A/N: So, when I was writing Spilled Blood I put in a short flashback where Alex got wasted at a Christmas party and Bobby took care of her. A few nights ago when I was searching for a way to procrastinate from my other stories, I decided to take that flashback and flesh it out as a story in itself. You can consider it a stand-alone or a prequel to SB and Sacrifice; either way works. Oh, and it's a oneshot.

Disclaimer: Not mine. Never were mine. Never will be mine. But I'll keep whining and maybe one day...

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It was December twenty-third, which meant that yet again, instead of being able to go home and rest up for her family's Christmas celebration the next day, Alex was forced to spend her night at that old-fashioned form of torture known as the "Department Christmas Party."

Sixty-some people crammed into a smallish fire hall didn't make for the most comfortable party atmosphere, and she found herself repeatedly retreating to the front of the room, near the table of snacks that had been set up in front of the bar. From here, she could observe the room, in all its glittery, falsely cheerful, Christmas-y glory, without accidentally ending up under the mistletoe with some drunken criminalist.

"So," the woman standing next to her asked, leaning forward and speaking in a gossipy tone, "who is he?"

Alex looked up from the bowl of pretzels she'd been about to serve herself from, surprised to find that there was someone else in her safe corner. "Who is who?" she said blankly, trying to place the woman's face, which was familiar, but not quite familiar enough. Then again, she'd been at this party for over an hour and all she'd managed to do so far was dance with two men whose names she'd already forgotten and drink three glasses of champagne, so maybe the forgetfulness wasn't that unexpected. Either way, it was not shaping up to be a night to remember.

"Your date," the woman said with a roll of her eyes. "He's gorgeous!"

Alex glanced over her shoulder at the man in question. Bill Carle was exactly where she'd left him: sitting at their table, which was bedecked with obscene amounts of tinsel and a tacky 3-D paper snowman. Currently, he appeared to be trying to braid three strands of tinsel to keep himself busy while she was gone. "Yeah, he's not too bad to look at, is he?" she said, looking back at the woman next to her, who her memory had belatedly identified as Amy Vaughn, one of the crime scene technicians she and Bobby worked with. "His name's Bill."

"That's it?" Amy replied, reaching in front of Alex toward the pretzel bowl. " 'His name's Bill'? I want details, Eames! Are you and he . . . you know?"

"No!" She grabbed a few pretzels for herself and popped one into her mouth, mumbling as she chewed, "Hell no. He's a friend of my little brother's."

"You're telling me that the guy is tall, ripped, and gorgeous, and you're not interested just because he's a friend of the family?" Amy grabbed two glasses of champagne off the bar in front of them, handing one to Alex and keeping the other for herself. "You're nuts."

"No," Alex said, gulping half the glass in one swallow. "I'm not interested because . . . well, he's not my type. He's got a weird sense of humor."

" 'Weird,' like how? Should I be scared?"

She shook her head and glanced at Bill again, this time giving him a smile and a small wave as she caught his eye. " 'Weird' like he doesn't find jokes about corpses funny. You can make your own decision on whether that's scary or not."

Amy sighed. "Why are the hot ones all jerks, squeamish, or both?"

"Don't forget gay."

"Right, or gay. It all adds up to the same thing: I can't get a date to save my life." She drained her glass and waved it expressively as she added, "Maybe I should try wearing makeup and low-cut shirts."

Alex looked down at her own red blouse, which she'd unbuttoned to within an inch of decency after a particularly energetic dance a few minutes ago had left her sweating. "I don't know about you, but it sure doesn't seem to work for me." She finished her own drink and set the glass on the bar with a sigh.

"Oh, come on!" Amy crossed her arms and gave Alex an astonished look. "You've got to be kidding me, half the guys in the building have been panting after you for years."

"So?" She accepted the refilled glass as the bartender slid it toward her, and gave Amy a tired smile. "They may be panting after me, but not one of them's asked me out. It's a moot point."

"Cops suck when it comes to romance," Amy said with a sigh.

"Amen," Alex agreed, lifting her glass in a joking toast.

"I hear your partner's not bad at it, though."

"Bobby?" Out of habit, she looked around the room until she spotted his head over the top of the sea of people on the dance floor. "Yeah, he doesn't seem to have any trouble in that department," she said, watching him dip a dark-haired woman she didn't recognize. "Maybe I should ask him for some pointers." Never, ever, in a million years would she actually do that, of course;the mere thought of talking to Goren about her pathetic love life was enough to make her chug the contents of her new glass.

"Have you guys ever . . .?" Amy asked, leaning closer and lowering her voice. "I know you're not supposed to, but it seems like it'd be hard to resist."

Alex choked on her champagne. "Me and . . .?" she said quickly through her coughing fit. "No, believe me, we'd never -"

"Ever thought about it?" Amy cut her off with a grin. "Come on, you can't tell me you haven't looked at those huge hands and wondered."

The truth was that she had, many times, but even in her current state of inebriation, she knew better than to admit it. "Why, have you?" she dodged. "How come you haven't gone after him, if you're that curious?"

"Not a chance," Amy said, shaking her head as they turned away from the bar and faced the packed room. "I couldn't keep up with him just walking on the street, let alone doing anything else."

Alex grinned. "You don't need to keep up with him; he just pulls you along whether you like it or not. Hey, listen, I have to get back to my date before he falls asleep on the table. You should go see if you can get Goren to dance with you or something."

"You think?"

"Yeah!" she said with false enthusiasm. "Give it a shot."

"Ok," Amy said slowly, "maybe I will. Thanks, Eames."

"No problem." Rather than follow Amy away from the bar, she hung back, leaning against it, and watched as the other woman approached her partner and then followed him onto the dance floor. "Right, 'Give it a shot.' Brilliant, Alex. Always the damn bridesmaid," she muttered into her glass as she finished the last sip of her drink.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Anything wrong?" Bill asked as she slid into her chair next to him a few minutes later. "You were gone for a while."

"Yeah, well, the bartender didn't tell me he was married until five minutes into the conversation," she deadpanned.

Bill grinned. "Did I mention that not only am I under strict orders from Sean to keep my hands off you, but I'm also obligated to keep any other guys, including bartenders, from preying on his drunk sister?"

"Sean can bite me," she grumbled good-naturedly into her drink. "No wonder I can't get a date, with my brother threatening anyone who comes near me."

"Only indirectly. And I won't tell if you won't, if you want to give me a try," he responded with a wink.

She rolled her eyes. "You can't stand the sight of blood, Bill. Trust me, we're not meant to be."

"You've been saying that since I was twelve."

"Well, it's been true since you were twelve," she pointed out with a shrug.

"While we're sort-of-almost on the topic," he said, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers thoughtfully, "how come you brought me tonight instead of a boyfriend, if you don't mind my asking?"

"A boyfriend," she said with a scoff, staring into her glass, which was nearly empty again. She didn't know why everyone seemed to think that she had male admirers lined up around the block, but she was really starting to hate having to correct the misapprehension every five seconds. "Yeah, right. No offense, but if I had a boyfriend, I wouldn't have brought you in the first place."

"Oh, come on, Alex! You never had any trouble getting dates when we were in school."

"That was twenty years ago. Currently, I'm in the middle of a six-year dry spell."

Bill blinked incredulously. "You haven't had a date in six years?"

"Oh, I've had dates," she said dismissively, "but no guy has lasted through more than two of them." It didn't help that just lately, she seemed to find something wrong with every man who approached her. They were all either too short, too aggressive, too social, too dumb, or one of any number of other 'toos' she had come up with.

Which brought her back to the fact that she'd brought her brother's best friend as her date to this party, and when the night ended, she was going to go home to her apartment, alone, and probably suck down a pint of Ben & Jerry's in a fit of self-pity. Yeah, the romance department of her life could definitely use some work.

"What about that partner of yours? You've been with him for almost the same amount of time, haven't you?" Eyeing her speculatively, he went on, "He have anything to do with this 'dry spell' you claim to be having?"

"No!" she exclaimed, a little too loudly. Noticing that heads were turning toward the sound of her voice, she pushed her chair back and stood up. "I'm getting a refill. You want anything?"

"Uh, no. Hey," he called as she turned away, "Alex, look, I'm sorry about that. I don't -"

"It's fine," she cut him off with barely a glance in his direction. "I know you're just playing around." Not bothering to wait for his next attempt at an apology, she headed for the bar, surprised to find that she was a little unsteady on her feet. Then again, given that she'd stopped counting after her fourth glass of champagne, maybe she shouldn't be so shocked.

She could have sworn the bartender gave her a suspicious look before refilling her glass, and she almost wished he'd say something about her having had enough just so she could tell him to shove it. When he just slid the glass back toward her without comment, though, she accepted it with a sigh and moved toward the pretzel bowl she'd encountered Amy over earlier in the evening.

She was definitely approaching full drunkenness, she realized as she bit into a pretzel and noticed that her lips were slightly numb. Unfortunately, the alcohol didn't seem to be helping her mood - but at least drinking was more socially acceptable than lugging around a pint of Chubby Hubby.

"Eames?" a voice said quietly, close to her ear.

She squeaked in surprise and watched the remains of her pretzel jump out of her hand and spiral up into the air, then down to the floor. "What?" she snapped, annoyed at her own reaction, as she turned to her partner.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to, uh, scare you." He bent slightly at the waist, looking at her more closely. "Are you ok?"

"Fine," she said brightly, plastering a smile onto her face. "Just fine."

He didn't look reassured. "You look a little unsteady."

"I'm fine, Goren." She snatched a new pretzel out of the basket. "Where's your date?"

"Didn't bring one," he said distractedly. "Where's yours?"

She jerked her head toward the table where Bill sat, noticing that he had fallen into a conversation with Amy Vaughn. At least the poor guy was being entertained by someone who wasn't as bitter as his date was, she mused. "Over there. The blonde guy."

He raised his eyebrows slightly. "I didn't think you liked fair-haired guys."

"I don't, not particularly. But he's not that kind of date, anyway." She took a long drink of her champagne, trying to sooth the sudden dryness in her throat Goren's presence seemed to have triggered.

He cocked his head to the side. "What kind of date is he? I didn't know they came in different types."

"Oh, you're just hilarious," she said dryly. "He's a friend, that's all."

"He seems to be having fun with Amy," Bobby said thoughtfully.

"Then again, so were you, a few minutes ago." Oh god, did I just say that? That sounded way too much like jealousy. Maybe I am a little too drunk.

"She's a pretty decent dancer," he answered, seemingly oblivious to any possible implications of her statement. "I think I tired her out, though."

Alex choked on a laugh. "That's what she was afraid of."

"What?" He reached past her and grabbed a pretzel, managing in the process to slyly steal her glass with his free hand before she realized what was happening.

"Bobby!"

"What?" he repeated coolly, biting into the pretzel.

"Give that back." She reached to take the glass back, but he pulled back and raised it out of her reach. "This isn't funny, Bobby."

"I think you've had enough," he informed her impassively. "Now, what was it what Amy was afraid of?"

Deciding to play along until an opportunity presented itself, she returned her hands to her sides. "She said she can't even keep up with you walking on the street, let alone doing anything else."

He raised his brows suspiciously. " 'Anything else' like what? What did you tell her?"

"I didn't tell her anything," Alex said defensively. "Except that it's not a matter of keeping up, it's just a matter of holding on while you pull the other person along." Noticing that he seemed to be having trouble digesting that statement, she grabbed her drink back before he could react, giving him an impertinent grin over the rim of the glass as she drained it pointedly. "And by the way, you haven't been appointed guardian of my alcohol consumption, so I'll thank you to leave that to me."

He crossed his arms and looked down at her with a mix of worry and irritation in his eyes. "How many have you had?"

"Dunno." She handed the glass back to the bartender, who definitely hesitated this time before refilling it only halfway. "Not so much that I can't walk and talk, so obviously not too much."

He rolled his eyes and reached for her drink again. "You just said, 'Nasomush 'at I can' wawntawk,'" he mimicked. "You've had plenty, Eames. Give me the glass."

She sighed, knowing that he had a point. She had a strong tolerance for alcohol, but she'd pretty much reached her limit for tonight. "Fine," she grumbled, sliding the glass over to him. "Now what am I supposed to do with myself for the rest of the party?"

"Well, you could always dance with me," he said lightly. "Rumor has it that I'm not so bad."

Alex snorted. "If I listened to all the rumors I heard about you, I'd believe you were Sherlock Holmes in the body of Adonis with the charisma of Casanova and the . . . uh . . ." She coughed. "Never mind."

"What?" he asked curiously as she allowed him to lead her to the dance floor to the opening strains of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. "You were on a roll; who else do people say I'm like?"

She shook her head and tried not to start snickering as he wrapped one of his big hands around hers and rested the other on her waist. "Trust me, you don't want to know - and you really don't want me to say it out loud, not in public."

"Well now you've got me too interested to not tell me," he told her, adjusting his hand slightly against the fabric of her dress. "Is it that bad?"

"Uh, most people wouldn't think it was technically 'bad,' no. But . . . no, never mind. I'm not telling you any more." If she kept talking about it, she was going to crack up, and then she'd have to explain that to him. With some effort, she shut her mouth and suppressed the smirk that tried to make its way across her lips.

"Eames," he said, a note of vague warning entering his voice.

Her control broke and she started laughing. "You really want to know?" she managed between giggles.

"Yes, I really want to know!"

"Ok, your funeral." She pulled one of her hands from his shoulder and fisted it between them, thumb sticking out. "According to popular belief, you've got the brain of Sherlock Holmes," she began, "the body of Adonis," - another finger joined her thumb in sticking out of her fist - "the charm of Casanova," - another finger straightened - " . . . and then there's the part of you that bears a remarkable resemblance to John Holmes," she finished, keeping her eyes on her hand instead of his face. She barely got the last few words out before she dissolved into laughter again, letting her head fall against his chest for support as a wave of dizziness crashed over her.

There was complete silence from above her head for a long moment. "Did you just say . . .?"

She nodded against his shirt, still laughing. "I told you you didn't want to know!"

"Someone actually said that about me?"

"Well, it's not like girls run around the building screaming about it, but even cops gossip." She tilted her head back to look up at him, amused to find that his face was a flaming shade of red. "Don't worry, I'm not going to ask."

"Ask?" he repeated blankly, then managed to turn even redder as he realized what she meant. There was awkward silence for a long moment as he tried to think of a way to get out of this conversation without further embarrassment. "I, uh . . . I need to get a drink," he finally said abruptly, noticing an escape route approaching in the form of Jimmy Deakins. "She's drunk, watch out for her," he blurted, shoving his partner at the captain and beating a hasty retreat off the floor.

"What was that all about?" Deakins said wonderingly, accepting with equanimity the drunken detective who had been pushed into his arms.

She managed a weak grin. "I embarrassed him."

"Yeah, that much was obvious," he said with a snort. "Well, want to finish out the dance, since we're already out here?"

"Sure."

She managed to make it through the next few minutes of the dance without incident, even remarking politely that he was a good dancer, but when the song exploded into the rock section and he swung her around for an energetic spin, she knew she was in trouble. Before he could even ask what was wrong, she'd pulled out of his grasp and was sprinting for the bathroom.

She managed to get herself into a stall in the ladies room before throwing up, but when she fell to her knees in front of the toilet, vaguely aware that she'd hit the floor so hard that she'd probably have bruises, and began retching, she knew she wasn't going to be getting back up any time soon.

A few minutes later, she'd almost dozed off with her head resting on the toilet seat - amazing how she suddenly didn't care how dirty the thing was, now that it was her lifeline - when a female voice outside her stall asked, "Alex? It's Amy, are you ok?"

Alex responded with a groan, followed by a mumbled, "Let me die in peace!"

"Uh, no can do. I'm going to grab someone else to help me get you out of here, ok? Hang tight."

She didn't even bother to answer this time as her already-empty stomach twisted and she began to dry heave again. She raised one arm to wipe at the tears that the nausea had brought to her eyes, then managed to pick her head up enough to rest her cheek on her fist instead of the seat itself.

The bathroom door opened again, this time immediately followed by two feminine gasps of surprise and one strangled, "This is the ladies room!"

"Just checking on a friend," Bobby's voice said casually. "Eames?" he asked, raising his voice slightly so he could be heard through the stall doors.

She would have responded if she hadn't been locked in a battle with her stomach at the moment, but currently she wasn't up to letting him know where she was. Still, a second later she heard a thump, followed by the sound of fabric brushing against the door, followed by the click of the door latch releasing and Bobby walking into the stall.

"Alex?" he said, crouching down behind and slightly to the side of her. One of his hands ran up her back, rubbing it soothingly. "How do you feel?"

Her response was another groan. Pulling her hand out from under her face, she laid her head back on the toilet seat and tried to wave him away weakly.

"That good, huh," he said with quiet humor. "I told you you'd had enough. I'll be right back." His heels clicked as he walked back out of the now-open stall door and she heard the rustle of plastic as he stole a nearly empty garbage bag out of one of the cans in the room and brought it back to her "Hold this. I'm going to stand you up."

She passively allowed him to hoist her to her feet, where she swayed for a few seconds, swallowing convulsively. "I think I'm . . . ok," she'd finally managed. "Does the captain -"

"Taken care of," he assured her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "I made your excuses, to him and your date. Nice guy, by the way. Feel up to walking out to my car?"

She'd nodded. "I think so. Just get me out of here."

"It happens to the best of us," he told her reassuringly as he guided her out of the bathroom and then out of the building, one arm around her shoulders and the other holding onto her hand so she couldn't stumble and fall under the weight of his arm.

"I'd be a lot more likely to believe that if you weren't dead sober when you said it," she muttered as she climbed into his car, still clutching the garbage bag.

"Ah, I've had my share of bad drinking experiences. There's not much to do but sample the local beers when you're on leave in rural Germany," he added with a grin as he pulled onto the street.

She choked on a laugh, which caused her to gag indelicately. "Ugh," she mumbled into the garbage bag a few seconds later, "don't make me laugh any more tonight, ok?" She didn't need to raise her head to know that he was chuckling. "It's not funny, Goren."

"Sorry," he said more somberly, doing his best to make a left turn as gently as possible to avoid jarring her. "Is there even anything left in your stomach left to throw up?" he added conversationally.

"No." Nonetheless, her stomach chose that moment to begin another rebellion.

He parked in front of her building and turned off the ignition. "I'm never letting you touch alcohol again, Eames."

"That's supposed to be my line," she groaned, daring to lift her head out of the bag.

"Sorry. You can say it too, if you want. Stay there," he ordered sternly, pointing to the seat she was in. "I'm going to come around and help you out."

She didn't bother to try to disobey, since she knew she'd probably just fall on her face if she tried to stand up on her own - and the last thing she wanted was to give him more ammunition to tease her with later.

"You're not arguing," he observed as he opened the door on her side. "You must really feel like shit."

"Gee, you think?" she muttered irritably as her attempt to exit the car landed her awkwardly in his arms. "Maybe it has something to do with the alcohol too, huh?"

"Touchè. Ready to walk again?"

She rolled her eyes and groaned loudly. "Do I have to?"

"Well, I suppose I could carry you . . ."

"I'll walk," she said quickly, demonstrating by taking a step forward.

"I figured. Is this a security door?" he asked, taking a large step to catch up with her and gesturing to the front door of her building.

"Yeah. Here," she said, shoving her purse at him. "The keys're in there somewhere."

He looked down at the bag, then back up at her. "You want me to go through your purse?"

"You want to wait fifteen minutes while my drunk self digs through it?" she shot back. "Besides, there's nothing in there that I wouldn't want you seeing or anything."

"You, uh . . . you're sure?" he said with raised eyebrows.

"Oh, for god's sake," she said, snatching the purse back from him. "I'll do it, if you're so afraid of encountering dangerous female contraptions or whatever." She proceeded to do just that, noticing with satisfaction that he started tapping his foot impatiently at the five-minute mark. "Here," she finally said, holding out her keychain to him.

"Which key?" he asked, taking the keys and beginning to flip through them.

"Come on, genius," she teased. "You mean you can't figure it out from the wear patterns?"

He sighed. "It's way too late for deduction. Just show me the key."

"Cranky, aren't we?" she said with a smirk, pulling out the right key and shaking it at him.

"Thank you." He snatched the key out of her hand and unlocked the door with one hand while replacing the other arm around her. "Now move it."

She obliged, allowing him to steer her into the building. "What happened to my sweet, concerned partner from a few minutes ago?"

"He got cold and his feet started to hurt. You feel ok?" he added, spoiling his attempt at brusqueness.

"Haven't thrown up in five whole minutes," she said with a wry smile. "I think it's a new record."

"Better than nothing." He paused in the lobby. "Which floor? And don't start telling me that I should figure it out for myself, because I might just dump you here and go home."

"You'd never," she said with conviction.

"Well, uh . . . no, I wouldn't. But it sounded good, didn't it?"

She gave him a bored look. "Sixth floor."

He helped her into the elevator without any further comment, and they rode to her floor in continued silence. "Here," she said as they stepped out into the hallway again, pulling the keys back out of his hand, "it's this one."

"Danke," he murmured absently as he took the key from her hand.

" 'Danke'?" she repeated, looking up at him and raising her eyebrows as she leaned against the wall outside her door. "What, talking about your youthful drinking days made you forget which country you're in?"

"Sorry. Wasn't thinking." He crossed the threshold in front of her so that if she tripped, she'd fall against him instead of onto the floor.

Moving out from behind him, she walked directly to the couch and flopped down. "You don't have to keep taking care of me. As long as I have the couch and a trash can, I'm fine on my own."

"Well, here's the trash can." He dragged over a can that was under her desk. "But if you don't mind, I'm going to stay with you a while to make sure you stay fine."

"Sure," she said with a shrug. "I'm just saying, you don't have to if you don't want to."

"Well, I want to." He unfolded the quilt draped over the back of her couch and covered her with it. "Comfortable?"

She shifted her weight, curling up under the blanket. "Yes, actually. Thank you."

He gave her an easy smile and squatted down in front of her. "You want some water or something?" he asked, not realizing he was brushing her hair out of her eyes until he'd done it.

"Hair tie?" she suggested. "It's a pain in the ass to hold it back with one hand while I puke."

"Sure." He stood up, turned toward her bathroom, then paused, realizing he wasn't sure what he'd be looking for, and turned back to her. "Uh, what will a hair tie look like and where will I find one?"

"Black elastic band. In the bath-"

He knew she was going to throw up again almost before she did, as all the blood drained from her face and she ducked her head toward the garbage can. "Bathroom?" he finished for her quickly.

She attempted a nod between heaves.

He decided that was a "yes" and headed for the bathroom at a trot, not wanting to leave her alone for more than a few seconds. Thankfully, one of the first things he saw sitting on the edge of her bathroom sink was a hairbrush with a number of black things wrapped around the handle. He grabbed the whole thing and walked back to where she lay, trying to untangle a single elastic from the mess as he went.

She was still leaning over the trash can, so instead of handing her the hair tie, he leaned across her back and did his best to pull her hair back himself.

Alex coughed and wiped her mouth with a tissue from the box on the coffee table in front of her, then looked up. "Thanks. You sure you want to hang around for a whole night of this?" she asked, looking at the garbage can with disgust as she dropped the tissue into it.

He sat down on the edge of the couch. "Do you have anyone else you can call to come sit with you?"

She shook her head wordlessly.

"Then I'm staying until I know you're not going to fall asleep and choke on your own vomit."

"Oh, that's a pleasant image. Thanks, Goren," she said sarcastically, closing her eyes and slumping back against the cushions. "Good thing my husband was already out here," she added idly.

"Excuse me?" he said, sure he couldn't have heard her correctly.

She opened her eyes and gave him her best attempt at a grin. "Husband," she repeated, reaching behind her to pat the backrest with arms that she was lying against. "That's what my mom always called this thing. You thought I was talking about you?"

"Uh . . ."

"I guess when it comes down to it," she said meditatively, "you are the closest thing I've got to one. Which isn't saying much, given the horrible state of my love life recently." She stopped abruptly. Did I really say that out loud? You fucking idiot, Alex!

He was silent for a second, contemplating that. "I guess you have a point. We do act married in a lot of ways, except for the, uh . . ."

She smirked, already knowing what he had stopped himself from saying. "It would make people look at me weird if I could actually confirm all the ladies' room gossip."

He blinked, then quickly stood up. "I'm getting you a glass of water."

"You're kind of jumpy tonight," she called after him, feigning ignorance because really, she was enjoying his discomfort about this particular topic. "Anything wrong?"

He reappeared in the kitchen doorway with the promised water in one hand. "Nothing's wrong," he said detachedly. "Other than that I'm worried about you, that is." He put the glass on the coffee table in front of her. "You should drink. Dehydration is one of the main causes of hangovers."

"Thanks, mom." Still, she took his advice and picked up the glass, discovering with it halfway to her mouth that she was actually thirsty as hell. "Thanks," she said again after draining half the glass, this time with more sincerity. "You make a good nurse."

"Just don't chug too much at once," he advised, not acknowledging her compliment. "Or else it'll come right back up."

"Let's not talk about anything 'coming back up' until there's no more danger of that, ok?"

He sat down in the space her curled-in legs left on the couch and examined her face. "You look a little better," he told her, patting what was either her knee or her foot under the blanket. "How do you feel?"

"Like I'm never touching alcohol again in my life."

"Sounds like a plan. As pleasant a companion as you are, I wouldn't want to do this regularly."

"You don't have to stay, Bobby. Honestly, I'll be ok."

"Stop trying to get rid of me," he said, "because it isn't going to work."

"I know way better than to try to get you to do something you don't want to do," she said. "Remember, I've seen the 'Goren gone stubborn' show."

"The what?"

"What would you call refusing to move when you don't want to, even when there's a loaded shotgun in your face?" she said archly. "Sounds like stubbornness to me."

" 'Goren gone stubborn'," he repeated, not wanting to get into a discussion about the case she was referring to. "Is the sequel going to be called 'Goren gone wild'?"

She allowed herself a cautious laugh, wary of gagging on it again. "Would it involve you lifting your shirt for a bunch of guys with cameras?"

"Not a chance."

"Well," she said with a grin, "there go the hopes and dreams of half the women in our building."

"Very funny. Drink," he ordered, pointing to the water glass in front of her.

"No problem." She did as he asked, finishing the glass. "You know, I stopped counting somewhere around drink number four tonight."

"I told you you'd had more than enough. You can't possibly weigh more than - what - a hundred twenty pounds, soaking wet?" he said, giving her slight form under the blanket a clinical glance. "Four drinks is enough to get you wasted, let alone any more than that."

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know, Bobby."

"I know. Sorry."

"You're a real mother hen, anyone ever tell you that?" she said.

He colored slightly. "Sorry. I just -"

"Don't apologize," she interrupted. "It feels nice to have someone sit with me while I'm sick. I was just pointing it out in case you hadn't noticed it in yourself."

"Oh. Uh . . . It's not a problem, I don't mind doing it," he managed awkwardly, looking away from her and fiddling with the hem of the quilt. "Can I get you anything else?"

She shook her head slightly. "Just yourself."

There was a long moment of silence.

"I want you to stay, I mean," she said quickly once her lagging brain processed what that had sounded like. "It's comforting to have you here."

"Stay?" he repeated carefully, wondering if she could manage to throw him any more off-balance than she already had tonight.

There really weren't too many ways to misinterpret the word stay, and she wondered what he was thinking. "Yeah, stay. As in, hang around for a while to distract me when I'm not puking. I have books you can entertain yourself with if you get bored."

He shook his head. "Books would distract me from keeping an eye on you. How about TV, instead?"

"Whatever," she said with a shrug. "Remote's on the table."

He stood up to retrieve it, then turned back to the couch to find that she'd moved slightly and the small space he'd been sitting on was gone. "Where -" he began, but stopped on a sigh when her eyes widened and she grabbed for the trash can. "There goes that glass of water," he remarked with what humor he could muster, setting down the remote control and picking up the empty water glass.

When he returned from refilling it in the kitchen, she was still huddled over the can. "For whenever you feel ready for it," he said gently, putting the glass down on the table within easy reach.

Her only response was a shudder and a cough, and he looked at her worriedly for a second before pulling the husband off the couch and sitting down in the space it had been occupying, so that he was more or less next to her and she could lean against him. One hand began rubbing slow, comforting circles on her back while the other pushed a loose lock of hair behind her ear.

"Thanks," she muttered, then coughed again, "but you probably don't want to get this close, trust me."

Although she couldn't see it, he shrugged as he helped her sit up again. "I've been closer to worse things than just a little bit of someone's stomach contents."

"I don't even want to know," she said with a grimace. "But I'm not going to argue if you want to stay put." Letting her head fall tiredly back against his shoulder, she looked up at his face from her slightly cockeyed position and added, "You're more comfortable to lie on than the husband, anyway."

"Thanks, I think." He leaned forward and picked up the remote control from the table. "Got any preferences for what to watch?"

"Uh . . . what time is it?"

He checked his watch. "One thirty in the morning. I don't think we're going to have many options."

"There's always Court TV."

"Not that. And not CSI, either," he said firmly.

"Can't tolerate a little bit of artistic license?" she teased.

"If it were only a 'little bit,' I'd be able to tolerate it." He hit the power button. "How about the Science Channel?"

She sighed. "It's up to you. I'll be too busy trying not to throw up to care, anyway."

"Science Channel it is, then." He flipped to right channel, then tossed the remote toward the table. "Here, lie down," he suggested, pulling gently on her shoulders. "You can't be comfortable sitting squashed against me."

She looked down at his lap, where he was urging her to lie, and another one of those bubbles of irrational laughter threatened to work its way out of her. "I'd, uh . . . put your leg to sleep," she managed, pretty sure she sounded only slightly strangled.

"I'll live. Lie down," he said again. "Trust me, it'll be more comfortable."

"If you say so," she said weakly. No way was she going to tell him she wasn't putting her head down there for fear - or was it anticipation? - of what she might find.

"Good girl." He guided her head down so she didn't topple over, then brushed her hair away from her eyes. "Guess I'm not too great at doing hair," he said thoughtfully, showing her the loose hair that had worked its way out of his earlier attempt to pull it back. "Want me to try again?"

"Sure." She closed her eyes, allowing to herself that he had been right; she was more comfortable lying like this than trying to sit up.

He managed a fairly neat ponytail with only one "ow!" from her. "This would be a lot easier if your hair were all the same length," he grumbled as he wrapped the elastic around it.

"They're called 'layers,' Goren. I'd look like a drowned rat without them."

He couldn't hold back laughter at that comment. "Somehow, I don't think I could ever see you as resembling a rat, drowned or otherwise," he told her teasingly, resting a hand lightly on her hair. "Comfortable now?"

She nodded against his leg and sighed. "Yes. Thank you for staying."

"You already thanked me at least twice," he said dismissively. "Say it again and I might think I'm hurt that you thought I'd leave you here alone."

She shrugged, her shoulders bumping his thigh. "I didn't think you'd abandon me, but still, you're here even though you don't need to be. In my book, that deserves a 'thank you.'"

His fingers idly stroked her head, making her feel like a cat. She almost expected him to scratch her ears next, but instead he let his hand slide down from her hair to her cheek. "Try to sleep if you can," he suggested quietly, avoiding the topic of her thanks. "Your body needs time to recuperate."

She sighed and nestled her face into his palm, murmuring a quiet, "Ok." Surprisingly, it wasn't difficult to relax in her current position, especially with his warm body against hers, and she found herself dozing fitfully until she felt him shift under her an unknown amount of time later. "Bobby?" she muttered thickly, trying to raise her head.

"Sorry," he said, returning his hand to her hair. "Just fidgeting. Go back to sleep."

"Mmkay." She let her head drop against his leg again. "You're comfy," she mumbled into the wrinkled fabric of his pants.

His body shook gently under hers as he laughed. "That's good to hear. Go to sleep, Alex."

" 'Kay. Night."

This time he waited, watching the sun creep above the roofs of the buildings he could see out her window, until he was sure she was in a deep sleep before trying to slip out from under her. It took a few seconds of cautious movements, but eventually he found himself standing in front of the couch, looking down at his very drunk, very sleepy, very tempting partner.

It was morning and she'd be waking up soon. She wouldn't want to open her eyes and find herself on top of him; even if she wasn't embarrassed by it, she'd feel uncomfortable at having "made" him stay the night. Crouching down in front of her, he lightly traced one of her cheekbones with his finger before leaning forward and kissing the top of her nose.

He'd allow himself to stay and watch a little longer, but he would be gone when she woke up. It was better that way.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Endnote: For those of you who are way purer than I am and didn't already know, John Holmes was a 70s porn star known for his extremely large...assets