A/N: Pretty much a fic prompted by a challenge over on LJ. Muse got carried away, and decided to turn it into a chaptered thing. Follows "Homicide: Life Everlasting" canon in that Lt. Giardello has passed on, but other than that, is kind of AU. Don't own H:LOTS or Law and Order: SVU, and that's about it.
He can still remember the last time he was here.
The lights had been dim, there had been music playing from the jukebox still situated at the back of the room, and everyone else had been there, too.
It had been one of those nights, one where they'd closed a redball case and where all of them were looking to relax. One of those nights where they sat around and talked until the early hours of the morning before drifting apart, going in different directions, towards home. There they'd been, every one of them thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong. Gee was in the hospital, yes, but he was all right; he would make it, and be released and everything would be fine.
And then, just like that, all of their illusions had been shattered.
Now, John Munch finds himself walking into the Waterfront, only to find the place completely silent, and completely dark, save for the light coming in through the front windows.
None of the old murder police had the heart to come back after the news came down that their lieutenant had died. He knows that Lewis tries, comes in as often as he can for as long as he can stand before he has to leave; knows that Bayliss gave up on it and disappeared again, coming back just in time to keep from losing his place on the squad. He knows that he fled, after the funeral, back to New York, to get away from the memory of Baltimore's bleeding streets, but the streets that never slept were even worse.
Those streets were home now, he'd told himself then, but even years later, it still didn't feel right.
That was the problem. Manhattan never felt right, but now, back here in Baltimore, it feels like he never left.
Of course, he did leave.
But there was a running joke in Homicide that said no matter how often you left or how long you stayed away, sooner or later, you would always end up coming back home.
He'd fought against the inevitable. Tried to stay in New York for as long as he could, and it had lasted for so long that he'd started to think that he'd never come back. That he'd never again have to walk this city's streets, and remember all that had come during his years as a murder police: the redball cases that seemed to pile up, the firestorm that left three of his colleagues hanging in the balance, the Mahoney drug war and the squad room shootout that tore the shift apart.
He didn't want to remember blood on his shoes, aiming a gun at an unseen suspect shooting from above, a colleague's suicide or another's murder.
But he does remember.
He reaches out now to turn on the lights above the bar, because it's getting dark outside, and he wants to be able to see. It is impossible to forget any of it, even those cases that were not his own. Impossible to forget the names in a row on the board as he first remembers it: Bolander, Munch, Howard, Felton, Lewis, Crosetti, Bayliss and Pembleton. The old line, the one he started out with, and the one he always thought he would finish with, but the one that disappeared first.
He sits on one of the bar stools, and remembers: Bolander and Felton going to New York, and neither of them returning, placed on a twenty-two week suspension. Bolander retiring, but Felton coming back, going to IID without a word, only to be found murdered in his own apartment. Department divers pulling Crosetti's body out of the river, a suicide that none of them had ever seen coming. Lewis, lost without a partner until someone else finally came in. Unit veteran Pembleton, long without a partner, finally forced to take then-rookie Bayliss under his wings. And finally, Howard, with her perfect clearance rate, the only woman in the squad until Russert came along.
The problem is that he wants to remember some things, but not everything…and everything always seems to come.
He can see the new names on the board, too, as he finally gets up to pour himself a drink: Russert, Kellerman, Ballard, Gharty, Falsone, Stivers and Sheppard. The one who'd served as a lieutenant and a captain before being shoved back to detective, and the one who'd transferred in from Arson on a whim. The detective who'd transferred from Seattle, and the one from IID who somehow ended up in Homicide by some move made solely on the basis of department politics. A detective from Auto Theft, and one from Narcotics, and finally, during his last year there, one from the Fugitive squad.
They were the definition of 'ragtag band of misfits', he thinks, now, and downs the contents of the shot glass he's poured.
At the same time, they had been the elite of the Baltimore City Police Department, the ones whom everyone else had their eyes on, and the ones who had learned quickly not to take the job too seriously. They were cops, yes, but it didn't mean they had to lose their sense of humor.
And heaven only knew they hadn't.
Nights in the Waterfront are non-existent now.
He's taken back his promise never to come back to Baltimore, coming down as often as he could. After Gee's death, it seemed wrong to stay away, to not catch up with the other members of the shift. Guilt is a feeling that he remembers clearly: how could he have gone so far from home? How could he have let himself lose contact with those he'd known and loved, so much that when he came home again, he had no idea what the hell was going on?
This is the last trip, he tells himself now. You're not going back to New York, not going back to the NYPD, or the Special Victims Unit. You're not going to answer any more phones, pick up any more cases…none of it.
He'd said that once before, and he remembers this, too, with a faint smirk on his face as he pours another shot.
Going to New York in the first place had really been an act of desperation, a need to get away from this place where he'd been for most of his life and see something else.
What he hadn't counted on was that work in the Special Victims Unit would be worse…much worse. Of course, it hits him now that he should have figured, given that he'd known the nature of the work when he walked in. Somehow, dead bodies were a lot easier to deal with…there wasn't nearly as much emotional attachment.
Oh, but that was a key rule of SVU. You weren't supposed to get personally involved. The problem was that no one ever told any of them how to avoid it. So they got personally involved and held every case close to their heart, which was exactly what they shouldn't have been doing, but they were stubborn, the four of them together, and so they did what they had to in order to get the cases solved.
It took a toll on them.
None of them ever thought it would, but it did, no matter how hard they tried to keep it from doing so.
There was no board in the SVU squad room, no way for them to keep track of the open cases and the closed ones. No…in SVU, there were manila folders spread across the desks, paperwork, and a digital board on which they could project crime scenes, photos of suspects, and anything else they wanted. There were no names in red, no names in black, and in place of two shift lieutenants, there was one captain who oversaw everything.
The door to the Waterfront opens, but he doesn't notice this, thinking instead on how much he and the old shift hated Captain Gaffney, and how he and the rest of SVU never had anything but a mutual respect for Captain Cragen.
The hand on his shoulder makes him jump.
When he turns, the person behind him is familiar.
"I saw the lights on," Kay Howard remarks. "Thought Meldrick might have wandered over here."
"No such luck," John replies, smirking back at her and grateful for the distraction. "Can I get you anything?"
But Kay has already wandered behind the bar to pour her own drink, and in doing so, she refills the shot glass still in front of him.
"I've got it," she says. "What brings you back to Charm City?"
Kay has retired, he knows, with a captain's rank and the pension to match. Meldrick, too, has gone, though Tim is still on the lines. Pembleton left years ago, Felton and Crosetti, and now Gee have passed, and none of them have seen Bolander in years.
Of the old shift, the one John started with, it is starting to feel like he and Kay and Tim and Meldrick are the only ones left.
"I'm done," he says finally. "I'm home now."
There is no explanation needed; Kay already knows what he means.
"Told you so," she replies. "It was bound to happen sooner or later."
"I got tired of New York. Couldn't take the faces anymore, y'know?" John trails off and sighs. "The names were easier."
Kay nods briefly, takes a sip from her glass and leans forward. "What was it like?" she asks.
It is a question from one cop to another, not one of any sort of morbid curiosity, and it is for this reason that John looks at her for a long moment before answering.
"It wasn't Homicide," he says. "It…it was harder, dealing with the live victims. And the ones who didn't make it...I thought I was used to the bodies, y'know?"
"But you were wrong," says Kay, and he nods.
"I was wrong. In more ways than one." John pushes the shot glass aside, having decided he's had enough for a while, and picks up where he left off. "I shouldn't have left."
"Too late to change your mind, Munch," Kay remarks, and he nods again.
In SVU, there was always the feeling that while the unit was kind of like a makeshift family, the partners weren't like blood.
Of course, they would always have each other's backs, that much was a given, but it never felt the same as the shift.
He'd been in Pembleton's role once, made to take a rookie under his wings, until Cassidy left for Narcotics. Then he'd worked with Jeffries, the same way he'd worked with Russert: a partnership of guns and sarcasm, names in red, names in black, and in SVU, with Jeffries, closed cases, convictions, and two detectives walking out of the squad room in different directions at the end of the day.
Then Tutuola had come from Narcotics over in Brooklyn, and it had changed again: two veterans, both of them too jaded for their own good, but neither one of them willing to admit it.
That had been part of the problem.
Oh, they'd gotten along well enough, John thinks now, but it wasn't like Baltimore, not at all.
SVU was one of those squads where the connection between the detectives ended the minute shift was over. It was a place where he'd always felt somewhat lost, because there was no one to really lean on, not in the way he'd leaned on the other murder police.
"There wasn't anyone to see that I was falling," he says after a while. "Does that make any sense to you?"
Kay nods. After all, it was exactly how she'd felt during her time in the fugitive squad: like she was falling, and there was no one to catch her before she hit the ground.
"It makes perfect sense," she says, and then, "You know, when Bayliss and I came up on the Charm Bracelets cases…"
"You saw it, didn't you?" John asks, and she nods.
"Yeah, I saw it. Why didn't you ever say anything? We would've taken you back in a heartbeat."
"I know. That was why I didn't say anything."
"You always were the stubborn kind."
"Would it surprise you that I only stayed because I wanted to prove a point?"
In all honesty, it wouldn't surprise her one bit.
Outside, the streetlights have started to come on. Darkness has fallen over Baltimore, and yet, here the two of them still are, sitting in a dimly-lit bar, thinking back on the past.
"What point was that?" Kay asks finally. "That you could leave and never come back home again?"
"Yes," John admits, looking straight past her, out the windows towards the headquarters building across the street. "I wanted to see if I could break the pattern."
"No such luck," says Kay. "Every one of us was always going to end up back here. There's no getting away from it."
He and the others used to tease her, about how superstitious she could be.
He remembers in particular one incident in which a black cat had followed Bayliss and Pembleton in from outside and into the break room; remembers watching Kay move quickly away from it, then close her eyes and spin in circles.
"More of your superstition?" he asks, and she swats at him, smirking faintly.
"More truth than superstition," she says. "You told me you weren't ever coming back to Baltimore."
"That flew out the window after Gee."
"I know. Therefore, your staying in New York didn't really prove anything. You still couldn't stay away."