Book 5: Ripples.
Series: Light, Water, Muses. An alternate universe for a variety of television series. See disclaimers below.
Rating: PG-13, beware of warm fuzzies.
Category: The continuing saga of Reflections/ Resurgences/Refractions/Rapids. Begins shortly after Rapids ended
Pairings: Dace/Catherine & Sara, revisited. More ‘maybe/maybe not’ for Alex/Olivia.
General Disclaimer: This site contains stories between mature, consenting adult females. All characters are borrowed without permission, but without the intent of infringement. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, see chapter 1.
Disclaimer: “Facts of Life”, produced by Embassy Pictures Corporation and TAT Communications Company. Created by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon.
Spoilers: Nothing specific.
Summary: Olivia prepares to move on. Michael becomes more a part of Jo’s life. More pieces of the larger puzzle begin to come together.
++ Alex Cabot ++
“I didn’t keep my promise to you.”
For a moment, I was convinced I was hallucinating again. My desperation for Olivia had me so knotted up that I was virtually useless in all capacities. Why? Oh who the hell knew. There was only amorphorous hope in something that sparked between us every time we met. That something is what I so desperately missed in my life.
Missed desperately enough to keep hearing her voice in the corridors of where our lives once overlapped. Then there was a whisper of sound, like fabric over flesh, and the scrape of shoe soles on my office floor. Awareness made my skin tingle, and I froze as though hunted by something large and dangerous.
It couldn’t be…
Unwillingly, against the railing rant of the still-sane and shrinking fast part of my brain, I slowly turned away from the file cabinet that held my banal life.
Olivia Benson looked just as I remembered her. Strong, powerful, self-assured, personality oozing from every pore. There was new information in her dark eyes, though. A new purpose, a lightness to her body that spoke of the roots she had already pulled up from this wintry city.
Oh… oh no…
I was too late.
++ Olivia ++
How had I never noticed how expressive she was? The shades of her eyes and the shift of her classic face was like watching Zo paint, a pleasure I’d experienced far too briefly in Chicago. Pain flashed through me that I had hurt her, even as I knew there was nothing else I could do. Dace and her family were my family now too, and I needed that connection more and more every day. Even this siren’s call could not snuff out the new strength of purpose I had found with once-strangers.
But walking away from her was going to be even harder than I had thought.
The silence between us stretched into infinity, the noise of the legal building around us fading away. My memories played out everything I had seen so recently, the loves that had grown while I watched on.
I moved without thought, without thinking.
The huff of Alex’s deep voice, her mouth hot and open against mine, her slender strength tight against my sturdier curves. In that heartbeat of time, feeling her for the second and probably last time, I knew that I had waited for someone like her for a very long time.
“I promised to come home to you safe,” I whispered, aching at the chasm between us. “And now I’ve found a home somewhere else.” Reluctantly stepping away, giving up my touch on her body, I let my heart shine in my eyes. “I’m sorry.”
There was nothing else to say, nothing else to do… but walk away with my heavy heart.
++ Elliot Stabler ++
This story was not supposed to end this way.
Staring sightlessly at the box between my feet, I wondered when I lost my copy of the script. Lost the page where it said; ‘Benson moves to Las Vegas.’
Lost the best thing that’s happened to me since Kathy and my kids.
A gentle hand on my shoulder jerked my thoughts back to the present, and I looked up into my wife’s understanding eyes. She had been my rock for so long, and would be my rock through losing Olivia as well. I tried to convey my gratitude in my eyes.
Touching Kathy’s hand and shaking off my brooding, I continued to press clear tape over the seam of the cardboard box between my knees. “You’ve got a lot of shit for a single woman who’s never home,” I commented idly, wincing when Kathy cuffed me in the head. Oops, forgot the kids were here. Grinning sheepishly at my wife, she sighed mockingly and the others laughed. After the initial shock at the one-six, we had all jumped in to help get Liv packed up to start her new life. Munch was horsing around verbally with Olivia where they stood, deciding on the fate of the furniture. It was gonna suck so bad not having her around…
The downstairs buzzer grabbed all of our attention. “Who the hell could that be?” Olivia wondered out loud and headed for her phone. “Hello? Jo! Good to hear from you. Sure, come on up.” Hanging up the phone, she turned a brilliant grin on the rest of us. “Another pair of hands is coming up. This is the first I’ve seen of Jo since Chicago. Damn shame Dace isn’t here.”
Dace… the mystery woman who changed the heart of this die-hard New Yorker. I wanted to hate her, I wanted so bad that I could taste it… but I couldn’t. Something had changed Olivia during that case in Chicago, and the mysterious Dace had been the catalyst. Olivia was shedding a lifetime of hurt and personal drama, and it seemed that the sky was the limit. There was a lightness to her step, a bright blaze in the darkness of her eyes that I had never seen with such force. Whatever had happened to her, it was meant to be.
I’d give up the woman who had been an extension of me for three years, because I loved her like I loved my family. But I sure as hell wouldn’t like it.
++ Michael ++
Truthfully, I had made Jo’s pursuit far harder than necessary. At the time, I think I had wanted the ego-stroking of her focused attention to soothe my battered psyche. It was, coincidentally, a month since Jo and Gloria tracked me down and began to assault my fortress of solitude. The teen was a firecracker, and I planned on keeping a close eye on her, and encouraging all that potential.
The three of us rode the elevator quietly, my hands resting lightly at the back of their necks, the touch not proprietary, but affectionate. Both leaned into me, making me feel warm and loved.
Olivia’s expression was classic in the truest sense of the word. Eyes wide, she stared for a moment before giving me a wry grin. “You still look better than Dace.” That earned a big hug and I knew that I would miss having her here in this city.
“How is she doing? Tessa’s been keeping the network informed, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
Pain, hope and respect warred in those dark eyes. “Better. She hurts so bad all the time, but she found Lindsey and Emily, and they’re like her. And she has Catherine and she and Sara are building a bond, and the Lady likes Dace, which makes her feel good. I’ll tell you, she’s the strongest person I know, what she’s been through and is still smiling.”
A slow grin twitched my face, reminding me of the fading bruises in my flesh, same as Dace. “She’s always been like that. When she walked away from us, it was like losing a sibling. When she came back, I think it only reminded us how much we all adored her. It was never really a party unless that punk was there.”
Chuckling, Liv turned her hug on Jo, and they clung tightly to each other as I herded Gloria in ahead of me. She was having trouble keeping her eyes off of Olivia, and brave-nervous, looked at the small crowd in the apartment. I knew the faces, and I knew many of the stories, hell, John Munch was a regular client of the Swords, but I wondered if Gloria would recognize Elliot.
I kept my hands resting lightly on the girl’s shoulders for moral support while the detectives figured out who she was.
++ Gloria ++
Hanging out with the Archangels and Jo and Jamie and Pai and Boot had been some of the most rewarding times of my life. Pragmatic, fun and protective without being overbearing, they were probably the best crowd for me to hang with in this city that haunted me.
Truthfully, I didn’t recognize anything about New York, after all, it’s not like I was here on some kind of field trip last time, but just knowing was nerve-wracking. This was the city where I had been raped and tortured so brutally, leaving me with the haunting scars in my skin, and the even thicker ones on my mind and soul. Sure, I’d recovered as well as to be expected… But I never forgot. Never. Every moment awake or asleep, the memories hovered at the edges of my mind. Over time, I’d gotten accustomed to them, even drawn strength from them. Nightmares and phobias still got me sometimes, but I did my best to take each day as it came, and prepare for my future.
Olivia’s eyes had skimmed over me without recognizing me, but I’d’ve been shocked if she had. There were days I hardly recognized myself, when the brutalized ten-year-old inside me was feeling particularly vulnerable.
Feeling nervous and a little twitchy around these strangers, I let myself be anchored by Michael’s strong hands on my shoulders. There was something familiar about the big man with the military haircut, but not in a bad way. Then Jo’s voice brought my attention to her as she stepped over. “Gloria, you remember Olivia,” Jo smiled, her arm around the taller brunette’s shoulders.
“Never forget her,” I grinned back, watching the empathetic brown eyes I remembered vividly. There was still no recognition, but Olivia held out a welcoming hand I took eagerly.
“I’m sorry, Gloria, but I seem to be blanking,” she started to say, then her voice trailed off and her eyes grew round. “Gloria…”
“Hi, Officer Benson,” I greeted her warmly, welcoming the suffocating hug I was suddenly wrapped in. How I loved these kind of big, warm embraces from people I trusted.
“I didn’t even recognize you,” Olivia was saying, leaning away only far enough to study my face. “You look wonderful.”
“The Amazons have been really good to me and Aunt Kali,” I beamed at this second hero of my child self. “I’ve been looking forward to talking to you since the Staff and Scroll in Chicago.”
“You were at that club?”
Her disbelief made me laugh. “I’ll be sixteen at the end of July. There are levels of the club where I can legally work. I bus tables at the underage club, and do some janitorial work and stuff. More of my time is spent on school, I promise.”
Mollified, Olivia hugged me again, and I sighed happily, especially when Jo added herself to the cling by pressing herself against my back and squeezing us both.
++ Jo ++
Packing Liv up turned into an impromptu party that included a never-ending stream of cops and easily half the large apartment building. Not to mention the many handfuls of locals, coming by with a word or a little gift for a favored keeper of the peace. Liv was as gracious as a princess; a small conversation, a hug, and many thanks for each and every one of them. At some point in the crush, Rick brought Jamie by for what would inevitably turn into a sleep-over for some of us.
And Alex Cabot snuck in with the setting sun, looking pale and tragic. Damn shame those two hadn’t figured out what the hell their chemistry was before it was too late.
Inhaling lazily across mucous membranes gone dry, I climbed blearily from sleep and looked around. When the hell had I finally fallen asleep? Instantly, I looked around for Jamie, relieved to see her on Olivia’s mattress on the floor, curled up around my feet near Gloria. Their sweet little crush on each other cracked me up. Michael’s body was sprawled across the strange, inflatable couch-bed thing that Stabler had provided that still retained its basic shape and had been surprisingly comfy to sleep on. Her head was pillowed on my lap, dark hair warming my fingers where they cupped around her scalp. Soft voices caught my attention, and I stroked Michael’s hair as I listened.
“Never would have pictured you going to Vegas, of all places,” murmured Stabler in a carefully neutral tone that was absolute bullshit. He was grieving his upcoming loss and trying to be so brave. Men…
“Yeah, I know,” Liv sighed back, her conflict making my heart ache. “But it just feels right. I can’t explain it. There’s so much I haven’t done, always using mom or my past or the job as an excuse to stay put. Suddenly, I need to see and do things I haven’t seen and done, you know?”
“Yeah, I can understand that. New York’s not going to be the same without you, though.”
A grumble of protest escaped me at the dryness in my throat, and I cursed my interruption as shadowy heads turned my way.
++ Olivia ++
Before I could react to Jo’s small, uncomfortable sound, Elliot pressed me into the battered futon that had once been my guest bed and would be charity tomorrow. “I got it. Stay with Alex.”
Ah yes, Alex. Too wound up to sleep, I had nevertheless found a certain bittersweet peace in stroking the platinum hair feathered over my lap. It had just sort of happened, one minute Alex had been chowing on pizza and beer with stiffly uncomfortable posture, then she’d started to sag like an aging helium balloon. That was how I came to be her pillow.
Her breath was warming certain strategic parts of my anatomy that I’d much rather be ignoring right about now. So I cocked an ear out for Elliot and Jo.
“Thirsty, but I’m pinned down.”
“Hang on.” Ice cubes sloshed in water as Elliot rummaged in the ice chest, and plastic crackled as the cap was twisted. “Here you go.”
A sharp inhalation, lusty sucking noises that almost sounded dirty, and Jo made a happy kitten noise. “You’re a lifesaver, Stabler.”
Morning was gray and sullen in the window. Had we been up all night talking? Sure looked like it, and my eyes were burning badly enough as proof. It was been so hard to stop stroking Alex’s soft hair and wonder what could have been. For the whole night, Elliot and I reminisced, retracing the relationship that had defined our partnership. More than my partner, the guy who watched my back and kept me from going too far, this singular man was my friend.
And the pale beauty in my lap was a taste of what could be… no… what could have been.
The melancholia that I’d been fighting all night was shattered by the shrill blast of my telephone. Not a soul in my apartment didn’t jump like someone had shot out a window, followed by a chorus of moans and groans. Moaning in bleary shock, Alex cradled her skull, obviously nursing a sore neck. “Hey, relax,” I urged quietly, pressing her head back to my lap. “The machine’ll get it.”
Michael grumbled something that made Jamie gasp in shock, then giggle guiltily.
“What did you say?” Jo asked suspiciously and squeaked in that mildly sexual kinda way. Bet she just got goosed or something similar. On the forth ring, the ancient answering machine clicked loudly, hissing out it’s staticy message in my barely-out-of-teens voice. “Jeezus,” Jo grumbled, voice straining around a stretch. “That’s the same damn message you’ve had since college.”
“Hey Dobie,” came a familiar and much-missed voice. The room went quiet, all ears trained on Dace’s tones. She sounded happy and sad all at once, still blurry with painkillers. “Just wanted to let you know we were headed home this afternoon. Miss you, hope you’re having a good time.” A sleepy little groan tinnily echoing through the speaker made me grin.
“Miss you, Liv,” Lindsey added sleepily, her voice barely close enough to the speaker to be heard. Dace’s throaty, distinctively feline chuckle warmed my apartment for a moment, almost close enough to touch, and I was shocked to realize just how much I missed all of them.
++ Alex ++
Olivia didn’t have to say it. The gentle smile on her beautiful face was enough. That voice… if had to be her. Since I couldn’t bring myself to hate Olivia, I would hate her new partner instead. It effectively ruined the morning for me, burning away the calm pleasure of being so close to her. Even in sleep, I’d been aware of her firm warmth against ear, head, shoulder; the sweet touch of her hand in my hair.
“That was her?”
Stabler beat me to the question, braver than I.
“Yeah,” Olivia said shortly, adoration and discomfort laced through her tone. “And Lindsey.”
“Yeah. She’s so much like Dace. I think you guys would like both of them.”
There it was again, that loving thrum in her voice that made me so jealous that tears came to my eyes. How I had always wanted that for myself, how chicken-shit and self-delusional I’d been. Disgusted with myself, I managed to sit up and carefully crack my sore neck. “I should go,” I murmured, trying not to cringe at the welcome warmth and weight of her hand on my shoulder. The teens bursting into giggles signaled my escape, grateful for the distraction.
Shockingly, I made it to the street before she caught up with me. “Alex!” Despite myself, I stopped, shivering in the cold. After a moment, weight settled over my shoulder, smelling of the woman I would miss so much. “Keep it,” Olivia said quietly, running those coveted hands down my arms, stimulating the nerves, hitching my breath. “I won’t need it anymore, and I’d like that a part of me stays with you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered brokenly, wishing that the embrace of the heavy leather was her arms… that she would never leave me. The thought brought burning tears to my eyes, blurring my vision, and I desperately waved at the passing yellow blur of a taxi. “You should go back to your guests, I’ve… I’ve got to go.” Smiling weakly, trying to pull my heart out of her hands. “Work… y’know.”
There was no reaction, just that hang-dog face, the dark eyes overly bright.
It would be an image that would haunt me for a long, long time.
++ Ingle ++
It was slow, no surprise. Tuesdays weren’t exactly the high point of everybody’s social life. I had spent my slow day rearranging the bar, filled with a restless energy that felt dimly familiar. The sensation had been building for years, like the slow growing of stalactites in a dark cave.
The time was coming near now, building like a wave in the deep ocean that would break over the land as a tsunami. Humankind had no clue what was coming down the pipe at it. The industrial revolution had been a lousy time to be recharging in my kaer. Not to mention an even worse time to sleep in, so to speak.
It was stunning, really, how quickly humankind had forgotten its true past. When the magic levels had fallen to such minute levels, all evidence of the world I had once lived in… simply vanished. All that was left was the humans. The core race that spawned all the others had forgotten, and I was alone.
Well, alone enough to be a bit insane with it, for those that shared my so very rare immortality were no friends of mine.
The door slammed open and a well-liked and familiar voice bellowed into the afternoon quiet, “what’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?”
My pair of regulars ignored and smirked, respectively, as I grinned at Olivia. “Beg me, Benson.”
There was a whole crowd with the swarthy cop, and they came in brushing snow off. Tossing her coat over a booth back, my cop pal sashayed over with a look in her eye like she wanted more than a drink. So I obligingly leaned over the counter and gave her a flirtatious eyebrow. Imagine my shock when Olivia Benson, often too serious for her boots, met me halfway across the bar top and planted a warm kiss on me. “Please?” She flirted, batting dark eyelashes and I couldn’t help but laugh. But I saw something that she was hiding from her companions, cupping her cheek to keep the curious, dark eyes on mine.
Olivia grew still, caught in the lingering magic of my gaze. Even the most self-controlled of the human race could be cracked by the faint, lingering mana in my True Pattern. The pain of this strong woman, the determination, the history there in her gaze, it spoke to me as clear as language. Understanding the tough decision she had made, I leaned over the counter and gave Olivia a warm, gentle kiss, right above her eyes.
“Sometimes, the right decision is the hardest.”
++ Olivia ++
Unnerved by the exchange, but somehow relieved by it, I watched as Ingle was suddenly acting like herself again. Coming around the bar, she went to my entourage with her usual magnanimous charm. Jamie and Gloria seemed in awe of the tall, unusual woman, the adults only slightly more composed.
We all settled down to lunch, jovially shouting a round of ‘hellos’ as Gabe and the pups arrived unexpectedly. Hugs and kisses were traded around, and I was heartened by the powerful grip of the man around my smaller frame. “It’ll work out, love. You’ll see.”
For some reason, it never felt like weakness to be vulnerable with Gabe, there was something so big-brotherly about him. So, I took a moment to lean on his strength, finally straightening up with a sigh. “Thanks Gabe.”
He grinned brilliantly and kissed me on the nose before straightening up and gesturing Boot over. “Anytime, Liv. Michael and I were hoping that you could help us with an important favor.”
“Anything,” I agreed, and laughed when he gave me a dry look. “Okay, anything within reason.” From the brown-paper package in Boot’s hands, came a well-loved leather jacket that I immediately recognized. “Dace’s jacket?” I questioned, confused, and then it suddenly hit me.
The doctors cut the heavy leather garment away from her broken body.
Humbled, I took the weight of it in my hands, saw the memories of the blood-streaked hide, saw the sheen of new oil and love in the careworn surface. Like scars, there were neat stitches of heavy, industrial waxed thread that ran from collar to cuff along the right arm where scissors had sawed through it. Flipping over the once-bisected collar and shoulder, I noted that the stitches were visible on both sides. The work was clean and neat, and if not for the faintly visible slice beneath the stitches, it would almost look deliberate. The boys remained quiet as the flash of white on the back caught my eye.
Shuffling around the weight, I held the jacket up, studying it carefully. Most of the symbols were faded badly, an ace of diamonds card and a red chess piece, but the ghostly lion’s eyes on the shoulder blades visually leapt off the leather in their newly embroidered glory. The image was startling in its realness, hints of gold and blue in the irises, a fading image of the black stripes bracketing a cougar’s nose trailing between them.
“A friend of ours cleaned, fixed and embroidered that for us,” Michael’s voice said quietly behind me. “We would be grateful if you would return it to its rightful owner.”
“My pleasure,” I whispered, shrugging the well-loved old garment onto my own body, catching a whiff of Dace’s smell hiding beneath the dry cleaning chemicals. “She’s going to be ecstatic that you rescued it.”
“Our pleasure,” Gabe smiled.
++ Michael ++
Last night, I’d taken Olivia to the airport, where my pack, Jo, the teens, and Elliot, hugged the woman goodbye and watched her and the distinctive leather jacket vanish into the depths of LaGuardia Airport. Jamie wasn’t the only one who sniffled and needed a hug after that. Regretting being separated from Jo and her fascinating child, I dropped everybody off at their respective abodes and returned home, desperately needing to get some real work done today.
But Jamie had surprised me, pressing a note into my hand as she followed her mother out of the limo. Reading it yet again, I traced the neat handwriting with a finger. ‘There’s a family Valentine’s get together every year. I’d like it if you’d come. Wednesday, the 13th. Come by at 6 and I’ll make you and mom dinner. Apartment 12, fourth floor.’
How could I say no to that?
So, terrified out of my mind at meeting the Polniaczek clan, I gathered up the things I was never without, and headed for the garage, shrugging into my best camel-hair trench coat. A couple quick stops and I was back at the apartment building with the popular bar taking up the bottom two floors, the neon ‘Rosa Jo’ lighting the evening dark.
In truth, I was scared to death of what I was headed into. My feelings for Jo were well known to me, but the trappings that came with her were pretty much foreign territory. Sure, Jamie had been the biggest hurdle, and we’d become buddies of sorts, but the whole damn clan?
The burly man stepping from the elevator where I waited, gave me an appraising glance that I ignored. On the fourth floor, I stepped out and again paused with nerves. It was just wrong that I was so petrified, and yet very telling. Fear and fact fought in my head. Only true love could make me such a wreck.
It was reassuring and nerve-wracking all at once.
There were only four doors, and I took a deep breath before rapping just below the prominent plaque marked ‘12’.
++ Jamie ++
Meeting mom’s girlfriend had been bizarre, but she had made one heck of an impression. Intense, intelligent, and dangerous, with a smile that lit up her whole face, the gorgeous Michael was something else. Watching her with mom was sweet. They were an odd couple, sure, but they fit nicely. So, I’d taken a chance and invited her to join the whole family.
Call it a test, sorta.
A knock made me jump, heart racing. Was it her?
“Is that someone at the door?” Mom called from her room.
“Got it!” Racing for the door, I looked through the peephole and had to restrain a yell of success. Michael flinched when I yanked the door open, but smiled, the expression a little queasy. “Hi! You made it!”
“It’s been a long time since I had such a nice offer,” Michael grinned, and brought up one hand with a single rose. “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Startled, I took the pretty flower, a deep, rich coral color, and smelled it.
“Mmm,” I hummed happily at the amazing scent.
“Pink means friendship,” Michael said softly, and I looked into the strange, pale eyes, more gold than brown, and felt a connection to her.
“Friends,” I offered, giving her a hug, startling her.
++ Jo ++
Probably more of my idiot cousins, stopping by, looking for a handout. You’d think the bar would be enough to corral the herd, but there were always a few overenthusiastic ones around at these family get-togethers. It was always fun, always wild and always exhausting.
Maybe someday, Michael would want to be a part of the chaos.
Sighing wistfully, I finished putting on my earrings, cute little ruby studs my father gave me years ago, and headed for the kitchen. This was one of the few times I liked to dress up a bit, if nothing else, because it gave the cousins a shock.
“Who was at the door, honey?” I asked Jamie as I walked past the front door…
To freeze dead in my tracks.
As though conjured by my wistful wishes, there was Jamie, hugging Michael, right on the threshold of our home. Sheepishly, terror and fondness in her gaze, my lover wound an arm around Jamie’s shoulders, a wine bottle and bouquet of red roses dangling from her fingers, and smiled at me. Immediately, those eyes changed, raking over me, bringing up all the complicated emotions and hormones that she always did. Handing the bottle and roses to Jamie, Michael stalked over to me, expression intense.
“You look lovely,” she said softly, her tone more vulnerable than I’d ever heard it.
“Michael,” I breathed idiotically, my brain still on pause.
But I snapped out of it when she leaned into me with intent, once more lost in the taste and feel of the mouth that unraveled me without fail. A moment or an hour or a lifetime might have passed, and my knees quivered in time to more vulnerable parts of my anatomy, before we separated enough to make eye contact again. It was supremely strange to be nearly eye to eye with her, as I was actually wearing a bit of a heel.
“Jamie invited me,” Michael said hesitantly. “And…”
“And what?” I heard myself ask, touching the gorgeous face I loved so.
“And…and I want to be a part of your life. Really be a part of it. I’ve held back for too long.”
It was the nicest gift anyone had offered me in a long, long time.
++ Michael ++
Well, that had gone well. Slightly less petrified of the gathering family throng downstairs, I cuddled with Jo for another minute, and we laughed when we noticed that the front door was closed and locked, and Jamie was nowhere to be seen. Snorting with amusement, Jo pressed her face into the side of my head for a moment, breathing against my ear. It was sexy and comforting all at once.
“Must have given up on us paying any attention,” she whispered softly, and I was relieved to hear familiar arousal in her tone, hidden beneath the amusement and nerves. Leaning back, she eyed me critically for a moment, amusing me. “You really came over here to brave my family?”
“Yes ma’am,” I grinned, giving her a squeeze.
“You’re either braver than I thought or completely out of your mind.”
“Just head over heels.”
How I loved that soft, adoring look on her expressive face.
“Come eat!” Jamie called from the direction of whatever smelled so yummy, and we adults obediently followed orders. Dinner was ravioli that Jamie said her gramma Rosa made from scratch, and a savory sauce of the teen’s own making. Since it was spinach and cheese and a meatless sauce, at least I didn’t have to worry about something heavy upsetting my stomach, and ate heartily of the delicious meal.
To my amusement, Jamie chatted at me as though we’d been friends forever, and I asked any question that came to her mind. Jo’s baffled and pleased gaze wove between us and the dozen deep red roses I’d brought for her, now arranged in a vase, thanks to Jamie.
We laughed together, and I even dared reach over and poke Jamie in the ribs to make her laugh harder. Whatever misgivings I’d harbored for so long were melting away, even as I knew there was one more major hurdle to jump.
++ Charlie Polniaczek ++
Finally having achieved an age to be wise, I’d learned to be appreciative of my life. Once I’d made the right choices, things just seemed to work out for me. The bar, and the warren of apartments above, was a dream come true, keeping business and family at a central hub, tying us all the closer together.
Kids, grandkids, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends; all of that and more gathered at the bar where I had poured my heart, soul, sweat and money into every brick, tile and light bulb. The bar I’d named after the two girls that would always be first in my heart. The first returned my sentimental grin from where she was holding court at the main bar, and for the thousandth time, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d gotten a clue and half-killed myself to win back my first and only love, my beloved Rosa.
My other sweetheart was still missing in action.
As though conjured by my thoughts, the swinging doors from the lobby swept inward, admitting my swaggering granddaughter, grinning like a silly fool. There was a loud ripple of welcome, that halved in volume quite abruptly. There was my only child, the light of my life and the pride of my heart… with a simply striking woman in hand.
It wasn’t the woman part that startled me, but that there was a significant other here at all. Both looked petrified, but brave, as the silence deepened, and Jamie began to scowl. This was the mysterious Michael then. The clothes should have been a dead giveaway, because jeans and a casual shirt could only look so good on a woman bred for elegance and high class.
Time for dad to step in.
Striding quickly towards my daughter, I held open my arms for a hug, magnanimous and accepting of her, as always. “Jo, sweetheart. You were making your old man worry!”
“Sorry, papa,” she murmured, retuned the hug with only one and a half arms. Bet she was still clinging to the girlfriend then. Cupping her beautiful face, I smiled warmly.
“You look beautiful,” I complimented, and she blushed a bit. So shy about her good looks! Then I gave her cheeks a squeeze and turned my focus on the woman beside her.
++ Michael ++
Shrewd eyes turned to me, a quick examination that was more thorough than some doctors that I’d seen. “You’re Michael, then.”
“Yes sir,” I replied immediately, the military honorific rolling easily off my tongue. Quickly transferring Jo’s tight grip to my forearm, I offered a hand to the man. “Pleased to meet you.”
An older woman strode through the awakening crowd, every inch as intense and curious as this man. “So, they finally persuaded you to come,” she commented shrewdly and I startled at Jamie’s slender body pressed into the opposite side as her mother. It was a humbling gesture of acceptance, and I had to smile.
“I see where Jo and Jamie get their good looks.”
Startled, father laughed and mother looked pleased, though she quickly hid it under a classical Italian scowl. “What kind of name is Michael for a woman? You are lucky that we knew who you were!”
“It’s a nickname, ma’am,” I hastened to explain. “My best friend’s name is Gabriel.”
It took a moment for the joke to compute, and the older woman laughed prettily, reminding me powerfully of her daughter and granddaughter, pressed into my ribs.
“Michael and Gabriel, very funny,” abruptly she went serious, peering at me closely. “But what is your name?”
The dreaded name was furnished with the possibly the least amount of reluctance since I started becoming my own person as a young child. “It’s Grace. Grace la Magne.”
“Grace. Much better. Pleased to meet you, Grace. I am Rosa, and this is Charlie.” Her handshake was warm, dry, solid, just like her voice and temperament.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
++ Jo ++
It was hard to believe how relieved I was that my folks liked Michael. That girlie name that mom had pressed out of her still didn’t fit her. She would always be Michael to me. During the course of the evening, she had put several idiot cousins and a lecherous uncle in their place, the polite smile never fading. Those of my clan that displayed class and intelligence were treated accordingly, and the impression of my unusual lover would linger for some time.
“So, I owe you a thank you,” I told my daughter conversationally where she was chattering with Gloria. Gabriel had brought the teen with him when he arrived about half and hour ago, and the girls picked up right where they’d left off at Liv’s place. Jamie regarded me thoughtfully before smiling, a faintly lecherous expression that both amused me and made me cringe.
“For inviting Michael?”
The innocent act fell short, and she squealed with laughter as I twisted around to tickle her fiercely for a moment. “Yes, for inviting Michael,” I admitted warmly, holding her close for a long moment. Then a ripple through the crowd made us look to the front doors.
“Fashionably late as always,” Jamie chuckled as the females of the Warner clan framed themselves in the doorway, followed up by the ever patient Tad. As always, there was a brief current of reaction to my old pal, still gorgeous after all these years, and as usual, I shoved it down.
“Excuse us, Gloria,” I murmured distractedly, even as I notice my dad headed for the doorway where the Warner matriarch waited patiently. “We have to go say hello.”
“Okay,” she said softly and I made a mental note to get her some trusted company ASAP.
“I’ll stay put, mom,” Jamie volunteered, warming me with her sensitivity. “Aunt Blair can come over to me once she’s done wowing the crowd.” The fond sarcasm wasn’t lost on either of us and I hugged her quickly before moving to join my father.
++ Blair Warner ++
Twenty-two years had made her no less attractive, no less appealing. As was life-long habit now, I did my best to squelch down the ‘what if’ game my mind and emotions insisted on playing with me every time I interacted with Jo Polniaczek. For once, the game was a short this time as my mother made a pleased sound at the presence of a slender brunette that materialized at Jo’s shoulder. The way my old pal leaned into her was not lost on me.
“Michael?” Mother said with pleased disbelief. “What an unusual surprise, to see you here.”
“Monica,” the sultry brunette smiled, taking my mother’s offered hands and trading the little cheek kiss that was such a stamp of our privileged lives. “These are your lovely daughters I presume?”
Then I realized with a sick jolt in my stomach who this was. The slow, knowing smile as the Archangel Michael accepted my woodenly offered hand, clued me in that she knew who I was as well. All those trips to the territory of the Amazons to play out the rough sexual fantasies inspired by the woman at her side came back to me now in loving detail. “Blair,” she purred softly, making my nerves arc and my skin to flush. “Jo’s mentioned you,” she added wryly, and I nearly cringed at how knowingly she looked at me. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Her touch was warm and gentle, and I was torn by the press her mouth so briefly on my knuckles. Before I could stammer out something coherent, Michael turned her attention to my little sister, and her smile went from sensual to friendly. “And you, of course, are Bailey.”
It was the youngest of us that really poured on the charm, as Bailey batted her eyes coquettishly at the attractive brunette. “So pleased to meet you, Michael. Are you friends with Jamie and Aunt Jo?”
The small smile dancing around the corner of that full mouth as Michael looked at Jo made my heart ache and Bailey to chuckle. “You could say that,” the woman purred and Jo flushed, slapping her away affectionately.
“Would you two go check on Gloria for me?”
We all watched the aristocratic woman escort Bailey to where Jamie and a unknown teen, before Mother broke the small quiet. “Quite a catch you’ve made there, Jo.” Charlie made a small, strangled sound of amusement, for which Jo flushed tellingly and elbowed him in the ribs. Despite myself, I had to chuckle along with Mother, even as she took Jo’s arm and dragged her back towards the party. “Tell me all about it.”
The wry look Jo flashed her was both amusing and telling. “I think I’d rather not tell you everything, Monica.”
Knowing Michael’s line of work with the Four Suits, my half-hearted hopes wouldn’t be able to handle it.
++ Michael ++
“I enjoyed meeting your family.”
Half-asleep, Jo snorted in amusement and rolled onto her back with a sultry grin. After a long night of dinner with Jamie, the party at Rosa-Jo’s, some sensuous snacks and lovemaking beneath the stars, this ranked right up there with the most stressful and successful of my Valentines. Some of my thoughts must have shown on my face, because Jo twisted to sit up and straddle my hips with a sexy grin.
“Yes, I think they quite enjoyed meeting you as well,” she smirked, and I was treated to a teasing caress over chest and sternum. Somehow the lovemaking of this night had felt different. Every time I accepted this singular woman closer to my heart, it offset the vulnerability with the pleasure of the bond. “What?” Jo asked curiously at my stupid grin.
“My fears in letting you all the way in are unfounded, cherie.” The look of pleased surprise on her lovely face made me grin wider. My native tongue didn’t slip very often. “The French is proof enough how much I love and trust you.”
“Ah yes,” she smiled, bent to rest her weight on both elbows, tumbling that near-black hair over us. “Your mysterious background.” Thoughtfully, she tapped her lower lip, entirely ignoring the way our bodies nestled. Curious and amused at her playfulness, I lay passively, merely stroking the lean lines of hips and thighs. “The accent’s wrong for Louisiana, Gloria pointed that out, though you slip into it when talking to Grand Dame.” Despite the teasing note in Jo’s voice, I realized that I had told her so very little about myself. Sensing the shift in emotions, Jo’s smile faded into concern. “What is it?”
“There’s things about myself that I’ve never told anyone,” said my mouth, completely independent of my upper brain, where my fears were so firmly housed. “Gabe knows some, so does KC and the other original Aces, but not all of it.” Fear and cynicism twisted my face for a moment, and Jo sweetly soothed that stress away. “I’m not sure I even remember it all.”
There was something so empathetic in that bright blue gaze, that tears suddenly rose up in a suffocating wave. “You left France for a good reason.” Wordlessly, I could only nod. “I’ve told you once, and I’ll tell you again, that you tell me when you’re ready. Whatever you once were, I love what you have become.”
++ Jo ++
Well, it wasn’t at all the way I figured my Valentine’s Day to go, but somehow, this was even better than the sweetness and sex. Tears weren’t something I associated with my strong lover, but she had sobbed quietly against my shoulder for some time before dozing off. I knew the sound of that pain, the look in her darkened eyes. Traumatized children grow into adults that bear those same scars.
Michael had trusted me enough to glimpse the hurt little Grace within her strong soul.
Humbled by the trust, I cradled her body with mine, listening to her murmur in her sleep, the restlessness chasing away rest. The French sounded different somehow, despite the words being gibberish to me, I could sense the feel of them. When she sobbed out, “Maman, je suis désolé (Momma, I’m sorry)”, I finally had to wake her. “Michael,” I whispered, firming the stroking of her dark hair, trying not to startle her unduly. While I had never see the extent of how dangerous she could really be, I knew better than to test my luck. After a moment, the tension in her body changed, and I looked to see her eyelids flutter open.
Long moments passed before my lover spoke up quietly. “How’s your history?”
Huh? “Okay, I guess. Why?”
Writer’s block has taken a great big bite out of Shatterpath’s brain. Stay tuned for the update once her brain comes back on line.
Thank you for your time.