DISCLAIMER: Characters belong to Dick Wolf and NBC/Universal, and probably some other people, of whom I am not one.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: First and last lines by flying_peanuts, who wrote them for a challenge at LiveJournal.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

At Any Stage of the Journey
By Mira


She traced her profile behind closed lids, the pad of her thumb moving in one stroke from her hair down the expanse of her forehead to the dip between her eyebrows, the line and curve of her nose, the lips slightly parted and the chin sharp and round, moving up along jaw and cheekbone and the tired, fragile skin under her eyes. This, Alex forces herself to do every morning before the birds sing too loudly, eyes shut against a light that never feels good enough for this woman's features. She forces herself to feel Carolyn before she sees her, before she wakes, before she speaks and, in speaking, becomes real.

This is the only real indulgence she allows herself, and only because she knows that, sleeping, it won't scare Carolyn: she sleeps like the dead, and it doesn't wake her, this outlining and sculpting and reforming. Her breath is steady and Alex knows, Alex knows she only does this because she's a coward, because she can't manage to find a way to say I love you to Carolyn when she's awake.

She opens her eyes, slowly, and the pale gray dawn is slanting in from the cracks around the blinds on the window, and Carolyn's body is barred and striped and sectioned by strips of light. Alex can only think of her as Carolyn when she's sleeping, when the shadows of dawn shade the hollow of her throat dusky, when her hair is splayed, unruly, across the pillow and her breathing is soft and deep and even. All the other times, when the hollow of her throat is just another gap between bones, when her hair is tamed and shining, when her eyes are open, coal-black and perceptive, she thinks of her as Barek, has to think of her as Barek, because Alex wasn't prepared—how could she have been prepared?—for the way Barek, whispering into her neck or her hair, can disarm, disrobe, and dismantle her with nothing but the two meager syllables of her own name.

Carolyn shifts, stirring, and sighs and blinks into waking, and Alex watches as her pupils constrict, black on black like a shadow on water in the darkness of night, and Alex watches as she smiles, carefully.

"Hey," Barek says, lazily, the way she says it every morning, and every morning Alex's stomach drops into the mattress, time suspended in itself, until she can remember enough to say "Good morning" and break the spell and start to remember things that are.

(Alex knows the following things: Barek makes a mean eggplant parmesan.

Barek likes the color gray, but not the gray of concrete or slate: the gray of the sky on a morning when it might rain.

Barek usually knows when it will, without checking the weather report. When Alex asked her, once, how?, she shrugged, unsmiling.

Barek keeps her eyes open when she comes, and if Alex is quick afterwards, she sometimes glimpses her pupils dilating in the pale darkness, in a moment of such extraordinary clarity that it takes her breath away.

Barek likes to vacuum, and occasionally talks to herself while she does it, in Polish, so that there are two hums at once: one whining and mechanical, and one sibilant, perfect.)

There are other things, too, probably, which don't seem important to remember now as Barek stretches and leans to kiss her, softly, mouth closed because Barek doesn't like kissing before she's had a chance to brush her teeth ("I don't mind," Alex had said, which was, surprisingly, true, and Barek had shrugged and said "I do," and that had been that). Her lips are careful and chaste and impossibly generous. That was what had surprised her, and keeps surprising her, and will, she thinks, for as long as this might last: Barek's generosity, her gentleness, her compassion. Like this, unexpected and unlooked for and against most of the rules (although they're not partners, at least, so that's something) and as right as anything Alex has ever been able to think.

They sit up, together, and swing their legs over their respective sides of the bed, which they always do at the same time and which makes Alex smile every morning, even though she's always facing away from Barek when she does it, so that she'll never see. Barek grabs a pair of sweatpants and shimmies into them (she gets hot, when she sleeps; Alex runs cold, usually), and they wander, silently, into the kitchen.

It feels too soon to have established a routine, but they have. Barek makes coffee (she buys it organic, which makes Alex laugh and also makes her heart expand, somehow, in a way that is also organic) while Alex gets the paper. She separates it and restacks the sections on the table: Barek reads the front section first while Alex reads Metro, and then they switch, silently. They have never discussed this arrangement: Alex wonders sometimes whether Barek would prefer it the other way around, but has always been too nervous, for some reason, to ask.

They eat in silence, sipping their coffee, which both of them drink black. Barek's usual coffee mug, a holdover from her days at FBI, says "WASHINGTON D.C. THE NATION'S CAPITAL" and has a chip out of one side, which is fitting, sort of. Alex usually drinks from the NYPD mug that looks just like her one at One PP, and the coffee always tastes the same (bitter, complex, anchoring) and the morning always looks the same, the view from her side of the table unchanging: the ceramic bowl of apples and bananas and oranges to the right, the coffee maker on the counter, the sink off to the left, with a dishtowel next to it, the little pot of purple flowers in front of the window, the light, the light, and Barek, who blends in like a wild thing and also never, ever blends in with anything.

On this morning, though, things seem different, sharper, richer, and Alex finds herself unable to tear her eyes away from Barek, brows furrowed over the news like they are every morning. The news bothers Barek, most of the time, because she sometimes has trouble separating herself from other people's suffering, and this Alex has learned without knowing any reasons for it. Normally not knowing why would bother her. Normally, yes, but nothing about this is normal, really, even though it also is, and Alex hasn't even tried to find out, knows that if Barek wanted her to know, she'd tell her, and that's, oddly, good enough for her.

Alex also knows this: paying the homeless woman across the street from the deli a dollar for a scraggly stem of a carnation isn't worth it, because it's a mere dry head of pale shelled petals, useless. But she also knows that if she does it anyway, and flashes the awkward smile of the more-privileged-than-you, and waits until she rounds the corner to place the flower, gently, in a trash bin, it's because she's thinking of Barek.

She looks up, suddenly, from the paper, and Alex can't figure out why she feels a little embarrassed, why she's trying to keep her cheeks cool. It's because, probably, Alex hasn't felt like this in, well, forever, maybe. (Did she feel like this with Matthew, when he was alive? She can't remember anymore: she remembers being happy, mostly, and she remembers that night: coming home, stripping off her stilettos and her fishnets and her awful leather miniskirt and showering off the stain of bought sex and curling up on their cheap camel-colored sectional to wait for him and instead getting the phone call that said she'd be waiting forever, and it's the prism that colors every other memory of him, and so she doesn't know whether he made her happy like this.)

Barek's eyes are dark and maybe a little wounded and she smiles at Alex across the kitchen table, sunlight streaming in now to form a fuzzy, glowing corona around her hair, and she smiles. It barely touches her lips but it lights her eyes, and she lets go of the bottom half of the paper and reaches across the table to where Alex's left hand is resting, absently, on Sunday Styles. She keeps looking at her, looking at her, and Alex is naked and safe and undone as Barek brushes her thumb, so carefully it barely feels like a touch, over her knuckles.

And suddenly it's over, as quickly as it happened, and Barek's eyes are sad on the news again and her hand is straightening the sagging bottom of the pages against the anchor of her coffee mug and Alex is drifting, now, through something like certainty. That maybe I love you would be superfluous, would be nothing like enough, if these, if the silence and the hidden smile and the bare caress, if these were the stations of joy.

The End

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