One thing Olivia had always known was that she couldn’t tie Alex down. It took about two months for them to fall into a casual, on-again, off-again thing. And even though Olivia wanted to settle down, Alex had ambition. If Olivia wanted any part of her, she couldn’t interfere with that ambition and she’d known that from the start. She’d gone into their ‘relationship’ with eyes wide open.

That didn’t stop the pain when their off-again became permanent at Alex’s supposed death. Nor did it stop the hurt when Alex returned from witness protection and didn’t want to start up again. The relief that she was alive overshadowed the betrayal at first. They didn’t start up again, not right away. Olivia was too pissed and Alex… well, she had no idea what had gone through Alex’s head.

Even though she really did know better, when Alex finally called, Olivia went running. They fell into each other so easily at that point that she thought, ‘Now. Finally.’ It seemed that Alex wanted the same thing that Olivia always had: family and a home together. Maybe a couple of kids to ease the pain of their job and shower love on.

The rude awakening came when Alex suddenly and without a real explanation to Olivia flew to Africa, of all places, and left her behind. Again. For three years. Oh, Alex sent a monthly email update on what she was doing and how rewarding the work was, but it was… vague. And deeply unsatisfying. When Olivia emailed that she was seeing David, the contact stopped altogether. And Olivia didn’t email her when the relationship ended because she just couldn’t take the jerking around anymore. Better to be alone.

And she was. Christmas found her alone and staring at the barely visible sky wondering what the hell she was doing with her life. She was a lifer, that much was certain, with no intentions of ever leaving SVU. It was all about the work and saving other people’s lives, instead of focusing on her own.

Not that there’s anything to focus on, she thought derisively.

Maybe it was time to take Fin up on his offer to set up some blind dates. It couldn’t be any worse than online dating or another fiasco-in-waiting by finding someone at work.

A knock at the door startled her. Olivia stood and walked to the door, peering out the peephole and then just gaping in astonishment, heart speeding up in shock. As if her thoughts had summoned the other woman, Alex stood in her hallway looking as bedraggled as Olivia had ever seen. Even at her most harried, Olivia had never seen Alex looking rumpled and dirty like she was just then, hair damp against her head, probably from the snow falling outside.

Alex knocked again and Olivia bit her lip, not sure what to do. When Olivia didn’t respond, Alex sighed and nudged her duffel bag to the side and just sat down in the hall. Olivia lifted up on her tiptoes to keep sight of her and watched as Alex rested her head against the door and closed her eyes. It was clear she wasn’t going anywhere until she’d spoken with Olivia.

A reluctant fondness surfaced despite herself and Olivia sighed, a smile tugging at her lips. It looked like she hadn’t lost any of her determination or stubbornness over the last few years. Shaking her head, Olivia unlocked the door and opened it, finding Alex scrambling to her feet to face her. Olivia gave her an up-down look and said, “You look like hell, Cabot.”

Alex huffed and said, “I feel like it, too. Hi, Liv.”

“Hi.”

“Can I come in?”

Olivia thought about it for a second and then shrugged. “Sure.”

She stepped back and Alex walked into the apartment, dropping her duffel in the kitchen area and then facing her again. “How are you?”

Olivia quirked an eyebrow at her and asked, “You want to make small talk?”

Alex sighed and shook her head. “No, I’m just not sure how to proceed.”

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re here? What do you want, Alex?”

“You.”

Olivia blinked in surprise at the blunt declaration. “Excuse me?”

Alex ran a hand through her hair, wincing when her fingers tangled and pulling them clear. “I’m a bitch. I know I don’t deserve another chance with you, you’ve given me so many already, but I want you back. When you broke it off to say you were dating that man, I was… furious. And jealous. And sick with disappointment. But I didn’t have any right to you anymore. I’m the one who left. But it drove home just how badly I used you. And I’m sorry. So damn sorry. I would have been home three months ago when my contract was up, but they couldn’t find a replacement. I wanted to tell you I was coming, but I didn’t have a right to that, either. And I know that this isn’t fair to you but please, Liv, please give me another chance.”

Olivia wondered if maybe she’d been knocked in the head and was lying unconscious somewhere. It was the only logical explanation for Alex showing up unannounced and begging for another chance. She didn’t bother pinching herself though. “What about work? What about your ambitions to be a senator or governor one day? I never fit in with that. You were always very clear about it.”

Alex sighed, blue eyes lowering to the floor. “And I was a bitch about that, too. You scared me, Liv, you always did. I couldn’t reconcile my feelings for you with my ambitions. But then, I didn’t take the rest of the world into account, either. We live in New York. And there are openly gay senators and representatives. It’s not a stumbling block anymore. Wait, that didn’t come out right.”

Because Olivia had folded her arms across her chest at the eager words. Comparing their relationship to a stumbling block stung, badly.

Alex stepped closer, hands out, and said, “I just mean that even if we, our relationship, were a problem to my ambitions still, it wouldn’t matter. I want you more than I want to be senator. I always have, which was the problem. No matter what I did, you were always there, always supporting me and it didn’t matter what I did to push you away. You loved me. I hope you still do.”

Olivia sighed and said, “Alex, do you realize that not once have you ever said that word to me? Even tonight. You said you want me back, but do you even love me? Or do you just want me because I was with someone else?”

Alex smiled and said, “Oh, I love you, Olivia. Like I said, it just scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t admit it to myself, never mind you. And wait, did you just say ‘was?’”

Naturally, Alex would glom onto that. Olivia cursed herself for the slip. “David and I broke up a few months ago.”

Alex’s smile notched up several degrees. “So you’re not seeing anyone right now.”

Olivia really wanted to say something rude and deflate the other woman’s happiness, but just didn’t have it in her. She was probably the biggest sucker on the planet because she said, “Not right now, no. But Alex, we can’t just… pick up where we left off. I can’t. You left. You didn’t even discuss it with me and that was…”

“Awful. And horrible. And selfish. I know, Liv, believe me,” Alex said firmly. “I ran like a coward because we were getting too close. I mean, I really did need a change. I had to get out of this, this madness we call a career at SVU and get some perspective. I couldn’t have kept going like we did and wanted to help people who had no recourse in their lives. And I did. I found a, a kind of balance inside while I was over there, which I lacked before. I know what’s important now. You’re important. We’re important. Making senator by forty is not.”

Just like always, Olivia’s heart leapt at the chance to be with Alex. She forced herself not to reply, though, thinking things through. She finally said, “We’ve been here before, Alex. How do I know in six months you won’t change your mind again? Or a year?”

Alex gave a helpless shrug and replied, “I don’t know how to reassure you, Liv. I can only say that right now, I only want to be with you and spend the rest of my life with you. Build a family together. You used to want that.”

Olivia sighed. “I still do. I just don’t know if I can trust you anymore, Alex.”

Alex nodded and said, “Okay. I can deal with earning back your trust if you’ll leave yourself open to the possibility of us again.”

It was all she’d wanted for the better part of thirteen years, but Olivia held that back. Her heart, and her pride, demanded it. She smiled faintly and said, “Just don’t go expecting a lot.”

Alex smiled brightly, blue eyes sparkling behind her glasses. She closed the distance between them and carefully took Olivia’s hands in hers, twining their fingers together. “I always expect a lot. This time, I plan to give you more. And um, I would really like to kiss you right now, but honestly? My breath stinks. I haven’t been able to brush my teeth in days.”

Olivia snorted and said, “I appreciate the gesture, coming right here from the airport.”

Alex met her gaze, still smiling. “I do love you, Liv.”

There were plenty of people who would call her a fool and tell her to cut Alex loose with their history, but her feelings for Alex had never really changed. The thing she’d been hoping for had seemingly happened thousands of miles away and completely out of touch; Alex had moved forward with her life and this time, she planned to include Olivia. She wasn’t running away anymore. That was enough to give her a hope she’d never before had.

Olivia smiled.