DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Originally written for earthangie for the 2006 Guns and Microscopes femslash_today ficathon on LiveJournal. A big hug and thanks to my lovely beta reader, fewthistle.
SPOILERS: Post-"Loss," Post-"Ghost," Pre-Conviction
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Not So Soft
By tremblingmoon


The city was not as easy as she remembered, not as peaceful, not as lovely, not as perfect, but it was home. Or, so she had been told. With one deep breath she stepped outside, the glass doors of the terminal sliding shut with a whoosh—drawing her back or nudging her forward she wasn't sure—and she was momentarily awash in sensation, fingers tingling and mind numb and a curious mélange of fear and hope coursing over the surface of her skin.

Like the first time she rode a bike, its metal frame shiny and bright and red, its spokes cleaner than they ever would be again, she was terrified and thrilled with the unspoken knowledge that her mobility, her life as she knew it, was forever changing. But she was seven then: her body malleable, broken bones, bruises, and scratches—of which there were many— easily mended and forgotten. Now she was cresting her mid-thirties, and things broken or otherwise altered were not so easily set right.

A dark sedan was waiting by the curb. She'd been told the car would be the last of many concessions: they had followed her to the airport, an agent on the plane and next to her now carrying one of her bags, and they would be taking her to the apartment her cousin had secured and kept for her since the last time she'd been here. The last time. Another lifetime—was it three or four different lives she had led?—she had been here only a few days then, not long enough to get a grip on anything real, before she was whisked off again: only a shadow, a mirage, a ghost miraculously risen from the dead.

As she slid into the darkened car, Alex's mind swum with names: hers and a thousand others, some arching up from the depth of her psyche with startling force, names she never wanted to hear again but knew with deepening certainty would echo in her dreams for years to come. Velez. Connors. Hammond…. Emily. And then there were the names that, for two years, she had tried to forget. Olivia, her mind mutinously reminded her before she pushed the thought aside. And now the agents were telling her she no longer had to fear any name, even her own.

"You should call your old friends," they suggested. "Try to settle back into the life you used to know."

Helping her pack only a week ago, the young agents smiled at her kindly when they spoke, bright faces open and encouraging, like the words "friends" and "settle" and "life" were still part of her vocabulary. Like the syntax of affection, of safety, of comfort was something she hadn't struggled for two years to forget.

"Try," Agent Hammond had added, his eyes narrowing at the awkward, hollow counsel of his baby-faced subordinates, "to imagine that the past two years were a dream."

A long-lost expression of incredulity, of impatience, had ghosted over her features; he saw it and she knew it, and for a moment she hated Hammond a little less because he let her experience that imperious kind of frustration she thought she had lost the ability to feel.

"Well, you're awake now," he added in response to her frown, her raised eyebrows. "And soon you'll be able to recognize yourself in the mirror again. It just may take a while before the person you recognize is actually you."

"So it's like waking up only to discover you're still asleep," she'd rejoined.


Practicing that night in the mirror, she had recited the names of the recently remembered—Cragen, Elliot, Liz, Olivia. The last had made her breath catch, and she had coughed, embarrassed at her own racing heart, her reddening reflection. She blinked rapidly to shut the lingering heat of cautious excitement out of her eyes. Not now. Not yet. First things first.

She stretched out her arm, the limb foreshortening in the reflection of the glass, growing simultaneously nearer and farther and the hand trembling slightly, and practiced the words she had most tried to forget.

"I am Alex Cabot."

When they came to pick her up from the doorstep of the yellow house on the corner, the one she was leaving, the one where she had lived but had never called home, they had had greeted her, "Ms. Cabot," and she had nodded assent to her identity, and she supposed they thought that was enough for now.

Now the agents were dropping her off at the apartment and letting her go, turning her loose. And she would have to be Alex Cabot again, like a rehabilitated animal thrust forward into the waiting cacophony of the concrete jungle.

The Manhattan skyline rose like a phoenix from the ash grey of that cool February dawn. She fought sleep in the warm interior of the Lincoln and, without realizing that she'd dozed, suddenly found herself blinking through morning sunlight glittering off the windows of Midtown.

Home. The word sprang into her consciousness unbidden and immediately attached itself to the visage of the glinting buildings around her, and although she didn't know if she was ready to understand it, she decided it would do.

The first few days passed like this. Every time she opened her eyes it seemed like a new day was beginning, and she'd start back at the top of a long to-do list of reacquainting herself with her life. Her old life. Or her new life. Or whatever she was calling it these days.

The part of her brain that had been acting as her personal cheerleader said that she was getting on quite nicely. Two days ago she had unpacked everything she had accumulated in two years of exile. Everything she had been able to keep, things that didn't carry the lingering burden of memory— mundane items: pots and pans, coffee mugs, plates, an antique coffee table, a leather easy chair, stationary – and everything that her mother had kept in storage when she "died," things that had been bequeathed to her cousin when her mother herself was buried. It wasn't much, just two boxes full of notebooks from law school, her diplomas, old, worn toys, a few obligatory videotapes of school plays, and photos. So many photos that looking at their sprawling mass across her floor when she had dumped out the first box made her head hurt, and she had hastily filed them away in a new box of their own, stowed on the top shelf of the closet. That night she had fallen into bed in such a state of bone-weary exhaustion that she had slept more soundly than ever before. At least, in this lifetime.

Yesterday she had visited her mother's grave. And sobbed. And even though she felt better than expected when she returned to the apartment for a dinner of leftover Szechwan beef, she spent the night staring up at the passage of shadows across her ceiling and didn't fall asleep until six in the morning.

Now it was nine a.m., and it was Monday, and she had just gotten off the phone with the secretary at the Bureau—her secretary, which made her smile a little—who wanted to know if it was too early to send over a messenger with personnel files so she could start getting herself acquainted with the facets of her new career.

She never dared hope she'd be a lawyer again, not to mention a lawyer practicing law, not self-concealment. And now she'd be back at work in seven days.

The messenger arrived, winded from biking through rush-hour traffic. And even though what used to be her favorite café in the city was only a block from her apartment, she walked six blocks in the opposite direction to a coffee shop she'd seen from the tinted glass of the Lincoln to read through the stack of manila and ivory, pages fluttering around her cup and saucer.

Reading the litany of excessive credentials, recommendations, degrees, cover letters, even hobbies—the well-crafted kind that were meant to impress: training for a triathlon, volunteering for the ASPCA, gourmet cooking, rock climbing—Alex couldn't help but think that, even on paper, her new charges sounded so young. And, contrary to her expectations, that didn't make her feel old, but powerful. Another word she had all but forgotten.

Arriving home hours later, the buzz of caffeine still singeing the edges of her nerves, her mind alight, she turned the key in the lock only to hear a tearing noise from the space between her door and the tightly-looped cream of the hall carpet. A piece of paper, thin and white, was wedged solidly under the door's edge.

She retrieved it, careful to not tear it further, went into the apartment, hung her coat and turned the crumpled sheet carefully in her hands.

I heard you were back. Welcome home.

Alex leaned heavily against the door frame and closed her eyes. And then she slowly opened them again and flipped the paper over. Nothing. She tried to discern some meaning from the hasty curl of Olivia's "h," the open sprawl of her "W," the sculpted care of her "L," but the letters did not speak to her. Anymore than the words had.

Six o'clock. Maybe Olivia would answer her phone.

Fingers shaking slightly, she tried to remind herself that nervousness was not something Alex Cabot did, but her body refused. Emily had lived out her tenure in a perpetual state of tension, and Rachel had tolerated a year of quiet anxiety. And even though Alex was no longer either of these women—just Alex now, only Alex— she found that fighting those other voices, other memories, other fears, was harder than she had ever expected.

She dialed. And Olivia answered. And Olivia, without hesitation, agreed to meet her for coffee.

"I'll come to you," Olivia said. "I'm in the neighborhood anyway." And for a moment Alex entertained the fantasy that maybe Olivia had been sitting all day at the café down the street, the one she had bypassed, waiting. But, of course, it was Monday, and Olivia must have been at work.

Her hair was longer, more wavy, than Alex thought she had ever seen it, her features softer somehow but with a crinkle of frown lines tracing her forehead that hadn't been there before, not even last year. Her hair lighter, the lines of her jacket smooth and subtle, and for a moment Alex didn't recognize her as the same determined detective she had come to know. And then Olivia's eyes met hers, and they were that same dark, haunting brown they had always been. Brown like the leather of her easy chair.

They talked for hours, in the café only a block away, and Olivia told her about the station, how the guys were eager to see her, and she told Olivia about the raw enthusiasm of the personnel files. She even smiled, and the deepening brown of Olivia's eyes said that she noticed.

On the short walk home, Olivia shuffled the last few feet before Alex's step, her body rigid, her walk halting, like she was trying to make a decision and a part of her—her shoulders, perhaps, or her feet—wasn't willing to acquiesce to the general consensus.

Olivia turned toward her as Alex fumbled for her keys, one hand in her pocket, the other catching Alex's wrist and holding her still.

"Welcome home."

And suddenly, upon hearing the words, Alex recognized the open curl of Olivia's "W," the note still balled tightly in her coat, for what it was—an invitation.

Olivia leaned forward and kissed her, a hand brushing Alex's waist and lips almost as cold as the iron banister beneath her gloved fingers. And then Olivia pulled away and smiled, squeezing Alex's hand. Alex smiled back, and Olivia kissed her again.

The kiss was not so soft like her imagination had lead her to believe—her lips dry, her face cold, her mind numb. Certainly not as soft as Olivia's hair brushing her cheek, the feel of fingers pressing into the wool of her coat. But for now it seemed to fit, seemed to recall a dream she once had of being awake.

And, for now, that was enough.

The End

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