Disclaimer - Law and Order: Criminal Intent and its characters are the property of those much luckier and richer than I; I just wanted to take them out for a spin. This is my first fic, so any and all critiques will be helpful.

And so he held her hand; he talked, he listened; he paid special attention to listening. If she was surprised at his behavior, or questioned his motives, he never saw it, but that was her way with him. She seemed to know on some deep level that he needed her unconditional acceptance, and that she gave without hesitation. Had he not seen that before? No, he admitted to himself, he had known, but perhaps only during her previous absence had he truly begun to understand how much he relied on her acceptance, on her, but he had forgotten somehow, begun to question the truth that was so hard to admit. Now that was no longer in question, not to him, not to her – I need you. And in what seemed at first strange and confusing to him, he came to realize that she needed him too. And perhaps, he thought, that was what it meant to be a partner.

They had been partners for years, the longest relationship he had ever sustained with any colleague, and, unpleasant truth be told, any woman. But things had changed now, he saw that, and felt it – in the way her father gripped his shoulder for that extra moment when he ousted him from his bedside vigil, in the way she cried with no shame when he told her – haltingly, almost apologetically despite all her protests and assurances – what had caused her torment, in the way she stroked his hand when he admitted he had never seen that his mentor was just another version of the selfish father he tried so hard to hate. Did others see it too? The tectonic shift in how they dealt with one another, their level of honesty having deepened, their connection, always strong, rising from an undercurrent to an overt and incontrovertible fact. Perhaps the biggest change was that neither of them gave a damn anymore; who was looking, questioning, wondering – they had each other, and together they were enough, and they were right. And that, he came to know, was what it meant to be a friend.

And so it came as no great surprise, and with no shame, that night when she called in need, fearful, her shoulders and wrists aching from the physical therapy she needed but despised, her psyche aching at a level far beyond her temporary pain. And now he had no hesitation, no doubt, in the rightness of holding and comforting her, enveloping her with his physical being, calming her fears with his voice; his words of praise a salve to her wounded pride. The only survivor, with all the attendant guilt, she took comfort, he knew, in his unabashed and total gratitude that she had been strong enough to come back to him. And as he felt her heart rate slow, her muscles relax, that gratitude became something else – a need to prove to him, to her, to fate, that they had survived together and become stronger. When he pushed her hair back from her face to touch, to kiss, to worship, when he saw her smile for the first time in weeks, he knew then that of course this was right, this was home. Rules be damned, this place, this moment was what was always the destination, and yet the first step of a different journey. And that, he was to tell her later, when all needs were met and all boundaries crossed, was what it meant to be a lover.

And she didn't laugh; of course she didn't, didn't feel the need to point out that perhaps 45 years was a little long to take to discover these basic truths about life, didn't fret and simper over those long-ago wounds that had made him an analyst of others who shut himself away from himself for so long. She just accepted, just loved, and just pointed out that he was wasting a perfectly good batch of pancakes and a perfectly good naked woman in order to explain his world to one who already lived there. And she didn't protest or belittle when he expressed his anguish that they had almost been too late; she simply pointed out that they hadn't been too late at all, and that things being what they were, perhaps they had been right on time. And she didn't retreat when he asked her, finally, to tell her story, the one he had heard from everyone but her, the one about the man (the boy, really) whose smiling photo stared out from the silver frame in the enter of her mantel. And she didn't move from her spot on his lap, didn't let go of his hand, as she spoke in low tones about young love, passion, and loss. And she didn't comment, and so neither did he, when some time later that photo moved from the center to the left, to be replaced by one delivered anonymously by some scene photographer who captured it on one of her first days back. And while they saw, they didn't need to discuss the image there, taken on a day before she could wear heels again; how it showed their glaring disparity in size, how it showed their glaring equality in stature. And she didn't hesitate, didn't blink, didn't do anything but smile when he placed first one, then later, another, ring on her finger. And he didn't question himself, or her, or them, ever again, no matter how dark the day was. And that, he felt, was what it meant to be a husband.

And they took care of each other, in all the ways they always had, and in new ones they continued to discover. And they fought and won together, when the matching rings they cherished threatened the matching badges that had somehow come to mean just a little bit less than before. And life was imperfect, as it had always been and would always be; they argued, demanded, bickered, and disagreed as they had always done, without fear than an imperfect life meant an unhappy one, because they were flawed together. And they rejoiced when it was called for, when she added the title of Captain to Detective and Mrs., when the little stick made a plus sign, when it was ten and ten as it should be, when big brown eyes almost, but didn't quite, overwhelm delicate features and a petite frame. And they mourned when it was called for, when weekly visits became a thing of the past, when guilt and fear reared their ugly heads, when old friends went on to new things and places, when one was as many as they were allowed. And they laughed when it was called for, when kicks to the bladder necessitated an emergency trip to a gas station bathroom straight out of a horror movie, when alone time had to be captured at a crime scene and a "witness" saw more than was prudent, when Mommy got tired of being interrogated on both sides at dinner, when Uncle Lewis missed small engine parts and discovered that Barbie's convertible had been souped up, and when they looked at one another and remembered how it used be before he held her hand.

And they laughed with gratitude and still some reverence, as their fingers intertwined again today, as they would tomorrow. And that, they knew for sure, was what it meant to be a family.