DISCLAIMER: The Good Wife and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Vague spoilers for the first two seasons.
FEEDBACK: To Tamoline[at]gmail.com
The doorbell rings.
It never rings at this time, not on a Wednesday.
Caught mid-sip, I glance upwards, towards the master bedroom.
Not that I'd expected anything else. Peter only staggered home a few hours earlier, barely managing to get to bed before going unconscious.
There had been a time when merely skipping one night's sleep, no matter how much stress he'd been under, would not have been a problem.
Just another sign that neither of us are getting any younger.
Not that our fast-growing children aren't sign enough.
Still, undressing him as he lay on the bed had been... almost pleasantly nostalgic, in its own way.
The doorbell rings again.
I get up, quickly, but not so quickly that I risk spilling my drink, then head to the front door via the kitchen, so I can put my glass in the fridge and pop a mint.
Not that there's anything wrong with drinking wine in the afternoon, of course.
But, as a politician's wife, appearances are everything.
And a rumour, however unfounded, that I liked drinking a little too much...
Well, it could be unfortunate.
Better not to take the risk.
The door opens to reveal a woman, unsmiling, unfamiliar, on my doorstep. She's dressed professionally in a pantsuit, though the rucksack she's holding in one hand offsets that impression a little.
It's not hard to guess that she works for Peter.
But not a lawyer, I think. She doesn't quite have the look of one of us.
Look at me.
Even after all these years, I can't help thinking that way.
Though I haven't worked professionally in... more years than I care to remember, the part of me that identifies that way still clings stubbornly to life.
The pretence that I'll ever go back to that life is probably why I still keep my accreditation current.
'Just in case.'
The woman's eyes flick over me disinterestedly, before returning to my face. "Is your husband in?" she asks. Her tone is polite enough, but contains the same dismissive undercurrent that I've come to know and expect ever since Peter started his political career.
Expect and loathe.
But expect nonetheless.
And, just like I always do, I force all of this as far under the surface as I can, and smile brightly. "He is, but he's asleep at the moment. How important is this? Can I take a message?"
And if my smile is slightly fake and slightly plastic, well...
She's only one of Peter's subordinates.
And probably not even a lawyer at that.
"There's been some developments," she says, hefting the rucksack a little, seemingly unconsciously. "He wanted to be informed as soon as anything happened."
"Is this the Cragg case?" I ask. Not that I could imagine it being anything else, given the hours he's been devoting to it.
She hesitates, her gaze sharpening, before she nods. "Yeah. That's it."
He may only have gotten a few hours' sleep, but...
"I'll see what I can do," I say, then, "What's your name?"
"Leela," she says. "Leela Tahiri."
"Please, come inside to wait whilst I go upstairs."
It's not that I want her inside, but I couldn't exactly leave her loitering on the doorstep.
It simply wouldn't do. Especially as the kids would be home soon, and someone might *see*.
Appearances, as ever.
I can see her eyes flickering around as I lead her to the sitting room, but it's hard to tell what she thinks beneath the surface.
"Please, take a seat," I say. There's a range available, from plushly appointed chairs to a sofa that stretches half the length of the room.
She doesn't, apparently preferring to loiter on her feet near the centre of the room.
I pointedly *don't* offer her refreshments, but I'm not sure she even notices.
It's only when I'm halfway up the stairs that I even wonder when that kind of slight had become the type I'd started using.
Now *there* is a depressing thought.
Peter's hard to rouse, but all I have to is say the words 'Cragg' and 'Leela Tahiri' once he's semi-conscious to have him struggling out of bed.
"Would you like me to put some coffee on?" I ask him.
He looks blearily up at me. "Thanks," he says, before drawing me into a kiss that's more perfunctory than passionate.
Such is life.
Such is our married life.
A calm rock of stability that we build our lives around.
A castle built of one moment mortared to the next, each almost identical to the last.
Excitement, in my experience, is *vastly* overrated.
By the time that I've made coffee and returned to the sitting room - mug in hand - the rucksack is open and its contents spread across the coffee table. Peter, still looking distinctly rumpled, is rubbing his eyes whilst asking Leela questions in a sleep-roughened voice. He gives me an absent smile as I place the mug in front of him, on top of a coaster.
Normally this would be my signal to withdraw, to leave my husband to his business. Be a good little political wife, at least in front of outsiders.
Well, it isn't as though he hasn't discussed the details of the case with me. Used me as a sounding board, as he often does.
And it isn't as though Leela is exactly an outsider. She works for him. And it quickly becomes apparent that he trusts her enough to be an investigator, on this case of all cases.
And, well, he *is* still tired and his mind can't be functioning on all cylinders.
It wouldn't be right to just leave him here, by himself.
In case he missed something.
So I stay, and I listen, and I question, and I comment.
Peter throws me a few surprised looks, but, well, he doesn't say anything. Not yet, not in front of Leela.
And it might just be Peter is sleepy. It might just be that it's easier, coming from the outside, not being bound up by stress and all the peripheral concerns that a State's Attorney has to take account of...
But I do manage to come up with a few new angles, a few things that it appears that no one else has thought of before.
And if Peter isn't the only one who throws me a surprised glance or two...
If *someone else* in the room just stares at me for a moment as I can almost see her reassessing me...
Well, it just goes to show, Ms. Leela Tahiri.
Sometimes even housewives shouldn't be overlooked.
And when the meeting is over, when Ms. Tahiri has been thoroughly debriefed and given new instructions, when she has been escorted to the door and, vanquished, had it firmly shut behind her...
I return to the kitchen, finish off the glass of wine I left there and pour myself another one for good measure.
Really, the whole thing has left me feeling far more pleased with myself than is at all appropriate.
Still, that doesn't stop me milking it for every ounce of satisfaction that I can.
It's a few months before the final nails are put in the coffin of the Cragg case.
There's a party afterwards, to celebrate, and, of course, I'm expected to attend, as an ornament on Peter's arm.
And, of course, I'm abandoned halfway through, so Peter can talk serious business, far too serious for me to be included in.
So, like any good political wife, I make the rounds. There aren't many people of importance here, though, and chatting with them doesn't take long at all.
And those of Peter's subordinates sufficiently high up for me to actually approach don't know me, don't *want* to know me, as more than their boss' wife who gives them a quick word and smile on occasions such as this.
Duty done, I do my best to fade, glass of champagne in hand, and try to look like I'm engaging without actually doing so.
A woman approaches me. Neatly dressed, her hair tied back.
Vaguely familiar, with an echo of irritation.
But, really, that could be so many people here.
"Mrs Florrick," she says and it's the *voice* that finally pushes me into full recognition.
"Ms. Tahiri," I greet her. I'm maybe not... quite as sincere as I would be with someone more important.
But our last meeting still stings, in remembrance, and I can't help letting that colour my response.
Still, the *polite* thing, the *done* thing would be for her to ignore it.
If she even noticed.
So I'm completely unprepared for her laugh with just the right hint of ruefulness, "I guess I deserved that." Her eyes glint. "I'll certainly make sure not to make *that* mistake again."
I play with the stem of my glass for a moment, but decide not to let her off the hook *quite* that easily. "What mistake?" I ask, faux innocently.
"Underestimating someone in your position," she says bluntly. "So, you're a lawyer?"
And maybe it's the way she said it, in the present tense, without guile or the condescension that had so marked our first meeting.
Maybe it's the way she actually just said what she was thinking, unlike anyone else I've met this evening.
Or maybe it's another thing entirely, less immediately identifiable.
But *something* makes me relax, makes me do my own re-evaluation of Ms. Leela Tahiri.
Maybe she isn't so bad after all.
So I nod, and incline my glass slightly towards her in acknowledgement. "Was it obvious?"
"Only slightly," she says, and, again, there's that hint of humour. She pauses thoughtfully, before continuing. "You seemed to enjoy the exercise."
She's clearly probing. But maybe honesty deserves some in return. "I don't get to practise much these days."
"You've pursued other options?"
I shrug, and take a drink. "I don't have enough time to do a proper job of being a mother as well as pursuing a legal career." I'm surprised at how hard it is to keep a note of bitterness from my voice. It isn't as thought this hadn't been my choice, to take some time off when we'd discovered that I was pregnant with Zach. And, afterwards, well, with Peter's political ambitions, it had just made *sense* for me to stay home, to support his career.
Not to mention doing a far better job of raising the kids than my mother had *ever* managed.
And, certainly from a monetary perspective, it hadn't been a bad choice. Especially if Peter's slow ascent towards the post of governor, and then to senator, bore fruit.
I really have no right to feel like there's anything absent from my life.
It's... undoubtedly just a phase I'm going through.
A mid-life crisis of sorts.
"At least you have some time to yourself, now that both your children are at school."
"Yes." My response is flat, even to myself.
There's another of those thoughtful pauses. "I could do with a consultant," she offers, almost tentatively.
I raise an eyebrow. "A consultant?"
She shrugs. "On my cases... it's sometime useful to have an outside perspective."
I can't help laughing a little. "I'm the wife of the State's Attorney. I'm *hardly* an outside perspective."
"You don't think the same way they do. In the same boxes."
"Okay, that's what you get out of it. What's *my* incentive in all this?" I ask, smiling wryly.
She tilts her head, considering. "I can't pay you on my salary. So... I'll give you a good reference?"
I laugh again. It's a ridiculous offer, and from the gleam in her eyes, Leela knows it. She's an investigator, not a lawyer, not anyone a firm would ever listen to.
On the other hand, it *would* be nice to use my brain again, use my lawyering skills again *now* rather than 'sometime in the future.'
And I guess it wouldn't hurt to have someone who might become a friend outside the usual social circuit. Someone I can talk with about things outside the usual patter, the usual social inanities that make up my life whenever I talk to the other housewives.
"Well," I say. "I'll see if I can fit anything into my busy social schedule. But I usually have a gap around three."
It's the hour that's become my 'me' time.
The hour that I can just retreat from the world.
The hour I can savour a single, solitary glass of wine before the children come home.
But, on the whole, this might be almost as good for me.
A change is as good as a rest, after all.
And, if it doesn't work out, it's not like I'll have problems breaking any engagements.
"I'll bear it in mind," Leela says.
The next morning, away from the party, when my head has had time to clear, things are a lot more ambiguous.
Leela probably doesn't *actually* intend to follow up on her inquiry - it was obviously just a way to defuse a potentially career-limiting problem with the boss' wife.
And, to be honest. it worked.
I have to give her that.
Besides, if she does contact me, I can't help thinking that will mean that things will actually change.
A sheer change.
A phase change.
Not just the result of one small thing building on another, the smooth line that has been the path of my life for... for longer than I like to think.
But an actual discontinuity.
It's probably just as well, I think, as one day becomes two, becomes four, smoothly accumulating into a whole week, then two.
Who knows how well I'd be able to cope with that kind of thing these days, anyway?
So it's two weeks and one day when she actually phones me, and asks me if I'm free today, if she can come over, consult with me.
"I think I have something you might be interested in," she says.
The moment has the feeling of a precipice, of the banks of the Rubicon.
It's within me to refuse, to just say that I'm too busy. But, instead, I open my mouth, take a metaphorical step forward and say "Yes. Of course."
A few hours later has me bent over the dining table. Rather than the usual sparse decoration, open books and documents are spread over its surface.
I can see by now why Leela wants to consult with a lawyer - an investigation of this complexity is going to be a legal minefield. Especially if this actually gets to a trial.
Of course, she could ask for help at the State Attorney's office.
Probably even should.
But, doubtless, the lawyer assigned at this stage would be resentful of the use of their time - even if it did make court, doubtless someone further up the food chain would take charge of it at that point.
And, besides, this way Leela gets to look like more of a miracle worker.
Something that I can't imagine is lost on her.
Still, for once, the circumstances are to my benefit.
My mind hasn't had a workout like this - not even having Peter, or another, more current lawyer, to rely on for some of the finer points of law - since...
Since I had a real job.
And Leela, too, is something of a discovery.
She's clearly not had much in the way of a formal education.
But she's quick and willing to learn, biting her lower lip absently as she writes notes almost as quickly as I can talk in an orange notebook.
Her writing, from the glimpses that I manage to catch of it, is somehow messier than I'd imagined, a sprawling mix of cursive and print, filling up each page until nothing more can be squeezed on it before she flips over to the next.
It's actually with a jump that I hear the front door open, the loud sounds of Zach and Grace entering the house tearing across the world I've been constructing since she arrived.
For a moment longer, I'm still a lawyer. Then, with a wrench, I'm just a mother and a wife again.
Leela looks up sharply, eyes wide, tensing a little.
"It's just my kids," I say, obscurely feeling the need to reassure her.
Her eyes slide towards mine, and she nods.
"Excuse me for a moment," I say, and make my way towards the source of the noise.
The rambunctious presence of Zach and Grace dispels whatever... unease was left after the abrupt transition, and, with a polite smile, I dismiss the man Peter hired to transport them to school and back.
In years past, I had undertaken this task myself.
It's apparently not the done thing, though, for the wife of someone in Peter's position.
And so a driver was hired.
And I had one thing less to occupy my day with.
Greeting the kids, listening to the stories of their day and generally getting them at least a little settled takes five minutes.
Maybe ten tops.
But by the time I get back to the dining room, Leela has gone, taking her documents with her.
And the only sign that she was ever there is all the open textbooks.
She returns the next day, though.
A knock at the door a few minutes prior to three, and there she is standing on my doorstep, notebook and bundles of documents in her arms.
"Good afternoon," I say.
"Hey," she says, and hesitates on the threshold, not entering, clearly awaiting permission.
"You left without saying anything yesterday." My tone is mostly mild, but with an undertone of steel.
I don't make it too obvious, though. She seems too smart to miss even a trace.
She doesn't. "Sorry. Figured you wouldn't have time once your kids came home," she offers cautiously.
I look at her levelly. "And if you're seen by Zach or Grace, it might get back to Peter?"
Her mouth curves slightly. "That too."
I leave her waiting for a moment longer - no need to make it too easy on her - before continuing. "Then I guess we've got work to do."
Her relief is muted, but palpable.
It's about an hour in when I really get to the meat of the investigation. Rather than just commenting on what Leela is legally allowed to do to pry further at this or that aspect, I start hitting the documents - which were notably *not* here yesterday - that address the core of what the investigation is about.
I look up at Leela to find her watching me silently with large, slightly tentative eyes.
"You didn't just want me here as a lawyer, did you?"
She doesn't reply, just keeps on looking at me.
Because this... this is a case that has the potential to blow wide open if mishandled.
And it also explains why Leela isn't getting much in the way of legal help from the office.
Because if this goes critical, anyone remotely involved is liable to find themselves out on the street, accused of 'over-reaching their authority.'
One bad apple, and all that.
I can't help wondering what Peter is thinking of.
I can't help hoping that it's not just theatre, playing games with people's - Leela's - career for the purposes of scoring political points.
"You also wanted the politician's wife as well," I say.
"Is there a difference?" she asks.
I can't help laughing, though it doesn't seem funny at all.
Because, yes is my first thought. Yes, there is a difference. As a young lawyer, I always wanted to do the good cases, the ethical cases, make life better for people using the sword of the law.
And because, no is my second thought. No, there is no difference at all. The mind that advises Peter on how to approach his campaigns, that helps keep him from missteps in his career is almost exactly the same part of me that was trained in law school.
"And I also thought at first that you might have prompted him to give me this case," Leela suddenly blurts out before looking like she can't believe that she just said that, apparently having taken my response a different way to how I'd intended.
Well, possibly not completely unfair.
But at least untrue.
In this case.
"I'm glad we've got that sorted out," I say dryly, then sigh. "I'll see what I can do."
Leela sags a little. "Thanks."
I bend back down to start looking at these papers again.
Because this case just got a lot more interesting.
I have problems sleeping that night - the thoughts from the case running furiously through my mind. Peter, next to me, doesn't seem to have any such problems.
Several times I almost wake him, almost try and use him as a sounding board the same way he sometimes uses me.
In the end, though, I don't.
Both because talking to him about the case would raise the obvious questions, and the answers might get Leela into trouble.
And also because this case is *mine*, mine and mine alone in a way that nothing has been in this household for far too long a time.
It's completely irrational I know - I'd be surprised if he didn't know more about this case than even Leela.
But our ownership doesn't overlap - doesn't even touch - in a way that almost feels a little illicit.
I give up on sleep sometime after two, and quietly get out of bed and go down to the study. There are some facts, some half-remembered case law and some potentially interesting interactions between the two that have been buzzing around my head for the last hour or so. And if they're not going to leave me alone long enough to get a good night's sleep, I may as well try and dig up the relevant references.
I'd forgotten how much fun this kind of detail work can be and, before I know it, I've been sucked into a world of references and cross-indexing, notes filling up the pages of a pad that has long since been abandoned by one of the kids. (Zach, I absently think.)
"Having fun?" Peter's voice asks from the doorway. He's looking sleepy but not tired.
I blink and realise that there's natural light coming in through the curtains. All of a sudden, I'm feeling as tired as he isn't.
"What are you working on?" he asks, coming over to the desk, which has papers and books scattered artfully across it.
I manage to resist the urge to cover them up with my arms, and just smile up at him. "Just felt the urge to exercise my brain a little. I thought I'd work on something theoretical."
He gives me a half smile. "You'll have to tell me all about it later," he says, then scrunches up his face. "Tomorrow, maybe. There are some meetings I've got to attend tonight."
"A State Attorney's work is never done," I say, smiling a little as I quickly sort the desk, then get to my feet to make us some breakfast.
And from thence, it's going to be a couple of hours before I'm going to be able to catch a nap, despite the wall of fatigue currently hitting me.
The kids will be up shortly, and then it's morning coffee with the neighbourhood housewives.
None of which I'm actually feeling like facing in my current state, but appearances must be maintained.
Speaking of which, I make a mental note that I really must apply the makeup extra heavily today.
The things I must do.
Leela smirks a little that afternoon when she sees how much work I've done.
"You really have been busy, haven't you?"
"Hard work is what earned me top place at Georgetown," I say, with only a trace of sharpness about my voice.
She looks at me for a moment, clearly evaluating me, before saying slowly. "You obviously earned it."
I can feel myself relaxing. "Just so." I hand her one of the printed documents. Relevant sections are highlighted, and I've added a few careful notes. "Now, I think you'll find this particularly interesting..."
This sets the pattern for the next couple of weeks.
She doesn't come around every day, but even when she doesn't, she phones me, just to let me know the state of play and if there's anything she thinks that I might want to know.
It's strictly professional, though. She doesn't offer any personal details, and neither do I, beyond what she obviously already knows.
Peter never does bring up my overnight project, and I don't poke that hornet's nest. I can't imagine that he'd be pleased that Leela was consulting with me behind his back, not on this kind of case, and I...
I'm relishing the kind of challenge I haven't had - not quite - in many a year.
It makes me feel whole in a way that I hadn't realised I was missing.
And then Leela's investigation finishes.
Or, at least, she doesn't need my help any longer.
Her last visit, with an almost apologetic air, makes that clear enough. The case is going to court, and she's going to be shuffled off onto the backlog of other cases that have been mounting up ever since she was tied up with this one.
The calls and the visits stop.
I could phone her - I could - but my pride won't let me.
It won't even let me make discreet inquiries of Peter, to find out how the case I worked so hard on is going.
The first few days are the worst.
I may even drink more than my customary one glass of wine when three rolls around, just to try and dampen the analytical side of my brain again.
But slowly, *slowly* I manage to get back to my old state of normal.
The me who existed before this, and was content with this life.
It's not that hard.
It's takes about two weeks for there to come a knocking on my door just after three.
Standing on the porch, looking almost hesitant, is Leela. And any respectability her usual pantsuit may give her is completely negated by the brown paper bag in her left hand, obviously concealing a bottle of something alcoholic.
"Hey," she says.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Tahiri," I say, and she winces a little. Unexpectedly, it draws forth some sympathy from me. Despite myself, despite the normal that I'd almost managed to return to, I *am* pleased to see her. "I wasn't expecting you," I add in a somewhat softer tone.
"Sorry," she says. "Work's been a little hectic, and this is the first afternoon I've been able to get away for an hour or two. Even with my flexible schedule."
I open the door more fully for her and step back. "Well, come in. You're making the porch look untidy."
She shrugs and half smiles. "Wouldn't want that," she says as she steps inside.
"Tequila?" I ask as she unwraps the bottle. "Isn't it a bit early for that?"
"Thought it'd make a change from red wine," she says. "'Sides, I was planning on helping you with it."
I hover for a moment, undecided. "Well, I can have a shot, I guess," and bustle off to the kitchen to grab a couple of glasses, which I then place in front of Leela.
She hands me one after deftly filling the both of them, then raises the other to her lips.
I can't help feeling this is more than a little insane, but I follow her example and we both swallow at the same time.
"So," I say after blinking for a moment. "Did the case go well?"
Leela grins for a moment before ducking her head. When she raises it again, she's turned it down to just a slight smile. "Yeah. Yeah, it did. Thanks to your help. Even got a commendation from the State Attorney himself."
"Nothing to do with me, I assure you. I haven't even mentioned that you've been here more than once."
There's a pause, which I feel impelled to swiftly fill. "So, what're you working on at the moment?"
It seems to work. She gives me a look, maybe amused. "The usual this and that. Nothing you'd be interested in."
"Why don't you let *me* decide that?"
She nods. "Sure," she says, shrugging. "First of all..." and she proceeds to go through her current caseload.
In a way, she's right. Nothing she recites seems desperately interesting. Nothing calls out for a lawyer's touch.
They're the things I never get to hear about from Peter. The real things. The things that aren't political or worthy of media attention, but the things that matter nonetheless to those whose lives they touch.
The little things that count.
So as she talks, I listen, I question, I comment.
Many of my suggestions are irrelevant by this point - the office isn't going to allocate any more of Leela's time to these cases.
But Leela listens to me as well, she considers, she makes notes.
What I say will make a difference in the future. May even make the difference between a guilty man going to jail or being let off, or an innocent being brought to trial in the first place.
An hour or so later, the kids due back in the not amazingly distant future, the bottle in front of us untouched except for those first shots, Leela gets to her feet.
"Thanks," she says. "For the help."
"Maybe we can do it again sometime," I say, screwing the cap back on the bottle. My tone isn't quite as casual as the words - she *owes* me.
She owes me at least this much.
She waves the bottle away as I offer it to her. "Keep it. We can open it again next time."
"Sounds good," I say, smiling.
Thus begins our pattern.
Thus begins our dance.
Leela comes over to visit as her schedule permits.
Sometimes once a week.
Sometimes even twice.
And sometimes she's just too busy and skips a week.
And when she does, we talk.
About cases she's working on.
About methodology and other technical advice.
Even just about her workplace in general.
Not about personal things, though.
She never brings anything like that up.
And neither do I.
It's a truce, unspoken, but no less bound in iron for that.
Well, for me at least, it's because she's an escape from my normal life.
A way of escape.
A way of *being*.
A way of having to think half like a lawyer, half like an investigator.
(Or, at least, learning to think like the latter.)
A place where I don't have to be *me*.
For a while, at least.
And nothing changes, nothing at all changes, like I feared it might, for a good few months.
Leela's been a bit more fidgety this meeting than most.
I'm not entirely certain whether it's one of the cases she's been working on, or something else entirely.
I'm thinking about testing the bounds of the agreement and making an indirect inquiry, when she suddenly says, "So, do you think that you can find a babysitter for Friday night?"
We've never met outside the afternoon.
We've never even discussed the possibility.
Until now, apparently.
I complete a quick riffle through my mental calendar. We don't have anything planned for that night, and Peter usually stayed out quite late on those nights, networking.
"Probably," I say cautiously.
There's a service we use when we have an evening function.
Just a local teenage babysitter isn't good enough for our kids, after all.
"Why?" I ask.
She gives me one of her half smiles. "Wondering if you'd like to have an evening out. Let your hair down for once."
I blink again.
That was... not what I had been expecting.
Not that I'd had any expectations whatsoever, but...
My brain briefly glitches with the out of context problem.
It's so completely unlike anything I've done for years and years...
But I can't deny that the idea has some allure.
"Okay," I say, making the decision on impulse. "Sure."
She scrawls down something in her notepad, then tears out the page and hands it to me.
It's the address of a bar.
"Be there at nine."
I find myself smiling back at her, an illicit pleasure flickering in my stomach.
You're on, Ms. Tahiri.
Peter raises his eyebrows when I tell him that I'm going out for the evening on Friday. "Oh?" he asks. "What are you doing?"
"A girls' evening out," I temporise, pausing from stressing out about what I'm going to wear to come over and kiss him on the lips. "I can't let you have all the fun on a Friday, can I?"
"Oh, if I could give you all my fun, rest assured I would," he tells me dryly. "Well, have a good time."
"Thanks. I will."
The bar is loud and shadowy and honestly kind of dingy.
And so completely not the kind of place I'd ever go voluntarily that I have to recheck the address twice when I enter, bobbing in and out of the entrance to use the streetlight.
But it's the right place and, as I enter properly and allow my eyes to adjust to the dimness, I can see Leela waiting for me at the bar, a drink in front of her and a drink in the empty space next to her.
"Hi," I say as I make my way next to her.
"Hey," she says.
"To be honest, I'm feeling a little overdressed," I admit.
She glances down at my clothing, then gives a soft laugh. "Yeah. I see that."
I may have dressed down a little to go to a bar.
But this is more than a little lower than that.
"Why are we meeting *here*?"
She shrugs. "I like the ambiance. Plus, I can afford the drinks on my salary."
"Maybe I should talk to Peter about getting you a raise," I say, looking into my glass a little dubiously, before taking a swallow.
Another laugh. "Yeah. I'd appreciate that."
We spend much of the evening just chatting again.
But it has a different quality here.
Maybe it's the semi-darkness.
Maybe it's the different environment.
And maybe it's the excuse to actually talk like friends for once.
But the topics are different.
Leela twists away from anything about her past before a year or so ago, but she does talk about her life here a little.
Just sketchy details, but enough to make me feel warm inside.
We're friends, I think. We're actually friends.
And maybe it's something that I should have realised before now, but I really hadn't been sure.
And then, abruptly, we're talking about work again.
Or, more precisely, one of Leela's more recent cases.
"I can't believe that she hadn't already left him," Leela says moodily, staring off into middle distance.
I shrug. "Well, it's lucky for you she hadn't. Otherwise she probably wouldn't have agreed to testify against him."
Her lip curls. "Doesn't she have even the least bit of self-respect? Why would someone stay with someone who hit them?"
"Fear?" I suggest. I might have thought loyalty, wanting to see things through, no matter how bad they might seem at the moment. If Leela hadn't managed to persuade her to turn on him. "I can't really understand why she wouldn't just be out the door, myself."
Even in the scant light and the soft edge of alcohol, I can see Leela's grip tighten on my grasp, and she turns to look at me. "It's not necessarily that easy," she says, staring at me with a veiled heat in her eyes. "I wouldn't expect *you* to understand."
My brain stutters for a few moments, her quick reversal indicating a hitherto unsuspected minefield, not sure of which direction to leap.
"You're right," I finally settle on. "My marriage is good. I can't imagine Peter ever laying a finger on me."
She relaxes abruptly, looking away then draining her glass. "Yeah," she says, waving the bartender down. "Yeah, I can't imagine that either."
"So," I say, looking for a less dangerous topic of conversation. "Do you have anyone? A boyfriend? Or a girlfriend even, I guess."
She snorts. "Not really the relationship type," she says and drains the new drink as well. "There's someone at the office that likes me, though."
My stomach clenches a little. "At the office? What does he do? Is he a lawyer? Clerk? Paralegal?"
She laughs a little. "She's a lawyer."
Well, that answers some questions I guess.
And, though Leela was kind enough not to put too much emphasis on the pronoun, I can't help feeling a little stupid.
"I think that it'd be a bad idea," I say, ignoring the heat rising in my cheeks.
"Yeah?" she asks, her eyes dancing a little with what is undoubtedly amusement at my discomfort.
"If it gets out, or if anything goes bad, if she's a lawyer, then you're going to be the one to suffer."
Don't dip your quill in the company ink, and all that.
Or whatever the equivalent is for professional women.
She considers for a moment, then nods. "Yeah. You're probably right."
And I feel myself relax a little.
I've come to like Leela, almost depend on her.
I don't want anything, anyone, to risk harming her job, and risk losing this.
And this, too, becomes part of our routine.
Once or twice a month, maybe more if there's something to celebrate, we go out for an evening.
Not necessarily to the same place, thank god.
Sometimes I can persuade Leela to go a little more upscale.
But these excursions become our place to relax a little, and talk about the things that neither of us seem to able to talk about in my house.
Leela fiddles with her glass before looking back up at me. "I've got a question for you."
It's towards the end of one of our evenings out, and Leela's been drinking a little more than usual.
Not excessively so, but...
I've been wondering if something like this was coming.
"Yes?" I prompt, as non-committal as I can manage.
"I've got a friend who has a problem." 'One of her friends.' Right. "The husband of one of *her* friends propositioned her, and she's wondering... Should she tell her?"
"Whether she should tell her friend about the proposition?" I ask, just to make sure that I've got the situation down correctly.
Leela doesn't bother saying anything, just nods.
"And does either one of them work at the Attorney's office?"
She hesitates a moment, before nodding again.
The morally correct thing to do would be to get Leela to tell her friend.
That's what friends should do for each other.
On the other hand...
"Don't get involved," I tell her. "No matter what happens, you'll undoubtedly be blamed."
My first priority has to be Leela.
And, really, if a wife doesn't know that her husband is cheating on her, she's probably half at fault anyway.
"Yeah," Leela says. "You're probably right." Her gaze is focussed on her drink, though, and there's still a tense, unhappy air about her.
I lean over and hug her. "If it helps, I'll get the next round," I whisper into her ear.
She laughs a little, and untenses a little. "Thanks," she says. "Free alcohol always helps."
"I'm going to be leaving the State Attorney's office," Leela says.
Our discussion at the bar has only been a few days ago, and I can't help wondering if she's done something unwise, despite my advice.
She shrugs. "It's time. I've been there for over a year. And I can get more money working freelance than being tied to the state."
It's not quite an answer, but it's probably all I'm going to get, at least here and now.
"I see." I probably should say more, but my chest feels tight.
She glances downwards, then back up at me. "I'd like to continue to have these meetups," she says in a softer tone.
Some of the pressure leaves me. "Yes," I say. "Yes, I'd like that."
The side of her mouth lifts. "Good," she says. "Because there's another favour I'd like to ask of you."
"I'd like to change my name. And I'd like to do it in such a way that would make it very hard for someone to find out my new identity."
I freeze for a moment.
It's the afternoon.
We're sitting in the living room of my house.
And we *don't* talk about anything remotely personal at either of these times.
"Why?" I ask, anyway.
Because I can think of various reasons that someone might want to do that.
And several of them are criminal.
Which isn't to say that I might not do it for her anyway.
But I want to go into this with my eyes open.
She's silent for a long moment, and I start to think that she's not going to answer.
"I knew some bad people when I was younger," she finally says, still not meeting my gaze. "I knew some bad people, but I made a break when I got the chance. One of them is getting out of prison soon. I want to make sure that he can't find me."
I feel a protective surge of anger rise within me, before I deliberately stifle it.
It wouldn't be helpful.
There are gaps in her story, things that she's obviously not telling me, but they're not important at the moment.
"Okay," I tell her. "We can do this." I think for a moment. "I'll want to do some research first. What's the timeframe on this?"
Leela holds her breath for a moment. "A few months. I've got a few months before he gets out."
"That should be long enough. I'm hoping to shuffle you between a few states, making it look like you're resident in one after another and changing your identity in each."
She looks up, and there's a slight smile on her lips. "Well, I have always wanted to experience the jet setting lifestyle."
"One more question - what do you want your final identity to be?"
It doesn't even take a moment for her to respond. "Kalinda Sharma."
The next few days are spent researching the appropriate laws in neighbouring states. Then I make a series of discreet phone calls to lawyers in some of those states. For some, I can trade upon Peter's name. For others, I have to spend some money, though not too much, and entirely within my personal budget.
I may not have any 'me' money for the next month or so, but it'll be worth it, for her.
"I'm going to be out of town for a few days in a week or so," I tell Peter when he joins me in bed - late, as always - that night.
He pauses for a moment. "Yes?" he rumbles.
"Don't worry, I'll make arrangements to take care of the kids."
It's nothing that we haven't done before, when campaigning necessitated.
"What's the reason?"
"I'm helping a friend sort out a few things."
"Anyone I know?"
I shrug in the darkness. "She used to work for you. Leela Tahiri."
I can feel him jerk slightly next to me, but his voice remains even.
"The name seems familiar," he says. "Investigator, right?"
"Yes." I wait a beat. "There isn't a problem here?"
"No," he says. "Not that I can think of."
We both lapse into silence.
And I can tell there's something he isn't telling me.
Something about Leela.
But I don't want to pry further.
Because I can guess what it is.
And, as long as I don't *know*, I can still pretend that everything is alright between us.
By the time Leela comes round the next day - and when did I start spending more speaking time with her than with my husband? - the itching desire to know has become almost a burn.
Not that I want to know all the details, because I don't.
But I need to know...
I need to at least know that she didn't *do* anything with him.
I need to know at least that.
"Your friend," I say, abruptly, even before she's had a chance to sit down.
She looks at me quizzically.
This is *not* the way things go between us.
"The one who had a friend whose husband propositioned her," I clarify.
And now she just looks slightly sick, but she nods. "Yeah," she says, and her voice is a little hoarse.
"Is there anything I need to know? Did anything happen that I actually need to know about?"
I can't put it more clearly than that.
If I did, it would make this *real*.
She seems almost paralysed for a moment, then shakes her head. "She turned him down."
I sink into my seat, feeling shaky.
At least nothing happened.
I didn't really think it had.
I didn't think that she would *do* this to me.
But I had to know.
A glass is shoved into my hand, filled to the brim with tequila.
"You look like you need it," Leela says softly.
I look at it for a moment, then drain it to its dregs.
"Okay," I say, after the shock has faded. "Okay. In order to do the name change properly, we're going to need to do a few days travelling. To get things sorted out in person."
"We?" Leela asks.
"We," I say. "You didn't think I was going to leave you to fend for yourself, did you?"
She gives me a slow smile. "No," she says. "I guess I shouldn't have been that worried after all."
The next few days are not exactly the most comfortable of my life. Long hours spent seated and cheap rooms to sleep in are not exactly my most favourite things in all the world.
But Leela insists on paying for everything she can, and I'm not going to make her waste more of her precious savings than absolutely necessary.
Which is why we're just about to share a bottle of store-bought tequila in our motel room at the end of a hard day.
"Cheers," Leela says, handing me a glass, before sitting back down on her bed.
"Cheers," I respond.
Spending so much time with her, just at the moment, has been... odd.
There has been the silent ghost of 'this is the woman Peter wanted to cheat on me with' between us, and neither Leela nor I has actually brought ourselves to even acknowledge that fact.
If that whole talk had even been about Peter in the first place. But with time and repeated non-denials I've been having a harder time just not assuming that.
Somehow, this way, it doesn't seem to hurt so much, just an icy numbness whenever I think of my marriage.
I don't know whether this is a good thing, or not.
Regardless, it has led to stilted conversation, awkward silences neither of try to break and not being quite able to look at the other in the eye.
Thankfully, right about now does not seem to be one of these occasions.
We may not be exactly talkative at the moment, but it's a comfortable kind of silence, a silence born of companionable fatigue
I study her face as we drink.
"You seem happy," I say.
She shrugs. "I guess it's a weight off my mind."
I don't ask whether she's talking about her incipient new identity, or, well, the other thing.
I'm not sure I want to know.
Leela caps the bottle, a clear sign that it's time for bed, and I drain my glass, then turn around as she starts to strip.
But, even then, I can feel her hot presence behind me almost scalding me.
This is the woman that my husband wanted to fuck.
It's a thought that I haven't been able to get out of my head.
And it has to be why I'm having the impulse to turn around, to see if I can understand *why*.
I hear her climb into bed and I realise that I've barely started unbuttoning my shirt.
I clear my throat.
"So," I say, as I take my shirt off and neatly fold it up. "Who is Kalinda Sharma? What is she like?"
"I don't know," comes the voice from behind me. "Tougher. Stronger." She sighs, and adds quietly. "Maybe not as afraid."
I can't quite believe that Leela told me that, and I can't help feeling touched.
Maybe it's the time and the place.
Maybe it's the alcohol.
And maybe it doesn't really matter exactly why, only that she said it.
"It sounds like she needs a new wardrobe," I say. "All things being well, we should have a few hours before our next appointment."
"Yeah. I'd like that," she says, and I don't need to be able to see her to know that she's smiling.
It's a few minutes later, when I've just turned off the light and settled into my bed, that she whispers, "Thank you."
I don't ask why she's thanking me, either.
It's been two hours of popping into various shops and all we have to show for it so far is a pair of sunglasses.
(When I asked her why, she just shrugged.)
(I have to admit, though, that they do make her even harder to read.)
Leela has been distinctly unenthusiastic about all of my suggestions so far.
'Too much like I'm still working in an office.'
The last was said with particular disgust.
Certainly, the clothes she's trying on at the moment don't look particularly formal or practical, and they certainly don't look like anything you'd wear in an office.
I can't help rolling my eyes a little just at the thought of them.
"Hey," she says, and I turn around to see her...
To see her...
Oh, goes a part of my brain, *this* is why Peter wanted to have sex with her.
Thigh high boots, an awfully short skirt that hides practically nothing and a leather jacket... and a slight smirk that perfectly sets the whole outfit off, changing it from sexy to...
There are moments when everything changes.
When your conception of your best friend goes from intellectually knowing that she's a sexual being, to...
I'm suddenly closer to her, though I don't remember actually taking any steps forward.
Close enough to see her eyes are almost black as she's looking at me.
Close enough to notice her angling her head as I bring my lips towards hers.
And, all of a sudden, far too close.
I leap away as though I've been burned.
I'm not going to do this.
I'm not going to cheat on my husband.
Not going to break up our family.
And certainly not over this.
"It's," I say in a somewhat strangled tone, then clear my throat. "It's not very professional."
I can't quite manage to look at her directly. Out of the corner of one eye, I see her slide her sunglasses down.
"I'll take that under consideration."
Most of the rest of the trip is spent in silence.
A couple of times, I think I see Leela start to speak when not absolutely necessary, but she never actually manages to say anything.
I like to think that I'm perfectly professional in all this.
But not a hair more than that.
I'm not my mother.
And I'm not going to do this.
I pay for a separate room, refusing any attempt of Leela's to pay for it, and then, the next day, finish up preparing the groundwork for her identity change.
And afterwards, afterwards we're standing in front of my house.
Still unable to quite look at each other.
"Goodbye," she finally says. "Call me when..." she shrugs.
The moment stretches a little, uncomfortably.
Because both of us know that's an 'if' not a 'when'.
And both of us know that I'm not going to take her up on that offer.
"Goodbye, Kalinda," I say, the foreign name making this easier. "Good luck."
It's time to get my house in order.
Obviously, I've spent too much time letting things slide.
As soon as I get in and put my things away, I phone Peter.
"Hello?" he says.
"Do you have anything planned for this evening?"
He hesitates. "There were a few cases I was going to review, and a dinner with someone who donated to my election campaign."
"Blow them off," I tell him.
"Really?" he asks, but I can tell that he's starting to grin.
"Tell them something important came up."
"If you make it home for eight, I can guarantee it."
"Mrs Florrick, are you making overtures of a sexual nature?"
"I certainly hope so." I pause for a moment, then add, "I've missed you while I've been away."
"See you at eight, then."
I put the phone down, and smile to myself.
When he gets home, the only lights in the dining room are the candles illuminating the meal I've been preparing for the last few hours.
In the end, it goes untouched.
I pull him into a deep kiss as soon as he enters, and we swiftly end up in bed.
(And if I climax a little slower than I used to...)
(And if, when he goes down on me, my mind flashes to Leela before I pull it away again...)
(It's *not* important.)
(It's *not* relevant.)
(And it doesn't *matter*.)
(Because this family *will* work.)
(I'll make sure of it.)
The doorbell rings.
It never rings at this time, not on a Wednesday.
I get up, quickly, but not so quickly that I risk spilling my drink, then head to the front door via the kitchen, so I can put my glass in the fridge and pop a mint.
Because it's better not to take the risk.
The door opens to reveal Leela - Kalinda - dressed in her armour of leather and smoked plastic. I haven't seen her for a year now, and it suits her better.
If I didn't know better, I'd think that she'd always been like this.
"Hey," she says, unsmiling, seemingly unaffected. She lifts a satchel. "Got something you'll want to see."
I pause a moment, because my first instinct is to agree with her, and it has *nothing* to do with whatever she might be carrying.
"Come right in," I say, and lead her towards the living room.
It's been a year since I've seen her.
It's been a year, and her absence has gotten easier.
It's been a year, but, now that she's here, it doesn't make a damn difference.
She sits down opposite me, keeping her distance.
"Got a job, to look into Peter. Took it, because," she shrugs, and there are a thousand motivations I can read into that movement.
She continues to talk, but, although one part of my brain is filing the information away, although what she's saying is important, all I can pay attention to is the photos she's taking out of the satchel.
Photos of Peter.
Photos of Peter with another woman.
Photos of Peter and the woman doing things far from discreet.
And all I can think is - thank god.
And all I can feel is - relief.
Because it's been a year since I decided that I would make this marriage work.
A year that I've been pouring my energy into that purpose, first with enthusiasm, then with stubbornness, finally with resignation.
A year that, every time I touched my husband, I had to try and forget that he'd wanted another woman. And so had I.
And I'm just so, so tired of it all.
And these photos mean that I don't have to try any longer.
"Don't worry," Leela says, as I get to my feet. "I came to you first."
She freezes for a moment as I kiss her, as I try to put all of the last year into this contact between us.
And then she returns it.
And then she returns it with interest.
And later, after I've reclaimed my bed, when we're laying naked next to each other, I find myself smiling.
Because there's another thing these photos mean.
They mean that Peter can *have* his life, as long he leaves me mine.
They mean that he won't be able to complain.
And they mean, if he still wants to have a career left after this, that we won't even have to get divorced.
Because I'm not going to break up this family.
I'm not going to be my mother.
I'm going to have it all.
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