A/N: The opening two sentences are taken directly from something I read in People magazine, by a man whose boyfriend was killed in the tsunami last year. When I came across them, I dropped the magazine and ran for some notepaper because the words were just so totally perfect for a story. So here's the story I built around it. Could be considered AU, but I'd say it's more like just speculation.
I never had nightmares. My base-level state of being was a nightmare; bad dreams were unnecessary. When you spend your childhood with a father who's alternately abusive and absent, a profligate brother, and a mother who you can't protect from herself, you're a little too busy dealing with reality to have time to worry about anything else, like the monster under the bed. When you're nineteen years old and huddled on a hard pallet in some foreign country, waiting for the next yell from your sergeant just so you can hear something in a language you know, you don't really have enough energy to dream about showing up to class naked.
By the time, years later, when I reached a point in my life where I could have allowed myself the luxury of nightmares, it was too late. My subconscious seemed to have forgotten how to have them, and I'd become so inured to the atrocities humans can carry out against other humans that even when I saw a particularly horrific case, one that made my gut twist and my eyes narrow, I could only look at it in clinical terms.
My partners would turn green, or get tears in their eyes, or even cut and run, and I'd be left standing there, looking calmly at a flayed human body, a child with every bone in his face broken by fists, a prostitute who had once been reasonably pretty but now lacked any features at all other than the broken bottle she'd been raped with. And I'd just look at it - catalogue every detail, make notes, report back to my CO. Get a pat on the back, maybe, or just a wary look. Either way, I'd done my job. And then I'd go home and try to sleep and end up wishing that I could dream the images instead of relive them consciously, if they insisted on staying in my head. Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night, my heart beating a little too fast, with the feeling that there had been some night terror about to come, if I had only remained asleep, but instead, my now-conscious mind would begin to pore through the images of the day.
That all began to change one day almost ten years ago. I was doing a short stint in homicide then - short, because I was eventually declared to be "too unconventional" for the unit, big surprise there - and my partner and I were trying to catch up to a budding serial killer who preferred to prey on prostitutes.
This was the guy who used bottles on his victims, and some of the scenes were so appalling that I can still picture them today when I close my eyes. Young women, none of them over thirty, in clothes that had once been just revealing but were now in tatters from the slashes of their attacker's knife. Blood, pooled around them, sometimes looking like a bright red snow angel from their violent death throes. I would look from their faces, crushed inward under the heel of something like a boot, to their groins, already knowing what I was going to see: blood and mutilation, the jagged edges of a glass bottle sometimes visible through tears in the skin of the abdomen.
There had been four of them killed by the night things began to center around her. I was on the street, doing my crack-addicted-bum routine for the third night in a row, hoping to catch the guy in the act. Our attempts at geographic profiling, crude as they were back then, had told us that the area just outside of Times Square would be prime hunting ground for our man, and so I was crouched against an alley wall near Forty-second and Ninth with a watch cap pulled low over my face when I saw her coming.
Black leather boots with heels at least four inches high and a confident walk couldn't disguise the fact that the woman approaching me was just a wisp of a thing. Maybe twenty years old, I judged. Thin enough that it was safe to assume I'd see needle marks on her arms when she passed me. But her face was set, I saw as she moved closer, and her eyes were startlingly clear for a junkie. She was walking with purpose, as if she had somewhere to be, but there was still the suggestive sway in her step that marked an experienced working girl.
And even though all our victims had been of average-to-tall height, I knew that this woman was a target our killer would jump on. I had been operating on the theory that he sought out women who were powerful, but in a powerless profession, so that he could dominate them fairly easily. Women who were strong, whether physically and mentally, I'd decided, presented some sort of challenge to him - a challenge that he relished. And this woman, this tiny thing who was nearly on top of my alley now, had that quality in spades. Hell, even I would feel a little intimidated by her if I gave myself the chance.
Where are you, you son of a bitch? I thought. There's your prey, staked out as easy as you please. Now come and get her so I can get you.
She passed my alley without even noticing me in the shadows. I knew - I was sure - that if our guy was out tonight, this was the woman he'd take. And so I followed her, using the shambling stride of a guy who was a little too coked up to be fully mobile. I didn't think she noticed me, and when I saw another man approaching, I eased back into the shadows again to listen.
"Hey sweetheart. Need a lift somewhere?"
"No thanks." Her voice, too, was stronger than her looks suggested, and I allowed myself a small smile, wondering how she would handle the unwanted john. "I'm done for the night."
"Aw, come on," the man whined.
I tried to see through the darkness to get a look at him, but all I could discern was that he wasn't much taller than her in her boots - which would mean he was maybe 5'6" or 5'7" - but he was built like a tank. Not a good combination, when it came to men's egos; this guy could definitely be harboring a grudge against the type of woman who'd turn him down. I shuffled another step closer and dropped my hand to my side, making sure my gun was where I needed it to be.
"I'll be quick," the man was saying when I turned my attention back to their conversation. "How much you want?"
"More than you can afford," the woman muttered under her breath. I don't know if he heard it, but I certainly did, and I found myself beginning to cheer her on, at least when I wasn't plotting the best way to take the guy down without hurting her. Switching back to a regular tone of voice, the woman said, "Listen, honey, you walk a block over and I'm sure there's gonna be a hundred girls interested in that deal. But me, I'm not, so be a good little boy and move along."
Mistake! Warning bells began going off in my head. If this was my guy, she'd just given him enough to trigger the rage I knew he felt when he attacked his victims. I tensed.
So did he. I still couldn't make out his features, but I could see the movement of his facial muscles as his expression changed from what I imagined had been an attempt at charm to what I knew would be a furious snarl. He reached for the woman, but she nimbly skipped back, pulling her arm out of his reach.
"I told you to get lost, buddy. So do it, before I decide to make you get lost."
"You fuckin' bitch!" His hand shot out again, and this time when she braced for the expected assault on her arm, he caught her by the neck instead. "I don't think you're gettin' my point," he growled, using his hand on her throat to back her up toward the alley I had been occupying until a few seconds ago.
This was him. My heart began to beat more slowly as I slipped into my focused attack mode, but through the unnatural calm I had long been used to, I felt a prickling of fear. I couldn't take the guy until he'd done something that would link him with our victims or the manners of their deaths, and that meant that the diminutive hooker I'd been watching was going to have to take a hit. God, sometimes I hated the legal system. All I had to do was put one bullet between his eyes, and she, along with every other prostitute in the vicinity, would be safe, at least from the fate he promised . . . but to do that would be to blow my case, as well as probably my job.
So I continued to wait, poised to strike at the first sign of real violence.
Her hand came up to grip his wrist and give it a sharp twist. "I don't think you heard me," she said, watching the man stumble back a step. "Now fuck off."
Good for her, I mused. Too bad she doesn't know she's in too deep. Come on, lady, just set him off and then get the hell out of here!
He lunged, hitting her with the full force of his body and knocking her a good three feet back into the alley. I heard a thud as she hit the ground, then the immediate sound of stiletto heels scrabbling for purchase on gravel. By the time she got her feet under her, he was approaching with his hands curved into claws of rage. I followed a few feet behind. His heart was probably pounding in his ears right now; he wasn't likely to hear my light footfalls.
"I don't like you, sweetheart," he told her in a deceptively calm voice. I heard the snick of a switchblade opening and the answering gasp from her as she began to perceive the real danger she was in. "I think maybe I need to teach you a lesson or two."
"You touch me and I'll fucking kill you," she spat. Her booted foot came up in a fairly good roundhouse kick, one that I was impressed she could manage without losing her balance, and for a second I thought she was going to lay him out for me.
He recovered from his surprise quickly, though, and by the time her foot would have made contact with his torso, his hands were up to block it. He grabbed her ankle and twisted, and though she howled in pain, her eyes stayed open and she managed to stay on her feet - or, rather, on her foot.
Then the blade came up and her eyes flicked to the side, searching for an escape route. What she found was me, frozen less than two feet behind the man and watching her intently, and it took her less than a second to see me for what I was and fit me into the puzzle. Her eyes widened slightly as she looked at me, the best attempt at an acknowledgement she could give without alerting the man who was busy slashing at her boot, and I nodded back.
I thanked god for those boots as I took my opportunity and moved. They were going to provide her legs with enough protection to keep them intact in the next few seconds while I subdued him.
I hit him hard, as I'd intended, and we both went down. The knife skittered out of his hand, and without needing to be told, the girl snatched it up and moved out of the path of our flailing limbs.
He was big, but I was bigger, and I was accustomed to fighting people much stronger than the prostitutes he was used to fighting. Within seconds, I had his face pressed into the ground, which was turning red with blood from his nose. Good, I thought. Let the blood be his this time instead of some innocent woman's.
With one knee on his back to hold him down, I reached for the cuffs at the back of my belt. They were plucked away a second before my hand got to them, and I almost panicked for a second before I realized that the hooker was on her knees, busily cuffing the guy as if she did it every day. She delivered the coup de grace, a boot to the guy's balls, then moved back, still on her knees, and just looked at me.
I stood up slowly, making sure that he was too busy sobbing in pain to worry about getting up, then offered a hand to the kneeling woman. "You ok?"
She took my hand and allowed me to pull her up, but kept her weight on one foot. "Broken ankle," she told me, sounding more annoyed than in pain. "I assume you have team out here? Or are you a vigilante?"
She definitely didn't talk like any hooker I'd ever met. "They're probably shitting themselves right now realizing that it went down before they could move in. They'll be here in a few seconds." I paused, looking down at her, and noticed the trembling hands she was trying to hide. "Can you walk?" I asked her.
"I can manage," she said shortly, bending down to unzip the boot on her injured foot and unintentionally exposing most of her rear end to me.
I quickly looked away, focusing on digging a card out of my pocket. "Here," I said, holding it out to her when she straightened back up. "It's probably better if you get out of here before they show up. Get the ankle looked at, and call me at the number on the card if you need help paying for it."
She took the card automatically, but then just stared at me. "You want me to get out of here?" she eventually repeated skeptically. "Why?"
I glanced over my shoulder, making sure no one was upon us yet, then looked back at her. "Because the last thing you need right now is to spend the night in lock-up for hooking. So go."
She continued to look at me for a long moment, then abruptly dropped to the ground and started laughing. I could hear hysteria edging into the laughter, but she sounded perfectly rational when she looked up at me a second later and said matter-of-factly, "If I go, your case is fucked."
She was right, I knew, but somehow I still wanted to protect her from the events of the night. "I'll deal with it."
She started laughing again, but this time there were tears mixed in. She reached under her skirt, making me back up a step, but she just pulled a leather wallet that was almost exactly like my own badge case out from the top of her stocking. Not looking up at me, she held it out. "You don't need to worry about me."
I took it, opening it to find exactly what I should have expected to find all along: the woman was a cop. I should have known it the second I saw her remain calm with a hand around her throat. If not then, surely I should have realized it when she'd delivered that well-practiced kick. Unsure how to act now, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "Where the hell's your backup?"
"Probably all in bed by now," she said, wiping her eyes on one fishnet-covered wrist. "We were done; I was walking home."
I gaped at her, taking in the leather miniskirt and midriff-baring top that I'd hardly registered earlier. "You were walking home dressed like that? Are you fucking nuts?"
"I figured it was only a few blocks and I'd be ok. Famous last words, huh?" she said as thought she expected me to agree with how much of an idiot she was.
"Get up," I told her instead, offering a hand for the second time that night. "Come on, I'll help you stand."
She remained kneeling for a second, looking down at her hands, then swallowed and looked up at me. "Thank you," she said quietly as she accepted my help and stood. "For all of this, I mean. Not just the hand."
I shook my head. "I wish I had gotten to you before he hurt you."
"You couldn't move until he did. I understand that, you know," she said, giving me a tentative smile. "And you could have waited even longer than you did - but you didn't. So, thank you."
"Yo!" a voice called from the end of the alley. "Goren! What the hell, man?"
"Looks like the cavalry have arrived," she said softly.
"Guess so," I agreed. Looking up at my partner, who appeared to be more pissed than anything else, I waved a hand toward the groaning man on the ground. "There you go, Greer. Knock yourself out. Or him. Whatever." Returning my eyes to the girl - no, the woman, I corrected myself - I said, "We should get you to a hospital."
She nodded slightly. "I know. I'll call my husband; he's still on duty. Nice big flashing lights to get me to the ER in a hurry," she said with a smile.
She had a husband? Why was I surprised by that? More to the point, why did I feel like I'd had the wind taken out of my sails? "Sure," I said absently. "Of course. Let me hook you up with the radio van." I supported her awkward hop to the van and turned her over to the task force members there, then caught the first ride back to my precinct that I could find, thinking the whole time, She has a husband?
I had a nightmare that night. In it, he slashed her face instead of her boot and she fell to the ground as she looked at me accusingly. It wasn't until I'd stumbled to the bathroom and thrown up that I registered the fact that it had been a dream, not reality. It wasn't until even later - sometime the next morning - when it struck me that I'd had an actual nightmare. And all because of one tiny hooker who wasn't a hooker but almost got killed anyway? I'd seen worse things; why was it her who broke through to my dreams?
I never found out her name in the course of the case, since there was no trial for her to testify at, and I didn't bother trying to find it out on my own because, after all, she was married and what would I say to her?
Still, I had the dreams every now and then for years afterward, even after the serial killer had long ago been locked away from her and the rest of the world. There was never anyone else who worked their way into my unconscious the way she did, even though I saw plenty of worse things in the course of my work in the next ten years. I even lost one partner to a bank robber's bullet, and he still didn't haunt me like she did.
I knew she was still alive somewhere, but I didn't think our paths would ever cross again except in my sleep.
That'll teach me, huh?
I entered the Major Case squad room with trepidation; officially I'd been "promoted" out of Narcotics, but the truth was more like I'd been bumped out because I was considered incorrigible. I knew my new partner's name, but other than the fact that she was female and an excellent marksman, that was all I knew - her personnel file had been remarkably impersonal.
So I was surprised that first morning to find that my new desk wasn't empty; there was one thing sitting on top of it: a business card with my name on it, battered and torn, looking like it had been carried for years. Puzzled, I picked it up and examined it. The front held nothing but the embossed information, but the back had two words scrawled across it in a feminine hand: "Thank you."
I shouldn't have been able to make the connection with so little evidence, but I did. I dropped into my chair, still holding the card, and looked around the room for her.
Unconsciously, I was looking for a waif in a miniskirt, which probably explains why I didn't see her until she was almost on top of me. "Hi," she said quietly, depositing a cup of coffee on my desk. "I wasn't sure what you wanted in it, but . . ."
And once again, after getting a revelation about her, I blurted out the first thing I could think of: "You look different in pants."
A surprised laugh escaped her as she took her seat across from me, giving me a genuine smile. "Yeah, that's what they all say. My god," she added, shaking her head, "that we'd end up partnered after all these years . . ."
"Well, I already know you're tougher than my last three partners," I told her without thinking, "and smarter than the last five."
She raised her eyebrows. "You already know all that, just from seeing me get my ankle broken?"
My first impulse was to cringe, because the real answer was that I knew it from reliving the scene in my dreams over and over, but I managed to control myself and after a second, found a suitable answer. "No, I know it from seeing you get your ankle broken and still cuff a guy, then kick him in the balls with your bad leg."
She blinked. "Oh. Well, in that case . . . I think we'll get along fine."
I have nightmares often now, almost always about her. They wake me up out of a sound sleep, and there are still some that make me stumble to the bathroom to vomit afterward, but I would never wish them away. They're how I know that my real life isn't a nightmare anymore. And that's because of her.