DISCLAIMER: The main characters in the story belong to NBC Television, Dick Wolf and whoever else has a vested interest in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: The Original Series. The supporting characters in the story belong to NBC Television, and whoever else has a vested interest in The Facts of Life. The rest of the recognized characters mentioned in passing herein belong to a number of people who are not me. Popular was created by Ryan Murphy, Gina Matthews and the WB. The Devil Wears Prada is owned by Lauren Weisberger and 20th Century Fox. Credit for In Plain Sight lies with David Maples, Paul Stupin and the USA Network. No money is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended.
THANKS: To my beta readers Phil, Mac and Jeanne.  Their diligence made this a much more pleasant story for everyone to read.  They picked up all the missing letters and words I dropped since Pink & Fluffy the brain cells continually outdistanced Pink & Fluffy the typing fingers.  I appreciate it. :-)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so this story went on WAAAAAAAY longer than I intended for it to... by about a hundred and twenty pages, give or take. It moseyed, it meandered and it took some wicked, unexpected left turns at Albuquerque. However, the characters were kind enough to finally let me wrap this one up. The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Devil in Blue Jeans
By D



Long before the book became a hit movie, Olivia Benson knew that the Devil wore Prada... and Gucci... and Armani... and Jimmy Choo, and she carried Louis Vuitton bags. The one-six had inherited their very own Devil when Alexandra Cabot had been introduced as their new ADA. It hadn't been smooth and it hadn't been easy – selling your soul and making deals with the Devil was never without cost, but eventually things settled down and they came to an understanding.

Slowly, surprisingly, Alex and Olivia became friends – bonding first over their work and then moving on to more personal topics... commiserating over their love lives, or the lack thereof; telling bits about their families and background; even discussing difficult topics like politics and religion.

As their friendship deepened, they flirted occasionally – teasing, but never crossing the unspoken barrier they had set for themselves. It was fun and it was safe and it was the most dangerous game they could play.

And then Alex was gone.

The squad had been glad to see the new ADA that followed her wasn't a Devil of any kind, but was instead more of a nervous kid... everyone but Olivia Benson. Liv had resented Casey Novak at first because she wasn't Alex Cabot, but eventually they formed a good working relationship that developed into a solid friendship, though Olivia never opened up to Casey the way she had to Alex. She just wasn't willing to risk losing someone that close to her again.

Then Alex Cabot came back to stay and Olivia was reminded how much she had lost on that fateful night Alex had been shot. Alex never called and as much as it hurt, Olivia realized that the Devil she'd known was no longer her Devil and she closed off that part of her life for good.

Until the day the Devil knocked on the door of her apartment dressed in cowboy boots, a teal tank top and painted on blue jeans.

"Hello, Detective. Long time, no see." Alex smiled rakishly and removed the glasses of justice she knew Olivia was fond of, leaning against the doorjamb and crossing her arms over her chest with an arrogance that irritated Liv. She wanted to slam the door closed and walk away, but her curiosity got the better of her. Instead, she braced the door and glared at Alex.

"Counselor," she greeted coldly. "How did you get up here?"

Alex held out the key Olivia had given her years before. Liv clenched one hand around the doorknob and the other around the door frame to keep from snatching it away from her. All things considered, she couldn't believe the woman's nerve. Olivia took a deep breath and held out her hand; Alex reached to take it, only to have Olivia shake her dark head. A frown crossed Alex's face, not understanding what Olivia was asking for. Before she realized the detective's intention, Olivia had reached out and snagged the key from Alex's hand and slammed the door shut behind her.

Alex stood staring at the door for a long moment, hearing the locks slide into place before a determined look crossed her face and she knocked firmly. "Olivia!" knocking again. "Olivia Benson... open the door!" She slammed her glasses back on her face before she could shatter them against the door. She leaned her head against it and called out more softly, "Liv, I know you can hear me... please open the door. We need to talk."

Liv opened the door a bare crack. "We have nothing to talk about, Counselor... not anymore. Go back to your boyfriends and your uptown penthouse. You have no place here." There was sadness and anger in Olivia's eyes and voice that touched her, but before she could respond, the door was closed again and Alex was alone in the hallway once again.

She slapped the door in frustration but Olivia ignored her and with a low growl of irritation, Alex stomped back down the hallway. This was going to be harder than she thought.


The Story

Olivia scrubbed her face as she sat down at her desk the following morning. Sleep had been a long time coming the night before and when she had finally drifted off, her dreams were haunted by the image of Alex being shot over and over and over. She would have welcomed a call to a scene, except the delegation to desk duty while under investigation by IAB precluded that possibility. So she gave up and went into work early on her own, determined to buckle down to the paperwork she had to go through.

"Rough night?" Elliot asked sympathetically as he placed a cup of real, hot coffee on the desk in front of her. He perched on the corner of her desk and looked at her in concern. "You look like you were out all night, and not having a good time while you were there."

Liv rubbed her eyes and smirked at him sardonically. "I'm not sure I remember what that is anymore." She sipped her coffee. "How's Kathy?"

"Cursing my name," Elliot replied succinctly with a grin. "This baby is giving her all kinds of morning sickness; some of it lasts all day. She insists that I should share part of this with her and give her a break from it."

Olivia grimace. "Ew... that sucks."

"Yeah, it certainly makes reconciliation a little more challenging, but I can't honestly say I am unhappy about having another child either. As much as I worry about my kids, Liv, I love them all – I wouldn't change a thing if it meant not having one of them."

"I know, El... you're a great dad. Your kids are lucky."

"So am I," he stated firmly. "But enough about that... what kept you up?"

Olivia looked at him for a long moment. "I had a visit from our erstwhile ADA last night." Elliot's eyebrows popped off his forehead.

"Cabot came to see you?!? Why??"

"Dunno. I didn't ask. I really don't care."

"You're lying, Liv... either to yourself or to me, but you are lying."

She glared at him. "No, Elliot, I'm really not. I'm past Alex Cabot and everything about her, all right? I just want to get back to being able to do my job without having to look over my shoulder anymore. I don't need any more complications in my life. Simon has caused me enough problems."

"What are you gonna do about him?"

"Whaddya mean, El? He's my brother."

"Is he?" Elliot asked as he slipped from her desk and moved to sit in his chair. "Liv, we never got the results of his DNA test. What if he's not your brother? What if he's just a cousin?"

"He's still family, Elliot. You of all people should understand how important that is... especially to me."

"I do understand, Liv, but it does make a difference. For one thing it means that he lied to you." A pause. "Look, just don't let him take advantage of you. You're better than that, and you've worked hard to establish the solid reputation you've got in the department. Don't let loyalty to someone you don't even really know destroy everything you've worked for."

"A little late for that advice, El. The damage has been done."

"A word to the wise, Detective," came a cool voice from the doorway. "Listen to your partner. You're in serious danger of losing your shield." She was now dressed in the epitome of professional attire.

Elliot swiveled in his chair, his mouth dropping open momentarily before he shot to his feet. "Alex! What are you doing here? I thought you were too good for the one-six now!" His voice was a mixture of shock, pleased surprise and disdain.

Alex wasn't sure which to respond to and replied diffidently, "I've been busy."

That made Elliot angry and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Yeah, I've heard. So why exactly are you bothering with us now? We don't run in your circles and we're pretty busy ourselves."

"I came to speak to your partner, Detective Stabler."

"I thought I made it clear last night, Counselor - we have nothing to talk about. Now if you'll excuse me, I do actually have real work to do," Olivia said dismissively without raising her eyes from her paperwork. "You know the way out," waving her hand in Alex's direction.

Elliot looked at Olivia, only his eyes betraying his surprise at her attitude. She really does have it bad, he thought, catching the anger and hurt in Alex's eyes before she shuttered her expression to one of impassivity.

"This isn't optional for you, Detective. I am here to offer you my expertise in your Internal Affairs query."

Olivia deigned to glance up at this pronouncement, her eyes burning in anger though not a muscle moved in her facial appearance. She laid her pen to one side and slowly stood, never losing Alex's eyes.

"Sure it is... even if I could accept help from the DA's office, I wouldn't accept it from you. I am officially refusing counsel from you. I can manage on my own, thanks," she stated precisely. "You can go now," stepping out from behind her desk and deliberately turning her back to walk to the coffee pot for a cup of sludge she really didn't need... considering there was a perfectly good cup of designer coffee sitting on her desk.

Alex watched her for a moment before turning her eyes to Elliot who simply shrugged and sat, turning back to the work on his desk. Then gritting her teeth, Alex walked to Cragen's door, knocking softly and when she realized he was not in yet, she entered and closed the door firmly behind her.

Once she was gone, Olivia turned back to Elliot. "Why do I have the feeling this is gonna be one of those days?"

"Good detective work?" he smirked at her, chuckling when she rolled her eyes. Then Munch walked in and they turned back to their work while he headed to Cragen's office.

"Alex?" he said as he recognized the blonde head sitting in one of the guest chairs. "What are you doing here? I mean, it's nice to see you, but...." He trailed off, not sure where he wanted to go with this conversation. There were a lot of hard and mixed feelings concerning Alex Cabot and her behavior since her return to Manhattan. For the most part, the one-six had written her off as a lost cause, not worth her time or theirs. Casey had wisely stayed out of it, not wanting to aggravate either side of the line she had to walk, but the rest had definite, loud opinions.

"Hi, John," Alex answered wearily. "I'm waiting to see Cragen. I'm here to offer Olivia counsel for the IAB inquiry. She's... resistant to the idea."

"Uh... huh," he drawled slowly as he walked around to take a seat at the desk. He studied the woman in front of him a long moment. Her eyes were much older, but aside from that she looked much as she had the last time they had seen her – when she had returned for Liam Connor's trial. Her hair was still longish - a bit shorter than it had been then, but with the same honey-gold tint. Her face was still clear and mostly unlined – it seemed most of her time in witness protection had taken its toll in her eyes. She was thin, almost dangerously so, but it seemed to suit the image she was projecting. One thing that did catch his eye was the distinct lack of a ring on her left finger, engagement or otherwise. Munch wondered what had happened; he knew for a fact there had been an engagement at some point, not long after her return to New York. Then again, given some of the other things they had all heard, maybe her single status wasn't that much of a surprise.

"Well, you might be waiting a while," he finally said, clearing his throat after the long silence. "Don is out for a few weeks and I'm... here. Damn shame too – he could order her to do it. I can't and I believe she will be more than a little reluctant to agree to my sort of persuasion," pinching his lips together lightly. Olivia had been one of the most silent about Alex's return and Munch had learned from long experience that the quieter Benson got, the worse things really were.

Alex blew out a breath. This day was just getting better and better. "All right... thanks, John. I'll just have to do the best job I can for her, I guess... with or without her help." She stood and Munch rose with her. They reached the door together, but his hand covered it first, preventing her exit. She arched an eyebrow at him in question, but waited for him to speak.

"Alex, why are you doing this? I know several of the ADAs wanted to offer Olivia legal representation. Now I realize that they are not supposed to do that, but then neither are you – you can't... conflict of interest and all. So what gives?"

"Let's just say I owe a debt, Detective, and leave it at that." He scrutinized her carefully for another moment before nodding his head.

"Fair enough," he eventually agreed. "Just... be careful, Alex. This Olivia Benson is not the one you knew when you left. A lot can change in five years."

"You think I don't know that, John? My entire life changed in five minutes! And changed again without so much as a by your leave. And nothing was the way I left it... nothing was the way it was supposed to be!" She bit her lip and drew in a deep breath, pushing insecurities behind walls that Munch had not seen in a long time. "So yes, John... I do understand." Alex covered his hand and squeezed softly. "But I appreciate your concern."

With that, she motioned and he opened the door for her. She stepped out, once more the haughty, confident lawyer that had shown up in the precinct another lifetime ago. The entire room fell silent and watched her walk to the door when she turned to meet Olivia's eyes squarely.

"The preliminary hearing is on Monday afternoon at two o'clock. If you change your mind and decide you would like to hear my recommendations, you know where to find me. It's your career, Detective."

And without another word, she swept out of the room.

"Damn," Elliot said after the door closed behind her. "I guess the Ice Princess is back." He looked over at Olivia. "You better make sure you don't wind up with frostbite."

"I'd have to move to the equator too, to keep that from happening with her. Guess I'll just have to keep my distance." She looked around the room. "There was a time this was all I ever wanted, El. I'm not sure it means that much to me anymore."

"You're not serious," his voice flat.

"As a fucking heart attack. Look at us, Elliot... look around you. Cragen's been suspended... indefinitely, from what I hear. Fin's under investigation for drug dealing; you're up for misconduct about Kathleen's DUI cover-up. IAB is looking to bust my ass for helping my bro... for helping Simon. Even Casey got reamed for losing a case she couldn't possibly win. Only Munch is status quo at the moment, though with him in charge, how long is that gonna last? I'm just not sure it's worth the effort anymore. Maybe I should just make a deal with IAB and walk away."

"And do what, Liv? What are you gonna do if you're not an SVU detective? It's your whole life... has been for as long as I've known you."

Brown eyes gone almost black in their intensity met open blue ones. "Maybe it's time I got a new life, Stabler. Maybe it's time I had a life I could call my own for a change." Then Olivia got up from her desk and moved to put the stack of finished files away. Elliot just watched her for a long moment, before the ringing of the phone put his attention back on the job. It was shaping up to be one hell of a day.

"Ms Cabot... could I speak with you in my office now please?" Arthur Branch requested as she walked into Hogan Place. He was polite but Alex could see the fury in his eyes and knew it for the order that it was. She nodded and followed him through the lobby and into the elevator, remaining silent as it climbed to the top floor. He held the door and motioned her out and Alex stepped from the elevator, leading the way to his office. She opened the door and waited for Branch to inform his assistant that he was in conference and not to be disturbed for less than a phone call from Washington. Then he opened the door to his inner sanctum and waited for Alex to precede him before crossing the threshold and closing the door firmly behind him.

Alex placed her briefcase on the floor but remained standing. Arthur walked around to stand behind his desk, staring at Alex for a long moment before motioning to a chair across from him. "Take a seat."

"If it's all the same to you...."

"It isn't, Alexandra... take a seat." Alex sighed and took a seat, sitting on the edge ramrod straight. She had known she would never get away with trying to help Olivia, but she had hoped for a little more time before having to explain her irrational actions. Arthur continued to stare; Alex kept her eyes locked on his, forcing herself not to fidget.

"Ms Cabot," he finally said, breaking the silence and leaning forward with his fingertips pressed on his desk. "Would you like to explain to me what the hell you were thinking??" Silence. "I have come to realize that your time in witness protection changed your perspective of some things in your life," remembering some of the rumors that had made their way to his ears. "But I did not realize it had made you completely ignorant in the ways of the law."

"How dare you?!"

"How dare I?! Alexandra, you are on very dangerous ground right now. You are bucking for dismissal! Regardless of what is between you and Detective Benson in your private life, you are on opposite sides where her IAB review is concerned. You don't get to ignore that for any reason."

Fiery blue eyes drilled into Branch's and for a moment he was tempted to step back. Instead, he held her gaze and Alex was compelled to speak. "There is nothing between Detective Benson and me, Arthur – personal or professional. I owed her a favor."

"And jeopardizing your job and your standing in this office is beneficial to that how exactly?" He took a seat and steepled his fingertips together while he regarded her. He waited, watching something break in her eyes though she never dropped his stare or answered his question. "Alex, given some of your actions since your return from witness protection, I think you need some time to figure out what you really want to do with your life. I am placing you on thirty days administrative leave...."

"You're suspending me??"

"No... this will not go on your record as a suspension. But I expect you to decide what you really want out of your life now, Alexandra – at least on a professional level – and commit to it." He paused and cleared his throat. "I would suggest you give some thought to your personal life as well... especially if you have thoughts of sitting in this chair some day. I can't force you to, of course, but it might be a good use of the time... especially considering what I've heard."

"My personal life is no one's business, Arthur... not even yours," her voice ice cold with contempt.

"You're right, Alexandra... it shouldn't be. Maybe you should contemplate why it is I'm hearing about it. You're better than that."

"Why do you care, Arthur? What difference does it make to you?" all the fight suddenly gone from her eyes, voice and posture. For the first time, Arthur saw past the façade Alex Cabot had worn since her return from witness protection.

He put his fingertips to his lips and looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Professionally? You were the very Devil around here before, Alexandra, but you were the best kind of Devil – passionate, determined and driven. You were one of the best ADA's this office ever had and as a Bureau Chief you've done some remarkable work with kids as green as this office has ever seen. Some of them may actually be good prosecutors one day," said with a slight smile.

"And personally?"

He hesitated. "If you're so unhappy in your personal life that you continually sabotage yourself in all aspects of your life, maybe it's time to figure out why that is. Because ultimately you're not going to be happy in anything until you like the person you are."

Alex didn't answer, simply picked up her briefcase and rose. She walked to the door and put her hand on the knob before turning back to look at him. He remained seated, fingertips still against his lips as he returned her intensity.

"How did you know?" she finally asked. Arthur actually smiled.

"About your visit to the one-six? I have eyes and ears everywhere, Alexandra. You should know that by now. About the rest... let's just say I once had occasion to be where you are now, though not for the same reason. It was time to pay it forward."

Her brows scrunched up as his wording, but she nodded before leaving his office.

"Alexandra?" he called before she shut the door. She looked up at him with a questioning glance that was clear even through her famed glasses of justice. "Good luck." She nodded again and closed the door, heading to her office to drop off the files she carried. Administrative leave meant work stayed at Hogan Place, but strangely, Alex couldn't make herself feel anything beyond relief.

She decided that would be something to think about while she was gone.

"Olivia, is everything all right?" Benson looked up with a frown and cocked her head at Casey.

"Aside from the fact that I'm stuck on a desk for the moment, everything's great. Why?"

Casey crossed to Liv's desk and took a seat beside it, folding her hands in her lap and meeting brown eyes with green. She leaned forward conspiratorially, even though they were the only ones in the squad room at the moment. Olivia leaned forward as well and propped her head on the hand resting on her desk, waiting with an air of expectancy.

"Word at Hogan Place is that Cabot's been suspended for harassing you."

Olivia's eyebrows shot into her hairline and she sat up straight. "Excuse me?" She held up her hands to stop Casey from answering. "I heard what you said. I'm trying to make it make sense to me."

"So she didn't harass you?"

Liv shook her dark head. "No... not exactly. She came by to offer her 'expertise' on my behalf for the IAB thing. I turned her down flat, though. She's the enemy... I don't want or need her help."

Casey smiled wryly. "Technically, so am I."

"Yeah, but you're my friend. Alex Cabot is still the Devil."

"I remember hearing that about her when I first got here, but I don't think it's true, Liv... not anymore. I think Alex Cabot is a lost soul." She held Olivia's gaze for a long moment, allowing her to see the sincerity in Casey's words. Then Casey rose and extended a hand to the detective, who accepted it and allowed Casey to pull her to her feet. "C'mon then, friend. It's lunch time, and I have time to actually sit down to eat today."

"I know just the place."

"My treat then. Let's go. I hear ice cream calling my name."

"Alex?" Jim Steele stuck his head in her door without knocking and Alex blew out an irritated breath before motioning him inside. He closed the door behind him and crossed to her, opening his arms for an embrace that never came. She deliberately moved to the other side of her desk to put distance between them. He frowned and looked at her. "What... I can't even offer you comfort now?"

"I don't think so, Jim... not anymore."

"Why? I thought we were more than fuck buddies, Alex. I thought we had something special."

"No you didn't," she stated bluntly. "A sordid tryst on my desk doesn't even make us a tawdry office affair, much less the elevated status of fuck buddies. It makes it a mistake."

"What about the time we spent together before?"

The eyes that met Steele's were full of disgust and disdain and Jim recoiled from it, though he wondered how much of that look Alex was directing at herself. Without warning, it faded and the blue eyes went gray with sadness. "I'm sorry, Jim. Despite what you told Rossi, we were never dating – even when we were fuck buddies. There is nothing between us except carnal knowledge... not even friendship."

"You're serious," his voice flat, his expression incredulous.

"I am. And if you think about it, you'll see I'm right. You've got a good thing with Jessica – don't waste it pining for something you know is never going to happen."

Steele cleared his throat. "Well, this is going to be awkward. We still have to work together."

"Well, you'll have the next month to get used to it. Now if you'll excuse me...."

Jim turned away from her and hesitated, then looked back at Alex. "What changed, Alex?"

"Nothing... everything... I don't know. Look, I've gotta get out of here," motioning him out in front of her. "If you have questions, go to Branch. I will be out of touch for the next thirty days." She closed the door behind them and headed down the hall without a backwards glance. Jim Steele watched her go before shaking his head and heading back to his office.

"I shouldn't be eating this, you know. It's going to go right to my hips."

Olivia snorted. "Like you won't work it off before the end of the day. C'mon Casey, you're the most active person I know. I don't think your hips would notice."

"Oh, I never said they would notice - they know better. It will still go straight there, and I'll know it."

Liv chuckled and the relief was evident in Casey's eyes even as she grinned broadly. "That's something I haven't heard in a while – nice to see you smile again."

"Yeah, it's been major suckage around here lately," Liv agreed with a sad smile. "I'm starting to wonder if it's all worth it."

Casey sobered. "You're serious?"

"Yeah... I am. At the end of the day, the payoff just isn't worth the cost any more. I could go into the private sector today and make at least double what I am now without seeing children whose lives have been destroyed, teenagers with their guts spilling out around them, adults raping and robbing and killing just because the moon was full. It might be nice to be able to sleep through the night... without nightmares or the fear of being woken up by a phone call dragging me to the next scene."

Casey sat back and regarded the ice cream only half eaten. "I can't imagine SVU without you."

Liv sucked the ice cream off her spoon, rolling it around in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. "Well, I haven't decided to quit yet, Case. I'm just saying the thought has crossed my mind a little more often lately." She sighed. "I'm tired."

"I can only imagine – I've been at this less time and I don't see any of it first hand and there are still some days... some cases...." She scooped another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth, enjoying the decadence with a hum of delight. "I need a vacation... maybe Australia or a cruise. Maybe both."

"You hedonist you!" Liv exclaimed with mirth twinkling in her wide eyes."

"If I won the mega millions – in a heartbeat." Casey looked at her watch and stood. "C'mon... I've gotta get back to work. I have an arraignment in Petrovsky's court at two."

"Yeah, I need to get back to that paperwork. I swore I was going to clear my desk."

"Will it stay in place if you do that?"

"Funny Casey... real funny."

Casey just smiled as they headed back to work.

Alex waited patiently for Judge William Franklin Harriman to recess court for lunch and return to his office. She wasn't waiting long, having deliberately timed her appearance in his office to coincide with that particular break. Harriman blinked when he saw her sitting in one of his guest chairs; his niece had studiously avoided him since shortly after her return to New York and her subsequent appointment to Bureau Chief. He had vigorously protested her accepting the job as well as her involvement with Robert Sheldon and they had barely spoken beyond platitudes since.

To see her here now....

"Alexandra," he greeted and removed his robe. "What a surprise," he continued cordially... until he turned and saw the distraught look on her face. He stepped in front of her and waited for her eyes to track to his and what he saw broke his heart. He extended his hand and she stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment before accepting it and allowing him to pull her to her feet. "Come on," he urged her. "It's time for lunch and you look like you could use some."

"That sounds great, Uncle Bill. I'd like that."

After they were seated and their lunch orders taken, he began, "So tell me, Lexxie," calling Alex by the childhood name she had rarely heard since the onset of puberty. "What brings you to see me?" right to the point, but Alex smiled. She had missed talking to her Uncle Bill and his directness and at the moment, couldn't remember why she had allowed their separation to happen.

"I wanted you to hear it from me – I've been put on administrative leave." Bill's eyes widened in surprise, but before he could ask, Alex continued. "I... I overstepped my bounds and Arthur called me on it."

"Was he right?"

Alex took a sip of her water and met his eyes. "Yes."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

"Not yet... but soon. I need to get it clear in my own mind first. I was wondering if I could have the keys to the hunting lodge."

"Certainly," Harriman agreed immediately. "How long...?"

"I don't know. My leave is for thirty days."

Bill took his keys from his pocket, removing one and passing it across the table to her. Alex picked it up and dropped it into her purse, then sat back and allowed the waiter to place her salad in front of her.

"Take as long as you need, Lexxie. I'll call Jason and have the place stocked before you arrive. If you need anything or just want to talk...."

"I will, Uncle Bill. I promise. I just need some peace to think in right now."

He didn't offer advice or make suggestions. Instead he simply said, "I hope you find the answers you need, Lex." Then they turned their attention to eating, the silence comfortable between them for the first time since the argument that had pushed them apart.

"Hey, Fin!" Elliot called, waving their colleague over to the table where the detectives of the one-six were currently holding court. Fin waved back and pushed his way through the crowd to the table in the back. Munch poured him a beer even as he fell into a chair.

"Ain't right," he muttered and took a long draught before saying hello.

"Remedial classes...?"

"Damn waste of time. Punk kids tryin' to teach me how to do my job," he snorted. "You know how many times I done hadda correct their puny asses??"

Elliot shook his head. "I don't envy you, man. How much longer you got?"

"Three more weeks – IAB said a complete refresher on procedure." He drained his glass and set it down in disgust. "Damn pansy asses... don't know nothin'."

"At least you already got yours," Liv commented as she signaled for another pitcher to be brought to their table. "This waiting is gonna drive me nuts."

"Not much longer, Liv. 'Sides... I hear it got you a visit from our girl Cabot."

"She's not our girl, Fin," Olivia bit out. "But I heard it got her suspended."

"Actually," Munch cut in, "she was placed on admin leave." All eyes turned his way and he shrugged. "It's the difference of a mark on her record or not. Personally, I think it was ballsy of her to walk into the lion's den, knowing what could happen."

"C'mon, Munch... that wasn't ballsy – it was stupid grandstanding. We haven't been a blip on her radar in over two years... five if you start counting when she went into witness protection. Why suddenly decide she needs to make some sort of statement just because I'm under investigation by IAB?"

"I figure there's a political reason somewhere," Elliot commented.

"I figured the mothership finally picked up the pod person that got left here in Cabot's place and returned the real one to us." Munch ducked as Fin swung at the back of his head. "What?" he whined. "It makes more sense than trying to figure out the Cabot pod that's been Bureau Chief for the last couple years."

Elliot pinched his lip and nodded. "Man's got a point." His eyes widened. "My my my... isn't that our lovely Ms Novak?" Three heads turned towards the door. "And who is that with her?" watching as the two women headed out the door. All eyes turned to Liv, who shrugged.

"Beats me. She didn't say anything to me about having a date."

"You think it was a date?"

"I think if Casey wants us to know, she'll share."

"Girlfriend's right. Look, I gotta get outta here. Got work to do for this damn class."

"I'll head out with you, Fin," Liv said as she stood and stuck her arms into her leather jacket. "Have to meet with my union rep first thing tomorrow." She dropped some money on the table. "Then I'm gonna talk to a lawyer."

"You think it's gonna be that bad?" Elliot asked as he and Munch rose as well and followed suit. They headed out the door single file and Olivia didn't answer until they were gathered in front of the bar.

"I think," Liv said slowly, "that if Cabot felt the need to break years of silence, then maybe I should take the precaution of having someone on my side for this thing. If I'm gonna leave the force, I want it to be under my terms... not theirs."

"You thinking of leaving, Liv?" Elliot asked, concern coloring his voice.

"I'm thinking I should protect my assets, El. Dismissal is an option... we all know that."

"Maybe you shoulda let Cabot offer advice."

"Good night, John," Liv said as she turned and walked towards her apartment. Elliot just glared at him before jogging to catch up with her. Fin shook his head and grabbed Munch by the elbow.

"C'mon, you bony assed fool. You oughta know better'n to play in that pond." Munch opened his mouth and Fin held up a hand before he could take a deep breath. "Don't even. They'll get it or not on their own – not our job to do it for 'em."

"Ya know, Fin...."

"I know if you don't shuddup and move, there's gonna be issues coming outcha ass."

"No one appreciates the wisdom that comes with experience anymore." Fin snorted and opened the door to his car. With luck, he'd get Munch home before he got started again.

Alex crossed the threshold to her penthouse, dropping her briefcase in the closest chair and walking to the bedroom without stopping. She stepped into the closet, kicking off her shoes and shedding her suit with a sigh. She slipped into the drawstring pants she'd come to favor in her off time, soft and comfortable in all the right places. A soft cotton shirt to go with it and she turned to grab the suitcase she hadn't used since returning to New York.

She placed it on the bed and opened it, trekking back and forth as she slowly filled it with jeans and silk and flannel – comfortable things she'd worn in her other life that she hadn't been able to part with. Once it was packed, she moved it to the living room and walked back to the kitchen, pouring a glass of white wine and padding back to the bedroom.

She crossed to the bureau and opened the top drawer; she pulled out the ring that had been resting there for the last several weeks. She took it out and examined it from all angles, remembering the elation she'd felt when Robert had slipped it on her finger. She wondered what had happened to the passion she thought they'd shared between them.

Their enthusiasm had been high for the first few weeks of their engagement, what with celebratory parties and moving in together, but as time marched forward, that enthusiasm waned and they'd never actually gotten around to planning a wedding, much less having one. And for the past few months, they hadn't even managed to have obligatory sex, to say nothing of spontaneous, loving sex and Alex realized she felt like she was living with a roommate instead of a lifemate. That was when the ring had come off and she wondered if Robert had even noticed yet.

Alex bit her lip and shook her head, knowing it was time to put an end to things. Then she stuck the ring back in the box and shoved it into her pocket, picking up her wine and returning to the living room to wait for Robert to come home.

She watched the shadows grow in Central Park until darkness started to blanket the city. As the twilight elongated, the door to the penthouse opened and Robert stepped into the dark room.

"Alex, honey? Why are you standing here in the dark?" He flipped on a light and noticed her suitcase by the door. "Where are you going? Is there something wrong?"

"Several somethings," she replied without turning from the window. "For quite a while now."

He walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, then dropped them to his side when she pulled away from his touch. "Alex?"

"Robert... why did you asked me to marry you?" she asked in a resigned tone.

He blinked, obviously not expecting the question. Then he cleared his throat. "Because we are good together, Alex – same social standing, same background, same ambition and drive to succeed. We'd have beautiful children if we decided we wanted them some day...." He trailed off, knowing instinctively that what he was saying was insufficient and plainly not what she wanted to hear.

She pulled the ring box from her pants pocket and turned, holding it up to him. "I think it's time we be honest with ourselves, Robert." He took the box and looked his question at her. Alex turned back to the window. "Robert, I care about you; I even love you on a certain level – God knows we make a great match for one another in a lot of ways."


"But I'm not in love with you any more than you're in love with me. Deciding to get married just because it makes social or financial sense... it's lost its appeal for me and I'm pretty sure you can say the same. Otherwise we wouldn't keep finding excuses not to get married or be intimate with one another. We can't keep lying to ourselves or each other – all we're ever going to feel for one another is affection and friendship. That's just not enough for me anymore."

"What changed?" not heartbroken, merely curious.

"Nothing... that's just the point. Nothing changed. We settled... and I don't want to do that." She turned and set her glass down on the table beside the couch and faced him. "We deserve better, Robert... we both do."

He nodded. "I suppose we do. Love should be about feeling... not logic."


"So now what?"

Alex sighed. "Now, I am on administrative leave for the next thirty days. I'm going to go up to the lodge in Connecticut and see if I can figure out where to go from here. I'll see about getting some movers in here to.... What?" she asked when Robert started shaking his head.

"No, Alex... you keep this place. You really wanted it and I still have my rooms at the club. If you move out, we'll just be putting it up for sale, so you might as well hang onto it for now. Consider it my going away gift to you," taking her hand and holding it lightly.

"Robert... it's too much."

"No, it isn't, Alex. This is something I want to do. Let me."

"If you really feel that way."

"I do. I'll clear out in the morning and leave my key with Alphonse. That way if you get things figured out and return early, you'll have a place to go." She nodded and squeezed the hand she held.

"You are too good to me, Robert."

"What can I tell you?" he joked lightly. "I'm bucking for sainthood. Now can I call the car to take you to the lodge?"

"I already arranged transportation with Uncle Bill. I think he thought I might disappear again if he didn't take care of it."

Robert smiled sadly. "So I guess this is goodbye."

"I guess it is," Alex agreed with a touch of melancholy in her voice. "I hope if we see one another again, we can be friendly."

"Alex, despite everything, we are still friends. I'm not giving that up so easily."


"Absolutely. Maybe one day you'll tell me what precipitated all this."

Alex didn't answer but leaned forward and kissed his cheek. Then she pulled away and gathered her things before stepping into the hallway and closing the door firmly behind her without a backwards glance.

"Well, Detective," the attorney confessed, dropping the briefcase into an empty chair between them before taking a seat across from her. "I must admit I was surprised when I got your call. Since you made it clear this was business and not pleasure, what can I do for you?"

Olivia blew out a breath – she hated this, but it was obviously necessary. She met green eyes. "I have a preliminary IAB hearing Monday afternoon and I need representation. I may not like you when we're on opposite sides of the aisle, but I am smart enough to recognize that you're one of the best defense attorneys I know," not admitting that he was also one of the few.

Langan's eyes grew round and he cleared his throat. "I see. May I ask why you waited so late to seek counsel?" motioning the waitress over. "Coffee, please," he requested and turned his attention back to Olivia.

"I wasn't going to have anyone," she responded honestly. "But it was made clear to me that it would be in my best interests to have a lawyer present." She folded her hands and sat back to allow the waitress to pour her another cup of coffee.

Trevor cocked an eyebrow but she ignored his unasked question. After a long moment of silence, he reached for his case and pulled out a tablet and pen. "All right – tell me everything."

Olivia signaled the waitress again. "We should order lunch. We're gonna be here a while."

Trevor asked questions and took copious notes of Olivia's answers. She reached into her handbag, pulling out a file copy of her service record and passed it to him.

"Here," she offered. "I thought this might help."

"Where did you...?"

"I've kept a copy of everything that's been put into my jacket."

"Are you sure about this?" Langan asked even as he accepted the folder from her. Benson shrugged.

"If I am gonna be forced out, I want it to be on my terms. I know I'm a good cop, Trevor. I think that should count for something."

"All right," placing the folder down beside his notes without opening it. "What am I going to find in here? What is this file going to tell me about Detective Olivia Benson?"

"You don't think you should read it and find out for yourself?"

"I will... but I want to know what you see."

"Um... okay – I see a decorated police officer that cares a little too much; most of the reprimands in there are because I took a case too personally. The performance reviews are excellent and so is the job performance."

"So why did you jeopardize it?"

"I told you... I did it for my brother. He's family and he needed my help. Trevor, the only family I ever had was my mom – when she died...." Langan put a hand on her arm to calm her and Olivia broke off before she got angry. It wasn't like they were somewhere where things couldn't be overheard. She took a deep breath and changed tactics. "Do you know what it's like to be alone... really truly alone? When you are the only one left in your family?" She shook her head. "Of course you don't. You have parents and grandparents and brothers and nieces and nephews." She pinned him with fiery, dark eyes. "Let me tell you, Trevor – it sucks. Finding out that I was part of a family...."

He nodded, removing his hand from her arm and sitting back in his chair. "All right, Olivia. I will see what I can do to minimize the damage. If what you've told me is true, they won't fire you. I need to check some things out, but I think we can get you out of this with minimum damage."

"Which is?"

"A fine... perhaps suspension or desk duty? I can't say for sure. There will certainly be consequences. This is a political year – that means they're going to be a lot tougher about deals and slaps on the wrist. On the other hand, your record and time in service has to count for a lot – one emotional misjudgment shouldn't be able to screw that up." He watched the fire grow in her eyes and held up his hands to stave off the tirade he felt was ready to burst forth from her lips. "Detective... Olivia – I am only trying to prepare you for the likely way this will go down. All kinds of old history will be brought up – what matters is what we do with it."

"All right, Trevor. I'm trusting you with my career."

"I appreciate the trust, Olivia. I'll be in touch." She nodded and Langan stood, picking up the file and his notes and stuffing them back in his briefcase.

"About your fee...." She hated to bring it up, but she needed to know what this was going to cost up front. Trevor shook his head.

"It's on the house, Olivia."


"Olivia, despite the fact that we are usually mortal enemies, I like you. You're classy, stylish, strong, beautiful and honest. You rarely hold back." He held her gaze a moment, then relented. "I tell you what – I'll do this for you and you go out with me one night and we'll call it even."

"Trevor, no. I'd be more comfortable if you let me pay you for your legal services. I don't...."

"No strings, Olivia. I would simply like to have dinner."

"Trevor, it would never be anything more than dinner between us." She stared at him for a long moment then stood. "But if that will settle our debt, then fine. You name the time and place."

Langan dropped some bills on the table to cover the charge and hoisted the briefcase with a smile. "I know, Olivia," he said cryptically. "I'll be in touch," he reiterated, before turning and walking out the door.

Benson scrunched her forehead, trying to figure out what on earth she'd missed, then shook her head and followed him out the door. She just hoped she had done the right thing.


"Detective Stabler, this is Trevor Langan." Elliot cringed but didn't hang up and Trevor pushed forward. "Listen, Detective Benson just asked me to represent her on this IAB thing she's got coming up Monday and I wondered if you could spare a few minutes to talk to me."

Elliot sighed. He'd suspected who Liv was going to lawyer up with, but the man just made his skin crawl. Still, if he was going to represent his partner, the least he could do would be to have her six. "Sure, Langan... whaddya wanna know?"

"Tell me about this brother."

Elliot hesitated. Talk about walking through a minefield.... Then he figured that if Liv trusted Langan enough to tell him about Simon, he would make sure Trevor got the whole story. Elliot motioned to Kathy and then went into the study and closed the door. This phone call was going to take more than just a few minutes.

"So can you get me a copy of that DNA report?" Trevor asked after Elliot had explained all he knew of Simon. "I doubt Olivia put that in the file she gave me to go over."

"Probably not," Stabler agreed. "She really wants him to be her brother. Despite what she says, just family isn't as important as immediate family and I don't think she wants to know he lied to her to protect himself. I'll call Melinda Warner... see if we can get something."

"Wait," Langan frowned so hard Elliot could hear it over the phone. "You don't have a copy of the DNA report?"

"No... I dunno if Liv put a slow down on things or of it just got pushed aside in light of everything else that's happened since, but as far as I know, it hasn't become public knowledge.

"If you'll call Warner, I'll see what I can find out from my end. Call me if she has anything."

"All right. I'll let you know if Warner has anything." A click hung up the phone and Elliot dialed Melinda Warner at home, hoping she'd have some answers.

Alex unlocked the door to the lodge, picking up her bag and waving off her uncle's driver before crossing the threshold and closing the door behind her. Jason had left several lights on throughout the house, creating a warm and welcome atmosphere. Alex strolled through the house slowly, reliving some of the happier times in her life. A lot of her best memories were tied up in this place.

She remembered peeking into the study when her grandfather was holding court with her father and uncles. She remembered playing chase with her cousins and hearing the nannies' exasperated voices following them. She laughed to herself when she stepped into the parlor - here her grandmother and 'the girls' would enjoy afternoon tea... with a kick. She remembered accidentally finding out about that kick when she was sixteen and the hangover that had resulted from it. She had learned to be more careful with her alcohol consumption after that.

There was the dining room where the whole family had gathered for holiday meals and the conservatory where the children and grandchildren had been required to learn to dance together. Rustic this lodge certainly wasn't, but it was as much home to Alex as anything she had ever known... especially while her grandparents had been alive.

She made her way up the stairs – as a child, she hadn't spent nearly as much time up here as she had downstairs. Coming to the lodge had always meant time with the extended family and cousins to play with. As an only child and the only girl in the younger generation, Alex had fought for her spot among them, but once she had proven herself, the boys always included her in their play.

As they had grown older, Alex took to spending more time upstairs, and it was into the room she had always been assigned when staying here that she turned into now.

The walls were a pale blue with deep blue carpet on the floor and immediately Alex felt herself relax. Tonight she'd unpack then see what she could find for dinner from what Jason had stocked the kitchen and bar with. After a long bath, she'd find a good book and curl up for the night. She'd worry about thinking about things tomorrow.

"Melinda, this is Elliot Stabler."

Melinda frowned and looked at her cell phone before putting it back up to her ear. "Detective, what can I do for you on my day off?"

Elliot cringed. "I'm sorry, Doc. I wouldn't call if it wasn't an emergency."

Warner sighed. "I know, Detective. It just seems like it's always an emergency. What can I do for you?"

"You know Liv has an IAB preliminary hearing on Monday," waiting for her affirmative. "Well, her defense counsel could use the DNA results from Simon Marsden if you've got 'em."

Melinda blinked. "Um... let me think. That was the guy claiming to be her brother, right?" knowing the answer but not wanting to commit herself. "I'm not sure if they ever got done after my preliminary test – if they were being tested as evidence it could take months. You know how long it takes for some of these things to come through. But since the charges were dropped.... Is it important?"

"Langan seemed to think so."

"Liv hired Trevor Langan to represent her? Wow... I guess she thinks this is pretty serious." Warner cleared her throat. "Um... I'll tell you what, Elliot. I'll make a few phone calls... see if I can find out if the paperwork is even in the system anymore and if we can get a rush on it if it is. If it's not, I'll see what I can work up by Monday morning."

"Thanks, doc... that'd be great."

"I'll get back to you as soon as I know something."

Alex stepped from the shower and slipped into the most comfortable pair of jeans she owned. They were so worn they were barely respectable, but she figured there was no one around to see them but her so it really didn't matter. A flannel shirt to ward off the morning chill and her ensemble was complete. Later she would trade in the flannel for cotton, but for now, she needed the warmth.

She walked sedately down the stairs, a little melancholy for the days when she ran down or slid down the banister with a squeal, the nanny's scolding ringing in her ears. Somehow, somewhere she had lost her zeal for that particular venture, though that might have had as much to do with the fact that there was no nanny to infuriate as it did with the fact that she was a mature, responsible adult.

Alex went into the kitchen, grinning at the scent of coffee. Obviously Jason had set things up for her morning before he had departed the main house the previous evening. She hoped he would be by at some point. Although she had requested to have the house to herself as much as possible, Jason had been part of this household for as long as Alex could remember and she would never run him out of his home. Maybe talking to him would help clear her head - always Jason and Geraldine had had time for each of the children in the Cabot household, but Alex was generally the one who took the most advantage of the attention. Many times when she was ready to take a break from roughhousing with the boys, she would go to the kitchen. Geraldine would always draw Alex into whatever she was doing or she would help Jason in the flowerbeds. They had been her cherished confidantes growing up, always taking the time to listen to her, and she had missed having them in her life.

As if on cue, Jason stepped through the back door, and Alex reverted into the child she had once been, greeting him with an enthusiastic hug. Jason wasn't shy and lifted her off her feet as he returned the embrace.

"Lexxie!" he exclaimed. "I couldn't believe it when your uncle called to let me know you'd be here. You haven't been here since...."

"... since I went into witness protection, I know." Alex stepped back and Jason let her go, sensing her discomfort. He watched as she poured two cups of coffee, offering one to him before adding a dash of cream to hers. "I missed being here," she said as she took a seat at the table and waited for him to do the same.

"So what brings you home, Lexxie?"

"I'm taking a bit of a sabbatical from work... trying to figure out what I want to do."

Jason frowned. "In what way, Lexxie? I thought you had it all... good job, nice place, wealthy, handsome fiancé – what's left to figure out?" covering the hand that rested on the top of the table.

"Jason, did you ever stop and look back at your life and wonder?" keeping her eyes on the table.

"Wonder what, Lexxie?"

"Wonder if you've wasted your life... if you're doing the best that you can with the chance you've been given."

Jason tapped her arm. "Sounds like you need to talk – let me call Geraldine. I think it might be time to make cookies."

Alex smiled and looked up at him with tears in her eyes. They had always made cookies together when Alex had a difficult problem she needed to talk about. It took the direct attention away from her and gave her something to focus on besides herself. It was where she first learned to find the poise she needed in the courtroom.

"I'd like that," she confessed blinking back tears. "I've never outgrown my sweet tooth... or my appreciation for Geraldine's sugar cookies."

Jason chuckled and rose to collect the coffee pot and bring it back to the table. He refilled their cups and replaced the pot. "Honey, I've been married to her for forty years. I can say without a doubt that you never will."

Alex chuckled. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

Olivia took a deep breath of the air outside her apartment, almost tasting the scent of the city as it wafted through her system and onto the back of her tongue. She winced slightly and headed for the closest subway station, intent on making her way to Central Park.

After her meeting with Langan the previous day, she had come home and cleaned her apartment with a vengeance. There wasn't much else to do, and with no likelihood of being called in for duty, she figured she had plenty of time to get things in order again. She wryly thought it was quite the metaphor for her life at the moment – she felt like she'd been off course for a while now. Maybe this IAB thing was just the impetus she needed to take a long hard look at things and see if she could get her life back on track – headed in a direction she wanted to go instead of simply allowing it to meander from day to day and case to case.

Hence her escape early Sunday morning to claim her thinking bench and enjoy the solitude and the relative fresh air she knew she would find there, especially this early. She exited the station, looking around at the high-rises and brownstones she knew she could never afford and idling wondering which one of them belonged to Alex Cabot. Then she chided herself for allowing her mind to wander there and crossed the street into the park.

Despite the fact that fall was still more than a month away, it was unexpectedly cool and Olivia was glad for the leather jacket she had pulled from the back of her closet before leaving home.

She passed a number of people out enjoying the crisp day as much as she was. They were mostly quiet - strolling the paths, riding their bikes, and in the case of several, stretched out in the grass reading. Olivia took her time walking around the park, appreciating the fact that there were no expectations, no deadlines, no pressures out here.

She followed the path around until she reached her thinking bench. She took a seat and closed her eyes, letting her other senses function in their place. And for a while, filtering out and cataloguing the sounds and scents she was experiencing took all the effort she could muster towards it.

After a while though, Liv let her mind travel down the garden path, thinking back over the events of the past few months, trying to figure out when things had started to unravel.

She started with Alex Cabot's unexpected arrival at her front door – obviously not the beginning of her current issues, but definitely odd on its own merit. Olivia frowned; she couldn't figure out why Cabot had bothered... it wasn't like they'd been a blip on the Devil's radar since she'd gone into witness protection. Neither her return for Connor's trial nor her subsequent homecoming had changed Olivia's perception of who Alex Cabot was – or who she had become once more.

The red-hot Devil that Alex Cabot had been before Velez's entrance into their lives had disappeared and become the Ice Princess that had originally come to the one-six as the new ADA. Olivia frowned deeper – so why the sudden turn around... why the sudden apparent change of heart... especially given the rumors that had circulated Police Plaza and Hogan Place that made Cabot out to be some sort of pod person in place of the real thing? The Alex Cabot she had known, whether Devil or Ice Princess, had always had too much determination and fire for that. Liv shook her head to clear it; she didn't need Cabot in any incarnation in there cluttering things up when there were more important personal concerns for her to focus on.

So if not Cabot, what next? Olivia let her mind move farther back. There was Simon, of course – he was the cause of her current misery. But despite that, whether he was her brother or not – and she believed it was true though she knew Elliot did not – he was not the reason her trouble had started. He was simply the reason things had come to a head.

Beyond that were her problems with Elliot – that had led to their estrangement and subsequent temporary separation. But they had resolved those issues as much as possible and Olivia was honest enough to admit that even that was not the root of her problem. She continued to examine her recollections, chasing cases and memories looking to find what had brought her to this point in time.

Of its own volition, her mind went back to the night outside Mahoney's and the sound of gunfire. The blood and the fear and the pain when she realized Alex was gone from her life.

"Dammit!" Olivia cursed and slapped her hands against the bench.

"Problem, Detective?"

Olivia's eyes popped open and her head turned in the direction of Casey's voice. She raised an eyebrow in question.

"What are you doing here, Counselor?"

"In Central Park? Just out enjoying the day." She nudged Olivia over and waited for her to sigh dramatically and slide over before Casey took a seat next to her. "So what was so wrong with your day that you felt the need to slap the bench and curse?"

Olivia shrugged. "Just thinking... working out my frustration a little bit. It's been a long few months."

"It's been a long few years," Casey stated firmly. "Anything I can help with?"

"Yeah," Olivia said after a couple minute's contemplation. "Take my mind off of it – tell me about your date the other night."

Casey flushed. "How did you...?"

Olivia chuckled. "Casey, you were at a cop bar. Even if me and the guys hadn't seen you there, we would've heard about it before you got home. You know cops are worse gossips than lawyers and the grapevine moves at the speed of light when cops or lawyers are involved." Liv chuckled again. "So you wanna share?"

"It was nothing really – Jessica is an old girlfriend from college. We just got together for drinks and dinner."


"But... she reminded me that there is more to life than just work, and if I don't take a little time to take care of myself, I will burn out and grow old before my time."

"Kinda like me, huh?" Olivia said sadly.

"Nah... you're still a beautiful woman, Liv."

Olivia shrugged. "Maybe, but I am burning out, Casey. I can feel the years...." She shook her head and looked away.

Casey absorbed the information with a thoughtful pause. "C'mon... I think part of your problem is you're worrying about what might happen Monday." She stood and held out her hand. "Let's go get some ice cream. Then if you want to go back to worrying you can. But at least you'll have a bit of a respite in the meantime."

Olivia accepted the proffered hand and stood before releasing it and tucking her hands into her pockets. "Sounds like a plan, Counselor," nodding her head. "Lead the way." Casey stuck her hands in her own pockets and together they started out of the park.

Geraldine handed Alex the towel and motioned to her face. "Still trying to learn the trick to making cookies without making a mess I see," she teased gently as she placed two pans of cookies into the oven. Then she pulled out two more sheets and she and Alex started cutting another batch.

"Yeah," Alex drawled slightly, smearing a little more flour across her cheek. "I never quite got the hang of it, though at least I haven't caught anything on fire recently."

Geraldine's eyebrows went to her hairline. "Do I even want to ask?"

"Well, thanks to witness protection I no longer need to marry a chef to keep from starving to death, but it was a near thing for a while. I managed to catch the stove on fire once that I clearly remember, and I'm pretty sure I burned more than one pot trying to boil water." She shook her head. "It wasn't pretty."

"Witness protection taught you to cook?"

"Witness protection forced me to learn to survive. Wisconsin was nothing like Manhattan – no local delis on every corner... no restaurants to stop at on the way home. It was either learn to cook or eat cereal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day."

"And you hate peanut better and jelly."

"It's never been my favorite," Alex smirked, "but I adjusted."

The timer went off and Geraldine opened the oven and withdrew the cookie sheets from within, placing them on the trivet. She grabbed the other pans to place inside while Alex proceeded to remove the cookies and transfer them to the cooling rack.

"And how are you adjusting now?" Geraldine asked with forthrightness. She knew when Jason had escaped outdoors that he believed Alex needed to talk to her privately. Alex just arched an eyebrow.

"How do you do that? I know Jason didn't say anything to you – I was standing here when he called you and he didn't say a word before he went outside."

Geraldine smiled. "Sweetheart, when you've been married as long as Jason and I have, you learn to speak in any number of ways. Not all communication is verbal – as a lawyer you should know that. And when you've had as much practice as Jason and I have.... So," Geraldine said as she turned to pull the second batch of cookies out of the oven. "What's going on with you, Lexxie?"

Alex sighed, lifting the cookies from the pan and smiling when Geraldine put a plate underneath her spatula. Then she sat down across from Geraldine at the other woman's insistence and waited, knowing what was coming. Sure enough, Geraldine poured them each a tall glass of cold milk and handed Alex a napkin. Then she helped herself to a still hot cookie and looked at Alex expectedly.

Alex also took a cookie but she placed it on her napkin and gazed at it unseeingly for a long moment before raising her eyes to meet Geraldine's compassionate brown ones.

"I don't know, Gerry," reverting to the familiar address from childhood. "I have everything I could possibly want."


"But... it's not enough. It's not making me happy anymore... I'm not sure that it ever did. It feels as though my entire life has been a waste – as if nothing I have done makes a difference... to me or anyone else."

Geraldine sat silently as she nibbled on her cookie and contemplated Alex's words. "What changed, honey? What brought about this rather sudden change of heart?" She paused. "I thought you were happy... we all did. You returned from witness protection a conquering heroine; you have a job that put you on the road to the district attorney's office or higher; you have a wildly attractive and successful fiancé. I'm not sure I understand what I'm missing."

Alex rose from her place and walked to the windows, looking out at Jason as he puttered in the gardens. "I'm not sure I understand it either, Gerry... but there is no passion in my life now." She raked her fingers through her hair, leaving it slightly messy, but she never turned her gaze from the window. "When I first went into law, I was zealous about what I did and stupid with idealism. I had morality on my side; I was righting wrongs and bringing justice to victims who deserved it. And it didn't hurt that I was pushing towards what I felt were higher goals at the same time."

"When I went after Velez, I was absolutely certain I was right, and all that certainty did was nearly got me killed. And it cost me everything... everything I cared about at the time. It forced me from my home, my job, my detectives and it left me with nothing."

Alex fell silent and Geraldine let her be, confident that she would continue when she resolved her thoughts in her mind. It wasn't like any of this was news to either of them, but apparently Alex needed to review old history to put things into perspective. As the silence continued, however, Geraldine felt compelled to push a little bit.

"What happened, Lexxie?"

Alex turned from the window. "Emily happened. She was boring and passionless and worthless, really. She did nothing... accomplished nothing... was no one. I hated her!" Alex replied with vehemence. "I was so glad to return for the Connor's trial if only because Emily had to die when I did."

"But you went back into the program."

"Reluctantly... and not as Emily. I steadfastly refused." She chuckled softly. "I think Hammond realized the Devil he was dealing with then. He'd only thought I was bad the first time out."

Geraldine laughed in sympathy. "He should have known you as a child."

"He should have known me as an ADA," came Alex's rejoinder. Then she fell silent again.

"Lexxie, honey... I already knew most of this. What does it have to do with what is going on with you now? You came home – as Alexandra Cabot – and you reclaimed her. You have been more successful in your life since your return than you were before you left. Your mother would have been proud."

"I don't think so, Gerry. Society expectations aside, my mother wanted me to be happy – and I'm not. I haven't been happy in a very long time. It just took me a while to figure out that I was still unhappy, even though I no longer had reason to be."

"Do you know why?"

"Not yet, but I will. I have time now to figure it out. And no one but me to satisfy with whatever answers I find."

"Well, I'll be here whenever you need to talk or just want some company to commiserate with. And in the meantime, I'll fatten you up a bit. I don't know what you've been eating, but it's time you get back to real food and my sugar cookies," pointing to Alex's place at the counter and motioning her to sit and eat. "Start with the cookies – I'll work on lunch. That way I can be sure you won't catch the place on fire, because I'm not about to explain that to your uncle."

"I told you I haven't done that in a while," Alex mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.

"Uh huh… when was the last time you cooked?" watching Alex blush and bow her head. "Thought so - means you're about due for a disaster then. Now eat," Geraldine commanded.

Alex scowled, but obediently took another bite of her cookie, satisfied that she would find her answers in time.

Melinda sighed when she perused the final file. When the case against Simon Marsden was dropped, so was the paperwork that had gone with it. It had never gone any farther than her office and her results had been inconclusive. She picked up her phone.


"Elliot, it's Melinda Warner. Listen, can you and Langan meet me for coffee? I've got the information you asked for, but it isn't much."

"Um, sure. Where are you?" Melinda told him. "All right... give me half an hour to contact Langan and get there."

"All right. I'll be waiting."

"So... what've you got, doc?" Elliot asked as he set a cup of coffee in front of her and took a seat across from her. Trevor pulled out a third chair and sat, placing his cup on the table and offering Melinda a muffin as well. She smiled and thanked him, then folded her hands and placed them on the papers in front of her.

"What I've got is a lot of nothing," she said succinctly. "When the case against Simon Marsden was dropped, all the evidence and paperwork that went with it stopped cold. There is nothing except my test of his DNA against Olivia's and that could actually get her in more trouble - it could be considered a misuse of city resources. She and I could both be reprimanded for that, actually." She took a sip of her coffee and passed her findings over to Trevor.

"So what does this mean, exactly?"

"It means," she said slowly, "that Simon Marsden is a blood relative of Detective Olivia Benson, but there is no conclusive proof that he is her brother. Her belief in that comes from other things he shared with her, and the stories that his mother told them."

"Did she share those things with you?"

"Some of them. The rest I found on my own... much like she did I imagine."

"Things that make it possible that Simon was telling her the truth."

Melinda nodded. "Yes... probable even... but not necessarily true." She sighed and set her cup down once more. "The thing is – Olivia wants to believe it. True or not, she wants Simon to be her brother... even her half brother... because that makes him family and it gives her a place to belong. She's been alone so long – she needs that. I'm not sure trying to take that away from her, even to save her career, is the right thing to do."

Trevor looked through the papers and then back at Melinda. "Can I keep these... at least until the hearing is over?" She nodded.

"Those are copies. You can keep them as long as you need. Just please destroy them or return them to me when you are done. I don't need to get into any more trouble than I could already be in for having them in the first place."

Langan smiled. "I'll keep that in mind, Dr. Warner. I don't want to cause anyone anymore problems than we've already got."

"So will this help Liv?" Elliot asked after a moment.

"I think I can make a case for leniency," Langan stated honestly. "Like I told Olivia... they won't dismiss the charges or go for a slap on the wrist – it's an election year and they need to be seen as taking care of business. But the fact is she's a good cop who has been without a real family her entire life. It's not surprising she wants to believe Simon, especially if there is any probability at all he is telling her the truth; it's even less surprising that she wanted to help him out of a jam. I'll try not to bring the DNA into it at all."

"What a mess," Elliot muttered.

"No kidding," Melinda agreed. "And what about you, Detective? What did you end up with?" Trevor perked up and turned his attention to Elliot.

"Something happened to you as well, Detective?" Elliot glared at Melinda and she shrugged.

"Let's just say most of SVU had a meltdown recently. I am having to teach traffic school one night a week for six months – still have a while to go on that actually. But thanks for bringing that up, doc."

"Sorry, Elliot. I didn't mean...."

Stabler took a deep breath. "I know, doc. It's all right. The whole thing is fucked up... like someone was gunning for us or something."

"I hear that. Even Huang is convinced there is some sort of conspiracy at this point, though he'd never say that in front of Munch."

Elliot laughed. "Smart man. He'd never get out of that conversation alive." He stood up. "Look, I've gotta get home to my wife. Thanks for the info, doc. And thanks for helping out my partner, Langan. She doesn't deserve the shit she's in."

"No, she doesn't," he replied forcefully. "I've been reading her jacket; I meant what I said about her being one of the good guys. I know we are rarely on the same side in any given situation, but we are all on the same side this time. I don't want to see the city lose Detective Benson as a police officer. If we had more like her, the world would be a nicer place to live in."

Elliot's eyebrows hiked up to his high hairline. "Nursing something of a crush for my partner there, big guy?"

Langan laughed. "No, Detective... not hardly. I learned a long time ago how to tell the possible from the never going to happen. I know a lost cause when I see one, and having Olivia Benson in my life as more than a friendly acquaintance is definitely a pipe dream for me. That is not to say I won't try for friendship with her though. I think she could probably use all of those she can get."

"Probably," Stabler agreed. "Just don't cross the line with her. Despite what Simon has made her believe about her family, the truth is she has a whole list of brothers she can call family who will be there for her in a New York minute. And they all carry guns."

"Warning noted, Detective. But trust me when I tell you that I'm just happy she asked me to defend her. I would like to be her friend."

"Maybe one day, Counselor. After all – you are the enemy most days."

Langan smiled and held out his hand. "It's nice not to be for a change." They shook hands briefly and Elliot headed out the door. Trevor turned to Melinda. "Can I see you somewhere, Dr. Warner or perhaps call you a cab?"

Melinda picked up her half-eaten muffin and the remainder of her coffee. "A cab would be great. I need to get to the Park to join my family for what's left of our day together. Thank you, Trevor."

"My pleasure, Dr. Warner. I think your information will aid Olivia's case immensely."

She nodded and stepped into the cab that stopped at Trevor's hail. Then she waved as it sped off towards Central Park. Trevor Langan watched it out of sight, then turned his feet towards his apartment some blocks away. He had some thinking and strategizing to do and walking would give him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Alex lay on the grassy knoll a short distance from the back door of the old hunting lodge. She realized now it was nothing like a hunting lodge, but that is what she had known it as in her youth and that was the way her mind continued to think of it to this day. There were a number of fluffy white clouds in the sky and she let her eyes chase them, even as her mind refused to focus on anything more serious than the shapes they made.

Unfortunately, her subconscious was much stronger than her conscious will and soon Alex was finding Olivia Benson in the clouds. That was followed by a smoking gun... a dead body... a set of handcuffs... then Olivia Benson again, this time holding a key.

Sighing, she flopped over onto her belly, never realizing when she dozed off.

She shivered when Jason's hand shook her awake, gladly accepting the blanket he held out to her and wrapping herself up in its warmth. Alex blinked slowly as her senses returned and wondered why she was outside on the ground as the sun was sinking below the horizon. Then it occurred to her what she had been doing prior to her impromptu nap and she blushed, the blood warming her body as it sped through her system.

"Geraldine sent me to tell you it's time for supper. She's not gonna let you skip meals while you're here, Lexxie, so don't even bother to say it." He held out his hand to her. "C'mon... she fixed common food tonight, but I'm betting you'll find it to your liking."

Alex took his hand and rose, then brushed the grass from herself before wrapping the blanket more firmly around her. "Jason, I have yet to find anything Geraldine's cooks not to my liking." She scrunched up her nose in distaste. "Except for liver and onions. There is nothing anyone could do to that dish to make it to my liking... there is nothing there to like."

Jason guffawed heartily. "We figured that out the first time I found it buried in the garden, honey. I don't think Geraldine would do that to you when she is trying to put a bit of meat on those bones of yours. Did you enjoy your nap?"

"Surprisingly, yes. I think I needed it."

"Well, one of the nice things about this lodge is there is really nothing to disturb you if you're looking for peace and quiet." He held the door open for her and Alex preceded him into the mudroom off the kitchen. They both slipped out of their shoes and then padded silently into the kitchen. Geraldine motioned them both to the small kitchen table and Alex relinquished the blanket she had wrapped around her. He placed it to one side, and seated Alex then his wife before taking a seat himself.

After saying a brief grace Geraldine looked at Alex. "We're going to church tomorrow, so you'll have the place to yourself unless you'd like to come along with us," knowing what her answer to that would be. "I'll put on a pot roast for you that you can eat whenever you've a mind then."

"The two of you don't need to wait on me hand and foot. I've gotten very good at taking care of myself over the years." Jason covered her hand.

"Lexxie, don't spoil our fun. We haven't had anyone up here to spoil for ages. We promise not to hover too much, but we can't not keep an eye on you while you're here. We always have."

"And know, and I appreciate it, but it really isn't necessary. You two enjoy your day off together. I'm probably going to go down to the stream and have a picnic."

"That sounds lovely," Geraldine agreed. Then they turned their attention to eating and the conversation moved to other things.

Sunday passed in a pleasant haze for Alex, but in the back of her mind loomed Olivia's IAB hearing. She wished she could be present for it – maybe then she would find closure for the ache in her chest and could move on with her life.

The catcalls and whistles were enough to bring a blush to Olivia's face when she stepped into the precinct Monday morning. She glared around the room only to find everyone staring back at her with frank, appreciative grins. She finally relented and smiled, giving them a small curtsey to a round of applause. Then she took her seat and started in on her paperwork.

Elliot got up from his desk and leaned up against hers. "You ready for this?" he asked. She took a deep breath and met his eyes, allowing only him to see the doubt she felt.

"Do I have a choice?"

"No, but if it makes you feel better, everyone here is pulling for you. The odds makers down in vice are giving you two to one on escaping clean."

"El, we both know that's not gonna happen. Trevor was right about one thing for sure – they're gonna hang me out to dry to show they mean business... to make sure that the public knows the police department is taking care of wrongdoers within the ranks."

"Liv, your case isn't public knowledge – they're not gonna fire you over this, especially since the Feds aren't pursuing a case against you. If it makes you feel better, me, Fin and Munch have got ten to one odds that you will get by with a suspension."

For a long moment, he thought Olivia was going to get angry, then she smirked at him. "Did someone at least cover that bet for me?" Elliot laughed out loud.

"You know it, partner."

As the morning wore on, a number of officers from several different precincts stopped by to offer their support to Liv. She smiled and graciously accepted their support, realizing what Elliot had said about her reputation as a detective and the respect she had garnered in the department was complete truth. Then the unexpected happened.

Alex woke slowly Monday morning and lay there debating whether or not she wanted to get up and drive into the city for the day. Despite what Olivia had said... despite what she recognized as the truth of Branch's words... part of Alex's heart and mind were drawn to the IAB hearing she knew was going to take place today. Surely there was something she could do. Then the phone rang and interrupted her train of thought. She glowered at the offensive noise, wondering who had the audacity to call this early in the morning, then she lifted the receiver from the cradle.


"Don't even think about it, Counselor. You stay safely tucked away in the ritzy house you call a lodge and let us worry about Olivia's hearing." Alex sat up, tucking the sheet around her after pulling her knees up to her chest.

"Us? You get to help her??"

"I'm not the enemy here, Cabot... hers or yours. Nothing changes the fact that as far as the world is concerned, you're on the other side of the line – not even the fact that you're madly, passionately in love with her."

Silence greeted the words, prompting the speaker's tone to change slightly to one of concern. "Alex? You still there?"

"How did you know?" she asked, her voice a mere whisper. All out laughter met the question and Alex lifted the phone away from her ear and glared at it. "It's not funny."

"Oh sweetheart," the voice replied soothingly. "I know it's not. If you're asking about how I knew you are in love with her - that was easy. It shows in your eyes... and hers. It always has. If you're asking how I knew you were considering trying to attend her hearing, let's just say I've known you long enough to understand the way you think."

Alex sighed. "I hate you, you know."

"No you don't. You love me and you're going to invite me up to that lodge when this is all over."

Alex sighed again. "You know you're always welcome, but you call and let me know how things go as soon as you know something."

"Good girl. I'll call as soon as the hearing's over, though it will probably be at least three or four days while the board considers their options. We don't expect her to be fired, but we all believe they're going to do something if only to make the statement that no one including the police is above the law."

"Idiots," Alex mumbled.

"Yeah, but the die's been cast. I'll call you back this afternoon."

"Apparently I will be here. But call the cell – I may be outside."

"All right. Try to stay out of trouble."

"You too." Another laugh met her ears just before the sound of a dial tone told her the call had ended. Alex let a wistful smile cross her face before replacing the phone and sliding from the bed. Maybe she would pack a picnic basket; it would be a nice way to spend the day... trying not to worry.

The complete silence in the room was the first thing that drew Olivia's attention from her work. She had forced herself to focus, hoping to lose herself in her task and make time pass faster. The lack of sound, however, caused her to blink and look up – finding a long pair of legs leaning against her desk. She arched an eyebrow and followed the line up, wondering if the Devil has shown up despite everything. Instead she met the classic smirk and amused brown eyes of one Abbie Carmichael.

"Carmichael... what the hell are you doing here?"

"Well hello to you too, Detective Benson. What the hell kind of greeting is that for an old friend?" Abbie's eyes twinkled with secrets and Olivia just managed to stave off the blush that wanted to course through her body at the personal knowledge she held of those secrets. Instead she stood up and opened her arms, relishing the feel of the other woman pressed up against her again. The two hugged for a long moment before a throat clearing pushed them apart to glare in Elliot's direction.

"Something I can do for you, Detective?" Abbie asked in her trademark raspy drawl. Munch leaned against the doorjamb of Cragen's office and clutched at his chest dramatically.

"You could just stand there and speak for a little while," wincing when she turned her force ten glare in his direction and then scowled for good measure.

"Or you could share some of that whole hugging thing you and Liv had going on there," Elliot said, opening up his arms and waiting for her to step into them. "How are ya, Abbie?" Stabler asked after a brief embrace. "We still miss you around here."

"Nah... you just miss hearing my sexy little drawl," Carmichael argued with a smirk and a glance in John Munch's direction. He simply offered her a tiny smile and a bow. "However, if you gentlemen will excuse us, Detective Benson and I have a few things to discuss before her hearing."

"Wait... you're here for my IAB hearing?" Liv asked in a low tone. "Abbie, you can't do that."

"Actually, I can. I'm here representing the United States government. C'mon and I'll explain it to you over lunch." Olivia nodded her head dumbly and picked up her purse before following Abbie out the door. The silence remained for a moment longer before the regular buzz of work returned to the precinct once more. Munch crossed over to stand next to Elliot, whose eyes remained glued to the door the two women had just disappeared through.

"Well, that was an unpredictable turn of events. You think Abbie is here to help Liv?"

"I don't think even an order from GW himself could make Abbie turn her back on a friend," Munch replied. "I imagine she's going to remind internal affairs that good ol' Uncle Sam isn't pressing charges against Olivia." He turned and looked directly at Elliot. "I'd say our bet was in the bag."

"Kathy will be glad to hear that. She's already informed me we need to go baby shopping soon."

Munch winced and turned to go back into Cragen's office. "I don't envy you that, my friend. Kids get more expensive by the minute."

"Tell me about it," Elliot grumbled, shaking his head. He plopped down into his chair and sighed.

Munch smirked. "Maybe we should give you a baby shower." Elliot looked up, mouth dropped open and eyes wide as visions of diaper pin games and baby diapering contests flashed through his mind at lightning speed. Munch chuckled. "Then again, maybe not." Then he walked into the office and resumed the work Abbie's arrival had interrupted. It was another long moment before Elliot was able to do the same.

Olivia and Abbie stopped right outside the precinct when Casey called Benson by name. Abbie's eyebrow went up and she waited for Olivia to introduce them.

"Oh good," Casey breathed. "I was afraid I might miss you. I just wanted to come by and wish you luck."

"Casey, you could've done that over the phone."

"I know; I was going to offer to take you to lunch as well, but I think Ms Carmichael already has that covered." She watched Abbie's brow arch in question and smiled, extending her hand. "I'm sure you don't remember me, Ms Carmichael – I was an intern in the white collar crime division when we met. I'm Casey Novak, ADA for the SVU."

Now both brows flew into her hairline. "You're Casey Novak?" She turned and punched Olivia on the arm, snickering at the glare it earned her. "You coulda warned me, Yankee," she growled sotto voce. Then she took Casey's hand. "It's very nice to meet you again, Ms Novak. Would you like to join us for lunch?"

"I don't want to intrude...."

"Trust me, it would be our pleasure. Maybe between us, we can give Olivia here enough good karma to feel relaxed at the hearing."

"You're sure you don't mind?" looking between Liv and Abbie and realizing Abbie still held her hand. She tugged gently and found it released, though Abbie's wink at her when she did so was more than a little disconcerting. Still, Casey smiled. "I'd like that," she replied honestly when they both indicated their willingness to have her accompany them.

Abbie linked her arms through theirs and headed them for her favorite mom and pop place near the one-six. And the best part was – they had ice cream.

"I shouldn't have eaten so much," Olivia complained as they stepped from the restaurant. "I think I'm gonna throw up."

Casey bit her lip to hold in her smile, but Abbie chuckled out loud. "You shouldn't have ordered that banana split. Now all those nervous butterflies are having a field day," twitching her hands in circles to demonstrate. Then she pointed at Benson and scowled fiercely. "You're not allowed to throw up before or during this hearing, Detective, so let's move it."

Olivia returned the look then relented. "Fine... I can always throw up afterwards."

"Benson, get a grip. I'm not about to let you get fired and neither is Langan." Abbie turned and glared at Olivia. "Why did you choose him anyway? How often did I listen to you and Stabler bitch about him and his evil, defense attorney ways?"

"I know, but he's about the only defense attorney I know well enough to ask. Technically, you can't represent me, and neither can anyone I know in the DA's office. And if Cabot was stupid enough to risk her career to make sure I had representation, then I figured it would be in my best interests to have someone besides me on my side."

"Olivia, we're all on your side," Casey assured her, "we're just not allowed to...."

"I know," Liv assured her. "C'mon... you've gotta get back to work, and we don't wanna be late."

"Call me when it's over? I know you won't get a ruling today," Casey assured them, holding up her hands to stop their protestations, "but at least then I'll know when to start worrying with you guys." Abbie grinned and pulled out a card, scribbling something on the back before passing it to Casey.

"Call me when your day is over – we'll go to dinner and I'll tell you how things go."

Casey took the card and slipped it into her pocket. Then she hailed a cab and waved goodbye before heading back to Hogan Place. Abbie turned and slid her hand into the crook of Olivia's elbow, tugging gently to get them moving into the precinct.

"Nice of you to take advantage of my misery," Liv grumbled. "I'm dying and you're making dates."

"Benson, stop being a drama queen. You're not going to die today. We're going to go in there and kick a little IAB butt and then we're going to go have a couple drinks with the guys and then we'll get some dinner. In a few days, they'll come back with their ruling and we'll see where we need to go from there." She put her arm around Olivia's shoulders. "So no dying today." Liv noted Abbie stayed away from the dating comment, but Langan was waiting for them at the top of the steps, which prevented her from responding.

She introduced them, knowing they had never been on the same side of the aisle before. Abbie and Trevor spent a couple moments speaking to one another about Olivia's case, then Trevor turned a watchful eye to the detective that was trying her best to be somewhere else. They flanked her and headed inside and up to the conference room where Liv's hearing was to be held.

The committee looked up when the door opened, surprised to see the good detective with such fierce looking representation. The last they had heard, she was going to speak for herself. Still, she was certainly entitled to legal counsel. The chairman motioned to the chair across the table. Olivia sat and Trevor pulled two more chairs from the wall and placed one on either side of Liv, allowing Abbie to seat herself before taking his own.

"Detective Benson, we had understood that you would be representing yourself, so would you care to introduce your legal counsel?" Langan put a hand on her arm and shook his head slightly before turning back to the committee sitting across from them.

"I am Trevor Langan, representing Detective Benson and this is...."

"I'm Abigail Carmichael, representing the interests of the United States government."

The chairman's eyebrows went into his hairline. "And what exactly is the government's interest in these proceedings, Ms Carmichael? This is an internal affairs issue for the NYPD. I'm not sure I understand your presence here."

"My interest is that of justice, Mr. Chairman. The government is well aware that this is an election year – we do not wish to see an officer of Detective Benson's caliber sacrificed on the altar of public opinion and voter satisfaction... especially as we are taking no action against her for the very same charges you are attempting to bring against her at this hearing."

The chairman tilted his head. "So you don't think there should be some sort of penalty for her actions, Counselor? That as a police officer she should be above the law?"

"That is not what I said, Mr. Chairman," though both Olivia and Trevor heard the unspoken 'jackass' clear as a bell. "I am here to be sure that the punishment you choose for Detective Benson is fair and reasonable."

The committee looked less than thrilled with her response, but it wasn't like they could make her leave. The chairman turned his attention to Trevor Langan, then he looked at Olivia Benson who sat straight in her chair, her face a mask as she met each of their eyes honestly. He cleared his throat.

"Detective Benson, do you understand the charges against you and the nature of their seriousness?"

"We do, Mr. Chairman," Trevor answered for her.

"Why don't you tell us what you understand and we'll go from there? And we'd like to hear directly from the detective this time, Counselor."

Olivia exchanged a look with Trevor then faced the disciplinary board. "I am being charged with aiding and abetting a wanted felon, misuse of city services and conduct unbecoming an officer. Penalties range from remedial training and suspension to complete dismissal from the force and jail time."

"And what are your thoughts, Detective? What do you think this committee should do to be fair?"

"We think you should consider not only Detective Benson's exemplary record, but also the circumstances that drove her to make the decisions that she did."

"Why don't you lay it out for us, Counselor? Perhaps you can make a case that won't require us to dismiss Detective Benson from service."

"You've heard from Ms. Carmichael, a representative of the US Attorney General's office. If they don't feel that the case against Detective Benson has merit enough to bring charges, why would this office? But that aside, Detective Benson has earned the right for leniency in this case." Trevor paused and rose from his seat, moving to stand behind Olivia without seeming to hover over her.

"Most of you are probably unaware of Detective Benson's past – she was conceived during an act of rape, and yet her mother chose to keep and raise the child that had been created during an act of violence upon her. But doing so caused Serena Benson to turn to alcohol – a vice which destroyed her and nearly did the same to a daughter she both loved and hated. When she died, Olivia Benson was left completely alone – no family to speak of.

In the meantime, Olivia had gone to college, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in criminal justice, then going directly into the police academy where she was first in her class. She did her time as a beat cop, but as soon as the opportunity rose, she took the test for detective and passed, putting in for SVU immediately. You see, her mother never found justice – her rapist was never caught, and Olivia had decided that wasn't going to happen to anyone else. She'd seen firsthand the damage sexual assault and violence could do to a tender soul. So she joined the Special Victims' Unit, and in the eight years she's been there, she's made the difference in so many lives.

Now I know you're all sitting there wondering why I am telling you this... what possible bearing this could have on this hearing. Well, I'm going to tell you. You see, several months ago when the opportunity arose, Detective Benson entered her DNA into the system, hoping to finally find justice for her mother. What she found was a man who was definitely kin, but not her rapist father.

No... the man she found was her half-brother – a man who had a wife and kids and a stable life until he stood accused of the same crime his father had been guilty of on several occasions. Is it any wonder she wanted to believe him... that she wanted to believe he was not guilty of the crimes of which he stood accused? Simon Marsden gave Olivia Benson something she had never really had before – a family of her own... and a place to belong.

Was what she did right? No, of course it wasn't – she freely admits that. It was a severe lapse in judgment that could cost her everything she's worked for. No one realizes the damage that has been done to her reputation as a police officer more than Detective Benson. If she had the opportunity to do things differently, she would, even if it cost her the new family she's found.

But the fact remains that it did happen. The question is – does one infraction erase all the good she's accomplished in her time with the NYPD? Detective Benson is a good cop... a good officer... and when she realized her error, she helped the FBI catch him... believing him still to be a criminal. Not the best way to ingratiate yourself into your new family.

The FBI had her dead to rights and yet they have chosen not to press charges, as Ms Carmichael's presence here on Detective Benson's behalf signifies.

Now ladies and gentlemen," meeting the eyes of each member of the committee before allowing himself to continue, "I didn't tell you all this looking for pity or sympathy on my client's behalf. The truth is Detective Benson would never have shared this with you had she undertaken her own defense as she had originally planned. But I think you all need to know where she came from – how that influenced her to do what she did." He paused. "Can any one of you here say you wouldn't have done the same... that you haven't looked out for family members who've gotten into trouble before? Oh, I grant you it probably wasn't as serious a crime as aiding and abetting a fugitive, but I imagine every single member of this board has taken care of a few parking tickets or made a phone call to keep someone out of jail; maybe it was simply a matter of looking the other way. Doesn't that make you just as guilty of the things you are charging my client with?

Think about it – too harsh a punishment will open up all kinds of avenues of investigation. Soon a majority of the police department will be locked up or dismissed and then who will take care of the criminals whose actions hurt all of us?"

Trevor took his seat and Abbie nodded at him approvingly. He may be on the wrong side of the aisle most of the time, but she was glad her friend had someone who believed in her as strongly as Trevor seemed to believe in Olivia. The sound of a throat clearing brought their attention back to their surroundings and the three of them looked at the chairman.

"We need some time to look over Detective Benson's service record again and think about what you said, Counselor. We will be in touch with you with our decision by the end of the week."

As one body, both sides of the table rose and the committee filed out while Olivia and her counsel stayed put. When the room was empty save for the three of them, they all let out a deep breath... then chuckled at the reaction.

Liv opened her mouth to speak and Trevor shook his head no. Instead, he and Abbie flanked her once more and together they escorted Olivia out of the conference room and then out into the sunshine. When they were away from the building, they stopped walking.

"Thank you, Trevor," Liv said sincerely. "That was incredible."

"Yes, Counselor," Abbie agreed. "Very well done. We're going to meet up with the guys for drinks and then have dinner... would you like to join us?"

Langan smiled and shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm a good guy today, but it doesn't change the fact that the detectives and I are always on opposite sides of the aisle. Olivia should be surrounded by the people who are part of her life and my presence will only make everyone uncomfortable. When we get a good verdict, I'll come along to celebrate."

Trevor waved goodbye to them and hailed a cab. They watched until he was lost in traffic and then turned to one another.

"C'mon," Abbie said, taking Liv's hand and pulling her back inside. "Let's go tell the boys where to meet us and go find some alcohol. I need a good stiff drink."

"Me too," Liv agreed before they stepped back into the one-six and were swallowed up by the fray.

"Carmichael... yes... I'm sorry, honey – there really hasn't been a good time. In fact, now's not really a good time either if you want to know the truth." She stuck a finger in one ear and scrunched her eyebrows together. "All right... all right... hang on." Abbie gave a look to the rest of the table and signaled her intentions. They nodded their understanding and Liv raised an eyebrow in question; Abbie shook her head and rose, heading towards the back of the bar and into the ladies' room where it was noticeably quiet.

"Jesus, Alex... what the hell's wrong with you? I told you I'd call," Abbie said with exasperation. "Are you trying to piss Olivia off by checking up on her or are you just looking to be fingered as a stalker?"

"Abbie... it's been four hours since the hearing. What was I supposed to think?"

"You were supposed to think that I'd call you as soon as I had a moment free and clear of anyone overhearing us... since you're not supposed to have anything to do with this and all. And I'm telling you – now's just not a good time to go into this." The door opened and Liv stuck her head in.

"Everything all right?" she asked, noting Abbie was still on the phone and looking a little harried.

"Yeah," Abbie replied softly, deliberately not covering up the mouthpiece. "Just a panicky intern that needs a little guidance. Thanks for checking though, Liv."

Liv nodded. "All right... Casey's here, by the way," she added before backing out of the room. Alex sighed loudly in Abbie's ear.

"You're out at a bar drinking and picking up women while I'm sitting here biting my nails?"

"Well, let's just say the hearing was kind of nerve wracking and Liv needed to loosen up a little when it was over. But I think Trevor did a great job spinning the bits he had into a good defense."

"Trevor??? She chose Trevor to represent her???"

"Yes, she chose Trevor and he did right by her, so chill your jets, Cabot. I promise I'll call later and give you all the juicy details, all right? Now I've gotta go." Abbie sighed. "It'll be fine, Alex. Things will work out."

Alex practically snorted into the phone. "I'm glad one of us has faith."

Abbie smiled. "Look, I have to fly back to DC tomorrow, but I will definitely call you tonight. We're not going to be here too late. These guys all have to be at work in the morning. Now go grab a beer and stretch out and relax."

"Yes, mom."

Abbie snorted. "Be glad I'm not – I would be sending you to your room without the beer."

"I hate you."

"I know and I love you back, Cabot. Later," shutting the phone on any retort Alex could make. Then she headed back out into the noisy bar, grinning when she was welcomed back like a long lost sheep. And she remembered what it was she had loved so much about working for the DA's office in Manhattan – because despite the upheaval and the competition, there was nothing like the camaraderie that she'd had with the detectives of the one-six to be found anywhere else in the world. Abbie accepted the beer Elliot passed her and they raised their glasses to one another before drinking – just like old times.

Alex glared at the phone that was now emitting the rudest sound – a dial tone – before slapping it shut and plugging it in. Being out in the middle of what she considered to be BFE drained the battery faster than it ever did in Manhattan she'd discovered her first night there. It was as bad as Wisconsin as far as she was concerned, though truth be told, anything that wasn't Manhattan was bad – although there were a few cities in the world that came close to rivaling the energy and life that Alex related with Manhattan.

She knew that Abbie was right – at least the intellectual part of her did. It still didn't make her appreciate the fact that Abbie got to sit beside Olivia and support her during the hearing or the fact that Trevor Langan of all people got to defend her anymore than it would have if she had been ignorant of the law. And it certainly didn't help that now Abbie got to sit in the bar with Liv and the guys and kick back together.

Still, Abbie's idea of a beer had been a good one, and she needed to relax. The day's tension had ratcheted up her anxiety so far, the headache that had started in her eyes that morning now went from her eyes to the middle of her back. Sooner or later Alex was going to have to sit down and decide what the hell was going on with her – why she was taking all of this so personally and why now? After all this time it seemed to matter.

However, that was going to have to wait for another day. Right now, she was going to take a hot shower. Then she would have a beer and a sandwich and wait for Abbie to call back.

Liv woke up the next morning with a smile on her face – something that hadn't happened for a very long time. Despite the discomfort of the hearing, Olivia was glad to have it behind her and the night out with the guys had been great. They hadn't done that together since....

Her mind shied away from that October night five years previously. Instead, she deliberately turned her focus to the goofiness and fun they'd had, despite the fact that they'd kept it fairly short. Abbie had been full of... well, to be honest, Liv wasn't really sure what she'd been full of exactly, but God knew she had been a riot. The guys hadn't been far behind her either, with Munch spouting conspiracy theories left and right and Fin shooting them down in true gangsta fashion. And when Casey had arrived, it just seemed to bump everything up a notch.

After a couple drinks the guys had split and the girls had moved over to the restaurant side of the establishment and ordered dinner. When Liv had suggested skipping out to leave Abbie and Casey on their own, she'd been pinned to her seat with a hand on each arm and negative shakes of red and dark heads. She'd surrendered gracefully after another moment's protest and they'd enjoyed a nice evening of dinner and conversation.

So Olivia was in a decent mood for the first time in what felt like forever. She decided that the committee's decision didn't matter as much, now that the hearing was behind her. Though she still felt some apprehension about the waiting she had left to do, she felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. And by the time she headed out for another day in the office at the one-six, she was feeling pretty good and deciding that she liked it.

Maybe they should start getting together outside of work more often. Maybe they needed to remember that they were more than just colleagues – they were friends and family. She decided to pick up doughnuts on the way in - Krispy Kreme should have hot ones by the time she got there.

She was met with a cheer when she walked into the precinct with four boxes of still-warm doughnuts.

Alex turned over on the bed and regarded the ceiling as she blinked the sleep from her eyes. It was late – relatively speaking – though Geraldine did nothing to discourage what was rapidly becoming a bad habit. She still chided her about her poor eating habits – to the point of threatening to spoon feed her to make sure Alex was actually eating.

Alex knew there was very little danger of that actually happening, though the concern made her feel.... She rolled her eyes. Great... now I'm turning into some sort of touchy-feely fruitcake. What the hell's wrong with me? Warm and fuzzy indeed! Since when have I needed warm and fuzzy?! I'm the Ice Princess Alex Cabot for God's sakes!!

Alex crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the ceiling like it was to blame for her train of thought. Then she sighed and rolled out of bed, heading into the bathroom to take a shower. Her talk with Abby the previous evening had been enlightening if a bit frustrating as well. She was satisfied that Olivia had indeed been well represented and that more than likely would suffer little lasting damage to her reputation or her career when all was said and done.

And yet, perversely, it didn't necessarily make her feel any better. All Alex could seem to focus on was the fact that she'd been turned down flat and that Olivia Benson had gone to Trevor Langan as her replacement. Despite the fact that they both knew Alex could never represent her in the hearing, she'd hoped for a positive reaction from Olivia... something that would show her that Liv appreciated the gesture she was making. Instead, she got venom and ridicule.

Why was that?

Or perhaps the better question should have been, all things considered - why had she expected anything other than that?

Alex turned the shower off and wrapped herself in a towel, grabbing a second and wrapping it around her head. She'd spent most of the night with these two thoughts running conversely through her mind. It had taken until the sun peeked over the horizon that exhaustion had finally forced her mind to shut down, but here they were again - haunting her... mocking her.

She gazed into the mirror trying to figure out just who it was looking back at her. Alex Cabot, to be sure, but who exactly was Alex Cabot... really? Alex sighed and dried off, slipping into another pair of comfortable jeans and a baby doll t-shirt. She snagged a jacket and a legal pad and pen. It was time to find an answer to that question.

"So... where was Langan last night?" Elliot asked as Liv set a cup of coffee in front of him before taking a seat at her desk. "I woulda thought he'd have wanted to be there as a show of confidence in your case if nothing else."

Olivia watched Elliot for a long moment, but there was nothing mocking in his gaze – unusual considering Trevor Langan's name had been brought up. God knew there was no love lost between them and Elliot rarely missed an opportunity to get in a dig. Still....

"He didn't want to make things uncomfortable," she shrugged. "Despite the fact that he represented me before the committee, we all know that we are enemies on opposite sides of the line most of the time and nothing is ever gonna change that."

"That's true," Elliot acknowledged with a nod of his head before briefly sticking his nose in his coffee. "Well," he added after a bit of a pause, "maybe he can come out for drinks with us when the decision comes down."

"You think we'll have something to celebrate?" Liv asked with an arched brow.

"I think we'll all need a drink no matter what happens," Stabler prophesied.

Benson sighed. "Probably. At least I don't think I'll be fired. And who knows... maybe a suspension is what I need. It'll give me a chance to clear my head – help me figure out if this is really what I wanna keep doing with my life."

Elliot held her gaze. "You do what you need to do, Liv; do what is best for you. It's time you did that for a change instead of worrying about everyone else first."

"Even you?"

"Especially me," he replied gravely, though there was a twinkle in his eye. He looked around the precinct slowly then allowed his stare to rest on her thoughtfully. "I have to tell you, though... I'm not sure how this place would manage without you for very long. You're kinda the glue that holds this place together most days."

Olivia smirked, trying to break the tension that settled between her shoulder blades at her partner's unexpected words. "You calling me sticky?"

"Well," Stabler almost drawled, recognizing her deflection for what it was, "it's better than calling you nuts."

"Hello pot... this is kettle. And I know where you live."

"Yes and you also know that I am the father of four with another on the way."

Olivia waggled her eyebrows. "Yep, and that makes you crazier than me. Now don't you have work to do?"

Elliot glared at her before turning his attention back to the task at hand – which at the moment meant following up a couple more leads so he would hopefully have enough evidence to convince Casey to get him a warrant. Speaking of....

"Hey, Liv?" waiting for brown eyes to meet his before continuing. "Are Novak and Carmichael... you know... dating?"

"Why would you ask me that, El?"

He shrugged. "I just got a weird vibe from them last night." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "And Lake asked me if she was seeing anyone... Novak, I mean. I got the feeling he was interested."

Now it was Liv's turn to shrug. "I dunno. Maybe you should ask Casey herself."

"Ask me what, Detective?" the ADA asked from the doorway. Elliot glared at Olivia again, who simply returned his look with another smirk. She stalked over to the desk and leaned over with her palms flat on the top. "Hmm? What would you like to know?"

"If you and Carmichael are dating," he blurted unexpectedly watching Casey's brow fly into her hairline. "Lake asked me if you were available."

"And why would you think Abbie and I were dating? We were barely introduced to one another when she was Jack's second chair and she lives five hundred miles from here now," biting her lip to keep from smiling while Elliot strove to keep from squirming in his chair. "Makes it a little hard to date a person, you know? And besides, we've really only just met."

Stabler cleared his throat. "I'll um... I'll take that as a 'no' then."

Casey smiled. "You do that, Detective. And you can tell your friend Detective Lake that if he wants to know, he can ask me himself." She turned to Olivia. "Could I talk to you privately for a moment?"

Olivia nodded and rose to follow Casey to the ladies room, knowing there would be very little likelihood of their conversation being overheard. Elliot just watched them go, mumbling under his breath.

The two women held it together until they were inside the restroom with the door shut behind them. Then they both leaned against the door and broke into giggles. After several minutes and several attempts, they finally managed to look at one another without breaking into more laughter. Liv took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh.

"God, I needed that. Thanks, Casey."

"Happy to oblige, Detective. I have to admit it felt pretty good."

Olivia drew in another slow, deep breath. "So what can I do for you?"

"Nothing," Casey confessed. "You just looked like you needed a reason to leave before you exploded."

"Good call, Counselor. Thanks."

"Anytime. Now, I need to go see Munch about what I really came in here to discuss before I got sidetracked by your conversation with Elliot. Looks like Cragen may be coming back in the next two to three weeks."

"And how did you get elected to share the news?"

"I volunteered," Casey said as she opened the bathroom door and motioned for Olivia to precede her. "I promised Abbie I'd keep an eye on you."

Liv rolled her eyes. "You can tell her for me that I'm fine, and if she wants to know so bad she can move back to New York," the last said with a crooked grin.

"I'll do that," Casey replied as they stepped back into the precinct. "Thanks, Detective. You've been a lot of help."

Olivia nodded her head seriously, though Casey didn't miss the twinkle in her eyes either. Then she headed to her desk and immersed herself in the stack of paperwork that was waiting for her. Elliot didn't even try to bother her and Olivia couldn't keep the grin off her face when she remembered why. That little interlude was going to continue make her smile for some time to come whenever she allowed herself to think about it. It had been that funny.

Geraldine looked out the window and shook her head as yet another crumpled paper went flying through the air to land on the umbrella covered table top some distance away from where Alex Cabot was lounging beside the pool. Her warm flannel shirt had been removed much earlier and was currently functioning as a pillow for her blonde head and Alex had removed her shoes and socks as well. Other than that, there had been very little movement from her position except to hurl another paper ball towards the table. Geraldine was glad to see an increasing accuracy in Alex's throws.

She gathered the tray she had prepared and headed out to where Alex sat chewing on the end of her pen and frowning mightily as though a fierce expression would make some bit of difference in whatever task she was trying to accomplish. Geraldine just had time to duck out of the way when the pad came flying in her direction.

"Alexandra!" she admonished, bringing the blonde head up and meeting chagrined blue eyes with reproving brown ones.

"Oh, damn, Gerry... I'm so sorry. I didn't know anyone was there. I wouldn't have...."

"I know, dear," Geraldine said softly, looking pointedly at the table. Alex blew out a frustrated breath, but rose and pushed all the wads of paper to one side, allowing Geraldine to place the tray on the table. Then she put her hands on her hips and pinned Alex with a pointed stare. "Now would you like to explain to me why you're out here throwing legal pad paper all over the yard?"

Alex rolled her eyes at the housekeeper's exaggeration, but she dropped into the chair Geraldine patted in invitation and scrubbed her hands through her hair - a sure sign she was annoyed about something. Geraldine walked across the lawn to the abandoned pad and picked it up, not surprised to find it half-missing and blank on top. She put it on the table beside Alex and tapped the empty page.

Alex sat back and crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her head. "I'm...." She sighed. "I'm trying to figure out who I am... now, I mean. I think I need to know that before I can figure out why I am not as happy as I think I should be."

Geraldine nodded her head sagely. "That makes sense. So what's the problem?"

Alex motioned to the crumpled wads of paper on the table. "I have no idea how to start."

Geraldine leaned over and smoothed out the first ball she could reach, then did the same to a second, third and fourth paper before turning back to Alex. "Lexxie, I think you're trying too hard. This isn't about lists and numbers and fact and figures. This is about who you were and who you are and who you want to be. It's a story, sweetheart... your story. Maybe you ought to try telling it that way – you know, as a story... 'once upon a time' and all that."

Alex stared at Geraldine for a long moment, then allowed a real, rare smile to cross her face. She rose and took the startled woman into her arms, hugging her briefly before retrieving her pen. "Thanks, Gerry... you're a genius."

"Nice of you to notice," Geraldine replied saucily. "Now don't forget to eat."

Alex nodded, her mind already years away.

Once Upon a Time (she wrote) – there was a beautiful princess carved from ice and stone. Nothing could touch this princess because after the death of her beloved father, she isolated herself from anyone and anything that could hurt her. She determined to become a lawyer like her father before her and she graduated first in her class at Harvard Law.

Law, however, was not her primary pursuit – it was a mere stepping stone to higher goals... District Attorney, State Representative, perhaps even the US Senate. First she needed to make a name for herself and SVU was just the place to do that.

And she had done very well in the beginning, establishing a name for herself and making a significant change in the ratio of cases that the department won. She'd laid down the law to the detectives of the one-six almost the moment she'd been assigned to them, earning the nicknames Devil and Ice Princess. But Alex Cabot didn't care – she had an agenda and they were damn well not going to screw things up for her.

Then something had started to change. Alex Cabot had met Olivia Benson – surely the woman couldn't be for real. No one could care as much as she did – people just didn't do that anymore. One thing Alex was sure of was that the human race just didn't give a shit about each other.

But Olivia Benson did.

Fascinated, Alex allowed herself to be drawn in by Olivia's caring and understanding and empathy with the victims she dealt with on a daily basis. And slowly, surely the Angel of the one-six became friends with the Devil of Hogan's Place.

Alex looked down and reread what she had written so far, satisfied that it was an accurate portrait of her memories of that time. She took a sip of the lemonade that Geraldine had brought out and resumed her writing.

Somewhere along the line, Alex realized that although all and sundry still saw her as the Devil she had always been, something had changed inside her. Now it was less about the numbers, less about her political aspirations and more about the victims and what justice she could obtain for them. And she knew who was responsible for that change and why.

Olivia let her know in subtle ways that she was aware of the changes in Alex's thinking and their friendship blossomed as Alex allowed herself to really feel for the first time since her father had died. And she realized she could very easily throw away all her political goals and old-fashioned notions of decorum if Olivia gave her the first iota of encouragement. But always their teasing and flirting skirted the line, staying just on the right side of propriety.

And then Velez had come along and everything had changed.

Alex looked up, remembering clearly the pain in her shoulder as the bullets ripped through her body. It didn't begin to hold a candle to the agony she'd witnessed in Olivia's eyes two days later when she was put into witness protection and whisked away to Wisconsin. And there, she knew, was where it had all started to unravel for her.

They had taken Alex Cabot from her, insisting that she become Emily the insurance claims adjuster. Emily was drab and boring – someone Alex hated with a passion she was no longer allowed to have. Her house, her car, her clothes... even the man she supposedly loved bored her to tears and all Alex could think about was what she had given up to become someone she had no desire to be.

When Cragen and Hammond had knocked on her door, she had been overjoyed to see them – despite the fact it meant her detectives were in trouble. All that she could see was that it meant Alex Cabot got to go home.

But so much had changed while she had been gone. The one-six was no longer her precinct; the detectives that worked there were no longer her detectives. Her mother was dead, and no one had seen fit to notify her; her life was gone. And the look of hurt understanding that had crossed Olivia's face when Alex had shared about her 'good man'...

They hadn't talked much after that, Alex recalled. What had there been to talk about? She and Olivia hadn't made any sort of commitment to one another – they had never been lovers nor had they even dated. But Alex had felt the betrayal she could see in the depths of those dark brown eyes that night and knew she had lost something precious... something that meant a great deal to her without her ever having realized its worth until it was too late.

She'd testified, then forced a meeting with her uncle before being carted off again. So when Hammond had come to take her to whatever safe house they'd determined was her next port of call, Alex had flatly refused.

"I'll take care of my own travel arrangements, Agent Hammond. When your agency finally disposes of Velez and his henchmen, you let Uncle Bill know. He'll know how to reach me."

"Ms Cabot...."

"Exactly, Agent Hammond. I am Alexandra Cabot and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life. I'd say it's been a pleasure, but it really hasn't. So if you'll excuse me...."

Hammond had been flabbergasted, Alex recalled with a bitter twist to her lips. He'd never had a charge quite like her before. He'd tried reasoning, cajoling, threatening even, but in the end, he'd slammed the door and stomped off, muttering about stupid, ungrateful women and the consequences they would all end up facing because of them.

Harriman had waited til the sound died down in the corridor. Then he turned and looked at Alex. "Are you sure about this, Lexxie?"

"I can't go back into that program again, Uncle Bill... it's stifling. I'd rather take my chances on the outside. At least this way I get to be Alex Cabot again."

He'd nodded his head slowly in understanding. "All right," he finally said. "The trust will revert back to you as soon as I can take care of the paperwork and you know how to reach me when you get where ever you decide to go. Just be careful, okay?"

She'd hugged him briefly. "I will, Uncle Bill. Thank you." Alex had visited her mother's grave before leaving the city again – a stupid idea, she knew, but something she needed to do just the same. Then Alex had set out for Europe, confident she could lose herself in the masses.

She had, but the part of her she'd lost that night on the sidewalk seemed to be permanently missing and Alex found herself caring less and craving more. The Ice Princess was back.

Europe had been freeing and damning at the same time – and for the very same reasons. Gone was the Alex Cabot that had learned to care about those who needed justice... about those Olivia had taught her to have compassion for. In her place stood an Alex Cabot no one would have recognized – not even her mother had she lived to see the transformation. Alex made it a point not to be Emily, and in doing so, lost sight of who Alexandra Cabot really was... who she had grown to be as she had matured. The new Alex was cold, selfish – lacking in compassion and understanding and contemptuous of anyone she felt was beneath her regard.

But there was nowhere she could go and nothing she could do to get away from the soulful brown eyes that haunted her dreams – day and night.

It had almost been a relief when she received the rather cryptic note from her uncle, telling Alex she could finally return to Manhattan. At least there, she would at last be able to talk directly to the object of her desire and see if there was anything left between them beyond her imagination.

But of course, she hadn't reckoned on the changes she had allowed to take place to make such a difference in her life and things did not work out the way Alex Cabot had intended them to. She was unexpectedly thrust into a life she had never thought she would return to. It was exciting at first – the youngest bureau chief the Manhattan DA's office had ever known. It gave her a sense of power... the thrill of control she had long craved – and a huge stepping stone towards fulfilling the dreams she'd had for herself years before.

She never even paused to question if those dreams were even relevant to the person she had become in the intervening years.

That is how she found herself engaged to Robert – it seemed to fit the new reality that her life had become with very little input from her actually necessary. He met all the obligatory requirements society dictated she needed in a mate and he was easy and comfortable to be around. After several months of dating, he'd asked and she'd accepted, even though she knew by her own actions with Jim Steele the night before that what she felt for Robert wasn't the grand, sweeping passion she wanted it to be.

She considered briefly that if she'd never been shot... never gone into witness protection, she wouldn't be the person she was now – would never have met Robert or gotten engaged to him. He would never have been interested in the Alex Cabot that was, and she would have never been interested in him, no matter what society required of her status. And it made her a little sad to understand how selfish and shallow she'd allowed herself to become in the interim that despite everything, she really wouldn't have missed him or the status quo life he offered her – not like she missed the life she'd had and the person she'd been once upon a time.

But the saddest part, she'd realized as she rode into work alone the following day staring at the ring she wore, was that she had no one but her interns and her uncle to share the news with... and except for her uncle, no one who really cared one way or another except for how it could benefit them personally. Anyone she had been friends with before – her detectives or her fellow ADAs... even a few old college classmates – she no longer had contact with. Somehow, she had let them slip through her fingers upon her return, squandering the opportunity life had given her for a second chance.

She wondered if there was any likelihood that she would get a third.

Alex looked up from her writing then, her stomach finally drawing attention to the fact that it was still waiting to be fed and there was perfectly lovely food sitting nearby just waiting to be consumed. Alex picked up the BLT, grimacing at the slightly soggy bread, then smiling when the taste of the sandwich hit her tongue. She loved these and no one made them quite the way Geraldine did. Jason swore it was his home grown tomatoes and his specially cured bacon, but whatever it was, Alex missed them in the city. She chewed thoughtfully, finishing every bite before allowing her attention to be turned back to the legal pad in front of her that was now covered in her fine script.

That had been her initial wake-up call, though it hadn't been the last and it had taken her a while to heed its message. The kicker, though, had been a rather frantic call from the US Attorney's office after Olivia's run-in with the FBI, followed by a dressing down by the same Abbie Carmichael when she realized Alex Cabot had no idea what was going on.

Abbie had never been one to be frantic about much of anything, Alex recalled – always in complete and cool control much like Alex herself had prided herself on being - and to have her react so now told Alex more than Abbie's words could. Obviously if Abbie needed to call Alex from Washington DC about events happening in Manhattan to people they had once both called friends, Alex had allowed her isolation to be far more complete than she knew. So Alex had finally come to the realization that she had become someone she didn't recognize and worse... didn't like.

Alex had researched what had happened to the detectives of the one-six, feeling parts of her soul she'd given up for dead slowly come to life. Unfortunately, that awakening caused the confusion that was currently plaguing her and was responsible for the myriad of uncomfortable situations she now needed to resolve... not the least of which was figuring out what she wanted to do now.

First, though, Alex needed to decide what she really felt – about herself, her job and most importantly... Olivia Benson.


"Hello, Olivia... it's Donald Cragen."

"Oh, hi Cap. How's it going?"

She couldn't see it, but she heard the shrug in his answer. "It's going... you know how it is. How was your hearing?"

Now it was her turn to shrug. "It was a hearing – how good could it be? I think Trevor did a good job with my defense. And it was nice to have Abbie there."

"Abbie was there?" Cragen sounded surprised. "Well, that's good then, right?"

"I think so, yes sir. At least the committee seemed to take her words seriously."

"Good, good. Did they give any indication of how long...?"

"End of the week." She smirked slightly. "Would you like odds on the bets that are running around the precinct as to what they're gonna do?"

Cragen chuckled. "Um... no, thanks. I think I'm in enough trouble without adding gambling to the list. How are things otherwise?"

"Same old, same old – Kathy is wishing morning sickness on Elliot; Lake wants to date Casey; Fin is well... Fin; Casey's decided she wants a life; and Munch is sure that him being in charge of the playpen misfits is the most complex conspiracy the government has ever perpetuated against him." Liv snickered in sympathy with the burst of laughter that erupted on the other end of the phone.

"Direct quote, huh?"

Olivia snorted. "How'd you guess?"

"Years of experience," he deadpanned, then sobered. "How are you otherwise, Detective? I've heard some rumors...."

"I'll just bet. Look, Cap... I'm fine. Maybe I needed this – needed the time to reevaluate some things in my life."

This time Cragen frowned and Benson could hear it clearly in his tone. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that, Olivia. You're not thinking about quitting, are you?"

Liv sighed. "I'm thinking maybe it's time I do what's best for me, Cap... maybe it's time I try to make me happy for a change." She sighed again. "I dunno, Cap. I'm just thinking."

"What brought this on? I mean, I know things have been rough since Simon... well, you know – with everything that has happened because of him. But has it really been bad enough that you're ready to give up your whole life because of it?"

"Maybe it's because it's all the life I have." She shook her head. "I dunno," she said again.

"Seeing Alex Cabot again really threw you that badly?" he ventured, knowing he was crossing a very dangerous line.

"Excuse me?" she whispered, glaring at the phone though there was no one around to see her expression.

"C'mon, Olivia. Even I heard about her coming to the station to offer you representation and Branch giving her thirty days leave in lieu of a suspension on her record. You mean to tell me that doesn't have anything to do with you suddenly deciding you need to reassess your life?"

"Captain, no offense, but it is none of your damn business. The fact is I have been in this job for an eternity and I'm tired. I've been tired for a very long time. This hearing is just making me take a step back and realize it. Maybe this is Fate's way of stepping in and forcing me to do something else before it finally kills me. I've paid my dues, Cap."

"Yes, you have Olivia. I'm just concerned... beyond my job, all right? So," he continued before she could respond. "How 'bout you let me take you to lunch, just so I know you are eating something more than ice cream and doughnuts once in a while?"

Olivia rolled her eyes but couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face. "Sure, Cap – when and where?"

"I'll swing by. There's a couple places nearby to choose from. See ya in about twenty minutes." Olivia just looked at the phone for a long moment when the dial tone started, then shook her head and hung it up before turning her attention to wrapping up her work. She wondered what on earth had gotten into Donald Cragen.

"So what's the issue, Liv? Sounds like Cragen was just disturbed about some of the things he's heard."

"Maybe that's the issue, El. What has he heard that made him so worried that he felt the need to go to lunch so we could sit and chit chat about nothing for an hour?" She waved him off before he could open his mouth to answer. "Oh, I know he cares – I know he looks out for us on the job when he can. But this was different, Elliot. This was personal."

"Does it bother you... that it was personal, I mean?"

Olivia shrugged. "I dunno. Not really, I guess. It was just unexpected."

"Then just appreciate the fact that you've got a lot of folks here that value the role you play in their lives. Regardless of what the committee decides, no matter what you decide, we're still gonna all be in your corner at the end of the day. Now c'mon. Work day is over and I promised Kathy I'd bring you home for dinner. She thinks you're not eating right."

Liv scowled. "What is the sudden fascination with my eating habits?"

Elliot shrugged. He wasn't about to be suckered into that discussion. Instead he slipped into his jacket and waited for Olivia to close her drawers and pick up her purse before they headed out of the one-six for the night.

"Cabot," Alex said on a drowsy voice. It wasn't particularly early, but the last few days of soul searching had been exhausting. It had been tough but she'd come to realize a few stark truths about herself. The first was that she needed to find and embrace her inner Devil again – the Devil she had been as the SVU ADA... not the Devil she had become when she returned from witness protection. Alex had been happy as the SVU Devil; sometimes she'd even felt as though she made a difference.

Not so now – now, she simply felt as though she was marking time... acting the part of the Devil and waiting for her life to return to normal. And for the first time in what seemed like forever, she finally had a clue what normal might actually be for her.

That led to her job – bureau chief of a bunch of misfit prosecutors who couldn't seem to brief their way out of a wet paper bag, much less argue a real case in front of real jurors with a real judge. It had gotten so bad – both their performance and her desire to be a prosecutor again – Alex had insisted on presenting a particularly difficult case herself... only to get her ass handed to her. It had been humbling and humiliating. The question was, though – what did she want to do about it?

She still hadn't decided that, but at least she knew she was going to do something. And she still had plenty of time to figure out what course of action she wanted to take.

Olivia Benson – this was the issue that was causing Alex Cabot the most soul searching grief. There were so many unknowns where Olivia Benson was concerned - so many doubts and questions and misunderstandings. The one thing... the only thing Alex was sure of was that she wanted a chance with Olivia – a chance to make things right; a chance to make something of them together.

First, however, she needed to know how Olivia felt – if she would even allow Alex the opportunity to try. Judging from her actions and reactions to Alex so far, things didn't look very promising. But Alex was determined to try.

"Alex?" The voice on the other end of the phone caused blue eyes to blink rapidly and Alex scrubbed her free hand over her face in an effort to facilitate her effort at consciousness. "Did I wake you?"

"'S'all right, Abbie. I should have been up already."

"You're not sick, are you? Or coming down with something?"

"No, Abbie. I'm just not sleeping very well; I've got a lot on my mind, you know?"

"I understand, hon... more than you probably realize. Listen," she hurried on before Alex could form a question. "I just wanted to let you know that Olivia is expecting to go before the IAB committee this afternoon to hear their judgment of her case. I will call you as soon as it's over and let you know how things went."

"Thanks, Abbie," Alex said after a long moment of silence and clearing her throat delicately. "I appreciate you keeping me in the loop, even if there's not a real reason to."

"There's a reason, Alex. And eventually, it'll all fall into place."

"When did you become such an optimist?" Alex asked with a hint of a smile in her voice.

"Who's an optimist?" Abbie growled. "I, my dear, am a realist. And I have seen enough of the world to have learned a few things. Just trust me on this, all right?"

"All right," Alex conceded. "So you coming up this weekend?"

"I probably could for a day or two," Abbie acknowledged, "but I want an invitation to come up for a long weekend when I have the time."

"Abbie, you are welcome anytime you can get here."

"I'm going to take you up on that, Cabot."

"See that you do, Carmichael. And Abbie," she paused briefly and looked up at the ceiling before focusing on the bedspread pattern. "Thanks."


The sound of the dial tone prompted Alex to hang up the phone, then she pushed the covers back and stretched before climbing out of bed. It was time to do something productive. She slipped into a pair of worn comfortable jeans and went looking for Jason. She was of a mind to get her hands dirty.

"Detective Benson," the chairman acknowledged as she stepped into the conference room followed by Abbie and Trevor. "Please take a seat."

Trevor, ever the gentleman, pulled out a chair for both women before they could offer a protest. They both nodded their thanks and sat, and only then did Trevor seat himself. The three of them folded their hands on the table and faced the committee and waited.

The chairman cleared his throat, then looked at the members of the disciplinary board on either side of him before turning to look at Olivia. Then his eyes fastened on Abbie. "Ms Carmichael, may I ask what your interest is in today's proceeding? As I understand it, you are not Detective Benson's counsel – Mr. Langan is."

"I am here in the same capacity I was before – I am here in the interest of seeing justice is served."

The man cleared his throat again. "I see," was what he said, looking down at the folder in front of him before returning his eyes to Olivia's. "Well, in the interest of justice, let me first say that we spent a long time reading through your service jacket and discussing its contents. Detective Benson, you are a fine officer and you have lived through some truly gruesome cases and yet you still seem to be able to reach out to the victims... even when it isn't in your best interests to do so.

You've been in Special Victims for eight years, and I can't help but wonder what kind of strength and fortitude it takes to do that job day in and day out. Just looking through your cases was wearing; I can't imagine facing the brutal reality you see. And we knew we couldn't discount that, because those experiences have helped to create the dedicated police officer we found on those service pages.

We also considered Mr. Langan's words. Obviously what he shared with us is very personal – things most people do not know about you, but things that also shaped your life and your career." The chairman blinked then and pinned her, his gaze sharpening intently. "Tell me, Detective - if your circumstances had been different... if your mother had not been raped or if you'd had a 'normal childhood', what would you have become? Would you still have been a police detective working tirelessly in the Special Victims Unit?"

Liv gazed back at him, flabbergasted by the question. After a long moment of silence, she stared down at her folded hands, studying her nails as though they held the secrets of the universe. The room remained silent, all eyes fixed in her when she looked back up. "I don't know," she finally said honestly. "It's not a question I ever really considered before."

"Fair enough," the chairman nodded. "But that brings us back to your story... your background. Is it any wonder you wanted to help this man who seemed to be family?

Not really," he continued before she could respond in any way. "But it also doesn't excuse the fact that you knowingly and willingly committed a felony to aid a fugitive from justice. Granted, there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered before punishment is decided, but the fact remains that despite the government's leniency, you are guilty of willful wrongdoing. The New York Police Department has to invoke some kind of penalty for your actions."

Liv nodded – she had never expected to walk away from the fiasco Simon had created in her life scot-free.

"We've tried to be fair – considering your background history as well as your service as a police officer. This committee has determined that you will be suspended for thirty days without pay and that you will be ineligible for promotion for the term of one year."

He stopped speaking and Olivia sat completely still blinking at him. Then she shook her head slightly and cleared her throat. "That's it?"

"I'm sure we could come up with a more severe punishment if you want, Detective," the chairman replied wryly but with a distinct twinkle in his eyes. "But we believe that this serves justice and is still fair to you and to the public we are responsible to."

She nodded. "Thank you," accepting the judgment.

"In that case, your thirty days will begin on Monday as that is the next full work day on the calendar. If there is nothing else...." looking at the committee again before standing and watching everyone else follow behind him. He extended his hand and Olivia accepted it. "Good luck, Detective. Take this opportunity to get some rest. After eight years with SVU, I imagine you could use it." He released her and gathered up the folder in front of him, then left without a backwards glance.

The remainder of the committee members followed, each of them nodding at Olivia before they crossed the threshold. When they were all gone, Liv turned first to Abbie, then to Trevor.

"That's it?"

"That's it, Detective," Trevor replied as he rose from his place. "I think it turned out very well." He extended his hand to her and she took it, rising from her chair. Then she gave him a brief hug.

"I think it turned out great," she responded honestly. "I...." She shook her head. "Thank you, Trevor. This probably would have turned out a lot worse for me if you hadn't been here, so thank you for jumping to my defense at the last minute."

"I was glad to do it, Olivia. It's nice to be on the right side once in a while," he added with a smile. "What are you going to do with your impromptu vacation?"

She shrugged. "I don't really know yet," not seeing Abbie biting her lips to keep from making suggestions. "But I know I still owe you, so I'll let you know as soon as I do."

Langan nodded. "Fair enough. You have my number so unless I can give you ladies a ride somewhere.... Riiiiiight... well then...." He squeezed her hand, then left without a word or a backwards glance, getting the very obvious hint from the jerking of her head that Abbie Carmichael wanted to talk to Olivia alone.

"What did you do to him, Carmichael?" Benson asked with a wry smirk. "I've never seen him in such a hurry to get away from me."

Abbie laughed. "Would I do something like that, Detective? Ah'm just a poor, defenseless, innocent woman, Ah tell ya," letting her drawl come out in all its glory. "Ah do not know how you could accuse me of such unladylike behavior."

Liv fell against the table, she was laughing so hard. Abbie simply cocked an eyebrow at her and waited, recognizing it for the tension release it was. After a moment, Liv stopped laughing and her eyes were watery when they met Abbie's. She refused to let them fall however, and gave Abbie a tremulous smile before giving her a bone-crushing hug.

"Thank you, Abbie... I needed that." She burrowed into Abbie's neck, accepting comfort from her old friend in a way that she would only allow a rare few. "I didn't lose my job, Abbie; they're not gonna fire me for being stupid."

"They're not going to fire you for being a compassionate human being," Abbie said, brushing her lips over the top of the dark head. Liv mewled just a little and snuggled in tighter, making Abbie understand just what a brave front her friend had been putting up. They stayed that way for a few minutes, then Abbie kissed Liv's head again and tightened her hold briefly before releasing her grip. "C'mon... let's go give your guys the verdict and then you and I are going out."

"Just us?"

"Just us... unless you've got some hot new girlfriend I haven't heard about."

"What about Casey?"

Abbie looked at the floor, then met Liv's eyes squarely. "I like Casey... what little I know of her, I mean. She's a lot different than what I remember. And I'll freely admit that I wouldn't mind getting to know her a lot better. But that's not what this night is about – this night is about me taking my best girl out and us just kicking back together."

Liv grinned. "I'd like that. We've haven't done that in forever."

"I know," Abbie agreed, opening the door and motioning for Olivia to precede her. "So the sooner we get outta here, the sooner we can go have some fun. So move your ass, Detective."

Liv headed out the door, but looked back over her shoulder. "I'm going... I'm going. God, when did you get so damned bossy?"

"I've always been this bossy, sweetheart. It's why you love me," Abbie smirked, closing the door firmly and squeezing Olivia's bicep surreptitiously before letting her hand drop to her side.

"Oh yeah," Liv murmured. "I forgot." The two of them exchanged glances and their smiles grew into laughter that accompanied them down the hallway and out the door.

"Benson," whispering into the phone to keep from disturbing her bedmate. She rolled onto her side and tried to blink the sleep out of her eyes, glad she wasn't suffering from a hangover. She peered at the clock, realizing that she had usually been up for hours by this time of day. Then Liv realized the voice on the other end of the phone was speaking and she had completely missed the entire conversation.

"... d'you think?"

"I'm sorry, Jo. You wanna repeat that for me? I haven't had my coffee yet this morning."

"I'm sorry, Liv – did I wake you?"

"Yeah," she yawned, "but it's okay. I needed to be up anyway." She smiled when Abbie rolled over and snuggled up into her back.

"Who's on the phone?" she asked, her voice low and gravelly with sleep.

"Oh shit!" exclaimed the voice on the other end of the phone. "God, Liv... I'm sorry. I didn't realize you had company. Why don't you call me back...?"

"Jo... it's okay. It's just Abbie."

"Whaddya mean 'just', Benson?" Abbie asked, leaning up biting Olivia's neck, causing her to bite her lip and flop over onto her back. She frowned at Abbie who just smirked back.

"Will you stop? I'm on the phone!!" Liv asked, glaring at Abbie for a long moment before relenting and pulling the dark head down to her shoulder. "Sorry, Jo... had to deal with the drama queen here. OW!" biting her lip again when Abbie pinched her thigh. "What...." clearing her throat before trying again. "What can I do for you?"

Jo Polniaczek cleared her own throat, trying to rid her voice of laughter after overhearing the byplay on the other end of the phone. She kissed the blonde head tucked beneath her chin, then smiled into brown eyes that gazed back with a look filled with love.

"Actually, Liv, I was calling about what Blair and I could do for you." Her smile grew as she listened to the confused silence while Benson contemplated her words.

"All right... I'll bite. What can you and Blair do for me?"

"We can offer you a place to stay during your enforced vacation. Now before you say no," Jo continued, not allowing Olivia an opportunity to refuse, "I want you to hear me out."

"How did you hear...?"

Jo snorted. "Are you kidding? The bets on the outcome of your hearing went department wide. Word of the verdict was spreading before you were out of the building."

Now it was Liv's turn to snort. "How'd you do?"

"Well enough that I'll be able to pay the next time Blair and I go to the Four Seasons. I'm not stupid, my friend; I know what kind of a cop you are." Silence. "Liv... you still there?"

"Yeah," she replied, drawing in a deep breath and blinking furiously. "I knew the guys bet on me. I just didn't realize...."

"Yeah, yeah.... Now you ready to hear my offer?"

"Look, Jo...."

"Liv, listen - Blair owns a place a couple hours from the city – close to a town but still private. It's got all the comforts of home... cable tv, pool table, Jacuzzi... the works. All you gotta do is say yes, and it's yours for the duration." Jo paused. "Liv, you don't want to stay in the City. You'll go nuts, knowing there is work you feel you oughta be doing and not able to do it. C'mon... you thought desk duty was bad – you know this'll be worse."

"I know," she sighed. "I just...."

"Olivia, this is Blair. Look, can you and your friend meet us at Mesa Grill for lunch in say... an hour and a half? Then you can give us all the reasons you can't and we can give you the keys and the directions so we can get you on your way before it gets dark."

Liv laughed. She had been Jo's training officer and they'd kept in touch ever since. After Rick's death, when Jo and Blair had finally become a couple, Blair had made a concerted effort to get to know the people in Jo's life. Now, Liv counted them among her closest friends, so she wasn't very surprised to hear Blair dictating to her on the other end of the phone.

"All right, Blair. Abbie and I will meet you and Jo at Mesa Grill. It'll be easier to argue with you in person."

"Oh honey... you should know better than to try," Blair said before handing the phone back to Jo.

"So we'll see you in a bit?"

"Yeah... we'll be there. Thanks, Jo."

Liv turned back to Abbie. "C'mon, Carmichael... we apparently have lunch plans." She sat up and pulled Abbie with her. "You'll like Blair."

"How did I get roped into this?"

"You stayed the night and then you left marks," rubbing her neck with one hand and her thigh with the other. "You can sit through lunch with me." She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced up at Abbie through long, dark lashes.

"Oooh... look at that pout. All right Benson... let's go have lunch."

Alex leaned back on her heels, a marked sense of satisfaction as she surveyed the result of her morning's labor. Jason had taken her at her word when she'd come downstairs looking to work in the flower bed. She'd followed him to the gardening shed where he'd slapped a pair of gloves into her hands and handed her a knee pad. Then he'd opened the door and gestured.

"You know where the flowers are and what tools you need. If you need help...."

"I wouldn't mind the company."

Jason smiled. "Then choose your tools and meet me in the greenhouse."

Alex smiled, remembering the number of times Jason had said the same thing to her growing up. At first her mother had been horrified – then she had realized it was an outlet her daughter had needed... a way she had chosen to be creative. After that, Alex had been given every opportunity to work in the garden when they were at the lodge and Jason had always welcomed her presence.

She tucked her gloves into her back pocket and grabbed the tools she wanted. Then she followed Jason into the greenhouse and breathed in the humid, scented air. Then she started walking slowly up and down the rows, lightly fingering the leaves and petals of a variety of plants as she brushed by them. No one who knew Bureau Chief Alexandra Cabot would have believed their eyes had they seen her. She seemed to communicate with the flowers with a glance and a touch, and there was a gentleness in her demeanor that most had never witnessed.

Jason remained silent, watching as she communicated with them in a way he had taught her as a child. Finally, she met Jason's eyes. "These," she said, motioning to an area with riotous color. "I feel the need for something vibrant."

Jason laughed and picked up a tray of the flowers Alex had chosen. "Lexxie, I could always tell what you were going to choose whenever you came in here. You always went for the brightest, most colorful flowers of the season." He cleared his throat. "I probably shouldn't say this...."

Alex gave him a wry smirk. "That's never stopped you before."

Jason snickered. "True." He paused again. "I was always more than a little surprised that you ended up in law." His eyes widened when she blinked rapidly. "Wait..." holding up a hand. "I know why you went into law. But passionate about it or not, there was always a lack of vitality where you were concerned. It even affected your clothes."

Now Alex laughed and shook her head. "Don't remind me," she groaned dramatically. "I looked like somebody's great Aunt Nellie!"

Jason howled and headed out the door. "C'mon, Lexxie... before I get into far more trouble than I can reasonably get out of."

"With me?" Alex snorted as she followed him from the greenhouse and down the garden path to the area they were cultivating today. Jason shook his head vehemently.

"Uh uh," placing the tray on the ground. "With the wife. She had a great Aunt Nellie who dressed a lot like you do - you know... with the conservative suits and neutral colors and everything." He covered his eyes with his hand. "Shoot me now."

Alex gave him a full-fledged belly laugh. "Grab your trowel, Jason and concentrate on digging real holes for a while."

He guffawed and they commenced their digging.

They hadn't needed conversation between them after that; they had worked together for so long that they could do so almost seamlessly without words. The garden plot took shape under their skilled hands, creating a bright panorama of color that was pleasing to both visual and olfactory senses. Now Alex gazed upon their handiwork and sighed in satisfaction. She started when Geraldine's hands landed on her shoulders, then accepted the glass of lemonade with a grateful smile.

"So, did you get it worked out?" Geraldine asked as she handed Jason the second glass she carried. Then she put her hands on her hips and arched her brows in question with a knowing look in her eyes. Alex shrugged.

"Not yet."

Geraldine shook her head. "Maybe you should stop thinking so much and just let things work out in their own good time."

"Leave her alone, woman!" Jason said with a scowl. "Lexxie is a grown woman; she can make her own decisions!"

Geraldine turned to face Jason. "You like living dangerously, old man? I know where you live and you have to sleep some time."

Jason leered in his wife's direction. "So do you."

They held one another's gaze for a long moment before bursting into laughter and turning their attention back to Alex who was regarding them with something akin to befuddlement. Her expression only made the two of them laugh harder. She cocked her eyebrow.

"Don't worry, honey," Geraldine assured Alex, patting her hand in sympathy. "When you've been married as long as we have, you learn when and how and how much. Life would get pretty boring if we always had to keep our company manners on all the time."

"Besides, making up is always fun."

Jason's matter-of-fact statement caused twin blushes to run up both Geraldine's and Alex's faces. He realized his mistake a split second before Geraldine began chasing him down the garden path and towards their cottage. Alex just sat watching them with a gobsmacked expression. For all their friendliness, they had never acted so human around her before.

She rose from her spot on the ground, rubbing her hands together before picking up the tools and mat and heading back to the gardening shed. She put things away then went into the lodge, checking her phone and realizing she'd missed a call from Abbie.

"Hey, beautiful. Listen, Liv has somehow managed to get me invited to some sort of lunch thing with a couple of her friends. So I don't know that I'll be up this weekend... depends on how long lunch lasts." A beat. "OH... she got 30 days without pay and a year's probation on promotions." She waited, but when there was no response, she continued. "Anyway, I'll call you after lunch. I should have a clue what the hell is going on by then. Later, babe."

Alex hung up the phone, a vexed expression on her face. On the one hand she was glad to know Olivia had gotten off so lightly, relatively speaking. On the other, she really wanted to hear all the details and Abbie's delayed visit made that nearly impossible... especially since she couldn't call Abbie back and grill her at the moment. Sighing in frustration, Alex bit her lip, then headed into the kitchen, phone in hand. She may as well eat and hope for Abbie's call sooner rather than later.

Jo and Blair were already waiting at the restaurant when Olivia and Abbie arrived. Liv made introductions all around. They perused the menus and ordered quickly, then after a few awkward minutes of settling in and making polite conversation, Blair sighed and got right to the point.

"Olivia, I know you're a proud woman. God knows sometimes I think the particular flaw is ingrained in the female detective's psyche," ignoring Jo's speculative glance, Olivia's cocked eyebrow and the twitching of Abbie's lips. "Anyway," she continued, holding up her hands, "that is not the point... at least not the whole point. The point is...."

"The point is, Liv," Jo cut in, "you've got a chance to rest and relax and we've got the perfect place for you to do it. You'd be doing us a favor." She paused. "Besides, it'd give you a chance to work on your art again. How long has it been?"

Abbie's head whipped around. "You're an artist? Why am I just now hearing about this??"

"Not now, Carmichael," Liv growled. Jo had the decency to look chagrined.

"Oh God, Liv. I'm sorry... I didn't know...."

"Neither did I apparently," Abbie grumbled under her breath. "You think you know a girl...."

"Carmichael!!" getting Abbie's attention and causing both of them to color beneath their olive colored skin. "Drop it... please?" Abbie nodded and turned her attention to the two women across the table that were doing their best to remain impassive at the unexpected outburst. "Sorry...."

"Don't be, Liv... it was my fault for bringing it up. I just assumed...."

Olivia waved her off. "It's fine, Jo, and you're right – it's been a really long time. It's hard to create beauty when all you see is ugliness." She stopped in momentary thought. "Maybe a change of scenery is just what the doctor ordered. Maybe it will give me a fresh perspective... new inspiration."

"So you'll take it?" Blair asked hesitantly... for her anyway.

Olivia nodded. "I'll take it. Thank you for offering."

"Oh honey... we didn't offer; we insisted."

At this, everyone at the table tittered. "I'm glad you did," Liv confessed. She sighed. "I didn't realize until the verdict came down just how tired I was. A little solitude might be good for me."

"Does that mean you don't want to meet the neighbors? I was thinking I could throw a little soiree next Friday night to introduce you to the last of the summer people who are still there. And I know of a number of people from the City who go up for the weekend that we could invite as well."


"It's all right, Jo," Olivia broke in. "I don't know that I'd be up for all that, Blair, but it's your place. I wouldn't stop you from planning a party if you wanted to host one. Where is this place anyway?"

Blair told her and Abbie's eyes widened in amused consternation. Blair didn't notice, but Jo did. Olivia's eyes widened. "Oh... wow." Blair smiled graciously.

"I think you'll be comfortable."

"I think you may have a problem getting me to leave," Liv jokingly confessed. Blair chuckled and shook her head.

"Nah... you've got the City running through your veins. You might go away for a while, but it will always call you back home."

"She's right, you know," Abbie agreed unexpectedly.

"Speaking from experience, Ms Carmichael?"

"Sort of," Abbie concurred cautiously. "Texas will always be home, and I like DC well enough. But there is something appealing about Manhattan... something that can't be found anywhere else in the world. It's why I spend so many weekends here – soaking up its special brand of charm and energy."

"And here I thought your main attraction was me." Olivia said saucily, fluttering her eyelashes in Abbie's direction. "You're gonna break my heart, cowgirl."

"Watch it, Yankee – breach of promise has been made on far less."

At that moment, their waiter arrived with their food and the conversation changed direction when it resumed some minutes later. Blair and Abbie found they had numerous mutual acquaintances in both New York and Washington and Olivia and Jo caught up on the latest precinct gossip – the parts Olivia Benson wasn't part of, which surprisingly, was quite a bit.

When their meal was finished, Abbie excused herself and Jo did the same. Blair waved them off, pulling out a key ring, a map and a separate paper with codes on them. Olivia scooted over to sit beside Blair, her attention focused on what Blair was saying.

Jo and Abbie took care of their business and met up in front of the mirror. Jo washed her hands, then leaned against the sink to look at Abbie who kept her eyes on the mirror.

"Something wrong, Detective?" she finally asked with a hint of asperity in her voice.

"Yeah, actually," Jo said smoothly. "What about the cabin threw you off kilter? You covered it really well, but something about it struck a nerve."

Abbie's expression never faltered but inside she was cursing up a storm. Finally, exhaling deeply, "I have a friend with a place in that area," not wanting to give anything away.

"Lemme guess – Alex Cabot?" Abbie's eyes widened involuntarily but otherwise she didn't react at all. Jo chuckled. "It's all right, Ms Carmichael. Alex and Blair are friends from way back."

Abbie's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are you trying to set something up between Alex and Liv?"

Jo held up her hands defensively and shook her head. "No, Ms Carmichael... I wouldn't let Blair do that to Olivia even if she wanted to help Alex out. Look, I like Alex, don't get me wrong, but Liv is my friend... my mentor. We really did offer her the cabin as a place for her to regroup. I only figured out about Alex because of your reaction and the fact that I know the Cabot Lodge is in the same general area; and having heard the round of gossip about her suspension...."

"You going to tell her... Liv, I mean?"

Jo grinned. "I'm sure Blair already has." She sobered. "And if she hasn't, yeah... I will." Then she opened the door and ushered Abbie out in front of her. "Don't worry, Ms Carmichael. As tempting as it is to try and force the two of them to figure it out already, Blair and I know better."

"Experience talking?"

"Something like that," Jo confirmed as they reached the table.

"Something like what, honey?" Blair asked as Jo took her seat and draped an arm around her shoulders. They exchanged glances and Blair acknowledged the question in Jo's eyes with the barest nod of her head. Jo smiled.

"Okay... you two have been married way too long," Liv snorted. "That was just creepy." She turned to face Abbie. "Didn't you think that was creepy?"

"I thought it was cute."

Olivia rolled her eyes. "You would." She glanced back at the now smirking couple. "What was that all about anyway?"

"That was me asking Blair if she had told you about Alex and her telling me that she had."


"Is that going to be a problem for you, Liv?"

"Nope. I don't see a reason for our paths to cross except for the party Blair is throwing and I've got that covered already." The other three exchanged worried glances and Liv just shook her head. "Trust me guys... I know what I'm doing. I'm going there to relax, not...." She waved her hands around briefly. "Alex Cabot won't be a blip on my radar."

Blair signaled for the check and they readied themselves to leave.

"So you're okay to go up on your own tonight?" Liv nodded.

"Yeah, I'm good."

"All right. Then Jo and I will excuse ourselves for now. Olivia, make yourself at home and don't hesitate to ask for what you need. The number of our regular caretaker is by the phone and you know how to reach us. Abbie, it was nice to meet you. I hope we'll have another opportunity to talk again." A pause. "Will you be joining us for our little get together next weekend?"

"If that is an invitation, then yes, thanks... I'd love to."

"Good," exchanging cards. "I'll be in touch." Light hugs went around and Jo and Blair took their leave. Abbie turned to Olivia.

"Shall we?"

"We shall."


"Hey, beautiful... you want the good news or the bad news?"

Alex sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Then she closed her eyes and raked her hand through her hair. "The bad, I guess," she finally replied. "Considering the way things have been going for me lately, should I sit down?"

"No, Alex – in fairness the bad and the good news are sort of the same thing. Liv is headed up to your area to stay for the next month. Your friend Blair Warner offered Olivia her cabin to stay in while she's suspended." She hesitated, then went ahead. "Hey, did you know Liv was an artist?"

"What?? No! Wait," waving her free hand in the air. "Let's get back to Olivia staying up here for the moment. You want to start from the beginning?"

So Abbie did, giving Alex a blow by blow report of lunch and everything that happened, including Blair's plans to throw a party. "I've already been invited, so I'll be up next weekend for sure. Can I come up early and stay with you?"

"Sure... you can even bring Casey if you want. I'm sure Gerry would love to have other people to cook for again."

"She ragging on you for a reason, Cabot? You can't not eat, you know."

"I know, but even on my best days I'm not going to put a dent into a five pound pot roast." She chuckled when she heard Abbie's brows fly into her hairline in reaction. "On the plus side, she only has to cook once every three or four days, and I'm learning to be creative in my uses of leftovers."

This time Abbie laughed out loud. The thought of a competent Alex Cabot in the kitchen.... "All right, I will definitely be up there Friday afternoon next week. I want to see you in the kitchen cooking. I'll send you my information as soon as I get the trip scheduled."

"All right. Hey, what does your boss think about this... you coming back to New York so often, I mean?"

"Honey, half the time he is sending me up here in one official capacity or another. The rest... let's just say he's learned I'm much easier to deal with if I get a little down time with my best girls. And a happy Abbie makes for a happy office," her voice so perky at the end, Alex removed the phone from her ear and stared at it oddly before resuming the conversation.

"You're scaring me," Alex joked lightly. "Who are you and what have you done with the real Abbie Carmichael?"

"Not to worry, darlin'... I'm still the Abbie Carmichael you know and love. Besides, half the time it's just weekends, barely long enough to be here."

"You ever thought of moving back? I'm pretty sure you could find something here you'd liked doing at least as well as you like the US Attorney's Office in DC."

Abbie grew thoughtfully silent. "I can't say it hasn't crossed my mind...." she admitted after a long pause.

"So what's stopping you?"

Abbie huffed impatiently. "When did this stop being about you and start being about me?? Sorry," she added almost instantly, her tone apologetic. "Honestly, I've thought about it a lot... more and more recently. I'm just not sure it's the right thing for me to do right now."

"Come up on Thursday," Alex invited impulsively. "We can sit and have some girl talk; we haven't done that in a long time."

"You gonna cook for me?"

"You brave enough to eat if I do?"

"That sounds like a challenge, blue blood."

"You up to it, Tex?"

"Bring it on, Cabot; do your worst. I'm up to anything you can dish out."

"Then I'll expect you on Thursday, Carmichael. Come early."

"I'll be there with bells on, sweetheart. See you Thursday."

Alex hung up the phone with a smile on her face. Despite the fact that Olivia Benson was determined to keep Alex Cabot off her radar, Alex felt as though she was being handed a real second chance. Now it was up to her to figure out how to make it work to her advantage.

"You get your phone call taken care of?" Liv asked as she closed up her suitcase. They'd had to stop on the way home to purchase her a new one. The ones she'd had at home were too small, Abbie insisted; besides, it was time. Liv needed something that wasn't fifty years old and had wheels and a handle. Liv glared at Abbie for ten whole seconds before she broke down and agreed.

Now she lifted it from the bed and popped the handle, rolling it out to the living room to sit next to Abbie's weekend case.

"Yeah," Abbie answered as she flopped into one corner of the couch. Olivia dropped into the other corner. "Casey should be here shortly."

"You don't mind me bailing on you early?"

Abbie chuckled. "Nah. I'm glad you've got a place to go stay away from here for a while and friends like Jo and Blair to look out for you. They're good people."

"Yeah, they are. One day I'll have to tell you about how they got together." A buzz interrupted her and Liv got up and clicked the speaker. "Yeah?"

"It's me."

"Hang on... we'll come down to you." Olivia cut the speaker and walked back to Abbie with her hand extended. "C'mon, your ride's here. I'll walk down with you and head out as soon as you and Casey are on your way. I want to get there early enough to settle in...."

Abbie opened her arms and Liv stepped into them, embracing one another tightly for a long moment. "Liv, you don't owe me an explanation. I want you to take advantage of this break – use it for you." She brushed a kiss near Liv's mouth, feeling Liv's lips pucker against her skin in return. "This can be a good thing for you if you let it," Abbie whispered into Olivia's ear before pulling back.

"I know, Abbie. Believe it or not, I'm actually looking forward to it." Abbie arched a disbelieving eyebrow and Liv laughed. "C'mon, before Casey comes looking for you." She grabbed her suitcase and waited for Abbie to do the same. "So," she asked as she ushered Abbie out in front of her before locking the door securely. "The two of you have plans?"

"God, you're nosey." Abbie retorted as they started the climb down the stairs.

"Um... detective here," motioning to herself. "Hello??"

Abbie snorted which catapulted them both into laughter that lasted until they reached the ground floor. Then Casey held the door open for them, popping the trunk on her tiny hybrid vehicle while Olivia stuffed her huge suitcase in the back of her larger car. Casey's eyes popped at the size.

"Wow, Detective... you moving?"

"She's got art supplies in there," Abbie supplied helpfully, despite the mega-watt glare she was getting from Olivia. "Seems the good detective has been keeping secrets."

"Not anymore," Liv muttered under her breath. "The whole damn world knows now."

"Nah," Abbie contradicted. "Only your best girls," stealing another hug and allowing Casey to do the same before they backed off and moved back towards Casey's car. "Now go on and get outta here before you get caught on an unknown road after dark. And call when you get there; I want to know you got there safely."

Liv nodded and slid behind the steering wheel. "I'll see you next weekend?"

"Yep; I've already arranged the time off."

"Good," was all she said, and she waved goodbye as she pulled into the road.

Casey and Abbie stood side by side watching her out of sight, then they climbed into Casey's ride. Abbie waited until she was into the flow of traffic before she spoke again.

"Thanks for the ride, Casey. I know I could have called a cab, but...."

"Abbie, it's no problem. I'm glad you called. I just wish I didn't have a date tonight; we could have had dinner or something."

"Well, how would you feel about a weekend at Alex Cabot's lodge next weekend? Blair is throwing a party to introduce Olivia to the neighbors there and Alex invited me to stay for the weekend; she asked me to bring you along," Abbie continued before Casey could protest.

Casey risked a glance in her direction, then returned her focus to the road. "You're going to explain who Blair is and what the hell is going on, right? Because I feel like I just got substituted into the game in the middle of the fourth inning without a scorecard or a game book."

"Oh, absolutely. Why don't you plan to come by the hotel for brunch in the morning? I'll give you the whole story the way I know it so far."

Casey smiled. "Counselor, you've got yourself a date.

The house was easy to find and Liv opened the door with a sense of relief. It was large and open and yet conveyed a sense of coziness that put Liv at ease and made her feel right at home. She turned off the alarm and propped open the door so she could drag her huge suitcase into the house. Then she locked everything up for the night and went exploring.

Blair had assured her she was welcome to any room in the house, but there was just something not quite right about taking her married friends' master suite. So she settled into the large guest suite downstairs – for two reasons. One, it was closer to the best light in the whole house and two because it was a lot less farther to have to carry her suitcase.

It didn't take very long to unpack – she hadn't actually brought much with her, clothes wise. Her art supplies were carefully unpacked and carried back into the living area that had the wonderful eastern light that Liv couldn't wait to work by. She placed everything on a long table she suspected had been put there specifically for her convenience and kept a sketchbook and a pencil. Then she moved to the couch and sat, eyes watching as the shadows grew longer in the east, throwing everything in shadow.

Almost without forethought, Liv flipped the book to a blank page and licked the tip of her pencil before allowing the lines to flow onto the page. When the light was gone, she looked down, smiling at the picture she had created until her eyes filled with tears. It had been so long since she'd been able just let it flow from her – maybe this break was just what she needed.

Finally, realizing she was actually, truly hungry, Olivia traipsed into the kitchen to find a fully stocked refrigerator. She smiled – Blair had promised her everything she could possibly need and she had totally delivered. She pulled a variety of things from the fridge and fixed herself dinner. It was a nice, relaxing start to her enforced vacation.

Morning came much later than Olivia expected it to – much later than it had in a long time. Somehow, leaving the City behind... knowing she had no responsibilities, no accountability to anyone except herself... it was as though she had shed her hard-shell detective persona for the oft-neglected artistic one. She stretched and looked out the window into the gardens just outside thoughtfully, wondering just how long this would last before she felt the call of the street once more. It was such a part of her... of who she was....

Pushing the thoughts from her mind, Liv rose from the bed and ventured out to see what the day had for her in this place.

She went into the kitchen and fixed a sandwich, then went into the living room to snag her sketchbook and a couple pencils before heading outdoors. She couldn't wait to experience the outdoors that was the Warner property. The closest she ever got to this much nature was walking through Central Park.

Though the area closest to the house was sculpted and landscaped, the area beyond the fence leading down to the wall had been left to fallow. Olivia ducked between the slats and wandered out into the wild field, anxious just to sit and be for a while. With a little luck, her muse would be coaxed out again and she would be able to see with her artist's eye again.

For a long time she simply sat, eyes closed, breathing in the air delicately scented by the wildflowers she was surrounded by. It was calming and peaceful, and without conscious effort Olivia took the opportunity to review her life, knowing before she left this place, a decision needed to be made about her future – both as a police officer in general and as an SVU detective more precisely. She never even noticed when the tears started to fall.

She had done so much good, and the faces of the victims she been able to help find justice for brought a smile to her lips. Nothing could replace the fulfillment she felt helping those who needed her help the most. Then there were those she had failed – those who would never be avenged, who would never have the peace they deserved. Thankfully, there were less of those than there were more, but still too many in her book – ghosts that would always haunt her.

Her thoughts turned to her mother, wondering if she was at peace now. Did a soul like Serena Benson find peace at last or were they doomed to suffer in death as they had in life? Olivia shook her head. She didn't know why these particular maudlin thoughts were coming to the fore now. Maybe it was the lack of intense focus she had always maintained in her life to keep her in the present. Maybe she would find peace with some of the demons that plagued her soul in the time she had here, but for now she turned her attention to happier things.

She thought of Elliot and of the family she'd made of the guys at the precinct – sharing conspiracy theories with Munch over lunch, rapping with Fin in the rare moments of downtime, razzing the Captain about his favorite lemon filled donuts. Were these things she wanted to give up? Would she have to give them up if she did decide to leave?

She thought about Casey – a woman she had resented when she'd first joined the unit. The pain had been so raw, and Casey had been... well, thankfully she'd been persistent, Liv thought with a smile, and she'd learned. Not that any of them had made it easy for her – they hadn't. But now Olivia counted her among her closest friends.

That took her train of thought right to Abbie Carmichael. How she missed having Abbie close, though Washington DC wasn't so far away that they didn't see one another regularly and God knew Ma Bell loved their long distance contact. She wished Abbie would decide to move back to New York on a more permanent basis, but knew the stubborn Texan would have to come to that decision on her own. Otherwise there would be no living with her... even if they were boroughs apart, and they were both too fond of Manhattan for that to realistically happen.

Olivia chuckled. Maybe she should have Casey work on it for her. She might make better headway. The smile stayed firmly planted on her face as she sat there for several minutes letting that thought chase around her mind. Then her mind veered toward the one subject it had studiously avoided - for years if she was honest with herself - and the smile fell as though it had never been.

Alex Cabot – Ice Princess... thorn in her side... Devil Incarnate. Olivia had to wonder what the fascination was. She wasn't a stupid woman, so why couldn't she let go of the woman who had obviously put her aside with very little thought or effort? Something must be seriously wrong with her, because Olivia Benson had never considered herself a masochist.

She thought back to their rocky start – how they'd eventually become friends and confidantes; how they were slowly, surely moving towards something beyond friendship outside the confines of their working relationship without ever crossing that last line; and how three shots fired in the night had changed everything.

It had been bad enough knowing Alex had died before they could commit to exploring what was between them. It had been almost worse knowing she was alive and being sent away. It had been worse when she had come back into their lives briefly. But the worst had been her return – and subsequent ignoring of any hint of her previous life... including and especially anything and anyone associated with the one-six. Olivia wondered what part of the witness protection program had been so traumatic it would cause such a spectacular turnaround.

Olivia sighed and rubbed her temples. She was giving herself a headache and not even close to finding the answers she needed. Eventually, she was going have to face the She-Devil if only to put these specific demons of hers to rest. However, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon, and she forcibly put the thoughts from her mind. It wasn't like she hadn't already been over them a hundred times before and would probably go over them another hundred times before all was said and done. She had plenty of time to drive herself nuts over it later.

For now, she just wanted to lie back in the thick grass and soak in the warmth of the sun. She could worry about the future again tomorrow.

Geraldine wondered what had Alex on pins and needles, and finally decided to call her on it. "Lexxie, what is with you today? You're acting like you're standing in an ant bed with no way out."

Alex blew out an impatient breath. "Abbie is coming up sometime today. I guess I'm a little anxious for her to get here already. I promised her I would cook for her tonight. She doesn't think I can," Alex added with a little chuckle.

Geraldine preened. "I suppose she is in for a most pleasant surprise... unless you plan to feed her liver and onions or something equally noxious."

Alex made a face, sticking out her tongue as though to rid it of the flavor mere words had inspired. "Ew... no. I have to eat it too – that's the deal. I was thinking of lemon chicken."

"Good choice," Geraldine approved. "Do you want some help?"

"Nope... I got it covered. Thank you, though. It's been so nice being up here with you and Jason. I probably would have driven myself nuts if I had been here alone, despite my desire to just get away for a while."

"We've loved having you – it reminds me a little of how things were when you were little," she took a judicious look at Alex's thin frame. "Or perhaps when you were much younger would be more appropriate. God knows I can't seem to get much to stick to those bones, and not for lack of trying on my part either."

Alex blushed. "Not completely my fault, Gerry. I don't think my body knows what to do with real food anymore. I subsisted on coffee and stale donuts scarfed from the police station for most of my meals when I was working with the Special Victims Unit. And when I went into Witness Protection, I lost my appetite for almost everything. It took a while and a lot of experimenting and kitchen disasters before I learned to enjoy food again."

"Well, I'm glad you did, and I'm glad you came up here to spend some time. It gets a little lonely with just me and Jason all the time, and the family just doesn't use this place like they did when your grandmother was still alive."

"I wonder why?" Alex mused aloud. "I could be very comfortable living here."

"So why don't you?" Abbie asked casually as she stepped into the kitchen with her arms open. Alex gave a glad little cry and ran into Abbie's embrace, gasping when she was casually lifted into the air. Geraldine chuckled silently and watched as Alex became the person she remembered from years' past. Then she saw Jason signaling her behind them and slipped around them without being noticed.

"My God, Abbie... when did you get to be so strong?"

"My God, Alex... when did you get to be such a lightweight? OW!" clutching her arm where Alex had just punched her. "Whaddya do that for?" managing to glare and pout at the same time.

"Lightweight? C'mon, Carmichael...."

"Whaddya want from me, Cabot? It's true," ducking a second swing. "Besides, most women these days would consider that a compliment – especially since I was actually referring to your weight." Abbie took Alex's hands in hers and tilted her head until she caught blue eyes with her own dark brown. "How are you doing, Alex... really? I don't remember you being so thin, and it's not like you could afford to lose any to start with."

Alex rolled her eyes, but she didn't release Abbie's hands. "You sound like my mother, Abbie... or like Gerry." She turned slightly to include Geraldine, only to discover she was no longer in the room. "Well, I guess the two of you will have to discuss it later. I'm fine, Abbie," Alex assured when a dark brow twitched upwards impatiently. "It just takes me a while to catch up is all."

"Uh huh," Abbie drawled charmingly. "You sure it doesn't have anything to do with your cooking?"

"Keep it up Carmichael – you really will end up eating liver and onions tonight." The look on her face was reward enough and Alex laughed in delight. She slid her hands from Abbie's grasp and wrapped them around the slim waist instead, gratified when Abbie returned the hold around her shoulders. "I'm so glad you came up, Abbie. I've missed you."

Abbie pulled them together until they were hugging one another once more. "No more than I've missed you, sweetheart. Now, it's been a long day already – how about you offer me some of those famous sugar cookies I've missed?"

"Those we make up fresh – you know that." She pointed to a chair at the bar. "Have a seat," opening the refrigerator door and pulling out the dough. "How was your trip?"

"Not bad – long. I flew up on the red-eye last night and then drove up this morning. It's a pretty drive – I wouldn't mind coming up again when the colors turn."

Alex smiled. "You're still just that country girl I met all those years ago, aren't you?" Abbie shrugged and looked down at her clasped hands. Alex covered them, heedless of the flour that coated her own. "I love that about you, Abbie. Despite everything, you still take time to see the beauty where it is around you. It's part of you that you've never given up – a part that I've missed so much." She lifted her hands from Abbie's and chuckled. "Sorry about that," offering her a towel to wipe her hands. "How many cookies would you like?"

"Two for now. Don't want to ruin my appetite for that dinner you promised me now, do I?" She paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Unless we're really having liver and onions – in which case I will take an even dozen."

Alex grabbed the towel and swung at Abbie, missing by a mile and causing them both to laugh. "Like I would prepare something that noxious. I thought we'd have lemon chicken."

Abbie's brows went up. "Really? That sounds good."

Alex smirked. "I know. Is Casey coming?" She slipped the cookies into the oven.

"I don't know." Alex cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. "I'm not sure what's going on with her; she didn't say." Abbie shrugged. "Point is, she knows she's welcome; I'm just not sure she wants to be here for this party Blair is throwing for the neighbors."

"You mean for Liv."

Abbie nodded. "Yeah... apparently Blair is going all out for this shindig."

Alex smiled wryly. "Well, Blair never does things by halves."

"You still planning to go?"

"I can't avoid her forever. And at least there will be plenty of other people there – it's not like it would just be the two of us. Although that does give her the opportunity to avoid me again."

"Do you know what you're going to say to her... given the chance?"

"Not a clue. Any ideas?" The timer buzzed and Alex turned to remove the cookies from the oven. Abbie sniffed and smiled.

"Wow, Cabot... those smell great."

"You'll have to thank Geraldine – it's her recipe and she's the one who taught me how to make them." She put them on a plate and placed a cold glass of milk beside them. "Enjoy them," Alex said, taking a cookie for herself and pouring a second glass of milk. Abbie's eyes widened and bit into her own cookie, chewing thoughtfully.

"These are really good. I remember when you couldn't boil water for tea without burning something. And when did you start drinking milk?" A beat. "Being away really did change you, didn't it?"

"In so many ways, Abbie."

Abbie stuffed the rest of her cookie in her mouth and gulped the milk. "Man, that hit the spot. C'mon," extending her hand and waiting for Alex to take it. Abbie tugged and Alex stood. "Let's go for a walk. I'll help with dinner when we get back." She laughed at Alex's skeptical expression. "Trust me , Cabot; I haven't burned anything down yet."

"There's always a first time, Carmichael." Then she squealed when Abbie pinched her ass. Laughing, they headed out the door and into the gardens beyond. When the door closed behind them, Geraldine and Jason came back into the kitchen.

"It's good to hear her laugh again." Geraldine cleaned up the few dishes and hung the towel back in its place.

"Yes; I'm glad Ms Carmichael came to visit. She's always been good for Alexandra." Jason turned and held out his hand to Gerry. "C'mon, woman. Let's go home and leave these young people to themselves. They can call if they need us for anything."

"You just want your own dinner, old man."

"Of course," Jason agreed, wrapping his arm around her waist. They shut the door behind them as they headed back to their cottage, waving to Abbie and Alex before they disappeared inside.

"Wow, Cabot... this is really good," Abbie said around a mouthful of chicken. "I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised; I think you can expect me for dinner a little more often," she said with a grin and a waggle of her eyebrows. She paused. "You can cook other stuff, right? Like a nice thick steak?"

"And pasta and pot roast and any other number of things," Alex assured Abbie with a smile. "It's just not fun to cook for one, so I usually don't."

"What about Robert? Didn't you ever cook for him?"

Alex shook her head. "No... we never had the kind of relationship that called for it."

Abbie choked and coughed for a long moment before she was finally able to draw breath again. "Excuse me?!" she exclaimed, holding up a hand to keep Alex from responding while she took a cautious swallow of water. "Alex, you were engaged to the man!! What the hell kind of relationship would call for it if that didn't??"

"It wasn't that kind of engagement, Abbie." Alex sighed. "Robert was a friend; we just sort of fell into an engagement. We were comfortable together and we were a good match. It was easy."

"Alex, you have never gone for the easy route. Why this?"

Alex patted her lips and placed her fork on the table, sitting back with her wine glass. "I... I think... after I came home...." She sighed. "Witness Protection was a nightmare for me – it was so bland, so boring – God, I hated it!" pulling a hand through her hair in frustration. "But when I came home... it wasn't home anymore, Abbie. Nothing was the same – I wasn't the same. My detectives were someone else's detectives; my office belonged to someone else. There wasn't a place for me anymore. It was as though Alex Cabot never existed. Do you know what it feels like to be erased from existence?!?"

Abbie didn't say a word – she simply rose from her chair and dropped her napkin on the table before taking Alex in her arms. She held on, tightening her embrace when Alex suddenly turned into her and held on for dear life.

The sobs were silent and Abbie brushed a kiss over the top of Alex's head. After a moment, they lessened and Alex's grip loosened just the slightest bit. Abbie pulled away only enough to tilt blue eyes up to meet her brown ones filled with concern.


Alex's smile was watery, but it was the most genuine Abbie had seen since her return from Witness Protection more than two years prior. It caused her to grin in return.

"I haven't felt this good in years... not since I got shot." Her eyes dropped and she shrugged. "I guess I needed that."

"Maybe you just needed to know someone really cared. I'm sorry you had to wait so long for me to realize that."

"I could have asked."

"Yeah, you could've, but the Alex Cabot I know never would." Abbie cupped Alex's cheek. "See, not everything has changed. Bet you've still got that Ice Princess reputation."

"I don't think my reputation is that great anymore. The sad thing is – it's my own fault." Abbie tilted her head but Alex wasn't more forthcoming.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"Nothing to tell, Abbie – any reputation I've gotten since I got back is strictly my doing. I'm the only one who can fix it."

"You know I'm here if you want to talk, right?"

Alex clasped Abbie's hands. "I know, and it means... everything. Now – what's up with you and Casey?"

"That conversation needs ice cream," Abbie answered, tugging Alex to her feet. "Preferably with chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles."

Alex chuckled. "You realize Huang could have a field day with you."

"Nah... he couldn't keep up." Laughing, they cleared the table and fixed a big bowl of ice cream then took two spoons and headed for the living room. Alex arched a brow and when Abbie nodded her agreement, she turned on the gas fireplace. "That's cheatin' you know," Abbie complained.

"Keep it up, Carmichael. I'll make you split the firewood."

"Like I need to with a gas fireplace. Besides, I've done that, you know. My grandfather thought it built character." She scooped up a bite of ice cream and savored it a moment before shrugging. "He was probably right, but all it got me at the time was calluses." She took another bite.

Alex took Abbie's free hand in hers and turned it over, palm up. "I guess being a lawyer has softened you up a little, hmm?"

Abbie snorted and then clutched her head. "Brain freeze!" When it passed she glared at Alex. "Thanks, Cabot... haven't had one of those since I was twelve. And no, I'm pretty sure being a lawyer hasn't softened me up any. Ask the men I work with."

Alex waved her off. "No need – been there, done that, got the t-shirt." She spooned up her own bite of ice cream. "So? What's the scoop?"

"I dunno... I think she's interested, but she's not sure either. The long distance thing is part of it, I'm sure. God knows relationships are hard enough without starting out hundreds of miles apart."

"Have the two of you talked about it?" She swallowed her mouthful and took another.

"Sort of. I know she's enjoying the chance to date around at the moment. She's got a date with Detective Lake tomorrow night. Apparently she wants to see if he can live up to his mouth." Alex tilted her head and Abbie chuckled. "He assured her he could show her the kind of time she deserved," savoring another spoonful.

"And you?"

"And me what?"

"C'mon Abbie... don't be thickheaded. Did you ever stop to think maybe Casey is waiting to see if you're interested enough to show her the kind of time she deserves?"

"Maybe I'd like to see if she's interested enough to show me the kind of time I deserve. I can only do so much without knowing, Alex. And as long as she wants to be free to date around.... She certainly should enjoy whatever life she can find outside of Special Victims."

"All right. I can understand that," Alex nodded her agreement. "But wouldn't it be easier if you talked to each other about it?"

"Hello, pot... this is kettle. Easier said than done."

Alex smirked then sobered. "At least Casey will talk to you. Olivia has already written me off."

"I don't think so, Alex." Abbie gazed at Alex thoughtfully and pulled up her lawyer façade. "If Liv had written you off - if there was nothing left between you - she wouldn't be pushing you away so hard. She'd simply ignore your existence." She scraped the bottom of the bowl.

"Like she has since I came back to New York?"

"Like she did until you acknowledged her again." Abbie dropped her spoon into the empty bowl and took Alex's and did the same. Then she put the bowl on the table and turned until she could curl her legs up under her. "Alex... I'm not placing blame here. That's not for me to decide – it wouldn't do any good anyway." She waved a hand frantically. "Whatever... look, what I'm telling you is if you want to be a part of her life again, then you're going to have to be the one to do the reassuring."

"Why? Dammit, Abbie - I'm the one whose life changed!"

"Alex... everyone's life changed when you left. Maybe not to the same degree yours did, but they did change." She took Alex's hands and caressed them gently. "All I'm saying is the two of you've got to want to work it out and then sit down and talk. You just have to keep after her until she relents. She wants to know that you care enough to keep trying, even when she pushes you away."

"Why, Abbie?" Alex asked again.

Abbie tipped forward and brushed a kiss on her forehead. "You already know the answer to that Cabot. You just have to admit it to yourself. It gets easier from there."

Alex leaned her forehead against Abbie's and sighed. "When did you get to be so smart?"

"Darlin', I've always been that smart. It's why you love me."

Alex smiled. "Well, it's one reason at any rate. C'mon," she said, rising to her feet and offering a hand to Abbie. "Let's go sit in the Jacuzzi and we can figure out how to get you back to New York sooner rather than later."

Abbie didn't comment except to roll her eyes and take Alex's hand, following her upstairs.

"So, Liv... how are you enjoying the house?" Jo asked as she flopped down on the couch Friday evening. She and Blair had arrived earlier, but Liv had only just returned to the house after the sun had set. She set down her sketch pad and pencils and removed her camera from her neck and turned to face Jo with open arms. Jo sighed and rolled her eyes, then rose and took Olivia in her arms, lifting her off the floor.

"JO!! Put me down!" The squeal brought Blair from the bedroom and she covered her mouth with hand to keep from laughing aloud at their antics. Olivia was beating on Jo's shoulders and laughing, even though Jo had already put her back on the ground. Jo was covering her head, struggling not to fall as her laughter got the best of her.

Blair crossed to stand in front of them, after they had fallen on the couch in laughter and started slapping throw pillows at one another. Blair put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot impatiently, raising an eyebrow in their direction as brown and green eyes turned their sheepish focus towards her. She tried to keep her expression fierce, but the twinkling in the back of her brown eyes belied her anger.

Jo extended her hand and waited; Blair cocked her head and slowly took the proffered hand – only to find herself comfortably ensconced in Jo's lap with no real idea how she'd moved. Automatically she wrapped her arms around Jo's neck.

"Something I can do for you, Polniaczek?"

"Nope... I'm pretty satisfied at the moment, thanks."

"Ugh... the two of you are going to give me diabetes, you know."

"Jealous much, Liv?" Jo asked, her voice and eyes teasing as her hand trailed absently up Blair's side. Olivia's eyes went serious.

"Sometimes, yeah," she answered honestly. "I don't think you realize how lucky you are. And I don't mean all this," motioning around the house, "although it's great," she added with a smile. "Thanks for sharing this place with me, Blair; I can't tell you the difference it's made being here this week."

"Has it made a difference then?" Blair asked, tilting her head.

"So much," Liv responded with a melancholy smile. "I have rediscovered so many things that make me happy." She pushed her hair back off her face. "I hadn't realized how miserable I'd allowed myself to become. This has been better than therapy for me."

Blair slid from Jo's lap and turned, taking Olivia's hands in her own. "I'm so glad, Olivia. You really are one of the good guys. I'm glad we could help."

Liv squeezed the hands she held. "You did... so much." She dropped her head bashfully. "Would you like to see a little of what I've been working on?"

"We'd love to... wouldn't we, Joey?"

"Absolutely. I want her to get back to her art for purely selfish reasons." Liv cocked an eyebrow in her direction. "I've got a commission for you, if you're willing. A family portrait – oil on canvas."

Blair clapped her hands excitedly. "Oh, Joey... what a fabulous idea! I know of any number of socialites who would kill to be done by an artist like that. What do you think, Olivia?"

Liv shook her dark head. "I'm a little overwhelmed by the idea actually. Don't you think you should see some of my stuff first?"

Jo smiled and handed her a bottle of water, offering another to Blair. "You look like you could use that," gesturing to Liv's flushed face. "Besides, you forget I've seen some of your stuff. You used to doodle when we were sitting patrol sometimes, remember? And the tile work...."

Olivia cleared her throat and scratched the back of her neck self-consciously. "I'd forgotten about that," she replied. "I've forgotten about a lot apparently."

"Well," Blair rushed in to cover the awkwardness. "It's not something we need to decide right now. How about you show us what you've been working on here?"

"Yeah, Liv... I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

Liv looked at them with a watery smile. "You didn't, really. I just...." She pulled her sketchpad from the table. "Here," and she handed it to them, then walked away.

She busied herself with her camera, snapping off the last few pictures of her friends pouring over her sketchbook. Then she wound the film and ejected it from her old thirty-five millimeter camera, placing the film in the canister and the canister with the others she had already taken. She determined to go shopping for a digital camera at her first opportunity – contemplating anything that would keep her mind off the whispers happening between Jo and Blair as they looked at her work.

Liv finished and walked to the window, focusing her attention outside watching the stars slowly appear. The week had been good for her – she had come to terms with a few things that were long overdue and found a sense of renewed peace in having them laid to rest. She put her head against the glass, lost in her own thoughts. She didn't even notice Jo and Blair coming up behind her until she found herself as a filling between them.

"You all right, Liv? We didn't mean...."

"I'm good, Jo... really. I've just never really shared this part of myself with anyone like this. But being here – it's been fantastic. I can honestly say I haven't missed the one-six... not like I thought I would." She blew out a breath. "I needed this... thanks."

Blair smiled. "We're glad you came, and thank you for sharing your art with us. I um... I have some friends coming up from the City for the party tomorrow and a couple of them are art enthusiasts," not mentioning their enthusiasm was their passion and their livelihood for fear of scaring Olivia away from the idea. "If you'd be interested, I could introduce you to them as an artist...."

"Oh Blair – I don't know. That's a huge step. I'm just not sure...."

"Liv, you don't have to – now or ever. Blair just wanted to put it out there so, you know... if you ever decide you want to make it more than a hobby or catharsis or whatever."

"You think it's good?"

"We like it, Olivia... a lot. You see things uniquely; you have a great gift." Olivia ducked her head to hide her blush. Jo started to laugh until Blair glared in her direction. Instead she cleared her throat and clapped her hands together.

"So, are you looking forward to this shindig tomorrow night? Blair's been talking about nothing else all week."

Blair stomped her foot and put her hands on her hips. "That's not true... not completely... all right, maybe a little," she relented at Jo's expression. Olivia chuckled.

"Well, I'll admit I've been looking forward to it too. I've never had so much of my own company before, so I'm looking forward to meeting the neighbors... even if they are only my neighbors temporarily. I think it's time I had a little fun; I've been under this dark cloud long enough." She paused. "Do you know someone here who could cut my hair? I think it's time for a change... time to go back to being who I am and not who I've been pretending to be."

"Who were you pretending to be, Olivia?"

"Soccer mom Olivia Benson," she said succinctly. "I think I'm ready to be just Olivia Benson – SVU detective, artist, woman... but not a soccer mom."

"Do you want kids, Liv?" Jo broke in before Blair could speak.

Liv turned thoughtful eyes to Jo and nodded slowly, her eyes taking on a watery sheen though they did not fill with tears. "Sometimes, yeah... I would. I wonder what I've missed not having one. But I know that given my situation, it's probably not in the cards. And I'm making peace with that – I'll always be Auntie Liv to your Jamie and to Elliot's kids."

"You know, Liv – you're not that old. You could...."

"No, Jo. I'm not that unselfish." Jo tilted her head and Olivia sighed. "I couldn't do that to a kid, and with my job.... No, I wouldn't ask my child to take second place, and the job is all I know."

"Maybe you should put the woman first for a change, Olivia. Then let the rest fall into place. In fact...." Blair trailed off and Jo and Liv looked at her expectantly. Blair shook her head and returned their gazes. "I think tomorrow should be a spa day." Jo rolled her eyes but couldn't stop the pleased smile from crossing her face. She knew what Blair had in mind. Olivia waited for an explanation.

"Let me go make a couple phone calls. Jo will explain it to you, Olivia, and then we can have dinner."

"Oh God... this is amazing," Liv said late Saturday morning. They had already a deep tissue massage and now sat relaxing in the Jacuzzi before moving to the next stage of their make-over. She had been a little skeptical when Jo had outlined the plan, but Blair had military organizational skills and at seven that morning, Olivia had been awakened to begin the spa ritual otherwise known as 'Blair pampering'.

"All right, ladies. It's time for lunch and then we move on to phase two." Blair opened her eyes and rose, stepping out and extending her arms for her robe. Jo and Olivia followed suit and soon they were sitting in the kitchen enjoying chicken salad and fresh fruit. The caterers had already come in and were setting up for the party. Blair had decided to take advantage of the nice weather and make it an informal affair outdoors. So they were setting up in the yard while Jo, Blair and Liv continued their spa day.

After lunch they were treated to a full facial, manicure and pedicure and Olivia was placed in Freddie's capable hands for a haircut. His only instructions were to make her look fabulous.

"No problem, Blair. I've got a great foundation to work with," he assured her, managing to ignore Olivia's blush. He turned to her. "Do you trust me, Detective?"

She stared at him for a moment, then looked as Blair and Jo who nodded at her. Liv turned back to Freddie. "Absolutely. Make me beautiful."

Freddie smiled. "Not a problem, Detective. You've already got that covered. Now sit back and close your eyes so Mel can put on your mask and you can relax." Olivia reclined in the chair and turned herself over to Freddie and Mel's ministrations. She hadn't felt this good in a long time.

An hour later they were being sent to shower and change before the last part of their spa day. Jo had assured her informal really did mean jeans in this case as the caterer was grilling outdoors, so Liv slipped into her favorite jeans and a sparkly top. She glanced into the mirror, startled at the reflection staring back at her. She ran her fingers through her shortened locks, then shook her head.

Well, you wanted to be Olivia Benson again. She smiled rakishly. Look out world... Benson is back.

Then she went back to their 'spa room' to let Freddie and Mel finish working their magic. Tonight was going to be fun.

"You know, Olivia, when I invited you out to dinner, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind," Trevor Langan commented with a grin as he looked around the large open cabin. There were a number of people standing clustered about in small groups in both the house and yard talking and laughing and the party showed every sign of being a success. The catering service had set-up on the outside deck, barbequing to order and everyone was able to help themselves to the remainder of the buffet.

"Are you sorry I asked you?" Liv asked.

"No, not at all. I'm having a great time, actually... well, except for the fact that Alexandra Cabot seems intent on staring a hole through the front of my head." Olivia cut her eyes in Alex's direction but the blue gaze studiously avoided her own. It was beginning to get a little irritating. "It's funny," he continued, bringing Olivia's attention back to him, "you were the one giving me that very same look once – when I was out with Ms Cabot, if I recall correctly."

"Old history, Trevor, and there was nothing there... nothing real, anyway. I wouldn't have asked you if I had known she was going to act like there was something more between us than old, forgotten acquaintanceship. I just thought you might enjoy...."

"Oh, I am," he assured her with a smile. "As an added bonus, I have met a number of people it could be useful for me to know down the line. And I know it's not your style, Olivia – your straightforwardness is one of the qualities I admire most about you, though it doesn't seem to serve you very well where Alex Cabot is concerned." He ignored her startled look and took her arm, leading her out to the deck. "C'mon... let's go get a burger and then I'd like to talk to our hostess. Tomorrow is soon enough for you to worry about Alex Cabot."

"Well, at least now I understand," Robert commented, walking up behind Alex Cabot and sipping from his gin and tonic. She turned and looked at him, though she watched Olivia and Trevor step outside in her peripheral vision before turning her full attention to her ex-fiancé.

"Understand what?" she inquired, playing dumb as she drained the beer Abbie had snagged for her before disappearing into the melee surrounding the buffet. Alex figured she'd been stopped by someone or other – God knew Abbie knew practically everyone and those she hadn't known before tonight, she would before the end of the evening. Alex couldn't fault her for that; she was as charmed by her Texas friend as she knew the rest would be.

Robert's snicker brought her back to the present. "Alexandra, I did not get to the top of the food chain in the financial sector by being stupid. Please don't insult either of us by playing a dumb blonde. You're better than that."

Alex sighed and moved off to find another beer. The way things were going, getting drunk was looking like a better and better prospect. Robert caught her elbow.

"Tell me about her, Alexandra." She hesitated. "C'mon... we're still friends, right?" She nodded slowly. "Then talk to me - tell me who she is... how you know her."

Alex sighed again. Maybe she should. Of everyone involved, Robert especially deserved the truth. She nodded her head. "All right, but I need another beer first."

"Let's go outside and get something to eat and you another beer. Then you can tell me about this woman. Although I can't fault your taste."

Alex gave him a sad smile and followed him out to the buffet.

"They're gonna drive me to drink," Abbie said to Jo and Blair as she lifted her beer to her lips. She nearly snorted at the look they gave her and swallowed carefully to keep from snorting beer out her nose. "Beer doesn't count," she added drolly. "We're talking tequila shooters here."

Blair shuddered. "I tried that once – I don't remember that whole weekend."

"That's all right, princess... I do," she smirked. Blair slapped at her. "OW! Stop abusing the merchandise, Warner. I bruise easily, ya know."

"Watch it, grease monkey, or I won't take care of those bruises for you later."

"Okay, you guys are going to make me hurl from the elevated cuteness factor you've got going on. Aren't you supposed to be old marrieds by now or something – you know... fighting and sniping at each other constantly?"

Blair laughed. "We've always been old marrieds, Abbie. We've been fighting and sniping since the day we met. It took us years to admit the friendship we felt for one another and even longer to be honest about what we really felt towards each other. So we enjoy being like newlyweds, though we certainly still do our share of old married."

"Actually, I think the best old marrieds are the ones who are comfortable and cute even after years together," Abbie said after a moment. "My folks are. I'd certainly like to be."

"We plan to be," Jo said unexpectedly, reaching for Blair's hand. "Now if Alex and Liv would just get on board...."

Abbie snorted. "Good luck. Sometimes I think they look for the hard way."

"Of course they do," Blair concurred. "We all have at some point." She looked at her empty glass. "I need another drink. Ladies?"

"I think that sounds like a great idea," Jo said as she stood. "And that will give us a chance to see what is going on with Frick and Frack. I'm not sure they're ready to be left alone together yet."

"You don't think Trevor and Robert would keep them from killing one another?" Blair asked.

"They're red-blooded men - I think they'd sell tickets and have seats front and center," Abbie commented wryly.

"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that... at least tonight. This little get together has been successful – I'd like it to end that way." And with that, the trio headed outside.

Olivia sat back in her chair observing Alex and her male companion as they exited the house and took a place in line behind Trevor. He spoke to them when he realized who was behind him and Olivia watched Alex introduce Trevor to the man she suspected was the erstwhile fiancé, Robert. Trevor motioned in her direction and she found herself pinned in place by Alex's piercing blue eyes before she turned back to him with a shake of her blonde head.

They stood talking for a few minutes longer as their food was prepared. Trevor said something that drew laughter from both his companions and Alex grabbed his arm, shaking him lightly – an action that only drew more laughter from the two men. Alex shook her head and walked to the bar to collect another beer. Olivia let her gaze follow without turning her head, appreciating blue jeans in a way she'd never bothered to before.

When she realized what she was doing and where her thoughts were headed, Liv closed her eyes and rubbed them carefully, not wanting to disturb the work Freddie and Mel had done. While she was still meditating, the scent of grilled hamburger wafted up to her and she opened her eyes to find Trevor smiling back at her.

"You're a lifesaver, Trevor. God this smells great!"

"Yeah, I have to admit, this was a really good idea. Thanks for inviting me."

"I'm glad you came." They watched Jo, Blair and Abbie exit the house and Olivia raised a hand to wave them over. With a word, Abbie split from Jo and Blair who continued on to Olivia's and Trevor's table while Abbie headed to the buffet.

Trevor stood and waited for Olivia to introduce them, then he gestured to the empty chairs. Blair and Jo exchanged glances then took a seat. "Are you enjoying yourself, Mr. Langan?"

"Trevor, please... and yes I am. Olivia has been a lot of fun and I've met some interesting people. I'm glad I came... even though this wasn't originally what I had in mind when I told Olivia that dinner together would be the price of defending her." Jo arched an eyebrow in Liv's direction and she nodded. Trevor caught the motion and smiled.

"I know we will never be more than friends, Detective," he assured Jo. "Olivia was right up front with me about that. It doesn't stop me from enjoying her company or appreciating my time with her. Besides, she did me a favor by inviting me tonight – I made a number of contacts with people I might otherwise have never met. So thank you for allowing me to join you."

"We're glad you could come," Blair said graciously. "It's always nice to make new friends and anyone who can make Olivia smile like you have this evening is certainly one of those. However," she continued as she rose from her seat, "we still need to mix and mingle to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. Will we see you later?"

"I'd like that," he replied as he stood, shaking hands with them both before seating himself again. He turned to Olivia. "I like them... they seem like good people."

"They are," Liv agreed as she swallowed her last bite. "I've known them since Jo was a rookie cop. I was her training officer." Trevor's eyes widened.

"That was a little while ago."

"It was a lifetime or two ago," Liv agreed. Trevor tilted his head at the tone in her voice. He took a swig of his beer and pushed his plate away before leaning back to study her.

"How are you doing, Olivia? Really... no bullshit."

"Not bad, actually. I'm enjoying the chance to rediscover the parts of myself that aren't immersed in police work. I don't... I don't miss it like I thought I might. My job has always been my life and I'm not planning to give it up anytime soon; I'm just not sure it will be as important to me anymore."


"Yeah," she stated firmly as her eyes roamed over the people casually seated around Blair's backyard. Her eyes lit on Alex currently sitting alone and studying the beer in her hands. "I reached a total burnout this time, Trevor. I could walk away with no regrets. But I love what I do and being able to make a difference – I'd like to keep doing it for a few more years. But this time off has shown me that I need more than just the job."

Trevor smiled. "I'm glad. Just remember you've got friends who'll be glad to be part of that new non-job time."

Liv chuckled. "Thanks, Trevor. I'll try to keep it in mind. Now c'mon. I need to find Abbie and get another beer. And I'm pretty sure you've got a few more people to meet."

Together they rose and headed to the bar before they split up and crossed the yard in search of their perspective goals. The night was still young.

"Hey, beautiful... why are you sitting here by yourself?" Abbie asked Alex as she dropped her plate on the table and turned a chair around to take a seat. Alex let her eyes track to Abbie briefly before they returned to the beer bottle she was currently peeling the label from. She shrugged.

"Robert got a phone call and moved off to take it."

"Does he know...?" motioning towards Olivia.

"That she was the ultimate reason behind our breakup? Yeah – he thinks I have great taste," she added with a smirk, swiping a fry off Abbie's plate and earning a glare from her. "I think he'd like to meet her."

"Probably – or he wants to see what sort of fireworks the two of you would create together," Abbie said as she waggled her eyebrows in Alex's direction. Alex just rolled her eyes. Abbie chuckled and concentrated on her food for a moment before refocusing her attention on Alex.

"So are you going to talk to her at some point or just watch her out of the corner of your eye all night?"

"I'm going to go with option number two for a thousand, Alex."

Abbie blinked until she caught the reference to Jeopardy. Then she shook her head. "I can't believe you watch that show."

"I don't... not anymore. I did while I was in Witness Protection, though – it was a big deal in Wisconsin... at least in my neighborhood." She stopped when Abbie covered her mouth with two fingers, then licked them... sniggering when Abbie jerked them away with a look of disgust.

"Ew... that was totally unnecessary, Cabot. You were babbling. Does she scare you that much?" Alex didn't speak, but her eyes answered for her. Abbie pushed her plate away and rose from her chair, wrapping her arms around Alex from behind and holding on for a long moment before brushing a kiss over the top of the blonde head. "All right, Alex... I won't push. But you've got to know it's not going to get any better until you talk to her."

"Maybe... but not here. I wouldn't do that to Blair and Jo; besides, I prefer to be shot down in private."

"I think you're assuming an awful lot, but I understand your desire for privacy. I'll see if I can do anything in that regard," she said, slipping away from Alex before she was able to turn around and protest. Immediately Robert took the seat Abbie had been occupying.

"Are you all right, Alex? You appear to be a little shell-shocked."

"I'm fine, Robert," rubbing her forehead in exasperation. "You get your phone call taken care of?"

"Yes, but I need to get back to the City. Would you like a ride back to your place?"

"No... thanks though."

"All right. I need to go say goodbye to Blair." He stood up. "You going to be all right?" She nodded and he tilted her chin up until their eyes met. "Maybe you should remember who you really are, Alexandra. Maybe she's just waiting to see you."

Alex's mouth fell open, but Robert turned and walked away before she could force herself to respond. Alex watched him go, then stood up. She'd felt sorry for herself long enough.

"Hey, sexy... you look hot," Abbie said to Olivia, leering at her and waggling her eyebrows. Olivia leaned against the side of the tree Abbie was currently perched next to. "What's up?"

"Does something need to be?" Liv asked, keeping her eyes on the yard and its occupants. She watched Alex rise from the table she'd been sitting at and go into the house, eyes focused on the tight blue jeans she wore. Then she looked back at Abbie. Abbie smirked at her, brown eyes twinkling and right brow arched in amused question.

"With you... about this - yeah. I've seen you watch her, sweetheart. You're going to have to talk to her sometime."

"No, I'm not. I don't need to talk to Alex Cabot, Carmichael. We have nothing to talk about."

Abbie rolled until she was facing Olivia, right up into her personal space until they were just touching along their lengths. She reached out and turned Liv to face her. "You're either lying to me or to yourself, Liv. Tell me... are you happy living in the land of denial?"

"That's not fair, Abbie. You don't know...."

"You're right – I don't, so why don't you tell me? Or better yet... why don't you tell her?" Olivia's head dropped but she didn't move away. Abbie took it as a good sign. "Liv... what have you got to lose by just listening to her?" Olivia didn't answer and Abbie sighed. Then she straightened and took Liv by the hand. "C'mon, darlin'. Show me your room. We can talk there."

"Abbie, why are you doing this? Why do you care?"

Abbie gave Olivia a genuine smile and tilted her head thoughtfully. "Because you're my friends... both of you. And if you can be happy together instead of miserable apart – why shouldn't you try?"

"And if it fails? Abbie...." Liv broke off, aware of the people around them. Abbie recognized the reason for her hesitation and tugged on their linked hands.

"C'mon, Liv," ushering them towards the house. Olivia followed her willingly.

At the door Abbie stopped, surprised to see a determined Alex Cabot blocking their path. She waited, wondering what had happened in the short interim since she had spoken to Alex. Alex looked like she was going to court to do battle and when their eyes met, Abbie found a resoluteness that hadn't been there in a long, long time. Alex turned to look at Olivia who met her gaze defiantly, then took a deep breath and spoke quietly but with firmness in her tone.

"Olivia, I need to talk to you, but not here and not now. Could you give me some time later this week?" Liv nodded almost without an awareness of doing so and Alex relaxed the rigid tension in her body. "Thank you, Liv. I appreciate it. I'll call you." Then she slipped out the doorway and into the backyard, resolved to find her hostesses before departing. Alex had accomplished more than she had planned and needed to return to the silence of the lodge to mull over the events of the evening and decide what she wanted to do next.

Abbie and Olivia watched her disappear into the melee of the backyard before turning to glance at one another. "What just happened here?" Liv said.

Abbie just shook her head and pulled Liv behind her into the house. "C'mon, Benson. I'll explain it to you, then you can talk to me. We'll figure it out." And then I'm going to talk to Cabot. And with that thought, they went into Liv's room and closed the door.

Alex was sitting at the dining room table eating ice cream when Abbie strolled in the door a couple hours later. She was wrapped in a terrycloth robe and smelled of jasmine, indicating her recent departure from an extra-long soak in the bathtub. Abbie scooped the carton of ice cream away from Alex, taking the spoon from her fingers and digging in with a moan. Alex just glared at her.

After a moment, Abbie dropped the carton back on the table and pulled out a chair. She snagged a second spoon and passed it to Alex, pushing the carton until it was evenly between them. "That was a pretty ballsy move tonight, Cabot. What changed?"

Alex shrugged. "I thought about what you said and then Robert said something that really hit home." Abbie arched a brow in question. Alex sighed. "He reminded me it was time to stop pretending – time to be who I really am again. Told me that might be what she was waiting for, but that I wouldn't know until I tried." She shrugged again. "He's right."

"Isn't that what I've been saying?" Abbie asked, slightly aggrieved.

"Yes, Carmichael – it's what you've been saying," Alex replied drolly. "And you're right. I think that it just took hearing it from my male ex-fiancé to make it sink in."

Abbie snickered. "That's twisted, Cabot… you know that?"

"Yeah – that's why you love me," she smirked. She took another spoonful of ice cream. "So how did things go with Liv?" Abbie shook her head, not willing to betray Olivia's confidence. "I don't want details, Abbie. I just want to know if she listened to you."

"How do you know I talked to her... about you, I mean?"

Now it was Alex's turn to cock an eyebrow, only hers was one of disbelief. "Carmichael, how long have we been friends? How long have you two been friends"

"All right... dumb question. Let's just say, it was nice for both of us to see the old Alex finally make a reappearance. Are you really going to call her?"

"Yes, I am... but not tonight. Tonight I am going to eat ice cream with my best friend and we're going to talk about what's going on with her. Tomorrow we'll sit by the pool and soak up the last of the summer rays and catch up on everything we've been missing in one another's lives. After you leave and Blair and Jo head back to the city, then I'll talk to Olivia."

"You've got it all planned out, hmm?"

"I've had a little while to think about it. C'mon," standing up and pulling Abbie up with her. They cleaned off the table and traipsed through the house until they reached the upstairs bedrooms. Alex shoved Abbie gently in the direction of her room. "Go get comfortable then come to my room. We can talk there."

"Bossy bitch," Abbie griped with a smile.

"That's ICE bitch to you, Carmichael. Now move." Abbie stuck out her tongue. "Don't do it unless you plan to use it." Abbie's brows shot to her forehead.

"Feeling frisky there, Cabot?"

"Feeling like Alex Cabot again for the first time in forever. Now go get changed. I want to hear about when you're moving back to Manhattan."


"Go, Carmichael. You can come back and growl at me after you're in your pajamas."

"When did I end up being so pussy-whipped?" Abbie mumbled under her breath as she crossed the hall. Alex snickered and opened the door to her room, flipping on the light before closing the door behind her. Then she grabbed her favorite silk shorts and tank top, donning them with a sigh of relief. She would be comfortable tonight at least.

A knock brought her out of her musing and Alex called out, "C'mon in."

"I hope you remember not to do that when you get back to the City."

Alex rolled her eyes. "I'd have to buzz you up before I could invite you in, Carmichael. I think I'd be safe enough. Besides, if I get my way, you'll be back there soon enough – you can keep an eye on me if it makes you feel better. Now c'mon...." pulling down one side of the bed and patting the mattress. "Sit down and take a load off," walking around to the other side of the bed and sliding in. "So," she asked, pulling the sheet up over her legs and turning on her side, "when are you coming home?"

Abbie sighed and slid down until she was laying flat, hands clasped across her belly and eyes focused on the ceiling. "I'm not sure Manhattan is home for me anymore, Alex." She turned her head to look at Alex directly, to find her intense blue gaze filled with love and concern. "Don't get me wrong – I love the city and you and Liv. And I look forward to my visits every month."


"But I do like my job in Washington – I do good work there, Alex. And I've certainly met my share of interesting people. I've got a nice place to live and a few friends...."

"And yet you keep coming home," Alex commented, brushing Abbie's hair from her face and tucking it behind her ear.

"Turning up like a bad penny, I know," Abbie agreed softly.

"Nah... never a penny... more like a dollar – inflation you know." She grinned.

Abbie snorted. "I noticed you left the bad part in."

"You're from Texas, sweetie... of course I did."

"Brat," Abbie snarled, but her laughter negated the effect. Alex smiled with relief.

"Does this have anything to do with your earlier phone call from Casey?"

Abbie sighed. "I don't know what's going on with her." She blew out a breath. "Actually, I do – that's part of the problem. She called to talk to me about her date with Lake and Serena."

Alex's brows went into her hairline. "Casey went on a date with Lake and Serena?!?"

Abbie slapped Alex on the hip, turning and tucking her arm under her pillow. "Smartass! She had the date with the detective last night and a date with Serena tonight. She's enjoying herself, and that's a good thing – she's still young and beautiful."

"So are you, Abbie."

"Maybe, but Casey and I are in two different places in our lives right now. And I'm not going to push her to do something that will make her miserable."

"You think you'd make her miserable?"

"I think commitment would. And God knows SVU will suck the life right out of you if you let it; it's hard to commit to anything else in that job."

"I remember," Alex said softly. She bit her bottom lip. "All right... the thing with Casey aside – would you return to Manhattan if there was a good reason to?"

"Such as?"

"District Attorney... or what about the head of the US District Attorney's office here?"

Abbie became thoughtful for a long moment. "Maybe."

"Well then," Alex cut in before Abbie could say anything else. "We'll just have to work on that."

"And Casey?"

"We'll have to work on that too."

Olivia stood in the living room of the cabin, looking out over the now empty back yard. The party had wrapped up early and the caterers had been swift in their removal of equipment and supplies. So now she focused on the solitude she had come to appreciate.

Blair came out of the kitchen and noticed her standing alone and hesitated. Olivia's pensive expression caused her to cross over to the opposite side of the glass doors. "Olivia... are you all right? Is there something I can do to help?"

Liv took a deep breath and turned to Blair with a crooked smile. "I'm good, thanks – and you've already done so much. It was nice to meet the neighbors and I loved the spa day." Her smile grew exponentially. "I could get used to that, actually." Blair laughed.

"I know... so could I." She smiled fondly at Olivia's stunned expression. "It's something Jo and I agreed only to do once in a while since it's my treat when we do."

"You really love her, don't you? I mean...." holding up her hands before Blair could protest the question. "I know you love her and that she loves you. I was there, remember? What I mean is – you love her enough to give up the perks and privileges of being an heiress." A beat. "Was it hard?"

Blair's brow furrowed thoughtfully, realizing that Olivia was asking about more than her and Jo. "No, it wasn't," Blair replied honestly. "Olivia, if I had to choose between the Warner money and having Jo in my life, I would be a pauper by choice." Blair looked at Olivia before turning to look out over the moonlit backyard. "But she never made me choose, Olivia. We don't use my inheritance often because it makes Jo uncomfortable and I won't ask her to live that way."

"And I wouldn't ask Blair to give it up, Liv," Jo spoke as she emerged from the darkness. "It's part of who she is. Besides," she added, walking up behind Blair, wrapping her arms around her belly and leaning her chin on Blair's shoulders. "I like spa days too."

Liv chuckled. "Better than the bike?"

"No," Blair answered briskly. "We like the bike for different reasons." Olivia covered her eyes.

"TMI, guys... thanks for the visual there."

Blair blushed a most becoming shade of red and Jo laughed out loud. "You went there all by yourself, Liv. We had nothing to do with that. Or did that have something to do with whatever Alex Cabot said to you earlier? I saw the two of you talking with Abbie Carmichael and you looked a little shell-shocked. You all right?"

Blair slipped from Jo's grip and walked over to the wet bar. Liv turned back to her observation of the backyard and Jo moved to stand next to her until they were shoulder to shoulder.

"I agreed to talk to her... or at least listen to what she has to say."

"Are you sure?" Jo felt Liv turn to look at her but she kept her gaze on the vista beyond the glass doors. Olivia didn't speak, just stared until Jo felt compelled to continue. "C'mon, Liv... you were so angry with her. Are you sure you're ready to hear what she has to say?"

"I think I need to hear it if only so I can move on."

"Do you really want to... move on, I mean?" When Olivia gave no answer, Jo continued more softly. "Are you sure you are ready to really listen to her, Liv?"

"What else am I supposed to do, Jo? Yes, I'm ready to listen. I've been angry about this for a long time. I'm tired of being angry. Seems like it's all I know anymore and if listening to Alex Cabot will help me get past it, then I'll do it."

"You know we're here if you need us," was all Jo said.

"I know... and I'm grateful." She smiled. "One of the best things about my suspension is I've had time to count my blessings and my friends are at the top of my list."

"Suspension has made you a sap, huh? Oof! Hey!" Jo grumbled, glaring first at Olivia and then at Blair. One hand rubbed her belly and the other rubbed her ass. "Isn't that assault on a police officer?"

"No!" Liv and Blair exclaimed simultaneously as Blair handed them each a bottle of water.

"I'm being ganged up on!" Jo pouted.

"C'mon, you big baby," Liv said laughingly, pulling Jo towards the couch. "Now you can give me all the dish on the neighbors... now that I have faces to put with names."

"What makes you think we have dirt?" Olivia cocked an eyebrow at Blair.

"You are a well-placed lawyer and a police detective. How could you not?"

Jo and Blair exchanged glances. "She's got a good point," Jo muttered.

"So spill," Olivia directed. And the three of them curled up to have a gossip fest.

A knock on the door brought Olivia out of the brown study she had fallen into. Jo and Blair had left after a late brunch, citing a need to get back to the City early. They had offered Abbie a ride back to catch her flight back to Washington and she'd been happy to accept. So Liv had had a chance to say goodbye before they'd all left her alone to her solitude once more.

The knock sounded again and Olivia frowned trying to figure out who was stopping by to visit. Despite the party, she didn't know anyone nearby except Alex well enough for them to simply drop by without a phone call. And Alex had promised to call first; she wouldn't not call before coming over.

Liv crossed to the door and looked out, her eyebrows going into her hairline before she opened the door. "Casey?" Casey smiled but Olivia could see the confusion lurking in the back of her green eyes. She stepped back and opened the door wider. "Come in."

"Thanks," Casey said as she crossed the threshold. She looked around the cabin with undisguised curiosity. "Wow... great place," she commented, walking over to the glass doors and looking out across the expanse of backyard. "So quiet... so clean. A person could get used to this. You sure you want to come back to the noise, crime and pollution of Manhattan?"

"Some days?" Olivia paused then plowed forward. "Some days it would be so easy to stay here for the rest of my life and just let the art dictate the pace."

"And others?"

"I'm an SVU detective, Casey. My job defines who I am, not just what I do. Who would look after the victims if we weren't there to do it? It's not like cops are breaking down the doors of the precinct to work in the Special Victims Unit." She sighed. "The time will come... maybe sooner, maybe later... and eventually, someone else will need to do the job."

"But not right now?" Casey asked honestly, remembering the talk she and Olivia had shared before her hearing and punishment.

"I don't think so," Liv said, moving to sit on the couch. "Not yet anyway. Of course, that could change tomorrow, but I'm learning not to worry about tomorrow. I'm trying to focus on today and make every day count. Tomorrow can worry about itself."

Casey turned and leaned against the glass, idly noting the sketchpad and pencil in Liv's hands without really registering it. "That's what I did," she said, biting her lip briefly in thought. "I figured out my life was being consumed by my job – I don't want to look back in ten years and wonder where the time's gone or why there's no one in my life."

"Like me, you mean?"

"That's not what I said, Olivia."

"No, but it's the truth. You want something to drink?"

"Sure," Casey said, turning her back to the wide expanse outside the glass doors. She crossed to the couch and took a seat in one corner, accepting the glass from Olivia before she curled up in the other corner. Casey took a sip from the glass and raised her eyebrows. "Mimosas?"

"Last bit from brunch," Liv countered with a smile. "Figured I shouldn't let it go to waste and you looked like you could use it." She took a swallow of her drink and propped her head on her hand against the back of the couch. "So what's up?"

"Why does something need to be up? Couldn't I have just come out here to visit?"

Liv tilted her head. "You could have... if you had come Friday night or yesterday. Or even last night for the party I know you were invited to."

"Are you angry I didn't come?"

Liv covered Casey's hand. "Not at all, Case. You're a big girl and you've got to do what's best for you. I of all people can't blame you for wanting a life outside of SVU. And God knows if you don't grab it with both hands now, it might not be there when you decide that it's a good time."

"Personal experience?"

"Something like that," dismissing questions with her tone. "So talk to me, Casey."

Casey sighed. "I'm not sure where to start." She hesitated, and Olivia waited. "I... tell me about Abbie Carmichael."

Liv's eyes shot into her hairline. "What would you like to know?"

Casey shrugged. "Everything. She... I.... When I was in college, I didn't date much. I was too concerned with making the grades – it used to make Jessica nuts. She was my roommate," Casey confided. "Anyway, once in a while she'd convince me to go out, but I never got into it... I never found anyone interesting enough to change my focus away from my studies."

Liv nodded but she didn't interrupt. Casey took a draught of her mimosa and swallowed slowly, enjoying the burn of the alcohol as it went down.

"When I came to the DA's office here, I was intent on making a good impression – I worked my ass off in white collar, hoping to get noticed for an opening in homicide."

"And you got SVU instead."

"Yeah, and you know how I've worked since I came to the one-six, because you work the same way." Olivia nodded again. "When Jess came to see me, she made me realize I was letting life pass me by, allowing my work to consume me, so I started dating. So far, it's been people I've known for a while; most of them I've worked with at some point or another."

"Okay, and...? I know Abbie being a woman is not the issue here. You've been out with several in the last few weeks."

"You're right. Being bi-sexual has made dating easier... and more interesting," she added with a smile. "I've decided I like the experiences I find on both sides of the fence."

Olivia smiled. "Been there... done that. So what's the problem? Why the sudden interest in Abbie?"

"I find her... intriguing – what little I know of her. But I don't know that much and she doesn't seem willing to share a lot with me." Liv frowned. She knew for a fact that Abbie Carmichael was more than a little interested in Casey Novak. So what was up with the complete lack of communication?

"Have you tried talking to her? Asking her directly?"

"Sort of. I've tried to get to know her... sharing things with her and trying to get her to share things in return. But I'm getting mixed signals from her. I think she's interested, and yet...." Casey shrugged and gulped the last of her drink. "Maybe I'm just wishfully thinking."

"Would you like her to be interested? Are you?"

"I am," Casey stated with conviction. "Even with the distance involved, I'd like to try to get to know her... see if there is anything there – even friendship."

Olivia scrubbed her hands through her hair before leaning forward and clasping her hands between her knees. "Then maybe you should show her." She held up a hand when Casey opened her mouth. "Case, she's not going to take you seriously... not as a possible friend and certainly not as a prospective suitor... as long as she doesn't think she has a chance to achieve either of those things. You're enjoying dating around, right? Having fun with a lot of new people?"

"Well, sure. That's what this is about for me right now... having fun; I'm not looking for commitment. Hell, I'm not even looking for sex necessarily. I'm just looking for good companionship. I've got dates with Trevor Langan and Kathy Stabler's brother next weekend, and Warner's sister and Huang's brother-in-law the weekend after that."

Olivia's eyes widened. "You must be exhausted. All this after dates with Lake and Serena this weekend and somebody else the weekend before that and someone else the weekend before that."

"Yeeaaaaah... and?"

"And why would Abbie make an effort? She's still in Washington, Casey, and you're enjoying being young and free and single. She'd never begrudge you that. But it doesn't make it any easier to develop a friendship... much less anything else. And right now, you don't have the time or the inclination to invest in it to make it meaningful."

Casey stood up to pace. "So you're saying I have to give up dating if I want to be friends with Abbie?"

"No, Case. I'm saying you need to decide what you want to invest in and how much. Why would she think you're interested? You're always busy when she's here." She looked like she wanted to say more, but instead, Liv clamped her lips shut.

Casey pinched her lip pensively. "What?" Olivia shook her head. "Please, Liv... I need to know."

"I understand wanting to grab all you can out of life with both hands. But I wonder if maybe you're trying too hard... making up for lost time or something." She shrugged. "I'm afraid you're going to burn yourself out... maybe miss out on something you really want."

She met Casey's eyes and held them. "Thank you," Casey said sincerely. "It means so much to me that you care."

"You know I do, Casey. You're one of my very best friends. I want you to be happy."

"You think Abbie might make me happy, Liv?"

"I think you deserve the chance to find out." She paused. "Would you like some ice cream?"

"I'd love some ice cream. And maybe a little dishing."

Olivia grinned rakishly and stood, extending her hand and pulling Casey along with her to the kitchen. "Maybe," she agreed.


"Geez, Liv... you're not on duty. A simple hello...."

"Hey, Elliot," she cut in, rolling her eyes at his teasing. "What's up?"

"Why does anything have to be up?"

"Stabler, how long have we been partners?" He didn't answer but she didn't need him to; she'd made her point. "So what's up?"

"Whaddya do to Casey?"

"Um... nothing? She came out for a visit yesterday. We talked, ate ice cream, sat in the sun for a little while and then she headed back to the city. Why?"

"She's a little unfocused today."

"And this is my fault how?"

"You were her last date."

"Does she know that?"

"Know what?"

"That it was a date... because I sure didn't." Olivia sighed. "El, she's one of my closest friends... we just talked. Other than that, I can't help you. It's Casey's business."

"All right, Liv... I get it. We're just concerned. By the way, Simon's been sniffing around... looking to contact you. We didn't give him anything – figured if you'd wanted him to find you, you'd have told him where you were... or you'd have taken his calls."

Olivia sighed. "Did he say what it was about... why he was looking for me?"

"No, and I didn't ask," making clear his feeling on the subject. Olivia rolled her eyes again. She didn't expect Elliot to ever come to terms with the fact that she had a half brother. Though in fairness, there had been days she regretted having found him – hence the reason she hadn't given Simon a way to reach her here. She was using this time to decide her future, and his place in her life was part of that decision. Elliot's voice in her ear brought her back to the present. "I don't think it was an emergency though; he didn't act like it was urgent."

"All right. Thanks El."

She heard his smile through the phone. "No problem. It was time to harass you anyway. You ready to come back yet or you enjoying your enforced vacation too much?"

"I'm actually... I'm good, El. I think I needed this. But how are things at the one-six? I miss you guys."

"Same shit, different day," Elliot commented wryly. "You know how it goes."

"Yeah, I do," Liv agreed. "How's Kathy?"

"Counting the days," he answered with a chuckle. "But not as fast as I am."

Liv laughed sympathetically, a bit of wistfulness in her voice. "Not too much longer there, dad. Did you ever find out the sex?"

"Nah, Kathy doesn't wanna know and I don't mind waiting. I'm gonna love this kid no matter what."

"Your kids are real lucky, El."

"So am I, Liv. You know, you could...." hearing the melancholy in her voice, but she cut him off before he could finish.

"No, El... I couldn't. Not right now at any rate. Now," she continued before he could start the next round of that particular argument, "when are you guys gonna come out here and visit?"

"When are we invited?" he countered.

"How about this weekend? Come out early Saturday – it should still be nice enough to use the pool... we can grill out."

"Sounds good." Liv heard Cragen holler for Elliot and she knew what was coming. "I gotta go, but I'll call later and we'll work out the details, all right?"

"Go," she stated, "and be careful."

"Aren't I always?" he asked before hanging up on her snorting response. She looked at the phone and shook her head before hanging it up. But before she could move away, it rang again and she frowned before she picked it up.

"Benson," wondering when she'd cut hello out of her phone etiquette.

There was the soft sound of someone nervously clearing their throat, then Liv heard Alex Cabot's husky voice speaking to her. "Hello, Olivia," setting the tone with her greeting – personable without being presumptive.

"Hi," Liv replied, unsure how to address the woman who seemed to be her own personal Devil. It didn't faze Alex – she was a woman on a mission.

"I was wondering if you might have some time for me this afternoon."

"Um... sure," not surprised by the swiftness of Alex's action once she'd decided on a course of action. It was one of the things she and Alex had in common.

"Good – would you like to come for lunch? Gerry's prepared a beef pot pie."

Olivia's stomach growled at the thought. "Sure... sounds good. What time?"

"I'll send Jason over with the car in thirty minutes if that's agreeable."

"I'd prefer to drive myself," Liv stated decisively, not wanting to be stuck if and when things turned ugly between them. And she firmly believed that it was only a matter of time – they were too volatile together for it not to.

"All right," Alex agreed immediately, having expected to make the concession. "Can you be here in an hour then?"


"Do you know how to get here?"

"I think so, but just in case...." Alex gave her directions and Olivia realized it wouldn't be that difficult to get there. "All right, I'll see you in an hour."

"Thank you, Olivia."

"Bye." The dial tone told Liv she could hang up, but she stared at the handset with fascination for another moment before she placed it back in the charger. Then she went to her room to figure out what to wear, hoping it would help ease the discomfort suddenly present in the pit of her stomach. It was shaping up to be a long day.

"Hello, Ms Benson," the man greeted as Olivia exited her car and closed the door. He rose from the flower bed, removing a glove and extending his hand. "I'm Jason Bernard, caretaker of the Cabot Lodge." Liv took his hand and shook it briefly before he released her grip and turned towards the house. "C'mon in and let me take you back to the kitchen," he said, leading the way up the steps and opening the front door for her. "Gerry and Alexandra are putting the final touches on luncheon."

She nodded and followed him silently, trying to process his words and look around her at the same time. The Cabot place was much larger than Blair's home and she wondered if it was for show or because Alex's extended family was larger. Then she was being ushered into the kitchen by Jason and all thoughts of houses and space flew out of her mind.

Alex had her back to the door and was wearing those blue jeans again, although Olivia was starting to suspect that every pair of blue jeans Alex owned was exactly the same. The denim clung to her ass, showcasing shapely curves, slim legs and a flat belly. Before she could remove her eyes, Jason cleared his throat and Alex turned around, a welcoming smile on her face. If she noticed Olivia's blush, she was kind enough to refrain from drawing attention to it.

Instead, she dusted her hands off and extended a hand to Olivia. Liv took it and they held on for just a moment longer than propriety dictated, then Alex let go and motioned to Jason. "Welcome, Olivia. I see you've met Jason, and this is his wife, Geraldine. They live here year round and put up with the rest of us visiting from time to time."

Liv held out her hand to Gerry. "It's nice to meet you."

"Oh, the pleasure is all ours, dear. Alexandra gets here so rarely anymore, and it's simply wonderful that she's having friends over this time... makes it easier to cook when there are actually people in the house, you know. Come in and have a seat," motioning to the small table that held two place settings.

"Won't you be joining us?" Liv asked. "Surely you didn't go to all this trouble for just Alex and me."

Alex nodded her head emphatically. "Thank you, Liv!" not noticing her slip. "That's just what I've been trying to tell her for the last hour. There's plenty here for everyone."

"And I'll bet you've been sharing your meals with Alex since she arrived, haven't you? Please don't stop on my account."

Geraldine looked back and forth between the two of them, wondering if they realized they had slipped into what was obviously an old and familiar pattern with them. She speculated that the opposite side of that liaison must be quite volatile and decided she and Jason would do well to be far away when it started. Jason just watched the byplay with bemusement – it was entertaining in a way he hadn't seen in this house in a very long time... since the days when all the sons came with their wives for holidays.

He joined the two younger women in looking at Geraldine beseechingly and chuckled when she threw up her hands in surrender. "Fine, fine," she muttered. "It's obvious to me there is a conspiracy going on around here and I'll have no part of it." Olivia's eyes widened at her choice of words and she looked at Alex with a touch of feigned panic. But before she could voice it, Geraldine continued speaking... this time to Jason directly. "And you... stop trying to suck that stomach in. I have lived with you for too many years, old man. I know better."

Liv and Alex both snickered, but when their eyes met, they stopped and the moment became awkward. Geraldine rushed in before it went on too long, directing Alex to add two more place settings and seating Olivia. Jason knew what to do without Gerry's input, and he carefully brought the casserole to the table. Geraldine snagged the salad and Alex brought the pitcher of water and soon they were all comfortably seated and digging into the tantalizing food.

Long minutes were spent simply relishing the good food, but after a bit, the quartet slowed down enough to have conversation again.

"This is wonderful," Liv commented, wiping her mouth. "I can't remember the last time I had something homemade."

"You don't cook, then?" Liv shook her head.

"Not much. Like you said – it's hard to cook for one. And I hate for food to go to waste."

"Then we expect you to eat hearty at the table then," Jason cut in before Gerry could continue as he helped himself to another plateful and offered Liv the spoon. "No excuses," he said firmly. Then he looked at Geraldine. "You outdid yourself this time, Mother. Best you've ever made."

She blushed and smiled at him. "You say that every time, you charmer."

"I didn't get to be this old by being stupid," he commented to Liv, knowing Geraldine would hear him. "So you don't have someone to cook for... or someone to cook for you?" causing Gerry to cover her eyes and shake her head at his brashness. Liv noticed Alex continued to eat, but considerably slower, as though not to miss any part of the conversation. She shrugged – not like this part of her life was any big secret... especially not to the woman she was sitting across from at the moment.

"No, and there hasn't been for quite a while."

"But you're a beautiful woman," he protested, "and by all accounts, a genuine, caring individual."

"And my line of work makes it almost impossible. People are either creeped out by what I do, or have a little too much fascination for the sordid details. Either way, it's not an ideal situation for finding someone to date... much less have a meaningful relationship."

People, she said, Alex thought with a smile. Not men... I may still have a chance. Then her attention was brought back to the current conversation. "Probably when you least expect it then," Jason intoned sagely. "That's what happened with me and the missus here."

Gerry snorted. "It did not. You suckered Papa into bringing you home for lunch."

"One taste of her cooking and I was hooked. Beef pot pie has been my favorite since that day."

"Let's not forget the dozen sugar cookies you scarfed down as well."

Jason grimaced in memory, then smiled. "They were good going down, but simply awful coming back up." His expression caused everyone at the table to wince in sympathy. "Still, it got me a date with the cook who just happened to be the prettiest girl in town."

"That was a lot of years ago, old man."

"Yeah, but they've been good years, Mother." He turned to Olivia. "Sometimes, you've just got to grab on with both hands and not let go. There'll be bad, sure... but the good makes it worth it." He rose before Liv could comment. "Come along, Mother. Let's let these two youngsters talk. We can clean up the kitchen directly."

Gerry took his hand and let him lead her from the kitchen without protest, leaving Olivia and Alex alone in the silence. Alex cleared her throat. "Um... we have dough ready to make warm sugar cookies for dessert if you'd like some."

Olivia grimaced. "Not right now, thanks. I don't want to be doing a repeat of Jason's experience."

Alex nodded solemnly. "Neither would I, in point of fact." She stood and motioned to the French doors. "Would you like to sit by the pool for a bit? I promise it will be private."

"What about...?" gesturing to the table. Alex shook her head.

"Trust me... Gerry is waiting right outside the door to come back in here and clean up. She's pretty particular about her kitchen."

"I am not!" Geraldine denied vehemently before they heard her clap a hand over her mouth. They chuckled and headed outside, the tension between them broken for the moment. Of course, they hadn't actually talked about anything yet.

"So," Olivia jumped in once they were seated before the silence became too awkward. "Whaddya wanna talk about?" Her tone was casual, almost blithe and would have fooled anyone who had not spent hours and days with this woman for several years. Alex knew she was out of touch and probably very rusty reading the signs where Olivia Benson was concerned, but some things just didn't change with time. The focused stare on the pool, the clenched jaw and the slightly wavering tone were all dead giveaways of the detective's discomfort level. And judging by her posture, Olivia would have rather been almost anywhere else than with Alex Cabot, despite the good manners she had shown inside only moments earlier.

Alex cleared her throat nervously. "I um... I thought we should clear the air between us. There's...." But Olivia cut in before Alex could continue.

"There's nothing between us, Counselor." Liv stood up impatiently and stepped away from Alex, only to return with fire sparking out of her brown eyes. "How dare you.... You made that fact more than abundantly clear when you returned from Witness Protection permanently and made sure we were no longer a part of your life. You don't like it now? Not my problem. I guess it just sucks to be you." She moved to go back into the house to leave when Alex grasped her forearm firmly.

"Let go of me, Counselor."

"Not a chance, Detective. Not until you hear me out."

"I'll charge you with assault on a police officer. You looking to go to jail again?"

"No... I'm looking for a way to talk to you like a rational adult human being. When did you become so hard and judgmental that you won't even allow me to have a chance to explain??"

"You're not a victim, Alex! And what is there to explain? You came home and we weren't good enough for you anymore. Seems pretty clear cut to me."

"You'd think so, wouldn't you, Olivia? But I assure you it isn't nearly that cut and dry. If it had been that easy, we wouldn't be here now." She paused when Liv looked at her disdainfully and blew out an awkward breath. "Will you at least hear me out? Give me a chance to tell you the story from my perspective? I promise if you still want to leave when I'm done, I won't stop you and I won't bother you again." A beat. "Liv, we were friends once, and I was a victim for a while - so were you. Don't we deserve that much closure?"

Olivia stood motionless considering Alex's words. There was a reason Alex had been such a good advocate for the victims she represented in SVU. She, like Casey now, had a flair for speech and a knowledge of just what buttons to push and when and how hard to push to achieve the desired result.

"When you're done, I can walk out that door and I won't hear from you again?"

"If that is what you want, Olivia," deliberately bypassing her title so Liv understood this was personal for Alex. "I'd like you to try and hear me out with an open mind."

Liv nodded gruffly. "Fine, but when you're done...."

"You'll be free to go, Liv. You have my word."

Olivia nodded briskly again and resumed her place on the chaise lounge. Alex remained standing, pacing back and forth in front of the pool as she gathered her thoughts together. Olivia just watched, reminded of the numerous times she had watched this same woman do the same thing as she prepared for court. So she settled in to wait. Despite her gruff attitude, she was more interested in what Alex had to say then she wanted to admit. Maybe it was time they both had some closure. Then at least they could move on with their lives.

Geraldine watched the tableau taking place outside her kitchen window with bated breath. Though Alex had not shared much, Gerry knew this discussion with this particular detective was of utmost importance to Alexandra's well-being. She wondered if Alex had figured out just exactly why Olivia Benson was so important to her or just that she was. She shook her head and started wiping down her workspace.

"What are you shaking your head at, old woman?" Jason asked as he stepped into the kitchen.

"The folly of youth," Gerry replied without hesitation. He peeked over her shoulder and wondered what he had missed as Olivia and Alex were currently seated on chaise lounges facing the pool. He looked back at his wife who was rubbing a small area of the countertop with fierce concentration.

"Well, they seem to have worked out whatever upset you, Mother. They're just sitting there talking now." He glanced out the window gain before wrapping his arms around Geraldine's middle. "Do you think they know?"

Gerry snorted in a completely unladylike fashion. "I think they know... and are going to fight it with everything they've got. Kids today don't realize...." breaking off when she felt Jason chuckling behind her. She turned to look at him with a glare. He stopped laughing, though he couldn't wipe the smile from his countenance.

"Mother, I'm thinking those two grown women out there might resent being called kids." Gerry snorted again.

"Then maybe they need to grow up and act like adults."

"I thought they were," scratching his head in confusion. "They're just sitting there talking," motioning to the activity taking place just outside the window. She shook her head.

"Hopefully, it will move beyond that stage soon. Now, I've got sugar cookies to bake. You want some?"

"Have you ever known me to turn them down? And that doesn't count," he added, knowing she was thinking of the time shortly after he'd gotten so sick from his own overindulgence. "I had to recover from my own youthful folly first."

"All right... go back to your pottering in the gardens and flower beds. I'll call you when they're ready."

Jason leaned over and gave Gerry a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, old woman," patting her behind. She swatted at him.

"Get outta here before I forget why I love you," though the twinkle in her eyes belied the mock-seriousness of her tone. He waggled his eyebrows.

"I'll remind you later," he said with a rakish smile, scooting out the door before she could think to throw a towel in his direction. She grinned and shook her head at him, then moved to make cookies, standing where she had a good view of the drama - or lack thereof - taking place just beyond her hearing.

"Witness Protection changed everything for me. Suddenly my life wasn't mine anymore." Alex paused, letting her gaze go inward as she remembered a time in her life best left forgotten. "I had to become someone and something I wasn't and pretend it was real." She sighed. "Pretending was my best chance for survival - and until a few months ago, it became my way of life."

"It was easy after a while and soon it was all I knew. And I made the mistake of keeping up the charade when I came back to New York - I had forgotten how to be Alex Cabot. I had forgotten who she was." She paused. "When I came home, the first thing I wanted to do was visit the one-six. I tried, actually."

"What happened?" Liv asked despite herself when the silence dragged on interminably.

"I went - I actually made it in the door, and it was foreign to me... nothing was like I remembered it. I stood in the doorway and saw detectives I didn't recognize, and the ones I knew I realized I really didn't know anymore. You were there - longer hair and harder eyes. You were talking to Casey and it was obvious to me from the way you were arguing that she had taken my place."

"Of course she had, Alex - it's her job! She's supposed to fight with her detectives over evidence and procedure and warrants." Liv missed the look of pain that crossed Alex's face before she glanced at her briefly before looking away again. "Why didn't you come in?"

"It wasn't my place anymore, and Arthur told me it never would be again - so I figured I needed to make my own place."

"And that included cutting all of us out of your new life?"

Alex nodded slowly. "For all the pretending I had done, and all I've done since I came home, I knew there was no way I could keep all of you in my life and create a new place for myself. And I had to make a new life - my old one was gone, despite my desire to have it back again."

"So what happened?" Olivia asked with a hint of resigned exhaustion in her tone. "Why break the silence?"

Alex stood up to pace again, fingertips at her lips as she considered the best way to explain. "I couldn't keep pretending," she finally replied simply.

"You suddenly couldn't keep pretending anymore so what does that mean now? What now, Alex? What exactly do you expect from me?" Liv asked wearily.

"I'd like for us to be friends again... to see if we can get back to what we once had."

"I see. And then?" remembering clearly what they had been moving toward before Velez's bullets had changed their lives. Alex shrugged nonchalantly, but she couldn't hide the hope in her eyes.

"I don't know. I'd like to think that would be up to us."

"I see," Liv said noncommittally once more before rising to her feet. "Thank you for lunch, Alex, but I can't do this again. It took years for me to put you and what you meant to me behind me - I'm not gonna open myself up to all that again just to have it come crashing down on me when you decide that's not what you want either. You don't know what it was like finding out second and third hand that you were home again... that you had a male fiancé while you were screwing your male co-worker... that the Devil we knew felt we were less than gum stuck to the bottom of her Jimmy Choo's." Olivia closed her eyes for a moment before focusing her considerable personality on Alex. "If you'll excuse me...."


"No?? Whaddya mean no?? We had a deal, Alex, and I listened to everything you had to say. Now it's time for me to go."

Alex stepped in front of Olivia but didn't reach out to stop her. "Please, Olivia."

"I'm sorry, Alex...," stepping around the blonde woman and not stopping until she reached the door. "I can't do this again... I won't." She reached for the door handle but was stopped by Alex's voice just as her fingers brushed against cold metal.

"Then maybe you should consider why you're still alone, Liv. You're a beautiful woman, and I know there had to have been a number of offers out there over the years. So why is there no one special in your life? And don't blame it on the job - we both know better." Alex kept her back to Olivia during her entire speech and she didn't turn when she heard Liv step up behind her.

"That's not fair," she replied, her voice shaking in... something, though whether it was anger or fear or something else, Alex wasn't sure. It didn't matter - she'd spoken her piece.

"You'll find that life generally isn't. Have a nice afternoon, Detective. Gerry will see you out." She walked off the patio and towards the stables, not daring to turn around though she felt the weight of Olivia's stare on her ass. She'd done what she could. The ball was in Olivia's court now.

Geraldine had watched the interaction between the two and was ready when Olivia crossed the threshold back into the kitchen. She offered the detective a brown paper bag before gesturing her towards the front door. "They're still a little warm," she commented as Liv took the bag with a question in her eyes, "but they should be sufficiently cooled by the time you return home."

"Thank you." Gerry opened the front door, but halted Olivia's exit with an outstretched palm.

"Don't be too hard on her, Detective. She's trying to repair the damage that was done – both to her and by her. She's being hard enough on herself."

Olivia stepped out of the house before turning to face Geraldine. "Please don't take offense, but what is or is not between Alex and me is frankly none of your business. She should have considered the consequences of her actions before she screwed everything up." Liv turned her back and walked down the stairs, only to be stopped by Gerry's words.

"What's it like to be perfect, Detective? How is it to live a life with absolutely no regrets?"

Olivia turned and looked back at Geraldine but there was no malice, no accusation in her expression... only open curiosity. She shook her head and continued to her car, starting it up and leaving without a backwards glance.

Gerry watched until the vehicle was out of sight, then returned to the kitchen. "That could have gone better," hoping Jason would be in soon so he would know to keep an eye on Alexandra.

Olivia considered driving back to the city, but vetoed that idea before it hardly had a chance to form in her consciousness. The phone would work just fine for conversation and with Geraldine's accusations still ringing in her ears, she wasn't sure she was up to facing anyone just yet. It figured that the Devil had her very own demons to defend her actions no matter what.

Alex's words chased round and round in her mind with Geraldine's and Liv wanted nothing more than to drown them out with a good binge. Instead, she called Abbie and Casey, leaving messages on both voicemails when she couldn't reach them, then turned her attention to her art. If nothing else, she could concentrate hard enough to drown out the voices.

Or so she thought... until Alex Cabot became the art. Of its own volition, Olivia's hand began drawing images from her mind's eye – things she remembered... memories she treasured that hadn't seen the light of day since the Devil's disappearance from her life after the Connor's trial.

When she realized what she was doing, it made her angry, but before she could act on impulse, the phone rang.

"Benson," she bit off.

"Um... is now a bad time, Olivia? I just got your message, but I can call back."

"Casey? No, now's fine. Sorry... just a little out of it when the phone rang."

"Is everything all right?"

"Mostly... just a rough morning. Hey," before Casey could ask, "how are you? Elliot accused me of making you lose your focus."

Casey snorted. "Not just you. I am having killer cramps today and these hose are killing me and to top it off, I was in court all day with Petrovsky and Langan. Insult and injury if you asked me." She paused. "I have been thinking about what you said though."


"I'm still thinking. I'd like to get to know Abbie better... see what's really there, but I'm not sure I'm ready to settle down yet. Hell, Olivia... I just started playing the field, and I'm enjoying it. It's nice to have a life outside of this office."

"Why do you think we never dated?" Liv blurted out, then cringed as the words echoed in her ears. She hadn't meant to sound accusatory, but she was curious what Casey thought. Casey chuckled.

"Because playing second fiddle professionally was hard enough. I wasn't about to accept that position in my personal life," Casey replied with a hint of laughter in her voice.

"What?? Casey, you're not second fiddle – you're a damned fine ADA and SVU is lucky you came to us."

"Maybe, but you certainly didn't feel that way when I was first assigned there. All you could see was that I wasn't Alex Cabot. And that's the same reason we never dated." She hesitated and then plowed on without making Liv ask the question. "Alex Cabot was all you could see."

Olivia frowned. "No she wasn't. I've dated some since she left."

"After the Connor's trial, not before. And we both know how those <ahem> dates have gone. Has anyone made it past a first date with you? Besides, we became real friends and that's very precious to me. I never wanted to jeopardize that for a romance that would never have lasted."

"Why do you think that? Some of the greatest romances – one's that have lasted forever - are those where the people involved were friends first."

"Yes, but there wasn't someone else in that place in their hearts either. Liv, I love you – you're one of my very best friends. But you know and I know that's all we'll ever be. I'm not in love with you and you're not in love with me. You just have to be honest with yourself... and her."

"And if I don't want that?"

"Then you'll be alone for the rest of your life – or you'll settle for second best to keep from being alone. Is that what you want?" Silence was the only answer Casey got and she sighed. "Look, I'm going to go home and get out of these clothes before they cut off the flow of blood to my brain. If you still want to talk, you know where to find me."

"You suck, you know that?"

"I know, but you'll thank me for it one day."

Liv snorted. She probably would, but she damn sure wasn't going to admit it now. "Hot tea and a heating pad will help with those cramps, especially if you soak in a hot tub first. Try to relax and get some rest."

"Will do, Dr. Olivia. Talk to you later?"

"Absolutely. Night, Case."

"Night, Liv." Liv set the phone down and went and poured herself a drink. Casey had given her even more to think about, dammit. Like she needed even more words rolling around in her mind. She sucked down the alcohol, hoping the burn would make her forget... just for a little while, and understanding with sudden clarity why her mother had fallen victim to this sort of relief.

Olivia poured a second drink and walked away from the bar, sipping this one and turning her attention back to her art. She set the tumbler on the table beside her and picked up the pencil, letting her mind free to wander and her hand to draw. Maybe that was the best way to exorcise the demons the Devil named Alex Cabot caused in her.

"Cabot, it's Carmichael... pick up." Silence. "All right, give me a call, will ya? I know you talked to Liv today and I'm concerned." Abbie sighed. "Call me, please?"

"Alex, it's Abbie. C'mon, honey... I need to hear from you."

"Alexandra Cabot, if you don't pick up, the next call I make will be to Geraldine. Pick up the damn phone!!"

"Geez, Abbie... did you have to sic Gerry on me? I was out riding and I didn't have the phone with me."

"I was concerned, Cabot - sue me!"

Alex chuckled. "Nah... I appreciate the concern, Abbie - more than you know. It was just a little disconcerting to have Gerry come track me down. Actually, she and Jason came out together - it was kinda sweet," her tone a little wistful.

"You all right, Alex?"

"I take it you've spoken to Olivia?"

"Not directly... not yet. She called and told me you'd talked; that's all she said, but I could tell she was upset."

"She was furious," Alex replied matter-of-factly, though Abbie could hear the defeat in Alex's voice. "In fact, she probably wants to vent. Maybe you should...."

"Her venting will wait for a few more minutes, Alex. How are you?" her voice serious and caring.

Alex took a deep breath. "I'll be all right, Abbie. It's no more than I expected. There's a lot of history between us that we'll probably never be able to get around. But at least now I can say I tried - too little, too late, I'm sure, but...."

"You don't think she'll come around?"

"No, Abbie... I really don't. You didn't see her expression of disgust, hear the disdain in her voice. However," Alex said, clearing the tears from her voice as she wiped them from her face, "it's not up to me now. Whatever happens now is Olivia's choice. I've done my best."

"Oh the hell you have," Abbie snorted. "Where's the fire and the fight and the possessiveness?? Where's the Alex Cabot who knew what she wanted and took it? Since when do you let someone else determine your actions??"

"Since it's Olivia, Abbie!! Given our history, don't you think she deserves to have a say in her future??"

"Don't you think you do?" Alex heard the slap and wondered what had borne the brunt of Abbie's frustration. Then Abbie sighed. "Alex, don't give up, all right? Give her some time and space to consider your words - just promise me that you won't give up on her."

"You know something?" Alex asked hopefully.

"I suspect something," Abbie corrected gently. "But remember that there hasn't been anyone special in her life in a long, long time - not since you left. Don't let her shut you out."

"You want me to stalk one of New York's finest?"

"Not... stalk," Abbie replied hesitantly. "Just don't let her forget you're out there waiting for her."

"Great, Abbie - now I've become a bad eighties music video," Alex protested wryly. Abbie snorted in laughter.


"That's all right," Alex said, chuckling. "I needed that. Hey, are you coming up this weekend?"

"No, I've got some catching up to do after the last couple weeks. You could come see me, though."


"Absolutely, Cabot... open invitation."

Alex smiled. "I may take you up on that."

"Do that. I'll even put clean sheets on the bed for you."

"Oooh... I'm feeling the love there, Carmichael."

"Only the best for you, Cabot. Let me know."

"I will, Abbie... thanks. And thanks for caring enough to call. It's nice to have someone looking out for me."

"Only the best for my best girl. Stay in touch."

"You too." Alex hung up the phone in better spirits, thinking ahead to a trip to Washington.

"Liv? It's Abbie - pick up."

"Hey, Abbie. What's up?"

"You tell me - you called me first."

Olivia sighed. She regretted her impulse to call anyone after her discussion with Alex. Casey's words were already going round with Alex's and Geraldine's until Liv could hardly focus. She wasn't sure she wanted to add Abbie's Texas forthrightness to the whirligig currently in residence in her mind. However, she had called, so....

"Yeah - about that... how about we just forget it? It really wasn't that important." Olivia heard Abbie's eyebrow arch and covered the smirk she felt form.

"I don't think so, Benson. Talk to me."

"I don't wanna, Abbie," Liv whined. "You're gonna take her side."

"Her... Alex? No, Liv. I'm not on anyone's side here. I want you both to be happy, all right? Now spill." She waited, but was met with silence. "Liv, I can't help you if you don't talk to me."

"Abbie, I don't think you can help me with this anyway," Olivia sighed.

"Then why'd you call me?" Abbie asked quietly. "C'mon, Olivia... we've been friends for years. Who else are you going to talk to about this? And you obviously need to talk or you wouldn't have called me to start with."

"I hate you," Liv retorted with a strangled sob.

"I know, but that's okay, because I hate you too, so it's all good." Liv laughed and Abbie smiled in response. Then she waited.

"She makes me so angry, Abbie! She acts like... I dunno... like the past can just be erased and we can pick up where we were five years ago! What the hell is wrong with her? How could she...?" Liv broke off in frustration, running a hand through her hair.

"What exactly did she say to you, Liv?"

"Huh? I dunno - something about pretending to be someone else for years and not being able to keep pretending anymore. What difference does it make, Abbie?"

"Seems like it would make a lot of difference, Liv. Did she actually ask you to forget everything and just move on from where you were five years ago? Or did she try to explain what life had been like and ask if you could start over - be friends again?" Silence was its own answer and Abbie sighed, making a mental note to get an appointment with her hairdresser. She was going to need it to cover all the gray these two were inflicting on her. "Olivia... what are you afraid of?"

"Nothing! Everything... I don't know. I can't open myself up like that again, Abbie. I won't live through that kind of pain again. It's not worth it."

"Liv, from what you just said, she's not asking for the two of you to move in together and start a family. It sounds like all she's asking for at the moment is your friendship. Are you telling me you have so many friends that you can afford not to have another? Olivia, who is it you don't trust here - her or you and your reactions to her?"

"I need to go."

"Think about it, Liv - who are you really afraid of here?"

"Goodbye, Abbie," slamming the phone down before she could throw it across the room.

"Well," Abbie said, looking at her receiver before replacing it in the cradle. "That went well." Then she moved off to prepare her guest room for company. She had a feeling Alex might show up sooner rather than later and she wanted to be prepared. It would be nice have someone visit her for a change.

"Are you sure about this, Alexandra? Are you sure you're not just running away again?"

Alex sighed and turned away from her suitcase." "Yes, Gerry... I'm sure. I am going to visit Abbie - at her invitation. My going or staying will make no difference to what happens between me and Olivia. And on the off chance she actually deigns to speak to me, you can tell her where to find me. But don't hold your breath on that, all right?" Alex requested, flinging an arm around Geraldine's shoulders. "I like having you around and I'm pretty sure Jason couldn't manage without you."

Gerry swatted Alex on the ass and turned to help her pack. "Get along with you then and go have some fun. Send me a post card. Have you called for the car or would you like me to have Jason drive you to the airstrip?"

"I am gonna drive her, Mother," Jason said, peeking into Alex's room. "The car is out front whenever you're ready to go, Alexandra. Just let me know and I'll take your luggage down." He disappeared before either woman could speak and they exchanged glances.

"That was interesting," Gerry muttered. "I don't remember the last time he came up here."

"Probably because I asked him to let me know when he was ready," Alex said, hefting her suitcase and purse. Geraldine looked at her questioningly.

"Is that all you're taking with you?"

Alex laughed. "I'm only going to be there for a long weekend, Gerry - I'm not moving." She linked their arms together. "C'mon... you can walk me to the door and kiss your husband goodbye before he takes me to the airstrip. Then the two of you can have a nice, quiet weekend without having to worry about me."

Gerry chuckled as she led them out of Alex's room. "Oh, sweetheart - we do that anyway. It's just in our nature."

Alex smiled and nodded in acknowledgement of that particular truth. "All right... well, at least go see a movie on me, please? It would make me feel better."

Gerry sighed. "All right... as long as you promise to have some fun too. You've gotten much too sober lately - even for you."

"Deal," Alex agreed as they reached the foyer. "Now let me go, so I can get my fun started. I should be back sometime Monday unless something comes up. Don't wait up, though - just in case I'm late." She climbed into the car, and with a wave, they were off.

The flight was short and uneventful and Alex blessed the fact that she had the connections she needed to get to Abbie's in relative comfort and ease. It was still early when she arrived, but she found the key right where Abbie had told her it would be.

The apartment was nice - spacious without seeming cavernous and elegant without being ostentatious. There were hints of Abbie's Texas roots as well as bits from her New York life. Alex smiled - not that Abbie would ever confess to having any sort of New York influence in her life. Texans were funny that way.

There was a note addressed to her propped up on the small dining room table and Alex set her bag down and tore it open.

Alex, (it read)

Come on in and take your shoes off and make yourself at home. The guest room is all ready for you - clean sheets and everything. There is beer and chicken salad in the fridge, so help yourself. I should be home around six-thirty and we can figure out what to do about supper then.

I'm glad you came down, Alex. It's good to have you here. If you need me, just call. The phone is never far from my ear in this town.


Alex smiled and stowed her stuff in the guest room. Then she headed for the Mall. It had been a long time since her last visit to Washington, D.C., and she was anxious to visit the museums.

When Abbie returned home several hours later, Alex was stretched out on her couch sound asleep. A light touch on her shoulder brought her sitting straight up with a confused look on her face, causing Abbie's brow to scrunch in concern.

"Hey... you all right? I didn't mean to startle you."

Alex blinked and shook her head, running her hands through blonde locks to give it some kind of order and only succeeding in making it stand up more. "I'm all right, Abbie, thanks. Just a weird dream or something. Give me a minute to kickstart my brain - I didn't mean to fall asleep." She scrubbed her hand over her face. "What time is it anyway?"

"Quarter of seven. You okay to go out tonight or do you want to stay in?"

"I actually prepared lasagna earlier," Alex commented, smiling when Abbie's head popped up and she visibly sniffed the air. "I figured it was only fair - I'm not the one that has to get up and go to work in the morning."

"I had the stuff for lasagna in my kitchen?"

"Not all of it, no, but it was no problem to stop at the store on my way back from the art gallery."

Abbie smirked. "I should have known you'd go there first considering how often you went to the Met. Do you still go?"

"As often as I can manage. I find it restful."

"I always did too," Abbie confessed. "Do I have time to change?" Alex glanced at the clock.

"Just about. It needs to come out of the oven and rest for a few minutes before service and I should probably do something with my hair."

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything...." Abbie said with a laugh. Alex snarled at her.

"Be nice to me, or no dessert for you." Abbie's ears pricked up.

"Dessert??" She stuck her lip out in a pout. "What kind of dessert? Not Death by Chocolate cake?" seeing Alex's evil grin. "But I love Death by Chocolate cake," she whined.

"I know. Help me up," Alex commanded, extending a hand that Abbie immediately took. "Go get comfortable while I pull the lasagna out of the oven. Once I brush my hair, we can worry about the rest of dinner and you can tell me about your day."

"How domestic sounding," Abbie said with a smile. Alex snorted.

"No one would believe it out of either one of us."

"You mean you're not really Betty Crocker in disguise?? I'm crushed," Abbie complained, clutching her chest dramatically as Alex removed the lasagna from the oven.

"Smartass!" Alex smirked, setting the pan down gently and shooing Abbie out of the kitchen in front of her.

"Better than a dumb ass, I always say."

"You must say it a lot then," Alex sniped with a grin, running to her room with a squeal before Abbie could think to catch her.

"Sonofa.... I know where you live, Cabot, and when you least expect it...."

"Promise, promises," Alex mocked. "Now go get changed. Death by Chocolate cake won't wait forever you know."

Abbie glowered at the closed door and muttered under her breath before heading down the hall to her own room. But she couldn't stop the grin that crossed her face as she shut the door behind her. She hadn't had this much fun in what seemed like a long time. Suddenly the weekend had possibilities.

"Oh my God," Abbie groaned some time later as she put down her fork. "If I eat another bite, I'm going to explode."

"Please don't," Alex asked plaintively. "I don't think I could move enough to clean up the mess you'd make."

Abbie chuckled. "At least you don't expect me to do it."

"It would be interesting to see you try, but I think that would only make more work for me in the end. So no, skip the exploding option and go straight to the stretching out on the couch option. I promise I didn't leave cooties."

"Can girls leave cooties? I thought only boys had them."

"I guess that depends on what side of the coin you fall on. All the boys I knew thought girls had cooties too."

"Shows you what boys know," Abbie snarked, groaning as she rose from her seat and shuffled gingerly to the couch. She eased down with a sigh and tilted her head back at Alex as she came into the room a few minutes later. "What took you so long?"

"I had to put things away." Alex propped her feet on the coffee table, crossing them at the ankles. "I tried twitching my nose, but it just doesn't work for me like it did for Elizabeth Montgomery."

"Now who's being the smartass?" Alex giggled and Abbie smiled. "So what are your plans for tomorrow?"

"I don't know. I haven't been here in so long - maybe the natural history or the American cultural museums?"

Abbie nodded. "Just make it early. We have a date at the Australian Embassy tomorrow night."

"We do?" blonde brows hiking into Alex's hairline.

"Um hmm... I just found out about it this afternoon. Apparently there is some shindig there that requires the boss's presence. He volunteered me, so I naturally volunteered you."

"Naturally," Alex agreed drolly. "I guess I'll be going shopping first."

"Sorry, hon... if I'd know he was going to spring this on me, I would have warned you."

"And he doesn't have a problem with you bringing another woman as a date?"

"I told him you were visiting and if you couldn't come, neither could I. I expected him to let me out of this, but he wants to meet you. He's heard a lot about Alex Cabot."

Blue eyes widened perceptibly. "Is that a good thing?"

Abbie shrugged. "He finds your story intriguing. Not many come home from Witness Protection. And his wife thinks it's romantic." Alex's look was clearly one of disbelief. "I know, hon... but she doesn't know the truth of what life has been like for you. I imagine we'll turn a lot of heads for sure, showing up together."

"Want to make bets on how long it takes for us to get propositioned as a couple?"

"Hell, no. I figure if we make it passed the first ten minutes without an offer we'll be doing good."

"Or bad, depending on your point of view," Alex teased. "But I will be happy with either description if it keeps the sleazes away from us." The phone rang, interrupting their conversation. Abbie groaned and rolled from the couch to answer it.

"Hello? .... Casey?" Alex stood and motioned to Abbie, who nodded her head in understanding - only to reach out and clutch Alex's arm before she could get out of the room. "Hold on, Casey... I'm going to put you on speakerphone so Alex can hear too."

"Alex is there with you?" She swallowed the irrational jealousy she felt. "Well, that will make it easier for me. I won't have to hunt for her."

"Why would you need to, Casey? What's wrong?"

Casey sighed. "Have either of you talked to Olivia since Monday? I've tried calling both the house and her cell and she's not answering either. I'm getting a little concerned. She wasn't really happy with me when we got off the phone Monday night."

"I think it'd be safe to say she wasn't happy with any of us," Abbie commented with a look at Alex who just shook her head. "Casey, have you talked to Elliot or to Jo and Blair? She might have contacted them since she's upset with all of us."

"I talked to Elliot today - he asked me if I'd heard from her recently. Apparently, they're supposed to get together Saturday, but she hasn't called him to finalize the details."

"Let me call Blair, Casey," Alex said softly. "And if she hasn't heard from Liv I'll call and send Gerry over to check on her personally. Either way, we'll call you back and let you know what's going on."

"Thanks guys... I appreciate it. I know it's probably nothing, but I'm just worried, you know? She's my friend."

"We know, Casey - ours too. Thanks for being concerned enough to call. Let us get back to you in a few." Abbie clicked off the speaker phone and looked at Alex.

"You all right?"

"Yeah. If she's done something stupid, I'm going to kick her ass."

Abbie laughed. "I'd pay good money to see that. Now make your calls. I want to know what the hell Benson was thinking going AWOL on us."

"Detective Benson??" Gerry had knocked on the door and rung the bell several times to no avail. She recovered the key from its hiding place as Blair had instructed Alex and unlocked the door, poking her head in cautiously. "Detective?"

Gerry crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her silently. She placed the key on the table and moved into the living room... only to be stopped by the sight that greeted her.

Olivia stood in front of an easel, her face a study in intense concentration. Geraldine couldn't see what was on the canvas as it faced the glass doors that in the daytime flooded the room with natural light. She stepped further into the room, clearing her throat before she spoke again. "Detective Benson?"

Her reaction was slow, as though she was having to bring her mind back for a very long distance. When her brown eyes met Gerry's, the older woman bit her lip to keep from gasping at the intensity of the stare that burned through her when Olivia met her gaze.

It took several long moments before Liv's expression cleared, and then her face creased into a frown as she realized she was no longer alone and exactly who was standing in the middle of her darkened living room.

"Gerry?" her tone laced with a hint of accusation.

"Don't take that tone with me, Detective. If you would answer the phone when it rings, I wouldn't be here disturbing you now."

"Excuse me?" Olivia's eyebrow arched in question. "What do my phone skills have to do with you barging in here uninvited in the middle of the night?"

Geraldine crossed her arms over her chest. "Just to clarify things for you, Detective Benson, it is not the middle of the night - it is eight o'clock in the evening and I am here at the behest of several of your concerned friends. A number of different people have tried to reach you since we saw you at luncheon on Monday. When no one could get in touch with you, your friend Casey called Abbie Carmichael looking for Alexandra to ask her to come check on you."

"So why are you here instead?" Liv asked peevishly. Alex Cabot had been haunting her every thought, and to find that despite everything she'd said she didn't care enough to come check on her personally....

"Because it was quicker for me to come down the road than it was for Alexandra to return from Washington."

"Oh." A single word, but so telling in its inflection. Gerry almost smiled.

"Yes... oh. Despite everything, her first concern was getting someone here to make sure you were all right. Now... are you all right, Detective? Can I call and reassure Alexandra that she doesn't need to rush home?"

Liv nodded her head. "I'm sorry you had to come all the way over here to check on me - I'm fine."

"Very well, Detective. Turn your phone on... or at least let those who care about you know you're going to be unavailable before you disappear again." She turned towards the foyer, then looked back at Olivia who had yet to move from behind her easel. "Oh... Alexandra asked me to remind you to call Elliot."

Liv's eyes widened perceptibly. "Shit," she muttered, causing Gerry to smile just the tiniest bit. "I forgot."

"I know - that is why she asked me to remind you. Have a good evening, Detective." Gerry was out the door before Olivia could give it a second thought.

She glanced down at the painting that had taken over her every waking thought, then scooted around it to jog to the front door. Gerry was just getting into her vehicle; when Olivia opened the front door, she hesitated.


"Thank you for coming to check on me, Gerry. I know you did it for Alex, but I appreciate it anyway."

"You're welcome, Detective Benson."


"Olivia," Gerry conceded. "Now go make your phone calls before you forget. I'll call Alexandra and let her know you're all right. Despite what has - or hasn't - happened between you, she deserves to know." Olivia nodded, but otherwise didn't respond. Gerry climbed into her car and drove away without another word. Liv went back inside to call Elliot.

"Thanks Gerry. I appreciate it. See you on Monday." Alex hung up the phone and looked at Abbie. "She was painting."

"Excuse me?"

Alex nodded. "You heard me - she was painting. Apparently she wanted peace to paint in so she turned off all the phones."

"What the hell was she painting?? The Mona Lisa??"

"I don't know," Alex shrugged. "Gerry didn't say." Then she frowned. "She didn't actually say much - just that she had spoken to Olivia and that she was painting. Oh... and that she had passed along the message for her to call Elliot."

"Good - can you call Casey and let her know?"

"You sure you don't want...."

"No." Alex waited but Abbie didn't say another word.

"All right. Let me go make the call. There's no reason for Casey to worry any longer than necessary." Abbie nodded and went into the kitchen. Alex picked up the phone and found Casey's number, then hit speed dial and waited for Casey to pick up.


"No, Casey - it's Alex." Alex heard the disappointed sighed and her smile was melancholy. She knew exactly how Casey felt. "Sorry... I just wanted to let you know that Gerry found Olivia and she's all right. Apparently she got caught up painting and just blocked out everything else."

"Thanks, Alex. I appreciate it. I'm glad she's all right. I guess she's still mad at me, though."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure it's me she's mad at."

Casey chuckled. "Well, you may be the root of her anger, but I can safely say that she wasn't real happy with my take on things either."

Alex snorted. "Abbie said the same thing," thinking about their talk over dinner. "I'm sorry the two of you ended up in the middle of this... disaster."

"I'm not," Casey replied immediately. "Oh, I mean... I wish it wasn't a disaster. I'd like to see a fairy tale ending for you guys. But I'm glad we could be there when you needed us."

"We should do lunch sometime," Alex blurted. "I mean... when I get back to Manhattan, you and I should go to lunch. Do a little bonding."

"Alex, don't take this the wrong way, but why? And why now?"

"I'm sorry... nevermind. Forget I said anything. Look...."

"Alex, I'd love to. I just want to know why and why now. We've worked in the same office for almost three years and hardly spoken to one another. What changed?"

"I did. I've let a lot of opportunities slip by me since I came home and I'm trying to rectify that. Besides, to be completely honest, Abbie and Olivia are both important to me and you're important to both of them. I think it would be in our own best interests to become friends."

Casey was silent for a long moment. "I'd like that, Alex. Let me know when you get back to town. We'll get together and do girl talk."

"Thanks, Casey. Goodnight."

"Night, Alex."

"That was clever, Cabot," Abbie said as she pushed off the doorjamb. Alex hung up the phone and turned to Abbie with an arched brow. "Making nice with Casey?"

"It has nothing to do with being clever, Carmichael. It has to do with opening my eyes and taking advantage of the opportunities for friendships around me."

Abbie held up her hands in defense. "All right, all right, Cabot. I believe you, jesus! I'm glad. I think it'll be good for both of you. Now, c'mon," extending her hand. "It's early and I need a walk after that meal. Let's go look at the monuments."

They grabbed their jackets and headed out the door.

"Hey, El."

"Liv, you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just got caught up in something."

"That something blonde with the initials AC?"

"NO. Leave it alone, Stabler."

"Aw, c'mon, Liv...."

"Elliot, I said leave it alone. It doesn't matter... got it?"

A frown crossed Stabler's face at her tone. "Yeah, I got it," he conceded. "Are we still on for the weekend or you gonna be tied up?"

"No, no... the weekend's good. Who all's coming?"

"Everybody, so buy plenty of burgers. We'll bring the beer and desserts."

"All right - tell everyone to come early and plan to stay late. We may as well enjoy the good weather while it lasts."

"You sure your friends are okay with all of us just dropping in?"

"It was their suggestion, so I'm thinking yeah," Olivia replied with a smirk. "Blair has wanted to meet you guys for a while now and this was a perfect excuse as far as she was concerned."

Elliot chuckled. "I hope they're ready for the one-six."

"I hope they're ready for John Munch." This time Elliot gave a full fledged laugh.

"No one is ready for Munch." Liv joined his laughter. After a moment, the sound wound down and Liv sighed.

"Thanks, El... I needed that."

"Glad to help, Liv. We'll see you in a couple days. Hang in there, all right?"

"Stay safe, El."

"Night, Liv."

"Hey, Olivia."

"Casey? Hey... what's up?"

Casey looked at the phone in confusion, then put it back to her ear. Apparently, Olivia was going to ignore their last conversation and for now, Casey was glad to let it slide. They could always come back to it later, especially if things worked out the way Casey was hoping they would. "Nothing much, really. I was just wondering if I was invited to the get together with the guys tomorrow."

"Sure... why not?"

"Well, the way we left off yesterday...."

"You were honest with me, Casey - I can't fault you for that."

"So we're good?"

"Yeah... we're good."

"Great - can I bring a date to this thing? I'm supposed to have a date with Kathy's brother."

"Two birds with one stone?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"Sure... as long as you don't mind the teasing the guys will give you."

Casey groaned. "Oh God... I am so screwed."

"Nah - they'll save the serious stuff for when you and Abbie finally become a couple." Olivia heard Casey's head hit the desk and winced in reflex.

"I'm going to go now," came the mumbled words. Liv grinned.

"Have a good day, Case. See you tomorrow."

"I'm going to kill my boss," Abbie groaned, kicking off her shoes as they stepped into her apartment in the wee hours Saturday morning. "What a clusterfuck that was."

"Aw, c'mon, Abbie. It wasn't that bad." Disbelieving brown eyes cut in Alex's direction and she held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "All right... it was that bad. But it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been."

Abbie snorted. "I'll remind you of that much later today when you find our picture on the front pages of the gossip and entertainment section of the newspaper. Personally," she added dryly, "I'm looking forward to reading the caption."

"'Hot Female Attorneys Make an Entrance Together - Cause Riot at the Australian Embassy.' Film at eleven," Alex replied drolly, stepping out of her own heels with a sigh of relief. "God... now I remember why I hate these kinds of functions. The shoes may look great, but they are a bitch on the feet."

Abbie's laugh was wry, but it was a laugh. "We're just lucky there wasn't film." She paused. "Although," she drawled thoughtfully, "it might be worth the grief to have that on film. We'd have blackmail material on any number of jackasses for years."

Alex smirked. "We already do. We make the headlines, we'll have pictures to go with the stories."

"You do realize that if we make the news here, we're going to hear about it the next time we are in Manhattan together?"

Alex laughed. "You do realize that at this point in my life, I've decided I'm not willing to let things like that get to me anymore? If we make the paper, I'll ask if we can each have a copy of the picture."

Finally, Abbie smiled. "It would certainly make for a memorable keepsake. But make sure you ask for three." Alex cocked a brow but didn't ask. Abbie chuckled. "If I don't send my mama a copy of that, I'll never be able to go back to Texas again. And I don't want to be disowned... especially since she'd embarrass me publicly to do it."

"I'd like to meet your mother," Alex commented softly. "She sounds a lot like my mother was."

"I think we could probably arrange that; in fact I think we might have to. She's going to want to meet you once she sees that picture. She's going to want to know what we did to cause such a stir at an Embassy party."

"Aside from walking in together? I haven't had that many illicit propositions in my life. Some of those suggestions I'm going to have to go google," Alex added, shaking her head.

Abbie snorted. "I liked your recommendation that they go try some of them with each other. First time I've ever actually been witness to you starting a riot."

Alex rolled her eyes and slapped Abbie. "Like you didn't contribute."

"At least it was entertaining. C'mon," she added with a yawn. "It's past my bedtime."

Alex stood and extended a hand to Abbie. "Mine too - at least we can sleep in."

"Yeah... I don't think the headlines are going to go anywhere for a few hours." She lifted the receiver from the cradle and turned the ringer off. "I'm not getting up early to listen to my boss rant when it hits."

Alex pulled them down the hall. "We'll worry about it later. After all, it was his idea."

"Good point... night Alex."

"Night, Abbie."

"Oh my," Blair commented as she opened the entertainment section of the Times. There on page two, in living color, was a full eight by ten picture in the middle of a half page spread article. The caption that ran underneath the picture said, "City's Legal Eagles Create Disturbance in Nation's Capital." Then in smaller letters beneath the headline - "Bureau Chief Alexandra Cabot Instigates Riot at Australian Embassy Aided and Abetted by US ADA Abbie Carmichael."

"What?" Jo asked, looking up from the front page. For answer, Blair passed over the section of the paper she had been reading. Jo read through the article, chuckling at the description of the party that had quickly escalated into a free-for-all. "Well," she said when she had recovered her composure, "at least it's a good picture."

"Wonder what kind of damage this will do to them professionally."

Jo shook her head. "None if their bosses are smart. According to the article, those in attendance felt it appropriate to make disparaging sexual comments and suggestions to both Alex and Abbie. And they resented her suggestion that they try those ideas out with each other. Pretty clever comeback if you ask me."

"Their bosses probably won't think so."

"Maybe," Jo said as she rose to refill their coffee cups. "But I don't think they would chance being seen not backing two high-profile female employees who were witnessed by the press being sexually harassed. Even if it wasn't an election year, that's a very tricky stand to take."

"At least Alex didn't take the first swing this time."

Jo's brow went into her hairline. "Has she before?"

Blair raised her coffee to her lips and took a sip before replying. "It wasn't a swing, exactly. It was more of a kick." She paused thoughtfully. "That boy didn't walk right for three full days after that."

Jo winced in sympathy. "Glad she's on our side. Hey... you think Liv's seen this?" tapping the picture still in front of her.

"I'd say yes except we don't get delivery of the paper out there. So unless she's been out this morning, probably not."

"Then we may want to head over sooner rather than later just to give her a little head's up on it. I don't think her squad would rag her about it, but she may not want the majority of them to see her reaction if she gets blindsided by it either. She's pretty private."

"All right... I packed our day bag last night, so I just need to change and then we can go."

Jo nodded. "Be quick, Princess. I know she told them to come early, so I'm thinking they will be there by ten. If we can leave in the next ten minutes, we should be there by nine-thirty at the latest." Blair didn't answer, having already moved upstairs. Even princesses understood the need for speed occasionally.

"Well," Olivia said, clearing her throat, "at least it's a good picture."

"Yeah - they make a striking couple...."

"... though not like me and Jo," Blair added impishly, causing Liv to chuckle in spite of herself. "I wonder what caused Alex to go off like that, though. She's been going to those kinds of functions all her life. She knows to take everything with a grain or six of salt."

Liv raised a brow. "Are we talking about the same Alex Cabot? The same Alex Cabot that got thrown in jail for contempt... that Alex Cabot?? The Alex Cabot I knew didn't take shit from anyone."

"The prosecutor Alex Cabot didn't; the politician Alex Cabot knows how to play the political and diplomatic game. She grew up learning how to play it."

"Well, I know it wouldn't have taken much for Abbie Carmichael to have gone Texas on their asses. She's New York class all the way, but she's got a Texas woman's sensibilities when it comes to dealing with idiots. She'll only tolerate just so much stupid before she lets the cowgirl loose. I used to love going out with her just to watch it happen," Liv confessed.

"No wonder she left the DA's office," Blair commented sotto voce, drawing laughter from both Liv and Jo.

"So you're okay with this?" Jo asked Olivia point blank when their laughter died down. Liv shrugged.

"Why wouldn't I be? I don't have a claim on either of them," she said diffidently, though she didn't meet Jo's eyes. Jo crouched down until green eyes met brown, forcing Liv to look at her.

"Maybe not, but one of them has a claim on you, doesn't she? C'mon Liv... if you can't be honest with me, you need to at least be honest with yourself. Isn't that the first thing you taught me?" Olivia didn't answer verbally, but then Jo didn't really need her to. She knew... and so did Liv. A knock on the door broke their stare and Blair moved off to answer it before either of them could move to do so. "We'll talk later?"

Liv shrugged again. Jo wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pressed a light kiss to her hair. "Only if you want to, Liv. I'd never force that kind of confidence. Now, c'mon - smile. This is a party."

Whatever response she might have made was lost in the melee that were Elliot's brood coming in, and their thoughts turned to the fun of a Saturday pool party with friends.

The sound of laughter carried across the yard and Olivia couldn't help but smile in reaction. Elliot's two youngest kids were uninhibited and coaxing the rest of the group into the pool by turn. They, more than anyone, had insured the success of the party, though everyone was making an effort. Conversation flowed and laughter rang out and from the grill; Olivia nodded her head in contentment. This had been a good idea.

"This was a good idea," Elliot commented as he came up to stand beside her. "I like your friends."

Liv looked around at Jo, who was currently engaged in an animated discussion with Kathy Stabler and John Munch, causing them both to giggle over something. Blair and Fin were... Olivia tilted her head slightly. It looked like they were doing some sort of dance step together, though she'd never seen anything quite like it. However, it was quite interesting to watch.

"They're good people," Liv agreed. "I'm glad Blair suggested it... glad all of you were able to take the time off."

"Cap made sure of it," nodding to Cragen who was sitting by the edge of the pool dangling his feet in the water watching the kids. "We've missed you."

Olivia kept her eyes on the grill. "I've missed you guys, too."


"But I'm not gonna lie and tell you this has been a hardship." She took a deep breath. "I think I needed this, El. This has been... renewing for me."

He turned to her, waiting until she met his eyes. "You coming back?" straight and to the point.

She held his gaze for a long moment. "I think so, yeah." A beat, then she sighed. "As much as I have enjoyed this... as much as I will treasure the time I've had to concentrate on my art... I need to be out there doing what we do. We make a difference and that's important."

"Yeah, we do," Elliot said with a brief smile. "By the way, Si-mon," drawing the name out disdainfully, "called looking for you again." Liv sighed and looked back down at the grill, carefully turning the burgers.


"Liv, you gotta deal with all this sometime."

"I know. I just... I'm not sure what to do with him. My life was a lot less complicated before I found him."

"Are you sorry you did?"

"Sometimes? Yeah," she said honestly. She shrugged. "There just seems to be a lot more... it was easier when it was just me."

"What're you gonna do?"

"Nothing for now. Maybe he'll take the hint and back off for a while."

"And Cabot?" Her head popped up so quickly, Elliot expected to see it go flying.

"Leave. It. Alone. El." He held up his hands in surrender.

"All right. You know where to find me when you're ready to talk about it." Her shoulders slumped and his hands landed on them, gently kneading out the tension. "It'll work out, Liv. It always does." He looked across the yard. "I better go rescue Lake," forcing a chuckle from Liv when she saw the situation he'd managed to get into with Elliot's kids.

"Go on... burgers will be ready in a few." He headed off and Casey took that moment to come over. "Hey, Case."

"Hey, Liv." She took a deep breath. "Smells good." She looked around. "It's nice here... thanks for inviting us out."

"It was Blair's idea," motioning to the blonde who was now talking to Casey's erstwhile date. "But I'm glad everyone was able to come. This has been fun. How's the date going?"

"Eh...." Casey shrugged. "He's a nice guy, probably a lot of fun...." She broke off and looked out across the expanse of yard like she was searching for answers.


"But... I don't know." She paused a minute and Liv remained quiet, shifting burgers from the grill to a platter in preparation for eating. Finally Casey turned back to Olivia. "Did you see the paper this morning?"


Casey waited, but Liv didn't say anything else. She huffed. "Doesn't it bother you? C'mon, Liv...."

"Casey, what do you want me to say?" not denying it, but refusing to acknowledge it aloud as well. "They're beautiful women; they make a gorgeous couple - no wonder they attracted attention and suggestive comments. Doesn't make it right, but it does make it understandable. Does it bother you?"

"Yes... no... I'm not sure." She blew out an impatient breath. "I think it's making me jealous... and I don't even have a right to be jealous."

"Maybe you should figure out why that is, Case." She picked up the platter and headed to the picnic table that was loaded with an array of food. "C'mon... let's call everyone over. We can worry about the rest later... or not."

"That means you too, right?"

Liv leveled Casey a long look before turning and beckoning her eagerly awaiting friends to lunch. Casey just swallowed and shook her head. "All righty, then," she muttered, before picking up a plate and helping herself.

"Well, that was surprising," Abbie commented to Alex as they left the restaurant. Abbie's boss had indeed called, though he had waited until a reasonable hour, then invited them out to an early Sunday brunch. They had gone - Abbie had decided he wouldn't make a scene in public.

To the contrary, he had been apologetic to both Abbie and Alex. "You have to understand that I never expected that sort of reaction. Personally, I don't blame you for the comment," Ronald added, looking directly at Alex. "Given some of the things I've been informed were said, I applaud your restraint."

"Yes," his wife Leigh Anne added drolly. "I would have taken the first swing, myself." She glanced at her husband with a smirk. "This is what happens when you get a room full of drunk, ex-jock lawyers together."

Abbie snorted. "Happens a lot then, huh?"

"It would... if you and Alex attended functions like this together more often. Fortunately for us and for the diplomatic corps, you're several hundred miles apart. We're just lucky the Australian ambassador has a sense of humor."

"And a sense of propriety. I think she was as offended as we were." A beat. "At least it was an equal opportunity embarrassment for everyone."

"I don't think we'll have to worry about any diplomatic lawyerly type functions any time in the near future."

"Thank God for that," Leigh Anne commented. "Now, how about we talk about something interesting? Alex, would you be willing to share about your experience in the Witness Protection Program? So few actually end like yours did - with the individual able to return to the life they had before. It would be nice to hear a success story for a change."

"Well, I'm not sure how successful I'd consider it, but I'm certainly willing to tell you what I can. What would you like to know?"

Leigh Anne and Ronald exchanged glances at her wording, then turned back to Alex. "Whatever you would like to share, my dear." Ronald motioned the waiter to their table. "But first I think we should order our drinks and get some food. I don't know about you ladies, but I'm starving."

They grinned and nodded their assent, then placed their orders. Conversation was nice and varied through the rest of the meal and they all left in a satisfied state of mind.

"It was pleasant," Alex agreed as they walked towards the Mall area. "Your boss and his wife seem like nice people."

"Yeah, they are," Abbie agreed with a shrug. "You all right? I know you don't like to talk about that whole witness protection thing."

"Eh... I'm all right. It's not my favorite subject, but it is part of who I am... for better or worse. Now c'mon. Let's go play tourist. There are still museums I haven't visited in years, and I'll bet you haven't visited them at all. Time to broaden your horizons, Carmichael and give you some culture."

"Awww, Caaaabbbbbooottt," Abbie whined. "My horizons are broad enough. Can't we go to Kings Dominion?"

Alex stuck her hand into the pocket of Abbie's leather jacket and snagged her keys. "Only if I get to drive," chuckling as she skipped out of Abbie's reach.

"Not my new Boxter." Alex kept walking away, devilish smile on her face. "Cabot...."

Alex held up her hand and jingled the keys. "C'mon, Carmichael," backing up towards the car.

"Cabot," Abbie growled, then huffed when big blue eyes blinked up at her appealingly. "Dammit!" she cursed, crawling into the passenger side and crossing her arms over her chest. "Not a scratch, Cabot."

"Not a scratch, Carmichael. I only want to drive a little while. It's not like I do it that often."

Abbie's eyes widened in alarm, even as the car started moving forward. "Wait, do you even have a license?" When there was no immediate answer forthcoming, she clutched the dashboard. "Alex! ALEX!!!"

"That was a lot of fun," Alex commented as Abbie drove them back towards Washington. "Who knew you could squeal like a girl??"

Abbie took her eyes off the road briefly to glare at Alex, only to stick out her tongue at the impish grin she got in return. "The human body is not supposed to contort like that. It was either squeal or hurl."

Alex grimaced. "Thank you for squealing then. Puking wouldn't have added anything to our day."

"Did you really have fun?"

"I had a blast - thank you for insisting. Though I should have known you were a season pass holder. A lot of those kids knew you by name."

"It's a nice way to blow off a little steam and unwind when I'm not in Manhattan for the weekend."

"Hmm... maybe we should coax Liv and Casey down here one weekend. Make a party of it."

"It'll have to wait til spring."


"Because there aren't but a couple weekends left in the season and I'd prefer if we were all at least able to be civil together before we try something so ambitious."

"Fair enough," Alex said after a moment's thought.

"So are you headed back tomorrow?" Abbie asked after the silence lengthened. "You know you're welcome to stay as long as you want."

"I know, and I appreciate it. But I need to get back and take care of a few things before I have to head back to work next week."

"You looking forward to it?" Abbie asked as she smoothly moved the Boxter around a slower moving vehicle. When Alex didn't answer immediately, she turned her head slightly to catch a glimpse of Alex biting her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Alex?"

"Sorry... I was just thinking." She grew quiet and Abbie waited. "You know... I'm not sure I am - looking forward to it I mean. I'm not sure I want to do this anymore."

Abbie blinked but didn't take her eyes from the road. "This," she spoke carefully. "Do you mean the law? The DA's office? What?"

"Both, some days," Alex said honestly. "But mostly the DA's office. I'm not crazy about being a Bureau Chief and every day lessens the allure it once had for me a little more."

"What bothers you about it?" Abbie finally asked after several long moments. "I thought it was a serious stepping stone to realizing your political ambitions."

"It is," Alex agreed, "or it would be if I still had those same ambitions. I'm just not sure that's what I really want out of life anymore."

"You don't want to be the DA anymore?"

"Well, I wouldn't say no if it dropped into my lap," Alex noted drolly. "But it's not something I'm actively pursuing anymore either."

"So what do you want to do?" She continued when she felt Alex hesitate beside her. "C'mon Alex... if you could do anything... anything in the world - what would make you happy?"

"I don't know that I've ever actually thought about it - not in that context anyway. I thought about it a lot while I was in witness protection. I thought coming back to Manhattan and resuming my life as Alex Cabot would be all I needed to be happy."


"But it didn't. Wait... it did - I was thrilled to be able to come home again - to be me and not some made up printout conceived by some really bad hack writer. But everything had changed. I had changed and I never took the time to decide what I wanted to do. I just took the life I was offered and started living it without even considering if it was all I wanted it to be. And what a fucked up mess I seem to have made of that."

"Then maybe you need to take the next week and figure out what Alex Cabot wants to do with the rest of her life. You were given a second chance, Alex - don't squander it."

"Well, I know the first thing I want to do at the moment," pointing to a sign on the road. "We need ice cream."

Ever obliging, Abbie put on her blinker and gave Alex a rakish smile. "Never let it be said that Abbie Carmichael doesn't know how to cater to a woman's needs."

"I'll make sure Casey knows that."

Abbie glared again. "You can walk home, you know."

Alex wrapped her hands around Abbie's bicep. "Nah... you love me too much."

It was the last thing she would remember for a while.

"All right! All right!! I'm coming! Give it a rest, will ya??" Olivia jerked the door open and glared at the intruder until she realized it was Elliot standing in front of her with a very sober expression on his face. "El?" she asked, pushing her hair back away from her face with a suddenly nervous hand and opening the door wider so he could cross into the house.

"Elliot, what's going on?" Liv asked after a moment of tense silence. "Why are you here?"

He sighed and looked at her steadily. "I'm on my way to pick up Alex's housekeeper." He scratched an eyebrow. "Alex and Abbie were the victims of a violent crime tonight." He looked at his watch. "Last night, I guess it is now. The hospital called Blair who was Alex's point of contact; when she arrived in DC, she had Jo call me and ask me to pick up Geraldine Bernard and get her on a flight to Washington. Apparently, it's bad enough that they're gonna need help for a little while once they're released. I thought you might want to be aware."


He put his hands on her shoulders. "Don't, Liv. Don't be stupid about this and don't try to lie to me and pretend that you don't care."

She jerked out of his grip, though he wasn't holding her tightly and turned her back to him. "I can't, Elliot. I can't afford to care like that again! I won't do it!" Her stance was so rigid Elliot hurt just looking at her and he waited, wondering how long it would take her to break. She kept her face to the living room. "What happened? How are they?" she asked in a whispered voice.

He shrugged, even though she couldn't see him. "I don't know, Liv. Blair didn't have any details. Only that they were assaulted and in the hospital. Look, I need to go. You gonna be all right?"

She lifted a hand to her face, pushing her hair out of her eyes again before she turned to face him again. "I'll be fine. You be careful, all right?" she added as she opened the door. He nodded and looked like he wanted to say more before finally opting to leave without another word. Olivia waited until he was in the car and pulling away before she closed the door.

She went back into the living room and stood in front of her artwork for a long time. Then she sighed and packed an overnight bag, snatching up her jacket and heading for her car. "I must be out of my fucking mind," she muttered as she headed south, not realizing until she was miles down the road that she didn't even know where she was going.


"Where'm I going, Jo?"

"Liv?" like she hadn't been sitting there waiting for the call Blair had assured her would come sooner rather than later.

"C'mon, Jo. I'm halfway to DC already. Where am I going?"

"Langley Air Force Base. It was the closest facility. I'll have Blair call the front gate so they will pass you through. Come up to the third floor waiting room. We'll be here."

"Wait... you're in DC? With Blair?" not asking the question that was burning on the tip of her tongue.

"Yeah, Liv. She got the phone call from the hospital and we left as soon as we could get to the airport. I told the Cap it was a family emergency... which is technically true on several levels. So yeah... we'll be here when you get here or I'll call and let you know where we'll be otherwise, all right?"

"Thanks, Jo."

"Notta problem, Liv. They're both stabilized and the doc doesn't expect that to change - said they were both very lucky. So you take your time and drive safely, all right?" Olivia nodded her head and bit her lip before remembering that Jo couldn't see her.

"Yeah... okay." She cleared the hoarseness from her throat. "Jo, what happened?"

Jo shrugged and the action was obvious in her tone. "All evidence indicates a hate crime."

"What?!? What the hell kind of a hate crime...?!?"

"Gay bashing," her words succinct and to the point. "A Marine saw what was going on and pulled the kids off them. His girlfriend called nine one one and then started first responder protocol while he and a buddy took care of the children - managed to collar a couple of them before the police and emergency services arrived."

"Have you talked to them?"

"The Marines or the kids?" Jo asked then continued without waiting for a reply. "The Marines left word on how they could be contacted... asked if they could be notified on Abbie's and Alex's condition in the morning - or later today as the case may be. The detectives here have promised me professional courtesy as far as the kids go. They're in lock-up tonight and with two decorated Marines as witnesses, the police don't expect them to be released on bail... especially since they're acknowledged gang members."

"I wanna talk to them," Liv said in a steady voice.

"You focus on getting here. We'll worry about the rest later, okay?" Silence. "C'mon, Liv... promise me you're not gonna be stupid about this."

"I'll be careful, Jo, and I'll be there as quick as I can."

"Liv," growling into the phone. Olivia sighed. She should have known Jo wouldn't let her get away with less than a promise. She was the best - Liv had taught her well.

"All right, Jo... I promise - nothing stupid."

"Good girl. See you shortly."

"Thanks, Jo."

The rest of the ride was made in the solemn silence of the early morning night.

It was still dark when Olivia pulled up to the gate at Langley Air Force Base, though there was the barest hint of lightening in the eastern sky. She stopped at the upraised hand of the airman standing duty and passed him her ID case and shield. He studied it for a moment, then leaned down to her window.

"Where are you headed, ma'am?"

"The hospital - two friends were brought in by ambulance earlier. Blair Warner was supposed to call down and leave my name...?"

The airman stood back up and consulted a clipboard, comparing her ID to the names on his list. After a moment, he nodded his head. "Yes ma'am. Do you know where the hospital is?" When she shook her head, the airman took a copy of the base map that was kept in the guard shack for just such occasions and gave her explicit directions. When he was done, he passed her the map and her ID and shield, then raised the gate for her to pass through.

She looked around with vague curiosity, noting the number of formations out running already. Then she arrived at the hospital and everything else was put aside in her need to find Jo.

In the end it wasn't hard - Jo was standing outside the waiting room when Olivia stepped from the elevator. Without a word, she took Liv's hand and led her into the care unit where Alex and Abbie were currently resting. Jo stopped at the door, nodding at the nurse and motioning to Olivia to go ahead. Then she crossed her arms over her chest and stood back to wait.

Liv crossed to Abbie's bed first as it was the closest to the door, wincing when she saw the damage that had been done. Black eyes, split lip, arm in a cast - Olivia pushed a lock of brown hair out of Abbie's face gently, wondering if the cut at her hairline would leave a scar. She leaned forward and brushed her lips over Abbie's forehead, whispering something in a language Jo couldn't decipher. After a moment, Liv stood upright again and took a deep breath before taking the steps necessary to bring her to Alex's side.

Liv bit her lip. Alex looked much like Abbie did - black eyes, split lip, cut on the cheek - but instead of her arm in a cast, her head was swathed in gauze. Liv wondered if her blonde hair had been completely shorn or if it had been tucked up inside the bandage somehow.

She stood still just looking, reaching out, but stopping short before she allowed herself to touch Alex in any way. She let her hand fall to her side and dropped her head. She didn't even jump when Jo came up beside her, wrapping an arm around her waist.

"They're gonna be all right, Liv. In fact, they're gonna be moved to Georgetown tomorrow."

"What?" Olivia asked, turning to face Jo. "Why? They're still unconscious!"

"Yeah, but they're stable. This is a military hospital, so since they're no longer in imminent danger, they need to be moved to a civilian hospital." Jo took Liv's hand and led her back towards the waiting room. "I figure Blair and Alex's housekeeper can go with them while you and I stay here for a day or two and keep an eye on what happens with those kids."

Liv looked around when they reached the waiting room. "Where is Blair?"

"She picked Geraldine up at the airport and took her back to a hotel after a quick stop here. We thought they should be rested to transport Alex and Abbie to Georgetown."

"So what now?"

"Now you and I are gonna go catch a few z's before we head over to the police department later. Those kids have an arraignment in a little while and then we're gonna have a word." Olivia nodded. Jo looked at her closely, noting the pallor beneath the naturally dark skin. "Hey," laying a concerned hand on Liv's arm. "You okay?"

"Yeah... can you give me a minute?"

"Sure, Liv. You want me to wait here or...?"

"Yeah... I'll be right back." Then Olivia crossed back into the room where Abbie and Alex still lay unconscious.

She walked directly to Alex's bed this time - no hesitation. She took Alex's hand gently in her own, stroking the smooth skin over her knuckles and marveling at the softness. Olivia had always admired Alex's hands - soft, unblemished skin; long, tapered fingers; a delicacy belying the strength behind them. She was glad that the years had been kind to Alex in that regard.

"I'm sorry, Alex. Despite everything, I wouldn't have had this happen to either one of you. We'll get justice for you both... I promise."

Olivia leaned down, kissing Alex briefly on the cheek and lingering for a moment to breathe in a scent that was at once familiar and foreign to her. After a long moment, she lifted her head, letting her gaze roam over Alex's profile for another minute. She lightly squeezed the hand she held, then released it and left the room without a backward glance.

She never saw the tear that tracked down Alex's face.

"You ready to talk now, punk?"

"Fuck you, asshole. I ain't telling you nothing."

Liv and Jo stood in the box watching the interrogation of one of the kids the Marines had caught. So far, though, it had been less than productive. Liv looked at the lieutenant watching with them.

"Give me a shot."

"Detective Benson...."

"Lieutenant, please. I can get what you need."

"Detective, you're too close to this. You can't be objective."

"Screw objective!"



Olivia scrubbed a hand through her hair. "Look," she said in a more subdued tone, "I know I'm too close to this, but this is about justice. We've got these two dead to rights, but what about the rest of them? Do they get to go free?"

"No, Detective... we'll get what we need. It may just take a little longer than we want. We know who many of the gang members are. It is simply a matter of finding them and putting them in the right place at the right time."

"I still think I could get the information we need."

"I'm sure you could, Detective. However, since you are already on suspension, I don't think it's a good idea. Don't glare at your friend," the lieutenant admonished. "I checked on both of you as soon as Detective Polniaczek asked for professional courtesy to be extended. Impressive records, I must say. BUT," he added without pausing, "I don't think letting you get involved here would be good for you or this case. We don't want to lose what we already have because of your involvement."

Liv sighed, knowing he was right. "Fine," she grumbled. "But I'd like to be kept in the loop," handing him her card.

"Absolutely, Detective," handing her his in return. "As soon as we know anything new."

"Thanks," she said before she turned on her heel and left the room. Jo and the lieutenant exchanged a long look before Jo nodded her agreement to their unspoken conversation.

"I'll be back as soon as...."

"Yeah - I'll still be here somewhere. Just ask for me."

"Thanks, LT," then she followed Liv out of the station. "Hey," she called out as she caught up with Olivia just outside. "You all right?"

"Peachy," rubbing a hand over her face. "Look, can you get a ride back to the hotel?"

"Yeah, sure... why?"

"I'm going home."

"What?? Liv, why?"

"I don't belong here... not now."

"What about Alex? And Abbie?"

"They have you and Blair and Geraldine. They'll be fine."

Jo shook her head. "I don't believe it. Olivia Benson has turned into a chicken shit. I never thought I'd live to see the day."

"Leave it alone, Jo."

"Go home, Liv. You're useless here. Maybe you deserve the mess you're in. You've lost your nerve." Before Olivia could respond, Jo turned and went back inside. Olivia watched with unseeing eyes, her mind replaying the words of accusation that had flowed from Jo's lips. Then she climbed in her car and headed north, never looking back. Then hurt gave way to anger and she pulled into the next rest area she came to. There was more than one way to skin a cat and Olivia Benson was fixing to call in a few markers to do just that.

Liv pulled into the Bureau parking lot and turned off her car. Jo's words still rankled her, but she was honest enough with herself to acknowledge the kernel of truth behind them. However, she'd made a promise to Alex that she intended to keep.

She signed in at the desk and was met by Dana Lewis. "Detective Benson... this is unexpected," extending a hand. "To what do I owe this visit?"

"I need a favor."

"Come into my office and let's talk."

They walked down the short hallway and Dana motioned Liv in ahead of her before closing the door behind them both. "What sort of favor?"

So Olivia explained what was going on - about Alex's and Abbie's assault; about the Marines who had stepped in and stopped it; about the gang members that had been apprehended and those still on the loose.

"So what exactly do you want the FBI to do, Detective? It sounds like everything is under control. And this isn't actually within our jurisdiction." Liv got up to pace.

"I dunno... keep an eye on things. Help them out. I don't want these thugs to get away!"

"Why do you think they will? If they already have two of them in custody...."

"I don't know," Olivia said more forcefully, raking her hands through her hair. "I just... I need to be part of this and I can't be. At least if you and the Bureau were keeping an eye on this I'd feel better."


"You know what? Nevermind. I'll take care of this myself. I'm sorry I bothered you," flinging the door open and stomping down the hall."

"Detective! Olivia, wait!"

At the sound of her name, Liv turned and looked back at the FBI agent. "Look, Dana... I'm sorry I tried to get you involved in this, all right? There's nothing you can do - I get it!"

"Olivia, I'll make some phone calls... see what we can do." A beat. "Can I ask why this is so personal for you?"

"Alex and Abbie are... friends."

"Is that all?" Olivia returned Dana's look with one of her own. "Come on, Olivia. There must be more to it than that. Otherwise, you'd have either forced your way into the on-going investigation despite your suspension, or you'd have completely left it alone." Silence and Liv's gaze remained unwavering... unflinching. Dana sighed. "All right - I'll do what I can. But you stay out of this. I mean it, Detective. You stay out of this or I'll come after you myself. You got it?"

"I got it. Thanks, Dana."

"Uh huh. Just make sure I get an invitation when things get settled."

A frown crossed Olivia's features. "An invitation? An invitation to what?"

Dana chuckled. "You'll know when you figure it out. Just don't forget you owe me."

A confused look washed over Liv's face before she shook her head. "I'll remember."

"You do that." Dana gestured them back towards the door. "Where can I reach you?"

Liv passed her a card. "Call the cell. It's always on."

Dana accepted the card. "I'll be in touch." Then Olivia was outside and heading towards Georgetown University Hospital.


"Hey, Casey. It's Olivia."

"Hey, Olivia - what's up? Have you recovered after having a houseful of guests Saturday? I have to tell you that Trevor was a little miffed he didn't get invited."

"He'll get over it. Have you talked to Elliot today?"

"No, I think he called out sick today. Why?"

"Um... I'm guessing you haven't heard then yet."

"Heard what?" The slightest pause before Casey continued to speak. "C'mon, Olivia. Obviously something happened or you wouldn't have felt the need to call. What's going on?"

Liv blew out a breath. "Alex and Abbie were attacked last night. They're okay," she continued before Casey could ask, "or they will be. They're being transferred to Georgetown today. Alex's housekeeper has already come down to keep an eye on them once they're released."

"What happened? Why were they attacked? What's being done to catch the perps?"

So Liv told Casey everything she knew, leaving out her confrontation with Jo and her visit to Quantico. Those were on a need to know basis and as far as Olivia was concerned, no one needed to know.

"Maybe I should take some time off... come down there."

"And do what? I don't think that's a good idea... at least not right now. They weren't even conscious when I was there earlier. Maybe once they're home and recovering."

"Yeah, you're right. Are you sure they're going to be all right?"

"Yeah... the doctor was confident they would be awake in a day or two. They want them to rest to help their ribs to heal."

Casey sighed. "All right. I'll wait until I hear from you, but keep me in the loop, please?"

"You know I will."

"Thanks, Olivia." A knock on her door came through the phone. "I need to go. Talk to you later?"


"Mr. Moss? This is Detective Olivia Benson."

"Olivia... how lovely to hear from you. And please - it's Kurt, remember?"

Liv rolled her eyes but nodded. "Kurt, of course," she agreed reluctantly. They'd met at a charity event and shared some interesting conversation and a few dates. Then Olivia had found out who Kurt Moss really was and what he did for a living. It hadn't taken but a moment's thought to realize what a bad idea that was for her.

"So what can I do for you?" he asked with a smile in his voice. "Tell me my charming personality has finally worn you down and you're ready to consider a more serious relationship with me."

"Um... no." She sighed. "Actually, I need a favor."

"I see. And if I do this favor for you, what's in it for me exactly?"

"Kurt, do you understand nothing can come of us together? You're a nice enough guy, but you're also an editor for the New York Ledger and I swore I would never be involved with a journalist again."

"At least give me one more chance to change your mind. Not all journalists are bad people, you know."

"I'm sure, but you know the old adage - 'once bitten, twice shy'." When her words were met with silence, Olivia sighed. "Fine... one more date."

"Wonderful," he crowed. "When?"

Liv reached up and clutched her hair in frustration. "I don't know. I'm not in town at the moment." She paused thoughtfully. "How about this weekend? I'll come back to Manhattan Friday evening - we can do it then."

"Anxious, hmm? I'll get reservations somewhere nice and let you know. Now, what can I do for you, Olivia?" affecting a serious tone as his mind turned from flirtatious to business.

"I need to talk to the reporter who wrote the article and posted the picture about the Australian Embassy debacle that involved Abbie Carmichael and Alex Cabot and I can't do it in an official capacity as a police officer. I was hoping you could get me an introduction."

"Absolutely. Let me make a few phone calls and I'll be in touch."

"Thank you, Mr.... Kurt."

"Anything for you, Olivia." Then the line went dead.

"God - the things I do..." letting the thought trail off. "I just hope the guys don't find out. Otherwise I'll never hear the end of it. Elliot finds out I'm dating another newspaper man and it's all over." She took a deep breath and looked around the Georgetown University Hospital parking lot. "Now for Jo." Without giving herself time to back out of it, Liv opened the door of her car and stepped out, heading into the hospital with marked determination in her stride.

"Come in, Ms Novak. What can I do for you?" gesturing Casey to a seat across the desk. Casey seated herself and folded her hands in her lap. Liz tilted her head in concern. "Casey?"

Casey cleared her throat. "I'm going to be taking some time off. I haven't talked to Arthur yet, but as soon as it can be arranged, I'm headed down to DC."

Liz's eyebrows rose into her hairline. "Would you like to start at the beginning and tell me the whole story?"

Casey got up and wandered over to the window, staring sightlessly at the vista below. Liz's eyes followed her, but she remained silent, waiting for Casey to speak. Casey sighed. "Did you see the picture in the Times yesterday... the one of Alex Cabot and Abbie Carmichael?"

Liz snorted. "Yes... made me wonder what on earth Cabot said to cause a riot. Not that I was particularly surprised - like you, neither she nor Abbie were ever able to suffer fools lightly," she added with a chuckle. Casey smiled wanly.

"If you didn't read the article, if you only looked at the picture... they looked like a couple - a gorgeous, lesbian couple," she continued before Liz could make the obvious snark. She turned and looked Liz squarely in the eyes. "They were victims of a gay bashing last night."

"WHAT?!?" Liz waved her hands before Casey could repeat herself. "I heard you - I even understood you. I'm just not sure I understand... why?? What happened?"

Casey repeated what Olivia had shared with her, including the Marines' involvement, the police investigation and Alex's and Abbie's medical conditions. "Olivia promised to keep me in the loop, but I'd feel better if I was there... if I could just check on them myself."

"Personally involved, Ms Novak?"

"Not yet... but I'd like to be," she confessed shyly. "I just... I need to be there."

Liz smiled, remembering what it was like to be young and in the discovery of new love. She slapped her hands on her desk, causing Casey to jump, then stood and straightened her skirt. "All right... let's go talk to Arthur and see if we can get you out of here in the next day or two."

"You wanna run that by me again?" Branch asked when Casey had finished explaining what had happened once more. "Carmichael and Cabot were victims of a gay bashing because of the picture that ran in the Times yesterday??"

"That's what the police in Virginia believe," Casey replied. "The two kids they caught were acknowledged gang members. I haven't heard anything else from Olivia, so I don't know if it was an initiation or a random act of wrong place, wrong time or if they were targeted and hunted because of the picture. I just don't know. But I do know I need to be there."

Branch sighed and rubbed his forehead. He was getting a massive headache - and all because the Alex Cabot that had been once known around the precinct and Hogan Place as the Ice Princess had finally returned with a vengeance. He wondered offhandedly if she would return to the DA's office when her suspension was up and then realized that probably wasn't an option now for at least a few more weeks - not if she was as injured as he was being led to believe. He sighed loudly.

"I need you to wrap up the Bristol case. We have worked too long and hard to catch the bastard to let him go on a technicality and you're the only one familiar enough with the case to bring him to justice. Where are you at with it?"

"One more witness from the defense tomorrow morning and then closing arguments," Liz answered when Casey looked at her with a question in her eyes. "I expect the jury deliberation to be short if there is even half a brain among them."

Arthur snorted and shook his head. "We all know what that means. All right, Casey - as soon as you have a verdict, you can go. But I expect you to stay in touch and keep us informed of what's happening. I'll assign a couple of the interns from Cabot's department to work on whatever is outstanding with SVU - make sure you brief them well in case they have to go to trial while you're gone."

Casey nodded. "Thanks, Arthur."

"Just remember what I said," he responded gruffly. "Now go on - you've got a lot to do, and you want to be able to leave as soon as the verdict is in."

She nodded again and walked out with a brief glance at Liz who simply waved her dismissal. When the door was closed, Branch turned to Donnelly.

"What the hell is happening here? I feel like I'm suddenly in an out of control chariot speeding towards hell and damnation itself."

"I think it's called life, Arthur. Unfortunately, the ugly side we deal with everyday just hit home a little more personally this time."

He huffed. "I'm going to make a few phone calls - see if I can get any more information about all this. You'll keep an eye on Casey?"

"Yes, but she'll be fine. She's a professional. She won't let her personal life interfere here. What happens when she's in Washington, however...."

"I have a friend or two that will be able to keep an eye on all of them there. We don't want a repeat of this incident and we already know Detective Benson is something of a loose cannon. I'd hate to have anything else happen because of her propensity to go off half-cocked. Besides, I'm fairly certain IAB wouldn't look too kindly on her actions if she did."

"Make your calls. I've got a few of my own to make. You'll keep me informed?"

"Yes... and you'll do the same."

"You got it," Liz agreed as she closed the door firmly behind her.

"Where are they, Jo?" Olivia called as she reached the hospital doors realizing she had no way of finding them and no shield to flash to aid her quest.

"Well, if it isn't Detective Chickenshit," Jo snarked. "I'm not sure I should tell you. I mean, you really don't need to know, do you? Not like you can see them in New York."

She took a deep breath, swallowing both her anger and her pride. "I'm not in New York, Jo. I'm at the hospital in Georgetown. I'm standing outside the front doors. I just need to know where to go."

"Wait there. I'll be right down." A click signaled the end of the call and Liv snapped her phone closed and stuck her hands in her pockets. A rumble of thunder caught her attention and she was staring up at the late afternoon sky when Jo stepped through the hospital doors. Jo came right up behind her and craned her neck.

"Looks like rain's rolling in." Olivia turned and met intense green eyes.

"Kinda fits the way things seem to be going today," Liv shrugged.

"What are you doing here, Liv? I thought you were going home." Without further warning, water began to pour from the sky even though both women could still see sunshine. Jo sighed and tugged Olivia by the arm until they were sitting on one of the main lobby's couches. "Now spill," Jo commanded sternly.

Olivia sighed. "You're right. My suspension's a situation of my own making, and though what happened here isn't my fault directly, I still have a responsibility... even if it is only one of friendship. Abbie was there for me when I needed her - the least I can do is return the favor. I made a few phone calls... contacted some people to see if we can get this case wrapped up quickly."

"Liv...." Jo growled warningly.

"No one is gonna overstep the local authorities. I just... I had to do something."

Jo sighed. "All right," she finally said after a moment's silence, not really surprised. "Whaddya wanna do now? Liv, Alex's condition is as serious as Abbie's. I'm not sure your presence here is gonna be the best thing for her, especially if you haven't settled things between you."

"We did... settle things, I mean. She knows there's nothing between us and never can be."

Jo looked at Olivia in disbelief. "I hope she believes that more than you do, Liv, 'cause you're a terrible liar. However," holding up a hand before Olivia could refute her words, "unless either of them object to your presence, I don't see a reason for you not to be here. C'mon," she added, standing and waiting for Olivia to do the same, "let's go upstairs. They were still sleeping when I came down. I think the doc is trying to keep them that way for a couple more days. They want the broken ribs to heal a little more before they let them start moving around much."

"What about the head injuries?"

Jo shook her head. "I dunno. I don't think they're serious, but then I haven't been around for all the reports either. Most of my day was spent at the station," she stated as they exited the elevator. "Blair would know, though. She's been here since they were moved."

"Blair would know what, sweetheart? Hi, Olivia," wrapping her arms around Jo's waist and laying her head on her shoulder. Jo subtly kneaded the knots from Blair's neck, smiling when Blair slumped into her a little more. "God, that feels wonderful - you still have magic hands, Joey."

Jo brushed a kiss over blonde hair. "You all right?"

"Just a little tired... been a long twenty-four hours. Now," pulling back just slightly so she could look between Jo and Liv, "what would I know?"

"What's the status on their head injuries?"

"The doctors seem to think they are minor... relatively speaking, but we won't know for sure until they are brought out of their comas."

"And that will be...?"

"The next day or two at the latest. The idea is to give the ribs a chance to set."

"Where is Geraldine?" Liv asked abruptly.

"She spent the morning here so I sent her back to the hotel to rest. Do you need her?"

Liv shook her head. "No... I was just curious. What do the police know?" turning to Jo.

"Not much more than we did earlier. They know what gang was involved so it's a matter of finding those involved."

"Do they have a reason? Was it a gay bashing?"

"Sort of - it was a crime of both opportunity and hatred. Alex and Abbie weren't specific targets. They were just gonna heist the car at first, but once those kids recognized them, it became a definite hate crime. Now who did you talk to and what is going on?"

"I just talked to a contact I have at the FBI... asked them to look into things."


"I had to do something, Jo! That was the best I could manage under the circumstances, especially if I wanna keep being a cop. I also called a newspaper acquaintance to see if I could get an intro to the reporter who wrote the story in the first place."


"Because... because I don't know. I just need to talk to them... find out what the hell they were thinking running a story like that here. It's already had consequences, and that's without even considering the political implications."

"Abbie's boss has already taken care of that," Blair commented, passing the day's newspaper to Olivia. Liv read through the article and nodded her head.

"Will you excuse me for a minute? I need to make a phone call."

"We'll be in Alex's and Abbie's room - five tweny-one. Come find us when you're done." Olivia nodded again and headed back downstairs. Blair and Jo exchanged glances before walking in the opposite direction.

"Still in denial, huh?"

"It ain't just a river in Egypt, Princess."

Her phone rang before she could make her call. "Benson."

"Ah... Olivia. Kurt Moss here. I just wanted to let you know that you have an appointment with the reporter that ran that story at two tomorrow afternoon. She will meet you at the Paradise Cafe near the newspaper office. And you and I have a reservation at The Four Seasons at eight o'clock Friday night."

"Wonderful," her voice unmistakably flat.

"I'm sensing a distinct lack of enthusiasm, Olivia."

"Mr. Moss, don't take this the wrong way, but you really shouldn't have gone to such expense. I'm going out with you Friday because it was a condition of you contacting the reporter for me. I've already told you nothing is going to come of this."

"You're not even willing to give it a chance?"

Olivia thought of the blonde woman who was currently unconscious in room five twenty-one. "Mr. Moss... Kurt, even if you weren't a reporter, there wouldn't be a chance," tacitly admitting something to him that she had yet to acknowledge to anyone but herself in the darkest hours of the night.

He blew out a surprised breath. "I'd still like a chance to change your mind about journalists."

"We had a deal. I'll meet you in front of The Four Seasons just before eight Friday night."

"Thank you, Olivia. I'm looking forward to it."

"See you Friday." She hung up the phone without another word and blew her bangs from her face in frustration. Then she headed down to room five twenty-one.

Jo and Blair were standing outside the room and Olivia cocked her head as she joined them. "What's up?"

"Doc's in the room checking them out," Jo said, even as the doctor stepped from the room. She turned to him. "What's the word?" He looked at Olivia pointedly and Jo introduced them. "Doctor Yasmin, meet Detective Olivia Benson, NYPD SVU."

"Are you here in an official capacity, Detective, or a personal one?"

"Personal," she replied and left it at that. He eyeballed her for a long minute and then nodded his head in approval.

"All right. I'm pretty pleased with how things look. Their vital signs have remained stable and if it continues, Wednesday morning I'm going to remove the drugs keeping them out and allow them to wake up. They will be in quite a bit of pain, but I am confident they will recover with no lingering side effects."

"Other than the mental ones," Liv muttered. Yasmin looked directly at her.

"We'll do our best to repair that damage as well, but we can't do anything else until their bodies are a little more healed. For now, I'd suggest that you all go back to your hotel rooms and get some rest. There isn't anything else you can do here."

"I'd like to stay," Olivia cut in. "I'd feel better not leaving them alone." Jo and Blair exchanged knowing glances. The doctor just shrugged.

"It can't hurt anything. Talk to them... read to them... let them know someone who cares about their well-being is with them. Not constantly, but often. That should help speed their healing."

Liv nodded. "I can do that."

"Good." He extended his hand to her. "Nice to meet you, Detective." He did the same with Jo and Blair. "I'll see you ladies in the morning." Then he pivoted and headed towards the nurse's station. Jo and Blair turned and fixed their gazes on Olivia who bore them stoically.

"What?" she asked after an awkward silence, knowing full well what. Blair laid her hand on Jo's arm and without another word left them alone. Liv arched an eyebrow. "What was that all about?"

"Are you sure about this, Liv? You don't have to stay here."

"Yeah, I do. I can't do anything else, but I can do this."

"You're gonna have to face her eventually."

"Been there, done that," Olivia muttered.

"Maybe," Jo conceded. "But sooner or later you're gonna have to be honest about it - with yourself and her. Do you have what you need to stay overnight?" continuing before Olivia could argue either point. "Or do I need to bring you some stuff back from the hotel?"

"I've got what I need for now," hefting her backpack. "I need to call Casey and let her know what's going on."

"All right. You know how to reach us if anything comes up." Liv nodded and Jo headed down the hall towards the waiting area where Blair was. Olivia watched her disappear around the corner before entering Alex's and Abbie's room.

"She going to be all right?" Blair asked Jo as they rode the elevator down to the lobby.

"Yeah. I think she will." Then they headed out of the hospital and back to their hotel.

The room was dim, but Olivia could clearly see both Alex's and Abbie's still forms on the beds. The machines they were hooked up to monitored them quietly with beeps and hums and made an interesting counterpoint to the otherwise silent room. She looked at them for a long moment, then pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She knew she should go downstairs, but now that she was here.... She dialed a familiar number and waited for Casey to answer.



"Hey, Olivia. What's the word?" Liv relayed the doctor's report word for word and heard Casey sigh in relief. "That sounds promising, anyway. I'm waiting on a verdict from the Bristol case and then I'll be down. The jury starts deliberations tomorrow - I'm hoping they'll be quick. My mom already has my room ready for me."

Olivia grinned. "You ready for that?"

"Probably not, but I'll live with it. How are you?"

"Doing all right. I have to head back to Manhattan Friday to take care of some business, but I'll be here until then."

"Good... keep your fingers crossed I'll be there sooner instead of later."

Liv chuckled. "You've got it bad, Novak."

"And you don't? Gotta run. I've got a few more things to wrap up before I can leave regardless of when the jury comes back. Thanks for the call though."

"Night Casey.

"Later, Olivia."

Olivia turned her attention back to the two women in the room, forcing Casey's question from her mind. Some things just didn't bear thinking about.

She talked to them a while - together as well as separately, confident Alex would never remember her presence there. Then she decided to draw a bit, explaining what she was working on while she drew as if they could comment. She got up and paced and talked some more - always about impersonal things... or things she could share with both of them. And so the night went - bouts of silence in between conversations.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Liv stood looking out the window. The night nurse came in to check their vitals one more time before shift change. She exchanged smiles with Olivia.

"You did a good thing here, Detective. It'll make a difference - you'll see."

"You think so?"

"It already has. Their vital signs are stronger." She adjusted IV's and kept speaking. "When are your other friends due in?"

"Not this early - probably another couple hours." The nurse nodded.

"Will we see you tonight?"

"Yeah, I think so. Can't hurt anything, right?"

"Exactly," the nurse said with a smile. "So I'll see you tonight. Have a good day, Detective."

"You too." Then Liv was left alone until Blair arrived two hours later.

"Go get some sleep, Olivia," Blair instructed. "Geraldine is waiting at the hotel to make sure you get some breakfast and Jo is already at the police station. She promised to let you know if anything develops."

"Maybe I should...."

"Maybe you should just go get some sleep," with a look that would have melted steel. Liv held her look for a moment before shrugging, implicitly acknowledging her need for rest.

"Jo doesn't get away with much with you, does she?" Blair just grinned.

Olivia dropped her backpack just inside the door of her room and stepped towards the bed. A knock on her door reminded her of Blair's words and she opened it to find Geraldine standing on the other side with a tray in her hands. She arched an eyebrow in Olivia's direction and Liv smiled shyly as she opened the door wide to allow Geraldine to cross into her room.

"Ms Warner asked me to make sure you got something to eat... and to make sure you actually ate it."

"She didn't trust me?"

"I believe she was concerned you would be too tired to eat." She watched Olivia surreptitiously rub her eyes. "I think she was right to be worried. Come... sit down and eat while it's hot."

"Why are you doing this? I mean, I know Blair asked you to, but you don't owe her or me anything," Liv said as she slumped into a chair and took the coffee cup Gerry offered her. She inhaled the aroma greedily before take a large sip. "God, that's wonderful," she commented, garnering a big smile from Geraldine.

"Thank you," Gerry said. "I had to push a few people out of the way to make that. Glad that it's appreciated."

Liv took a little larger swallow. "You don't know how much." Then they fell silent while Olivia methodically decimated the food Geraldine had prepared. Gerry refilled Liv's cup and poured one for herself and sat back. When Olivia's eating slowed significantly, she cleared her throat.

"May I ask you a question, Olivia?" She waited for the nod, noting the wary expression that glanced out at her from dark eyes. "Why are you here?" Liv blinked, not having expected such forthrightness. Geraldine watched the myriad of emotions play over Olivia's face and she patted the arm the held the coffee frozen halfway to her lips. "You don't need to answer me, Detective. But I won't have you playing with Alexandra's affections. So if you're not here because you've decided to acknowledge what you truly feel for her, then you need leave before she wakes up."

"You think I would hurt her?"

"I think you already have, Olivia. Perhaps not maliciously," giving the detective the benefit of the doubt, "but you did hurt her with your rejection, nevertheless."

"What was I supposed to do??" leaning forward and capturing Geraldine's eyes with the intensity in her own. "She all but destroyed me when she left - not once... not twice... but three times. Do you know what it feels like to have someone who was becoming vital to you despite everything yanked out of your life? Alive but unattainable? To have them come back and tell you they've moved on? To have her come home to stay and completely ignore your existence?? Like your friendship was meaningless???"

Geraldine gaped at Olivia, having never heard such passion from the detective before. Suddenly she understood so much more and in many ways she couldn't fault Olivia for her attitude. She had obviously suffered a great deal in silence and Gerry had to wonder what other hidden depths remained untouched because Detective Olivia Benson refused to allow anyone access to the deepest parts of herself.

"You love her," she stated with conviction in her tone. "Despite everything you still love her." She watched the mask come down and settle firmly over Liv's expressive features, shutting out everything but the exhaustion she couldn't manage to hide. Gerry reached out and covered Liv's hand, feeling the flinch but refusing to remove the touch. "I'm sorry, Olivia – it's really not my place. I just didn't realize...." She cleared her throat. "Come," rising and beckoning Olivia to do the same. "You go get ready for bed and I'll pull down the covers."

"You planning to tuck me in?" Liv asked, all the fire drained out of her.

"I think you could probably do with a bit of pampering. Now go on... I'll be here when you get back." And strangely, that thought comforted Olivia and she headed into the bathroom to get ready for bed.

"I haven't had someone tuck me into bed since I was a very small girl," Liv commented drowsily as Geraldine pulled the covers up to her chin.

"I'm glad I could do it then," Gerry commented as she brushed a lock of hair from Liv's face. "Now get some rest, Olivia. I'll wake you in time to make your appointment."

But Olivia didn't hear her. She was already sound asleep.

"Liv... hey, Liv... wake up?"

Olivia's eyes snapped awake and she stared at Jo completely disoriented for a long moment before sitting up and trying to blink her eyes awake. "Jo? What is it? Has some thing happened...?" not sure the best way to finish her question. A glance at the clock showed she had been asleep for a little more than four hours and she yawned widely, trying to get her bearings.

"Yeah, but not the way you think," Jo added quickly seeing the panic well up in Liv's eyes before she could get a handle on it. "We caught the gang members who assaulted Alex and Abbie. Seems the sheriff's department got an anonymous tip on where to find them - apparently they've been on both the DEA's and the ATF's radar for a while now. I thought you might like to be in the box when they get questioned."

"You know damn well I would. Give me five minutes to take a shower to wake up and another five to get dressed."

"Do what you need to. The Lieutenant said he'd wait for us. I told him you sat with them last night."

Liv was already in the bathroom with the water running. The day was definitely starting out with a bang.

"So why'd ya do it?" Jo asked the perp sitting across the table from her. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the tattooed punk glaring at her. She leaned down into his personal space. "Don't even bother, asswipe. I have worse than you for breakfast."

He leered at her and grabbed at his crotch. "I gots ya breakfast right here, baby." In the box, Liv and the lieutenant flinched at the crack his head made when his face hit the table.

"Do that again and I'll remove 'em and serve 'em to ya raw. You got me?" The perp nodded and Jo released his ear. "Now I'm gonna ask you again - why'd ya do it?"

"Why not?? Damned dykes don't need that kinda ride. Hell, they don't needs ta be breathin'." He saw the fury flare in her eyes again and sat back away from her as far as he could get. "Look... we jus' wanted de car."

"Yeah, but ya didn't stop there, didja?"

"Couldn't let them abominations keep walkin' around decent peoples now, could we? We done a civic service. Damn Marines kept us from finishing the job. Them dykes needed to learn their place."

"Your civic service is gonna cost you some serious jail time. You really should learn how to read - the article that went with the picture? It woulda told you that the two women you attacked are respected members of the bar - one with the US Attorney's office here in DC and one with the DA's office in Manhattan." Jo grinned maliciously as she watched the blood drain from the punk's face. "Sucks to be you, huh?"

The lieutenant turned to Olivia. "She always this intense?"

Liv smirked. "Pretty much, yeah. And this is personal."

"Glad you're on our side," he commented to Jo as she entered the box.

"He's writing out a statement now. I think we can make them all turn on each other." Liv looked at her watch.

"I've got an appointment. Keep me informed?"

"You need a ride?" reminding Liv that they'd ridden in together.

"Shit," Olivia muttered. "Yeah... you mind?"

"Go on," the lieutenant nodded them out of the box. "We've got this, and I'll keep you advised of any progress we make, though after that interrogation, I'm thinking it won't be too difficult to get confessions out of the rest of them."

"Thanks Eli." Jo and Liv exchanged a glance, then headed out of the station house. It was time to meet the press.

Sam McPherson sat at an outdoor table at the Paradise Cafe. It was a popular spot with her colleagues, though she'd never taken the time to eat there. As an intern and lowest man on the totem pole at the Times, she rarely had the luxury of time and money together. The only reason she was here now was because she'd been directed by her boss and given a company credit card. Apparently her story had pissed off some fairly high level people and now it was up to her to smooth ruffled feathers.

Damn, I wish Brooke was here, thinking of her law school girlfriend. She'd laugh at me for getting myself into this mess, but she'd make sure.... Her thinking was brought to a sudden halt as two striking dark-haired women stopped at the hostess stand before being directed her way.

Sam rose from her chair and waited for them to approach her. "Sam McPherson?" the green eyed detective asked, offering her hand.

"Yes... Detective Benson?"

"No. I'm Detective Jo Polniaczek. This is Detective Olivia Benson." Sam shook hands with both of them and offered them a seat.

"What can I do for you, Detectives? All I was told was that I was to meet a Detective Benson for lunch because of the Embassy story I wrote."

Jo and Liv exchanged glances that clearly showed their disdain for bureaucracy. Then Liv focused her attention on Sam. "How did a kid like you manage to cause a mess like this?" Sam's eyes grew stormy in anger, but she held her tongue, not eager to argue with this woman before she had the whole story. She didn't think her editor would appreciate a public argument with a police detective about this, no matter their jurisdiction, and despite the words, Olivia's tone was not condescending, merely exhausted.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Detective. I'm just a lowly intern - I got stuck with the Embassy gig because no one else wanted it."

"Who took the picture?"

The waitress chose that moment to come over and take their order. "It was Emily Masters," Sam replied after the woman left. "She's fairly new at the Times as well. Look," she continued impatiently, "can I ask what this is all about? All I did was my job."

"Your job got a couple of prominent female attorneys assaulted pretty good. Some punk gang saw that picture of them together and decided to rid the world of a couple worthless dykes." Olivia didn't raise her voice, but the fierceness of her eyes drove the point home thoroughly. Sam's eyes widened.

"I didn't... I had no idea. Are they... will they be all right?"

"They're recovering," Jo broke in calmly. Sam nodded, her mind working feverishly.

"Let me talk to my editor. I can't fix what happened, but I should be able to turn this into something positive."

"Your editor issued a statement."

Sam blinked, then shook her head. "That's not what I meant." Her gaze went inward for a moment. "Let me think about this and talk to my editor. I can't do anything about what happened but I might be able to make it count for something." She looked up as their waitress returned with their drinks and was surprised by the animosity shining out of Olivia's dark eyes. "Detective?"

"Whose benefit...?" She sat back when Jo called her name softly, then scrubbed her hand through her hair. "Sorry," she muttered, taking a long moment before meeting Sam's eyes. "Journalists don't set well with me."

"Someone screwed you or a case by using you as an illicit source?" Sam asked intuitively. "Detective Benson, let me assure you that I would never betray the trust put in me by a member of the bar or law enforcement. Even if my personal integrity would allow it, my Harvard Law School girlfriend would never speak to me again if I did. When she hears that this story caused two well-known female prosecuting attorneys to become victims of a hate crime, the first thing she's going to want to know is what I'm doing to rectify the situation."

"Sounds like a tough girlfriend," Jo commented with a smile.

"Sounds like several women we know, actually," Olivia said with a small smirk. Jo laughed.

"True." She looked at Sam. "Let us know if you need any help. We've got the gang bangers who did it in custody and the doc is supposed to wake Alex and Abbie up tomorrow."

"I appreciate it." The waitress set their food in front of them and for a few minutes they were quiet as they ate. When the first pangs of hunger were settled, Sam wiped her mouth. "I'll make sure you get a copy of the story before my editor does... fair enough?"

"Fair enough," Liv nodded.

"So can I ask some questions? Everything stays between us until or unless you release the information and I won't name either of you." Jo and Liv traded stares then tacitly agreed. Sam whipped out her ever present notebook and they started to work.

Liv was glad the doctor was keeping Alex and Abbie unconscious when she got to the hospital later that evening. Her time with Sam McPherson had been reassuring in a way she hadn't expected it to be. Despite Sam's status as a reporter, Olivia had a good feeling about her - more than she ever had about Kurt Moss or Nick Ganzer, even before she'd found out they were reporters. She was looking forward to meeting the law school girlfriend. She had the distinct feeling that despite their obvious youth, Sam and Brooke would make good friends. And she knew Jo felt the same.

Now she walked into the hospital room, greeting Jo and Blair quietly. "How are they?" she asked.

"Better," Blair replied. "The doctor believes they will definitely be ready to wake up in the morning, despite the pain they will be in. If things go well, we should be able to take them home for the weekend... Monday at the latest."

Olivia nodded. "I talked to Casey earlier. The jury is still in deliberations, but she's hoping that they come back with a verdict tomorrow. She said as soon as they do, she'll be down. She's gonna be staying with her parents."

"What about you, Liv? You still have another week's suspension."

"Yeah, but I have to be in Manhattan Friday. So I'm gonna take off out of here Thursday morning."

"Can I get a ride?" Jo asked. "Blair can stay a little longer, but I need to get back to work."

"You sure?"

"Yeah... we're not happy about being separated, but it's necessary. I have to be in Manhattan to do my job while Blair can bring hers with her if need be."

"Besides, I'm only going to stay long enough to see them safely settled at Abbie's with Geraldine. We can come back on the weekends. But I don't think that hovering is going to help them recover and too many of us here will seem that way."

"Sure," Liv agreed. "That's probably a good idea, actually. Then I can get a short nap before I need to drive."

"All right... you got everything you need before we leave?"

Olivia hefted her backpack. "Yep." Jo and Blair nodded and headed out.

The night passed slowly with Olivia reading and talking to them in turn. She spent a little time drawing, but not as much as she had the night before... not now that she understood the significance of her interaction with them.

When morning came, the night nurse came in and brought Liv a cup of real coffee which she accepted with something akin to relief. "How'd you know?" she asked as she took her first satisfying sip. The nurse smiled.

"We've all been there, honey. Most patients don't have someone that is willing to do this for them and we try to take care of those that do. Will you be in tonight as well?"

Olivia nodded. "Yes, then I have to head back to Manhattan. Duty calls," not willing to go into what duty that was.

"Shame that, but I know your being here has made a difference to them. I hope things work out. I'll make sure Jeannie knows about you when she comes on tonight. I'm off for the next few days."

"Thanks for your help," Liv said graciously. "And for the coffee."

The nurse nodded. "Anytime, honey. Good luck."

The nurse departed and Olivia was left alone until Blair arrived some time later. "Good morning, Olivia. How was your night?"

"Productive, I think," Liv replied. "The nurses believe it helped." She shrugged. "Guess we'll see."

"I think it did too," Blair said, patting her arm. "Now, Geraldine is waiting for you. Do you want me to call you when the doctor wakes them... let you know how they're doing?" Olivia hesitated long enough for Blair to notice. "Nevermind... you need the rest," noting the exhaustion in Liv's eyes. "I'll let Jo know and she can give you a report when you wake up."

"Where's Jo?" Liv asked as she picked up her backpack. Blair rolled her eyes and shook her head with a smile.

"At the police station. She wants to make sure everything is wrapped up nicely before she heads back to the City. Apparently the lieutenant is very understanding," growling the last.

Liv wisely kept her mouth shut and shouldered her pack. "I'm gonna go get some sleep. Call me if...."

"You know I will. Go on - Geraldine is waiting. We'll be here when you get up, and with any luck, Alex and Abbie will be awake too."

Olivia didn't answer - she simple slipped out the door and headed to the hotel.

The doctors eased Alex and Abbie from their comas and almost immediately they fell into a deep, healing natural sleep.

"It's not surprising," Dr. Yasmin assured Blair. "They still have a bit of healing to do and it's going to take a lot of their body's effort to do it. They're going to need sleep."

"Will they be awake at all?"

"Oh yes - for longer and longer periods as the days go by. But they will sleep most of the next few days. That is one reason I said it might be Monday before we release them. I want them to be awake and be assured that they are healing well and aware of things before I let them go home to recover. Even with someone to look out for them, it's not the same thing as having trained medical personnel on call if they are needed."

"So now we wait?"

"Now we wait. But I'll be honest - I think having all of you here has made quite a difference for them."

Blair smiled. "I'm glad. They're both good people."

"Oh... that reminds me. Your Marine friends called and asked if they could visit once Ms Carmichael and Ms Cabot were awake. The nurse has their number at the desk. And a Sam McPherson called and asked if she could speak to them as well. She said she had spoken to the detectives...?" trailing his words off into a question. Blair nodded.

"She did. I'll take care of things. Thank you, Dr. Yasmin."

"It's been my pleasure, Ms Warner... considering the circumstances. I'll be around to check on things throughout the day and the nurses have instructions to notify me as soon as they are awake. So I will be seeing you later."

"I hope so," Blair replied. Then the doctor left and Blair turned her attention to her friends.

"So they've each woken up briefly on their own a couple times already," Blair explained to Olivia when she arrived for her night shift duties. "But it hasn't lasted very long and the doctor expects them to sleep most of the next couple days as well. The nurses will be in to wake them up every few hours." She rolled her eyes in Liv's direction, watching the wry smile flit over Liv's face. "You know how it is."

"Unfortunately, yes," thinking of the few times she'd been stuck in a hospital bed overnight.

"Just keep doing whatever it is you've been doing. The doctor seems pleased with their progress and is contributing at least part of it to us."

"Casey's headed down. She called about half an hour ago. She got her guilty verdict and left straight from the courthouse. If she comes here, I'm just gonna direct her to the hotel tonight. You can figure everything else out tomorrow."

"Yeah... send her on. One of us will let her into your room. Hey, you want me to wait at the hotel for you or hitch a ride with Blair in the morning?" Jo asked, speaking for the first time.

"Wait - I'd like a shower. And Geraldine makes a kick ass breakfast."

"True. At least we can head back knowing the gang bangers are all in jail now."

"Hope they stay there."

"They will. Too many mucky mucks are interested in this case now. Have a good night, Liv."

"Night guys."

Olivia set her stuff down, then crossed to Abbie's bed first, noting thankfully that she was asleep. "Damn, Carmichael," she whispered. "Didn't anyone teach you how to duck and cover?" She pushed a lock of dark hair off Abbie's forehead. "They caught the little punks that did this to you and I've heard your boss will be sitting second chair to the Richmond DA to ensure the jury knows just how serious this case is. I didn't get to kick any ass this time, but Jo knocked a few heads together. Oh... and make sure you give Sam a chance when she comes to talk to you, all right? She seems like a good kid and she'd got a Harvard law school girlfriend."

"Do wha' I c'n," Abbie murmured as her eyes briefly flittered open. "Damn I hurt."

Liv leaned forward and kissed her forehead, the motion forcing Abbie's eyes closed instinctively. "I bet. You took quite a beating. Go back to sleep, Carmichael. I'll be keeping watch all night."

"Feel bett'r aw-ready," the last word dropping off as her breathing deepened in sleep.

Olivia watched her for a moment longer and she cupped Abbie's face tenderly before pulling the cover up over her more securely and moving away from the bed. She looked at Alex and sighed, then crossed to sit on the edge of her bed.

For long moments Liv sat there, looking at Alex Cabot, reliving the feelings she'd once felt on a New York City sidewalk as she'd tried to keep Alex from bleeding out in front of her. She took a deep shuddering breath, looking down at her hands and seeing them covered in blood once more. A tentative touch made her look up into clear blue eyes and she squeezed her brown eyes closed for a moment before forcing herself to meet Alex's gaze.

"You came," Alex said with wonderment.

"I wouldn't for all the world have had something like this happen to you, Alex... not to either of you. I'm sorry."

"I'm not... you came. Despite everything you said, despite everything I did... you came."

"Alex...." shaking her dark head warningly, not wanting Alex to read more into the gesture than Olivia was able to give.

Blue eyes fluttered as exhaustion and discomfort caught up with Alex once more. The clarity she'd been granted from the adrenaline rush of finding Olivia sitting beside her faded and she closed her eyes against her own volition. The hand that still covered Olivia's clasped hands twitched slightly. "Stay," she whispered even as her breathing evened out and deepened in sleep once more.

Liv closed her eyes in resignation and held on until she heard a light tapping at the door. Then she eased her hand from Alex's grip and went to find Casey standing in the hallway. She beckoned her in, only then realizing how long she'd been sitting with Alex, holding her hand.

"How are they?" Casey asked quietly, looking closely but not approaching either bed.

"Better. They've both woken up on their own a few times and the nurse is due in shortly to do that whole check-up routine they are famous for when you're trying to sleep in a hospital. Blair said for me to send you to the hotel tonight so you can get some rest. It's close. Tomorrow you guys can figure out what's going on - Jo and I are headed back to Manhattan in the morning and I think Blair is going to return as soon as she can get them and Geraldine settled in Abbie's place for now."

"Makes sense. I've got leave for as long as I need it, but I don't want to get in the way."

"That's what Blair figured - said they'd come down on weekends, although I don't think that'll last long either."

"You don't think they'll keep it up?"

"I don't think Abbie will let them. She doesn't do invalid very well."

"I can't imagine Alex does either," noting the look of despair that passed through Olivia's eyes. "So tell me where I'm headed so I can get out of your hair. That way I can come back in the morning and see them when they're awake."

Liv gave Casey the directions she needed, then watched as Casey casually crossed to the beds and dusted a kiss across each woman's cheek before taking her leave. Then the nurse came in to wake them and Olivia stepped from the room until she was done.

By the time Blair and Casey arrived the following morning, Liv was exhausted and glad for the excuse to leave. The other two women watched her flee before turning to one another.

"She's got it bad," Blair commented sotto voce so only Casey could hear her words.

"Oh yeah... I just hope she figures it out soon."

"Oh honey... she knows. Denial ain't just a river."

"I know. But what a cluster this could wind up being before all is said and done if she doesn't move out of Egypt soon."

Blair chuckled, causing Casey to join her. "I can see we're going to be friends, Casey Novak."

"I'd like that, Blair. Now should we go sit with our other friends? See if we can encourage them to get out of this place sooner rather than later."

"Definitely an idea I can get behind," Blair agreed and they headed into the hospital room side by side.

The guys cheered when Liv walked into the precinct and she took a bow before Cragen stepped out of his office and waved them all back to work. He beckoned Olivia into his office and she clapped Elliot on the shoulder before she followed the captain into his office and closed the door. He motioned her to a seat.

"What brings you to the one-six, Detective? You still have another week's suspension."

"I'm just back from Virginia - thought the guys might be interested in a report on Alex and Abbie."

"Besides, you've missed being here," Cragen stated without inflection. Liv ducked her head and shrugged, peering up at him from beneath dark lashes. "So how are the illustrious counselors?" he asked.

"Better... I spoke to them both briefly last night. And the doctor is hoping to release them from the hospital by Monday at the latest."

Cragen nodded. "Go share your news, but don't keep them too long. Technically, you're not even supposed to be here."

"Thanks, Cap."

"So you left Alex and Abbie in the hospital to come back to Manhattan for a date with a newspaper guy?" Elliot asked around his bite of hotdog. Liv had shared her news, then Stabler had invited her to lunch. Now they stood on a street corner chowing down on dirty water dogs and soda. His words made Liv choke, and he grinned before slapping her on the back.

"What makes you say that?" she asked when she'd recovered enough breath to speak.

Elliot rolled his eyes at her before shaking his head. "Hello... earth to Benson. Detective here, remember? You think you've been fooling any of us? You met Kurt Moss at a charity event some months ago and went on several dates before he told you he was an editor for the New York Ledger. You broke things off with him, but still keep in touch for whatever insane reason, although the recent IAB investigation really curtailed that, especially after he refused to name his source. You have a date with him somewhere nice tomorrow night. How'm I doing so far?"

"You suck," she grumbled. Then she looked at him from the corner of her eye. "How'd you know?"

Stabler laughed. "It wasn't hard - Kath and I were at the same charity event, remember? I had his name and number the next day."

"And the rest?"

"De-tec-tive," he enunciated slowly with a grin. "Why would I tell you? I've got an edge here partner - what's it worth to ya?"

Now Olivia glared at him. "I hate you so much."

Elliot laughed again and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "That's okay... we love you anyway." She yawned and leaned her head against his shoulder briefly. "Rough night?" he asked when she straightened.

She shrugged. "Rough week."

"Did you talk to her?"


"Liiiiiiiiiiiv... C'mon, Liv, whaddya got to lose? You know how she feels - she told you."

"And I turned her down, Elliot... hard. I can't just change my mind because she got hurt. That's just too romance novel cheesy."

"Who said anything about changing your mind, Liv? Just be honest with her - she'll understand. The two of you always understood... even when you were fighting." He snorted. "Especially when you were fighting."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He shook his head. She was being deliberately obtuse and when Olivia Benson got stubborn about something there was simply no talking to her. "Hey," he said, changing the subject. "Are you staying in town after this date or you going back to that lovely cabin retreat?"

"I've gotta go back to pick up the rest of my stuff, but I don't have to stay there. Why?"

He frowned. "Kathy's been having some Braxton-Hicks contractions the last couple days. I was wondering if you'd mind keeping an eye on her. I'd feel better...."

"Sure," Liv agreed. "Does she know?"

"About the contractions?" ducking her swipe at his head. "Actually, she's the one who brought it up. She thinks it may be for real sooner rather than later, and after four kids, I trust her instincts about this stuff. We'd both feel better if you were close by and since you could get to her on a moment's notice faster than I could this next week...."

"I can do that," Olivia agreed, yawning again. "No problem. But first I need a nap. She has my numbers, right?"

"Yeah... thanks, Liv."

"Just remember you owe me, partner," she said with a smile and a wave as she turned her steps towards home.



"Hey, Olivia... what's up? Why aren't you sleeping?"

"I took a nap - I can sleep tonight. How're things there?"

Casey exchanged a look with Blair whose brow went up in question. She smiled and shook her head, holding up her hand. "Things are fine. Abbie and Alex have both been awake for several hours and they actually ate... well, I wouldn't call it real food, but it was more than IV fluid at least."

"Good." Silence.

"Anything else?"

"What? Oh... no. I guess not. I just wanted to see how things were. Any word on when they'll be able to leave the hospital?"

"Well, the doctor's pleased, but a lot depends on how they're feeling tomorrow."

"I wanna go home," Abbie whined in the background. "Benson, come back and spring me."

Liv chuckled and Casey laughed in sympathy. "You want to talk to... anyone?

"No, I'm good. I need to go - things to do. I just wanted to check on... everyone."

"We're fine."

"Good, good. All right, let me go so I can take care of a few things. Kathy's been having false labor and El's asked me to keep an eye on her in case they become the real thing. Call me if anything changes... or... anything."

"I can do that. And keep me posted on Kathy."

"Will do. Bye, Casey."

Casey closed up her phone and Blair looked at her expectantly. Casey just shrugged and Blair sighed. They looked at Alex whose eyes remained closed and wondered how much she'd heard. Surely something had to give between the two of them soon.

"You look lovely, my dear," Kurt Moss said in greeting as Olivia approached him. She held out her hand and he accepted it, attempting to pull her closer until she clenched her hand tight enough to make him wince in reaction. "Well then," he continued after recovering his aching hand. "Shall we go in?"

The door opened magically and Olivia preceded him into the restaurant. The maitre'd escorted them to one of the back tables - not the worst in the restaurant, but certainly not the best either. Moss waited until Olivia was seated, then pulled out his own chair and sat down.

"This is nice," he commented, placing his napkin in his lap. Olivia looked around casually and nodded. "So was the discussion with the reporter helpful?"

"Yeah, it was... thanks."

She didn't add any more and Kurt felt compelled to break the silence once again. "John Taggert is an old college buddy. He's the reason I was able to get you a chance to talk to the McPherson girl."

"Please convey my thanks to him then. She's a lovely young woman... very bright." Silence fell again as they perused their menus. The waiter approached and they ordered, Moss including a very expensive wine without consulting Liv's taste. When the waiter left, it was quiet again and Moss cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"This is a little awkward," he said as the silence lengthened. "I expected some sort of conversation... some participation on your part. I didn't think I was going to have to carry the entire evening on my own."

"All right. What would you like to talk about?" Liv asked with a tilt of her head. He looked at her askance and she sighed. "Kurt... I warned you when you set this up that it was strictly business for me now - a payback for your help in getting me a chance to talk to Sam McPherson."

"What happened to us, Olivia? When we met, it was so different - I thought we were at the start of something wonderful. Does my being a newspaper man bother you that much?"

"Frankly, yes," Liv replied immediately. "You're the enemy. I've been burned by your kind before."


"Let me finish, please," waiting for him to nod his head. "You didn't tell IAB I wasn't your source until you were pushed into it. I could have lost my job over it, Kurt – do you understand what that would've done to me??" She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and her fraying temper. "Even if we could manage to build a friendship around the fact that I'm a police detective and you're a journalist, the fact remains that's all there could ever be between us. But you kept pushing for more." She glared at him. "I don't like to be pushed by anyone."

"There's someone else," he said flatly. She gazed at him a long moment before nodding, her eyes never leaving his. "Even then?" She nodded again. "Then why...?" motioning between them.

The waiter interrupted, placing their first course in front of them and pouring the wine for Moss to approve. When he did so, he filled their glasses and moved away discretely.

"Honestly, I thought there was no chance for me and...." She trailed off and sighed. "Besides, you were interesting, and I appreciated having someone see me as something more than an SVU detective. For the first time in a long time I was just a woman."

"The man in your life doesn't see you as a woman?"

"It's complicated."

"Apparently," he said with a snort. "Look, Olivia... I'd like for us to be friends. I'm just not sure I could settle for that. I like you. I'd like to like you a little more personally. And obviously this guy you have a thing for doesn't appreciate you. I would love the opportunity to appreciate you."

"I'm sorry, Kurt," Liv said with finality as she rose. He scrambled to his feet. "I can't give you what you want. Thank you for dinner, but I think I should go."

"He really means that much to you."

"There's never been anyone else. Goodbye, Kurt."

He watched Olivia thread her way through the tables to the door. Only then did he resume his seat and take a gulp of his wine. He debated pursuing her, then shrugged. She was a beautiful woman, kind and caring, but there was definitely something off-putting about her and had been since the moment he'd met her. Maybe it was time for Kurt Moss to look into other options.


"Olivia, this is Geraldine Bernard." Liv pulled her phone from her ear and looked at it askance before replacing it to catch the tail-end of Gerry's words. "... number from Ms Novak. Lovely young woman, by the way," she added in a gossipy tone. "I think she and Ms Carmichael are an interesting pair."

"They're something all right," Liv agreed in a dry tone. "What can I do for you, Gerry?"

"Well, I was wondering," she paused, her embarrassment clear even through the phone. "I wouldn't normally do this - I've never done anything like this before. I mean, it's not my place, and I know my place, Olivia. I would never presume... if it wasn't for Alexandra, I mean. I mean, I would never...."

"Gerry," Liv broke in exasperatedly. "Whatever it is, just say it."

"Oh... well... see the thing is, Ms Carmichael's mother arrived today. A lovely woman, and any other time and under any other circumstances I think it could prove great fun, you know. But the fact is, her presence here is making things awkward for everyone... especially Alexandra."

Olivia's brow furrowed. "In what way? Emma Carmichael is a formidable woman, but she was charming and hospitable to a fault. At least when I met her - I can't imagine she'd changed that drastically."

"Well, let me put it this way - at the moment, she is blaming Alexandra for the situation she and Ms Carmichael are in and she believes that Alex is toying with Ms Carmichael's affections. Not that she has said any of this to Ms Carmichael as of yet, but she did make it clear to Alexandra that she feels Alexandra is solely to blame."

Liv pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "What did Alex do?"

"Did you know you can yell at someone without raising your voice above a whisper?" Gerry asked. "I believe the terminology is - she ripped her a new one," studiously ignoring the snort that followed her declaration. "Now you can see why we are in a quandary here however. I cannot allow Alexandra to remain in such a hostile environment. She doesn't need the stress of dealing with all this while she is trying to recover."

"So whaddya want me to do?"

Geraldine cleared her throat awkwardly. "Do you think you could ask your friend Ms Warner for the use of her private jet to transport us back to the lodge? I can't reach Judge Harriman and I believe it's imperative that we leave here as soon as possible."

"Let me call her. I'll call you right back."

"All right."

"Where are you?"

"We're still at the hospital. The doctor is coming in after lunch to release them both. I'd like to have a way home by then."

"Give me a few," Liv said and cut the connection. A quick call to Blair got her what she needed, including Blair's assurance that she would be on the plane to ensure things were taken care of quickly. We take care of our own she promised Liv and Olivia let it go, not sure which 'own' Blair was referring to. Then she decided it didn't really matter as long as things were taken care of. Another quick call to Geraldine and everything was set to bring Alex Cabot back from Virginia.

With a sigh, Olivia closed her eyes and leaned back against the window ledge she was sitting on, listening to the sounds of the City around her. It was so different from what the Warner lodge had been, but in its own way, it was peaceful and soothing. It was home.

Part 2

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