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


Part 2

It was just lunchtime when Blair knocked on the door of an already crowded hospital room. Casey opened the door with a sense of relief and beckoned her in. Emma cocked her head and looked at the newcomer curiously, but Blair merely gave the woman a nod of her head and crossed to Alex's bedside.

"Hey, Princess... how're you doing?"

"My head is killing me. I just want to go home."

"Well, I can give you a lift back to the lodge. Would that suit you?"

"Perfectly," Alex confessed. "When can we leave?"

Blair grinned. "As soon as the paperwork is signed."

"How did you know?"

"The eyes and ears of the sisterhood are long and far reaching," Blair said mysteriously. "Olivia called me," she added when Alex gave her a look.


"May I ask who you are?" Emma Carmichael's voice cut into their conversation. "I don't believe we've met."

"Mama!" Abbie whined and Casey covered her lips to hide the smile that wanted to make an appearance at the sound. Blair turned around neatly on one heel and extended her hand.

"I am Blair Warner of the Park Avenue Warners, and you are...?"

"Emma Carmichael," returning the grip firmly. "How do you fit into all this?"

"I am here to take Ms Cabot home. It is believed this atmosphere is no longer ideal for her recovery."

"Are you implying...?"

"No, I am in fact stating exactly what was said to me when I was asked to come pick her up. You made it clear that you felt she bears the responsibility for what happened. As she is unwelcome here, I am taking her home. It's best for everyone."

"Cabot!" Abbie growled. "You know better."

"Yes, but your mother doesn't," Alex stated unequivocally. "You and Casey can come visit me in Connecticut when you're feeling better."

"Abigail and Ms Novak? Why... what am I missing here?"

"Quite a bit evidently," Blair said without inflection. "Perhaps you should discuss things with your daughter later. But for now," motioning to the nurse who had just stepped into the crowded room, "we need to take care of the paperwork so we can spring these two."

"All right... everyone who doesn't need to be in here to sign this paperwork needs to leave until we get it done. It's too crowded in here." Everyone hesitated at her words and she put her hands on her hips and glowered at them. "Shoo! Move it!"

Blair patted Alex's hands even as Casey squeezed Abbie's and they took their leave without argument. Emma stood her ground until Abbie spoke. "Mama, go on. I'll be fine. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can go home. Mama... I wanna go home."

"To Texas?"

Abbie glared. "No, Mama... my home."

Emma sighed. "I know, baby girl, but I can hope."

Alex snickered and two sets of brown eyes turned in her direction. "Sorry... that conversation sounds familiar. Only my mother wanted me to move into the family home in Boston instead of living in the dorms or the sorority house."

The nurse cleared her throat and Emma blushed and picked up her things. "I'll be outside, dear." The nurse waited until the door closed before she handed each woman a sheaf of paperwork.

"You need to sign at each of the marked tabs. Do you both have someone to care for you for the next week or two?" Both women nodded. "Here are your instructions. Mostly you both need to rest and take it easy and let your bodies heal. You took some serious damage and overdoing too soon is only going to hurt you further and delay your recovery."

"How soon can we return to work?"

"The doctor is recommending at least a month off. After that, he wants to see you again and a determination will be made about your ability to return to work then." Abbie and Alex exchanged glances, then turned to the nurse. "I'll let you ladies look over your paperwork. Push the call button when you're ready for me again."

"You weren't really ready to go back to the DAs office yet anyway, were you, Alex? "

"No," Alex replied with surprising honesty. "But I really didn't plan to spend my suspension recovering from a concussion."

Abbie snorted then clutched at her ribs. "Don't make me laugh, Cabot. It hurts." She breathed slowly for a minute. "You don't have to go back north, ya know. You really are welcome to stay with me."

"I know. But I don't think your mother is prepared for that. I think she needs some time alone with you."


"Abbbbbbieeee... you can come see me. I'll have Gerry make up your room up - we'll be waiting for you."

Abbie sighed. "Fine... I see how much you love me."

"How much?"

"Not as much as Casey. She's staying here."

"How are things going there?"

"I dunno. We haven't had much time to talk."

"Then it's good that I'm going home now. It'll give the two of you a chance to talk."

"I s'pose. I'm still gonna miss you. I was having a good weekend until all this happened."

"Me too. We'll do it again - this time without the beating and the hospital stay."

"Sounds like a plan."

The door opened and Emma Carmichael stuck her head in the door. "Ms Cabot? It's been brought to my attention that I owe you an apology." She stepped into the room and cleared her throat before crossing to stand beside Alex's bed. "I jumped to an erroneous conclusion and placed the blame for this incident on your shoulders. That was wrong of me and I'm sorry. Perhaps you would consider staying...?"

"Thank you, Mrs. Carmichael. I count Abbie as one of my dearest friends. I would never have had something like this happen to her if I could have prevented it. However, I really do think I would like to go home. Not because of you, but simply so I can sleep in my own bed."

Emma smiled. "I can relate. At some point in the future, though, I would like the opportunity to sit down and talk - get to know you and Ms Warner and Ms Novak a little better."

"I'll plan a girls' weekend at the lodge. Gerry will be thrilled."

Emma nodded and exited as quickly as she'd come. Abbie glanced at Alex. "You didn't have to."

"I know. I wanted to. It'll be fun."

"I hope so," Abbie said. "As long as we're not all cycling at the same time," drawing a wince and a grimace from Alex. Then they signed the last of their papers and called for the nurse. It was time to go home.

"Robert... it's Alex."

"Alex? How lovely to hear from you. How are you? I saw that fabulous picture in the Times. And I heard about the attack - are you all right?"

"I've been better Robert, but I'm doing all right."

"Is something wrong, Alex? Is there anything I can do?" Alex smiled into the phone. Even now, after their break-up, Robert was most solicitous. She sometimes wondered if she was being an idiot, giving up someone who obviously cared for her for someone who seemed to disdain the very thought of her existence. Then she remembered the depth of feeling she'd seen locked in those brown eyes when they'd been focused on her and the feeling of electricity that had coursed through her very being at the merest touch of their hands.

No… no matter what Olivia Benson was willing to admit that she did or did not feel for Alexandra Cabot, Robert Sheldon deserved more than Alex was able to give him. He shouldn't have to take second place to anyone.

"Everything is fine, Robert - thank you. I um... I wanted you to know I'm going to get rid of the penthouse apartment and wanted to offer to give it back to you first since you are the one that purchased it. I'd be happy to sign it over to you completely if you want."

"May I ask why? I thought you loved that place."

"I did," Alex confirmed. "I'm just not sure it fits who I am now. And I haven't decided when or if I'm returning to Manhattan."

"Developing a taste for country living?"

"Something like that."

"I'll tell you what - I've got a friend in real estate that can get you top dollar for that place. It shouldn't take him very long to sell it. I'll have him deposit the money in your account, all right?"

"Why are you being so good to me, Robert? I was grossly unfair to you about this whole thing."

"Nah... you were just being dishonest with yourself, honey. And I believe in karma. My being nasty to you because you were finally honest with both of us will only come back to bite me in the ass."

"Well, I hope karma does something really spectacular for you in return." She yawned. "I need to go. If Gerry finds out I was on the phone when I should have been resting, she's liable to take away my phone privileges for a few days."

Robert chuckled. "Sounds like she has you well in hand. Get well soon, Alex. And I'll let you know when the apartment sells."

"Thanks, Robert. You're a good friend."

Blair walked into the Warner lodge late that evening. It had been a hectic day. Jo had gotten called into work at oh-dark-thirty, then Olivia's call had come shortly after breakfast. And Blair's day had been non-stop after that. The flight down to DC had been quick - it was the hospital that had been the most stressful and time-consuming past of her day. Once Emma Carmichael had been made aware of what had actually happened and they been able to leave, it had been mid-afternoon. The flight back had been fairly painless with Alex sleeping most of the way. Then it was simply a matter of getting her settled at home before Blair had been able to return to her own lodge for the evening.

She and Alex had talked a little - enough that Blair knew of Alex's phone call to Robert and her confusion on where to go from here.

"Don't you want to return to the DAs office? Alex, you were doing such good work there."

"Was I? I don't think I was anymore, Blair. Not since I came back from witness protection at any rate." She shrugged then winced at the pain the motion sent wracking through her body. "It just feels like I've been marking time... pretending to be who everyone remembers, instead of who I am now."

"And who are you now, Alex?"

"I don't know anymore. I just... I don't know."

Blair had brushed a lock of hair from Alex's face and eased her into a prone position on the bed. Then she'd pulled the covers up and tucked Alex in for the night. "You don't need to decide tonight, Alex, or even tomorrow. You've got time to figure it out, all right?" Alex closed her eyes and nodded. "Get some sleep. We can talk about this when you're feeling better."

Alex smiled. "You'd be such a good mom."

Blair grinned back. "Well, I make a pretty good step-mom according to Jamie. Goodnight, Alex."


Blair came back from her memories as she keyed in the alarm code and closed the door behind her. She needed to call Jo and bring her up to speed, then she was going to take a long, relaxing soak in the tub. She gave a cursory glance around the downstairs area like she always did locking up when something caught her attention. She walked over to it, realizing as she approached that it was Olivia's artwork left abandoned in her haste to reach Alex and Abbie after their mugging.

Blair hesitated, knowing how strongly Liv felt about her art. She didn't want to invade the other woman's privacy, but her curiosity was overwhelming. In fairness, it wasn't like she needed to go digging for it - Olivia had left things scattered out in the open as though she expected to return before anyone could see. Blair glanced at the pictures and drawings that sat on the broad table Olivia had set up for that purpose. There were a number of recognizable landscapes done in several different techniques, as though Olivia was experimenting with what mediums and expressions worked best for her. Then she turned to look at the easel and sucked in a breath.

Staring back at her were the unmistakable blue eyes of Alex Cabot. Only Blair had never seen such an expression of love on her face before. She stared at it for long moments, wondering if Olivia's sketchbook would be even more revealing, then she shook her head.

It was one thing to look at the things that had been left out for public consumption, no matter how inadvertent the intention had been. It was a whole other issue for her to go searching and digging through Olivia's personal effects to find something. She preferred to ask.

With one final look at Alex's portrait, Blair turned and headed for the kitchen, hoping to find something that would relax the stresses of the day. Tomorrow, she would talk to Olivia. Tonight she just wanted to wind down and listen to the sound of Jo's voice.

"Olivia, it's Blair."

"Hey, Blair... what's up?"

"Um... I'm at the lodge and I was just wondering if you wanted me to pack up your things and bring them back to Manhattan with me or if you wanted them to remain here for the duration until you can get back up here to do it yourself. I know you're staying in the City to keep an eye on your partner's wife."

"You saw," her inflection flat.

"Only what you left out. I would be interested in viewing the sketchbook that has the rest of the images that relate to the piece on the easel, but I would never presume to search for it. Nor would I look through it without your permission to do so."

"If you haven't already looked, how do you know there is one?" her voice a little bitter.

"I have a step-daughter who's been an artist for as long as I've known her. I know how she works - drawing over and over until she's satisfied it will translate well when it reaches canvas." Blair's voice was even, but Olivia could hear the hint of hurt accusation in her tone.

"I'm sorry, Blair. I didn't mean to assume malicious intent. It's just...."

"... it's a very private part of you and you feel exposed now."

"Yeah - how'd you know?"

"Been there, done that. Olivia, I'm the only one that's seen these. Not even Jo knows. But I think Alex deserves to."


"What? I'm just saying...."

"I'll think about it," Liv conceded. "Could you just pack everything up and leave it in the spare room?"

"Absolutely. I'll even lock it so no one can get in until you're ready for them to."

"Thanks." A beat. "Blair? How is Alex... really? Geraldine sounded a little distressed when I spoke to her yesterday. And thank you for going down there, by the way. That whole situation sounded really screwed up."

"Just a misunderstanding on the part of Emma Carmichael. Bad information coupled with worry about her daughter made her jump to some erroneous conclusions and she tried to take it out on Alex. Alex was quick to set her straight and I was happy to supply her with the actual truth of what happened."

"Why didn't Abbie step in?"

"I don't think her mother gave her the opportunity - I've heard about how those Southern mamas are with their children and given what I saw today, I'd have to say those rumor are definitely based in fact. Sort of like New York Jewish mothers with a drawl if you can imagine that. However, since Emma is absolutely not my mother and given that I am from the City of New York and not the more genteel areas of this country, I had no compunction whatsoever about making things right."

"So Alex is okay?" getting back to the heart of the matter.

"She is still in a bit of pain," Blair replied honestly. "And she's going to be sore for a while longer. As you know, they both got beaten up on pretty good. But they survived and they'll heal."

"Thanks, Blair."

"Anytime, Olivia. I know you think I'm on Alex's side in all this, but the truth is, I'm rooting for you both." A beep on her line made her pause and Liv recognized the number as Stabler's home phone. "Look, Blair... I need to go. I think Kathy is on the other line. Thanks for... well, just thanks."

"You betcha! Take care, Olivia." Then she hung up before Liv could say goodbye. Olivia shrugged and clicked to the other line.


By Wednesday morning, Olivia was ready to bunk on the Stabler's couch. Not that Kathy was demanding, but Elliot was driving her nuts. At least if they were in the same house, she could smack him when he got on her nerves. The phone rang before daylight and Olivia knew without looking who was on the other end.

"Benson," she sighed resignedly.

"Liv, it's Elliot. Listen, I just got called to go to a scene and Kathy has a doctor's appointment this morning. Can you...?"

"What time?"

"Ten-thirty... with Dr. Ransom."

"Sure. Tell Kathy I'll pick her up at nine. That will get us there in plenty of time and I'll even treat her to breakfast."

"Thanks, partner. You're the best."

"Yes, I am. Try to remember that when Christmas rolls around, will ya?"

Elliot laughed as he hung up the phone. Liv shrugged and glared at the clock wondering why he'd felt the need to wake her up so damn early. With a sigh, she got up and slipped into her running clothes, determining to make good use of her time. One plus to having been suspended - she was in better shape than she'd been in since graduating college, what with time for regular meals and exercise and real sleep.

So she took to the streets of New York in the barely dawning light of day.

Olivia was soaked to the skin when she got back to her apartment, but she felt better. A quick shower and she was on her way to Queens to pick up Kathy Stabler.

"Hey, Olivia. Come on in. Can I get you some coffee?"

"Only if you already have some ready. Don't do it just for me. I can get some at breakfast."

"I won't be but a minute then," motioning Liv into the family room. "I appreciate this, Olivia. I know Elliot is driving you nuts," smiling at Liv's muffled snort. Kathy stuck her head back in the family room briefly. "I know because he's driving me nuts too. I'll be so glad when this baby is born."

"Whaddya think - boy or girl?"

"Anxious and impatient," Kathy answered without hesitation.

"Oh... Elliot made over," Liv snarked.

Kathy laughed. "As long as he's healthy and doesn't hold onto anger like his father, I'll be happy."

"So a boy, huh?"

"I think so." Kathy took her jacket from the closet. "All right... I think I'm ready." Liv stood and made her way to the door, waiting for Kathy to join her. Then they headed out together to get some breakfast.

Breakfast was good and conversation light and even with the wait necessitated by an unscheduled delivery, the doctor's visit went well. Despite her suspicions, Kathy wouldn't let the doctor reveal the baby's sex, but the doctor gave her a good report. By lunch time, they were leaving and Kathy waddled to the car in fine pregnant style. Liv pulled out of the parking spot and headed them back towards Queens.

"You want me to take you by the precinct... see if we can catch Elliot for lunch?"

Kathy shook her head firmly. "No... we'd end up with hot dogs and I'm just not up to hot dogs today," she added with a shiver.

"Me either," Liv added with a laugh. She stopped and looked both ways before easing into the next intersection.

"Let me call him - then we can find something besides hot dogs for lunch. My treat this time."

That was the last either of them knew for a few minutes.

The car hit them on Kathy's side hard enough to spin it around and pin Kathy in. After several moments of disorientation, Liv shook her head, realizing immediately what had happened. She snatched up the ever-present walkie talkie and called in the accident, giving them terse instructions. Then she looked for a way to extract Kathy safely from the car. Sirens alerted Olivia to the approaching emergency services and she started giving a status report and directions as soon as the firemen and technicians arrived and got to work.

Liv slid into the backseat of the damaged car, carefully following the instructions as the EMT walked her through each process to help stabilize Kathy's condition. The collar was tricky - the IV even more so, but Olivia persevered and soon Kathy was somewhat conscious and the firefighters were removing the roof of the car. When the Jaws of Life finally allowed her to be extracted, Kathy was placed on a backboard and loaded into the ambulance. Liv crawled in behind her and they headed for the hospital.

Olivia had never expected to ever be a birth partner - it just wasn't in her nature or her plans for her life for that matter. Still, at the tech's direction, she sat behind Kathy and coached her as well as she could, helping her breathe and smiling when the sound of a baby's cry could be heard of the cacophony of other noise. Then she heard the shrill screech of the machines as Kathy flatlined.

Elliot's reaction at the hospital was understandable, but Olivia needed some stability after the emotional rigors of the day. The hug they shared was intense and layered – full of wistfulness and gratitude and years of love and trust and caring. When it was over, Liv left Elliot to his wife and newborn son and went out in search of companionship.

She found herself at Blair's and Jo's residence and a knock on the door garnered her immediate entrance. "Liv?" Jo queried noticing her shaken state. "Everything okay?"

Olivia nodded and wiped her eyes before any tears could actually fall. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little... um, rough day, and I didn't want to be alone yet. Could I invite myself to dinner?"

"Absolutely. Blair and I were just trying to decide what we wanted."

Liv smiled. "Do you trust me?"

Jo eyed her, seeing the mischievous twinkle sparkling out of brown depths. Usually that meant fun was going to ensue almost immediately. "Sure," she agreed amiably after a moment. "Whatcha got in mind?"

"What's who got in mind for what, sweetie?" Blair asked as she emerged from the other room. "Oh... hey, Olivia. What's up?"

"I um... I invited myself to dinner. You mind?"

"Not at all. What would you like? Jo and I were trying to decide between Chinese and Thai."

"Do you trust me?"

"Absolutely. What are you thinking?"

"Give me a phone and a few minutes. I promise you a meal you won't forget."

Blair motioned to the phone in the foyer and took Jo's hand as they returned to the living room. A small fire blazed low in the fireplace and they resumed their seats on the couch. Olivia's voice was a bare murmur in the background and Blair turned to Jo with a question in her eyes.

"Is she all right?"

"I dunno," Jo shrugged. "She looked pretty shaken up when I answered the door. I heard Stabler's kid was born today. You don't think...?"

Blair shook her head emphatically, remembering all too clearly the images she'd seen drawn by Olivia's own hand. "Something must have gone wrong - she was keeping an eye on his wife, wasn't she?"

"Guess we'll find out in a minute," Jo added as they heard the click of a phone. Then Olivia was stepping into the living room and they welcomed her with smiles.

"So what's for dinner?" Blair asked after Olivia had taken a seat.

"Olivia Specials - you'll love them, I promise." She checked her watch. "They should be here in half an hour or so. They've gotta travel uptown."

"What is an Olivia Special?"

"It's the most outrageous hamburger you'll ever eat," Jo answered with a smile. "I think every single rookie Liv trained got introduced to them at some point or another."

"Only the ones I liked."

"Well then I'm honored," Blair said. "Can we offer you something to drink?"

"Um... sure. Whatever you're having is fine." Blair held up a glass of wine and Jo held up a beer. Olivia smirked and pointed to the beer. With a grin, Jo went to the bar and pulled out another beer, twisting the top and passing the open bottle to Olivia. Liv took a generous swallow and sighed, tilting her head onto the chair back and staring into the fire with unseeing eyes. Jo and Blair exchanged glances, then Blair slipped from the room, leaving the two detectives alone.

"She didn't have to leave," Liv commented after a few moments, rolling her head in Jo's direction.

"Maybe - you wanna tell me what's wrong?"

"Kathy Stabler gave birth today... baby boy."

"That's great news!" A beat. "Isn't it?"

"Oh yeah... absolutely." She scrubbed her hand through her hair and leaned forward, letting her forearms rest on her knees. "It was how he got here that was…." Liv shook her head. "May as well bring Blair back in here so I don't have to tell this more than once." Olivia gave Jo a wry smile and Jo shook her head and chuckled before standing and leaving to fetch Blair.

When they returned, Liv gave them a blow by blow accounting of her entire day. Wide-eyed, they listened, not interrupting until she reached the end. When she was done, Jo wordlessly handed her another beer.

"Wow!" she commented after she had reseated herself next to Blair. "Helluva day."

Liv snorted. "Master of understatement there," dryly, drawing laughter from the two women seated across from her. A knock on the door made Jo stand and move to the foyer, leaving Blair and Olivia alone.

"You all right?"

"Yeah... we all made it to the end of the day. Thanks for letting me crash here for a little while."

"You're always welcome, Olivia. Now, c'mon. I'm looking forward to trying these 'Olivia Specials'."

Blair and Olivia walked back into the living room when dinner was finished. Jo had been called away in the middle of the meal, gazing forlornly at her Special before leaving. She knew it wouldn't be the same warmed over, but when duty called, detectives went.

Olivia had stayed at the insistence of both of them and now she was settled comfortably in front of the fireplace once again. When Blair cleared her throat delicately, Olivia forced her eyes from the hypnotic flames of the fire and looked squarely at Blair. She arched an eyebrow in question.

"I'm going up to the lodge tomorrow to check on Alex. Would you like to ride with me?" The look Olivia gave her caused Blair to rush on with her explanation. "You don't have to go visit Alex, Olivia. I thought you might want to go collect your art. I put it in the guest room, but none of it is packed. It's just laying out all over the room as neatly as I could manage."

Liv held Blair's gaze, but the brown eyes that met her own held them guilelessly. She even tried her patented 'perp stare', but realized quickly that wasn't going to work on someone who lived with a detective and who herself spent time in the boardroom giving that same look to her own underlings.

"All right, sure. I appreciate the offer." She put her glass on the table and scooted forward as a prelude to standing. "I better get home then. I suppose you'll want to start out early?"

"Yes, I think so. And pack an overnight bag - we'll probably stay a night or two. May as well enjoy the nice weather while it lasts."

"Yeah," Liv agreed with a tiny smile. "It's my last weekend of freedom."

"Are you looking forward to going back to work?"

"In a lot of ways, yes." She shrugged and looked a little ashamed. "It's so much a part of who I am - I just... I don't think I'm ready to give it up yet… not completely. I can't explain it."

Blair smiled. "You don't have to, Olivia. I'm married to a detective very much like you."

Now Liv smiled. "Yeah... I guess you are. Let me get out of here," she said, standing. Blair rose as well and together they walked into the foyer. Liv recovered her jacket from the closet and Blair opened the outer door. "What time in the morning?"

"I'll be up by six, so whenever you can make it over after that."

"All right. Thanks for letting me crash dinner tonight."

"You're welcome here anytime, Olivia. Thank you for crashing - I enjoyed my 'Olivia Special' despite its rather unusual makeup. See you in the morning?"

"Bright and early."

"Alexandra, are you sure you need to be up and around already? You've only been home from the hospital for a couple days. I'm fairly confident the doctor didn't intend for you to be stirring around on Thursday when he released you on Monday with explicit instructions to rest."

"Lay off, Gerry!" Alex snapped peevishly, then was immediately contrite at the expression of hurt that washed over Geraldine's features before the mask settled into place.

"Alexandra Isabelle Cabot!" Gerry didn't raise her voice, but hearing her full name issue forth from those lips forced Alex's eyes to meet Gerry's stern ones before shifting to stare at the floor in fascination.

"I'm sorry, Gerry. I'm tired of hurting and I'm tired of being stuck in bed. But that doesn't mean I should take my bad mood out on you."

"Thank you, Alexandra. Now is there someway we can make you a little more comfortable? Would you like...?"

Alex moved slowly, easing her body down into one of the straight-backed kitchen chairs. "No more pills, please, Gerry. They make me groggy and disoriented. What I'd like is a change of scenery," she replied honestly. "Something that doesn't involve four walls and a ceiling."

Now Gerry smiled. "That's something I think we can manage... at least for a little while. Let's get you some breakfast first... something light. Then we can...." The ringing of the doorbell interrupted her and she frowned. "Who comes by so early without calling first?" patting Alex's shoulder and walking to the door.

Alex couldn't tell who their visitor was by the sound, but it was obviously someone welcome by the tone of Gerry's voice. Then Blair's honey-gold head appeared in the doorway and Alex grinned.


"Hey, Alex!" wrapping her arms around Alex's neck from behind and gently hugging, then brushed a kiss onto her temple. "How are you feeling?"

"Grumpy," Alex stated with a frown and what could almost be the beginnings of a pout. Blair looked at Geraldine who nodded her agreement emphatically.

"Well, it seems like I've arrived just in time, then." She set a bag in front of Alex and took a seat beside her. Alex drew in as deep a breath as she could manage and started smiling.

"Chocolate croissants?"

"Chocolate croissants... enough for everyone," motioning Gerry to join them. They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Alex turned to Blair.

"What brings you here, Blair? Not that you're not welcome...."

"I wanted to come check on you," Blair said plainly.

"You could have called."

"Where's the fun in that? Besides, it's really difficult to send fresh croissants over the phone."

"Fair enough. Thank you for coming. Are you just here for the day or...?"

"We'll be going back Sunday afternoon. Jo should be coming up tomorrow. Have you talked to Abbie?"

Alex started to shake her head, then thought better of it. "No... I think I've slept most of the last seventy-two hours."

"When she wasn't moaning about four walls and a ceiling," Gerry teased. Alex stuck out her tongue, but smiled.

"Well, in that case, let's get you outside in the sun for a while. We can call Abbie from there."

"Best idea I've heard in a while."

"Me too," Gerry said wickedly as she rose from the table. "Do you girls need a hand getting settled outside?" Blair and Alex exchanged glances then Blair shook her head. "All right... you two go on ahead. I'll bring the phone and a snack in a little while. Go on now... shoo."

The two of them looked at one another and chuckled before they stood and made their way out to sit by the pool.

"I really am glad you came, Blair," Alex said when they were comfortably ensconced in lounge chairs around, "despite my earlier waspishness."

"No worries, Alex. I'm glad I came too. How are you doing? Aside from the PMSing, I mean," Blair added with a smirk and a twinkle in her eyes. "Things getting better?" Alex smiled back at her wryly.

"They are... just not as quickly as I'd like them to."

"I think that is true for most people who have suffered any kind of injury, Alex. And given the circumstances.... You just have to give it time. You were pretty severely injured."

"I know. It just gives me too much time to think."


"What I want to do now. I don't think I want to go back to the DA's office anymore."

Blair blinked, not expecting such forthrightness. "Well," she said, clearing her throat, "Do you know what you'd like to do?"

"I think I'd like to teach."

"Teach... really? And?" A beat. "Come on, Alex. I know you well enough to know there's more."

"I'd like to do something for victims," she confessed. Silence for a few minutes; Alex's countenance went grave and her eyes distant. "When I first came to the DA's office, I had all these big plans... grand ideas. I was going to use the SVU to climb my way into the DA's chair - I told Don Cragen as much my first day."

When the silence started to drag on interminably, Blair prompted. "When did that change?"

"I don't know. It was so gradual - I watched them… I watched her with them. The victims became more than pictures and reports; they were living, breathing people. Then I became a victim."

"So what happened? Alex, when you came home...."

"I was the same old Alex?" Alex ran a hand through her hair. "I honestly don't know... brain damage, maybe?" drawing a giggle from Blair. "I'm sure Munch would blame it on a government conspiracy - say I was replaced by a pod person or something," her tone wry and dry. "I'd almost have to agree with him. I was so anxious to reclaim my life... I became the Ice Princess again. Nothing could touch the Ice Princess. I pushed out everything I learned at the SVU - that way I wasn't a victim anymore."

"What changed? Alex, you made a calculated choice. You had everything that hallmarked your return from witness protection as extremely successful and you deliberately walked away from it."

"Yeah… I had everything - a rich, successful fiancé, nice apartment, a job that put me years closer to the DA's chair...."


"I wasn't happy."

"Simple as that?"

"Simple as that. I was existing and it occurred to me that I was wasting my life... wasting the opportunity I'd been given to have a second chance at doing things right."

"So are you happy now?"

Alex smiled. "I'm working on it. I'm happier than I've been in a long time."

"Even without Olivia?"

"Even without. At least I'm not living a lie now." Gerry stepped from the house carrying a tray and their conversation shifted.

"Carmichael residence, Casey Novak speaking."

"Hey, Casey - it's Olivia."

"Oh hey, Olivia. What's up?"

"Actually, I was calling to check on Abbie."

"You want to talk to her? She's sitting right here. I was just closer to the phone and I can move faster."

"Not my fault!" Liv heard Abbie whine in the background. She chuckled.

"Um... sure. Hey... when are you heading back to Manhattan?"


"Ooookay. We'll talk Sunday?"

"Sounds good. Here's Abbie." There was a shuffling sound before Abbie spoke.

"Hey, Benson."

"Hey, Carmichael. How ya doing?"

"I've been better, but I've sure been worse."

"Place a little crowded?" Silence. "Or can't you talk right now?"

"No... I can talk. Mama's in the kitchen and Casey went... somewhere after she handed me the phone."


"So it's all a little weird. Mama is being... well, Mama and Casey...." Abbie fell silent again and Liv finally felt the need to prompt her.


"I'm not sure." Olivia could hear the shrug in her voice. "She's been sweet... coming over everyday and keeping me company. It's been... nice. A little awkward, but nice."

"Have you talked?"

"Not really... not like that."

"Hello pot... kettle speaking."

"Not the same thing, Abbie."

"Sure it is, Liv. The only difference is you already know how Alex feels."

"I hate you."

Abbie smiled. "I know. Listen, Mama's coming, but I'd still like to talk. Can I call you later?"

"Yeah, but call the cell. I'm at the lodge until Sunday. Blair wanted to come visit Alex and I needed to pack up all my stuff that got left in my rush to get to DC last week." She hesitated. "Talk to Casey, Abbie. She really does care about you."

"Maybe," she said tiredly. "You go talk to Alex and we'll compare notes later."

"Later, Carmichael."

"Bye, Benson."

"Was that Olivia?" Emma asked as she set a pitcher of fresh lemonade down beside Abbie, reaching up to brush the dark hair from Abbie's forehead and checking for fever. Satisfied, she kissed the top of Abbie's head before pulling away, then took a seat close by.

"Yes, Mama. She was calling to check on me."

"She's a good friend. I like her." She hesitated. "I like Casey too. She seems like a lovely young woman, and she seems to care for you a great deal."

"Maybe," not looking at her mother, but focusing her gaze somewhere out the window.

"Abigail Elizabeth...." The address got Abbie's reluctant attention and she turned her head to face her mother. "Thank you. Now what seems to be the trouble? You don't think she cares for you, baby girl?"

"I think she cares - I just don't know if she cares enough." Abbie shook her head and took the deepest breath she could manage. "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with my mother."

"Then maybe you should be having it with me," Casey said quietly from the doorway. Emma rose and patted Abbie's shoulder as she passed by. She exchanged glances with Casey and disappeared from the room. Casey pushed off the doorjamb and crossed into the room. Abbie took a deep breath and sighed. Looked like Olivia was going to get her wish after all.

"Alexandra, there's a phone call for you... a Samantha McPherson?" Gerry informed with a question in her voice as she stood in the doorway with the phone clasped to her. Alex turned her head carefully to look at Gerry before looking back at Blair.

"That's the young reporter Jo and Olivia spoke with in Washington... the one who wrote the article on the Embassy debacle."

"Why is she calling me?"

"Why don't you ask her? She asked Jo and Olivia for the opportunity to make things right, but I guess she didn't have time to talk to you or Abbie before you left the hospital."

"I'm not sure she could have gotten in the door, all things considered," Alex said with a smirk. She reached out her hand to Geraldine and waited for the phone to be placed in it. "Ms McPherson?" she said politely, nodding her head to Blair when she motioned she was going inside. "What can I do for you?"

Blair followed Gerry back into the kitchen, giving Alex privacy for her call. Her mouth watered when she smelled the scent of fresh baked cookies. Gerry smiled at the puppy dog eyes Blair was giving her and motioned her to a seat at the counter. She poured a glass of fresh milk and put two piping hot cookies onto a plate.

"You get just about anything you want with that look, don't you?" Gerry asked with a smirk. "Your detective doesn't say no to very much, does she?" Blair chuckled.

"You'd be surprised," she confessed. "Jo is a very proud woman and I would never do anything to undermine that. It's where she gets a lot of her strength." She shook her head and Gerry wondered what she was thinking. "Took me a long time to understand that." Blair met Gerry's eyes. "So she never says no when I use it, but I've learned to be very particular about when it gets used."

"Smart woman," Gerry commented. She waited for Blair to take a bite of the rapidly cooling cookies before she asked. "So why did you follow me inside? And don't blame the cookies - you didn't know I was making them until you walked into the kitchen. I don't think it had anything to do with Alexandra's phone call either, did it?"

Blair swallowed and took a sip of milk. "You don't miss much do you?"

"Ms Warner, I've spent my entire adult life in the service of the Cabot family - lawyers and judges every one. I learned how to observe from the best. So what's on your mind?"

Blair cleared her throat. "Olivia is here with me. Now I don't know if she will venture over here or not, but I wanted you to be prepared to receive her, just in case."

"You think she might?"

"I think her mind is losing the battle to her heart, but she got one of the strongest wills I have ever come across."

"Much like Alexandra." Blair nodded and took another bite. "I'll be ready, Ms Warner. I just hope you're right. Does Alexandra know?"

"No. I saw no reason to raise her hopes, especially since Olivia is determined to be stubborn about this."

"Peas in a pod," Gerry muttered, causing Blair to snort and subsequently choke. It was to this scene that Alex walked in on a moment later. She turned concerned blue eyes to Gerry who hastened to explain. "Cookie down the wrong hole," was all she said, but it was enough. Alex made her way to Blair's side.

"You all right?" watching as Blair wiped the tears from her eyes and took slow breaths.

"Yes... I just need to figure out how to chew and swallow while breathing. Apparently it's a skill I have yet to master," rolling her brown eyes dramatically. Alex chuckled.

"Keep practicing. I'm sure you'll get the knack eventually." Blair glared and Alex laughed.

"So was I right?" motioning to the phone Alex still held in her hand.

"What? Oh... yes. She sounds like a nice young woman. She'd like to interview me and Abbie. I asked her to let me talk to Abbie and we'd get back to her with a time and place."

"So you're going to do it?"

"I think so, yeah. It couldn't hurt and maybe it will help."


"Other victims... people who think we should all live in a box, maybe? Maybe it will just help Sam McPherson. But it'd be nice for something good to come out of all this. Might make the headache worth it." Neither of them noticed Geraldine leave the room.

Casey sat down on the opposite end of the couch Abbie was sitting on and turned to face her. Abbie deliberately kept her gaze on the vista just beyond the window. Casey waited, but as it became evident that Abbie was content to sit in silence, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

"Talk to me, Abbie," her voice soft and coaxing. Casey watched Abbie carefully, noting the clenching of her jaw and the intense focus on something outside Casey's view. She saw the deep breath, but there was an extended pause before Abbie spoke.

"Why are you here, Casey?"

"Hu… what?"

"It's a simple question - why are you here?" She waited but there was no immediate answer. "It's not that I don't appreciate the company, but it's not like we really know one another either... you have no obligation to me. So why are you here?"

Casey sighed. She'd wondered when someone - probably Abbie - would get around to asking that question... because she really didn't have an answer. She turned her focus to the window Abbie continued to stare out of, hoping for some kind of divine guidance. Finally she settled for the simplest version of the truth.

"I needed to be here."

"Why? Casey, I appreciate the concern, really, but there's no need for you to stay. Mama's got everything covered, and I'm doing all right. I know you've got a life, and it's not here."

"That's what this is about... me having a life?" Casey rose from the couch and moved until she was kneeling beside Abbie. Abbie resolutely kept her eyes fastened out the window.

"I know you decided you were entitled to one. And you're right… you did - I think almost everyone who serves in that division comes to that conclusion eventually. Frankly I'm surprised it took you as long as it did. SVU is a tough racket... it takes a toll on everyone who works there and you've been there a long time. So I really don't blame you for wanting a life." Abbie sighed. "But I don't want you to give that up to be here."

"Who says I am?"

"Casey, I know you were getting into the whole dating scene. I don't want you to resent me because you felt I was keeping you from that. I'd like for us to be friends."

"Friends? Is that all?"

"I think it's all we have a shot at," Abbie answered honestly. "We're at different places in our lives." Casey took Abbie's face in her hands and gently urged her to look Casey in the eye.

"Abbie... I'm here because this is where I want to be. This is where I need to be."


"Because I care, Abbie." She paused. "What if I want to be more than friends?"


"Abbie... can't we try?" Silence. With a sigh, Casey's hands slid from Abbie's face and she started to stand... only to stop when Abbie's hand landed on her arm.

"I would like to start as friends first. I just don't want you to be here if...." She sighed. "Casey, I don't want you to be unhappy. And I don't want you to hurt me," she finished on a whisper.

"Abbie, there's nowhere else I want to be and no one else I'd rather be with. I won't hurt you."

"You can't know that."

Casey wondered who had hurt Abbie so badly in her past that despite her swaggering, flirting personality she shied away from any serious commitment. She determined to find out when she had more of Abbie's trust - first, however, she had to get Abbie to trust her.

"You're right - I can't know that for certain. But I do know I can do my very best to make sure I don't." She paused and stood, clutching Abbie's hand. "Sorry, my knees are killing me."

"Getting old there, young'un?"

"Trying to catch up, old woman," Casey sassed with a smirk. "I've got a ways to go yet." She sat down next to Abbie without releasing her hand and her expression went court room serious. "Can I tell you something?" waiting for Abbie to nod. "Getting a life nearly killed me. Suddenly everyone I knew wanted to set me up with someone they knew. I thought it would be fun and exciting. Instead it was exhausting," smiling when Abbie chuckled. "I do want a life outside the SVU... just not the one I fell into."

Abbie curled her legs up under her and turned to face Casey. "What kind of life do you want, Casey?"

"Something a little simpler - good friends, quiet evenings, Saturday ball games, Sunday crosswords and someone to share it with."

"That sounds nice."

"So... friends?"

"I'd like that."

"And after that?"

"One day at a time, Casey."

"That's a start. Now c'mon. I'm hungry and Emma promised me real Texas barbeque today."

"Oh... I'm there. Nothing beats my mama's barbeque. I've missed it."

"C'mon then, Tex... time's awastin'."

A knock on the door brought Olivia's attention back to her surroundings. Blair had dropped her off on her way to visit Alex and Olivia had spent her time since straightening up and packing up the belongings she'd brought with her almost a month previously. Her art lay undisturbed on the second bed and along every other flat surface Blair could find.

Now she turned her back on the room and hurried out to answer the door. "Jason?"

Jason Bernard stood there with a plate in one hand, doffing his hat with the other. Olivia opened the door wider and motioned him in. He stepped across the threshold and stopped in the foyer, extending the plate. Liv took it and gestured him further inside, but Jason shook his head.

"I need to be getting back, Detective. Gerry just sent me over with some cookies for you. Said you shouldn't have to miss out on the good stuff just because you had work to do before heading back to the City."

Olivia smiled. "That was so sweet. Tell her thank you, would you?"

"Yes'm, I'll do that, though you're more than welcome to come tell her yourself." He nodded his head and clapped his hat back on his head. Then he stepped back outside, closing the door before Liv could comment. She stared at the closed door for a long moment, then snitched a cookie from the plate before returning to the guest room.

She was nearly done packing up her clothes and personal effects. Even though she'd made herself at home during her stay, she wasn't naturally messy, so there really hadn't been that much to do. Mostly it had been a delaying tactic to avoid dealing with the art. Now, however, there was little left to do.

Liv looked around, noting there was nowhere to put the plate. Sighing, she traipsed to the kitchen, snagging a couple more cookies before depositing them on the counter. Then she went back to the guest room.

She started with the landscapes - photographs then art. Then she moved on to the more personal pieces. First it was the charcoal sketches of friends and family - Elliot and Kathy and the kids; Jo and Blair; Casey; Abbie; Melinda Warner and her family; Fin, Munch and Cragen. Each of them brought a smile to her face.

Olivia put them away in the sleeve carefully, then turned back to the remainder - some charcoal, some colored pencil. Alex Cabot all of them and all from memory. There were ones from court and ones from the few nights out they shared; ones from quiet moments in Alex's office and a couple from the precinct. But the one that brought a smile to Olivia's face was of the night when Alexandra Cabot had come crashing back into her life.

She was casually leaning against the doorjamb dressed in cowboy boots, a teal tank top and painted on blue jeans, glasses of justice dangling from one hand.

Heaving another big sigh, Liv put them into a separate folder, tucking all of them into the chest that housed her supplies. Then she looked at the large canvas, shaking her head. It had been an impulse purchase one day when she was out and it wouldn't fit into the chest. But the work was some of her best and she couldn't bear to see it destroyed either. Olivia decided to ask Blair if she could leave it here until she could get a crate to move it in.

Satisfied with her success, Olivia went back to the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of milk before grabbing a handful of cookies and walking outside. It was beautiful out -cool, crisp and sunny and Liv stretched out like a cat on a chaise to enjoy the sun, not even realizing when she fell asleep. This was how Blair found her several hours later upon her return.

"So did you get a lot done?" Blair asked as they were seated in the restaurant. The waiter took the drink order and moved away, leaving them in peace for a few minutes.

"I got finished, actually. Everything's packed and ready to go... except for the oil. Can I leave that until I can get a crate to ship it in?"

"Absolutely, Olivia. We have plenty of room."

"Thanks, Blair. And thanks for letting me use the lodge. As much as it surprises me to admit this, I really enjoyed it."

Their waiter reappeared then to bring their drinks and take their orders, but Blair picked up their conversation right where they'd left off at the interruption. "Why were you surprised, Olivia?"

Liv blinked, then blushed slightly. "Sorry... that sounded ungrateful, didn't it? I didn't mean it that way. It's just... being here is so different from what I know. The City is my home - it always has been. My idea of the great outdoors has always been time in Central Park. Having so much outdoors and being around so little humanity for this long a stretch of time has been such a different experience, and it's one I've really enjoyed being able to have."

Blair smiled. "You're always welcome, Olivia."

Liv tore off a piece of bread from the loaf and took a bite. "Careful, Blair... I just might take you up on that."

"I hope you do, my friend. It's been good for you," taking in the relaxed posture across from her. "Even with all the recent excitement."

"Speaking of the recent excitement," Olivia segued after the waiter set the first course in front of them, "How is Alex doing?"

"She's doing better."


"She's doing better. If you want to know more, you should visit her." A beat. "Olivia...." Blair shook her head. "How's Ms Carmichael?"

"What were you going to say? Cause I know it wasn't to ask about Abbie."

"It doesn't matter. I promised I wouldn't get involved. Besides, I really would like to know how she's doing."

"You think I should talk to Alex, don't you?" meeting Blair's eyes. Brown held brown, then Liv sighed and looked down at her plate before catching Blair's gaze again. "That's all right... I'm starting to think so too. As for Abbie," she went on before Blair could comment. "She's doing better. She's supposed to call me."

"Give her our best wishes. Maybe when everything settles we can get everyone together - have some fun."

Liv smiled. "Maybe." Then they turned their attention to the dinner the waiter placed in front of them and when conversation resumed, it moved on to other topics.


"Hmm?" Emma Carmichael looked up from her book as Casey opened the door and poked her head into the guest room. She marked her place then beckoned Casey in. "Come in, dear. What can I do for you?" noting the pensive expression Casey wore.

Casey cleared her throat and studied the floor before meeting Emma's eyes - eyes that reminded her very much of Abbie's. "Can you... do you know what caused Abbie to be so gun shy?"

Emma studied Casey carefully before motioning for her to take a seat. "I think that's something you should talk to Abbie about, Casey."

Casey stood back up and went to the window. "I tried... sort of. She thinks I'm going to hurt her."

"Are you?" Casey whirled from the window, green eyes sparking fire. Emma held up her hand to keep the tirade she could see from spilling out of Casey's mouth. "Casey, my daughter is a confident, cocky, arrogant woman and a kick-ass attorney. But that's a persona she wears to protect the real woman behind the mask. She doesn't have many friends... trust doesn't come easily for her."


"Casey, if you care for my daughter the way I think you do, you're going to have to be patient with her. And you're going to have to be firm... she'll test you. Show her you're in for the long run."


"You've made a good start." Emma stood and took Casey's hands in hers. "Be her friend. That's the hard part. If she let's you in there, the rest should be easy. But Casey, don't hurt her. If you're not serious, please... walk away now."

"NO. I'm here for the long haul. Abigail Elizabeth Carmichael will just have to deal with it."

Emma smiled. "Good girl... I knew there was a reason I liked you."

"I do need to return to New York soon though. My bosses are starting to chomp at the bit and since Abbie isn't technically family...." She trailed off. "However, I do plan to keep tabs on her. The phone is my friend and the highway runs both ways."

"I like you, Casey Novak. I think we'll keep you... even if Abbie doesn't know it yet."

Their laughter caused Abbie to smile in her sleep.

"Blair, do you mind if I borrow the car today?"

"Not at all," passing Olivia the keys. "I have work I need to do before Jo gets here later. Should I ask where you're going or when you're going to be home?"

Liv grinned though the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "I dunno... should you? I just thought I'd get outta the way for a little while - give you and Jo a little time alone together."

"First of all, you're not in the way, all right? But if you need a little space... well, that I can certainly understand." Blair caught the faraway look in Liv's eyes. "Go talk to her, Olivia. You're not going to find any real peace of mind until you do."

Liv didn't say a word - she simply took the keys and leaned forward, brushing the lightest of kisses across Blair's cheek. Then she headed out the door.

She drove for a little while, enjoying the beautiful fall colors and idly wishing she'd remembered to bring her camera along. She tried to keep her mind clear, to let it wander aimlessly from thought to random thought. But like a compass drawn to the north, inevitably her thoughts always swung back to Alex.

With a frustrated sigh, Liv turned the car around. It was time for Olivia Benson to bite the bullet and face Alex Cabot.

She opened the door, trying not to draw attention to her entry. Blair needed to get her work done before Jo arrived and Liv knew she'd be in for twenty questions if Blair heard her. So she crept to her room, took care of her business and sneaked out again the way she'd come in. When the front door closed behind her, Jo and Blair stepped from the kitchen.

"You think...?" Blair commented as they listened to her car rolling down the driveway.

Jo smirked. "Uh huh. C'mon. I'm hungry," leading Blair back into the kitchen. "I skipped lunch to get up here early. We can worry about Liv and Alex later."

"With any luck, we won't have anything to worry about."

"We can hope."

Olivia rubbed the palms of her hands along the thighs of her jeans and knocked. She heard steps and blew out a deep breath, stuffing her hands in her pockets just as Geraldine opened the door. Liv affected a stance she hoped was cool and met Geraldine's eyes... or would have if Gerry hadn't been giving her the once over. She fought to keep the blush down, just succeeding when Geraldine's amused eyes met her sunglasses.

"Detective Benson?"

"Just Olivia, Gerry. Is Ms Cabot available?"

"She's in the family room, Olivia," opening the door wider and ushering Liv inside. "Just follow the sound of the music." Geraldine gestured in the right direction, then moved off towards the kitchen, leaving Olivia alone in the hall. For a long moment she stood absolutely still, breathing deeply to slow her heart rate. And she listened carefully, allowing the music to guide her to a room she'd not seen before.

Alex sat behind a baby grand piano, eyes closed as her hands stroked the keys with expert familiarity. Olivia chanced a look around. It was a large room - shelves of books covered the far wall and the furniture was neatly clustered to allow appreciation of both the fireplace that eclipsed most of one wall and the piano that took up one whole side of the room.

Carefully Liv walked into the room, practiced steps silent as she made her way to the piano. She leaned against it casually, watching undetected as Alex put her heart and soul into a melody that was haunting and mysterious. Olivia tried to place it - Serena Benson had instilled an appreciation of the classics in her daughter... art, literature, music and theatre... and yet Olivia could not determine which master Alex was currently playing.

The music drew to a close and Alex opened her eyes, gasping when she realized she had an audience and just exactly who the audience was. "Olivia?"

"Hello, Counselor. Long time, no see," grinning rakishly and removing the sunglasses from her dark eyes. Alex stared at her for a long moment, then let her gaze peruse Olivia's body - from her shiny black boots up long, tapered legs encased in tight, black jeans. A form-fitting tank top was mostly hidden by a dark leather jacket and in her eyes.... Alex's blue eyes widened at the implications of what she thought she saw.


Liv shook her head. "No... it's just Liv. I thought, if I haven't managed to make you hate me yet, that maybe we could talk."

Alex stared at Olivia for a long moment, holding her eyes and reading the myriad of things swirling around in the dark depths. She nodded and motioned Liv towards the furniture at the other side of the room. Liv held out her hand towards Alex who hesitated, then grasped it as if it was a lifeline. She allowed Olivia to help her from the bench and together they walked hand in hand to the couch.

Olivia seated Alex in one corner then dropped her hand and walked to the fireplace. She stared at Alex for a little while, noting the still obvious damage that had recently been done to her, making her a victim again. The marks on the outside were healing - what about the marks on the inside... the mental suffering that was as much a part of her assault as the beating? What about the things she had lived through while in Witness Protection... did she still live with those scars as well?

Alex held her gaze without blinking, never flinching, curious as to what thoughts were running behind the brown eyes. Olivia turned to face the fireplace focusing on the low flames that flickered there, slowly becoming aware of the heat that radiated at her knee level. Now that the moment was here, she wasn't really sure what to say. Then she felt Alex at her back.

"Let me take your coat, Olivia, before you start roasting."

Before she could protest, Alex had divested her of her leather jacket, folding it neatly and laying it over the back of one of the straight-backed chairs. Alex settled in to wait and Olivia returned her gaze to the fire.

"When you left... after Velez... I was - I felt like part of me was gone... like I had missed out knowing something amazing in my life. It hurt... and it made me angry. To have been so close and yet...." She shrugged. "Then you came back for the Connor's trial and I understood that you had moved on. And that made me angrier... because you obviously didn't care like I did. I didn't mean anything to you. That realization nearly killed me."

She went silent for so long, Alex felt compelled to speak. "It wasn't like that at all."

Olivia laughed bitterly. "Wasn't it? Because that's damn sure what it felt like! Especially after you came home to stay, and we had to find out through the grapevine! God, Alex!" She paused and looked around without ever turning to look at Alex. "I'm not sure what I'm doing here," shaking her head.

"Olivia, look at me." Liv shook her head again and kept her eyes firmly focused on the fire. "Liv, if you want to talk about this, you're going to have to let me speak. And I'd appreciate having your complete attention." Olivia bit her bottom lip and sighed, then straightened and turned to face Alex. Alex caught her breath at the pain and anger reflected back at her. She hesitated, then extended her hand. "Please... come sit next to me. I promise not to touch unless you want me to. I certainly won't bite."

Liv studied her for a long moment, then came around the far side of the couch and took the corner opposite Alex. Close enough to touch, but far enough away to be untouchable. She crossed her arms over her chest protectively and waited. Now Alex sighed.

"I told you about why I kept you out of my life when I returned... or why I tried to. Believe me, if I could go back and redo things, knowing what I know now - I would have done so many things differently. I never would have pursued Velez. The price I've paid repeatedly for my stubbornness has been astronomical. It cost me my life, my family, my home... but mostly it cost me us... what we were as well as what we were becoming. When I was in Wisconsin, it was the memory of you and what we had so nearly had that drove me to find some sort of human connection." Olivia snorted with disbelief. "Don't, Detective. I know you did the same."

"After you came back and made it clear I was nothing to you."

"Oh, Liv... you were never nothing. You were everything and I couldn't let you be everything... not then. I knew I couldn't stay, and part of me wanted you to find happiness, even if it couldn't be with me. You deserved that much - you deserved so much more. He was a poor substitute for you, and frankly I was glad I had to come back, if only because I knew it meant I would be moved again, and he wouldn't be there."

"That's cold, Alex."

Alex shrugged and nodded. "It's also true." A beat. "Liv, as much as I would like to, I can't change the past - I can only go forward from where I am now. That's all either of us can do. So why are you really here? What exactly are you looking for from me?"

Olivia unwrapped her arms from her upper body and leaned forward, forearms on her knees, hands loosely clasped between them and head down. When she spoke, her voice was low and Alex struggled to hear the words.

"I'd thought, if I just kept you out of my life, everything would be fine. You couldn't hurt me anymore and I could just go about my business. Then you came crashing back in without regard to the fact that I was angry and hurt and I found out that the walls I'd built against you were so much rice paper in their effectiveness against you. That just pissed me off more. And the fact that you expected me to just forgive and forget and move on like nothing had changed simply added fuel to the fire."

Alex's eyes widened - she'd never known Olivia to be so eloquent or verbose, though she'd never doubted her intelligence. Most of her dealings with the detective's speech involved her talking to perps or fighting with Alex herself. Alex remained silent and listened.

"I wanted you to hurt like I did, and when my chance to inflict damage on you came, I cut as hard and deep as I could."

Alex gasped. "You said all that just to hurt me?"

"I meant what I said, Alex - I just made sure it hurt you to hear it."

Silence. Then, "You did a good job. I never thought you could be so hateful... or so heartless," refusing to look at Olivia.

"Neither did I, and I've felt like a jackass ever since. I should've been happy that you were home again and happy regardless of who made you that way and why and I wasn't; I wanted to mean something to you. Then I should've been happy that you were offering me another chance, and all I felt was anger that you were pandering to me out of some warped sense of obligation."

"What happened?" Alex finally asked when the silence dragged on for too long.

"I nearly lost you... again. And if I had, the only one to blame for it would've been me."

"Olivia, you didn't attack me and Abbie."

"No... I did worse. I let you go off thinking you meant nothing to me. And that's never been true." She hesitated then continued. "I thought I'd be all right keeping you at arm's length - you'd still be there but you'd never be close enough to hurt me. I could make sure of that. And yet when Elliot stopped by to tell me the news... I knew right then, you'd always have that power... whether I gave it to you or not, it was yours."

"So you're here because of guilt?"

"I'm here because I can't pretend anymore."

Alex blew out a tremulous breath, not expecting to ever have her own words handed back to her. This was so much more than she'd expected to hear, and even though parts of it cut her to the quick, she felt a sense of release accompany Olivia's honesty.

"So what do you want to do now, Liv?"

Olivia shrugged, still keeping her eyes on the floor. "I'm not sure that's for me to decide."

"I didn't ask you to make a decision. I asked what you wanted," Alex replied in a tone that brought Liv's eyes up to meet hers.

"I'd like...." She blew out a breath. "I'd like to take you up on your previous offer - to try and be friends again... maybe see where that takes us."

"The conditions of that offer have changed, Olivia, but the offer is still on the table if you're really interested."

"What's changed?" Liv asked warily and with a hint of sadness.

"No more games. We have to be honest with one another - even when it hurts - or this will never work. It was because we were playing that we missed out on what we could have had before Velez, and I refuse to waste any more time and effort dancing around one another pretending. So, absolutely - we can be friends again. But I want you to know up front that I would like it all from you - a life, a home, a family. If you only want to be friends, I need to know that now."

"I'd like to try, Alex. I've never had that with anyone. I don't know if I'm capable, and I can't promise I won't screw things up."

"Of course you'll screw things up, and so will I. It's part of being in a relationship... whether it's as friends or something more. The difference is, we make an effort to make it work anyway."

"All right. I can do that. We were friends before...."

Alex smiled. "We still are. We just got off-track for a little while."

"And we have a lot to catch up on."

"Yes, we do. C'mon," standing slowly and offering her hand to Olivia. "I want cookies and milk."

"Won't that ruin your dinner?"

"Who says it's not my dinner?" Alex returned with an impish smile. Liv just grinned and shook her head, then took Alex's hand and let her lead them to the kitchen. Things were finally looking up.

"Alexandra Isabelle Cabot!! What exactly is going on in my kitchen??"

At the sound of her full name, both Alex and Olivia had frozen in place. Now two heads turned in tandem to find Geraldine standing in the doorway, hands on hips and eyebrows arched in question. Both had cookies in their hands and had the good grace to look sheepish when she glared at them sternly.

"How old are you?? Ruining your dinner with cookies and milk?? And you," focusing on Liv, "you're just as bad, so please don't give me that innocent routine. Now out... both of you. You can have cookies and milk for dessert, but I expect you both to eat a good dinner first," shooing them from the kitchen like well-scolded children. "Honestly," muttering to herself. "You'd think they were five. I thought I raised them better than that," was the last they heard before they scampered back to the living room. They fell onto the couch, shaking with silent laughter.

"Oh my God, that was funny," Olivia choked out between breaths.

"I'm sorry, Olivia. I never expected...." Alex said around her laughter.

"Don't be. That has to be one of the funniest things I've ever been part of."

"I'm certain she'll realize the truth before you go home – you'll probably end up with a plateful of cookies as an apology."

"I hope not," Liv confessed, seeing Alex's eyes widen in surprise. She held up her hand before Alex could ask. "If Gerry keeps sending me cookies, I'm not gonna be able to chase perps anymore. I'll just have to roll over them because running will be completely out of the question." She saw the frown and continued. "She had Jason bring me by a plate full yesterday. Blair and I had the last of them for a midnight snack."

Now Alex grinned. "Better warn Elliot it's his turn to do the running for a while then. If Gerry finds out she's got the secret to fattening you up a little, she'll exploit it. She's determined I'm too thin and has made it her mission to put some meat on my bones - her words... not mine."

"And how does that affect me exactly?"

"Trust me, Detective. If I'm too thin to be doing my job where the most strenuous thing I do all day is sit behind a desk and ream out interns, you are definitely too thin to be chasing criminals. Doesn't matter that it's all muscle mass - all she sees is thin."

"Good to know. I'll start adding a few more layers of clothes. Although after this weekend, it won't really matter."

"Are you looking forward to going back?"

"Yeah... I really am. Don't get me wrong - in retrospect, I'm actually happy about the suspension. I needed a break... a little time to regroup, and obviously I wasn't going to take one without being forced to or I already would have. But the SVU is where I belong, at least for now. I do so much good there, despite everything."

"Yes, you do," Alex agreed solemnly. "You changed my reasons for being there."

"Did I?"

"Absolutely. It started out being about me - about my win/loss ratio and how it could get me to the big chair. That didn't last very long."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"Would you have believed me? I had made a big deal out of ensuring you all knew exactly why I was there and I had earned my Ice Princess reputation. No one would have believed I had such a drastic change of heart."

"I would've. We all would've, especially after the Cavanaugh case. We watched you start caring about the victims instead of the stats."

"Why didn't anyone say anything?"

"And mess up the Ice Princess rep you'd put into place? Uh uh... you may have been the very Devil as far as we were concerned, but you were our Devil and we weren't gonna mess up what was working for you... and for us. I figured you let us know when you were ready to be seen as something more."

Alex shook her head. "I was such an idiot."

"Yeah, well... we all were." Olivia took a deep breath. "Hey, not to change the subject, but I meant to ask - what were you playing earlier? I didn't recognize the composer and I thought I was familiar with most of the masters. It's been driving me nuts trying to figure it out."

"You won't," Alex assured her. "It's not a classical piece in that sense of the word."

"So a new guy?"

"Yeah... something like that."

"What's his name? I'd like to check out some of his other work. If it's anything like the piece you were playing, I wanna pick up a CD if he's got one."

"I'm fairly confident that's not an option in this case," standing and walking over to the wet bar on the wall opposite the fireplace.

"Oh? And why's that?" watching Alex curiously.

"Because I never made one. Drink?"

"Whoa - back up. Excuse me?"

"I said, I never made a CD," meeting Liv's eyes steadily, but Olivia could clearly see her nervousness.

"That was... you wrote that? Alex, that was amazing. Why did you go to law school when you have such an enormous musical gift?"

"Why did you become a police officer when you could have been the next Monet?"

"You know?"

"Only what I've been told by those who've seen." She looked at Liv shyly. "I'd like to see sometime, if you'd be willing to share."

"I'll make a deal with you - you find a way to put your music on CD for me, and I'll give you your own private showing."

Alex's brow arched in thought, then she nodded. "It will take a little while, but you've got yourself a deal, Detective."

Olivia nodded and swallowed hard, wondering just exactly what she'd gotten herself into. Then Geraldine called them back into the kitchen for dinner and she forgot to worry about it. She was too busy trying not to burst into laughter again, and was confident Alex was doing the same thing, though she didn't dare look at her to check. Dinner was going to be an interesting affair.

It was late when Olivia returned to the Warner Lodge. She crept in quietly, not wanting to disturb the household, only to have Jo and Blair call out to her as she passed by the living room door. Liv stepped into the room to find her friends curled up comfortably together in front of the fire.

"Good night?" Jo asked, though the change was evident in both Liv's posture and her expression. But she had a feeling Olivia might like the opportunity to express her feeling aloud.

"Yeah, actually," she said with a smile, sitting down in the chair and putting her booted feet on the ottoman in front of her. "Alex and I hashed things out... really talked for a change - something we haven't done in years."

"It went well, I take it."

"I think so. We're friends again... or at least we're trying to be."

"Just friends?" Jo asked, earning her a smack from Blair. She turned fierce green eyes to meet equally fierce brown. "Whaddya do that for? It's a legitimate question."

"Maybe Olivia doesn't want to share all the nitty gritty details, Jo. This is her life, you know... hers and Alex's."

"And...? That doesn't mean she doesn't have things she might like to tell. Especially about this 'friends' business." Jo turned to Liv. "So... what the hell's going on?"

Blair rolled her eyes and blew out an impatient breath, but sat good-naturedly waiting for Olivia to answer. Liv just chuckled silently and shook her head. "I wanna grow up to be just like you two. Don't you ever change. As for what the hell's going on - Alex and I are remembering how to be friends again. She'd like more... we both would, but we got a few issues and years worth of catching up to work through first."

"At least you've finally taken that first step."

"Or two. Did you know she is a gifted musician?" The blonde head nodded and the dark head shook, then Jo turned to look at Blair. Blair shrugged.

"You forget Alex and I have a passing acquaintance from years back. Her mother used to have her play at society functions. She was convinced Alex was going to be the next Mozart."

"She certainly has the talent," Liv commented. "What happened?"

"Family expectations. Cabots are lawyers or judges or politicians - in most cases, all three. Music had no chance to take root as anything more than a serious hobby."

"That's a shame... at least if Alex wanted to become a musician."

"I think she likes being a lawyer... or she did. But she never lost her love of music."

"Well," Liv said as she rose to her feet, "she promised to make me a CD of her work, so that's something to look forward to at any rate. Now, if you two will excuse me, I'm gonna go to bed."

"Night, Liv."

"Night, Olivia."

"Goodnight, guys."

"Abbie Carmichael's residence. Emma Carmichael speaking."

"Hi, Mrs. Carmichael - it's Olivia Benson. Is Abbie available? I missed her call yesterday and it was late before I was able to return it. So I thought it best to wait until this morning."

"Probably a wise decision, Olivia. Let me see if I can find her. Hold on a moment please."

Liv was grateful for the lack of annoying hold music while she waited. Then, "Benson? Where the hell have you been? You're never away from your phone that long. I was getting worried!"

"Cool it, Carmichael, before you strain something. I'm fine. I was talking to Alex."

"Whoo hoo! And??"

"And we're working on it."

"It... as in...?"

"As in friends first. We've got a lot of stuff to work on. But at least we're talking now."

"That's good then."

"No... that's great. I haven't felt like this in a long time. So how are you and Casey?" not giving Abbie a moment to comment on what she said or to think about her answer.

"We're talking," Abbie stated plainly. "Taking things one day at a time. She swears she's in it for the long haul... guess we'll see."

"Good," Olivia pronounced succinctly. "At least you'll get another friend out of it, and she's a good one to have. Don't try to chase her off, Abbie, and don't hurt her. She'll be good for you if you let her."

"You sound like my mother," Abbie grumbled. "Whose side are you on here anyway?"

"Yours, believe it or not. It's time for you to let go and be happy, Abbie. You've held on to it long enough."

"I don't know if I can," Abbie confessed.

"You can. We'll all help. Now, when are you coming back up here? Alex told me she invited you and your mom for a long weekend."

"Still recovering here. Why do you want to know?" she asked suspiciously.

"I'd like to try and plan to be here. I think Alex is hoping to meet with Sam McPherson when you two are together."

"Tell her to make arrangements with Ms McPherson. Mama and I will work around that," Abbie said with a sigh.

"You sure you're all right?" Olivia asked with genuine concern.

"Yeah... just a little nervous. It's been a long time...."

"One day at a time, Abbie. It'll be worth it, I promise."

"You're an expert now?" asked with a smile on her face that Liv could hear.

"Oh yeah... years of experience, you know."

"All right... I've gotta git. Casey's promised me a picnic on the Mall while the weather's nice. And since she's leaving in the morning...."

"Tell her to drive safely and ask her to call me when she gets in. I'll be back in the City by early afternoon."

"All right - you drive safely too and let me know when you get in."

"Yes, Mom."

"I mean it Benson, or I'll sic my mama on you."

"All right, all right. No need to threaten me. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Dinner was wonderful, Alex. Thanks for inviting us over," Blair said as they moved into the family room once the meal was over.

"It was the least I could do considering all you have done for me over the past few weeks."

"Will you play?" Jo asked, motioning to the baby grand. "I'm the only one here who hasn't heard you, and while I don't have Blair's training or Liv's ear, I'd still like to hear if you'd be willing to play."

"Please," Olivia added and Alex sighed, knowing she was lost. She took a seat on the bench and ran her hands along the keys, warming up before launching into a melody Olivia knew had been composed while Alex had been in Witness Protection. It was haunting and sad and lonely and brought tears to her eyes, though she refused to let them fall.

"I want a copy of that CD, please," Blair said quietly, breaking the heavy silence that had fallen with the final note of Alex's music. Alex turned to Olivia and glared.

"You've got a big mouth, Detective."

Olivia shrugged. "Like you didn't already know that."

"True, and don't think there won't be eventual payback." Alex turned to Blair. "Maybe for Christmas. I have to make some arrangements and I do have a career to get back to eventually. However," she continued before anyone could question, "Sam McPherson has asked to meet with Abbie and me and we're trying for this next weekend. Can you make it back up here?" looking at Olivia.

"I'm sure I'll have duty, but I'll do what I can."

"Why not come to the City?" Blair suggested. "Olivia will be there, Jo and I will be there, Ms Novak will be there...."

"All right, all right... I get the picture," Alex said with a hint of laughter in her voice. "I'll tell Abbie to come to the City and let Ms McPherson know. I need to get back anyway. I've got things to take care of before I go back to work."

"Are you sure you're ready for that? Aren't you still supposed to be resting? What does the doc say?"

"Liv, if I have to rest any more, I'm going to go out of what is left of my mind. My therapist is in the City and I would like to talk to her; physically I'm mostly healed, my head doesn't hurt - even I know it's time to get back into the game. Besides, I've got to find a new place to live and I should do that while I have the time to look." She turned to Blair. "Do you think I could catch a ride back with you in the morning?"

"Olivia is driving my car, but you're welcome to join her if she doesn't mind a passenger." Blair and Alex turned their attention to Liv.

"Pick you up at ten?" Alex nodded her agreement. "And you'll tell me about needing to find a new place to live?"

"If you really want to know, sure."

"Wouldn't have asked otherwise."

And with very few words Jo, Blair and Liv took their leave, promising to return the following morning. Alex headed upstairs to prepare for her return to Manhattan.

"You sure you have to go, Casey?" Abbie asked quietly. It was early Sunday morning and Casey had stopped by on her way out of town to say goodbye to Abbie and Emma. Emma had been quick with her farewell and headed back inside, leaving Abbie and Casey alone in the driveway. Now Abbie stood awkwardly with her hands shoved in her pockets while Casey leaned against the trunk of her car, arms crossed over her chest. "I mean... I know you do, but I think I'm going to miss having you here."

"You think?"

"I'm pretty sure."

"Well, I'm pretty sure I'm going to miss being here - your mom is a great cook," she added with a hint of mischievousness. "But crime and prosecution wait for no one, no matter how much we'd like it to. Besides, if I don't go soon, my mom is going to expect me to move back."

"Would that be such a bad thing?" wistfully.

"It would depend on why I was moving, wouldn't it?"

Abbie's eyes widened. "You'd do that? You'd move to DC for me?"

"If I had a reason to? In a heartbeat."

Abbie took her hands from her pockets and stepped forward until she and Casey were close enough to touch. Then she extended her arms for a hug, gratified when Casey didn't even hesitate, but walked right into her embrace. They held on for long moments before finally pulling back while remaining in a loose clasp.

"You're coming to Manhattan next weekend, aren't you?" reminding Abbie of the phone call she'd gotten from Alex late the previous evening. Abbie nodded. "Plan to stay with me then. Maybe we can start working on that reason." Casey tightened her hold and brushed her lips over Abbie's cheek as she pulled back again, stepping completely from Abbie's grasp. "I'll be seeing you."

Without warning, Abbie leaned forward, kissing Casey full on the lips hard and fast. Then she gave Casey a cocky half-grin and sauntered back up the drive, a distinct swagger in her step. Casey watched her go, blinking the surprise from her face and shaking her head when Abbie turned around halfway up to give her a shit-eating grin and a wave.

"Brat," she muttered, then opened the car door, ready to make the return to the City. She and Olivia were certainly going to have a lot to talk about.

"Thanks, Olivia. I really do appreciate the ride back to the City."

Liv shrugged. "It's not a problem," she grinned slyly, "especially since Gerry made up another batch of cookies for the road." She waggled her eyebrows and Alex rolled her eyes before breaking into a reluctant smile. "Besides, I'm really curious about your need to find a new place to live. I thought you had the perfect penthouse on the Upper East side."

Alex sighed. "I did... I still do, actually. I just… I can't live there anymore. If I'm going to make a new start, try to be who Alex Cabot is and not who people expect her to be, I need to stop playing a part."

Olivia cut her eyes in Alex's direction briefly before refocusing on the road. "Um, Alex? What part? You come from money. Everyone knew that even before you went into Witness Protection."

Alex huffed. "How did everyone know? Was I pretentious about it? Did I flaunt it around?" running her hands through her hair and pushing it back away from her face. "Or did everyone just make assumptions based on my name and education?" Liv bit her lip and cast her mind back several years, blushing when she realized the answer to her question. Alex noticed immediately and called her on it. "What?"

Liv sighed silently and came clean. "Alex, we're detectives," letting the implication lay between them. Blue eyes widened in shock when Alex understood what wasn't being said.

"You had me investigated?!?"

Olivia wanted to squirm under the scrutiny, but forced herself to remain still and focused on the road. "We wanted to know who we were dealing with."

"And you couldn't just ask??"

Liv chuckled, but stopped instantly when she felt the weight of Alex's glare. "Alex, no offense, but you're a lawyer - admittedly for the good guys, but still a lawyer. It's your job to present the facts and to make a jury see what you need them to see in order to make the conviction. I'm a detective - it's my job to dig up the raw facts - no whitewashing, no bullshit. We didn't know you and you didn't know us. We wanted to know who was going to bat for us... especially after what you said to the captain."

"I'm never going to live that down, am I?"

"It was the first impression you gave us," Olivia confessed with a shrug. "But you grew beyond that, and we all recognized it. You became an advocate for the victim, and we respected that. We respected you." She cleared her throat. "However, that is way off the subject that started this whole conversation. If you have the perfect penthouse, why give it up?"

"It doesn't fit who I am anymore; it doesn't fit who I want to be." Alex worried her bottom lip between her teeth as she struggled for the right words. "It's a perception... a persona. I don't want to have to live up to that anymore. I just want to be me... in some place that's real and warm and comfortable."

Liv turned and gave Alex a genuine smile. "I can understand that - it sounds really nice. I hope you find what you're looking for."

"I will," Alex assured her with a confidence and self assurance Olivia recognized from her early days with SVU.

"Some things never change," she commented with a chuckle, earning her another glare from blue eyes before Alex's wry laughter joined hers. They fell into a comfortable silence for the remainder of the trip back to Manhattan.

"Call me when you have a time and place for your interview with Sam McPherson," Olivia instructed as she dropped Alex in front of her building. "I'll do my best to be there."

"I will. Thanks for the ride," she added with a wave before disappearing inside. Then Liv headed home to meet up with a waiting Jo and Blair. It was time to put away the artist and get the detective back in the SVU swing of things.


"Hey, Olivia... it's Casey."

"Hey, Casey... how was the drive back? Much traffic?"

"It was all right," Casey replied distractedly. "Traffic was worse than what I got into going down, but it wasn't bad."

"How's Carmichael?" wondering what had put Casey into the funk she was in.

"Doing better. Her bruises are mostly healed and she's seeing a therapist about the assault."

"Really?" Liv couldn't keep the surprise out of her tone - knowing how Abbie felt about psychs and privacy.

"Yeah, her boss insisted. She can't return to work until she's been cleared by the doctor."

"Wow, bet that didn't go over too well."

Casey chuckled. "No bet - I was there to hear the fallout. My ears were ringing for a little while, let me tell you."

Liv laughed. "I'll just bet." She hesitated then plunged ahead. "So is that why you seem out of sorts?"

"What makes you say that?"

"Call it my detective instincts."

Casey blew out a forceful breath. "Let's just say I'm getting mixed signals and it's a little frustrating."

"You wanna talk about it?"

"Not yet," Casey responded after a long moment of silence. "I'd like to kind of get things straight in my own mind. Can I have a rain check?"

"Absolutely... you know where to find me"

"Thanks, Olivia. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"I imagine so. Goodnight, Counselor."

"Goodnight, Detective."

"My, my, my... the long, lost prodigal has returned," Munch greeted as he walked into the precinct and found Olivia sitting at her desk. "Did'ja miss me?"

Liv leaned back in her chair and smiled back at him, appreciating the widening of his eyes in reaction. "As a matter of fact, I did. I even almost missed the sludge that passes for coffee around this place."

"So you're glad to be back?"

"Surprisingly, yes. This place, for all its shortcomings, is like home to me and you guys are family."

"Hey, girlfriend!" Fin called out from the door before Munch could reply. "Gooda you to join us." He clasped Liv's shoulder and set a bag with two raspberry donuts on the desk in front of her. "Welcome back."

She grinned at him. "Thanks, Fin. It's good to be here."

"Well, before you start celebrating, Liv, I need you and Fin to get on this," Cragen said as he walked out of his office, passing her a slip of paper. "Call just came in... the victims are eight and thirteen. Munch, I need you to go back and re-interview Mrs. Rodrigues. CSU found some interesting trace evidence," handing him the lab specs. "Let's go people... we've got work to do." He turned and headed back towards his office before rotating back to face Olivia. "Welcome back, Detective," handing her back her gun and shield.

Liv looked at them a long moment before clipping them to her belt. "Thanks, Cap. It's good to be back." Then she and Fin headed out the door to start their week.

"Hey, Liv! How's it feel to be back?"

"Feels like home, El," Olivia said into the phone she had tucked between her ear and shoulder. "Missed you being there today, partner. How's Kathy and Eli? Enjoying the paternity leave?"

"Yeah, I am, actually - I think Kath is enjoying having me home for a change, and I have to admit it's kinda nice to be able to be here from the beginning. Especially since she's still recovering from the accident."

"I'm sor...."

"Don't finish that statement, Liv. Kathy and I both know being with you saved her life... and Eli's. It could have been a lot worse; it would have been if she'd been alone. So when are you coming over? Phone calls aren't the same and I know Kath would love to thank you in person."

"Let me know when is good for her - any day except Saturday - and I'll be there."

"Why not Saturday?" he asked with a grin in his voice. "I know you're on call, but do I detect a hot date in your future?"

"Actually, I have duty and then I'm supposed to meet up with the girls for dinner," not elaborating any further.

"The girls, huh?" with a hint of interest and intrigue in his voice. "And would these girls include a certain former SVU ADA who has a thing for my partner?"

"Maybe," Liv confessed. "We're talking again."

"That's a good thing, right?"

"I think so." Olivia blew out a frustrated breath. "I mean... I tried ignoring her - that only worked while she was doing the same. Once she came crashing back into my life...." Liv sighed. "I tried, El... I really did. I just... is it wrong that she does something to me? Makes me want more than I have?"

"No, Liv - it's not wrong... it's human. And you deserve to be happy." He paused. "Bring her with you."


"When you come out to the house, bring Alex with you. If she's becoming important to you, I think we need to get to know her... as someone other than the Ice Princess."

"I'll talk to her, El. Thanks."

"Anytime, partner. You're family."

"Wonder if Alex is ready for that." She hung up to the sound of Elliot's laughter ringing in her ears.

"Casey?" Olivia poked her head around the doorframe when no one answered her knock. She was pretty certain the ADA was waiting for her - after all, she'd called Casey only twenty minutes previously to let her know she was coming by to pick up a warrant. Now she frowned at the look of distance in her normally aware green eyes. Liv entered the room and shut the door. Then she braced her arms on the desk and leaned over it until she was inches from Casey's face.

"Hey, Novak!" Olivia greeted, watching Casey start in surprise, then pull back when she realized how close Olivia was. With a grin, Liv stood upright and crossed her arms over her chest. "You all right?"

"Um... yeah." She started searching through the paper on her desk. "Haven't seen you this week - busy?"

"Yeah... seems like I'm paying the price for being gone for a month. But at least we're closing cases." She took the warrant Casey was proffering. "What's up with you? And don't say nothing - you were completely out of it when I knocked." She seated herself on the corner of Casey's desk. "So?"

"Just thinking - it does happen to me sometimes, you know," she added with a smile.

"More often than not," Liv snorted. "Whatcha thinking about... or should that be who?"

Casey cleared her throat and focused her gaze on her desk. "Don't you have a warrant to execute, Detective?" Liv didn't move; she just lifted her eyebrow recrossed her arms and waited. Casey sighed. "Not buying that, huh?" A pause. "She's driving me crazy, Olivia."

Unexpectedly, Liv smiled. "Abbie is gifted that way." Olivia slid from her perch and put a hand on Casey's shoulder. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Yeah. Call me when you're done," motioning to the paper Liv clutched in her hand.

"Will do," Olivia agreed. "Let me go get you something to put this asshole away." Then she was out the door without another word. Casey watched for a moment, then shook her head and turned her attention back to her work. She still had things to finish.

"I was surprised to get your call, Alex," Janet offered conversationally as she motioned Alex to a seat. "I thought you swore you'd never be caught dead coming back to see me."

"Good thing I'm not dead then yet, huh?" Alex returned dryly as she took a seat. "Thank you for seeing me anyway. I know you had to fit me in."

"Alex, I would never turn you away. You know how I felt when you stopped coming."

"I know. And you were right."

"I'm just sorry it took until the middle of the week to find a time to get together. So... tell me what brings you here. What changed for you?"

"Everything," Alex said simply.

Janet waited but when Alex didn't continue she felt compelled to prompt her. "Would you like to share from the beginning or just tell me what brought you to me this evening?"

"How about I give you the short version for now - what brought me here this evening. We can start from the beginning when we have time for a lengthy session."

"That bad?"

"That complicated," Alex confessed wryly. Janet chuckled.

"Of course. It couldn't be easy if you're involved." Alex glared for a moment, then shrugged and gave in to the laughter she couldn't contain. "So tell me."

"Did you see the picture of me and Abbie Carmichael in the Times a couple weeks ago?" waiting for Janet to nod. "That is the beginning of the short version."

"Thank you for joining me for lunch, Casey. I never realized how hard it is to be a lady of leisure in the City."

Casey chuckled at Alex's frustrated expression. "You mean to tell me you can't find anything to do in the whole of Manhattan, Alex?"

"Apparently not - so thank you for indulging me."

"Thank you for inviting me - I was glad to get out of the office."

"Busy? Trouble?" Alex asked with a cocked brow as the waiter set their food in front of them.

"No more than usual... although Olivia being back has certainly brought new enthusiasm to the one-six. They seem to be closing cases again... like they were before all the trouble started."

"So why anxious to get out of the office today? Walls closing in?"

"Something like that." Casey put her fork down and picked up her water, taking a long sip before running her hands through her hair. Alex looked at her sympathetically.

"One of those walls wouldn't happen to be named Abbie Carmichael, would it?"

Casey glanced up at Alex and smiled wryly. "That obvious?"

"Once upon a time? No. But I learned to be observant of the world round me and I know Abbie. Much as I love her, she keeps a lot hidden. It's hard to know how to read her some days. And if you're just trying to get to know her, she can be very frustrating because trust is very hard for her."

Casey propped her head on her hand and gazed at Alex for a long moment before sighing deeply. "I can understand that. Everyone who has worked SVU has secrets... things they don't feel comfortable sharing after what they've seen and dealt with. I just wish Abbie wouldn't blow hot and cold."

"I don't think she's doing it on purpose, Casey." Alex held up a hand when Casey looked at her with complete disbelief. "I know it seems like it, but she needs to know she can depend on you before she gives you her trust. She wants to know you're going to be around for the long haul."

"And push/pull effort assures her of this how? All it's doing for me is making me seasick."

Alex chuckled. "I'll bet. But if you stick with her through the crap, I think you'll find she was worth waiting for."

Casey groaned. "How long?"

"Oh, Casey... it took a year before I was sure Abbie trusted me and I still don't know what happened to give her trust issues in the first place. I don't know if she'll ever trust me enough for that because whatever it was hurt her pretty badly. I hope she will eventually, but I just don't know." A sigh. "Besides, if I could see into the future that clearly, I wouldn't be wondering about me and Liv right about now."

"Trouble in paradise?"

"I wouldn't know - I haven't made it to paradise yet," Alex grumbled, drawing a laugh from Casey. Blue eyes glared into green. "It's not funny." Casey snorted lightly and shook her head. "It's not," Alex insisted. "It's frustrating and confusing and...."

"And maybe you should take the next first step. For all her bravado when dealing with perps - for all her compassion when dealing with victims - Olivia Benson has a thick shell she hides behind. You should already know that; it was there when you joined the unit - it only got worse after you left."

"You think so?"

"I know - the guys actually mentioned it to me after a particularly nasty case. I think they wanted me to know her reaction wasn't personal." Casey thought a moment. "It was after that, in fact, that Olivia and I started to become friends. Talk about a steep learning curve."

Alex grinned wryly. "I'll bet." Silence fell as they focused on finishing their lunch, then Alex spoke up again. "So you think I should make the next move, huh? Liv needs a little courting?"

Casey shrugged. "I think you'll probably make it to paradise a lot faster if you take control of the situation. Alex, just because you are remaking yourself doesn't mean you have to give up your strengths. And let's face it, you excel at control." Alex's eyebrows went into her hairline and Casey laughed. "C'mon, Alex... I heard all kinds of stories when I first came to SVU."

"All right... fine," Alex huffed. "I can definitely do control. Liv won't know what hit her."

Casey smiled. "I'm looking forward to watching that."

"Well, now that we've solved my romantic crisis, maybe we should work on yours." Casey groaned.

"I'd settle for establishing a firm friendship with Abbie for the time being." She sighed. "I just need to make it through the weekend." She gave Alex a look. "I invited Abbie to stay with me this weekend."

"That's pretty ballsy, Ms Novak," Alex commended with a genuine smile of approval.

Casey snorted. "I think it's pretty masochistic."

"Well, if it becomes too uncomfortable, call me. She can always come stay with me - I'll put her to work helping me move."

"How's that coming? Have you found a new place?"

"Robert's realtor friend Ian has gotten me a line on a brownstone that's up for sale." Casey's eyes widened, causing Alex to chuckle softly. "I know... doesn't sound like the Ice Princess, does it?"

"It doesn't sound like the Alex Cabot I've heard stories about, but it does sound like the Alex Cabot I am getting to know. The Alex Cabot I know is someone who is looking for a home and love and someone to share it with; she's less focused on appearances or success and what other people think."

Alex pushed her empty plate away and folding her hands together, blinking rapidly. "Wow... thanks, Casey. I never thought...."

"Yeah, don't let it go to your head, Cabot."

"Somehow, I don't think you'd let it, Novak."

The two of them giggled like schoolgirls before turning to the serious business of choosing dessert.

"Ms McPherson, please come in," Alex welcomed as she took Sam's jacket and ushered her into the semi-packed living room. "Thank you for coming to Manhattan."

Sam smiled. "Sam, please. Thank you for giving me a working reason to - Brooke was thrilled. My girlfriend," she continued in response to Alex's cocked eyebrow. "She's a law student at Harvard so we only see each other sporadically and lately.... Having a paying reason to spend a weekend here is a plus."

"I remember those days." Alex tilted her head. "How much longer does she have?"

"A year. She got her bachelor's in three years... show-off," Sam muttered under her breath affectionately. Alex chuckled. Sam smiled wryly. "I was interning during the summers while she was in school."

"And it paid off, apparently."

"That remains to be seen. I'm still the low man on the totem pole and I'm still five hundred miles from my best girl." Sam sighed. "I shouldn't complain - we get together as often as we can it's just...."

"Long distance is hard, I know."

"Yeah, but she's worth it. I keep reminding myself there's only one more year."

Alex bit her lip. "Why don't you ask her to join us... if not for the interview then maybe for lunch?"

Sam grinned. "I think she'd like that. If you'll excuse me a moment," waiting for Alex to nod before she took out her cell phone and started dialing. Alex watched for a moment, then turned back to the door when another knock sounded, only to find Abbie Carmichael standing there alone.

"Casey?" she asked looking around conspicuously. Abbie shook her head.

"On a call."

"Guess that means no Liv either," Alex grumbled, motioning Abbie in.

"Casey said she'd do her best to get here, but she didn't know when that might be," allowing Alex to take her jacket before she moved into the big room. Her eyebrows hiked at the controlled chaos evident throughout. "Going somewhere, Cabot?"

"Yes - Casey didn't tell you?"

Abbie scratched the back of her neck. "Um... no. We spent the evening talking; she gave me some ground rules, actually. And I gave her some conditions." Alex pulled her glasses down far enough that she could peer at Abbie over the rims. "I don't want to screw this up, and neither does she. We need to have honesty between us and for now that means boundaries... at least until we have a foundation of trust and friendship."

"Are you going to give her a chance?"

"I'm going to try - I want to."

"Good... you deserve to be happy, Abbie. You both do."

Abbie smiled weakly, then she motioned around the room. "So what's the story?" But before Alex could respond, Sam McPherson turned from the window.

"Ms Cabot? When should I tell Brooke to meet us?"

"Please call me Alex, Sam, and tell Brooke she is welcome whenever she can get here." Sam nodded and turned back to her phone. "We'll talk about this later," she said to Abbie just as Sam clicked her phone shut and turned back to the room.

"Ms Carmichael? I'm...."

"Sam McPherson. I've done some research - I'm impressed." Sam blushed. Alex smiled and motioned towards the couch and chairs.

"Shall we?"

"Sorry I'm late, ladies," her expression harried. "How was the interview?" Casey asked as they settled around the table later that evening. She was the last arrival, with the exception of Olivia, who was still conspicuously absent. "Hi, I'm Casey Novak," she added, extending her hand to first Sam, then Brooke.

"Sam McPherson, Brooke McQueen," Sam said with a smile. "I think the interview went well. It remains to be seen how my article turns out," she continued wryly.

"It will be brilliant, Sam. It always is," Brooke said with confidence. The rest grinned.

"How long have you been a couple?" Blair asked. Something about them reminded her of her and Jo... something familiar - although it was clear they had definitely figured things out long before she and Jo had.

"Officially? Since the end of our senior year in high school. Technically? Since our parents forced us to become friends when they started dating."

"Wait," Abbie said, rubbing a hand across her brow. "You're stepsisters?"

Brooke and Sam nodded and the rest looked at one another round the table. Alex signaled the waiter. "I think that calls for a drink. I can't wait to hear this."

Their appetizers had just been put in front of them when Alex's phone rang. She excused herself and took the call from Liv. "No, Liv... you're not too late. Our appetizers just arrived we're waiting for you to join us. C'mon, sweetie - judging from Casey's expression when she got here, you could use the company. Let us share your burden... even if it's only to take your mind off the case for a little while."

"Why do I even try to argue with you?" Liv asked with wry exhaustion.

"Because hope springs eternal?"

Olivia snorted. "I'll be there in a few."

Alex came back to the table and motioned to the waiter, nodding her thanks when he set a tumbler of whiskey at the empty place beside her. Casey and Abbie exchanged glances then turned their attention to Alex.

"Alex, Olivia doesn't drink hard liquor. Not after her mother...." Abbie broke off. Alex didn't answer - she just smiled as Liv approached the table. She extended her hand and Olivia dropped her keys in her outstretched palm before sitting and taking a sip from the glass.

"Thanks, Alex," she said softly before looking around the table. "Hi, guys." Her eyes met Brooke's. "You must be Sam's girlfriend, Brooke."

"Yes... hi. And you're Detective Benson. It's nice to meet you."

"And you. So," putting her napkin in her lap and looking around the table, "what'd I miss?"

"You missed the fact that Sam and Brooke are stepsisters," Jo commented, grinning at Olivia's effort to maintain a neutral facade. She cleared her throat and looked at the two of them before glancing around the table.

"Well, don't leave me out of the loop," nodding her head at the waiter as he offered her a plate of salad. "Sounds like a good story."

Brooke laughed. "Oh, you have no idea," and proceeded to recount their story for a rapt audience. They were by turns humored, horrified, saddened and charmed. "And that brings you up to date."

The rest gazed at one another in amazement. "Wow," Blair said. "That makes our story look completely tame," she continued, exchanging glances with Jo.

"It makes all our stories look tame," Alex commented. "Nice friends."

Sam looked around the table. "If it took putting up with that to get us where we are now, it was worth it."

Casey raised her glass. "To new friends." The rest raised their glasses as well and clinked them together, repeating her toast. They all drank and Casey turned to Jo and Blair. "Share your story?" only to pause as the waiter returned to refill glasses and remove plates.

Abbie looked at Olivia, nudging her elbow gently and waiting for brown eyes to track to her own. Liv cocked a brow at her. "What's the deal?" motioning to the tumbler still mostly full of whiskey. "I thought you didn't...."

"I don't usually. I haven't in a long time. But Alex and I made a deal years ago. I just didn't realize she remembered."

"And that was?"

"When I had a really bad day, I could let my guard down just a little bit and she would watch my back. And when she had a really bad day, I'd do the same for her."

"And today was a really bad day. I can see it in your eyes and posture." Liv nodded. "How did she know that? She ordered that drink before you even got here."

"I dunno. It's something she's always known… except when it comes to herself and her work. She has a bit of a blind spot there."

Abbie snorted. "I think we've all been accused of that a time or two." Olivia smirked.

"Probably why we're the best at what we do."

"Is this a private conversation or can anyone join?" Alex asked as the waiter moved from the table.

"We were just talking about how we're the best at what we do," Abbie stated.

"And our obvious modesty," Alex teased.

"Who needs to be modest when it's the truth?" Olivia asked, waggling her eyebrows. "Now, c'mon. I thought Blair was gonna tell their story. It's not quite as dramatic as Sam's and Brooke's," with a smile in their direction, "but it is interesting."

"You know?" Casey asked.

"I was at the wedding."

All eyes turned to Blair. "Let's hear it."

"Thanks for the ride home, Alex, though I really don't think it was necessary after one whiskey and a couple beers. I don't even have a light buzz going anymore."

"Maybe, but better safe than sorry, Detective. Are you feeling a little more relaxed at any rate?"

"Actually," Liv said after a moment's thought, "yeah... I am. I enjoyed the outing. It was nice to get together with the girls and just kick back for a while." She turned to look at Alex as they pulled up to the curb in front of her building. "We should do it again."

"I think we probably will." She put the car in park and glanced in the rearview mirror, watching Abbie and Casey pull Olivia's car in behind them. "I like Sam and Brooke. They seem like nice kids."

Liv chuckled. "Alex, they're not that much younger than you are. Now me, on the other hand...."

Alex snorted. "Don't even try it, Benson. You're not that much older either, and you're in better shape than most kids half your age."

"The difference is I'm old enough to be their mother - you're just an older sibling."

Alex held up a hand. "I don't want to hear it - not from someone who still kicks ass and takes names and outruns her partner on a daily basis."

"Not after a day like today," Olivia said, exhaustedly. She leaned her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes. "Right now, I feel every single victim, every single day, every single takedown, every single fight."

"You want to talk about it?" reaching out and brushing a stray lock of hair from Olivia's forehead and cupping her cheek lightly when Liv turned and opened tired brown eyes to gaze at Alex.

"Soon, but not tonight. Tonight I just want to sleep. Thank you, though." She turned her head just enough to brush the lightest kiss over Alex's palm before clutching it gently in her hand. "Call me when you get home please."

"All right. Night, Liv."

"Night, Alex," she said, opening the door and sliding from the car. Abbie met her at the steps and handed Liv the car keys. They exchanged a few words and a brief hug, then together Abbie and Casey climbed into Alex's vehicle. Olivia entered the building and waved before they pulled away.

"Everything all right?" Casey asked after Alex had pulled back into traffic.

"Yeah. We're just taking things really slowly," Alex said, blowing out a breath. "REALLY slowly."

"A little frustrated there, Cabot?" Abbie teased.

"No! A lot frustrated!" Alex snapped. She breathed out heavily through her nose. "Sorry - it's just...."

"It's all right, Alex," Abbie assured her with a comforting smile, patting her leg. "I should know better than to tease... especially about this. It really has been long time coming, hasn't it?"

"Seems like forever," Alex sighed. "And the worst of it is - it's my fault it's taken so long."

"It'll be worth the wait, Alex," Casey counseled.

Alex smiled in her direction. "I know. Doesn't stop me from wanting it now though."

"That's a lawyer thing. We all want instant justice." The three exchanged glances and started giggling. "God... no wonder we're all on the prosecutor's side of the aisle."

Alex pulled over in front of Casey's building and Casey and Abbie got out of the car. "You gonna be okay going home, Alex?" Abbie asked, leaning down into the open car door.

"Yeah... see you for late lunch tomorrow?"

"Sounds good. Night Alex."

"Night, guys."

"My mother likes you," Abbie said the next morning as they munched on pastries from the corner deli. "She thinks you're good for me."

Casey's eyebrows went into her hairline. "Really? Why do you think that?" curiously. "I mean, I was pretty sure she liked me; we had some interesting talks while you were sleeping. But what makes you say that?" Casey smiled. "In fairness, I figured no one was quite good enough in her eyes for her baby girl. Not that I blame her - her baby girl is pretty special."

Abbie blushed. "Her baby girl is pretty screwed up," she muttered, looking away from Casey's bright green eyes. "You sure you really want to deal with that?"

Casey covered Abbie's hand and gently gripped her chin until the brown eyes met hers. "Abbie, we've talked about this, but we'll keep talking until you believe me. I know you have trust issues - we've all had shitty things happen to us. I hope one day you'll let me in and share your secrets with me, but even if you don't, I want you to realize that you can trust that I do care about you and want you to be part of my life. Friends first, and then... who knows? Now c'mon - it's too nice a day to be stuck indoors. I wanna go fly a kite."

Abbie grinned. "You'll have to do the flying. But I'd love to go to the Park with you."

Casey went to the closet and removed a package from the top shelf along with their jackets. "How long is your mother going to be in DC?" she asked, turning to help Abbie ease into her jacket. Abbie groaned.

"Probably until the doctor releases me to go back to work... so another couple weeks. She's probably cleaned my apartment from top to bottom this weekend. I won't be able to find anything when I get back."

Casey chuckled. "You could have brought her to New York with you."

"I tried - she wouldn't come. She insisted we needed to settle things between us. She promised to come the next time if there was one."

"Good." A beat. "So have we?" Casey asked after a brief pause. "Settled things, I mean."

"I think we've made a good start. Liv reminded me that a person can never have too many friends." Abbie took Casey's hand in hers and held it loosely. "I want this to work, Casey. I really do. If you can be patient with me I think it will."

"Just remember," Casey said, squeezing the hand she held lightly, "no teasing."

"No teasing... scout's honor."

"You were a girl scout?"

"Oh yeah... but only because they wouldn't let me be a boy scout."

Casey laughed and opened the door, gesturing Abbie out in front of her. "Why would you want to be a boy scout?"

"Because they got to do all the cool stuff. Besides, I hated selling cookies."

Casey's eyes twinkled as she pictured a little Abbie Carmichael dressed in a girl scout uniform going door to door selling cookies - all big brown eyes and dimples. "I'll bet you were adorable. Does your mom have pictures?"

Abbie whirled around so fast, she nearly stumbled over herself. "NO! And don't you be asking her about them either," she commanded sternly pointing a finger in Casey's direction.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

Abbie groaned and headed out into the crisp, fall day, hoping beyond hope Casey Novak had a selective memory that would dismiss this conversation as irrelevant. Then she decided she'd never get that lucky. She was doomed.

"You're kidding me?" Alex shook her head and Olivia's eyes widened. "Seriously? Casey had Abbie out in the park flying a kite?"

"Oh yeah. I don't know how Casey managed it, but Abbie Carmichael was running and laughing like a kid." Alex paused. "I've never seen her so carefree."

Liv swallowed her bite of pasta and shifted the phone to her other ear. "Good," she finally said with determination. "She deserves to be happy - they both do."

Alex paused, then bit the bullet. "Do you know what happened to her, Liv?"

"Yes, but please don't ask me, Alex. I won't betray her confidence... even to you."

"You don't have to, Liv - I know. Jack McCoy shared what happened when she left the DA's office."

"Jackass! It wasn't his place to share that kind of information."

"No, it wasn't, but in fairness, he was trying to make sure I wasn't going to have the same problem working in SVU."

"Still doesn't give him the right." Olivia growled. "Does Abbie know?"

"That I know?" Alex shook her head before remembering that Olivia couldn't see her over the phone. "We've never talked about it. It's not exactly something I can bring up unless she wants to talk about it."

"True, but I'm glad you know. It's easier... knowing there is someone else who knows."

"Now if she can only learn to trust Casey."

"It'll take time, but I think she'll get there."

"Kinda like us?" Alex asked wistfully.

"Yeah," Liv said softly. "Kinda like us."

The next week started busy. Alex signed the papers on her new brownstone and started her renovations while the detectives at the one-six were still working short with Elliot out on paternity leave. Still, Alex and Olivia managed to talk for a few minutes every day. Finally on Thursday, they were able to meet for lunch, much to the bemusement of John Munch.

Alex walked into the precinct dressed in jeans and a sweater that outlined her curves nicely, drawing attention from every man in the room in the form of catcalls and wolf whistles. She arched an eyebrow as she looked around the room, then grinned when her eyes met Olivia's twinkling brown ones. Liv rose from her desk and grabbed her jacket before crossing to Alex's side.

"Not even a word for your favorite detective, Counselor?" Munch asked. "I'm crushed," covering his heart with his hand.

"Hello, Detective," Alex said looking directly at Olivia. "Are you ready for lunch?"

"After you, Counselor," motioning towards the door and exchanging smiles with Alex. Alex turned to look at Munch.

"Goodbye, John," waving as she and Olivia left the one-six.

"That was cold, Counselor... very, very cold."

Only the sound of their laughter answered him.

"So how's the painting going?" Liv asked as they reached the street. She shook her head. "I still can't picture you as a house painter, Alex."

"You wouldn't have to try if I could convince you to help me," Alex said with the slightest hint of a pout.

Olivia chuckled. "Should have moved when I still had all that free time," conveniently not mentioning their estrangement during that time. "But I promised you a mural, so you let me know when you're ready and I'll try to schedule my cases to give me a day off."

"You think the criminals of New York would be willing to work with you on that... give you a break?"

Liv snorted. "Would that they would be so accommodating. I'd love to be out of a job." She opened the door to their chosen restaurant and motioned Alex in ahead of her. "What about you?" Then she held up a hand to forestall Alex's response when her phone rang.

"Benson... yeah? He did? All right... thanks, Sarge," with a giggle. The sound made Alex's eyebrows rise into her hairline. She took Olivia's arm and led her through the maze of tables into the outdoor dining area, following the hostess until they reached their table. Alex nodded her thanks, accepting the menus and they took their seats, then Liv glanced at her watch. "It'll be an hour or so. I'm not rushing my lunch with Alex for him. All right... I will. And thanks for the heads up, John... seriously." Olivia clicked the phone off and almost slammed it back into its holster. Then she looked at Alex with an expression of frustrated annoyance. "Sorry."

"Problem?" knowing there was but giving Olivia the option of sharing or not. Liv shrugged.

"Maybe. You remember my half-brother?"

"Simon Marsden," Alex nodded. "The one who caused your suspension."

"Yeah. He's obsessing... like a stalker almost. Wants to know where I am and who I am with - constantly calling the precinct to check up on me."

"You don't think he's just trying to be family to you? Be concerned about you and involved in your life? Maybe apologizing for throwing your life into upheaval?"

Liv shrugged again. "Maybe. But it comes down to the fact that he's hawking over me, and I don't like the way it feels." She shivered.

"Maybe you should give him a chance - or at least tell him how you feel. He probably doesn't know how to relate to you, Liv." Olivia cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at Alex and she smiled, motioning to their waitress and giving her order, then waiting for Olivia to do the same before continuing. "Think about it, sweetheart. You're a beautiful, smart, successful woman who has distinguished herself in her chosen field - something that makes a difference in the lives of people every single day. And his biggest claim to fame with you at the moment is that he almost cost you your job."

Olivia covered Alex's hand, pleased when she tangled their fingers together. "Have you met my brother, Alex?" The blonde head shook in the negative. "Then why are you pleading his case as though you're his advocate?"

"Because you deserve the opportunity to choose, Detective. And you need to be able to see all the angles before you make that decision." Alex sighed. "Liv, I've done a number of impulsive things in the last few years without considering all the facts or consequences, and it's been costly for me and those closest to me. I'm not saying you and Simon need to become best buddies - hell, you don't even have to be friends if you're not comfortable with him. Just don't dismiss him without talking to him first."

Both women leaned back when their server approached with their salads and Olivia reluctantly released Alex's hand so they could eat more easily. Conversation flowed between them and sooner than they were ready for it, their lunch hour was over.

"I've got to get back," Liv said regretfully, dropping some bills on the table.

"I'll go with you," Alex said, doing the same. "My car is there and I want to drop this off," holding up the 'to go' bag she'd gotten for the one-six. "I've got to get back to do some more work on the brownstone and Robert is supposed to be sending out some brick masons to do some repairs." She didn't miss the darkening of Olivia's features or the jealously that burned in her brown eyes. Alex clasped her hand around Liv's and pulled her into the ladies' room before they made it out to the street.

"Alex?! What the hell??" as she moved to lean against the sink.

"Liv, he's just a friend now. Honestly, that's all he ever really was and he knows that. He wants to meet you, in point of fact - actually sit down and get to know you."

"Why?" Her voice was sullen and she crossed her arms defensively but she couldn't help her curiosity.

"Because he knows that the woman who captured my heart has to be pretty spectacular. He's been asking me about it since Blair's barbeque last month." Alex sighed dramatically. "Honestly, the man is worse than a gossipy old maid some days."

Liv couldn't help the snort of laughter the exasperated expression on Alex's face garnered. Then she sobered when Alex grew serious.

"Liv, I'm not going to do anything that would put us in jeopardy - not the friendship we have re-established and certainly not the possibility of our becoming more than friends. Not as long and as hard as we've worked to get here. He really is only a friend, but if meeting him bothers you, I'll tell him to drop it."

Olivia blew out a breath. "We'll see, but that reminds me... Elliot asked me to bring you with me when I go visit. I was planning to go tomorrow night if I get off on time. You wanna come?"

Alex smiled. "I'd love to." She took Liv's hand and led her from the restroom to the great outdoors without pausing. "Just give me a call when you know and I'll be ready."

"I can do that," Olivia replied with a shy smile, and hand in hand they continued down the street back towards the one-six. Neither of them had any idea what awaited them there.

"What the hell is this?" Simon asked as Alex and Olivia crossed the threshold of the one-six, drawing attention to them. All eyes in the room turned towards them, but Olivia didn't release Alex's hand and Simon's face grew red. "A dyke?? This is why you've been blowing me off?? So you can fu...."

"That's enough," Liv whispered in his ear. She had moved so quickly no one realized her intent before she had him bent over her desk with his arm pulled up into the middle of his back. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you don't get to talk to me or about her like that." She felt a gentle touch in the middle of her back and relaxed into it without realizing it until Simon squirmed underneath her.

"Get off me!"

"You gonna behave or am I gonna slap the cuffs on you?"

"For what?? You can't lock me up for having morals!"

Liv snorted. "Maybe... but I can charge you with stalking and assault." He turned disbelieving eyes on her and she took a step back into the circle of detectives that had surrounded them at her first movement. Deliberately, Olivia reached for Alex's hand and smiled when cold fingers clasped her warm ones. "Go home, Simon. Go back to your wife and kids. I'm not changing my life to make you happy."

"I thought family was important to you!"

"It is, Simon, and Alex had convinced me to give you a chance to be a part of that. But you've made it fairly clear that you're not willing to be part of my family."

"You don't have any family... except me."

"You're wrong, Simon. This is my family," motioning to the people standing around her. "They've been my family for a long time. If and when you grow up, maybe you can be too. But until then... go home."

Simon slumped. "What changed, Olivia? I thought I was important to you."

"You could have been, Simon. God knows I tried."


"You've got expectations I'm not sure I can live up to - frankly, I'm not sure I want to."

"That's it?"

"That's enough. Family is supposed to support each other... make them stronger. You're just sucking me dry. This job is hard enough without having a personal life that takes from you too."

"I see. Well, then," Simon said, straightening and stepping away from her desk. "Maybe I'll see you around," he added diffidently. Then he walked out the precinct doors without a backwards glance.

"Well, that was exciting," Munch said drolly, breaking the awkwardness. "Now, Counselor... what did you bring me? That bag is for me, isn't it?" waggling his eyebrows comically.

"Actually," Alex replied, opening the bag and removing the platters they'd brought back. "There should be enough for everyone," garnering cheers from those around her. It was enough to shift the atmosphere and the detectives dispersed back to whatever activity they had been engaged in before the drama that had just played out had interrupted them.

Alex turned back to Olivia who was watching her with a sad smile. She extended her hand, gratified when Liv took it without hesitation. Then she led them upstairs to the crib.

"You all right?" she asked softly when they reached the relative privacy of the small room.

"Yeah, I really am," meeting Alex's eyes and letting her see the truth. "I tried, Alex, and I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt... give him a chance. He's right - family is important to me. But I'm not gonna tolerate any disrespect of us that I can correct - family or not."

Alex smiled. "You realize Detective Stabler is going to be pissed he missed this."

Olivia laughed. "He'll get over it. He's gonna be too happy I told Simon to take a walk."

"Jealous?" Alex asked.

"Maybe a little. Mostly he felt like Simon wasn't good enough. But you were right too - I'm glad I gave him a chance. At least I know the truth about how he feels."

"Maybe he'll figure it out eventually."

"Maybe," Liv shrugged. "But I'm not gonna worry about it. I was telling the truth, Alex. I have a family in the people here... and you and Casey and Abbie and Jo and Blair. Until and unless Simon can understand and accept that, he has no place in my life. And I'm okay with that." She looked at her watch. "Not trying to get rid of you, but don't you need to get going to meet those masons?"

Alex glanced at her watch. "Shit! I've got to go. Give me a call about Elliot's?" squeezing the hand she held before heading for the stairs. Liv followed her down.

"Absolutely," she started, before Cragen called out her name. With a shrug in Alex's direction she moved towards the captain's office and Alex gave her a wave and walked out the door.

"I can't believe I missed that," Elliot whined though his eyes twinkled in merriment. "Did you really blow him off?" He passed her another beer and leaned back in his chair. Kathy was currently nursing Eli and Alex was curled up next to Olivia with a Cheshire grin on her lips.

"Pretty much," Liv confirmed after taking a swig of beer. She sighed. "I had a lot of time during my suspension to think about him and what he might mean to me and how he contributed to the situation I was in. I like the idea of having a brother... even a half brother... but Simon is not a person I would associate with if we weren't related. We have nothing in common - except for the partial DNA the man who contributed to our conception provided. No memories, no beliefs, nothing. And I'm not willing to change who I am to become someone he wants me to be to fit into his mold of an older sister. I tried to be there for him and it nearly cost me everything. If he's not willing to make the same effort... to meet me halfway...." She shrugged.

"Well, good riddance says I. I never really liked him."

"No... really?" Olivia answered drolly, setting down her beer when Kathy pulled Eli from her breast to burp him. "Can I... can I hold him?"

Kathy rose from her spot and gently placed Eli in Olivia's arms. "After all you did to get him here safely," Kathy offered with a smile. "We were actually hoping you'd agree to be his godmother."

"Even though I'm not Catholic?"

"That is far less important to us than knowing he'd be looked after by someone who'd teach him values like honesty and decency and respect. We couldn't ask for a better godmother." Kathy glanced in Alex's direction and grinned. "Besides, if you ask nicely, I imagine Alex would be glad to give you a hand," chuckling silently when blue eyes widened comically.

"Wow," Liv whispered, her eyes shining with tears. "I'd be honored."

"Good - we'll schedule his christening in a couple weeks." She turned to look at Alex. "You'll come?"

"I'd love to... thank you." Then everyone's attention was taken by the interesting faces Eli was making and Olivia attempted to hand the baby back to Kathy. Kathy shook her head, laughing.

"Oh no, Olivia. This is part of the fun of being a parent... even a godparent. Come on," rising from her place and tugging Liv up with her. "Time for you to learn that oh-so-necessary skill of diaper changing." Liv looked plaintively at both Alex and Elliot before giving in gracefully and following Kathy to Eli's room.

Left alone, Elliot studied Alex carefully until equally blue eyes turned and caught his own with an unlooked-for intensity. "Something on your mind, Detective?"

"What are your intentions towards my partner, Alex?"

Blue eyes sharpened. "I'm not sure I see where it is any of your business, Detective. Olivia and I are working things out between us; it really doesn't concern you."

Elliot leaned forward and clasped his hands together, pinning Alex with his own version of 'the Look'. "Allow me to explain to you how it does concern me, Counselor - because you didn't see what your leaving did to her after thinking you were dead. You didn't have to watch her heart break when you came back to stay without even acknowledging her existence."

"Can I ask why that became solely my responsibility? I don't recall anyone making any effort to welcome me back, and last I checked, a phone line works both ways."

"We did," Elliot said succinctly. "Or at least I did." Alex cocked her head at him questioningly and he continued. "I heard a rumor you were back - no one bothered to let us know, which told me just how important we were to you - so I decided to check it out. Imagine my surprise to find you comfortably ensconced in a Bureau Chief's office wearing a rock proclaiming you were engaged."

"And you didn't think our previous association warranted me an opportunity to share my side of things?"

"It might have... if I could have even gotten in to see you."

"Excuse me?"

"I couldn't even get my foot in your door, Counselor. I was informed in no uncertain terms that you were no longer part of SVU and we were not to darken your doorway with our presence again."

Alex's eyes burned. "Excuse me?" she repeated. "Who the hell...?"

"Someone named Jim Steele... backed up by Jack McCoy." Elliot could hear her teeth grinding together and reached out a hand to her, covering her clenched hands gently with his. "Alex?"

Alex took a deep breath. "I accept responsibility for not making contact with you guys when I returned. I tried - I went to the one-six as soon as I got back and found out I had been replaced." She took a deep breath. "It hurt... so much. So I decided to make my return a new start and to do that, I had to forget who Alex Cabot had been before. It wasn't that hard - I had been pretending to be someone else for three years. I thought I could keep pretending if it meant finding a measure of peace. But I never would have turned you away had I known you were trying to see me."

"So what happened? What brought you back to us?"

"I couldn't pretend anymore. I was losing myself - who I was... who I wanted to be. I'd forgotten how to be happy."

"And now?"

Alex smirked, the expression somewhat hiding the tears that sparkled in her eyes. "You want the sappy answer?"

"I'd like the truth," he replied seriously.

"If it took what I've been through in the last five years to be where I am today, with Olivia back in my life looking towards the future together, then it is worth every bit of pain and frustration I've endured. I can't speak for Liv, of course, but I'd like to think she believes the same."

"Actually, I'd have preferred not to have had the last five years happen the way they did," Olivia said from the doorway where she had been standing for a majority of the conversation. "But they did, and since we can't go back and change what happened, I'm just glad to have Alex back in my life," coming around the couch and taking Alex's hand in hers.

"As hard as you fought against it?" Elliot asked, releasing the hand he'd covered to allow Alex the ability to curl up into Olivia, which she did with alacrity.

"Especially since I fought so hard against it." She smirked. "C'mon, El... when was the last time you knew me to do anything the easy way?"

"Point taken," he said nodding his head, then turned back to Alex. "So, Alex... what are your intentions towards my partner?"

"Elliot!!" from both Olivia and Kathy. Alex held up a hand to stop their protests.

"It's all right. We've already worked through this part." She turned and focused her attention on Elliot and he had to force himself not to visibly react to the intensity he was suddenly surrounded by. "My intention, Detective, is to reestablish the friendship we once had and see where that leads us. My desire...." Her eyes caught Olivia's and her voice dropped and became husky, "... is for that friendship to develop into something more... a relationship that is permanent and lasting and involves us being a couple in every sense of the word."

Kathy smiled. Olivia blushed but held Alex's eyes while Elliot flushed bright red and cleared his throat loudly.

"Well," he finally squeaked out. "I'm glad you've got a plan. Just don't hurt her again."

Alex grinned. "I do indeed, Detective," never letting her eyes leave Olivia's. They softened as did her voice before she spoke again. "And I will do my best not to, Detective. It's not something I want either of us to experience ever again."

"Good," Kathy said unexpectedly. "We'll expect to see you here together more often and I'll be waiting for an invitation."

"Kathy!" Liv croaked, finally breaking her stare with Alex. Alex gave a full-throated laugh. Elliot just looked bewildered.

"What did I miss?"

"Nevermind, Detective," Kathy said with a sardonic grin in his direction. "Pay attention and collect the evidence. You'll figure it out."

Elliot growled. "I think I'm being pandered to." Olivia snorted.

"You should be used to it by now."

He glared. "I hate you."

Liv leaned across Alex and pinched his cheeks together. "That's all right, El... we luuuuuuuuuuv you." Stabler couldn't stop the chuckle that wanted to emerge and soon the group broke into laughter. It was a great end to a very good evening.

"She took you to Stabler's house? Alex, that's tantamount to taking you home to meet the family!"

"No, really?" Alex returned drolly.

"So," Abbie asked when the silence grew too long. "How'd you do with the Elliot Stabler method of interrogation? I seem to recall he was brutal when he had a perp in the box."

"Well, thank God I'm not a perp then," Alex said dryly.

"Allllleeeeeeex," Abbie whined. "That's not answering my question. Now spill before I put my mama on the phone. Her interrogation technique will make Stabler look like a rookie." Alex snickered. She had no doubt Abbie would do it, but after her evening, she figured handling Emma Carmichael would be a piece of cake. Abbie's voice cut into her thoughts. "You've never been interviewed by a proper Southern mama, have you?" her smoky tones underlined with a hint of laughter.

"Um... no?" Alex said uncertainly, knowing that tone of voice from Abbie meant nothing but trouble for her.

"Trust me, Cabot. Mama can flay you alive and make you want to say thank you for it by the time she is done. So spill already."

Alex cleared her throat. "I did all right. Kathy gave us her blessing and Elliot blushed beet red."

Abbie sputtered. "You made Elliot Stabler blush?!? What in tarnation did you say to the man, honey?" reverting smoothly to that sweet Texas drawl. "The man is a sex crimes detective for God's sakes!"

Alex shrugged even though Abbie couldn't see the action. "I just answered his question plainly - laying out my position clearly so there could be no doubt in his mind just exactly what I saw as my future with Olivia Benson."

Abbie cleared her throat. "You didn't."

"I did - bet he won't ask me again."

"No bet," Abbie said chuckling. "That would put me on the wrong side of a sure thing." She paused. "I'm glad things are finally going your way with Liv. You deserve to be happy - you both do."

"What about you?" Alex asked bluntly.

"Are you asking if I'm happy? Or if I deserve to be?" Abbie inquired wryly with an attempt at humor.

"Abigail...." the name and Alex's tone enough to make Abbie sigh resignedly.

"I'm not unhappy, Alex."

"That doesn't mean you're happy, Abbie. How are things going with Casey?"

"I don't know," she finally sighed. "I think we would make great friends, but...."

"You don't trust her?"

"I want to. But is it fair to expect...?" Abbie broke off before she could say anything else. Alex decided the time had come to reveal the truth as she knew it.

"I think you should give her the chance, Abbie. The woman has been the SVU ADA for five years - she knows about rape and how victims of rape react. I think you should give her the benefit of the doubt. As soon as she knew she had a chance with you, her efforts to get a life outside the office stopped so you'd know she meant business and was serious about the two of you. What?" she said on a rush, finally noticing the silence of betrayal Abbie was projecting over the phone.

"You know?"

"Jack told me. Wanted to make sure I wasn't going to 'suffer a similar malady' - his words - when I moved to Special Victims. And before you ask, I didn't think it was my place to ask/tell you about it. I wouldn't have done it now if I didn't think it was important."

"You've known for years? And you never let on you knew... never treated me any differently than you had before."

"It wasn't my place to say anything, Abbie. It was your secret to share or not as you felt comfortable."

Abbie took several deep breaths. "Damn," she finally muttered. "I can be such an idiot." She cleared her throat awkwardly. "Can we talk about this later?"

"Whenever you want to, Abbie... or not at all, if you'd rather."

"No... I want to. I think I need to. But I kind of need to sort all of this out in my head first. Besides, this is a long, long way from your good news. Oh," continuing on before Alex could draw breath to comment. "I got the final part of Sam McPherson's story this evening."

"And?" allowing Abbie to change the subject.

"And... I gave her the go ahead for the whole series. She did a great job, Alex. She really did. I think I may put a word in about having her nominated for a Pulitzer."

"That good?"

"It should be in the Times tomorrow. You let me know after you read it."

"All right. By the way, you and Emma plan to come up to the cottage the weekend before she heads back to Texas. We'll show her a little Yankee hospitality."

Abbie laughed - a genuine belly laugh. "Cabot, I hate to break this to you, but to a Southern woman, there ain't no such thing."

"You know," Alex said smugly, thrilled she had made Abbie laugh, however briefly. "I could take that as a personal challenge."

"Please do. I'd like to watch that."

"So it's a date?"

"Give me a time and day and we'll be there with bells on."

"That's quite a visual, Carmichael," Alex said chuckling.

"Bite me, Cabot... and get your mind out of the gutter."

"You're taking all the fun out of this, Abbie. I'll be in touch."

"Later, Alex."

"So you took her to Stabler's house, huh? Isn't that like taking her home to meet the family?"

"Casey, she already knew Kathy and Elliot."


"Yeah... maybe a little," Liv confessed.

"Are you sure you're ready for that step?" Casey asked.

"A little late to worry about it if I'm not," Liv chuckled sardonically.

"So...?" Casey prompted when Olivia failed to continue. "What happened?"

"She held her own. Kathy gave us her blessing and El blushed a shade I've never actually seen on a man before... unless he was kicked in the nuts first."

"Ow... Cabot made Stabler blush like a girl?"

"Yeah... bet he never asks about her intentions again."

Casey laughed. "I wish I'd seen that."

"It was pretty priceless."

"So," Casey continued after a moment's silence, "are you okay with all of this and how fast it's moving?"

"Yeah," Liv said after a thoughtful pause. "'Cause it's really not all that fast, you know? Alex and I have been dancing around this for over five years. We just took the longest, ugliest road we could find to get here. If there is such a thing as karma, everything else should be a cake walk."

"Tempt fate much, Detective?"

"God, I hope not. I'm pretty sure they don't like me."

"Sure they do... they just like to challenge your skills."

"Wonderful," Liv replied dryly. "That makes it sooooo much better," smiling when Casey laughed. "So have you talked to Carmichael lately? I hear you had her out flying kites last weekend." Casey smiled at the memory.

"Remind me the next time you're in my office - I got some great pictures. And yes," she went on without pausing, "I talk to her every evening."

"Oh really?"

"Yes. Let's just say I'm grateful for nationwide long distance." Liv chuckled. "She did tell me that she approved the last part of the series Sam McPherson wrote about her and Alex at that embassy fiasco and what happened afterwards. The first part should be in the paper tomorrow - it will run all week."

"I liked her and her girlfriend - they seem like good kids."

"Yes, Grandma, they sure did. It's after dark... you sure it's not past your bedtime?"

"Bite me, Novak."

"And have Cabot on my ass for destruction of private property? Stupid is not tattooed on my forehead, Detective Benson. And I have not survived the DA's office as long as I have by being stupid or unobservant. Trust me, Olivia - you are off the market and branded for life."

"Um... bu... HEY!!"

Casey laughed again. "Let me know when you recover your vocabulary. We'll talk some more. Lunch tomorrow? Ice cream's on me."

"Uh huh."

"Good. Go to bed, Detective. This will all make sense to you in the morning."

"It already does," Liv muttered as she hung up. "Who'd have thunk it?"

"Arthur... what a surprise," Alex said, shifting the paint brush she held and pushing the lock of hair that had escaped from her ponytail off her face... again. He did his best not to smile at her disheveled appearance, motioning towards the door with barely a smirk on his face.

"May I come in?"

"Oh... yes, of course," Alex said, stepping back and opening the door wider. "Excuse the mess; I'm trying to get the renovations done before I start moving stuff in. I can't offer you a place to sit, sorry."

"It's all right, Ms Cabot. I didn't come here to sit. I came to talk to you and I can do that standing up."

Alex put the paint brush on the tray and picked up a rag to wipe off her hands. "How did you know where to find me? I haven't sent out invitations yet."

Arthur let his smile come. "It's all in knowing who to ask."

"Let me guess... Robert?"

"Privileged information, Counselor." He looked around the room she had led him to, nodding in appreciation of the work that had already been accomplished. "Nice place."

"I'm happy with it, but I'm pretty sure you didn't come here to comment on my new living arrangements. What can I do for you, Arthur?"

"Still right to the point, Alexandra? Nice to know some things never change. I was wondering if you'd given any thought to your future regarding the DA's office."

She gestured towards the doorway and Branch walked out, taking a seat on the stairs as Alex did the same. "I thought I knew - I thought I had made a decision, but...." She sighed. "I'm of two minds about it, honestly. I like my job well enough and I loved being a prosecutor."


"But I'm not sure it's enough anymore. I don't prosecute criminals; I don't make the bad guys go away. I'm babysitting the next bunch of ADAs while trying to figure out how most of them made it through law school. Do they only teach these kids the art of compromise in school these days?"

Arthur chuckled. "Why do you think I put you in charge of them? If anyone can teach those kids the art of fighting and arguing to win, you can, Alexandra. And as a bonus, you may even make a few of them care about more than the numbers."

"Like I learned to, you mean? Maybe I should see if Casey needs some help - SVU is a really steep learning curve for that."

"Yes, it is." He sighed and looked at the front door before turning his attention back to Alex. "So what do you want to do, Alexandra? I can keep Steele in your position temporarily for another month before I need to make it permanent. Do you need another month to make a decision?"

"Can I have until the end of the week to give you my final verdict?"

"May I ask what caused you to waffle, Alexandra? That's not like you."

"I received some information over the weekend that's changed the way I see a number of things... including some of the people I am forced to work with. I'm just not sure I want to continue to do so. I'm not sure I can."

"All right. You have my private number. Let me know when you have an answer for me." Branch stood and went to the door, pausing to look around the partially renovated brownstone. "I really do like what you've done with the place so far, Alexandra. I'll look forward to the housewarming."

With a knowing smile and a wave, Arthur took his leave, closing the door firmly behind him. Alex sat on the steps for a few minutes longer before shaking her head and getting back to work.

"So how does it feel?" Casey asked as they sat down to lunch. Liv looked up at her with an inquiring expression and Casey smirked. "Knowing you are off the market."

"We haven't made any kind of commitment to each other, Casey."

"Liar - denial ain't just a river in Egypt, is it?" She glanced at Olivia and covered her hand briefly before turning her attention to the food in front of her. "Olivia?"

Liv sighed. "It's just so...."

"So what? Sudden... unexpected? C'mon, Olivia - this has been five years in the making. If anything, it has been unbearably, remarkably, agonizingly slow." Casey sighed. "Are you that afraid to be happy?"

"Sometimes... I'm that afraid she may break my heart again."

"Do you remember what you told Abbie when she expressed an interest in dating me? That sometimes you just have to let go and be happy?"

"Abbie told you about that?"

"She did. Listen to your own advice, Olivia... let go and be happy." Casey set her fork down and folded her hands. "Olivia, you of all people understand how fleeting that feeling can be. Grab onto every chance you have to be happy. You'll live with a lot less regrets that way."

"When did you get to be so smart?"

"I've always been smart - it's just taken you a while to notice it," Casey said with a grin. Liv smiled.

"So are you gonna follow your own advice with Abbie?"

"Your advice and as soon as she let's me - you betcha."

"Good - you both deserve to be happy too."

"You're sure about this, Elliot? Maureen won't mind babysitting Eli?"

"Nah... everything is all set up."

"All right. See you Saturday."

"Alex?" Olivia called out as she knocked, opening the door and poking her head inside.

"In here, Liv."

Olivia followed the sound of Alex's voice, pausing to admire the deep rich burgundy walls and stark white trim of the first room before finding Alex in the back room. In complete contrast, this room was a cool, neutral gray, though the white trim remained the same. But what captured her attention was the sight of Alex Cabot bending over in those tight blue jeans. Liv bit her lip and clasped the handle of the case she carried more tightly to keep from reaching out and touching as Casey's words from earlier in the week ran through her mind.

Alex straightened and caught Olivia staring, smirking at the amount of time it took for Liv's eyes to meet hers.

"See something you like, Detective?" looking over the rims of her glasses. Olivia swallowed hard and nodded. Alex sauntered closer until they were almost touching along their length, but not quite. "Really? How much?"

Olivia set her case down without ever losing Alex's gaze. Straightening, she took the final step to close the distance between them, smiling when Alex sucked in a shaky breath even as her hands came to rest on Olivia's hips. Liv allowed her hands to trail up Alex's sides, touching but not lingering until she reached Alex's glasses.

With gentle hands, she removed them, absently folding them into the collar of her shirt before bringing her hands back to Alex's face. Tenderly she traced the fine bones and soft skin, watching the blue eyes flutter closed when her touch reached Alex's lips. Olivia outlined them with the slightest touch, then gasped as Alex sucked her fingers into her mouth, laving them thoroughly.

"Alex." Olivia's whisper was as powerful as a shout, causing smoky blue eyes to open half-way. Liv slid her fingers from the wet warmth of Alex's mouth, replacing them with her lips.

The touch was slow at first... almost hesitant... as though neither could quite believe they had finally taken this step forward into the next stage of their relationship. Eyes closed as arms wrapped more tightly around one another, tongues touching in tentative exploration.

Olivia cupped Alex's face, sliding her hands into blonde hair and tilting her head to allow Liv to thoroughly explore Alex's mouth. Alex's hands slid down towards Olivia's ass, fists clenching as her tongue teased and played with Olivia's in ways she had long dreamed of.

One moan followed another, and hands started to wander as the kiss increased in intensity. Slowly, almost with regret, they began to pull away from each other to breathe. Leaning their foreheads together, they kept their eyes closed, exchanging essence and air for a long moment before blue and brown eyes blinked open and met.

"Wow," Olivia said, her lips creasing into a smile.

"Wow, indeed," Alex agreed. "I can't believe it took us so long...." But the rest of her words were cut off when Liv captured her lips again, plundering Alex's mouth with abandon. Alex flexed her hands against Liv's bare skin, skimming the top of her ass and the small of her back and drawing a low groan from the back of Olivia's throat. Liv pulled back just enough to separate their lips.

"Casey was right."


"Uh huh. God, Alex... you make me want so much. But not here... and not now. Given what it's taken to get us here, I don't want our first time together to be rutting on the bare floor like a couple animals."

"Neither do I. We deserve a little romance."

"Well, there's that, and there's also the fact that we should have company just about...." A knock finished her sentence. Alex arched a questioning eyebrow in her direction. Olivia shrugged.

"The guys wanted to do something to welcome you back, so they decided to help you get this place ready for habitation before you had to go back to work... especially since you're not exactly supposed to be doing a lot of this stuff yet." Another knock. "Surprise?"

Alex held her eyes for another long moment before kissing her hard and fast. Then she moved to answer the door before Elliot decided to knock it down.

Alex opened the door, then paused at the number of people waiting to enter her home. Elliot stepped forward, hugging her briefly before entering, allowing those behind him to do the same. Munch was next, followed by Fin, Cragen, Casey, Kathy, Jo and Blair.

"I guess you weren't expecting us," Blair said softly as she pulled back from her hug.

"No," Alex said, shaking her head, "but it's a nice surprise."

"So, Counselor," Munch broke in. "How can we be of service?"

"Well, all the rooms upstairs still need painting."

Munch clapped his hands. "I assume the paint is there as well?" Alex nodded. "You heard the lady, ladies and gentlemen," motioning the rest upstairs ahead of him. Elliot paused by Alex before following the troupe.

"So where's my partner?"

"She's helping me."

Elliot grinned and shook his head. "That'd explain the shade of lipstick you're wearing," teasing and chuckling when she blushed. "Honestly, we're glad for you both, Alex. It's about damned time you were happy together. Now let me get a move on before my better half comes looking for me." Then he headed upstairs, leaving her standing alone in the foyer.

Alex walked back to the room that would soon serve as her conservatory, only to find the double door locked against her. She knocked. "Olivia?" she called out. "Liv?"

A moment passed, then she heard the sound of footsteps before the lock clicked free and Olivia opened the door the barest amount.


"Can I come in?"

"Um... no?" Alex's brows rose into her hairline. "I'd like it to be a surprise."

"All right," Alex drawled slowly. "Can I at least have my glasses back?" looking down at Olivia's chest where they were still folded neatly in her shirt.

"Oh... um...." But Alex had already reached for the glasses, her touch deliberately grazing the skin along Liv's collarbones, dipping down beneath the t-shirt to skim along the top of her breasts. Olivia sucked in a deep breath, never letting her eyes leave Alex's.

Alex lifted the glasses from Olivia's shirt and took a step away from the door. "Back to work, Detective," she commanded. "I want to see this surprise."

Liv stepped forward, wrapping her hands into Alex's shirt and pulling until there was no space between them. The kiss was hard and fast and thorough, and it took Alex several minutes to realize that Olivia was no longer kissing her and the door between them was closed.

"Damn what that woman does to me," she muttered, putting on her glasses and running a shaky hand through her hair. Then she turned to go check on her unexpected help.

"So, Counselor, can we expect this sort of spread for your housewarming party?" Munch asked much later that evening. The group, with two notable exceptions, were sprawled in various lounging positions around the burgundy room surrounded by sub wrappers, pizza boxes and beer bottles. Alex looked around carefully and raised an eyebrow.

"You don't think I should spring for something a little more lavish... with a bar maybe?"

"Far be it from me to turn down free alcohol," he said with a grin. "Just tell me when and I'll be here with bells on."

"Your scrawny ass better show up with more than bells on or the entire NYPD won't be able to find what's left of your body." The entire room cracked up at Fin's pronouncement. Munch just smirked.

"You're just jealous because you know the women would be tearing me apart for a shot at this lusciousness."

"Keep it up, partner. I'm pretty sure they're still pouring the concrete in the new stadium. You could end up a permanent part of the construction."

"Speaking of partners," Elliot cut in before Fin and Munch could escalate any farther. "Where's mine? And where's Jo?" he asked, turning to look at Blair.

"She got a call about an hour into our painting," Blair said. "She called Olivia about an hour after that."

Elliot frowned, wondering why Olivia hadn't called him. "Everything okay?"

Blair shook her head. "I don't think so, but Jo wouldn't share and Olivia didn't say."

"Maybe we should break this up," Elliot suggested. "Go find out what's going on," with a significant look at his fellow detectives.

"Actually, we need to break this up and go home to our children," Kathy broke in. "I promised Maureen we wouldn't be all night and it's getting late."

"I'll check on Liv, Elliot," Alex promised, "and make sure she's all right."

Everyone nodded their acceptance of her words. Then they glanced at their watches, noting Kathy had been right and with muttered exclamations, clambered to their feet. A few minutes spent cleaning up, and the room was as spotless as it had been when they'd entered the house hours before. Alex took a few minutes to hug each of them and offer a few words of thanks as she saw them out the door.

Cragen, Fin and Munch were the first to leave, Fin grumbling about needing to give Munch a ride home as Cragen herded them out the door shaking his head. Some things never changed. Elliot and Kathy were next.

"Take care of her, Alex."

"You know I will. I'll give you a call if it's something...."

"Only if you need help - if it was really bad, she would have called for back-up. I trust you, Alex."

"Thanks, Elliot. That means... so much." They took their leave and Casey was right behind them.

"I'm going down to DC late this week," Alex commented to her. "I have to see the doctor there and get my release to go back to work. Would you like to ride down with me?" Casey blinked, not expecting the invitation or the fluttering in her belly the idea evoked. Alex noticed her expression and leaned forward. "C'mon, Casey... time to sweep her off her feet."

"You think she's ready for that?"

"If you wait for her to be ready, you're gonna be old and gray. Time to grab the brass ring, Casey. You wanted a life outside SVU. This is your best opportunity."

"Why do you care?"

The question caught Alex off-guard and she blinked in surprise. "Because I finally understand what true happiness feels like, and I'd like to see you and Abbie find the same together."

Casey leaned forward impulsively and kissed Alex's cheek. "That sounds wonderful. Let me know the details and I'll see what I can arrange. Thanks, Alex." She stepped out the door, then popped her head back in. "Let me know how Olivia is too, all right?"

"You got it." Then the door closed again and Alex turned to Blair who hugged her tightly.

"I'm going to go home and wait for Jo. Call me when you know something."

Alex nodded and pulled back to look Blair in the eyes. "You'll do the same?"

"Absolutely. I think this one was rough. Jo sounded shaken up when she called me."

"Jo called you?"

"Right before she called Olivia... just to make sure someone knew that Olivia left."

"I wonder why Liv didn't let me know," Alex mused aloud.

"I don't think she paused once Jo called. You know how focused they get when it comes to their work."

"And everything else," Alex added with a sly smile. Blair chuckled.

"And everything else. Are you still in the penthouse?"

"No, I moved to the Plaza Thursday. I signed the papers on the penthouse yesterday morning."

Blair slapped at Alex's shoulders. "And when were you going to share this news?"

"When I saw everyone again." Blair's eyebrow arched. "I didn't think about it when you showed up here earlier. I was on a whole other wavelength, especially since I wasn't expecting anyone to drop by."

"Fair enough. I want details, but not now. I need to get home."

"Me too," Alex agreed. "I'm going to lock up here and see if I can reach Liv."

"Let me know."

"I will. Be safe going home, Blair."

As it happened, things worked a little differently.

Alex closed the door behind Blair and flipped open her phone, hitting one on the speed dial and frowning when her call went straight to Olivia's voicemail. She took a minute to walk through the brownstone, admiring the work her friends had done before flipping off the lights in each room as she went. She reached the bottom floor once more, hesitating in front of her music room, then shaking her head. She'd promised Olivia she wouldn't look and she intended to keep her word.

Slipping into her shoes, Alex reached for the final switch when a timid knock sounded at her front door. She keyed the speaker. "Yes?"

"Alex, it's me." The voice was soft... defeated.

Without hesitation, Alex opened the door and pulled Liv inside and into her embrace in one swift move. They didn't speak. Instead Alex guided them to the stairs and just held on.

Olivia didn't cry and she didn't shake. She sat perfectly still absorbing the warmth and love she felt emanating from Alex and surrounding her very soul. After a while, Liv sat up.

"Thank you, Alex."

"You want to talk about it?"

The dark head shook. "Uh uh. It was bad, and you shouldn't...." Hands cupping her face gently cut off her words, bringing brown up to meet blue.

"Don't think of finishing that sentence, Detective. Even if we were only just friends, I'd want you to share this burden with me, Liv. I think we've passed that point already. So let me listen - it's the only way I can help you bear this burden."

Olivia removed Alex's hands from her face, but held them tightly in her hands. "I'd like to Alex, but not yet, please? I need some space from it first."

Alex studied the eyes that never faltered from her gaze and finally nodded. "All right," she agreed. "Whenever you're ready."

"Thank you, Alex. Can I...?" She blew out a nervous breath, ruffling her bangs. "Can I ask a favor?"


"Can I stay with you tonight... will you hold me?"

"All night long, Liv." Arm in arm they left the brownstone and headed to the Plaza.

Morning saw them curled up together in the middle of the big bed. Alex was spooned behind Olivia, carefully cradling her in her arms. She felt Liv start to stir and brushed a kiss over the juncture of her neck and shoulder, causing Olivia to hesitate briefly before finishing her stretch.

"Good morning," Alex whispered into the ear near her lips. She smiled when she felt Olivia shiver.

"Morning," came the scratchy reply. "This is nice." Liv shifted to lay on her back, looking up into bright blue eyes. "I can't remember the last time I slept so soundly... without nightmares."

"We may have to make this a more permanent arrangement then. You deserve to sleep without nightmares."

"I could get used to it," Olivia confessed. She pulled Alex down for a kiss, relishing the passion that ran between them with the simple touch. She moaned when the kiss deepened and Alex's hands started tracing patterns on the bare skin under the shirt Alex had loaned her to sleep in the night before. With a shudder, Olivia eased her lips from Alex's, leaning their foreheads together. "What are your plans for today?"

"I don't have any." At Liv's disbelieving expression, she continued. "I was going to do some more work at the brownstone, but with my unexpected help yesterday, there's not a lot left for me to do and I can't arrange for the movers to come in before Tuesday now. Did you want to work on the mural?"

Olivia shook her head. "Not right now... wrong head space. I need... I need to go check on the victim from the call yesterday. She's in bad shape, Alex."

"Would you like me to go with you?"

"I'm not gonna say no. But you need to be prepared." She took a deep breath. "The homicide Jo got called in for yesterday - there was a live victim as well. A victim someone had set fire to."

Alex covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, Liv... that's horrible."

"It is. Especially since the victim is a nine year old girl."

"Oh, Liv."

Alex took a quick shower and dressed, then they headed to Olivia's place so she could do the same. Then they headed to the hospital together.

"I wish..." Alex started to comment when they had been seated for lunch. She exchanged glances with Olivia, clearly seeing the residual sadness she felt in her own heart after their visit to the hospital. "Surely, there is something we could do."

"Some sort of foundation for survivors of violent crimes to help their recovery? Maybe a camp for kids? I'll bet if you ask Blair, she'd be glad to help. Between you, you could probably get some significant funding, and Abbie could probably fill in any contacts the two of you don't already have."

Alex blinked. "You've been thinking about this."

Olivia dropped her eyes to the table for a moment before raising them to meet Alex's once more. "Yeah. When you mentioned it, it kinda got me to thinking. Too many times, we fight for justice for the victim, only to have the system forget about them once the trial is over. More than once I've wished there was more I could do."

"Liv, you already do so much."

"But it rarely feels like it's enough."

"So you want to help me with this then? Make this a joint effort?"

"Absolutely," Olivia confirmed with a smile. "It'd be nice to be able to help in a positive way. Sometimes I don't think getting justice does enough."

"We do what we can, Liv."

"I know."

Their waitress interrupted them then, and they took a moment to order lunch. "Hey," Alex said, changing the subject when the woman left. "I've got to go down to Washington later this week to get my work release from the doctor. Would you like to go down with me?"

"I'd love to, but I'm on call again this weekend." She sighed. "I think I'm paying for my month-long suspension. The guys seem to think it was an unpaid vacation. I'm not sure if they're trying to pad my paycheck with the overtime or punishing me for being gone so long."

"Maybe a little bit of both," Alex contributed with a smile.

"Maybe," Liv agreed with a smile of her own.

"All right. If something happens to change...."

"I know where to find you," Olivia said with a wink, leaning back to accept the salad plate the server placed in front of her. "I thought I might try to work on the mural while you're gone." She shrugged. "Depends on how things work out."

"Is that your subtle way of asking for a key to my home?"

"Did it work?"

"Well, since you'll need one to get in...."

"I'll return it when you get back."

"I'd appreciate it if you kept it. I know we're not ready for the commitment of living together yet, but I'd feel better if you held onto it. You know... in case I lock myself out or something."

"No other reason?" Liv asked boldly, her eyes holding Alex's.

"Well, it would be nice to have a detective at my beck and call whenever I <ahem> had need of one."

"I see," Olivia drawled. "Isn't that a misappropriation of a public servant?"

"Depends on what I'm appropriating that servant for, doesn't it, Detective?"

Olivia cleared her throat. "I guess it does, Counselor."

A call to her cell phone had pulled Olivia away from Alex before they'd finished their lunch and Alex was preparing to leave for Washington before they were able to touch bases again... though not for lack of trying. They had played phone tag for three days and it was only because Olivia persuaded Fin to swing two blocks out of their way that Olivia was able to catch Alex before she left.

"You got it bad, Liv," he teased gently as he pulled up to the brownstone. He smiled. "It looks good on you."

Liv ducked her head. "I'm enjoying it," she confessed shyly. "It's...." She trailed off, not really comfortable sharing that much personal information. Fin nodded his understanding.

"Take your time. I'll call us off for lunch. Gimme a ring when you're ready." She nodded and climbed from the sedan. Fin watched her mount the steps before moving a little further down the block and heading into the corner deli for coffee and sandwiches - might as well make sure they got some lunch.

Liv paused at the door, hesitating for a long moment before pulling out her key ring and unlocking the door. Then she stepped inside and closed the door silently behind her.

The place looked like a disaster area. There was furniture, which was a definite improvement even if it was still wrapped in bubble wrap and paper. And there were boxes... lots of boxes, each neatly labeled. Obviously the movers had done their part and left Alex to do the unpacking at her pace.

Olivia stood still, listening for sounds to show she hadn't missed getting to say goodbye to Alex before she left. The creak of wood indicated that Alex was upstairs somewhere and Liv headed off in search of her.

The second and third floors were empty - not unexpected given that Alex's room took up the entire fourth level. Olivia raised her hand to knock against the bedroom door, then froze as she took in the tableau in front of her.

Alex's bags stood neatly packed beside the mussed bed and she was dressed - at least partly - in those damnably tight jeans that made Olivia's mouth water just at the sight. Currently, she was bent over looking under the bed, completely oblivious of Olivia's presence in her home. Without her conscious permission, Liv's feet crossed the room, her focus on those jeans and the woman in them. Alex shivered in sudden awareness, turning just as Olivia reached her.

She didn't get a chance to say a word, but her parted lips gave Liv the perfect opportunity to capture her mouth in a breath-stealing, passionate kiss. Alex didn't question, just surrendered herself to the intensity of feeling Olivia stirred in her. She moaned when Olivia's hands slid down to cup her ass and tangled her hands tighter in the short, dark locks she held, her tongue dueling fiercely in response. Alex felt the bed hit the back of her knees and she sank into it, pulling Olivia down on top of her. For long moments the kiss continued, hands wandering indiscriminately over clothes and then against skin. Only when Alex felt Liv's hands ghosting over her breasts did she pull back slightly, breathing heavily until that breathing hitched when Olivia moved her attentions to Alex's neck.

"God, Liv," Alex whispered, the words drawing Olivia's head up just enough for their eyes to meet.

"Hi, beautiful," Liv replied, brown eyes darkened to black in passion raking over kiss-bruised lips and the flushed skin of Alex Cabot's fair features. She leaned down again, claiming those full lips again, but this time with a gentle reverence that caused Alex to shake. Liv released her reluctantly, then with concern when she saw the tears. "Alex?"

Blue eyes remained wet, but her smile was blinding. "No one has ever made me feel like you do." Olivia grinned.

"Ditto, baby," shifting to one side of Alex's body and propping her head on her hand. She tangled her free hand with Alex's. "You all right?"

"I'm wonderful, thanks. But what are you doing here? Not that I'm complaining," she added with a smile.

Liv shrugged and let her eyes drop to the sliver of bedding caught between their bodies. "I just needed to see you before you left."

Alex eased her hand from Olivia's grip, placing that hand on her hip before cupping Liv's cheek. "I'm glad you did. I've missed you, Detective. At least next week I might be able to see you at work occasionally... especially if you come over to Hogan Place for a warrant."

"So you're going back to the DA's office?" mentioning one of the things she and Alex hadn't had time to talk about when their weekend was cut short.

"Yes... for a while anyway. Arthur was right - I'm doing good there... making a difference. It's just... it's not where my heart is now and Arthur knows it. I told him I would at least stay long enough to see this group of interns settled into whatever departments they end up being assigned to permanently. We'll see where we stand after that."

Olivia nodded, then glanced at her watch. "Damn! I've got to get going," she said regretfully, ignoring the tingles Alex's thumb tracing her bottom lip were causing to cascade up and down her spine. "Fin's waiting."

Alex tugged gently and Liv followed her silent plea, covering Alex's mouth with her lips again and tracing Alex's lips with her tongue. She swallowed a moan, not certain if it belonged to her or Alex. After a long moment, Olivia pulled back, gazing into Alex's eyes.

"You're not making this easy, Counselor."

Alex smiled. "Good. I never want it to be easy for us to be apart. One more for the road?" Olivia didn't have to be asked twice and claimed Alex's lips once more. Reluctantly, they separated and leaned their foreheads together, breathing the same air. Finally, Liv slid back.

"I really need to go."

"And I really need to find my other boot so I can get out of here. Help me look?"

Liv nodded and rose from the bed, extending her hand to Alex who slid from the mattress and immediately knelt to look under the bed. Liv stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest, smirking as she admired the way Alex's blue jeans hugged her ass. It took a minute for Alex to realize Olivia wasn't helping, but was instead leering at her. She turned her head and pushed her hair behind an ear before arching an eyebrow in question. "See something you like, Detective?"

"Um hmm," Olivia answered, kneeling behind Alex leaving only the barest space between them. She licked her lips before reaching out and caressing the surprisingly soft material, smiling at the involuntary shudder her touch produced. Alex closed her eyes and blew out a ragged breath before speaking.

"Liv, unless you want to call Fin and explain to him why you need to take the rest of the day off, you're going to have to stop touching me like that. Otherwise I won't be responsible for what happens."

"Promise?" Olivia breathed. She wrapped her arms around Alex's middle and urged her back until they were melded together. Alex covered Olivia's arms, turning the experience into an intimate embrace.

"Guarantee," Alex said smiling back into Liv's eyes. Liv kissed her forehead.

"You're making it very tempting." They held one another's gaze for a long moment before Olivia sighed and loosened her grip. "C'mon... before I decide not to let you go."

"I hope you never decide to let me go, Liv," Alex said softly. Olivia swallowed hard.

"Not again," Liv breathed. "I did once and spent years regretting it. I don't plan to regret anymore."

"Go out with me," Alex asked impulsively. Olivia blinked rapidly at the unexpected change of subject and Alex smiled in response. "When I get back from DC, I would like to take you out."

"Like on a date?"

"No... not like a date - really a date. You know... dinner, maybe dancing or a movie or a ride in Central Park...." She stopped speaking when Olivia covered her mouth.

"I get it, Alex," Liv assured her with a chuckle. "I'd love to go out with you." She slipped her arms from Alex and stood, offering her a hand up. Then she seated Alex on the bed and pulled the wayward boot from underneath the end of the bed.

"How did you...?"

"It was poking me in the ass," Olivia replied dryly. Alex snickered but allowed Liv to slide the boot onto her foot. "There you go, Cinderella."

"Thank you, Princess Charming." Alex glanced at her watch. "Damn! I've got to get going." She looked at the unmade bed and shrugged, then turned and picked up her bags. "Walk me to the door?"

Liv didn't answer verbally; she simply took the bag from Alex's hand and motioned her forward. A quick phone call to Fin and he met them at the door as they emerged from the brownstone.

"Taxi, ladies?" When Alex's brows shot into her forehead, Fin chuckled, motioning to the cab parked just behind the unmarked sedan. He took the bag from Liv's hand and headed down the stairs. He deposited her luggage with the driver then walked back to the cruiser to wait for Olivia.

Liv walked Alex to the cab. "Call me when you get there?"

Alex nodded and leaned forward, brushing her lips against Olivia's. "Absolutely. Try to stay out of trouble while I'm gone, Detective."

"You too, Counselor."

Alex climbed into the taxi and Olivia watched her go until she was down the road and out of sight. Then she got into the car with Fin, giving him a nod as they went back on the clock.

"Wow," Abbie commented as she opened the door wider to let Alex into her home. "You look great, Cabot. Love certainly does become you." She smiled when Alex ducked her head, unable to stop the blush from blossoming over her face. "C'mon," tucking her hand into Alex's elbow and ushering her inside. "You've got time to unpack and make yourself comfortable before we need to leave for the hospital."

Alex turned to Abbie with the question clearly writ on her face. "Where's your mom?"

Abbie shrugged sheepishly. "She had to go home. Apparently without her hand on the wheel, the ranch runs off the rails. The foreman called Sunday and asked her to come back."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Alex said as she entered Abbie's guest room. "I was looking forward to actually getting a chance to talk to her."

"So was I," Abbie agreed wryly. "Watching you two together I mean."

"Well, I still owe her a get together with the girls, so maybe you'll get your entertainment then."

"Somehow I don't think Mama will be quite as outspoken when the indubitable Detective Benson is around to protect your ass."

"Given what I've been told, I can't see your mama backing off for anyone - not even my detective."

"Gee, Cabot - possessive much? My mama is not a stupid woman. If your friends will stand up to her for you, what's your best girl gonna do? Mama may like a good fight, but she's never been one to poke a bear with a stick unless she knows what the outcome's going to be."

"And you think she'd take me on without Liv watching my back?"

"In a heartbeat. Where do you think I learned my debating skills? Now that she knows the truth about you and me, she sees you as a new challenge to conquer."

"Shouldn't that be Casey's privilege?"

Abbie snorted. "She's already won my mama over."

"And you?"

Abbie shrugged and glanced at the floor. "Maybe. We've been talking...."


"And, I dunno, Alex. I like her. She's a good person - great listener, funny, warm, patient as the day is long, she argues like nobody's business...."

"And it doesn't hurt that she's a looker." Alex cut her eyes at Abbie and then smirked at the protective stance Abbie had assumed. "C'mon, Carmichael. I'm taken... not blind. Besides, you don't get to play the part of the jealous lover until you make a commitment to her." Abbie's shoulders sagged at Alex's words. Alex set her empty bag aside. She put an arm around Abbie and seated them both on the bed. "Talk to me, Abbie."

Abbie leaned her head on Alex's shoulder. "She makes me nervous, Alex." Alex didn't answer but Abbie felt the smile cross Alex's countenance before her lips brushed Abbie's temple.


The silence went on so long Alex started to wonder if Abbie had fallen asleep against her shoulder. Then she felt Abbie take a deep breath against her. "She makes me feel, Alex. She makes me want to feel again."

"That's a good thing, Abbie. It's time you found more than contentment; it's time you found happiness."

Abbie sighed. "Contentment is easier."

Alex leaned over to whisper in Abbie's ear. "But happiness is worth the risk." She cupped Abbie's chin and drew her face up until their eyes met. "Trust me, Abbie. I've been where you are. The difference is my situation was my fault; yours isn't. Give her a chance."

"You're not going to let this go, are you?"

"Nope," Alex replied with a grin. Abbie huffed.

"Fine. Next time I'm in New York...." trailing off when Alex shook her head no. "What?"

"She's here. We flew down together."

"But...." Abbie sputtered.

"Time to piss or get off the pot, Carmichael," Alex invited with a smirk.

"I hate you," Abbie grumbled.

"Remind me of that after you've talked to Casey."

"It'll have to wait - we have appointments to get to, and I don't know about you, but I'm ready to be out from under all these restrictions... to the point of being excited about going back to work."

"Me too," Alex confessed. "Despite everything."

Abbie cocked her head. "We'll talk later?"


"Well, Ms Cabot, your recovery has progressed very well; you appear to be in exceptional health. What does your therapist say?"

"She says I'm clear to go back to work, but she wants to continue our sessions."

"And what do you think about that?"

Alex shrugged. "I think she's right." She sighed when the doctor looked at her expectantly. "There is more going on than just what happened that night, and I know that."

The doctor held Alex's eyes for a long moment before nodding. "Fair enough. In that case you are free to return to work Monday morning."

"Thank you, Doctor."

"My pleasure." The doctor stood and offered his hand. "Good luck, Ms Cabot."

"So," Abbie smiled as Alex met her in the waiting area. "How'd it go?"

"Free and clear."

"Yeah... me too."

"So, whaddya wanna do now?" Alex asked Abbie with a smirk. "Go to Disney World?"

Abbie laughed. "Maybe later," taking Alex's arm and leading her from the hospital. "First, I think we should go get some dinner."

"Let's call Casey to join us."

Abbie sighed. "You're not going to let this drop, are you?"

"Do you really want me to?"

"Are you implying I need a swift kick in the ass to take a chance?"

"If the boot fits...."

"I hate you."

"I know," handing Abbie her phone. "I'll be at the car," lifting Abbie's keys from her hand.

Abbie watched her go, then stared at the phone she held for an impossibly long moment. Finally, she sighed and scrolled through the phone book, selecting Casey's number and pressing the button.

"Hi, Casey... it's Abbie."

Dinner had gone surprisingly well. Alex and Casey had kept the conversational ball rolling until Abbie had relaxed and become part of it. That had lasted until Alex announced she was taking Abbie's car and going back to the apartment, citing exhaustion. Abbie stood to follow her - only Casey's hand on her arm gave her pause. Abbie glanced down, brown eyes meeting green.

"Stay... she's a big girl and I'll give you a ride home."


"Abbie, we're going to have to talk about this sooner or later. C'mon... you're one of the strongest people I know. I've heard the stories, you know," she added with a smile, eyes sparkling when Abbie returned the smile. "What are you afraid of?" she asked softly.

Abbie's smile faded. "So many things... mostly you."

Casey held Abbie's eyes, her expression never changing. "Me? Abbie, I'm not going to hurt you... not intentionally." A beat. "Look... would you be more comfortable alone with me in a public setting or a private one?" Abbie cocked her eyebrow. "We can stay here and have some coffee and dessert. Or we can get in the car and drive around for a while."

"Let's order dessert."

"So how'd it go?"

Alex shrugged even though Olivia couldn't see the gesture over the phone. "I don't know. I chaperoned them through dinner then left them alone in the restaurant."

"Alex!! You're playing matchmaker now?"

"Not at all, Detective. I am simply providing the opportunity for them to work things out for themselves."

Liv chuckled. "Uh huh. The evidence speaks otherwise, Counselor. You're a troublemaker."

"Firsthand experience, Detective?"

"None better, Counselor," Liv answered with a chuckle, then cleared her throat. "How'd things go with the doc?"

"Good. I'm clear to go back to work, and I'm going to keep seeing Janet."

"Good. So when are you coming home?"

"Miss me?"

"Yes," came the stark answer.

"I'll take the first flight out tomorrow morning."

"You'd do that?"

"In a heartbeat, Liv."

Although she couldn't see it, Alex felt the warmth of Olivia's smile through the phone. "Is it wrong that it makes me feel like a giddy teenager for you to say that?" Liv asked quietly.

"God, I hope not," Alex confessed.

"I mean after all the angst and frustration it took for us to get to this point...."

"Liv, I think you're over-thinking this, but just for the record, I think it's wonderful. After all the angst and frustration and struggle we've gone through to get to this point, we've earned the right to be giddy and happy and totally in love."

"You're turning into a mush, Counselor."

"Your fault, Detective."

"How do you figure that? I'm a complete innocent here... stuck two hundred and twenty-five miles away from you. I haven't done a thing."

"Except love me, Liv. That's enough."

The silence was telling all on its own and Alex smiled, waiting for Liv to recover her voice. "Wow," came the soft rejoinder.


"You take my breath away."

"You do the same for me, Liv. You always have."

"Allllleeeeex." Alex grinned, feeling Liv's blush over the phone... a side of the detective rarely seen, even by her.

"O-liv-ee-ah," Alex mimicked back to her, smiling when Liv chuckled gently. "Now, should I come home in the morning or stay here and keep tabs on the progress Casey and Abbie are making with one another?"

"Stay and keep an eye on Abbie," Olivia said seriously. "I've never seen her so timid about anything and it worries me. I'll call if anything comes up, but I really am hoping it's quiet enough I can get some work done on the mural. I'd like to have it done in time for your open house."

"That would be wonderful, Liv, but I want you to be happy in the doing. Don't force it if it's not working."

"And when did you get so philosophical?"

"You'd be surprised how many things you have time to contemplate in witness protection, Liv."

"I'd be happy never to have to learn by experience."

"Me too," Alex agreed sincerely. "Now that I finally have you back in my life...." She cleared her throat. "I need to go. I think Abbie's home and I don't want to be out here if she brought Casey with her. Talk to you later, Detective?"

"Oh, you can count on it Counselor."

"Night, Liv. Happy dreams."

"They always are when you're in them, Alex. Night." And Olivia hung up the phone before Alex was able to catch her breath to respond. She held the receiver in her hand listening to the dial tone for a long moment before hanging it in the cradle. Then she moved towards the kitchen for a bottle of water and escaped to her room just as the front door opened and Casey and Abbie stepped inside.

"Come on in... make yourself at home. Can I get you anything? Something to drink or maybe...."

A hand on her arm made Abbie stutter to a stop and glance at Casey before dropping her eyes to the ground. "Abbie, I'm fine. C'mon... let's sit down."

"I'm sorry."

"About what?"

Abbie took a deep breath and let it out before giving in to Casey's gentle tugging and taking a seat beside her. "Casey, I really do like you. I know we haven't known each other a very long time, but I was aware of you long before you were assigned to SVU. You're one of the ADA's Jack has kept an eye on since you came to the DA's office and that brought you to my attention. And honestly, I was always impressed with what I learned about you. But I never really expected to know you as more than a name and face."

Abbie chanced a look at Casey and smiled at the blush and shy, pleased expression covering Casey's face. "I'm not trying to embarrass you."

"I know," Casey replied. "I just can't believe I never knew... I mean, you were the gold standard we all aspired to. I never realized... I mean I never thought... um...."

Abbie grinned. "Breathe, Casey." Casey took a deep breath and swallowed hard and for the first time in a long time, Abbie relaxed. "Better?"

"Yeah, thanks." She took another deep breath. "I'm sure you think I'm some kind of a crazy person."

Abbie chuckled. "Casey, I have been a basket case in the last few weeks. You don't think you're entitled to stutter once in a while?"

"Excellent point, Counselor." Abbie laughed again and Casey cocked an eyebrow in her direction.

"You sound like Liv. She calls Alex 'Counselor' as a term of endearment and Alex returns the favor by referring to Liv as 'Detective'. It's a little nauseating."

"Aw, c'mon, Abbie... I think it's cute."

Abbie raised her eyebrow in mock derision before breaking into a grin. "So do I," she confided, leaning over to bump shoulders with Casey. "Especially after all they have been through to get them to that place again."


"You didn't see them together before Alex was put into witness protection. I don't know if they were intimate then, but they were definitely as together as they could be without sex. When Alex left, well... let's just say Olivia was unhappy for a long time."

"And what about you, Abbie?"

"What about me?" Abbie asked, looking down at the ground. Casey took Abbie's face in her hands, raising her chin until their eyes met.

"Abbie, talk to me please. I know something happened to you and I know it was bad. You can't imagine some of the things that have crossed my mind as possibilities and it hurts me to think of what could have done so much damage to someone as strong and intelligent and amazing as you are." A beat. "Abbie, I'm not trying to push you, God. But how can we have anything together if you won't trust me?"

Abbie closed her eyes and bit her lip. Casey never moved, gently stroking Abbie's cheeks with her thumbs. She felt Abbie sigh and take a deep breath. "When I was a freshman in college... I was... raped." She sighed. "I was a stupid kid - I let him get away with it because I thought... I thought I had done something...." Her words stopped - not because there wasn't more to say, but because of the comfort she suddenly found herself surrounded by when Casey embraced her tightly. Abbie felt the kiss Casey brushed over her hair and relaxed into the hug, absorbing every bit of support Casey offered.

Casey waited in silence, tears rolling from her eyes as she felt Abbie release the pain she'd held close to her heart for years. She kissed the dark head a second time and felt Abbie sigh into her neck. "I know now," she said so softly Casey had to strain to hear her, "I know it wasn't my fault. I know he raped me," her voice becoming stronger. "But it doesn't make it any easier to bear. And it doesn't make it any easier for me to trust... no matter how much I want to try."

"Abbie," Casey said, lightly scratching Abbie's scalp as she combed through her dark hair. "You just did. Thank you for trusting me. I can't promise to never hurt you," feeling Abbie stiffen in her arms. "Shh... I can't promise to never hurt you because I might. But I will never hurt you intentionally and I will do my damnedest to never hurt you accidentally." She paused a moment and smiled, letting the expression carry over into her voice.

"Do you know what first attracted me to you... way back in the days you were an ADA for Jack McCoy?" waiting for Abbie to shake her head. "You probably can't hear it, but you have the cutest drawl. Not so much in the courtroom - your natural passion and intensity kind of override it. But when you're relaxed, I can hear Texas in that smooth whiskey voice of yours."

Abbie tilted her head up, shifting to take in Casey's features. "Really?"

Casey nodded. "Uh huh. It just does something to me; it always has."

"Really?" Abbie's tone completely different this time.

"Um hmm," Casey hummed, her eyes focused on a point on the far side of the room. "And you have this little strut... the better your day, the more pronounced the strut. I always hoped to see you walking down the hall with jeans on doing that strut. It's really sexy," Casey added, waggling her eyebrows roguishly at Abbie. Abbie shifted again, finally sliding her arms around Casey and returning the hug.

"Oh really?" Abbie asked again, a hint of playfulness in her voice.

"Oh yeah," Casey purred. "Absolutely. And when you smile," watching Abbie's actions follow her words, "you have the cutest dimples. They make me want to...." Without warning Casey broke off, biting her lip uncertainly.

"They make you want to what?" Abbie prompted when it appeared Casey wasn't going to continue. "C'mon, Casey," she almost whined. "No fair teasing like that - what do my dimples make you want to do?"

For answer, Casey leaned down, letting her actions speak volumes when she caught Abbie's lips with tender passion. Abbie stiffened for a split second before relaxing into the kiss and returning it fervently. The kiss went on for long moments before the couple was forced to separate for air.

"That's what your dimples make me want to do, Abbie," Casey confessed when she'd caught her breath. Abbie responded by reaching up and threading her hand into Casey's hair, pulling their lips together again. And down the hallway, Alex quietly closed her bedroom door with a smile on her face.

"I guess I don't need to ask how things went last night," Alex commented as she poured herself a cup of coffee. She turned and looked at Abbie who gazed back at her pensively. "Abbie?"

Abbie's eyes dropped to the table and she sighed. "Have you ever been afraid to be happy, Alex... really, truly happy?" She paused and took a deep breath. "I told Casey the truth last night - she didn't run, and she didn't ask for more than I was able to give her. She stayed all night and just held me. It was wonderful - first time in a very long time I can remember sleeping through the night."

"That's fabulous, Abbie. So what's the problem?" shaking her head and setting her cup on the table before taking a seat beside her.

"I look at Casey and wonder when the bubble is going to burst. She deserves so much more than...." A hand covered Abbie's mouth and Casey wrapped her other arm around Abbie's shoulder. She pressed her torso against Abbie's back and leaned forward to whisper into her ear.

"I have what I want, Abbie - that is what I deserve. Please don't discount my feelings about you or what's happening between us." She lifted her hand when she felt Abbie open her lips to speak.

"It's a lot of baggage, Casey. I'm not sure...."

"You don't have to be, Abbie. I'm sure enough for both of us."

"Listen to her, Abigail," Alex said, reminding them she was still in the room. "She's pretty smart."

"And pretty persistent," Casey added, leaning forward and kissing Abbie's cheek as she removed her hand, only to find it caught in Abbie's. Casey responded to the gentle tugging, coming around to sit beside Abbie.

"So what are we doing today?" Abbie asked, looking first at Casey and then at Alex.

"Well, since you two seem to have things settled to your satisfaction, I thought I'd head back to Manhattan."

"NO! You can't! I mean...." Casey cleared her throat. "Sorry, I mean, please don't leave on our account. You should stay for the weekend like you originally planned."

"But what about...?" motioning towards the two of them.

"Alex, we're at the very beginning of our relationship. We're not going to start out alienating one of our closest friends by suddenly excluding everyone but each other from our lives. Losing friends like that would make us both miserable. So stay - we can go out and do things that friends like to do together." Casey looked at Abbie and then back to Alex. "Hey, why don't we go over to the art gallery? I love that place."

Abbie dropped her head to the table and banged it lightly. "Oh no," she moaned dramatically. "I'm surrounded by culture aficionados! Somebody save me!" Casey and Alex exchanged glances and laughed.

"C'mon, drama queen," Casey said as she rose from her seat. "At least I'm not dragging you home to meet the family yet. My brothers' questions make the Spanish Inquisition look like a walk in the park."

Abbie looked at Alex. "What have I gotten myself into?" before dropping her head to the table once more.

"Aside from love?" she asked with a smile.

Casey leaned over and put her hand between Abbie's forehead and the table. "I'll protect you, Abigail - I promise." She cleared her throat. "But first I need to go home and get a shower and some clean clothes."

"Why? You can take a shower here; I'll loan you some clothes," Alex offered. "You can give your mom all the details later."

"Yeah, and if Alex's clothes don't fit you, I can probably find some that will."

"Can I borrow your cowboy boots?"

"Don't push it," Abbie growled playfully, the glare in her eyes betrayed by the twinkle sparkling from the depths of brown. "This is just our first date."

"I had to try," Casey sighed dramatically, covering Alex's laughter. Abbie rolled her eyes, shaking her head as she stood. She took Casey's hand and led her towards the master bath.

"And you call me a drama queen."

"Thank you, Alex," Abbie said as they shared a light breakfast early Sunday morning.

"For?" Alex asked, her brow furrowed. "I should be thanking you for letting me crash here for the weekend."

"Cut the modesty, Cabot. It really doesn't suit you. We both know you had a hand in Casey and I...." She waved her hand around. "You know... finally getting together."

Alex snorted then lifted her coffee cup to her lips. After a sip she replied, "I didn't do anything except put the right circumstances into play. The two of you had to do the hard part."

"Whatever. Don't think I'm going to forget it anytime soon, though,"

"Well then... plan on coming to Manhattan for Thanksgiving. Gerry has promised to come down from the lodge and give me a hand that weekend."

Abbie laughed. "A hand? Or is she cooking the meal for you?"

"She's cooking the turkey - I never quite got the hang of it in Witness Protection since I only ever cooked for me. I make a pretty good green bean casserole though and I do a decent pecan pie."

Abbie's eyebrows went up into her hairline. "You can make pecan pie?? I'll be there early. I want to see this."

Alex did the mature thing and stuck out her tongue. "Oh ye of little faith."

"Yeah, yeah... put your money where your mouth is, Cabot."

"Any day of the week, Carmichael. Just let me know when you're coming so I can have the guest room ready for you. I still have quite a bit of work to do, and since I'm going back to the DA's office...."

"And can I say how happy I am about that... going back to work, I mean? God, I never thought having a month off would take so much effort." She broke off, chewing her lip thoughtfully.

"Try having two," Alex returned wryly. "Although if I'm completely honest, it's probably the best thing to happen to me. Gave me plenty of time to think and make some good decisions for a change."


"Only that I hurt a lot of people trying to find my way home."

"And are you there yet?"

Alex gazed at Abbie thoughtfully, giving the question due consideration. "Mostly, yes," she eventually answered. "I still have a few things to work out, but I have a good therapist and at least I finally have Liv on my side again." The sound of a horn blowing interrupted them. "That would be my ride to the airport," standing to retrieve her luggage. Abbie just smiled and went to the door, anticipating Casey's knock.

"I'll wait in the car," Alex said as she swooped by them. "And I'll expect you in a few weeks, Carmichael," leaning over and brushing Abbie's cheek with her lips.

"Thank you, Alex," Casey said once they were seated on the plane. Alex's brows climbed her forehead and her eyes widened as the distinct feeling of deja vu washed over her.

"For?" she asked, wondering if Casey's reply would be at all similar to Abbie's.

"Inviting me down and then hanging around to play with me and Abbie. I think... I think it made Abbie more comfortable for us to start out going out with friends instead of just me." Casey's chuckle was ironic. "I never realized I was so threatening outside the courtroom."

"Thank you for sticking with her, Casey. She's worth it... she really is. She's just a little skittish." Casey covered Alex's hand.

"It's okay, Alex. I think so too. I went into this with my eyes open. I knew there was something going on with her even before she confided in me."

"So now what?" Alex asked. "Are you going to try to have a long distance relationship?"

"Right now we're going to have a long distance courtship... getting to know each other as more than a name or a reputation - email and phone calls and text messages. See what we have in common aside from being lawyers who've both worked in the Manhattan DA's office with some pretty special friends."

"Well, I've got my fingers crossed."

"Me, too."

There was music coming from the conservatory when Alex unlocked her brownstone some hours later. She hadn't told Olivia when she was returning and she had a pretty good idea where the good detective was judging by the sounds coming down the hallway. She climbed the stairs to her bedroom, wondering why she had chosen the top floor until she stepped in, soothed by the feeling of home that suddenly surrounded her. It brought tears to her eyes and Alex shook her head to remove any trace of sentimentality... unsuccessfully.

Instead, she blew out a shaky breath and threw her suitcase on the bed. She unpacked quickly, changing into her favorite blue jeans and a warm sweater. Then she walked sock-footed down the stairs, only to find the muzzle of a police weapon pointed in her direction as she entered the kitchen. She jumped back and put a hand over her wildly beating heart even as Olivia dropped the gun into its holster and leaned shakily against the counter.

"Shit, Alex... you nearly gave me a heart attack!"

Alex blew out a breath and crossed the room to wrap her arms around Olivia's neck, answering her words with action. She captured her lips, forcing a moan from deep in her throat as she plundered Olivia's mouth. Then Liv pushed her hands into Alex's back pockets and Alex shuddered, ripping her mouth from Liv's and attacking her neck with abandon.

"God, Alex," Olivia's lips at Alex's ear. "I missed you, sweetheart."

Alex tangled her hands the dark hair and tugged Olivia's lips from her earlobe. "I missed you too, love," crushing their lips together again before they were forced to separate for air. They leaned their foreheads together catching their breath.

"Welcome home, babe."

Alex smirked. "I like this greeting much better than the gun. Nice reflexes, Detective."

"I didn't hear you come in. I was expecting a phone call telling me when to pick you up."

"I wasn't sure where you were and I didn't want to disturb you. How's the mural coming?"

Olivia shrugged. "I like the direction it's going but it's not going as quickly as I'd like."

"Liv, I told you it's no rush."

"I know, but I'd like to get it done for your housewarming."

"Can I see?" A beat. "Please?"

Liv bit her lip before sliding her hands from Alex's back pockets and reaching for her hand. "All right. Just remember it's a work-in-progress."

"I'm sure it will be exceptional, Liv."

A dark brow cocked. "How do you figure that, Counselor?"

"I've seen your work, Detective."

Without another word, Olivia unlocked the door and motioned Alex in ahead of her. Then she stood back and watched Alex's reaction.

Alex walked towards the wall slowly, eyes wide and mouth open until she forced it closed with an audible snap. She extended her arm, gently caressing the lines closest to her. "Oh, Liv," she whispered reverently. "This is... this is amazing."

Alex turned back to Olivia, catching the blush traveling up her face. She reached out her hand towards the detective, waiting for Liv to take it. Alex pulled her forward until Olivia's arms wrapped around her. Then she covered Liv's hands with her own and leaned into her strength.

"You really like it?"

"It's fantastic, Liv. I can't wait to see it finished."

In the upper left corner was the barest silhouette outline of the Manhattan skyline. In the foreground was a setting familiar to Alex, though it wasn't just like her memories. It was a meadow with trees and wildflowers, mountains in the background. The sun was just starting to set and in the middle of the meadow stood two women - one dark, the other light - entwined around one another until it was hard to see where one began and the other ended.

But the most astounding part of the mural was not necessarily the picture itself, but the mediums Olivia had used to bring it to life.

The flowers that were completed were made of bits of tile and glass; the rest in a box waiting to be finished. The waving grasses that surrounded them were composed of bits of cloth while brushstrokes could be seen over the smoother parts. The mountains were rough and gritty as though created from rock and sand. The sun was nothing more than a pencil sketch as were the two women except for the color of their hair. Most intriguing though were the pictures on the floor in front of the skyline. Alex looked her question at Olivia.

"They're going to be part of the buildings... what gives them depth and realism."

Alex's brow furrowed. "May I?" motioning to the photographs. For answer, Liv released her and Alex took her by the hand and walked to the far corner. "Are they in a particular order?" she asked as she bent to pick them up from the floor.

"Mostly," Liv admitted.

"I'll be careful," freezing when her eye caught the first image. "Where...? How...?" her voice full of wonder and curiosity. She let Olivia guide her to the divan in the room that currently faced the fireplace. Alex took a seat and met Liv's brown eyes, now full of concern. "Liv?"

"Some I had; some the guys did. Gerry shared a lot with me as did Robert, surprisingly."

Alex blinked. "Excuse me? You talked to Robert?"

"He came by the hospital the other day when I was visiting little Rosa. Did you know he was on the board there?" Alex nodded. "Did you know it's part of his job to help kids who suffer from some sort of trauma find a place that will help them cope?" This time Alex shook her head. "Um hmm.... If she continues to improve like she has been he's gonna send Rosa to a rehab facility that will help her relearn how to function again."

"That's wonderful, Liv. I was thrilled to hear she was expected to survive, but this could make such a difference for her."


"But that doesn't explain the pictures."

"We got to talking - at first I think he was trying to vet me to make sure I was suitable for you." She held up her hand to cut off Alex's tirade before it started. "Don't worry, sweetheart. I let him have it with both barrels, so to speak. It made him decide we were more than right for each other - he said if I could hold my own with you like that, we were well-matched. Then he said he had some things he needed to return to you and asked me if I minded taking them. When he gave me the box, he placed a photo album on top and told me I should take a look. I was suspicious, of course, but I was also curious."

"Curious won?"

"I'm a detective, Alex... of course it won. How did you get them past Hammond?"

"I refused to give them up. They were all I had left and no amount of threats or pleading was going to make me give them up."

Olivia nodded as though she'd expected that answer. "I went through and scanned them into my computer and made copies of the ones I didn't have and wanted to use. When I was done, I put the album on your shelves with the rest of them."

Alex looked again at the picture on top - one of her and Liv taken at the last precinct Christmas party she'd been to before her world fell apart. There were others - ones of the guys, of her family, of Serena and Abbie and the rest; pictures from her childhood and pictures from the paper when she'd made news as an ADA. Some of them brought tears to her eyes and others brought smiles. But all of them brought back memories.

After her silent perusal, she turned watery eyes on Liv. "Where are yours?" Olivia blinked. "C'mon, Liv," Alex chided gently. "I know we may not be ready to move in together yet or exchange rings and vows, but this is your work... your art. How can you not put a piece of yourself into this collage?"

"What do you mean, Alex? I'm in a few of the pictures."

"Yes, but your history isn't. None of your mom or of you as a kid - nothing about your accomplishments as a student or a police officer."

"The wall isn't about me, Alex."

"No, but it is about us," motioning to the two female figures in the center of the wall. "And it is your art. Think about it. Please?"

Liv nodded. "All right; I'll think about it. But no guarantees. Deal?"

Alex sighed. "I suppose."

"Good. Now tell me about some of these pictures. I've been curious since Gerry gave them to me."

"You're going to share how you managed that, right?"

"I asked; she obliged."

"Just that simple?"

"Just that simple."

Alex stared at her in amazement for a long moment, then shook her head in disbelief. "Who'd have thought?" she muttered mostly to herself.

"I had nothing to lose by asking," Liv confided. "Besides, it gave her a little chance to reminisce, though she did promise me full stories later. I figured I'd give you first shot. I imagine hers will have a lot more embarrassing detail in them."

Alex covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head. "I am so doomed."

"Time to 'fess up, Cabot - start talking."

"Long time no see, Detective," Alex greeted when Olivia poked her head around the door. "What brings you to my house of horrors?" gesturing her inside and watching as Olivia glanced around her office. She raised an eyebrow when Olivia looked back at her after her perusal.

"It's different... and impersonal."

"I know. I just haven't gotten round to doing anything much with it."

"Like you didn't expect to stay here long?"

"Something like that," Alex confessed quietly. "So what can I do for you, Liv? I know you're up to your eyeballs in cases." She smiled at the inquisitive glance thrown her way. "We've played phone tag for most of the week and I've talked to Casey several times. She's using a couple interns to do case law research."

"Careful, Counselor. You could become a detective with investigative skills like that."

"I'm not sure the world is ready for that - Alexandra Cabot... Private Dick. And where would the law degree go with that title?"

Liv smirked. "I'm sure we could think of something." Her phone buzzed and she frowned. "I was just stopping by to see if we were still on for tonight."

"As long as you don't get called away, sweetheart."

"Great. So I'll see you at seven?"

"I'll be there with bells on."

"Thanks, Alex. I needed the visual," she said dryly. "Between the bells and the fedora, I'm not gonna get much else done today."

Alex couldn't help it - she burst into laughter. And Olivia smiled all the way down to the car.

"Alex, do you have a minute?" Jim Steele asked when he saw Olivia leave Alex's office. She swallowed her sigh. She'd been hoping to put this confrontation off a while longer.

"Sure, Jim," beckoning him inside. He took the invitation and shut the door before taking a seat in front of her desk. "What can I do for you?"

"I wanted to see how you were doing. You've been gone a while and you've been avoiding me since you got back."


"Alex, I heard what you said before you left, and you were right… on all counts. We've never been friends and I do have a good thing with Jessica. However, I'd like to work on the first, if you'd be amenable to it. I think it might make things easier here for everyone if we could at least get along."

"Well which do you want, Jim? To be friends or simply get along?"

"I'd like the first, but I'd settle for the second."

Alex held Steele's eyes for a long moment before nodding. "We'll work on it, Jim. In fact," she said thoughtfully, "I'll be having an open house in a few weeks. Plan to come and bring Jessica with you."

"We'd love to Alex - thank you."

She nodded again. "Anything else?" propping her elbows on her desk and folding her hands, pressing her fingertips against her lips.

Steele took a deep breath. "I've heard rumors...."


"Um... you and a female detective at the one-six."


"Are they true?"

"I suppose that depends on what you've heard. But just for the record, as long as my personal life doesn't interfere with my work, I don't see that it's anyone's business who is in my personal life."

He held up his hands. "Fair enough. I was just going to congratulate you. She's a real looker."

Alex smirked. "I know."

Jim stood and went to the door. "Oh," he said, turning around with one hand on the doorknob. "Is the other rumor going around true as well?"

Alex leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "There are more? God, I was only gone two months!"

Steele chuckled. "Remind me one day to fill you in on all the gossip that's gone flying around here in the two months you were out. But only one other has a real possibility of being true in my opinion."

"And that is?"

"I've been given to understand that you may not be with us for long because of your interest in forming some sort of non-profit foundation to help victims in some way. If the first part is true, I hope you'll reconsider. If the second part is, I hope you'll allow me to be a part of it."

"I appreciate it, Jim. Thanks."

He nodded and exited the office, closing the door softly behind him.

Olivia blew out a nervous breath when the knock sounded, smoothing her black cocktail dress down smoothly. "It's just Alex," she reassured herself, before grasping the knob and pulling the door towards her, only to gasp when she got a good look at her date for the evening.

Alex was dressed in a light gray silk pantsuit with a royal blue shirt that not only lent color to the ensemble, but also brought out the depth of her eyes in an almost startling fashion.

"May I come in?" Alex asked with a hint of amusement when Liv's stare went on for several moments. Even her olive-toned skin color couldn't hide Liv's blush and she opened the door wider for Alex to enter her apartment.

She took the flowers Alex offered her, lifting them to her nose to inhale the delicate fragrance. Then she gave Alex a shy smile. "They're beautiful."

"Very much like you," Alex assured her, smiling as another wave of color washed over Olivia's features.

"Let me just put these in some water," Liv said, motioning Alex further inside. "Would you like something to drink or...?" clenching her hands to hide the shaking.

Alex caught Olivia's hands, gently chafing them with her thumbs. "Liv... take a deep breath and relax. It's just me - Alex - who has found you charming and infuriating and beautiful and frustrating and captivating and downright impossible for as long as I've known you. It's just us - no burdens or expectations beyond what we place on ourselves, all right? This night is going to be what we want it to be."

Olivia nodded. "I'm not sure why I'm so nervous about this. I mean, it's not like either of us are new to the dating scene or romantic entanglements. So I'm not sure why...." She let her voice trail off.

"It's a little scary realizing something you've wished for... hoped for... for so long might actually be happening for real, isn't it? Almost like you're afraid that if you let it happen, it won't be everything you've dreamed of and you'll never find the happiness that has eluded you your whole life."

"How did you know?"

"Because I'm scared of the same thing, Liv... only worse. Because I'm the one who screwed everything up so badly in the first place, and I know I won't get another chance at this if I screw it up again." Alex took a deep breath, hoping to steady her voice. "Now, would you like to go out tonight, Ms Benson or shall we call for take out and stay in?"

"As hot as you are and after all the work I did to look this good? We're going out on the town, Ms Cabot. Though for the record," letting her eyes roam Alex's figure from head to toe, "I kinda miss those blue jeans."

"Tell you what, Detective - you can plan the next date. Just make sure it's something I can wear blue jeans to."

"Planning ahead, Counselor?"

"Always, Liv. Now c'mon... before we miss our reservation."

The night was amazing. For the first time, Olivia understood what it was like to be the sole focus of someone's world and Alex realized how precious what she and Olivia shared really was. They held hands as Alex walked Liv back to her door at the end of the evening.

"Do you want to come in?" Liv asked as they reached her apartment. Alex released Olivia's hand and shook her head.

"I promised you slow. If I come in, I'm not going home tonight," letting Olivia see the raw need and desire in her eyes. Liv inhaled sharply.

"I'm not sure I could let you go at all," she confessed.

"That's why I have to leave. When the time comes, I want you to be sure."

Liv tangled her hands in Alex's hair, tugging gently until their lips met. Alex put her hands on Olivia's waist, drawing them together until there was no space left. The kiss went on for long moments, tongues dueling for dominance even as they struggled for breath. Finally, they separated with obvious reluctance, chests heaving as they fought for air. Liv loosened her grip and traced Alex's lips, gasping when they were sucked into a warm, wet mouth.

"You make me feel... so much."

Alex leaned in and kissed her again - hard and fast. "Goodnight, sweetheart," taking a step back and letting her hands drop to her side.

"Goodnight, beautiful," smiling again when Liv's eyes dropped to the ground. Alex turned and headed to the stairs and Liv watched her go, before turning back to her door and slipping inside with a smile on her face.


"Detective Benson, this is Kurt Moss." Olivia pulled the phone from her ear and looked at it before putting it back to her ear.

"Mr. Moss - this is a surprise. What can I do for you?"

Kurt Moss cleared his throat. "I just wanted to let you know about a phone call I received this morning from a man named Simon Marsden. He felt he had some information I might be interested in - as a newspaper editor."


"You... and Bureau Chief Alexandra Cabot."

"I see."

"Not to worry, Olivia. I turned him down cold and I tried to set him straight. But I don't think he was listening and I'm not the only newspaper man in town. And you were spotted out together over the weekend."

Olivia was silent for a long moment. "Thank you, Kurt. You really didn't have to."

"Yes, I did," he retorted. "I told you, Olivia... I really do like you. And true or not, we aren't a gossip rag. Even the social pages are factual. Now if Ms Cabot wanted to talk to us, that would be a different matter."

"Can I give you a call back? I think I may be able to return the favor. It wouldn't be gossip, but it might be newsworthy."


"Thanks, Kurt."

"This is wonderful, Liv. Great way to spend a beautiful afternoon," Alex said as she stretched out and put her head in Olivia's lap. "How did you manage to get the time off in the middle of a workday?" Liv chuckled.

"I called in a favor. What I'd like to know is how you managed to have those jeans available at a moment's notice," motioning down Alex's body.

Alex smirked, crossing her arms over her chest and her ankles simultaneously. "Some detective you are. Olivia, all my jeans fit like this. And I learned to keep clothes in the office a long time ago. These have been waiting a long time - I never had the chance to play hooky before."


"Not with someone I wanted to play with." Alex shifted, curling up a little and turning slightly to look up at Olivia. "So what's up?" smiling when Liv cocked an eyebrow at her. "C'mon, Detective. I know there is something more than playing hooky together going on here. Don't make me squeeze it out of you," wrapping her arm around Liv's waist and pressing her face against the flat belly. Olivia drew in a deep breath and idly ran her hands through Alex's blonde locks.

"Kurt Moss called me earlier," feeling Alex stiffen momentarily before she relaxed. "My brother... Simon... called him offering him information about us. About the fact that we are together... as a couple."

"And? Liv, when I finally stopped pretending to be the Alex Cabot I thought everyone else wanted me to be, I decided I was going to be who I am regardless of what anyone else wanted or thought."

"So you don't care if he outs you to the world? What about your career?"

Alex shrugged. "I like what I do, Liv, and I'm good at it. But it's no longer the be all and end all for me. And if I can't keep working at the DA's office, I'll find something else. I've put out feelers on the victim's foundation we talked about - there's a lot of interest out there. I could easily make it my life's work."

"And me? Alex, all I know is being a cop."

Alex stretched, propping her head on her hand and gazing up into Olivia's eyes. "Sweetheart, I'm not saying we should put an ad in the Times or the Post. Personally I don't think most people would care, but I'd never deliberately put you or your job in danger, and I'm not naive enough to think something like that wouldn't. So I'm going to leave it up to you. We can do or not do whatever you think is best." Alex pulled her arm from Liv's waist and tangled their fingers together. "I just want you to know I'm not ashamed of you. Whatever you want to do is fine with me."

Liv gave Alex a crooked smile, stroking her fingers gently through Alex's hair. "Witness Protection really did change you, didn't it? I think I like the change."

Alex trailed her thumb along Olivia's knuckles. "Do you?"

"Yeah," Liv replied after a bit of thought. "It's made you a little softer."

"I'll have to work on that," Alex said dryly.

"Don't," Liv said, leaning over to brush her lips over Alex's. "I really do like it." She sighed. "Outing us aside, I was wondering if you might want to talk to Kurt anyway. Maybe stir up some public interest for the new foundation you want to establish."

"Do you think he'd want to print something about that? It's still in the planning stages, you know. And not nearly as juicy as the rumors about us he's heard."

"Why don't we ask him? I think he might like that kind of exclusive a lot better than the gossip." She paused. "Thanks Alex."

"For what, Liv?"

"Trusting me."

"I always have."

"Mr. Moss."

"Ms Cabot," gesturing to the seat across from him. "Thank you for joining me."

"Thank you for inviting me. I know this is a little awkward...."

"Surprisingly, not really, Ms Cabot. I learned a long time ago how to compartmentalize things to keep my professional life separate from my personal one. And to be frankly honest with you, I care enough about Olivia to want her to find happiness, even if I can't be the one to give it to her. That doesn't mean, however, that I want to be friends with either of you - I'm not a big enough man to do that right now."

"I understand that and I appreciate the sentiment. Let me assure you you're a far bigger human being that most, including myself, would be about this. Are you certain you want to do this?"

"Ms Cabot, I'm a newshound first and foremost and you're offering me an exclusive interview about a foundation that can make a difference for victims here in Manhattan as well as around the country. I'd make a deal with the devil himself for that kind of press."

"How lucky you're talking to me then," Alex returned with a smile. "The detectives at the one-six used to call me their very own Devil."

Moss smiled. "I imagine there are a number of people who still do."

Alex laughed. "Probably so. Shall we get this started then?"

The interview went smoothly - Moss was a well-respected reporter for a reason and his questions were relevant and to the point. For her part, Alex was well-versed in how to handle an interview and both wound up being satisfied with the final result of their talk.

"Ms Cabot?" he queried as they were preparing to leave. "May I ask you a personal question... off the record?"

Alex had a feeling she knew where this was headed, but figured the man had earned the right to ask. So she nodded her head slowly, her eyes never leaving his.

"Do you love her, Ms Cabot? Do you make her happy?"

Alex conveniently ignored the fact that he'd asked two questions and nodded without hesitation. "I do, Mr. Moss. On some level, I always have... even when I was trying not to." She tilted her head and considered her answer to the second question. "As for the other, I like to think I do, but you'd have to ask Liv to know for sure. I know that she makes me happy though and I am trying to do the same for her."

He studied her a moment. "Fair enough," he finally acknowledged, nodding his head. He held out his hand. "Thank you, Ms Cabot. I appreciate your candor."

"So how did it go?"

"Well, I don't think we'll be friends anytime soon, but I think he was happy with his exclusive."

Olivia nodded and wrapped Alex in her arms from behind, leaning her chin on the shoulder in front of her. "That's a start, I guess. Maybe one day."

"Maybe. But for now I'm starved. What's for dinner?"

"Pick your poison," Liv instructed as she offered Alex a handful of takeout menus. "I'm buying."

Alex grinned. "In that case, I want a burger and fries. A real burger," she admonished with a shake of her finger in Olivia's direction. "No McDonald's or Burger King."

"Spoilsport," Liv complained wearing her own grin. "Grab your jacket."


Olivia rolled her eyes and snatched the jacket from the closet, holding it open for Alex to put on before she opened the door. "If we're getting burgers and fries, we're going out for the good stuff. And that means going out and not taking out. So let's go," sweeping her arm out in front of her in a grand gesture.

"Have I mentioned how bossy you're getting lately?"

"Oh sweetheart - bossy hasn't even entered the room yet. The handcuffs are still on my belt."

Blue eyes widened comically. Brown eyes twinkled in devilish delight.

"So how are you doing, Alex? A lot has changed since our last session." Janet settled comfortably in her chair sipping from her tea as she observed Alex Cabot do the same.

"I'm good," she said at last. "I feel... more comfortable. More settled in my own skin."

"Is this because of Olivia?"

"Partly, I suppose. We're gradually moving towards becoming more than friends - actually going out on dates like any other couple does."

"You say that like you never expected to be doing that together."

Alex sighed and turned her gaze towards the window. "I wasn't sure we ever would, to tell you the truth. Olivia's a very private person and right now, she's dictating the pace of our relationship, Janet."


Sharp blue eyes tracked to open brown. "What do you mean, why?"

"It seems like a simple question, Alex. Why is Olivia dictating the pace of your relationship? If you're not participating, it's not really a relationship, is it?"

"It's not like that."

"Then explain it to me, Alex."

Alex sighed and rose, rubbing the outside of her arms briskly as she walked to the window. Janet followed her progress with her eyes, though she didn't move from her seat. "The easy explanation? She deserves the chance to choose how things go between us for a change."

"She hasn't before?"

"Not really. We were both hesitant the first time - and then my arrogance landed me in witness protection."

"And the second?"

"C'mon, Jan... you've been my therapist since I returned to stay. You know what happened when I came home - what I did... who I became."

"And are you someone different with Olivia?"

Alex turned from the window, her smile blinding in her intensity. "I am myself again. I'm the Alex Cabot I want to be... not the one everyone else expects me to be. And this Alex Cabot wants Olivia Benson to be completely comfortable with us as a couple... in her time."

"You know that may never happen, Alex. She's a cop; can she really afford to be out?"

Alex met Janet's eyes firmly and held them without flinching. "That is why she is dictating the pace, Janet. The guys she works with and a few of our closest friends know about us. If that is all that ever know, it will be enough. And if she decides to take out a billboard in Times Square and announce it to the world - that will be okay too. I know who I am now and who she is to me. Everything else is just so much icing on the cake."

Janet smiled. "That's wonderful, Alex - a major step for you."

"Are you calling me a control freak?"

"If the shoe fits," Janet replied drolly. "Though I was actually referring to the milestone you've achieved here. You've finally found the place in your life where you determine your own happiness instead of letting everyone try and force their ideas and ideals on you. How do you feel?"

Alex took a moment to think about the question. "Settled," she finally said. "At peace."

"Even with Olivia dictating the pace of your romantic relationship."

"Yes... because she is back in my life again and I know that sooner or later, we'll move forward. I can see the desire in her eyes."

"Bring her by sometime," Janet said. "I'd like to meet her."

"All right. I'll ask her. In the meantime, you and your husband plan to come to my housewarming in a few weeks. I should have the details next visit. If nothing else, you can meet her then."

"We'll be there, Alex. Thanks."

Olivia parked the car and grinned. "I figured this would be right up your alley," motioning to the haunted house outside the window. She got out and went around to the passenger door, taking Alex's hand and helping her out. Then she tugged Alex towards the steps.

"Oh you did? Something in my profile told you I like being scared out of my mind? Or did you bring me here planning to be my hero?"

"Why, Ms Cabot, are you accusing me of ulterior motives?"

"Oh I hope so, Detective Benson."

"Well, you did say for me to pick something to get you back into those jeans, didn't you?" dark eyes perusing the lithe form in front of them. "And what better way to celebrate Halloween? Besides," Liv said as she reached into her jacket for her wallet, "it's for a good cause."

She paid the witch at the top of the steps the entrance fee for two, then waited for Frankenstein to open the front door for them. The sounds that emanated from inside caused them to exchange glances, then they stepped across the threshold, jumping when the door slammed shut behind them.

Alex clutched Olivia's hand a little tighter. Liv smiled, leaning in to whisper into Alex's ear. "Don't worry, Counselor. I'll protect you from things that go bump in the night," nipping lightly on the lobe near her lips.

Alex couldn't contain the gasp the unexpected touch elicited, and she turned to face Liv in the dark, letting her free hand clench into a fist at Olivia's waist. With unerring accuracy, her lips found Olivia's ear and Liv could hear the smirk in Alex's voice. "Maybe... but who's going to protect you from me, Detective?" She felt Liv shiver, but before they could go any further, the door opened and a gaggle of teenagers entered the house. Liv pulled them just out of the traffic mainstream, not wanting to be in the middle of a group of squealing kids when the door slammed shut.

Fortunately, the sound of the screams covered their laughter and after the kids moved further into the house, Liv took Alex by the hand again. "C'mon, beautiful. Let's do this, and then we can go have dinner at the Country House."

"You've got yourself a date, sweetheart."

"This is nice," Alex said sleepily as she curled up more firmly into Olivia's body.

"So the haunted house was worth it?"

"I'd suffer a lot scarier things if I could find myself curled into your arms every night, Liv," Alex confessed.

Olivia didn't answer with words right away. Instead she kissed the top of the blonde head tucked beneath her chin and wrapped her arms more securely around Alex's form, pulling them together more tightly. She breathed in their mingled scent and whispered into Alex's ear, "Me too," before drifting off into sleep.

"So how was your Halloween date?" Jo asked as she sat down across from Olivia in the hospital cafeteria. They had both come to see little Rosa off to the rehab center and had decided to get a cup of coffee before heading back to work. The little girl had made such an impact on both of them in the brief time she had been in their lives and they wanted a few minutes to regroup before returning to the real world that made up their lives as detectives.

Liv smiled. "It was great. The haunted house the Sisters allowed the kids to put on was really well done and Alex wore those blue jeans," she added with a chuckle and a waggle of her eyebrows.

"Perv," Jo teased as she sipped her coffee with only a tiny grimace. It was still better than the sludge they had at the precinct. "Who knew you had a denim fetish?"

"I don't," Olivia stated succinctly. "I have an Alex fetish."

"Does that mean...?"

Liv shook her head. "Not like... I mean... yeah, we've slept together, but not like you mean. We were actually sleeping... taking comfort in having one another close."

Jo blinked. "Are you kidding me? With all the fire and passion I've seen in the two of you?"

"Why are you so interested?" Liv asked with a bit of ire in her voice. "It's not like what Alex and I do or don't share as a couple really concerns you."

"Maybe," Jo acknowledged as green eyes met brown. "But you've been my friend for a long time, Liv. We've seen each other through some rough patches. I just want you to take whatever happiness you can find - to have something for yourself like I have with Blair. And I think Alex Cabot may be the one for you to share that with... mind, spirit and body."

"I think she is, Jo. She's already such a big part of me."

"Then why the hesitation? You afraid she's not willing to commit to you?" Olivia shook her dark head, eyes trained on her coffee cup. "So what then? You don't think you're allowed to be happy?"

"We already are, Jo. As much as I fought and grumbled against it, we are very happy together."

"Then what's the issue? Surely she wants to be with you physically... I mean, c'mon. You two have been dancing around the attraction you've felt for each other for years."

Liv glared at Jo before relenting. Jo had been one of the few, including Elliot to call her on shit from the very beginning of their relationship. It had gotten Jo into trouble more than once, especially as a rookie, but to Olivia, it was a true indication of the strength of their friendship.

"If you must know," the look in Jo's eyes confirming that she did indeed need to know, "I don't want to rush this. I want to enjoy being with her - getting to know who Alex Cabot is now."

Jo cleared her throat as she nodded her head. "All right... I can understand that. But don't you remember how quickly it can all be taken away? Could you live with the regrets you'd have if something happened tomorrow?"

"Yes... because this time there would be no regrets - this time we know where we stand with each other and what we want. It's going to happen, but right now we are both enjoying the courtship part of this relationship. It's different from anything we've ever had before - with each other or anyone else. We'd be fools not to appreciate it. The passion is still there - it's just simmering beneath the surface."

Jo smiled. "I understand that too. I've got something very similar. I just hope it doesn't take you two as long as it took me and Blair." She stood and Liv followed suit. "It's nice to see you relaxed and happy," she added at Liv's nod. "You wear it well."

"I'm enjoying it. Who knew making out and cuddling could be so satisfying?"

"Heh... that's one of the nicest parts of being an old married couple. There's always someone to make out and cuddle up with."

"Just for the record - I'm not patient enough to wait fourteen years before making a move."

Jo chuckled. "I doubt Alex is either."

They threw away the remainder of their coffee and walked out the hospital doors. "So we'll see you and Alex on Thanksgiving?" Jo queried as they walked towards the parking lot. She smirked when Olivia tilted her head and frowned. "Alex invited us for dinner."

"Oh... then, yes. I was afraid I was suddenly going senile."

"Nah... you've still got a few good years left in ya, granny."

"Why I oughta...."

"You'd have to catch me first, Liv."

"Hey! I can still out run Stabler, ya know."

Jo snickered. "An old married man with a houseful of kids. It's a wonder he can still put on matching socks."

"I think Kathy checks before she let's him leave the house."

They laughed and got into their vehicles, heading back to their respective precincts.



"One second, Abbie." Alex shifted the phone to her shoulder, but Abbie could still hear her words clearly. "I don't care what you think. I am telling you to rejoin us back on the planet Earth and get this done, or I'm going to be happy to send you to the moon myself, courtesy of a pair of steel-toed cowboy boots."

There was the sound of a door slamming, then Abbie heard Alex sigh before she spoke. "Hey, Abbie. What's up?"

"Rough day?"

"Rough month. For some reason, the interns think that since Thanksgiving is next week, they can shirk their work all month. I'm ready to...."

"... send them to the moon via your cowboy boots - I heard," Abbie said with a chuckle.

"Some days I wonder why I decided to come back to the DA's office," Alex confirmed with a sigh, running a hand through her hair. "So what can I do for you, Ms Carmichael? When are you coming up?"

"I thought I'd come up Friday night - I'm taking the whole week off. I want to see some of this kitchen prowess I've heard about in action."

"Oh ye of little faith. Sure... come on up. It'll give you and Casey a chance to spend some time together too."

"Yeah... I'd thought of that. Besides, I'm looking forward to catching up with you and Liv. I miss you guys." She paused. "How's that going anyway?"

"Slowly," Alex confessed with a sigh. "But it's kind of nice. We're spending time together, learning about each other. Did you know Olivia had never ridden a carousel before? We saw Shakespeare in the park because we both did some summer theatre in college. We rode the Staten Island Ferry... just because it was a nice day. We played Frisbee and went to a jazz club and ate hot dogs on the corner in Times Square."

"Sounds wonderful, Alex."

"It has been, Abbie. As badly as I want things to move forward between us, I'm enjoying this time with her."

"So why aren't you moving things forward? I've never known you to hesitate when you had a target within your sights."

"I'm leaving it to Liv, Abbie. She's setting the pace this time."

"I always knew you were a closet romantic."

"And if you spread that around, I'll have to duct tape you to the bed, Carmichael."

"Oooh, Cabot - does Liv know you're so kinky?"

Red flamed Alex's face and Abbie's laughter made it worse. "Not talking to you anymore, Carmichael," she muttered.

"Ah, c'mon, Cabot. I think Liv might like to know this about you. She might enjoy it."

"As much as Casey will to know you're a bottom with a duct tape fetish?"

"You wouldn't... it's not even true!"

"Try me."

"You're no fun, Alexandra."

"Good of you to notice, Abigail. So what time Friday? Should we pick you up?"

"I don't want to mess up your plans, Alex. I can grab a cab and a hotel room and come over sometime Saturday."

"Time, Abbie." Alex's voice was firm and uncompromising.

"Did anyone ever tell you you're bossy?"

"Every single day - comes with being the boss. Now tell me when and where or I'll sic Liv on you. She's got a gun, you know."

"You really are kinky, Cabot. I'm taking the train up. If it runs on time I should be in Penn around seven."

"All right. We'll pick you up there and go out for dinner."

"Thanks, Alex."

"Anytime, Abbie. See you Friday."

"You have a bossy girlfriend, Benson."

Olivia laughed, causing every head in the bullpen to swing in her direction. "You've know Alex how long, Abbie? And you're just now figuring this out?"

"What can I tell you - I'm obviously slow," Abbie drawled. "Actually, I don't think I've ever had it turned in my direction before now. How do you put up with it?"

"Surprisingly, she's not bossy with me. In fact...." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully.

"Don't over think it, Benson. She's letting you set the pace."

Stunned silence. "She told you this?"

"Between gushing about how good things are going with the two of you and threatening me, yeah."

"I'd like to hear what brought on the threats."

"Maybe at dinner Friday."

"Dinner Friday sounds great. Anywhere in particular?"

"I figure you or Alex will do the choosing. I'm just along for the ride."

"I know that feeling." Muffled sounds over the phone. "Hey, Abbie - I've gotta go. Talk to you later?"

"See you Friday."

"Hey, Alex - what's up?" Casey asked, motioning the Bureau Chief into her office as she tucked the phone under her chin. She hung up with a click of her fingers then started pushing buttons.

"I can come back if you're busy," stopping when Casey shook her head.

"If you wait til I'm not busy, it might be years... or never."

Alex smiled and dropped gracefully into a seat in front of Casey's desk. "You're having that kind of week too, hmm? Must be something in the air," she added at the wry look Casey gave her. "I've had to threaten to get out the boots."

Casey laughed. "I heard. I'd pay good money to see that," she said, then held up her hand before Alex could respond. "I've got your warrant, but I've got to be in court in ten minutes." A pause. "All right, I'll...." She looked at Alex who was nodding at her. "I'll leave it with Alex. All right... bye." She shook her head. "Sorry... Judge Terhune is demanding my presence in court," she said, standing and gathering her files.

"Still getting payback for that poker game interruption, huh?" Alex chuckled at the befuddled look on Casey's face as she rose to her feet. "Like that wasn't one of the first things I heard about when I came back for the Conners' trial. It was a great tension breaker."

Casey smiled. "Glad to have contributed something good to that experience," holding out the warrant. "Thanks," motioning with a nod of her head. "Was there something I could do for you... a reason you stopped by, I mean?"

"Oh... yes - would you like to join us for dinner tomorrow night? Abbie's coming in and I thought we'd go have fondue or something. Nice way to unwind for the weekend."

"That sounds great, Alex. I'd love to."

"Wonderful. We'll pick you up around six-thirty." She glanced at her watch. "You better get a move on; you don't want Terhune to hit you with contempt... especially now. They all get bitchy around the holidays."

Casey snagged her briefcase and gestured Alex out the door in front of her. "You ever think about being a judge, Alex?"

"Is that your subtle way of telling me I'm bitchy, Novak?"

Casey colored, but held the blue eyes steadily, her green ones alight with laughter. "Not at all, Chief. But you've gotta admit that look could go a long way in a courtroom."

"So could a gavel, but I wouldn't be allowed to throw it at anyone, so what's the point?"

Casey didn't answer; just snorted and shook her head, waving as the elevator closed behind her. Alex took the stairs back up to her office, wondering who the warrant was for.

She didn't have to wonder long. She had barely settled into the chair behind her desk when a knock sounded on her door. "Yes?" The door opened and a dark head poked in. Alex's features creased into a warm smile and she stood and moved to greet the detective that crossed the threshold. Olivia didn't hesitate, but walked into Alex's arms and held her tightly for a long moment. Alex returned the embrace fiercely, only pulling back enough to look into Liv's eyes when the pressure eased slightly. She pushed dark hair from dark eyes and cupped Olivia's face. "Liv?"

Olivia turned her face towards Alex's hand, brushing a kiss over her palm and smiling at the slight shuddering she felt ripple through Alex's body. Then she leaned forward, taking Alex's hand in hers and cupping her other around the back of Alex's neck until their lips were just touching. Alex's eyes fluttered closed but Olivia didn't move any closer, waiting. A very long moment of utter stillness, and Alex surged forward, capturing Olivia's lips with unbridled passion. Liv smiled into the kiss, then focused on returning it wholeheartedly.

Slowly, Liv pulled back, moving her thumb to wipe away Alex's smeared lipstick with a smile. "So, dinner tonight?"

"Um hmm," Alex agreed dreamily. Olivia snatched the warrant from Alex's desk and dropped a kiss on her cheek before heading for the door.

"I'll pick you up at eight... and wear something sexy." Before Alex could respond, Liv was gone. Alex just shook her head. It was going to be an interesting night.

Well... thought Alex, it would have been an interesting night if it hadn't been for the phone call that had snatched Olivia away so early into their evening. Liv had picked her up promptly at eight, just like she'd promised; the look of desire and appreciation more than enough to make up for the time Alex had spent looking for an appropriately sexy outfit. Liv had leaned in for a kiss, deepening it for long moments and allowing her fingers to trail up Alex's bare back and sides and delighting in the shivers that followed her light touch. Then she pulled away and took Alex by the hand, leading her to the car before proceeding to drive them back across town to her own apartment. Alex's brows rose to her hairline in question, but Olivia remained tightlipped, simply escorting Alex to her door without a word.

When they reached the door, Olivia pulled them to a stop and gazed at Alex as though memorizing her outfit. Red come-fuck-me heels accented toned calves. The white dress, partially hidden by the now open coat was reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe's famous 'Seven Year Itch' costume, though this one had a red belt accenting the smallness of Alex's waist and the feminine flair of her hips. Liv reached out a hand to touch the material, only to discover that silk had nothing on Alex's smooth, pale skin. Her other hand dug into her pocket for an instant and it gave Alex the chance to once again be impressed just how amazing Olivia Benson looked in black.

There was her trademark leather jacket, of course. Her slacks were black - soft looking, though Alex couldn't distinguish the fabric on sight. The tight sweater she wore dipped low enough to give Alex more than a hint of tanned, toned cleavage and a good look at the inscribed pendant she'd had made for Olivia. It had been delivered just after.... Her thoughts trailed off and she briefly wondered what had happened to the other necklace - the pearl necklace identical to the one she wore that they'd exchanged early in their friendship. Hers had disappeared the night she'd been shot and she hadn't seen Olivia wear hers since that night.

Olivia reached for her hand and it brought Alex out of her musing just long enough to force a gasp from her lungs. In Liv's hand, dangling from between two fingers was an object she recognized, but had hardly dared hope to see again... especially not so soon after their reconciliation.

"It's been brought to my attention that I'm the one setting the pace in our relationship. So I thought I'd step it up a little bit," passing the key to Alex and watching her hand shake just slightly as she clasped it tightly.

"Are you sure, Liv?"

"I'm sure, Alex." She took her own key out and pushed the door open. What else she would have said was lost in Alex's exclamation.

The room was lit in candles, the light hint of cinnamon wafting through the air along with hints of garlic, basil, oregano and other spices which foretold the presence of Italian food in the vicinity. A small table in the corner was dressed for dinner in a manner akin to the poshest restaurants Alex had ever eaten in. A bottle of wine sat chilling in a bucket beside the table and soft music floated across the room subtly.

Alex turned an astounded look in Olivia's direction, but the detective merely blushed and shrugged. "I thought we'd eat in."

Alex didn't answer verbally. Instead, she closed the door firmly behind them and took Olivia's face in her hands before kissing her soundly. They hung their coats up then she allowed Liv to lead her to the table and seat her before bringing their food in from the kitchen.

Alex poured the wine and Olivia took a seat and they dug in with relish. Alex closed her eyes as the flavor hit her tongue and she moaned in ecstasy. "Luigi's?"

"Olivia's," Liv said with a grin and a wicked twinkle. Alex scrambled to finish swallowing without choking and dropped her jaw in surprise.

"Seriously?" watching Liv nod. "God, Liv... you're in the wrong line of work. I think we should chuck civil service and open a restaurant. We'd make a fortune."

Liv chuckled. "I take it you like it then?"

"If I didn't already love you, this would push me right over the line," Alex proclaimed, then stilled when she got a good look at Olivia's gobsmacked expression.

"You love me?"

"I never stopped, Liv. Despite everything, that was the one constant in my life... even if I was the only one who knew. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you."

"Never be sorry... not about that," Olivia instructed as she covered Alex's hand with her own. "Everything happens in its own time and way for a reason. As long as you promise to tell me every morning when we wake up and every night before we go to bed, I can let it slide," her smile teasing and beatific.

"Is that right, Detective?" Alex asked, her voice barely quavering. "And would this sentiment be exchanged or would it remain a one-sided conversation?"

"I think an exchange could be arranged if you were interested, Counselor."

"Oh... I most definitely am, Oli...." Her response was cut off by the imperative ringing of a cell phone and one look at Olivia's face made Alex realize it was important. "Work?" Liv nodded. "Go... I'll still be here when you get back."

Olivia rose and crossed to Alex's side, pushing the hair back over one ear and cupping her face tenderly. "I love you," she whispered, capturing Alex's lips for the briefest moment. Then she was up and out the door, barely stopping long enough to snatch her coat before closing the door soundly behind her.

Alex had cleaned up, placing the leftovers in the fridge and washing the dishes before blowing out most of the candles and stretching out on the couch with a moan. The music remained on low and without realizing it, Alex allowed herself to be lulled to sleep.

It was well after two am when Olivia crossed the threshold back into her apartment. She took one look at the beautiful blonde curled up on her couch and felt some of the exhaustion fall from her shoulders. She hung her coat up soundlessly, then went directly into the bathroom, running a hot shower and standing beneath it for several minutes. Then she scrubbed clean and dried off vigorously, shaking her head at the clothes now scattered on her bathroom floor. Hopefully Mrs. Rasmuten would be able to salvage them. God knew she was used to dealing with the kind of clothing issues Olivia brought to her by now - she had years of practice.

Liv slipped into a comfortable pair of lounge pants and a tank, scooping up her dirty clothes and towel and dumping them into the hamper before heading back into the living room. She knelt beside Alex, gently stroking her cheek and smiling as the fair lashes fluttered and the blue eyes opened.

"Hey, beautiful," Liv whispered. Alex caught her wandering hand and brought the fingers to her lips, brushing a light kiss over the tips.

"Hey gorgeous. You all right?" noting the sadness in the depths of the brown eyes she loved.

"I will be. Come to bed with me? Just to sleep," she added ruefully. "Despite my earlier plans and any current desire, I'm too damned tired for anything else."

"'Kay... love you," Alex murmured, remembering their agreement.

"Love you too," Olivia replied, kissing her forehead.

Alex tugged the hand she held and Olivia took the hint, standing and urging Alex to her feet with a tug. Then they made their way to Liv's bedroom, collapsing into one big tangle and dropping into sleep almost immediately. They never even realized when the sun came up.

Olivia woke up late, noticing immediately that the bed beside her was empty and the sheets were cold to the touch. She breathed in deeply, then smiled at the myriad of scents she detected - cinnamon, left from the candles; coffee; Alex and.... She hesitated, then sat up on one elbow, noticing the deep red blush of the rose and hearing the crinkle of paper. She lifted the flower to her nose with a silly grin and opened the paper, grin growing even wider as the faintest hint of jasmine wafted to her.

Liv, (it read)

You were sleeping so peacefully I didn't have the heart to wake you. I had to get to work, but I wanted you to know I love you. Have a good day and I'll see you around six-thirty. Maybe tonight we won't be too tired.

The Devil you know :-)

Olivia couldn't stop the blush that raced across her face. She reached for her phone and flipped it open, hitting the speed dial and waiting for it to be picked up on the other end. When it was answered, all she said was, "I love you too, Devil," then clicked it shut. There was work to do before night fell.

No one dared ask Alex Cabot about the sudden color that washed over her cheeks.

"I haven't been on a double date since I was fifteen years old," Abbie commented as she plopped onto the couch several hours after dinner. She laughed at the arched brow Alex cast in her direction, twisting the top of the beer Alex offered her and taking a big swig from the bottle. "I'd forgotten what it was like waiting for two horny teenagers to say goodnight before Mama started flashing the porch light."

Alex flushed. "We weren't that bad... were we?"

Abbie chuckled. "Maybe not quite, but you might want to consider jumping her bones sooner rather than later. I'm almost certain you two were close to breaking a few laws tonight."

"Jealous much?"

"Not at all. After ten minutes, I peeked. At fifteen, I checked again. If it had gone to twenty I was going to come ask for the keys."

Alex took a swallow from her own beer and slammed her head against the back of the couch. "She's making me crazy, Abbie."

"She must be doing something right, Cabot. You're practically glowing." Abbie cocked her head and grinned. "You're not pregnant, are you?"

Alex swung at her, landing the flat of her hand on Abbie's shoulder and nearly upsetting her beer. Abbie's grin turned to a glare before she chuckled at the outrage covering Alex's face.

"Um... no. But she gave me a key."

"That's fabulous, Alex."

Alex grinned. "Um hmm."

"So does that mean you've...?" waggling her hand.

"Not yet, but at least we're moving forward again."

"I thought patience was a virtue."

"I've been about as virtuous as I can stand. C'mon. I need cookies," standing and holding out her hand.

Abbie groaned. "How can you even think about food after all that fondue we just ate?"

"Do I need to remind you about the calories Liv and I were so recently burning?"

Abbie slammed her eyes shut and laid her hands over her ears. "I'm not listening. It was bad enough to be stuck there waiting."

Alex had the good grace to look penitent. "Sorry, Abbie...." trailing off when Abbie held up her hand.

"Alex, it's all right. I would've caught a ride with Casey instead if she hadn't gotten that call from Munch," Abbie confided as she rose and followed Alex down to the kitchen. "It would have given us a little time to catch up."

"Long distance is hard, hmm?"

"In some ways. But it's nice in others. It's really hard to rush into anything when you're hundreds of miles apart. We'll have to come to some sort of arrangement eventually, but for now, this is working for us. She's been amazingly patient and understanding." Brown eyes cut to blue as Abbie took a seat at the island at Alex's behest. "You two could probably form a club or something - you know... to lament the strain on your patience."

Alex chuckled. "Maybe we should work on ways to ease the strain. Better payoff for all involved."

Abbie just shook her head, chuckling at the truth of Alex's words. She wondered if she or Olivia would be the first to give in, faced with that kind of offensive. Then decided it wouldn't matter; the truth was exactly as Alex had just stated - they would all be winners in that scenario.

All Abbie was left to wonder was if she would ever be able to let go and allow herself that sort of happiness. Then she found her face cradled in Alex's surprisingly warm hands. She looked up with a questioning expression. Alex just smiled.

"Abbie... stop thinking so hard and just enjoy it. Being happy is not a bad thing."

"Keep reminding me, will ya?" slipping into the drawl that crept back into her words when she forgot to watch her pronunciation.

"For as long as it takes. Though I think Casey will be more than happy to take care of that little detail."

A smile lit up Abbie's whole face. "Probably. She's been so amazing, Alex."

"So you've said," Alex agreed with a smile as she removed the cookie dough from the fridge.

Abbie blushed and cleared her throat, desperate to change the subject. "So what's it like having a cop for a girlfriend?" Alex looked at her like she was nuts and Abbie continued. "She was never my girlfriend, despite any rumors to the contrary. I know you've seen her in danger... watched her walk into all sorts of unknowns, but it's got to be different now. It's personal... more than when you were friends."

"It was always personal, Abbie," Alex responded seriously. "The difference is now I can actually worry without people wondering why the hell I am taking it so personally. She's a cop, Abbie... one of the best. I would never ask her to be anything else. It's what she is, and I love her."


Alex slid the cookies into the oven and kept her back to Abbie for a long moment, taking a deep breath. "But I worry; always have, always will. Fortunately, I have a fabulous therapist who listens to me worry every week so Olivia doesn't have to."

"You can always call me too, you know."

"I know... and I appreciate it. Besides, she's hot... what with the leather and the gun...."

"Don't forget the handcuffs," Abbie drawled, waggling her eyebrows.

Alex's cheeks tinged pink and she shook her head. "I am so telling Casey about your fetish."

"You tell mine, I tell yours."

Alex hiked an eyebrow into her forehead, but couldn't stop the blush that colored her face. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Abbie snorted. "Yeah, right. C'mon, Cabot... why didn't you just invite her to stay the night? It's obvious you're nuts about her... and she is about you."

"She has, Abbie. And we will... when the time is right."


Alex groaned. "God I hope so." Abbie just chuckled.

"God, Alex... if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it," Abbie confessed as they sat down to the dinner table on Thanksgiving evening. "Even having watched you cook all week, I still wouldn't have believed you could pull this off."

Alex rolled her eyes in Abbie's direction and smirked. "I didn't do it on my own, Carmichael."

"Don't sell yourself short, Alexandra," Gerry cut in. "You took care of a majority of the preparation. I just did the turkey."

"I enjoyed it," Alex confessed.

"So did I," Casey commented as she placed her napkin in her lap. "Thank you for allowing me to be a part, Alex. I haven't had this much fun at Thanksgiving since I left Virginia."

Gerry and Jason joined hands then as a matter of course and Alex took Jason's hand in one of hers and extended her other to Abbie. Abbie blinked then placed her palm in Alex's and took Casey's hand with her other. Casey met Gerry's across the table, pointedly ignoring the empty place at the end of the table. They looked at one another, then Alex bowed her head.

"For the good friends that surround us and the food before us on the table, we are most truly grateful."

"Amen," came a voice from the doorway, and those gathered at the table looked up at Olivia Benson, standing in the doorway holding a bouquet. She stepped into the room and walked around to brush her lips over Alex's cheeks. "Sorry I'm late," offering Alex the flowers she held. Alex accepted them with a smile, bringing them to her nose. Then she put them in the vase Gerry had made appear from thin air, standing and setting them on the sideboard before wrapping her arms around Olivia's neck.

"Everything okay?"

Liv chuckled. "Yeah. Caught a weird-ass case just as Fin and I were getting ready to shut it down for the day."

"Define weird-ass," Casey spoke, causing all heads to turn her direction. Olivia gave Alex a final squeeze, then seated her again before moving to her chair at the other end of the table.

"Let's eat before it gets cold. I promise to share - a few minutes won't change the weird factor." By tacit agreement, they dug into the food while it was still hot. Conversation would wait until hunger was sated.

"... so as soon as they saw him in ass-less chaps with a red lace thong, they called us. Man was drunk off his ass, crying like a baby by the time we got there."

"Was it a sex crime?"

Olivia snorted. "No. But you wouldn't believe the crap we had to sort through first to ensure it wasn't. And there was no way I was coming over without a shower first after that." Alex, Abbie and Casey looked amused; Gerry and Jason were a little more confused.

"Is your work always this interesting, Detective?"

"No. I wish it was." A pensive silence fell then and Gerry shook her head. "I'm sorry, Olivia. I didn't mean to cast a pall over the meal. I've just never heard such stories before."

"Not your fault, Gerry. It's not like I tell that many stories about my work - this one was just funny for a change... especially watching the guys' reaction to this guy and his <ahem> gear."

"Well, on that note, would anyone like dessert?"

It hadn't been early, but it certainly wasn't late when Abbie left with Casey to see her home for the night. Gerry and Jason had long ago finished the remainder of the clean-up and retired to the room Alex had furnished according to Gerry's wishes. That left Olivia and Alex alone upstairs and without a word, Liv took Alex's hand in hers and led them to the conservatory.

"Play something for me?" she asked as she seated Alex at the piano.

Alex ran her fingers over the keys. "What would you like to hear?"

"I'd like to hear you play."

Alex smiled and let her exercise morph into music with depth and feeling, trying to show Olivia what she felt and saw when she looked at her. She held Olivia's gaze, smiling when she saw the realization dawn in Liv's dark eyes. When she was done, Olivia extended a hand and pulled Alex to her and they danced to a tune only the two of them could hear.

Liv leaned forward and captured Alex's lips, smiling when Alex tightened her arms around Olivia's neck, pulling them closer together. She let her arms slip further down Alex's body, hands curving over the curve of her ass and drawing a moan from deep within Alex's chest. For her part, Alex curled her hands into Olivia's hair, crushing their lips more firmly into one another.

When they parted for air, Liv rubbed her nose against Alex's with a smile. "I think we should take this upstairs," she commented softly.

Alex didn't answer - she just took Liv's hand and led her from the music room and up the stairs to the master suite. When they reached the door, she turned to Liv with a question in her eyes but before she could give them voice, Liv covered her lips with her fingers.

"I'm sure, Alex. It's past time. It's what we both want."

"What changed your mind?" wondering what else Olivia had seen at work that day.

"Life's too short - we deserve to take whatever happiness we can find together."

Alex kissed Olivia, letting her hands card through soft, dark strands as she deepened the kiss. Liv's hands clenched at her waist, then let one trace up Alex's chest, fingering the buttons open one at a time before sliding the soft material from Alex's shoulders. She pulled her lips from Alex's, letting them trail up Alex's jawline and then down her neck, absorbing the shivers and moans with a satisfied smile. Not to be outdone, Alex tugged the sweater from Olivia's slacks, scraping her nails along sensitive skin and grinning at the reaction her touch elicited.

"Maybe we should move this into the bedroom?" Liv asked, even as she snapped the front clasp of Alex's bra open, cupping the freed breasts and rubbing her thumbs over taut nipples. Alex forced their lips together again, tongue delving into the recesses of Olivia's mouth, trying to discover every secret the woman held while loosening the clasp of Liv's bra.

When skin finally met skin, Olivia twisted the knob and opened the door, pushing Alex in first and following her inside, edging Alex towards the bed. "I plan on taking my time, Alex. I'm not going to stand in the hallway."

Without warning, Alex spun them around, knocking Olivia onto the oversized king bed. She leaned over and unbuttoned the slacks Liv was still wearing, sliding them down long legs and admiring her handiwork as well as the black lace covering Liv's modesty before slipping off her own pants and straddling Liv's hips. Then she gave Olivia a truly devilish smile.

"Me first, Detective."

Olivia cupped Alex's face in her hands, stopping Alex's touch before it became intimate. "I love you, Alex," the tenderness causing tears to pool in the blue eyes above her. Alex's smile became genuine.

"Oh, Liv... I love you - so much."

Olivia threaded her hands into Alex's blonde locks and tugged gently, bringing their lips together once more. This time, there was no hesitation and no hurry. And when they lay together later, sated and covered in a sheen of sweat, kisses lazy and touches more soothing than stimulating Alex hugged Olivia tighter to her.

"Thank you."

Liv lifted her head slightly and looked into Alex's eyes. "For?"

But Alex just shook her head and brushed a kiss over Olivia's forehead. "So much." She blew out a breath. "You make my life amazing."

"Ditto, sweetheart. Thank you for coming home to me."

"Thank you for letting me in again." She waited for Liv to put her head back down and resume her stroking before she spoke again. "Um... we don't have to wait for another five years before we do this again, do we?"

Olivia laughed and the sound made Alex's heart nearly burst. "Oh Alex... you'll be lucky if I let you out of this bed for the next five years. I plan on a repeat of tonight as often as I can have one."

"In that case, Detective...." Alex rolled them over until she was covering Liv's body with her own. That was the last of the conversation between them until the sun came up again.

"Alex, you got a minute?"

Alex sat back in her chair and regarded the woman looking at her from the doorway before motioning Casey inside. "Sure, Casey," gesturing to the chairs in front of her. "What's up?" Casey took the proffered seat and glanced around the office before allowing her eyes to settle on Alex's face though she still didn't speak. "Casey?" her voice becoming concerned. Alex took her glasses off and brought the arm to her lips.

Casey took a deep breath. "Alex, how serious are you about setting up a foundation for victims?" It had been part of their conversation after dinner the previous evening, but it had mostly been thoughts and ideas discussed between friends... nothing too concrete.

"I'm still making some private inquiries, but I'm serious about doing something. I've been a victim, Casey. I hated the way it made me feel. I'd like to do something to make a difference to others who have been - those have suffered worse than I ever did."

"I want to help."

"Sure, Casey. That'd be great. As soon as I...."

Casey shook her head. "No, Alex. I want in on the ground floor." She inhaled, swallowing the yawn she so desperately wanted to let loose. "My father is a Federal Judge in Virginia and he has connections I think I could use to help make this a national project if you're interested."

Alex sat up and leaned her elbows on the desk in front of her. "That would be fabulous, Casey. But I still don't have a clear idea of what I want to do or how to accomplish it; how are you going to get people involved?"

Casey yawned then smiled. "You let me worry about that. As for the rest... maybe we could work on it together." She looked around again. "It sure is quiet around here today."

Alex chuckled. "I know... it's kind of nice. Perk of a half-day." She paused. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure... I don't guarantee to answer."

"Fair enough." Alex cleared her throat. "Why?"


Alex nodded. "You stand up for the victims... try to find justice for them, but you've never been a victim yourself... not like this. I'm just curious about your motivation."

"Do I need more than that?"

"No... but I think there's more."

Casey sighed. "There is." She sat silently, wondering if Alex would push. She didn't have to wait long.

"You want to share?"

"I like Abbie, Alex... I really do. And I really want to try make things work with her. I think the only way we have a chance to do that is for us to be in the same place like most couples, you know? Where we can have lunch occasionally and set up a date without having to make a plane reservation and take vacation time off to do it first."

Alex nodded. "I know - believe me, I know. But Casey... have you talked to Abbie about this? Does she know...?"

Casey smiled again as she nodded. "She knows. We spent most of the night talking about it."

"What about your job with SVU?" Alex propped an elbow on the desk and leaned her head on it, watching Casey's response carefully.

Casey sighed and rose from her seat, moving to the window that overlooked the street. "I feel like I've done all I can do here, Alex. Some days... I don't think I'm doing any good at all. I feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall. It'd be nice to be able to see something positive come from my work for a change - something for victims like you that got justice and victims like Abbie... who didn't."

Alex blinked. "Casey, you're a fabulous prosecutor with a great conviction rate. Do you really think a replacement could be found that would do as well? Or have your passion for success?" She paused and replayed Casey's words. "Is this about what happened to Abbie?"

Casey wrapped her arms around her middle, green eyes reflecting a myriad of emotions. "Is it wrong that I want to change my focus, Alex? Am I being selfish?"

"No... you're being human, Casey. I'd be glad to have you as a partner on this project."

Casey grinned. "Thanks, Alex. You won't be sorry."

"I know I won't. When do you want to get started?"

"I'll go ahead and start making some calls. I won't leave SVU hanging without an ADA, so I need to make sure there is a replacement ready to step into the job before I step out. But I think by March everything should be in place."

Alex nodded. "Let's get together after the weekend. We'll sit down and come up with a business plan and a workable timeline."

"Sounds good - thanks, Alex." Casey went to the door and turned with her hand on the knob. "By the way... congratulations." Alex tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in question. "You have the look of a woman fulfilled." She laughed at the blush that rose up Alex's face. "Don't worry, Alex - it looks good on you both."

"Goodbye, Casey." Casey chuckled but took the hint and headed back to her office.

"That's quite a change from just a few days ago, Abbie. Are you sure?" Liv asked as they walked through Central Park. It was cold, but Abbie had asked, and it sure beat fighting the crowds shopping on Black Friday. "I thought you liked being long-distance - not as much commitment."

Abbie shrugged. "I'm a little nervous - I haven't really been in a relationship... not like this... in forever. But she's willing to give up her whole life here to try. It's kind of hard to say no... especially when she swears it would make her happy. It would be nice to be able to go out when we'd like to without having to book a flight first. Besides, it's not like she's moving in with me. This is just about giving us a real chance, and I'd really like that."

"What changed your mind?"

"Alex did. She told me not to be afraid to be happy."

Olivia looped her arm through Abbie's before returning her hand to her pocket. "Then I'm happy for you, Abbie... happy for you both. You deserve to be happy." She stopped, pulling Abbie to a halt along with her. "Waitaminute - you're taking our ADA!"

Abbie chuckled and tugged on Liv's arm until they were moving again. "Yes, but not right this minute. It will probably be at least a couple months or so. She still has to find a job, though that shouldn't be a problem with her experience. And she needs a place to live - I've promised to help with that as soon as she decides what she wants. And I know there are plenty of loose ends she'll have to take care of here as well - cases to wrap up and a replacement to find among other things. It's not public knowledge though, Liv... we just talked about it last night. She hasn't even updated her resume yet."

Olivia zipped her lips. "Consider my lips sealed, Abbie."

"She's going to talk to Alex this morning. She really wants to be involved in that victim's foundation Alex was talking about yesterday."

"I'm sure Alex will be glad to have her be part of it. Casey has a lot to offer, both from a victim's point of view and as a victim's advocate."

"Does Alex know Casey was a victim, Liv?"

Olivia blinked. "I don't know. It's common knowledge to anyone that was here then, but Alex was back in Witness Protection when it happened. So unless Casey's told her or Alex did some research...." She looked at Abbie. "Did Casey tell you the whole story?"

Abbie nodded. "It was one of the things that convinced me that I could go ahead and let this happen. She understands. It's not just pity or curiosity on her part. She understands, but she hasn't let it stop her from living or feeling or being. I could learn a lot from her. And she's willing to be patient with me while I do."

"Sounds like a keeper to me, Carmichael."

"At least it didn't take me years to figure it out, Benson," Abbie smirked, then glared when Olivia punched her shoulder. "Ow! Don't damage the merchandise, Detective! Just because the truth hurts...." She winced when Liv pulled her fist back again. Olivia snorted and put her hand back in her pocket.

"At least we finally figured it out."

"Better late than never, Liv," Abbie said softly. "It looks really good on you both."

"Feels pretty damn good too."

"So when are you making it official?"

Liv sputtered. "Abbie!!"

"What? C'mon, Liv… you two have been dancing around each other for years. No one is going to accuse you of moving too fast."

"Abbie, we've just become lovers. I would kind of like to enjoy that for a little while first."

"You're impossible, you know that?"

"What? What?? Abbie!!"

Saturday evening the townhouse was decorated from top to bottom and people were arriving at the door regularly, creating quite a mixed group. Olivia had taken up her station at the door, greeting people and taking their coats, then ushering them in to the next room where Alex was. No one questioned Olivia's right to do so - those who had been invited to this particular housewarming were well aware of the place Olivia had long held in Alex's heart and life. Most wondered why nothing formal had been announced yet - for many of them this affair had been going on for years. Still, they figured this was a step in the right direction.

Elliot, of course, had to comment.

"So... does this mean we can expect wedding bells soon? Or should I just call U-Haul?" Kathy reached up and smacked his head before Olivia could even react. Elliot swung his head in her direction and glared even as he covered the back of his head. "What??" he whined. "C'mon, Kath...."


"Don't mind him, Olivia. I'll set him straight."

"Don't you mean...?"

"Shut up, Elliot," they chorused. They exchanged smirks and Kathy guided Elliott further into the townhouse.

Liz Donnelly followed the Stablers, shaking her head at Elliot's obtuseness. "Good evening, Detective."

"Your Honor."

"Liz, please. We're all friends here tonight, right?"

"Of course," taking Liz's coat. "Alex is...." breaking off when Liz laid a hand on her arm. She looked at the judge with a question in her dark eyes.

"Alex is a very lucky woman, Olivia. Thank you for bringing her back to us." Liv cocked her head and frowned, and Liz sighed. "The woman who returned from Witness Protection was not Alex Cabot. The woman who accepted the Bureau Chief's position and was engaged to Robert Sheldon was not Alex Cabot. The real Alex Cabot only recently returned to those of us who knew her before. She came home when you became a part of her life again… and you let her be a part of yours. It's nice to have her back."

Liv smiled, though Liz could see the hint of tears in her eyes. "For me too." Liz patted her arm, then moved into the house to find Alex.

Munch, Fin and Cragen arrived together, and none of them made a single comment about Olivia's presence as a hostess. "Well, that was weirder than a box of rocks," Liv commented to herself… only to find George Huang and his partner standing right behind her. "Oops... sorry, doc, Charlie. Didn't realize you were there," taking their coats and greeting them together.

"No problem, Olivia. What's so weird?"

"George...." the other man admonished.

"It's all right," Liv commented with a smile. "You can't turn off being a cop either. It was just odd that, except for Elliot who never misses an opportunity to rag on me, the guys didn't say a word about me playing co-hostess or something. Seems like everyone else, including Jack McCoy and Serena Southerlyn neither of whom who I really know, is waiting for me to whip out a ring and a proposal."

"Probably because they like seeing you happy for a change. The rest probably are just glad to see the changes you've brought to Alex. Don't worry... I imagine they'll start ragging sooner or later if just to watch you blush."

"Yes, Detective," Munch said from over her shoulder as he passed her a drink. "Give us a chance... I'm sure we can come up with something."

Liv groaned. "That's what I'm afraid of." A knock on the door turned her attention back to her duties. "Saved by the bell. You should go see your hostess."

"I thought we were," Munch said drolly before he, Huang and Charlie moved further into the house to make way for the people coming in behind them.

"Detective Benson."

"Mr. and Mrs. Branch. Please... come in," she invited as she took their coats.

"I'm glad to see you here, Detective," Arthur commented. Olivia cocked her head at him. His wife huffed warningly.

"Arthur...." He held up his hand and she shook her head before moving into the other room. He chuckled.

"She thinks it's none of my business."

"Is it?" Liv asked frankly.

"Detective, you caused one of my best prosecutors cum Bureau Chiefs to risk termination because of her feelings for you. A prosecutor who was known as the Ice Princess during her tenure as an ADA. So while it may not technically be my business what has happened between the two of you, it is my business that she is focused on her job once more. This has been years coming - it's kind of nice to see it to fruition."

"Well at least you're not demanding a ring and a proposal."

Branch chuckled. "I figure that will come in time. For now, you're both happy, and that's enough for me."

"Wow, Alex... this place is amazing," Robert commented sometime later. "The wall art in the conservatory is fabulous. I want the name of your artist."

Her eyes drifted over to Olivia, currently holding court with Jo, Blair, Abbie and Casey. She wondered what they were discussing that had them all laughing, then turned back to Robert when he put his hand on her arm. "Oh, um... sorry, Robert. You were saying?"

"Not a thing that won't wait until later, Alex." He chuckled. "It's good to see you happy."

She accepted the hug he offered, brushing a light kiss across his cheek. "It's good to be that way."

"Should I be worried?" Olivia asked as she walked up behind Alex, only to find her arms full of blonde Bureau Chief. Robert laughed as Alex wrapped her arms around Olivia and Liv's arms automatically wound around Alex.

"I don't think so, Detective," Robert replied, lifting his hands in surrender. "I think everyone here knows who Alex belongs to... and with. I was just congratulating her on her happiness, and trying to dig out the name of the artist that created the wall art in the other room."

"Olivia does possessive very well, doesn't she?" Trevor Langan asked idly as he came up beside Jo. Abbie chuckled.

"Oh, I don't know… Cabot was doing a pretty good imitation herself."

"They make a striking couple, don't they?" They watched as Robert walked away laughing and shaking his head, then Alex and Olivia began walking the room, greeting people together.

"Yeah," Jo finally answered quietly. "It's really good to see."

"Thanks, Alex," Munch said with a courtly bow as he donned his hat. "It was a nice party. Can't wait to see what you do for an encore." He waggled his eyebrows and Fin shook his head as he pushed Munch out the door ahead of him. Alex laughed as she closed the door behind them and went back to join her remaining guests.

"That was fun," Alex commented as she dropped onto the arm of the chair that Olivia was sitting in.

"That was exhausting," Liv groaned. "I think everyone was waiting for an announcement." Alex's brow furrowed and she tilted her head at Olivia. "They expected a ring and a proposal. Elliot even offered to call U-Haul for us."

Alex's brows flew into her hairline. "Excuse me?? A U-Haul?? When did we become headline gossip for our friends and colleagues??"

"You rushing to my defense when we weren't even speaking probably started it," Liv answered wryly, smiling when the color flushed up Alex's face. She covered Alex's hands. "I wouldn't change it if it meant we wouldn't be here now, Alex. But it was a little disconcerting coming from everyone we know."

"Well, that explains John's comment just now."

"Well, I for one enjoyed your housewarming party, Alex," Blair confessed as she prepared drinks for the group. Alex had shooed Gerry off as the party was winding down as she hadn't been able to keep the housekeeper from directing the caterers during it. "Quite an array of people. Did I see Miranda...?"

"Priestly? Yes - she's an old acquaintance and now a near neighbor. And she is interested being part of the new charity effort," Alex added with a look at Casey. Casey nodded.

"This is going to be quite an undertaking once we get started."

"It's for a good cause," Blair commented. "That helps - people want to get involved. Robert said something to me - he seems like a nice enough guy."

"He is," Olivia surprisingly agreed. She looked at the stunned expressions on everyone's face... except Alex's. "What?" she asked innocently, then chuckled as she wrapped an arm firmly around Alex's waist. "I can afford to be magnanimous - I got the girl."

Alex dropped her arm around Olivia's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "Damn straight," waggling her eyebrows. There were snorts from across the room, but they didn't hear them, lost in the kiss Olivia had initiated at Alex's words.

"Not exactly," Liv replied with a smirk, licking her lips in pleasure. Then she ducked the swing Alex took at her head. "Hey!! Assault on a police officer!" She looked around the room. "You're all witnesses!!"

"Save it, Benson!" Abbie snarked with a chuckle. "We can see how much you're enjoying the <ahem> abuse."

Olivia looked around the room, seeing nothing but indulgent smirks reflected back at her. She glared at Jo. "Et tu, Jo?"

"You can't dispute the evidence, Detective. You should know that."

"I hate you all."

"That's okay, Liv. We love you anyway."

"That was a lot of fun," Blair said to Jo as they entered their own townhouse some time later. "And poor Olivia."

Jo snorted. "That was funny," taking both their coats and hanging them in the closet before taking Blair's hand in hers and leading them upstairs. "But you're right - it was a lot of fun. Interesting mix of people, and there were some serious power players there. I have to wonder if Liv had any idea what she was getting into when she and Alex got together."

Blair went into the bathroom and started removing her make-up. Jo stopped at the dresser to take off her jewelry. "Probably as much as you did, honey," Blair called out. "In fairness I think Alex was probably more aware than any of the rest of us really were, given her work with Special Victims and her tenure in Witness Protection. I am glad she and Olivia have finally acknowledged what was between them - it's good to see them happy... especially Olivia. I don't think she's seen much happiness in her life."

"I don't think she has either," Jo said, unwilling to betray Olivia's confidences even to Blair. Instead she took Blair in her arms as she exited the bathroom. "But I have a good feeling about them; I think they may be as lucky as we are."

"I hope so," Blair said, stealing a kiss that Jo deepened, sliding her hands under the silk pajamas Blair had donned. "I think everyone should be as happy as we are," she added as she unbuttoned the shirt Jo wore.

"Well, I may be reading the signals wrong, but I think Casey and Abbie may be...." stopping when Blair's fingers covered her lips.

"We can talk about Casey and Abbie later. For now, I want you to concentrate on the signals I'm sending you. Got it?" pushing the shirt off Jo's shoulders. Jo nodded fervently, her green eyes going wide when Blair's hands started trailing up her torso. Blair smiled at the reaction. "Good," she declared, then they fell into a silence that was only broken by the sighs and moans that accompanied their lovemaking.

"I hate that you have to leave tomorrow," Casey said softly as she and Abbie sat curled up on opposite ends of Casey's couch sharing a bottle of wine. "It's been great having you here."

"It's been great being here," Abbie assured Casey with a smile. "Are you really sure you want to give all this up? I mean... DC's nice, but it's no Manhattan."

"Says the girl from Texas," Casey grinned. Abbie stuck out her tongue, causing them both to chuckle. Then Casey sobered. "I'm sure about this, Abbie... as sure as I can be about anything." She slid across the couch until she was sitting next to Abbie. "I think I can really do something with this charity foundation - it's a new challenge and I need that."

"Problems at SVU?"

"Not exactly - too much politics in the DA's office. Seems like I spend as much time defending myself to my colleagues as I do prosecuting sex offenders. And sometimes I feel like I'm getting too complacent. It's reaching the point where the victims are all becoming case numbers instead of individuals, and I don't want that. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that the victims are people." She paused and held the brown eyes that were watching her so seriously. "I'd like to make a difference I can see... at least for a little while. It's not like I'm giving up the law forever; I just need a break from it. I'm still licensed in Virginia, in fact," smiling when Abbie's eyebrows shot into her hairline.

"Are you really?"

"Oh yeah... Daddy insisted. I think he had visions of me joining the firm so he could retire."

"Ah... a darksider, hmm?"

Casey laughed. "Yep. He almost had a coronary when he found out I was moving to Manhattan... especially to work in the DA's office. First there was the damn Yankee thing to contend with and then the fact that I was becoming a prosecutor - he nearly disowned me. Mom talked him out of it."

"How does he feel about you moving back to Virginia?"

"He doesn't know yet - I haven't told either of my folks yet. I want to have something concrete to tell them… and have my own place first. I love my mother, but if I give her half a chance...." rolling green eyes dramatically, causing Abbie to laugh.

"I know - you've met my mama, remember."

Casey laughed. "I knew she seemed familiar - must be a mom thing."

"Must be." She hesitated and then stood, watching Casey follow her up smoothly. "I should be going. I still need to pack and...."

"Stay." Casey reached out and clasped Abbie's hand, keeping her grip light to allow Abbie to pull away if she wanted to. "We don't have to do anything except sleep, but I'd really like you to stay."

Abbie linked their fingers together and let her other hand trace Casey's face, smiling when Casey leaned into the touch. "Would it make you happy?"

"Yeah, it would."

Abbie smiled shyly and looked at Casey through her lashes. "Me too."

Casey tugged lightly on the hand she still held, leading Abbie into her bedroom and closing the door behind them.

Olivia was laying on her back, eyes unfocused and lips pursed when Alex stepped from the bathroom. Without a word, Alex crossed the room and crawled into bed, wrapping her arms around Liv's body when she put her head on Alex's chest. Liv's eyes closed in contentment and she breathed out slowly when Alex brushed a kiss over her hair, willing herself to relax.

"You all right?" Alex asked, sensing the tenseness in the body she held.

Olivia hesitated before answering, wanting to give it due consideration and still reply honestly. She sighed, blowing warm breath over Alex's chest, smiling at the trail of goosebumps she'd created. "Mostly," Liv finally said. "I just never expected so much commentary on our personal lives. I've never been a headliner before... not like this anyway."

Alex smiled, something Olivia could hear in her tone of voice. "I doubt you'll be a headliner at One Police Plaza anytime soon. The guys know how to keep a secret and the DA's office has been known to keep their mouths closed occasionally. Besides, these are our friends - I don't think they'd deliberately do anything to put either of us in danger."

"What about page six?" referring to the Times' infamous celebrity gossip page.

"Well, as long as we don't do anything to bring attention to ourselves, they won't have anything to report. That doesn't mean I think we should stay in the closet, but until and unless we're ready to go public, I see no reason for waving a rainbow flag and becoming poster children for a cause." She paused. "Right now, I want to focus on what is good and right for us. And I don't think that means moving in together after the first date."

Liv grinned and tilted her head up to peer at Alex's profile. "So we're breaking the U-Haul rule?"

"Damn straight," Alex replied with a smirk before turning and reaching towards her nightstand. "However, that doesn't mean I don't think you shouldn't have this," holding out a box to Olivia.

Liv accepted the box with an inquiring expression, but Alex just cocked an eyebrow at her. Olivia shifted until she was sitting up slightly and opened the box, smiling when she recognized the key. "Are you sure, Alex?"

"Yep," came the casual answer. "Fair is fair, Detective. I believe one day... maybe sooner, maybe later... we'll discuss the U-Haul and its implications in all its disputable glory. For now, it's enough to know the guardian angel that holds the key to my heart has a key to my house as well."

"That was incredibly corny, Counselor," Liv stated, though her eyes twinkled and the corners of her mouth twitched in amusement.

"Yeah, but it still made you smile."

Olivia couldn't argue with the truth of that statement. Cautiously, she placed the key on the nightstand on her side of the bed, then rolled over and took Alex in her embrace. "Tonight was a lot of fun. You have an interesting mix of friends."

"We have an interesting mix of friends. I have a feeling we'll be invited to a number of holiday parties together after tonight. Fortunately, they're mostly private affairs, and we don't have to go to any we don't feel like."

"You know what I feel like at the moment?" Liv asked, nuzzling her lips against Alex's neck and smiling at the goosebumps that followed her touch. Alex arched her back as those lips found the sensitive spot behind her ear. Then she ran her hands through Olivia's hair, pulling Liv's lips from her earlobe and forcing their eyes to meet.

"If it's anything close to what I'm thinking, we won't be sleeping anytime soon."

If Olivia had planned a retort, she never had a chance to say, because Alex claimed her lips and speech was the last thing on her mind. And sleep was a very long time in coming... not that either of them were complaining about it.

"Looks like you had a good weekend," Casey commented as Olivia entered her office Monday afternoon. Liv's smile told enough of a story and Casey stuck out her tongue. "I don't want to hear it," she grouched as Olivia flopped into one of the visitor's chairs.

"Missing Abbie already, are you?"

"It's not supposed to be like this, is it? We just started dating, and most of that has been over the phone or through email. Is it normal to miss someone you're just starting to know this much?"

"How much?" Olivia asked softly.

Casey sighed and looked out the window as she leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest as though to protect herself from her own words and thoughts. "Like part of me is missing." She glanced at Olivia, not surprised to see compassionate brown eyes on her. "That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?"

"Not at all," Liv said softly. "It sounds like you're falling in love, Casey. Are you ready for that?"

Casey snorted. "Is anybody ever... really? Were you?"

Liv shook her head. "I fought long and hard against it, and now I wonder why I did."

"Happy, then?" The bright smile was its own answer. "So," Casey went on when it became clear Liv had said all she was going to. "What brings you to my lair?"

Before Olivia could open her mouth to respond, the phone gave two short rings, indicating an internal call. Casey frowned, then picked it up - usually her assistant answered it before it got to her when she had someone in her office. She managed to say hello before the voice on the end cut her off, barking out a quick order and hanging up. Casey re-cradled the receiver and looked at Olivia. "Was there something you needed, Detective?" returning their conversation to a professional level.

"Nothing that can't wait, Counselor. Everything all right?"

Casey shrugged and rose, motioning Olivia out the door ahead of her. "Guess I'll know soon enough. I've been called to Branch's office."

Liv winced. "I'll keep my fingers crossed."

"Thanks. I'll take whatever good luck I can get at this point." She pressed the 'up' button for the elevator. Liv waved and headed for the stairwell. Casey watched her go and bit her lip as she waited for the elevator, wondering why she was being summoned.

Arthur Branch held the door for her as she approached his office, and closed it behind her after she entered. Then he motioned her to a seat and took his place behind the desk, glaring at something that rested on top before turning the force of that glare on her.

"Would you like to explain this to me Ms Novak?" knowing by tone and the address he was furious about something. Then he held up the papers to which he was referring and she understood his ire. "Your resignation? Casey... what are you thinking? You're one of the finest prosecutors in this office. If you think I'm going to let you go without a fight or at least a lot of discussion and explanation, you've got another thing coming."

Casey blinked. It was a little flattering, honestly, to know the big boss thought so highly of her. But it was also a little disconcerting - she had only tendered the resignation earlier this morning and not only should it not have reached his desk this quickly, it was dated for almost three months hence.

"C'mon Casey... talk to me here. What's going on? McCoy giving you grief or something?"

Although Jack McCoy was one of her least favorite people in the DA's office and Casey had no desire to work with or for the man, she also wasn't prone to hearing Arthur Branch question his golden-haired boy. She shook her head.

"It has nothing to do with Jack McCoy or the DA's office, Arthur. I just... I need something different right now."

"You want out of Special Victims? White Collar or maybe Major Cases?"

"Not exactly. I still want to work for victims, just in a different way. Being part of this new trust will give me a chance to make a difference to people... not just case numbers." She watched his eyes narrow and hastened to explain. "I need to do this... for me. Before I lose my compassion."

He punched the speakerphone. "Barbara, get me Alex Cabot... in my office now!" Branch turned back to Casey. "I don't think that could ever happen, Casey. You're one of the most compassionate people I know."

"Maybe," she agreed half-heartedly. "But I don't feel that way... not any more." She smiled. "Besides, it's not like I'm leaving tomorrow."

"And thank God for that," he stated. "This doesn't have anything to do with a certain former ADA who now works in Washington, DC?" he asked knowingly, then broke off at the sound of a light tap on his door. "Enter."

Alex Cabot stepped across the threshold, her hesitation at seeing Casey sitting in front of Arthur Branch barely noticeable. Instead she crossed to stand behind the empty chair and looked at him diffidently. "Something I can do for you, Arthur?"

He gestured to the chair and waited for her to sweep into the seat before resuming his earlier glare. "Yes, Alexandra. You can stop trying to swipe one of my best ADAs away from me!"

Alex grinned. "I'm not swiping anyone, Arthur. Casey is my partner in this venture, not my underling. And she's perfectly capable of making her own decisions without any undue influence on my part."

He glanced between them and sighed. "It's a damn good thing the two of you are on my side most of the time. I have a feeling you'd be a formidable team if you ever decided to create your own law firm and switch sides to play for the defense. As it is, I think victims will be losing a wonderful advocate when you leave, Casey." He turned to Alex. "Should I expect your resignation soon as well?"

"I haven't decided yet," Alex replied honestly, "though I think there will be some sort of leave of absence in the near future so we can get this organization off the ground." He nodded. "And for the record, I think victims will have a stronger advocate than ever."

Branch glowered. "You know what I meant, Alexandra."

"We both did, Arthur," Casey broke in. "But please don't discount the amount of good we can do outside these walls. There are any number of willing up and comers who can learn to do the job, and some who will care as much or even more than I have. But Alex has latched on to something good... something unique... and I'm looking forward to being a part of it from the start."

Branch sighed again, but shook his head with gentle reluctance. "I understand that, Casey. Doesn't mean I'm not going to grumble and complain about losing good people - whatever the reason." He rose and they followed his example. "I will accept this under duress, with the understanding that the door will always be open for you if you decide to return." Casey nodded, a smile firmly on her face, though her eyes were filled with happy tears she refused to let fall. "And you," he continued, turning towards Alex, "I feel like I'm making a deal with the Devil about this. But if you need anything, let me know. I know you're in the beginning stages, but this sounds like a good project - something the wife and I would like to be part of."

"Absolutely," Alex agreed, allowing Arthur to open the door. She crossed the threshold, waiting for Casey to follow, a little surprised that Branch had stopped her with a simple upraised hand.

"Casey, I know you've given yourself three months to wrap things up, but if it looks like you're running out of time or you need help, let us know."

Casey put her hand in his briefly. "Thanks, Arthur."

Then she and Alex headed back to their offices.

"Hey, you got a minute?" Alex asked as they waited for the elevator to arrive again.

"Sure," Casey said as she mentally ran through her schedule. "What's up?"

For answer, Alex shook her head, merely leading them onto the elevator and pressing the button for her floor. Casey took the hint and held her tongue, waiting until they entered Alex's office and the door was closed. She followed Alex to the small couch and took a seat beside her.

"Alex?" Casey prompted, curling her legs under her and leaning her head on the arm propped along the back of the couch.

Alex ran a hand through her hair, somehow managing not to muss it. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked sincerely without accusing. Casey gave her a confused look. Alex sighed. "Why didn't you tell you me you had been a victim... when we were talking the other day? Did you... were you...?" She stopped speaking when Casey held up her hand and waited.

"It had nothing to do with you, Alex, and nothing to do with my victimization because of this job. It's not exactly at the top of my conversation list. The reasons I gave you for wanting to be involved in this project were the truth - I want to be near Abbie to give us a chance and I need a change before I lose my compassion for people. What happened to me - I will never forget what it feels like to be a victim but I refuse to remain one. It wasn't a compelling reason for my wanting to be a part of this."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely," Casey replied without hesitation. "It didn't factor into my decision at all. I'll tell you about it if you'd really like to know, but I'd like to hear about your experience as well."

Alex nodded. "Fair enough," telling Casey the story she'd heard and read about and a lot of the details she hadn't because they were so personal to Alex. When Casey shared her tale, Alex listened without flinching, though her eyes widened when Casey told of the damage Milan Zergin had inflicted upon her.

"What?" Casey asked when Alex continued to stare at her without speaking.

"I'm just curious - how long were you in therapy?"

"Physical? Close to nine months. Mental? About a year. I still keep in touch with my therapist, though I don't see her every week anymore. There are just some days around here...."

"I know. It's one reason I continue to see my therapist. But you've given me hope that maybe someday...."

"Different set of circumstances, Alex."

"Both still victims, Casey. Don't discount that."

"Don't let it become all you are, Alex. It will eat you alive if you do"

Alex tilted her head. "Sounds like you're speaking from experience."

Casey smiled and patted Alex's hand before standing. "Time for me to get back to work. We good?"

Alex returned the smile. "We're great."

The holidays passed in a flurry of work and get-togethers. Casey and Alex spent a lot of their limited free time working on the charity foundation they were trying to establish and Olivia, Jo and Blair participated as often as they could. They enjoyed watching things take shape and making contributions to the ideas and plans Alex and Casey were laying out around them.

Abbie did what she could in Washington, mainly networking with her boss and his contacts and checking out apartments she thought Casey might like. They wanted to be fairly close to one another even if they knew they weren't ready to move in together. She and Casey talked almost every night, even if was only to say goodnight to one another. But many times they shared their days together, not realizing they were sharing their lives as well.

Though they were not officially living together, Olivia and Alex spent as many nights together as they could - mostly at Alex's as she had much more room, but sometimes they stayed at Liv's apartment. They snuck lunches and dinners in as often as they could, enjoying the chance to simply sit and share a meal and conversation. They knew, sooner or later, they were going to have to talk and make some concrete decisions concerning their future together. But for now what they had was working for them, and that was enough.

New Year's Eve, however, found them all in Manhattan at Alex's brownstone. Abbie had flown up and Casey, Jo and Blair had accepted Alex's invitation to share the holiday with her and Olivia. There was some talk about the foundation and the number of influential women that had already signed on to be part of it.

"I think it's fabulous that you've made so much progress so quickly, Alex," Blair said from her spot beside Jo on the couch. "That's a lot of famous names on your list."

"Just don't forget the little guy," Jo admonished, blushing slightly when all eyes turned her way, but not letting her eyes drop. Alex tilted her head in question, her brow furrowed.

"What do you mean, Jo?"

"Well, it's great that you've got wealthy and influential people interested in contributing to this project in some way - people like you and Blair and Miranda Priestly and Arthur Branch. You can't really be effective without them and I know that - you need that kind of money and influence. But there are a lot of people who can't afford to give much - people like Sam McPherson who's just starting out but still wants to participate. You need them just as much."

"I understand what you're saying Jo, but what do you suggest? We're already planning to have a place on the website for people to donate in amounts as small as five dollars."

"I'm not sure really." She paused thoughtfully and the rest remained silent. Then she glanced apologetically at Olivia before taking a deep breath. "Seems like... sometimes people have an easier time giving if they're getting something back, ya know? You can't really do something like a neighborhood bake sale or church bazaar. But what if you did something like making prints of some of Liv's art and offered it for sale? Or maybe you know a writer who would contribute the profits of a book? Some sort of clothing? I dunno," Jo said shrugging. "I'm just thinking out loud here, but I think it needs to attract a wide range of people."

"It has merit," Liv agreed. "I think you should consider it."

"We'll add it to the list," Casey said with a look at Alex, who nodded.

"But not tonight," Abbie stated as she wrapped an arm more firmly around Casey's shoulders. "Tonight is for celebrating with friends. Tomorrow is soon enough to add to the list."

Olivia tugged Abbie's arm from around Casey, pulling her to her feet and dancing her around the room. "You just want to concentrate on the kissing you expect to be getting tonight."

The entire room echoed, "Well DUH!" then they burst into laughter. It was shaping up to be an interesting start to the New Year.

A knock on her office door caused Alex to look up from tucking in her shirt, and she hastened to fasten her jeans when she heard Olivia call out, "Alex?"

Alex opened the door and motioned Liv inside, crossing to her couch to slip into her boots. She looked up when she realized Olivia hadn't moved from the door, nostrils flaring when she caught the brown eyes darken with desire as they roved over her body. She cleared her throat awkwardly.

"Liv?" watching Olivia clench her hands along her thighs. Alex stood and stomped her jeans into place, then moved to stand in front of Olivia, reaching out a hand to push a strand of dark hair from the detective's eyes....

... only to find herself with her back against the door and her arms full of Olivia Benson as she was kissed senseless. Alex sank into the kiss and all too soon for her taste it was over. She blinked blue eyes open, smiling at the satisfied expression Olivia wore.

"Hello, Detective."

"Counselor," deliberately letting her gaze rake over Alex's form again.

"To what do I owe this pleasure?"

Olivia's eyes opened in mock innocence and she pouted just slightly. "Can't I just miss you? I haven't seen you for days." That was the truth - their schedules had kept them separated for several days and even phone calls had been sporadic. Alex smiled and wrapped her arms around Liv's neck, tangling her fingers into her hair and relishing Liv's response when her hands slipped into the back pockets of her jeans.

"Besides," Olivia continued with a smirk, squeezing just slightly and watching Alex's eyes darken as a result. "You know what you wearing jeans does to me." She leaned forward to nuzzle Alex neck and was surprised to feel Alex pull away from her. "Alex?"

"As much as I would like to continue this, Detective, I have an appointment I've got to get to."

Liv frowned and leaned back, though she didn't release her hold on Alex's hips. "Everything all right?"

"Yes - routine check-up. I just figured I'd be comfortable," motioning to her outfit. "Not all of us get to dress this comfortably every day, you know," mock glaring in Olivia's direction. Liv stuck her tongue out, only to find it caught and held between Alex's teeth while she laved it with her own tongue. When she felt Liv's hands clench her ass and her knees started to shake, Alex released the appendage and took a deep breath. "Don't put it out there if you don't intend to use it, Detective."

Olivia cleared her throat. "Dinner tonight?"

Alex nodded. "I'm going home after this, so come by whenever you get done." Liv stole anther quick kiss and was gone before Alex could recover.

Liv considered knocking, but realized Alex had given her the key for a reason, so she unlocked the door and let herself into the townhouse. The first floor was dark, but she heard music from the conservatory, so she locked the door and set the alarm behind her before walking down the hall and pushing open the conservatory door. She stood still for a long moment, not wanting to disrupt Alex's music - content to watch her play.

Alex was aware of her presence, however, and immediately morphed the haunting melody she had been playing into something a little more upbeat and lively. She looked up, catching the hint of a smile on Olivia's face and returned one of her own as she finished with a flourish.

"Good evening, Detective. Long time, no see."

"I come bearing gifts," holding up the bags of food marked with one of Alex's favorite bistros on the side. "I figured it would be a welcome treat after an afternoon spent in the doctor's office."

Alex smiled and nodded, motioning Liv to walk in front of her as they headed down to the kitchen. "Even though lawyers don't seem to have the same physician phobia police officers do, it's not the first way I'd choose to spend a free afternoon. Or even the second or third."

Liv's eyes widened comically and she gave Alex a look of mock innocence. "Are you saying the police department is prejudiced against the medical profession?"

"Absolutely not," Alex said soothingly. She removed the plates from the cupboard and turned to retrieve the silverware while Liv removed the take out containers from the bags. "I'm saying you're afraid of them."

This time when Olivia's eyes widened, it was to glare at Alex before they narrowed dangerously. "Oh no you didn't," she growled. Alex chuckled nervously and put the table between them.

"Well you have to admit, Detective...."

"Oh no, Counselor... I don't have to admit anything," neatly chasing Alex around the table, watching her eyes for the escape attempt she knew was coming. "I have the right to remain silent, remember?" She stepped around a little faster, enjoying the sway of Alex's hips in the jeans she still wore. "You, on the other hand...."

It didn't take long for Olivia to catch her, but it wasn't like Alex was trying too hard to get away from her either. Liv wrapped Alex in a firm embrace, smiling when Alex relaxed into her body. "Me on the other hand, what?" Alex asked before two stomachs growled in tandem. She smiled when she felt Olivia chuckled silently behind her. "I guess whatever it is will have to wait until we eat. It smells really good."

"Not as good as you do," Liv said with a nip where Alex's neck and collarbone met. She grinned at the shiver that chased over Alex's body before Alex turned in her arms. A kiss was the answer she got and she pulled away reluctantly. "C'mon… let's eat before it gets cold. I've got plans for you for the rest of the night and you're going to need your strength."

"Promises, promises, Detective."

Dinner had been eaten hastily, the dishes left on the table in their hurry to retire upstairs. They had spent hours worshipping one another and only now, in the darkness of predawn where they curled around each other in a tangle of sated, sweaty bodies.

"You make me feel... amazing," Alex confided in a hushed whisper. "So loved." Olivia brushed her lips over Alex's shoulder and Alex felt her smile against her skin.

"Alex, you make me feel - that is amazing."

Alex shifted in Olivia's arms until they were face to face, pulling back just enough so they didn't have to cross their eyes to see one another. "Liv, you've always felt… so much, so deeply. I'm just glad I can bring you joy now… instead of pain." Olivia closed her eyes at Alex's words and Alex let her hand trail through the wild, messy dark hair, massaging Liv's neck in the process and feeling her go limp beside her. "I've decided something," she announced quietly, waiting for the dark eyes to open again. "I'm going to talk to Arthur and take that leave of absence now. I think we've reached the place where I need to focus on the charity work for a while and I don't want to end up doing a half assed job trying to be a Bureau Chief at the same time."

Olivia nodded. "That makes sense. How long?"

Alex shrugged, never ceasing her stroking of Olivia's scalp. "I don't know yet. Guess it all depends on how things go. Who knows... maybe I won't go back." She shrugged casually at the unasked question in Olivia's eyes. "Being back in the DA's office isn't all I imagined it would be - I've told you that." Liv nodded her agreement. "For now, though, I want to concentrate on getting this foundation set up. After that...?" She shrugged again. "Tomorrow will have to take care of itself when it gets here. I'm working on getting through each day and making the most of it - one day at a time."

"Sound advice, Counselor."

"One lesson learned in Witness Protection."

"And SVU," Liv added knowingly.

"And SVU," Alex agreed. "Mary Shannon, my Federal liaison after the Connor's trial, liked to joke about taking unexpected left turns at Albuquerque – she was a huge Bugs Bunny fan. She believed they were a lot more manageable if you didn't worry about them in advance or take them with you into tomorrow. You just focused on what you could handle today and rolled with whatever life handed you and eventually you'd land on your feet. However," she added as she slid her naked body on top of Olivia's and smiled when Liv trembled beneath her and sucked in a shallow breath. "We can worry about those things tomorrow in the light of day. Right now, I want to feel you," letting a hand caress the breast closest to her. "Taste you," bringing her lips into play at the juncture of Olivia's neck and shoulder and marking her. "Love you," dragging her body down the length of Liv's darker one until she reached her goal.

Then hands, lips and tongues were occupied with far more important things than talking and conversation was put to the wayside for far more intimate communication between them. And when daylight returned, they were off and running again, because life doesn't slow down for anyone - not even lovers… especially when they were dedicated public servants.

"Well, I can't say this is unexpected," Arthur said as he looked at the paper Alex had given him before taking a seat in front of him. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. "More sure than I've been about anything in a while, Arthur. I'm good at what I do - I know that," she said without a hint of apology at the egotistical statement. "But there are any other number of people in this office who could do this job - some probably better because it's what they want to be doing."

"And you don't," his statement flat.

She shook her head. "Not now... maybe not ever again. It just...." She sighed. "It's not who I am anymore." She looked out the window. "I don't think it's who I've been in a long time."

"Getting shot changed a lot of things for you, hmm?"

"Not as much as losing everyone and everything I cared about."

Branch sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. "I certainly never would have predicted it, though after you risked your career in an effort to passionately defend a detective you hadn't even spoken to in years, maybe I should have."

Alex smirked. "Even I wouldn't have tried to predict this, Arthur."

"But it makes you happy?"

"She does. Everything else is window dressing. But I think being able to make a real difference in the lives of victims, especially those who will never find real justice in the system, will be especially gratifying."

He nodded. "I still don't appreciate you stealing one of my best ADAs," holding up a hand before she could protest, "but at least I know between the two of you this project stands a hell of a chance of doing a lot of good for a lot of folks. And that's something well beyond justice and politics and the law."

Alex smiled and rose from her seat. "I'll stay on til the end of the month and help ease my replacement into position. Do you know who it's going to be yet?"

"Yes... I'm going to offer it to Steele. He did a nice job filling in for you while you were suspended. Time to see if he has the balls to do it full-time."

Alex snorted. "You wouldn't put him into the job if you didn't think he did."

"True," Branch offered as he opened the door. "You'll keep me informed of how things are going?"

"Absolutely. Thanks, Arthur."

He took her hand. "Don't thank me yet, Alexandra. You haven't been listening to Lillian go on and on about how exciting this new foundation is and how much she's looking forward to being part of such a fabulous new venture. I'm thinking you're going to have your hands full."

Alex covered her eyes with her hand and groaned; Arthur Branch laughed.

Olivia had taken to spending more and more time at Alex's townhouse and less and less at her apartment, but they had yet to have 'the talk'. There were still a number of times when she stayed in the crib due to case work and other nights that she went to her apartment because she felt it was too late or she was too tired to show up on Alex's doorstep. Alex never criticized or asked questions, though Liv knew she was curious. She simply welcomed Olivia with open arms whenever they were together, continuing to allow Liv to set the pace of things between them. Sometimes Liv shared what was going on; others she just allowed the questions to go unanswered, knowing Alex understood.

She never stopped to consider how shutting Alex out of parts of her life was killing them.

Alex hung up the phone and sat staring out her window unmoving. It was only chance that brought Jim Steele to her office and he was finally compelled to shake Alex by the shoulder to get her attention.

"Alex... are you all right?"

She came out of her brown study with a start, blinking her eyes rapidly to clear them. When she realized who was addressing her, she nodded her head. "I'm fine, Jim. What can I do for you?"

They discussed a few matters concerning the interns - Jim getting her insight into each of them, then they looked over some of the resumes they'd received from applicants who'd graduated in December. When they were done, Jim thanked her for her help and stood to leave. He noticed the faraway look in Alex's blue eyes and decided to call her on it.

"Alex? You sure you're okay? Not regretting giving up your job as Bureau Chief to me, are you?"

She quirked an eyebrow at him and smirked, though the expression didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm only taking a leave of absence, Jim, so don't get too comfortable in my office."

"I don't think so, Alex. I think this is more permanent than you're letting on. And I don't think that's what's bothering you, either."

Her expression turned cold and Steele took an involuntary step back. "I said I'm fine, Jim." She took a deep breath and modulated her tone. "There's just a lot of change happening right now and keeping up is exhausting. I do appreciate your concern, though."

He nodded, not quite believing her but unable to argue the point any more without angering her further. "Well, if you need anything...."

She smiled. "I know where to find you." She waved him out of her office, watching him go before she turned unseeing eyes back towards the window. It was only Casey's touch on her arm that brought her back to her surroundings again, some time much later.

"Alex?" her voice ripe with concern.

Alex turned her chair around and summoned a smile for this woman who unexpectedly had become a good friend and partner in something that had become important to them both. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest while Casey settled herself on the corner of the desk.

"Hey, Casey. What's up?"

A red eyebrow arched. "I was going to ask you the same thing. Is everything okay? You looked miles away from here."

"Just thinking. How're things going?"

Casey held her gaze for a long moment, certain she was missing something, but allowing Alex the diversion for now. "Pretty good. Most of my cases should be wrapped up by the end of the month and I'm working on transitioning the rest to the new kid on the block – name of Kim Greylek. I'm not sure she's ready for SVU, but then... who is? With a little luck, she'll grow into it quickly. As for the rest, Abbie thinks she's found me a place. I'm going down this weekend to look at it."

"That's great, Casey! You excited?"

Casey grinned. "Yeah... I really am. Aside from getting the chance to be near Abbie, this just feels right to me, you know?"

"I do indeed." Alex cleared her throat. "Listen, have you talked to Liv recently? I've tried calling her, but everything keeps going to voicemail."

Casey cringed. If Alex didn't kill Olivia for not telling her, Casey most definitely would for putting her in the middle. "Um... she and Elliot are undercover - they have been for the last few days."


"Nothing to worry about, Alex. You know they'll watch each other's back and I think Fin and Munch are on standby, waiting for the case to break." Alex nodded but she didn't speak, her eyes distant. Casey grabbed her hand and tugged until Alex took the hint and stood, bringing her gaze back to the green eyes twinkling at her. She cocked an eyebrow. "C'mon... I need ice cream."

"Your cure-all?" Alex smirked as she grabbed her purse and donned her coat.

"Absolutely. Ice cream fixes everything."

And it might have, had Casey not received a phone call which had them both rushing back to the one-six.

"I can't believe you didn't talk to me about this, Olivia!" the use of her full name clueing Liv in to just how upset Alex was about her latest assignment. They were ensconced in an interrogation room, the tension between them palpable. The others had left them alone some time previously to give them as much privacy as they could, moving Elliot's debriefing to Cragen's office. "You can't keep cutting me out of things like this!"

"Alex, it's my job!" Liv growled, trying not to raise her voice. "There was nothing to talk about... nothing to discuss. I wasn't cutting you out – it had nothing to do with you. We had to go undercover to catch the sonofabitch and that's what we did. There wasn't time for in-depth debate over the pros and cons of the operation!" She ran her hand through her hair in frustration. Why was she having to explain this? Alex knew what her job entailed.

"Are you telling me there wasn't time for a phone call, Olivia? That Elliot just ran off to play house with you without taking two minutes to inform his wife?"

"You're not my wife, Alex!" Olivia said, regretting the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Alex's blue eyes turned to ice.

"You're right, Detective," she agreed cuttingly, her voice cold and calm. "I'm not. And apparently I'm not your girlfriend either since I don't even rate the courtesy of a phone call. Now I wouldn't want to keep you from your job any longer. So if you'll excuse me...." gathering up her things and moving towards the door.

"Alex...." Olivia reached out a hand, only to watch Alex flinch away from her. She blinked furiously, refusing to allow the tears she felt gather in her eyes to fall.

"Goodbye, Detective."

"I'm sorry, Liv, but I agree with Alex in this case," Jo said even as she passed Olivia a beer. Liv took a deep draught, scowling at Jo as soon as she swallowed.

"What?? C'mon, Jo. This was police business - it had nothing to do with Alex." She paused then asked disbelievingly, "You mean to tell me you share everything with Blair?"

"I don't always share the details; I can't - you know that and so does she. But I've always let her know when I have to go undercover, just so she doesn't worry unduly."

"Letting her know you're working undercover doesn't worry her?"

Jo rolled her eyes. "Of course it does, Liv. Don't play stupid - it doesn't suit you," meeting glare for glare. "She recognizes it as a necessary evil part of the job. But at least this way she's aware of what's going on - she knows I'll be gone and out of touch. And she knows she can reach me through my captain if she needs to for any reason. She wouldn't call unless it was absolutely necessary."

Olivia was silent while she finished her beer. Then she stood. "Thanks for the beer, Jo."

Jo grabbed Liv by the elbow, ignoring the look and holding on. "Don't be stupid, Liv. Don't let your pride screw up the best thing to happen to you."

Liv pulled her arm from Jo's grasp. "I gotta go."

Jo didn't say anything else - she simply watched Olivia leave. Then she leaned back into Blair's body when warm arms wrapped around her from behind.

"Did you get through?" Blair asked quietly.

"I dunno - I hope so."

The townhouse was dark when Olivia arrived so she took out her key and opened the door. It was silent and Liv walked through each room searching for any sign of Alex, shoulders dropping when she discovered she was alone in the house. Every call she'd made to Alex's cell phone had gone to voice mail and she was running out of ideas.

She only had one viable option left as far as possibilities were concerned and at the moment, it wasn't even viable for her. She was technically still on duty – Cragen wouldn't let her off and she couldn't leave the city on a whim to drive to the lodge, which was the only place she could figure Alex could have gone. And just like Alex's cell phone, the calls Olivia had placed there went directly to the machine. With a defeated sigh, Liv put her phone away and left the brownstone, locking the door carefully behind her before heading to her own empty apartment. She needed to do something - the question was... what?

"This place is fabulous, Abbie - exactly what I was looking for." Casey reached up and gave Abbie a hug that was fervently returned. Abbie grinned at her.

"I'm glad... I was hoping...."

"You did great. I can't wait to start my life here - with you."

Abbie cupped her chin. "So why the sad look?" Green eyes met brown pointedly and Abbie sighed. She'd already heard the story from Casey upon her arrival and neither of them had been able to reach either Alex or Olivia despite their best efforts. "Casey, there's nothing you can do for Alex and Liv. They have to work things out for themselves."

Casey cut her eyes at Abbie and pulled out of her embrace. "I know Abbie - just because I'm deliriously happy at the moment doesn't mean I've lost all sense," her words garnering her the smile she loved. "But something else was bothering Alex before she and Liv broke up... or whatever. Something I wasn't the only one to notice."


Casey shrugged. "I don't know. Jim Steele mentioned it to me. It was the reason I went to check on her in the first place. She was kind of out of it."

Now Abbie frowned. "Alex was out of it... at work?" Casey nodded. "I rag on her about being a ditzy blonde, but she never lost her focus at work. At first it was because of the political implications and later is was because the work became important to her for the victims' sake." Abbie shook her head thoughtfully. "It must have been something pretty important. And you say it was before she found out about Liv."

"Yeah. I mean she could have been worried about not being able to reach her, but...."

"We'll see if we can find out. I have an idea. But first," Abbie said with a flourishing gesture at the room around them, "maybe we should see about signing the papers making this place yours. Then maybe we can make a phone call."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Alex, it's Abbie. I know you're there so pick up the phone."


"Gerry, is that you? This is Abbie Carmichael. I need to speak to Alex."

"Miss Carmichael, I'm not sure...."

"Gerry, there's just me and Casey here and I'm calling from Virginia. Olivia Benson is nowhere in the near vicinity I can assure you. But I really do need to talk to Alex. Casey and I are worried about her."

Gerry sighed into the receiver. "So am I. Hold on for a moment, please." Abbie nodded her head at Casey and shifted the call to the speakerphone. Then they waited for Alex to pick up.

"Abbie?" Her voice sounded so small and tired that Abbie and Casey exchanged alarmed glances.

"Alex? Talk to me, hon."

"How did you know where I was?"

"I'm from Texas, remember? That makes me brilliant by default." Alex smiled, but it didn't garner Abbie the chuckle she'd been hoping for. "Now tell Auntie Abbie all about it."

"There's nothing to say, Abbie. I'm all right. Tell Casey...."

"I'm right here, Alex. And you're not all right - otherwise you wouldn't be hiding out at the lodge." She paused. "C'mon, Alex. I know what happened with Olivia is rough, but I also know something was bothering you before that."

"Why do you say that?" Alex snapped defensively, fire back in her tone momentarily. "It's not enough that I found out the woman I love considers me less than the dirt under her feet. There needs to be more?!"

"There doesn't need to be, Alex, but I think there is. Let us help - that's what friends do, remember?"

They could almost hear the tired, resigned smile in her voice. "You can't help with this, guys, but I appreciate your concern. Casey, I'll see you on Monday. Abbie, good to talk to you again." The dial tone pulsed across the wire before they realized she'd hung up on them. Casey and Abbie exchanged glances.

"Well," Abbie drawled after she re-cradled the receiver. "I think you're right about something more going on. But I think we're going to have to let Alex come to us about it."

"And if she doesn't?"

"You have detectives – let them detect. If something is going on with the Devil, they'll find it."

"I hope Alex comes around before that becomes necessary."

"Me too."

Olivia's phone started ringing as she reached her landing and she pulled it out hopefully, only to discover she didn't recognize the number. She had spent the better part of the previous day trying to reach Alex to no avail and she'd hoped.... With a sigh she shoved it back into her pocket and unlocked the door, closing and locking it carefully behind her. Then her phone beeped for her attention and she realized whoever had called had left her a voicemail. Growling in frustration, she threw her keys on the side table, shrugging out of her jacket and slipping off her gun and badge. It was just coming on to dark, but she felt like the day had been years long. What had started out as euphoria the day before over a successful collar had turned into a waking nightmare after her encounter with Alex that just wouldn't stop. She hadn't meant things to come out of her mouth the way that they had; she just hadn't seemed capable of stopping herself. And now she had apparently destroyed something that after only a day she was discovering she really couldn't live without.

She crossed to her kitchen, pulling a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet. She stared at it for a long time, then put it away again, unable and unwilling to walk down that particular road, especially when she was on call. Instead she grabbed a bottle of water and threw herself on the couch.

Her phone jingled again, reminding her of the voicemail that was waiting for her. She grabbed the jacket off the back of the couch and dug through the pockets, grimacing in victory when she came up with the phone in hand. She dialed the number, hoping it wasn't a telemarketer, then sitting up abruptly when the message began playing.

"Detective Benson, this is Dr. Lillian Schumer's office. I'm sorry to bother you on a Saturday afternoon, but you're listed as Alex Cabot's emergency contact. We've been trying to reach Ms Cabot since yesterday afternoon, and have yet to contact her. If you know how we can reach her, could you please call us back immediately? It's imperative that we get in touch with her as soon as possible. It has to do with her appointment on Monday. The number here is...." Liv snatched up the pen and paper she kept on the table for just such and emergency and scrambled to write it down. Then with shaking hands, she hung up and dialed the number on the pad.

"Oncology – Dr. Schumer's office."

Olivia swallowed hard as the implications hit her. Alex had cancer???

Geraldine watched Alex pick at her food until she had enough. Huffing, she threw herself into the chair next to Alex and pulled the mangled plate of food towards her. She scooped up a bite and moved the fork towards Alex's mouth, surprised when she didn't get a single reaction.

"Alexandra, you've got to eat. I don't think you've had three bites since you got here yesterday afternoon." She paused, sighing when there was absolutely no response. "Is this about Olivia?" seeing the pain flash through expressive blue eyes before they shuttered closed. "Alexandra?" A beat. "Alex? You can't let her ruin your life. If she can't see your worth, then she's not worth keeping."

Abruptly, Alex rose from her place and crossed to the window, looking out into the darkness with unseeing eyes once more. Gerry watched her closely, noting the defeat in her posture and the exhaustion in her face. Something more was going on – Olivia's actions had just compounded the situation, but at least the calls had stopped late the evening before.

"This has nothing to do with Olivia, Gerry. I'm just not hungry." She paused and turned toward the back stairs. "I'm going to bed. Goodnight." And before Gerry could protest or ask any questions, Alex disappeared up the stairs.

Gerry watched her go before standing and clearing the table, taking her time as she returned the kitchen to its normally spotless condition. Then she prepared herself a cup of coffee and resumed her place at the small table. Jason came in and poured himself a cup and set it on the counter as he turned to her.


Gerry shook her head, but before she was able to elaborate further, the doorbell rang. Jason placed a hand on her shoulder as he passed by to answer it, indicating she should wait for him to return. He hesitated in the doorway when he came back only moments later

"I think I have something, but I'm not sure how welcome it is," he mentioned, stepping aside to reveal Olivia Benson just behind him.

As soon as she hung up with the doctor's office, Liv had immediately called Cragen, explaining the situation without revealing the exact nature of the emergency. The Captain that had been unwilling to give Olivia time off to rectify a personal problem had no qualms about relieving her of duty for a medical issue. And he could tell, by the tone in her voice and the shakiness she couldn't quit quell that whatever news Olivia had been hit with was more serious than she was willing to share.

So he released her from duty with the caveat that she get things cleared up – one way or another. Personal drama had no place in the squad room.

With an affirmative, she hung up and quickly called Blair. She hated to ask, to take advantage of their friendship like this, but Olivia Benson was desperate. Thankfully, Blair was more than understanding, even without knowing the details. And so it was that she found herself on a private jet less than an hour later knowing one way or another, she would face Alex Cabot very shortly.

Gerry glowered at Olivia for a moment, but quickly relented the staring contest, knowing better than most that this woman was probably the key to at least part of whatever was troubling Alex.

"Gerry...." The housekeeper held up her hand and Olivia clammed up immediately.

"Not a word, Detective. I'm fairly certain from her reaction to your calls yesterday that you are at least partially to blame for whatever is wrong with Alexandra. However," she continued before Liv could open her mouth to speak, "I also believe you are probably the only one that can make things right for her again. Don't make me sorry for trusting you, Detective."

Olivia nodded and followed Gerry up the back stairs until she was standing in front of Alex's door. She watched Gerry go until she was out of sight, then she tapped lightly on the door before opening it.

She waited while her eyes adjusted to darkness much thicker than she was used to, until finally she was able to make out the barest outline of a figure on the bed. Gathering her resolve, Liv crossed the room silently and came around to the side of the bed to kneel in front of Alex. She reached out a trembling hand, tenderly pushing the hair off of Alex's face. Blue eyes popped open and although Alex didn't move, Olivia felt her withdrawal as a physical thing. Tears welled up in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Alex," she whispered. "I'm so, so sorry. I didn't mean...." She swallowed hard and looked away and she swiped at her eyes, then returned her gaze to the woman warily watching her. "I told you I was going to screw this up, and God... it's killing me. I didn't mean the things I said to you and if I had it to do over, I'd cut my tongue out first before lashing out at you like that." She paused and bit her lip. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Why are you here?" the words raspy and filled with layers of pain.

"Two reasons," Liv replied honestly. "One was I needed to make things right for you – I had to, Alex. Even if we can't fix things between us, you need to know that I didn't mean to hurt you. I shouldn't have said the things I did."

"Why did you?"

Liv smiled sadly. "Because it's the first response I know when someone shows concern for me. Ask Elliot – I didn't speak to him for three weeks outside of work because he was concerned enough to have me tailed when I had a stalker, remember? I push people away before they can hurt me by walking away first. I learned that from my mom."

"Olivia, I wasn't going to walk away from this... from us." Liv grimaced as pain lanced through her with Alex's use of the past tense about them. She nodded slowly.

"Intellectually, I understand that, but emotionally? I have a hard time believing I won't get hurt... I don't trust me enough not to screw things up – for good reason, I guess."

Silence reigned for a few moments while Alex contemplated her words and Olivia contented herself to memorize the face she had come to cherish - as though she would never again be given the opportunity to do so. Finally, Alex drew a deep breath to speak again.

"And the second?"

Liv blinked, bringing her attention back to her present surroundings. "I got a phone call earlier and it made me realize exactly how you felt – knowing but not knowing... wondering what was happening and why you hadn't heard something earlier." She sighed and met Alex's eyes. "Your oncologist called me looking for you – said I was your emergency contact number." She looked down at the floor, then up into Alex's eyes again. "That nearly broke my heart, realizing what I had thrown away without regard to what I had... without remembering what it had been like before and what it would be like again. Then she told me why she was calling – it didn't take much for me to put it all together."

"And what did you put together, Detective?"

She reached towards Alex but stopped short of actually touching her, not sure if her touch would be welcome. Instead she clasped her hands together tightly and left them on the bed, meeting Alex's eyes squarely. "That you have some sort of cancer – probably in the early stages, but cancer nonetheless. That I won't let you go through this alone, even if it's only as your friend and nothing more. That it sucks to be on the wrong end of an information black hole and I now have a much better appreciation of where you were coming from when you ran into the squad room yesterday. That there is nothing I can do but tell you I'm sorry for what I said and that I'll try to do better – about trusting in us and keeping you informed of what is going on with me – both professionally and personally, if you're still interested. And that I'd make you my wife in a heartbeat if the law would allow it." Olivia took a deep breath, then dropped her eyes to the bed.

Alex blinked and swallowed hard, trying to keep the tears that had filled her eyes at bay. She bit her lips and took her own deep breath before reaching out a tentative hand and covering Liv's clenched hands. She felt the minute relaxation at her touch but the tension still sang in Liv's body. "You don't think you should ask first or are you so sure I'd say yes?"

Her words brought Liv's head up with a snap, eyes full of questions and ill-concealed hope. "Alex?"

"Liv, what you said... your reaction to my concerns... hurt a lot. I'm not going to lie to you and pretend it didn't. And to be fair, my reaction was a little over the top as well. If I had been thinking with my head instead of my heart, I would have waited for you to come to the townhouse and then confronted you about it privately." She sighed. "I think, if we want to make this work between us, we're going to have to learn how to react a little less and respond a little more." She smiled weakly. "We both have a tendency to react instead of respond, and it makes us volatile. It makes us good at our jobs, but it doesn't seem to carry over very well in our personal lives. Maybe if we make an effort together, we could change that. The question is – do we really want to?"

"Yes," Liv replied without hesitation. "If you're offering me a second chance, my answer is yes."

"You sound as if you've given this a lot of thought, Detective."

Brown eyes watered, but the tears didn't spill this time, contained as they were by a wry grin. "My hardheaded partner, my former protégé, my best friend in DC and her soon to be girlfriend all made it a point to ensure I did – short of calling me an idiot. It wasn't hard to get the message." She paused and shifted slightly, wincing at the ache in her knees from kneeling on the floor for so long.

Alex considered for a moment, then slid away from Olivia, lifting the cover in silent invitation. Liv didn't even pause; she rose and slid into the bed, holding her breath and extending her arm towards Alex. Alex smiled tremulously and settled herself into Olivia's embrace and they sighed simultaneously at the rightness they felt.

"God, Alex... I was so afraid I'd never feel this again. You were so angry with me."

"I was, Liv, but I forgive you. Next time, talk to me first?"

"Absolutely, Counselor. I learned a hard lesson from this; it's not something I ever want to repeat."

"Me either," Alex agreed tiredly. Olivia brushed a kiss over thick, blonde hair. Alex curled up closer into her body and Liv savored the feeling, tightening her hold.

"Alex?" she queried softly after and extended silence. Alex shifted slightly in Olivia's arms and offered a tiny murmur to let Liv know she was listening. "Why didn't you tell me about the cancer?"

Alex leaned back just far enough to meet Liv's eyes in the darkness, knowing they had adjusted enough to see clearly. "I hadn't had a chance," she replied honestly. "I got the call from my GYN yesterday morning with the referral to Dr. Schumer's office."

"Would you have told me – if I hadn't stumbled into it, I mean?"

"I was trying to. That's why...."

"Oh," Liv muttered as realization dawned, but before she could fall into any sort of depression, Alex cupped her cheek and forced their eyes to meet again.

"Now you listen to me, Olivia Benson. You made a mistake and I forgave you for it. Put it behind you and move on. You did the same for me when I screwed up, remember? I know it's not easy - God, I can't tell you the number of times I've cringed when I thought about some of the choices I've made and the things I did... especially in regards to the way I treated you. But I can't dwell on it and neither can you. What's past is past and if we keep dragging it into the present, we'll never have a real future together."

Olivia's brows rose into her hairline. "That's pretty profound, Counselor."

Alex snickered. "Yeah, well... I've had a lot of time to think about it too." She paused and cleared her throat. "So, does this mean the time has come for us to discuss our living arrangements?"

"Are you ready for that step, Alex?"

She arched a brow at Olivia and gave her the patented Cabot smirk. "For years, Detective... even if I was slow on the uptake. The real question, Olivia, is are you ready for that level of commitment?"

Her answer wasn't verbal, but it was vocal soon enough and completely mutual.

Jason folded up the paper he'd been perusing and Geraldine carefully tucked away her knitting. With a glance towards the upstairs bedroom, they exchanged a knowing look. Then they clasped hands and headed out to their own living quarters to settle in for the night.

They kept the possibility of Alex's medical condition on the down low when they returned to work Monday morning. Alex saw no reason to work everyone into a frenzy over what might prove to be nothing, and Olivia respected the fact that Alex was a private person and it was, in fact, her news to share or not as she wanted. They did make sure to let those closest to them know things between them had been resolved and life settled into something of a routine for them.

Alex scheduled the biopsy Dr. Schumer wanted her to have and Olivia started making preparations to move her belongings to the townhouse and end the lease on her apartment. It was a little daunting – Liv hadn't actually shared living space with anyone other than her mother and she had been on her own for many more years than she had with Serena Benson. Still, it felt like the right thing to be doing, and even thinking about creating a life with Alex brought a smile to her face.

Alex was busy wrapping up the loose ends in her office as she transitioned more and more responsibility over to Jim Steele. She was suddenly glad she'd taken the leave of absence to focus on the charity project when she had – no one was any the wiser about her visits to the doctor. And though she knew she would eventually share with their closest friends if anything came from the biopsy, she had no desire to worry anyone before worry was warranted. Liv was her rock, just like she'd promised, and that was enough for the time being.

Liv was involved in any number of investigations, but always made it a point to advise Alex of what was going on and when to expect her home. Many nights they spent together at Olivia's place after work, packing things up. Liv shared memories that came to her at the sight of certain pictures or mementos and Alex cherished every intimacy Liv offered.

Elliot noticed the change and nodded his silent approval, watching them grow closer and smiling at the sense of contentment and happiness he could feel in both women. He was glad Liv had learned her lesson about spousal treatment a lot faster than he had, though admittedly, Kathy was nowhere near the formidable personality that Alex Cabot was.

Maybe things would turn out all right for them after all.

Casey and Alex had decided to leave the DA's office on the same day, so of course that meant a big farewell party for them. Casey knocked on the door to Alex's office, as she was heading out to get ready for the party, pausing when she saw Alex looking out the window one last time.

"Going to miss the view, huh?"

Alex turned and looked at her with an undecipherable smile. "Going to miss a lot of things, I think. But it's the right thing to do and I think it's the right time to do it."

"So do I, Alex. We're going to be able to do so much good with this."

"I think you're right," picking up her purse and a small box of her things. "Shall we?" nodding towards the door. Casey linked arms with her and nodded.

"We shall."

The party was a blowout and everyone was there offering well-wishes and congratulations and reminding both Casey and Alex that they would be sorely missed. Sam McPherson covered the event as a human interest story at Alex's request and Alex made sure to introduce Brooke McQueen to both Jim Steele and Arthur Branch. Trevor Langan brought the new lady in his life and the one-six showed up as a unit. All in all it was an interesting evening.

It was late when it was over, and only Alex, Olivia, Abbie, Casey, Jo and Blair remained, debating whose house to move the after party to. After only a few minutes deliberation, they wound up at Jo and Blair's. Alex and Olivia had not announced their decision to move in together yet and preferred to share with their friends as opposed to surprising them with it. Besides, Alex had hosted them last as Blair was kind enough to point out, so it was their turn.

They settled comfortably in the living room, each of them kicking off their shoes and curling up with their partner on a selected piece of furniture. Jo offered coffee and everyone accepted with a sigh of gratitude. When they were all settled, conversation flowed easily between them for a while before petering out into a comfortable silence.

Without warning, Alex clasped Liv's hand, holding on tightly and looking into her eyes for the reassurance she needed before clearing her throat and turning back to the room. Her friends looked at her expectantly and she paused, realizing how lucky she was to count these women as friends and confidantes in her life.

"Alex?" Blair asked, being close enough to see the hint of tears that lurked in her eyes.

Alex swallowed and smiled at her. "I have some news," she said quietly. "Or rather... we do," exchanging smiles with Olivia. "I know you have all been... concerned about Liv and me and we can't tell you how wonderful it is to have friends who care about us individually as well as a couple. So, we wanted you to be the first to know that we now share a home. It became official yesterday."

The four women cheered and applauded and of course hugs and congratulations went round the room along with a bit of good-natured teasing. When things quieted down again, Jo cocked her head and asked softly, "What else?" Alex met her eyes in startlement. Olivia just gave a crooked grin and shook her head.

"How did you...?"

Jo lifted her cup, toasting in Liv's direction. "I learned from the best." Olivia nodded her acceptance of the truth behind the words.

Alex smiled briefly, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "No wonder," she said with a smirk that quickly faded. Everyone sat up and leaned forward, somehow knowing this news wasn't going to be nearly as happy as the last. Alex took a deep breath. "I had a biopsy done the other day," hearing the gasps but not meeting anyone's eyes yet. "We don't have the results yet, but there is a very good likelihood of cancer."

"How soon?" Abbie asked.

"Within the week. Then we'll see what our options are." She looked at Casey. "I hate to lay all this on you, but you may end up with a bulk of the work for a while, depending on what the doctor says."

"Not a problem. You just let me know what you want to handle and what you need me to take care of."

Alex nodded. "Otherwise, I'd appreciate it if you don't treat me any differently. I may have cancer, but it certainly does not have me and I refuse to act like it does."

"All right," Blair said unexpectedly. "Just know that we'll be here for both of you if you need us. Otherwise, we'll keep doing what we do and we'll be looking forward to the progress reports on how the charity project is coming along."

"Fair enough," Alex agreed.

As they were preparing to leave, Jo took Olivia aside. "You all right?"

"Except for being worried out of my mind, yeah. Why?"

Jo shook her head. "You know where to find me if you need to talk. I lost my Ma to cancer, so I can relate at least a little bit."

Knowing Jo's history like she did, Olivia simply nodded. "Thanks, Jo. You're a good friend."

"I learned that from the best, too," she said with a look at Blair. Then Alex met them at the door and she and Olivia stepped out into the cold winter night, braving the world together.

"You know they're all wondering now," Alex said on a puff of cold breath, her arm linked through Liv's as the walked against the wind.

"Wondering what?" Liv asked, maneuvering them around a trashcan.

"Whether you moved in for pity reasons or if there is more to it."

Olivia smiled and shook her head. "I don't think so. They're our friends and they know us – they know how much we love each other and how hard we've fought to be together. And if there's any doubt, I'm pretty sure they'll get the idea after our first fifty years or so together."

They reached the townhouse and climbed the steps as one before Alex unwound her arm from Liv's and unlocked the door. "Short term thinking, Detective?"

"Not at all, Counselor. I figure they should start to catch on in the short term. You and I can focus on the long term privately." She closed the door behind them, locking it while Alex hung up their coats. Then Liv reached for Alex's hand and tugged her towards the stairs.

"Have I mentioned how I adore you in jeans, Counselor?"

"It may have been brought to my attention once or twice, Detective. Why?"

"I think it may be time to start focusing on that long term thinking and I think I should start by showing my appreciation for the Devil in blue jeans."

"You know, since I left the DA's office, I won't be the Devil anymore."

"I beg to differ, Counselor. I bet if I look hard enough, I'll always be able to find those horns of yours."

"Oh you think so, do you?" Alex asked as they reached their bedroom.

"Count on it."

"I intend to, Detective... for the rest of my life."

Tomorrow would come soon enough and their cares and worries would be shouldered once more. But tonight was about them. They shut the door behind them, and all that could be heard were the sounds of living, loving and complete and utter joy.

Of course, tomorrow came sooner than either of them wanted it to, but at least this time they were more confident in themselves and each other. Olivia walked into the precinct, enduring a bit of teasing banter from the guys after she shared her new address before the phone call came in. Then things became all business and she and Elliot headed out to the scene of their latest case.

It wasn't pretty, and Liv found that sharing her burden with Alex made it an easier load to bear, even when she couldn't tell her everything. She wondered why she'd been so resistant to the idea in the first place. Of all the people in the world, Alex was one of the few who could understand what she did and appreciate how it affected her. Having something like that Olivia could count on was oddly liberating, and the trust Liv showed her only strengthened the love Alex felt.

Casey and Abbie had returned to Washington several days prior, but aside from the initial phone call she'd gotten telling her they'd arrived, she didn't expect to hear from them for at least another couple days, expecting they'd want a little time to get Casey settled in. So she was a little surprised when the phone rang mid-morning.

"Alex Cabot."

"Olivia Benson."

Her surprise faded to pleasure. The voice brought a smile to Alex's face and it showed in her tone. "Good morning, Detective. What can I do for you?"

Liv smiled at the sexiness in Alex's voice, allowing her thoughts to wander briefly before reality crashed back in. She slipped into the ladies' room, ensuring she was alone before she spoke again. When she did, Alex didn't miss the seriousness that had slipped into Olivia's tone.

"I can think of any number of things, but none that are viable at the moment."

"What's wrong, Liv?"

Olivia cleared her throat. "You remember the rape case I told you about – the one with the girl whose mom's in prison? It's gonna send me undercover in Sealview. I, um... I volunteered for it."

Alex sucked in a breath, knowing full well the implications of what was being said and what wasn't. "How long?" she asked quietly.

"I dunno – not long, I hope. Holding my cover in there...." She broke off, but Alex understood what she meant. "Fin's going in as my back-up." A beat. "I have to do this, Alex."

"I know you do, sweetheart. Just be careful and come home to me as fast as you can."

"You know it, Counselor. Love you."

Alex's smile carried clearly across the wire. "Love you more."

Olivia growled. "Not fair, Alex. I don't have time to argue that now."

"I know – I win. Be careful, Detective. I'll see you soon."

"Count on it."

Alex took a deep breath and went into her home office, surveying it with new eyes. It was different – working from home, especially since there was no assistant or secretary to rely on. She crossed to her desk and sat down, booting up her computer and looking over the things that had been done, things that needed to be done and things they still wanted to try. All the necessary legal paperwork had been taken care of before she and Casey had left the DA's office. Now it was a matter of putting everything into place.

It had been several days since she'd spoken to Liv and her stress level was through the roof wondering what was going on with her lover. But she was thankful Liv had called to let her know what was going on; Alex knew she would hear something as soon as there was any news. It made the whole situation easier to bear. The work she'd been doing simply helped the time to pass faster.

When the phone rang some time later, Alex jumped and snatched it from the cradle. Surprisingly, it was Casey excitement coloring her tone. "Thank you, Alex!" her enthusiasm clear even across the miles that separated them. Alex chuckled, forgetting her worry momentarily.

"You're welcome, Casey. What for?" she asked, causing Casey to laugh.

"For this," gesturing around her although she knew Alex couldn't see her. "It's like a fresh start. I feel almost... reborn."

"Works both ways, Casey. Thanks for taking me in when you really didn't have a reason to."

"I couldn't not, Alex."

"So you like being back in Virginia... close to your family?"

"Mostly. And being with Abbie...."

"It's working out then?"

"Even more than I hoped for, Alex. She's blossoming; she's opening up to me in ways I never expected. Did you know she has a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for practical jokes?"

Alex chuckled again. "No, but I can't say I'm surprised. It's the quiet ones you have to worry about, you know."

"Too true," Casey said with a smile. "Oh... and I wanted to let you know that I've added a few things to the done list and a few more to the to do list."

"Excellent. At this rate we'll be ready to launch ahead of schedule. Just keep me posted and I'll do the same."

"Absolutely. I've got a little more settling in to do, but things are coming along nicely. Even my mother can't complain about the mess my place is in now."

"Wow," Alex commented, impressed. "You've been busy."

"The right kind of motivation, but I need to get back to work."

"Me too, actually. But thanks for calling, Casey. I'm glad you did."

"Who would have thought when you crashed back into Olivia's life months ago that so much would have happened to bring us to the place we are now?"

"Not me," Alex confessed, "but I can't really regret any of it. It's given me some of the best friends in the world."

"I think it did that for all of us," Casey concurred with a smile. "Gotta go."

"Later, my friend."

The next time the phone rang it was the doctor's office, and Alex had a brief, fleeting thought to wish for Olivia's strong presence with her before she processed the doctor's words. Still, she got the gist – cancer, early stages, radical treatment. She thanked Dr. Schumer and promised to schedule an appointment as soon as she was able. She hoped Olivia would be home soon.

When Olivia arrived home late that night, all thought of cancer and its implications fell from Alex's mind. One look into Liv's eyes and she knew something had gone drastically, horribly wrong.

"Talk to me, Liv. What happened?" wrapping Olivia into her embrace and feeling her melt into it.

And in slow, halting sentences she told Alex of her experience in Sealview. The harassment, her near rape, her reaction as a victim and her paralyzing fear.

"I've never... Alex, I.... Everything I've ever told a victim – it's all a lie. I should have responded differently – I'm a trained police officer and it's my job to take out scum like him. Instead, I nearly became a victim, unable to do more than scream for someone else to help me," she finished in a whisper. "Now it's like... he made me feel more than dirty, Alex. He made me feel impotent."

"Liv, have you talked to anyone about this?"

Olivia shook her head violently. "Only you. Melinda knows it was close – she just doesn't know how close. I'm being forced to see a departmental shrink, but I can't share this with them. Alex. It'll get me thrown off the force."

"Liv, you've got to talk to someone about this. Keeping it inside will rip you apart." She bit her lips as she met stubborn brown eyes. "Do you trust me?"

"With all that I am." Alex smiled at that, leaning forward but letting Olivia close the remaining distance between them. Needing the connection and reassurance, Liv kissed Alex thoroughly, passionately. Then she took her upstairs to renew the bond between them and wash away the fear and disgust her would-be rapist had pierced her with.

Alex followed and led as Liv demanded of her, content in the knowledge that they would get through this together and tomorrow was soon enough to share what the doctor had said.

They lay tangled together as the sun rose, clinging to one another. Alex turned to find Olivia watching her and she turned her head until their lips met.

"Thank you for last night, Alex. I needed that."

Blue eyes crinkled in response. "So did I, Liv. So thank you." She paused, then plowed forward. "I talked to Dr. Schumer's office yesterday. It is cancer."

"Oh, Alex."

"It's all right, Liv. As long as we're together, it's all right. Because we'll get through it, just like we'll get through what happened to you. We'll get through it because we're stronger together."

Olivia nodded. "I never realized the truth of that before, and I should have. As a cop, it makes such a difference, knowing that your back is covered by someone you trust. It kinda makes sense that it would be the same on a personal level." She looked around the room before clearing her throat gently and returning her focus to Alex. "So what did the doctor say?"

"She wants to meet with us to discuss options and treatments. She believes we caught it in time, but she stressed to me that sooner was better. I told her I needed to talk to you and find a time when we could both come in to talk about it."

"You get the first appointment you can, and I'll make sure I'm available."

Alex nodded. "All right," biting her lip thoughtfully. Liv frowned at her.


"I made an appointment with my therapist," Alex replied after a brief hesitation. "I'd like for you to come along with me – for you and for me," she qualified.


"Liv, I think it's important. You're going to need to talk to a professional about this sooner or later. I think it would be better if it could be with someone you trusted to be honest with instead of a police shrink you have to give the right answers to if you want to continue to be a detective. You don't have to talk if you don't want to – not at first. And I'd still like you to accompany me, even if you decide not to do it for yourself."

Liv stared into Alex's eyes for a long moment, seeing the truth for herself. She nodded and kissed Alex chastely, leaning their foreheads together.

"Thanks," she said softly.

Alex kissed her possessively and they welcomed the day ardently, secure in themselves no matter what life threw at them.



Alex and Olivia stepped hand in hand from the doctor's office, slipping on sunglasses and nearly wilting when the heat blasted against them. They started walking towards the car.

"Hell of a day," Olivia commented with a smile which Alex reciprocated.

"Hell of a good day," Alex quipped, her expression outshining even the brightness of the sunlight around them. "Do you realize what today is?" giving Liv an impromptu hug.

Liv looked at Alex like she was just slightly crazy considering where they'd just come from, but decided to humor her. "Aside from the day you got a clean bill of health from Dr. Schumer? Not a clue." Alex rolled her eyes, but before she could speak, Liv continued. "Oh wait... it's also the first day of our vacation, and it's the first time we're seeing Casey and Abbie since they moved in together."

"It's also our anniversary," Alex said as she pushed the short hair from her eyes. Olivia stopped in her tracks, nearly causing Alex to stumble. Blue eyes glared at brown and brown glared right back.

"No it isn't, Alex. I wouldn't forget something that important."

"One year ago today, I marched myself up to your apartment and forced my way back into your life. I'd call that an anniversary."

Olivia opened the door and waited for Alex to slide in before running around and sliding into the driver's side. She cranked the car and rolled down the windows while blasting the air conditioner as high as it would go. "I guess you're right," she agreed as she pulled into traffic. "Been quite a year, huh?"

"Yes; it's been quite an adventure getting here too," eyes meeting and lips turning up in smiles as they thought back on all the bumps and curves along the road that had gotten them to this time and place.

"And it's only the beginning."

The ride was quiet as Olivia maneuvered them out of the city. Once they reached a less-crowded section of highway. She cut her eyes in Alex's direction and cleared her throat.

"You didn't.... <ahem> You didn't happen to pack those jeans did you?"

"And if I did?" Alex asked with a wicked grin.

Olivia's chuckle was answer enough. Their new year together was starting out with a bang.

The End

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