“Lord, don’t let me break this. Let me hold it lightly. Give me arms to pray with instead of ones that hold too tightly.” - Florence and the Machine, 100 Years
In loco parentis - Latin. Adj. Acting in the place of a parent
The sky is still dark when she arrives. She likes waking before the sun. It gives her the feeling of a head start, as though she can outrun something if she moves fast enough. The squad room is quiet, save for the whirl of the fan and the hum of the computers that never shut down. They fall into sleep mode, but never fully rest. There’s something about the low sound that the machines emit, the quiet drone that soothes her.
She has barely slept this week, hardly rested at all. The threat had been hanging over them, imminent and insidious, casting its shadow over the whole squad.
An attack against one is an attack against them all.
The anxious strain had been draining until the strikes were nearly welcomed, in a twisted way, for their provision of information.
Natalie Dumont is an assassin.
Thirty-four years old. She followed in her father’s footsteps at nineteen and somewhere in the sands of Kabul, she took a wrong turn. Absent Without Official Leave. She became a contract killer. A mercenary. A gun for hire. A cold, elusive specter by night brought into the dull morning light by none other than the man whose life she’d been tasked with ending. She is scarred, hardened and dangerous, but she is no longer a shadow in the dark. She is a living, breathing human being in the cold light of day.
Jet doesn’t wonder which is worse - the flesh and blood monster before her or the ghost. She knows what it’s like to live haunted.
Yesterday morning, she’d leaned up against the sill of the two-way mirror outside Interrogation One. She had work to do, but her station had been twofold: she wanted a glimpse of the hit woman and she hasn’t been able to let him out of her sight all week long. Dumont had been cuffed to the table, stoic as stone, but there had been something flickering in her eyes, a simmering surprise, an adverse admiration of the man who put her in chains.
Rationally, Jet knew no one could hurt him here. Irrationally, there remains a part of her that wanted to watch his back, so she had. She’d slipped into place the moment he slipped through the door, manning her position.
Somebody has to watch the man’s six. God knows he won’t do it himself. She figures she is the best one for the job since she watches his back and not his backside. She rolls her eyes as she recalls listening to a few of the rookie female cops at a Task Force meeting talking in no uncertain terms about Stabler’s assets. They call him a “Zaddy.” The term is so cringe-worthy it makes her want to throw up in her mouth.
Granted, she has eyes. She knows the man is handsome as hell and ridiculously built for sixty-something years on this planet, but to her, he is more Dad.
He matched her posture on the opposite side of the glass, leaning up against the window as though he knew she was there, standing by his side. She listened as he talked, wondering how long he would wait, if Dumont would say anything at all.
She can tell his injuries are worse than he lets on. The cut on his neck looked angry, but he wouldn’t let anyone look at it. He moved gingerly as though his ribs were aching and she wondered what other injuries he sustained that he’d neglected to report.
“You know what the real crime is?” He asked. “We never got the chance to talk. Get to know each other. So, I’ll start…Here’s the situation. There’s an army of Feds outside who wanna talk to you about a string of murders like Ilya Efremov, not to mention your recent attempt to…uh…orphan my kids.”
His voice dropped low enough on the word that she’d taken a deep breath in an attempt to remind him to do the same. His wife’s death last year had put all of this into motion. Without him, his children become…
“I’m an orphan. You learn how to survive.”
Her gaze snapped up so quickly that she had to press her fingers into her neck to stop the bite of her muscles there.
It’s true. She knows it firsthand. She is living proof of survival, but not living proof of life.
“See that? Right now, all of a sudden, we’re sharing. We’re talking. I’m gettin’ to know you a little better…”
She let herself drift to the sound of his voice. Eleven years ago, on an early May morning just like this, she’d woken in the light of day to find both of her parents dead.
Two shots fired from a silenced weapon in the dark and an orphaned thirteen-year-old suspended in a silent scream.
Her brilliant father, a software designer, worked with ATF as a civilian employee on a program to track gunrunning, serial numbers, and ballistics. Her beautiful mother was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. Saturday mornings were spent sitting cross legged on the gleaming hardwood floor, her back resting against her mother’s chair on stage at Lincoln Center. Tchaikovsky and Schubert drowned out the soft tapping of her laptop keyboard beneath her fingers while she played a different kind of instrument. She remembers the feeling of her mother’s own lithe fingers reaching down to gently brush her hair away from her face while she watched her computer screen intently.
Now, she wishes she would have looked up more often.
She thinks back to earlier in the week, how she’d simultaneously forgotten herself and found herself slipping her arms around Stabler, resting her cheek against his strong shoulder for the briefest of moments. He leaned closer and she felt the soft scratch of his cheek against her hairline. He smelled like cologne and aftershave and something distinctly paternal.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
She doesn’t like promises that can’t be kept. Her parents had vowed the same and their oath had been broken for them.
There have never been any leads in her parents case. She remembers a name, a Special Agent by the name of Greer, but she has never been able to find him and she wonders if all of the evidence died along with her parents.
It wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. They weren’t supposed to leave her. They weren’t supposed to die. They weren’t supposed to…not without her.
She had run after that. She buried both of her parents and herself along with them and then she ran away. She ran to the one thing that she has always been good at, the gift her parents had bestowed upon her, a knack for technology and a penchant for precision, like the notes on a musical scale. The moment she graduated from high school; she joined the Academy without a second thought.
It’s a quiet avenging and the battle she fights on the streets is directly correlated to the battle she fights in her mind. A reckoning for retribution that will never come. She understands the urge to shut herself down all too well.
She hopes that’s the last of the similarities between her and the murderer behind the glass in front of her.
She jumped as though she had been scalded when his warm hand brushed her arm and she looked up, contrite into his concerned expression. She hadn’t realized he’d finished. He has won another round, this gladiator whose heart is his Achilles heel.
Last night, she fought her anxiety tooth and nail to go to him on her way home. She hadn’t wanted to bother him, upset him after the week he has had, but he’d asked for information and she had it. It felt wrong to withhold it any longer.
At that moment, half of her wished she had waited.
She stood with him in the midst of the ruins of his living room and watched his expression as her news wreaked further havoc on his history.
He had been disarmingly soft and open for a man with so much armor. She wonders if he knows she wears the same kind. She recognizes a knight when she sees one.
They’d thrown each other lifelines in the middle of the ocean. Each of them trying to give the other something stable to grab onto.
“That’s okay. I asked for information. You got it for me. I appreciate it.” His voice was low and serious, as though he was trying to impress upon her his gratitude for being his bearer of bad news.
She is. Sorry. She knows how the truth can be a blessing and a curse and she wonders which one he considers this to be.
“Want some help cleaning up?” The question had barely left her lips when he’d answered. It had nearly been rhetorical.
“No, I got it.”
He looked away and she glanced up at him then, this unmoored man. His walls have literally tumbled down and he is still clinging to the last shards of his shield.
She thought he needed to know that someone saw through his broken battle gear, no matter the wreckage.
“No, you don’t.”
There is a terrible freedom in the assertion and she wonders whether he can find the same in the acceptance. It’s something she knows all too well. She wonders if it is a weight lifted from his shoulders, to have someone see him or if he feels the need to scramble to his defenses.
“But thank you for letting me off the hook.”
She knew without looking at him that his mouth was lilting in the subtlest hint of a smile.
He said her name softly and when she’d reached the door she had the urge to turn around, to run back and reach across the ravaged space between them and hug him once more.
She isn’t sure what’s gotten into her lately, except that the man is all father. It’s the way he pours out strength, power, and protection and the way she has been empty for so long. It’s the way he needs someone to look out for him in ways that his own children can’t; to call him on his bullshit, and help him send emails, and make sure he remembers to eat during the day.
It’s the way it’s been eleven years, two weeks, and three days since she has been held by her parents and she misses being a daughter.
She can’t tell him this, of course. She won’t. Last night, she didn’t turn around until she got to her car. She glanced over her left shoulder just in time to see him watching from the doorway.
“Just makin’ sure you get in okay!” He yelled over the sound of the soft rain. He waved his hand, urging her inside and out of the night chill. She rolled her eyes with enough affectionate amusement that she knew by the bark of his laugh how he hadn't missed it, even through the dark.
She wonders if this is what it’s like to be twenty-four and have a father.
She settles into her chair, tucks her knees up to her chest and fiddles with her mouse. Her computer is waking slowly but surely, just like she is. Her stomach rumbles and she glances around in embarrassment even though she is the only one around. She should have packed something more than a protein shake for breakfast. The soft chime of her phone catches her attention and she feels her shoulders relax at the message relayed.
The crew has arrived.
The demolition has taken place, the clean-up needs to start, then the resurrection to come.
She called in a favor late last night and knows there is a plain clothes officer among them, the clean-up crew, just in case.
It’s the only way she could think of to help. She knows without her, he would let it go for days without taking care of himself. As long as his family is safe, he won’t bother.
She’ll bother for him.
She wonders what else he puts off in the name of being that perfunctory four-letter f-word she despises: fine. She hopes he can do better than fine. She wants to make sure of it.
She wonders if this is living, this reaching out and caring for someone beyond the virtual world of her computer screen. This last year she found Adam, Bell, and Stabler, too. She knows they’re an eclectic mix, a ragtag group, but they are as close as she has to a family.
She hears his footsteps before she sees him. She has her mother’s ear for picking up on subtle differences in sound and she knows his footfalls by heart. Sergeant Bell’s are quick, calm, and confident. Cho’s are soft and delicate like a dancer, while Maldonado’s are slower and purposeful. Stabler’s footsteps are a distinctly determined mix, between a saunter and a swagger and the sound never fails to settle her because it means he is here.
He is safe and so is she.
She keeps her head down as he makes his way toward her, pretending to work on something complicated he wouldn’t understand if he asked her about it, when the takeout bag appears beside her right hand.
She knows what it is, a breakfast sandwich from her favorite place. The little vegan joint six blocks North. She’d mentioned it once a few weeks ago in passing, asking if he had ever been. He hadn’t and it isn’t on his drive in.
She steels herself to look up into his gaze.
“Good morning,” she says, not yet taking her eyes off the screen in front of her.
She doesn’t have to glance at him to know the merciless way he is worrying his bottom lip. He does that when the right words are hard to find. She hears the sound of his heavy swallow and she looks up into his face.
“You takin’ care of me now?” He asks.
His voice is too low and she wonders if he understands that she knows how hard it is to accept another four letter word: h-e-l-p.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says breezily, reaching for the takeout bag and peeking inside. She has to stifle her own smile because he got her order right and then some.
He says her name quietly and the sound of it makes her set the bag back down on the table. She closes her eyes for a moment because she can feel the way her fair skin is flushing with embarrassment and mild irritation.
The man stands before her; bruised, beaten, and somehow still brave.
“It’s not like you’re going to take care of yourself.”
He shakes his head and gives her the slightest grin. “You sound just like my daughters.”
She can’t help the prickle of emotion that starts playing across her nose, the way her eyes are steadily filling until she can’t even blink because they’ll spill…
She tries to stand, to keep her head down and blindly fight her way toward the Kleenex box on the empty desk across the way, but he’s there. He’s big and broad and full of calm concern and this time he reaches for her.
“Hey.” His voice is no more than a rumble in his chest and then he is all soothing. There’s no fear in him. He isn’t afraid of her tears. She thinks he must be a good father and wonders if his children know how lucky they are.
She knows he doesn’t understand. He has no idea where this is coming from, why this small, weird girl is crying into his navy-blue Henley first thing in the morning, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s gonna be okay.” He whispers and she shakes her head against his shoulder because there it is again, another promise no one can keep.
“You can’t guarantee that,” she says softly. Her voice is shaking and she feels the weight of his hand against her back.
He makes a quiet sound low in his throat and she thinks it sounds something like agreement because all at once he is shaking his head, too.
“You’re right. I can’t.”
That does it. The dam breaks. She presses her palm to her mouth to stifle the way she just wants to sob. It’s his honesty, the humility of a man who has challenged death more times in the last year than anyone she has ever known. Each and every battle he has come out victorious, but there’s something simultaneously humbling and horrifying about the fact that he knows he isn’t God.
She feels the way he tries to step back, to get her to look up at him, but she ducks her head. His steadying grip doesn’t leave her arm, but he reaches for the tissues and then he is pressing them into her palm, giving her a moment with her mascara that she knows now is making her look like a sad raccoon.
He perches on the edge of her desk so that she stands opposite. Eye level and open, but he doesn’t try to force her to meet his gaze. He simply holds on to her and stays.
“We can’t control what happens. All we can do is show up and try our best. Doesn’t matter who you are, it’s what you do. Doesn’t matter how much time you have, it’s what you do with it and who you spend it with.”
She nods. She hopes he knows she wants him around to spend more if it with. She dabs her wet cheeks with the tissue, then chances a glance at his eyes.
“I’ve got your back, kid,” he vows and she nods before he speaks again. “I know you got mine.”
She nods again. She has never meant her oath more.
There is something about this infuriating, stubborn bull in a china shop who wears his heart on his sleeve that makes her want to protect and to serve by his side for as long as she can. He straightens up and slowly steps closer as though he is approaching a small, frightened woodland creature. She almost laughs because she is sure she looks just like a deer caught in the headlights. She feels the scratch of his cheek against the top of her head, the press of his mouth to her temple.
“Long as I can help it, I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he amends the previous pledge he made. There’s an element of a fight to his sentiment now and she knows he will never back down from a scuffle. He has promised and this time, she is going to take him up on it.