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AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

TITLE: OPEN YOUR EYES: AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

AUTHOR: Adrienne Lee

DISCLAIMER: Any similarities to people and events real or made up are purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction with characters borrowed from Dick Wolf and not for profit. Inconsistencies with canon, if any, are intentional. Original characters belong to the author.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Part 1 of the Open Your Eyes arch. Set around SVU S6 episode “Scavenger”; contains spoilers. The latest of my on-going Lemon Seed and Orange Tree universe at lemon_orange@yahoogroups.com

ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

SUMMARY: Alex returns to NY after Witness Protection, and begins a new life with Olivia.

PAIRING: Alex/Olivia

RATING: 18

1. TOSCA

From the twenty-first floor window, at the lights of the surrounding buildings, Alex blinks. Not even needing to close her eyes, she can imagine the noises outside. She can smell the dumpsters in the warm autumn night. Looking down, watching the taxis speed along Park Avenue, she hears in her memory the familiar voice of her friend, teasing her.

“Ms. O’Brien. Please step away from the windows. I need you to step away from the windows, Ms. O’Brien.

Ling made those mock warnings earlier that afternoon, in their office, when she caught her focused on the streets below. She was doing very much the same thing then as she is now. Staring, watching the traffic go by, but seeing absolutely nothing. She sighs, her mind having a mind of its own, or perhaps suffering from a bout of attention deficit disorder.

I’m less than a mile from my office. She realizes suddenly. The distances more like countries and Continents and lifetimes apart. She acknowledges with a sigh.

After another deep breath, she looks around the room. The décor is different. Instead of linear espresso leather and brushed chrome, the overstuffed sofa is covered with a plush, moss green upholstery fabric that gives the illusion of comfort, and even home. Rather than heavy mahogany desk and shelves full of hardbound books, there is a small writing desk, and another small table topped with a bouquet of daisies and a room service menu. It’s not her office, but it’s empty, and foreign, just the same. How pathetic is it that she’s staying here, in a hotel. She could have accepted Ling’s invitation to dinner with her family. Afterwards, she could work on unpacking and putting away her old things that her mother had retrieved from storage. She should be in Brooklyn, or, at least, she could be at Olivia’s apartment. The great big house though seems so much bigger, especially at night and by herself. And Liv’s place… She just shakes her head.

It seems even more pathetic that she had actually gone to that great big lonesome house, after leaving the office, to pick up Oliver. She picked up her cat, so the two of them could stay in this suite intended for travelling executives, reserved under the name of Szeto & O’Brien, P.C.

In this hotel that is a mile and a park away from my old apartment. Give or take. She shivers at the thought.

“Hey, you,” she whispers, confident her companion can hear her through the music blaring from the bedroom. “How’s the complimentary catnip?” She smiles as he temporarily abandons the souvenir pet bowl so thoughtfully provided by the front desk to all the four-legged guests, and rubs his whiskers against her legs and feet. It isn’t the warmth she prefers, but at the moment, any life is better than no life at all…

“You’re not thinking about jumping, are you?” Ling was teasing her. “Really, if anything, Olivia looks more like Floria than you,” she added, commenting on the opera coming through her computer speakers. “With the dark hair and dark eyes. Although, that would make you Cavaradossi. That doesn't really fit, does it? Meanwhile, Tosca’s passionate and jealous, and you did admit to being insanely jealous of some woman..."

"Hey, watch it!"

"Hmm…” Ling paused, picking up her friend’s hand. “No, you don’t have artist’s hands. Olivia, however…”

“Is there a point to this?” She asked, pulling away from Ling’s grasp, feeling harassed and suddenly defensive.

“What? I’m just making an honest observation.”

“Right.”

“She does have artist’s hands. A sculptor’s. Your hands are more like a pianist’s.”

“And yours?” Alex relented.

“Mine?” Ling laughed. “Someone who should be staying home and eating bonbons.”

In turn, she laughed. She couldn’t help herself, and she suspected that was what her friend had intended all along.

“So you ready to get measured? John’s waiting in my office. I imagine you’d want me there, at least until you get to know him. And he brought two big swatch books; it’ll be fun looking through the fabrics.”

“Is it really necessary? I’ve got suits.”

“Yes, for a public servant. You gotta dress the part. Just think of it as a perk, your new wardrobe. Like that car we’re getting you,” Ling said with a wicked smile. “Nah uh, save your breath and me a headache. We’ve already gone through this ad nauseam. No more arguments from you. Can’t do it.”

At her friend’s raised hand, Alex sighed. Undeterred, she tried another much contested topic. “Let’s talk capital contributions then.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Why not?”

“Shall I remind you again that your mom pretty much set up this office?”

“Yes. But that was years ago. And you have so many other clients. You grew your practice. Exponentially.”

“Yes, and that’s why this is perfect. Perfect timing, perfect everything. With you here, I can be home more with Michael. There’s no one else I trust more, as a lawyer, and as a friend. We’ll be great together.”

“Ling…”

“Come on! We’re family!”

“I can’t believe you’re using that card. That’s low.”

“Well, you know me and Scruples. We don’t get along.”

Alex knows her friend’s statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Thinking about what she said, however, reminds her of her loneliness. It isn’t like she spent that much time with her family before, and she knows first hand the demands of Olivia’s job. Still, she wishes things were different, that she weren’t spending the night at a hotel on the Upper East Side. Although, I’m sure whatever I’m feeling pales compares to what the husband of the missing woman must be feeling. She sighs and rubs her forehead. For a several long moments, she contemplates calling her lover, just to hear her voice, if not for an update on the search. Instead, she returns the phone to her pocket, and hopes they find the abducted mother in time.

2. DRAGONS AND PRINCESSES

Straightening her back, Alex remembers the first of Olivia’s two calls of the day. Her high voice was tight with tension as she cancelled their lunch date. It was when the detectives first realized they weren't just dealing with some random kidnapper, and that a smart, game-playing serial rapist-killer from the past may have resurfaced. She could tell by the terse sentences that her lover was compartmentalizing, and impatient to refocus on the case. For a few seconds, she felt resentment. It was swiftly replaced by shame and anger. Before she could channel or resolve her feelings, Ling waltzed in.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she blurted.

“Do what?” Ling asked curious but unfazed. It was as if she was used to or perhaps had even come to expect sudden, illogical outbursts from her friend.

There was truth to that, Alex had to admit. Ling would know her foibles. In fact, she had witnessed some of her weakest, most irrational moments. Somehow, the knowledge failed to comfort. “I told Olivia this before I came back.”

“You told her what?”

“That I can’t do this.”

“Do what, Alex?”

“Be here.”

“’Here’ where?” After beats of silence, she finally pressed on, “Here, here, as in here, or New York in general?”

Alex rolled her eyes, before adding to the already absurd moment, “I think I’m jealous of Casey. I’m pretty sure I am.”

“What? Who’s Casey?”

“Casey Novak. She has my job. My old job. She’s the one who’s on call right now, waiting for the break. She’s the one who gets to wake up the judge or interrupts his poker game if they make progress later. And, God forbids, she’ll be one of the ones talking to the M.E.”

She’s the one who gets to work with the detectives, with Olivia. She’s who they rely on. Alex thought then as she does now. She didn’t say it out loud then either. Instead, she closed her eyes, and hoped the brief gesture had hid the pang. This is ridiculous. I’m being ridiculous and ridiculously absurd. Just as before, she scolds herself for her reaction.

“What are you saying, Alex? Do you want to go back to being an ADA?”

Carefully, she searched her friend’s face, looking for fissures, anything. There was nothing but calm and reasonableness. It made her sigh. “Nothing. And no. I’m not sure what I’m doing, or thinking. Let’s go downstairs. I’ll get lunch, uh, unless you have plans.”

It wasn’t necessary for Ling to ask; obviously, Olivia couldn’t get away. Of course that didn’t explain Alex’s volatile moods at the moment. So she grabbed the most obvious, or at least the most understandable, “Are you scared?”

Automatically, she shook her head; but she knew she wasn’t fooling anyone. So the shaking stilled to a small nod. “Shitless.”

“You’ll be fine, Alex. Everything will work out, and you’ll have all the things you want, that you’ve always wanted, since we were kids. You still want those things, right?”

She nodded again.

“You remember the myth about dragons who are really princesses waiting for us to show them how brave and beautiful we are?”

“That was Rilke I think…”

“Myth, poetic pep-talk.” Ling shrugged. “Life still hasn’t forgotten you, right? It’s not going to let you fail. You’re not going to let you fail. And yes, you’re right about Rilke. Listen to the guy, he was good, even if he was a misogynist pig.”

Life… Once more, Alex’s thoughts return to the missing woman. I hope it’s true for you, too, the dragon, princess and life thing, wherever you are. This time, she pulls out her phone. Even though it is set on ‘vibrate’, she wants to confirm she hasn’t missed any phone calls or messages. Reception can be unreliable, especially in a big building surrounded by other big buildings, she justifies.

“No such luck, I guess,” she speaks, just to hear a live voice. An old tenor and a long dead soprano singing pretend-prince and -princess just isn’t enough, even though they were di Stefano and Callas. Even if the boy does get the girl and presumably they live happily ever after.

“Hey, Oliver,” she turns towards the bedroom. As expected her cat is stretched out on the comforter. “How’bout some dinner, eh? It's getting late, and we should feed you,” she says, padding over to the sofa, where she had tossed her overnight bag.

3. RIDDLES

The whole evening, Alex has been expecting and hoping for the phone to ring. When it does, somehow, the sound makes her jump. She doesn't understand it, but it's almost instinctive - she knows who is calling. Not bothering to look at the caller I.D., she hits the green button. Then taking in a quick, deep breath, she says as calmly as she could, "Hi."

"Hey."

Even with the distraction of the music in her room, and the din of traffic on Olivia's end, the weariness in that note is unmistakable. "Bad news?"

"We were too late."

Instantly, she feels bad, and like an idiot and ass for all the irrational and selfish thoughts that crossed her mind since the afternoon. Really, since she moved back. With everything out of control and nothing going according to plan, she has been totally off-kilter. "I'm so sorry."

"The bastard left us another clue. He's back."

"Oh, god, Liv," she gasps. She knows what that means. "Does he already have another... I should let you go, you've got work."

"I've got a few minutes. Munch is driving. We're heading back to the precinct. He's waving 'hello'."

Alex laughs lightly. She remembers the story of confusion and panic when she'd first reached out to Olivia with the Fed issued cell phone, and how the other detective helped her lover solve the mystery. "Tell John 'hello', too."

"It's good to hear your voice."

Six little words. That's all it takes for her world to right again. That itself is a disconcerting thought, but Alex refuses to dwell on it. "I miss you, too. Very much."

"You're staying at the Regency?"

"Yeah. Ling, I mean, we," she says, just to hear herself use the pronoun, "Keep a suite there. It seems my mom has donors and friends and business associates flying in from everywhere all the time. People I've never heard of."

"I'm sure you'll get to meet them soon. Didn't you say there's a fundraiser in the New Year?"

A fundraiser and a coming out for me, in more ways than one, Alex muses. "Yeah."

"So what are you listening to?"

"Puccini. Turandot."

"Ah."

There's a hesitance with the syllable. She bets she knows its cause, but does she want her suspicion confirmed? "Everyone's working around the clock on this?"

"Yeah, until we catch him. I hope we catch him. Soon."

"I hope so, too." She swallows a sigh. Might as well get it over with. "Hey, I understand if you can't make it tomorrow, rather, tonight, considering the time."

"Yeah, I probably won't be able to. But I want to though. And you should go."

She is happy to be able to provide the detective the understanding and relief she obviously wanted. Part of her, however, regrets that they still so often have to read between the lines with each other. "We'll see."

"You should go. You'll enjoy it. You love the Met, and it's opening night."

"Actually, that was last night. We're going to second show, which, in a way, is better."

"So you're going then?"

Alex realizes what she'd just said, and she smiles. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"I'm glad. Will you be staying at the suite, at least until my schedule goes back to normal? I think you should. Our place is a mess, and I can’t..."

"Not that big a mess."

"Sure it is. We still have tons of boxes to unpack. And really, I feel better knowing you are, well, closer."

"You know Ling and Douglas live next door, I wouldn't be completely alone," she reminds Olivia. She knows her lover has her own big bag of fear regarding her safety. They both have so much they need to resolve. She wishes the world would stop spinning out of control for a bit and let them breathe. "But, this isn't bad. I don't have to worry about being stuck on the bridge driving to work. It's only a five minute cab ride. And I don't have to cook. I can even order cat food."

"Yeah, I can just see you and Oliver sharing a can of tuna."

"Hey, I resemble that!" Alex laughs with Olivia. She needs that. They both do.

"So what did you have for dinner?"

"Uh..."

"Sweetheart."

It's amazing the sentiments one could fit into one little word. The concern and endearment under the chastisement infuse her with indescribable warmth. "Okay, okay, I'll order something. Hopefully, it's not too late. Otherwise, I have health bars in my bag. Dark chocolate chip."

"You and your dark chocolate."

There was a little sigh with a lot of wistfulness in that comment, Alex could hear. "I'll take you over all the cocoa beans in the world."

"Yeah? I feel the same way."

"Good. You'd better," she warns with a smile. Then her voice turns serious. "I suppose I should let you go."

"We still have a few minutes. But we are almost there."

"Hey, you know, in the opera, the cruel, icy princess makes her suitors answer riddles. Although you're supposed to know that she's that way just because she's afraid of love, and to love." Alex continues, without waiting for her lover's reply, "Anyway, one of them is ‘what is born each night, and dies each dawn’.”

“What is it?”

“Hope.”

"Hope. I’m not sure that makes sense, but I'll remember it.

“It kind of does, within the context of the opera at least,” Alex admits. "Anyway, I'll tell you more about the icy princess when all this ends."

“Really. I’ll definitely look forward to that.”

“Okay.” This is juvenile, and sickening, but she dreads the end of the call, and she knows the feeling is mutual. Will we always be like this? She hopes so. “I guess I’ll wait to hear from you again?”

“Yeah, hopefully soon.”

“Okay.”

“Sweet dreams. You will get some sleep, right?”

“Yes, I will. Good luck with the bad guy.”

“Thanks, we’ll need it.”

4. LET NO ONE SLEEP

Olivia sighs and snaps her phone shut. She tries to resist, but eventually, she has to look. The smirk lingering on her colleague’s face doesn’t surprise her. “Not a word,” she warns.

“I’m just happy for you, Liv,” Munch replies as he maneuvers the car into a parking space.

“Yeah?” She steals another glance, and sees the genuine support she knows is there. “Thanks.”

“She’s okay?”

“Yeah. She’s staying at a hotel, at least until we sort this out,” Olivia provides conversationally as she releases her seat belt.

“Oh?”

There was something in the other detective’s voice. Plus the fact that he’s keeping the engine running means he’s extending an invitation to talk, should she accept. For several moments, Olivia debates. "We should keep going."

"Without the next clue, we've got nowhere to go, Liv."

He's right. Finally, she lets out a sigh, and rubs her hand against the back of her neck. “She knows I worry about her, all alone at the house. And maybe she does, too, and she just doesn’t want to admit it. You know how she is.”

John nods with an understanding smile.

It isn’t the first time she’d noticed the kindness in the older detective’s eyes. At times like this, she feels truly blessed, that she has such wonderful people in her corner. People who she trusts to have her back, both at and away from work. Her lips curl upwards, conveying gratitude. Then she shrugs and continues, “Some things don't change. But then sometimes it seems like everything’s different. And I think we both have moments we freak out.” No matter what we do.

“You’re both making huge adjustments. Starting a new life for her. New job, new place to live. For you, too. And starting a new life together for both of you. Each of you making decisions that are going to affect the other. They’re all big moves. And to top it off, you have to wonder if and when the past is going to come back to haunt you. It’s tough.”

To put it mildly. She resists verbalizing the comment, and agrees, “Yeah.”

“But in the end, when you get everything straightened out…”

“It’ll be so worth it,” she finishes the sentence for her temporary partner.

“Just hang in there, Liv. You can do it.” Munch gives her another reassuring nod. “And if you ever want to talk…”

“Thanks, John, I really appreciate it.”

“So we ready?” He asks, turning the key.

“Right.” She chuckles and reaches for the door. “So you heard of Turandot?”

“Puccini’s last opera. He died of throat cancer before he could finish it. Wonder if he was a smoker. Anyway, there’s supposed a debate on whether the ‘T’ at the end should be pronounced,” he offers as they walk towards their squad room. “But it’s supposed to be Turan's dokhtar, which is the word for daughter, and the ‘T’ is definitely not silent. So I think it should be ‘Turan-dot’ instead of ‘Turan-doh’.”

Olivia laughs, shaking her head. “Is there anything you don’t know?”

“One can never have enough knowledge.”

“You know, she said something to that effect, too.”

“Always thought she’s smart,” he offers with a smile. “Definitely a keeper, that one. So what about Turandot?”

The carefully enunciated ‘dot’ makes Olivia smirk. “Oh, nothing, she was just listening to it. Apparently, there are riddles in the opera…”

“Ah. Yes. So that’s why you mentioned hope earlier.”

“Yeah.”

“Here’s another: ‘what’s red and hot like a flame, but it’s not fire?’”

“What? I don’t know the opera.”

“Oh, it’s easy. Just think.”

Olivia decides to play along. After all, she started the conversation, and it’s a good reprieve from all the other concerns. Plus, it’s a good way to get her mind back on track. “Red and hot but not fire?”

“I’ll give you a little hint: everyone’s got it, and you can’t live without it.”

“Blood? It’s blood, isn’t it.”

“See? It’s easy.”

“Yeah. Riddles in opera, and just when we’re dealing with a riddler.”

“Another one of life’s little coincidences.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I just… ugh…” She rubs her temples, moving around the fatigue in her head. “We should’ve stopped for coffee. I don’t know how much of this sludge my stomach can take.”

“I know what you mean. Let’s get everyone’s order, and we’ll send someone out,” the senior detective suggests as he pushes through the double door. “Something tells me we’re going to be at this for a while.”

“I hope you’re wrong, Munch, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“Thanks, John.” She looks back at him before she heads towards her desk. “For everything,” she says, and accepts his acknowledging nod.

5. BLOOD

“Come on, people! We need this information; we needed it three hours ago!”

“We weren’t open three hours ago.”

“Exactly!” Olivia looks to Munch. “It’s like talking to a wall here,” she says, before turning back to the clerk. “We’ve already wasted enough time waiting for you.”

“I’m really sorry, Detective. You need to talk to my boss. He’s the only one who can access customers’ orders.”

“Fine,” she agrees reluctantly. “Where’s your boss.”

“He’s over there, on the phone,” he points eagerly, before making his escape. “I’m, uh, gonna be...”

“Yeah, go back to your ferns,” she calls back as they make their way towards the manager. “We need to know who placed an order for policeman’s helmet. Now!”

The man put his hand over the telephone. “I really don’t have time for this.”

“Yeah? You’ll have less time sitting in lock up for hindering police investigation.”

“You wouldn’t. And you’ll need a warrant.”

“Hey listen,” Munch finally jumps in. He checks the guy’s name tag. “Rick, buddy, we'd really appreciate it if you’d just help us out here with this one little piece of information. The last time my partner had to wait for a warrant.” He shakes his head. “Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, and I had to do all the paperwork.”

“What is this? Good cop, bad cop? You don’t scare me, you know? I know how this works, my grandpop was a cop.”

“Well, then, you also know how important your help is to us,” Olivia switches gear, and tenders with civility, complete with heartfelt warmth.

“Please,” Munch lays it on.

“All right, all right. Give me a couple of minutes to pull it up. The system’s been effing slow this morning.” Rick smacks the monitor. “Goddammit! It just froze. I’ll have to reboot.”

“Great.” Olivia throws her hands up. “Just great.”

“Hey, it’s not like I want this. And trust me, I want you guys out of my hair, as soon as possible.” He pounds his frustration on the keyboard. “And you staring at me isn’t going to make this piece of crap go any faster.”

“Don’t you keep hard copy invoices?”

“Of course we do. Here.” Rick retrieves a stack of paper, and slaps it onto the counter. “If you think you can look through this faster, be my guest.”

John reaches out and grabs the invoice book before Olivia can. He thumbs through the pile of pink and yellow duplicates. “There’s got to be hundreds of orders.”

“Yes. And they all have to go out this morning. You see why I don’t have time for you?”

“You know what? I hope you don’t ever find yourself in this same… oh, screw it,” she says with a sigh of exasperation. "I'm taking five," she says to Munch, and waits for his assent. “Let me know when the machine’s up and running,” she yells back before swiveling on her heels, heading away from the counter and towards another area of the shop.

Soon, she approaches the man they had initially talked to. “Hey, Paul,” she acknowledges him, nicely this time. More flies with honey, she knows that. Besides, they were just playing good cop bad cop earlier. “Can you deliver this today?”

He looks up, his eyes wide, and takes the flowers from her hand. “Sure. Anything for you, Detective.”

“Right,” she mutters, glazing the word with a light coat of skepticism. With her peripheral vision, she watches the manager. Satisfied that the man is still staring at the computer with disgust, she asks, “How much? I'd like them to get there right after the office opens, which should be 8:30.”

“Where’s it going?”

“Here.” She pulls out a business card from her wallet. “Here’s the address, and the recipient.”

“A dozen red roses to Jaime A. O’Brien, Esquire,” he pronounces the name the Spanish way, turning on his sales-person mode. “Hot latino boyfriend, huh? Partner, too! Lucky you! Love and passion. Definitely good choice." He picks up the bouquet and admires them. "And these just came in, fresh. They're gorgeous. What’s the special occasion? We can add a note.”

Momentarily, the detective falters. Should she let it slide? No one would know the difference, least the delivery person. It isn’t anyone’s business, really. Why though? Not like I'm ashamed or anything. Besides, this can be practice. “Jaime, actually,” she corrects, “No special occasion… Just 'cause she's special,” she adds with brass in her tone. "Actually, you could put that on the card. 'Because you're my special girl'."

He meets her challenge and grins. “Oh, my bad! See what happens when you assume? You know what? We’ve got a bunch of deliveries to that building everyday, with the restaurants and shops, not to mention all the big law firms and whatnots. We’ll just put this on the truck, no charge. It’ll get there before 9:00 this morning, okay?”

“Uh, okay. Thanks,” she acknowledges, and her lips quirk into a small lopsided grin.

“Hey, no sweat. Like I said, we've got a truck heading there anyway. Besides, here at Super Flower Mart, we take care of our own,” he says with a wink, accepts her money and writes out a receipt. Before the detective walks away, he remembers, “Hey, how d’you want the card signed?”

She thinks for half a second. “I don’t.”

“Ohh. I get it. She’ll know who they’re from. Nice.”

With a lingering smile, Olivia checks her watch and walk back to the other counter, actually feeling a bit lighter in her steps. She gives Munch a subtle shrug in response to the twinkle in his eyes, and then refocuses her attention.

“Detective, I think I’ve got what you need," Rick says and turns the monitor around. "Here, here’s the order for the policeman's helmets.”

6. BLOOM

“Dammit!” Olivia slams her frustration against the steering wheel. “How many more are we gonna lose?”

“Liv.”

She twists her head to the sound and waits for a beat before turning forward again. He’s done talking. There’s nothing else to say. She understands perfectly. They’d failed two women, two women and all their loved ones. How much blood will be shed, how many hearts will be broken before they catch the guy - if they managed to catch the guy?

“There’s got to be over a hundred stab wounds,” she says, not trying to brush away the mental picture of the latest victim. She can’t; it keeps her going the most visceral way. “I hope they were inflicted post mortem.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

“It never gets any easier.” Not that it should. And when it does, it’ll be time to quit.

“We’ll catch him. I know we will.”

“Yes, we will,” she agrees. She even manages conviction. A discussion over the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy is one of the last things she wants to engage in with Det. Munch. “So, what do you wanna do? Stick around and see if CSU finds anything, or go back and wait for Warner’s results?”

“I don’t know about you, but I need some breakfast, and more coffee.”

“Coffee’s definitely good.” Olivia nods. “You wanna call Warner to see if she can get started on the autopsy right away? And I’ll get us on the road?” She asks and starts the ignition. In reply, John picks up his phone and presses a button.

Normally, she would keep an ear on the conversation, but it’s been over twenty-four hours since the first victim was discovered missing and they had been going non-stop. He’ll catch her up. Meanwhile, she allows her mind a break. God, I need... Actually, what I really need is you. You should be getting up soon, if not already… What I wouldn’t give… She sighs, feeling guilty for her wishful thinking.

“All right.” John pulls her back into the moment. “The M.E. says she can shuffle the bodies and get started on Gloria as soon as she gets there.”

“Okay. Good,” she says, trying not to cringe at the victim’s name.

“Okay, let’s talk.”

“About what, John?”

“Anything.” “Why?” The tangent had come as a surprise, and Olivia wonders. “I’m not gonna fall asleep behind the wheel,” she adds with a wry grin.

“It’s not you I’m worried about.”

“You, John?” She glances at the other detective. “If anything, you look a bit wired.”

“Exactly. I’m not sure I can sort out my head right now. Or want to, for that matter.”

“Oh, I know that feeling.” Olivia smiles, happy with the quiet ease of their interaction. Truthfully, she enjoys working with the older detective. Their dynamic is so different from hers and Stabler’s. Her partner is like a sibling; they know and love each other, and neither will hesitate calling out the other’s bull, or give him or her a swift kick in the ass if necessary. Munch is more like a mentor, one who really cares, who guides with wisdom. The deep peace and acceptance she senses in the man calms her, and gives her hope.

“So.”

“So.” I suppose we’re beyond talking about the weather. Briefly, she presses her lips together. When nothing sublime comes to mind, she decides to just go with the first thing that pops into her head. “Do you like operas, or do you just know about Puccini and Turandot?”

“I’ve listened to my fair share. They can be very enjoyable, depending on one’s mood.”

“You’re such a diplomat,” she says and laughs. “I need to learn your tact.”

“Oh, I think you can be tactful if you wanted to be. You just prefer to play the ‘bad cop’.”

There’s no criticism in the other detective’s mien, Olivia notes, and continues. “We have tickets to the opera tonight, with friends of hers. They’re our neighbors in Brooklyn actually. Anyway, they have extra seats in their box.”

“Didn’t realize you’re a fan.”

Olivia shrugs. “It’s okay. The singing is beautiful, and she really loves it.” And it wouldn’t be torture at all to sit in the dark and hold hands with her for three hours. Nope, not at all, she confirms, her lips twitching into a smile.

“What’s playing?”

“Carmen.”

“Ah, the beautiful gypsy with the fiery temper that ends in murder.”

Despite herself, Olivia chuckles. “Thanks for the perspective. Now I don’t feel so bad not making it. Dealing with real life murder is more than enough.” She shakes her head.

“I’m sorry to have to agree with you on this right now. So that’s what the roses are for? To make up for missing Carmen?”

“Huh?” She was wondering if he would bring it up, but the question gives her pause. The answer, however, makes her smile wider. “No, I don’t need to apologize for that. She knows the job. I just needed to step away.” Literally. “And the flowers caught my eye when we walked in.”

“They were beautiful.”

Like her. Silence hangs through the next two traffic stops. Then she ponders out loud, “Sometimes I wonder how I got so lucky.”

“We all deserve happiness, Liv.” Munch replies kindly. His face lights up when they pull into a spot. “And I see mine coming in the form of the biggest egg white omelette. Or maybe the challah French toast. After you.” He holds the door open and asks, “What do you think? Should I get both?”

She looks at him sideways and enters the diner with a laugh.

7. FLIGHT

Look ahead. Focus. No, don’t look around. Alex tells herself as she waits for the light to change. This is a bad idea. Should’ve just gotten a taxi. It’s not too late yet. She realizes and almost raises her arm. No, you’re not going to do this. Just act normal, and focus.

God. So stupid. She berates as she crosses the street to the other side of Park Avenue. Hopefully, Trevor’s in court or in the office, and not on his way to work. How could I’ve forgotten how close he is? Chances are, short of the two of them colliding, Langan wouldn’t notice her. She is dead, as far as he's concerned. In theory, it wouldn’t have mattered even if he did recognize her. However, he is not someone she wants to deal with today. Or any day.

Just a few more. She counts the blocks to her destination. You can do this. The sooner you get through these irrational fears, the sooner you can get back… She shakes her head and firms her lips. Sooner you can get on with everything that requires your attention. And so many things seem to require her attention these days, even though technically, she is still on a half-time basis with work, it being her first week. Plus, she’s still waiting to hear back from Albany for the decision on her Bar application. Then there are phone calls to make, vehicle registration, banking, all the small, routine things that become overwhelming in the aggregate. Strangely, being home doesn’t make it easier than the last time she had to establish a new State residence.

All right, almost there. She breathes a sigh of relief as she sees the Waldorf. Soon she’ll be at her address. 200 Park Avenue. The Street of Dreams. She rolls her mental eyes. Who came up with these names? She still can’t believe she’s sharing a building with Greenberg Traurig and Winston & Strawn, some of the nation’s premier law firms. For many lawyers out there, she’s living the dream. Big law, though, had never been in Alex’s sight. Noblesse oblige - its responsibility and honor - was supposed to be her destiny. Sure, being involved in all of Celine Cabot’s charitable work will be a sizable aspect of her new pursuit, but can she reconcile the rest?

Finally. Her building is in sight. She just needs to get back on the right side of the street. At least I got some exercise out of this. She sighs, while brushing off and justifying the shortness of her breath.

Fifty-nine elevators in ten banks. Five freight elevators. Eighteen escalators. Four levels of parking. Twenty-four hour security office. K-9 perimeter patrols. Oh, and security cameras on every one of the fifty-eight floors. Alex recites the report from Hank, as she had done yesterday. She still doesn’t know if he gathered the details because he is or was involved in her case, or simply because he cares. Either way, no doubt the information was supposed to help her feel safe. It just fuels her paranoia.

Last minute, before entering the lobby, the attorney decides to walk a bit more - at least once around the block. New York is her home; Midtown is where she works. She refuses to spend the rest of her life feeling like a stranger or looking over her shoulder. Besides, she has time. Almost all the time in the world, she feels, with nothing fixed on her the calendar, and no court calls. In fact, I might never see a courtroom ever again… She doesn’t know how to feel about that yet.

By the time her black suede kitten heels hit the grey terrazzo floor, she is one of the many mind-numbingly boring investment bankers or lawyers going to work in their dull black suits. She even has the big business purse to match. She feels almost ready as she walks by the gilded wire sculpture. Without breaking her stride, she regards the complex construction. It is supposed to be a light and delicate thing, despite the space it takes up, Alex thinks. After all, it’s named ‘Flight’. Somehow, it seems earth bound, and joyless. Maybe I’m projecting, she decides as she waits for the elevator.

"Good morning, Jaime," the receptionist-office manager calls out cheerfully before she steps completely through the door.

"Good morning, Greg," she replies with a practiced smile, resolving to gape at her name in gold-leaf on another day. Maybe in a couple of weeks, it won't be so new; and soon, she won't even notice it. She hopes so.

"John del Sarto called. He'd like to come by with the muslin samples this afternoon for you to try on. Ling said she'll be free to join you."

"All right. I’ll see him then. Is Ling here?"

"She is, but Douglas came in with her. She'll stop by your office later this morning though."

"All right. Thanks," Alex acknowledges, remembering the unspoken rule that the partners are not to be disturbed when their significant others are visiting. She doesn't think that applies to them with each other, but she can wait. "That's it?"

He nods, his finger hovering over the answer button. "Have a good day, Jaime!"

"You, too, Greg."

"Szeto & O'Brien, how may I direct your call," she hears him say as she proceeds down the corridor. This feels unreal. The feeling is magnified when she reaches her office. Oddly, adjusting from having her own office at 1 Hogan Place to a glorified cube at the Cook County Administrative Building was easier than going into this space. Her space. With an unobstructed view of the Chrysler Building, it is at least twice the size of the District Attorney’s lair.

“Good morning, Mike,” she greets her legal assistant stationed across her door. He is also her temporary secretary until she settles on her own or decides to have him be both. Also surreal is that with his overtime potential, before bonus, this kid makes more than Olivia does, and he is just one of six full-time employees they have. That she is responsible for a staff, that she has to keep track of her billable hours, solicit clients, and grow her book. So totally different from working for the City.

“Good morning, Jaime,” he perks up from his work. “Oh, flowers were delivered for you this morning. I put them in a vase for you.”

That is not something her previous assistants would ever do. She doesn’t know how to feel about the extra privileges either. Flowers? At the unexpected gift, Alex’s face split into a smile. “Thanks, Mike! Appreciate it!”

“Welcome, Jaime.”

Hurriedly, she disappears into her office. “Liv,” she whispers, no doubt who had sent the long-stemmed roses, and her smile widens. With a quick decision, she shuts her door. As she approaches, she sees the note card atop her calendar. Not waiting, she reads it upside down before walking around the desk. Then she carelessly throws her bag on the floor, and melts into her chair. With both hands, she pulls the flowers to her, almost the same way she would her lover into a hug. God, I miss you.

She reaches for her phone. “They’re beautiful and sweet,” she types and sends, then follows up impulsively with another text. “Like you.”

Ignoring the heat in her cheeks, Alex breathes deeply, letting the sweet scent fill her senses. As her fingers caress the gold borders of the card and her eyes, the simple words, her spirit lightens. She feels her happiness, palpable and real.

8. FIRE

“Christ.” The vibrating phone jars Alex from her bubble. Hurriedly, she grabs at it before it slips entirely out of her hand. She is happy to have closed the door, as her face feels hot, which compounds her embarrassment of getting caught in her daydream. “Hey,” she answers breathlessly.

“So you like them?”

“Love them. Thank you,” she adds softly.

“My pleasure,” Olivia replies, her voice dimmed by wistfulness, “Wish I could’ve brought them to you myself.”

“Me, too.” Alex swallows and clears her throat. “How are things?”

“He took a second victim.”

“Oh, Liv, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” the detective sighs. She turns away from the mirror towards the small, opened window, and squints at the sun. She wishes again she could see her lover, instead of just speaking with her over the telephone. It shouldn’t be this difficult, she scolds silently and pinches her brows. Focus. Focus and patience, she tells herself and leans back against the sink. “Anyway, while we wait for Melinda to do her thing, Munch and I decided to take a breakfast break.”

“So you have a little time?”

“Not a lot.” The hope in Alex’s voice only sinks Olivia’s heart. She continues after a short pause, “I didn’t want to call in front of him.”

“Oh?”

“Um. I don't want any witnesses, not for this conversation.”

“Really?” Alex finds herself dissolving. “Wait, where are you calling me from then?”

“You’re gonna laugh.”

“I won’t.”

“Uh huh. You’re already chuckling, and I haven’t even told you.”

In her mind, Alex can see her lover’s mock pout, and that only makes her laugh harder. “You’re so goofy.”

“But you love me, right?”

She stops for a restless moment. “You really need to ask, Liv?”

“No,” Olivia assures, dragging the word out. Then, her voice light and high, she explains, “A girl just likes to hear it sometimes.”

“Fair enough,” Alex acknowledges. She cradles the phone in her hands, and closes her eyes. “I love you, Olivia Benson, with all my heart.”

“And?”

“And?” She smiles a little smile. “My soul?”

“Body, too, I hope,” the detective says and adds with playful confidence, “Actually, I insist.”

“Is that all you care about?”

“Hmm… It makes the package nicer.”

Yeah, definitely good thing I closed the door. Alex crosses her legs, her tone takes on a smoky timbre, “Well, I look forward to you unwrapping the package.”

Olivia gasps, and then she groans. “You’re so not nice.”

“Oh, I can be very, very nice. You still haven’t told me where you are.”

“Bathroom. So I should really get back out there…”

“Are you alone in the bathroom, Liv?” She asks, biting down on her lip.

“Yes. No. I mean yes, I’m alone, but no, don’t even go there.” Too late. Her heart is already beating faster, her ache, more intense. She wants. She wants so much. What she wouldn't give, to reach out, to hold and be held. “God. Ugh.” She lets out a frustrated sigh. “I shouldn’t be thinking about this.”

“What’s ‘this’ that you’re thinking about?”

“You know ‘what’, Alex,” Olivia nearly whines. She spins around, holding her body tight, and with a deep breath to center herself, she continues, “I can’t go back out there all flushed and hot and bothered, at least not more than I am now.” With another sigh, she checks the mirror. “In fact, I need to pull myself back together,” she says, and turns on the tap to splash water on her face.

The sound of water running somehow warms the attorney, yet she feels goose bumps growing on her skin. “Are you really all flushed and hot and bothered?”

“Alex! What do you think? And I’m serious, baby, please, help me out, and stop.”

Oh, I could totally help. Not the way you’re asking, and not stopping though. Definitely not stopping… She halts her reverie, and instead tries to recall the recent opinion by Justice Thomas that she had read. “All right,” she replies, contrite. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Olivia quickly relented. “I just miss you, so much. And I’m not sure when I can see you. I don’t understand why I’m feeling like this. I mean, for months, we only saw each other a weekend here and there, and now we’re in the same city, we live in the same house…”

Well, actually I'm currently living in a hotel. Alex spares her lover that thought. “But we’ve barely spent any time together since I moved back,” she reasons, sharing her lover’s sentiment. “Maybe it’s harder precisely because we’re so close.”

“And yet so far…”

“Yeah,” she exhales the word. “Anyway, we’ve been on for a while. John’s probably wondering if you’re all right.”

“I’ll just tell him I fell asleep on the can,” Olivia jokes. Then she is serious again. “I love you, Sweetheart, so, so much.”

“I love you, too, Liv. And I wish I could give you a hug.” More than a hug. She wishes she could gather the detective up, and press their bodies together, until nothing can separate them. At least for one uninterrupted day. Even more than that, she wishes her lover didn’t sound so weary, that she could help ease her fatigue.

“I’ll try to call you again. Hopefully, we’ll catch some sort of break.”

“I hope so, too, on both. Be careful out there.”

“Always,” Olivia promises. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They both pause. The silence lingers as neither one of them wants to sever the connection. Finally, the detective draws a breath, and assumes her task, one she took on during their months of separation. “Okay. On ‘three’.”

“Three.”

9. GAVROCHE

“Knock, knock,” Ling says, poking her head through the door before she opens it wider to allow herself in. “How are things?”

Alex shrugs, but before she can answer, her friend speaks again.

“Tosca? More Tosca? Seriously?”

“Actually.” Alex sighs and slides her glasses higher along her nose. “Just Puccini arias.”

“From Tosca.”

“Okay. Fine.” She pops the disc out and puts in another. “Happy?”

“What are we listening to now?”

“’We’ don’t have to listen to anything, I’m listening to Les Mis,” she says with narrowed eyes, resisting the urge to cross her arms about her chest.

“Ooh, Snarky, you’re back! I’ve missed you!” Instead of being offended, Ling rejoices. Then she points her chin at the roses near the front center of the long mahogany desk. “These are gorgeous, by the way. I’ll bet I know who they’re from. Not Ms. Novak right?”

“Look, Ms. Szeto, do you need something?”

“Someone’s cranky, too.”

“Is there a reason for you to be picking on me?”

“Is that what I’m doing? I’m sorry?” Ling offers as she lowers herself into one of the visitor’s chair. “I guess we’ve changed, like so many other things. And our dynamic would be different from before… when we were kids.”

The suddenly sober expression on her friend’s face jolts Alex from whatever it is she’s been feeling. She tries to make amends. “It had only been ten years since law school. We weren’t kids. So maybe not a hundred percent different.”

“What? Ninety-nine point five?”

“How’bout twenty or thirty, or maybe ten-ish?” She shrugs again, and rolls her eyes in apology. Please excuse my being asinine, she conveys in silence. “Majority of the time, we’re still who we’ve always been. You’re still my oldest friend.”

“You’re sure.”

The hesitance in Ling’s voice disturbs her. God, I need to get a grip, before I screw everything up. “Positive,” she confirms.

“So why the melodrama… Tosca?”

Maybe I should just be honest. Honesty is supposed to be good for the soul, they say; whoever ‘they’ are. “You’re right, Floria Tosca, and the painter, they both remind me a little of Olivia.”

“And who are you? The marchesa? You’re definitely not Mary Magdalene in the painting.” Ling asks with marked sincerity. “The political prisoner, what’s his name? Or Scarpia the crooked cop who wanted to get into Tosca’s skirt and ends up getting killed for it?” She contemplates, capping and uncapping her pen. “I don’t think any of them fit.”

“I’m not sure I’m anyone, Ling. I mean, in the opera,” Alex appends hastily. “Anyway, whatever. I’m looking forward to tonight. It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Met. That’s probably why I can’t get Puccini out of my head. The last performance I saw was Madama Butterfly.”

“Oh, please.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t play it here,” she promises, reaching out to give the smaller woman’s hand a quick squeeze. “I don’t even own a recording,” she adds, wanting to show understanding towards her friend’s indignation over the plot. More than that, she wants to provide assurance that they are all right. She wants reassurance for herself.

“So, how’s your morning reading?”

The change of subject, though abrupt, is a good sign judging by the other woman’s relaxed demeanor. “A little slow,” Alex replies with a noisy exhale.

“Questions? Issues? Concerns?”

She shakes her head. “Just a lot to absorb. I feel like such a bad daughter.”

“There’s no reason for your mom to share any of this stuff with you, unless you’re her attorney.”

Which is my new role. “It’s kind of weird. To know so much. Unsettling, to be perfectly honest,” Alex admits.

“It’s good, you know? One day, your mom’s going to want to slow down. And it’ll be you and me taking over. Thank goodness most of this will be handled by the Board. Which is already the normal course of business, as you can see.” Ling gestures at the folders, and follows with a helpless lift of her shoulders. “But you know your mom.”

Yeah, the apple definitely doesn’t fall far from the tree in the control department. “Has she said anything?”

“No. I don’t think she would know what to do with all her energy. Unless you give her grand babies.”

Alex laughs. “Are you doing her bidding now?”

“Just think: our children could play together and grow up together. Maybe they’ll even fall in love and get married, and we’ll really be related.”

“I don’t think I can think that far ahead.”

“Well, and I’ve said what I’m supposed to say,” Ling admits, joining in the laughter. “I think you still have a little grace period, before the real pressure. Although maybe there won’t be pressure, considering you’re liable to do just the opposite when pushed too hard. Stubborn.”

“Pot.”

Red lips widen into a toothy grin. “Yes, well. Here, Kettle.” She hands over a legal pad, then points again at the stack of folders on Alex’s desk. “For when you’re done with that.”

Quickly, Alex reads over the list. “Who are these people?”

“Clients I’ve been dying to get rid of,” Ling explains. “You think I’m joking? I’m not. And you should call them, and introduce yourself, and let them know you’re at their beck and call before they decide to call you. Let’s just say, you’ll think you’re working for your dad’s side of the family.”

“Oh, great, you’re making me handle your pompous, self-righteous clients.”

“Our clients. And your adjectives.”

“They fit.”

Ling lets out a chuckle and shakes her head. “So, you ready for our three-martini lunch?”

“You don’t even like martinis. But, yeah, let’s go.” Alex nods for emphasis, and rises onto her feet. I need a break.

10. WANT

As the car moves up Broadway towards Jeannette Henley’s apartment on the Upper West Side, Olivia leans her head against the window, and watches the street. She is happy Munch is driving. She is happy she is doing something, even if it is to give out bad news. But we’re warning her to keep her safe, she justifies. Unbidden, her mind shifts back to yesterday afternoon, when they first interviewed the woman. The way she had covered the scar with a scarf, and how ashamed she looked when she peeled it aside, broke the detective’s heart.

Afterwards, when she had a quiet moment to herself, she remembered the movie she saw about Beethoven. It must have been ten years ago, if not longer. She couldn’t even remember who she was dating at the time, just that her date had picked the movie. She had tried to forget everything about it, because all she could see, over and over, was the dramatized gang rape of one of the composer’s purported lovers. She can still recall how the woman fingered her scar. She can still feel the vacant look in her eyes. Even though it was acting, it seemed so real.

Suddenly, the detective finds herself thinking about her mom. They would be about the same age, she and Henley, she realizes. Not for the first time, she wonders if the alcohol didn’t just drown the horror of the rape Serena Benson endured, but the shame, too.

Not for the first time, she wonders why she is keeping this job. At this point, she could transfer to any unit she wants. Lord knows she isn’t there for the prestige even though SVU does carry its own. Is she there to help and avenge the victims, victims like her mother? Who she couldn’t help? Who she had probably driven to her final binge because of their confrontation about falling in love? With Alex?

She had felt so guilty those days right after her mother’s accidental death. That guilt was definitely more intense than the guilt of her conception, of being a constant reminder to her mother’s rape, or the cause of the fallout with her grandparents. Now that much time has passed and she allows herself to feel, she finds only numbness. She certainly doesn’t feel guilty about loving the woman she loves…

Sometimes she wonders if she is doing this job, so she could keep connected to Serena Benson somehow. Especially on long days like the last two. Especially when we’re all at the mercy of a game-playing psychopath. She closes her eyes. Who is his next victim?

“Hey, Liv, are you all right?”

The tenor of concern snaps her alert. “Yeah. Just… Not really looking forward to what we have to do. She’s lived in fear for what, the last 30 years? Wondering every single day if today’s the day he decides to come back for her?”

“We’ll catch him, and put him away for good.”

“I certainly hope so.”

“This case, it’s really hitting you hard.”

It’s not even a question, Olivia notes. She stills for a moment, and then nods. “Just, Jeannette Henley. I saw the shame she carries with her. You know, with the scar, reminding her. It seemed, familiar.”

Munch nods. “You’re thinking about your mom.”

“And wondering if she had to live with that, for more than half her life.”

“With you as a reminder.”

“Yeah.”

“Your mom loved you. She really did.” With a brief hesitation, he reaches over and squeezes her arm. “Remember the day you started with the squad? And she brought us cookies and coffee, the really good stuff?”

“Yeah, I was so embarrassed. It was like first grade.”

“She did that for your first day of first grade?”

“And middle school, and high school. The first care package I got in college had enough treats to feed the dorm.”

“If anything, I think your mom was proud of you.”

Olivia takes in a deep breath, and lets it out slowly. More weight falls off with a roll of her shoulders. “She kept telling me. And how much she loved me.”

“A child is a blessing from God,” he reminds her, knowing her well enough to have knowledge of her mother’s religion.

“Yeah.” She presses her lips into a light smile. “No matter how he or she comes by. She said it so many times, I lost count.”

“You’ve been a blessing, to a lot of people.” When a sigh is the response, he pushes, “You are, you know, to everyone you’ve helped, to the people you love. I’m sure Jaime agrees with me. You’re loyal, and protective…”

“You make me sound like a guard dog.” She laughs.

“And unlike Jeannette Henley, she has you. Didn’t you say you have a friend with the feds on her case? They would’ve advised her against leaving Witness Protection if they had concerns. And she has us, all of us, and our support. She doesn’t have to live in fear.”

Olivia stares at the older detective. Partly, she is surprised by how he always seems to hit the crux of her issues. But he is very good at his job. She blinks, more shocked by the vehemence his displays. She replies the only way she can, “Thank you.”

“She’ll always be one of us.”

“And we take care of our own.”

“You bet.”

11. CARMEN

Less is more, Alex thinks again as she stands in her office while John del Sarto flits around her, pinching, pinning the fitting sample. He reminds her of a bee without the buzzing. Wonder if del Sarto is his real name. She should ask just to kill the silence. But then that would require him to spit out the pins in his mouth.

Meanwhile, Ling is lounging in the sofa, scrutinizing no doubt every minutia. Once in a while, she dips her chin or lifts a corner of her lips in agreement. Every motion is subtle, and it has taken Alex a while to notice how the tailor glances at her partner to gauge her reaction. In response, he’ll stuff more pins in his mouth or spit them out and pin them on her. Pinning and pinching. Even if she pays attention, she isn’t sure if she could tell the difference between where the old seam was and the new seam is.

‘A grain of rice makes all the difference,’ she remembers one of Lillian’s favorite sayings. Risotto for John. She amuses herself. And ‘Perfection is in the details.’ That’s one of Celine’s many mottos.

Suddenly, this seems like déjà vu, almost. Missing from the picture now are both their moms; and instead of suits for work, they were being fitted for gowns for their debutant ball. Fluffy, romantic pastel colored dresses to usher them into a hopefully similarly tinted adulthood. At fifteen going on sixteen, she had felt apprehension, but mostly excitement and eager anticipation, as the seamstress and her assistants flitted over the two of them like a colony of bees. Although back then, she thought of them as butterflies, beautiful monarch butterflies. And now, twenty years later, her new suits would be appropriate for state funerals. Meanwhile, in addition to apprehension, she feels only overwhelming boredom and impatience.

Honestly, what’s wrong with getting suits off the rack and taking them to the tailor for adjustments? Oh, no, that’s not perfect enough for Ling, or their clients apparently. God forbids if they spotted a Rive Gauche label on her jacket. When she was young, she loved playing dress up in her mother’s clothes. She couldn’t wait to grow up, wear pretty things, meet exciting people at elaborate parties and be a socialite like Mrs. Alexander Cabot.

Mrs. Alexander Cabot, never ‘Celine’ in writing, she recalls. Hm. When did I stop thinking that was okay? She and Ling even spent ridiculous amount of energy and effort speculating who she would marry, what her name would be, and trying all the names of the boys in their circle for fit.

Then she remembers the conversation with Ling about their children growing up and falling in love. Somehow little Alexandra Cabot growing up to be Mrs. Leon Szeto never crossed anyone’s mind, even though she did kiss him. Once. And got scolded and grounded by Edith. Yet Uncle Jack teased Ling about marrying Jack Henry. Huh. Somehow, she knows double standards were involved, and she suspects she doesn’t want their nature confirmed. If my dad were alive, we wouldn’t be here, doing this. That much she does acknowledge. Not for the first time, she wants to ask John del Sarto if he was related to the emperor’s tailor, vis-à-vis Hans Christian Andersen.

The things that she had always wanted growing up, that Ling had referred to, surely didn’t include this… hypocrisy or ostentation. She knew she wasn’t always embarrassed by her family’s wealth. The private jets and chauffeured cars, she took for granted. The summer-long vacations in Europe and their stays on private islands belonging to her parents’ friends were utterly enjoyable as long as Ling was around, and Ling was almost always around. So when did she change? What made her a different person? With different wants and different priorities?

Then her mind drifts to the company vehicle Ling threatens to lease for her. She knows her friend only wants to make them equal in every aspect of the business partnership. Sure, their accountant thinks in the long run it would save them money if they kept a car for her, instead of using livery services or reimbursing after-hour taxi expenses like they do for the rest of their staff. All true, if she had issues taking the train, or getting dropped off and picked up when Olivia's schedule allows. Actually, her Focus is being shipped from Chicago, but she knows not to suggest driving that to meet their clients.

Or maybe just for fun, I will, she thinks. To her amusement, Ling’s eyes narrowed, and she smirks in response.

“Okay, this is good,” the man speaks after receiving his approval from Ling and walking around Alex one last time. “I’m going to step outside while you put this on,” he says and hands her the fitting sample for the skirt suit.

“Oh, my god,” Alex sighs out every syllable as she gingerly begins to shrug the garment off her shoulders, mindful of all the sharp points. She doesn’t mind getting poked as much as she dreads misplacing one of the pins and restarting the process. “A little help here?”

Ling snorts and gets up from her perch. “He’s good, isn’t he?”

“Yes, I’m sure he is. But aren’t you bored out of your mind? I am.”

“Actually, I felt like the regina, watching her cortigiana getting…”

“Right.”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you related to Madame de Pompadour somehow?”

Yes, like I am somehow related to John Cabot who discovered North America. She rolls her eyes. “Ha-ha.”

“Just think, in a few hours, you'll have Carmen.”

“Yes, and between death by sewing pins and the fat lady sings I have the most intellectually engaging client files to read through. My life couldn’t possibly get any better.”

“It could certainly get a lot worse, you know?”

“Right now, I’m not sure how,” Alex replies, contrary to her thoughts.

“Oh, I’m sure if your worry-wart brain would figure out. Just give it time.”

“You’re totally not helping.”

“Well, I don’t have to help you undress. If you’ll excuse me a minute, I’ll just go…” Ling arches her brow and hands over the new suit top.

“Don’t you dare, Szeto. I will find you and use you as a pin cushion.”

“Uh-huh. What’s really bugging you anyway? Well, which is it, right now?”

“Argh!” She steps out of the trousers and into the skirt. “What are all these threads and lines?” She grouses as she tucks in her shirt. “And we have to do this again in two weeks? You’d think with all the measurements, and what he’s doing today, they can just finish the suits without me?”

“You want this to be perfect, so they don’t have to fit every new suit, unless your body changes,” Ling offers reason. “Seriously, give. And talk fast, so he can come back in.”

Alex swallows her denial that there’s nothing to give, and sighs. “Carmen.”

“What?”

“The Habanera. Remember the gist? That love is a gypsy’s child and doesn’t know the law, and it’s a bird that flies away and you wait and wait for it to come back, then it does when you least expect it, and then when you think you have it in your hand, it flees and when you think you’re free, it catches you?” She says in one breath.

“And if you love me, I don’t love you? And if I love you, beware?” Ling replies slowly, choosing her words carefully. “Are you, um, having second thoughts, or cold feet, about Olivia? Is that what’s been bothering you?”

“Olivia? No, I don’t think so.”

“You don’t ‘think’ so?”

Alex shakes her head. She opens her mouth to formulate a reply, and finds herself wordless. She presses her lips together, and briefly closes her eyes. Then, with another shake of her head, she tries again, “Never mind I said anything. Olivia and I are fine. Let’s tell John ‘of the Tailor’ I’m ready.”

Ling gives her friend a look of uncertainty, but moves towards the door.

12. BREATHE

Finally alone in her office, Alex settles at her desk. She glances at the deep pile of Redweld folders and grabs one at random. From the first pocket, she retrieves pages of notes taken by various people who had worked on the file. Ling’s handwriting pops out as the most unruly, like a physician’s scribble. She scowls, and then sighs as her mind wanders. In a way, it is interesting, how their penmanship diverged, considering they were both schooled by the same tutor, using the same worksheets designed for elegant and legible cursive letters. Through the years, her own style grew longer and narrower, echoing her physical changes; but it retained the same distinct loops and flourishes. Meanwhile, Ling’s… Ling’s look like she had been trying to break away and draw her own map. Or make up her own language. Huh.

But she is living the life everyone’s planned for her. All she needs is 1.5 more kids, a dog and maybe a parakeet, too. And I… Alex shakes her head clear, unwilling to make the comparison. Instead, she attempts to concentrate. After a few minutes, she rubs her eyes, and sinks her forehead into her hands. Focus, damn it. Focus.

While she tries to corral her thoughts, Carmen’s aria took up space in her head. ‘Si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime. Si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!’ Over and over, she keeps hearing the phrases her friend had translated earlier. Surely I’m not fickle, not about anything really, I don’t think. And Liv, she’s probably one of the most steadfast people I know.

No. It isn’t about Olivia, she avows. With all the things spinning around her, sucking her into their vortexes, Olivia had been the parameter, her ground wire. No, this isn’t about Liv at all.

It’s about who I am, and what I want – what I had wanted, what I decided to want, and what I think I want. The things I’m getting now, things that I thought were impossible, do I really want them?

Olivia I’ll always want, I think. I don’t see that ever changing. God, I hope it doesn’t change…

Okay, maybe it’s not cold feet per se. Honestly, however, Alex is feeling unsettled and maybe just a bit uneasy. She is uneasy because she hasn’t thought twice about accepting her many privileges when it comes to Olivia. She might even welcome them. Case on point, there was a time she would balk at her mother giving her a place to live. In fact, she had. Yet, she only happily thanked Celine for the house – a gift for her and Liv to start their new life. As much as she hates that Casey has her old job, actually, more than that, she is looking forward to her lover coming off this case, and this endless shift. She has already planned to leave work with the detective, and hole up with her somewhere, for at least a day or two. That is certainly not a luxury she could have afforded as an ADA.

Not guilty. And guilty about not guilty. God, I have issues.

Her mind circles back to the constant. Olivia, she thinks with a smile and leans into the back of her chair. Liv. And when that still isn’t enough, she repeats the syllable out loud, and she hugs her arms around her body tightly.

She thinks about their house. “Ours,” she whispers the word, enjoying its taste, its feel. In the cabinet in Ling's office, filed under ‘O’ are titles to both New York properties in both their names; knowing they’re there makes her happy. She likes to think that ‘O’ is for ‘O’Brien’ and for ‘Olivia’; Ling even said it first. In all honesty, Alex feels elation and trepidation. Not the same trepidation she had felt when she first jumped off the precipice of Olivia Benson. This is different. She knows something is shifting, has shifted. She feels like a child in her first year, not quite certain on her feet but seeing something she wants. It's reasonable to feel fear. This is so important. She, a life with her, is so important. It's what I want. I should be afraid. I should worry about letting any of it slip inadvertently through my fingers. She sees a fearless child, rushing towards her goal, with both arms wide opened and reaching out, laughing as she charges forward. She picks herself up when she stumbles, and keeps going. This is the only thing I can do. The only way. Hope I can. Once more, she stares at the paperwork and attempts to decipher the notes and shorthand. Ugh! What good is meticulous record-keeping if no one can understand anything? You and I are going to have a little talk, Ms. Szeto.

“All we need are blue lines and we’d be living in legal pads!” Olivia’s voice suddenly invades Alex’s consciousness. Again, her concentration scatters while memory of her lover’s first reaction to the house surfaces.

“You’ll like the color of the bedroom walls, I promise.”

“Pink?” “Race you,” Alex said instead and headed for the stairs, immediately followed by the brunette. Soon, they were tripping on the way up the steps, but that had only marginally broken their momentum until they tumbled onto the landing. “This is completely ours? Free and clear?” Her senses converged on her lover’s weight, and her strong arms around her waist, she coughed, “Legally? Yes.” “Oh?”

"There's a catch." "Of course, quite a catch, too! My catch!" Olivia announced, and leaned in. When they broke apart, Alex was almost dizzy from the kiss. They both were. Taking advantage, she leveraged and flipped them over. "You are a catch, too," she said, deeply, watching brown eyes beneath her gaze, half expecting her to make light of the statement. "Yes, yes I am," Olivia answered with a shy smile. "And now that you've caught me, what are you gonna do, with me?" She pushed up and straddled her lover's hips. "Oh, but don't you want the answer?" "Answer?" The dazed look made her fingers fumble, only for a moment. Then they resumed steadily down Olivia's shirt front. "The catch, to the house." "Oh. Okay. What is it?" "I love it when you sound like that, that I make you sound like that." "Like what?" "Your voice all high and breathless. And you're dragging words out like you can't concentrate." "You make it hard." Olivia closed her eyes as Alex pushed apart her shirt, her hands brushing across her skin. "So, house, catch?" "Unlimited kisses." "Kisses?" "Whenever, wherever, however way I want," she said, her fingers moved on to the belt buckle, the button and the fly of her lover's black khakis. Soon she was yanking them down to her ankles. "That's all?" She leaned back to admire the picture she made, and provided one of the possible answers to the question, "I'm not mucking with your shoes. And you look sexy disheveled." "Exposed." "Scorching hot," she replied, peeling the blue chambray shirt up along her lover's trembling torso and over her arms. She contemplated whether to wrap the fabric around the woman's wrists and decided she liked the material flowing against hard wood better – more dramatic. "You can hang on to your shirt." Olivia swallowed. "Just kisses?" Was she asking about the house or did she want to know what to anticipate? Alex didn't care. She merely smiled the smile she knew would melt Olivia. "Don't underestimate my kisses."

"Oh, god, no, never." Ugh. Don't go there. She closes her eyes against the images and sensations of what came after on the landing of their house. Don't need to think about that. She licks her lips. Just a kiss. All I want right now.

13. RIGHTEOUS

A kiss. What I wouldn’t do for a kiss. Olivia sighs. I miss being able to walk into your office as part of the work routine, and just steal a kiss. Somehow I didn’t miss that, not while you were in Chicago. Why is that? Now I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.

My badge for a kiss, she thinks, half-jokingly. Another time, she’d scoff at her own melodrama, but not today. I miss you today. So much. God help me.

Another day, too, she would roll her eyes about calling on God. Right now, if the big head in the sky would listen, she hopes he or she or it would give her a break and let them catch Humphrey Becker soon. Oh, I guess that is a break, she realizes. At least now we know who he is.

“Does that mean now I’m safe?” She hears Jeannette Henley’s questions in her memory. “He’s not going to come after me, is he? I don’t want to leave my home if I don’t have to.”

“We don’t know what he’s planning, Jeannette.”

“But he could’ve hurt me before. He seemed like such a nice young man.”

“He’s already killed two women, he’s not a nice man,” she had told the older woman. The resulting gasp and deer-in-headlight-look filled her with utter guilt. Munch was wrong, she didn’t always know how to be tactful, at least not then, when she really needed to be. There were other ways she could have convinced Henley she needed to leave her apartment. At that moment, however, she only knew how to be blunt.

“But… There had to be some mistake. He was here, right here, talking to me. I even made him tea. He seemed like he genuinely cared about what happened to… before…”

The detective doesn’t know why. Something about how the woman was acting, and the denial, just made her mad. It made her feel helpless; she doesn’t like feeling helpless. Normally, any other cop she gets partnered with would probably have jumped in at that point and said something, but Munch didn’t. It surprised her. But at least I got through to her. Hopefully, she’s on her way to her sister’s by now.

Did he think I needed to deal with that? Olivia wonders, not for the first time since they left Henley’s. She almost asked him en route to the Examiner, but he seemed to be content with the silence between them; and she didn’t want to disrupt the mood. Then they were busy doing their job, finding out the reporter’s real identity. Now the moment had long passed for her to raise the question with the other detective.

God, I was such an ass. What made me act that way?

The age, the reedy frame of the woman did remind her of her mother, as well as the obvious of being a survivor of an assault. But Jeannette’s blonde, and has blue eyes; she looks nothing like Mom.

Plus, Olivia had been a cop for over ten years, and met with countless women like her. Why her? She can’t seem to figure out, nor can she pull herself from the fixation.

“Does that mean now I’m safe? I don’t want to leave my home if I don’t have to,” Olivia hears the question again, and glances at Munch, who is still on the phone explaining the case to their ADA. From her vantage, she can see the tiny twitch in his right cheek, just below his eye. It tells her he is losing his patience. A few more minutes on the telephone, his voice would take on a clipped accent. She shoves one hand in her pocket and rubs her temple with the other.

Really, what more does she need to get us the warrant? ‘Probable cause’, that’s all she needs for the judge, not ‘prima facie’ showing of criminal activity! Maybe it’s the white-collar background, or maybe she’s still feeling green and uncertain with her position. At one point or another, every one of the detectives had been driven up the wall by the rigidity of their new ADA.

Except she’s really not so ‘new’ anymore…

Ugh. Be nice. Olivia admonishes, remembering that they are stuck with her for the foreseeable future. Give the woman time. She must know what she’s doing to get the job. Donnelly might be a witch, but she’s not stupid. Although maybe after Alex, she just wants someone who would simply fall in behind her and not challenge her authority...

Were you like this, when you first started with us, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't' with a heavy marker? The detective’s memory detours. I seem to remember ‘ruthless’, ‘arrogant’, ’cold’ as some of the words we used to describe you. ‘Underhanded’? Definitely, ‘stubborn’ but in a good way, and not the inflexible way Novak can be. Although there was ‘uptight’, but that was more about you and less about how you did your job.

Maybe Casey’s just not you… Maybe that’s my problem, and that really isn’t fair to her.

God, I miss you.

“Finally,” Munch sighs and snaps shut his phone. “She’ll meet us at Becker’s apartment with the warrant.”

“You think she’s got enough to convince the judge?” Olivia can’t resist the jab.

“If she doesn’t, I’m gonna…” He lets out a breath that sounds more like a soft laugh. All at once, he seems less tense. “I think I’m gonna eat the biggest sandwich.”

“That’s it? You’re gonna eat away your frustration?”

The incredulity in her smile only makes him shrug. “What can I say? Donuts and booze?”

She snorts. “Right. I don’t think so.”

“Come on, I’ve seen you put away donuts for dinner.”

“Not if I have options, like the deli across the street.” She points with her head and smiles, forgetting her worries and wants for the moment. “You in? My treat.”

“Ah! In that case, lead the way, Detective. Lead the way.”

14. GRACE

The deli crew worked fast. In less than ten minutes, they are back in the car. John catches her eye as he pops open the clear plastic container. “What?”

Is that another invitation to talk? Olivia wonders as she takes her sandwich from its wrapper. She is starting to feel a bit embarrassed, to be that transparent, and maybe even needy. “Donuts and booze, John?” She laughs and opts for the mundane instead. “You don’t even drink.”

“Once in a while, I have a beer. Or cognac. You’ve seen me.”

“Exactly, you don’t drink.”

“Probably not by cop standards.” He nods in concession. “Anyway, good choice.” He raises his fully loaded, pastrami-topped deli burger in salute. “You gonna eat that?”

She follows the arch of his eyebrow to the dashboard, smiles, and pushes the wrapped pickle over. “Did Casey say how long we have to wait?” She asks, and picks up her coffee from the cup holder. “Ugh.” She makes a face over the taste and tosses her drink out the window. Satisfied with her aim for the trash can, she reaches for her water.

After she re-twists the cap, and sets the bottle aside, with a little shrug, Munch passes her his cup. “There’s this cafe on the way, I’ll get us each a new one,” he offers after she repeats the dunk. “They have the best black and white cookies, too, jumbo-sized, if you’re interested in dessert. I’m getting two for myself, one for later. Who knows how long we’ll be out running about.”

“How do you eat so much?”

“I’m a growing boy?”

She just snorts and shakes her head, and takes another bite of her turkey, lettuce and tomato on rye. Life really is unfair sometimes, she thinks and shakes her head again. All the while, her other question remains unanswered.

“This is nice.” Olivia comments casually, “It’s been, what, over 30 hours? And we’re still calm and civil. I like it.”

“Me, too, Liv. We make a good team.”

“I think we all work well together, the four of us.”

“Just us four?”

She lifts her brows and grins. “I wouldn’t count the captain.”

“Or Huang, or the M.E., I suppose.”

“You didn’t mention Novak or Donnelly.”

He nods. “Or them. They all feel kind of… peripheral? Although I’m not sure that’s really an apt word.” Quickly, he amends, “All, except the captain, of course.”

“Yeah, considering these ‘peripheral’ people can make our lives hell if they want. Capt’ too, even though he doesn’t count.” She follows with a light laugh.

“How true,” Munch agrees. For the next few minutes, they focus on their respective sandwiches. Both of them try to pace themselves, and not shove their food in like cops tend to do, especially when they are in the middle of a shift. Finally, he breaks the silence. “She just said she’ll call as soon as she gets hold of a judge. Might check the chambers to see who’s working late before calling and interrupting anyone’s dinner.”

“Ah,” Olivia dismisses and picks up her water. Then she lowers her hand. “That’s what Abbie did, too, I just remembered. Actually, what everyone else did.” Or thought prudent to do, she realizes suddenly.

“Oh, you mean not everyone has judges on their speed dial?”

“She really only had a few, and one of them is her uncle. Petrovski she clerked for right after law school, they go way back; and Judge Preston is friends with her godmother,” Olivia feels necessary to justify, although the last statement only substantiated the other detective’s point. “But, yeah, I guess it make sense, to make nice and not bug them too much. You never know what you’ll need and when you’ll need it, especially from a judge. But we’re dealing with a killer. Someone who has killed two women.”

“But he told us he won’t take another…”

“As if we could trust anything a perv tells us.” She rolls her eyes, and finishes taking her drink. After a few deep pulls, she sighs. “Maybe I’ve been a little harsh on Casey.”

“She does have this knack of rubbing you the wrong way. And by ‘you’ I mean ‘us’. I won’t even repeat what Fin had to say the other day.”

“Oh, I heard. He wasn’t exactly quiet in the squad room.”

He gives a hopeless shrug and goes back to his food.

Meanwhile, she rubs her lips with her napkin a little harder than necessary. “Does she ever look at you, smile at you, like she just did something wonderful, or a favor for you, and you’re supposed to thank her, or praise her, or something?”

“You mean like last Friday, after the jury read the guilty verdict and she turned around?”

The detective just pulled the moment from his head; he didn’t even have to think about it, Olivia notices. She doesn’t hide her exasperation. “Yeah, exactly, like that!”

“Nope, just you, Liv. At least so far.”

Appalled and wishing she could say she was surprised, the detective shakes her head vehemently. “Please don’t say that. I don’t need to… I just don’t.”

“You know you do have this reputation, if you don’t mind my saying so.” Munch hesitates for just a second. “Of, uh, dating ADA’s.”

When he paused again, she realized he was trying to choose the right word. Too much a gentleman to use ‘bedded’? That was more what she did. “I also dated cops and agents, and other people, civilians.” If Olivia wasn’t feeling defensive and uneasy before, she definitely is now. “I am dating a civilian, now. More than ‘dating’.”

“Does Casey know that?”

“She knows I’m…” What? Taking time off and going out of town? Sometimes, those trips coincided with extraditions with the captain’s blessing, like the latest. The other detectives don’t say anything because they all know or suspect the truth. And she doesn’t know I’m engaged because I don’t wear the ring. And when she came to my apartment with El to pick me up, she saw pictures of Alex and probably thought I’m mourning over a ghost. “Oh, God.” She palms her face and groans. “But she’s with someone, I thought. I’m pretty sure. At least last I heard. Another ADA, friend of Al… Jaime’s… They were, at least before, she was…”

Where Olivia drifts off, Munch picks up, “Situations change? Or maybe she doesn’t realize she’s doing it? Or maybe we’re reading too much into something simple?”

Somehow she doubts the latter is true. She knows when people like her; sometimes she even uses her charms to her advantage, especially when those people could provide information leading to arrests. Is this why she gets on my nerve? Never has the detective hoped so much to be wrong; she prays she is. “Oh, God!"

15. SENTINELS

The sudden ringing of Munch’s cell phone disrupts the strained moment. “Well, she must know we’re talking about her,” he says, after checking the caller I.D. Without waiting for Olivia’s reply, he answers. “Uh huh. All right. Okay. You can get there yourself? Great, we’ll see you and Elliot there.”

“Great,” the detective mumbles and stares at her half eaten sandwich. With a sigh, she begins to wrap it up.

“You can finish it while I drive, you know?” Munch says, and puts the pickle in the empty burger container and snaps it shut.

“I’m not sure I’m hungry anymore,” Olivia replies with a grimace as she grabs the box from him and tosses all the leftovers in the backseat. Meanwhile, the other detective shifts the car out of ‘park’.

“Because of Casey.”

She lifts her brow and presses her lips tighter together.

“Yeah.” He chuckles at the unnecessary question. Then he sees an alternative, the most obvious, in fact. “You wanna know what I think?”

“What? A burger and a pickle make lousy hazard pay?”

His answering grin is both impish and kind. “You should tell her.”

“About Casey? Are you out of your mind?” Olivia nearly shouts. “There’s nothing to tell!”

“I mean you should tell Casey, about Jaime.”

“Oh, that’s even crazier. I can’t go telling people she’s back. One, it’s her choice.”

“What’s two?”

“I…” Loss for words, she stops, and shakes her head. “There’s no ‘two’. ‘One’ kinda makes everything moot.”

“You don’t have to tell her, tell her. Casey, I mean. You can just let her know you’re seeing someone. Heck, maybe we should have a moving party for you. Are you all moved in?”

“Pretty much, yep. I still have stuff in my apartment, well, ours now. But I’m not sure we’re moving those things, um, mostly just furniture. We might keep the place, like a little get away?” At the last moment, she added the question mark. The idea suddenly seems absurd, to have an ‘in-town flat’ when they live in the next borough. “We also talked about renting it out, furnished,” she adds for his benefit. She had already begun recalling all the reasons why they both find themselves attached to that little apartment. All the memories… Our first time together. First uninterrupted weekend. So many ‘firsts’ there… Even our first real fight, the first door slammed, first make up sex. First discussion, war really, but who cares? We figured out we were friends who wanted more than just ‘benefits’... She struggles against the urge to close her eyes. Instead, she cracks open the window and takes a deep breath. “Anyway.”

If he noticed that she was a world away, he hid it well. “Hm.” He pauses, for the signal to change, or maybe more. “I suppose you can’t have a house warming party, considering ‘one’…”

“Well, I think actually we are considering it,” she mentions her talk with Alex, and how they might want to celebrate her moving back and their moving in together. “Maybe even for Halloween if we can swing it, you know, get everything settled before it’s too late to invite people? And you’re definitely invited, you and Fin and Elliot and his family… But I’m not sure who else… We haven’t really gotten that far, with all the other things popping up, unexpectedly.”

“The ADA Casey’s seeing, you said Jaime is friends with…”

“Her. Serena Southerlyn. Not sure if you know…?”

He thinks for a moment, and shakes his head. “Doesn’t she want to reconnect with her old friends?”

“Well…” Old friends? Does she have that many friends from before? Huh. How come we never talk about them? We don’t talk about my friends either. Although, I’m not sure… Do I have any friends outside work, friends I haven’t dated? “It might be awkward? I don’t know?”

“Sometimes it’s easier to just make new friends, especially when the old ones come with too much baggage.”

It’s almost like he can read my mind, she releases a silent sigh. Before she could formulate a reply, her phone rings. The name on the display makes her smile, and her heart beat quicker and lighter, she swears. “Hey, you,” she says. Then she has an idea. After taking a quick glance outside, and checking the car clock, she asks, “Say, do you mind calling me back in about fifteen?

“Okay. Bye.” She flips her phone off, and grins at the other detective. He’s looking back with a knowing smirk.

“’Operation Enlighten Casey’ commencing?”

“Yep.” Olivia nods, proud of her decision. “Figure we’ll be meeting up right about then. And if you don’t mind getting El up to speed, I can take a minute to tell my girlfriend how sorry I am to be missing Carmen when she calls.”

“And how you’ll make it up to her, all in the presence of a certain ADA,” he speculates, joining her nod with approval. “Smooth and covert. I like it.”

“Seriously, thank you…” She shrugs and quirks a corner of her lips. “You know.”

“Well, you know what they say about those who can’t. They teach. Although, I have the utmost respect for teachers. Have I ever told you…”

The other detective is just trying to fill the next ten or so minutes of silence and space, Olivia knows. She smiles as she settles readily into her seat.

16. SEASONS

“Hey, I heard on the radio earlier that it’s supposed to rain tonight,” Olivia tells her. “Did you remember to bring an umbrella?”

“Um.” For half a beat, Alex considers hiding her feelings behind a joke. She is certain the comment, like all the reminders about dressing warmly or eating properly, wasn’t meant to be romantic. Just the same, it gave her the warm fuzzies. “I’m sure I can borrow one from the concierge downstairs, if there isn’t an extra in the office.”

“I’m just worried about you,” the detective responds quickly. “That’s what I do.”

Alex sighs. “I know. I’m sorry if I sounded impatient, or crabby…”

“Bad day, Baby?”

Aren’t you with people? She almost asks. Instead, she shakes her head. Right, she can’t see you. She sighs again. “Just miss you,” she replies. That’s really basically what it comes down to.

“I miss you, too.”

Really? Not ‘me, too’ or ‘ditto’? What’s going on? She doesn’t get the chance to question.

The detective continues, “Can’t wait to wrap this up, and we can go home.”

“Me, too.”

“Hey, I should really go. Elliot’s giving me the evil eye. I’m really sorry about Carmen, but I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Just call me again, or text. When you can, I mean.” And come back in one piece.

“I will. Have fun with Ling and Susan. It’s really nice of Douglas to make it a girls’ night out.”

“Yeah.” Again, Alex nods, this time to herself. I’m sure they’re afraid I might feel awkward or sad…

“Hopefully, you can find someone to use my ticket.”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway, say ‘hi’ for me!”

“Okay.”

“Kisses,” Olivia says, and hangs up.

“’Kisses’?” Alex stares at the blank screen of her cell phone. Am I missing something? She knows Elliot is there, and she assumes Munch is as well. Are there other officers around? Is Novak? Maybe she’s being overly suspicious, she realizes. Maybe you lost a bet? That’s entirely possible. She smiles, unsure whether she should feel upset or amusement being involved in the gamble. That’s cop humor for you. Besides, it gets her to say some of those words. She settles on contentment.

Or maybe I’ve just met myself in the forest.

She rolls her eyes and sighs. The lover sighs. And the soldier is full of strange oaths. And what’s with the clichés? With a deep breath, she pushes her shoulders away from her ears. She slips her phone into her pocket, crosses her elbows on her desk and stares out at the graying sky. Seriously. Get a grip.

“Give the melodrama a rest already,” she mutters.

“Oh, I agree.”

Her head snaps up at the statement and her eyes narrow.

“I can almost hear a growl.” Ling laughs and steps in. “You need to add a little more vibrato though, like this,” she says and proceeds to demonstrate. “See?”

Alex laughs despite her disappointment. “So, it’s confirmed. She can’t go.”

“Maybe we can ask Diane if she wants to join us? You know, a little office bonding?”

“Douglas can go, you know. I really don’t mind.”

“Then it’ll be like you and Susan on a date?” Ling grins. “That would really make him happy. Him and his dad, really. You almost ready to roll?”

“Okay, never mind.” Alex gets up and starts packing her bag. “You could set Diane up with Susan. She’s a lawyer. That’ll make Mr. Wellington, Sr. happy.”

“Ah, but Diane is straight.”

“Love sees no gender?”

“Is that your argument?” Ling watches her friend sorting through the files and notes. “You know you’re coming back tomorrow, right?”

“And we’re stopping by the hotel first, so I can feed the cat. I can change bags then.”

“You’re totally missing the point. It’s really not necessary to take work home. And we’re going to be out late tonight.”

“I might want something to read before bed.”

“We can stop and get you a novel, or some magazines.” Ling shakes her head but says nothing else as the other attorney continues her task.

It could very well have been Susan, Alex suddenly thinks. Efforts have been made to set them up; and she would have gone out with her, if their schedule had worked. “Do you think life is a bunch of coincidences?” She asks the question, uncensored.

“Don’t you believe in fate?”

“Sometimes, I think paradoxes.”

“Paradoxes,” Ling echoes, her left brow forming an arch.

It’s the last file, and for a long moment, Alex stares at it. Finally, she zips up her bag and hangs the strap from her shoulder. “All right. Let’s go.”

Ling eyes the abandoned folder and smirks. “Careful, it might breed.”

“On its own?” Alex laughs, tossing one last glance at her window. “It’s really looking like Fall.”

“Hate to tell you, old friend, it is Fall,” the shorter attorney replies, flowing with the conversation change.

“And nothing gold can stay.”

“What’s that?”

“Frost.”

“Oh, my god, Jaime, you’re too much.” Ling shakes her head and leads the way down the corridor to the associate’s office. “Olivia deserves a medal, putting up with you.”

“Actually, you should see her poetry collection. Who do you think gave me Frost? Remember Dickinson?”

“The first thing she gave you? That you went on and on for days about? You wouldn’t let me forget.” She lets out a sigh with her chuckle. “You know, I stand corrected. You and Liv? Sap and sappier, completely made for each other.”

Jaime smiles.

17. RIVER

After the detectives secured Becker’s apartment, they split up into teams to search for evidence and clues. Hopefully, they will find what makes him tick, and what plans he might have for his next victims. Elliot asks as soon as he and his partner are alone, “What the hell was that?”

“What was ‘what’?” Olivia replies, unable to resist. She thinks she knows what he’s after, but she isn’t going to make it easy on both of them. Instead, she walks over to the desk, and starts opening the drawers and riffling through them.

“Don’t gimme that. You know ‘what’.” When the other detective doesn’t reply right away, he rolls his eyes. “The lovey dovey back there, on the phone. I thought you didn’t want people to know.”

‘Know what?’ She almost replies. But that would be too ludicrous. So she shrugs. “Well you do, and so does Munch already.”

He lifts his brows in surprise. “Oh, Casey. You want her to know.”

“Truthfully, I’m not sure it should make a difference, whether anyone knows.” Distracted by the next target of her search, she fingers the decorative sterling ring through her glove. To her chagrin, words fall out, “Although, sometimes I wonder if I should wear the other ring, I mean, doesn’t this look like a wedding band?”

“Well… Maybe not to everyone?” Elliot replies, trying to keep his voice light and look amused. “Definitely doesn’t scream as loud as that other bling.”

“And we all know how you feel about that.”

“Got that right. I don’t need Kathy showing up… one look at that damn bottle stopper, I’m gonna be moving into your dog house.”

I don’t even have a dog. Oliver’s not Ben, even if he does act more like a dog sometimes. The sudden melancholy unsettles her. “You know, sooner or later, she’s gonna see it,” she chooses to remind him instead, “Like when you guys come to the party. You are coming, right? Assuming we manage to get everything in order.”

“Of course we are. Just say ‘when’.” Elliot nudges with a grin, “You inviting Casey, too?”

“Don’t know yet? Think we should? Maybe the capt’?”

“Oh, yeah, I can just see it. Him in a costume party? In his dress blues as a police captain?”

The image makes Olivia laugh. They all love their captain, but sometimes he is too much a stick in the mud. “So, what you gonna be?”

“What you gonna be?” “I asked first.”

“I dunno. Kathy keeps going back and forth. She was watching some old movie the other night with Lana Turner, yeah, Three Musketeers, and all of a sudden she wants me in pantaloons and tights.”

She whips around and gives him a wide-eyed look. “Way too much info, Stabler.”

“What? She likes old movies, and Lana Turner, well, what more do I need to say besides hot blonde?” He returns a wink.

“I’m not talking about that.” Olivia makes a face and proceeds to the next shelf. Skimming the titles of the stolen library books as she explains, “I see you in your wife beater at work often enough, and really, that’s more than enough.”

“Admit it, you want my guns.” He flexes his arms as he moves ahead and further into the room. “Yeah?”

“Uh, no. I’m pretty sure she likes mine just fine,” she replies, knowing the statement would change the subject. Judging by his expression, she is right.

“So, what the two of you gonna be?”

“’Sadistic Rituals’? ’Serial Killers in History’? I think these are alphabetized, no more than that, they’re catalogued. This guy’s nuttier than a nut job.” She shakes her head. “I’m not gonna be Cleopatra, that’s for sure.”

“You? Cleo? Then who’s she? Caesar? Marc Antony?”

“Neither, I’m not dressing up like a pre-historic or pre-whatever harlot.”

“She was one of the most beautiful women in history, a powerful queen, Liv.” He turns back to his partner, his smirk belying earnestness. “I think you should feel touched, that Jaime thinks of you like that.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” She says. Secretly, however, she’s mulling his words over. Really, never thought of it like that… “That almost sounds romantic. Mighty freaky, Stabler, coming from you.”

“Hey, you don’t get twenty years and four kids without knowing shit.” He waits for her sign and leads the way into the next room. “Stick with me, Cleo, and learn from the master.”

“Right.” Olivia replies, her eyes caught by the sheets of eight and a half by eleven paper covering the walls. “Hey, what are all these? They look like letters. Rejection letters, from publishers.”

“Sheesh.”

“Thank you for your manuscript but no thanks? There’s gotta be hundreds of them.” She reads from one, “Listen to this: ‘we are only interested in recent cases’.”

“Recent cases?” His brows move towards his hairline. “Like the murder of Julie Liebert and Gloria Durham by RDK?”

“Shit. Some guys just don’t take rejection well, do they?”

“Or they live in Egypt. Denial, get it, Cleo?”

He thinks he’s so funny. Internally, Olivia groans, hoping it doesn’t become a nickname that sticks. She ignores his dig, watching instead as he sweeps his flashlight along the shelves. Then a thought occurs. “Say, the closet in the hallway, it doesn’t have door either.”

“Neither does the pantry. Or the utility closet, now that you mentioned it.”

“Strange,” she notes, meeting her partner’s eyes. With tacit agreement, they file the information for later.

“So now we know his motive.” Elliot stops, concluding they have found all they can without going through every single item in the two rooms. “We just need to find him.”

In the City of New York. It’ll be like looking for a needle in the ocean. “Maybe Munch knows where authors and author-wannabes hang.”

“He does seem to know everything.”

“Hey, John,” as they move through the winding corridors, she yells towards the living room where the other detective is conducting his search.

“In a sec, Liv,” he yells in response. “Almost done.”

Meanwhile, Elliot hangs back and takes advantage of the interim privacy. He speaks softly, “You know, we can talk later, if you want.”

“I’m not talking about my costume with you. Or about yours either,” she says with an exaggerated shiver.

“No, I mean earlier, what you were trying to do, to show you-know-who you-know-what.”

“Wow. Do you hear yourself? I’ve no idea what you just said. Clueless,” she adds almost convincingly.

“When you’re done dipping in the river, I’m here.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Thanks.

18. GHOST

From afar, standing with her partner as if engaged in a conversation, Olivia keeps an eye on their ADA. The woman is on the phone with the judge, asking for another search warrant, this time on Becker's locker at the exclusive cigar club. She sees a ghost of smile; when it widens into triumph, she knows Casey has pulled through for them once more.

"It's getting faxed over in the next few minutes," Novak says, giving the detectives a red-lipped grin. Maybe it is because of the way Benson and Stabler are standing, or maybe she instinctively knows she isn't welcomed in the conversation, her smile falters. "I'm going to see if John..." She points and trails off. When they do nothing to stop her, she walks away.

Suddenly, Olivia remembers the different instances in which Alex had shown up after hour and accompanied them on scene. Most of the time, she was in jeans and tennis shoes, without make up, looking pale. She would wait, often with exhaustion in her eyes, but patiently, for the detectives' next request. Not perky, like a little yappy dog raring to go.

Silently observing, always right next to me on the curb side of the sidewalk, watching for threats and ready to defend, that's how Ben was... She recalls and shakes her head. Wouldn't hurt for anyone to pick up some of those qualities, that’s for sure.

"What's up, Liv?" Elliot asks, obviously sensing her mood.

"Oh, just thinking about our oath. Serve. Protect. Makes us kinda like dogs, doesn't it?"

He looks at her like she's out of her mind, yet he says, "And what kind are you?"

She chuckles. "I don't know. But wasn't there an email circulating about that? Some sort of test? Did you take it?"

"Of course." He waggles his brows. "Good-natured, self-assured, intelligent and stable, oh, and descended from wolves."

"What's that?"

"A Bernese Mountain dog."

"I'm not sure I know what they are?" Olivia twists her lips into a lop-sided grin. "Well, guess it's all right. I'm not partnered with Chihuahua from hell."

He snickers and lets his gaze drift. "We ought to be ashamed."

"Do you remember the first time we invited Cabot, to join us after work?"

"Um... sure, didn't we celebrate her win or something?"

Olivia nodded. "She was surprised, I think. And she looked so happy, to be included I guess. At times, she seemed so young..." "Yeah, Jeffries and I talked about that. We knew she couldn't be that young, but we had a hard time wrapping our heads around reality."

"Totally different from the picture she tried to paint, too."

"Totally," Elliot agrees. "Those were some, eh, high heels, to fill, you know."

"What? Twenty years and four kids taught you what not to say in front of a woman?"

He laughs with his partner. "Absolutely, Grasshopper."

"Maybe because she's back, or maybe I never stopped, but I keep expecting her to show up." Olivia confesses. "Thank God someone else took her office. I can't imagine going in there or even knocking on that door."

"Like she's still there." He elaborates with a slow nod, "Maybe left some of herself behind."

"You, too?"

"She's a strong personality, Liv. For a while, Carmichael haunted us, too. Remember?"

"I guess. Not like that though."

"Because Alex filled her shoes; actually, her own were even better." He gives his partner a slight smirk. "And I'm not just talking about work."

No. You're also talking about my relationship with them. Wistfully, Olivia smiles. "You're right about that."

"I know I am."

"So, Yoda, what else have you got for me?"

"Unless you can convince her to come back..."

"I'm not sure I want to? I kinda like things the way we have now, you know?" She rolls her eyes. "Okay, maybe not exactly like now. Would be nice if she wasn't staying at a hotel and I hadn't been up for how many hours now? But I like this, this 'her',” with a little difficulty she admits. “I think she's confused right now, about what she wants, and I definitely don't need to add to that. But I think she can be happy, like really be happy..."

"If she lets herself?"

"Or after she gets settled,” she tries to make it sound better; she can’t help it. Then her voice follows her eyes to the floor, “Besides, you don't want, or need, Kathy to see the things we do, you always say.” She flicks her gaze up to pointedly meet his. “And I think I understand that now."

He reaches over and pats her on the shoulder.

Letting out a long breath, Olivia offers a smile. Then, as if making a decision, she shoves her hands in her pockets. "Chihuahuas are perfectly fine dogs, right? Even if they aren't German Shepherds?"

"Or Bernese Mountain dogs."

"Or those, yes."

He chuckles with her. "Come on, let's go find our friends."

"Ow," she complains and grabs her upper arm where his slap had landed. "Watch it."

"See, Wimpy? You need better guns," Stabler teases as he leads the way.

19. CATCH

Am I pathetic? To rejoice that we’re less than a mile apart? Alex looks down at her phone, rereading the text from Olivia, telling her they were heading towards the theatre district. She doesn’t know who all are with her, but it doesn’t matter. She could feel the detective’s excitement over finding the identity of the next intended victim, even from the brief message. I don’t remember ever being like this, at least not since I was a teenager.

Does she feel the same way? Did she think about how close the theatre district is to the Met when she wrote that note?

My, I really, really need to get a grip.

As surreptitiously as possible, she blows out a breath. Sometimes she hates being alone in her head. Too many conflicting voices; so many contradictory emotions.

Other times, however… It is the only place she could find peace. Peace and clarity.

Carmen. She tries to focus on the singing and acting on stage. Unlike other Carmens who played up their seductiveness, this one is very much her own woman, the ultimate La Belle Dame sans Merci. She struts around the stage, sneering at predictable male attention, not lifting her dresses to show her legs. She sings to entertain herself. When Don Jose asks for her devotion, she tells him what he wants to hear. All along, he’s just her latest partner in the seguidilla – just company to enjoy manzanilla; if sex happens to become a part of it, she’d enjoy herself. This Carmen takes advantage of her power over men, but doesn’t let it define her. She’s not a sexpot. It is refreshing in that way. Refreshing and refreshingly enjoyable.

Then why am I not enjoying it?

It is not about her inability to suspend reality this time. Sure, the Carmen here isn’t a beautiful, dark-haired gypsy, at least not a visually convincing one. But the woman’s sensuous, sonorous voice more than fills her imagination. More unsettling perhaps, is that something about Don Jose reminds her of Olivia. Maybe it’s his eagerness? His tenderness?

And repeatedly, she has offered to throw away everything in life to follow me anywhere, to be with me… Like Don Jose did for Carmen.

Thank god, I’m not anything like Carmen. She snickers lightly in self-depreciation. And we don’t live in an opera…

Bet she’d look hot in a corporal’s uniform tho. Alex decides with a smile. The smile is cut short when Don Jose’s jealousy also reminds her of her lover’s. In truth, she has her own jealous streak; theirs are just over different things. Jealous, even possessive. Serena would blame it on the stars - my sign. She shakes her head. Doesn’t mean I should let it rule unchecked. After all, those feelings imply a lack of trust. And Liv warrants nothing but trust. She is certain as she pulls her jacket tighter over her front.

Thinking about her lesser traits, however, reminds Alex of a dream. It wasn’t a nightmare per se, but maybe a subconscious manifestation of stress. Stress about what? Could be anything, I suppose. What’s not stressful these days, seriously? She rolls her mental eyes. Thank god it wasn’t about missing law school finals again.

Wonder what it all meant? She didn’t miss the politics, the in-fighting, the drama, and the need to always watch her back of the District Attorney’s Office. Still, she missed her friend. Serena would have suggested going to a dream interpreter. Heck, she would’ve done it herself.

Or maybe it wasn’t a dream? Maybe she had made the entire thing up in her wakeful subconscious, in that hazy place between sleep and awareness. But it felt like a dream. In it, they were standing just inside some sort of arena; the place was buzzing with noises and excitement for the competition. They were there so the detective could act as moral support for someone. A woman... Who?

Alex can’t remember too much of the dream, only that she was arguing with Olivia, demanding her car keys so she could drive herself home. The images were literally red as she yelled at her lover, accusing her of infidelity, which the brunette had vehemently denied. Even before she was fully awake, she was withdrawing her accusation. Nevertheless, in that semi-conscious state, her brain continued with its argument: it wasn't that Olivia was spending time with other people but that she had stopped caring, as she had expected Alex to find her way home in the pouring rain. Plus, the detective had stopped sharing - every time she asked about work her lover would shut down or become evasive... To Alex, in dream and in reality, withholding information would be many times worse than blatant disregard for her physical comfort. It would show Olivia’s lack of trust, in her, and in their relationship. Finally, she had to forcibly halt her tumbling thoughts. She reminded herself by a glance at the clock and the weight of the cat across her feet that it was merely a dream. That it had absolutely no correlation with reality. Now the attorney can't even be sure if the dream wasn't a figment of her imagination, brought on by the downpour that caught them on their way to the performance, the noise of opera goers, or even the melodrama of betrayal and murder. All of it seems so far away, so unreachable. Like her, kind of. A soft sigh escapes as she refocuses her attention to the scene below. Suddenly, long buried pages from her memory fall open. Alex is hit with images of the bullfight her father had insisted on taking her the first time they vacationed in Spain. There was so much red then, too. His cape. The blood. The gored horse. The dead bull… The blood.

In a way, the courtroom is like the corrida. The attorneys on both sides engage in posturing. They take jabs at each other and the issues, inciting the other side hoping they would make a mistake. The strategies, the execution all lead to a similar outcome: injury to the other party. There's just less blood, less violence in the courtroom. Maybe that's why Alex liked criminal work. She could justify her actions; there was a greater good involved, no matter which side she was on. It wasn't just for sport.

Without warning, more pages turn, and the arena changes before her mind’s eye. It feels so real, and still so raw. She was sitting above the action, and still feeling like a spectator. Only this time, she was caught in a misdirected drama with a horrible script. And she sees herself sitting in an ambulance, wearing a thin undershirt and shrouded in a medic’s blanket. And the people circling about, they weren’t matadors or picadors, but police and agents. Banderillas and swords would’ve been harmless and tame, compared to a car bomb…

At least Donovan’s death was instantaneous and probably painless? She tries to justify. How sad is it for that to be the only bright side?

It’s hard to imagine what I was doing last year, this time. Certainly not sitting in an opera box, watching Olga Borodina strutting around the stage, singing of love.

I don’t want to remember…

Never thought I’d be on the other side of the line, stripping and dropping my clothes into evidence bags.

Don’t ever want to know if they did find traces of explosives or pieces of Tim Donovan... Alex concludes. A slight nudge from her neighbor causes her to inhales sharply in reflex. Only then does she catch herself crying. How long? She wonders, the words sounding eerily familiar.

Liv… She remembers another night, after more blood. Saying goodbye.

When a packet of tissues is pressed into her hand, she is grateful; and she grasps onto her friend’s fingers. Still, she trains her blurred vision on the stage below. If I couldn’t un-live those days, please, please let me forget?

20. ECHOES

Why can’t things go right, just once? Olivia wonders as she turns in the darkened room, her arms extended, ready to fire. They had found Becker’s notebook in his locker, and managed to get to the next victim in time. With the mother of a little boy under their protection, the detectives were beginning to feel hopeful. Then they got word that Jeanette never made it to her sister’s. So while Munch and Casey deliver the near-hysterical dancer and her son to safety, she and Elliot are left to canvass Jeanette’s building. Hopefully, someone had seen her before she vanished, and knows what happened to her. The poor woman. As if she hadn’t been through enough.

Slowly, carefully, she rounds the corner to the older woman’s bedroom. For a second, she hesitates. Then quietly, she turns the knob and moves in. The sight of the occupied bed stops her cold, while her fingers tighten around the trigger in reflex. “Humphrey,” she speaks the man’s name, certain of his identity.

“Congratulations. You found me.” Becker smiles and gives his opponent a once over. “Am I under arrest, Detective?”

“Where’s Jeannette?” Olivia demands.

“I’m afraid she’s a bit buried at the moment,” he taunts.

“Get up, and keep your hands where I can see them,” she orders. When he makes no signs of obeying, she motions with her gun. “Now, Humphrey.”

He twiddles his thumbs instead. “Oh, jeez. Patience is a virtue. Haven’t you heard?”

For that, she almost wishes he’d make a false move, just so she could shoot him. The thought was fleeting; she realizes in order to find Henley, she needs to keep him alive at all cost. “What did you do with Jeannette? You better not have harmed her.”

“Oh, don’t worry. She’s okay, for now.”

“What do you mean, ‘for now’.”

“Oh, she has at least a few more hours, before her oxygen runs out.”

The way Becker stares at her, like he’s studying her, makes Olivia bristle. She feels like a mouse, being toyed with by a merciless cat. Absolutely, she hates that feeling, and she tries to shake it. In the meantime, she tries to engage him, to hopefully trip him up. Instinctively, she knows they’ll require his cooperation – they depend on it. She hates that, too. “Why her?”

“Why not her? I needed a place to sleep with you people all over my apartment.” He then gives a smug smile, as if he has a secret to share. The detective’s engaged silence obviously pleases him, and he continues, “Besides, she intrigues me.”

“Why?”

“Why not? She’s an interesting woman, with a… shall we say, ‘interesting’… history.”

Barely suppressing her revulsion, Olivia replies, “You called being a victim of a brutal crime interesting?”

“She’s a survivor, Detective. And strong. She’s quite a character, actually.”

If she didn’t know better, Olivia would say there was awe in his voice. Awe, and some sort of little boy’s excitement. Suddenly, things are clicking into place. “Does she remind you of your mother?”

“Of course not! My mother’s nothing like her.”

“Oh? How’s your mother like?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

The man’s petulant reaction more than supports the detective’s theory. “Why Julie, or Gloria? Why mothers with little boys?”

“Please, why do you people always think it’s about the mother?”

“How’s your relationship with your mother?

“It’s perfectly fine. How is your relationship with your mother, Detective?”

“My mother passed away.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” he stares into her eyes as he says it, as if he means every word. Then his lips twist into a sneer. “But tell me, do you blame your mother? Do you blame her for how you turned out?”

Turned out? In the forefront and in the back of her mind, Olivia was prepared for games. Somehow, just not for this.

“Oh, you don’t have to look so confused, Detective.” He grins, clearly satisfied that he had caught her off guard. “You are a lesbian, aren’t you?”

“Where is Jeannette Henley?” She growls.

“It’s okay. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

This is not about me, no. “Are you ashamed, Humphrey?”

“I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Really?” “Really, Detective.” He grins, and then shifts to look behind her. His grin widens. “Ah, another copper to the party. Yay.” Without overture, he gets up from the bed, keeping his hands above his head. “Now, if you’ll please just arrest me and read me my rights. I’d like to get this show on the road.”

Elliot is right behind her, and has her back, Olivia knows. She should be relieved, or something. Instead, she feels frozen, like a pall had settled over her.

“Come on, don’t you want to put the handcuffs on me? Hm?”

Finally, she snaps into action, and reaches behind. A pair of steel cuffs is immediately placed in her hand. She uses the momentum of the practiced gesture, and closes the metal around Beckor’s wrists.

“Ow, watch it. I might actually enjoy the pain, you know?”

Ignoring him, Olivia proceeds with the Miranda warning. After the uniformed officers escorted Becker away, she and her partner make sure the scene is secured, as they customarily do. Then it will be up to the crime scene unit to collect any evidence. Unfortunately, the detectives also know that nothing left behind would lead them to Jeannette Henley.

As they prepare to exit the building, Stabler breaks the silence, “You okay, Liv?”

“Yep, peachy,” she replies, and walks towards the car.

21. RED

Quickening her pace, Olivia tries to put as much distance as she can between her and Henley’s building as fast as possible. She hopes her partner knows her well enough to give her space. She's angry. Livid. She wants to punch something. To strike out with the pain in her bones. Instead she slams the car door and soaks in the rattle.

She cannot believe she would let a twerp like Becker get to her. He’s stupid.

I’m stupid.

He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. She’s not gay. She likes men; she likes sex with men. She has had mind blowing sex with men, lots of it; just as she has had lots of lousy sex with women.

I’m definitely not gay.

Sure, she’s in a committed relationship with a woman. A committed monogamous relationship. For all intents and purposes, that makes her a lesbian. A very happy lesbian.

Who or what Olivia fell in love with, however, has nothing to do with her relationship with her mother. She blames Serena Benson for many things. A childhood screwed up from dealing with a drunkard of a parent, maybe. Fear of commitment even. She does not attribute her desire for women to her mother; she doesn’t blame it on her.

No. Fuck no. She smashes her fist against the steering wheel, letting the pain keep her in focus.

Besides, blame implies error and culpability, and that’s totally not true. Her love for Alex is irreproachable and completely desired. It is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.

Everything I’ve always wanted.

All her life, from the moment she understood romantic feelings, and for as long as she remembered, she has looked for it. So many times, she had almost given up, thinking soul mates only exist in myths and fiction. She is happy and grateful that she didn’t settle somewhere along the way, that she has found this incredible woman, and can share this amazing love with her.

Turns out, it’s much more than I can ever imagine.

Growing up Catholic and going to Catholic schools, Olivia had met plenty of people who did things simply to rebel against their overly religious, over-protective, overbearing parents. It was no willful disobedience, nor was it an act of rebellion when she first started fucking girls. She certainly didn’t fall in love with a woman to spite her mother. Serena Benson had nothing against homosexuals. The woman’s best friend, who Olivia had known as “Uncle Stan”, who loved her like she was his own, was a homosexual. Even at work, Professor Benson was well-loved for her open-minded, possibly even radical, inclusiveness.

Which is why it didn’t make sense. Olivia scowls at the memory.

In fact, the detective remembered their talk after catechism studies on the subject of homosexuality. In her blunt, no nonsense way, her mother made certain Olivia understood how her opinion differed from the church. While she agreed that everyone should be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, that no one should be unjustly discriminated, she believed that God wouldn’t have singled out homosexuals. She didn’t think chastity was the only way for a gay person to reach ‘Christian perfection’. Homosexuality was not ‘intrinsically or objectively disordered’ in her book.

No, her problem was Alex, it was plain and simple.

Except it wasn’t that plain, nor was it that simple. Her mother had never explained it. Just that she knew Alex would break Olivia’s heart, that people like her were always playing games, like they were gods, with other people's lives. She was so certain she was right, she had left no room for argument. It was as if she had already known her lover before they were even introduced. And she was so mad at her mother for what she said, that she failed to ask for clarification. Instead she just yelled, yelled hateful things and slapped her mother in a burst of anger. Then in shame, in misery, she stormed out. Then her world changed, just like that. Her mother was dead.

No. Fuck no.

Olivia isn’t trying to make up for that. She isn’t trying to have a perfect relationship with her mother through another woman. Absolutely not.

There was nothing lacking in her mother’s love while sober. If nothing else, her mother had chosen her over her own parents. The things she did or didn’t do while intoxicated? She couldn’t blame her for those things, could she?

How Jeannette Henley still lives her life, in constant fear so many years after her rape really struck home for the detective this time. Right now, she can’t even blame her mother for staying drunk.

What am I doing?

So what if I’m a woman who loves another woman?

Why am I even thinking about this? Questioning myself? Justifying, explaining how wrong he was?

There’s nothing Freudian or whatever about whom I choose to love. And I am not just the sum of my genes; definitely not to my mom. Instead of asking over and over how her mother could love her, maybe it is time she just accepts that she did.

Deeply, she sucks in a breath, and holds it, until her lungs hurt.

“La vérité, l’âpre vérité.” That was a line in Serena Benson's favorite novel. The truth, the harsh truth, she accepted it.

Acceptance and blind faith, those were some of Serena Benson’s beliefs, weren’t they?

Everything happens for a reason; and children are precious. These same beliefs gave Olivia life, and gave her love.

What she did learn from her mother was that she can be strong and independent. That she is loved and is worth loving. That she is a blessing and she is blessed. Now, Alex shows her the same things everyday.

I just have to make sure I remember.

22. DEFECT

“Go home, get some rest,” Olivia says to their ADA. “Ugh. Gross. Why can’t people make coffee around here?” She tosses the dirty coffee filter into the garbage can. Damn. She didn’t mean to sound so impatient. Oh well, fuck it. She isn’t treating the woman any differently than she would the other detectives. Isn’t that what she wants anyway? To be one of the guys?

“You sure?”

“Yep, we’ve got it,” she replies and puts in a new packet of grounds and pushes ‘start’. She feels better just hearing the water gurgle.

“And if we need anything, you know we’ll call you,” Munch, always the diplomat, chimes in.

Elliot throws in his offering, “Yeah.”

“Seriously, it’s not like we’ve got…” Other people to call. “I mean, seriously, we’ve got it. Sorry, my sentences, I’m having trouble stringing them together, or thinking straight for that matter.” Damn it! Definitely don’t need to go there! She looks away at the older woman in the yellow rain coat walking through the double door and pretends to absentmindedly play with the posie ring on her finger.

“Oh, well, you’ve been up for a while,” Casey replies with a smile. “Anyone can see that.”

What the hell does that mean? And seriously, can she be any more oblivious? “Yeah, I’m sure I look like shit.”

“You look fine, Liv.”

The use of her nickname somehow makes her cringe. She hopes it’s not obvious.

“We all do.” Again, Munch jumps in. “I mean us,” he says, smoothly patting Olivia’s hand, drawing everyone’s attention to it. ”Not you, Casey.”

Olivia’s brow jumps up. Is this is way of falling on his sword for her? Or does he actually like-like their ADA? She stares at him while he answers with a shrug and a smirk. Oh, god, I need sleep. Coffee, sleep, and you, not necessarily in that order.

“Really, Casey, we’ve got it.”

“If you’re sure, Elliot.” Novak presses her lips together and nods. “Just call me if you need anything.” She says, looking directly at Olivia before returning her gaze to Stabler. “Good luck.”

“Thanks, Casey.”

The three detectives watch as their ADA saunters away. “She walks funny,” Olivia blurts; somehow she doesn’t feel bad for her catty comment. Maybe cuz it’s unintentional? And it’s merely an observation. “I mean, it’s like she’s trying to over-balance? Or something?”

Loudly, Elliot sighs. “Seriously, Liv…”

“No, I don’t wanna hear…”

“But you’ve got to.” He rubs his chin and looks at Munch, who gives him only an encouraging smile. “I mean, it’s gonna be for the long haul…”

“How’d you know? We’ve always had this revolving door. Even Abbie was a loaner.” She doesn’t need this. Don’t need no damn intervention. Everything’s gonna be fine.

“Liv.” Munch waits a beat. “Chances are Elliot’s right. Maybe you should just be honest.”

“And what? Presume? Maybe we’re wrong, all of us.”

“Is that what your detective’s instinct is telling you?”

“Right now, I’m not sure if it’s telling me anything, except maybe we should go see what that woman’s saying to Fin,” she points to the animated visitor, who has since removed her raincoat.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll go check. Save me a cup when it’s done,” Munch says and walks away, leaving his colleagues to guard the freshly brewing coffee.

“Don’t worry.” Olivia bends to check the drip. “Come on, come on,” she mutters.

Elliot pulls off three cups from the stack. Then he glances at Fin, and moves for a fourth cup. After lining them up along the narrow ledge, he catches Olivia’s eyes, and with her silent assent starts pouring creamer, putting more into his partner’s cup. Then come the sugar packets: two for Munch and five for Fin, and six for himself, ignoring the arching dark brow. He figures he’s entitled to her share, since she doesn’t take any.

“Really, Stabler?”

“Hey, I need energy. And it’s not like we’re rationing.”

“We’re not, but I thought Kathy is.”

“Well, what she doesn’t know…”

“I hope that’s not your answer for everything.”

“Of course not.” He smiles his little boy smile. “And you? What’s your…”

She doesn’t let him finish. “I know, I know. I’m gonna work on it.”

“I haven’t actually said anything. How d’you know…”

“Don’t have to, El. We’ve been partners for how many years now? I can probably finish 85 percent of your sentences.”

“Oh? What am I thinking now?”

“We need to figure how to break up… I mean, him.”

“Whoa, is that a Freudian slip?”

“Shut up. That’s my brain not functioning. I don’t know how doctors do it, you know before they’re really doctors.”

“Yeah, I know, Liv. I guess you’re right. You’re just tired. There’s nothing else wrong.”

“Did I say that? Finally!” She yanks the pot off the plate, and starts pouring. “Anyway, we’re wasting time. Time Jeannette doesn’t have.”

“So, you wanna start first?”

“Let’s just see what George or the capt’ has to say.” She takes her coffee and from her partner, and resumes the stirring. The scent of the fresh brew tickles her brain cells through her nose. “We can’t afford to guess.”

“Okay, then let’s go.” He takes a pen from his pocket and marks the remaining cups before picking them up. “But we’ll talk later?”

Not if I can help it. She steals a glance at her phone clipped to her belt and wonders what her lover is up to and if she will have time before it gets too late to call.

23. MIASMA

“All the world's a stage,” with an affected Boston Brahmin accent, and the most melodrama Alex can muster, she speaks to her reflection as she removes the first piece of her costume. Carefully, she wraps the disposable tinted lenses in a piece of tissue, and tosses them into the toilet. “No fake eyeballs for you,” she tells Oliver with a nasally tone before she flushes away the coveted toys.

“As I was saying, ‘all the world’s a stage,’” now flattening her vowels like most Midwesterners would, she relates to her cat. “Stupid cliché, right? That almost the whole world are actors?” She laughs, and then shakes her head when he twitches his tail and walks away. “You, too, Brutus?”

With a lingering smile, she runs her fingers through her hair. “Everyone’s a critic these days,” she tells the woman in the mirror. “And you’re really not that funny.

“Definitely a salon appointment in your future, darling,” she decides, sounding more like her mother as she tugs on her chin length bangs. “Or maybe let it grow a bit, au naturel, and color the rest accordingly? What do you think, cat?” She calls out to him in her own voice. “Think I’ll look good a light strawberry-ish blonde?

“More importantly, think everyone will know I’m me?” She would like to think no. Alex Cabot had been bleaching her hair for at least a few years before her assassination.

“And people’s memory, or attention span… definitely not like yours.” She smiles at the feline who is poking his head once more into the bathroom, clearly looking for other possible playthings. “Oh, here you go,” she crumbles a few sheets of face blotting paper, and watches him leap up to catch it in his mouth.

“Good job!” She laughs whiles he proceeds to bat the paper ball around. “Liv would be so proud.”

As she turns back towards mirror, her gaze lands on her glasses. Another prop…disguise, she acknowledges. Maybe in five or ten years she’ll actually need them. Will she be too vain then to wear reading glasses? She wonders with a self-depreciating smile.

The smile drops away as she suddenly feels the weight on her shoulders. To brace herself, she presses her hands against the counter, sagging heavily against it. A long sigh follows as the oppression looms. It is almost difficult to breathe.

Sometimes she wishes the world were indeed a stage; then everyone would have scripts, for their respective assigned roles. And maybe things would be clearer, less confusing...

But then people might forget their lines… I could forget mine.

Still, we might spend less time agonizing over what we wear. She looks down at her Pink shirt and her stockinged feet, and thinks about the skirt suit draped over the chair in the other room. Or the color of our hair.

Although… For a second, she considers sending her lover a message, to tell her again how much she likes her current hair style, and the softer look. In the end, she decides it’s too trivial, and the sentiments can wait. Nevertheless, the air feels already lighter. For that she’s grateful.

Thinking about Olivia reminds her of something else confounding. “Do you mind if we come out?” The detective’s latest text inquired.

“What do you mean?” She asked in response. So far, her question remains unanswered.

The detective could have meant “go” instead, typing in the wrong verb because she was in a rush. They were breaking from interrogation, just for a moment, she had explained in the beginning of their exchange. Somehow Alex doubts that was the case.

So that leaves only one interpretation.

Come out? To whom?

When?

It’s not like we’ve exactly been “in”, have we? At least not for a while? Maybe Paris doesn’t count because they were safe in their little bubble; and maybe it’s the same with the social gatherings in Chicago for Olivia. But then she had showed up at her new office and was introduced to her staff as her partner. They’re now “out” to Elliot, and her captain, and at least Munch, if not Fin as well. In retrospect, it is not like they were really ever “in” with their coworkers, since none of them seemed surprised when Olivia did tell them. Plus, she hadn’t hidden from the florist who sold her the roses - an example of the random strangers to whom the detective couldn’t admit their relationship before. It used to be Alex’s pet peeve, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. We’ve walked down 5th hand in hand. Even kissed on the N train platform. Everyone who’s important in our lives knows about us.

Add a house-warming next month. What else do we need to do?

Why?

Of course they had talked about her 'coming out', whether as Alex Cabot coming back from the dead under an assumed name, or something else. Right now she is inclined to not say anything. She will just be Jaime Alexandra O’Brien, a transactional, corporate lawyer at Szeto and O’Brien, Det. Olivia Benson’s domestic partner, Celine Cabot’s daughter, and whatever else defines her. She doesn’t owe anyone any sort of explanation. She certainly doesn’t care to relate to anyone how she lived the last year, or spent it in exile, depending on how one looks at the situation.

Suppose the Celine Cabot’s daughter part can be tricky, what with scandals and people sticking their noses into other people’s business and immediately believing the worst… But that’s something she and her mother will have to work out. It doesn’t have anything to do with Olivia’s request.

Then what… Are you planning ahead? To the various holiday parties that the District Attorney Office and the Police Department hold every year for and with each other? Do you want us to go together?

Is that why you’re asking? So I’ll have time to think, and decide if I’m ready to handle all of that, and everything that comes with just stepping inside either building?

It wouldn’t surprise her at all if that was Olivia’s intent. Her lover is considerate like that. She takes a deep breath and smiles up at the mirror once more. At last, the expression is genuine.

Deciding not to wait any longer, and certain of both the question and her answer, she picks up her phone, and fires off a text: “How? Something in mind?"

24. MORNING STAR

With a soft laugh, Alex throws the latest issue of Elle on top of the stack of W, WWD and Vogue in four languages. All of them were delivered by the concierge and waiting for her in her suite, no doubt arranged by Ling before the taxi dropped her off at the hotel, probably even before they had left the office.

Not that I’d admit in open court, but it does beat going through case files, I suppose, she decides, settling deeper into the hot water.

Still. She makes a mental note to send her law partner a subscription to Cosmo next time she gets on line. Although, the basket of spa-type bath products was a nice touch. Cosmo and a certificate for a massage then. She reaches for her phone and types herself a reminder.

Meanwhile, the movement of the water scatters the flock of miniature rubber ducks. Replacing concern with curiosity, the bobbing toys bring the cat to closer to the edge of the jacuzzi. Alex picks one up, wipes it on the towel, and throws it towards the bedroom. Her eyes follow Oliver’s chase with amusement.

Ok, something for little Michael, she decides, adding his name to the list, and shrugging off the unintentional comparison of her cat to her godchild.

“Again?” She looks down at the retrieved duck and shakes her head. “Olivia, Olivia, Olivia…” She sighs, tossing the toy once more. So your fault my cat acts like a dog.

Another, deeper smile graces her lips as her mind associates her lover with the yellow rubber ducks. To be precise, the vibrating rubber duck from her, that is now sitting in their bathroom in Brooklyn. She never used it for its intended purpose. For one, it is not entirely satisfying and a bit awkward to hold. More importantly, however, she fears Olivia’s writing would come off in the water.

God, Ling is right, I am a sap.

She shakes her head while her smile turns into a pout as she recalls her recent conversation with her mother, and the woman’s revelation. I can’t believe you called my mom. Meanwhile, you still haven’t returned my text. Her nose wrinkles as she checks her phone once more.

With acute awareness, Alex feels her mind drift into more perilous territory. She doesn’t stop it. Truthfully, she isn’t sure she can, short of fantasizing about her lover, and she would rather not go there either.

So, what is in a name? She asks, cutting to the chase. After all, she knows her own head. There is no point in taking the garden path with oneself.

"What's in a name?” This time she ponders out loud, the Bard’s lines pushing through her lips. “That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet." Right.

That's essentially the entire tragedy, the central issue of the play, isn’t it? For Romeo to give up his title, to throw away his name, just so he could be himself? Just so he could love?

For Romeo and Juliet, sacrifices had to be made. But Olivia and Alex are not star-crossed lovers in a play. No one has to give up anything, or any part of herself, to live the life she wants, with the person she loves. At least none that Alex is aware.

“People make sacrifices all the time, don’t they?” She hears her mother’s comment that had seemingly come out of nowhere. The lack of bitterness in the woman’s voice had surprised her earlier. There was something else though… Resignation? Acceptance?

Detemination? This noun pings the loudest. But it doesn’t make sense, does it?

What was she taking about? What sacrifice or sacrifices has my mom made… lately? At least where I’m concerned?

“Again?” She rolls her eyes in mock exasperation and tosses the proffered duck. Secretly, she doesn’t mind the interaction. It reminds her she’s not exactly alone, both literally and figuratively. Indeed she has found the love of her life, even if said person is giving her cat a canine complex. At that, she spares a quick smile before her speculation on her mother resumes.

Certainly not giving us her acceptance? If anything, she’s been trying so hard to push us together. The heirloom rings, the romantic Paris vacation, the house with room to grow… all the other things? The trust she evidently place on Liv when she asked her to work her case? Whatever it was about, it was something huge, the attorney knows. And the grandchildren she keeps bringing up?

No, definitely not ‘us’. Then what is it?

Not the one call per