Alex licked her lips and her breath curled, crystallized in the air until it disappeared into nothingness. And that's what she found she had left. Not even the cold was bitter enough to make her feel something, and she stood with her ungloved hands, knuckles turning red. She stared at the knocker, brassy in the street light, but she couldn't bring herself to take it in her hand, to let it fall, once, perhaps twice would do.
She didn't hear the door open. It was the warmth, the light spilling onto the steps that started her.
There was a long pause that heated the air between them, and Alex could not bring herself to meet Liz's eyes. She looked like she'd seen a ghost. But Alex knew that's what she was—a ghost with a name. And she had clung to that name with every once of life in her.
"It's freezing out. Come inside." Liz's voice was gentle, but when Alex recognized the hint of a command, she finally raised her eyes, meeting Liz's gaze. And she simply nodded.
When the door closed behind her, Alex found herself taking in a deep breath. The city smelled like it had always smelled, but it did not awaken her memories the way that single moment did. She closed her eyes against them only to invite them more acutely, and Alex felt as if she were only just waking up.
"You look like you could use a drink." Alex's eyes snapped open. Liz was taking her coat off. The sensation felt alien, and she flexed her hands as she remembered doing the same for Liz countless times. Her fingers burned.
"That's not why I came."
Liz had turned to the wet bar but now she looked up and over her shoulder to Alex. She was poised mid movement before Alex watched her slowly put the glasses down, and she did not need to continue looking to see understanding play across her face.
"After all this time?" Liz turned, but she kept this distance between them.
Alex had often imagined the moment, but her mind was free of that now. She swallowed, throat suddenly dry. All of her yearning, all of her guilt burned through her core, and her cheeks flushed from it. For the first time, she felt as if no time had passed at all. But she straightened, lifting her chin to muster dignity that she did not feel.
"Is there someone else, then?" The words were difficult to say. Alex had no doubt that there had been others, but not like her, never like her. She had clung to that, and now she felt perilously close to losing the one thing that seemed to have waited for her.
Liz's gaze was sharp, and Alex felt all at once exposed. She drew in a shaking breath at the sudden familiarity of that. It had been a long time since she had been appraised in such a way, in such a way that mattered. Her shoulders snapped back, and her eyes lowered out of instinct. But Alex felt her lack of practice in stark relief to Liz's graceful calm.
"Jealousy has never become you, Alexandra." It was not an answer, and Alex's eyes flashed as she raised them again. She felt something—fight, warmth, and yes, jealousy. But it was something besides pain, and her hold on it was so tenuous. She felt Liz touch her cheek, and Alex jolted in surprise. Her posture faltered, and in anger, Alex pushed her shoulders back again, standing straighter than was comfortable.
Liz watched the display impassively. It was the same calm that had once infuriated Alex, and now it pushed her. She needed it, wanted it.
But Liz only stepped forward a pace, and she put her hands on her hips. Alex could feel the closeness of the scrutiny, and she leaned forward in anticipation. Already, she was overwhelmed by how much of it seemed so real, but she was still cold inside.
"I trust you haven't forgotten how to undress yourself." The corners of Liz's lips were twitching, but the smirk was neither one of amusement or kindness. And it quickly disappeared as Alex was slow to react, slow to remove each piece of clothing. She fumbled with buttons as if her hands were ice. She fought to make her folds neat.
Her body remembered, but her mind was slow to allow that she wouldn't wake at any moment. And when she was finally undressed, she met Liz's eyes again, holding them for a moment as if to say that she was alive, that she was there. And she was met with a cool stare of affirmation.
Yet, as she sank to one knee then the other, Alex knew she was alive. She could feel the hard floor underneath the rug as she had never felt anything before. And she bit back of a sob of relief at that.
As Liz gently—gently but firmly—ran her fingers through Alex's hair, Alex struggled to find her focus once again. She did not think to question whether Liz had missed this, whether she had let it creep into her dreams, as Alex had herself. The selfishness was what had kept her from falling apart completely. When she focused on the pain of others…it was too much to bear with no external pain of her own.
Liz was tugging her hair then, and Alex lurched forward, moving painfully on her knees when she had once moved gracefully. She followed Liz to the sofa and kept her eyes lowered. Her body quivered with anticipation when Liz sat, but when she moved forward to dip down, to gently kiss curve her neck, Liz's firm touch stopped her.
"You've been home for weeks."
Home. Yes, she had been back for weeks. And for weeks she had been hesitant to sort her affairs, hesitant to hang photographs. Alex nodded in reply. She had been hesitant because she needed this too.
As the moment continued to hang between them, Alex wondered if that was enough to constitute punishment. At one time it might have been. But there was so much more…so much more she was guilty of. She felt a flood of relief, of anticipation as Liz pulled her forward. Alex pushed her skirt up and remembered in doing so that she had forgotten to clasp her hands behind her back.
Small mistakes, she knew, added quickly. But Liz was already wet when Alex pulled her panties down and almost reverently placed them on the cushion beside her. She drew in a long breath, leaning forward with slow restraint that had always come naturally. And when she first tasted Liz, she heard a soft, low moan in response.
Alex clasped her hands behind her back, lacing her fingers together, pulling her shoulders back until she could feel the pull. She was deliberately too delicate in her touches, pulling back until Liz tightened her fingers in her hair. The warning thrilled Alex more than anything else. It filled her emptiness for a moment—all too brief a moment where she was lost in Liz's salty sweet taste
She lost the moments between then and when Liz arched, shaking with her orgasm. Alex focused on her own building desire, on what the stretch of time that would follow might bring. She only stopped as Liz jerked her head up, forcing their eyes to meet.
"You've always been arrogant, Alex, but not self-absorbed to distraction." The reproach made Alex shiver, and she shifted in anticipation. "But here you are…" Liz's voice was soft, and she began to stroke Alex's hair. It was longer now and perhaps too perfectly styled. But Alex had seldom seen Liz look so pensive on a night like this.
There she was. And Alex was beginning to feel lost in the world she had only just found again. She straightened her back. She waited. But Liz's merely continued to gently run her fingers through her hair. "You've done well," she murmured.
Alex blinked in confusion, in agony. But she shivered as Liz pulled her into her arms. The tip of her tongue was alive with unspoken please, but she held it, keeping them in until she could no longer stomach them.
"You've done well, Alexandra," Liz said again as she stroked Alex's side. The touch was tender but firm, and Alex held to that. And she waited. But Liz was parting her legs, stroking her neatly trimmed curls and pushing past to her clit. Alex shuddered, and she was almost ashamed of her moan.
She waited, tensed and shivered as Liz continued to draw out her touches. Alex thrust her chest forward, silently begging for Liz to touch her taut nipples, and she whimpered lightly when she was denied. And then, she felt sure that it would end. She was so close, her body shaking to control her climax with nothing but force of will. But Liz did not stop, and Alex bit back a cry as she began to come.
When her body stilled, she looked up, dazed, questioning. But she did not meet an answer in Liz's clear eyes.
"Go home. Get some sleep," Liz said quietly as she stroked Alex's cheek. "If you really need this, you'll come back."
The words took a moment to register, and Alex blinked as she tried to make sense of them. There was no punishment save that she was being turned away, and she felt a distinct sting at that. She opened her mouth to speak, to question, but Liz was already gently nudging her off of her lap. And Alex moved as if in a haze, fumbling with her clothing as she dressed.
"Thank you," she murmured, throat dry. She felt lost again, even with Liz's hand on the small of her back as she guided her to the door, asked her if she needed a ride, if she needed a cab. Even as Alex assured her that she was fine, that she would make it on her own, she didn't recognize her own voice.
And as she stepped back into the night, she was not surprised to find that it had begun snowing. The flakes settled in her hair and on her eyelashes, and they were cold against her cheeks. But Alex barely felt them. She would be back; she knew she would be back.