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The Summer Knows

THE SUMMER KNOWS

Completed: 10/07/2010

The summer smiles, the summer knows,

And unashamed, she sheds her clothes.

The summer smoothes the restless sky,

And lovingly she warms the sand on which you lie.

The summer knows, the summer's wise,

She sees the doubts within your eyes,

And so she takes her summer time,

Tells the moon to wait and the sun to linger,

Twists the world 'round her summer finger,

Lets you see the wonder of it all.

And if you've learned your lesson well,

There's little more for her to tell,

One last caress, it's time to dress for fall

-- “The summer knows” (lyrics: Alan and Marilyn Bergman, music: Michel Legrand)

*******

Who had said that September was a beautiful word that evoked orange-flowers, swallows and regret? Olivia couldn't remember. Nor did she know how she'd come upon the saying, or why it had suddenly popped into her head. Except that August was almost over. On the other hand, April was the cruelest month, her mind wandered, placing T.S. Eliot without difficulties. Her brows furrowed at the quote, an absolute nonsense in the context of her life. She shook her head.

"What's up?"

"Huh?"

"You were shaking your head and you've been quiet, since I picked you up," Alex replied. "Is everything all right? At work? I'm sure if Don didn't think he could spare..."

"No, it's not that. Work's been quiet, surprisingly. But thank goodness," Olivia offered with a smile.

'Not that.' So there was something else. Alex waited silently.

Through her peripheral vision, Olivia counted the cars that whipped by. Finally, after making sure her statement wouldn't come out as a sigh, she said, “I need to ask you something.” The elegant arch of her lover’s brow told her to continue. She hesitated. “Maybe now’s not a good idea.”

“Liv? What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Olivia replied quickly. “Maybe I should wait until we get there, you know, when the car isn’t moving.” No sooner than the words left her mouth, her stomach lurched, while the blonde pulled out of traffic and onto the shoulder. “Jesus.”

“There.” Alex put on the hazards. “Now the car’s stopped.”

“I didn’t mean for you to... It’s really not a big deal, what I wanted to ask.”

“Bullshit.”

Olivia blinked.

“I think I know you well enough by now to know when you’re trying to feed me.” Alex let out a sigh disguised in a small laugh. “I’d like to think you do me, too.”

“Yeah, okay.” Olivia laughed similarly. “Okay.”

“So, shoot.”

“It’s really not that big a deal though,” she lied. She knew her lover didn’t buy it just like she didn't the last time; she combed her fingers through her hair. “All right, it is sort of a big deal. Where do you want me to start?”

“Why don’t you,” Alex began, while she shifted, so she could look at the brunette face to face. “With what you wanted to ask.”

“Okay. So how long do you think it’ll take, for you, for us to settle you, or us in? I mean, overall. Or maybe not overall...”

“What do you mean?”

Olivia winced at the beginning of bristle in the deep tone. This wasn’t going the way she wanted. She’d been holding the news for over a week now, and trying to digest it herself while the content had caused insomnia and nausea. It was big, seriously big, at least for her, and she was, goddammit, scared. And she was more than excited, and didn’t want to share it over the telephone. Now they were on their way straight from the airport to meet Liz and Tom at their summer house in Galena, and she just couldn’t keep her damn mouth shut for a couple more hours. “When you come, or go, back… when we move to Brooklyn. We agreed that three weeks was good, based on the vacation and personal time I have left to take, and that we want to keep some of it…”

“Yes,” Alex said to forestall the rambling. “Did something come up?”

“Well, sort of, yes,” Olivia sighed and sucked in a deeper breath. “I, uh, when I asked for my time off, the captain sat me down.”

“Oh, Liv.” Instinctively, she reached out to touch the detective’s hand. “I’m sorry. Is Don not letting you have the time? I think we can, or I can do it…”

“No, no, no.” Olivia squeezed back and held on. “On the contrary, he wants me to take more, maybe another week.”

“Oh?”

“He said,” she took another breath, to change the air. “Get this: he wants me to take the exam. Didn’t quite ordered me, he can’t. He said he can't, but…”

“You didn’t feel like you have a choice.” Alex smiled.

“Not really, no. Although I’m not sure…”

“This is good news. I happen to agree with him. You’re ready, you’ve been ready.”

Olivia replayed the conversation with Cragen in her head, and decided to run the same by her lover. “But Elliot, he hasn’t…”

“I thought you said some things might’ve gone into his jacket.”

“Captain said he’s too hot-headed.”

“You feel you owe him,” Alex stopped, and opted for slightly more diplomacy. “Because he’s your partner, and on the job longer, you don’t want to out-rank him?”

“Well, I just got First Grade not too long ago. Some people I graduated with are still chasing their gold shields.”

“You’re just that good. What’s wrong with being fast-tracked to command?”

“Well, nothing, maybe, oh hell.” She had to let it out. “It might require a stint elsewhere first so I’ll have the experience, but he wants me in his chair, the Captain does, when he retires, not that it’d be tomorrow. He said he might try to take it with him…”

“Liv!” The information took on a new level of significance. “That’s great news!” Alex leaned over to hug her companion, and kiss her soundly on the mouth. “That’s truly wonderful! You’ll be so good at it!”

“That’s what he said.”

“You have the compassion, and the control.”

“Not like you, the control.”

Alex laughed. “But compared to a lot of cops. I’ve seen you so composed, when I’d wanted to knock the perp’s teeth in. You can be… suave.”

“It’ll be good for press if a woman takes command of SVU.”

“That, too, but only if the woman is qualified. The brass would have to cover its ass with the press.”

“He’s not saying I’m ready, and it’ll be a while before he’s ready. Years probably.”

She took her lover’s face in her hands. “But he wants you to take the necessary steps, for when you’re both ready. Oh, Liv, I think it’ll be a great job for you.”

“Yeah, but will I be great for the job?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about now,” Alex reasoned. At this point, her lover wasn’t looking for reassurance as much as she was for support, she knew. Only the elite of the department worked in or with SVU in any capacity; it was an undisputed fact. “Made your bed; better fix it so that it’s comfortable,” her mother would say. She channeled the regret she didn’t want to feel into a smile, and encouraged, “One step at a time.”

*******

“Like dancing.” Olivia nodded in agreement. “So I was thinking, hoping, during those three weeks, maybe while you do other things, like hang out with your mom…”

Alex laughed. “My mom and I aren’t going to ‘hang out’; she doesn’t ‘hang’. But no, I don’t need you with me every minute. You can take some of that time to study. In fact, I was just thinking on my way to pick you up that we could stop by a couple of places tomorrow, to look at the furniture, since we're heading into antique country, according to Liz. Check out our options, and maybe order on line.”

“And I can take delivery and make sure everything gets set up right,” Olivia caught on to the excitement. “I can, and I will do whatever studying I can when I’m not talking to you, or moping about not talking to you, but this would be good. This would be a great project for me, you know,” she grinned and said, “I could check on the contractors before or after work and report the progress to you. Keep an eye on things. If nothing else, they’re not going to dent anything knowing I’m a cop.”

She was going to say her mother could make arrangements, could make sure the walls, and the floors and everything else is ready before either of them stepped foot in the house. But her lover had a point, maybe not the way she put it, but she needed to feel like she’d contributed, that she had a solid, active part in building their nest. So she acquiesced. “This is so exciting!”

“And scary.” Olivia swallowed. "The test I mean."

“But you know what’s waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.”

“Yeah, politics and loads of ass-kissing which I can live without.” Olivia had to admit, “But it’s a good feeling. Things are really falling into place, my life, my job; I feel like, my goals, they’re not just hanging out there, but that I have a real good future.”

“This deserves a celebration!”

“If only we were staying in town, I could think of a few ways…”

“You need to stop thinking about sex.”

“I haven’t had any in, how many days now?” Olivia grinned, and settled back in her seat while her lover put the car in gear. “And did I say anything about sex? Maybe I was thinking about dinner, and champagne, and a play.”

“Uh huh.”

“Although speaking of eating…”

“Liv, shut up,” Alex ordered, and pressed down on the gas pedal.

*******

On the back porch, Olivia flipped the vegetables and meats, and struggled against the sudden urge to cry. It was good that she was tending to the grill; she could always blame the tears on the smoke. Still, Tom would be back from the store soon, and she’d better gathered herself before anyone noticed.

She had sworn the New Year party would be the first and last time she embarrassed her lover and herself. She let her memory drift to that night and the morning after, as she watched Alex interact with many of the same faces. It seemed so strange, to watch the blonde work the crowd, and she couldn’t help but wonder what she was giving up to go back to New York.

Olivia felt a hand below her shoulder and turned around. “Hey.”

“How’s everything going?” Liz Desai grabbed a tong and picked up a steak. “Oh, this looks almost done,” she said, putting the meat back and reached for a plate. “John, my colleague over there, likes his cow still mooing.”

“So how’s Child Services?”

Liz laughed. “You want the polite reply or the truth? I’m sure you can guess the truth.”

Nodding, Olivia offered an understanding smile.

“Sometimes I don’t know why I’m still there. One of my friends told me about an opening at the Public Guardians’ Office, I told him he’s nuts.”

“I imagine you’d run into similar situations.”

“Too similar, too often. So how are things? Catching all the bad guys in Cleveland ?”

“Oh. Well.” Olivia had nearly forgotten her cover. “There’s always more, unfortunately.”

“Yeah.” Desai sighed. “Unfortunately. Anyway, let’s talk about something more pleasant. Have you two decided whether you’re staying the whole weekend? We’d really like you to stay. The other folks have kids, except Shawn and Becky.” She gestured towards two different areas of the garden. “And they don’t know we’re trying to hook them up yet. So it’ll just be the four or six of us.”

“I, uh, Jaime…”

“Tom thought if you like, we could take a balloon ride tomorrow morning, and see the Illinois prairies. Have you done that? Been on a hot air balloon?”

Hoping to rid herself of the unsettling feeling at the same time, Olivia shook her head. “No.”

“Me neither. It should be fun,” Liz replied as she poked at the meat. “Anyway, think about it, talk to Jaime. I’d better take this over,” she said, and left.

The brief encounter was strange. What's with these bossy women? That Alex seemed to attract? Bossy women with agendas? Her eyes narrowed as she recalled the conversation, and she shook her head again. In truth, it was stranger to have married friends and be included as a couple, the detective realized. It had been less than a year since they declared their love for each other. Most of that time, it was just the two of them, in their little bubble. Looking around, the only single persons at the party were Shawn and Becky, and for how long? Would they become some sort of unit by the end of the weekend if they stayed?

What would things be like after Alex went back to New York ? Would they make couple friends and do couple things? Ling and her husband would live next door; would they have weekly get-togethers? Would they start doing things with Elliot and Kathy, too, as they were the only couple Olivia knew. Or at least the only other couple that would know about Alex's return. Would they still have to live constantly under the radar? Could they, would they tell others? And telling others! She couldn't imagine Alex ever agreeing to living in the closet, but what would other cops think? She was still running into people, and not just old-timers with one foot in retirement, who thought women should be home raising babies and not be getting in the way of investigations. Perhaps they would only tell selective others and then who? Maybe it would be more prudent to keep to themselves, or only associate with those Alex trusts, considering she herself really didn't have too many friends outside of work? Oh, what about John and Fin? Wait, didn't Hank say Velez was no longer a threat? So they could have lives like normal people? And what did that mean? Those questions were more than overwhelming.

Plus, what was she bringing to the relationship, really? And would they have difficulties adjusting to living together? How come she’d never really, seriously thought of those things? It was definitely too late to back out now, not that she’d want to, not on her life, but…

Before she furthered her thoughts, an unexpected touch made her jump. She tried to turn around only to feel her lover’s squeeze tighter around her waist. So she twisted her head instead. “Sweetheart.”

“Sorry I startled you.”

“No,” she began, and then shook her head. “That’s okay. I just, I thought you were talking to Steve and Dena.” At least that was what the blonde was doing last time she looked.

“Yes, but then a land mine blew up your puppy.”

“What?”

“The look you had on your face.” Alex knitted her brows at the brunette. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, really,” Olivia replied.

“Then why the look?”

She motioned with the fork across the grill and said with a small smile, “You know this is really not the right time, considering.”

“So there is something wrong.”

“No, not really. Was just thinking,” Olivia admitted, and closed her eyes briefly at the touch of her lover’s chin pressing into her shoulder. It was nice, to be so free with displaying their affection. Would things change when Alex return to New York? Who would she be when she went back? Would she be Jaime O’Brien or Alex Cabot? Well, a combination of both, considering the name change order, but in actuality? Would she be different in private practice? Would they still talk about work like before, or even now, when they still had the greater good in common, albeit from different sides? How else would she be different? How come she hadn’t thought to question any of it earlier either? “Have you told anyone? Liz and Tom? About going home? Um, moving to New York?”

Alex sighed. “No. I thought I’d do it sometime this weekend... before we leave... to take you back to the airport.”

Is the regret about saying goodbye? To whom? Olivia decided it was probably both her and Liz. “So we’re staying the weekend?”

“You want to?”

“Can I be honest?”

“Of course, Liv, I insist.”

Olivia heard the tension in the blonde’s voice. In response, she turned her body and kissed the tip of her lover’s nose. “I just want to be with you, here or wherever.” That got her the exaggerated exasperation she expected. “I’m serious.” When Alex merely shook her head, she offered, “Liz mentioned hot air balloon ride. I think it’d be fun.”

"I'm not sure I want to hang out in a basket in the sky."

She had to smile at the blonde's expression. "I'm sure it's perfectly safe."

"Yeah, well, terra firma, thank you."

"We don't have to decide now," Olivia provided, understanding the need to be grounded, literally and figuratively. "Anyway, this would be the last, um, get together with Liz and Tom for... for a while, and I think we should make the best of it."

“So you’re okay with staying?”

With a heartfelt smile, she replied, “Of course, I insist.”

*******

How did it happen? One minute they were laughing, talking to other guests, their hosts, like they were civilized people. Meanwhile, their fingers were touching, their clothes brushing intentionally accidentally. Fluid, without aforethought on either one of their part. Like it was a waltz. The next minute, they were barely looking at each other, barely acknowledging each other. And when one would stare her way, the other would quickly avert her eyes. Olivia’s dark gaze was almost sullen and she could only imagine the icy veneer of her own smile. The easy steps of their dance had become something on a contemporary stage, full of unexpected stops and impossible to follow or understand. Perhaps they were both simply too used to getting their way, like spoiled moody children, Alex decided, except for the aggravating, almost desperate ache growing in her core.

No, not ‘almost’ desperate, definitely, absolutely, positively, ravenously desperate, Alex thought and bit her lip. How did it happen? She couldn’t even remember the exact moment when it happened. Just suddenly, before she could even contain it, the flicker had become a raging fire, ready to consume her.

It was a bad idea, staying. They should’ve left when everyone did, and would've been half way back to the city. Liz and Tom would have understood. Instead, time ticked by, excruciatingly slowly, while shop-talk filled the space. Until finally Olivia and Tom both yawned, and then apologized, one shyly, one profusely, for their inability to contain their boredom. Words, in response, spilled from everyone's mouth, blending, before jerking to staccato, and the gathering ended in a collective laugh and then kisses and hugs goodnight.

Now, finally, they were in their assigned room, the en-suite bathroom to be exact, because she had felt weird making love in their hosts’ guest-bed. And she wanted nothing more than to scream her frustration; but she had to keep quiet, as Olivia dotted kisses across her skin. Kisses that were sweet but excruciatingly, exquisitely slow…

“Liv… Liv… Olivia, please… please, I can’t…” Alex’s whispered words were shut off by her lover’s mouth. She sucked on her tongue while her body grasped at long fingers. Finally, she arched and bore down, to rock her hips harder, to meet the thrusts, shorter, deeper, faster.

Olivia felt the gush of warmth and knew the woman was close. Fleetingly she thought about slowing down, teasing, about prolonging the moment. The wait would be worth it, she knew, for both of them. But it was so close, they were so close and she… she could only stroke faster, go deeper. She wanted that spot to open up; she wanted to feel the beat, like the beat of her heart.

Vaguely, Alex realized she was no longer on her feet, with her body pressed against the wall and held up by Olivia’s strength. She clung, her arms around the woman’s shoulders, her legs around her thighs. She clung with her whole body, tighter, harder, pulling her deeper, never ever wanting to let go.

“Come,” Olivia pulled away from their lip lock just enough to encourage. “Come,” she whispered again before crashing back, filling the hot hungry space. Yes, yes, she thought, feeling the emptiness swelling, giving, and she pushed in closer, deeper… and she stroked against the beat, beating faster, harder, not letting up until her own body joined in, throbbing, thumping, their ragged breathing cacophonous in her ears.

Finally, the pounding slowed, their eyes fluttered open and reluctantly they eased apart, just a little.

“God,” Alex was the first to let out a breath.

“Yeah,” Olivia panted with a small laugh while her body shivered; and she held on, as if afraid to float away, or that Alex would. The expected hiss of her name in half-hearted protest made her smile. “I’ve missed you. Missed us.”

“Me, too.”

“Is that a ‘yes’ then?”

“Yes?”

“More?” Olivia pushed against the slick walls.

Blue eyes slammed shut. Yes, always, her body, her heart, always, always one giant ‘yes’. “Always.”

“Always?”

“Yes, yes, oh, god, Liv, yes,” she chanted, their bodies resumed moving, their hearts beating in synch, always, again. Again.

*******

What was it? Alex wondered as her eyes flew open. What was that noise? She asked herself again and focused her hearing. There was nothing, nothing besides the sounds of crickets, incessant and loud. There were crickets everywhere, and probably moths, too. She couldn't remember the last time she heard or saw either one, or any other nocturnal creatures that differentiated city from country. Were there crickets in France? At Mondestin? She blinked, not recalling.

Carefully, she turned, cognizant of the arm draped around her waist. She looked down, and could barely make the outlines of Olivia's hand. Then she lifted her own, and found the shape no clearer. And she touched her thumb to the metal bands, the claddah next to her great-grandmother's ring, circling her fingers. And she released a slow, unbidden, breath.

"Sweetheart?" Olivia mumbled. "You awake?"

Alex thought briefly to ignore the question, to pretend she was asleep; but her lover was already shifting, already pulling away and pushing up on her elbow.

"Hey."

Only she could put so much into a single word - a three letter greeting, Alex thought and sighed. "Go back to sleep. I'm all right. Just... I think the crickets woke me up."

"Crickets?" Olivia chuckled. "They're kinda annoying, aren't they?"

"I wonder if we'll hear crickets in Brooklyn," Alex said and waited, though not exactly sure what for.

"There's a yard, right?"

"Yeah. Backyard. Shared with Ling and Douglas."

"I guess you could ask, well, your mom, since you don't have contact with Ling... yet," Olivia suggested, knowing all the arrangements regarding her lover's townhouse and her business partnership with her childhood friend were being made through Celine Cabot.

Only she could make so sincere a suggestion about something so stupid, so trivial. Alex rolled her eyes and wished she could see through the darkness. "Do you remember," she asked, not understanding why, "Mondestin? If there were crickets?"

Olivia chuckled again. "I'm not sure? There's got to be right? We were kinda in the middle of nowhere wine country. Probably crickets, and owls, and bats."

"But maybe it was too cold, April and all."

"April..." Olivia repeated. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah? Why wouldn't it be?" Alex replied, perhaps a little too quickly. "You're here. We're together. Serenaded by a bunch of lous... I mean, noisy, crickets." She hoped the brunette would let the slip slide.

"It does seem a little... surreal," Olivia spoke quietly, after a long moment. "The crickets... Us, being here... in the country..."

"What happened to the last four months? Or the last ten months? Last year, really. It's like time just flew."

"Yeah, I guess it did," Olivia agreed. "We've been busy."

"Everything's a blur. Sometimes I wonder..." Alex balled the sheets in her hand. "Sometimes I... It's going to sound insane, but what if this is last year... and I'm still in the hospital..."

"And this, us, everything that has happened, is all in your head," the detective completed her lover's sentence. Suddenly, she was acutely aware of their hushed voices. The darkness. The in-the-middle-of-nowhere-feeling. It wasn't like in the city where everything was illuminated by lights, lights from the streets, from the other apartments, and houses. She knew if she looked up, if the windows weren't covered, she'd see stars. Maybe it wasn't the last time she did, but there was that one time she'd seen them, that the myriad of blinking lights etched her memory. She shook her head clear, and moved again, this time, to turn her companion over, so they could be face to face. "You can't see me right now."

"No, I can't, at least not well."

"But I'm here."

"I know."

"And so are you," Olivia said, with more conviction than she'd hoped. "We're not living X-files," she reminded Alex of a comment she made in Mondestin. "Or some writer's demented plot." If it were, then she'd make him or her change her screwed up life, from the moment of her conception. On the other hand, if everything led to here, maybe not. "Although maybe we are in a bit of a time warp. You know, Rocky Horror." She hummed a few notes from one of the songs that come to mind.

"Now you're being silly."

"Ow!" She protested halfheartedly, while grabbing her lover's hand that collided with her stomach. She threaded their fingers together, then whispered before she could stop herself, "I miss..."

"What?"

"You, I miss you."

"I miss you, too, Liv."

"And I miss France."

"France?"

Instead of elaborating, Olivia asked instead, "Do you remember the night you drove me out to the ocean, after my mom died?"

Alex hesitated. "Sure."

There were stars that night, across the darkened sky, over the even darker sea. Olivia remembered, and closed her eyes. "I couldn't stop crying."

"Sweetie."

"It wasn't all about my mom."

"It wasn't?" Alex didn't hide the surprise in her voice.

"I thought..." Olivia swallowed to control her emotions. "I was feeling sorry for myself."

"Of course. You had every right..."

"No, not about my mom," she insisted.

"Okay..."

"I was... I hated how things were, how my life was going, and I, I was alone, I'd die all alone," Olivia admitted with more than a trace of sadness. Then her voice brightened, "I wanted... I didn't think... I didn't think we'd be here."

"Here?"

Olivia shook her head, more for her own benefit. "I didn't think I could ever..." Didn't think I'd ever find my soulmate, and in the form of one stubborn, arrogant, self-righteous woman with a soft-heart. She smiled. "That you'd be interested. That you and I would... You know, us."

"Ah, I see."

"And sometimes I wonder, if this is all just a fantasy, a happy dream. Maybe one day I'd wake up..."

"You, too?"

"Quite often," the brunette admitted. "It's not a dream, Benson," she revealed with a light laugh, "At least that's what I tell myself. So, I understand, how you're feeling, Sweetheart. Actually, I understand quite well."

"God..." Alex shook her head and pressed forward in the direction of her lover's lips. "We're a pair..."

*******

Repetitive, changing octaves, with the occasional dissonance, the sober music was haunting in its elegance. The rolls, like waves, non stop, rushing forward, rushing towards... Where?

Do we dare to rule our fates and end our days? Alex translated the choral in her head. Beware, follow the beat! And we love them, and they hate us... She sighed and decided. The romantic helplessness of humankind... That, that's something that'll never change.

Tentatively, she touched the ivory keys, testing the still familiar smoothness under her fingers, wondering briefly if it was like riding a bicycle, except she had never learned to do that. For the past weeks, months even, if she was honest with herself, she had been going through the motion. She did what was familiar, what she thought she should do, what she ought to do. She made phone calls, planned, made her coffee, went to court, ate her dinner, talked to Olivia, argued with her, kissed her, handed in her letter of resignation. All her movements were carefully choreographed, even the lively steps back and forth, that repeated themselves. Much like this music, this pavane.

To be perfectly honest, however, she wouldn't prefer the slow dragging movement of Ravel's piece, would she? Alex imagined a ballroom full of courtiers, each with his or her insincere ambition hidden under layers of sedate yet extravagant Spanish lace. Men and women dressed in black and white, lifting their stocking-clad legs, pointing their heel-shoed toes, moving backward and forward to the melody. Shuffling, absurdly.

Although for the dead princess was appropriate in a way. No longer a princess at the district attorney's office, nor the state's attorney's in less than a month. Machiavellian princesses in civil-servants’ clothing, some might say? Instead, she would be queen, co-queen, of her domain. Shouldn't she be happy? Would she grow resentful of the eminent part? Was eminent domain - the expropriation of the state of the private citizen's property with due payment but without consent - even appropriate an allegory, considering she was given a choice?

She was here by choice. A series of choices. Choices she'd made. All the events in her life, they were all driven by actions she'd taken, by conscious decision. In fact, she couldn't remember when she'd allowed someone else to make decisions for her. At least not since she'd grown, not since her childhood was so rudely interrupted anyway, first by her father's drunken heart-attack induced death, then by the near-rape that ended in murder. Self defense. Her prosecutor voice reminded as her jaw hardened.

It wouldn't be so bad to not have to work with the dead anymore. Or worse, a child or even an adult traumatized by having control ripped from you and your person violated. The worst violations, the worst violence she would have to deal with when she went back to New York would be some pampered suit, irate with some breach of contract clause. And the worst failure she would face would be monetary loss for her client. Not emotional scars compounded by her inability to obtain justice.

No, it wouldn't be so bad at all. Then why was she feeling so awful about not taking her old job back?

Why, instead of sweet-nothings like it should, and perhaps ending with another session in the intimate clawed foot tub like it ought to, their middle of the night conversation had devolved into hushed accusations and arguments?

Alex pinched her brows, remembering Olivia's assertion, her claim that at some point, two people should assume that they were more than just booty calls to each other. She hadn't agreed - couldn't. Instead, she countered that at this point in time, they were stuck with each other no matter what or what each person did or did not do. She knew she wasn't allowing Olivia the same level of insecurities she allowed herself when the brunette thought they were dating and moving toward some sort of future together at some point. Maybe it's just a double standard, she decided, not as an excuse for herself.

Yet... The world was full of double standards, like the special treatments she knew she had received from the feds since day one of her being a part of the witness protection program. Was this one so wrong? She wondered as she feathered her fingertips onto the smaller black keys.

"Do you play?"

Alex looked up to the gentle sound. "No, not really."

"My mom made me take lessons when I was growing up."

"Do you still play?" She asked her colleague.

"No, not really." They shared a small laugh. "But I could never give it up, the piano, I mean. So I dragged it all the way here from my mom's place in Iowa," Liz explained. "My one contribution to this house." She chuckled. "Well, not entirely true, but you know what I mean."

Alex followed the woman's sweeping gesture around the room and took in the deep greens and blues of the wall paper and fabrics and the dark mahogany. She had to admit that she was surprised by her first glimpses of the interior. It was not romantic and feminine like the outside, not even eclectic or eccentric like one would use to describe a Queen Anne era house, unless one considered deliberate uniformity bordering on the rigid eccentric.

"Earth to Jaime?"

A touch to her arm jarred her back to the present. "Sorry. I... I was just thinking."

"About?"

"How nice this..."

"Don't say the decor," Liz laughed. "We're better friends than that."

Friends. What an interesting term. How long would it take to develop a friendship? What kind of effort would one need to put in, and how quickly and easily could one dissolve said friendship? Would a little white lie, a lie she had no control over do it? Could people even be friends if one party had been lying to another about the most fundamental aspects of herself? Celine Cabot had reminded her when she voiced her concern that she was who she was inside, no matter the color of her hair or her eyes, what job she took or what name she used. Olivia had echoed that sentiment, albeit with very different words. She looked at the shorter woman again, and found it difficult to meet her patient black eyes. She forced herself to hold the inquiring gaze. "I... We need to talk."

*******

"Talk? About? Are you okay, Jaime? Is everything okay?"

Liz was no doubt reacting to her omninous tone, Alex sighed and shook her head. She hoped the smile she offered was adequate. Suddenly, she was thinking about April, and how it came like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. Why? She didn't know, except that Olivia was fixated on the month, and they had been talking about France.

Why that particular poem? What does it signify? She didn't know. She didn't know if she even liked poetry before Olivia. There were a whole lot of things she wasn't before Olivia. Her walls were built better then, too. Much better. And if she was honest, she would admit that she was having some sort of crisis of faith. Or... something. She shook her head again, meeting her friend's gaze. And as a long forgotten memory resurfaced, she wondered if she could ever manage the same grace.

"I just remembered something," Alex began, and continued when she saw the responding patient grin. "It was my second year as a prosecutor, and I lost a case - one of my first major cases - that I thought I had, and I was so close to quitting. So close." She hugged her arms around herself and looked away. "Then my victim, his little sister showed up at my office with a bunch of wild flowers, to tell me it was okay, and to thank me for trying... Anyway, somehow I've forgotten it, until just now."

If Liz knew her friend's smile wasn't genuine, she didn't let on. Instead, she offered her own. "Sometimes it's things like that that keeps us going. You were a prosecutor? I can't remember if you mentioned it before or not."

Alex paused. "You know? I can't remember either. Anyway, yeah, I was, for a long time, actually." She waited for several moments for the woman to comment or asked further questions. Then she shrugged. "Anyway, I need to talk, to you."

"Yes, yes. Is everything okay, Jaime?"

"Yes, I'm fine," she replied automatically, suddenly cringing at the name that had become her own. "It's nothing... well, as you know I'm leaving, as soon as we wrap up some of the cases, which should be a couple of weeks max."

"Yes?"

"I, I value our friendship, a lot. You know how much I count on you at work, your cooperation."

"I'd say I rely on you to get my kids out of jail," Liz countered.

"Anyway, you, you and Tom, you've been wonderful to me, to us, outside work, and, well, I hope we'll keep in touch, and stay friends, even after I move."

"Of course we will! Why wouldn't we?"

Why indeed. "Well..."

"We'll email and talk. We can even visit each other, or take vacations together!"

"Liz, I need to tell you something... in confidence."

"A secret?"

Dark eyes took on a look Alex couldn't quite comprehend. She nodded.

"You know you can trust me." Desai smiled. "Do we need to make it privileged?"

"No." Alex laughed despite herself. "No, it's just, well, when I said I was going home... Home isn't in Cleveland. It never was."

"Never?"

"No." She swallowed her hesitation. "I'm from New York. Olivia, too."

"I see."

"I'm not sure you do, Liz, and I don't know how..." She started to defend, to explain, but another smile and a hand on her arm stopped her.

"Counselor," Desai spoke. "My turn."

"Your...?"

"I have my own confession to make."

*******

"Your confession?" Alex repeated, unable to hide her surprise. What possibly could she be talking about? She wondered and willed her brain to stop at that, and waited. Her friend didn't keep her long.

"You see, this is a very small world, not just the legal community, but the world in general," Liz said, with a faraway look. Then her face brightened. "Or maybe it's fate."

"Fate?"

"Or an absentminded husband." She laughed. "Who always forgets to unpack and where he leaves things and ends up keeping things that should've been thrown away."

Shaking her head, Alex re-crossed her arms. "I'm afraid you lost me."

"Things like a newspaper picked up at the airport from a business trip taken months and months ago," Liz revealed, catching the taller woman's eyes this time, and holding her gaze. She took another breath, and continued, her words much more measured than before. "Tom had a trial in New York last Fall, Southern District actually, around the time the Colombian drug cartel took one of its more high profile victims, an officer of the court. Her photo was on the front page. A prosecutor. You know her?"

Alex gasped, "You knew...?"

"Not right away, I wasn't sure. She could be your doppelgänger, I thought; though frankly, I couldn't remember the face very well by the time you and I met. It was just a feeling."

"A feeling?"

Liz shrugged. "Then I saw the paper again, piled up with some other junk mail and stuff that should've gone to the recycling bin..." Briefly, she looked away, as if recalling the old early winter morning, when they first met outside the juvenile detention center. "Then I remembered your injury, the sling, the way you were holding yourself, it didn't seem like someone who'd just sprained an arm. You know some of my kids; I've made visits to trauma wards..."

"More often than you care to remember, I'm sure."

"And you never talk about yourself. Not about your family, relatives, your old job, former girlfriends, or boyfriends, or friends in general..." Her brows quirked. "Or anything really, things people would inevitably mention at one point or another after you've known them long enough, and we've known each other for over half a year."

"I'm sorry," Alex tendered weakly. Really, what else could she say?

"Don't be. Why should you be sorry?"

"I've been lying..."

"No, you haven't, not really, not as far as I’m concerned." Liz reached out and grabbed her friend's forearm, crumbling defenses in the process. "Or are you telling me you don't really believe in fighting for justice, or that you were just shedding crocodile tears when you were telling me about Pedro Rivera's deportation hearing?"

Alex winced and bit down on her lip. She had told herself the tears were of frustration with the system more than anything else. Yet, she still felt the ache, like she was stabbed through her back to her heart. "No."

"I know about Witness Protection. You couldn't have told a soul. At least not under normal circumstances."

"My circumstances aren't exactly normal, considering I haven’t cut off all ties," Alex countered quickly, unwilling to accept the proffered immunity.

"I gathered that.”

"How come you never mentioned it, never asked?"

"Didn't they teach you to ask only necessary questions in law school?"

Or not questions that could give way to answers you don't like or want. A slight press of her lips was Alex's response.

"It wasn't a necessary question."

“I don’t…”

“You don’t have to explain anything." Liz patted her friend's arm, before sliding down to squeeze her hand. "And for the record, I didn't look you up. No clue who you were besides what the article said. It wasn't easy but then it wasn't that hard, not when I know what I know. And I'm sorry, I hope you don't mind, but I shredded the newspaper. Didn't want anyone else accidentally seeing it, you know?"

"I know what I know." The earlier poem popped back into her head. What was it that Edna St. Vincent Millay had come to know? That made her write that Beauty wasn't enough? That there is no death? Alex returned the squeeze and let go, debating momentarily and deciding to let her fingers drift back to the piano keys. "Thank you, I appreciate that."

"And I thank you for trusting me with the truth."

*******

Truth, untruth. Verity, falsehood. An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs... And somehow our identities decompose, whether or not death is involved. With a swallowed sigh, and then a smile, Alex paused the internal philosophical debate. She let her hand slip from smooth ivory to fall against her side. "I'd very much like us to stay friends."

"Me, too, and we will." Sensing the change of mood, Liz's smile widened. “So tell me more about home? What you’re going to do after your move?”

“Basically the same things that I’ve already told you. Joining my friend's... Ling, the one who came to your party," she stalled, and made a quick decision. "She's my cousin, actually."

"Cousin?"

"Yes. We don't really think about each other that way, and we're more like sisters, the way we grew up, but our great-grandparents were half-siblings," she related, feeling like she should make up for all the withheld information, like she was taking a first step. Plus, it felt good - it felt great - to chit-chat, with a friend. "Anyway, at this point, I think our DNA charts and maybe our jaw lines are the only indications we share some blood."

Liz contemplated the blonde, tapping her finger on her lip before speaking, "I'm not sure I remember her face that well, but I think I can see it, if you ignored all the differences. Actually, I think if people ignored all the differences, we'd be in a much better place." She laughed. "Although, that's for another day, and I'm preaching to the choir."

Alex nodded in accord.

"Anyway, familial relations can be complicated." Desai continued, "Two of my cousins lived with us the whole time we were growing up. My aunt and uncle were taking care of my grandmother in India. But family comes in all shapes and sizes, right? So you're joining Ling's firm, as a partner?"

"And moving in with Olivia. Just not Cleveland.”

“You’d only mentioned moving back home, if I recalled correctly." She touched Alex's arm once more to reassure. "Nothing about where exactly.”

That was right. She hadn’t, had she? Technicalities. Alex smiled. Wonder if a non-lawyer would make those distinctions and exceptions.

“And she’s really a cop?”

“ Manhattan SVU… Special Victim’s Unit.”

“Where you used to work.”

“Yes, that’s how we met.”

“You don’t want to go back to your old job? Or is it not safe…”

“They tell me it should be, but I’m… I’m pretty sure I don’t… It would be difficult… For everyone. I think, including me.”

“I don’t think anyone can blame you for wanting to start over. After what you’ve been through.” Liz shook her head. "I can’t even begin to imagine…"

Alex sighed. “Thanks, I needed to hear that.”

“Olivia doesn’t support your decision?”

“No, she does." The blonde provided quickly. "I mean, she said she agrees with my decision, whatever it might be." The words her lover didn't use, her large brown eyes spoke volumes. It was fear, stark fear, and uncertainty. The same look confronted her when she looked in the mirror, coercing her to make the decisions she was making. Decisions she knew deep down were right. "So those are the choices I'm making."

Desai nodded. "I'm sure she's relieved. And your family..."

"Yes, I have family back home. My mom, and," Alex started to share; almost immediately though, she realized, "Of course you knew, it would've been in the article, who survived, well, her."

"I'm sorry." She rubbed her friend's arm to comfort. "I was just saying that I'm sure your family and your friends, myself included, we'd be happier knowing you'd be safe. Or at least safer, not in the public eye."

"I guess."

“It’s okay, Jaime. Um, shall I keep calling you that?"

"Yeah, at least for the time being, if you don't mind. I'm not sure I'm ever going to, I don't think I'll be the same person again."

In response, Liz smiled and shook her head. "I don’t think you’ve sold out just because you decided to go into private practice, if that’s what you’re wondering. Everyone deserves representation.”

"How'd you figure...?"

"MSW, remember? Besides, I would ask myself the same."

“You can be so pragmatic,” Alex said, shaking her head and smiling.

“You know it! It's how I keep the job I have without burning out and up. Anyway, let’s talk about more interesting things. Such as the new place you’re moving into. Is it in the city? And more importantly, does it have a guest bedroom?”

“It’s in Brooklyn. Easy access to everything.” Alex’s voice warmed with excitement. “More importantly, it’s a four level. Similar to your townhouse, even in size; triplex with a separate garden apartment that I think we’re keeping. So there’s plenty of room. You and Tom are welcomed to visit, anytime?"

"Oh, yeah, we definitely will!"

*******

According to the brochure, there were just over 50 dealers at the antique mall. Yet it felt closer to 500 as they were wandering down the different aisles, getting lost in the sea of antiques, collectibles, jewelry, furniture, old toys, vintage clothing etcetera, etcetera. Why do people buy all that crap? Keeping antique furniture for the quality and workmanship and style Alex could understand, at least on a better day. Today, this morning, had simply been overwhelming and tiring. Even though she had been excited about the idea of furnishing the house, of picking out things that were "theirs". she realized she didn't want to go through the draining process. She wanted to take her mother up on the offer of picking out pieces from her father's house, or have her old furniture back. Between my furniture and Liv's, we could furnish the house, couldn't we? A start, at least? Then we add other pieces later?

If she could only find a way to explain it to the brunette. She was sure they would work something out. They could even have her mom send photos and pick out the furniture together. It would be like catalogue shopping without having to worry about how things might look better on paper than in reality. Plus, the place would still be "theirs", and everything would be in place before they move in. And there would be more time for exam study. She nodded, finalizing her arguments as she moved to sit next to her lover on the bed.

“It occurred to me, we never discussed what to do with your place,” with a casual air, Alex began the conversation while Olivia finished packing her overnight bag. It had also occurred to her the unspoken possibilities were why their wee-hours-of-the-morning-chat deteriorated the way it had. She continued, “Are you going to sell it?”

“I, uh, we’re moving in together…” Olivia stumbled, clearly wasn't expecting the topic. The look in her eyes though revealed that it was something she had contemplated on her own.

“I can think of several practical reasons and a few sentimental ones why you shouldn’t,” Alex proceeded, watching and gauging her lover’s reaction. “Sentimental reasons for me, too, just so you know. Anyway, if you do decide to sell, I won’t stop you. If you decide to keep it, while I won’t insist, I won’t object either if you add me to the deed.”

“You won’t?”

“Either,” Alex confirmed, proud of herself for not reacting to the shocked tone infusing the two simple words. “And it’s entirely your decision. But if you’re keeping it, I do insist on a copy of the keys. If we have problems, we’ll fight or we’ll work them out, we’ll do whatever it takes. Your apartment is not going to be a fox hole, or an escape hatch.”

“It’s not?” Olivia blinked. “Of course it’s not. I wouldn’t…” She stopped when Alex shook her head.

“I get home sick, often. I miss my mom, and I want to see her, and Ling, and I can’t wait to meet my god son,” she paused only for a breath. “But my family, they’re not the only reason why I’m going back, why I’m leaving my life here. A life I like, with friends I’d miss, I might add.”

“For me. You’re going back for me.”

“For us. A future, together. ‘Til death do us part, even if it's not legal.” There, she said it. “That’s what you want, too.” It wasn't a question, shouldn't, couldn't be at this point.

“Absolutely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be wearing this,” Olivia closed her fingertips against the ring, as if to meld stone and metal to flesh.

“I know neither of us have too many good, role-models, for… relationships.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“I intend to. This is not something I want to do more than once.”

“Me neither.” Actually, there was a time Olivia didn’t think she would do it even once. She told her lover just that.

“So we have an understanding?”

“I think so.”

“We will not have another argument stemmed from our perceived level commitment to each other because of what we might or might not do?" Alex let out a breath and resumed with less bravado and more earnestness than in the start of the conversation. "Because bottom line is, we’re stuck with each other?”

“We’ll, how’bout we’ll try to avoid that kind of argument. We’ll try very hard.”

“All right.”

“But yes, I agree that is our bottom line.”

“Good.” Alex exhaled deeply, and reached out. “At some point, we need to talk about decorating the house...”

"Our home," Olivia interrupted. "Not just a roof over our heads, not just somewhere we crash after working all day."

"No," Alex concurred, stroking the edges of her lover’s collar. “We have to figure out how to make this giant empty house our home. And to me, the process of shopping, at least shopping like we did this weekend, is too tiring.”

“I agree.”

“But we’ll talk about it later.” “Or sooner, but not right now.”

Alex smiled, the tip of her index finger tracing down the placket of the detective's shirt. “Right now I think we have better things to do with our time.”

“Much better. But..." Olivia hesitated.

"But?"

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, that I need to tell you.” She swallowed and proceeded with her confession, "Like I told you before, I would follow you, anywhere.”

“Yeah?”

"So, if you need to change your mind, at some point, about going back, it's okay."

"I..." Alex thought better, and shook her head. "Okay. Thank you."

“But I also would've waited," Olivia continued, her voice losing its squeak and gaining tenderness. "I don't know if I would've tried to find a way to keep in touch with your mom, if she hadn't called me, just to have another way to be close to you. But I definitely would've waited, and I would've wondered if you would think about me, as much as I would think about you. That if you woke up at 2 in the morning, from a dream of the life you left behind, if I be in it. And if you'd miss me, as much as I would miss you." "I miss you even now." With a light, sweet kiss, Olivia let her lover know she wasn't through. "And I would've stayed exactly where I was, hoping you'd come back to us. To me. I would've waited, while I wondered if I was the only one who had fallen head over heels, if I was the only one who'd loved." Alex dropped her chin, trying not to blink, remembering the night they said goodbye, and all the things they didn't say. It seemed so long ago. "And still, I would've waited; and that’s the bottom line," Olivia promised, reaching up, her fingers catching the tears as blonde lashes fluttered.

"You would, huh?"

"Yup."

"What if I never came back?"

"Your family's here."

"If I came back with someone?"

Smiling, Olivia shrugged. "We're meant to be."

Finally. Alex closed her eyes, feeling finally like she was standing still. It would only be a brief reprieve, she understood. Soon, they would be back to the dips, the twirls and the fancy footwork. All that, in order to move forward.

Be it a courtly pavane, or a passionate tango, it was still a dance, with a partner. Some needed more space, and more room, more freedom to maneuver. Some wanted structure, to anticipate, and to make each move, to take each step as a joined unit. But even in Argentine Tango - dancers holding each other chest-to-chest with their heads touching - the abrazo is only supposed to be a hug...

Rules were made to be broken, to be bent to suit a higher purpose. Right? And if people wanted to be so close, that they couldn’t tell where one of them began and the other ended, would it be so wrong? Alex pondered, as her dance partner’s hands pushed her shirt down her shoulders and clasped her close as the fabric fell.


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