DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Carmichael belongs (though she might argue the statement) to Dick Wolf and NBC. Kirkendall belongs to Steven Bochco and ABC.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in the series. And I'm pretty sure that if you haven't read the others you might be kinda lost, but maybe not.
FEEDBACK: Feedback welcome at: sbowers04@yahoo.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Days Like These
By Sharon Bowers


"Well well well... look out ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has finally arrived in the building!" The plump redhead's extravagant laugh whooped across the diner, drawing a number of startled eyes to the lean, dark-haired figure standing sheepishly in the restaurant's doorway.

Fortunately for Abbie Carmichael, most patrons-- upon seeing that it was only a woman and not the ghost of the King himself-- returned their attention to the artery-clogging confections contained on their plates. Those who recognized the attorney from her recent appearances on the nightly news murmured among themselves that television hadn't quite done her justice. The onyx length of Carmichael's hair fell loosely around her shoulders, framing eyes that glittered darkly from a painfully angular face. Deceptively strong, sinewy muscles were hidden beneath well-cut linen trousers and blazer, but she stood with the easy grace of someone at peace with her body. It wasn't gentle, this beauty that defined Carmichael in a way she had never wanted-- it demanded attention, second third fourth looks from even those who considered themselves inured to physical charm. The recklessly elegant length of her body could make a priest weep or a rival rend their flesh in despair; but for most of her adult life, Abbie Carmichael had been resolutely alone.

Now, almost against her will, her solitary condition was beginning to change.

"How's it going, Mae?" She smiled loosely at the closest thing she'd had to a friend for most of these long years of her New York exile. Lucinda Williams' rambling voice on the jukebox drifted in and around the low hum of conversation as Carmichael made her way to the back table marked "Reserved."

"About the same," Mae replied, putting two tea glasses on the table and settling her own bulk across from the attorney. "Unless you count older, fatter, and meaner. At least that's what Harold says." Mae Harper's Alabama accent hadn't softened, despite the twenty five years she had lived in New York with her husband. The lazy vowels were a blessed relief and a sharp contrast to the clipped, nasal accents that normally assaulted Carmichael's ears.

"Harold would never say that," Abbie reproached, grinning.

Mae nodded amiably. "I'd snatch off what little hair he has left on his head if he did. But, what can I say? It's true. Whatchyou been up to? I saw you on the TV last week. You looked tired."

Carmichael snorted. "Thanks, Mae. Good to hear."

"Now you know what I mean. That boss of yours don't ever give you a day off? Seemed like for a little while every time I turned around there you were."

"Tell me about it," Abbie groaned. Something about the Pruitt case-- no doubt because of its combination of beautiful women, homosexuality, and brutal murder-- had gripped the fevered imaginations of New Yorkers. Only now that the Diallo trial had started-- with its even more lurid combination of racial bias, dirty police officers, and brutal murder-- had Abbie been able to return to something resembling a peaceful existence. Of course it hadn't helped that the local edition of The New York Times Magazine had run an article on her called "The Long Arms of the Law," chronicling her six-year career in the DA's office and featuring a rather casually provocative shot of her in jeans, boots, and a white sleeveless T-shirt. Her protests that she hadn't given the magazine the four year old picture-- which had been taken at a narcotics bureau picnic when she and everybody else had been off-duty-- fell on deaf ears at the DA's office.

Over her vociferous objections, McCoy had taken to calling her "Cowboy." Now everybody else was picking up the damn nickname, and it looked like she was going to be stuck with it until something more interesting came along to divert this particularly adolescent round of teasing.

She realized that McCoy's teasing-- and her willingness to accept it-- signaled a change in their relationship. Tension still remained in abundance, but now it centered more on the changing nature of their relationship instead of professional distrust. She would have given anything in the world to know what had happened to make McCoy willing to at least trust her legal judgment, if not her personal one. Still, it was better than nothing-- not to mention a whole lot better than it had been-- and Abbie wasn't about to look this particular gift horse in the mouth.

"Hey, you..." Mae waved a hand in front of her unseeing eyes. "Where'd you go?"

"Sorry about that." Half a grin curled ruefully over one side of her face. "Just thinking about work."

"Well, stop that right now," Mae commanded. "It'll give you gray hair. Tell me about sompthin more interestin'-- like that pretty little friend of yours. You never did bring her back for pie." The older woman wagged a disapproving finger at the young attorney. "Don't tell me you've run her off already."

The mouthful of sweet tea that Abbie was about to swallow instead spluttered free on a strangled cough. Instantly Mae was beside her, whacking her back with rhythmic abandon until the last of the liquid cleared her air passages. "Damn, Mae. You trying to kill me?" she coughed.

"I thought you were choking," she protested.

"Well, I'm not, so quit knocking the hell out of me."

"Whoops. Sorry. Here let me clean up this mess." Mae dug a washcloth out of a voluminous red-apron that clashed restlessly with her hair and wiped the table clean. "There-- god, girl, you're messier than my grandbabies."

"Mae--" Abbie warned, arching a severe brow.

"Now don't you go giving me that lawyer look. It don't impress me none. And don't think it's gonna change the subject any. You promised that girl some of my pie."

"That girl-- as you call her-- is a forty year old police detective with nine years on the force and two sons. She carries a gun. I don't think she'd like being called a girl."

"Is she a boy?"


"Well, then. I guess she'd be a girl," Mae pointed out proudly.

Surrendering to the other woman's logic, Abbie rolled her eyes. "Yes, but she's a very busy girl. Just like me."

"Which means you're evadin the issue. I bet you find time to play those basketball games you like so much. You could find time to bring her in for one little piece of pie if you wanted to."

"Mae, leave it alone about the pie."

"Okay, no pie. Take her out for dinner someplace nice."

"Arrrggghhhh...." Abbie threw up her hands in outrage but was unable to hide the humor in her eyes. "I'm gonna find some new music for the juke box. And then you're gonna tell me why you're so interested in my love life all of a sudden."

"Cause you never had one before," Mae called over her shoulder, watching her young friend make her way through the tables.

Carmichael chose not to reply as she flipped her way idly through the juke box selections. George Jones, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette... no, she wasn't in the mood for any of those familiar, melancholy voices tonight. After a week of nothing but chilling rain, the weather had turned unexpectedly warm, teasing New Yorkers with a rare taste of spring breezes and fair blue skies that almost reminded Abbie of home.

Contrary to what Mae had assumed about her evading Jill, she and the police detective had been trying valiantly to find some time together outside of work. The never-ending stream of crime, court dates and-- most recently-- reporters had, however, conspired to keep them apart with maddening consistency. True to their luck of late, a babysitter with strep throat had preempted the plans she and Jill had made for tonight, and the flush of anticipation for their evening had yet to wash out of her system.

She had come to the diner on impulse, unwilling to surrender her few free hours to the office. She had the rest of the week to bury herself in whatever horrors the people of New York were committing upon each other. Tonight, however, had been meant for her and Jill-- and the chance to explore the gossamer thread of connection between them, unencumbered by gun, badge, or briefcase. Her heart had seemed to thump double-time all day; and, while she had managed to control the stupid grin that threatened to run rampant across her lips, she had been unable to resist the urge to whistle snatches of her favorite songs as she cruised through the day.

"Whatever drugs you're on," McCoy advised at lunch, "Keep taking them."

Even after their plans had fallen through, her blood still beat with a sultry pulse that was simply a promise of things to come. From their first unusual meeting, Jill Kirkendall had seemed to effortlessly slice through both the professional veneer and the personal barricades that protected the fragile remains of the Texan's heart-- inspiring in Carmichael both a gut-wrenching terror and a kind of giddy joy that she hadn't known since... well, since the last and only time she had fallen in love.

With a wry smile, Abbie punched the selection button for Buddy Guy's "Stone Crazy" before returning to her chair and Mae's inquisitive eyes. "The blues?" Mae asked, shaking her head. "Now honey you know listening to the blues can mean only two things, and you don't look too sad to me."

"I'm not," the attorney confirmed.

"Which brings us back to that good-lookin' friend of yours."


"Oh girl, don't look at me like I ain't been a country mile or two. Back when me and Harold got together I had it goin on, I'll have you know."

"I don't doubt that for a minute."

"But let me tell you, when I saw Harold I knew exactly what I wanted. And I didn't waste any time letting him know it either."

"What are you trying to tell me, Mae?"

The older woman leaned forward, placing a plump, beringed hand over hers. "How long we known each other now? Y how many years? And in all that time I've never seen you any other way but alone. So smart and pretty-- and a sadness wrapped around you so tight like it's never gonna give you up. I care about you like you were one of my own girls, Abbie, even though you haven't ever wanted me to... and I've never said one thing about the way you lived your life." Abbie opened her mouth to protest, but Mae shushed her with a hand. "I'm not talkin' about who you love, but the fact that you won't let yourself love anybody-- man or woman.

"That girl... she touches something inside you. I don't understand how or why, but I can see it in your eyes. It's been there since the night you brought her in here. You're a damn fool if you let that get away... however you try to make it right in your head. You understand me?"

Kicking the door shut behind her with one low-heeled pump, Abbie leaned wearily against the frame and flipped through the mail she had picked up on her way in. As had been the case since the Pruitt murder had broken, the answering machine was blinking spastically with messages-- no doubt from reporters and other people she really didn't want to talk to. Last week somebody had offered her ten thousand dollars to pose nude on his internet web site. She crossed her apartment and punched the "Play" button on the machine as she shed first her blazer then her shirt. Turning the volume up loud enough to echo down the hall and into the bedroom, Abbie listened with half an ear to the litany of requests for interviews, pictures, and the couple of heavy breathers that seemed to be de rigueur ever since she had moved to the city. Hopping rather gracelessly around her bedroom, she kicked her heels off and removed her stockings-- dropping the former into her closet and the latter into her laundry basket and shutting the door on the whole mess.

Flopping backwards onto the tidy field of her bed, she groaned in relief and stretched long arms over her head. Her spine popped in aching complaint, and she reconsidered Lenny Briscoe's offer to hook her up with his chiropractor. Sitting in a chair for most of the day wasn't doing her body any good, and it didn't seem to matter how much she stretched in the mornings and evenings. The residual tension just kept building, coiling in the sinew of her muscles and drawing her a little tauter every day.

A quietly familiar voice, instantly recognizable despite its low-pitched hesitation, abruptly jerked Abbie's attention back to the answering machine. "Abbie... um... hi, it's Jill." A muted chuckle. "Of course it's me, right? Who else has stood you up tonight?

"I just wanted to tell you again that I'm really sorry. I... was really looking forward to this evening." Another uncertain chuckle. "Anyway... I must sound like an idiot. I feel like one. I just wanted to call... and just... say that I guess. After I put the boys to bed, maybe I could call back? At least we could talk. I'd like that."

Abbie propped herself up on her elbows, a lazy smile spreading across her face as she listened to Kirkendall hanging up the phone. The machine clicked off, the sound unnaturally loud in the suddenly quiet apartment.

She felt oddly young, filled with an exuberant optimism that she had only known briefly. The arrogance of indestructibility of her true youth had been destroyed early on as first a single individual and then her whole university had told her that somehow-- because of her birth, her sex, her looks-- she was less than.

She was going to have to tell Jill sooner or later. The turn their relationship was taking-- even if eventually they realized they were better off as friends-- wouldn't stand for a lie of omission like this one. Abbie suspected Jill had her own scars and secrets, not the least of which was her ex-husband and his sudden reappearance in her life.

The digitized purring of her telephone tugged Abbie away from her musings; and she glanced at the pale green read-out with a heart that suddenly thumped double-time. "Why do you feel like an idiot?" she asked without preamble when she picked up the receiver.

Muted laughter floated through the wire. "How did you know it was me?"

"Caller ID."

"Oh. And I was hoping you were psychic. We've got a couple of unsolved cases I could use your help on."

"Well, I'd be happy to help you any way I can, Detective, but my psychic powers seem to be less than reliable these days. If they weren't, I would have seen this whole babysitter thing coming and warned you to get another one," she teased.

"I'm so sorry about this, Abbie..." Genuine regret laced Jill's words. "I..."

"Relax, Jill," Abbie soothed. "It's okay. We'll figure something out." Although she wasn't quite sure what. Dating someone with kids had never even entered into the realm of possibility for her. She had been so career-driven for so long that the few people who had come into her romantic orbit were similarly driven. None of them had even had so much as a cat, let alone two curious and growing boys.

Kirkendall laughed ruefully, as if she were privy to Abbie's thoughts. "I hope so. Tell me what you did tonight."

Carmichael shrugged, lying back down on the bed and holding the receiver in one hand while tucking the other behind her head. "Not much. Went to Mae's. She's all riled at me because I haven't brought you back by for some pie. Kept asking me if I'd run you off already."

"What did you tell her?"

"I said I hoped not, but that the jury was still out on that one."

A hesitant pause filled the wire between them. "I'm still here, Abbie."

In the lingering silence Abbie closed her eyes against the unfamiliar wash of emotion. "But the jury is still out, isn't it?."

"I have no idea what I'm doing."

"I think it's called dating," Carmichael joked lightly, wanting to break the pall of uncertainty threatening to descend.

"I'm familiar with the dating part, it's just the..." She hesitated.

"Woman part?" Abbie finished for her.

"Yeah. I take it you've done this before."

"A time or two," Carmichael admitted.

"Well... which is it?" Kirkendall asked, a teasing tone overlaying the seriousness of her question. "One time or two?"

Abbie snickered softly and replied, "More than two, but less than five." Her voice grew serious. "If you're asking me if I get around, the answer is I don't. My last relationship-- if you could even call it that-- was over four years ago. We were... well, let's just say it wasn't love. It lasted for about six months before it self-destructed. Luckily we had enough sense to stay friends." On the surface of things, she and Toni Ricci had been very much alike, dedicated and driven to make their world a safer place-- but Ricci had a sense of humor about her position in the leaky bucket brigade of the narcotics division. She knew it was a never-ending and in some ways futile task, but that knowledge wasn't going to stop her from trying her damnedest to do what she could. Her close ties to her Russian parents tethered her to a larger place in the world-- whereas all there was for Abbie was the work. Ultimately, that hadn't been enough to sustain a relationship. "Since then, I've had a date here and there, but nothing... intimate."

"Can I ask why?"

Abbie shifted on the bed, now lying diagonally across its length, and shoved a pillow under her head. "No time. No energy. No inclination." A deceptively simple explanation for a very complicated truth. Across from her, the windows displayed the city in all its panoramic majesty. Lights dotted the buildings beyond her window panes and muted traffic sounds drifted through the open windows. She left the lights off, content to enjoy the dim illumination that rendered her body a faint, golden brushstroke against the bed's dark comforter. "Take your pick. What about you?"

"There was... someone last year. I thought it was serious, but considering how easy it was to break it off with him, I guess it wasn't."

"He on the Job?" she asked, somehow knowing that Jill didn't meet a lot of people who weren't in law enforcement. If the difficulty they had been having arranging something as simple as a dinner was any indication of how hard her daily life was, Carmichael marveled that the woman ever had time for herself at all.

Abbie could hear the hesitation crackling over the phone line, as Jill thought about the answer. "He's an ADA, actually. Leo Cohen."

"You're kidding." The words were out before Abbie could stop them, and she clamped a hand over her own mouth to stifle a wild laugh. Who would have dreamed that the little weasel Cohen had such outstanding taste in women?

"It seems like I was the last person in the world to realize what a jerk the guy was. But at the time he was very sweet."

"So what happened?"

"He tried to interfere with me doing the Job," she replied coldly; and Carmichael was reminded of how formidable this woman could be when she chose. "Diane and I were working a sting on this guy who liked to dope up whores and force them to OD. Leo objected to my taking part in the op, acted like my dressing up like a whore made me one."

Carmichael whistled low in her throat. "I knew Leo was an asshole; I didn't think he was dumb too."

"Yeah, well... I was surprised myself at the time. He was good with the boys, though. They liked him, and I think that had a lot to do with why I thought it was more serious than it was. I don't know though, maybe I'm just unconsciously attracted to assholes."

"Thanks a lot."

She could almost hear the intensity of Jill's blush over the phone. "That's not what I meant... I... you know that. I'm sorry. You already proved that you don't bring anything personal to the Job. That day we met again at the House, you didn't even bat an eye-- everything was just business as usual for you."

"That's not entirely true," Abbie admitted before she realized what she was saying, and the expectant pause on the other end of the line only demanded that she continue. "That morning... When Diane introduced us, you hid behind her and wouldn't look at me... I thought you were ashamed of me-- of what had happened between us. I was so mad at you, I couldn't see straight. That's why I came down so hard on Kool and his attorney. It wasn't any kind of strategy at all-- I was just out of control. I got lucky because they fell for it. If my boss had seen me... he would have had my hide. But it scared the hell out of me," she confessed. "After that, I knew I had to talk to you-- at least clear the air, more for my own peace of mind than anything. So that even if you were ashamed of me, you'd at least respect my professionalism."

"You thought I was ashamed of what had happened? Of you?"

"It seemed so at the time," she replied, her mild words concealing the world of tumult that had gripped her that day. She had fought against the shame for who and what she was for so long that seeing it in the eyes of someone to whom she had opened a part of herself had torn loose her finely honed sense of control. Admitting it to Jill now threatened to reveal more of Abbie than she was sure she was ready to offer. But from their first dramatically unusual meeting, she hadn't really been able to hold anything back from this other woman.

Jill seemed to pick up on the confessional nature of Carmichael's words, for she offered one of her own. "I think I was more shocked to see you than anything. I knew you were an ADA, but I never expected you to show up at the House. I guess a part of me expected...."

"A scene?"

"I tend to get involved with men who like to do that."

"I'm not one of them."

"I know that now," Jill confirmed. "I didn't at the time. And the truth be told, if I was ashamed of anything, it was my own behavior. I kept meaning to call you, to explain..."

"You didn't owe me any explanations," Abbie interrupted.

"Oh yes the hell I did," Jill replied heatedly. "Good god, Abbie-- why do you act like nobody owes you anything? Something happened between us that night-- something that scares me to death still. And I ran from it then. I don't know how to deal with it now. It goes against everything I've been raised to believe, not to mention everything I've believed about myself. All I know for sure is that I can't let it rest until I understand what it is."

"And what if 'all it is' is curiosity?"

"I don't think that's true."

"Why not?" Abbie challenged. She'd been an object of curiosity before-- both benevolent and otherwise. Truthfully, she had almost preferred the cruel ones. At least she knew where they were coming from.

"Because I know what it feels like to touch you, Abbie. And I can't get it out of my head."

The mixture of raw confusion and hesitant desire in Jill's voice slammed into Abbie's consciousness with the force and speed of a mainlined drug. From behind the barricades safeguarding that most precious part of herself, she heard a faint warning-- her instinct for self-preservation screaming at the mutiny about to occur. The coup ended bloodlessly as she curled her body tightly around the phone. "Talk to me, Jill. Tell me about what's in your head."

"You're in early..." McCoy rapped lightly on the door frame once and then draped himself in the narrow chair opposite her desk, peering interestedly at the woman in front of him. While Carmichael always dressed impeccably, the sharply delineated lines of her suits only added to the forbidding air she seemed to cultivate effortlessly. Today, however, Abbie was dressed more casually, in slacks and a burgundy open-necked shirt that showed off the graceful line of her neck. Her sleeves were rolled up halfway to her elbow, and he could see the smooth muscles of her forearms gently flexing as her fingers struck the keys with rapid precision. She seemed almost human, he found himself reflecting silently, approachable in a way that he had only glimpsed once before-- on a late night when she thought nobody else was around. He suspected that the gap between the woman she really was and the woman he knew was far wider than he could bridge easily. But looking at Abbie's unusually relaxed features, he figured it wouldn't kill him to start trying. "Got a full day ahead of us, Cowboy. You up for it?"

"I can take anything they can dish out, Jack. Bring it on," Abbie placidly replied, not even glancing away from her computer screen. She hastily typed the last lines of her rebuttal to an exclusionary request and electronically saved it to her Out box for printing and couriering to the judge's office. Someday, she reflected, her Out pile would be bigger than her In pile-- but, she realized glumly looking around her desk, unfortunately it wouldn't be today. "What it is?" she asked warily, suspicious of the slightly bemused smile on McCoy's face as he examined her.

"Nothing," he replied, propping his chin in one hand and continuing to gaze at her. "It just that... well..." He cocked his head and studied the dark hair brushing loosely over her shoulders. "You look very pretty today. Did you do something with your hair?"

Carmichael snorted the coffee she had just sipped back out her nose. Eyes watering from the heat and the acidic beverage in her nostrils, she regarded her boss as one might a recently escaped inmate from the lunatic asylum. "Uh... no, Jack." She fought the urge to run a hand through her hair to simply reassure herself that in fact she hadn't done anything special with it. "Guess I just got a good night's sleep."

Which wasn't even remotely true. She and Jill had stayed on the phone until the wee hours of the morning, talking about mostly nothing just to hear the sound of the each other's voice. She knew her behavior was stupid and juvenile and totally out-of-character, but it just felt so goddamned wonderful she hadn't been able to stop herself.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" she asked, realizing that she had completely dropped whatever thread of conversation she and McCoy were having.

He only grinned at her and slouched further in his chair. "Good night's sleep, huh?"

A flush heated her blood, darkening her skin with its color. "Didn't you say we had a full day ahead of us? You wanna tell me about it?"

He waved the work away with his hand. "This is more fun."

"Jack..." Her warning was interrupted by a knock on her open door.

"Delivery for Ms. Carmichael." The paralegal's voice was muffled by the enormous arrangement of red roses he was carrying. "Where do you want me to put it?"

McCoy chortled delightedly, and Abbie was convinced that her skin color now had to match the shade of flowers in David's arms. What the hell am I going to do if they're from her? she thought wildly, even though sending flowers seemed distinctly un-Kirkendall-like, and knowing McCoy was going to ask. "Oh shit..." she muttered, not realizing she was speaking aloud.

Behind her, Jack just grinned.

"Just..." she looked around her office, knowing there wasn't any place to discreetly put a crystal vase holding eighteen blood red roses. "Oh shit..." She knocked a pile of folders off the low table in front of the sofa. "Put it here." Wearily she rubbed her eyes and shook her head as if that would make the flowers dominate her cramped office any less.

"Shall I see who they're from?" Jack waved the tiny white card at her.

With a murderous glare, she snatched the envelope from his hand and opened it.

"Guess not."

You're great for my ratings. Please come back!


P.S. Loved the picture in the Times Magazine.

A sigh that was equal parts regret and relief drifted through Carmichael's body. "They're from that crazy news anchor. The one who has that Sunday show I was on."

"Christienne Turner?"

"Yeah, that's her. Apparently I was good for the ratings." She shrugged and tossed the card onto the table.

"Thought they were gonna be from someone else?"

"I didn't know who they were from," she replied, hoping her face wouldn't betray her. "I was worried that I had picked up a stalker."

"Or a secret admirer," he teased.

She looked at him scornfully. "Oh please. Now can we get back to work?"

"I wasn't aware that we were working."

"Then can we please start?"

Looking at Carmichael's slightly harried expression, Jack surmised that he'd pushed his luck as far as he could. "Cragen from SVU just called looking for you. They've picked up a guy they like for a date rape. You talked with the vic yesterday and now they want you to have a conversation with the perp. Mind if I watch?"

He was clean cut, dark hair falling gently just above his collar, with open blue eyes and an earnest expression that Carmichael instinctively knew would endear him to the jury. He seemed neither smug nor hostile, but instead politely alert-- like a well-trained Thoroughbred waiting to perform. Still, watching him sitting there in his neatly pressed khakis and button-down shirt, the skin on the back of her neck prickled.

"Mr. Byers," she greeted him, offering a hand. "I'm Abbie Carmichael with the District Attorney's office."

His eyes immediately found his attorney's in silent question, but he still took Carmichael hand and shook it with a steady, firm grip. "District Attorney-- I don't understand... I thought... This is all a big misunderstanding."

"I know you've already spoken with Detective Stabler, but I'm the one who will be deciding what-- if any-- charges the DA's office will be filing. I just wanted to hear what happened in your own words. So maybe we can clear this up right now." Her voice was calm and relaxed, almost deferential, and she didn't have to see McCoy's face through the one-way mirror that separated them to register his surprise.

"Well, ma'am," Byers shifted in his seat and glanced once more at his attorney. "I don't mean to be rude or anything... but if it's all the same to you, if I have to talk to somebody, I'd like to talk to somebody else in the DA's office. This is not the sort of thing I'd feel comfortable talking about to a lady."

A low laugh rippled from Carmichael's throat as she shook her head ruefully. "I think that's the first time in my life I've ever been called a 'lady,' but thank you. My mama would be proud." She leaned one elbow on the arm chair and propped her chin in her hand. "Tell me what you think a lady is."

Byers's attorney looked at Carmichael skeptically. "I don't see the relevance of that to these proceedings, Ms. Carmichael."

Abbie held up her hands in mock surrender. "I'm just trying to have a conversation with your client here and straighten things out. If you want to get formal about things, we can. I can just read Detective Stabler's report and make my decision based on that." Her voice dropped to a low drawl, "And being honest, Detective Stabler didn't think too much of your client here..."

"It's okay, Marc." Byers nodded his head emphatically, his eyes firmly on Carmichael. "I don't mind."

"David, I don't think you understand. This woman is a prosecutor..."

"Who hasn't decided to file charges yet," Abbie interrupted smoothly.

"Marc, it's okay. Let me talk to her." He broke eye contact with Carmichael long enough to glance at his attorney. "Alone," he added.

"David, this is not a good idea."

"It'll be fine. Just let me talk to her." The smile that lit his pale blue eyes was full of youthful exuberance, and Carmichael had a sinking suspicion that if this case ever saw a jury that she didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell. Waiting until his attorney stiffly left the room, Byers leaned forward and grinned conspiratorially. "Marc and I went to school together. I love him like a brother, but he can be such a pain sometimes."

Abbie returned the grin in kind and shrugged. "He is your attorney. And he's just trying to look out for you."

"Yeah, I know, and I'm really glad he was here when Detective Stabler was talking to me." Byers curled his lip in distaste.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, he was trying to come on all buddy-buddy with his male-bonding, 'boys will be boys' crap. Like I subscribe to that macho bullshit--" He flinched instantly. "Pardoning my language, ma'am."

"Quit calling me ma'am. I don't think I'm any older than you are," Carmichael chided.

"Yeah, but my mama would tan my backside if she heard me talking to a lady like that."

"Your mama and mine must be kin."

"I thought I heard something of back home in your voice. Where you from?"

"Texas. You?"

"Louisiana. Got my degree from UVA in marketing; now I'm up here with Young & Rubicam." Pride was etched into his smile. "I'm only an associate AE, but my boss says everybody's gotta do their time in trenches."

"You and Tara Wheeling worked together at Y&R, right?"

Byers shrugged. "Kinda. She's in production. I'm account service."

Carmichael grinned at him winningly. "I'm just a country lawyer. Enlighten me-- I have no idea what you just said. Production? Account service?"

"Sorry, sometimes I forget that the whole world's not in advertising. I'm in account service-- which means I'm on point. I deal with the clients every day-- call them and talk to them, update them on the status of their projects, baby-sit them when they get cold feet. I also have to shepherd their projects through the agency-- because, believe me, all the Creatives want to work on are the flashy commercials and print ads. Nobody wants to do the boring bread and butter POP that keeps them very well paid."

"I take it most of your clients are bread and butter?"

"Well, yeah. But that's just to start. Teach me the ropes and stuff."

"Then you get to work on the flashy commercial and print ad accounts?"

"Yeah." He grinned sheepishly. "Busted, huh?"

"It's only natural that you want a chance to excel. Show them what you can do."

"Exactly!" He looked excitedly at her, as if he had unexpectedly found common ground for them to talk over.

"So where does Tara fit in with all of this? You said she was in Production. What's that mean?"

"That's the department that is actually responsible for printing and shipping and pricing everything. Like once the client has approved the design and ordered 150 banners, they're responsible for actually seeing that the banners are printed perfectly and shipped on time to reach the destination."

"Ah," Abbie nodded. "The real trenches."

Byers shrugged. "Account Service and Production don't mingle too much. Just when they screw something up and it gets printed wrong, then we have to go down there and do damage control."

"You do that often?"

"Nah, they're not too bad, but that's how Tara and I met. Crappy Home Depot ad had one of the model numbers wrong or something, and she got reamed. Then she comes upstairs waving a whole bunch of papers at me, saying that everyone-- including Account Service and Creative had signed off on the proof-- and that she just printed the damn things how was she supposed to know what the different model numbers were."

"Had you signed it?"

"How was I to know? Do you know how many proofs my secretary tosses onto my desk a day? If Creative says they're right, I sign off on them."

"How do you know Creative said it was right?"

"There's a signature stamp on the back of each proof. If Creative has signed off, I do too."

"Without looking at it."


"Just trying to understand. I think about advertising and all I see are Nike commercials. This like looking into a whole other world. But I'm getting off the subject. This is how you and Tara met."

"Yeah. I didn't really know her too well, but I had heard some of the guys talking about how she didn't have a boyfriend. She was always doing stuff by herself, taking trips and going to plays. Some people thought she was a dyke."

"Was she?"

"Nah." He waved the question off. "A place like Y&R, you get to know right off who the queers are. And let me tell you, they're all in Creative. Pardoning my language, but the whole department is made up of faggy art directors and dyke copywriters. Don't know why, but it works."

"So Tara was as far as you knew, just lonely."

"I thought so, yeah."

"Because she went everywhere by herself."


"So you asked her out?"

"I thought I'd make up for what had happened in the office. Cause I had signed off on the proof, but she caught all the flak for it." Byers spread his hands wide. "I'm not a bad guy, Ms. Carmichael."

Abbie smiled noncommittally and leaned forward. "Let me ask you a question, and I don't mean to be rude, but... I've met Tara, and to be honest, she doesn't really seem like your type. You know what I mean? She's kinda..."

"Plain," Byers supplied.

"Yeah, I suppose so."

"Well, that's the other reason I asked her out, you know? I thought I do her a favor. Sheesh, and look what happens."

"So tell me about the date."

"It was a bunch of us, actually. From the agency. Me and Keith from Account Service. Janie, Donna, and Mark from Creative. And Tara."

"No one else from Production?"

"I told you, they don't really mix. I knew Keith wanted to get something going with Janie and Donna, and Mark drags his boyfriend wherever he goes, so that left me and Tara."

"So you kinda looked after her the whole evening."

"Exactly! I looked after her. We went to this little pub not too far from the office and got this big round table in the center of the room. You could just look at Tara's face and see that she hadn't ever done anything like this before."

"Like what?"

"Like hang out with friends. Like be the center of attention. You could tell that if she went to a bar, she was probably sitting in the corner with a damn book or something."

"Dashiel Hammett said that one of the chief joys of going to a bar was sitting and reading," Abbie couldn't help but mutter. He looked at her blankly, as if he knew he was missing something, but couldn't quite put his finger on it. Abbie waved the comment away and prompted him, "So everybody was having a good time?"

"Yeah. Well, except for Keith-- he was getting blown off big time by Donna and Janie. I had already told him, but did he listen? No..."

"And Tara? She was okay?"

"She was real quiet at first. I had to practically pour about three beers down her throat to get her talking. Once she did, though, she was okay. We were all having a good time, and then Donna dumped the entire beer pitcher in Keith's lap and told him to fuck off-- excuse me. Then she and Janie left. Keith disappeared into the bathroom-- SOB stuck me with the check."

"And you and Tara?"

"She said she could get home okay, but I insisted on seeing her there-- because she'd had a few, you know? And this is a crazy town."

"You'd had a few too."

"Two or three, but to be really honest I don't drink too much. Just because I hate that beer headache. You know? And liquor-- whoo boy, no siree, don't touch it when I'm not working. I've had to get wasted with too many clients to do it in my off time too."

Squinting at the inverse logic of the statement, Abbie could only shake her head. "So you hadn't had as many as Tara."

"That's why I wanted to look out for her."

"So you went with her to her apartment..."

"Yeah... and she invited me up."

"She just invited you up? Out of the blue?"

"Why is that such a surprise?" Suspicion filled the question and Carmichael knew she would have to tread carefully over the next few minutes. Throughout Stabler's questioning, Byers had stuck tenaciously to his story that Tara had invited him up and they'd had consensual-- if unsatisfying-- sex. Stabler hadn't been able to shake his story for a second, but Carmichael suspected that it had more to do with Elliott's sometimes abrasive style rather than any truth on Byers's part. In her own statement, Tara had asserted that the only reason she invited Byers up to her apartment was because David had said he needed to use the bathroom.

Abbie smiled conspiratorially. "Well, to be honest, if I'm with someone and I think... well, maybe something's happening here, maybe I want to take this upstairs... I'd been thinking that way for a while. It's not something I decide on the spur of the moment. And usually the person that I'm with gets the hint. It just avoids any awkwardness. For everyone."

Byers returned the smile hesitantly. "Yeah, I see what you mean." He seemed to consider her words. "You know, I'd been kinda getting those messages from her all night. You know, she'd lean up against me to say something. Stuff like that."

"So when she invited you up, it wasn't a surprise."

"Well..." He flushed and looked down at the scarred wooden table. "She's really, really shy. You know? We were standing outside, she kept glancing at the doors, looking into the foyer. I could really read her, I knew she wanted to ask me up..."

"So you tried to make it easier on her? Give her an excuse?"

"Exactly!" Byers lit upon the explanation with alacrity. "I asked if I could come inside and use the rest room."

"And she said yes?"

"Well, she kinda hesitated," he admitted, then quickly added. "But I could tell that she was just trying to figure if I really needed to whizz or had picked up on her vibe. You know?"

Abbie felt her jaw tightening and forced herself to relax. "So tell me about what happened once you got into her apartment."

"Rape 2-- three to six. He gets three and is probably out in eighteen months." The observation room door shut firmly behind her as Abbie stepped into the small space and crossed her arms. Her body language radiated confidence-- as well it should after the performance she gave in the next room-- but Jack thought he could detect a thready tension in the taut muscles of her neck.

Byers's attorney looked at her with something close to disdain. "I don't think so. Mr. Byers will be happy to take his chances in front of a jury."

"Really?" Carmichael arched a sardonic brow. "After that conversation you still think he's credible?"

"I don't think his credibility will be an issue at all."

"I'd have to respectfully disagree, Mr. Lucas. Your client just gave a statement that was in direct contradiction of his earlier statement to Detective Stabler, and it not-so-coincidentally corroborates Ms. Wheeler's statement to a frighteningly accurate degree."

"That's even if your conversation with him is admissible."

"I don't know why it wouldn't be. Mr. Byers very plainly talked to me of his own free will."

"We'll just have to see what the jury believes," Lucas maintained adamantly.

"Which jury is that, Mr. Lucas? The jury of prep school graduates with their club ties that you plan on putting together? Or the twelve freaks and geeks that will look at your guy and see every athlete that ever beat up on them in high school or every boy who never asked them to the senior prom?

"And I haven't even mentioned Tara Wheeling," Abbie continued smoothly. "You ever bother to meet her? She's not a party girl or a club kid. There aren't a legion of men, women, and animals who have paraded through her bedroom that you can use to crucify her. She's quiet, with soft-brown eyes and long-red hair. When she speaks, you have to lean closer to hear. And you know what the jury's gonna hear coming out of her mouth? A single word, that's all. 'No.' It's what she said to David Byers twenty-two times. You have any idea what 'no' sounds like repeated twenty-two times, Mr. Lucas? It's sounds like a scream." She stared hard at the smaller attorney in his Hugo Boss suit and smug complacency. "It sounds like rape."

Marc Lucas absorbed the impact of Carmichael's words with a barely perceptible flinch. His eyes flickered from the tall attorney's imposing frame to the one-way mirror behind which his client sat and back to Abbie again. McCoy watched the older man silently take the measure of his assistant, as if weighing it against that of David Byers. Finally he sighed deeply. "Let me talk to him. I don't know if he'll take it."

"You better hope he does, Mr. Lucas. Or it will become my sole mission in life to see that the only place he spends the next twenty years winning friends and influencing people is on Riker's."

Lucas nodded curtly in acknowledgment of the deadly earnestness of Carmichael's words, then excused himself, leaving the two prosecutors staring at each other.

Abbie held her pose for a moment longer before dropping tiredly into the metal chair beside the observation window. "God, I don't want this to go to trial," she muttered.

Jack glanced at her in startled surprise. "Sounded to me like you were sure you had him dead bang."

"We go to trial, we'll lose, McCoy. You know that," she stated flatly, jerking her head in the direction of David Byers. "The jury will take one look at his beautiful face and his beautiful Armani suits and they'll call Tara Wheeling a liar."

"That's not giving the jury a hell of a lot of credit. Or your conversation with him just now," he rejoined, more than a bit discomfited. Usually he could tell when Abbie was playing the badass prosecutor rather than dealing from a position of true strength, but she'd had him completely fooled on this one.

"Did you hear him, Jack? He honestly thought he was doing Tara a favor." She snorted derisively and rose from her chair, stalking the length of the tiny room angrily. "Thought she'd be so grateful for the attention that she wouldn't mind him getting his rocks off on her. It didn't matter how many times she said no."

"The jury will hear that."

"Will they? Or will they look at David Byers and say that somebody who looks like that wouldn't need to rape. Especially somebody like Tara Wheeling. I won't let them do that to her."

"You don't know that's what would happen," he replied, but his voice sounded unconvincing, even to himself.

The depth of sadness in Abbie Carmichael's eyes was immeasurable to Jack as she looked grimly at him. "Yes, I do. Jack. Yes, I do."

The phone call telling her Byers had rejected the deal didn't really surprise Abbie; instead, it only intensified the feeling of suffocation that had begun during her conversation with the advertising executive.

"Can I buy you lunch?" McCoy asked, leaning awkwardly against the door frame. The concern in his gray eyes was evident, and a part of Carmichael longed for the brusque indifference that usually characterized their exchanges. Kindness from Jack McCoy was not something she wanted to accept.

From somewhere deep inside, Carmichael summoned an easy smile. "Thanks for the offer, Jack, but I've got plans."

Not quite the truth, but she knew it was the simplest solution for them both. Jack could walk away feeling satisfied that he'd at least made an effort, and Carmichael wouldn't have to contend with a further breach of her personal boundaries-- something which had been happening far too often lately for her comfort.

Still, watching her boss's rumpled form disappear down the hallway, her refusal of his offer did sort of leave her in lurch for her midday break. Take-out at her desk was the usual plan, but obviously that was scuttled for today. Her hand hovered over the phone for a moment, then she shrugged and grabbed her coat, pulling it over her shoulders as she left the office.

During the short drive to the 15th precinct house, Carmichael deliberately didn't concentrate on what her actions or the gradual lessening of the painful pressure in her lungs might mean. But she did reluctantly allow a small grin to creep across her face as she mounted the two flights of stairs to the detectives' squad.

"Ms. Carmichael!" John Irvin rose in greeting, his hands clasped together and a delighted smile on his face. The soft-spoken civilian aide was wearing a pale blue sweater which, Abbie noted with surprise, nicely coordinated with the 3x5 notecards on which he was taking messages. "Lovely to see you again. But I'm afraid most of the detectives are out of the squad. Was there someone you were supposed to meet?"

Abbie shook her head briefly, concealing her disappointment. "Actually, I just dropped in on the fly. I was hoping to catch Detectives Russell and Kirkendall. It's nothing important."

"Will one out of two be okay?" he asked brightly. "Detective Kirkendall is in the coffee room." He gestured elaborately at the only open doorway in the room. "Right through there."

Jill was contemplating a TV dinner of questionable origin when Abbie's voice intruded upon her thoughts. "Put the Hot Pocket down and step away from the microwave."

At Carmichael's words, the blond detective turned lazily around, a wry smile painting her features and hazel eyes fixing her with their glance. A rush of unidentifiable emotion surged through Abbie as her own eyes swept from charcoal gray trousers to the shining tousle of blond hair. The visceral pleasure she took from simply being in this woman's presence was almost unlike anything she had ever known.


"Well, since I have to eat something-- you have any suggestions for an alternative?" The teasing lilt in Jill's low-throated voice reverberated gently within Abbie's ears, an echo of their late-night conversation and a reminder of the intimate web beginning to weave between them.

"Now that you mention it, Detective, I might at that," she replied with a cocky grin. "That's actually the mission that brought me down here. Thought I might see if you and D were up for lunch."

"Me and Diane?" A pale brow arched elegantly in question, along with a suggestive emphasis on the conjunction that brought a warm flush to Carmichael's cheeks.

"Well..." Abbie gestured sheepishly, "I didn't know how you'd feel if... and then Diane's my friend... and well..." Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she watched Jill fight to keep a straight face. "You're just yanking my chain, aren't you?"

Jill returned her smile in kind, and held up her hands in surrender. "Guilty. What are you gonna do with me, Counselor?"

"Well, I was gonna offer to buy you some pie, but now..." She pretended to consider her options. "I just may have to make you pick up the check."

In the end they opted for lunch in a small deli within walking distance of the precinct house instead of the longer drive that the trek to Mae's would have entailed. Though it went unspoken, both women preferred to spend what little time they had found together alone rather than under the benevolent, but attention-demanding gaze of Abbie's friend.

"Diane'll be sorry she missed this," Jill remarked between bites of a gyro. "I usually brown bag it, and she ends up going out with Martinez and Medavoy. Then she comes back and complains that she has indigestion." She paused and shook her head, smiling ruefully. "Don't get me wrong, I like Greg, but a commercial-free hour of Medavoy is enough to defeat even the strongest antacid."

"Where is she today?"

Kirkendall hesitated a moment, as if mentally debating something, then shrugged. "There's a widows' support group for people who have... lost someone on the job. She goes pretty regularly."

A silent weight dropped off Carmichael's shoulders at the news. She had been so afraid that Diane had been trying to handle this alone and worried about what it might do to her old friend. "Good," she murmured quietly.

Abbie's concern for Russell was clearly written in her umber eyes, and once again Jill found herself wondering how close the two had been and what exactly had come between them. "You care about her a lot," she said neutrally.

The attorney thoughtfully chewed a bite of her outrageously large club sandwich, considering both her own feelings for Diane and the wary sharpness in Kirkendall's gaze. "D's been through some things..." she said at last. "And I was there for a lot of them. Something you've gotta understand, Jill, is that the Diane you know wasn't the one I did."

"That sounds like you're about to make a bunch of excuses for her behavior." Diane hadn't told her partner much about her past with Abbie Carmichael, but Russell's quiet admission that there were amends yet to be made between the two women rang in her memory.

"There's no excusing a drunk, Jill," Abbie replied bluntly. "That's not what I'm doing. Narcotics isn't like anything else I've ever known. Those cops... working undercover turns them inside out, until they don't know who's their friend and who's their enemy. Get close... we say to them. Win their trust... but does that mean they're supposed to drink with them? Dope with them? Sleep with them?"

"There are still lines..." Jill interjected.

"But we keep moving the little suckers on them. 'It's okay to do it this time, but not next time. Whatever it takes to make the case. What do you need? What can we get you? Oh, you snorted a line of coke, okay... well, did anybody but the perp see you? Make sure you don't shoot up because the jury can see needle tracks. We don't wanna know... don't tell us something we'd have to admit to in court.'" Abbie shook her head sorrowfully. "Don't ask don't tell was invented on the street by Narco prosecutors to cover the asses of honorable cops who had just gotten in over their heads. Giuliani promised he'd clean the drugs off the street, but he never mentioned the price to the people who'd have to do it."

"You covered up for Diane?" The words were low and strangled, as if forming them had damaged her throat.

Carmichael hesitated only briefly, before reminding herself she was talking to Diane's partner and friend. "Nothing that would get me disbarred or her kicked off the force. Mostly what D needed was someone to tell her that the real world was still here."

"You were that person for her."

"Yeah," she admitted. "I was someone very safe for Diane. Someone she could lean on, and who wouldn't expect her to come across because of it."

"Then what happened?"

Abbie took a long drink of her iced tea, wincing slightly at its artificially sweetened taste. She'd never get used to these damn Yankees and their unsweet tea. "It's not that simple, Jill. And... to be honest, I didn't want to have lunch with you to spend the whole time talking about Diane."

It wasn't a subtle deflection, and the apologetic smile she offered the detective admitted it. With a wry grin of her own, Kirkendall accepted the change of subject gracefully as possible under the circumstances. "So why did you want to have lunch?"

"Because I had a shit morning. And I knew seeing you would make me feel better."

"So what are you planning to do about the case?" Both women had lingered over their meal as long as they dared, and Abbie dreaded the number of phone messages she knew would be waiting for her at the office. Now the pair strolled leisurely back towards the squad house, aware that this was most likely the last time alone they would have together for the foreseeable future.

"Start the legwork I guess. I've got to charge this guy, no matter what I think our chances are in court. If I don't get him this time, at least he'll know next time he might not be so lucky."

"Lot of ADAs would say the evidence was inconclusive," Kirkendall remarked.

Abbie bristled at the implication. "I'm not a lot of ADAs. Tara Wheeling didn't just wake up the next morning and for the hell of it decide that she was raped. We're all over her life, her job, her body-- trying to find the stray little piece of evidence that'll convince a jury she's telling the truth. Her word isn't good enough. Not against somebody like David Byers. Good god, Jill, you of all people should know what we're putting her through."

Jill stopped in the street, then tugged gently on Abbie's arm to maneuver her out of the traffic. "I do know what she's going through, Abbie. And I also know how important it is to her to have someone that believes her. But you're not a crisis counselor."

"No, I'm a prosecutor-- and my job is to put David Byers in jail for what he did."

"Even if there's no evidence?"

Had that question come from Jack McCoy's mouth, Carmichael would have flown off into another tirade, giving him chapter and verse of what he called Abbie's "Burn in Hell, InfideI" speech. However, the warm compassion in Kirkendall's eyes made rage impossible. Those eyes, and the entreaty within them, had beckoned her confidences from the first moment they met. It was hard to look away. "I won't let the DA's office pretend that what happened to Tara wasn't rape just because we don't have a lock on the case," she said softly.

The weary exhaustion in Abbie's words, echoing with something more than second-hand knowledge, didn't escape Jill's notice. "This means a lot to you, huh?"

"It's why I became a lawyer."

"You want to tell me about it?"

There it was again, the effortless way that Jill seem to slip into the most private parts of Abbie's self. This time, however, she found herself not fighting the rising tide of emotion coaxing her to reveal the tender and battered heart long in confinement. "Yeah." Her answer was merely an exhalation-- not even a word-- accompanied by a wistful half-smile as she found Kirkendall's gaze once more. "But over a strong Irish coffee in someplace a little more private than a New York City sidewalk."

"You think anybody's paying us any attention?" Jill teased lightly, somehow knowing it would put her companion at ease.

"Maybe not here in the big city. But back home-- every window blind would have a bent down corner."

Kirkendall's hand slipped easily down Abbie's sleeve, until their fingers were linked loosely. She gave Carmichael's hand a brief squeeze, then jerked her head in the direction of the building that loomed large beside them. "Want to walk me up?"

Abbie's answer was interrupted by a loud shout from down the street. "Hey! Thought that was you." The voice metamorphosed into the darkly trim figure of Jill's partner, Diane Russell. "Abs, good to see you in the flesh. You two heading out on something I should know about?" There was an unidentifiable twinkle in Russell's eyes, and Abbie groaned at the fun she suspected D was about to have at her expense.

"Nope. We were just headed back from lunch," she replied.

"Dammit! You're telling me instead of the Medavoy special, you got to have lunch with the best looking woman in New York City?" She wagged a disapproving finger in her partner's face. "Kirkendall, you owe me."

Jill looked slightly nonplused at the statement, as if either she didn't know exactly what Russell was implying or else she didn't like the idea that Diane appreciated Abbie's dark good looks. She glanced quickly at Carmichael-- almost apologetically, Abbie thought hopefully. "I'll catch up with you later, Abbie." A smile fleetingly graced her sharp features. "Over that Irish coffee."

Silently, Carmichael breathed a sigh of relief. "You know it. Thanks for lunch, Jill."

"You picked up the check. I should thank you. See you upstairs, Diane."

Waiting until Jill's lanky frame disappeared from view, Abbie turned to her old friend and smacked her sharply on the shoulder.

"Hey! What was that for?" Diane protested, rubbing her arm.

"You trying to make things harder for me with Jill?" The question, intended mostly as a tease, came out more harshly than she had intended

"No, I was just having a little fun. How goes Mission Impossible: Kirkendall?"

"It's going fine, if you'd have a little tact. I mean, good God, D-- she's never done this before."

"What? Dated someone who wasn't an asshole?"

"Yeah, you might have mentioned that she and Leo Cohen had been an item."

"She told you that?"

"Last night."

"Last night?" Russell's brows arched in time with the question.

"We chatted. On the phone for about four hours. She wanted to apologize-- we were supposed to have dinner and she had to cancel."

"So that's what the babysitter was for." Diane snapped her fingers. "I couldn't figure it out."

"She hasn't mentioned me to you?"

"You think she's gonna?"

"Well... you are partners."

Diane shook her head. "That's not how it is between me and Jill. She was there for me when everything with Bobby... went bad..." She stumbled a minute, smiling weakly when Abbie's fingers entwined with her own. "But she doesn't really let it go both ways. Must be the mother in her. She's gotta be strong for everyone around her. This thing with Don's the closest I've ever gotten to her personally. I want to be there for her, Abs. But I don't think she'll let me."

"We talked about you at lunch."

"You did?"

"She thinks there's something between me and you, D."

"There isn't?"

"Not the way she thinks."

"How're you gonna explain it to her?"

"I'm not. Besides, there's so much more for me and her to talk about first." Abbie shook her head. "If we could ever find the damn time together. If it's not the Job, then it's her kids... D, I think if I could just get my foot in the door..."

Russell picked up on the unspoken remainder of Abbie's words. "Then what?" she prompted.

"Then something really special could happen."

The earnest longing in Carmichael's understated words resonated with Diane. Abbie had no more of a vocabulary for what was happening to her than Diane herself had possessed at the start of her relationship with Bobby. She and her husband had stumbled down the dark corridors of Diane's pain, unknowing and often hurting one another in the process. Knowing both women as she did, Russell didn't think the path for Abbie and Jill would be any less arduous-- or any less worthwhile-- than hers had been with Bobby. Impulsively, she pulled the taller woman into a fierce hug, brushing the smooth skin of Carmichael's cheek with her lips. "Let me see what I can do."

"D--" Carmichael pulled back slightly, a warning tone rumbling from her chest.

"You have any plans this weekend?"

"Why?" the attorney asked warily.

"Do you?"

"Not really... just playing pick-up Saturday morning at the courts. I've got a thing Saturday night, but it's not exactly a social occasion."

"Good." She pulled Abbie's head towards her and touched their foreheads together in their old familiar way. "Keep it that way." She squeezed the hands that still held hers one final time and walked away, leaving Carmichael standing speechlessly in the street.

Upstairs, she beckoned to Danny Sorenson, Andy's new partner. Although he had taken Bobby's place in the squad, an odd sort of friendship had sprung up between Russell and the young detective with the face of a cherub gone slightly to seed. Though she knew Sorenson's feelings towards her were somewhat more than brotherly, Diane couldn't help her own tenderness towards him. Danny was so at sea with his pain, so obvious in his mechanisms to cope with it, that sometimes she just wanted to reach over to him and say, "It's all right to say it hurts. Cry, scream out loud if you have to, but don't keep carrying whatever this weight it on your shoulders alone..."

But of course, none of them ever said things like that.

"Hey Diane, howzit going?" Sorenson shifted on his feet, his light blue eyes managing to make only the briefest contact with Diane's before sliding away to gaze at some point just beyond her shoulder.

As if the light in her eyes was too much to bear.

Diane glanced around quickly-- happily noting that Jill was still in the restroom, washing up from lunch. "Hey." She cocked her head slightly and tucked her hands in the back pockets of her slacks. "You know if the Mets have a night game this Friday?"

Sorenson looked puzzled and rubbed a hand fiercely through the bristly edges of his buzz-cut blond locks. "Uh... yeah, I think. Devil Rays, maybe. Nobody good."

"Your buddy in concessions can still get you tickets?" Though it was a question, Russell's phrasing was hopefully positive.

Danny eyed her skeptically. "Yeah..." He drew the words out.

"Cause I was thinking maybe Jill's boys might like to go."

Hands reaching absently for the plastic container of paper clips on his desk, Sorenson grabbed a few while he mulled over Russell's statement. "You want me to take Jill and her boys out? On account of all this stuff with her ex-- him being such a lowlife and so forth?"

"No, I want you and me to take her boys out-- give Jill the night off."

He looked at her blankly.

Tugging his arm and pulling him closer and away from Andy's curious ears, Russell muttered quietly. "Look, there's somebody who's got a thing for Jill-- and I think it's not a one-way street. You know what I'm saying? Only they haven't been able to get their schedules together. I thought I'd try to help out a little."

"Get out of here," he said, jaw-dropping astonishment written all over his face. "Jill? Who?"

"Does it matter?"

"Come on, Diane, it's not like she gets around."


"He on the Job?"

Russell hesitated. Maybe a little information now could save her some trouble later. "Sort of," she hedged.

"Don't tell me it's that asshole Cohen. I've heard all about him."

"No! Trust me, Danny. She's done with him. And her ex," she added, although deep inside of her the feeling that Jill hadn't seen the last of Don Kirkendall nagged at her.

"So it's somebody else?"


"You're not gonna tell me who?"

"No," she said firmly.

"But he's a stand up guy?"

"Would I be doing this otherwise?"

"You got a point." Sorenson seemed to finish some mental debate and nodded affirmatively. "Let me reach out to my boy. See what I can do. Hang on a sec."

At that moment, Kirkendall emerged from the unisex locker room, and Russell took the opportunity to look at her partner though new eyes.

Carmichael's eyes.

It was easy to see why Jill turned heads. The lines of her face were exquisitely chiseled-- as if she were the Galatean creation of an omnipotent Pygmalion. She stood head and shoulders, literally, above most women, capped by white-blond locks whose color you couldn't buy in any bottle. Her body was, well... too many times, Russell had heard her partner referred to as "that detective, you know, the one with the great rack," but somehow she knew that wasn't what had attracted her old friend.

Abbie Carmichael was a woman who went to sleep and woke up with beauty-- and she wasn't impressed with those who were awed by something so ultimately random. Russell had watched Carmichael dismiss dozens of suitors-- of both genders-- who had peppered her with flowery references to her attributes. No, a simple accident of genetics wouldn't have turned Abbie's head.

Kirkendall radiated a sort of inner confidence, a strength and intelligence that drew people towards her, allowed them to entrust her with their secrets, depend on her in times of need. It was part of what made her a good cop and a great partner-- Russell had leaned on her more than once, and had never been let down. Only recently, however, when Jill had hesitantly shared some of her own troubles with Don, had Diane been able to glimpse the woman underneath it all.

No, it wasn't hard to see what Carmichael saw in her partner, nor could she honestly be surprised that Jill found herself attracted to someone like Abbie. Though a part of her was dying to ask Jill what exactly it was about Abbie that had prompted her to act so wildly out of character the night they met, another-- larger-- part of her didn't really want to know. But it was this anomaly in Jill's actions-- this encounter beyond the ordinary-- that persuaded Diane something very real was happening between her friends.

"Have a good lunch?" she asked quietly, perching herself on the corner of Kirkendall's desk, angled so she could keep one eye on Danny as he spoke intently on the phone.

"Yeah," Jill replied easily, sliding into her chair and flipping absently through the 5s that John had typed up and left on her desk to initial. "It was good to get out of the House for an hour. She actually came by looking for you, but you had already left."

Catching Sorenson's discreet thumbs up sign out of the corner of her eye, Russell nodded imperceptibly in reply and turned to face her partner fully. Suddenly awkward, Diane knew Jill might not look too kindly on her breaching the unspoken boundaries of their partnership and friendship. To her thinking, however, they had done that a long time ago when Russell had allowed herself to lean on Kirkendall's unflagging strength. A few weeks after Bobby's death she had picked up a bottle of vodka, wanting only to obliterate the gaping loss in her soul. Oddly though, instead of cracking the seal on that bottle and returning to the dim path she had traveled before Bobby, she remembered the quietly emphatic words Jill had spoken only a few days prior.

"Anything you need, Diane. Any time of the day or night. Call me. Okay?"

"What's up, Diane?" Kirkendall's eyes were focused on her, a faint concern wrinkling her brow. "Something happen at the meeting?"

"No, no..." she assured the other woman. "The meeting went great. It's just... I was wondering... What, um, what are you doing this weekend? Got any plans?"

"Thought I might rent some videos for the boys. Kyle's been dying to see that Stuart Little-- and I know Frank would like it too, but he's too cool to admit it. Talking mice, apparently, are beneath the notice of twelve year olds. He's much more into The Matrix, but all those guns..." She trailed off, shaking her head. Frank was hotheaded at times, although at twelve he hadn't found too much trouble yet. Still, she worried sometimes that there was a little too much of his father's impulsiveness in her eldest son. He had taken it hard when Jill told him that Don was going away again, even going so far as to accuse her of sending him away so he couldn't see them. The accusation-- even though Frank was too young to know the reason why-- had rung true enough that tears had stung her eyes, though she hadn't let them fall until the boys were long asleep. "So, I'm sure I'll make some sort of compromise. You want to come over for dinner one night? I'd love the company."

"Actually... Danny was telling me that he's got tickets for the Mets' night game Friday. I was wondering if the boys might want to go."

"What do you mean?"

Exasperated that Kirkendall just wouldn't pick up the hint and run with it, Russell explained, "I mean, Jill, when was the last time you had a night off? Something that didn't involve either the Job or the boys-- just for you? I remember you telling me about that hole-in-the-wall jazz club that you used to like. When was the last time you were there? Danny and I could take the boys to dinner and the game, then I could keep an eye on them until you got back."

Kirkendall eyed her suspiciously. "Sounds great-- if I had a date."

Knowing she was about two seconds away from being busted, Diane backpedaled furiously. "Or hell, Jill, take a long hot bath and read some trashy novels. You've done so much for me, you know? Maybe I want to return the favor. If Frank and Kyle are with me and Danny, you won't have to worry about them, and you can... well, concentrate on whatever it is you're doing."

Jill Kirkendall hadn't ridden the fast-track to a gold shield for nothing. Bouncing a glance between her partner's unusually flushed face and the poorly concealed curiosity of Sorenson and Sipowicz behind her, Jill did a quick calculation and came up with only one possible answer. Wordlessly, she propelled Russell into the locker room and shut the door firmly behind them. Only then did she ask, "What were you and Abbie Carmichael talking about downstairs?"

To her surprise, Jill made no pretense of pretending to not know that Russell was angling to play matchmaker. Instead, she seemed to almost expect it, as if she knew there wouldn't be any secrets between Diane and Abbie. In the back of her mind, Diane wondered what that might bode for the future.

"It's not like that." Diane protested, not liking the dark look in her partner's normally clear expression.

"No? Then tell me what it is like, Diane, cause I'm having a real hard time imagining anything different."

"She didn't ask for my help."

"How'd you find out?"

"We were at Smitty's, just catching up, right after we found out that the Job had your ex up for a collar."

"Oh Christ, Diane, you told her about Don?"

Diane's frustration with Kirkendall's reticence burst forth. "I wouldn't know what to tell her, Jill, now would I? All's I know is that one day you're asking me what I think about you and Don getting back together and then the next day Danny and Andy find out the guy's been muling dope. Meantime the woman who probably knows me better than anyone in this life just happens to run into you in a club-- and you don't say a word about it after we all meet up again in the House?" Throwing her blazer down disgustedly on the narrow bench between the lockers, Russell stalked across the room to stare the other detective in the eyes. "I remember a time not too long ago when you said something to me that saved my life, Jill. What you seem to forget is that it works both ways, partner. You don't have to go through everything alone. You can talk to me."

"What was I supposed to tell you, Diane?" Kirkendall's words came in an angry torrent. "That hey, I met this woman who's funny and smart and beautiful-- carrying around a pain in her eyes like some animal beaten senseless and left for dead. We talk for hours and all I can think of is that I want to hold her... to put my arms around her and keep her safe from whatever it is that's... that's making her hurt. And then I do, Diane-- I do put my arms around her, and I realize that... me wanting to touch her... it wasn't about comfort at all." She dropped her head tiredly into her hands, refusing to meet the judgment she feared in Russell's eyes.

"Don's been sniffing around for weeks, coming around to see the boys, bringing them presents and talking about family. I'm not stupid-- I know Don Kirkendall never had two dimes to rub together unless he came by them on some con. But I didn't ask any questions. I didn't want to know, you know? I don't think I've seen Frank so happy-- Kyle too-- since the divorce. Don was there... and it just seemed so easy. He wanted me still, and I thought I could make myself believe that we could put it back together again."

"That's when you said something to me."

"Yeah." The affirmation was barely a whisper, and Russell couldn't resist the urge to cup the other woman's cheek in her hand, drawing Kirkendall's hazel gaze to her own. Long unshed tears filled Jill's eyes, a few bold renegades even slipping free and running over the strong bones of her face.

"You didn't have to do it all alone."

"How could I explain it to you when I couldn't explain it to myself?"

Slipping Kirkendall's long arms around her smaller shoulders, Diane pulled her partner into a tight embrace. "That the great thing about friends-- you don't have to have all the answers. And you can even lean on us while you figure it out."

"Oh yeah-- I'm sure Andy, Danny and the rest of the squad will be real understanding about my new sexual identity crisis," she cracked.

"We don't have to tell them right away. You can just tell them one at a time."

"Can I practice on you?"

"Absolutely. In fact, I'll spot you a beer at Smitty's after our shift. You've got that extra hour before the babysitter leaves, right? But first, you have to call Abbie."

Like most young prosecutors in the District Attorney's office, Carmichael spent a relatively small amount of time in court when compared to the time she spent involved in the investigative legwork that formed the backbone of all criminal prosecutions. In a lot of ways the differences between her investigations and those of the police were very similar to those between a trial jury and a Grand Jury. Used for indictment purposes, the Grand Jury only had to consider whether it was likely the suspect had committed the crime. The trial jury had the burden of weighing all the evidence and deciding on the suspect's actual guilt or innocence. In other words, being mistaken for a cop was sort of understandable, but her questions picked up where the detectives' usually left off.

It also meant that she had to spend a lot of time saying, "I know you've already spoken to the police, ma'am. But I'm with the District Attorney's office, and I really need to talk to you."

Which is what she found herself saying to a slightly irritated and rumpled Janie Turner at the Manhattan office of Young & Rubicam. The young woman had a shock of jet black hair that stuck out wildly in all directions-- aided, Abbie noticed, by some unidentifiable hair gel-- and intent blue eyes that studied her warily. Her stocky build wasn't flattered by baggy khaki slacks dotted with what looked like copy machine toner or the lime green T-shirt bearing the sickly Poison Control icon Carmichael remembered from her youth. "District Attorney, huh? Guess that explains why Davie's not at work today. Yeah, you can talk to me. Come on in."

Turner's "office" was even smaller than Carmichael's, jammed with a desk and chair for the writer and two more uncomfortable-looking guest chairs that Abbie eyed uneasily.

"Who's the man in black?" Turner gestured at the lanky and glowering frame hovering behind Carmichael.

"This is Detective Munch-- he's with the Special Victims Unit working on this case. You mind if he joins us?"

The look that Turner shot Carmichael plainly said, "Do I have much choice?" but instead of saying anything she merely shrugged elaborately and fell backwards into her chair. "I can't help you."

"Just talking to you helps," Abbie countered, not really sure how to play this woman. Janie seemed almost hostile towards them, yet according to the background files there was no love lost between the copywriter and the account executive. Still, she had called Byers, "Davie," which indicated a certain degree of familiarity.

Turner snorted. "Whatever." She leaned back in her chair and continued to study Carmichael appraisingly. Her eyes narrowed in recognition. "I know you," she said decisively. "You're the one who put those queer killers away." Turner smiled, revealing a crooked charm beneath the attitude. "I would have fried those sorry bastards, but at least the motherfuckers are never getting out of jail. That was very cool."

Carmichael blushed lightly at the obscenity-laced praise. "Thank you."

"You going to the memorial service?"

Turner was asking about the upcoming protest/vigil/memorial service that Lorraine Fitzgerald and some of the city's queer leaders had organized in Stephanie Pruitt's name. Taking over her dead lover's seat on the board of the city's Gay Youth in Crisis Center had seemed to give Lorraine a new purpose in life-- one she jokingly blamed on Abbie, who had talked her into taking the seat in the first place. Lorraine had actually conceived the idea for honoring Stephanie's memory while sitting in Carmichael's office one evening and had even talked the attorney into speaking at the service. The event, however, quickly began taking on a life of its own. Like Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepherd before her, Stephanie had joined the unwilling and unfortunate pantheon of queer martyrs whose deaths seemed to resonate with something deep within the American consciousness. As more and more attention became focused on the event, Abbie had bowed out of her formal role in it. She assured Lorraine that as a private citizen she would be there, but her already public role as an ADA precluded her involvement on such a prominent scale.

The question took Carmichael aback, though she didn't really know why. "Um... yes, I'll be there."

Janie nodded a moment longer, as if deciding something. "Cool. What you wanna know about Davie and Tara?"

It was as if some internal hurdle had been overcome, a silent test passed-- and Carmichael wasn't about to question her good fortune. "What was your working relationship with Mr. Byers?" It was an open ended question meant more to get Janie talking and comfortable rather than to glean any real information.

Turner answered without preamble. "Davie's an asshole. But you kinda have to make allowances for that. Account service people deal in bullshit all day, so it's like an occupational hazard. You just learn to ignore the smell. But as far as assholes go, he's not too bad a one to have."

"Meaning you like him?"

"Everybody likes him. He's not my favorite guy on the planet, but I could name ten people like this--" she snapped her fingers-- "That I dislike more."

"So you guys hung out occasionally?"

"Yeah. I guess. A bunch of us would go to Hardwick's or something. He liked to run with the boys, though." Janie chuckled darkly. "For obvious reasons that didn't appeal to me too much. We did have similar taste in women though," she reminisced. "We dated the same girl once."

Behind his smoked glasses, Munch's bushy eyebrows rose.

"Not at the same time, you perv," Janie answered his unspoken question.

"Davie did date around, though?"

"If it had a snatch, Davie hit on it. As far as I heard, however, he did know the meaning of the word 'no.'"

"And Tara?"

"What about her?"

"Is she part of the gang?"

"Nah, not really. I think she might have come out with us once, maybe twice before."

"Was Davie part of those crowds too?"

Janie offered up her hands. "Who knows? This is a big agency, Ms. Carmichael. And it's just like high school. There's the in crowd, the in-between-crowd, and the lepers. As far as I knew, Tara didn't hang with any of them."

"Davie said some folks thought she was queer."

"Not," Janie snorted. "I don't know what Tara was into, but it wasn't girls."

"How do you know?" Munch interjected.

The copywriter grinned at Abbie, curling a single eyebrow upward. "Oh, you know we queers can sniff each other out. And Tara didn't have the scent." More seriously, she added, "Tara kept to herself. I think mostly because she liked it that way. She did a hell of a job in production, even came to me a couple of times about the kerning in some of my ads. Noticed everything."

Something in Janie Turner's narrative kept distracting Carmichael, and it took her a minute to locate its source. "You keep talking about Tara in the past tense. As if she's dead."

The expression on Turner's paunchy face was unidentifiable, but vaguely sympathetic to Carmichael's probing eyes. "As far as this agency's concerned, she is."

Their conversation with Donna Ellory didn't fare much better. Except Munch was perpetually distracted by Ellory's insanely long legs and the woman's annoying propensity for crossing and re-crossing them at startlingly short intervals. Her account of the evening with David Byers and Tara Wheeling was, to their chagrin, very similar to Janie's. Yes, Tara had a lot to drink, but then again they all had. No, Davie didn't seem any more touchy-feely than normal-- and certainly less so than the oversexed Keith, whom Donna had been forced to cool off by dumping a pitcher of beer into his swollen lap. "Then Janie and I left. I really can't tell you what happened after that."

"Did Tara seem to be enjoying his attention?"

Donna ran an elegantly manicured hand through her professionally-streaked blond hair. "I guess. She wasn't falling all over him, if that's what you're asking. She just seemed... interested... in what he had to say. All of us, really. Tara had this way of making you believe that she was really listening to what you were talking about." She pursed her lips and smiled awkwardly. "That's rare in this business-- and very attractive. Creative and Account Service assholes sometimes forget that we're not always on a pitch."

"Was Davie pitching to Tara?"

"Probably. It was a weird combo, though. Tara's so serious and Davie's... well, Davie's not."

"Sounds like you like Tara."

"Yeah, I guess I do. Wish I had gotten to know her better."

In unmarked police sedan, Carmichael studied her notes. "What a line from a yearbook." Abbie slumped in the uncomfortable vinyl seat, letting her head fall back against the head rest.

"It's the doomed fates of the faceless masses. Those who out of fear or either some misplaced sense of dignity have no urge to draw attention to themselves by beating their breasts and shouting 'ME! ME! ME! ME!'" Munch looked at Carmichael out of the corner of his eye. "Such ignominy will never befall you."

Without turning her head or opening her eyes, Abbie replied dryly, "Don't think just because you used big words I don't know that I've been insulted."

Munch merely smirked in reply.

"We've come up with absolutely nothing. It's still his word against hers."

"So he was an asshole, but apparently not a slime."

"I don't get it. Date rapists don't just do it once. And somebody as smooth as Byers has probably been getting away with it for a long time. There has to be somebody somewhere."

Guiding the car through the Wednesday afternoon start-stop traffic, Munch shrugged. "Even if there is somebody, it's a crap shoot if the judge would let something like that in."

"Yeah, but it might make him cave to a deal."

"There is one other option, you know."

"What's that?"

"It wasn't rape." He held up a hand to ward her off. "Don't castrate me just yet. I'm with you, but playing devil's advocate, you gotta look at both sides. I know that Byers gave Stabler a hand job in his statement, but that doesn't make him a rapist. But maybe he was afraid the real truth would make him look like one. Maybe he did con her into getting upstairs, maybe he talked her into taking her blouse off, re-enacting the seduction scene from Dirty Dancing-- or whatever it was that got it started. But once it got started, it was just that-- bad sex."

"Will you listen to yourself, Munch? Bad sex? Weren't you in the room when she made her statement? She said no-- twenty-two times. And twenty-two times, David Byers ignored her. That makes it rape."

"What about the evidence, Carmichael? No damage to either her clothing or the apartment. No lacerations, no abrasions. Rape kit came back positive for semen and sexual activity, but the docs said that the vaginal bruising could have just as easily been caused by a lack of lubrication as force. She wasn't aroused."

"Of course she wasn't aroused," Carmichael retorted. "She was being raped."

"Or else he didn't turn her on."

"Sonofabitch!" Her eyes snapped flames as she glared at the detective. "I cannot believe you just said that, Munch."

"I'm making a point here. If we can't find anything else-- and it's looking like we aren't-- it's gonna be his word against hers. And which lawyer can break the other's witness down faster. I know you did a good job on him in the interrogation, but he didn't break. Not even close."

"Which is why I'm trying to push him into a deal."

"All due respect, Counselor, but if he didn't take a deal right after you tripped him up on his original statement-- he's not going to."

Rubbing the back of her neck wearily, Carmichael nodded exhaustedly. "I know."

"So what are we going to do?"

"Talk to more people, I guess. The bar-- it's called Hardwick's, I think-- isn't too far from here. The evening shift should be coming on soon. We could--" Her words were interrupted by the shrill bleat of her cell phone. "Carmichael," she said into the phone.

Munch had been heading towards the bar all along. Now, in front of the tidy pub, he edged out of the traffic and pulled over, flipping the police visor down on the windshield. He'd known that Carmichael would want to come here, regardless of how well or poorly the case against David Byers was shaping up. Loose ends were not something that Abbie Carmichael trafficked in.

"Friday?" she was saying into the phone, a slightly incredulous tone in her voice. "No... no, that's... of course, I can. Of course, I would love to..." Then Carmichael chuckled-- a languid, rich sound that sent shivers of nervous sensation tricking into parts of his anatomy that Munch would rather have not concentrated on at the time. He couldn't resist sneaking a glance at the attorney and was astonished at the transformation he saw.

Abbie Carmichael was a beautiful woman-- anyone who looked at her knew that. Munch, however, had always associated her beauty with a sort of Arctic austerity, in spite of her dark coloring. He could admire pictures of the frozen tundra, but it didn't mean he wanted to live there.

This woman beside him now, however, was shockingly warm and supple-- as if the lines of her body had been completely altered. The Southern burr in her voice was rougher than he'd ever heard it; but her tone was unmistakably intimate, despite her innocuous words.

"Just pick me up at eight at my apartment. You remember...? Yeah, that's it. No... No..." A ripple of laughter left her throat and crawled up Munch's spine. "Leave everything to me. Just... wear something gorgeous. Yeah..." An almost imperceptible hesitation. "Me too..." More thrilling laughter. "You're absolutely right. Okay. See you then." She snapped the phone shut, her features returning to their formerly implacable exterior. The faint glimmer in her eyes, however, wouldn't be suppressed. "Shaddup," she growled at him before throwing the passenger door open and striding confidently into the bar, aware the whole time that had been his destination.

Upon entering the bar, they learned that waitress who had worked the Y&R table wasn't due on for another hour. With the bribe of a beer for Munch and a Jack Daniels for herself, Abbie convinced the SVU detective to wait with her. Carmichael glanced at her watch, mentally encouraging the woman to be early. She had been out of the office all afternoon and didn't relish the thought of what waited for her upon her return.

Lost in her own thoughts, she didn't notice Munch's steady appraisal, or the faint smirk that curled on his lips. "Drink that kerosene often?"

The question startling her into attentiveness, Abbie shook her head. "Come again?"

He pointed at the amber liquid in her glass. "You and the hard stuff-- you fooled me. You seem more like a wine spritzer kind of girl."

Carmichael shot him a look intended to melt steel, or at least the annoying black plastic of Munch's ever-present sunglasses. "They don't have wine spritzers where I'm from."

"Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot. Your relatives were survivors of the Alamo or something. Right?"

"There were no survivors of the Alamo," she replied darkly.

"Whatever." He waved her comment away. "So tell me, that phone call mean you and McCoy finally stopped arguing and got down to business? Because, I gotta tell you, I've got about six more months before we reach my date in the pool. I was hoping you were kinda holding out on him. But judging from the sound of your voice on that call, I think I'm out fifty bucks."

"Me and McCoy?" Her exclamation was hoarse, strangled as it was by the rest of the stiff Jack and Coke she was swallowing. Hastily, she motioned to the afternoon bartender for a hasty refill. She had heard about McCoy and his predilection for the young, pretty assistants who populated his office-- but Abbie had honestly believed that because of the obvious friction between her and the EADA, the gossip mill would have passed on that particular warhorse of a rumor.

Apparently not.

"Begging Jack's pardon," she muttered, regaining her sense of equilibrium. "But ewww...."

Munch snorted into his microbrew. "Ha! I knew it! At least that means I still have a chance in the other pool."

"What other pool?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous.

"The what-team-does-Abbie-bat-for pool." He snickered. "The gossips are completely buggered up. Since you're tighter than Fort Knox with information, they didn't know which pool to start-- so they've started one of everything."

Carmichael buried her face in her hands. "Please tell me these pools are metaphorical."

"No such luck, Counselor. There are some serious bucks being wagered on all sorts of details about your personal life. So if you have any inside dope you want to share with me...." He trailed off suggestively.

"Bite me, Munch."

"Don't tempt me."

She glared at him.

"Oh come on." Seeing she wasn't going to budge, Munch shrugged. "Okay, let me tell you what I've deduced from my stellar detective-like instincts. You and McCoy are a no-go-- which, I have to say, is a first for poor Jack-- no wonder he yells at you so much. Judging from that phone call, I'd say you and I bat for the same team, or at the very least you're a switch-hitter-- like Pele on his last game. You know where he played a half for each team."

"You're mixing your sports analogies, Munch."

"Don't stop me," his words rode right over her. "I'm on a roll. How have I arrived at this conclusion, you might ask? One simple word." He looked at her expectantly.


"Aren't you gonna ask me which word?"

"Aren't you going to tell me whether I do or not?" she shot back.

"You have a point. Okay-- gorgeous."

"Beg pardon?"

"Gorgeous. You told the person on the other end of the phone to wear something gorgeous. That's not something you'd tell your average strapping Marlboro Man."

"Maybe it's not the Marlboro Man. Maybe it's some other guy."

"Abbie..." He looked sternly at her. "I can't see you with some nebbishy lawyer-type."

"I am a nebbishy lawyer-type," she protested.

"No-- you're not. Actually, now that I think about it-- you are the Marlboro Man. Just in nebbishy lawyer-type clothes. You've even got that oh-so-dashing cleft in your chin." He cocked his head to look at her more closely. "You know-- cut your hair, you could be Montgomery Clift. This ADA gig doesn't work out for you-- there's a great future as a drag king just around the bend."

"Munch, you're giving me a headache."

"Then have another drink, I'm just getting started. Come on, I mean, when am I ever going to get this chance again?"

Abbie narrowed her eyes.

"My point exactly," he nodded. "Now, what can we deduce about the lady in question? Well, obviously you're very into her-- I mean, really Carmichael, is it smart to be that so apparently eager?"

"I wasn't..." she started.

"And the whole thing is just getting started, because you were definitely surprised by the invitation."

"It isn't...."

"But she knows where you live. Hmm...." Munch drummed his fingers on the bar. "Now that has to be the most interesting aspect of this scenario. I wonder how..."

"You guys waiting for Erika?" the bartender mercifully derailed the detective's train of thought. "She just got in. If you want to go over to that booth over there, I'll send her over."

"Thank you," Carmichael replied gratefully, picking up her drink and moving to the indicated booth.

"So what are you going to wear?" Munch called over her shoulder. "We really should discuss this..."

"So did you decide on what you were going to wear yet?" In the bathroom mirror Russell eyed her partner with an ill-concealed grin matched by Kirkendall's own. Their conversation the night before had opened up a lot of previously hidden places in the women's souls, and Diane found she was enjoying this more intimate aspect of their partnership.

"I think so, but I've never had the courage-- or the occasion-- to wear it before. I just hope I can still fit into it." She patted her hips ruefully. "Turning forty is hell."

Russell chuckled. "Well, I've still got a few more years, but if I can make it looking as good as you do, I'll be more than happy."

Jill shot Diane a grateful look and finished washing her hands, her face turning thoughtful. "Last night, I'm looking in the mirror, and all I can see are the stretch marks and the five extra pounds from last Thanksgiving that turned into ten extra this Christmas. Not to mention that lately my hair looks like I stuck my finger in a light socket." She threaded her hands through the locks in question. "What's up with that?"

"You just need a trim. John can do it for you. He cuts Andy's hair."

"PAA John? Gay John?" she asked incredulously.

"Yeah, believe it or not. Why don't you ask him to do it during lunch? I'm sure he'll be thrilled. And that way you're all tidy for tomorrow evening."

"Great, you think he can trim my hips and thighs while he's at it?"

Russell studied her partner more closely, noticing the worried lines creasing her forehead. Never in the three years the women had known each other had Kirkendall even mentioned her own appearance. Not that Russell hadn't heard extensive commentary about her partner's attributes from everyone else in the 1-5. Diane had interpreted this silence as the quiet confidence of someone who was at peace with her genetic gifts and the effect they had on the men around her. Maybe she was, Russell realized, but Abbie Carmichael represented a whole different ball game. "What's wrong, Jill?"

"It's just... I don't know." Kirkendall shook her head and then smiled at her partner ruefully. "Admit it, Diane, she's about as close to physically perfect as you can get and still be human."

Not needing to say who she was.

"She's too thin," Russell commented idly, suppressing her desire to ask just how closely Jill had gotten to look. In their conversations with her, neither Jill nor Abbie had said exactly how far things had gone. But judging from her partner's apprehension and Carmichael's own almost damnably honorable nature, Diane guessed that it couldn't have gone too far.

"She runs too much and doesn't eat enough," Kirkendall replied dryly. "I should have that problem."

"Jill--" Diane faced her partner squarely. "Heads turn when you walk down the street-- you know that. And as far as I'm concerned, you are absolutely one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen."

Kirkendall hung her head and refused to meet Diane's eyes, an unusual blush coloring her features. "I..." Her voice was almost a whisper. "She's so amazing. I just want to beautiful enough for her."

"Oh baby..." An unfamiliar thickness lodged in Russell's throat, and she reached for Kirkendall's hand. "You know she's not about that," she said softly, recognizing in her friend's eyes the almost overwhelming desire she herself had felt to be worthy of the look Bobby's eyes.

"I know," Kirkendall murmured. "If I had two heads and six arms... that wouldn't change how she feels about what's happening between us." Now she raised her eyes to meet Diane's. "That's part of what scares me so much."

"And nobody can confirm either version of the events?" Adam Schiff looked skeptically at his protégés, both old and new. McCoy sprawled in his usual chair opposite Abbie's desk, while Carmichael leaned back in her own chair, arms folded loosely across her chest and one low-heeled pump bouncing lightly against the plush gray carpeting. On his way out to lunch, Schiff had seen them-- grim-faced and weary-looking-- through the open doorway of Carmichael's office and had stopped in for an impromptu status check on their cases. What he had heard hadn't pleased him.

"Co-workers say that Byers hit on everything that moved, but wasn't known for staying around where he wasn't wanted. He's gone out with a couple of women in the building, but when they broke it off-- he didn't come around again. Tara wasn't very well-known, but professionally at least she was well-thought of," Carmichael summarized tersely. "The folks they went out with that night say that nothing unusual happened-- aside from Byers' friend getting a pitcher of beer dumped in his lap, but even that apparently isn't too uncommon. Their waitress said they were all pretty trashed, but she didn't notice Tara cozying up to Byers or the reverse."

"Sounds like you don't have much of a case."

"I'm not turning this guy loose, Adam."

"Then make a deal."

"He won't take one."

"What did you offer?"

"Rape 2, 3 to 6-- right after I talked to him."

"Maybe you offered too soon," he said.

"No," Jack's voice interjected. "The statement he gave Abbie contradicted his earlier one to the detectives. If he was going to deal, it would have been then. She timed it right, even had Byers's attorney convinced."

"So what happened?"

"Guy's smarter than we think."

"Or it didn't happen."

"It happened," Abbie's voice again, stronger now.

"Then find something to prove it. Or make a deal and put him away." With a last stern look, he replaced his hat and ambled back down the hallway.

"That was productive." Abbie slumped wearily in her chair and eyed McCoy, smiling crookedly. "Thanks for backing me up there."

"You did the right thing on the deal. It's what I would have done."

"Ah, but those aren't necessarily the same thing, now are they?" she replied archly, only a slight glimmer in her eyes betraying the tease.

McCoy shrugged diffidently, the upward curl of his lips barely visible. "You've only got another twelve hours before he has to be arraigned or released. What are you going to do?"

"What am I going to do?" she echoed as Munch strolled into her office. "I'm going shopping."

It was unusual to say the least, Abbie reflected, as she trailed after Munch's skinny form through the evening wear department of Bergdorf's. Okay, make that downright surreal... she mentally corrected, watching him critically eye and then dismiss a number of dresses, any of which would have probably suited her purposes. For some reason, the inscrutable fortysomething former Baltimore-homicide-now- New-York-based-SVU-detective had appointed himself her unlikely fairy godmother, although it probably wouldn't do to let him hear her say that.

"Black," he was mumbling to himself. "We need to put you in basic black."

"That's a surprise," she replied dryly, "Considering who I'm talking to."

"Am I the only one who's worried about this?"

"What's to worry?" Though there were more butterflies in her stomach than even she would admit to at this point, and the sardonic look on Munch's face called her on the fib. Things had been so hit-and-miss with Jill that a part of her had really believed they would simply go on catching minutes and lunch hours out of their days until the other woman finally lost interest and told her thank you, no.

Of course, Diane Russell had put a stop to that.

The thought of her old friend maneuvering to carve out some time alone for her and Jill was a sweet one, although she didn't envy Russell the hell she had probably caught from Kirkendall for interfering. Russell had indicated more than once that Jill seemed to think of her partner as a younger sibling, someone to look out for and offer a comforting shoulder to in times of need-- but so far it hadn't worked both ways. Diane's playing Cupid could have seriously backfired. Still, Jill had called her and had asked her out for Friday, Carmichael mused, so she couldn't have taken Russell's meddling too badly.

Could she?

"Hey! Hey you!" Munch was snapping his fingers in her eyes, trying to bring her out of the reverie into which she had fallen.

"Stop it," she snapped, grabbing the hand in from of her face and squeezing on the fingers.

"Ow!" he protested, snatching his injured digits back and rubbing them gingerly. "There's no cause for physical violence here."

"There is when you do that."

"The sales clerk had been talking to you for five minutes. We thought you were catatonic."

"Just thinking about the case."

"Yeah right. The case you're taking out to dinner tomorrow night. Sure." He thrust three black cocktail dresses into her hands. "You want to try these on."

"I do?"

"You do," he confirmed, pushing her towards a vacantly-smiling, large-toothed clerk standing by the dressing rooms. "Come out and show me each one."

"Munch, reassure me here. This is not some Victoria's Secret fantasy of yours gone kinky, is it?"

"Just think of me as your best girlfriend." Seeing Carmichael's faint coloring at his inadvertent pun, he added. "Not that kind of girlfriend." He paused, considering. "Not that I would mind if it were." He cocked his head. "Maybe I should try on the dresses."

Silently, Abbie rolled her eyes and fled to the soothing decor and relative sanity of the dressing rooms.

Once there, she considered each of the dresses he had picked out. For a self-described conspiracy freak, Munch had surprisingly good taste. Each dress was of a different classic cut, black, and with discreetly short hemlines that managed to both flash a fair amount of leg and leave plenty to the imagination. All in all it wasn't what she would have expected the SVU detective to pick out-- that was something along the lines of a lime green tube top and spandex biker pants. So, with little reservation, she slipped into the first one.

"Hey John..." Kirkendall leaned hesitantly on the corner of the PAA's desk. "You got a minute?"

The young man nodded instantly, a pleasant-- if somewhat confused-- expression on his face. "What can I do for you, Detective?"

Jill jerked an awkward thumb towards the locker room. "Can we talk in here?"

His unease grew. "Certainly."

"Strapless doesn't do it for you. With those shoulders, you look like a linebacker," Abbie glowered at him, but Munch only leaned back regally in the plush visitor's chair and crossed his legs. "Try the next one."

Jill shut the door behind them and glanced around nervously, not really sure what how to ask. She had always walked a fine line on the Job, resolutely keeping as much of her private life out of the squad room as possible throughout her whole career. Mostly because Don had been such a loose cannon that she had never felt comfortable forming friendships that extended beyond the safe confines of the House. It wasn't easy to admit that your ex was a skel of the lowest sort, even harder to admit that you had a weak spot for him that-- until recently-- wouldn't seem to die. "I need a favor."

The expression in John's eyes told her that he sensed her fretfulness and was trying to make this as easy as possible for her. "If it's in my power."

"It's nothing big-- and if you can't-- it's no big deal. I understand."

"Well..." He hesitated. "I won't know if I can't until you tell me what it is."

"You look like the bastard love child of Gomez Addams and Angelina Jolie," Munch proclaimed, wincing at the high collar and long sleeves of the next dress. "But you might want to keep that in mind for next Halloween."

Jill laughed tentatively. "Um... it's just that... well, I heard that... sometimes, you know... you um... cut..." Her voice trailed off and she half-gestured towards her head.



"And you were wondering...?" He looked expectantly at her.

"I've got this thing tomorrow night..."

Comprehension dawned in his pale blue eyes and a delighted light flickered there. "I'd been honored." He stepped slightly forward, smiling eagerly. "You only need a little trim. May I?"

As the third dress was rejected with equally alarming alacrity, Carmichael considered calling the whole expedition off when a dress of a different sort caught her eye. A lazy smirk curled around her lips as she examined it.

"Let me see that one."

"I have all these cowlicks unless I keep my hair long," Jill complained good-naturedly. "But between keeping up with the boys and the job, I don't have time to fuss with it."

"So you just wash it and go," John nodded understandingly, all the while apprising Jill's blond locks from every possible angle.

They had fetched the low stool that John and Andy used for the other detective's trims, along with John's styling gear. Now Jill found something oddly soothing in the quiet murmurs the PAA made as he spritzed the back of her hair with water in preparation. "Pretty much," she agreed. "Run some gel through it, and that's the extent of my fashion statement."

"Just a suggestion? When you want to go for something softer--" Their eyes met in the mirror. "Leave the gel out. You have one of those little round brushes?"

Jill nodded.

"Comb your hair downward and curl the ends under. One reason your hair's gets spiky is the gel."

"But it's so fine, it just sticks to the sides of my head if I don't put something in it."

"Maybe a light mousse, then. It will give you some body, but won't shape the hair too much. I have some terrific samples you can try." He grinned conspiratorially at her. "A friend of mine's in the business."

"That'd be great," Jill found herself replying enthusiastically and couldn't help but laugh. "Would you listen to me?"

John only gave her a questioning glance.

"I haven't been this interested in the way I looked since I was about sixteen and getting ready for the prom."

"Nothing wrong with wanting to look nice," John soothed, then added, "Not that you don't always." He smiled shyly. "I know I've never said anything to you-- or Detective Russell for that matter-- because I don't think it's appropriate in the station house, but I've always thought that both you and Detective Russell carry yourselves with tremendous style."

The earnest comment elicited a blush from Kirkendall's pale cheeks. "Thank you, John. That means a lot."

"May I ask what's the special occasion you're getting ready for?"

She hesitated, then shrugged. "It's nothing... just... a date. I feel kind of stupid being this..."


"I'm too old to be excited over a simple dinner."

"No, you're not," the younger man scolded. "You're never too old for something like that. Besides," he continued, trimming the hair on the back of Jill's neck into a neat line, "It's just your body's way of telling you that this is someone special."

"Oh. My. God."

A smug brow arched elegantly in response to the declaration. "I take it you like this one."

"So much so I'm gonna have a heart attack. That dress on you, Carmichael..." his voice trailed off.

"Yeeesss?" she purred.

"Oughta be illegal. In fact, I'm sure your Daddy would definitely not approve."

"Then it's a keeper?"

"Oh yeah."

Abbie stood in front of her appreciative audience of one for a moment longer, reveling in the sensation of the smooth fabric against her skin. Everything about the dress was simple-- from the two-fingers' width straps that caressed her shoulders to the curving neckline that showed just a hint of the swell of her breasts. The rich wine color was accented by a subtle pattern running down the length of the dress in an even deeper shade of maroon. It clung appreciatively to her hips and thighs, ending demurely at mid-calf. The salesclerk had thoughtfully provided matching pumps that added another two-inches to her already impressive height. She now topped the six-foot detective by a good inch. "You think I need some earrings?" she asked her still-gaping sidekick.

"I think that body your wearing is accessory enough. Dammit Carmichael, is that what you've been hiding under those crappy suits of yours?"

"So-- no earrings?"

He cocked his head appraisingly. "Maybe some small hoops or something," he conceded. "But no necklace. Your décolletage is distracting enough."

"John--" Kirkendall hesitated, wanting to ask the question she had been asking herself ever since she had first laid eyes on Abbie Carmichael. "Ask you something?"

The PAA smiled understandingly-- knowingly, Jill thought.

"I mean, I completely understand if you don't want to answer."

He only continued to smile.

"How did... I mean... you know, when did you first realize you were gay? What brought it on?"

He chuckled. "You make it sound like a head cold."

Instantly Jill dropped her eyes. "Never mind." She shook her head. "Just forget it."

John looked closely at the formidable detective he'd come to know over the last year. Jill Kirkendall remained very much an enigma to him-- as she did to most everyone in the squad except for Detective Russell. He knew she had two young sons and a worthless ex-husband, but beyond that, she was silent about her life outside the House. Personally, he thought that she and Detective Russell would have made an absolutely stunning couple-- they certainly had the chemistry for it, whether they knew it or not. And experience had taught him that people didn't generally ask the "gay" question unless they had some questions of their own.

Maybe Jill Kirkendall wasn't as oblivious as he thought.

Hesitantly, he placed a long-fingered hand on her shoulder. "I was only teasing," he said softly. "Honestly, I can't remember a time when I wasn't. I was the original sissy-boy growing up, and things haven't really changed that much."

"You took a bullet trying to save Sylvia's life," Jill corrected. "That's not exactly the textbook definition of a sissy."

"Anyone would have done the same," John demurred. Now it was his turn to blush. Although everyone at the 1-5 had assured him otherwise, he still felt responsible for the events leading up to the death of Andy's wife, Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Kostas. So many should haves and could haves still filled his thoughts that he frequently exhausted himself trying to keep track of them all. But the fact of the matter was, he couldn't change any of it now.

And the look in Detective Kirkendall's eyes told him exactly that.

"Anyway..." he said briskly, fluffing Jill's hair-- more to keep his hands busy than anything-- and returning to their original subject. "I guess I've always known."

"So..." Jill hesitated, "You feel you were born this way?"

Seeing where she was obliquely headed, John hid a smile. "I do, sure, but I know lots of people-- men and women-- who were in straight relationships for a long time before they got involved with someone of the same, ah, persuasion."

"Were they happy before, these people?"

"Some yes, some no. Just like everyone else, I suppose." He smiled in reflection. "One friend of mine, he says that he's completely straight-- except he fell in love with his best friend, who just happened to be a man and gay. They've been together almost ten years now."

"You don't think your friend was just hiding from the truth about himself?"

"Who knows?" John shrugged. "I certainly don't think he does. What it comes down to-- at least for me-- is that love is love. It's a cliché, but a true one, I think. Does it matter what labels we put on the bodies of the people we fall in love with or those we put on the relationships themselves?"

"Maybe we're just trying to understand ourselves and the people around us," Jill offered.

"Maybe," he hedged. "But maybe the people who are so quick to put labels on other people are usually doing it out of spite. Or fear. Take Detective Russell's friend in the DA's office, Ms. Carmichael." John was so intent neatly parting Jill's hair that he almost didn't feel the slight start in the older woman's body. The tremor lasted only a second, and a dawning thought crept over the horizon of his mind.

"What about her?" Jill prompted.

"Well, ever since the Pruitt case, I've heard some of the... uh, less-charitably-inclined officers refer to her as that dyke DA."

"In our squad?" Her hazel eyes clouded, and John knew that whatever had just occurred to him about Detective Kirkendall and the darkly attractive lawyer was probably pretty on-target.

"No," he hastened to assure her. "Nobody in the squad. But some uniforms..."

"Which uniforms?" she barked.

"Well... mostly that Laughlin fellow..."

"The one who's just moved to Anti-crime?"

"And his cronies," John confirmed. "But you see where I'm going," he hastened to add, fearing for Office Laughlin's personal safety should he recount exactly what he had heard the man say. "She stepped up to the plate-- publicly-- and said that terrorizing someone because they were gay was not acceptable. For that-- and because she curtly turned down his rather Neanderthalian pass-- he calls her a dyke and feels like a big man."

"Somebody needs to have a word with him," Kirkendall said grimly.

"That's not the point," he persisted. "I'm sure you've had similar things happen-- and the people calling you names weren't trying to 'understand' a single thing about you. In fact, they knew nothing about you. They were trying to get back at you and feel better about themselves. In our world-- the words dyke and fag are ways to do that. And it's ten times worse when you really are gay-- when you're told who you are is dirty."

"So why set yourself up for something like that?" Jill asked in a wondering tone, almost to herself.

"All done," John proclaimed, putting the finishing touches on Jill's hair and not replying to the rhetorical question.

Kirkendall smiled at him in the mirror, letting the subject go. "It looks great, John. Thanks so much."

"My pleasure." He gathered his things together silently while Kirkendall replaced the stool they had used. Only when the detective was about to leave the locker room, did John speak up. "I know this is none of my business, Detective Kirkendall, and I apologize in advance."

"What is it, John?"

"It's only a date," he said softly. "It doesn't have to change your life."

A painful smile twisted over half of Kirkendall's strong face. "I think it already has."

"You want to tell me what's going on?" Carmichael's words were deceptively calm; but from his vantage point behind her, Munch could see the tense ripple in the lawyer's shoulders. After the successful conclusion of their shopping expedition, Carmichael and Munch had dropped by Tara's Young & Rubicam office-- only to be told that Ms. Wheeling had tendered her resignation, effective immediately.

Now the pair stood in awkwardly in Tara's apartment, amidst the debris of a life interrupted and shoved rudely into a packing box. "What's to tell?" Tara said, not looking at Carmichael. "McCann-Erikson in Atlanta offered me a Senior Production slot. I'll be working on Coke and the Atlanta Hawks. For about twice as much money as I'm getting from Y&R."

"Kinda sudden, isn't it?" Abbie remarked.

"They've had a standing offer for about six months. I'd always turned them down before but now..."

"Why now?"

"There's no reason for me to stay here. I can't work in the same building..." She gestured lamely, her voice trailing into nothingness.

"He'll be in jail soon."

"Will he?" Tara trained unwavering brown eyes on the district attorney. "Detective Stabler told me you haven't charged him yet. You're still holding him on 'suspicion of rape.'"

"We're in the process of gathering evidence to present at his arraignment," Carmichael hedged.

"But there isn't anything, right? Just my word against his. That's what Keith said."

Abbie's anger tightened. "Byers' friend, Keith?"

"Just a friendly visit-- he said." Tara folded her arms tightly across her chest, a tremor running through her slender body. "He wanted me to reconsider what I had told the police. Said that everyone in the agency knew, people were starting to take sides-- that it was bad for morale and really hurting Y&R's image. People in the industry were starting to talk."

Carmichael remained silent, but her glance must have given away her thoughts, for Tara's own expression hardened.

"Look Ms. Carmichael-- no matter how big New York is-- the advertising community here isn't. Everybody knows. It may not seem like much, but I love what I do-- and I can't do it here any longer."

"If you run everybody will say he's right," Abbie said softly.

Tara winced at the quiet words, but resolutely shook her head. "People are saying that already. Isn't that why you're so hard at work trying to find something other than my word? Something people will believe."

"I believe you."

"But you're not a judge or a jury."

"Don't worry about the judge and jury."

"I'm worried about my life. I have to take care of myself."

"Oh, and moving hundreds of miles away from everyone and everything you know is taking care of yourself? Sounds like that's the last thing you're doing," Carmichael retorted, half-aware that she was overstepping her prosecutorial bounds, but unable to stop herself.

The compassion underlying Carmichael's angry words didn't escape Tara's notice, and she smiled half-heartedly. "It's okay-- I mean, the Rape Crisis Center has already put me in touch with someone... to talk to... down in Atlanta. And I do have some friends down there-- it's where I'm from originally. That's why I didn't take the job for so long-- hometown girl and all-- wanted to go to the big city and make it." The momentary brightness in her eyes faded. "Looks like that didn't happen."

"This isn't your fault."

"I know that," Tara affirmed. "But for me to stay up here and fight it out-- it's not worth what it would cost me--" She tapped her chest. "Here. I just want to put myself back together and get on with my life."

"He'll walk."

"I know."

"And he might do it again," Carmichael added, knowing that it was a low blow. She felt Munch wince, but Tara remained steady.

"You don't think I've thought about that? About how he's probably done it before too? I've read all about these date rapists. Isn't that what you call them? But I can't, Ms. Carmichael.... I just can't..."

The break in her voice was barely perceptible, but it shot through Abbie like a swift, unmerciful lance. She reached out as if to touch the girl, but the gesture was stillborn. The two women remained apart, separated by the ghost of a pain and one newly born. "You take care of yourself, Tara," she said finally, realizing that further conversation would only be more hurtful and just as ultimately pointless. Carmichael pulled a card from her briefcase and laid it on top of a pile of mail. "If you need anything, anytime, call me."

Only when the door shut firmly behind them, did she look at Munch. Lines of compassion were etched into the normally-shuttered face of the detective. "There goes our case," she remarked as they stepped onto the elevator.

"You still have discretion to prosecute. Technically, you're prosecuting a crime against the state."

"Right, and have to subpoena the victim? Not likely. Oh well, we can always hope that the bastard gets hit by a bus."

"Ah, the never-ending circle of life. Karma and all that? You don't strike me as particularly Buddhist, Carmichael."

"I'm not, but I was born and raised a Southern Baptist. Brimstone, hellfire and all the trimmings. I believe in divine retribution. And if anybody has it coming, it's David Byers."



The weariness that had settled on Abbie's shoulders as she talked to Tara still weighed heavily on her the next morning. She hadn't slept much the night before, and had picked up the phone about a dozen times to call Jill, just to hear her voice. Thinking better of the action-- and of their plans for the following evening-- Carmichael had instead opted for a shot of Jack Daniels and a hot bath that hadn't done any good.

McCoy found her sprawled in her desk chair, idly contemplating the ancient water stains around the air ducts in the ceiling.

"I hear we're kicking David Byers."

"Yeah. There's no case."

"She recant?"

"She walked away. Decided that saving her sanity was more important than fighting a battle she didn't think she could win."

"It would have been close either way."

Wearily rubbing her eyes and then closing them against the harsh brightness of the florescent lights, Abbie shook her head. "I just keep thinking maybe there was something more I could have done. Could have found."

"You did the job right, Abbie."

"I could have done it better."

McCoy laughed, a wry smile painting his craggy features. "There are many ways to describe how you do your job, Carmichael-- half-hearted isn't one of them. You can't win them all."

"I wanted to win this one."

She had told Adam Schiff that sometimes survival was the best justice you could ask for-- and it was true. Back then, she'd had no choice but to walk away, to rescue the shattered pieces of her psyche. But in the darkest part of herself, in the depths of things she would never admit to in the light of day, she had never forgiven herself. She had betrayed her own soul-- had let them tell her that she was wrong. And by her silence, she told herself the same thing every single day of her life. She hadn't lied when she told McCoy that she didn't blame herself anymore-- the rape wasn't her fault.

The silence, however, was.

The End

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