet sympathy that they looked upon her sometimes excessive hours at the gym where she was working out against the feeling of helplessness, of losing herself. And against the fear, even if the fear never let go completely. She still preferred the machines that were placed against the walls, allowing her to keep the entire hall in her gaze. Running helped, running excessively, but more often on the treadmill than actually outside. She used to jog in New York, occasionally, but here wasn’t Central Park and on many days, she found herself looking nervously over her shoulder whenever a car went by at slower speed. The gym was safer. The treadmills were placed against a solid wall and she could simply run, run until she was outrunning her thoughts. And sometimes even her fears.

Also, when she ran long enough, there was a point where her mind became devoid of thoughts and worries, where nothing was left but the sensation of being alive, the calming assurance of body and breath. And there, the fantasies came. Images and daydreams, effortlessly flowing into one another like the surreal components of a Dalí painting, or the serene clouds in a sky fresco by Tiepolo.

~~

The fantasies are harder to keep at bay at night. At first they were tainted with so much fear, but now they come with more leisure.

…How she leaves everything behind to come and be with me, finagling my address out of her contacts, bribing and bullying her way back to me. She arrives in town with a new identity, perhaps as an addition for the security team at the bank, as a counselor at the child and teenage care center or perhaps even as a cop. She suddenly stands in front of me, at the ice cream parlor or at the gym, and she smiles when she introduces herself and asks me to go out with her. – I’ve spent hours pondering what kind of a name they would give her, making a game out of coming up with the most horrendous propositions, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d love her by every single one of them. And that there would be situations where I would always call her ‘Olivia’. Or ‘Liv’.

…How out of the blue, she walks past Ed’s in the afternoon, being in town on business – having to transfer an inmate, or perhaps attending some distant relative’s wedding – and how I get up and call after her. And there is that look in her eyes when she turns and realizes it’s me, that same look she gave me the night I left, but with the pain in it fading. We hold onto each other tightly then, unwilling to let go again, the smell of her is surrounding me and I can feel her heartbeat. And from far away, there is Ludovic’s voice. “See, Michelle, that is her type of woman.”

…How I leave my fake life behind, ignoring the patronizing warnings of the agents sent to keep me in the program. Instead, I head for New York, straight for the precinct, for my squad. She looks up at me standing in the door, coat flowing around my body from the draft I bring in, and there is delight and worry in her eyes. “You’re not safe,” she insists. “I know,” I say, “But I couldn’t do it anymore.” By now, everyone is looking at us, and I hold out my hand. “Come with me?” And she takes my hand, even though everyone is staring at us incredulously – that’s right guys, she’s with me – and we simply walk out, and away, and get plane tickets to some cozy locale with palms and turquoise waters.

…How she rings on my door one day, telling me I can come home and I fall into her arms and say, “I am”.

And on the most unbearable nights of all, the black nights where I’m on the verge of forgetting who I am, afraid that I will lose my mind in between those two lives of mine, I suddenly hear her voice, so close that I can almost feel it brush against me.

“Alex… Alex… Alex… Stay with me.”

I asked myself whether I had only dreamed it – her voice, her body hovering above me and the blurred outline of her profile. The pressure of her hands through the numb chill and the faint memory of her scent as I sank into the concrete, swimming toward someplace cold and calm. I asked myself whether I had only dreamed it all while my whole life unhinged around me, agents in suits arranging a new fate for me in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital room. But when I saw her again, even through the haze of the painkillers, I knew it was true.

And then I was gone.

And even today, I still think that if I hadn’t been so drugged, so paralyzed with fear and so worn out by the cocktail of painkillers and intimidating pep talk on part of the Feds, I would have said something. But all I could do was look at her and think how this couldn’t be the last time, any last time. And before I had a chance to think of what I really wanted to say – something meaningful, anything – I found myself already sitting in that car, rolling away. I tried to turn my head then, to see her once more through the shaded rear window, an impulsive gesture, and the pain tearing through my shoulder at the unpremeditated movement cleared the fog in my mind enough to realize what was happening.

And only then I started crying, crying desperately, crying over something as mundane as not being able to turn my head to look at her for one last time.

“Alex… Alex… Alex… Stay with me.”

I try not to imagine it too often, for fear of using up my memory, afraid that the intensity of it might lessen when I replay it in my mind every other night.

“Alex… Alex… Alex… Stay with me.”

I never wanted to leave.

~~

“Tell me again what we’re doing here?” Olivia didn’t even try to hide her aggravation, shutting the car door with more force than necessary.

Elliot wisely stayed two steps behind. “Beats me. The Feds asked,” he offered with a shrug. “I don’t think they’ve suddenly started giving answers as well.”

“Guess not.” Olivia agreed, her tone still curt. “But if I’m called to Brooklyn before I can even finish my coffee, I want an answer.”

“You try your luck,” Elliot suggested, motioning at the man stepping out of the entryway of the brick house to greet them. It was Agent Hammond.

Hammond. Olivia disliked him on an entirely unreasonable and personal level. He was the person who had sent Alex out of her life, he had been there that night, he was the one who had closed that car door and had taken Alex away from her. Olivia knew that he wasn’t to blame, but she did anyway.

Before she could angrily ask what kind of a reason the Feds had to drag them out to Brooklyn on a Monday morning, Hammond nodded for them to walk in before him.

Olivia had to swallow against the overwhelming stench of blood, spilled wine and spoiling food. About two dozen bodies were splayed around the remnants of a festive dinner table, clearly ambushed in the middle of what looked to have been a big family reunion. Whoever had ordered this hit must have had intensely personal motives – the shooters had clearly done as much damage as possible, evident in unnecessarily broken wine bottles and splintered furniture.

At what must have been the center of the table lay a middle-aged man, obviously the center of so much hateful interest. His suit was torn with bullet holes, nearly half of his face missing. Next to him was the body of a young boy in a suit and tie, only a small puddle of blood next to his head indicating where he had been shot.

“It was his first communion,” Elliot observed, aghast. The little boy in the well‑tailored suit couldn’t be older than seven. “Bastards.”

“Perhaps the Orthodox don’t share the custom,” Hammond offered coolly, walking up to them and shrugging off Elliot’s look. “Nesterenko,” he stated by way of explanation. “The new Russian cartel?”

Olivia nodded. She had heard the name of the up and coming dynasty mentioned a couple of times over the past few months by the colleagues from Narcotics during her now habitual inquiries.

“It’s a war over authority on the drug market,” Hammond continued unemotionally. “Until yesterday I’d have said that Velez still has the upper hand, but by the looks of it, the Russians are kicking out the Latinos.” He pressed his lips together. “In this case, for good.”

Behind them, Olivia’s steps slowed at the same time her heart suddenly beat faster. Elliot stumbled into her, slowly tearing his eyes away from the sickening sight around them.

“There were a few riots over the past months,” Hammond admitted, sidestepping a few people in Forensics jackets who were packing their kits together. “Territorial things. But nothing like this.” He shook his head, seeming oblivious of the turmoil he had set loose with his words. “Slaughtering the entire family on a holiday. It doesn’t get any lower.”

Olivia couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Finally, Elliot asked the question. “Velez?”

“Cesar himself.” Hammond gestured at the man with the missing face. “And his entire family and closest employees. Even his youngest son. His whole network.” With a hand, he signaled the coroner’s team across the hall that they could begin to transport the bodies. “I don’t like the method, even if it sure takes a lot of work off our hands.”

Olivia looked at the still form of the little boy, wondering whether one of the others in the room had been his mother or grandmother. This hadn’t been in the official files. Velez had a life and a family. A little kid. Everything that he had taken away from others.

She thought about Alex who was somewhere far away, without family, all by herself. If she hadn’t built herself a new life in the meantime. If she hadn’t met someone. If she hadn’t settled down, made a new career and perhaps founded a family.

“At least this also means that several people are out of danger.” Hammond almost smiled with this small bit of good news and it seemed eerie amidst the gory crime scene surrounding him.

“Are you sure?” Olivia stared at the mutilated male body, trying to ascertain that it was indeed Cesar Velez, trying to recall every single characteristic mark she remembered from his file, comparing it to the still form at her feet. She knew every word of that file, every photo, every dog-ear. All the leads on this man that she had followed over the past twenty months, all the nightmares she’d had where he had found Alex, where he had killed Alex.

Alex. If this was indeed Velez, it meant that Alex…

Her brain stopped short of the thought.

Alex might be free to come back. To come home. Alex back in New York. Alex back in the courtroom. Coffee at Luigi’s with Alex. Alex to look at. Alex to squabble with.

Her heart was beating frantically, but she couldn’t form a clear thought, feeling strangely numb. After all this time, could Alex suddenly be safe, just like this, only because some Russian gang had taken a territorial conflict to new levels of vendetta? She had always envisioned one of her leads finally paying off. Catching Velez. Snapping handcuffs on him. Making him admit to his crimes. Seeing him proven guilty in court. Seeing him put away for good.

This was too simple, too fast.

“Positive.” That idea of a smile was still ghosting across Hammond’s face and hinted at how rare announcing a possible reunion was in his line of work. “We’re still double checking, of course, but even if one of his lieutenants should have gotten away… I doubt that anyone on the street would do anything now that could link them to Velez or admit to ever having worked for him. Not after this. They’ll all try and live under Nesterenko.”

Olivia looked back at the body of the little boy, upset at the needless death and upset at the incredulous relief that was flooding her body despite the sight of this massacre.

Hammond walked them out, casually looking around himself before he continued. “I will send someone to inform her.” He didn’t say any name, but to Olivia it felt as if Alex was closer to them already, just by being mentioned, even if indirectly. “Would one of you like to come along?” He looked at Olivia with the suggestion, making her stop for a moment and wonder what he was thinking. Hammond relented when she didn’t answer, looking at the both of them again. “It might make it easier on her. It’s been two years.”

Not quite, Olivia immediately thought, but she didn’t say it out loud. Hammond wouldn’t be the only one to look at her funnily if she could tell him the exact number of months and days off the top of her head. She knew how long it had been.

“Nah, that’s more your area of expertise,” she demurred instead, wondering what she would say if she went along and if Alex opened the door for her, smiling happily, while the husband or stable girlfriend was setting the dinner table in the background.

A lot could happen in twenty months.

If Alex didn’t want to return, Olivia didn’t want to hear it from her. She didn’t think she could take it. Also, if that exact scenario should play out, she didn’t want to be forced to hide her disappointment and fumble for an excuse as to why she, Olivia, was there to inform Alex that she could come back. It wasn’t as if they had ever been close friends. And if Alex had come to embrace her new life, there was no room for Olivia and any tentative admissions that she’d been thinking about Alex for the past twenty months and thirteen days. A lot.

Hammond didn’t ask again although from his expression, he seemed to have expected Olivia to agree. Elliot seemed puzzled as well, but Olivia refused to acknowledge either of their looks. She didn’t really understand it herself. After all, this was what she had wished for, for Alex to be safe and free to return, and even with Olivia herself getting the chance of being the bearer of the good news.

She had imagined this countless times: her solving the Velez case, then flying out to wherever Alex was, to bring her home. Standing on Alex’s doorstep, telling her that she could come back now, and Alex joyfully agreeing, as if she had spent all this time waiting for this one moment, a moment that Olivia had never stopped hoping for. And now that it was upon her, she was hesitant.

Hesitant to destroy her fantasy.

“You don’t want to go see Cabot home?” Elliot asked quietly, walking up next to her. “I’m sure you could get a couple of days off for that.”

“If she even wants to come home,” Olivia pointed out, intently surveying the clinker brick of the house. “If they want to send someone to bring her back, her mother should fly out.” She remembered Mrs. Cabot from the funeral, stricken underneath the achingly familiar façade of poise, and from the official wake where she had accepted a commendation on Alex’s behalf, her voice steady, but her hands knit tightly together to keep them from trembling while she spoke. If anyone had a chance to convince a possibly undecided Alex to return to New York, it was her mother. “That’s family business, Elliot.” Olivia mumbled. “What would I do there?”

Elliot shrugged wordlessly.

~~

Shots.

I throw myself down automatically, feeling Elliot do the same next to me. It’s a seasoned reflex, one of the first things they drill into you in Officer Safety class at the academy: dive for cover and offer minimal target space.

But we have someone with us who is not a police officer, and who has never had an Officer Safety class.

It’s not the shots that make me feel nauseous. It’s when I turn around and don’t see you standing there anymore. My gaze meets empty space and it is an eerie feeling, as if a pillar has been ripped out of my perception. Vertigo. You are supposed to be still standing there. Instead, I see you lying on the ground.

I call out to you, and you don’t move.

No, I think, crawling towards you. No. No, no, no. This can’t be. You can’t be hit.

You don’t react to me, not when I crouch above you, not when I shake you. Your blood is hot against my hand, pulsing and pushing against my fingers and your shoulder encased between my hands feels so slight. I’ve never thought of you as frail, but this is your body, thrown to the ground and bleeding, and I never knew your shoulders were so slim. You don’t even look at me, staring up at the night sky unseeing and it feels as if you’re slipping through my fingers. As if something of you is already gone.

You don’t even blink. I keep calling your name, but you don’t recognize me, or perhaps you can’t hear me anymore.

— I remember the blood. Sometimes I wake up at night, and can still feel the phantom sensation of it pooling against my palms, hot and thick, pushing out where I try to contain it.

I know I talked to you then, encouraging you to hang on, but I don’t know what I said, only that I was frantic in my tries to make you listen to me. You didn’t react at all. Your eyes never even focused on me.

Only much later I realized I had torn my pants while crouching on the asphalt, after I’d already been absently picking threads out of the tears for half an hour, staring up at the clock in the nondescript hospital corridor. I don’t know what color the walls were anymore, but I know that there was no real back to the chair I was sitting on. The clock on the opposite wall was ticking, dividing my desperate hope into neat little intervals. And I waited. Elliot had tried to relay a call to Mrs. Cabot who was staying with relatives upstate. It would be hours before she arrived, even if she had immediately arranged for transportation.

You couldn’t be gone. You just couldn’t. If you were, they wouldn’t need that long in surgery with you. You’d make it, and before I knew it, we’d be sitting at Luigi’s again, arguing over warrant limits, and you’d give me that look from behind your glasses – “Detective, you should know that it takes a little more to knock me out.”

I knew it right when he came out and looked at us. That professional look of sympathy, and that of honest helplessness. He asked who we were and I said I was a colleague, and I didn’t get any of what he said after “We did all we could…” because the walls were closing in on me. I looked down at my hands, trying to stop the vertigo, and then I realized that there was still blood on my sleeves, your blood, and that the body this blood belonged to was dead now.

The nurse looked at me sympathetically later when I walked out of the bathroom that she had quickly shoved me into.

I didn’t know what you meant to me then. I didn’t feel much of anything, those two days, just numb with shock, the guilt over not having been able to protect you warring with the sheer insanity of having to think of you as dead. The thought was clawing at me, at all of us. It wasn’t just losing a colleague, even if you only occasionally hung out with us beyond that. It was suddenly hard to remember why we were doing this job. Why I was doing it. Things I had come to rely on were suddenly not there anymore, mocking my balance. Vertigo again. The sensation of the ground underneath my feet being pulled away, leaving me stumbling at the edge of some unknown depth.

I knew that I was in love with you when I saw you alive then.

But before I had even fully grasped it, you were gone.

You were gone. I thought that those two days believing you dead had been the worst, but I hadn’t lived through that moment yet – seeing you, pale and frightened, but alive, about to be torn away from everything you knew. You looked so lost, and so serious. I just wished that I could keep you safe, that I could make it all go away for you. And I knew I couldn’t.

And then you were crying when you looked at me. You might have latched onto anyone even remotely familiar in that situation, looking at them like that, with that desperate intensity, knowing you’d have to leave everything behind in a heartbeat. But you didn’t look at Elliot, you looked at me.

And I knew I’d miss you like no one else.

Alex. Alex. Alex.

I wonder what your name is now, and whether you like it. I know that many people in Witness Protection don’t ever come back, either because the threats against them never cease or because they have come to love their new lives, to love them better than their old ones. I can’t imagine you anywhere else than in New York. I can’t imagine you voluntarily staying anyplace else, for good, but that could just be because I can’t imagine this place without you for good. The squad. Us. Me.

You can return now. But who’s to say you’re waiting, or even want any part of your old life back? A life I was only a small part of, a life that certainly didn’t revolve around me. What influence could I have on making you want to come back?

~~

The door to the drugstore slid open when she walked towards it, even though she had already been prepared to push it open, with her left shoulder. The drugstore she’d gone to for the past twenty months hadn’t had sliding doors. She should have remembered that this one did, though. She knew this store, she had been here many times since it was only half a block from her mother’s place.

Her mother. That had been quite another story still. Even though the Program had dispatched a counselor to inform Mrs. Cabot of her presumably deceased daughter’s return, and even though it was a reunion Alex had wished for so badly, the actual moment had been of a bittersweet awkwardness and a far cry from Geraldine Cabot’s usual formidable poise. It had been a mix of tears and bewilderment, helpless anger and incredulous joy, nearly two years of grief being poured out over Alex while all she could do was to hold on to the desperately sobbing woman in her arms, blind with tears herself, flinging herself into her mother’s embrace and wanting to be a child again, wanting that embrace to be able to make everything alright again, just as it had back then.

Her mother had looked at her yet again, a hand twisted against her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to contain the sobs, the other smoothing Alex’s strangely dark hair back over and over. “Your name is still on the headstone at the vault,” she had whispered, aghast. “With the date…”

More tears had followed, marking one of the emotionally most overwhelming and exhausting days Alex had ever seen. It was a long time until she picked up her bags where she had dropped them in the hallway, and hesitantly carried them into her mother’s guest bedroom. It had been surreal. Just like seeing her photo, serious in black and white, in a heavy silver frame on the mantle, next to the one of her father.

But three days into the family reunion, Geraldine Cabot was back to full form, planning a welcome reception and seeing real estate agents, although at night, she sat with Alex in the kitchen until late, wanting to hear all about Alex’s other life and filling her in on the family related gossip in return. She had also, and at remarkably short notice, arranged an appointment at Jerôme’s, Geraldine’s longtime hairdresser of choice, who had then honestly cried upon seeing Alex again.

Which was why Alex, newly blond hair curling on the shoulders of an also new gray‑in-gray pinstripe jacket – her mother had found time for an extended shopping spree in between estate appointments – was at the drugstore, looking for the highlighting conditioner she’d last needed over twenty months ago.

Tomorrow, she had an appointment at the DA’s office to discuss possible job prospects for her, and even if she didn’t particularly feel like ADA Cabot at the moment, she would do her best to look the part. She hadn’t expected to need time to readjust – after all, this was her life. This was what she had wanted to return to all this time. And now she hadn’t even remembered that the drugstore had sliding doors.

Searching the shelves, she walked past one of mirrors lining the walls in the cosmetics section. She stopped, staring at her own reflection. Had her hair really ever been that blond? She pushed a few strands back behind her ear, satisfied with the cut.

After that official visit with the DA’s office, there was still another visit she could pay, if she wanted to. A visit to the 16th Precinct.

She located the bottle she had been looking for on the top shelf and reached up, the familiar slight twinge running through her shoulder with the movement.

~~

I remember when this light twinge was still an ache that tore through my shoulder as if someone was twisting a knife into it, making the edges of my vision go black with nausea.

Nausea and tears.

The car is driving away, and when I try to turn, try to catch a last glimpse of my life through the rear window, the pain in my shoulder makes me double over, slamming me awkwardly into the seat. Hands are trying to help me sit up, but I don’t feel them through the pain and the twin echo of the physical sensation of something tearing my heart in two.

Lost.

Did I latch onto her because she was the last known person I saw? Or because I saw that night, as all the social formalities fell away, for the first time what she might have been to me?

All those dreams I’ve had since, all those images, the fantasies – was she just a projection, something I conveniently reached out for because I needed a hold, a fixed point, any point to angle myself towards to keep my sanity? The thought of her hurt, but that hurt kept me keenly aware of the deepening gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. It reminded me of who I wanted to be. Who I am again, now.

I am back. I should be rejoicing – I am – but I still feel lost. The city seems louder, the people faster and cooler than I remember. And I still look back over my shoulder when a car drives by at slower speed.

Loss. Loneliness. They were words. Now, they are filled with so much meaning – nights spent staring at the ceiling and listening to every sound, or waking up sweat‑soaked from nightmares, or starting at the face looking back at me from the mirror, crying in the middle of the spring fair because of a shooting booth, awkwardly signing receipts with a foreign name – that the words seem too small for their content, straining to cover the meaning they’re supposed to convey.

The marshals didn’t even want me to get a pet. For reasons of easier relocation and harder traceability. They didn’t want me to have any real attachment at all. But I’ve come to realize that people need attachments. And that these attachments are worth the risks they bring. If nobody around you really knows you, then who are you?

Michelle called yesterday; I’d only left her and Nick a message that I had to tend to some urgent family business. She was at the office, I could hear the bad fan rattling over the line and I was suddenly so glad to hear her voice that I was crying before I knew it. She was worried out of her mind that my – Caroline’s – ex‑husband had forced me to run, so I told her that the man who had threatened me was dead. And that I could go back.

Then Michelle was crying, asking me to stay, pointing out that I had managed to build up a life on my own, away from my husband and family, and that I shouldn’t feel as if I had to prove something by going back. I told her I was sorry, sorry to leave, and then I realized that for a moment, I had really meant it like I said it. I sat on the bed in mother’s guestroom for a long time after that, ashamed of having grown attached to my other life, and angry at my incapacity of simply being happy to be back home. Back where I belong.

Mother is out at the bank this morning, trying to transfer some of the family funds back to me. Then, it’s looking at another apartment. I’m thinking I’ll let her decide. I don’t think I am up to building a home anywhere right now, not when I still feel so uprooted. Besides, Mother would love to go on a decorating spree, and it makes her happy when she can do something about things. When she looks at me now, she often seems helpless, just as helpless as I feel.

I still feel lost. Only now, I’m neither here nor there.

I don’t really care that much about the funds. Although now I can go and send Esteban a new tennis racquet. I’ll have to remember that. Michelle said he asked about me. Mother said she dissolved and donated my general account after my disappearance – she never says death – and that she’d write something else over to me in exchange, but I told her she didn’t have to. She gave the money to a Crisis Center for abuse victims, thinking I would have liked that, and she was right. I even remembered the name of the center when she mentioned it, Olivia had spoken of it a time or two.

Olivia.

I am wary to think of her, suddenly. Even wary of conjuring up her name. The real her is out there, too close all at once, and I am reluctant to be reminded of my fantasies. They already seem embarrassing to me now, and I don’t want to ridicule myself by walking into the precinct and realizing that I conjured up an image of her that could never live up to reality. One that she would most likely have a good laugh at, if she knew.

How often did I imagine seeing her again? How often did I picture scenarios of her coming after me, her coming to bring me home, her coming to stay with me?

She never came, of course, but now I have come back. I’m here again.

I’m trying to imagine what the moment will feel like for her, what she will say to me, how she will look at me. – And I’m thinking that if I look at her and feel even a tenth of what I felt all this time away, and if I see only a tenth of the look she gave me that night in her eyes, that then I will grab the bull by the horns, get over the what ifs and ask her out.

~~

“I only get her voice mail.” Olivia adjusted her cell phone against her ear. “And she’s not in her office.” She shrugged in reply to what was said at the other end of the line. “Because I’m standing in front of it and it’s locked.”

She leaned against the wall of the hallway with a shoulder, glancing up and down the corridor before she spoke again. “Nope.” She shook her head. “Hell if I know, Elliot. – We said one p.m., and she knows we’re in a hurry.”

But that knowledge notwithstanding, Casey Novak was nowhere to be found. As was, by extension, the signed warrant for Elijah Montgomery’s apartment. For all Olivia knew, Elijah would try to trash the place and make a run for it and she’d be damned if they lost precious time over waiting for Casey to get back in.

“She’d wish!” She replied with a curt chuckle to her partner’s next comment. “But I don’t think ‘lunch with a judge more than twice your age’ falls into that category.” The hallway was still empty as she peered down it again. “Listen, I’ll call you back in a few. – I’ll try her line again.”

She positioned herself a bit further down the hall so that she could keep an eye on the elevators, pressing the speed dial for Casey’s number. ADA on seven. Alex had been on three, she thought absently. Top right to lower left. It had taken some getting used to, making her wonder just how often she had called Alex. And even after Alex had left, Olivia had kept the number in her phone for almost a year.

Waiting for the connection, her thoughts lingered on Alex, and then strayed to the strange encounter with Agent Hammond. Alex probably knew already that there was a chance for her to come back, even if transitioning her would take weeks. If she even wanted to return. Olivia shied away from asking for an update on that front now, a thing she hardly comprehended herself – after all, she had always wished for this, for Alex to have a chance to return. She had never had the Velez file far away, always making sure to stay in the loop. Now, she was almost afraid to learn more. Afraid to hear that Alex didn’t want to come back. That she had moved on. Besides, if there was anything to know, Olivia reasoned, she’d hear it through the grapevine anyway.

The second ring sounded and Olivia mentally crossed her fingers, willing Casey to pick up. Further down the corridor across the hall a door opened, a soft jumble of voices carrying over to her.

“Come on, Novak, Montgomery will be in Canada by the time you get back,” Olivia murmured impatiently, glaring at the elevators again. Steps advanced down the hall. One pair of heels among three or four others, Olivia noted.

One pair of heels, resounding on the polished floors. The hair at the back of her neck was suddenly standing on end.

“This is ADA Casey Novak. I’m currently…”

Olivia let the phone sink from her ear, turning around slowly.

“We are looking forward to…” A light male voice, swallowed up by the steps around him.

A second voice. “I’ll consider it.”

That voice. She knew her mind must be playing tricks on her, yet again, but still Olivia found herself unable to move. It couldn’t be. Not so soon.

Liz Donnelly rounded the corner, together with two men Olivia didn’t recognize. And there, between them –

For one blindingly clear moment, there was nothing. No movement, no sound, not even the beating of her own heart, as Olivia’s world came down to the sight across the hall. Weightlessly, it seemed to tilt on its axis before it came rushing down, past her, and towards the figure stepping in front of the line of elevators with her companions.

Her breaths came faster, dizzying her, and yet too slow to keep up with the sudden hammering of her heart against her ribs, having already recognized the figure long before her brain had processed the image. She’d recognize her everywhere, Olivia thought, drinking in the sight.

That same shade of pale blonde. The same striking presence. The same confident gait, enhanced by those heels. The same way she lightly gestured with her hands when she talked. The same slow, serious nod.

Olivia didn’t realize how she shifted, naturally angling herself toward the focal point of her perception. But she did realize how everything suddenly seemed to come together. How suddenly, everything was clear.

It was her.

And she wasn’t just a fantasy. If anything, no fantasy had done her justice.

It was real. She was real.

Right there, waiting for an elevator across the hall, was Alex Cabot.

~~

Alex.

It’s you. It’s really you.

How often have I imagined this? How often has someone, in passing, made me stop and turn, leaving me breathless for that blissful split second where I could believe it was you? A flash of hair, a tone of voice…

None of them were you. I know that now because none of those times has it ever felt like it feels right now. How could I have forgotten…?

Nothing stops the rush this time. You’re still there after I blink. After I draw a shaky breath, and then another.

Of all the scenarios I had in mind, none entailed this: me, too shaken to react, and you not even aware of my presence. I want to run towards you, and at the same time I don’t want to.

I always envisioned us walking towards each other somewhere, an airport, or the precinct, magically alone, looking at each other while I said something like “Welcome home” or even “I missed you”, searching your gaze for some unspoken truth… for a reply, an acknowledgement: that you missed me, too.

If you’re here, it’s probably job related. Does that mean you’re back for good? That you’ll be working here again? With us? Or are you just here to clean out some old business? But why would you have to? They all thought you were dead.

Part of me is irritated that you’re already having business meetings with Liz before you bother to tell me that you’re back. But why should you? There never was anything… at least nothing outspoken.

I’m still dumbstruck where I stand, your presence washing over me in waves. It’s trickling into me like rain, humming inside me, and I realize I had forgotten what it feels like. I hadn’t known how dried out I was until now.

I fantasized about seeing you again. None of the fantasies looked like this, but this is perfect, too. Because I look at you and it is all real. And it is scary, and it is so beautiful that I can’t breathe.

I don’t know if minutes or seconds have ticked by, how much time – time that wouldn’t pass while I was waiting, and now suddenly, time has no more relevance as I look at you. There is you, and I am thinking that there are possibly no stars left in the sky. I feel like a plant that is naturally turning itself toward the light, like a compass needle adjusting towards North, and I know you still mean as much to me as you did the day you left, and every day since.

Twenty months, I remind myself, feeling self-conscious of my sudden emotional overload. And I look at you and yes, time has passed, and no, time hasn’t passed at all.

I still can’t seem to move and your elevator has arrived; the men and even Donnelly step politely aside to let you enter first and the last thing that etches itself into my brain is the line of your shoulders in the narrow suit jacket and a flash of blonde in the overhead light of the elevator.

The sudden movement against my palm startles me and I need a second to realize that my cell is ringing. Elliot.

“Liv, we got the warrant. Casey just dropped it off here on her way in.”

“Yes…” I manage, and my voice sounds funny. I don’t even complain about Casey letting me wear down the floor in front of her office for fifteen minutes.

There is a small pause at the other end, but Elliot doesn’t ask. At least not now. “We gotta go.”

“On my way,” I say, disconnecting. One last look at the closed front of doors at the elevators. One last deep breath. The line of her shoulders, a flash of blonde…

I shake my head.

Elijah Montgomery. Search warrant. I take the stairs, three steps at a time.

~~

“Oklahoma?” Fin repeated flabbergasted, staring at the formerly deceased and bemoaned ADA who was leaning against Benson’s desk as if she had never left.

“Quite the change from 42nd Street,” Munch commented drolly. He half whistled a sketchy Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, making Alex smile. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed him, all of them. Another half glance at the desk behind her reminded her that Olivia was still missing from the tableau. As was Elliot.

Still, the welcome from Don, Munch and Fin alone had been overwhelming already. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Munch smile that broadly in her entire time with SVU, and Fin had hugged her so tightly that she had honestly been struggling for breath. Don hadn’t said much, but his hug had been heartfelt and he had blinked something away looking suspiciously like tears when he let go of her again.

“Oh yes, it was,” Alex agreed, thinking of her first months in witness protection. “And I was never that fond of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the first place.”

“I know… For the Counselor, it’s got to be the Met,” Munch stated with a flourish, and Alex was surprised he remembered. “Another reason to stay. – Are you staying?”

“One way or the other,” Alex nodded, crossing her legs at her ankles. Her mother had already begun decking out the new apartment for her – just something basic, she had suggested, so that Alex could add a more personal scheme when she got around to it. She had sounded so hopeful that Alex didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wouldn’t feel like decorating anytime soon. Not as long as she was still caught in limbo between the life she had been ripped out of over twenty months ago, and the life she was now supposed to pick up, as if they both were the same. They weren’t.

Things had changed, and even if she chose to accept the offer that the DA’s office had just made her, it wouldn’t be the same job. It would be different, and the job offer reflected just that. Major Cases had been mentioned, and even a possible position in relation to the UN – it seemed that two years of working with international law texts had considerably enlarged her options on the diplomatic and political parquet that she had always been so keen on succeeding on. That, and her spectacular return from the dead. Her career apparently wouldn’t suffer, but she was less excited about this news than she should be. Alex looked around herself almost wistfully. Her detectives. Her precinct.

She would have to get used to new colleagues, new offices. But building a routine didn’t make a place home yet. She knew that very well. Still, she had been moved when she watched her mother take the Roederstein down from where it had hung in the dining room, wrapping it up to be sent to Alex’s new place.

Her squad was someone else’s squad now. Even the room had changed – were those new chairs? She remembered Olivia joking about how she only preferred to sit on the desks because she didn’t trust the chairs.

She wondered how much Olivia would have changed. Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure it had been a good idea to come here.

“So what did they make you do?”

Fin’s voice carried into the hallway as Olivia and Elliot stepped into the precinct.

Elliot blinked. “Did they haul in Sorensen already?”

“You speak French?” That was Fin’s voice again.

Olivia cast a dubious look at her partner. “I don’t think so…”

A smooth voice interrupted their exchange. “Right now, a lot better than two years ago.”

Olivia almost stumbled around the last corner, her heart missing a beat over that voice. And there, in conversation with Munch and Fin, was Alex, arms crossed over her chest, nodding at something Munch had just interjected, looking as if she had never left.

The sensation of lightheadedness returned. Alex was even leaning against her desk, Olivia noted dazedly, her briefcase perched atop it next to her.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Elliot’s voice rang out as he strode past Olivia. He grasped Alex by the shoulders, smiling widely. “Alex! … When did you get back?”

Fin stopped short at that. “You knew?”

While Elliot tried to explain, Alex looked past the two men at the figure across the bullpen, her hands finding a hold on the tabletop beside her. “Hello Olivia.”

Olivia had taken two steps forward, or she thought she had, before she remembered. “Welcome back.” It came out hoarse. She cleared her throat. “Alex.”

It took a second before Alex blinked behind her glasses and pushed loose from the table. “Thank you,” she said. She was in front of Olivia with four steps and, after the tiniest bout of hesitation, gave her a brief hug, so politely loose that it felt like another fleeting image to Olivia, except that there were Alex’s warm hands on her shoulders, and a brush of smooth hair against her cheek, and that mix of expensive shampoo and skin and classy perfume that she’d always associate with Alex. She breathed in, something in her threatening to burst.

Elliot shot her a puzzled look, but it was Munch who broke the small silence. “I sense a reason to celebrate.” Before Olivia could question his smile, he continued. “How about tomorrow after the squad game? They’ll probably lose, so they’ll be in need of a drink either way.” He quirked a smile at Alex. “That is, unless you’d like to forsake your dignity, watch the game yourself and cheer on the troops.”

It was clearly intended as a joke, but Alex nodded. “Sounds like an event I shouldn’t miss.” She was smiling despite her dry tone. “When does the game start?”

There was a startled bout of silence. ADA Cabot had never attended a squad game before, but granted, there hadn’t been that many invitations extended, either. Munch, again, was the first one to recover. “You sure you can stomach Stabler here in the outfit, Counselor?”

“Hey! Casey’s on, too,” Elliot was quick to protest, missing the look Olivia sent his way, but Alex caught it. She knew that Casey Novak had taken her place with SVU. Apparently, to a greater degree than Alex had assumed. She looked over at Olivia again who had her head turned away.

Her hair was a little bit shorter again, Alex noted, and she didn’t seem to be conscious of the way she had her hands tucked tightly into the pockets of her jacket. There were a few deeper lines around her eyes and lips, further enhancing the stark clarity of her profile, and one of her eyebrows still formed a higher arch than the other. Slowly, Alex’s eyes followed the lines of the jacket as if she were painting the image, up to the collar, taking in the way the leather touched the skin of Olivia’s neck, the way her neck blended into the curve of her jaw, the outline of her profile…

Olivia chose that moment to look up again, and Alex was caught in a gaze so intensely familiar that she started as if she had been physically touched. Or perhaps she had, she thought, feeling something in her respond to that look that she had forgotten existed. The room around her was melting away softly, until nothing remained but the deep brown of Olivia’s eyes and, over the rusthing of blood in her ears, the calming sensation of having arrived somewhere.

Those eyes.

During how many nights, through how many dreams have they haunted me, hovering just out of reach?

And even when I did look into her eyes, in some dream or fantasy, it was always just a weak memory of this, and I realize it only now, now that I really look at her. Now that she is looking back at me.

I thought I remembered her so well, but there are a hundred details that are suddenly assaulting my perception – the exact shape of the fine lines around her eyes, the shadows moving along her neck as she swallows, the way her shoulders tense when she has her hands in her pockets like this – and I don’t know how I could have forgotten about them, ashamed at my negligence.

Suddenly, everything is there again, everything at once, and at the same time, I feel as if I really know to appreciate it for the first time. Looking at her, all kinds of things seem to shift into place within me, and I strangely know that they are settling exactly where they are supposed to be.

Somehow, this look is more intense and more intimate even than touching her earlier, when I had to reach out to her, doing it without even consciously deciding to, just to make sure she was real.

And she is really here, in the same room as I am, only a few feet away from me.

The enormity of the situation is suddenly catching up to me.

She is here. With me.

The thought echoes inside of me, and I draw an unsteady breath, willing myself not to cry.

Olivia.

In looking at her, I find myself suddenly remembering a thousand tiny moments – sitting in the back of Elliot’s car as the two drive me home after a court date and I am watching the outline of her profile in the low light as she stares out onto the street. Standing behind her in line at Luigi’s, she has her hand placed on the counter, and there is something incredibly alluring about how the sleeve of her leather jacket falls over the arch of her hand. Having her catch up to me on the courthouse steps and the split second she looks at me as I watch her walk up the steps, and I hear myself thinking: towards me.

And now she is standing right here, looking at me.

I feel like someone who has just received an incredibly great gift and I breathe in and out, slowly. My vision stops spinning, but not really. I’m thinking that if I concentrate enough, perhaps I can hear her breathing from where I stand.

I feel giddy.

~~

“Do you think Cabot copped out?” Olivia tried to sound casual. She really tried. Letting her gaze sweep across the bleachers again, she had to admit that Alex still wasn’t in sight. Not yet.

“Nah.” Fin shook his head, leaning back against the metal bench in search of a comfortable position. “She would have said no if she didn’t want to come. She never had a problem with that.” He shrugged. “She doesn’t have a caseload yet. Maybe she just wants to relax and catch up on things.”

“Probably takes her a while to dress down, too,” Munch commented, throwing a quick look at Olivia as if he were expecting a sharp retort, but Olivia wasn’t looking at him.

“…or not,” she stated instead, motioning at the chairs up front. In tandem, both men pushed loose from their seats for a better look.

Walking towards them was former ADA Alex Cabot, glasses perched on her nose, hair pulled back into a ponytail, her hands loosely tucked into the pockets of a pair of comfortable looking cargo pants. A fingerbreadth of skin was visible between the waistband and the hem of what was technically a tank top, but was clearly the designer version of it, judging by the elegantly understated cut.

“Can’t shake class once you’ve got it, I guess,” Fin murmured under his breath, but Olivia didn’t even hear him.

Shielding her eyes with one hand, Alex surveyed the crowd, smiling when she discovered the detectives. She actually waved up at them as she dodged a few haphazardly placed folding chairs and started her ascent, Olivia noted with charmed disbelief. It didn’t even cross her mind to not look at Alex as she walked towards them. After yesterday’s somewhat awkward reunion in the squad room that had passed in a breathless blur for her, she was surprised to see Alex so relaxed. She wasn’t as pale as she remembered her, Olivia noted and she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it the day before. Also, Alex wasn’t as painfully thin as she had been – her shoulders were a bit broader, too, as if she had been working out regularly while she was away. Perhaps she had picked up tennis again, Olivia thought, momentarily distracted.

She hadn’t planned for Alex to sit next to her – hoped for it, maybe – but the moment Alex stood before them, Munch was mumbling something about getting some hot dogs and Alex slid into the seat next to Olivia, who found it suddenly hard to breathe, so close to Alex who looked so… approachable. Nearly blushing at her choice of word, Olivia dropped her eyes to her hands, knitted together in her lap, admitting with chagrin that she felt as if she were fifteen years old.

“So tell me…” Alex leaned into her conspiratorially, a smile in her voice and Olivia thought she could smell the scent of her shampoo over the tiny bit of distance. “Do they really play as bad as Munch said?”

“Worse, I’m afraid,” Olivia replied, a blink of an eye too late to sound smooth. She was fighting the urge to straighten up in her seat. “But it’s the spirit that counts, right?”

“That indeed,” Alex murmured. Her eyes were twinkling.

Olivia drew a deep breath, wondering why suddenly, everything seemed so suggestive. She glanced at Alex from the corner of her eyes.

She seemed older, as if more than twenty months had passed. There were fine lines around her lips that hadn’t been there before. Worry-worn, Olivia thought, but also more relaxed – there was a solidness to the strength Alex had always exuded that was new. And very appealing. But Olivia didn’t think she could ever see Alex and not find her utterly appealing.

Her eyes followed the lines of the top Alex wore. Her shoulders really were a bit broader than before, but then Olivia’s mind drew to a still as she noticed a flash of more elevated, reddish skin showing half under the fabric’s seam.

For an instant, she was back in the dark street, frantically talking to the fallen woman, blood hot and smeary against her palms as she begged her to hang on.

Olivia swallowed hard. An odd sense of pride settled over her as she took in the ramifications of Alex wearing something sleeveless. Of course Alex wouldn’t back away from any choice of outfit only because it might show a bit of scar. It was so typical of her attitude – Alex had always been a little vain, but she had always had an even greater sense of pride.

Olivia smiled. “You look really good,” she offered.

“You think so?” Alex laughed, and there was delight in her gaze, behind her glasses, and perhaps a hint of something more. “My mother was mildly scandalized when I showed up to lunch in these pants.”

Olivia arched an eyebrow at her, using the chance to trail her gaze over Alex’s outfit. “Well, if you had lunch at the Ritz…” Alex’s laugh left her with a sensation close to gasping and Olivia hastily dropped her eyes to her feet to hide her reaction.

Slightly scuffed sneakers were peeking out from underneath the hems of Alex’s cargo pants.

The sudden rush of tenderness overwhelmed Olivia. This was Alex – next to her, alive, breathing. Laughing at her from behind her dark glasses, wearing a doubtlessly overpriced designer top, scars on her shoulders and worn-down sneakers on her feet. It wasn’t a convenient fantasy about an untouchable, arrogant attorney in a thousand dollar suit. It was real. And it was perfect.

Any excuse Olivia might have had about Alex just being a projection blown out of proportion in her absence vanished in the face of this realization. Being at the squad game with Alex, without any job reasons, suddenly seemed like a first step into a direction she would very much like to explore further. If Alex was agreeable. She wondered whether Alex might have left someone waiting for her in Oklahoma. Someone whom she perhaps planned to bring to New York with her. Olivia shifted in her seat. She would have to rely on Munch’s infallible curiosity to shed a light on things after the game.

And the game went pretty badly, Olivia hadn’t been kidding. The only one who seemed wholly enthusiastic about it was the husband of Thompson from Narcotics who had only recently joined the team. Olivia shook her head as she saw him drawing out a digital camera. He would probably do his wife a favor in not recording her first game.

Next to her, she more felt than saw Alex flinch, only to have her suddenly leaning closer against her side.

“Alex, are you alright?” Olivia’s arm was already protectively curled around Alex’s shoulders before she even realized what she was doing. It took her a few seconds to connect the abrupt tension in the other woman’s body to their surroundings. “The camera?” she guessed.

Alex nodded, her expression embarrassed as she sat up again. “Reflex.”

Olivia waited another precious moment before she withdrew her arm. “It’s over,” she stated gently, even though she felt a pang at Alex’s instinctively frightened reaction. “Nobody’s after you now. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

Alex shrugged. “He still does, though,” she admitted quietly, looking out onto the field with seemingly great concentration. Then she shook her head, almost as if to force the thought out of her head. “If they keep losing at this rate, I’ll need some food to stomach the defeat before it is complete.”

Olivia wasn’t quite sure how much worse it could get – the other team was up by six runs with the bases loaded – but she figured that at this point, Elliot would forgive her if she snuck out for a moment to get some hotdogs.

Upon her return, balancing her junk quarry in both hands, Olivia found Alex had slipped into her seat, smiling at Fin who yelled something encouraging at their still sorely losing team. Alex even listened to Munch’s latest theory on how the streak of misfortune the squad team was experiencing could be explained as she tucked away her hotdog with gusto. And even that had a certain elegance when Alex did it. A few strands of hair had come loose from her ponytail, and Olivia watched, transfixed, missing the punch line to whatever story Munch had dug up now. She only saw Alex laughing out loud. Olivia wasn’t sure whether she had ever heard Alex laugh like that, but it was a glorious sound, reverberating inside her with the calming reassurance that Alex was back with them, safe and sound.

Alex chose that moment to look at her, slightly breathless, tendrils of hair framing her face. “I can practically hear Liz saying that….” She trailed off, gathering that Olivia had missed the joke.

“You’re laughing more,” Olivia observed offhandedly. She wanted to add that it looked beautiful on Alex. And how happy she was that Alex was safe, and back with them, and so many other things that she should have said the day before when all she could do was numbly stare at Alex, half afraid she would vanish into thin air every moment.

Alex looked back at her curiously for a second, momentarily pinning Olivia to her seat with her eyes. “I didn’t have a lot of reason to for a while,” she then said, her voice soft. “I knew what I had lost.” Unable to look away, Olivia thought she would get lost in the ambiguity of the moment, but then Alex smiled, breaking the intense gaze. “And now I’m reclaiming it.” Olivia wasn’t sure if she had imagined the fleeting look that accompanied the remark, but Alex was already looking back at the field, gesturing down at their team with a wry expression. “Although I am not sure I’d admit to any prior association with this team.” She shook her head in chorus with Fin and a groaning Munch as they gave up a triple.

The eventual result was flattening, but didn’t manage to ruin the good mood. “Lousy,” Olivia announced cheerfully, patting Elliot on the back when he joined them after having changed his shirt.

“You only want us to pay for your beers, out of sheer sympathy,” Munch stated, his expression suspicious.

“We get sympathy points?” Casey asked, stepping up to them with her sports bag thrown over her shoulder. “Great. Does that extend to not bartering for a warrant without any evidence next time…?”

“Why?” Olivia grinned, not noticing how Alex seemed to draw a deeper breath at the bantering. “You bartering for the ball doesn’t seem to be that much different from me bartering for a warrant.”

“Watch it, Detective,” Casey retorted playfully. “There’s a big stick on my side in this game.”

Before Olivia could think of a reply, she heard Alex mutter next to her, “I should have used that line on you back then.”

Only now Casey took a closer look at the figure next to Olivia, a blonde who managed to look elegant even while wearing cargo pants. “Cabot, right?” she guessed, offering her hand. When Alex shook it, she was surprised at the underlying firmness of her grasp. “Heard you were back,” she added, not quite sure what to say. “Hell of a story.”

Alex merely nodded.

Struggling to identify the undercurrents of that particular exchange – taking Alex to a game that her successor played in might not have been the smartest idea Munch had ever had – Olivia was glad when her slightly miffed partner broke the moment.

“Beer and a steak,” Elliot stated with emphasis and nodded towards the adjoining greens where a barbecue had been set up for the players. “And that’s just what I’m expecting from you, Benson.”

Olivia arched an eyebrow at him and then turned towards Alex, uncertain whether the woman would really want to join the team’s barbecue instead of going to a pub or a bar with just their little group.

Munch beat her to the question. “You sure you want to fight for the meat with the horde, Counselor?” In a low tone, he added, “Personally, I’d be very grateful if you said no.”

Alex gave him a sympathetic smile. “I think I can handle the horde, Detective.” She slid her hands into her pockets and squared her shoulders. “So, what do I have to do to get a steak and a beer?”

And even with a bottle of beer between her fingers, balancing a paper plate with a greasy steak on her knees, Alex still managed to look classy. It was the attitude, Olivia finally decided on an inner sigh. That, and the glasses. And it affected her just like it always had.

So far, none of the others had asked Alex about her life in witness protection, but with them being part of a bigger group here, it was hardly the place for a more intimate conversation. Olivia wondered whether she should just bite the bullet and try to steer their conversation towards more personal topics. Especially since Alex had stayed in her vicinity for most of the evening, but it might just as well be that she was staying with the familiar group she had come with. Alex Cabot was a perfectly polite woman after all. The conversation between the two of them had been light so far, almost as if they were dancing around something. At least one of them was for sure, Olivia admitted wryly to herself. Her eyes searched for and found Alex, who sat by herself as she looked out onto the field where a few people had picked up batting practice for fun. Since dusk was setting, batting had become quite a challenge, and Olivia noticed how Alex had chosen a spot in the half shadow, her back shielded by a bench.

She swallowed against the angry feeling of helplessness. Even though Velez was dead now, the time in witness projection had left its mark on Alex. Picking out safe spots with maximum overview. Ducking away from cameras.

Slowly, Olivia walked over, hands tucked into her pockets. She wanted to reassure Alex again that she was safe, that it was over, but she knew that it wouldn’t change a thing. Velez would still haunt both of them for a long time to come. Instead, she sat down next to Alex who was still watching the players. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the loose strands of hair around Alex’s face move softly with her every breath. “Would you like to a have a go?” she suggested after a little while. “We could get in line.”

Alex turned her head, one eyebrow lightly arched. She smiled ruefully. “I don’t think I’m up for rolling around in the dirt, Detective.”

It sounded so much like Alex always had that Olivia couldn’t stop the grin creeping across her face. “Not up to batting?” she challenged teasingly, but then relented. “We could always play catch instead.” Only when the words were already out of her mouth, she realized how ambiguously they echoed back at her. “I could get Elliot’s glove,” she added quickly, shying away from the sudden tension. “We couldn’t be worse than our team was today.”

Alex just looked at her sardonically. “I’d rather not put that theory to the test.”

Olivia’s grin returned, and she leaned a little closer. “What? You are refusing a chance at hard evidence?”

Alex shook her head, looking past Olivia for a moment. “I can’t move my shoulder enough to bat, let alone throw,” she admitted quietly.

“Oh shit, Alex, I’m sorry…” Olivia could have kicked herself for the oversight. “I didn’t think…”

“It’s all right, Liv.” Alex’s voice was warm and Olivia was still stuck on how her name had sounded in that tone when Alex added lightly, “I heard it’s murder for the elbows, anyway.” There was a small pause while Alex went back to observing the players. “I don’t notice it much, really,” she then offered. “Mostly when I have to reach into high cupboards.”

“Or when you’d have to bat,” Olivia supplied. She remembered how Alex had talked about playing tennis, how much she liked it.

“Did you just say something about evidence, Olivia?” Casey called out, walking past them with an empty bottle of beer. “Practicing your warrant bartering skills?”

“As if they needed practice,” Olivia shot back, unwilling to be interrupted. It was the first quiet moment she had gotten with Alex and she didn’t want to share it with anyone.

“At least you’re admitting to it,” Casey said, holding up her empty bottle. “And if you can tell me where I can find a fresh beer, I might even cut you a deal.”

Olivia pointed to another small group on the lawn. “Thompson still has some, but she drives a mean bargain.”

Casey snorted. “And after two years with you, that should frighten me… how?”

Olivia shook her head at the retreating figure, only to have her thoughts interrupted by Alex. “I see you’re making the same impression on every ADA.” Olivia wasn’t sure whether it was her imagination, but Alex sounded cooler suddenly. “And here I thought it was just me.”

For a moment, Olivia watched helplessly as Alex pulled up her knees and rested her hands atop them, not looking at Olivia, who wanted to say that it had always been just Alex, and Alex only, but didn’t find the courage.

She’d merely have to lift her hand and it would brush against Alex’s arm. Alex’s expression was pensive, her head was slightly bowed, the smooth outline of vertebrae where her neck met her upper back just visible. It was a posture typical of Alex and Olivia had seen it a hundred or possibly a thousand times before, but she had never realized before how much grace lay in the small movement. Looking at Alex left her with a feeling of relief and downright humble gratefulness, making her afraid to speak out or touch, even though she ached to find the right words, the right gesture.

Alex was so close that she’d only have to bend her head a little to the side and down and she would be able to press a kiss to a bare shoulder.

Satin and salt and scar.

Alex.

Lost in the scrutiny, she noticed the light shiver running through Alex’s body before it had even fully settled over the woman. Of course she would be getting cold in her tank top, Olivia reasoned affectionately. The last time she checked, pricey designer garments hadn’t been made for functionality. She held her breath as she shrugged out of her jacket and gently placed it around Alex, only then realizing, somewhat chagrined, that after twenty months of conjuring up elaborate schemes in her daydreams, this not very original little gesture might actually convey to Alex what she really wanted to say.

For a moment, the shoulders under her grasp stiffened, and of all the things coming to mind, “Getting chilly, isn’t it?” made it past Olivia’s lips. It sounded unsteady. Smoothing the leather over Alex’s shoulders, she felt her relax into the warmth of the jacket. Olivia wondered when thinking of a more clever phrase had become so hard and when her heart had started beating so fast. “Here you go.”

“I don’t…” Alex started to say, but then she pulled the jacket closer around herself by the lapels, breathing in deeply. “Thank you.”

“You’re w…” Olivia had to clear her throat. She pulled her hands back to herself and found that they were tingling. “My pleasure.”

Casey walked past them again, triumphantly holding up a fresh bottle of beer. Luckily, she didn’t interrupt them again, but Olivia’s quiet glower was lost in the increasing dark either way.

And then Alex was looking at her again. “Why don’t you do that with me?” she asked offhandedly.

“What is that?” Olivia couldn’t think of many things that she wouldn’t be willing to try with Alex, if the other woman were game.

“Treat me like the others. Normally.” Alex looked up at Casey’s retreating figure, seeming exasperated. “Talk to me like you talk to her.”

But Alex was not like the others. Not to her. Olivia shrugged with a smile. “I’m trying to be nice for once and you object?”

“You’ve always been nice enough,” Alex insisted, her tone holding none of Olivia’s easy humor. She didn’t blink as she looked at Olivia, who, in return, had to blink. It seemed to be warmer than before, even though she had given up her jacket. “Well, most of the time,” Alex added with a quirk to her lips.

Olivia’s easy façade crumpled effortlessly at that smirk. It always had. “It’s just… a little overwhelming still,” she said honestly, allowing her insecurities to show. “I should tell you that everything is fine now, but… I still expect Hammond to show up any minute, sending you away again.” She gestured helplessly. “I’m scared that if I close my eyes for a moment too long, you’ll be gone when I open them again.” Looking into Alex’s eyes again, she felt vulnerable like she rarely had before.

“I’m scared, too,” Alex said, slowly reaching out a hand to cover Olivia’s. “But I’m not going away again. I’m back for good.”

This was as good an opening as she would get, Olivia decided, turning her hand and feeling Alex’s palm against her own. “What about your other life?” she asked carefully. “Don’t you have anyone waiting for you in Oklahoma?”

Alex’s smile let her know that her question hadn’t sounded as casual as she had intended. “No Laurey there,” Alex said lightly. “And Curly was never really my type in the first place.”

Olivia couldn’t help the near giddy half-grin when she realized that Alex had yet to take away her hand. “You honestly missed me arguing with you?” Her voice sounded lighter than she felt.

Alex’s expression was open and almost wistful. “That, too.” She had spoken quietly, but there was no mistaking the look on her face. Olivia shifted, suddenly unable to sit still.

The barbecue around them was beginning to wrap up, and when Alex suggested that the two of them should share a cab, Olivia didn’t object. Only when they were already sitting in the back of a taxi cab, with Alex’s hand inches from her own on the seat, both of them silenced by the energy suddenly charging openly between them, Olivia realized that Alex hadn’t even asked whether she was still living in the same apartment.

The ride was over much too fast as they rolled to a stop in front of Alex’s place – her new place, she explained – while Olivia was still fumbling for an appropriate goodnight wish, and about how to ask whether she should call Alex the next day. To see if she wanted to go out for coffee. Or lunch. Or shop for apartment decorations. Or on a dinner date.

It only occurred to her then that she didn’t have Alex’s phone number yet. But before she could even ask, Alex turned to look at her. Her smile was at once assertive and nearly bashful. “Would you like to come up for a nightcap?”

~~

She is so much braver than I am.

From where does she take the courage to ask when I’m still worried about how I could signal my interest without scaring us both?

This is like a daydream I could have had while she was away, only now the daydream is moving faster than my heart can beat, and I stumble after it to catch up with the images that flash across my mind.

Getting the tour of Alex’s new place in the middle of the night. It doesn’t necessarily mean a thing, she could just want to share a drink more distinguished than beer from the bottle with a former colleague – a formerly close colleague – to end this first night back in the circle of people she used to spend most of her time with. But with the way she looked at me earlier, not half an hour ago, in the park, all bets are off. Half of me knows she would never do something so rash, and the other half of me isn’t so sure about that anymore. She is so much braver than I am.

There were nights where I wanted to ask her that question before. Leaving the office late at night after spending all evening staring at a case file, or actually sitting in a cab with her after one of the rare occasions where she went out with us. And I always knew that if I asked outright, she’d say no. But now it seems as if she wouldn’t say no anymore.

And neither will I.

I want to tell you how much I’ve missed you. How miserable I felt those first few months sitting on the bench outside of the courtroom waiting for a verdict without your quiet, strangely soothing presence next to me. How, when I walked past your former office, I sometimes caught myself almost knocking on the door, envisioning you looking up from a pile of paperwork when I would look into the room. How I had to think of you when I stood in line at Luigi’s – I knew it was your favorite – and knew exactly what you would order. Sometimes I did, just to feel close to you again and then I felt ridiculous.

It’s not ridiculous at all anymore as I look at you and I marvel at how I didn’t know it before you were gone, and only guessed at it while you were away, and now that you’re back, all it takes is one look at you and I simply know.

I take a deep breath and can’t help but smile. “I’d love to,” I hear myself say.

~~

“She has your exact shade of hair.”

Alex turned to look at Olivia who stood in the entry to her living room somewhat uncertainly, motioning at the painting that hung above the single couch. Now that she surveyed her apartment with Olivia’s eyes, she had to admit that there wasn’t really much to give a tour of yet.

“But the green dress would look a lot better on you,” she replied, keeping her eyes fixed on the painting even as she felt Olivia look at her. “You have one like that,” she added after a moment.

Olivia’s startled intake of breath was the only indication that she had caught the other woman by surprise. “I used to,” Olivia said. “But I gave it away.”

“That’s a pity,” Alex stated. “I really liked it on you.” She turned to look at Olivia who had stepped into the room, acknowledging the luxury of being able to drink in the sight without having to fear being jolted out of this particular daydream. It had to be something about Olivia’s stance, her posture – the way the shoved-up sleeves of her shirt bunched up around her elbows, drawing attention to her forearms, or the way she kept her weight on both feet, a hand tucked into her pocket – that made Alex feel decidedly weak in the knees. That, and the hesitantly hopeful expression in Olivia’s eyes that she knew had to be mirrored in her own. The silence between them stretched out for long moments.

“Would you like to go to the Met with me on Saturday?” Alex suddenly asked, surprising both of them. “I have my mother’s season tickets this weekend.” She shrugged ruefully. “I used to have my own.”

“You can get your own again next season,” Olivia pointed out, her tone gentle. She didn’t ask whether this would be a date. “Sure, I’d like to go.”

Alex tilted her head to the side, studying Olivia curiously. “Have you been there before?” The look Olivia gave her made her feel like an idiot. A snobby idiot.

But Olivia was smiling. “I went there once on a fundraiser, on NYPD tickets. Cragen didn’t feel like going.”

Alex wanted to ask with whom Olivia had been there. “What was it?”

“Some kind of gala medley. Very stiff.” Olivia shrugged. She looked down at her own hands, studying them with casual intent. “I’ve been to City Opera a few times on my own. But I prefer jazz clubs over it.”

Alex closed her eyes for a moment. Leave it to Olivia to sweep her off her feet without even intending to. She made a mental note to look up her old favorite jazz club haunt as soon as possible. Perhaps they still had that singer who sounded like the older Ella.

The argument she had always used on herself – that dating a female cop would be political suicide as far as her career was concerned – didn’t sound half as convincing to her own ears anymore. Not that it wasn’t true any longer. She simply cared a whole lot less about it.

And, as this past week’s Sunday brunch with her mother’s acquaintances had made clear, there were exceptions to the rule. After all, Eileen Vanderbilt was still the chairwoman of the NYC Junior League, and most everyone seemed to know that she was sleeping with the female treasurer. And Eileen was a Republican.

Looking at Olivia again, Alex remembered the careful question from earlier this evening. No, she didn’t have anyone waiting for her back in Oklahoma. Rather, she’d been in Oklahoma waiting to come back here.

And perhaps Olivia had been waiting, too, in a way. Munch had mentioned that she hadn’t been seeing anyone for real – “If there was, we’d know. Trust me on that, Counselor.” – since before Alex had left, and she hadn’t taken her hand away earlier at the park. And she was here, right now, looking at her with a quiet intensity that was taking Alex’s breath away.

The air between them seemed to move, and then it was Olivia moving towards her, her gaze trailing over Alex’s face like a slow caress, as if she were overwhelmed with where to look first.

Not looking where she went, Olivia bumped against the arm of the couch, knocking down a small box that had been propped up against the cushions.

Startled for a moment, Olivia bent down to pick up the parcel. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s…” Alex shook her head, a hint of a blush coloring her cheeks. “Actually, it’s for you. Was for you.” When Olivia looked at her in puzzlement, she gestured at the box. “It… I found it in my mother’s guest bedroom closet the other day. I had left it there, Christmas three years ago.” Olivia’s expression wasn’t any less puzzled, but Alex’s eyes were drawn to Olivia’s hands holding onto the small carton, tan skin against eggshell paper. “I had gotten it for you. For Christmas,” Alex clarified. “But then I… chickened out.”

Olivia’s smile was slow and warm, and she looked down at the gift in her hands for a moment before she arched an eyebrow at Alex. “You chickening out of something?”

“Fine,” Alex replied, rising to the bait. “Open it now, then.” She found herself shifting her weight from foot to foot when Olivia slid the lid off the box, and made a conscious effort to stop her fidgeting. There was no reason to be nervous over a three‑year-old gift.

“Oh.” Olivia seemed a little lost, faced with a pair of dark brown leather gloves, while outside, it was May. “Thank you. They’re beautiful,” she assured Alex, tracing her fingers along the soft material. Then, something else seemed to occur to her. “That was the year it was so cold in December and some perp stole my gloves…”

Alex nodded, and then she had to avert her eyes because the absurdly pleased expression on Olivia’s face made her blush all over again.

“Let me try them on,” Olivia suggested, setting the box to the side. Alex never took her eyes off the hands, until Olivia’s voice drew her head up again. “You even got my size right.” The soft amazement in her tone threatened to undo Alex completely. “Did you ask Elliot about it?”

“No, I just looked at your hands,” Alex said without thinking, too distracted to consider what she was admitting.

For a moment, there was nothing but quiet breathing and the ticking of the clock as they both stared at Olivia’s gloved hands. Finally, Olivia moved to take them off again, struggling with the small buttons at the wrists, until Alex cut in. “Wait, let me help you…”

Smooth leather under her hands, and then, even softer skin, and the smell of Olivia, just like the jacket she’d reluctantly parted with in the entry hall. Olivia’s breath against her temple. Olivia’s fingers tangled with her own.

And, when she looked up, Olivia’s lips inches from her own.

She was still stroking her fingertips across Olivia’s palms, almost absently now, her eyes suddenly heavy, overwhelmed with the nearness of scent and skin and those lips.

“Wait…” Alex more felt than heard the soft utterance against her own lips. Olivia was looking at her, her eyes wide and dark with something that made it very hard for Alex to focus on her words.

“This might be a bad idea… you barely…” Staring at the lips so close to her own, Alex realized that Olivia was breathing fast and unsteady. Panting. “You’ve barely gotten back. It… this could be too soon. We… we should wait. Wait and see. And if…” Olivia swallowed with difficulty, drawing Alex’s gaze to the column of her throat. “What if…”

“Liv…” Alex almost didn’t recognize her own voice in the low murmur. She curved a hand to Olivia’s shoulder, fingers stroking along the line of the shirt collar. “The last time I opted for ‘wait and see’, I was sent away and spent twenty months asking myself ‘what if?’. – I… I have to know…” She exhaled shakily, her eyes drifting back to Olivia’s lips. “I have to…”

For a moment, it seemed as if Olivia wanted to reply something, her eyes shimmering with something indefinite, but then her hands slid around Alex’s waist and her lips curved into an idea of a smile under Alex’s reverent look. “I’m not objecting here…”

Consent given, Alex simply leaned in, pressing her lips to Olivia’s.

Soft. So soft. And warm. Junk food and salt and sweetness and heat. Olivia.

Better than all the kisses she had ever imagined.

When she drew back, her hands had found their way into the hair in Olivia’s neck, and she was too dazed to notice at first that Olivia’s eyes were glistening with tears.

“How long?” Olivia asked, and her voice cracked over the simple question.

“I have no idea,” Alex admitted, gently brushing a single tear away with her fingertips. “Before I left. But I didn’t know until I was gone…”

“Me either.” Olivia breathed heavily. “God…”

And then her lips were on Alex’s again, and Alex’s tongue against her teeth, and then, finally, against her own, and then there was just Alex. Alex’s hair brushing her cheeks, Alex’s gasps against her mouth, Alex’s hands grabbing her collar. And when Alex tore her head away after long minutes, struggling to breathe and staring at Olivia with wide eyes, Olivia could do nothing but marvel at how right it all felt. Alex. With her.

Alex, who was now mastering a shaky, but triumphant smirk. “Do you still think we should wait and see?”

Olivia shook her head. “Waste of time,” she ground out, her voice little more than a gasp. “In fact, do you think we could… we could book this down as a first date? In retrospect?”

Alex nodded vigorously, her hands still twined into Olivia’s collar. “At least.”

“So, what are the rules?” But the look in Olivia’s eyes belied her easy phrase. Her half smile was helpless as she cupped Alex’s face between her hands. “I want to do this right by you. Every bit of it. I’ve… for so long… and I don’t want to risk this…”

“There is only one rule,” Alex interrupted her, her tone light even though Olivia’s faltering confession made her want to cling on and never let go again, but Olivia was right, this was too important to rush. Or to wait for any longer. “As Michelle always says – ” Off Olivia’s lost look, Alex explained. “She is… was… my office colleague – and one of her favorite phrases was, ‘Go for it while you can.’”

“Thank you, Michelle,” Olivia uttered on a shaky breath, her fingers firmly threading through Alex’s hair. Then her expression turned somber. “One day, I want to know all about it. How you lived. What you did.” Her movements had gentled, fingers kneading slowly now. “What you miss about it. How you feel about it all. – If you want to tell me, that is.”

“I’d like that,” Alex said, surprised at the unexpected offer. “Someday, when I can make sense of it myself. – Right now, I’m in between everything…” She struggled to put the feeling into words. “I’m slowly arriving home, but with every bit I rediscover, I have to realize it’s not the same place I left.”

Olivia tilted her head to the side, her gaze coming half from underneath her lashes. “You can never step twice into the same river?”

Quoting Heraklit on her in the middle of the night. And in a much more alluring way than any lawyer Alex had ever dated. “You impress me, Detective,” she stated, her voice all but a drawl, not noticing at first how Olivia went quiet, breathing deeply. She frowned. “…Olivia?”

Shaking her head, Olivia drew herself out of her stupor. She gestured, half embarrassed. “It’s… it’s your voice. It always – ” Alex wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a slight blush creep up Olivia’s neck.

“Hmmm…” Alex’s smile was lazy and her voice dropped to a lower tone as she leaned in again, resting her whole body against Olivia. “You have no idea, how often I imagined your voice.” Looking up into Olivia’s eyes, her expression was filled with an openness that left no further questions. “Your voice… and everything about you.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow, bravely teasing lest she melt away under Alex’s gaze. “Everything?”

It was Alex’s turn to blush. “Everything.” Her eyes tracing Olivia’s face, she looked away before she added something on a murmur.

She had forgotten how good Olivia’s hearing was.

“You had fantasies of a life with me in bikinis?”

~~

Her eyes are incredible. And I’m not about to admit to any teenaged Caribbean fantasies. Or any other fantasy from that cabinet.

Eternal sunsets, quiet beaches and Olivia in bikinis walking next to me holding my hand. I should be embarrassed; I am, but part of me is still trying to decide what color would look best on her for a bikini.

Olivia just smiles. “Penny for your thoughts…” She brushes a few strands of hair out of my face and I find myself automatically angling my face into her hand and my eyes are closing again. I mumble something about it not being important, I think, and then I lean in to kiss her again, startled when she dodges my touch without really pulling away. When I look at her, I see the teasing twinkle in her eyes and she moves her lips out of reach again.

My hands link behind her head, and there is surprise in her expression for a brief moment, and then arousal, as I pull her towards me and then her eyes are closed and her lips are even softer and warmer than a minute ago and even though she pretends to fight for the lead in this kiss, it only takes moments until I feel her melt into the touch. Into me. And I don’t know anything else but her. Part of me wants to curl around that feeling in my stomach and never wake up again.

My eyes are unfocused when she finally pulls back. I’m still wondering how every part of my body can feel so light and so heavy with awareness at the same time, so at first I miss the way she looks at me, but then I catch her smile. It is teasing. “So… you whisked me off into the sunset?” she prods, but there is something in her tone that is not mockery at all. Not even teasing. “What did I wear besides the bikinis? …A hibiscus blossom in my hair? …A frozen margarita in my hand?”

“Not funny,” I grumble, feeling myself blush crimson. There is no need for her to be that accurate in her guesses.

“But very cute,” she comments, her grin entirely too pleased.

“It got me through twenty months of Oklahoma,” I state defensively.

Her smile immediately gentles and she moves to tuck a few more strands of hair behind my ear even though there are no stray ones left, but I am not about to protest. “The Caribbean doesn’t sound too bad,” she observes. Her eyes still have that damned twinkle, but she doesn’t seem to be kidding me anymore. “Perhaps we could go there on a vacation sometime.”

And here I thought I was taking things too fast. Pushing her into this, for fear that she will think differently of it in the morning and I will have lost my chance. Part of me is still afraid I’ll wake up any minute. That this is just my fantasy, just like the tropical beaches and the image of her holding my hand, and that she doesn’t really understand how serious this is for me.

But in looking at her, in how her eyes soften and gentle as she smoothes her fingers over the slight furrow between my brows, I realize that it is not just me. And that whatever this is, it’s been there for a long time.

On vacation with Olivia… now there is a tempting idea. I don’t care much whether it’s sunny beaches at Réunion or sightseeing in Italy or glacier-climbing in Alaska. I care much more about the fact that it would mean time with her alone, away from the others, and without having to fear that a phone call will send either of us out to a case.

Although right now, with my arms still looped around her neck, I don’t feel like traveling anywhere. Not when she is right here, smiling at receiving three-year-old gloves and trying them on in the middle of May, and with her shirt sleeves bunched up and her hair sticking out behind her ears where I tousled it a little too enthusiastically. I think I don’t even need the sunsets anymore.

“Bikinis and beaches are a nice idea,” she comments, and then she shrugs. “Sure beats running into glass doors because someone has your hair color or getting your espresso ristretto latte thing at Luigi’s, and I never even liked it.”

I can just stare at her.

And then I just kiss her and kiss her and kiss her.

~~

The hard edge of a door frame – the one to the bedroom, she noted dazedly – pressing into her back momentarily drew Olivia out of her haze. “Do you…” Her own gasp interrupted her. She valiantly tried not to think about the lips trailing up the line of her jaw, and in just the right way to drive her crazy. “Do you think we’re… rushing this… a little?”

There was no real reply except for a hand smoothing more firmly to her hip, and those maddening lips now mouthing a path down her neck, and a whisper against her skin that must have been “No”, but sounded a lot more like “God, Olivia…”

Olivia bit back a groan, trying to focus. “Not that I wouldn’t… but… what if our expectations are too big… now…” She noted with regret that the lips moved away from her neck.

“I might have built up some expectations when it comes to you, Detective,” Alex gave her a look over the rim of her glasses. She pulled Olivia further into the room by her shirt collar. “But I think it’s safe to say you’re exceeding them all.”

Years of watching ADA Cabot exercising her formidable prosecution skills in the courtroom, being interviewed by her on the stand, witnessing her reducing defendants to tears, being peered at through those glasses: Nothing of it had prepared Olivia for the reality of Alex wanting her. She took a deep breath, trailing her fingertips along the edge of Alex’s tank top only to stop her actions and reach up, tenderly pulling the glasses off Alex’s face. “I’ve always loved these, you know.” She carefully put the frames on the dresser.

“Really?” Alex blinked. “They’re just glasses.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow at her. “And we were just colleagues…”

A long look passed between them. “I…” Alex shook her head, pondering the lost time between them.

“I know…” Olivia murmured, pulling them into a loose embrace. Closing her eyes, she remembered the cars driving away, the night air cool against the tears on her cheeks, the difficulty of drawing breath against the sensation of her heart being torn into a hundred little pieces. She focused on her breathing, and on Alex’s, reveling in her nearness. Hands were untucking her shirt, skimming up her back, and she wanted to suggest they move this someplace where she could be off her unsteady legs, but Alex was faster. Olivia found herself spun around and pushed backward, toppling onto the bed. It took Alex only an instant to climb on top of her, straddling her hips and smiling down at her with a predatory gleam in her eye. “You’re overdressed,” she observed, laughing when Olivia pushed herself upright in one fluid movement. Despite two sets of eager hands, Olivia’s shirt caught up over her head, but she didn’t care much when it made Alex laugh again, deep and full.

She found Alex staring at her body with a gaze that was decidedly hungrier than before and, struck dumb by that look, she must have missed her cue because Alex was already pulling her own top over her head – impatiently, but without getting stuck – and Olivia’s mouth went dry, taking in the body in front of her. And then she grew still.

She must have been quiet for a moment too long because Alex began to look worried. “…Liv?”

Olivia kept her eyes on Alex’s skin as she traced her fingers along the scars on her shoulder. “I had nightmares about him finding you.”

“So did I,” Alex said quietly, threading her fingers through Olivia’s and closing her eyes when a gentle kiss was pressed to her shoulder, and then another, and yet another, washing over the old wounds.

Hesitantly, Olivia placed a hand over Alex’s heart, feeling the pulse beat against her palm before she leaned in and replaced her fingers with her lips. Arms crossed behind her back, hugging her close, and Olivia replied in kind, crushing Alex against her and holding on as tightly as she could. She curved her hand to the back of Alex’s head, blinking away her tears.

Alex was alive. Alex was with her. It was Alex’s heart that beat beneath her ear, strong and fast, and it was Alex’s hands, unerring and confident, that moved across her skin, hands that were strong enough to push her back down again, into the mattress. It was Alex’s body, lean and gracious, that was hovering above her now and then, finally, covering her, sinking into her.

Olivia arched her neck, her fingers aimlessly raking across Alex’s back, taking in the sheen of sweat and the trembling of muscle and the ragged breaths so close to her ear. She blinked through the sensations, feeling her body blush at the sight of Alex, teeth sunk into her lower lip in concentration, eyes wide and dark, bending down to taste.

She had fantasized about this, tried to picture this – holding Alex in her arms, seducing her, being seduced by her, but any daydream scenario was paling in comparison to the reality of Alex touching her. She had always imagined it would be her drawing Alex out of her reserve, both of them dancing around that ever-present edge of cool, but this… there was no cool, apart from the steely edge to Alex’s intent. The relentlessness of her taking charge, the slight edge of desperation to her movements left her open, vulnerable, in turn drawing Olivia in. It was the disregard for the propriety that otherwise so defined Alex – or perhaps it wasn’t disregard, but deeming this passion and this touch as essential and following it unhesitatingly.

Open. She had never dreamed of Alex being so open, not guarding her reactions in the slightest. Teeth scraping against her collarbones, a hot tongue blazing a trail across her chest made Olivia whimper, Alex’s rough, answering moan only driving her higher. “God, Liv…” Her hands were unceremoniously pulled against soft curves, and Olivia closed her eyes when she felt Alex rock into her. There was something reckless about the way Alex responded to her, so unabashed about showing her own need that it made Olivia dizzy. She heard herself whisper things, but she didn’t know what they were. “Don’t stop. Don’t leave. Don’t leave. Please don’t leave…”

And for a moment, they were in the eye of the storm, hot breath gentle against her lips, palms caressing her cheeks with reverence. “I won’t.” Blue eyes regarded her seriously, and they kissed, softly. And when Olivia opened her eyes again, Alex was still looking at her. She kept her eyes open the entire time, as if she was afraid to miss a thing, even a minute detail. Her eyes remained open even when Olivia succumbed to the sensations rushing through her, everything dissolving into heat and light and…

“…Alex…”

She saw the awe in her voice mirrored in Alex’s eyes, inches from her own.

And there was something else, something that prompted her to say it again. “Alex…” The look she received in return was liquid and wide, and for a moment, it seemed as if Alex would cry.

Olivia understood. “Alex…” Slowly, she pressed a kiss to a curved shoulder, never letting her gaze wander away. “Alex…” Her fingers drew letters across Alex’s chest – capital A, capital C. “Alex.” Another kiss, in the valley between her breasts. A soft tremble ran though Alex’s frame, and Olivia stroked her hands across the expanse of stomach, leaning in so closely that her murmur seemed to seep right into the skin. “Alex.”

She said it again and again, whispering it against her skin, writing it all over Alex’s body with her lips and her breath, until Alex curved up into her, and around her, holding on blindly as she closed her eyes, falling into Olivia.

~~

She is lying in the cradle of my hips, her face buried against the flesh of my stomach, and I can feel that she feels safe for the first time in a long time.

My hands are combing through her hair, and her breaths against my skin come calm and deep.

I don’t know what I expected or feared when we tumbled through her bedroom door earlier, perhaps there was still a bit of doubt whether this vision I had of her and me was only in my head, something neither of us could ever live up to. I’ve never been so happy to have been wrong.

Wrong, and humbled by what happened between us, and not a little bit awed. I had expected a connection, perhaps the edge of passion, and her relentlessness, even if not like this. But I would never have predicted the reverence, the abandon, or the easy laughter in between. Or the way she looks at me as if she knows me better even than I know myself. And perhaps she does. The thought is scary, but at the same time, it also feels pretty damn wonderful.

She shifts against me, pressing kiss after kiss along my stomach and the bone of my hip. My fingers are still playing with her hair – I’ve never seen it so tousled, and she looks more beautiful than ever – and then her arms wrap tightly across my waist, and I only notice from the wetness against my skin that she is crying soundlessly.

I scramble to pull level with her, drawing her face up to look at me. “Alex…?”

But when she looks at me, her eyes are the bluest I’ve ever seen them, and her smile is so happy that I think I could cry, too.

~~

The phone was picked up on the second ring. “Benson.”

Alex released a breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding. “You know it’s me,” she teased gently. “Remember, I watched you program my new number into your cell and you have my caller ID in capitals.”

“And I’m at lunch with three detectives who are just dying to tease me with whatever they can get their grubby hands on.” Olivia didn’t think that Alex wanted the entire squad to inquire as to the reasons for the particularly happy smile that was refusing to fade from her face right now. “So, how did it go?”

“Is that Cabot on the phone?!” Alex heard Fin holler in the background. There was laughter, and Olivia replying something, and then Fin’s voice again. “Hey, Cabot. How did the interview go? They hand you Major Cases on a silver platter?”

“Excuse me for a moment, guys.” There was the noise of a chair scraping across the floor, and then steps, and a door opening and closing. Then Olivia’s voice was close to the phone again. “Alex? How did it go?”

Hearing the forced casualness in Olivia’s voice, Alex hesitated. “They did offer me quite a few things,” she admitted. “But would you also date an attorney who prosecutes for the UN?”

“Don’t you want to come back to us?” Olivia’s question held disappointment, even though she immediately tried to make light of it. “I know we’re not Major Cases, but I heard you had an offer to come back to SVU.” There was a slight pause. “And I thought…”

Alex closed her eyes, cursing the grapevine. “Yes, I could come back to SVU. But…”

Olivia phrased her next question carefully. “Is this about the publicity, and about possibly being a target again?”

She didn’t ask whether it was a convenient career decision. “No. And Yes,” Alex answered. And then she acknowledged the unasked question as well. “And yes, it is a career move, but that’s not the only reason.” She shifted her grip on her cell phone. “Olivia, if I went back to SVU as a primary…”

“..seeing me everyday,” Olivia interjected, only to take it back the next moment. “I’m sorry, Alex. Just kidding.”

Alex picked up the phrase. “Seeing you every day… and every…” She cleared her throat. “And quite a few of the nights, as well. At least I’d hope so.” Olivia didn’t jump in with a reply, even though Alex let a few seconds pass. When she continued, her voice was quiet and serious. “And we would have to play hide and seek with the IAB, and even if it wasn’t our fault, sooner or later some defense attorney would figure it out and use it against a case, and against the squad. And you know that as well as I do.”

“Oh.” Clearly, Olivia hadn’t thought about it this way. Alex only hoped that it wasn’t because Olivia didn’t think they could last long term, but rather because she preferred to think that she could outsmart the IAB when she had to.

“And I don’t want to jeopardize your career, or mine,” Alex continued. “Or give the squad some headlines it really doesn’t need.” She took a deep breath, wondering if she was getting ahead of herself, or of Olivia. “And I don’t want to live in fear of defense lawyers showing up every time I take you out to dinner.”

She heard Olivia’s breath hitch over the line.

“So… let me ask this again.” Alex tried to ignore the sudden solemnity. “Would you consider dating an ADA who is prosecuting international cases for the UN?”

Olivia’s voice was rough with emotion. “Hell, yes.”

Alex slumped against the wall behind her in relief, allowing herself a moment to gather herself. “And do you think that you and your colleagues might want to have a celebratory beer with her tonight?”

Olivia breathed in deeply, willing herself not to cry in the entry hall of Mike’s. “I do.”

~~

I never thought I’d find myself missing Liz so much. And if I ever thought security clearances at the DA’s office were exhausting, I’m apologizing. It’s my third day here, and I think I’ll never memorize all the codes. Fréderic – my assistant – tends to look at me with a sympathetic smile when I struggle with the multiple keycards again. I still have to find a way to wipe the expression off his face.

His office is bigger than mine used to be with SVU. And my own office here is what Olivia would call ‘beyond posh’, with a very raised eyebrow, and Michelle’s and my office would probably fit into one of the elevators.

Michelle called last night, advising me not to break Esteban’s heart. Apparently he read too much into the new tennis racquet I sent him. Michelle also told me at length that she put her summer decorations up in the office – this year’s theme is Tropicana – and I am actually relieved that I don’t have to witness that. And Ludovic apparently tried to hit on Elena without much success. I’m thinking that one day, I’d like to travel out there again and visit them all, but not yet. I’ve let the agents pack up everything I wanted from my place there. It wasn’t much.

For a while, I probably won’t even have the time to think about traveling unless it’s job-related. I already found out that I will be traveling quite a bit. And that I will make quite a bit more money. And that I have a very fancy company car, with a personally assigned parking space. I also found out that actually arguing with a French diplomat, even with a translator in the background, is a lot more strenuous that just translating French files. On the bright side, I now know the place that arguably offers the best brioches in all of New York. And since Olivia loved them when I brought some yesterday, they’re good enough for me.

And seeing her smile over a bite of brioche really made my rather frustrating day – damn Fréderic’s sympathy, nobody could possibly need that many keycards – fade away like an old headache. I woke up next to her this morning, half curled around her, and even though it was a very early morning, I didn’t mind. I could get used to waking up with Olivia.

I’m still debating whether I should subject her to a few of the ‘…and guest’ socialite events I’ll have to attend in my new job – from Sunday brunches to art show openings – but if she is agreeable, I will. I haven’t quite figured out the company stance on same-sex couples yet, but if they adhere to their own charta, it can’t be that bad. Besides, it’s not as if I’m the only lesbian attorney in town.

I think I could really get used to waking up next to Olivia. And to falling asleep next to her.

I’ve been here three days, and my generously sized desk is already covered in paper stacks. Thank God I can take some of this work home with me so I can do it tonight because I definitely need a few hours off this afternoon.

I’m meeting with my mother. Shopping spree. I should probably be scared, but I need a few more suits. And a dress.

Tomorrow, I’m taking Olivia to the opera.

~~

Her cell phone began to vibrate silently just before the break. Olivia moved toward the doors of the loge, but not without indulging in an apologetic touch to Alex’s half‑bared back on her way.

She was on call this Saturday, but had asked Munch to cover for her barring an emergency because she didn’t want to go back on the opera date with Alex. Although she spent more time looking at Alex in her dress – forget-me-not-blue silk – than at the stage.

Olivia stepped into the corridor, glancing at the display before she hit the receive button. “Don’t tell me we’ve caught a case.”

“Nah, I was just wondering whether you’d like to come over for dinner?” Elliot asked cheerfully. “Kathy’s making…” He stopped, taking in the applause and shouting in the background. “Geez, Liv, where are you?”

“At the Met,” Olivia replied, hoping he would not ask her with whom she had gone. She wasn’t quite ready to share that bit of news yet.

“You’re at the Met?” Elliot sounded dubious. “What are you doing there?”

Olivia arched an eyebrow in reply, even though he couldn’t see her. “Watching an opera?”

“You’re watching an opera?” Elliot still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t being kidded with. “What’s it called?”

She knew it was some ancient queen, but Olivia couldn’t remember the foreign name. “Uh… Alexandra the Great?”

Elliot sounded skeptical. “That’s an opera?”

“It’s one of those early castrato things,” Olivia stalled. It was true. She just couldn’t remember what it was called. Alex was really more interesting than the singer. Blue silk. Hair done up. Low neck. Sparkling little drops for earrings. Lips shimmering with…

As if on cue, her accompaniment for the evening stepped out of the loge, walking up next to her. Definitely Alexandra the Great.

A hand brushed across her arm and settled in the small of her back. “Liv, Darling, who is it?”

Olivia mouthed “Elliot,” waving off Alex’s apologetic expression. At least it was a memorable scenery for this particular outing. She held her breath as she counted the seconds Elliot’s brain needed to process that particular voice in that particular cadence in relation to his partner. She knew she was done for.

“Alexandra the Great, hmm?” Elliot sounded entirely too gleeful.

“The very great,” Olivia confirmed meekly.

Elliot cleared his throat. “How long?” he asked.

It wasn’t what he thought. “Five days,” Olivia replied, Alex’s fingers tangling with her own.

Elliot whistled through his teeth. “Holy God.”

That made Olivia grin. “Better.”

“Were you already…” He clearly wasn’t sure how to phrase this. “Was there anything before she left?”

Olivia sighed. “I didn’t really know it until she was gone.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me?” He seemed more puzzled than angry.

“About what?” Olivia shook her head. “It’s not as if there was really something to talk about. It was just a fantasy. I didn’t know…”

“And when she came back now?” Elliot’s question was hesitant, as if realizing how much of an impact this must have been.

Olivia kept her answer simple. “I realized it wasn’t just a fantasy.”

There was a moment of silence. “Are you happy?” he asked then.

Olivia smiled, warmed by his concern. She focused on Alex, on the way she was ever so slightly leaning into her. She answered honestly. “I didn’t know I could be this happy.”

“Sounds like five days going on forever,” Elliot commented lightly.

Olivia tried to sound just as casual. “Well, a girl can dream.”

“Good for you, Liv.” He sounded honestly pleased. “You do of course realize that I’ll never let you live this one down – busted at the Met.”

“I know,” she acquiesced, trying not to think of the months of pranks to come. But then, she didn’t really mind that much. Alex’s hand was still in hers.

“I’ll let you get back to your opera.” Elliot’s grin was audible even over the phone. “And say hi to Alex for me.”

“Will do,” Olivia nodded, closing her eyes in relief for a second. This had gone over a lot better than she had thought. “And El? – Thank you.”

~~

The street is dark when I finally arrive, having chased after a suspect in a senseless case I don’t recall the details of. I remember searching containers, dust all over my clothes, and that I knew I had no time because I had to be here, and now I am here and the street is empty. I only see the backlights of a line of sedans disappearing down the street. I try to run after them, but the street becomes longer, and longer, and the lights become smaller and smaller.

They have taken you away again. I call after you in the middle of the street, and then Hammond is there, taping my mouth shut and telling me I’m endangering you as he drags me off the street, and the red lights are only tiny dots on the horizon now.

There is a silhouette on the street, and I turn around. It’s you, but I can’t call out to you because my mouth is taped shut and Hammond is holding me back, but then it is not Hammond, but Velez, I recognize the bullet holes in his suit. He reaches to draw a gun, and I throw myself between him and you, but he still fires, and the bullets tear right through me, towards you. I can only look as they hit you, and you stagger, but you walk on, not minding the bloody trail you leave on the pavement.

I look down and there is blood pooling in my hands, too, and suddenly my mouth is free again – “Alex!”

But you don’t even turn around, you just walk away, and I can’t move my feet to run after you, my feet are glued to the asphalt, and…

“Olivia… Liv…” A voice slowly reaches through the fog of panic. “Sweetheart.” Gentle hands are grasping my shoulders. “ Wake up, it’s just a dream.”

I come awake with a gasp, blindly reaching to my side, and Alex is there and I wrap my arms around her as if I never want to let go of her again.

“Nightmare again?” she asks, drawing her fingers through my hair in a soothing manner.

I nod against her chest, my breaths fast and ragged. My shirt is clinging to my skin.

“Figures it would be your turn,” she teases gently, her voice still thick with sleep. “Since it was me the night before last.”

“I’m just so glad you’re here,” I manage to get out. “With me.”

“I am,” she agrees firmly. Then her tone becomes quieter. “Velez again?”

“They took you away again and I was too late to say goodbye, and then Hammond kept me from running after you.” I try to piece the fading bits together. “And then you walked down the street, and Hammond turned into Velez, and he shot you, even though the bullets hit me first, but they went right through me, and hit you. And I called your name, but you walked away and…”

Her arms tighten around me. “I’m not walking away,” she states simply. I wonder how she does that – how she always knows to say what I need most in such moments.

“I’m glad,” I sigh and I snuggle closer into her.

“So am I,” she says, pressing a kiss to my temple.

I should probably get up and find a new t-shirt, since this one is drenched in sweat. But when I finally drag up the energy to pull the shirt over my head and sit up, she just takes it from me, tosses it into the room and drags me back down to her.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing that,” she points out practically before she bends down and kisses my neck.

Even the nightmares aren’t as scary anymore when she is around. Some days I’m not sure what I did to deserve this woman. And that’s the last thing I think before her lips reach mine and I kiss her back.


*finis*


~ Anik LaChev 2005 ~

2 thoughts on “Sere Nere (Black Nights)”

  1. My my oh my!
    Another splendidly crafted and suspenseful piece of writing, long enough for full-immersion – and another happy ending! I’m beginning to think there should be a genre called Lesbian Reclamation.
    I don’t know why but something about the texture made me think of “Producing Adults” – maybe it was the shirt-stuck-over-the-head moment.
    Brava – bravissima!

    Like

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