Christmas had never been the same after Maggie graduated from the academy. The soft glow around a light-strung tree was replaced with the cold fluorescents of the bullpen. Spiced apple cider became two fingers of lukewarm whiskey and a dollar-store air freshener which, buried in a layer of chemicals, smells vaguely of nutmeg.
The scent is a cheap imitation of what she remembers from her childhood. Maggie doesn't like it, but she doesn't have to. It's an homage to overcooked ham and her mother's old videotaped recording of Los Pastores. A paltry gesture, perhaps, but it lessens the guilt of avoiding her family, lets her pretend she's someone who can enjoy the season, someone who doesn't remember a single mother reporting an envelope of 300 dollars, money she'd been saving all year to make her son's first Christmas special, stolen; doesn't remember the stiffened body of a homeless boy curled on a park bench, a reminder to call mom scrawled on the back of his hand; doesn't remember, just this morning, the call that a Graxion's home had been ransacked and set ablaze, "Burn in Hell" spray-painted onto the driveway.
Maggie can pretend well enough. But it's dark in her apartment, and when the lock in her door flicks closed it's the sound of another day over, metal on metal. There's no one to pretend for, here.
Alone, she lingers, measuring her breathing against the silence. She should be used to it by now, but that artificial, chemical nutmeg still taunts her with memories of toppling gingerbread houses under her too-eager hands and spitting alcohol-free eggnog in disgust. Her fingers follow a familiar path along the wall, until they find the light switch and rest there, unmoving, letting the darkness enshrine her in a world of tinny carols and dancing colors. She could lose herself in there, the comforting evasion of identity.
And even if it's not the kind of comfort she wants, she's still loathe to surrender it when she forces the light on.
Normally she'd have tried to catch the late news, but rather than suffer through holiday reports and Christmas specials, she turns her TV to a rerun of Hell's Kitchen and presses mute, pulling her legs up onto the couch as she cradles her glass of bourbon against her chest. Outside her window, the street is empty.
Maggie rolls her head back and sinks into the quiet, lets herself feel the full weight of everything she's held tucked away within her come rising to the surface.
Being a cop has its highs, but the lows are many and relentless, and moments like this, where she can stop trying to hold them at bay, are necessary reminders that, no, she isn't a sociopath.
Her ex's accusation still cuts deep.
She curls an arm across her torso like she could possibly console herself, but she wishes that it's someone else's hand plying at the fabric of her shirt. She knows exactly who that someone is, and she knows exactly why that's a problem. But she doesn't stop the train of thought, doesn't let herself retreat back behind the safety of restraint. Not until her phone buzzes to life on the cushion beside her.
The screen illuminates with a message and Maggie squints at it.
It's Alex, because of course it is.
Danvers: You in Nebraska?
Maggie blinks, types a quick No. Despite her mother's sincerest efforts, she hasn't been to Nebraska in years, not since moving to National City to chase aliens and also, perhaps, a promotion. Visits home are meant to be happy occasions, she reasons. There isn't much point in making the trip, when all that awaits her at Blue Springs is her own alienation.
Danvers: Oh. You didn't reply earlier, so I assumed.
Right. Alex sent her a string of festive emojis in the afternoon, while Maggie interviewed the arson victim. Assumed that the only reason I didn’t answer was that I was halfway across the country? she wants to jibe, but thinks better of it, because Maggie's not sure she can safely toe the line between blithe and biting over text. And maybe she is a little bitter, having figured out herself, through accidental eavesdropping and keen observation, that she wasn’t invited to some holiday party at Alex’s place. Of course, she can understand why Alex would rather not have her there, and she can’t blame her; they're still tentatively reconstructing their friendship.
Sawyer: Sorry, killer day at work. It's an obvious, bad pun despite Maggie’s mood, and she can imagine Alex's lips quirking at it. She gets a reply before she can imagine those lips doing other things.
Danvers: They make you work on Christmas eve?
Really, Maggie wasn't strictly required to work today, but if she’d taken the time off it would’ve been spent mulling over her open cases anyway. Better to go in so that someone else, someone with a family and friends who wanted them at their parties, didn’t have to.
Sawyer: Crime doesn't take a holiday, Danvers.
They banter idly until Hell's Kitchen turns into some no-name wrestling competition and Maggie glances at the time.
Sawyer: It’s late.
Danvers: Worried Santa won't show if you stay up?
Sawyer: Oh I don't mind saving him the effort. She doesn't want to point out that Alex is staying up too, talking to her.
Carrying on, Alex asks what program she's watching so she can tune her TV to the same channel, and Maggie’s not really surprised that Alex knows more about wrestling than she otherwise would’ve believed. Alex keeps the conversation light with her scathing commentary, but it lulls eventually, and Maggie knows she's not ready to go to bed, not ready to be left alone with the images of the worst of humanity imprinted behind her eyes.
So she pauses, contemplates the glass in her hand to see whether or not what she's about to do is as bad an idea as it might be. She's barely touched the bourbon since Alex's first message. Hardly an ounce gone. A part of her almost wishes it was more, a concrete rationale she shouldn't do this irrespective of the reasons she already knows. But her fingers are set to the screen before she can dissuade herself:
Sawyer: Can I come over?
It's a while before there's any response. Three dots taunt her intermittently. Alex must know it's a bad idea too – for all her typing and mulling, the answer is as simple as it could possibly be.
A lack of traffic and Maggie's eager grip on the throttle puts her there in record time.
She rocks from foot to foot in front of the door, listening to the muffled noise of the television. It masks the footsteps on the other side, so when Alex swings the door wide to greet her, she catches Maggie before she's prepared, before she's braced herself for the sight of her in plaid pajama bottoms and an over-sized sweater. It's black, with "Ho Ho Ho" printed across the breast, which, luckily for her, lets Maggie play off her wandering gaze.
"Ho ho ho, indeed," Maggie smirks, brandishing a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam. "Hope you don't mind, I brought a friend."
Alex takes the bottle with a sideways grin and gives it a pointed, cautionary shake as she backs away from the doorway. "Careful," she says as she turns to the kitchen to search for a pair of tumblers, leaving Maggie to close the door as she enters. "I'm not in any position to drive you home if you get bent out of shape."
There's a collection of empty beer bottles on one side of the counter, easily a dozen. They can't all be Alex's, Maggie's sure; she only drinks beer for social occasions, prefers harder liquor in the privacy of her own home. Still, she knows Alex well enough to know she can and will blow through her own six-pack if given the option.
"What, no room on your couch for a friend to crash?"
Her smile falters at her own words. Maggie's still not sure if they're using that word – friend – but Alex doesn't seem to notice, preoccupied with pouring just the right amount of bourbon into their glasses, which seems to be more than Maggie thinks either of them should really be drinking.
"In the spirit of Christmas, maybe. But only if you take your shoes off this time."
Maggie snorts, quips, "Your generosity knows no bounds," but obliges, toeing off her boots and leaving them by the door. The last time she'd passed out on Alex's couch, they'd spent the next morning having to scrub who-knows-what out of the fabric.
"And don't you forget it." Alex finishes screwing the cap back onto the bottle and lifts one glass in each hand, waggling one free finger at Maggie in mock warning. She makes her way around the counter and, as she passes, holds out a glass to Maggie, who takes it with a tight-lipped smile.
The arm's length distance Alex keeps between them, even as she maneuvers past her and onto the couch, doesn't escape Maggie's notice. A dull ache settles below her breast, something a little too self-indulgent to be regret. It keeps her hovering uncertainly next to the arm of the couch until Alex notices the hesitation and expectantly gestures at the cushion with a quirked brow.
It's all the invitation Maggie's going to get, which is fine. It's all she needs.
In a practiced motion, she slips off her jacket and tosses it onto the armchair, on top of Alex's, before settling onto the couch. Maggie apparently positions herself a little too close to Alex, and tries not wince when she shifts her body an inch or two further away.
The wrestling program is still on and Alex is genuinely watching it, groaning in exasperation and muttering "c'mon," and Maggie struck by how endearing it is until she notes that Alex is focused in a way that's a little too intense to be natural. Or maybe it's just because Maggie can't get into it.
"Didn't know you were a fan of the ol' muscle mat, Danvers," she teases as she pulls at a piece of lint stuck to her jeans.
Alex has to press a hand to her mouth to hold back a laugh, so she doesn't sputter out the sip of bourbon she's just taken. "Really? Muscle mat?"
"What?" Maggie feigns offense with raised brows. "I think it's pretty clever."
"Uh huh. Apropos, maybe. I wouldn't go so far as clever." Maggie makes an indignant sound and Alex shoots her a simpering look. "But I'm not a fan, so you can call it whatever you want."
Maggie leans back into the couch with a short breath of laughter. "Could've fooled me."
Alex's only response is a sideways smile that fades too quickly when their eyes meet.
They settle into watching the show, but silence stretches between them with every moment and Maggie grows restless. She finds her gaze slipping to survey the apartment.
It's pristine, far more so than Maggie's has ever been, but there are vestiges of the evening's prior activities hidden across the room – the corner of some gift wrap stuck to the edge of the rug, clumsy finger smudges left on the glass top of the coffee table, a pair of pie tins set next to the sink to be rinsed – and Maggie's not sure whether or not she's glad that the deduction she'd drawn from her earlier sleuthing was based in actual fact and not simply a paranoid conclusion drawn from her own loneliness.
"How was the party?"
Maggie tries to keep her tone casual, disaffected, maybe a little smug at having figured out something she wasn't supposed to know. The point is, she's not at all bothered. It comes out sounding artificial. She slouches lower into the cushion as the woman beside her stills.
Alex's eyes flick around her apartment and meet Maggie's for the briefest second. Her mouth works at a question – How? – but she already knows the answer, because of course Maggie would have figured it out. That's simply what she does. A small part of Maggie, the part that is hurt regardless of whether or not she has any right to be, finds satisfaction in the look of alarm the crosses Alex's face. Maggie stifles it, reminds herself that this is her friend, for whom she only wants what's best; and if that means having to miss out on certain things, she's willing to do so.
"It was alright." Alex's gaze slides back to the screen, her expression schooled into careful neutrality. "You didn't miss anything."
Maggie's glad she doesn't apologize, because Alex is standing up for what she needs. But there's a knot of other, less readily identifiable emotions roiling within her. Dismay, that Alex is still pushing her away. Relief, that Alex still finds it necessary to push her away, that this is as hard for her as it is for Maggie. Disgust, with herself, that she can feel these things and remain sitting here, feigning ignorance while knowing acutely how it was torturing the both of them.
On the TV, the audience is roaring. It sounds like a condemnation.
"I should go," she says at length and sets aside the bourbon tumbler as she moves to stand. It clacks harshly against the coffee table, punctuating her motions.
Really, she shouldn't have come. It isn't fair, not to either of them, but especially not to Alex, who Maggie had rejected, who believes her yearning is unrequited, who suffers the consequence of Maggie's own cowardice. Maggie craves intimacy, just without the heartbreak which, after having been burned so many times, seems so inevitable. Yet it's that very same intimacy that continues to break Alex's heart again and again.
Maggie doesn't try to make an excuse as she moves to gather her jacket, doesn't offer any pretext about it being late. Her mouth is set into a shallow smile even though she's facing away. Alex mutes the TV, and Maggie feels like she's floundering, the silence suddenly given weight. Alex is quiet until she isn't: "Maggie, wait."
Maggie stills, knows that she'll always come when Alex asks for her, even if she's only a few steps away.
"Please stay." Alex's voice is small and tired, and Maggie sinks her shoulders in a sigh. When she turns, Alex's gaze drops like she's addressing the amber liquor in her glass.
"Christmas sucks," Alex says.
"I know," Maggie says.
They're talking, really talking, for the first time in weeks.
"It's like –" Maggie is waving a hand in front of her, palm up like she can pull the words she's looking for from thin air. "All these awful things happen and we get a front row seat, we're right in the thick of it." She's got one leg up on the couch, her body angled towards Alex while she attempts to voice the indescribable suffocation she feels around the season. The alcohol hasn't helped. "And maybe the rest of the world is fine with it, but I can't just spend my days wading through the worst of humanity and then go act like it doesn't matter."
Alex has her arm propped on the back of the couch and her head resting lazily against it. Their now-empty bourbon glasses sit between them, an idle little barrier. She nods, and it looks as if she wants to add something of her own, but she hesitates like a new thought has crossed her mind.
"Is that why you haven't gone home for Christmas?"
It's not a question Maggie is prepared for. Her brow furrows.
"I mean," Alex grimaces, snakes a hand into her hair, "it's hard, being with family, feeling like you need to keep up with their... y'know, everything, because if you let them think you're unhappy, they'll take it personally."
Alex describes the feeling like she knows what she's talking about, her eyes fixed away so that Maggie only just catches the shadow in her expression. It looks like guilt.
"Speaking from experience?" It's posed as a question, but the look Alex shoots her says that if she has to ask, she already knows the answer.
"I might be."
Maggie tilts her head. "Do you want to talk about it?"
They hold one another's gaze, and Maggie can see Alex's jaw work as she worries at the inside of her cheek. She's sure she's going to say no. Instead, Alex inhales slowly.
"When I was growing up," her voice is measured, her expression thinly guarding the vulnerability underneath, and Maggie wants to smooth away the hard line of Alex's lips, "my dad loved holidays. Kara gets that from him, even if she's adopted. But now, I just... I miss him. And it's so hard, sometimes, seeing Kara being – well, Kara, and not see him."
Maggie is struck by a sense of privilege; Alex looks impossibly fragile, a far cry from the unyielding Agent Danvers she remembers meeting on that airstrip for the first time.
She reaches out and Alex's gaze flickers sharply as Maggie breaks the unspoken boundary erected between them. It's only a light touch. Maggie exercises some degree of restraint despite her liquored ruminations.
"You're allowed to miss him," she says, voice as gentle as her fingers on Alex's knee.
Alex allows herself an uneven breath before wiping impatiently at the corners of her eyes like the faint glistening there is little more than an annoyance. "But anyway," she mumbles, deftly shrugging off Maggie's touch and turning on her with renewed scrutiny, "you have an ordinary family ready and waiting for you in Nebraska, so what's the deal?"
There's an accusation behind her words, saying Maggie should be grateful for what she has. It stings a little, and Maggie almost recoils; but this is what she wants, the messy conversations in the middle of the night. This is what she misses. Maggie matches the challenge with her own willful tone. "If you haven't noticed, ordinary isn't exactly my thing. Christmas is miserable enough already, I don't want to spend it somewhere I don't belong."
"But you said your parents were okay with –"
"My parents aren't the only people who live in Blue Springs," Maggie interjects dryly. "And sure, maybe they didn't cut me off when I came out. Doesn't mean they were stoked about it." She pauses and shakes her head in the kind of amusement only hindsight can allow. "Not to mention the neighbors. There's a reason I took this job in National City."
"Well." Alex tilts her head down and taps at her abandoned whiskey glass. "I can't fault you for knowing what you do and don't want. Or for having the guts to follow through." She sounds defeated, or disappointed, like she didn't find what she was searching for. Yet there's a hint of genuine, if grudging, praise in her words.
The sentiment throws Maggie. Unsure how to take it, she sits back and wishes the silence would stop trying to invade their private space, because she isn't sure how to fend it off.
Maggie doesn't feel like she knows what she wants. She feels like a fraud and a hypocrite. She feels like someone who tells the one woman she can't stay away from that she doesn't want to be more than friends.
She feels like she's too scared to have Alex and too self-indulgent to let her go.
She feels like she never wants Alex to stop looking at her like she is right now, brown eyes heavy and unfocused and yearning as Maggie leans in.
Alex's eyes fall shut and Maggie stops. Their lips hover close, parted, warm with intoxicating promise, but when Alex draws in a small, impatient huff and drifts to close the distance, Maggie tilts away, trailing her breath along Alex's jaw. She's desperate to kiss her, to relive that moment in the bar, but now, here, with Alex's hands clutching at her waist, Maggie's not sure she would be able to pull away. So long they just stay like this, she thinks, even as she moves closer, it won't have to mean anything.
Alex seems to understand, sitting back, hands slowing to inch across her ribs. The cushion dips as Maggie shifts over the glasses perched between them. She can't decide if the soft clink they make sounds more like praise or warning, but she disregards it quickly, deciding that the only noise she cares about is the low, stifled groan of approval Alex makes as Maggie settles into her lap.
There's always that part of Maggie that registers how very wrong this is, but her head is swimming and she lets the influence of the alcohol and exhaustion wash over her, lets her eyes close as she arches her body against Alex's, feels the rise of Alex's breathing in her own chest, relishes the experimental pressure of Alex's fingers as they explore the length of her back, her ribs, her thighs.
Maggie has one hand propped lazily against the head of the couch. The other is sliding along Alex's upper arm, her shoulder, her chest, contemplating all the strength and skill contained within those toned lines.
Their motions lack purpose, unhurried and searching. They move as if they have all the time in the world, while knowing that this cannot possibly last. There is no point in rushing; they languish in the moment while they have it.
"Maggie," she feels Alex mouth against the curve of her jaw. A prayer.
That's all it takes for the illusion to dissolve. There's hope in Alex's breath, in the electric way Alex traces the curve of Maggie's hips, and she knows it's cruel.
She gathers her will and her wits and pulls back.
Alex's eyes flutter half-open, hazy and regarding Maggie as if the absence of her touch is a special kind of violence. The smell of cheap liquor lingers between them.
Maggie doesn't let herself idle, doesn't let herself hesitate at the pain of understanding that darkens Alex's face. She keeps moving, tottering backwards and catching herself on the coffee table before she pushes herself unsteadily to her feet.
She's slung her jacket over her shoulder and gathered her boots in one hand before she chances looking at Alex again. Maggie thought having to meet her gaze would be difficult enough; instead it's the sight of Alex with her head cradled in her hands that proves a more exceptional kind of torment. Maggie musters what she can for a whispered "I'm sorry."
Less than a minute later, she's on the sidewalk, streetlamps beaming harsh judgement at her. A lone car passes, disturbing the still air, and Maggie stares after it until its brakes flash red and it turns onto a side street. She wants to ride home, wants to let the wind numb her, but she knows instinctively that four ounces of bad whiskey in one night means she can't.
She tilts her face up to the sky as if she can find some modicum of consolation there, in vast gaseous clusters winking at her from a distance, so as to make the mess of this moment seem infinitesimal. But above the avaricious, polluted glow of the city, there isn't so much as a star to wish upon.
She walks to her apartment, and by the time she returns to the darkness and the smothering scent of it, the clock reads 1:35 am.
Merry Christmas, Maggie thinks, and sighs a soft "Fuck."