DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are
property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
THANKS: to my minions, Xander and Gail. I oughta pay them, but if I did, they wouldn't be minions.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SERIES: Sequel to Spark.
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Alex opened her eyes. "I'm up."
"Are you okay?"
Glancing over at Olivia, she ignored the damp tingle between her legs brought on by the dream she'd been having. "Yeah. Why?"
"You sounded like you were having a nightmare." Olivia's eyebrows drew together, obviously concerned. She touched Alex's arm.
Alex grinned. "It wasn't a nightmare."
Olivia blinked, and Alex held her gaze, waiting for her to get her drift. Ahh, there it is. Olivia's lips pressed together, the corners tipping up slightly. "Sorry I woke you, then."
"It's okay. You can make it up to me later." Alex looked around, trying to get her bearings. The noise of the aircraft engines hummed in the background, and passengers were milling about in the cabin, engaged in quiet conversations. A flight attendant walked by, and Olivia exchanged a few words with him. Moments later, the man returned and handed over a bottle of water, and Olivia passed it to Alex.
"Thanks." She opened it and drank, not realizing how thirsty she'd been. "How long was I asleep?"
"Probably an hour. We're almost there."
Alex inhaled a familiar scent as she leaned her head on Olivia's leather clad shoulder.
"Nervous?" Olivia asked.
She shrugged. "I don't know. I'm still not sure what to do." Though she'd had a full week to decide, she'd been unsuccessful in coming to any conclusions about telling the truth of her circumstances to her friends. In fact, she'd had trouble making decisions about much of anything. Most of them she left up to Olivia; scheduling the movers to deliver a few of Alex's things from the storage space, setting up dinners and breakfasts with her mother, choosing which flight to take to Nebraska.
"We'll figure it out," Olivia assured her. Alex wasn't so confident. "Does MJ know I'm coming too?"
"She knows 'my friend Olivia, from college' is traveling with me. But I haven't said we're together."
"Will it bother her?"
Alex sighed, trying to gauge how much total honesty mattered to Olivia, and even to herself, when it came to the people who'd populated her life for the past few years. These people knew she liked opera, but not that she'd once held season tickets to the Met, or that when she was twelve, her father had taken her to see the Chagall murals and she'd fallen in love. They knew she could speak French, but not that she'd learned the language from a woman from Avignon with whom she'd had a reckless affair that ended just before she took the bar exam. It still surprised her that she'd passed the first time, considering how much time she hadn't spent studying. They knew she liked candles that smelled of sandalwood, but not that the scent had reminded her of Olivia.
"Alex?" Olivia said.
As she looked at her companion, it occurred to Alex that Olivia didn't know any of those things about her either. "What?"
"I asked if it would bother MJ knowing about us." There was a small line between Olivia's brows.
"Oh, yeah. I... I don't think so. I'm not sure." Her brain wasn't working properly. She needed a way to shift the conversation to a new track. "You never said how you told Elliot. About you."
Olivia chuckled, and if she noticed Alex's misdirection, she didn't mention it. "I slept with a guy from the squad a long time ago. It wasn't anything, a mistake, after a bad night and too much to drink. The guy thought we were together, and I set him straight. He didn't last in SVU-- moved to narcotics in less than a year. Anyway, after that, Elliot said I might want to consider trying girls for a while, and I said I already had."
Alex laughed quietly. "How'd he take it?"
"He had a blank look on his face. I think he said, 'Oh,' and got a little flustered. But the next day it was like I'd never said anything. Once in a while he'd ask if I was seeing anyone, but I hardly ever was, so it didn't matter." She looked at Alex. "He knew how I felt about you."
"He used to bust me for arguing with you, and then he'd bust me some more when I'd get on him for arguing with you."
Alex thought about their frequent, heated discussions over the years. "We did knock heads quite a bit."
"It's inevitable. You're a lawyer, I'm a cop. We want the same things, but you're the cautious one. You have to be. And even when it drove me out of my mind, I knew you were right." Olivia paused. "Some of the time."
"Very funny." Alex scooted a little closer as the plane rumbled through a patch of turbulence. "I'll be glad to get back to work. I've missed it."
"What about teaching? Won't it be hard to leave that behind?"
"It was less time consuming than the law," Alex admitted. "And the kids were great, when they weren't driving me crazy. It was nice to have a direct impact on students, and then see the results over time. That rarely happened with the cases we had. Once they were over, families disappeared back into their own lives, and new cases were all I thought about."
Olivia was silent for a moment. "Are you sure you want to come back to the job?"
"Yes," Alex replied immediately, though a little niggling voice in the back of her mind whispered, No, I'm terrified. She ignored it. "Leaving the way I did wasn't what I wanted, but it forced me to take a break." She remembered all the times she'd given every ounce of energy to win a case, only to be destroyed when a jury came in with a not guilty verdict. It was exhausting, and when Zapata came along, he'd pushed all her buttons. "I let Zapata get to me. I was so beaten down by everything I couldn't stand to see him get away with murder." And I walked right into a situation that nearly got me killed.
"Don't blame yourself, Alex."
Alex tried not to bristle as she sensed that strange vibe Olivia gave off when she was talking with a victim, getting the story, empathizing. "I don't. I try not to, at least." She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it." I'm not a victim.
"Okay," Olivia said, her voice soothing. She slid an arm around Alex, and looked over her shoulder out the window.
Alex shifted her own gaze, feeling the plane begin its descent into Omaha. Watching the rolling fields of green and gold thousands of feet below, Alex recalled the first time she'd made this flight. High on painkillers, frightened and empty, she'd slouched in a window seat exactly like the one she was seated in. The agent next to her had accompanied her from the Pittsburgh airport, and acted his part as a husband caring for his wife after she'd been injured in a car accident.
"Broken collarbone," the man had replied to an inquisitive passenger. "People are so careless on the roads these days."
Alex couldn't remember his name, but he had brown hair, and brown eyes. He wore khaki pants and brown shoes, and it bothered her that he was wearing a black shirt with them. In her addled haze, she'd told him, "Your shoes don't match. You're wearing a black belt."
"Oh, honey," he'd said indulgently, patting her thigh as she flinched beneath his touch.
She wondered if he remembered her at all.
Only fifteen miles from Norfolk, Alex felt like she was ready to come out of her skin. She wished she'd never agreed to come to Nebraska, and had allowed the field agents to pack her few belongings and ship them directly to New York. Her foot pressed the gas pedal harder, pushing the speedometer above 80. It had taken her months to get used to the higher speed limit in rural areas-- 75. At the time she'd never driven so fast in her life. It was going to be a bitch getting used to stop and go of the city again.
She wished she'd spoken up about the rental car when Olivia signed for it. It was the height of summer; she thought it might be nice to get a convertible, or a mini Cooper. Instead, she'd remained silent as Olivia chose a plain silver Toyota sedan. It had reasonable pick up, but not much verve. The FBI had already repossessed her car, Carolyn's car, and returned it to wherever it came from, so she was stuck with the Camry for the weekend.
Olivia slept next to her in the seat, and Alex recalled the thousands of times she'd imagined a scenario in which she'd see Olivia in Nebraska. Alex would be teaching a class, or watering the lawn, or having a meal with friends at a local restaurant, and in all cases, Olivia would storm in to reveal Velez had been killed, and Alex was free to return to her old life. It was the stuff of melodrama, and Alex would be mortified if anyone knew her secret fantasies, but they had kept her going. Now, driving into town, she didn't feel the expected elation. She didn't feel much at all, except relief that Olivia was with her. If she'd come alone, she doubted she would have even made it on the plane.
The exit off 275 loomed, and Alex slowed as she took the ramp. She heard Olivia inhale and awaken at the change in speed. "Sorry," Alex said. "We're almost there."
"I'm sorry for conking out on you."
"Guess that happens when you work 48 hours straight on a case. What have you slept, a few hours this week?"
"Naw, it wasn't that bad," Olivia replied, stifling a yawn.
"Getting up at 5 this morning probably didn't help. Why don't you nap a little when we get home? I mean, get there?" It's not home.
"I'm okay," Olivia said, stroking Alex's arm. "I want to see what this place is like."
Alex recalled the drive with Mr. Brown Shoes, navigating the stretch of interstates to get to Norfolk. He got lost on the way there. "It took more than three hours to get from Omaha when I first flew in. There were four inches of snow on the ground."
"When did you arrive?"
"Right before Halloween. A terrible cold snap came early that year. Usually January is the worst, but not that year. It barely made it into the teens for three months."
"Geez, and I thought New York was bad."
"In New York, you walk more, so you feel it. Here I drive almost everywhere. No traffic, no parking problems."
"I bet it's free in lots of places."
Alex chuckled at the longing in Olivia's voice. "Yep." That was something she would miss for sure. "Of course you tend to park in the middle of the road half the time anyway," she joked.
"Hey, only when I'm busting bad guys." Gazing out the window, Olivia said, "It's pretty. It looks... so calm. Like a nice town."
"Bet they don't have an SVU around here."
"There's plenty of crime, but you'd win that bet. Considering the state's population is barely higher than that of the island of Manhattan, it's not a surprise."
"Manhattan's 26 square miles. You're telling me that's how many people live in this whole state?"
"A couple hundred thousand more, but generally speaking, yes."
"Liv, do you ever leave the city? You know there are places in the world where the people aren't stacked on top of each other."
"Sure, I leave. I go to Queens twice a month. And I just went to Rome, and now I'm in Nebraska."
Through her laughter, Alex said, "Not counting Rome or now, or any of the boroughs of New York, do you ever leave?"
Olivia thought for a minute. "I went to New Jersey last year, to see some friends."
"Ever been this far west?"
"Of course," Olivia scoffed. "I've been to California."
There was a pause. "I was 13." Alex snorted, and Olivia added, "I went to college near Albany. That counts. And I've been up and down the east coast a few times."
Alex took her hand. "I'm only teasing, Liv. You're a New Yorker, through and through."
"Anyway, no one ever has to leave Manhattan. It's got everything."
Alex glanced over at her. It's got you, and that's enough for me. "Yep."
Minutes later, Alex pulled into her driveway. Carolyn's driveway. The mailbox had her name on it, JAMES, though the S was crooked. She'd put off fixing it, even though she used to make a daily mental note to do it over some weekend.
"It's... big." Olivia's eyes were wide as she stared out the windshield. "Jesus, did they think you were bringing an entourage with you?"
"I don't know. I never asked, and the Marshalls weren't very forthcoming when they didn't have to be."
They got out of the car, and Olivia retrieved their bags from the trunk. "It's beautiful."
Alex nodded. It was a white, two-story farmhouse with green trimmed shutters, a front porch and obligatory swing, gardens in front and back, and a rear deck. Alex had never gardened much beyond keeping a few houseplants in the city, but with the amount of time on her hands, she knew she had to take up some kind of hobby. Everything was in bloom now; from the bleeding hearts, to the phlox, to the nine rosebushes lining the drive.
Olivia knelt by one of the rosebushes, and put her nose to a huge, peach bloom. "Did you grow these?"
"I read a lot about gardening. I followed the directions." As Alex examined the closest bush, she realized she wouldn't get a chance to see the results of her latest hybrid experiment. So much for the rosehips she'd harvested last October and potted in the spring.
"Please," Olivia said, "I know it's not that easy. You put your heart into this place, and it shows." She let her eyes fall again to the blossoms as she touched one of them. "I don't even have a yard for you to plant anything in."
"Liv," Alex said softly. "I don't need a garden." She didn't know how to explain that planting these flowers had kept her from going crazy; kept her mind off the fear and loneliness more than anything else she'd tried. "I can plant an herb garden. It's the same thing, only on a smaller scale. That way, when you cook me dinner, you can add fresh basil and rosemary instead of store bought."
Liv met her eyes, and Alex was glad to see the smile return. "Ah, when I cook you dinner. I see how it's gonna be."
"I still haven't experienced the miracle of your lasagna."
"Maybe I'll make it for you when we get home. If you're really nice to me."
Alex unlocked the front door and stepped inside. "I think I can do that." She left her bag on the floor and pulled Olivia into her arms for a thorough kiss. It was deliberate and languid, just right for clearing her head of the melancholy that was settling in. Olivia's hand slid down to caress her rear, and Alex smiled against her mouth.
Olivia asked in a low voice, "Have I told you lately how good you look in jeans?" Her hand slid inside one of Alex's pockets.
The corner of Alex's mouth lifted. "No."
"You look good." Her voice was lazy, seductive; her hands inquisitive.
Alex swooped in for a second kiss, this one with a bit more intent. She'd barely pulled Olivia's white tee shirt out of her pants when her cellphone rang. With a sigh, she reached into her pocket, staying close in the circle of Olivia's arms. Nuzzling against Olivia's nose, she mumbled, "Cabot."
"Who's this?" asked a familiar voice.
A white hot flash shot through Alex's head, and she realized she'd slipped for the first time in years. "MJ?" Shit. I'm not ready.
"Caro, is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me, we just got in." Maybe if she pretended she didn't say it, MJ would think she'd misheard.
"Funny, you sounded different when you answered."
"I was talking to Olivia."
"Oh Right. How was the trip? Did you hit any traffic?"
Alex wanted to laugh. Even the worst traffic in Nebraska seemed easy when compared to the Jersey Turnpike. "No. The flight was painless, and we didn't have any trouble making the drive."
"I'm glad to hear it. Now, for the tougher question: how's your great aunt?"
Alex exhaled uncertainly as Olivia pressed smooth lips to her temple. "It's complicated. Can I tell you about it when I see you?"
"Sure, baby. You still comin' for dinner? Buster's fired up the grill-- we got burgers and hotdogs and some of that salmon he caught in Alaska over the winter."
"Yeah. What time is good for you?"
"Come on 'round six. And don't bring anything, we've got it all covered."
"Thanks, MJ." Alex wasn't sure MJ would want to even stay in touch with her after she revealed her deception. "We'll see you."
"Bye then, sweetpea." MJ hung up.
"Did she call you sweetpea?" Olivia asked.
Alex burrowed her face into Olivia's neck. "Yep. She's southern, born and bred in South Carolina. I don't think she's called me Carolyn since the first time we met. Caro, baby, honey, sugar-- you name it, I've been called it."
Olivia smiled. "Never thought of you as a sugar. I like it."
"Okay, sweetiepie," Alex said with a smirk.
Olivia swatted her behind. She looked around the entryway of the house, and Alex knew her curiosity had been piqued. "Mind if I look around?"
"No, of course."
Alex followed Olivia, watching her creep around the new surroundings as though she were investigating a case. She noticed the little line between Olivia's brows almost immediately.
"Wow," Olivia said, for the second time that afternoon. "It's, uh, really white. Bright, I mean."
It was that. Alex hadn't touched the eggshell paint since she'd moved in, nor had she made many adjustments to the décor provided the FBI's finest. God knew she'd never have chosen white carpet for herself.
"That's an... interesting print," Olivia said, gesturing to the framed pastel picture of two deck chairs on a beach, overlooking the ocean. Alex almost took pity on her, but preferred to see how long she could hold out. They made a walk through the dining room (also white carpeted,) the kitchen (festooned with hanging, mostly unused pots and pans), and what her mother would have called a parlor back in the day. Olivia hadn't said much at all, only "ahh-ing" once in a while.
"Let's go upstairs." She led Olivia to the second floor, her hand smoothing up the painted banister. She started with the guest rooms, presenting two sizable rooms with beds and dressers, done up in flowery prints and fluttering curtains. Finally, she stood before her own room, and opened the door.
With a single look, Olivia exhaled noisily. "Oh, thank God." She strode in and fell on the bed with a laugh. "I thought for a second I'd fallen into the Stepford Wives." Alex's room was unlike any other in the house, and was twice as big as the other bedrooms since it doubled as an office. Wood floors had been uncovered two years before beneath carpeting, and Alex had restained the panels herself after a few educational trips to the hardware store. The furniture was uniformly made of oak, from the dresser, to the armoire, to the antique desk she'd found on a weekend visit to Lincoln. The bed's burgundy coverlet blended with the dark walls, but the size and frame had nothing on the bed that now graced Olivia and Alex's New York bedroom. "This is where you've been hiding."
Alex leapt up beside her on the bed. "Yep."
"How come you didn't do the rest of the house this way?"
She rolled over on to Olivia. "Because this is me." It seemed obvious. Everyone in her life knew Carolyn. Alex stayed in this room, away from prying eyes.
Olivia spoke with her lips touching Alex's forehead. "And you never brought anyone here."
"Not till you."
Olivia wiggled a few inches away and watched Alex, her brown eyes gently inquisitive in the afternoon light. "You're a mystery to me, Alex."
Alex rubbed her heel against Olivia's calf muscle, wishing they both weren't wearing jeans. "Why?"
"Because... when I see you, I feel so much, but then I look again, and sometimes it's like I don't know you at all."
Alex did her best to keep her surprise hidden. "But you want to know me," she said slowly.
"Every part," Olivia assured her.
The air clicked off, leaving the room in silence. Alex touched a dark circle beneath Olivia's eye, frowning at the exhaustion in her face. "You look sleepy. Why don't you rest for a little while?"
"I feel like I should be doing something. Like helping you pack, or I don't know."
"Packing won't take long-- everything I want is in this room. Close your eyes. I'll call you in an hour or so."
"If you're sure."
"I'm sure." Alex got up and rousted Olivia from the bed, pulling down the covers. Olivia left her jacket at the foot of the bed and her shoes on the floor, and Alex took advantage of the moment to unsnap Olivia's jeans and slide them down her hips. "You'll be more comfortable this way," Alex said as she ran her fingertips up the sides of well-muscled thighs.
She tucked Olivia in, brushing back her hair from her face. "Sleep tight." Olivia pulled a pillow into her arms and inhaled, her eyes closing already.
Downstairs, Alex looked around at the place she'd called home for so long. Shelves were lined with books, most of which she hadn't read. Her own books were upstairs in her bedroom, stacked on shelves next to the desk. She wouldn't miss this space at all. The garden, however, was another matter. Glancing out the window, she focused on the bushes that had taken so much of her time and attention recently. After a quick rummage through the junk drawer, she headed outside with shears and gloves in hand.
Half an hour later she'd cut two dozen roses of various colors, and set out to arrange them. As she positioned some greens, the memory of where she'd acquired the vase holding them crept into her mind. Poor Alan, he never could figure out why she wouldn't agree to a second date, no matter how many bouquets of flowers he sent. He'd have sent flowers if he'd known where to find her in New York, she was sure of it.
She wondered if MJ had planned a little farewell for her sometime over the weekend, and supposed she'd have to see Alan again if that were the case. Parties were MJ's m.o., Alex had discovered quickly. Her first year working at the college, MJ had thrown her a small surprise birthday party at work, much to Alex's horror. "Happy Birthday Carolyn!" the homemade sign had read, and MJ had taken her blank expression to be one of complete surprise and joy. That night, Alex drank four consecutive shots of scotch in her empty kitchen and passed out on the living room couch twenty minutes later.
Alex lost herself in her task, letting the memories wash over her. "It wasn't all bad," she muttered, finishing the last arrangement. MJ would love it-- she'd always envied Alex's luck with roses.
Her eyes drooped a bit, and she checked her watch. It was after two; Olivia had been asleep barely an hour. Maybe a nap wasn't a bad idea.
Creeping up the stairs, she carried the rest of their bags and quietly left them in the corner of the bedroom. A yawn caught her unawares, and she shucked her shoes, socks and pants. Olivia was still clinging to a pillow, so Alex slid in carefully, trying not to disturb her. The bed was comfortable; the mattress firm but covered with a thick layer of down to cushion her body. Sleep had never come easily in this house, but Alex found herself effortlessly slipping away as she listened to the sounds of birds in the trees, and the children playing tag down the block.
Alex opened her eyes, and it took a moment to realize Olivia was staring directly at her. She blinked. "Hi."
Her level of comfort was mirrored in Olivia's face-- she was relaxed and calm in repose. The lines that typically creased the corners of her mouth and eyes were absent, leaving her skin ageless and smooth. Slowly she snuggled into Olivia's embrace, tangling their bare legs together under the covers. "Mm, you're so warm."
"I didn't think you'd be here. What happened to 'I'll wake you in an hour'?"
"I was tired. That's about all the motivation I need to get into bed with you." Alex peered over Olivia's shoulder, squinting at the fuzzy digital display. "We have time for a shower and a drive around town, if you'd like to do that." She was curious to know how foreign the tiny city would seem to Olivia.
Soon they were tooling around the streets of Norfolk as Alex pointed out various well-known locales. "There's the Knights of Columbus." "That's the Johnny Carson Theatre. Concerts come through, and every once in a while, they throw in a musical." "That's Liberty Bell Park, where MJ's girls play softball."
"MJ has kids?" Olivia asked.
"Yep. Two girls and a boy. Jamie's not old enough to play baseball yet, but he likes to watch Ellie and Amanda. Or at least throw peanuts at people in the bleachers." Alex made a right turn as she headed toward the campus of the college. "You'll meet them tonight, unless MJ's sent them off to a neighbor's."
A few minutes later, Alex turned off Benjamin and began to circle the grounds. "This is Northeast Community College."
"It's bigger than I thought."
"I'll walk you around tomorrow. This is the five cent tour."
Alex pointed north. "There's a farm over there, where they keep some livestock and grain bins. Agriculture is a big part of the educational system here, naturally. We're surrounded by farmland." As she glanced at Olivia, she bit back a grin at the height of her left eyebrow.
Alex laughed. "You'd be amazed at what one can learn about livestock selection living in a rural community."
"If I ever need to buy a goat, you'll be the first person I talk to."
The radio played quiet country music, as Alex surveyed the familiar surroundings. It was summer term, so most of the students were either home or working, although a few of them had stuck around in the small section of dorms. The grounds were deserted compared to spring and fall, especially since it was late Friday afternoon. She swallowed the feeling of loss that swam up; she'd spent so much time yearning to go back to New York, she hadn't thought about what it would mean to leave. Norfolk wasn't and never would be "home," but living here had kept her alive and well, if not exactly happy.
Olivia's arm slid next to hers and covered her hand where it lay on the armrest. Alex clasped long fingers and held on.
A few minutes past six, Alex steered the Camry into the drive of the three story farmhouse. "Ready?" she asked.
Olivia turned to her. "I should be asking you that."
With a sigh, Alex replied, "I don't know. I'd like to play it by ear for the moment. See how it goes."
"Okay by me. I'll try not to call you Alex."
At that, Alex grasped Olivia's wrist before she stepped out of the car. "No," she said firmly. "I don't want to hear you call me Carolyn. Ever."
Seconds passed as they locked eyes, and Olivia nodded slowly. "Okay. No Carolyn."
Alex let out the breath she'd been holding. They were already heading around the back of the house when Alex remembered the bouquet of roses she'd left belted in the backseat. Olivia waited for her, and Alex followed the sounds of screaming children through the open wooden fence door to the backyard.
"That looks like more than three kids," Olivia said uncertainly.
"Mom!" a voice shouted above the din. "Miss Caro's here!" Ellie rushed toward them, her blonde hair glinting in the late afternoon sun. "Hi! You're here! Mom said you were coming for dinner. Is that your friend?"
"This is Olivia," Alex had time to say, before Ellie had taken Olivia's hand and led her toward the group of suddenly attentive children. Alex watched as she introduced her to them as, "Miss Olivia, Miss Caro's friend," and that they should all be nice to her because she was visiting from "the big city." Olivia immediately knelt down to meet the kids at eye level, and Alex felt a strange warmth fill her belly.
"Caro, baby!" MJ crowed, making her way across the lawn with her arms wide open. "Thank god you're back. I have missed you so!" She stopped a few feet away. "Tell me those are for me."
"They're for you," Alex said, a wide smile tipping her lips.
"Oh, you know the way to a woman's heart," MJ said, and Alex choked out a laugh at the entendre that flitted through her mind. MJ embraced her soundly, and as she laid her cheek on MJ's shoulder, Alex felt the faint sting of tears behind her eyes. Even after all she'd suffered, she would never regret MJ's friendship. It had been her greatest, and sometimes only comfort.
"Sweetheart," MJ said as she pulled away, lifting a thumb to wipe beneath Alex's eye. "What's this?"
Alex shook it off. "Just leaving, I guess. I'm going to miss--"
"Let's not talk about that now," MJ said, hand up in the air. "I'm not ready to declare you a lost cause." She glanced over at Olivia, who now had a boy clinging to her back, and two girls kneeling by her feet while the rest hovered around. "That your friend? My, she's got a way with young ones."
Alex nodded. "I don't know if she learned it or if it came naturally, but she has a gift." Alex had certainly seen it in the crib enough times; children recognized something true in Olivia's eyes, and they responded to that truth even when it cost them dearly.
They continued to watch as Olivia spoke in hushed tones, but once she looked over her shoulder at Alex, she stood amidst great protest. "I'll be back," she heard Olivia tell them, and it felt to Alex that if she hadn't already been deeply in love, she'd have fallen at that moment.
Olivia held out a hand in greeting. "Hi, I'm Olivia Benson."
"Mary Jean Kelly, but you can call me MJ, sweetheart. So nice to meet you. I wish I could say I've heard all about you, but Caro here never mentioned you once in all the time I've known her. How do y'all know each other?"
"College," Olivia said, but Alex knew it was now or never.
"MJ, I need to talk to you about something," she said, her chin dipping low as her voice dropped.
MJ watched her carefully. "Kids, y'all run over to the Hendersons' place for a bit. I'll holler when supper's on," she called, and as a unit, the children raced through the slats of the fence, calling out variations of "see ya later" to Olivia and Alex. "Let's go inside, Buster's makin' the salad. Or at least pretending to slice cucumbers, God knows how far he's gotten."
Buster, red hair glowing from the kitchen's soft light, was leaning against the counter, watching a baseball game on a 13" screen with a beer in hand. As soon as he saw Alex, he brightened. "Caro, come here," he said, and enveloped Alex in a warm bear hug. His bulk had always overwhelmed her, and now was no exception. "So you're leavin' us," he said into her ear, and she nodded sadly. After a moment, she introduced Olivia, and they shook hands firmly. She saw Buster's head lift, appraising Olivia for a few seconds before they parted. "Real name's Bernard," he said, "or Bernie, but Buster stuck in grade school and I never could shake it."
"Caro was telling me she and Olivia here met in college," MJ said.
Alex went straight to the refrigerator and grabbed a few beers, systematically twisting the tops off as she handed them to Olivia and MJ before pulling herself to sit on the countertop. This was the position where she'd spent countless evenings, hearing crazy stories of how MJ and Buster met, of how they'd set a tool shed on fire one fourth of July with illegal fireworks, of how MJ's brother in law had once passed out stone drunk in the middle of the lawn, only to wake up sans clothes in the middle of the night. The culprits of that mischief still remain nameless.
It was only appropriate that she deliver her story to them from this position, where she felt most comfortable.
"We didn't meet in college," Alex said before taking a long pull off her beer.
Olivia took a step closer and leaned up against the counter next to her.
Alex continued, "We worked together in New York, before I came here."
MJ frowned. "I thought you were from Portland, honey. Didn't you say you taught at some school outside--"
"That was a lie," Alex said, and the words echoed above the sounds of the baseball game still playing on the television. Buster leaned over and flicked it off.
"I never lived in Oregon, and I wasn't born in Iowa. I never taught school before my first day at Northeast. I don't even have a teaching degree," Alex managed, almost in one breath.
As Buster and MJ stared, Olivia inched closer, enough so Alex could reach out to rest her hand on Olivia's shoulder. "I lived in New York City almost my whole life. Up until two and a half years ago, I was a lawyer for the District Attorney's office, prosecuting for Manhattan's Special Victims Unit." At the pair's blank look, she clarified, "Sex crimes."
MJ's mouth dropped open.
"I went after a high-ranking lieutenant of a Colombian drug cartel who raped and murdered a Federal agent, and when I wouldn't back off, I was shot and nearly killed. The FBI gave me a choice: put myself and my family at further risk, or go into the Witness Protection Program." She let a few seconds pass as the news sank in. "I think you can guess what I chose."
Alex allowed her fingers to creep into the hair at the back of Olivia's neck, reveling in the feel of the silken threads, and the warm skin beneath her touch.
"Jesus Christ," Buster uttered, his expression matching MJ's.
"I knew there was something, but I never in a million years would have guessed," MJ said. "You were shot?"
Alex nodded. "Twice." Unsure of the wisdom of her decision, she went ahead and unbuttoned the light shirt she wore over a tank top. Turning, she revealed the scars, plainly visible in the light.
"Oh my God," MJ sobbed, her hand to her mouth. Almost instantly, tears slid from her eyes, and Alex hopped down from her perch.
"Oh, MJ, don't," Alex said, embracing her friend, questioning her full disclosure. "I'm fine. Really."
MJ didn't speak, but held on as she cried, while Buster covered his eyes.
Alex felt sure she would shatter, till she felt Olivia's hand caress her lower back, at the waistband of her shorts. She drew strength from the touch, and held MJ tightly.
"You're all right," MJ managed, after a long minute.
"Yes, absolutely. No lasting damage. You've seen me play ball, and I do okay, don't I?" Alex said. She didn't mention that sometimes, when it rained or snowed heavily, or if she pushed herself too hard, her shoulder was stiff as hell.
MJ's eyes were wide. "That's why you couldn't hit a softball for shit at the beginning. Did you come here right after... it happened?"
"Almost. I spent nearly a month at a safe house while they set up a life for me here." The memory stung, as Alex recalled the solitary nights spent in her bedroom during the first months of her stay in Nebraska. It was without a doubt the worst time of her life. At least in Pittsburgh she'd had agents to keep her company, even if they were paid to spend time with her. Nothing compared to the weeks spent alone in her house, watching the snow fall and pile on a driveway she didn't have the strength to shovel.
"And you couldn't tell me," MJ said, her eyes compassionate, understanding in a way Alex couldn't have even hoped for.
She shook her head. "I couldn't take the risk."
"Oh, Caro, baby," MJ cooed, embracing her again.
The weight of deceit lifting from Alex's shoulders, she mumbled, "My name is Alex."
"Say again?" Buster said softly, stepping forward.
Alex pulled away. "Alexandra Reese Cabot. That's my full name. Not Carolyn James." She sniffed, leaning back against the pressure of Olivia's hand. "Alex Cabot."
"Cabot," MJ repeated. "That's how you answered the phone earlier."
"It sounded strange, but I forgot about it in a second. I wasn't paying attention." With a frown creasing her brow, MJ looked at the kitchen floor as though searching for answers. "I thought you had trouble with your hearing when we met, you know. I'd say your name, and you wouldn't even flinch, not even look up. And then, that went away, and I thought nothin' of it. Goddamn, I should have been able to tell," MJ said, distraught.
"Mary Jean," Alex said with some force, "if you had suspected anything, I'd have been in danger. Because if you noticed, someone else could have, and the agents hammered it into my heads that no one, not even the closest friends I'd make, were to suspect the truth, and if I didn't succeed, I'd be relocated." She hadn't mentioned that to Olivia, but now seemed as good a time as any to relay the fact. "I couldn't bear that, not after meeting you, and Buster, and the kids. You were the best thing that could have happened to me," Alex said simply, and she meant every word. "If I couldn't go home to New York, I think sometimes leaving here and starting over again would have killed me."
The room was silent. She finally continued, "When I left a couple of weeks ago, I got a call about the man who... put the hit out on me. He was found dead," she said, leaving the finer points of Velez's brutal murder out of the explanation. "The FBI felt the threat was minimized, and informed me I'd be released from custody as soon as his identity was confirmed. I got the second call on a Sunday, and I flew home Monday morning."
"So you're safe now," MJ said, her voice questioning.
"Yes," she said. As safe as she could be, at least, and that was enough.
"And there's no sick great aunt."
"Nope. Carolyn might have been an orphan, but my mother is alive and well, as are three uncles, four aunts and a few dozen cousins, all of whom accepted me back into the fold with varying degrees of suspicion. It's a little strange to be thought dead for so long-- they finished mourning me a long time ago."
MJ gasped. "They thought you were dead?"
Alex frowned. Had she not mentioned that? "Of course. I couldn't disappear-- they'd have found me. It had to be final, so my mother, all my friends, everyone thought I'd been killed in the shooting. Everyone," Alex said, touching Olivia's shoulder, "but Liv and her partner, Elliot."
Buster finally spoke. "Partner?"
It occurred to Alex that this might take much longer than she anticipated; to explain her whole life in one evening was more daunting now that she was in the middle of it. "She's a detective with SVU. Elliot is her partner in the squad."
MJ took a long drink from her bottle. "I think I need to sit down to hear the rest of this."
An hour and a few dozen questions later, MJ was ready to call the kids back for supper. Buster had grilled burgers and hot dogs while Alex answered their inquiries to the best of her ability, and she was exhausted. As Buster worked at the barbecue and MJ went inside to retrieve a few more drinks, Alex leaned against Olivia at the picnic table.
"You did great," Olivia said, her voice soft.
Alex nodded, pressing her face into Olivia's warm, salty neck. She felt Olivia's arm come around her, and she exhaled as much tension as she could in one breath. She didn't want to pull away, but she had yet to add Olivia to the picture for MJ and Buster, still unsure how they would respond.
"Oh for crying out loud," MJ exclaimed from the doorway, and Alex sat up like a shot. "Are you two together?"
After a moment of hesitation, Alex nodded slightly.
"Well shit, why didn't you tell me? I never would have shoved Alan Baumgarten in your direction if I'd known! I thought you were just shy, honey." She plunked a couple of beers down on the table. "Add that to the growing list of details I didn't know about you."
Alex didn't quite know how to respond, so Olivia did it for her. "She wasn't sure how you'd take it."
"Honey, I've got two 'uncles' in Charleston that have lived together thirty five years. Granted, half the family pretends they're roommates, but I never cared a whit. And sweetie, if I did, you think I'd play on a softball league like the one we're on?"
Alex chuckled. MJ was right; a good third of the players in the league pinged her gaydar, even if many weren't out to the world at large. "I guess you're right. I suppose... I didn't want to tip my hand about anything. It seemed easier, not to say. Not like I had anything to discuss the way things were," Alex said, choosing a particularly nice looking pickle from the tray.
Buster hollered across the fence for the kids to come home for dinner, and as he returned to the table, he asked, "What does that mean?"
"I was... very single when I left New York." She felt the heat of Olivia's thigh against hers, and it seemed that the sweat trickled down her side at an even more rapid pace than before.
"So you and Olivia here," MJ said, motioning with her hand, "that's new?"
Alex grinned, and she saw Olivia look down at the table with a shy smile. "Yes, very. I had to woo Liv away from her fiancé as soon as I got home."
Olivia choked out an embarrassed laugh, and MJ leaned in intently, saying, "Honey, I am going to need this entire story as soon as I send the kids to bed. Which will be immediately after supper."
Dinner was a flurry of activity, as it always was with MJ and Buster. They fed not only their own brood, but at least six (Alex could never keep track) of the neighborhood children as well. Before she'd come to Nebraska, Alex had never envisioned a childhood like the one Ellie, Amanda and Jamie had, in which they roamed freely in the backyards and front yards and woods around the house. Alex's upbringing had been mostly urban, and during the summers at the Vineyard or in the Hamptons, she'd have been scolded if she'd even thought to climb a tree. Here, the kids seemed to live off rolling in the dirt; they knew where all the spare keys were kept. When parents had to work late, there was always someone to feed them mac 'n cheese in a pinch. The ones older than seven stayed out playing till a little past dusk, then someone (usually MJ's next door neighbor, Rob) would send out the call, and the troops would plod in, dirty and exhausted, ready to do it all again the next night.
Alex had never much considered having children, but once in a while, when she held MJ's daughter Amanda in her arms, it seemed like something to think about.
Olivia had sensed her bond with the eight-year-old girl immediately, and let Amanda sit between them during dinner. Amanda was a thoughtful, intelligent child, and although quiet, she always managed to be part of the group. She'd taken to Alex as soon as they met, and Alex had spent many hours reading to Amanda while the other children played video games or watched television.
Light brown eyes gleamed at her in the dying light, through glasses Amanda wore to correct her nearsightedness. "Mama said you were leaving," Amanda said sadly. "She said you wouldn't come back."
Alex's heart contracted, and Olivia reached behind the girl to take Alex's hand for a moment. "I am, sweetheart. I've been away from home for a long time, and I need to go there." Amanda still watched her silently, so Alex continued, "I miss my mom, the way you miss your mom when she has to go away for a few days. You know how that feels?"
Amanda nodded, a tiny line appearing between her brows. "You haven't seen your mama in a long time?"
"No. My home is in New York City. It's only a few hours from here if I fly on a plane. Olivia and I came here this morning, and it didn't take long at all."
"But what about when the new Lemony Snicket book comes out? How will you read it to me?" Amanda said, her priorities clearly in order.
Alex heard Olivia snort softly as she bit into her hamburger. "Let's see," Alex began, "when the next one comes out, you can read a little bit, and then I'll read a little bit, and I can call you on the phone and we can talk about it."
Amanda's eyes brightened. "You'll call me?"
It amazed Alex what a little attention did for the girl's state of mind. "Sure, sweetie. Anytime you like. Just because I'm going away doesn't mean I can't talk to you anymore."
A toothy grin was Alex's reply. "I thought you were going away because you didn't like it here."
Although there was an element of truth to Amanda's innocent words, Alex thought she might have underestimated the bonds she'd made during her years in Norfolk. "I like it here a lot, Amanda. But I like New York too. That doesn't mean I love you less, or that I'll forget about you. What if I said I'd come visit you sometime soon?"
"Do you promise?"
"Yes, I promise. And you know I always keep my promises," Alex said. When she'd said she'd bring the girl a gift from a weekend trip to Lincoln, she'd kept her word; when she said she'd read to her whenever she was over at MJ and Buster's, she'd followed through.
"I know," Amanda said with a little nod. "Okay, I don't mind if you go home. I'll still like you."
Alex slid her arm around the small body and embraced her lightly. "I'll still like you too, kiddo."
"So you broke it off with him right then?"
Alex enjoyed the slight blush darkening Olivia's cheeks, visible even in the dim light of the Japanese lanterns strung across the backyard. "Well, yeah. I'd--" Olivia turned to Alex with love in her eyes. "I'd waited so long... What else could I do?"
Alex's own skin warmed, not with embarrassment. Olivia wasn't always overly effusive with her affections, but she certainly had her moments. She blinked lazily, enjoying the feel of Olivia's fingers threaded with hers beneath the picnic table.
"Geez, no wonder Alan never had a chance," Buster said, leaning back on the bench.
That broke Alex's trance, and she noticed the sly grin on MJ's face. "Yeah."
"And you two never had a... thing before you went back to New York?" she asked.
"Nope," Alex replied.
"Well, this is cause for celebration," MJ announced. "And since I'm out of champagne, I can only offer another beer. Who's in?"
Alex was about to demur when Olivia said, "Go ahead, I'll drive home."
"You think you can find your way back to my place?" Alex asked.
With a chuckle, Olivia said, "I don't think one more beer is going to have you on the floor, Alex. Worst case scenario is that you'll have to point out directions. I think Norfolk's about as big as Harlem anyway--eventually I'd recognize your house."
MJ added, "It's a mile down 1st, make a right at Park. You'll be fine."
"Okay, fine, bring it on," Alex said, enjoying her buzz, and the warmth that her friends' presence was providing.
Buster watched them for a moment. "I still can't get over the fact that you'd never taught before. From the way MJ described your lectures, the students thought you were the second coming."
Alex felt Olivia's silent laugh vibrate through her body. "Chalk it up to a few years making exceptionally supercilious pronouncements before some of the toughest judges in New York City. If I could deliver a convincing closing argument in front of them, twenty students from the middle of nowhere seemed like nothing in comparison."
As soon as she said it, Alex wished she hadn't asked for that third beer. "Christ, Buster, I didn't mean it. This isn't the middle of nowhere."
He only smiled. "I know, cher. But it's sure as hell not New York, or New Orleans either. Sometimes I don't know how MJ dragged me out here, but it's been good for the both of us." He munched on a potato chip. "The kids love it, and I know how lucky we've been with the neighborhood. They're good people."
Olivia asked, "Alex told me you and MJ met in New Orleans."
Alex watched the familiar grin spread across Buster's face. "Yes ma'am, we surely did. Her sister started at Tulane my last year at UNO, and I was always raisin' a little hell. When MJ came down for Mardi Gras that February, I was done for in about five seconds. The sowing of my wild oats ended right quick, and we got married two years later."
"And you came to Nebraska because..."
"I got a biology degree, thinkin' I'd end up teaching, but when we moved back to Charleston, it wasn't like the jobs were flying in my direction. I sent out a ton of resumes, and shortly after MJ got pregnant with Ellie, I heard from Northeast. They were happy to take the both of us on, since MJ's degree was in sociology and they were hurting for teachers in the department."
Olivia nodded. "And you never looked back."
"Well, sure," Buster said as MJ returned with their drinks. "I wanted to move back to New Orleans that whole first year-- I hated it here. Bland food, no Spanish moss, no culture that I knew of, and hell if I could understand what anyone said for a whole month when we arrived. My family had been in Louisiana for three generations, and MJ's in Charleston for two, but in the end, we grew into it. Now, we go south for winter break, and summers, they come here and run around like bats outta hell." He tipped the brown bottle back for a sip. "I had ideas of getting tenured at some Big Ten school, but I don't know, when Ellie was born, things changed. Now I hear horror stories from old pals in academia-- the competition, the backstabbing, the catfights. Fuck that. I like my life the way it is."
"Here, here," MJ said, and they all clinked bottles. Olivia threw her can of soda in for good measure.
"I bet the DA's office is pretty damned competitive," MJ said to Alex. "You got your work cut out for you."
"Oh, I'm not worried. I'm like Buster. I had big dreams when I joined up, and now I just want to do the job and get on with it. My political aspirations went out the window after I came to Nebraska." Being nearly killed, and stuck in a house with nothing to do but think too much tended to help one reconfigure priorities. "Most ADAs seek out Major Cases-- that's where the high profile stories are. Right now, I'd rather stick to SVU."
Olivia snorted. "Not if Donnelly has anything to say about it."
"What do you mean?" Alex asked.
"Liz Donnelly is Alex's boss in the DA's office," Olivia explained before turning to Alex. "She's pretty convinced if you ran in a few years for DA you could take the seat. Said you have a lot of support from the higher-ups, especially considering what you've been through."
Alex felt a frisson of fear course through her. "You mean she thinks coming back from the dead is enough to win votes from the good people of New York."
"Votes for a lesbian."
"Yep," Olivia repeated. "One of those well-connected people, I don't know who, from your Mom's party? Said he saw gay marriage being legalized in the state of New York within five years. Donnelly figures by the time you run it's going to be a non-issue."
Alex swallowed. "What if I don't want to run? Don't I get any say in the matter?"
Olivia tilted her head. "Of course you do."
Her heart pounding, Alex said firmly, "I want to make that decision for myself. No one can make me run for DA." Her voice had risen in volume, and she had to make a conscious effort not to shout.
"Hey," Olivia said, as MJ and Buster looked on in silence. "If you want to quit law and run a car wash, I'm all for it." Squeezing her forearm, Olivia looked intently into her eyes. "It's up to you. You know I want you to stay with SVU indefinitely. Working with Novak's been a bear."
Alex saw the question in Olivia's eyes, but her heart was still racing. Instead, when MJ asked who Novak was, she let Olivia go on about the replacement ADA who somehow had made it to Major Cases with a less than stellar conviction rate.
Breathing carefully, Alex counted backwards from a hundred to help quell the sense of panic that rose up in the most inconvenient of situations.
As Buster and MJ went inside the house to tuck Jamie and Amanda in, Olivia led Alex to the edge of the backyard in the dusky light. "Come on," she said, taking her hand. They crawled through the fence posts and walked into the field extending behind the house, where the land was flat and the grass high. A narrow creek meandered through the field, disappearing into a sparse collection of evergreens that served as a forest.
"I've never seen so many lightening bugs in my entire life," Olivia said. "Looks like there are thousands."
Alex leaned closer to Olivia as they rambled through the grasses. "You've seen them in the city, though, haven't you?"
"Sure, in the Park, and sometimes I see them at Elliot's, if it's hot and humid. But this..." Olivia made a sweeping gesture with her hand. "This is unbelievable."
Alex remembered feeling the same way the first time she'd seen so many of the tiny creatures in one place. All flashing at irregular intervals, the insects put on a natural light show the likes of which she'd never experienced. "Buster told me that the lights are a kind of courtship ritual, similar to what preening peacocks do. But sometimes," Alex said, "the female firefly isn't looking to get it on, and she eats the male."
Olivia stopped in her tracks. "You say the most romantic things, Alex."
With a laugh, Alex folded her arms around Olivia from behind. "As long as I keep you amused, Detective."
Turning in her embrace, Olivia slid her own arms around Alex's waist and lifted her from the ground. "Mm," she hummed, her dark skin damp in the cooling night air. Lips traveled up Alex's neck to behind her ear, and Alex slumped against her. "Are you okay?" Olivia asked.
"Of course," Alex replied, stiffening.
"Ahh, see, that's not as okay as I was hoping for." Sharp teeth fastened on Alex's earlobe and nibbled. "You got upset before, when I mentioned what Donnelly said."
Alex pulled away, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, not noticing when it flopped back to its original position. "I don't know if I want to run for DA. Ever. I'm not ready to make that decision."
Olivia gently tipped Alex's chin up. "No one is going to force you to do anything. You can make your own future, and whatever you decide, I'm all for it." With a bashful smile, she added, "As long as I can be there too."
The tension behind Alex's sternum loosened slightly. "Okay," she nodded. "I don't know why the idea bothered me."
Her head shaking slightly, Olivia replied, "Don't worry, babe. We'll figure it out."
Exhaling, Alex said, "Good." She leaned forward and touched her lips to Olivia's, following her lead when a soft mouth opened beneath hers. Olivia's hand slid up the back of her neck to sift through her hair, and the sensation sent shivers down her spine, and lower. Their kisses deepened as the sound of cicadas and crickets filled the night air, louder than Alex could ever remember hearing. The heat grew so gradually within her it was like molasses running through her veins, thick and slow. When their lips parted, Alex knew her eyes were at half-mast, and Olivia's matched. A tiny light distracted her; a firefly had landed on her arm, and it was busily flashing its phosphorescence to anything that could see it.
"Look," Alex whispered, pulling her arm closer to Olivia's face.
"Hey there," Olivia said to the insect, running her finger along Alex's sensitized skin in front of the bug. It took her cue and crawled onto her finger, seeming to gaze around as it turned this way and that. Another pair of fireflies hovered close; after a moment, the bug's tiny wings lifted, and it was gone.
Alex's nerves tingled with awareness at each point where her body touched Olivia's. "You think that was good luck?" she asked.
Lips pressed to Alex's cheek, exhaling warm breath on her skin. "I hope so," she replied.
They stayed and kissed for a few more minutes, but it was getting so dark Alex was concerned she'd stumble and fall on her way back to the yard. She could see the lanterns and citronella candles across the field, but she'd never been particularly graceful when it came to nature, and she had a weak left ankle to prove it. A one-day hike along the Elkhorn River had put her out of commission for a week, and that was that.
Fireflies continued to swirl and dip around them, as if guiding them on their way back. Alex followed Olivia through the fence and they joined MJ and Buster, who were cuddling at the picnic table.
"You know, Alex," MJ stuttered over her name, "I think I may have made a small error in judgment."
"I planned a little... going away party for you tomorrow night."
"Oh really," Alex smirked. "What a surprise. Did you invite the entire teaching staff or only the ones from my department?"
"Darlin', I sure as hell wasn't expecting you to drop a bomb on me like the one you did, so I don't want to hear any complaining. But," she acquiesced, "if you want me to call it off, I will. It's not that many folks." She paused. "I guess I have to cancel the stripper."
The whole lot of them cracked up. With a sigh, Alex responded, "No, you don't have to. How many did you invite, honestly?"
"About twenty-- your friends from the department, as well as Bio and Soc, plus a few from the softball team. I did mention it to Alan, so you know he'll be here at 7 on the dot."
"It starts at 7?" Alex asked.
"Yep. The plan was to meet here for dinner and surprise you with the party, but I wanted to warn you, especially knowing that the sign I made isn't labeled properly," MJ said with an unenthused sigh. "I don't know if you'll want to... tell everyone. Or anyone."
Reaching across the table, Alex took MJ's hand. "Thank you, MJ. I think we could go ahead with the party. But I-- I'm not ready to explain. I assume they know my supposed 'great aunt' is ill, right?"
"Well, they probably won't even mention it to me." No one likes to talk of the less fortunate at a party. Ruins the mood. "It'll be fine."
"Long as you're sure," Buster said. "MJ does tend to go over the top with these things."
No, I'm not sure. But it's too late now. "Absolutely," she said, delivering her reply as MJ smacked Buster on the arm.
Alex leaned back in the seat and enjoyed watching Olivia as she steered through the empty streets of Norfolk. Although it was only a few minutes past eleven, she was tired. Even the jolt of caffeine from the diet coke in place of her third beer wasn't enough to pep her up. However, she believed she might just have enough energy to work off the simmering tension between her legs, present since their excursion in the field.
"What?" Olivia asked, turning toward her.
Olivia's lips curved in a half-grin. "I didn't know what to think when we arrived here, but I have to tell you, it's not so bad."
After a moment's hesitation, Alex replied, "It would have been better if you'd been with me."
Surprise creased Alex's brow as she watched Olivia's mouth begin to twist in what looked like pain. "Yeah," Olivia said quietly.
Shucking the top of her safety belt, Alex leaned over to kiss Olivia's cheek, keeping her mouth close. "I didn't say it to make you sad, Liv."
Olivia's hand came up to caress the side of her face. "I know, babe." She scratched her short nails along the skin behind Alex's ear, knowing it always made her purr. "You've been back with me for what, a week?" Alex nodded. "But it still seems like I miss you even when you're next to me. Maybe it's habit, or that I hate the time we lost. Or that you were lonely."
"Were you lonely too?" Alex asked curiously.
"It wasn't the same."
"I chose to be alone. But I had Elliot, and the guys, and Cragen. They're family. You didn't choose this life."
"No, I didn't."
When Olivia pulled into the driveway, Alex got out of the car and looked up into the sky, illuminated by millions of stars. The moon had yet to rise, so the tiny lights shone that much more brightly.
Olivia came around the other side of the car and leaned against the door, following Alex's line of vision. "It's amazing."
Watching Olivia's throat arching in the yellow light of the driveway's motion sensor, Alex had a thought. "Liv?"
"Will you come into the backyard with me?"
The fence the FBI had erected surrounding the back of the property wasn't something Alex had ever enjoyed-- it was yet another wall separating her from those around her. But on this night, it felt like it had been built to fulfill one purpose only. Alex latched the door behind them, and the other motion sensor clicked on above the back deck. It was mounted a few inches above the door, well within reach if she stood on a chair. "Wait here," she said to Olivia.
Pulling one of the creaky wicker chairs over, Alex stood and unscrewed one large, round bulb, then the other. "Alex," Olivia said, and Alex heard the comprehension creeping into her tone already.
"What are you doing?"
She got off the chair and moved it out of her way, walking slowly toward Olivia. "I used to have this idea. You could call it a dream, I guess, or a fantasy," she began, laying one hand against Olivia's chest and pushing her backwards.
"Was I part of this fantasy?" Olivia asked, swallowing once.
"You were indeed. But this," she tugged on the bottom of Olivia's shirt, "was not." She lifted it up and off, smiling as Olivia quickly looked around. "It's dark, and the fence is high enough."
"Does it really matter?"
She could see Olivia's uncertainty even in the darkness, as she bit her lip. "Should I get a blanket?"
"The grass is soft," Alex replied, and it was. The lawn was in perfect condition, a little taller than that of others on the street, who seemed to favor a yard that resembled a golfing green. Alex preferred the softness of longer grass beneath her feet; she enjoyed the cushion and coolness it provided on the hotter days of summer. The scent of it was already in her nose as they lay down in the dampness, and combined with Olivia, it was the perfect fragrance. Alex removed the thin layers separating her from her lover, and soon they were bare, the condensation slicking their skin. Alex licked a path across Olivia's breasts, treasuring every breath she took as she raked her teeth against pebbled nipples. Olivia squirmed beneath her, tiny noises the only sounds betraying her arousal.
"I've never made love outside before," Olivia breathed, her eyes wide open as she stared up at the sky.
"What?" Alex said, slowing her path down Olivia's chest. "Not even when you were a teenager?"
She shook her head. "No. It's--" she gasped as Alex's mouth grazed her hip--"different."
"Different bad?" Alex asked quickly, certain she didn't want to live out her fantasy if Olivia didn't take pleasure in it too.
Olivia laughed, looking down. "No, God no. It's very, very good." Knees spread further, and Alex followed, hands stretching up as her lips dipped between Olivia's legs. Olivia arched at the touch, and Alex noticed her sense of smell was even more powerful than before; she could identify the roses, the grass, the earth beneath her, the freesia behind the fence in her neighbor's yard. And above it all was Olivia, always Olivia, the best thing in her life, the only thing she wanted to hold on to. She inhaled her, wanting to move inside, devour, inhabit her body, until Olivia stiffened and exhaled, the flesh around Alex's fingers tightening unmistakably. She curled her fingers after a moment, and was rewarded with another squeeze, stronger than the first. Olivia emitted a muffled cry, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth.
Alex waited patiently until her lover slumped, her body melting into the earth. Her breath slowed, and Alex crawled up to straddle her. Olivia met her eyes as Alex spread her wetness low on Olivia's belly, where it mingled with dew and traces of sweat. She began to move, until Olivia reached down and slid her fingers where Alex needed them most. Lurching forward, she grasped the strong wrist, moving it against her in just the right cadence.
"Don't you want to see the sky?" Olivia said, her voice hoarse.
"No, I want to watch you," Alex replied, and Olivia's mouth parted a bit. Alex's eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and she could see Olivia perfectly; how her hair fanned out on the ground, how her eyes seemed to reflect the starlight. Her lips were shiny, and she leaned down to kiss them, tongue snaking out. With one hand pulling at the grass, she rocked against Olivia, murmuring, "You are so beautiful."
"Alex," Olivia moaned softly, and her hand shifted, moving inside, while the other traveled along her skin, joining its mate after a long minute of exploration.
Alex grit her teeth against the sensation, wanting it to last longer, everything was so good... With both hands buried in the dirt, Alex exploded, her thighs shaking as the world seemed to magnify around her. She knew she cried out; in the back of her mind, she heard a dog barking, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered except Olivia, and the way she looked, and smelled, and loved her.
She fell against Olivia, panting, exhausted. Quickly, Olivia rolled her over, sliding her smooth thighs around one of Alex's. "Can I?" she asked, her voice desperate.
"Oh, yes," Alex groaned, and after a few thrusts, Olivia came again, with Alex's hands grasping her hips. Olivia's entire body quivered above her, until she gently coaxed her lower. Her weight was blanket of warmth against the chill air, and Alex wrapped her arms around broad shoulders and gazed up at the sky.
Alex startled herself awake by rolling over and bumping her nose into Olivia's shoulder. She pressed her hand to the sore appendage as Olivia jerked out of a sound sleep. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"What is it?"
"I bumped my nose."
Olivia's head fell back to the pillow. "This bed's smaller than mine was. It's partly my fault-- I'm taking up too much room."
Alex laid her head on Olivia's shoulder. "You're not. I'm just... restless." Fingers wove through her hair, pulling gently on the strands. After living for so long without much physical contact beyond hugs from MJ and family, Alex was making up for it rapidly. It had come as a bit of a surprise that Olivia was so tactile, as she'd seen and experienced only brief instances of it during her time with SVU. But Olivia could spend an hour scratching her back, playing with her hair, rubbing her feet. It was a revelation, and Alex relished the attention.
"Close your eyes," Olivia said, and Alex did, as blunt fingernails scraped at her scalp.
The next thing she knew, the room was bright. She grabbed her glasses off the nightstand to check the clock, which read a few minutes before nine. The shower was running, and she yawned loudly as she made her way into the bathroom.
Behind the cloudy shower curtain, she watched the curves and shapes of Olivia's body moving. "Morning," she said, her voice still gravelly with sleep.
Olivia poked her head through the break in the curtain. "Hey. How are you?"
"Okay," Alex said, looking at her reflection in the mirror. She ran a hand through her hair. "I slept well after you helped me fall back to sleep."
"Aw, you're easy," Olivia replied before disappearing again to rinse her hair.
Alex turned her gaze back to Olivia, wanting to tell her how grateful she was for her presence, for her love, but she felt silly for being so emotional. Instead, she said, "I've thought about growing my hair out."
"That's okay with me," Olivia called over the sound of the water.
"Do you like it longer?"
"I'd like it no matter what, but I'll admit, I wouldn't mind if you grew out your bangs. They hide your face."
Alex pulled a long piece of hair down her forehead. "Yeah," she breathed, then ignored her reflection and started getting ready for the day.
A few minutes later, Olivia stepped out of the shower and dried off, toweling her hair vigorously. She wrapped the towel around her waist and stepped next to Alex, kissing her cheek in good morning.
In the mirror Alex watched the water drip down Olivia's chest, traversing her breasts and sliding down her ribcage into the cotton. "Nice towel," she said.
"Trying to distract me?" Alex asked, pushing down the encroaching wave of depression.
Olivia nibbled her neck. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Alex finally stepped into the circle of her arms, pressing her face against the warm, damp skin of Olivia's collarbone. Anger tinged the edges of her sadness, rage at the fact that every aspect of her life still seemed as though it were caught in the crossfire of a conflict she had no part of. Velez was dead, but even now she blamed him-- it was his fault she had to abandon her known world again, his fault that her heart was shredding inside her chest. Tears pricked her eyes, and she held on tighter.
"Tell me," Olivia said.
"I don't know how," Alex uttered, her voice shaking with emotion. "I didn't expect this."
It took effort to get the words out. "To feel so badly," she said. "I imagined being overjoyed leaving everything, but I keep thinking of what I'll miss; my friends, my students, the garden. Even small things, like how it takes five minutes to get to work, or how my neighbor Joan brings ridiculously oversized vats of soup if she hears I'm sick. How the dog down the street comes to visit when I'm watering the lawn, and jumps at the stream of water like it's a game," she finished, her voice losing steam near the end.
"It's okay, babe. It's natural to feel--"
"None of this is natural," Alex said, jerking away and wiping at her cheeks angrily. "I should never have had to come here. Two and a half fucking years went by, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing. It was a waste; all the pain I went through was completely pointless. Now I'm leaving, which was what I dreamed about every goddamned night, and I'm terrified that I won't be able to go back to the way I was." She pressed her palms to her eyes, as if to push the tears back in. "I don't know what's happening to me."
She waited for Olivia's touch. When it didn't come, she looked up to find Olivia about a foot away, watching her carefully in anticipation. "I'm here," Olivia said, uncertainty in her voice.
Alex returned to her arms, tears flowing freely. Olivia's embrace seemed to swallow her up, and she allowed herself to disappear, knowing Olivia would be there when she surfaced.
When she finally came up for air, Olivia's back was slick with tears. Alex gasped a little, almost shocked by the brightness of the bathroom when she glanced around. She swiped at her nose with her hand, until Olivia handed her a damp washcloth. Taking it gratefully, she pressed the coolness to her eyes before wiping away the remnants of her breakdown. Olivia's hands were moving in small circles at her hips, providing comfort and strength.
"I-- I'm sorry."
Deft fingers pushed Alex's hair away from her face. "Lean on me, Alex. You don't have to hide what you feel. Ever." Alex nodded, exhaling as she listened. "You were so together at home-- it was like you'd never left. I worried there was something you weren't telling me."
Alex blew her nose. "I felt fine, till we got on the plane." Backing up, she leaned against the sink. "Last night was wonderful. All of it." Her mouth curled at the memory of being with Olivia under the stars. "Today, though-- it seems like it's going to be impossible."
"Saying goodbye," she said. When she'd first left New York, two minutes had been all the time she'd had with Olivia and Elliot before being spirited away. Then recovering took up most of her energy, and then she was distracted by the logistics of adopting an entirely new identity. The fear and isolation were always with her-- missing her mother, her family, her friends Olivia. But much of that had to be submerged, along with pieces of her personality, as she tried to adjust to her new existence. She'd ignored the pain, ignored the fact that she couldn't let go of her old life, or the people in it. It was easier not to feel. To do so would have been... unbearable.
"I wasn't happy here. What's wrong with me?" Alex couldn't keep the plea from her voice.
Olivia's eyes were liquid, blending a thousand expressions of acceptance into one glance. "Nothing," she said simply. "You're leaving behind more than a life, Alex. I don't think I understood that until I got here, and saw your home, and met your friends. They knew Carolyn, who was like you, but not. Now you're Alex again, but not the same. I knew it the moment I saw you that first time, in the station. Not simply because of your hair, or your clothes-- it's in your voice, the set of your shoulders, the way you walk." Olivia snorted, shaking her head. "Listen to me, I sound like I'm shrinking you." She touched Alex's cheek lightly. "I can't know what you feel, Alex, but I know it hurts, and I'll do everything I can to help. Anything."
Her jaw betraying a slight quiver, Alex managed to say, "It's hard."
"Maybe once you close the door, it will get better."
"I hope so."
They stood in silence for a long moment. Something bothered her, though; something Olivia had said. "Liv," she began tentatively, "if I'm different, how can you love me?" How can you know me if I don't know myself?
The smile that broke across Olivia's face was complete, the light in her eyes matching it. "I'm different too, Alex. A million things have happened to change me since you went away. How can you love me?"
The words slipped effortlessly from her tongue. "I just do."
Olivia nodded. "See?"
The grey tint clouding Alex's vision dissipated in seconds as relief raced through her. Alex's heart untwisted a piece of itself, and it even seemed that her breath came easier. "I just love you," Alex repeated.
"Like I love you," Olivia said, and then her arms were around Alex, and the rest of it fell away, as though she'd shed a layer of skin, of sorrow and heaviness, that she hadn't even noticed she carried.
Olivia put Alex in the shower with a kiss, and Alex took a long time washing her hair and soaping her skin. When she finally stepped out, the bathroom was filled with steam. A post-it was stuck to the middle of the mirror, barely hanging on due to the humidity. "HOT COFFEE," the note read, and beneath the words was an arrow pointing south.
A few minutes later, she followed the scent to the kitchen and poured herself a cup. It was exactly the right temperature-- cool enough to keep from scalding her tongue, but hot enough to burn a path right down into her chest. The door to the back deck was cracked, and through its small window she could see Olivia's crossed ankles on a wicker chair.
"Hey," she said, venturing out into the warmth. The thermostat read 75, and if they were lucky, it wouldn't stay the same as the day progressed. "Thanks for the coffee."
"I thought you said they didn't have good coffee here," Olivia said.
"Well, I make good coffee," Alex replied, "and so do you. Can't say the same for the rest of town."
"Mm." Olivia sipped from her mug.
They sat quietly together, while Alex looked out on the lawn, imagining she could see the places where Olivia's body had pressed into the grass the night before. "You're good for me, Liv."
Olivia turned to her. "I want to be," she said softly.
Alex reached out, and Olivia took her hand, kissing Alex's fingertips one by one. Alex said, "There's a place I'd like to take you for breakfast." She had food in the house, but the perishables were nearly out of date, the bread stale in the breadbox.
They decided to walk to the diner where Alex had enjoyed countless meals over the years. She gestured for Olivia to cross to the shady side of the tree-lined street. "At first, I made all my meals at home," Alex said, hard pressed to keep her hand from creeping into Olivia's. "I was still nervous about going out; I'd drive to work, stop at the store afterwards, and head home. It felt foreign to buy food and keep it. You know New Yorkers-- buy enough for the evening, or get take out. I went to the grocery store every day for two weeks before one of the checkers asked me if I didn't have a refrigerator." Olivia laughed, nodding in agreement.
"I finally got sick of my own weak attempts at cooking, and tried the Derby." She pointed down the block to a place on the corner, with a hat shaped sign hanging over the door. "I brought a book. They didn't bother me, so I kept going back." She remembered how Sarah hadn't asked questions; she just pointed to a table and brought her coffee. Weeks had gone by before Alex opened up enough to share her new name with the woman.
"But they know you now," Olivia said.
"Yeah. Sarah has been working there at least fifteen years. She's married to the manager, Bob, but she does most of the actual managing. Bob's not much of a people person." Her encounters with the quiet man had led her to speculate over what brought the two opposites together, but it seemed to work for them. Not once had she ever seen them argue, even on the restaurant's busiest days. "I know most of the other staff too, but Sarah always takes care of me." They reached the corner, and Alex pushed the door open as little bell over her head tinkled.
"Oh my word," Sarah said, glancing up from behind the counter. "Carolyn, I thought you'd gone for good!"
"Not yet. I wanted to stop in before... we leave tomorrow."
"So it's true?" Sarah asked, coming around the counter and heading straight for Alex. "You're moving?"
"Yeah. You've heard?"
Sarah smiled. "When I didn't see you for a few days I asked Gracie, and she said you were gone already. What's happening, hon?" She led them to her regular table, laying down a menu in front of Olivia. "And who's this?"
Olivia grinned, holding out her hand. "Olivia."
"Olivia's helping me move," Alex said simply.
"Ah," Sarah said, as though that explained everything. "Before I forget, you two want coffee?"
"Orange juice for me, and water," Alex said, and Olivia nodded for the same.
Not thirty seconds later Sarah was back, and as soon as she had laid the glasses down, she pulled up a chair. "Okay, spill. Grace mentioned something about a relative in New York. And if I'm being indelicate, kick me."
"My great aunt is ill, so I'll be taking care of her," Alex said, the lie falling easily from her lips. "It's not as bad as it could be, but I want to be there, since she's all the family I have."
With a sympathetic pat to her hand, Sarah said, "I know how hard that is. Bob took care of my mother in law for the first few years of our marriage, till she passed, God rest her soul. It can be really tough unless you have help. Olivia, do you live in New York? I'd hate to think of Carolyn all alone in that big city, with no one to look out for her."
"I do," Olivia replied. "Don't worry, I'll have my eye on her."
"I'm glad to hear it."
They chatted some more, though Alex did her best to steer Sarah away from asking too many questions. Fortunately, Sarah was quite happy to relay all the recent neighborhood news to her, and only inquired of Olivia how she knew Alex, and what she did for a living. Sarah had always seemed to know precisely how far to push, and today was no exception.
"What do you recommend?" Olivia asked her, looking over the menu.
"If you like eggs benedict, they have an amazing hollandaise. I'm getting that."
"And the hashbrowns."
"Let's make it two."
Olivia cooed over the breakfast plate when it arrived, and Alex rather enjoyed watching her shovel it in as though she hadn't eaten in days. "What?" Olivia said, through a mouthful of eggs.
"Nothing," Alex said with a smile.
The restaurant was full by the time they finished; the lunch crowd was filtering in. She saw a few familiar faces, and waved to them each in turn. It was very much a small town, and in that way, it had always reminded her of New York. There, she'd known everyone at her local haunts by name, from the men who ran her deli, to the waiters at the bar next to her building, to the woman who sold her the Times on Sunday. Six years in her apartment had made her a fixture in the neighborhood, and she thought if she went back, they would still remember her. In fact, she knew they would. Norfolk was like that too-- people had long memories.
Before they left, Bob came out of the back office to wish Alex farewell, and they shared an awkward hug. He quickly disappeared into the office again, and Sarah watched him as he left. "He always liked you, hon, even if he didn't show it so much," Sarah said.
"You can tell him I like him too," Alex replied.
"He thought you had a colorful past, and that I should handle you with kid gloves, otherwise you'd bolt and we'd never see you again."
Alex's eyes widened. "He said that?"
"First time you came in." Shaking her head, Sarah laughed a little. "He has some interesting ideas about people."
Blinking, Alex took a deep breath. "Tell him something for me, Sarah?"
"Just say... he was right," she said.
Sarah's eyes narrowed. "I will, hon. You take care, now, and when you're back in town, come see us, okay?"
"I will, Sarah. Thanks, for everything." They exchanged a hug, and Sarah even hugged Olivia. "Bye," she said, listening for the tinkle of the bell as they walked out the door.
Once outside, Alex stood at the sidewalk for a minute, staring at the pavement. Olivia's hand landed against her neck, its warmth seeping into her bones. When she looked up, brown eyes gazed into hers. "Ready?" Olivia asked.
They spent a couple of hours going through Alex's things at the house, picking out the few items to be packed up and sent to New York. An agent had promised to send the boxes to the city when the rest of the house was emptied, and Alex was relieved to miss that event.
In the end, four medium sized boxes were stacked near the staircase, filled with books, papers, photographs, gifts from friends and students, and a few pieces of clothing. Everything else would stay, and disappear into the ether when the agents were through. She wondered if some other poor soul in the program would inherit her things, and in a fit of whimsy, she used a small penknife to carve her initials into the drawer of her desk, next to another set that had been inscribed countless years before.
As she washed her hands at the kitchen sink, she saw Olivia outside, snapping pictures of the garden. She watched as Olivia knelt in the grass, taking close ups of some of her best roses. She is such a romantic.
Alex did a final once over, satisfied that she'd remembered everything worth keeping. A stroll around the house found Olivia sitting on the front stoop, playing with the dog from down the street. "Hey Chauncey," Alex said, and in a second, the dog was at her knee, jumping for attention. She sat next to Olivia and rubbed the small dog's belly as he rolled on the ground. "He lives over there," Alex said, indicating the ranch house a few doors down. "Leash laws aren't as stringent in Nebraska."
"The world is his yard, eh?" Olivia said, scratching behind Chauncey's ears.
"I hope whoever moves in here likes dogs, since he came over almost every night to keep me company while I was planting."
"I'm sure they will be," Olivia assured her. After a moment, she asked, "We're doing okay so far, aren't we?"
Alex nodded. "We are. I'm glad to be done packing. There are a few more things I want to grab at the college, and I promised you a tour."
"You know I don't need to see the whole place, Alex," Olivia said. "Only what you want to show me. If you decide all you'd like to do is stop for five minutes, I'd be fine with that."
The sun felt good on Alex's face as she leaned in to kiss Olivia's mouth. It felt right to kiss her in this place, in front of anyone who happened to be passing by. "I'll see how it goes," she said, her voice whisper thin. "Can we go now?" So I can get it over with?
"Sure. I'll get the keys."
In the driveway, Alex finally voiced her opinion of the Toyota. "I don't like this car."
Olivia stopped as she opened the door, staring at Alex over the silver roof. "Why didn't you say so?"
Blinking against the sun, Alex replied weakly, "I don't know." It was easier to plead ignorance than to admit she'd been worried Olivia would think her frivolous or silly.
"Well," Olivia said, looking around at nothing in particular, "is there a Hertz in town?"
"Then let's take it back and get something else."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course. It's only a car-- I took it because it was at the top of the rental list." Olivia slid into the seat, and Alex followed suit.
"How do you feel about convertibles?" Alex asked.
Barely fifteen minutes later, Alex shot out of the Hertz parking lot in a brand new, baby blue Volkswagen bug, top down, with her short hair blowing in the wind. The tires screeched briefly when she turned onto the street, and she tried to hide her embarrassment.
"Nice lead foot, Counselor."
This was what she'd wanted yesterday, and as she sat back in the seat, she considered what had kept her from giving her opinion about the Toyota when she had the chance. At the time, she'd told herself she hadn't had time to say something when Olivia asked for the sedan, but she knew it was a lie. Maybe saying it aloud would clear things up, both for her and for Olivia. "I was afraid to tell you I wanted a different car, yesterday."
Olivia frowned. "Why?"
Alex considered it. The wind was loud in her ears, but it felt good to be so exposed for a change. "I'm not used to it."
"Making choices." Saying what I want, and having someone listen.
Watching her, Olivia set her chin in hand. "The FBI picked out your whole life without asking."
"Yes." She'd liked the Passat she drove, but wouldn't have chosen it for herself. She'd liked the house she lived in, but the interior needed a major overhaul, and if given the option, would have picked something smaller, cozier.
"Sweetie, when we're home, I need a favor."
Alex glanced away from the road briefly to focus on Olivia. "Anything."
"Don't leave all the decisions to me."
Alex chewed the inside of her lip. "I won't."
"You have, though. All week."
"And I thought I was being so subtle," Alex replied dryly.
"I'm a detective, babe," Olivia smirked. "Besides, when it comes to you, I pay extremely close attention."
The affection in Olivia's voice lessened Alex's sensitivity. "Like I said, Liv, you're good for me." She brushed Olivia's cheek with her thumb. "I'll try to speak up."
"Good girl." Sitting back against the plush leather, Olivia added, "Besides, this car's way cooler than the Camry. I assume you're wearing sunblock."
Alex realized that of all the things the detective had noticed, she hadn't picked up on the fact that each of Alex's moisturizers was fortified with SPF 30 protection. "Of course. I don't leave home without it."
"Can I use some?"
"Help yourself, it's in the front pocket of my bag."
When Alex made the turn onto the campus grounds, the pang of sorrow she'd expected never materialized. Instead, she felt light as she navigated the streets, and it almost seemed like a pleasure when she pulled into the faculty parking lot outside the building that housed the English department. "This is it."
With Olivia at her side, Alex walked through the quiet halls leading to her office. It was larger than the space she'd merited as an ADA, though that wasn't hard to believe. The office door was usually bare except for her course schedule and office hours, but to her surprise, it was covered with 3x5 notecards bearing small, heart shaped stickers. "What--" she exclaimed, pulling a few cards off the window and reading them.
Thanks, Ms. James-- I couldn't have passed E380 without you.
I'll miss you, Carolyn.
This place won't be the same without you.
And a stack more, just like them.
As she began to remove the notecards carefully, she felt Olivia's lips touch the back of her neck. "You made a difference," Olivia whispered, her breath warm on Alex's ear.
Once Alex removed them all, she opened the door to her office space. Her desk was clear, since she hadn't really gotten started with the two courses she was to teach for the summer session. The file cabinets held attendance sheets, copies of papers, her own personnel files. Seconds ticked by, and with Olivia pressing close against her back, she pulled the door shut. "There's nothing else here I need," she said, sliding the notes into her purse.
Quietly, she and Olivia made their way back to the car. When she backed out of the parking space, instead of going north toward the farm, she veered back on the main road, and headed home.
To pass the rest of the day, Alex curled in Olivia's arms, watching whatever struck Olivia's fancy on television. All she wanted was to lie close to her lover, forgetting everything, and Olivia made it easy. When a John Wayne film interrupted Olivia's incessant channel surfing, Alex was able to close her eyes and drift. Her interrupted night's rest caught up to her, and with her cheek pressed to Olivia's breast, she allowed the steady heartbeat to lull her to sleep.
When she awoke, Olivia was still watching the film, nearly over. Alex licked her lips, and Olivia offered her a glass of water. "Thanks," she said, drinking thirstily.
"You slept better this afternoon than you did overnight."
"Did I keep you awake last night?"
Olivia shrugged. "Your sleeping patterns have been... off the past few days. I wasn't surprised."
Alex handed the glass back to Olivia, who set it on the floor. "Sorry," she said, honestly apologetic. She hadn't realized her uneasiness was affecting Olivia.
"I'm not," Olivia responded, turning her long body so Alex was lying atop her. "For a long time after you were gone, I didn't sleep through the night. I dreamed about you... being shot. Bleeding on the sidewalk. Sometimes I followed you into the operating room with the surgeons, screaming while you died on the table. Once in a while, I was following Velez, until he found you in some nameless town, and in the end I was always too late." She filtered her fingers through Alex's hair. "The lucky nights I dreamt about kissing you, or making love to you, but those only came after really good days, and you know how often those come in SVU."
"Yeah," Alex said.
"What I'm saying is that any price I pay to have you back is worth it. Less sleep is loose change as far as I'm concerned."
Alex inched closer and pressed her lips to Olivia's, accepting the sentiment as truth. "I love you, Olivia," Alex said. To her embarrassment, lines of poetry skirted through her mind; years of teaching English had unearthed her romantic streak, and it would be a challenge to push it back down.
Olivia's brown eyes brightened. "I love you."
As luck would have it, Alex's cellphone rang from inside her bag near the front door. With a great frown of disappointment, Alex rolled off the couch to get it, rifling through the pockets. Holding the tiny phone up, she read the display. "It's my mom."
Olivia grinned. "Naturally."
She accepted the call. "Hi Mom."
"Hello, darling. How are you?"
"We're okay. How about you?"
"Oh, everything's fine. Gerald's on his way over-- we're going to meet everyone at Le Cirque before the bridge game. I'm looking forward to it."
"I'm not surprised. Gerald told me you cleaned everyone out a few weeks ago. Be careful, Mother, if you're too good you'll put an end to your weekend games."
"Oh, pish tosh. They can afford a few hundred in losses once a week. Besides, Gerald assures me his luck is about to change."
Alex's eyebrow lifted. She was curious to know what exactly was going on between her mother and her "friend" Gerald; he'd been at Alex's welcome home party, and had seemed as happy to see her as an old friend. She hadn't picked up any sort of homosexual vibe from him either, so it was entirely possible her mother was beginning a new romance. That was fine with Alex, as long as he wasn't a gold digger.
"Tell him I say hello."
"Of course I will." Her mother paused for a moment. "Darling, are you really all right? You sound a bit under the weather."
Leave it to her mother to be able to sense her state of mind. "We're okay Mom, don't worry."
"Will you and Olivia still be able to make supper tomorrow?"
"Absolutely. I wish I could be there tonight," Alex said, the admission truer than she could have imagined. Now that she'd had a taste of being near her mother again, she was missing her all the more.
"It's one more day, Alexandra. Tomorrow begins a new chapter, don't you agree?"
Alex blinked back tears. "Yeah. I can handle another day."
"Will there be a car to pick you up at the airport?"
"Hold on." She looked toward the sofa. "Liv, would you mind if I booked a car service to pick us up? I forgot when we left."
"No, but we can always take a cab," Olivia reasoned.
"I'll have Harry call the car service," Alex heard her mother say. "When does your flight land?"
"It's Continental, arriving at 3:15."
"Consider it done, dear. I'll expect you at 6:30, but if you're late, don't fret. Gerald will be here to keep me company. He's just arrived as it is, darling, so I've got to run."
"Have fun tonight, Mother. See you tomorrow."
"Enjoy your evening. Give Olivia a kiss for me."
"I will. Bye."
Alex flopped back down on the couch, snuggling into Olivia's embrace. She kissed a soft cheek noisily. "That's from my mom." She added a firm kiss to Olivia's mouth, slipping her tongue inside for good measure. "And that's from me."
"Mm, thank you." Olivia returned the kiss, hugging Alex close. "You know, I bet tonight's going to be fun."
"You think so?"
"MJ and Buster seem like the type that know how to throw a good party."
Recalling some of their wilder blowouts, Alex had to agree. "You're right about that. I'm nervous."
"Shake it off, Counselor. You've been through worse."
She gazed into Olivia's eyes. "I'm really glad you came with me, Liv."
Later, Alex finished dressing for the party in an outfit that was a far cry from the red dress she'd worn to her mother's welcome home. She pulled her belt tighter around her waist, making sure the cotton v-necked shirt wasn't tucked in. "Liv, you almost ready?"
"Yeah," Olivia said from inside the bathroom. She was dressed in black jeans and a red short-sleeved tee that showed off the sleek muscles of her arms. When she stepped into the bedroom, she gawked at Alex. "Are those cargo pants?"
Alex smiled. "Yes. Don't look so surprised. Carolyn's wardrobe didn't consist entirely of linen and silk, sweetheart."
"I'm not-- I mean, well, okay, I'm surprised." Olivia's lips curved up into a lecherous grin. "They look great on you."
"Thanks. I'll be sure to pack them." She adjusted her bra strap. "Just be prepared for everyone to ask where you're from."
A small line creased Olivia's brow. "Why?"
"Because you don't look like you're from around here."
Looking down at herself, Olivia said, "I'm wearing jeans and a shirt."
"Yeah, but..." Alex tried to put the difference into words. "It's how you carry yourself. They won't know you're a cop, but they'll sense it. You're city folk, babe. Don't be ashamed."
"Could they tell with you?"
Leaning against the dresser, Alex replied, "I don't think so. People thought I was shy. Most didn't even notice me-- at work I sat in on two staff meetings before the department head thought to make introductions."
Olivia shook her head. "God. I..." She held Alex's face in her hands. "I can't imagine anyone not noticing you."
Her tone sent shivers down Alex's spine. The intensity struck her-- this connection they'd forged was powerful, almost frighteningly so. How had she lived without it for so long? She felt driven to break the tension, afraid if she didn't, they'd never make it out of the bedroom. "You just can't believe anyone would think I was shy."
With a snicker, Olivia kissed her gently. "Also true."
She kept the top down on the car as they drove to MJ's. Her heart pounded uneasily-- knowing about the impending surprise party was causing her more anxiety than anything she'd experienced over the weekend. As they pulled into the driveway, Alex glanced around, not seeing a large number of vehicles in the neighborhood. That's a good sign. Maybe there won't be many people.
Olivia squeezed her hand. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
At five minutes after seven, she gave the door a solid knock. It swung open, and the word, "Surprise!" boomed out, the sheer volume of it stunning her. Stepping into the entryway, she questioned how so many bodies had packed the room. MJ attacked her with a hug, whispering in her ear, "It was only supposed to be about 25 people, but word got out. Forgive me?"
Alex pulled away. "How many?"
"I have no idea. Maybe a hundred? Come on in, you too, Liv."
In seconds, Alex was swarmed by well-wishers patting her on the back, rubbing her arm, shaking her hand. They were all talking at once, and she felt overwhelmed. Fortunately, Olivia stayed right behind her as they made their way into the house. A few of her softball teammates were standing in a group, and they all came forward to offer hugs. "I can't believe our star second base is leaving! The season's barely started!" Leslie declared as she wrapped her arms around Alex.
"Come on, Caro, can't you stay for a few more weeks? We need you!" Macy said with a small frown.
Alex brushed it off. "Please, I know you kicked ass on second during the last game, MJ told me. You'll be fine."
Elizabeth moved in for a hug as well. "Sometimes the needs of the softball team outweigh family obligations, Caro. Maybe we can fly you in once a week."
"You all are so sweet. Believe me, if I could be two people..." The words slipped out of her mouth without a thought. "I'd leave my other half here to stay." She looked at the faces of the women who had been such a big part of Carolyn James' life, even if she hadn't realized how important they'd been at the time. "I'll miss you all."
"We'll miss you, kid," said Alexis, their catcher, as she embraced her.
When Alex stepped back, she realized Olivia had disappeared. Across the room, she noticed Ellie had already claimed a position on Olivia's back, and the two were being hauled out into the backyard with Amanda and Jamie leading the way. Olivia caught her eye with a grin and a little wave, and Alex turned back to her crew. "Where's Alison? I was hoping she'd be here."
"She'll be late," Elizabeth said. "She has a hot date tonight, and she didn't want to break it."
"Oh really?" Alex drawled. "Do tell."
After barely more than half an hour, Alex was nearly hoarse. Fortunately, MJ shoved a glass of water in her hand, which she drank quickly, followed by an exceptionally large glass of white wine. "Drink this a little more slowly, but not by much," MJ said. "Buster's got a couple of cases in the back, so do your worst."
"MJ, this is amazing. Thank you."
"Oh, honey," MJ said, locking eyes with Alex. "It's my pleasure. Knowing you has been my pleasure, and I can't tell you how much of a hole you're going to leave in all our lives. But I know, especially after meeting Olivia and hearing about all you've been through, that you're going where you need to be." She took Alex's hand. "You'll be happy in New York, but you'll always have a place here."
The tears welled in Alex's eyes, and she pulled MJ close. "You were my first friend here, MJ, and the best. I'll never forget that."
They held tightly to one another, until MJ broke the embrace, waving a hand in front of her cheeks. "Don't honey, my mascara will run, and you know how I feel about that."
Alex laughed, wiping a stray tear from the corner of her eye. "I know."
"You might want to go rescue your sweetheart. Last I saw Ellie had her climbing the oak tree in the yard."
"Oh God. Thanks." She kissed MJ's cheek on impulse.
"There's Buster, sugar, you'd better run before he gets jealous."
Alex turned and saw him watching them fondly. With a goofy smile, she waggled her eyebrows in his direction, and he smacked a fist into his palm with a faux-menacing expression. "Why I oughta..." she heard him yell across the room, so she took off before she ended up in a wrestling match in the middle of the floor. She wouldn't put anything past Buster on her last night in town.
Outside, her elderly neighbors Joan and Nelson caught her on the way to the tree. "Oh, Carolyn, I was so worried we'd missed you altogether! When your house stayed empty for so long, I thought you'd never come back," she said sadly.
"I know, and I apologize. I-- I didn't have a chance to leave word about my aunt. I hope you didn't worry."
"I heard from Sarah what happened, dear. I'm so sorry to hear she's ill. It's very good of you to uproot yourself on her behalf. I'm sure that since you're her only family, she'll be so grateful to have you."
Alex swallowed. "Yes," she said, unwilling to lie more than necessary.
She was able to make her goodbyes to Joan and Nelson without more tears, and it was a relief to finally make it to the huge oak in the center of the yard. Though it was getting dark out, she could identify a few human shaped forms in the branches, one of which seemed larger than the others. Jamie was at the base of the tree, looking up.
When he saw Alex, he ran into her arms. "Hey, Jamie. Whatcha doing?"
"Watching Ellie and Amanda and 'Livia. They're up there." He pointed. She followed the line of his finger, and saw Amanda hanging on a branch.
"Hi Miss Caro," she said. "We're watching the party."
Alex set Jamie back on the ground and shooed him toward MJ, who stood at the edge of the deck. He scampered toward her, and Alex focused her attention skyward. "Is there room for me up there?"
Olivia shook the leaves on a branch. "Sure you can make it?"
"Please. I know this tree better than you do." Alex was relieved she was wearing shoes with treads as she hoisted herself up. Within seconds, she was positioned across from Olivia, slightly above Amanda and Ellie.
"I'm impressed. For a girl who never climbed trees as a kid, you did pretty good," Olivia said, her voice rich as honey.
"Thanks," Alex said, preening from the praise.
They all sat, swinging their legs from the verdant branches as the sun sank lower on the horizon. The peace was a balm to Alex's nerves.
Breaking the quiet, Olivia said softly, "It's nice up here. Too bad we can't stay."
After a moment, Amanda crept higher in the tree, snuggling into Alex's arms. "You're leaving tomorrow."
"Yeah," Alex said. "Olivia and I are flying out at noon."
"I like Miss Olivia. She's really nice."
"I bet she likes you too," Alex replied, glancing at Olivia out of the corner of her eye. She watched as Liv climbed down to sit near Ellie.
"Maybe when you come to visit, Miss Olivia can come with you."
"I think that sounds perfect."
Soon, MJ was under the tree, calling up into it, "Okay, monkeys, come on down. It's bedtime."
"Aw, Mom," Olivia whined.
"Aw, Mom," Ellie echoed after her in the exact same tone.
"You don't have to go to sleep, but there are lots of folks here who need to say their goodbyes to Al... Caro and Olivia. Don't be hogging them, okay? It's not polite."
Carefully the four climbed down from the branches, Olivia spotting them all as they landed on the ground. Olivia hugged both girls, and Alex followed, her heart squeezing as Amanda's enormous eyes gazed up at her. "Don't forget your promise," she reminded.
"Cross my heart," Alex assured her. Finally, MJ led them inside.
Alex picked up the wine glass she'd left at the base of the tree, downing it in moments. Olivia watched her closely.
"Six down, 94 to go," Alex said, nerves rearing up again.
"Let me get you another glass of wine."
The party hit its stride around 9; the alcohol had been flowing since before Alex had arrived, and everyone was taking advantage of it. Someone handed Alex a plate of hors d'oeuvres, which she attacked with gusto. Olivia's eyes widened as she watched Alex devour crab cakes as though she hadn't eaten for a week.
"Hey, we didn't have lunch. I'm hungry," Alex reasoned.
"Let me get you another plate."
Olivia disappeared as Alex popped the last baby quiche into her mouth. Her hunger had eased, but the wine wasn't helping. It was, however, relieving her tension level, and she'd finally felt able to relax in conversation without breaking down in tears half the time. She sipped at her half empty glass, only to purse her lips as Buster refilled it as he was strolling by.
"Drink up, cher, this is your last hurrah."
"You may be sorry you said that," she told him.
Alison broke through the crowd and grabbed Alex in a huge embrace. "Carolyn, I can't believe you're walking out on me!" she announced, lifting her off the ground.
"I know, I know, believe me, the whole team gave me enough guff. I'm sorry."
"We'll miss you, Slim. I'll certainly miss our special times in the locker room."
Alex smirked, smacking Alison on the shoulder. "Beast." Their relationship had long been flirtatious, with Alison constantly making overtures, and Alex always turning her down. The star pitcher had quite the reputation for wooing women, though she wasn't interested in a long-term romance. Barely 27, she preferred sowing her wild oats, and she'd often tried to convince Alex to "give her team a try."
Little did she know.
"How was your date?" Alex asked.
"Oh, lame. I dropped her off and came straight here. No zing, you know?" Alison replied. "But I may have hit a stroke of luck."
"'Cause I got a taste of zing from a woman I saw when I walked in. I think I'm in love."
"Yep. What I wouldn't do to slide into her home plate."
"Oh, the softball metaphors. Continue."
"If I had her in my bed, just picture the seventh inning stretch."
Alex snorted. "One more, for old time's sake."
"Mm, for her, I'd be willing to play either pitcher or catcher."
With a groan, Alex said, "No more, please. Which one is she?"
Alison looked out over the mob. "Let's see, she's tall gorgeous, dark hair, dark eyes black jeans."
Pressing her lips together, Alex suspected she was very familiar with Alison's flavor of the evening. "What color shirt?"
"Red. Definitely a woman unafraid to stand out in a crowd."
She turned to Alison. "I've got some bad news, Al."
"Come on!" Alison complained. "There is no way that woman is straight. Tell me she's not married."
"I didn't say she was straight--"
On cue, Olivia slipped through the mass of bodies with a fresh plate of snacks. "Here ya go," she said, presenting it to Alex.
Alison stood a bit straighter, and Alex tried not to laugh as she introduced them. "Liv, this is my friend Alison. She's a fantastic pitcher, and an instructor at the college. Alison, this is Olivia Benson."
"Hey, nice to meet you," Olivia said, reaching out for a friendly handshake. "I've heard a lot about this team. I wish I could see you play."
Alison put on her most seductive tone. "You could, Olivia. We're playing this Tuesday."
"Oh," Olivia said, looking at Alex. "Well, we're leaving tomorrow."
Her face reflecting uncertainty, Alison said, "Leaving--"
"She's with me," Alex finished. She slid an arm around Olivia's waist and pulled her close. Though a little surprised, Olivia lifted her own arm to rest atop Alex's shoulders.
"With you." Alison appeared confused.
"As in, we're together. You know-- together."
"You little bitch," Alison drawled, understanding dawning. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have sworn, but then you Oh, jeez!" She actually stomped her foot. "You mean I could've had a real shot all these years? God, I am an ass!"
Alex chuckled, her hand slipping south to rub against Olivia's hip. The wine had done more than loosen her tongue. "No, sorry, Alison. My affections were otherwise engaged."
With a sassy grin directed toward Olivia, Alison replied, "No doubt. Figures my luck wouldn't hold out." She turned to Alex, smile fading. "You were alone too long, Caro. I know I always pulled your chain about it, but I really was worried."
Alex nodded. As light hearted as their friendship had been, more than once, Alison had expressed her concern over Alex's solitary nature. Alex had brushed it off, but it had been difficult not to open up to someone who so honestly cared about her.
"I'm glad it worked out." Alison sighed. "Too bad it had to be with my future girlfriend."
Looking up at Olivia, who still wore a slightly perplexed smile, Alex said, "Sorry. I was here first."
"Now that my hopes have been dashed twice over, I need a beer. Don't you two move, I want to hear the whole story." Alison took off in search of a drink, and Alex tucked her face against Olivia's neck.
"So we met in college and reconnected when you were in New York visiting your aunt?" Olivia asked, double-checking their cover.
"Yeah," she said, inhaling the scent of Olivia's skin. She lifted her head. "Everyone's going to know about us by the time Alison gets back."
"Not only is she the pitcher and team captain, she's also the source from which all grapevines sprout. I'm surprised no one has--"
"You old dog!" someone said behind her. Looking over her shoulder, Alex saw Leslie. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"--said anything yet." Alex finished. She took a large swallow of wine and handed the plate of half finished crab cakes to Olivia. "Eat something, you'll need your strength."
They survived the barrage of questions from the softball team, as well as from a few others who chimed in. Alex was as vague as possible, but a collective "ooh" went around when Olivia revealed her occupation. She left the special victims aspect out, simply because neither of them wanted to go into detail.
Alex hardly noticed her glass hadn't been less than half full all evening, and soon realized she was rather tipsy. Olivia was looking even more delicious than usual, and Alex became fixated on the sight of her hands as they moved. She swallowed thickly, and decided it was time for a little break.
Heading to the makeshift bar in the back of the living room, she noticed Alan Baumgarten leaning against the wall, watching her with a gloomy expression. Her heart fell; she knew he'd probably seen her familiarity with Olivia grow as the evening progressed. Ah well, it had to happen. Right?
"Alan, hi," she said softly.
"I'm glad you made it."
He bobbed his head, glancing around. "Pretty great turnout. MJ said only a few people would be here, but I think half the town showed up."
Alex shrugged. "Must be a slow weekend."
Alan pushed off the wall and stepped closer. "No, Carolyn, it's you." His blue eyes, so clear and calm, fastened on her. "Everyone loves you." Alex held her breath, waiting for him to continue with words she didn't want to hear. He shook his head once, as if clearing out cobwebs, and the words never came. "You're leaving, huh."
"And I guess I know why I never got that second date."
Her heart thumped noisily in her chest. "I'm sorry, Alan."
"You could have told me."
With a small smile, she said, "Alan, my life here wasn't easy. You were a good friend, and I appreciate it. But there were things I needed to keep to myself, for my own sanity." I wish I could tell you why I kept such a distance, but it wouldn't do either of us any good.
"Yeah," he said. "You didn't tell MJ either, and she's your best friend. I shouldn't feel so badly."
She'd forgotten MJ mentioning that she was the one encouraging Alan to pursue Alex. Afraid her weakened inhibitions would lead her to say more than she ought, she didn't respond to the barb.
"This was a mistake," he said, running a hand through his sandy hair. "I've got to go, Caro. Have a nice life." He tried to walk by without touching her, but Alex caught his arm.
She wound her arms around him, and he reticently embraced her. "Bye, Alan. Good luck."
Alan kissed her cheek, his hand touching her hair briefly. "Goodbye."
Watching him walk out the door was tougher than she thought it would be; the scent of his aftershave was bitter on her tongue. Two large hands fell upon her shoulders. "It's not your fault, cher. He fell without any help from you." Buster was solid as Alex leaned back against him. "Would you have rather gotten involved, then left him wondering what the hell went wrong?"
Like Olivia did with Mark. "No," she rasped.
"When I see how you look at Olivia, I know that's what would have happened. Don't regret Alan. He'll carry a torch, but someone will come along and take your place." He chuckled lightly in her ear. "Men move on if they know they're out of the running, Caro." Alex didn't flinch at his slip; somehow it felt right coming from his lips. "And he is definitely out of the running."
Alex felt her eyes sliding closed as her head fell back to Buster's shoulder. "He is," she said, mind wandering to the way Olivia's mouth moved as she smiled, the way her stomach tensed when Alex touched her there.
"Don't fall asleep yet, cher, there's a lot of party left tonight," Buster said, and Alex turned around and hugged him.
"You're the best," Alex said, her speech slurring.
"Oh, no," he laughed, "This is my fault. I'm the one who kept refilling your glass."
She giggled before covering her mouth self-consciously. "I'm not drunk. Yet. Where'd I put my glass?"
He took her arm and led her to the bar. "Let's get you a new one."
The crowd had thinned, and though the food supply had been decimated, the noise level remained the same. Alex was in her happy place, surrounded by friends whose company she enjoyed, and Olivia, beautiful, beautiful Olivia, was by her side. Olivia who had been the perfect date, making conversation with various people, but never straying too far at any given moment. Though Olivia had confessed she wasn't always entirely comfortable in social situations, Alex would never have been able to tell. She looked pretty comfortable at the moment, deep in conversation with MJ and Teresa, another instructor from the English department.
"Caro?" Alison interrupted her little reverie by waving a hand in front of her face. "You okay?"
"Sure, I'm good," Alex replied, exhaling.
"I said your name three times-- you must be really out of it."
With a smile, Alex tried to hide the fact that the name Carolyn was no longer hers, and would never be again. "Sorry. I wasn't paying attention."
Alison glanced across the room to the focus of Alex's interest. "I can see what you're paying attention to, and believe me, what I wouldn't give to be in your shoes. Is she the real reason you're going to New York?" At Alex's strained expression, she added, "I mean, I know your aunt is sick and everything, but... I was curious."
"She's a big part," Alex admitted. "There are a lot of reasons, but she's at the center of everything."
"But you hadn't seen each other in a long time."
Alex tilted her head, wondering what Alison was getting at. "True. But inside, nothing had changed. The second I saw her again, I had to take the chance."
"You knew she was the one."
Put in such plainspoken terms, the sentiment took Alex's breath away. "Yes." She couldn't see her life without Olivia-- she was the past and the future, the only one.
"I take it the U-haul has already been ordered," Alison quipped.
"Are you kidding? I stayed with her that first night and never left. We didn't even have a date-- it was just lunch."
Alison lost it then, cracking up so hysterically she caused Alex to do the same. Someone behind them called out, "Alex," and she turned to answer, still giggling through her reply.
Greg Peterson, bio professor and amateur softball umpire, was looking in the opposite direction, trying to get the attention of another Alex, someone she didn't recognize. Greg didn't notice her error, but when she turned back around, Alison was staring at her, smile fading from her face.
Alison said slowly, "What was that?"
"Since when do you go by Alex?"
"It's my middle name," Alex replied smoothly, as she'd discussed in advance with Olivia. Not once had Olivia called her Carolyn, so the middle name idea seemed as good as any.
"I may be drunk, but I'm not stupid, Caro. What aren't you telling me?"
The wine churned in her belly. While the threat of imminent danger was over, Alex's automatic physical reaction to slipping remained the same. "Al, to be honest, I'm too goddamned tired, not to mention smashed, to explain anything. But someday, I will. How about that?"
Alison didn't look satisfied, but she didn't look pissed off either. "Yeah, all right. But only if you tell me the story of how you and Olivia broke the ice the first time. I need to know how the grown up girls do it if I'm ever gonna get me a wife."
"Fair enough," Alex said, her tension draining as she focused on the memory.
Shortly thereafter, Alison was content to have heard about Alex and Olivia's mutual confession of attraction in the pizza joint a couple of weeks before. In her inebriated state, Alex even told the story of their dinner at Orsay, including a truncated version of what followed. By the end of it, Alex felt sweat gathering at the base of her spine, and across the room, Olivia was looking more and more scrumptious.
When Olivia approached the pair, Alison excused herself to go in search of another drink, and perhaps some fresh air. She was looking red in the face.
"Hey," Olivia said, touching Alex gently on the elbow. "Okay?"
"Yes," Alex breathed, her eyes drawn to the perfect vee of cleavage barely visible below the line of Olivia's shirt. She has beautiful breasts.
"You look flushed."
"It's the wine," Alex replied, pressing a cool hand to her cheek. "Ah, I have to use the restroom." She didn't mention she had more than one urge requiring attention.
Yes! "I'm fine. Be back in a few minutes." It was one thing to want Olivia; it was quite another to demand sexual satisfaction in the middle of her own going away party. She walked through the house, angling through the press of bodies still packing the main room. In the hall, she pushed open the first door she came to. Stumbling in, she closed it, leaving herself in total darkness, but she couldn't seem to find the light switch on the wall. Feeling around, she recognized coats, coats, and more coats, draped on hangers on both sides of the room. "Shit," she said. "This is so not the bathroom."
The door swung open, pouring light in. Olivia stood there, a questioning look on her face. "Honey?"
My prayer has been answered. Alex reached out and grabbed the collar of Olivia's shirt, dragging her inside. She yanked the door closed behind her and pulled Olivia into a concentrated, open mouthed kiss. Though caught off guard, Olivia was anything but slow to respond, tugging Alex's hips against hers. Arms tangled together, and although sightless, Alex felt for Olivia's hand and pressed it between her own legs.
She groaned, hunching forward.
"Alex," Olivia whispered.
"Liv," Alex replied, "Touch me."
Blindly, Olivia unsnapped the top button on Alex's pants and shoved her hand directly where it was needed. "Christ," she breathed, "you're soaked. How long have you been this way?"
Alex was already arching in her embrace. "I don't know. A while." Olivia's fingers slid inside, fingers swirling as they entered. "Oh, fuck me," Alex panted.
Olivia kissed her again, her hand working furiously as colors exploded behind Alex's eyes. In a haze, Alex's thighs began to tremble, and in no time at all, her body seized up as she hurtled over the edge in silence.
Only after a minute spent catching her breath did the ambient sounds of the party begin to register in Alex's ears. An arm was still around her waist, and she could hear Olivia licking her fingers clean, inches away. Leaning forward, she sought out the hand that had so recently been buried between her legs, and took Olivia's pinky into her mouth. She tasted herself, and rubbed her tongue against the webbing between Olivia's fingers. Moments later, her mouth pressed to Olivia's fiercely, and she reached down to undo the silver belt buckle Olivia wore.
"No," Olivia gasped. "I want to wait."
Alex couldn't think of a reason why she should stop. "What for?"
"I have plans for your bedroom."
"Oh?" Alex breathed, nipping at Olivia's earlobe.
"That virgin bed deserves to be deflowered. And I'm the one to do it."
Breath still coming fast, Alex leaned her forehead against Olivia's jaw, picturing her lover in various positions; lounging on the duvet, sitting at the side of the bed with legs spread, up on her knees gripping the headboard. "Maybe we should leave now."
With a soft laugh, Olivia said, "I think it would look suspicious if we were seen leaving the coat closet and heading for the door."
"A little while longer, then." Wrapping her arms around a slender neck, Alex sighed. It was pitch black, but she could sense Olivia's expression, filled with tenderness and desire. "Why did you follow me in here?"
"I thought you were lost."
"Lucky for me."
They spent some time fixing belts and smoothing hair before Olivia opened the door. A split second later a blinding flash went off. When the afterimage faded, Alex recognized a smug Alison standing in front of them, digital camera in hand.
"Anything interesting going on in there?" Alison asked with a wicked grin.
A blush heated Alex's cheeks as she tried not to look as though she'd just had a mind-altering orgasm. "Not anymore."
Midnight rolled around, and the party was over. The living room could have looked worse; in fact, the previous October it had, following a Halloween party that had gotten out of hand. That night, the floor had been inexplicably littered with red feathers, confetti and glitter, none of which came up easily with the vacuum. Alex recalled finding tiny specks of glitter on her skin for days afterwards, as did MJ, and probably Buster as well. It would have been easier to explain had Alex's costume in any way involved glitter.
She gulped from a can of 7up and surveyed the damage. MJ reclined on the couch next to her, munching on lukewarm pizza. "That was a pretty great send-off, Mary Jean. One for the books."
"I especially liked Norman's farewell toast to you-- I thought he was going to burst into tears when he started quoting Tennyson."
Alex chuckled. "I thought it was sweet. I didn't know he had it in him."
"Your speech was lovely, Alex," MJ said, catching her gaze.
"Speech?" Alex said, raising an eyebrow. "I wouldn't call it a speech. Forty-five seconds of thanking people for their kindness and friendship does not make a speech. But I'm glad I got a chance to say something to everyone." Tipping her head back on the cushions, she added thoughtfully, "Now that the whole protection ordeal is over, things look different. It's like a dream is ending, and I'm waking up, going back to my real life."
"You seem different to me now, even since yesterday."
With a smirk, MJ said, "Aside from the fact that you're getting laid regularly," MJ dodged a pillow thrown in her direction, "you're calmer. There was a level of constant tension about you, as though you were on alert. Of course at the time, it didn't seem that unusual. And I noticed you didn't drink much. I thought you were a teetotaler, or watching your weight, as if it needed watching."
Alex shook her head. "Nope. It was control." She didn't mention the nights she drank alone in the house, when things were darkest. It wasn't often, but the mornings after were painful.
"You were afraid you'd give something away," MJ said slowly.
"Something like that."
The front door opened, and Olivia came in with Buster following her. "Everyone's gone. Had to cram a few too many people into the back of that Jerome guy's truck, but I figure it's safe enough. It's not like there's a lot of traffic here after midnight," Olivia reasoned.
"You got that right." MJ moved over, leaving room for Olivia on the couch. Buster sat on the floor and slumped back against MJ's legs, while Olivia slid next to Alex.
"So that's it," Alex said.
"Guess so," MJ replied.
Looking over at Olivia, Alex asked, "You ready?"
"If you are."
"Yeah." Alex felt the tears already forming in her eyes. "Listen, there's an armoire in my bedroom that I'm going to have the movers bring over here. It'll be nice for the girls once they're a little older."
"Oh, honey, you don't have to do that."
"I'm leaving almost everything behind, and if you don't take it, the federal government gets it. I'd rather you have it, okay? Please. For me."
Alex saw Buster nod his head, and she felt sure it would end up in the right hands. She laid a hand on Olivia's leg and pushed herself up and off the sofa, exhausted in every way. Tears coursed down MJ's cheeks, and Alex felt the first drops slip from her eyes. "I'll call you soon, okay?" she said, her voice cracking.
"You'd better." MJ stood, as did Buster. Olivia hugged them both first, before Alex fell into MJ's arms. "I'll miss you, sweetheart."
"You too," Alex whispered.
Buster held both of them in his arms, and kissed Alex's cheek. "Bye, cher. We'll see you soon, all right?"
"Count on it," she promised. "Take care."
MJ wiped her cheeks. "You too, baby."
"Thanks for everything."
MJ blew her a kiss as they headed out into the darkness. She and Buster stood on the front porch, illuminated from behind by the hall light, while Olivia led Alex to the car. As Olivia drove away, Alex held up her hand, watching her friends wave goodbye all the way down the street, till the car turned a corner and they were gone.
Inside the house, Alex sat on her couch, listening to Olivia rumble around in the upstairs bedroom. Looking around the dark room, lit only from the streetlamp across the road, Alex exhaled. It had been a good night, one of the best she'd ever spent in this small town, but the weight of leaving still hovered over her. Somehow, she felt a kind of peace creeping in; she'd said her farewells to those she cared for, and to some she barely knew, but it was a real goodbye. A thousand nights from now she could look back with a smile, and remember, without the sense of loss she'd carried for so long.
"Okay, then," she said to no one, and climbed the stairs.
Olivia held her close that night. When Alex rolled atop her lover, she felt a great rush of tenderness, coupled with relief. "You're here."
"I'm with you." Olivia's eyes were dark, fathoms deep.
They made love in her small bed, which had held the weight of two for the first time only the night before. It was bitter, and sweet, and perfect as Olivia came against her mouth, the power of her body a revelation. She was all strength and grace, and the softness of her thighs as Alex lay cradled between them was everything she needed. When it was over, she lay on her side, holding Olivia's sweat slick body against hers.
A calm hand stroked her hip, soothing the rough edges of her thoughts. Closing her eyes, Alex muttered a line of verse that had been floating through her brain for days. "'To make an end is to make a beginning.'"
"That's right," Olivia breathed.
"'The end is where we start from,'" Alex continued, already slipping into a dream.
Head tucked beneath Alex's, Olivia kissed her shoulder. "Yes."
The next morning, Alex woke in Olivia's arms. Brown eyes watched her steadily, and Alex could see the hesitance, the fear that lay beneath a veil of concern. "I'm ready to go, Liv."
Olivia's eyes closed. "You're sure?"
Once dressed, they finished packing the last of Alex's things in near silence, birdsong echoing through the open windows. When they were through, Alex set out instructions for the movers, and left her two remaining bouquets of roses on the front porch. Olivia carried the bags to the car while Alex locked the front door, dropping her only key through the ancient mailslot, gone rusty from disuse.
Coming down the walkway, she said, "I'll drive."
Olivia nodded, and slid into the passenger seat. As they pulled out of the driveway, she allowed herself to take a long look. With the exception of the garden, the house seemed the same as it had the day Mr. Brown Shoes had first brought her there. But it wasn't the same-- she'd left behind a piece of herself, of Carolyn, for good. "Bye," she said, and pressed her foot to the gas.
All the way back to Omaha, she blasted the radio loud enough to be heard over the roar of the wind in her ears, and Olivia had smiled indulgently. Alex's fingers twined with Olivia's, tracing and retracing the long lifeline that stretched across her palm.
As they settled into their seats on the plane, Olivia said, "Why don't you try to sleep a little? You look tired."
Alex nodded. Though she'd never admit it aloud, her hangover was probably half responsible for her depression.
From a jacket pocket, Olivia produced a foil packet of Advil, and she tore it open with her teeth. "Take these."
"You know me too well, Liv."
"Impossible. Need some water?"
"Nope." Alex dry swallowed them, and tucked a pillow against the window so she could get some rest.
When she opened her eyes, it was because the wheels of the plane touched down with the familiar jerk that always occurred during landing. Bolting upright, she turned to Liv. She blinked a few times, trying to slow the sudden racing of her heart. "I slept."
"I did too." Olivia leaned closer. "You kept me up late last night."
"Mm-hmm." She touched her nose to Olivia's, enjoying her warmth. "My headache's gone. I was hungover."
"I know. I was worried you only wanted to drive back to Omaha yourself because you didn't trust my navigational skills."
With a laugh, Alex said, "No, that wasn't it, although I'm not sure how well you do without the Chrysler building as a beacon." Olivia elbowed her side gently. "I needed to do it. The agent that first drove me into Norfolk got lost. He turned off the highway too soon because of the snow, and I have no idea where we ended up." Alex looked down at her hands. "Considering the amount of vicodin I was taking, I'm amazed I remember that."
Olivia brushed Alex's hair out of her eyes. "You didn't get lost this time."
"No. I know the way."
Since they were seated near the front of the aircraft, it only took a few minutes to gather their things and exit. The walk through JFK seemed endless until they reached the baggage claim, where a young woman wearing the requisite driver's cap stood holding a sign that read "Cabot/Benson." Alex held up a hand, and soon, they were on the road to Manhattan.
Alex knew the route the driver would take, and when they neared the Midtown tunnel, she asked, "Is there any way you could take us down across the Brooklyn Bridge?"
"Of course, ma'am," the woman said. "Not a problem."
"That's a great idea," said Olivia.
The car wound its way through neighborhood streets flooded with people, all out enjoying the summer weather. Alex rolled down the tinted window, unable to resist the impulse to tilt her face into the sun. After a minute, Olivia pressed against her back, and Alex reached for her hand as their cheeks brushed together.
The air grew cooler, triggering Alex's sense of anticipation. Then they were on the bridge, approaching the immense Brooklyn tower, and the whole of New York seemed to spread out before her eyes. The sun shone off the water, sparkling and winking at her as the river ran its course. Though the skyline wasn't as perfect as it once had been, it awakened something dormant in her soul she hadn't missed until that moment.
"'The city nested in bays! My city,'" she said, smiling widely as Manhattan drew closer.
"You've been reading Whitman," Olivia murmured in her ear.
She shot a quick glance at her lover. "Like I could teach poetry without him."
"Absolutely not," Olivia replied.
As Alex leaned her head against the window frame, it felt as though she were seeing the view for the first time. "It's so beautiful," she breathed, her chest expanding with a rush of joy. "I'm home."
John Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, Poems of John Donne, Vol I
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets
Walt Whitman, Mannahatta, Leaves of Grass
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