Standard disclaimer: The Law & Order universe and all characters in it are the property of Dick Wolf and NBC. They are borrowed below for purposes of creative curiosity only.
Author's Note: This is a companion piece to Inside Out. The author has no real idea exactly how this is a companion piece, but she's the author and if she says it's a companion piece, it's a companion piece, so there. Maybe a prequel, or something. Constructive criticism more than welcome, because the author's been wrestling with this story and its voices for a few days now and now it's just making her tetchy.
Wheeler thinks the other detectives are avoiding her, which strikes her as both high school and disappointing, if not particularly surprising. She is the new kid in the squad, and comes tainted by association with an unpopular new Captain who has replaced a popular old one. Conversations cut off when she walks into a room, and bodies scatter when she approaches, like herds of gazelles unnerved by the shadow of a lion. Not that she thinks she resembles a lion, necessarily, but it is comforting to think of herself so. Further down the food chain there are less flattering comparisons (cockroaches leap to mind) but whatever the inaccuracy of the metaphor, she vastly prefers the allure and mystique of the predator to the variety and tenacity of the scavenger.
Eames is reminded, however inappropriately, of a hamster in one of the clear plastic exercise balls sold at pet stores. "Otherwise, she's seems nice," she tells Logan on the heels of that thought, waiting through the man's crack of laughter. Rare as the sound is, it seems a disservice to cut it short.
"She's okay," Logan manages, biting down on amusement. His grin is cynical, even shadowed, but then, it usually is of late. "You don't think she's more like one of those racing dogs?"
"Greyhounds," Eames says.
"I could snap her in half with a bad sneeze," Logan says, shoving his hands in his pockets, and ambles away while Alex grins.
("If she's a greyhound, he's a rottweiler," she observes to Goren later, while she feeds coins into the vending machine and he hovers over her, wavering on the precipice of some intuitive leap.
"Cockapoo," he answers, not really listening at all. "It's a mix of cocker spaniel and toy poodle. You can tell from the curly coat. They're prone to ear infections. Didn't the victim's maid--?" and he hastens away before loping back again, looking like a puzzled dog -- they seem to be a theme today -- who has lost sight of his stick. "What were you saying about Logan?")
It is nearly two weeks before Wheeler realizes that it is her partner the squad is avoiding, ostracizing him with the same straightforward directness with which boys wield baseball bats. Detective Howard bumps hard into Logan's shoulder when he passes them, and there is nothing accidental about it. By then she has learned to recognize that set quality to Logan's face, but he says nothing, shepherding her into the elevator with a guiding hand warm at her back. By then she has also learned to pick and choose when to comment, though her ability to pick the correct 'when' is still somewhat lacking.
"What's his problem?" she asks, craning after the departed Howard until the elevator doors threaten to decapitate her.
Logan stares absently at the certification on the wall. "Who knows?" he says, and though the words are dismissive, the tightness of his voice is not. "Maybe he's got PMS."
She opens her mouth to say something else, but a glance at his face derails her, and she murmurs something obvious about their case instead. His look back is faintly incredulous, but his reply is civil, if guarded. It pleases her for a few seconds that she has read him well enough to show that moment's tact, until he decides to ask if she inherited all her clothes from a dead grandmother, and she is left wondering why she even bothered.
It is easy to pick out the small signs after that. Once the hypersensitivity of her own welcome is dismissed, she can see the petty malices that leave Logan out in the cold: backs turning; gazes glancing off; conversations that pointedly flag when he comes within earshot. He says nothing to acknowledge the treatment, though she is not foolish enough to think he is either oblivious or indifferent. The way he relaxes when they step out of the building is betrayal enough, even if she can't spot the signs of strain when they're in the squad room.
"I thought it was me," she tells Eames. "But they're avoiding Logan. It's not because he's my partner, is it?" It is a gamble to go to Alex, but of all the cops in the squad, she seems the most accessible -- or at least the most disinterested, a pint-sized, sardonic guru sitting on the head of the Goren mountain.
"Are they avoiding you?" Alex says, bland as milk. "I hadn't noticed."
"Both of us."
"What does Logan say?"
"What does he ever say?" Megan asks, and it is an honest question, though it comes out sounding rhetorical. "I can't tell what he's thinking. It's Deakins, isn't it? They blame him for the Captain leaving."
"Have you asked him?"
"Ask him what? 'So I notice that everyone in the squad hates you because they think you're the reason Deakins left. Thanks for that, by the way, since I wouldn't be in Major Case otherwise. I don't suppose you'd be interested in talking about your feelings?'"
Eames simply looks at her. "How do you feel about alfalfa?" she asks, and Wheeler stares at her helplessly for a moment before giving the conversation up as lost.
It is hit or miss with Logan, who is still, she realizes, undecided whether to accept her as a partner. She is inclined to be a little indignant about this (who is condescending to be a partner to whom, exactly?) and spends mornings at her desk glaring sporadically at him across their paperwork. He endures without commenting, as he endures all the other slights thrown at him by the squad. This is irritating in and of itself until she realizes he considers her one of them instead of one of us, a distinction that seems more important now than she'd expected it would be.
This restraint is not what she would have expected from Mike Logan, the cop who punched a councilman. His reputation for trouble is no fiction, and even if that single gesture has ballooned into legend, there is still an act at the core of it that was driven by a self-destructive anger. The man who sits across from her is like a ship battened down against a storm, all extraneous bits and pieces locked away and hidden from the elements. After weeks spending nearly every waking moment in his company, she begins to suspect that every word is calculated for a specific effect; every gesture, likewise. It seems almost fantastic to think he could ever be out of control.
It annoys her that he will not be the one to make overtures towards their partnership. She imagines them engaged in a cold war and hurls herself into it, battling frustration and the squad room's spite until it occurs to her that, whatever the reason for it, the isolation forced on them may actually an opportunity.
"Hey," she says to Howard, the next time he bumps into Logan. "Lay off my partner."
She is not entirely positive that Logan says, "Jesus Christ," but there is certainly nothing religious about his tone of voice. She catches only a glimpse of Howard's startled look -- "You talking to me?" he begins -- before her partner's fist closes hard around her arm and she is thrust into the elevator on a shove and a stumble.
He is not all that taller than her, but he has an ability to loom that is disconcerting when it is turned on her. "What?" she demands, coming up short against the back wall of the car. "Was it something I said? --I can walk by myself," she adds, pulling her arm free.
"Who lit your tampon?" he demands, more exasperated than annoyed. "Relax, Wheeler."
"I'm relaxed," she says, and digs her heels in, marking out her territory. "Look at me. Do I look upset to you?"
"Okay, then," he says, and retreats to his end of the elevator, giving her space again. And room to breathe, which means room to talk, and she still hasn't quite learned to pick the correct 'when.'
"He's pushing you out," she says. "All of them are. They blame you for Deakins, don't they? Never mind," she adds to the room at large when he turns on her. "I'm just standing here, being relaxed. Breathing in, breathing out--"
He chews on an imaginary piece of gum, his mouth quirking into a puzzled, crooked little grimace. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment," he says.
"It's stupid. It's not only stupid, it's cruel and stupid."
His voice thins. "Stay out of it, Wheeler."
"Even I know about Frank Adair, and I wasn't even here yet," she says, and leaves a neat set of fingerprints on the wall in the accepted pre-school fingerpaint turkey fashion. The metal fogs around her skin until she takes her hand away, and across the car, something leaps in Logan's jaw.
"Who told you about--" he starts to say.
"I'm not getting involved," she assures, leaning into the railing to look up at the ceiling. "I'm just standing here, becoming one with the universe, so you can be one man against an entire squad. Except Eames and Goren and Jameson--"
"--and me, of course," she finishes, sucking in her cheeks, "although the other three don't count since Goren and Eames have been a little preoccupied, and Jameson has a new kid--"
He stirs on his side of the car, prowling uneasily with a fist shoved deep in one pocket. "Don't feel obligated to keep talking."
"--And I'm supposed to be your partner," she tacks on airily, ignoring his warning rattle and the butterfly flutter of nerves in her stomach.
"Supposed to be," Logan says, and his irritation prickles at her, building behind the craggy face and shift of shoulders. His restlessness makes the elevator claustrophobic, pressing the walls' boundaries closer and closer. "Not all partnerships work out."
"Three partners in two years is a lot, even for Mike Logan," she tells the panel of interested elevator buttons. They are an attentive audience. It is something, to get a reaction from him. Fascination gnaws at her, curiosity reminded of hunger now that it has been fed. "Do you get a special ribbon if you manage to get to four?"
"Wheeler," he rasps. "Back off." And there's something rising under his voice that lifts the hairs on the back of her neck.
She zips her mouth shut with her fingertips and stops talking, listening to the tension humming between them like the scrape of the flaying knife. Out of the corner of her eye she watches Logan measure the breadth of their space like a trapped beast, his jaw clamped tight. She thinks about silence, and she thinks about anger, and she thinks about pushing the buttons of witnesses to get the grain of truth. It occurs to her that he has told her to back off after enduring who-knows-what from the others in his squad, and she wonders what line in the sand marks the difference between them and us. It seems to her that earning respect is more perverse than one might think.
And she thinks that maybe she does know the correct 'when,' after all.
"What am I watching your back for, again?" she asks his shadow on the floor. "Should I be looking for a shield? Or a perp?"
The elevator shudders underfoot. He takes a swift, unwary step and she jerks in reaction, too slow to dodge the press of body that crowds her into a corner. She manages not to flinch as he blots out the light with his shoulders, but her heart leaps into her throat: he stands too close; her breathing quickens. His temper scalds the air, thickening in her lungs. "Back off," he says harshly, the echoes of violence bleeding into his voice. His hand is a blade stabbing just short of her chest; his breath is hot on her skin. "Listen up, Wheeler. You can't help."
Too late she recognizes her own frustration as his anger, picked up and transmuted through some subliminal alchemy. For a split-second she stares at him, watching old rage writhe behind rigid bars of self-control. Her blood roars in her ears, defeating silence. She can see the pulse racing under his jaw.
The elevator doors open. Cold air rushes in, snapping at their faces.
He steps out to the floor they started on, his heels driving into the tiles like bullets. In the hallway, Alex looks after him, arms filled with files, then looks at her. "That looks like it went well," she says. She has a talent for understatement.
"Actually," she says, and her voice shakes a little. Adrenaline is metallic on her tongue. She clears her throat. "Actually, it sort of did." She pushes a button before Eames can enter, and the elevator doors close on the other detective's rising eyebrows.
It is not enough to know the correct 'when,' she decides, if the correct 'what' eludes her. She stares at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, listening to her breathing slow and settle until her freckles are no longer a warning blaze picked out in crayon against her pallor. It is one thing to poke the stick through the bars. It is another thing altogether to discover the cage door could have been ajar.
When she recovers enough to return to her desk, she finds Logan already there, cynical and laconic as ever. Not by so much as a blink does he betray what happened in the elevator, and she follows his lead, forcing out stale and stilted replies to his brief remarks until her equanimity is no longer a pretense. She is not as adroit as Logan is, however, and it is not a surprise when Ross calls her into his office, his gaze sharp on her face.
"Problem, Wheeler?" he asks.
"Something happen between you and your partner?" He glances towards the squad room, where Logan sits: alone, as usual; isolated, as usual.
Her gaze follows. "No, Captain."
"So everything's fine."
"Just fine, Captain," she says, and looks blandly back at him.
"Right," Ross says, and hesitates before gesturing impatiently. Go away. "It's like talking to my kids," he says. "Figure it out."
"I'm working on it," she says, and pads back to her desk. The squad room hums with activity, alive with the chatter and argument of detectives. While she watches, Eames enters the room with her partner and begins charting a bee-line for Logan. Goren thwarts her, steering her bodily away in a different direction. Bobby meets Mike's eyes in passing, and though she cannot read the message that passes between them, she is reminded that he has an unusual sense of humor.
When she reaches her desk, she finds that Logan has opened her potato chips and is working his way through the bag, piece by piece.
"These private conferences of yours," he says. "We'll start getting jealous." The drawl is almost perfect, but she is not imagining the tightness around his eyes or the brittle quality to his voice.
"He wanted to know what was going on with us," she says. She feels rather than sees his wary glance up at her.
"Yeah." She moves papers out of her way and reclaims her seat. She considers making him ask the next question, but it is only a passing fancy. "I said everything was fine."
He leans back in his chair, his spine molding into the flimsy plastic. "Is it?" he asks. Under the cynical note, there is a tug of watchful interest.
"I'm good," she says, and inspects her chips. They are almost all gone. She glances at him. "Are we good?"
He looks at her, and she looks back, and something quizzical moves in his expression. It is not quite trust -- a long way from -- but it is a start. "Have a pickle," he says mildly. Perhaps it's meant as an apology, perhaps not, but she accepts it as one nonetheless, wordlessly plucking the slice out of his fingers.
He reaches across the table again for the packet of potato chips. She slaps at his hand and succeeds in thwarting him for the space of three seconds until he bullies the entire bag back to his side of the desk. "Those are mine," she accuses, and is rewarded by a hint of amusement.
"Partners share, Wheeler," he says outrageously.
And because he said can't, and not don't, she throws the pickle at his head and aims to hit.
"She stood up to you," Eames says to the elevator doors.
He stands slouching and silent on his side of the car, his gaze idle on the light ticking off floors, and barely acknowledges that she is there at all.
"Well, good for her," Alex says.
"Goren ever tell you you're one irritating woman?" Logan asks.
"You should see me when I'm trying," she says. "You have a problem with strong, smart people who happen to have uteruses?"
"You sure that's the plural for uterus?"
"I know the plural for penis, too. Want to hear it?"
Logan shifts. From where she stands, she can just see the corner of his mouth curling. "Strong, smart women," he says, and in his mouth the phrase is a mixture of obscenity and appreciation. "Only ever met--" He pauses, taking the time to count theatrically through memory. "--the three," he decides. "And a half."
"Three whole women," Alex says dryly. She refuses to rise to the bait. "That many?"
He rolls his shoulders in a shrug.
"And the half?"
The doors open. He turns, waiting for her to precede him. "Hamster, huh?" Logan says, and looks down at her as she passes. His grin is cynical, even shadowed, but then, it usually is. "We'll see."