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WHERE DREAMS WERE KEPT

TITLE: WHERE DREAMS WERE KEPT

FANDOM: Law and Order SVU

PAIRING: Alex Cabot / Olivia Benson

DATE: January 11, 2004 to June 24, 2011

FEEDBACK: Yes, please!!!

ARCHIVE: Ok, just say where.

RATING: Nothing beyond TV-level-graphic-ness. If same-sex relationships bother you though, you might want to read something else.

LEGAL STUFF: Copyrighted 2011 by Adrienne Lee. Non-original characters, if applicable, are used without permission under "Fair Use" doctrine. The author reserve all rights attached to all original aspects of this work. This is a work of fiction; any similarity to characters or persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

SUMMARY FOR STORY: Alex caught by her scars.

SPOILER: Post "Loss". There also might be other bits and pieces from various episodes.

1.

I see a black and white movie of me. Me and Casey. Except Casey has short bobbed hair and the color was darker. It was jumpy and glitchy. Our faces covered the whole screen, as if we were holding the camera. We were laughing; we were close. We could be sisters; we could be lovers. And it runs and runs and runs, sort of in a loop, and then it suddenly fades to black.

Next time, I see the same movie. Still me and Casey, laughing, smiling. But this time, I'm sure we are more than friends. And when the screen fades to black, I hear my own voice...

"I'm pregnant."

And Casey's, "Really? When did you get inseminated?"

"I didn't."

"Oh, so what are we having?"

"Twins."

Then I see the same movie again, and have the same conversation. I'm a little older, and Casey looks a little harder.

This time, I wonder what you would say if I told you the same thing. Would you be practical like Casey, who cares only that I'm with her? Or would you give me the third degree? Would you believe in any words I might have? Would you be convinced that I've been attacked and tear the world apart to find the rapist? Would you just leave me because you thought I've been unfaithful?

It's the same thing over, and over again. The movie, the conversation, the thoughts. Each time though, I see a little more, hear a little more.

I see the twins, two identical little girls. Again in black and white. They have dark hair, and dark eyes. Very fair skin. Casey could have been their mother. They could have been related to you. They are in identical little velvet dresses that looked dark, but I know in my heart they are red. Like the color of my blood. They are both smiling, just smiling, into the camera.

The next time, I hear myself say, "I'm glad they have you to look after them. I'm leaving now."

Who am I saying this to? Where am I going?

Same movies. Same conversations. Same thoughts. Will they ever change?

Then I hear myself wishing, "I wish you were the one killed instead."

And I think I stopped breathing. At least for a little while.

*******

2.

In the next dream, I feel the pain. I see the pain, written all over as if on a page. I think it is, I can read the words.

The 3am 9am 5pm 10pm sort of pain... The Monday Wednesday Friday Saturday Sunday sort of pain... January February April May... The spring summer autumn winter... Hour after hour, day after day, year after year... Recurring, unending, unavoidable pain.

If you were the one killed instead of me, that's how I would feel.

Then I wonder if you would get in touch with me. If you would just get on with your life, as a new person, with a new identity, in a new city...

Would you forget me? How quickly? How easily?

Would you forget me if I hadn't contacted you?

Or would you go looking for me?

Would you have waited for me to come back?

Did you even think I would come back?

The movies, the conversations, the questions... They're getting tiring. I'm getting tired.

Then I see the newspaper clipping. It's just a small blurp. "The authorities are redoubling their efforts to locate former Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot. She exited the witness protection program this morning, and disappeared without a trace." There are other things, too. But I don't remember. Or maybe I can't read it. My eyesight must be getting worse.

In the next sequence, for the first time, I see color. I see myself in color, wearing a dress that I don't own, that I would never consider owning. It's a very unflattering shade of golden yellow, and it makes me look like a giant sunflower, or that I'm set aflame, or both.

I hear myself hoping, "I hope the firefighters get the fire under control before it spreads to the upper floors."

I guess I'm on the ground floor. The building is slowly transforming itself into my great grandmother's house as I watch myself walk into the flame.

Where am I going? Am I going to die?

Is this my destiny?

*******

3.

"No, no, no, no. Sweetheart, Baby, please wake up! Please, Baby, please, please wake up!” The detective tried to push out the images from that dark night, and the fear that choked her then and now. “Not again... not again..." She crouched over the fallen body and sobbed.

"Liv, the paramedics are coming. You need to give her some room to breathe."

"No, no, no, no..." She ignored the woman’s voice of reason and her own training, and wrapped herself around Alex, refusing to let go.

"Olivia..." Strong arms grabbed hers. They loosened her hold, picked her up, and forcibly moved her kicking and screaming from the prone form.

"Listen to me. Okay? This happened before, many times, when we were young..." Ling readjusted the cold towel on her friend's forehead and tried again to reassure. "She just never stayed out this long."

"I'm sure she'll be fine." The deep voice of her captor bellowed in her ears. "She's breathing, her heart is beating. She'll be fine. There's no need for you to over-react."

"I'm not over-reacting, Douglas. There's something wrong..." Defeat washed over her without warning. She stopped struggling and hung her head.

"Shh... Olivia, you're not a doctor..." He comforted his friend, trying not to be bothered by the sudden lack of fight. He lowered her gently onto the floor, making sure she was steady on her feet, but still holding her closely. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

"I just know... I can feel it..." She had felt it. Finally felt what Alex had been talking about all this time. Felt it tightened around her heart. Just for a brief moment. “I'm going to lose her again...”

"Don't talk like that! She's going to be okay!"

It’s true, what they say: you don’t know what you’ve got until you don’t have it anymore. "It's slipping away, Ling, don't you understand?” Olivia whispered, really more to herself. “The connection, it's, it’s gone..."

*******

4.

"Hey."

Olivia doesn’t look up to the familiar voice; she has been expecting it. She wishes she hadn’t; she wishes he would fail her by not showing up. She doesn’t care to contemplate what his role is in all of this, in their lives. All she wants is a best friend, someone she could talk to, without worrying about the cloaks and daggers. Why is it so impossible?

"Didn't take you long.” She doesn’t even want to know how he had found out. “Still playing guardian angel, I see," she finally says, emotionlessly, staring at the pale form before her, focusing on the gentle rise and fall of her lover's chest.

"Here." Her friend extends an envelope as he sits in the empty chair.

"What is it?"

He replies after a sigh, "Her healthcare proxy. She signed it before leaving Chicago."

And that was what? Over three months ago? During the exit interview probably? Somehow it feels so much time has passed. A lifetime, almost. Time went quickly back then. Now everything’s in some sort of suspension, a thick cloudy mess impossible to see through. And she feels stuck in it, trapped, not quite drowning, yet completely at its mercy. "I don't want it."

"You'll need it."

"No, I won't, Hank. She'll wake up, I know she will."

"I'm sure she will, too, Olivia." He scoots over and wraps an arm around her. "She also wrote you a letter. It's inside. You should read it."

"I can't..."

"You need to.”

“I can’t.” She flings it back it him as if reacting to a thousand paper cuts.

“Liv.”

“You read it.”

For a moment, he wonders if the detective was serious behind the petulance. Then he releases the simple question with another sigh, “May I?" Receiving the brunette's terse, silent assent, he breaks the seal, and removes the smaller envelope. He opens it, and without looking, hands the content to his friend.

Reluctantly, she accepts the page obviously torn from a legal pad. “I’m beginning to hate this yellow,” she mutters, her tears threatening to spill at the sight of Alex's handwriting. She sucks in a deep breath, and manages to keep them at bay until she finishes reading.

Without a word, Hank takes the folded piece of paper from his friend, and strokes her back gently as she breaks down slowly in his arms...

*******

5.

Liv,

Remember how we used to stay up half the night and just talk? Remember how we used to philosophize and argue about life? And what things are essential in making a person whole? I miss those nights sometimes, but I'm also happy that we seem to know enough about each other and our respective views, so much so that these talks became unnecessary... I love that we can talk about everything and nothing. I especially love that we don’t have to talk at all.

Remember our Christmas in Chicago? When, rather briefly, we discussed trusting the other person to make the decisions that are best for us? I do trust you to make the best decisions for me, and most importantly, for us.

Before I got shot, we often discussed death and dying, albeit in their most abstract sense. It was morbid, considering... but it never stopped us. Then, we ceased even remotely broaching this subject. I know that night left a mark on your psyche, much more severely than it had on mine. So we never talked about this, about certain decisions that may have to be made...

If you see this letter, and the accompanying document, I'm assuming difficult end-of-life choices have to be made about me. Yes, I said it. Hopefully, it'll be easier for you to hear it from me first.

Also, in case you are wondering, my mother and Ling also received final instructions and letters from me, one of those instructions was to notify Hank. I asked and he agreed to be the person delivering this letter, so that he could be there for you. Let him help you. Let Elliot, let Edith, and Martha, and Liz and whomever willing and able to help, please.

As for my mother and Ling… I’m not sure how they will react to… well, everything. I suspect they will need your forgiveness. I’m very sorry. I do know my family loves you, Liv, independent of me. Please forgive them.

Please forgive me.

Please don't hate me for leaving you such broad, sweeping powers. The last thing I want is for a court to decide whether there is "clear and convincing evidence" about my wishes.

It is much more important to me that you find peace.

"I'll close my eyes in love with you... And I'll be born in love with you."

Yours, forever and always,

Alex.

*******

6.

In the beginning of the session, she took it out on the swerve ball. Punching. Dodging. Faster and harder. It swung back at her from different angles. She spun, worked on hitting and not getting hit. The burn in her muscles was all she focused on, until she felt the small circle surrounding her, and all the eyes watching her. Without a word, she stopped. And without any acknowledgment of her audience, she stalked away. That guaranteed her space, her solitude as she moved to the punching bag.

The one she chose is a large bag, a heavy bag, the heaviest in the gym. Even cops with physiques like her partner’s stay away from it. Now its chain is rattling, drowning out her grunts as she throws her body at it. Hitting. Jabbing. High. Low. Quick. Hard. She can feel the impact through her gloves.

The pain. It isn’t nearly enough.

She’s mad. Furious, she growls and charges at the target, stretching taut the metal links. When the bag swings back, she kicks. Her legs smart as flesh and leather connect in a series of round house. It still isn’t enough.

Tears, sweat, they burn her eyes. Yet she continues; the physical pain she inflicts still pales in comparison. Without another thought, she flings off her gloves.

She howls when a large palm lands on her shoulder, and she spins, adrenaline pumping, ready to unleash her wrath. The same palm blocks her fist. “Fuck, El.” She screams at him after swallowing a breath, “The fuck!”

“You know you can fracture your hands, right?”

“Fuck off!”

“Liv…”

“Leave me alone,” she tries again, pulling away from her partner’s grasp.

“If she knew…”

Well, she doesn’t, does she? "I hate her!"

"You don't mean that," Elliot soothes. He circles with her, as if he would a wild animal, watching for the opening. "You love each other," he tries, and winces when she turns back to the punching bag and launches a series of quick blows.

"She left me..." It hurts. She chokes and hangs on to the weighted cylinder.

"She didn't, Liv. She can't help being..."

"No! She left, she made," Olivia hiccups, unable to complete the sentence, irate with herself. "Health proxy, El! How could she...? How can I...?" She punctuates each fragment with a slower, weaker punch. "I can't, I don't..."

"Shhh… Liv. Stop.” Elliot sees his chance, and grips her shoulders gently. “Stop before you break the damn thing. Come on.” Carefully, he turns her around while glaring at their fellow cops until they look away. “It’s okay. I’ve got you, I’ve got you…

*******

7.

"Are you mad at her or something? If you are, I'll kick her ass for you. I swear, I will. Gladly."

Is that you, Elliot? You sound so different... Thanks for the offer, but I'm not mad... At least I don't think I am.

"You know I used to hate you guts? Especially when you first started?”

No kidding. If only she could roll her eyes. The feeling was quite mutual, Detective.

“And she would play along with me. But she would also show me things, small things about you that sometimes slipped out of your façade that nobody else noticed. After a while, I started to wonder maybe you really weren't such the royal bitch I had originally thought you were...”

How kind of you.

"I've never seen her so lost, so scared... Maybe except the night you got shot. She fell apart that night. And she kept falling apart after you left, working herself to death, trying to fill a space only you could.”

Please, Elliot. She wishes she could stop listening; she waits impatiently for him to say more.

"She was so giddy and light when she realized the phone was from you, we thought she'd sprout wings and fly away.” He chuckles at himself. “Yes, she kidded me about that. Once in a while, I do have a poetic streak. Actually, last time it showed up, it was also about you.”

Mentally, she bites down on her lip.

“You had just given her an ultimatum. God, I couldn't believe how stupid she was. You two are made for each other. I told her her days were brighter and her flowers bloomed wider because of you. I really think it’s true, I’m not kidding.

"And when you two got back together, she was almost pleasant to be around. Can you believe that? My surly partner? Pleasant?

“And when you came back…” He shakes his head and lets out another chuckle. “I’m not sure I have words for how happy she was; she was like a totally different person. But now, now…” He sighs.

"So, Alex, if Olivia did something stupid, that made you mad, please tell me. Let me beat her up for you. Or whatever it is, I know you can work it out, together. Really, please have pity on the rest of us who have to deal with her at work everyday. She's making our lives completely miserable.

Alex, please wake up."

*******

8.

There it is - Manderley - Manderley with its secrets as deep as the hoary. It's here, I'm here again.

Never thought I'd be here again. It’s perfect. With the light shining through the windows I think I see a face. Or it’s a trick of the moon.

Oh, but I shouldn't, shouldn't have come back here. Should’ve stayed away.

I can't be here.

There’s no moon. And your eyes. They're wrong, all wrong. I’m such a fool.

I'm Mrs. de Winter now.

I'm Mrs. de Winter and I shouldn't have come, shouldn't have... shouldn't, just shouldn't. Should’ve left well enough alone. Instead…

Wait. I am? Where am I?

And who are you?

Not the second Mrs. de Winter with the fanciful name no one knows. I am. Alexandra J. Cabot. Daughter of Alexander Cabot. And Mrs. Alexander Cabot. Their youngest, it seems.

And whether you want it or not, we’ll have an heir, to this house. This house that is burning all around me. A fury.

What else burnt? No, not Mondestin. Never Mondestin. Amongst the ashes it shall stand. Oh, Tara. Yes, Tara. It's amazing what people are willing to do for a house. The lies, the deceits. Immorality. A home, the security.

Guilt.

In a different world, under a different light, you could be sisters. You with your dark hair and light olive skin. The shape of your mouth, even your crooked smile. But your eyes. Yours are dark while hers are not. Between the hushed meaningless words, the plastic glasses of wine, it was your kisses I tasted, your hands I held, your heart upon mine. I knew then, as I know now.

Did you know, could you see? “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind, flung roses, roses riotously with the throng…”

Still, have I been unfaithful in my fashion?

Wait. Am I moving? Where are we going?

Where are you taking me?

Liv? Where are you? Are you here?

Why don't you say something?

Today, Liv! Do something! Now! Not tomorrow. Today! Tell her. Make her see, the way you can’t. Didn’t you hear? Why aren’t you saying anything? Are you mute now, too?

*******

9.

I see you in your tight black crew and green khakis. The same black belt you always wear. Are you going hunting? Are you hiding? What kind of shoes are you wearing? I can’t see your feet.

You look so insolent in your wooden chair. Shoulders back, legs apart. So in control, so defiant, even though your hands are bound. Tied behind your back.

Who’s holding you prisoner? I recognize that little smirk I put on your face. But I don’t remember binding you. For all I know, you’re clasping your own hands. Could you yourself have tied them behind your back? I can’t see your hands.

Open your eyes. Open your eyes, Olivia.

Have you noticed more and more now I call you Olivia only when I’m irritated with you? O. Li. Vi. A. Too complicated.

Liv. Simple. One syllable word. Liv. It sounds like ‘live’. Liv. Live. And if I changed a vowel, just one vowel, it becomes ‘love’. There’s no ‘I’ in Love.

Live Love. Love Liv.

Whoa.

Open your eyes. Look at me, Liv. That’s it. That’s it…

No! Stop that! Not like that, don’t look at me like that. Stop touching me, stop kissing me with your eyes. I need to concentrate.

Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.

Slap. Slap. Slap.

Did I just hit you? How come my hand doesn’t sting? Then whose hand did I see hit you?

How come you didn’t struggle? How come you aren’t trying to break free. You don’t even look shocked.

What’s going on?

Slap.

Oh, I guess I did just hit you. But why? Maybe Elliot was right, I am mad at you about something.

Slap.

SLAP!

I want to feel it burn, feel my hand crash across your face. But I can’t! I can’t!

Can you even? You’re breathing so calmly. Why don’t you try to get away? I didn’t tie you up. Didn’t put you here, in front of me.

I didn’t put that look on your face. That head thrown back, lips parted, ready for more look. NO!

No, no, no, no!

Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

Stop smiling at me! Stop!

Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

Look at me, Olivia. Look. At. Me. My eyes. Right here.

When you watch me, what do you see? What do you see, Olivia? Answer me! Answer me. Damn it! Why won’t you talk to me?

*******

10.

Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

Whew. Don’t know about you. But I feel better now.

You’re bleeding. A thin trickle of blood down your cheek. And I. Feel. Better.

Wow.

Live Love. Love Liv.

It’s just a vowel. And a vow. It’s really that simple.

Can’t you understand? Can’t you see it in my eyes? Can’t you hear it in my voice when I call your name?

Liv?

I’m not the one who put you in this chair. I’m not the one who tied your hands behind your back.

How much do I have to make you bleed to make you see that? To make you believe?

It’s just a vowel. It’s really not hard. It’s really, really very easy, in fact. A simple word, a simple vowel.

Take it.

Run with it.

Fly with it.

Know that it’s true.

Live Love. Love Liv.

That is all.

*******

11.

It was just before her twelve birthday party. Her last celebration as a girl, before she became a teen, and then a young woman, it was important. Instinctively, she felt the significance of the day; she had been living with the dread of it.

"It's about time you start socializing with somebody worthy of your station." Those were her father’s words as soon as they sat in his office. No preamble, nothing.

"What do you mean, Daddy?" She asked even though she already suspected the answer.

"You should have other friends. Spend more time with your cousins, not with Lillian Szeto's children."

“But they’re my cousins, too.”

“No, they’re not; my brothers’ children, they’re your cousins.”

“First cousins.”

“Yes.”

“The others don’t count?”

“No.” The word was devoid of any emotion, or explanation. That was just how things were. Unfortunately, for Alexander Cabot, his offspring never understood the concept of accepting anything on face value. He preempted the ‘why’ with her name, preceded by a firmer ‘no’.

“What about Uncle Jack’s children? They’re my first cousins.”

“You’re a Cabot, Alexandra.” As if that was the final answer.

“But Aunt Martha tells people you are cousins, you never correct her; and the Signora, she once spoke of a summer in Naples, before her marriage, with her aunt’s children … It’s not about shared last names, is it, Daddy?”

“I do not object to you spending time with your Uncle Jack and his children, except that they are boys. I merely suggest you spend more time with my brothers’ children, especially your female cousins; in fact, I insist. Nevertheless, I could arrange for you to take a summer-long holiday with Cousin Francesca and her daughters - shopping and sight-seeing in Milan, Venice, maybe Rome? You enjoyed Michela and Daniela’s Christmas visit, didn’t you? How’bout it, Princess, a part of your birthday present?”

Like how he kept her from going with her mother to visit Cousin Ariel last summer with a new pony and riding camp in Yorkshire. Alexandra Cabot refused to be distracted or bribed. “But Ling is a girl; you object to Leon, and Ling.”

“Only because they are not living up to their station.”

“What is station, Father?” She knew what he was talking about; he knew that she knew, too, by the formal address, if not by the challenge in her tone.

That was something else he would have to correct, her defiance; the independence was charming in his wife, not his heir. Keeping his voice even, he explained, “It is something you should be proud of and live up to.”

"I like Leon, he’s so handsome and gentle and protective; I wish he were my brother.” She stood firm. “And Ling is my best friend."

"You're too much like your mother, Alexandra; and I blame myself for that.” He sighed and picked up his whiskey decanter, a cue that the conversation was finished. “We'll talk again next year. Maybe by then you will understand."

*******

12.

“You’ll hate me. You’ll hate me and you’ll forget me.”

“No, I won’t, Ling. Please don’t cry,” she said, forgetting her own sniffles.

“Yes, you will.”

“I’m only going away for the summer. I’ll send postcards. We’ll talk on the telephone, every week. They have telephones at your camp, don’t they? Before you knew it, I’ll be back.”

“And you’ll hate me.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Frustration overtook the tears; they fell harder for a minute. Then she swallowed them. “Stop saying that.”

“Your father hates me.”

“No, he doesn’t. You’re twelve. How can he hate a twelve year old?”

“But he does. And soon you’ll agree with him. And you’ll hate me.”

“You’re my best friend, Ling. I can never hate you.”

“Yes, you will, Alex. Sooner or later, you will…”

It was a different argument, but the frustration felt the same. “Why did you let me win?”

“I did no such thing.”

“I saw your first paper. You changed it.”

“Yes I did.” Ling stood firm, staring up at her. Had it been four years already, since they stood nose to nose? The dark brown gaze never wavered. “It sucked.”

“No, you changed it because mine sucked. Stop letting me win!” Alex yelled and watched her friend stand back and cross her arms; she mirrored the body language.

“You need it more than me.”

“Why?”

”You know why.”

“We’re both going to graduate magna cum laude. So what if you’re ahead of me in class?”

“It might make a difference when it comes to scholarships for law school…”

“You worry too much.”

“I don’t want you to hate me.”

”I won’t hate you ever. Never ever. I promise, Ling.”

*******

13.

“Are you still mad at me?”

“No, I can’t possibly be mad at you.” Alex was however, livid, when she first learned that her friend had stepped down as co-leader of the moot court team in her favor, right before the last competition. “You were only doing what you think is best for me…”

“And our school. You won.”

“This round.” There would be next, and the next, and somewhere along the way, they would lose. Texas or Hastings would take the final honor. That was expected. Many things in their lives had been ‘expected’. Kind of like their running argument.

“You promise you won’t hate me?”

“Why would I hate you?”

“Because your mom’s setting me up while you go clerk for some cranky judge.”

“Judge Petrovsky is very nice. I’ll learn a lot from her. My mom’s not going to let me handle her affairs anyway.”

“She would if you wanted to.”

“I don’t want the responsibility. Thank you very much.”

”So you’ll come visit me?”

”Every chance I get!”

Sorry I didn’t come visit you often, like I said I would. It wasn’t because I hated you. Or that I’ve forgotten you. I guess I just got too busy with work and everything. But you knew that. You understood. I know you did.

I’m so happy you saved a place for me. So happy to be your neighbor. So sorry to put you through all of this…

I know you didn’t go to my funeral the last time… Didn’t expect you to. I wouldn’t want to say goodbye to you either… You know, I never asked how you felt when you found out I was alive, not dead. I bet the omission never even crossed your mind.

It’s happening again, our argument. Except this time I can’t say anything back. You’ll know my answer, won’t you?

“She’s going to hate me, Douglas,” Ling sobs into the telephone, wishing for shelter against her husband’s broad chest. She shouldn’t be doing this, talking to him like this. She should turn around, and just walk out that door and those gates and into their car, into his arms. She wishes she could walk away. “I don’t want to do this. I can’t. I can’t murder my best friend.”

“Shhhh… You won’t have to make that decision.”

“Why? Because it’s in Olivia’s hands?” She yells in a hushed voice, mindful of her surroundings, failing her arms. “It doesn’t matter. What Olivia wants won’t matter when she sees her living will.”

“But that was from before… It’s null and void,” he responds in reflex. It wasn’t what he meant; he wanted to say Alex would wake up in time. Damn convent rules. He needs to be in there, to stop that train.

“It doesn’t matter; don’t you get it? Things don’t change just because pieces of paper say so. Not about this. She hates this; I know her. And she’ll never forgive me… I’ll never forgive myself… She’ll hate me…”

Please, Ling, please don’t cry. There’s nothing to forgive. You do what you need to. I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. You’re my best friend, Ling.

*********

14.

Hi, Mom.

Now what? Yes, Mother, I know, Mother. I will, Mom. I’m sorry. No, I don’t think so. Yes, I know, Mom.

What? Mother… Mom?

What are you saying, Mother?

What are you trying to tell me?

No, no, no.

Stop, stop, stop!

I don’t want to know.

Why are you telling me these things?

What aren’t you telling me?

How could you? What gave you the right? How could you? What’s wrong with you? What gave you the right to play Fate?

It’s my life. You have absolutely no right to interfere.

I don’t want to talk about it, really. Please. I refuse to believe you did all those things for me. I can’t. I don’t want to. It’s not true; it can’t be.

I won’t listen.

You can’t make me. I’m not twelve, or sixteen, or twenty four anymore. No, Mother, no.

I’m your daughter, not your confessor.

Just because you gave me life didn’t give you the right. It’s my life, Mother, not yours.

My. Own. Fucking. Life.

Let me live my own fucking life! I mean it! I don’t care!

She’s not your pawn. You can’t manipulate people’s lives, not like that.

Please stop talking. I don’t wanna listen. I don’t wanna know.

I can’t hear you.

I can’t, Mother, I can’t.

I can’t hear you, nope.

La, la, la, la, la.

***********

15.

"Why don't we take a walk, Benson. You need a break."

"I can't..." Wait, ‘we’? “Where are you?”

“Courtyard.”

“Guess your Big Brother ID only gets you so far, huh, Agent Leadon.”

Hank ignores his friend’s snark, knowing she isn’t herself. "She'll still be here when we come back, I promise." He pleads, "We need to talk."

Olivia sighs. She ends the call, gives her lover’s hand a gentle squeeze, and turns towards the door. Along the corridor, out of sheer courtesy and habit, she exchanges greetings and smiles with the nuns exercising on their walkers. Finally, she passes the administrative offices, the electronic gates, and lastly the deceptively plain-looking wooden doors. All the security measures, no doubt meant to keep out intruders for the residents’ protection, suddenly make her feel like a prisoner. Blinking against the sun, she spots the tall man in a navy suit looking incredibly out of place.

He pulls her into a hug, and immediately let go at the stiff resistance. With a swallowed sigh and a friendly smile, he gives the back of her neck a rub. "Anything new? From the docs?"

The unexpected touch makes her realize the tension she’s been carrying, and gives him the silent go ahead with the massage. For a minute she allows herself the comfort; then she shrugs and steps away. “Thanks,” she says, and takes his arched brow as cue to continue, "As far as they can see, there's nothing wrong with her. There was a little initial swelling of the brain, probably from when she first hit the floor... But it's been back to normal for days." Feels like weeks, time has been a blur.

"So she's refusing to wake up?"

“That’s what her cousin said.”

“Her cousin?”

“Another lapse in your intel? I’m shocked.” Before he could protest, she shrugs again and looks away towards the field of grass. “Dr. Ansaldi. Her cousin. The neurological expert, guest researcher at the NIH. Should I continue with the run-down?”

“Not about the doctor. I don’t really care about that,” he replies, and makes another decision. Carefully, he drapes an arm over the detective’s shoulder, and let his Brooklyn show, “You know I’m your friend. We’ve known each other for half our lives, before we even knew what we’d do for jobs, and all the other shit. We had zits on our faces when we met.”

“You had zits, my face was perfect,” she replies with the laugh he wanted. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” she relents, and admits. “It’s just… I feel like I’m all over the place and nowhere, if that makes sense.”

“You are all over the place, literally.”

“I can’t help that.” She looks up at her friend, willing him to understand. "I just, I need something, you know?” To take my mind off. “So I don’t go crazy. Anyway, Dani’s ordered some more tests, to see if they missed anything, like certain trace toxins not normally screened or screen-able. She doesn’t really think they’ll find anything. Basically, too little is known about the human brain, and medicine doesn’t always provide explanation. That’s the party line.”

He nods. That’s what his wife tells him, too.

“She’s okay, hooked up like this. The PT sessions seem to be helping. No signs of atrophy, muscular or skeletal. BP, heart rate, everything stable. She’s breathing on her own, no fluids in the lungs. No deterioration, no complications.”

“That’s good, right?” He winces at the look she gave him. “I mean…”

“Yeah. It could be worse.” She picks up a loose rock and throws it into the field. “And ‘the rest is up to God.’ If I hear that phrase one more time, I might, I just…" She cuts the empty threat with a grunt.

"So she could wake up tomorrow, or stay like this forever..."

“Don’t say that!”

“Liv…”

“Just don’t! It might not be today or tomorrow, Hank, but she will wake up! She will!”

*******

16.

It wasn’t an argument; no one was clearly in the wrong. Nothing productive would come out of the two of them disagreeing with each other. He’s just trying to be honest. Olivia knows this, and she squeezes her fists while tempering her pique. At the same time, she tries to remember everything she and Hank had been through and how truly lucky she is to have his friendship. Especially, considering…

Finally, guiltily, she asks, “You got the stuff I sent?”

“Yeah,” he replies, and waits for her to take the lead.

“She was pretty clear, wasn’t she?” With deep sigh, Olivia pushes her hands into her pockets. Willing her voice from cracking, she turns and stares at her friend. “About not wanting to be kept... um, by artificial means.”

“This is different though. I mean, first of all, she’s not brain dead.” Yes, he said it. He’s not going to tip toe around; Olivia needs to hear the words even if she can’t speak them. Looking up at the blue sky and the shifting white clouds to avoid his friend’s dark stare, he continues, “She’s breathing on her own, so it’s not like they can just remove artificial respiration. She is alive, medically and legally speaking.”

“I know she is.”

“And anything drastic will require court approval, and it’s not even considered a permanent vegetative state until after a year.”

The straightforwardness makes Olivia cringe; nevertheless, she seizes the last words. “So I have time.”

“Yes, Liv, you have time.”

“Good. Good. I mean, that’s what I figured, but I wanna make sure. What with Ling and her posturing…”

From what he had gathered, maybe it wasn’t completely out of line, considering the two women’s relationship and history, but it was definitely premature. His friend doesn’t seem to be incensed - at least she isn’t anymore. Just in case, he voices his excuse, “I’m sure she’s distraught and angry, she just got her best friend back, after thinking she was dead, and now, suddenly, this. People handle grief and anger differently.”

“Whatever,” Olivia replies.

Intellectually, she does understand what he’s saying, and recognize the reason Ling showed her the papers prepared long before Olivia even entered the picture. Understanding and acceptance, however, can be very different things.

“Thanks for confirming for me, Hank. I owe you.”

“You ‘owe’ the IRS, Liv. I’m your friend.”

“Okay, sorry.”

*******

17.

The apology doesn’t ring true, not at all.

“You don’t owe your friends, Liv.”

“I know, all right? I’m sorry.”

He sighs, and makes up his mind to break a confidence entrusted to him a long time ago – a lifetime, it seems. So many things have changed. After all, this is definitely unusual and arguably extenuating circumstance. Certainly, Alex would appreciate his decision and forgive him. "Remember my faulty source?"

"Which one?"

“Not all my sources are faulty, Benson,” he protests. Secretly, he is pleased with the banter, even if it came loaded with sarcasm. It’s better than egg shells. "The one about whose team she plays on."

"Yeah?"

“You do remember, don’t you?” They had discussed this one night, when he was still with the DA’s Office, after too much alcohol.

“Yes. I remember.” How could she not? He had told her the blonde played on her team, whatever that meant. “I thought you were full of shit.”

"That was her."

"Really?"

"Yeah, we went out to have a celebratory drink. She was a little buzzed when she told me she thought you were hot... And so I got her drunk." He finishes softly, and flinched at the look Olivia gave him. "Yeah, I know, I'm not proud of myself. But I did find out how she felt about you..."

When she didn't respond, he continues, "She claimed to have a crush on you then. But I've seen that look many times before... I used to be so jealous of you when we were in college, before I met Rachel. All those men and women falling head over heels for you... Still don't know how you did it.”

Normally, she would halt the revelation; but right now… Right now, anything to feel closer to her… I wish, I just wish… Taking a steadying breath, Olivia focuses her gaze at the bell tower in a distance. With a shrug, she silently urges him to carry on, consenting to the rest of the story.

"So I got her to talk. She was excited about her promotion. But she was also apprehensive about the job, the nature of the job, you know? And the special victims.”

"Most people feel queasy when they first started,” Olivia defends her lover, remembering the first time ADA Cabot showed up at a crime scene, how hands on she was, and all the strings she pulled, and later, the bridges burnt, the life she lost... In the detective’s mind, Alex had set the bar, and made it difficult for others to fill her shoes. “’The law is the law’ only goes so far, I suppose.”

"Right.” He pauses slightly.

She tilts her head as an unexpected thought surfaces. “Are you getting green on me? You are, aren’t you?”

“What?”

The guilty tone more than confirms her suspicion. “I used to wonder, since you two were both up for the job, how it’d be like to work with you instead. Don’t think you would’ve stuck.”

“Probably not,” Hank admits. “Anyway, back to my source. After a little more prodding..."

"More liquid courage?" Tersely, she accuses.

"Look, I'm sorry, but I really just wanted to help. And I made sure she got home okay afterwards, walked her up to her apartment myself.”

That’s beside the point. Nodding, she sighs, "Fine."

With his friend’s permission, Hank continues, "I'd say between you and SVU being a step ladder, you were the bigger motivation."

*******

18.

"Why me?"

The Federal agent squints at his friend. "What?"

"Why did she pick me?"

He shrugs, and wonders if she would mind if he put on his sunglasses. The sun is suddenly bothering him, just as clouds are moving in. "I don't know. Shouldn't you have asked her that?"

“She could’ve had anyone, you know?” Olivia focuses on her own turmoil; the question has never been far from her mind, even before they got together. In fact, that was one of the reasons why she didn’t act on her desires, that she was doubtful of the blonde’s interest. For the man, she provides the most obvious, “Her cousin, the doctor, is some Milanese royalty. Mrs. Cabot’s family owns a castle in France…”

“Money isn’t everything, and the Queen of England still shits like you and me.”

“I know that!” His answer affirms hers; so she continues, to complete the picture, “But she’s smart, and beautiful, and she’s warm, and funny.”

“Most people don’t see the warm and funny.”

“Only cuz she doesn’t let them.”

“But she lets you.” He tries to explain, paraphrasing his source’s words, “And she knows you don’t care about the trappings, and won’t treat her like a race horse.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’d prefer that her family didn’t have the castle in France, or the titles in Italy. You wouldn’t care if she were nothing more than an ADA loaded down with law school debts. You love her because she’s smart, and beautiful, and warm, and funny. And caring, and righteous, and all the good qualities she has as a human being. Knowing you, even some of the annoying ones.”

“Yeah, even those.” Olivia has to smile. Still, she’s not satisfied, not yet. There’s been tension building between her and Alex for days, before this, and she attributed it mostly to the stress of the relocation, the new job, new house, ‘coming-out’ to the people who knew her as Alex Cabot, party prep... etc. That’s a lot of stress all at once for anyone. Now, though, she’s not so sure. Grasping, she asks, “But what about the gun-slinger’s law…"

"The what?"

"You know, there's always going to be someone who draws faster than you, aims better than you?"

"You're afraid she might start to think and decide you're not good enough?"

Noncommittally, Olivia shrugs.

“Wasn’t I just at your engagement party? Me and my wife? Speaking of whom, I should probably call. Maybe she could tell me if I imagined partying with Cleopatra and Isis. I could’ve been hallucinating.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Hank.”

"’Ridiculous’, Benson? You have the kind of relationship that people only dream about, and you’re questioning it.”

“I’m not, not really.”

“But you’re questioning something. God, if what we’ve already covered isn’t enough for you, I’m not sure what else I can say?” He throws his hands up in frustration, while symbolically cutting himself off from revealing anything more. “Really, only she can tell you why she picked you, why you’re ‘it’ for her. Only she can tell you that. You really should ask her when she wakes up. But any fool can see that she adores you."

*******

19.

It’s just one little word. Hank probably doesn’t even realize he’d used it, but it means everything to Olivia. She acknowledges gratefully, "Thank you.”

“For what?”

“You said ‘when’, not ‘if’.”

"Liv… I wish I could tell you without a doubt she will wake up, but if you are meant to be…”

“We are!” She expels a breath, and rubs her face. “Look, I’m questioning because there has to be a reason for… this.” She waves her hand towards the general direction of the infirmary. “Either there’s some unknown medical cause, or quite possibly, or at least I’d prefer to think, that there’s some other reasonable explanation. Maybe it’s a stretch, but if I can figure it out, maybe I can help?”

"By questioning your relationship?"

"It's the easiest?" She offers an innocent smile. "At least I sorta kinda have answers to those questions?"

“Benson, Benson, Benson." He shakes his head. "What am I going to do with you? Oh, never mind, you're not my problem, thank God. I'll let her deal with you."

"So you think she'll come back?"

"I believe in mind over matter and heart over mind. I agree with you that you two are meant to be," he tries to lend his support without sounding too much like he is hedging. It's difficult; the whole situation is. So he turns to something less dangerous, or at least more reassuring, “Meanwhile, I'm going to try to buy you some time, if and when it even comes to that, and hopefully convince Mrs. Cabot and Ling Szeto that it's not safe to disclose her identity."

"How?”

"I'll tell them it would interfere with some on-going stuff, which technically is true." He gives her his charming, boyish grin. "Hopefully, they won't ask too many questions and I won't have to lie to them."

“Hm.” Olivia considers and decides, “I’m actually not sure how Celine feels. Ling, however, has made it clear she would take it to court.”

“But Ling has no standing,” the former prosecutor argues. “There’s no case.”

“True,” she knows enough about the law to agree. “But if Celine…”

“The nuns value life. They wouldn’t have followed Alex’s previous instructions, even if that were all they have. You can bet they’re on your side.” He has no doubt it would turn into a legal and possibly media circus with amicus briefs from all over the place. Seriously, no one would want that, not even Ling; but he didn’t know the woman enough to be sure, and he cannot afford to be wrong. “And maybe that’s another reason why Celine moved her. A preemptive strike. She strikes me as a chess player.”

“Mahjong.” Something about probabilities, and anticipating your opponent moves, while lining all your little tiles in a row. At least that was Alex’s explanation of her mother’s favorite pastime. ”You’re right.”

Validated, Hank continues, “If you were a parent, wouldn’t you want to try everything, hold on to the last hope, even if it meant overriding your child’s wishes?”

“I’m not sure…”

“Trust me, as a parent.” He reaches over and gives Olivia’s shoulder a friendly, reassuring rub. “You want what’s best for your child. You’ll do everything in your power to keep him or her safe, happy, and alive. And I can’t stress the latter enough.”

********

20.

At the furious click-clacks, Olivia turns, in time to see Ling Szeto marching into the room. Before she can say anything, Ling waves her off.

“Stay, sit, you should be here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Sit, and hush.”

“’Hush’? You’re making enough noises to wake the dead,” she blurts without thinking. Immediately, she pales. The other woman does, too, before tossing her a menacing look. It would’ve been funny under any other situation. Now, she scowls. “I’m not afraid of you.”

Ling disregards Olivia and looms over the foot of her friend’s bed. She makes to grab her ankles but decides to press down on the short railing instead. “Hey, Alex, wake up! Wake up! You’re gonna miss Rakoff’s final!” She pauses and waits, while studiously ignoring the detective’s stare. “Wake up! Wake the fuck up!”

“Ling!” Their gazes meet. It’s clear the woman is going to do whatever she damn well pleases, so she jumps up to close the door, and turns the lock for good measure. She hopes they don’t get in trouble for the commotion, for any of this. Immediately, the yelling resumes.

“Wake the fuck up, or you’ll flunk Crim! You’ll flunk, Alex! Fail! Failure! That horrible ‘eff’ word! Wake up! Un raté! La bocciatura, Alex!”

“Jesus, Ling, how many languages do you speak?”

“How many ways can you spell failure, Olivia?”

“Are you saying I failed her, somehow?” She contends. Because that’s exactly what she’s been feeling.

“I’m not saying anything of the sort!” Ling barks. Then her eyes narrow, first at the taller brunette, then the supine woman, then back again. Her lips twist into a cruel smile. “If you don't wake up, Alex, I'm going to tell Olivia here,” she threatens. "I'm going to tell her your big secret, I swear.

"Come on, Alex, wake up. I swear, I really will tell her. You don't really want me to do that, do you?"

*******

21.

“What's the big secret?” Olivia asks despite the situation. She didn't know her lover had kept anything from her intentionally, especially not something of any significance, and she wants, she needs to know.

"I'm going to give you one last chance, Alex.

"I'm going to count to three and if you don't wake up, I swear, I'm going to tell her. One... Two... Two and a quarter... Two and a half... Two and three quarter... Come on, wake up!” She pleads.

Now Olivia sees the tears threatening to spill from dark eyes. Now suddenly she feels sick. Whatever the big secret, she doesn’t want to know. Yet, she can’t open her mouth to stop Ling.

“Okay, that’s it, Alex. It’s now or never!” Ling warns a final time, before her voice drops to a near whisper. “Three!"

It sounds almost like an animal in distress, and Olivia finds herself frozen. Before she can pull in her next breath, Ling turns to her. “You're the first person she has ever fallen in love with.”

Okay… That’s the big secret? Wait… “What does that mean, Ling?”

"What do you mean ‘what does that mean’? Are you really so stupid, Detective?"

"Why don't you enlighten me, Ms. Szeto?"

"Oh. My. God. I don't believe this! I can't believe you're so damn stupid. It means... It means she’s been around one block, and it’s you.”

“One block? Me?”

She ignores the woman’s squeak. “Yes, you, Olivia. You’re ‘it’ – the block, Blockhead! Her ‘one and only love’. Hasn’t she at least told you that? What did you think it meant?”

“Think? She told me?” Her mind races back, to trace the words, their context. Was it in a song? “Wait. You mean the Sting song?” The one song that the blonde insisted on, that sounded more like a jazz standard than normal Sting? “At our party?” What did I think? Certainly, not this. “She didn’t just mean it metaphorically, romantically?”

“Metaphors and romance? That’s your department, Olivia.”

"Christ." Suddenly, the clarity is blinding, and she wants to sink into the nearest chair lest she loses her footing and falls. But Ling has other plans.

"There, Alex, I told her. I drew her a picture and told her. Now wake up and kick my ass!" She yells and starts climbing onto the bed. Her hands were on the blonde’s shoulder before Olivia pulls her off and holds her tightly in her arms.

"Come on, Alex. Come on. Alex... You're supposed to kick my ass..." She sobs.

It’s like déjà vu, except with different characters performing different parts. Except one can’t just draw the curtains and send everyone home. Silently, the detective endures the small tight fists pounding and pushing against her shoulders, against her chest, while wishing desperately for this nightmare to end.

********

22.

"You don't even have the courtesy to tell me yourself. You sent the crazy bitch."

"Ling went to your office on her own,” Alex clarified. Her tone clearly imparted a refusal to stand down; he should be used to it by now. “What did she tell you?"

"Nothing, she didn't have to.” He pressed his lips together looking sullen.

Sometimes that gesture reminded her of Olivia; she hated that it did. “Nothing? Ling barged into your office and didn’t say anything? I find that hard to believe.” She laughed without humor.

“Whatever she wanted to say, I stopped her.” He raised his voice, full of righteous indignation. “I have eyes. I just didn't want to see before."

Why did they ever think a relationship between the two of them would work? The obvious aside, in some ways, they were simply too much alike. There would be a constant cold war between them, if not out right nuclear. "This is not about you, Trevor."

"She's fucking you, isn't she?"

He didn’t specify ‘who’. It wasn’t necessary, they both knew. Alex remained silent.

"You don't even have the decency to deny it. Dyke!"

She didn’t flinch; she had been called worse. He was angry; and she knew he would regret it later. "This is not about my sexuality either."

"You would let her fuck you even if she were a man?"

That ‘eff’ word coming from him, however, did make her cringe, both times. "Yes," she said; that was what she wanted to believe, that her adult body shut down with the men because they were wrong, because she was only hardwired for one person, for Olivia Benson, who happened to be a woman. It had nothing to do with sexual identity; she just didn’t want to be a whoremonger like her father, not even the propensity to become one.

"To think I actually believed you when you said you were against pre-marital sex. Sure, the concept is old fashioned but so are many things about you..."

Liv and I couldn’t very well get married, could we? Voicing that, however, would only lead to other ugly cans of worms, least of all defuse the situation. "I'm sorry. I didn't plan any of this. And I do think you're a very special person."

"But you don't love me."

"Not like I love Olivia. No."

"You crazy bitches. You all deserve each other,” he said, his face a stony mask. “I just hope you don't end up like Janet Reno one day."

*******

23.

“So you never told Det. Benson.”

“No?” Why did she agree to meet with him? Wait, you invited him. You were the one who wanted to talk, only six months later about Katie Tolliver’s case, and about Max. Why? To thank him? To assuage your guilt? What else? Weren’t those reasons enough? “No, I never did,” Alex reiterated the answer with more confidence.

“She doesn’t know then?”

“About what, Trevor?”

“I shot Max. I killed him for you.”

“In defense of another, Trevor. Max knew what he was doing.” Unlike Katie Tolliver who thought she was exercising when in fact she was being violated by her boss. “It was a completely justified action on your part,” she stated what was obvious to both of them.

“Yes, I kept you from being raped.”

“And I already thanked you. And you know what? I am so very grateful to you, I really am.” She affirmed with a nod. “Every rape case I try, every rape victim I talk to, I am thankful I didn’t have to go through what they did.”

Langan shook his head in acceptance and moved on, “Don’t you think she has a right to know?”

“That I was attacked?” Alex set down her knife and fork, and wished again she hadn’t initiated this meeting. “Why?”

“Why not? Are you ashamed?”

“I don’t see the relevance of something that happened when I was a teenager. I got over it.”

“Are you sure?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes I wonder if your experience, if your first experience with the opposite sex…”

“That I was nearly raped made me a lesbian?” She reached for her wine while working to maintain her composure. She didn’t want to make a spectacle of herself there, at Delmonico’s, or anywhere else. It was difficult just to keep her voice down. “Oh my god, Trevor, for your information, I didn’t consider being attacked an ‘experience with the opposite sex’, not the way you’re thinking. Max, he could’ve been a rabid dog. It would’ve been similarly traumatizing.”

“You can’t possibly compare…”

“Why not, Trevor? Max wasn’t acting human; he was dangerous. He was a mentally impaired psychopath…”

“Retarded.”

“He was developmentally slow, not incompetent.” Working with Katie made her see that. “You know as well as I do,” she argued. “Weren’t you there when we all snuck out to see Cujo? How many people died in that movie?”

“It was just a movie, based on a novel, Alexandra. It wasn’t even real.”

*******

24.

“And I get it, for you, the blood of your cousin on your hands was real.” Alex reached over and touched Trevor’s hand. Not for the first time, she grew self-conscious of how they must look together. If people were paying attention, they would think they were on a date. For some twisted reason, part of her enjoyed that. She continued, “But I’m sorry. Why can’t you accept that we’re just not meant to be? It has nothing to do with you being a man.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look, my first kiss, with the opposite sex, was Leon. He was a perfect gentleman, and it was a nice kiss. Subsequently, I kissed Kenneth, we went a little beyond kissing, actually. And I was engaged to your brother, remember? I’ve had experiences with other men since.” He didn’t need to know how those so-called experiences left her cold, or that she knew in her heart she was working technicalities. Many technicalities. “My being with Liv has nothing to do with your half of the species. I choose her. It’s as simple as that.”

“Does she choose you back?” He asked with resignation.

“Trevor.”

“I’m just concerned for you. Forget everything else, we still grew up together and we were friends for many years before our jobs put us on the opposite sides…”

He seemed genuine and sincere. She accepted his sentiments. “Fine. There’s nothing for you to be worried about.”

“But Det. Benson, she has a reputation…”

“I’m well aware. Have you seen her with anyone else?”

“Well…”

“No, right? I haven’t either. Even when we’re fighting like cats and dogs, she always answers my calls, even when neither of us is on duty. Even at two o’clock in the morning, all I ever have to do is ask, and she’ll be there. Can you do that?” It was all true, and putting it together like that, it painted a convincing picture. At the moment she was, and he definitely seemed to be, judging by the brooding on his face. “And before you answer, may I remind you of our ‘arrangement’? That you were free to sleep with whomever you want? And God knows how many or often…”

“That’s not fair, Alex.”

He had the decency to look embarrassed and pained. He was a good man, just not the one for her, she concluded with small regret. “How is it not fair? You have needs and I wouldn’t put out? So the onus is on me? That’s not fair either. And we’re talking about love. Love’s not fair.”

“Okay, fine.”

“Are you sure? I’m telling you, this is it, Trevor. The last time this subject is on the table.”

“Fine, Alex.”

“Fine.”

“Oh, great, speaking of the devil. Why didn’t you say you’re on call?” He tipped his head towards the door where Benson and Stabler just entered. “Uh oh, someone sure looks pissed. You want me to play it up? No? Okay, I guess I’ll be at the bar. If you need to go, go. I’ll take care of the check.”

“But I invited you.”

“Call me old-fashioned, you’re a woman. And we're still friends, right? And I owe you an apology for the ugly name I called you, besides the inappropriate label, you're much prettier than Reno.” His lips twitched. “Will you accept?” He waited for her smile. Then putting on a haughty air for their audience, he threw down his napkin and adjusted his tie before leaving the table.

While her features remained impassive towards the intruders, her heart leapt, with joy. Her surly detective leading the way, stalking, magnificently, as if she owned the place, as if she owned her, and was coming to claim her… there could not have been a more glorious sight.

*******

25.

Absently, Olivia plays with the partial button in her pocket. It has become a habit. This morning when she transferred it from one jacket to the one she is wearing, she wondered for the first time what happened to the shirt. She is pretty sure it is not in the closet at their house, nor had she seen it back in Chicago. Perhaps it is still in one of the boxes from storage. Damn if she could remember how it looked like. Somehow its importance grows; she doesn’t understand why. Finally, her mind halts its detour, and she finds her courage. “Can I ask a personal question?”

“Sure. 31-33.”

Judging by the grin on Hank’s face, she knows she would regret asking. Still, she does, “What’s that?”

“My pants size.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. You don’t know how much discipline it takes to keep this figure.” He pats his middle, smoothing the front of his shirt for emphasis. “You know our metabolisms at our age…”

“Oh, shut up.”

He slides his sunglasses down his nose. The trouble in his friend’s eyes wipes the humor from his own. “Okay, shoot.”

“Do you and Rachel have joint bank accounts? I mean, put all your money in the same pot?” Is it too personal, for best friend who’ve known each other for half their lives? Oh, well. It’s too late to unring that bell, anyway.

“Well, we each have our own ‘mad money’ accounts, for little things, or surprises that we don’t want the other to know about. But groceries, and mortgage, and all that other stuff, they come out of the same pot. Well, even the mad accounts are funded by the pot.” He shrugs and tugs on his goatee, as if to hasten its growth, and adds, “Why?”

“Doesn’t Rachel make a lot more than you?”

“Oh, sure, not everyone can do what she does.” He shrugs again. “My job right now, I don’t even have to have my law license. But of course, I still am…”

“And it doesn’t bother her? The disparity? For lack of a better word.”

“No? What’s mine’s hers and vice-versa.” His arched brows convey his disbelief as he questions, “Why? Jaime bothered by it?”

“Doesn’t it bother you?”

“No! I think it’s great. We already have Chris’ college banked, and law school, if he wants to follow his old man’s footsteps. Or the funds can go towards med school or whatever he wants to study. We both had to work so hard, you know, to get where we are? We wanna make sure he doesn’t have to do what we did,” he explains with an unapologetic smile. “Anyway, it’s supposed to be a surprise, but right now we’re working on buying a place in the city again.”

“New York?”

“Yeah, we’re thinking eventually, we’d want to move back. I mean, West Coast’s great, but after the last few visits, Raych and I realized how much we missed all the garbage on the street corners and stuff? Seriously, her ‘rents are here, and… Anyway, I’m digressing. But yeah, hopefully you’ll be seeing my face more. Anyway-anyway, what’s up? Why you asking about this?”

Oh, hell. “Let’s say, hypothetically, Alex is retreating.” She kicks at an imaginary rock and tries not to mumble, “And maybe it wasn’t any one single trigger, but a bunch of different things, all piled up. And maybe the last thing is like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

*******

26.

“Or the thing that blows the pressure cooker. I think that’s more apt for her.”

“Yeah, pressure cooker.” Olivia launches another phantom stone into the distance. “Sure.”

“So what was the last thing? Did she want to sign some sort of pre-nup and you don’t?”

“No! We didn’t argue about a pre-nup.” It was so far from the truth, it wasn’t funny. Olivia defends, “We didn’t even bring up pre-nup. Why’d you think that?”

“Uh, last time you were involved with someone rich, Liv? They brought up pre-nup, and you had a cow, whole herd of them. Ringing cowbells yet?” Hank’s brows rise higher as he continues, “Jonathan, what’s his name? I can never remember. Anyway, you thought it was insulting, and that he was expecting the marriage to be doomed before it even started? So you broke up with him? Hello?”

“I said that? Oh, right, I did, didn’t I?” Olivia matches his sarcasm. Of course she remembers now that he has mentioned it; but honestly, not before. “But she owns everything I own, well, except the job-related stuff, we haven’t talked about that. Still, everything else, so I’m not saying I expect the relationship to end. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Sometimes the omission is as telling as the admission; and maybe lawyers just look at things differently than cops. To the former prosecutor, the problem is clear as day; he sighs. “So what are you saying? Are you giving her an ‘out’? Are you saying she might have reasons to believe she shouldn’t expect from you the happily ever after she wants?”

“Of course not! She’s stuck with me. We’re stuck with each other.”

“That doesn’t sound very appealing.”

“Oh, screw you, Hank. You know what I mean.”

“Are you sure, Liv? You don’t have any doubts? Not even deep down?” He plays the devil’s advocate. “That maybe not today or tomorrow, but you’ll give her reasons somewhere down the road? And if she’s smart, she’ll protect herself - have some sort of contingency plan starting with your offer?”

This time, she blinks, and pauses. Finally, she offers her answer, “I don’t think so? I just never thought of it like that? Not like how you put it?”

“Okay.”

“’Okay’?” Flabbergasted, she throws up her hands. “Do I have to start justifying myself to you?”

“You know I feel kinda responsible.”

“Why? You’re not responsible for my actions.”

“Yeah, but I did play matchmaker…”

Olivia braves the earnestness of her friend’s expression and the gravity of his tone, and supplies, “Don’t worry, we’re both big girls.”

*******

27.

“So how is this different?” Hank keeps pulling on his goatee, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I mean, besides the obvious, and she’s easier on the eye than what’s his face?”

For once, the name comes to Olivia without having to dig for it. “Easley.”

“Gesundheit.”

Olivia rolls her eyes, not trying to hide her smirk. “I don’t know what’s different.”

“Do you love her less?”

She laughs mirthlessly. “I’m not sure I’m capable of loving anyone more. You know?” He does know, just as she knows his was a rhetorical question meant to get a reaction. He succeeded. “The last, what, five weeks? I feel like I’m walking around, I mean, it’s like I’m not me, not myself, I don’t know how to explain it.”

“You’re hurting.”

‘Hurting’ doesn’t begin to describe how Olivia feels. “When my mom died, I was upset, and I was angry, and numb, and well, a lot numb, and relieved, and guilty about feeling relieved, it was mixed up, then it got better, and now I just miss her, periodically. I mean I miss her always whenever I think of her, which isn’t that often.”

“Time heals…”

She cut him off with a sharp jerk of her head. “I try to imagine going through that? And I can’t. I don’t think I’ll get over, if she doesn’t wake up.”

“You will, Liv.” He takes a step closer and clasps her shoulder. “She’d want you to.”

With a shudder, she pulls away and spins around before she faces her friend again. What she’d really like, is to punch something. Luckily, no one has resisted arrest in the last weeks, or she’d be talking with Internal Affairs. She tries to control her words, her emotions. “What she wants isn’t relevant right now. I’m so damn angry. If I let myself feel anything. And it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t help with anything…”

“Are you talking to anyone about how you’re feeling?”

“I’m talking to you, now.” And Becca, sorta. Definitely not Huang, but he’s been eyeing her, and she’ll keep ignoring and avoiding him. She doesn’t know why she’s talking with either Hank or Rebecca. Not for sympathy, that’s for sure. Maybe they don’t mince words; they tell her what she needs to hear. And she knows where she stands. “And you know me a lot better than a lot of other people. And you’re not having marital issues.” Not like El.

“You know sometimes trying too hard is just as bad as trying too little.” He sighs, maintaining his distance even though his inclination urges otherwise. “Instead of keeping the lid on, you could let it out.” “I did that already, with a punching bag at the gym, it didn't help.” “What about all the other feelings, besides anger? Are you feeling anything else besides anger? If you let yourself?” That was one of the questions she’d been avoiding. Looking inwards, she sighs. “I miss her, so much. I miss her smile, her voice. I miss holding her, miss her holding me. I just miss her…” “Then go be with her, Olivia.” “It's not that easy…” “Sure it is.” He grins like a little boy. “One phone call to your captain, I'll make it for you if you want. Just do it. Do it, do it, do it!”

“Oh, god, you’ve been in LA too damn long,” she can only grouse.

*******

28.

Is this self-imposed purification or have you found Promised Land?

“Who are you?”

Don’t you remember me, Alexandra?

Don’t worry, it’s only been days, not years. You haven’t done anything that requires wandering through the wilderness for 40 years. Actually, I’m not sure you’ve done anything requiring you to be in your head for so many days either, but that’s up to you.

Or is it Olivia you think needs atonement?

“Who are you?”

How was your temptation? Everything you expected, hoped for, and more?

Diligently, Alex ignores the trenchant comment. She’s been wallowing in that guilt long enough. It wasn’t a temptation; she was never tempted. Even if Cass Sevin had the right color eyes, she could still vouch for the veracity of her sentiment. She was merely testing a theory, answering a question sparked by a drunken kiss from Serena Southerlyn years ago. She was right, is right, and she hasn’t done anything wrong. Olivia would be the first to absolve her; and judging from her words, the things she’s been saying, she already has.

Rather than dwelling on something that has lost its relevance, Alex focuses on the face across from hers. The features aren’t clear, but something about her feels familiar. It’s like looking into a foggy mirror but not quite. From what she can see, the woman doesn’t look like Michelle d’Estin from the photographs. She asks anyway, "Great grandmother?"

No. The voice intrudes again, while the mouth remains closed. You know, contrary to popular belief, you’re really not destined to save the world.

“Who believes that?”

Don’t you?

“No.” Of course not, Alex was going to add. But she isn’t going to lie again, not to herself at least. So she decides to be honest with the specter in her head. “Not anymore, I don’t think.”

That’s good. Wouldn’t want to accuse you of having a Complex, you know which one. Although, tell me, aren’t you afraid you’ll disappoint all those people who think you should do more? To give your life for a grander cause than your own happiness? You’ve already done that once. How does it feel?

While averting the reflex to touch her shoulder, Alex retorts silently, Those people could just kiss my scar. She can’t be sure, but is it possible that woman heard her anyway? “Nothing? I feel lousy,” she speaks aloud. “If I could do over again…”