DISCLAIMER: I do not own SVU, Dick Wolf, Alex, Olivia, or Law & Order. All original characters are mine, but I sincerely doubt anyone will care enough to rip me off.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is Alex/Olivia, and it is AU...sort of. This is a they-met-in-school story, but with a little bit of a twist. I realize that the characters are almost ten years apart in age, so technically this would be an impossibility, but just roll with it because you want to read smut, k? I had several sources of inspiration, among them being Annus Mirabilis by the fabulous Alethea, in the Danny/Martin oeuvre of the Without a Trace fandom, Lost and Delirious, Therese und Isabelle, and in some small way, my own experience at debate camp the summer I turned 16.
DEDICATED: This is for my friend, Wendi, who because she loves SVU fic, and Mariska Hargitay, admitted to me in a breathless whisper that she eats up this A/O fic like it's candy. So, because I'm a devoted-but-emotionally-stunted friend, and uh, a poor bastard who can't afford to buy her a *real* Christmas gift, voila! She gets smut.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: early-Season 5-ish.

No Place Called Home
By Katie Ramsey

Part Two

Once they had gotten into a routine, Olivia found the forced isolation was easier to bear. Monday had been the longest day of her life, but she'd started out on the right foot with new friends, and she was enjoying the camaraderie of the rugby team far more than the exercise itself, which was unusual. Olivia had always considered herself unfit for team sports, far more content to rely on herself, and only herself for satisfaction.

Practices were scheduled for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with their games on Saturday afternoons after classes. On Tuesday she had searched until dinner for Alex's secret hiding place with no success, and on Wednesday she only had an hour before practice, and while she completed a thorough tour of the library, Alex was still nowhere to be found.

Thursday Professor Hagman saddled the class with Chaucer and Gawain and the Green Knight, so she was forced to stay indoors and read until dinner, since she had four chapters of History to complete before the next day, as well.

It was still dark outside Friday morning when Olivia awoke suddenly. Alex was perched above her, staring down into her face pensively.

"What?" Olivia asked, still groggy. "Are you okay?"

"It's six forty five, Mass starts in fifteen minutes, I didn't want you to be late," she whispered. As Olivia sat up, she realized Alex was already dressed, primped and ready for the day, her bed made. It always amazed Olivia that Alex was able to get dressed and leave every morning in complete silence. Back in New York, it was like Grand Central Station every morning when she and her mother got up to go to work, and school. Her mother in the kitchen, making her breakfast, calling for her to hurry up at regular intervals. Olivia in the bathroom, curling her short locks with the hot iron, cursing loudly when she burned herself.

Olivia rubbed sleepy eyes, and watched Alex quietly gather her books into her backpack and then exit the room, the door closing with nary a whisper. Olivia got up, dressed quickly herself, and licked a finger to smooth her cowlicks. She followed the other girls down to the chapel, and sat in the back row with other girls that looked like they'd rather be anywhere but church.

With unsteady, unpracticed motions she crossed herself when everyone else did, unfamiliar with the little rituals that the other students had down pat. She did thank the Lord when the service ended, and forgot to genuflect as she left the chapel and tripped her way out through the front doors and onto the concrete steps. Breathing deeply, she thought about taking a run around the campus instead of having breakfast, but she didn't want to be sweaty all day, so she didn't.

She went through the motions of Euro Lit, glad that she had correctly interpreted the meaning of Sir Gawain, a little disappointed that she couldn't say the same for Chaucer. In light of the mandatory attendance at the mixer, the girls wouldn't have homework assigned to them for Saturday, and classes would even start an hour later than usual on Saturday mornings, which was already an hour later than they started every other morning. Olivia had to give it to them; the good people at St. Agatha's sure knew how to keep a girl busy. Class six days a week, church twice a week, requisite extracurricular activities, involuntary school dances, more homework in a week than she'd seen in a month at her old school…she could go on, but she was depressed enough already.

Statistics and Chemistry were boring as usual, while her American History class was unusually tedious. Olivia felt restless, and she couldn't exactly say why. The other girls were getting excited, and a few even a little whimsical about the upcoming party, but Olivia didn't find the situation nearly so droll. And she could tell by Alex's frequent, irritated looks at disruptive classmates that she didn't, either. It struck her halfway through her study hall that she didn't have a dress, and so instead of finishing her Economics homework, she worried about that, instead.

It turned out she needn't have worried, homework was forgotten the moment the class began discussing stress in the workplace. Their professor, the formidable Sister Frances, had postulated that stress was induced by nothing more than a person's inability to control their own emotions.

"58% of all working class people have had at least one stress-related emotional breakdown by the age of 60."

"75% of all statistics are made up on the spot," a voice yelled from the back. The elderly nun glared from her command at the front of the room.

"How many of you see your parents come home stressed after a long day of work?"

"Very few of us even see our parents period," Christy remarked dryly out of the side of her mouth.

"Touché," Olivia murmured back. "Although I have a feeling some of these girls prefer it that way."

"I know the less I see of my mother, the better," Christy affirmed.

"I'm lucky, I only have one parent to disappoint, and I am an expert. Years of practice."

"Miss Benson, what is so fascinating?" Sister Frances asked loudly from the front of the room, after having noticed the two friends whispering.

"Nothing, ma'am," Olivia replied deferentially, ducking her head as she always did, when pressed.

"On the contrary, we'd be delighted. Miss Cameron obviously found you amusing enough," Sister Frances sparred, propping one thigh on the edge of her desk, her arms crossed over her chest, her look expectant.

"Well…that is…not to turn this into a philosophical debate, or even a physiological one, for that matter, but couldn't it be argued that our reactions to the external pressures in life are what makes us inherently human?"

"You're right, Miss Benson, it's not a debate," Sister Fitzgerald replied sharply.

"Liv has a good point," Christy spoke up bravely. Olivia squeezed her hand, silently begging her not to make a scene.

Sister Frances raised an eyebrow in skeptical instigation, which fueled Olivia's ire. "I see, and does Miss Benson wish to teach the class herself?"

"Well, you're the one who demanded that she answer," Christy reminded scornfully. Olivia's fingers tightened on Christy's with vise-like intensity.

"You have nothing to say in your own defense?" Sister Frances snapped, clearly ready to win, and move on.

"Well, I think you just validated my argument, as a matter of fact," Olivia spoke out. A few other students turned around in their chairs to stare in mild surprise. "See, Sister, the point of you picking on me is to embarrass me, fluster me in front of my classmates, to put me in my place," Olivia continued, her confidence rising inexplicably. "If that wasn't the reaction that you were expecting, you wouldn't have done it. Your words were the catalyst intended to create stress, so that in the future, I might remember to hold my tongue. But my reply was the counter-agent you weren't expecting, which neutralized the effect of your attempt, and therefore, Chemistry is more important than Economics."

A few titters from other students caused Sister Frances to purse her lips in careful consideration. Olivia was ready for the ax to come down when the bells in steeple rang to signal the end of class.

"Until tomorrow," Sister Frances frowned and removed herself from the desk.

"I thought nuns were supposed to be nice," Olivia grumbled, leaving class.

"Only the ones that don't have fifty kids to baby-sit every hour," Christy retorted wryly.

"Sour grapes?" Amy asked, as she and Caroline approached.

"Olivia duked it out with Sister Franz over the effects of stress in one's life," Christy sparred comically with the air in front of her face.

"Speaking of stress, I realized just a few minutes ago that I don't have a dress to wear tonight," Olivia wrinkled her nose.

"Well, you don't have enough time to go into town, and I doubt Mrs. Kennedy would let you go even if you asked," Caroline responded quietly. She reminded Olivia so much of Beth from Little Women, and Olivia cocked her head at the thought.

"Anything I have would hang on you like a coat rack," short Amy bubbled.

"But I might have something perfect," Christy stepped back and examined Olivia with one closed eye, and one open, comically mimicking a fussy photographer. "Come up to our room at six, and I'll fix you up."

"But what about dinner?…"

"Oh, we're allowed to skip tonight since we'll be getting ready for the thing," Amy shrugged. "We're going to order up pizza, you want in?"

"Oh," Olivia shrugged, and dug the toe of her shoe into the tile floor. "I don't really…have any money," her face burned bright with shame.

Amy waved her plump fingers in a manner that anyone else would have considered snobby, or high-handed. "I'm treating everyone," she insisted.

"In that case, I like pepperoni," Christy grinned effusively.

"Me, too," Olivia echoed, sharing her sly smile.

"Okay, I'm going to miss snack bell," Christy advised, looking at her watch. "Liv…six o'clock," she dashed off, leaving Olivia to walk back to the dorm with Amy and Caroline.

"Are you excited about the dance?" Amy asked, her vivacious tone almost infectious.

"Not really. I'll be standing at the door when my hour is up beating it down," Olivia laughed. They began their trek up the stairs.

"Oh, come on, aren't you the least little bit psyched about talking to someone new?"

"I'd settle for talking to the person I live with," Olivia replied dryly.

"Yes, well," Amy rolled her eyes. "Don't say I didn't warn you." They walked down the hall towards their suite.

"We'll come get you when the pizza gets here," Caroline said as Olivia opened the door carefully and peeked inside.

"Thanks…I may be up with Christy, so…" she shrugged. She entered her room, and quickly changed into jeans and an old t-shirt, and sat down to work on an upcoming paper due in her American History class. She had been hard at work for almost two hours when she heard a curious rustling from the window. About to get up to investigate, when all of the sudden, the sash rose with a clatter, and startled, Olivia yelped. A bedraggled Alex came crawling through the window, her wet hair matted to her head.

"It's raining," she announced, as it was the most normal thing in the world that she would come crawling through a third-story window. Alex inspected a scrape on her forearm with interest. "Well, that's gonna scar."


"That is an acceptable nickname in most social circles," Alex replied, standing, trying to regain her bearings.

"What were you doing out on the roof?"

"Relaxing," Alex hedged. Olivia's mouth was still open in shock, and her brain finally caught up.

"Is that where you've been hiding? You've been out on the roof all this time?"

"Hiding?" Alex snapped, her eyebrow raising contemptuously, her eyes flashing. "Who said I was hiding? Have you been looking for me?"

"Well, yes."

"Why didn't you just ask me?"

Olivia didn't have a good answer to that, mostly because that would have been the most direct course of action, and she hadn't taken it. "Ah…well, because…" she trailed off helplessly, at a loss.

Alex stalked across the room toward her dresser. "Allow me to guess. All of your new buddies have been gathering around like little chipmunks to gossip and regale you with tales of how odd and eccentric and cranky Alex Cabot is. And the more and more they chatter; the more and more mysterious I seem. And before long, you're just eating it right out of their hands." Alex slammed her bureau drawer shut in frustration. She stormed towards the bathroom, but Olivia stopped her with a firm hand on Alex's arm.

"Let me go! I need to shower."

"Well, I think we need to fight," Olivia retorted deftly. "Since the moment I walked through that door, you've treated me like a hired hand…actually, you've treated me like a hired hand you've been forced to room with."

Alex closed her eyes in silent acceptance, knowing now that Olivia had heard her arguing with Mrs. Kennedy the day she moved in. Her body was turned, facing the window, her back almost to Olivia completely.

"You bait me, you hate me, you all but ignore me, and you expect me to come ask you where your little secret hiding place is? Why would I even expect an answer?"

"Are you quite finished?"

"No! Alex, I like you, a lot. But you've got to give me something to work with. I know your mother dumped you off to live here at a ridiculously young age, but I'm not her, and I'm not going to push you away. Please, let me be your friend." She released Alex's arm, and Alex turned her head just slightly towards Olivia, her voice trembling as she said:

"You don't know anything about me." She escaped to the bathroom and closed the door with a resounding crash.

Olivia let out a huge sigh of frustration. "Excellent job, Olivia. That was handled perfectly," she berated herself aloud, hoping that someone—the walls, the floor, God, someone would give her an answer. As it were, a fist pounded on her door, and a single word was shouted through the old wood.


Olivia rolled her eyes at Amy's exuberance, and went to go join her friends, wondering all the while if Alex was ever going to come around.

"So then, my best friend Elliot tries to put the fire out by peeing on it…boys," Olivia rolled her eyes at the gathered group of girls, and they nodded in tacit acceptance that boys were in fact, stupid.

"So what about the girl with the pot?" Caroline asked, her eyes opened wide.

"No, she took off when she heard the sirens," Olivia reminded her. "So I'm there, with a fire that she and her idiot boyfriend started…"

"Wait, Derwood?" Amy broke in, so involved in the story that more soda was being poured on the floor than in the glass.

"Yeah, this fire is just out of control, and I'm with the guy who's trying to put it out with his pants down. So of course this is the first thing the firefighter sees when they get there…"

"Oh, no, did your friend burn his…equipment?" Another girl, Florence Mackaby asked in awe.

"Good of Flo to be so concerned about the dicks involved in this story," Ellen rolled her eyes from her position on Caro's bed.

Olivia laughed, "Elliot was fine. But that firefighter might have been scarred for life."

Christy wiped tears from the corners of her eyes, by far the most amused party of the group. "Damn, Liv. You sure know how to tell a story."

"Gripping, wasn't it?" Olivia's eyes shone with unrepressed felicity.

"Oh, God, Caro, is that the time?" Amy jumped up from her place on the floor and checked the clock. "It's already seven thirty!"

"Damn," Christy stood, brushing crumbs from her lap.

"All those pricks from St. Chris's are going to show up and be alone down in the 'hall," Ellen laughed as she too, stood and stretched luxuriously. Christy reached out to give her a wallop in the stomach, causing Ellen to snort in protest.

"I'll warm up the curling iron!" Amy sang as she darted into the bathroom.

"Come on, Liv, we have dresses to try on," Christy prodded, grabbing her things from Amy's bed.

"I'll be right behind you," Olivia swore as Christy, Ellen and Florence all filed out, thanking Amy for dinner in the process.

"What's up?" Amy asked as soon as the door was closed, her curiosity lighting up her face. In a flash, Olivia had a vision of Amy as a child; up at 3 am on Christmas morning, just dying to get her presents unwrapped as quickly as possible.

"Not a whole lot, I was just wondering…a favor, really. I know that you have certain…feelings, about Alex, and her admittedly sometimes-less-than-charming personality."

"But?" Caro threw in, always gentle.

"But I was wondering if you would help me make a real effort to include Alex. I think she's lonely…and I just…I just don't want her to feel that way anymore," Olivia admitted shyly.

Amy sighed hugely, and looked to Caro, as if for support. "Olivia's right. We should be opening our hearts to her."

Caroline nodded in agreement, looking a little shamed herself.

"Alright," Amy finally said, and Olivia beamed.

"Thank you."

"Go," Amy waved her off. "Get ready."

Olivia bounced off, glad that she was trying to reach out to Alex. Bounding up the stairs to the fourth floor, wondering if Mrs. Bates would approve stair-climbing as her "extra-curricular" activity, Olivia didn't even think as she approached the door to Christy and Ellen's room. She rapped once, and then barged in, the comment she was going to make dying on her lips.

Christy and Ellen were locked in an embrace, their mouths fused together in a blatantly carnal way. They broke apart when door flew open, both out of breath, and both taking an enormous step away from each other.

"Liv, uh…hi," Ellen made eye contact with the floor and scratched the back of her neck as if there was any plausible deniability left at this point.

"We can explain," Christy stammered.

"I don't think you have to," Olivia answered, sardonic. She closed the door behind her. "Honestly, I don't know why I bother even opening doors around this place. I'm just going to walk around blindfolded from now on."

Clearly without a clue as to what she was talking about, Christy and Ellen shared a "what now?" look. Christy's eyes were filling with unshed tears, and Olivia's heart softened immediately.

"You have nothing to worry about," Olivia promised.

"So…you won't tell?" Ellen finally asked, her voice squeaking at the end.

"Scout's honor," Olivia held up four fingers in a bastardization of the correct hand signal. "I'll take it to my grave, under lock and key."

Christy sighed in relief, brushing Ellen's hand as if to bring her some comfort as well. Ellen was now flashing a wily grin in Olivia's direction.

"Do you…play…for our team? You do, don't you?" she asked, suspiciously.

Olivia didn't say anything, but looked up at the ceiling innocently.

"You sly dog," Ellen laughed heartily. "I told you," she turned to Christy, vindicated. Christy dabbed at the corners of her eyes, her breathing finally returning to normal.

"So you did," Christy grinned back, and her shaky laugh had more relief that she would admit to later.

Trying to dispel some of the awkwardness, Olivia turned to give the room her full inspection. The inside of the door was painted with all the colors of the rainbow, obviously, a nod. Beyond the door, the wall that Christy's bed was pressed against was plastered completely in movie posters, everything from Jaws to Gone With the Wind to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On the opposite wall, Ellen had sports posters wallpapered in much the same way. On the intersecting wall, they had merged the two themes rather creatively.

Painted a deep red, Olivia found the color complemented both girls in their own way. Christy wore red well, and it was obvious from her matching spread and accent pillows that it was her favorite color. While Olivia hadn't seen Ellen wear anything but black or blue, the fiery hue matched her personality, her spirit. Against the wall were movie posters that had faces of athletes pasted on as if they belonged. Wilt Chamberlain's head graced Bogart's body in an advertisement for Casablanca. Likewise, Greta Garbo was playing soccer in a far-away land where her jersey was #10, and she played for the Eagles.

"Who gave you permission to paint the walls?"

"No one, really," Ellen admitted.

"Ellie painted it all herself," Christy boasted proudly.

"Awww," Ellen blushed. "Mrs. K never comes up here and if our floor monitor noticed, she hasn't ever said anything. Plus our sentence isn't up for a couple more years, so I figure we can paint it back if need be."


"Think prison, Liv," Christy rolled her eyes as she sailed past her two friends on her way to the closet. "She thinks she's funny."

"Never got any complaints before," Ellen groused good-naturedly.

"I was thinking an earthy color for you, Liv…brown, maybe, or green," Christy pulled dresses of each color out of her closet as she spoke, one a rich velvety umber and the other a silky emerald confection.

Ellen crowded behind them to oversee the goings-on.

"You're the boss," Olivia laughed weakly.

"Not the green," Ellen overruled from her post as Christy fingered the sleek hem of the dress contemplatively. "You wear the green." Almost fussy.

"What do you care?" Christy gave an odd half-smile-half-frown.

"The green'll look better on you, matches your eyes," Ellen remarked, studiously regarding the floor. Olivia looked closer, and saw that Christy's eyes, which she had originally found to be hazel, were actually a light shade of green, like jade. "That one's my favorite," Ellen finally said, still quiet.

"Yeah?" Christy's delight was obvious, if her beatific smile was any indication.

"I think Ellen is a closeted femme," Olivia teased playfully. "Suddenly she's an expert on matching fabrics and colors. Next she'll be picking out our shoes."

Ellen pshawed and wandered away from the two friends.

"Speaking of, babe, what are you going to wear?" Christy asked, instantly curious.

"Uh, slacks."

"Slacks and what?"

"Slacks aren't enough?" Ellen cocked her head.

"What shirt, dummy? Unless you were planning to go topless…?"

"Attila would love that!" Ellen hooted gleefully.

"Who's Attila?" Olivia asked, amused.

"Ellie calls Miss King Attila…as in Attila the Hun. I told you she thinks she's a laugh riot."

"Ahhh," Olivia nodded, and she and Christy both turned back towards her wardrobe.

"What about brown, Liv?" Christy pressed.

"Go with the red," Ellen suggested from the bed. Olivia reached for the hanger and pulled the red dress out of the closet, examining it curiously.

"Red might just be perfect," Christy agreed, her voice rising with excitement. The dress was more of a blood red, a deep crimson, and from what Olivia could tell, gossamer silk lay over a satiny scarlet shell, creating darker shadows in the fabric where it clung to the body. "Try it on," Christy encouraged, taking the hanger. Olivia quickly shed her jeans and top, and took the beautiful dress back into her own hands.

Olivia delicately loosed the zipper and then carefully lowered the fabric to step into the dress. Christy helped pull it up around her shoulders, and then zipped her into it with a flourish.

"Oh, Liv, it fits perfectly," Christy sighed happily.

"Of course it does," Ellen commented, not looking up from the magazine she was now reading. "You're both the same height, and you're both in shape."

"Shush, you," Christy admonished lightly.

"Does everything look okay?" Liv asked, turning to inspect her backside in the mirror on the door. "Is everything in the right place?" She made a comical motion with her hands to indicate her breasts might be out of alignment.

Christy giggled in response. "You look perfect. And I've got the perfect shoes, too!" She got down onto her hands and knees and crawled into the closet at an angle, throwing items from inside out onto the carpeted floor of their bedroom.

After several long minutes, she backed out and held them up triumphantly. "Ta da."

Olivia looked dubious. Her prize was a pair of three-inch strappy high heels that looked like they would be hell on her ankles. "Oh, Chris," she said doubtfully. "I'll break my neck in those."

Christy shook her head emphatically. "No, you won't. Just sit down a lot and don't drink the spiked punch, you'll be fine."

"Don't do it, Liv. Fight the dark side," Ellen moaned piteously from her spot on the bed, ever the comedian. Christy glared.

"You'll be fine," she reassured Olivia patiently. Olivia sat on the edge of Christy's bed and put the shoes on, loving the way her party dress clung to the skin of her thighs. She looked down at the draped cloth that covered her breasts and prayed that her bra wasn't visible through the fabric.

"This is awfully sexy for a school dance," she worried aloud.

"It's better than your uniform," Christy waved off her concerns with a flick of her wrist. "It's not too short, it has sleeves, and you look beautiful. And that's a lot more than some of those tramps can say," she finished darkly.

Olivia looked up to see Christy applying her make-up in the closet doorway, using the mirror over the door. Christy looked at Olivia's reflection watching her primp.

"You want me to do you, too?" Christy asked, her eyebrows raised.

"Oh, no, I couldn't. You've already done so much," Olivia protested.

"Nonsense!" Christy exclaimed, beckoning her friend over. Olivia rose, shaky on her heels and crossed the room with care, her steps tentative.

"She loves this shit, Liv," Ellen threw in, licking a finger before lazily turning a page. "She's like a sicko Cinderella fairy godmother,"

"Only if you get…lucky, you don't have to return the dress until tomorrow," Christy gave Olivia a saucy grin.

"I doubt I would get the room to myself long enough to get lucky," Olivia commented. "Alex doesn't seem like the type to break the rules."

"She's locked up tighter than Fort Knox," Christy agreed idly.

"Speaking from personal experience?" Olivia asked coyly, grinning.

Ellen burst out laughing from her own bed, and even Christy could resist giggling.

"One Cabot girl is enough for me," Christy threw back, applying blusher to the apples of Olivia's cheeks. She gave a light coating of bronzer, and then gave Olivia some brown eyeshadow for contrast. A hint of dark red lipstick and Christy kissed her fingers dramatically.

"Perfecto!" she exclaimed. Ellen finally looked up and gave Olivia a confidence-boosting wolf-whistle.

"If only I could still get that reaction," Christy quipped dryly.

"Oh, honey," Ellen leapt off the bed and practically tackled Christy into the closet. Olivia could hear wet smacking sounds from within, and Christy squealing in response.

"Not the hair! Not the hair!"

From the effervescent sounds of giggles accompanying the plea, Olivia determined it was nothing serious, and a moment later, both girls emerged from the closet, both with flushed and panting faces.

"Sorry about that insane display of affection," Christy rolled her eyes and used the mirror to adjust her hairpins.

Ellen stretched lethargically, like a cat, and then wandered over to her own closet and began to pull out trousers.

"What do you think, Olivia?" She asked politely, presenting her with a blue pinstriped pair and a charcoal wool pair.

Olivia wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the navy. "It's too hot for wool, still."

Ellen returned the heavier pair to the closet and then brought out two different dress shirts, one a deep royal blue and the other stark white. Olivia picked the blue, and then encouraged her to pair it with a bright red pair of loafers that she could see sticking out of the other girl's closet.

"Really?" Ellen looked dubious, but Olivia insisted with a firm nod. Ellen shrugged and pulled on the slacks, and then shoved her wide feet into the shoes without another thought.

Meanwhile, Christy was finishing up her make-up and was slipping into her own dress. The green silk met in a deep v-shape down Christy's back, exposing most of the pale, freckled skin there. Her bra-less breasts didn't look lascivious in the modest neckline, but Ellen shot her a look that was clearly lecherous, anyway. The hem fell gracefully around her knees, and Olivia could see her contemplating hosiery, but in the end, just chose some brown summer sandals for a shabby chic look.

Ellen buttoned up her crisply ironed shirt and grimaced, scratching at her neck. Christy crossed over to her and smoothed her collar down lovingly. Her affectionate tone told Olivia everything she needed to know about their relationship.

"Did I get use too much starch?" Christy worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "I'm sorry sweetie." She pulled down the cuffs so that the sleeves hung more naturally, and nuzzled Ellen's ear lovingly.

Olivia averted her eyes from the intimate display and carefully examined her short, blunt fingernails.

"You want me to paint them?" Christy offered excitedly, and Olivia looked up to see Ellen rolling her eyes in the mirror.

"We're late enough as it is," Ellen grumbled, and Olivia shook her head also.

"No, I'd probably just smear them all over this gorgeous dress," she splayed her hands out self-consciously across her hips. Christy gave a suit-yourself shrug and dug through her jewelry box until she found a pair of tiny pearls, which she inserted into her own ears.

She crossed over to Ellen and helped her put in some diamond studs. Together, the three friends left the room, Ellen by far the most comfortable in the evening's ensemble. After a few unsteady steps, Christy evened out and began walking like a pro in her heels, and Olivia admired her adaptability with silent appreciation.

She did feel a little like Cinderella…dressed up in clothes she didn't belong in, going to a dance with a crowd she didn't fit in with, and knowing that there would be no happy ending to this story. Her heart hardened bitterly. As much as she liked Christy and Ellen, she wasn't in their same league and she knew it. These girls came from wealthy families and no matter how humble they were personally, their families and their worlds were far away from Olivia's.

People like the Camerons and the Ramseys bathed in money, slept with money under their pillows, and would probably wear suits made out of money if dollar bills weren't so flammable. Olivia's mother rarely had two nickles to rub together, and every last dime she had went to making sure that Olivia had clothes, food, school supplies, and so forth.

Thinking about rich people always made Olivia think back to the Scrooge McDuck cartoons she used to watch as a kid, how envious she had been that he had a vault full of gold coins that he could swim around in, if he wanted to. Christy frowned at her comically, and Olivia realized she'd been grimacing painfully. She broke into a smile and pushed her unkind thoughts away as they approached the dining hall, where this little shindig was supposed to take place.

As they entered the dining hall, which had been decorated for the occasion with tall white pillar candles, and garlands of fresh flowers, Olivia realized that she had stepped into a fairy tale, one that these people lived every day. Waiters in white linen uniforms skirted around the dance floor, taking drink orders and delivering punch on silver trays.

Young gentlemen bowed as they escorted young ladies out to the dance floor, dressed to the nines in suits and ties. The girls, Olivia's classmates, some of whom only a few days before she'd tackled into muddy playing fields during practice were now donning elegant new dresses and jewelry that had probably been in their family for centuries, or at the very least, decades.

It may have been the delicate laughter tinkling like glass shards shattering, the sweet cloying scent of exotic perfume, the flash of crystalline lights, she wasn't sure, but suddenly Olivia was dizzy, and she hadn't even sampled the infamous punch yet. She cleaved away from the party and went to sit at one of the empty tables. She took deep, cleansing breaths, and one of the waiters deposited a glass of fresh drinking water at her elbow. She grabbed it, taking a grateful gulp, catching her breath before taking time to really gaze around at her classmates.

She saw Florence Mackaby in the arms of a rather tall looking young man who probably had more dick than he had brains. They'd be a good match.

Yvette from the rugby team had obviously been drinking her share of the punch for quite a while, for she was almost asleep on the shoulder of her pimply-faced date who looked as if he'd much rather be back in his dorm room playing Axis and Allies.

Olivia continued to look around, seeing Katie Fitzpatrick waltzing with a perfect looking guy, they probably were betrothed or something equally archaic, and their future flawless progeny would be the same spineless jerks that would be cutting Olivia's children off in traffic, and then flipping the bird for good measure.

Agnes Merchant, God, was that taffeta? Isabel Baxter, looking more butch in her frilly party dress than Ellen did in her trousers and suspenders. Barbara Donnelly, what a bitch… Millie Kennedy, her grandmother's fingers practically shoved up her nose as the elder woman inspected her make-up. Probably chaperoning Millie and her date, though Olivia suspected from the way he was staring at the other beefcakes on the dance floor, he wouldn't be Millie's date for long.

Olivia kept going… Alice King was there, looking like this was the first real party she'd been to in a while. She was knocking back the punch well enough, anyway. Hannah Peterson from the team was also present, holding court with about a half dozen young men, most of whom were hanging on to her every word. She wore the black column dress well, the slit up to her thigh a welcome distraction for most of the boys. How far did Hannah go on the first date? Olivia wondered idly, second base? Probably.

Let's see, Rachel Ramsey's tall head was visible above the rest of the crowd, probably because of the ridiculous hairdo that sat atop her head like a beehive. Olivia could only guess how many holes in the ozone she'd made with the hair spray to keep that in place. She'd seen just about everything there was to see when the faintest movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Olivia glanced over to see what was niggling her peripheral vision…

And Oh. My. God. Alexandra Cabot stood off to the side of the dance floor, looking like a fucking wet dream. Her dance partner was busy laughing it up with one of his friends, ignoring the gorgeous goddess he had on his arm.

Her blonde locks were pulled up into a French twist; lazy tendrils had fallen and were now brushing the unquestionably delicious skin at her nape every time she twisted her pretty neck. The blue fabric that was currently hugging her every curve was the same deep shade of sapphire as the ones that were dangling from her earlobes. The dress came up high, to her collarbone, draping casually there, while sleeveless arms exposed plenty enough skin to make up for it. When she turned just slightly, Olivia could see that Alex's dress had the same revealing dip in the back that Christy's did, only Alex's skin was the color of warm vanilla sugar.

She probably smelled great, too, like some frou frou cosmetics counter, perfume that cost more than Olivia's mother made in a week. Her cheeks were dusted a demure shade of rose, and her eyelids sparkled playfully, pink. Alex was blushing becomingly, though out of embarrassment due to her date's wild antics, and Olivia could think of nothing more than taking Alex back to their room to show her that boys were entirely unnecessary in the scheme of things.

Alex turned to see Olivia staring, and Olivia gave a weak smile in return and waved. Alex didn't smile back; she just held Olivia's eyes for a long minute. If it hadn't been for a boisterous couple brushing past, distracting Alex, she might not have broken the gaze. When the ruckus died down, she had slipped away.

Olivia got up when another rambunctious group came wandering over, looking for seats. Wanting to avoid the noise and attention, she escaped to a rather dark corner to continue her observation in (relative) peace. Without warning, warm fingers curled around hers and Olivia was pulled backwards and around and into a very cramped coat closet.

"What in the hell?…" Olivia began, but stopped short when she realized her abductor was Alex.

"Hey, Olivia."

"We seriously need to talk about your ability to downplay dramatic irony. Crawling through windows, sneaking into the hatcheck. Living with you is like being with James Bond."

Alex ignored her companion's mini-rant. "So I wanted to apologize to you for earlier, for yelling. I didn't mean it. I want us to be friends, too." Struck dumb for a moment, Olivia realized Alex was sincere, touching her hand gently. Olivia wished with all her heart that she could lean forward, cup Alex's face in her hands and kiss her until her toes curled. Alex would get flushed, and maybe a little breathless, her chest would heave as she struggled to get just a little more oxygen. Olivia pressed her thighs together discreetly, wishing Alex would just…

"…leave with me?"


Alex sighed. "I said, we've both checked in already, no one would really notice if we left. Let's just slip out the back way."

"Where would we go?"

"It's a surprise," Alex promised, and grabbed Olivia's hand again, leading her out of the closet and down a darkened hallway, away from the party. She slipped out through a heavy metal door at the end of the corridor, pulling Olivia behind her. Olivia followed obediently as they stepped out onto the green between the campus and the stables.

Alex didn't relinquish her hold on Liv's hand, even after they'd crossed the small ravine and begun an upward climb towards the stables.

"Who was that guy?"

"Which one?" Alex played dumb.

"Very cute. The one you were with, the sorta-handsome one."

"Oh, him." Bored, Olivia noticed. "That is Samuel Merriweather the Third, son of Samuel Merriweather the Second, of Abernathy, Merriweather and Golding."

"Your step-father's business partner?"

"Law partner, and I prefer to call him my mother's husband," Alex replied, without breaking stride.

"So you're dating, or what?"

"He would like to, I've resisted."


"What is this, Twenty Questions?"

"Sort of," Olivia grinned, cheeky. "You're opening like a flower, I'm curious." She shrugged. "So tell me why."

Alex searched for an answer. "Well, for one, it's what Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy would like to see happen. I marry Merriweather, Merriweather and Abernathy litigate all the Cabot funds, we keep all the money in the family, so to speak."

"I see. Any other reasons?"

"I don't like the prick?" Alex tossed out, casually.

"What makes him so prick-ish?" Olivia asked as Alex guided her around the side of the old barn. Alex finally dropped her hand to push back the bolt holding the door closed.

"I don't know," Alex grunted as she slid the bar lock. "He's just too…patrician for me. He takes himself way too seriously, and he expects me to do the same. A little too much blue in his blood." Both girls slipped into the stables. "Plus I'm just not attracted to him," she finished, as an afterthought.

Olivia was overwhelmed with all the smells of the enclosed barn: the sweet heady aroma of fresh hay, the rough smell of weathered leather, the sharp pungent odor of manure. Horses snorting from their stalls, the soft yips of kittens from the small enclosure to her right. Warm, steamy breath of the animals surrounding it all, making it feel cozy.

"Come here," Alex beckoned. She knelt down next to the pen on the floor and lifted one of the newborn kittens, smiling genuinely for perhaps the first time since Olivia had known her. Olivia reached in to give the tiny cats pats and squeezes.

"So who are you attracted to?" Olivia asked nonchalantly, gauging Alex's reaction very carefully.

Alex frowned, "no one, I guess." She held kitten to her face, kissing its downy head. The kitty gave several playful licks in response and Alex giggled. Olivia's heart lurched.

"How long have you been here, Alex?" Olivia asked, serious.

"You were right, before, about that," Alex admitted. "I was very young when I was sent here. Five years old. For the first two years it was still just a day school. The nanny dropped me off, and picked me up, even on Saturdays. Then the dorms were renovated and reopened, and my mother demanded that I be boarded here, despite my age."

"And they let her."

Alex nodded, her expression melancholy.

"When did your father die?"

Alex sighed and rose to her feet. "I was five. Come on," she helped Olivia up and then brushed at her own knees, the effort futile. She led Olivia over to one of the stalls and efficiently released the lock.

"Hi Aloysius," she purred softly, stroking the mare's soft snout. "Olivia, meet Aly. Aly, meet Olivia."

"Hi," Olivia reached up hesitantly to rub the horse's face, feeling absurd for standing in a barn in an evening dress petting an animal she felt could easily eat her whole. "Will he bite me?"

Alex shook her head resolutely. "Don't do anything mean, don't poke her in the eye. She's very gentle." Alex nuzzled the horse's nose, whispering. She stepped away after a moment and turned her attention back to Olivia.

"What about your father?"

"I don't have one," Olivia replied darkly, not making eye contact.

"Well, surely your mother didn't impregnate herself."

"I mean, I don't want to…talk about it," Olivia fumbled, ashamed.

"So no quid pro quo?"


"You know everything about me, I know nothing about you," Alex explained patiently.

"I don't," Olivia fought for the right words. "I don't know…how to tell you."

"Find a way," Alex said gently, brushing her hand across Olivia's cheek. Their eyes met for an extended moment, and only the horse naying quietly distracted the girls, breaking their stare.

"Restless, girl?" Alex asked, rubbing a long graceful finger between her pet's eyes.

Olivia cleared her throat awkwardly. "Is she your favorite?"

"Favorite?" Alex asked, quizzical.

"Your favorite of all the horses," Olivia elaborated.

Alex laughed gaily. "No, she's mine."

"Yours?" Olivia repeated, dumbly. "You have your own horse?"

"One of my few joys," Alex confessed, before giving Aloysius one last pat and stepping backwards out of the stall.

Olivia saw the accident about to happen, but her voice was stuck in the back of her throat. Alex was backing straight into a footstool, certain to trip. Olivia lunged forward, unsure if she even cried out.

Normally graceful Alex snagged the hem of her dress on the back of her heel, and was on the tumble downwards when Olivia reached her. Thrusting both arms out just in time, Olivia braced herself and caught Alex in one spry movement. Though it had seemed to happen in slow motion, now they were flush, Alex bent backwards still, their breasts pressed together, chests heaving as they both struggled to catch their breath.

Olivia lifted Alex back up as if she were the most fragile thing in the world, blushing furiously as she did so. Her nipples strained hard against the fabric of her dress, aroused. Her chocolate eyes dilated hugely in response to the situation. Alex's hands, which were currently wrapped around Olivia's forearms in an attempt to support herself, squeezed gratefully.

Alex licked her dry lips, a perfectly innocent gesture, but the effect went straight to Olivia's quivering thighs. "Thank you," she rasped. Olivia debated leaning forward to kiss Alex and just resolve the potent sexual tension between them once and for all. But Alex regained her balance and released Olivia before Olivia could act on her foolish impulse. It was probably better that way, she thought callously. Debutantes slapped just as hard as other girls.

"Alex…I…" Olivia couldn't seem to find the right words to say after that.

"What?" Alex asked softly.

"I want…That is…Do you…Will you come to my game tomorrow?" Olivia finally blurted.

"That's not what you were going to say," Alex retorted immediately.

"Maybe not, but I'm asking now."
Alex was silent for a moment, thoughtful. "Yes. Yes, I want to come to your game."

Olivia smiled hugely, both relieved and pleased.

"Let's go," Alex locked the stall and reached for Olivia's hand again, and they exited the same way they had come, locking up as they left. They hurried across the campus lawn towards the dorm.

As they approached the dining hall, a large group of kids spilled out onto the walkway from the open doorway.

"Rachel Ramsey fell and split her lip!" Amy announced as soon as Olivia and Alex got close enough to determine what all the hubbub was about.

"She'll be okay," Ellen diagnosed as she sauntered over, Christy in tow.

"Mrs. Kennedy called the paramedics," a voice closer to the front of the crowd cried out.

"Oh, for the love of Pete," Ellen rolled her eyes in response. "It barely even broke the skin."

"She'll probably try to sue someone for the slip and fall," Christy predicted boldly.

"Mrs. Kennedy will come rap your ears for even suggesting it," Alex warned playfully. Ellen and Christy turned towards Alex; a little surprised she was even present.

"Alex, you look wonderful," Christy said sweetly.

"Not too bad, eh? I clean up well," Alex quipped, standing a little taller.

"Not bad at all," Ellen agreed cheerfully. "Like Liv here…who knew she was such a fox?"

The comment had its desired effect. Olivia blushed about twelve different shades of red, and Ellen elbowed her in the ribs, teasing.

"Indeed," Alex agreed.

Olivia's heart soared at the idea of Alex finding her attractive. Don't, she warned herself even so. Don't take it seriously. "So the dance is over?" she said, instead.

"So it would seem," Caroline raised her auburn eyebrows in condescending mockery of Alice King. It was the first time Olivia had seen her display a sense of humor, and she was suddenly aware that it was probably very dry.

"Well, no sense standing out here being cold," Christy finally said, shivering. She held onto Ellen's arm as they crossed the rough terrain of wet grass headed back towards the dorm. Alex and Olivia fell in to step behind them, shooting curious looks to one another as they walked.

They all trooped up the stairs, stopping at the landing where Olivia and Alex would go down that hall towards their room, while Ellen and Christy still had another flight of stairs to ascend.

"Oh, Christy, I need to return the dress."

Christy yawned hugely, and she waved Olivia off. "Tomorrow's fine. Just be on time for the game, eh?"

"Yeah, sure," Olivia grinned and turned to escort Alex back to their room. Alex, however, was already down the hall and leaning against the wall next to their door in an uncharacteristically lazy manner.

"Too much punch?" Olivia asked politely. Alex yawned, too, showing her perfect pearly whites in the process. Alex murmured what could have been an agreement as Olivia unlocked the door.

Alex went in and collapsed on her bed, not bothering to remove her shoes, dress or hose. She buried her face into her pillow and groaned in defeat.

Olivia hung up the borrowed dress and carefully smoothed out the wrinkles. She removed the shoes next, stacking them neatly next to her bureau. She reached for her slip, and turned slightly to see Alex observing her with one eye, the other side of her face still obscured by the pillow. When Alex realized she'd been caught, she rolled off the bed and headed for the bathroom.

"I'm going to be miserable if I don't take all this off," she said as she did so. Olivia just smiled, and didn't reply. Olivia finished undressing, slipping into an old Grateful Dead shirt and then waiting as Alex finished in the bathroom. When she was, Olivia shut the door and inspected herself in the mirror.

She looked quite pretty, actually, with her face made up and her hair lightly styled. And Christy was right; Olivia had always looked good in red. Olivia couldn't help but wonder what Alex saw when she looked at Liv's face, and her dress. Did Alex notice every blemish, every flyaway hair? Did Alex find Olivia too tall, too gangly? Too chubby around the middle?

Olivia brushed her teeth, and then flossed on a whim. She removed the make-up Christy had so artfully applied, and inspected her reflection for another long second before turning out the light. Alex was already in her pajamas and in the bed, almost asleep.

Olivia crawled under the covers and switched out her light, sighing into her own pillow. It had been a good night, despite her initial reservations. She'd gotten to wear a fancy dress, she'd gotten to see Alex in a fancy dress, she'd gotten closer to Alex and she'd become the confidante of two good friends. All in all, not a bad day.

* * *

"Olivia, hustle!" Ellen yelled from the sidelines. Olivia pushed herself harder, faster, hurtling into anyone and everyone that got into her way. The crowd hooted and whistled from the stands as Olivia tackled one of the opposing side's best defensive players. They rolled around for a moment before Olivia wrestled the ball back into her arms and then laid on it so Ellen could call a time-out.

Olivia jogged over to her other teammates and she could see Alex in the bleachers rolling her eyes. Once again, Olivia had managed to get herself completely covered in mud. As if it was her fault they watered the grass so often that the entire playing field was like Louisiana swampland.

The custodians had pulled old aluminum bleachers out of the storage sheds, and Ellen had bribed someone in the Headmistress's office to make sure the bleachers were set up every Friday evening for the game the following afternoon. She was making a serious effort in getting a respectable rugby team together, and more and more girls were approaching every week wanting to tryout.

Interested roommates and fans, if they could be called such, were gathered on the bleachers to watch the games, and Alex hadn't missed a game since the first night she'd told Olivia she'd come. Three weeks had passed since then, and Alex and Olivia were getting closer every day. Sharing little secrets in little ways, teaching each other to be both humble and kind, and there was a noticeable increase in those breathtaking stares that they seemed to be perfecting.

Alex treated coming to the games the same way she treated trips into town, with unnecessary ceremony. The days were getting chillier, and today, she was in the bleachers wearing jeans, which until that day Olivia hadn't even been sure Alex owned, and an adorable tan corduroy coat. Though she didn't understand the rules and regulations of the games, she occasionally cheered Olivia on, and made rude New Yorker comments when fouls were called against Olivia's team.

Olivia wanted to crack up every time Alex shot up in the bleachers and yelled at the referee. What was so amusing was that most of time, Olivia really was in the wrong, and deserved to be fouled. She still got a kick out of Alex's necessary indignation at the call.

"What are you, blind?"

Most of the time Ellen either refereed the game herself, or made Christy do it, and neither of them appreciated Alex's comments, which tickled Olivia even more.

Today's game had two minutes left on the clock and Olivia's team was up by almost ten points. Olivia wasn't worried about a comeback from the opposing side, but wanted to have as much of a lead as possible for bragging rights. Ellen was laying out the remainder of the game in the huddle, but as she looked over to Alex, she found the other girl was watching her intently, and suddenly, Olivia's head was no longer in the game.

The other girls were oblivious, but as Olivia moved back into position on the field, she kept Alex in her line of sight. Time began again, and Olivia had to throw her focus back into the game, however half-hearted.

The other team managed to score again before the clock ran out, mostly due to crappy defense. Olivia stumbled away from the field dying to take a bath and spend the remainder of the evening with Alex, curled up on their respective beds, reading to one another.

At first, the idea of reading aloud had seemed a little ridiculous, but as time passed, Olivia found she retained the material better, and she just enjoyed listening to the husky timbre of Alex's voice. Alex enjoyed it, too, though she never said as much. In the evenings they would alternate chapters, swapping old paperbacks, or the homework assignment, or when they got desperate, magazines and newspapers.

"So I was thinking we could get pizza from the caf and have a dorm room picnic," Olivia proposed as she climbed the bleachers to join Alex.

"That sounds perfect," Alex smiled warmly.

"Liv!" Ellen bellowed from the team's bench. "We've got to go over the playbook. Chris and I have time now, you good?"

Olivia turned back to Alex and gave her a pained look. Alex grinned and shooed her away.

"Yeah, gimme a minute," Olivia called back, not tearing her focus away from Alex. She lowered her voice. "Okay, an hour tops, then pizza, reading and…"

"Go," Alex cut her off, giving her a knowing smile. Liv returned it and jogged down the bleachers to meet up with her friends.

"Give me fifteen minutes," Ellen consulted her waterproof wristwatch as Olivia and Christy fell into step beside her walking back up towards the dorms. "I've got to run get the playbook, and then call Lauren St. Claire from Holy Family to see if they're going to come scrimmage with us next week."

"We'll be waiting here for you," Christy replied as they reached the quad, Ellen branching off to go run her errands, and the other two girls adopting a more leisurely pace. Olivia plopped down under the ancient oak tree that lorded over the courtyard, and Christy found her own carpet of green grass a few feet away.

They lounged back against the trunk of the tree; each lost in their own thoughts. Olivia idly picked at blades of grass, ripping them into tiny shreds.

"You look like you're in la-la land," Olivia chuckled. "Whatcha thinkin' about?"

Christy blushed girlishly. "My head has been in the clouds all day. I've been thinking about the first time Ellen ever kissed me…our anniversary is coming up, so I've been wracking my brain trying to think of a stupid present to buy her, and it occurred to me that I'm actually getting too caught up in it."

"How long has it been?" Olivia grinned in return, beckoning Christy to continue.

"Two years, next week. You know we've known each other since we were like, ten years old, back when we both first came to St. Aggie's. And then I think we were twelve when we decided we wanted to room together. We weren't like all the other girls who were so juvenile and petty with their friendships—you know, one week friends with this girl, the next week hating her, gossiping about her."

"You're lucky, there seem to be plenty of those around," Olivia replied with a sarcastic roll of her eyes.

"We've been so blessed," Christy agreed, earnestly.

Olivia tucked her foot up underneath her bottom. "So get to the good stuff."

Christy giggled gaily, and leaned in. "Well, when we were fourteen, about this time—almost Thanksgiving—Ellen started acting really weird. Avoiding me, constantly at my throat about something or other, and so private all the time. She would go off in the woods and sit for hours down on the dock at the lake. She wouldn't talk to me, she wouldn't talk to her other friends, it was just a bad time—I was really worried about her.

"Then one Saturday afternoon after class, Ellen stormed off in a huff—we'd been fighting about something stupid, I forget what now—and she took off on foot down to the lake. Okay, so not fifteen minutes later this huge storm blows in, and the sky is just black, and I'm worried sick that Ellen's about to get stuck out in this downpour. So I put on my sneakers and ran as fast as I could down to the lake, which is almost a mile and a half from here.

"Of course as soon as I got there, it started raining cats and dogs, and I was soaked in like, two seconds. Well, the lightening was so bad I was afraid we were both going to be toast before we could even get back to the dorms. Well, she started into me about following her down there, and not respecting her privacy, and I'm still not sure what happened, but I just snapped. I told her I wanted to know what was going on with her, and I wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer," Christy chuckled to herself at the memory. "So I jumped into the lake, and I told her I wasn't going to come out until she told me what was wrong."

"What happened?" Olivia leaned forward, eyes shining.

"Oh, that," Christy laughed again. "She screamed at me that I was crazy, and she hoped I got a lightening bolt straight up my ass for being so dumb."

Olivia threw back her head and guffawed. "Then what?"

"Then she pleaded with me to get out before I really did kill myself, and I just swam around laughing, asking why she suddenly cared so much.

"Well, she got more and more nervous, and I kept asking why she was so concerned, and finally she just got fed up and yelled, 'because I'm in love with you, you damn fool!'"

Olivia chortled again, and Christy looked enamored.

"So I stood up, marched straight out of the water, right up to where she was standing on the dock, and I said to her, 'well, why didn't you just say so?'"

"Ahhhh," Olivia smiled hugely.

"And she took me into her arms and she kissed me until I saw stars," Christy finished with a satisfied sigh. "And so now I don't let a day go by that I don't tell her that I love her."

"That's a great story," Olivia agreed.

Christy shook off the haze surrounding her and focused on Olivia. "So what about you?" she prodded. "What was your first kiss like?"

"I'll let you know when it happens," Olivia replied simply.

"Ooooh, who is going to be the lucky kissee?"

"Not sure," Olivia began unlacing her running shoes. "There's this…girl, that I like, but she's been sending me kind-of mixed signals…and I can't really figure out if she likes me…you know, that way, or if she just likes me."

"Alex is a mystery," Christy mused in agreement.

"Alex!" Olivia blurted, bewildered. "What makes you so sure it's Alex?"

"Well, if I hadn't already had some suspicion, that reaction certainly sealed the deal."

Olivia kicked herself. "So how did you know? Was I too obvious? I was too obvious, wasn't I?" She carefully emptied the pebbles out of her running shoes, watching Christy out of the corner of her eye.

"Not at all. At least, not to the casual observer. But I noticed just because…I don't know, you just light up around Alex in a different way. When we're just sitting around talking and someone mentions her name, you blush like…like someone just told you your underwear was showing." Christy smiled warmly. "You're in love, it's natural."

"Aiiii," Olivia sighed, defeated. "There's nothing natural about it," she whined. "I can't sleep, I think about her all the time, she's right there, constantly. And I just have no one to talk to."

"We're talking now," Christy pointed out.

"She's…driving me crazy," Olivia admitted. "I can't figure out if she's gay, I can't figure out if she's into me, or just oblivious, or if she's teasing me because she's sadistic and she knows I'm looking…"

Christy laughed. "She's not sadistic, Liv…and she's not oblivious. Alex is probably one of the smartest, most observant people that I've ever met, and she wouldn't just fuck with you for the fun of it. So she's either confused herself…or she's not."

"So what would you do?"

"Honestly? I would wait for Alex to make the first move. But then again, I'm shy," Christy grinned and flushed.

"Shy, my ass!" Jump in a lake in the middle of a lightening storm and call yourself shy!" Olivia chuffed.

"'Tis a fault, to be sure," Christy agreed blithely, leaning back against the old tree once more.

"Well, thanks," Olivia finally said, after a moment. "Thanks for the advice. Thanks for being a friend."

"Yeah, you owe me big time," Christy joked, her eyes closed peacefully as she relaxed, reclined.

"Maybe for your anniversary you can offer to re-enact the dramatic moment that brought you together," Olivia teased in return.

"Yeah, Ellen wouldn't kill me over that or anything," Christy remarked dryly.

"I wouldn't kill you over what?" Ellen asked as she loped up.

"We were actually discussing our anniversary, and it's a surprise," Christy sat up and preened demurely as Ellen plopped herself down across from the two girls. Ellen rolled her eyes playfully.

"Keep your little secrets, then," she groused good-naturedly.

"Okay, let's zip through this, Alex and I have a pizza date in a less than an hour," Olivia grabbed for the playbook.

Ellen and Christy shared a significant look, but didn't give Olivia a hard time as they got down to business.

It had taken almost an hour and a half to finish the game plan for the following week's game, and Olivia was exhausted. She trudged away from the small meeting with little energy. She wondered how pissed Alex would be that their meeting had run late, and had a naughty little thought about the myriad ways that Olivia could make it up to her.

She stumbled along the third floor hall, sighing in grateful relief when she reached her own room.

"What's going on with Christy Cameron?" Alex asked as soon as Olivia walked through the door, her lips pinched.

"What'ya mean?" Olivia tossed her sports bag in the storage closet and kicked off her tennis shoes. Alex had stopped going through her laundry when Olivia came in the room, and now she was standing beside her bed, hands on her hips.

"What's going with you and Christy Cameron?" Alex rephrased, boldly.

"Nothing," Olivia promised, unsure as to what Alex was getting at. "Why?"

"I saw you just now, with her."

"Yeah, she and I and Ellen are trying to recruit another girls' soccer teams to play, in a real league," Olivia got excited, distracted. "Ellen's been calling some other schools, St. Mike's, St. Jude's, Holy Family…she thinks we have a real shot at getting some of them to get together for matches."

"I just saw you and Christy," Alex faltered, fidgeting.

"That? Alex, we were just talking," Olivia said, before stripping off her dirt-caked jersey. She sniffed experimentally under her arms. "Why do you even care?"

Alex squared her shoulders. "I don't."

"Yeah, right," Olivia retorted, under her breath, moving to the closet to grab her own bag of dirty clothes.

"Yeah right, what?" Alex taunted.

"Yeah right you just interrogated me about hanging out with a friend. What's the big deal, Alex?" Olivia argued, her movements jerky and angry.

"Nothing," Alex insisted, going back to sorting her laundry.

Olivia sighed, blowing air out from her nose to ruffle her short bangs. "I can promise…nothing's going on. Christy is seeing someone," she threw in casually, hoping Alex would take the bait.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Alex's eyes flashed, the way they always did when she was angry. She turned away from her piles of clothes again, to stare Olivia down.

"What do you think it means?" Olivia asked softly, not backing down.

A sharp knock at the door interrupted the argument.

"Girls! I need your laundry!" Mrs. Beasley called through the door before opening it. Olivia sorted her darks and colors quickly, while Mrs. Beasley tapped her foot and looked impatient. Alex dumped her own clothes into the basket on top of Olivia's, and then the baskets were loaded on Mrs. Beasley's cart before disappearing down the hall.

"Alex!" Katie Fitzpatrick was standing in the hall, two doors down. "I need your help for a minute." She glared at Olivia and Olivia stuck her tongue out in response.

"To be continued," Alex threatened darkly as she passed Olivia in the doorway.

Olivia pasted on her best fake-smile. "Can't wait!"

Alex and Katie went into Katie's room and the door rattled harder than necessary against the frame as it was closed.

Olivia couldn't help but smile to herself. So Alex was jealous…

But, she thought, deflated, now she was also pissed off at Olivia. Liv sighed again as she washed out her jersey and shorts in the shower stall, watching the mud run down the drain, scrubbing at the strong stains. She hung them to dry in the shower stall, hoping she could catch the laundry cart.

She wrapped herself in a towel before crossing her room to the bureau to pick out underwear and socks. She hoped Alex would come back in a few minutes so that Olivia could apologize, they could make up and go get dinner the way they had planned that afternoon. She had barely begun rifling through the drawer when Mrs. Beasley barged in without knocking.

"Where's Alexandra?" she demanded.

Olivia looked up, bemused. "I think she's down in Katie Fitzpatrick's room…is something wrong?"

"I'll find her," Mrs. Beasley left the room in the same whirlwind she'd come in on, and through the thin walls, Olivia could hear her pound on Katie's door. Olivia strained to hear what was going on, but didn't dare poke her head out into the hall and risk the wrath of Battle-Ax Beasley.

She didn't have to wait long, because less than a minute later, Alex bustled into the room, intent.

"Alex? What's going on? Is something wrong?"

Alex stopped, looking penitent. "Liv, I'm sorry, I know we had plans tonight, but I have to go to Albany. Mrs. Kennedy already called for a cab."

Olivia furrowed her brow. The nearest town, a drab little affair called Newport, was just about ten minutes away and was usually sufficient for any supplies or shopping that the girls needed. Albany was almost an hour south, however.

"Why? What's wrong?"

"My mother. She fainted at one of her charity fund-raisers. They think maybe it was a heart attack."

"God, Alex. I'm sorry," Olivia sighed heavily. "What can I do?"

"Will you…will you come with me?"

"Yes!" Olivia immediately replied, and then cringed at her own over-eagerness. Alex just looked relieved, though, and she began moving again, towards her dresser.

"Do I have time for a shower?"

"Yes, but hurry. I'll pack," Alex consulted her watch.

"Bring the blue sweater, oh, and the jeans with the hole," Olivia requested as Alex practically pushed her into the bathroom. Olivia showered with haste, and when she returned to the room, she found Alex standing at Olivia's dresser, uncertain.

"What's wrong?" Olivia asked, approaching from behind. Alex turned to see Olivia wearing only a pristine white bath towel and she swallowed thickly.

"I don't know…pick your underwear," Alex requested, blushing as she turned away. Olivia smiled to herself as she packed her underclothes and toiletries into her duffel bag. She threw on the mauve sweater her mother had sent down for her birthday and jeans and was in the process of combing her hair when they heard the horn of the cab down below.

Alex herded Olivia out of the door, turning off lights and locking up. They ran down the stairs and out to the drive before anyone could catch Olivia sneaking out. The taxi pulled out of the gates without either of the two girls turning around for a glance.

Olivia settled in her seat, shivering slightly. Alex reached for her hand, for warmth or just for comfort, Olivia couldn't tell and didn't care. She held Alex's hand almost the entire drive through upstate New York towards Albany.

"What's going to happen?" Olivia asked when they entered the city limits.

"Well, I suppose we'll go to the hospital, check on her. Then we'll probably check into a hotel tonight. Tomorrow is anyone's guess. If you're worried about Monday, I'll send you back in a cab if I have to stay."

"I'm more worried about what's going to happen when they find out I've been gone," Olivia confessed.

"Don't worry about that, I'll tell them I kidnapped you," Alex grinned.

"That will go over so well," Olivia gave her the Look.

"Like a screen door on a submarine!" Alex agreed cheerfully. Olivia couldn't help but chuckle at the imagery of that, and Alex squeezed her hand tighter.

"Thank you for coming. I can't tell you what it means to me."

"I'm sorry I goaded you into that fight this afternoon," Olivia replied, and Alex closed her fingers over Olivia' mouth to quiet her. She leaned in very close.

"I started it, and I'm the one who should be sorry. It was ridiculous to fight," she whispered. Olivia could feel the warm sting of Alex's breath against her face, and she didn't try to argue or say anything more in her defense.

They remained silent until they reached the hospital, and then it became a rush of noise, activity, and self-importance. One of Alex's family members whisked her away, but not before she shot a wistful look at Olivia that said everything and nothing all at once. She disappeared behind steel double doors.

Olivia settled into one of the hospital-green plastic chairs that were waiting room chic. She thumbed through well-worn tabloids that were three and four months old, then she watched infomercials on the small TV in the corner. She wasn't sure at what point she dozed off, but the next thing she was conscious of was a haggard Alex waking her, trying to pull her cramped and aching body from her chair.

They didn't say much as they left the hospital, Alex didn't attempt to take her hand or touch her in any way, and it left Olivia feeling empty. The night was dark, very cold, and an icy gust of wind was blowing from the north, shaking everything that wasn't bolted down. They didn't bother calling a cab, there was a hotel on the outer edge of the hospital parking lot, and Alex led her companion through a small hedge and right up to the front door.

Olivia stayed outside, content to be chilly for the moment as she watched through the wide glass doors as Alex booked a room and paid for the night. One day she would get up the nerve to ask Alex just how money was waiting for her in her trust when she came of age. For whatever reason, Olivia wanted to know that the same way she wanted to know everything else about Alex, and she wasn't sure if that was creepy and stalker-ish, or just concerned and curious.

Alex returned with a room key, and led them around the side of the building to the stairwell entrance. They ascended and when they reached the door of room 212, Alex opened it without pomp.

"I got one with two beds," she noted idly. Olivia entered the room, it was stark, but clean, and it would certainly make do for a night or two.

"I'm starving," Olivia whispered, wrapping her arms around her torso for warmth.

"I asked the desk clerk to send up some sandwiches, he said that he would," Alex nodded, then crossed to the heating unit and flipped it on, getting immediate gratification in the form of a sultry breath across her face.

"You should shower, change," Olivia said softly as she came to stand next to her friend. She was almost a half of a foot taller than Alex was; but Alex commanded respect in a way that Olivia couldn't. Alex carried herself the way that most adult women did not, she was graceful, yet Olivia still caught glimpses of the clumsy uncertainty of youth at times. Alex made up in attitude what she lacked in stature. The black framed glasses that Olivia adored so sat proud atop high cheekbones, and for a moment Olivia could see Alex picking out those frames, an attempt to hide from the world, and yet, be distinguished in it at the same time.

"Yes," Alex agreed after a moment, catching Olivia's gaze and holding it. She shuffled towards the bathroom, still bone-tired, and a second later, the water started running for a bath. Olivia changed into an old sleep shirt and shorts, and was putting on thermal socks when the bellhop knocked on the door with their dinner. Olivia took it from him and set up their meal on the carpet at the foot of the bed.

Alex joined her a few minutes later, and sank down onto her knees in weary relief. "I could eat a horse," she proclaimed, her voice already sleepy.

Olivia agreed by silently nodding and taking a huge bite out of her sandwich. They shared a bag of chips, and a soda. Olivia thought of her earlier plans to have a "picnic" on the floor of their dorm room, and the irony made her snort in appreciation for the way life could fuck a girl over sometimes. Alex gave her an amused look, but didn't question her.

After they were finished, Olivia threw away the trash and brushed her teeth before crawling into the far bed, leaving Alex the bed closest to the heater. Alex finished up in the bathroom and then came to stand at the foot of the bed, and the plaintive look on her face took Olivia's breath away. Wordlessly, Olivia pulled back the covers next to her body and scooted over to allow Alex to crawl in next to her on the mattress. Pulling the covers back over both of them, Olivia spooned Alex's backside, her breath hitching as Alex pulled Olivia's arm around her body in a tighter embrace. One of them managed to turn out the light before they settled back down to sleep. Olivia's cheek was pressed against the sleek silkiness of Alex's hair, the scent invigorating and inviting.

Olivia's heart pounded wildly as Alex lay there in her arms, feeling warm and oh-so-soft. What did this mean? Could it be that Alex was thinking of Olivia as much as Olivia was thinking of Alex? Could it be something more than plenty of long gazes, plenty of heated arguments?

Alex heaved in her grasp, and Olivia's heart fell to the pit of her stomach when she realized Alex was weeping. She shushed, made comforting sounds as she rocked her friend gently. Alex turned over, threw her arms around Olivia's neck and sobbed. Olivia's nipples were hard and throbbing against Alex's chest, and she abashedly wondered if this compared at all to the embarrassment boys felt when their bodies betrayed them similarly.

Alex continued to cry, and Olivia's hand reached over to stroke Alex's back, to bring her a little comfort. The soft nothings being whispered right into Alex's ear seemed to help, and after a moment, Olivia felt Alex pull away just long enough to dry her eyes on her pajama top.

"I'm sorry, Olivia. You've been such a good friend," Alex murmured in the dark. Olivia could smell the minty freshness of her toothpaste being whispered against the skin of her face.

"I…" Olivia trailed off, not finding the words she needed to tell Alex how she felt.

It was Alex's turn to shush Olivia as she closed gentle, chilled fingers against the warm plumpness of Olivia's lips. Alex trailed the same hand down Olivia's chin, and then her throat, her breath catching. Olivia was also finding it hard to consume the oxygen she needed, and she let out a shaky sigh. Alex leaned forward without another sound and brushed her lips so briefly against Liv's that Olivia couldn't be certain that it had even happened.

Then again, and Olivia knew she hadn't imagined it. She reached up tenderly and took Alex's face between her hands, angling Alex's head back just slightly. She melded her mouth against Alex's, feeling an exploratory tongue against her own lips. Olivia swallowed Alex's delicate moan of pleasure as Olivia's fingers brushed Alex's breast through her pajama top. Tongues met and squirmed against one another and Olivia's hot pant of breath against Alex's lips seemed to spurn her on, because Alex repositioned her mouth for better access.

"Oh, God, Liv," Alex whispered, her tone as erotic as Olivia had ever heard it. "I adore you," was whispered so softly, Olivia wasn't sure exactly what was said. All she could discern was that Alex was more passionate than Olivia ever would have given her credit for.

"Believe me," Olivia kissed Alex once, twice. "When I say…" Kiss. "That ending this…" Long breath, another drugging, dragging kiss. "Is not what I want to do."

"But?" Alex whispered back, confused, her berry-pink lips swollen sensuously.

"We have to get up early, and we're both so tired," Olivia shared another long kiss with her friend, and then rested her forehead against Alex's, still holding her close.

Alex nodded, knowing Olivia was right, knowing they needed to sleep.

"Thank you, again, Olivia, for coming with me," she whispered, holding Olivia's hand to her chest, over her heart.

"The pleasure was all mine."

Part 3

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