2005 . . .

Alex had hit the snooze alarm three times before she realized that if she didn't get up, she was going to be late. Shoving at the dog, who was bedded down on top of her legs, she leapt out of bed and made for the shower, grabbing a towel on the way. As usual, Canis followed. Today, he tried to jump into the shower with her, scaring the hell out of her before she realized the wet apparition clawing through the curtain was her pet and not the boogeyman.

"Damn it, Can!" She forcibly heaved him out of the tub, an act difficult enough to do when only one of them was wet, let alone when two of them were. He stood just outside the shower for a moment, staring balefully at her, then shook himself off and headed out of the room. Alex let out a breath of relief and reached for the shampoo.

She was trying to work a stubborn tangle out of her hair twenty minutes later when a sharp bark sounded from the front of the apartment. It sounded like either an alarm bark or an excitement bark, and she quickly put down the comb and grabbed a towel to wrap around herself as she made her way into the living room.

She stopped dead at the sight of a very long, suit-clad body stretched out on her couch. "Bobby!"

He moved his eyes away from the ceiling he'd been studying and sat up, pausing for only a split second as he realized she wasn't dressed. "Uh, hi. I figured you'd be running late, so I . . ." Shrugging self-consciously, he gestured to the coffee table, where a buttered roll (See A/N at the end of the chapter if you don't know what this is) and coffee sat. "Brought you some breakfast. And I'm driving, so you don't have to worry about catching the train."

She stared at the food, then at him, with growing pleasure. "If I didn't need both hands to hold up this towel, I would give you a huge hug right now."

Bobby flushed and opened his mouth to answer, but shut it again when Canis abruptly let out another bark and startled them both. Alex glanced down at him and scolded, "Shush, before the neighbors start complaining. Do you want to get us kicked out of this apartment?"

"You know, you're the only person I know who talks to their dog like it's a rational being," Bobby said, reaching down to scratch the ears of the old greyhound.

"He's rational enough to know that if he barks when he gets jealous, he gets attention from me," she pointed out. "Now, do me a favor and keep him distracted while I go put some clothes on, would you?"

"Uh, sure. He's not going to bite me, right?" he joked, looking down at the greying muzzle of the dog, who, he knew from experience, was too old to be interested in biting anything other than food.

"No, but I might if you let him steal my breakfast. So watch it!" she said over her shoulder as she disappeared into her bedroom and shut the door.

Chuckling, he lay back down on the couch and looked at the dog. "You really going to try to steal that roll?"

Canis, content now that he was getting some attention, simply twitched his eyebrows and panted happily.

"Well," Bobby went on, taking the twitching eyebrows as an answer, "between you and me, I have the feeling getting bitten by her might not be so bad. So let's keep it an even contest, ok? Get up." He patted the couch next to his legs, shifting them so there was room for the dog. "There," he said as Canis settled down on the cushion, "now we're at the same starting line."

"Do I hear someone conversing with my dog like he's a rational being?" Alex asked pointedly as she emerged from the bedroom, just finishing the buttons on her blouse. "Because if I do, someone just lost his right to make fun of me. Where the hell are my shoes?"

"Which ones?" he asked, looking around the room.

"The black leather boots with the stacked heel."

"Is that them?" he asked, pointing to the corner of the room where a pair of boots lay, looking bedraggled.

"Yes!" She crossed the floor to pick them up, took one look at them, and glared at her dog. "Damn it!"

"What's wrong?"

"Friggin' dog," she mumbled as she stood on one foot and tried to keep her balance as she pulled on one of the boots. "He chews them. Luckily for me, he hasn't managed to totally kill them yet." She dropped her now-shoed foot with a thump and slipped her other foot into the other boot. "Ok. Let me just grab my bag and we can go. No, wait, gotta feed Canis."

He waited patiently while she filled the dog's food and water bowls, holding back a smile at the way the dog seemed to be purposely getting in her way. "At least you're not a vengeful owner," he commented as she gave Canis a final pat on the head and walked back toward Bobby.

"Yeah, well, he keeps me warm at night," she said with a shrug, bending to pick up her coffee and roll.

Bobby blinked and tore his thoughts away from the images that comment brought to his mind. "Uh, right. Guess you have to be nice to him, then."

Straightening up, she gave him a knowing look. "Yeah, guess I do. Now, let's get moving."

She pulled him to a stop on the sidewalk outside her building as he started toward where he had parked his car. "Hold on. I have to get a paper."

"Eames, we can do that at -"

"No, you know I always buy it from the guy on the corner. Come on, it'll take five seconds." Without waiting for him to agree, she turned and headed for her usual news stand.

"Hey, Detective," the owner said as he watched her approach. "Not in a hurry this morning?"

She grinned, reveling in the luxury of being able to actually look at the paper before she bought it. "Nope. Got a ride today." It was only then she realized that she'd left her partner behind on the sidewalk, and she checked over her shoulder to make sure he had followed her.

"A ride, eh?" the man said, looking over her shoulder and spotting Bobby where he lounged against the building behind her. "Morning, Detective Goren!" he called, waving. Then, turning back to Alex, he crossed his arms and said, "When are you going to put that poor boy out of his misery and go on a date with him?"

Alex could only stare at him for a second. "You mean besides 'when he stops being my partner'? How about 'when he actually bothers to ask me on a date'?" she suggested, grabbing a paper and folding it into her bag.

"Oh, that's silly," he replied, waving a dismissive hand at her. "You have to go after what you want in life, honey."

Alex rolled her eyes and dropped fifty cents into his hand. "I'm getting out of here before you start picking china patterns for the wedding. See you tonight."

"Feh," he muttered after her. Then, raising his voice, he called, "Hey, Detective Goren!"

Bobby turned away from his partner and looked curiously at the other man. "Yes?"

"You take good care of my little girl here, you got it?"

Alex groaned, knowing that the old man meant well, but embarrassed by his comments nonetheless. "Uh yeah, sure he will," she managed to say without growling. "We've got to get going now. Come on, Goren." Grabbing his arm, she started to lead him back toward his car.

"Hey!" a voice called hesitantly from the other direction a few seconds later. "Hey, uh, Miss! You!"

Alex stopped walking and turned to see her still-nameless newspaper buddy from the subway approaching at an awkward run. "Uh, hi," she managed, surprised by his appearance but pleased to keep the morning ritual going.

He stopped a few feet away from her and smiled apologetically. "Sorry for flagging you down. I just saw you going the other way and . . . you're not train-ing it this morning?"

"Nope." She gestured to Bobby, who was watching the other man more carefully than he had watched the owner of the news stand. "Getting a ride from a friend."

The man grinned. "We should all be so lucky as to have 'friends' like that! But hey - anything good in there?" he asked, nodding toward the paper sticking out of her bag.

She grinned. "Same old, same old. More corrupt politicians in Jersey, more dead soldiers in Iraq, Ariel Sharon's still sick . . ."

"Uh, Eames," Bobby said from behind her. "We've got to get moving. It's late . . ."

She checked her watch. "Oops, you're right. Gotta go," she told the newspaper man. "Nice seeing you!"

Bobby put a hand in the small of her back and urged her back toward his car. "Who was that?"

"I have no idea," she answered with complete honesty. Noticing his confused look at that, she grinned. "I don't know his name. We take the same train from the same stop almost every morning, and he asks me what's in the news every single time."

"I -" He broke off and tipped his head back to look up at the sky. "Did you feel that?"

"What?" she asked, trying to fold her paper so she could read as they walked.

"I thought I felt a drop of . . ."

The heavens opened up and rain began to pound down.

". . . rain," he finished glumly. "Guess I was right."

Alex yelped and tried to use her paper to shield her hair, then realized that she was more interested in reading the paper than having her hair look good. She stuffed the paper into her bag, instead, and turned to her partner. "Please tell me you parked close."

With a grimace, he gestured down the street. "A couple blocks, sorry. But," he added, face brightening, "I do have an umbrella."

"On you? Right now?"

"Yeah." He pulled the compact umbrella from the pocket of his coat and opened it, crowding himself under one half of the space it covered so she could have the rest. "How's this?"

She moved under the umbrella and just looked at him for a second. "Now I don't have any excuse . . . I have to do it."

"Do what?"

She answered by throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him. "You, Bobby Goren, are quite possibly the best partner ever," she told him, her voice muffled by his coat.

He opened his mouth to protest that superlative, then closed it again, knowing she was exaggerating. "Let's go," he said instead, starting to walk and knowing she'd rush to catch up with the umbrella, if not him.

"My god," she exclaimed breathlessly when they reached his car a few minutes later, "I have never been so glad to see an automobile in my life."

"Hey," he said as he opened her door for her and then moved around to the other side of the car, "I'm not that bad to share an umbrella with, am I?"

"You know you're not." Before closing the door, she leaned out of it slightly and wrung out her hair. When she straightened back up, he was watching her.

"I don't think that's a recommended method of hair styling," he teased, reaching out to push a piece of wet hair away from her face.

She blinked, surprised at the contact, but didn't pull away as she said, "It was my hair or the newspaper. The paper won."

"That's ok," he said with a lighthearted shrug as he started the car. "You don't look so bad wet, anyway."

She raised her eyebrows and gave him a pointed once-over. "Thanks. Sorry I can't say the same for you, but your hair looks like you just got out of a wind tunnel."

They bickered good-naturedly over which features of whose body looked better for most of the ride downtown, and by the time they reached a truce by declaring that Bobby had more presence when wet, but Alex had better hair, they were pulling into the underground parking garage that served One PP.

"Give me the umbrella," Alex said as she got out of the car.

He started to hand it to her, then stopped and looked at her curiously. "Why do you need the umbrella? We're already out of the rain."

"Gotta go say hi to Sam," she told him, gesturing vaguely toward the street.

"Your brother? In the rain?"

"Yes," she said, glaring at him. "You've seen me do it before."

"I know, but I always wonder. I mean, don't you get to see enough of him otherwise?"

She rolled her eyes and opened the umbrella. "I'll meet you upstairs."

"Oh no, you don't." He took a large step to catch up with her and crouched slightly to fit his body under the umbrella. "I want to see what's so important about this."

"It's just . . . it's like a ritual, ok?" she said, raising the umbrella so he could stand up straight. "A good luck thing. Be glad I don't get my luck from refusing to change my underwear, like some baseball players."

Unbidden, an image of his partner's underwear rose in Bobby's mind. Absently allowing her to lead him across the street, he wondered whether she preferred silk or cotton. Maybe he could . . .

Her voice interrupted his thoughts. "Bobby?"

"Huh?" he managed, willing away the mental images and trying to focus on what was going on around him.

"You're the one who wanted to come out here with me," she said, crossing her arms, which caused her to lower the umbrella a few inches and clip him on the head. "Oops, sorry."

"Oh great," another voice said. "What a time to find out I have an abusive sister. She almost took your ear off there, Goren."

"Shut up," Alex commanded huffily, turning to face her brother. "I come over to say good morning and you're going to just make fun of me?"

"Good morning," he said solemnly. "Now go get your ass out of the rain."

She stuck out her tongue. "Did I mention that that poncho still looks terrible on you?"

"Can't you control her?" Sam asked Goren with exaggerated gravity. "Every time she runs over here in the rain, she gets sick the next day. I suggest you make her move if you don't want her sneezing on you for the next week."

"Sam!" Alex protested as Bobby obediently took her arm and pulled. "You brat!"

"Now, is that the kind of language a detective should use?" Bobby teased, giving her arm another tug

"Bite me."

Instead of biting her, he wrapped an arm around her waist and hauled her, still holding the umbrella, a few inches off the ground, tuning out her protests and threats as he toted her across the street.

"You do that again," she said, dusting herself off when he put her down in front of the building, "and you'll be lucky if I let you go home with your balls."

"Sorry," he replied, not able to totally conceal a smirk at her indignation..

"You better be," she muttered. "Can we go inside now, or did you want to go for a fireman's carry next?"

Chuckling, he took the umbrella from her hand and closed it. "Go in. I'm right behind you."

She spent the entire eleven-floor ride leaning against the wall of the elevator and glaring at him.

"What?" he said defensively. "You telling me you want to catch a cold?"

"You're supposed to listen to me, your partner, not my little brother, Goren," she snapped as they stepped out onto their floor.

"Well maybe if you'd take better care of yourself, you'd -"

"You guys are late."

Both detectives stopped mid-step at the sight of their captain blocking the entrance into the squad room. "Yeah, sorry," Alex said shortly, more interested in arguing with her partner than listening to her boss.

Deakins, not appeased, didn't move out of their way. "One of you want to tell me why it's nine o'clock and you're only just now strolling in?"

"Bobby parked too far away from my apartment," Alex informed him.

"Got caught in a rainstorm," Bobby said at the same time, speaking over her.

Deakins blinked. "Uh, right. Like I believe either of those . . . I don't know why I even ask. Anyway, you've got a nice backlog of calls waiting for you, so I suggest you stop bickering and start moving.

"Oh, of course, we'll get right on that," she replied with exaggerated enthusiasm.

Deakins sighed. "Just try to get something done before you get called out, okay?"

"Sure." With that, Bobby took hold of her hand and not-so-gently towed her along behind him as he walked deeper into the room, leaving Deakins behind.

"Let go." She pried his fingers, one by one, off her hand, then looked up and found him watching her with amusement.

"You could have just asked."

"I did. You didn't move fast enough."

He sighed and headed for his desk.

There was comfortable silence between them for most of the morning as they passed paperwork back and forth. When he got up for a coffee break, Alex snuck a thick booklet of forms into the bottom of his pile; an hour later, when she wasn't looking, he slipped it back into hers, along with another booklet from his own pile.

"Lunch?" he asked a few hours later when his watch informed him that it was noon.

She looked up, squinting as she tried to focus on something other than the tiny print on the forms. "What?"

"Lunch, Eames. The meal that falls between breakfast and dinner."

"Ohhhh," she said, pretending it had just dawned on her. "Lunch. Yeah sure."

"Good." He stood up and reached for his coat, then paused when he noticed that she wasn't moving. "Something wrong?"

She pressed her lips together to hide a smile. "You might want to take stock of your paperwork pile first," she told him, gesturing to the stack of papers where she'd recently inserted her original booklet, his answering booklet, and a second booklet from her pile without him noticing.

"You little sneak!" he growled, flipping through the stack until he came to the new additions. "You realize this is going to grow exponentially. By the end of the day, we'll be passing the entire contents of both stacks back and forth."

"That," she said with a grin as she pulled her coat off the back of her chair and stood up, "is when we distract Deakins long enough to slip our stuff into his pile of paperwork. Now, let's get some lunch."

"Hiya!" Joe exclaimed when they walked into his deli ten minutes later. "Two of you at once? To what do I owe this honor?"

"Too much paperwork, not enough caffeine," Alex replied. "And your coffee's a hell of a lot better than the swill we brew in the office."

"I'll stick that in my ads. 'Joe's Deli: We serve better coffee than the NYPD,'" he said, pronouncing it like it was a headline. "You guys want the same as usual?"

"Depends," Alex said, smiling. "Am I going to get another lecture about how I'm putting myself in for a heart attack?"

"Hey, I get concerned." Joe threw up his hands helplessly. "My Aunt Edna, she didn't worry, and then one day, boom, she had to have a triple bypass!"

"Don't worry," Bobby told him with only a hint of a smile. "She's so busy chasing after me that she doesn't have time for a heart attack."

"You know," Joe said, cocking his head to the side and studying Bobby's face, "I think that's almost exactly what she used to tell me before you came along."

"But not now?" Bobby extrapolated, looking from Joe to Alex curiously. "Why's that?"

"Don't look at me," Alex said with a shrug. "I have no idea what he's talking about."

"Hah!" Joe crowed. "You know exactly what I'm going to say, Detective Eames; you just don't want to admit it."

"She doesn't want to admit what?" Bobby managed, sounding confused now.

"That you," Joe said with a grin, slapping down his wrapped sandwich on the counter with perfect timing, "reduce her stress level."

"Huh?" the two detectives said in unison.

He rolled his eyes and went to work on Alex's sandwich. "You've been coming here how long, Detective Eames?"

She blinked. "I don't know. Since I've been in Major Case . . . five, six years?"

"Exactly. And how long has your partner, here, been with you?"

"He came in about a year after I did. Get to the point, Joe. I'm hungry!"

Joe grinned and cut her sandwich in half, then waved his knife at her as he made his point. "You consumed more coffee in that first year alone than in all the rest of the years combined. That is how I can tell, Detective."

Alex groaned. "You've obviously got too much free time on your hands, my friend. Go call your Aunt Edna," she teased, gesturing to the phone behind the counter. "The Amazing Stress-Relieving Goren and I are running late. How much do we owe you?"

"Ah," he said, waving his hand dismissively, "it's on the house. In honor of your partnership and the business you guys've given me over the years."

"Uh, well, thank you," she said, surprised.

"Shoo," Joe told them affectionately as he waved them toward the tables. "Enjoy your lunch."

The sandwiches were, as usual, bigger than either of them could finish, and so they each walked back into the squad room an hour later carrying a paper bag and a cup of coffee.

"Bring any back for me?" Deakins called as they passed his office.

"Our hands were full," Alex informed him, holding up her bag and cup to prove it. "But I'm sure no one will miss you if you run out to get yourself some."

Deakins just smiled and shook his head. "One of these days, Eames . . . one of these days I'm going to get you to stop talking back to me."

"But what fun would I be then?" she said easily. "Besides, if I stop talking back to you, Goren's going to want me to stop talking back to him, and well . . . that would make crime scenes a lot less fun for all of us."

He thought about that. "Ok, you have a point. I'd rather deal with a smartass Eames than a bored Goren."

"Of course you would." And that was that; giving him a sunny smile, she moved on toward her desk.

"I still don't know how he lets you get away with that," Bobby whispered to her as they sat down and started shuffling through their paperwork again.

She shrugged. "Guess I'm just that good. Well, that and I'm a lot better-behaved than I used to be."

" 'Used to be'? Like when?"

She thought about that for a second. "Before you showed up. He used to get all the sarcasm I use on you now. It probably wasn't a pretty sight."

He took a moment to absorb that, then cocked his head to the side and looked at her with interest. "So not only does my being here lower your stress level, but it also improves your temper?" He grinned. "Never realized I was so important in your life, Eames."

"You have no idea," she muttered, not liking the direction this conversation was taking.

"I don't?"

She deliberately looked away from him and focused on the form in front of her. "No, you don't. Now get to work."

"If you say so." He continued to look at her for a few more seconds, waiting for her to look up at him, but when she didn't, he finally sighed and did as ordered.

"I've got a papercut," he announced later in the afternoon.

Alex looked up at him and teased, "Poor baby."

"Well, I do. Look," he ordered, thrusting his hand in front of her face.

"Ok," she admitted, taking his hand and examining the small cut, "so you have a papercut. What do you want me to do about it? And don't even think of asking me to kiss it."

"Hmph." He pulled his hand out of her grasp. "In that case, I'll deal with it myself."

"You do that," she said disinterestedly.

They both went back to their paperwork, but soon enough, Bobby looked up again. "Eames?"

"What?" she asked absently, filling in a form as she talked.

"It's almost six o'clock."

"It's . . . what?" she repeated incredulously, looking at her watch. "When the hell did that happen?"

"Do you want an answer other than 'In the six hours that have passed since noon'?"

She scowled at him. "Aren't you too tired to think? I sure as hell am."

"No, not really. If you're too tired to think, why haven't you gone home?"

She shrugged. "I was waiting for you. It's habit."

"Well," he said, flipping his portfolio closed and dropping one last form on top of his pile, "in that case, I'm done. So let's go."

Alex gave him a skeptical look. "You actually want to leave work?"

"Sure, why not? And doesn't your brother get off duty soon, too?"

"Good point." She promptly dropped her pen and stood up. "Let's go."

"Worried that you might curse yourself if you miss him?" Bobby asked jokingly as he followed her into the elevator.

"Maybe," she said defensively. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing at all," he said placatingly. "Well, except . . . why do you think saying hello and goodbye to your brother brings you good luck? Seems like an odd charm."

She looked at him sharply for a moment, then sighed. "You really want to know? It sounds dumb."

More interested now, he casually crossed his arms leaned back against the wall in an interrogative pose. "Yes, I really want to know."

"It's dumb," she warned again, "but if you promise not to laugh, I'll tell you."

He nodded his agreement and looked at her expectantly.

"It's just . . . I happened to run into him one morning and then again that same night, and the next day . . . you appeared."

"Me?"

She nodded tightly. "Yes. And that was a good thing. So now I always do it, to keep the good luck going."

They stepped out of the elevator then, and he pulled her to a stop a few feet away from the building doors. Momentarily setting aside his fascination with her theories about luck and opting instead to focus on logistics, he said, "It's still raining. Let me go out and get the umbrella open."

"I'm not going to melt, Bobby."

"I know. I . . . just don't want you getting sick. That would be bad luck for me."

Alex shrugged. "Sure, ok. But if you try to carry me across the street again, I'm going to do some serious damage to you."

He grinned boyishly as he ducked out the door and opened the umbrella, then motioned her to come out. "You don't want a lift even if there's puddles?"

"No." Smiling reluctantly, she glared at him. "Stop being funny; it's not fair."

"Sorry." He kept his peace as they crossed the street to where Sam stood with his partner, pointedly not commenting when she didn't look where she was going and stepped right into a puddle.

"You're allowed to warn me, you know," she said, giving his shoulder a push and trying to shake some of the water off her now-soaked shoe.

"Is it something about me that brings out the urge to hit your partner, sis?" Sam asked as they stepped up on the curb. "Last thing you do on the way into work, first thing you do on the way out of work . . ."

Sam's partner, who had been watching with mild disinterest, suddenly perked up. "This is your sister, Eames? The single one?"

Alex sighed. Sam rolled his eyes. Goren glared at the new addition to the conversation.

"Keep your mitts off her, Smith," Sam ordered, scowling. "She doesn'tcount as single when it comes to you."

"Stop being overprotective, Sam," Alex interrupted, moving to stand in front of her brother. "I can take care of myself and you know it."

"Oh sure," Sam agreed easily. "We know you can. We just like to participate, too."

"Who's 'we'?" Alex asked suspiciously.

Sam looked over her shoulder at Goren, then looked back at her. "You checked out your partner lately?"

"Huh?" She turned to see what Sam had been pointing out. Bobby stood a few feet to her right looking very much like a bouncer itching to get rid of a troublesome party-goer. His arms were crossed and he was stone-faced as he closely watched Smith. "Oh, for god's sake, that's enough from both of you!" she grumbled. "Bobby, come on." Not giving him time to react, she pulled on his arm the same way he had done to her earlier, forcing him to follow her.

Goren followed her without argument, and as they walked away, Sam shouted after them, "If you go and get yourself sick, I'm going to laugh, Alex!"

She just rolled her eyes and kept walking until they got to the car. "I hate rainy days. I'm not even wet and I feel like I need a warm bath. Oh," she added quickly, "and if you repeat that to Sam, you're dead."

"What . . . uh, what were you planning on doing for dinner tonight?" he asked tentatively after they were both settled in the car.

"Dinner?" She furrowed her brows. "I have no idea. Probably split take-out with the dog or something."

He took his eyes off the road long enough to look at her. "One day, I'm going to figure out how you and your dog manage to stay in such good shape, given the crap you eat."

She huffed and slumped down a little in her seat. "I only listen to only one lecture on my diet a day, and today's got done at lunch."

"Sorry." He returned his attention to his driving.

"Why do you ask?" Alex asked a few seconds later as she considered his statement. "Got a better idea than take-out?"

"Well . . ." He cleared his throat. "You're exhausted and you said you wanted to take a bath . . ."

"Two for two, but what does that have to do with dinner?"

"Well I thought I could, uh . . ." He paused, regrouped, and tried again: "You should get some real food into you. Stuff without MSG and gallons of peanut oil."

"And?" she prompted when he stopped there as if he'd answered her question.

"Well, I'm a competent cook, and I just thought . . . you know, you could take your bath and relax and have someone else make dinner for you while you do it."

She stared at him for a second. "You're offering to come over and cook me dinner while I laze around and take a bath?"

"Pretty much." He glanced quickly at her, trying to gauge her reaction, then looked away again. "I mean, it's just a suggestion, and if you -"

"Are you nuts?" she interrupted. "There's no way in hell I'm turning down an offer like that. If you're serious, I'm all for it. I'll return the favor some other day."

"Oh." Well, that had been much easier than his nervousness had suggested it would be. "Great. So, uh, what do you want me to make?"

"I have no idea," she said as he began to parallel park in, amazingly, a spot almost directly in front of her building. "Hey, let me out and I'll go grab my paper while you park."

He looked at her curiously for a second, but stopped the car's movement and waited for her to climb out.

"Detective," the news stand's owner said, giving her a nod as she approached. "You look tired."

"I am, and what's annoying is that I didn't do anything that should make me tired!"

"What about that partner of yours?" he asked as she flipped through the paper. "He must take some energy to wrangle."

"Well yeah, but apparently he's got hidden talents when it comes to relaxing," she said in a conspiratorial voice, hoping Bobby didn't stroll up behind her as she was talking about him.

The man's eyes widened. "Does that mean you finally took my advice and agreed to a date with him?"

"What?' she managed, only then realizing that her previous statement had suggested something other than cooking as his talent. "No, no. He . . . no."

"Ah," the old man said, watching her closely. "So that's a 'no,' then?"

"He doesn't -"

"It doesn't do much good to let you out of the car early if you're still here when I finish parking," Bobby informed her as he crossed the sidewalk to the news stand.

She glared at the old man for a fleeting second, then cleared her face and turned to Bobby. "Sorry. I was telling him about how you offered to cook for me tonight."

"Cook?" the owner echoed blankly.

"Yes, cook," Alex said. "As in, on the stove, using pots and pans."

Bobby spared the other man a glance, then looked back at his partner. "Uh, I need to see your kitchen and what you have in it. So I can figure out what to make, I mean. So maybe we should go upstairs and get started . . .?"

The old man clapped his hands and cackled in amusement. "I agree with him, Detective Eames. You should 'go upstairs and get started'."

"You," she shot back, pointing at him, "keep out of this."

"Who, me? I'm just an old fart who runs a news stand; what harm could I possibly do?"

She pursed her lips, sensing that he was going to keep pushing her, if only for his own amusement, and snatched up a paper. "Here," she said shortly, dropping her money in his hand. "See you in the morning."

"Sure." He waited until the two detectives had almost reached the door of Alex's building, then called after them, "She's got a sweet tooth, Detective Goren. Play it up!" He let out a breath of satisfaction at hearing the female half of the partnership let out a moan of embarrassment. "There," he told his empty news stand with a triumphant grin on his face, "that should keep them thinking about each other until at least tomorrow morning."

"I don't think I have much in my pantry," Alex told Bobby as they reached her floor of the building. "So this might not end up working out."

Bobby shook his head dismissively. "I have a key to your door. If I need to, I'll go grocery shopping while you're busy."

"No way," she said, shaking her head firmly as she unlocked her door. "You cooking is more than enough, I'm not going to send you out shopping, too."

"Don't worry about it, Eames," he replied, more focused on the kitchen than on her as they entered the apartment. "Your goal is to relax tonight, remember? Not to, uh . . . worry about me."

"Bobby . . ." she said, looking troubled.

He just shook his head, refusing to listen to her protests, as he gave her a gentle push toward her bedroom. "Go take your bath. I'll be here when you come out, and so will your dinner."

Alex sighed, knowing from the look on his face that he was going to be stubborn if she tried to argue further. "Fine, I'm going. But I'm serious, Bobby - I'm going to do this for you one -" She stopped talking as she realized that he had turned away and was walking toward the kitchen as if he hadn't heard anything at all.

With a grudging smile at his persistence, she headed for her bedroom to gather what she needed for her bath.

Bobby was leaning over the sink, carefully straining a pot of pasta, when she walked back into the room an hour later. "Smells good," she remarked quietly, trying to avoid startling him.

He fumbled the pot, but managed to keep his grip on it. "Uh, hi. Dinner is . . ." He stopped there to stare in confusion at his partner, who stood in the doorway of the room wearing a fuzzy blue bathrobe and matching slippers. "Dinner is, uh, almost ready," he managed to finish after a second.

"Sorry for the outfit," she said, plucking at one side of the robe, as she moved towards him. "I just didn't feel like getting all the way dressed again."

"That's . . . fine." He abruptly turned around and headed back to the stove to turn off the burner under the tomato sauce that had been heating.

"Obviously it's not fine. It's ok, Bobby," she said, noticing his discomfiture. "I'll go put on some jeans or something." She started to turn toward the doorway.

"No!"

Alex stopped and looked at him curiously. " 'No'?"

"I mean, uh . . ." He looked back down at the sauce. "It's your apartment, and if that's what's comfortable for you, then . . ." He shrugged.

They stood like that, her staring at his back and him staring into the pot, for a few seconds until Canis wandered into the room and, as he was wont to do, broke the tension. With a happy whine, he trotted over to Alex and began to chew on the hem of her robe, which was already torn up from previous chewings.

"Mutt," Alex murmured, stroking a hand down his back as he busily destroyed her clothing.

Bobby turned around and looked at the tableau in front of him - Woman, Dog, and Robe in Kitchen - and chuckled. "You let him get away with everything, don't you?"

She looked up at him. "Of course I don't. I deal with him the same way I deal with you - let you do your thing most of the time, keep you in line when you need it, and accept your non-dangerous bad habits as just part of your personality." She grinned, seeing that he was trying to decide if he'd just been insulted. "Works like a charm on both of you, too."

He continued to look at her warily. "You consider me on the same level as your dog?"

She thought about that. "Well, it's a very high level. And you have to admit, there's a lot of similarities. You both spent your younger years in horrible places, you're both smart, you're both stubborn as mules, and you both . . ." She stopped abruptly there. "And I care about both of you."

He poured the pasta into a serving bowl, then added the sauce, trying to hold back the question that was on the tip of his tongue.

"Bobby?"

"What were you going to say before you changed it to 'caring about us'?" Well, so much for willpower. Not that he generally had much around her, anyway, now that he thought about it.

Alex quickly looked away, crouching down so she was at eye-level with the dog rather than her partner. "Nothing. I just got tripped up on the words. Hey, Can! You miss me today?"

"Where are your plates?" he asked, temporarily distracted from the question as he looked for the needed plates and utensils.

"Don't bother."

"Excuse me?" he said, looking down at the top of her head in confusion. "We need plates to have dinner, Eames."

"That's way more dishes than I want to wash tonight. I'm fine with both of us eating out of the serving bowl if you are."

That wasn't how he'd pictured his gesture of unspoken affection playing out. "But I . . ."

"That way, we can eat in the other room," she said, playing her trump card, "and I'm always more relaxed when I eat there."

"Well . . ."

"Come on," she said, lacking the patience to wait for him to decide for himself. Giving him a grin, she picked up the bowl and headed out of the room, grabbing two forks from a drawer on the way out. A few seconds later, realizing he'd been left behind, Bobby followed her.

"See?" Alex said as they settled down side-by-side on her couch. "Isn't this more comfortable than eating at the kitchen table in those hard chairs?"

Bobby took stock of his position. He was seated on the far left of her couch with her pressed up against him as her dog's body encroached into the sitting area that should have been hers on her other side. "Uh, it's . . . yeah, it's comfortable. Eat," he ordered, handing her the bowl of pasta and digging in with his own fork.

"I'm eating," she replied, holding up her fork, which had a bundle of spaghetti twirled around it. "See?" Truthfully, though, she was tempted to abandon eating entirely in favor of nestling against her partner's side and going to sleep right then and there. "It's pretty good."

"Thank you." Almost without his realizing it, his right arm crept across the back of the couch until it was above her shoulders. Catching himself just in time, he forced his arm to stay on the couch and not slide down to her shoulders. "It's not too impressive a meal, but it's the best I could do with what you had."

"Well, I suppose it's healthier than mu-shu pork and an eggroll," she murmured. "Bobby?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you comfortable? With your arm like that, I mean?"

He snatched his hand back. "Uh, no. Sorry, I was just stretching, and . . ."

"Stretching?" she repeated teasingly. "Didn't you outgrow that excuse in eighth grade with the rest of the boys?" When he didn't reply, she realized that she had embarrassed him, and mentally chastised herself for being so tactless. "Sorry. I didn't mean to . . . make a joke out of it. What I was going to say was that it's probably uncomfortable to balance your arm like that and you might as well let it touch me if it's more comfortable."

Comfortable? echoed a voice in her head mockingly. Your excuse is that it's comfortable? Some damn seductress you are!

Seductress? What the hell? She wasn't trying to seduce him, she silently informed the voice. He was her partner, not her boyfriend.

You sure about that? What were you going to tell him, Alex, before you chickened out and said you "cared" instead? the voice went on smugly. It was that he and the dog are the two beings you love most in the world, wasn't it, and yet you're still trying to pretend you don't feel anything? Hah!

"Alex?" Bobby said, noticing the faraway look in her eyes.

"Huh?" She blinked, not even noticing his use of her first name as she tried to clear the voice out of her mind. "Sorry. Were you saying something?"

He nodded. "I was saying that I . . . uh, it is kind of more comfortable to have my arm stretched out rather than stuck between us, but . . ."

"Good," she said, trying to sound businesslike as she grabbed his arm and laid it across her shoulders. "I'm leaning on you; it's only fair that you get to lean on me."

Reminded of that fact, he looked down at where their bodies touched and decided that she was, indeed, leaning on him. She was sitting on the couch with her legs curled under her, her head resting just below his shoulder and one of her legs overhanging his thigh. Her left hand, currently not in use, rested on her left leg, but the tips of her fingers occasionally brushed against his thigh. High up on his thigh, in fact.

Ok, looking had been a bad idea. Time for a subject change. "Eames?"

"Mmm?" she mumbled around a mouthful of spaghetti she had just started chewing.

"Would you please," he said, trying to make it sound like it was just a matter of curiosity, "tell me what the dog and I have in common that you wouldn't let yourself say?"

Alex stiffened against him and tried to pull away, but found herself held in place by the arm she'd encouraged him to put around her only seconds ago. "There's isn't anything. I told you that. Would you just - ack!" She jumped, startled, as one of Canis's paws scraped up her leg. The dog looked up at her, obviously waiting for her to move out of his way so he could continue his stretch. She glared back at him. "My couch, mutt, remember?"

"Pardon?" Bobby said blankly.

"Not you. The dog. He's trying to take over my last few inches of couch space."

"That's what comes of spoiling your dog," he reminded her with a grin.

"I spoil you, too, and I don't see you climbing all over me." Her eyes widened as she realized what she'd said and she immediately began trying to do damage control. "Uh, that is, you're not trying to hog the couch, and it's -"

One of his hands covered her mouth, abruptly cutting off her explanation. "If I climbed all over you the way the dog is doing," he told her, purposely making light of the situation, "I'd crush you. On the other hand . . ." Oh no, he wasn't going to say that. He couldn't believe he'd even started to say it.

Given that introduction to the sentence, it wasn't hard for Alex to guess what he'd been about to say: "On the other hand . . . me climbing all over you would be perfectly safe?" she supplied. "Looks like there's two of us who can't keep our yaps shut tonight. You sure you didn't spike the spaghetti?"

That got a reluctant laugh out of him. "Not unless the sauce was spiked at whatever factory it came out of."

"You wouldn't mind me climbing all over you?" she blurted, completely against her better judgment.

"I . . . what?" He stared at her."Was that a real question?"

Not trusting her voice, she just nodded.

He swallowed and decided to play off his answer as if it were a joke. "Well, you're too light to hurt me, as long as you watch where you put your knees . . . And you know," he added, playfully touching the tip of her nose with one finger, "the idea of you hanging off my neck like a monkey . . . well, it's endearing."

"Me monkey, you tree?" she joked. "Well I don't know about - ow!" She broke off again, this time to glare at the dog, who'd started trying to muscle his way onto her cushion again. Well, now what the hell was she supposed to do? She didn't want to get up - definitely didn't want to get up - but it was beginning to look like the dog would keep being a pain in the ass until she did. It occurred to her that this would be a good excuse to test Bobby's theory of her climbing on him, but she set that aside, knowing it would never be a good enough excuse. Sighing, she looked back at her partner.

He was watching her with a slight smile. "He's insistent, huh?"

"You can say that again," she said, glowering at the dog, who seemed oblivious to her frustration.

"Do you want to get up and leave the couch to him?"

"No, not really," she sighed. "But I guess we might have to."

"Well, or you could, uh . . ." He stopped and pulled at his tie nervously. "You could, uh, move over toward me a little more."

"If I did that, I'd be sitting on top of you," she replied, not sure whether that was what he was suggesting.

"Well . . ." He smiled slightly and shrugged. "I wouldn't really, uh . . . I wouldn't necessarily mind."

"Bobby," she said carefully, watching his face, "are you suggesting I sit on your lap?"

"Well I just . . . you didn't want to get up, and . . . I, uh . . ."

She waited for him to run out of stammered words, then smiled. "Because if you are, I just have to warn you that I've been told I have a bony butt."

"I think I can handle that," he told her, amazed that she was even considering it.

"Ok, then." With that, she shifted her weight onto the leg that had been resting on him and slid the rest of her body onto his.

They both stiffened for a long second, then she shifted again so she was sitting almost sideways and could lean against his chest. Reflexively, one of his arms came up to cradle her head and he rested the other across her thighs.

Again, they both went still, trying to adjust to this new situation. "This is nice," Alex finally managed to say hesitantly.

"Yeah." He was too busy trying to figure where he could and couldn't put his hands to bother with complete sentences.

"Are you comfortable?" she tried again, unsettled by his sudden reticence. "If you're not, I can move and -"

"I'm comfortable. Are you?"

"Yeah, I am." She smiled slightly. "This really is nice. It's been a long time since I've been able to . . . you know . . . sit with somebody like this."

He considered that for a moment, then responded by hooking his hand around her legs and pulling her a little closer. "I'm always happy to help."

She giggled, but her face quickly became somber as something occurred to her.

"What's wrong?" Bobby asked, not missing her change of expression.

"I just . . ." She turned her face into his neck as if trying to hide and shook her head. "Sometimes I can't believe you brought so much goodness with you when you came."

"Goodness? What goodness?" he asked skeptically, wondering if he was about to get a talk about what a good person he was and why she wasn't going to ruin that by trying anything that resembled a relationship.

"Well I . . ." She sighed. "This sounds so dumb!"

"Tell me anyway," he urged quietly.

Reluctantly, she raised her head and began to speak:

"The day before you came, the day before I met you . . . I remember it. It's like that day is locked in my brain as a museum exhibit, so I can use it as a reference. It rained that day, too, but I didn't have an umbrella, since I'd overslept and forgotten to check the weather. No Bobby to bring me breakfast because he just knew I'd be late. No Bobby to magically produce an umbrella when I needed one.

"I got to work late and Deakins told me I better not be late the day you came. He had to kick me out at the end of the day, because there was no Bobby to remind me to go back to reality. Joe at the deli gave me the heart attack lecture and told me I had too much stress in my life, Sam told me I looked like shit, and the lady next to me on the train home gave me a scarf to cover my hair because I was so drenched from the rain. The owner of the news stand told me I shouldn't hurry so much.

"I came home and realized I had no food in the house except for dog food, but I felt like such crap that I didn't want to go shopping, so I got Chinese for dinner. Definitely no Bobby to offer to cook dinner, just out of the goodness of his heart. Then, when I had the food and me and Canis were sharing the couch, I decided that I had no social life and I needed to meet new people. Thinking about new people made me think of the new partner I was getting.

"People had told me all these bad things about you, how you insisted on being in charge of everything, and I started thinking, 'You know, people have probably told him stuff that's equally bad about me.' Then I was thinking of all my weaknesses and within a few minutes, I had totally lost my appetite. So I threw out my dinner and went to bed, but I couldn't get to sleep because I felt so . . . I don't know . . . pathetic. And then, you know, the next day . . . you."

Finishing her story, she looked at him to gauge his reaction.

"It sounds like today," he said slowly, "but the inverse of today."

"Exactly." She returned her head to his shoulder, speaking mostly into his chest as she went on, "That's what it is. This whole day . . . everything was like a replay of that other day, but corrected."

"And you think that's because of me? You're not giving yourself enough credit."

"It is because of you," she insisted. "Like Joe said, you just . . . make me feel better."

"Well, I'm glad I can, but I don't think -" he began.

"The night before that day, too," she added, looking up as the memory jumped to the forefront of her mind, "I spent most of the night sitting there, alone, with Canis, and thinking that I didn't have anybody. My dog loved me, but I wanted a human who I could hug and . . . care about. And I remember wondering if there was even anyone in the whole city who could do that for me." She sighed heavily, remembering how dark it had been that night.

"And afterwards . . . was there?" he asked tentatively, not sure he wanted to know the answer.

She smiled slightly. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure there was. It just took me a while to come across him."

He moved his hand from her head down to her shoulder, making the touch a little less personal, as he tried to hide his disappointment. "Why aren't you with him on a night like this, then?"

Alex was silent, trying to steady herself, as she prepared to answer his question. Then quietly enough that he almost missed it, she said, "I am."

"You . . . what?" His hand tightened on her leg as shock and disbelief ran through him.

"Ow!" she yelped. "Bobby, that hurts."

"What?" He looked down at his hand, which she was now trying to pry off her leg, and jerked it away. "I'm sorry. I didn't . . . did I hurt you?"

"No, I'm fine," she said with a shake of her head. "I guess you got a little bit of a shock from what I said, huh?"

He nodded dumbly, then narrowed his eyes. "You said . . . you said you are with him, right? I didn't hear you wrong?"

"That's what I said," she said, trying not to look at him even as she cuddled closer to him, slipping her arms around his back and dropping her head back onto his shoulder. This time her lips brushed his neck, and she saw his jaw tighten.

"You were talking about me?"

"You're the only one here with me," she said, nodding against him. "So yes, Bobby. I was talking about you."

His hand sank into her hair suddenly and tightened as he urged her head up so he could see her face. "So you're saying I'm . . . you're saying that you care about me?"

Unable to duck her head because of his hold on it, she squeezed her eyes closed. She was pretty sure she wasn't going to want to see his reaction to what she said next: "I'm saying . . . I'm saying I'm in love with you. That's what I almost said in the kitchen."

"That you love both me and the dog?" he asked, a hint of amusement in his voice. When she still wouldn't look at him, he sigh and said gently, "Open your eyes."

"I'm a little embarrassed right now, so I think I'll keep them closed if you don't mind," she replied, sounding almost prim.

He laughed. "Ok. We can do this with your eyes closed, if you insist."

"Do what?"

The hand that had been on her legs drifted up to her waist and he spread his fingers over her abdomen. He brought his other hand around from her hair to hold her chin. And then he kissed her.

Alex's eyes flew open and she found him staring back at her while his mouth worked magic on hers. "Bobby," she managed when he finally let her pull away for breath.

"What?" he replied, tracing her jaw with one finger.

"Why are you . . .?"

He stopped his movements and regarded her seriously for a second. "You don't even want to hear about my side of 'the day before we met.' It goes both ways, Alex. If you're happier with me, you'd better believe I'm happier with you."

"Ok . . ." She leaned into him, keeping her eyes on his as she waited for him to give her something concrete.

"The love goes both ways, too."

She stared at him for a second, then, moving quickly before she could change her mind, leaned forward and kissed him.

Half an hour later, she opened languid eyes and gave him a smile, savoring the sensation of his hand running up and down her back. "Bobby?"

"Hmm?" he answered, focused on the feel of her skin beneath his hand.

She reached around to grab the hand that was on her back and held onto it as she stood up and pulled him with her. "Let's let the dog have the couch for the rest of the night," she suggested, taking the first step toward her bedroom.

A/N: I don't know if buttered rolls are a NY metro area thing or if people eat them elsewhere, but if you couldn't guess, it's a hard sandwich roll that's, well, buttered. Quite tasty, actually.