DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
SERIES: Third in a series of six loosely related WMC stories.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

A Knuckle Down Christmas
By Liz Estrada


At 9:13 pm, San Francisco Police Inspector Lindsay Boxer and Cindy Thomas, crime reporter for the Register, arrive via taxicab at the home of medical examiner Claire Washburn. Each holds a brown paper bag with a mystery bottle of spirits inside, a requirement for admission to the Washburn's potluck holiday bacchanal.

The kids go off to a sleepover. Guests bring the bottles, Ed plays mad scientist behind the bar, Claire lays out a table full of food, and nobody has to drive themselves afterward, Lindsay had explained earlier. The SoberRide van from Claire's Christmas party is the next best thing to riding shotgun with Santa. They have chocolate mint cookies and cocoa, and last year we sang Elvis songs all the way home…

Cindy hadn't asked what combination, in that case, constituted we, though she harbored gamine blonde suspicions. "We should have discussed PDA protocol," she suddenly asserts. "This party is gonna be sick with cops."

"We'll be fine. Just don't feel me up in a crowded room," Lindsay says as she rings the bell. "And no tongue under the mistletoe."

"Funny. Really, though – who knows we're dating? And is it okay that we're dating? Are they going to give you a bunch of crap for dating me?"

"They can go piss up a rope. It's none of their damn business."

"They won't like me. I'm a journalist. I'm the red rover who gets sent right over to bust through the thin blue line," the little coppertop explains. "Also, when I came to take you to lunch Monday, Jacobi asked if he could have my Happy Meal toy."

Lindsay shakes her head. Rings the bell again. "He thinks you're too young for me. You already know this."

"Yeah." Cindy pauses. Inhales deeply, exhales slowly. "Okay, ordinarily, it wouldn't bother me and I only ask this now because I'm a wee bit nervous. Would you just say - out loud - that he's wrong? Please?"

Lindsay takes hold of her upper arm, spins Cindy a quarter-turn and looks her dead in the eye. "He's wrong. And he's a hypocrite. Jacobi's been married a hundred times and he's out tonight with a twenty-eight year-old dance instructor named Brandi. Don't listen to him." She reaches out, skims the pad of her thumb over a lightly freckled cheek. "Besides, if anything, dating a lunatic like you is forcing me to be the mature, responsible one for once in my life. It's good for me. Now can we please stop talking and get loaded? Too much processing makes baby Jesus cry."

By way of a reply, Cindy pops onto her toes and plows a kamikaze kiss into the inspector's grill - just as Claire finally answers the door. Lindsay glances sideways and smiles her way out of the smooch.

Claire raises her drink, offers up a grin with a chaser of gloat. "Joyous Noel, ladies. You're late."

"Hi! My fault. I had a late deadline. Hi." Rose-cheeked Cindy smecks her lips together and hoists her sack o'booze. "Merry Christmas!"

"Take that in to Ed, honey. He's been waiting for you," Claire says to the flustered girl. "We're already neck-deep in cops and lawyers, so he might need a hand at the bar."

With a mission to complete, Cindy lights out to aid the host. Claire closes the door, steps onto the porch and slips her arm around Lindsay's waist. "I gotta say, slim - you do look happy."

"Hmph," Lindsay snorts. "So do all those guys on To Catch a Predator, 'til Chris Hansen shows up."

Claire frowns darkly. "Cindy is not a child, and you are not some chicken-chasing cougar," she argues. "Ten years doesn't make you a different species."

With a little kick at the doormat, Lindsay nods her agreement. "I know. It's just different, right? Still kinda weird."

"It's a new thing. There's a natural period of adjustment. And I know it's hard reassuring someone else when you're not exactly doubt-free yourself."

Lindsay folds her mouth around like origami, reflecting on recent memories until the expression finally morphs into a smile. "It is good, though. And I am happy. I even catch myself thinking sometimes that it could, maybe, turn into something. But then that's just… "

"Terrifying?" Claire offers, giving her friend a squeeze. "Being hopeful is scary - and hard work - but optimism is an achievable state of mind."

"So is dementia," Lindsay mutters. "Naaw, forget it. Enough! Happy! HAPPY! Check it!" She points at her rigorously jolly face as evidence of her desire to move on.

"Yes, baby, I see," Claire soothes. "Now, at the risk of endangering the happy, I feel I should warn you…"

Lindsay's frozen smile melts into a grimace. "Oh, God. Who's here?"

"Tom. And Heather," Claire begins, prompting a groan from her friend. "And Jill invited FBI Guy."

"Agent Ashe?" Lindsay starts to complain, until she remembers that Jill is sport fishing again, and John Ashe ain't exactly a catfish. "Of course she did. Whatever. I'm gonna need a drink. Or three."

"My love, you've come to the right place," Claire promises, ushering her inside.

Ed Washburn is stationed behind the bar, his wheelchair on an elevated platform, and he is working magic (or at least alchemy) with his package store chemistry set. Cindy, his lovely assistant, hands over all requested ingredients and supplies with a Vanna-like flourish. She's clearly having a good time on the little stage, but her focus is repeatedly pulled toward a magnetically attractive couple huddled near the dessert table. A man and woman, heads leaned close to hear each other over the din, laughing as if they'd known each other for years. Almost like they'd been married or something.

"You like chocolate cake?" Ed asks, startling her.

"Of course. What am I, a communist? But I don't want to interrupt them," Cindy protests, thinking that Ed must have followed her eyeline.

"Not the kind you eat," Ed corrects. He halfway fills a shot glass with Frangelico, tops it up with Absolut Citron and caps it with a thin sugar coated lemon wedge. He presents the finished product to Cindy with a warning attached. "Drink, then bite," he instructs. "But be careful. It bites back."

She watches Lindsay and Tom while she downs the shot and sucks the wedge. Incredibly, the disparate flavors combine on her palate to evoke a sort of chocolate cake - the kind that would make Condi Rice doff her top and conga through Pentagon hallways. The hint of bitter aftertaste has nothing to do with Ed Washburn's sinister mixology.

"Deelish," she tells the barman. "You're an evil genius. Set me up again?"

Lindsay habitually indulges her sweet tooth before slaking her thirst, so her first stop is the dessert table. As she surveys assorted cookies and cakes and pies, trying to cull out her first victim, someone tugs on her elbow. She turns and finds herself face to face with her ex-husband and current Lieutenant, Tom Hogan. He wears a broad, knowing grin and holds out a volleyball-sized bundle of something, swaddled in red cling wrap.

She eyes the package skeptically, then gasps in delight and claps her hands together. "You made Reindeer Knuckles!"

Tom laughs and nods. "My one and only claim to baking fame. I think they turned out good this year - I used organic eggs." He presents the unmarked package to Lindsay and makes a shush sign across his lips. "I smuggled these out. I didn't want Heather to, you know, think anything."

Lindsay quickly hides her contraband under the table. "I appreciate that, but you just put a serious crimp in my night. Now I can't eat anything else 'cause I'm gonna binge like a debutante when I get home."

He smiles warmly, brushes a hand down her arm. "Merry Christmas, Linz."

"Thanks. Same to you… and your wife."

They look at each other long enough to realize that this was important, this friendly, easy moment where they were not embattled spouses or guilty lovers or contentious colleagues. They were just two people who once loved each other, paying a little respect to their history, and wishing each other a fine future.

From a distance – especially when filtered through a puddle of chardonnay and over the jaundiced golden circle of a new wedding band – that moment looks a lot like flirting.

Heather Hogan steps up to the bar and turns in her empty wineglass. She asks for a double of "whatever that lemon thing is you're drinking."

Cindy Thomas, a quick study if ever there was one, tells Ed to take a little break. He departs to light the backyard chiminea and Cindy fills this latest drink order herself. She gradually begins to pry at the kindly young bride with a series of innocuous questions and chocolate cake shots - the cumulative, oyster knife effect of which will pop the new Mrs. Hogan's mouth wide-ass open.

Special Agent John Ashe, aka FBI Guy, wore jeans and a sportcoat to the party. It's the first time Lindsay has seen him without a necktie and she can't help noticing that he looks good. Her friend Jill Bernhardt evidently shares her evaluation, for she has fastened herself to the handsome fed with the sturdy double-sided tape of hormones and cocktails. A Cosmo, from the look of it. Very sticky.

"Hey, girl," Lindsay calls to the blonde. She nods at Ashe. "Agent."

"Inspector," he says, returning the cordial nod. He appears to have something more to say, though he realizes it will have to wait.

Maybe it's a Christmas miracle, but Jill manages to peel herself off of Ashe and glom onto Lindsay in one flawless maneuver; nary a drop of drink does she spill. A big, sloppy MWAH! kiss is followed by a hug, which is followed by an incongruous interrogation. "What is the matter with you? Professor Ed is mixing! Where the hell's your drink?"

"I haven't made it that far yet," Lindsay answers. They both look toward the bar, where Heather and Cindy are having what appears to be an intimate conversation.

"Fuuudge," Jill moans. "You gotta nix that, pronto."

Lindsay balks a little. "Why? Heather's alright."

Jill walks Lindsay several feet away from Ashe and leans in tight; her breath is like a warm breeze wafting over a Chernobyl cranberry bog. "Is Ruby Soho aware that you had one last rodeo with Tom?"

Lindsay shirks back in alarm. "Jesus, Jill. How do you - did Claire tell you that?"

"Nope." Jill halfway grins. "I suspected, but I wasn't sure until just now. Have you told Cindy?"

Lindsay smirks, giving Jill credit for the well-placed sucker punch. "No, but I don't see why it would matter. We weren't seeing each other then."

"It only matters to the extent that it's a secret," Jill argues. "If it doesn't mean anything, why didn't you tell her? Or me, for that matter?"

Trapping the tip of her tongue between incisors, Lindsay shrugs, then speaks the truth. "Because I thought you'd be disappointed in me... and I guess I though it might hurt you." Aware that her words sound presumptuous, she rolls her eyes; her dark head bows. "When, exactly, did I become a conceited jackass?"

Jill cinches her arm tight around Lindsay's back, tilts their foreheads nearly together. "Careful, bitch. That's my best friend you're talking about."

Lindsay can't help snickering, though her mind has looped back around to Jill's warning. "You don't think Heather knows?"

"The only reasonable reason for her cold war hostility is that she knows you mounted her buck," Jill says, nodding. "Believe me, I know whereof I speak."

With wide eyes and false bravado, Lindsay mutters: "Fantastic."

At this point, Special Agent John Ashe of the FBI decides he has waited long enough for a moment of Inspector Boxer's time. "Ahem." He actually said 'ahem.'

"Yeah? What?" Lindsay blurts.

"A little business," he says. "Non-Christmas related."

That could only mean one thing: he has new information regarding Kiss-Me-Not. Lindsay digs a thumb knuckle between her tensing eyebrows. "Okay. Okay."

"I'll hit the bar," Jill assures her. "Make sure the night stays silent."

Lindsay thanks her and follows Agent Ashe out to the patio, where Ed Washburn has just lit a cheery fire in the clay chiminea.

Heather Hogan didn't seem inclined to stay at the bar after Jill arrived. She made some nasty crack insinuating that Jill might spark another embarrassing drunken smackdown, and Jill countered that there wasn't enough Jell-O for them to wrestle in - how did Heather feel about canola oil? and that was just about that. By that point, Cindy had already pried the pearl of truth loose from Heather's soggy grasp. And she wasn't terribly pleased with her shiny new irritation.

"When?" Cindy asks Jill. When she receives no answer, she leans across the bar and enunciates her question again, inches away. "When was she with Tommm?"

Equally pixilated Jill has an urge to give the dogged little imp a kiss on the mouth. Instead she simply responds, "Before. Way before."

Cindy nods slowly, carefully, like her skull is filled with lead and her neck hasn't signed up for any heavy lifting. "Oh. Good. Cool."

"You're okay with it?" Jill asks.

"Then is then. Now is not then and is, therefore, different." Cindy tries to gather her thoughts, which are straying off in odd, metaphorical directions. "In olden times, you could plant your flag on some choice land and no one would dispute your claim. For fear of getting shot. Understand?"

"I understand," Jill says. "Though I've never tried that, with the flags and such. If a stiff wind comes along, they just blow down."

"Then you have to put them back up!" Cindy preaches, waving her little fist.

"But this is San Francisco," Jill reminds her. "Gale force winds - of both genders - come along every ten minutes."

"Vigilance," Cindy says, conclusively. "It's the only option. Lest we cede our land to marauding savages. Or worse - the government."

Jill follows her gaze through the glass French doors, toward the patio where their Lindsay and the unaffiliated Federal Agent John Ashe are hunched together in the civilized, focused firelight of a chiminea. "I hate the government," Jill hisses.

"You are the government," Cindy protests. "And you date government cronies."

"Only when they're cute!" Jill nearly shouts. "And - omygod - this isn't even a date!"

Their spiking volume finally draws some attention; Claire comes over and takes a seat at the bar. "What are you two girl scouts plotting?" she asks, though she clearly fears the coming reply.

"Anarchy!" drunken Cindy avows.

"We need a flag, Claire," Jill adds. "Fast."

"You do not need a flag."

"Yes, we do! Look!" Cindy points to the unfolding scene: Ashe with his hand on Lindsay's elbow... sliding onto her shoulder... her head dropping... him leaning close to whisper...

Claire doesn't say much. "Hmm," is about the extent of it.

"That's unprofessional," Jill alleges. "The body language."

"Yeah. Even his hair is unprofessional," Cindy gripes, fluffing her fingers over her forehead in a mimicry of Ashe's stubborn up-do. "I mean, does he shampoo with Cialis? It's like he has follicular preter… porpism…. no…crap." After a brief, spiteful slapfight with her compromised vocabulary, she looks to Jill and Claire for help. "What's the 'p' word for when the wiener won't lay down?"

Jill immediately breaks up, dribbling Cosmo down her décolletage. Claire shrewdly raises a brow and says, "Puberty."

"Sweetie, maybe you should cut yourself off," Jill giggles, even as Cindy makes and takes another cake-like shot.

"It's like watching a high school quarterback, strutting around all gorgeous and macho," the littlest tippler continues, venting her jealousy in a stonkered cloud of steam, "with the hair and the teeth and the tight pants…"

"Are you talking about FBI Guy or Lindsay?" Claire queries, not really expecting an answer.

Jill dabs at her cleavage with a napkin, sips her drink. "I like quarterbacks."

"Well, they like you, too," Cindy gently snipes. "You never drop a pass."

The attorney, accustomed to verbal sparring, shrugs it off. "I have good hands. And a preternatural awareness of the goal line."

"In that case, your free agency value should be insane," the football loving reporter observes. "I can't believe Luke didn't offer you arbitration. What a dork."

"He's not a dork." Jill's smile is slow, a little sad. "But it's nice of you to say that."

In the few moments where their attention strayed, the patio confab has broken up. Ashe is gone and Lindsay is walking off alone, fading into backyard shadows. Cindy and Jill take note of this and both are marginally sobered by the sight; they look at each other, and simultaneously move toward the door.

Claire's restraining hand on Jill's arm fixes the play's outcome. "You're benched, superstar," Claire says.

Jill glowers at her friend, watches the new kid pick her way through the lines and out onto the field. She slumps against the bar and knocks back the dregs of her Cosmo. "That's the hole in my game," she says. "Timing."

Most party guests are keeping to the house, dancing and talking, so the patio is nearly vacant. The night air is slightly cool, maybe near fifty already, and it feels like it might rain later. Agent John Ashe walks directly toward the billowing warmth of the fire, rubs his hands together and waits for Inspector Boxer to join him. When she does, he gets right to the point. "That trap we put on your e-mail? Late this afternoon, it caught something." He reaches into his jacket, pulls out his phone and a pair of earbuds. He uses one, offers the other to Lindsay.

She steps close, takes the bud and presses it to her ear. Their arms brush together as Ashe angles his body to give them some additional privacy. He tilts the phone's screen to a mutually good viewing angle, and starts the show. Elvis Presley's "Santa, Bring My Baby Back To Me" begins to play.

A slideshow opens with images of holiday cakes and cookies shaped like snowmen, reindeer... then the text fades in - sharp calligraphy superimposed over the display of treats.

A sweet tooth... something we have in common, Lindsay. Although, in winter, I tend to crave ice cream.

Pictures of ice cream, thirty-one flavors and then some, parade across the screen and swirl themselves into a funnel cloud.

Trouble is, there are too many options. I find myself paralyzed by indecision. What, then, for the man who cannot choose?

A simple still frame holds the screen: an opened, untouched gallon of Breyer's Neapolitan Ice Cream.

Viola! (sic) Neapolitan! The question then becomes a matter of appetite.

The screen goes black. Slowly, an image fades in: Claire Washburn, standing on her front lawn, waving.

Chocolate offers comfort, a sense of well-being.

Claire's photo melts, drips off the screen, and is replaced by a shot of Jill Bernhardt exiting the Hall of Justice.

Vanilla? Ah, yes. The classics never go out of style.

Walking Jill dissolves and is succeeded by a candid, silly shot of Cindy Thomas nursing a frozen coffee, chewing on the straw.

Strawberry. Fresh, sweet, slightly acidic. Like summer on the tongue.

The three pictures line up to share the screen.

Here's the beauty part, Lindsay. If I still can't decide...

Methodically, left to right, strips of the pictures begin to peel away.

I can dig in deep and cut straight across all three.

The screen is soon blank, black. After several beats of lingering darkness, one final message appears.

Catch you later. Because, really? What are the chances of you catching me?

The sounds and the words (like the man behind them) flare up violently, then slip away without a trace.

When it's finally over, when her awareness again extends beyond her own hellish rage, she feels her nails cutting into her palms, feels the painful twinge of jaw muscles clenched too tight for too long. Feels Ashe's hand on her shoulder.

"Sorry to spring this on you tonight. You know time's important." He observes the effort it takes to bleed away even a little of the tension she holds. This reaction stands in stark contrast to that first night, when he told her that Kiss-Me-Not had her in his sights. Lindsay Boxer's first instinct was to smile - a crazy little come-and-get-me, fucker grin. Threatening her friends, apparently, was an entirely different thing. "I thought you'd want to talk to them yourself," he says.

Lindsay barely nods. "I will. Thanks."

"The sender's address and ISP are dead ends. The techies are combing through the Flash code, looking for anything to i.d. the author." Ashe pauses; self-consciously, he removes his hand from Lindsay's arm and tucks away his phone. "Did anything jump out at you? Any thoughts?"

"Aside from the obvious?" Lindsay replies. She blows out a shaky breath littered with vigilante fantasies, and takes a crack at being a cop. "The candid photos were good - framing, focus, light. And the animation effects looked polished, too. Either he has experience in the fields, or he paid professionals. If he hired locally - "

"They're probably dead," Ashe finishes. "We'll start looking at recent unnatural deaths, cross-reference with careers. If we turn up a web developer or a private detective, there could be a link."

"Maybe." Lindsay is aware that she does not sound hopeful. Being hopeful is scary - and hard work, Claire had told her. As an unapologetic workaholic, Lindsay decides to give it a shot: "But, hey - it's about time the bastard gave up something we could use."

Ashe gives a half smile, scratches his chin. "His compulsion to needle you might be his downfall."

"You know, I don't see how I became his damn Clarice Starling," Lindsay says sourly. "He's right - I never even got close to catching him."

"You think this is all misdirection?" Ashe inquires. Lindsay responds with only a quirked brow. That's almost too much to hope for.

"He may think we'll divert resources from the investigation to protect one of our own," Ashe theorizes.

Lindsay eyes him skeptically; over the years, she's encountered too much disrespect and condescension from the FBI for this expression of solidarity to go unnoticed.

"You hunt killers, Boxer," he explains, as if - for him - it's just that simple. "I don't care who signs your check." Ashe looks at his watch. "I need to get back. Would you say goodnight to Jill for me?"

"Sure. 'night Ashe."

He nods, leaves. She stands alone, swaying under the familiar weight of her own anger and fresher, heavier burdens. She goes looking for a place to hide, for something to lean on, just until her shoulders get used to the new load.

Cindy finds her behind Edmund's playhouse, braced at a hard angle against the little plastic cabin with her heels dug into the grass. Lindsay's head is hung low, her eyes tightly shut. Fists tap hard against her thighs. Cindy pulls up short. Despite numerous signs that the woman is clearly not okay, Cindy asks if she is okay.

Faintly, she hears Lindsay's voice. "Come here."

Treading lightly, Cindy complies. Lindsay's clenched fists uncurl and rise, take hold of Cindy's hands. Though she takes a deep breath and tries to relax, when Lindsay looks up, her expression is still shockingly bitter. "Ashe had some news," she says. "But I'm not gonna talk about it right now."

This is non-negotiable. Cindy understands and tells her so.

"The chips are down," Lindsay rasps. "Whatcha got, Thomas?"

Recalling one of the initial conditions of her club membership, Cindy brains in vain to hustle up a joke - even a bad one - to make Lindsay laugh. Maybe it's the alcohol fuzz clogging her synapses, or maybe seeing Lindsay this upset has thrown off her internal gyro, but she just can't gimmick up any words to make this better. Fortunately, Cindy's probationary period has lapsed and she now has far more discretionary latitude to explore solutions.

"Did you hear the one about the smashed reporter and the smokin' hot cop who got caught making out at the Christmas party?" she asks.

Her rigid jaw trembles; stiffly, Lindsay shakes her head.

"Me, neither," Cindy admits. "Hey, maybe they didn't get caught."

It's not a smooth advance; Cindy can't work out a clean approach vector and so ends up loosely straddling Lindsay's outstretched legs. It's not a smooth landing, either; their lips collide and bump along until the smashed reporter anchors her hands over the cop's shoulders. From there, a pattern is established and evolves quickly. A normally civilized mouth grows rude and hungry. Brusque hands roughly dive and climb, grasping hard at cloth and skin and everything beneath. There is almost no sound, only a strange, smothering sense of urgency.

Scribed in the invisible ink of breath and pulse are corporal cues; the young writer deciphers these as an orphic request for sanctuary: I need to vanish... please, just for a little while... This level of aggression doesn't come easily to Cindy, but she's committed now, and naturally reckless. She steps-up her touches, her kisses, to give Lindsay what she seems to need - a two-handed push into an open, mile-deep well - a dizzying, midnight-blue fall off the edge of the moon - a wondering, weightless moment for someone whose burdens aren't taking a holiday.

It can't last. They're barely breathing. Lightheaded. Feverish. Lindsay's legs begin to shake. Somebody's lip is bleeding. They're going to fall - hard and soon - and it doesn't even matter because, at the moment, they're not really there.

But someone else is.

"Oh... oh, God. Sorry! Sorry."

They vaguely hear the chagrined feminine voice, and are slightly more aware of the footfalls trailing away. Lindsay's legs finally give out and she slides onto the grass with a lapful of Cindy. The sudden jolt spurs separation and hard, desperate inhales of cool air. It feels like breaking the water's surface after a daring tandem free dive; Cindy has a fleeting memory of decompression sickness and finds this version of the bends infinitely preferable... even if some random woman did see her with one hand stuffed down Lindsay's pants and the other trapped in a Gordian knot formed by watchband and bra strap. Stealthily, she initiates an effort to disentangle her trapped limbs.

"I don't think you told that joke right," Lindsay croaks.

Cindy stops trying to free herself. She tucks her face against Lindsay's neck and laughs until she nearly passes out.

The weight is no less now, but Lindsay's okay with it. She'll bear up, like always. She breathes deep, squeezes her superb red-haired girl. Maybe she even smiles.

Claire takes the news well. They all do, to varying degrees. Lindsay advises Claire to talk things over with Ed, to let him institute some daily routines and defensive measures to make the best use of his police training (and minimize his eventual guilty fury).

Jill and Cindy, understandably, aren't eager to be alone tonight. Claire offers her guest room and Lindsay offers her couch. Jill opts to leave the Washburns alone tonight to discuss this new wrinkle in their already furrowed lives.

They pile into the SoberRide van. Cindy leans her head against Lindsay's shoulder. Jill stares vacantly out the window; after a few blocks, Lindsay reaches over and holds her hand.

An Elvis holiday tune sneaks out of the radio, and Lindsay asks the driver to please change the station. It's a long, long ride home.

At Lindsay's apartment, they shuffle in one by one. Locks are locked. Martha is fed. Much water is quaffed in the kitchen by the not-so-drunk-anymore girls.

They wash and brush up. Dress in (mostly) borrowed sweats and tees from Lindsay's bureau. Gradually, they reconvene in the living room, and the silence is finally broken.

"I want you both to start carrying," Lindsay begins. "If not a gun, at least a TASER. And I mean all the goddamn time."

Jill looks to Cindy. "What do you think, red? TASER Twins?"

"Oh, yeah," Cindy agrees. "Totally."

"Fine, I'll get hold of a couple tomorrow," Lindsay promises. "We'll do a crash course at lunch."

"I'll give you my credit card," Jill offers, just before Cindy echoes the idea.

"No, this is on me," Lindsay says ruefully. "My fault, my treat. Merry friggin' Christmas."

"Linz, you can't hold yourself responsible for this - "

"Aww, now don't give me that! I've literally had years to catch this sonofabitch! God, I never should have let up." She covers her eyes, groans heavily into her palms. "I'm sorry."

They both want to tell her she's wrong, that serial killers are capricious, loony sacks of crap and she hasn't done anything to bring this about. They both know she won't listen.

"I'm wiped," Cindy says. She yawns (too) big, stands and holds out a hand to Lindsay. "Come on."

Lindsay looks to Jill, curled up on the couch with a pillow and blanket. Martha has taken up a post by her feet. "I'm pretty tired, myself," the attorney lies. "We'll work it all out tomorrow."

Weary if not sleepy, Lindsay gives in to reality. She can't fix this tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow, and she can't stand guard forever. She takes Cindy's hand and lets her lead the way.

Near two in the morning, Cindy wakes up. She's on her side of the bed - the left side - and Lindsay is fast asleep in the middle. One arm lays loosely across Cindy's stomach and the other is tucked under her pillow. Cindy knows there's a gun hidden back there; a 9mm revolver with a zero-profile hammer hangs in an open holster fastened to the wall. When Lindsay first showed it to her a few weeks back, she thought it a by-product of cop paranoia. Needless to say, Cindy has edited her opinion on this matter.

She hears something, a low, innocuous sound from another room. She doesn't want to wake Lindsay over nothing, so she slides carefully out of bed, rubs the sleep from her eyes, and pads into the living room. Jill stands by the windows, a lissome silhouette against the city skyline. She has a glass of amber glow in her hand.

Cindy shuffles over, stands by her. "What's up?"

"Besides us?" Jill shrugs, sips something that smells like bourbon.

"I thought you didn't like that stuff. Something about it tasting like burning oak trees?"

"I don't like it," Jill admits. "But I was cold."

After a moment's deliberation, Cindy reaches over and takes the glass, tosses back the last of Jill's bourbon.

Jill is a little annoyed, sort of bemused. "Grabby little thing, aren't you?"

Cindy chuckles her agreement. She sets down the glass and takes Jill by the arm. "So. Come on."

After being pulled forward a few steps, Jill shakes her arm loose. "Don't."

Wide-eyed and shrugging adorably, Cindy asks, "Oh, for pete's sake. Why not?"

Jill blinks. Opens her mouth a full four seconds before finding her voice. "Aren't you... scared? Of anything?"

"Tonight? No," Cindy tells her. "Ask me again after TASER training."

Cindy walks away, pauses at the bedroom door. Holds out an open hand.

This time, reluctantly, Jill follows.

Lindsay wakes at four, a quiet hour of thick darkness and low mercury. Strange, though; there is light in her eyes and she is very warm. It takes a few seconds to interpret the various inputs: light and sound from the bathroom... Cindy shutting down the hateful brightness and moving toward the bed... warm air chuffing through her hair, an arm draped over her waist... a familiar sleeping body curved against her back.

If her facial expression were a word (or three), it would be "WTF?"

Cindy sees this and shushes her, calms her with gentle, waving hands. The girl climbs back into bed and folds herself into Lindsay.

Lindsay tips up her chin and squints down at her, desirous of an explanation.

"She was cold, scared," Cindy whispers. "It's warm and safe in here."

"Careful," Lindsay warns her, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "You may be writing checks my ass can't cash."

Cindy looks up and smiles, with the durable, resilient confidence of youth. "I'm not worried."

Lindsay sighs, resigned to her fate. As she starts to drift off again, she hears Cindy mumble, "'sides, it's almost Christmas."

The End

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