"I told them DI Tyler was the best of my team," Gene said, and it was hard for Annie to hear that name, even though he clearly meant her. "Been in A Division CID seven years, worked as hard as the rest of them put together, all the things you could want in a DCI. Eventually they listened to me."
He'd probably yelled several times before that happened. "So I'm moving south."
Gene's smile was brief, bitter, and slightly sympathetic for all of that. "It's down to you or me, and it's not going to be me, love."
"This is mad," Alex said, running her fingers through her springy curls. "I'm speaking in a professional capacity on that point, you know. It's not going to work."
Annie sighed and poured herself a drink. Of all the habits she'd picked up from her colleagues over the years, that one was the worst, and the hardest to shake. "Look, Alex," she said, pitching her voice to be as firm and reasonable as she possibly could. "What else do you want to do? You were so distracted over that Bonds case you spent the whole time thinking it was the son."
"It could have been." Alex frowned at her, but they didn't need to have that argument for the fifth time to know where it began and ended. "I'm not obsessed, or obsessive. I can put you out of my mind as well as anyone."
"Oh, now, if you can do that, I don't know what we're doing here." Annie patted the bar they were leaning against. "You've told me twenty times if you've told me once that I'm only part of your bloody imagination. So make me go away."
Alex groaned, a low, soft noise that reminded Annie of all of the things they were trying to avoid, or, all of the things Alex kept insisting she wanted to avoid. Annie had a better sense of what was inevitable, at least when it came to the nutters she ended up working with. "I can't," Alex admitted. "I'd love to, if I could work out how. I just want to go home."
Annie bit her tongue. The last thing Alex needed was for Annie to tell her that she'd heard this song before a hundred times and didn't care to hear it again. She'd said it from the start--that first day, when Shaz had brought in a woman with a bump on her head and only a warrant card in her pockets, talking about going home right now and without a clue in the world how to get there.
Just like Sam Tyler, she'd said. The first time she'd said his name to anyone in Fenchurch East, because none of them knew what it meant except Chris, and he hadn't needed to be told above five times that she didn't want to hear anything about Sam, after. But it had to be said, if only the once.
Though the way Alex had reacted made Annie wish she'd never spoken his name. She'd not been so glad she'd changed her name back since that first day when it all went legal. It was enough having one person far too much like Sam about the place without having to answer to DCI Tyler all the time, too.
"When you work out how to get home, give me fair warning," Annie told her mock sternly. "It's not easy finding a good DI round here."
Alex smiled reluctantly. "No, I know. But I probably won't be able to tell you anything until it happens."
It was harder to take--someone else desperately looking for a way home, wild-eyed and sure everything was wrong--than Annie would tell Alex. Or anyone.
Except at three-o'clock in the morning, after too much whisky, she rang up the man she'd got that habit from. "How'd you ever bear it?" she asked, when she'd explained Alex Drake.
"She's clever, right?"
"Too bloody clever."
Gene's laugh was barely a chuckle. "That'll help."
Annie sighed. "You're sure."
"It tends to, in a detective. It never did you any harm, Miss Marple."
"But I never--" Annie swore. "She's worse. She is."
"It's well-documented that no one who attempts to sublimate attraction by acting on it manages to do anything but intensify the problem," Alex said, one finger in the air as if Annie needed a bloody lecture to go with the rejection. "Anything else is you lying to yourself about the way you feel."
"That's what sublimation is," Annie insisted. Alex could bowl the PCs over with her vocabulary and leave Chris blinking at sentences with far more clauses than point, but Annie refused to be intimidated by it. She'd had worse, and she had the calfskin to prove it. "It's all pretending you're not feeling what you're feeling, and I never said that. I said we ought to try it, the once, and see if we were lying to ourselves about how good it could really be." She narrowed her eyes at Alex. "Though the more you bang on about it all, the less I'm inclined to go through with it."
For half a second, Alex looked disappointed. It was an excellent half-second, all told, and then she raised her chin and went on. "I'm sure I could fulfill your expectations. I might even exceed them, and what would we do then?"
Annie shrugged as if she didn't care, though she cared desperately. She cared enough that she'd had talks with Alex about her workplace attire, enough to get her into clothing that didn't distract all the DCs in the place and the DCI besides. She'd kept a few blokes well away from Alex on the grounds that that they weren't going to do any good in the case and they'd only be trouble. It was true, especially with that Evan White, but underneath the straightforward copper's explanations there were other, darker reasons.
"If you're everything you say you are, I reckon we'd work out what to do next as we went along." Annie gave her another look, trying to decide whether the flush in Alex's cheeks was a blush or whether she'd had too much to drink. It might've been both at that hour of the night, as her tab was longer than her off-duty skirts. And that was another problem with no ready solution. "There are no regulations against it."
"Aren't there, Guv?" And that was the crux of the problem, or one of the problems. Alex said it as readily as Shaz, as naturally as Chris would never manage. From Alex, it was never anything but Guv, or DCI Cartwright, or sometimes when they were knee to knee by the bar and sharing a bottle of wine, Annie.
It was like being a new person, her face reflected back in Alex's eyes, the person Annie should've been from the first day she moved south. Annie hated feeling like she was pretending she knew what she was doing, and she hated asking herself what Sam would do--but more often than not, that was what she wondered, as she hadn't the stamina for Gene's normal solutions to problems.
Two weeks later, two AM. "The problem is," she said, for the fourth time, and this time she told the truth. "She's too bloody gorgeous."
The line crackled for a moment. "Is she."
"Yes." Once said, it was easy to elaborate, give details--practically a portrait--until he laughed at her.
"We all survived working next to you."
"As if all you did was look."
He tried for offended and innocent and hit neither. "I never did anything you didn't ask for."
"Send her north, then."
Annie laughed. "Sorry, Guv. Not this one. But Chris--"
The answer to "What would Sam Tyler do?" when it came to beautiful DIs who would flirt with him--that was the easiest thing Annie'd had to work out in the last four months. She knew the story of his Maya. She knew what he'd done with, to, for a WPC he thought was clever, and what he'd done because he thought she was pretty.
The mark from her wedding ring had gone in the first few months, but she still reached for the jewelry box some mornings and had to remind herself it was over. Learning to sign her name all over again was another lesson that took some time to sink in.
Alex didn't want her to change her name, that was certain. It made things easier--they'd neither of them try to claim the other. "What if it does work?" Annie asked. "What if--one night, all right, and then we're quits? Wouldn't that be easier than all this flirting?"
"I'm not flirting with you," Alex said. "I don't flirt with you at all."
Annie giggled, letting herself lose her calm facade in ways she never would in a real interview. It was safe with Alex. She didn't have to be perfect to be good enough, and she didn't have to be made of stone to be in charge. "What was all that in the vault?"
That was definitely a flush on Alex's cheeks, for all it was dim in the trattoria. "I thought we were going to die."
"And so we are. Someday." Annie smacked the bar with her open palm and Luigi looked over at her with a worried look. He was a better measure of whether she was drinking too much than Alex was; he spirited away her empty glasses with a speed Nelson never bothered with. The best sign that she ought to ease off was that she got loud enough to get someone's attention. But Alex was listening carefully. Annie lowered her voice before she spoke again. "So what are we doing, between now and then?"
Alex frowned, getting a line between her eyebrows that made Annie want to run her fingers over her forehead till it went away. "Our jobs, I suppose. Except that I don't want to be here."
Annie rolled her eyes. "You don't have to remind me of that, and I've no idea what to do for you. Just--" she shook her head. "It's a good job. It's the best job there is, looking after people, trying to solve problems. But that's not all there is, is it?"
Alex leaned closer, nearly close enough to kiss if she'd said that was all right. "You need a nice man in your life, Guv."
"No, I bloody don't. I had one, and he buggered off. I don't need another one, or I'd be trying to pry Chris away from Shaz, wouldn't I?"
Alex spluttered and covered her mouth with her hand. "God, don't."
"I just need you," Annie said.
"Would you believe," just after midnight, "of all the people in bloody London, my new best friend's an attorney?"
"Christ. You catch the next bus north, love. I'll tell the Met you're being corrupted by them southerners."
Annie laughed. "She reminds me of you. Not that she'd like that comparison if she understood it, but nothing stops her from getting what she wants."
"A lady brief." Gene whistled. "Don't they have any coppers down there?"
"WPC Granger's good. Competent. Bright. But I can't talk to her about anything."
"Bugger Chris." Annie sighed. "Better Caroline Price than Chris."
Alex gave her a wide-eyed look and a condescending smile as patronizing as any Annie'd seen in years. "You don't need me," she said, with a gentle weight on "need" that made the hair on the back of Annie's neck rise. "You may want me," she added more quietly, "but that's hardly the same thing."
"I need you," Annie insisted, keeping her voice as quiet as Alex's. She didn't have to shout to make her point, tempting though it was. "How would I ever get through all the cases I do without my DI?"
That got Alex to look away, frustrated. It wasn't better than the determined understanding, but at least it was different. "When I'm any help."
Annie blew out her breath in irritation and wished she could get away with punching Alex, just the once, to throw her off balance and make her reevaluate things. That wasn't how they worked, or how they could ever work, but after a bottle of wine it seemed less awful than usual. "You're wonderful," she said, and caught herself before she went on. "And if you want me to tell you just how wonderful, we're going up to your flat. I'm not singing your praises in front of God and everybody."
Alex got up a little less gracefully than normal and waved for Luigi. He nodded to her, and she said, "Fine. You can come upstairs, tell me I'm bloody amazing, and go home."
Annie kept herself from smiling as broadly as she normally might for fear Alex would change her mind. It wasn't an invitation to see her etchings, but it was close. "It's a deal."
It was a shame Annie had more on her mind than the view, all the way up to Alex's flat with a bottle in one hand. It was easy to think of things that would make Alex remember she was good at her job, but it was harder to work out what to tell her to make her consider more than that. Annie hesitated in her doorway, as amused as ever by the striped couch in all its furnished-apartment glory, and decided that Alex was a big enough girl to tell her to go to hell if she meant it. They were both more than old enough to go back in to work in the morning as if she'd never said anything of the sort.
It hadn't been so easy at home, but that was nothing to do with sex.
"You're not telling me you've never slept with a superior officer," Annie said, after she'd reminded Alex of a few cases where she'd spotted the key to the whole thing. "Not with all your years in the force."
"That's not how I got to be a DI."
"Nor me," Annie said. "Well, not exactly."
Alex stared at her. "What does that mean, precisely?"
"I was sleeping with a senior officer, but that's not why he promoted me."
"Well, obviously you were--"
"No, not Sam."
Annie picked up the phone at half one.
"I bloody miss you."
"I miss you too," she said.
"No--I--" Slurring, nearly a roar. "I shouldn't have sent you south."
"You'd hate it down here."
"I know that. But you're gone, Sam's gone."
"Don't. You've got the whole city--"
He snorted. "Going to tell me to start dating, are you?"
"No." He'd start sometime after she did. Shortly following Doomsday. "But I can't come north. There's too much to do."
"I'm not setting foot in that cesspit."
Annie sighed. "I wouldn't ask you to."
There hadn't been anyone to confide in at the time, after Sam. Chris would never have guessed, and probably came up with his own set of reasons why Annie couldn't possibly be doing anything of the sort with Gene.
Ray might've known, or thought he knew, but she'd had the better of Ray for years, well before the Waling case that got him demoted again, right when he might've made DI. He didn't like her one bit, but he knew she was better than he was. And he wouldn't have said a word against the Guv for all the money in the world.
If he had, he wouldn't have laughed at her for it, not the way Alex was, pressing the back of her hand against her mouth to quiet herself and not managing to stop from giggling. "You weren't. You--not Hunt."
Annie had heard all manner of things about him over the years, and she was sure at least half of them were true. The other half he'd probably made up himself and spread about to make people think he was even more terrible than he really was. "You've not met him," she said, and told herself not to jump to conclusions.
She'd managed not to interrogate Alex about the last time she'd seen Sam, exactly when that was, exactly where, and if he'd ever said anything about Annie. It had taken a good deal of strength to start with, but it had paid off. Alex had told her the little she knew, and none of it had added a thing to Annie's slim store of information. What it had done was give Alex the sense that Annie trusted her from the beginning to provide what knowledge she had, and keep back things that wouldn't be useful. Raking her over the coals couldn't have done that.
"Well, no, I've never met him," Alex admitted, but she was giving Annie a sideways look and giggling again. "But I've heard things."
"Chris likes to tell lies that make everyone he knows up north sound like they're angels riding on demons. You shouldn't listen to him too carefully."
"No, I don't." Alex waved her hand. There was a smudge of lipstick, bright and shining on her skin. Annie wanted to take her hand and clean it off, possibly by kissing it away. "But you do hear things, and--you weren't really, were you?"
Annie sighed. "Why would I tell you lies?"
"To prove you can have anyone you like." Alex looked her over. "I haven't seen you so much as look at a man. Apart from Danny Moore."
Annie wrinkled her nose. He'd been too polished to appeal to anyone, and Alex had thought he was the prettiest thing she'd ever seen in trousers. "I only wanted to find out why you kept giggling around him. I've not worked it out yet."
Alex sighed and topped up both their glasses with wine. "But you were married."
"So you like men."
"What I miss most--" She should have unplugged the phone after the second drink. She never did.
"Don't go buttering me up. I can't get you transferred again."
"No." She smiled, ignoring the tears. "I mean about before. I miss the possibilities."
"It felt like the whole world was open. I could do anything. I could be anyone. And I'd do it well. But here I'm always the same person."
"Most of us are, sweetheart."
"But it was different, with--" She couldn't say it.
"You're a DCI." He swallowed. "He'd be right proud of you."
"I like a lot of things," Annie said, partly because it was true and partly because it made Alex stare at her for a long and gratifying moment.
"God." She leaned back on her settee, her eyes wide like Annie had given her the important clue in a case she didn't know she'd been thinking about. "You do this often, then?"
"Not since I moved south," was the simplest way to put a time on it. She'd stopped counting weeks, and mostly stopped counting months. It wasn't long enough to count in years yet. "And not for a long time with a woman."
Alex raised her eyebrows. "But you have."
"If it counts when you've still got your jumper on," Annie said, glancing away from her. "And if it counts when you're telling yourself the whole time it's practicing for boys, even if she is the prettiest person you've ever seen face to face. But then we weren't that old, so I hadn't seen so very many people."
"Ah," Alex said, with too much understanding in her tone.
"It wasn't just a phase," she said defensively. "I know, girls do that, hero-worshipping a dear friend, and then they grow out of it. I didn't grow out of it, but it was complicated."
Alex nodded, and Annie wanted to shake her for looking so bloody sympathetic when she didn't seem to understand the real point Annie was making. "But you never followed through on those urges again."
"Boys--men--are less trouble." With certain exceptions, who were more trouble than anybody should be, even held up against Alex Drake for contrast. But Annie wasn't flirting with Alex to get closer to Sam, because that would be like flirting with the sun to get closer to the moon: more likely to burn than to go anywhere useful.
"They're more trouble than they're worth," Alex said fervently.
They'd traded stories, her first night in Fenchurch, Sam--and Gene saying, "He's gone, love," as hollow as the grave--for Pete, who'd abandoned Molly.
Alex hadn't explained why she'd abandoned Molly in her turn, except that she'd had no choice. It was of a piece with her insistence that she had to get home, wherever home was.
It'd made Annie glad, not for the first time, that she and Sam hadn't had children.
Annie said, "Everyone's more trouble than they're worth sometimes," and felt like she was going to turn into Gene entirely if she wasn't more careful. "But there are compensations."
Alex pressed her lips together for a long moment, keeping herself from laughing. "You really must work on your chat-up lines if you're pursuing an active sex life."
"What's wrong with that? I thought telling you you're brilliant was a good start."
"It was, but you got distracted."
"Ah." Annie tried to recall what she'd said to Alex, and what else she could add without being redundant. "You've got a terrible sense of humor," she said.
"I know," Alex said, and kissed her.
"I thought we were for it."
Three AM, but after the vault--
"Air-tight, was it?"
"Dark as the grave. Hot as hell." Annie shivered. "The only thing that felt real in there was Alex."
"Bloody hell, you're not falling for her."
"I'm not saying she kissed me--"
"Shit!" He dropped the phone, picked it up. "Say that again."
"She was scared. We were scared. And she--we--"
"Don't make me wait, love, my heart can't take it."
"Well, she hugged me."
"Oh. Is that all?"
Annie sighed. "It was more exciting at the time. Then the cavalry came."
The trouble with going too long between kisses wasn't forgetting how they worked, but forgetting how they felt. Annie was sure that a month, or to be fair, a year beforehand, she could've made it through Alex and the taste of her lipstick and the wicked twist of her tongue without reaching for her, without holding onto her as tightly as she had when they were sure they were about to die.
It was withdrawal, and it was Alex. She made a soft, pleased noise and eased closer, as if that was what she'd been planning all along.
Annie started totaling up the wine they'd drunk and had to turn her head away, eventually, to ask, "You're not off your head, are you?"
Alex let her go enough to stare at her. "You've been trying to talk me into this for weeks."
"I mean, you're not going to tell me it was all because you'd had too much to drink." Annie had been telling herself all along that once would be enough to be going on with. If it didn't work out, that would be that, and clearly they'd be better off not trying it again. If it did work out, it'd be a pleasant memory.
She wasn't quite prepared to realize how much she'd been lying to herself, but she wasn't going to point out how much of a mistake she'd made to Alex, either. Alex might've noticed--it was the kind of thing she tended to spot when other people did it--or she might've fallen into the same traps Annie had. Either way, if she wasn't complaining, that was good enough for Annie.
"I do not fall into bed with people just because I've been drinking," Alex said, drawing herself up.
"Don't you?" Annie'd had the story from Shaz, who was worried and impressed, and from Chris, who hadn't worked out what to make of Alex beforehand and was all the more confused after.
It hadn't impressed Annie one bit, but it wasn't her place to interfere in her colleaguss' sex lives. She'd asked Alex not to be late in future, and that was all.
Alex frowned at her. "Not unless I've decided before I start that I want to," she corrected herself.
"So you'd decided before."
"If you keep on like this, I'll change my mind again." Alex looked like she was working herself into a sulk, but she let Annie kiss her instead.
It was easier this time, not from the practice, but because Annie believed it wasn't a joke. Alex made soft, hungry noises as if she'd been lonely half as long as Annie had.
And it had been far too long since someone else's hand was on her breast, and longer still since it was someone who was testing things out, seeing what they could get away with. Annie tucked her hands under Alex's blouse and nearly lost herself in the heat of her skin. "Don't change your mind," Annie told her. "Please."
"What do you do, hypothetically," eleven-thirty, and she had the syllables for it, "when one of your detectives comes in bragging about getting laid?"
"Make him tell me details."
Annie sighed. "Even if they shouldn't be tom-catting around?"
"Chris's never married without telling me."
Annie choked. "No, not Chris. And no, he's not."
"Get the good parts out of them and tell them to keep the rest quiet."
"But she was so smug."
"She." Gene cleared his throat. "This is your Drake again?"
"Hypothetically, I said."
"What you do is, you introduce her to your old DCI."
"Like hell, Guv."
"I'm not drunk enough for this," Alex said. "I don't normally do this sort of thing. I--"
"Which sort of thing?" Annie asked, rubbing her hip where she could reach it. "Because I think I could get used to this."
"I don't sleep with my superior officers. Truly, I don't." Alex kissed her cheek, deliberately avoiding another real kiss. "And I don't sleep with women."
At least that panic had some sense behind it. "Ah. Ever?"
"It was only the once--twice--" Alex went pinker as she thought about it. "Unless the time with--no, that doesn't count."
Annie tried to decide whether it would be better to ask what counted, or make this one count on whatever measurements she was using. "Why, were you that hammered?"
"No." Alex sighed and ran her hands down Annie's back. "It was just a hen night gone wrong."
That was far from the first time Annie understood every word in a sentence but didn't have a guess as to what Alex meant. "Not a sweetheart, then."
"God, no." Alex laughed, and it made her relax a little more than she had before. "I don't sleep with women, and I certainly don't date them."
She could have thought of something less encouraging to say to a woman about to unfasten her bra, but it would've been hard. "That's all right," Annie said, as calmly as she could. "People would make too much of a fuss if they thought we were seeing each other, and we needn't sleep much."
Alex laughed again and eased toward her. "Well, if I don't try things here, I suppose I never will." She let Annie go long enough to start unfastening her blouse.
Most of the time, Annie didn't miss having to use a locker room in the station every day. It had led to long-lost sarnies rising from the dead as terrible smells, the pervasive problem of vests too long unwashed, and occasionally people tucking things in someone else's locker and blaming them. But the trouble with having Alex in plain clothes--the plainest clothes Annie could talk her into wearing--was that there wasn't time to catch a glimpse of her between her uniform and her normal outfit.
It was difficult not to stare with the opportunity right there. Annie was used to taking note of a situation in all its particulars with a glance, but still, there were details to appreciate in the curve of her breasts and the freckles on her shoulders. They all deserved careful investigation, but if she started ogling Alex as if she were a Page Three girl, it might worry her.
"God," Annie said, before she could stop herself, and kissed her again, holding onto the image of Alex's breasts and the satiny bra she was wearing. It was the kind of thing most people saved for special occasions, like tiny pants.
Maybe Alex had been planning on this, a little bit--if not with Annie then with someone.
"Christ, love, it's half four. What the hell's wrong?"
"Can't sleep." Or talk. Too much wine, too much whisky.
"I got that bit, thanks. Why not?"
"Drake almost got herself killed."
Gene sighed. "At half four? You should have let her have her just desserts."
"I hate carrying a gun." Annie shivered. "And I hate her for being so bloody stupid."
"No," as fast as she could say it. "She's not stupid. She just doesn't think she can get hurt."
"Kids," Gene said, like she was eighteen. "She's got this far, she'll live."
"Get some sleep, sweetheart."
It was a muddle after that, at the time and in Annie's memory--she promised herself somewhere between one kiss and the next that she'd be stone cold sober next time it happened, if there was ever a next time.
Alex's breasts, and her mouth, and the smoothness of her thighs, and all of the wonderful, teasing things they did for all of two minutes before things got too real and too necessary. It would have been embarrassing if either of them had been any more sober than they were, and it was embarrassing anyway when Annie cried out more loudly than she'd meant to.
More loudly than she had for anyone in ages, not that she'd tell Alex that, or that it was much of a standard to live up to. There was nothing to say to her normal date of a Saturday night but "Have I washed under your nails well enough? Right, here we are, then."
"Oh, God," Alex said in her ear, a moment later, and that eased things. If Annie wasn't the only one affected here, then she could bear it.
Everything was easier in company, though she did bite her tongue to keep herself quiet till Alex whimpered, high and loud, at what must have been an especially effective wriggle of Annie's fingers.
"All right, there?" Annie asked, because speaking was less naked than moaning. Her voice barely sounded like her own, gone breathy and with a catch in her breathing when she tried to smooth it.
Alex laughed and pushed her down on the settee. From there, it was easy as anything could be, with Alex over her, their thighs interlaced, and Alex's curls falling all around their faces.
It was easier than it had any right to be for something Annie'd never done before, and something Alex said she hadn't. Maybe she was lying, but if she was, it wouldn't help to say something about it now. Not that it mattered, as far as Annie could tell.
Alex had gone on a tear after a few cases involving what she insisted on referring to as "the homosexual community" and started trying to get funding for enough condoms to keep half London covered in raincoats till the turn of the century. She hadn't lost her head when they'd had a case with two estranged female lovers, or with the other lesbians who came in to give their witness statements, so it might've been something to do with blokes. Then again, trying to predict Alex's behavior was the hardest case Annie'd taken on since she talked Sam Tyler off a ledge.
But Alex was nothing like Sam--not like this--not gasping in her ear and never once saying her name, just holding onto her hips hard and firm and rocking, lost in her own world for a few moments.
Not that Annie blamed her for that. "If you'd just--like that," and Annie found her own rhythm, the right grinding twist, and came.
Every six months, she asked, "You seeing anyone?"
"Would I be talking to you at gone two if I was?"
"Might be, if she was asleep."
He snorted. "I'd be with her, not on the phone with my hand down my pants."
"It's like that, is it?"
The line crackled for a moment. "Sometimes."
"Going to hang up if I say yes?"
Annie sighed. "I don't know as I'm good company for that sort of thing. There were too many bodies today."
"Dead ones, Guv."
She laughed. "Let me think of something else instead."
The morning was normal, except that Annie was so tired her head ached for a good reason for once. She tried not to give Alex meaningful glances, and Alex didn't seem terribly flustered, so Annie didn't worry that they'd done something to make it impossible to work together.
Then they found the pictures--Caroline Price in a compromising position--and Alex overreacted considerably, till Annie thought of taking her off the case. "This isn't about you," she told Alex, when she could get a word in between Alex's tirades about how anyone would dare to do such a thing. "What's got you so fussed?"
Alex stared at her for a long moment, then cleared her throat, and Annie braced herself for some long-winded speech or other. "I don't care what she does," she said with effort, and Annie didn't believe her but couldn't think of a reason to call her a liar. "But anyone who would take this sort of photograph and keep it is scum. Absolute scum."
"You get a lot of that round here," Annie agreed. "The kind of people you wouldn't have over for Christmas dinner even if they're your first cousin twice removed, because they'd steal the silver or take a picture of you in the altogether." She thought of Alex's face when she'd first seen the pictures and frowned, looking for the missing link between the outrage on Caroline's dignity and Alex's horror. They weren't close. "Did someone do that to you?"
"What?" Alex asked, then covered her mouth, laughing near-hysterically. "God, no, no. Never. Thank goodness."
"Then why does it bother you so much?"
Alex pressed her lips together and looked out the window. "I want to know why he kept them. I'm sure there are are copies, and he sent them on to where they'll do her the most damage--but why keep them here? They're hardly lad mag material."
Annie caught her meaning, though she didn't know the word. "He might've been looking for another way to hurt her with them."
Alex shook her head. "But there's only the one person who'd care."
It took Alex a fraction of a second too long to say, "Yes."
"Then maybe he wanted to get at Evan White with them, too. He's not got a girlfriend just now, does he?" Annie could imagine any number of women who might like him right up to the point where they found out what he'd done with a married woman.
"No, not at the moment." Alex took a deep breath. "I'm calm now," she said, another obvious lie. "Let's see what Chris and Shaz have got from the RWF women."
Chris had twenty new vocabulary words on a pad of paper, and Shaz had seven phone numbers and had promised an eighth woman she'd go to the next meeting. "They're very friendly, Guv," she said.
Annie looked at the last few of them and promised herself she'd not lecture Shaz. "I'm sure. And the dead man?"
Gene called her twice before he found her at home. "So you're not dead."
"Been busy, that's all." It was their perennial excuse.
"'Course. How's your Drake?"
Annie winced. "Fine."
"Not dead either?"
"No, Guv." She started, "We--" and hesitated.
She sighed. "We came to an understanding. Might call it seeing each other."
He whistled, pained. "Thanks, Cartwright. Good to know I have that effect on all the women I--"
"It's naught to do with you."
"Yeah? When're you coming home for a visit?"
"Good. I want to meet your girl."
"She's not properly mine."
"I can't imagine why I'd make it all up," Sam Tyler told Alex. Repeatedly. The first time, she'd only just met him and had the overview of his case from Dr Harrison. "I know, it's what the brain does, but why that? Why them?"
"Tell me about them," Alex said, and he did, at great length. If he had wanted to write novels based on his brain's trapped wanderings, he could have begun with his stock characters and done well enough, but the depth they'd all acquired for him was frightening.
"They all seemed so real."
Alex sighed. "They would."
"We need to talk" was no one's favorite phrase, and though Alex had used it enough times in her life, she wasn't fond of it either. It was worse coming from Annie; their relationship had nothing in it that needed negotiation as far as Alex was concerned. It wasn't a real relationship, it was just a fling. A series of flings, maybe. A chain of affairs.
Maybe she had form, but she wasn't going to admit that that meant anything about her motivation.
"About what?" she asked, trying to play it off. It might have been anything from the latest murder case to the dearth of decent tea in the station's cupboards.
But Annie didn't bring those things up outside of work unless she had a point to make, and she would never have started the conversation with "We need to talk" if what she meant was "I've just worked something out."
"Sex," Annie said, and somehow it was still odd that she could say it so matter-of-factly.
"Ah." Alex detoured from her living room to the kitchen, which was a mass of takeaway cartons and wine bottles on its best day. Some of the former were developing sentience on the counter, but she didn't bother to clear them away. No, it was time to have an official talk about things she'd been avoiding thinking about for weeks now. But they didn't have to face the topic without wine.
Annie took the glass Alex gave her with a nod of thanks. "I don't think I'm giving you everything you want," she said, never a promising place to start.
Alex frowned at her and tried to remember whether she'd said anything critical. "You're fine. It's good. Couldn't we just--"
Annie pressed her lips together and gave Alex the frustrated look she normally reserved for times when Alex made a reference to something out of place in 1981. "No, we can't just do it again, not if we could be doing it better."
"It's not as though you're being graded, Guv."
"Aren't I?" Annie tilted her head to one side and gave her a searching look. "You're comparing me to everyone else you've ever had, every time, and I don't want to come up too short. It's only fair, as I'm doing the same to you."
Alex was sure that Annie's list of priors had to be shorter than her own, but then Alex had no memory of the 1960's, and she'd had the occasional hint that "married for most of the Seventies" wasn't nearly as innocent as it might sound on the face of it. "I'll let you know if you're not measuring up," she said, and had another large sip of wine. "Really, it's been--" most of her memories of their actual encounters were muddled, thanks to the wine and the general state of affairs in her mind, these days, these very strange days, but she knew a good thing when she'd had it several times "--lovely."
"The worst bit was the beginning." The circles under Sam's eyes were darkening, but physical therapy could do that. "Everyone--everything wanted to hurt me."
"Including your imaginary," and she didn't put weight on the adjective, "DCI?"
He smiled at the thought like he was remembering a long-ago Christmas, not a dream of being assaulted. "Those were some of the best conversations we managed. Classic male conversational style, only ever saying what he meant when we were focused on something else. And bleeding."
If he could turn that analytical mind on his fantasies, he'd be fine. "Very traditional."
"It could be better," Annie insisted, and wasn't that just like her. She kept pushing for modernization, antiquated though "modern" was to Alex's eye. Nothing was good enough, and that was an admirable stance in a professional woman. In bed, it was rather intimidating.
"How?" Alex asked. She hoped Annie wouldn't apply her normal tactics of throwing gadgets and charts at the problem. Recordings in interviews were one thing, but she had a horror of whatever primeval materials people used for vibrators in that benighted decade. They'd probably catch fire before they got anywhere near sensitive parts, but that was no reason to risk it.
Annie gave her a long look. "The last time you were," she cleared her throat and said, as precisely as if she was reading a forensics report, "performing cunnilingus on me--"
Alex covered her mouth to keep herself from laughing too obviously. It was bad form to giggle in the middle of a serious relationship talk, or a serious talk in general, but the phrase was clinical and thoroughly unsexy, if accurate. "Yes?" she said, and tried unsuccessfully to school her expression into something less derisive.
The largest benefit to this intermittent sex with Annie was that Annie had learned to overlook most of Alex's outbursts, and she ignored this one. "I told you not to stop, more sharply than I meant to, and you--froze."
Alex remembered how awkward she'd felt. She'd apologized incoherently once they'd finished. Annie had seemed to forget it immediately. "I didn't mean to stop, but you did startle me." It had been more than that. She'd hoped at the time that Annie hadn't noticed, but she had a way of noticing the incredibly inconvenient. If she didn't notice the incredibly convenient things as well, Alex wouldn't have been able to tolerate it.
"There's startled, and then there's that." Annie shook her head. She ought not to have been able to read Alex--not then, not in the middle of, well, if she was going to insist on calling it cunnilingus, Alex would have to go along with it so that she wouldn't splutter every time Annie used the term. Annie's next words pulled her up short. "Do you want me to tell you what to do?"
Alex started with the easiest and most flippant answer, crossing her legs. "Don't you get enough of that at work?"
"That's entirely different, and you know it as well as anyone." Annie raised her eyebrows and gave Alex the kind of look she used in interrogations. "I'm hardly going to stop telling you what to do when it counts, not that you always bloody listen, but do you want it here, too?"
Alex stared at her knees and realized she was averting her gaze. She drank again, hoping that covered her discomfort somewhat. "Maybe," she admitted. "Are you going to pull out a patent leather corset if I say yes?"
Annie didn't laugh, and the tension didn't ease. "Do you want that?"
"What I don't understand is why it was all so difficult. Couldn't I have made up people who all loved me and thought I was good at my job?" Sam's mouth twisted.
"Do you think you're competent?"
"I've the badge to prove it. Again."
Alex frowned and noted, 'Self-esteem?' "But what do you think?"
"I'm brilliant at my job. And I'm attractive, I suppose." He looked away from her. "Not that you'd know it now, any more than Annie did then."
"Annie," she repeated. Not a nurse, a dream woman, literally. "She didn't see your charms?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"God, it'd be ridiculous," Alex said, though after a moment's consideration she wished she hadn't phrased it quite like that. It would be ridiculous, on the face of it--Annie being rather round and creeping up on the parts of middle age where cleavage was less an asset than a liability--but under the right circumstances, she could have made it work for her. Alex was afraid her expression betrayed some of the thoughts she was having, and she put on her best professionally bland look. It helped her meet Annie's eyes again. "Is that what you want to be to me?"
Annie sighed. "I don't know what you want from me, and we're neither of us going to work it out if you start answering all my questions with questions. We can take turns, but someone's got to provide some answers."
"You first," and perhaps it was schoolyard logic, but Annie nodded.
"If that's what you want, I'll do it, and I'd enjoy it. If it's not what you want, we can keep on as we have been."
"You've done it before?" It seemed entirely plausible, as a good hallucination ought.
Annie cleared her throat. "I believe it's my turn for an answer. What do you want from me?"
Alex looked away from her. If she'd never started this in the first place, if she'd never come here, if she knew how to get home to Molly right this minute, she would be better off than she was, and more comfortable. "Sometimes--if you want to--you can tell me what to do."
Annie cleared her throat, a small, dangerous noise that often meant that the person she was interviewing was going to doubt for their personal safety. "Yes, but specifically?"
The only way she could say it at all was to sit up straight with her best recitation posture and put it into the largest number of syllables she could muster, looking over Annie's shoulder because if she met her eyes she'd be too embarrassed to speak. "Occasionally, well-negotiated submission in a sexual context with proper, established guidelines and an outline of acceptable behavior beforehand is pleasurable for both parties. A good release of physical and emotional tension, permissible because it occurs outside the confines of normal behavioral expectations."
Annie laughed after a moment's thought. "How long have you been working on that speech?"
"I haven't," Alex said, entirely truthfully. She hadn't had many chances to say anything of the sort, but she knew the explanations that could justify her desires according to professional guidelines. That would be especially useful in this decade, where such things were even more vilified than normal.
"And you couldn't just say so."
When Alex met Annie's eyes, she was smiling, looking pleased and a little disappointed. Alex hated the latter part. "I enjoy it. With the right person, if I trust them enough, it can be--" she took a long breath, searching for a word she hadn't already used "--cathartic."
"Did you make friends with any of the subconscious constructs?" Alex asked.
Sam smiled, the brightest expression she'd had from him yet, then winced. "Sort of, but all we had in common was work. I'd no family, no mates, no sense of what was cool or awful except what I could remember."
"What kinds of things did you do?" If he'd believed in them, it was healthy to treat them as friends.
"Concerts, sometimes. God, if I'd had a way to record them--" he shook his head. "Movies, a few times, with Annie."
"Was she your friend?"
Annie shook her head slightly. "So what are your guidelines, love?"
The endearment caught Alex off-guard for a moment, but she’d mentally filed it with the rest of Annie's mannerisms. "I don't particularly care for pain, and if you want to try anything we've not done before, ask me before we start--playing."
"Straightforward enough." Annie shrugged. "Do you like fancy dress? Play-acting? Nasty teachers and naughty schoolgirls?"
Alex blushed, though none of the roles Annie had suggested appealed to her in the least. "Not those," she said quickly, before Annie could threaten to plait her hair and find her a kilt that hit above her knees. "I think--" she cleared her throat and began again. Talking about this sort of thing made her drop her eyes without thinking about it, and merely having the words out in the open made her press her knees together. "It probably has something to do with the fact that my parents died when I was quite young, but I would rather have a situation with someone who was inclined to take good care of me than someone who wanted to discipline me."
"Oh, Alex." Annie reached toward her. "We can do that. Whatever you need."
Alex couldn't decide whether she was ready to give in to whatever Annie was going to ask of her. "I don't know if what I want and what I need have anything to do with each other here. And you haven't said yet what you want from me."
Annie's smile didn't reach her eyes as much as it should. "It's been too long since I could have half what I want. We could keep on as we have been, and that would be enough. Or we can try a few of your games, see how it goes."
"They're not just my games," Alex said, drawing herself up and wishing her professional demeanor worked better on Annie. "Many people have this sort of fantasy."
"Which sort, now?"
"Having someone to look after them, sternly if necessary," Alex explained, then realized she'd given an answer Annie hardly needed. She frowned at Annie. "Just how much are you enjoying asking me all this?"
Annie raised her eyebrows and leaned back against the sofa. "A bit."
"Just a bit." Alex tried to ignore her own flushing cheeks and get a better read on the way Annie was looking at her. Whatever she was getting out of the conversation, she looked pinker than normal, bright-eyed, all the classic signs of sexual arousal. "You're going to ruin your knickers in another minute, aren't you?"
The largest victory Alex could have hoped for was for Annie to glance away for a moment, which she did. "I like it when you trust me," she said, and that sounded more like the truth. It didn't sound like a comfortable truth, but none of Alex's had been particularly comfortable to tell either. Fair was fair.
"How much trust do you need, here?" Alex asked, thinking of bondage.
"I wish they'd listened to me," Sam said. He was paler than ever, but talking about his imagined past world brought color to his cheeks. "I could have made things better for them if they did. Even if it didn't change the real world. I didn't know so much as I would've liked, but I knew things they didn't."
"Because you made them up," Alex reminded him as gently as she could.
"Then I should have done a better job of it. All those people being bloody miserable, or bloody stupid, or bloody backward. Or all three. They're my fault."
"I want whatever you can give me," Annie said, sitting forward on the couch till her knees nearly brushed Alex's in her chair. "I don't know where your limits are."
Alex bit her lip and tried to think of a simple answer that wouldn't cause friction later. Or not the inappropriate kind of friction, at the very least. "I don't always know," she admitted. It was true in real life, and it was likely true here. More likely true, at that, because she wasn't sure what the value of limits was when she would eventually get home, where she would only have to explain herself to a therapist if she thought it was relevant to the situation.
Annie looked as though she was trying not to smile at that, the corner of her mouth twitching. The expression made Alex want to kiss her. "We'll find them together, then. You'll let me know--"
"Of course," Alex said immediately, not waiting for the end of that sentence. She'd been working on telling Annie all of the truth it would help her to know, all along, but more strongly since they'd started having a relationship that went beyond professional bounds. She knew what it was like to have someone leave her without saying a word, and she hoped her mind didn't intend to replicate that experience again for her. "As soon as I know. And you must have some idea of yours?"
For a moment, Annie closed her eyes, and the incipient smile disappeared into a pained expression. "I haven't mapped them that well, and I probably can't explain them all in proper words like you can. I'll tell you if I can't do something."
Alex shivered, thinking of all the things they'd done that were well beyond the limits of common sense. Annie had a knack for weaseling things out of people in questioning that they never meant to tell anyone, which didn't go far to make Alex feel better about what she'd said. But at least none of her truths were enough to get her locked away, and it might have been worse. "You don't tell me that often," she pointed out.
"Not since you got a better idea of our forensics capabilities." Annie's dimples were back at that. "Your secondment to those Americans certainly turned your head in that respect."
It was a better excuse than Sam's backstory had been, with the added benefit that it was also true. "It's enough to make me impatient," Alex said, and moved to the couch, close enough to kiss Annie.
"So you are." Annie kissed her lightly, pulling away when Alex tried to deepen it. "Do you want to start tonight?" she asked.
There was nothing to wait for as far as Alex was concerned, at least not that Annie could give her. "If you like."
Annie sat up straighter. "Go into the bedroom and take your trousers off. I'll be in when I'm ready."
Alex tried not to smile. "All right."
"Sometimes it was like being stuck in a bad movie," Sam said. "Except instead of background music, I heard the hospital, most of the time."
That made it sound more amusing than it normally did. "What sort of movie?"
He avoided her eyes. "Well, a program about policing--I swear I've never liked The Sweeney, and it wasn't better living it."
"But when you weren't at work, what was it like?"
He looked blank. "There was entirely too much beer. And then there was the time it was a bad--blue film. Practically snuff."
Alex hid her shudder. "Oh, yes?"
Alex knew how terrible she was at being patient, and after perhaps thirty seconds and the second time she refolded her trousers, she was entirely too aware of time passing slowly. Microsecond by microsecond or minute by minute, it didn't matter which it was as long as it felt like minutes. She tucked her legs under the duvet, wishing that she hadn't gone along with Annie's request and hoping that Annie hadn't decided she had better things to do with her night over the last few moments.
It was hard enough getting her out of the office of an evening without explicitly flirting with her, which was never a good idea. Shaz had given Alex a knowing look, a few times, when she let her professional demeanor slip far enough that someone might've worked something out. No one else in the office seemed to notice, but then the rest of them probably thought bisexuality was something to do with bicycles, especially Chris. On slow mornings, Alex had amused herself with the thought of just how obvious she could afford to be round CID before someone picked up on what she was actually saying.
She wasn't inclined to push it till she knew how to get home for certain. It was one thing to know it was all imaginary, and another to pretend that that meant there were no immediate consequences. The less nightmarish she could make things, the better off she was.
And yet she was huddled alone under her duvet, waiting for Annie to decide whether to follow her into the bedroom, and if so, when she would. It was hardly the best way to spend an evening.
Alex was on the verge of getting out of bed--another thirty seconds, another minute, and she'd get dressed again and call it all off--when Annie opened the bedroom door. "Don't you look cozy?" she said. "All tucked up. Untuck yourself and take that blouse off, or it'll look like you got it from the rag and bone man."
The edge in the last phrase made Alex look down and try to express where her limit was in that respect. It sounded like the kind of thing her mother would say, except that Annie's accent wasn't right. "I'm sorry," she said, before she was sure that was what she was going to say. She unbuttoned the blouse as quickly as she could and found that her fingers were shaking as she went. "You didn't say to take it off."
"You're a sensible girl. I thought you could work that out on your own." Annie held her hand out while Alex worked her arms out of the sleeves, then hung the blouse up.
"I'll do better," Alex promised.
If Alex hadn't been watching her carefully, she wouldn't have noticed the way Annie was trying to hide her smile. "You'd best try," she said, turning back. "Have you still got your knickers on, too?"
"Well, yes. You said--"
"Take them off."
"Even when things were going well, they were awful," Sam said without conviction. He sounded like he wanted to convince himself of it.
"Like your--snuff film interlude?" gently.
He frowned. "Yes. For example. And--I know some of my, our colleagues would prefer to go back to those rules of conduct, but not me."
Alex made a note. That would reassure several people. "Was it easier?"
"Punching them in the stomach?" He laughed, hollowly. "Harder on the knuckles." He held up his hands. "I keep expecting to see a scar I got on my thumb, but it's not there."
Alex got out from under the covers, feeling unreasonably naked. She'd spent enough time with Annie with nothing on that it oughtn't to have felt strange to tug her knickers down, but it did, half because she was more sober than she normally was when they were at it, and half because she was doing it because Annie had told her to in so many words.
Then there was the feeling of being watched--not a new feeling, that. Any number of men had liked to watch her undress, and she'd liked watching them, whether they did it with a flourish or whether they were going as fast as they could.
Annie hissed through her teeth. "Your bra strap's digging into your shoulder, love," she said, and tapped the satiny black fabric on Alex's shoulder.
Alex knew a subtle hint when she heard one, and that wasn't even close. But if the name of the game was to get Annie to tell her what to do, she wasn't going to start picking up on hints this early on. She could save that for later. "I suppose it is," she said, and picked it up perhaps a quarter inch to let it snap back down, not hard enough to sting.
Annie sniffed and made a strangled noise that might have been a giggle, once, before it got all the way to her mouth. "If I wanted to go to bed with someone dim, I wouldn't be here, now, would I?"
There were any number of people who'd probably jump at the chance if they thought Annie wanted anything to do with them, particularly the dimmer ones. Some of the suspects who confided in her did it with the apparent hope that she'd forgive them and make whatever it was right.
"I don't know how clever you want me to be," Alex said, and unfastened her bra while she said it.
Annie patted her cheek, the gesture at odds with her demands that Alex take off all her clothes, except that Annie had only left her shoes in the living room. Whatever power dynamic she was aiming for, they were nowhere near parity. "Use that lovely brain of yours however you like. I'll do my best to keep ahead of you."
Alex raised her eyebrows, wondering what the definition of "behind" was. "I'm certainly well ahead in catching a chill."
"I won't let that happen," Annie said, and sat on the bed beside her. "Lie back."
Alex bit her lip and complied. Having Annie lean over her, teasing at her nipples with fingers and tongue while her shirt fell against Alex's bare stomach, was enough to make her shiver harder than she normally would. "Take your things off and--nn--stay a while," Alex managed, in a few gasping breaths.
Annie looked up at her and licked her fingertips, slowly and deliberately. It ought to have looked much more ridiculous than it did. "I will, thank you, when I'm good and ready."
"I suppose they couldn't listen, not really. I tried to explain things to them, and they thought I sounded mad." Sam nearly smiled. "As mad as you must think I sound."
"No, no," Alex assured him. "You're hardly the first person to have this kind of experience. The mind does amazing things when it's left to its own devices."
"Still, I should be able to put it all behind me." His posture was improving daily.
Alex couldn't offer him false hope. "In time, perhaps it will be like a book you read once. Or one of those television programs."
Alex knew how this was meant to go--Annie's fingers on her nipples, and Alex trying to reach her and not being allowed to; or Annie giving her directions so that Alex knew precisely what she wanted and how she wanted it.
The imprecision of, "Oh, look at you," made her close her eyes and wonder exactly how much control she had over her subconscious constructs. It didn't seem as though it should be possible to have an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with one of them. They ought to know what she needed and, if they'd said they were willing to give it to her, to give it to her every step of the way.
"Is that what you want?" she asked Annie, and had to bite her lip at the way Annie's fingers felt on her breast, teasing and making her arch her back again.
"I didn't say I wanted anything, did I? You're the one who's making demands." Annie looked far too pleased with herself when Alex managed to open her eyes.
"You were going to--to tell me what to do." Alex swallowed. "You said you would." It felt childish to insist on it, but she hadn't bared that part of her soul for no payoff whatsoever.
Annie shook her head, still smiling. "Enjoy yourself."
"No." Alex pushed her hands away and sat up. "Clear instructions. Exact instructions." She bit her lip and tried to soften her words to match what she was asking for. "Please."
"At least you've not forgot your manners." Annie raised her eyebrows. "Touch yourself for me, then. Start slowly. And--" she frowned slightly for a moment as if she was thinking about it "--and be a good girl and keep yourself quiet."
The first part was easy enough, but the second was counter to most of the experiences Alex had had. Even when she was alone, it was difficult not to cry out; there was no reason not to, here, where there was no Molly to overhear her. She could go slowly, stroking her clit and teasing at herself, till she had permission to speed up.
Being quiet with the awareness that Annie was watching her and listening to every last ragged breath was much harder. Alex bit her lip trying to keep herself quiet, and eased one finger into herself, hoping that she could speed things along and be done sooner, so she wouldn't have to struggle so long. She made a soft noise, barely thinking about it.
Annie clucked her tongue, a sharp, disapproving noise that made Alex cringe. "Are you going to be difficult about this? After I've done exactly what you said you wanted?"
"I'm sorry." Alex could hear the shiver in her voice and wanted to take the words back, or to say them ten times running. "I'm not very--good at this."
"I can tell." Annie rubbed her nipple again, adding another tingling rush to the feeling of Alex's fingers.
"God, wait a moment--"
"If I just--" Sam looked weaker in his street clothes than he'd seemed in hospital gowns. "If I just understood it all, would it go away?"
"Not necessarily." Alex had to look away from him. "If you understand something, sometimes that means internalizing it, believing it, and that's not what you need here."
"I already believe it. I hear them sometimes, calling to me, but that's not schizophrenia. Is it?"
"I can't say one way or the other for certain, but it's not likely. Do you know that they're only your imagination?"
He frowned. "If that's what they are."
"Why?" Annie asked, her fingers still, brushing Alex's breast. "You know how to behave yourself. You shouldn't need me to go lightly."
Alex wanted to shout at her for the obvious contradiction there, fight against the knots Annie was tying her in, but she'd requested the knots. It wasn't fair to ask and then complain about what she'd wanted. "I can't be quiet," she admitted, trying to hide her face in the pillow as she said it.
"Can't you?" Annie pinched her nipple hard enough that she couldn't have kept quiet unless she knew the consequences would be horrible, and Alex cried out at the sensation.
"How could I?" Alex asked, nearly laughing because laughing might cover the hunger in her tone. "When you do that--when you tell me to touch myself--when you look at me like that, my God, I couldn't possibly."
Annie sighed, hitting a note of disappointment that went right down Alex's spine and curled in her stomach like all the times she'd ever made mistakes. "The very first thing I ask of you and you can't give it to me."
"Let me give you something else instead. Let me do something for you, anything I can--let me touch you--but not this." Alex stared at her face, trying to work out how much of Annie's disappointment was real and how much of it was an act for her benefit. Annie had never seemed to mind the amount of noise she'd made before. "I didn't know you were going to ask me to--" she shook her head "--to do something I can't do."
Annie kissed her lightly, running her fingers through Alex's hair. It felt like an apology more than another demand. "I didn't mean to set you an impossible task."
Put like that, it made Alex feel foolish. She had to be physically capable of being silent, even with the sort of stimulation she enjoyed. "We could work up to it," she offered, hoping that that would be enough to ease Annie's discomfort. As games went, this was shaping up to be a poor one, with Alex asking for one thing and backing out of it as soon as Annie named it.
"Maybe." Annie traced the line of Alex's cheekbone with her fingertip. "What if we turn it on its head, for tonight? Will you shout for me?"
Alex felt herself blush at the awareness of how easy that would be. "All too readily, I'm afraid."
Annie smiled and cupped her breast. "Let's start there."
It was all too easy, as Alex knew it would be, to let herself go. She begged without meaning to and made the most appalling noises, moaning and whimpering as though she'd never had anyone touch her that way before, as though Annie's instructions had been enough to give her permission for all manner of things.
Through it all, Annie talked to her, encouraging her, her soft praise the opposite of the disdain she'd shown before.
The only time she saw color in Sam's face was when he said, "It's got to the point where I barely use the internet anymore."
It was code, and after a moment, Alex tumbled to his meaning. "For sexual stimulation, you mean?"
He looked nearly alive, blushing. "No one looks right, and it's not their fault."
The pronouns-- "You've tried all sorts?"
"Not all sorts," he said, staring. "That'd take ages. Just--the kinds I like. Liked. Before."
Alex nodded. "But--men as well as women?"
"Yes," he said, tired again.
"Neurological damage, they said. But it's not."
Alex found it harder to shake off "There's a good girl" than any of the sharper things Annie had said. "Tell me what you want," she said, when she could speak and she'd settled in next to Annie to catch her breath.
"What I want?" Annie ran her fingers through Alex's hair. "Have you had enough?"
Part of Alex's mind was convinced that all she needed to keep going was for Annie to tell her she ought to, but that would be terribly selfish of her. "Yes. Please--" she put her hand on Annie's hip, not a neutral touch but not pushing too hard either.
She had a disorienting moment where she remembered nothing was real, and wondered whether any of this made it to the outside world. Whether she begged, whispering in her hospital bed, or whether her actual body reacted at all in measurable ways.
Annie kissed her, and whatever really happened, Alex shivered and kissed her back. "I'd like your mouth on me," Annie said; it was a bit of an improvement from "cunnilingus," or at least easier to pronounce when she wasn't sober.
Alex let her go and sat up, helped her out of her skirt and her stockings, and tried to forget how Annie had sounded, complimenting her. That was the most dangerous thing they'd done yet, the most seductive. If she was happy, she might forget that she wanted to leave. She focused on folding Annie's skirt just so instead, and laid it carefully on the floor. When she looked up again, Annie had her shirt off and was giving her a look that reminded her just how long they'd been playing, and how little she'd done. "Sorry," she said, and shifted onto her knees, running her hand up Annie's thigh.
"It's all right, love, but don't make me wait too long."
Alex tried to ignore the term; it helped that Annie called everyone that, including Chris, who was so entirely not her type he might have been designed that way. It helped more to have her tongue on Annie, the sweet-salt taste of her in her mouth, and the constant challenge of coordinating what she could do with the timing Annie needed. Annie's sighs were some use there, but there wasn't a clear progression in their frequency, volume, or pitch. The data were imperfect.
Then again, so was Alex, doing all she could, listening for more direction--"A little faster--that's it--God, that's lovely" was as good as written instructions. Better, as she didn't need to stop to hear it.
"Oh, don't stop--you're so good--so sweet--" and if she hadn't sounded desperate, Alex would have stopped, to ask her never to say that again.
She couldn't pick apart that feeling while Annie was clutching at her shoulder and shivering under her mouth, and she didn't want to, not then. There were more important things to do than introspect, and Alex focused on them as hard as she could.
"I'm afraid," Sam said.
Alex cursed the Freudian model's effects on psychotherapy. If he were a friend, she'd touch his hand and try to ground him, but he wasn't, and she couldn't. Even if she'd tried, he seemed too far away to reach. "They're not real," she said, as she'd said at least once every session.
Sam's smile wasn't directed at her. "I'm not afraid of them. I never was."
"Every morning I wake up and I miss the stain on my ceiling there. It was shaped sort of like Australia."
"No, I'm all right. Really."
"You don't make any sense," Annie told Sam, and kissed his glistening lips.
He grinned at her, content with the world and everything in it. "Is it so odd to want to make you feel good?"
"Yes., really. Yes, it is. Though that time you--"
Sam didn't blush at the reminder of the time he'd come in his pants like a boy. "You made that noise. How could I--"
Annie raised her eyebrows at him. "I've never had that problem."
"We could try again. If I talked to you like you did me--"
She laughed. "All right."
Annie was sure she knew what she wanted in bed. The best bit of having Alex ask for instructions all the time was that she wasn't shy about asking as clearly as she needed to, in whatever terms necessary. If that meant looking at Alex at the end of a bloody long day and catching a look in Alex's eye that was familiar from--times she wouldn't think on right then--so much the better. As a girl, she would never have thought she would grow up to be the sort of woman who got home, pulled her trousers down, and ended up on the settee with her lover's head between her thighs, petting her hair and talking to her.
Alex pushed her to it half the time, plucking at Annie's buttons and giving her a push toward the sitting room when she might've preferred to be in bed. Easier on Alex's knees than any carpet, and on her nylons as well, but Alex made the loveliest noises when she was impatient, and she had Annie near to sliding off the settee, making soft humming noises as if Annie could reach her as readily to pay her back. "There's a good girl," Annie said, and Alex squeezed her thigh with the urgency the phrase tended to give her.
There were a host of questions Annie hadn't brought herself to ask Alex about who'd said that to her and why it caught her so strongly. Such simple praise, and it made her press her thighs together and wriggle there on the floor like she was on the edge of orgasm herself. One of her hands was between Annie's legs, the other holding onto her hip, so she was behaving herself that far, but Annie had seen her squirm her way to a shaking orgasm from little more than encouragement.
Annie tapped her forehead smartly and tried to take control of things as if she wasn't the one melting into the cushions. "Don't come yet, love. Not till I've had a chance at you."
Alex didn't stop long enough to frown at her, but she glanced up with enough resentment in her eyes to make Annie sure she was unhappy about that direction.
"Just the one," Annie assured her, her voice half-gone. "Give me what I want and I'll see what you deserve--ah--"
It wasn't that Alex had been teasing before, but when she put her mind to it, she could bring Annie off quickly enough to surprise her. She pressed her tongue against, into Annie and tugged her over the crest with a deft movement of her thumb, practiced and wonderful.
Annie tugged on her hair while she tried to catch her breath. "Were you naughty?" she asked, trying not to feel self-conscious at the grammar school question. It wasn't her phrasing, or how she'd have asked anyone else.
Alex pressed her lips together and shook her head, then met Annie's eyes. "I did everything you asked. I promise."
"Enough, enough," Annie said, gasping.
Sam gave her the same look her gran had at Christmas when she said she couldn't eat any more pudding or she'd burst. He didn't get that look about food, which was something of a mercy, or she'd have grown three sizes, letting him cook for her. "You're sure."
She fought the urge to smack him. That could wait till it was the right time. "Ever so much so. I'll not be able to get out of bed."
"'Course you will." Sam smiled.
"If I'm staying here, you're staying with me." She reached for him.
Annie managed not to smile at Alex too obviously. "I reckon I'd not be able to tell whether you've been good even if I had a glance at your knickers just now."
"I'm sure not, no." Alex stood up, her normal, confident self for a moment before she offered Annie a hand up and made herself stop beaming so obviously. "It's just--I love doing that for you."
Every instinct Annie owned said that she ought to encourage that sort of behavior. Only the practice of giving Alex the things she wanted made those instincts line up with looking as disdainful as she could manage and saying, "Let's get you into the bedroom and out of those wet clothes."
Alex didn't laugh the way Annie had half-expected her to--what a thing to say, but then Alex liked all manner of exaggerated things on occasion. She walked with Annie into the bedroom as docilely as anyone could wish, with the occasional twitch of her mouth as she broke out of her role enough to grin. "It's not as bad as all that," she said, while she was tugging her skirt down over her hips.
That sounded like a dare as much as anything. Annie thought of the tricks she'd learned for keeping her expression cruel, or making sure no one minded if she slipped, and patted her leg as she sat on the bed. "Then leave those dirty things on and come here," she said.
She didn't need any more excuse for having Alex on her lap, the silky fabric of her damp knickers sliding on Annie's thighs. If she had, she would have spent some time making up reasons, because Alex seemed paradoxically both less restrained and more uncomfortable there. "I'm sorry," she said, spreading her legs when Annie touched her stomach lightly.
Alex's penitence had nothing to do with what Annie truly wanted of her, but that was all right. "Goodness, but you're filthy," she said, pushing the wettest bit of cloth aside and teasing Alex with one finger.
Alex gasped. "I didn't mean to. I just--"
"You can't control yourself. I can tell." Annie kissed her temple, entirely at odds with the pads of her fingers pressing against Alex's clit. "You'll have to do better next time."
The way Alex moaned was nearly a laugh; she had to know how obviously silly this was. They often lost it several times, laughing at themselves and the game, before they managed it properly.
It was worth all the attempts for the way Alex shook when they got it right for her. "I can't be good when you're doing that to me," she said, fighting for every word.
Annie bit her lip to keep herself from giggling. "Shall I stop?"
"No--please don't--" Alex rocked her hips up, rubbing herself against Annie's fingers. "I'll be good, I promise."
"Hold still," Annie told her sharply, a lost cause from the start, but a sufficient reason to tell her off.
"But if you turn the photograph round and line it up here, with this one--" Annie took the snapshot out of Sam's hands and made it fit with one of the crime scene photos. "You can see there's a bit missing from that ledge."
"The ledge Vare was hanging from." Sam smiled at her, not the one he used when she did well. More the one he used when he wanted her clothes off immediately. "Let's go get him."
Annie nodded, and explained it all ten times smoother for the Guv so they could go.
Sooner done, sooner home.
Alex was as much of a glorious failure at holding still as she was at keeping quiet, for all she tried. She knotted the fingers of one hand into the duvet and held on tightly as if it would anchor her in place or distract Annie from the way her muscles shook when she was trying not to move. "How long--" she shook her head and started over. "I can't do this long."
"Can't you?" Annie nuzzled her ear, nibbling at the lobe, and Alex shivered. "Why not?"
Alex gave her a brief, resentful, incredulous look that Annie knew she deserved, then cleared her throat at some length. "I--people have autonomic responses to this kind of stimulus. It's like a reflex."
"But not precisely like," Annie said, and gave her a slightly firmer stroke.
"N--no." Alex squeezed her eyes shut and managed not to move that time.
"So you are in control of yourself, really."
She shook her head, eyes still shut. "No, it's more indirect but it's still, I can't, I can't hold still, God--please--"
"Please what?" Annie asked. "Please let you be just as much of a dirty tart as you want to be?"
That phrase, too, was Alex's, not one Annie had ever liked to think applied to herself no matter what she did, and not one she would've used against anyone else unless they begged for it. As Alex had, not meeting Annie's eyes then or now, but with a shiver in her voice that came back every time she heard it. "If you must call it that," Alex said, falsely contrite. There was nothing to apologize for, and no attack, and Annie wanted to kiss her.
"Turn yourself around," she said instead of making it a direct request. "And take off your poor stained pants before they wash away." It was permission for Alex to move, after a fashion.
"Sorry," Alex said, one more time, and stood. Sometimes she met Annie's eyes while she took off her clothing, deservedly proud of how lovely she was. Sometimes she kept her eyes down, as if she thought she'd earned the awful words somehow. It was one of the latter times this evening, and Annie took her cue.
She patted the bed and said, "Up here on your knees."
That had Alex looking at her for one brilliantly confused moment before she settled her nerves and got onto her knees. "It's just that you've been teasing me," she said defensively.
"It shouldn't matter what I do." Annie was fond of that lie, and fond of the way it made Alex go halfway between smiling at the obvious untruth and shivering at it. "God, you are a wreck. I can smell you from here."
Alex winced at that. "I could wash--"
"That would only cover up the truth, wouldn't it?" Annie stroked her again, trying to make her touch the opposite of her words. "You know what you are, and so do I."
"I saw your friend down the grocer's," Annie said.
Sam blinked at her. "My friend?"
"Or is she your cousin? Ruth Tyler?"
She'd expected him to make a face, or protest the term "friend." He said, "I don't think she'd be so pleased to see me," quietly.
"Didn't part on good terms?"
He shook his head. "Things were complicated for her, round then."
"I should think so."
"Did you get that onion?"
If Sam wasn't going to bring up how he'd thought she was his mum once, neither was Annie. It was good to see him getting better.
"I can do better," Alex said, her eyes on the duvet while her thighs trembled. "I can--please--"
Annie sighed and kissed her temple, one sweat-damp curl sticking to the side of her face. "You're learning slowly," she said, keeping her voice as even as she could. It was a terrible, cruel act, not one she could keep up indefinitely.
Not one she needed to, either, and that was a mercy. Alex was shivering harder, pressing against her fingers with the kind of desperation she tended to get near the end. "I'll try," she said, forcing the words out. "I promise--I--"
Sometimes Annie backed off too far for her at the last, when she seemed about to break down. This time, Annie said, "I'll hold you to that," and Alex gave her one last wide-eyed, grateful look before she came, slick and gasping for breath.
"I'm sorry," Alex said again, nearly immediately.
Annie put her arm around Alex, pulling her close. She was shivering still, though she couldn't have been cold after all that exercise. "You're doing better every time," she said, because it was what Alex needed to hear. The truth was they were both getting better at the game, Alex at talking herself down until she was desperate to please, and Annie at easing her through it. This was the hard part, getting her back out of it on the other side. "Let's get you cleaned up," she suggested, but didn't move till Alex looked at her.
"I didn't mean to--" Alex shook her head once, looking away, still caught up in the things she'd been playing at. "I ask too much of you."
"Lie down," Annie said in her sternest voice, as if she needed it with Alex so fragile. She went as readily as ever, and Annie got the covers over the both of them with a bit of tugging. "You've not asked anything of me I don't want to give you. Have I been pushing you too hard?"
Alex took a shuddering breath. "No." She still sounded less confident than she ought to. "But I don't know how to make it good for you."
Annie propped her head up on her arm and stared at her. "I had a good time."
"For parts of it."
Annie settled in close enough to hug her and tried not to sigh too obviously in relief when Alex let her do it. "If we ever work out a way to do something that's perfect for both of us from start to finish, it'll be because it's the right day for whatever we're doing, not because we've found the magic script. You did enjoy yourself, didn't you?"
At least Alex looked at her when she said, "Yes, of course." That was moving in the right direction. "I'd have said otherwise."
Alex rested her cheek on Annie's shoulder. "I can say 'Stop' as well as anyone."
"And you would?"
"Yes. I promise."
"All right, then."
The first time she ordered Sam about, she hardly meant it--just a game, nothing more than "Tell me what you want, love," but the words he had for it, for everything, came like a flood.
They only managed some of the things he'd asked for that night. He was distressingly inventive sometimes.
"You've been thinking about this at work, haven't you?"
"Only when I'm waiting for things to happen." He kissed her. "It's better thinking about this than listening to Ray snoring next to me."
"Just as well I didn't go with you."
Sam grinned. "This time, at least."
After a quick wash, Alex was more herself, as if putting water on her face helped her remember where the edges of reality were. "I'll see you in the morning," she said, as she often did.
Annie fought the urge to tell her to stay--not ask, but tell. The rules of the game didn't let that pass, and they were neither of them so drunk it was safer to share a bed. Someone would notice if they did it often, and the longer they could put that off, the better off they'd be. "Good night," she said instead, and they parted with a kiss, near quick enough to be chaste.
Gene rang after midnight. "You alone?" he asked.
"Yes." The answer to that was nearly always yes. The times he'd called when Alex had been there, they'd cut the conversations short. It was better to say little, promise to talk later, and be done, than to remember what to say and what not to say with Alex there.
"Funny, I always thought birds needed a more of a coddle."
Annie tucked herself back into bed while the covers were warm from Alex's body. "Need's not the word."
"You're getting on all right, though."
She smiled into the dark room. "Yes, we're all right, Dad."
Gene snorted. "Don't you start that sort of thing with me. I don't know how burly your girl is, but I don't want to have to fight her for you."
The thought of them in the same place made Annie's heart hurt. There weren't many people who'd know to accuse her of finding a girl as like Sam as was humanly possible, but Gene would spot it straight off, for all the obvious differences between them. "She'd break you in half in a trice," she said lightly, trying to ignore the loneliness. She hated this hour of the night near as much as Gene did, and hated being alone during it more. If she'd stayed in Manchester, if they'd managed to find a path through the little things that made up a life together, if it was safe to have Alex leaving her flat of a morning--but it wasn't worth wishing for.
"I got a letter from Chris," Gene said. "Tell me about this Granger of his. He's too mad over her to see straight."
Telling the truth about Shaz was easier than lying about Alex. Annie told Gene how she'd worked out a kidnap case, how bright she was. "I didn't realize they'd got that serious about each other."
Gene cleared his throat. "Might be you'll have to find a tailor for your Drake, if there's anywhere in town fit to dress a woman that frightening."
The joke was easier than the truth; Annie was afraid for Alex, not of her. "We'll find a way to make her presentable somehow. God knows you always manage to look well enough one way or another, so it can't be impossible for her."
"Ta very much."
Annie came home from an evening out with mates and found Sam scrambling into his trousers in the sitting room, Gene red-faced on the settee.
Sam'd said--but it never went past "I wish."
"What's all this, then?" Annie asked.
Sam said, "It just--"
"I'll be off," Gene said.
She'd never held a man onto a settee with one finger; it was easy. "You bloody won't."
"Not behind my back," she said, and glared them fiercely. "Don't you dare lie to me."
"It wasn't like that."
"It won't be. Go on, do it again. Now."
There were people it was all right to see at dawn. Viv normally had a smile for her, a "Good morning, Guv," and something more intelligent to say about the news than most of the office. But first thing was no time to see Caroline Price waiting outside CID in a trim suit, looking as though she'd not slept the night before.
"DCI Cartwright," she said, in case Annie couldn't tell it wasn't a friendly visit.
"Come into my office," Annie said, and that was easier with the desks empty and no one to stare. She barely had space for a chair across from her desk. "What can I do for you?"
Caroline looked down, which was unlike her, for long enough Annie started worrying. "I'm not sure. I know things have been difficult since the Kennedy incident--"
"No," Annie said, and suppressed the urge to offer her a cup of tea so she had something to do with her hands. "You were the victim there, one of the victims. Whatever you need to say, I'm listening."
"I've had a letter from my husband," she said, and took it out of her briefcase as if it was a writ, handing it to Annie.
The phrasing was wrong for a man who'd found out his wife had betrayed him while he was out of the country. He wasn't as angry as he should have been, and the coldness all through it was awful. He wasn't proposing a separation, but that they'd deal with it when he returned. There was no love in it, none of the aching passion of a man who'd been hard done by. "It sounds a bit off," Annie said.
Caroline pressed her lips together and looked out the glass wall of the office. "This isn't what he's like when he's upset. Not at all. He has every reason to be upset, but this--it's as though he found someone else to write the letter for him and didn't tell them what to say."
Annie nodded. "Sometimes shock takes people like--"
"No." Caroline tucked the letter away again. "I'm not here to ask you what I ought to do. I already know. I'm moving before he returns, temporarily, but it would help to know that you were aware of him. He may not be entirely himself."
"He hasn't threatened you, so we can't arrest him."
Caroline's smile was tight as a violin string about to snap. "I know the law, Inspector. But if something were to happen--here's his itinerary."
Annie glanced at it. "I'll make sure there's a patrol round your street."
"Thank you." Caroline closed her briefcase and stood. "Will you be sending constables?"
"Most likely, as there's no need for anyone from CID."
Caroline looked slightly relieved. "Thank you. I'll be in touch."
Annie stood. "Please do, and let me know if you need something more. And good luck."
"Thank you. I'd best get to the office." Caroline smiled falsely again and left.
"I should've--" Sam said for the tenth time that night.
Annie caught his wrists. "Done is done, and you did everything you could."
He shook his head. "If I'd gone past the house to check on them sooner, he would've survived."
"You didn't kill him," Annie said firmly, but Sam still wasn't listening.
"If--" he said, and she let him go, turned away from him, and refused to listen. One more word and she'd slap him. That wasn't what he needed.
It wasn't what she needed, either. "I'll be back," she told him, and left for an hour.
Alex was shaking from the moment she heard the first address over the radio, as if she knew what they were going to say next--body found, white male--and if Annie hadn't known the next puzzle piece, she would've wanted to comfort her. But she had Caroline's new address memorized along with the old one, and she sent constables there on the double.
Annie hadn't had to identify a body formally for years, and she hadn't missed it, least of all the three of them lined up side by side as if they were a whole family instead of a broken wreck of one, in the order they'd been found. Evan White, from the Prices' front hall, his throat cut; Tim Price, who'd been just inside the door of Caroline's flat when the constables came, waiting, and they'd heard the gunshot that went through his heart with perversely good aim; Caroline with her throat cut like White's, miles away from him.
The constables had been in time to find Caroline's daughter before she bled out, and she was in hospital in critical condition, poor little thing.
The whole thing had thrown Alex into a tizzy. White had been her friend, apparently closer than Annie had ever reckoned, and she kept breaking into tears. "Sorry," she said, every time, and wiped her eyes on handfuls of tissues. "I just never expected--sorry."
Annie couldn't stop seeing Caroline's bloodless face hovering in front of every paper Tim Price had left for them. Like a proper solicitor gone mad, he'd left a detailed list of the damages done to him and his family by Caroline and White's indiscretion, including both emotional and monetary costs. He'd written out a full confession and signed it, with White to witness it, probably at gunpoint. White's signature matched the one in Viv's log book from a cell visit some weeks before, and while it took a bit more doing to find Price's, that too seemed authentic.
"At least there's nothing to investigate," she reminded Alex that night over a bottle of wine.
"That's not how it happened," Alex said, gesturing with her glass.
"What do you think happened?" Annie asked. "It'd be going some to fake all those documents Price had, and he did exactly what he wrote down he was going to do."
Alex shook her head. "It's all going wrong."
Annie sighed and wished the wine would drown Caroline's ghost. "It did that, at least for them. I'm sorry White was caught up in it." She meant it as an oblique question--what was White to Alex that she was so upset--but Alex covered her mouth to keep in another sob instead of answering.
"Let's toast them," she said when she could speak again.
That was easy enough, though Annie's throat was nearly as tight as Alex's when she echoed Caroline's name. "We'll not see their like again."
Alex's hand shook. "God. No. No, we won't."
It was easier after that.
The hardest times weren't the fights, but the simmering hours and days before the tension came to a boil, when nothing anyone did was right and everything was a reminder of past wrongs.
That was the trouble with living with someone, day in, day out, and then the fights came, like lightning strikes, and the calm after was sweet as spring rain.
"You can be such an idiot," Annie told Sam fondly, after a fight over chores and being too sharp with the constables who'd been working with them.
"And so can you," he said easily, and kissed her cheek.
Alex had choked up, now and then, in the middle of sex or the games that went with it, but never to the point of outright tears. She bowed her head to try to hide them, but Annie wasn't having any of that. "Come here, love," she said, and found Alex a tissue. "It's all right if you don't want to."
"I do want to," Alex said, her voice clogged and making it impossible to believe her words. "I just--" she wiped at her eyes and made a face at the smears of makeup coming off with the tears. "I know this sort of thing happens. I knew it was likely to happen. I ought to be able to get beyond it."
"You will," Annie said with certainty, and stroked her hair. "Maybe you won't right now, but eventually."
"That doesn't seem particularly possible," Alex said, and leaned into the touch. She blew her nose and her voice sounded more professional after, more like herself. "I know it's entirely possible, Kubler-Ross and all that, but it's different living it all again."
"Again?" Annie asked, when Alex had fallen silent without elaborating. "Who are you thinking of?" She knew the last time she'd been as shattered as Alex looked right then, an overturned car in the canal and the nagging lack of true evidence even when they dragged the bottom, but Alex hadn't told any stories like that.
Alex laughed, an edge in her voice, the sound between a giggle and a sob and threatening to be the latter any second. "My parents. They died when I was a girl." She wiped her eyes on the thoroughly damp tissue and Annie handed her another. "Thank you," she said automatically. "It was a car bomb, right in front of me. I'd slipped out of the car for a moment," and somehow she smiled at that, too, her eyes shining and horrified. "We never knew who did it, or why."
Annie put an arm around her and held her tightly enough to feel her shake. "That's awful," she said, lost for words as everyone was in that sort of moment. "I'm so sorry."
"It was a long time ago." She laughed again, and Annie worried that they would neither of them get any sleep, that Alex was back in whatever time it had been, reliving it all. "Two weeks from now, actually."
"No wonder this is bringing it all back." Annie kissed her temple. "I could stay tonight, if it helps to have someone here."
Alex tried to put a brave face on it, but it fell apart after a moment, and Annie gave her another tissue. "It's backwards, isn't it, asking you to go when we're--" she faltered over the word, making love, having sex, fucking, whatever it was to her "--on a normal night, but if you'd stay tonight, I'd appreciate it."
"Of course," Annie said, and held her till she fell asleep, and through a shivering nightmare.
For all the things Sam would say, there were things he never had the words for--the drunken nights after a case gone wrong when he was as haunted as anyone else and drank harder, as if he had the weight to survive that kind of thing, till Annie and Gene were dragging him home between them.
There were nights when it wasn't just the two of them, sometimes with too much alcohol, sometimes fake-staggering and flirting, hands everywhere, and Gene always gone by morning, all of them keeping up appearances and pretending it'd never happen again until it did.
Alex begged off from the normal heavy drinking after work, breaking her normal pattern, till Chris took the seat across from Annie that'd been Alex's, the third night. "Is DI Drake all right, do you think, Guv?" he asked, as if Annie should know everything about her.
She'd caught enough glances from Shaz to think she might've guessed at something, but Chris had had to be told outright when she and Sam had started seeing one another. Likely, he thought they were friends, and they might be. "That Price case tore her up, but she'll be all right," she said, with more confidence than she felt.
Chris's faith in her was a bit frightening, as if he'd forgot she'd ever been just another WPC, as if the office meant she'd somehow got a private phone line in to someone with real answers. "Hope so," he said. "It's not the same without her shouting at people. Funny, that."
He shrugged. "She's not been here six months and I'm not sure how we ever got on without her."
Annie found that she didn't have an easy answer. DI Venables had done well enough, for his part, before he'd been transferred out so his wife could look after her mother, but they'd never worked together half as well as she did with Alex. "The right person, in the right place, at the right time, makes a world of difference," she said, resorting to platitudes.
"That must be it," Chris said, smiling at her and leaning back in his chair, comforted.
Annie went home before closing and called Gene, feeling like Chris in her turn, looking for someone to tell her that things would work out. "How did you keep me from jumping in the canal after him?" she asked, with only the barest preliminaries so he'd know she wasn't thinking along those lines again.
"Brute force, barrels of whisky, and animal magnetism," he said, which lined up with her hazy memories.
"So I should pin her down and get her drunk."
"And give her a right good fucking, but haven't you been doing that?"
Annie laughed. "Not in quite that order. Maybe that's my trouble."
"Likely." Gene was quiet a moment. "A change's as good as a rest."
Annie frowned in her dark, empty room and wished he had something better than aphorisms. "I'm not sending her north," she said, one more time.
"Not send, love. Bring. The new chief constable's all about inter-departmental country-wide cooperation seminar bollocks, all these words you'd have to be--" the faintest pause "--anal bloody retentive to remember. He'd be impressed with us, getting a DCI from the Met up here."
Annie's Cockney was lacking, but she tried it on. "He might spot I'm no native."
Gene snorted. "So you'll bring Drake along to use her big words and distract him."
"You just want a look at her."
"The way you go on about her--"
"I do not."
"Just bring her, sweetheart."
"Thing is, the thing is, is--this can't possibly be real, can it?" Sam asked.
Annie would have hit him if she hadn't had Gene's hands on her, Gene in her. "Not again--God--"
"Don't talk nonsense, Gladys, you'll put me off my stroke."
"I'm not. But it's, this is--"
"You're drunk." Annie ran her thumb over his lower lip till he bit her gently, as she meant him to. "Enough."
"So're you, and I'm not wrong."
Gene snorted. "You might wake up with sticky sheets tomorrow, but no one carries on like you in my good dreams."
Alex was all contrition the next day, enough to make Annie wonder what she'd been doing with herself beyond getting someone to iron her hair flat and douse it with enough chemicals to make it stay straight. She looked older without the curls, more respectable by half. Less like someone who'd press her foot against Annie's under the table and say she was going to bed at half-ten, early enough that Shaz looked at them and said, "Good night, ma'am," and gave Annie a piercing look as if she expected her to follow.
Annie wanted to as badly as she'd been wanting to touch Alex's tamed hair all day, to see if she was still the same woman underneath the tidy strands. But she didn't need anyone wondering why she was so hot on Alex's heels when they'd be taking a trip together the next time the opportunity arose. "Let's get another bottle in," she said, and didn't see Alex for another hour. Shaz and Chris had gone with the rest of them and Annie was tapping at Alex's door, softly enough that it wouldn't wake her if she was asleep.
Alex opened the door quickly enough that it made Annie dizzy, and that made her curse herself for drinking so bloody much. "Sorry," she said, as Alex had been saying all day. "Next time, love, stay down there and help me finish the lot, and I won't be--" she put her hand on Alex's shoulder for balance.
"You're not going anywhere tonight," Alex said, "not like that," and helped her inside, kissing her after she locked the door. She was wearing a robe, ready for bed. Waiting for Annie, or maybe not.
It was much easier to run her fingers through Alex's hair without the curls to snag and tangle. "I do like what you've done with your hair. Suits you."
Alex kissed her again, deeper. "Thank you."
"I thought--maybe--" Annie smiled at how silly she'd been to worry "--it might've meant you were done with me."
It took a moment for Alex to answer her, but she did it with a kiss that got rid of the last of Annie's worries. "Not at all. It was a gesture--but you're stuck with me a while longer, I'm afraid."
"Don't be afraid." Annie pulled her over to the settee. Sitting normally was too hard, but she could find her knees readily enough, and Alex had nothing under her robe but skin. "I'll take care of you," she promised, mumbling against Alex's thigh.
"You'll have a terrible cramp if you fall asleep there."
Annie frowned at her and tapped her thigh, easing between her knees. "I'll get up when I'm done. For now--" She managed not to say anything about what a relief it was that Alex hadn't straightened all her hair by giving herself better things to do with her tongue, things that made Alex clutch at her head and beg, heady as wine.
"You're still here," Sam said in the darkness, one late night, loud enough to wake Annie.
"Where else would I be?" she asked, and put her arm round him. "I'm not running off on you, love."
"Nothing else is here anymore." He shivered.
"You're dreaming," Annie told him, and held on tight.
Sam laughed, a bitter sound. "No, I'm not. I'm afraid that's the trouble, really."
Annie sighed. "Bed's too small for three all night long."
"It's not real either, even if he's here," he said, and went quiet again.
She forgot what he'd said till they found the car.
"You're welcome any time you need a weekend away," Hunt said.
Alex had to fight not to laugh. "A weekend? What's that? I can't think when I last had a day off when I wasn't falling down sick."
He smiled at that, tight and wry. "It's what we call Saturday and Sunday up here, love. Everybody needs a day of rest. A nice lie-in, if you're not the church-going kind. You're not that, are you?"
She shook her head, not acknowledging the flirtation there. "Do you take a lot of days off?"
"No, but I've no reason to by myself."
"You can't be serious," Alex had said when Annie first proposed the trip. She couldn't imagine how she was going to imagine Manchester in that decade--constructing it from a brief stay, minus twenty-five years, would give her only the barest ideas, and it had changed a great deal after the bombings.
"They can manage for a few days," Annie said, adamant as she ever was in bed. "Between the lot of them, they'll be all right, and I've asked DCI Bolton to check in. Aren't you looking forward to some time off?"
A seminar on modern suspect questioning techniques was hardly Alex's idea of time off, but she went along with it rather than argue with Annie about whether she could possibly learn anything. "It could be interesting," she said.
Chris looked devastated when Annie announced the trip, enough that Alex would've told him he could have her place if she thought Annie would let her. "Give my best to the Guv," he said.
Alex looked at Annie, who was nodding as though that sentence made sense to her, and then shivered.
The trouble with DCI Hunt wasn't that she didn't know what to expect so much that she knew precisely what to expect. Sam had described him clearly enough for her that she felt she could sketch him, if not his city.
And then he was in front of her, extending one intimidatingly large hand and saying, "Drake," while Annie stood by and watched them as carefully as though they were two dogs about to fight. Or fuck.
"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Alex said, and because she couldn't resist the temptation, "I've heard so much about you."
Hunt looked at Annie, half-smiling. "Have you, now?"
Alex had learned not to mention Sam Tyler in Annie's hearing, but she didn't need to. The double entendres were easier. "From someone we both know quite well."
Hunt narrowed his eyes. "Have you been telling tales out of school, Cartwright?" he asked, not hesitating over her name the way Chris still did.
Annie smiled. "Only the best ones, Guv."
The way they looked at each other made Alex fight a wave of irrational jealousy. "Old friends," Annie had said, "and lovers for a while, but never anything serious, not like us."
"I didn't believe half of them," Alex said.
Hunt laughed once. "You're not telling me you don't trust our Cartwright."
The last phrase made Alex blink; old friend, old lover much too far off to keep up the relationship, and yet he spoke of her like she was family. "She doesn't exaggerate often, but with regards to you?" Alex gave him a deliberate once-over. "I don't know that anyone could live up to her stories."
"Oh, look," Annie said tightly, getting an iron grip on Alex's wrist, "there's Ray. We'd better go and say hello."
"After this ruddy nonsense is over tonight, I'll get those stories out of you, over a drink," Hunt said.
"Cartwright knows where."
"Is this the part where you say you'll kill me if I hurt her?" Alex asked. They were in his dingy office, which wasn't a patch on Fenchurch East for cleanliness or comfort. Annie was off talking to another officer.
As if she trusted them both.
"You already know that," he said. For a second he looked as though she ought to be frightened of him. "You're not planning on it, are you?"
Alex pressed her lips together. "I do have to go home."
She sighed. "Yes."
Hunt scowled. "Not without her."
"If you're sure she wants to come."
The pub was designed by the English cultural subconscious. Hunt gave her a pint of bitter and fixed her with a look straight out of Modern Interrogation Techniques. "I'm seated comfortably. Time for a story," he said.
Alex sipped and smiled. "With all these people here?"
Annie nudged her, annoyed. "They won't mind the story of a few cases."
Hunt shook his head. "Is she always like this, love?"
Annie sighed. "No."
Alex wanted to take her hand. Wanted it not to be 1982. "The cases, I believe. It's the bits about you being human under all that bluster that I question."
"That's a hell of a thing to say to someone you've only just met." Hunt took a deep, satisfied breath. "Chris's been telling stories, has he? Good man."
Alex bit her tongue on, "And Sam," because it would make Annie miserable. "A bit."
"And you listened to him?" Annie shook her head.
"You've left him in charge."
Hunt groaned. "If all of London's a smoking crater by tomorrow, it's down to you."
"He's been fine--"
"And I've a spare room you can borrow," he went on. "Till you get your feet under you."
Alex stared at Hunt, then glanced at Annie to see if that was as flirtatious as it'd sounded.
Annie frowned at him. "We've a hotel room."
"Good thinking. Less laundry that way."
"Look--" Alex had met some men who came as poorly recommended as Hunt, but not many. "It's not like that."
"One hotel room, two pretty birds--" He raised his eyebrows.
Alex didn't need to play the I-know-you-know game with him, and she didn't know how much more she meant to flirt. "The Met isn't made of money."
Annie touched Alex's knee. "I didn't tell all the stories."
"I should hope not," Alex said, appalled, over Hunt's, "Good."
She glanced at him and felt a moment of actual sympathy when their eyes met. Her stomach twisted and she looked away.
Annie cleared her throat and drank another sip of her beer. "That's not why I came north," she said, without specifying what "that" was.
"Get homesick, do you?" Hunt asked.
Alex folded her hands on the table. "I'm here to learn about interrogation," she said as primly as she could manage.
"I'll give you a lesson. Hands-on experience." Hunt leered at her. "For the stories Cartwright won't tell."
"I'm not telling them either," Alex said, looking down at her hands.
"Pity," Hunt said.
"Guv," Annie said sharply.
"Not down to me if you've got a DI who does a bang-up job of getting the tough cases to talk, is it?" He looked insufferably smug. "If she asked the right way, I might tell her anything."
Alex looked at Annie, who seemed far more uncomfortable than she should be with friends. "I'm not asking," she said firmly.
"Thought you wanted the practice."
"No, thank you," to him, while looking right at Annie.
Annie said, "Thank you," softly.
It had been years since Alex met a stranger she felt she understood as well as Hunt, and Annie had been nothing but polite.
Not large and furious, not grabbing her shoulder as if he'd like to wring her neck and pinning her in a corner. "You're not leaving her behind."
"Not on purpose," Alex said, startled into honesty, then, belatedly, "Let me go this instant."
He did, but he didn't back off. "You think she'd move north if you broke it off with her?"
"I have no idea. Do you want her to?"
He frowned. "I don't rightly know."
"Next round's mine," Hunt said.
He was taking responsibility when he didn't need to. "You got the last one," Alex said.
He shrugged, giving her another look that made her certain he was imagining her nude. "I reckon if I get you drunk enough, you still won't tell me a bloody thing."
That was exaggeration, but flattering. "I don't have any reason to," she said.
"I'll get the order in. Not every day we've got visitors." He stood up.
With him across the pub, Alex asked, "Did you want to--"
Annie touched her knee under the table and sighed, close enough that Alex didn't feel like she needed to finish the sentence. Watching them together made Alex's chest hurt with loneliness, not because she thought Annie would abandon her, but because Annie was the only person she knew in the entire city. In her entire unreality, really, as she'd made no effort to make other friends. Why bother, when they weren't real? Not that Annie was, either.
Annie said, slowly, "No. Not unless you wanted to."
"God, no." Alex laughed, covering her mouth to quiet herself. "No."
"Only you were flirting."
Alex didn't glance toward Hunt. She didn't need to look at him to see him, and never really had. She was making him up as she went along, and if she was making up someone who fit all of the descriptors--rough, crude, somehow good enough for Annie, oddly attractive--then she was doing well with him. But he was just a construct. "I wasn't flirting. Well, not seriously."
"Yes." Alex touched her knee. "Are you?"
Annie took her hand, safely under the table where no one could see them. "If you are."
"That's not quite fair," Alex said, smiling at her and trying to decide where all of the lines ought to be. "I barely know him, and you--"
He set down the drinks, then put his hand on her shoulder, heavy and oddly warm despite carrying cold glasses, and on Annie's next to her. "Telling stories without me?"
Alex swallowed hard and told herself again that he wasn't real. If none of it was real, then it wouldn't matter if she gave into the urge to flirt. It wouldn't hurt Annie--cautions about behaving herself notwithstanding. It would only hurt if she lied to do it. "You should start," she said, and had to swallow against the urge to giggle when she added, "Gene," as if she was getting away with something by it.
Annie gave her a look that made Alex want to apologize immediately and take it back, but then her expression softened. "If we start now, we might get to the good ones by chucking-out time," she said.
"You've got all the good ones between you," he said, sitting down again.
Alex rested her chin on her hand. "I know that's not true. Come on, one story of Gene Hunt the great and terrible, and I'll tell one of mine."
He patted her shoulder like an apology and said, "You won't hurt her." It wasn't a question.
Alex looked round his office--faded movie posters, newspaper clippings of saved lives and departed colleagues--tried to hate him, and couldn't. "After all that, you owe me a drink."
He looked nearly handsome when he smiled, and he had good whisky in the drawer. "Have a seat," he said, and gestured to the heavily-used chair at his desk.
The only mark of his life outside work was a framed wedding picture, Annie and Sam, Gene looking proud enough to burst beside them.
"And we got that girl back to her family right as rain, though I don't know as her dad was glad to see her," Gene said, leaning back in his chair and giving Alex a look. If he'd had a talking stick, he would've handed it on right then.
She didn't know what to say to his story except that he was bloody competent--which went without saying--and bloody sexist even with the competence--which ought to have gone without saying, too, but they were in his city, in his pub, and she didn't know that she'd survive insulting him in quite the same shape she started it. "I'm glad everyone made it out alive," she said.
"So's everyone, Drake. I don't need a headline from the newspaper, nor a trophy. I want one of your stories."
Alex glanced at Annie, trying to decide between something that was reasonably straightforward, as Gene's had been, like a case, not necessarily open-and-shut, but one that made a good story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But that wasn't the story he wanted to hear, and it wasn't the story she needed to tell. The trouble with not having any friends was that she hadn't had anyone to talk about things with except Annie, and discussing her relationship-that-wasn't with the person she wasn't quite having it with didn't help. "Have you ever found yourself close to someone, closer than you might like, without understanding them as much as you should?" she asked.
Annie made an uncomfortable noise and reached for Alex's hand under the table, but didn't tell her to stop.
Gene said, "I've been bloody married. Of course I have."
Alex thought of the misunderstandings in his story, all the lines that made it clear he thought women were a different species, beyond his ken. In a proper universe, that would've made her less willing to talk to him, but this was no proper universe at all. "It's worse, isn't it, when they're lovely." Annie squeezed her hand hard, but that wasn't one of the signs they'd worked out for "stop right now." "And you'd do anything you can think of to make them happy, if you knew where to start."
Annie cleared her throat. "I've a suggestion."
Alex bit her lip, hoping she hadn't overstepped too far and trying to keep herself from feeling prematurely ashamed for it. It was hard to look at her properly. "What's that?"
"This isn't the best place for this conversation." Annie drained her glass in three large swallows.
Gene was on his feet a moment later, seeming steady considering how much he'd had to drink. "Mine's not company-neat, but you're welcome there."
Alex shivered and pushed to her feet. She was sure that if they took him up on the offer, something would happen; she might yet turn him down, or Annie might, but it wasn't as likely as it'd be if they were on neutral ground. "Annie?"
"That'd be fine, thanks."
Alex eyed the note Gene had slipped her for the twentieth time since she'd found it. "If you need backup," it said, with a phone number. She hadn't expected to want to use it.
Till the officer from Discipline and Complaints came poking around, looking into cases Alex had never heard of that Annie wouldn't discuss with her.
She dialed, late in the evening but not too late.
"You're early, love," Gene said, calm as if he'd been expecting her call.
Alex cleared her throat. "I'm not, actually."
He coughed. "Who is this?"
"Shit. You both all right?"
The only conversations Annie had with Alex anymore--since they went north and came back to find DCI Keats installed in a large office one floor down; since filing cabinet after filing cabinet went into his office, enough that Alex was sure he'd made it a TARDIS somehow; since Annie spent every free minute fighting for the files he'd appropriated and trying to make sure they all showed her in her best light--were the things they absolutely had to say to do their jobs. Duck; run; to your left; it's not the man, it's the woman, I'm sure of it, Guv.
Alex tried to ask, but Annie was busy, always busy, too busy to talk to her.
Not too busy to tap at her door at all hours of the night until Alex started sleeping on her couch so as not to miss her if she came by, but they didn't talk then either, or only in the littlest words--"Like this?"
"Please--God, I can't--"
It didn't help having her in flashes and stolen moments.
Alex gathered up her courage and tackled her onto her couch one night, half playing and half not, and asked, "What does he think you've done? How can anyone help you if you won't say?" Annie had gone as pale as death.
"You can't ask me that."
Alex sighed and loathed her subconscious with all of her might. "I just did, so clearly I can ask. Perhaps you can tell me, too, while we're doing impossible things."
Annie shook her head and tried to push Alex off of her, but Alex wasn't through with her yet. "It was before your time, and nothing to do with you."
"I'll ask Chris, then," though she had, and he'd seemed as confused as she was.
Not that she'd expected him to be terribly aware, but mentioning Chris brought back his whispered, "I can't think what anyone would accuse the Guv of," and the way he'd looked toward Annie's office as if saying that was a betrayal in itself instead of speaking up for her.
"You may as well," Annie said, her mouth twisting. "Let me go."
Alex was quite sure Annie could throw her off if she wanted to, and that any capitulation on her part was asking for further interrogation, if backhandedly. "Not until you tell me."
Annie closed her eyes for a long moment. "That bastard thinks I killed Sam," she said, her tone cold and level. "He's going through every case I've touched, trying to find a link between different incidents with men who've disappeared, or wives who've killed their husbands."
Alex shuddered, in sympathy and because she could only think of a few explanations for D&C being there. If she subconsciously thought Annie had killed Sam--lured him off a rooftop--and perhaps she had, in one manner of thinking--then it would make sense for Alex to conjure an officer to look into the problem. "Ah."
"He fucking what?" Gene shouted. "I'll kill him."
"No," Alex said. "That wouldn't help anything. We have to prove she didn't do it." She swallowed back, "If she didn't."
He groaned, deflated. "Christ. There's no way we can do that, not at this distance, not with the evidence on the scene. Sam couldn't have managed it if he was on the case, and he'd a knack for that."
"What would we need?" Alex asked.
"Forensics report on--a body we never found. Proof of drowning we haven't got. All we have are personal effects."
"Send them on to me. Please."
Knowing what was going on didn't help when Annie wouldn't talk about anything important. They had a new case on Tuesday, one that looked like what Alex thought of as a domestic violence incident leading to battered wife syndrome with an eventual fatal outcome for the male abuser.
Annie took herself of it as soon as Alex said, "Did you see that bruise on her face?" and handed it all over to Alex and Chris. On Wednesday, she looked as though she'd slept in the office, and on Thursday it was clear she hadn't eaten anything, and that she hadn't changed her clothes.
Shaz came by Alex's desk while she and Chris were going over the reports the woman had filed over the years. Chris said, "Bloody fucking bastard. If he was still breathing I'd top him myself," and threw down a picture of a set of bruises on a woman's arm.
Shaz looked sick and turned the picture over. "It's okay, baby, he's gone."
"I'd like to anyway," Chris said, and ran his hands through his hair. "I need a cuppa. Can I get you one, boss--I mean, ma'am?"
"Yes, thanks," Alex said, and tried to smile at Shaz for the sake of form. "Did you need something?"
Shaz looked toward Annie's office when Chris had gone with the same furtive loyalty everyone in CID had toward Annie. "It's just the Guv's been feeling poorly these last few days, and I don't know as we can do anything for her, but I'd like to. It'd help if I knew someone was looking after her."
Alex covered her mouth for a moment to stop herself from saying the wrong things. She could barely look after herself, and she'd left--someone else--behind, though she couldn't think whom. She hadn't the strength to force Annie to let Alex take care of her as well. "I'll take her to dinner tonight, I promise," she said, and Shaz smiled, a ghost of her normal cheerful self.
"Maybe you could tuck her in as well," she said, nearly a whisper.
No one turned to look at them, no one cried, "I always knew it," but Alex had never felt so exposed in CID. "I wish I could," she said. "I don't know that she'd let me close enough to help her."
Shaz's face crumpled and Alex could feel herself on the edge of tears from the unexpected sympathy. "Oh, ma'am, really?"
"It's not as bad as all that," she said, and opened another file to give herself something to look at that wasn't Shaz. "Things are a bit touchy lately, that's all."
"Well, that's so." Shaz sighed. "Oh, and there's post for you. DCI Keats wanted a look at it, and I told him that was tampering with the mail."
"Finally," Alex said, and took the squashy, rectangular package gratefully. "Thank you, Shaz."
"You can pay me back by doing what you promised," she said with a little smile. "If she'll let you."
"What kind of drowning victim leaves behind a leather jacket without water damage?"
Gene made a pained noise. "One who wasn't wearing the bloody thing when he drowned. It was in his locker. He'd always worn it before then."
Alex sighed. "What was special about that day? That case?"
"Nothing." It sounded final.
"Then why not wear the jacket? Was he undercover?"
"No. It was a jewelry blag and they ran. The only odd thing all day was that my best mate bloody died."
"I'm sorry," Alex said, as she hadn't before. "Where was Annie?"
Alex pounded on Annie's door at two-fifteen, hoping she'd gone home as she'd promised after their nearly silent dinner. She opened the door still pulling on one arm of her jumper, her hair wild, her face drawn. Without the extra layer, Alex could see she'd lost weight, half a stone or so in a week. "What's wrong?" Annie asked.
"We have to talk here," Alex said, and went inside. It smelt of old takeaway cartons and dust, even more than normal. "Look, could anyone prove that you and Gene were lovers? That you were unfaithful to Sam?"
Annie frowned, and then her eyes widened. "No," she said firmly.
"You're sure of that?"
She nodded once. "We were always careful."
"How careful?" Alex asked, feeling like she was playing bad cop with no one to be good cop. "Careful as we've been?"
"A little less, maybe, because no one would've believed we were doing anything, all three of us. And--after--" she didn't have to say what, not with files stacked in DCI Keats's office "--not at all. But it was all right then."
Alex winced and couldn't look at her and say it, and couldn't keep her eyes on the floor because it was too like the games they had no time to play. "Unless--and I know you didn't, I know it--you'd conspired to get Sam out of the way." She didn't know it absolutely, but she believed it wasn't true, and that had to be enough. Annie's silence about Sam was never guilt.
Annie made a sound like Alex had punched her. "Who's been saying that?"
"No one where I could hear them, but Keats, if he's any prurient imagination."
"I don't think he has any other sort." Annie ran her fingers through her hair, thinking, then turned toward the phone. "I've got to warn Gene."
"I already did," Alex said, and winced at Annie's look of betrayal.
She shook her head slightly. "You've been--God, I knew I should never have introduced you."
It had been, for two very long nights, a great deal more than an introduction, skipping all of the small talk and the large talk, straight for an experience that was only possible in Alex's imagination--she was sure of that--because nowhere else would she let someone know her as intimately as Annie did, and then let her share everything she'd learned, fairly traded for the same level of knowledge of what Gene wanted. It had been terrifying and gratifying, caught and used and--loved, surely--between them.
Then they'd come home to hints and allegations, with no time to recover from it.
"I only called him to see if he could help."
"Help with what?" Annie asked, sounding pained.
"No one wants to see you lose your job," Alex said firmly. "Least of all over false accusations. He's sent on some of--I'm sorry--some of Sam's things."
Annie nodded once. "And that's all?"
"Let's get to work."
"Can't prove a negative," Gene said.
"She made it sound like you were living together by the next morning." Alex knew she sounded nearly hysterical. "I don't care, for myself--"
Alex thought of the way Annie had smiled when he kissed her. "No. But we need a plausible explanation for D&C, some proof of what did happen, or they'll accuse her--maybe both of you--of conspiracy and murder."
"This is what I get for comforting a grieving widow," almost a joke, nearly funny.
"And what she gets for comforting you. So, what shall we tell them?"
DCI Keats came in at four in the morning and caught Alex alone in the office while Annie was wrestling with the photocopier down the hall. "Long night?" he asked, sipping a cup of tea.
Alex knew that she looked like she'd been under fluorescent lights for far too many days running, that her hair was a wreck and the skin under her eyes was edging up on the color of newsprint, and she held her head up and glared at him with all the confidence in the world. "We found out that someone's been reopening old files without cause, sir. Closed cases, where the investigating officers were good, reliable people without a blemish on their record."
"Really?" Keats's smile made her skin crawl, equal parts curious and knowing. "You'll have to introduce me to these paragons of virtue. I haven't met enough coppers in this nick who were worthy of respect."
"Then you haven't looked in the right places." Alex turned over the notepad with all of the things she'd put together that might clear Annie's name, so that he wouldn't get a look at them too easily.
"Present company excepted, of course." He sat on her desk with one hip as if she'd invited him, as if they were friends. "What are you really working on?"
"Making sure everyone who's worthy of respect gets it. Sir." She left enough of a pause before the title that he should be able to hear her scorn, even at that hour of the morning.
She couldn't imagine why that would make him smile at her, or lean down as if he wanted to kiss her cheek. "Are you bucking for my job, Alex?" he asked softly, close enough that she could smell the tea on his breath.
"Good morning," Annie said, as someone else might have said, "Eat hot lead."
Keats sat up and turned toward her. "Aren't we busy, DCI Tyler? Anything I can help with?"
Annie kept her expression blank. "You've done enough already." She sounded exhausted. Alex wanted to stand up and hold her so she wouldn't slump in front of him, but that wouldn't have made either of them look stronger.
"If you're sure," he said, and stood. "I was going to interview more of CID today, but it's a bit early to start that, don't you think?"
Alex took the sheaf of papers Annie held out to her. "I'm not on duty till nine, sir."
"And not putting in for overtime, either?" He looked concerned.
Alex couldn't think what the overtime form looked like in this decade. "Not until I'm finished." She looked at Annie. "We're finished, rather."
"That shouldn't take long," Keats said, and strode away.
"Was he flirting with you?" Annie asked, distantly enough that Alex couldn't tell whether it upset her.
Alex shrugged. "I wasn't paying attention. If you take a look at these photos DI Carling sent, and compare them to the motor pool photos from the month before, there are discrepancies."
"We've got the case together," Alex said triumphantly.
"Annie rang already," Gene said, sounding less excited about her exoneration than Alex expected.
"Did you think of something else we need to cover?"
"No." There was a wet sound, like he was drinking something.
"Then what's wrong?"
He snorted. "Nothing, love. You get that D&C bastard off her tail, and put in for leave, and bring Cartwright home for a week. She sounds like she's dead on her feet."
Alex sighed. "She is. We both are."
"I'll look after you."
"I'd love to, but--"
"Too much to be done."
Alex fell asleep in Annie's arms for the first time in months, bar the two nights in Manchester. They'd been going over the case one last time, up till three, and when Alex said, "Stay," Annie nodded without arguing the point.
It felt good to have company, to wake in the remainder of the night and hear someone else breathing. It was one of those nights when Alex couldn't seem to get warm enough, no matter how she snuggled down under the duvet, even with Annie next to her, and she couldn't imagine how cold she would've been without her there.
In the morning there was a strange file on her desk. The tab said, "Alexandra Price Drake," which should've been impossible. Alex knew what all her official paperwork looked like, and none of it had her maiden name. Her hand was shaking before she opened it.
The pictures inside it were of a little blonde girl, ribbons in her plaits, a car in flames and a headstone that read "Timothy Price" and "Caroline Price," when she'd seen their separate graves, here. Then there was a picture of a wedding with a blushing bride in champagne and her dark-haired groom. She recognized herself but couldn't place the man. He looked like someone she was glad to forget. Then a picture big as a piece of paper of a man with eyes that made her heart quail, and cheekbones stark as standing stones, with a gun to the head of another little girl. She said, "Molly," and hardly knew why until she heard herself.
Then a picture of a woman in a hospital bed, with her head bandaged and her eyes shut tight.
Alex closed the file and put her head in her hands. When she stopped crying, stopped despairing--it was too late for despair--she took the folder into Annie's office.
Annie was weeping at her desk, one hand over her face, the other holding a photograph of a woman in a red dress, her body sprawled on the ground in broken angles.
Alex took it away from her and put it face down, looking at it just long enough that she couldn't help knowing it was Annie, like the woman in hospital was Alex. "Does it matter now?" she asked.
"Of course it does." Annie wiped her eyes. "We're--"
"Yes," Alex said, interrupting her before she could say the word.
"And look." Annie flipped over another picture, showing her a man Alex didn't recognize, and laid a birth certificate next to it. "Victor Tyler. Sam was right all along about that bastard being his father, and he was right because he wasn't bloody real."
Alex took her hand, squeezing it tightly. "Sam was real. I met him, before I came here, in the place--the time--all my pictures are from. He was real, he is real, and so are you." She knew it; believing was harder.
"All right, love. But what do we do about it?"
"Don't you dare deny it," Annie said.
Gene was the exact level of calm that meant he was miserable. "I wouldn't bother, sweetheart."
Alex held tight to the receiver, wishing they were alone in CID. "How long have you known?"
"Since the phone rang, this time."
"This time?" .
"I'm looking forward to forgetting again. Bloody women. Not enough you've got to be bright enough to shake things up, but you'll be running off on me two at once. You realize this means leaving Chris in charge?"
"Then I'm not going anywhere," Annie said.
"It doesn't work that way, love."
"There is no way, even in my subconscious--especially in my subconscious--that the gates of Heaven are in Manchester," Alex said, but she knew they weren't in her subconscious.
Keats caught up with them as they were leaving CID. He smiled pleasantly at Annie and said, "You did kill him, you know, you and Hunt. He came back for you."
Annie looked ready to murder him barehanded, though he was taller and broader than she was. For a irrational moment, Alex worried about Annie's career and caught at her arm.
Then she remembered the pictures, Molly, Layton, and let Annie go to brace herself for a proper fight. "And you left her, Alex," Keats said sadly. "Your poor little girl, all alone, because you were having too much fun here to find your way back."
"There is no way back," Alex said, aware that she was crying, and that whatever he was, she couldn't hurt him a fraction as badly as he'd hurt her.
"Sam found it the first time, but he was too cowardly to stay."
Annie punched Keats in the stomach solidly enough that he fell back a step, then another, doubled over. While he gasped, she kneed him in the groin. She said, firm and steady, "Don't you talk about my husband like that."
Alex didn't kick people when they were down, but she was willing to make an exception for Keats. "This is for lying."
He curled in on himself, seeming to shrink. The other officers were standing by--Chris, Shaz, Viv--staring at them.
Annie pointed at Keats and said, "Lock him up for slander and wasting police time, Chris. We're off home."
Keats said, "You can't stop me," his voice weak and thready.
Shaz scowled at him. "Looks like they just did."
Outside, Annie took Alex's hand as boldly as if no one seeing them knew who they were, or that two women oughtn't to be holding hands in 1982.
Traveling took the wrong amount of time every step of the way--the Tube, the bus, they barely had to board to arrive where they were going. "That was odd," Annie said, five hours or five minutes later.
Gene met them at the station, though they hadn't called him. "Think you can manage one last night?" he asked Annie after he'd kissed her soundly.
"You'll have the whole city staring." Annie grinned.
"They're not paying attention. And what if they were?" Alex shrugged. "They're all--"
Gene caught Alex by the shoulders and kissed her next, quick and gratifying. "Busy with their own troubles." he said. "Bloody hell, you've been working too hard."
"Always, Guv," Annie said, and let him take her arm.
"We had to take care of D&C."
"He's done and dusted. But you'll not last an hour at this rate." He scowled at them both.
Alex frowned back. "I feel better than I have in weeks."
"I reckon you do. Come on, ladies. One last round, on me."
"But I've been here before," Alex said, holding tight to Annie's hand. "It's just a pub."
"A nice one, though. I've been here hundreds of times." Annie squinted at the window, then started for the door. "That was Sam."
"Next round's mine," Gene said, and Annie turned back.
"No, the first one's yours. You promised."
"Too busy, love."
Annie held out her free hand to him. "I'm not leaving you behind again." There was no arguing with that tone, Alex knew.
Gene hesitated. "Sure you want me along?"
"Of course," Alex said.
"Come on. Sam's waiting."
Gene took Annie's hand.