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The Sum of Contradictions: 24 Pavlov
By beurre blanc
"Where are you, Liv?"
Olivia simply stared at Alex, her tear-filled eyes a swarm of emotions, flicking past faster than Alex could name them. Shock, embarrassment, insecurity, fear, regret, resignation, misery and - for the briefest of moments - hope. Alex's eyes shone with her own tears, her own sympathetic distress, and she held trembling lips quietly together, silently willing Olivia to let go, to trust her not to run. Come on, Liv, let me in. Please She stretched her arm across the detective's shoulders, and leaned in until her forehead was at Olivia's temple, lips resting lightly against her cheek.
Neither spoke, and the hum of pollen-heavy insects filled the silence.
Olivia took a deep breath, and bowed her head, fresh tears spilling from her eyes as she squeezed them shut, illogically willing the rest of the world and Alex to disappear just long enough for her to reassemble herself. She held her hands tightly in her lap, one closed over the other, the bracelet gripped so tightly in her fist the bear's feet dug painfully into her palm, using the physical distraction to pull her back out of the torment of memory, to overwhelm her private agony and reinforce the reality of sitting on her bench in the Ramble, absorbing the sunset's purpling hues. And a deeper, darker part of her seemed to welcome the discomfort as penance, as punishment for letting the memories out in the first place, letting them hurt her again. For letting Alex get too close.
"Liv?" A whisper, the shadow of a sound. Almost a memory in itself.
Come on, Benson. You're bigger than this. Get it together. Suck. It. Up.
She lifted her head at last, and turned to face the attorney.
"What are you doing here, Alex?" she demanded, and her eyes narrowed as she spoke.
This was the last thing Alex expected, and poorly-concealed surprise eroded her fluency. "I was, um, I wanted to I " She took a breath and started again. "I was worried about you."
"So?" Olivia held her gaze for a moment. "I'm a big girl, Alex. I can take care of myself."
"I know that, Liv. I didn't mean "
Olivia noted the subtle power shift between them, and relief began to dominate her emotions as she slipped back into the more comfortable personae of capable adult, and generous lover. She let her expression soften.
"I'm an NYPD cop, remember?" She offered Alex a reassuring grin, as Teddy and his bracelet slid into her pocket, deftly hidden from sight.
Alex was suddenly struck by the sheer artfulness with which Olivia had distracted her, had swung the focus away from her own distress, and given herself time to reconstruct her public façade. Oh, no you don't! As she silently considered her options, Alex reached for Olivia's hand, and deliberately interlaced their fingers, knowing full well Olivia would have to choose whether to interpret the gesture as affection, or as defiance. You can talk to me, or you can try to run, but I won't be letting you go without a fight.
Alex looked directly at Olivia.
"Liv, how much do you remember of the other night?" Alex's gambit allowed just enough room for Olivia to try and avoid her. She could feel the shifting tension in Olivia's grip, the only outward manifestation of the inner battle. But, in the end, Olivia knew any real attempt to demur would be unsuccessful, and would diminish her both in Alex's regard, and in her own.
"You mean the nightmare?"
Alex squeezed her fingers, reassurance and relief. Thank you. "Yes."
Olivia considered her response. "I can only remember images, really." The bottles. The broken glass. The vomit. She offered Alex half an explanation. "Mostly I can still feel the emotions the fear No, it isn't fear, it's dread."
"There's a difference?"
Olivia nodded. "It's like Like I know what's coming, what's going to happen. So it's not just blind fear, you know? It's a true sense of dread because I know what's going to happen and I can't prevent it." Because I knew, and I couldn't.
"I felt like I was suffocating."
"That was probably my fault."
Olivia gave her a puzzled look.
"I couldn't stand it any more." Alex shrugged. "I couldn't just sit back and listen," she elaborated, "and I snuggled in behind you, to try and comfort you. That's when you woke up."
"How long-," Olivia's dry mouth choked over the question, and she swallowed before trying again. "How long did you watch me?"
"Then," asked Alex quietly, "or just now?"
Olivia looked at her for a moment, then looked down at the ground. When it finally came, it was a whisper: "Both."
The door was open. Alex looked skywards, blinking away sudden tears of jubilation. At last.
"Long enough, Liv." Alex paused, as her words settled between them. "Tell me," she said simply, "about your Mom."
Olivia took a deep breath, almost a gasp. How did you know? "My Mom...," she said at last, "my Mom was an alcoholic."
"Actually, that's not fair " Olivia looked up, and leaned back into the bench, stretching long legs before her. "She was a lot of things she was an English professor, she was a struggling single parent who worked menial jobs so she could provide for me and still get herself educated, she was loving, and generous, and she taught me about literature, and painting and music, we went to plays, and museums, she was funny and witty and " her voice faded, and her lower lip trembled as fresh tears appeared, " and when I was a child she was my best friend."
Alex placed her other hand over their linked ones, and gave a gently encouraging squeeze.
"But she was also an alcoholic. When I was a little kid she managed to hide it pretty well. I guess I was too young to question her drinking, and the mood swings, and her temper, and the manipulation well I just took that for granted. I just accepted it as normal. You do that, as a kid. You think your parents are the best parents, and there's no reason to look critically at them "
Alex listened in silence.
"As I got older, she became I dunno more clingy, she used to gather me in and then push me away, she would blame me for things I didn't do, or for not doing things she thought I ought to." Olivia looked away, sniffing. "I used to feel like I'd get in trouble just because I couldn't read her mind. And then she'd be apologizing, and saying it wouldn't happen again, and telling me how much she loved me.
"Then, when I was a teenager, she got to be really unpredictable especially around my friends. She could be funny and entertaining, and the perfect Mom, or she could turn into the bitch from Hell. And I never knew whether I would feel proud of her, or embarrassed, so eventually I just wouldn't ask people over, you know, just in case. And, by that stage, she'd be so drunk every night that I'd have to 'pour' her into bed. And then I used to get up three maybe four times a night, just to check she wasn't, you know dead - from choking on her own vomit.
"By the time I was fifteen, we were having these fights She'd accuse me of not loving her, wanting to leave her all alone. Then she'd say it was my fault that she drank, she didn't like the way I did this, or didn't do that, or that I was just like " Olivia swallowed reflexively. "And it didn't matter how I reacted, or what I said, or how hard I tried to convince her that I loved her, and that I didn't want to leave, because, deep down, we both knew it wasn't true. It got to be so bad, Alex, so bad that I'd end up sitting on my bed, in the dark, hugging my knees and sobbing my heart out, and wishing the whole world would just disappear "
She shrugged, and turned to Alex, shaking her head slowly. Guiltily.
"Not such an unusual situation, really. You and I both know of so many kids and adults who've had it worse."
Olivia's self-deprecation left Alex appalled. "Olivia, are you trying to tell me that somehow your experiences matter less because we've seen worse?"
To Alex's surprise, Olivia considered this as if it were, in itself, a revelation, and she nodded slowly.
"Oh, Liv, why would you think that? How could you think that of yourself? What did she do to you to make you think you're less valuable, less deserving of love and respect?"
Olivia remained silent.
"I don't know, Alex. I just I truly never thought of it that way."
Alex reached out to cradle the detective's face in gentle hands, and her thumbs wiped lightly across Olivia's cheeks, taking the last traces of tears with them.
"I love you, Olivia," she whispered. "More now than ever before, and more than I could ever have imagined." She offered a soft kiss: unspoken, non-judgmental acceptance of Olivia's disclosures, and gratitude for her trust.
"Thank you," said Olivia, hoarse, and exhausted.
The blonde stood slowly, and stretched, then turned and reached out for her companion. Olivia's palm slid into Alex's, and she allowed the attorney to pull her to her feet, and into a warm embrace.
"So, what about that dinner?"
Olivia sighed, and gave a self-conscious smile. "I think I need to wash up first, don't you?"
"Whose place is closer?"
"You've got the bigger bathroom, too."
"Admit it, Cabot, you've just got a thing for claw-foot baths."
Alex chuckled. "No," she said with fictitious gravity, "I've just got a thing for the bath belonging to a certain NYPD detective particularly when she's in it." She tilted her head, and pursed her lips smugly. "Something to do with reliving enjoyable experiences."
Alex took Olivia's hand again, and began to draw her along the path.
"Or returning to the scene of the crime?" offered the brunette, grinning.
"Perhaps. It's all a bit Freudian, probably."
"Not Freud, sweetie," said Olivia, nudging Alex's shoulder as they walked, "Pavlov."
Alex laughed out loud, and Olivia nodded, grinning smugly to herself, as a comfortable silence descended. A minute or two later she stole a look at the attorney, blonde hair framing a smile of gentle contentment she could almost feel radiating from within, and she felt a surge of affection.
Through their joined fingers Alex sensed the meter of Olivia's thoughts, and turned to her, still grinning.
"What?" Alex asked.
"I was about to ask the same question."
Alex quirked a brow.
"You just You look so happy."
Alex stopped, and turned to face Olivia. "That's because I am. And I was just thinking," she paused, and allowed herself a soft wistful sigh, "that I have always wanted to do this."
"Do what? Sit around listening to my self-pitying whining?"
Alex shook her head. "Walk through Central Park in the twilight, hand-in-hand, with the person I love." Then she added, in a reverent whisper, " the woman I love."
As they reached the bridge Alex stopped, and pulled Olivia to the side, out of the paths of others. She directed Olivia backwards, until she leaned against the bridge's stone wall, with Alex standing defiantly in her personal space, a gentle smirk and unflinching gaze.
"Kiss me, Liv." Her challenge was implicit. In front of these strangers, right here, right now, right away. "Kiss me."
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