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"Elliot, hey, listen, I'm calling from Mark's cell-- my bag didn't make it back from Italy. And don't ask me why I brought my cellphone to another country, because I don't know why I did it. Probably 'cause I thought you'd call me on the way to the airport with a case and I'd get out of the trip. Anyway, I'll be there in twenty. You can call me on this number till then, Mark's dropping me at the house. Okay, bye." Olivia handed the phone back to Mark. "Thanks. Figures your bag made it, but mine didn't. We didn't even change planes."

"I know, but I'm sure they'll find it soon. If I get a call about it, I'll ask them to deliver to my place, okay?"

"Sure. I'll pick it up later, maybe tonight if we're not working a case."

Mark picked up her left hand, touching the ring on her third finger. "You wouldn't have to pick it up, you know. You could just leave it with me."

Olivia swallowed. The ring felt heavy on her hand, heavy like a stone pressing down on her chest. She hadn't given him an answer, but he'd insisted on slipping the ring down past her knuckle, despite the fact that it was a shade too small. If she wanted to remove it, it would take some serious elbow grease. Maybe a little butter when I get home might help. Just so I know it'll come off.

"We'll see," she said.

Mark was a good man, and she cared about him. Four days in Italy had been a compromise; he'd wanted two weeks, and she hadn't wanted to go, so four days (plus one for travel) was all she would commit to. The only reason she'd agreed in the first place was because Elliot asked her to take the time. Though insulted at first, she knew Elliot was only trying to help, and understood that it might do some good. Mark was thrilled at the compromise, and she'd actually enjoyed herself for the first two days, walking the streets with him, eating amazing meals, exploring the countryside.

He hadn't been so thrilled when he'd caught her calling Elliot at a payphone in the middle of the second night. "You promised, Olivia," he'd said forcefully, anger turning his face slightly red.

"I promised I'd try, Mark. You can't change who I am."

"You're not your job. If you were, there'd be no living with you."

She'd forced the sneer from her face, suppressing her temper. "My job is my life. If you can't accept that, I don't know what the hell we're doing here."

"Liv, you're wrong. The job doesn't have to be your life."

She'd winced. "Don't call me that, Mark. You know I hate it."

"You let Elliot call you that."

"You're not Elliot." Turning her back on him, she wished so badly to be home, she almost believed if she crushed her eyelids shut and clicked her heels together three times, it could happen.

His arms had wrapped around her from behind. "Olivia, I love you. I only want four days of you all to myself. Even if there is a case they're working on, what could you do about it from here?"

Leaning her head against his shoulder, she couldn't let go of the tension in her belly. "I just wanted to know." She looked back at him. "There's no answer anyway. He must be out of range."

"Maybe he knew it was you and deliberately didn't pick up."

She'd scoffed, "Unlikely."

The final two days in Rome had been fine, but spending so much time with another person had worn on her. Even understanding, supportive, kind and caring Mark. She needed time away, to recharge and get her bearings. She'd ignored his disappointed expression when she told him she'd be going out on her own, and had walked a few blocks to sit at a fountain for a while, watching people pass.

After an hour or so, a beautiful, dark haired girl had handed her a coin and gestured for her to throw it over her shoulder. "Dunque potete rinviare a Roma presto," she'd said with an encouraging smile.

Olivia had shaken her head and mumbling, "Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano."

"Ah, certo. I say, so you may return to Roma very soon, yes?"

"Oh," said Olivia with a little laugh. "Okay, I guess." She couldn't imagine circumstances that would ever bring her back to Rome. Not in this lifetime.

"Chiuda i vostri occhi," the girl said, covering Olivia's eyes with her hand.

Closing her eyes behind a warm palm, Olivia tossed the coin. The girl clapped wildly when the old, out of date 100 lire piece landed in the water with a splash, and Olivia found herself smiling openly in return. "Adesso, qui," the girl said, taking Olivia's hand and pulling her over to the left side of the fountain. They came upon a small, surprisingly inelegant portion of the structure-- a simple rectangular basin with a pipe draining into it. The girl pointed. "You come back con la vostra amante, with your lover. Drink, and you will be faithful always. Per sempre."

"Drink? From that?" Frowning, she replied, "I don't think so."

"Si," the girl had said. "Bring her here."

"Oh." Olivia stared at her. "I'm not- I don't..."

The girl looked at her strangely in return. "No, bellissima, you bring her. Drink." She nodded with a great grin, motioning with her hand. "Per sempre." She leaned in and kissed a startled Olivia on both cheeks, skittering away with a "Ciao, bella!" called over her shoulder. Olivia watched her join arms another girl, as dark and quiet as her new friend was boisterous, and they disappeared into the mass of people, schoolgirl skirts swaying in the breeze.

Olivia had gazed down at the small fountain, breathing deeply to cure the vertigo that had come over her.

That night, Mark had given her the ring. "I know you might not be ready, Olivia, but I'm willing to wait. I wanted you to be sure of my commitment to you, and be comfortable in that. Will you just take it?" He'd looked so adoringly at her, brown hair falling into his eyes, and she'd nodded minutely. His smile had been tender, and she felt like she could love him, someday, if she was patient enough. "I love you," he'd whispered, taking her in his arms.

"I love you too," she'd said in return, while the memory of the fountain lingered.

Now that she was back in the city, the whole trip seemed like a dream. It was already fading, replaced by the grit and reality of her home. Rain pounded on the roof of the black sedan, and Olivia looked out the window at the rivulets of water streaming down the glass.

Half an hour later, Olivia kissed Mark goodbye. "Leave a message if my bag gets in, okay? Or call Elliot. You have his cell number."

"I have it. Let me know when you'll be home for dinner."

If, she thought. "Okay. See ya." One last kiss and she sprinted from the car, pulling the messenger bag with most of her essentials packed in it over her shoulder. She'd stupidly forgotten to transfer her phone to it the night before, and it felt like she couldn't get into the station fast enough.

Striding into the bullpen, she felt the remaining tension drain from her body in an instant. It felt right; the sound of motion and intensity blew like a windstorm around her. It was her life, no matter what Mark said.

"Shit, Olivia, when did you get back?" Fin said from his desk, lines marring his brow.

"Just now," she said, shaking the rain from her hair. "What's up?"

"Didja get Stabler's messages?"

"Messages?" She dropped her bag on the desk. "No. My cell is in my suitcase, which is probably somewhere over the Atlantic right now, if I'm lucky. Did something go down while I was gone?"

He didn't respond.

"Jesus, Fin, what happened?"

Fin raised his chin, gesturing across the room. Around her, the air seemed to spark, alive with electricity. "Hey," a voice said behind her, and Olivia froze.

Though her feet didn't want to cooperate, she managed to turn around. Before her stood a vision, the one face that made her heart stop and stutter forward again, tripping over itself to beat in triple time. Olivia opened her mouth, but words wouldn't come.

Elliot came into focus next to Alex. "Velez turned up in the Hudson the night after you left."

She coughed once, croaking out, "Why didn't you call?"

"I did," he said, moving toward her. "I left messages."

She shook her head, looking past her partner, unable to stop staring. Ice blue eyes gazed steadily at her. Alex looked... different. Her hair was short, but still the pale blonde that Olivia had dreamed of every night for a month after Alex had gone. She was thinner, and there was something missing, though for a moment she couldn't put her finger on it.

When Alex tilted her head, Olivia had it. The cockiness was absent, replaced by a hesitance that didn't suit the formerly assured lawyer. "Aren't you going to welcome me home?" Alex asked quietly.

Trying to mask a wince, Olivia felt the familiar pain blossom in her chest. For more than two years she'd folded up her affection for Alex until it was so small, it seemed invisible, as if it had never existed. But the tiny place where she held it burst open beyond her control. She imagined sweeping Alex into an embrace as tears rolled down her face. Alex would hold her so close, while Olivia would smell the scent that had haunted her for so many days and nights. They would kiss once, twice, and again until those around them would look away, not wanting to intrude.

Instead, Olivia said hoarsely, "Welcome home."

The obvious dissatisfaction on Alex's face stunned her. She wasn't used to seeing such naked emotion on the cool features, and the effect was potent. "Thanks," Alex said dryly. "Just like old times."

Olivia hated seeing her disappointment, and wracked her brain for something more meaningful. "I mean, I missed you," Olivia said, moving a step closer. The thirst she'd suppressed bubbled up. Somehow, she'd drifted to stand right in front of Alex. "How are you?" Her hand started to lift, wanting to touch that soft hair; it looked silken, like feathers, like velvet. She pushed the desire away, shoving her hand into her pocket.

Alex watched her. "Not dead. Which is more than I can say for Velez. How are you, Liv?"

The way she said the nickname was a whisper of a kiss. Blankly, Olivia nodded. "Good, good. I've been... good."

"You went away," Alex said. "I can't believe you were on vacation."

Olivia snorted lightly, running a hand through her hair. "I know. I was tricked into it."

For the first time, Alex broke eye contact. Her gaze followed Olivia's hand up, then down again. "What's that on your hand?"

The ring. Christ. "Oh, um, it's just a thing someone gave me."

And then Alex was holding her hand, while Olivia tried not to gasp. It was only then that she looked around, realizing Fin, Munch and Elliot had left them alone.

"That's an engagement ring."

Alex's skin was soft, but there were calluses on her thumb, and the inside of her forefinger. Olivia said weakly, "It's not. I mean, I'm not engaged."

Blue eyes, almost translucent, pinned her; she was an insect in a spider's web. "Why are you wearing it then?"

With a sigh, Olivia replied, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Seconds ticked by, and their hands stayed in contact.

Cragen's kind face appeared behind Alex. "I see you've been reintroduced to our prodigal daughter," he said, placing a hand on a slim shoulder.

Olivia stepped back a pace, pulling her fingers away. "Yeah. It was... a surprise after being away." She looked at Alex again. "A great surprise."

"I'm sure you'll be able to help Miss Cabot get reacquainted with her surroundings again, since she'll be back with us in a few weeks."

"What?" Olivia said sharply.

"ADA Novak is transferring to Major Cases in a couple of months. When she leaves, Alex will be our primary."

Olivia was stunned to realize Alex wasn't just returning to New York, but to her daily life. They'd see one another all the time. After a moment of basking in the knowledge, a thread of anger rose up at what seemed like a slap in the face assignment. "But she should be the one with the promotion. Alex took a bullet for this goddamned place, I think she deserves--"

"Liv," Alex interrupted, "I requested to come back. I want to be with SVU."

"But your career--"

"Has been on hold for more than two years. It'll be nice to get my life back to where it ought to be. This is how I want to do it. Okay?"

Slowly, Olivia felt her head bob, up and down. She felt dazed. Alex will be here again. Every day. "I understand."

Cragen broke the spell once more. "We have a lot of loose ends to tie up. Alex, you ready to go back in?"

"Sure," she replied, reaching out to touch Olivia's elbow. "Maybe I'll see you later?"

"Yeah. I'll be here," Olivia said lamely, wishing she could follow Alex into whatever meeting she was in.

"I'll find you."

Moments later, she was gone, hidden behind the slatted blinds of Cragen's office.

Carefully, she walked back to her desk. Without Alex's presence, the room deflated. Elliot appeared and pulled a chair close to the desk.

"Hey," he said softly. "You okay?"

She looked at him. "Goddamn, Elliot. I can't believe it happened while I was away. I should have been here."

"You couldn't have known."

"I worked that case forever, with no leads. What the hell happened?"

"Got a call about a DB in the river. Velez was ID'ed from dental records, since he was missing his hands. The face was a mess; he'd gotten the shit kicked out of him."

"Dental records? Is that enough? What if we're wrong--"

"The tats backed it up, Liv. It was Cesar. I saw the body, and Warner did the autopsy herself. We wouldn't have taken the chance. You know that."

"Is the body still in the morgue?"

Elliot sniffed, as though he'd expected those words to come out of her mouth. "Yeah. We going now or later?"

"Now." They headed for the stairs.

--- 

Ascending the staircase, Olivia exhaled, releasing a tension she hadn't been aware of carrying. The body was undoubtedly that of Cesar Velez; she'd memorized the tattoos, the marks, the scars etched into his skin. Alex was safe.

"What're you going to do?" Elliot asked.

Tilting her head, she replied, "What do you mean?"

"Come on. She's back. You gonna keep leading Hearst on?"

She glanced around to see if anyone was listening. "Nothing's changed."

"Yeah, right. You never got over her," he continued, his voice low as they walked in. "Two and a half years went by and you looked like you were going to puke all over your shoes the second you saw her."

A mild frisson of fear went through her. "Do you think anyone noticed?"

"Christ, Liv, Fin knew, Munch knew. We all got it. And it was pretty obvious that you still feel the same."

"She's out of my league, Elliot. I have to let it go."

Elliot laughed, dropping his eyes to the floor. "You think seeing her all the time's going to make it easier?"

"God, you're not helping. Just back off."

"Get that ring off your finger, Liv. Talk to Mark. You'll break his heart, but do it now, while you still have the chance." He leaned closer. "You're wrong. Everything's changed."

She wanted to deny everything he was saying. She would let go, or at least live with the attraction again without letting it overwhelm her. Her assertion lasted about five seconds, until the door to Cragen's office opened. The lines of Alex's pencil skirt were, as ever, perfectly smooth, while heels gave her calves a gentle curve. Olivia's stomach clenched. Fucking hell.

The smile on Alex's face shone brightly at her, even from fifteen feet away. Olivia could count on one hand the number of times she'd seen her smile like that.

"You're screwed, Liv. Take care of business," Elliot muttered.

Olivia nodded.

This wasn't how she imagined the resolution of the Velez case. In her own mind, she hunted him down, confronted him, encouraged him to fight back, and proceeded to put a full clip of bullets into his chest.

The reality was anti-climactic, but she couldn't argue with the results.

Alex strolled over, strappy shoes clicking like taps on the floor. "You're still here."

Leaning back, Olivia smiled. "Told you."

"So you're not on a case?"

Taken aback, Olivia looked to her partner for an update. "Fin and Munch are working a rape-homicide in Morningside. Yesterday we brought in the nephew on the Carolson case and he copped after two hours. Took a deal-- manslaughter, two to four."

"Anything we need to follow up on?" Olivia asked, embarrassed she'd so totally neglected her job. Considering how fast she'd wanted to get back to work, she'd done a lot of nothing instead.

"Not you, Detective," Cragen said to her as he approached the desk. "You're not supposed to be back till tomorrow. I'm gonna pretend you were never here. Why don't you take Alex out for some lunch, fill her in on all the dirt since she's been gone?"

Olivia squinted at him, wondering where the hell that had come from. Does he know? And do I really care? "Okay by me."

Alex nodded. "I'd love to."

"Wanna go now?"

"Sure. My schedule's so off, I haven't had anything but coffee all day."

"No wonder you're so scrawny. Didn't they feed you out-- wherever it is you were?"

"You think I look scrawny?" Alex scowled.

Olivia considered smacking herself in the mouth. "Well, not scrawny, but you do look a little thinner than you used to." And that's saying something.

"I don't know. I might have... lost a little. I don't keep very good track." Alex looked almost embarrassed.

"We'll eat lots of pizza then."

The smile returned. "Okay."

 

---

 

"Let's have beer," Alex said.

Olivia's eyebrows rose. "I never thought of you as a beer kind of woman." She checked her watch, which read 12:04PM.

"I've had a hard day, cut me some slack."

"More like a hard few days. Years." Still amazed to be sitting across from Alex, she added, "I can't believe you're here. I was afraid..."

"That I'd never be back."

Olivia nodded. "Or he'd find you." Alex sniffed, and the years of living under a cloud showed in her eyes.  Lines had formed on her forehead, at the sides of her mouth. They didn't look like smile lines. "Where were you? What were you doing for all this time?" 

"You'll laugh."

"I won't."

"I was in Nebraska."

Olivia's mouth dropped open. "That couldn't be more cliché. They really did send you to the middle of nowhere."

Alex chuckled. "It's not quite nowhere. Johnny Carson's hometown. That's their big claim to fame."

"Not bad," Olivia agreed.

"For some reason, the program thought I'd make a good teacher, so they put me in touch with the community college."

Olivia placed their order, including a pitcher of beer, which got a big grin from Alex. "Teaching what?"

"Literature. And poetry."

Although it shouldn't have surprised Olivia, it did. "I'd have thought you'd do something like social studies, or political science, or hell, even economics. But literature?"

"I double majored in undergrad, poly sci and English. Brown likes its law students well-rounded, so I got lucky."

"Lucky? Don't sell yourself short, Alex. You're brilliant. I just didn't know you read... poetry."

"Don't spread it around." The waiter delivered their beer, pouring them each a mug full. Alex immediately pounced, sipping her drink from the thick, frosted mug. Olivia watched the motion of her throat as she swallowed. "Anyway, I did a few 101 classes when I first got there, till the administration realized I had a background in Brit lit and 20th century American, so I expanded my curriculum to include post-war fiction, the Romantics and contemporary poetry."

"I'm impressed. If I got stuck teaching, it would probably be self-defense. Or cooking."

Alex tilted her head, licking her lips. "You cook?"

"Sure. Just not very often."

"Don't you cook for your..." Alex reached across the table to take Olivia's left hand. She played with the ring on her finger. "Fiancé?"

"I told you, I'm not engaged."

"But you're with him."

Olivia's heart started to pound. She wasn't ready to talk about this with Alex-- what was she thinking when she agreed to have lunch? "I guess." It was difficult to focus with the soft skin of Alex's hand caressing her own.

"Who is he?"

"Um, I met him at your old stomping grounds."

"The courthouse?"

Olivia nodded. "Yeah. He's a lawyer. White collar mostly, tax evasion and fraud."

"Is he a prosecutor?"

"Nope."

"Liv, you've gone over to the dark side!"

She laughed at Alex's consternation and drank her beer. It felt like she was on vacation, drinking in the middle of the day. I still am on vacation, I guess. I wish I'd been able to spend all my time off doing just this, with her. "He's a nice guy. He loves me."

"And you love him?"

The beer slid down her throat, the carbonation tickling her nose. She could lie; she'd been lying for months now. It got easier with practice. But she didn't. "No."

"Okay." Alex continued to watch her, and Olivia was irritated when her cheeks began to flame in a blush. "What will you do?"

"I'm going to break it off." The words escaped her mouth in a whoosh before she was even aware of thinking them.

They sat in silence for a few moments, and images flashed through her brain of the last times she'd seen Alex; the misery of her death, the joy in seeing her alive, the despair at discovering she would disappear indefinitely. Her seemingly lifeless body lying on the sidewalk, eyes staring skyward. Tears came to Olivia's eyes, and she choked them back.

Alex spoke first. "I thought of you while I was gone."

Olivia wiped wetness from under her eyes. "I thought about you too. I wanted you to come home."

"And here I am."

Olivia's heart continued to hammer noisily inside her chest. Alex leaned in over the table, frowning at something Olivia couldn't see. "Come closer," she said, her voice almost too low to hear, even in the quiet restaurant.

"What is it?" Olivia asked.

A fingertip landed on her neck, and it took a moment to realize Alex was measuring her racing pulse. She jumped back, covering her throat with her hand. "What are you doing?"

Alex looked satisfied, but still nervous. "I just wanted to be sure."

"Sure of what?"

"That you feel the way I do."

Olivia took a breath before she spoke. She didn't want to dare hope, but the possibilities were too immense to ignore. "Do I?" she whispered.

Pale blue eyes seemed to darken, or perhaps a passing shadow deepened the color. "Yes."

"Are we talking about what I think we are?"

"When I said I thought of you when I was away, I meant all the time. Every day." Unsteadily, Alex tucked a tuft of hair behind her ear, although it was too short to stay in place.

Olivia nodded. "Me too."

"How come you never said anything before?" Alex sounded frustrated.

"How come you didn't?"

That brought a smile to Alex's face. "Honestly?" At Olivia's encouraging look, she said, "Complacency. Believing I had all the time in the world make you see me. And fear of rejection, naturally. What about you?"

I didn't deserve you. I still don't. "I thought you were straight." And that if you weren't, you'd never even look twice at me.

"Bullshit." Olivia started at the curse. "You thought I was too posh. I'm not an ice maiden. My blood isn't actually blue, despite all evidence to the contrary."

The sharp memory of Alex's blood spurting up over her hands returned vividly. It had been cold that night, but the blood was hot and thick as it pooled on the cement. Olivia mumbled, "I know."

Alex seemed to realize what she'd said, and what Olivia was thinking. "I'm sorry, I forgot--" she began, until the waiter interrupted the potent undercurrent between them by presenting their pizza with a flourish.

Olivia shook her head free of her thoughts, taking a huge breath. She pressed her forehead to her palm.  When a slice of pizza landed on her plate, she looked up to find Alex serving her. "Peppers? Parmesan?" She scattered some cheese on her own pizza, clearly flustered. "Liv, I shouldn't have said that."

"It's okay," Olivia replied. "It was a long time ago, but seeing you again, it just--"

"Brings up everything that happened."

"Yeah."

"The look on your face when you first saw me alive..." Alex's eyes clouded over. "I'll never forget it, as long as I live.  When I got to Nebraska, the agents told me to make a life for myself, to forget about everything that came before. But I'd think of you, and your face, and I couldn't. I wouldn't let go."

A tear slipped down Olivia's cheek; it was too much to bear, to hold back, after hearing the words she'd so longed for. In a moment, Alex had left her seat and slid next to Olivia in the booth. Arms wrapped around her, and Olivia pressed her face into the haven of skin and hair and heat. Clutching her tightly, she felt Alex's breath against her ear.

"I'm afraid to want you, Alex," Olivia murmured, hardly able to catch her breath.

Lips brushed her earlobe, whispering, "Don't be afraid, Liv."

Olivia closed her eyes. Warmth trickled through her limbs, from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet. "Say it again."

"What?"

She whispered it into Alex's ear. "My name."

"Liv," Alex breathed, "Liv."

She rested her head on Alex's shoulder.

Minutes later, embarrassment won over desire to stay in Alex's arms all through lunch, and she backed away. Avoiding smoky eyes, she took a bite of pizza. When Alex started to slide out of the booth, Olivia grabbed at a lean thigh and asked, "Stay over here?"

Alex nodded gently. "Okay." She pulled her plate and mug closer and settled back.

In the silence, Olivia felt Alex's ankles wrap around one of her own under the table. Olivia smiled, scooting over for more contact. She wanted to laugh.

The quiet was broken with Alex's question. "What's the story with you and this fake fiancé?"

Olivia poured herself and Alex fresh glasses of beer, gathering her thoughts together. "I was tired of being alone. He was nice, and he didn't ask too much of me, at first. He understood my hours, my obsessions. And the insomnia." The last was a trait she shared with Alex, along with most of the other detectives in SVU.

"He sounds more like a friend than a lover."

Leave it to Alex to get it in one. "The sex didn't seem so important. It still doesn't. I think he believes at some point I'll morph into some kind of love goddess and all his patience will pay off."

Alex bumped her shoulder. "Too bad for him."

Olivia agreed. Mark was already fading from her mind, superceded by Alex in every way. She slipped into a fantasy, of sliding her hand along the inside of a smooth thigh while they sat in the booth. No stockings barred her entrance, and her fingers tickled and taunted while Alex moaned quietly into her ear. Her thumb brushed--

"Liv," Alex interrupted.

"Huh?" She flushed, the object of her desire staring back at her.

A perfectly sculpted eyebrow lifted in a knowing arch. "Tell me what you were thinking."

The flush intensified, and Olivia drained her mug. "No."

A hand landed on her knee, and Olivia jumped an inch off the seat. "Please?"

She shook her head.

Short fingernails raked up the denim of her jeans, and the sensation shot straight between her legs. "Okay, I give," Olivia gasped. "I was thinking about you."

"I'm sitting right here. You don't have to think about me."

"I can't do what I was thinking about," Olivia admitted.

"Who says?" Alex murmured, her nose brushing Olivia's cheek.

"We'd get arrested." With Alex's ankles around hers, and a hand gripping her leg, Olivia thought she might lose control very soon.

"It's okay, I know someone who could bail us outta the hoosegow," Alex crooned.

Her hand landed on Alex's, pulling it away from her thigh. "Please, Alex, don't."

Immediately Alex backed off. The tension lessened in seconds, and Olivia was finally able to draw a full breath.

"Sorry, Liv. I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable."

"I don't think I'd call it uncomfortable."

A sly grin tipped Alex's lips.

"Besides, I'm supposed to be telling you what's been going on since you left. Captain's orders." Olivia needed to bring the conversation back to safe subjects. She wasn't ready to dive into Alex; she had loose threads that needed attention before she could submerge herself completely. "But we'll continue this soon. If you still want."

"Sweetheart, I've been waiting for years. I can wait a few more days."

She held Alex's hand, and pressed a soft kiss to the knuckles. "Thanks."

 

---

 

The empty pitcher sat at the end of the table, alongside an equally empty bowl of melted ice cream and brownie crumbs. Olivia's head buzzed with the effects of the beer combined with the company. She'd relaxed against the side of the booth, playing with Alex's hand as they exchanged stories.

It was almost as if Alex had never left. Except it was better.

"I like your hair," Olivia announced.

"Really?" Alex lifted a hand to fluff the unruly strands at the back. "It's short."

Chuckling, Olivia added, "Obviously."

"I dyed it for the first six months, but it was such a pain in the neck that I just hacked it all off."

"It's pretty." When Olivia was close enough, she could just pick out the gray threaded among the blonde. "How old are you?" she asked, fingering the almost colorless strands.

"What a polite non-sequitur," Alex said with a grin.

"I've known you more than six years, and I never asked. I don't even know when your birthday is."

Alex looked out into the now filled restaurant. "My real birthday is in September, the 19th. I'll be 34."

"Real birthday?"

"Yeah. I haven't celebrated it for a while. My other birthday, Carolyn James' birthday, is February 26th. I don't make a very good Pisces."

"Carolyn. That's a nice name."

"I didn't choose it," Alex said, eyes turned inward. "I didn't choose my house, or my furniture, or the color of my car. I haven't chosen anything for quite some time."

"Alex," Olivia said, trying to pull her attention away from the sadness. "I'll call you whatever you want. You say the word."

Alex looked grateful. "I liked it when you called me sweetheart," she said shyly.

"Then sweetheart it is," Olivia breathed, drawn by the magnetic planes of perfectly formed cheekbones, the soft shape of moist lips.

A cellphone rang, startling them both.

"That's me," Alex said. "Sorry." Looking frustrated, she reached into a small purse and pulled out a tiny cellphone. "Oh shit." Clicking the phone on, she said, "Hello?"

Olivia waited, content to listen in on the conversation as long as it didn't bother Alex.

"MJ, I'm so sorry I didn't call you. It completely slipped my mind... Yeah, I have to miss the game tonight. I know I'm leaving you in the lurch, but... I didn't mean to worry you... Did you see the note I tacked up on my office door? I thought I...I, MJ, to be honest, I don't think I'm coming back at all."

Trailing her fingers down the side of Alex's face, Olivia thought she understood the conflict of wanting to return to an old life, but leaving a new one behind.

"It's my great aunt, she's very ill... No, she needs someone to tend to her, and I'm all she has left..." Alex winced at the lie. "We're barely two weeks into the summer term, and I'm only on Thursdays and Fridays... Maybe Sheffer can take the poetry... I know he hates Ginsberg, but that's no excuse..." Laughing, she continued, "That would be worth seeing. And listen, Macy can handle second base tonight, I know she can. You won't even notice I'm gone."

Olivia frowned. Second base?

"I'm telling you, she's been catching like a fiend lately, and she talked me into running sprints last week. She's really improved."

This was definitely a side of Alex she was unfamiliar with.

"You're sweet. I'm doing fine. I-- I'm so sorry to have left without saying goodbye. I just, I left in the middle of the night... Maybe I will... I'll call you soon. Let me know how the game goes tonight, okay?" Olivia watched as tears welled in Alex's eyes. "You too. Thanks for checking up on me, MJ...Bye."

Alex put the phone down, her mouth pressing into a firm line. "God, I didn't even know what to tell her. The program said they'd pack my things and ship them back next week. I haven't even considered what I'm going to do."

"What about your apartment?"

"My mother hung on to the property. She's been renting it out to a doctor who works at Bellevue. I don't know if Mom wants to throw her out."

"Christ, I didn't even ask about your mom. How did she take it?"

"She cried a lot. She yelled at me for a while, then cried some more. I'm seeing her for breakfast tomorrow."

A thought occurred to her. "Where are you staying for now?"

"I have a room at the St. Regis."

"Very nice. Rooms at the Plaza too small?"

"Oh shut up," Alex said with a grin.

"You could stay with me," Olivia offered, before she became too nervous to ask.

Blue eyes blinked back at her. "With you?"

"It's not the St. Regis, but--"

"Okay."

"You'll stay with me."

Alex nodded. "Yes."

"That was easy."

Licking her lips, Alex replied, "I'll be very easy where you're concerned, Detective."

Maybe this was a mistake. Olivia breathed out slowly.

"Don't worry, Liv. I won't pounce on you yet. But you're wonderful to offer your home to me, and I'd be an idiot to say no. You asked me to stay with you once before, remember?"

Just before the explosion. Alex had said no. "Yeah, I remember."

"I didn't want to put you out, or cause any trouble. Now... I don't mind so much."

"Okay," Olivia said. "Should we get your things from the hotel?"

"Sure."

Olivia left the payment on the table, and the waiter gave her a wink as they headed for the door. Grinning, Olivia felt nothing but pride as she slipped her arm under Alex's on their way out.

 

---

 

"Since when do you play second base?"

Alex hoisted her bag over her shoulder as the valet called a cab. "I was wondering how long it would take for you to ask me about that."

"I never pegged you for a sports fan." Olivia dropped the tiny suitcase in the trunk, and Alex set her other bag next to it.

 

"I was talked into it."

"By your friend?"

Once they were settled in the back seat, the taxi took off south on Fifth Avenue at a rapid clip. "Yeah. I didn't know a lot of people. Hell, I didn't know anyone. MJ was... I don't know, she drew me out. I had a hard time when I first got to Norfolk. I'd lived in New York, spent time upstate and in the Hamptons, and Providence was hardly suburban. But Norfolk... was a new experience entirely."

"The Midwest is a different world." Or so Olivia had heard.

"It sure felt that way when I arrived. MJ works at the college-- teaches history and is on about four advisory committees. I think anyone new gets taken under her wing."

"Or maybe she saw something special in you."

Alex laughed. "Yeah, a wallflower in need of some social assistance."

"You? A wallflower?"

"I got to Nebraska three weeks after I was shot. I wasn't feeling very social at the time."

Olivia was cowed. "That was lame. Sorry."

Waving her hand, Alex continued, "After about two months of catching up on reading, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to teach with no training whatsoever, the semester started. I was green, but I figured out that teaching isn't much different from interrogating witnesses. Of course, I also figured out that dissecting a student's thesis in front the rest of the class wasn't always the best way to go."

"Ouch. I'd have been terrified of you." At Alex's threatening look, she added, "I'd have had the hots for you too, naturally."

That seemed to placate her. "I found my groove after a while, and then MJ cornered me about softball. I couldn't play yet, because of my shoulder, but she conned me into a few fund-raising runs, and by the spring, she had me."

"Were you any good?"

"You bet. I played outfield at the beginning, but I was bored as hell. Turns out I'm quick, and I think pretty fast under pressure, so they stuck me at second. We won the league tournament last year."

Delighted at the mild boast, Olivia took Alex's right hand. "Is that where these came from?" she said, caressing the calluses.

"Yeah. MJ's obsessed with the batting cages, so we had a standing date twice a week."

"I bet you're great at bat." She could picture Alex's stance; hard angles, soft curves, and enormous intensity focused on the ball. If I pitched to her, I wouldn't have a chance.

"I'm a little predictable, sending them down the foul line at third, but I was working on it."

"Maybe we could go over to Chelsea sometime. They have cages at the Piers if you want to keep up."

Alex's face brightened. "You'd go with me?"

"Hell, yeah. Elliott plays on the squad team, you could join up." Maybe I will too.

The cellphone rang again, and Olivia automatically reached for her bag until she remembered yet again that her phone was still awol. Alex picked up. "Hello?" She listened. "It's Elliot, for you."

She took the phone. "What's up?"

"Your bag's at the precinct. They dropped it off a few minutes ago."

"Thanks. We'll stop by on our way downtown." She heard Alex tell the cab driver to alter their destination. "How's things?"

"Whoa, whoa, 'We'll stop by?' You and Alex going somewhere?" Elliot prodded.

Olivia mentally kicked herself. "Yeah, um, she's staying with me."

There was silence for a moment on the other end of the line. "Really," he said.

"Uh huh." She didn't call him on the suggestive tone in his voice.

"So I take it things are going okay."

"You could say that."

"You calling Hearst anytime soon?"

Olivia caught herself before she barked at him, knowing he was right. "Tonight. Today, I mean."

"That ring off your finger yet?"

Looking down at it, she replied, "Almost."

"Good. I'm heading out-- check in later, okay?"

"Sure, El. Thanks."

"Give Alex a kiss for me," he added cheekily.

"You know what you can kiss," she replied.

At his laughter, she hung up.

 ---

Climbing the stairs to her apartment, Olivia looked over her shoulder at Alex. She smiled.

"What?"

"Nothing." Her keys were shoved into a pocket, so she had to drop her suitcase before retrieving them.

"Come on, tell me."

As she unlocked the door and swung it open, Olivia confessed, "I'm still not totally convinced you're real. I feel like I'm asleep, and if I wake up, I don't..." I don't know how I'd survive.

A hard pinch left a red mark on her hand. "Ow!"

"You awake, Detective?"

Olivia pursed her lips at the smug look on Alex's face. "Yes. Now get in here before I pinch you back."

"I wouldn't complain," Alex teased as she stepped inside. She took a deep breath and let it out. "It's homey. And it smells nice."

"It smells? I can't tell."

"That's because it smells like you."

Olivia blinked at the implication. Alex thinks I smell nice. She watched as Alex explored the largest room, looking out the windows, examining bookshelves, testing out the couch. "This'll do fine."

Fighting the urge to tackle her companion on the sofa, Olivia carried her things into the bedroom. "Do you need a shower?" she asked, dumping dirty clothes into the wicker hamper.

"Maybe later," Alex called.

Olivia poked her head back into the living room. "Do you mind if I take one?"

"Of course not, Liv. You don't have to stay with me every minute. It's not like I'm in protective custody anymore."

Unanswered questions led Olivia to the couch. "Anything more I should know about Velez? And how did you end up back here so fast? I thought it took weeks for most witnesses to return to their old lives, but it's only been days for you."

Leaning back into the cushions, Alex began, "It's partly because of my connection to the case, and to the DA's office. I got a phone call as soon as Velez was found, even before they were sure it was him. A couple of hours later, I got a confirmation, and my handler said that they'd been expecting the hit on Velez for a few weeks. They heard from someone on the inside that he'd been picking off lower ranking dealers for skimming. A swarm of dissatisfied minions can be just as dangerous as the kingpin, you know?"

Olivia nodded.

"Their main suspect for the hit is one of Zapata's nephews. Took the hands as revenge, since Velez died of blood loss and shock, not the beating."

"Jesus. And they're sure you're in the clear?"

"I'm as safe as anyone connected to the case. I gave Zapata the deal-- Velez was the one who had him killed."

"Maybe we should get you a protective detail--"

"Olivia," Alex said, raising a hand. "I spent more than two years looking over my shoulder. Having nightmares. Being suspicious of every new person I'd meet. But I left that behind the second I got on a plane to New York, and I won't go back to feeling that way. I can't."

Though she wasn't entirely convinced, Olivia could relate. She had plenty of experience looking over her shoulder.

"Besides, I have one of the NYPD's finest on my side. Who needs a detail when I have you to look out for me?"

"I will, Alex. I'll do my goddamndest to never let anything like this happen to you again." Just the idea of someone harming Alex made her protective instincts flare up, and she swallowed rage that had no escape valve.

"That's all I can ask," Alex said softly, moving closer. She touched Olivia's mouth with her fingertips, tempering the anger instantly. "You made the idea of coming home a lot easier, Liv."

"Really?" Olivia believed her, but it didn't hurt to hear the words.

"Some people never come back from protective custody. They make new lives, and families." Alex's features began to go out of focus as she came closer, though Olivia's stomach clenched when she thought of Alex choosing to stay in her new life. "I never once considered staying."

"I bet Nebraska's a lot safer than New York," Olivia murmured, her heart rate accelerating as Alex continued to lean in. "And you have new friends..."

Alex's long fingers stroked Olivia's cheek. "I was alone every day, Liv. I didn't know what lonely was till I went away. Fear ruled my life from the day I was shot."

Olivia argued, "Don't say that. You were brave, Alex, taking on the cartel and never backing down. You have more courage than anyone I know."

Smiling indulgently, Alex closed the distance between them and brushed Olivia's cheek with her mouth. "You're biased," she whispered, exploring her cheekbone.

Feeling faint, Olivia exhaled through her nose, allowing Alex to continue. She wanted to respond, but any thoughts she might have had evaporated when Alex's lips touched hers. She was afraid to breathe, or move, as an impossibly soft mouth caressed her.

"Liv," said Alex, still close enough to touch.

"Yeah?" she replied hoarsely.

"Kiss me back."

Olivia took in a great gulp of air, dazed at the request. In moments, she found her bearings, and drifted back to Alex's mouth. They kissed, so slowly, small touches at first. Alex opened her mouth, and Olivia first felt the electricity of a deft tongue meeting her own. Her hands came up to grasp Alex's head, tilting it to press closer. She heard a moan come from the back of Alex's throat, while hands clutched at her sweater.

They fell back onto the cushions, Olivia pulling Alex's lighter frame atop her own as their legs immediately scissored together. Olivia wanted to use her mouth to discover the rest of the body weighing her down, but she couldn't possibly break their kiss. Instead she used her hands to skim down and grasp slim hips, squeezing. Without warning, Alex's thigh pressed just between Olivia's legs, and the effect was overwhelming. She hadn't realized, hadn't thought--

Alex lifted her head, panting through an open mouth.

"Huh?" Olivia groaned at the interruption, already reaching up to recapture the kiss.

Against Olivia's lips, she said, "Your phone is ringing."

"What?" A second later, the electronic tones of her landline broke the silence.

Alex tucked an invisible hair behind her ear, chest heaving.

"If it's Elliot, I'll wring his neck."

The answering machine clicked on, but it wasn't Elliot. "Olivia, honey, it's me. The station said you were home for the day. Are you feeling okay? I called the airline and they said your bag was delivered to the precinct. I can pick it up before we have dinner tonight. Call me when you can, I'm worried about you. Talk to you soon. Love you."

"Shit." Olivia closed her eyes, and Alex's head landed on her chest.

Wriggling to get more comfortable, Alex tucked her nose into the hollow at her throat. "There goes the mood."

As her mind began to work properly again, Olivia allowed her fingers to map the planes of Alex's back, memorizing the feel of the delicate shoulder blades beneath her large hands. "I want this, so much, Alex," she began nervously. "But jumping in... Maybe it's not the best thing for you."

Alex's head popped up. "Why?"

Olivia frowned, considering the possibilities. She finally shrugged. "I don't know. You're, uh, in transition. Maybe you should get settled into your life here before we start anything." She wondered what Huang would say about that.

"That's not much of a reason," Alex countered. Her voice altered into the tone she used in the courtroom. "I don't know what the protocol is for one returning to a former life after years in witness protection, but my initial opinion is that one should take advantage of all previously lost opportunities whenever possible. In addition, one should put to rest all regrets one might have, and put forth a special effort to reconnect with loved ones as soon as possible."

Loved ones. Olivia tilted her head, adoring the serious expression above her.

"Did you hear me?" Alex said.

Nodding, Olivia took a deep breath. "Those sound like reasonable arguments." She lifted her head for a brief kiss, enjoying the taste of Alex's mouth. But the memory of Mark's kiss intruded, and she pulled away all too quickly.

"You have to go, don't you," Alex said, deflated.

"I need to see him."

Alex wrinkled her nose. "I'm jealous."

Eyebrows lifted in disbelief. "You're jealous of a man I'm going to break up with the second you come back into my life?"

"I know it doesn't make sense. But I just..."

Olivia nudged her. "Let's have it."

"I hate the idea of someone else touching you. God, that's immature," Alex said quickly, gritting her teeth.

Shifting her weight, Olivia tucked Alex between the back of the sofa and her body. "I promise, Alex. There is nothing to be jealous about. Mark... I made a mistake, getting involved. I pretended to be in love." Olivia swallowed. "I lied to him. And I feel like a jackass."

"I wish I could help you," Alex said, embracing her fully.

"Me too." She snuggled into the comfort of Alex's slender form for a few more seconds before making the decision to get up. "I still need that shower."

"No you don't. You're perfect as is."

"You're delusional." Olivia regretfully broke the embrace and headed for the bathroom. "This goes without saying, but anything I have is yours. If you're hungry, or thirsty, or want to use the phone, or anything else, go for it."

As she stepped into the bathroom, Alex called out, "Olivia."

Poking her head out the door, she said, "Yes?"

"I love you. I wanted to tell you before I lost my nerve."

Thunderstruck, Olivia stared vacantly before taking a few long strides back to the couch, tackling a laughing Alex. The sound was glorious to her ears, the deep tones satisfying something she'd been missing for far too long. She kissed Alex possessively, wanting to make sure her meaning was clear. When she lifted her head, Alex was breathless. "I love you too," Olivia replied.

For the first time in many years, it was the truth.

 

---

 

Olivia waited in the lobby for Mark as he finished up in a meeting. Her hair was still damp from her shower, her cheeks warm and flushed not only from the hot water, but from Alex's attentions as well. Her left hand was slick from the butter Alex had insisting on using to remove the engagement ring.

"Did he consider getting this thing sized before he put it on you?" Alex had asked, frowning as she massaged butter around Olivia's finger.

"Don't know," Olivia replied, daydreaming.

Carefully, Alex pulled the ring over Olivia's knuckle without injury to either of them. "There we go." She looked up at Olivia, who had been drifting in an erotic haze, imagining slick hands moving over the rest of her body. Alex had narrowed her eyes and said, "You'd better get going. Otherwise I won't be responsible for my actions."

"Ms. Benson," the receptionist called, shaking Olivia out of her stupor. "You can go in now. Mr. Hearst is ready to see you."

Butterflies erupted in her stomach as Olivia made her way down the maze of hallways, running over the speech she'd planned on delivering. Mark greeted her enthusiastically at the door.

"Hey, babe, what are you doing here? I thought we could meet up later."

With a deep breath, Olivia said, "Actually, I need to talk to you about a few things now. Can we take a walk or something?"

"An early dinner?" he offered.

"No, Mark. Let's just walk."

Outside, Olivia hid her bare left hand in a pocket as they walked along Centre Street.

"I take it you picked up your bag," Mark said uncertainly.

"Yeah, I did. Listen, Mark, there's no easy way to do this--"

"Is this about that message Elliot left?"

Olivia stopped. Though she didn't know what he was talking about, her training kicked in. "Why don't you tell me your side of the story."

"I only wanted you to myself for four measly days. That shouldn't be too much to ask of my fiancée, should it? Jesus."

She should have known something like this had occurred; it had slipped her mind that Elliot mentioned leaving a message. "So what happened? And when?"

"Don't play this like that partner of yours didn't tell you exactly what went on. He called on our first night in Rome--the first night!" Mark ran a hand through his hair, his steps picking up speed. "I mean, all the note said was, 'Cabot coming home.' What the hell is that about? And why couldn't it have waited a few more days?"

Olivia felt the air leave her lungs, and her stomach dropped. "Elliot called our hotel to tell me that Alex was coming home," she said, her voice flat.

"Who's Alex?"

"Alex Cabot."

"I still don't know who that is." As she stood there, Olivia actually saw the realization cross Mark's face. "That's the name of the ADA killed a while ago in that drug hit." He swallowed. "It was all over the papers."

A thousand arguments flashed through her mind; reasons why it was irresponsible and cruel for Mark to have deliberately not given her a message, but it was beside the point now. "So you didn't forget? You just didn't tell me."

"You knew Alex Cabot?"

"I asked you a question, Mark. Did you forget or not?"

Mark didn't respond for a long moment. "I thought it could wait. It didn't sound like a life or death situation."

Inside her pocket, Olivia's hand closed around the ring. She held it out to Mark, who opened his hand automatically to accept whatever she was offering. His face crumpled when he saw what she'd given him. "Olivia, it was a mistake-- I admit it. I'm sorry--"

"It's not about that, Mark. I can't marry you. I've been a bitch, and I apologize. I knew there was something wrong, and I let you believe that everything was okay, but really…"

"Liv, we can work it out--"

"Don't call me that!" she shouted, embarrassed when a group of kids across the street turned their heads. "Sorry. Mark, believe me, if I thought we could work it out, I would. But I'm all wrong for you." When he began to protest, she added, "I'm never going to give up the job. I'm still going to work all night, and all day, and get personally involved in every case that crosses my desk. Nothing you do will ever change that."

"I can learn to live with it. Olivia, it was one mistake."

"It's my mistake, not yours," she said, softly.

"Please, don't do this. I had so many plans for us," he pleaded, and Olivia's heart broke.

So much for letting him down easy. "I know there's someone else out there for you. Someone who'll love you the way you deserve to be loved."

He looked devastated. "You don't love me?"

One more lie won't kill me. "I do, Mark. Just… not enough." She leaned in, kissing his cheek. His arms wrapped around her, and she let herself be embraced.

"Olivia," he whispered.

"I'm sorry," she said one last time. "Please don't hate me." With a final kiss to his faintly stubbled cheek, she left him alone on the sidewalk.

 

---

 

Olivia walked back to her apartment in the dusky light, and as she approached her building, she remembered she had a call to make.

"Stabler."

"Hey, it's me."

"Hey there. How goes it?"

Olivia could hear the hustle of the bullpen in the background. "Really good and really bad."

"Damn. How bad is the bad?"

"The worst is over. I hope."

There was a pause. "You did it?"

"Just now. I guess I needed to hear a friendly voice."

"Liv, you did the right thing. Believe me, I liked the guy, but he wasn't right for you. How'd he take it?"

"I don't know, okay. It was fast. I gave him the ring, apologized, and pretty much took off. And I found out he never gave me the message you left in Rome."

"Damn. I'm sorry. I should have tried to get in touch with you directly."

Olivia unlocked the front door, picking up her mail on the way in. "It's okay, El, not your fault. I tried calling you Tuesday, I think it was. You must have been on the road." Tossing the junk mail into the trash, she added, "Mark caught me on a payphone in the hotel hallway, and he was pissed as hell. I should have ended it then. But I couldn't think right, you know? I forgot how…" How to be anything other than miserable.

"Liv."

"Yeah?"

"You almost home?"

She was standing in front of her own door. "Yeah."

"Go spend time with Alex. Worry about the rest later."

She sagged against the door in relief. "I will. You doing okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Taking up the slack on Munch's lazy ass paperwork routine, as usual." A voice not unlike Munch's hollered in the background.

"I'll be in tomorrow."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Alex is going to see her mom. She moved back to the city last year."

"Lemme guess--Upper East Side."

Olivia chuckled. "You got it."

"Call me if you need anything."

At that moment, she was incredibly grateful to have Elliot as her partner. "Thanks." She flipped her phone shut and unlocked the door.

The apartment was too dim and quiet for Olivia's taste.  Fortunately, a clean plate, mug and spoon drying next to the sink assured her that Alex's presence hadn't been a dream. When she came to the bedroom, she leaned against the doorframe, unable to look away from the scene. Alex was stretched out under the covers, asleep, as the television displayed a black and white movie with the volume almost too low to be heard. The glasses Olivia had spent almost five years admiring were miraculously perched on her nose; she'd worried that Alex had had lasik surgery to correct her nearsightedness.

Olivia realized she'd been running on adrenaline for most of the day; had it only been ten hours before that she'd gotten off a plane from Italy?  Considering the time difference, it was the middle of the night in Rome, and her sleep schedule had been off kilter since the start of her vacation. That was excuse enough to crawl in next to Alex.

Five minutes later, dressed in her pajama pants and a tank top, she slid beneath the cool sheets. Trying not to jostle her companion, she lifted the glasses from Alex's face with a steady hand. Her chin resting on her palm, Olivia watched Alex's eyelids twitch back and forth; she was deeply asleep and dreaming. After a while, Olivia lowered her head to the pillow and closed her eyes, listening to the soft breathing beside her.

 

---

 

Awareness came slowly; she'd been dreaming of walking in front of the Plaza Hotel, holding Alex's hand. They'd sat by the fountain, both of them trailing their fingertips in it as it jets of water spouted up. Alex cupped her hand in the liquid and offered it to her, asking, "Want some?"

When Olivia opened her eyes, she heard the sound of the shower running. Reaching out, the space beside her was still faintly warm. The clock read 5:02AM. Almost twelve hours had passed since she'd dropped off; she hoped Alex had been able to get a good night's sleep as well. Taking the pillow from the other side of the bed, she held it to her chest, sniffing at the scent. She only caught a whiff of Alex, but it was enough to comfort her into closing her eyes for a few more minutes.

Olivia woke a second time to Alex pulling the pillow from her embrace. "Why don't you hang on to me instead," Alex said as she maneuvered into Olivia's arms.

"Sure, Counselor. Anything for the DA's office." Olivia wrapped her up, throwing one thigh over Alex's hip to tug her near. "God, you smell gorgeous."

"Mm, sweetheart."

Olivia pressed her lips to a smooth brow. "I slept through the night."

"Me too."

"You were okay?"

"I was. Oh yeah-- I did wake up around ten, and there you were next to me."

Olivia froze. "I wasn't snoring, was I?"

"Like a freight train."

"Oh, God, I'm sorry--"

Alex laughed. "I'm kidding. You were completely silent. If I hadn't leaned over and kissed you, I'd have thought you were dead."

"You kissed me?"

"Uh huh." A hand slipped under the waistband of Olivia's pants, tickling the top of her rear. "Too bad you didn't wake up."

The sensation sent tingles up Olivia's spine. "No kidding."

"You could offer to make up for it now, you know."

"No way. I haven't brushed my teeth."

"Like I care. Let's make out."

Her guffaw was interrupted by Alex's mouth moving in for the kill, and soon Olivia rolled atop Alex, hyperaware of the breasts and belly and thighs beneath her. She held her weight up for a little while, until the hands caressing her back urged her closer. Lying in the cradle of Alex's hips, kissing her intently, she wondered if she'd ever felt so much love for another human being in her life.

As she licked her way along an alabaster throat, a purr came from deep within Alex. "I lived through more than two years of misery, and you're my reward," she growled.

Raking her teeth along Alex's thudding pulse point, Olivia looked up. "Never been anyone's reward before."

With a sigh, Alex replied, "There's a first time for everything." As Olivia explored the tender flesh of her collarbone, Alex asked, "Do something for me?"

Meeting Alex's eyes, Olivia answered, "Of course."

"You asked me to say your name, yesterday, when we were having lunch."

Olivia nodded slightly.

"Will you say mine? My real name?"

Catching a tremulous note in Alex's voice, Olivia smiled. "Alex. Alexandra." Running her nose under her chin, she said in a teasing voice, "Counselor Cabot." She heard a small laugh bubble up, though it broke a little at the end. "Alex," Olivia whispered in Alex's ear, "My Alex."

By that time, Alex was trembling in her arms, and Olivia gentled her kisses to soothe, not arouse. She continued to murmur variations of her name as Alex calmed. Scooting down a few inches, she found the raised scars she'd avoided before. Raining kisses down on the marred flesh felt right, as right as anything she could do. Alex's reached up and threaded her fingers through Olivia's hair, not pushing, but simply touching her.

The next thing Olivia knew was the sound of her alarm clock blaring the voice of Frank Sinatra. It was 6:15AM. She was still lying half on top of Alex, whose face mirrored Olivia's sense of shock at having fallen back to sleep. Blinking furiously, Olivia reached over and smacked the alarm off before shifting her weight back to Alex. Dawn had broken, and light streamed into the room.

"We fell asleep," Olivia said.

"Yeah," Alex replied, a curious look on her face.

"Are you okay?"

"I am," she said, gazing up at Olivia. "But I was just thinking that I really love you. I know I've told you that already, but it's weird."

Olivia rolled to her side and pulled Alex with her. "Weird how?"

"I haven't seen you in so long, and before, we were just friends. And now, it's like we picked up a conversation after an extended break, but nothing changed. Except now I want to be honest with you in a way I didn't believe I was capable of."

"Mm," Olivia grunted, agreeing. "Everything seems magnified. I'm not used to…"

"What?" Alex encouraged.

"Feeling good, I guess." Olivia thought about it. "Happy. Waking up with you in my bed, seeing your face. I hardly had any pictures of you. None of them very good-- mostly from the holiday parties, where everyone looked a little stiff, or from O'Malley's, when it was too dark to really see you."

Alex stroked her cheek. "I wasn't allowed to bring anything with me, when I went away. No pictures of anyone."

Olivia narrowed her eyes. "Stay right there." She leapt off the bed, pulling open the top drawer to her dresser. The tiny camera was fortunately loaded with freshly charged batteries, and in an instant, it was ready. Turning around quickly, she snapped a picture of Alex as she sat up on her elbows.

"Hey, you, no fair!" she cried, reaching for Olivia.

"Uh uh, me first," Olivia insisted, kneeling on the bed over Alex, looking down through the miniature viewfinder. Alex's skin was flawless, even in the unforgiving light of morning, and it took Olivia's breath away.

Resigned to Olivia's quest, Alex fell back onto the pillow and gazed into the camera lens. Her eyes were soft, and Olivia moved around her, getting shots from half a dozen different angles. She muttered quiet directions to turn a little this way, and that, and Alex complied without complaint. After capturing a shot of the curve of Alex's neck from over her shoulder, she decided she'd gotten enough. "Okay," she said gently, and Alex turned over and took the camera.

"Lay down," Alex instructed. Olivia did so, and Alex kneeled directly above her to straddle her midsection. It was as seductive a pose as any Olivia had ever seen, and she knew desire was visible on her face. She smiled, placing her hands on Alex's straining thighs, enjoying the strength of bone and muscle. Her eyes slipped closed as her head tilted toward the sunlight, and when she stretched, a few vertebrae popped back into place.

"Ahh," she groaned, and she heard Alex's breath hitch in her chest.

"Turn over."

Alex lifted up just high enough to allow Olivia to flip onto her stomach. Long fingers trailed down Olivia's spine, pressing firmly at its base. She heard the shutter click a few more times before Alex got off the bed entirely. From a position near the window, Olivia heard her say, "Look over here."

Lifting her head, Olivia rolled back to her side, and watched Alex snap one shot after another.

"Now us," Alex said, climbing back on the bed and sidling up next to Olivia.

Without speaking, Olivia took the camera again and held it up above their faces. She clicked a shot, and after another, Alex kissed her jaw, her ear. One kiss more, and Olivia met Alex's lips with her own, taking two more pictures for good measure. Moments later the camera was abandoned, and the kisses became deliberate, sensual. As two hands slipped beneath Olivia's shirt to glide up her abdomen, the cellphone at the bedside rang.

"Aw, no, God, please," Olivia begged, and Alex's head dropped. Gathering her wits, Olivia rolled over as Alex spooned up behind her. "Benson," she said, hating the whine in her voice.

"Olivia, morning," Cragen began, ignoring her tone. "We've got two DBs on the West Side, Spring and Greenwich. Foreman came in to start the day on one of those new high rises and got a nasty surprise. Can you be there in 20?"

Swallowing her disappointment and already shifting back into work mode, she replied, "Yeah. Elliot on his way?"

"He's heading for the Williamsburg now."

"Okay. Got it."

"Welcome back to the real world, Olivia."

Dryly, she signed off, "Thanks for the sympathy, Captain." Squeezing the arm that had wrapped around her stomach, she said, "Gotta go."

"I know."

"Call me later?"

"I will. I'm going up to see Mom at 9 anyway. That wouldn't have given us... enough time."

Heat spread through Olivia's chest, and lower. "Okay, now I've definitely gotta go."

In twelve and a half minutes, Olivia was showered and fully dressed. Alex shoved a piece of toast in her mouth and a cup of coffee in her hand. "Bye. Have a good day, Detective."

"You too, Miss Cabot." She kissed Alex a final time, and slipped out the door.

 

---

 

Well past the rest of New York's lunch hour, Olivia and Elliot took a break from canvassing the neighborhood and grabbed a bite from a hot dog vendor on Christopher Street. "Can I have a minute?" Olivia asked her partner, wiping a bit of relish from her upper lip.

"A minute for what?"

"I gotta make a call."

Elliot looked at her, suspiciously. "A call."

"Yeah, a call. Be right back."

"Tell her we have an opening on the team for a shortstop."

Olivia wanted to kick herself for mentioning Alex's affinity for softball. "How do you know who I'm calling?"

"Liv, in all the years I've known you, you've hardly ever made a personal call when we were working a job. Believe me, I understand completely. And thank God for small favors. All those candles Kathy's been lighting have finally made a difference."

"What?" Olivia cried. "What does that mean?"

"I mean, my wife is a very devout woman, and occasionally her messages delivered to the almighty pay off."

"You're crazy, you know that?"

"Don't knock it, partner. You're happy for a change, aren't you?"

Olivia stared at him. After a brief moment of internal debate, she said, "Yeah."

"See? I know these things."

Elliot's smile was kind, and he patted her on the shoulder. "When you're settled, you and Alex are coming for a barbecue. Four years went by and she never took me up on an invite. This time around, I want to see her sitting next to you at the table, got it?"

"Yeah," Olivia agreed, a bit unnerved. It surprised her that she'd been a topic of conversation in the Stabler household. She'd had this fantasy that as soon as she disappeared from Elliot's sight, he forgot all about her. Somehow, she'd convinced herself he never discussed her with anyone outside the squad. Clearly, that wasn't the case. "I just need a sec."

"When you're done, let's find our guy."

"Got it."

Quickly Olivia hit the new speed dial, lucky number seven, on her phone. It didn't ring once before Alex picked up. "Hey," Alex said, and Olivia could almost see the smile on her face.

"Hey, Alex."

"How are you?"

"Same ol'," Olivia said. "Two dead models on the West Side, and we're tracking a photographer who might know something. We've got fingerprints all over the scene-- this guy's on file for drug related activity back in the early 80s. Studio 54 type shit. But nothing beyond that."

"Hmm. Well known?"

"Name's Gavin Arbuthnot."

"Watch your step, Liv. He's a distinguished society photographer. Knows everyone from Kathy Hilton to Anthony de Rothschild."

"Damn, wish you were back in the office. You'd probably get more out of him than I would."

"You'll do fine, Liv. Just bat your eyelashes and give him the eyebrow. You'll have him eating out of your hand in no time."

"Are you suggesting that I use my feminine wiles to get information out of a suspect?"

Alex chuckled. "Your wiles won't work on him, but as soon as he sets eyes on you, he'll want you as a subject. He's going to swoon, babe. You'll see."

"Yeah, right." Olivia doubted it. "I wanted to let you know, I'm not sure if I'll be done as early as I wanted to. It might be after 7. I'm," Olivia stumbled, "I'm really sorry." It was the first time she felt such a powerful pull from her personal life compared to the professional.

"It's okay. Mom insisted we go shopping, so we haven't even had lunch yet. Do you think you'll be done by nine?"

"Barring an emergency, absolutely."

"Would you," Alex paused for a moment, "come uptown and get me? Maybe we can have dinner somewhere up here. I'd like to show you off. If you wouldn't be uncomfortable with that. It's not important, if you don't want to."

She wants to show me off. "What should I wear?"

"Anything you want. Jeans, trousers, a dress, nothing. I'll take you any way I can get you."

Reeling, Olivia looked down at what was left of her less than uptown version of lunch. She didn't deserve Alex, but she wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to be at her side. "I'll dress up if you will."

"Deal."

"I'll shoot for 8:30. Can I call you if--"

"--there's a problem? Of course. And I want to tell you something, Liv."

She sounded serious. "Okay."

"If you're late, or you don't finish till after midnight, or later, or in two days, I know it's not because you don't care. I know you're thinking of me, but do your job, okay? Your dedication is one of the reasons why I fell for you in the first place."

Out of nowhere, tears pricked the back of Olivia's eyes, and she was relieved that no one was around to witness her moment of weakness. "Alex," she whispered.

"I love every part of you, Liv. I mean it."

"I love you too," Olivia said. She inhaled shakily. "I wish I-- well, I just wish I could be with you right now."

"Don't worry, Detective. We'll be working together again soon enough."

That lightened Olivia's mood considerably. "I can't wait," she said. "Elliot's giving me the eye, so I'd better get going."

"Thanks for calling, Liv. It was good to hear your voice."

"Same here," Olivia replied. "I'll talk to you soon, okay?"

"Okay."

"Bye."

As soon as she heard Alex echo her goodbye, she snapped her phone shut, afraid that if she listened for even a few moments more, she'd never want to hang up. Striding back to Elliot's side. "Okay, ready."

"How's the little woman?"

"Oh, shut up."

--- 

Olivia smoothed the dark material over her hips and checked her reflection in the mirror. Considering she'd spent her early morning hours trading kisses and caresses with Alex, she was unexpectedly nervous about seeing her. It was the "date" thing, she was sure. If Alex had been here when she'd arrived home, and they'd just gone out to dinner, she'd have been fine. But the dressing up, fixing her hair, pulling the heels out of the back of the closet… It was like an automatic physical response.

At least it took her mind off the day's case. Olivia had seen worse, but telling the devastated parents of the two young women had been a strain. They'd gotten some good information, and Elliot questioned their suspect for a couple of hours at the end of the night. He'd cracked under the pressure, so that was something. As collars went, this one couldn't have gone more smoothly, but still, Olivia was drained.

Grabbing her cell, she dialed Alex.

"I'm heading up now, are we on for 9?"

"Sure, do you still have my mother's address?"

"Yeah… Which floor is it again?"

"The seventeenth. And listen, Liv," Alex said, her voice dropping in volume. "Don't drive. I plan on buying some very expensive wine, and you're going to share it with me."

Olivia grinned. "Deal."

To save time, Olivia took the subway and ignored the admiring looks from a few of the passengers. The train shot north, and within fifteen minutes, it dropped her right at 77th and Lexington. The doorman took her name and showed her to the elevator, and it occurred to her that she didn't know the exact apartment number.

Of course, that didn't matter when the elevator door opened up directly into the entryway. She stepped inside, and lifted her voice tentatively. "Hello?"

"Come on in," she heard Alex call out. "I'll be out in one second."

Slowly she made her way inside, wondering what the rent was on a place like this. Then again, it probably wasn't a rental at all. She heard footsteps on the darkly stained wood floors, and turned to see Alex, dressed in pale blue, striding toward her. Olivia's stomach twisted and leapt at the same time as Alex walked straight into her embrace. Wrapping her arms around the slim waist, Olivia felt a bit dizzy. "You look amazing," she said into Alex's ear. Her fingers traveled up Alex's back, warm beneath the silky fabric.

"So do you. Can't wait to see what's under that coat."

Olivia took a deep breath, and held on tightly.

"Are you okay, Liv?"

She nodded into Alex's neck. "Yeah," she exhaled. "It's just good to see you," she said, embarrassed at her display of need. "God, I wonder if I'm going to be this thrilled every time I see you from now on."

"I wouldn't mind," Alex said, kissing her cheek. Pulling away slightly, Alex tilted Olivia's chin up so their eyes met. "Hi," she said sweetly.

Olivia smiled. "Hi." And then she was lost in the feeling of Alex's lips on hers.

When the kiss broke, she realized Alex had unbuttoned her coat and opened it. "I love your outfit," Alex purred.

"Thanks, it's new." Well, sort of. She'd bought it almost six months before for a police benefit, but had missed the event because of a case and never worn it since.

"Mine too. A gift from mom."

"You wear it well," came a voice from the hallway, and Olivia automatically jumped back a foot. Her hands fell to her sides, and she cursed the blush that suffused her face. "Miss Benson, it's lovely to see you."

Alex warned, "Be nice, Mother."

Mrs. Cabot ignored her. "I know we met at the funeral, dear, but that's all a bit of a blur now. Allow me to reintroduce myself-- Amanda Reese Cabot," the woman said as she held out a hand to Olivia. Although she was shorter than Alex, she had clearly passed her regal bearing down to her daughter. Dressed in simple tan trousers and a cream blouse, she was elegant and slim.

Olivia was terrified.

"Call me Olivia. It's good to see you again." She almost said ma'am, but caught herself at the last minute.

"Circumstances have improved drastically since we last spoke, for which I am forever grateful. Alex, why don't we all have a cocktail before you go?"

"Mother, we have a reservation at Orsay--"

"They'll hold it for you, darling. Assistant district attorneys don't come back from the dead every day. Just give them a quick call. I'll have a highball."

Alex shot a quick, rueful glance at Olivia. "What can I get you, Liv?"

"Uh, wine? Anything, really." As long as it calms my nerves. Quickly Alex left the room, and Olivia listened to the sound her shoes made on the highly polished floor.

"Sit down, Detective, please. I wanted to ask you a few things."

"Thanks. I mean, sure." That was eloquent. Christ, Alex, hurry.

"I understand you were aware my daughter's survived her gunshot wounds."

"Yes, ma'am." She wanted to cringe.

"You two were... close, before she went into the protection program."

"That's true." Wondering how much Alex had told her about recent developments, she didn't add anything.

"Alex told me that she insisted on seeing both you and your partner as she was leaving New York, that she trusted you both with her life." Olivia nodded. "And that she understood from Captain Cragen that you continued to work the Velez case during your time off in the hopes of bringing her home."

Shit. Cragen knows. "That's also true."

"You were there, when she was shot." Amanda's face was pale, still as stone.

Olivia hated thinking about it. "Yeah," she said hoarsely. Guilt stung her at times, knowing that if she'd been more vigilant, she could have protected Alex.

"I envy you, Miss Benson, for knowing Alexandra survived, and that she was living a new life in safety. But I have great sympathy for you as well. I've spent my time mourning, but I expect you spent that same time worrying about my daughter. Wondering where she was, how she was doing."

"I thought about her every day," Olivia said honestly.

"I did too," Amanda said, reaching out to take Olivia's hand. Olivia was suddenly aware that she wasn't being given the third degree; Amanda was simply trying to hold herself together.

"I'm so sorry we couldn't tell you, Mrs. Cabot. Truly."

A tear slipped down the woman's cheek. "I know, darling. I also know that I was one of the reasons Alex disappeared. If she'd survived, apparently I was the next target."

Although Olivia knew that fact in the back of her mind, it was strange to hear those words from Amanda's mouth. "It was a possibility."

"I'm thankful for your efforts, Detective. And I must tell you, I'm a bit flummoxed to see you here so soon. I thought I'd have more time to adjust to the fact that my formerly deceased daughter has returned and within a scant few days, acquired a female lover."

So much for secrecy.  "I can imagine."

"I'll expect you to keep an eye on Alex. I know this Velez fellow is dead, but better to err on the side of caution." 

"Absolutely."

Amanda leaned in, and Olivia recognized Alex's intense gaze in her expression. "Alex has been pining for you for many years, Miss Benson, so if you're not serious about this relationship, I suggest you make it known. I won't see my daughter suffer after so much time spent in isolation and fear."

Olivia could respect that. "I'm serious, Mrs. Cabot. I've never been more serious about anyone in my life."

"I thought so. Just wanted to be sure." Amanda sat back against the cushions and looked over Olivia's shoulder. "Thank you darling," she said to Alex, who hurriedly entered the room carrying a tray of drinks.

Setting them on a side table, Alex passed her mother a tumbler of dark liquid and handed Olivia a glass of red. "I opened the Antinori, Mother. I thought your guests could finish it off when they get here."

"That's lovely sweetheart, thank you. Olivia and I were just getting to know each other." Amanda sipped her drink. "I invited some friends for a late supper with Alex, but they can wait till another night."

"Mother, they don't even know me. You'll be fine."

"I know I'll be fine, but I want to see as much of you as I can before you go back to work, sweetheart."

"Alex, if you need to stay, I don't mind--" Olivia began.

"Mom, I'll come back tomorrow, I promise."

"Then you must both come for dinner. I'll make some calls. It can be a celebration."

"It's a little late notice, Mother, I'm not sure--"

"Oh nonsense. I always have my bridge game on Saturdays, we can just the extend the invitation to a few other people as well."

"You're still calling it bridge?" Alex snorted, looking over at Olivia. "Last time I was here on bridge night, the game was five card stud."

Amanda said, "We've expanded to Texas Hold 'em now, it's all the rage." Olivia laughed. She couldn't imagine Amanda and her society cronies playing poker. Mrs. Cabot added, "You could invite some of your friends from work."

That actually sounded fun to Olivia. She said, "I know the guys'd like to spend some time with you. Elliott grilled me today on what you were doing in Nebraska. And Donnelly, she probably--" Olivia stopped, and tried to think of a euphemism for 'shit a brick'-- "was very surprised to hear you're alive. I'm sure Branch will come, and hell I bet even Petrovsky would show." Pausing, she remembered the condolences the judge had extended to Olivia after she'd testified in her courtroom not long after Alex's "death." "She took what happened pretty hard."

Alex asked, "Are you sure?"

Olivia nodded. "Yeah." If the week had gone differently, and she hadn't been near Alex so much, she'd have jumped at the chance to attend a gathering like the one they were planning.

"Okay, I suppose."

"Wonderful," Amanda said, putting down her glass. "Let me get some information, and then you two run along."

Ten minutes later, Olivia pulled on her coat as Alex did the same. "Now girls, be prepared for some flashbulbs tonight. You'll undoubtedly be on Page Six tomorrow."

"What are you talking about?" Alex demanded.

"Oh, please, darling, you don't think word is out about your story? The second you called Orsay, I expect half a dozen waiters phoned their contacts at the Post."

Concerned, Alex met Olivia's eyes. "Liv, are you ready for that? I don't think... we're going to be able to keep this quiet for very long."

Although the idea of such exposure in the public eye was unnerving, Olivia wasn't about to hide. Alex had done enough of that. "I don't mind. At least everyone will know you're taken."

It was the right thing to say. Alex beamed, as did Amanda. "Let's go then."

Alex kissed her mother goodbye, and held her close for a long minute. Olivia was just about to suggest they stay in for the night when Amanda pulled back. Olivia stepped up, unsure of what to do. "Come here, darling," Amanda said, hugging Olivia. "Take care of her," she whispered.

"I will, Mrs. Cabot."

"Amanda, please. I think we'll be seeing a lot of each other."

In the elevator, Alex grinned. "What did you say to her? She liked you. A lot."

"I didn't say anything," Olivia said. "How do you know she likes me?"

"Not only did she hug you, but she told you to call her Amanda. She hasn't done that since my boyfriend from freshman year. He was pre-law, on his way to being a Rhodes scholar. Mom cried when he dumped me." Olivia waited. "For a fraternity brother."

Olivia laughed for a second before reining it in. "Sorry."

"No need. We're still friends, if you can believe that. Besides, it gave me a reason to look around and rethink my options."

"Thank goodness. I'd hate to imagine two closeted lawyers married to each other. That would have been... depressing, to say the least."

"No more closets for me," Alex said, linking her arm with Olivia's as they exited the lift. The doorman tipped his hat to them on the way out. "Bye, Harry."

"Goodbye, Miss Cabot. Miss Benson."

"He's good with names," Olivia said once they were outside.

"Mom nearly broke down when she brought me to the apartment for the first time the other day. Harry was very sweet."

"Should we get a cab?" Olivia asked, looking down the street.

Alex shook her head. "It's only two blocks."

"I can't imagine how your mom reacted. Do you think she's okay?"

Pressing closer to Olivia's side, Alex answered, "I hope so. She wouldn't let me out of her sight on Tuesday. I thought spending a few days with her would make things a little easier, but she's still really shaken." Alex paused, looking out across the street at nothing Olivia could identify. "It was hard when we lost Dad. Losing me... it aged her."

Olivia understood that. "What happened to your father?"

"It was a stroke. I was 27. That's when she left the city and moved upstate. I think it hurt her to be in our home without him. I was honestly surprised when I found out she'd moved back, but most of their friends were still here. She thought she didn't' want to live with the hustle of New York, but it turns out she couldn't live without it."

It was the most Olivia had ever learned about Alex's family, total, and she wanted more. "Did you grow up here?"

"For the most part. Summer in the Hamptons, naturally," Alex smirked, "some travel in Europe, aside from the time I was in college. My dad was a lawyer. One day he collapsed at work, and that was it. He was a wonderful person."

"So you followed in his footsteps?"

Alex chuckled. "I suppose. But he made his career on the corporate side. He was, shall we say, put off when I declared my desire to be a public defender in my first year of law school."

"Always looking out for the little guy, huh?"

"I'm sure part of it was rebellion. Simply put, my childhood was safe, respectable and insulated-- I didn't see much of anything beyond my own experience. College opened me up to ways of making a difference beyond attending monthly charity events. It was my first exposure to people who had grown up in poverty, or experienced real devastation. As a kid I saw my share of broken homes, eating disorders, the occasional drug use and alcoholism, but nothing like what we saw on the job, that you still see, every day." 

"Even growing up in the city?"

"It's amazing what parents can keep from their children when they think they're protecting them."

Olivia smiled. "Sounds like they loved you a lot. I'm sorry about your dad."

"Thanks, sweetie." Alex kissed the corner of her jaw. "I miss him. And he'd have liked you."

"Really?" She wondered what it would have been like to know Alex's father.

"Yeah. He used to go on and on about "Cagney & Lacey," you know that old show? He loved tough broads, if you'll pardon the antiquated terminology. I'd say you fall into that category."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"It is, Liv. Believe me."

They came to the restaurant, which looked to be overwhelmed with patrons. "Shit, we're really late," Olivia said.

"I'll cut you a deal," Alex offered. "If they won't take us, we go to your place, order in and watch movies."

"I'll take that deal, Counselor." Olivia was sure Alex's grin matched her own.

However, once they stepped inside, the host nearly fell over himself to accommodate them. As he led them to their table, he fawned, "Miss Cabot, welcome back to our fair city. Your meal, it has been taken care of by the management. Please, you and your guest will dine with our compliments."

"Thank you, Frederick," Alex said to the man as he pulled out her chair. A waiter did the same for Olivia, who knew she shouldn't be surprised that Alex had known Frederick's name. "You're very kind."

"Not at all, Miss Cabot. Enjoy your supper. Madame." Frederick politely dipped his head toward Olivia.

Once he'd gone, she turned to Alex. "I take it they know you here."

"Used to," Alex said, opening her menu. "They have amazing fish. And steak. Actually, everything's good here. Do you like artichokes? And oh, there's this incredible gazpacho..."

 

---

 

Olivia leaned back, stunned that she'd managed to pack away such a vast array of dishes in one evening. On top of two appetizers, salads, seafood stew and Dover sole, two desserts were on their way. She ran a finger along the edge of the half empty wine glass in front of her, stopping only when she heard it begin to sing.

Alex stared at her, and Olivia recalled a sensation from the day before; that of prey being stalked by a larger and much faster predator.

They sat in silence, simply enjoying each other's presence, until their desserts arrived. Key Lime Pie with fresh blueberry sauce was placed in front of Olivia, while a flaming Baked Alaska was presented with a flourish to Alex. She laughed giddily, and Olivia couldn't help but join in.

When they were finally finished, Olivia felt warm, content, and pleasantly buzzed. Not to mention incredibly aroused. As they began to make their way to the front of the restaurant, Alex took Olivia's hand. Olivia unconsciously swaggered, proud to be trailing behind her.

Frederick was there to give them their coats, and he kissed Alex on both cheeks. "We are so happy, Miss Cabot. When we heard..."

"Thank you, Frederick. This has been a wonderful evening, and a perfect welcome home." She gestured to Olivia. "Let me introduce you-- this is Olivia Benson."

Olivia held out a hand, which Frederick took as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. "It's a pleasure, Ms. Benson. I hope to see you again."

"Thank you. Dinner was amazing."

Frederick pressed a fist to his chest. "I will convey your regards to the chef. Have a delightful evening, both of you."

Outside, Olivia breathed in, the chilly air refreshing her. "God, no wonder you chose that place. Trust you to know the maître d's at all the best restaurants."

"Yeah, I was a regular. I used to live just across the park."

"I know."

They walked in silence, strolling down Lexington, allowing the tension to build. When Alex slipped a hand inside Olivia's open coat, wrapping it around her waist, Olivia did the same, playing her fingers along the seams of Alex's dress. The street was bustling, and while no one paid much attention to the two women walking side by side, Olivia felt as though everyone could see right through her.

She let her hand drift down to cup Alex's rear, squeezing lightly.

"Let's get a cab," Alex said roughly.

Soon they were in the backseat of a clean yellow car, the air remarkably free of either incense or cigarette smoke. It was dark, but as the headlights from passing cars reflected in Alex's shining eyes, Olivia moved closer.

Glancing at the front seat first, Olivia threw caution to the wind and kissed Alex softly. She barely heard the noise Alex made as she slid a hand against the smooth surface of her calf muscle, her knee. Slowly, she allowed her fingers to climb up the inside of Alex's thigh, creeping past the hem of her dress. A few inches higher and she reached bare skin. Pulling away, chest heaving, Olivia gasped.

Alex only smiled, her color already growing ruddy.

As Olivia caressed the edge of the stocking, she whispered into the delicate shell of Alex's ear. "This is what I was thinking about yesterday, when I told you I'd be arrested if I followed through."

Alex's head dropped back against the seat, her legs closing around Olivia's hand. Their lips came together intently, and Olivia barely noticed when the exotic music playing lightly in the front car speakers grew a bit louder.

Though Olivia wanted to move higher, she restrained herself. The car whipped down Lexington, and she felt the shift in direction when they turned east. "Almost home," she murmured.

"Maybe if you flash your badge he'll go faster."

"Believe me, if I had a blue light, we'd already be there."

At that, Alex clutched Olivia's elbow and pressed her hand further up her dress.

When Olivia's fingers met a damp set of silken panties, she bit back a groan. Alex's head fell forward, as if she'd lost her breath. Softly, she said, "I need you, Liv."

"Soon."

By the time the cab hit 3rd Street, both were nearly out of their heads. Alex pushed open the car door as Olivia tossed a twenty at the flushed driver. "Keep the change."

"With pleasure," the man said, and Olivia wondered if she'd be mortified at her behavior when she woke the next day. Turning to Alex, who was already unlocking the front entrance, she doubted it.

They raced up the stairs and within moments were plastered against the door as Olivia struggled with her keys. It flew open, banging against the wall with the combined force of their weight. Slamming it shut, Olivia dropped her bag on the counter and coat on the floor. Alex left her own coat on a chair as she backed up through the living room. Olivia followed, their eyes never breaking contact. "I need help with my zipper," Alex said.

Olivia didn't respond, her belly tight with awareness. Her fingers still felt damp from their tryst in the cab. This was different from the gentle build of the early morning; now it felt as though she'd come as soon as Alex touched her.

At the doorway of the bedroom, Alex flipped the light on and turned to offer her back to Olivia. With shaking fingers, Olivia lowered the catch gradually, releasing a tiny sob at the sight of so much bare flesh. Unable to help herself, she slid her hands inside the dress, reaching around a trim waist, down slender thighs. She pressed her breasts against Alex's back and scraped her teeth across the arch of her neck.

Alex cried out, laying her hands atop Olivia's through the material, breathing heavily. "Liv," she groaned. "Please don't make me wait."

Olivia pulled her arms up again and pushed the dress from Alex's shoulders, letting it slip to the floor. Alex was tall; her legs long and well muscled from running, her back sprouting delicate wings that drew Olivia's tongue. Again she noticed the scars on the back of her right shoulder, and paid them extra attention. Before she could do anything else, Alex reached behind and drew Olivia's hands forward to fasten on her breasts, and they both reacted as though touched with a live wire. One hand traced meaningless designs down Alex's long torso till it snuck beneath a pair of sodden panties. Alex stiffened, leaning back against Olivia, who welcomed her weight. In seconds she'd slipped inside with two fingers and Alex bucked against her arm. "Yes, yes," she panted, as Olivia learned the terrain skillfully. When Alex found a rhythm, Olivia broke it amidst great protest.

Tenderly she kissed a trail around Alex's shoulder blades to her collarbone, ending with a final lick to the hollow of her throat. Dropping to her knees, she nudged Alex closer to the wall, encouraging her to lean against it. Olivia pulled the useless underwear down and tossed it away, gazing up into Alex's dark eyes. She smiled, spending a moment admiring exquisite breasts for the first time, and Alex sucked her bottom lip between her teeth in anticipation.

She nuzzled in, pleased when Alex twitched beneath her touch. Flicking her tongue deliberately, Alex widened her stance. Olivia kissed her deeply, licking as much tender flesh as she could reach. The sound above her became a litany of soft words, both pleading and profane, all spurring Olivia on. Carefully she pulled Alex's left leg over her shoulder, taking some of her weight. A heel dug into the muscles of her lower back, and she couldn't help but smile slightly. Alex shifted above her, voice leaping when Olivia's roaming hand skimmed a breast.

A hand sifted through Olivia's hair while another pressed upon her shoulder. Olivia sensed Alex's peak approaching, recognizing the quiver of her muscles, the gentle cadence of her movements growing faster. And then she was pulsing beneath Olivia's tongue, crying out her pleasure, never pausing in her motion.

When all Olivia could feel was the occasional contraction, she opened her eyes, stunned at what had just occurred. She kissed soft, pale curls and lifted her face to see Alex looking down at her, appearing as astounded as Olivia felt.

Gingerly, Alex lifted her leg from Olivia's shoulder. "You're still wearing your dress," Alex said hazily.

Olivia choked out a laugh. "Yeah."

"Take it off."

Olivia rose to stand before Alex. Her face was wet, and she wiped at the moisture with a hand and smeared it on her outfit. Maybe the dry cleaner won't notice. Then Alex's mouth was on hers, tasting, exploring, delving deeply. Olivia pulled Alex into a full body embrace, trying to press every inch of herself to her lover.

Before she knew it, Alex was sliding the plum fabric down, following it with her mouth. She paused to lap at her hip, her waist, a small scar on her flank. More quickly than Olivia could have done it herself, Alex had made the rest of her clothes disappear, and had removed her own stockings as well. She pushed Olivia on the bed and climbed atop her like a cat preparing to devour its first meal in weeks.

"I won't last," Olivia said, her voice hoarse. She was already on the edge.

Alex bared her teeth in a feral grin. "That's okay. We have all night."

Olivia cried out when Alex's mouth found her breast, her hips lifting in supplication. Alex's hands took over when she inched down Olivia's torso, while Olivia shuddered beneath the attention. Nosing through dark curls, Alex parted her legs, and Olivia arched expectantly. When her tongue made contact, it was almost too much, and Olivia tried to pull away. Alex wouldn't relent, but shifted slightly for less direct pressure. Within seconds Olivia's hips were jerking, and once Alex pushed inside with two curling fingers, Olivia came, calling out desperately in the silence of the room.

When Olivia opened her eyes, Alex was kissing one hip, running her tongue along the jutting bone of her pelvis. She drew her fingers through Alex's feathery hair and tilted her head up. "I waited so long for you, Alex," she said, still breathless.

Alex laid her head on Olivia's belly. "How long?"

Pulling the willowy body to rest against her own, she said softly, "Felt like forever."

 

---

 

The first thing Olivia noticed when she came awake was that she was holding a hand to her chest, one with long, agile fingers and well-trimmed nails. Looking to her left, she saw Alex splayed out in all her glory, no sheets or blankets barring the view in the bright morning light. It brought an immediate smile to her face. Though she was still tired, the sight did little to lull her back to sleep. As she shifted position, her left gluteal muscle complained. It had been a long, wonderful night, and Olivia wanted to extend it into the morning.

 

Sitting up on her knees, she looked down at Alex's skin, frowning when she saw more than half a dozen red marks marring her complexion. She took inventory; there was one on her breast, another on her throat, and a few others in strategically placed locations. There were bruises distinctly shaped like fingerprints on a hip, and Olivia cursed herself for being too rough. At least Alex didn't look worse for the wear. Her position was languid and satisfied, a half smile on her peaceful face.

 

Too-long bangs fell on her forehead, and Olivia brushed them back. Maybe she'll grow her hair out again. Wonder if she'd be insulted if I asked her to. Alex opened her eyes, blinking slowly against the light. She made a contented sound in her chest, arching her back in a stretch.

 

Olivia's eyebrow rose of its own accord.

 

"Morning," Alex said, her voice gravelly. "You investigating something, Detective?"

 

"There's evidence of sexual activity on you, Counselor. Care to explain?"

 

"Certainly," Alex growled, reaching for Olivia and pulling her down. Their lips met in a leisurely kiss, and Olivia suspected she could still taste their combined flavors on Alex's mouth. A sleek thigh slid between Olivia's legs, and her breath picked up speed.

 

Coming up for air, Olivia huffed, "Good morning to you too." She nuzzled Alex's cheek with her nose. "I bruised you last night. I'm sorry."

 

Alex shrugged her shoulders. "Get used to it, Liv. If you touch me, or kiss me, or scrape me with your nails, it's going to show up. It's a curse of the fair skinned. They'll fade in a few hours, though."

 

Uh oh. "Turn over." Grinning, Alex flipped onto her stomach. There was a complex map of pink, faintly raised welts across Alex's back. "Oh, Christ. I should get some lotion or something." Reaching into her bedside table, she retrieved her hand cream and squeezed some onto her fingers. "I'll try to be more careful."

 

Looking over her shoulder, Alex said suggestively, "You mean next time?"

 

Olivia nodded.

 

In one smooth motion, Alex turned over again. "How about right now?" Grabbing Olivia's hands, she clasped them together, spreading the lotion on both palms evenly. She put Olivia's hands on her chest and dragged them south, smearing the cream down her torso in two wide trails.

 

Distracted by Alex's breasts, and the way her chest rose and fell with each breath, Olivia mumbled, "Okay." With smooth strokes, she massaged the powdery smelling lotion into Alex's skin, which drank it up thirstily. Leaning down, she flicked her tongue against a pale pink nipple, amazed as it pebbled and darkened before her eyes.

 

"Again," Alex breathed, her eyes falling shut.

 

As she took more of Alex's breast into her mouth, distantly she heard her cellphone ring. Olivia wanted to throw the damn thing down the toilet. Alex was despondent. "I thought you were off today," she whined.

 

"I am," Olivia groaned, rolling off the bed and padding naked into the main room. Olivia dumped the few contents of the bag on the countertop and seized the phone. "Benson."

 

"Morning, Liv."

 

"What is it, Elliott?"

 

"Don't you sound chipper this morning?"

 

"Christ, Elliott, what do you want?" She shifted her stance, trying to ignore the pulse between her legs.

 

"You're in the Post. Cindy Adams. And there's a picture."

 

That stopped Olivia up short. Although Amanda had warned them photographers might be around, she hadn't seen any. Then again, she hadn't been looking for them. "Is it a good picture?"

 

Elliott was silent. "So you're okay?"

 

"Okay with what?"

 

"Last time you made the papers you cursed the photographer for a week. Today there's a photograph with Alex kissing you next to a list of all the crap you ordered off the menu and you're totally fine."

 

"Well, this is different," Olivia reasoned.

 

"Maybe next time you could choose something a little less high profile. Just in case."

 

Inhaling sharply at the implication, she barked, "High profile? What the fuck do you think we did, Elliott? We had dinner at a place where Alex used to eat all the time. She wanted to go somewhere that felt like home. It's not my fault that people are interested in her story." She leaned over the counter, one hand gripping the edge.

 

"But it might be smart to keep Alex out of the public eye for a while. Velez has only been dead a week--"

 

"If there's a lingering threat then those assholes in the FBI shouldn't have pulled her out of protection. But she's not going back to Nebraska. She's staying, and we're not going to hide out in my apartment hoping no one notices us. We're going to have a normal life." Olivia began to tremble.

 

"So you're gonna watch out for her?" Elliott asked.

 

"What, you mean like I didn't the last time?" Olivia spat. Her guilt over Alex's shooting bubbled up out of nowhere. If I'd only looked over my shoulder, I'd have seen the gun. If I'd been walking closer, I could have taken the bullets. "That's not going to happen again!"

 

"Olivia," Elliott replied, startled. "You know not what I meant."

 

Trying to keep her teeth from clenching, Olivia said, "Then don't imply that I can't protect her."

 

"It…came out wrong. I only want you both to be safe."

 

She swallowed her anger. "You know what, Elliott? I spent two and a half miserable years waiting for Alex to come home. Right now, I'd rather be happy than safe."

 

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Elliott broke the silence. "It is a good picture," he admitted. "Really good. You realize it's going to be plastered all over your desk come Monday."

 

Olivia felt almost sick as the adrenaline rush receded. She couldn't afford to fight with Elliot now-- she was going to need all his advice and support in the coming months. "Better than engagement pictures of me and Mark." Thinking about Mark now was like seeing him from a great distance, from years past. A different life.

 

Elliot laughed. "You got that right. Poor guy."

 

"I'll take a run out and pick up the paper in a few minutes. Thanks for the heads up."

 

"Hey, by the way, I got a call from Mrs. Cabot this morning. We're heading to her place tonight; I assume you've heard."

 

"Yeah. I saw her last night."

 

"Getting to know the parents, huh. You ready for that?"

 

"Ready as I can be."

 

"Good enough. See you tonight?"

 

"Yeah, see you." Olivia hesitated. "I'm sorry I blew up at you, El."

 

"Hey, no problem. I heard worse from Kathleen last night when she got home after curfew. Say hi to Alex for me."

 

"Sure thing. Bye."

 

A hand landed on Olivia's shoulder, and she jumped. Alex pressed bare skin along her back and wrapped the edges of a blanket around the both of them. "We're in the papers?"

 

"Just the Post, far as I know."

 

"We should get a bunch. Keep them for posterity."

 

Olivia nodded.

 

Rubbing her face against Olivia's neck, Alex said, "It's not your fault, you know. What happened to me." Olivia tried to shrug it off. "I mean it, Liv. I don't blame anyone but Velez and Zapata; I never have. I baited Zapata and it almost got me killed in the middle of a conference room, surrounded by security. Considering what I did for a living, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was." She pushed closer to Olivia. "I'm grateful you were there. We never talked about it--never had time. But I remember you holding the blood in, talking to me. I listened to your voice, and you called me sweetheart, I think."

 

Feeling queasy, Olivia leaned her head against Alex's. "You stared up at the sky, like you were already gone. You hardly blinked at all."

 

"You saved me, Liv. No matter what you think, you saved me."

 

Tears pricked at Olivia's eyes. "You saved me too, Alex." She turned in Alex's arms, relishing the embrace for everything it could give her; pleasure, comfort, absolution. "If you hadn't come home, I don't know what would have happened."

 

Alex sighed, and Olivia saw the way her eyes swam with tears. "Doesn't matter now. We're together."

 

Always. She didn't say the word, afraid to give voice to something so extreme, so intense. Instead, she repeated, "Together."

 

 ---

 

"So we run two miles, then get to eat, right?" Alex said.

 

"Two miles?" Olivia figured she'd need to do at least three to work off last night's dessert. However, she was willing to relent due to the needy sound in Alex's voice. "Okay. Where do you want to go?"

 

"Let's take Broadway. I want to make sure everything's where I left it."

 

It was still early, so there was little foot traffic on the sidewalk as they started a slow, even pace heading west. "Can we go to Balthazar for breakfast? Please? Pretty please?"

 

Olivia laughed. "We haven't even gone half a mile."

 

"I know, but if we go to Union Square and turn around, Balthazar will be on the way home. Practically."

 

"What is it on the menu that you want so badly?"

 

"The brioche French toast. And a cappuccino. I haven't had a real one in ages. Nebraska isn't exactly known for its coffee. And Starbucks just doesn't do it for me anymore."

 

"All right, all right," Olivia said. "It's not like I could ever say no to you anyway."

 

"Yet," Alex added with a leer.

 

They made their way up Broadway, passing retail shops, restaurants and dozens of electronics stores that probably got half their stock off the back of a truck. On their way back, Alex insisted on dropping into the Strand on 12th for a few minutes, which turned into half an hour, till Olivia complained of immanent starvation.

 

"God, I've missed this city," Alex exclaimed as she flopped into a chair at an outside table of Balthazar. "I forgot how much."

 

"Was Nebraska really so bad?" Olivia asked, genuinely curious.

 

"No, no. But it was... different. Small. It's farmland, and rolling hills. I'd never lived anywhere like it before. The people, what they want out of life isn't the same as here-- to own a home, have a family, live a good life is enough. Not to say that the people aren't ambitious, but... it seems to be on a smaller scale."

 

"Like winning the softball league championship."

 

Exactly!" Alex said. "It was like we'd won the goddamned Tour de France. They bought out this pizza joint, and I swear, I didn't get home till after 3 in the morning."

 

Olivia couldn't wait to watch Alex play. "Elliot told me they need a shortstop on the squad's team."

 

Alex lifted her eyebrow. "Really?" She thanked the server as he delivered their cappuccino and café au lait. "I could do that."

 

"I figured. All you have to do is say yes, and you're in."

 

"I'll do it," she said with conviction.

 

Chuckling, Olivia took a last look at the menu. "You'll put Novak to shame."

 

They placed their orders, and once the server left the table, Alex asked, "Novak? You mean the ADA who replaced me?"

 

"Yeah," Olivia said before sipping from her mug. "Oh, this is good. Anyway, she plays. But she's no match for you."

 

Frowning, Alex said, "You haven't even seen me. She might be better than I am."

 

"Not a chance." Olivia was sure of it.

 

"What's wrong with her?"

 

"Her fashion sense leaves something to be desired."

 

"Olivia Benson, that is no reason to think poorly of someone. Not to mention that in softball, everyone wears the same outfit. It's called a 'uniform.'" Alex put the word in finger quotes.

 

"Doesn't matter. With you on the field, everyone else will just fade into the background."

 

"Are you saying she's not attractive?"

 

"No, I'm saying you're so gorgeous she won't even register. It's no contest."

 

Alex puffed up slightly at the praise. "You think I'm gorgeous?"

 

Olivia blinked at her. Haven't I told her? "Alex, you're the most beautiful woman I know. That I've ever known. When I look at you, I can't believe you're with me. You could do a lot better." Biting her tongue, Olivia added quickly, "Not that you should. Ever. Look for better, I mean."

 

The bright grin that spread across Alex's whole face, eyes included, made Olivia feel better for sounding like an ass. "That could be the sweetest compliment I've ever gotten."

 

Olivia shrugged. "It's true."

 

Running a fingernail down the back of Olivia's hand, Alex looked into her eyes. "I love you."

 

"Love yo--"

 

The sound of firecrackers interrupted her assertion, and she saw Alex jump a couple of inches out of her seat. She'd recognized the sound immediately. "It's only firecrackers, babe."

 

Alex had inhaled sharply, eyes widening for a second before slamming shut. She shook her head, laughing unnaturally. "I know. Sorry. It just surprised me."

 

"You okay?"

 

Pulling her hand away and dropping it to her lap, Alex nodded. "Sure, sure. I know it was firecrackers."

 

"It always happens around this time of year. Kids start buying them up for the 4th, and they just can't resist setting them off. You know that." Olivia was starting to panic; Alex had paled noticeably.

 

"Of course. I'm fine." Olivia watched her. "Absolutely."

 

"If you're sure."

 

Alex nodded.

 

Their meals arrived not long after that, and while Olivia attacked hers with aplomb, Alex didn't make nearly as much progress. She made a show of the few bites she took, but it was impossible to hide the fact that she left more than half her breakfast on her plate.

 

This is not good.

 

When the waiter took their dishes away, Olivia asked, "What should we do today?"

 

Alex looked across the street. "I could use a shower. And maybe a nap, actually." Meeting Olivia's eyes, she said, "You kept me up late last night."

 

Olivia bobbed her head, resisting the urge to respond with a quip. "Sure. Ready to go?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Olivia paid the bill at the register and asked for a pain au chocolat to go. Alex would be hungry later, and maybe the treat would make her smile. She rolled the bag up to fit in the pocket of her sweatshirt, and hoped Alex wouldn't notice the bulge.

 

She needn't have worried. Alex was quiet on the walk home, though she made sure to tuck her arm beneath Olivia's and pressed close to her side. Olivia stopped at her favorite deli to pick up a few copies of the paper, grabbing the Daily News and the Times as well. Maybe they could do a crossword later. Alex waited outside, and soon they were back in the apartment. Without a word, Alex headed for the bathroom, and offhandedly said, "Be out in a few minutes."

 

Olivia stared after her, leaving the papers and the pastry on the kitchen counter. She listened for the shower, and began to straighten up the mess left from the night before.

 

Hanging both their dresses on wooden hangers, Olivia recalled the sensations of Alex's stockings against her skin; the silky material rubbing the side of her face as she buried her tongue between Alex's legs. Her knees went weak, and Olivia allowed herself a small laugh. She was done for, without a doubt.

 

She noticed there was a message on the answering machine, and pressed play. "Hey, Olivia." Her stomach dropped. It was Mark, who she knew read all the papers every weekend. "So I guess I'm a fool, huh. You could have told me about Alex. I'd have understood. Really." He paused. "I don't know why I'm calling. I guess just to say I hope you're happy. Maybe I'll see you around the courthouse... And I don't hate you." The message ended. With a sigh, Olivia listened to the message once more before deleting it.

 

Heading for the bedroom, Olivia froze at a noise she heard coming from the bathroom. This is so not good.

 

She knocked loudly on the door. "Alex?" Waiting for a response, her heart raced in fear. "Alex, I'm coming in." Olivia exhaled in relief when the jamb gave easily within her grasp. The first thing she noticed was the steam; the mirror and windows had both fogged. The second thing she noticed was that Alex hadn't undressed, and was sitting at the edge of the tub, sobbing out her grief with her head between her knees while the shower ran behind her.

 

"Oh, Christ," Olivia said, darting to her lover and falling to the floor. "Alex, sweetheart, look at me."

 

Alex's face was splotchy, soaked with tears. She'd already gotten to the point of hiccupping between gulps of air. Olivia reached behind her to shut off the flow of water and knelt back down. Alex fell into her arms, knees clinging to Olivia's hips. She didn't speak, and Olivia suppressed her desire for an explanation. Instead, she tried to relax, hoping her own state of being would have some impact on Alex. Carefully she stroked Alex's back, whispering soothing nonsense into her ear.

 

She cupped Alex's rear and hoisted her closer, pleased when Alex exhaled heavily, her head falling on Olivia's shoulder. Arms wrapped around her tightly, and Olivia had the sensation of holding a delicate animal in her grasp. From nowhere, a childhood memory of rescuing an injured bird in Central Park popped into her head. She'd cradled a dove with a damaged wing in her small hands, crying as she'd carried it to her mother. The bird's entire body had fluttered wildly; it's tiny heart beating so fast she'd been afraid it would die of a heart attack before they could get it to a doctor. But it hadn't died, and she'd gone to visit the bird at the ASPCA for three weeks until it was released.

 

Olivia had no idea how much time had passed. When Alex finally lifted her head, the whites of her eyes were so bloodshot it made the blue stand out that much more strongly. She sighed, and Olivia tried to smile.

 

"Okay," Olivia said, her voice rising at the end of the word like a question.

 

Nodding, Alex wiped her nose with a sleeve. "It happens sometimes."

 

"Like when you hear firecrackers. Or a car backfiring."

 

Catching her breath, Alex added, "Sometimes for no reason at all."

 

Olivia connected the dots. "And you couldn't talk to anyone about it, because as far as they knew, you'd never been shot. Or had any aversion to loud noises."

 

Alex managed a tiny smile. "Couldn't exactly go to a therapist and explain my situation. I didn't trust anyone enough."

 

"Not even MJ?"

 

Shrugging, Alex admitted, "She was there, once, when it happened. I never told her anything, and she didn't ask."

 

"Alex," Olivia said seriously, "I'm the last person to recommend that anyone see a therapist, because I've spent half my life trying to avoid them. But maybe... it's something to consider."

 

Alex thought for a moment. "Maybe," she said, sniffling. "Would you come with me?"

 

Considering Alex had spent so long not trusting, the fact that she would allow Olivia to sit at her side in a therapist's office overwhelmed her. "Yeah."

 

"I hate Velez, and I'm glad he's dead. I hope he suffered while he bled out. He probably didn't even think of me-- I was inconsequential for someone of his stature. And he destroyed my life."

 

Olivia bit her tongue at the vitriol in Alex's voice. "Not destroyed, sweetheart. He just put it... on hold."

 

"I'm afraid," Alex said, her voice shaking. "I don't want to think about it."

 

"I'll hold your hand," Olivia assured her. "The whole time."

 

Olivia closed her eyes as Alex pressed her face into Olivia's neck.

 

---

 

They'd shared a shower after Olivia pried herself and Alex off the floor. Massaging every inch of Alex's skin with a soapy washcloth calmed Alex so much that her eyes were half shut by the time they stepped out of the tub. Olivia had patted her dry with the softest, thickest towel she could find in the hall closet, and delivered her back to bed wearing a tee shirt and a pair of Olivia's boxer briefs. Once she pulled on her own pajamas, she crawled under the sheet, the lump in her chest easing when Alex rolled over to lay her head on her shoulder.

 

Some time later, she swam up from an erotic dream, only to realize the dream was less incredible than reality. Alex was naked, leaning over her with one set of long fingers exploring deeply between Olivia's legs. Olivia groaned, eyes sliding shut against the sensations, hips unconsciously responding to Alex's hand. She reared up from her prone position to capture Alex's lips, their tongues making contact in an instant. She trailed one hand down a heaving rib cage, and lower, till it slid through copious moisture that had pooled in Alex's center. Stroking to the beat of Alex's own hand, she didn't rush, but reveled in the easy display of sensuality. As she felt the tension rise, she slid her free hand to Alex's back, rubbing the base of her spine. It glided smoothly over skin damp with sweat, until Olivia managed to reach down further, just skimming the surface of a puckered opening.

 

Alex lurched in her embrace, moaning, her movements becoming more mindless than controlled. She was a wild thing, riding Olivia's hand, till she seemed to shake apart with an unintelligible shout. The muscles around Olivia's fingers squeezed, and the explosion triggered her own climax only seconds later.

 

Collapsing atop Olivia, Alex wheezed significantly harder than she had at any point during their morning run. At least we've gotten a real workout today after all. She filed away the little tidbit she'd learned about the responsiveness of certain portions of Alex's anatomy for a later date.

 

They lay still, the tranquil sound of pigeons cooing on the fire escape filtering into the bedroom. Olivia couldn't think of a single thing to say.

 

Glancing up at her, Alex said, "I can't believe your phone didn't ring."

 

Olivia cracked up.

 

Alex added, "I need another shower."

 

"You go first, I'll make coffee." Olivia gave Alex's bare ass a swat as she left the bed, which earned her a high-pitched squeal and a cheeky grin.

 

In the kitchen, Olivia remembered she hadn't even looked at the infamous Post picture. Paging through the newspaper, she spotted the photograph immediately. It was a clear shot of the two of them walking down the block on their way to the restaurant. Olivia was smiling as Alex kissed her on the cheek. It was rare that she saw herself so unguarded in any photograph; awareness usually altered her expressions dramatically. Elliot was right-- it was a good picture. Alex looked adorable, as usual.

 

She skimmed through the article, which was remarkable simply for the sheer amount of detail it provided. She found it sweet, though it left her feeling admittedly exposed. While Olivia guarded her privacy fiercely, in this case, she was more than willing to make an exception.

 

"Done," Alex called from the bathroom, and Olivia left the coffee to brew and the papers on the counter.

 

As Alex combed her hair in front of the mirror, Olivia raced through her shower, not wanting to miss Alex's expression when she saw the write-up. She pulled on her clothes for the day, delighted when Alex emerged from the bedroom wearing one of Olivia's tee shirts with a pair of well-worn jeans.

 

"I like your outfit," Olivia said.

 

"Thanks," Alex grinned. "It's my girlfriend's shirt."

 

"Girlfriend, huh? So I have competition."

 

"Liv, after this morning, I think you should know better." Alex kissed her nose.

 

Settling in on the couch, Olivia presented a cup of coffee and, to Alex's great pleasure, the pastry from Balthazar. "Where did this come from?"

 

"Got it at the register on my way out. I thought you might be hungry."

 

Alex looked torn. "I wasted that perfectly good French toast."

 

"We'll go back soon. They're not going anywhere."

 

Ripping a piece of croissant off and taking a bite, Alex's eyes rolled back into her head. "Liv, you're a wonderful human being. If I didn't already love you, this'd be all it would take."

 

Olivia watched her smugly. "Now at least I'll know how to keep you happy."

 

Alex grunted, chewing. "Amazing sex and good food. That's about it."

 

"How am I doing on the former?"

 

"Sex?" Alex asked. "How do you think you're doing?"

 

Olivia shrugged. "Pretty good."

 

Sitting back against the arm of the couch, Alex stretched her legs out. "You know, I hadn't made love to anyone since I went away. Not in the whole time I was gone."

 

"Oh," Olivia said dumbly.

 

"I thought about you a lot, late at night."

 

Olivia felt her face begin to flush.

 

"I thought about you hovering over me, kissing me. Loving me." Wetting her lips, she continued, "I had no evidence to go on, except what I could imagine--how you'd look, and taste, and feel. I pictured your skin a little lighter, and your nipples larger. But when it was over, and I opened my eyes, you were never there."

 

The weight of Alex's words crashed down on Olivia.

 

"So I can tell you now, my fantasies have nothing on the real thing." Alex licked chocolate from her index finger. "Does that answer your question?"

 

Olivia cleared her throat. If she'd been wearing a tie, she'd have loosened it. "Yes."

 

"How about me? Am I measuring up?"

 

Her brain had turned to mush from the thought of Alex imagining her while touching herself, and she struggled unsuccessfully to speak. "Uh huh."

 

"Is that all you can say? 'Uh huh?' Come on, Liv. I'll get a complex if you don't give me a little more."

 

Olivia searched for the right words. Sometimes being honest works best. Right? "You're the best lover I've ever had," she said quickly. "Loving someone makes it different. I never believed my mom when she said that, but it's true."

 

The self-satisfied look on Alex's face disappeared. She tossed her croissant on the coffee table and fell upon Olivia in a hail of arms and legs, raining kisses on Olivia's cheeks and forehead. "Liv, you are unreal," she whispered. "I thought I was going to be the romantic in this relationship, trying to trick you into revealing your true emotions. Detectives don't exactly have a reputation for their sweeter sides, you know. But I was wrong. In a big way."

 

Olivia looked at her seriously. "I want this to work, Alex. Bad. I want to start out right."

 

"Believe me, its working, sweetheart."

 

"Good." Olivia kissed her. "I have to tell you one more thing."

 

Alex rested her chin on Olivia's chest. "What's that?"

 

"I really liked your stockings last night."

 

That set Alex to giggling. She pushed herself up and retrieved her plate from the coffee table. "I bought them yesterday. For you, of course. My mother was mortified."

 

Olivia hid her head in her hands. "Don't tell me that. I can't take it."

 

"She'll live." She fed a piece of bread and chocolate to Olivia. "Now, where's this famous picture I keep hearing about?"

 

Olivia reached for the newspaper on the table and flipped it open to the page. She flashed the photo at Alex, who "ooh'ed" appropriately when she saw it.

 

"You're so cute!" she exclaimed. "Look how you're smiling."

 

"Cute my ass. You, on the other hand, look perfect," Olivia said, turning the paper around so she could read the text aloud. "Let me read you the caption."

 

Off the market so soon?
Former ADA Alexandra Cabot and companion, Detective Olivia
Benson, on their way to a romantic rendezvous at Orsay.

"'Rendezvous,' I love that," Alex approved heartily.

Olivia continued:

We all heard the story when eligible bachelorette and assistant district attorney Alexandra Cabot was brutally murdered on the streets of the Upper West Side in '03. But apparently Miss Cabot was miraculously rescued and squirreled away by the Feds, and recently (very!) came out of hiding to reemerge onto the NY social scene. However, from the looks of things, she's no longer available. Sorry, boys, but the delectable Miss Cabot's been snatched up by the equally dishy Miss Olivia Benson, sex crimes detective stationed at the 16th precinct. They made their first public appearance together Friday at Philippe Schmit's Orsay, an old neighborhood haunt of the one time ADA. The meal: everything from braised artichoke, to Dover sole, to the famed Baked Alaska. I heard (from multiple sources, natch) that these two only had eyes for each other. Ah, romance! I wish all the best to the adorable lovebirds-- may they live happily every after.

As long as I get to cover the nuptials.

Alex stared, open mouthed at Olivia. "They know what we ate?"

"Apparently Ms. Adams has sources everywhere."

"Wow. That's the most ink I've gotten in the gossip columns since I got thrown in jail."

Olivia waited for some kind of reaction. "Are you upset?"

Alex's eyebrows both rose. "Upset? No. It's all true. Maybe the Post will send us an 8x10 of that picture."

Laughing, Olivia confessed, "At least we won't have to come out."

"You're right. One less hurdle to leap. Think anyone will consider us working together a conflict of interest?"

"Ha." Olivia snorted. "You're the one who knows Donnelly best. She'll probably try to get you reassigned as soon as you start."

Looking unconcerned, Alex said, "Doesn't matter. She can try, but I know where I belong."

That was enough for Olivia. "Me too."

"Give me that, I want to read it again."

Olivia handed Alex the paper, and shuffled through the New York Times for the crossword. Relaxing against the couch's arm, Olivia tucked her feet against Alex's side and licked the tip of her pen in expectation.

---

"What should we wear tonight?" Olivia asked, checking her watch.

"Have anymore sexy numbers in your closet?"

"I think I can rustle something up." She had a strappy outfit that no one in the precinct had seen from a date night when, strangely enough, she hadn't gotten called to a case. "What about you?"

"I could probably wear something of yours."

"Please. You're two sizes smaller than I am."

"Liv, that's ridiculous. We're the same height."

"And you're about twenty pounds lighter."

"Don't be silly."

"Come with me, you're trying something on." Olivia led Alex into the bedroom and flipped through the closet as Alex pulled off her shirt. She found the black, backless dress she'd once worn on the job. Alex had seen her wearing it, and given her a compliment she remembered to this day.

When Olivia turned around, Alex wore only her bra and panties. "You should just go like that. I'd have no complaints."

"You want to share me with Petrovsky?"

Pursing her lips, Olivia changed her mind. "Maybe not." She slipped the dress over Alex's head, and tried not to look smug.

Glancing down, Alex frowned. "This isn't the same dress you wore that night…"

"Yep."

"I don't believe you."

"I swear."

Olivia followed Alex into the bathroom and stood behind her as she examined her appearance. "Well, it's too big."

Setting her chin on Alex's shoulder, Olivia said, "Nice call."

"So I don't have anything to wear."

"I bet we could find you something. Let's head down to NoLIta, you know all those shops on Elizabeth and Mulberry."

"We might not have time."

"It's barely 4, we don't have to be at your mom's till 7. Let's go."

Minutes later, they walked south purposefully, and Olivia didn't like the line that appeared between Alex's eyebrows. "Why the long face, Counselor?"

"You told me the other day I'd gotten thinner, and I don't think I believed you."

"I notice everything about you, Alex. Always have."

"I'm not sure what happened."

Olivia slung an arm around her shoulders. "I do. It's stress. I watched you pick at your food this morning. I bet you did that a lot. And forgot meals."

Stretching her arm around Olivia's waist, Alex replied, "Once in a while. I don't remember."

"Doesn't matter. From now on I'll make sure your appetites are satisfied."

Alex smirked. "I'm counting on it."

They browsed through a few shops on Mulberry without much luck, but hit a goldmine in a boutique on Elizabeth Street. Alex picked out some pretty things, though Olivia didn't think too much of them. Instead, she zeroed in on a red, spaghetti strapped dress, and had a saleswoman lift it down from a high rack. As she looked at it, she declared, "This is the one." Olivia didn't even bother to glance at the price tag; it was going to be her treat. God knew she hadn't splurged on anything special in far too long.

"Very nice," the saleswoman agreed. "It will hang beautifully on her frame. The dresses she chose were a little more conservative-- you may have a difficult time convincing her."

"I'm very persuasive." Olivia sauntered to the dressing room and knocked. "It may take a while, but don't worry. She'll love this one by the time I'm done with her."

The saleswoman nodded approvingly.

"You decent?" Olivia called.

The door opened, and Olivia slipped in. Alex wore a simple, black v-necked dress that fell to her knees. It accentuated her slim waist, but was otherwise unremarkable. "Boring," Olivia announced. "I brought you this one."

"I can't wear that," Alex said, immediately removing the black dress and reaching for a similar deep purple one on the hook.

Olivia waited patiently for Alex to try that one, followed by two more, all of which she pronounced, "Boring."

"Liv, I'm not really that concerned over what I wear tonight anyway. It's only going to be a few people."

"This is the dress, babe. Just try it on."

"No."

"Why? I've seen you wear red before. You looked spectacular."

"I can't wear that neckline."

Olivia narrowed her eyes. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing."

"Alex--"

"Olivia, drop it. I can't wear anything that shows my shoulder anymore."

It hit her then-- Alex was embarrassed by the scars. Scars she'd earned seeking justice for the victim of a sociopathic drug lord. As far as Olivia was concerned, they were a badge of honor.

"Alex."

Alex pulled a dress off and dropped it on the floor. Creeping up behind her, Olivia embraced her, kissing the faded exit wounds she was so self-conscious about. "No, Liv."

Running her nose along the raised skin, Olivia closed her eyes. When she heard Alex's little gasp, she flattened her tongue and licked her way to Alex's neck. "Just try it on. For me." She saw the hesitance in Alex's eyes, but also a spark of hope. "Please."

Finally, Alex acquiesced. Before she put it on, she unsnapped her bra and dropped it in the pile with the rest of her clothes. Olivia swallowed, very aware of the throbbing that had begun between her legs. She held the dress over Alex's head, and it slipped onto her frame. It clung in all the right places, as though it had been made just for her. Their eyes met in the mirror, and the smoldering look Alex shot her told Olivia that she would be victorious. Reaching up, Olivia palmed Alex's breast, gratified when she saw her nostrils flare.

"Liv, don't."

She nibbled at a nearby earlobe, gradually drawing the dress's hem up with her other hand. "Don't what?"

"Don't do that," Alex breathed, her head leaning against Olivia's.

"You mean this?" She teased baby soft skin mercilessly. "Or that?"

As Alex whimpered almost silently, Olivia pushed Alex's underwear out of the way and swirled her fingers among already damp folds.

"We're in public."

"The door's locked."

"Uhh."

 

Alex jerked in her arms, and Olivia slid two fingers inside. Her other hand caressed Alex's shoulder before moving up to wrap gently around her neck. Alex turned her head, dipping down to suck two of Olivia's fingers into her mouth. She bit lightly when Olivia brushed her clitoris with her thumb, and Olivia clamped her lips together to keep from groaning aloud. Squirming under her touch, Alex pushed down on Olivia's hand harder. Finally she grasped Olivia's arm and held it still, pulsing and quivering as she choked out her quiet release.

 

Olivia held still as the spasms continued, peppering light kisses along the sweet line of Alex's jaw. After a long minute, Alex turned back to the mirror, allowing Olivia's fingers to slip from her mouth with a wet sound. Grinning widely, Olivia removed her other hand from beneath the dress and brought it to her lips. As she licked her skin clean, she caught Alex blushing, which contradicted the supremely satisfied look on her face.

 

When she was finished, she said, "So, Miss Cabot, which dress do you like best?"

 

The smile faded from Alex's face as she stepped closer to the mirror. Gingerly, she touched the scars on her shoulder. Upon first viewing, the round entry wounds were small, with only a thin layer of scar tissue. She turned around. More damage had been done upon exit; there were two more prominent, x shaped marks where the bullets had exploded out of Alex's back.

 

"Don't be ashamed. They're part of you." Olivia touched Alex's arm with her fingertips. "They mean you survived."

 

Facing her reflection once more, Alex gazed at the dress. "I'll take it."

 

"That's my girl."

 

Olivia helped her change into her street clothes, hoping the smell of sex wouldn't drift out as soon as they left the tiny room. "I owe you one," Alex said as she tied her shoes.

 

"You can help me get changed later," Olivia replied with a wink.

 

Olivia held all the castoffs on one arm and the red dress on the other while Alex opened the door. After a sharp intake of breath, Alex hissed, "Olivia! There's no lock on this door!"

 

"Really?"

 

---

 

Alex snapped her ridiculously small handbag shut. "You ready?"

 

"Sure. Let me get my phone off the charger."

 

"You're not working tonight." Alex frowned.

 

"I know I'm not, but I need to have it just in case." Noticing that Alex still looked unsure, she added, "Alex, I promise. If something comes up, I'll beg, borrow or steal to get one of the guys to take the call. I won't miss this."

 

"I just want one night. You can go back to work tomorrow."

 

"I'll go back to work Monday, not tomorrow. And you have tonight. I'm all yours."

 

"Okay," Alex responded, a shy smile on her face. Olivia kissed her before they left the apartment.

 

Olivia drove, and she was ready to proclaim a miracle had occurred when traffic on the FDR was moving freely for a change. "MJ called while you were getting ready," Alex said, streetlights glinting off her glasses.

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah. They won the softball game the other night."

 

Reaching over, Olivia captured Alex's hand in hers. "I bet they missed you."

 

"Maybe." Alex paused thoughtfully. "I might tell MJ the truth. About me."

 

"Is that simpatico with the Feds?" Olivia didn't have much experience with witness protection beyond what she'd experienced with Alex and a few suspects she'd dealt with over the years. "I don't know of many witnesses who ever leave protection."

 

"They implied it was up to my own discretion." Squeezing Olivia's hand, Alex added, "I owe it to her. Sometimes I think she saved me from myself."

 

Olivia considered Alex's words. "Then I think you should tell her," she said slowly. "If she's as wonderful as you've described, she'll understand."

 

Olivia caught Alex's nod out of the corner of her eye. "I don't like that I ran out in the middle of the night and left everything behind. Agent Hammond said all my personal effects would be packed and returned to me in New York, but I feel like I cheated, somehow. I owe the few friends I had a goodbye. I gave you and Elliot that much, at least, when I left New York."

 

Before she could change her mind, Olivia said, "Why don't we go to Norfolk next weekend? I'll ask Cragen to take me off the rotation for once in my life. God knows I've put in enough OT to guarantee a free ride now and again."

 

Alex was silent for a moment. "Are you serious?"

 

Olivia chanced a glance at Alex. "Sure."

 

"I'd like that."

 

"I'll mention it to Cap tonight. And remind him on Monday."

 

Leaning back in her seat, Alex brought Olivia's hand to her chest. "Have I told you how happy I am?"

 

The strange, blooming pain that Olivia felt when she first saw Alex again returned. It only took a second for Olivia to remember it wasn't anything to be afraid of. She was unused to feeling so much, and not running from it. But over the few days she'd been near Alex again, it was getting easier. "No. But I don't mind hearing it."

 

"You make me happy, Liv. You don't even have to do anything except just be. I see your face, and it's enough."

 

Chewing the inside of her lip, Olivia blinked back tears. She gripped Alex's hand tightly, and exhaled when she felt Alex kiss her knuckles. When she'd gathered her wits, just as they were coming up to the exit, she replied simply, "You make me happy, too."

 

They were quiet for the few blocks to Alex's mother's apartment, and remarkably, there was a valet service provided for the party at the door.

 

"God, Mother's gone all out tonight. I think there might be more than a few people here, Liv."

 

After a sweet, thorough kiss in the elevator, Olivia fixed her lipstick. Moments later, she was incredibly relieved she'd done so, since the doors opened and at least 30 people looked in their direction. There was a moment of silent anticipation before an explosive eruption of voices drew Alex from the lift, and Olivia followed. Most of the squad was there, including Elliot and Kathy, Munch, Fin and of course, Cragen. She saw a few ADAs she recognized, including Casey Novak, Serena Southerlyn, Albert Dunne, and Jason Richards, the guy from narcotics that she'd gone out with once after Alex's disappearance, before Olivia's facade cracked and she'd left him alone in the restaurant without an explanation. She'd always regretted it, but he looked happy enough to be there on Casey's arm. As she entered the apartment, she realized that not only was the place packed, but it was filled with more political and social climbers than she'd seen in one place since... well, since never.

 

Before Olivia was left behind in the crowd, Alex reached back and hooked their fingers together. "Come on. Let's say hi to everyone," she said.

 

Olivia smiled, and tried not to blush when she caught Elliot waggling his eyebrows at her.

 

---

 

After a few minutes of small talk with the throng of people who had rushed Alex, Olivia inched away, allowing others to each have their few minutes with the guest of honor. It was a relief, and Olivia snatched a glass of wine from a passing server and knocked back a large gulp. It went down warm, and immediately she felt her shoulders drop an inch.

 

"Olivia."

 

Olivia turned toward the voice and saw Amanda Cabot gliding effortlessly toward her in a sparkling, cream-colored sheath.

 

"Amanda," Olivia said, the name tripping awkwardly across her tongue.

 

"Welcome. You look lovely. As does my daughter." They looked in tandem at Alex, standing a few yards away talking with Judge Petrovsky, who had embraced her with great enthusiasm shortly before. "I like her dress."

 

Pride coursed through Olivia. "We did some shopping today."

 

"I'm rather impressed you were able to convince her to purchase something so revealing." Olivia glanced at Amanda, whose expression became distant. "She wouldn't even consider anything like that with me the other day. She said her scars were too ugly."

 

Olivia hoped Mrs. Cabot wasn't upset seeing such obvious reminders of the shooting. "I don't think they're ugly," Olivia said honestly.

 

Amanda nodded once. "I quite agree." She touched Olivia on the arm and said, "I think you're a good influence on my daughter, dear. And your picture in the newspaper was charming. I phoned Cindy today; she's going to have a few prints sent over. In color and black and white."

 

Blinking slowly, Olivia said, "That's strange, Alex was going to call the paper and ask for copies."

 

Laughing quietly, Amanda responded, "Don't be frightened, darling, I don't read minds. I simply know my daughter well. I love her very much, no matter whom she spends her time with. It occurred to me that I might mention that to you. In case you were curious."

 

Again, Olivia marveled at Amanda's razor-sharp perception. "I... I was. A little."

 

"There's no need for that. I used to worry about Alex ending up alone out of fear of public opinion. Now, I don't believe the word fear is going to be a part of that girl's vocabulary any longer."

 

Olivia agreed, relieved Mrs. Cabot felt the same. "Thanks." Gathering her nerve, she patted Amanda on the shoulder. To her surprise, Amanda leaned against her with a sigh. When Alex turned and saw them standing together, she led Petrovsky over.

 

Amanda straightened her posture as Alex introduced the judge to her mother. Olivia shook her hand as well.

 

"Judge Petrovsky, it's nice to see you," Olivia said.

 

Slyly, Lena replied, "Outside the courtroom, you mean."

 

They all laughed, and Olivia tried not to be nervous under the judge's attentive eye as the small talk continued.

 

 ---

 

Olivia took a breather in the kitchen, leaning against the stainless steel countertops as the caterers swarmed around her. She sipped slowly from her wine glass, and as she looked around the spacious kitchen, she wondered how the hell she'd gone from being engaged to a man to practically living with Alex Cabot in the space of three days.

 

That reminded her; Alex was, for all intents and purposes, living in her apartment. Would she want to stay? And for that matter, did Olivia want her to?

 

Trying to reason out her own thoughts, she considered the consequences. If Alex got her old apartment back, she'd live uptown, dozens of blocks away from Olivia's East Village home. Olivia would have to go back and forth between places, live out of her car half the time, and haul overnight bags and toothpaste and underwear all over town. Then again, she hadn't lived with anyone since her first two years of college. That hardly counted, though; having a roommate she saw an hour or so a day wasn't the same as cohabitating with a lover.

 

She'd gotten her place in the Village right out of the Academy, and lucked into a rent controlled apartment that was plenty big enough for her to live in comfortably. Never one to covet possessions, she kept her home sparsely furnished, believing that if she ever needed a storage space beyond what her closets could hold, it was time to make a few trips to the Salvation Army.

 

That meant one thing: there was plenty of room for Alex. She had a spare room off the bedroom that ostensibly served as an office, not like she ever used it for anything but keeping boxes of files and a computer she rarely used. Maybe Alex could use that as an office.

 

Or maybe she wouldn't want to live with Olivia at all. She might want her own space for a while, as she got used to being back in the city. She might want to live with her mother, in this amazing apartment that was big enough to comfortably house five people. Olivia tried to prepare herself for the possibility. Why would she live in a crummy one and a half bedroom in the Village when she can afford anything she wants?

 

"You're looking very serious," a voice said in her ear, startling her. Alex kissed her jaw lightly and leaned her chin on Olivia's shoulder. "Not having fun?"

 

Olivia turned around. "No, I'm having a great time."

 

Alex peered at her skeptically.

 

"I am!" Olivia tried to play off her uncertainty, but lying to Alex wasn't something she wanted to start doing. "Okay, fine, but remember, you asked for it."

 

Her tone suggestive, Alex replied, "I always ask for it."

 

With a laugh, Olivia pushed her shoulder lightly. "Stop it." She took a deep breath. "I was thinking about where you'd live."

 

Alex stilled, setting her drink on the counter. She looked as though she were about to answer, but instead chewed on her lip for a moment. Olivia waited, her heart pounding unsteadily.

 

"Do you need some time to yourself?" Alex asked.

 

"No." Olivia frowned. "Do you?"

 

"No, no. But I thought this might be your polite way of asking me to spend some time away from your apartment."

 

"No!" Olivia exclaimed, sloshing a few drops of her drink over the rim of her glass. "That's not it at all. I just... wanted to know what you wanted to do."

 

Alex blinked, watching Olivia intently. "I want to be where you are."

 

Christ. That was simple. Olivia couldn't stop her smile. "Well, good. I want that too." Stepping closer to Olivia, Alex brushed her lips against her cheek. She hummed in contentment as Olivia wrapped her tightly in her arms. "Is my place too small?"

 

"I lived in a three bedroom all by myself in Nebraska. Small is good for now." Her hand trailed down Olivia's spine. "Besides, I don't have many possessions. Almost none of the furniture in Norfolk belongs to me, and Mother left everything but my sleigh bed in the West Side place so she could rent it out furnished. Clothes went to Goodwill, and the rest is in storage a few blocks away. She never could go through any of it."

 

Olivia flicked her fingers through the short hair at Alex's neck. "Then it won't be hard to move in with me."

 

Alex shook her head. "Nope."

 

Eyebrow lifting, Olivia asked, "You have a sleigh bed?"

 

"Um-hmm."

"You know, my bed is nice, but as you may have noticed, it could be bigger."

"I'll get the information on the storage space from Mother first thing in the morning."

 
---

 

Olivia stuck close to Elliot and Kathy for a while as Alex submerged into the mass of well-wishers. She kept her eye trained on Trevor Langan, whom Alex had gone out with a few times years before. How he'd scored an invite to this shindig was beyond her, since he hadn't been on the list of names she and Alex had given to Amanda. It was a challenge to keep the sneer off her face as Trevor hovered close, occasionally touching Alex's arm.

"Easy there, Wolverine," Elliot said.

"Hmm?"

"You're about to sprout claws. Langan's a putz, you've got nothing to worry about."

"I second that," Elizabeth Donnelly interjected as she approached the trio.

"Hey, Donnelly," Elliot said. "Been a while."

Elizabeth shrugged. "Novak seemed perfectly capable of handling things, and I've been pulled in seven different directions since the budget cuts. You'll probably be seeing me more often now these days."

Olivia watched her, curious about her motivation, but unsure about how to ask. She'd always expressed great interest in Alex and her career. "Why is that?"

Liz raised an eyebrow. "Why, indeed." She sipped from a glass of champagne. "I should ask you, Detective Benson, if it bothers you to be in the public eye."

That seemed to come out of left field. "Pardon?"

"I'll get to the point --this city is going to want more from Alex in a few years, and if you plan on sticking around, I recommend getting used to everyone and their mother prying into both your lives." Liz looked out on to the crowd, and Olivia followed her sight line to Alex.

"What do you mean?"

"There are a number of individuals, some on whom are in this room, who would like to see Alex in the DA's seat." Liz must have recognized the disbelief on Olivia's face, adding, "Not quite yet, but in the future."

Elliot said, "The DA's an elected position. You wanna be a politician's wife, Liv?"

If Olivia could have gotten away with throttling him, she would have. Kathy cut in, saying, "We'll be right back. Elliot needs another drink." She led him away, while Olivia wished she could disappear into the floor. Discussing her fledgling love affair wasn't something she wanted to do with Alex's boss.

Donnelly continued. "There's never been an elected lesbian in the District Attorney's office, but in ten years, even less, she could do it. Alex has always had a holier than thou attitude, but in this case, it'll come in handy. The people want arrogance. They want intelligence, and reliability. God knows, they want a hero, and from my perspective, Alex fits the bill. If she hadn't been shot, it would have taken longer, and she wouldn't have had the patience to wait. But now, she's a gorgeous, back from the dead attorney who fought a Colombian drug cartel and lived to tell about it. She'll have it sewn up." Liz looked directly in Olivia's eyes. "The question is, are you up for it?"

"Are you asking me if I plan on being at Alex's side if that happens?"

"I am."

It's only been four days. We might not last. I don't know. And besides, it's none of your business. "Yes."

"Good. I couldn't ask for better. A dedicated ADA and her crime-fighting lover, saving the city from itself."

Olivia closed her mouth. "Aren't you interested in running for DA?"

Liz scoffed at the notion. "Please. I have aspirations that don't involve city politics." Her eyes sparkled.

Hoping she didn't sound silly, she asked, "The Senate?"

"We'll see how things go."

"I'd vote for you."

"I'll keep that in mind." Olivia saw the trace of a smile on her face. "In the meantime, I think Miss Cabot needs rescuing. Will you do the honors?"

Not wanting to seem needy, Olivia looked around and saw Munch and Fin roaming the floor. "I think I'll get some lackeys to do it for me."

"Of course. Enjoy your evening, Detective."

"You too. Liz."

They shared a nod of understanding before Olivia headed across the room.

"Yo, guys," she said.

Munch checked her out appreciatively. "Benson, you've always been a fine looking woman but now that you're with Cabot, your hot-o-meter rating has gone through the roof."

"Nice dress," Fin added, eyes slowly traveling up her body.

"I can see why you're both so successful with women that you had to come with each other."

"Hey, I was expecting chips and dip," Fin said, peering around. "I'd have done my hair if I'd known this was a society thing."

"Yeah, me too," said Munch. "What's up?"

"Can you get Alex away from that horde?" Olivia tilted her head in Langan's direction. "If she's fine, it's no big deal, but she has a weird look on her face, like she had some bad sushi."

"And you don't want to seem jealous," Munch finished for her.

Olivia felt heat creep up her neck. "Something like that."

"Fin, keep Miss Dishy company here and I'll retrieve Miss Delectable."

As they watched Munch butt into the circle surrounding Alex, Fin said, "So you dumped that white collar guy, right?"

Olivia almost inhaled her drink through her nose. "Yeah," she managed after clearing her throat.

"Nice work. You and Cabot, you got chemistry. That other guy… he was a cold fish. Nice enough, but the guy had nothing going on."

She shrugged. "Thanks." I guess.

"Looks like you were right. That didn't take long." Munch was already leading Alex away from the crowd, and she appeared extremely grateful.

"Whew," she said, taking Olivia's hand. "I needed a break. I forgot how much energy these things require."

"Relax, now, you're amongst friends," Munch said.

"Hey, check it out," Fin said, peering around Alex's shoulder. "Man, those are nice! Almost no scar tissue. You must have had a seriously hardcore surgeon to get those cleaned up so good. What were they, 9 mil?"

Though Alex tensed up for a moment, she allowed Fin to look. "Yeah."

"Can I touch 'em?"

"Sure."

Munch joined in, and the two men cooed over her scars.

"Those are hot," Munch said.

"I got one in the calf, check this out." Moving back a bit, Fin lifted his pant leg and pointed to a wound scar that stretched across his muscle.

"Wow," Alex said, bending down for a better look.

"Hurt like a mother. I didn't get to the ER till almost three hours after it happened."

"Oh my God," Olivia said.

Munch turned around. He pulled down his collar and parted the hair at the back of his neck. "Look at this." The three leaned in.

Olivia tilted her head. "What the hell is that from? A knife?"

"Waterford vase, wife number two. Knocked me out cold."

Alex snorted delicately. "Impressive." She glanced at Olivia for a moment, then said, "I have one more. From the third bullet-- it's just a graze."

"Let's see."

Olivia smiled, explaining, "We'll need some cover. One at a time. Munch, block the view from over there." Munch and Olivia flanked Alex protectively as she pulled the side of her dress down to reveal the red scrape across her ribcage to Fin.

"Shit, that's intense."

"Hurry up. My turn," Munch insisted. They swapped places, and Munch got a look. "Damn." He looked up at Alex. "Damn." Olivia sensed his meaning. "You almost died."

Alex nodded.

Munch's hand landed on her shoulder. "I think I speak for the whole squad when I say that I'm extremely glad you're here with us tonight, Alexandra. Things weren't the same without you."

"Was like losing family," Fin added. "And now you're back, we're whole again."

Olivia felt the frisson of energy that coursed through Alex's body, and saw the glassy look in her eyes. She stepped forward and kissed both men on the cheek. "Thanks, guys. That means a lot." As Alex leaned back, Olivia nuzzled the fine hair behind her ear.

"Detective Tutuola, we need some refreshment. And I'd like to find that server with the tempura again. She was lovely."

"You wish," Fin countered, and after a moment, Alex and Olivia were left alone.

They watched the party in silence. "Thanks for the rescue, before."

"Hey, I didn't do anything," Olivia said.

"Sure you didn't." She tilted her head and met Olivia's eyes. "Love you."

"Love you too."

 

---

 

"You look good, partner," Elliot said.

"Thanks. I'm glad you guys could come tonight."

"Wouldn't have missed it," Kathy said, rubbing Olivia's arm. "I don't mean to pry, but did you hear from Mark today?"

Olivia felt a twinge of guilt. "Got a message. He knows."

Kathy made a sympathetic noise. "Something was going to end it, Liv," she assured her. "It's just as well it was now and not too far down the line."

"I'm glad everyone else seemed to know that but me," Olivia muttered, slightly tired of the comments she'd gotten about her break up. Strange how so many people knew they "weren't right for each other," but Elliot had been the only one to mention it before tonight. "It's only been a few days, but I don't know..." Olivia looked around the room. "It's like that wasn't me. Like I was asleep."

Kathy smiled, her arm going around Elliot. "You and Alex look nice together. And I hear you're going to be cheering a new shortstop on from the bleachers at the next game."

"Yep."

"Can you come for a barbecue next weekend? You've hardly been over lately, and the kids have been dying to see you."

Olivia had deliberately avoided visits to the Stabler family with Mark. Though she'd never acknowledged the reason, she knew it was because she didn't want to share them. They were her family, not his. Alex... was a different story. "We can't next weekend, but after that, definitely."

"What's up?" Elliot asked.

"We haven't booked it yet, but the Captain is taking me off the rotation so I can go with Alex to Nebraska to say goodbye to her friends."

"Long trip for a weekend. You could take some more time, you know."

"I know." But Olivia had plans for her PTO, and she didn't want to lose any more than necessary. "I don't think we'll need it. She wasn't that social out there. From what she's told me, she only had a few friends, and none that close." Not like here.

"God, that's the saddest thing I've ever heard," Kathy said, stricken. "I can't imagine how hard it must have been."

Olivia fought the wave of sadness brought on by the words. Fortunately, Elliot brought her out of it when he stepped forward and hugged her. "You did good, Liv."

"Thanks, El."

"We gotta go. Babysitters-- you know how it is."

"Sure. I'm glad you were here. It meant a lot to Alex. And to me."

Kathy embraced her. "Take care, Olivia. See you soon."

"Bye, Kath. Alex is right there, don't leave without saying goodbye."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

Elliot and Kathy headed over to say their goodnights, and Alex retrieved their coats and walked them to the door like the perfect hostess she was. Her manners alternately amused and impressed Olivia, who vowed to improve her own etiquette through careful observation and occasional practice.

Olivia caught Alex on her way back before someone else could swoop in and steal her attention. "Hey."

"Hey you." Alex grinned, her cheeks rosy from both the wine and the bounty of affection heaped upon her tonight. She looked beautiful.

"Good party," Olivia said.

Glancing around, Alex replied, "I think it's too good. It's nearly midnight and hardly anyone's gone home. You'd think they'd be more respectful of our burgeoning sex life."

"You're insatiable."

"Says the woman who pounced on me in a dressing room."

"Well, I only have so much will power."

"Lucky me."

Olivia remembered the news she'd forgotten to mention earlier. "By the way, Cragen approved next weekend. I can go to Norfolk with you."

Alex looked supremely grateful. "Thanks, babe. Having you there will make it so much easier."

"Let's book tomorrow, okay?" At Alex's nod, Olivia decided she'd bring up the other travel plans that had been simmering in the back of her mind all evening. Cautiously, she said, "Speaking of travel..." Nice subtle segue, Liv. "Have you ever been to Italy? Rome, that is."

"Sure," Alex nodded, "after college. I traipsed around with three friends on a Eurorail pass before I went to law school. My parents were appropriately horrified that I mostly stayed in hostels that cost less than ten dollars a night."

Laughing, Olivia asked, "Did you like it?"

"Like it? You mean Rome? Of course! The Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, not to mention to whole gelato experience."

Heart leaping at the familiar words, she asked, "Would you... want to go back?"

Although Olivia had kept the request light, Alex seemed to sense there was more to it. "Yeah. I remember throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain. You know what they say about that."

"I'd like to take you there," Olivia declared, her courage rising.

With a bright smile, Alex responded, "You say the word, Liv. I'd go anywhere, as long as I'm with you."

Her mouth dry, Olivia leaned in and kissed Alex lightly on the lips, ignoring the fascinated looks they received from a few partygoers. "Your birthday is in a few months... Think Branch would give you time off for good behavior?"

"He damn well better." As Alex beamed, it occurred to Olivia that she'd never felt so adored. When approached by Judge Valdera, Alex courteously made conversation while Olivia's mind drifted, already caught up in her plans.

A few moments later, Alex glanced at her with a quick wink. Thinking of the small, unremarkable fountain she'd visited only a week before, Olivia could hardly wait for the trip.