DISCLAIMER: The characters in the story are the creation of Dick Wolf and I'm using them without permission for entertainment and not for profit. The story is my own.
SPOILERS: Set after Alex comes out of witness protection, so there may be some spoilers for those who have not seen the show (or L&O) to that point. I've taken some minor liberties with canon, but they shouldn't be too distracting.
FEEDBACK: To Alcina_to_Zauberflote[at]sympatico.ca
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Blood is Thicker
By Allie



It was another forty-eight hours before Olivia Benson opened her eyes. Her first moments of awareness brought with them such crushing pain that she closed them again before the woman in the room with her could notice. One of the monitors next to the bed changed to a rapid beeping sound that sent the woman rushing to the nurses' station. The nurse checked the monitors, checked Olivia over, smiled and said, "I think she's coming out of it and perhaps the medication isn't masking all the pain. That was just her heart rate going up, but it's a strong heartbeat. I'll notify the doctor of the change."

Jo Cabot sighed with relief. Alex had just gone down the hallway to shower and change into the clothes Jo had brought for her and the last thing the older woman wanted was for Olivia Benson to take a turn for the worse while her niece was out of the room. Who knew what kind of superstitious implication Alex might attach to that and how long it would then take them to pry her away from the detective's bedside.

She and her husband had rushed to the hospital when they'd seen the news story on TV the evening it had happened, anxious to see for themselves that Alex was okay. She'd been exhausted and oddly dressed, but physically fine. Over the next several hours, though, her emotional condition had started to worry her relatives. Jo's and Larry's son, Graham, arrived the following morning, along with his partner, Kevin, but Alex flatly refused to leave with them, despite the fact that she'd been awake for more than twenty-four hours and was still wearing a borrowed t-shirt.

Other people had come to the ICU waiting area – police officers, including the commissioner, and a few civilian friends of the detective. But when a woman who identified herself as Olivia's friend Natalie Quinlan from Connecticut had come in, Alex's reaction had been telling. She'd looked angry, but also scared; scared in a way that had nothing to do with Olivia Benson's health. It had been obvious to Jo that Natalie was the woman Olivia had decided to date after Alex told her there was no future for them.

Her first instinct had been to ask Quinlan to leave because she was upsetting Alex, but the brunette had looked vulnerable, despite the dignity with which she'd held herself, and Jo had found herself feeling sorry for her.

Natalie Quinlan was attractive in an understated way: her chestnut hair shone with health and fell over her shoulders in natural waves. Her face was oval and she had good cheekbones, with an unremarkable nose and a generous mouth. The only thing about her that could be considered striking was the unusual dark-gray of her eyes. They were unlike any gray eyes Jo had even seen and they were emphasized by long eyelashes.

Quinlan's outfit had also been understated: a tan linen suit worn with a white cotton top and brown sandals. But the immaculate cut of the suit had revealed its Italian designer origins, the sandals and matching handbag had been Gucci and she'd sported a perfect pedicure. There were no labels visible except for the Gucci logo discreetly branded into the leather of the bag. Despite her obvious worry over the detective's condition, Quinlan had carried herself with physical confidence that Jo often observed in the very rich. She'd watched Natalie introduce herself to Elliot Stabler and after they'd spoken quietly for a few minutes, Elliot had actually smiled, despite his bloodshot eyes and dark stubble. Jo could not find fault with Olivia Benson's taste in women.

Twenty-four hours later, Alex still had not gone home, but at least she'd slept in the armchair in Olivia's room for a few hours and had agreed to leave Olivia's bedside long enough to shower and change.

Alex walked back into the room just as the nurse was adjusting Olivia's IV medication. "Is everything okay?" Her aunt thought she looked distressingly pale against the blue shirt and ecru cotton slacks that Jo had chosen for her. She'd also changed her shoes and stuffed everything she'd been wearing into Jo's tote bag. Her blond hair was damp and tied back in a ponytail and her face was bare of makeup.

"Everything's fine," the nurse answered. "She seems to be waking up and the doctor will be in to examine her. If she does wake up while you're with her, she might panic because of the tube that's helping her to breathe, but try to keep her calm and ring for one of us to come in, okay?"

Alex nodded. When the nurse had left, Jo frowned at her niece. "Alex, you're not going to do Olivia any good if you collapse from exhaustion. You need to sleep, eat a proper meal and take some time to process what happened. You've been through a traumatic experience and you can't just ignore your own feelings forever. You should talk to someone and you should also give the police the statement they keep hinting about."

"I'm fine. And thanks for remembering the brand of toothbrush I prefer." Subject dismissed.

"I'll go out now because only two people at a time are allowed in here and there are several people waiting down the hall, but you really need to think about what I've said."

"I'm being selfish, aren't I?" Alex sighed. Jo held her breath, hoping that Alex finally realized how worried her family was about her. "I should be spending more time in the waiting area and giving Olivia's other friends a chance to come in. It's not as if I have any right…" She blinked and took a shaky breath. "I'll go out with you."

When Jo had departed to get Alex a bottle of sparkling water from the hospital cafeteria, the ADA found herself in the waiting area with a group of cops she didn't know and Natalie Quinlan. Quinlan was dressed in flawlessly tailored chocolate-colored slacks and a white, short-sleeved blouse. She was carrying the same bag she'd had with her on her first visit, but she'd swapped the sandals for matching leather mules. Alex was mortified when the gray-eyed woman walked over to her. "Miss Cabot, I'm Natalie Quinlan…"

"I know," Alex said coolly.

Natalie sensed the hostility and smiled wryly. "I guess you do." The smile transformed Quinlan's face from pleasant to beautiful and Alex hated that she understood why Olivia had been attracted to the woman with the unusual eyes. "But you have nothing to worry about where I'm concerned. Olivia and I were merely in a certain place at a certain time. My real life is my business and my determination to recover from my partner's death. Her real life… is you."

Alex immediately felt awful. "I'm sorry. I had no right to be hurt in the first place. There was nothing…" She reconsidered what she'd been about to say. "Olivia had no reason not to date you, or anyone else." Her lips tightened and her eyes looked sad. "I haven't exactly been… wise… when it comes to Olivia."

That smile again. "She's the kind to sweep a girl off her feet, isn't she? Don't place too much faith in wisdom; just go with what you feel. It took me a while to learn that and the result was eight fantastic years with Jane."

"Do you mind if I ask…?"

"Accident. One of those things you can't blame anyone for. The road was wet and a tractor trailer jackknifed, knocking her car into incoming traffic." Her eyes filled with tears. "It's been a year and a half; you'd think I could talk about it without crying."

"I'm sorry." Alex understood too well. The pain she saw on Natalie's face hovered just at the edges of her own consciousness and she knew it wouldn't leave until someone told her, unequivocally, that Olivia was going to live.

"What business are you in?" Alex asked the question because she needed to change the subject and, since Natalie had said that the business was a big part of her life, she hoped it would keep her talking and distract her from the horror that the ADA had just forced her to revisit.

"I'm an accountant. I have a law degree, but I've never practiced. My firm specializes in taxation, especially for NPO's."

Alex raised an eyebrow and managed a small smile. "When this is all over, maybe we can talk business. I find myself feeling increasingly guilty about the amount of time I haven't spent with my family's charitable foundation since I started at the DA's office."

A corner of Natalie's lips quirked. "According to the news stories, you've spent years fighting injustice and making the world a safer place. I think you can be forgiven for not heading up a foundation on top of all that."

Alex screwed up her face in an endearingly childish way. "They make me sound as though I'm a candidate for sainthood, don't they? Just ignore it. Olivia will be the first to tell you that I'm hard work and difficult to get along with."

Silence descended as the two women thought about the fact that Olivia was in no condition to tell anyone anything and might never be.

"They say she's waking up," Alex said softly. "She can probably hear some of what's going on around her."

"Maybe you can bring her her favorite music," Natalie suggested. "I have no idea what it is."

When Jo got back, she was surprised to see the two women talking quietly on the far side of the waiting area. "Hi," she said, smiling at Natalie after she'd handed over the bottle of water to Alex and accepted her thanks, "I'm Jo Cabot."

Natalie returned the smile. "I know. Cabot Evans consulting. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Natalie Quinlan."

Jo admitted something which had been troubling her from the time of Quinlan's visit the day before. "Your name is very familiar."

"I head up The Madison Tax Group. We pitched for your business three years ago, although my partner was the one who handled the presentation."

"I remember! Adam, Adam Westlake."

"Well, I'm glad he made an impression, even though we didn't win the business."

Jo smiled and acknowledged that Westlake had made a favorable impression. The conversation faded away as the circumstances of their meeting weighed down on each of the woman. Jo turned her attention to Alex. "Any change?"

"No, but the doctor should be here at any minute."

As soon as she'd finished speaking a white-coated man, trailed by a gaggle of interns, swept out of the elevator. He nodded at Olivia's visitors and entered the detective's room. Silence descended in his wake and the level of tension rose as Olivia's friends waited to hear his assessment of her condition.



The following evening Olivia drifted towards consciousness and when her eyes focused on the two women in the room, she closed them again. She decided that the drugs they were giving her were causing hallucinations, but she wasn't about to go back to the way she'd felt before she'd pushed the little black opiate-releasing button that had been left under the index finger of her right hand. But what a gorgeous hallucination it had been. It was too bad she was in no condition to fully appreciate it: she could have sworn that she'd seen both of the women she'd slept with in the last month standing by her bed.

Since the doctor had pulled the tube out of her throat, leaving it raw and irritated, and since he'd made her suck on a plastic contraption, only telling her about the magic button of pain relief after those two instances of Hippocratic oath-defying torture, her current fantasies ran more toward sweet oblivion than threesomes, so she sighed and waited for unconsciousness rather than attempting to pursue the hallucination.

"Olivia?" The question was spoken softly in Alexandra Cabot's distinctive mezzo voice and Olivia forced her heavy eyelids open again.

A blurry version of Alex was frowning at her and, just beyond Alex and looking even blurrier, stood Natalie. It had not been a hallucination.

"Hi," Olivia said, surprised to find her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.

"I'm so glad to see you back with us," Alex said in a voice that shook slightly.

"You've met Nat…" Olivia grimaced and only partly because of the effort required to issue the short statement.

"Hey, you." Natalie smiled at Olivia, hiding her alarm at the pallor under Olivia's tan that lent a gray tinge to the detective's skin.

"Baby, you're in pain. Do you want me to call a nurse?" Alex sounded scared.

Olivia shook her head almost imperceptibly. "Only hurts when I breathe," she tried a weak joke. She lifted the fingers of her right hand and waved them. "Morphine pump if I need it," she assured the two women, just before her prior use of the pump in question caught up with her and she drifted off to sleep with a sigh.

Alex leaned down and touched her lips to Olivia's cheek, closing her eyes and lingering long enough to feel the warmth of the smooth skin and to reassure herself that her detective was still very much alive and fighting to stay that way. She straightened up and continued to stare at Olivia, reluctant to leave, but knowing that several other people wanted to visit her.

"She'll be okay." Natalie's words of reassurance elicited a nod from Alex, but made it no easier to walk out of the room.

"How is she?" Elliot asked as soon as he saw them.

"Asleep," Natalie replied when it became clear that Alex's voice had deserted her.

Elliot nodded. "Nurse said she'd be more asleep than awake for the next twenty-four hours."

"I need to head home," Natalie admitted wearily. "Alex, do you want a ride?"

"No… I…"

"Alex, go," Elliot said firmly. "You look like you're running the risk of being checked into a room yourself, so get some sleep." His smile softened the words. "If your aunt was here she'd drag you away."

Alex nodded again. "Please call me before you leave and tell me how she is. No matter what time it is."

"Okay, I will. Now go." He smiled at Natalie. "Thanks."

Natalie returned the smile, wondering at the closeness between Olivia's partner and the ADA. There was a sort of protectiveness that Elliot and, to a lesser extent the other detectives in the squad, showed to Alex Cabot that was unusual for people whose primary relationship was work-related. They treat her like family, she finally decided. Elliot treats her as you would a sister-in-law of whom you were particularly fond.

"You guys get along really well," she remarked as they made their way to the parking lot on West 10th where she'd left her car.

"For years we worked as a team. It wasn't always without antagonism, but I'd like to think there was always respect. Friendship grew from that. In fact, I suspect that the friendship with which they honored me is the type they usually reserve for fellow police officers." She smiled weakly. "I became an honorary cop. The highest compliment I could have been paid, I think, since to a police officer, fellow officers are as close as family. They'd step into the path of bullets to protect each other. Civilians don't know what that's like – it's a luxury we have."

They walked in silence for several minutes and then Natalie said, "I remember reading the stories about your death…" She stopped. "I'm sorry. It's incredibly tactless of me to bring that up."

"Not at all," Alex assured her. "It would have been odd if you hadn't mentioned it, considering the circumstances."

By then they'd got to the booth and Natalie handed a ticket and two twenties to the attendant. He gave her a receipt before handing the ticket stub and keys to a younger man who disappeared up an unlit ramp in search of the car.

"I can't imagine walking away from my life without even having the chance to say good-bye to the people I love."

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done. My mother had cancer and I know that my "death" was what made her stop fighting. But there's no way she'd have been able to keep up the farce while burying an empty coffin and even a suggestion that I was alive would have put her in danger from more than the disease. They knew her address and how close we were. She would have been a target and that wasn't a chance that I was willing to take."

The attendant returned with a black Saab and Alex thought the car was like everything else about the woman: understated and well put-together, yet giving the impression that in the right circumstances she could be fun. Alex realized that it had been a compliment when Olivia had said they had personality traits in common.

Alex gave Natalie her address and they rode in silence through streets that remained congested, despite the late hour. There was a parking space directly opposite the entrance to Alex's home and Natalie pulled into it, yawning widely and excusing herself.

"Would you like to come up for a cup of coffee…? Or tea? My coffee is pretty bad, but I have a really good selection of tea. A cup of tea would probably have just enough caffeine to get you safely home to…"

"Connecticut. Darien."

"I spent a lot of time in Connecticut when I was growing up – my parents had a house there. I know Darien really well." She smiled. "So, tea?"

"Sure. I probably need a couple of minutes away from the hospital before I hit the road, anyway." They got out of the car and as they crossed the street, she asked, "How are you holding up?"

Alex shrugged. "Anxious. Tired. I probably won't sleep properly until I know Olivia is out of danger, but I also know that between my family and the other SVU detectives, there's no chance they'll let me stay in the hospital until then, so here I am."

The doorman greeted Alex by name and inquired after Olivia. Alex told him she was "hanging in there", even managing a small smile while she said it, but she visibly wilted and leaned against the wall of the elevator once they were out of sight of the concierge desk. Natalie was about to ask her why she made the effort, but then she realized that being strong for the sake of appearances probably made up more than half of whatever was still holding the blond woman together.

Natalie chose organic green tea with honey and Alex opted for jasmine tea, since caffeine was the last thing she needed. They settled on opposite ends of the sofa, sipping from their mugs in surprisingly comfortable silence. Alex realized that she should probably find it surreal to be entertaining a woman in her home, when everything that woman represented had been a source of anguish to her two weeks earlier.

"Feel free to ignore me if I'm being too intrusive, but why did you two break up before Olivia's vacation?" Natalie's question made Alex look away from the accountant's dark gaze.

"We were never really together," Alex answered weakly.

Natalie raised her eyebrows. "Olivia didn't strike me as someone who would use the word 'love' in a casual way, but she used it when she talked about you. And I may not be the most observant person in the world, but it's obvious to me that you're in love with her, so why was she single when she was in P-town?"

Alex wanted to say that it was none of Natalie's business, but Olivia had made it the other woman's business when she'd slept with her. And Alex had started the sequence of events leading to the affair by rejecting Olivia and denying their love for each other. Olivia had said that Natalie wasn't a victim of their dysfunctional relationship, but in the brief time they'd been together, Natalie had obviously developed strong feelings for Olivia or she wouldn't have been by the detective's bedside over the preceding two days.

"I… I'd decided that there was no future for us and that what we felt didn't matter." The bald statement seemed to hang in the air and the longer it remained unchallenged, the more painfully it echoed in Alex's heart. "I'd decided that she should find someone else who could have a proper relationship with her… so she went to Provincetown and she found you."

"No, she didn't. Not in the way you mean. I'm too old to get involved with somebody else's girlfriend on the rebound."

"She's not…"

"Yes, Alex, she is." She waved a hand when Alex would have argued. "Look, what happened between us wasn't the way you probably imagined it."

Alex, curious despite herself and the ache in her chest, waited for Natalie to explain what she meant. The brunette sipped her tea and sighed. "I'd gone on vacation with two of my friends. I'd needed to get away and they'd reserved a two-bedroom place right on the water. Unfortunately, they were really into the party scene and I… I really wasn't in the right frame of mind for that. On the second night of too many people drinking too much alcohol, I was about to lose patience with a very young, very pretty woman, who wasn't used to hearing the word "no" and, as I turned to give her a piece of my mind, a voice next to me said, "Darling, I'm sorry I'm late, here's your drink", and that's how I met Olivia." Natalie smiled at the memory.

"She said she'd been watching my little baby-dyke drama play out for a while and decided that what I needed was a 30-second girlfriend. She handed me the drink, refused my offer to buy her a drink to say thanks, then she sort of melted back into the crowd. The next day I saw her on the beach – and I won't tell you that I wasn't affected by the sight of her in a bronze bikini, but she so obviously was not on the make that I ignored my attraction to her and we had a great conversation. The bronze bikini attracted a lot more than my interest and she admitted that hanging out with me kept the unwanted attention to a minimum, so we sort of pretended to be together, while enjoying each other's company. Over the next few days we started to become friends. Eventually we talked about personal things, I spoke about Jane and she spoke about you."

Her gray eyes met Alex's blue eyes and held them. "We were both lonely and we slept together, but we'd already decided that it was a vacation thing and it wasn't going to affect our developing friendship. I get the feeling that Olivia doesn't make friends easily outside of work and I, too, have few close friends, but the ones I have, I've had for decades. That we became so close so quickly was unusual for both of us and I hope to be Olivia's friend for a long time. So I hope you understand why I asked about the two of you… I want to understand. I don't want to do or say the wrong thing and hurt or upset her."

Alex sighed. "I think… I think my decision not to have a relationship with Olivia probably has a lot to do with what happened to me. Getting shot, losing… everything, it devastated me. I've never been able to gracefully relinquish control of any aspect of my life and, until that night, I'd never been forced to. So I threw myself into my new life as "Emily" and then again as "Sarah", taking control of my life in exile as much as it was possible to do so, even having a relationship while living as someone I wasn't. It was actually easier to be with other people when I was living under assumed names, because as long as I wasn't with Olivia, I was faking it, anyway."

She put down her mug and stared into the distance as she continued to talk softly. "Then I was given my life back." Alex laughed harshly. "I should say, I was offered my life back: a life where I knew that nothing was certain, that anybody and anything could be snatched away without notice. I couldn't handle it. I decided to strive for only those things which I could control and which, if they were wrenched from my grasp, would not cripple me – like the relationships I'd had when my name wasn't Alexandra Cabot."

"Clearly, Olivia wouldn't fit into that category," Natalie observed.

"Clearly," Alex confirmed with a bitter smile. "So I avoided her. But she's like a drug to me and once we'd met again, I couldn't stay away from her. We became friends… we kind of dated without touching… and I fell more deeply in love with her than I had been before witness protection. But by then I knew the meaning of loss – I knew what it would feel like to lose her and I couldn't handle it. So the first time we kissed, I told her we had to stop spending time together. She… I… I was being dishonest and we both knew it. She chose not to challenge me on it." She looked deliberately at Natalie. "So that's why she was single. Because, until I faced the prospect of some cretin with a gun taking her away forever, I was too scared to have a relationship with her, so I made excuses and bailed."

"And now?"

"And now, now that I know what she went through when she saw my blood soaking into the ground and thought I was dead, I don't know how she can forgive me for wasting the second chance that we were given."

"So you're going to give up on her again?" The pitch of Natalie's voice rose in disbelief.

Alex stood up and walked towards the window, staring out at the lights that sparkled through the trees of Central Park. "No. I'm going to be here, if she wants me. I'm going to love her and stay by her side, if she'll let me. But I can't assume she'll risk it again."

"Alex, despite the stereotypes that circulate about the lives of the privileged few in America, neither of us got to where we are by relying on Daddy's money. So, while I don't doubt that family influence might have greased the wheels for you occasionally, you strike me as being strong-willed and hard-working. If Olivia's to be believed, you're also intelligent and a damn good lawyer. So I hope the passivity you've just described doesn't represent the totality of your plan for getting Olivia back."

As Alex spun around to stare at her, the other woman stood, smiled ruefully and said, "Thanks for the tea," before inclining her head politely and turning towards the door.

"Thanks for the ride…" Alex finally managed to choke out, but the front door had already closed behind her visitor.



"Alex, I think that would be too… complicated."

The conversation with Olivia was not going the way Alexandra Cabot had imagined it, despite days of careful planning. She had intended to have no more than a brief review of the facts, which should have led to only one logical and mutually-agreed conclusion.

She decided to retreat. "Perhaps this is an inappropriate time to have this discussion. You're tired and…"

"I'm tired from having had my first proper shower in a week and having gone to the bathroom without assistance. Trust me, I can handle a conversation about where I'll be living when I get out of here."

"You're going to need help."

"An occupational therapist will be visiting me once a week and the hospital can arrange for transportation to and from my physical therapy sessions every other day."

"You can't shower on your own…"

"Why, counselor, if I wasn't still too weak to blow-dry my own hair, I'd think you were propositioning me." Olivia smiled, but her voice was husky with exhaustion.

"Fine, I'll let you avoid the subject, but if your temperature stays normal over the next forty-eight hours, you'll be discharged and you really need to face the fact that it will be weeks before you can do some of the most basic things without considerable effort." She looked exasperated and then she blurted out, "I'm worried about you!"

Olivia stared at her. She wondered if there would ever come a day when just looking at Alex didn't cause a small flutter in her stomach. Love. It sounded so… positive. People made it seem like something you should strive for. She couldn't deny that there was pleasure in feeling this way: her world got brighter when Alex walked into the room and she felt high from the brush of Alex's soft lips against her cheek and the warm, clean smell of her hair when she leaned over the hospital bed to greet her with a chaste kiss. Her heart leapt when she heard Alex's voice on the phone and there was that annoying flutter: that uncontrollable thrill she felt from staring at the sculpted cheekbones, gorgeous lips and wide, blue eyes of the woman she loved. The jury was out on whether the flutter was a good thing.

"Don't worry about me – I'm not some charity case for the Cabot foundation."

"I wasn't…"

"How's that going, by the way?" she interrupted Alex's protest with another attempt to redirect the conversation.

Alex ground her teeth and resisted the urge to shake some sense into the stubborn detective, but she couldn't hide the faint flush that suffused the skin over her cheekbones or the feisty sparkle in her eyes. Olivia noticed both and, for her own safety, tried not to smile.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Alex admitted. "Not just legal issues, either. I'd like an independent review of the tax filings for the last three years and the entire fund-raising process needs to be revamped."

Relieved that she'd distracted the attorney, Olivia probed further into Alex's initial findings after spending several hours at the offices of the Cabots' charitable foundation and bringing some thick files to the hospital so she could read through them while Olivia slept.

It wasn't that Olivia didn't appreciate the practical aspects of Alex's offer: she knew that, even with two more days to recuperate, she would not be in any condition to cook, clean and do laundry for herself. Her choices were to move in with Alex, move into Elliot's spare bedroom or have Maribel arrange for someone to come in every day to help her out. She'd already decided on Maribel's solution because she knew how thin the walls in Elliot's tiny new apartment were and there was such a thing as too much bonding with your partner. But the biggest factor in the decision had been that she didn't want to get used to being around Alex every day. She wasn't sure her heart could handle living with Alex and then going back to her solitary existence when she was deemed fit enough to move back into her own place.

There was a knock on the door and Rhonda walked in pushing Jamie in a stroller. "Good morning. I hope we're not interrupting," the older woman said.

"Ifff!" her grandson shouted, bouncing in his stroller and straining at the safety belt.

Alex freed him and lifted him out of the stroller, kissing his forehead before carrying him over to Olivia for a one-armed hug and a kiss. He struggled to be put down on the bed, but there was no way that Olivia's healing ribs could handle his enthusiastic displays of affection. "Soon, sweetie," Olivia assured him in a soothing voice.

Alex continued to hold him as Rhonda asked, "Is it true that you'll be discharged in two days?"

"It seems likely," Olivia smiled weakly. Her pallor had increased with the effort required to greet the new visitors and Alex tried to hide her alarm.

"Well, Jenny and I have cleaned for you and we'll stock the fridge before she leaves tomorrow, so everything will be ready for your return." She hesitated. "Although, if you don't mind my saying so, you don't quite look well enough to be allowed out of the hospital."

Olivia grimaced. "I heal fast. A week ago I was almost dead." She obviously wanted to say more, but her voice was little more than a whisper.

"Liv, are you in pain?"

"Still only hurts when I laugh… or talk… and sometimes when I breathe." Olivia tried to make light of the situation, but neither of the other two women was amused.

"I'll get the nurse," Rhonda said, with a last, quick look at Olivia's pale skin and the sheen of sweat that had broken out on her forehead.

"Thanks," Olivia said softly. "Tell her I've changed my mind about the pills."

Alex hitched Jamie onto one hip and pulled a tissue from the box on the table to gently dry Olivia's brow. She ignored the sting of tears. I just want to take care of you, she thought as she stared at the dark-haired woman. Olivia closed her eyes, seemingly soothed by Alex's simple act.

The nurse came in and tutted with mild disapproval at the tension that betrayed Olivia's pain, despite her effort to conceal it. Alex stepped away and allowed her to approach her patient. "You should have called for me sooner," the nurse rebuked the detective softly. "You know, there is a theory that being pain-free actually promotes recovery." She lowered the head of the bed and placed a reassuring hand on Olivia's shoulder. "You're already our hero; you don't have to hurt to prove it. Now, try to relax and I'll be right back with something to make you feel better."

Olivia opened her eyes and whispered to Alex, "She's a flirt," which made Alex smile despite her worry, because the nurse was close to retirement age and had obviously developed no more than a maternal attachment to Olivia.

Rhonda had been hovering near the door and she shifted uncomfortably. "Maybe I should take Jamie and start heading home."

"When Olivia falls asleep, we can go for a coffee before you get on the train," Alex offered. She found herself fascinated by Jamie Preston – a feeling he clearly reciprocated. He was trying to stuff a handful of blond hair in his mouth and when she stopped him, he grinned adoringly at her.

"What're you gonna do when your sister leaves?" Alex and Rhonda were both surprised to hear the question from Olivia, since her eyes were closed.

"I'll probably visit Gladys every other day or so instead of every day. I'm trying to get a sitter so I can leave Jamie alone some of the time when I need to do things, but right now…" She didn't have to explain what she meant. Alex had taken a toy out of the bag hanging from the stroller and was trying to interest Jamie in it, but the little boy was more interested in her necklace and she didn't think much of its chances if he managed to get it in his dimpled fist. Rhonda's grandson was a handful and commuting three hours a day with him, in addition to having no access to a babysitter and being responsible for him twenty-four hours a day, would be exhausting, even for a younger woman.

"Would you like to stay at my apartment with him until Gladys gets out of the hospital? That way, you could use whatever baby-sitting arrangements she had in place in Manhattan before she was injured." Olivia didn't open her eyes, but the offer was obviously sincere.

"That's very kind of you, but you're going to need your rest and he's… well, unlikely to understand. Although, if I can be of any help, I'll be happy to stop by and visit when we come to see Gladys – maybe do some grocery shopping or cook you a meal?"

Olivia opened her eyes and Alex saw that there were tears in them. Both women were incredibly moved by the generosity of the older woman, despite everything that she'd been through in the preceding three weeks.

"No," Olivia decided, firmly, "but thank you." Her eyes met Alex's as she spoke again. "I'll be staying with Alex when I leave the hospital so, if it's more convenient for you, feel free to stay at my place with Jamie after your sister leaves. His room is all set up and you know where everything is."

Rhonda's entire body seemed to sag with relief and the younger women realized how much Gladys Preston's mother had dreaded the physically trying weeks that had been ahead of her. Olivia's offer meant that Rhonda no longer faced the responsibility of single-handedly caring for a baby while attempting to take two trains and a bus each way to visit her daughter. "Are you sure?" She hardly dared believe that the arrangement Alex had put in place immediately after Olivia had been shot could be reinstated.

"Absolutely," Olivia said in a breathy whisper just before the nurse returned and wordlessly administered the intravenous painkiller that made the lines of anguish relax as the detective immediately fell asleep.

Jamie started to fuss and Rhonda said, "Let me take him. He's probably hungry and it's almost time for his nap. I'm hoping he'll sleep all the way home." She got out a bottle and Jamie immediately reached for it.

"I'll feed him," Alex offered, sitting in the chair by the bed. Not that Jamie Preston needed help getting his bottle into his mouth. As he drank he sighed contentedly and played with Alex's hair.

"He's really taken to you," Rhonda observed with an indulgent smile. "He's not what most would call a friendly child, so I'm very pleased." Alex had to force herself to concentrate on what Rhonda was saying, because her mind was racing with images of Olivia coming home to her from the hospital. She really didn't care that Olivia was doing it to make Rhonda's life easier rather than because she wanted to spend time with Alex. What mattered was that the first stage of Alex's plan was in place.

Alex returned Rhonda's smile. "I'm glad he likes me, too. I've never been comfortable around babies. I'm always afraid I'll drop them."

"This one hangs on pretty tightly," Rhonda assured her. "Anyway, since you're with him, do you mind if I pop in one more time to check on Gladys before we head home?"

"No, not at all. We'll be fine."

Jamie sat up and looked anxious when he saw his grandmother exiting, but Alex said, "Don't worry, sweetheart, she'll be back soon," and the little boy stared into her blue eyes for a second before relaxing again into her arms and sticking the bottle back into his mouth.

Alex's heart melted at the wordless gesture of trust. "I see why Liv fell in love with you," she said quietly. "And she did, you know. Your auntie loves you very much."

"I knew he looked familiar." Maribel Piquero spoke quietly from the doorway. "Why didn't Olivia just tell me? It would have made the initial placement a non-issue." Not even the news stories had mentioned a familial link between Olivia and the baby whose life she'd saved.

"It was… complicated," Alex said, hesitantly. She wasn't comfortable explaining Olivia's family history to Maribel, even though her jealousy of the social worker had waned over time. "Olivia hadn't even been properly introduced to Jamie's mother, even though they're half-sisters. You should ask her to tell you the whole story when she's better."

"Hmm," Maribel replied, not sure whether to be satisfied with Alex's explanation, but deciding to relent after noticing the blond woman's discomfort. Her eyes shifted to the bed. "How's Olivia doing?"

"Better every day, although she might have overdone things a bit today. The nurse just gave her something for the pain, so she'll probably be out for a few hours."

"And you?"

The question surprised Alex and she flushed as she remembered her jealousy of the woman whose dark eyes now focused on her with kindness and concern. Alex shrugged. "Relieved. A week ago I was making irrational bargains with deities I wasn't sure I believed in; today Olivia's sleeping peacefully after an attempted argument about her degree of independence once she's discharged from here." She was surprised to find herself close to tears. "In so many ways I feel as though I've been given a second chance to live, even though my own life was never in any real danger."

"Ah, but your life with Olivia was," Maribel said kindly. "You were facing a future that would have been quite different and scary. Losing a life partner is one of the most devastating things you can face. Don't underestimate the stress of what you experienced. The fact that you witnessed the shooting probably increased your stress a hundredfold." She hesitated and then said quietly, "Even if you don't see the need, you'd probably benefit from speaking to a counselor."

Life partner. Alex's heart ached, but was spared the awkwardness of formulating a reply, because Jamie finished his bottle and pulled it out of his mouth with a small popping sound.

He sat up in Alex's lap and pointed at the bed. "Iff," he demanded.

"Liv's sleeping," Alex told him gently.

Jamie burped and giggled. He shouted something that sounded like "Bup" and looked expectant. When Alex didn't move, his face crumpled and he repeated the word, clearly frustrated by her incomprehension.

"Sorry, sweetheart, I don't know what you want," Alex told him and his face went red as his eyes filled with tears.

"Buup!" he whined.

"Maybe it's a toy," Maribel suggested. She unhooked the bag from the back of the stroller and there was no abatement in the little boy's distress as she held up a teddy bear, a teething ring and a small plastic fire truck, but the noise stopped as quickly as it had started when she held up a small, plush toy wearing a hard hat.

"Bup!" Jamie, said again, this time in triumph.

"Bob the Builder," Maribel explained when she saw Alex's confusion. "He's a children's television character?"

Alex was still none the wiser, but Jamie held the toy against his chest, stuck his thumb in his mouth and leaned against Alex in contentment. "Aww," Maribel said with a smile, partly because of the smitten look on Alex's face.

"Just remember what I tell my girlfriend every time she thinks she wants one of those: they undergo a horrifying metamorphosis at puberty and turn into teenagers; they also move back in with you after college."

"Oh, I never even thought…"

"Uh-huh," Maribel replied disbelievingly. "Tell Olivia I stopped by." She started towards the door and stopped, turning again to look at the blond woman. "And Alex? You really should consider what I said about counseling."

Alex nodded. "Thanks," she said simply as she tightened her grip on the baby, who was falling asleep in her arms.



Olivia inhaled deeply, drinking in the fragrance of the shower gel, because it smelled like Alex. Her ribs still ached, but almost two weeks after leaving the hospital, it was nothing that couldn't be controlled with some Ibuprofen and she was able to focus on other things – like sharing a home with Alex. It had been an insane idea, made crazier by the fact that she was sleeping in Alex's bed. Okay, Alex wasn't sleeping with her in the bed, but if she pressed her face into the pillows, beyond the freshly laundered scent of the pillowcase, she could still inhale the essence of her.

She knew it was pathetic to be so deeply in love with a woman who had so soundly rejected her, but that same woman was also being so kind, so giving and so damned loving towards her since she'd got out of the hospital that it was all very confusing. She rinsed off and stepped out of the shower stall. The convenience of the separate shower and the en-suite bathroom had been the reason she'd been installed in Alex's king-size bed and, to be fair, she couldn't imagine wandering down the hallway from the spare bedroom to the guest bathroom and climbing into the bathtub to have a shower the first few days after she'd been discharged. But now that she was feeling better, her hormones seemed to be re-asserting themselves and she was increasingly drawn to Alex.

There was a tap on the door. "You okay in there?"

"Yeah. I was just trying out one of your shower gels. Are you sure you don't want your bathroom back?"

"I've got more of them in the other bathroom. I've brought you tea and toast. I'll leave them on the bedside table."

"Thanks, Alex." She didn't bother protesting that Alex shouldn't have taken the trouble, because she knew that after she'd made the effort to dry her hair, she'd be more than happy to climb back into bed with a cup of tea. Nevertheless, she hated being so dependent and sometimes that hatred turned into resentment of Alex – no matter how unreasonable. She hoped she had never let it show.

Part of that resentment is sexual frustration she admitted to herself, making a face at her reflection in the mirror and then inspecting the scar that curved from her sternum to her left side. She knew that there was also a small, puckered scar on her back where the bullet had exited. That one itched like crazy, whereas the angry pink slash on the front of her body seemed content to annoy her merely with its ugliness. She had lost weight and if she pressed her fingertips lightly against her ribs, she thought she could feel the bone grafts under the scar. She stepped closer to the mirror, so she could no longer see below her shoulders and made the effort to pluck her eyebrows. She felt ugly, but she also felt the need to hide her ugliness from the world.

She half-dried her hair and, tired from the effort of getting clean and shaving her legs, she pulled on panties, cotton pajama bottoms and a tank top and stumbled into the bedroom. She lay back against the pillows for several minutes, willing herself not to fall asleep or her tea would get cold and she'd either have to drink it cold or have Alex know how frail she still was.

After several minutes, she felt better and she wolfed down the toast and the lukewarm tea. She stayed in bed cursing her helplessness until the food hit her system and she felt slightly more energetic. She got up and walked out to put the dishes in the dishwasher and to look for Alex. Predictably, the attorney was sitting at her desk typing on a laptop, with a phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. As she noticed Olivia, she ended the call and swung her chair around to face her. "How are you feeling today?"

Olivia shrugged. "Glad I don't have physical therapy." She'd found the sessions exhausting, even though part of the reason was that she'd pushed herself even more than the therapist had pushed her. She sat on the love seat that faced the desk and was positioned below what appeared to be an original painting by Hopper. "Whatcha doing?"

"Hiring your former lover."


"Natalie. I'm hiring her firm to go over the tax returns filed by the three charitable trusts that form the backbone of the foundation."

"Bizarre," Olivia observed, looking slightly dazed. Yesterday Maribel and her girlfriend had come over and Bel and Alex had cooked dinner together. And now this. There was something disconcerting about three women she'd slept with getting along so well when, if she hadn't encountered Gladys Preston, it was unlikely that they would ever have met each other.

"It would be bizarre if we had a few cocktails and decided to compare notes," Alex replied, her blue eyes sparkling behind the lenses of her dark-framed glasses.

"No, that would be sick." There was a hint of fear in Olivia's reply that made Alex laugh. It was a nice sound and Olivia smiled.

"When will you be giving up your unpaid nursing and charitable duties and going back to work?" Olivia was curious, because Alex hadn't mentioned going back to the DA's office.

Alex's smile faded and she looked away. "I've taken a leave of absence."

Olivia frowned. "For how long?"

Alex shrugged. "As long as it takes."

"To do what?"

Alex stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. "Make sense of my life. Make sure my parents' work doesn't go down the tubes because the remaining members of the family have neglected the foundation." She looked back at Olivia. "Suffice it to say, you don't have to worry that you're keeping me from working on anything pressing. Most of what I do for the foundation I can do from here and that's going surprisingly well. I'm planning a fund-raising ball to coincide with the second full week of the social season."

"Isn't that short notice? It's almost Labor Day…"

Alex smiled. "You sound like a debutante… Yes, it's short notice, but the cause is the FOP fund for fallen officers. When I found out that Branch, or maybe Jack, had been spreading the rumor that seeing you get shot after getting shot myself had made me lose my nerve and that I was too terrified to return to work, I thought I'd use that to the advantage of the foundation. So now all the curious biddies who want to see the shrinking violet can come out and pay five hundred dollars a ticket, as can anyone, including Jack, who wants to gloat."

Olivia grinned at the idea that Alexandra Cabot was a shrinking violet. "Where will you be holding it?"

"That was the biggest challenge. I need donated space, which is where short notice really created a problem. I also didn't want a hotel ballroom because that's just too... ordinary. So we're getting a function room at the UN. Gorgeous view of the FDR, top-notch security and excellent publicity for all concerned. One of the trusts gives a hefty sum to UNICEF every year and the room was not in use that night; that added up to an opportunity and I took advantage of it."

"You're good at this, aren't you?" Olivia threw her a speculative look and Alex fidgeted, suddenly uncomfortable.

The blond woman took off her glasses and placed them on the desk next to the laptop. "I'm better at being a lawyer," she said defensively, walking away from Olivia.

Alex was wearing snug jeans and a silk t-shirt. Olivia's eyes followed her movements. "For someone who straddles the line between slim and skinny, you have a really nice ass," Olivia muttered to herself, too softly for Alex to hear.

Alex stopped walking. "Did you say something?"

"No. I was just thinking that, at five hundred dollars a ticket, the cost of wine at your event must work out to about fifty bucks a glass."

"I'm having the wine donated, as well. And I'm trying to get Uncle Larry to pay for the food."

Olivia stood up and walked towards Alex. "Alex, have you lost your nerve?"

Alex turned to face her. "No," she answered honestly, "not in the way you mean." She rubbed her arms and was about to walk away again without further explanation.

"Talk to me," Olivia insisted.

"There's nothing to talk about." Alex wanted to escape. She was standing inches from Olivia, who was obviously not wearing a bra under her tank top. Olivia's hair was damp and tousled and she smelled of shower gel and warm skin. Alex wanted her so much that she felt like crying. It made no difference that she knew Olivia was still recovering from her injuries or that Olivia had given no indication that she shared the relentless craving. Alex clenched her fists to prevent herself from reaching out to touch the detective, closing her eyes as she concentrated on not doing anything foolish.

Olivia felt the ache again. She wanted to protect Alex from whatever it was that was troubling her. She wanted to help her overcome her fear if that was what was keeping her away from the work that was so important to her. "Sweetie, please don't let her win." Against her better judgment, Olivia reached out and allowed her hand to cup Alex's cheek. The warmth and smoothness of forbidden skin made her heart race and she swallowed before she spoke again. "What happened to me was an isolated, freak, incident. Don't let it affect how you feel about your work. Don't let it stop you…"

Alex opened her eyes and when her gaze locked with Olivia's, she was lost. "It's not her," she admitted softly. "Seeing you get shot didn't make me worry about my own physical safety at work. It just made me realize that work could never, ever compensate for not having you in my life."

Olivia moaned and leaned forward, closing the distance between them and pressing her lips gently against Alex's. The kiss violated all the unspoken rules between them, but she could no more have stopped herself from kissing Alex at that moment than she could have stopped her own heart from beating.



As soon as Olivia's mouth touched hers, Alex's lips parted. She kissed Olivia hungrily, trying to satiate the yearning that she had long lost the battle to control.

Olivia whimpered and the hand that had been on Alex's cheek slipped into the attorney's thick blond hair. She felt dizzy from the taste of Alex and she never wanted the kiss to end.

Alex's hands stroked Olivia's waist through the tank top and then slipped over her stomach to cover the detective's breasts. Olivia moaned and squeezed her eyes shut, breaking the kiss as her world came to focus completely on the talented hands that caressed her breasts through the thin layer of cotton, teasing her nipples to near-painful erection. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the sensations, Olivia pulled Alex more closely against her, trapping the blond woman's hands between their bodies. The movement caused pain in her injured ribs, but Olivia didn't mind. Her knees had been about to buckle and she needed the distraction. Her breathing was harsh.

"Baby, are you okay?" Alex's voice was hoarse with arousal and Olivia shivered.

"I want you," Olivia replied, simply, feeling a surge of satisfaction when the statement made Alex shudder against her. "The problem is I don't think I'm strong enough to make love to you… the way I want to." Tears burned her eyes. "And I'm not even sure that making love with you is a good idea. I mean, my body says it's a fantastic idea, but…" Her eyes met Alex's and the fear in them broke Alex's heart. "But I don't know if you'll change your mind again and I really…"

"I'm sorry, Liv. I don't think there have been words invented to tell you how sorry I am for what I've put you through with my psycho decision-making. I want to blame it on the trauma of everything I went through three years ago, but that wouldn't be honest. I always had choices: I could have chosen to go for counseling to help me cope with it, I could have chosen to overcome the irrational fear I have of losing control. I could have chosen, at any time, to trust my feelings for you and your feelings for me. Instead I betrayed you; I betrayed everything we felt for each other when I chose to run away. As stupid as it sounds, I thought choosing not to have you would be better than losing you again…" It did sound stupid, but it was the truth and Alex prayed that Olivia would understand what an emotional mess she had been when she'd made that decision.

"So everything you said, everything you told me about what you want to do with your career… that was all bullshit to distract me while you dumped me?" Olivia's eyes glistened with tears of betrayal and anger.

"No! Of course not," Alex denied hotly. Olivia stepped away from her, looking as betrayed as she felt. Alex put out a hand to stop her and she waited until Olivia looked into her eyes before she said quietly, "Everything I want to do with my career is exactly as I told you, but I never allowed myself to think about how I could do it and have a life. Because that's what you are to me, Liv. You're my life."

Olivia's face revealed her anguish. This was what she'd always hoped for: Alexandra Cabot loving her and wanting a life with her. But so much had happened to Olivia in the last month, so many things she'd accepted as fact had proved to be anything but, that she felt as though she'd been cast adrift. She had a sister and a nephew. She had a woman who treated her as a daughter in ways that her own mother never had; Rhonda Preston came to cook her meals and to make sure she was being taken care of. She had received commendations and become a New York celebrity and, unofficially, she'd been offered the rank of Captain. She had been given things she'd never asked for and her world had been turned on its head.

She even knew who her father was, because Gladys had told her about a file in her apartment and Olivia had gone there two days earlier with Rhonda and opened it. One of the newspaper stories about the PhD candidate who had died tragically had been accompanied by a grainy photograph of a dark-haired man with a wide grin and a square jaw. His eyes looked light and it had given Olivia a hollow feeling in her chest to see that, with the exception of the eye colors they'd inherited from their mothers, both she and Gladys looked eerily like the sadistic predator whose pale eyes had laughed into the lens of the camera.

Gladys had also researched their biological father's family: his sister had died of leukemia as a child and his brother, Bruce, was a "confirmed bachelor" who had dropped out of sight in the late eighties after living a flamboyant life in the West Village. Olivia wondered if he'd contracted HIV and if he was even still alive. Bruce and his parents had been photographed at the funeral and Olivia had squinted at the photograph of a statuesque blond woman in elegant black, standing next to a silver-haired man. She'd noted that more than a foot of space separated the couple at a time when most couples would have been clinging to each other. She couldn't help wondering what had happened in that home to produce the animal that had raped at least two young women within the space of three years.

It had all been a lot to take in, especially while she'd been coping with "playing house" with Alex. For the first week, even though Alex had had to help her dry her hair, it had not been too bad, because she had been fully focused on dealing with the pain and avoiding drugs because she was terrified that her mother's addictive personality had been passed on to her. But as she'd got better, she'd started to appreciate things like the adorable rigidity of Alex's morning routines, the way she tucked her feet under her on the rare occasions she watched television and the cute way she concentrated on even the simplest task in the kitchen. "I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to this sort of thing, so from the time I set the stove on fire, I've been very careful."

They listened to music together and watched movies together and two nights earlier Alex had fallen asleep during Hollywoodland and her head had fallen onto Olivia's shoulder. Olivia had put an arm around her and rested her cheek on top of Alex's head. Alex had sighed, but hadn't woken. Olivia had barely paid attention to the rest of the film, focusing instead on the contentment of being so close to Alex. She had put so much effort into accepting the fact that they'd never be more than friends that going back to the pain and uncertainty of hoping for more was something she wasn't sure she had the emotional resources to deal with. Not when there were so many other things to absorb.

Her eyes met Alex's. "Can we not talk about the future? Can we do this one day at a time? I know you love me, Alex. But I guess I've known that for years. I just don't want you to rush into anything you'll regret." The words were empathetic, but everything about Olivia's body language echoed the terror in her brown eyes.

Alex bit back a sob. She couldn't blame Olivia for not trusting her, especially considering the circumstances the detective now found herself in. She stepped closer and took Olivia's hands. "Okay, I understand why you would say that. And I suppose the only way I can get you to trust me again is to prove that I'm worthy of your trust."

"Alex, I'm not trying to play some kind of mind game with you. It's just that…"

Alex stepped closer and kissed her. As it had before, the kiss quickly became deep and hot and when Alex pulled back, Olivia looked dazed and the attorney smiled, despite the fact that her own heart was racing. "I understand, Liv. We'll go as slowly or as quickly as you want to. Maybe you'll decide that all you want from me is friendship; maybe you'll decide that all you want from me is sex… But I'm not going anywhere unless you tell me you want me to leave. I'm absolutely sure of what I want, but I'll respect your wishes."

Olivia stared at her. There was only certainty in Alex's expression, none of the doubt and fear that had always lingered along with the love and want. Olivia bit back the urge to agree to anything Alex wanted. She'd been there before and it had hurt like hell. Wanting an emotional commitment from Alex had always been fraught with a million insecurities, false starts and painful endings. But Alex also wanted her physically and sex with Alex had been, without exception, one of the most incredible experiences of Olivia's life. Going down that path again would no doubt deepen their emotional connection, but that emotional connection showed no sign of going away, no matter what Olivia did.

"Okay," the detective said softly. "If you want to respect my wishes, then you should know that my first wish is to have you back in my bed."

Alex's mouth opened and closed, but she found herself unable to form any coherent words. To her chagrin, her reaction made Olivia chuckle. "And there I was thinking that the one way to make you unable to talk was to make love to you. Now I know that just mentioning it will render you speechless. I'd better not tell any defense attorneys!"

Olivia's laughter stopped abruptly when warm lips covered her own and Alex's hands slipped down to grab her ass and pull their hips together. Olivia moved her hands under the silk of Alex's t-shirt to caress the blond woman's back as she thrust her tongue possessively into Alex's mouth. She had just unhooked Alex's bra when the phone started to ring.

"Ignore it," she said against Alex's mouth as she swept her hands under the cups of the loosened bra and drew her thumbs over Alex's nipples.

"Mmm," it sounded like agreement to Olivia, especially as the sound was accompanied by the arching of Alex's back, so that Olivia could more freely stroke her nipples.

The phone rang again and Alex broke away from the kiss to say. "It's the concierge. Different ring. Someone's downstairs."

"Shit," Olivia said, resting her forehead against Alex's and closing her eyes.

Alex took Olivia's hand and tugged her towards the phone. She lifted the receiver. "Hello." There was a hint of impatience in her tone.

She listened for a few seconds and then she closed her eyes and replied, "Send them up." She looked at Olivia. "Rhonda and Jamie are downstairs and Elliot walked in while the concierge was on the phone with me." She smiled faintly at Olivia's frustrated grimace. "Can you please do up my bra for me?"

"Okay, but it won't be as much fun as undoing it…"

"And you might want to let me help you to put one on as well." She looked at Olivia's breasts. "Anyone who sees you right now will have a fairly good idea of what we've been up to."

Olivia looked down at the way her distended nipples were outlined against the soft cotton of her tank top and agreed, "You may have a point."

"I think I have a couple of them," Alex replied saucily and they burst into tension-releasing laughter.

"I'll change into jeans and a shirt – just to be on the safe side," Olivia conceded.



"Why don't you stay for dinner?" Alex could hear herself uttering the words, but she couldn't believe she was actually issuing the invitation. Seven hours. It had been seven hours since Olivia had invited the ADA into her bed and it had been seven hours since they'd been alone in the apartment.

First there had been Rhonda and Elliot. The first hour had been taken up with Jamie, who was taking his first steps and had to demonstrate his new skill repeatedly, each time expecting a round of applause from the gathered adults. Even when he'd been amusing himself with the box that the new educational toy from Alex had come in, he'd still dominated the conversation, because Rhonda had needed to talk through the child-care and play group arrangements that Gladys had put in place.

"I don't understand how people operate nowadays. I didn't know you had to make appointments for small children to play with each other."

Elliot had been great with Rhonda, reassuring her as she fretted about being the primary care-giver for her grandson. He hadn't seemed to be in any hurry to move the conversation on to the Fisher investigation even though he'd said the night before that he had to fill Olivia in on a few developments. He'd even offered to drive Rhonda and Jamie to their "play date" and come back later to fill Olivia in on the latest with the case, sensing, correctly, that details of the psychological assessment of Christine Fisher and her motivation for attempting to murder Rhonda's grandson, would be unnecessarily upsetting for the older woman.

When Rhonda had left, Elliot had accepted another cup of coffee and said flatly, "She's going to plead guilty to two counts of attempted murder."

Olivia had felt her knees get weak. She'd sat down abruptly and Alex had sat next to her, unconsciously taking her hand. Until the statement had been made, Olivia hadn't realized that she'd been bracing herself to hear that Fisher would escape justice after almost killing Jamie and so severely wounding her. Even as she'd wondered if she'd ever be back to a hundred per cent of her former fitness level, she'd subconsciously believed that the system didn't care and that the woman who had almost killed her would use psychobabble to escape responsibility.

"No affirmative defense?" Alex had asked the question that Olivia had seemed too stunned to formulate.

Elliot had shaken his head. "I think Abbie had more to do with that than Jack," he admitted with a smile. He'd told them that since they were both still potential witnesses, he couldn't give them full details, but that things had seemed to be heading for a deadlock. "It was about to turn into a battle of the psych evaluations, when Abbie stepped up the pressure. She called a press conference yesterday morning for only the print media – have you seen today's papers?" Alex and Olivia both shook their heads.

"Liv, d'you remember the triathlon at that female police officers' convention in Miami?"

Olivia had groaned. "I was so sore afterward that I missed the last day of the conference."

"That's because you're too competitive and refused to give up even though you're a half-assed swimmer." He smirked at Alex. "She was in thirty-seventh place at the end of the swim."

"Out of fewer than fifty competitors. But lots of women had entered on a bet or on a whim and ten didn't finish. So, of the finishers, I was pretty much in last place," Olivia admitted. "But I finished third overall."

"What does that have to do with Abbie's press conference?" Alex was confused.

"AUSA Carmichael distributed two photographs of Detective Benson to the reporters."

"No…" Olivia had groaned, finally understanding where the story was going.

Elliot's grin was wide. "One photo was of Olivia in her dress blues, receiving a commendation for bravery. You remember the photo, right, Liv? The one that got you all the lesbian fan mail?" Olivia glared at him. "The second photo was from the Miami triathlon, with Detective Benson looking triumphant in a Speedo and very tiny running shorts – pumped muscles gleaming in the sun, hair wild and wind-blown, big smile… And lots of nipple action."

Despite the circumstances, Alex had laughed at Olivia's outraged reaction to Elliot's description of the photo. "So, she was looking the picture of robust health, then." Alex's formal assessment made Elliot laugh, but Olivia wasn't looking amused by either of her companions.

"Exactly. The Times ran the photo in uniform, Newsday, El Diario and the Daily News ran both photos and the Post just ran the one with the…" Olivia stopped him with a glare. "Uhm, anyway, Abbie then reminded them that the healthy, heroic officer in the photographs had spent almost three days on life support and that her body would be changed forever by what Fisher had done. By the way, Liv, I didn't know about your ribs. I've had mine bruised a coupla times and I don't want to imagine what words like prosthesis and bone graft mean in the context of busted ribs."

He'd looked into Olivia's eyes. "I know you don't like to admit how bad it was and the press have been tracking your recovery like you're some kind of medical miracle, but Abbie made sure they didn't forget and start treating Fisher like the victim." He'd shrugged. "You gotta read the stories, but Carmichael got her point across."

"I'm glad," Alex said with satisfaction.

"Me, too." Elliot nodded. "She made it impossible for the DA to plead Fisher down and she told me that Fisher spent too much time planning the crime for a jury to believe that she was nuts with grief when she acted. Carmichael says she'll be coming to see you and bringing Champagne, by the way. As soon as the deal's signed."

"I look forward to it." Olivia was glad to have Abbie in her corner.

After that, the conversation had switched over to the Brown case, which was being further complicated by subpoenas related to civil suits against everybody from Brown's employer to the City and the Fire Department. Alex had become the target of a few bad lawyer jokes and then it had been time for lunch. Elliot had admitted that Cragen had given him some time off to spend with Olivia, so the only appointment he had was with the paperwork on his desk – none of it was pressing. With that, it had seemed churlish not to invite him to join them as they'd ordered pizza.

Elliot was just leaving when Fin and Munch came to drop off three bouquets of flowers and a stack of courier envelopes that had been delivered to the precinct following the publication of the photographs. "Don't worry, I had them x-rayed and checked by the sniffer dogs," Munch had assured her.

"What, the flowers?" Olivia had teased.

Fin shook his head. "You can't be too careful; there are a lot of crazies in this city. One guy was offering you the chance to pass on your amazing genes before you die. And before you ask how we know, it's because his offer was accompanied by a biological sample packed in dry ice. The Captain instructed us not to deliver that one."

"Who knows what the x-rays would have done to his…"

"John," Alex had interrupted, "I really don't think that's the salient point that Don intended to make," her reasonable tone belying the laughter in her eyes.

Unfortunately, that particular barn door had been opened and they were subjected to a lengthy session of Munch's theories on the reasons for declining male fecundity in developed societies.

Eventually, Tutuola had had enough and he'd said pointedly, "You keep that shit up and you won't have to worry about your sperm count, because you're gonna talk your dates to death before your bony ass can ever get laid."

An hour and a pot of coffee later, the detectives had left, but they'd been able to greet Natalie on their way out, because the accountant had left her office early to have a business discussion with Alex, as well as to see Olivia. Alex had made the appointment that morning while Olivia had been in the shower, but after sharing kisses and confessions with Olivia, taxes had slipped rather low down on Alex's list of priorities.

Olivia had gone in to the bedroom to have a nap during Natalie and Alex's business meeting, but the ringing phone woke her when the concierge had called up to announce the arrival of Abbie Carmichael. It had been at that point that Alex's libido had started to make its presence felt. Olivia had walked out of the bedroom sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired and all Alex had wanted to do was drag her back into the bedroom and lock the door.

It hadn't helped that Olivia had smiled at her in a way that was open and loving, making no effort to hide her emotions. "Hey, sweetie. Did you guys get everything sorted out?"

Alex had nodded, her power of speech having temporarily fled. "Uhm… Abbie's on her way up…"

Natalie had laughed. "Good nap, Olivia?"

"Yeah, I was out like a light. I'm feeling better, but it's amazing to me how easily I get tired."

The doorbell had broken up the conversation and Abbie had swept into the room with an armful of newspapers and a chilled bottle of Champagne. "Ladies, the plea agreement has been signed and we have a court date on Thursday for allocution and sentencing."

"What're you recommending?" Alex, ever the ADA, had been curious.

"I assume you meant that as a plural "you", because this isn't a federal case…"

"Whatever…" Alex had replied, because they all knew that Abbie was in the driver's seat on the case.

"New York County District Attorney Arthur Branch is recommending twelve to eighteen years. She'll be out in eight, but she's not the type to do well in prison with that victim mentality."

"I'm glad we won't have to go through a trial. I think that would have been especially hard on Rhonda," Olivia's relief would have been obvious, even without the admission.

"I wouldn't have wanted you guys to relive that morning in front of a jury, either," Abbie had concurred. "So, come on, get some glasses so we can toast the end of this ugly episode and the start of a new chapter in both your lives." She smiled, showing off the deep dimples in her cheeks. "What, you think I didn't notice? I just want to know when this love affair started. And by the way, Cabot, I expect you to swoon appropriately when you see the photo of your girlfriend that the Post blew up to fill page six." She winked at Natalie. "Swooning is not limited to girlfriends, by the way, I had a quick swoon when I saw the photo and before my hormones were overridden by my devious nature and I saw a way to use the "Detective Hottie" image to break the legal deadlock."

Natalie had laughed. Abbie Carmichael was funny and she had actually made Olivia blush. Natalie had met Abbie before, but the lawyer had been subdued in the hospital waiting room whereas the irrepressible mood that had followed winning a legal battle directly affecting her friends, made her seem completely different. "Let me have a look," Natalie said, holding out her hand for the paper.

Elliot's description of the photograph had been remarkably accurate. Subtleties like the way the sunlight caught the planes and curves of Olivia's up-tilted face and burnished the smooth curves of her thighs, emphasizing the faint definition of quadriceps muscles, had probably escaped his attention. The fact that the modest two-piece Speedo nevertheless showed off Olivia's trim midsection and the delineation of her abdominal muscles had probably not impressed him, familiar as he was with her level of fitness, but Natalie allowed herself a brief, "Wow."

"No kidding," Abbie had said. "Benson, can you remind me again why we didn't sleep together when I was at the DA's office?"

"I thought you were straight," Olivia had explained, without missing a beat.

"That's just silly. Everybody knows that the straight ADA's sleep with Jack."

"All of them?" Natalie had raised her eyebrows.

"Just the ones who look like Abbie," Alex had clarified. "He likes them tall, slim and dark-haired." That conversation had set the tone for the next two hours and it had become clear that Natalie and Abbie were very mutually interested, hence the dinner invitation.

Alex really liked Natalie and Abbie had been making noises about wanting to settle down, so what kind of friend would she be if she kicked the two women out just when, after almost finishing the second bottle of champagne that Alex had had in the fridge, they seemed to be developing a rapport?

Despite the fact that the dinner invitation had been voluntarily issued, Alex could barely hide her relief when Abbie replied, "Better yet, why don't I take Natalie out to dinner?" Her relief turned to mortification when Abbie added. "That way, you two can have some privacy to do what those make-out sessions in the kitchen have been building to all evening."

"The… we…"

Natalie was grinning, Olivia was looking embarrassed and Alex was trying unsuccessfully to lie. "Cabot, before you say anything self-incriminating," Abbie mocked, "Olivia's shirt is buttoned up wrong and your jeans are unzipped…"



"I can't believe they noticed." Alex's face was still warm as she closed the door behind her guests.

As she turned around, Olivia pushed her gently by the shoulders until her back was against the door and kissed her. The dark haired woman tasted of champagne and heat and Alex moaned, opening her mouth for the exploration of Olivia's tongue. Olivia's hands traveled from the ADA's shoulders to her breasts, caressing them through the fabric of silk t-shirt and lace bra, then blunt nails scraped over Alex's stomach before the detectives warm hands stroked their way upward again, taking the smooth fabric of the t-shirt with them so that as they covered Alex's breasts, only the thin barrier of the bra separated skin from skin.

Olivia pulled back from the kiss and her eyes roamed over Alex's features with a look so possessive that it made the ADA shudder in anticipation. There was something so hot about those half-closed dark eyes and that silent, focused intensity, that Alex wanted to strip and beg Olivia to take her. She just wasn't sure that her hands were steady enough and she wasn't sure she wanted to do any more or any less than the woman in front of her wanted her to do. Their breathing sounded harsh in the silence of the apartment.

Drawn by wordless sensual promise, Alex leaned forward, but Olivia evaded her lips, choosing instead to place an open-mouthed kiss on the corner of her jaw just below her ear, before scraping her teeth along the sensitive skin of Alex's neck, eliciting a low moan. Impatiently, almost roughly, she tugged the hem of the t-shirt up again and Alex finished the job, pulling the shirt over her own head and dropping it on the floor.

Olivia grunted in satisfaction and reached down to unbutton Alex's jeans and, since they were still unzipped, she dragged them over her hips and down her legs in a single movement. The detective's hands then smoothed over the backs of Alex's bare thighs and up, lingering to caress her ass. In the hallway, the elevator dinged, but they barely heard it.

Alex moaned and used the toe of one bare foot to push the jeans off the opposite leg, but before she could repeat the action to step out of the denim entanglement, Olivia thrust one thigh between her legs and pressed her back so that her ass bumped into the cool wood of the door. At the same time, Olivia pulled the cups of Alex's bra down, so that the straps slid down her arms and half-trapped them to her sides. Fortunately, Alex was in no condition to protest her immobility, because Olivia's warm mouth closing over her nipple caused sensation to shoot from her breast to her clit, weakening her knees and eliminating any possibility of coherent thought.

"Unh…" Alex's head pressed against the door as her back arched in surrender. Her palms were flat against the door while the detective's strong, knowing hands explored her body and her talented mouth ravished Alex's breasts.

Alex wasn't sure if five or twenty minutes had gone by, during which she'd abandoned all pretense at control and her vocabulary had narrowed to two-word sentences that indicated either appreciation or newfound religious enlightenment. When Olivia's mouth covered hers again and Olivia leaned her weight against her, pressing her against the door, Alex welcomed the rough texture of the detective's fully clothed body against her own bare, sensitized skin.

Olivia lifted her head so she could look at Alex's face as she slowly scraped her nails up the inside of the blond woman's thigh making her shudder, then covered her sex with one long-fingered hand. Alex's lips parted on a long moan and her eyes started to drift shut.

"No. Look at me." Olivia demanded softly as her fingers stroked Alex through a thin barrier of damp silk.

Alex opened her eyes and drank in the sight of the woman who was so thoroughly making love to her body. Olivia's pupils were dilated so that her eyes looked black and the emotion in them made Alex whisper, "I love you." Olivia's lips parted and Alex watched the shiver that raced through her at the words.

Alex gasped as she felt Olivia move aside the crotch of her panties and enter her. A shuddering moan of satisfaction escaped from Alex, but she remained mesmerized by the expression on her lover's face. As Olivia's fingers slipped into Alex's wet, swollen heat, she watched pleasure so intense blossom on her detective's face that it seemed to approach pain. That Olivia could get so much satisfaction from pleasing her and from being inside her, caused the pleasure which consumed Alex's body to pierce deeply into her soul.

She leaned her shoulders against the door and closed her eyes, her entire being focused on the rhythmic, insistent thrusting of Olivia's fingers and the thumb that pressed against her swollen clit. She knew that nothing in her life had ever felt that good. She wanted it to last forever, but she also welcomed the hot waves of the approaching climax building in her pelvis.

"Yes. Oh god, yes." The words quickly deteriorated into hoarse sounds of pleasure as her orgasm ripped through her.

Slowly Alex became aware of her surroundings again; she was leaning against her front door feeling ravished and having probably been loud enough to have alerted all the other residents on her floor to said ravishment. She had to admit that she didn't much care, but as she opened her eyes and focused on Olivia, she noticed that the detective looked distinctly pale. "Oh, god, Liv. You're injured and I…"

"Shh." Olivia pulled her into a hug. "You… are unbelievable. You are the sexiest, most beautiful woman in this city… in the world."

Butt Alex noticed that Olivia was only holding her with her right arm. "Liv, I know I didn't care a couple of minutes ago, but did you hurt yourself?"

"Just tired. Want to take me to bed?"

"I've wanted to take you to bed since the first day I walked into the SVU squad room. Come on." She tried to take a step and almost tripped over her jeans, which were still tangled around one foot. Her bra, although still fastened, was around her waist and there was something particularly decadent about feeling so thoroughly fucked, yet still wearing her panties. She laughed and Olivia grinned back at her.

Alex looked thoughtfully at Olivia and said in her best ADA voice. "Detective, I want you to go into my bedroom, get completely naked and wait for me."

"And what will you be doing while I'm following your rather bold instructions?"

"Baby, I haven't even started to give you bold instructions yet… But, to answer your question, I want to get the rest of the champagne and… some other things."

It was dark outside when Olivia woke up. She knew that she'd overdone things because her ribs ached and she was tired in a way she hadn't been since her first week out of the hospital. She groaned and rolled over, blinking in the half-light of the bedroom. Alex was nowhere to be found, but damn it, she had never met a woman who got so perky after sex. The first time they'd made love, before Olivia had been shot, it had been a marathon session and Alex had gone to sleep. Should she get used to the fact that unless sex lasted for more than four hours, it was likely to make Alex hyper? It was something to think about.

"Hi, gorgeous. I'm glad you're awake. I've brought you dinner."

Olivia struggled into a sitting position and switched on the bedside lamp. Alex stopped short and something on the tray rattled. Olivia frowned. "You okay?"

"I… you're naked."

Alex looked embarrassed and Olivia realized that the sight of her naked body had literally thrown Alex off her stride. "I love you, Alex." She hadn't said the words while they'd been making love, so Alex had been wondering if she'd have to prove herself worthy again.

"Thank you," Alex said, humbly. Humility wasn't something people who knew the ADA professionally would have recognized coming from her, but nothing in her professional life had prepared her to navigate the turbulent waters of her relationship with Olivia Benson.

She put the tray down on the bedside table. "It's nothing fancy: pasta primavera. But it was quick and it's healthy."

"Unlike champagne, strawberries and gourmet chocolate sauce?" Olivia's eyes sparkled.

"I had most of that," Alex replied without missing a beat and Olivia's mind flashed back to hours earlier and the vivid images warmed her skin. Images of champagne being drizzled over her nipples and licked off by Alex. She shivered as she remembered the contrast between the cold liquid and Alex's warm tongue and hot mouth.

The slightly quirkier, but equally heated image of Alex using a pastry brush to paint gourmet chocolate-designs on her skin before deliberately sucking and licking off all traces of her artwork, also flashed through her mind. Olivia remembered the feeling of the brush against her skin and the warm stickiness of the chocolate. She had been self-conscious about her scars and Alex had traced them with the brush whispering, "They're a mark of bravery, Liv. They're a reminder that you would give your life for someone you love. They're external evidence of the woman you are inside… and, for only that reason, I love them. I hate the physical pain that came from them, that still comes from them, but they're part of you now so to me… they're beautiful." After that she'd stopped talking as she'd traced with lips and tongue, the skin that had so recently been stroked with warm chocolate. There could have been no more effective distraction from self-consciousness.

Olivia could feel the warmth of returning arousal, but she remembered her physical condition and made a determined effort to set aside her lustful thoughts and concentrate on the fact that the woman in front of her was looking pretty wired. "But have you eaten a proper meal since that pizza we shared with Elliot?"

"I… I tasted a lot when I was cooking."


"My stomach is tied in knots."

"Too much chocolate?"

Alex smiled weakly. "I'm not used to not having a plan."

Olivia swung her feet off the side of the bed and, ignoring the tray despite the mouth-watering fragrance rising from it, patted the bed next to her. "Come, sit."

Alex picked up Olivia's blouse and handed it to her before sitting. "Put this on, or I won't be able to concentrate."

Olivia chuckled, but she pulled on the top and dutifully buttoned it before asking, "When you say you don't have a plan, are you talking about us?"

Alex nodded jerkily. "That, too. But it's everything. I don't know if the foundation is completely fucked up or if Auntie Jo and Uncle Larry are making the staff give me all the worst news first, so that it will all become plain sailing in a few weeks. Right now, all I see is an organization that's suffering from neglect, despite evidence that there is sufficient sponsorship available in the long term and there are sufficient resources available in the short term to make it a success. The trusts have enough assets invested to make them self-sustaining, but each generation of Cabots has built on the foundation, so if I'm to follow tradition, there's a significant amount of fund-raising work to be done. Yet I can't really concentrate on that, because I worry about tax and other government filings even more than the fact that there aren't any immediate plans to raise additional funds or awareness."

"But you're going to fix that by hiring Nat and organizing the ball…."

"I've begun to fix that. But I've had to address two major issues in as many weeks – and the ball is a very small step in the right direction when it comes to raising funds. I have to put my cousin and his boyfriend to work on a longer-term plan. We need a formal strategy."

"Sweetie, it sounds as though you're making good progress. Why is it stressing you out?"

"Because I don't have a time line! If I make plans to return to work too soon, it could undermine everything I'm doing now. But the longer I wait the more I appear to confirm Jack McCoy's snide insinuations that I'm a trust fund baby who doesn't need to work for a living, ergo, I won't feel any compulsion to work on behalf of Manhattan residents."

"He's psyching you out! Alex, you have to do what's best for you and let other people's opinions take a back seat right now. Maybe that's selfish of me because people know I'm here and will probably speculate that I'm in your bed, but I'm here because you watched me get shot and because an innocent child almost died inches from where you stood! You can't dismiss the emotional impact of that, especially after you had your life ripped apart by bullets just a few years ago." Olivia spoke urgently.

"I don't care that people speculate that you're in my bed. In fact, I like it."

Olivia looked away. "You've been through a lot, Alex. The way you feel now…"

"Yes, I have been through a lot. So please don't imply that I don't know my own mind."

"I wouldn't dare," Olivia replied with a faint smile. She found feisty Alex to be extremely sexy, but the ache in her ribs was making sitting up and talking seem like hard work. She felt sweat break out on her forehead and she reached for the bottle of Advil on the bedside table.

"Have a few bites of pasta, Liv." There was concern in Alex's voice. "You're not supposed to take those on an empty stomach. Or if it's too bad, take the Tylenol 3. Just as an exception."

Olivia nodded and picked up the small brown prescription bottle, hating her weakness. Alex handed her a glass of water and she drank half of it with two painkillers. "I'm sorry if I upset you," she said, looking into Alex's eyes. "I have a lot on my plate right now – and so do you. I just want you to be sure before you do or say anything… public."

Alex wasn't sure which of them Olivia was trying to protect, but she knew that she was what Olivia was trying to protect them from. It hurt. She looked away. "You don't trust me."

"Alex, I can't afford absolute trust right now. Allowing myself to believe…" She stopped talking and frowned, trying not to say the wrong thing. "I need to concentrate on getting back on my feet and getting back to work. That doesn't mean I don't want this. I'm here with you and I'm not planning to go anywhere. Even when I'm well enough to move back into my apartment, I still want to be with you. I still want this, but I want us to take it one day at a time and see where it goes."

Alex nodded. "I guess now would be a good time to tell you that Rhonda called while you were sleeping. Gladys is being sent home tomorrow."

"Are they sure she's well enough?"

Alex shrugged. "Her arm is in a cast and she will have to go in for more reconstructive surgery – just one more time, though. And she's like you with the outpatient physical therapy. But they're putting a hospital bed in her living room to make it easier for her to get in and out and Rhonda will be moving in with her and Jamie."

"I'm glad we got the place cleaned in time."

"They're going to install the alarm tomorrow. Everything will be done by tomorrow night." She looked at the tray. "You should eat."

Olive agreed with Alex that worrying about food was better than thinking about the fact that her apartment would be empty and ready to move back in to and that she was certainly well enough to manage on her own. "I'll eat if you share it with me." She took a forkful of pasta and held it up to Alex, who obediently opened her mouth.

Olivia smiled because Alex was actually doing as she was told. She took a forkful of the vegetables and discovered that they were delicious and that she was hungry. "This is good."

"You should make some effort to hide your surprise."

"You admit to setting your stove on fire," Olivia reminded her, offering her another forkful of food.

"Once!' Alex replied before eating what was offered.

Olivia grinned and they continued to eat in comfortable silence until the plate was empty. Neither wanted to voice the uneasy thoughts going through her head.



The following Sunday, Elliot went over to do the heavy lifting and Olivia moved back into her apartment. They ordered pizza and drank Coke and chatted a bit while watching the Mets losing a game they should have been winning. John and Fin came over with more pizza and a six-pack and the game became background noise unless the score actually changed, as the squad members indulged in the sort of banter that used to take place in their favorite cop bar before Olivia's departure.

"You guys know I'll be back at work a week from tomorrow, right?"

"Are you sure about that?" Elliot frowned.

"I'm sure the Captain will have me on ass duty for a while, but I'm probably going to go out of my mind with boredom hanging around here all day. I'm getting a lot of reading done and I've seen every DVD that appeals to me. I'm just too restless to sit in an apartment all day. I've been going for walks, but it's just so… aimless."

"The city is a treasure trove of museums and cultural enlightenment…" John started.

Olivia held a hand up. "And as soon as I could stay vertical for more than two hours at a time, Alex was reacquainting me with the contents of the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Whitney, the Brooklyn Museum of Art… Did you know there was a New York City Police Department Museum?"

"Point taken," John replied with what was almost a smile.

"Aren't you supposed to be having physical therapy?" Tutuola wanted to know.

"Physical therapy twice a week and "gentle" workouts no more than once a day, to be exact. Face it, guys, I need to go back to work, for the sake of my own sanity!"

"And what about our sanity when you start going nuts from riding a desk?" Elliot had the courage to ask.

Olivia scowled. "Six hours a day. You can make yourself scarce if you can't handle the pressure."

"Anybody want another beer?" Munch interjected before the squabbling between the partners escalated any further.

"Not for me, I'm driving," Elliot declined.

"Not for me, either," Olivia said with more than a trace of regret. "I might have to take Tylenol and the doctor says no alcohol with Tylenol."

"Tylenol? I gave that to my kids." Elliot growled.

"Unless your parenting skills are a lot worse than I've always given you credit for, it's unlikely that they'll have been on the booze at the time," Munch returned dryly.

Elliot glared at him and this time Olivia stepped in. "It's safe and easier on my stomach than the Ibuprofen I was taking, but he says it's processed by the liver so drinking alcohol, which is also broken down by the liver, can be dangerous. Even in modest amounts." She shook her head. "How sad is my life nowadays that I can have an entire conversation about Tylenol?"

"Boredom ain't that bad," Fin replied. "We caught six new cases last week, two homicides and four involving sex workers who were raped and battered."

"Serial?" she asked.

"No," Munch replied. "Two were garden-variety pimp assaults to keep women they see as their property in line. One was a male prostitute who encountered a suburban kid with anger issues and one is a John-gone-wrong like too many we've seen. Not much hope that we'll catch the guy."

"Too much forensic evidence?" Olivia knew exactly what he meant and the frequency didn't make the situation any less sad.

Fin nodded. "Happened in a no-tell hotel. Unbelievable number of fingerprints, hairs and trace evidence and the perp wore a condom so it's not likely that the dozens of fluid samples in the room will be his. But they'll be great for the defense if we ever manage to arrest the guy."

"So, enjoy your Tylenol days while they last," John concluded.

"At least you're making an effort; you're doing something useful. And I heard a rumor that Elliot had to ride with the Captain a coupla times." She smiled at the thought.

Elliot didn't smile. "And another rumor has it that I should get used to not having you as a partner."

"What?" Olivia looked surprised, but John and Fin looked impassive and developed a deep interest in their drinks.

"Rumor has it that you'll be getting bars on your collar as soon as you're fit for unrestricted duty."

Olivia knew that the brass wanted to make her a Captain, the offer had been floated by her while she'd been in the hospital, but she hadn't thought that anything would be planned or even discussed that soon. Surely they would have to give her a command before they awarded the rank? And that about the exams? That sort of thing took time. She knew that her actions had resulted in a lot of good publicity for the NYPD, but she also knew that if and when she came out as a lesbian, the headlines were likely to be just as strident. "Then we need to do something about the rumors. I don't want to be anybody's poster child. If I get promoted, it has to be because of my service as a whole not because of one unfortunate incident that everybody involved wishes had never happened."

Her outburst obviously surprised the other detectives and they looked curiously at her. Elliot, ever the pragmatist, especially with alimony and child support payments to make, said, "Don't knock it, Liv, the rank will make a huge difference to your pay scale and your pension." He grinned, "And Cragen won't be able to pull rank on you any more."

Realizing that her response to the rumor of the promotion made no sense unless she explained recent changes in her personal life, Olivia looked sheepish. "Sorry. I guess I shouldn't be complaining about being considered for promotion, not with the number of IAB encounters in my jacket."

"None of the Rat Squad investigations ever resulted in anything serious," Elliot pointed out.

"Just bending a few rules now and then to get the results the good citizens of the City expect from us," Munch added.

"I just can't help thinking that with all the press interest in me right now, a promotion will lead somebody to juice up the story with everything bad that's ever happened in my life and everything current that the public might not approve of."

Elliot frowned. "Everything current?"

Olivia shrugged, but didn't meet his eyes. "I'm just saying that I'm nobody's idea of a poster child." It was clear that she was holding something back, but Elliot suspected that it was something to do with her love life, so he decided not to pursue it until John and Fin had left.

Two hours later he finally had his chance. "What's going on, Liv? Why don't you want the promotion?"

"It's not that I don't want it. I've put in my years, been wounded more than once in the line of duty – and I don't mean protecting Jamie – and I've been a good cop. I'm not being conceited when I say that I probably deserve the rank a lot more than some people who have it now. It's just that, right now, strangers are interested in me because of the shooting and they're going to have an opinion about any promotion I get."

"And the opinion will be that you're a courageous, decorated cop, who will make a great Captain. And if you're worried about your connection to Gladys coming out, if they didn't figure it out when they were covering the shooting, there's no way they're going to dig it up now."

Coming out.

"Elliot, I'm seeing a woman and it's pretty serious. There's no way that I'll be able to keep it a secret from reporters following up on the story of my promotion – nor would I want to. But I don't think it would be fair to her to face that kind of scrutiny at this point in her life."


The phone rang. "Hold that thought," she said to Elliot, "but the short answer is… no."

Elliot changed his mind and walked to the kitchen to get a second beer. It wasn't going to affect his sobriety and he decided that, if Olivia had been having another love affair in secret when she'd been dating Natalie not much more than a month earlier, he needed to have a drink while he listened to that particular story.

He could tell by her side of the phone conversation that either Gladys or Rhonda had called so that Jamie could tell his aunt good-night. He grinned as he heard his usually self-possessed partner telling the baby how gorgeous he was and asking him questions about how he'd behaved that day and what he'd done, when they both knew that Jamie didn't yet have the vocabulary for sensible responses. He was glad there was a knock on the door, when Olivia started talking about Bob the Builder as though he were a mutual friend, because he wasn't sure he could have sat there any longer without laughing. "I'll get it," he said, immediately, putting down his beer and making his way to the front door.

A glance through the peephole revealed Alexandra Cabot carrying two huge paper bags full of groceries. Another tenant must have let her in downstairs. Olivia needs to live in a building with a doorman. "Plastic is easier to carry," he said in greeting as he opened the door.

"Oh… Hi Elliot." Alex was obviously surprised to see him, but she recovered quickly. "Paper is recyclable and better for the environment," she explained.

"Yeah, well, considering the number of disposable diapers I've been indirectly responsible for contributing to the world, a few paper bags are not going to balance that out and make me an environmentalist."

Obviously distracted, she didn't try to change his mind. "Where's Olivia? I wasn't sure she'd have told you to buy fresh food on the way home, so I picked up a few things. But I didn't mean to intrude…"

"You're not. Liv and I have been together since we left your place some time before noon. Believe me, we're not being deprived of bonding-time just because you came to visit. And you're right. We didn't go food-shopping and we ordered in pizza this afternoon. I'll probably be leaving soon, anyway."

"No, no. Olivia's probably sick of me by now. I just came to bring the groceries and then I need to get back home. I have a meeting with some bankers tomorrow, so I have to make sure I have an appropriate suit to wear. It's been a while!"

"I recommend the navy Saint Laurie Ltd. skirt suit with the pale blue blouse. Remind the bankers that they're the hired help." Olivia's voice made them both turn toward the doorway to the living room. She was leaning casually against the wall with her arms crossed looking as though she'd been observing them for a while.

"How's the family?" Elliot smiled.

"Fine, thanks. Gladys thinks she's well enough to come over and visit me tomorrow." She straightened up. "Thanks, Alex. Let me put that stuff away."

"It's okay, I've already started."

"Well, then, the least I can do is help."

"And I'll go back to the living room and give the remote control a workout," Elliot said, with a grin. "I mean, three of us would be overkill and I'd hate to get in the way…"

Olivia rolled her eyes, but the corner of her mouth twitched with a small smile she couldn't quite suppress. As soon as he'd left the room, she walked over and stood as close to Alex as she could without touching her. Her eyes roamed over Alex's face and she inhaled the scent of her, closing her eyes as though to savor the sensual pleasure of being close to her lover.

Alex made a soft sound that was somewhere between a whimper and a moan, insanely affected by Olivia Benson. Her limbs refused to obey her command to step away and continue to put away the groceries. "I know… I know Gladys probably left you enough food to get by on, but I couldn't stay away." The love she felt was clearly etched on her face and she made no attempt to hide her vulnerability.

Olivia opened her eyes. "I'm glad you're here. I know I only saw you this morning, but I've missed you. Just looking at you… just looking at you satisfies something in me."

"I know. I know because I feel it too." This time it was Alex who closed her eyes. "But I can't stay. This is insane. And, besides, Elliot's here."

Olivia smiled. "Afraid you won't be able to keep your hands off me?"

"That's always been a risk," Alex's eyes sparkled. "But I was thinking more along the lines of your having spent a lot of time with me recently and his not having had nearly as much of you as he's used to."

"He'll survive," Olivia dismissed, leaning forward and nuzzling the skin just below Alex's ear.

"It would be rude," Alex replied with a shiver, putting a hand on the countertop to steady herself. All thought of groceries fleeing her mind.

Olivia ignored the opinion and traced her tongue along the outer curve of Alex's ear. "You look delicious… I want to taste all of you."

"God, Liv… Elliot's out there."

"Forget Elliot. Stay with me tonight. Tell me you'll stay with me tonight."

Alex moaned and gritted her teeth. "I… you're so spoiled. Do you always get what you want?"

"No, but that's about to change… because you want it, too." Olivia spoke softly and her voice was almost hoarse with restraint as she held herself back from touching Alex with anything but her lips, her warm breath and the tip of her tongue. She punctuated each phrase with soft kisses that did no more than brush warm skin, increasing its sensitivity and causing a warm flush to color it.

Alex raised heavy-lidded eyes to Olivia's. "If you don't stop that, I'll fuck you right here in your kitchen and that will really make Elliot look at you in a different light."

Ready to take up the challenge, Olivia rested one hand on Alex's hip and eliminated the whisper of distance between them. "I double dare you," she said hoarsely, before her lips trailed lightly over Alex's cheek and hovered over the blond woman's mouth.

It was an exquisite moment. Mouth almost touching mouth and shared breath brushing against soft lips. Every nerve ending in Alex's body screamed for Olivia to touch her properly and she knew that it would not be a night for tenderness… at least not the first time. But the anticipation was so sweet and Alex found the subtlety of Olivia's seduction indescribably arousing.

"Sorry… I uh…" Elliot's voice only slowly penetrated the sensual fog surrounding the women. Alex turned her head abruptly to stare uncomprehendingly at him, but Olivia didn't move away and didn't remove her hand from Alex's hip.

"Oh," he said, as Olivia's previous declaration took on new meaning. "I feel a bit dumb," he admitted.

Alex cringed. "I'm sorry. It's my fault Olivia didn't mention it."

"How long have you two…?" He shook his head. "It makes sense, but, man, it just never occurred to me."

"It hasn't exactly been… traditional," Olivia said, apology in her tone. "We never really… dated."

"Aw come on! The opera, the jazz clubs… But…"

"Natalie?" Olivia asked.

"Well, yeah. Do you have an… open… Never mind. None of my business."

"Elliot, we weren't together when Olivia went to P-town on holiday. We never had been. We'd been friends who went to the opera and other music events and clubs together. Honestly."

Answering the unasked question, Olivia said. "This started when I got back. Before I got shot."

"I wish I'd known. I probably would have been… more considerate to you at the hospital, Alex."

"If you thought I had a bigger claim on her than her partner?" Alex couldn't help smiling and Elliot almost shuffled his feet in discomfort.

"It also ended before I got shot," Olivia said bluntly. "And we're only just beg1nning to make sense of it all."

"So you're back together."

"Yes," Olivia said, looking at Alex and smiling.

Alex returned the smile and softly kissed Olivia's lips. "But I'm having a bit of trouble persuading her to tell the world."

"Well," Elliot asked with a frown, "aren't you on your way to the governor's mansion?"

"If the governor's mansion means being without Olivia, I don't want it."

"I worry that you'll have the choice taken away from you if the public finds out." Olivia said gently.

The promotion. The whole thing fell into place for Elliot. Olivia was trying to protect Alex from the possible backlash from salacious news stories about their relationship.

He was trained to observe and he watched the two women stealing glances at each other; noticed the way they continued to touch, even though they'd clearly been self-conscious at having been caught embracing in the kitchen. There was a depth of emotion there that belied the "just-friends-until-recently" story they were trying to spin. "Why don't you two put away the groceries while I finish my beer. If this evening leaves me too messed up to drive, I can always take a cab home. Either way, I doubt it will be because of the beer."



The doorman had been told to send him up, so Elliot was not announced. As he got to Alex Cabot's penthouse apartment, one of four on the top floor, the sound of laughter greeted him, even though the door was closed.

"I'm warning you," Olivia had told him beforehand, we're having a girl-thing that afternoon, so by the time you finish your shift, we might not be sober.

"Who's we?" Elliot had wanted to know.

"Well, we're planning Jamie's first birthday party, so it's gonna start off as me, Gladys and Alex. Naturally, Abbie will be there and she's expecting to hear from Langan whether Fisher is going to force me in front of a jury, so we might be celebrating the fact that she wiped the floor with Trevor… again, as well as the fact that I'm off ass-duty because I passed my psych evaluation.

"Oh, and, if Abbie's going to be there, then I expect Natalie to show up, since she and Abbie have fallen in lust… or maybe it's love. Either way, they spend a lot of their free time together. And Natalie has two nephews and three nieces, so she can probably contribute to the party-planning thing."

While Elliot had been reeling from that revelation of lesbianism, she'd added, "And Maribel and Koralys might drop in because… well… so many other people they like will be there."

"You're having a party," Elliot had concluded.

"No, we're planning a party, but there might be some cocktails involved in the planning process, so I thought you might like to join us."

"I'll be the only guy there," Elliot had noted.

"Yeah, but there'll be other people who like women and sports," Olivia pointed out with a grin. "Ok," she amended before he could say anything, "I'm the only one who likes sports, plural. Abbie just likes football. But she's from Texas." She'd hesitated. "El, most of my favorite people will be there – the people who kept me sane when I was injured. I'd really like you to come."

"What sort of cocktails?"

"We'll have beer."

"What time do you want me?" The matter had been decided.

He tapped on the door and Alex opened it. She was dressed casually in low-riding navy trousers and a blouse that was the exact shade of blue as her eyes. "Come in. Can I get you a beer? Everyone's in the living room."

"Yeah, a beer would be good. Who's everyone?"

"A few friends," Alex replied with a shrug. "If you don't know anyone, Olivia can introduce you."

There was the sound of laughter as Elliot approached the doorway to the living room and he paused, feeling slightly apprehensive. There was something about a big crowd of women that made him nervous. Maybe it was a guy thing – an emotional scar from high school. Or maybe it was that baby shower Kathy had been giving a few years back that he'd walked into the middle of, when at least three good Catholic women had grabbed his ass within full view of his wife and the whole room had found it funny. Then again, most of the women in this room would be more interested in each other's asses, so it should be safe.

He took a deep breath and walked into Alex's living room. Maribel Piquero sat on a sofa next to a woman with caramel-colored skin and straight black shoulder-length hair. The woman's eyes were an unusually light hazel, given her hair and skin color, and her gaze was direct. Another woman was standing with her back to the room, fiddling with the stereo and Elliot thought it was Abbie Carmichael because of the long legs and the dark hair that hung down to her waist, only to see Abbie casually sprawled out on another sofa with her head on Natalie's lap.

"Hey Elliot!" Olivia's voice drew Elliot's gaze to the far side of the room where his partner was sitting across an armchair with her legs dangling over the arm. "Do you know everyone?"

The woman with the hazel eyes smiled at him. "I don't think we've had the pleasure. I'm Koralys, Maribel's partner. Nice to meet you, at last."

"Nice to see you again." The sentiment came from the woman he'd first mistaken for Abbie. Elliot turned towards her, unnerved. Clear green eyes smiled at him and he tried not to stare at Gladys Preston. It was the first time he'd seen her standing up and he noticed that she was taller than Olivia. They also didn't look as much alike as the photographs had led him to believe. Then he remembered that her face had had to be more or less reconstructed after what that bastard Stirling had done to her, so maybe the photos had been right. But there was no mistaking the similarity in their voices. He'd never before considered the idea that the timbre of his voice was something he'd inherited from his parents.

"Great to see you looking so well," he said, sincerely.

"Here you go," Alex said, handing him a beer. He'd been so distracted by the sight of Olivia's sister that he hadn't noticed her coming back into the room.

"Thanks. So, the party is all planned?"

"I told them to take the kids to McDonalds," Natalie said wryly, "but I was voted down."

"I was the only one who agreed with her," Gladys grinned. "I've taken Jamie to a few of those yuppie baby parties and it's just too much like hard work. I figure the kids would have a better time at Mickey Dee's and the parents would all be suitably horrified and stop inviting me to elaborate theme parties."

"My Arabian Nights theme got nixed because of the Iraq war," Abbie said. "Politically correct toddlers. I briefly considered a hysterectomy at that point, but I decided to stick with lesbianism as a foolproof method of birth control."

"What was the final decision?" Elliot was beginning to realize that Olivia hadn't been joking about the cocktails.

"Natalie had the best suggestions, so we took one of hers," Gladys replied with a smile and Elliot was discomfited by involuntary speculation about how many of her teeth might be surgical implants to replace the ones that had been knocked out or broken when Stirling had beaten her face to a bloody pulp. Her smile looked natural, but it was almost a certainty that surgical steel was holding a few of her teeth in place. He knew for a fact that there was a steel plate in her jaw. But apart from an almost imperceptible scar over one cheekbone and a more obvious one on the corner of her chin and angling down to the side of her neck, there was little evidence of the ordeal she'd endured. Her face was narrower than Olivia's and the shape of her mouth was different, but there was a similarity to their jaw lines and the curves of their eyebrows and their smiles were almost identical.

"I told them to keep it simple and just hire a couple of clowns – one to do tricks and one to make balloon animals," Natalie explained.

Gladys waved a hand. "It's all set. We'll be having it in the back room at the Bleecker Street Bistro on the Sunday afternoon and all the ladies you see here have volunteered to serve drinks, prepare goodie bags and stop the little darlings from killing each other."

"Okay," Olivia said, "now Elliot is all caught up let's get back to the subject at hand. Maybe we can ask him…"

"Yes, Elliot," Maribel looked genuinely interested, or perhaps her concentration was caused by the need to focus and overcome the effects of whatever the turquoise concoction was in her glass. "What was your best ever vacation and what would you consider a dream vacation right now?"

Elliot sipped his beer and thought about the question. "Hmm, Sanibel Island, my first year in SVU. My older girls were all about strutting their stuff on the beach and making their overprotective father unhappy and the twins just liked playing in the sand. Me and Kathy had to keep an eye on them, but there was no whining, no fighting and they all amused themselves without any need to chauffeur them around. The weather was gorgeous, the scenery was beautiful and all that sea air had them asleep by 10:00 – even Maureen – so I got some quality time with my wife."

"Sounds really nice," Koralys said dreamily. "What about now?"

"I don't know. I'd like some time just to hang out with the kids…"

"No way," Olivia objected. "We're talking fantasy vacation, Stabler, not daddy duty. You know – like a ski lodge with Pamela Anderson or whatever your idea of perfect might be."

"I always wanted to see Paris and Rome," he said, after considering the question for several seconds. "The thing is, though, that now that my two older girls are grown up and I only see the twins on the weekends, I really would rather have time with them than away from them in Rome or Paris."

"So maybe something like Disneyland… Paris," Gladys suggested. "It's less than half an hour from Gare de Lyon and all the beauty and romance of Paris, but there are roller coasters and water rides."

"And you can share babysitting duties with those two grown-up daughters you mentioned," Maribel added.

Elliot smiled, trying to imagine the degree of hostility his kids would probably show to whichever woman he chose to take to Paris with him, even though the divorce hadn't been his idea. Not that there was even a serious candidate for a Parisian companion right now. "What about the rest of you?" he asked, eager to turn the conversation away from his personal problems. "Apart from Gladys, none of you have to worry about amusing the kids or babysitting arrangements. So what? Hang-gliding in the Alps and para-sailing in Bermuda?"

As it turned out, apart from Olivia's rock-climbing, none of the women was particularly adventurous in their choices of vacations. They also found that it had been a year of upheaval for many of them and their priorities had changed.

"If you'd asked me a year ago," Koralys said, "I'd probably have said Hilton Head in the off-season – a house on the beach with just Maribel and me, watching the winter rain and sea breeze lash against the windows and listening to the crackling of the fire and the sound of the surf."

"Still sounds good to me," Abbie murmured as she stared at Natalie.

"It does, doesn't it," Koralys smiled. "But I lost my father last spring and I find myself wanting to go to Madrid, to see the city where he grew up, hear Spanish being spoken as his family would have spoken it and explore places that he only spoke of when he was dying."

"I thought your family was from the Dominican Republic," Olivia was surprised. She'd met Koralys's father twice; a reserved, cerebral man who had retired after decades of lecturing in applied mathematics at Columbia. He'd been tall and thin, with leathery skin from his days as an on-site engineer on construction projects in Latin America, hair that had remained black into his sixties and hazel eyes that he'd passed on to his daughter.

"My dad was an engineer who went to the Dominican Republic to work on a government construction project. By the time he moved on to his next job, he'd married my mother and she was pregnant with me. I don't think his extended family approved of the move to New York, but he was offered the chance to pursue his PhD at Columbia and I was about to start school so that was going to restrict his ability to travel from project to project, anyway. His parents had died when he was in his teens, so apart from Christmas cards, Easter cards and wedding invitations that he never accepted, there really wasn't any contact."

"Koralys's mother told us that it had been bothering him for years. She was away from her family, but she kept in touch and she also formed strong bonds in the Dominican community." Maribel added.

"I grew up in a kind of schizoid household," Koralys smiled. "We literally spoke two languages. He insisted that I speak Castilian Spanish at home and in many ways my life was typical of the child of a European intellectual on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But I also spoke Dominican Spanish to the endless stream of relatives who came to visit, although most of them stayed with other relatives in Washington Heights, because they weren't sure what to make of my dad. I think my mother's family, the Hidalgos, have the right idea about what family means."

"And they've adopted me as one of them," Maribel grinned. "They even invite my family to their christenings and weddings, even though there is a serious cultural divide between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in Nueva York."

"I guess my mom is a lot like yours," Gladys said to Koralys. "She was away from her family because she knew how their small community would talk about her having me when there was no husband on the horizon, but she made friends and my aunt came to visit quite a lot, so I grew up with people I called auntie and uncle, even though they weren't all blood relatives, and friends who are closer than most cousins. The line between close friends and family has always been a blurred one, but I like keeping in touch with people who knew me when I still believed in the tooth fairy."

Abbie shook her head. "My mom always said that you should stay close to the people who know you best, because when you lose them, you lose a little piece of yourself."

"I never thought of it that way," Elliot remarked, but I know that I still like going back to the neighborhood where I grew up and talking to the same old guys in the coffee shop – even though they think it's appropriate to point out that my hairline is starting to look like my uncle Enda's."

"My mom might have had a point," Abbie conceded, "but unfortunately, she used that as an excuse for never leaving the small Texas town where she was born. Not even my dad could get her to leave, so he drove almost three hours each way to go to work in Austin. I'm thinkin' there has to be a happy medium between leaving the country altogether and never moving out of a one-horse town."

Elliot noticed that Olivia had been quiet for a long time, so he asked, "Liv, what's your ideal vacation? Rock climbing in the Grand Canyon?"

"Or that beach house with Alex?" Maribel had been watching the two women and she thought it was cute the way they had a tendency to stare at each other.

"I was just thinking… Alex and I have talked about an extended trip to Europe, experiencing an opera at La Scala… but I was just thinking that my ideal vacation would be somewhere warm, with a beach, and sunshine and all the people in this room." She flushed, misinterpreting the silence that greeted her statement when her friends were too moved by the simple declaration to respond immediately. "Okay, the people in this room plus Jamie, Elliot's kids and his date and Rhonda," she added.

Alex looked thoughtful. "How does a private island in the Bahamas sound? An island with a fully-staffed six bedroom house right on the beach, a pool with a water slide and a dock with a speed-boat for water-skiing and taking trips out to the reef for scuba diving and snorkeling."

"All that and a good imagination," Abbie quipped. "You are a very lucky woman, Benson. I kept on telling you that you should find yourself a lawyer."

Olivia smiled because, although she'd never heard so many details of the property, she suspected that the Cabot family owned just such a holiday retreat in the Bahamas.

"Nothing wrong with lawyers," Koralys agreed, since she was a corporate attorney for a Wall Street investment bank.

"Yes, but Abbie, you were referring to male lawyers at the time so, in hindsight, your advice was fatally flawed," Olivia noted.

"I like to think that she was just saving herself for me," Alex said with mock gravity.

"Define 'saving'?" Elliot asked with a grin.

"Can I get you another beer, Elliot?" Olivia muttered, pretending to be offended as her friends laughed.

A few minutes later, Olivia and Gladys were alone in the kitchen as Olivia put some pastries into the oven and Gladys filled an ice bucket. "Olivia?"

"Need something?" Olivia looked up distractedly. She was probably more comfortable in Alex's kitchen than Alex was.

"Yeah. I needed to say that although I have friends who I consider to be family, what I feel for you, the way I feel as I get to know you… it's… different."

Olivia slowly straightened up and stared at Gladys, struggling to find words that would not come for several seconds. "I know," she said finally. "You and Jamie, you stand for something that I thought I would never have in my life. Believe me, when I thought about finding biological relatives, I expected to find the likes of Bill Lawson, not Jamie Preston. I feel so lucky every time I look at you and think about the possibility that we might never have met." She blinked back tears.

"I love you, Liv," Gladys said with a soft smile. "I think we both understand why that's something you should say when you feel it and have the chance to say it."

Olivia felt an almost identical smile spreading across her face, even though Gladys's features swam out of focus as tears filled her eyes. "Me too," she said quietly.

As Gladys was recovering from her injuries and her emotional ordeal, she still occasionally jumped at loud noises and had nightmares that she couldn't remember afterward, but she was getting back an irreverent sense of humor and a keen sense of the absurd that was the complete opposite of Olivia's tendency to brood. It gave her tremendous satisfaction to make Olivia smile. "Come on, sis," she said, with a wink, "let's get back out there, before your woman finds out I've made you cry. Don't tell anyone, but I'm ever so slightly afraid of Alexandra Cabot."

Olivia chuckled. "If you were a defense attorney I'd tell you you have a right to be. But she's great to people she cares about. Trust me, you're gonna love having her as a sister-in-law."

"That serious, huh?"

Olivia smiled ruefully. "Why fight the obvious and inevitable? If Alex wants me, I'm hers; that's never going to change. I love her in a way that's as deep and inexplicable… as unshakable, as my love was for my mother, even though my mother was nobody's idea of the ideal, or even a decent, parent. My love for her is as pure as the love I feel when I look into Jamie's eyes and yet it's as sensual as my wildest, raunchiest fantasies. I don't think there could be a more perfect case for marriage. Do you?"

Neither woman had noticed the subject of their conversation as she'd walked up to the doorway, stopping abruptly when she heard Olivia's declaration. Olivia worked so hard at projecting the image of a tough cop, that it was only in her most private moments that the English literature graduate, who read Whitman and Dickenson in bed, was ever revealed – and only to those she felt closest to. Alex was rendered speechless, incredibly affected by the honesty in Olivia's voice and mortified that she'd overheard such an intimate conversation between the sisters.

"Well I think she's kind on sweet on you, too," Gladys teased, "so you should ask her. I can just picture her holding your baby to her breast with one hand while writing ground-breaking legal briefs with the other."

Alex cleared her throat. Gladys looked up and said, "Oops", but she looked more amused than embarrassed, making a lie of her suggestion that she was afraid of Alex. "I'll see you later, Liv… Alex."

"I guess you heard that, huh?" Olivia said as she looked away. "Look, it wasn't intended to put any pressure on you…"

"Olivia, I know. I wasn't supposed to hear, remember?"

Olivia said nothing. Everything between them had been building to this moment. Alex had been working so hard to prove that she was committed to their relationship and Olivia wasn't sure if her problem was that she didn't trust Alex, or that she didn't want Alex to sacrifice so much that she regretted it later. She honestly didn't know any more if by refusing to commit fully, she was protecting herself, or trying to protect Alex. But now Alex knew how she felt. She'd heard it in no uncertain terms and, despite the certainty of her love, Olivia had never felt more vulnerable or confused.

"Is that what you want, Liv? A formal commitment; a baby?"

Olivia squeezed her eyes shut. Her heart was aching with incalculable longing and she was finding it hard to breathe. The muscles in her jaw bunched as she struggled for control.

"Talk to me, Olivia," Alex said, her voice sounding slightly hoarse. "When are you going to stop punishing me for being stupid enough to believe that I could choose a career, any career, over you?"



"That's not what I'm doing!" Olivia was horrified.

"You speak of marriage, of a lifetime commitment, a commitment to me, but you never speak of it to me. Come on!"

"I was talking about my feelings! And neither of us has any doubts about my feelings, anyway," Olivia admitted. "I love you. I've probably loved you from some time before you first shouted at me for exceeding the limits of a search warrant. We both know that. But…"

"But, what? Please explain it to me because I have no idea what's going on between us any more. We love each other, we spend most of our free time together, we're incredible together in bed and we even have the same attitude towards housekeeping so we don't annoy each other when we're sharing the same space. But nobody beyond the small circle of our closest friends knows that we're a couple and I'm increasingly starting to get the feeling that you're ashamed of our relationship."

"Ashamed? Tell me you're joking."

"How else do you explain it? The fund-raiser is next week and you still haven't committed to attending, you'll be getting your promotion in the next two weeks and I only know that because I overheard a conversation between Elliot and John, so obviously you have no intention of inviting me to the ceremony…" There was no hiding the pain that that knowledge caused Alex.

"Do you think I don't want to?" The anguished question was torn out of Olivia. "I'm in love with the most beautiful, amazing woman in the world and she loves me back. Every morning when I first wake up, I have a feeling of wonder and I can't quite believe it's true. You almost died, then you were taken away from me for more than two years and still this love affair survived. It's the most beautiful, miraculous thing in my life." She took two steps so that she was standing only inches from Alex. "I meant everything I said to Gladys, Alex. I will never stop loving you."

"So why am I this big… secret?"

And suddenly, Olivia knew the answer to Alex's question. "Because I'm afraid."

"Of what?"

"Every time we get close, something terrible happens. Just as I was starting to have trouble hiding my feelings for you, you got shot and they told me you were dead. Then we made love and you backed away, but we both know what was happening in the park that day: we were getting close again. I remember being so excited because I was going to see you. There was this great sense of anticipation because there was no way we could have kept our distance from each other after that night in my apartment, even though we were both trying so hard for the sake of your career. Then I got shot. And now we're in deeper than we've ever been and I'm terrified that if I push my luck and expect more…"

"Something terrible is going to happen again."

Olivia nodded. "It's irrational, but I find myself thinking about how it could go down: some asshole I put behind bars reads about us in the gossip pages and targets you. Or someone breaks into my apartment to attack me and finds you, instead. Or maybe they read about how happy I am and decided to share their misery with me. For a cop with no political ambitions, there's no such thing as good publicity. Our lives in the last three years have made it impossible for us to be a public couple without, well, being a public couple. I thought I was scared because that could fuck up your political career, but I'm just scared… of everything. There's a small part of me that worries that you'll regret giving up your career, but when I'm with you I know that's bullshit. Other people who see you as the Ice Princess will probably think that way, but I know what we've been through and I'm way beyond that. But I'm not going to make it if something happens to you, so I just want us to stay as we are…"

"You can't protect me, Olivia."

"Don't say that!"

"It's not your job to protect me and I'm not asking you to. Yes, being in the public eye might make me a target for crime, but do you honestly think I would have been more of a private figure or less of a target if I'd been running for state or national office? Or if I remain an ADA, for that matter?"

"And look what happened because you were an ADA!"

"And look what happened because you're a police officer! How many times have you been hurt on the job, Olivia? How many times has your life been in danger, even if you didn't end up being hurt? How many more times is it going to happen when you put on that damn belt with badge, gun and handcuffs? Just wearing that badge makes you a trophy for some very bad people!"

"It's not the same…"

"Yes, it is. I want to share my life with you. And you're a police officer. So that means that every time you leave our home I'll have to be aware that you might not come back to it. Does that terrify me? Of course it does! But it makes me more, not less, determined to grab onto what we have." As she finished speaking, she became aware that her face was wet with tears.

"Baby, please don't cry," Olivia said softly, her heart aching with remorse and regret at everything she was putting Alex through.

"I don't want your pity." Alex's spine stiffened and she looked defiant, as though if she ignored her own tears, Olivia wouldn't see them.

Olivia pulled her favorite lawyer into her arms, refusing to let go until Alex relaxed into her embrace. "I'm sorry. You're right. We've wasted enough time. I think it's time the world found out that you're mine."

Alex's head snapped up and her eyes narrowed as she looked at the detective. "Don't forget the part about letting the world know that you belong to me. I know the kinds of things that women were writing to you after your photo appeared in the newspapers."

For the first time since Alex had confronted her, Olivia smiled. "Nothing could make me more proud than to tell all those women that I belong to you, Alexandra Cabot." She kissed Alex lightly on the lips. Having made the decision, Olivia felt almost light-headed with relief. "Is that the only thing you want?"

"Well," Alex said with a small smile, "after the conversation I overheard between you and Gladys, I was more or less expecting a proposal…"

Olivia's lifted her hand to slip it into Alex's hair, cupping the back of her head and holding her steady so that their eyes could meet. "Alexandra Cabot, will you marry me? We can drive up to Niagara Falls, cross the border into Canada and do it legally, then get a honeymoon suite overlooking the Falls and stay in it until we're too tired and sore to fuck any more."

Alex laughed. "You are truly the last of the great romantics, Benson."

"Can I take that as a 'yes'?"

"Yes, that's a 'yes'," Alex confirmed.

Olivia leaned forward kiss Alex, but as their lips were about to meet, Alex pulled away. "What about the baby?"

The detective frowned, genuinely confused. "What baby?"

"The one Gladys says we're going to have. Are you ready for pregnancy and motherhood?"

Olivia looked startled. "Preg… Me?" Her voice sounded unnaturally high.

"Ooo who knew that I could make Olivia Benson, the NYPD detective known around Hogan Place as 'Butchy McFabulous', squee like a little girl?"

"I did not 'squee' – whatever that is."

"If you don't know what it is, how do you know you didn't do it?" Alex teased.

"Because I wouldn't," Olivia replied firmly, squeezing Alex's backside to emphasize her point.

"So, about the baby…"

"You want me to be the mother of the next generation of Cabots? I don't know, Alex, I have a feeling it's pretty painful to give birth to a kid with a silver spoon in its mouth."

"Very funny."

"Actually, it is," Olivia smirked.

"So what's your answer?"

"My answer is, first Niagara Falls, then that trip to Europe to do the opera houses, especially La Scala, then our dream holiday with all our friends…"

"Plus my cousin and his boyfriend."

"Plus your cousin and his boyfriend," Olivia agreed. "Then, and only then, if you still want to have a life where we need babysitters to go to the Met, I can no longer eat you out on the breakfast table, our time alone is reduced to a fraction of what it is now and weekend getaways to see the fall colors in New Hampshire or to go skiing in Vermont become major enterprises, then you can ask me again."

Alex looked surprised. "I thought you wanted a child. I mean, Jamie…"

"Yes, Jamie is one big reason why I'm open to the idea, but he's Jamie. When you decide to have a child, you get what you get. And it's a minimum eighteen-year commitment to someone who deserves to be your first consideration because she can't fend for herself. I'm not sure anyone can be a higher priority in my life than you, Alex. So maybe I'm just too selfish to have a child."

Alex smiled at her. "You realize how unselfish that makes you sound, don't you?"

"What about you, Alex? What do you want?"

"I want you… Nothing else matters."

"So stop talking and kiss me," Olivia replied.

"Good point. We probably don't have a lot of time before one of those half-drunk women comes in here to find out what's taking us so long."

This time it was Olivia who pulled back, just as they were about to kiss. She scowled at Alex and asked, "Butchy McFabulous?"

"It's a compliment," Alex assured her, forestalling any further discussion by covering Olivia's mouth with her own.




Two days before the wedding, they'd had the biggest fight of their relationship. They'd been in Canada for three days. Three days of frenetic activity interspersed with hours of idle frustration as they'd sat in traffic on the Queen Elizabeth Way, the highway that followed the curve of Lake Ontario, between their base at the Wyndham Harbour Castle in downtown Toronto and the restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake where the wedding was to be held.

It wasn't just the fact that Alexandra Cabot was as anally-retentive as Olivia Benson had accused her of being, or that a serial rapist had attacked his eighth victim the week before Captain Benson had been scheduled to leave her relatively new command at Bronx SVU for the three-week vacation during which she would be marrying her partner of two years and going on a two-week European honeymoon. The problem had also been that the Canadians Alexandra Cabot was dealing with had no intention of changing the way they did business just because a highly-strung, type-A personality from New York was demanding unnecessary progress reports and written timetables. Things would be ready on time and, as far as they were concerned, that really was all the American lawyer needed to know.

The tension had been building even before they'd left New York, because Trevor Langan had put a partnership offer on the table to Alex on her last day in the office and she had not yet turned it down. In addition to her work with the Cabot Foundation, Alex had been doing pro-bono and contingent fee work for Langan's firm as they'd developed a civil practice.

Langan paid her what he paid a top associate and she went after the convicted perpetrators of sexual assault and spousal battery and made them pay, literally, for what they'd done to their victims, especially when all they got from the criminal justice system was a slap on the wrist. Her name, and Trevor's, made the papers on a regular basis, because she went after the big targets – those who had dared to use another firm in their criminal trials, at least – including indirect contributors to the assaults.

Their most public win had been against a gym on the Upper East Side that had continued to secretly employ a convicted rapist, even after two female members had been attacked on their way home from evening workouts. The rapist had been the owner's brother and he'd done his time at an Aruban jail after vicious attacks on a local woman while he'd been on holiday. His record had not been revealed until his arrest made the New York Times and an Aruban lawyer read about it on the Internet and called the Manhattan D.A.'s office.

Olivia had mixed feelings about Alex's new line of work. She understood that Alex was doing good for a lot of women who didn't have the emotional or financial resources to fend for themselves, but she also knew that Alex's success raised Trevor's profile and brought him clients who, quite frankly, wanted to procure his services in case they lost their criminal cases, so that they wouldn't have to face Alexandra Cabot after sentencing. Olivia understood the argument that without the backing of a big firm Alex's clients' chances of favorable judgments were slim: protracted civil cases were expensive and time-consuming and Alex could not do that work on her own. But becoming a partner, and benefiting financially from the defense of rapists, would mean taking things to a different level. It stuck in the craw of the SVU captain that her girlfriend had not immediately dismissed the offer letter, even though Alex had said nothing beyond summarizing its contents for Olivia.

Olivia had snapped shut her phone after a half hour call to the Deputy Commissioner. "Alex, I think I'm going to have to go back to New York on Sunday. Just for a couple of days."

They'd been sharing a room-service meal at a hotel overlooking the Falls, because they'd been too exhausted to face the hour-plus drive to Toronto, only to turn around and go back to Niagara Falls for a 10:00 a.m. meeting with the wedding planner. Alex had been in the process of dialing her voicemail because her phone was flashing an announcement of five missed calls and two new messages. She'd pressed 'cancel' and put down the phone. They'd been scheduled to fly to Rome on Sunday night and stay there for three days. "What?"

"They're on the verge of making an arrest. The Bronx D.A. is pushing to convene a grand jury by the end of next week, so there's a lot to coordinate."

"You have good detectives who have been working on that case for almost a year."

"I know that!" Olivia had been impatient. You know that it's not about trusting my detectives; it's about showing them that I can walk the walk!

The "Pelham Predator", as the press had dubbed him, was the first press-dominating case for Bronx SVU since she'd taken command. It had taken all her powers of persuasion, knowledge of political strategy and ability to demonstrate moral outrage, to prevent the Deputy Commissioner from pulling the case away from her squad and assigning it to Major Crimes after the seventh attack, which had been on a junior at the Bronx High School for Science, one of a handful of internationally recognized "magnet" schools for New York City's most gifted students.

Olivia had had to do something, because her detectives had been working the case tirelessly when the victims had been prostitutes and young women from housing projects, but the press had barely given the attacks a passing mention. One "acceptable" victim later, the brass had been on the verge of handing their work over to another unit, which she'd known would have caused incalculable damage to morale - especially since media coverage tended to spur more genuine witnesses to come forward, in addition to bringing out the crazies. Sure enough, the week after the story had made the front pages, two women came forward who'd been attacked by the sleaze-ball, but had managed to get away before being raped. It had been the first big break and it had happened on the same day he'd assaulted victim number eight.

"So let them handle it. This trip has been planned for almost a year…"

"And I know that, too, Alex! Eight women. Eight women have had their lives shattered and justice for them comes down to a few days of grand jury testimony. Those detectives have to be feeling the pressure of that and I should be there to support them."

"They already know you support them! Since we've been in Canada, you've spent more time talking to them on the phone than talking to me."

That had stung. "Have I said anything about your business calls? You know how important my work is to me. You knew it when you met me. Being a cop is not a nine-to-five job…"

"How dare you lecture me on what it means to be a police officer?" Alex had been livid at what she'd considered to be Olivia's condescension. "I spent years supporting the work of police officers just like your detectives, so I know they don't need you to micro-manage them as they do their jobs. This has more to do with political posturing than support of your detectives."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Admit it, Olivia. Your squad broke the case and you want to be there to rub the Deputy Commissioner's face in it!"

"That's bullshit. But I guess you've forgotten what it's like to be in the trenches, since you're about to spend more of your time contributing to the coffers of people like Langan who put those bastards back on the streets to rape again and again."

"Do not try and make this about me. I'm not the one who's putting politics ahead of my wedding!"

"I'll be here for our wedding, Alex, although why you'd want to marry a political whore like me is starting to be a fucking mystery!"

A few more biting accusations had been exchanged at increasing decibel levels, before Olivia had walked into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. Part of her had known that she was being childish and that her anger was as much about sorting out glitches in their wedding plans, unresolved general work stress and the Langan offer, as it was about Alex's reaction to her wanting to go back to work for two days, but she had been too overwhelmed to sort it all out.

Alex had stared in rage and frustration at the closed bathroom door for several seconds before picking up her handbag and a room key and heading for the bar in the hotel lobby.



"Single malt. Up," she'd instructed the bartender, who'd raised an inquiring eyebrow.


She'd glanced at the array of bottles. "Dalwhinnie."

"Good choice," he'd said with a smile. The blond woman had looked pale and tense, but she was a stunner.

He'd measured out the Scotch and put it in a lowball glass in front of her. She'd downed the shot in two gulps, grimaced and put the glass back on the bar, gesturing for a refill. "Better make it a double. Save yourself some time."

He'd turned away to comply with her request and then observed her more closely when he'd returned to give her the drink. He'd been tending bar for more than a decade and, apart from the tension, he'd noticed other physical clues as to his customer's state of mind. Her back was rigid, but her hand trembled almost imperceptibly when she tucked her hair behind her ear and, as she'd stared into the empty glass, she'd squinted slightly and then blinked. He'd silently determined that she'd been subtly engaged in a monumental battle to hold back tears.

Without a word, he'd served the drink and then said pointedly to a man who'd been about to sit next to her, "May I help you over here, sir?" thereby deflecting what he was sure would have been unwanted attention.

She'd shot him a grateful look then quickly looked away, as though his kind gesture had made the fight against her tears that much more difficult.

Alex had played the quarrel back in her mind as she'd sipped the second drink. Olivia wanted to go back to New York to work instead of going to Rome with her. She'd understood Olivia's need to make sure the prosecution of the Pelham Predator was as effective as the investigation had been, but she couldn't stop the hurt she'd felt at the timing. She'd have understood, or so she'd told herself, if Olivia had wanted to be in New York in the weeks preceding the trial, but that had been months away and testimony presented to a grand jury was not subject to cross-examination by the defense, so it wasn't as important to make it impervious to challenge.

Their honeymoon had been a gift from her uncle, Circuit Court Judge William Harriman and his wife Janice who had got together with Larry and Jo to give the newlyweds something they really wanted but would hesitate to buy for themselves. All they'd asked the couple to do was to keep the two weeks free and they'd surprise them with a honeymoon trip. When they'd opened the package just before coming to Canada and seen the plane tickets, pre-paid hotel reservations and tickets to musical performances in each city they'd be visiting, both Alex and Olivia had been overwhelmed – not just by the generosity of the gift, but by the thought and effort that had gone into its planning and purchase. The musical event in Rome to which they'd had tickets had been an outdoor concert and opera recital in a tiny piazza. It had been a quirky, romantic idea, contrasting nicely with the more mainstream concerts and operas they'd been scheduled to attend in other cities. Instead, Olivia had wanted to go back to work.

Alex's face had twisted with pain as the things they'd said to each other echoed in her head. Did Olivia honestly think that she wanted to be a partner in Trevor's firm and automatically receive a percentage of the blood money he made from defending rapists, murderers and pedophiles? For more than a year Trevor had been treating her like a senior partner and letting her work on whichever cases she'd pleased. He'd provided Fifth Avenue office space, one full-time associate with a newly-minted Columbia law degree, two paralegals, one shared secretary and access to a private investigator the firm kept on retainer. She'd known that she had been good for business and was worth the low six figures the IRS said she'd made, but she'd also been acutely aware that she'd been there on sufferance – in the form of a short-term, automatically-renewed contract - and could only control her cases because Trevor said she could.

In a way, the problem was her degree of success: in the time that the arrangement had been in place, she had helped dozens of women with only three defendants' lawyers forcing them to go to trial. Of those that got to that stage, one had settled two days into the proceedings and the others had lost to Alex. She had become firmly hooked on her new role in securing civilian justice, as Trevor had probably intended her to be, so if his letter represented an ultimatum, her heart would break for the women represented by the drawer full of open case folders in her mahogany filing cabinet. That wasn't even counting the extent to which having her name in the papers helped her fundraising efforts for the Cabot Foundation. Langan had cleverly engineered it so that her conscience would keep her awake no matter what her decision was about the partnership. And the one person she could not discuss it with, was the person whose opinion mattered most to her.

She'd silently resented the fact that Olivia saw the situation as a black-and-white issue and Olivia had silently resented the fact that Alex did not. It had been the first thing in their relationship that neither could bring herself to discuss. Alex had known that there had to be a way to outmaneuver Trevor – she'd done it enough in the courtroom - but with everything else going on in her life, the timing of Trevor's move was the last thing she'd needed.

"Must be love," the bartender had murmured as he'd served her second double. It had been a light-hearted comment that did not demand a response, but it had been spoken with gentle empathy that had made it seem open-ended.

"I thought it was," Alex had said, blinking again. "I know it is for me." Pain had flashed across her face and she'd sipped her drink. I shouldn't have said those things to her. He'd started polishing a tray of glasses, staying close enough for her to continue talking if she felt like it.

As alien as the idea was of talking to a stranger about her personal life, Alex felt herself admitting, "We're getting married in three days – at least I think we are… But after the things we said tonight…" Her shoulders had risen and fallen in a helpless shrug. "We've both been working so hard to make it perfect." She stopped talking, not because her natural reticence had reasserted itself, but because she'd felt as though one more word might be all it would take to open the floodgates of her tears.

His eyes had held a wealth of sympathy. "People say things in the heat of argument all the time. It doesn't affect the love they feel. Sometimes fighting relieves tension that's been building about things that you're not even fighting about." She had looked startled and he'd smiled. "It's what causes all that makeup sex."

She'd managed an anemic smile in return. "I'll just settle for being talked to again." She'd looked lost and her voice had become thready. "An hour to think and a few shots of whisky can really help perspective, d'you know that?" She smiled again, but it hadn't banished the sadness in her blue eyes. "Of course, you do. You see it all the time. People who think they have it all figured out and then real life comes along and makes a mockery of their plans. I ought to know – I've died and come back to life." At his confused look she'd added. "Long story. I was shot and we spent two years apart. We both survived. Everything I want, everything I need, my life, is in a room upstairs and I think I've screwed it up."

"I'm sure you haven't." He'd wondered what line of work would get a woman who looked like that and wore her privileged background like a cloak, shot and almost killed. He'd thought that maybe the boyfriend had caused it. The fiancé.

Alex had shaken her head and drained the last of the Scotch from her glass, but the bartender hadn't noticed. His gaze had been fixed on a striking brunette who'd walked in while the blond goddess had been talking. The brunette had been looking as broken up as the blond and he'd immediately thought that there was some other poor bastard upstairs cooling down from a fight with his woman. At least he'd thought so until the brunette had caught sight of the blonde and her expression had changed to one of relief mixed with anguish. As the dark-haired woman had got closer, she'd seen the empty glass in front of the blonde and the pain etched on her face that seemed to enhance, rather than detract from, its beauty. Thinking herself unobserved, the brunette had allowed love and regret to transform her features.

The pieces had fallen into place and the bartender had realized that both sides of that devastating pre-nuptial quarrel had walked into his bar.

"Alex?" Finally, he'd had a name to put with the face that had captivated him.

The blonde had looked up and her eyes had locked with the wide, dark eyes of the woman who'd been staring apprehensively at her. The brunette had tried to say something but no words had come out. Her lips had trembled and tears had glistened, unshed, in her eyes. For the second time that night, he'd felt as though he was falling in love. Even to his jaded eye, there'd been something beautiful and tragic about the emotion between the two women.

"Olivia." Perfect. The tan, the short, spiked hair, the killer body that was sexy in a subtly athletic way: Olivia.

Hearing her name spoken in the husky alto voice of the woman whose pain the bartender had been witness to for more than an hour, had made Olivia pause. Her eyes had closed briefly as though to concentrate on absorbing the single, soft word.

Eventually, Olivia had looked away from Alex, but she'd climbed onto the bar stool next to her. The bartender had moved a discreet distance from the couple to give them privacy, but he'd continued to observe them as he put away some glasses and served another customer. When he'd wandered back within earshot, Olivia had been staring down at her own hands, tensely clasped in her lap. Her voice had trembled a bit when she'd said quietly, "You were right. They don't need me. But my reason for wanting to go back isn't political." She'd looked up and her brown eyes had pleaded for understanding. "I'm worried. I'm scared. This is the moment when the world decides whether my promotion was based on merit rather than affirmative action and I'm terrified that I'll fail. My fear is not rational and it's not fair to you and to the people who report to me."

"Liv, if you need to go, then we'll go together..."

Olivia had shaken her head. "No. I want to spend Monday evening holding hands with my wife by the Trevi Fountain, not reviewing gruesome photos with some ADA who isn't a patch on the ADA I worked with a few years ago at Manhattan SVU."

"I'm so sorry, baby. I know I reacted badly. But I'm worried and scared, too. I so desperately want to be with you, that thinking you might not feel the same…" The tears that had been held at bay for over an hour had spilled down Alex's cheeks.

"I love you, Alex. I will always want to be with you. Things have been bothering me, recently – but I'll work through them. It's my shit."

"Is one of them the offer from Trevor?"

Olivia had looked away. "It's your career. And you've already risked everything to be with me. If being a partner at Hanshall and Langan is the best way to support the legal work that's been putting that sexy, predatory look on your face when you leave the house in the morning in your favorite blue suit, then I'll adjust. I shouldn't take what Trevor does so personally, anyway. I work within the system and I understand that even the worst of the assholes have the right to legal representation."

The last part of the speech had been so obviously rehearsed that Alex had wondered how many times Olivia had gone through it in her head. And it had been equally obvious that that was exactly where it had all remained – in her head. Her heart would always be that of a cop and she would always despise what Trevor Langan represented: the enemy. In a paramilitary organization, that focus was as important as the camaraderie that let officers operate with the assurance that fellow officers had their backs. It was part of their DNA; it was part of Olivia and it was something Alex had no desire to change. But knowing that Olivia had been ready to try, so that Alex could continue to do work she enjoyed, had made the lawyer's tears fall faster. "I adore you, Olivia Benson," she'd said, smiling through her tears.

She'd put a reassuring hand over Olivia's, which had still been clasped in the brunette's lap. "I won't be accepting Trevor's generous offer of partnership – even if he implies that it's an ultimatum. I've thought a lot about this and I think he's waited too long for coercion to be effective. I've been too successful in too public a way for him to sell the idea that only Hanshall and Langan can provide the support I need to do my work. I can think of at least three criminal firms that would love to share my press conferences, even if they have no ambitions in the direction of civil law." She'd smiled. "I almost said, 'civil ambitions'."

Olivia had feigned shock. "Did you just make a lawyer joke?" Alex wasn't going to become Trevor Langan's law partner. The brunette's heart had soared in her chest and there had been no hiding the relief on her face.

"Not one that compares us to lab rats, but I suppose it was sort of a lawyer joke."

"Are you sure, Alex?"

Alex had smoothed away the concerned frown that had creased her lover's brow. "Absolutely. I will negotiate a two-year contract, though, because the offer has brought home to me exactly how tenuous my position is." She'd smiled gently at the adoration in Olivia's eyes. There was something intoxicating about being loved so much by someone so amazing. "And Olivia?"

"Yeah?" Olivia had taken the hand that had been stroking her forehead and begun kissing the fingertips.

"I have risked nothing important to be in this relationship. If a majority of people in any district won't vote for me because I love you, then that is not a constituency I want to represent. When the world of New York politics is ready for me, I might still be interested in following that path. But, for now, I have a full, happy life and there is nothing I'd rather be doing than what I'm doing right now."

Her grin had turned smug. "Besides, every time my personal life gets mentioned, you get described as "the gorgeous NYPD captain" or "a genuine NYC heroine". I even remember an "arrestingly beautiful police officer", but that was the Post, so you probably missed it. And they always remind readers that you almost died saving the life of a child. All in all, I think you've been quite a boost to my potential political career. And their incessant digging into your background has only revealed that you were a national honor student and a summa graduate from Siena, so you're brainy as well as brawny. The worse they've been able to find is that you dropped out of grad school to become a cop."

"If I'm so brainy, why am I still sitting in a bar with a beautiful woman when the chances are pretty good that I can persuade her to come upstairs with me to a room that has an unused king-size bed?"

"Oh, Captain Benson, I think it's safe to upgrade your chances from 'pretty good' to 'excellent'."

As they'd leaned in to kiss each other, drawing amused, shocked or fascinated looks from the other patrons, the bartender had grinned and muttered to himself, "I'd say it was more like a sure thing."



"Mmm…" Olivia moaned into the pillow, enjoying the sensation of goose bumps breaking out over her back as Alex exerted pressure on the knotted muscles between her shoulder blades. The near-pain of the intense pressure made the muscles relax and Alex followed the deep pressure with firm strokes that released tension and made Olivia's body sink into the mattress.

The blond attorney shifted lower as she continued to straddle her lover's body, then she focused her attention, and the movements of her hands, on the muscles around Olivia's spine. Olivia gasped as knots surrendered painfully and then dissolved into sensuous pleasure under Alex's strong fingers. "Lmpff," Olivia murmured, feeling contented enough to purr.

"What was that?" There was a smile in Alex's voice and she allowed her hands to stray from the center of Olivia's back. They lightly stroked the sides of the dark-haired woman's breasts before going back to work on the muscles on either side of her spine.

Olivia turned her head to the side. "I said, 'I love you', but it you keep doing that, you're gonna make me tense all over again – and this time it won't have anything to do with jet lag or press conferences."

"I have no idea what you mean," Alex replied, innocently, but her hands again strayed from their therapeutic mission.

The teasing continued for several minutes before Olivia lost patience and twisted under Alex until she was lying on her back looking up at the attorney. She grinned as she took in the smug smile on Alex's face. "Why're you looking so pleased with yourself?"

Alex allowed her eyes to slowly wander over Olivia's body which was bare except for brief black panties. "I can't come up with a single reason why I would not be pleased right now. I'm in my nice new home, married to an impossibly beautiful woman. And, from the look of her nipples right now, I'd say she's an incredibly horny, impossibly beautiful woman, so I'm probably going to get lucky in the very near future."

"I should have known there was an ulterior motive when you offered me that massage."

"There wasn't, but that doesn't mean I should ignore an opportunity when it… uhm comes up."

At the insistence of Larry and Jo, they'd moved into the Cabot family brownstone several weeks before their wedding, but the renovations had not been completed until literally the day before they'd left for Canada. As a result, they felt as though life in their new home had begun after they were married.

"You have sole title to the place, Alex," Larry had insisted, "so there's no point in paying that huge tax bill every year when it's standing empty. It needs a fair amount of renovation, since nobody's done anything to it since your mother moved to Dutchess County eight years ago, but I know you don't really want to sell it and it probably feels wrong to lease it to strangers or you would have done so ages ago." It had taken a fair amount of arm-twisting to get Olivia to agree – which she only did after her financial independence had been preserved by the leasing, rather than the sale, of her apartment. Many rooms in the four-storey Cabot brownstone were still completely empty, but they both agreed that moving into it had been the right thing to do.

Alex focused on the warm brown eyes of the woman lying under her, licking her lips as Olivia started to speak; the attorney had clearly decided how the massage session was going to end. Olivia found Alex's "determined to win" look incredibly sexy, even in a court room. She thought it completely unfair that Alex could summon it at will when she wanted to have her way with her.

"Nothing would have 'come up' if your hands hadn't been wandering over my breasts when you were supposed to be helping to relax my muscles." Olivia's conviction was undermined by the sight of Alex throwing her own t-shirt across the room, followed quickly by her bra, so that in less than a minute she was naked from the waist up. Olivia lifted her hands and placed them on the outsides of Alex's thighs, admiring the smooth skin and faint muscle definition before allowing her fingertips to follow the direction of her gaze.

"You're mistaken. What you felt was most definitely not my hands wandering over your breasts."

"No?" Olivia's fingertips hooked in the low waistband of Alex's panties and pulled them down a few inches, revealing soft, blond curls.

"No. That was a mere hint of what it might be like to have my hands wandering over your breasts." She leaned forward and her hands moved up Olivia's torso in a firm caress that lightened as her palms reached the undersides of Olivia's breasts.

Her movements changed to what felt to Olivia like erotic curiosity; a sensual exploration that was at times firm and sure and at others almost hesitant. Palms and fingertips, deliberate pressure and light, feathery touches; there seemed to be no end to the ways that Alex's warm, knowing hands conspired to drive Olivia crazy. Olivia's back arched off the bed, seeking deeper, more satisfying contact and Alex lightened her touch in response, but as soon as Olivia surrendered control again, she flicked her thumbs against dark, distended nipples and then squeezed them for long enough to make Olivia gasp, before releasing them and then circling them with the firm scrape of blunt fingernails against hot, swollen flesh.

"Oh, god, Alex."

Alex leaned forward and placed her hands on either side of her lover's body. She leaned close enough for her breasts to brush against Olivia's eliciting a gasp, but she didn't stop there. She slid down so that her pelvis pressed against Olivia's and her warm breath on the dark-haired woman's ear caused a hot flush of arousal.

Alex looked pleased, but her voice trembled from the intensity of her own arousal. "That, Captain Benson, is what it feels like to have my hands 'wandering' over your breasts."

"Ah…" was all Olivia could manage before Alex's mouth moved down to where her hands had been, making Olivia lose the last vestiges of control over her own ability to speak.

When they woke up, dusk had cast deep shadows into the corners of the bedroom. Alex lifted her head from Olivia's shoulder and said, "I am going to manage it one of these days, you know."

"It's physically impossible."

"Not with you. You have incredibly sensitive breasts. How close did you come this afternoon?"

Olivia smiled in sleepy acknowledgment. "Close."

"Would you like to place a wager?"

"You want me to bet against you making me come just by touching my breasts?"

"Yes," she confirmed. "But the conditions are that I can do anything I want to them – not just 'touch' them – or, at least, I get to define what is meant by 'touching'."

"What I would bet is that I'm the only person who truly knows how competitive you are," Olivia claimed. "But how do you know I won't cheat?"


"Think of Lena Petrovsky or Arthur Branch, or in some way distract myself at a crucial moment in order to prevent you from winning?"

"Oh, I think there's incentive enough for you to keep this particular playing field level." Alex's blue eyes sparkled as she put her head back on Olivia's shoulder. "From the time you stop being able to speak, I always know you've passed the point of distraction."

"And you don't always lose that ability," Olivia observed. "I've heard you talk in almost complete sentences, right up to the point of religion."

"The point of religion?"

"You know… religion. 'Oh god, don't stop' and 'oh god I'm gonna come', or even 'oh god I need to you to f…'"

"Okay, okay, religion. I get it." Alex tried to sound irritated, but she was grinning.

There was silence for several minutes and then Alex asked, "Are you hungry?"

"No, why?"

"Because you're quiet, so I thought you might be fantasizing about food."

"As opposed to lying here hoping you might actually get up and make dinner?"

"I can make… reservations?" They both smiled. "But I notice you didn't answer the question."

"I'm not really hungry yet. Just thinking."

"You've been doing a lot of that since we got home – and I know it's not work-related, because the prosecution of Darrel Phelps is as close as you're going to come to a sure thing."

Phelps, the 'Pelham Predator', had been indicted by a grand jury hours after their flight had touched down. There had been all kinds of legal delays before his arrest, because everyone involved wanted to be ultra cautious – or so the story went. He was denied bail and the press had been hungry for background information on the investigation, which only got worse when the presiding judge issued a news blackout, to protect the integrity of the jury pool. Alex suspected that Olivia's squad had wanted her to be the public face of the department in news of the indictment, since she'd gone to bat for them so that they'd had the opportunity to close the case. Their generosity meant that a jet-lagged Benson had not been able to get to bed for a further day and a half after her return from her honeymoon, because without access to the facts of the case, reporters had focused on the personalities, reviving the old stories of Olivia's heroism and the new ones of her marriage. She'd shielded Alex from the worst of it by packing a bag and simply staying at the precinct.

Even after sleeping for eleven hours straight, her neck and shoulders had been stiff from the stress of PR briefings, local news interviews and press conferences where she'd been expected to look her best, hide her annoyance and say nothing of substance, while running on fumes and drinking enough caffeine to stay a few steps away from exhausted collapse. She'd answered general questions about Bronx SVU and time spent on the investigation, but given no details of the arrest that weren't already in the public domain, which was frustrating for the reporters because the judge had ordered all documents sealed.

Through all that, when they'd managed to speak to each other, in person or on the phone, Olivia had spoken freely to Alex about the case. It was when she hadn't been thinking about work that she'd grown quiet.

"I was thinking about our wedding day… and night."

"And yet, you're not smiling." It was said lightly, but there was a hint of uncertainty in Alex's tone.

Olivia turned, so that Alex lost her pillow and had to share Olivia's as they lay facing each other. "That day was the most beautiful, most wonderful, most perfect and the happiest day of my life."

It had been a morning wedding, held outdoors in the back garden of a French restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, against a backdrop of old maple trees with full autumn foliage, flashing glimpses of the Niagara gorge between their sturdy branches and thick trunks. After deciding on the exact shade of winter white they would both be wearing, the two women had chosen their wedding attire in complete secrecy, so that the first time each had seen the other's wedding outfit had been when they'd met in the living room of their suite on their wedding day, after getting dressed separately.

Olivia's mock turtleneck and trousers had hugged her body from neck to knee. The material of the top had been opaque from the hem to above her beasts, but the long sleeves shoulders and neck of the top had been made of delicate, exquisite lace that looked like a confection against the tanned skin underneath. After the ceremony, she'd put on a long, tailored coat that Gladys said would have been "pure Neo, if it had been made of black leather" and which radically changed the lace and high heels of her wedding outfit to something slightly butch. "Because I know it makes you hot," Olivia had told Alex.

Alex had also chosen not to wear a dress and her trousers draped smoothly over her slim hips before flaring softly in a way that had made them almost indistinguishable from a more traditional garment. The wide, handmade belt had emphasized her slender figure and her midriff had been covered by translucent film of cream silk that clung to her skin and followed the line of her body except for a deep V on her back, which had been left completely bare.

Her breasts, shoulders and arms had been covered by the same material which had been used for her trousers, but while the sleeves were loose and merely suggestive of slim, shapely limbs, the material that ended below her breasts had been only slightly less revealing of their shape than the translucent silk that dipped into her navel. The only thing conservative about Alex that day had been the up-combed hair, interwoven with sprigs of orange blossom, and the tears she'd cried when she and Olivia had exchanged their vows.

Later, she'd denied sentimentality, "I wasn't crying, I was freezing so my eyes watered. It was fifty degrees out there and, unlike you, I didn't think to have a jacket made!" but Olivia had known differently, because there had been tears on her own cheeks at the time.

Their friends had all been there looking gorgeous, including Maribel and Koralys, Abbie and Natalie and Elliot and his date, Kathy, who also happened to be his ex-wife. Fin had declined to bring a date and had brought his son as his guest and Munch had said the whole thing made him want to try marriage for the fifth time. A few friends Alex had had since college but whom she seldom got to see, as well as one of Olivia's buddies who had moved to Atlanta when she'd started at SVU, had been among the less familiar faces, but most of the guests had known each other and the party had been a blast. Gladys, Rhonda and the small contingent of Cabots had been beaming throughout the ceremony and the ring-bearer, Jamie, had been adorable in his tiny morning suit. The fact that he'd clung to Olivia's leg like a limpet from the time the poor woman conducting the ceremony had made the mistake of touching him had been a small price to pay for the perfect way he'd played his role until then. Even the weather had been perfect: sunny and in the mid-sixties, with brilliant skies and only a slight breeze.

"So, it was the wedding night that has made you so pensive?"

Olivia touched Alex's arm reassuringly. "Sweetie, you know exactly how beautiful the wedding night was."

"I sense a 'but' coming."

"There's no 'but'. I just wonder if you meant it; if you meant what you said."

"Oh." Alex looked away. "I wasn't sure I'd said that out loud – or that you'd heard, since you didn't mention it afterward."

Olivia smiled. "You have excellent enunciation, even when you're… you know."

"I'm sorry, Liv, I didn't mean to upset you… I just…"

"You want a baby."

"And you don't, do you? Or you would have said something that night."

"I wasn't sure if you were serious. Alex, you've gotta realize that you said it somewhere in between 'fuck me harder', 'yes, baby, just like that' and 'oh god, I'm gonna come'," Olivia smiled at the memory.

Her smile faded. "It wasn't until the next day that I though you might have accidentally revealed something you'd meant to keep to yourself."

"The next day?"

"The next day at the airport, when Gladys, Jamie, Elliot and Kathy were seeing us off. I saw the way you looked at me – looked at us." Alex broke eye contact and Olivia knew that she was right.

"When I see you with him, I want to share that same closeness and sense of family with you," the blond woman admitted quietly.

"I love kids, you know that. Knowing that I'm working for justice for those who are the most vulnerable and protecting the rest of them from predators, that's the main reason I've never got burned out from working SVU cases. If you want to have a baby, I'd be happy to do that with you. I think you'd make a great mother – you're so earnest and protective of the people you care about, but with so much self-discipline…"

"You've decided not to take me literally."

"What do you mean?" Then she remembered exactly what Alex had said and, this time it was Olivia who looked away.

"Alex, it would be really difficult for me to be pregnant, right now. I know we're hoping to be up to full strength within six months, but two of my detectives asked to be reassigned during the stalled Phelps investigation and I already had one on loan from homicide. You saw what the last few days have been like. I feel as though I barely survived - and that's with a reasonably fit, definitely not pregnant, body."

"That was with an extremely fit body," Alex corrected. "I'm not asking you to go through pregnancy, but it's important to me that you're the biological mother of our child." When Olivia would have protested, she added, "And I think it's important for you, too."

"Me? Why?"

"It's the ultimate act of faith, Liv. It will tell me that you accept everything that has happened to your mother and to you. You would be going several steps beyond saying that you're more than the genetic code that was passed on to you at conception." She rested her palm gently against Olivia's cheek. "I adore you. I can't deny that my reason for wanting your child is a selfish one that comes directly from everything else I feel for you. That day in the kitchen, the day you proposed, just hearing Gladys talk about holding your baby to my breast made me forget how to breathe…"

The admission stunned Olivia, because she remembered immediately suppressing her emotional reaction to the image and she'd been relieved when Alex had said all she'd wanted was a life with her, because anything else would have been too much to cope with at the time. But the memory also made her realize that their conversation had been two years in the making.

Alex watched the emotions chase each other across Olivia's face and then she continued quietly, "But I also think that your baby would close that circle of healing and get you to the point where our future is not haunted by ghosts of the past."

Olivia closed her eyes, hiding her feelings from Alex as she thought about what the attorney had said. When she opened her eyes, they were moist. "I think that everything I went through in life – my mom's drinking, the bad relationships, getting shot… everything – was so that I could deserve you… just a little bit." She offered Alex a lopsided grin, although a tear slipped down her nose. "You want me to feel as much… peace about my mother as I feel about my father. The peace that I found when Gladys and Jamie came into my life."

Alex nodded, relieved that Olivia had so quickly understood what she'd been trying to say. "You said that your mother told you no matter how awful it had been to be raped, she was still glad she had you. You've come to terms with the actions of her rapist, but you've never quite believed that, have you?"

"Is that a reason to have a child, Alex?"

"No. But having a lot of love to give, space in your home and in your life, a stable, loving marital relationship and the time and energy to provide the kind of support that will enable a child to thrive… those are pretty good reasons to have a child."




"So I can tell you again without freaking you out?"

"I want you to be able to tell me anything that's important to you, Alex. I love you."

"I love you, too."

The End

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