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Put Your Shoes at the Door, Sleep, Prepare for Life

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As the supple leather of the armchair enveloped him in its embrace, Tony tapped his foot absently in a vain attempt to stay alert. From the chair to the gas fireplace to the rich brown of the wooden furnishings, visiting here always made him feel sleepy. While he peered absently into the light softly glowing through the thick, antique glass windows, he considered that some psychological techniques work even when you understand the underlying mechanism.

“Walk me through it again, Tony,” a melodic voice invited him, and as Tony shifted his gaze from the window he noted to himself that, then again, other techniques lost their magic when plied upon a fellow magician.

“Which part,” he demanded mulishly.

“Whichever part comes most easily to mind,” came the placid reply.

/What did you do, Tony?/

The foot tapping escalated.

“What comes most easily to mind is the blankness,” Tony said sourly, “and that’s not helpful, is it?”

“You know that’s not true, Tony,” the low voice persisted. “What ended the blank?”

“They tell me,” Tony began, then stopped to plant his restless foot on the floor and shift in the too comfortable chair. He began again, “They tell me that I walked a considerable distance, that I gave the farmer the department’s number, that I spoke to Paula over the phone, and that I drank coffee while we waited.”

“That’s the middle of the blank, not what you remember,” came the gentle reminder.

My word, thought Tony. He sounds like a grandfather dealing with a recalcitrant five-year-old. Come to think it, his entire demeanor said grandfatherly. Maybe he really is somebody’s grandfather? “Are you a grandfather?” he blurted.

“How did the blank end?” the implacable voice responded.

Tony sighed, then allowed “Alex” to slip through his lips. The first memory was her voice, then the warmth of her hands on his. /She shouldn’t touch you/, something shouted from the abyss. He had balled his hands together into one big fist, and she enfolded the knot with her hands, as he had once done when she was the one wracked by despair, ages ago. “Tony,” she had called to him, and on a gasp his open eyes could see again, and time ticked forward once more.

“Alex broke the blank,” he explained. “At first I thought- I thought she couldn’t know- that no one knew, what happened.” /What did you do, Tony?/ “But she told me that I was safe.” Tony coughed out a hoarse laugh and repeated incredulously, “Safe!”

“And do you feel safe with Alex?” questioned the therapist with what Tony could swear was a twinkle in his eye.

“Yes, of course,” Tony sighed, exasperated. /Should Alex feel safe with you?/ “But she knew. She knew and she was still there, telling me I was safe. She still stood by me through all the questions and all the paperwork. Still insisted on taking me home with her, and letting me sleep under the same roof as her son.”

When he had numbly suggested returning to his apartment, Alex said dismissively “You live in a crime scene,” and packed him into her car. “Honestly,” she continued, “I didn’t really believe you would stay there after I pulled you out of the bath tub, but this is the second time you were almost killed in that flat, Tony. Take it as a sign and put it up for sale. Move somewhere boring and cozy with a cheerier bathroom, and garden gnomes, and bullet-proof glass.”

He remembered himself protesting, pointing out, “That explosion was never meant to kill me, Alex.” Then, as the words caught up to him, adding, “And there is nothing wrong with my bathroom just as it is.”

“Your bathroom was depressing, even before someone almost murdered you in it,” Alex rebutted. “It’s not healthy, staying there, and-“ She cut herself off as her hands clutched the steering wheel tighter. “I don’t like the thought of it. I worry about you there.”

“It’s my home, Alex,” he said softly.

“Not tonight,” she had told him, but tonight had turned into tomorrow, and tomorrow into the next day, then the next week, and eventually a “For Sale” sign appeared outside his door, and here they were.

The eyes twinkled again. “And you’re still under her roof,” he said.

“It’s temporary,” Tony stated flatly, but even he found the protest unconvincing.

“Let’s just imagine,” the voice smoothly invited him, as if telling a story to a child, “that when you sell your apartment, you buy a new flat and leave Alex’s house. What will that be like?”

“Of course I’m going to leave,” Tony said, looking away. “It will be no different from before, except the bathroom will be cheerier with underfloor heating and a shower.” Tony did not think about the things he would be leaving behind. About picking up rogue popcorn kernels with Ben. About frenzied before-school breakfasts. About precious lazy Sunday afternoons. About the smell of Alex’s spicy clove and orange shampoo lingering on a cloud of condensation in the bathroom, so that when he stepped inside the shower it felt like he wasn’t there alone.

“And then let’s imagine,” the narration continued, “that you don’t leave. What would that be like?”

“I can’t. I can’t stay,” Tony maintained.

“Why is that?”

/Because then Alex would be living with a murderer/

“Because I killed him!” Tony shouted. Then he closed his eyes, and collapsed into himself, surrendering his body to the chair’s depths. He repeated in a whisper, “I killed him.”

When he opened his eyes again, the grandfatherly face was there to meet him, still placid and calm. “Yes, Tony. Yes you did,” the warm voice assured him. “But Alex knows that, doesn’t she? And she invited you in. You might consider why.” With a little smile and nod he said, “Let’s pick it up there next time.”

And with that, he shook his hand, and ushered Tony back out into the world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After leaving the office, Tony sat silently in his car, staring at his hands on the steering wheel, before finally pulling out and driving on auto pilot, with no particular destination in mind. He drove past the station, then the university, then ended up, before realizing where a series of sharp left turns had taken him, right in front of a flat where he no longer lived with a “For Sale” sign in the window.

As he contemplated the familiar façade, he considered: Did he miss this place? It was his home. It still contained most of his books, most of his clothes, most of his life.

Yet, in a little trickle, his favorite books had a migrated to the shelf of a little office in the attic of Alex’s house, with a window overlooking the river parkway. From his perch, he could watch falcons swoop down to the water, chart the progression of the gardening society’s spring plantings, and trace the pathways of friends and lovers strolling along the riverside. It was startling to realize that he could employ his skills just as easily sitting in a sunny window box as pacing across a cold stone floor in a room that still echoed with his own panic. Despite the disjuncture, it seemed that comfort did not actually prevent him from entering a disordered mind.

/But do you deserve comfort, Tony?/

He put the car in gear, and drove away. The flat was nearly empty now, in all the ways that mattered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Tony turned his key in the lock and opened the door, a puff of aromatic steam billowed out to greet him. He followed the clang of pans to find Alex in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove while bent awkwardly at an angle to read the case file splayed open on the counter. When she saw him she snapped it closed.

“Well hello,” she said with a smile. “How was the appointment?”

“Too gruesome for Ben?” Tony questioned, pointing at the file, side-stepping his earlier meeting and the thoughts it left churning in its wake.

“Oh, no. This one is a cold case we were just handed. Since Ben’s at a friend’s for the night and we’ve the evening to ourselves, the case can wait until the morning – it’s waited ten years already.” She shrugged philosophically and the gesture made the silky fabric of her collar slip just slightly across her shoulder, revealing a lacy black strap that cut a striking line against her creamy skin. “Pour some red wine?” she prompted him as she opened the oven door to reveal the source of the rich, herby smell filling the room.

“You’ve gone to quite an effort,” he noted, eying the labels of the bottles on the top rung of the wine rack. “Is there an occasion I’ve forgotten?”

“Like I said, child-free evening,” Alex explained with a grin that was a little brittle at the edges. “Let’s make the most of it.”

Tony recalled a time when her brittle composure cracked completely, when Ben had gone missing. Trying to lighten the tension caused by allowing her son this measure of freedom, Tony replied, “By all means, lets paint the town red – or at least the living room with a fetching shade of Merlot.”

“Perfect” Alex sighed, accepting the glass he handed her, and clinking the rim against his, then taking a long drink.

When she set the glass down on the counter, there was a red smudge on the rim. Lipstick, he realized. She’s wearing lipstick again. He let his gaze wander down her body while she bent to pull dishes out of the oven. The silky material of her dress clung to her hips, and she wore stockings with no shoes. Reaching above her for a canister, she balanced on one foot and let the other slide slowly up and then back down her calf.

Lipstick, a lacy bra, a dress, stockings, an adult’s evening. Maybe the tension wasn’t only about worry for Ben.

Suddenly, Alex was right in front of him, handing him a salad. “Put this on the table?” she asked, and he took the bowl mutely with hands gone sweaty.

As they settled in, Tony watched Alex take a first bite of lamb shank, and close her eyes with a little moan of appreciation. He looked down at his own shank nestled into a creamy polenta with a side of roasted asparagus and felt his stomach sink.

“Have I moved in here?” Tony asked abruptly.

Alex’s eyes flew open, and a guarded look replaced the naked enjoyment of moments ago. Tony twitched in guilt and nervousness.

“Obviously, you have,” she said, furrowing her brow. “You’re not living anywhere else at the moment.”

“Yes,” Tony acknowledged. Then he persisted, “But I don’t just mean at the moment.” He cleared his throat and took a sip of wine. “I mean – am I ever leaving?”

“Ever is a long time, Tony,” Alex responded. Her fingers began to drift absently up and down the stem of her wine glass and she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Quietly she asked, “Do you want to leave?”

“I didn’t realize,” he began, then cut himself off.

/That’s a lie, Tony/

Alex made things plain enough at the sushi bar when she asked him to share more of his life with her. He had held back, staying in her orbit, moving physically closer but keeping himself walled off. Ever since –

“I shouldn’t be allowed to stay,” he stated flatly. “I deserve to be in an empty flat with cold floors and a depressing bathroom.”

“Allowed?” Alex asked incredulously. “Tony, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s my house and I invited you here. I don’t underst-“

“I killed him, Alex!” Tony interrupted, placing his hands flat on the table and leaning forward over his plate and into her space. “Murderers should not get to have a window with a view, and the easy comradery of a child, and dinner with a beautiful woman who wears lipstick and stockings and quite possibly a provocative bra.”

Alex pointed a finger nearly in his face and leaned forward, meeting him head-on. “Is that really what you think of me?” she demanded.

“Yes, of course I think you’re beautiful,” Tony replied without hesitation, but with a quaver of confusion in his voice.

“That I’m a murderer who does not deserve a drop of love, comfort, or human sympathy for the rest of my days,” she stated sharply.

“What?” Tony asked, completely back-footed. “No, of course not. What are you on about?”

“Matthew,” she ground out. “I killed Matthew. And unlike you, I wasn’t fighting for my life. I was panicked and angry and so afraid that he had hurt you. And he had, Tony. He hurt you and I couldn’t protect you from it.”

“Alex!” Tony protested, reaching out to clasp Alex’s outstretched hand. “You saved me. You did what you had to and you saved me.”

“And with Michael, you had to save yourself,” Alex insisted. “It cuts me up inside that I wasn’t there to save you again, but I’m not sorry that you survived. Are you sorry that Matthew is dead?” Tony shook his head. “Well then, Dr. Hill, what you have there is a classic double-standard. Shall you condemn us both or pardon us both?”

/… Touché, Tony. She has us there/

Tony slumped back in his chair, stunned. “Touché,” he whispered.

Alex turned her hand up into his grasp and ran her thumb across his skin. “Do you want to stay, Tony?” she asked.

“Yes,” he gasped, his chest squeezed by a vice of desperate hope.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Alex said with a grin, giving his hand a little squeeze before leaning back into her chair, taking up her knife and fork, and digging back into her dinner again with relish.

“That’s it?” Tony squeaked.

“Honestly, Tony,” Alex chided. “Did you want a more drawn out period of indecision? I have a department to run, criminals to catch, a child to care for, and one adults-only evening with a posh piece of lamb. I don’t have time to be wishy-washy. You want to stay. I want you here. Case closed.”

Tony picked up his own fork in a daze and put a bite into his mouth. It was delicious.

“But there is one thing we need to talk about further,” Alex allowed as an impish smile spread across her face.

“Oh?” Tony prompted shakily.

“So, you think I’m beautiful?” Alex asked, teasingly. She smothered a giggle against her wine glass as she took an unsteady sip, and while Tony watched the mischief bubbling up in her countenance he felt the smooth warmth of her foot slide against his ankle under the table, and gasped. “Do you think that might cause any unwelcome tension in our living arrangement?” she continued, failing spectacularly in her attempt to adopt a straight face. When the wandering foot below began to inch its way slowly upward Tony reached down and Alex froze. He gently grasped her ankle and lifted her foot onto his chair, placing it between his splayed thighs.

“Unwelcome isn’t the right word, I think,” he said, rubbing his thumbs into the arch of her foot. She moaned and slumped in her chair, melting into his touch, and his pulse pounded. Slowly he began to massage her ankle and then up the length of her calf, but as he did so her foot curled forward to stroke the juncture of his thighs and it was his turn to let a little moan escape his lips. “I thought you wanted to get to know me better first?” he gasped.

“Tony, you’ve been living here for months,” she said. Slipping her foot carefully from his grasp, Alex stood and held her hand out to him. “I know you. Come to bed with me?”

Silently he took her hand, and followed her up the stairs.

Once inside, she closed the bedroom door behind them. Tony backed her up against it, bracketing her body with his hands pressed up against the door along either side of her. They were nearly nose-to-nose and he could smell red wine and clove and orange shampoo. The scent wrapped around him, sending a shiver of awareness down his spine.

Alex reached up a finger to trace the edges of his lips. “You always come this close and no closer. Are you finally going to kiss me?” she asked.

Teasingly he placed a tiny kiss at the very tip of her finger. Alex laughed, then slid her hand along his cheek and around to the back of his neck to pull him closer and kiss him at last. Tony’s hands quivered against the door as her tongue and teeth trailed the same tingling path across his lips as her finger had just a moment ago.

All too soon she pulled back and slipped under his arm, turning away from him and stepping toward the bed. “Do you want to find out if you were right about the provocative bra?” she called over her shoulder.

“Yes!” he eagerly replied. When he turned, he found her holding her hair up in one hand, so he reached for the zipper of her dress with shaking fingers. The noise of the zipper seemed to echo in counterpoint to his labored breaths. The dress parted inch by inch until the zipper stopped and Alex shimmied the fabric down her body. Tony could not help the audible moan that escaped him.

“Was it what you hoped for?” Alex asked, almost shyly, and Tony could only nod his head, as his cock grew painfully hard within the confines of his pants. The bra was lacy and low cut, allowing tantalizing glimpses of her rosy nipples to peak through, just as he’d imagined. But farther below, she also wore a lacy belt and garters, and a pair of black satin panties that seemed to consist of nothing but a few broad ribbons cross-crossing her ass, topped by a thick bow.

“You were wearing this the whole evening,” Tony noted shakily. “How did you know we would end up here tonight?” Moving closer to her, he began to run his fingers along the edges of those zig-zagging ribbons.

“I didn’t know,” she whispered. “This isn’t the first night I’ve worn something like this and hoped for you.”

Tony’s hand froze, and he buried his face in her neck, completely overwhelmed by the thought that he’d sat across from her on who knows how many occasions, drinking wine, chatting about cases, and underneath her professional demeanor, this desire had been lying in wait. Hidden just beneath her clothes had been a testament to how much she’d been wanting him.

Alex reached down and pulled his hand up her body to her breast. He took the suggestion and began to twist her tight nipple, smiling when he received a whimper and shiver in return. He flattened his body against her back and pressed his cock against those tempting ribbons.

“Some nights,” Alex continued, “did it seem like I was rushing to end the evening?”

Tony stilled for a moment in recollection. “Yes, but I knew that you had to get Ben to school in the morning. I wasn’t offended.”

Alex laughed. “You should be far from offended, Tony. Those nights you left me so hot and wet that I couldn’t wait another minute to find my bed and touch myself through the little panties you still hadn't seen.” Tony shuddered, pressing frantic little kisses against her neck to pour out some of the excitement that surged within him.

Alex reached up to guide his hand again, bringing it down to her panties. “Just like tonight. Do you feel that? Do you feel how wet and desperate I am for you?” she asked.

Tony let out a strangled groan as he pushed his fingers past the material and sank into the hot wet depths inside of her. Her hips ground against him in a needy frenzy.

“Are you already close?” Tony’s voice rumbled.

“Yes,” she panted, “yes, yes.”

Tony reluctantly withdrew his fingers and placed his hands on Alex’s hips, guiding her toward the bed. “Would you show me?” he asked. “Show me what it looked like after you sent me away? I want to see what I’ve been missing.”

Alex tilted her head, then smiled slyly and nodded. She slithered backwards up the bed and parted her legs. Leaning forward, she slid her fingers slowly up from her stockinged feet, over her ankles and calves, around her knees to her inner thighs, rippling over the ties of her garters, to find the drenched length of ribbon that still hid her pussy from his sight. She pressed her whole palm against the apex of her legs and arched her hips into the pressure. Then with a moan she began tracing a series of tight circles around her clit.

Tony bit his lip as he watched, enraptured, and reached down to open his pants and free his aching cock. “Please, Alex, please let me see,” he begged, and she reached behind herself to slip open the clasp of her bra and smoothly pull one end of the shiny black ribbon aside, loosening the knot and letting the entire confection unravel, leaving her bare and naked under his gaze. How had he waited so long to see this?

Regrets, recriminations, and hesitations deserted him. He swooped over to her and placed a line of feverish kisses up the length of her garter to capture her clit between his lips and plunge two fingers back inside of her. Almost instantly she was moaning and bucking beneath him. He placed the flat of his tongue firmly against her and crooked his fingers forward, letting her pleasure herself as she moved against him. With a shout her whole body stiffened. Her back arched and a sudden thrust of hips nearly threw him off of her. But then she subsided with a languorous sigh, and her hands found their way into his hair, stroking his scalp and nudging him upward so she could kiss him again and chase the taste of herself in his mouth.

Reaching into her bedside table she handed him a crinkly foil packet and said, “I still need you, Tony. Please – I need you inside of me.”

He tore open the packet and fished out the condom. With a mixture of elation and incredulity he asked, “You really did plan for this, didn’t you?”

“Well,” Alex said with a grin, “I hoped.”

“I told myself it wasn't to be, but I hoped too,” Tony admitted, and he positioned his cock and pushed inside of her.

Time stopped once again, but unlike the blank in his memory, now it was a rushing torrent of pleasure that overwhelmed his mind and saturated his senses. Her noises of pleasure, the tightening of her legs around his waist, the pounding of his own heart, and the ecstasy of at last being inside of her all built up further and further within him. “Tony!” she shouted, “Tony!” As her fingernails dug into his shoulders and her whole body wrapped even more impossibly tight around him, he surrendered to the overwhelming rush of pleasure and shouted his release into the clove and orange cloud of her hair.

Collapsing against her, Tony made a feeble attempt to roll off, but she clung to him, and he subsided, cuddling his head into her shoulder. She pulled the covers over their entwined bodies and her fingers skated up and down the back of his neck and spine. He sighed in one last token moment of resistance, then relaxed into the comfort that surrounded him.

“The therapist asked me about the blank today,” Tony murmured.

“Oh?” asked Alex cautiously. “And what did you say? Did you remember something?”

Tony shook his head slightly against her shoulder. “He asked me about how the blank lifted. It reminded me of the one thing strong enough to bring me back home to myself. You, Alex. That day I heard your voice and saw your face, and I knew that I was home.”

Alex sighed contentedly and snuggled into him. Soon, Tony thought, they would get out of bed to nibble on the dinner leftovers in front of the TV, wearing only their pajamas. Tomorrow morning they would eat breakfast together before heading to the station to unpack the cold case, and Alex would smile knowingly at him over the lip of her coffee cup all day long. Tomorrow evening Ben would come home, and Tony might help with some history homework, might seem reluctant to play a game after dinner, but then eagerly suggest a second round. And each night he would return here, to this bed, to a cloud of orange and clove, and the warmth of her arms.

“Welcome home, Tony,” Alex said, and he turned his face up to find her lips for one of many kisses to come in the new life that had just opened up before him.