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Veritas Aequitas

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Ali Krieger smooths the skirt of her pinstriped suit as she waits patiently, taking in the bland room around her. She’s no stranger to her surroundings, but she’s still surprised at how much it always feels like she’s on a movie set. It’s all so typical. The windowless room with the colorless walls, bland beige taking over everything. The desk stationed at the entrance with the large disgruntled guard behind it keeping a close watch. The row of cubicle-like spaces with a clear plexi-glass window separating them from an identical room on the other side. Each cubicle made to provide some kind of privacy, but really offering none at all. 

Ali sits in one such space in the right corner of the room and waits, staring through the plexi-glass in front of her and watching the door in the opposite room. If she’s being honest, she’s a bit antsy. It’s odd. She’s done this many times before in the course of her career, but for some reason this feels different. She starts to question if she should be here at all.

“Maybe I should go.” Ali whispers to herself, smoothing her skirt suit one more time. She didn’t have to dress up, it’s not like she was here working professionally per say. She was doing this on her own time, but she put on the suit anyway hoping to look serious and competent even though she wasn’t exactly sure why she needed to present herself as either.

Another minute ticks by and Ali seriously considers leaving, unsure of what she will say and what she will find. Deep down she knows though. Ali has always prided herself on her ability to read people. She just knows in her gut what she will see when she finally talks to the woman, and she needs the confirmation: Innocence. Or at least some doubt of guilt. If she’s right, it will dictate the rest of the conversation or so she hopes. Another minute gone and she’s still willing herself to just go, but she’s rooted to the chair by a promise she made, eyes still glued to the door in the opposite room. It finally opens and her heart rate picks up a bit, knowing it’s too late to back down now.

She’s taller and broader than Ali figured. She looks stronger and more fit than in the pictures and media videos Ali has seen, but also more worn down and weary. Prison tends to do that to people as Ali has come to learn over the years of her career. Still, she’s beautiful in a way Ali hadn’t quite anticipated. Ali’s eyes take in the rest of the details as the female guard leads the woman towards her. The drab beige prison jumpsuit, the short-sleeves of which allow an elaborate full-sleeve tattoo on her left arm to peak out. Long, bleach blonde hair that falls naturally and a bit wild over her shoulders, yet somehow looks perfectly stylish like she just stepped out of a surfing magazine. A defined jawline set in abject determination. Finally, piercing hazel eyes looking back at her as the woman is seated in front of her on the other side of the plexi-glass.

Ali finds herself staring, a bit taken aback by it all. The woman in front her of having an undeniable presence that she didn’t quite expect. She’s broken out of her daze by a tap on the glass, the blonde motioning to the red phone beside Ali as she holds up her own on the other side and shakes her head a bit.

“Right.” Ali mumbles to herself, feeling a bit foolish. She holds the phone to her ear and musters up all the confidence she came here with, willing her voice to come out steady. “Ms. Harris, I’m…”

“Ali Krieger.” The blonde quickly cuts her off, dropping the ‘r’ in the pronunciation of her name with her Boston accent. “I know who you are. I know all about you.”

“Um, ok.” Ali replies, unsure of what else to say at the moment and not able to read into the statement one way or the other.

“What can I say, I have lots of free time to catch up on podcasts these days. Particularly those of a fellow Bostonian.” The blonde smirks a bit.

Ali is about to speak again, but the blonde beats her to it.

“So, tell me Ms. Krieger. What are you here for exactly? Fame, money, fun?” The blonde questions with a hard stare.

“Truth.” Ali answers confidently. It may sound cliché, but it’s honest. She watches the blonde’s jaw set again, the penetrating stare still there.

“People always think they want the truth until they actually hear it. The truth is complex and elusive. What makes you think you’re worthy of it?” The blonde questions with an oddly calm intensity and a mocking smirk.

“The lies that hide the truth are complex, but the truth itself is simple. I wouldn’t call myself worthy, but at least truth is all I ever ask for and the only thing I’m ever after. If you know me as you say you do, then you know that. Truth and justice aren’t elusive for honorable people, which I believe you to be, Ms. Harris. Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll drop it and leave.” Ali challenges. “If not, then give me a chance and you can decide for yourself if I’m worthy of it.”

The blonde looks contemplatively at Ali for a minute, sizing up the brunette in front of her before deciding to take up the challenge, smirking and speaking again. “Well, I guess I have nothing but time Ms. Krieger. Call me Ashlyn. Ms. Harris is something only a dork in a suit would call me.” She finishes with a playful wink at the brunette.

Ali ignores the insult about her suit and lets out her own curt smile, feeling a bit relieved. “Let’s try this again then. Hi Ashlyn. I’m Ali.”

Chapter Text

One Month Earlier…

Ali sat across the counter from her brother, Kyle, in the kitchen of her home. He had joined her for a morning workout and stayed to have coffee afterwards.

“So, Alex, tell me. What’s the next case?” Kyle asked curiously, assuming his sister must already have something on her radar.

“I honestly have no idea. Not sure how I top the last one, you know?” Ali sighed. “I didn’t exactly expect this whole thing to blow up so fast. It was just supposed to be a hobby that kept me busy while I found another job. Now it sort of is my job and the pressure is just insane.” Her thoughts drifted back to a year ago when she had been laid off.

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Ali had been working at a high profile Boston law firm as a corporate defense attorney. She had gone to law school with goal of being a public interest lawyer, a servant of the people. It had always been her dream to help the people in her community who couldn’t help themselves. Sure, it didn’t pay much, but it was a respectful job. As she approached her final year in law school, she felt the pull of the high-powered law firms trying to recruit her based on her grades. A hard look at the school loans she owed and her financial outlook as a public interest attorney had made her reconsider. She went through the recruitment and interview process, landing a coveted position in one of Boston’s best firms, promising herself that it was only temporary. Her plan was to be there 2 years tops, making enough money to pay off her loans before pursuing the career she really wanted.

Six years later, she was still at the same firm, helping to make rich men richer by ensuring that their corporations never fell prey to hefty lawsuits, allegations, or federal investigations. She had also been called upon to defend clients from charges of fraud and unfair business practices. Despite the long hours, the heavy workload, and constantly being surrounded by sleazy and self-entitled men, she liked her job. She was good at it and it paid really well. She had quickly earned a reputation as one of the best deposition and defense lawyers in the business, making even the most obstinate and powerful individuals crumble under her scrutiny. Everyone knew that Ali Krieger walked into every trial and deposition completely prepared and collected. No matter how deeply it was buried, she always got down to the truth. It was perfect in the corporate world where she mostly dealt with lawsuits stemming from the baseless accusations of disgruntled employees and customers. Still, her corporate clients knew not to call on her when they knew the fault was truly their own. Ali wouldn’t hesitate to bury her own client in the act of seeking the truth of the situation. It was the only way she knew how to maintain her self-respect and dignity in the environment she worked in.

She had considered leaving the firm many times, but as she had been warned by her law school mentor before she even started, she had gotten caught up in the lifestyle of it all. Once you got used to making over $400,000 a year, living in a beautiful home in one of Boston’s ritziest areas, and never hurting for disposable income, it was hard to go back. Plus the firm gave her the opportunity to take on pro bono cases for the local community when time permitted, so she could still get in her public interest work. There was no real incentive for her to leave outside of having a less intense job and quieter lifestyle. At the age of 32, sure she wanted to have more time to focus on her dating life and a future family, but she didn’t feel overly pressured just yet.

Unfortunately, the economic environment changed and big firms were suddenly sinking right along with their big corporate clients. Ali’s firm was no exception. After six solid years, she had been called into her boss’ office on a Friday afternoon and laid off just like that. She started a job search right away, confident that her experience and reputation would land her a new position in no time. As weeks turned into months, it became abundantly clear that finding a legal job was difficult. There were too many lawyers and not enough law jobs out there. Even though she hadn’t been overly extravagant and had saved enough money to be comfortable for a while, Ali needed to do something. She was getting depressed just sitting at home and wallowing in self-pity over her career failure.

Kyle had jokingly suggested one day that she start her own podcast seeing as how she listened to so many of them these days. Ali had just laughed and smacked him on the arm, but later that night she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why not? If she was going to sit around doing nothing and making no money, she might as well make no money doing something fun. It had only taken her a week after that to come up with the idea of turning her legal skills into something people might want to listen to. Ali loved to find the truth and people were always interested in potentially wrongful convictions.

She named her podcast Veritas Aequitas and eventually put out eight episodes regarding a local homicide case that had left the community reeling a little over a year before. It was a dispute over customers and price gouging that had started between two well-known restaurant owners in Boston’s famous North End and it had ended with one of them dead and the other convicted of his murder; both famous restaurants now closed permanently. Anyone who knew Paul DiRusso, the convicted man, would swear that no matter how much he disliked his adversary (Danny Sorrento), he wasn’t a murderer.

Ali had remembered reading about the case in the newspaper as it all unfolded and thinking that the whole thing seemed fishy. She started by talking with Paul’s friends and family and then Paul himself behind bars. She then spoke to Danny’s family, friends, and associates, making sure to listen to each side without bias. That had led to intense interviews with witnesses, law enforcement and legal parties involved in the case. She had audio recorded every minute of every interview and narrated every step she took in the process and her thoughts, releasing all of it on her podcast unfiltered. With all her investigating, Ali had uncovered instances of fraud and gross mishandling of evidence in the case. A careful exploration of the facts had pointed to Danny’s own son, Anthony, as his father’s likely murderer. While she hadn’t been successful in getting Paul’s conviction overturned or Anthony prosecuted as of yet, she had exposed enough doubt to win Paul an appeal and for the prosecutor to take greater interest in Anthony’s role.  

It had set everything in motion for Ali with many local and even some national news outlets praising her ‘leave no stone unturned’ approach. Her original handful of podcast followers (who had mainly been friends and family) had grown into a couple thousand overnight. This had allowed Ali to place a few advertisements on her podcast that made her at least a small income. She was giving herself a bit of a breather from podcasting and reevaluating her job options again when she was approached by one of her own neighbors.

Sue and John Hamilton lived just 3 blocks away from Ali in Newton, MA. John was the owner of a major insurance company and Sue was an orthopedic surgeon at the most prestigious hospital in Boston. They had two sons, Eli age 12 and Thomas age 16, and they had been living every parent’s worst nightmare. Thomas had been missing for the last 6 years, vanished without a trace. After listening to Ali’s podcast, Sue had reached out to her in desperation.

Although they had a nanny for their boys, Thomas was old enough at age 10 that Sue and John had agreed he could ride his bike to and from school which was only one block away. In October 2009, the nanny had gone to pick up Eli from kindergarten, expecting Thomas to meet them at home as usual. Hours passed and Thomas never arrived at home. Local and state police did everything to find the boy, but they came up empty. The only clue they had to go on was the vague description of a man in a blue pickup truck that Eli had seen Thomas talking to after school before he disappeared. Eli had been questioned over and over again to no avail, his memory of the incident growing foggier as time passed. Sue and John spent a fortune on flyers, ads, commercials and a hefty reward for information, hoping it would help them find their son. Six years later and nothing had come of it; it was now a cold case sitting on the desk of an overworked police detective. Their son was presumed kidnapped and likely dead.  Sue refused to believe it, still holding on to the hope that Thomas was out there somewhere. Seeing the complete despair in Sue’s eyes, Ali had agreed to help, having no idea what exactly she’d be able to help with.

Just like in her previous podcast, Ali documented every interview. She talked to the Hamilton family, their neighbors, friends, school officials, the nanny, police officers and people involved in the search. She had come up empty-handed and unsure of what else to do. She was browsing the website that the Hamiltons had set up dedicated to Thomas’ story to see if there was anyone else she was missing when she came across something that struck her as odd. People had left well wishes and comments on a discussion board on the website, but one brief comment posted 2 years earlier had stuck out to Ali. It said “Are you ever going to stop looking for your son? – John P.” Most people would chalk it up to some spammer or troll being a jerk on the discussion board, but Ali couldn’t stop thinking about it.

She spent three days with various hired tech gurus trying to see if there was a way to track down a physical address from the IP address of the commenter. Finally, one tech had handed her an address and Ali drove an hour to nearby Worcester not knowing what exactly she would do once she got there. She pulled up to a small shabby looking house in a rundown neighborhood. A teenage boy rode a skateboard in front yard. He had green hair and several piercings. She approached the boy asking him if he knew a John P.? The boy responded he was John Parker and questioned her as to why she was asking. Ali explained that she was curious about what he posted on the message board and the boy got uneasy, saying he didn’t remember it and had to go as he went back inside the house.

Ali thought it was all very bizarre. She spent the next day asking the neighbors about the boy. None of them seemed to know much other than the boy and his father (Bill) had moved there a few years back. They were quiet and kept to themselves. The boy appeared to be home schooled and didn’t interact with the neighborhood kids. Ali could see something was off here, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She did an extensive background check on Bill Parker, finding that he worked at a local grocery store but didn’t appear to have any marital history or anything that linked him to John Parker. Still, Ali shrugged it off thinking that perhaps the neighbors had been wrong and Bill wasn’t John’s father. Especially since no one really seemed to know much about them. However, as she dug into it further and came across a deeply buried child molestation charge from 10 years back that Bill was never convicted for, the red flags went up. She went back to the house the next day, finding John skateboarding in the yard again. She kept her distance, but took a closer look at the teenager, noting that if you took away the green hair and piercings, he kind of looked like an older Thomas. But why wouldn’t he have asked for help or told someone who he was? It didn’t make any sense.

Ali went back to the Hamiltons and the case detective with the information and a picture of the boy she had snapped on her phone. Sue was sure it was Thomas and the detective was willing to entertain the idea. After a bit more investigating and a late night raid on the home, it turned out that John Parker was in fact the kidnapped Thomas Hamilton. He had been practically brainwashed and threatened with the death of his family in order to make him stay, suffering years of abuse at the hands of Bill Parker. Bill Parker received a life sentence with no possibility of parole and Thomas was finally back with his family, a long road of recovery ahead of him. Ali Krieger and Veritas Aequitas had become a global sensation. The podcast had picked up several lucrative big-name sponsors, including the Hamiltons.

After all the press and appearances had finally settled down, Ali found herself trying to figure out where the podcast would go next. After what had just happened, the pressure was over the top. Sure, there were so many cold cases out there, but could she really achieve the same kind of results? The expectations on her made her uneasy, but she had to admit she felt like she was cut out for this and maybe up to the task.

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“Hello! Earth to Alex!!!” Kyle snapped his fingers in her face.

“Oh, uh, sorry. What?” Ali asked, realizing she had just completely zoned out.

“Well before you went off on your little daydream, I said, what about the Liam Gorham case?” Kyle repeated a bit annoyed.

“The South Boston millionaire who got killed by the police captain he was cheating on his wife with?” Ali questioned. The high profile case had wrapped up just over two years ago and had been followed closely by national news outlets. It had shocked the South Boston community when one of their own highly regarded officers had confessed to the murder.

“You got it.” Kyle replied simply.

“She confessed to killing him, Kyle. Not exactly a cold case or a wrongful conviction. That’s my thing, remember?” Ali retorted.

“Yeah, well, I think she lied. No way she killed that guy, but I’m not sure why she’d confess to it.” Kyle said seriously, ignoring Ali’s sass.

“And what exactly are you basing this on? How would you know?” Ali eyed him skeptically. “Let me guess, you watched the 60 minutes episode on it and now you’re an expert, right? Like that time you watched ‘Pimp my Ride’ on MTV and decided you would rebuild your car. How did that work out for you?” Ali laughed and teased him, thinking about how she had to help Kyle get his car towed to the junkyard.

“Shut up!” Kyle stuck his tongue out at her. Then he got serious. “No. I, uh, I know her. I pretty much owe her my life if we get technical about it.” Kyle replied solemnly. “I tried to contact her in jail, but she never replied.” His voice trailed off a bit.

“Woah. Wait. Hold up! What? Captain Ashlyn Harris is THE ‘Harris’?” Ali’s eyes were wide at having made the connection, realizing how little she knew about the ‘Harris’ that had saved Kyle from a life of drugs and addiction. This whole time she thought Harris was a guy. Kyle had never talked too much about the person, just that ‘Harris’ had been his mentor and inspiration. Ali had never been so thankful for anyone in her life, especially someone she knew nothing about. Still, she had respected Kyle’s privacy on the matter and just supported him however she could, ecstatic to have her brother back.

“The one and only.” Kyle sighed.

“You’re serious? Kyle, geez, I’m really sorry. I had no idea.” Ali said remorsefully, feeling bad at having given him a sassy attitude.

“Yeah. I just, I don’t get it. None of it makes sense. I mean, I knew her really well. She would never kill anyone, I swear it. She was one of the good ones, ask anyone. Plus, I don’t even think she would sleep with a guy if you know what I mean.” Kyle smirked. “I mean, my gaydar is usually on point.”

Ali rolled her eyes playfully, but stayed quiet.

“None of it adds up. She was never involved with high power people, so how would she even know Gorham? It was all really weird. And then the confession comes out of nowhere. Don’t you think it’s weird?” Kyle finished his rant pleadingly.

“I never thought about it. Innocent people don’t usually confess, so it didn’t seem controversial enough to think about.” Ali explained. “You really think she lied?”

“I’m sure of it.” Kyle replied confidently.

“Hmmm.” Ali thought it over.

Kyle eyed her for a minute, taking a sip of his coffee before speaking again. “Ignoring my 4 year drug fueled rampage, have I ever led you astray?”

“No.” Ali replied easily.

“Then do me the favor of looking into it. If there’s nothing there, then it is what it is. I just have to know.” Kyle pleaded in a quiet fraught voice.

Ali reached out and squeezed his hand. “Hey. I’m on it. Promise I’ll figure something out.” She reassured him. There was no harm in poking around a bit. She’d just have to be careful. This had been such a high profile case in the media and with her newfound celebrity status, she didn’t want it to get out that she was delving into this case before there was really anything to talk about. For all she knew, nothing would come of it.

“You’re the best, Alex. Seriously, love you.” Kyle went around the counter to hug her before heading out.

With nothing better to do, she went right to work reading up on the case that she had paid little attention to in the media as it happened. It didn’t take her long to have the same intuition about it that Kyle did… something was definitely strange about it.

“Shit.” She whispered to herself as she closed her laptop and finally went to bed for the night. This was going to be a big undertaking and she wondered how long she could go without opening a huge can of worms and attracting too much unwanted attention.

Kyle was everything to her, the closest and most meaningful person in her life. If Ashlyn Harris was the reason he was here, then she owed Ashlyn Harris a huge debt and it was time to try and settle it.

“Veritas Aequitas. Truth and Justice.” Ali said out loud to no one. “Come on Harris, be the person Kyle believes you to be.”

Chapter Text

The blonde looks contemplatively at Ali for a minute, sizing up the brunette in front of her before deciding to take up the challenge, smirking and speaking again. “Well, I guess I have nothing but time Ms. Krieger. Call me Ashlyn. Ms. Harris is something only a dork in a suit would call me.” She finishes with a playful wink at the brunette.

Ali ignores the insult about her suit and lets out her own curt smile, feeling a bit relieved. “Let’s try this again then. Hi Ashlyn. I’m Ali.”

 

Ashlyn looks over the brunette one more time. Being a model prisoner in a medium security facility had earned Ashlyn supervised internet access. She had started listening to podcasts to pass the time, coming across Ali Krieger’s Veritas Aequitas a few months ago. The podcast had drawn her in like it had so many other people. Ashlyn found herself intrigued by the woman who worked so hard to get justice for people she didn’t really know with no real benefit to herself. It was all very superhero, very Robin Hood. And, if she was being honest, she’d grown to love Ali’s voice; it was a calming presence in a place where so little peace existed. Imagine her surprise when she received a visitor request from Ali Krieger herself just last week. The whole thing baffled her and Ashlyn found herself accepting the request, the first visitor she had accepted since she had stepped foot in this place. She didn’t know exactly why Ali was here outside of the obvious, but she was going to play it cool until she found out.

Ali feels a bit flustered under the blonde’s stare. The woman is a walking contradiction. She’s athletic and muscular with hard features, but still feminine. Her voice is steady and clear, but still soft. Her eyes are piercing, but still warm. It’s like nothing she has ever experienced before; it’s beautiful, a human paradox. ‘Pull yourself together,’ she mentally chides herself as she tries hard to keep her face neutral.

“Hi Ali. Why don’t you tell me the story of your life. We do have 2 hours and 51 minutes to kill, assuming you stay for the entire allotted visiting time.” The confident smirk is back on Ashlyn’s face as she looks at the clock on the wall behind her.

Ali lets out a slightly impatient sigh. “Well, I was hoping we’d spend some time talking about you. I get it though. If I want you to trust me, I better give you a reason.” She replies steadily, putting a polite smile on her face.

“You’re as smart as you sound on your show.” Ashlyn says with a satisfied grin. She’s listened to Ali’s podcast, she’s pretty sure she knows what the brunette is after, and she’s not giving her a damn thing if she can help it. She has no plans to become the star of the next podcast, but she has to admit she’s curious. Ali does seem to be persistent and sharp and Ashlyn wants to see how far this will go.  “So, what exactly is Ali short for?”

“Alexandra.” Ali answers.

“I like that, such a strong historical name. Can I call you Alex though?” Ashlyn asks almost teasingly, testing the situation a bit.

Although only Kyle calls her that, Ali finds herself curtly saying “You can call me whatever you want, Ashlyn.”

“Alex it is.” Ashlyn smiles genuinely this time, knowing she’s been giving the brunette a harder time than she planned to. “So, Alex. Tell me about yourself and how you ended up here in front of me.”

Ali gets drawn in by the blonde’s sweet smile, a single dimple appearing on the left side of her face. ‘She is pretty,’ Ali thinks to herself before taking a deep breath and starting to answer the question. She gets through talking about growing up near the Beacon Hill area of Boston, going to Penn State for undergraduate before starting law school right away at Boston College, and working at the firm before Ashlyn interrupts her.

“So let me get this straight. You grew up in a nice Boston neighborhood, went to two really great schools, and landed a job at a really prestigious law firm that I’m sure paid you a boatload. What the hell got you doing podcasts? Decided the high life was too boring for you?” Ashlyn goads her.

“I got laid off.” Ali answers simply, ignoring the blonde’s teasing tone.

“Alright. So, why turn to podcasting for no major financial gain when you could be at another firm making big bucks?” Ashlyn tries to understand, but she’s lost.

“The lawyer job market sucks in case you didn’t notice. I couldn’t find another job and was getting really down about it, so I tried podcasting for fun. I don’t know, it was still in the spirit of public interest work, so I thought I’d give it a go. Tried to take on local case that seemed like it needed more investigating. I never expected it to get popular enough to bring me any financial gain, until it did.” Ali replies shrugging her shoulders a bit.

“Public interest work?” Ashlyn asks since this is the first time Ali has mentioned it.

“Yeah. I went to law school thinking I’d go into public interest law, help the community. It’s what I always wanted to do. My mother was a public interest lawyer before she was appointed to be a judge and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. She was so respected, one of the good ones. Anyway, I took the firm job to pay off loans and get a good financial start, but I got caught up in it and was there a lot longer than I thought.” Ali replies evenly.

“Was? You talked about your mother in the past tense.” Ashlyn asks respectfully.

“She died 5 years ago of a heart attack.” Ali says quietly.

“I’m really sorry. And your father?” Ashlyn questions.

“He left when I was 10 and hasn’t really been in my life since then.” Ali answers, her voice somewhat terse.

“Double sorry.” Ashlyn says solemnly. “I lost both of mine to drug addiction and substance abuse, sucks to lose your parents.”

Ali nods empathetically, the statement sheds a little light on Ashlyn’s motives when it came to Kyle. She’s about to ask Ashlyn more about her parents, but the blonde speaks up quickly not giving her the chance.

“So, you start podcasting for fun…” Ashlyn prompts Ali to continue.

Ali explains picking the local North End restaurant dispute murder case just because it was the most recent one she thought seemed like a wrongful conviction. She tells Ashlyn how after that she was approached by Sue Hamilton to help with her kidnapped son. “And here I am.” Ali ends.

“Hmmm. Yeah. Here you are.” Ashlyn muses, still trying to figure the brunette out. “And what exactly are you doing here? Why on earth have you come to see me? Pretty sure I’m not one of those wrongful convictions you love so much.” She winks at Ali with a slight grin.

Ali sighs getting annoyed at the blonde’s mocking tone. She figures she might as well lay it all out there.

“Because you’re single-handedly responsible for saving the most important person in my life, Ashlyn. I owe you everything. My brother Kyle means the world to me, he’s all I have left. And you mean the world to him. He thinks you’re innocent, and frankly, so do I. I’m here to help if you’ll ever agree to take it, not because of my podcast. That doesn’t have to be a part of it.” Ali gets it all out before looking back up at the blonde.

Ashlyn’s eyes have gone wide and for the first time since they started talking, she’s the one who seems edgy and no longer in control. “Kyle.” She smiles fondly. “I didn’t know Kyle had a sister. I honestly didn’t even know his real last name.”

Ali nods. “He wrote you. You never replied.”

Ashlyn looks down a bit sadly. “Yeah I know. I just… I couldn’t.”

Ali levels with her again. “He believes in you the way you believed in him. I trust him and, like you said, I did my homework, Ashlyn. I’m right there with him. I owe you more than you know. Please, let me try to help. That’s all I’m asking.”

Ashlyn is at a loss for words, her calm cool demeanor gone for the moment. “I… I don’t think so, Alex. It’s fuckin’ complicated.”

Ali catches the blonde’s eyes. “I told you, Ashlyn. The truth is actually pretty simple. Tell me how a stand-up police captain with an impeccable service record and a history of taking desperate people and charity cases under her wing ends up involved with a sleazy millionaire that shouldn’t even be on her radar?”

Ashlyn just stares back and then opens her mouth, but the question never gets answered as the prison guard draws their attention with a loud “Time’s up, ladies.”

“Apply for the prison visitor background check and we’ll talk again without the plexi-glass.” Ashlyn says quickly. “I want to hear about how Kyle is doing. Please. Tell him I said hi.” Her voice is soft and kind. She pauses for a second before adding. “I’ll think about what you said… but, prepare to be disappointed. I just… can’t.”

“I’ll tell him. Think really hard Ashlyn, I’m not giving up on you that easily.” Ali says before giving Ashlyn her own smirk. “You’ve heard my podcast, I can be a really pesky bitch.”

“Bye, Alex.” Ashlyn hangs up the phone grinning and shaking her head at Ali before she’s led back through the door she originally came from.

Ali sits back with a deep breath and closes her eyes for a second. She’s always prided herself on being able to read people. Ashlyn Harris is going to be a tough, but after all her research, she found exactly what she thought she would find today. Her intuition is the same as Kyle’s, Ashlyn is a good person who is either innocent or was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was all spelled out in those kind hazel eyes that seemed to mesmerize her right from the start. There just has to be more to the story.

“And now to figure out how the fuck I get through to her,” Ali whispers to no one with a groan. She fills out a background check form with the prison guard at the entrance and heads off to figure out her next move.

 

 

Chapter Text

Ali walks into her kitchen and drops her bag on the counter, catching the silhouette of a man sitting at the dining room table to her right. She doesn’t even startle in the slightest, knowing already who it is without even looking.

“Geez, Kyle. Can’t you just call like a normal person instead of sitting here in the dark like fucking Hannibal Lector at my kitchen table?” She shakes her head.

Kyle ignores her outburst for the time being. “So, how was it?” He asks with the desperation of an eight year old trying to guess what’s in a gift box.

“Hello to you too.” Ali says dryly.

“Come on. You know I’ve been waiting for this meeting to happen. Seriously, just tell me. How is she?” He pleads with her.

“She’s ok, I think. I mean, she looks kind of worn down a bit, but physically really fit. Pretty typical of someone who’s been in for a while. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that her wit and confidence haven’t changed much.” Ali says a bit sarcastically.

“Ha! I knew it! Did she hand your ass to you? She’s such a badass.” Kyle replies wistfully as he thinks of his dear friend. He already knew Harris wasn’t going to love his nosey sister poking around. He just hoped Ali could get through to her, she was good at that. If someone told his sister that something was like finding a needle in a haystack, Ali would rip apart the haystack piece by piece just to prove she could find it. Harris would be the one to make her rip the haystack apart to prove there was a needle in it. This was going to be a battle.

“I wouldn’t say she handed my ass to me exactly, but she was certainly direct for lack of a better word.” Ali recounts. “You know, the only time she softened was when I told her you were my brother. She’s clearly really fond of you, proud even. She wanted to hear all about how you are, but we ran out of time. I swear that’s the only reason she wants me to visit again.”

Kyle smiles. “That’s Harris. Stuck in the depths of hell and worried about someone else instead of herself. So, she agreed to see you again? That’s good!”

“I think so. She told me to apply for the visitor background check so we could talk in one of the more private rooms. We’ll see if she holds true to that and actually lets me visit again, but I’m hoping it’s a good sign.” Ali holds up a crossed set of fingers.

They sit silently for a couple minutes before Ali speaks again. “She’s not exactly what I expected. I’m not really sure what I expected, but that wasn’t it. I get what you mean now though… there’s no way Ashlyn was involved with that sleazebag, it just doesn’t fit. Even I can see that and I just met her.”

“Ooooh, Ashlyn huh? On a first name basis now, are we?” Kyle teases in a sing-song voice.

“That’s what she told me to call her, Kyle. Relax.” Ali shoots him a glare. “Seriously though, if I have any chance at making this work, I need to know more about her. Whatever you’re willing to tell me.” She sits across from Kyle and reaches to squeeze his hand lightly.

Kyle nods knowing this talk would happen eventually and that now is as good a time as any. He takes solace in the fact that he’s been sober for 4 years and that both he and Ali know that he is in control now and that the dark past is just that, the past.

“To put it bluntly,” he begins, “Harris found me when I was practically two feet in the grave. When I started drinking, I never could have imagined how bad it would get. Even when I knew I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, I never thought I’d end up quite like that.”

Kyle entwines his fingers with Ali’s before continuing. “I started drinking shortly after Dad left. I guess I blamed myself a lot for him leaving. Like if I could have been better, been worth it, it would have been reason for him to stay. I snuck alcohol from Mom’s stash and when that wasn’t possible, I snuck into local college parties. I knew I had you and Mom, but I felt alone and inadequate. Drinking was a way for me to feel numb, to ease the pain, even if just for a little while. And even though I drank more and more alcohol over time and I started to get into light drugs to help it along, it seemed to work for a while. And then Mom died, and I lost it completely.” Kyle’s voice breaks off a bit. Ali squeezes his hand tightly.

“I got into some really heavy stuff, Alex. Pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy and party drugs I didn’t even know existed before. And the thing is, I felt like I was still in control for a while.  I kept telling myself that I could stop any time I wanted to, but I needed the escape so badly that I just didn’t want to. Then I got kicked out of school and I lost my job. That’s when I knew I was in too deep, but I just didn’t care anymore. All I cared about was the next drink and the next high.” Kyle looks down and shakes his head before continuing. Ali sits and listens quietly, not wanting to break the dreadful story she knows she needs to hear.

“I ran out of money and then it was all about finding access to it all. I ended up at sex parties practically prostituting myself for drugs and alcohol. Alex, I… I repeatedly put myself in situations where I was raped and sometimes badly hurt just to score some fucking smack. And to survive that mentally and physically, I needed even more to forget. No matter what I did, I always told myself that as long as I didn’t get into heroine, I was ok.” Kyle pauses. “And then I started to do heroine.”

“It got really really bad. I was such a mess I wasn’t even invited to parties anymore. I owed really scary people a lot of money. One night I was out with this guy I had met who was dealing cocaine. We went to a bar and got drunk, did a couple lines of cocaine in the bathroom. And the next thing I know, he and I are getting pulled out into an alley by these huge guys that we both owed money to. They fucking killed him, Alex. Like right there.” Tears stream down Kyle’s face and Ali gets up, grabbing his face and kneeling in front of him.

“Hey, Kyle. It’s ok. It’s the past and you’re ok and safe now.” Ali tries to reassure him.

“I know, but it’s not ok. They killed him right in front of me, slit his throat. I watched him gurgle and bleed out and did nothing, terrified because I knew I was next. But I couldn’t will myself to move, to fight, I was too messed up. And part of me just accepted that I was about to die too. I watched one of the guys grab the bloody knife and then he grabbed my head and forced me to my knees. I closed my eyes and just waited for the pain… it felt like forever. And then I heard the sweetest voice I had ever heard, ‘Back away from him.’ There was this awful pain in my shoulder and neck and I heard scrambling and yelling. That part is still fuzzy for me. I just remember opening my eyes and looking into these gorgeous hazel eyes, this blonde angel looking back at me. It was Harris. And she kept repeating ‘Stay with me. Breathe. Stay with me.’” Kyle takes a deep breath.

“I didn’t understand why she kept saying that, but I felt so tired. I looked down to see blood all over me, her hand was pressed to my neck, and then I just knew I was going to die. It was finally real and I was so scared. All I could think about was you and how I was leaving you all alone, Alex. How fucking dumb I’d been to throw my time with you away like I did. I just kept asking Harris not to leave me, not to let me die. And she didn’t.” Kyle smiles for the first time since this whole conversation started. Ali scoots forwards on her knees and hugs him tight before he pulls back and finishes his story.

“She carried me a block to an ambulance that she called so that I could be in it as soon as possible. Turns out I was slashed and my artery was nicked, she kept me from bleeding out. She actually put her fingers into my neck and pinched my artery to hold it closed. A complete stranger to her, I’ll never understand why she helped me like that.” Kyle pulls the collar of his shirt aside slightly, revealing the five inch scar. Ali had seen it many times before, never knowing where it had come from or what it signified.  “I found all that stuff out after the fact. That she had ridden in the ambulance with me, stayed by my hospital bed until I woke up. That’s the part I remember, waking up to her again, wondering how on earth I had survived. All I could do was look at her and say ‘Thank you.’” Kyle smiles again.

“I’ll never forget this part. She said ‘Don’t thank me. Just tell me, are you ready to change? I mean really ready to leave all that shit behind and be yourself again?’ I told her I was. I just wanted to get back to you, Alex. Then Harris got really serious and said ‘I mean it. I’ll give you all the help you need, but you have to want it and be open to it. My way or the highway, you in?’ I said yes and here I am.” Kyle looks up at Ali. “She took me into her home, fed me, clothed me, got me a therapist and into a hardcore rehab program. She even exercised with me and got me a job. And I’ll tell you, Alex… I was no peach to deal with while I recovered. She was always patient with me. As long I was committed to getting better, she was committed to helping me. Harris was like finding home again. She was caring and kind, but also tough when I needed her to be. She never got too personal, but was the best friend I’d ever had. And to this day, I still couldn’t tell you why she did it or even all that much about her. I just know that I’m forever grateful and in her debt.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Ali says quietly, finally wiping a few tears from her cheeks and taking it all in.

“So, you’re going to help her?” Kyle asks.

“I’m going to do all I can. Well, what she’ll let me do anyway. She certainly seems quite obstinate. Then again, I like a challenge.” Ali smirks confidently.

“Well then get your ass to work already!” Kyle lightens the mood with his typical sass, gives Ali a quick hug and makes his way out the door just like that.

Ali sighs, plops herself down in front of her computer and sets to work trying to pull up all of the Liam Gorham murder case files and details that she can.

Chapter Text

“11…12…13” Ashlyn breathes out in the small and empty prison weight room as she bench presses. The women’s weight room is usually empty, something that Ashlyn never would have guessed given all the portrayals of muscled jail characters on TV. Over the two plus years she’s been here, she’s found that most of her expectations about prison have been wrong, which is amusing to her given that she was once a police officer and probably should have known more about the realities of it.  The room is dim and smells musty, but the solitude is oddly comforting. Afternoons would usually find her in the prison library at the computer listening to a podcast or reading about world history (something she realized she knew so little about and became fascinated with behind bars), but not this week.

She’s spent the last couple of weeks listening to Ali’s podcast episodes over again and searching the internet for information about her, trying to get an angle on the woman she finds so intriguing. It’s been over 3 weeks now though and Ashlyn hasn’t heard a single thing from Ali since that first visit. It’s not surprising. They don’t know each other and Ali owes her nothing. Plus, Ashlyn knows she wasn’t exactly nice and pretty much shut Ali down. It makes sense that Ali didn’t come back. Still, she can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. She really did want to hear about Kyle and how he was doing. And, if she’s being honest, she was hoping to learn more about Ali. Ashlyn has chalked it up to Ali looking a lot like Kyle, but something about the brunette seemed so comfortable and familiar while simultaneously mysterious. The inconsistency of it all has made her a bit obsessed over the last couple weeks, going over their conversation repeatedly in her head. But, it’s now been over 3 weeks and Ali isn’t coming back. It’s time to stop fixating and get back to the bleak and isolated reality that will be the rest of her life.

“Easy Harris. You’re gonna pop a vein in your head.” She hears as the weight room door creaks open.

Ashlyn smirks as she lifts the weight bar back into place and remains laying on the bench for a few seconds before sitting up to address the prison guard in front of her. “Hey Tim. How was vacation? Cozumel this time, right?”

“Well, no one got a stomach virus this time. So, already a million times better than the last vacation!” Tim laughs in response, referring to his wife and two kids.

Ashlyn chuckles back.

“Really though, it was a beautiful place. Anyway. Sooo, finally took my advice and lawyered up, huh? Smart girl.” He gives Ashlyn a thumbs up.

“What? No. What are you talking about?” Ashlyn asks confused.

“Pretty sure that was THE Ali Krieger I saw in here visiting you before I left. You know, she’s like a big deal around Boston these days, figures out crazy cases. I just assumed. Never mind. So, then, you dating her? Even smarter.” Tim replies with an eye waggle.

“Huh? No. What the hell, Tim…Did you leave your brain in Mexico?” Ashlyn gives him a hard stare.

“Well, excuuuuse me!” Tim puts his hands up and mocks being offended. “The first person you ever have visit you in this dump and it’s a hotshot lawyer who also happens to be hot. I figured it had to be one or the other. But, apparently, I’m all sorts of wrong.  I’m still nosey though. So, what exactly is it then?”

“It’s nothing. She’s just the sister of an old friend that I helped out once. Nothing else.” Ashlyn replies casually.

“Hmmph. Alright, Harris. Nothing it is. Can’t say I wasn’t hoping.” Tim shrugs his shoulders.

“Tim.” Ashlyn sighs audibly.

She and Tim Rosemund had been through police academy together, becoming friends right away. Tim wasn’t quite cut out to be a police officer, opting instead to be a prison guard while Ashlyn excelled at academy and unsurprisingly quickly worked her way up the ranks. Neither of them ever expected the day where Tim would be guarding Ashlyn as a prisoner. He refused to believe her story, something that Ashlyn was both grateful for and burdened by. The truth flat out sucked and she wished he would just accept things at face value. Despite that, it was good to have a familiar face around even if he often pretended there was no connection between the two of them unless they were one-on-one. Tim was a good guy like that, he did his job right and Ashlyn respected that.

“Yeah. Ok.” Tim replies a bit defeated. He knows better than to push it anymore.

Ashlyn gives him a curt nod and a polite smile before wiping the sweat from her arms and neck with a small towel and holding her hands out to get cuffed so Tim can escort her back to her cell. He never cuffs her too tightly, a small courtesy that means the world to her in such an uncaring and unforgiving place.

They don’t speak as they navigate the drab hallways, stopping minutes later in front of Ashlyn’s cell. Tim uncuffs her and opens the door.

“Since it’s nothing, I guess you probably don’t care much about this then.” Tim says cockily as he pulls an envelope out of the back pocket of his navy uniform pants.

“What’s that?” Ashlyn inquires coolly.

“Oh NOTHING. Just a background check approval and a visit request from Ali Krieger that came in for you this morning. Nothing really.” Tim tries hard not to smirk as he watches Ashlyn’s eyes go wide.

Ashlyn has to stop herself from snatching the envelope out of his hand. She tries hard to remain unaffected. “Hmmm. Ok. Thanks.”

Tim hands the envelope to her, looking around a bit before casually leaning in and whispering “Don’t be a fucking idiot, Harris. Do something. Anything.”

Before Ashlyn can respond, another guard comes down the hallway and Tim slips back into professional mode. “The warden will need that visitor acceptance paperwork signed by Friday if you want your visit approved for next week, inmate.” He states evenly.

Ashlyn simply takes the envelope and nods before turning around and walking into her cell. She watches Tim walk away after the lock clicks into place, falling into step and carrying on a conversation with the other guard.

She closes her eyes and grips the envelope tightly between her fingers. Her heart feels like it’s in her throat and her obsessive mind has begun to run rampantly again.

Chapter Text

Ali pulls into the Framingham Correctional Facility parking lot and flips down the visor to check her make-up in the mirror one last time. It looks a bit thickly slathered on, but it will have to do. Last time she was here, she fussed over trying to look impressive and competent. This time she’s dressed casually in skinny jeans and a long-sleeve black shirt, her hair loosely draped over her shoulders. She wouldn’t have bothered to double-check her makeup at all if it wasn’t for the fact that she hasn’t slept all that much over the last few weeks and is starting to look a bit rough. Although she’s much less concerned with her appearance this time around, she doesn’t want to look like a complete disaster either. This time it’s different. She’s not nervous antsy, just excited antsy. Antsy the way she always gets when she feels confident. This time she’s prepared.

She checks in with the guard at the front desk area, where her belongings are searched and x-rayed thoroughly, and is then led by another guard through the same area of plexi-glass cubicles that she was in last time. This time they walk right through that room and into a hallway with several doors. The guard leads Ali through one such door: a smallish white-walled room with nothing but a table and two chairs in the center of it. On the back wall there is a small plexi-glass window with a door beside it, clearly an area for a guard to observe the visit while still providing some privacy since it’s only visual monitoring. The guard points to the table and chairs, telling Ali to have a seat as he disappears behind the door and seats himself at a desk behind the plexi-glass window to keep watch.

Ali sits down at one of the chairs and gets comfortable, at least as comfortable as one can get on a cheap metal folding chair. She pulls out a Coke, Sprite, and two bags of chips she got in the lobby vending machine from her purse as well as a manila folder with her documents and notes.  About five minutes has gone by and she’s starting to fiddle with the edge of the folder when she hears the door to the room open. She looks up to see Ashlyn being escorted in by a guard who leads her to the seat across from Ali, the blonde giving her a small nod and smile as she’s seated and her cuffs are removed

For the second time, Ali finds herself a bit mesmerized by Ashlyn even though she knew what to expect this time. The blonde’s hair is a bit damp today, adding to her overall surfer look; her sleeve tattoo prominently displayed like last time given the short sleeves of the beige prison garb. There really is just a natural beauty to the woman, Ali can’t deny that and she doesn’t try to. She allows herself a second to take it in, knowing that this time she has to be less astonished by it all and more confident. She needs to be a presence equal to Ashlyn’s.

The guard leaves and finally it’s just the two of them, save for other the guard watching from behind the window.

Ali is about to say something, but Ashlyn unsurprisingly starts before she has the chance.

“Hi Alex. Been awhile, so I didn’t think I’d actually see you back in here. You look nice, maybe a little tired, but I like the more casual look compared to that type A ensemble you were rocking last time. So, how’s it going?” Ashlyn grins, a single dimple appearing near the corner of her mouth as her eyes look right into Ali’s.

Ali just shakes her head a bit with a smile before giving it right back to her. “Hi Ashlyn. It took almost a month for this place to get through my background check and approve me, so sorry for the delay. I told you I’d be back; I’m pesky, remember? I look tired because I’ve been staying busy, but I figured I’d go with my more natural relaxed self today instead of the ‘Type A’ side that makes me a pretty dull girl. You’re looking clean and fresh, that beige does wonders for your complexion. How have you been?” She grins right back at the blonde.

“Yeah sorry, I ended up in the afternoon shower block since I spent the morning shower block in the weight room. Just working off some energy.” Ashlyn says referencing her wet hair. She likes this sassy side of Ali. Something about the brunette makes her feel light inside.

“Nervous energy? For me?” Ali teases. “I mean, I AM technically a celebrity.”

“I’ll never admit it.” Ashlyn jokes back.

“Fair enough.” Ali replies and then points to the chips and drinks on the table. “I brought some snacks, take your pick.”

“You’re the best!” Ashlyn says excitedly, grabbing the Coke and a bag of Doritos. “The food in here sucks. I’d kill for a good cup of coffee.”

The irony of that last statement isn’t lost on Ali, but she chooses to just table it for now rather than draw attention to it, taking note. “I bet. So really, how have you been?”

“Been fine.” Ashlyn replies with no further elaboration, before changing the subject completely. “Tell me about Kyle.”

Ali knew this would probably happen given that Ashlyn was so guarded last time. She decides to appease the blonde for now and spends the next half hour telling her about Kyle’s very successful hair salon on Newbury Street, his Instagram popularity (which she had to fully explain to Ashlyn since she had no idea about Instagram), his dog Luna, his online dating obsession, and a couple of funny stories from their recent weekly dinner dates.

Ashlyn has been thoroughly engaged in the conversation, clearly very excited to hear all about Kyle as she smiles genuinely.  Ali can’t help but be touched by it. A brief silence passes between them as Ali wraps up the last story. This time she doesn’t wait for Ashlyn to break it.

“So, I’ve told you my life story. And now Kyle’s. The only one missing is yours.” Ali looks at Ashlyn expectantly.

“I’m not interesting.” Ashlyn says shutting Ali down quickly, the playful smirk back on her face.

“Hmmm. Well, that’s not true. There is all sorts of interesting stuff about you.” Ali replies with her own cocky smirk.

“You think so?” Ashlyn plays back.

“Oh, I know so.” Ali points to the folder in front of her. “Since you refuse to tell me about yourself, I did some homework. But, it’d be nicer to hear it all from you.”

“Nah. It’ll be much more fun seeing what you know about me. So, let’s go, Alex… tell me.” Ashlyn challenges.

Ali smiles slightly knowing the blonde has no idea what’s coming, but trying not to get ahead of herself. “Well, for starters I found out you are pretty holy, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. I’ll start from the beginning.”

Ashlyn stifles a laugh, knowing that for Ali to think she was holy, the brunette must have pulled up some information about the South Boston Reverend Ashley Harris. It wouldn’t be the first time someone has confused them, but Ashlyn isn’t about to correct her. “Go on. I’m listening.” Ashlyn exaggerates her posture to look at Ali with mock rapt attention and the smug demeanor of someone who has no idea her world is about to be rocked.

Chapter Text

Ali opens the manila folder in front of her to glance at her notes. She really has no need to even so much as look at them, she has it memorized. Still, given the importance of the moment, she wants to make sure it all comes out the way she intends it. Particularly since it’s clear Ashlyn has no intention of taking it seriously. That’s the point of contention, she needs Ashlyn to take it seriously. She needs Ashlyn to know that she’s invested and trustworthy, that she believes in her. She doesn’t want to be insensitive, but if she’s going to get through to the blonde, she has to be blunt.

Ali clears her throat as she gets ready to speak, but once again there has been a silent moment that Ashlyn feels the need to break.

“Any day now Alex, some of us have a cell to get back to.” Ashlyn jests with the now typical smug look on her face.

Ali doesn’t acknowledge it before looking straight up into Ashlyn’s eyes and starting.

“Ashlyn Michelle Harris, born in Billerica, MA on October 19, 1985. Daughter of Tammye and Michael Harris, both deceased in 2001.” Ali chooses not to mention the fact that Tammye overdosed in February of that year and Michael was killed when he drunkenly drove his car into a river a few months later that July. Instead she just moves right along. “One older brother, Christopher. Both under the care of paternal grandparents, Eunice and Curtis Harris of Ipswich, while minors. You graduated Ipswich High School in 2003 with a 4.0 GPA and acceptances to both M.I.T. and Tufts University, but chose to go to West Point military academy.” Ali pauses for a second. “You want to pick it up from here?” She gives Ashlyn the chance to jump in and tell her the rest of what she already knows.

Ashlyn has to admit, Ali did some decent digging to get that information. Still, it’s nothing that can’t be found in public records and internet searching. She figures Ali can’t get much deeper than that, so she might as well let the brunette finish. “Oh no, please, continue telling me how interesting I am.” Ashlyn deadpans in the most sarcastic voice she can.

Ali continues unfazed. “You were the first woman to graduate as an Army Ranger from West Point. And at the top of the class no less. No bullshit, Ashlyn. That is seriously impressive. I mean, they open the program to women for the first time in history while making sure that it remained as hard as it always has for men, if not harder to discourage women from doing it. And you go in there against all odds and crush it. Pardon my language, but that’s fucking amazing.”

Ashlyn just shrugs. “I like a challenge.”

Ali quickly jots down a note before looking back up at Ashlyn.

“What did you write?” Ashlyn questions, not able to read Ali’s handwriting upside down.

“Modest to a fault.” Ali winks at her and Ashlyn shakes her head. “Annnyway. Moving on. You served two active duty tours in Iraq, which ended in two Purple Heart medals and a bronze star. During the first you were shot during an attack on your patrol, bullet wounds to the right outer thigh and right hip, which didn’t stop you from carrying a fellow soldier almost a mile to safety. After two months of recovery you rejoined your unit to finish out your tour. You spent 3 months home after that before being sent out on a second tour. This time the Humvee you were riding in hit an IED, leaving you with severe shrapnel wounds in your right shoulder. After determining that you would not be able to hold the weight of a standard issue military weapon for long periods of time, you were officially honorably and medically discharged from the U.S. Army in 2010.” Ali pauses again. “Told you… you’re very holey. Get it? Holey, lots of holes from the injuries.” She tries hard to lighten the conversation, knowing that maybe it isn’t easy for Ashlyn to talk or think about her history in the army. Still, she is starting to wonder if maybe she crossed a line with that comment when she hears Ashlyn laugh a bit.

Ashlyn rolls her eyes, but can’t help chuckling at Ali. “You’re so lame, Alex.” She tries to hide her increasing anxiety at the information Ali is spouting at her.  Again, all things that could be found out in public records, but it would still take a lot of dedicated work to find it all. The fact that Ali put that much time into finding out about her, it makes her nervous now. She forces her face to relax and motions for Ali to continue.

“Alright, if you’re not gonna jump in.” Ali keeps on going. “After fully recovering from your shoulder injury, you enrolled in the Boston Police Academy. While stand-out soldiers like you would get a free pass after some minor training, you had to prove you could handle the job physically after the injuries you sustained in the army. And, of course, you crushed it and quickly worked your way up the ranks of the South Boston Police Department, making Captain in just 4 years. Pretty much unheard of, let alone for a woman. Then again, I won’t even get into the 2 page long list of merits, awards, and medals you achieved in that time.” Ali says lifting up two printed pages that list all of Ashlyn’s achievements as a police officer. Ashlyn doesn’t even bother to look at it.

“Rumor also has it you that were being groomed to replace the Department Chief who was your mentor.” Ali adds. “And if that wasn’t enough, you still managed to help some pretty desperate people, like my brother, get themselves healthy and back on their feet.”

Ashlyn just gives Ali a slight nod and another small shoulder shrug. “Not a big deal.” She practically whispers.

Ali just gives the blonde a small smile. “So, that’s the extent of what I know for complete certain. Let me sum it up real quick: You’re intelligent, honorable, strong, decorated, accomplished, kind, charitable, and on top of all that, clearly modest and humble. I’d say that’s not just interesting, Ashlyn Harris, but downright heroic.” Ali says, genuinely amazed by the woman in front of her.

“I’m no hero, Alex. Just a person like everyone else.” Ashlyn replies seriously.

“Uh huh. I’ll be the judge of that.” Ali says almost teasingly, trying to lighten the mood again before she gets into the next part of the conversation.

“Well, I’ll give you props for finding all that stuff about me. Pretty good investigating skills, Alex. You must be a lawyer.” Ashlyn jokes, doing her best to shake off the anxiousness she feels about how much Ali learned about her so quickly.

“Oh, I’m not done.” Ali quips back immediately, not letting Ashlyn gain control over the conversation like the blonde is seemingly trying to do. “That is just the stuff I know for certain. There are a few other things that I have pieced together with a few educated guesses and assumptions. Feel like jumping in yet? Last chance.”

“Well, sorry. Didn’t mean to stop your mojo there, Alex. By all means, continue.” Ashlyn feels a bit caught off guard, but she puts a smug look back on her face so she doesn’t let on. What else could Ali possibly have to tell her.

“Alright. Can’t say I didn’t give you the chance. Here goes, just hear me out to the end. Then tell me how close I am, ok?” Ali says with a hint of sass before continuing on.

Ashlyn just listens.

“So, you finally make Captain after a lot of hard work. You’re proud of it and you’re ready to work even harder when you find out that your mentor, Chief Robert Dugan, is planning to try and make you his replacement when he retires in the next five or so years. The guy has probably been like a father to you and you want to make him proud.” Ali waits for some kind of reaction from the blonde, but Ashlyn is now just looking down at the table with no real discernable expression.

“You hang closely to him and he trusts you. He brings you into his world and pretty soon you figure out that Bobby is not quite the guy you thought he was. No, Bobby is involved in side deals with shady businessmen and drug dealers; taking huge money bribes in exchange for him looking the other way and letting these scumbags do all kinds of illegal things on the streets of Boston.” Ali pauses again, but Ashlyn remains silent, her expression unchanged from what Ali can see.

“You panic a bit. You can’t possibly do nothing and let it go, but you know it will be next to impossible to bring him down. Plus, the guy has been like family to you, so it’s complicated. Bobby is smart and sly about his deals, and he has quite the excellent reputation as Chief. I mean, who is going to believe you, right? Still, you have to do something. So, you start compiling evidence on your own against him while remaining tight lipped and as friendly to him as ever. He trusts you, so it gets easier and easier to get information on what he is up to. He just figures you’re learning so you can eventually do what he does. It’s the South Boston Police Department, everyone knows corruption runs rampant in there, it’s not shocking.” Still nothing from Ashlyn, so Ali keeps going.

“Over time, you compile a pretty hefty file on Bobby Dugan and what he is up to. His biggest transactions are with Liam Gorham. I mean Gorham is involved in all sorts of lucrative illegal crap so he has serious money to throw around. So, when Bobby asks you to come to Liam’s office one night, you think nothing of it. Just another deal you’ll be privy to; another addition to the dossier you’re composing on him. You’re so close to busting him and exposing it all.” Ali notices Ashlyn fingers nervously tapping the table and feels even more emboldened to continue.

“Not what you expected though when you showed up though, was it? Liam is dead with a bullet in his head and Bobby’s got a gun on you the minute you walk through the door. Good Ol’ Bobby the Chief takes your gun and shoots Liam a few more times to make it look the way he wants it to. Then he blackmails you into confessing that you killed Liam over jealousy that he wasn’t going to leave his wife for you like he said he would.” Ali just keeps going, knowing she has to just lay it all out like this.

“And that’s laughable to me. Because seriously, when was the last time you probably even thought of a guy… I’m going to guess you probably had sex with a guy once after prom and it was so bad that you swore off men after that? Am I right?” Ali asks rhetorically.

Ashlyn shifts a bit in her chair, shell-shocked by what Ali is saying; in disbelief that the brunette has somehow even figured out how she lost her virginity and her sexual enlightenment after that experience.

Ali sees the blonde’s slight shift.  “It’s ok, Ashlyn. Nothing to be ashamed of, I get it… that’s exactly how it was for me too. It’s been all women for me ever since then and I couldn’t be happier about that. I’m getting off track though.” She keeps going.

“So, ignoring the fact that I’m sure most people know you aren’t into men and this whole thing already seems like total bull crap. I have to ask myself what on earth Bobby Dugan possibly has over you that honest, admirable, respected, and very gay Captain Ashlyn Harris confesses to a love triangle murder she didn’t commit and covers for the very jackass she was trying to bust?” Ali asks yet another question that she doesn’t even so much as pause to hear the answer to.

“He certainly can’t have dirt on you, because there is none of that. So, what do you have to protect Ashlyn? Not your job; it can’t mean that much to you. Not Bobby; you already knew he was unworthy scum. It’s the only thing you have left to protect isn’t it… Christopher Ryan Harris, your brother. The only family you have left.” Ali sees Ashlyn’s fists clench and she gets the rest out quickly.

“He’s a good guy who’s doing really well for himself. Has his own collection of rehab facilities for addicts. He has a wife and two kids and a good life. You’re proud of him. Wasn’t always like that though, huh? He was once in the depths of addiction hell, just like Kyle. He was involved with really bad people for a long time; dealing, drug running, and all kinds of other ugly stuff just to pay the debts he owed people. And now, when he’s clean, happy, and healthy…  I’m guessing Bobby Dugan could ruin it all pretty easily with whatever information he has. And you can’t let that happen, so here you are serving a life sentence in his place for a murder that Bobby Dugan committed.” Ali pauses for just a second before adding. “So, Ashlyn, tell me. How close am I to the truth? Cause I feel like I’m pretty close.”

Chapter Text

Ali pauses for just a second before adding. “So, Ashlyn, tell me. How close am I to the truth? Cause I feel like I’m pretty close.”

 

When Ali had laid out the same facts and theory for Kyle earlier in the week in this very same manner, he had been stunned. His exact response had been “I fucking knew Harris didn’t do it! You’re a genius, Alex! Seriously, how did you come up with all this?” Ali had calmed him down by saying she wasn’t going to get into it any further until she had talked to Ashlyn and heard what she had to say. To which Kyle had dramatically replied “Psssh, good luck!”

So, when she finally finishes and is staring at Ashlyn intently as she waits for the blonde to look up and react to everything she has just said, she expects a similar reaction to Kyle’s. She expects some shock and surprise, maybe a bit of anger or awkwardness given all of the seemingly private things she’s put out in the open. Yet when the blonde’s piercing hazel eyes finally look up and meet her own, Ali sees something she never anticipated. Ashlyn simply looks broken, there is no other word for it. Ali’s heart jumps into her throat. Gone is the confident and smug blonde that she’s come to know so far and Ali feels like she might be seeing the real, raw Ashlyn for the very first time. It’s a painful sight, Ashlyn looks almost wounded.

 

 

Ashlyn can’t believe everything she just heard. Her heart is racing as she realizes that Ali Krieger has just single-handedly dismantled every last metaphorical wall that she has worked so hard to build and put up over the past couple of years. She feels vulnerable and shell-shocked. Even worse, she feels hopeful. If Ali could start out knowing nothing about her and still come up with something as close to the truth as it can get without Ashlyn actually telling her, then maybe other people could figure it out too. Maybe there is a way out of this. Ashlyn lets that flicker of hope set in for a minute, but it’s too dangerous. Hope is dangerous. The number of things that would have to go right is just astounding, the odds completely stacked against her. And then there’s Chris. The whole point of this is to keep him safe. She can’t save herself and expect to save him too, Bobby Dugan would make sure of that. Ashlyn quickly extinguishes the flicker of hope inside and looks up to meet Ali’s whiskey colored eyes. The genuine care and concern she sees in those eyes just break her. She’s sure for the moment that no one has ever looked at her like that, at least that she can remember right now as her mind races. Ashlyn opens her mouth to try and say something meaningful, but all that comes out is “How?”

 

It’s not quite the reaction Ali was expecting, but she recovers quickly. “It doesn’t matter how at the moment. It only matters that I’m right, doesn’t it?” Ali asks, getting an almost imperceptible nod from the blonde that confirms her theory is as close to the truth as she thought it was. “I’m good at what I do. You know that.” Ali adds playfully hoping to reassure the blonde, but Ashlyn is still looking lost and broken.

Ali’s heart can’t take that haunting look anymore and her body reacts before she can stop herself.  She reaches across the table and takes Ashlyn’s hand in her own, squeezing it lightly.

 

Ashlyn feels Ali’s hand on hers and her eyes dart right over to the plexi-glass of the observation window, expecting the guard to admonish them. There’s no significant touching allowed during these visits and this definitely qualifies as rule-breaking. What she sees instead is Jordan Willis, a good friend of Tim’s and the only other guard in here who treats her well, quickly avert his eyes down to a magazine that he suddenly and conveniently looks very engrossed in. She’s both angry and thankful at Jordan’s purposeful ignorance. In a place where everything is cold and harsh, Ali’s touch is warm and gentle. It’s like fire on her skin, sending heat radiating through her body. It’s soothing and beautiful, a touch that stands out when she hasn’t been touched so kindly like this for so long. It’s a touch she feels so undeserving of.  And like hope, the touch is dangerous and it shakes her to the very core. Ashlyn is about to pull her hand away when she feels Ali’s thumb running small circles on the top of her hand, just below the edge of the black designs inked into her skin.  A new wave of heat washes over her as she hears the brunette’s voice again.

“Hey, Ash.” Ali says carefully, pulling the blonde’s attention away from the plexi-glass window.

Ashlyn eyes rake over their joined hands before settling back on Ali’s compassionate eyes. She doesn’t miss the nickname Ali has just called her by. It’s overwhelming and she closes her eyes.

Ali sees the mix of confusion and fear in Ashlyn’s face, watching the blonde close her eyes. She knows this is the time, so she speaks from the heart. “Ashlyn, look at me.”

Ashlyn feels Ali give her hand a quick squeeze as she continues to stroke it lightly with her thumb. She opens her eyes to look at the brunette, waiting for whatever comes next.

“I may not truly know you Ashlyn Harris, but I want to know you. And even though I don’t fully know you, I do see you. I see you, Ashlyn. And I know enough and see enough to believe in you. I’m asking that you believe in me. ” Ali pleads as she uses her free hand to slide some paperwork in front of Ashlyn. “Sign me on as your lawyer. Let me at least lay out the case and my game plan for you. If you aren’t comfortable or sure about it, we don’t have to pursue it. In which case, I’ll just be your friend. But, please, just give me the chance to show you. Let me try. I promise to be private and quiet about it unless you tell me otherwise. I promise to protect you.” Ali gets out in a steady yet soft voice.

Ashlyn wants to let her, she does. She just knows in her gut that Ali won’t harm her, that she is trustworthy. But she can’t do it. It’s hope, it’s warmth, it’s optimism and it’s all lost in a treacherous abyss she can’t see the end of. She’s terrified of it all. Ashlyn looks down because she knows she can’t bear to see the look of disappointment she’s about to put on Ali’s face and she opens her mouth to utter “I can’t.” Before she can get the words out though, she feels Ali take her other hand too, both of her hands now entwined in the brunette’s comforting grip. Tingling shoots through her body as she hears Ali whisper “Let me take care of you, Ashlyn. Give me the chance.” She looks up to find warm amber eyes filled with nothing but care, courage, and confidence looking back into her own.

All of Ashlyn’s resolve leaves her and she finds herself so easily whispering a barely audible “Ok, Alex” as she reluctantly frees one hand to sign the lawyer retainer contract in front of her.

Ali grabs and squeezes Ashlyn’s hands tightly in hers one last time and gives the blonde a nose-crinkling smile.

It’s a smile that makes Ashlyn believe in something again. The blonde is petrified of what lies ahead. She doesn’t believe in the simplicity of truth and justice anymore. She doesn’t even really believe in herself, but she does find herself believing in Ali Krieger. And for now, that’s just enough to keep her world from crumbling.

Chapter Text

It’s been four days since Ali’s visit and Ashlyn hasn’t been able to sit still, let alone sleep or even eat much. Given that she spends the majority of her day in a 6 by 8 foot cell, most of which is taken up by a bed, desk and toilet/sink combo, pacing around is not a good thing. She’s already bruised her leg twice from walking into the desk chair absentmindedly.  When she really can’t take it anymore, she’s relinquished herself to doing pushups until her body is so physically spent that she has no energy left but to lay down. Of course, then her mind starts going.

Why did she let her curiosity get the best of her? Why did she let Ali visit in the first place? Why did she let her come back? And why the hell had she agreed to retain her as a lawyer and even attempt to get into this mess that is her life?

Ashlyn keeps asking herself these questions over and over again as if she doesn’t know the answers, but deep down, she knows. She knows that her biggest fear is that Bobby Dugan will go back on his word and go after Chris just to spite her. What could she do about it behind bars if he did? Nothing.

The only way she’ll ever feel safe is to go after Bobby herself, just like she’d planned to. Take him down and put him away for life where he could never touch her or her family again. The spark for that flame went out a long time ago, the day she realized she’d be stuck in this cell for life with no way out. But now, with Ali, the damn spark is flickering again. Ashlyn knows she shouldn’t let it, but her stupid brain won’t let it rest. It’s like having a beautiful dream that you know isn’t real and would never happen, naturally you want to stay in it forever.

Then there’s the burden, the heaviness of carrying such a big secret. One that has ruined her reputation, taken away her freedom, and made her feel as lonely as she ever has in her entire life.

Turns out when you confess to murdering someone, the people in your life don’t know what to do with that. They don’t want to believe it; they know you, don’t they? But then why would you confess if you didn’t do it? So they try and figure out what they should think and say as they battle to try and decide if you’re really the person they thought you were.

Ashlyn had decided early on to take that pressure away from any friends or family she had; never reading/replying to a single letter she received and never accepting a visit request. Well, until Ali Krieger. And in her gut, Ashlyn knows that Ali might be the best outlet for lightening the load a bit.  Someone she can at least share the secret with and not drown alone in the darkness of it all like she has been. It’s not so hard now that Ali has pretty much figured most of it out anyhow.

That’s the compromise Ashlyn settles on before Ali comes to visit again the next day: take Ali’s offer of friendship and finally tell someone the truth of what happened and forget about the rest. There’s no point in trying to get herself out of a situation that she’s clearly stuck in for the rest of her life, she has her brother to protect. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to lighten some of the heaviness on her shoulders. Having a friend again after over two years of blocking everyone out seems like a gift right now, and Ali Krieger has all the makings of a good friend from what Ashlyn has seen so far. She can only hope that Ali will understand that she just wants a friend and not a lawyer who is going to promise her unrealistic outcomes.

*************************************************************************************

After pulling up to the prison and parking, Ali checks her makeup in the car mirror like she always does. Like last time, the makeup is a bit heavy to hide the continued sleepless nights, but she looks presentable enough she thinks. This time she opted for a pair of black dress pants and a white button up shirt; not a suit, but not too casual either. She knows she needs to look somewhat official as Ashlyn’s lawyer. She’s spent the last few days pouring over evidence, case files, and possible scenarios over and over again. All the while letting the words “Ashlyn Harris’ lawyer” run through her head. She can’t believe Ashlyn actually agreed to this, but she’s going full steam ahead no matter how unbelievable it is. She made both Kyle and Ashlyn a promise and she intends to keep it: she will take care of Ashlyn no matter what it takes. She owes her at least that.

After the usual process of getting through prison security, Ali finds herself seated once again in the drab conference room with the plexi-glass observation window. She notices it’s the same guard behind it as last time and watches as he flips through a car magazine while she waits for Ashlyn. It only takes a couple minutes before the blonde is being escorted into the room and Ali immediately notices the slight bags under her eyes. It makes her a bit nervous that maybe it means Ashlyn has been overthinking things and is going to change her mind. Before she can muse on it any further, Ashlyn’s eyes catch her own and the blonde gives her a dimpled smile as she is uncuffed and seated. It sets Ali at ease a bit.

“Good morning, Ashlyn. You look tired, you ok?” Ali smiles kindly, knowing the bags under her own eyes are probably just as prominent.

“Hey, Alex. Yeah, I’m…” Ashlyn starts, but stops right in the middle of her thought as her eyes drift to the two large cups of coffee and bag of donuts sitting on the table next to Ali. Her eyes go wide as she excitedly squeaks out “Oh my god, is that...”

Ali finishes the sentence for her. “Starbucks coffee and some donuts from Dunkin’? Yep! I had no idea how you like your coffee, so there’s cream and sugar in the donut bag too.”

Ashlyn can’t believe it. Coffee is one of her favorite things in the world and she had finally resigned herself to the fact that she’d have to deal with terrible prison coffee forever. “This…how did…” she can’t even get the words to come out right.

“Perks of being your lawyer now.” Ali answers, finding the childlike expression on Ashlyn’s face endearing as the blonde stares at the coffee cup with her mouth slightly open in wonder. “Lawyers get more leeway in what we can bring into visits and how often and long we can visit for. Apparently, we’re more trustworthy.” She laughs a bit and waits for Ashlyn to make a lawyer joke, but it never comes. Ashlyn is too busy smiling at the coffee cup.

“Geez. Go on and drink it, don’t have eye sex with it.” Ali can’t help but tease a little. “Promise I’ll always bring more when I visit and I’ll even get your favorite next time if you tell me what you want.”

Ashlyn turns a bit red realizing how ridiculous she must look right now getting almost emotional over a cup of coffee. “Sorry, I just… you’re the fucking best, Alex. Seriously, thank you.” She says quietly, meeting Ali’s eyes as she fixes her coffee with one packet of sugar and a splash of cream.

“You bet. Told you I’ll take care of you.” Ali says matter-of-factly. “Speaking of which, any chance you want to go easy on me today and maybe give me your version of things rather than make me report on all this investigating I’ve been up to?”

 

Ashlyn ponders Ali’s question for a second as she selects a chocolate frosted donut out of the bag on the table and takes a bite of it, following it up with a big sip of her coffee. She lets the flavor roll over her tongue and then lets out a long contented sigh; she can’t remember the last time she had anything so good. “Mmmm, better than sex.” She mumbles before she can stop herself.

“Well ok then.” Ali giggles wide-eyed. “Either the coffee in here really is that bad or you just don’t remember what a good lay feels like.”

Ashlyn laughs awkwardly as she realizes she actually voiced her thoughts out loud. “Sorry, that slipped out. For the record though, the coffee in here is beyond awful and after a couple years in this dump, you pretty much forget what your last good lay even felt like.” Ashlyn winks, trying to gain her confidence back.

“Noted. Well, I’ll keep bringing the ‘better than sex’ coffee and then we’ll work on finding you a solution to the ‘good lay’ problem when we get you out of here.” Ali replies with sass, using air quotes to punctuate her statement before trying to get back to the more meaningful conversation. “Anyway, that doesn’t answer my question. You telling me a story or am I telling you one?”

Ashlyn starts to laugh a bit at Ali’s teasing, but then the full weight of the brunette’s statement hits her like a ton of bricks. Her chest constricts a bit as she realizes that Ali is serious about pursuing this case and trying to get her acquitted. She had intended to tell Ali right away that she just wanted a friend, not a lawyer, but she got distracted by the coffee. She takes another quick sip of coffee to buy herself a couple more seconds before Ali can see the change her in demeanor. The delicious toasted favor rolls over her tongue and all she can think about is Ali’s simple of gesture of kindness in bringing her this coffee. She realizes she doesn’t have it in her at the moment to deflate Ali’s plans. She was going to tell her the true story anyway, so she figures she might as well go ahead and worry about how to tell Ali she doesn’t want to pursue the case later on in the visit.

“Well after this amazing coffee, I don’t think I can deny you anything. Story time it is.” Ashlyn says smoothly while internally mustering up the courage to finally speak the truth out loud.

“Phew!” Ali sighs dramatically with a smirk. “You know, when you first walked in, I thought for sure you were going to back out on me. I’m all ears, you have my undivided attention, Harris.” She jokes a bit, but looks at Ashlyn with warmth and sincerity, knowing this is hard for the blonde.

Ashlyn ignores the guilt she feels about Ali’s ‘backing out’ statement and puts on a confident face before starting. “That’s just the way I like it, Krieger. Hold on to your hat…”

Chapter Text

Ashlyn takes one more sip of her coffee, a final reminder to herself of Ali’s kind nature and trustworthiness as she starts to explain. 

“So, I don’t really have to get into what Bobby was doing because you already pretty much have an idea. He was good at extortion and taking bribes to turn a blind eye to things. He had his own drug operation going too with his own guys that couldn’t be traced back to him. I’m sure he still does. I spent over a year documenting it all, pictures, recordings, even video when I could sneak it. He didn’t have any idea, just saw me as his trusty sidekick. I honestly still don’t think he has the slightest clue that I have all that stuff.” Ashlyn starts in as steady a voice she can manage before Ali pipes up.

“Woah, hold up. So, this whole Liam Gorham thing wasn’t a way to stop you from busting him? He never knew you had all that info?” Ali asks wide-eyed and confused.

“No. He had no idea about it. Relax there Alex, I’ll get into it all.” Ashlyn responds a bit smugly, feeling an odd sense of pride that Ali hadn’t completely figured it all out.

“Wow. Ok. Curveball. Sorry, I’ll shut up now.” Ali pretends to zip her lip with her fingers.

“So over a year of compiling all that stuff and I’m feeling good about being able to pull it off because I feel solid about the fact that he sees me as a complete confidant, a little mini-me for him to train and feel proud of. Such a pompous asshole. Anyway, he stops by my place one night on the pretense of having a beer, which is not unusual. We’re just having normal conversation when he decides to tell me that one thing I really need to learn from him is how to always have enough information about the people I deal with to be able to hold it over their heads and extort them.” Ashlyn shakes her head a chuckles a bit before continuing.

“He actually said ‘You gotta have a file on people you deal with of all the crap they’re afraid of going public or that will bring them to their knees’. And here I am practically laughing inside because I’m doing that to him right under his nose. And then he says ‘Even the clean ones, you can always find something. Let me show you what I mean’.” Ashlyn pauses and lets out a long breath and takes another sip of coffee like it’s liquid courage.

“Then he pretty much pulled the rug out from under me. He tells me I’m just about the most stand-up person he knows, so he knows he can trust me. Again, ridiculous to me because if he thinks I’m really that ‘stand-up’ then he should know I’d never really roll with him. He goes on to tell me that everyone has a weakness and then notes how important my brother is to me.  Then he pulls out this really thick file and tells me to have a look. It was practically a fucking detailed book of horrible illegal shit my brother did before he got rehabbed and pulled his life together. Stuff I had no idea about. The bastard could put my brother away for life at the snap of his fingers if he wanted to. Just when Chris finally has his life together…he’s clean, has his own business, a great wife and two amazing kids. And just like that an asshole like Bobby could rip it all away.” Ashlyn nervously runs her hands through her hair and lets her eyes meet Ali’s for a second checking for her reaction.

Ali nods sympathetically, knowing she had made the correct assumption that Ashlyn was protecting her brother from whatever information Bobby had on him. She tries to reassure the blonde. “It’s ok Ashlyn. Breathe for second, we have plenty of time and I’m here to help remember.”

Ashlyn nods and let’s Ali’s voice calm her a bit, just like it does when she listens to her podcasts. There’s something about the even, steady, confident, but gentle tone of the brunette that relaxes her. She lets her eyes fall back down to the table and continues on.

“Internally, I’m freaking out. I figure he has to know now that I’ve been collecting dirt on him and that’s why he’s telling me all this. I think maybe I can get out of it by denying it, so I put on the biggest poker face I have and act completely unaffected and just confused. So, I ask him what Chris has to do with anything. And he says ‘Absolutely nothing. Chris is fine and he’ll always be fine. I’m just trying to give you a lesson, kid. Even the people closest to you, always keep tabs. That’s all I’m trying to teach you. I want you to be good at what you do’. And then he goes back to normal conversation just like that. So, then I’m panicked that he has all that information, but at least I’m feeling more relieved that it wasn’t a specific threat because he got wise to what I was doing. Just made me realize I need to get my shit together even faster and take Bobby down before he does find out what I’m up to.” Ashlyn looks up again and just finds Ali listening intently, so she keeps going.

“Two weeks later, he calls me one evening and tells me I need to meet him at Liam Gorham’s private office. I’m thinking a major deal is about to go down because Liam is his biggest money associate and we’re meeting at his quiet private office rather than his highly guarded mansion. They’re in deep together with a huge Ponzi scheme, a Guatemalan drug trade, and an offshore bank account with literally millions upon millions in it. No guards means no extra ears in the room, so I know it has to be huge. I rush over there, hoping to get enough information to really nail Bobby’s coffin shut.” Ashlyn’s voice starts to shake a bit as she plays the memory over in her head. “It wasn’t…I didn’t…” She starts, but stops and takes a deep breath.

Ali can see that little beads of sweat have formed on Ashlyn’s forehead along her hairline. It definitely feels like the room has gotten a bit stuffy. “Take your time.” Ali tries to calm the blonde a bit and give her time to collect her thoughts. She’s feeling the heat of the room herself, so she rolls up of the sleeves of her button-up as she waits for Ashlyn to speak again, but it doesn’t take long before the blonde pulls herself together.

“It was nothing I could have anticipated. I got there and it was already a fucking bloody mess.” Ashlyn gets out quickly before something distracts her. “Hey, you have a tattoo!”

Ali is hanging on Ashlyn’s story, waiting to hear the most important part of it when she sees the blonde’s eyes widen and stare at her left forearm as she finishes rolling up her sleeve. “Yep.” She says simply, willing the blonde to continue her story. No such luck.

“Hmmph, you don’t strike me as the type to get tatted.” Ashlyn muses, carefully looking over the loopy scripted word inked in black on the brunettes forearm. “It’s really nice ink, looks sharp. What does it mean?”

Ali can’t believe this is happening right now at the very moment she was about to hear the most important part of Ashlyn’s story. She tries to be patient, but she’s having a hard time. “Seriously? You’re stopping there and we’re gonna talk about my tattoo now?”

“Sorry, but heck yeah we are.” The confident smirk is back on Ashlyn’s face. “Tattoos are important to me and I want to know.”

Ali rolls her eyes a bit, but knows she has to do this Ashlyn’s way. “It’s Liebe. German for love. I studied abroad there in college and, well, I guess I felt like I really found myself there. I was at my most reflective there and found peace within myself about who I am. This was my way of honoring that and my heritage.” Ali explains.

“I really like that. It’s deep and personal, the way a tattoo should be.” Ashlyn smiles at Ali genuinely, knowing her own tattoos have profound meaning. “Any others?” She eyes Ali inquisitively.

“Nope, sorry Harris, no more stalling. I’ll answer that question when you finish telling me your story.” Ali says in a simultaneously serious but playful tone, hoping she can get the blonde to get back on track. “I promise you’ll like the answer.” She teases a bit further to get what she wants.

“Ugh.” Ashlyn lets out a displeased grunt with a smirk on her face. “Ok, ok. Fine.” She mumbles, and just like that her confidence is gone again as she goes back to thinking about that night. “So, um, yeah… I got there… it… fucking mess.” Her voice comes out raspy and quiet, a string of broken words.

Ashlyn feels Ali’s fingertips lightly brush over the top of her left hand. The touch is very quick, just meant to be reassuring, but the warmth that shoots up her arm and into her chest is enough to make the rest of the words come out more steadily.

“I text Bobby that I’m there once I get there and I can see both of their cars in the driveway. He texts me to come in and meet them in Gorham’s office like usual. I’m expecting the same style of meeting we always have when one of these big private deals is about to go down. The first thing I notice when I walk in is that Liam is behind the desk, slumped in his chair a bit. It only took me a couple more seconds to realize the bottom half of his left jaw is missing, tiny bloody pieces of it clinging to his fancy dark blue dress shirt. His desk is sprayed in blood. And I froze…” Ashlyn pauses to look up at Ali again, finding the brunette’s eyes wide with her fingers nervously scratching the back of her neck.

“I saw so much awful crap during my army tours and I never froze, but I did this time. I just never could have anticipated it. Bobby was scum for sure, but he wasn’t a guy who would do this, or so I thought. Before I could even process what the heck was happening, I’m on the ground in pain with blood pouring out of my leg.” Ashlyn continues speaking as she replays it all in her head.

**********************************************************************************

“Get the fuck up, Harris.” She hears Bobby beside her, his gun pointed at her head, the silencer tip still hot from the bullet that just ripped through her leg. “Give me your gun and give me your phone.” He demands.

“Bobby, fucking hell. What the fuck?” Ashlyn gets out shakily, her leg throbbing with the unmistakable burning pain that she’s already way too familiar with. “You fucking shot me?!” She yells in shock, seated on the floor and not able to get up at the moment as she clutches her lower right thigh near her knee.

“Gun and phone, Harris. Now.” Bobby says louder, his voice like ice, his gun pressing into her temple now.

“Bobby, what… I thought…” Ashlyn tries to make sense of it.

“That’s the problem, Harris. Stop thinking and just act. Gun and phone before I make you look like Gorham, I’m serious.” To make his point he presses the silencer so hard into her head that she already feels bruised.

“Alright, alright. Here.” She unsheathes her gun slowly and hands it to him before handing over her phone too. “You gonna tell me what the hell this is?” She asks carefully after he partially lowers his gun and starts doing something on her phone and then his own phone rings. She watches him answer his phone without uttering a word and puts it in his pocket again. He doesn’t say anything, just raises her gun in his hand and shoots an already dead Liam Gorham 6 more times in the chest.

The sound is deafening and Ashlyn covers her ears in surprise, completely confused and trembling now as she continues to bleed. “Fuck, Bobby!” She screams.

He walks around behind her and pulls her hands behind her back roughly. She feels him cuff her hands behind her. He hasn’t said a word, but the cold look in his eyes is telling her all she needs to know right now.

“One peep out of you and your dead.” Bobby warns her and picks up his phone again, making a call.

“Lieutenant McNally, it’s Chief, I got a huge problem. Captain Harris just killed Liam Gorham, I need back up fast at his office. 3 Acre Drive, you know it.  He was dead when I got here. I have her detained. She’s got a gunshot wound to the leg. I don’t see a gun on Gorham, I think she took a ricochet so I need EMT with you.” Ashlyn sits stunned at what she is hearing. His voice is the perfect mix of panicked and professional, it’s an Oscar worthy performance.  “Shit. Shit. I don’t know McNally, she called me in a panic. This is a fucking mess, I think they were having an affair. I know, just get our guys here ASAP. And McNally, as subtle as we can ok? No media if we can avoid it for now. We take care of our own, you know that.” He finishes with a sad voice and hangs up.

Ashlyn’s mouth is slightly agape, trying to process it all. All she can get out is “Bobby…”

“Sorry Harris, but it’s me or you, and I pick you. He was gonna rat me out and cut me loose, so I cut him loose first.” Bobby explains nonchalantly with a slight shrug. “You know how it goes.”

Ashlyn finally puts it all together. “Come on, Bobby. No one is going to believe I killed him. This scene is a goddamn mess.”

“Oh they’re gonna believe you, Harris. Cause if they don’t, you’re brother is going down and you’re dead. I can take down Chris no matter where I am. He’ll die in a jail cell, I’ll make damn sure of it. You know damn well I’ll put him away for life with no problem. Then when he’s in there and can’t do a damn thing, I’ll cut down his wife and kids just to make it hell. I’ll have him hanging himself in that cell in no time.” Bobby’s eyes are so dark and his voice is so cold that Ashlyn knows he means it. She knows he has the power to do it. And she now knows that he is evil enough to follow through.

“Bobby, you won’t… come on…we’ll figure this out.” Ashlyn pleads with him, but her mind is spinning from the situation in front of her and the pain in her leg.

“Don’t fucking test me. You know better.” He spits at her. “Let me tell you what just happened and how this is going to go. We have about 15 minutes before our squad walks through that door, so listen carefully cause I’m only saying it once and you better get it right.”

Ashlyn can only shake her head. She’s done and she knows it. Bobby Dugan has the upper hand. It’s the only way she can protect the only family she has left, so she just listens and follows instructions.

Bobby lays it out very clearly for her. The story isn’t the cleanest, but it’s good enough to accomplish what he wants. “You’ve been fucking around with Liam behind his wife’s back for 5 months. He said many times he was leaving her for you and he never has. You got impatient, you confronted him today and he flat out told you he wasn’t going to leave his wife. You lost your mind and in a fit of rage you shot him over and over again, putting one last one in his brain to make sure no one could have him. One of those shots ricocheted into your leg. You freaked out and called me. And now you’re going to confess to the whole thing and go through the process as quietly as you possibly can because you’re completely ashamed. Got it, Harris? Full fucking confession and you serve whatever time you get quietly. One fucking word gets out about what actually happened here and you can kiss the Harris family goodbye. I’ll even make sure you see it all go down and let you suffer until I decide to take pity on you and kill you myself and frame it as a ‘tragic suicide’. You got it?” Bobby asks venomously.

“Fuck you, Bobby. Yeah I got it.” Ashlyn says in defeat. “I confess and stay quiet, and you leave Chris and his family alone forever? Can I count on that?” She clarifies.

“I’m a man of my word, Harris.” Bobby smirks at her. “You hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine. Buck up, jail isn’t that bad. Plus, consider it a payback plan for all the help I’ve given you along the way.”

“You’re such a fucking asshole. I knew you were a fucking piece of shit.” She gets out as sirens sound in the distance.

“Yeah well, doesn’t matter now, does it?” Bobby teases her, grabbing a hand full of her hair and roughly pulling her face close to his. “Better make it fucking believable, Harris.” He gives her one last warning with a swift kick to her wounded leg that makes her grunt in pain and her eyes tear up. “Yeah, let’s see some tears. Now that’s award worthy.” He mocks her before putting on a somber face and going to open the door for the swarm of police that is about to descend on the place.

***********************************************************************************

“I did what he said and it happened pretty quickly. They treated my leg at hospital and I was signing a confession shortly after. It went before a judge three days after that and I got sentenced to a life term just like that. I never realized how fast this shit could happen with so few questions asked.” Ashlyn finishes quietly, her voice melancholy.

She’s emotionally exhausted now that she’s put it all out there for the first time ever. She steals herself for the barrage of questions that Ali is sure to start asking now that she’s heard the truth. Instead she’s met with quiet and finally looks up to see nothing but Ali’s usual warm brown eyes looking back at her almost sadly.

It doesn’t even strike Ali to ask a question right now. She can only marvel at the strength of the woman in front of her and be overcome by how awful the situation is. Ali simply clutches both of Ashlyn’s hands in hers and lets her heart speak. “I am so sorry, Ashlyn. So sorry. This whole this is just unfathomable. I’m here though and I’m always going to be.”

Ashlyn can only smile a bit and squeeze Ali’s hands tightly. It’s the last thing she ever expected to hear, but also exactly what she needed. The most important, thoughtful, and genuine thing anyone has said to her to this point. “Thanks, Alex.” She whispers out a bit emotionally as she feels a slight sense of relief, her hands letting go of Ali’s before they earn a warning from Jordan who’s behind the observation window.

There’s a comfortable silence between them for a few minutes as Ashlyn prepares herself to start talking through some of the details with Ali. She knows the lawyer side of the brunette is dying to break free and get into the situation more. On cue, it’s Ali who finally breaks the silence, but what comes out is again not what Ashlyn was expecting.

“There are two others.” Ali says with a small sweet smile.

“Two other what?” Ashlyn asks completely confused.

“Two other tattoos. Unfortunately, I can’t show you without getting kicked out of here. So, you’ll have to settle for a description.” Ali winks at the blonde who can’t help but let a small chuckle escape her lips.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn raises her eyebrows in surprise. “I seriously tell you all that stuff and you’re switching the topic back to tattoos now? What did you do with the real Ali Krieger?” She looks around the room dramatically.

Ali laughs a bit before answering. “Oh, she’s alive and well. Trust me, there’s plenty going on upstairs.” She points to her head. “But, honestly, there are a few reasons I don’t think we should get into anymore today.” She pauses and gets a bit more serious.

“Ok.” Ashlyn nods a bit, waiting for Ali to continue.

“First, I know that was a lot for you to get out. It was hard for me to hear despite already having a pretty good sense of what happened, so I can only imagine what it was like for you to say it and relive it. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you trusted me enough to tell me.” She gives Ashlyn a genuine smile and gets a small smile in acknowledgement from the blonde.

“Second, while I did already map out a lot of what happened on my own, some of it is new to me. And while I do have a game plan in mind, I want to make sure I really think it through before I walk you through it. Like I promised you before, unless I’m very sure that I can make something work, I’m not going to do it. The first priority is always keeping you and your family safe. And of course, I won’t do anything you don’t want me to. Even if my plan is brilliant, which it will be.” Ali says with an exaggerated cocky smile hoping to make Ashlyn laugh a bit. It works. “Anyway, I want the time to properly think through everything very carefully before I get any further.”

“And third, I’m your lawyer, but I’m also your friend. Well, your friend that has only known you for like no time at all and really doesn’t know you very well.” Ali says in perfect sarcastic humor, gaining another chuckle from the blonde. “Really though. Despite everything, I think we can be great friends. I want to get to know you properly. Plus, I’d be a terrible friend if I let these visits end on a negative vibe. So, I hope we can spend time at the end of our visits just talking and learning about each other. We have about an hour left, so, you up for it buddy?”

The whole statement makes Ashlyn feel both comforted and alive inside. Ali is exactly what she needs right now, a friend. She knows that there are other motives there, but right now they just don’t seem to matter. Ali said it herself, she can say no to anything she wants to at any time. She sure as hell isn’t about to ruin the next hour shutting down a legal plan that Ali hasn’t even presented her with yet. So, the whole tirade she planned to give Ali about wanting a friend and not a lawyer goes completely out the window as she hurries to latch onto to the olive branch that the brunette has so kindly extended to her like it’s a lifeline.

“So, there are two other tattoos…” Ashlyn smirks, reminding Ali where they were headed.

“It wouldn’t be any fun if I just told you. Any guesses on location?” Ali tries to get the playful side of Ashlyn to come out.

“Alright. Alright, I’m game. Let’s see.” Ashlyn looks Ali up and down a bit, her hand under her chin for effect. “You’re such a girly girl, I mean, look at that perfect mascara and eyeliner! And with maybe a rebellious streak a little bit. I’m going to say lower back and hip.”

“Not bad. You struck out on one, but you hit the other one out of the park.” Ali replies.

“Oh my god, Alex has a tramp stamp!” Ashlyn belts out with a laugh.

“Nope. Sorry to inform you that you struck out on that one! Tramp stamp, really?!” Ali gives the blonde a glare. “What kind of girl do you think I am?! Girly, sure… but, I don’t know many lesbians with a tramp stamp. Do you?”

“Oooh, riiight! Not gonna lie, I forgot about that little revelation.” Ashlyn admits, feeling a bit foolish that she forgot. “Can I get a second guess then?”

“Ok. Go for it.” Ali eggs her on.

“Factoring in the lady loving, now I’m gonna go with right above your breast.” Ashlyn smiles smugly.

Ali shakes her head. “Strike two! And that’s all you get!”

“How about you just tell me.” Ashlyn lets her curiosity finally get the best of her.

“Well for a girl that didn’t strike you as someone who would get tatted, I’ll have you know that I have a large black script tattoo covering my entire left ribcage and then some.” Ali reports and waits for Ashlyn’s reaction.

“To steal your words…wow, curveball! That is a big tattoo. Yep, I would never peg you as having such a big piece like that.” Ashlyn says genuinely impressed. “You said it’s a script. What does it say?”

“It’s in German, like my arm. I got both of these tattoos there. Anyway, it’s a quote from the book The Little Prince. It was the first book I read when I was learning the language. ‘Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut, das Wesentliche ist für die Augen unsichtbar’. Loosely translated it means that one sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Ali answers.

“You know, you’re a lot more philosophical and deep than I expected.” Ashlyn states truthfully.

“Um, thanks… I think. Glad I’m not the air head you expected me to be.” Ali jokes.

“Stop. You know what I mean.” The blonde plays back, rolling her eyes. “So, two German tattoos. What’s on your hip, the Volkswagen symbol?” Ashlyn laughs at her own joke. “That’s a pretty private spot.” She adds.

“Funny, Harris.” Ali shakes her head at the bad joke. “That tattoo is small and it’s just really personal to me, so that’s why that spot. It’s there just for me and for whoever I decide to let in, you know?” Ali replies more seriously.

“Makes sense, I totally get it.” Ashlyn responds.

“It’s the Penn State lion with the number 22 above it. It was my mother’s soccer number when she played at Penn State, part of the reason I chose to go there. I played growing up and through college as number 11, exactly half of her number, my way of honoring her.” Ali explains solemnly.

“That’s touching.” Ashlyn nods sympathetically, but tries not to let the conversation go into the serious direction it’s starting to. “I should have known though. That ‘take em’ down’ mentality of yours and those thighs… totally a defender. Am I right?”

“Um, yeah actually. Ok. Wow. How on earth could you know that?” Ali is a bit stunned.

“Please. I spent plenty of time watching go-getter defenders like you and barking directions at them. Well, and checking out their asses.” Ashlyn grins.

“Fucking Goalkeeper! Of course! I should have known with that smug, cocky ass attitude of yours!” Ali gives it right back to her, laughing hard now. “When did you play?”

“Mostly as a kid and then in high school. I played some for Army too at West Point, but that was very short-lived.” Ashlyn answers.

“How come?” Ali asks.

“I was too busy becoming the first female ranger, remember? That shit was no joke. No time for anything else. It was a bit of a bummer.” The blonde replies truthfully. “Why did you stop playing or do you still?”

“Broke my leg my senior year at Penn. I had surgery to repair it and then ended up with blood clots afterwards and a pulmonary embolism that almost killed me. I never really came back from that. I still love to watch the game though.” Ali says evenly.

“Damn. That’s rough.” Ashlyn muses. “You know something, Alex. You’re one tough cookie. I mean, I kind of expected it from what I heard on your podcast. Still, it’s more prevailing than I anticipated, but yet you’re still so gentle and kind under it all. It’s refreshing, I like it.”

Ali tries not blush at the blonde’s blunt statement, instead choosing to take the upper hand. “You hitting on me, Ashlyn?”

“Maybe.” Ashlyn waggles her eyebrows at the brunette in jest. “I mean, you did just remind me that you like the ladies.” She doesn’t let the statement linger long. “Which reminds me. I have to ask. I know you’re a great lawyer and investigator, yadda, yadda, yadda…but seriously, how in the hell did you figure out my whole prom night virginity fiasco? I mean, anyone who isn’t blind could guess I’m a lesbian. But the prom thing, that was just uncanny.”

Ali smiles proudly. “Really just an educated and lucky guess. I didn’t delve much into your life before college because it wasn’t all that relevant, but I came across this picture in the Ipswich Chronicle newspaper of you and your prom date. And well, you looked just like I did in those days… all glammed up and girly in a perfect prom dress with a good looking guy on your arm. Since that was how things went for me on prom night, I just sort of made that statement for effect in making my point. Just luck that I ended up being right.” Ali shrugs.

 “Well, you were dead on. I spent the better part of a week thinking you were psychic or something.” Ashlyn shakes her head before adding more seriously, “Sorry you had to go through that too. Such a shitty way to figure out your sexuality…laying there wondering why people are so crazy about sex while some loser pounds into you.”

“Yeah, it was definitely shitty to say the least. But, I try to remember the fact that it was the start of a great realization about myself.” Ali agrees before lightening the conversation again. “Plus, people say you can’t knock it until you try it… well, now I can knock it!”

Ashlyn laughs and nods in agreement. “Mmmhmm, got that right!”

“Although, I think not having that realization until the end of high school made me a bit, um, easy in college.” Ali giggles. “I was way too excited to finally be myself and date women. Plus, I’ve always been really girly, so women almost never hit on me unless I was completely blatant. So, when they did hit on me, let’s just say I was very ready to hop onboard!”

“Wow, ok then. Maybe you should have gotten a tramp stamp after all.” Ashlyn teases, earning a light smack on the hand from Ali. “Rewinding back to your prior question… I now change my answer to yes…I was definitely hitting on you. I mean, after that confession, I’d be a fool not to.” Ashlyn smirks stifling a laugh.

“Hey, hey, hey! I said college! I’m not that girl anymore!” Ali protests.

“Bummer.” Ashlyn deadpans, earning a playful eye roll from the brunette.

“Oh come on. Are you telling me you never dated with reckless abandon? Look at you, I bet women were just lining up and throwing themselves at you.” Ali prods.

“Ha!” Ashlyn chuckles loudly. “Not quite there, Alex. Lest we forget that I went to a military academy and served during the heyday of ‘Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.’ Not only did I have zero time for all that, but it wasn’t exactly safe to be out.”

“Oh, right. Crap. Sorry, I didn’t think about that.” Ali cringes a bit. “That must have seriously sucked. So, did you not date at all in college or while you served?”

“Nah, I did. I’ve always had a hard time letting people in though, I guess with all my family crap and all. Then trying to be inconspicuous about it on top of that. So, rather than dating around and a string of wild nights, I just had three kinda sorta serious relationships. The break-ups were all really crappy, but I guess I wouldn’t trade that. I learned a lot about myself with each of those people.” Ashlyn answers honestly. “I guess maybe now, I’m pretty damn sure about exactly what I want in a person. Not that it matters much given where I am right now.”

“I wish I’d gone that route.” Ali muses, ignoring the end of the blonde’s statement because she wants to believe she’ll get Ashlyn out of here and it will most certainly matter for her again. “I was always so busy with my career that I never put much effort into relationships beyond a few dates with people, nothing ever serious. I just figured I’d have plenty of time to settle. Now I want to settle in with someone and I feel like there’s so much pressure because just about all I know is what I don’t want in a person. No idea what I’m doing really.”

“Well, knowing what you don’t want works too.” Ashlyn encourages her.

“I guess.” Ali replies a bit sadly. “Ugh, I don’t even know what it means to settle, but I still want it. Kinda weird.”

“Not weird at all. I get what you’re saying.” Ashlyn tries to console the brunette a bit and get back to their light banter again. “Relax, Alex. You’re not exactly an old spinster here. Far from it. You have plenty of time to find someone great that can give you everything you’re looking for. And you will. I mean, geez, put those damn investigative skills to use, woman!”

“Hmmm, thought I was.” Ali puts the blatantly flirtatious statement out there just to see the blonde’s reaction.

“You hitting on me now, Alex?” Ashlyn asks with a smirk.

“Maybe. Is it working?” Ali plays back. “I mean, apparently, you are a tough nut to crack and I’m just easy.”

Ashlyn laughs heartily. “You make me laugh, Krieger. Trust me, you wouldn’t have to work that hard to get my attention.”

“Oh really?” Ali goads the blonde.

“But, I’m a jail bird, so I guess you’ll never know.” Ashlyn says with a grin.

“Hmmm, well, maybe I’d be willing to put the effort into getting your attention.” Ali says in joking contemplation.

“Oh really?” Ashlyn parrots the brunette.

“But, I’m your lawyer, so I guess you’ll never find out.” Ali plays back.

“5 minutes!” Jordan opens the door of the observation window and calls out to them, startling them both a bit since they got wrapped up in conversation and forgot he was there.

“That went fast.” Ashlyn notes.

Ali nods in agreement and makes sure to get down to a little business. “Right. So, I’ll see you in three days and I hope to have a solid game plan for you by then.”

“Ok.” Ashlyn says noncommittally, a little guilt creeping in because she knows that there’s very little chance she’s going to let Ali go forward with any kind of scenario.

Ali sees the change in demeanor and doesn’t press it further. “Alright, so, let’s really end with a bang… what’s your favorite color?” She smiles widely.

“Black.” Ashlyn answers with a smile of her own.

“Hmmm, well that’s depressing.” Ali replies.

“I just like it.” Ashlyn shrugs. “What’s yours?”

“Red.” Ali replies simply.

“How fierce, such a go-getter!” Ashlyn jokes, adding a little roar for effect.

“Very funny.” Ali gives her a playful glare. “Ok, last one. Favorite food?”

“Mac & cheese for sure.” Ashlyn says. “What about you?”

“Beer.” Ali says with a smile.

Ashlyn laughs out loud. “Well aren’t you a wildcard!”

They share a laugh for moment, followed by a brief silence that Ashlyn finally breaks as she stands up and pushes in her chair.

“Hey, Alex. Thanks for the coffee, and listening, and, well… the whole last hour really.” She pauses for a moment trying to find the right words. “It meant… I just really really needed that. Thank you.” It comes out as heartfelt as she intended.

Ali feels warm inside at genuine look of appreciation in the blonde’s eyes. “Anytime, Ashlyn. You know… I actually think I needed that too.” She stands up and reaches over the table to give Ashlyn a quick hug, immediately noting the strong muscular feel of the arms enveloping her.

Ashlyn let’s herself melt into the very brief contact, the smell of Ali’s shampoo clouding her mind a bit as it stands out in such contrast to the flat, sterile environment around her. She hears Jordan’s throat clear behind them. “See you soon.” She says as she steps back.

“Count on it.” Ali replies, her face dropping a bit as she watches Ashlyn get cuffed and led out the door. She collects her things and heads out the door determined to come back with a fool proof plan to get the blonde out of here.

 

“Well you two looked cozy.” Jordan teases Ashlyn as he escorts her back to her cell.

“First, pretty sure we couldn’t have been that cozy seeing as how your job is to stop it.” She gives him a look, knowing he’s purposely been sticking his nose in his magazine anytime Ali touches her. “Second, she’s my lawyer.”

“First, I do my job just fine thanks. I don’t get paid enough to do more than catch up on my Car & Driver when I get the chance.” Jordan laughs. “Second, right, and my wife is my therapist.” He winks at her.

Ashlyn shakes her head dramatically, inwardly thankful for Tim and Jordan in this crappy place. “Whatever. Thanks, man.” She replies as he opens the door to her cell.

“Anytime, Capt.” He says very quietly, referring respectfully to her police rank as he locks her in.

Even after all this time, the click of the lock always makes her skin jump a bit. Not today. Today she feels calm. Today marks the first time in just over two years that she has entered her cell with a smile. A smile that belongs solely to the efforts of Ali Krieger.

Chapter Text

Ali is so glued to her computer screen she doesn’t even hear Kyle let himself into her house. She’s not even coming up with anything new at this point, just staring at her notes on the screen as she internally debates with herself on how far she should go. Papers are scattered all over her kitchen table in what would look like a mess to anyone else, but are actually organized in a way only she can understand. She only looks up when she sees a fresh cup of coffee placed down in front of her. Kyle plops down right across from her with a small, knowing smile.

“How many more nights of sleep have you forgone?” Kyle asks. He spent all of last week trying to pepper her with questions about Ashlyn and what the blonde has told her or what she knows, but Ali wouldn’t bite. She refused to tell him what she had found out other than saying Ashlyn had retained her as a lawyer. Kyle had been shocked, asking a million more questions, but Ali would only say that she thought it looked promising and that when Ashlyn allowed her to, she would share more. He’s now bitten his tongue and watched her work tirelessly for days. He knows something major must have happened after this last visit between the two, Ali looks like a woman possessed the last couple days. Her focus as intense as he’s ever seen it. He’s tried to leave her alone and just check in on her, but now she’s looking exhausted and he intervenes.

“I can’t remember the last time I left this table other than to pee.” Ali says taking a sip of her coffee a bit distractedly, still staring at her computer. “Thanks for this,” she adds warmly.

“Yeah, I could smell you from outside.” Kyle teases. “Pretty sure if you don’t shower, Harris won’t let you visit again…ever.” He laughs a bit holding his nose.

Ali finally makes eye contact with him and sticks her tongue out.

“Oh, so that gets your attention finally?! Strike one! You totally have a crush on her!” Kyle prods.

“I do not!” Ali protests. “She’s my client!”

“Uh huh.” Kyle replies calmly. “That overreaction just confirms it, strike two! But I’ll be nice and drop it for now.”

“You’re so not helping.” Ali pouts a bit. “Ugh, I just want to get her out of there, but it’s not as clean cut as I want it to be.” She spits out in frustration.

Kyle can see she’s overtired and ready to break, so he stops teasing her and let’s his genuine concern take over. “Hey Alex, talk to me. What’s going on? Did you really find a way out for her?”

“Yes.” Ali concedes quietly as she watches his eyes widen and his mouth drop open and wonders how much she should tell him. “Oh don’t look so surprised!” She throws a paperclip at him.

“I just… wow, really? Like really?” Kyle asks, still a bit shocked. He knows he shouldn’t be surprised given how intelligent and relentless his sister is. Still, he’s watched her struggle for days on end and just assumed this was a lost cause. His heart is racing at the knowledge that Ali might actually have found a way to do this.

“Yeah.” Ali says still looking perturbed. “The case against her is complete bullshit and the path to get her acquitted is pretty clear. I’m confident I could get the right people in place to prove it with the evidence and get her cleared.”

“So, what the hell are you moping around for? I’m so lost here! Why aren’t you like jumping up and down?!” Kyle belts out completely bewildered.

“I made her a promise, Kyle.” Ali explains. “I said I wouldn’t do anything that either wouldn’t work or would put her family in danger.” She doesn’t want to get into details with him because she promised Ashlyn it would stay between them, but she also knows she needs to release some of her frustration right now. “I’m 99% sure I can get her cleared, but I’m also 99% sure it puts her brother and his family in danger and probably her and us too.” Her voice is low and melancholy. “She’s never going to agree to let me do it.”

“Oh.” Kyle responds in a glum whisper, his elbows on the table with his hands supporting his chin. “Can I ask what the issue is? I mean, you still look so intent and like you’re debating something. Does that mean it’s not a lost cause?”

Ali plays with her coffee cup for a minute as she carefully words her answer. “It’s not a lost cause. The truth is that I know how to protect her family until this is all over and it’s safe. The problem is that her brother would need to agree to it and it’s a major sacrifice.  So much so that I don’t think Ashlyn will go along with it.” Ali sighs deeply. “It’s not even worth telling her this whole plan unless I know her brother would be willing to go through with being hidden like that. None of it would work unless he agreed. I just, I feel like it’s overstepping to talk to him without asking her.” She finally lets out the conflict that’s been eating at her night and day.

“Hmmm.” Kyle lets it all sink in. “Well, do you have to tell him everything or could you just ask him if he’d be willing without divulging too much information?”

“No, I guess I could be vague and just get a sense of what he would be willing to do in a given scenario. But, you don’t think that’s breaking her trust to talk to him without asking her?” Ali questions.

“As long as you don’t tell him anything she wouldn’t want you to, I don’t think so. I know Harris pretty well in that regard. I really don’t think she’ll be upset at you.” Kyle says honestly. “Look, just call him and find out. If he says no, then fuck it, you go to Ashlyn and tell her it’s too dangerous. That’s probably what she is expecting anyway. If he says yes, then you give it to her straight and let her decide. I think that’s the best you can do and I’m pretty sure she won’t be mad at you for that.”

He looks at Ali’s furrowed brow before continuing. “You know, if this was anyone else, you would’ve called already. I can already tell you found his number and are just fighting yourself now. So, why are you so hesitant when you’re always so sure of yourself?”

“I don’t know. There’s just something about her that I can’t shake. She let me in and she trusts me in a way she hasn’t even done with her own family and friends since she got locked up. I just don’t want to lose that. Whether I get her out of there or not, we’re friends now and I made a promise that I would take care of her no matter what, that I wouldn’t just disappear.” Ali tries to explain why this seems to mean so much more than any case she’s ever worked on. “I just couldn’t bear it if she shut me out too. She’s so alone in there. She really needs a friend and I want to be that person.”

“Strike three!” Kyle says in a sing-song voice, earning a death glare from Ali as she throws an empty cracker box at him that sails past his head. “I’m kidding! Geez!”

Ali ignores his teasing. “You really think I should just call him?”

“Yes, Alex. I do. She won’t be mad. She might be surprised and annoyed at first, but I think she’ll hear you out and be okay with it. Call him, find out, and then go in to see her tomorrow knowing the full game plan.” Kyle says with conviction.

Ali nods, her stomach now in knots at the next step. “Ok, well, I guess I need some privacy then.”

Kyle nods back at her and gets up to leave, but not before yelling “And take a damn shower, you’re attracting wildlife!” as he ducks out the door before she can throw anything else at him.

Ali does just that. She takes a hot shower to steady her nerves and dials the number, hearing the deep voice of Chris Harris on the other end after only two rings. The call lasts only 13 minutes and at the end she hangs up feeling like her heart is in her stomach.  She only has enough energy left to drop into her bed after taking three Tylenol PM in hopes that it will get rid of her throbbing headache and help her sleep.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn gets led into the visitor room entrance by a gray-haired, potbellied guard named Alan or Albert or Alfred, she can’t remember. She doesn’t know him that well because he’s only been there for a couple of months. He holds a firm grip on her bicep as he leads her through the door and turns her around to uncuff her before settling himself behind the observation window.  His grip was firm enough that she can still almost feel the tightness around her arm even though he had let go at least 30 seconds ago. She dwells on it for about half a second before turning around to see Ali sitting at the table in the middle of the room, two coffees in front of her and a bag probably filled with something Ashlyn can’t wait to devour.  She can’t help the instant grin that takes over her face as she walks over and sits down across from the brunette.

“Good morning, Alex.” Ashlyn greets her, the smile on her face growing impossibly wider. As much as she knows what is about to happen today, somehow she’s not as worried about it as she expected to be. Ali seems to have a calming effect on her she can’t explain and doesn’t care to think about right now. She’s just rolling with it because one day at a time is all she can manage these days. She just hopes that by the end of this visit, she hasn’t disappointed Ali so much that she doesn’t come back. She fully expects to disappoint the brunette, but hopefully not enough that they can’t still be friends.

“Hey, Ash, good morning.” Ali tries to relax and let the sweet smile on Ashlyn’s face influence her, but she’s on edge.

Ashlyn immediately notices the unusual tight lipped smile from the brunette, her posture rigid and her eyes looking weary. “Wow, Alex. You look like a cat that just got scared by its own shadow. A sleepy cat at that. What gives? What happened to my lawyer, Ms. Perfectly Poised?” She tries to lighten the mood a bit.

“Sorry. I’m just a little tired.” Ali forces herself to smile as she makes excuses for herself.

Ashlyn just gives her a skeptical look; one that makes Ali realize that the whole reason this new friendship between them seems to work is because it’s based on honesty, on truth. She immediately feels guilty. “Fuck it. Truth is that I’m nervous, Ashlyn. I don’t really get nervous. I think the last time I was this nervous was before the bar exam. And if I do happen to get nervous, I certainly never admit it.” Ali blurts out before she can think on it further.

“Well, I appreciate the honesty.” Ashlyn says warmly, a bit surprised by the frank revelation. She hasn’t seen Ali look so unhinged in their visits before, not even the first one. She tries to bring some levity to the situation. “Why so nervous? Your plan not as brilliant as you thought it would be?” Ashlyn gives her a purposefully cocky grin before getting serious. “Really, Alex. It’s ok. I know the mess I’m in and I have never expected anyone to clean it up for me. Not even the one and only Ali Krieger. Listen, I’m more appreciative than you’ll ever know that you’ve tried so hard. But really, I’m even more appreciative to just have you here to visit. You’re a good friend and I hope it stays that way.” She lays it all out there hoping to bring Ali’s anxiety level down.

Ali lets a smirk play over her lips, her eyes going up to meet Ashlyn’s. “First, let me assure you that this…” she points between the two of them, “will always stay this way as long as you want it to. That much I can promise.”

Ashlyn nods with a smile, but let’s Ali continue.

“Second, my plan is in fact brilliant, Captain Harris. Don’t ever doubt the one and only Ali Krieger. Got it?” Ali quips at the blonde playfully.

“Alright. Alright.” Ashlyn throws her hands up in mock defense. “So, if we’re friends no matter what and you have a ‘brilliant plan’… then why exactly is the one and only Ali Krieger such a nervous Nelly today? Is it my impossibly good looks or my cunning wit that has you so unglued?” Ashlyn teases her.

“Careful, Ashlyn. This room isn’t that big and if your head gets any bigger, we may have to vacate.” Ali gives it right back to her.

Ashlyn lets out a loud chuckle and then composes herself.  “Seriously, Alex. Tell me what’s up.”

Ali takes a deep breath knowing it’s time to put it all on the table. “The truth is that while my plan is solid, it’s well… it’s asking a lot of you and your family to make it work. I can pretty much assume that you’re not going to move forward with it.” She sighs, pausing before looking into Ashlyn’s eyes and saying the next part. “Right now, I can feel good knowing I have a way to get you out of here. I guess once I tell you, and you don’t give me the chance to attempt it, then it’s all gone. It makes me nervous to know that I’ll likely walk out of here knowing that I’ll just be coming right back here to visit you for a very very long time instead of meeting you over coffee in an actual coffee shop one day.”

Ashlyn feels the guilt wash over her as she sees not just genuine compassion in Ali’s eyes, but genuine sadness too. From day one she knew she wasn’t going to let herself become part of Ali Krieger’s growing dossier of solved cases. Yet, she’s strung the brunette along with her this whole time. Maybe because she was bored, maybe because she really needed a friend, she’s not sure why exactly. Now that she knows Ali Krieger, now that she trusts her, now that she’s let her in…it’s not so simple anymore. There are feelings she can’t sort out as her mind spins and her stomach churns anxiously. If the plan is actually solid, why shouldn’t she let Ali help? The once easy answer is suddenly anything but. Another quick glance into Ali’s eyes and she vows to at least give the whole thing a serious, open-minded chance.

Ashlyn takes in a very deep breath to pull herself together before lowering her eyes to the table and swallowing her own apprehension so she can reassure the nervous brunette in front of her. “In the spirit of the honesty thing we have going between us… I truly have always planned to turn down your offer no matter what you came up with.” She looks up at Ali a bit sheepishly, who is nodding knowingly and looking even more deflated than she did a few seconds ago.

“But…” Ashlyn continues quickly, “That was before I got to know you, became your friend, and realized I could trust you. I promise you Alex, I will listen to every word you have to say with an open-mind and seriously consider it before I make any decisions. Which means… it’s not an automatic no. Okay? That’s the best I can do right now, but it’s better than where we started, right?”

Ali feels her heart rate pick up, a small smile on her face as a slight sense of relief spreads over her. That’s all she needs, just a little hope. She can run with that. She meets Ashlyn’s eyes. “Okay. Thank you, Ash. That’s all I need, a fair chance. I’m not letting you down.”

Ashlyn can’t help but feel a bit giddy at the nickname, only the second time Ali has used it, but she holds herself in check knowing what’s coming next. And just like it always does when she’s nervous, her overt, smug, brazen attitude takes back over. “Okay, Krieger. Let’s hear this brilliant plan of yours. Lay it on me.” She winks at Ali for good measure.

“You’re on, Harris. Hold on to those socks because they’ll be knocked off in no time!” Ali replies with sass before adding, “But first, coffee….and bagels.” She slides a large cup of coffee in front of Ashlyn and hands her the bag she brought.

Ashlyn can’t help but grin widely as she enjoys a quick sip of delicious coffee prepared just how she likes it. “There’s my lawyer! You’re the best.”

“You don’t even know.” Ali says with confident smile. “But you will.”

Chapter Text

“First thing is to file for and win you an appeal. Easy peasy!” Ali states with upbeat confidence.

“Why is that ‘easy peasy’?” Ashlyn asks, already not following what she figures will only get more complicated.

“Because cops are idiots.” Ali says matter-of-factly.

“Uh, ok, gee thanks. Should I be offended? Because I feel like I should be offended.” Ashlyn gives her a playful hard look.

“Well, not all the time.” Ali quickly covers. “It’s just… well… okay, so you lovely officers work your asses off trying to bust criminals and trouble-makers every day. Often pulling long hours working cases or even staking things out for months just to make a simple arrest, right?”

“Yeah, so…” Ashlyn replies, not sure where Ali is going with this.

“So, after all that hard work, you bust the scumbag in question and you put that sucker behind bars as fast as you can.” Ali says with a hint of contempt.

“Still not seeing the problem.” Ashlyn says, feeling really lost now.

“The problem, Ashlyn, is that most of the time officers are so eager to bust the bad guys that they ignore the procedure. We lawyers… we are by the book, law is procedure.” Ashlyn is still looking at her quizzically, so she just continues. “Cops go through all that hard work, but then fail at the paperwork and the legal procedure, leaving an open door for all those scumbags to be back on the streets in no time. So, you see? Idiots.”

“Ok. Two things then…” Ashlyn lets herself smirk a bit. “First, doesn’t that just make lawyers who get these scumbags out of jail on technicalities a bunch of assholes? And, second, what on earth does this have to do with me other than you kind of calling me an idiot and me kind of calling you an asshole?”

Ali laughs loudly. “Touché. However, the point of all this is that this asshole…” Ali points to herself, “is about to win this idiot…” she points to Ashlyn, “an appeal.”

“Keep talking.” Ashlyn says with rapt attention now.

“Lucky for you, not only is Bobby Dugan an idiot, but so is John McNally.” Ali explains. “Obviously, Bobby wanted this all wrapped up quick, so he must have pressured McNally to get your confession and conviction taken care of fast in the name of saving the face of the department. McNally fucked up huge.”

“Alright, if you say so. What did he fuck up? I willingly signed a confession, what else is there?” Ashlyn asks.

“For starters, they had you sign a confession 3 hours after being released from the hospital for a gunshot wound. Your medical records clearly show that you were given a heavy dose of morphine not too long before release. Which means it was still in your system at the time of the confession and makes you technically not ‘sound of mind’ enough to have signed it; and arguably under psychological duress. Second, there was no legal witness to the confession.” Ali lays it out.

“Ok, I get the first part. The second though, I declined legal counsel and McNally witnessed the signed confession.” Ashlyn tells the brunette.

“Doesn’t matter. Again, you weren’t sound of mind enough to decline legal counsel, but even if you were… you still have to have a legal witness to the confession. It can’t just be McNally. It has to be another legal representative party, which means another lawyer, judge, or police officer. Would have been easy enough, but they rushed it clearly thinking it would never be checked or come back to bite them. So, McNally signed as the arresting officer and the witness to the confession. Not legal. So, idiots.” Ali slides a copy of the confession document in front of Ashlyn so she can see for herself. “So, the appeal is already won without question, just have to file for it.”

Ashlyn looks over the document, remembering the very night she signed it and shutters a bit upon seeing her signature. “I appreciate your attention to detail, asshole.” She teases Ali as she tries hard not to get overwhelmed with everything.  “Ok, so appeal in the bag. Then what? Is the rest of your plan this ‘easy peasy’?”

“Oh, you wish, idiot.” Ali winks at the blonde, keeping as much lightness as she can for the moment because this is where it all gets much more complicated.

Ashlyn chuckles back, steeling herself for the rest despite the fact that she already feels on edge. “Alright, well, continue on, asshole.”

Ali gives a slight smile and nod before getting serious. “No bullshit, Ashlyn. What I’m about to talk you through is majorly complicated, but completely do-able. It’s going to take big sacrifices from everyone involved, myself included. In the end though, I’m 90% sure the outcome is that you’re out of this hell hole,  your brother is safe, and Bobby Dugan is rotting in jail.”

“90%? You’re that sure?” Ashlyn looks deeply into the brunette’s eyes. “And the other 10%?”

“Yes, I’m that sure or I wouldn’t have said it. I’m good at what I do, remember?” Ali doesn’t break the eye contact. “As for the 10%, I’ll walk you through those scenarios too, promise.” She watches Ashlyn’s eyes drop down to the table as the blonde let’s out a barely audible sigh.

Ali reaches out and hooks her pinky on Ashlyn’s discreetly. “Hey, look at me.” Ashlyn looks up as Ali gives her an encouraging smile. “You know me enough by now. 100% truth the whole way and you’re in control, always. Now breathe and listen.”

Ashlyn takes comfort in the brief contact as Ali pulls her hand away and gives the brunette a simple nod to signal that she’s ready.

“Winning the appeal doesn’t mean you’re anywhere near out of the woods. It just means that you now get a sort of trial since we’re going to recant your confession in the appeal and you didn’t get a trial to begin with. There’s no jury here though, just the judge. So, a lot of how we play this depends on who gets assigned to the case. The difficulty is that you originally confessed and we can’t bring any new evidence into the trial, just what was already collected, processed or mentioned in the paperwork. It’s almost more of a case review than a true trial. To put it plainly, you’re in deep here.” Ali explains the process and the situation at hand. “However, there is some leeway and some loopholes that I plan to use to my full advantage. “

“Ok.” Ashlyn says just so Ali knows she’s paying attention and trying to follow along.

Ali presses on. “I’ve looked over every single possible piece of evidence in this case and I know I can shine enough reasonable doubt on things that your conviction gets overturned no matter which judge I have to deal with.”  She pauses for a second and bites her lip before saying the next part. “And, I’m pretty sure that I can question Bobby Dugan as a witness and well, frankly, bury him.”

Ashlyn takes a few quiet seconds trying to take in what Ali just said. “Wow, you’re serious? This sounds like some movie plot shit, Alex. It can’t be that simple.”

“No, it’s not simple. The idea is simple, the execution is the majorly complicated part.” Ali replies honestly. “Look, to make this work. I need to ask a lot of you.”

“Like what?” Ashlyn asks quietly, waiting for the hammer to drop.

“The most important thing here, Ashlyn, is keeping everyone safe and alive while it all goes down. That’s my top priority, no matter what the outcome.” Ali watches the blonde’s eyes widen and feels her own stomach drop a bit as things get real. “I think we can both agree that Bobby feels safe and snug right now while you’re in jail without giving you a second thought.  I’m sure he’s not paying any attention to you at the moment, meaning we can file the appeal quietly. But, once we win it… it’s gonna be big news, no getting around it. He’s going to know and he’s going to act.”

“Fuck.” Ashlyn mumbles out, knowing the hammer just dropped.

“I won’t lie to you. He’s the biggest concern here. But, I have it covered.” Ali says confidently, causing Ashlyn to look at her skeptically. “He’s not going to come after you in here because he knows better. It will look too suspicious. So, naturally, he’s going to go after your brother just like he promised.”

“Yeah, exactly. So how the hell do you have that covered, Alex? I don’t even have that covered.” Ashlyn asks almost angrily.

“Hey, easy. Just listen, ok?” Ali tries to calm the blonde down.

“Sorry.” Ashlyn whispers half-heartedly.

“Look...remember when I told you what I did before this whole podcast thing?” Ali asks rhetorically, but gets a nod from the blonde. “I spent my whole career finding legal ways to make paper trails and the people behind financial exchanges legally disappear so big businesses could get richer.”

“I remember, but how is any of that relevant?” Ashlyn asks impatiently.

“Because, Ashlyn. It means I can make Christopher Ryan Harris and his family completely invisible. Better hidden than any witness protection program could ever claim.” Ashlyn looks confused and disbelieving, so Ali doesn’t hesitate to keep going. “The primary way you can track down a person is by way of financial transactions. The other way is demographic documents and information. The demographic stuff… name, address, contact information, it’s all easy to change and hide. The financial stuff is hard because it involves bank records, taxes, property and personal assets that make up day-to-day life. If you can’t touch your money, you can’t live. Witness protection programs work because the legal system can deal with the demographic information and then give the witness a protected stipend to live off of instead of their own personal finances. The problem is that people on the inside, like Bobby, would be able to find out where that stipend is going. So we’d do it my way, better than witness protection.”

“Hold up. Your way?” Ashlyn can’t even comprehend what the brunette is suggesting here.

“Yep. We move Chris and his family somewhere new, change names, make contact info private. Then I setup a private trust that handles all his finances. His property dealings, the rehabilitation clinics that he owns, his day-to-day personal accounts… all of it comes and goes from one large private trust that can’t be traced back to him. So, he can operate completely normally other than the new identity, which hopefully, would be temporary.” Ali explains it as simply as she can.

“And you can do all that yourself?” Ashlyn questions.

“Easily. Without breaking a sweat. I got paid to do it for years.” Ali says reassuringly.

“But… Chris operates month-to-month for the most part with just a little reserve. I mean, he’s just getting his rehab clinic business off the ground really. He doesn’t have the money to start a trust like that.” Ashlyn pokes holes in Ali’s plans.

“No, he doesn’t.” Ali admits. “But, I do.”

Ashlyn can’t even try to hide the stunned look on her face. “And you’d do that? For me? Put your own money in a trust for my brother, who you don’t even know?”

“In a heartbeat.” Ali doesn’t even flinch. “I told you. I’m getting you out. Sacrifices, remember? Besides, it’s not like I spend it on anything good. Handbags, makeup, toys for Kyle’s dog… seriously, I’m better off investing in you. At least you don’t slobber on me…well, yet.” She tries to joke a bit.

Ashlyn doesn’t bite. “I don’t think I could let you do that. And Chris, how could I ask that of him? To hide away his whole life and his kids and his wife, for who knows how long. I don’t even know if he’d agree to that to begin with.” Her voice is quaking a bit, everything getting too overwhelming.

Ali let’s out a deep sigh. “Ok, please don’t hate me for what I’m about to tell you.”

“Why would I hate you?” Ashlyn asks in confusion.

“I knew that this whole thing hinged on Chris even being willing, so… I… I talked to him yesterday.” Ali says meekly.

“You what?” Ashlyn doesn’t even know what else to say.

“I didn’t give him any details or even tell him that anything was going to happen. I just asked him hypothetically, if the situation presented itself, would he do it? I promise you, that’s all that was said.” Ali puts it out there and waits for the backlash.

Ashlyn just shakes her head. Part of her wants to be mad, but she just can’t be. How can she be mad at someone who is so selflessly trying to help her? “I don’t hate you. I don’t like it, but I’m not mad. Can I just… what did he say?” She gets out a bit brokenly, trying incredibly hard to keep all her emotions under control.

“I think you know the answer to that, Ashlyn. He said he would do absolutely anything for you no matter what. And he said, and I quote, ‘Stop being a bitch and fucking call me and let me visit, shitface.’” Ali giggles.

Ashlyn guffaws loudly, drawing a look from the guard behind the window. “Some things never change.” She muses before getting back to the serious conversation. “Ok, so let’s table the Chris thing for now. Assuming that all works the way you want it to, what else is involved?”

“Well, just you undergoing surgery and trusting me enough to give me whatever you have on Bobby… no biggie.” Ali says with clenched teeth.

“Surgery?! What? I am so fucking lost here, Krieger.” Ashlyn looks at Ali incredulously as she practically chokes on her coffee.

“It’s not just about getting you out of here, Ashlyn. It’s also about taking Bobby down in the process and ensuring that you and Chris are always safe after this is all over. I need enough evidence to get you cleared and enough to bust his ass too.” Ali prepares to put the final piece on the table.

“I’m listening.” Ashlyn replies.

“They left that bullet in your leg, right? At least that’s what it says in your medical records.” Ali inquires even though she’s pretty sure about it.

“Yeah, so? Would’ve been more trouble to take it out than leave it in. People don’t realize how often doctors just leave bullets where they are if they’re not causing damage. I already had one in that upper leg anyway, so one more wasn’t gonna hurt.” Ashlyn answers.

“Well, we need that bullet. It’s mentioned and catalogued in the case files despite still being in your body, so it’s not considered a new piece of evidence. I have just the forensic analyst in mind to run the ballistic tests that will prove it wasn’t shot out of your gun. And I have a medical examiner than can show that Liam’s gunshot wounds from your gun happened after he was dead.  I love modern science!” Ali says cheerily before adding, “And turns out a full sweep of the scene found no other weapons. Which means the shots that didn’t come from your gun had to come from Bobby’s.”

“Wow. Damn. That’s good.” Ashlyn can’t help but be impressed.

Ali jokingly takes a small bow. “Told you not to question my competence, Harris.”

“Yeah yeah, ok. What else?” Ashlyn brings them right back to the heavy conversation without letting up.

“While the bullet that went through Liam’s head is technically catalogued as evidence, surprise, surprise, it has ‘gone missing’.” Ali rolls her eyes. “Doesn’t matter, just makes it look even more suspicious once we show the one in your leg is from Bobby’s gun. So… guess what, suddenly your leg is causing you a lot of pain in that bullet wound area and you need to have that bullet removed.” Ali playfully smirks.

Ashlyn laughs lightly. “Fake a limp, got it. What else?”

“Well, while cell tower records aren’t all that reliable… the call you supposedly placed to Bobby that night only lasted 2 seconds, not enough time for you to have told him you killed Liam. And it shows he called McNally 4 minutes later, so not enough time for him to have driven to Liam’s and arrested you in that time. Circumstantial, but put together with the rest, it’s solid.” Ali states with a sense of sureness.  “The rest…well…it depends on what you have access to and how much you trust me.” Ali shrugs. “If I’m going to nail Bobby in front of that judge, I need to have sufficient evidence against him.”

“But you can’t bring in new evidence? How does that work?” Ashlyn asks, trying to figure it all out.

“Therein lies the loophole, young grasshopper.” Ali smiles. “After casting all that reasonable doubt with the existing evidence, I will petition to question Bobby in front of that judge as a crime scene witness for clarification. And while Bobby could always refuse and seek legal counsel, my bet is that he’s too proud and sure of himself to do it. He feels far too comfortable with his position. Plus, he’ll know that if I accuse him of anything and have nothing to show for it… well, my ass will undoubtedly go to jail for a false accusation against a high ranking official. He won’t pass up the chance to put me away, that’ll be his revenge on me for all of this. In his mind, probably just more to make you squirm. Especially when he realizes he can’t find Chris. If he can’t get you and he can’t get Chris, you can bet his sights are on me.”

“Oh, Alex. No. No. No. That’s not okay. You’re not taking that chance.” Ashlyn says resolutely. She’s baffled by the fact that Ali is even remotely willing to risk her career and essentially her life to help her. She just can’t let her do it.

“That’s where you’re going to have to trust me, Ashlyn. Trust that I know what I’m doing. And well, I’m not going to do it if I don’t have anything to go on. Which leads me to my ultimate request…” Ali pauses a bit and takes a breath. “You said you had a whole heap of evidence against Bobby that he doesn’t know about. One, do you still have it? Two, do you trust me with it?” That’s it, she’s put it all out there now and can only wait for Ashlyn’s response.

“Geez, Alex. I…I don’t even…” Ashlyn’s voice fails her and she feels like throwing up, her body starting to slightly shake as she feels hot all of a sudden. “It’s too much. The money trust thing for Chris and the risks you’re taking here. I can’t let you do it, Alex.” The brunette has laid the path so carefully out for her and she has to admit that it’s a long, hard road, but not an impossible one. She can understand Ali’s confidence now, but it isn’t a game, these are people’s lives. People she deeply cares about.

Ali tries to reassure the blonde again. “I told you. 90% that it turns out exactly the way we want it to. Those are incredible odds, Ashlyn.”

“But the 10%, I can’t even fathom.” Ashlyn whispers out.

“The absolute worst that happens with that 10% is that you’re still stuck in here, Bobby is still out there being a prick, Chris and his family assume their new identity and have to rely on the trust permanently, and you end up with the best jail buddy there is… me!” Ali uses her thumb to point to herself in jest, trying to get Ashlyn to relax a little.  The blonde says nothing but just let’s out a raspy sounding sigh.

Ali gets serious and right down to it, one final push. “If I knew I only had a 1% chance to get you out of here, Ashlyn. I’d do it without hesitation, without question, and without regret. So, 90% is looking pretty damn good right now. I can’t make you trust me though, you either do or you don’t. And I’ll have to just be okay with whichever it is. Friends no matter what.”

Ashlyn sits looking down at her lap and taking deep breaths for what seems like hours, but really is only a few minutes. “Fucking hell, Alex. I do. I trust you. This… this is just a lot.”

Ali let’s out a breath she didn’t even realize she was holding, letting her shoulders relax a bit as she tries to understand what exactly Ashlyn is trying to say. “I know.” She mutters.

“Ok. Ok. Just listen to me carefully and then take your time with it. It has to be exactly what you need if there is even going to be a shred of a chance that I even think about agreeing, ok? I mean it.” Ashlyn blurts out in a fluster.

Ali can only sit back and listen with rapt attention as Ashlyn rattles off a series of very specific instructions that sound completely bizarre to say the very least.  By the time the blonde is done, Ali can see she’s trembling and sweaty. She reaches out and gently runs her hand up Ashlyn’s tattooed forearm, tracing her fingers back down over the inked designs and then leaving them lightly resting on top of the blonde’s hand. “Tell me about these.” She just wants Ashlyn to calm down right now, the rest be damned.

“Wh…what?” Ashlyn questions shakily as she feels the warmth of Ali’s skin on hers, tingling running up and down her arm.

“I don’t need an answer or a decision on all this today. Breathe, Ash. Tell me about these.” Ali repeats again, motioning to the tattoos.

“Ok.” Ashlyn replies and then jumps as a loud knock on the window behind them fills the room.

“No prolonged touching of the inmate, Ms. Krieger. You should know the rules.”  The guard warns them before sitting back down as Ali retracts her hand. Ashlyn inwardly cringes at the broken moment, wishing Jordan or Tim had been back there instead. Ali having called her ‘Ash’ again making her feel warm inside.

Ali smiles sincerely as Ashlyn explains the intricate myriad of greek mythology tattoos adorning her arm that are dedicated to her relationship with her parents. Athena representing herself, Zeus for her father, a princess in front of a broken mirror to symbolize the complicated relationship with her mother, and a dream catcher breaking off into flying birds to remind her that having let the resentful feelings about these relationships go is what had set her free and made her see the beauty of them. Ali now coming to understand the inked designs as a beautiful struggle and triumph mapped out on her arm.

“Wow. That’s deep, and meaningful, and beautiful.” Ali remarks in true awe.

“Thank you.” Ashlyn replies sweetly, feeling a lot calmer now. “And then on my shoulders…” She’s cut off by Ali putting her hands on over her ears and yelling “No no no!”

Ali takes her hands away from her ears when Ashlyn stops talking and is staring at her like she’s nuts. “Don’t tell me!!!”

“Why not?” Ashlyn asks confused.

“Listen, Captain. I don’t want to know what other ink is hiding under that beige frock you’re wearing because I’m pretty sure there’s more, and you are going to be showing me over a beer in the near future. Got it?” Ali states evenly. “A girl’s gotta have motivation, right?”

“Right. There’s definitely a lot more.” Ashlyn manages to laugh a bit, before getting serious again. “How are you so sure of yourself? Of me? Of all of this?”

“Two words.” Ali smirks. “Pesky. Bitch.”

Before Ashlyn can even think of a reply, Alan, Albert, Alfred whatever his name is, yells out “Five minutes!” from behind the window.

“So, just think about everything I said today and we can talk more in a few days, ok?” Ali says gently, making it clear that she isn’t going to push Ashlyn anymore and will just accept her decision.

The gentle tone is all it takes to remind Ashlyn of Ali’s compassion, her good heart, her trustworthiness. She catches the brunette’s eyes and finds herself saying something she never could have imagined before today. “Draw up the paperwork for the appeal.”

“Wh…what?” Now it’s Ali’s turn to stutter in shock.

“I… I need to talk to Chris first, but… I trust you, Alex. I trust you.” Ashlyn pauses to let it all sink in. “See what you think of what you obtain and we’ll work on it next time. Draw up the paperwork.” She repeats to be clear.

Ali can only nod slowly, a smile overtaking her face.

Ashlyn watches the beaming smile unfold, watching the brunette’s nose crinkle up, her tongue slightly poking through her teeth. It’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen and she internally vows to make sure it happens as much as she possibly can in her lifetime. She gets up, hearing the guard start to make his way out behind her. “Now get some sleep, Krieger. You look like a zombie.” Ashlyn teases with a smug smile.

Ali laughs, getting up to give Ashlyn a brief but tight hug over the table, both of them relaxing into it before quickly letting go so they don’t get warned again. “I wouldn’t talk, Harris. You need plenty of beauty rest yourself. Those bags under your eyes probably weight 10lbs each.” She plays back as she watches Ashlyn get cuffed. “Night night, idiot.”

Ashlyn chuckles and turns back over her shoulder to look at Ali one more time as she’s led out. “Sweet dreams, asshole.”

Chapter Text

Ashlyn listens to the static that is supposed to be some type of elevator music as she waits for her call to connect. She presses the phone a little harder to her ear, awaiting the voice to come through the other side. She knows the prison voice system is probably announcing to the person on the other side that an inmate from Framingham Correctional Institution is calling them and asking them whether they will accept the call.  

She hears a small click on the line and before she can even prepare herself, a deep booming voice fills her left ear.

“It’s about fucking time you ass hat!” Chris bellows at his sister.

Ashlyn can only chuckle a bit at the greeting. “Wow, Chris. Ever the polite gentleman. I’ve missed you, ding bat.”

“Yeah, well you wouldn’t have to miss me if you called me once in a while… or you know, even once in like two fucking years!” Chris says mockingly.

Ashlyn can hear the hurt behind his joking tone. That’s how Chris has always coped, with humor. They have that in common. She decides to just address it head on. “I know, Chris. It’s the only way I’ve been able to deal with this. To know that I can just let everyone else go about their lives and not burden them. I feel like it’s the one thing I have control over, you know? I’m sorry, I know that it’s not as simple as that for you. I think about you and the kiddos every single day if that makes you feel any better.”

“As much as I hate it, and let me assure you I fucking hate it, I get it.  I know deep down that I’d do the same thing. Why do we have to be so fucking similar? Damn Harris genes! And yes, it makes me feel much better that I occupy the space in your mind. I just hope that the mental picture is of me being all bad ass on my motorcycle and not of me with like a dunce cap on or something.” He jokes, clearly choosing to go forward with humor.

“Actually, it’s of you in a giant yellow chicken suit. Sorry bro, but you look great in it.” Ashlyn deadpans.

Chris’ deep guffawing laugh is so loud that Ashlyn has to pull the phone away from her ear a bit. It’s like no time has passed at all. “Fuck, I’ve missed you, baby sis. No one gets me like you do.” He laments. “Well, how the hell are you? Tell me honestly, is it awful?”

“I’m okay, promise. Truthfully, it’s so lonely. That’s my own fault too though, blocking people out and all.” Ashlyn admits. “The rest. I don’t know, guess I’ve just gotten used to it. It’s like having all the time in the world, but no purpose. It’s demeaning. That’s the best I can explain it.”

“Hmph, guess that makes sense.” Chris replies. He can sense her emptiness and knows the best thing is to stay the course with their go-to humor.  “The real question is, have you dropped the soap yet?”

“You’re the worst.” Ashlyn snickers. “Well being a cop and all, they keep me separated from everyone else to protect me. So, no real backlash even if I do drop the soap. Luckily, no weird cellmates to deal with either. Some of these women were pretty aggressive towards me at the beginning, yelling things at me and stuff, and one actually lunged at me even with the guard there, but I took care of it.

“Oh boy, can’t wait to hear this! What did you do?” Chris asks with enthusiasm, knowing his sister could take on men twice her size.

“The guard was caught by surprise and she had her hand around my throat really quickly. So, I took one solid swing at her. She didn’t wake up for 18 hours. Word got around and that was that, no one so much as looks at me anymore.” Ashlyn tells him matter-of-factly.

“Ha! I knew you’d hold your own in there! Bridget watches this female prison series called ‘Orange is the New Black’ all the time, so her imagination runs wild and she’s always worried about you. I try to explain to my dear wife that my sister is beast. Can’t wait to tell her that story!” Chris replies animatedly.

“How is Bridget? And my tiny partners in crime?” Ashlyn pauses for a second at her own statement. “Hmmm, I guess that has taken on a different meaning now, probably shouldn’t say it anymore. Anyway, I can’t even explain to you how much I miss those kiddos, it physically hurts.” Ashlyn says in quiet sorrowful tone.

“Bri is amazing, as always. You know how I feel about that woman… she will always be far too good for me and I’ll never understand how I got so lucky.” He replies happily.

“Yeah, dude, if you ever mess that up… I’ll take you down myself.” Ashlyn warns him playfully.

“Please, if I ever mess it up, I’ll take myself down!” He chuckles. “And the kids… oh man… they are growing so fast, it’s insane. Curtis just started 1st grade and currently looks like a weird jack-o-lantern with all the baby teeth he’s losing. Elsie started pre-school and loves it. She’s still a complete princess just like Bri and already smarter than me.” Chris tells her, the pride in his voice evident. “They ask about you all the time.”

Ashlyn nods her head a bit sadly, knowing Chris can’t see her. “Can I ask what you told them? Why I’m not around anymore?” It’s something she’s often wondered, especially since she used to see them almost every day from the moment each of them was born.

“It was Bri’s idea… we told them you got assigned to a very important mission in another country. That you are busy keeping other kids safe just like you always looked out for them. They make little drawings for you all the time and we tell them that we mail them to you.” Chris explains.

The heaviness in Ashlyn’s heart is almost soul crushing, but she also can’t help but admire her brother. How far he has come and how he is now the solid, protective center of this beautiful family where he was once a broken man. It makes her realize just how strong he is and how much she needs to finally relent and start trusting his strength and the decisions he makes for himself and his family. That while she will always protect him at any cost, he’s more than capable of protecting himself now.

“Thanks for doing that. I can’t really put words to what it means to me. I love them more than anything. Will you tell them that for me?” Her voice quakes slightly with emotion.

“I will, Ashlyn. Promise. They know how much they mean to their Auntie Ashwyn. And yeah, they still say it like that.” Chris laughs, feeling relieved when Ashlyn laughs too. “So, when are we going to talk about the fact that THE Ali Krieger called me? Is it time for that now? Cause I want talk about that!”

“Yes, ding bat, we can talk about that. I think you probably know by now that her whole plan is why I finally called you.” Ashlyn tries to start the conversation on her terms, knowing that Chris is just going to pepper her with questions if she doesn’t give him the background. “Long story, but she’s Kyle’s sister. You remember Kyle, we helped him out a while back?”

“No kidding! Yeah, I guess I can see that, I mean they look alike. She’s like a big fucking deal these days after she solved this crazy kidnapping case.” Chris says excitedly.

“Yeah, I know. I’ve listened to her podcasts in the library here.” Ashlyn replies.

“Still such a nerd.” He teases her. “So, she’s Kyle sister and she just decided one day to come visit you? Or did you tell Kyle to hook you up, cause girl is fiiiine!”

“What? No! Kyle asked her to come see me as a favor to him. And I mostly let her visit out of curiosity because I had no idea she was Kyle’s sister at that point. Anyway, long story short, we talked a lot and I grew to trust her, and then I told her everything there was to know. And, well, somehow she’s convinced me that maybe there is a decent chance I can fix this whole mess with her help.” She answers him honestly.

“Uhh YEAH! Could anyone say no to that woman? All she did was call me and I was like ‘Yep, sign me up to be hidden!’… and I’m married!” Chris belts out comically.

“Oh my god, stop it!” Ashlyn warns him.

“Please, you can’t tell me you don’t think she’s hot!” He presses back. “And don’t even think of lying, cause I know your type…and she is totally your type!”

Ashlyn lets out a deep sigh. “Yes, she’s beautiful…but, that’s not the point.”

“Woah, woah, woah! I said hot, not beautiful. You think she’s beautiful, huh? Oh, you got it bad, sis! You like her! Now I get it.” Chris says matter-of-factly.

“Of course, I like her. She’s my friend, ding bat. And I can admit she’s good looking. It’s not like I don’t have other good looking friends.” Ashlyn says, keeping her voice flat in hopes that he’ll let it go.

“Sure. Sure. I’ll just go right ahead and pretend that you say that about all of your friends and that you trust all of your friends with the biggest secret of your life, which I don’t even fully know by the way!” Chris replies pointedly.

“Annnyway!” Ashlyn says quickly, hoping to drop this part of the conversation and get to the real point of all this. “Look, Chris, the reason I called you…”

“Ashlyn. We’re doing it. I don’t care what it takes, I’m in. That’s it and that’s all. Got it?” He quickly cuts her off.

“Chris, how can I ask you to do all this? Do you realize the extent of it? Seriously, this could be permanent. And to bring Bridget and the kids into it. It’s a crazy risk. I don’t feel right about it.” Ashlyn tries to reason it out with him.

“What fucking part of ‘I’m in. That’s it and that’s all’ did you not understand? Bridget and I talked. We’re doing this. Now stop being a damn wuss ass, get it together, and let Ali Krieger do her thing. Whatever the plan is, I’m sure it’s good. I just know this is going to work, I believe it. From what I know of her and have heard, she’s as smart as she is relentless. We’re in.” Chris says adamantly.

Ashlyn gets teary at her brother’s words, his willingness to do anything for her bringing out her emotions. “You’re sure?” She asks quietly.

“Never been more sure. We got this.” He assures her resolutely.

“Ok, then, one condition.” Ashlyn has one more thing she needs.

“What’s that?” Chris inquires.

“Will you mail me some pictures of the kids, and their drawings? And then after that… promise me, no more contact with me at all until this is all over and we know what the outcome is.” She lays out her terms. “I mean, I know we just got reconnected, but I just need to know that once you’re hidden that nothing can be traced back to you. I need to know that you’re safe.”

Chris doesn’t hesitate. He knows how his sister is, her protective nature. “Ok. I can promise you that. So, we’re good to go?”

Ashlyn lets out a deep breath that feels oddly relieving at the moment. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

Even though there is still at least five minutes of time left on the call, the siblings both know each other well enough to know that there isn’t much more to say.

“I love you, baby sis. Stay strong.” Chris says sweetly.

“I love you too, bro. Stay smart and stay safe. Give my babies hugs and kisses from me, ok? Bridget too.” She replies warmly.

“Will do. Later, ass hat!” Chris chuckles.

“Bye, ding bat!” Ashlyn laughs and shakes her head as she hears the click on the line that signals the end of the call. She hangs up the phone and leans her head against the cool cement wall for a second to collect herself.

 

 

Ali pulls into the Ipswich Savings Bank parking lot sure that she is about to do one of the strangest things she’s ever done. Still, she fully intends to see it through to the end. She figures that worst case scenario, she will pretend to be mentally unstable and confused before quickly making her way out.

She opens the door to the bank and walks into the lobby. “Here goes.” She mutters to herself before walking up to the first available teller. The middle-aged woman behind the counter greets her with a big smile. “How can I help you?”

“I was hoping to speak with Edith Harper.” Ali says sweetly.

“Certainly. I’ll check to see if she’s in her office and free.” The woman replies with a nod and leaves to check.

Ali waits just a couple of minutes before she sees the woman come back into the lobby and wave her on. “Come on back, she’s in her office and can meet with you.” She points Ali down a hallway and says “last office on the left.”

Ali smiles and says “thank you” before walking past the woman and taking one last deep breath as she walks through the office door.  She is a little surprised to see that the woman behind the desk must be at least 80 years old. She has cottony white short hair, light blue eyes, small wire rim glasses, and a sweet smile. If she wasn’t so thin, the woman would be what Ali imagined Mrs. Claus to look like.

“Please have a seat.” The older woman gestures towards the chair.

Ali sits down, the name plate on the desk in front of her reading ‘Edith Harper’.

“How can I help you, dear? Are you here for a mortgage?” She asks before Ali can say anything.

“Oh, um… no,” Ali answers, the hesitation in her voice is obvious.

“A loan then?” The older woman asks, trying to understand the hesitant tone of the younger woman sitting in front of her.

Ali just shakes her head no and goes for it. “You know, that flower box in the outside entrance is just beautiful.” Ali says as she glances out the office window towards the flower box. She watches Edith’s eyebrows raise just a bit before the older woman smiles politely again. It wouldn’t have even been noticeable if Ali wasn’t specifically looking for any change in the woman’s demeanor.

“I actually planted it myself. I just love flowers. I think it came out particularly nice this year and it really filled in.” Edith says with pride.

“I’m impressed! It’s gorgeous.” Ali compliments her before pushing forward again with her game plan. “Those Ruby Red Pentas are attracting some amazing butterflies.” She watches Edith’s eyebrows raise again, more obviously this time, and Ali knows she’s said the right thing.

“Oh, do you like butterflies, dear?” Edith asks warmly, but with purpose.

Ali can see that it’s working and that the conversation is like a test now. Luckily, she knows the right answers. “I absolutely love them.” She says confidently.

“Me too.” Edit replies before her eyes meet Ali’s inquisitively.  “What’s your favorite?”

Ali doesn’t even pause to think about it. “The Pipevine Swallowtail, definitely.”

“Good choice.” Edith smiles a bit. “Any particular reason why?”

“It’s the way the iridescent blue sort of shimmers in the sunlight. Reminds me of the ocean during sunrise, the way the water sparkles. I love the ocean.” Ali says with ease.

“I know exactly what you mean.” Edith is smiling widely and warmly at Ali now. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone describe it like that.”

Ali watches as the older woman unlocks her desk drawer and pulls out a metal box. Edith then pulls her necklace out of her shirt, revealing an oddly shaped key which she inserts into the metal box.  She takes yet another unique key out of the box and hands it to Ali. “I can take you over to the safe deposit box that it belongs to if you wish.” Edith says discreetly.

“That would be great, thank you.” Ali replies with a relieved smile, glad this went the way it was supposed to. Before she can get up though, Edith addresses her again.

“Would you mind if I asked how you know Ashlyn, Miss…” Edith asks a bit shyly, trailing off when she realizes she doesn’t know Ali’s name.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I never told you my name! I’m Alexandra Krieger, you can call me Ali.” Ali says kindly as she reaches her hand out to shake Edith’s hand.

“Sorry, Ali. I don’t mean to be nosey,” Edith says as she takes Ali’s hand, “I just never expected anyone besides Ashlyn herself to come get this key. So, I’m just curious.”

Ali laughs a bit. “It’s ok. I’m sure Ashlyn never expected that anyone else would come get this key either. I’m her lawyer.”

“Oh, well that makes sense.” Edith smiles. “I have to say that I’m really happy to hear she has a lawyer. Wait, are you the same Ali that has that cold case radio show?”

“The one and only.” Ali smiles back.

“My first celebrity meeting, how exciting!” Edith says animatedly.  “Although I have to be honest and say I haven’t listened to it and just read about you in the news.”

Ali blushes a bit. “I’m no celebrity. Just trying to help where I can.”

“If you say so, dear. Well, now I’m even happier that I know Ashlyn has a really excellent lawyer!” Edith says happily, really taking in Ali’s appearance now. “May I speak freely?”

“Of course.” Ali replies, a bit confused at the question.

“Ashlyn’s grandmother was my best friend. I’ve changed that little girl’s diaper and watched her grow into a truly remarkable woman.” Edith pauses and Ali nods with a slight smile. “Knowing Ashlyn so well, I have to say…if you’re here in her place, you must be much more to her than just a lawyer.”

Ali doesn’t expect the comment and isn’t sure exactly what Edith is getting at, but she recovers quickly.  “Oh, well, we’re also friends. She once helped out my brother who grew very close to her and he sort of introduced us.”

“Well, I’m happy Ashlyn has you. I worry about her a lot. And let me just say, you’re very lovely, Ali. Really beautiful, dear.” Edith smiles genuinely.


“That’s sweet of you to say, thank you.” Ali says as she takes in the smile on Edith’s face and wonders what the woman’s statement has to do with anything. Before she can think on it any further, Edith gets up and motions for her to follow. She leads Ali to an area behind a locked, steel-barred door that contains a wall of safe deposit boxes. Edith points Ali to a box and has her insert the key as she also inserts a master key from the bank, finally sliding the box out. She then leads Ali to a private room where she can open the box.

“Thank you for all your help, Edith.” Ali says, patting the older woman on the shoulder gently.

“She’s trusted me to guard whatever is in there for the past few years. I just hope that whatever it is will bring our girl back home to us and out of that awful place that she doesn’t belong in. It looks to me like she’s in very capable hands.” Edith says before adding, “Ali, please tell her I love her and that I’m always thinking about her.”

“I’ll tell her. And I promise to take care of her.” Ali replies warmly, getting a final nod from Edith before the older woman leaves the room.

**** Two hours later****

Ali had been surprised to find only a USB flash drive in the safe deposit box and nothing more. She had quickly gone to the local office supply store to buy her own flash drive, made a copy of it for herself and promptly returned it to the safe deposit box. She’s now sitting in front of her computer at home looking over almost 150 different files that the drive contained. It’s loaded with pictures, documents, video and audio recordings of Bobby Dugan’s dealings. Ali can only imagine the amount of time, effort, and caution Ashlyn took to compile this amount of evidence. How the blonde didn’t get caught compiling all this is beyond her comprehension. She thought she’d have some decent evidence to work with, but now she’s just floored at how much is in front of her.

“You are really something, Ashlyn Harris.” Ali whispers out loud to no one.

 

Chapter Text

Ali tries hard to keep a straight face when Ashlyn hobbles into the prison visitor room on crutches with a knee brace on, her hands cuffed to a longer chain around her waist so that she can actually use the crutches. ‘Good girl’ she thinks to herself, admittedly relieved that it seems Ashlyn has committed to the plan.  She catches the blonde smirking a bit while the guard fumbles around awkwardly to get the cuffs and chain off, almost tripping himself on her crutches.

“What’s up with the knee?” Ali asks casually and fairly loudly as the guard starts to make his way out and Ashlyn sits down. She slides a coffee in front of the blonde.

Ashlyn shoots her a quick smile. “Just having some pain from an old bullet injury, pretty sure it’s something going on with the bullet still in there.” She shrugs nonchalantly and watches as the guard finally walks out of the room, turning her attention back to Ali. “Well, that, and I may have punched it really hard a few times until it started swelling.” She whispers to Ali with a wink.

Ali finally loses her composure and lets out a laugh. “You are too much!”

“Yeah well, it hurt like a bitch and now it’s swollen, but somebody said we needed this sucker out, sooo…” Ashlyn gives Ali a jokingly pointed look. “It worked though. The doctor freaked that I might have an infection in there and surgery is scheduled for Monday of next week. I’ll take my Oscar now.” She deadpans.

“Damn, you don’t fuck around.” Ali makes no effort to hide her slight shock. “You ok though? Seriously, that sounds painful and that wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for.”

“I’ve been through much worse, trust me. Although, it does suck to be watched more closely because crutches can be used as weapons…really I’m fine. And I never hedge on my commitments.” The blonde replies matter-of-factly trying to ignore the somewhat anxious feeling she gets when Ali looks at her with such concern and caring.

“Ok, just be careful and take care of yourself.” Ali reminds her, feeling a bit bad that this is all so intense. “Speaking of commitments, I have the appeal paperwork all ready to file. So, maybe let’s start with that. Really all I need is your signature in a few places, but maybe you want to go over things again before we…”

“Woah, slow your roll there, Alex.” Ashlyn interrupts her and takes a long sip of coffee.

Ali feels her heart rate pick up as she wonders why Ashlyn has stopped her. Did she change her mind about all this? Is she going to back out now even despite this whole leg surgery thing? Since when has anyone ever had the ability to make her feel so nervous and yet so comfortable at the same time?

Before she has any more time to let her thoughts run wild, she’s broken out of it when she feels Ashlyn nudge her forearm.

“Geez, calm down. I can practically see the wheels turning in your brain. What is going on up there?” The blonde asks in a pointed, but calm voice.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to be so obviously unhinged. I just… well, I thought maybe you changed you mind.” Ali admits.

Ashlyn just shakes her head with a small laugh. “Did I not just say that I never hedge on my commitments?”

“Well, yeah, but people change their minds. Plus, it’s not exactly like you officially committed.” Ali defends herself with jest.

“Details. Details.” Ashlyn plays back before getting serious. “I talked to Chris and I’m committed. Done and done. So you can relax, it’s happening.” She lets a smirk creep back on her face and adds “Well, don’t relax too much. I still need to you be my competent, pesky ass lawyer.”

“One pesky ass lawyer coming right up.” Ali replies cheerfully. “So, if we’re going to do this, why did you tell me to ‘slow my roll’?” Ali questions. “And you’ve clearly been in here too long when you start using slang like that. Lesson one: Don’t do that in court.”

Ashlyn lets out a chuckle. “One day in here is too long, but, duly noted.”

“Actually, scratch that. Don’t do anything in court, just let me do all the talking.” Ali winks.

“Right. Annnyway. So, the reason I stopped you before…I have one condition first.” Ashlyn says evenly.

“Oh, she has conditions now.” Ali teases a bit, mostly to keep herself from getting worried again.

“Just one.” Ashlyn replies calmly.

“Well, I think it’s pretty clear I’ll do anything… like walk into a bank and randomly start talking to an old lady about butterflies. So, name it.” Ali sasses.

“Yeah, sorry. That was the plan I came up with for Edith to help me protect that information. She didn’t know what it was, but she knew that if I or anyone else came in there talking about another type of butterfly, then I was being coerced into it and wasn’t safe. That she should call Chris for help. I never actually expected to send anyone in my place, so I can imagine that was awkward.” Ashlyn explains.

“Eh, wasn’t so bad once I got the ball rolling. Edith was really sweet, I was expecting someone younger I guess. She told me to tell you she loves you and that she’s always thinking of you.” Ali says.

“She was my grandma’s best friend and really like a second grandma to me.” Ashlyn elaborates a bit.

“Yeah, she mentioned that. And that she changed your diapers.” Ali laughs lightly. “I was going to ask for some embarrassing childhood stories, but I figured that was overstepping.”

“Ha! Edith would never betray me like that.” Ashlyn replies with a confident smile.

“I don’t know. She was sure to tell me I was ‘lovely’ and ‘capable’ and ‘beautiful’, so I’m sure I could’ve charmed something out of her.” Ali replies back with her own confident smile plastered on her face.

“Oh, you are all of those things, Krieger. No doubt.” Ashlyn replies without even thinking, watching the blush spread across Ali’s cheeks. “Buuut, that doesn’t necessarily make you charming.” She quickly adds to smooth it over.

Ali’s face feels hot as she tries not to react to Ashlyn’s direct compliment and focuses instead on the banter part of it. “Uh huh, whatever you say, Harris. I’ll have you know that I’m a master charmer.” She plays back before bringing the conversation back around. “So, you said something about a condition?”

“I did.” Ashlyn replies, getting down to the final piece of business on her mind. “I assume you probably always carry some kind of digital recording device with you?”

“Yeah, just a habit now from my podcasting, why?” Ali asks with curiosity.

“Take it out.” Ashlyn demands politely.

“Ok.” Ali complies, taking it out of her purse and setting it on the table.

“Now turn it on.” Ashlyn tells her.

“Why?” Ali is confused by the request.

“That’s my condition.” Ashlyn explains evenly. “From now on, you record every conversation that pertains to the case. And, when the time comes, you release all of it as part of your podcast series.”

Ali feels her own jaw drop a bit at what Ashlyn has just said. “I’m sorry, what? Hey, you know this isn’t at all about my podcast, right? I’m not here for that and I don’t ever plan to release any information about this.” She’s really worried that Ashlyn has misinterpreted her intentions.

“I know. I trust you and believed you about that from the beginning.” Ashlyn reassures the brunette. “I’m choosing to make it a part of this. That’s my one condition. If you’re going to risk everything for me, then I don’t feel right doing this unless it has potential to be a good thing for you.”

Ali feels even more uneasy and awkward. “You getting out of here is the only motivation I need; you should know that. I don’t need some kind of profit here.”

“I know. You’re a good person like that.” Ashlyn tries to level with her. “Look, Alex, the media is going to be all over this whole damn thing. So much crap is going to get thrown around and when it’s all over, I want someone I trust to put the truth out there and set the record straight. And, hell yeah, I want you to profit and benefit from it too! I want this because I truly trust you, and if you’re going to take care of me, then I want to take care of you in some way too. So, we’re only doing this if we record it and release it. Ok?”

Ali can see the absolute determination in Ashlyn’s eyes, the blonde is not going to back down. She lets out a small sigh and gives in. “Ok. But know you can change your mind at any time and you’ll have the final say on all of it and what is released…that’s my condition. Ok?”

Ashlyn gives her a quick nod and smile. “Ok. Now turn the damn recorder on and let’s go already! You’re wasting time, Krieger.”

Ali can only shake her head and smirk as she clicks the recorder on. “Alright, so, paperwork now?”

“Bring it on.” Ashlyn says in dry sarcasm.

They spend the next hour going over the plan again with Ali explaining how she thinks the new information about Bobby might fit into the overall picture. In the course of the conversation, she’s sure to tell Ashlyn several times how amazing she is for gathering so much on that bastard. Of course, as usual, the blonde just humbly shrugs it off every time like it was no big deal.  Ali diligently makes sure Ashlyn understands all of the appeal paperwork and exactly what she is signing and, with the final signature in place, she closes her folder. “Ok, so, I’ll file the appeal with the court on Monday morning.” She says with a sense of accomplishment, clicking off the recorder.

Ashlyn lets herself smile a bit and feels a sense of calm wash over her as she watches Ali click off the recorder, knowing they’ve reached the ‘personal time’ aspect of the their visits where they don’t talk about the case at all. The anxious feelings she’s been harboring inside as they went over the plan and paperwork start to dissipate as she focuses on just Ali. “Yep, so Monday. Does it take long to file it?” She asks.

“Nope. Pretty fast, just drop it off with the clerk really.” Ali replies.

“Oh ok. That’s good.” Ashlyn answers a bit quietly. She really wants to ask Ali to do her a favor, if it’s even possible, but for some reason she feels too ashamed to at the moment.

“And, when I’m done filing this thing, I’m headed straight to the hospital to visit my favorite and newly bullet-free jailbird!” Ali shoots Ashlyn a playful smile.

Ashlyn can only grin like a fool for a few seconds, completely in awe. In total disbelief that Ali just about read her mind. That’s exactly what she had wanted to ask. “Really? You’re allowed to do that?” Her voice squeaks a bit.

“I told you, lawyers have way more leeway. The prison pretty much has to always allow for confidential legal visits as long as it’s within reason and falls within their ability to keep both of us safe. The only real exception to that is if they were to suspect and prove that the lawyer was aiding criminal activity in some way. So, yes, I can visit you there.” Ali explains. “Besides, I would never pass up the opportunity to see you all loopy and maybe get some dirt.” She adds with a slight laugh.

“Pretty sure you already know all the important dirt” Ashlyn gives her a lighthearted glare. “And, I’ve been told they’ll give me the lowest strength of painkillers they can while still keeping me comfortable by law. Given that I have a high pain tolerance, I’m sure I won’t be loopy that long.”

“Bummer, I was hoping for some solid ex-girlfriend stories. Now that is the kind of dirt I’m looking for!” Ali continues to tease.

“Ha! I’m not even sure that qualifies as dirt, but if you want to hear the details, I’ll be sure to regale you when you visit.” Ashlyn promises.

“Well, then I promise to reciprocate. And, I can assure you, mine probably qualify as dirt.” Ali giggles a bit.

“Deal.” Ashlyn replies, trying to hide how positively light she feels inside at the fact that Ali is going to visit her after surgery. And just as soon as she lets that good feeling wash over her, her mind starts to wander to being in the hospital. She hates everything about them. They have always meant pain and heartache in her life. And the thought of being medicated even a little bit makes her nervous, having always been careful to avoid it because of her family history. Some of her worst days were spent in military hospitals recovering from pretty severe injuries and enduring awful pain just to make sure she didn’t fall prey to reliance on any kind of medicine. Her greatest promise to herself is that she will never be like her parents and that she will never let herself go through the hell that Chris went through.

Ali senses an immediate shift in Ashlyn. The blonde has gone quiet for a few seconds and looks to be in deep thought as she looks almost beyond Ali’s shoulder, the smile slowly dropping off her face.

Ashlyn is broken from her thoughts by Ali’s voice. “You ok there?”

“Yeah, sorry. I was just…” She trails off and lets out a small sigh. “I really hate hospitals.”

Ali can feel the heaviness pouring off of Ashlyn at the moment. She’s feeling so many things herself about the blonde’s admission. She feels guilty for making Ashlyn go through this for that damn bullet, she feels empathetic and understanding of how hospitals have probably been such a negative aspect of the blonde’s life, she feels glad that Ashlyn has been so open with her just now, and above all she feels the overwhelming urge to wrap her arms around her tightly. She settles her emotions with the knowledge that she’ll at least be there for a while in the hospital to keep her company.

“Sorry, Ash. I know it’s probably really hard for you. I can promise that I’ll be there as soon as possible and won’t leave until they have to kick me out because of hospital visiting hours.” Ali promises sweetly. “I’ll be there.” She reiterates.

Ashlyn let’s Ali’s use of her nickname ease her. “Thanks. It really means a lot.” She says honestly before adding exactly what else is on her mind right now. “You know, I really like when you call me ‘Ash’.”

“Yeah?” Ali asks a bit shyly.

“Yeah.” Ashlyn confirms. “I dunno, just makes me feel like we’re really connected somehow. Maybe that’s weird. Is that weird?”

“Well if this whole situation doesn’t qualify as being connected, then I don’t know what does, Ash.” Ali emphasizes the nickname with a smile, watching Ashlyn’s mood lift and her lips curl into a smile. “This whole thing is probably weird…but, I love weird.”

“Oh reeeally?” Ashlyn raises an eyebrow playfully.

Ali laughs loudly. “Yeah, no. You’d have to get several drinks in me before you get any dirt in that arena! And I’m not that much of a drinker.”

“Bummer.” Ashlyn says with a fake pout. “I’m not much of a drinker either, by the way.”

“Having alcoholics in the family really changes one’s perspective on things, doesn’t it?” Ali states more than questions, knowing that she doesn’t drink much anymore mostly because of Kyle.

“It really does.” Ashlyn agrees.

There’s a comfortable, contemplative silence between them for a minute before Ashlyn decides to break it.

“Do you have a lot of friends?” Ashlyn asks curiously.

Ali thinks about it for a second. “Eh, not really. I mean, I have a couple of friends that I suppose I’m close to, but that’s about it these days. I used to be better about having people around me a lot, but then I got really busy with working at the firm and for a while I mostly only socialized for work purposes. And my focus really went to Kyle and then this whole podcast thing, so all of those people just kind of fell out of my life. Only the ones that really mattered stayed I guess. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious really. You seem like a person who makes friends easily and has lots of friends.” Ashlyn replies.

“Nah. I think I’m too high maintenance to be the girl with tons of friends.” Ali shrugs.

“Fair enough.” Ashlyn says as she ponders Ali’s answer.

Ali notices the pensive look on the blonde’s face. “What?”

“Nothing. I just think it’s funny that I have never, and I mean never, made friends easily my entire life. Most people are or were just good acquaintances, but good friends? I could count them on one hand. And that includes Edith, my brother, and your brother. I love being around people, but I guess I’m just bad at it. Like, I’m too closed off a lot of the time to let people get close enough. I hate to admit it, but I definitely need people to put in serious time with me before I even think of letting down my walls.” Ashlyn admits.

Ali isn’t sure where the blonde is going with this. “That’s understandable. Why is that funny?”

“Because, you come in here and in no time at all you’re one of my closest friends already. A few conversations and I find myself willing to tell you anything. My whole life I haven’t done that and now… well, it’s just bizarre. Kind of chalked it up to you just being one of those magnetic people who makes friends easily.” Ashlyn shrugs her shoulders.

Ali is a bit flabbergasted by the weight of what Ashlyn has just said, but she feels like she can’t let the conversation get too intense. She doesn’t want to break the moment by making it overly serious. “Told you I was a charmer.” Ali winks. “So, you’re willing to tell me anything, huh?”

“Oh boy, got myself in trouble didn’t I?” Ashlyn laughs a bit. “Krieger wants the dirt! Alright…alright, do your worst.”

“Oh stop. It’s not like I’d ask you anything dirty or inappropriate!” Ali clarifies. “I was more going for deep.”

“Well, I’m waiting.” Ashlyn challenges.

“Ok.” Ali thinks for a minute. “What do you think about before you fall asleep at night?”

Ashlyn just raises an eyebrow at her and gives her a jokingly pointed look.

“Oh my god! That’s not what I was talking about!” Ali yells out, not realizing her question could technically be answered sexually. Her cheeks are bright red as she realizes. “So not what I meant!”

“Uh huh. Sure, Krieger.” Ashlyn teases her. “I’m just kidding. I know what you meant. Besides, if you recall one of our earlier conversations, I don’t even remember what a good lay feels like. So, I wasn’t going there anyway.” She laughs at the brunette who still looks completely flushed.

“Annnyway!” Ashlyn starts. “To answer your question. I often think about my grandma. She was everything that I aspire to be in life. I usually think about things she said and did, and sometimes what she would have done in a given situation.  It makes me feel closer to her and like I can be strong. And it reminds me to be kind, and patient, and humble, and thankful for what I have at the end of the day no matter what life has thrown at me. All things she instilled in me.”

Ali smiles warmly. “I know what you mean. Sometimes, I think of my mother for a lot of those same reasons. Guess we’re lucky to have had such remarkable women in our lives.” She muses. “I wish I spent more time on those thoughts, but I really do let a lot of other things rule my mind at night. I always worry about Kyle even though I know he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. And I think about my work too. A certain case of mine really has me up and thinking a lot these days.” Ali finishes with an insinuating smile on her lips. Really she finds herself thinking about Ashlyn lately, not just before bed, but all the time. The blonde just has this hold on her. She’s still such a mystery in so many ways, an enigma that Ali is working hard to uncover. Saying that the case is on her mind is as close as she’ll allow herself to admitting it out loud though.

“Yeah, it’s not always good thoughts for me either.” Ashlyn commiserates, trying not to read into Ali’s last statement too much. “I did struggle a bit with PTSD after my tours. I got a lot of help and recovered well from it and all. Still though, sometimes a noise in the room or a smell will make me think about it. It’s not like I have a flashbacks or anything like that now, but it just brings my mind there and makes it hard to sleep.” She finishes, almost surprising herself at her admission.

“I can’t even imagine.” Ali says sincerely, marveling at Ashlyn’s strength yet again. She opens her mouth to tell the blonde how much she admires her strength, but she’s cut-off by the guard announcing that they have 5 minutes.

“Alright, lightening round!” Ashlyn says, changing the conversation. “Favorite movie?”

“Cinderella.” Ali quickly answers.

Ashlyn can’t help but chuckle. “Really?”

“Yes, really! Get over it. What’s yours?” Ali returns the question.

“Jaws.” Ashlyn replies and watches Ali give her a playful eye roll. “What?! I like all things shark and ocean!”

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me that much.” Ali comments.

“What’s your favorite holiday movie?” Ashlyn asks.

“Oooh, tough one. Hmmm… it used to be A Christmas Story, but now I really like Elf.” Ali answers after a few moments.

“I love both of those movies!” Ashlyn says approvingly.

“What about you?” Ali asks.

“Jaws.” Ashlyn replies with a cocky grin.

Ali can only shake her head in mock disdain and laugh.

“What can I say, I’m committed.” The blonde supplies.

They hear the guard open the door of the observation room, signaling that he’ll be out in no time to get Ashlyn. The blonde stands up slowly, being careful with her knee and Ali follows suit.

Ashlyn sighs, knowing she has one more thing she wants to say despite being apprehensive. The determination to be honest with Ali far outweighs her apprehension and her mouth is moving before she can think to stop it. “Hey, Alex. There’s one more thing I think about a lot lately before bed.”

“What’s that?” Ali asks curiously as she watches Ashlyn shift her weight slightly.

“I uh… I think about you. Because, well… you calm me and then I can sleep.” Ashlyn just puts it out there in plain and simple truth.

Ali is a bit stunned by the candidness. She’s still trying to process it when she sees the guard come out of the room, her attention going briefly in that direction before her eyes land back on Ashlyn. The blonde’s expression is clearly one of concern as she searches Ali’s face for a reaction.  Still at a loss for words, she leans over and gives Ashlyn a quick hug, feeling some tension leave the blonde’s body. The strong feeling arms around her are enough to snap her out of it as they pull back from the brief contact. She feels her own truth at her lips as she watches the guard start to work on cuffing Ashlyn.

“Ash, when I said I think about the case…” She pauses, trying to think of a way to say it discretely in front of the guard, but Ashlyn cuts her off.

“I know, Alex. I could see it on your face.” Ashlyn gives Ali a knowing smile and watches the brunette smile shyly back. “So, see you Monday?”

“Count on it. I’ll be there.” Ali promises as the guard clicks the last cuff into place and makes sure Ashlyn can use her crutches. “Sleep well.” Ali says coyly and a bit giddy.

“I will. You too, Alex.” Ashlyn shoots her a dimpled smile as she hobbles outs the door.

Chapter Text

It has been 5 days since her last visit with Ashlyn and Ali has been busier than ever. While she told Ashlyn that the appeal was ‘easy peasy’, it is much more complicated than that in actuality. Having been around the Massachusetts court system for quite some time, Ali knows that she just has to go through the motions to win the appeal, so technically she didn’t lie. It’s just that getting there means a lot of effort and paperwork, some of which requires her to put together a very convincing argument.

She starts by filing a motion for the court to make an exception regarding not having filed the appeal within 30 days of Ashlyn’s sentencing (the usual requirement), citing serious and previously unknown procedural issues with the confession. Knowing the court will appreciate already having all the paperwork if they choose to accept the appeal, she also puts together the appeal itself and a 20 page brief which outlines the issues in the case to go along with it. Ali is confident that the court will hear the appeal given that it’s fairly high profile and that the MA court system is fastidious about proper legal procedure, particularly when it comes to Miranda rights. It can take up to 6 months for the court to decide on the appeal, but Ali also motioned to expedite the appeal on the grounds that just over two years of Ashlyn’s sentence has already been served despite illegal procedure. So, she’s hoping it will be somewhere within the next 30 to 60 days that they hear from the court.

After going over the paperwork meticulously a few times, she’s satisfied with the final product and seals it in an envelope to officially file with the court on Monday. She knows that she wants to be properly rested to spend Monday with Ashlyn, so she takes Sunday to completely relax and refresh herself. First and foremost, that means sleeping in late on Sunday morning and then meeting Kyle for brunch.

 

Ali catches up on her social media while she sits outside of her favorite brunch spot waiting for Kyle. The early September air is warm, but still crisp, typical of a late summer day in New England. This is her favorite time of year as the summer transitions into early fall and the nights get cooler. Soon the days will cool down a bit as well, and the leaves will start changing into beautiful autumn colors that seem to soothe her soul. These next couple of months are the whole reason she loves living in New England and doesn’t think she’d ever be able to part with it. She only manages to like about 10 pictures on her Facebook feed before Kyle comes around the corner in dramatic fashion as usual.

“Alex! Babes, you look marvelous! Muah!” He shrieks out and leans down to kiss her cheek. “Get up and do a little turn for me.” He lifts her up off the bench by the hand and helps her twirl as he rests his hand under his chin for effect. “Those jeans fit you like a glove and that blouse is just perfection!”

Ali giggles at his antics. “Thanks, Ky! It’s amazing what good sleep and a long shower will do for you!”

“Yeah no kidding. You actually look more rested than I’ve seen you in over a month. What’s the occasion?” He replies in cheerily.

“I’m starving, so we’ll continue this inside after I get my coffee and food. Let’s go!” She practically drags him inside where they are seated at a booth right away.

The waitress quickly brings over coffee as they look over the menu. They each order omelets with toast and bacon, adding a sweet strawberry and cream filled French toast to split.

“Ok, now that food is on the way, are you going to tell me what I can attribute this good mood of yours to?” Kyle asks, before sassily adding “Oooh, did you go on a ‘date’?” He makes air quotations with his hands as he says ‘date’, making it clear that he’s asking whether she got laid.

“What? NO!” Ali belts out. “Really, Kyle?”

“Well, excuuuuse me! You have a slight glow, just saying!” Kyle defends himself.

“There’s no real reason. I just finally finished up the appeal for Ashlyn, ready to file it Monday. So, I got some good sleep last night and am just feeling good about it.” Ali explains casually.

“That’s great! I’m excited that you’re finally going to file it.” Kyle replies happily. “I know it’s probably a really long road ahead, but it feels relieving to be at the start of it somehow.” He thinks on it. “I can’t tell you what it means to me.”

“I know what you mean. I’m just as invested as you are at this point.” Ali admits honestly, she’s always been honest with Kyle.

Kyle chooses to table it for now. “So, how is our girl doing? I haven’t gotten an update in over a week since you’ve been living like a hermit.”

“She’s good. She looks and sounds a lot better than when I first started visiting. We’ve come a long way I guess. I don’t know, she looks like maybe she’s actually hopeful a little bit. I feel like I get to understand her better every time we meet.” Ali tries to convey it to him as best she can. “And wow is she one committed woman. You weren’t kidding when you said she was a badass. I told her like two weeks ago that we needed the bullet that is still in her leg as evidence, and she already put on some crazy performance and is scheduled to have surgery to remove it tomorrow!” Ali recounts incredulously.

“Whew, that is fast. She really doesn’t mess around.” Kyle agrees. “You know, one of the first things I learned about Harris is that she hates hospitals. Made it all the more meaningful that she stayed by my side until I could get discharged. I’m sure this won’t be easy for her. I really wish she didn’t have to go it alone.” Kyle expresses with concern.

“I actually just learned that myself. She told me when we were talking about the surgery.” Ali replies. “You can relax a bit though, she’s not going it completely alone. I’m allowed to visit her as her lawyer and promised I’d there for all the visiting hour time until she gets to leave. So, I’m on it!”

“You really are the best, you know that?” Kyle gives her a big smile and pauses for a moment. “You’re really taken with her, aren’t you?” He finally goes in for the kill and just puts it out there bluntly.

Ali is saved from the moment by the arrival of their food as the waitress sets down their plates and refills their coffees. “This looks so good!” She remarks, grateful for the distraction.

Kyle doesn’t speak though. He just folds arms a bit and makes it obvious that he’s waiting for a reply.

Ali knows she won’t get away without answering, so as usual, she goes for truth. “Well, she’s probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met. Something about her just draws me in.”

“And…” Kyle prompts, knowing there is more as he watches his sister clearly thinking about what to say next with a contemplative look on her face.

Ali sighs. “And… are there feelings of some kind there? Honestly, maybe yes.” She watches Kyle give her a little smirk, but quickly speaks up before he can say anything. “But, this whole situation is complicated and they are feelings that I really can’t disentangle right now and that I won’t even think of disentangling. I’m her lawyer and I have a job to do. A fucking hard one at that. So, there’s no room for anything else or any thinking beyond that. I’m her lawyer and her friend, that’s the only thing there is room for until this whole thing is over. And who knows when that will be or how exactly this will turn out. Only so much of this is in my hands.” She states with finality.

Kyle nods in understanding. He has known for weeks that something has been going on with his sister; her level of commitment to this case and the way she talks about Harris is different than he’s ever experienced with her. He knows she’s right though, now is not the time to delve into it. “Well, Alex, I’m just going to say that she’s in the best hands out there. I’m proud of you and, like I said before, so thankful. Harris means the world to me.”

“Me too.” Ali gives him one last bit of honesty before getting away from the subject. “Now let’s eat already!”

 

 

Ali feels light and happy as she leaves the clerk’s office, having filed the appeal on Monday morning as planned. She quickly stops home to change out of her suit, knowing she wants to be as comfortable as possible for the long day at the hospital. She chooses some black leggings, a casual cream-colored long-sleeve blouse and some high top sneakers. Her hair is loose over her shoulders and she’s looking comfortable but stylish.  It’s only 9am and Ashlyn likely won’t be out of surgery until sometime around 10am, but Ali rushes over to the hospital anyway, wanting to be there as soon as possible like she promised. She knows she won’t get to see her until she’s assigned a room with a prison guard in place. So, she grabs a coffee and chooses a seat right by the nursing station, asking to be informed immediately when Ashlyn has a room and can have visitors. She figures she’ll be sitting there until at least 11am, but is surprised when a nurse comes over at 10:15am to tell her that Ashlyn is ready for visitors.

“They assigned Ms. Harris a room with guard for recovery, so she’s not actually awake yet. But she is able to have a visitor now if you’d like to go in.” The nurse explains. “I believe the procedure is that your bag and person will be searched before entry and any time you leave and re-enter.”

“Yes, I’ll go in.” Ali answers immediately. “I’m her lawyer, so I’m familiar with the procedure.”

The nurse nods and leads Ali through several long hallways before finally pointing to the correct room, which couldn’t be more obvious with the guard posted outside the door. There’s a couple nurses sitting at a station near the room, but otherwise it’s very quiet.

Ali approaches the guard sitting on a chair outside of the closed hospital room door. She notices right away that the door has no window and is a bit surprised that it isn’t open or that the guard isn’t sitting just inside the door. Then again, Ashlyn is only a medium security prisoner with a good behavior record, so she attributes it to a combination of that and the guard’s likely laziness as the guy sits there reading a book.

“Um, hi. I’m Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris’ lawyer.” Ali announces herself and watches the guard scramble to close his book and stand up. He takes a folded piece of paper out of his front pocket and looks at it quickly.

“Oh, well, looks like you’re the only approved visitor on this list. So, easy day for me.” He winks at Ali almost sleazily and it takes everything in her not to give him a dirty look. “I’ll just need your license for identification and to look into your purse real quick. And, doesn’t look like you’re hiding anything in those tights, so no need for the pat-down.” He remarks like he’s doing her a favor. Ali is a bit surprised the idiot didn’t pat her down just to feel her up, but she gives him a polite smile. “Plus, you’re the lawyer, so I don’t have to worry about you.” He adds with a smirk.

Ali always internally laughs at these comments. It’s amusing to her that people give lawyers such a bad rap all the time, but in important situations, they get a lot of trust. She watches him quickly look through her purse and give it back to her once he’s satisfied with his search. “All set Ms. Krieger. You’re good to go.” He motions to the door.

“Thank you.” She replies quickly and makes her way through the door, closing it behind her softly.

Ali had been feeling excited at the thought that she’d be spending the day with Ashlyn. The flutter of anticipation rushes through her as she walks into the room, but it’s quickly tempered as soon as her eyes fall upon the blonde in the hospital bed. She’d forgotten to prepare herself for the reality of the situation.  Ashlyn’s eyes are closed and she is a bit pale, oxygen tubes run under her nose, an IV and a couple other monitor wires are attached to her. Ali feels a little guilt creep up, knowing she is responsible for the blonde’s current state. Still, she takes in Ashlyn’s face, her chiseled-but-soft features and lets herself get caught up in the natural beauty of the woman.

“Hi there.” A voice across the room startles Ali a bit, breaking her out of her thoughts. She looks up to see a nurse standing and typing at a computer station in the corner of the room.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.” Ali replies with a slight wave, feeling a bit foolish.

“Don’t worry about it!” The woman says cheerily. “I’m Diane, the nurse on call for the next 6 hours. So, if you need anything, I’m the one to call on.”

Ali nods in response as Diane continues on. “She should be awake and coming out of the sedation any time now. I’m just hanging in here for a little bit until then to keep track of her vitals and try to get her to eat some plain toast. We’ll give her some pain medicine and she should be good for a while.”

“Great, thank you so much.” Ali says appreciatively, feeling like the woman was treating her as if she was the family member of any regular patient and not the lawyer of a prison inmate.

The nurse goes back to typing and Ali finally approaches the bed, reaching down to stroke Ashlyn’s tattooed forearm lightly. Her eyes follow the patterns of ink up her arm, stopping when she notices a little bit of black ink on the top of the blonde’s left shoulder peeking out of the hospital gown. She smirks when she realizes Ashlyn was trying to tell her about this tattoo when she stopped her. She just manages to make out that it’s a word when she hears Ashlyn’s voice.

“Alex. You’re here.” Ashlyn gets out in a raspy mumble.

Ali’s eyes dart to the blonde’s face, meeting her glassy but stunning hazel eyes. “Sure am. How are you, Ash?”

Ashlyn just gives her a big smile as the nurse across the room announces “Ah, there she is!”

Ali watches Ashlyn’s eyes close again as the nurse takes a round of vitals. “She might be kinda out of it for a just a little bit, but it’ll pass pretty quickly.” Diane warns her.

“You’re a sight for a sore knee.” Ashlyn is looking at Ali again and slightly laughing at her own bad joke.

Ali snorts a bit as she laughs. “So lame, Harris.”

“Well you are.” Ashlyn protests. “You look nice. Sporty and classy, good combo.” She gets out before her eyes flutter closed again.

“I swear they put truth serum in the anesthesia.” Diane laughs along.

“Well, at least she said I look good!” Ali replies jokingly. She watches Ashlyn’s eyes until she sees them open again. This time the blonde is looking back at her with a warm intensity.

“I love you, Alex.” Ashlyn says in a quiet sweet voice.

Ali’s eyes go wide and her heart practically beats out of her chest as she tries to compose herself. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Diane’s eyes go wide too as the woman politely retreats back to the corner of the room. It gives Ali just enough time to recover and come back to the reality of the situation.

“Easy there, Casanova. That’s the drugs talking.” Ali keeps her response light, in complete contrast to the rush she’s feeling inside right now.

“No.” Ashlyn is adamant. “No really, I love what you stand for. You’re a modern day superhero. Selfless, honest, caring, perfect really. You’re the best person I know, Ali Krieger.”

Ali is at a complete loss for words. All she can do is look into Ashlyn’s sincere eyes. Even though the blonde’s statement has been tempered by the explanation, it’s the way she’s looking at Ali that seems to mean so much more. She’s pretty sure no one has ever rendered her this speechless before. Luckily, Diane comes to her rescue.

“The podcast Ali Krieger?” The nurse asks from across the room.

“That’s me.” Ali nods.

“Well, she’s right then. You are amazing!” Diane says kindly.

“Oh, um, thank you. That’s nice of you to say.” Ali blushes, feeling a little bit embarrassed now.

“Told you.” Ashlyn smiles tiredly.

“Uh huh. Pipe down, you. Before you say something you regret.” Ali warns her teasingly.

“Never.” Ashlyn says resolutely.

Diane makes her way back over to them now that the potentially awkward moment has been diffused. “How’s your pain, Ashlyn?”

“Actually. It’s hurting a lot.” Ashlyn answers, a bit embarrassed for not being tougher in front of Ali.

“That’s typical. You’re coming down from the sedative. I’m going to get you some toast to eat so you don’t get nauseated with the pain medication I’m about to give you.” The nurse replies. “You should feel a bit better after that.” She adds as she leaves the room.

Ashlyn winces as her hand searches for Ali’s, finally finding it and giving the brunette’s hand a squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Ali watches Ashlyn squeeze her hand, her heart rate picking up again as she squeezes back. “Wouldn’t be anywhere else, Ash.” She says genuinely before pointing towards the window, “Besides, that view is amaaazing.”

Ashlyn lifts her head a bit, looking at the Charles River with the Museum of Science situated right across the water. “Whew, yeah, that is a solid view. Only the best inmates get that!” Ashlyn winks. “I told them my lawyer was a big deal and needed top quality accommodations if she was expected to visit me here.”

Ali rolls her eyes playfully as she watches Ashlyn’s eyes close again.

Diane comes back in just a couple minutes later, waking Ashlyn up and adjusting the bed so she can sit up a bit. She hands the blonde the toast, which she devours in seconds. “Woah there. Hungry?” The nurse jokes.

“Yeah, well, if you saw what they pass off as bread in prison, you’d wolf that down too!” Ashlyn replies.

Diane and Ali both laugh. “Alright, in that case, I’m gonna have food service bring you up a sandwich or something.” Diane shakes her head. “Guess hospital food isn’t the worse after all.” She makes them all laugh as she gives Ashlyn pain medication via the IV line. “This might make you groggy for the first hour or two, but you’ll feel a lot better.” She explains. “Looks like you’ll be good for a while in here, so just press the button if you need me and I’ll be back to check in off and on.”

“Thank you.” Ashlyn says as Ali also says “Thanks, Diane.”

“Alone at last!” Ashlyn proclaims as the door closes.

“Settle down there, Harris. You already professed your love for me in front of the nurse, what more is there?” Ali sasses back while trying to keep a straight face for effect.

“Hmmmph.” Ashlyn pretends to think about it. “Well, for starters, I’m not wearing any underwear under this sexy hospital-issued negligee.” She says waggling her eyebrows.

Ali can’t hold it in and laughs so hard that she audibly snorts.  She has gotten to know the blonde’s sarcastic wit pretty well during their visits, but this loopy and lighter humor is new to her and she can’t help but find it endearing. It makes her wonder what else she’s going to discover today with plenty of time to kill and an arguably less patronizing environment.

“Ali Krieger thinks I’m funny!” Ashlyn declares with the excitement of a five year old as she fist pumps.

“Yeah, you’re funny. And cocky. But I’ll take it.” Ali replies still laughing a bit.

They settle into a quiet moment as their laughter dies down and Ali can see that Ashlyn’s eyelids are really heavy. “Hey, you.” She says quietly leaning on the bed rail just a bit. “How about resting a little so that medicine can do its thing.”

“Oh come on, Alex. We’re supposed to be spilling dirt, remember?” Ashlyn whines even though she feels completely drained.

“We have over 8 hours and also tomorrow. I can assure you, there will be plenty of time for dirt. Sleep, Ash…. don’t make me call Diane back in here to lay down the law.” Ali threatens.

“Ok, fine. But you have to relax too then.” Ashlyn motions with her head to the comfortable looking chair right beside her bed.

“Deal!” Ali replies as she plops into the chair.

“Well now I can’t really see you.” Ashlyn complains as she realizes the bed rail is mostly obscuring her view of the brunette.

Ali just sighs jokingly and pushes the button to get the rail to come down. “You don’t need to see me if you’re sleeping, but, better?”

“Better.” Ashlyn replies with a yawn.

“Nighty night!” Ali says cheerily.

Ashlyn smirks and shakes her head a bit, but can’t fight her eyes closing any longer. A couple minutes pass and she’s trying to relax and give into the heavy weariness, but with the sudden lack of conversation she’s become aware of all the other sounds in the room. The low beep of the heart monitor, the barely audible tap of the IV drip, the muffled voices of nurses in the hallway through the closed door, even the almost imperceptible buzz of the overhead fluorescent light. The background noise that most people wouldn’t even notice is suddenly deafening to her as she feels herself tense up, a slight panic setting in.

Ali hears Ashlyn let out a couple deep breaths and notices the blonde’s furrowed brow. “You ok, Ash?” she asks as she lightly touches the blonde’s hand. The quickness with which Ashlyn’s hand reaches to grab hers almost startles her a bit.

“Yeah… just… don’t let go?” Ashlyn begs in a desperate whisper that practically breaks Ali’s heart.

The brunette quickly entwines their fingers, using her thumb to stroke Ashlyn’s hand soothingly. “Promise. It’s ok, I’m here. Just rest.”

Ashlyn let’s out one more deep breath and focuses on nothing but the gentle pressure of Ali’s thumb rubbing slow rhythmic circles on the top of her hand, feeling herself slowly calm down.

Ali watches her thumb move over the blonde’s hand as she studies the woman’s neatly trimmed nails, slightly freckled knuckles, and smooth skin. She’s broken out of it a couple minutes later when she hears a soft snore escape Ashlyn’s mouth. She leans her head back into the chair and smiles a bit. She had planned to catch up on social media and emails and maybe text Kyle a bit while Ashlyn slept. Instead, her phone forgotten on her lap, she just watches Ashlyn sleep.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn opens her eyes slowly, her head feeling a little foggy as she looks around a bit remembering where she is. Her hand feels warm and she looks down to see fingers entwined with her own, a baby blue polish on the nails. Her eyes travel up the arm belonging to the hand and settle on Ali Krieger with eyes closed, mouth slightly agape, head tilted back against the chair in a peaceful slumber. Ashlyn’s heart jumps a bit and that jittery feeling settles deep in her stomach again. She looks back down at their gripped hands, feeling the warm static-like energy where they are connected. Ali is like a magnet and she’s like a piece of iron, her skin practically jumping to meet the brunette’s touch with an energy running between them to stay pressed together like it was a law of physics. That’s the best way she can describe what it has been like since the very first touch.

Ashlyn’s eyes move to study Ali’s face again, taking in the little lines near the corners of her eyes and mouth. The same lines that crinkle up when the brunette smiles, lighting up the room.  This has to be the most beautiful woman she has ever laid eyes on, but it’s so much deeper than that. She lets out a soft sigh and drops her head back onto the pillow lightly, looking up at the white drop-ceiling tiles. This woman makes her feel things, so many things. Some of which she’s never quite felt before. Ali brings out her playful side, her blunt honest side, her carefree side, her vulnerable side, her can’t possibly keep a secret from her side, and her romantic side that wants to take her on a perfect date where she wraps her up in her arms at the end of the night and never lets go.  She feels like she’s been fumbling around in the dark for a long time and suddenly Ali comes along and turns on a switch just like that.  A bright light flooding in that, right now, can only mean one thing…she’s is trouble, so much fucking trouble. She has never had this much trouble holding her feelings and emotions in check before. “Ali is your friend. Be cool, this is good.” She reminds herself in her head before squeezing the brunette’s hand in hopes of waking her up.

Ali feels her hand being squeezed and wakes up in a bit of startle, worried that Ashlyn is in pain or something else. She didn’t intend to fall asleep, but found herself drifting off watching the blonde rest. “Ash! You ok?” She says a bit anxiously, standing up quickly and leaning over the bed a bit as she studies the blonde’s face.

“Woah, calm down. I’m good, just wanted your company.” Ashlyn shoots Ali a dimpled grin. “Where’s the fire, Krieger?”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to fall asleep on you and then I woke up in a frenzy.” Ali smiles back shyly, feeling a little foolish.

“Well, relax. I’m glad you got to rest, cause now you have to entertain me!” Ashlyn says matter-of-factly.

Ali laughs a bit, still in awe of how this woman can make her go from nervous to relaxed in mere moments. “Right. How about you eat that sandwich they dropped off for you before we start the endless rounds of tic-tac-toe?” She says watching the blonde’s eyes light up at the word sandwich.

“Sandwich, hell yes. Tic-tac-toe, nope!” Ashlyn replies, reaching for the sandwich that Ali is already handing to her and quickly taking a bite. “Soo good.” She mumbles with her mouth full. “I believe we agreed to spilling the relationship dirt up in here, so, regale me Alex!” She demands after she swallows the first bite.

“Pretty sure we agreed that you would spill the dirt first and I would reciprocate. I’m a lawyer. I remember the important details.” Ali sasses pointedly.

“Yeah, but I just had surgery.” Ashlyn whines convincingly with a pout, the sandwich almost gone already.

“Alright, alright. No pouting!” Ali says as she sits back down in the chair and turns it to face Ashlyn’s bed more. As pathetic as it is, she can’t stand to see sadness on the blonde’s face even if it’s just in jest. “So, you want the serious intense stuff or the fun stuff?”

Ashlyn smirks for a second as she realizes how easily she got her way and then contemplates Ali’s question. “Oh I want it all. I guess maybe the serious stuff first so we can end in a good place?”

“Makes sense to me.” Ali shrugs, already in disbelief at what she knows she’s about to reveal and how she doesn’t feel that nervous about it like she always thought she’d be.

Ashlyn turns her body as much on its side as her immobilized leg will allow and stuffs a pillow under her back to help keep her in that position so she can face Ali properly. Ali follows suit and leans in a bit so there is a comfortable, but appropriately intimate space between them given the nature of the conversation.

“I started dating my first and only boyfriend, Brian, my junior year in high school.” Ali dives right in. “He was that all-American looking guy with brown hair, blue eyes, and a good body. I mean, picture the guys you’d probably find in like Seventeen magazine back then and that was Brian. He was on the swim team and really popular. I can’t say I was super popular in high school, but with soccer, I was pretty well known and had friends in different circles. Anyway, our friends kind of forced us together and I wasn’t all that sure about it, but eventually gave in and started going out with him. At the time, I guess I really didn’t have interest in dating like my friends did. I felt pressure though, so I just went with it.” She pauses to see that Ashlyn is listening intently.

“He was sweet and doting and all that stuff you want a boyfriend to be.  I wanted to be into him, I really did. I just wasn’t though. It never felt right. I would have to remind myself over and over again in my head that I should like kissing him and being close to him. I mean, I played the part of being a good girlfriend just fine I thought. He was happy and on the surface we seemed like the perfect couple. It was more internally that I felt like I was playing this role. And, it went on through my senior year of high school. It got harder and harder as he pushed more and more for us to physically get further, and I would just maintain this boundary and push him away. He wasn’t an ass about it or anything and was usually respectful, he just always tried to push things a bit and made it clear what he wanted.”

Ashlyn feels herself internally cringing at where this might be going and is starting to regret asking for the serious stuff. She gives Ali a soft smile and stays silent so the brunette can continue.

“I let it slip to a couple of my close friends one night that I still hadn’t slept with him and they kind of went ballistic. They couldn’t fathom how I could be with this perfect good looking guy and not want to have sex with him. So, then I felt so dumb and upset that there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to. I felt pressured again and convinced myself that I was just nervous about it and that I needed to just rip the proverbial band-aid off. So, prom night rolls around and I promise myself that no matter what, this is the night I go for it. We end up in the backseat of Brian’s parents’ Land Rover in the parking lot of a friend’s house where the after-party was.” Ali let’s out a sigh, still feeling stupid about it after all these years.

“You don’t have to tell me.” Ashlyn speaks up seeing the sadness creeping into the brunette’s eyes. It’s practically killing her to maintain eye contact, but she is going to give Ali her undivided attention no matter what.

“No, I want to. Feels good to finally tell someone.” Ali replies quietly.

“Wait, you’ve never told anyone? Like at all?” Ashlyn asks, feeling surprised, sad, and also incredibly special.

Ali just shakes her head no and continues. “Actually, I need to back track a bit. So, about 5 months into dating Brian, we were at this party where everyone was drinking and playing spin the bottle. So fucking typical really. Long story short, this girl Haylie from my soccer team spins and it lands on me. It was the first girl-girl spin that night and I figured we’d just hug or whatever like had happened at prior parties. But then the guys start cheering ‘kiss, kiss, kiss!’ and Haylie just shrugs at me like she’s entertaining the idea. And, Ash, I get this complete rush at the thought of it because it hits me right then and there how attractive this girl is. Like a damn epiphany. So, completely unlike me, I don’t even waste another second before I just lean over and kiss the hell out of her. She matched the intensity right back and it was that thrill that I had been waiting for. We get snapped out of it by the guys all cheering, Brian included, and I can’t even tell you how scared and embarrassed I felt in that moment. And as good as it was, I just chalked it up to being tipsy and blocked it all out and forced myself to forget it.”

Ashlyn nods in understanding when Ali looks up at her to make sure the brunette knows she’s listening.

“So, back to the Land Rover on prom night. It was just all wrong. I mean, I’m sure all first times hurt a bit and are fumbling and awkward, but it was so much more than that. His face was prickly, and his hands were rough, and he felt so heavy. Don’t get me wrong, he was trying to be sweet and gentle and romantic and all of that. I wanted to feel that euphoria that everyone was talking about, but all I felt was dirty, and wrong, and disgusted with myself. And when it was all over and I’m lying there just wanting to jump out of my skin, Brian says ‘You hated that, didn’t you?’ I just start crying because I don’t know what else to say when he hits me with ‘I knew you would, but I just had to see for myself. I had to try. I knew it the day you kissed Haylie at that party and the way your eyes always linger on the girls we’re hanging with. I’ve known all along that you like girls, but I hoped that tonight would fix it. Guess not. I think we’re done here.’ He just got dressed and left me there crying in the car.”

Ashlyn quickly reaches out to squeeze Ali’s forearm that is resting on the bed. “I don’t even know what to say. I am so sorry, Alex. That is one of the most horrible things I’ve ever heard.” She says gently, genuinely upset that this would happen to anyone, let alone Ali. “Now I just want to go find that guy and cut his dick off.”

Ali let’s out a small laugh. “No thanks, Harris. I’d rather not have to get you off of yet another criminal charge, thank you very much.”

“Fair enough. But just say the word…” Ashlyn replies to keep things as light as they can be.

Ali smiles and continues. “Needless to say, that fucked me up for a while. It wasn’t even the sex thing. I mean, I knew what I was getting into with that even if it was a bad experience. It was someone seeing and knowing this part of me that I didn’t know about or realize yet. And then using it to try and change me and hurt me on top of it all…it was too much. After finally pulling myself together, which took months, I worked hard at being more attuned to what I was feeling inside. I swore that I would never let someone know me better than I knew myself ever again. And while maybe that doesn’t sound so bad… so far, it’s led me to a bunch of short and superficial relationships because I am always afraid of letting someone get close enough to see things in me that I don’t. I always blame it on my career and being busy, but that’s just a cover.” She finishes with such blunt truth that she even shocks herself as she hears the words out loud.

Ashlyn is trying to find the right words to console a somber-looking Ali when Diane walks in and interrupts them. “How’s the patient?” She asks cheerily. “I see you made quick work of that sandwich. Want me to get you something else to eat?”

“I’m feeling ok pain wise. I actually kinda have to pee. And I’m in no position to turn down food!” Ashlyn quickly answers, making Ali chuckle.

“Ok then! Let me get that heart monitor disconnected since you don’t need that now. Then we’ll get you up to pee. And here’s the menu for today so you can tell me what you want to eat.” The nurse explains as she hands Ashlyn a piece of paper.

Diane starts to move Ashlyn’s hospital gown down her shoulders a bit and Ali finds herself watching it get lower and lower on the blonde’s chest. She finally snaps out of it as the skin gets paler and less freckled as the very top of her breasts are revealed. “Oh, I uh… I’ll just step out for a minute.” She says shyly.

Ashlyn just smirks a bit smugly. “Chill out, you can stay. Nothing in here that we all haven’t seen before, right?”

“Or see like a million times a day!” Diane adds with a laugh.

Ali just sits there awkwardly and averts her eyes wishing she had the guts not to as Diane finishes disconnecting the monitor and pulls the gown back up.

‘Such a baby.’ Ashlyn mouths silently and rolls her eyes at Ali once they make eye contact again, making the brunette smile and relax a bit.

“I’m going with the grilled cheese, tomato soup, caesar salad and a ginger ale.” Ashlyn says handing the menu back to Diane.

“You got it!” The nurse replies and then explains to Ashlyn that they’ll use a walker with her support to get her into the bathroom. She’s allowed to put a little weight on her leg, but it just might be sore. Diane gets Ashlyn up pretty quickly and with only one wince from the blonde. Ali is half relieved that Diane quickly holds the back of Ashlyn’s gown closed before she can get an eyeful of the blonde’s ass. It’s not long before Ashlyn is covered back up in bed again.

“Ok, I’m going to go put in that food order and I’ll check in again at some point.” Diane announces and leaves.

Ashlyn turns right to Ali. “Who knew Alex was so bashful?!”

“I am not!” Ali protests. “I was being respectful!”

“Uh huh.” Ashlyn says with a wink. “Now if I could just get a burger, I’d be in heaven!” She adds, thinking about that grilled cheese. “Anyway, seriously, back to our conversation. I can understand where you’re coming from. That experience was awful and it’s not surprising that it changed you and made you more careful.”

“And yet, easy.” Ali chuckles with a devious smile. “Ready for the college years?”

“I’m all ears!” Ashlyn replies rubbing her hands together jokingly and adjusting to face Ali as much as she can just like before.

“So after a summer of soul searching, I get to Penn State and I am all about trying new things and just being open so that I get to know myself more honestly if that makes sense. I start to entertain the possibility of being with a girl and it’s a big step that’s exciting but really scary to me. The whole thing with Brian was still on my mind though, so I really just tried to stay away from all things relationship for a little while. I focused on school, soccer and making new friends. And then there was Hadley.” Ali pauses with a little smirk on her face.

“Ooooh, Haaadley.” Ashlyn teases in a sing-song voice.

Ali crinkles her face a bit and shakes her head. “Ugh, you are never going to let me live this one down. Hadley was, um… the senior goalkeeper on my soccer team that year.” Ali mumbles quietly.

“HA!” Ashlyn can’t help but laugh emphatically. “Of course!”

“Annnnyway! She was attractive and cocky about it. She was confident and flirted with me relentlessly for months. I guess that’s what I needed at the time. Someone strong and confident enough to make up for my shyness and uncertainty about everything. I dated her for two months and she was the first woman I had sex with. While I’m sure I was a fumbling idiot at first, she didn’t seem to mind and she was patient with me. It was everything opposite of how it was with Brian. Hadley was proud to show me off and she knew how to make me feel good about myself. A really eye-opening experience and a great person to help me break out of my shell.” Ali finishes.

“Sounds like a great first year in college. Can I ask why you guys broke up?” Ashlyn says curiously.

“Well she was about to graduate and head back home to Michigan. While we were really attracted to each other and had a whole lot of fun together, there wasn’t much more to it than that. It just wasn’t something that either of us could see keeping up with. So, we just ended it mutually.” Ali replies.

“Cool. If you’re gonna have a break-up, I guess that’s about as drama-free as it gets.” Ashlyn says, watching Ali agree with a head nod. “I wouldn’t exactly call a two month relationship being ‘easy’ though.” She gives the brunette a mocking look.

“Oh, I was getting to that. I really came out of my shell after Hadley. Like I told you before, I would pretty much be all up on any girl that would hit on me. There was a Shirley, a Pam, a Courtney, an Erica, a Georgia, a Krystal, two Emilys, and one girl that I embarrassingly admit I never got a name for… all one nighters. Well, spread over 4 years, but still.” Ali cringes a bit after admitting it out loud.

“Well ok then. Damn, Alex, coming out of your shell indeed.” Ashlyn teasingly raises an eyebrow and Ali buries her face in her hands. “Relax, I totally messing you and honestly not judging, promise.” She reassures the brunette.

“Well college definitely got it out of my system. I felt like I finally figured myself out and things have been a lot quieter on that front. I’ve had like 4 or 5 dates with three people since then. This girl Stacey in law school. A barista from Starbucks named Lily and, most recently, an accountant friend of Kyle’s named Jackie. That was like 4 months ago. They’ve all been great dates, just I don’t know…I couldn’t see myself getting anywhere with any of them. I guess I don’t see much point in dragging things out if you know it’s not going anywhere. I think it’s also been hard for people to understand how much I’ve always put into my career.” Ali looks up to find Ashlyn listening intently.

“You call that dirt, Krieger?” Ashlyn raises an eyebrow. “Gotta say I was expecting more scandal.” She jokes.

“Well, it feels scandalous enough for me!” Ali plays back.

Ashlyn chuckles a bit and then gets serious. “Really though, thanks for sharing all that with me. I know some of it was probably really hard for you to talk about.” She reaches out and runs her hand up Ali’s forearm lightly.

Ali can feel the goosebumps forming on her skin at the blonde’s touch. “Funny thing, it wasn’t nearly as hard to talk about as I thought it might be. I find you really easy to talk to.”

“Well, just the same, thank you.” Ashlyn repeats sincerely. “I find it really easy to talk to you too.”

Ali gives the blonde a devilish grin. “That’s perfect! Cause you owe me a whole lot of dirt after all that.” She pulls her legs up onto the chair, crossing them and leaning forward to place both of her arms on the bed before finally resting her chin on her hands as she lightly bats her eyelashes for effect. “I’m waiting, Harris.”

Chapter Text

Ashlyn can’t help but laugh as Ali bats her eyelashes dramatically. “Alright, alright, you definitely earned the dirt.” She lays her head on the pillow and gets comfortable, still turned to face Ali as much as possible. “The high school guy was Phil, but he wasn’t my boyfriend or anything. I was popular because of soccer and he was popular because of basketball, so people pretty much knew we’d be prom king and queen. I really didn’t even know him that well and I hadn’t dated any guys before him. Anyway, he asked me out on a date figuring we would probably go to prom together and he wanted to ‘get to know me’. We went out twice before prom night and he kissed me a few times, but we were never anything official. I can’t say I really felt anything for him and deep down I think I sort of knew I was harboring a little crush on this female co-worker at the movie theater I worked at.”

“Awwww, you worked at a movie theater? How cute!” Ali says in a high pitched voice.

“Yep, three time gold star usher of the month!” Ashlyn says sarcastically, making Ali giggle and give a little whoop.

“I knew damn well what Phil was expecting on prom night if we went together. I guess, like you, I was tired of not understanding what people were going so crazy about. And, if I’m being brutally honest, I have some really dark moments sometimes. That was one of those times. I really didn’t value myself enough to think I deserved anything or anyone special, so I didn’t have much reason to wait. So, I ended up letting myself getting fucked in a crappy Holiday Inn by a guy who just saw me as another notch in his belt. It hurt like hell and it made me even more depressed and confused.” Ashlyn shrugs. “I guess there isn’t much to say about it beyond that.”

Ali reaches out and starts softly playing with the blonde’s fingers. “Sorry, Ash. You were right when you said no one should have to go through something like that. I guess the bright side is that we can empathize with each other and understand.”

“Agreed.” Ashlyn says squeakily as she clears her throat, completely losing her focus at Ali’s touch and trying to gain some composure. “Good thing about West Point was that it was so brutal right away that I didn’t have time to dwell on it or be so trapped in my own mind anymore. That’s what happens when you get pushed so hard physically you feel like you’re gonna die.” She chuckles a bit.

“Hmmm, I’d say that I should have gone the military route, but that sounds pretty awful actually.” Ali considers it.

“Eh, you get used to the physicality of it pretty fast and then it gets easier. So, moving on, my first year at West Point I met Oakley.” Ashlyn recounts. “She was my first female relationship.”

“Oakley huh? Sounds kind of exotic. Like one of those people that’s automatically hot just because of their name.” Ali teases a bit.

“She was pretty damn hot.” Ashlyn agrees with a smirk. “Oakley was her last name though, that’s just what she went by. It’s not all that uncommon in the military. Her real name was Beth, but I never called her that.”

“So, were you in like the same unit or something? Bonded over push-ups perhaps?” Ali probes lightly.

“Uh, not exactly.” Ashlyn says a bit shyly. “She was uh, well, she was technically my CO.”

“CO?” Ali asks, not exactly sure what it stands for.

“Commanding Officer.” Ashlyn answers quickly with a slight eyebrow raise.

It takes Ali a second to process. “Your commanding officer? Oh…Oooooh! Oh wow! Holy crap!” She blurts out, her mouth open wide in shock.

“Yeeeeeeah.” Ashlyn says with playful wide eyes. “Probably not the best idea.”

“Scandal!” Ali jests with a grin. “How the hell did that happen?”

“Well, for like the first couple months she pretty much pushed me harder than anyone else and treated me like crap kinda. Then one day she calls me into her office and says she sees a lot of potential in me as a soldier because of how I never back down or quit.  She says I should apply to be the first female in the Ranger training program because she thinks I have what it takes to make it. And she offered to help me by putting me through some of the workout programs she thought I’d need.” Ashlyn explains. “Of course I took her up on it. I felt so accomplished for just about the first time ever; that I had pushed myself to be good enough on my own, I don’t know.” She pauses to see Ali listening attentively, the corners of the brunette’s mouth curled up into the slightest start of a smile.

“So we worked out together for a few weeks, usually after dinner when there was a free block for me. I really grew to like her a lot, the way she knew when and how to push me. One night it was pouring rain and we were out in an obstacle course. We were so covered in mud by the time we were done that we went to the nearest shower, which was a small locker room type building near the course that the men used during the day. We each jump in a shower and to make a long story short… next thing I know, she’s in my shower kissing me like nothing I had ever experienced. Well, and then some, cause we sure as hell didn’t stop there. Talk about putting the pieces together quickly and realizing what the hell you’ve been missing.” Ashlyn reminisces on it a bit.

“That’s one hell of a first time with a woman!” Ali says, still a bit shocked by it. “Actually sounds spicy enough to be the plot of a lesbian romance novel.”

“Definitely ended like a romance novel gone wrong.” Ashlyn says laughing slightly while shaking her head.

“Oh no, what happened? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive about it.” Ali says quickly, feeling bad about her comment.

“Relax, you’re fine.” Ashlyn reassures her. “We pretty much snuck around for my whole first year and I did end up signing up for the Ranger program that started with pre-training my second year. It was hot, heavy, and exciting with us pretty much all the time. Probably because we knew we shouldn’t be doing it. I came back home to live with my grandparents the summer after my first year and we ended up talking on the phone a lot. That’s when I felt like I really got to know her on a deeper level than all the physical stuff for once. Anyway, I get back for my sophomore year and we go right back to it. Except this time she’s not my CO anymore since I’m in the new program. Plus, I have a bit more freedom in terms of my free time and my ability to leave campus because of my rank.  So, I start pushing a bit for more between us.  I was starting to really feel like I wanted something more with her. Like I wanted to be with her off campus and actually go out on dates. And every damn time she managed to deflect it and turn things physical to distract me.  That should have been a huge red flag.” Ashlyn explains.

“I’d say so.” Ali affirms.

“Of course, I decide to push it and surprise her one night. Totally cheesy, but I was a dating novice, soooo… I get a bouquet of flowers, borrow a senior’s car, and show up at her off-campus house to take her on a date.” Ashlyn pauses for a few seconds.

“What happened?” Ali can’t wait to find out.

“She didn’t answer the door.” Ashlyn says, before quietly adding, “but her husband did, with their two year old son in his arms. She was just behind them looking horrified. It was pretty much spelled out all over her face.”

Ali covers her mouth with her hands. “OH. MY. GOSH. I didn’t see that coming!”

“Neither did I.” Ashlyn admits.

“What did you do?” Ali questions.

“I just pretended I had the wrong house and left. Then we just completely avoided each other after that, which wasn’t that hard given that I had no reason to see her very much.” She replies.

“Geez, sorry Ash. That’s quite a mess to be in, but you officially win for best dirt!” Ali tries to joke a bit.

“I damn well better after that one!’ Ashlyn exclaims. “Luckily the other two aren’t so dramatic.”

“Good, not sure I could handle too much more lesbian drama in one day.” Ali pretends to fan herself.

“Funny, Krieger.” Ashlyn rolls her eyes playfully before moving on. “I didn’t date anymore at West Point. Mostly because of Ranger training and the focus it required. After graduation and making it through the three month official Ranger school, I got stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for about a year. I went into this off-base coffee shop one day and it was so crowded that there weren’t many seats. So, I asked this girl if I could sit next to her and we started talking for a while, which ended in me asking her on a date. Her name was Leigh and we dated for about 7 months. Things were great when we were by ourselves, but it didn’t take me all that long to realize that she was hiding me from her family and friends. She would barely touch me or be affectionate at all in public. I mean, I get that we were in North Carolina and I was in the army. I understand being discrete but, I was clearly her dirty little secret.  We got in big fight after her mom surprisingly showed up at her apartment one day and she introduced me as the maintenance worker for the building.”

“Ouch.” Ali cringes.

“You’re telling me. She really couldn’t commit to making any progress with it and I knew I deserved better, so that was that.” Ashlyn says nonchalantly and moves right along. “Then I got deployed overseas and didn’t date again for a couple years. It was such a lonely time for me and just so hard with all the injuries and physical and mental recovery I had to deal with. Part of me always wished I had someone to fight for or come home to like so many other soldiers did, but I also really liked that I wasn’t burdening anyone who would be missing me.”

Ali frowns a bit imagining how hard it must have been for Ashlyn to have gone through so many horrific things all by herself. She reaches out and runs her hand up and down the blonde’s tattooed arm sweetly. She swears she feels Ashlyn quiver a bit at her touch, but ignores it. “You know, Ash. You don’t have to shoulder everything by yourself all the time.”

Ashlyn gives her a small smile. “I know. I’m getting better at it…slowly.” She half smiles and continues. “Last person I dated was Riley like 4 years ago. I helped changed her flat tire while I was on police patrol duty one night in Boston and she asked me out on a date.”

“Ooooh, knight in shining armor!” Ali says mockingly.

Ashlyn rolls her eyes and laughs. “We were together for just over a year and she had moved in with me at about 5 months into it.”

“Oh wow, so pretty serious then?” Ali asks.

“I guess. Ugh, this one makes me feel like such an ass. Riley was so sweet and I could see that she was head over heels for me. She was a great person and things were so good with us physically. And I wanted so badly to feel about her the way she did about me, she deserved that. I just… I don’t know… I guess I never felt like she really got me. She never understood my protective side and she hated how I was always the first to put myself in dangerous situations at work. It was my fault too that I never let her in beyond a certain point. If I was in a bad place, I hid it from her. I was just so sure she’d judge me or see me differently, that I never told her. Worst of all… this is bad… when she would be so emotional with me and tell me she loved me, I would just reciprocate because I felt like that’s what she wanted to hear. I shouldn’t have done that when I wasn’t feeling it. In trying not to hurt her, I’m sure I hurt her even worse.” Ashlyn says sadly. “I didn’t mean to do that. I just didn’t realize fast enough what I was feeling before it was too late and a complete mess.”

“Hey.” Ali says, meeting the blonde’s hazel eyes. “We all make mistakes and hurt people even when we don’t mean to. The fact that you still care so much that you hurt her says everything about your character.”

“Thanks, Alex.” Ashlyn replies with a little bit of relief from the remorse she feels at recounting the story. “When I finally realized, I was honest with her and told her that I didn’t feel quite the same way. She didn’t take it very well and moved out the next day. She’s married now and happy, which makes me happy for her. She definitely deserved the world. We’ve run into each other a couple times and it has been cordial at least.” She shrugs and adds “The end!”

“Whew, that just all sounds so emotionally draining.” Ali says as she takes it all in. “I always feel bad about not having any serious relationships, but that all seems like so much heartbreak.”

“Yeah, it definitely has its negatives. But, like I said before, I learned a lot about myself and what I want in a relationship.” Ashlyn responds thoughtfully.

“And what’s that?” Ali asks curiously.

“Well, I want someone who’s always completely honest with me and who I feel like I can be completely honest and open with too. I want someone who understands me or at least tries to. Who I can be myself with and who won’t judge me for who I am and what I struggle with. I want someone who knows when to push me on things and when to let me be. And, I want someone who is proud of me and who will love me loudly and openly without holding back…that people will take one look at us and just know.” Ashlyn states confidently.

“That’s a tall order, Harris.” Ali says quickly after she realizes she’s been quiet for a few seconds because she’s mentally checking the list off in her head when it comes to their interactions with each other. “But, completely reasonable.” She adds with a smile. “Better than me. All I know is that I don’t want to connect with anyone physically anymore before I can connect with them emotionally. Pathetic. I know.”

“Eh, doesn’t matter much for me anyway. Don’t think I’ll ever be attracting anyone in the sexy beige jumpsuit I’ve been rocking for a while now.” Ashlyn jokes.

“Maybe not. Buuut, that light blue hospital gown really brings out your eyes.” Ali replies, only half joking because it’s actually true. It makes her wonder what Ashlyn must look like in normal clothes. Even in the beige prison jumpsuit, the blonde is really attractive. Ali can’t even imagine the level of attraction if she was dressed up. She’s broken out of her thoughts by Ashlyn’s loud laugh.

“If you’re gonna flirt with me, Alex… you might want to go for something less cliché than ‘nice eyes’.” Ashlyn goads her.

“Oh, so now I’m flirting huh?” Ali plays along for a second. “You wish, Harris.” She’s about to let herself laugh when she sees the smoldering look on Ashlyn’s face as the blonde’s eyes stare longingly right into her own. It makes her heart flutter and her mouth go dry.

Before Ashlyn even knows what is going through her mind, the words are out of her mouth in an almost whisper. “Actually, I really do wish.”

Ali should be taken aback, but for some reason she’s not. Instead she feels emboldened, something igniting inside her that she can’t put words to. “Really?” She asks boldly and seriously.

Even though Ashlyn can’t believe or quite figure out just how they got to this point, she certainly isn’t going to hold back now. Not that she even feels like she can with Ali, this woman has a way of making her every thought just spill out of her mouth. She goes to open her mouth to reply, but they’re interrupted by the food service staff bringing in her food order. Ashlyn groans internally as Ali gets up to help her with the food, the conversation forgotten for the time being.

 

Ashlyn leans back and pats her stomach after finishing her food. “Yep, I could eat like 5 more of those sandwiches.”

“Seriously? You’re still hungry?” Ali asks wide-eyed.

“I’m always hungry.” Ashlyn answers with a shrug.

“Alright, well I can get you something when I run down to the cafeteria to get some dinner for myself in a little while.” Ali offers, realizing it’s already past 4pm and she hasn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Pretty sure that would be AMAZING!” Ashlyn replies dramatically, making Ali laugh.

“You should probably get some more rest too, you must be exhausted from all that pain medication.” Ali says after noticing the blonde’s eyes looking a little bit tired.

“Nah, I have all night to sleep. Not gonna waste any more time doing that when I have such good company and so many things to learn still.” She replies with a devious smile.

Ali settles back into the chair. “I’m going to regret this, but… what do you want to know, Harris?”

Ashlyn strokes her chin, pretending to seriously think about. “Hmmm, let’s see. Guilty pleasure song?”

Ali groans. “Don’t make fun of me,” she says pointing at Ashlyn in mock warning. “Straight Up by Paula Abdul.”

Ashlyn tries so hard no to laugh, but a loud belly laugh comes out before she can stop herself. She puts up her hands defensively. “Sorry, sorry. I’m not judging, I swear! Just would never have guessed that.”

Ali just buries her face in her hands in embarrassment.

“Straight up now tell me, are you gonna love me forever, oh, oh, oh…” Ashlyn starts singing to make Ali laugh. The brunette looks up with a smile and joins in for a verse before the two of them are giggling so much they can’t sing it anymore.

“Ok hot shot. What’s yours?” Ali questions.

“Danger Zone, Kenny Loggins.” Ashlyn answers.

“Ok, I have to ask why. Do you have a Top Gun obsession?” Ali asks, a bit puzzled.

“First of all, doesn’t everyone have a bit of a Top Gun obsession?” Ashlyn says rhetorically with a raised eyebrow. “It was the first movie I saw in a theater. It was playing at this local theater that would show older movies; the same theater I got that job at later on.  My Grandpa took me and Chris to see it. That song got me all pumped up for some reason. I was big into skateboarding when I was a kid and I would bring my radio down to the skate park and blast that song when I was practicing tricks. It made me feel completely invincible.” Ashlyn explains.

“Ok, ok, I’ll give you that. It’s definitely a get pumped song.” Ali agrees.

“Do you have any nicknames besides ‘Ali’?” Ashlyn launches right into another question.

“Not really, no.” Ali answers. “Most people have always just called me Ali or Alexandra. Kyle and my mom have been the only ones to use Alex. Well, and now you too.”

“Oh, um, I’m really sorry. I was just being an asshole that first day and giving you a hard time. Geez, I didn’t mean to call you by such a personal name. I can stop and just go by Ali.” Ashlyn guiltily apologizes.

“No way. While a small part of me might have wanted to smack you that first day…” Ali pauses to give Ashlyn a feisty look, “I really like that you call me that now. It feels right. You’re on the level, Harris, relax.”

“Thank god for that plexi-glass the first day.” Ashlyn jokes. “At least now I understand the magnitude of what it means to call you Alex and I won’t take that for granted.” She says seriously. “Besides, Alex fits you perfectly. Did you know it means defender of mankind? Doesn’t get more fitting than that.”

“I had no idea.” Ali replies. “I just knew that Krieger meant warrior in German.”

“Defender and warrior. How perfect is that to describe you?!” Ashlyn says in disbelief. “Your mom knew what she was doing when she named you.” She watches Ali smile widely, watching how her nose crinkles and her tongue pokes out a bit through her teeth. The brunette couldn’t be any more captivating if she tried.

“What about you?” Ali inquires.

Ashlyn shakes her head a bit. “Most people stuck to Ashlyn when I was growing up. Except for my grandma who used to call me Crash because I was just about always scraped up from something or other, and probably because I could be a real handful too.  Given my career, I’ve gotten used to just being called Harris all the time. So, like I told you before, I really like that you call me Ash.” She explains.

“Good. I like calling you that.” Ali admits.

There’s another knock at the door and it’s Diane coming to check in on Ashlyn one more time and give her the next round of medicine before her shift ends. Ashlyn tells Diane she needs to pee again and Ali takes the opportunity to use that time to go get some dinner.

As Ali walks out of the room, she notices there’s a new guard in place. She shoots him a quick smile when she realizes it’s the same guard that was in the observation room during a couple of her early meetings with Ashlyn. The very same one that had given them a lot of privacy by purposely staying engrossed in his magazine during those visits.  She shoots Kyle a quick text as she navigates the long hallways and heads to the lobby to wait for him like they had planned out yesterday. She laughs to herself as she remembers Ashlyn’s earlier food request and how somehow they have managed to be on the same page without even trying.

Twenty minutes later, Ali gets a text from Kyle and walks outside to meet him as he pulls up to the hospital entrance in his Mercedes G-Class. “How’s she doing?” He asks eagerly as he gets out of the car.

“Hi to you too.” Ali sasses him. “She’s doing pretty well actually!” She says, thinking about how the afternoon has gone pretty well.

Kyle narrows his eyes at her a bit, noticing that she seems a little too enthusiastic. “Soooo, want to tell me what exactly is going on in there that your smile is practically blinding me?” Kyle pretends to shade his eyes.

Ali shoots him a glare and smacks his arm. “Nothing is going on, as we’ve previously discussed. There has been some sleeping and some more getting to know each other conversation. That’s it, Kyle.”

“Uh huh. Sure, sure. I’m not going to keep you any longer, but we are so talking about this tomorrow!” Kyle says pointing at her playfully and handing her two bags of food and a tray of drinks.

“You’re the best, thanks!” Ali says appreciatively.

“We’re both the best! Make sure you tell her hi and that I love her.” He reminds her.

“Promise!” Ali says, kissing him on the cheek and heading back into the hospital.

She runs into Diane on the way back to the room. “I just got her all set for the night and I’m about to head out. I’m sure Susan, the nurse on duty overnight, will check in at some point.” She says to Ali.

“Thanks, Diane, for everything. I um, I guess I didn’t expect such kind treatment in there today. It means a whole lot.” Ali puts it out there bluntly.

Diane gives her a small nod and gets closer. “Between you and me, that woman in there is Boston’s finest. She doesn’t know it, but she talked my son down from jumping off the Zakim Bridge about 6 years ago. I don’t care what Captain Harris did or didn’t do, I know her heart and that’s all that matters. And I’ve made damn sure that any nurse who goes into to that room while she’s here will treat her like gold too.” Diane tells her getting a little choked up.

Ali gives the woman a quick hug, knowing there aren’t really words to say right now. “Thank you so much, Diane. Goodnight.” She takes a deep breath, wondering how anyone could possibly believe that Ashlyn Harris killed someone. There isn’t a single thing she’s learned about the blonde that doesn’t scream hero and role model. She’s a bit lost in that thought and before she knows it, she’s right back in front of Ashlyn’s room door.

She expects the guard to stand up and get ready to check her purse like the other guard did, but he doesn’t look like he’s moving. “Ali Krieger, I’m Ashlyn Harris’ lawyer.” She announces herself to him.

“Jordan Willis. Ashlyn’s Harris’ guard until 8am.” He gives her a friendly smile to go along with his joke. “I know who you are. You’re all set to go in, Ms. Krieger.”

Ali laughs a bit, glad she had read this guy right. She holds a bad of food out toward him. “I thought you might be hungry. There’s a burger and some fries in there and here’s a coke for you too. I hope you’re not a vegetarian.” She says hopefully. “And you can call me Ali.”

“Wow. Thank you! That’s really very nice of you. No wonder Captain Stoic in there lets you visit all the time.” He says motioning toward the door of the room. “Nice to properly meet you, Ali. I’ll wish you goodnight now in case I don’t catch you before I leave.”

Ali finds that last statement a bit odd and just assumes she didn’t hear it right. “Yeah, I’ll make sure to check out with you when I leave at 8pm.”

“Oh, I thought you’d be staying overnight.” Jordan says, clearly feigning innocence.

Ali is beyond confused. “I thought the rule was visiting hours only, from 8am to 8pm?”

“It is.” Jordan replies, confusing Ali even more. Before the brunette can get any more lost, he comes to her rescue. “The hospital visiting hours are officially 8am to 8pm. However, it turns out that we are in the empty overflow section of the maternity ward. And according to that sign right there…” he points to a sign on the wall, “there are no official visiting hours in this ward, just discretionary quiet hours from 12pm to 2pm.” He gives Ali a knowing smirk. “So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going by the rules of the ward that I’m assigned to guard.”

Ali smiles back at him widely, hoping her thankfulness is reflected on her face. “I didn’t know that. Thank you, Jordan. I’ll make sure to say hello when I go get my coffee in the morning then.”

“No problem.” Jordan says, obviously thrilled he got his message across like he planned. He leans closer to Ali and whispers “Tell her I said hi and get well.”

“I will.” Ali assures him, still a bit shocked by the whole interaction. “Goodnight.” She walks past him feeling positively giddy at the turn of events as she walks back into the room. “I’m baaaack!” She announces loudly as she enters, watching Ashlyn’s face light up.

“Thank god, I’m starving!” Ashlyn says dramatically. “What’d you get me?”

“Actually, I didn’t get you anything from the cafeteria. It looked gross.” Ali says coyly, shielding the food bags in her hands from Ashlyn a bit.

“No worries.” Ashlyn says quickly, not wanting Ali to feel bad. “I can order dinner from here.”

“Easy, Harris. All I said was that I didn’t get you something from the cafeteria.” She says playfully. “I figured I’d do a little better than that.” Ali proudly holds up the food bag and drinks from Shake Shack.

“NO FUCKING WAY!!!” Ashlyn yells excitedly as her eyes bug out of her head. “Come on, how the hell did you pull that off? There’s no way you drove to New York in the last half hour!?”

Ali can only giggle. “Well duh! Hate to break it to you, but since you’ve been locked up, Shake Shack opened like 3 locations in the Boston area. I had planned with Kyle yesterday for him to bring some over for dinner for us. Luckily for me, you had a burger on the brain!”

“Alex, seriously. I am so excited, I don’t even know what to say. Thank you.” Ashlyn is so beyond touched at how Ali is doing everything she can for her. “Make sure you thank Kyle for me too.”

“I will. He says hi and that he loves you by the way.” Ali mentions before she forgets, earning a smiling nod from Ashlyn. “And, you don’t have to say anything… just stuff your mouth with burger for a while and enjoy it! There’s four of them in this bag and I’ll only eat one, so eat up! Oh, fries and a shake too… strawberry or vanilla? I like both, so your choice.”

“Oh my gosh, a strawberry shake too?! Uhhh, you are doing things to me woman!” Ashlyn exclaims, making Ali blush a bit.

Ali quickly composes herself. “Well, gee, Ash. If all I had to do was buy you a burger…” She trails off flirtatiously.

“The way to my heart is definitely through my stomach.” Ashlyn replies with a wink.

“Noted.” Ali leaves the flirty banter there and hands the food bag to Ashlyn before it gets too cold. She eats her own burger and fries, watching Ashlyn eat two burgers, fries, and drink the shake before finally laying back a bit more and patting her stomach to signal that she’s full.

“That was sooo damn good. I’m eating that last burger as soon as I have room, cold or not!” The blonde announces as Ali just shakes her head. “You’re the best.”

“Well, that was just dinner. What would dinner be without a movie?” Ali says pulling her iPad out of her purse.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re perfect?” Ashlyn asks earnestly.

“Actually, no. Just you this morning.” Ali says lightly.

“Well, you are. So, so, perfect. I mean it.” The blonde says genuinely.

Ashlyn’s words are so heartfelt that Ali feels her own heart thumping, the blood rushing through her body as warmth spreads through her. “I’m not perfect, trust me,” is all she can manage to reply at the moment. She pulls up Netflix and leans herself over in the chair so they can both see the screen.

“No, you are. Come sit with me?” Ashlyn asks shyly, scooting a bit and patting the left side of the bed.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Ash. Otherwise I would.” Ali says regretfully.

“I’ve been shot multiple times in the dessert, practically blown up in a Humvee, and then shot in the leg by my own Chief for good measure. Trust me, you’re not gonna hurt me, Alex. Get your ass over here before I pick you up and put you here myself!” Ashlyn demands.

“Fine.” Ali pretend huffs, giving in pretty easily as she makes her way around the bed. She points her finger at Ashlyn in warning before she sits down. “I swear, Harris, if you get even the slightest bit uncomfortable or in pain, you better tell me.”

“Promise. Now sit.” Ashlyn smiles, feeling Ali settle in the bed beside her. The brunette wastes no time putting the iPad in a good position on their laps and immediately wraps both her arms around the blonde’s left one, snuggling into her a bit. It feels so good Ashlyn thinks she might pass out and tries hard to calm her breathing and heart rate before Ali notices. She’s broken out of her trance by the opening music of Jaws.

“You picked Jaws?” Ashlyn says almost emotionally. “So fucking perfect.” She repeats again in a whisper.

Ali doesn’t reply, she just smiles and snuggles in even closer to the blonde. She’s always been touchy feely and cuddly with her close friends, so it doesn’t dawn on her not to be with Ashlyn.

As they watch the movie, Ashlyn can’t remember the last time she felt anything like this or even whether she ever has. She feels so relaxed and yet jittery with excitement at feeling Ali nestled into her side, squeezing her arm a bit every time the movie gets gory or scary. It’s like being an unexperienced teenager again. She sits there wishing that the movie will never end and finds herself getting sadder as it approaches the finale.

As the credits start rolling, Ali rests her head on Ashlyn’s shoulder and looks up to the see the blonde looking melancholy. She sits up a bit and takes a better look at her. “Oh my god, you’re actually upset that they kill the shark at the end, aren’t you?!”

“What? No!” Ashlyn defends herself. “Well, ok, I’ll admit that I used to be. I’ve watched this movie like 100 times though, I’m over them killing the shark now.”

“Then what’s wrong? Are you in pain? You look tired and sad.” Ali asks concerned.

“I’m fine. A little tired, but mostly just sad that you have to leave in like 20 minutes.” Ashlyn confesses.

Ali just smiles a bit. “Yeah, about that. Tell me about Jordan Willis.”

Ashlyn looks at Ali a bit puzzled. “Jordan? Why?”

“Just tell me.” Ali insists, wanting to really figure the whole thing out before telling Ashlyn the news.

Ashlyn just shrugs and tells Ali all about her friendship with Tim Rosemund and how is he a guard at the prison. She eventually ends with the fact that Jordan is one of Tim’s best friends and tends to treat her really well because of that. “Now will you tell me why you want to know?”

Ali finally gives in. “Because Jordan so nicely informed me when I came back with dinner that technically we are in the unused area of the maternity ward, which apparently, has no limit on visiting hours. So, unless you kick me out, Harris…” She lets the statement hang in the air and watches Ashlyn put it all together as a huge grin comes over her face.

“Really? You can stay?” Ashlyn asks with the voice of a small child.

“Yep. Not going anywhere unless you want me to.” Ali reaffirms. “Oh and Jordan says hi and get well.”

“Sorry, Krieger, but I’m officially making you stay here instead of letting you go sleep in your own comfy bed tonight.” Ashlyn smiles a bit shyly before cheerily yelling, “Sleepover!”

Ali reaches over to put the iPad on the small table near the bed and snuggles back into the blonde as close as she can, loving how it makes her feel to be so close to her. A rush from the novelty of it combined with the comfort of feeling like they’ve done this a million times. “Now will you rest? You look so tired, Ash.”

“Ok, yeah. I’m feeling pretty tired.” She finally admits. “Just one more thing,” she says and then bellows “You’re the man, Jordan!” as loudly as she can.

They both hear the door creak open a bit and hear Jordan’s voice quietly say “Night, night Capt,” before the door closes again. Ali feels a lot more relieved knowing that Ashlyn has a couple great allies inside the prison.

Ali watches Ashlyn hit the buttons to dim the light and adjust the bed back a bit, and then close her eyes. She feels a bit tired herself. “Make sure you tell me if you get uncomfortable and need space, ok? I can sleep in the chair.” Ali reminds her.

“I will, Alex, I swear. Don’t go anywhere, ok? This feels really nice.” Ashlyn says groggily.

“I won’t.” Ali reassures her, wondering just how bizarre this is going to look if and when the night nurse comes to check in. Then again, between knowing Jordan is at the door all night and that Diane has clearly talked to the staff, she’s not all that worried about it. She rests her cheek on the blonde’s shoulder and lets her own eyes close when she hears Ashlyn speak up again.

“You know what I’m most scared of?” Ashlyn says quietly, her eyes still closed.

“Tell me.” Ali whispers back, not opening her eyes either.

“That when this is all over, even if it turns out exactly like we want it to, that I’ll have nothing. No job, no purpose, no direction, and I’ll just be alone. That’s my biggest fear in life, being alone.” Ashlyn admits for the first time ever out loud. “Pretty messed up for someone who has pushed everyone away for the last couple years, huh?”

Ashlyn’s voice sounds so tiny that it practically breaks Ali’s heart. She squeezes Ashlyn’s left arm which is wrapped up in her own arms, letting her thumb rub light circles on the blonde’s bicep. “I’m not ever going to pretend that I know what you’re going through or might go through in the future when it comes to all of this. I promise I’ll always listen so I can understand though and do anything I can to help. You’ll never be alone.”

“How can you always be so sure of things?” Ashlyn says, always wondering where Ali gets all her confidence from. She’s admired it from day one.

“I’m not always so sure, but I put stock into the things I know for sure if that makes sense.” Ali replies. “You’ve got Chris and Kyle, they’re not going anywhere no matter what. And you always have me.”

“Do you mean that?” Ashlyn asks in a whisper.

“Of course I do. I promise I’m not going to keep Chris so hidden that he never comes back!” Ali replies with a slight laugh. “And Kyle loves you so much, he’s always going to be there for you.”

“No, I meant the part about you.” Ashlyn says softly.

“Oh Ash, that I can promise you. You’ll always have me. That’s something that I am completely sure about.” Ali assures her. “And even though I really don’t know when it happened exactly, you’ve become a best friend.”

Ashlyn nods contently, her heart feeling full but her mind lingering over the word ‘friend’. Just like every other time today, she can’t keep her mouth shut. “Alex, can I tell you something else at the risk of fucking everything up?”

“You can tell me anything. Nothing you say will fuck anything up, relax.” Ali replies easily.

“Yeah, well, you haven’t heard it yet, but…” Ashlyn let’s out a deep breath to compose herself and pauses for a couple seconds. “If we were in just about any other situation, I would have asked you out on a date by now.” She puts it out there unfiltered, her heart racing anxiously as she feels herself start to sweat a bit.

“Really?” Ali asks being taken off-guard, her voice jumping up an octave. She can feel Ashlyn’s heart pounding against her arm and hers is in a race to match it now.

“Yeah. You’ve taken everything I know about myself and relationships and completely spun it on its head. I’d be a damn fool not to try and find out why. And it doesn’t hurt that you’re truly the most captivating person I’ve ever met, inside and out.” Ashlyn doesn’t hold back a single bit.

Ali lifts her head and scoots up a bit to look at the blonde, prompting Ashlyn’s eyes to open and look back right into hers. If Ashlyn isn’t going to hold back, then neither is she. Truth has bound them together from day one and it will always be her anchor. “My answer would be yes, without question.”

“Really?” Ashlyn’s eyes widen and now it’s her turn to be at a loss for words.

“Really. I’ve never admired and been so intrigued by someone in my entire life the way I am with you. You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever known, and I don’t just mean the outer packaging. Your very soul is inspiring and nothing you could ever tell me or do would make me believe otherwise. I love who I am around you. I feel practically naked and yet comfortable in my own skin. I don’t know how else describe it. So, you’re damn right the answer would be yes.” Ali gets out confidently, her eyes never leaving the hazel ones looking into her own.

Ashlyn goes to speak, but Ali puts her finger to the blonde’s lips. “No, wait, don’t say anything else yet.” She sees Ashlyn nod and pulls her finger away. “Look, Ash, I’m thrilled we can be open like this, but I also need to you understand my position right now. There is nothing more important to me than keeping you safe and getting you out of this mess. For me to able to do that, I need to be in a place where I’m not so blindly tied to the outcome that I can’t be brave enough to be fearless. Right now, I’m your lawyer. I need to be able to think like one, compartmentalize my emotions, and do my job advocating for you. I can’t do that if this goes beyond where it is at the moment, it’s already hard enough and I know my limits. I want us to always be honest with each other like this, but I also need us to just hold onto our friendship right now without floating too far. Can you understand?”

Ashlyn nods again and her mouth opens to speak only to be met with Ali’s finger one more time. “Wait, I’m not done.” Ali says and gets just a little bit closer, where they are practically breathing the same air. Her eyes are a warm amber color right now and Ashlyn is completely lost in them.

“No matter what the outcome of all of this, I promise you that when it’s all over, my answer will always be yes if you want that date. Even if I have to do it in my very own prison jumpsuit and it’s behind bars, I will go on that date with you Ashlyn Harris.” Ali vows, dropping her forehead down the Ashlyn’s for a moment before pulling back. “Ok?”

Ashlyn swallows hard and closes her eyes, bringing her right hand up to cup Ali’s face. She’s never wanted to kiss someone so badly in her life, but she completely understands why she can’t. “Ok, Alex. Thanks for being honest, I do understand. For the record though, there is no situation in which I won’t want that date. I’m holding you to that yes.” She lets her hand drop and let’s a dimpled grin spread over her face.

“You better.” Ali smiles and lays her head back down, pressing her forehead to the blonde’s cheek, her arms still wrapped snuggly around Ashlyn’s left arm.

They just listen to each other breathe in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. Ashlyn replays Ali’s words in her head, she so tired from all the medicine and feels herself getting extra sentimental. “Alex?” She whispers.

“Yeah?’ Ali whispers back.

“No one has ever called me beautiful before, ever.” Ashlyn utters in a murmur, a single tear running down her cheek. She’s been called hot, sexy, attractive, strong, and even studly once, but never beautiful. The way Ali said it so simply and easily in frank conversation, it has touched her down to the core of her soul.

Ali feels the wetness against her cheek and reaches up to wipe the tear from the blonde’s face, letting her hand drop back down to entwine their fingers together. “Well you truly are, Ash, and anyone who thinks differently is dumb and blind. You know what though? I kinda like being the first.”

Ashlyn feels Ali smile into her cheek and can only smile herself. “Now go to sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up.” She hears Ali mumble and let’s herself relax into the brunette’s warmth.

Ali waits until she hears Ashlyn’s breathing completely even out, her body relaxed and sleeping peacefully. She lifts her head and takes in the blonde’s features for a minute before leaning in and pressing a very quick soft kiss to her lips. “Sweet dreams, beautiful. You’ll always have me, you had me right from the beginning.” She drops her head back down to Ashlyn’s shoulder contently and lets her eyes close.

Chapter Text

Ali wakes up to low mumbling voices and lifts her head to look around. It takes her a second to remember where she is, but the warmth emanating from the blonde beside her is enough to quickly jog her memory. She’s still tucked into Ashlyn’s shoulder, her hand having drifted to the blonde’s stomach while they slept. She moves her hand away slowly, reluctantly at the feel of the taut stomach muscles she feels through the thin hospital gown. She lets herself imagine for just a second what this sculpted body must look like under that gown, but quickly pushes the thought out of her mind before she lets herself get into dangerous territory. She grabs her phone from the small table beside the bed, seeing that it’s 2:03am.

The voices are getting a bit louder now and seem to be just outside the door. She quickly slips out of the hospital bed making sure not to wake Ashlyn. She plops herself in the chair just about a minute before the door opens to reveal a nurse and a doctor.

“Hi, I’m Susan the nurse on duty overnight. This is Dr. Lance Weber, the surgeon who performed the procedure earlier today.” The nurse makes introductions in a quiet voice. She’s pretty young looking and Ali figures she can’t be more than 25 years old.

“I’m Ali Krieger. Ms. Harris’ lawyer.” Ali replies with a polite nod.

The doctor barely acknowledges her as he quickly flips through the chart hanging off the end of the bed. He’s a middle-aged, clean-cut guy with all gray hair. “I meant to make my rounds sooner, but I ended up in an emergency trauma surgery this afternoon that went well into the night.” He explains as he starts to move around the bed. “I’m going to try and have a look at the incision.” He suddenly lifts the blanket, causing Ashlyn to startle immediately and look around defensively.

“Woah. Sorry, Ms. Harris.” He stops what he’s doing, getting a bit startled by Ashlyn’s sudden movement himself.

Ali is a bit annoyed by his lack of sensitivity, but focuses on Ashlyn instead. “It’s ok, it’s just the surgeon trying to have a look at your knee.” She reassures Ashlyn and lightly touches her arm.

Ashlyn calms at Ali’s voice and takes stock of the other two people in the room. “Oh, uh, ok. Sorry.” She says sleepily and nods, signaling for the doctor to continue.

The doctor makes quick work of removing the immobilizer and gently unwraps the bandaging as the nurse turns on all the lights so he can see properly. Ali immediately takes in the tattoos covering most of Ashlyn’s lower leg as they are exposed. A skull wearing a headdress and an amazing likeness of the Statue of Liberty, the two designs tied together near the ankle area with a single rose; the ink all black other than a few red details on the headdress. The intricacy and shading of the designs are just as remarkable as on the blonde’s arm sleeve.

Ali is broken from her admiration of the body art as the doctor begins to lightly palpate and check the knee area. It’s a fairly straight and neat five inch incision just off to the outer side of the blonde’s upper right knee. She darts her eyes to Ashlyn’s face, watching her wince a bit, her eyes still squinted from adjusting to the bright lights.

“I was hoping to just do this all via a laparoscopic surgery, but the position of the bullet and the fact that it was a bit lodged in the lateral patellar tendon indicated a more standard approach to avoid further complications. I repaired the damaged area of tendon and expect that it will heal well. I’m a bit surprised this hasn’t caused you issues prior to this given the location.” Dr. Weber explains. “I’m happy with the results, but you’ll want to be very careful with weight-bearing for the first two weeks and gradually work your way up to normal weight-bearing and walking. Susan will administer your last round of narcotic pain medication soon and then we’ll move to all Ibuprofen after that. Which means, you’ll be able to go home tomorrow.” He pauses. “Well, um, if you can call prison home that is.”

He is far too uncouth with that statement for Ali’s liking and she fights the urge to just smack him. “I’m sure most people don’t think of prison as ‘home’.” She snaps at him, the best she can do to hold back her anger. Ashlyn just bites her lip, trying not to smile.

“Oh, um, I didn’t mean to…” He starts to recover, but Ali cuts him off harshly. “You were saying about her knee…”

Dr. Weber is taken aback by the lawyer’s attitude, but continues on. “Right. The prison hospital will be able to provide the proper incision care and physical therapy for recovery. They’ll collaborate with us as needed. Any other questions?”

“No. Thank you.” Ashlyn quickly answers before Ali can say anything else, watching the doctor excuse himself and leave the room.

“Don’t worry about him, he’s typically a pompous ass. Probably to compensate for the fact that he’s 48 and lives with his mother.” Susan shrugs with a devious smile and begins working on re-bandaging Ashlyn’s knee.

They all laugh lightly at the comment and the nurse explains how she will administer the next pain medication via the IV and how discharge will work tomorrow afternoon. Ali tries to listen, but she’s distracted by what looks like the tail of a fish inked in black being revealed on Ashlyn’s lower right thigh as the gown rides up a bit. The blonde wasn’t kidding when she said she had more tattoos. She hears Ashlyn’s throat clear a bit and she looks up shyly, knowing she’s been caught staring. Ashlyn just gives her a knowing smile.

It takes Susan a few more minutes to finish up with Ashlyn’s knee, administer the medicine, and check to make sure they don’t need anything else before she finally excuses herself and leaves the room.

Ashlyn turns to Ali immediately. “So, I’m thinking Alex definitely has a thing for tattoos?”

“Guilty.” Ali admits, putting her hands in the air and shaking her head.

“Well, do you want to see them now or do you still need motivation?” Ashlyn teases her a bit. “I mean you already saw a lot of it.”

“Oh fuck it, just show me.” Ali replies almost giddily, she’s always loved and admired tattoos.

“Well you saw the work on my lower leg, it’s mostly covered up now with this leg brace thing.” Ashlyn lifts the blanket a bit. “I got the skull to honor the Native American heritage on my Dad’s side, and paired with the Liberty, it’s a way for me to honor the country I’ve served. I wanted something a bit different than the standard military tattoos. The red in the headdress and cracks in the skull symbolize battle and struggle.” She explains thoughtfully as she starts lifting the hospital gown up her thigh.

Ali sees the tail of the fish again, now partly obscured by the knee brace, and watches the gown get higher and higher up the blonde’s thigh as the tattoo is revealed. She can see that it’s a mermaid now, but her focus is on the fact that Ashlyn keeps pulling the gown up higher and the ink isn’t fully uncovered yet. Just when she starts to internally panic that the blonde is about to flash some butt cheek, Ashlyn stops, the full tattoo on display.

“Wow, that’s gorgeous. I didn’t expect it to be so big.” Ali comments, studying the design and noting that it takes up the entire length of Ashlyn’s thigh. She also doesn’t miss the three bullet wound scars that she should have been prepared for given what she knew of Ashlyn’s army injuries. One is above the mermaid’s head near Ashlyn’s outer hip line, the second is below it just under the mermaid’s arm, and the third one sits on the inner thigh just beside the mid-point of the mermaid’s tail. The tattoo artist had worked around them perfectly. Ali’s mind can’t help but think about just how close these scars are to the middle of the thigh where a bullet could easily have severed an artery and likely left the blonde dead in minutes. “Really striking.” She adds, shaking off her thoughts.

“Thanks.” Ashlyn replies, appreciating the way Ali is taking in her ink so reverently. “The ocean is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. It’s beautiful and serene, alluring, yet powerful and frightening too. It’s something that I both admire and fear, something that I respect. The mermaid symbolizes those contrasting, yet complementary, feelings.” She elaborates.

Ali is beyond impressed by the thought that has gone into Ashlyn’s tattoos. “I’m blown away by how much meaning is in these.” She says with genuine regard.

Ashlyn just nods appreciatively and continues. “My shoulders are pretty self-explanatory.” She says pulling the gown to show the tops of her shoulders, one saying ‘knowledge speaks’ the other ‘wisdom listens’.

“Jimi Hendrix.” Ali says while reading the words, seeing the edge of yet another scar on the front of her right shoulder.

“Yep.” Ashlyn confirms, impressed that Ali knew the quote.

“You really weren’t kidding when you said there was more ink!” Ali comments.

“And I’m still not done!” Ashlyn chuckles. “One more to go.” She unties the upper tie on the back of her gown and pulls her left arm out of it, using her right hand to hold the fabric over her chest as she works the rest of it down to show her left ribcage.

Ali gets distracted by the side edge of Ashlyn’s breast that is just barely showing and she swallows hard before forcibly turning her attention to the colorful ink all along Ashlyn’s right side. Her eyes rake over bright flowers, a blue butterfly, a swallow with a pink ribbon in its beak, and a crucifix all tied together in an intricate design that spans from the top of her hip to the near the underside of her breast where the name ‘Christopher Ryan’ appears in black.  The color is such a contrast to the rest of her black tattoos. Ali’s eyes fixate on the blue butterfly, remembering the conversation at the bank with Edith. “Tell me about the butterfly.” She asks.

“So, this tattoo is mostly for my grandma. She was pretty religious and loved nature… birds, flowers, butterflies. The Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly was her favorite because the shiny blue reminded her of the ocean. She battled breast cancer three different times before it finally got the best of her in the end. She and Edith used to plant flowers to attract butterflies and she used to have pictures of them hanging all over the house. She said it kept her heart light and her mind at peace to think of the way they fluttered so freely and gracefully. She always used to say that she hoped she’d just float up to heaven that way. She passed away very peacefully in her sleep and I like to think that she got her wish.” Ashlyn tells her wistfully.

Ali nods with a little smile, understanding her conversation with Edith a bit better now.

“I stick to black tattoos in general, but my grandma was the most animated, warm, and colorful person I ever knew. The black ink just wouldn’t have done her justice, hence the vibrant color.” Ashlyn finishes explaining and stops to watch Ali study her tattoo.

“It’s truly stunning and magnificent.” Ali remarks, her eyes wandering from the tattoo to behold the blonde’s exposed skin. It looks soft and she can see the clear muscle definition of Ashlyn’s oblique which creates a v-line that disappears into the gown. It’s taking everything in her not to reach out and run her hand along the blonde’s side. She’s pulled out of her thoughts by Ashlyn’s voice.

“That concludes my show and tell. Your turn.” Ashlyn pulls up her gown and the blankets, looking at Ali with a resolute grin.

“Oh, um, yeah… ok.” Ali is a bit caught off guard, but knows it’s only fair. As much as Ashlyn seems to think she’s bashful, she’s really not. She quickly pulls her top up over her head and gets closer to the bed, turning her inked side to the blonde before pulling the side of her bra up really high so it doesn’t obstruct the design. She just barely hears Ashlyn’s quick intake of breath and smirks to herself a bit.

Ashlyn’s breath hitches, she didn’t expect Ali to just take her shirt off so unceremoniously. The brunette is standing there practically topless in a white lace demi-bra less than a foot from the bed. She figured Ali had a great body, but this is far beyond what she imagined. The brunette’s stomach is well defined, her arm muscles toned, her skin perfectly tanned. “Woah.”  The whisper is out of her mouth with no thought.

“Are we talking about the tattoo or…” Ali trails off playfully. She knows she shouldn’t flirt, but she can’t help herself this time.

“Uh…” Ashlyn stutters and starts to examine the angled black script that covers most of Ali’s side. Not one to shy away from her confidence, she quickly pulls herself together. “Well, everything to be honest.” She answers candidly. “You have an incredible body. That tattoo is pretty amazing too though.”

“Thanks.” Ali replies timidly not sure what else to say, a blush creeping into her cheeks now. She gets her bra back into the right place and slips her shirt back on. She’s about to lower the waistband of her pants when she pauses. “Hmmmm, I’ve actually never shown anyone Nittany without being naked. This might be tricky.” She says, knowing how close the inner hipbone tattoo is to her crotch and pondering how to reveal it without giving Ashlyn an eyeful.

“Nittany?” Ashlyn questions. “”Oh my god, it has a name?!” She laughs heartily.

“Well, yeah, I guess. Nittany as in the Penn State Nittany Lions.” Ali clarifies.

“Ah, makes sense.” Ashlyn replies. “So, exactly how many people have seen this tattoo?”

“Just a couple of the people I’ve slept with. Not all of them because usually the room was dark or we never got full on naked. My childhood best friend and Kyle.” Ali answers.

“It should surprise me that your brother has seen this tattoo while you were naked, but it doesn’t. Do you also have an agenda against wearing pants like he does?” Ashlyn jokes. “I seriously never thought I would ever have a grown man wandering around my house in his underwear all the time…and then your brother came along. That took some getting used to.” She adds.

Ali chuckles loudly. “We’re definitely comfortable around each other, but I don’t have quite the same passion for walking around with no clothes like he does.” She gets close to the bed and works her hands under the waistband of her pants. “Alright, you might have to lean over a bit and I’ll do my best not to flash you.” She uses her left hand to cover the top of her crotch and pulls her pants and underwear down a bit with her right hand and until the tattoo is revealed.

Ashlyn leans over, laughing to herself a bit at the fact that she’s now looking down into Ali’s pants. She should be focused on the tattoo, but suddenly all she can think about is what it would be like to ghost her lips over the brunette’s hipbone. She mentally slaps herself for acting like a teenage boy and pulls herself together, taking in the details of the small inked design.  “That’s actually really well done. The detail on small tattoos usually doesn’t come through that well. Your ink is really sharp though.” She recovers quickly before Ali notices.

“Alright, well, that didn’t happen over beers like I had hoped for. But, I think at like 3am in a hospital room is a good story too.” Ali remarks as she adjusts her pants back into place. “And on that note, I should probably wash my hands seeing as how they were just down my pants.”

Ashlyn lets out a loud chortle and nods in agreement. “Right, we wouldn’t want any contamination to hinder my recovery!”

Ali rolls her eyes as she makes her way over to the sink and washes her hands. “Speaking of recovery, you should probably get back to sleep.”

“I’m sure this pain medicine crap will knock me out soon enough, but I’m pretty awake at the moment.” Ashlyn says.

Ali hesitates to get into anything too serious, but she does have something on her mind and now is as good a time as any. “Would you be up for me asking you some questions to help me figure out something case-related?”

“Yeah, of course.” Ashlyn replies quickly. “Just, uh… would you come sit with me again?” She asks tapping the bed beside her. Ashlyn watches Ali just smile and nod, coming right over and settling back into the bed just like they were when they were watching the movie. She feels silly for asking, but she has no idea when, if ever, she’ll get to do this again. It truly astonishes her how quickly she’s gotten used to Ali’s presence beside her in just a matter of hours and how hesitant she is to let go of it.  “Sorry. I don’t mean to be immature or make you uncomfortable at all. I’ve been really alone and in my own mind for quite a while now. Being close to you, it feels really comforting in a way I’m not sure I can explain.” She admits sheepishly.

Ali turns her body a bit and then gently grabs the blonde’s chin, forcing Ashlyn to look at her. “First, you’re not immature. Second, I’m not uncomfortable at all. Third, I like the way it feels too. So, stop apologizing and just chill, ok?”

“Ok.” Ashlyn agrees and let’s herself relax a bit. “So, what did you want to ask?”

“I filed the appeal yesterday morning like I said I was going to and I expect to hear about it in the next 30 to 60 days.” Ali starts directly. “I play everything on the safe side, so I have everything setup for Chris already even though we still have plenty of time. The goal is to have him all set and in place by next week.”

“Wow, that is fast. Do you ever sleep?” Ashlyn can’t even fathom how it’s possible for Ali to completely get her brother hidden and settled so quickly.

Ali just lightly elbows Ashlyn playfully and continues. “Anyway, so I asked him if he had preferences or any requests or needs for his family. He really left it all up to me and said anything would be just fine. I get the sense that he just doesn’t want to burden me. So, I really just did my best to find a place for them that is as similar to where they are now as possible. The great thing about knowing so much about how witness protection works and how cops think when they’re hiding people is that I can do what Bobby will least expect. Which is to keep your brother just far enough away, but really not so far at all. Pretty much the opposite of hiding them in some random tiny town in a distant state. Anyway, I don’t want to put you at risk at all, so I won’t say more on that. It would just be helpful if you could tell me about him a little bit and about his wife and kids, things they like to do, etc. That way I can make sure I accounted for everything and it will help me get the house all ready for them when they arrive so it feels as much like home as possible.”

Ashlyn is so overcome with what she is feeling right now that she’s having a hard time forming words. The fact that someone like Ali Krieger exists is unbelievable enough, but that she is here and on her side is enough to make her feel like she’s dreaming or in some alternate reality. “I don’t even know what to say right now, Alex.” She manages after a long pause.

Ali can hear the emotion in the blonde’s voice and she knows what she must be thinking. She’d admittedly be thinking the same thing if this was Kyle and the roles were reversed. “You don’t have to say anything in the way of gratitude. I told you Ashlyn, I’m taking care of you. I’ve never half-assed anything in my life and I’m not starting now. So, breathe, and tell me about your brother and his family.” She says sweetly, reaching down to hold Ashlyn’s hand.

Ashlyn gives herself a moment to let her emotions ease up and collect herself and then spends the next half hour telling Ali as much as she can about Chris and his family.

Ali listens carefully to every word, watching the blonde light up when she talks about her niece and nephew like they were her own children. She can hear the pride Ashlyn has for Chris in her voice as she recounts even simple things about him. She learns that the little family likes to hike together for fun and that the kids are really outdoorsy and active. Over the last couple of years, Chris has been trying to teach Curtis to skateboard. Bridget is apparently a total foodie and loves to cook. Elsie is a tiny princess who loves all things girlie and pink. Listening to it all, Ali feels more confident in the area she picked to settle them. She makes a mental note to get bikes, skateboards, and a backyard playset for the kids, fully stock the kitchen with food and updated gadgets for Bridget, make sure one of the rooms gets painted pink for Elsie, and find the nearest skate park and hiking paths for Chris.

Ashlyn sees the contemplative look on Ali’s face as she finishes up. “What are you thinking about?” She asks.

“Oh, sorry. I was just making a mental checklist for a few final things.” Ali explains, telling Ashlyn about the list she was making in her head.

“You’re too much. Are you always this perfect?” Ashlyn asks sweetly, doing a better job of keeping her emotions under control this time.

“Absolutely not. Do I need to remind you about the pesky bitch thing yet again?” Ali laughs a bit.

“You don’t have to do all that, you know. You really don’t.” Ashlyn says feeling bad that Ali is going through so much trouble for her and her family. “It means the world to me that you thought to and wanted to though.”

“This is how I do things, Harris. You’re gonna have to learn to just roll with it.” Ali mock warns her.

Ashlyn shifts herself a bit and lifts her arm so that it’s around Ali’s shoulders, pulling the brunette in closer to her. “My very own paladin.” She whispers.

Ali tilts her head up to look at Ashlyn as best she can. “Paladin?”

“Yeah, paladin.” She replies in an almost dreamy voice. “The thing about going to a military academy is that you learn a whole lot of military history. The Paladins were the twelve warrior knights that sat on Charlemagne’s court and were considered his peers. They were known for being protective, chivalrous, dedicated and loyal champions of justice and good. Much of how they are portrayed is considered legend, but they did actually exist. Anyway, legend or not, it always stuck with me. I’ve spent my whole career trying to stand by those ideals and always trying to be a modern day paladin. Never have I had one in my own life though or ever thought I would.”

Ashlyn pauses to look down at Ali warmly. “You take care of me, defend me, and stand up for me even though we’ve known each other for such a relatively short time. I mean even with that stupid surgeon just now, you’re on my side.  You’re my loyal protector and my champion of good. You’re my paladin, Alex… and I couldn’t be more grateful for that and lucky that you walked into my life.”

It takes every ounce of restraint Ali has not to just lean up and kiss this amazing woman that just seems to keep surprising her in the best way possible. The thought that she’s still getting to know her makes her feel alive inside, that there are still so many things to learn. Things that Ali has no doubt will delight her, intrigue her, surprise her, and probably even scare her a little sometimes, but that will only make her admire Ashlyn more. Still, the blonde’s words are a stark reminder of why she needs to keep her emotions in check and keep her head clear, it’s the only way she can protect and fight for Ashlyn properly.

Ali squeezes Ashlyn’s hand tightly in hers. “Thank you for saying that. Before I even knew who you were or met you, you were my hero for having saved my brother. And everything I’ve learned about you so far… you are more incredible than I ever could have imagined. You have single-handedly restored my faith in humanity.  You’re more so my hero now than you were even before… and I’m honored to be your paladin. I’ll always be.” She tells her sincerely and feels Ashlyn pull her in a bit tighter.

There is a comfortable silence between them for a few minutes and Ali decides to bring things back to a lighter place. “Besides, ‘paladin’ sounds so much more eloquent than ‘asshole’.”

Ashlyn lets out a cackling laugh. “Yeah, and hero is definitely better than idiot!”

Their giggling eventually dies down as Ashlyn yawns loudly, the medicine really going to work on her now.

Ali drops her head to Ashlyn’s shoulder and whispers “Goodnight hero.”

“Night paladin.” Ashlyn whispers back, keeping her arm firmly around Ali’s shoulders. She closes her eyes and fights to remain cognizant just a few minutes longer so she can memorize everything about this moment: how warm Ali feels against her, the brunette’s light lavender, vanilla and baby powder scent, the gentle pulsing of Ali’s heartbeat against her arm, her soft rhythmic breaths, and the way her heart feels so unburdened right now with Ali beside her. There is always the possibility that she will never get a moment with Ali like this again and she never wants to forget it. In a few short hours, it will all be gone and for the first time in her life she’ll be sad to leave a hospital.

Chapter Text

Cold, gray, inert. Those are the first words that come to mind to describe the eyes Ashlyn sees looking back at her in the tiny mirror above the sink in her cell. She splashes some water on her face and rubs her eyes a bit, looking up one more time to search for any life in them. The reflection doesn’t change. Why should it? They echo how she feels, they always have.

She sits at her desk for a few minutes, but the chair she often spends hours in just seems to dig into her back right now and the angle of her leg isn’t comfortable either. She relents and lays down in her bed instead. A shiver runs through her body and she pulls the blanket up. Is it normally this frigid in here? Not that she can remember. The blanket doesn’t seem to be helping much. Her leg is throbbing, but that feels oddly good right now because it’s something tangible.

She takes a couple of deep breaths. “Get out of your fucking head, Harris.” She mentally chides herself. The loneliness, the nothingness, the silence right now is so loud and encompassing that it’s all she can pay attention to. She tries hard to drown it out, her thoughts drifting to yesterday.

 

 

Ashlyn wakes up to Ali pressed close into her side. It’s still early, the sun is barely coming up outside the window of the hospital room. Her heart drops knowing there are a few more hours at best before she gets discharged. She desperately takes in everything she can about Ali’s face, watching her sleep for a few minutes and trying not to let the dread inside win out. She lays her head back on the pillow for a moment and unconsciously grips Ali tighter. The movement is enough to wake the brunette.

“Hey. Good morning you.” Ali says sleepily, sitting up a bit and looking at Ashlyn. It takes about five seconds for her to see something is off. “You ok?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Ashlyn answers vaguely. “Just kind of dreading going back to reality in a little while.”

Ali just nods. As much as she wants to tell Ashlyn it’s ok, she understands that it’s not ok for the blonde and no good can come from trying to get her to mask how she’s feeling. Instead, she just whispers “I know” and pulls her into a hug as best she can, gently playing with her blonde hair a bit. She notices some darker roots for the first time and decides to go for some minimal distraction.

“Is your hair dyed?” Ali asks.

Ashlyn pulls back to look at Ali and laughs a bit. “Duh. Bleach blonde hair this light isn’t normally natural.” She replies with light sarcasm.

“Hmmm, yeah that’s true. Just didn’t stop to think about it. And I hate to admit that my inclination would be to assume that people don’t bother with things like that in prison.” Ali confesses a bit ashamed, but knowing she can be honest with Ashlyn.

“I’ve had it dyed like this forever and it was just one of those things I didn’t want to give up about myself. One last piece of identity to hold onto I suppose. Plus, we do have a full service salon with only the best peroxide products.” Ashlyn says with an eye roll. “The scalp burn every time I get it done makes me wonder why I bother. I swear it’s straight up peroxide with nothing to help protect your skin.”

“That makes my head itch and sting just thinking about it.” Ali cringes. “So what’s your normal hair color?”

“Brown. Lighter than your hair, but definitely brunette.” Ashlyn answers. “My eyebrows are pretty much my hair color.”

Ali takes a good look at her eyebrows. “Yeah, that’s a pretty light brown.”

Ashlyn nods and they don’t say anything else for a long time. They just stay close in a comfortable silence. The fact that Ali implicitly knows and understands that no words can do anything to alter the mood in the room right now says so much to her. Ali is just there and present and soothing…it’s everything.

Eventually the nurse comes in to get Ashlyn disconnected from the IV and start her on ibuprofen. Ali takes that time to go grab them coffee and some breakfast sandwiches. They eat and sip their coffee together slowly, sitting in chairs that Ali pulled over to the window so they can look out over the beautiful Boston view. The conversation is sparse and light, each of them recounting amusing childhood stories about Chris and Kyle.

The morning passes quickly and it isn’t long before a hospital security official comes in to let them know that the prison escort will be arriving in an hour and Ali will need to leave in 30 minutes.

“I’ll be out of town the next few days taking care of settling your family. I’ll come see you as soon as I possibly can, which is Monday.” Ali explains once the guy leaves the room and it’s just the two of them again.

That’s 6 days away and it feels like an eternity, but Ashlyn couldn’t be more grateful for the reason it’ll be that long. “Thank you so much, Alex. Thank you seems so lame, but I don’t have better words.”

“You don’t have to thank me. Just take care of yourself in the meantime, ok?” Ali pleads, concerned by how miserable Ashlyn looks at the moment.

“Ok.” Ashlyn says as convincingly as she can.

A few more quiet moments between them and then it’s time to go. Ashlyn gets herself up out of the chair with Ali’s help, intent on hugging the brunette. Ali being a bit shorter is helpful, allowing Ashlyn to put her arms around the brunette’s shoulders and keep most of the weight off her leg. She feels Ali’s arms encircle her waist and hold her tight, the brunette’s hand sneaking just inside the back of the tied hospital gown to rub the small of her back lightly. She closes her eyes and again tries hard to memorize everything she can right now. She’s not sure how long they stay like that, but she feels lips press to her cheek and then Ali is gone.

 

Numbness set in for her once Ali left that hospital room and Ashlyn can’t remember much of what happened afterwards, most of it just a haze. That is until the click of the lock as she got back into her cell, the sound hitting her like a sledgehammer and making her wish the numbness had stayed. She’s overcome with a solitude that feels bottomless with an underlying sense of panic. She’s been through some dark days in this cell, but nothing quite like this before.

The single most important thing she learned as an army ranger was the ability to control her emotions, her senses, her every reaction. That was the only way to survive the brutal training when you had been kept awake for three days in soaked clothing and were practically hypothermic, pushed to the physical limit and then still asked to carry the weight of a fellow soldier on your back without so much as flinching.  You only made it through if you could find a way to systematically shut down your pain and fear. This has been the single most useful skill she’s carried with her all these years through her tours, her career, and now prison.

She knew exactly what to do the first night in this very cell, the only thing she has ever done in challenging situations. She feels the raw emotions deep in her gut and works through them carefully, using all her energy to manipulate them so that by the time they rise to the surface she’s in complete control of her reactions. The isolation that comes with protective custody has practically forced her to live inside herself and there have been some very rough days over the last couple of years; days where she has felt the gloom creep up on her. Still, she has always held herself together, combating the dark with every good thought she can scour her memory for. Somehow she’s suddenly lost that ability since she left the hospital.

It hadn’t helped that the first thing she found waiting for her on her desk was an envelope filled with drawings from and pictures of Curtis and Elsie. She carefully looked over each one, feeling the full weight of exactly what she has been missing out on over the last couple years. The longing for her niece and nephew hitting her harder than ever before. And knowing that Chris is now out of reach is a bizarre sense of both relief and terror for her. She can physically feel her hollowness right now, the disconnected despondency of her own body.

She shifts in the bed again trying to get comfortable and screws her eyes shut, forcing her mind back to Ali and trying in vain to calm herself.  And that’s when it finally hits her… Ali. She’s let herself actually feel. For the first time since she became a ranger, her emotions, her senses, her reactions have been uncontrolled and unfiltered. Everything with Ali has been in its raw natural state. She’s not sure whether to be happy that it happened or scared at the despair she’s feeling right now with the brunette not here. Her entire being is in battle with itself, the good letting the bad slink right in along with it.

“Breathe, Ashlyn. Slow down, come on, Harris.” She whispers desperately trying to find some mental ground to hold onto right now. Her hands rub her face vigorously and come away wet. She hadn’t even realized she was crying.

*************************************************************************************

Ali leaves the hospital with resolute determination to completely focus on two tasks. First, she needs to file a request for discovery to get access to the bullet that will leave the hospital on Wednesday morning to get catalogued as evidence after the 48 hour holding period. Second, she needs to get Chris and his family settled into their new home over the next few days. These are just about the only things left to do while she’s in the holding pattern of waiting for the appeal to go through.  She’s counting on the fact that Bobby is very likely looking the other way right now and doesn’t have any reason to be focused on Ashlyn at the moment. Even if he is looking, she figures she’ll still have the upper hand as he scrambles to pull together an arsenal and a game plan.

She’s already prepared for filing the discovery request, the paperwork sitting completed in her work bag in the car and just missing the date at the top. She changes into her suit in the restroom of the hospital lobby and heads right over to the clerk’s office to file the request; going over to the South Boston Police Department right afterwards to file a copy there too. The district attorney’s office shouldn’t have the case on their radar until the appeal is approved by the court. So, she assumes she won’t be fighting with anyone for first access to the bullet. If all works the way it is legally supposed to, the forensics department will run their usual protocol tests on it and hand it right over to Wayne Henning, the ballistics expert Ali hired. There’s always the chance that the request gets majorly delayed because the forensics department decides to run extensive tests or that the bullet gets damaged in that process, but there is nothing Ali can do about it if goes that way. She can only hope that neither of those things happen.

As for Ashlyn’s family, she already took care of the personal information changes, setting up the trust, and finding them a place to live, but there are just a few lingering loose ends. She has quite a bit more to do now after talking to Ashlyn about making the new place more like home. She opts to quickly stop at her house after the filings for some extra clothes and toiletries, changing back into her comfy clothes from the hospital to save herself the added time of picking out a whole new outfit. She then immediately makes the two hour drive to Portland, Maine.

The quaint Victorian-style three-bedroom house she picked to rent for the Harris clan is on a fairly quiet side street in Portland’s west end. The area is rich with history and sits right near the ocean much like Boston, giving it a similar feel. It’s already after 3pm by the time she arrives and she figures she’ll spend the evening arranging the furniture that got delivered yesterday and making sure the house is clean. She’ll worry about going to the store for the rest of the purchases tomorrow. She remembers to lock her personal credit cards in the glove box of her car so she doesn’t accidentally use them. She’ll have to use only the credit card tied to the private trust account for anything she needs while she’s here so she doesn’t leave any trace of herself.  The family will arrive in two days by way of a private car service she arranged. Ali will help them go over everything and make sure they’re all set before leaving them to live their new lives.

She’s thrilled to see a black pickup truck for Chris and a silver Honda CR-V for Bridget sitting in the driveway. The dealer had said they’d deliver by the end of the week, but clearly they were ahead of schedule. The name “Decker” has been put on the mailbox just like Ali asked the real estate agent to do once the rental contract was signed. Chris and Bridget Harris will soon be Thomas and Kayla Decker with their two children Parker and Daisy. The name changes and new environment will likely be most confusing for the kids, but Ali has gone so far as to hire the best private teacher to home school them in order to make the transition easier. The less people they have to deal with right now while they adjust, the better. Since he was already a bit acquainted with Chris, Kyle helped him sell his car and found a friend who was willing to rent out their home and take care of it for a while. All in all, Ali is pretty pleased with herself at how things have turned out.

The first thing she notices when she walks into the house is that the new couch is pretty much exactly where she would have wanted it in the living room. She feels relieved that she won’t have to move it much and plops down onto it, suddenly feeling completely exhausted. Something is definitely off and she silently hopes she isn’t getting sick. Normally she loves long drives and uses them to take in the scenery and sing along to music in the car. She only noticed that the radio had been off the whole drive when she arrived in Portland. She had zoned out the whole way here and doesn’t even remember what she had been thinking about for those two hours.

She runs her hand through her hair and realizes how greasy it feels. She hasn’t showered since yesterday morning and now is as good a time as any to quickly refresh before she gets to work. She heads to the master bathroom upstairs, lugging her two bags up with her. She turns on the shower and takes a quick glance in the mirror, the reflection confirming that she looks as wiped out as she feels. She lets out a sigh and pulls her shirt over her head. As she does, she catches a faint scent that almost knocks her off her feet…the mild, innocuous smell of prison soap.

Her heart flutters for a second and it dawns on her what’s wrong, she misses Ashlyn. Her mind briefly replays the hospital stay, the reality of just how much they shared with each other finally surfacing in her conscious. It was an outpouring of emotional intimacy and vulnerability that has left her feeling a bit untethered now that they’re not in proximity to each other. The two of them had opted to open up Schrodinger’s box with each other and had found the cat to be very much alive. The problem is now they have a metaphorical cat running around in the midst of everything.  “Get it together. You need to step back and focus.” She coaches herself as she steps into the hot streaming water of the shower. It only takes about two more minutes of letting her thoughts wander freely for her to completely panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She steps out of the shower and paces the bathroom, water dripping everywhere. “Think. Come on.” Ali can’t believe it even took her this long to realize. If she suddenly feels so uprooted like this in Ashlyn’s absence, she can only imagine what the blonde is going through in that damn prison cell all alone with nothing to do but get lost in the labyrinth of her mind. She’s sure it will only get worse as the days pass. She tries to come up with a workable solution to go visit, but comes up empty-handed, knowing she’s stuck in Portland until at least Saturday morning. “Uuuugh” She grunts out in frustration and lightly hits her head against the wall.

And then she hears Ashlyn’s voice in her head. “I think about you. Because, well… you calm me and then I can sleep.” A smile finally comes to her face. “Help her find an escape!” She announces loudly to nobody, her voice echoing off the walls of bathroom.

Ali quickly throws on some clothes and runs out to the car to get her laptop. She pulls up the Framingham Correctional Facility website and reads it carefully to make sure this will work. She then calls every electronics store in the Boston area until she finally finds a hipster vintage music store that has what she wants in stock.

She’s on the phone with Kyle in no time, making him cancel his last hair appointment of the day so he can get to the store, her house, and then the post office before it closes. Once she’s sure he can follow her instructions to the letter, she lets herself relax a bit and finally takes that shower. All she can do now is hope the timing of it all doesn’t take too long and that it works. That and trust that Ashlyn knows how to take care of herself even when things are hard.

Kyle calls back two hours later confirming that he got it done just like she asked.

“Alex, are you ok?” His voice is beyond concerned. He could tell she was frantic earlier and that he just needed to do what she asked without question, but now he feels like he can prod.

“Yeah. I promise.” Ali reassures him. “I can tell you more later, but there was a lot that got shared in that hospital visit. It just hit me how much emotional vulnerability it was and I can’t imagine having to go back to solitude and sit with it. I just had to find a way to be there for her when I can’t physically be there, you know?”

It may not make sense to most people, but Kyle knows exactly what she’s saying. He now completely understands the whole package he just put together for her and mailed. “You’re brilliant. And your heart, Alex… it’s gold. I love you, get some rest and don’t overdo the next few days.”

Ali couldn’t feel more grateful to have a brother who knows her so well. “Love you too. I’ve got this! Night, night.” She replies and hangs up, ready to actually focus on the tasks at hand now.

*************************************************************************************

 

It feels like she just closed her eyes when she hears the cell lock click open.

“Harris, you have a package.” Paulette, the usual Thursday morning guard announces and enters holding a medium sized boxed. That’s the easiest way for Ashlyn to keep track of the days sometimes, by who the guards on duty are. “It’s been cleared, you’re all set. Also, you start physical therapy at 3pm this afternoon, inmate.” She drops the box on the bed next to Ashlyn and leaves, the lock click filling the room again before the silence takes back over.

Ashlyn rubs her eyes a bit, sitting up and looking down at the already open box beside her. It strikes her for the first time that prison doesn’t even afford her the pleasure of opening her own mail anymore.

She reaches into the box and pulls out a clear encased Sony CD Walkman, a set of wireless headphones, a Bluetooth adaptor to make the headphones work and three different sets of extra batteries to power all of these things. She inspects it all carefully and notes how much care was taken to make sure this would all pass prison security regulations. It’s not all that different from the small clear-case radio she was able to purchase from the prison commissary when she first got here. It’s considered one of the most ‘valuable’ items you can have in here. For most inmates, it’s the only thing that connects them to the outside world. Ashlyn doesn’t use hers much. The voices of radio personalities seem too surreal and superficial sometimes and often make her feel oddly more disconnected.

She puts aside the electronics and reaches back into the box, pulling out a case of CDs labeled 1 through 10. Finally, at the bottom is a note:

Hero,

At the very beginning I told you that I see you. Today, I find myself feeling you too. I’m here, I’m always here and I’ve got you. Take care of yourself.

- Your Paladin

The smile that she feels growing on her face almost feels like an out of body experience at this point. It takes her about 5 minutes of fumbling to get the CD player and headphones working properly. She quickly pops in CD number 1, her mind racing as to what could be on it.

Her heart jumps instantly at the sound of Ali’s voice…

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

Ashlyn immediately recognizes the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She had been reading the series to Curtis and Elsie before shit hit the fan. It’s one of her absolute favorites. Ali’s voice is like a salve for her soul, her mood lifting by the second. She wonders for a brief moment why Ali has a set of CDs of herself reading Harry Potter, but figures she’ll find out eventually. She leans her head back on her pillow and listens for a while, letting herself get led through the fantasy world by Ali and getting lost in it until she feels her emotions even out a bit.

After about an hour, she pauses the CD and sits up, finally thinking clearly for the first time in a couple of days. She muses for a little while about everything that has happened and eventually settles on a bit of a revelation.

Ali Krieger showed up out of nowhere, quickly dismantling the crude fortress walls that she had worked so hard to build around herself brick by brick. And she had let her, watching in awe as Ali took them all down and left her more vulnerable than she has ever been. What she didn’t realize until now was that Ali gently set aside every single brick with care. And now… now the brunette is using them to build something beautiful. Ashlyn may have supplied all those sturdy bricks, but Ali is the one with the mortar that will hold them together and the vision of what they can become. She just has to be patient and believe that whatever the end product is, it will be worth the work and the wait. She can do that, she can believe in Ali and trust that these complex feelings are the start of something amazing.

She lays back down and starts the CD again, Ali’s voice bringing her peace of mind.

She lets out a long contented sigh. “Build me a castle, Alex. Build me a castle.”

Chapter Text

A persistent loud buzzing noise rouses Ali from what was a really deep sleep. She opens her eyes groggily and sits up a bit, looking around for the source of the commotion. It’s none other than her cellphone vibrating against an empty glass on the coffee table next to her. Chris and his family had gotten to the house yesterday afternoon and after a long day of starting to settle in, Ali had insisted that she sleep on the couch so everyone could begin getting used to their new rooms right away. 

She finally grabs the phone and looks at the caller ID on the screen. Her heart drops into her stomach immediately. She hadn’t expected him to call this soon. She shuts her eyes tightly and braces herself for whatever it is before answering as professionally as she can. “Hello, this is Ali Krieger.”

She listens carefully with clenched teeth as the man on the other end explains the situation, throwing in a few ‘okay’ and ‘alright’ comments to convey that she is following along. Once he has finished his brief explanation, she finally speaks.

“Ok. Please do everything you possibly can, there’s no reason we need to rush things now.” Ali directs him before adding “Thank you, Dr. Henning, for calling me and letting me know.”

She presses the end call button and lets her head fall back onto the couch. With her eyes closed, she breathes out a really long sigh.  The Harris family is safely asleep upstairs and the bullet once lodged in Ashlyn’s leg is now safely at the lab of her ballistics expert after only two short days. She feels like the weight of the world has just been lifted off of her shoulders.

Ali had expected that the police department forensics lab would take some time examining and testing the bullet before cataloging it. Although she was hopeful she’d get access to it shortly after that, it was a toss-up as to whether enough time would’ve elapse that the district attorney might become aware of the appeal and take interest in the evidence before she could get her hands on it. Her expectation had been somewhat wrong. Wayne Henning had just explained to her that the forensics lab merely photographed and preserved the bullet properly before quickly cataloguing it with little fanfare and fulfilling the discovery request. He had surmised that they didn’t see much point in putting in any extra work for a piece of evidence stemming from a case closed by way of confession over two years ago. Whatever the reason, Ali couldn’t be more grateful for the turn of events. If nothing else goes her way besides these two things, she feels confident she can find a way to meet her end goal.

 It’s still pretty early on Friday morning and she’s here with the Harris family until tomorrow afternoon. She knows it will be a long day of dealing with any leftover formalities, getting a couple more chores done, and introducing the private teacher to the kids. Feeling relaxed right now and knowing that she probably has another hour or so before the family is up, she closes her eyes and let’s herself sleep just a little bit longer.

 

 

 

Meeting Chris Harris had been quite a fascinating experience so far. There were a few things about him that easily reminded her of Ashlyn… namely, the hazel eyes, the single dimple, the sarcastic humor, and the protective personality that came out right away when he refused to let Bridget or Ali carry anything heavy into the house. Other than that, he was broad, brawny and a totally typical guy. It was a sharp contrast to Kyle who had always been very in touch and outwardly demonstrative with his feminine side. Still, she got the same vibe from Chris as she did from Ashlyn: hardened by past circumstances, yet still caring and warm despite it all.

When they arrived on Thursday, there had been little time for Ali to do more than just begin to get acquainted with them. They had spent the first couple hours moving their things into the house. Then they all enjoyed a dinner of Chinese take-out that Ali had picked up and made small talk over their meal. Ali had completely fallen in love with Curtis and Elsie, playing a quick game of hide and seek with them around the house before dinner. They had even requested that she read them a story before bed, which she happily obliged them with a dramatic reading of Where the Wild Things Are. After that, she spent a little time with Chris and Bridget going over the financial game plan and explaining how the trust would work and how they would access it for day-to-day expenses. Everyone had agreed to go to bed after that and start fresh in the morning. Nothing had been said about Ashlyn, but Ali had expected that given that the kids had been around them most of the day.

 

 

Ali is roused the second time by a few flicks to her ear and little giggling sounds. She pretends to be fast asleep and then quickly jumps up, surprising Curtis and Elsie who both let out a scream. She hears Chris’ deep laugh from the kitchen.

“Holy shit, that was great!” Chris guffaws as Bridget yells “Language, Daddy!” at him.

“Right, sorry…but, you guys totally deserved that! I told you to leave her alone.” He says still chuckling. “Nicely done, Ali!”

She gets up and jokingly bows, stopping to ruffle Curtis’ hair on her way into the kitchen. She high-fives the hand that Chris is holding up for her as she walks by and makes her way over to the coffee pot. Bridget has already poured her a mug and it strikes Ali how much this already feels comfortable and like family. It’s also a harsh reminder that Ashlyn isn’t here and she works hard to ignore the pang she feels inside at that thought.

“Ok kiddos, head upstairs and get yourselves dressed!” Bridget calls out. Curtis and Elsie rush up the stairs obediently.

Ali takes a couple sips of coffee and goes to grab a bagel, but Elsie comes running back into the kitchen. “Mom, can Ali help me get dressed?” She asks with literal puppy eyes.

“Why don’t I go up and help you, Els.” Bridget deflects and Elsie starts to pout.

“I really don’t mind.” Ali assures her and grabs Elsie’s hand, watching Bridget mouth ‘thank you’ from across the kitchen.

It turns out Elsie needs pretty much no help at all and is more self-sufficient than any 4-year old that Ali has ever seen.  She starts combing the girl’s hair just to feel useful, even though she feels like Elsie probably had that covered too. She just finishes getting it into a ponytail when Elsie turns around to look at her. She too has those Harris hazel eyes.

“Ali, are you going to make sure auntie Ashwyn can find us here?” Elsie asks.

Ali can’t help but smile at the fact that Elsie pronounces her name just fine, but replaces the ‘l’ in Ashlyn’s name with a ‘w’. She’s a bit unprepared for the question and is trying to come up with a response when the little girl starts to speak again.

“Daddy said a bad man is angry cause auntie is protecting kids at her job and we got to pretend not to know her and move houses so we can be safe and she can come back. Are you going to help her get here?” Elsie questions so innocently that it practically breaks Ali’s heart. This girl is so beyond intelligent for her age.

“Don’t you worry little princess. Your auntie is smart and strong and a really special person. She’ll get home and when she does, I promise you I’ll make sure she finds you right away. I’ll do everything to get her to you, ok?” Ali promises her earnestly.

“Ok. My hair looks nice.” Elsie gives Ali a hug and then goes to grab her shoes.

“Come on, I’m sure there’s a bowl of cereal downstairs with your name on it.” Ali says after the little girl puts on her shoes.

“Gross, Ali! Cereal is for babies! I eat scrambled eggs and bacon. Duh.” Elsie immediately corrects her and starts down the stairs.

Ali laughs so hard her sides hurt. “Scrambled eggs it is then.”

 

The day goes by fast, but is really productive. The meeting with the private teacher goes really well and the kids take to her quickly, much to Ali’s relief. In the afternoon, Ali and Chris build the backyard playset while Bridget unpacks and puts things away in the house with help from the kids. Bridget cooks them all an amazing stuffed baked-chicken dinner which they eat on the back deck of the house given the unusually warm October evening. During dinner Ali tells them as much as she can about the area and some of the fun things to do, some of which Curtis and Elsie seem really excited about. They also spend the evening using their new names and trying to get used to them.

Once the kids go to bed, Ali goes over some of the more minute details with Chris and Bridget. It includes getting a complete list of all the usernames and passwords for every email address, financial, and social media account they have. They are well aware that they can’t ever log into any of these existing accounts until this case is over. Ali has agreed to change all the passwords for them once she gets home to ensure that it doesn’t happen even accidentally. From now on, they won’t be able to contact any family or friends using even new email and social media accounts. Their close family and friends have been made aware that they are being hidden from a dangerous situation and have been told to say that the couple said they were traveling Europe for the next year if they are ever asked. If they need to get in touch with anyone, they will have to do it through Ali by way of the private email account from the trust. That email address will also be used for business related purposes and no personal names will ever be used on it. It’s a whole lot to take in and deal with, but Chris and Bridget seem to handle it all like champs.

By the time they realize, it’s 10pm and Bridget excuses herself to go to bed. Chris opts to stay up a bit longer and Ali joins him, both of them sipping their iced teas on the deck in a comfortable silence.

“I know you probably don’t want to hear anything along the lines of thank you, but I’m going to say it anyway. This… everything you have done here, it’s so far beyond belief and expectation. This family certainly isn’t used to being treated so well. You are a remarkable person, Ali. Truly. I can’t thank you enough or explain how much this means.” Chris breaks the silence with his sincere diatribe.

“You’re welcome. This is how I do things.  I’m here for you guys and I’ll do anything I can to help you.” Ali replies simply and genuinely.

Chris nods and there’s another brief silence before he speaks again. “You know, my sister is a really special person. She’s complex in many ways…fiercely loyal and protective, but also very private. She has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. A heart that people have broken over and over again because they just don’t understand her very well. Ashlyn is… well… she’s the person that runs into the fire without hesitation to save lives even if it looks hopeless to anyone else. And she’ll make you promise to stay outside and assure you that she has the situation handled even if she knows she’s gonna burn in there.” He pauses for a second before continuing. “I’ve watched her go through life like this, always knowing that what she really needs is that one person who knows exactly when to go in after her. God knows I’ve tried to be that person sometimes and totally failed.” He shakes his head.  “She needs someone that won’t hold her back from trying, but won’t hesitate to run in and help her without hurting her pride. I’m just waiting for the day that she finds that person.”

Ali nods in understanding, everything she’s come to learn about Ashlyn matching up with what Chris just said. She doesn’t get the chance to respond at all before he continues.

“I’m not even going to pretend that I know what is or what isn’t going on between you and my sister. And I’m not going to ask. I just want to say that, from what I can tell Ali, you seem like a woman who isn’t afraid of a little fire… or even a big one.” He finishes.

Ali downs the last few sips of her iced tea in a gulp and stands up, walking over to Chris and placing her hand on his shoulder before leaning down closer to him. “You’re right about that. I’m not afraid of fire. In fact, I’ve been known to play with matches.” She gives him a knowing smile and a light tap on the shoulder before making her way inside and calling back with a wink “Goodnight, Thomas.”

*************************************************************************************

By the time Ali gets home Saturday evening, she’s so wiped out that all she does is text Kyle to confirm lunch plans for tomorrow before she plops into bed and falls asleep quickly; not even staying awake long enough this time to worry and obsess about how Ashlyn is doing like she has the last few nights.

When she sits down across from Kyle the next day at their local Panera, she feels more refreshed than she has in days.

“So, be honest. Are you doing ok?” Kyle asks as they start digging into their salads.

“I’m anxious to see how Ash is tomorrow, but I’m feeling pretty good about things otherwise… for now.” Ali replies honestly like he asked.

“Ash?” Kyle raises an eyebrow. “Moved onto to pet names have we?”

Ali shoots him a glare, but can’t help the little smile that comes to her face. “Alright, alright, let me just say what I have to say and then no more asking about it, ok?”

Kyle just nods.

“There were some really honest admissions about feelings during the time I was in the hospital with her, and some cuddling and being really close too. We shared every single tattoo, relationship histories, and a lot of jokes to lighten the mood.” She watches Kyle’s eyebrows raise higher and higher on his forehead with each part of what she has just said.  “But… nothing else happened and we both agreed that we needed to keep boundaries on things so we can get through this. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll get through this and then explore what’s there after.” Ali says resolutely.

“Holy shit. Wow, just wow. Ok.” Kyle says respecting his promise. “I’m happy, I really am. I mean, my two favorite people...” he just lets the statement hang.

“Don’t finish that sentence.” Ali warns him. “We have a long road to navigate.”

“I know. I know.” He admits. “So, things went ok this week?” He asks.

“Yeah, pretty perfect actually. They’re safe and doing well. And get this, the bullet is already at Wayne Henning’s lab in perfect condition. Couldn’t even believe my luck on that.” Ali tells him with a slight smile.

Kyle jokingly throws his hands up like he’s thanking the heavens before getting serious. “This is getting kind of intense already and it hasn’t even really started.”

Ali just nods in agreement.

“Are you scared about how it’s going to go at all?” Kyle asks her quietly. Despite all his faith in his sister, he feels nervous and scared.

“I can’t be. If I do that, I’ll never be able to handle it all. I’m going to take it one day at a time and control everything that I can. What I can’t control and the things that don’t go my way, I’ll find a way to deal with them. Just like I always have.” Ali replies truthfully.

Kyle feels reassured by her bravery. “So, what now? Do we just wait around?”

“Pretty much. At least until the court accepts the appeal. Once that happens, people’s eyes will be open and on the case. Bobby will make his move at some point. I just have to wait and see what that is and learn from it what I can. I need to keep him off the trail as long as possible.” Ali explains.

“Yeah. That guy… I don’t know how to feel about going up against that.” Kyle says frankly. He had met Bobby a few times when he was living with Ashlyn. The guy had always rubbed him the wrong way.

“Me either. But it’s gonna happen whether we like it or not. Just have to stay sharp and smart about it.” Ali replies.

Kyle sighs. “You’ll remember our promise to each other, right?” He looks at her intently.

“I promise. Us before her. If it comes to it, you before me and then me before her.” Ali reiterates the deal they made when she first told Kyle that Ashlyn had agreed to move forward with the appeal… when it had hit both of them just how dangerous this could get for everyone involved.

“Yeah, that. We owe her that much. And I owe her even more than that.” He confesses quietly.

Ali reaches over to squeeze his hand tightly in hers, both of them acknowledging the moment before getting back to their lunch and choosing to spend the rest of it with their usual light banter.

*************************************************************************************

Ali is up really early Monday morning both too anxious and too excited to sleep. She’s off to visit with Ashlyn at noon, but there’s still at least 5 hours to kill. She ends up going out for a long run, figuring she might as well enjoy it while she can because it won’t be that long before it’s too cold outside. Six miles later she’s back at her front door and ready to spend the next hour or so showering and getting herself put together. She knows it probably hasn’t been the easiest few days for Ashlyn and she wants to make sure she looks extra nice today in hopes that it helps somehow.

She’s in the midst of applying her eyeliner when her phone vibrates loudly on the bathroom counter, making her jump and streak an errant black line across her eyelid.

“Mother fucker!” She yells out in annoyance and looks down to see who is calling. Her annoyance leaves her immediately when she sees that it’s Wayne Henning.

“Hi Dr. Henning. Give it to me straight, what are we looking at? Is it good?” She answers the phone with a barrage of questions, dying to know what he found.

“No Ali, it’s not good.” Dr. Henning answers her in an even tone. Ali’s heart drops and she’s starting to panic when he continues. “It’s actually fucking great!”

Ali’s eyebrows raise and she swears she stops breathing for a second. This man is a distinguished forensics expert and a former physicist that lives in her neighborhood, she’s never heard him swear before. “I’m sorry, what?” She asks in clarification.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to rattle you with my dramatic language!” He says apologetically once he hears her confusion. “Anyway, listen to this. I’ve run every test I can and I’ve found some amazing things. First, based on the bullet caliber and barrel markings on it, I can identify 100% that it was shot from a 9mm Glock 22. That’s a standard police issue weapon for the Boston PD. Even better, it also has a clear set of unique markings on it that all fired bullets do, a gun’s signature that it leaves on the bullet if you will. Those markings are inconsistent with the gun seized as evidence from the scene and belonging to Captain Ashlyn Harris. So, I can confirm with absolute certainty that this bullet was not fired from that gun.”

“Ahhh, that’s incredible!” Ali yells into the phone excitedly. “You’re the best, Dr. Henning!”

“Oh, I’m not done.” He says quickly. “The shape and condition of the bullet suggest that it was clearly fired straight into the body. It did not ricochet off of anything as the case files indicate. The bullet would show some kind of damage or irregularity if that was the case, and its condition doesn’t show that. And one more extremely interesting thing…I can tell you that it traveled through a silencer. What’s odd to me is that it was an old model silencer. Modern day silencers use gases in the canisters to muffle the sound, so nothing in the silencer touches or leaves a mark on the bullet. However, older silencers once used various materials that would act as wipes to muffle the sound. I believe this model of silencer must have used some kind of rubber or plastic inner wipes because it left distinct brush-like scuffs on the bullet. Anyway, no doubt it was a silencer. So, my conclusion here is that there was another gun fired at the scene. Specifically, another 9mm Glock 22 with a silencer on it. If I had my hands on it, I could perfectly match the bullet to the exact gun it was fired from. I know your theory is that another officer at the scene is the one who fired it, but I don’t have a good explanation as to why an officer would be using such an outdated silencer.” He finishes.

Ali hasn’t specified to Dr. Henning who she believes fired the gun in question, just that she’s guessing it may have been another cop at the scene. She wants his focus to be specifically on what Ashlyn’s gun did or didn’t do so that there is no bias in his work.

“Wow, just wow. You just made my year. I don’t even know how to thank you.” Ali is at a loss for words, feeling so happy she could cry.

Dr. Henning laughs on the other end. “No need, you’re certainly paying me enough. My kids thank you profusely for their spring break trips to Europe!”

Ali laughs along with him. “Well, it’s well worth it! So, you can testify and stand behind your work in court if I need you to?” She confirms.

“Absolutely.” Dr. Henning answers confidently. “Are you okay with me delivering the bullet back to forensics now? I’ve photographed and saved backup proof of all my work as well as 3D renderings of the bullet itself if we need to re-examine anything.”

“Perfect! Send it back. The less time it’s in our hands, the less they’ll suspect we got any useful information from it.” Ali replies.

“You really are a pretty incredibly lawyer, Ali. You think of everything.” Dr. Henning compliments her.

“Please, you’re the one who just blew the roof off this thing. You’re really the best Dr. Henning, seriously!” Ali flatters him right back. “We’ll be in touch. Thank you again!”

“You bet. Have a great day!” Dr. Henning replies as they hang up.

“Holy shit!” Ali says looking into the mirror and trying to fully process everything she just heard. If she was excited to see Ashlyn before, this just took it to a whole new level.

*************************************************************************************

The two minutes Ali waits for Ashlyn to be escorted into the room feel like an eternity. Her face lights up as the blonde enters, only to drop a bit after seeing that she looks so rough, for lack of a better word. Her eyes look tired and bloodshot, her hair is a bit flat compared to the wavy vibrancy it usually has, and even her shoulders look a bit droopy. Still, Ali sees Ashlyn’s face break out into a huge smile when they finally make eye contact and the blonde suddenly looks a bit less burdened.

Ali watches the guard uncuff the blonde and head into the observation room. She was hoping for Jordan, but she’s never seen this guard before. She’s about to slide Ashlyn’s coffee in front of her when she feels Ashlyn’s hands grab hers and pull her up onto her feet. The blonde wraps her in a tight hug over the small table and buries her face into Ali’s hair, “Alex” coming out of her mouth in a barely audible whisper.

Ali lets herself get lost in the hug until she feels Ashlyn pull-back after a minute. She immediately looks over at the observation window only to see the guard just smirking.

“Say hi to Tim.” Ashlyn smiles and points her thumb in the direction of the plexi-glass window as an informal introduction because he can’t hear her.

Ali laughs a bit and waves at the guy, getting a little wave back from him as the two of them finally sit down.

“Sooo, miss me?” Ali teases.

“Not at all.” Ashlyn deadpans.

“Missed you too, asshole.” Ali shoots her a playful glare.

“What happened to ‘hero’?” Ashlyn pretends to be offended.

“Gotta earn it, Harris.” Ali winks. “Seriously, you ok?”

“I’m not gonna lie. I had a few tough days. I’m much much better now though.” Ashlyn purposefully smiles. “You look incredible by the way.” She adds, taking in Ali’s tight black jeans and form-fitting gray blouse capped off by perfect hair and make-up.

“Thank you.” Ali replies with a nose-crinkling smile before following Ashlyn’s lead. “I’m not gonna lie either, you look kinda like hell.” She pauses briefly for effect, before sweetly adding “But, you’re still a sight to behold.” She watches Ashlyn smile a bit shyly.

“I bet you say that to all the girls.” Ashlyn jests.

“Only the ones in beige jumpsuits and cuffs.” Ali plays right back, trying to maintain a seductive look on her face but failing, both of them laughing really hard.

“You sure know how to lift a girl’s mood, Alex.” Ashlyn muses as the laughter dies down a bit. “Speaking of which, I’m dying to know why you have recordings of yourself reading Harry Potter at your disposal?”

“I promise I will get to the answer of that question, but first, I have some really important news.” Ali says pulling out her digital recorder and putting it out on the table to signal that it pertains to the case.

Ashlyn nods and Ali turns on the recorder. “So, what’s up?” The blonde inquires.

Ali explains very vaguely and quickly that her family is settled, safe, and doing well, but giving no other specifics. She then launches right into the information Dr. Henning gave her about the bullet. She looks up at Ashlyn when she’s finished to find the blonde looking astounded.

“Holy Shit. That is… uh, wow. It’s been like a week, how is it even possible that you managed all this?” Ashlyn asks completely baffled. She doesn’t even give Ali a chance to answer before adding, “You know what, never mind. You’re Ali Krieger and you’re magical, obviously. Just… holy shit! I can’t believe you got all that from the bullet.”

“Me either.” Ali admits. “I had nothing to do with making it all happen like this, so your magic theory is probably just as good of a guess as my luck theory on how all this worked out. I’m not even going to question the good vibes though.”

“Agreed. Let’s just ride the good karma wave as long as possible.” Ashlyn replies.

“Well, that’s it for now and probably it for a while. Now it’s all about waiting.” Ali says, turning off the recorder.

“Ok, so Harry Potter?” Ashlyn jumps right back to her original question.

“So persistent, Harris.” Ali teases before getting into it. “Alright, so I used to actually be pretty bad about enunciating my words properly and everyone would tell me that I mumbled a lot. I never noticed and no one ever said anything to me about it professionally when it came to having to speak in court or depositions. Although, I guess I often got asked to repeat myself and just never realized.” Ali hears Ashlyn whisper something, but can’t make out what she said. “What was that?” She asks.

“Nothing. Just that you do actually mumble a bit when you’re nervous. Like when you’re trying to tell a girl that you’d accept her date invitation.” Ashlyn smirks and earns a playful glare from Ali. “Just saying.” She adds with a shrug.

“Jerk.” Ali purposely mumbles and continues on. “Anyway! When I came up with the plan for podcasting, Kyle suggested I work on making sure my voice was clear and that I practice appropriate voice tone for what I would be saying. So, I started reading books out loud so I could listen to myself and figure out what I needed to work on. I did the whole Harry Potter series before I felt comfortable enough to stop. Let’s just say my speech and inflection has gotten a lot better.”

“You are one dedicated woman, Alex.” Ashlyn tells her, ever in awe of how hard she works at everything. “Those CDs literally saved my sanity the last few days. And that you thought to send them to me… and that note. You’re a gift, Alex… and, well, just perfect. I’ll leave it at that.”

Ali smiles widely, her heart rate picking up at the blonde’s sweet and sincere words. “Glad you liked it, because the CDs for books 2 and 3 are currently being reviewed in the security office for content. So, I’m sure they’ll give them to you soon. I’m gonna have to dig into my storage closet at home to find the rest of the books, but I’ll bring you those too.” She promises.

Ashlyn wants to tell her she’s perfect again, but she figures Ali is probably getting a bit sick of her doing that. So she simply reaches to grab Ali’s hand and lifts it to her mouth, placing a soft kiss in the open palm and then pressing the brunette’s hand to the middle of her chest so Ali can feel her heartbeat.

Ali closes her eyes and does the only thing that feels right. She grabs Ashlyn’s hand and holds it to her own chest, both of their eyes opening to meet each other with smiles that acknowledge the moment before dropping each other’s hands gently.

There’s a silence while each of them try to find their words, but the sound of the observation room door opening and Tim’s voice break it for them. “So, when is the wedding and I am invited?” He calls out teasingly from the observation room, no longer able to hold it in.

Ali turns a bit red and Ashlyn jokingly shoots him the middle finger as she rolls her eyes and says “Not anymore you aren’t!”

************************************************************************************

It’s been 24 days since the appeal was filed and the passing time has been both tedious and relaxing for Ali and Ashlyn. Ali has been visiting every 3 days, which has really seemed to lift Ashlyn’s mood. Things have been quiet and there has been nothing to really talk about in terms of the case, so they try not to get too anxious about the impending appeal decision and use their visits to learn more about each other.

Ali learns that the blonde once dreamed of being a pro-surfer until she realized she couldn’t surf that well, won a state hot dog eating contest at age 12, is obsessed with fashion, knows how to tie at least 7 different tie knots, loves to camp solely because she loves campfires, can drive a motorboat and a sailboat, hates broccoli, can rap every word of Rapper’s Delight, will watch a documentary about literally anything, and could eat her weight in funfetti cake.

Ashlyn discovers that Ali always wears mascara even to bed, juggles a soccer ball when she’s trying to think through the facts of a case, loves live theater, hates her feet, still sleeps with her childhood blankie under her pillow, binge watches repeat episodes of the TV show Bones, has a soft spot for oldies and 80s music because that’s what her mom listened to, eats frosting right out of the can, and refuses to eat anything but ice cream cake on her birthday.

They’re both aware that once the appeal goes through, this kind of personal time might be more limited and more focused on the case. So, they’ve been making the best of it while they have it.

Ali is running a little on the early side this morning because she got up to go on a run with Kyle. She’s feeling a little tired from staying up late watching TV, so she stops for a coffee at her favorite local shop to drink on the drive to see Ashlyn. She figures by the time she drinks her second cup with Ashlyn, she’ll be fully energized.

She orders her usual latte from Paul, her favorite barista, and then stands off to the side to wait for it. She looks around to check out at all the hand turkey pictures made by local school children hung up on the walls of the café for Thanksgiving. As she does, she knows with absolute certainty that the court is going to approve the appeal within a matter of days. She knows because Bobby Dugan is sitting at a table in her favorite coffee shop and looking right at her.

“Holy shit.” She whispers to herself discretely as she wracks her brain for a plan.

Chapter Text

Ali doesn’t dare look in Bobby’s direction again until she can come up with a game plan. She pretends to casually play with her phone as she waits for her coffee and works the logic out in her head.

She personally knows every single judge that sits on the appeals court. These people were her mother’s friends, people that once sat in their home and shared dinner at one point or another. She’s certain that none of them are involved with Bobby. They are like her mother was, dedicated to what they do and there because they’ve worked hard for it. It’s not that often that judges corrupt because morality is at the center of who they are. In her estimation, there’s no way Bobby got a tip-off from an appeals judge. And a clerk is usually a fresh out of law school lawyer looking to distinguish themselves in a one year clerkship before moving on to something bigger; there’s no way Bobby would even bother with that.

The district attorney, however, is a whole other story. The Boston DA’s office is notorious for numerous corruption scandals that have been revealed over the years. She knows the court will often alert the DA’s office before accepting an appeal to allow them to prepare an argument to block it. Ali doesn’t care about that, she’s sure the DA has no standing to block this appeal since it’s based on procedural failures. What she’s sure about now though…Bobby has the DA in his back pocket. The DA must have contacted him after finding out about the appeal. And here he is, likely after learning who represented Ashlyn in the appeal filing.

In her peripheral vision, she can see he’s still watching her. She reasons that if he was planning to intimidate her, he would have come over already or made himself known. No, he’s just sitting back and watching. Based on that, she’s assuming that he just wants to gauge her reaction to him being there. He’s probably expecting her to do one of two things: completely not notice him and act normally or notice him and anxiously walk out of there immediately.

She’s broken out of her thoughts by Paul the barista.

“Here you go, Ali. Piping hot, be careful.” Paul warns her as he hands her the coffee.

“Thanks, Paul, you’re the best!” Ali says as cheerily as she can. “Hey, um, do you have any of that chocolate powder to sprinkle on top? I need a chocolate fix this morning.” She asks him knowing that she just needs to buy herself a little more time to think, she could care less about the chocolate.

“Sure do. Let me grab it.” He drops down behind the counter to get it and hands it to her.

“Thanks again!” Ali repeats.

“Anytime. Have a good one, Ali!” He gives her a small wave.

“You too!” She smiles at him before making her way to the small counter to sprinkle the chocolate and pretend to fix her coffee.

She glances at her phone and sees that it’s 9:25am. That gives her 35 minutes to get to Ashlyn on time; 25 minutes of travel time and 10 minutes to spare. She knows that if she’s more than 30 minutes late, she forfeits the visit completely. She’s now sprinkled way too much chocolate powder on her coffee while internally debating which of the reactions Bobby is expecting that she wants to go with. Does she acknowledge him before she leaves or not?  

If she doesn’t acknowledge him at all, he’ll think she doesn’t know who he is and that she doesn’t know anything about his involvement in the case. The problem is that then he’ll probably go on a mission to prevent her from finding out anything; likely messing with evidence or, worse, finding a way to intimidate Ashlyn so that he’s sure she doesn’t say anything.

If she does look at him and walk away, he’ll think she’s scared. And she’d only be scared if she knew something bad about him. The last thing she wants to do is let on that she knows too much…nothing good could come from that. She internally groans at her options. And then she realizes that she’s only debating these two options because her visit with Ashlyn is weighing too heavily on her ability to act in any other way right now. Those are the only options that will allow her to get to Ashlyn on time.

She stirs her coffee to buy a few more seconds. This is exactly what she told herself she wouldn’t do. Right now, she has to forget about Ashlyn’s feelings and do her job as her lawyer and protector. She thinks about her conversation with Chris as she finally finds her confidence. ‘She can handle the fire as long as you go in after her.’ Ali mentally reassures herself as she snaps the lid on her coffee.

“Fuck you, asshole. I never do anything anyone expects.” She whispers to herself as she turns around and stares Bobby right in the eye. She gives him a purposeful look and walks right over to his table, watching the confusion grow on his face.

************************************************************************************

“Chief Dugan?” She says a bit hesitantly, acting like she’s not 100% sure it’s him.

Bobby nods, looking a bit like a deer in the headlights.

“Ali Krieger. You probably don’t remember me, but we were at the same awards dinner last year. I was one of the SPARK Impact Award winners and you were one of the presenters.” Ali extends her hand to him and watches him shake it, fighting her urge to pull it away and pour copious amounts of hand sanitizer on it.

“Oh, um, yes. Ms. Krieger. Forgive an old man, I didn’t recognize you… but I know who you are. I think everyone in Boston knows who you are.” He replies in his heavy South Boston accent, clearly playing it aloof like she isn’t the very reason he’s sitting there.

‘Dick.’ Ali thinks in her head while giving him a polite smile as she looks him over. Old man is right, he looks older up close and in person than he does in pictures and on TV. His hair is a silvery gray, his cheeks and nose are red and ruddy, and there are deep lines on his forehead, around his eyes and mouth. He looks like an Irish grandpa, only more sinister. “Do you mind if I sit?” She points to the chair.

“Uh, not at all.” He tells her and motions to the seat, trying to play it cool even though Ali can see he’s surprised by the request. “Anything I can help you with?”

“Actually, yes. I assume you know about my podcast and some of the legal work I do?” She confirms.

“Yup. Some people might call it sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, but I really admire your tenacity and the important work you do, Ms. Krieger. I’m sure the Newton police were thrilled to have that kidnapping case off their desk.” Bobby replies in a far too fake a voice, clearly not being able to resist taking a dig at her.

You’re gonna pay for that one, dick.’ Ali thinks as she grits her teeth and manages to make herself lightly laugh. “Well, I only stick my nose where my clients ask me to.” She says with a hint of sass. “Which actually leads me to why I came over here. I am working on a new case and really don’t have much yet. I was hoping to track you down over the next week or so, and poof, you appear in my favorite coffee shop as luck would have it.” She shoots him a shit-eating grin.

“Well, I hope you’re not looking for investigative help or security support, our department is far too busy for that.” Bobby replies, not sure where the lawyer is going with this conversation but still wanting to make sure he sounds imposing.

“No, no, nothing like that.” Ali assures him quickly. “No, this is in more of a personal capacity that I was hoping to speak with you.”

“Ok, well in that case, go ahead.” He says evenly.

Ali pulls out her digital recorder. “Would you mind if I record our conversation? You know with the podcast and all, this is how I document all my casework. To be honest, I really don’t think this case is going to make the cut, but just in case.”

Bobby looks completely unsettled, but he pretty much knows he can’t say no. Ali knows it too, which is exactly why she asked.

“You can tell me to turn it off at any point.” Ali tries to convince him further.

“Sure, sure. I understand. Gotta pay the bills, right?” He replies.

“Yep.” Ali fights the urge to roll her eyes as she turns on the recorder. “Chief Bobby Dugan, for legal purposes would you just verbally confirm for me that you are aware this conversation is being recorded and may be used in a court of law?”

“Sure. Yes, I am aware that the conversation is being recorded.” He acknowledges out loud.

“Great, thanks.” Ali proceeds. “So, I’m working on a case for a friend. She’s serving a life sentence for a murder confession and I filed an appeal on her behalf to try and get her sentence reduced.” Ali begins her carefully worded background explanation to him. “Anyway, I don’t need to tell you all the details because you know her. It’s for Ashlyn Harris. From what I understand, you were actually close to her professionally? And, based on what I’ve seen of the case files, one of the first officers on the scene the night of the murder? Do I have that right?”

“Yes, Ms. Krieger, you do. It’s a very unfortunate circumstance.” He puts on a solemn voice. “We were actually very close, she was like a daughter to me. I didn’t know you were friends, she never mentioned you.” He challenges.

“Well, I use the term ‘friend’ loosely. She is close to my brother and he introduced me to her more recently. I took this on as a favor to him because she wanted a lawyer to file the appeal.” Ali explains and watches his face contort to try and mask his confusion.

“Is your brother a police officer?” He questions, unsure of who Ali could be referring to.

Ali let’s out a small laugh for effect. “Nope, kind of the opposite of that. Recovering drug addict.”

“Kyle Christopher?” Bobby asks after a brief silence, thinking back to the guy that had been living with Ashlyn while he was in rehab. He always told the blonde she was a fool for taking in people like that, they always came back begging for more.

“The one and only.” Ali replies. “He was still a bit sore back then about our father leaving us and chose to use my mother’s maiden name. I think he’s finally over it now.”

Bobby just nods and Ali can tell he has no idea what to make of this conversation. It’s exactly what she’s going for.

“So, back to Ashlyn Harris. Like I said before, I helped her file an appeal for a sentence reduction and I’m hoping to hear about it very soon. I’m expecting an approval given all the paperwork irregularities with the arrest and confession procedures. Beyond that though, I really haven’t found much to work with and Ashlyn really hasn’t been that helpful either. I just don’t think paperwork irregularities are going to do more than get her a case review. A sentence reduction… that’s going to take some kind of additional defense, you know? She doesn’t really seem to get that.” Ali divulges to him casually, trying to gain just an inch of his trust.

“So, she had you file the appeal but hasn’t pushed harder to delve into her case?” Bobby inquires, trying to understand what is going on.

“Exactly. Even though I’ve tried to explain, she’s stuck on the idea of the paperwork problems being enough to get some time knocked off her sentence. She doesn’t want to pursue anything else.” Ali lies through her teeth. “To be honest, this isn’t all that uncommon with confession convictions. A lot of times people just think that confessing is going to get them some leniency, but then they get life and it kind of shocks them. They get desperate once they’ve been locked up a couple years. By the time they get through the appeal, it doesn’t matter if they still have a 50 year sentence ahead of them, just as long as it’s not life anymore, they’re happy. I think maybe it gives them some hope of finally being out one day, I don’t know.”

“Never really thought about it that way, but I suppose it makes sense in theory.” Bobby replies with a shrug.

“I’ve poured over her case files and whatever evidence there was. I even had a forensics guy check out the bullet that came out of her leg a few weeks ago when it got infected.” She pauses for a second checking for his reaction and sees the slight widening of his eyes. Yep, he definitely doesn’t know about the bullet yet. “The guy just tells me it was shot out of a 9mm Glock 22 police gun, so no surprise there and not helpful. Pair all that with that fact that Ashlyn doesn’t remember much other than the confession, and I just don’t feel comfortable that I can do very much to reduce the sentence.” Ali explains with as much of a desperate tone as she can.  “That doesn’t help her and it sure doesn’t help me pay my bills either.” Ali adds, motioning towards the recorder with a smirk.

“Yeah, you’re going to need a bit more excitement for that show of yours. A failed appeal probably doesn’t qualify.” Bobby mocks her.

“Well, speaking of drama… from what I’ve read, seems like Ashlyn was under a lot of psychological stress with the whole situation. So, I thought maybe I’d pitch a temporary insanity defense to her given the nature of it all, but I want to understand the circumstances better before I do that. That’s where talking to you comes in.” Ali looks at him pointedly.

“The whole thing was probably as much of a shock to me as it was for her, Ms. Krieger. I’m not sure I can help you that much.” He tries to shut her down.

“Well, anything you can tell me about her mood or how she acted around the time before it happened would be great. Did you know she was seeing Liam Gorham?” Ali prods him.

“That’s why I say it was so shocking. She was completely normal leading up to it. Not a single thing different about her at all. She was performing well at work, doing all the usual activities she always did. She never once mentioned anything about Gorham, so I had no idea. I never saw her with him.” Bobby says nonchalantly.

‘Thanks for giving me a statement that shows she had no idea what was about to happen and was never seen with Gorham. Such a fucktard.’ Ali tries to hide her smile. “Hmmm, that’s actually helpful. Kind of shows that she probably didn’t premeditate anything. What about Gorham? Anything about him that seemed off at all?” Ali questions very casually.

Bobby jumps on the question way too quickly. “I didn’t know Gorham at all, so I couldn’t tell you.”

“Oh, sorry. I just assumed given his high-life status and you being the chief of police and all. I figured he was probably in contact with you for security and events, stuff of that sort. I guess I watch too many TV shows where all the important people know each other.” Ali gives him an apologetic cringing face while simultaneously trying to flatter him. “So, you didn’t have any associations with him at all?”

“Sorry to crush your TV fantasy, but no. Never had any personal or professional associations with Liam Gorham at all. We were in the same room for events a couple times, but I hadn’t even been so much as introduced to him.” Bobby replies coolly, but Ali can hear the defensiveness is his voice.

‘Big mistake. Got you now, prick.’ Ali can’t believe her luck at the fact that he just completely denied so much as even being acquainted with Liam Gorham. “Alright, what about when you arrived at the scene that night… anything unusual at all or notable, about Ashlyn or Liam or anything really?” She keeps up her façade.

“You know, Ms. Krieger, the entire thing was very disturbing and unsettling for me. To see my own protégé and fellow officer in that state… it’s all really such a haze now. It’s a night I prefer to forget about.” He gives her nothing.

‘About time you made a smart decision here.’ Ali mentally mocks the man in her head. “Well, so much for my groundbreaking lead!” Ali laughs a bit. “Back to the drawing board. I’m really sorry to have intruded on your coffee time for this, Chief. I’m here most mornings and I’ve never seen you in here before, so I thought it was my lucky day!” She can’t help but stick it to him just a little bit more.

“Not a problem. I’m sorry to disappoint. I actually just found this place, but I think I might just have to come back more often.” Bobby tries harder to make his presence felt.

Ali’s not giving him a single ounce of attention on that front and just shrugs him off to annoy him. “In that case, come in during the 7am to 10am window. That’s when Paul is here and he makes the best lattes.” She says as she points over to Paul behind the counter.

“Thanks for the tip.” Bobby says coldly. This woman hasn’t seemed affected by any of his insinuations and now he’s just annoyed that he’s wasted his time on someone who doesn’t seem to matter. Still, he knows what she’s capable of and he’s not quite done testing the situation just yet. “Maybe I can give you a tip too… try and get in touch with Chris Harris, her brother. He might have more insight than me.”

‘Oh ok, we’re gonna go there. No problem.’ Ali has just convinced this douchebag that it’s safe to bungee jump. Now it’s time to take away his safety net and push him off the platform while she snips the cord for good measure. “Well, thanks, but I tried that. Turns out he’s off traveling Europe with his family for like the next year or something…completely unreachable.” She shakes her head in disappointment very compellingly. She watches Bobby clasp his hands tightly, his knuckles almost white. She can practically see him coming unglued.

Bobby is fuming internally. Ali Krieger is just pissing him off now with her naïve and unknowing exposure of his recent passivity. He expected more given her hotshot celebrity lawyer status, but clearly it’s just luck and hype. Just a useless bitch. “Well, I have a meeting to be at shortly.” He starts to excuse himself. “Remember what I said about sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, be careful out there Ms. Krieger, wouldn’t want to ever see you pop up in my case files.” He gives her a warning that he’s sure she can’t miss this time.

Ali clicks off the recorder and gives him the sweetest smile she can manage. “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself. Besides, the truth is always worth it. It’s either sets you free…” She pauses just for a second, giving him a hard, pointed look  “or it completely buries you alive.”

Bobby isn’t even sure what to make of that last statement and needs to leave before he says anything he regrets. This whole conversation has been beyond unexpected. “Have a good day, Ms. Krieger.” He says as he throws out his coffee cup and heads out the door.

‘Sleep well you piece of shit. By the time you wake up, I’ll have ripped the sheets out from under you.’ Ali thinks as she just simply plasters a smile on her face and gives him a little wave. She lets out a long sigh when he’s gone, relieved that the conversation couldn’t have gone any better if she had meticulously planned it out. Bobby Dugan just gave her everything she needs and she just set him on out a trail that he wasn’t even expecting to be on. A trail that she blazed herself.

She glances at her phone as she throws away her now cold latte. She groans loudly seeing that it’s 10:25am and there’s no way she can make it to the prison in 5 minutes. She’s officially missed her visit with Ashlyn. “Fucking hate that asshole.” She mutters to herself, rushing to her car so she can drive to the prison and request unofficial visiting hours for first thing tomorrow morning. With Bobby out of the way for now, all she can think about is how Ashlyn is going to handle her missing this visit with no warning. She can practically envision the blonde engulfed in an inferno of despair and terror. The mere thought of it nauseates her.

************************************************************************************

Ashlyn watches the tiny battery-operated clock on her desk hit 10am. Her heart rate starts to pick up and mood elevates like it always does just before she visits with Ali. She’s not sure what exactly she was living for before, but she’s sure that she’s living for these visits now. She paces around her cell with anxious excitement, waiting to hear the guard’s footsteps in the hallway which signal that Ali is here waiting for her.

She watches 10:05am pass, and then 10:10am, and then 10:15am…still no guard, still no Ali. She starts to get a little unsettled, but reasons that Ali is just running a little late or more likely the prison has messed up the visiting room schedule or something because Ali has never been late.

When 10:31am hits, she’s beyond consolable. Ali isn’t coming. Something is so very wrong, the brunette must be in trouble. She crouches to the ground in panic and holds her head in her hands, her body trembling. She manages to crawl over to the toilet, barely making it there before she empties her breakfast into the tin pot.

She struggles to pull herself together so she can figure out what to do. The best she can come up with is to request phone time. Then it hits her that she doesn’t know who to call. She doesn’t know Ali’s number. She tries desperately to recall what Kyle’s number was a couple years ago, but she can’t remember. And why would she, it was once merely stored on her cellphone with no need to memorize it. The only number she knows by heart is Chris’ cell phone, but it’s now useless to her, her own brother unreachable. This…this is the moment… she has never felt this alone and helpless in her entire life, not even at her worst. She hits the door of her cell as hard as she can in frustration, letting out a guttural yell before she stumbles her way back to the toilet to throw up again.

She’s been shaking on the cold floor of the cell with her face practically in the toilet for what seems like hours. She hears the door of her cell click open, but it doesn’t really register.

“Harris, time for your last PT.” She hears the familiar voice that sounds very distant right now.

“Harris? Shit. You ok?” She feels arms pick her up a bit. Her body responds somewhat, muscles working just enough to help herself get led to her bed. “Talk to me, Ashlyn.” The voice demands desperately as she feels the welcome softness of the mattress under her butt cheeks. “Come on, snap out of it! Harris!” Her eyes focus on the face in front of her.

“Tim. Tim, Ali. Didn’t come. In trouble.” She gets out desperately as best she can, her throat raw.

“She missed your visit?” Tim tries to make sense of what she’s saying.

Ashlyn just nods slightly.

“Ok, look…I’ll find a way to figure out what happened, ok? But you have to calm down, Ashlyn. I have no way to help you if you end up in the psych unit today, ok? Please calm down.” He practically begs her, not sure of what to do right now. He’s never seen her like this.

“Ok, ok, ok, ok.” Ashlyn repeats in a whispered mantra.

“Come on, Ashlyn. Pull it together, soldier.” Tim tries something more authoritative to get her attention and pulls her to her feet, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Hey, let’s go! Come on, Harris. You need to be strong and together for me. You hear me, soldier?” He’s trying to get through to her subconscious.

Ashlyn takes a deep breath, hearing the directions and feeling herself focus a bit.

Tim can see the slight change in her face. “There we go. That’s it. You with me, Harris?”

Ashlyn nods, realizing she’s standing up. “Yeah. I’m here. I’m here. You have to help her, Tim.”

“Ok, I’m on it. You have to give me a little time though. Can I trust you to be ok in here? You need to hold it together.” He implores her. “Just chill, ok? I’m sure she’s just fine and there’s a good reason she missed the visit. You can’t panic until we know something.” He tries to reassure her.

“Ok. Yeah. Just find her, please.” Ashlyn pleads with him.

“Alright. Lay down on your bed and just close your eyes and try to calm down. I’m going to cancel your PT and see what I can find out. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Stay calm, Ashlyn. Stay calm.” Tim keeps reminding her as helps her lay back on the bed and heads out of the cell.

Tim walks into the records office to see if he can find a phone number for Ali. He sees that Jeremy, another guard on shift, is in there doing paperwork duty. “Hey Jer, I’m really dragging this today. Can you take my rounds for me while I grab a quick coffee in here? I’ll do some of this paperwork for you.” He requests and yawns for good measure.

“Sure man.” Jeremy agrees and makes his way out, probably thrilled to avoid paperwork duty.

Tim rifles through the file cabinet, but doesn’t see Ali’s file. He finally checks the desk and finds it sitting in a pile there. He quickly locates her phone number on the background check documents and inputs it into his cellphone. A yellow sheet of paper catches his eye and he sees that it’s a non-routine visit request, the time-stamp on it is for 11:10am this morning and Ali’s name is signed and printed at the bottom. He missed her by 45 minutes.

Tim radios the newest guard on staff. “Luke, please report to records.” While he waits, he calls the medical wing to tell them that Ashlyn was throwing up and they’ll need to reschedule her physical therapy session. Usually they’d give him a hard time about it, but it’s her last session, so they don’t seem to care. By the time he hangs up, Luke is at the door.

“I need you on paperwork duty.” Tim tells him, watching the guy’s face drop a bit. “Sorry, just part of the job sometimes.” He shrugs

“No, totally okay. I get it.” Luke reassures him and tries to look eager about it as he settles in at the desk.

Tim gives him a thumbs up and rushes back over to Ashlyn’s cell, seeing that she’s lying down like he told her too and seemingly holding herself together. The second he unlocks the door though, she bolts right up with wide eyes.

“Relax, Harris. She’s just fine. She was just here less than an hour ago and filed a visit request for tomorrow morning. I’m sure you’ll get a notification soon when it gets approved. She’s fine. Probably just had car trouble or got stuck in crazy traffic or something. She’ll be here tomorrow.” He says to her and watches her blow out a long breath. “You alright now?”

“Yeah. I’m really sorry, I just… I panicked.” She tries to explain, but isn’t sure what to say.

“Look, buddy. I get it. She’s working on this shady ass case of yours and I’m sure you’re nervous she’s gonna get herself in trouble or something.” Tim pauses for a second. “But, Ashlyn dude, you gotta give her more credit. I mean, you know what she does. That woman is fierce and smart…this isn’t her first rodeo, you know? I’m thinking she knows how to take care of herself.”

Ashlyn can only nod, what Tim is saying is true.

“And I know there’s more going on with you two…a fucking blind person could see that. You can’t let that shit get in the way of your case though or you’re never gonna get out of here.” He gives it to her straight.

“Yeah. I know.” She concedes. “She pretty much said that too.”

Tim laughs a little. “Told you she’s smart.”

“Duh, ass. Obviously, I know that.” Ash shoots him a look. “Just hard to remember sometimes with everything else going on up here.” She points to her head. “And in here too.” She points to the middle of her chest.

“Someday you’re gonna tell me the secret of your ways.” Tim jokes with her.

“My ways?” Ashlyn asks confused.

“Yeah! How the fuck did you just land one of the hottest and most desired people in Boston, who is a  lawyer mind you… all while you’re in prison for fuck’s sake?!” He says incredulously.

“First of all, I didn’t ‘land’ her. We’re friends and just getting to know each other.” Ashlyn corrects him.

“Whatever. I’m just gonna say it again…I’m not blind.” He reiterates. “Listen, I gotta go pick up the rest of my rounds from Jeremy. I have Ali’s number now, I’ll call her as soon as I get the chance and try to find out what happened, ok? Will you be alright in the meantime?” He asks.

“Yeah. Think I’m too exhausted now to freak out anymore anyway.” She promises him. “Thanks, Tim. I mean it.”

Tim just gives her a small nod as he walks out. “Take it easy in here, Capt. I’ll check in later.

Ashlyn jumps a bit at the lock click and then falls back onto her bed, emotionally exhausted and still a little bit worried about Ali. Her emotional reaction to this morning’s events also have her worried. She needs to be better at controlling her feelings. This is exactly what Ali was talking about. They have to trust in each other and trust in the process if they’re ever going to come out of this on top. She feels a bit silly now that she jumped to the worst conclusion over a missed visit, for which Ali probably has a very good reason and is likely something very simple like traffic.

 

*************************************************************************************

After leaving the prison, Ali is frustrated and tired. Now that her day is all screwed up and she feels like there’s a rock in her stomach at the thought of abandoning Ashlyn, she just wants to go home and curl up on the couch for the rest of the afternoon in her pajamas.

She huffs impatiently at the third stoplight in a row she’s now hit since getting off the highway and uses the time to text Kyle. She’s hoping he’ll come over for dinner, she could really use the reassurance that Ashlyn can handle her missing a visit. Ali is really worried about the blonde, especially knowing how far she spiraled after the hospital stay. She’s spent the drive reminding herself that she’ll see Ashlyn in the morning and make things right.

She gets stuck yet again at the next red light and decides to just stop at the Starbucks on the corner to get herself some tea. She has a bit of a chill she can’t shake and tea sounds like a really good way to relax a bit right now. As she parks the car her phone starts ringing. She checks the caller ID and sees that it’s the Framingham Correctional Facility.

“Perfect!” She says out loud, assuming that they’re calling to tell her the visit for tomorrow has been approved.

She goes to answer the call, but never manages to press the button. Her windshield shatters around her loudly, and she lets out a startled scream.

“What the fuck!” She tries to yell out, but her voice just comes out in a raspy whisper. She feels like there’s a two ton weight on her chest. She looks down at herself, trying to assess if she’s having a heart attack from being startled when she sees it… a blood stain growing ever larger on chest, the deep red such a contrast to the bright white of her button-up shirt. Her phone falls out of her hand as she pulls her shirt open, finding a ragged hole on her inner left breast, blood seeping out of it faster than she can comprehend.

She clamps her hand over it, only then noticing that she’s shaking uncontrollably. It’s getting really hard to breathe and she feels lightheaded. She’s cold and tired and not sure what to do. Everything feels heavy and fuzzy. ‘Just close your eyes and rest for a minute.’ She mentally tells herself, letting her eyes shut. The first thing she sees when she closes her eyes is an image of Ashlyn’s face… the beautiful hazel eyes, the angular but soft features. “Ash…” she whispers out before she stops feeling anything at all.

Chapter Text

‘Just close your eyes and rest for a minute.’ She mentally tells herself, letting her eyes shut. The first thing she sees when she closes her eyes is an image of Ashlyn’s face… the beautiful hazel eyes, the angular but soft features. “Ash…” she whispers out before she stops feeling anything at all.

 

“Alex!” Ashlyn jolts up from her bed with a deep intake of breath, her chest heaving and her body covered in sweat. She swears can feel the impact on her body almost like the very day it happened. She pulls down her beige jumpsuit as much as she can and looks down her shirt, seeing the quarter sized scar on her inner left breast. It marks where a wingnut from IED shrapnel had once pierced through her Kevlar vest and missed her heart by only a centimeter before puncturing her lung.

She can still remember rolling herself out of the overturned Humvee as best she could, not being able to really breathe. A fellow solider had eventually reached her, pulling off her vest and pulling her shirt open. Watching the jagged hole in her own chest bleed steadily is still such a vivid memory, laying there wondering if she couldn’t breathe because her heart was stopping. Her shoulder had been mangled at the time and turned out be the more concerning injury, but all she can remember from that day is the deafening explosion, the hole near her heart and the heaviness she felt on her chest.

The panic attack from this morning left her physically and emotionally exhausted. After learning that Ali was okay, she’s been trying her best to just sleep away the afternoon so that tomorrow morning will come faster, but she’s now had this same nightmare twice. Both times she’s experienced as if she was in Ali’s body, feeling and seeing everything from the brunette’s perspective. That is, right up until the very end where she’s suddenly on the outside looking in, watching Ali gasp for breath and whisper out her name while clutching her chest to try and stop the bleeding. It’s some bizarre combination of her combat injury memories and her fears about Ali getting hurt, it’s driving her crazy.

“She’s fine. She’s fine.” Ashlyn reminds herself, seeing on her clock that it’s 5:14pm and hoping that Tim will come back soon with more news. She pulls back her bed sheets and spreads them out so they can air dry a bit since she’s been sweating in them. She then goes over to her pile of prison-issued clothes and pulls out a fresh jumpsuit to change into, using the sink and a small washcloth to freshen up a bit.

The dinner tray being slipped through the slot in the cell door is a welcome sound for once. Usually the sound tends to trigger a feeling of nausea given how bad the food is, but today she welcomes the distraction of eating. Anything to pass the time right now.

She unlatches the tray from the door slot and brings it over to her desk, scanning the contents. Mashed potatoes with a pat of butter, carrots, two slices of white bread, a carton of milk, a carton of apple juice, a pre-packaged brownie, and a meat patty of some sort that is probably supposed to be meatloaf. It’s certainly not the worst she’s seen. She quickly eats the potatoes, carrots, and bread while downing the apple juice. The blonde then pushes the meat patty around for a while before deciding there’s no way she’s attempting it, the thing will probably give her even more nightmares. She sets the brownie and milk aside for when she’s maybe hungry or bored later and then returns the tray to the door slot.

With nothing else to do and her mind still unsettled, she pulls out her CD Walkman and listens to Ali describe the action of the first Triwizard Tournament event from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The brunette’s voice never fails to lull her into feeling secure and moored to something solid.

*************************************************************************************

Ali settles onto her couch with a big carton of Pad Thai, taking a long sip from her bottle of Coke. “So good.” She says with a contented sigh.

“Seriously.” Kyle agrees, reaching over to clink his glass bottle of Coke with hers before they both dig into their food.

 

Ali had come straight home from the prison after filing a request for a visit tomorrow morning. She was worn down and anxious, her worry about Ashlyn dominating her thoughts even though the conversation with Bobby should have been the more prominent thing on her mind. Her adrenaline had really kicked in during that coffee shop exchange and now she was feeling the after effects of coming down from it.

She had just changed into a pair of sweat pants when her phone vibrated with a text message from Kyle asking if she wanted to meet him for dinner. She had quickly replied that she was looking forward to chilling out by herself tonight, knowing that all she wanted to do was veg out on the couch and work through her thoughts on her own.

Not being able to sit idle for too long, she quickly turned to transcribing the recorded conversation with Bobby on her laptop. Listening to it again, she still felt satisfied. She knows she made the right decision today despite the awful feeling at having abandoned Ashlyn. She did the right thing. She was just saving the word file when her phone vibrated again, the caller ID showing the Framingham Correctional Facility.

“Perfect!” She says before hitting the answer call button, assuming that this is the call about the visit being approved for tomorrow. “Hello?”

“May I please speak with Ali Krieger?” The voice on the other ends asks.

“This is she.” Ali replies.

“This is Tim Rosemund calling from the Framingham Correctional Facility. I am calling in regards to your visitor request for tomorrow morning. I see that your routine visits tend to fall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Since tomorrow is a Tuesday, I just wanted to confirm that this paperwork is correct and not an error on our part before I give it to the warden to sign.” He asks.

Ali knows it is no coincidence that Tim has called her. “Yeah, it’s correct. Does that mean everything is ok?” She asks a bit desperately, realizing quickly that if Tim didn’t blurt anything out already there was a good reason.

“Ok, thank you. Everything on our end is good.” He emphasizes as best he can, knowing these calls are recorded but trying hard to insinuate that Ashlyn is ok.

“Perfect. Thank you for calling and checking.” Ali says feeling a slight sense of relief.

“Of course, Ms. Krieger. I’ll give this right to the warden now. You can assume that your visit has been approved unless you hear otherwise from us in the next hour or so.” He adds, hoping that she’ll be keeping an eye on her phone. He can’t use his cellphone until he’s on a break and his break isn’t until at least an hour from now.

“Great. Thanks again.” Ali says kindly.

“Sure. Have a good evening.” Tim replies professionally and hangs up.

Feeling a little better, Ali decides to take a quick shower before she figures out what to eat for dinner. With the hot water feeling really good on her muscles, it ends up turning into a really long shower. When she finally throws on a fresh pair of sweats and combs through her hair, she notices she has a text from an unknown number.

Unknown: This is Tim. Sorry, had to wait for a break to use my personal phone. Ashlyn is doing ok. She had a bit of a panic attack this morning, but I saw you had been here and told her you were fine. She’s really ok now though, just wondering what happened. Are you ok?

Ali let’s out a sigh. Her heart clenches at the fact that Ashlyn panicked like that, but she totally gets it. She couldn’t be more thankful for Tim right now.

AK: Tim thank you so much for this. I’ve been really worried about her. I ran into someone I didn’t expect this morning and had to deal with that, so I missed the visit. Please tell her that I’m perfectly ok and that I’m so sorry…that I’ll see her in the morning no matter what. And please take care of her.

Unknown: I will, I promise. She’s strong and she’ll be just fine. Check in with me anytime, ok?

AK: I’m saving your number in my phone right now. And you do the same, contact me anytime.

Unknown: Great. Have a goodnight, I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to see that you’re ok for herself tomorrow.

AK: Goodnight, Tim. You’re a life saver.

Ali quickly saves his contact information in her phone under ‘Timmy’ figuring it won’t be that obvious who he is if anyone happens to see it. She also deletes the text conversation just in case.

Kyle had shown up unexpectedly at her door a little while later with a bag of Thai food and a few bottles of soda. She couldn’t have been happier that he didn’t listen to her earlier and showed up anyway. He has always had an uncanny sense of knowing when she could use some company.

 

They sit on the couch eating and sipping soda, a real treat since they both tend to eat healthily and never drink soda. It tastes extra good right now after the day that Ali has had. Kyle does a good job of just enjoying dinner with her, not asking her questions even though he knows something is up.

Finally, Ali can’t hold it in anymore. She’s dying to tell someone and get some reassurance. She gives him a brief rundown of the day and pulls out the recorder so Kyle can listen to the conversation she had with Bobby. 

“Holy Fuckballs, Alex! You vivacious little bitch! Listen to you schooling his ass!” Kyle says admiringly once it’s over.

“Holy Fuckballs?” Ali says giving him a look. “Gross, who are you?”

“Fine… Holy Tits, is that better?” Kyle sasses her back.

Ali shrugs. “Actually, yes.” She gives him a satisfied smile. “Anyway, so you think I handled it the right way?”

“Totally. I mean, on the surface it seems like you gave him a lot of information…I see what you did there though. Give him the information you choose to give him and spin it in the best way to make him think you’re not up to anything important. Hopefully, it’ll work for a while.” He replies. “Thanks for making me sound like a bit of a rehab drama queen by the way.” He adds with a playful glare.

“Sorry, you know that was just me trying to make you sound harmless.” She reassures him. “And yes, spinning things my way was what I was going for.” Ali confirms and lets the silence hang between them for a minute before asking what’s really on her mind. “You think I did the right thing with Ashlyn?”

Kyle lets out a breath and tries to compose his thoughts. “Look, I think we both know that you made the decision you would have made if Ashlyn was any normal client of yours. And, as you’ve pointed out yourself, that is exactly what you need to do. If you don’t act professionally and protect her best interest, there’s no way you’re going to successfully navigate this process. You did what you had to do today, and I’m proud of you.” He pauses to see her nod, but he can tell she’s still not convinced so he keeps going.

“Obviously, there’s much more at stake here than just get your client out of jail. I’m sure it was awful to have left her hanging like that today, for both of you really. Not because you feel guilty or because she feels abandoned, but because at the root of it you’re both worried about each other and just want the other to be okay. You’re on the same page… frankly, you’re like one unit together. Both of you have to understand that and realize that you’ll operate just fine if you trust in each other to do the best that each of you can. Because both of your bests come from a place of good intentions and genuine caring. It’s like putting two remarkable people together and creating a super-human.” Kyle finishes, not even sure he understands what he just said. “Does that even make any sense? I feel like I was babbling there.”

“You were definitely a bit of a blathering Betty, but I’m taking the soda sugar high into account.” Ali rolls her eyes and teases him. “I actually get what you’re saying though. Thanks, I needed to hear that. And also… can a girl just get a hug?” She asks him with puppy eyes.

“Um YEAH! Of course! What good is an effeminate brother if you can’t get long girly hugs out of him?” He reaches over and pulls her into him in a tight, protective hug that soon turns into sibling cuddle time while they watch Project Runway reruns together.

*************************************************************************************

Ashlyn hears footsteps and the lock click open on her cell door. She jumps up from her bed happy to see that it’s Tim.

“Did you talk to her?” She quickly questions him.

“Oh hey, Ashlyn. How are you feeling? How was dinner?” He jibes her for not even saying hello before she asked about Ali.

“Don’t make me put you in a choke hold, Timothy James!” Ashlyn warns him playfully. “I don’t need any more time added to my life sentence for choking the guard. Hi. I’m fine. Dinner sucked. Now just tell me.”

“Just when you think you have it good because you get assigned to guard the women’s unit, you have to guard the one chick that could actually rip your head off if she wanted to.” Tim shakes his head while laughing. “I talked to Ali a while ago and she’s just fine. Sorry I got delayed in getting back in here, we had a little mess hall incident in general pop.” He explains.

“Did she say anything about what happened today?” Ashlyn asks knowing that Ali will tell her tomorrow, but she’s still curious.

“She was pretty vague about it, but said she ran into someone she didn’t expect to and had to deal with it. She also said to tell you that she’s really sorry.” Tim recounts. “And she seemed incredibly worried about you. I told her you had a tough morning, but promised her you were ok now.”

Ashlyn feels her chest tighten up. She doesn’t know for complete certain, but she’d bet her life that Ali ran into Bobby today. And by ‘ran into’ she can assume Bobby put himself in Ali’s way. That’s always been his signature first move…make his presence felt and watch to see what the person does. Ali said she dealt with it and Ashlyn can only wonder what the hell that means. She’s ok though, Ali is ok. Whatever happened, Ali handled it somehow and she has to remember that.

“Yoo hoo, earth to Harris.” Tim says waving his hand near her face.

“Oh, sorry….zoned out there.” Ashlyn apologizes.

“Yeah, just a little.” Tim smiles at her. “You ok now?”

“I am. I’m not even sure what I say to you other than thank you. You’ve risked so much to help me today…and well, Ali too. Thank you so much.” Ashlyn says genuinely.

“I’ll never forget the way you stood up for me and behind me in police academy…despite the fact that I totally sucked at it.” Tim laughs at himself. “Consider this a very long overdue repayment plan. And before you even open your mouth with some humble crap that makes the rest of us look bad…let’s leave it at that.” He points at her in mock warning.

“Okay, okay. We leave it there.” Ashlyn smiles at him. “Gotta say, I’m really happy now that you sucked at police academy and ended up here.”

“Funny, Harris.” Tim shakes his head. “I really gotta get back to work, but listen…I gave Ali my number and I have hers. So, if anything comes up…” He doesn’t finish the sentence.

“Thanks, Timbo.” Ashlyn gives a small fist bump and watches him walk out the door.

“Night, Capt.” He nods before clicking the lock on the door.

*************************************************************************************

When Ashlyn hears the footsteps come down the hallway, she practically jumps out of her skin in excitement. She looks at her clock, seeing that it’s 8:55am... Ali is here, and a bit early too. She’s already been up and ready for 3 hours, too fired up to sleep or even relax despite her best efforts to do both.

Her face drops when she sees that it’s Alton that has come to get her. She finally learned his real name a few weeks ago and realized it kind of fit him seeing as how it’s an even douchier name than Alan, or Albert, or Alfred. He wasn’t completely awful, he just took his job too seriously and was a pompous ass about it. Given that Tim was now off duty, she was really hoping for Jordan, knowing that all she wanted to do right now was wrap her arms around Ali for a while. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen today.

Still, even Alton can’t temper her good mood right now and she eagerly holds her hands out to get cuffed so she can get to Ali as soon as possible. The walk down the various corridors seems endless, but finally she’s being led into the visiting room and her eyes fall on Ali. Warm and concerned whiskey colored eyes look up at her, their owner looking flawless as usual, and Ashlyn can’t help the huge smile that overtakes her face. ‘Hi’ she mouths to the brunette as she gets uncuffed and watches Ali give her a small wave with that signature nose-crinkling grin.

Alton makes his way to the observation room and Ashlyn quickly leans in to give Ali the briefest of hugs, quick and tight. “Ash” she hears Ali whisper in her ear as soon as her arms are around the brunette and her heart practically stops, the way Ali called out to her in her nightmare rushing back to her. She breathes in deeply and lets Ali’s comforting and familiar scent bring her back to the reality that she is here and safe in her arms. She reluctantly pulls back before Alton comes back out to warn them.

“Ash, I am so so sorry about yesterday.” Ali says with tears forming at the corner of her eyes. “You know I wouldn’t miss a visit with you unless I absolutely had to, right?”

“Hey, Alex…it’s ok. I understand, I really do.” Ashlyn replies soothingly. “I wasn’t mad at you, just freaking out that something bad happened to you. Luckily, I had Tim to set me right. I promise, I’m fine and I completely get it. Are you ok?”

“I’m fine, I promise you.” Ali tells her, she desperately wants to hold Ashlyn’s hand right now and is bummed that she can’t. “I’ve just been worried about you and what you must have been thinking when I didn’t show up.”

“Honestly, I thought the worst. That something bad happened to you at the hands of Bobby or one of his cronies. Even I can see that I overreacted a bit.” Ashlyn admits. “Although, it sounds like maybe I wasn’t so far off. He showed up, didn’t he? Where?”

Ali nods to confirm it. “I was running early and feeling a little tired, so I went to grab a quick coffee at my favorite place for the drive here… he was sitting in there, clearly waiting for me.” She watches Ashlyn’s head drop a bit. “Look, Ash, it was fine and I’m more than fine. You can trust me that I’m not going to do anything reckless and that I’ll take care of myself, for both of us. I came up with a game plan on the fly and I handled it.”

Ali knows she’s going to have to get into the details and she just wants to be connected with the blonde before she does. She needs Ashlyn to know that she’s here and nothing is going to take her away. Alton be damned…she discretely slips off her shoe under the table and runs her bare foot up Ashlyn’s pant leg, watching the blonde smile and close her eyes for a second.

Ashlyn feels Ali’s foot against her lower calf, the usual electricity between them sparking immediately and giving her all the comfort she needs right now. She looks up to see the eyes that never falter and never fail her.

“I do trust you, Alex. Completely. You know that.” Ashlyn reminds her. “You know, when I figured out what happened, I couldn’t stop wondering how you handled Bobby. After coming to my senses, I realized that I was asking the wrong question.” She gives Ali a dimpled grin. “The more accurate question is, how did Bobby handle you?”

Ali can’t help but laugh, knowing that’s her queue. “You know me too well, Ash. Tell you what, you can listen for yourself…” She pulls out the recorder and lays it out on the table.

“No way. You recorded it?!” Ashlyn asks dumbfounded.

“Yep. What do you think I am, Harris? Some kind of novice?” Ali jokes with her.

“Nope. Just the peskiest, smartest, toughest, sweetest, and most beautiful bitch on the planet.” Ashlyn plays right back.

“And don’t you forget it, charmer.” Ali gives her a coy smile while lightly digging her toes into her calf.

“Now press play already!” Ashlyn demands and Ali complies. She hears Ali’s voice right away, followed by the voice of the devil himself.

“Chief Bobby Dugan, for legal purposes would you just verbally confirm for me that you are aware this conversation is being recorded and may be used in a court of law?”

“Sure. Yes, I am aware that the conversation is being recorded.”

Ashlyn just shakes her head in disbelief that Bobby Dugan would ever willing let himself be recorded and allow it to be used in court, especially in this particular situation. She doesn’t know what was said prior to this, but she knows for sure that Ali must have forced him into it somehow. “Seriously, Alex, where did you come from? You’re just…I don’t have words…”

“Amazing? Incredible? Really convincing?” Ali playfully helps her out, pausing the recorder for a second.

“Right. Maybe a little arrogant?” Ashlyn jokes back with a wink.

Ali sticks her tongue out at the blonde. “Damn right and for good reason! Now shut up and listen, Harris…it hasn’t even gotten good yet.”

Chapter Text

Once the recorded conversation is over, Ali clicks off the recorder and looks up at Ashlyn to see the blonde looking pensive with her mouth hanging open a bit. “So?” She prods.

“Damn, Alex. You just owned it. I mean, I can believe it because I just heard it…but, I also just can’t believe it either. I have never heard that man sound so confused before. It’s like he thought he knew what was happening and now he doesn’t. I don’t know.” Ashlyn sits back trying to work through her thoughts out loud. “You gave him all this information, but then again, you didn’t. Maybe I’m as lost as he is.” She finally admits.

“When I first saw him sitting there, I sort of panicked a bit and it took me a minute to figure out what I should do. I figured if I pretended not to notice him or noticed him and left, that he’d be expecting me to do one of those things and then have some menacing game plan in mind. I just went for the unexpected and chose to do things my way, which was confront him and manipulate the situation.” Ali says.

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, this thing of showing up and waiting to see the person’s reaction is standard for him. I really should have realized and told you to expect it, but honestly, I really didn’t think he’d go that route this time given the nature of all this. I thought he’d be more cautious. Guess he still thinks he’s invincible.” She replies. “And from what I’ve seen in the past, no one has EVER come up to him like that. He most definitely was shocked. You were right, most people run away or don’t even realize he’s there. Both result in him then finding a way to terrorize the person.”

“I figured. So, I tried to seem like I was being open with him and asking for his help. I want him to think that while I’m pushing for this appeal, that I’m not going after him or have anything to hide. Plus, I have everything I need already, so it’s not like he’s going to catch me trying to investigate or sniff around. I want him to think that you’re holding up your end of the deal by not ratting him out and that this whole thing is outside of his involvement.” Ali explains.

“Well you played it perfectly. I don’t think he knows what to make of the situation now. I have no idea if he’ll hang back or be more aggressive to be honest. That worries me.” Ashlyn puts her concern out in the open.

“I promise you, Ash. I’m ready either way. Ideally, I want him to have no idea I’m coming until his ass is sitting on the stand and he has no way out. I’m not sure that’s realistic because I think he’ll get suspicious at some point, but I’m ready.” Ali assures her. “You can trust me to be smart and stay sharp.”

Ashlyn briefly hooks her pinky on Ali’s. “I know I can.”

Ali acknowledges the statement with a smile. “Well, I think we can safely assume that this appeal will be approved any day now. We should get a court hearing date when they notify us. The average time between the approval and the court date is anywhere from a month to six months. I checked on the current appeals court case queue, not busy at all right now so I think we’ll be running closer to a month hopefully. Media attention will keep them from dragging it out too.”

“Good, the less time the better. Not just for me being in here, but also less time for Bobby to go poking around. Chris being gone is going to make him the most suspicious.” Ashlyn notes.

“Agreed.” Ali says knowing that Chris’ disappearance will likely keep Bobby on high alert. “Since we’re officially headed into the court aspect of the appeals process, do you want to go over any of it again?”

Ashlyn shakes her head no. “I’m good, I remember everything you told me and know what to expect. I’m just going to trust you… and I’ll remember to keep my mouth shut.” She gives Ali a purposeful mocking look.

“My best client yet.” Ali jokes back. “Alright, so then, what are we covering today? Favorite lunch meat? Apple versus Android? Bra size?” She asks, referring to their usual get to know each other conversations.

“Ham. Apple. 34B.” Ashlyn answers with a wink before getting serious. “I actually want to tell you about a nightmare of mine if that’s ok?”

“Turkey. Also Apple. 32A. Of course, you can tell me anything.” Ali replies sweetly.

Ashlyn breathes out a small sigh. She wants to tell Ali about her nightmare not just because it involves the brunette and gets to the root of her current fears, but because it’s the most vivid combat memory she has. It’s the thing from her past battles with PTSD that still rattles her and comes back into her conscious most often. It’s not a flashback anymore, but it’s still present sometimes. She’s not sure exactly why, maybe because in that moment she thought she was dying and she wasn’t ready to. The pressure on her chest, the taste and smell of her own blood, the loud ringing sound in her ears that drowned out everything else, the pain and the cold sweat…she can still feel it all when the memory comes back to her. She’s never shared it with anyone outside of her old army therapist, and for the first time she wants to. Who better than the brunette that she trusts unconditionally and who unknowingly just shared the experience with her in the most recent version of the nightmare.

Ashlyn recounts every last detail to Ali, who listens quietly and attentively. When she’s done, she searches Ali’s face for a reaction, finding only the usual warmth in the brunette’s eyes. “You can ask anything you want. I don’t mind talking about it.” Ashlyn tells her.

Ali nods, asking only one question. “Where exactly did you get hit?”

Ashlyn knows she mentioned it generally in her telling of the story, but she can tell Ali is asking specifically. She points to the exact spot on her chest.

Ali doesn’t say anything right away. She recognizes that her presence in the nightmare represents the deep feelings running between them and the fear of losing it all before they even get to chance to understand them. She knows because she has the very same fear. She pushes that aspect of it aside for now though, there is nothing either of them can say that is going to make that fear go away. Instead, she focuses on Ashlyn…strong, kind, wonderful Ashlyn and what she has battled and survived to be sitting here in front of her. Ali knows Alton is watching them closely and she can’t do what she really wants to right now. So, she just discretely kisses the tip of her own thumb and reaches over to quickly and gently press it to the spot Ashlyn just pointed to, following her action up with “I’m so proud to know you, Ashlyn Harris. And even happier that you’re here with me and that you’ve given me the chance to know you. Thank you.”

Ashlyn feels like she could melt into a puddle right now. With her simple gestures and perfectly chosen words, Ali so easily makes her feel completely unburdened. It’s almost scary, but in the best way possible. All she can do right now is smile and say what she is thinking. “I stand by one of my earlier statements…you are magic.”

Of course, Alton is there to break the moment for them with a ten minute warning on their visiting time. The only good thing being that it’s Tuesday and Ali will be back as part of her routinely scheduled visits tomorrow.

*************************************************************************************

 

Wednesday, November 28

Just as expected, Ali receives notification from the appeals court that the appeal has been formally accepted. The initial court hearing date has been scheduled for January 3rd. Ali was hoping for a bit sooner, but with the holiday season it’s not surprising that the date is just a little over a month away and after the new year.

Ashlyn is satisfied with the news, though as it sinks in more over the next week it does hit her a bit hard that she’ll spend yet another Christmas locked up. It has always been a complicated holiday for her, one that had only bad memories associated with it until she started living with her grandparents. They had tried very hard to bring some tradition to it, cooking up a feast, buying gifts, and putting out the typical decorations. Even then, those better Christmases were usually overshadowed by the constant disappointment and worry about Chris who would promise to be there every year and never show up.

More recently, the memories had gotten better when Ashlyn started spending Christmas with Chris, Bridget and the kids. Still, as good as they were, they never quite lived up to the image she created in her head of what the perfect Christmas would look like and feel like. The first few minutes when she wakes up on Christmas morning have always been the most perfect… a quiet anticipation of the joy and excitement this special day might bring before reality has a chance to tear it down.

Her first Christmas in prison, she had let herself get excited for the holiday like she always did leading up to it. Of course, the reality of where she was and would be for life had hit her like a Mack truck on Christmas morning. Last year, she didn’t let herself get excited about or acknowledge the day at all, it was easier that way. She’s planning to do this same thing this year, but she’s pretty sure it won’t work, at least not if how Ali treated her birthday and Thanksgiving is any indication. Ali had been pretty upset when she had let Ashlyn’s birthday pass without even realizing it until she was going over some paperwork and saw the date. She had come in the very next visit with a cupcake that had a fake candle in it. That was the moment it dawned on Ashlyn that Ali never let things go and that she would never let her be forgotten… her best birthday gift yet.

The brunette had shown up last week on Thanksgiving Day with two large Tupperware containers of all the traditional meal favorites that she and Kyle had cooked themselves that morning. The prison actually had a pretty lame annual dinner event for Thanksgiving put on by the prisoners themselves, but Ashlyn had never been able to partake because of protective custody. For the last two years, that has meant eating some poor excuse for turkey and sweet potatoes all alone in her cell. This year though, she stuffed herself with delicious food and enjoyed simple meaningful conversation with the individual who has swiftly become her favorite person in the world. She hardly expects that Ali will let Christmas pass without something similar.

 

 

The beginning of December passes fairly quietly. The media has picked up on the appeal and has run a few stories about it already, most of which just rehash the original sentencing and confession details. There have been a few interview requests for both Ali and Ashlyn, but they have turned them all down so far in an effort to curb the attention. It’s generally working, but Ali knows that the media hype won’t really get going until the appeal hearing happens. Not surprisingly, Ali has suddenly picked up some new and lucrative podcast sponsors who are clearly betting on the fact that she’ll release the details of this case at some point even though she’s has been completely mum about it.

In the meantime, the two of them have been continuing on with what has now become the routine, visits three times a week filled with deep conversations. They are both increasingly uneasy that Bobby has been so quiet and nonexistent since his initial interaction with Ali, but they try to remain hopeful that maybe Ali’s misdirection has done its job.

“Tell me about your grandparents.” Ali requests after Ashlyn finishes telling her about how her grandma made her prom dress.

“Well, Gram was a southern belle. And by that I mean she cooked with lard and butter!” Ashlyn jokes, watching Ali laugh. “She loved to cook, knit, sew, garden and do all things housewife. She was born and raised in central Florida. My grandpa was once a navy midshipman and they met while he was stationed in Florida. He grew up on the North Shore and always vowed to return to Massachusetts when the navy was done making him travel the world. Anyway, classic love story of that era where Gram was swept off her feet by the cute naval officer in his uniform.” Ashlyn giggles a bit. “They were madly in love to the very end, you could see in just the way they looked at and treated each other. I guess that’s why I’ve always wanted that for myself.”

Ali nods, remembering what the blonde said in the hospital about people just taking one look and seeing the love. “I think we all want that.” Ali agrees.

“They went through so much together, some good, some bad, but the love between them came from such a pure place.” Ashlyn continues. “Have you seen the movie Saving Private Ryan?”

“Of course, even though I did close my eyes a lot.” Ali admits. With Matt Damon as one of the headlining actors, just about all of Boston had seen the movie when it came out, despite the fact that it was as gory and realistic of a war movie as had been released to up to that point.

“Well, that WW2 beach invasion scene in the beginning…my grandpa was there in real life. He drove a Higgins Boat into Omaha Beach. When his boat got practically blown up, he managed to swim to another one and drove that one too. So many soldiers died that day, it was a massacre, but somehow he made it unscathed. I don’t know how my grandma ever survived that. I guess news didn’t travel as fast back then, but the fear she must have felt not knowing…I just don’t think I could ever have done it.” Ashlyn explains.

“Wow. That’s incredible.” Ali says taking it all in.

“Anyway, when he was done with the navy he kept true to his word and they bought a house in Ipswich and lived there ever since. My grandma was always a homemaker and my grandpa bought his own fishing boat and operated a really successful private charter out of Gloucester up until shortly before he died.” Ashlyn says. “I used to go out with him a lot.”

“Can I ask what happened to your grandpa?” Ali cautiously asks, knowing that he died before her grandma who Ashlyn had previously told her died of breast cancer.

“Fluke thing really. He had an accident where a pole hook went into his hand during a fishing charter tour. He got it treated and it wasn’t that big of a deal, but he was a diabetic and it never quite healed. It got infected a few times over the course of a couple months and then out of nowhere he went into sepsis and passed away shortly after.” She answers solemnly. “Happened my senior year at West Point.”

“So sorry, Ash. I bet he was so proud of you being at West Point.” Ali says warmly.

“He was. They both were. They were my real parents in my mind.” She finishes with a reminiscent smile before asking Ali something she has been wondering. “You talk about your mom so much I feel like I almost know her. She sounded like an amazing woman. Can I ask what happened with your dad? It’s ok if you don’t want to talk about it though.”

“To be honest, there isn’t much to say. He was a top financial advisor at Goldman Sachs and just a typical dad. He was everything you’d want a father to be, loving, involved, always there, and completely devoted to my mother. And then he wasn’t. He just up and left one day when I was 10. No explanation, no anything. He moved on and created this whole other life for himself…new wife, new kids. He never contacted us again beyond getting through divorce papers and alimony. None of us saw it coming…I think maybe that still bothers me the most. He just left us like we were nothing, just like that, with no warning. And that’s what I felt like for a very long time because of him…like a nothing, a nobody. I just handled it a lot differently than Kyle did. I poured myself into school and trying to be someone great.” Ali says sadly before adding “And luckily, I had a pretty incredible mother to look up to who was so strong in doing everything she could to fill that void for me. I think I work so hard because I want to be as great as she was.”

“You don’t have to try so hard you know…you’re already amazing just the way you are, Alex.” Ashlyn says genuinely.

“You’re sweet.” Ali gives the blonde a smile before breaking the moment with some much needed humor. “And you sound like Mr. Rogers.” The two of them falling into a fit of laughter as Ashlyn starts singing ‘It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood…’

************************************************************************************

“Proctor, you better be calling me with something because I’m fucking sick of your excuses. Do you have anything or not?” Bobby spits out angrily as he answers his phone. It’s been over two weeks and he still doesn’t have an angle on what is going on with this appeals case.

“Yeah, boss. I finally hacked my way into bank records, some phone logs and social media. All of it just suddenly stopped being used in the first week of October.” The man on the line explains.

Chris Harris disappeared right around the time of the appeal. There’s no way that’s a coincidence, Bobby thinks to himself and grits his teeth. “And what else?” He asks as calmly as he can.

“That’s all I could come up with on Chris Harris. There’s nothing else there, no traces. Whoever did this knew what they were doing. Not much else to go on either. Everything is now linked to a private trust, no way to access it at all. That lawyer woman pulled all the case files in September, spent some time on the phone logs and medical records for Ashlyn Harris. She requested to examine a bullet after that, but it only spent a couple days at the forensic lab of some scientist in her neighborhood. She hasn’t touched or pulled any information since then. Uh, that’s it.” Proctor answers.

“That’s it?! That’s the fucking best you got?! I swear to god, Proctor…don’t cross my path. Take the fucking money I paid you for this worthless shit and use it to get far, far away from me before I take you out myself.” Bobby says venomously and practically throws his phone down. He has more questions than answers and it’s grating on his last nerve. He’s now hired three different people and each one has come back with something similar. He’s tired of wasting his money on this bullshit.

This damn Krieger woman is a fucking menace, but does she actually know something? Everything she told him is consistent with her actions. But then why would Chris Harris up and leave town for no reason and conveniently around the time of the appeal? What kind of fucking game is Ashlyn Harris playing? Is she just scared that he’ll go back on his word because of the appeal? Is it more than that?

He’s sat back long enough and he still can’t figure it out, the questions only growing. It’s time he makes some moves even if it means that he triggers Krieger’s curiosity. It’s high time he took control of this situation.

 *************************************************************************************

 

Monday, December 12

Ali can’t say she’s all that surprised when she sees Bobby once again sitting in her favorite coffee shop on this cold mid-December morning. She knew the quiet wouldn’t last forever, she could only be so lucky. This time she doesn’t have to try and act calm though because she already is, she’s been expecting him to pop up for the last couple of weeks to no avail. She actually feels better now that he is here, the not knowing what he was up to was definitely more nerve-wracking.

Her goal now is to give him absolutely nothing to go on. So, she just orders her coffee as usual, chats with Paul for a minute, and then makes sure to shoot Bobby a quick smile and a wave before she heads out of the café. He merely nods his head at her, clearly annoyed that she seems unfazed by him.

Ashlyn isn’t surprised by it either when Ali tells her about Bobby’s sudden reappearance.

“I’ve seen him do this a few times. He’s going to show up and make his presence felt. He wants to intimidate you, but the second you show that you’re intimidated, he’ll pounce on you. It’s a pretty fucked up game of cat and mouse with him. So, you’ve gotta walk the line carefully.” Ashlyn warns her.

“That’s it? I’m impressed, Harris. I was expecting you to try and lock me up in a steel-barred safe house.” Ali teases a bit at Ashlyn’s composed demeanor about Bobby.

Ashlyn laughs lightly and Ali follows suite. Despite the dangerous circumstances, there’s a peace between them now that stems from believing that they’ll get through this together and trusting each other to be careful in doing so.

“See, told you I was getting better at this!” Ashlyn affirms. “Buuut, I’m still going to add that he’s going to have you followed, if he hasn’t already. You can count on him keeping tabs. If he gets desperate enough, it’ll include tapping phone lines and trying to hack into your email. I really don’t think he’s at that point yet though, and we need to try to keep him from getting there.”

“Not that there is anything interesting for him in there anyway, but he’ll never get into my email no matter who he hires. Trust me, when you become a deposition lawyer and realize that your personal emails can be so easily sequestered by the court at any time in a legal matter, you learn to encrypt and secure everything to the max.” Ali says with a smirk. “I’ll just have to be careful about my phone conversations and texts just in case. We have just over three weeks to go until the hearing, just have to keep it all status quo until then.”

“You’re like a boy scout, Krieger.” Ashlyn jests even though she couldn’t be more impressed by Ali’s level of preparedness.

Ali laughs and holds up the three fingers on her right hand to symbolize scout’s honor. “I prefer to be called a girl scout by the way!”

“Right, of course.” Ashlyn jokes by opening and closing her hands near her eyes with her fingers spread out and wiggling to mimic long eyelashes, making fun of Ali’s mascara obsession.

“Not funny, Harris. You haven’t seen me without mascara. Trust me, it’s a necessity.” Ali says lightheartedly.

“Well, maybe someday I will… and then I’ll be the judge of that.” Ashlyn flirts a bit, knowing damn well that Ali goes to bed with mascara on and any chance of seeing her without it would mean either waking up next to her after a bedtime activity that would most certainly rub it off or being there the moment Ali gets out of the shower.

“Maybe.” Ali gives the blonde a very devious grin and leaves it at that.

 

 

Ashlyn was absolutely right. Ali notices a silver Honda Civic with tinted windows staying about three cars behind her ever since she left the prison. When it parks on the street about two houses down from her own, she knows for sure that Bobby is having her followed. Seeing as how she isn’t doing anything that would tip him off to anything right now, she isn’t worried about it. She just has to keep going about her normal routine and watch for any signs that they are getting more aggressive about pursuing her.

Kyle, however, doesn’t share in her lack of anxiety when she fills him in on the new developments that evening.

“Um ok, and why are we so calm about some sketchy ass, likely criminals following you around? Cause I’ll tell you how I feel about it and, let me tell you, it’s far from tranquil!” He throws his arms up dramatically, his salad fork accidentally falling out of his hand and hitting his dinner plate.

“Settle down, diva! You’re gonna break my dishes.” Ali tries to get him to relax. “This isn’t some mob movie where they’re just biding their time until they can put me in ‘cement booties and make me sleep with the fishes’.”

“How do you know that?! And screw you…now I’m worried they’re gonna put us in cement booties and throw us into the harbor! You’re not helping my mental state, Alex!” He protests.

“Kyle, seriously, ease up a bit. I’ve looked into it… they’re just a couple of random guys he hired to report back to him on what I’m doing, no one special. Chill out.” Ali says, choosing her words very carefully because she ran the license plate of the car following her and found out it belongs to a guy who was once busted for drug trafficking and later got paroled. She’s sure these are just a couple of guys that owe Bobby a favor, but she doesn’t want to get into the drug thing with Kyle right now given his current mood.

“Alright, alright.” He relents a bit, knowing how good Ali is at doing her homework and being prepared for everything. “But, I’m staying here until they stop following you and/or this case is over.” He says pointedly, before adding with a wink “Or unless I have a hot date that night.”

Ali knows he’s not going to back down on it and she does like having him over, the house is just so much livelier when he’s around. She rolls her eyes at the last part of his statement. “Glad you have your priorities straight.”

“Please, if I am getting thrown into the harbor, you’re damn right I’m going to make sure I get laid first!” He replies sassily, finally sounding like at least he can have a sense of humor about everything despite his apprehension.

“Right. Finish your salad, diva. The lasagna will be done in a minute.” Ali says as she heads into the kitchen to pull the lasagna out of the oven. “By the way, if you’re staying here, I’m making you cook dinners!” She calls from the kitchen.

“Deal!” He yells back.

When she comes back into the dining room and finishes serving them each a piece of lasagna, Kyle can’t help but get back into it.

“So, seriously, you think it’ll be ok? You’re not scared?” He questions.

“I can’t guarantee nothing bad will happen if that’s what you’re asking.” She tells him frankly, but keeps going before he can butt in. “But, I’m confident that we can maintain enough control over this that we keep Bobby guessing and never knowing anything concrete. If he doesn’t see any specific threats, I don’t think he’ll do more than keep a close eye on things and be intimidating so we don’t try and cross him. I intend to go down that road with him and hopefully just take a sharp turn off at the very end when he doesn’t see it coming and it’s too late.”

“Ok. I can roll with that.” Kyle replies, just about ready to let it go, but not before pointing a finger at his sister and adding, “But, I swear, if I end up at the bottom of the harbor and all drowning victim bloated at my own funeral…”

“Shut up, Kyle.” Ali shakes her head and throws a dinner roll at him for good measure.

*************************************************************************************

 

Monday, December 19

Ali stays cautious, but the first week of being followed goes pretty much the same as the first day. Bobby’s goons follow her everywhere she goes, maintaining a safe distance at all times and clearly thinking she has no idea about them. Lately she’s been purposely driving on congested roads during traffic hours when she can just to piss them off.  If they can maintain a visual on her from their car, they stay parked somewhere close by. If not, they casually follow her in anywhere she goes that is publically accessible if they won’t stick out obviously.  There are two of them, both average looking guys that are mostly non-descript, the only discerning feature is that one of them has a small teardrop tattoo near his left eye. One of them always stays in the car.

Bobby is at the local coffee shop every morning, like clockwork. Ali continues to acknowledge him with a smile and a wave, always making sure to look completely comfortable about him being there. She’s been keeping Ashlyn updated on everything during their visits, but not much has changed over the last few days. The only thing she started noticing towards the end of the last week is that Bobby’s demeanor seems increasingly agitated. He’s stopped acknowledging her with his usual head nod and instead merely keeps his lips pursed while staring at her intensely. By the weekend, he was looking downright menacing.

“He looked really pissed off this morning.” Ali describes Bobby’s behavior to Ashlyn.

“He’s probably frustrated that he’s not getting to you and not learning anything useful.” Ashlyn replies. “I’m thinking he’s probably at the point of trying to step it up a bit…I’d say it’s time to be careful with your calls and be extra aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t put yourself in any situation where you’re alone if you can void it.”

“Agreed. No worries, Kyle has been staying with me at home. So, I’m pretty much never alone these days.” Ali replies. “Two weeks to go. We got this.”

“We do.” Ashlyn affirms, the two of them feeling bolder and more confident with each passing day.

Unfortunately, Bobby Dugan is getting bolder with each passing day as well.

*************************************************************************************

 

Tuesday, December 20

Ali goes to grab a mug from the cabinet to pour herself some coffee, finding it empty. She groans seeing that every single one of them is dirty in the dishwasher, which Kyle obviously forgot to run last night like he said he would.

“How fucking hard is it to run the dishwasher?!” She mutters out loud in the silent kitchen. Lucky for Kyle, he had an early client at his salon and was already gone, so he’s saved from her wrath for the time being.

She begins to hand wash one of the dirty mugs when she hears her phone ringing on the counter. She quickly dries her hands on the kitchen towel and grabs the phone, seeing Tim’s number on the caller id. Her stomach does a flip as she answers. “Hello?”

“Ali, it’s…” he starts, but Ali cuts him off quickly.

“No names!” Ali blurts out before Tim can announce himself. “I know who it is.” She says in a more gentle tone.

“Gotcha.” Tim replies, surprising Ali at how quickly he realizes.

“What’s going on? Did something happen to…” Ali purposely lets the statement hang, feeling like she’s going to throw up.

“No. No!” Tim answers quickly, hearing Ali let out an audible sigh of relief. “Everything is fine there. Just, I have something important I need to talk to you about.”

“Ok. Are you busy right now?” Ali asks, trying to figure out if he’s on duty or not.

“No. I’m free today.” Tim replies simply.

“Alright. Meet me inside the Victoria’s Secret at the Natick Collection Mall in an hour. Go all the way to the back, right by the angel bra section. If you can’t find it, just ask one of the employees and act like you’re shopping for your wife.” Ali instructs him.

“Uh, ok.” Tim says a bit awkwardly.

“Sorry, I know that’s weird… but, trust me, there’s a really good reason why.” Ali says apologetically.

“Ok, I’ll be there.” He confirms.

“Great, see you in an hour.” Ali says and hangs up, rushing upstairs to quickly get ready.

 

 

An hour later, Ali pulls into a parking spot near Macy’s and heads into the mall. She notes that the guy with the tear tattoo is the one who followed her in this time. She pretends to do a little browsing in the perfume section before making her way towards Victoria’s Secret. While getting her Christmas shopping done over the last week, she noticed that Bobby’s goons will only follow her into bigger stores and ones where they won’t attract attention. They didn’t follow her into the makeup store last week nor Victoria’s Secret when she was buying new underwear. Instead the one who followed her had just waited outside near the store and picked up his surveillance once she left. She’s counting on the same behavior holding true for today’s meeting with Tim. 

As soon as she approaches Victoria’s Secret and makes it clear that’s where she’s heading, she sees the guy back off a bit in her peripheral vision and plop down onto the couch not too far from the entrance. She smiles to herself and heads right to the back of the store, finding Tim awkwardly pretending to shop for bras with a saleswoman hovering nearby.

“Hey honey, sorry I’m late. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting for me too long.” Ali says as she walks up to Tim and runs her hand up his forearm, trying to help him save face and get rid of the hovering saleswoman at the same time.

Luckily he seems to pick up on what’s she doing. “That’s ok. Just starting shopping without you, babe.” Tim shoots her a smile and Ali tries hard not to laugh at the situation they’re in right now. The saleswoman gives them a polite smile and heads back to the cash register.

“I’m so sorry. I’m being followed and watched, so this was the best I could think of to keep this meeting private.” Ali explains to Tim once the lady is out of earshot.

“I figured as much. Is this to do with the case?” He asks. “To be honest, I don’t know anything beyond the fact that I always had a feeling this whole confession thing was bullshit. So, I’m not aware of any specifics, but I’m thinking something major is going on and this upcoming appeal thing is maybe more intense than I realized?”

“Yeah, that’s one way to put it.” Ali admits. “Look, I don’t want to put you in danger so I won’t fill you in, but let’s just say your instincts are dead on.”

“Oh, um, yeah ok. Although, I’m not sure what my status is on the danger thing. I’m just sort of realizing how big this all probably is and how deep it goes.” Tim says cryptically.

“Wait, Tim, what’s going on?” Ali asks, trying to get down to the reason he wanted to talk to her.

“I got fired yesterday.” Tim answers simply.

“Wait, what? Why?” Ali is shocked and confused.

“Apparently, I failed a random drug test from last week.” Tim supplies. “Ali, my best friend overdosed and died my freshman year in college… I haven’t even so much as thought about any kind of drug since then. Legit, nothing. Nor have I eaten anything, used products, or taken any medication that could show up on a drug screen as positive…I checked the list thoroughly.  Plus, I asked around and I was the only person ‘randomly’ tested that day. That never happens. To top that off, in the past they have let people re-test to clear themselves if they failed. I didn’t get that option, they just fired me with no chance to dispute it.”

“I’m so sorry, Tim.” Ali says, a bit beside herself at the news.

“The people who work at the prison don’t know Ashlyn personally, so they don’t know I have any connection to her unless they were to look up police academy records. But, anyone who knows or knew Ashlyn personally would know us as friends from before she got arrested.” Tim continues. “I just... when I really thought about it and realized the court date is coming up… it has to be related. Someone knows I’m her ally in there and they don’t want me to be.”

“I think you’re right. And I know exactly who that someone is… same someone who is having me followed.” Ali replies. She feels sick over the fact that Ashlyn isn’t going to have Tim anymore, sick that Tim lost his job with a family to support, and sick that Bobby is now making more aggressive moves. “Does Ashlyn know?”

“I highly doubt it. I got escorted out immediately, so I couldn’t tell her. News like this usually takes at least a couple days to travel down to the inmates and it just happened late yesterday. That’s why I called you, to warn you about it and so you could tell her.” He explains.

“Thanks, Tim. I’ll tell her in the morning.” Ali let’s out a deep breathe. “I can’t believe this happened and you got caught up in it.” She says ruefully.

“Don’t worry. Just keep it up and win that case. Take care of Ashlyn, that’s all that matters now. I’ll be just fine.” Tim reassures her. “You should probably go, we’ve been in here a while.

As Tim is talking it dawns on Ali that maybe they can help each other now that he’s been involuntarily involved thanks to Bobby.

“Do you have any job prospects lined up?” Ali asks.

“Not yet, but I’m sure I’ll find something.” He tells her as confidently as he can manage, trying to stay positive.

“Think you could handle private security?” Ali inquires.

“Sure. Not all that different than what I’m trained for, why?” He asks, not sure where Ali is going with this.

“Good. I’ll double the salary you made at the prison plus prime benefits, and you’ll work for me. Can you start tomorrow?” Ali gets right to the point.

“Uh…” Tim gets out a bit dumbfounded as his mind tries to process what Ali is saying. “You’re hiring me?”

“Yes, if you’re willing.” She clarifies. “Can’t hurt to have a little back-up with these jerks following me around. Plus with all the media that is about to descend on this case…”

“Ok. I’m in.” Tim says, not needing to think about it any further given how frantic his wife had been about their financial outlook last night.

“Perfect. See you tomorrow at 9am.” Ali hands him her business card that has her home address on it, picking out a bra in her size to buy so it looks believable that she was shopping. “Thanks, Tim.”

“No, thank you, Ali.” Tim gives her one last appreciative smile before heading out.

 

Ali buys the bra and makes her way out a few minutes after Tim, stopping in one more store to try and make her shopping outing look credible. She tries looking through a few racks of clothes at Nordstrom, but she’s distracted. She feels like she has a rock in her stomach knowing that she has to tell Ashlyn about Tim tomorrow. It’s going to be like taking away the blonde’s security blanket. Not able to take the stuffiness of the mall anymore, she gives up her shopping façade and heads home, keeping an eye on the silver Honda Civic that has been a constant presence in her rearview mirror.

The rock in her stomach turns into a boulder when she arrives home to find Kyle’s car in the driveway. He had a day filled with back-to-back clients and she knows there is no way he would cancel all his appointments like that unless something major was up. She hurries into the house, silently hoping that maybe Kyle just felt sick and came home. But after what just happened with Tim, the feeling of dread in her gut is telling her that it’s much more than that…

Chapter Text

Tuesday, December 20 continued…

“Kyle?” Ali calls out a bit frantically as she makes her way into the house. She hears the TV and quickly rounds the corner into her living room, but there is no one in there. Her heart rate is picking up by the second as she makes her way in to the kitchen, but it’s empty as well. She suddenly sees the refrigerator door close in her peripheral vision and jumps a mile, letting out a small yelp.

“Hey, sorry, didn’t hear you come in!” Kyle says realizing he surprised her.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Ali unintentionally yells at him, a reaction to the adrenaline that was just pumping through her system. Kyle is standing there is his underwear holding a plate with a sandwich on it, he’s clearly fine.

“Uh, making a sandwich?” Kyle says a bit quizzically, trying to figure out what is up with his sister. “What are you doing? You ok there?”

“Yeah, sorry. I’m sorry. I just…I saw your car in the driveway and knew you had appointments all day. I thought something bad happened. Once I explain my morning, I think you’ll understand why I jumped to that.” Ali explains apologetically, trying to calm herself down.

“Well, something did happen…but nothing earth shattering, so don’t go getting your panties in a twist. Relax, Alex, you look pale…just sit for a sec. You want this sandwich?” Kyle says, practically forcing her into a stool at the kitchen counter and rubbing her shoulders.

“No, I don’t want your sandwich! What happened?” Ali asks anxiously.

“I got fired.” Kyle says with a dramatic shrug and an eye roll.

“You own your salon…how did you get fired?” Ali is beyond confused.

“Well, not really. I was just being metaphorically funny about it.” He explains.

“Kyle, seriously, can you stop being your drama queen self for like five seconds and just tell me what the hell actually happened?” Ali snaps at him impatiently.

“Alright, geez! The Boston Fire Chief came in today for some random fire code inspection and then shut down the building because he said all of the electric wiring in the place didn’t have the proper insulation to be up to code. Obviously, I just rent the space and don’t own the building, so I had no damn clue what he was talking about. The owner came eventually and had a huge fight with the guy because he’s sure the building is up to code, especially given that it was inspected a few months ago and was deemed perfectly fine at that point. Fire Chief didn’t budge though and won’t allow the owner to operate any business there unless the wiring is all replaced. Apparently that could take over a month to do.” Kyle explains.

“Shit. What are you going to do? Are you ok?” Ali questions with concern.

“No skin off my back really. I just put up a sign and sent out an email blast that said the salon is undergoing unforeseen renovations until further notice.” Kyle starts to elaborate, but can see that Ali is looking worried. “Look, Alex. My dedicated and regular clients rarely ever come to the salon to do more than just socialize. That place is really just a hang out most of the time. I do all my important work right out of my own condo, you pretty much know that. These people have money and they want to be primped and made pretty on a whim, which means taking appointments at home A LOT! Plus, people don’t realistically come to me for the great fade, they come because I give them a great fade while shirtless and flirting with them. I don’t need the salon for that! So, relax, I’ll just operate out of my condo for a while. I’m not worried about it.” He finishes.

“Ok…so you’re ok?” Ali is just trying to take in everything Kyle just said.

“I’m totally fine. The salon thing is nothing to worry about. What I am worried about, however, is that it seems pretty clear that the Fire Chief and Police Chief are in cahoots and my poor landlord is getting crapped on because of someone trying to send a message. Bobby clearly thought this would cripple me financially. That is what worries me.” He says frankly.

“Yeah me too. Bobby is tightening the belt and you’re not the only one.” Ali let’s out a sigh. “I just came from meeting Tim Rosemund. He got fired last night after he failed a ‘random’ drug test that sounds a whole lot like your ‘random’ fire inspection. I have to tell Ash tomorrow and I don’t even know how to break it to her.”

“Fuck.” Kyle blurts out in surprise.

“Yeah, fuck is right.” Ali agrees. “On the bright side, I have a new private security guard and Tim has a new, better paying job.”

Kyle gets what she means right away. “I’ll probably never admit this again, so you better enjoy it now… you’re definitely the smarter Krieger.” He gives her a high five and watches her crack a tiny smile. He can tell she’s trying hard not to worry and overthink things.

“Come on.” Kyle says, taking Ali’s hand and pulling her off the stool.

“Where are we going?” Ali questions as she gets pulled through the kitchen.

“We are going to have a sibling spa day and de-stress the hell out of ourselves! We’re going to get you all relaxed and refreshed so that you can tackle tomorrow head on with a clear mind. And in the morning, I am going to give you the Kyle Krieger full hair and make-up treatment. The least I can do is send you over to Harris looking all hot… that ought to soften the blow of the news a bit.” He says sassily as he leads a now smirking Ali up the stairs. “But first, I’m gonna need some pants!”

************************************************************************************

 

Wednesday, December 21

 

Kyle definitely didn’t disappoint. Ali feels like a million bucks by the time she leaves the house in the morning. She’s has on her favorite gray-wash jeans with a form-fitting black blouse that hugs her just right. Her make-up looks flawless, her hair is soft and shiny, flowing loosely over her shoulders. She feels well rested and ready to break the news to Ashlyn.

She stops into the local coffee shop before heading over to the prison, not because she really needs the caffeine but because she’s running a bit early and figures sipping something warm on the drive will help her keep the calm vibe she has going at the moment. 

She’s been so focused on this morning’s visit with Ashlyn that it doesn’t even dawn on her that she’ll come face-to-face with Bobby. Her stomach drops the second she sees his brooding face sitting there at the usual table as he immediately shoots her a menacing smirk. That feeling doesn’t last very long though, it’s quickly replaced with a sudden rage that makes her want to literally rip that smirk right off of his face with her bare hands.

Ali pushes the intensity of her feelings aside and focuses on how she wants to play this. There is no way she’s leaving this café without giving this prick a piece of her mind, but she has to be careful. She quickly orders her latte, thinking about her plan of attack when she’s realizes she’s overthinking. ‘Be smart and trust your gut.’ She tells herself as her name is called by the barista.

Ali grabs her latte and sits right down at one of the tables. She pulls out her phone and grabs a small notebook out of her purse, ripping a blank page from it and starting to write. In her peripheral vision she can see Bobby is watching her intently, probably wondering what she is up to since she usually just leaves. She finishes writing after about 5 minutes, gets up and walks right over to Bobby with a confident stride.

“Good morning, Chief.” She says with bite, practically throwing the piece of paper at him.

“What’s this?” Bobby asks a bit taken aback.

“My schedule for the next week. I figure it would be a lot easier for your guys to follow me if they knew where I was going to be. Plus, I’m getting sick of seeing the same crappy Honda weaving in and out of traffic in my rear view mirror every day.” Ali says in the bitchiest tone she can manage without raising her voice.

Bobby just looks at her, his face stoic. Ali can tell he’s actually gritting his teeth at the moment.

“What, did you think I didn’t know?” She laughs lightly and puts on the sweetest voice she can as she leans in closer to him. “You know what’s really funny though… when the guys that are following you don’t realize they’re being followed themselves. Fucking hilarious actually.” She lies with a huge grin on her face.

Ali watches Bobby’s eyebrows raise a bit and chooses to just press on. “If you think a girl with my status is walking around without her own private security… you didn’t do your homework very well.”

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to Ms. Krieger.” Bobby mutters out, his lips tight and his face almost contorting as he fights hard to remain composed.

“Right, of course. And I’m not sure what the fuck your problem is, Chief.” Ali spits out at him. “Look, let me be clear here… I’m not doing anything that Ashlyn Harris doesn’t want me to do. I don’t know what your deal is in trying to protect her or what exactly you think you’re protecting her from, but try to remember that she’s a family friend to me. I’m not going to use her for some stupid financial gain that I don’t even need. I’m going after this appeal exactly the way she asked me to, nothing more. So, feel free to back the fuck off and let me do my job.” Ali says with the perfect blend of ignorant conviction that she hopes will throw him completely for a loop.

Bobby looks like he is about to open his mouth, but Ali isn’t sticking around for his response. “Before I forget… thanks by the way. My new head of security, Tim, is working out perfectly. And I’m already enjoying the extra quality time with my brother at home.” She gives him the most sugary sweet smile she can just to piss him off. “Have a great day, Chief. I have a client to visit and a case to work on.” Ali waves slightly and walks straight out the door, leaving Bobby to figure out what the hell just happened.

 

 

About forty minutes later, Ali strolls into the prison still riding the adrenaline rush of telling Bobby off. She’s a bit nervous about having to tell Ashlyn about Tim, but something about the way she handled things this morning is making her feel stronger than ever.

She doesn’t even have a chance to sit down before Ashlyn is being led through the door of the visiting room by a female guard named Paulette that has only observed their visit a couple of times. Given the potential for the visit to get emotional, Ali is bummed out that it isn’t Jordan today, but Paulette has been perfectly cordial and nowhere near as strict as Alton, so she’ll take what she can get. Ashlyn immediately gives her a huge smile, the blonde’s mouth hanging a little bit open. Paulette heads into the visiting room and Ali is trying to figure out the odd expression on Ashlyn’s face when she feels the blonde’s arms wrap around her in a quick hug.

“Wow, Alex… you look… you’re just… enchanting.” Ashlyn says as she steps back to look at Ali, choosing her words carefully so she doesn’t get carried away even though she’s completely mesmerized at the moment.

“Oh, yeah, thanks!” Ali says, her cheeks a little flushed now. “You can thank Kyle for that, he gave me the full diva treatment this morning.”

“Whew, yeah he did. Please pass along my gratitude.” Ashlyn replies with a light laugh, still taking it all in. She doesn’t let herself get too caught up because Ali eyes, though beautifully outlined in eyeliner and mascara, are telling her all she needs to know. She speaks up again before Ali can say anything. “However… if you think it’s hiding the worried look in your eyes from me, it’s not. What happened, Alex?”

“Wasn’t trying to hide anything, I promise.” Ali assures her as she sits. “A lot has happened in the last twenty-four hours. As usual, all truth and no bullshit, ok?” She gets right into it.

“Ok.” Ashlyn acknowledges and sits down to ready herself for whatever is coming.

“The first thing is really hard because there is no easy way to tell you, so I’m just going to say it.” Ali pauses for just a second to see the small nod from Ashlyn. “Ash, Tim called me and we met up. He got fired the night before last.” She watches Ashlyn’s lips form a tight, straight line before they part a bit to let out a breath. The blonde reaches up to run her fingers across her forehead and Ali can see that she’s trying to pull together her thoughts.

Ali reaches out briefly to gently brush the top of the blonde’s hand soothingly. “I’m so so sorry.”

Ashlyn nods her head a bit before finding her words. “Do you know why he got fired? Was it because he was so lax with us or did someone find out he knew me personally?”

“Sort of, but it’s deeper than that. He supposedly failed a random drug test.” Ali tries to explain. “Ash, it wasn’t really a random drug test, nor has Tim done anything that would cause him to fail it. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”

“Bobby. Mother fucker.” Ashlyn whispers out in a quiet anger.

“Exactly.” Ali replies simply. “It’s clear that he chose to send a more direct warning. And he didn’t stop with just Tim. Kyle’s salon business got shut down yesterday when the Fire Chief did a surprise random inspection on the building and deemed it unsafe. He made up some crap about all the wiring having to get redone even though somehow the building passed inspection just a few months ago and every year prior to that.”

“Piece of shit. He knows… he knows the way to get to me is to rip down the people around me.” Ashlyn says with an angered desperation in her voice, her fists clenched on the table. “Is Kyle ok? What is he going to do?”

“Actually, he’s more than fine and so is Tim.” Ali says and quickly reaches over to grab both of Ashlyn’s hands, forcing the blonde to unclench them as she gently pries them open and rests them on the table. “Try to relax just a little, ok? Let me finish.”

Ali makes sure to explain how the whole thing is pretty inconsequential for Kyle given that he doesn’t need the actual salon to operate his business. She then recounts how she hired Tim as her permanent private security, down to the fact that he is sitting just outside in the parking lot across from the prison right now to keep an eye on the guys that are following her. She watches Ashlyn’s face lighten and wishes she could stop there. She isn’t sure what the blonde is going to think about her aggressive interaction with Bobby this morning. Ali finally takes a deep breath and tells her about her confrontation with Bobby. When she finishes, she’s completely surprised by something she least expected… Ashlyn is laughing uncontrollably.

Ali watches the blonde laugh until she almost can’t breathe, finally getting herself under control enough to properly look up at the brunette with a smile.

“Uh, are you ok? What is so funny?” Ali asks, a bit bewildered.

“Yeah. Alex… seriously, where on earth did you come from?” Ashlyn asks rhetorically. “I just can’t believe you exist sometimes. You take what should be a grave situation and somehow fix it to be perfectly okay. I mean, this fucker thinks he’s sticking it to us…but really he’s accomplished nothing at all. And to top that off, you manage to nail his ass to the wall, intimidate him when he was trying to intimidate you, and actually make him believe you are still naïve enough to think he’s doing it to protect me.” She pauses before adding, “Honestly, I’m going to miss Tim and having that connection in here, but I can’t find it in my heart to be sad. His life just got immeasurably better and I’m so happy and thankful for that.”

Ali feels a wave of tingling warmth run through her, completely entranced by the selfless woman in front of her. Ashlyn is losing her best friend in this awful place, one of the only lights she has to combat the dark… and yet, she can only be happy for him and not upset for herself. She tries to reel in the thought a bit and move on, knowing that Ashlyn won’t want her to draw attention to it.  “What do you think Bobby will do now?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. But you know… whatever it is, I trust that your gut reaction will always be the right one. You’ve managed to turn even the evilest intention into good… you’re everything that is good, Alex. That’s something I couldn’t be surer of.” Ashlyn says frankly, just barely ghosting the very tips of her fingers across Ali’s.

Ali closes her eyes for a second and just let’s herself feel the moment. This case officially starts in 13 days and she knows for certain that she has all that she needs and all that she ever needed… Ashlyn’s faith in her.

************************************************************************************

 

Sunday, December 25

Ali is rushing around the house trying to finish getting ready when Kyle pokes his head in to her bedroom. “Hey, I packed the bag of food and stuff for you. You have 15 minutes before you need to be out of here!” He reminds her, looking her over with a grin. She has on a pair of tight black leggings, a pair of low-heeled boots and one of the ugliest Christmas sweaters he’s ever seen. It actually has pom-pom buttons and a string of sparkly garland on it. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that.”

“Wouldn’t be Christmas without an ugly sweater!” Ali shrugs as she starts working on her hair now that her make-up is done.

“True, but that one redefines ‘ugly’!” Kyle teases before walking over and taking the brush out of her hand. “Sit. Let the master do his thing.” He directs her and motions to the small stool in the bathroom.

When he’s finished about 10 minutes later, he looks over his work. “You look divine. Well, except for the sweater.” He can’t help but throw one more insult in.

“Thanks, ass!” Ali says grabbing a washcloth off the bathroom counter and throwing it at him before rushing out the door.

“Tell her I said Merry Christmas!” Ali hears him holler as she grabs the bags and heads to her car, yelling back “I will!”

Just a few minutes into the trip and Ali realizes that she’s now checked her rearview mirror at least a dozen times already. She can thank Bobby and his goons for that new compulsive habit. There is no Honda Civic following this time though. Bobby and the goons have been completely absent for the last three days. Her antagonistic bitch style confrontation with him must have worked because he’s backed off completely since then. Ali just assumes that he realized he was arousing her suspicion by being so aggressive. She turns up the Christmas music on the radio and shoves all thoughts of Bobby out of her head. It’s Christmas morning and she’s going to focus on only the good things today.

 

Ashlyn is awake but leaves her eyes closed for a few more minutes as she lays in bed. These are the minutes, the few precious minutes where it’s Christmas morning and everything is still perfect. She lets the childlike excitement radiant through her, knowing that when she opens her eyes it will vanish immediately. A distant clink of keys in the corridor breaks the silence, and just like that her eyes are open and the moment is gone. Another lost Christmas, another year squandered. She feels the disappointment settle in and reminds herself that it’s ok. Yes, she’s in prison… but this year, Ali will be here and that alone makes it better than at least 80% of the Christmases in her life.

She takes a little time to freshen up, knowing that Ali will be here soon. By the time she’s done brushing her teeth and combing through her hair a bit, she hears footsteps in the corridor. She turns around at the sound of the locking clicking open to find a smiling Jordan in a Santa hat. Christmas suddenly feels a little bit better already.

“Aren’t you supposed to be home pampering your pregnant wife with Christmas breakfast?” Ashlyn asks him.

Jordan lets out a laugh as he starts to put the cuffs on her. “Please, my in-laws are visiting, so they can pamper her all she wants. No better time to get in some holiday pay hours and avoid my crazy in-laws. Besides, I pamper that woman every day of the year and will resume my duties this evening.”

“Alright, alright.” Ashlyn says, not buying it at all. With Tim gone, Jordan has been extra diligent in making sure he gets shifts that allow him to work protective custody duty. “At least pass along my apologies to her for being the reason you’re not home this morning.”

“I will. Now, let’s go, someone’s waiting.” Jordan winks and motions to the door

As usual, Ali is sitting there waiting for her when Ashlyn is led into the visitor room. She watches the brunette stand and smile at her before seeing Jordan and letting her smile get even wider. Ashlyn can see that Ali has some elaborate setup on the table, but she can’t take her eyes off of Ali’s face long enough to look at it properly. She feels like an excited puppy waiting to be let off the chain and the second Jordan finishes uncuffing her, she’s already in front of Ali pulling the brunette into her arms and lifting her off the floor a bit. Her face is buried in Ali’s hair, her arms wrapped tightly around the brunette’s waist as she just holds on silently and immerses herself in the moment; feeling Ali’s face pressed into the crook of her neck and her arms snugly around her shoulders. They give themselves a solid minute like that before pulling back, not wanting to risk getting Jordan in any trouble.

“Hey you, Merry Christmas!” Ali is the first to break the silence as they pull apart and look at each other.

“Merry Christmas, Alex!” Ashlyn smiles, finally getting a really good look at Ali. “What the hell are you wearing?” She asks with a chuckle.

“Oh, don’t even laugh, Harris…I have one for you to wear too.” Ali says deviously, as she pulls a sweater out of her bag and tosses it to the blonde.

Ashlyn can only laugh at the ridiculous green sweater that Ali just handed her, the front covered with three kittens playing with a ball of yarn. “You’re serious?” She asks even though she’s already slipping it over her head.

“I don’t play about ugly sweaters on Christmas morning! All part of the fun. I just wish you could were actually allowed to keep it and wear it for the rest of the day, or every day!” Ali says cheerily.

“I think this might actually get me killed in here.” Ashlyn jokes. As ugly as the sweater is, it smells like Ali and she truly wishes she never had to take it off. “Wow, look at all this! You’re too much!” She remarks as they sit and she looks over the table. Ali has made a little 3D Christmas tree out of construction paper that has detailed little paper ornaments and a star at the top. There are two containers of food that appear to be ham, grilled pineapple, potatoes, and roasted brussel sprouts. Next to that is a tray of perfectly iced gingerbread cookies that look like they came out of a Martha Stewart magazine. There is even sparkling cider.

“It’s Christmas, it’s supposed to be too much!” Ali replies. “Hope you don’t mind Christmas dinner for breakfast.”

“Not at all, this is amazing! Is this all homemade? I mean, look at those cookies! I thought you said you didn’t cook?!” Ashlyn inquires graciously, still trying to wrap her head around the over-the-top spread.

“I definitely suck at cooking. You can thank Kyle for this deliciousness dinner.” Ali explains. “But, I’ll have you know that I am a master baker and I take all the credit for those cookies!”

“Seriously, I’m so impressed.” Ashlyn compliments. “You probably shouldn’t ever call yourself master baker again though.”

“Why not?” Ali questions with a furrowed brow.

“Just say it three times fast in your head and you’ll understand.” Ashlyn smirks, watching the concentration on Ali’s face.

“Oh, ooooh!” Ali turns a bit red. “Got it! Such a dirty mind, Harris! Santa just put you on the naughty list.”

“Pretty sure I was already there. I got my lump of coal this morning.” The blonde jokes back.

“Well, come on, let’s eat while this is still a little bit warm.” Ali says motioning to the food.

They dig into the food, engaging in easy conversation for a while. Ashlyn asks what Ali will do the rest of the day and the brunette goes over her plans of hanging out with Kyle all day and watching holiday movies while they eat too much food. That segues into Ali talking about what Christmases were like growing up and how her mom always made sure that Christmas was huge and over-the-top. Ashlyn listens intently, smiling at Ali’s memories and stories while she enjoys the delicious food.

“You’re too quiet over there. Tell me about your Christmases.” Ali requests, as they finish the main meal and start to move on to the cookies.

“Oh, um…” Ashlyn struggles with how to answer the question for a few seconds.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into something you don’t want to talk about. Really, you don’t have to answer that.” Ali jumps in right away, noticing that Ashlyn looks a little frazzled.

“No, no. It’s totally ok. I want to. I’m just trying to find the right words I guess.” Ashlyn reassures her. “Christmas and I have a real love hate relationship. Other than Halloween, it’s the holiday I love the most, but it’s also the one I hate the most too.” She tries to explain it to the brunette. “Every Christmas growing up sucked. There’s no other way around it. As far back as I can remember, it was me and Chris at home by ourselves while my parents did god knows what. There were always some presents, but we never even had a tree. We’d open our gifts and then order a pizza with the $20 that was left on the table next to the gifts, and just hang out doing nothing all day. Then, when my parents died and we lived with my grandparents… they always made a big deal out of it. The big lunch, a ton of gifts, the huge tree and so much Christmas décor that you’d think a seasonal store display exploded in their house. But all I remember about those Christmases was waiting for Chris to come home. He’d promise he was going to come and then never show up because he was out drugged or drunk somewhere. And I’d just cry myself to sleep and worry about him.”

Ali cringes a bit at that last part, knowing that exact feeling when it came to Kyle. She feels awful that she asked, but also grateful that Ashlyn is opening up to her.

“Let’s see… I spent three Christmases in the desert and one in the hospital, so I don’t have to tell you how crappy those were.” Ashlyn continues. “The best ones have been the few I’ve been able to spend with Chris and his family more recently, mostly because of the kids. And this will be the third one in here. So, for a holiday I want to love so much, it hasn’t exactly worked out so well.”

Even though Ashlyn has stopped talking, Ali can tell she isn’t done. She just reaches over to entwine her fingers with the blonde’s and stays silent.

“I just… I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but I’ll try.” Ashlyn starts again. “There’s this moment for me every Christmas morning when I’m just waking up…it’s this perfect intangible moment because it’s Christmas and it’s magical. I guess in my head I have this sort of undefined and unrealistic expectation that I can only compare to something like a Hallmark commercial. That there’s this potential for this amazing and joyous day. And that feeling and excitement that I have in that moment on Christmas morning, it’s one of the most perfect moments in my memory. But then the actuality and reality hits shortly after and that crushing disappointment is among some of my very worst moments. I guess that’s the best I can describe it.” She finishes.

As much as Ali wants to reassure Ashlyn that someday she’ll have that perfect Christmas, the fact is that she doesn’t know that. Instead, she goes with the truth of what she is thinking right now. “You know what I find remarkable, Ash… that you haven’t had a single great Christmas in your entire life, and yet, you let yourself hope and get excited for it every year without fail despite the looming disappointment. That is strength beyond measure and I couldn’t admire you more for it.”

“Thanks, Alex.” Ashlyn says with genuine appreciation that Ali always listens to her not so that she can respond, but so that she can understand.

“Alright, we don’t have all that much longer, so let’s not be Debbie downers! I got you a present!” Ali tries to lift the mood.

“Yeah?” Ashlyn grins a bit.

“Duh, it’s Christmas! Here…” Ali replies, as she hands Ashlyn two flat, square wrapped presents from her bag. “You’re not allowed to have much in here, so I had to get a little creative.”

Ashlyn opens the first present and finds a hardcover copy of the book ‘The Little Prince’. She remembers Ali saying it was her favorite and lets a smile grow over her face as she starts flipping the pages. “This is really sweet, thank you.” She says warmly, before noticing the writing. “Wait, is this in German?”

“Yep. It’s a special bilingual edition with the German and English translation on each page.” Ali explains. “Open the next one.”

Ashlyn opens the second gift to find a CD and just looks up at Ali for an explanation.

“That is me reading it for you in both languages, so you know how the words are pronounced.” The brunette tells her.

“This is so amazing. I absolutely love it.” Ashlyn says genuinely and a bit emotionally. “So, you want me to learn German, huh?”

Ali bites her lip for a second, debating what to say. She knows exactly what she was thinking as she decided on this gift for Ashlyn. Her mind and heart are in a battle at the moment, but her heart wins out.

“Ok, I’m going to preface this with the fact that in the spirit of keeping boundaries, I know I really shouldn’t say it… but, fuck it, it’s Christmas.” Ali blurts out quickly before taking a quick breath to slow down. Ashlyn is looking her right in the eye with anticipation. “When I got you this, all I could picture was you running your hand over this tattoo…” she points to her left ribcage, “and reading the inked words over and over again in my ear.”

Ashlyn feels her heart flutter in her chest, her mind envisioning what Ali just described. She can see that Ali is flushed and a bit flustered, so she keeps her response simple. “I’ll learn every single word, Alex.”

Ali replies only with a nose crinkling grin as her cheeks get even redder.

“I actually got you something too.” Ashlyn breaks the moment and waves her hand to get Jordan’s attention. He comes out of the room quickly and hands Ashlyn the folder that she asked him to hold this morning when he went to get her. “Here.” She hands it to Ali.

Ali opens it to find an incredibly detailed pencil sketch of herself. “Ashlyn…you made this?” She whispers out in complete awe. “I didn’t even know you could draw.”

“Yeah. Just something I like to do as a hobby I guess. Do you like it?” Ashlyn asks shyly.

“Like it? I love it.” Ali replies, her voice cracking a bit emotionally because as she looks at the sketch of herself…she’s never looked as beautiful as she does on this piece of paper. And what’s more, it dawns on her that this is how Ashlyn sees her. “I don’t know what else to say… I adore it.” She says as she holds it up a bit, noticing as the light shines through the page that there is some writing on the back. She quickly flips it over to see a series of lines written in Ashlyn’s handwriting:

Brave are the flowers

that bloom from darkness.

Fighting to emerge into the sunlight,

daring to flourish with vivid color,

among all things black and gray.

 

Brave is the heart of the gardener

that cultivates them.

With the vision to see the seeds

nestled in the gloomy recesses of the mind.

With the care to ensure their roots

implant deeply into the bone.

With the patience to watch them

slowly blossom from the skull.

 

Brave is the soul of the owner

that holds them.

With the openness to allow the

gardener to nurture her mind.

With the strength to let the

flowers to emerge for all to observe.

With the courage to recognize the

way they might inspire.

 

Brave are the eyes

of those who behold them.

Understanding that the most

beautiful things,

grow from the darkest places.

 

Ali reads each line carefully, trying to absorb the meaning of each word. “This is so so beautiful. Where is it from?” She asks when she is done.

“I…uh… I wrote that.” Ashlyn admits, quietly adding “About you.”

Ali takes the time to read it again, this time truly understanding. “This is amazing. You’re so talented, Ash. I'm so in awe of you right now.” Ali says warmly, her heart feeling so full and touched. She meets Ashlyn’s gorgeous hazel eyes before asking her question. “So, I am the gardener?”

Ashlyn gives her a sweet smile and confirms. “You are the gardener, Alex.”

Ali is sure her that heart couldn’t possibly be beating any harder at the moment. She puts her hands on Ashlyn’s face, and pulls the blonde forward so that their foreheads are touching as she runs her thumbs gently over Ashlyn’s cheeks. “I’m not so sure that I’m all that brave, but you… you are the bravest person I know, Ash. Thank you for this. It means more to me than I can put into words.”

Ashlyn responds with just a simple smile, her hands going to cover Ali’s hands that are still on her face, just letting the silence speak for itself.

“I’m really sorry ladies, but time was up like two minutes ago.” Jordan says regretfully as they pull apart.

“It’s ok. Thanks, Jordan.” Ashlyn says getting up and taking off the sweater, which she reluctantly hands back to Ali before hugging the brunette tightly for a few seconds. “Do you need to check these?” She asks Jordan, pointing to the book and CD that Ali gave her.

“Nah. I’m good.” Jordan answers.

Ashlyn nods and grasps the items in one of her hands before putting them behind her back to get cuffed and then turning to face Ali.  “Thank you for all this, it was truly magnificent.”

“Of course. I hope it was better than that lump of coal.” Ali tries to keep it light.

“Way better.” Ashlyn plays back.

Ali watches as Jordan finishes cuffing Ashlyn and then reaches up to dangle something above the blonde’s head from behind with a devilish smile and a shrug. Ali starts to giggle and shake her head as she notices that it’s mistletoe.

“What?” Ashlyn asks, wondering why Ali is laughing at her.

“Nothing.” Ali replies moving herself right in front of the blonde whose eyebrows are raised in slight confusion now.

Ali knows the limit of what she’s capable of handling. She already proved it to herself at the hospital that night with Ashlyn. Of course, the blonde wasn’t awake for that and who knows how she’ll react…’fuck it, it’s Christmas’ Ali reasons with herself. When there’s only about an inch left between them, Ali uses her index finger to motion for Ashlyn to look up.

Ashlyn tilts her head up, her eyes following to see mistletoe dangling above her head. She smiles at the joke and by the time she looks back down, Ali’s lips are quickly and chastely pressed against her own. She closes her eyes and just as fast as the soft lips touched hers, they are already gone leaving only a tingly warmth in their wake.  It was barely even a kiss, but she feels like the whole earth has just moved under her feet. “Merry Christmas, Ash.” She hears Ali whisper in her ear, sending warm shivers through her as the brunette’s hand slightly squeezes her own before pulling away.

“Merry Christmas, Alex.” Ashlyn whispers back before she has to go.

“Merry Christmas, Jordan!” Ali calls out as they two head out the door.

“You too!” Jordan yells back.

“I simultaneously love you and kinda want to slap you right now. Merry Christmas, smartass.” Ashlyn says to Jordan once they are out of earshot.

“Uh huh. Merry Christmas to you too, Capt.” He winks at her smugly as he leads her back to her cell.

 

Ashlyn spends a lot of the afternoon just laying on her bed thinking about her morning with Ali. That kiss etched in her mind as if time stood still in that moment. She laughs at herself at how ridiculous she’s being over such a simple little peck, but all she can think about is what it will feel like when it’s more than that. It doesn’t escape her that she keeps thinking ‘when’ and not ‘if’… it’s the most hopeful she’s felt about any future for herself in a very very long time.

After choking down some terrible prison cranberry- turkey casserole for dinner, she lays back on her bed again and starts slowly reading through ‘The Little Prince’.  As she’s reading along, she smiles when she notices that Ali has highlighted the specific quote from her tattoo.

Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut, das Wesentliche ist für die Augen unsichtbar.

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Underneath it is a little note in Ali’s handwriting…

I see you with my heart, Ash.

*************************************************************************************

 

Saturday, December 31

Since the prison overstaffs to make it possible for visitors to come on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, visiting time is cut back during the week following Christmas and there are no visitors on New Year’s Eve and Day. Ali had snuck in a quick visit on Wednesday. With Bobby still silent, the two of them went about their usual comfortable conversation which was mostly taken up by Ali going over some necessary court procedures that Ashlyn should be aware of.

“I had Kyle pick out some suit options for you. He pretty much knew your size, factoring in the weight you’ve lost working out in here. They are in the warden’s security office and will be given to you the morning of the appeal hearing.” Ali explains.

“Thank you, but...what, no dress?” Ashlyn teases.

“I dunno, Harris, those legs haven’t seen any sun in a while.” Ali jokes back. “Besides, the skirt suit is my power play. Can’t have you stealing my thunder!”

“Thunder? Please, Krieger…you’re more like a Category 5 hurricane.” Ashlyn grins before adding, “Thankfully, I’m safely absconded in the bunker.”

“That you are.” Ali laughs back.

 

Ashlyn watches the small clock on her desk tick down the minutes until 2017, seeing there is only about 5 minutes to go. She lays in bed and puts her headphones in, letting Ali’s voice consume her. People say that you should spend the last few moments of the year doing what you want to be doing in the new year. She has no idea what will happen in the next few days or what 2017 will bring, but she knows that this is what she wants. To hear Ali in her mind, in her heart, and in her soul…hopefully right beside her.

 

“3…2…1… Happy New Year!” Kyle shouts jumping up from the couch and kissing Ali on the cheek as he wraps her in a tight hug.

“Happy New Year!” Ali says back cheerily as she watches him pour two glasses of sparkling cider for them.

The two of them plop back on the couch, watching the ball glow on the TV screen as confetti flies and people celebrate in Times Square.

Kyle looks over to see Ali looking pensive. “What are you thinking about?” He prods her.

“You know what I’m thinking about.” She shoots him a look.

“Yeah, I know. Just kinda wanted to hear you say it.” He sasses.

“Jerk.” Ali elbows him and lets out a sigh. “You know, for once, I actually know exactly what I want.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” Kyle questions.

A couple on the TV screen are locked in such a powerful kiss that they don’t even seem to notice the people around them that are jumping up and down screaming. They have confetti stuck to their faces and they look freezing, but they’re completely oblivious to it all as if nothing exists but the two of them. “I want that.” Ali points to the screen, pausing for a second and adding “…with her.”

Kyle smiles widely and nods. “Well, then go get it.”

“I will.” Ali replies with a purposeful smile and all the determination she needs to follow through.

*************************************************************************************

 

Monday, January 2

“So, tomorrow…” Ali says watching Ashlyn’s face closely as they have their quick pre-court briefing visit.

“Tomorrow.” Ashlyn repeats.

“The case was assigned to Judge Henry Burns. I know him very well, he wrote one of my law school application recommendation letters. He’s very by the book, but he’ll give you lots of leeway if you can show him the legal precedent for it. Lucky for me, I’m a pro at finding legal precedent.” Ali says confidently.

“What are you not a pro at?” Ashlyn says jokingly rolling her eyes.

“Trust me, so many things. I’d list them all, but we don’t have the time for that today.” Ali replies. “So, how do you feel?” She asks gently, wondering where Ashlyn’s head is right now.

“Strange actually.” Ashlyn answers thoughtfully. “I thought I’d be so nervous and terrified. I’m not though. I just feel oddly calm and ready… so ready.”

Ali smiles in relief, feeling like it’s exactly what she needed to hear to be ready herself.

“What about you? How do you feel?” Ashly inquires.

“Right now… invincible.” Ali responds confidently and watches the blonde nod with a smile. “No matter what, we always have this.” Ali reaches to give Ashlyn’s hand a quick squeeze.

Ashlyn gives her a dimpled grin. “Yep. And no matter what, I still want that date.”

Ali lets out a little laugh. “Right. And no matter what, you’ll get it.”

Chapter Text

Tuesday, January 3

Ali settles herself at the table to the left of the judge’s bench. Her files are carefully arranged in front her, a selection of pens sitting next to them. The courtroom is a little busier than she anticipated. Kyle and Tim sit together two benches behind her. Off on the right side, she recognizes Liam Gorham’s wife right in the front row. She can’t say she expected any of his family members to show up, but it makes sense that the wife probably wants a good look at woman she believes slept with and killed her husband. The rest of the benches are spottily filled in with newspaper and media reporters, all prepared with notebooks since there is no video or audio recording inside the courtroom.

That’s the only time she allows herself to look around the room, her mind now completely focused and her gaze straight ahead. She is running her prepared argument over in her head, thinking about the adjustments she will make depending on the judges that make up the rest of the hearing panel. She has been informed that there will be three of them reviewing the case, but has only been given the name of the ruling judge, Henry Burns.

She sees the bailiff leave his spot at the door to the right of the judge’s bench and approach a door on the middle right wall of the courtroom. A few seconds later, the door opens as Ashlyn is led in by two court officers and Ali stands up so that she can greet her, but completely loses her ability to even breathe.

Ashlyn is dressed in a navy blue suit that hugs her body closely, but is not at all tight. A baby blue collared shirt and wine colored tie underneath the jacket provide a perfect contrast to the navy. Her hair is in a tight, neat bun and she looks simultaneously beautiful and handsome. Ali can’t take her eyes off of the blonde being led towards her, her heart pounding away and her mind completely blank.

 

The door opens in front of her and Ashlyn immediately takes in the large courtroom, feeling a few butterflies in her stomach that have managed to sneak their way in now that the moment has arrived. The first person she sees is staring daggers at her, Gorham’s wife, and who could blame her. The room seems to be overwhelming filled with people holding tiny notebooks who she can only assume are there to expose her life to anyone who will fuel their ratings. She finds Tim and Kyle sitting together, happy to see some allies in the midst of strangers. The room completely disappears when she finally sets her eyes on Ali. She’d be rooted to the spot if it wasn’t for the two court officers pulling her along.

Ali is a vision, there is no other way to describe it. The brunette is in an all-black suit, the skirt of which falls at her lower thigh but still well above her knee. Her dark brown hair is pulled into a perfectly high bun and her makeup is just enough to highlight her face, a slight red on her lip. She looks poised and confident. It makes everything inside of Ashlyn settle down as if Ali was a tranquilizer. She feels almost like she’s gliding and before she knows it, she’s right beside the brunette, the two of them settling into their side by side chairs but never losing eye contact.

It’s Ali who pulls herself together first and leans in close to Ashlyn so they can’t be overheard. “Hey Hero, you look so sharp. You ready?”

Ashlyn gives herself one more second to lose herself in Ali’s eyes before answering. “Hi. You’re the most stunning pesky bitch I’ve ever seen, Paladin. I’m ready.” She lets her hand fall down to rub her own leg, knowing that she’s close enough that her fingers just brush Ali’s bare knee.

Ali feels the quick contact and lets a tight smile form on her lips, only noticeable to Ashlyn who returns it. She turns around to shoot Kyle a quick look that clearly conveys both her approval and her want to strangle him over his perfect suit choice for the blonde. He gets the message, shrugging a bit and smiling like a proud father.

The bailiff moves back to the door to the right of the judge’s bench, making it clear that it won’t be much longer before things get underway.

“He’s not here?” Ashlyn leans in and whispers to Ali.

Ali shakes her head no in confirmation that Bobby is not is the courtroom, a little smile on her lips. This has played out exactly as they hoped it would. If he’s not here, then he has believed that this case is a simple appeal. He has no idea what is coming.

“Please rise.” The bailiff loudly instructs the room. Ali gives Ashlyn one last reassuring look as the man continues to speak. “The honorable Judge Henry Burns presiding, with Judge Cole Grayson and Judge Anne Werthers on the bench.”

Ali watches Judge Burns take the center spot on the bench and address the room. “Good morning. You may be seated. In the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I ask that her representative legal party please rise and state his or her name at this time.”

Ali feels the familiar energy rush run through her as she stands up. “Attorney Alexandra Krieger as Captain Ashlyn Harris’ legal representative, your honor.”

“Thank you, Attorney Krieger, you may be seated.” Judge Burns acknowledges before continuing. “The state will hear the oral appeal argument in the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts this morning. If necessary, there may be up to a one day continuance. This is a three arbiter panel consisting of myself and judges Grayson and Werthers. Once the arguments are concluded, we will immediately conduct a review and provide our ruling. If there are no other matters for discussion, I ask Attorney Krieger to come forward and present the defensive appeal argument.”

Ali grabs the legal pad with her notes and stands back up. She purposely runs her hand over Ashlyn’s shoulder to show faith in her client before making her way to the podium in the center of the room that is directly in front of the judge’s bench. She puts the legal pad down on the podium, makes a quick adjustment to the small microphone, and begins.

“Your honors,” she addresses the three judges, “this appeal has been filed on the grounds of improper legal procedure and the use of coercive means to obtain a signed confession from Captain Harris. If it please the court, I would like to structure the argument in two parts. The first part will outline the illegalities of the criminal procedure used to process Captain Harris. The second part will illustrate the inconsistencies between Captain Harris’ confession statement and the collected evidence in presenting that the statement was obtained by coercive means and is a false confession.” She pauses to let the judge weigh in on her order of presentation.

“Your structure is acceptable, please proceed.” Judge Burns affirms.

“At the time of her arrest, my client, Captain Ashlyn Harris, had sustained a bullet wound to the upper right knee and was treated by paramedics onsite who determined that she needed immediate hospital treatment. She was properly read her second amendment Miranda rights enroute to the emergency room and this is not a point of contention in this appeal.” Ali clarifies what she is accepting as accurate and proper procedure before continuing.

“The medical records show that Captain Harris was formally admitted to the hospital at 7:08pm, and after determining there was no need for surgery and treating her injury, she was released back into police custody at 12:48am. The medical report also indicates that she was given a normal dose of morphine at 12:15am, just prior to hospital release. I have a copy of the medical report here for the court if requested.” Ali holds up the report.

“The court has received and holds your written brief of argument, Attorney Krieger. If nothing has changed in the reports or paperwork contained in the initial appeal filing, we do not need any additional copies.” Judge Burns answers her.

Ali nods and continues. “I would like to now point out that Captain Harris’ confession was signed, dated, and stamped as complete at 2:24am that same morning. Given the emotional nature of the crime scene, the of lack of sleep given that she clocked in for her routine police shift at 5am the prior morning, and being under the influence of a schedule II narcotic, my client met neither the state nor federal requirements of being mentally competent or ‘sound of mind’ to give an admissible and valid confession at the time she provided it. Further, United States Federal Law and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts both require that there be a legal representative to witness and sign the confession. The law clearly states that this party cannot partake in the procedure as both a witness and the processing officer, but that these entities must be separate individuals. The court should note that Lieutenant Jonathan McNally’s signature appears on the signed confession twice: once as the legal witness and the second as the arresting officer. It is on these grounds that I petition the court to find that improper and illegal procedure was used to obtain Captain Harris’ confession, rendering it invalid and inadmissible for sentencing.” Ali wraps up the first part of her argument.

Ashlyn can only sit back and watch in awe, trying hard to not let her mouth hang open. She has seen so many sides of Ali, but this is like watching them all come together into this completely captivating and inspiring individual. She is confident, smart, and commands the room, but yet there is this genuine, unassuming goodness that underlies her demeanor. She’s so striking… Ashlyn can’t take her eyes off of her, hanging on every word that comes out of Ali’s mouth.

Ali knows that the improper legal procedure argument is all she needs to win the appeal, but she needs to show that she’s done her due diligence. So, in the second part of her argument she focuses on presenting two major points. The first is that the phone records of calls made to and from Ashlyn’s cellphone do not add up to the timeline that was stated in her confession. The second is that the medical examiner’s report clearly indicates that the six bullet wounds Liam Gorham sustained from Ashlyn’s gun were deemed to have occurred after the lethal shot to the head. The report states that these six wounds did not actively bleed, meaning the heart had already stopped beating and was not pumping blood. Ali points out to the court that the bullet from Gorham’s fatal head shot is considered missing evidence and cannot be officially linked to Ashlyn’s gun as the other bullets were. She keeps the rest of what she knows in her back pocket and doesn’t present anything further to the panel, knowing that she has already introduced enough reasonable doubt to make her case.

“In summation, your honors, Captain Ashlyn Harris was not only not ‘sound of mind’ enough to sign a confession at the time she was asked to do so, but the confession itself is legally invalid due to the lack of a proper legal witness. Further, major inconsistencies between Captain Harris’ confession and the timing and circumstances of the crime point to a false confession that was obtained by coercive means. It is on these grounds that my client has filed to appeal her sentence and recant her confession in the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That concludes the defense’s oral argument for this appeal.” Ali finishes strongly.

“Thank you, Attorney Krieger. The judges’ panel will now take a one hour recess to review the argument. We will reconvene as soon as we have agreed upon the ruling and will have the bailiff alert you if more than the one hour is required.” Judge Burns indicates and firmly hits his gavel.

“All rise!” The bailiff announces as the judges make their way out of the courtroom.

 

Ali doesn’t even think twice about spending the hour long recess with Ashlyn. She immediately heads back to the holding area where she checks in with a court officer before being let into the room that Ashlyn is waiting in.

It’s a fairly small room, not all that different than the visiting room at the prison. There is no direct observation area and no guards in the room, but it’s clear from a camera in the upper right corner that there is some recorded video feed. Ali knows that any audio recording is against the law, so they won’t have to censor their conversation, but they’ll definitely need to be very careful not to touch each other in any way that might raise eyebrows.

“Hey!” Ashlyn says excitedly upon seeing Ali enter the room. “I didn’t know you could come back here with me.”

“Lawyers can do anything.” Ali winks at her. The fact that Ashlyn didn’t stand up to try and hug her means that the blonde also clearly saw the video camera and understands the situation.

“Yeah, well, you should be out getting coffee and breakfast with Kyle and Tim. God only knows what trouble those two might get into if you leave them alone too long.” Ashlyn jokes a bit, thankful to have Ali with her.

“Please, and miss out on even a second of you in that suit? Hell no.” Ali says while waggling her eyebrows. “Geez Ash, you clean up nice. And that is the understatement of the year!”

Ali laughs a bit. “Your brother is a wizard with this stuff, it fits perfectly. And like you’re one to talk… I’m not even going to make a comment about how you look because I’ll just get myself in trouble.” She says with a smoldering gaze that she knows Ali notices because the brunette’s face gets a little red. They both smile at each other for a second before Ashlyn gets serious. “Alex…wow. You were just so incredible in that courtroom, I’m still not over it. I’ve listened to your podcast and I’ve read all these articles about how great you are, so I sort of knew. But there is just nothing like seeing it in person. You were really something…just completely mesmerizing.”

Ali can only smile shyly for a few moments. The way Ashlyn is talking about her with such reverence in her voice makes her feel completely lit up inside. She respects and admires Ashlyn so much, and to hear the blonde talk about her with such mutual emotion is meaningful in a way that Ali isn’t even sure she fully understands yet. Ashlyn’s belief in her means everything. “Well, you sure know how to make a girl feel special.” Ali replies, trying to keep her emotions under control.

“You don’t need me for that, you are amazing all on your own.” Ashlyn cheeses a bit.

“Easy Harris, don’t want to let me get too cocky before I have the chance to win this case.” Ali says lightly.

“Speaking of. How did you think it went out there?” Ashlyn gets into it. “Seemed like it went ok, but I am terrible at reading judges.”

“What do you mean?” Ali inquires.

“Oh, well, when I was a rookie cop I spent a lot of time in court because you had to be there to represent yourself for any DUI arrests you did or any traffic ticket appeals. Anyway, I swear, every time I thought the judge was going to throw the book at the person, they’d wind up getting off easy. And vice versa… if I thought the person was going to get off easy, they’d end up getting the maximum penalty. I was wrong like 90% of the time. So, I suck at understanding judges and I’m leaving that all up to you.” Ashlyn answers, shaking her head at her own incompetence.

“Well, good thing one of us is good at this.” Ali teases a bit. “I honestly felt like it went exactly as I expected it to. I have no doubt they will come back with a ruling of overturning your sentence. Not sure how they’ll react to the rest, but I think my level of preparation will be well received and too solid to not be accepted.” She says confidently.

Ashlyn nods and asks one more thing she can’t help asking. “And what if the next part doesn’t go as planned? What if they reject it?”

Ali gives the blonde the warmest and most reassuring look she can muster. “Then I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m in this all the way and if I don’t get my first option to work, then I’ll figure out a second one, and a third or fourth one if need be. I’m not abandoning this, Ash, no matter what.” She answers assuredly. “I’m not giving myself anything but option one though and I refuse to back down from that. I don’t give myself the option to fail. That’s just how I work.”

“Thanks, Alex. I’m just so grateful for you.” Ashlyn replies genuinely before changing the conversation to her surprise at the number of reporters in the courtroom.

It’s not long at all before the bailiff comes in to alert them that the judges are ready to make their ruling at the one hour mark. About ten minutes later they are back in their side-by-side seats waiting for the judges to re-enter the courtroom.

“All rise.” The bailiff instructs the room as the judges re-enter and take their positions on the bench.

“In the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the judges’ appeal panel has a reached a unanimous decision. I ask the defendant to please rise.” Judge Burns addresses the courtroom.

Ali and Ashlyn stand up after giving each other a quick look.

“It is the opinion of this court that proper legal procedure was not followed in obtaining a signed confession from Captain Ashlyn Harris. As such, the court finds that the confession is invalid and inadmissible.” Judge Burns explains.

Ashlyn closes her eyes in relief for a second as the judge continues his ruling.

“Further, the panel has ruled that there is enough reasonable doubt regarding the coercive nature of the obtained confession such that it did not abide by the Due Process clause under the 14th amendment. Therein, the court accepts the full recanting of defendant’s confession.” Judge Burns outlines before giving the final ruling. “In the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court hereby declares the sentence to be overturned and that the defendant be released within 90 days.”

The murmurs throughout the courtroom start to buzz as reporters write furiously and begin whispering to each other, everyone waiting for the ‘case closed’ type statement from the judge. Usually this is the moment that the defendant gets excited and usually shares a handshake or hug with their lawyer in triumph. The reporters all start looking to Ashlyn and Ali, but the two haven’t moved. For them, this is nothing more than a key to the next locked door.

As Ali had explained it to Ashlyn, the overturned sentence and 90 day release requirement meant nothing more than giving the state prosecutor the time to appeal the decision, file new charges, and force Ashlyn to undergo a proper trial. With all the evidence at their disposal in Ashlyn’s favor, it would be an easy trial win even with an unpredictable jury. The problem is that Bobby Dugan would never let Ashlyn or Ali live long enough to get to that point. They have one shot to take care of this before Bobby has the chance to take out one or both of them.

Ali takes a single deep breath and speaks up loudly before the judge can officially close the case. “Your honors, I would like to motion for the hearing of witness testimony.”

The murmur of the courtroom gets louder and the judges look at each other in confusion before Judge Burns speaks. “Attorney Krieger, you do understand that the court has ruled on this matter? You have met the burden of proof requirement for an overturned sentence and release of the defendant pending the opportunity for the state prosecutor to appeal and request a new trial.”

Ali answers immediately. “I do, your honor. However, I am formally petitioning the court to hear witness testimony for a full dismissal of the case.”

“On what grounds, Attorney Krieger?” Judge Burns asks a bit impatiently.

“In Roberts versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court was petitioned to hear witness testimony due to reasonable doubt related to the evidence. The court ruled that under the 14th amendment, the defendant has the right to be heard in requesting a full dismissal of the charges and case sentencing in lieu of a new trial in the appeals court in which the initial ruling was made. It is on these grounds that I make my motion.” Ali lays out the legal precedent for her request, watching the judges turn to each other and confer for a few minutes.

“Attorney Krieger, will you please approach the bench.” Judge Burns directs her and Ali complies, going to stand before them.

“Attorney Krieger, you do understand the full weight of what you are requesting? You would be permanently relying on a final decision from this appeals court panel and permanently giving up the right to any full trial outside of that ruling?” Judge Burns implores her in an almost personal plea.

“Yes your honor, I do understand that.” Ali answers confidently.

“And you further understand the risks you assume in questioning your chosen witnesses in this manner? As well as the possibility that a witness may chose legal representation and may refuse to answer questions to avoid any incrimination of themselves? ” He beseeches her again.

“Yes your honor.” Ali repeats.

“Very well. You may return to your seat.” Judge Burns instructs her and then briefly confers with the other two judges before they rule.

“In the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the court hereby accepts the defendant’s motion to hear witness testimony for a full dismissal of the case in lieu of a trial or outright release. Attorney Krieger, you will provide a list of your witnesses to the court within the hour and they will be notified of their requirement to be present. The witness testimony hearing is hereby set for Thursday, January 5th at 9:00am. This court is now adjourned.” Judge Burns hits the gavel and the bailiff instructs the courtroom to stand as the judges leave.

“Whew, holy crap.” Ashlyn whispers to Ali quietly once the judges are gone, knowing she only has a minute or two before the court officers come to escort her away.

“Thursday. That’s our day. We’re doing this.” Ali replies with rock solid confidence, knowing that in just over 36 hours they will know their future.

“He’ll find out by tonight?” Ashlyn questions, knowing that Bobby is about to get called as a witness.

“Yes. Doesn’t leave him much time to figure out what is going on, just the way we wanted it.” Ali replies in a satisfied tone.

Ashlyn doesn’t get a chance to reply before the court officers are there to escort her. “Alex…” she gets Ali’s attention one more time. “You’re incredible.” She says with a warm, dimpled smile.

Ali gives her a big smile back. “So are you. Rest up, hero. I’ll see you Thursday… and then every morning after that for coffee in my kitchen.” She winks.

Ashlyn lets out a soft breath as she gets led away. Ali Krieger knows exactly how to lift the weight and make her feel like she’s floating.

Before going to find Tim and Kyle to go home, Ali heads to the clerk’s office to give notice of her witnesses. The list contains only three names: Dr. Wayne Henning, Captain Jonathan McNally, and Chief Robert Dugan.

*************************************************************************************

“You were supposed to make her look presentable, not make her lawyer lose her focus!” Ali slaps her brother in the back of the head as she gets into the back of Tim’s car just behind Kyle, who is sitting shotgun.

“First of all, it’s not my fault that Harris could probably make a trash bag look good and that I happen to have good taste! You’d have thought she looked good no matter what.” Kyle defends himself. “And second, puh-lease! You know you secretly love me and want to thank me…I’m waiting!”

“Ugh, I hate you sometimes.” Ali huffs mockingly and finally gives in with an eye roll. “Fine. Thanks, ass.”

Kyle high-fives a chuckling Tim, who drives away from the courthouse. “So, that sounded like it all went the way you wanted it to?” Kyle questions.

“Yeah, that was the best outcome we could have gotten today. I can only hope that the rest of it goes that well, but it’s really unpredictable from here on out and I just have to roll with it as it happens. You can’t really script witness testimony.” Ali replies.

“You think he’ll show up?” Tim jumps in.

“Oh yeah, I know he will. You need a really compelling argument to not show up when you’re called as a witness. Plus, he’s the police chief, so he pretty much has no choice but to show up.” Ali explains. “Problem is that he could show up and refuse to answer any questions. He’d be smart if he did that. I’m really counting on the fact that he’s full of himself, thinks he’s untouchable, and would do anything to screw me over because he doesn’t like me. I’m putting my bets on him showing up with no formal legal representation and doing his best to get me to falsely accuse him of something so that I wind up losing my legal license and get some jail time.” She elaborates.

“You should really sell the movie rights to this… so much draaama!” Kyle interjects and lightens the mood by making them all laugh a bit.

“Well, I could use a drama-free afternoon. Either of you boys up for shopping?” Ali tries to entice them, knowing it’s best if she keeps herself occupied with something other than the case today.

“You don’t even have to ask me. I’m always in!” Kyle replies quickly and looks over at Tim.

“Eh, why not? My wife’s birthday is the same week as Valentine’s Day and I better get started shopping for both. I have a feeling you two are going to help me work wonders in that department.” Tim answers with a playful shrug.

“Challenge accepted!” Ali says excitedly.

The day provides her with just the distraction she needs to relax her mind. Tim drops Ali and Kyle off at Ali’s house around 7pm before heading home himself. Despite the cold night, the siblings opt to walk to Newton center for a late dinner together. Ali falls into bed at 10:30pm and is relieved that she feels exhausted enough to fall asleep without letting her thoughts keep her awake. She knows that tomorrow night she’ll likely have an active mind that won’t stop going over possible court scenarios, so she welcomes any sleep she can get right now.

*************************************************************************************

Wednesday, January 4

Ali stretches out her body as she feels the sun hitting her face. It doesn’t happen that often that she’s in bed late enough for the sun to be coming through her bedroom windows with such force. She turns over and sees 9:42am in red numbers on her alarm clock and lets out a yawn. She feels rested and glad that she managed to get some good sleep last night. She lets herself lay in bed for a few more minutes before deciding she’s going to start her morning with a quick jog even if it’s cold outside and she’ll likely regret her frozen face and aching lungs later. She brushes her teeth, pulls her hair back and applies a fresh layer of mascara before throwing on some warm running clothes and heading downstairs.

“Hey lazy daisy! I was wondering when your ass was gonna get up!” Kyle calls at her once she gets into the kitchen. He’s sitting at the counter in just a pair of sweatpants sipping from a mug of coffee while he reads the Boston Globe newspaper.

“Figured I’d sleep in a little.” Ali shrugs and goes to grab a water bottle out of the fridge. “You want to join me on a run?”

“I would, but after two coffees and an omelet, I’d better not.” He says patting his stomach. “You want an omelet when you get back, I can make you one?” He offers.

“Awww, yes! Thanks babe, you’re the best!” Ali says appreciatively as she reaches over to pinch his cheek.

“And don’t you forget it!” He smiles before handing her the newspaper. “Might want to read up when you get back, you’re hot news this morning.”

“Ugh, wonderful.” Ali says with contempt even though she knew the media attention would only grow as the case went on. “Anything bad?”

“No, actually. Mostly just a lot of speculation about what is going on given the request you made in court. Plus with the argument you gave, there’s definitely some questioning of whether Harris made up the confession or not. Typical media stuff really, but nothing bad.” He tells her.

“Well in that case, time to run!” Ali announces before making her way out the door and into the cold air of the late morning. The cool air feels great for a while, but at around mile three her lungs are aching and her nose feels like it’s going to fall off. Realizing she still has a mile to go before she can get home, she groans and wishes she planned a smaller loop. The sound of squeaking brakes pulls her from her thoughts.

“Hey, you look freezing. Who knew you were one of those crazies that jogs in 20 degree weather?! Want a lift home or are you going to insist on running the rest of the way despite the hypothermia risk?” Tim teases her a bit.

“You’re a lifesaver!” Ali says, quickly getting in the car. “I forgot you would be around this morning.”

“Well, when your boss pays you so well to keep an eye on her safety… you make sure she doesn’t turn into a popsicle.” He jokes again. “Just doing my job.”

“You’re definitely in the running for employee of the month.” Ali jokes back and laughs when she sees Tim fist pump.

They’re back at Ali’s house in no time and she makes her way out of the car, stomach already grumbling for that omelet. “I appreciate your dedication, but seriously, go home Tim. I’m just going to stay here and hang with Kyle all day. If I need you or I go anywhere, I’ll call you.” Ali tells him. “Go hang with your kiddos and relax. Tomorrow could go all kinds of ways and who knows how busy I’ll keep you after that!” She says lightly despite the weighted truth of the statement.

“You’re sure? And you’ll definitely call if you need me?” Tim questions.

“I’m positive and I promise to call. Now go!” Ali assures him.

“Ok. Thanks, Ali. I’ll see you in the morning!” Tim waves and drives away once he sees Ali head into the house.

True to his word, Kyle has made her a pretty amazing omelet which she devours in no time before taking a long shower. Ali spends some time helping Kyle re-work a budget spreadsheet for the salon before the two of them decide to bake cookies for dessert later. They’re about to settle on the couch to watch trashy afternoon TV when Kyle’s phone rings.

“I’m only taking private appointments at home right now since the salon is closed for renovations.” Ali hears Kyle explain and listens to the rest of the conversation.

“How many people are we talking?” He asks. “Ok, that’s manageable. I can be ready in an hour, cut and color would take about two hours.” He pauses to listen. “Alright, deal. I’ll see you 3pm then.” He hangs up and turns to Ali.

“Ok, don’t kill me, but I need to run over to my condo for an emergency appointment.” He cringes slightly.

Ali shakes her head and teases him a bit. “Totally fine, really. I get that you’re like a hair god for all those divas out there.”

“Stop it! Don’t stop it!” Kyle says cheekily as he revels in the compliment. “This is a new client too, which is why I don’t want to turn it down. I guess the stylist for some fashion show tonight bailed and they need someone to do cuts and colors for some of the models. I’m going to handle two of them. Can’t hurt for them to showcase my work on the runway!” He adds excitedly.

“Better get going then before you’re late. You have like 30 minutes to get home and traffic always starts building around now.” Ali says.

“You sure you’re cool if I go? I’ll be back by 6pm and I’ll bring pizza for dinner, ok? Kyle asks, feeling bad he’s leaving her by herself when he knows she’ll just obsess about the case.

“I’m a big girl, I’ll be just fine binge watching TV until you get back with loads of carbs for our movie night.” Ali says, noting the still guilty look on Kyle’s face. “Seriously, go go go, I’m good!”

“You’re the best!” Kyle shouts as he heads up the stairs to get ready.

“Don’t you forget it!” Ali shouts back sassily.

Ali distracts herself for the next couple hours by re-doing the nail polish on her fingers and toenails while she watches TV. It hasn’t provided all that much of a distraction though, her mind running through possible dialogues that might happen tomorrow with Bobby even as she tries to pay attention to the TV. She’s about halfway to the kitchen to grab a drink when the doorbell rings.

Kyle has his own key, but he refuses to bother when he has his hands full with take-out or groceries. Ali looks at the hallway clock, seeing that it’s 4:48pm. “You’re done early! Thank god, I was starv…” She says pulling open the front door, but doesn’t finish the statement. She meets Kyle’s deep brown eyes, but the face they belong to are not Kyle’s.

It’s a face that she sees glimpses of in her mirror every morning, a face she hasn’t seen in over 20 years. “What the hell are you doing here, Ken?” She spits out venomously, her heart racing and blood boiling as she looks at her father standing there on her front steps.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, January 4

 

She meets Kyle’s deep brown eyes, but the face they belong to are not Kyle’s.

It’s a face that she sees glimpses of in her mirror every morning, a face she hasn’t seen in over 20 years. “What the hell are you doing here, Ken?” She spits out venomously, her heart racing and blood boiling as she looks at her father standing there on her front steps.

 

“Hello, Alex. I know it’s been a long time.” Ken says cordially and a bit timidly as if he knows he could set her off at any moment.

“Not long enough.” Ali practically snarls at him. “And don’t call me that, you lost the right to that 22 years ago.”

“Ok, what would you like me to call you then?” He asks as politely as he can.

“I prefer you not call me at all, but Ali is fine. What do you want?” Ali says dismissively, hoping he’ll take the hint and leave.

“Ali, look, I know I’m the last person you expected to see or want to see and I completely understand. I really do.” Ken tries to level with her. “I know that nothing I could ever do would even come close to fixing this. But, I really need to talk to you. Would you please give me just a few minutes?” He implores her sincerely.

“There is nothing you could possibly have to say that I want to hear.” Ali shoots him down.

“Maybe not.” Ken willingly admits. “I just… I want to explain some things and talk to you while I still have the chance. I’m begging you, please, just give me ten minutes of your time and then I’ll go.”

Ali looks over his desperate demeanor. She had long ago gotten over ever wanting to know what went through his head when he left their family the way he did. Still, he looks so pale and defeated right now and she starts to question that maybe he is dying or something like that. For some reason, this makes her soften a bit; knowing she will feel guilty if she doesn’t comply with a potentially dying wish. “You have five minutes. I’m listening.” She relents and crosses her arms as she looks at him expectantly.

“Thank you, Ali. I really appreciate you listening.” Ken says with a bit of relief before noticing that she’s just waiting for him to start. “Oh um, is there any way we could do this, well… not on your front steps?” He asks gently.

“Fine, but don’t get comfortable.” Ali huffs a bit and motions into the house, closing the door behind them as Ken makes his way in. She points to the dining room and watches as Ken takes a seat at the table.

“Nice place. You’ve done really well for yourself.” Ken muses as he takes in his surroundings.

“Get to the point.” Ali reminds him sharply.

“Ok. Look Ali, I just need you to know why I left the way I did.” Ken starts, watching Ali sit down across from him. He can see that she is tense, steeling herself for whatever explanation he has. “I screwed up with the wrong people and the only way to protect you, your mom, and Kyle was for me to leave.”

“That’s a really lame and shitty way to protect someone.” Ali snaps at him.

“I know, I know. I was desperate and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I did what I thought would be the best thing.” Ken tries to defend himself a bit. “I advised one of the biggest businessmen in Boston for a long time and when I thought he was making a really bad financial decision by partnering with someone new, I gave him the honest opinion that I thought it was a bad move and wouldn’t be a part of it. I didn’t know that the two of them had actually partnered on different deals for years and that giving that opinion might cost me my life when I declined to help them.”

“Oh boo hoo, Ken. You had a financial deal go bad because you pissed off some businessmen. I pissed off a lot more of them than that in my career and I didn’t leave my family over it. This is your fucking pathetic excuse?” Ali says with disgust.

“You’re not getting it. They crippled me financially and threatened me. I could deal with that. But once they went after my assets, they weren’t just going after me. It was clear that they were coming for my family and the only way I could protect you guys was to act like you didn’t matter to me. If you didn’t matter, they wouldn’t bother coming after you. It was the only thing I knew how to do.” Ken explains as best he can.

“Oh, so you didn’t know how to call the police or get some type of help from private security? Leaving the people you loved was the best you could do?! And for what, to start a life with a whole new family so you can then not protect them either.” Ali retorts, still not buying his excuses.

“I know, it’s no excuse.” Ken concedes and gets up, moving towards the dining room door behind Ali. She doesn’t even bother to turn around and look at him. “I’m so sorry, Ali. There just wasn’t any other option and there still isn’t. Bobby Dugan isn’t a man that forgives and forgets. I hope you’ll remember that now that you’re involved in his business.”

Ali feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Her mind is racing as she hears her father say Bobby’s name, having no idea this whole thing was so close to home her entire life. Her brain finally catches up to the words spoken in the room, realizing that this visit is no coincidence. Her father couldn’t possibly know that she was about to take down Bobby, unless…

“I love you and I always will. I’m so sorry, Ali…” Ali hears behind her and starts to turn around when she feels a sharp pinch on her neck. She goes to grab for whatever caused the pain, but a rag is over her face in seconds and the rooms goes fuzzy and black.

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Ali comes to slowly, noticing first that it is dark and she is really cold. She goes to hug her body to warm herself, but she can’t really move much at all. She starts to panic a bit and realizes she can’t really lift her head either. Her eyes dart around and come into better focus. She sees that she’s sitting in the bottom of her empty outdoor hot tub. She can’t feel her arms or legs very well and they tingle. Seeing that she’s just wearing some leggings and a thin long-sleeve shirt, she wonders if maybe she has frostbite from the freezing January night. Her throat feels dry and constricted and she tries to turn her head a bit, feeling a burning sensation on the skin of her neck when she does.

“Ow.” She croaks out in a shivering whisper, finally realizing that there is a thin rope wrapped tightly around her throat and anchored to the hook at the bottom on the hot tub that was once helping the winter cover stay on. She can move herself further down into the tub to loosen the rope, she just can’t lift herself higher than a certain point or it tightens. She slumps a bit as best she can to release the tension on her neck, but her body feels so numb and heavy that she can’t move it much. She is willing her hands and fingers to move to untie the rope, but she isn’t able to move them much at all. Her mind is racing to understand what is going on when she feels an even colder sensation on her legs as freezing water from the large outdoor hose begins filling the tub.

“Oh Ali, I’m so sorry baby girl.” She hears from above, her eyes moving to see Ken peering over the edge of the hot tub.

“Fuck you.” Ali gets out in a raspy croak. She doesn’t care that his eyes are teary and he looks scared.

“I have no choice. He’s going to kill Kyle and the rest of my family if I don’t do this.” Ken says desperately. “You’ve always been the fighter Alexandra, the brave one, the one who never backed down. I’m so proud of you for that. And no matter how much you hate me, just know how much I really do love you.” He leans in as far as he can to get close to her. “I’m counting on you to be that fighter…to survive so that we all can. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” He tries to kiss her head, but Ali defiantly moves it to head butt him as best she can. And then he is gone.

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“Did you do it?” Bobby asks a visibly shaken Ken as the man gets into the backseat of the rental car which is parked in an abandoned Rite Aid lot a block away from Ali’s house. He doesn’t have to ask, he just watched it all happen on the live security feed from Ali’s house that he had paid handsomely to hack into a couple weeks ago. He regretted that there was no sound because he wanted to hear the bitch scream as she squirmed, but the visual had been good enough to see that Ken had followed through brilliantly. He wasn’t sure the dorky guy had it in him, but that’s what happens when you tell a man he can trade his daughter’s life to save that of his own and the rest of his family.

“Yes. Please let me go home.” Ken says emotionlessly.

“How about we watch just a little longer and then we can go.” Bobby replies, tilting the screen on the tablet in his lap so Ken can see the feed of Ali tied by the neck to the bottom of her hot tub, the cold water up past her hips already. He smirks as he looks in the rearview mirror to see Ken’s eyes wide and terrified.

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Numbness and excruciating pain at the same time. Ali has never felt anything like this is her life. Her limbs are too heavy and numb to control and her skin almost feels like it’s burning despite the fact that her teeth are chattering because she’s so cold. The water is moving around her chest now and she wonders what will come first, hypothermia or drowning. Her head is starting to feel a bit fuzzy and she closes her eyes, her thoughts going to Kyle and to Ashlyn. Will they meet the same fate now that she’s failed them?

Failed. She’s never failed at anything in her life that was under her control. The thought makes her angry as she pictures Bobby’s smug smile. She can’t let him win, not like this. She has to protect Kyle and Ashlyn. Ali moves her head around as much as she can, trying to loosen rope to no avail, merely rubbing away at the skin on her neck instead. “No, come on!” She wills herself in the croaking whisper that is now her voice. The water is starting to collect around her neck, the cold feeling soothing on the skin she just rubbed raw. Ali tries once again to move her arms and legs, but she can only shift her body around uselessly.

She closes her eyes yet again, trying to relax. Fighting and thrashing around is only making the water splash higher near her face. As she feels the cold liquid start to cover her mouth, she can’t help but wish that the hypothermia had set in first. Her body is floating up in the water a bit, but the ever tightening rope around her neck is holding her head down in the rising water level. She takes a few more deep breaths and fights hard to keep her head angled and her nose out of the water.

The water is tickling her nostrils and Ali takes one last clear intake of breath before they are covered. As she fights to hold her breath as long as she possibly can, all she can see is hazel eyes and a dimpled smile. ‘I’m so sorry, Ashlyn’ is the last thought in her head as she loses the ability to hold on any longer. Piercing cold fills her sinuses like a horrible brain freeze and her lungs feel as if they are about to explode. Just when she feels like her chest is literally ripping open, there is nothing but black and silence.

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“Oh come on, Kenny!” Bobby goads as he turns off his tablet and snickers at the man in his backseat who is shaking in sobs now that Ali’s head has gone under the water. “It was a good show!”

Ken doesn’t reply, just burying his head in his hands.

“Well, when you pull yourself together. Take this car back to the rental place on Main Street by tomorrow and we’ll consider your debt paid.” Bobby says casually as he gets out of the car and walks away.

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Kyle rings the doorbell for the third time. It’s only been like 30 seconds, but Ali knows he hates trying to find his keys when his hands are full and usually comes to the door quickly. He figures she must be upstairs or showering since he’s home early after his clients bailed on him. He stands there impatiently for another few seconds before balancing the pizza box and bag with salads in one hand as he digs into his pocket for the keys.

“Honey, I’m home!” Kyle yells loudly as he steps into the house. He expects to hear Ali call down to him from upstairs, but the house is quiet. Her car was in the yard, so he knows she’s home. “Alex?” He calls out again. He makes his way into the dining room to drop the food on the table when he sees the knocked over chair. “ALEX?” He screams more desperately, making his way into the kitchen where the patio door is slightly open and the rug is out of place.

“Fuck, fuck!” He spins in circles in the kitchen as he tries to figure out what to do, his mind immediately thinking the worst. She must have been taken by someone out the back door. He grabs his phone from his pocket to dial 911 as he approaches the patio door, seeing the outdoor light is on and hearing the sound of running water. “What the fuck?” He grunts out in confusion, making his way out the patio door with his phone in his hand. Everything out there is quiet and normal except that the big filling hose is in the hot tub and running. He peers over into the tub and his eyes go wide at the two feet poking out of the surface of the water, the light pink nail polish he applied two days ago accentuating the blueish looking toes.

“Oh my god!” He yells desperately as he jumps into the hot tub, the freezing water shocking him a bit and sending him into more of a frenzy over the situation. He tries to pull Ali out, but she’s stuck to something. He reaches down to her hands and finds them freely floating. His hands run up to her shoulders and head, when he feels the rope around her neck. “Oh god, oh god, please, please…” He repeats over and over again, trying desperately to untie the knot, his freezing fingers fumbling clumsily. After a few seconds that feel like an eternity, he feels the knot release as Ali’s body comes up to the water’s surface. He is startled for a second by a loud bang sound, looking around frantically as he lifts Ali, seeing nothing and realizing it must have just been a stupid firecracker or something.

Her body is completely limp as he pulls her out and puts her down on the deck, checking and finding no pulse and that she’s not breathing. He quickly lies her flat and calls 911, putting his phone on speaker and placing on the ground.

“Please work.” He pleads as he begins thrusting his hands firmly into the middle of her chest to perform CPR, a skill he learned so long ago during a short-lived lifeguard job. He’s not sure he’s doing it right and is doubting himself when he hears the voice on his phone. “911 what’s your emergency?”

“I need medical help fast at 177 Forest Ave in Newton. Drowning victim in back yard, no pulse and not breathing. I’m doing CPR, can’t talk. Just come fast.” Kyle gets out as fast as he can, his breathing labored now as he works hard to keep the chest thrusts going.

He pauses to give Ali a couple of breaths as he pinches her nose, feeling slightly more hopeful that he’s doing this right as he sees her chest rise up as he does it. “Come on, Alex. Come on!” He screams at her, but she’s not responding.

“Sir, I’m going to stay on the line with you. Help is on the way and will be there very soon. Can you tell me your name? Do you know how to perform CPR?” The woman on the phone speaker asks him.

He’s too winded to reply, his arms getting increasingly tired as he keeps working on Ali. Panic is setting in as the minutes tick by and there has been no response to his efforts. “Please, Alex, please, please, please… I need you…I need you…” He whispers through heavy breaths and tears, willing his sister to hear him.

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Through weeping eyes, Ken watches Bobby walk away from the car, out of the lot and around the corner.

“Oh god. Oh god. I’m coming to get you, honey. Hold on.” He says in desperate determination as it dawns on him what he has just done. He quickly jumps into the driver’s seat so he can go back to the house and pull Ali out of the hot tub.

He turns the key to start the car and the sound is deafening as the blast rips through the air, the car exploding into a ball of flames.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, January 4 continued…

Kyle’s arm muscles are burning from exhaustion as he fights hard to keep the proper technique for the chest thrusts he is giving Ali. He hears the distant sirens and it renews his strength a bit, knowing he’ll have help if he can just hang on another couple of minutes. “Please, Alex, fight, fight, please…” he grunts frantically as he works on her. He pauses again to give her another couple of breaths and watches in hopeful desperation as a stream of water trickles out of her nose when he stops pinching it closed. He quickly restarts the chest thrusts and is four thrusts in when water comes out of Ali’s mouth so forcefully that it startles him, making him jump back a bit.

“Yes, yes, yes, come on Alex, come on…” He cheers her on, pressing his fingers to the artery of her neck and feeling a pulse. “Yes!!! Alex, I’m here, I’m here, come on!” He yells in an emotional squeak as he watches a scary amount of foamy water continue to pour out of her mouth and nose.

“Sir, has she been revived? Is she breathing? Do you have a pulse?” The 911 operator’s voice sounds from Kyle’s phone.

“I think so!” Kyle replies breathlessly, but doesn’t say anymore as he leans his face close to Ali’s as she lets out a wet cough and gasps for air. “That’s it, that’s it! Breathe baby! You’re ok, you’re ok…” He coaxes her as her strokes her cheeks with his hands.

“Cooold, coo...cold, cold, Ash… Ash, cooold.” Ali starts repeating in a barely audible raspy whisper through chattering teeth, eyes closed and water still slowly dripping out of her nose.

“Shhhh, Ash is ok. Just breathe, just relax and breathe, Alex.” Kyle instructs her gently, trying to keep his body close to hers to warm her a bit, but he’s just as soaked as she is. He’s contemplating running into the house to get blankets when two EMTs rush into the yard, pulling him back a bit and asking questions as they tend to Ali. A third EMT arrives with a stretcher and quickly wraps a blanket around him and asks if he is ok. Kyle nods yes, not realizing just how cold and shaky he is until he feels the warmth of the thick blanket.

He’s swiftly ushered into the ambulance alongside Ali and doesn’t understand much of the medical terminology being tossed around as they ride to the hospital, but it seems generally positive. Ali’s eyes are still closed and she’s not saying anything likely because of the oxygen mask over her face, but he’s holding her hand and the grip she is squeezing with gives him all the comfort he needs right now.

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Thursday, January 5

Ashlyn slips on the second suit option that Kyle picked out for her as she gets ready for court. This one fits just as well as the first; it’s gray with a black button-up shirt to go under it and a black tie to match. Something about it makes her feel powerful and she’s glad she saved it for today. She needs all the confidence she can get. She had been feeling so calm about everything up until last night when she started feeling shaken by everything and just generally off. She barely slept and had an extra hard time choking down some breakfast this morning. She feels so comfortable with everything being in Ali’s hands today and knows that the brunette is going to fight with everything she has, so she reasons that it’s all the unknown factors that are making her a bit nervous.

Ashlyn arrives by escort at the courthouse earlier than last time with half an hour to go before the hearing session starts. She’s placed in the holding area for about 10 minutes before a court officer guides her into the courtroom. The scene looks exactly the same as before, only this time every seat is filled. Liam Gorham’s wife is now accompanied by an older woman, who Ashlyn guesses is Liam’s mother based on the facial features. The rest of the room is once again filled in with reporters. This time though, as she looks across the room to find a familiar face, there is no Ali sitting at the table. She looks around to see that Tim and Kyle are not there yet either as she is seated at the table. The hearing doesn’t start for another 17 minutes and she was brought in much closer to the start last time, so she thinks nothing of it.

She keeps her eyes straight ahead like Ali told her to do and tries hard to ignore the room. Last time Ali was there to distract her, but now she can practically feel people boring holes into the back of her head as they stare at her. It’s 8:52am now, another 10 minutes passed and still no Ali with 8 minutes to go. Ashlyn feels her stomach churning with anxiety, but tries to calm herself. Ali will be here.

At 8:59am, the bailiff approaches Ashlyn who is wringing her sweaty hands together and ready to throw up.

“Ms. Harris, is your attorney present?” He asks gently.

“No.” Ashlyn shakes her head a bit.

“Okay. I’m going to alert the judges and we’ll give it another 10 minutes. Don’t worry, it happens sometimes.” He reassures her.

Ashlyn nods appreciatively as best she can as she watches the clock strike 9am. Ali is late. Ali has never been late except when something was wrong. There is no doubt in her mind now, something is very wrong. Ali would never be late to this hearing. Ashlyn does exactly what she promised herself she wouldn’t do, turning around to look at the room and finding the person she is looking for.

Bobby Dugan is sitting two rows back on the right side of the room besides John McNally. He is staring her right in the eye with a satisfied smile, like he had been waiting for her to look at him this whole time. Her stomach drops instantly and she feels dizzy. She knows that look. He’s gotten to Ali.

She’s irrational now and not thinking clearly, getting ready to get up and try to launch herself at him when the courtroom door swings open drawing everyone’s attention.

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Ali holds onto Kyle’s arm tightly to steady herself with Tim just behind them in case she needs extra help. She looks up and finds the hazel eyes she is looking for, a small and relieved looking smile gracing Ashlyn’s face, and she knows that the only thing that would have kept her from being here right now is death itself.

 

As they arrive at the hospital, Kyle is asked a lot of questions about what happened by an intake nurse and then told he’ll have to wait outside for a while as they assess Ali. Another nurse quickly takes him into a room and makes sure he is doing alright. He feels shaken and tired, but otherwise okay. She gives him a dry set of hospital scrubs and a new blanket so that he can get out of his wet clothes and get warm. Once he is changed and comfortably seated in a small waiting area she brings him a hot coffee as well. He couldn’t be more thankful for the woman’s kindness as he anxiously awaits news about Ali.

Two long hours pass before a nurse comes to get him.

“Mr. Krieger, you can come on back and be with your sister now. She’s stable and awake and doing okay.” She tells him and leads the way. “The doctor will come in soon and give you more details.”

“Thank you.” He replies and rushes right into the room and beside Ali’s bed. “Alex, you’re ok? You’re ok?” He repeats, stroking her forehead and watching her nod yes as a couple tears roll down her cheeks, the oxygen mask over her mouth and nose preventing her from talking. He rests his forehead against hers and just breathes for a minute. “I love you.” He tells her and feels her reach up and squeeze his arm tightly in reply. They’re interrupted by the doctor coming into the room.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Kate Billings, you must be Alexandra’s brother?” She introduces herself.

“Yes, I’m Kyle.” Kyle replies and reaches to shake the woman’s hand.

“Okay, so let me give you the full rundown. Stop me if you have any questions.” She starts. “We did a whole battery of diagnostic tests and the prognosis is excellent given what happened and the length of time she was unresponsive. The most important thing is that her brain CT scan came back normal and she passed all of the neurological tests, so we don’t believe there is any neurological damage. She is alert and able to move and speak normally, and seems to remember the event, so those are all great things. She was hypothermic upon arrival and we’ve been working to get that under control, but I believe it actually may have saved her from major trauma.”

Kyle nods to signal that he is following.

“When the body is cold like that, oxygen and blood flow needs are slowed and reduced. So, when oxygen is cut-off, the damage is less impactful in a hypothermic state. The hypothermia level is not severe and we expect that she’ll be back to normal temperature in the next two to three hours. Her chest x-ray, on the other hand, was not quite as positive. There is some pulmonary edema. That just means that there is some fluid in the small lung sacs. This is not at all uncommon in a near-drowning situation and the body will expel it eventually. I have gone ahead and started her on a diuretic medication to help speed that process up a bit. The oxygen will be in place for another few hours to help her breathe more easily as well. Her EKG also shows a minor cardiac arrhythmia, again, not uncommon after a resuscitation like this. I have her on a beta-blocker medication that will help correct it over time, but I’m not concerned that it is problematic. Any questions so far?” Dr. Billings asks.

“No, I’m good so far.” Kyle replies.

“So, some of the more minor things. You’ll see that her neck has some bruising and lacerations from whatever was around it. We’ve applied antibiotic ointment to protect the area, but it’s best to just leave it open and let it heal naturally with no dressings. The constriction on her throat has caused a little bit of inflammation on her vocal chords which is making her hoarse, but that will pass within the next couple of days. Her chest x-ray also revealed two small rib fractures closer to the sternum, one on the right 4th rib and one of the left 5th rib. This resulted from the repeated resuscitation thrusts to her chest.” She explains.

Kyle looks down at the floor a bit and feels the doctor reach out and touch his shoulder.

“Hey, it’s completely normal for that to happen. It means you did it right. You’re the reason she’s here, so don’t be upset.” She reassures him. “Besides, I’m sure Alexandra would take a couple broken ribs over a funeral any day, right?” She looks at Ali who nods vigorously to try and cheer Kyle up.

Kyle smiles a bit at Ali’s enthusiasm.

“We’ll help manage the pain with some medication, but they’ll heal up just fine in about three to six weeks without much restricted movement. Her blood work is good and her oxygen level is great right now. So, I anticipate a full recovery.” Dr. Billings smiles at the two of them. “I do want to talk about one other thing with you both. The bloodwork panel detected chloroform and succinylcholine in her system. The dosage of succinylcholine was significant enough to constrain movement of limbs and had it not been for the cold, may have put her into cardiac arrest as it affects the body by paralyzing muscles which includes the heart. It has naturally worn off for the most part, but I administered a shot of adrenaline to fully counteract it just to be safe. Given the usage of those drugs and the neck markings, I have to assume that this was an attempt on your life, Ms. Krieger?” Dr. Billings inquires seriously.

Ali and Kyle look at each other and then nod to confirm.

“Well, I want you to be aware that I have to disclose this in your medical records, but I am not required to file any reports with law enforcement.  I would, however, encourage you to do that and the hospital staff can help facilitate that. Please be safe.” She says kindly and leaves it there. “We’ll keep Alexandra for at least two days to monitor everything.”

Ali immediately shifts and lifts the mask off of her face. “No!” She croaks out as best as she can even though it makes her throat hurt. She looks over at Kyle. “Ash, court this morning, I can’t.”

“Yeah, but Alex, can it be moved? I don’t think…” He starts but is cut off by Ali.

“No.” Ali says again in a stern whisper. “Only chance.”

“Ms. Krieger, I can’t discharge you like this.” Dr. Billings jumps in.

“I know the law, you can’t hold me against my will. Just bring me the paperwork I need to sign. I need to leave for the morning and then I’ll come back.” Ali asserts herself.

“Can she physically withstand this? It is technically safe for her to leave and come back?” Kyle questions before anyone can say anything else.

“Yes, it’s really about whatever she can manage at this point. But, it goes against my recommendations and requirements for recovery.” Dr. Billings answers straight-forwardly. “However, I will bring the paperwork if that is your decision.”

“Bring it.” Ali tells the doctor, who nods and leaves the room. Nothing can stop her from being in court in the morning.

“Alex, are you sure you can do this? Can you really face that guy after what he just did to you?” Kyle gets close to her again and reaches to hold her hand.

“Kyle, he sent Ken. Dad did this.” She tells him as more tears slip out.

“What?” Kyle asks somewhere between confusion and disbelief.

By the time she finishes explaining, taking time to rest her throat a few times, Kyle can’t even stand up anymore. He’s sitting in the chair beside her bed in complete shock, the ache and tiredness in his body finally hitting him. “I can’t believe it. That fucker… both of them.” That’s all he can say right now.

The discharge nurse comes in at 6:00am with the proper paperwork. Ali signs page after page, a bit shocked at just how much there is for her to get through. She finds it excessive even despite understanding the need for the hospital to legally cover themselves. For the first time ever, she isn’t even reading what she is signing. She could be giving away her life and not even know it, but she just needs to hurry up and get out of here. She has three hours to get discharged and ready to make it to court.

“Call Tim. Tell him to go to the house and get us clothes for court and meet us here. We have to hurry.” Ali instructs Kyle.

By the time Tim arrives and they get changed, it’s already 8:40am because it was excruciatingly painful for Ali to get herself ready any faster. They fight through Boston traffic in a slight panic as the hearing time draws near, but make it with a couple minutes to spare. Unfortunately it takes Ali quite some time to walk to the courtroom with Kyle’s help. She has never felt so horrible in her life, her body is fighting her every step of the way.

She enters the courtroom hoping the judges have given her some leeway on the time and looking immediately for the only face she wants to see. Ashlyn. The blonde looks frantic despite her relieved smile, but it doesn’t matter. Those hazel eyes are all the motivation and strength Ali needs today. She takes a breath and uses every ounce of energy she has to let go of Kyle and walk towards the front of courtroom on her own.

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Ashlyn lets out a sigh of relief as she sees Ali come through the door, their eyes meeting each other. She watches the brunette let go of her grip on Kyle and walk down the main aisle of the room. She notices right away that Ali seems a bit off somehow, her stride not as confident and posture not as strong as usual. As Ali gets closer, Ashlyn’s heart drops as she sees it.

The skin on Ali’s neck is a combination of broken skin and deep purplish bruising. Her eyes are a bit red and her skin is pale. Ashlyn knows there must be even more she can’t see based on how gingerly Ali seems to be walking. She feels both rage and panic coursing through her, not sure which one is stronger at the moment. She seeks out Bobby again, hoping that the look she gives him will be enough to kill him. Bobby is so focused on Ali with a stunned look on his face that he doesn’t even acknowledge the blonde’s stare. He’s not the only one, the whole courtroom is buzzing with whispers as Ali walks the aisle.

“Alex…” Ashlyn whispers in concern and goes to get up as Ali gets near the table.

“No, sit, Ash. Just sit.” Ali quickly instructs her in a rough raspy voice that catches Ashlyn off guard.

Ashlyn settles herself in the chair again, not sure what to think right now.

“I’m sorry. I just need to get through this. I’ll be ok. And we’ll be ok. Just hang in with me.” Ali leans in a bit whisper to the blonde.

“Ok, Alex. I’m here. No matter what.” Ashlyn reaches under the table to squeeze Ali’s hand quickly, not really caring if anyone happens to see right now despite trying to be discrete.

“No matter what.” Ali confirms, the touch giving her the boost she needs as the bailiff moves to open the door.

“All rise. Court is in session. The honorable Judge Henry Burns presiding, with Judge Cole Grayson and Judge Anne Werthers on the bench.” The bailiff instructs the room as the judges take their places on the bench.

“Good morning. You may be seated. The court will resume with the hearing of witness testimony in the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the request for a full dismissal of the case.” Judge Burns addresses the court. “Attorney Krieger, are your witnesses present and are you ready to begin?”

“Yes, your honor.” Ali answers after standing up slowly.

Judge Burns eyes her a bit. “Attorney Krieger, will you please approach the bench?”

Ali does as instructed, making her way to the front of the room as best she can.

“Are you okay to continue? You don’t look well, Ms. Krieger.” Judge Burns asks with concern as he takes in her appearance and obvious injury.

“I’m fine and ready.” Ali confidently assures him.

“Ok then. You may begin with any opening statements you have and call your first witness.” He instructs her.

Ali makes her way back to the table to grab her notepad and folders before going back to the podium. She refuses to look at anyone in the room except for Ashlyn and the judges. She can only imagine the expression on Bobby’s stupid face right now, but she doesn’t want to meet his eyes just yet. She wants the very first look she gives him to petrify him.

She clears her throat so she can make her voice come out as clearly as possible.

“Your honors, through witness testimony this morning I intend to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Captain Ashlyn Harris did not commit this crime. Pending the success of my efforts, I will ask the court to consider the testimony and rule to completely dismiss the case and all potential future appeals of the ruling.” Ali makes a quick opening statement and steadies herself against the podium a bit. Sharp pain radiates through her chest with each intake of breath, her neck burns and throbs, and she has an awful headache on top of being exhausted. She gives herself a couple more seconds to shut the pain out of her mind and then continues.

“Your honors, I would like to call my first witness, Captain Jonathan McNally of the South Boston Police Department…”

Chapter Text

Thursday, January 5 continued…

“Your honors, I would like to call my first witness, Captain Jonathan McNally of the South Boston Police Department…”

John McNally makes his way to the witness stand as Ali looks down at her notes for a minute, mostly just giving herself the chance to breathe through the horrible aching in her chest.

“Captain Jonathan McNally, you are called to give sworn witness testimony in the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Please raise your right hand.” Judge Burns directs him. “Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, under the pains and penalties of perjury, so help you God?”

“I do.” McNally answers before sitting down and looking up at Ali.

“You may begin your questioning, Attorney Krieger.” Judge Burns signals.

Despite it giving her something to steady herself on, Ali opts to leave the podium in order to stand in front of McNally, leaving only a few feet of comfortable conversational distance between them. McNally was just a lieutenant following orders and doing his job when Ashlyn was arrested and sentenced. Ali has no intention of going after him, but just the opposite. She needs to make him an ally.

“Captain McNally, would you please state what your police rank and official duties were on the date of Captain Ashlyn Harris’ arrest for the murder of Liam Gorham?” Ali starts her questioning.

“Certainly. I was a lieutenant of the South Boston Police Department and was on duty as an intake and processing officer that day as I had sustained a minor injury that kept me out of any active patrols.” McNally answers.

“Thank you. You received a phone call on your office phone from Chief Robert Dugan that evening, is that correct?” Ali asks.

“Yes, correct.” McNally replies.

“Would you be able to tell me what was said in that conversation and what Chief Dugan’s state of mind sounded like to the best of your abilities? I know it may be difficult to recall all the details.” Ali says kindly.

“Sure. Chief sounded kind of frantic for sure. He called and told me that Captain Harris had called him after killing Liam Gorham and that he had arrived at the scene to find Gorham shot dead with Harris in a state of panic. He told me that he had her detained and to send back-up and EMT because Harris had a bullet injury from a ricochet.” McNally states.

“Did the Chief make any mention of why Captain Harris may have killed Mr. Gorham?” Ali inquires.

“Uh, yeah. Chief said something about how Harris had been having an affair with Gorham and they had had some kind of disagreement.” McNally recalls.

“And what was your reaction to this news?” Ali asks.

“Oh, I was shocked for sure. Harris had always been pretty straight-edge and, honestly, I always thought she was a lesbian.” McNally says with a little smile.

“That is a statement of conjecture and the judges will disregard it in their ruling.” Judge Burns interrupts. “Proceed.”

Ali nods and continues. She could counter that the witness’ opinion is considered valid under the law, but she doesn’t want to push the judge just yet, knowing she might need some leeway later. “Captain McNally, as an experienced lieutenant assuming the duties of intake and processing, I assume you were aware of the proper legal procedure for obtaining a signed confession?”

“Yes, ma’am.” McNally nods.

“Can you explain then, Captain McNally, why in taking Captain Harris’ confession you disregarded said procedure and signed as both the arresting officer and the legal witness?” Ali prods him seriously.

“Oh, uh, I’m not sure. I guess I should have known better.” McNally answers shakily.

Ali can see that he is nervous now, exactly as she wants him to be. McNally has just recently been promoted to captain and is poised to take over for Bobby when the Chief is set to retire in two years. He’s in exactly the same spot Ashlyn was before this whole mess. Given the huge pay upgrade and high profile ranking, she knows there is no way he wants to mess it up or have any marks on his record between now and then. This type of slip up could cost him down the line when the city’s board reviews his eligibility for Chief. All Ali has to do is give him an out.

“Well, based on your prior statement, sir…you did know better.” Ali says directly and watches him fidget before coming to his rescue. “Captain McNally, it has not been unheard of in the history of cases involving the convictions of fellow officers that a department feels a strong responsibility to protect that officer in any way they can. Would you say that this was the case here with Captain Harris? That you were perhaps rushed or felt pressure to be discrete about the situation, maybe leading to some procedural oversights as a result?”

“Yes, that is accurate as I recall it. Chief Dugan directed me to keep control of the situation and move it along expediently in doing our best to protect Captain Harris. In doing that, I may have unintentionally made a mistake in my procedural processing.” McNally answers with relief, using Ali’s statement to buy himself a reasonable excuse and put most of the blame on Bobby.

“And Chief Dugan was the one who specifically directed you to accelerate the process in trying to protect Captain Harris?” Ali clarifies.

“Yes, ma’am.” McNally affirms.

“Final question, Captain McNally. How would you describe Captain Harris’ demeanor that night?” Ali asks.

“She seemed…well…just sort of resigned to her fate. That’s the best I can explain it. I expected her to be more rattled or upset, but she just seemed defeated.” McNally replies.

“Thank you, Captain McNally. I have no further questions.” Ali gives him a polite smile.

“You may step down, Captain McNally.” Judge Burns instructs. “Attorney Krieger, please call your next witness when you are ready.”

Ali steps back behind the podium, glad to have something to lean on a bit. All of her energy is going towards ignoring the pain and staying composed. Knowing what’s coming next, she needs to be able to focus that energy elsewhere. “Your honor, I call Chief Robert Dugan.”

Ali looks down at her notes, refusing to look up as Bobby is sworn in under oath until she hears Judge Burns. “You may begin your questioning, Attorney Krieger.”

She lifts her head and looks him right in the eye, knowing her stare is penetrating and cold. She waits almost a full minute before saying anything, her eyes unblinking. Bobby stares back unwavering, but looking increasingly unsettled as the silence continues. Ali knows she’s about to get a prompt from the judge, so she starts.

“Chief Robert Dugan, can you corroborate the testimony of Captain McNally? Did you in fact direct him to take haste in the processing of Captain Harris in an effort to protect her?” Ali asks him.

“Yes, I did. We take our camaraderie in the department very seriously and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again in the name of protecting any officer to the best of my ability. However, I do wish to be clear that I never directed Captain McNally or anyone else to willfully neglect the proper legal procedure.” Bobby says confidently.

“Understandable. And let me clarify that it was not my intention to suggest that you did so with my line of questioning, Chief. This is merely a way of understanding the context of the situation.” Ali says respectfully, trying to earn brownie points with the judges right now. “Chief Dugan, will you recount the events that occurred that day as you remember them?”

Ali sits back and listens patiently over the next five minutes as Bobby gives his account of what happened. It fits the story outlined in Ashlyn’s confession perfectly and is exactly what Ali was expecting.

“Thank you, Chief. Since you were the first on the scene that day after receiving a call from Captain Harris, my next line of questioning pertains to your relationship with her and any connection you had to the victim, Liam Gorham. Rather than subject you to questions you have already answered for me, would you be willing to allow the court to hear the recorded conversation you consented to a couple of months ago?” Ali asks him, referring to the recording of their first interaction at the coffee house.

“Yes, I consent to that.” Bobby answers feeling a bit hesitant, but knowing he has no reason to deny the request.

“Your honor, as precedes in several cases in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court of Appeals, evidence which is considered to be public information or knowledge may be presented during witness testimony. Hence, I wish to submit as evidence a publicly recorded audio conversation between myself and Chief Dugan on November 26, 2016 which he legally consented to. Would you like to hear the case history in precedent?” Ali requests, addressing Judge Burns.

Judge Burns quickly confers with the other two judges before replying. “We are aware of the precedent and will allow it. You may proceed.”

Ali nods and sets the recorder she brought to the podium with her on the loudest setting before playing it. She pauses after the part where Bobby consents to being recorded to make sure everyone is able to hear it clearly before continuing to let it play to the end.

“Chief Dugan, would you agree that everything in that recorded conversation was accurate?” Ali asks.

“That is correct.” Bobby confirms.

“And there is no aspect of it that you wish to change or recant?” Ali checks.

“No, it’s accurate as is.” Bobby repeats.

“And, as you stated in the recording, you had no connection with Liam Gorham in any way? No business associations or personal relationship?” Ali prods.

“Correct. I had never even been introduced to him. We had simultaneously been at the same events, but never spoke to or had any interaction with each other.” Bobby answers.

“You did note your close and mentoring relationship to Captain Harris. Were you aware of any relationship or association between her and Mr. Gorham?” Ali inquires.

“Honestly, no. She never mentioned it, so I was really surprised to get that call from her that day. But, she was never one to talk much about her personal or intimate relationships, so I suppose I wouldn’t have expected any different when it came to Liam Gorham.” Bobby replies.

“Chief Dugan, while your statement of the events matches with the timeline initially provided by Captain Harris…can you explain the discrepancy in the cellphone call logs? You’ll note in the log provided to the court that the time between her call to you and the time at which you placed a call to Captain McNally only shows a couple minutes passed. It’s near impossible for you to have traveled to Liam Gorham’s office and dealt with detaining Captain Harris in that time frame.” Ali says pointedly, but purposely throwing Bobby a lob of a question so that he feels a confidence boost.

“No, I can’t explain it. However, it’s well known that cellphone towers are sometimes horribly inaccurate and not the best indicators of actual timestamps. I stand by my timeline.” Bobby answers with a smirk.

Ali holds in her own smirk, knowing she set him up to think he was smart to come up with that reply. Anyone with half a brain would know to say that, but she wants him to feel in control right now. “About 20 minutes prior to her call to you, the phone log shows that you placed a call to Captain Harris. Is that accurate and if so, what was the conversation about?” Ali questions.

“That is correct. I called her to make plans for dinner the following night, we often had dinner outside of work.” Bobby answers.

“And she made no mention of Gorham at that time or where she was going?” Ali continues.

“No.” Bobby states simply.

“And how did she sound during that call? Did anything draw your attention or seem off?” Ali delves deeper.

“No, she seemed completely normal to me.” Bobby answers.

“Upon arriving at the scene, you said you noted that Captain Harris had a bullet wound. You have also stated that at the time you believed it to be from a ricocheted bullet?” Ali asks her next question.

“Yes that is correct.” Bobby says with no follow-up.

“And why did you believe that to be the case? Did Captain Harris tell you it was a ricochet from her gun?” Ali inquires with a furrowed brown for effect.

“No. I just assumed because I didn’t see any other weapon besides hers at the scene.” Bobby replies.

“The case files show a complete sweep of the scene and of Liam Gorham’s office, finding no other weapons on the premises beside Captain Harris’ police-issued gun. Further, a complete sweep of Captain Harris’ home and personal belongings showed that she did not possess any other weapon other than her police-issued 9mm Glock 22 handgun. Is that information accurate to your knowledge?” Ali asks.

“Yes.” Bobby answers.

“So, the only weapons at the scene when the police back-up arrived were Captain Harris’ weapon and your own. Correct?” Ali clarifies.

“Yes, correct.” Bobby supplies.

“Just a couple more questions. Chief Dugan, you have been profiled in several Boston news outlets as a collector of handguns and handgun memorabilia. Is this correct?” Ali asks, catching Bobby a bit off guard with her random question.

“Attorney Krieger, I fail to see the relevance of your question as it pertains to this case.” Judge Burns interjects.

“It has relevance in the questioning of my expert witness and I ask the court for a little bit of latitude.” Ali addresses the judges politely.

“Very little, Attorney Krieger, so I suggest you get to the point quickly. You may proceed, though I will remind Chief Dugan that he may choose not answer any of these questions.” Judge Burns issues in warning.

Ali nods. “Chief Dugan?”

“I don’t mind answering. Yes, I collect handguns and handgun related memorabilia from the 1950s to 1980s.” Bobby asserts proudly.

Ali tries not to roll her eyes, knowing he’d answer these questions because he’s been openly proud of his collector status for years. “Have you ever sold any of your collectibles?”

“Yes, twice. Both in charity auctions. One was about 10 years ago, the other was just this December to benefit Mothers Against Drunk Driving.” Bobby answers with an air of self-importance.

“Have you ever personally sold a police-issued handgun or know anyone who has in your experience as a collector?” Ali inquires.

“No.” Bobby says seriously. “That is against the law, Ms. Krieger. Specifically, police-issued handguns are either destroyed or re-purposed once they are relinquished.”

“So, it’s highly unlikely that someone would come into possession of another officer’s handgun?” Ali makes a completely useless point just to please the judges, all she really needed was for Bobby to admit that he collected and sold handgun memorabilia.

“In my estimation as an officer and a collector, yes.” Bobby replies a bit unsure of what Ali is trying to point out.

“Thank you, Chief Dugan. I have no other questions.” Ali says and watches a confused Bobby step down from the stand once the judge directs him to do so.

She turns around to give Ashlyn a quick small smile because they’re the only two in the room that completely understand that last line of questioning. Ashlyn returns the smile not even bothering to hide it.

 

Tuesday, December 6

Ali’s cellphone rings as she’s trying to put a case of bottled water into her shopping cart. She sees Dr. Wayne Henning on the caller ID unexpectedly. “Hello?” She answers quickly, wondering why he’d be calling her when she already got all the information she expected from him.

“Hi Ali, this is Dr. Henning. I was calling to tell you about something you might find interesting and may be worth pursuing.” Dr. Henning says with some excitement to his voice.

“Ok, go ahead.” Ali replies.

“As a ballistics and gun expert, I tend to follow as much of the local collectibles market as I can. Not sure if you know this, but Chief Robert Dugan is a huge collector and pretty notable for it locally. Anyway, he has just put up a pretty sizeable collection of older model handguns and accessories for a charity auction being held at Boston City Hall tomorrow. When I looked through the listing of items, I noted two older model silencers among the list, which are pretty unusual items for collectors. I know he has some connection to your case and with the evidence I presented to you before…well, I thought maybe you might want to get your hands on it. Might be nothing, but…” he trails off.

“Wow, Dr. Henning, you’re incredible! I’m all over it! Thank you so much for telling me. Are you available to look at it if I can get my hands on the collection?” Ali asks excitedly, making a mental note to pay this guy a whole lot more if this turns out the way she hopes.

“Of course! I love this stuff!” Dr. Henning replies enthusiastically.

“Excellent! I’ll be in touch.” Ali replies before hanging up.

 

“The court will break for a one hour recess and resume testimony at 1:00pm.” Judge Burns announces and hits his gavel, prompting the bailiff to direct the court to stand as the judges leave.

Ali lets out a small relieved sigh. She’s exhausted and in pain and could really use the break. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Bobby eyeing her from his seat. It’s exactly as she wants it… he believes he’s off the hook and completely confused as to why. This break in the proceedings is perfect, it’ll allow him time to think about it and convince himself that she must be scared of him and backing down. She makes her way over to Ashlyn before the court officers come to escort the blonde back to the holding area.

“Hey, we’re doing good. I’ll see you back in here after lunch, ok?” Ali says sweetly, letting down her blinders for a minute and checking in on the blonde.

“Yeah. Are you ok, Alex?” Ashlyn asks, the extreme concern in her eyes evident. It’s taking a lot for her not to breakdown and say and ask everything she wants to.

“I feel as rough as I look, but I’ll be ok and I got this. Promise.” Ali honestly reassures her. “Pesky bitches are tough.” She adds a little humor and lets her shoulder just brush Ashlyn’s as she leans in.

“Pesky bitches are also un-fucking-believably amazing out there. God, Alex, you’re just…wow.” Ashlyn says in genuine awe of how incredible the brunette is at commanding and controlling the courtroom.

“Yeah, well, if I’m performing half as good as you look right now… this case is in the bag, Harris.” Ali gives her a smile as the court officers approach them.

Ashlyn reddens a bit at Ali’s compliment. “Almost there.” She says softly as the officers start to escort her away.

“Almost there.” Ali repeats in confirmation and watches Ashlyn get led out of the room.

Ali immediately heads over to Kyle and Tim who help her out of the courtroom slowly. She spends the lunch hour reclined in the front seat of Tim’s car while he and Kyle make sure she takes some more pain medication and eats some soup along with a cold smoothie in hopes that the hot and cold combination will help soothe her throat. None of them talk much as the goal is to let Ali rest. It’s exactly the break she needs to refresh and focus on end of this case.

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 Ali settles back into the chair besides Ashlyn as they wait for the judges to re-enter the courtroom.

“You look just a smidge better.” Ashlyn whispers, still concerned but glad to see a little more color in Ali’s cheeks compared to the complete paleness of before.

“Took a little nap and ate something, it helped.” Ali tells her. “You ready for this?”

Ashlyn nods. “Yeah, I’m ready. Just… promise me you won’t do anything dumb.”

“Define dumb.” Ali tries to lighten things a bit.

“Pushing so far as to get very your own beige jumpsuit.” Ashlyn smirks. “Really though, if it’s not there, don’t go for it. Please?” She requests seriously.

“It’s gonna work. I’ll make it work.” Ali says resolutely.

“But, Alex, if it doesn’t…” Ashlyn starts but is cut off.

“Not an option, Harris.” Ali ends the conversation, briefly entwining their hands under the table and squeezing as the bailiff announces the judges.

 

After re-opening the court session, Judge Burns directs Ali to call her next witness.

“Your honor, I call Dr. Wayne Henning.”

Ali gives Dr. Henning a small smile as he approaches the witness stand and is sworn in.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Henning. You are here to give expert testimony as a highly regarded ballistics and weaponry analyst. Would you please state your credentials for the court?” Ali begins.

“Sure. I have a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with master degrees in chemistry and forensic science from the same place. I have over 10 years of experience in ballistic analysis which includes approximately 4000 hours of time logged actively examining bullets and weapons.” Dr. Henning answers.

“Thank you. Your honors, a couple of months ago, a bullet was removed from Captain Harris’ leg over concerns of infection. That bullet is the very same one that was identified as being the source of Captain Harris’ injury on the night of Liam Gorham’s murder in both medical records and case files. Once removed, it was catalogued as evidence in this case by the South Boston Police Department and shortly after examined by Dr. Henning. As such, I would like to formally admit the bullet into evidence for this case and testimony.” Ali requests.

“We accept the admission of this evidence.” Judge Burns responds.

“Dr. Henning, can you describe the condition of the bullet as it was delivered to your lab?” Ali asks.

“It was in as perfect of condition as any forensic analyst could hope for. It was clear that it had only been photographed and preserved with no other testing.” Dr. Henning replies.

“Will you please present the full procedure and results of your analysis for the court?” Ali requests.

Dr. Henning spends the next 20 minutes going over every detail he had previously discussed with Ali, making sure to explain every step he took to get his results.

“So, to sum up your findings Dr. Henning: This particular bullet was without a doubt fired from a 9mm Glock handgun, but not Captain Ashlyn Harris’ handgun. The bullet showed no evidence of having ricocheted off of anything and was conclusively fired directly into the leg. And finally, the bullet shows markings consistent with having been fired from an older model silencer with an inner-wipe style mechanism.” Ali gives a final synopsis.

“Correct.” Dr. Henning affirms.

“On December 7, 2016 a collection of varied older model guns, silencers, and ammunition clips belonging to Chief Robert Dugan went up for auction and was purchased by the charitable organization Matty’s House with proceeds going entirely to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I would like to disclose that Matty’s House is my own personal non-profit association for rehabbing substance users, which I co-own with my brother, Kyle Krieger.” Ali walks to the table to grab a copy of the transaction to present the judges if needed, purposely looking at Bobby who is sitting there a bit slack-jawed. There is a whispered buzz in the court room among the reporters.

“Your honors, given the testimony of Dr. Henning and the presence of Chief Dugan at the scene prior to police arrival, I would like to submit the two silencers contained in this collection into evidence.” Ali makes the motion and watches the judges confer on it for at least a full minute.

“On the grounds of specific relation to the bullet analysis, the court will allow the admission of this evidence.” Judge Burns announces. “Please proceed.”

“Dr. Henning, would you please present your methods and results regarding the analysis you performed on these two silencers in relation to the bullet in question.” Ali asks.

“Yes. Using residue and microscopic analysis, I determined that both silencers had been used. Thus, I examined both of them. One contained a rubber-wipe mechanism inside, the other a plastic-wipe mechanism and both were manufactured in the 1960s. Two separate 9mm bullets matching the exact make of the bullet in question were fired through each of the silencers using a 9mm Glock handgun. The bullets were then examined for any patterns or markings. The rubber-wipe silencer left only a very thin black residue on the bullet that would have naturally been deteriorated by bodily fluids, leaving no other markings. However, the plastic-wipe silencer left a series of microscopic brush markings on the bullet. These markings are consistent with those found on the bullet in question.” Dr. Henning finishes, showing the court a photographic comparison of bullets side-by-side to underscore the sameness of the pattern.

“Dr. Henning, in your expert opinion, do your findings in any way corroborate the events of crime as filed in Captain Harris’ confession or as explained by Chief Dugan and Captain McNally?” Ali inquires.

“No, they do not. It is my finding that the bullet in Captain Harris’ leg was not fired from her gun, but another 9mm Glock handgun with an attached silencer. Hence, the science is not in agreement with the presented statements of the prior parties.” Dr. Henning answers confidently.

“Thank you, Dr. Henning. I have no further questions.” Ali says and listens to the judge tell Dr. Henning that he may step down.

“Attorney Krieger, do you have any closing statements before the court recesses for the ruling?” Judge Burns asks.

“Your honors, in light of the findings of the expert testimony and new evidence submitted, I motion to recall Chief Robert Dugan to the stand.” Ali puts forth.

“This is unorthodox, Attorney Krieger.” Judge Burns states hesitantly.

Ali is about to make a further argument when Judge Werthers speaks up. “Judge Burns and Judge Grayson, while this may not be a standard motion, my knowledge of the preceding case law in this court of appeals includes a well-documented history of allowing the recall of witnesses as a consequence of substantial changes or additions to prior evidentiary support. I am of the decision to allow it.”

With no objections from Judge Grayson on Judge Werthers’ statement, Judge Burns makes the decision. “Chief Robert Dugan, you are hereby recalled for witness testimony.”

“You do remember that you are still under oath, Chief Dugan?” Judge Burns reminds him.

“Yes, your honor.” Bobby replies before sitting down.

Ali takes a glance at Ashlyn, who gives her a reassuring nod, letting out a small breathe before turning around to look Bobby in the eye. ‘You just have to get him to bite, just once.’ She mentally reminds herself as she opts to stand directly in front of him rather than behind the podium.

“Chief Dugan, after hearing Dr. Henning’s testimony that a bullet fired from a 9mm Glock handgun not belonging to Captain Harris was removed from her leg and shows evidence of being fired directly into her leg through an older model silencer like the one contained in your personal collection… as the only other person on the scene with a police-issued handgun, what is your reaction to this testimony?” Ali asks pointedly.

Bobby remains calm. “I must admit that I am surprised as it does not match up to what Captain Harris told me, but I stand-by my account of the events.”

Ali bites her tongue, knowing now that he’s not going get flustered and stumble over this like she’d hoped. “Do you have any explanation as to where another 9mm Glock handgun came from at the crime scene?”

“You do not have to answer that, Chief Dugan.” Judge Burns interjects and gives Ali a warning glare.

“I’ll answer. I do not have any explanation other than to suggest that there may have been another individual who fled the crime scene prior to my arrival. Captain Harris’ confession has already been deemed as likely false, so it’s possible she wasn’t telling the truth from the beginning. Further, I believe you previously noted that the bullets identified as fired by Captain Harris were fired post-mortem. That suggests to me that she may have fired them to cover up for another party, but I can’t comment intelligently on that as it has not been investigated.” Bobby says evenly, taking away Ali’s next piece of ammunition against him.  “As for the silencer, there are many older model silencers like the one in my collection that would have left similar markings on a bullet. In my own cursory knowledge of the weaponry, they do not leave unique markings identifiable to a specific silencer.” Bobby adds smugly.

“The first part of the answer is conjecture and will be disregarded by the judges in their ruling. Please retain only the information regarding the silencer.” Judge Burns says with a hint of impatience.

“Chief Dugan, can you explain how an officer goes about investigating criminal activity with immunity for themselves in the case that they may become involved in illegal activity through their investigation?” Ali continues her questioning, her heart rate picking up a bit as she tries a different angle but knows she’s walking a fine line now.

“It’s fairly simple. An officer must open a formal investigation that is approved by either a Captain or Chief stating their involvement in the investigation.” Bobby replies, unsure of why he’s being asked.

“And can an officer approve their own investigation?” Ali prods further.

“Yes, if they hold the appropriate ranking to do so.” Bobby answers simply.

“Chief Dugan, among the open investigations for the Boston Police Department, there is one filed for both you and Liam Gorham as approved by Captain Harris in 2012 with herself named as the investigator. Were you aware of this and do you have any explanation as to why Captain Harris might have opened that investigation?” Ali asks evenly. She watches Bobby’s face twitch a bit as she hears the judges whisper to each other.

Before Bobby can say anything, Judge Burns speaks up, his voice clearly annoyed. “Do not answer that question, Chief Dugan. Attorney Krieger, you are setting a dangerous precedent in this courtroom that we will not allow. If you have a formal accusation, then I suggest you make it knowing the full legal consequences of your actions. If not, then proceed with the understanding that you are questioning a public official with a clean service record. Consider this your only warning.”

“Yes, your honor.” Ali acknowledges in defeat. Bobby is not going to bite and she’s one-step away from a false accusation charge against her, so she has to use the only card she has left and hope that the judges will be patient enough to allow her to submit the evidence she needs to make it possible.

“Your honors, I have one final line of questioning for Chief Dugan for which I formally request to submit four public record documents into evidence. As stated prior, items of public record can be submitted into evidence if they are accessible to the general public. The four items I wish to submit are easily accessible by any party via internet search.” Ali requests and holds her breath as the judges confer.

“As we have already allowed such evidence to be submitted in the witness testimony for this case, we will allow your evidence to be submitted. Please bring forth a copy of your documents.” Judge Burns states.

Ali breathes a small sigh of relief and presents the judges with a copy of the documents.

“Chief Dugan, in this Google Maps image of Liam Gorham’s private residence, you will clearly see a black BMW X6 with the Massachusetts license plate 450-HGT parked in his driveway. Can you explained why a vehicle registered to you is parked in Mr. Gorham’s driveway with no other vehicles?” Ali asks, hoping this will fluster Bobby a bit.

“While there are no date stamps on when Google images are taken, Ms. Krieger… I am sure that it was after Mr. Gorham’s unfortunate passing when I visited his home on several occasions to meet with his family regarding the case. I have never been to that residence otherwise.” Bobby replies with a smirk.

Bobby isn’t flustered at all, but Ali doesn’t necessarily need him to be for her next question. She was just hoping to get him a little riled up before she lowers the hammer on him and hopes he gets crushed under it.

“Chief Dugan, you have previously stated and confirmed the statement that you and Mr. Gorham had no business associations or personal connection. In light of that, I have to ask you why Mr. Gorham would purchase three separate real estate properties between 2002 and 2004 with someone he wasn’t even so much as acquainted with?” Ali asks with an intense stare.

“Uh… I’m sorry? I don’t understand the question.” Bobby stutters a bit, looking confused.

Ali smiles a bit. She had spent over 60 hours poring over online land and property records in all of Boston and greater Boston, having to do so city by city, just on the off chance she might find an old transaction linking Gorham and Dugan. Her dedication had paid off handsomely when she came up with three such instances.

Ali walks to the witness stand and hands Bobby a copy of three documents. “Chief Dugan, these are public property purchase records for Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hingham. The properties in Dorchester and Mattapan are documented as business warehouse spaces and the Hingham property is documented as a lot with boat dock-slip. You’ll see that the records list the bill of sale to co-buyers therein named as Liam Gorham and Robert Dugan, signatures are consistent with other public signatures on file for each of you. So, I ask you again, why would Mr. Gorham buy joint property with a person he was not acquainted with?” Ali asks sternly.

“Your honor, I decline to answer the question.” Bobby gets out nervously.

“I’m sorry, Chief Dugan, but you have willingly chosen to abandon your right to decline by answering all questions to this point of your own accord and you are hereby directed by this court to answer the attorney’s question.” Judge Burns instructs and awaits the answer.

‘Got you now, asshole.’ Ali thinks, trying hard not to smile as she watches Bobby squirm.

“Uh, well, my financial advisor suggested some business ventures for me several years ago which included Mr. Gorham. Our interaction was minimal to none.” He answers trying to weasel his way out of it.

“Chief Dugan, you have repeatedly and clearly stated to this court under oath that you had no business associations or personal connection to Liam Gorham. Would you like me to have your statements read back to you?” Ali asks calmly even though her heart is racing.

“No, I know what I said. I guess I just misunderstood the extent of what you were asking.” Bobby practically yells in frustration, losing his cool.

“Your honor, I motion to have the witness read his rights…” Ali starts, but doesn’t get to finish the statement before Judge Burns hits the gavel and interrupts her.

“Chief Robert Dugan, you are hereby charged with two counts of perjury by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court of Appeals.” Judge Burns states as he motions for the court officers.

“What the fuck is this?! I didn’t perjure anything! That bitch used obscure language!” Bobby yells heatedly and stands up pointing at Ali.

“Officers, please take the Chief into custody.” Judge Burns commands with greater haste as Bobby appears threatening. “Chief Dugan, please be seated before you are held in contempt of court as well. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?” Judge Burns recites Bobby’s Miranda Rights to him.

“You fucking bitch!” He screams at Ali, trying to launch himself at her as he is held back by the two court officers. “You fucked with the wrong guy! You can bet I’ll make sure you’re dead next time around! And you!” He points at Ashlyn, his eyes bugging out in anger. “I should’ve shot you in the fucking head like fucking Gorham when I had the chance, but you can count on it now! You’re whole fucking family is gonna die, bitch!”

Ali is so shocked, she has to hold onto the podium as Bobby is finally cuffed and led away. The court room is an uproar of conversation as Judge Burns tries desperately to restore order by banging his gavel loudly.

“Order, order in the court please!” The judge bellows in a shout until things finally quiet.

“Attorney Krieger, do you rest your case?” He asks, imploring her with his eyes to just answer yes.

“Yes, your honor.” Ali replies quickly and makes her way back to sit with Ashlyn, who is sitting there wide-eyed and stunned.

Ali reaches under the table and threads their hands together, squeezing tightly and feeling Ashlyn grip just as tightly in return. The judges are leaned in close together and whispering inaudibly. Normally, they would take a recess now, but given what just happened Ali isn’t sure what they will do.

A few minutes pass before Judge Burns rights himself in his seat. “I ask the defendant to please rise.”

Ali let’s go of Ashlyn’s hand and stands up alongside the blonde to await the judge’s statement.

“In light of the testimony and evidence presented today and the statements made by Chief Robert Dugan, the judges on this panel are in unanimous agreement. Under the power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court of Appeals and in the matter of Captain Ashlyn Harris versus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we hereby rule to fully dismiss the case and prior charges, reversing the sentencing with no allowance further appeals pertaining thereto. Captain Ashlyn Harris is ordered to be released immediately pending proper processing. This matter is now closed and this court is hereby adjourned.” Judge Burns announces the decision which is immediately followed by loud chatter in the courtroom and clapping that Ali knows must be from Kyle or Tim, or both.

Ali collapses back into the chair, relief and happiness overtaking her, but also pain. The adrenaline rush is wearing off quickly with all of her energy completely zapped, the throbbing pain in her chest and throat becoming almost unbearable.

Ashlyn stands stock-still taking everything in. Of all the outcomes she could have thought of or predicted, this was not even close to one of them. Her head is buzzing a bit and she feels almost immobile until she sees Ali flop back into the chair, her complete attention going to the brunette despite everyone else’s attention in the room being on her.

“Alex, you ok? Talk to me.” Ashlyn asks a bit panicked as she kneels down next to Ali and looks her over, resting a hand on Ali’s thigh.

“Yeah, I’m just wiped and in pain. I think I need to get back to the hospital.” Ali says honestly, meeting Ashlyn’s eyes and feeling her heart jump as she gets lost in them.

“Okay. Kyle and Tim will take you there right now, ok?” Ashlyn assures her. “Please, please take care of yourself. I’ll be by your side as soon as I can.” Ashlyn promises, the full weight and meaning of what she just said suddenly hitting her. “Oh my god, Alex… did that just happen?”

“Yeah, Ash. Yeah it did.” Ali replies with a smile, earning one back from Ashlyn. “But, slow your roll, Harris. It can take a couple weeks to process your release, so just hang in ok? I’ll visit as soon as I can and we’ll figure out everything else. For right now, just let yourself relax a bit into the euphoria of it all.”

“Just shut up, be patient and happy, got it.” Ashlyn jokes. “And you, go rest and get better. We have a lot to talk about.”

“We do. There’s plenty of time for that… like after I spend like a week in bed.” Ali plays back as the court officers finally start to make their way over to Ashlyn.

“I wish I had better words, but you are the most amazing, wonderful and completely miraculous person I’ve ever met, Alex.” Ashlyn gets out quickly.

“Glad you think so…cause you’re all mine now, Hero.” Ali shoots Ashlyn a wink, getting a huge dimpled grin from the blonde that she swears is enough to completely heal her right now.

Chapter Text

Ali feels the cold water cover her face and holds her breath until she physically can’t anymore, the freezing burn ripping through her chest. She startles awake gasping for air, her eyes searching the unfamiliar room as the sweat drips down her forehead. She sees Kyle asleep in the chair in the corner of the hospital room and feels herself calm a bit. “Ugh.” She grunts and lets her head fall back on the pillow.

It’s the second day since the court hearing and she can’t wait until she can get out of here. All she wants to do is talk to Ashlyn, it’s all she can think about. Every time she closes her eyes, she has the same nightmare. The water, the cold, the pain of asphyxiation. Kyle is definitely starting to suspect given the state she’s constantly waking up in, but she hasn’t said anything to him about it and he hasn’t asked. She’s pulled out of her thoughts by someone walking into the room.

“Hello, Alexandra. I’m very happy to see that you actually came back.” Dr. Billings says while looking over her chart.

“Trust me, it was my pleasure.” Ali jokes a bit.

Dr. Billings gives her a smile. “Well, I tried to warn you. You’d be surprised how fluid in the lungs and a horribly inflamed throat can make you feel like you’re drowning again when you’re just trying to breathe normally.”

“Sounds exactly right. I felt like death when I got back here.” Ali shrugs. “I’m actually shocked at how much better I feel right now. Like night and day.”

“You really needed to rest and spend significant time on oxygen to let your lungs clear. Looks like you’re doing great though.” Dr. Billings says looking at Ali’s vitals and the follow-up chest x-ray report from this morning. She makes her way over to have a look at Ali’s neck. “This is healing nicely too. If you make sure to keep it moisturized and let the scabbing just fall off naturally, I’m pretty sure it won’t leave any scarring. I’m going to suggest we keep you one more night just to make sure you’re doing okay and then you can go home in the morning if things are the same.”

“Perfect. Thank you. I promise to follow your orders this time.” Ali says with a smile.

“Good to know.” Dr. Billings laughs a bit. “Though I can’t fathom what would make anyone rush out of the hospital in the state you were in before. I know you said something about court, too many traffic tickets?” Dr. Billings asks jokingly.

“Not quite. Just a smidge more important.” Ali replies casually.

“Well, I promise I’m not prying. Just joking a bit.” Dr. Billings quickly says, making sure Ali knows she’s not asking her to divulge anything.

“Oh, it’s ok, really. I’m surprised you don’t already know. I guess you must not be much of a news watcher.” Ali remarks, having spent the last two days inundated with media requests and seeing the story get spun a plethora of ways on TV newscasts and newspapers.

“No, I definitely pay attention to the news. So, what am I missing?” Dr. Billings asks a bit confused.

“Have you heard about the Ashlyn Harris case the last couple days?” Ali asks.

“Of course, who hasn’t?! That is some insanity right there. That poor woman. Such a good cop getting blackmailed by that crooked son of a bitch, pardon my language. Can we really be surprised though? I mean, is anyone in a position of power in South Boston not crooked? Anyway, the way he flipped out in court like that is unreal. I hope he gets what’s coming to him!” Dr. Billings says animatedly.

“Yep, it was pretty intense.” Ali agrees.

“So, you left to go there then?” Dr. Billings asks trying to see the connection.

“I’m Ashlyn Harris’ lawyer.” Ali says simply, trying to hide her proud smile.

“Oh…oh wow. I didn’t put it together until… wait, you’re the one who defended her and made that guy crumble like that?” Dr. Billings says wide-eyed. “You left here… in that state… to go do that?”

Ali nods. “Told you I had a good reason.”

“And you’re the podcast Ali Krieger! I can’t believe I didn’t figure that out until now! I need more sleep.” Dr. Billings says shaking her head a bit. “I’m just in disbelief right now that you went and did that in the condition you were in. That is just, more tenacity that I have ever witnessed. I’m beyond impressed right now. I can’t wait to tell my wife!” Dr. Billings says excitedly, giving more personal information just then than she ever reveals to patients.

Ali smiles at the doctor’s statement and blushes a bit at the attention. “Well, Ashlyn is a very close friend and I couldn’t let her down.”

“Well, she must be some friend then.” Dr. Billings gives Ali a knowing look.

“She is.” Ali admits with a goofy smile.

“Right.” Kyle pipes up from the corner of the room. “Friend.” He says using his figures for air quotes.

Ali shoots him a glare.

Dr. Billings lets out a small laugh. “And that’s my cue to get out of here and finish my rounds. Glad to see you’re doing better and, well, congratulations on the case!”

Ali gives Kyle a dirty look. “You’re the worst.”

“What, did I lie?” He teases her. “I thought you were all about the truth.”

“Shut up.” Ali sticks her tongue out, enjoying the light moment between them as Kyle comes over to gently hug her as best he can.

“Kyle?” Ali gets his attention.

“Yeah?” Kyle replies.

“You stink.” She giggles. “Go home and shower. And while you’re at it, bring us something good to eat.”

“Such a diva!” Kyle laughs. She’s right though, he hasn’t left the hospital since they returned after court. “You sure?”

“Positive. I’m hungry, so hurry!” She says pushing him a bit with her arms. “Go, go, go!”

She watches Kyle put on his coat and make his way out, stopping to place a kiss on her forehead. She shifts into a comfortable position on the bed, her mind going right to Ashlyn of course. She wonders how the blonde is doing, what she is thinking about, how this whole thing is affecting her. Not being able to see and talk to her right now is torture.

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Ashlyn clicks on a few more news articles, reading carefully to see if there is any new information she missed. That’s what she’s occupied her time with over the last two days even though she knows she shouldn’t get caught up in it like this. She’s desperate to find out how Ali is doing and what happened to the brunette, so she’s stooped to the level of reading any and all media coverage of the case. Of course, much to her disappointment, there is nothing about Ali beyond her actions in court and some background information about her podcast popularity. Ali has clearly declined any interviews, probably because she’s recovering. So, much of what is out there is just speculation.

Still, Ashlyn has spent the overwhelming majority of her time since the ruling in the prison library immersed in any reporting on the case so she can understand what is going on. She had assumed that she’d be ignored and left in her cell since she would be getting out soon and no one had to worry about her anymore as a prisoner. It was just the opposite. Other than the fact that she had to be guarded under protective custody at all times, they pretty much let her do whatever she requested as long as it was safe and there was a guard available to cover her. It means being able to spend a lot of time on the internet without anyone looking over her shoulder, a mixed blessing since it’s only led to more questions.

So far she’s been more confused than anything else. She’s learned that Bobby has been charged with contempt of court, two counts of perjury, two counts of threatening bodily harm, first degree murder, and two counts of attempted murder. She understands all of it except for the two counts of attempted murder, knowing that Ali must be one of them, but having no clue about the other. She wonders if Bobby had tried to kill Kyle too. Kyle looked okay in court, but she hadn’t gotten that good of a look at him. It makes her brain spin and her heart ache that Bobby had hurt them and that she was helpless to stop it, and worse, the reason it happened in the first place.

Ashlyn’s mind can’t stop wandering to the way the brunette’s neck looked. Every time she closes her eyes, all she can see is Bobby trying to strangle Ali. How did Ali survive it? The way Bobby looked so shocked when Ali walked in and how smug he was before that, he totally thought she was dead. How on earth had Ali managed it? The questions and emotions swirling around in her head are driving Ashlyn crazy.

Worrying about Ali isn’t the only thing making her feel out of whack. She’s light and happy inside that she’s going to be released from prison after all this time, and with everyone now knowing that she didn’t do anything wrong. The problem is that she’s also terrified. Being in this place, she hasn’t had to really think about the outside world much. What does she do when she gets out? Does she go back to her job, to her South Boston condo like nothing happened? How does she deal with all the people she’s pushed away for a couple years now and does she even want to deal with them? She’ll need a new car to get around because Chris sold hers shortly after she got sentenced. He’s been up-keeping her condo, but she has no idea to what extent. Will she even have heat and electricity when she walks in? How much money is in her bank account, she doesn’t even know. Does her cell phone that she gave up when she was arrested even work anymore? Will her clothes still fit? The questions are endless and she wonders how people who have been in longer than her before their release deal with these things.

Despite all the uncertainty, the one thing she’s sure of is Ali.  Above all else right now, she just needs to see and talk to her. Everything else will fall into place. So she hopes.

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About two hours after he left, Kyle comes waltzing back into the hospital room with some bags of food and a small duffle bag with some fresh clothes for Ali assuming she gets to leave tomorrow.

“Took you long enough!” Ali sasses him, seeing that he looks fresh and more clean-cut than he did when he left. “Oh my god, did you stop to give yourself a beard and hair trim?! Seriously?”

“What?! I was looking shaggy, so I gave myself a quick lil clean-up. Took like 10 minutes, geez!” He defends himself.

“Now who’s the diva?” Ali teases him.

“Well, a Doctor McDreamy might come in here at any minute to whisk me away. Gotta be prepared! Besides, I’m getting crap from the girl wearing mascara in her hospital bed?” Kyle says with a smirk as Ali rolls her eyes.

“Anyway, what’s for dinner?” Ali asks.

“Just an assortment from our favorite Thai place!” Kyle announces proudly as he sets the food out and they dig in.

They make some small talk, but Ali notices right away that Kyle is pretty quiet during dinner. He’s seemingly engaged, nodding or smiling at the appropriate times, but his mind appears to be elsewhere. When they finally finish eating, Ali sees her chance to ask him what’s going on.

“Hey.” She reaches out to touch his forearm that is resting on her bed. “You seem really distant. What’s up?”

Kyle lets out a small sigh. He has to have this conversation sometime tonight and it’s not like there is really going to be a good time. “I have something I need to talk to you about. And, it’s not easy.”

“You can tell me anything, you know that.” Ali reassures him, her mind racing as to what it could be that she doesn’t already know.

“I’m just going to put it all out there, ok?” Kyle warns her. “Just remember we’re in this together and we’ll figure it out.”

“Ok. Just tell me already.” Ali says quietly, feeling anxious at Kyle’s furrowed brow and serious face.

“When I went home a little while ago, I got a call from Ken’s lawyer.” Kyle says, pausing to see Ali’s eyes widen in anger.

“What the fuck does he want from us?! I swear to god I’m going to have his ass jailed and no one is going to stop me!” Ali yells out before Kyle can say anything else.

Kyle moves to quickly sit next to her on the bed. “Hey, Alex. It’s not like that. Just listen to what I have to say, ok?”

“Ok.” Ali relents.

“Bobby put an explosive in the car Ken was driving the night he hurt you. He never even made it out of the neighborhood.” Kyle explains to her quietly, knowing his reaction was one of shock as he thought back to that loud boom he heard when he was trying to revive Ali; the one he chalked up to being a firecracker.

“Oh.” Ali whispers, not sure how she feels other than like she just got punched in the gut.

“Look, he’s alive… but barely. He’s on life support with severe burns over 80% of his body and if he makes it, he’ll have permanent brain damage. He listed the two of us as the decision-makers and powers of attorney on his healthcare proxy documents. His wife isn’t listed and they need us to make a decision.” Kyle gets to the point.

Ali’s head is spinning. “Why…why would he do that? It has to be old.”

“It’s not. It was signed just two years ago. I don’t understand it myself.” Kyle admits. “We need to meet with the lawyer tomorrow. He said he could meet us anywhere.” He adds.

“It makes no sense. I don’t know what to say.” Ali says, all kinds of questions running through her mind.

“Me either. We have to make a decision though. What do we do?” Kyle asks, feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing.

“We’re going to call the lawyer and ask him to bring Ken’s wife tomorrow. We’re going to do whatever she wants to do. He deserves everything he got, but I refuse to hurt anyone else in this fucked up mess. She should be the one to make the decision.” Ali suggests. “Is that ok with you?”

“Yeah, I think it’s the best plan.” Kyle agrees. “Should I go call the lawyer back?”

“Unless there’s something else to talk about, yes.” Ali says quietly as Kyle nods and makes his way out of the room. She settles back into the bed and feels a few tears roll down her cheeks. She quickly wipes them and promises herself there will be no more tears, she’s already cried far too many of them over her father for one lifetime.

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Ali has just taken a real shower and gotten dressed when the doorbell rings. She feels more like herself than she has in days and she has only just gotten home from the hospital this morning. She was hesitant about going home and how she would feel seeing things out of place as they were the night she was attacked. Everything is in perfect order when she arrives with Kyle though and she knows that Tim was clearly here. She couldn’t be more thankful for that.

The good feelings leave at the sound of the doorbell, her stomach dropping a bit as she hears Kyle answer it and greet their visitors. She wills herself to be strong and go downstairs to join him. As she makes it down the stairs and into the living room, she immediately sees more people than the two she expects. The lawyer and Ken’s wife are there, but so are the two sons.

“Alex, this is John Paulsen, Ken’s lawyer. This is his wife Rebecca and their sons, Josh and Jameson.” Kyle introduces everyone in an effort to make things less awkward. Ali shakes everyone’s hand before sitting down.

The lawyer gets right to the point, showing Kyle and Ali the paperwork and letting them know what the medical situation is. He then asks them to make a decision on whether to maintain the life-support or not.

“We know that we can’t relinquish our role because he legally named us in the documents. However, we will make our decisions solely based on Rebecca wants and thinks is right. So, we’d like to formally request that she proxies for us in all decision-making.” Ali says, handing the lawyer the legal paperwork that she drew up just this morning, both her and Kyle’s signatures on it. She sees Rebecca smile and tear up a bit.

“Oh, ok. Well I guess that was easy.” The lawyer remarks, ready to wrap it up and get out of there.

“Is it possible to have a private minute with you, Ali?” Rebecca pipes up.

“Sure.” Ali agrees and leads Rebecca into the kitchen where they settle on opposite sides of the counter on tall stools.

“Ali, I just want you to know that I’m so very sorry. I can’t take back what Ken did to you nor can I forgive it and let it go. But I also can’t let him go. I love him and he’s been so good to me and our boys. I owe it to him and what we have to give him time to try and recover and take care of him. I don’t know how to reconcile this all, but I want to do what my heart tells me to do. It probably doesn’t mean much, but you should know that he’s never stopped talking about you and your brother. He’s so proud of you and he loves you, he always has. I can’t begin to fathom what he was thinking and what you went through, not just the other night, but your whole life. You are as remarkable a woman as he has always described you. I just want you to know, that no matter what decisions I make, I am so thankful for your kindness and respect.” Rebecca says compassionately.

Ali wants to hate the woman, she really does. This is the woman who her father so easily replaced her mother with and with whom he built a new family, moving on as if it was as simple as changing the sheets on a bed. But as she listens to what Rebecca says, she feels exactly the opposite. She feels sympathetic and understanding of how hard this must be for her too. Rebecca is kind and genuine, she’s pretty and approachable, and she isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind. She’s someone Ali would normally be great friends with.

“Thank you for saying all of that.” Ali reciprocates. She knows deep inside she can never truly forgive her father, but she doesn’t have to let what happened change who she is. “I have a lot to come to peace with at the moment and I know it’s going to take me a while, but please know that I don’t blame you or hold anything against you.”

Rebecca nods and they sit in a silence for a few minutes that should be awkward, but somehow is comfortable. Ali is the first to break it. “How about you guys stay for some lunch and we can get to know each other better?”

“I’d like that.” Rebecca smiles.

When they return to the living room, it’s empty. The lawyer has left, having everything he needs at the moment. They find Kyle outside kicking a soccer ball around with the two boys.

Ali smiles as they watch from the window. “They play soccer?”

“Yes. Ken got them into it. He always told them stories about how good you were.” Rebecca replies. “You might want to get out there. I’m sure they’re dying to test you.”

Ali smiles a bit and heads outside. She knows she can’t really join given her condition, but it doesn’t keep her from giving them some pointers while they make Kyle look like an uncoordinated fool. She takes to the boys as quickly as she did to Rebecca. Josh is 8 and Jameson is 11. They’re very sweet and polite, really smart, and typical in that they ask a lot of questions about anything and everything.

The whole morning is not at all what Ali expected and she can’t quite explain why, especially given the circumstances, but something about this feels good inside. As she sits at the lunch table eating pizza and watching the surreal scene in front of her unfold, everyone enjoying food and easy conversation like they have done this many times before, she can only think of Ashlyn’s poem: ‘The most beautiful things, grow from the darkest places.’

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It has been four long days since the ruling and Ashlyn is pacing around her cell excitedly as she waits for a guard to come get her for Ali’s visit. She practically jumps up and down when she hears footsteps approaching in the hallway, Jordan finally coming into view.

“Harris, your princess awaits!” He jokes and bows slightly.

“What are you doing here on a Monday?” Ashlyn asks, knowing Jordan is rarely around Monday mornings.

“Please, I’ve been in touch with Tim. Guards hate observation duty, so not that hard to get people to switch with me. Did you really think I was going to let Alton or anyone else handle this visit?” He gives her a playful look.

“Yeah, what the hell is that guy’s problem?” Ashlyn says shaking her head as she thinks about all the times Alton has given her warnings for just about anything and everything.

“Stick up his ass? I don’t know, he’s just generally a total douche. He thinks being a prison guard is some high position of power.” Jordan shrugs as he cuffs Ashlyn really loosely.

Ashlyn laughs. “Well, whatever floats his boat. Seriously, thanks for being here and doing this, you have no idea how much I appreciate it.”

“Awww, shucks Capt…you’re gonna make me blush.” Jordan winks as he leads her to the visiting room.

As they approach the door, he stops and starts removing her cuffs. “Yeah, so I’m just gonna uncuff you out here and just send you in there. I’ll be here outside the door.” He explains to Ashlyn.

“Aren’t you going to get in trouble?” Ashlyn questions him seriously.

“Harris, you’re an innocent cop who is just waiting to be released. Trust me, nobody cares.” Jordan assures her. “Now, go get her.” He says and gently pushes her towards the door.

Ashlyn opens the door and just walks in, surprising Ali who wasn’t expecting her to walk in on her own like that. She watches the confused expression on Ali’s face turn into a beaming smile as she closes the distance between them and puts her arms around the brunette. Ali is squeezing Ashlyn tightly, her arms around the blonde’s waist and her head buried into the crook of her neck. Ashlyn has one arm gently wrapped around Ali’s shoulder and her other hand lightly stroking the brunette’s hair, afraid to hold her too tightly.

“I’m so happy you’re here, Alex.” Ashlyn whispers, her face burying into the top of Ali’s head a bit, her words having deeper meaning than the current moment. “You ok?” She asks, finally pulling back a bit to have a good look at her. Ali’s neck has several still angry looking red scabs surrounded by yellowish purple bruising. She looks tired, but much better than she did in court.

“I’m so happy to see you. I’m feeling a lot better, promise.” Ali replies looking up into the taller blonde’s eyes before pulling Ashlyn tightly against her once more, just needing to feel that safety and comfort for a few more moments. “Hi.” She says softly, as she finally lets go of her grip but stays close.

“Hey.” Ashlyn smiles and lightly runs her hands up and down Ali’s arms. “Come on, let’s sit you down.” She suggests, worried about how Ali is feeling. She walks Ali the short distance to the chair and helps lower her into it.

“You’re sweet, but really, I’m going to be fine and am doing ok.” Ali says seeing how gentle Ashlyn is being with her. “We have a lot to talk about, huh? I don’t even know where to start.” She adds as she watches Ashlyn take the seat across from her.

“I know it’s probably going to be hard, but maybe we can talk about what happened to you early on so I know the truth and can deal with it rather than inventing like a million awful scenarios in my head like I have been.” Ashlyn suggests as lightly as she can.

“Of course I’m going to tell you, Ash. Any chance we could just get the Bobby talk out of the way completely first and then maybe get into this,” Ali says pointing to her neck, “So then we can completely not talk about him for the rest of the visit after that?”

“Definitely.” Ashlyn agrees wholeheartedly.

“I’m not sure what you know. Do you know about the charges he was brought up on?” Ali asks.

“Yeah, I’ve been killing time reading all the news about it and trying to figure it all out.” Ashlyn admits.

“Given the seriousness of the charges, he wasn’t given bail and has an initial hearing on the 19th to determine whether he will get bail and whether there will be anymore charges. So, we know he’s in custody for sure until then, which gives us until late next week.” Ali explains.

“You’re still worried about him?” Ashlyn asks softly at hearing Ali’s slightly anxious tone. Of course Ali is still worried about him, the guy tried to kill her and just openly threatened to do it again.

Ali nods. “I mean, he’s in custody, but who knows who he’s in contact with.”

“Oh Alex, I promise you, you can stop worrying. He’s all done now.” Ashlyn tries to comfort the brunette. “That’s one thing I’m positive about and maybe I should have found a way to tell you sooner so you weren’t nervous this whole time.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Why are you so sure he’s not going to do anything?” Ali asks a bit confused.

“I was that guy’s shadow for years, Alex. I know how he does things and the type of people he has under his thumb. The only power he ever had just got completely ripped away. He’s not the Chief of Police anymore, he has nothing over anyone to get them to do his bidding. I know that for a fact. People only caved to him because of his position and the harm he could do to them or because they wanted him to help them with illegal things. That’s all he ever had going for him and now he doesn’t have any of it. He’s done.” Ashlyn explains.

“But what if he gets out and tries to do something himself without anyone else’s help?” Ali asks, understanding what Ashlyn is saying, but still a little bit nervous.

“That’s true, I suppose he could. But I highly doubt he will come anywhere near us with all the attention on us and him. And that would only be if he got out on bail. The chances of that are slim to none from what I’ve been reading about these charges, right?” Ashlyn reassures her.

“Yeah, you’re right about that. I just… I want to make damn sure he doesn’t have a chance at all. I’m thinking of going to see McNally this week and giving him all the evidence you compiled against Bobby. Some of that stuff includes federal racketeering and drug trafficking, he’ll never get bail on that. I mean, we have a back-up of all the evidence and there’s a ton of attention on the case, so I think McNally will handle it properly. What do you think? Can we trust him and are you ok with doing this?” Ali lays out her next plan of attack.

“I think we can definitely trust him, especially under the circumstances. He was never involved with Bobby’s crap to my knowledge and he’s a decent guy. And a guy who really wants to be Chief, so I think we’re good. It’s a good idea if you don’t mind doing it, I’m sure it’s a lot to deal with.” Ashlyn replies, giving Ali an easy out if the brunette isn’t up for it.

“I’m seeing this all the way to the end. Damn right I’m doing it. Pesky bitch for the win!” Ali jokes a bit.

“You’re incredible, you know that? There will never be a point in my life where I am not in complete admiration of you.” Ashlyn says sweetly. “And in complete gratitude… I still don’t know what to say.”

“Well, the most important things aren’t said, Ash. They’re felt. And I feel you plenty.” Ali says with an enchanted smile, reaching over the table to hold Ashlyn’s hand like she should have been doing this whole time.

“Ditto.” Ashlyn says smiling back and unconsciously starting to play with Ali’s fingers a bit.

“So, I haven’t been in touch with Chris and Bridget yet because I wanted to talk to you first. I’m pretty sure they’ve heard because the media coverage on this has been national and they’re still in New England on top of that. You seem to feel like the danger part is over and I trust that you’re right about it. So, should I call him and start the process of getting them back to their lives?” Ali gets back to the conversation.

Ashlyn lets out a small laugh. “He must be going nuts right now reading all this crap and wanting to know what is really going on. I can assure you that he’s driving Bridget crazy with his nutty theories. I think it’s safe to at least get in touch with him now and explain everything. Bobby would never be smart enough to know how to find them on his own and all he has is himself now. Maybe we can see what happens with Bobby next week though before we commit to bringing them back locally. I’d rather play it extra safe with the kids.” Ashlyn answers thoughtfully. “If you give me the number to reach him, I can call him.”

“Sounds good. I’ll give you the cellphone number he has right now before I go.” Ali agrees and lets a few quiet second pass between them. “There’s no update on your release date yet, I checked before I came in today. It’ll definitely be by the end of the month though. So, I guess that’s officially all the logistic stuff.”

“Guess so.” Ashlyn reiterates, wanting to let Ali lead the next part of the conversation.

“Are you ready to talk about…” Ali trails off pointing at the marks on her neck.

“Ready when you are.” Ashlyn replies and takes Ali’s other hand, holding them both in a comforting grip.

Ali takes a deep breath and then the words just pour out. She starts right from the beginning…Kyle leaving for a last minute appointment, her father at door and everything that ensued from there. She doesn’t spare a single detail or feeling because Ashlyn has never held back with her when recounting her own horrible experiences. She watches the blonde’s eyes carefully, watching them go from baffled to stormy and sad. The blonde listens quietly and attentively as Ali retells it all from her perspective up until the moment she can’t and it switches to Kyle’s account of that night. That’s when the hazel eyes start leaking tears.

“Hey. I’m here…I’m still here.” Ali pauses and says softly.

Ashlyn nods and moves her head to wipe her eyes on her shirt sleeves, refusing to let go of Ali’s hands. She stays quiet listening to Ali tell her about what happened over the last couple of days and the meeting with her father’s wife and kids. The charges against Bobby finally making sense to her as she realizes that Ali’s dad was the second murder attempt and not Kyle.

When she’s done, Ali waits for Ashlyn to say something.

Ashlyn can’t even find her words. “God, Alex… your dad? Your own fucking father did this?” It makes her heart hurt in ways she didn’t know it could. Her own father had been no angel, but this, this is beyond comprehension. “You died, you actually died at your own father’s hands… for me.”

Ali just shakes her head yes as a few of her own tears slip out. It looks like Ashlyn wants to say something else, so Ali just waits silently.

“Do you mind if I put your coat on the floor?” Ashlyn asks.

Ali is a bit thrown off by the random question. “Uh, yeah, sure.” She says, taking her puffy winter coat off the back of her chair and handing it to Ashlyn. She watches as the blonde gets up and moves towards the nearest wall. Ashlyn sits down on the floor with her back against the wall and lays the coat out between her open legs.

“Come here.” Ashlyn says, motioning for Ali to come over.

Ali makes her way over and the blonde helps her get settled on the floor on top of her coat with Ashlyn’s legs surrounding her. She’s turned to her side a bit with her left shoulder resting against Ashlyn’s chest, her cheek falling on the blonde’s collarbone as Ashlyn’s arms wrap around her tenderly.

“I just really needed to hold you. Are you comfortable enough?” Ashlyn asks.

“Completely.” Ali says in a whispered voice, feeling totally calm even though her heart is beating a mile a minute. She feels Ashlyn’s head rest on top of hers and she closes her eyes, her right hand going up to rest on the blonde’s bicep as she presses herself in just a little bit closer. All notion of time seems to vanish as they sit there silently, but it feels like it’s been a while before she hears Ashlyn’s voice.

“How bad are the nightmares?” Ashlyn asks.

Ali cranes her head up to look at the blonde as best as she can. “How did you…” She starts to ask, but Ashlyn doesn’t let her finish.

“Because I’ve been there and I know plenty of others who have too. In my experience, you don’t almost die and then just walk away without your mind being permanently altered.”

Ali presses her cheek into Ashlyn’s collarbone again before answering. Of course she knew all about the blonde’s experiences and struggles, but it didn’t dawn on her until right now just how much Ashlyn would understand what she was feeling. “They’re pretty bad.” She replies honestly.

Ashlyn moves her hand to stroke Ali’s cheek and stays silent, knowing Ali has more to say and just letting the brunette go at her own pace.

“I just…” Ali starts trying to find the words, the tears already rolling down freely again. “I hate it… I hate it so much. The whole time we went through all of this, the possibility of Bobby coming after me or Kyle was always on my mind. I was prepared for it as much as I could be, you know? But I always expected Bobby or some other random hired gun. And now, I close my eyes and I feel the cold water and not being able to breathe or move, that pain… and every time I’m expecting to see Bobby or some other villain in my nightmares. I don’t though, what I see is my own father’s face…leaving me to die. And I honestly don’t know how to feel or process it.”

“I’m so sorry, Alex.” Ashlyn says softly, pressing a kiss to the top of Ali’s head and pulling her in even closer as gently as possible.

Ali doesn’t say anything, she just lets herself melt into Ashlyn’s arms for a while until she feels the blonde pull back a bit to look at her. She cranes her head up to look at her as best she can as Ashlyn’s hand goes back to her cheek.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, ok?” Ashlyn prefaces her next statement, getting a nod from Ali before she continues. “You should really think about talking to someone professionally. I was so against it for a long time and thought it was pointless. I let myself struggle for far too long until I finally caved and tried it. It really changed everything. I’m not saying I don’t still have bad moments, but they’re tolerable now and I can actually manage them. Just… think about it.”

“I will, Ash. I’ll go see someone as soon as I can.” Ali promises her, feeling so cared for right now.

“Good.” Ashlyn replies back in relief, pulling Ali back into her and feeling the brunette curl right back into her arms.

They’re quiet for a very long time, letting the feel of each other soothe them. Ali feels more protected and safe right now than she ever has in her entire life. She didn’t know how much she needed this until right now… how much she needed to talk, how much she needed to feel sheltered, how much she needed Ashlyn.

“This is my favorite place in the world.” Ali says just loud enough for Ashlyn to hear her.

“The prison?” Ashlyn asks, not understanding the statement.

“No…you.” Ali replies, placing a small kiss on the bottom of Ashlyn’s chin as she feels the blonde’s heart pounding away against her shoulder.

 

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“Ali Krieger. I’m here to see Captain McNally.” Ali tells the officer behind the entrance desk at the South Boston Police Department. She’s there the very next morning after visiting with Ashlyn, wanting to get this taken care of immediately.

“Certainly, Ms. Krieger. I’ll go see if he’s available. He should be.” The woman tells her as she gives Ali a smile. It makes Ali wonder what people here think of her, was Bobby as manipulative of his own police officers as he was with everyone else. She can hear people chatting casually in the background and while she doesn’t know what the environment was like in here before, this definitely doesn’t seem like an atmosphere where a beloved leader was just imprisoned on major charges.  

She doesn’t have much more time to think on it before the female officer is back and pointing her in the direction of McNally’s office.

“Ms. Krieger, I’m glad you’re here. I needed to speak with you and was going to call you this morning, but things have been a bit crazy. So this works out perfectly.” McNally says, shaking her hand and motioning for her to sit.

“Oh ok, good. I actually have some important things to talk to you about too. That’s why I came, but you can start.” Ali replies.

“First and foremost, I just want to say something personal. I am so very sorry, Ms. Krieger for everything that happened. If I had any idea of what was going on, I promise you…I would have done something no matter what power the Chief held. I was aware that he sometimes turned a blind eye to things or let people he knew slide on stuff, but I had no idea of the extent of it. And that’s on me for not probing. We get really busy sometimes and we don’t take time to go beyond our own workload to see what other officers are doing and what investigations are open besides our own. Had I done that, I would have seen Harris’ investigation on him and I would have helped. It doesn’t change what happened, but I am doing everything I can to right it from here forward by changing our protocol and how we handle things. I’m not going to let this happen again on my watch. I’ll talk to Harris too when I can, but I just wanted to apologize to you. You’ve saved this department in many ways and I’m grateful for that.” McNally puts it all out there.

“Thank you for that. I really appreciate your honesty.” Ali replies kindly and waits for him to continue.

“I also wanted to talk to you a bit about the attack on you. I want to confirm the statements I already have and add any others that you would like so I can complete that file.” He explains.

Ali jumps in. “Ok. Well, what I have for you is related to the charges too. Captain Harris did actually compile a hefty amount of evidence in her time investigating Chief Dugan. There are over a hundred documents and recordings that detail all kinds of offenses from federal racketeering to drug trafficking and Ponzi schemes. I have a full copy of those files for you and would like to add them to the investigation so that the proper charges can be filed at the hearing.” She finishes.

McNally nods. “Thank you, I will definitely take it all for proper processing and filing.” McNally stands up and closes his office door before sitting back down. “There’s something that you need to know Ms. Krieger and I’m not technically allowed to tell you yet, but you’ll know soon enough anyhow.” He pauses for a moment. “We’re collecting any final information at this point so that we can close the case permanently.”

“What?! Why?! That’s not possible!” Ali says loudly, infuriated and incredulous at Bobby having found a way to weasel out of the charges somehow, her heart racing.

“No, no, it’s not what you think. Please, it’s ok.” McNally tries to calm her and quickly get to his point before she loses it. “Chief Dugan was found dead in his cell very early this morning. He was hanging by his bedsheet and we’re on the scene right now trying to iron out all the details, but it looks like suicide. Especially given that he was in protective custody and alone in his cell away from the general population. We’re hoping to keep it quiet for as long as we can, but I anticipate it will get out by tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest given the attention on the case. Still, I’d appreciate your discretion.”

Ali’s eyes are wide, her heart still racing. “Yes, of course. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to…” she trails off.

“It’s ok, I completely understand. The emotions on this are high, as they should be given all that has happened. We don’t have to talk about the statement I need from you today. I’ll call you about it soon, there’s no real rush at this point.” McNally says sympathetically.

“Ok. Thank you.” Ali replies still stunned.

“I’m not sure what your leeway on visitation is, but if you can, might be good for you to tell Harris before she hears it elsewhere.” McNally suggests.

“Yes, definitely.” Ali agrees having already had the same thought. “I’m going to head over there now and hopefully it’s early enough in the day that they’ll let me schedule something for the afternoon.”

McNally nods. “Just let me know if I can help you in any way as this all plays out, ok?”

“I will. Thank you.” Ali replies with a polite smile.

“Anytime. Good luck today with Harris and please tell her hello and that we’ll talk soon.” He says as he walks Ali out.

Ali leaves the police department in a daze just trying to focus on getting to the prison as soon as she can. Her emotions are all over the place. She feels mostly relieved that Bobby is gone, but also angry at his cowardice… that he won’t have to face his crimes even though justice was still served. And there’s sadness too, for the number of people who lives were brought into this mess and who will never fully have closure.  Despite all that, there is a lightness, a release of burden. They are safe now and that changes everything.

Chapter Text

After dealing with a pretty disgruntled front desk guard and surviving her fair share of dirty looks for actually making the woman have to do something, Ali is told she can visit with Ashlyn in an hour. She opts to use the hour to go grab a couple of coffees and sandwiches for them from one of the cafes not too far from the prison. By the time she makes it back, she only has a couple of minutes to kill before the visit.

Ashlyn gets led into the room by the guard named Paulette and Ali can immediately tell that she is happy to see her, but also worried. Ali smiles widely to reassure the blonde that everything is fine as she watches her get uncuffed.

“Alex, is everything ok?” Ashlyn quickly asks as Paulette makes her way to the observation room.

“It’s fine. Everything is fine, promise.” Ali goes in for a very quick hug, smiling when Ashlyn hugs her back very gently.

“So, you invented an emergency just to see me, huh? Are you normally this insatiable, Krieger? Ashlyn jokes with a purposely smug smirk on her face.

“No, Harris. Usually I’m worse.” Ali deadpans with a wink before losing her composure and laughing when she sees Ashlyn’s eyebrows raise.

“So, really, what’s up?” Ashlyn asks curiously.

“Well, I got some news this morning that I wanted to tell you before you heard it anywhere else.” Ali says, watching Ashlyn’s brow furrow in uncertainty. “Personally, I think it’s good news. But I’m not going to pretend for a second to know how you’ll feel about it.” She adds.

“Alright…” Ashlyn says expectantly as she wait for Ali to just tell her.

“I went over to see McNally today and when I went to give him the evidence files, he told me that they were just collecting information now so that they could close the case.” Ali starts to explain before Ashlyn cuts her off.

“What the fuck?” Ashlyn blurts out in a confused irate tone.

“Hold on, I’m not done.” Ali tries to calm her. “Ash, they found Bobby hanging by a bedsheet in his cell in the early hours of the morning. McNally says it’s very likely just suicide, but that they were still on the scene. He’s dead.”

Ashlyn’s eyes practically bug out of her head and her mouth hangs open slightly in shock. “He’s dead… dead, dead?”

“Yeah.” Ali nods, trying to read the blonde’s expression beyond the obvious surprise.

“Wow.” Ashlyn whispers.

“You ok?” Ali asks.

“Yeah, I just… I think I just need a minute.” Ashlyn says quietly, still seemingly stunned.

Paulette doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to them, so Ali doesn’t hesitate to break the rules. She reaches over and holds Ashlyn’s left hand between both of her own, gently stroking her fingers as she sits there silently comforting the blonde and giving her time to work through her thoughts.

After a few quiet minutes, Ashlyn finally speaks up. “You know, I think maybe I should’ve seen this coming.”

“Why is that?” Ali asks.

“I guess because he thought so highly of himself. He’d never be able to face a fall from grace like this, especially so publicly. I think death would always be the better option for him in his mind.” Ashlyn explains. “I feel all over the place. I mean, I’m upset that he won’t have to face everything he did and the punishment for it… that he won’t suffer even though he made so many other people suffer. I also feel like everything I did and sacrificed to get all that evidence on him was worthless. But then I also feel happy and relieved that this is really over now. That somehow we all survived it and we’re safe. Even though he really did help me in so many ways early on in my career and as a mentor, I just…I’m not sad even one bit. Does that make me a bad person?” She muses.

“Of course not. Ash, you have the biggest and kindest heart of anyone I know. The fact that you’re even feeling bad about not feeling sad for someone who blackmailed you and almost killed you is proof enough that you’re an amazing individual.” Ali assures her. “Honestly, I’m beyond relieved about it myself and actually happy that this is over.”

“Geez, so this is really it. It’s over.” Ashlyn remarks still in a state of disbelief.

“I think maybe there are aspects of this that will probably never be over for us, but yeah, it’s over.” Ali confirms.

Ashlyn let’s herself smile just slightly and nods in understanding as they sit silently for a couple more minutes.

Ali knows there’s really nothing more to say about the situation right now, so she tries to get them back to a place of comfort and familiarity between them. “Sooo, want your sandwich? Ham and cheese, your favorite.”

“You know I do.” Ashlyn pipes up right away. “If you think you’re insatiable…” she trails off waggling her eyebrows.

Ali giggles at the insinuation and hands the blonde her food, both of them digging into their sandwiches.

“So, I guess this changes my call with Chris today. I’m going to give him the full update and everything he needs to know, but then maybe you can get in touch with him now and work on getting him back to his life again?” Ashlyn asks.

“Absolutely! I’ll have him and the family back to their routine in no time and before you get out of here too… we all have a lot to celebrate together.” Ali says animatedly.

“We sure as hell do, Alex.” Ashlyn says, her lips curling into a smile as her mind wanders to the now imminent day she can once again spend endless time with the people she loves without worries.

*************************************************************************************

 

“Holy fucking shit, Ali Krieger, you are a goddamn wizard!” Chris is about to pull her into a tight hug when Ali quickly stops him with wide-eyes and hands up. “Broken ribs!”

“Christopher Harris, little ears!” Bridget simultaneously yells at him because the kids are right there, but smiles anyway because she totally gets it. She’s as excited as he is.

“Alright, geez!” Chris laughs as he gently pulls Ali close with his big arms.

“So happy you guys are back home.” Ali says as Chris lets go.

“Us too. I can’t believe it.” Bridget gives Ali a light hug with Curtis and Elsie following suit and wrapping themselves around Ali’s legs. “Easy with her, you guys!” She warns as Ali smiles to signal she’s fine.

It’s been a little over a week since the news broke about Bobby’s death and they are standing in the driveway of Chris and Bridget’s home, getting ready to move them back in now that Kyle’s friend who was temporarily renting the place has vacated. Ashlyn’s release date has been set for January 25th, so they have about a week left to settle back in before she’s out.

“I’m just in such awe of you, Ali. Seriously, the whole thing is just unreal. You are such a boss, such a damn genius. I want to hear everything! Ashlyn just gave me the highlights.” Chris says, standing back and looking at Ali like she’s some sort of royalty.

“Oh stop, I was just doing a thorough job and everything I could to help. I got lucky enough to have a lot of things go my way.” Ali replies humbly and earns playful eye rolls from both Chris and Bridget. “But, yes, I’ll give you all the details after we finish up and have some dinner tonight.”

“Yo ho! Are we moving back in or are we just going to become front yard ornaments?” Kyle jokes loudly as he pulls up and gets out of his car, noting that Chris and Bridget’s cars are in the driveway looking still completely packed full of stuff. He gives Chris a quick fist bump and literally skips his way over to grab a box out of the back of the pick-up truck to encourage everyone else to do the same.

Ali shakes her head at Kyle’s antics, but follows him and grabs a very light box as well.

“Okay! Little kiddos… go grab those really heavy boxes and Daddy will carry the stuffed animals.” Chris bellows and earns himself an elbow from Bridget who hands Curtis and Elsie each of their small backpacks instead.

About four hours later when everything is in the house and mostly unpacked, everyone enjoys a quick dinner of Chinese take-out together where Elsie takes up residence on Kyle’s lap and Curtis tells Ali he’s going to marry her.

“You already have one Harris in front of you, buddy. Gotta get in line!” Chris tells Curtis with a chuckle and Ali blushes deep red before Bridget comes to the rescue by passing out the fortune cookies.

Curtis is sitting there with a little pout on his face when Ali leans into his ear. “I’m not getting married anytime soon, but I’m pretty sure that when I do, you’ll be at the wedding right beside your auntie.” She whispers so only he can hear, his face lighting up in a smile not quite understanding it all, but happy that he’ll be at Ali’s wedding.

“What did you just say to him?” Kyle asks giving her a curious look as Chris does the same.

“That’s between me and my bestie over here. Super secret. Right, C?” Ali says winking at Curtis who nods enthusiastically and pretends to zip his lip.

It’s not too much longer before the kids are off to bed and Ali finally gives Chris and Bridget the whole story of the case and everything leading up to it. She spares no details, even getting into being attacked. Kyle holds her hand tightly as she describes it all to a completely shocked Chris and Bridget, who look positively horrified by the time she’s finished.

Ali is glad that she is able to talk about the incident with someone other than Ashlyn and Kyle. This is her first time doing it and Chris and Bridget were the perfect first audience for it. She feels comfortable around them and not judged in any way. Still, the embarrassment and humiliation she felt inside as she told them that her own father had tried to kill her made her realize that it’s high time she took Ashlyn’s advice and sought out a therapist. Her feelings are very much all over the place and the nightmares continue. She really needs to start sorting it out before it gets the best of her.  She’s quietly thinking about it all when Bridget excuses herself to head upstairs and check on the kids, giving Kyle and Ali each a quick hug goodnight.

“Well, that’s my cue too.” Kyle says with a yawn. “Skateboard Expo Friday night?” He looks at Chris.

“Um, YES!” Chris confirms excitedly.

“Perfect!” Kyle replies. “I’ll see you in a little bit at home, Alex?” He asks, purposely heading out earlier to give Chris and Ali a little time.

Ali nods in reply and watches him walk out the door. “So, you’ll help me with getting everything ready for when she gets out?” Ali asks Chris, referring to a conversation they had earlier in the day.

“Absolutely. Anything you think we need to do, I’m on it.” Chris affirms.

“Thanks. I just think the easier we can make it, the better for her to settle back in.” Ali explains.

“Agreed. She’ll be ok though, she’s pretty resilient.” Chris says, stating the obvious to ease the slightly anxious tone Ali has.

“Alright. I better go so Kyle doesn’t worry.” Ali says, pulling her keys out of her purse.

“We’re so lucky to have you Ali, every single one of us. I don’t really know what to say.” Chris says reverently as he gently hugs the brunette goodnight.

“Like I told, Ash… don’t say anything. You just keep giving out these great hugs and we’re good.” Ali smiles as they pull apart.

“Deal.” Chris smiles back. “Goodnight, Ali. You’re the best.”

“I’ll be in touch in the next couple days. Goodnight and welcome home.” Ali says as she makes her way out the door.

*************************************************************************************

“So, either you’ve gotten rid of some stuff for her or Ashlyn is a minimalist?” Ali says to Chris as she stands in the middle of the living room and takes in the condo.

“The later. It’s the military thing, she’s never owned all that much…just the things she needs.” Chris replies with a shrug.

Ali nods and continues to look around. It’s a pretty great space, not huge, but an open layout condo with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The main area has a really nice modern stainless-steel kitchen with white cabinets that opens up right into the living room where a small dining area is set-up off to the side by a bay window. Gorgeous dark hardwood floors run throughout the place except for the bathrooms, which are both tiled in light gray. There isn’t much furniture, just the dining table and chairs, a couch, a comfy looking armchair, a coffee table, and a TV console that has both a PlayStation and an old record player on it along with the TV. All of it is rustic looking but clean to eye. A couple of art pieces hang on the wall of the living room that appear to be abstract ocean paintings.

After turning the heat up, Chris heads into the small basement to flip on the circuit breakers that he turned off to save money. He’s kept the heat and electricity on, but left everything working as minimally as possible just to upkeep the place.

Ali continues to look around, eventually making her way into Ashlyn’s bedroom. She can’t help but feel like she’s intruding on the blonde’s privacy just being in there, but her curiosity gets the best of her. Much like the rest of the house, the furniture and décor is minimal: a queen-sized bed, two bedside tables and a medium sized dresser. A walk-in closet is located right beside the master-bathroom which features a double-sink granite counter and a good-sized clear glass shower. Everything is perfectly neat with the bed tightly made and clothes hung up and arranged by type, size, and color in the closet. Ali notes several police uniforms and some military ones as well. Even Ashlyn’s shoes are neatly arranged by type and color. There are three framed pictures in the room. The first sits on the dresser and is of Ashlyn and Chris with their grandparents; they’re on the beach and Ashlyn looks pretty young and not quite grown into herself yet. The second one is on her bedside table and it’s a picture of Ashlyn holding Curtis in her lap while he holds a newborn Elsie in his arms with her help; Ali practically feels her heart melt just looking at it. The last picture is hanging on the wall above the dresser and features Ashlyn and three other guys in full camouflage gear in front of a Humvee in the desert; the blonde is smiling, but her eyes are so vacant that Ali figures it had to be from well into her first deployment or during her second one.

She takes one last glance at the master bedroom and makes her way across the hall into the second bedroom. This room is just as simple as the others with a file cabinet in one corner and a little office desk set-up in the other corner, an older Mac laptop sitting on top of it. The other side of the room has a nice looking pull-out couch that clearly serves as a guestroom option.

“So, what do you think?” Chris asks as he finds her wandering the place.

“It’s really nice. I didn’t realize these older South Boston condos were so updated inside.” Ali remarks, genuinely impressed by the space and Ashlyn’s simple, but modern style.

“They’re not. Ashlyn is pretty handy, she remodeled a lot of it herself. Floors, cabinets, and all.” Chris tells her with pride in his voice.

“Should have known. Is there anything she doesn’t do well?” Ali replies completely impressed, though she supposes it makes sense given the blonde’s artistic side.

“Other than not knowing how to properly relax sometimes and really sucking at golf and bowling, not really.” Chris says with a grin. “So, what do you think we should do in here? Anything? It’s pretty much like she left it.”

Ali takes one more look around the living room. “Well, for starters, some hardcore dusting and vacuuming and just wiping everything down. I’m thinking maybe wash all her clothes so it’s fresh and Kyle will help me buy some new outfits as well because I think she might be a different size now. We’ll wash and change the bedsheets and towels too. Update the cable and internet subscription so it’s all hooked up when she gets here. If you could help me grocery shop for things she likes to eat, that would be great. Oh, and I am so getting a new laptop… that thing in there is already a dinosaur by today’s standards. That should do it, I think.”

“Damn, Ali, you think of everything.” Chris says as he stands back looking at her with his eyebrows raised. “Seriously don’t think I would have thought of even half of that stuff.”

“One more thing too… maybe you could go with me to the Apple store and we can figure out how to get her a new cellphone with the same number she used to have.” Ali suggests.

“Sounds good to me!” Chris replies eagerly, happy to have Ali’s help.

In between her visits with Ashlyn and with help from Chris, Kyle, and Bridget, Ali accomplishes every single one of the things on her list over the next week, plus one more important one.

*************************************************************************************

Ali feels a complete sense of relief as Ashlyn walks into the visiting room, knowing it will be the very last time. Tomorrow the blonde will finally be free and far away from this awful place that she’s spent much too long in. Of course, Alton is the one observing the visit today. One last sucker punch before Ashlyn gets released, Ali thinks to herself. She gives the blonde a very quick hug and settles into her seat, watching Ashlyn do the same.

“You excited?” Ali asks with a huge smile.

“Of course I am!” Ashlyn replies back with her own dimpled grin, ignoring the clench in her stomach. It’s not that she isn’t excited, she’s thrilled. Still, she’s really nervous about it too. She feels completely overwhelmed by the thought of reintegrating herself back into her normal life. She can’t wait to be free, but she’s also scared of the freedom; an internal battle she hasn’t figured out how to deal with yet. She’s hoping that just taking it all one day at a time will settle her down.

“Good.” Ali says noting the way the blonde’s smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes like it normally does. “You nervous too?” She prods a bit.

“How did you…” Ashlyn starts, but thinks better of it. “Never mind, you always seem to know…I should know better by now.” She says a little relieved that she doesn’t have to hold back. “I really am happy and excited to be leaving here, I promise.” She assures Ali before letting out a small sigh, looking down at the table and continuing. “I just feel overwhelmed by it all too. How do I go about readjusting to everything? I feel like I don’t even know how to deal with real life stuff anymore. I don’t even know what is in my bank account, it’s pathetic.”

“Hey… look at me, Ash.” Ali says gently, watching the blonde’s eyes look up to meet hers. “You’re not going this alone. You have your brother, you have Kyle, and you will always, always have me. We’ll be with you every step of the way and we’ll figure it all out together. I know you’re probably not used to that… but, you better get used to it because we’re not going anywhere. If anything, you’ll be annoyed by the level of help you get.” Ali jokes a bit to try and soothe Ashlyn.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just used to doing it all by myself.” Ashlyn admits, feeling a little better with Ali’s reassurance.

“Fat chance of that happening, Harris.” Ali shoots the blonde a wink and finally earns a genuine smile in return. “First, don’t ever apologize for how you feel. Second, how about we tackle the bank account thing right now.”

“Alex, I don’t even remember my account numbers or passwords. We have no way of checking until I actually go there.” Ashlyn replies, feeling a bit dumb.

“Doesn’t matter. I can tell you right now that you have at least $500,000 in your bank account.” Ali says matter-of-factly.

Ashlyn laughs. “I have never had $500,000 or anywhere even remotely close to that, except maybe in a dream once. What exactly did you smoke before you came in here today, Krieger?”

“A victory cigar.” Ali plays back mysteriously. Ashlyn is looking at her like she’s crazy, so she just pulls the envelope out of her purse and hands it to the blonde. “I was going to wait until tomorrow, but…open it.”

Ashlyn eyes Ali quizzically as she opens the envelope to find a check inside for $500,000 addressed to her. She’s about to vehemently protest that she’s not taking Ali’s money when she notices that it’s from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “Is this real? What is this?” She asks in confusion.

“I took the liberty of filing a wrongful conviction compensation complaint with the state on your behalf. Most people don’t realize we have a law for that. I thought it would take much longer than this because the required burden of proof for innocence is much higher than in the appeals court. I guess given what happened and the attention on the case, they settled it really quickly with no additional requests. It’s quite a bit less than what you would have made in the last two and half years based on your salary and average detail overtime pay, but they gave you the maximum amount allowable under the law. We’ll make sure to go to the bank tomorrow and get it deposited. So, you see? You have at least $500,000 in your bank account. Voila!” Ali sits back a bit with a satisfied smile.

Ashlyn is stunned, relieved, and completely overcome with emotion. “I give up.” She says evenly.

“Give up what?” Ali asks curiously, trying to read the blonde’s expression.

“I officially give up trying to figure out what on earth I ever did in this life or a past one to deserve someone like you. I’m speechless.” Ashlyn gets out a bit emotionally.

“But are you more excited now?” Ali asks trying to hold in the blush that is likely already creeping into her cheeks. “Because I am so damn excited about tomorrow!” She practically squeaks.

“Yeah, Alex….I’m really excited!” Ashlyn says, finally letting herself get lost in the exhilaration without all the worry for the time being. Tomorrow is the start of a whole new life.

*************************************************************************************

Ashlyn spends about an hour of the morning with the discharge officer whose job it is to make sure she’ll be able to readapt to life outside of the prison. The woman is thorough with her questions, making sure that Ashlyn has a support system and a place to live before finally handing her $100 in cash of ‘gate money’ and a comprehensive list of resources. The woman also hands her a bag of her personal items that were seized when she was arrested. Ashlyn opens the bag to find her wallet which still has $53 in it, her digital Casio watch with a now dead battery, her iPhone which is also long dead, a pair of black diamond stud earrings, a leather strap bracelet, and her keys. All of the clothes she was wearing is missing.

“All of your clothes upon arrest was bagged and catalogued as case evidence according to your intake file. You’re welcome to wear the prison issue clothes out, but your lawyer also dropped off some clothes for you this morning.” The woman says reading her face and handing her another bag with the clothes in it. “Feel free to change in here and then I can walk you out to the entrance area.”

“Thank you.” Ashlyn says politely and waits until the woman leaves to start changing. She looks inside the bag to find a pair of light-wash fitted jeans, a white collared button-up, a dark gray knit sweater, black All Saints boots, and a black Armani men’s peacoat. There is even a pair of boxer briefs with sharks on them, socks, and a sports bra. This outfit has Kyle written all over it.  She puts it all on, looking down to check herself out as best as possible and wishing there was a mirror in the room. Everything seems to fit perfectly, not surprising given Kyle’s totally gift for this kind of thing.

Ashlyn runs her hand through her hair one last time and walks out the door so that the discharge officer can lead her out. ‘This is it, it’s finally happening.’ She thinks as she walks down the last corridor, her heart racing.

The door to the entrance opens and the first thing she sees, the only thing she wants to see, is Ali rushing towards her. She gently wraps her arms around the brunette and feels Ali wrap her arms tightly around her waist.

“I’m much much better, you won’t break me, Ash.” Ali whispers to the blonde when she feels the loose grip. She immediately feels Ashlyn hold her tighter and can actually sense the blonde smiling into the top of her head. “Freedom looks good on you, Ash. So. Damn. Good.” She mumbles into Ashlyn’s shoulder, still trying to recover from how incredible Ashlyn looks in this outfit.

Ashlyn is about to reply when she hears Kyle’s voice.

“Can a guy get a little sugar around here? I mean, I expected a long hug between you two…but this is just getting awkward now.” He sasses from right beside them.

Ali pulls back and gives him a glaring look, her eyes going right back to Ashlyn who she can’t stop staring at right now.

“Kyle.” Ashlyn says softly and immediately pulls him into a tight hug.

“Hey, Harris. Looking good my queen.” He says sweetly before adding his usual humor. “My doing of course, so props to me!”

Ashlyn laughs a bit and releases him after a few more moments. “I missed you, dude.”

“You too.” Kyle replies simply, trying not get teary.

“You ready?” Ali asks.

“Absolutely.” Ashlyn replies with a nod, reaching out with each of her hands to grab Ali’s and Kyle’s.  “Together?”

“Together.” Ali and Kyle reply in unison as they all walk out the door and into the cold air.

 

 

“Here.” Ali says handing Ashlyn a phone in the car while Kyle drives. The two of them had opted to sit in the backseat together, ignoring Kyle’s complaints about feeling like a chauffeur and referring to himself as ’Jeeves’.

“What’s this?” Ashlyn asks.

“A phone, idiot.” Ali teases her and gets a playful look from the blonde.

“I know that, asshole. Why are you handing me a phone?” Ashlyn plays back.

“Because yours is practically ancient and currently dead. I went to the Apple store with Chris and got you an updated iPhone. Took some major flirting that completely embarrassed your brother, but I got them to transfer your account and everything they had on file into this new phone. So your phone number is the same and everything should be on there, just have to re-enter any email passwords and stuff like that. All your contacts are in there, with a new and very important one added of course!” Ali winks.

“Wow, thanks! You guys are awesome!” Ashlyn says, turning the device over in her hand. It looks a lot like her old phone, just with a bigger screen and a slimmer and sleeker design. She turns it on and looks at the contact list, not finding Ali’s name in there. “I thought you said all the important contacts were in here?” Ashlyn questions, giving Ali a knowing look.

“They are. Keep looking, Harris.” Ali replies.

It takes her a while but Ashlyn finally sees it and smiles. ‘Paladin’. “No wonder I missed it, I was looking under A, she pauses for a second to bait Ali…for ‘Asshole’.” She laughs at Ali who is pretending to be offended.

“In that case, maybe I should change ‘Hero’ to ‘Idiot’.” Ali gives it right back to her as she holds up her own phone.

Kyle just shakes his head as he drives, working hard to bite the teasing comments on his tongue and let them have their moment.

Ashlyn clicks off the phone because looking down at it is making her feel a bit carsick. She leans her head back on the seat and feels Ali’s head drop into her shoulder, the brunette’s hand entwining with her own.

“Well go over to the bank real quick to make sure this money gets into your account. Then we’ll go right to your place and help you get settled in. Chris will be over for dinner tonight. Is that ok?” Ali asks as she lays out the game plan.

“Yeah, that’s perfect. Thanks, Alex.” Ashlyn replies quietly, trying to focus on the good feelings right now instead of what the inside of her condo must look like.

After a quick stop at the bank, which goes really smoothly with Ashlyn finding out much to her relief that she now officially has $553,324.11 to her name, they’re in front of her condo door. Ashlyn pulls out her keys slowly and clicks open the door lock before turning around to look at Ali and Kyle worriedly. “Guys, I have no idea what it looks like in there. So, I apologize ahead of time for any mess or lack of heat and stuff.” She cringes a bit, not wanting this to be the first time Ali sees her condo.

“Don’t worry, we won’t judge.” Ali says trying to hide her smirk as Kyle nods in agreement beside her.

Ashlyn opens the door slowly and keeps her eyes trained on the floor as she walks into the entrance of the living room area, feeling the warm air hit her face. She takes one last breath and looks around. Everything is exactly as she left it, only the place is spotless, it smells fresh and there are flowers in a vase on the table. She lets out a sigh of relief and really takes it all in with a slight smile on her lips.

“Come on, did you really think Chris and I would let you come home to a dusty, empty house with no heat?” Ali says, coming up behind the blonde and rubbing her back lightly.

Ashlyn can only smile widely at the brunette before going from room to room, completely looking her place over. It doesn’t escape her attention that her clothes are all freshly washed, the cabinets and refrigerator are filled with food she loves, and that there is a new laptop in the office. She sits on the edge of her bed and lets the tears flow freely down her face.

Ali walks into the bedroom after giving Ashlyn a few minutes to find the blonde crying. “Oh no, did I mess up your clothes or something else?” Ali asks concerned as she plops down next to her and moves Ashlyn’s hair away from her face a bit.

“No. No. It’s perfect. You’re perfect. I’m just emotional.” Ashlyn tries to explain. “You guys have taken care of like 80% of everything I was worried about.” She smiles a bit.

“Good.” Ali says as she strokes the blonde’s cheek lightly, wiping away a few tears. “Just relax as much as you can for right now, and we’ll work on that other 20% one day at a time, ok?”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” Ashlyn says the only thing she can to convey her gratitude as she pulls Ali into her as closely as possible given the awkward position.

“So, are we going to hug all day or…” Kyle comes into the room in dramatic fashion, purposely trying to lighten the mood. “Cause I was thinking maybe early lunch and TV before we get ready for Chris to come over…”

“Sounds perfect.” Ashlyn says, reluctantly letting go of Ali and getting up to put an arm around Kyle. “How about you cook?” She suggests.

“You suck, Harris.” Kyle pouts at her, before relenting and making his way into the kitchen. “I’ll have you know that if you keep making requests like this, I’ll send you back!” He mockingly warns her as he puts an apron on.

 

 

The rest of the day goes without a hitch. Kyle makes them sandwiches which they eat on the couch while watching women’s college basketball at Ashlyn’s request. She could care less about the sport or the teams playing, but she’s missed live sports so much that it’s completely wonderful to watch. Chris comes over a few hours later by himself not wanting to overwhelm Ashlyn with the whole family on the very first day, which she is thankful for. The four of them cook dinner together and stick to conversation that doesn’t involve prison or the case. Ashlyn is beyond content not to be the focus of conversation, instead sitting back and listening to what Kyle has been up to and all about Curtis and Elsie from Chris. All in all, it is a much less intense day than Ashlyn was expecting.

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?” Ali asks Ashlyn seriously after Chris has gone home and Kyle makes his way out to the car. She doesn’t want Ashlyn to be alone, but she doesn’t want to intrude either; she knows the blonde needs time to get reacquainted with her home.

“It’s ok, Alex. Go home and rest, you’ve done so much. I’ll be ok, promise. We’ll see each other tomorrow.” Ashlyn replies. She doesn’t want Ali to leave, but she feels too guilty to ask her to stay.

“Ok. Goodnight, Ash.” Ali places a quick kiss on the blonde’s cheek after hugging her. “Call me if you need anything, doesn’t matter what time. I’m so proud of you.” She reaches to give Ashlyn’s hand one last squeeze before making her way out.

“Sweet dreams, Alex.” Ashlyn replies back quietly, closing and locking the door once she sees Kyle and Ali pull away.

The house feels quiet and foreign to her, so she quickly changes out of her clothes and hops into bed hoping that she’s tired enough to fall asleep fast. The bed feels comfortable and she does nod off as she replays the events of the day. She wakes up an hour later in a panic, cold sweat all over her as she tries to figure out where she is. When she finally realizes she’s home, she tries to take deep breaths to relax, but the space around her in the room feels huge and frightening. She feels vulnerable and exposed. 

Ashlyn gets up and does the only thing she can think of to calm herself. She moves her furniture around so that her bed is now pushed into the corner of the room against the wall with her dresser and bedside tables pushed up close to the open side. She grabs her CD Walkman from her bag of prison belongings and gets back into bed, Ali’s voice and the small walled-in atmosphere now around the bed making her feel more comfortable.

*************************************************************************************

By the time Ali arrives the next morning, Ashlyn has already brewed some coffee and managed to make some omelets. She’s feeling proud of herself that she remembered how to do at least that much as quickly opens the door with a smile. “Good morning, Alex.” She greets her in disbelief that anyone could already look so beautiful by 8am, feeling a bit self-conscious now that she hasn’t gotten showered or dressed yet.

“Good morning!” Ali replies cheerily, hiding her worry that Ashlyn looks tired even though she had expected that she probably wouldn’t sleep that well last night. “Smells good in here.”

“I made breakfast, hope you’re hungry.” Ashlyn motions to the dining table. “No Kyle?” She asks seeing that Ali is alone.

“He has a client this morning, he’ll be here in a couple hours.” Ali replies, watching as Ashlyn brings over two plates of food and some coffee. The blonde is in a pair of baggy gray sweatpants and a cut-off black t-shirt that shows her full tattoo sleeve. Ali looks her over, finding it amazing that even disheveled and in her most simple state, Ashlyn is seriously attractive.

“Probably for the better. I haven’t showered or anything yet, he’d be appalled.” Ashlyn says with a laugh as she sets the food down and settles across from the brunette.

“It’s a good thing. We have work to do in that closet of yours before Kyle gets here and you’re probably better off showering afterwards.” Ali says and takes a bite of her omelet. “Mmmm, this is so damn good!”

“Well geez, Krieger, don’t act so surprised that I can cook!” Ashlyn says in mock offense. “Glad you like it. So, what do you mean we have work to do?”

“Well, there’s cooking…which Kyle can do. And then there’s Master Chef like this omelet right here, sooo...excuse me for being impressed!” Ali banters back. “Anyway, by work I mean you are going to try on everything in your closet so that we know what fits. Then we’ll go on a clothes shopping mission when Kyle gets here, because we all know that’s his thing.” Ali explains.

“Should have known I wasn’t free of the fashion diva’s grasp just yet.” Ashlyn jokes.

“Once we’re done with that, maybe we can go scope out some possible new cars for you?” Ali suggests.

“Now you’re talking, Krieger!” Ashlyn says excitedly as she chews a piece of toast.

They finish their breakfast pretty quickly and are ready to move to the task at hand. “You go ahead and I’ll be right behind you.” Ashlyn says to Ali as she clears the dishes and points the brunette to her bedroom forgetting the state that it’s in. She follows shortly after to find Ali standing in the middle of the room looking at the furniture arrangement in confusion and immediately turns red out of embarrassment.

“Decided to change it up a bit?” Ali asks lightly, trying to calmly figure out what happened.

“Uh…I uh…” Ashlyn stutters feeling pathetic. “I couldn’t sleep last night. The room felt… just… big.” Ashlyn admits sheepishly, knowing she can be honest with Ali.

“Ash, it’s ok.” Ali runs her hand lightly up and down the blonde’s forearm. “You’ve been through a whole lot and it’s going to take a while to adjust to everything again. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, ok?”

Ashlyn nods in response, glad that Ali isn’t just trying to shove everything under the rug and assume it’s all fine now that she’s out of jail.

“And remember what I said last night, you can call me literally any time. No offense to Harry Potter, but I think I hold a much better conversation than that.” Ali says noticing the CD Walkman on the bed and motioning to it, earning a little smile from Ashlyn. “And, if you don’t want to talk, then you can pick a book you like and we’ll do Ali live and unplugged.” She adds with a wink.

“You’re the best, you know that?” Ashlyn says sweetly.

“Stop… don’t stop!” Ali pretends to love the flattery while batting her eyelashes. “Now, get in the closet and strip woman! We only have an hour before Kyle gets here to complete this little runway show.” She pushes Ashlyn towards the closet and goes to sit on the bed.

Thirty minutes and one too many coming out of the closet jokes later, they are all done because Ashlyn doesn’t have all that much clothes to begin with. The consensus is that most of her stuff is too baggy on her. She hasn’t lost any weight, but all the working out in prison has left her nothing but trim muscle. Ashlyn makes a mental note to keep working out hard so she doesn’t buy a bunch of new clothes only to watch them go waste.

“Why don’t you shower and get ready? I’ll go put another pot of coffee going. We’re going to need it to keep up with Kyle.” Ali says and heads into the kitchen, leaving the blonde to get ready.

About fifteen minutes later, Ali is sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee when Ashlyn comes in wearing the new jeans Kyle bought her and nothing on top but a black sports bra, her hair damp from the shower. “Which one is the lesser of the two evils?” The blonde asks, holding up two shirts she tried on for Ali a few minutes ago. Both were a little big, but they were among the smallest of the clothes.

Ali’s throat goes dry and her breath hitches as she tries not to spill her coffee while her eyes rake up the blonde’s unbelievably defined torso. Her heart rate is picking up and she actually feels tingly in places she would be embarrassed to admit. Cartoon superheroes don’t have bodies this good she thinks to herself. She’s taking her first good look at the blonde’s oblique muscles, the v-line disappearing into the hem of the boxer briefs that peek out of her pants, when Ashlyn’s voice startles her.

“Alllleeeex… up here.” Ashlyn teases as Ali finally meets her eyes and blushes. “Yeah, hi…so, which shirt?”

“Sorry, spaced out.” Ali tries to excuse her behavior, but she knows she was caught. “Um, go with the navy button-up. You’ll have your coat on over it anyway, so the slight bagginess will be fine.”

Ashlyn just gives the brunette a smirk and heads back to the bedroom to finish getting ready.

The afternoon turns out to be a complete success with Kyle practically storming the mall and getting Ashlyn outfitted with a whole new wardrobe in no time. That leaves them plenty of time to shop for cars, not that they need it because Ashlyn already knows what she wants. By 5:30pm, Ashlyn is the proud owner of a completely blacked out 2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that she will pick up the next day and is pretty much just an updated replacement of the car she had before. She is positively giddy about it, almost bouncing around in Kyle’s backseat on the way home.

“So, Jeep girl huh? I supposed I could’ve guessed that.” Ali remarks.

“Yep. I’ve seen what they can do in some pretty crazy military environments, tough as hell. You and Kyle can have your German autos, I’ll stick to my American-made thank you very much!” Ashlyn replies.

“Hey, hey! Your ass has been carted around in my lovely and posh Audi Q7 all day, so don’t hate!” Ali sasses back.

“And don’t you be talking smack about my G-Class! That’s my baby right there!” Kyle pipes up.

“Alright, alright. I’ll admit they’re both really nice, just not for me.” Ashlyn softens her stance a bit.

“Much better.” Ali says with a satisfied smile.

“I’ll let it slide for now, Harris, but watch yourself.” Kyle squints his eyes at her in the rearview mirror. “I actually have a client in like an hour, so I’m just going to drop you guys at Ashlyn’s so I can get my car and head out. That ok?” He adds.

“Yep.” Ashlyn replies and then looks at Ali. “Want to stay for dinner?”

“If you’re cooking, absolutely.” Ali replies.

“Chicken, broccoli, ziti?” Ashlyn asks thinking about what is in the house that she could make pretty quickly.

“Sounds amazing!” Ali says patting her stomach.

“Yeah, just go ahead and don’t mind the guy who will probably have to eat take-out!” Kyle complains.

“Well, it’s your own fault you’re not joining.” Ashlyn shuts down his whining.

“It’s true, the job of a hair guru is never done!” He replies in an overtly flamboyant tone while Ali rolls her eyes at him.

After arriving back at Ashlyn’s condo, she and Ali enjoy a good dinner with plenty of lighthearted conversation. As dinner wraps up, Ashlyn starts to get a little antsy, knowing she doesn’t want to be alone after what happened last night. Still, she feels bad asking Ali to stay after the brunette has already been there the whole day.

“Want to watch a movie before I head out?” Ali asks sensing the change in the blonde as they finish clearing the dishes.

“Sure!” Ashlyn answers far too quickly to sound casual like she wanted to, mentally kicking herself.

“Ok, you pick!” Ali says cheerily, bringing their drinks over to the coffee table and plopping herself down on the couch. She regrets her last statement just a few minutes later when Ashlyn chooses a four hour documentary about sharks and settles in next to her.

“I swear, it’s really interesting.” Ashlyn promises the brunette who is giving her a slight look of disapproval.

“Alright, I won’t judge until we watch it.” Ali says in defeat. “Oh and before I forget. I’ll take you to get your car in the morning, but then I’m scheduled to record a public service announcement about kidnapped kids with the Hamiltons in the afternoon. I’m sure Kyle will come over if you want and I can come over when I’m done.”

“Ahhhh yes, I almost forgot that about your celebrity status.” Ashlyn jokes a little bit before getting serious. “Really though, I think it’s awesome that you’re doing that. I’m actually thinking that maybe I’ll go meet with McNally tomorrow and see what my options are in terms of going back to work.”

“Wow, already?” Ali asks a bit shocked.

“Yeah, I mean, I can’t just sit around forever and I know I’ll be going crazy at home like this soon enough. So, I figure I’ll just try and ease back into it as soon as I can.” Ashlyn explains.

“I guess that makes sense.” Ali replies, still a bit concerned. “Just don’t rush back in before you’re ready.”

“I won’t.” Ashlyn assures her.

“Oh and Ash?” Ali wants to get one more thing off her mind.

“Yeah?” The blonde replies.

“I took your advice and started therapy last week. It was a good idea and it’s going well so far.” Ali pauses for a second. “Maybe you should think about it too?” She suggests gently.

“You’re sweet, Alex. I’m already on it. I went through two therapists before this whole thing, but neither of them seems like a good fit for what I’m going through right now. I started searching to try and find someone new this morning.” Ashlyn admits.

“Good.” Ali says with a smile and entwines their hands together as she leans into the blonde more. “Ok, now that that’s out of the way… Shark on!”

Ashlyn laughs and starts the documentary.

They get about two hours into it before Ashlyn is slumped onto Ali’s shoulder and snoring a bit. As much as the documentary is actually interesting and Ali doesn’t want to leave Ashlyn’s side, she knows this is probably the best chance to get the blonde to sleep tonight.

“Hey, Ash.” Ali gently strokes the blonde’s face, watching her open her eyes groggily.

“Sorry, fell asleep.” Ashlyn mumbles without moving much.

“Come on, let’s get you to bed.” Ali says and Ashlyn just nods. She walks the blonde to her bedroom and helps her get her jeans and shirt off, leaving her in just boxer briefs and an undershirt. She guides Ashlyn around the little fort of furniture she created and pulls back the covers, motioning for her to get in.

“You tucking me in?” Ashlyn asks with a sleepy smile.

“Damn right I am.” Ali says as she pulls the covers over Ashlyn and tucks her in. “Night, night, Hero. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Sweet dreams, Alex.” Ashlyn replies, her eyes already closing. She actually makes it to 5am this time before waking up and not being able to go back to sleep.

*************************************************************************************

Having spent some of the morning with Ali and being able to drive again, in a sweet new Jeep no less, Ashlyn feels confident as she makes her way towards the police department to meet with McNally. Unfortunately, the feeling starts to fade quickly as she walks through the door of the building. While everyone is really nice and they greet her like an old friend coming back from vacation, it’s her own reaction to it all that throws her off. She suddenly feels uncomfortable and shy around these officers that she once acted as a leader to and trusted with her life. Worse, she feels like some kind of freak show despite their genuine intentions of being so welcoming. She’s beyond relieved when she finally makes it out of the main office area and is sitting in McNally’s office.

“Harris, it’s really great to see you. You look really good, Captain.” McNally says kindly.

“Thanks, McNally. Um, look, before we say anything else… can I just start with something?” Ashlyn requests.

“Sure, go ahead.” McNally replies.

“I just want to make my intentions in coming here clear first. I’m just going to tell you right now that I honestly want no part of being Chief. So, you have nothing to be concerned about in terms of me competing with you for that. I’m happy to just stick to my role for a very long time and I need you to know that so we can have the right mindset in our working relationship moving forward. Well, assuming I still have a job.” Ashlyn says bluntly.

“Of course you have a job, Harris. Geez!” McNally says lightly, a bit relieved at what Harris said even though he was sure he could maintain professionalism between them no matter what. “Thanks for being honest. I’ll admit that it probably makes things less awkward between us.”

Ashlyn acknowledges him with a slight head nod.

“Now my turn. It probably doesn’t mean much to you and I completely understand that you might not trust me, but I honestly had no idea what the Chief was up to or that you had an investigation open on him. I really and truly would have probed more and done my job better if I had and I’m very sorry that I failed you like that. I’ve changed a lot of protocol around here already and plan to change even more so that this never happens again. Sorry isn’t good enough, I know, but it’s all I have Harris.” McNally says frankly. “And if there is anything I can ever do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

“Thanks, John.” Ashlyn addresses him less formally so that he understands that she wishes him no ill will. “Nothing can really fix it, but I appreciate you saying that and I do understand. We’re good.”

“Ok, well now that we cleared that up… any idea when you want to come back?” McNally asks trying to gauge what Harris has in mind for a timeline.

“How about tomorrow?” Ashlyn replies quickly before she can change her mind, knowing she just needs to dive back in before she loses her nerve.

“Wow, ok!” McNally says completely shocked. “I thought you’d want to take some time, but I’ll take you back the second you’re willing. We really need you around here. If you’re serious, we’ll get you squared away with Human Resources first thing tomorrow morning and then maybe just work on getting you recertified on your weapons to start.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be here at 8am tomorrow.” Ashlyn says and gets up to make her way out. “Thanks, McNally. I’m looking forward to getting back.”

“No, Harris, thank you. We’re beyond happy to have you back.” McNally says and gets up to salute her for the sole purpose of conveying his respect since they are the same rank.

Ashlyn’s chest is already tight as she leaves the police department, overwhelmed at the prospect of being back here tomorrow. It gets no better as she drives home through South Boston. She grew up in this neighborhood and had never wanted to be anywhere else. Even though she had eventually gone to live with her grandparents and her true feelings of home were associated with their house, South Boston was where her roots were planted. No matter how she felt about her childhood, something about this old neighborhood had always drawn her here and she had vowed to spend her life giving back to it and investing in its future.

Somehow it all feels so foreign now. She has felt out of place and like an outsider from the moment she got back a couple days ago. It’s an odd feeling that she’s never had. She feels completely uprooted and even strangely betrayed. Something she once felt so strongly towards now feels completely indifferent to her.

She’s trying hard not to let herself drown in all these new emotions, telling herself that she needs to give herself the time to readjust to everything. That once she’s immersed herself in her usual routine, things will fall back into place again. She’s back in her own driveway before she knows it, checking her phone and finding a text from Ali which she quickly replies to.

Paladin: How was the meeting with McNally? I’m done at 4pm, you want to meet for dinner or something?

Hero: It went pretty well I think. I’m starting work tomorrow (my choice). I made plans with Chris to go over and have dinner there and surprise the kids tonight. I’ll call you when I get back though?

Paladin: Wow, jumping right back in. Really glad you’re going to see the kiddos, tell them I said hi. Definitely call me tonight, I’ll be waiting :)

Hero: Will do. Have a great rest of the day/evening, Alex. :)

 

Dinner with her family is exactly what Ashlyn needs after her day. The kids are more surprised and excited than she anticipates. Elsie latches onto her and spends the whole night touching her in some way. Curtis is so happy that he gets emotionally overwhelmed and sobs for the first hour before Ashlyn finally gets him to relax by playing hide and seek with them. Of course, spending time with Chris and Bridget is nice too and the whole thing does a lot to lift her mood.

Elsie falls asleep on Ashlyn’s lap shortly after dinner and the blonde happily puts her to bed, not realizing just how much she missed this until now. Curtis is not so easy. When it’s time for bed, she reads him a story like she always used to do and then tucks him in. Before she can kiss him goodnight, he starts sobbing again.

“Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?” Ashlyn whispers, getting close to him and running her hands through his soft hair to calm him.

“I don’t want you to go.” He whimpers. “Last time you said goodnight, you didn’t come back for a long time.”

Ashlyn’s heart pangs and she tries not to tear up. “I’m back now, sweetheart. I promise you, I’m never ever leaving again. I’ll be here every night if you want me to and you can some visit me anytime, ok? I’ve never broken a promise to you, right?”

“Yeah.” Curtis sniffles.

“Promise you I’m not leaving you again.” Ashlyn says again and hugs him close.

“Ok.” Curtis says as he buries his face into her shoulder.

Ashlyn stays with him until he falls asleep, feeling like she has a rock in her stomach at the realization of just how much her absence has affected their lives.

By the time she gets home, she’s practically a wreck with all of these feelings and thoughts swirling around inside. She settles down onto her couch and just breathes for a minute before she calls Ali. All it takes is a “Hi Ash, how was your day?” from the brunette and she finds herself so easily releasing a verbal torrent of details and emotions that have been building all day. Ali listens patiently and quietly the whole time, only speaking small affirmations that signal she’s paying attention. When Ashlyn is finally finished, she feels like a weight has been lifted and also a bit guilty that she hasn’t shut up for the last twenty minutes.

“Sorry, I know, I need a therapist. I think I found one though, I have an appointment next week.” Ashlyn says shyly.

“Not what I was going to say, but I am glad you found someone. I’m really glad you just told me all of that and really happy that you feel okay talking to me. You can tell me anything anytime, you know that.” Ali reassures the blonde. “I think how you’re feeling is probably really normal even though I can’t possibly fully understand what it feels like. You’ve been out for just three days, Ash. Cut yourself some slack about feeling so overwhelmed. Anyone would feel that way in your position and probably even more so. You’re doing an amazing job and I’m proud of you. Give yourself time to work through things and heal. You owe it to yourself to not put any expectations on yourself right now.” Ali says gently before adding “Just slow your roll, Harris,” to lighten the mood.

“Thanks, Alex. You always know what to say to get through to me and calm me down.” Ashlyn replies.

“Well I hope that’s always true.” Ali wishes out loud.

Ashlyn smiles into the phone even though Ali can’t see her. Much like she was right from the beginning, Ali is like a beacon of light in the dark. The brunette has a way of making her feel anchored to something strong and sturdy, keeping her from getting lost adrift in her own mind. Right now, when everything feels so messed up, Ali is the one thing that doesn’t. The only thing that doesn’t seem distorted or tarnished in some way.

“Hey Alex, will you meet me for coffee in the morning? Ashlyn asks. “I have to be at work by 8am, so I totally understand if it’s too early.”

“Of course I’ll meet you for coffee. I’m an early bird anyway, you know that.” Ali answers already excited for the morning.

“Excellent. I should try and get some sleep and let you sleep.” Ashlyn says, not wanting to end the conversation because she knows she probably won’t sleep much tonight, but feeling bad about keeping Ali up any longer since she’s meeting her so early.

“Ok, yeah, you had a long day and should get some rest. Same for me. Where do you want to meet tomorrow?” Ali asks.

“Peet’s near the Common at 7am?” Ashlyn suggests.

“Perfect!” Ali agrees.

“Thanks again for tonight.” Ashlyn says gratefully.

“No need to thank me. I love when you talk to me.” Ali says honestly.

“Likewise. I promise to let you talk next time though and not be such a chatty Cathy.” Ashlyn jokes a bit.

Ali laughs lightly. “Sleep well, Ash.”

“Sweet dreams, Alex.”

Despite not being sleepy, Ashlyn settles herself into bed shortly after hanging up with Ali. She spends much of the night trying not to think about going back to work tomorrow and the million other negative thoughts in her head. Instead she thinks about what feels right, the very reason she asked Ali to meet her in the morning.

*************************************************************************************

Ali is early as usual, picking a quiet table in the corner of the coffee shop even though it’s Saturday and the business-district shop is pretty empty anyway. She takes the liberty of ordering both of their coffees and a couple of chocolate croissants, knowing Ashlyn will be here any minute and won’t have all that long before she has to leave for work.  She looks at her watch to see that it’s 7:02am and is about to text Ashlyn when her breath catches in her throat. The cop that has been standing in line for at least the last couple of minutes and that Ali has passingly glanced at twice now is in fact Ashlyn. She completely forgot to anticipate that the blonde would be dressed for work and hadn’t even thought to look at the female cop more closely until now.

“Ash!” Ali calls out and watches the blonde turn and look around before finally seeing Ali and breaking out into a huge grin as she walks over. Yet again, Ali is taken aback by how Ashlyn looks. She has never been one for the ‘girl in uniform’, but she sure as hell is now. Ashlyn is positively stunning in her dark navy blue police uniform, her hair up in a tight bun and light make-up on her face. Ali tries hard not to stare and start sweating as the blonde walks over to her.

“Sorry, Alex, didn’t see you there. Good morning!” She greets Ali with a hug. “I was going to order for us, but looks like you did that already.” She notes as she sits down.

“Yeah, I hope that’s ok. I was early.” Ali says a bit squeakily, finding her voice after the surprise of Ashlyn’s appearance.

“Totally ok, you know by now how I like my coffee.” Ashlyn replies.

“Did you sleep?” Ali asks seeing that Ashlyn looks tired now that she’s gotten a good look at her.

“Not really.” Ashlyn admits.

“I figured. Feeling nervous about going back to work today?” Ali asks.

“Among other things.” Ashlyn says, watching as Ali looks at her inquisitively. ‘Now or never’ she mentally tells herself before going for it. “I always get a little nervous when I’m about to ask a beautiful woman on a date.” She says as assuredly as she can with a grin and watches Ali’s face turn from confused to a knowing smirk.

“Are you trying to insinuate something, Ash?” Ali plays shy.

“Nope. I’m not insinuating anything. I’m full on asking. Alex, will you go on a date with me Tuesday night?” Ashlyn asks confidently even though she has butterflies in her stomach.

“I thought you’d never ask, Harris.” Ali says with a wide smile, her tongue poking through her teeth a bit. “I would love to go on a date with you Tuesday night.”

“Good.” Ashlyn grins like a fool. “That gives me three days to plan a date and three days for you to change your mind.” She laughs at her own joke and reaches for Ali’s hand, content to feel the ever present spark between them on her skin.

Chapter Text

As Ashlyn sat in prison and imagined so many times how she’d feel once she asked Ali on a date, this wasn’t exactly what she expected. She’s over the moon about going on an official date with Ali, just like she thought she would be. The problem is that she also envisioned being settled back into life, happy to be out of jail, and free to focus on the important things in her life. She’s so far from any and all of those things that she feels pretty lost. If the past three days are any indication of how close she is to achieving some normalcy, she’s beyond far.

The first couple days back at work are just as uncomfortable as the day she first walked back into the police station. Her old colleagues flock to her wanting to make conversation, make sure she’s okay, offer their support, and make her feel welcome. They also all feel the need to apologize to her like it was them that shot her in the leg and framed her for a murder that sent her to jail. After only the first hour back at the station she had already had enough of it, but it just continued to happen over and over again with every damn officer she came into contact with. Even the new rookies she doesn’t know have felt the need to offer some sort of awkward statement of solidarity.

It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate it, but she can’t explain how unsettling it feels. It’s the way they look at her, the pity in their eyes that she can’t stomach. Even worse, none of it feels genuine despite the fact that she knows they have good intentions. The whole thing just seems like a charade to make everyone feel better about a really shitty situation that they were all involved in, even if just was peripherally. These are officers that just three years ago she wouldn’t have thought twice about taking a bullet for. Now all they have to say is ‘good morning’ and she’s already skeptical of them.  In a place where she once felt the utmost respect, dignity and security, she now feels like the red-headed stepchild.

The only positive thing so far is that she easily passed her weapons certification. From the second she felt the steel of the gun in her palm, the familiarity of it came right back to her like an old friend. In all the things seemingly lost, this one skill is like second nature. Her self-defense talents are also still as sharp as ever and she’s proud that her instincts in this capacity have not failed her; her ability to protect others being among her most highly valued assets in terms of how she sees herself. Unfortunately, the good feelings about being back at work end there.

On her third day, McNally suggests that she does a ride-along patrol with one of the newer rookies because he thinks it will not only be good for the newbie to learn from Ashlyn’s experience, but also for her to get a feel for the neighborhood again. She’s happy to get out of the office, but cringes a bit at the thought of spending hours in the patrol car trying to make conversation.

The guy actually turns out to be really nice and is one of the only people that doesn’t acknowledge anything Bobby related. He merely asks her relevant questions about when she first started with the department and about her military career. He even manages to talk about sports and cars with her without mansplaining anything, a feat to his credit in-and-of-itself. Truth be told, she probably would have been good friends with him before her life turned upside-down. Unfortunately, making new friends doesn’t seem like an appealing option right now when she feels so closed off from everyone.  Despite the good company and quiet afternoon, the ride-along goes far from well.

In her mind, this South Boston neighborhood has always been vibrant and teeming with good people and plentiful opportunity. As she circles it over and over again with the rookie cop, she no longer sees any of that. It seems so dank and downtrodden, polluted and, frankly, downright seedy. The place she once saw so much promise in suddenly seems like nothing more than a perfect place to sustain the organized crime that is already so deeply etched into its history. She has spent countless years proudly protecting, investing, and believing in this neighborhood only to feel nothing but completely disconnected from it now. Her past therapist had once suggested that in feeling like she was giving back to this community, that perhaps it was her way of compensating for the troubling childhood memories she had there; that she had turned her hurt into purpose. Riding along on the patrol it hits her hard that her career and sense of community are now crumbling under her feet, her life’s purpose and self-identity landsliding right along with it.

Perhaps more disturbing is that these feelings of detachment extend to her family too. It has been nothing short of wonderful to be able to spend time with her brother and his family. Being there to put her niece and nephew to bed the last couple nights has meant everything, making her heart feel full. But it has also made her heart ache too. The way the kids have latched onto her and lavished her with over-the-top affection as if she’s going to disappear at any moment has been hard to ignore. It’s not just as simple as her having missed them in her life the last three years, but more poignantly, that they have missed her in theirs too. The thought that they have suffered over her absence makes her heart hurt.

Her brother and Bridget have been wonderful and supportive. Being around her family has been soothing and definitely a good thing. Still, there’s something about the way they are so cautious with her in constantly checking in and the way Chris is so careful about how and what he jokes about even though he never held back before. It makes her realize that this too is somewhat broken. Not in a hopeless and irreparable way, but in the way that it will need time to heal and mend before it is whole and normal again. Her friendships are in a similar state as she tries to figure out how she even begins to reconnect with the people she so selfishly pushed away for three years and how she will ever make it right.

All of these things are fixable. Things she can work through and eventually find a way to be at peace with again. Right now though, with all of it converging like this, it’s just plain overwhelming and she feels completely lost in herself with no understanding of what the right path forward is.

And then there is Ali…

Ali who is the sun. The bright center of her solar system that provides her the light she needs to sustain herself and the force to tether her securely so she doesn’t float away into the dark abyss. Ali is the one single thing right now that doesn’t feel broken or detached or overwhelming. She’s the one perfect, good thing that she can lose herself in without getting lost. It has helped Ashlyn remain cognizant of the fact that something beautiful came out of all of this, that not all of it is a complete mess.

She’s been good about telling Ali everything that is going on, pretty much talking her ear off the last couple of nights. The brunette has somehow calmed her every time, despite the fact that the negative feelings just rebuild themselves the next day in a seemingly endless cycle. Still, she’s been careful not to take advantage of Ali either and has set up twice-a-week therapy sessions with her new psychologist who she already really likes.

The woman, Dr. Gloria Plume, had not been at all shy in their first Monday session in telling her that her feelings are completely valid and that this will be a grind over time to find healing. That she will have to work on rebuilding herself again much like she did after her military career ended. Ashlyn immediately respected that she didn’t try to sugarcoat it. Dr. Plume had also suggested that she try and focus and ruminate on the aspects of her life that feel good to her so that they could work from there. Right now, outside of spending time with her brother and the kids, that pretty much means Ali. So, Ashlyn continues to focus on moving forward with and planning this date that she feels like she’s been waiting forever for. In her heart, she just knows that this is her last first date ever and she wants it to be perfect.

*************************************************************************************

Ashlyn’s face lights up when her phone rings late Monday night, ‘Paladin’ showing on the caller ID. She picks it up and hears Ali’s voice before she can even get a word out.

“So, Hero…are you going to tell me where we are going tomorrow so I can figure out what to wear?” Ali asks playfully. “Also might be nice to know when you’re actually picking me up so that I’m not still naked when you get here.” She adds in jest.

“Well, now that you said that…I think I’ll leave the pick-up time a mystery.” Ashlyn flirts shamelessly.

“Charming, Harris.” Ali teases her.

“I’m kidding, Alex. Well, not really about the naked thing.” Ashlyn piles it on. “Buuuut, I’ll pick you up at your house at 1600 hours sharp. That ok?”

“Yeah, the military time thing always confuses the crap out of me, so I’m gonna need a translation.” Ali laughs a bit at her incompetence.

“4pm.” The blonde clarifies.

“Oh wow, starting it off on the early side. I can roll with that.” Ali comments on the late afternoon timing, having not expected it.

“Yep, we have a lot to get in.” Ashlyn replies vaguely.

“So, are you going to tell me where we’re going so I can dress appropriately?” Ali asks again.

“Nope. That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Ashlyn answers, the smirk on her face evident in her voice.

“I should have known you’d be one of those surprise/suspense first date types.” Ali pretend complains.

“Yeah, you definitely should have seen it coming.” Ashlyn confirms.

“But how will I know what to wear if you don’t tell me?” Ali slightly whines.

“I thought we just established that clothing was optional?” Ashlyn goads her.

“Asssshhhlyn!” Ali whines again.

“Ok, ok…I’ll go easy on you. Wear something casual enough to walk around and be comfortable in, but nice enough that you wouldn’t get the stink eye if we went to a semi-nice restaurant.” Ashlyn takes pity on her.

“Oh geez. So, what you’re really saying is that I better call Kyle for advice.” Ali replies in a fluster.

“Exactly!” Ashlyn laughs.

“Ok, I’m going to pretend like I’m not completely frazzled about what to wear and just ask you how your day was.” Ali says, the slight anxiety in her voice evident.

“Relax, Alex. You look amazing in everything, whatever you wear will be perfect.” Ashlyn reassures the brunette before answering her question. “Well my therapy appointment today was really good. Dr. Plume gave it to me straight. I’ve been in a somewhat similar place before when I was discharged from the army. I guess I need to come to terms with the fact that this is all going to take time and effort and it’s pretty much going to suck for a while. I just hate being here again.” She says dejectedly. “And work was as crappy as it has been every other day so far. I got put on a simple ride-along patrol today and technically it went fine. Riding around the neighborhood over and over again though… I don’t know, I just can’t see what I ever saw in coming back here in the first place. Why wasn’t I able to see all the negative things before now? I mean, I’ve dedicated my career and then some to this community and now it seems so…worthless…” Ashlyn trails off.

“I’m sorry, Ash.” Ali says sincerely, hating that the blonde is in so much anguish. “I really do believe that even though it will take time and effort, that it will all be okay. You’re so strong and I have no doubt that you’ll find your light again. I truly believe in you.” She says with complete confidence. “Plus, you’ll have one pesky ass bitch as your ride-along the whole way.”

Ashlyn lets out a small laugh. Ali's words speak right to her very soul and she’s so appreciative of the fact that someone believes that things will be ok and believes in her even when she doesn’t. “Thank you. You have no idea what that means right now.” The gratitude rolls right off her tongue effortlessly. In the few moments of silence that follow, her mind wanders to something else she’s been thinking about. “Hey, can I ask you something?

“Anything. You know that.” Ali replies.

“I was wondering if you’re still planning to release a podcast about this whole thing. I mean, things got a lot more personal for you than I think either of us expected and it took a crazy turn. I guess I’m trying to figure out what you’re thinking about it now.” Ashlyn tries to ask sensitively.

“Hmmm, I guess I haven’t really thought about it much. My gut reaction is that even though it’s going to be really difficult for me to get through my own father leaving me for dead, part of me knows that just being open about it will probably go a long way in making me feel less ashamed eventually. A way of being in control of my own truth, you know? So, yeah, I’m still onboard.” Ali replies thoughtfully. “But only if you are!” She quickly adds. “Totally okay if you changed your mind.”

“No, I didn’t.” Ashlyn replies to put the brunette at ease. “The local media has really been on my case, even showing up at work. It seems like they’re not going to stop hounding me until I make some kind of statement or something. I just thought maybe I could say something about not wanting to speak about it and that all of their questions will be answered in the podcast. I didn’t want to presume that there would still be a podcast though.” She explains. “I trust you with my truth more than I even trust myself with it.”

“Well in that case, I’d be honored to tell your truth Captain Harris.” Ali says trying to keep things light even though what Ashlyn just said means the world to her.

“Thank you very kindly, Attorney Krieger.” Ashlyn jokes back. “Anyway enough of my questions and about me for one night. How was last night and how was your day?”

“Same nightmare as always, but at least it was only once last night. Plus I can always sleep in if I want to, perks of being a self-employed podcaster.” Ali says casually before really getting into her thoughts. “I’m starting to realize that part of the problem is just being in this weird limbo. I got an update from Rebecca this morning. Ken is still pretty much in the same shape but showing some small signs of possible improvement. It’s like I can’t have closure until I can either learn to deal with him being alive in whatever state he’s going to be in or properly come to terms with his death. This not knowing which way it will go is difficult.”

“You’re so insightful about yourself, I really admire that.” Ashlyn says earnestly. “You’ve made incredible strides in such a short time. I mean, you are miles and miles ahead of where I was this far out from my past traumatic experiences. I’m sure it must be really frustrating to have your closure dictated by factors outside of your control, but you really are handling it so amazingly well, Alex.”

“Thank you. You’re so good to me. I really love talking to you.” Ali says almost dreamily. “And you’re really good for my self-esteem!” She adds a bit more cheerily.

“Ditto.” Ashlyn replies, once again relishing in the tranquility that Ali seems to bring out in her. “You should go get some sleep, I’m keeping you out late tomorrow.”

“Is that so, Harris? What if I had a curfew?” Ali jokes.

“Then we’d definitely be breaking it.” Ashlyn replies with a small chuckle.

“I really can’t wait.” Ali says honestly. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ash. Goodnight.”

“Me either. Goodnight, Alex.” Ashlyn replies sweetly and hangs up.

Ali puts her phone down on the kitchen counter for a second while she grabs a bottle of water out of the fridge. She doesn’t even make it halfway there before the phone is ringing again, ‘Hero’ lighting up on the screen.

“Cancelling on me already?” Ali answers mockingly.

“Never. So, um, I just realized I have no idea where exactly you live other than in Newton. Kinda gonna need an address.” Ashlyn says shyly.

“Such an amateur, Harris.” Ali pokes fun at the blonde for a second. “177 Forest Ave.”

“Got it, thanks. Date disaster averted!” Ashlyn says in mock relief.

“I sure hope your game is better than this tomorrow night.” Ali keeps teasing.

“Oh it will be, count on it.” Ashlyn says cockily.

“I don’t know, I’ve been told I have high expectations.” Ali counters.

“And I intend to shatter every single one of them.” Ashlyn replies with finite confidence.

“Well then… good night again, gorgeous.” Ali says through a smile.

“Sweet dreams, beautiful.” Ashlyn says back in an almost whisper.

Ali hangs up and holds the phone to her heart for a second, letting out a contented sigh as her heart races. Her smile is so big it’s actually hurting her face.

“Oh this is going to be goooood.” Kyle says from the entrance of the kitchen with a grin plastered on his face, startling Ali a bit who had no idea he was home yet.

“How long have you been standing there?” Ali questions with narrowed eyes.

“Long enough to know Alex is in loooooove.” He says in the tone of a middle-school girl spreading gossip.

“You’re the worst!” Ali huffs at him.

“I only speak the truth! Nighty night princess!” He yells as he makes his way up the stairs, leaving Ali to figure out if she’s so obvious that Ashlyn has already figured it out too.

 

*************************************************************************************

‘Ok, Harris, you got this.’ Ashlyn mentally coaches herself as she turns onto the cul-de-sac that Ali’s house sits at the end of according to the GPS. “Holy shit…whew!” She says out loud with her mouth hanging open as the place comes into view. House is not the right word, mansion is a tad more accurate. The place is a huge light tan, Victorian style home that is at least two stories if not three with beautiful bay windows. Even though there’s a light coating of snow on the ground, Ashlyn can tell the lawn and gardens are perfectly manicured in the warmer seasons. Ali and Kyle’s cars are both parked out in the driveway despite the three car garage.

Ashlyn nervously adjusts her tie a bit and pulls herself together for a moment before grabbing the items on her front seat and heading to the door. She takes one last deep breath and then opts to bang the door knocker even though there’s a doorbell because she’s never actually had the opportunity to use a door knocker before and she thinks it’s cool.

Ali is standing in the kitchen with Kyle when she hears the banging of the door knocker. Both of them look at each other and laugh a bit as Ali shakes her head thinking ‘Of course she used the door knocker.’

“I just love that woman!” Kyle announces as he looks at his watch. “And a minute early as usual! See, now aren’t you glad I made you get ready on time?” He gives Ali a playful look as she goes to open the door. He decides to hang back in the kitchen and not intrude like he wants to.

Ali gives her hair a quick toss over her shoulder and lets out a breath before opening the door, only to suck it right back in again through her teeth when she sees Ashlyn. The blonde is standing there in dark gray fitted pants and a white button-up shirt with a black skinny tie that hangs just a bit loosely but not in a sloppy way. She has her black peacoat on with the buttons open and has paired her outfit with black Nike all-court sneakers. Her hair is pulled into a neat bun and she has just enough make-up on her face to perfectly accent her striking features. She’s absolutely gorgeous and Ali can barely breathe for a second, let alone speak.

Ashlyn waits outside the door for a few seconds and shifts her weight a bit from foot to foot. Just as it dawns on her that this house is huge and maybe she should have used the doorbell to be heard, the door opens in front of her. She looks up quickly to meet her favorite whiskey colored eyes, her face automatically breaking into a smile.

“Gosh you’re beautiful.” The words come tumbling out of Ashlyn’s mouth completely unfiltered as she looks at Ali. The brunette has on dark skinny jeans, a slim-fitting beige cardigan with a light gray floral-patterned accessory scarf and black low-heeled boots. Her make-up is flawless and her soft hair is flowing perfectly over her shoulders. She is literally the most beautiful woman Ashlyn has ever seen.

Ali is still trying to find her voice when she hears Ashlyn blurt out that she’s beautiful. And she knows the blonde truly means it by the way she is looking at her. Ashlyn is standing there with her lips slightly parted and this look of marvel in her eyes like she is beholding one of the great wonders of the ancient world.

Ashlyn only realizes that she actually said something out loud when she sees Ali smile widely and blush a bit. She smiles back and is about to break the silent moment between them when Ali does it for her.

“You look so nice, Ash… completely gorgeous.” Ali compliments the blonde, finally finding her words.

“Thanks, Alex. You are positively stunning. Oh, here… for you.” Ashlyn says moving the hand that was behind her back out toward Ali, a medium-sized stuffed-animal shark held by the tail in her grasp.

Ali lets out a giggle. “Ok, well, not at all what I was expecting… but you’re adorable, Harris. Completely unconventional, but adorable.”

Ashlyn laughs back a bit. “Thought I was going to be all traditional with flowers, huh? Well, I’m pretty traditional in general, just not on a first date.” She explains. “As much as I love flowers, I find them to be antiquated and supplicative on a first date… and certainly not appropriate for my brave, independent lawyer who deserves to be courted and treated like the strong woman that she is. So, the romantic flowers will come after I’ve earned the right to give them and not a moment before. Instead, I give you sharky… because I totally saw you tear up when they killed Jaws and because you definitely stayed up watching that shark documentary despite the fact that I was fast asleep and you could have changed it.”

‘Could you be any more perfect?’ Ali thinks to herself, already practically swooning and over a stuffed shark nonetheless. “Smooth, Harris. So smooth.” She gives the shark a quick squeeze with a smile and reaches her hand out for Ashlyn’s. “Come on in.”

Ashlyn walks passed Ali through the doorway and the brunette breathes in deeply to inhale the amazing scent. It’s a clean fragrance of citrus and sandalwood with soft hints of bergamot and she can’t get enough of it.  “You smell so good, Ash.” Ali remarks.

“Thanks.” Ashlyn replies shyly as she takes in the large foyer and cathedral ceilings, an ornate wooden railing framing the staircase just off to her right. The floorplan is really open and Ashlyn can see just about every room on the first floor, her eyes going right to a huge double-sided fireplace that services both the living room and dining room. The décor is on the modern side, but homey and still appropriate for the style of architecture. It’s a beautiful home and really has a lot of Ali reflected in it. “Wow, Alex. When you said house, you probably should have said palace. Your place is amazing!”  She says in awe.

“Oh, thanks.” Ali says a bit bashfully. “Want a tour?”

“Well, I’d say yes, but we really should go soon and this place is so big we’d end up missing out on our date. So, rain check?” Ashlyn replies.

Ali laughs. “Of course! Next time. But, Kyle is in the kitchen probably dying to come out here, so maybe you’ll come say hi?”

“Definitely! Actually, this is for him.” Ashlyn says looking down at the Tupperware container in her hand.

“Yeah, what is that?” Ali inquires, having noted the blonde holding it but not wanting be nosey and ask.

“Peace offering. A batch of double-chocolate brownies I made this morning. I intend to have you out late and I already know he’ll be up waiting to grill you when you get home, sooo…” Ashlyn explains.

“Brilliant.” Ali nudges her a bit and laughs as they round the corner into the kitchen.

“About time! Do you know how hard it was to wait in here?!” Kyle belts out dramatically. “Took you guys long enough to eye hump each other. Not that I blame either of you…looking sharp, Harris.” He says approvingly as he looks at the combination she put together from the clothing he helped her pick out recently.

“Thanks. This is for you… brownies.” Ashlyn says handing him the container.

“I knew I loved you!” Kyle says, taking the container from her and opening it to grab a quick taste. “Mmmm, these are fantastic. Yep, you can definitely date my sister!” He jokes, earning an eye roll from Ali. “You want me to put those in wat…” He trails off seeing that what is in Ali’s hand is definitely not flowers like he expected, but a stuffed shark. “Oh Harris, you win at life! I fucking love it!”

Ali hits him on the head with the shark while Ashlyn just laughs. “Go put this on my bed, ass.” She directs him.

“Right-O! Well, you kids buckle-up and use protection!” Kyle teases as he heads up the stairs. “Enjoy your night, ladies!”

“I completely forgot how over-the-top he can be. I totally missed that.” Ashlyn says shaking her head.

“He really is too much sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Ali says fondly.

“I know exactly what you mean.” Ashlyn agrees. “So, you ready?”

“Yep, let’s go!” Ali says grabbing her coat off the mudroom hook near the kitchen and smiling when she feels Ashlyn right behind her helping to slip it on over her shoulders.

 

*********************************************************************************************

 

They drive in Ashlyn’s Jeep for about 30 minutes with Ali happily playing DJ with the satellite radio. Ali looks at the blonde quizzically as they pull into a parking garage that she’s familiar with. “So, are we just parking here or…” She trails off.

“Nope, we’re going here.” Ashlyn replies simply, parking in one of the Museum of Science labeled spots.

“Well, we’re like 30 minutes into this date and I’m already completely impressed by your ingenuity. Keep it coming, Harris.” Ali says approvingly. “Though I am curious as to why the Museum of Science?”

Ashlyn relishes in the compliment before answering. “Two reasons. One, everyone thinks this a place for kids despite being open to people of all ages. Growing up, I never got to do this kind of thing as a kid and the first time I came here was as an adult. So, I’ve gotten to experience the wonder of it through adult eyes and I wanted to share that with you. Second, I tend to put a lot of stock in the symbolism of special moments. In that hospital room, when I told you that I wanted to take you on this date… the Museum of Science was at the very center of the view from that room and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.”

The feeling coursing through Ali right now is completely indescribable, mostly because she’s just never felt it before Ashlyn. The woman touches her to the very depths of her soul and she couldn’t adore someone more. She takes Ashlyn’s right hand into her left and reaches over with her right hand to cup the blonde’s cheek, stroking it lightly with her thumb. “You never cease to amaze me, Ash.”

“Likewise.” Ashlyn replies simply, taking Ali’s hand off her cheek and kissing it softly. The way the atmosphere around them is right now, she knows if she says anything else they’ll never leave the car. “Come on beautiful, we have a tight schedule.”

The two of them stand in the main lobby after Ashlyn purchases the tickets. “So, where to first?” Ali asks.

“Well, we don’t have a ton of time here since we have a lot to do tonight. You’ve been here before, right?” Ashlyn asks.

“Yeah, but not since like 8th grade.” Ali replies.

“Doesn’t matter. Think about something you remember here.” Ashlyn instructs the brunette and watches Ali think for a minute.

“Okay, well, they used to have this display that would show a blinking red light every time someone on earth died and a green one for every time a baby was born.” Ali recalls.

“I know that one. The Hall of Human Life, come on.” Ashlyn says taking Ali’s hand and leading the way.

A short walk later and they’re in front of the very exhibit Ali was talking about. They stand there in silence for a few minutes watching the red and green lights blink. The red light symbolizing death goes off once every second and the green one symbolizing birth blinks considerably faster and almost looks constant at 4 times per second according to the explanation on the display.

“I like to believe that the things that stick in our memories are the ones that affect us most. What are you thinking about right now?” Ashlyn asks.

“We used to come here on school field trips every year through 8th grade. It took me until 6th grade to realize that this display was just a symbolic representation based on the math of how many people die and are born each year. Before that, I used to actually think that someone really died every time that light went off. It made me so sad. To the point that when my grandparents died when I was little, the first thing I thought about was that this red light had just blinked for them. For some reason, this always mesmerized me.” Ali answers reminiscently.  “Right now though, it’s just makes me realize how time is so much bigger than we are. That it keeps moving without us and that our lives are such a small part of this world, a mere flash of light. It reminds me to make the most of it because it really does begin and end that quickly in the grand scope of things.” Ali motions to the flashing lights.

“Hmmm.” Ashlyn says contemplatively.

‘What?” Ali asks.

“Nothing, you’ll see in a minute. Let’s go to my favorite.” The blonde replies, leading Ali to the Cosmic Light exhibit hall not too far away. She brings the brunette right over the huge light-up wall map of the Milky Way. “So, this is my favorite display.”

Just like the last exhibit, they both stand there looking at it for a couple minutes. Ali notices that the sun and all the planets are labeled as well as many well-known stars. She thinks about what Ashlyn just said back in the other exhibit hall and realizes that the point of this is to get to know each other more deeply in an unconventional way. “So, what are you thinking right now?”

Ashlyn smiles at Ali for a second, glad the brunette has caught on. “The first time I saw this, it blew my mind and it still does. Look at that tiny dot that we’re living on.” She says pointing to the one labeled as Earth. “And look how many other planets and stars are just in this one galaxy. We can’t even really see much beyond this. We have no idea how big space is, but are able to estimate that there could be millions of galaxies out there, some even bigger than ours. Imagine how many more places like Earth there could be out there and maybe other people just like us or even completely different that we don’t even have a clue about. I mean, look how small we are in relation to what is around us. It just puts so much into perspective. And then again, what if there is no other place like Earth and it really is just us? What a complete waste of space, and also, what a special purpose we must have then. It reminds me that I am fortunate to even exist and not to waste that opportunity.”

“Wow.” Ali whispers, as blown away now as Ashlyn seems to be.

“And when you were trying to figure out why I was looking at you like that back in the other exhibit hall. I already knew what the most striking thing in the museum was for me and the reason why. When you showed me yours and explained why… it hit me that we chose very different exhibits, but for completely parallel reasons. They each remind us that we are such a small piece of a greater whole.” Ashlyn explains.

Ali is so caught up in the meaningfulness of it all that she almost forgets to breathe. “Geez, Ash, you really know how take my breath away.” She says in awe of it all. “You might have even just killed me a little.” She jokes a bit.

“Nope…sorry, no red blinking light for you, Krieger! I have another favorite!” Ashlyn jokes back and leads Ali to their next museum adventure.

 

“Come on, Alex! It takes two people to do it!” Ashlyn pleads.

And just like that Ali finds herself being talked into playing Chopsticks on the musical staircase while about twenty other museum patrons watch them jump up and down on the stairs like five year olds. In having the time of her life while humiliating herself in public, that’s when she realizes that she would really do anything for this woman. This magnificent woman who is like no one she has ever met. Who brings out a side of her she didn’t even know existed, but is so grateful for. And who she is absolutely and completely in love with in every way that people write books and sing songs about… and then some.

Ali stands on the top step giggling and trying to catch her breath after all that jumping while she watches Ashlyn take a small bow as the small crowd claps for them. She shakes her head and takes her own bow as the blonde points to her in recognition from below with a huge dimpled grin on her face.

Ali wraps her arm around Ashlyn’s waist and leans in close as they walk around the dinosaur exhibit nearby. Ashlyn follows suit and drapes her arm over the brunette’s shoulders as they look at the huge prehistoric statues.

“You hungry?” Ashlyn asks after a few minutes.

“Starved.” Ali replies with a smile.

“Good, because we should get to dinner.” Ashlyn says leading the way back to the car.

A fifteen minute drive later and they’ve reached their destination. “Oh my god, Bronwyn! I’ve been dying to try this place!” Ali yells out excitedly seeing that they’re in front of the German restaurant that had just opened up in Somerville early last year with rave reviews.

“Good, because you’re ordering the food. I have no idea what I’m doing, so I’m leaving it all up to you.” Ashlyn says before telling the hostess the reservation name and being seated right away.

In only takes a quick scan of the menu before Ali is calling the waiter over. “We’ll have the Bretzel, the Brondog, and the Spätzle. Oh and we’ll split a Hefeweizen.” Ali orders assuredly. Even though neither of them drinks much, she’s not passing up the opportunity to share her favorite style of beer with Ashlyn.

“I like when you’re so confident, it’s sexy.” Ashlyn says with unabashed honesty.

“Don’t even get me started on you, Harris.” Ali says purposely looking the blonde up and down to make her point. “Well, except for the musical stairs. Not sexy at all, but, still completely adorable.” Ali teases.

“But it was fun though, right?” Ashlyn asks with slight puppy eyes.

“So much fun!” Ali gives in. “Can’t believe I actually did that!”

“Me either. I thought you’d never go for it.” Ashlyn admits with a laugh, reaching to hold Ali’s hand over the table.

Their food arrives really quickly and they dig right in. Ashlyn is completely impressed that the odd combination of a soft pretzel, something that looks like a German version of a chili dog, and a plate of cheesy noodles that comes in a close second to her grandma’s mac and cheese makes for such an amazing dinner combination. “Damn, you did good, Krieger.” She says leaning back to pat her stomach.

“Yeah, well, you picked the place. So credit to both of us. Glad you liked it. I haven’t had good German food in a very long time, so thank you.” Ali replies with a smile.

“We better get going or we’ll be late to our next adventure.” Ashlyn says looking at her watch.

Another quick drive across the city of Boston and Ashlyn pulls up to the Boston Opera House, the marquee lit up with the name ‘Hamilton’ across it.

“No fucking way! Are you serious?!” Ali practically screeches as Ashlyn tosses her keys to the valet and hurries them inside so they don’t miss anything.

“Yes way! You love live theater and I’ve never been, so it seemed like a good idea.” Ashlyn explains.

“I love Hamilton!” Ali replies enthusiastically. She had seen it on Broadway with Kyle early last year and it had quickly become one of her favorites.

“I know, Alex. You talk about it more than you realize.” Ashlyn teases her a bit, earning a nudge from Ali who is leaning in close again as the blonde gently holds the small of her back.

The usher leads them to their seats and Ali’s jaw practically hits the floor when she realizes they don’t just have any seats. They have VIP seats in their very own private balcony overlooking the stage. The very balconies that Ali has always admired as she envied the people sitting in them. “Ash…” She whispers in disbelief. “How did you…”

“You’re not the only one that doesn’t half-ass things, Alex.” Ashlyn cuts her off with a smile and helps her take her coat off. “Plus… I am not throwing away my shot!” She belts out melodically with a wink.

Ali lets out a laugh. “Oh my god, you actually listened to music for this show, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. I wasn’t coming in here blind, Krieger!” Ashlyn replies.

“Who’s the perfect one now, Harris?” Ali asks as she pulls Ashlyn’s hand to her mouth and gently kisses each of her knuckles, watching the blonde’s eyes flutter closed for just a second.

“You still are.” Ashlyn replies sweetly as the lights go down and the show starts.

They sit close together, some part of them in constant contact with each other as they watch the show. Ashlyn smiles to herself as Ali unconsciously sings many of the song lyrics throughout the night. When it’s over they both clap until their hands hurt before finally making their way out.

“So, what did you think?” Ali asks as they wait for the valet to bring the car.

“Such an amazing experience! I loved it even though I have no other theater experience to compare it to.” Ashlyn says enthusiastically, wrapping her arms around Ali from behind to keep her warm while they wait for the valet to get the car.

“What was your favorite part?” Ali asks.

“The Guns and Ships song, such a great beat.” Ashlyn answers, choosing to pick from Act One because in Act Two Ali had been absentmindedly rubbing circles on her thigh with her thumb and Ashlyn had a harder time focusing.

“I like that one too.” Ali says before adding, “Who am I kidding, I love them all!”

Ashlyn laughs loudly as the car pulls up and they jump in. “Ok, one last stop!”

“Where to now?” Ali questions curiously since it’s already 11:30pm.

“Machine.” Ashlyn replies.

“The gay and lesbian nightclub, Machine?” Ali asks in confusion.

“The one and only.” Ashlyn confirms. “I used to go there years ago because an old friend of mine runs all the lesbian nights and I’d go hang with her there for support. I stopped going mostly because she had a rough bout with breast cancer and has just run the operations from the office since then. Anyway, Tuesday is theme night and I thought it would be a fun way to end.” She explains.

“Sounds like fun!” Ali agrees. “What’s the theme?”

“Tonight is country line dancing.” Ashlyn replies.

“Oh um, Ash… I’ve never done that. I don’t have a clue what to do.” Ali says shyly.

“Neither do I, Alex. That’s the beauty of it.” Ashlyn says with a smile.

Thirty minutes later, Ashlyn is do-si-do-ing with Ali all over the place as they both make complete fools of themselves. Ali can’t remember the last time she had this much fun doing something she would normally cringe at the thought of. The place is pretty crowded, but neither of them notice as their eyes never leave each other all night. Not long into it, Ali is already down to a gray tank-top while Ashlyn has lost the tie, rolled up her sleeves, and unbuttoned her shirt a bit. After downing their second glasses of water within an hour, they’re both pretty wiped and decide to go for one more dance before they head out. As they approach the dancefloor, the DJ announces that she’s about to take a short-break, so the music slows to some country love song.

Ali figures that it will be their cue to head out, but Ashlyn doesn’t miss a beat as she pulls Ali close and wraps her arms around the brunette’s waist. They’re one of only two couples out on the dance floor, but Ali could care less right now as she takes in the blonde’s scent and rests her head on Ashlyn’s shoulder. There’s something about the way Ashlyn holds her that she can’t get enough of. It’s protective but comfortable, secure but gentle, and completely blissful.

Ashlyn’s heart is beating a mile a minute as she slowly sways with Ali on the dancefloor. The brunette is pressed tightly against her and Ali’s fingers are lightly playing with the wisps of hair on the back of Ashlyn’s neck, causing her to breakout in goosebumps. She almost can’t believe she’s standing here right now, never in her life experiencing feelings as intense as those that Ali elicits.  Ali who is second to no one, perfect in every way, and who she couldn’t possibly be any more in love with, but who she knows she’ll still find a way to love even more tomorrow. As the song nears its end, Ashlyn feels Ali press a few soft kisses onto her collarbone and up to the crook of her neck. She swears her legs almost buckle and she’s struggling to stay upright as she trembles a bit, her thumbs finding their way under the hem of Ali’s tank-top so she can feel the warm skin of the brunette’s lower back. She lowers her head and kisses Ali’s forehead, feeling the brunette smile against her neck.

The song inevitably ends much to both of their disappointment and the fast-beat music starts up again. They stay slowly swaying for just another few moments before reluctantly pulling apart, their eyes meeting and conveying everything that words can’t right now.

“Should we head out?” Ashlyn asks, breaking the silence first.

Ali nods her head with a smile and takes Ashlyn’s hand as they head to the table where they left their clothes and coats. After getting bundled up again, they silently walk close together to where the car is parked, content to just enjoy each other’s presence.

Just like before, Ali plays with the radio while Ashlyn drives. “Favorite part of the night?” Ashlyn asks.

“I honestly can’t pick one. Everything was unique with its own special meaning. You were on point all night, Harris.” Ali admits. “Although, I don’t think I will ever forget you pulling that shark out from behind your back when you picked me up. As if you weren’t disarming enough already…” Ali adds with a giggle.

“I had such a good time with you. I’m glad you liked it.” Ashlyn replies, her thumb starting to rub circles on Ali’s hand that she’s holding over the center console.

A couple more quiet minutes pass before Ali excited says “Oooh, good song!”

Ashlyn looks down at the radio to see Missy Higgins’ ‘Where I Stood’.  “I haven’t heard this in forever.” She remarks thinking back to how her ex, Riley, was a big fan and they spent a summer following Missy Higgins around on her Northeast tour stops. She’s about to make a comment about it to Ali when she hears it…

I don’t know who I am with you, all I know is that I should

The lyric hits her like a brick to the face, her heart suddenly dropping like a stone into her stomach. She’s heard the line hundreds of times, but never has it had such a poignant meaning as it does now. Ten seconds ago, she wanted nothing more than to kiss Ali goodnight, profess her love, and promise her everything good in the world. How on earth can she do that when she can’t even promise herself those things?

Ali is everything right now. The only good thing, the singular thing she’s sure about. Beyond that, she doesn’t know anything. What she wants, where she’s going, or even who she really is anymore. Outside of Ali, everything is just a dark labyrinth of confusion that she doesn’t see a way out of. What’s worse is that she knows exactly what her tendencies will be in this situation. She’ll latch herself onto Ali, being content to stay close to what she knows and endlessly endure the rest of the darkness just to keep the status quo. It’s not fair. Not fair to Ali to always have to be the anchor that holds it all together while Ashlyn wanders lost in the dark. Not fair to herself to forgo taking the time to heal and find the inner peace she deserves.

Ashlyn suddenly knows exactly what she needs to do now as her mind reels and races. She refuses to pull Ali down into the darkness with her, especially when the brunette is already struggling with her own. She absolutely will not suck the sun into her black hole of misery. She just wishes she had made the realization sooner, before this night happened and heightened the stakes. Ali’s hand squeezes hers and she feels like she might throw up.

 

Ali senses the shift in the blonde as they approach Newton and squeezes her hand. She figures Ashlyn must be just as nervous about the goodnight part of this date as she is. She’s not nervous in a bad way, just in an anticipatory way. In that way that she knows her whole world is about to change. For the first time in her life, it’s not about what she doesn’t want. She knows exactly what she wants without question. She wants Ashlyn Harris to hold her and never let go, to steal her heart and never give it back, to be the one who walks besides her always and the kiss on her lips when she takes her final breath.

Both of them have butterflies for different reasons as the Jeep pulls into Ali’s driveway. Ashlyn lets go of Ali’s hand to get out of the car and open the brunette’s door for her. The night is bitterly cold now, so they quickly walk to the front door. When they get there, Ashlyn takes Ali’s hands in both of hers and steels herself as best she can as she loses herself in the whiskey colored eyes staring back into her own.

“Alex, this was one of the best nights of my life without question. You…you’re everything, the only great thing in my life right now, my sun amidst the darkness. Thank you.” Ashlyn says with every ounce of feeling she has, needing the brunette to understand what she means to her. She feels herself starting to tremble, but not because she’s cold.

“Hey, I’m always going to be your sun.” Ali reassures the blonde as she steps closer, moving her hands to Ashlyn’s waist. “Tonight was amazing. You’re amazing.” She smiles and moves in even closer to where they are now practically breathing the same air. They are so close that she feels more than sees Ashlyn’s hand come up to rest on her cheek.

“I don’t want to say goodnight.” Ashlyn whispers, her warm breath tickling Ali’s lips.

“Me either.” Ali whispers back, letting her eyes dart down to Ashlyn’s lips before closing them and waiting for the kiss that will change everything, ready to let herself completely float away.

Ashlyn watches Ali’s eyes go to her lips and close. The brunette’s lips are just about ghosting hers and she wants nothing more than to kiss her deeply and make her feel everything that is in her heart. She knows that she can’t. If she does, she’ll never have the strength to do what she needs to. She closes the distance and chastely presses her lips to Ali’s, letting herself enjoy the warm jolt that runs through her body for just a moment before quickly pulling away with her eyes still closed.

Ali feels Ashlyn’s lips close in on hers, the tingly feeling spreading through her body as she waits for the moment that it all explodes. It never comes though because Ashlyn’s lips are gone as quickly as they arrived. She lets her eyes flutter open as the disappointment hits her to see the blonde’s eyes doing the same. She’s about to panic a bit over what just happened, but the look in Ashlyn’s eyes calms her. There is so much love in the hazel eyes looking back at her that she think she understands. The blonde is a careful and protective person and has made it clear that she intends to court her. They have plenty of time and there is no need to rush, so why not build the most solid foundation they can first.

Ashlyn opens her eyes to see the surprised and somewhat disappointed look on Ali’s face, guilt filling her immediately. Just as soon as she sees it though, it’s gone again and Ali is just smiling at her sweetly. The brunette takes Ashlyn’s hand that is still on her cheek and kisses the palm before giving it a quick squeeze with her hand and letting it go.

“Goodnight, Ash. Thank you for tonight.” Ali says smiling widely.

“Sweet dreams, beautiful.” Ashlyn replies with the best smile she can manage before starting to walk away as Ali opens the front door. She lets herself look back once to see Ali watching her from the open door and giving a small wave. Ashlyn returns the wave and forces herself not to look back again. She gets into her car and drives for two blocks before pulling over and sobbing until she can’t anymore.

Ali watches Ashlyn’s Jeep drive away and closes the front door, leaning her head against it for a second.

“Sooo, how was it?” Kyle is there before she can even figure out where he came from.

Ali lets out a contented sigh. “Incredible. She had everything planned out meticulously and yet she made sure I was a full participant in all of it. It was nothing I expected and still everything I could have wanted. It was perfect.”

“Oh, wow. That good?” Kyle knew Harris would crush this date, but this seems far beyond that. He’s never seen Ali look like this.

“Kyle, if she had asked me to marry her tonight… I would have said yes without a second thought or a single regret.” Ali puts it bluntly.

Kyle doesn’t even know what to say other than he couldn’t be happier for his sister, or for Ashlyn for that matter. The two most amazing people he knows just fell in love with each other and he can’t think of anything better in the world.  “Well, I’m not crashing in on your fairytale right now. So, go get some sleep and you can tell me all about it tomorrow. I’m really happy for you. Night, night.”

“Thanks. Goodnight, Ky.” Ali says as she heads upstairs almost dreamily. She heads into the bathroom and quickly changes out of her clothes before heading into the bedroom. She plops down on the bed and smiles when she sees the shark Ashlyn gave her sitting on it. She holds it tightly in her arms and her smile grows impossibly wider when she realizes that it smells strongly like Ashlyn. Her eyes close as she takes in her new favorite scent in the world, quickly drifting off to sleep peacefully for the first time in a month.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, February 1

“Chris, what does your day look like? I’m gonna need your help.” Ashlyn gets out in a rush before Chris even has time to say anything more than hello.

“Ashlyn, what the fuck? It’s like 5am on a Wednesday!” He groans and rolls out of bed before he wakes Bridget who is already tossing and turning from the ringing of his cellphone.

“I know. I’m sorry. I really need your help with something today. Can you do it?” She pleads again.

“Uh, yeah. I have a meeting with the property manager of the East Boston rehab facility, but I’ll be free around 9am and won’t schedule anything for after that if you want. What’s going on?” Chris asks worriedly, hearing the apprehension in Ashlyn’s voice.

“I need to move.” Ashlyn replies.

“Move what? Like out of your condo? Today? Why?” Chris lets the questions fly as he gets more and more confused.

“Yes, out of my condo. I can explain later, just be here as soon as you can ok?” Ashlyn begs him.

“Ok, I’ll be there. You’re not in trouble or anything, right?” Chris questions still concerned.

“No, not really. I’ll tell you when you get here, but don’t worry.” Ashlyn tries to calm him.

“Alright, see you around 9am. Later.” Chris hangs up and heads to the kitchen to start coffee and breakfast. After hearing Ashlyn’s bizarre request, he knows he won’t be able to go back to sleep.

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Ali wakes up late after the most peaceful sleep she’s had in quite a while. She knows it has everything to do with the amazing night she just had with Ashlyn and the adorable stuffed shark wrapped up in her arms that serves as a reminder of it.

She checks her phone hoping for the usual ‘good morning’ text from Ashlyn, but there are no new messages. Ali knows it’s her day off from work, so she hopes the blonde is sleeping in like she did.

“About time!” Kyle pokes is head into the bedroom for like the tenth time this morning unbeknownst to Ali. He sits down on her bed and makes himself comfortable. “Reprieve over! Tell me about this date!”

Ali rolls her eyes and flops her head back onto the pillow before spending the next fifteen minutes giving him every detail.

Kyle sighs dreamily. “Oh man, that sounds amazing. No wonder you were all La La Land and googly eyes last night!”

Ali just nods her head in agreement with a smile.

“One question though… after all that insane buildup, why are you cuddling a shark this morning and not a hot blonde?” Kyle inquires. “I mean, I know Harris can be a little too proper sometimes, but still.”

“You know, I’m not actually sure. There’s a lot going on with her in terms of work and how she feels about being home. I think maybe she’s just trying to take things slow with us. I definitely expected to kiss her last night and have it end up in a situation where she didn’t go home…” Ali admits a bit shyly. “Didn’t happen though. She got a little quiet at the end of the date and I think she was nervous. All she did was peck me on the lips and that was that.”

“Really?!” Kyle says incredulously and pauses to think about it a bit. “Hmmm.”

“What?” Ali asks seeing his pensive face.

“Nothing, just didn’t expect that given how things have been between you two. But, I can understand that if she’s in a rough place that maybe she doesn’t want to rush into anything too fast.” Kyle answers. “Did she say anything?”

“I mean, before she kissed me she said I was the one good thing in her life right now, her sun in the darkness or something to that effect.” Ali replies.

“Well that’s adorable.” Kyle says sweetly while his stomach clenches a bit. He knows Harris’ tendency to push people away when she’s struggling. She’d rather drown than let anyone sink with her and he has a gut feeling that this side of Harris is about to come out. He doesn’t want to worry Ali unnecessarily, so he plays it cool and prepares himself to be there if needed.

“She’s pretty amazing.” Ali says with a sigh. “Probably a good idea to talk to her tonight about us and figure out exactly what she’s thinking; you know, get on the same page.”

“Very good idea.” Kyle agrees. “Until then, how about a fun sibling day… lunch, movie, and maybe a little shopping?”

“Um, yes! Just let me shower and get ready.” Ali replies excitedly.

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Chris gets to Ashlyn’s condo at 9:07am to find a U-Haul truck parked in the small driveway. He makes his way around the truck, finding his sister inside arranging a few boxes. A quick look inside tells him that about 80% of her stuff is already in there, just missing the larger furniture.

“Ass hat, what the fuck are you doing?” Chris yells into the truck, startling Ashlyn who bumps her head on the leg of a table that is stacked on its side.

“Owww, what the hell, Chris?!” The blonde yelps, rubbing her head.

“Sorry.” He mumbles. “Seriously, Ashlyn, what is going on right now?” He plops himself down on a stool in the back of the truck and pulls her arm a bit until she relents and sits down on a box across from him.

Ashlyn let’s out a heavy breath. “I’m a fucking mess, Chris. I don’t know who the hell I am or what I even want anymore. I need to get out of here and take some time to figure myself out. I just…I need to start over.”

“Are you getting help?” He asks with serious concern.

“Yeah. I have a therapist I like and we just started, but I need to help myself or I’m never going to get out of this rut. Like I have to just break and rebuild, you know what I mean?” Ashlyn answers.

“Yeah, I do.” Chris understands better than most that sometimes you have to just hit rock bottom and work your way up. “So where are you going?”

“Home.” Ashlyn answers without hesitation and Chris nods, knowing exactly what she means.

“Well, I’ve kept up with it. Should be pretty ready for you.” He informs her.

“Thank you for doing that.” Ashlyn acknowledges.

“Ashlyn, be honest, are you going to disappear on me here?” Chris just puts it bluntly.

“No.” Ashlyn replies back quickly. “I promised the kids I wasn’t going anywhere and I won’t. I’ll be there for them and work on getting this back to normal.” She says pointing between them.

Chis nods in relief before he asks his next question. “And Ali?” The drop in Ashlyn’s face as he asks is enough of an answer, but he waits for one anyway.

“I love her, Chris. I love her so much. She’s the one right thing.” Ashlyn says letting a tear slip out as she tries desperately to hold it in. “I have to let her go right now. If I don’t, I’ll just hold onto her and never let myself get better. I need to figure myself out before I can be the person she deserves.”

“Come here. You’re completely deserving of her and her of you, don’t ever tell yourself otherwise.” Chris says and pulls Ashlyn into a tight hug. “You’re a fucking idiot. I really do get what you’re doing, but you’re a fucking idiot, Ashlyn. I swear to god the Harris family needs to come with a damn warning label.”

Ashlyn gives herself a second to feel the comfort of her brother’s strong hug before pulling back. “Can you just help me move the furniture and then follow me in my Jeep to the house?” She requests of him.

“Yeah, sure.” Chris agrees. “Did you just stay up all night packing?” He asks looking around again. Ashlyn has never had too many things, but it’s still impressive how packed up she is.

“Yeah, right after I got back from my date with Ali.” She replies.

Chris wants to dope slap her, but he can see the pain in her eyes and that he doesn’t need to add to it. “Alright, come on ass hat, let’s do it.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Even though Kyle is keeping her occupied, Ali can’t help but get more and more anxious as the day passes and she doesn’t hear from Ashlyn. By the time she and Kyle get home, it’s 9:30pm and she hasn’t even gotten so much as a text from the blonde.

“She was probably with the kids today and fell asleep with them.” Kyle tries to reassure her as he watches her check her phone for like the hundredth time. He’s as nervous as she is, but he isn’t going to let on.

“Yeah I know.” Ali says with a bit of a pout. “I guess maybe I should just go try and relax so I can fall asleep and stop worrying.”

Kyle nods and watches her head upstairs as he silently hopes that his intuition is dead wrong.

Ali changes for bed and turns out all her lights, hoping she’ll fall asleep fast and it’ll be tomorrow before she knows it. Unfortunately she tosses and turns until about 11pm, finally sending off a text to Ashlyn.

Paladin: Really missed talking to you today. Hope you had a great day! Can’t stop thinking about last night… goodnight, Ash. Call me tomorrow or even tonight if you’re up. :)

Another half an hour and she finally feels her eyes closing, the stuffed shark pressed tight to her chest as her favorite scent in the world sends her off to sleep.

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Ashlyn settles onto her bed in the empty house that feels cold and bigger than she remembered. Having helped her move most of her stuff into it, Chris left about an hour ago. It had taken her a while to decide what room she was going to sleep in, eventually settling on her grandparents’ old master bedroom since it was the only one with a direct view of the ocean she knew she’d want to wake up to every morning. It definitely feels weird to be sleeping in here instead of in her usual room down the hall, but she hopes she’ll get over it soon enough. As alone and empty as everything feels, it still feels like home. Right now, that’s a small comfort that means everything.

She’s broken from her thoughts by her phone vibrating. She looks and sees a text from Ali. She knew it was coming at some point, but that doesn’t stop the rock she feels sitting in her stomach. She absolutely hates herself right now, but she knows she’d never forgive herself if she strung Ali along and hurt her over and over again with her disaster of a life.

“I’m so sorry, Alex. I’m going to get better for you and give you everything you deserve if you’ll have me by then, I promise.” She says out loud in the empty room as her finger hovers over the phone. She takes a really deep breath and finally wills herself to do it, hitting ‘yes’ as the question bubble pops up asking her to confirm the blocking of the number.

************************************************************************************

 

Thursday, February 2

After a fitful night of sleep, Ali wakes up and checks her phone. Her face furrows in disappointment when she sees there is no reply text from Ashlyn. She heads downstairs and puts a pot of coffee on, finding a note from Kyle that says he was going to head to his place for an appointment, but would be back for lunch. She puts the TV on in the living room while she pulls together some breakfast like she usually does when she’s alone. She’s cracking her second egg when she hears it.

Breaking News out of South Boston, we’re about to go live from the police department where Captain Ashlyn Harris will be releasing a statement shortly.

“Looks like she is finally breaking the silence, Tom.”

“Yes, Diane. I think we all expected that there would be some sort of statement eventually. We got word that she rejoined the department last week and has been getting back to her duties. If you’re just joining us, Captain Ashlyn Harris, who was recently released from prison after being acquitted of murdering Boston business tycoon Liam Gorham in a blackmailing case gone wrong, is about to release her first public statement since the case was dismissed. Chief Robert Dugan, who was going to be tried for the murder, committed suicide in his jail cell just a couple weeks ago.”

“Tom, I think we’re about ready.”

Thanks, Diane. Let’s go live and listen in.”

Ali listens to the newscasters’ dialogue as she stands there dumbfounded with an eggshell still in her hand from having run out of the kitchen so fast. She watches as Ashlyn stands in front of a bunch of microphones on the front steps of the police department, the constant sound of camera clicks in the background. The blonde is dressed in her usual uniform and looking as beautiful as ever, albeit very tired. Ali can’t help the smile growing on her face despite her confusion.

“Good morning. Thank you all for coming.” Ashlyn says and clears her throat. “As you all know, things have been a bit hectic to say the least.” She jokes a bit and there is laughter in the crowd of reporters that can be heard through the TV. “I am not here to talk about details pertaining to what has happened over the course of the last few weeks. My attorney, Ali Krieger, will be releasing a podcast regarding the case sometime in the near future and I think any questions you have will be answered at that point.  I am actually here to make an announcement. This morning I respectfully submitted my resignation to Captain John McNally.”

Ali’s mouth drops open as she hears the gasps and whispers on the TV as well.

“I feel that my duties here have come to a natural end and it’s time for me to move on to other things in life. It’s not a decision that I have made lightly or an easy one for that matter. I have enjoyed my time immensely working for this department and serving this community and I will certainly miss it. I want to thank the South Boston community and the police department for all the support over the years. My time here will never be forgotten and I’m so grateful to have gotten the opportunity to serve you all. Thank you all for being here this morning. I will not make any further statements or answer any questions at this time.” Ashlyn finishes and quickly steps away from the podium and back into the police department before she can get swarmed.

Ali immediately grabs her phone and calls Ashlyn, but it rings once and goes right to voicemail. “Ugh!” She groans in frustration and calls Kyle next.

“Kyle, you’re not gonna believe…” she starts, but he cuts her off.

“I saw.” He says, “I’m guessing she didn’t say anything about doing this?”

“Nothing at all. She said she was unhappy there, but didn’t talk about leaving. I mean, she just got back.” Ali says completely puzzled and a bit frantic. “I just tried to call her, but I think her phone is off. She must be freaking out… we need to get to her.”

“I’ll be there in 30 minutes and we’ll head to her place, ok? Just relax, Alex.  We’ll figure it out.” He tries to calm her down.

“Yeah, ok…just hurry!” Ali replies, hanging up the phone and running upstairs to quickly get herself ready.

 

When Ali and Kyle pull up to Ashlyn’s place about an hour later, Ali goes from being confused to completely befuddled and worried. Everything looks fine, except for the obvious ‘For Sale’ sign stuck into the small patch of snowy grass in front of the condo.

“What the hell?” Ali whispers as she gets out of the car and heads to look at the sign as Kyle follows closely behind. She quickly rings the doorbell, but nobody answers. Ashlyn’s Jeep is not there, so Ali isn’t surprised. Kyle shrugs his shoulders a bit behind her as she looks at him trying to figure out what to do. She pulls out her phone one more time and tries to call Ashlyn again, but the same thing happens…one ring and straight to voicemail.

“Hey Ash, it’s me. I saw the news this morning and you haven’t called. I’m at your place right now and you have a sale sign up. Are you ok? What’s going on? Please call me, I’m so worried about you.” Ali leaves a quick and desperate message before starting to dig through her purse.

“What are you doing?” Kyle asks watching her pull out a key.

“I have an extra key from getting this place ready with Chris. Ash told me to keep it. I just…I need to go in there.” She explains briefly, already inserting the key into the door.

“Well ok then, Miss Trespassing. What happened to following the letter of the law?” Kyle says uneasy about going in.

“She knows I have the key, Kyle. Geez.” Ali gives him a glare, willing him to just shut up right now. She opens the door and it only takes one quick glance inside for her heart to drop. It’s completely empty.

“What?” Kyle asks seeing the dejected look on Ali’s face.

“She… she left.” Ali says quietly and motions for Kyle to look.

He takes a look at the completely empty condo just for the hell of it, but deep down he had already known what to expect. He pulls the front door closed and wraps his arms tightly around a very dazed Ali. “It’ll be ok. Come on, let’s go talk to Chris and we’ll figure it out from there, ok?” Kyle tries to reassure her.

Ali just nods silently as endless questions run through her head. She’s quiet during the short car ride to Chris’ house, fiddling with the phone on her lap when she has a disturbing thought. She looks more closely at the now three text messages that she’s sent to Ashlyn with no reply from the blonde. They all say delivered, but not a single one of them has been opened. Her mind goes to the single phone ring before going straight to voicemail… Ashlyn has blocked her number. She’s not sure if she should be hurt or scared, but right now it’s a mix of both.

 

“Well that didn’t take long.” Chris says to himself as he sees Kyle’s car pull into his driveway from the living room window. He lets out a sigh and makes his way to the door, glad that Bridget and the kids went out the store so that they’re not a distraction.

“Come on in you guys.” Chris says opening the door before Ali and Kyle can even ring the doorbell. “I guess you saw the news this morning?”

“Yeah, and her condo. Chris, is she ok? Where is she? What’s going on?” Ali shoots questions at him one after another, not bothering to sit down like Chris and Kyle have done.

Chris cringes internally at Ashlyn having put him in this position. “Ali, she’ll be ok, but the truth is that she’s a mess right now. It’s a lot like when she came home from the Army and actually seems worse this time. She just… she needs some time to figure herself out. She moved back to our grandparents’ house in Ipswich yesterday.” He explains.

Ali feels a little better knowing Ashlyn isn’t that far away, but the look on Chris’ face is what is unsettling her most. It says everything he’s not saying out loud. “She needs time away from me?” Ali whispers a bit brokenly, finally letting her body sink down to the couch.

“Not just you Ali, everything.” Chris says as he moves closer and puts an arm around her shoulder. “Ashlyn doesn’t handle uncertainty very well, she struggles with it to the point that it’s all consuming. She needs to find herself again and she doesn’t want to bring anyone down with her, especially not you. She really, truly cares about you and she knows she’s going to hurt you one way or another…so, she’s choosing the lesser of the two evils right now and trying to rebuild herself. For the record, I told her she’s an idiot.” Chris says to try and perk up the brunette who is looking absolutely miserable right now as she fights back tears.

Ali nods a bit, but doesn’t speak. She knows if she tries to talk she’ll just burst out crying.  She feels Kyle grab her hand and does her best to draw some strength from the two kind men comforting her as best they can.

“Hey, Ali. Remember what I said a while back about the Ashlyn going into the fire?” Chris asks and watches Ali nod. “This is what I was talking about. She just needs to go in there and battle without having to worry about anyone but herself. She’ll come out just fine, she’s strong. And you’re the one she’s going to be in there fighting for and the first one she’ll want to see when she emerges from the flames. You know what I’m saying?” Chris explains and gets another head nod.

“You’re everything to her and she will always need you. She just needs some time to get herself together so she can show you. In the meantime, we’re here for you and for her. It’ll be ok, it will just take a little time.” He adds.

“Thanks, Chris.” Ali chokes out getting up slowly and making her way to the door. She’s not sure what else to say or do right now and she just wants to go home. She hears Chris and Kyle mumble a few unintelligible things to each other in the living room before Kyle comes out and helps her to the car.

“You want to talk about it?” Kyle asks hopefully as he drives them back to Ali’s house, but the brunette just shakes her head no. He reaches over to hold her hand knowing she’ll talk when she’s ready.

It’s not until they’re sitting on the couch a few hours later watching TV in silence when Ali finally breaks into tears and buries her head into Kyle’s shoulder.

“Why, Kyle?” Ali gets out through soft sobs. “Why is it so easy for the people I love to just leave me?”

Kyle feels an awful pang of guilt in his gut, knowing he’s definitely on that list. “Oh, Alex. Look at me.” He pulls back a bit and holds her face. “She didn’t leave you, honey. She’s just trying to find her way to you.”

“How do you know that?” Ali asks in a tiny voice.

“I’ve been there, Alex. I’ve been there.” He tells her honestly. “If I didn’t completely understand what was going on with her right now, trust me that your big brother would have already gone to kick her ass.” He jokes a bit to lighten the mood before he gets into it.

Ali gives him a tiny forced smile.

“Did you know that one of the first unofficial rules in rehab is that you should never date someone new?” He asks her.

“No. Why?’ Ali replies not quite sure what he’s getting at.

“It seems silly, but in the end it’s simply because you need to learn how to love yourself before you can love anyone else. You have to struggle and find your own light, not stand behind someone else’s while they lead the way. Otherwise you’ll never get better because you’ll always have that crutch. As much as it sucks, you need to let yourself hit the bottom and learn to crawl out all by yourself. That way, if it ever gets dark again, you’ll know how to deal with it and know that you’re strong enough to do it. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Kyle asks.

“Yeah, I think so.” Ali answers quietly.

“Harris is drowning right now and needs to learn how to swim so she can get back to shore. She’s never going to learn to swim or get back to shore if she just clings on to a flotation device.” He elaborates further.

“I’m the flotation device?” Ali states more than questions.

“Yep, a big ol’ inner tube with a set of yellow arm floaties for good measure.” Kyle laughs a bit and finally sees Ali crack a genuine smile.

“Thanks. I think I understand better now.” Ali says wiping her tears. “I guess I have a few things to work out myself.”

“For the record, I really think she loves you. As counterintuitive as it seems, she wouldn’t be trying so hard to get through this if she didn’t.” Kyle remarks.

“I know. I really do. This just kind of caught me off guard. I wish she had at least said goodbye first.” Ali lets her mind wander.

“Alex, if you were in her shoes… would you be able to say goodbye?” Kyle poses the question knowing the answer.

“No.” Ali replies honestly, finally understanding that chaste kiss at the end of their date. “When the fuck did you get so insightful?”

“I don’t know. Too much Oprah?” Kyle laughs. “So, what’s the game plan from here?”

Ali thinks on it for a minute before answering. “Get myself together, stay busy, think about her, miss her like crazy, and be completely ready to fall back into her arms when she’s ready.” She declares earnestly.

“Just like that?” Kyle says with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah. Just like that. I love her in a way that just doesn’t happen twice in a lifetime, or even once for that matter. I won’t let it go.” Ali says longingly. “But, if she takes too long…I might just have to break down her door and make her ready.” She adds with a smirk.

“There’s the sister I know!” Kyle exclaims as he pops up off the couch and pulls Ali up with him. “Come on, today calls for a major ice cream binge.”

*************************************************************************************

Friday, February 3

To say that Dr. Plume is unimpressed with Ashlyn’s disappearing act from her life is an understatement. While she understands that in Ashlyn’s mind this is what works for her, she isn’t shy in their second visit when it comes to letting her patient know that she thinks the approach is self-deprecating and not the healthiest way to go about this. Still, she is clear that as long as Ashlyn is honest with her, they will work together to help her overcome the struggles she is facing.

Dr. Plume listens carefully for about half an hour as Ashlyn explains what she is feeling and how being on her own makes her feel like she can focus on healing without burdening others. When she feels like she is missing something, she begins asking some questions.

“Ashlyn, I get everything you’re saying in terms of feeling like you need to find your way on your own. What I’m not fully understanding is your fear that you’ll latch on to something outside of yourself and never let yourself break enough to motivate your healing. You’ve distanced yourself from your job and your community, so I’m trying to understand what you’re referring to. I know you mentioned that you plan to stay in touch with your brother and family, so, is that the root of this fear?” Dr. Plume questions in an attempt to clarify.

Ashlyn has yet to say anything about Ali and she knows now is the time to really put it out there. She starts from the beginning, explaining to the therapist in as much detail as she can and not exactly sure of how long she’s been talking by the time she’s done.

“Okay, well now I understand better. Thank you for being open about it, it answers a lot of questions for me.” Dr. Plume acknowledges as she tries to decide the best way to end the session now that they’re already 25 minutes over the allotted time because she didn’t want to stop Ashlyn’s explanation. “You know what’s best for you in terms of what you need to move forward, but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps even in doing what you know is right for yourself…that you still feel bad about it and are beating yourself up a bit?”

Ashlyn shakes her head yes, the doctor having nailed it. She knows she just needs to be alone for a while, but it hasn’t made the guilt and hurt over leaving Ali the way she did any less painful.

Dr. Plume doesn’t wait for a verbal response before leaving Ashlyn with a final thought. “Maybe there is a middle ground of some sort? I think that sometimes the best thing is to put yourself in that other person’s shoes and be aware of how you might feel in that situation and what you would want to happen. And then maybe find a place that lies in the middle where you can get some peace of mind. Think about it and we’ll pick it up again Monday.”

After the session, Ashlyn heads home and walks the small path from the backyard that leads down to the small private beach below which overlooks Plum Island Sound. It’s cold and windy, but she sits down in the sand and clutches a mug of hot tea as she thinks hard about what Dr. Plume said. The sound of the waves is calming as she ponders what Ali must be thinking and feeling. If she was Ali, she’d be upset to have been left with no explanation, with no assurance, and with no goodbye, even if it was just a temporary one. She realizes that she shouldn’t have just taken off like that and left Ali to worry, but she just didn’t know how else to do it without risking not having the strength to leave.

She stays on the sand for a while longer even though it’s getting darker and colder and the tea is gone now. When she finally decides on what she’s going to do, she makes her way back up to house to take a hot shower. The warm water does a lot to take away much of the tension of the day and with a plan in mind, she feels like she may have found the very beginning of the path forward.

*************************************************************************************

Tuesday, February 14

Happy Valentine’s Day my darling cuddle bug!” Kyle waltzes into Ali’s room with his hands full, carefully placing the items on her bedside table before fully waking her up with a big smooch on the cheek.

“Ah, my cupid has arrived!” Ali jokes back with a smile. With them both having been single for quite some time, they had adopted the tradition of being each other’s valentines over the last few years. “What time is it anyway?”

“9:15am, lazy.” Kyle answers with a hint of sass. “I thought you would break with tradition and make me breakfast in bed this year, but foiled again!”

“Nope, sorry. Holiday appropriate boxers briefs, a nice dinner out, and a bottle of your favorite cologne is my g- to and I’m sticking with it.” She sasses back as she reaches over to grab the gift box she left by her bed last night so she can give it to him.

“I’m definitely not complaining!” Kyle says, taking the box from her like an excited teenager. “You’re the best Valentine I’ve ever had!”

Ali gives his arm a squeeze and looks over at her bedside table to see his usual line-up as well. A big box of chocolates, a giftcard for a massage, and a caddie filled with fun hair and make-up products. She smiles when she sees the addition of a sizeable vase of sunflowers, knowing he’s been trying extra hard to cheer her up since she’s been down lately. “Kyle, those are so gorgeous! You shouldn’t have, but thank you! Where did you even find sunflowers in New England in the winter? I love them!”

“Actually, I didn’t and I have no idea…but clearly someone knows where to find them.” He says holding up an envelope. “This was delivered for you just a little bit ago.”

Ali looks back at the flowers, the fact that they’re sunflowers making her heart leap a bit. Maybe, just maybe… she lets herself hope a little as Kyle’s voice breaks her thoughts.

“Oh my god, just open it already before I die of curiosity!” He bellows at her dramatically.

Ali takes the plain red envelope from his hand and runs her finger under the seam to open it. Inside she finds a picture of a patch of sand with the ocean behind it, the sun creating a hazy glare in the exposure. She takes it in for a few seconds before flipping it over to see neat handwriting that is unmistakably Ashlyn’s. Her heart races as she desperately takes in the words.

Alex… my Paladin, my Sun,

Nothing I could say would ever make up for the way I left. I can only wish that I had possessed the inner strength to have done it more gracefully and not hurt you in the process. It took the most perfect night of my life, my date with you, to realize that my heart is in no shape to give to anyone until it is mended. Nor could I ever ask you to mend it for me.

I sit on this sand every day, looking out onto the water, and letting the sun hit my face as I think of you. Knowing what I am fighting for and what my light at the end of the tunnel is, I heal a little bit more with each thought of you. I just need you to know that even though my heart is a state of disrepair, it’s still completely yours. I will work tirelessly until the day comes when I can give it to you in the shape you deserve it to be in and hope that you’ll accept it. Please know that in my heart, no matter what its condition, you are forever my Valentine. 

Happy Valentine’s Day, Alex! I miss you beyond words.

Love,

Ashlyn, your tragic hero

Ali lets it wash over her, a single tear rolling down her smiling face from the emotion. Ashlyn’s message is all she needs to know, everything she needs to be okay and move forward, and the motivation to be patient. She reaches out and hands the photo to Kyle who is looking at her anxiously as he patiently waits to read it.

“Wow, well ok then.” Kyle says, handing the card back to Ali. “You ok?” He asks trying to gauge the somewhat serene look on Ali’s face.

“Never better.” Ali gives him a genuine smile as she grabs her phone.

“What are you doing?” Kyle asks as he watches Ali type something into the phone.

“Just in case.” Ali says turning the phone so he can see the text she just typed and sent to Ashlyn.

Your heart will always be in perfect condition for mine no matter what, my Valentine. Until we meet at the end of the tunnel, take care of yourself and be safe. I really miss you too, Ash.

“Oh my god, stop it! I’m swooning even though this whole thing reeks of angst!” Kyle says as he dramatically flops back on the bed.

Ali slaps him lightly on the thigh and rolls her eyes. Her heart suddenly skipping a beat and the smile on her face grows big enough to hurt her cheeks as she notices that the status under her text not only says it was delivered, but also that it was read.

*************************************************************************************

Thursday, March 23

Ashlyn ducks down in the cleaning product aisle at the grocery store, narrowly avoiding Edith seeing her. This is the fourth close call she’s had with the woman since she’s moved back. It’s not that she doesn’t like Edith, she loves the woman like a grandmother. She just doesn’t know what to say after all this time, and worse, when she’s in this embarrassing limbo of not really knowing what to do with her life. Dr. Plume has been encouraging her to slowly start reconnecting with people and she’s been good about casually saying hello to people she knew here and there as she runs into them. Still, she’s just not sure she’s ready to reconnect with the more meaningful people yet. Unfortunately, life has other plans as she turns the corner and runs right into the older woman at the end of the aisle.

“Oh hi! Sorry, Edith, I didn’t see you there!” Ashlyn says cheerily to cover her anxiety.

“Uh huh. Just like you didn’t see me at the gas station last week, the post office the week before that, and the garden store a few weeks before that.” Edith gives the blonde a pointed, but friendly look. “And here I thought you liked me.” She laughs a bit.

“I’m so sorry, Edith. Really I am. I’m just trying to get back into the swing of things and it’s been hard. I guess I’ve just been too embarrassed to see anyone.” Ashlyn admits in guilty honestly.

“It’s ok, sweetheart. I’ve been around the Harris clan long enough to know how overly critical you all tend to be of yourselves. How about we leave all this awkwardness right here and you can come over for some dinner and we’ll catch up.” Edith offers kindly.

“I’d love that.” Ashlyn says in relief at being let off the hook and actually happy to be spending time with the older woman she’s so fond of.

Dinner is anything but awkward and Ashlyn finds herself at ease as she listens to what Edith has been up to and reciprocates by telling her the cliff notes version of what has been going on with her. She feels a deep sense of home that she hasn’t felt for quite a while.

“I’m really happy you’ve come home, Ashlyn.” Edith says with a content smile.

“Me too.” Ashlyn agrees.

“Sounds like you’re still up in the air about what you’re going to do career-wise though.” Edith notes.

“Yeah. I’m thinking maybe I’ll reopen Grandpa’s fishing charter or something.” Ashlyn muses a bit.

“Why? You never liked fishing that much if I remember correctly.” Edith gives her an odd look.

“I don’t know. I mean I have to do something, right? Maybe a change is what I need.” Ashlyn explains.

“Or maybe you should just stick to what you’re good at, sweetheart.” Edith replies, seeing Ashlyn’s quizzical look and elaborating. “Your grandpa loved to say ‘don’t reinvent the wheel’, right?”

“Yeah.” Ashlyn remembers the saying fondly and how often her grandfather would repeat it even when it wasn’t all that appropriate for the situation.

“Well, then why are you reinventing the wheel? You know damn well what you were made to do and you’ll never be as happy doing anything else. Just because you had a bad experience in one place doesn’t mean it will be that way in another. Don’t reinvent, just rebuild it stronger this time.” Edith advises her.

The advice hits Ashlyn like a lightning bolt. Edith couldn’t be more right. It’s the one thing that never leaves her and that she can always rely on, her instinct to protect. She is happiest when she knows that she’s taking care of the people around her. And just like that she knows what to do.

“Edith, you’re a life saver!” Ashlyn leans over and hugs the woman.

“You’re welcome, dear. But you might want to hold up for just a second. I have one more question.” Edith says as Ashlyn pulls away a bit. “Can I ask about where that lovely lawyer of yours fits into everything?”

“Oh, um…” Ashly stutters as she tries to figure out how to explain it. “It’s really complicated and also not complicated at all. Everything I’m doing right now, figuring it all out…it’s for her.”

Edith doesn’t need to hear more to understand, she knows Ashlyn and Chris well enough by now. She can’t help but offer one more piece of advice. “You know what your grandmother would say, right?”

“Yep.” Ashlyn says with a little smile, knowing her grandma always gave the same relationship advice thanks to the plight of the Tin Man. “She’d go all Wizard of Oz on me and say that hearts will never be practical until they are made unbreakable.”

“Exactly.” Edith says with her own knowing smile. “Don’t wait until you think your heart is unbreakable, ok?”

“I won’t, Edith. Promise.” Ashlyn replies as she finishes her last bite of apple pie and sip of coffee. “Tomorrow night, my house for dinner?”

“I wouldn’t miss it, sweetheart.” Edith says happily.

And just like that Ashlyn has regained an old friend and figured out the next step on her path. The very next morning she meets with the Ipswich Chief of Police. After some paperwork and necessary certification procedures, she’s Captain Ashlyn Harris of the Ipswich Police Department just eight days later. With a new community to protect and invest in, she’s well on the way to finding who she is again.

*************************************************************************************

Wednesday, April 19

“Alex, seriously, stop twitching!” Kyle says for the third time. “Relax, you’re amazing and this story is amazing! This is a sure winner without you even trying, ok?”

“I know. I just, I hope I got it right. It’s important to me that I got it out the way both Ashlyn and I wanted it.” Ali says as she continues to fiddle while they wait for the first episode of the new podcast season to be released on the supported websites. It will be a nine episode series, each one released weekly. Ali has put all her time into to perfectly editing the content and narrating the parts of the case that needed further explanation. As much as it has made her miss Ashlyn terribly, listening to the blonde’s voice has been soothing. She has listened to their recorded conversations over and over again in her editing process, pretty much falling in love with Ashlyn all over again despite the very platonic and business-related nature of the recorded conversations.

She feels Kyle nudge her as the link pops up on the website, the title reading ‘Veritas Aequitas Season 3 – The Noble Captain on the Ship of Corruption’. Kyle quickly clicks it so they can listen.

“I first met police Captain Ashlyn Harris in late summer of 2016 after learning that her involvement in my life was far beyond what I realized. She wasn’t at all what I expected and, as you’ll soon see, neither was this case and the way in which it unraveled. In this third season of Veritas Aequitas, we get to the bottom of corruption in its ugliest form right here in our own city of Boston and learn the truth about the valiant hero who stood up to it at the cost of her own freedom.”

Ali hears her own voice opening the episode and wonders if Ashlyn will be listening.

Just 45 miles away, Ashlyn is listening. A smile is plastered on her face as she hears Ali’s voice telling her story, and not just her story, but their story. She closes her eyes and sits back comfortably, letting her favorite voice in the world bring her the peace that it always does.

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Saturday, May 20

Ali is putting together a couple of sandwiches in the kitchen when she hears the doorbell.

“Come on in, Becca! The door is open!” She yells as loudly as she can, knowing her voice will carry outside through the open living room windows that are letting in the fresh Spring breeze.

“Hey, Ali. That looks good!” Rebecca says as she looks at the sandwiches, putting her purse on the counter and going to give the brunette a quick hug.

This has become a routine for them over the last month since Rebecca first delivered the news that Ken had regained consciousness and was no longer in need of life-sustaining measures. As bizarre as it is, Ali and Rebecca have become close to each other in sharing contrasting struggles over the same man. One of them fighting to hold on while the other fights to let go, each of them respectfully understanding the complexity of the other’s pain and forming a bond over it. Jameson has become really attached to Kyle, something both Ali and Rebecca think is a clear sign that he’s questioning his sexuality. Josh, on the other hand, is like Ali’s mini-me, constantly following her around and asking her questions in an effort to pretend to be a lawyer like she is.  It’s weird to see so much of herself in him, but something about it is sort of fascinating too. Amidst such unlikely circumstances, the five of them have somehow begun to form a tight little group that feels a lot like family.

“So, what is the prognosis from this last round of assessment tests?” Ali asks, getting right down to it so they can enjoy lunch.

“The memory loss he has already experienced is permanent. Whatever he already remembers is highly likely the only thing he will ever remember. And he doesn’t have the capability to convert any short-term memory to long-term, so he’ll only ever remember is what is already there and nothing new will ever get added. Every day will be like starting all over again for him. His speech will likely improve some with therapy, but it he won’t regain that in full either. As for the burns, they’ll do a few more skin grafts and adjustments, but it won’t be much more at this point.” Rebecca answers a bit dejectedly.

“Oh Becca, I’m really sorry.” Ali pulls the woman into a hug.

“It’s ok. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. It’s just going to be hard to visit him in a care home somewhere and have that be it. But, at least he remembers me… that’s something I guess.” Rebecca replies a little more hopefully. “How do you feel about it?”

Once Ken had regained consciousness and began to try and speak, they learned that he remembered from approximately the time he and Rebecca got married up until Jameson turned 6. Everything after that is blank for him. He also remembers Deb and Ali and Kyle, but those memories are foggier. He recalls a brief period of time when both Ali and Kyle were in elementary school, but nothing before or after that. In his mind, all of his kids are very much still kids. He’s been able to work out that he must have left Deb for Rebecca because he remembers his second marriage, but how it all happened or why he doesn’t know.

“As much as I hate to say it…relieved. I’m realizing that I just can’t forgive him for what he did and that I don’t think I would ever be able to. I’m still struggling with feeling like a bad person for that, but I guess in knowing that there is no purpose in forgiving him or any reason to now, I’m relieved. I’m starting to believe that I can finally just close the door now. He won’t ever be looking for my forgiveness and I won’t ever have to give it. Does that make sense?” Ali rambles her reply.

Rebecca nods in understanding. “I’ll always admire your strength, Ali. You know that. Do you think you’ll ever visit him? I don’t say that to pressure you at all, I’m really just curious.”

“I’m not even close to ready, but I think someday I will. Just one last time so I can close that part of my life and really let it go.” Ali explains. “Are you going to be ok with all of this?”

“Not for a while, but I will be. I’m only 44 and I have a whole life to live.  Eventually, I know I’ll need to move on to be happy. I’ll always take care of him, but knowing deep down that I will also be living this whole other life without him…it hurts.” Rebecca answers honestly.

“You know, I actually can understand that a bit.” Ali replies empathetically.

“Yeah, about that. Any word from Ashlyn?” Rebecca inquires.

Ali had surprised herself at how fast she had opened up to Rebecca about what was going on with Ashlyn. As much as Kyle and Chris were really supportive, it was nice to get an honest female perspective on it sometimes. Ever since Ali shared what happened, Rebecca has made it a point to ask about Ashlyn.

“No, nothing. I keep sending her little text messages when I’m really missing her or something happens that I want to tell her about. I know she hasn’t read them since that one on Valentine’s Day, but it still makes me feel connected to her somehow.” Ali says.

“It might still take a while, who knows… but I just know that you two are going to be more than okay, you’re going to be a real life fairytale.” Rebecca states confidently.

Ali laughs a little bit. “Oh yeah? What makes you think that?”

“I can hear it in your voices on the podcast. When two people are so in love with each other that you can actually hear it when they’re having a normal conversation… there’s just no other outcome but fairytale.” Rebecca answers simply.

Ali just replies with a slight hum as she thinks about it and is not sure what else to say. “I think we’ve starved long enough, don’t you?”

“Absolutely! You really do make the best sandwiches!” Rebecca says as they grab their food and make their way out onto the back patio to enjoy the mild spring day.

*************************************************************************************

Wednesday, June 7

It turns out that Rebecca isn’t the only one who hears the deeper emotions in the podcast.

 

Ashlyn finishes a long run along Crane’s Beach in the late afternoon of her day off.  She used to hate running, but now she loves the rush of pushing herself to see how fast and far she can go. Her body is in better shape now than it was even in prison when she worked out constantly to pass the time and ease her stress. Her fitness routine comes from a healthier place these days, a want to better herself and get stronger as a whole. It’s not the only transformation she’s made.

 She’s fallen into perfect step with her new police department, learning to work better as part of a team instead of taking on everything alone. It’s done a lot to build solid and trustworthy relationships with her fellow officers. She loves that Ipswich is a quaint sea town that doesn’t see much violent crime, but that it still depends on the investment of its police force to instill a sense of order and safety. The people here know her by way of her grandparents and are genuinely happy to see her and have her back. It truly feels like the home she was desperately looking for just a few months ago.

She spends most of the evenings she has free at Chris’ house, putting the kids to bed before making the drive home. Things have completely normalized between her and her family and she loves just being part of their daily routine like she was before. When she’s not there, she’s helping Edith rework the landscaping around the older woman’s home or spending time with Liz and Jess, old high school friends that she more recently reconnected with. For someone who is so good at shutting down and going it alone, she’s done a great job of letting people back in with the gentle encouragement of Dr. Plume.

There have been physical changes too, especially given the twenty-one hours she’s spent with her tattoo artist in making the latest elements of her life story come to fruition in black ink that covers most of her right forearm as the start of a new sleeve. Gone too are her long blonde locks which have been traded for a darker, short-cropped haircut that she thought she would hate, but has actually grown to love. When she looks in the mirror these days, it’s not exactly what she expected to see, but for the first time in a very long time, she’s happy and proud of the person looking back at her.

Knowing that Chris and Bridget are hosting a small business-related dinner party tonight and that Edith is busy putting together training materials for the woman who is going to take over for her when she retires in a few months, Ashlyn opts to hit the grocery store after her run to grab some food for a quiet night at home. She quickly picks out some steak and vegetables to grill, more than ready to get home so she can shower. There are only two cashiers working, so she stands in the slightly shorter line and starts looking at the covers of the magazines in the stand next to her like she usually does while she waits. She’s taken aback when she sees her own face on a couple of them.

The podcast series only has two episodes left, and while it has definitely gotten its fair share of media coverage, especially with the revelation about Ali’s father, Ashlyn can’t imagine what would suddenly draw enough attention to dedicate even a small corner of the front cover to. She picks up one of the magazines that features her and Ali’s pictures side-by-side on the bottom right corner of the cover, the line above it reading ‘Love is on the Air?” Before she can open the magazine and read the story, it’s her turn in line. As much as the curiosity is killing her, she quickly puts the magazine back because she’s too embarrassed to buy it.

She makes the short drive home in record time and plops down in front of her laptop not even bothering to put the groceries away first, her shower long forgotten. A quick internet search makes it clear what the hoopla is all about. There is a rapidly evolving theory among followers of Veritas Aequitas that she and Ali are a couple and the more mainstream media has now picked up the story. Ashlyn finds more than a few websites and blogs that go into detail about how the two interact verbally, honing in on particular things that were said, and even some that claim evidence based on vocal tones.

After about an hour of reading what is out there, Ashlyn finally takes a shower and makes dinner as she thinks through it all. She’s a bit surprised by it, but not in a bothersome way. She makes herself comfortable on the couch with her laptop and listens to tonight’s second-to-last episode of the podcast, Ali’s voice bringing a smile to her face as usual. She listens carefully to the way she and Ali sound and how they treat each other. If she’s being honest, she hears it too. She just never realized until now that it was so apparent.

When the episode is over, she closes her laptop and leans her head back. A few more minutes of pondering and it finally hits her that she not only has what she always wanted, but even more than she wished for. She once told Ali that she wanted people to be able to look at her relationship and just see the love. What she never expected was to have so much love for someone that people could actually hear it in the mundane dialogue between them without seeing or knowing anything. And all of this without there even really being a relationship to speak of.

She feels a slight pang in her heart at that last thought. She feels good about where she is. She’s lighter and happier with a renewed sense of purpose and self. Still, even with so much going right, she’s not sure why those last few steps of the journey feel so hard to take. There’s something that still feels off and that she can’t quite put her finger on. It’s preventing her from making that last push forward because it scares her as to what it might be.

*************************************************************************************

Friday, June 23

“Ashlyn, I want to talk to you about how far you’ve come from where we started in this therapeutic relationship. I can’t help but feel as though we are reaching a point where we’ve met the goals that you set out for yourself at the start. I’m very proud of you in that regard and I am certainly always ready to assist in any way I can, but I’m getting the sense that perhaps we should be starting to move towards more of a maintenance approach from here forward. That being said, I want to hear your thoughts on it.” Dr. Plume says after forty minutes into their session where Ashlyn has only talked about and reflected on positive things as she has for the last few weeks now.

“Yeah, I guess maybe you’re right.” Ashlyn replies tentatively.

“You sound hesitant. Talk to me.” Dr. Plume prods her.

“It’s just that I feel like I’ve gotten to where I want to be with just about everything except the one thing I’m most desperate to get to.” Ashlyn replies.

“You mean Ali?” Dr. Plume asks knowingly. Ashlyn was clear in the beginning about what she was working towards, but Ali is a topic of conversation that has not come up much since. She has gotten the sense that Ashlyn believes that if she just gets all her ducks in a row that everything with Ali will just fall right into line too.

Ashlyn nods. “You’re right that I’m in a really good place. I just… it’s weird… I feel like it’s time to take that last step and reconnect with her, but something still feels off. I feel like there is something that is still broken and it terrifies me that I don’t know what it is. It keeps me from taking that last step forward because I don’t want to get there and realize it was something major that I didn’t fix.”

Dr. Plume smiles a bit, understanding exactly what is going on. For a patient who has made such huge strides in therapy, many of them unassisted, it’s almost surprising that Ashlyn doesn’t see it herself. Still, she can appreciate the power that fear can have over a person sometimes.

“What am I missing?” Ashlyn asks seeing the slight smile on Dr. Plume’s face, the very one she usually sees when the therapist is about to ask her a really deep and meaningful question that will likely have her reeling.

“Ashlyn, have you considered that perhaps nothing about you is broken … that maybe it’s just that you’re not quite whole yet, so to speak. That it’s possible that instead of fixing something, you might just need to add something that you’ve been depriving yourself of?” Dr. Plume poses the question gently.

“Oh.” Ashlyn replies quietly after a minute even though the therapist’s question has hit her like a hammer over the head. “Oh geez, you’re right. How could I have not… everything is in place but her. I didn’t even consider that maybe I was actually ready to…” She trails off in a series of incomplete thoughts. “Wow, I guess this changes a lot.”

“I think this is a good place for us to end today and let you have some time to reflect on how you want to move forward.” Dr. Plume says, satisfied by the new progress. “As you know, I’m on vacation now for a little bit, so we’ll circle back to the maintenance conversation after the holiday.”

“Yeah, ok. Thank you so much for the insight, as usual.” Ashlyn says with a grateful smile as she waves and heads out the door, her mind racing.

*************************************************************************************

Tuesday, July 4

Ashlyn sits in the 50’s era diner car in nearby Rowley waiting for her burger. It’s one of her favorite places to eat when she just wants some unhealthy food. She had scheduled her first vacation around the 4th of July, thinking it would be nice to spend some time on the beach with Curtis and Elsie while taking them to the many fireworks displays along the Northshore even though she’s had a love-hate relationship with the celebratory explosions since her time in Iraq.  Unfortunately, in the meantime, Chris and Bridget had won a cruise vacation at a raffle and were now gone for the week. Yesterday she spent most of the day wiring some fog lights onto her Jeep. So, on her second day off she figures she’ll take it easy, grab a late lunch and then see what Liz and Jess are up to tonight for the holiday and hopefully join them. While it’s not quite what she had in mind, it’s something to do at least.

With nothing to do while she waits for her food, she reads through the 61 text messages on her phone for what has to be the hundredth time in just over a week. She had left Dr. Plume’s office that day with a renewed energy, quickly unblocking Ali’s number on her phone for the first time since Valentine’s Day with the thought that maybe she would just finally call her. The energy had quickly faded though as she thought about what exactly she would say. As she sat in the car thinking about it more deeply, her phone buzzed incessantly for a few minutes with a plethora of unread text messages from Ali coming through.

She somehow managed to wait until she got home to read them, spending over an hour deeply engrossed in the words on her phone as various waves of emotions swept through her. Some of the text messages were simple statements of longing. Some were the recounting of a funny story, while others were deeper thoughts and updates about Ali’s father. A few detailed some dreams that had featured Ashlyn in them and still others were ideas for future adventures together. Sometimes they were sent only hours apart, other times days or even a week. The last one was sent on June 21st and reads ‘The stuffed shark I hold every night has only the slightest hint of your cologne now and I’m scared of the day that I don’t smell it anymore.”

Reading those messages, she never felt so completely cared for and understood before. She had shut Ali out in her quest to find herself again and heal. Still, Ali Krieger had found a way to stay connected. She hadn’t abandoned her for even a second, but instead kept Ashlyn in her life as if she never left. It has touched her so deeply, but it has also put her into a neutral state that she’s not sure how to break out of.

Ashlyn has spent the last week in complete frustration as she agonizes over how to go about this. Does she text and start slow? Does she call and plan some kind of meet-up? Does she just go find Ali in person? She’s run a million scenarios in her head, none of them satisfactory enough to pull her from her paralyzed state of indecision.

Her attention is pulled away from her phone as the waitress puts her food down in front of her.

“Here you go, sweetie. I’ll leave the bill too for when you’re ready.” The middle-aged waitress says with a smile and walks away.

The fries are hot, so she starts with the burger only to stop mid-bite when the unmistakable beat of ‘Straight Up’ by Paula Abdul comes blaring out of the juke box. It immediately brings her right back to that moment in the hospital where Ali had admitted it was her guilty pleasure song. She pulls the burger out of her mouth and looks around quickly as if Ali is going to be standing there somewhere. All she sees though is a booth of college-aged girls singing along as they try and re-live their childhood. Of all things, this stupid song is the final straw.

Ashlyn looks down at her watch, seeing that it’s 2:33pm. With no solid plan in mind other than to get home as fast as she can to shower and change, she drops $20 on the table and rushes out with the hope that maybe this so far sub-par holiday is about to turn into one that she never forgets.

Chapter Text

In what can only be compared to a fugue state where she drove 45 minutes and stopped for flowers along the way but somehow doesn’t remember any of it, Ashlyn finds herself once again deciding between the doorbell and the door knocker that adorn Ali’s front door. The reality of where she is right now finally hits her and she takes a minute to actually work through what she might say or do, something she didn’t think about in her sudden urgency to get here. There are a couple of other cars in the driveway in addition to Kyle and Ali’s and Ashlyn feels herself start to shake out of nervousness.

“Idiot.” She mumbles to herself. It’s the Fourth of July, Ali probably has plans or people over. The last thing she wants to do is make a scene or pull Ali away from anything. She just can’t wait anymore though, she physically can’t do it. Even if Ali slaps her and slams the door in her face, which she will have completely deserved, she’ll be happy just to get a glimpse of the brunette and feel her palm on her face even if it stings. As that thought enters her head, she realizes she’s slipping back into letting negative thoughts take over. She hears Dr. Plume’s voice in her head reminding her to just try and see the reality of the situation instead of the overly positive or negative aspects of it. And the reality is that there is nothing to suggest that Ali won’t be glad to see her.  “Just trust your gut.” She coaches herself in a quiet mutter before throwing caution to the wind and ringing the doorbell.

 

“Kyle, don’t forget to put ice in the cooler!” Ali directs as Kyle walks by with a 24 pack of soda. Ali is wrapping up the sandwiches she just made while Rebecca cuts up a watermelon. Josh is helping Ali’s childhood friend, Emily, frost some cupcakes while Kyle’s new salon assistant, Ben, is making sure they have enough paper plates, cups, napkins and cutlery. The group is going to head to Marblehead for the evening and picnic at the oceanside park there while they wait for the 9pm firework display. It’s one of the best in the area and they’re all excited about it.

Ali is just wrapping the last sandwich when the doorbell rings.

“That must be Jameson. David’s parents said they would drop him off here after they picked them up from the movie unless I texted them otherwise.” Rebecca explains as she looks for a towel to wipe her hands on.

“Don’t worry, I got it.” Ali says as she finishes wrapping the sandwich. “So is David a friend or a ‘friend’?” She asks as she starts to head towards the living room entrance.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that today was a ‘date’, but he hasn’t said anything.” Rebecca confirms.

“So cute. He could teach Kyle a few things.” Ali says with a smile and heads to open the front door.

“Hey buddy, how was the mov…” She starts, but is taken aback when she sees it’s not Jameson. She doesn’t even realize who it is at first until her eyes fall upon the unmistakable hazel ones looking back at her.

“Ash.” She whispers out as her hand goes to cover her open mouth, her eyes immediately getting watery. The woman in front of looks so different than the one who left so many months ago and certainly not like the image of Ashlyn that has been holding a permanent spot in her mind.  She’s wearing loose off-white cargo shorts and a black button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, black ink now etched into her once tattoo-free right arm to match the left one. Her striking long blonde hair is gone and replaced with a short, perfectly-styled pompadour with a side-part in her natural brunette hair color, the sides cropped very closely in a high and tight fade.  She looks as stunning as ever, and more importantly, she looks completely unburdened.

“Hi Alex.” Ashlyn says in her own whisper, the only words that she manages to get out of her mouth as her mind goes blank and she stands there completely mesmerized by the perfect woman in front of her. Ali is in a white sundress with a blue floral print that is flowy but hugs her in just the right places and displays her toned arms and strong legs perfectly.

“It’s really you.” Ali says still in shock as her body takes over and she launches herself at Ashlyn, who catches her in her arms and holds her tightly as she lets the bunch of sunflowers in her hand fall to the ground. “You’re really here. You’re really here.” Ali repeats in a mumbled mantra trying to convince herself she’s not dreaming as the familiar scent takes over her senses.

Ashlyn pulls back a bit and gently cups Ali’s cheek with her hand. “Hey, it’s ok. It’s really me and I’m really here.” She tries to calm Ali and come up with something meaningful to say, but she practically loses her breath when she gets lost in the brunette’s eyes and realizes just how close they are right now. “God, I forgot just how beautiful you are.” Her words come out without thought.

Ali can only reply with a nose crinkling grin at the moment as she pulls Ashlyn back into a hug. “Ash, look at you…you look so amazing.” She says, releasing Ashlyn so she can look at her again. “Your hair, you look so fit and happy and lit up…just gorgeous. I feel like I’m dreaming.”

“You’re not.” Ashlyn gives her a sweet smile as she picks the flowers up off the ground and holds them out for Ali. “Sorry, here, these are for you.”

“Sunflowers.” Ali says as she takes them. “Still trying to charm me, Harris?”

“Maybe. Is it working?” Ashlyn plays back, relieved that the usual playful banter between them is still alive and well.

“It might be.” Ali replies with a smirk as the reality of Ashlyn being in front of her really starts to hit her. “There’s so much I want to know and for us to talk about. Do you have the time to…I mean, can we…are you able to…” She tries to just spit out what she’s thinking, but she doesn’t have a clue what the right question is right now.

“Alex.” Ashlyn stops the brunette’s ramble of incomplete thoughts. “I’m here and I am not going anywhere, nor will I ever go anywhere ever again. I’m so sorry that I ever did anything to make you doubt me in that regard. This…” she says pointing between the two of them “is the only place for me and I promise you I’ll be right here, as long as you’ll have me.” She says confidently.

“So, we can spend time together and talk?” Ali asks, needing the confirmation one more time.

Ashlyn smiles sweetly at the brunette, completely understanding that she has a lot to make up for. “Yeah, we have all the time in world. I’m here with you. We can do whatever you want, ok?”

“Ok.” Ali says finally letting herself relax. She hears Kyle and Rebecca laughing loudly from inside and remembers she has a kitchen full of people at the moment with plans to go out tonight. “Oh um, I better get back in there before they think I got lost. Come in with me?”

Ashlyn feels apprehensive at barging in on Ali’s company, but she also doesn’t want to deny the brunette anything right now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really think this whole thing through very well when I just showed up like this. It’s the Fourth and you clearly have company and probably some plans. I’ll do anything you want, but I can come back. I don’t want to intrude on…” Ashlyn says apologetically, but Ali cuts her off.

“Don’t even finish that statement, Harris.” Ali says pointedly but playfully. “We have a lot of catching up to do and my plans just changed. So, follow me and let’s get this show on the road.” She reaches out and takes Ashlyn’s hand, pulling her towards the door.

“Roger that. Lead the way, Krieger.” Ashlyn says lightly and lets Ali lead her inside even though she’s nervous about what she’s about to walk into.

The voices get louder as they make their way towards the kitchen and Ashlyn feels herself starting to sweat a bit at the potential awkwardness.

“Hey guys, so change of plans. Looks like you’re going to have to go ahead without me.” Ali declares loudly as she gets to the entrance of the kitchen.

Ashlyn takes in the room as everyone in the kitchen stops what they’re doing and looks up at her and Ali. There is a young boy and another guy about Kyle’s age as well as a middle-aged looking woman and another woman that looks to probably be in her thirties. She doesn’t know any of them and she’s starting to wonder where Kyle is when he comes barreling into the kitchen.

“Ok, cooler is all set…” Kyle announces as his eyes catch up to what everyone else in the kitchen is looking at. “Oh wow! Holy crap, you’re here. Damn… Harris, you are hot! Stud alert!” He blurts as he takes in Harris’ new look as well as the fact that she and Ali are holding hands. His heart is actually racing for them.

Ashlyn turns red immediately even though she’s glad to see a familiar face. All she can do is just shoot him a smile at the moment.

“Yeah, ok, so thanks for that, Kyle. Way to make it both less awkward and more awkward at the same time.” Ali raises her eyebrows at him. She doesn’t really care because she’s among friends, but she does feel bad for poor Ashlyn. “Anyway, as I was saying. Ashlyn… this is Rebecca who is technically my step-mother, this is my mini-me and step-brother Josh, Emily who is my childhood best friend, and Ben who is Kyle’s new salon assistant, and of course, you already know this loser over here.” Ali says with a smile as she introduces everyone and ends by pointing to Kyle. “Everyone, this is Ashlyn Harris… who you all better damn well know from listening to my podcast like true loyal fans.”

Ashlyn gives a small wave to the room with her hand. “Hi everyone. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Rebecca says with a smile, helping Ali out and speaking for the room before anyone else can say anything. “I’ll handle these.” She says, taking the flowers from Ali’s hand and going to find a vase for them.

“So…” Ali says trying to just get this over with so she can have her time with Ashlyn. “Ashlyn here not only owes me a second date, but also a complete do-over on the end of our first one.” She announces and looks back at Ashlyn for a second, “I’m giving you a mulligan, Harris.”

Ashlyn shakes her head and laughs a bit, the rest of the room laughing lightly at Ali’s teasing statement too.

“I’m going to cash in on that right now. So, you guys go on ahead without me and have fun.” Ali finishes.

“Well, we’re all ready to go and we better get on the road before we arrive too late to find parking. Come on you guys.” Rebecca tries to get everyone out of there as quickly as possible, knowing what this means to Ali right now.

Everyone swiftly busies themselves with gathering the food and supplies that are in front of them and Ali mouths a silent ‘thank you’ to Rebecca who winks and mouths ‘good luck’ back. The group is out the door within five minutes, except for Kyle of course who purposely hangs back.

Ali knows he wants a minute with Ashlyn, so she goes outside with Rebecca to give them a little privacy.

Ashlyn can only imagine what Kyle must be thinking of her as he gets closer. “Kyle, I’m so sorry. I know what I did was selfish of me, but I needed to…” She starts before he can say anything, but he holds his hand up to stop her.

“Stop. You don’t need to apologize. If I didn’t completely understand what was going on with you, I would have already kicked your ass, Harris. But I really do get it. You’re okay now? Found your path and what you were looking for?” He asks seriously.

“Yeah.” Ashlyn confirms. “Well, all but the most important thing… but that’s what I’m here for.”

Kyle smiles with a nod. “You heard her, Harris…you get one mulligan. Break her heart and I’ll end you.” He gives her the protective big brother speech as best he can.

“No need, I’ll end myself if that happens. Are we good?” Ashlyn asks.

“We’re definitely good.” Kyle replies as he grabs her for a hug. “Seriously, you look so good. Like really fucking hot. Damn girl, all of this just works for you!”

“Thanks, dude. You look good too.” Ashlyn replies, noting that he looks a bit leaner than usual.

“Yeah well, I’ve been making up for your absence by living here with Ms. Thang who makes me eat healthy and run with her. I’m leaving that all up to you now. And for the record, I am not coming back here tonight… or the next few nights for that matter, just saying.” Kyle sasses as Ashlyn gives him a glare. “What, you are too hot for your own good right now and I refuse to pretend like that isn’t going to matter.” He says matter-of-factly.

“Is it my turn yet?” Ali says as she walks back into the kitchen and drapes an arm around Ashlyn’s shoulders, essentially saving her from Kyle’s further jibing.

“Yep, I’m off like a prom dress!” Kyle says flamboyantly as he walks out the door still yelling back to them. “I’ll see you guys… well…in like a damn week or something. Just call me when you emerge!”

 

“Finally!” Ali says jokingly to keep things light. She heads right over to the refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of champagne that has been sitting in there for a quite a while. “I know, neither of us is much for drinking….but I feel like tonight calls for, well, something.”

“That actually sounds good.” Ashlyn agrees.

“Good. You open it and I’ll grab glasses. Also, I’m sure you probably haven’t eaten dinner yet and I’m starving. Pizza or Chinese are the best in terms of who will deliver here, so which one?” Ali asks.

“Um, how about pizza?” Ashlyn replies, figuring it will be the quickest to decide on and order.

“Champagne and pizza, perfect!” Ali giggles a bit and pulls out the glasses by the time Ashlyn is finished uncorking the bottle with a loud pop.

They spend the next few minutes deciding on what kind of pizza and putting in the order before sitting down on the living room couch about a foot apart and mostly turned towards each other.

Ashlyn is almost beside herself at how quickly they have just fallen back into normal rhythm with each other and she can tell Ali is too by the tranquil but still somewhat surprised look on her face.

“I don’t even know where to start. Just…tell me everything.” Ali starts. “Where are you living and what have you been doing the last six months?”

Ashlyn shoots Ali a jokingly incredulous look. “You really expect me to believe that THE Ali Krieger didn’t keep tabs on me in any way?”

Ali smiles back guiltily and puts her hands up. “Ok, ok. I’ll admit that I sort of did.”

“Well, how about you tell me what you know and I’ll fill in from there.” Ashlyn suggests. “That seems to be our thing.” She adds with a wink.

“Deal. Your brother told me you’re living in your grandparent’s old house in Ipswich which you’ve always owned and just used as a vacation place until now. I saw the news story about how you’re the Captain of the Ipswich Police Department. And Edith may or may not have called me back in May to give me an update about how you were and told me you were pretty much kicking ass at your job. That’s all I know!” Ali spills her knowledge.

“Edith, such a traitor! That woman is a worse meddler than even my grandma was… I freaking love her though.” Ashlyn shakes her head with a slight grin, making a mental note to tell Edith she’s been caught.

“She really is great.” Ali agrees.

“Well, that’s pretty much the gist of it. I already told you why, but I felt like I just couldn’t be in South Boston anymore. It just didn’t feel like I belonged there. In thinking of where I should go and start something new for myself, I guess Ipswich was always home in so many ways. When my grandparents died, I took over ownership of the house and had really only used it as like a getaway. I guess it just seemed like a good place to go to work myself out. I was pretty much a mess when I got there and just sort of flailed around for the first few weeks. Then I ran into Edith even though I was trying to avoid her and just about everyone else. She really just gave it to me straight and helped me figure out that I shouldn’t run from what I’m good at just because of a bad experience. Sooo… I joined the police department there and they were really open to having me. It’s been great so far and I’ve finally learned to really work with the people around me and not just do it all on my own. My officers are amazing and I love the community, it’s been really good for me. Between that and a whole lot of straight talk and hand-holding from Dr. Plume, things fell into place over time.” Ashlyn explains. “I reconnected with a couple of old high school friends that have been good support. I’ve spent a lot of time working on updating the house and running and working out on the beach. That’s pretty much been life for the last six months. Oh… well… and missing you with every single ounce of my being. I missed you so damn much, Alex.” She adds and reaches to hold Ali’s hand.

“I really missed you too, Ashlyn.” Ali says quietly, closing her eyes for just a second as she feels Ashlyn take her hand. “Before we get to that though, tell me about this hair!” She says, reaching to run her free hand over it lightly. “I loved your long hair and I’ll miss it, but this looks so good on you. You just look so sharp and handsome. It’s stylish and perfect.”

“Thanks.” Ashlyn replies blushing a little bit. “I didn’t really have much of a choice. I went to get my hair dyed and the woman at the salon wouldn’t touch it because it was so damaged. Apparently, prison peroxide isn’t good for your hair…who knew?!” Ashlyn jokes. “She said it was damaged beyond repair and the best thing to do was cut it. I totally freaked out of course and went to another salon. They told me the same thing, so, I freaked out some more and then finally bit the bullet. I thought I was going to hate it, but I actually really like it. It’s fun and easy, think I’ll keep it for a while.”

“Oh wow, that’s quite a story. I can only imagine the look on your face at that first salon!” Ali laughs a bit. “I seriously love it though. The back feels so cool, I would just touch it all day if I was you.” She adds as she runs her hand over the bristle-like hair on back of Ashlyn’s head.

“I kind of did the first couple days, but now I’m used to it.” Ashlyn admits with a chuckle.

“Tell me about these.” Ali says more seriously, dropping her hand down and lightly running her fingers over the black ink on Ashlyn’s inner right forearm and getting her first good look at the new design. It’s an owl whose lower half transforms into a person with an umbrella walking through a dark forest path.

“Well, you know that I use tattoos as a way to tell my story. With everything that has happened, I figured I’d start a new sleeve. The owl represents wisdom and knowledge. Combined with this lower half of the person walking down the path… it’s there to remind me that life is not just about the outcomes and the good moments. It’s about the journey and the dark moments that we walk through to get us to where we want to be and the things we learn along the way.” Ashlyn explains, goosebumps forming on her skin at Ali’s light touch.

“It’s beautiful, as is its meaning.” Ali says reverently as she gives herself just a little longer to admire it. She starts to turn Ashlyn’s arm a bit to see the second tattoo, having only caught an earlier glimpse of it being a face of some sort. Now that she has Ashlyn’s arm turned and can see it clearly, she sees that it’s an image of a woman that almost translucently shows a skull towards top of her head where a bunch of roses are blooming out of it, their roots spreading through the skin of her face. The detail on it is intricate and the shading is perfect. “What about this one?” She asks trying to make sense of it.

“Oh…um… this one is… for you.” Ashlyn says barely above a whisper as she looks up to meet Ali’s eyes which look a bit quizzical. “Brave are the flowers that bloom from the darkness…” She starts the poem she once wrote for Ali.

“Oh… oh my god.” Ali says as she finally gets it, her hand going to cover her open mouth for the second time today.

“This is to always remind me that the most wonderful person in my life came from one of my darkest moments. And that having seen my deepest darkest places, she still embraces me, encourages me to shine, and makes everything beautiful.” Ashlyn says softly before she loses the nerve.

“Wow, I…” Ali starts with a tear escaping her eye, but she can’t find the right words.

“Sorry, too much?” Ashlyn asks nervously.

“No, you’ll never be too much.” Ali reassures her as she moves her hand to Ashlyn’s face. “I’m just so moved that I don’t even have words… and…I’m so honored and happy to be a part of your story, Ash.” Ali is stroking Ashlyn’s cheek lightly and the space between them has closed considerably, their faces just inches apart. Their eyes are locked onto each other’s and Ali feels Ashlyn’s hand run up her arm lightly. The brunette lets her eyes flutter closed, content to let the invisible force pulling them together do the rest when the doorbell rings making them both jump a bit.

Ali let’s out an impatient sigh before opening her eyes and seeing the same sentiment reflected on Ashlyn’s face. They both let out a little laugh at the poor timing and Ali gets up to get the door, pretty much ready to kill the pizza delivery person even though it was her own fault for ordering dinner.

After the broken moment, they spend the next hour on the couch eating pizza and sipping their champagne while talking more about what they’ve missed in each other’s lives for the past few months. It’s a light conversation for a while until Ali finally updates Ashlyn on her father, explaining that she finally feels like she can start to get some closure and that she couldn’t be happier about how her relationship with Rebecca and the boys has turned out.

“Will you ever go see him?” Ashlyn asks.

“Yes. I’m realizing that’s the last piece of getting closure for me. I’m not ready yet, but I will be at some point. I just want that one last visit so I can walk away feeling in control of myself over it, so I’m the one dictating how I feel and not him.” Ali elaborates.

Ashlyn nods in understanding, guilt creeping over her as she realizes just how much Ali has been going through on her own while she’s been gone. “Hey, Alex…”

“Yeah?” Ali replies seeing the serious look on Ashlyn’s face.

“I am so sorry that I left you the way I did and that you’ve gone through so much on your own on top of what I put you through. I was just so screwed up and I knew I needed to figure myself out without dragging you down with me, but I shouldn’t have just left you like that. I just…I’m sorry, and I need you to know that everything I did to get myself back together…it was all to get back to you. To be the person that you deserve. I promise you, no matter what happens, I will never ever leave your side again.” Ashlyn declares in heartfelt sincerity, her eyes moving to look at the floor still a bit ashamed of herself.

“Ashlyn Harris, look at me.” Ali commands. “I don’t need you to apologize. I really and truly understand what you did and why. I’ll admit that I was blindsided and upset at first, but your brother and Kyle really helped me to see what was happening. I get it, Ash…I really do. I’m happy and thankful that you’re here now, I’m proud of you like always, and I just want to move forward now.” She states truthfully. “Ok?”

“Ok.” Ashlyn replies with a small smile, knowing for sure that she’ll never understand what she did to deserve such an amazing person in her life.

“There’s just one more thing that’s still bothering me.” Ali says.

“Oh ok, what?” Ashlyn inquires, ready to face anything.

“I sent you a text when Kyle and I were out to ice cream a few weeks ago and was wondering what your favorite flavor was because I didn’t know. You never answered my question.” Ali smiles.

“Oreo.” Ashlyn answers with a smile back. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Ali asks a bit confused.

“Those texts. For letting me leave without letting me go. It means everything.” Ashlyn answers, picking up Ali’s hand and kissing it softly.

They sit in comfortable silence just looking at each other, neither of them wanting to break the moment and not knowing what move to make next. The chime of the grandfather clock in the living room signaling that it’s 8pm snaps them out of it a bit.

“Come on.” Ali says pulling Ashlyn up off the couch with her.

“Where are we going?” Ashlyn questions.

“Quick tour that I owe you!” Ali says leading the way up the stairs. “You’ve already pretty much seen down here, so I’ll show you upstairs.” There are six guest bedrooms and three bathrooms upstairs as well as a laundry room. Ali leads Ashlyn into each of them, watching her take it all in and make complimentary comments on the architecture and décor.

When they reach her master bedroom, she stops in front of the door for a second. “This is my master bedroom and bathroom, but there’s something I really want to show you about it.” Ali says, not wanting Ashlyn to be weirded out or shy about Ali bringing her into her bedroom right now.

“Ok, show me.” Ashlyn says curiously.

Ali opens the door and heads into the room with Ashlyn following. She lets her take it in for a minute.

Ashlyn looks around the large bedroom carefully. There’s a king size bed with a fluffy white sheet and comforter set, plenty of pillows arranged on top of it. There are several dressers and a long make-up counter with a big mirror and proper lighting. She can see a walk-in closet as well as part of the bathroom where a large Jacuzzi-style tub and a long granite double-sink counter are visible from this angle. She notes that there is a fireplace and that one wall of the room is floor-to-ceiling glass with what looks like a sliding door. “This way.” Ali says and taking her hand and bringing her towards that very glass door.

Ali slides open the glass door and leads them outside onto a deck, watching as Ashlyn looks around with wide eyes.

“Holy crap! You have a freaking deck…in the middle of your roof… off of your bedroom!” Ashlyn practically shouts in admiration of it. From the front of the house you can’t see it because the roof looks normal, but in the back there is a section cut out of the middle that forms this 15 foot by 20 foot deck overlooking the backyard. There are two chaise chairs on it as well as some white string lights around the railing that decorate it a bit.

“This is kind of like my happy place and pretty much the whole reason I bought this house. I just love it up here and I wanted to share it with you. I even put heat lamps out in the winter so I can be out here even if it’s cold.” Ali tells her.

“Wow, this is amazing.” Ashlyn replies in complete awe as she looks up and can see a sky full of stars because the roof is higher than the street lights below. Even though it’s dark, she can tell that Ali’s house has a fair bit of privacy with the thick trees that surround the property. There is also some sort of body of water in the distance behind the trees of the backyard. “I love it.”

Ali just smiles and comes to stand close to Ashlyn in the middle of the deck. “Dance with me.” She whispers when she knows she’s close enough for Ashlyn to hear her, moving to wrap her arms around the short-haired woman’s shoulders.

“Here? There’s no music.” Ashlyn replies a bit surprised.

“Are you always this rigid, Harris?” Ali asks playfully.

“Given our spontaneous first date, I’d say no. Given the police and military thing, I’d say… yep, pretty much.” Ashlyn smiles and wraps her arms around Ali’s waist, pulling her in close.

“Dance with me.” Ali whispers again, feeling Ashlyn start to slowly sway with her. Her heart feels full and happy. Knowing what she wants more than anything, she rests her head on Ashlyn’s shoulder and starts softly singing.

 

I know it's late, I know you're weary

I know your plans don't include me

Still here we are, both of us lonely

Longing for shelter from all that we see

Why should we worry, no one will care girl

Look at the stars so far away

We've got tonight, who needs tomorrow?

We've got tonight babe

Why don't you stay?

 

Ashlyn smiles into the top of Ali’s head, hearing the Bob Seger tune and remembering Ali’s penchant for oldies and classic soft rock because of her mom. She listens to the brunette sing the last line and feels her pull back a bit, beautiful whiskey eyes now meeting hers in awaiting a response.

“Hmm, Bob Seger. Are you always this subtle, Krieger?” Ashlyn teases a bit as she looks back at Ali.

“Only when I know what I want.” Ali plays back with a smile before getting serious. “Will you… stay with me tonight?”

“I already told you…I’m not going anywhere.” Ashlyn replies and watches Ali’s face light up in a nose-crinkling grin that she’ll never get enough of. “My turn to play DJ?” Ashlyn asks as they still sway lightly.

“Go for it.” Ali replies and goes back to resting her head in the crook of Ashlyn’s neck.

Ashlyn thinks for just a couple seconds before singing her song.

 

When evening shadows and the stars appear

And there is no one there to dry your tears

I could hold you for a million years

To make you feel my love

I know you haven't made your mind up yet

But I would never do you wrong

I've known it from the moment that we met

No doubt in my mind where you belong

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue

I'd go crawling down the avenue

And oh, there's nothing that I wouldn't do

To make you feel my love.

 

“Bob Dylan.” Ali whispers with a smile.

“Oh you get so many points right now for not saying Adele.” Ashlyn says with a slight laugh.

Ali doesn’t hear the comment though because the lyrics of the song Ashlyn chose just caught up with her. She pulls her head back to look into her favorite hazel eyes. “Love?”

Ashlyn smiles and cups Ali’s cheek lightly in her hand. “Yeah, Alex…love. I love you.” She says softly with her heart drumming, everything she feels finally put out in the open with those three far too simple words.

Ali’s heart pounds, an intensity in her chest that she has never felt before in her life. She feels almost lightheaded and breathless with anticipation because she knows that absolutely nothing is going to stop her this time. Her hands slide up to gently grip the back of Ashlyn’s neck as she closes the distance and presses their lips together. The kiss is slow and gentle for a few seconds and Ashlyn’s lips are impossibly soft as they move against hers. She hears a low moan escape Ashlyn’s throat as their lips part even further, the kiss growing deeper and more insistent as the officer grips Ali’s waist a little tighter, her large hands now framing the brunette’s lower back. Ali feels the tingly flood of energy pumping through her body and she’s sure that if she opens her eyes right now, her feet will surely be floating off of the ground.  Stars pop behind her closed eyelids and she hears fireworks in the distance but has no clue if they’re real or just in her head.

Ashlyn’s legs shake slightly as she feels Ali’s tongue against her lips and the brunette’s fingertips stroke the back of her neck lightly. She opens her mouth further and lets her tongue meet Ali’s in a renewed exploration of their mouths, the kiss growing more passionate by the second. Her heart is beating wildly  like it might burst and her chest burning from the lack of air, but her mind has never been more at peace in knowing that this exact feeling is what she wants for the rest of her life. She’s out of breath, but holds on desperately for just a few more seconds to memorize the feel and taste of Ali’s mouth on hers.

They pull back slowly, Ali lingering for just a second longer as she holds Ashlyn’s lower lip between hers before letting it go gently. Their foreheads are pressed together, their chests heaving as Ashlyn’s hands go to Ali’s face and their eyes open to meet each other. They each take a couple of gasping breaths before Ashlyn takes hold of Ali’s lips again in another searing kiss that doesn’t last very long before they need to break for air again.

Ali watches Ashlyn’s hooded eyes flutter open while they try and recover, faces still close together. “I love you too, Ashlyn Harris.” She says breathlessly, finally uttering the statement she’s been waiting to say to someone her whole life, having no idea until right now just how inadequate those words would be to describe the force of feelings behind them. “I love you so much.” She softly pecks Ashlyn’s lips before resting their foreheads together again.

“You’re song was wrong by the way.” Ali says quietly with a smile, lips still puffy and glistening.

“Yeah?” Ashlyn challenges curiously, eyes still locked on Ali’s.

“Uh huh. The part about me not having my mind made up…not true. I made up my mind about you a long time ago, Ash. And I’ve been waiting a lot longer than tonight to tell you that I love you.” Ali says with a sweet smile.

“Well, your song was wrong too.” Ashlyn says softly.

“How so?” Ali asks.

“My plans don’t just include you, Alex… you are the plan.” Ashlyn replies with a dimpled grin as she softly kisses Ali’s forehead, each cheek, and then her nose before adding, “And you’re not the only one who’s been waiting…this heart was yours from that very first cup of coffee.”

Ali’s eyes widen at the revelation, not realizing just how long and how much Ashlyn was holding back. “Well, I’m not giving it back.” Ali says sweetly and leans in to kiss Ashlyn deeply again, already her favorite thing in the world to do, her stomach erupting in butterflies every times she feels those lips against hers.

They’re startled apart by a particularly loud boom from the fireworks going off in the distance and appearing just over the tree line.

“Right, Fourth of July.” Ashlyn comments. “Kind of thought those were just in my head.” She says playfully while gesturing to the light display in the sky.

“Me too!” Ali laughs and pulls Ashlyn over to the railing of the deck so they can watch.

Ashlyn wraps her arms snugly around Ali from behind, occasionally leaning down kiss her head and cheek as they watch the fireworks for the final ten minutes of the show. They stand there enjoying the closeness of each other in silence for a few minutes after it’s over, just looking at the trails of white smoke in the sky.

“Will you do something with me tonight?” Ali asks shyly, looking up at Ashlyn.

“I’ll do anything with you, anytime. Not just tonight, but always.” Ashlyn answers sincerely.

“Ok. Give me fifteen minutes and then come in.” Ali instructs the officer and watches her nod, reluctantly leaving Ashlyn’s arms and placing a lingering kiss on her lips before heading inside.

Ashlyn watches Ali until the brunette is inside and out of view. She checks her watch for the time and plops herself down on one of the chaise lounges, letting out a deep breath. “Wow.” She whispers to herself, having no idea until tonight that she could ever feel anything this good. She gazes at the stars in the sky as her mind wanders to all kinds of places about what her future might bring. It’s the first time in her whole life that she’s ever let herself do it. Probably because it’s the first time that she sees a future for herself worth picturing. She looks down at her watch to see she only has a minute left, so she gives a quick fist pump to the sky to thank the universe and heads inside.

 

“Alex?” Ashlyn calls out as she walks into the dimly lit master bedroom, closing the sliding door behind her.

“Hi.” Ali says walking out of the bathroom.

Ashlyn just walks over to her quickly and pulls her into a passionate kiss, only pulling apart when they are both breathless again. “Sorry, I just missed doing that already.” She admits.

Ali sighs happily and pinches Ashlyn’s cheek gently. “We’re so going to be that couple, aren’t we?”

“Damn right we are and I’m gonna love every minute of it.” Ashlyn replies adamantly with a cheesy grin, neither of them flinching at the word ‘couple’ since it’s already presumed in both of their minds. “So, what are we doing?” Ashlyn asks curiously with raised eyebrows, noting that Ali has changed into a bathrobe, the low cut neckline of which suggests that the brunette has nothing on under it.

“In here.” Ali says and brings Ashlyn into the bathroom with her.

Ashlyn looks around to see a filled Jacuzzi tub, the jets already making the water bubble. The lights are off, but five or so lit candles around the room give it a soft glow. She inhales the strong and delightful smell in the air, the very one that she gets a much more diluted hint of every time Ali is close…lavender, vanilla, and baby powder. “It smells so good in here…smells like you.” She comments sweetly.

“It’s a blend of oils I put in the water…vanilla, cedarwood, ylang ylang, and lavender.” Ali explains before coming to stand in front of Ashlyn beside the tub, putting her hands on the officer’s waist and letting out a deep breath. “This…” she points to the tub, “used to be one of my favorite things in the world. There was nothing I loved more than being surrounded by water and relaxing. I haven’t been able to since…” She trails off knowing she doesn’t need to say anything further. She had thought the problem would be solved when she got rid of the hot tub, giving it away for free just to be purged of it. No such luck. She finds herself in a panic now anytime water is anywhere above her waist and she’s wondered how she is ever going to enjoy swimming or even a simple bath again. “I just want to feel safe again… you make me feel safe.” She says looking deeply into soothing hazel eyes.

Ashlyn feels her heart pang a bit while it races with emotions, so in love with the woman in front of her and so sorry that she suffered something so horrible on her behalf. She leans in and kisses Ali gently, the kiss slow and comforting as the two of them get lost in it for a couple minutes. Seeing the nervousness in Ali’s eyes when she pulls back, her penchant for humor in hard situations takes over.

“Are you trying to get me naked on the second date, Krieger?” Ashlyn asks with raised eyebrows.

Ali lets out a quiet laugh, her anxiety easing a bit already. “Maybe Harris. Is it working?” She throws Ashlyn’s earlier line right back at her.

“Oh, it’s definitely working.” Ashlyn winks before getting serious. “Together, ok?”

Ali nods and feels Ashlyn’s hands on her face, pulling her into a deep kiss that sweeps her off her feet again. The officer’s hands drop down and protectively hold the small of her back, pulling her in closer. When they finally break apart, Ashlyn leaves one more tiny peck on her lips and stays close, letting Ali make the next move. The brunette is all too aware of the water bubbling beside them and it’s making her feel a sense of dread. Knowing she needs to calm down, she focuses on the one thing that makes her feel secure.

“Can I?” Ali whispers, taking the top button of Ashlyn’s shirt in her fingers, her eyes never leaving the hazel ones.

Ashlyn nods her head yes, the blood pumping through her body in anticipation as Ali works her way down her shirt, taking one button at time until they’re all undone. She closes her eyes as she feels Ali’s hands work their way inside her shirt, slowly dragging up her sides and onto the tops of her shoulders before she slides the shirt off. Her breath hitches when she feels Ali’s lips ghosting over her right shoulder, the brunette’s breath hot against her skin. She opens her eyes to find Ali’s fingers lightly tracing over the multiple pinkish shrapnel scars that run from her upper bicep, over her shoulder and down her shoulder blade. She watches Ali study the deep gouges carefully not feeling self-conscious about them for the first time ever as the brunette makes her way behind her back. She usually hates it when people are behind her, but she’s calm now and completely trusting of the brunette.

Ali presses her lips to the deepest, longest scar that runs along the back of Ashlyn’s shoulder blade. She kisses across it, worshipping the strength of this amazing woman and all she has endured. She wraps her arms around the officer’s waist from behind, her hands splayed out on Ashlyn’s toned stomach. “You’re truly my hero.” She whispers into Ashlyn’s ear and presses several soft kisses into the back of the taller woman’s neck, feeling her breathing pick up with a soft moan escaping her lips.

Having never felt as accepted and loved in her entire life the way she does in this very moment, Ashlyn turns herself slowly in Ali’s arms and kisses her with everything she has, tongues meeting in fiery passion until she feels Ali run her hands under the back of her sports bra and pull up. Ashlyn obliges, breaking the kiss and putting her arms above her head to let the brunette slide it off.

Ali doesn’t waste any more time lingering, not wanting to tarnish this moment with the feelings of apprehension that are slowly building in her as she hears the water churning beside them. She runs her hand down the colorful ink on Ashlyn’s left side and unbuttons her shorts, sliding them down the officer’s legs together with her boxer briefs.

Ashlyn steps out of her flip-flops and shorts that are now pooled around her ankles. She wants to laugh at how they’ve been in here for less than 10 minutes and Ali already has her naked, but then she looks up into those whiskey eyes. Ali is looking at her in a way that could set the room on fire in the same way that the brunette has just set her skin ablaze with a few simple touches.

“God, Ash…look at you, you’re a work of art. You are so incredibly beautiful.” Ali says reverently, gently tracing Ashlyn’s perfectly defined ab muscles with her fingertips. She can’t even fathom how anyone could possibly be so flawless and strong like this…defined jawline…long, toned, and lean limbs…small perky breasts with perfect pink nipples…a torso displaying every single muscle effortlessly… like someone sculpted her by hand.

Ashlyn takes a deep intake of breath at Ali’s feather soft touch, her skin hot where the brunette has traced it. Beautiful. There’s that word again. The word that only Ali has used to describe her. A word that once only had meaning for others, but now has meaning for her too. When Ali says it, she can see that the brunette really means it and it makes her actually believe it. She feels Ali move in closer and press a kiss to the middle of her chest, her lips covering the small almost circular scar that has been the source of many a nightmare. The scar is now once again making her feel like her chest is going to explode, but for a very different reason. Ashlyn brings her hand up and entwines it in Ali’s hair, pulling the brunette up for a brief loving kiss before moving her lips close to her ear. “Thank you. You make me feel beautiful and I love you, but you’re overdressed and stalling, Alex.” She gives Ali a smirk.

“But it’s the best kind of stalling.” Ali protests with a small pout that makes Ashlyn kiss her again.

Ashlyn doesn’t reply, she just slowly moves her hands to the tie holding Ali’s bathrobe closed and waits for confirmation from the brunette. Ali gives her a smile and a small nod, so she quickly undoes the loose knot and moves her hands into the robe to encircle Ali’s waist and pull her close, letting the garment drop to the ground behind them. The feeling of Ali’s warm skin against her own is like no other sensation in the world, immediately taking a top spot on her list of favorite things.

She hugs Ali tightly, placing a few kisses on the top of her shoulder before moving to kiss all around her neck where angry lacerations and bruising are now completely invisible. She feels Ali breathing heavily and finally pulls back with the intention of getting into the tub. She stops in her tracks though when she sees the brunette’s nude form in full, her breath caught in her throat. Ali is lean, but also curvy in exactly the right places. She’s strong and defined, her stomach taut and toned with gorgeous black ink running along her side, her skin perfectly tan, her breasts no more than a handful with dusty pink nipples that beg to be touched, and she’s simply the most beautiful human being Ashlyn has ever laid eyes on. Yet, beautiful seems so inadequate right now and Ashlyn finds herself at a loss for what to say until she hears her own voice, the words coming out on their own. “Alex…. you’re…Christmas morning.” She whispers out a sentiment that only Ali can possibly understand, where in her world nothing lives up to that one perfect moment on Christmas morning…until tonight. And tonight, no matter what happens, that perfect moment won’t ever be broken because she’s with the love of her life.

“You’re too much.” Ali replies as the blush works up her chest and into her face, completely enamored by the depth and meaning of the statement.  Ashlyn has that look of marvel in her eyes again and it makes her whole body practically flutter. She lets her eyes rake over the officer’s body for a few more seconds, taking in the totality of her body art and trying to memorize the detail of it.

Ashlyn finally drags her eyes away from the brunette long enough to climb into the Jacuzzi tub. The water is soothingly warm and reaches almost to her hips as she stands inside, the oils that mimic Ali’s scent permeating her senses and instantly relaxing her. “Come on, beautiful, get in with me.” She encourages Ali gently and reaches her hand out.

Ali takes a really deep breath and lets Ashlyn help her into the tub. Her heart rate immediately picks up as the water swirls around her hips, her body starting to shiver a bit despite the warmth. She is working furiously to keep the image of her father’s face out of her mind when she feels strong arms envelope her and soft lips capture her bottom lip tenderly. Her mind goes blank and while the same sensations remain in her body, they’ve shifted to being the result of the electricity from Ashlyn’s touch. She presses her mouth more deeply against the officer’s, desperate maintain her focus on the passion between them and keep the demons from making their entrance.

As their mouths part in need of air, Ali finds herself studying Ashlyn’s eyes closely. The light brown center blending into the surrounding bright green edges that are flecked with little gold spots. They’re a work of art equal to the rest of her. “You can do this, Alex.” She hears Ashlyn coax her in a whisper, the warm breath on her ear making her skin erupt in goosebumps. She watches Ashlyn settle herself into the corner of the tub before reaching her hand out again.

“Come here.” Ashlyn beckons sweetly. “I’m here with you and you’re safe. I won’t ever let anything happen to you, Alex. I promise.” She adds reassuringly.

And this is exactly why Ali wanted to do this. As much as her body and mind are fighting her, she knows she’ll never be able to deny Ashlyn anything. She takes the officer’s hand and let’s herself be gently pulled down towards Ashlyn’s lap. She closes her eyes as she gets lower and feels the water get higher and higher on her body, waiting for the panic to start.

“Doing so good, baby. You got it.” Ashlyn says supportively.

The water is up to Ali’s chest already and she’s almost seated, but she doesn’t even realize because she’s too busy smiling at the pet name that just slipped out of Ashlyn’s mouth. Before she knows it, she feels the sides of her ass against Ashlyn’s thighs, the officer’s legs surrounding her with her chest pressed into her back as her arms wrap around her protectively from behind.

“I got you, Alex. I got you. You’re okay, you’re safe with me.” Ashlyn says softly into Ali’s ear as the brunette leans her head back and their cheeks press together.

Ali suddenly becomes aware of the water swirling around her collarbones and waits for the fear to take over, but it never comes. Instead she just feels sheltered and loved, Ashlyn’s body solidly encompassing her own. She feels completely relaxed, her eyes opening to find those of her unwavering protector.

“You ok?” Ashlyn asks, watching Ali’s eyes and body language carefully.

“Never better.” Ali says with a genuine smile before turning her head enough to capture Ashlyn’s lips over her shoulder in a slow but fervent kiss intended to convey both the serenity and more intense emotions of the moment. “I love you, Ash. Really, really love you.” Ali says with her lips still ghosting Ashlyn’s.

“I love you too, Alex.” Ashlyn replies, going in for another quick kiss before she continues. “Even more than I did yesterday, but not as much as I’ll love you tomorrow… because I realize that I love you more and more with every passing day even when I didn’t think it was possible.”

“So damn romantic, Harris.” Ali says, her voice in an almost purr as Ashlyn places hot kisses across her jawline and down her neck.

“Get used to it, Krieger.” Ashlyn husks out as she stops to gently suck on Ali’s pulse point, feeling the brunette squeeze her thigh a bit as she lets out a soft whimper.

“I could definitely get used to it.” Ali says breathily reaching up to run her hand through Ashlyn’s short hair and pull her in even closer as she works her mouth across her collarbone and over the top of her shoulder before making her way back again. “Mmmm, that feels so good.”

“I can’t believe I’m here with you. It’s like a dream.” Ashlyn mumbles against Ali’s skin, softly working on her pulse point again as her hands rake up the sides of the brunette’s torso unconsciously.

The loving touches put Ali over the edge. She turns herself around in the officer’s arms, straddling her lap and placing her hand behind Ashlyn’s neck to pull their mouths together in a kiss that is completely different than their prior ones. This one is hungry and heated as lips, tongues and teeth move together desperately with hands roaming all over each other while soft moans and throaty breaths fill the air. The lengthy exploration of each other is passionate, but respectful, both of them on the same unspoken wavelength. Tonight has been the most intimate experience either of them has ever had and neither wants to ruin it by pushing further.

They aren’t sure how long it’s been, but it feels like at least an hour before things finally slow into short tender kisses and they stop to gaze at each other. Ali is completely entranced by the deep emerald green color that has saturated Ashlyn’s eyes as she runs her fingers over the short bristly hairs on the back of her head.

“So, what do you think the chances of us being permanently pruned are?” Ashlyn jokes and breaks the quiet.

“I’d say pretty damn good at this point.” Ali laughs as she looks how wrinkled their hands are from being in the tub so long. “We should probably dry off and call it a night, huh?”

“Good plan.” Ashlyn agrees, stroking the small of Ali’s back lightly.

“Thank you for doing this and taking care of me.” Ali says thoughtfully, planting one more quick kiss on Ashlyn’s lips.

“Thank you for letting me.” Ashlyn replies sweetly.

“Come on, Hero. Let’s get you dry.” Ali says getting up out of the water.

“After you, Paladin.” Ashlyn winks and offers her hand for Ali to steady herself on.

“So chivalrous, Harris.” Ali teases.

“So incredibly beautiful, Krieger.” Ashlyn replies seriously, her eyes taking in Ali’s stunning body again like it was the first time.

“Stop it before we never leave this tub.” Ali playfully points a finger at her.

“Ok. Ok.” Ashlyn relents and closes her eyes, pretending to feel around with her hands in jest.

“So lame, Harris.” Ali laughs as she puts her robe back on and pulls another one from the hook on the bathroom wall, wrapping it around Ashlyn’s shoulders and tying it closed for her.

“Five star service.” Ashlyn chuckles and follows Ali into the bedroom.

Ali goes right to her make-up counter and freshens her mascara which is just starting to come off a bit with the moisture of the bath.

Ashlyn watches and shakes her head. “Am I ever going to see you without that mascara?”

“Maybe if you play your cards right.” Ali says with a devilish smirk in the mirror.

“Well, I do have a pretty hot hand at the moment.” Ashlyn flirts.

“Sure do.” Ali turns around and smiles after finishing up. “Soooo…I’d offer you some pajamas, but the thing is that there isn’t a single article of clothing in this house that would qualify.” She says trying to keep a straight face.

Ashlyn chuckles with a dimpled grin. “You may be an amazing lawyer, but you’re a terrible liar, Krieger. Luckily, I’m not in the market for pajamas right now.”

“Good, cause I’m fresh out.” Ali keeps up the ruse as she pulls back the covers of the bed and drops her robe to the floor.

“Dear lord, warn a girl.” Ashlyn says as she watches Ali climb into the bed. “For the record, I will never get over how absolutely, astonishingly gorgeous you are…goddess.” She finishes in a barely audible whisper.

“Ash?” Ali says with a happy smile.

“Yeah?” Ashlyn replies.

“Stop trying to charm me and get your perfect, out of this world, body against mine stat… that’s an order, Captain.” Ali demands playfully.

“Yes ma’am.” Ashlyn gives a mock salute and quickly drops her own robe before crawling into bed and pulling the brunette into her arms. Ali’s chest pressed to hers is enough to ignite a fire on skin. “I love you.” She repeats yet again, feeling like she could say it a million times tonight and still not have it be enough.

Ali kisses Ashlyn deeply before they’re out of breath again and completely exhausted. “I love you too.” She replies enchanted. “It’s late, we should sleep.” She suggests and Ashlyn nods in agreement. “I just… I don’t want to stop kissing you.” She admits shyly.

“Then don’t.” Ashlyn grins widely and directs Ali’s mouth back to hers.

They kiss languidly for a long stretch, neither of them knowing which one eventually pulled away or fell asleep first. Although sleep has so easily eluded both of them for months, tonight they enjoy a deep peaceful slumber as they lay completely entwined in each other with hearts finally drumming to the same tune.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn’s internal body clock wakes her up right around 6:00am as usual. She feels the weight and warmth on her body before she even opens her eyes. She leaves her eyes closed for a couple more minutes just to let herself fully feel the incredible heat and softness of Ali’s skin against hers. The view when she finally opens her eyes is just as amazing. Soft dark brown hair is spread wildly over her shoulder as Ali’s face is pressed to the top of her chest, her mouth just slightly open and her mascara still perfect somehow. The brunette’s right arm resting across Ashlyn’s stomach and lightly clutching the wrist of her left hand. The sheets are pooled at their waists, so she can’t see beyond that but she can feel Ali’s right leg entwined between her own. She is completely overwhelmed by not only how beautiful Ali looks, but that this astonishing woman is in her arms and hers to love. “Total goddess.” Ashlyn whispers softly as she takes it all in, adjusting her right arm that is wrapped around Ali’s shoulders and letting her hand run along the brunette’s side softly.

The slight movement causes Ali to shift a bit and she starts to roll over. “Mmmhmm, I’ll send off a notice of breach of contract in the morning.” She mumbles and says something else unintelligible before re-settling herself facing away from Ashlyn who is trying hard not to laugh too loudly at Ali’s sleep talking. ‘Even in her sleep she’s a bad ass lawyer.’ Ashlyn thinks to herself with a grin, sure that it might be one of the most adorable things she’s ever witnessed.

With Ali no longer on top of her, Ashlyn decides to get up in search of coffee for the two of them. She leaves a few gentle kisses on Ali’s shoulder before quietly getting up and slipping the robe from last night back on. She makes a quick stop to use the bathroom and hopes that she’ll find an easily accessible new toothbrush in there, but no such luck. She’s usually pretty fastidious about oral hygiene even to the point of getting made fun of in the past for carrying floss or a toothpick in her pocket. Unfortunately, all she finds is a half empty bottle of mouthwash which will have to do for now. After swishing some around in her mouth, she heads downstairs to the kitchen.

Ashlyn was hoping that she’d find a simple coffee pot or even a French press like she uses at home, but instead she’s sitting there staring at some fancy combination of a coffee and espresso maker that she has no idea how to use. She’s about to give up when she notices a bag of coffee grounds and another small bag a little further down on the counter with a big note attached to them.

Harris,

Must be like 6am? Am I right? Of course I am, you’re so predictable! Stopped in early and dropped off some fresh coffee cause Ms. Thang was almost out. Don’t worry, that thing is easier to use than it looks like it is (instructions on the back of this sheet).

Also, there’s a new toothbrush and floss in the bag since you probably already panicked about that, you big weirdo. I’m sure you can find toothpaste in any of the bathrooms. Oh, and there’s a comb in the bag too so you can primp yourself before you wake up the princess. Fair warning, she almost never gets up before 8am.

You’re the best, Kyle! I know, I know! You owe me major bro time, Harris. Now make the damn coffee already and then go make my sister all giddy.

The hottest and not at all modest,

Kyle

 

Ashlyn snickers as she reads the note thinking that Kyle definitely knows her way too well. It’s not surprising given that he lived with her for quite a long time while he recovered. Still, she can’t help but let herself muse about how life can be so interconnected sometimes. She had tried to help out several people she had come across on the job, but none had ever taken her up on her offer the way Kyle did. Kyle had brokenly admitted that he was so incredibly lost and believed himself to be beyond repair, but she promised him she would battle right beside him the whole way and he had latched onto her quickly. It was the first time she had ever let someone she didn’t know into her home and into her life like that, and in the end, it cemented the foundation of a friendship more solid than she could have anticipated. Kyle had told her on one of his worst days that he had left someone behind on his journey to rock bottom and that he just wanted to find his way to that person. Ashlyn never asked details and he never elaborated, but she could see that his desire to get better for this person was the clear the force behind his recovery. She never understood the true power of his motivation until she met Ali Krieger herself, and then she understood it perfectly. If she hadn’t met Kyle, if she hadn’t offered him help, and if he hadn’t taken it… she wouldn’t be standing in this kitchen trying to make coffee for the amazing woman who is truly the other half of her soul. It’s mind blowing.

Before she lets herself think on it any further, she heads to the nearest bathroom down the hall. She finds toothpaste in one of the drawers just like Kyle said she would and quickly brushes her teeth and combs her hair enough to be passable before going back to the kitchen to tackle the coffeemaker. After about fifteen minutes and following Kyle’s directions to the letter, she has two fresh mugs of delicious smelling coffee. She heads back upstairs with the coffee and goes to wake up Ali even though it’s just shy of 7am and she knows it’ll probably be a challenge given what Kyle said in the note.

She carefully places the coffee mugs on one of the bedside tables and lets herself watch Ali sleep for a little bit before pulling off the robe and climbing back into bed behind the brunette. She slips her arm around Ali’s waist and presses her chest into her back while placing open mouthed kisses across the soft skin of Ali’s shoulder, her hand running light patterns between her stomach and hip. Ashlyn smiles when she feels Ali press herself back even further and let out a low moan.

“Good morning, beautiful.” Ashlyn whispers in Ali’s ear and feels the brunette shiver a bit. She kisses the spot just behind her ear and then hugs her close.

“Mmmm, morning, Hero.” Ali says with her eyes still closed, her lips curled into a smile. “Who said you could stop doing what you were doing?”

Ashlyn chuckles lightly and resumes kissing her shoulders and neck until Ali is squirming a bit and reaches back to grab her ass and pull her closer.

“Your coffee is going to get cold.” Ashlyn warns even though she doesn’t really want to stop.

“You got up and made coffee… and walked naked through my house?” Ali says turning around in Ashlyn’s arms to face her. “I sure am sorry I missed that.”

“I put a robe on, Alex. And yes, I made coffee.” Ashlyn laughs.

“Well then, thank you very much for taking it back off.” Ali smiles wickedly and runs her fingertips up Ashlyn’s back, stopping only when she reaches the base of her neck and gets the intake of breath reaction that she was looking for. “Now, where is this coffee you speak of?”

“Right here my queen.” Ashlyn jokes and rolls over towards the bedside table, sitting up a bit and grabbing the mugs carefully before passing one to Ali.

“Thank you, you’re sweet. There’s only one queen in this house though, and he’s thankfully not here right now in his underwear like he would normally be.” Ali jokes and watches as Ashlyn almost spits out her coffee to laugh. “Can’t believe you figured out my coffee machine, Harris. I’m impressed.”

“Well, speaking of Kyle. He clearly was here early and left fresh coffee, instructions for the coffeemaker, and a toothbrush for me. Your brother knows me waaay too well. So, I really can’t take all that much credit.” Ashlyn replies.

“Yeah, someday I need to properly hear all about you two living together. He must have driven your type-A self absolutely crazy.” Ali says trying to picture Kyle and Ashlyn in the same living space.

“Actually, it worked better than either of us expected. When he moved out, I actually didn’t know what to do with myself because I was so used to him being there.” Ashlyn explains.

“You know, Ash… someday I really hope I find a way to convey to you how grateful I am for you having saved him the way you did.” Ali says seriously.

“Alex… you literally saved my life and almost lost yours in the process. I think we’re beyond good here.” Ashlyn replies with raised eyebrows.

“Ugh, fine, so practical, Harris.” Ali jokes to lighten the conversation again.

“But, I mean, if you feel the need to thank me more…” Ashlyn smiles and moves in to pepper Ali’s jaw with soft kisses, “there might be a couple ways I can think of.”

Ali closes her eyes contently feeling Ashlyn kissing from behind her ear, down her jaw and towards her mouth before her eyes pop open. “Slow your roll, Harris.” She puts her finger up to Ashlyn’s mouth. “You got to brush, I didn’t. So hold that thought and give me a couple minutes.”

Ashlyn watches Ali down the rest of her coffee and leap off the bed. She shakes her head when she sees the brunette check her mascara in the mirror first before going to brush her teeth.

“It’s only 7:21am?!?!” Ali yells from the bathroom after seeing the time on the small digital clock in there. “Why are we up so early?” She asks incredulously, hanging her head out the bathroom door.

“Oh, um, sorry. My body clock is always naturally up around 6am.” Ashlyn explains with a shrug.

“Huh, interesting. Well, we’ll fix that soon enough.” Ali smiles sweetly and goes back into the bathroom.

“What exactly does that mean?” Ashlyn yells from the bedroom.

“Absolutely nothing.” Ali yells back.

Ashlyn finishes her coffee and checks her phone for messages and email. It’s only a few minutes before Ali is plopping back down onto the bed and pulling Ashlyn down on top of her.

“Hi.” Ali whispers with a smile, her face close to the officer’s as her fingers play with the hair on the back of her neck.

“Hey there.” Ashlyn whispers back, losing herself immediately in the striking brown eyes she loves.

“I’m ready for that proper good morning now.” Ali beams up at her.

Ashlyn immediately leans down and captures Ali’s lips with her own, the kiss quickly getting heated given the nudity and really intimate positioning. She feels Ali’s tongue slip between her lips and the brunette grabs her ass to pull her in closer. Just as her free hand lands on Ali’s hip, her cellphone goes off and both of them groan.

“Ignore it.” Ali mumbles against Ashlyn’s lips and runs her hands up her back.

Ashlyn lets out a deep sigh. “Sorry, I really can’t. Price of dating a cop.” She says apologetically and reluctantly rolls off of the brunette.

“Harris.” Ashlyn answers the phone. “Not a problem, Chief, what can I do for you?” Ali watches Ashlyn listen to whatever the chief is saying while she takes the short-haired woman’s hand and starts kissing her finger tips. “Yes sir, I signed off on it before I left. So, it should be all set. No worries, I’m glad you checked. Yes sir, have a good day.” Ashlyn finishes the conversation and scoots back down next to Ali. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s ok, I get that your job is really important and that it really can’t wait most of the time. I promise that you don’t ever have to worry about me not understanding that. Although, I might get a little jealous about having to share my hero sometimes, but I’ll get over it.” Ali assures her and purposely ends the statement on a light note.

“Thank you. That actually means a lot more than you think.” Ashlyn kisses her softly.

“So, do you have work today?” Ali asks with a slight pout at the thought.

“Usually yes. I work day shifts Monday through Thursday and then a night shift on Sundays. I took this as a vacation week thinking I’d spend the time with the kids, but then Chris and Bridget won some cruise trip and they’re gone. Anyway, I’m off until Monday.” Ashlyn answers long-windedly.

Ali can’t stop the huge smile that overtakes her face. “So, what you’re saying is that I get you all to myself until Monday?”

Ashlyn laughs. “Yep, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s what I want.” Ali quickly confirms and kisses her deeply until the loud growl of Ashlyn’s stomach disrupts them. “Hungry?”

“Kinda. Sorry.” Ashlyn laughs.

“That’s ok, I am too.” Ali admits. “Unfortunately, I only grabbed what we needed for the picnic yesterday and there isn’t much in the house. Maybe we can run down to the little corner grocery shop a couple streets away and grab some stuff to make. You can borrow some clothes from either me or Kyle, whatever fits better.” Ali suggests.

Ashlyn thinks it over for a second. “Or… we can just throw on some comfy clothes, hit up my favorite diner for breakfast and then I can show you my house and around Ipswich. And maybe you can spend the night at my place?”

“I love it.” Ali says excitedly.

“I love you.” Ashlyn pulls the brunette into another kiss.

Ali smiles into the officer’s lips. “Love you too.” She is about to deepen the kiss when she hears Ashlyn’s stomach again and pulls away. “Alright, alright geez…I’ll go pack some clothes!”

“Sorry, it has a mind of its own!” Ashlyn says patting her stomach.

Thirty minutes later and with some help from Ashlyn, Ali is packed with enough stuff for a couple nights away and the two of them are in athletic shorts and t-shirts ready to head to the diner. They make the 45 minute drive north during which Ali fills Ashlyn in more about her and Kyle’s relationship with Rebecca and the boys and Ashlyn tells Ali a bit about her high school friends Liz and Jess. Before they know it, they’re sitting across from each other in a diner booth looking over menus.

Ashlyn thinks she’s being unhealthy by ordering the triple cheese omelet and home fries, but quickly realizes she’s out of her league when Ali orders a huge stack of chocolate chip pancakes and a double side of bacon. “Sweet tooth?” Ashlyn asks with wide eyes.

“Just a little.” Ali laughs and watches Ashlyn pop a quarter into the little jukebox on the table, scrolling through the song selection and entering something she can’t see. “What did you pick?”

“You’ll see in a minute.” Ashlyn says mysteriously.

Two minutes later, Ali hears Paula Abdul playing and shoots Ashlyn a playful glare. “Funny, Harris. Trying to embarrass me over breakfast?”

“Nope. It’s more of a tribute really.” Ashlyn says with a smile.

“Tribute?” Ali questions.

“Yep. I spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to figure out how to get back in touch with you. After being away so long, I just… I was too nervous to just suck it up and go for it. And then yesterday morning, I was sitting right over there.” Ashlyn points to the counter with the stools. “Some college girls randomly played this song. And I thought about us laughing together over it at the hospital… and I just had to see you, no matter what happened. So, yeah, it’s a tribute to finally finding my way back to you.”

Even though Ali isn’t usually big on overt PDA, she pulls Ashlyn over the table and kisses her soundly. “Well, thank you Ms. Abdul. I better find a way to send her some flowers.” Ali jokes.

“I’m sure she’d prefer crack.” Ashlyn snickers.

“Probably. What the hell is her deal these days?” Ali agrees.

“No idea, but I was just watching some American Idol reruns last month and she is totally on crack. Or at least she was when that show originally aired. Is she even on that show anymore? Ashlyn says laughing.

“Nope. I think they replaced her with Jennifer Lopez.” Ali answers with a shrug.

“That doesn’t sound much better.” Ashlyn says as she thinks about it.

“It isn’t.” Ali confirms with a laugh as their food arrives.

After stuffing themselves to the point of feeling like they can’t move, Ashlyn makes the short drive to her house, excited for Ali to see it.

Ali is taking in the gorgeous ocean scenery as they drive mostly along the shore when Ashlyn pulls into a gravel driveway, a detached gray two car garage with wood-shingled siding in front of them. “Wow.” Ali says as she realizes the house literally sits right near the ocean on a grassy knoll. “This view is insane!”

“Pretty sure that’s exactly why my grandparents bought it.” Ashlyn agrees. “Come on, the house is behind the garage…just kind of a weird driveway entrance because of the grading of the land.” She says grabbing Ali’s bag out of the car and walking them down the gravel path that leads around the garage and to the front door.

The house sits just downhill of the garage, but the styling is the same: light gray wooden shingles, dark gray shutters and a red door. It looks like a typical New England beach house, quaint and cozy with an almost colonial style to it. The house sits on a fairly large swath of grass with a sloped side on the right that is landscaped with a beautiful two-level garden that Ali stops to admire. The rest is just open ocean view as the house is situated about 30 feet above the ocean below.

“Ash, this is so nice!” Ali admires the house.

“Thanks. I’ll give you the proper indoor tour.” Ashlyn replies opening the front door and leading Ali inside.

They walk right into the living room which features the same large comfy couch that Ali had seen in Ashlyn’s condo. She also notices the same abstract ocean paintings hung on the wall and a fireplace with a TV sitting on the mantle above. The house is clearly older with recessed wooden floors and a less open layout even though it’s spacious and airy, but it’s a beautiful blend of rustic beach house combined with a modern flare that Ashlyn has given it. Just behind the living room is a large kitchen which Ali can tell has been newly renovated with granite countertops and dark finish cabinets. Just to the side of the kitchen is a formal dining room. Both the kitchen and the dining room have large rectangular windows that overlook the ocean view at the back of the house.

“I love this house. It’s cozy and modern and just beautiful.” Ali remarks, feeling right at home.

“I’m glad you like it.” Ashlyn says with a dimpled grin, pleased by how much Ali seems to like the place she has called home for most of her life. She takes Ali upstairs for a quick tour of the two guest rooms, and guest bathroom, and finally the master bedroom and bathroom.

“This guest bedroom used to be my bedroom in high school. That other one was Chris’ room.” Ashlyn explains as they move through the house. “It felt a little weird at first to be in my grandparents’ room, but once I remodeled it a bit it felt a lot better.” She explains as she brings Ali into the master bedroom.

Ashlyn’s bedroom is setup pretty much the same as it was in her old condo. Simple and neat with just a few photo frames on the sparse furniture. Ali sees all the same photos she did before, but notices right away that there is one new addition. On the bedside table is a framed selfie of the two of them that Ashlyn had taken on their first date near one of the dinosaur statues at the Museum of Science. Ali walks over and picks it up, admiring it with a smile.

“I really did miss you, Alex.” Ashlyn says quietly, wrapping her arms around the brunette from behind.

“I know, baby. I really missed you too.” Ali lets the pet name slip right out and turns her head to lean back and kiss her.

“Baby?” Ashlyn says with a playful look once they pull apart a bit.

“Hey, you said it first.” Ali challenges teasingly.

“I did?” Ashlyn asks. “When?”

“In the tub last night. Doesn’t matter, I like it.” Ali winks.

“I kinda like it too.” Ashlyn admits a bit bashfully, kissing Ali’s cheek.

“Good. Cause I have a tendency to use all kinds of pet names and nicknames, so prepare yourself.” Ali declares. “Kyle and I probably have like a million for each other.”

“Can’t wait to hear what you come up with, Krieger.” Ashlyn laughs.

“So, any chance a girl could get a shower around here?” Ali asks, more than ready to freshen up.

“Absolutely!” Ashlyn replies, leading Ali towards the bathroom she hasn’t even seen yet. “The shower in here is pretty amazing if I do say so myself.”

“Yeah it is!” Ali says taking in the open stone-tiled shower that is so big it doesn’t have a curtain or a door. It’s just completely open with just a small 6 inch raised tile edge on the floor that would keep any water from spilling out if the drain was blocked. There is a rain showerhead in the center and another pressure massage showerhead on the right wall that can also be used as a hand shower. “Woah, this shower is incredible! Now I’m excited!” Ali says wide-eyed. “I feel like I’m at a spa or something.”

“Well, it’s all yours.” Ashlyn says as she grabs some fresh towels from the linen cabinet in the bathroom.

“So, I really, really want you to join me in here, but if you do we’re never going to leave this house and I was hoping maybe we could go have lunch with Edith if she has time.” Ali suggests a bit ruefully at the thought of showering alone.

“I love that idea! I’ll call her at the bank and see if she has time to have lunch or coffee.” Ashlyn replies, touched by Ali’s want to see Edith. “Raincheck on that shower for sure.” She winks, her mind already picturing it.

“Perfect.” Ali smiles and pulls off her shirt and bra in one motion.

“What did I tell you about warning a girl, Krieger?!” Ashlyn says with wide eyes taking in the gorgeous topless brunette in her bathroom.

“Sorry not sorry.” Ali shrugs with a smirk and starts taking off her shorts.

“Well unless you want to smell like men’s shower products all day, I better go grab your bag.” Ashlyn mutters in a fluster and quickly walks out before she loses her willpower to leave. It only takes her a couple of minutes to grab Ali’s bag that she left next to couch and bring it upstairs. She locates Ali’s toiletry bag and pulls it out before heading back into the bathroom.

She doesn’t mean to stare, she really doesn’t, but just a few steps into the bathroom and her feet stop moving and her mouth goes dry at the sight. Ali’s head is tilted back and her eyes are closed, the water from the rain shower cascading down her perfect body which is soaking wet. Her nipples are hard and slightly rosy and her stomach muscles are contracting as she runs her hands through her wet hair. Ashlyn can barely breathe, let alone move.

“Enjoying the show, Hero?” Ali teases as her eyes open and she catches Ashlyn staring.

“Oh uh, um…sorry. I brought your shampoo and, uh, stuff.” Ashlyn stumbles over her words as she holds up the bag.

“Come here.” Ali steps out of the water and over to the entrance of the shower as she beckons the short-haired woman over.

Ashlyn obliges and walks the last few steps over to the shower, handing Ali her bag. Ali takes the bag and drops in just inside the entrance of the shower before grabbing a fistful of Ashlyn’s t-shirt and crushing their lips together in a heated kiss that leaves the officer reeling and unbalanced when she finally pulls back.

“Thank you, baby.” Ali says resting her wet forehead against Ashlyn’s, whose eyes are still hooded. “Now pick your jaw up off the floor and go call, Edith. I promise we’ll have plenty of naked time later. I love you.” Ali says with a smirk, leaving one more peck on Ashlyn’s lips before getting back under the shower.

“Wow, yeah, ok. Love you too.” Ashlyn replies with a still clouded mind before walking out. She leans the back of her head against the wall of her bedroom for a second, hand to her chest to try and calm her racing heart. “Holy crap she’s hot.” She whispers to herself still trying to recover with her entire body tingling, particularly parts that she honestly hasn’t paid all that much attention to in a very long time. She makes a mental note to take a very cold shower when Ali’s done and finally grabs her phone to call Edith.

 

“So, I’m guessing the fact that I waited an hour for you to finish getting ready even though you showered before me is the reason Kyle calls you ‘princess’?” Ashlyn goads Ali a bit as they wait for their food. They had just ordered sandwiches at the deli near the bank and are supposed to meet Edith at the benches by the Ipswich River a couple blocks down.

“Pretty much. Sorry, I like to take my time.” Ali giggles a bit.

“I’m just teasing you. Did I tell you how beautiful you look?” Ashlyn says, playfully lowering her sunglasses to rake her eyes over the brunette. Ali is in a pair of denim shorts and a gray tank top, a simple outfit that shows off the toned arms and legs that Ashlyn can’t get enough of.

“Only five times in the car.” Ali quick traces the single dimple on Ashlyn’s face with her finger and gives her a nose crinkling smile.

“Just wanted to make sure you know.” Ashlyn shrugs.

“Not that you should talk. You always look and smell so damn good.” Ali remarks. Ashlyn is wearing simple black shorts that fall at her knee and a black cut-off t-shirt that is perfectly fitted to her frame and displays her arm tattoos prominently.  “I don’t know any cops that dress well, do you? You are certainly the exception. Always casual but perfectly stylish.”

“I guess I’m one of a kind then.” Ashlyn replies with a smile.

“Sure are.” Ali says flirtatiously running her hand up the officer’s arm.

“Order 58!” The woman from behind the counter yells and Ashlyn jumps up to grab their food so they can go meet Edith.

 

“Ali, I am so very happy to see you again!” Edith pops right up off the bench to greet them when they arrive, hugging Ali tightly.

“You too, Edith.” Ali squeezes her lightly.

“It’s been so long since our chat at the bank.” Edith plays it coolly.

“Oh, just stop it. You are so totally busted, Edith! Worse than my grandma, I swear it.” Ashlyn shoots the woman a pretend glare. “I know you guys talked a couple months ago and probably more than that!”

“Ali, you ratted me out?!” Edith says with her hands on her hips trying not to laugh.

“Sorry, Edith… she’s kinda persuasive.” Ali winks.

“Uh huh. Sooo, you two finally get your fucking shit together? Is this finally a thing like it should be?” Edith asks pointedly.

Ali’s mouth drops open at the blunt and vulgar question.

“Oh just you wait, Alex. This one swears like a sailor…you haven’t met that Edith yet. Sweet little old lady my ass!” Ashlyn laughs at Ali’s expression. “And yes, we more than have our shit together. Edith, I’d like you to properly meet Ali… my girlfriend, partner, queen, holder of my heart, soulmate, and anything else she wants to be called because we haven’t officially discussed it yet.”  She finishes with a smile.

“Hmmm… yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. I’ll agree to all of those titles.” Ali leans in leaves a lingering kiss on Ashlyn’s lips, so enchanted by what she just said that she forgets Edith is there for a minute.

“Ali, what did you do to my big tough Tin Man? She’s a big ball of mush now!” Edith jokes. “I’m kidding. I’m happy to see you two looking happy and all heart face or heart pants or whatever it is they say these days.”

“Heart eyes, Edith. It’s heart eyes!” Ashlyn chuckles and Ali laughs so hard she almost snorts.

“You know what I meant!” Edith says laughing too.

“Tin Man?” Ali looks at Ashlyn questioningly.

“I’ll explain later.” Ashlyn promises, knowing her grandma’s obsession with quoting the Wizard of Oz will definitely come up at some point in conversation.

“Alright you two, these legs won’t hold me up forever. Can we sit and eat now?” Edith suggests as she drops back down on the bench.

The three of them enjoy a nice lunch hour together in the shade, mostly talking about the landscaping overhaul Ashlyn has done on Edith’s yard. With a promise from Ashlyn and Ali that they’ll come over for dinner later in the week, they walk the older woman back to the bank and try to figure out the rest of their afternoon.

“So, what do you want to do now? We could walk around the little downtown area a bit or maybe go to one of the beaches.” Ashlyn suggests.

“Those sound good, but I kinda just want you all to myself right now.” Ali says sweetly, running her hand through the short hair on the back of Ashlyn’s head and kissing her softly.

“Mmhmm.” Ashlyn hums a bit, melting into the kiss and going back in for one more. “It’s low tide, so I have the perfect place.”

Ashlyn drives them back to house and runs inside to quickly grab a big blanket. “Come on, Alex. Time for you to meet my little piece of beach.” She says taking Ali’s hand and leading her into the backyard. At the end of the lawn there is a set of wooden stairs that leads down the rocky cliff-like overhang behind the house. The wooden stairs end towards the bottom turning into a short set of stone steps that lead onto a small, private sandy area looking out onto Plum Island sound. Ali recognizes it immediately from the picture Ashlyn sent her on Valentine’s Day.

“This is awesome!” Ali says excitedly. “Is this part of your property?”

“Yep.” Ashlyn confirms. “The water comes right up to the rock wall during high tide though, so it’s only here part of the day.” She explains as she sets out the blanket and motions for Ali to come lay with her.

The afternoon sun is hot, but there’s a nice breeze coming off of the water so it doesn’t feel brutal.

“Good thing it’s private back here. I’m not messing up this tan!” Ali announces as she strips off her tank top and shorts and slides her bra straps down.”

“You are going to be the death of me woman.” Ashlyn says, her eyes glued to the brunette laying there in just her underwear. “What a way to die though.” She jokes, pulling off her own shirt so she’s in her sports bra on top.

Ali just smiles and cuddles into Ashlyn’s side a bit on the blanket. “So, you never told me what you thought of the podcast. You listened to it, right?” She asks curiously.

“Of course I did!” Ashlyn starts. “Alex, it was completely perfect. The way you narrated it and edited it to put it all together… it was just so raw and real. You’re honestly amazing. It was exactly what I wanted it to be. And the way you opened yourself up like that about your dad. I’m so proud of you and have more respect for you than I can even voice.” She says genuinely. “Listening to it while being away from you… hearing myself fall in love with you on the air like that… it just stirred so many good things in me.”

“Yeah, you and half the country.” Ali laughs lightly before kissing Ashlyn softly for a couple minutes, just enjoying the warmth her mouth and softness of her lips. “I’m so glad I did right by you, Ash.” She adds, relieved that Ashlyn felt as good about the final product as she did.

“I had no doubt, Alex.” Ashlyn says honestly. “So, yeah, I guess we were a bit too obvious with our on-the-air heart eyes.” Ashlyn laughs. “I pretty much stayed away from media coverage, but then I came across the headlines about us in the gossip magazines. Guess I kind of forgot you were such a celebrity, Krieger.”

“Well, about that. I don’t want you to think that you have to say or do anything you don’t want to, but we should probably prepare for the fact that people will be paying attention to us.” Ali says gently. “I should also probably tell you that this season of the podcast sort of shot through the roof after the first episode aired.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure we can handle it. It’s not like I didn’t know you were a big deal when we met.” Ashlyn replies. “So, it really took off?”

“Majorly. As in got picked up by huge hosting platforms, like Apple iTunes, and acquired some seriously heavy hitting sponsors. Which you probably noticed from the increase in ads as the episodes went on.” Ali explains.

“Wow.” Ashlyn replies completely impressed. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I mean, Alex… it really was amazing. So, exactly how big did it get?”

“Oh…well…um, how do I say this without sounding pretentious.” Ali struggles a bit to just spit it out because while it is exciting, it’s just not that important to her.

“Just tell me, already.” Ashlyn whines.

“Ash…you’re officially dating a multi-millionaire.” Ali says bluntly.

“Oh wow. Seriously? Woah…just… holy crap! That’s amazing!” Ashlyn says pulling Ali close. “I’m so damn proud of you.” She says softly before kissing her slow and deep, intended to convey just how much she admires her.

“Thank you.” Ali says a bit breathlessly when they finally break. “Good thing you showed your interest before this happened or I might think you were in it just for the money.” Ali jokes.

“I could care less about money, buuut I still expect you to be my sugar mama.” Ashlyn tries to keep a straight face but breaks out into a chortle.

“Now that, I definitely plan to do.” Ali giggles.

Somehow this leads into a story about Ali dressing up in a Sugar Daddy candy costume for Halloween one year in middle school and Kyle never letting her live it down. They spend next couple of hours swapping stories about their awkward teen years and trying to top each other with the best story, all the while stealing kisses and placing light touches on each other, and even falling asleep together for a little bit. By 4:30pm, the sun is hanging lower in the sky and they don’t have too much longer before the tide comes up.

Ashlyn is on her left side, facing Ali. The way the sun is hitting the brunette right now is making her skin glow in a golden bronze that she can’t take her eyes off of. Caught up in the beauty of the woman beside her, she starts absentmindedly tracing Ali’s side tattoo with her fingertips. Ali lets out a soft moan and Ashlyn watches her eyes flutter closed, the words she memorized coming to the forefront of her mind.

“Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut, das Wesentliche ist für die Augen unsichtbar.” Ashlyn whispers into Ali’s ear in perfect German, her fingers still lightly tracing the inked script she just verbalized.

Ali’s eyes shoot open. “You learned it?” She asks in surprise.

“Of course I did. I memorized that whole book you gave me. You said you envisioned me tracing your tattoo and reading it to you. I love you. I’d do anything to make you happy.” Ashlyn says matter-of-factly, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut, das Wesentliche ist für die Augen unsichtbar.” She repeats again, raking her fingers over the ink one more time.

The whispered words and warm touch ignite a fire in Ali that she can no longer quell. She climbs on top of Ashlyn and kisses her hard, one hand entwining itself into her short hair while the other one runs along the officer’s side.

Ashlyn moans in surprise, getting lost in the heated kiss as her hands grip Ali’s back like she’s holding on for dear life. Tongues meet hungrily as hands wander over each other’s bodies aimlessly, the two of them getting more and more worked up by the minute. Ali shifts her position slightly, her leg moving between Ashlyn’s and causing the officer’s hips to buck upward involuntarily as she whimpers slightly into Ali’s mouth. The whimper sends Ali over the edge.

“Ash…” Ali pulls her head up to stare into the Ashlyn’s eyes.

“Yeah?” Ashlyn replies after swallowing hard, the smoldering look Ali is giving her is enough to make her burst into flames at any moment.

“Take me inside.” Ali whispers hotly. “Please… take me to bed.”

Ashlyn feels a surge of electricity shoot through her, culminating in a throbbing warmth spreading in her core. She immediately sits up and kisses Ali heatedly one more time before helping the brunette to her feet and tucking their discarded clothes into the waistband of her shorts. She quickly picks up the blanket and throws it over part of the wooden stair railing where she knows it won’t get wet before coming back and picking Ali up in her arms. She swiftly carries the surprised brunette up the wooden stairs, across the backyard, into the house, and up to the bedroom before gently placing her in the middle of the bed.

“Holy fuck, you’re strong.” Ali says as the officer hovers over her with her muscles showing prominently from the exertion. She’s never being more turned on in her life than she is right now. She can literally feel the wet spot on her underwear growing by the second. She pulls Ashlyn down into a bruising kiss before leaving her lips to nip at her jaw and neck. “I want you so badly, Ashlyn. I love you so much that I’m aching for you…please, I need you.” She husks as she nibbles Ashlyn ear.

Ashlyn truly doesn’t remember the last time her body responded this way or really if it ever has. She feels like she’s burning, literally dripping with need as tiny beads of sweat form on her forehead and warm moisture floods her center. “I want you too, Alex. I love you with everything I am.” She whispers back, sucking Ali’s bottom lip between her own and kissing her deeply for a minute before moving down her neck with hot open mouthed kisses.

Ali can’t stop herself from squirming as Ashlyn lightly sucks her pulse point and then her collar bone, working back and forth across her neck with her lips and tongue. She hears a desperate whine leave her own mouth and knows she needs to feel all of Ashlyn against her before she explodes. She yanks at the officer’s sports bra until she leaves her neck long enough to let it get slipped off over her head. Ali immediately flips their position, quickly stripping off her underwear and pulling off Ashlyn’s shorts and boxers before the short-haired woman can even register what happened. She drops her hips down so her core is resting on Ashlyn’s thighs, hearing the stunned officer whisper out “oh fuck” before she leans down to capture her lips passionately.

Ali leaves Ashlyn’s mouth and works down her neck and across her shoulders. She stops at the right one to place loving kisses on the scars she sees before moving down to her collarbones, encouraged by her heavy breathing and the way the officer’s hands are gripping her hips. She continues licking patterns on her skin, making her way down to her chest as her hand drags up and down Ashlyn’s side. She’s about to take a nipple into her mouth when she feels Ashlyn trembling underneath her, prompting her to stop and sit up a bit.

“Ash, you ok?” Ali asks concerned, her hand going to hold Ashlyn’s face gently as she watches her eyes flutter open to reveal wild hazel eyes overtaken by dark green pigment. “We can stop or slow down.” Ali adds softly, not able to read the look on Ashlyn’s face.

“No. This feels really good.” Ashlyn gets out quickly. “Sorry…it’s, uh… been a really, really long time.” She adds sheepishly in a really small voice, a little embarrassed by the way her body is reacting.

“Hey, shhh. It’s ok.” Ali comforts her by placing some soft kisses to her forehead. “Really, we can take it down a notch.”

“No.” Ashlyn insists. “I want you so badly, Alex. Maybe a little too badly.” She says with a slight smile that relieves Ali a bit. “’I’m not going to lie that you might kill me a little, Krieger… but I’ll flat out die if you stop right now.” She jokes and lightens the intense mood.

Ali takes the humor as a cue to continue and leans in close to Ashlyn’s ear. “Ok. Just don’t die before you scream my name, Harris.” She husks hotly and runs her tongue over her earlobe. “Cause I really, really like hearing my name.”

Searing heat spreads across Ashlyn’s skin and she pulls Ali’s body tightly against hers, a slight moan coming out of her mouth. “Not gonna be a problem.”

“Oh, and I should warn you that I’m kind of a talker.” Ali smiles into Ashlyn’s neck.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all.” Ashlyn releases her grip a bit when Ali pulls back to look at her.

“Oh really?” Ali challenges.

“Yeah. I’ve seen how you command a courtroom. Not a shock that you’re gonna take control in here too.” Ashlyn smirks. “And I’m so going to let you. So fucking hot, baby.” She says pulling Ali back down against her.

“Glad you think so.” Ali smiles and starts kissing down Ashlyn’s neck again, spurred on by the hands now gripping her ass. “I’ll go slow.”

“I don’t care what you speed you go at, just touch me Alex.” Ashlyn breathes out desperately as Ali works her way back down her chest after sucking hard on her pulse point.

“Yes, Captain.” Ali mumbles against her skin before swirling her tongue over Ashlyn’s nipple a couple times and sucking it into her mouth, hearing a hissing intake of breath from the officer that makes her core quiver.

“Oh god, that feels so good.” Ashlyn writhes and moans under the brunette, fisting her hand in Ali’s long brown hair to try and pull her even closer.

Ali just continues to alternate between Ashlyn’s nipples, already completely addicted to the way they harden in her mouth as she sucks on them gently. She could lavish attention on these perfect breasts all day, but she can sense the urgency in Ashlyn’s body and knows she needs to move on. She places a quick kiss to the scar in the middle of her chest as she lightly drags her nails down the officer’s abs, her mouth following right behind and licking her way down the colorful side tattoo. “You’re so gorgeous, Ashlyn Harris.” Ali says in a heated whisper as she moves lower.

Ashlyn is a mess of breathless moans and whimpers, her body pulsating and her core hot as energy builds inside her. She was kidding a few minutes ago when she said she might die, but now she’s not so sure it was a joke as she feels Ali’s mouth trail down her body and approach her hips. She grunts loudly and buries her hand in Ali’s hair roughly when the brunette lightly bites her hip bone and then sucks on it hard enough to leave a mark.

Ali works further down to the officer’s thighs with her mouth, stopping to place loving kisses on even more scars in her path that denote the strength of the woman beneath her. Ashlyn is still trembling and now pulling her head towards her center, breathing heavily through loud moans. Ali realizes she can’t tease much more and prepares to go right after what they both want so badly. She runs her hand the over the mound of very neatly trimmed curls and licks the inside of Ashlyn’s thigh really softly.

“Oh god.” Ashlyn squeaks out with a sharp intake of breath as her hips come off the bed involuntarily.

“No god in here baby, just Alex.” Ali smiles against Ashlyn’s thigh before she takes one broad lick from her entrance up to her clit, her hands holding the officer’s hips down.

“Fuck…Alex.” Ashlyn mewls, one hand grabbing a fistful of sheets.

“Much better.” Ali mumbles smugly into Ashlyn’s folds and starts lightly running her tongue over her clit. “Mmmm, you taste so good baby.” Ali hums into her wet center and sucks the slippery folds into her mouth, knowing she’ll never get enough of this woman.

Ali’s voice vibrating through her core combined with the warm pressure on her clit has Ashlyn so close to the edge, her hips starting to move uncontrollably as she tries to hold on as long as she can. “Uhhnn, Alex… yes, fuck.”

Ali is incredibly turned on by the way Ashlyn is grinding on her face, the officer’s head thrown back and her mouth gaping open as she calls out her name through heavy breathing. She squeezes her legs together in an effort to try and relieve her throbbing and incredibly wet core, focusing and immersing herself only in the intoxicating scent and taste of Ashlyn’s sex. “Tell me what feels good, Ash.” She demands, dipping her tongue inside Ashlyn’s entrance and feasting on the wetness pooled there.

“Oooh…my… fuck, yes. That, keep doing that. Aleeex, yes baby.” Ashlyn directs Ali through gasping breaths as the brunette obliges and plunges her warm tongue deeply in and out of her entrance. She can tell by the way Ashlyn’s walls are clenching around her tongue that she’s close.

Ashlyn feels the deep tingly ache in her belly and she knows she’s almost at the peak of the most intense orgasm of her life. She wills herself to lift her head to watch the most beautiful woman in the world work between her legs. The second she meets Ali’s dark hungry eyes, head bobbing between her legs with determination, she’s careening over the edge in a free fall that almost makes her pass out. “Mmm baby…I’m gonna…Aleeex.” She yells out as her body contracts and goes rigid, her hands tightly gripping the brunette’s shoulders as she tries desperately to suck air into her lungs while riding wave after wave of pleasure.

“That’s it, come for me, Ashlyn. I got you.” Ali says lovingly as she gently licks the copious amounts of sweet fluid that Ashlyn has just spilled out for her, slowly moving her tongue over her folds and gently sucking on them until she sees the officer’s hips come back down to the mattress. She indulges herself with a couple last licks and crawls up Ashlyn’s body, tightly pulling her into her arms as the officer’s chest heaves. “Breathe, baby. I love you, Ashlyn.” She coos in her ear and rubs Ashlyn’s back lightly as she comes down.

Ashlyn lets herself completely melt into Ali’s arms for a few minutes, her body still quaking lightly at what felt like the entire earth shifting beneath her. She’s had plenty of good sex in her life, but absolutely nothing that comes even remotely close to the euphoria and emotion she’s feeling right now.

“You’re not gonna to die on me are you?” Ali whispers teasingly as she feels Ashlyn breathing start to regulate.

Ashlyn smiles into Ali’s neck and lifts her head to look at the brunette. “Wait, this isn’t heaven?” She plays back, but gets no reaction.

When Ashlyn’s eyes look up to meet hers, Ali loses her breath for a minute, not even hearing what she just said. The hazel eyes she loves are now shiny and a beautiful bright green with so many tiny gold flecks in them that they look like a star-filled sky. “Ash…your eyes…wow.” Ali whispers softly, completely mesmerized. They tell her everything she needs to know about what she just did to Ashlyn's body.

“Guess that’s what they look like when the woman I love more than anything in the world gives me the greatest orgasm of my life.” Ashlyn smiles before getting serious. “Seriously, Alex…never in my life…” She tries to find the words when Ali cuts her off.

“I know, baby. I can see it.” Ali says still holding her gaze until she can’t anymore because Ashlyn’s lips are on hers in a heated kiss that makes her heart race out of control. Ashlyn’s lips are soft but demanding as the officer rolls Ali on her back and hovers over her just enough that her nipples are barely grazing the brunette’s chest. Ali can only moan into her mouth as she feels Ashlyn’s hand drag up her side and land on her breast with a light squeeze.

Ashlyn feels Ali’s nipple pebble between her fingers and can’t wait to get her mouth on them. She gently pulls Ali’s bottom lip with her teeth as she breaks away from the kiss, leaving a trail of hot kisses down the brunette’s neck and down the valley of her breasts before lightly biting one of her nipples and then taking it into her mouth to roll her tongue over it soothingly.

“Mmm, baby.” Ali moans deeply, her hands running though soft, short hair as Ashlyn works one nipple with her mouth and the other with her fingers before switching. She’s already really worked up and Ashlyn has barely touched her. “Yes, Ash…just like that.” Ali tries to pull the officer’s head closer but she has other plans.

Ashlyn let’s Ali’s nipple go with a slight pop, hearing the brunette whimper. She’s props herself up on her arms and rakes her eyes over Ali’s perfect body. “You are so beautiful, Alex. Completely breathtaking.” Ashlyn says in awe as she lowers herself a bit and starts working her way down Ali’s body, kissing every inch of skin she can see.

Ali can only breathe heavily with interspersed whispers of “Ash” as Ashlyn moves her mouth along her torso in an excruciatingly slow pace that’s making her quiver in anticipation. She feels the officer’s tongue swirl in her naval, starting to lose her mind at light touches.

“Well, hello there Nittany. Nice to properly meet you.” Ashlyn says with a smirk and kisses Ali’s hip tattoo.

Ali is about to shoot her a playful glare when Ashlyn parts her legs and lifts them a bit so her knees are bent. “Ohh… baby, yes Ash.” Ali moans with a hiss as Ashlyn lightly drags her knuckles over Ali’s center, her mouth kissing the inside of her thighs. “Please...please, Ash… I need you.” She begs, as her hips grind in an attempt to get more contact.

Ashlyn immediately drops her mouth down to Ali’s center and uses the very tip of her tongue to lick around her folds and occasionally leave light taps on her clit. Ali is desperately grasping at her hair and trying to pull her closer, but Ashlyn takes her time without budging. She wants to taste, savor, and love every inch of the brunette’s most intimate spot. She very gently and shallowly prods Ali’s opening with her tongue and feels the brunette grab her hand.

“Ash, baby…I’m so close already. Mmmm, uhhnnn you feel so good.” Ali moans out in a low husky voice. Her body is so worked up, she’s practically shaking as her muscles start to occasionally clench in anticipation. Sex has always been a way to get off, a means to an end…but this, this is so completely different.  She can literally feel Ashlyn worshipping her body with such gentle touches that have set her on fire and brought her to the brink of ecstasy in a way she never expected. She feels Ashlyn’s soft tongue enter her and her hips cant up in response. “Ooohh, yeeees…don’t stop, Ash. Please, please…Ashlyn.” Her voice is high and her breathing ragged, her head spinning as she spirals towards release.

Ashlyn moves her thumb to rub tight circles on the brunette’s clit as she thrusts her tongue as deep as she can to drive her over the edge. It only takes a few more strokes before Ali’s wet heat spills onto her mouth and chin the brunette writhing above her in a series of loud moans and expletives. She quickly crawls up Ali’s body and kisses her passionately, rubbing her center gently with her fingers as she comes down.

Ali kisses Ashlyn back desperately, whimpers still leaving her mouth as she tastes herself on the officer’s lips. The intensity of the climax, the love she feels right now is making her both emotional and ravenous for more. She breaks away from the kiss slowly, trying to catch her breath for a few seconds as she rolls on her side and rests her forehead against Ashlyn’s, the officer holding her close.

“You ok, Alex?” Ashlyn whispers.

“Ashlyn… what you just did to my body…” Ali pauses to take a few more breaths. “Thank you. For loving me, for showing me, for making love to me.” She gets out in a voice full of emotion. She always thought “making love” was the cheesiest term ever until right now when she finally understands why there is no better way to say it.

“I love you so much, Alex. You’re everything.” Ashlyn says sweetly.

“Show me again. Please… love me again.” Ali begs in a whisper and takes Ashlyn’s hand, bringing it down between her legs. “I want to feel you inside me.”

Ashlyn captures Ali lips in a hot kiss as she slips a long finger inside her, gently stroking her a few times before adding another. “You’re still so wet, baby.” She purrs in Ali’s ear.

“Oh my god… yes, Ash! Oh god, like that.” Ali digs her fingers into Ashlyn’s shoulder as the officer’s long skilled fingers pump into her at the perfect depth and pace.

Ashlyn can’t get over the sight… Ali’s head thrown back, her hair wild across the pillow, her mouth hanging open breathlessly as her breasts bounce slightly with Ashlyn’s thrusts. “You’re so beautiful like this, Alex. So hot… I can’t get enough of you.” Ashlyn husks, sucking on the spot behind Ali’s ear. She jumps a bit when she feels Ali’s hand between her own legs, the brunette’s eyes meeting hers and looking so dark and smoldering that Ashlyn’s stomach flutters.

“I want you to come with me.” Ali whispers and slips a finger into Ashlyn’s heat, watching her close her eyes and grunt. “You’re so tight and wet, baby. You feel so good.”

“Alex… fuck.” Ashlyn says loudly through heavy raspy breaths. “More.”

Ali adds another finger and picks up her pace to match Ashlyn’s, the two of them sweating now and moving against each other, the bed starting to creak a bit.

“Fuck baby, you’re fingers are so long. You’re so deep, Ash… Harder.”

“I’m close, Alex, so close. You feel so amazing. Faster, baby.”

They direct each other until they’re right at the edge and can’t speak anymore, nothing but desperate moans between them. Ali tilts her head down and takes Ashlyn’s nipple into her mouth, sending the officer over the edge first with a keening wail as her walls contract around her fingers. Ashlyn immediately pulls Ali into a searing hot kiss that sends her into the throes of orgasm right behind her, biting down on Ashlyn’s lower lip as she rides it out.

They stay just as they are until they can finally breathe again and slowly slip out of each other. They lay there silently for quite a while taking in the glow of each other as the sun sets outside.

“What are you thinking about?” Ali breaks the silence, watching Ashlyn’s fingertips trace the inked script of her side tattoo.

“Honestly… that I love you so much. More than I have ever loved anything or anyone in my entire life, it’s all encompassing. I’m completely beside myself that I am the lucky one that gets to love you like this. I’m so damn lucky.” She kisses Ali softly. “I promise you I’m never going to take that for granted. I’m going to love you like this until the day I die, Alex.”

And just like that Ali is back on Ashlyn again kissing her heatedly. “I love you madly, Ash,” are the only inadequate words she can manage before she abandons words altogether and just uses her body to show Ashlyn the depth of her love all over again.

It’s over two hours later when they collapse into the sheets bonelessly and covered in sweat, any thought of eating dinner forgotten. They’re completely sated and exhausted to the point that they don’t even speak. They just hold each other close, share a few romantic kisses and drift off to sleep.

 

Ali wakes to the hot sun on her face streaming in from the window. She opens her eyes, slowly adjusting to the brightness and looking down to see Ashlyn asleep on her chest with her fully tattooed arm draped across her stomach. Ali looks around the room remembering where she is and the incredible night they had, a huge smile breaking out on her face. She cranes her neck to see the digital clock on the nightstand that reads 9:37am. Ali laughs and strokes Ashlyn’s back lightly, noting the officer is slightly snoring and not waking up anytime soon.

“Told you I’d fix that body clock, Harris. And by fix I mean, work your body so hard that I broke the fucking thing.” Ali whispers in a soft giggle and adds “love you, baby” before kissing Ashlyn’s forehead and going back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Ashlyn feels the hot sun on her face and slowly opens her eyes. She rolls onto her side a bit so that she’s no longer on her stomach, but her head doesn’t leave the pillow. She looks around her room for a minute and knows that it must be sometime between 9:30am and 12pm given how strongly the sun is streaming in through the window. She could roll over to grab her phone and check, but her body feels too relaxed and still tingly from the previous night’s activities. The space next to her is empty, but she feels that the sheets are still warm, meaning that Ali has only recently gotten up, probably to go to the bathroom. She lingers in bed a few more minutes hoping that Ali will come back soon, her mind replaying last night with a content smile on her face.

She hears the sound of glasses clinking in the kitchen which tells her that Ali is downstairs attempting something. So, she decides to let the brunette do her thing without interrupting and gets up to use the bathroom and brush her teeth before slipping back into bed and waiting. It only takes a few more minutes after she resettles herself before the bedroom door opens.

“Well good morning, gorgeous.” Ali says cheerily when she walks in and finds Ashlyn sitting up a bit in bed, taking a second to appreciate that she’s still naked with the sheets pooled at her waist.

“Oh fuck...wow.” Ashlyn replies in a whisper as she swallows hard. Ali is wearing one of her old army t-shirts and a pair of black skimpy underwear, her nipples clearly outlined through the thin, worn fabric. It’s definitely one of the sexiest things she’s ever seen and the fact that she knows her last name is printed across the back of the shirt is stirring all kinds of things inside her. Add that to the fact that Ali is balancing a tray of breakfast and coffee and Ashlyn is sure she’s the luckiest person in the world right now.

“Hmm, well I was expecting a sweet ‘good morning’ back, but I guess that works too.” Ali smirks as she puts the tray down on the nightstand. “I sorta made breakfast.”

“Oh, uh, sorry. It’s just…you in my t-shirt, wasn’t ready for that level of sexy.” Ashlyn tries to recover. “Good morning, beautiful.”

“I didn’t want to rummage through your drawers too much and this was the first thing I could find. I hope it’s ok.” Ali shrugs with a slight blush from Ashlyn’s reaction.

“I am sooo not complaining. Wear any of my clothes anytime… or all the time!” Ashlyn replies enthusiastically with an eyebrow waggle.

Ali settles into the bed beside her and kisses the officer’s cheek. “Charmer. Let’s eat before it gets cold. It’s just waffles from your freezer, nothing special, but I’m starving.”

“Yeah we didn’t exactly stop for dinner last night, did we?” Ashlyn muses with a grin. “What time is it anyway?”

“10:43am.” Ali answers smugly after looking at her phone on the nightstand. “Told you I’d fix that body clock of yours. When’s the last time you slept this late?”

“So diabolical, Krieger!” Ashlyn gives her a mocking glare. “The last time I slept this late without waking up at all was like four years ago when some jackass we were trailing fled a major drug deal and we gave chase. He ended up rear-ending the cruiser I was driving and giving me some awful whiplash. I was definitely hurting the next couple days after that.”

“Oh geez.” Ali says with wide eyes. “I am not even going to let myself think about how insane and dangerous your job can be right now…I’m not. Now eat your waffles, baby.” She places a plate on Ashlyn’s lap.

“You’re cute. Thank you for breakfast.” Ashlyn says sweetly and starts to lean in for a kiss.

“Thought I was going to have to wait until you ran off and brushed your teeth before I got a proper good morning.” Ali comments as Ashlyn’s face gets close to hers.

“Already did.” Ashlyn slowly leans in closer.

“Should’ve known. Me too.” Ali mumbles and closes the distance, taking Ashlyn’s lips in hers for a slow deep kiss that is enough to turn her world upside down. “Mmmm.” She hums as finally she pulls away. “Don’t waste my culinary efforts, Harris. Frozen waffles might be the best you’ll ever get from me and my mediocre cooking skills, so eat already.”

Ashlyn laughs and gives Ali one more peck on the lips before eating her waffles. They slowly enjoy their breakfast in bed together, occasionally feeding each other as they joke around. Ashlyn is struck by the domesticity of it all, a sense of comfort and home settling deep inside her in a way she’s never felt before. As Ali turns a bit to put their empty plates back on the tray and Ashlyn sees ‘Harris’ across the brunette’s back, the officer’s heart flutters and she doesn’t think twice about asking her question.

“Hey, Alex. Can I ask you about something?” Ashlyn turns herself towards Ali a bit.

“Of course. What’s up?” Ali inquires.

“So, at the end of the month I’m going to Georgia for a couple of days to visit some friends. I want you to meet them. Will you come with me?” Ashlyn asks a bit shyly.

“I’d love to.” Ali replies without even having to think about it. “If you want me there, then I’m there. I promised Kyle I’d help him with this advertising event for his salon, but that is 2 weeks from now and not really near the end of the month. I’m going with you regardless, but I still should check with him and figure it out timing wise.”

“Thank you.” Ashlyn can’t help her beaming smile at Ali’s answer, even if the brunette doesn’t understand the importance of it yet or even what she’s agreeing to. “And yes, check in with Kyle. I wouldn’t want to pull you away from that and I’d also be happy to help out if you need me.”

“I’ll call him in a little bit.” Ali nods. “So, you have friends in Georgia?”

“Sort of. I have one friend in Georgia and the other two are flying in. The four of us used to get together at least twice a year, but obviously that hasn’t happened in a while with being jailed and all.” Ashlyn starts to explain. “I shut them out just like I did to everyone else. I’m not proud of it, but I’m lucky that it was like no time passed when I reconnected with them a couple months ago at Dr. Plume’s urging. So, we planned a long overdue meetup.” She adds as she looks down at the bed ashamed of her actions that she knows hurt people.

“Hey now. Head up.” Ali says gently and puts her fingers under the officer’s chin to tilt her head up and force the hazel eyes to meet her own. “You did what you had to do to survive and you clearly have great friends who understand that. Nothing to be ashamed of. You’re doing great and you should be proud of yourself.” Ali kisses her softly. “Your friends sound awesome, can’t wait to meet them. Surprised you haven’t mention them before.”

“They are.” Ashlyn says fondly and then sighs, knowing she needs to elaborate a bit. “In the interest of full disclosure, they’re not just any friends. They’re the guys from my former Ranger unit. They’re my family really. It’s important to me for you to meet them.”

Ali now understands better why Ashlyn hasn’t mentioned them before. They had tended to avoid talk of her military past while she was in jail other than the nightmare Ashlyn had told her about. Although Ali is curious, she doesn’t ask any questions right now and assumes Ashlyn will tell her more as she feels comfortable. “Well, I’m really excited to meet them and glad you want me to go with you.” Ali says simply and leans in for another kiss, running her hand through Ashlyn’s messy short-brown hair.

“Thank you.” Ashlyn mutters into Ali’s lips as she deepens the contact, only pulling back when she finally needs to breathe. “As much as I love you in my clothes, can I cash in on that shower raincheck?’

“You sure as hell can, Captain.” Ali husks and quickly pulls the t-shirt up over her head, pulling Ashlyn out of the bed by the hand and towards the bathroom.

It’s not long before Ash