DISCLAIMER: Don't own anything, let alone these two. Borrowed for entertainment purposes only and returned no worse for the wear.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story takes place in December, 2014 (up until the epilogue, whose date is noted in a "doinkdoink"). As the author, I have assumed facts not in evidence canonically. Amongst those are the ages of the three protagonist women. For the purposes of this story, at the time of "Ghost", Olivia was 38, Alex was 33, and Casey was 29.
THANKS: To Shay, my amazing beta-reader, who tells it like it is and who always helps me to be a better writer.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Diamonds and Rust
By DiNovia

Diamonds and Rust

by Joan Baez

I'll be damned, here comes your ghost again
but that's not unusual
it's just that the moon is full
and you happened to call

And here I sit, hand on the telephone
hearing the voice I'd known
a couple of light years ago
headed straight for a fall

As I remember your eyes were bluer than robin's eggs
My poetry was lousy you said
Where are you calling from
A booth in the Midwest
Ten years ago I bought you some cufflinks
You brought me something
We both know what memories can bring
they bring Diamonds and Rust

Now I see you standing with brown leaves all around and snow in
your hair
Now we're smiling out the window of the crummy hotel over
washington square
Our breath comes out white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
we both could've died then and there

Now you're telling me you're not nostalgic
then give me another word for it
you were so good with words
and at keeping things vague

cause I need some of that vagueness now, it's all come back too
yes, I loved you dearly
and if you're offering me diamonds and rust
I've already paid

But we both know what memories can bring
they bring Diamonds and Rust
yes we both know what memories can bring
they bring Diamonds and Rust

"Well, I'll be goddamned," said Elliot Stabler as the statuesque blonde entered the squad room of the 16th Precinct. For a moment time spun backwards sickeningly and he was watching her enter the room over and over; in tailored skirt suits, in blazers and pants with knife-edged creases, and once or twice in jeans that looked ironed. But always with that pale golden hair, eyes the color and temperature of glacier ice, and a pair of black-framed glasses that had intimidated more than one perp into spilling his guts at her feet.

Now Alex Cabot stood before him in faded jeans, a garnet cableknit sweater and a black wool coat. Her hair was pulled back in a french braid and was longer than he remembered it. She wore no glasses.

Olivia Benson turned at Elliot's outburst and took in a sharp breath as the whole world dropped out from beneath her.

"Alex?" Her voice was barely audible and it cracked like thin ice under the weight of the moment.

"Elliot," said the ghost woman, nodding. "Olivia." She glanced at the two unfamiliar women sitting in what were supposed to have been Munch's and Fin's desks. Two pairs of curious eyes stared back at her.

Stabler caught the looks and cleared his throat. "Alex Cabot, let me introduce you to Detectives Amy West and Nadia Thornton. Ladies, this is Alex Cabot, a former--"

"--a former ADA assigned to our unit who ended up in Witness Protection because of a hit put out on her by Cesar Velez, a Columbian warlord turned drug trafficker and murderer," said Nadia by rote. When the rest of the squad looked at her blankly, she added, "I've read the file a few times."

Elliot was the first to recover. "Nadia's hobby is staying up all night to read our cold case files in the hopes of finding the break we all, in our age-addled incompetence, missed the first go around." He grinned at the detective and then at Alex. "That's what we get for recruiting out of grade school," he joked, winking playfully.

"Yeah, yeah, LT," said the young black woman, waving Elliot off. "That insult just never gets old for you, does it?"

Alex whirled to face Elliot again, her eyes growing round with shock. "LT? You mean 'lieutenant'?" she asked. "You run the squad now?" She looked around the room in vain. It looked so much like it had ten years ago--the last time she'd set foot in it--that she had made the terrible mistake of believing nothing had changed. In the snapshot locked in her mind, Cragen was still captain and those desks now inhabited by two women belonged to John Munch and Fin Tutuola. "Then Don...?"

She purposefully left the question hanging. If Don Cragen had died, she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

"Cragen retired four years ago, once he had convinced me I wanted his job." Elliot smiled nostalgically. "It took him the better part of a year to turn me around. The first time he asked I told him to go to Hell."

Alex nodded, relieved. "And John? Fin?"

"Fin's my partner now," said Olivia, coming out of her stupor long enough to contribute to the conversation, no matter how lamely. "He's out getting lunch for us. It's Wednesday."

'It's Wednesday'? Jesus Fucking Christ, Olivia, what are you talking about? Get a friggin' grip before everyone figures out you're about to fall apart right here at your desk.

Olivia closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and vowed to keep her mouth shut for the foreseeable future.

Elliot saw his former partner's distress and he jumped in to save her any further cause to return to those old familiar weapons of self-hatred.

"John was killed in the line of duty six years ago this upcoming April," he said softly, pulling Alex's attention to him again. "He and Fin were interviewing a pair of eight-year-old twins at a local elementary school. They'd told a teacher that their father was abusing them and the teacher called social services who, in turn, called us. While they were questioning the girls, the father showed up out of nowhere and started shooting. He killed the teacher first then aimed for the girls. John dove in front of them."

Tears slid silently down Alex's cheeks. "Oh God, I'm so sorry." She covered her eyes with her hands, finding this death almost too hard to bear. The guilt she felt for immediately thanking a higher power that it hadn't been Olivia wasn't helping either. "God..."

Suddenly and inexplicably angered by the blonde's tears, Olivia snapped, "What are you doing here, Alex?"

Stunned, Alex dropped her hands to her sides. "What? I--I'm just... I wanted--"

Elliot held up his hand to forestall the confession he suspected the former ADA was about to offer his best detective. "Liv," he said pointedly. "Why don't you take Alex to lunch and get caught up? It's been slow today. In fact, take the afternoon. You've been bugging me for some off time for the last two months."

Olivia shook her head. "But not like this, Elliot. This isn't what I--"

"Liv." His hazel eyes bored into hers, years of partnership affording him a measure of intimacy that he held with no one else in his life. They told her, Take care of this. You know you have to. You'll be impossible to live with until you do.

In turn, her blackening eyes told him, Fuck you for being right, Elliot.

"Fine." Olivia pushed herself up out of her chair and grabbed her coat. She glanced briefly at Alex before brushing past her on the way out the door. "Let's go."

Overwhelmed by the detective's anger and the unexpected changes assailing her, Alex looked helplessly at Elliot. He gave her the hint of an encouraging smile and then averted his gaze.

Finding his help to be lacking, Alex scowled at him then turned and followed Olivia out.

Alex caught up to Liv on the street outside.

"Did you have a place in mind or..." The blonde let the question die slowly in the frigid air between them. This reunion was not going at all how she had imagined it. She had a sinking feeling that it wasn't going to get any better either.

Olivia looked off into the middle distance between where she stood and Hell's black gates. She released a long, gray, swirling sigh and jammed her cold hands into her coat pockets.

You're not really angry with Alex, she told herself, hoping to diffuse the burning sensation in her chest and belly. You're angry with yourself. That you still react this way. That it isn't over yet.

"I don't want to have this conversation in front of strangers, Alex," she said. "I can't."

The former attorney blinked. "Okay. Well, I'm staying at the Ritz. I have a suite with a nice dining area. We could order something up...if that's okay with you."

Olivia almost laughed but it would have been a sound completely devoid of mirth and she knew enough to restrain herself. How much would she have given, how much would she have sacrificed to have had the same invitation ten years ago?

"That'll work," she said softly and she stepped to the curb to hail a cab.

Alex shook her head sharply and wondered why Olivia hadn't yet looked into her eyes.

The cab ride had been excruciatingly silent, with Olivia staring out of her window while Alex had glared daggers at the back of the cabbie's head, willing him to drive faster. The elevator ride up to her suite hadn't been much better and Alex felt a migraine coming on.

She shut the door behind them and took a moment to look at her ex-lover. The almost painful leanness that she had come to associate with the detective was gone, replaced by something she had yet to define. Her hair was slightly shorter and was peppered with a bit of gray. She stood in the center of the main room and casually examined her surroundings, but where Alex had expected that sense of discomfort and nervousness she remembered from similar moments in the past, now she found a quiet confidence. Olivia was finally comfortable in her own skin and the ex-ADA found that knowledge bittersweet.

"So," she said, taking off her coat and throwing it on a bench near the door. "They do a lovely stuffed salmon here or there's the porterhouse if you're in the mood for beef." When Olivia glanced at her but did not immediately respond, she went to the mahogany sideboard next to the dining table. "Can I get you a drink? Do you still drink 'scotch neat'?"

"You said you were never coming back."

Alex's hands froze over the cut crystal decanter and she lowered her head. After a moment, she poured a few fingers of the amber liquid and brought the tumbler to her lips, downing half in one gulp.

"I know."

"Ten years, Alex. It's been ten years."

The younger blonde turned flame blue eyes on the detective. "I know how long it's been, Olivia. Nine years and ten months. Nine years and ten months of living in one small town or quaint hamlet after another. Maine, Louisiana, Utah, Indiana... Everyone of them Hell on Earth to me because they were not my home, were not where I belonged." She drained the rest of the liquid from the tumbler and set it down hard on the sideboard. "Don't act as if I don't know how long it's been, okay?"

Olivia scrutinized the blonde for a moment, her eyes narrowing slightly.

"I'm sorry." She offered the apology sincerely but with no explanation.


Olivia took a breath to cover her hesitation.

For? For Cesar Velez and that fuck, Zapata? For you being stuck in Witness Protection when your mother died? For all the years you've spent trying to remember what your name is this week? For what we--you and I--lost that night you were shot?

"For your pain," she said finally.

Alex snorted and shook her head. She turned back to the decanter. "My pain." She poured herself another drink, enjoying the burn of the liquid more than she felt she should. "How very succinct of you, Detective."

Olivia frowned. "What do you want me to say, Alex? Do you want an itemized list of all the shit you've been through over the years?"

The blonde steadied herself by placing both hands flat on the wooden surface of the buffet. "No, Olivia, I don't." She sighed deeply and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she turned, slowly walking towards the shorter woman. "How about 'welcome back' or 'I've missed you' or something along those lines?" When the brunette predictably turned away, she cried, "You won't even look at me!"

Now it was Olivia's turn to laugh mockingly. "'Welcome back, Alex?' That's what you want to hear?" She walked towards the large picture window that--unsurprisingly--looked out over the snowy meadows of Central Park. She stared at the white expanse, comparing its bitter beauty to the feeling in the pit of her stomach. "You don't understand. Things have changed here while you were away." The tiniest hint of an honest smile tugged at her mouth. "I've changed," she added softly.

Alex took another step closer. "We both have, Olivia. But that shouldn't mean that we can't--"

"That we can't what?" The older woman whirled towards the blonde, eyes flashing. "Pick up where we left off? Start over? And will Mr. Softee be okay with that?"

"Mister who?"

"That insurance guy who whispered your name at night, Emily," she clarified. Her tone was razor sharp and it cut deeply. "You don't remember him? Because I do."

For three seconds, Alex had no idea who or what Olivia was talking about. Then the memories came rushing back loudly, like screeching roller coaster cars returning to the gate filled to overflowing with shrieking children.

"Adam? You're asking me about Adam? God, Olivia, I haven't seen Adam since the FBI relocated me to Utah!"

The detective leveled her darkening gaze at her ex and Alex shivered. She felt like she was looking down the cold, black barrel of a shotgun.

"So who were you fucking in Utah?" asked Liv, her voice low and deadly.

Alex reacted without thinking.

She was fast but Olivia was faster. The older woman caught Alex by the wrist before her flattened palm could make contact with her cheek.

"How dare you?" yelled the blonde as she jerked her hand from Liv's grasp. She hugged herself and tried to stop trembling. Rage crashed through her body like a roaring inferno. "You don't know what it was like! I looked over my shoulder every day, every minute. I didn't feel safe in my home, in my own bed! I couldn't open up to anyone. Don't you get it? I was alone. So alone! I was losing myself. I was becoming Emily when Adam walked into my life. He kept me from going insane, from drowning in my new name and new profession. He kept me from forgetting you!"

Olivia narrowed her eyes, clearly displeased by the explanation. "No, I don't know what it was like for you, Alex." The words sounded harsh. Forced. "If you will recall, I was stuck here, at the same desk that you used to perch on whenever you came to the squad. In the same job that brought you into my life. In the same city where I worked with you, side by side, day by day, for three years." She paused and her voice cracked when she continued. "In the same apartment where I made you dinner that one night, our first... The first time we made love." She turned and stalked a few steps away, needing space to breathe. To remember.

"I saw you everywhere, Alex," she said finally. "Every woman with long, blonde hair on the train. Every woman with square, black glasses. Every click of heels that went past the squad door." She laughed but it was not joyful. "And let's not even talk about when I would be in court, testifying against some perp even though my chest ached and I wanted to scream. When I would walk past your office door at One HP in the middle of the night, half expecting you to be scouring WestLaw for some obscure point of precedent or scribbling notes on a yellow pad for your latest closing argument."

Olivia glanced at her ex but just as quickly looked away. "There were days, Alex, when I would have given every year of whatever future I had for just three more minutes with you. And there were also days when I wished you had actually died. Because knowing you were out there...somewhere...but that I couldn't be with you..." She reached up to scrub at her burning eyes. "It was killing me, Alex."

"It was killing me, too." Alex walked toward the brunette but stopped short of actually touching her. "Have things really changed so much that we can't find our way back to where we were?"

Olivia snorted and shook her head. "You don't even know what you're asking!"

"I'm asking for a chance!" replied the blonde angrily. "A simple fucking chance to--"

"I'm married."

Stricken, Alexandra Cabot staggered backwards as if she'd been shot, almost white with shock. Her mouth opened and closed reflexively like a goldfish's does as it dies of oxygen deprivation on the kitchen floor. She had to force herself to speak.

"What?" The sound was just the shattered remains of her voice, barely Human, barely audible. Of all the things she had considered, of all the reasons for Olivia to refuse her, this was definitely not one of them.

Before Olivia could explain, a gentle hum began to eminate from her hip. Grabbing her cell almost gratefully, the detective turned slightly away from Alex, partially for the illusion of privacy it afforded and partially so she wouldn't have to look at her ex-lover's rattled features.

"Benson." A smile, bright and sweet, bloomed when she heard the voice on the other end. It wiped all traces of the anger and sadness from her own voice. "Hi, Scout!"

Scout? thought Alex. Her dismay at Olivia's revelation temporarily overrode her usually impeccable manners, allowing her to eavesdrop without guilt. What kind of fucking name is 'Scout'?

"Not really. I'm actually taking the afternoon off. I'll be home in a little while. ... No, honey, I'm not sick. Uncle Elliot just thought that I should spend some extra time with my favorite little guy today."

Oh my God... Oh God... A child? She has a son? I can't... No, I can't handle this. I cannot take this right now. I can't.

"That's a great idea, sweetie. I haven't gotten your mommy's Christmas present yet either."

M--Mommy? What the--? Oh...no... No, no, no... The Federal Marriage Equality Act...it was passed in 2010. Who did you marry, Olivia? Who is it? Oh God, what have I done?

"Deal. I'll pick you up in about an hour, okay? Tell Rick I'll be early today. ... I love you, too, sweetie. ... Be good and I'll see you in a little bit. ... Bye-bye." Liv closed the phone and clipped it back to her belt. Turning, she glanced at Alex half-sheepishly, half-cautiously.

"I'm sorry, Alex. I didn't mean to drop him on you like that. He calls me around lunchtime every day and unless I'm on a case, I always answer." She wanted to shrug but she knew that would only be pouring salt in her ex-lover's wounds.

Alex groped for a chair, found one, and sat heavily in it, her hands gripping the classically upholstered seatcover as if her life depended on it. "Who?"

"My son. John Patrick Benson. He's five."

The former ADA started shaking her head. "No, no... Who--who is your wife, Olivia? Who did you marry?"

Olivia Benson sighed. She didn't want to hurt Alex. She'd loved her deeply once. But that was a very, very long time ago and she had a different life now. A beautiful wife. A handsome, healthy son. A home like she'd never had before.

She smiled just a little, completely unable to hide the happiness that threaded through her like Christmas tinsel in the candlelight.

"Casey," she said quietly, her eyes lightening with delight at the mere mention of her wife's name.

"I married Casey Novak."

Casey Benson entered the squad room with a little extra swing in her hips and a shit-eating grin...that is, until she saw that Olivia's desk was empty.


Odafin Tutuola looked up from his laptop and grinned at the attorney, though it seemed a bit forced. The remains of a meatball sub sat next to him, slowly congealing upon its butcher paper wrapping. "Case! How's my favorite member o' the bar doin' today?"

Casey narrowed her eyes at the detective and crossed her arms over her chest. "Can it, Fin," she groused. "Where is she?"

It had been a somewhat common occurance for most of the year for Olivia Benson to disappear around lunchtime twice a week for a purpose that Casey could neither fathom nor--with her considerable prosecutorial skills--shake out of her partner. She was in no mood for Fin's colorful and completely-full-of-shit responses today. Just last week he'd told her that Olivia was called in to give demonstrations at a blow-up doll convention. Definitely one of his most creative cover stories but not one of his most popular. Particularly with the redhead.

"Don' take this the wrong way, Case, but I think I'm gonna let Elliot answer that for ya." He turned to look behind him at Elliot's office. "Yo, E! Someone here with a question!"

Lieutenant Elliot Stabler appeared in his doorway, paging through a file that seemed to be somewhat troubling to him. But not as troubling, apparently, as seeing Casey Benson standing across from Fin, obviously the person with the question.

Fuck me. Liv, you owe me for this.

Frowning, Elliot waved Casey into his office and closed the door behind her.

"Elliot, I know you wouldn't be sitting in your office reading through files if Liv was bleeding or being patched up down at Memorial or if J.P. was in trouble." Her voice wavered just slightly and her heart didn't know which scenario would be worse. "Right?"

"It's nothing like that, Casey. I promise. Liv is fine. John's fine. It's just..." He ran his hand over his ever thinning hair and threw the file he was holding onto a growing pile of them that were scattered over his workspace. He gestured for Casey to take a seat and when she refused, he perched himself on the edge of his desk. The attorney smiled inwardly for just a second, recognizing the habit as one he'd learned from his predecessor. She wondered if he even knew he was doing it.

"Are you sure you don't want to sit down?" he asked finally, looking at her hopefully.

"Just tell me, Elliot. I'm wearing my 'big-girl panties' today...I can take it."

Ooookay. Here goes.

"Alex Cabot showed up about forty-five minutes ago and Liv is having lunch with her."

Elliot had a fleeting urge to take cover under his desk as if to shelter from a barrage of battlefield artillery. When he was finally able to glance at Casey, he was surprised to see her still standing. Pale to begin with, she was positively ashen now. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, she turned and found a chair to lower herself into.

"Casey--" he began, but she raised one hand, silently asking him to give her a moment. She needed to process this news. Hell, she needed to absorb it first.

Almost nine years of sweet flirting, shy dinners, new intimacy, relationship building, childish arguments, interrupted anniversary dinners, medical scares, private birthday celebrations, bad days at the office...it was all just swept away by a hurricane of swirling, confusing emotions.

She and Olivia's first real date, at Hell's Kitchen on 9th, Mexican food and margaritas...gone.

The first time they made love, when Olivia showed up at her apartment door crying because the system had failed yet another child in pain and need...blown away.

The Valentine's Day dinner when Olivia shyly asked if Casey would consider living with a "cranky old detective"...evaporated.

The Valentine's morning breakfast in bed two years later, with milk served to her in a baby bottle, Olivia's way of telling her that she was pregnant, that they were going to have a baby...decimated.

April 16th, 2009, holding hands, tears mixing with raindrops as they stood graveside at John Munch's funeral, grieving for a friend, a brother lost...obliterated.

September 7th, 2009, 9:27am, the moment that John Patrick Benson took his first breath in the world as his mothers cried with joy...shredded and whisked away.

November 20th, 2010, standing in the midst of all their friends and family in the New York City Police Museum as she and Olivia were legally married, officially one of the first thousand couples in Manhattan to do so that week, the first week of the Federal Marriage Equality Act...destroyed.

All of it and everything since, just...gone. She was once again Casey Novak, a young ADA with a crush on a beautiful detective, staring across a long, cherrywood table at the detective's ex-lover, back from the dead. Aching with devastation yet desperate to give Olivia the happiness she wished for her. Torn asunder by conflicting desires and a sadness that burned inside her like acid.

Then, days later, letting good champagne go flat in a paper cup, again beset by a tumult of emotions as Agent Hammond explained that Alex had once again been relocated under the Witness Protection Program and had sent him to say good-bye.

Raw again now, as she had been then, thirty-eight-year-old Casey Benson let the fear and insecurity, the anger and the resolution wash through her. Her stomach churned and she was suddenly glad she hadn't had time for lunch...otherwise she was sure she'd be seeing it again.

Elliot watched as the ADA turned green. When tears welled in her eyes, he stood.

"Casey, this doesn't--"

"Don't. Elliot, I--I'm sorry. I have to go. Now." She bolted from his office before he could stop her and she practically sprinted out of the squad room, running...

Running as if her past was catching up to her, thought Elliot. Goddammit, Olivia! There is no number of baseline Yankees tickets that could even begin to touch how much you owe me right now.

He picked up his long-empty coffee mug and threw it against the wall where it shattered into hundreds of deeply satisfying pieces. He knew Fin was out there weighing the pros and cons of asking him if he was okay. He also knew Detectives West and Thornton were staring at each other, wide-eyed, across their desks. He closed his own eyes briefly.

When he finally opened them again, he shouted, "Fin, when you see your goddamn partner again, tell her she owes me a fucking coffee cup!" He thought for a minute and then added, "And it better say something nice or she'll spend a week picking glass out of her ass! Are we clear?"

Fin nodded non-chalantly. "Sure thing, E." He turned back to his computer and resumed typing as if nothing unusual had happened.

It drove West and Thornton nuts.

Every time.

Alex stood numbly.

"Casey Novak." She said the name flatly, completely devoid of feeling. "Your wife is Casey Novak."

Color started to return to the ex-ADA's alabaster cheeks and the blue of her eyes began to simmer. "You married that naive shadow of Mary Conway-Clark's? The same scatterbrain you and Elliot didn't even trust enough to tell that I was in Witness Protection?"

Olivia's autumnal eyes crackled with fire. "Excuse me?"

Alex was beyond stopping. "Forget for the moment that she's another ADA, that she was my replacement. Forget that her nickname in Felonies was 'Send 'Em Back Novak'. She's not good enough for you, Olivia! She's not strong enough for you. You should know what you need in a partner by now!"

"How the fuck would you know what I need?" Olivia wanted to pummel something or to hear the satisfying crunch of glass breaking. "And how the fuck would you know anything about Casey's strength? You worked with her once--ten years ago!"

The blonde smirked and perched her hands on her hips. "She get better with that bat of hers, did she?"

"Oh she got better, yeah," spat Olivia, circling the ex-attorney like a panther stalking its prey. "Her real talent, though, is pitching. Turns out I'm the one who can really swing a bat."

"What?" Alex laughed. "You? Olivia, you hate softball!"

"You know what?" countered the detective acidly. "Sometimes it's not about what I like or don't like. Sometimes it's about what she likes, about sharing something important with the woman I love. And besides, I'm actually enjoying it! Going to the cages for lessons twice a week has drastically improved my stress levels." She paused and somewhat ironically added, "Not that you can tell that right now."

Alex ignored the wry statement and asked another question. Her tone made it clear that she found all of this to be incredulous. "Lessons?"

"Yes, lessons," replied Liv, her patience with the continuing interrogation belied by her lack of sincerity. "It's my surprise for her this Christmas. I'm signing up for the Sex Crimes team in the Spring. Two years ago, one of her gifts to me was Scout and her joining me on my morning runs."

Alex shook her head. "And I bet you get a really good workout pushing a kid around."

If Olivia had felt there was a limit to how angry she could possibly become with her ex-lover, she suddenly found that limit somewhere behind where she was now...and it was rapidly receding into the distance.

"My son's name is John Patrick and getting a 'good workout' is not the fucking point! Having thirty minutes of guaranteed family time every day is! Jesus, Alex!" The detective threw her hands up, exasperated. "Don't you fucking get it? Casey is not just my lover, she's my wife! John Patrick is our son! You are belittling my family and I want it to stop. Right the fuck now."

"I'm sorry," shouted the blonde as she whirled away from Liv's fierce glare. She didn't want Liv to see her tears even though they choked her voice. "It's just... God, Liv, so much has changed! I wasn't expecting this...any of it! It's too much!" Alex took deep breaths to calm herself, wrapping her arms around herself again to stop her shivering. "I just remember what she was like back then and it doesn't...it just doesn't make sense to me..."

Olivia stared at the blonde's perfectly-postured back and watched as her shoulders shook with silent tears. The older woman forced herself to unclench her jaw and her fists. She was suddenly and clearly reminded that Alex didn't know Casey like she did; that she hadn't watched the young redheaded ADA grow into her position, into her skin. When she felt she could speak again without shouting, she tried to explain.

"Look, Alex, what you remember about Casey is at least ten years old. She's changed so much since then." Liv ran a hand through her short hair then pulled a chair out from the dining table, sitting in it with a weary plop. "Two months after you left the last time, a man named Milan Zergin disguised himself as a flower delivery person and nearly beat Casey to death in her own office. He broke four of her ribs, dislocated her hip, gave her two black eyes, choked her, hit her with a lamp, beat her with her own baseball bat... He hit her so hard that she lost eight hours of her memory and our doctor says..."

Alex turned back toward her ex-lover, watching with pain and contrition as tears welled in those dark bronze eyes.

"We've been trying to have another child for two years," she whispered finally, her voice roughened with grief. "I carried John Patrick because Casey couldn't seem to get pregnant, no matter how many times we tried. Our doctor doesn't know if she'll ever be able to carry a baby full-term."

Olivia absently wiped away her tears. Alex desperately wanted to apologize, horrified by the older woman's admission, but she could not bring herself to say a word.

"You know what she did after the attack, Alex?" The detective looked up at her ex-lover, her features caught in a heartbreaking contortion somewhere between pride and sadness. "She wanted to prosecute the case he was trying to fuck to Hell. She wanted to go into court, bashed up and bruised, and nail the bastard who'd raped his sister. But Branch took her off the case so she did the next best thing: she convinced the sister of the man who nearly killed her to testify against the rapist. That was it, Alex..."

Olivia offered the blonde a watery smile. "That's the moment that she started to grow and all of us with her. She's been with SVU for over ten years and she's still sane. She's still passionate about the work we do, about getting justice for the victims."

With a sigh and the kind of plain speaking that rang with truth, she added, "You, of all people, have to understand what kind of strength an accomplishment like that would take."

She had nowhere to go.

The realization hit Casey with the force of a blow to the chest and she gulped in huge amounts of bitter, freezing air, trying to regain her breath.

She stumbled across the sidewalk outside the precinct and steadied herself on one of the newspaper boxes that dotted the landscape like steel bushes. It was ice cold and she idly wondered where her gloves were until she remembered they were probably still on the couch in her office, where she'd thrown them when she'd gotten in that morning.

I can't go home. Not like this. The thought of rambling around their empty brownstone--the home she and Olivia had bought together just a few months before John Patrick was born--made her already queasy stomach roil in protest. The office was out of the question, too. The last thing Casey wanted was for anyone to see her like this.

Like this? She snorted wryly. What, destroyed? Terrified? Lost?

She began to walk with no particular destination in mind. The low and thickening clouds were like a heavy blanket and she sheltered under them, following the snatches of cotton white and slate blue she could see between buildings and trees until, twenty minutes later, she found herself in Central Park. More specifically, she found herself in the Ross Pinetum and she slogged through the old, churned up snow until she reached a partially cleared bench. She sat down, shivering as she stared at the dark green pines against the white landscape.

For two blessed minutes, while her brain adjusted to the ever-dropping temperature, she thought of nothing. But once she became more used to the searing chill in the air, her mind kicked back into full gear and tears welled in her eyes, slipping down her cheeks in scalding rills.

Olivia is with Alex Cabot. Right now. Right this minute.

The words were hard to hear, even unspoken. Particularly for the woman who had spent the first year of her relationship with the detective trying to proove she was as worthy of Olivia's affections as Alex had been.

Too close to the problem to be able to see it, Olivia had become increasingly exasperated by the attorney's erratic behaviour until--during one of their worst arguments to that point--she'd suddenly caught on in a brilliant flash of insight that had nearly knocked her on her ass. Her asinine shouting had just faded away and Casey had found herself enveloped in strong, warm arms.

"Oh, Casey, honey," she'd whispered. "You're not a replacement for Alex. Not here, not with me. I love you because of who you are. Not because of what I can't have."

Casey wanted to believe those words again but back then she'd been fighting a ghost and it had been so much easier to win against someone who couldn't defend themselves, let alone press a prior claim. This Alex, the one having lunch with her wife today, was all too real and Casey felt woefully outclassed and outmaneuvered.

Just then it began to snow. Big, fat, white flakes that hissed when they hit the ground. Whose tiny noise somehow deepened the sense of silence in winter's harsh cradle.

That's when Casey realized exactly where she was and she almost groaned. She hid her face in her numb hands and tried to hide from the memory but it was an exercise in futility. Holding her breath to steel herself against the pain, she let the memory come. She had no choice. It rolled over her like the disobedient ocean.

Their first, real kiss... Just up the path a little ways... One snowy evening, about a month after they'd started dating...

Casey Benson let the sweetness of the recollection wash down her face with her cooling tears. She was suddenly struck by how maudlin she was allowing herself to be and she reached for her phone. If ever she needed a change of attitude, it was now--and no one on the planet could cheer her up like her son could.

She pressed a single button and waited as the phone on the other end rang.


Casey felt a smile starting already. Whenever Rick Stabler answered the phone he sounded slightly befuddled, as if he'd never really seen a phone before and had just picked it up because it was making a funny noise.

"Hey, Rick," she said. "How are you and the wild man doing today?"

"Oh, Casey! Hi! Me and J.P. did just fine today. He only beat me in Gooshers four times. I think I'm getting better!"

The attorney laughed. "Well someone has to be able to beat him. Liv seems to pick up on it after the fifth game or so but I'm hopeless at it."

"Keep practicing, Counselor. You'll get the hang of it."

"Thanks for the advice, Rick. Now can I talk to the champ, please?"

"Oh, I'm sorry; you just missed him. Olivia picked him up a couple of minutes ago. She said something about Dad letting her take the afternoon off so she and J.P. could spend some time together."

Without realizing it, the earnest young man who had been J.P.'s regular and most favorite babysitter for years had single-handedly unwound the barbed-wire wrapped around Casey's heart.

"She did?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound as relieved as she felt.

"Yeah. You might want to give her a call, though. She seemed kinda out of it and when I asked her if she was okay, she said she'd just come from a stressful meeting. She didn't tell me what it was about but she sure didn't seem happy."

Casey felt like she could fly circles around the sun. "I will," she promised. "Thanks for the heads up."

"No problem. You know us Stabler kids...we worry when someone looks unhappy. Especially if it's one of our favorite aunts."

The redhead chuckled. She stood and began to shake the snow from her coat sleeves. "Sweet talker," she smiled. "Are you sure you don't want to chuck your Florence Nightengale dreams and become our full-time nanny? Scout would love it and you know Olivia and I think you're the best thing since the Pentium chip."

Rick laughed and the attorney could almost see him shaking his head indulgently.

"Tell you what, Aunt Case. If nursing school kicks my ass, your house is the first place I'll stop, okay?"

"Yeah, right. You're going to fly through nursing school, Rick. Nothing kicks your ass." She thought for a minute. "In fact, I don't think even your father could kick your ass--even if he put his mind to it."

"Oh, trust me. Metaphorically speaking, he's very good at what we Stabler kids call 'gluteal motivation'. I gotta run, though. I figured since I have the afternoon off, I could get some Christmas shopping done. I always leave it to the last minute, ya know?"

"Me too," the attorney admitted ruefully. "Don't let me keep you, though. Have a great time."

"Oh yeah. Christmas in the city. My favorite time of year." The sarcasm in his voice was thick. "Bye, Aunt Case. See you tomorrow morning."

"Eight am sharp, right? That means we'll be there around eight-thirty," she joked. "Bye, Rick."

Casey disconnected the call then contemplated the phone. True, she could call Olivia to find out what had happened between her and Alex. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she already knew what had happened. Had known--if she were to be honest with herself--from the start. Maybe not the specifics but certainly the outcome. Which meant it wasn't Olivia she needed to talk to.

She pressed the directory button and scrolled through the offerings until she found the one she wanted. She hit "auto dial" and started for the street, intent on finding a nice warm cab to take her to her destination.

Her call was answered on the half-ring.

"Ritz-Carlton. How may I direct your call?"

"Yes, thank you," she said in her most regal tone. She was lucky to find a cab almost immediately and she climbed into it quickly, eager to warm up. "I need to check to make sure one of your guests has arrived..."

Alex Cabot sat in the well-appointed living room of her high-priced suite, curled up in the corner of the couch, nursing her third scotch. Olivia had long since left the 'scene of the crime', as she was calling it. After all, what else could be said? Happily married with a son, Olivia's heart had long since been spoken for. It was an eventuality that Alex had never planned on, never expected.

She took another sip of the fiery liquid in her tumbler and hoped it would make her forget. Forget the tears in Olivia's eyes as she spoke of her fear that Casey wouldn't ever be able to carry a child. Forget the platinum wedding band and the square-cut diamond engagement ring on her right hand. Forget the sound of real joy in the detective's voice when she talked to John Patrick on the phone.

The drink wasn't working.

You've certainly made a mess of things, haven't you, Alexandra? Her mouth twisted in self-loathing exacerbated by both the alcohol and the disasterous reunion that had seemed like such a good idea just two weeks ago. First, fleeing Louisiana as if your life depended on it. Then running straight back to your past. A past that, it turns out, you can't recapture. Not that you really believed you had a ghost of a chance.

She snorted at her own morbid joke.

You should screw something else to Hell before you leave town, Alex, she told herself. Go for the gold. A trifecta of travesties. Why not?

She raised her glass in a sort of salute when she noticed it was empty. As she got up to refill the tumbler, there was a knock at her door.

Approaching it with the caution of one who had spent too many years hiding from danger, Alex warily asked, "Who is it?"

"It's Casey, Alex."

Alex smirked before she could stop herself and she threw open the door. "Checking up on your wife?" she asked sharply before her eyes took in the vision of the woman standing in the doorway. Having expected to see an ungainly woman wearing some sort of lime green pants suit of an "off the rack" nature, the ex-ADA was stunned by what she saw.

Casey's hair was long and pulled into a loose chignon. She wore a long periwinkle wool overcoat, a tailored skirt suit in raspberry over a silk shell in the palest of pinks, and she carried a striking yet simple mahogany leather attache. Smiling mint-green eyes gazed at her steadily. This woman was not the same gaudy, gawky, bumbling attorney she remembered from ten years ago. She was oh-so-different. Polished, confident, and smiling easily. Alex swallowed, suddenly unsure of herself.

"No, I'm not here to check up on Olivia. I'm here to check in on you. To see how you are." Her eyebrows raised in question. "May I?" she asked, indicating her wish to enter the suite.

"Please." The word seemed to stick in Alex's suddenly dry mouth but she stepped aside and let the taller woman enter. "Can I get you a drink?" she asked, raising her empty glass.

"Just water, if you have any. Otherwise, I'm fine."

Alex headed for the well-stocked refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of Evian. She handed it to Casey as she entered the living room. "One water," she said too brightly, heading back to the decanter for more liquid courage. "Have a seat."

Casey took the drink and the offered seat graciously. "Thank you...and thank you for letting me in, Alex. I can't imagine that this has been a... Well, what I'm trying to say is that I'm sure I'm not what you expected. Not today and not for Liv."

You don't beat around the bush, do you, Counselor?

"May I be frank?" she asked as she took a seat opposite the redhead.

Casey twisted the cap off of her water and took a long, thoughtful gulp. "I wish you would," she said finally.

Alex nodded and suddenly wished she still wore glasses. She wanted something to fiddle with.

"I never thought Olivia Benson was the marrying kind. I imagined her still sitting up nights in her sparse apartment, watching the rain slide down the window...alone." She tipped her tumbler at the younger woman. "And I never thought of you as her type."

"I'm not," admitted Casey, running a finger around the opening of the plastic bottle.

Alex blinked. "You're not what?"

"I'm not Olivia's 'type'. I never was, Alex. For a while I was a convenient target for her rage at losing you. Then I was someone she tolerated for the sake of our work. Then, miraculously, I was her friend and she was mine." The redhead picked absently at the Evian label on her water, her features arranged into an expression of pensiveness. "No one--no one--was more surprised than I was when our friendly teasing slowly became hesitant flirting and then a shy invitation to a non-working dinner." She smiled suddenly and Alex actually felt the change it made in the room. It was the difference between lamplight and the late Autumn sun on a brisk morning. "Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining."

The older blonde twisted her mouth into a wry smirk. "No. Why would you?"

Casey's smile faded and she made no attempt to hide the hurt in her eyes.

"Alex," she said softly, "I'm not here to gloat or to rub your nose in my life. I came here this afternoon to--" A discreet buzzing sound from her briefcase interrupted Casey's thought. She reached into the bag and retrieved her cell, checking the ID on the display. Flipping the phone open, she said, "I'm really sorry, Alex. I'll only be a moment."

The ex-ADA almost rolled her eyes. She wanted to be mad that two different women had seen fit to interrupt conversations with her to answer phone calls but how could she? She remembered what it was like to be an ADA: getting calls in restroom stalls or sitting bolt upright in bed at 2:15am wondering where the hell that shrill, annoying ringing was coming from...

"Hi, Em, what's up? ... No, no, see if you can get Trillin for the Young warrant. If he's busy, get Larsen. She's usually fair about these things. ... And? Did the motion to sever go through? ... Good. Good work, Emma. ... No, that appointment is over. I'm taking care of a few things right now. In fact, I'm probably not coming back to the office so whenever you get done with the Young warrant and whatever else you might have on your plate, go on home, okay? You deserve an early night. ... Thanks. You too. See you tomorrow."

Casey flipped the phone shut then turned it off, dumping it back in her bag and forgetting about it for the moment. It was not something Alex could have done with any ease.

"Now where was I?" she asked.

"The other four departments you share your clerk with aren't going to be happy that you let her go home early, you know. Isn't there some sort of hierarchy you have to go through or something?"

Casey shook her head, somewhat amused that even when wanting information about something so innocent, Alex had a way of making her question sound like a vague accusation. Ten years ago she would have been livid but today, with the snow outside and a generally stellar mood swirling inside her like the emotional equivalent of the Aurora Borealis, the EADA couldn't be bothered with petty anger.

"Emma Simons isn't my clerk, she's my second chair. Just before Branch was voted out of office, I convinced him that our department needed more than one dedicated ADA and he, wonder of wonders, agreed. I also squeezed a full-time, dedicated clerk out of him, but Trang is on vacation this week."

Alex couldn't decide if she was drinking too much or not enough.

"You have a second chair? Your own clerk?"

"Yes. Sex Crimes has become one of the most overburdened departments at One HP, unfortunately for society. But that's not what we were talking about, Alex." Casey took another sip of her water in order to gain a little space to gather her thoughts. Watching her hands as she slowly re-capped the plastic bottle, she said, "As I was saying, it was not my intent to come here and point out what I have and what you don't. I couldn't do that to you. Not when I know..." She stopped and raised saddened eyes to meet Alex's gaze.

"Know what?"

"Not when I know how it would feel...if our positons were...reversed." Casey leaned forward, an earnestness flooding her features. "It's been nearly ten years, Alex, since you told Olivia that you weren't coming back. She mourned your loss for a long time. But in the end, she had to move on. For her own sake and for the sake of all the people whose lives she has affected, will affect in the future."

Alex shook her head. "I don't under--"

"Alex, I notice you're not wearing a nun's habit."

Snapping her mouth shut, the former attorney slumped back into the couch and averted her eyes. Of course she had been with other people; some women, some men. She would have gone insane without the touch of another Human being to soothe away the fear and anguish and uncertainty of her life...

Casey had the rare privilege of watching realization dawn over the glacier fields in Alex's eyes, shining there like the North Star.

"Olivia never expected you to wait until you two could be together again, Alex," she whispered. "She wanted you to be happy, to be loved. And deep down, I don't think you really expected her to wait either. It would have killed her, in spirit if not in flesh, and you know that. Olivia should never be caged in that way."

Tears welled in Alex's egg-blue eyes. "No, she shouldn't," she rasped brokenly.

Casey rose from her seat. "I should go now." She reached down for her briefcase and shouldered it gracefully. "But before I go, I want to let you know that you will always be welcome at our home, Alex. I realize that you might not feel comfortable with that knowledge right now, but it's true. You're our family. There will always be a place for you with us."

When she received no response, Casey smiled gently and turned to leave.

"Wait." Alex's voice was soft and shattered but the retreating EADA heard her and turned. "Do you... Your son? Do you have a picture? I'd like to see him. I'd like to see John Patrick."

Casey reached into her bag and retrieved a small leather folder. She opened it to a specific page and handed it to her predecessor.

"These are the most recent. There's a good one of Liv and J.P. together... You can have it, if you'd like."

Alex took the offered album and saw photograph after photograph of a laughing five-year-old boy. He had short, wavy black hair, dark caramel skin and big brown eyes. There was something... Something around the mouth that looked familiar...

Looking up with surprised eyes, the blonde asked, "Fin? He's Fin's?"

Nodding, Casey replied, "We wanted a known donor. Someone who would have a place in our child's life as she or he grew up. We were thrilled when Fin agreed."

Looking back at the photos, Alex traced the little boy's face with gentle fingertips. "He's beautiful, Casey. He seems so happy." She ignored the tiny tears that streaked down her face.

"He is. We are."

"Good. I'm glad." She started to hand the album back but Casey shook her head.

"Take the one of Liv and him together, Alex. I want you to have it. Really."

Alex slipped shaky fingers beneath the plastic covering and pulled out a picture of Olivia sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a sofa. J.P. was sitting in the bowl made by her denim-clad legs while his mother hugged him around the waist, her head resting on his shoulder. They both looked directly at the camera, nearly identical unbridled grins coloring their faces in joy.

"Thank you," she whispered, holding the picture against her chest. She returned the leather folder to the younger woman. "Casey, I'm so sorry--"

"Alex," said the EADA, holding up a hand to stop Alex's apology. "There's nothing to forgive." She smiled one last time, then turned and left the suite.

Alex stared at the door for a long time before finally rising. She looked at the nearly empty tumbler on the coffee table and frowned.

That's enough of that, she thought, scolding herself. I should go for a walk in the park. She set the photograph reverently on the sideboard and retrieved her coat from the bench in the foyer.

"Alexandra Cabot, you have a lot of thinking to do," she said firmly, squaring her shoulders.

Then she walked out the door.

Casey Benson stood in the doorway of her bedroom and watched her wife and her son roll around on the floor, winding themselves in Christmas ribbon and scraps of wrapping paper. J.P. tried to escape, giggling madly, but Olivia looped long strings of red and green around him and pulled him back into her embrace, pressing her face into his belly and growling like a wild animal. Trapped, the laughing child fell back on plan B, which was to stick bows all over Olivia's head until she called for a truce.

As much as the attorney would have enjoyed standing half in the hall to watch the two of them play, a larger part of her wanted to take her place in their little circle of love.

"Well, I just can't leave you two alone for a minute," she snarked, crossing her arms mock angrily over her chest.

"Mommy!" The round-bellied five-year-old struggled out of his ribbony bonds and ran for Casey, who leaned down to catch him, lifting him into a warm hug.

"Hey, J-Man! How's my sweetie today?"

J.P. pulled away from Casey just a smidge and started talking a mile a minute.

"Good! Mama came home early an' we went Christmas shoppin'! An' Rick and I played PlayStation this morning an' I beat him in Gooshers four times! An' Katie brought baby Tyler over an' she let me hold him in my lap with a pillow under 'im. Mommy, he was so small but he looked right at me an' made a noise an' everything!"

"Wow! You had a busy day, didn't you? Soon you'll be ready to work down at the office with me." She grinned, already knowing what his response would be.

"No way! I don't wanna be a yucky lawyer! I wanna be a shuttle pilot!" His attention now diverted to something else, J.P. squirmed out of Casey's grasp and started making spaceship noises while 'flying' his cupped hand around the room.

Casey looked at Olivia who was valiantly trying to untangle the ribbon. "Shuttle pilot?" she asked. "That's new." His usual response was 'firefighter'.

"Yeah," responded the detective, frowning at the strands of red, green, and gold twisted around her fingers. "Rick got a new game for the PS11 this week; a shuttle sim. Scout liked it a lot, apparently." She made a half-hearted series of tugs a different ribbons and then sighed aggrievedly, clearly not pleased.

"Liv, honey, leave it," said Casey, struggling to be heard over their rambunctious son as he continued with his spaceship fantasy, having added a fleet of enemy ships that he was now shooting down with exuberant and pinpoint accuracy. "We'll cut it apart later. But right now..." She turned and caught J.P.'s eye. He came to a sudden halt and quieted almost immediately, looking at his mother expectantly.

"But right now, we need dinner. Who wants to go to Sac's?"

J.P. stabbed one hand high in the air as he jumped up and down. "Me! Me!"

"Then go and get washed up--"

The little boy tore out of the room.

"--and see if you can find your boots! It's cold out there!" she called after him, shaking her head. "I don't think he even heard me," she mused, turning toward her wife. "Oh, Liv, honey..."

Olivia, stubbornly still working on the tangled ribbons, looked up. "What?"

Casey said nothing. Instead, she retrieved the pair of scissors from where Liv had stashed them on the bed, walked over to her beloved NYPD detective, and sheared through the tent of strands.

"There," she said as the colored strips fell around the startled brunette. Casey reached down to give her wife a hand up, pulling her into her arms. "Well, almost..." She plucked a purple bow out of Olivia's hair. "Hmm, purple. I like purple." She stuck the bow over her heart.

"Mmmmm, me too," growled the detective. She hooked her index finger over the neckline of Casey's silk shell and pulled it away from her chest, peering down at the lilac camisole underneath it.

The scandalized EADA swatted Liv away. "Hey!"

Laughing, Olivia gathered the redhead in her arms again. "Hey, yourself," she said, leaning in to give Casey a proper kiss 'hello'. When they parted, she frowned again. "And hey, where were you this afternoon? I called the office and Em told me you were out 'taking care of some things' but when I called your cell, it went to voicemail."

Casey took a deep breath and leaned her forehead against Liv's shoulder.

"I went to see Alex."

"What?" The shock in Olivia's voice vibrated right through Casey's forehead and rippled down her spine. "How did you--I can--God, Casey, this is my problem to deal with, not--"

"Olivia, before you go all butch on me, let me explain, okay?" She cupped the flustered detective's face in her warm hands. "Okay?"

Though her eyes had darkened to the color of a nice French roast, Olivia nodded. "Okay."

"Elliot told me what had happened, that you went to lunch with her to talk. And after I freaked out for about an hour, I realized that--knowing you--Alex was probably also freaking out a bit. So I went to check on her."

"Knowing me? She's the one who said those--"

Casey stopped Liv's mouth with a burning kiss.

"See?" she asked when they parted. "Your nature is to protect, Olivia. To defend. You do it so well. So well, in fact, that it's your career. But Alex and I are prosecutors. It's our nature to use words as weapons when needed." Casey brushed a few strands of chestnut hair out of Liv's eyes. "Let me guess...Alex said something about wanting to be with you again and you said 'I'm married', no preamble, no warning."

"I-I was... She just... Damn it, Casey, she just kept pushing and pushing. I didn't know what else to do."

"I know, honey. I'm not accusing. I'm just saying that you probably didn't get very far, did you? Because she attacked me in response, then you got angry and shut down. I get it, remember? I've been your lover for eight years and your wife for four. I ought to know how these things work with you."

Olivia tried to look anywhere but into her wife's tarnished copper eyes. "Yeah, I shut down. So?"

"So," said Casey, swaying with the prickly detective until she relaxed a little. "So, I went to mend some fences--and before you dismiss that, Olivia Benson, remember that Alex is a part of your life and a part of your heart that you can't just ignore. But you can appreciate her from a different perspective...when you're both ready, that is."

In spite of herself, Olivia smiled just a little. Casey never failed to surprise her, whether in the courtroom, the interrogation room, or--and perhaps especially--in the bedroom...even if, at the moment, she was doing so fully clothed and with no sensuous ulterior motive.

Her heart is just so big it has room for everyone, even my ex. How in God's name did I rate someone like her?

"And what perspective would that be, Counselor?" she asked, fairly sure she already knew the answer.

"She's family, Olivia. And my Daddy always taught me you never turn your back on family."

The detective shook her head gently and smiled a crooked smile at her wife. "I love you, Casey Benson," she said quietly.

"I love you, too," replied the redhead. She leaned forward and captured Liv's soft lips in an ever-deepening kiss that was broken only by the noisy arrival of their son.

"Mom!" he shouted, tearing back into the room. "I can't find my boots anywhere!"

The two women rested their foreheads together and chuckled.

"Go on," said Casey, pushing Olivia gently out of her embrace. "I'll change while you help your son find his boots."

"Why is he your son when he's being cute or polite but he's my son when he's lost something?" protested the detective as she followed the little boy down the hall.

Casey shook her head again and turned towards her closet, more than ready to peel off her lawyer duds and change into something soft and comfortable.

"So asks the woman who lost her wedding band twice the first month she had it," she laughed.

Alex Cabot returned to her suite at the Ritz laden down with bags and bags filled with the cumulative result of three hours of retail therapy. That not one thing in the gaily wrapped packages was for her was incidental. Being in the heart of the city had been the point, not the shopping.

Her skin hummed with the remnants of a high comprised of an unholy concoction of pushing, shoving, garish holiday decorations, tourists, disgusted New Yorkers, dirty snow, and the smell of rotting garbage. Alex tried to hold onto it, wanting that feeling back in her blood for good, but she knew it would ebb eventually and she'd begin to hate the city at Christmas again.

Not this year, of course, but maybe next year. If she was still here.

She dropped the bags on the dining table and stripped out of her overcoat and scarf, haphazardly throwing them on the bench by the door. It wasn't like her to leave a mess, no matter how inconsequential, but she was too eager to begin sorting the gifts she'd bought. As she began to stack packages in different piles, she pondered her heart.

Casey had been right.

More right than she even knew, she thought. The realization amused her and she smiled. Of course I didn't expect Olivia to wait for me. How could I expect that? What really brought me here was fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of letting go of the one thing that I thought was responsible for getting me through the last ten years.

Letting go of Olivia had brought grief, of course, but it had also brought a sense of freedom that she hadn't felt in years. It was so unfamiliar, in fact, that she'd mistaken it for abject terror at first. Calmer now, she understood that it could be the beginning of something truly wonderful. If only she could take that first step.

Lost in thought, Alex fluffed the bows that had been slightly mashed in her shopping bags. After a few moments, her hands began to slow in their task and a smile stole over her features. She left her holiday cheer on the table and went to look for her cell phone.

She opened the tiny silver device and carefully pressed a series of buttons.

One ring. Two.

"Hi... It's me. ... We need to talk. ... How do you feel about New York City?"

Her soft smile transformed into a grin reminicent of Summer vacations and lemon ices when she heard the answer.

"There'll be a ticket waiting for you at the American counter tomorrow. What time should I make it for?"

She laughed and her eyes fluttered shut for a moment.

"I'm good but I'm not that good," she quipped. "See you tomorrow." She started to end the call but thought better of it.

"Oh, one more thing..."

Alex cradled the phone even closer to her mouth and whispered, "I was a class-A jerk for leaving Louisiana the way I did...and...I've...I've missed you. A lot." She laughed again and shook her head. "Okay, yes, Smart Ass, that was technically two more things. Somehow I think you'll forgive me." She closed her eyes when she heard the response.

"Thank you," she whispered. She closed the phone and opened eyes as clear as the Caribbean sea. "Thank you."

Stuffed to the gills with calzones and cannolis, the Benson family waddled home from Sac's, bundled up against the light snowfall blanketing Astoria in sparkling, diamond-like wonder. J.P., worn out from the excitement and the food, was snuggled in Casey's arms, fast asleep. His head was tucked under her chin and she could feel his warm, humid child's breath against her throat, deep and regular.

Olivia had offered to carry him but Casey had declined. Holding their son while he slept was something she adored and she rarely gave up the opportunity to do so, especially now, when he was growing up so fast. Soon he would be too old for cuddling with his mommies and the attorney dreaded that day. Until then, she would hold him while he slept any time, anywhere. Even walking through bitter wind and snow.

Olivia unlocked the door to their renovated row house and held it open for her wife and son. While she shut the winter out and relocked the door, Casey turned to her.

"Liv, honey, will you take him upstairs and get him into his pjs? I'll be up in a minute. I have to pee right now."

The detective reached for the little boy and chuckled at Casey's noisy sigh of relief. "That's what you get for drinking all that hot tea, de-caf or not!" she called. The only answer she received was the slamming of the downstairs bathroom's door.

Snickering, Olivia carried J.P. upstairs to his room and laid him out on his bed. He was out for the count and snoring softly, his hair plastered to his temples in wavy black ringlets. Liv shook her head at her son, her eyes soft and bright with love. She knelt next to the bed and tugged off his boots, then his jeans. She left his longjohns on for the moment and sat him up, divesting him of his coat, scarf, and mittens and throwing them in a pile over by his closet door. She started to pull his longsleeved shirt over his head when he stirred.

"Mama?" he asked sleepily.

"I'm right here, Scout. Just trying to get you into some pjs, okay?"

He nodded, his eyes falling shut again. "Mmm'kay."

Finally succeeding with the shirt, Liv turned to get a pair of flannels out of his dresser.

"Just leave him in the longjohns, sweetie," whispered Casey from the doorway. "He's comfortable and they're warm enough." She pushed off the doorjamb where she'd been leaning and joined her wife at J.P.'s bedside. She pulled down the garish Goosher-themed sheets and comforter and Olivia tucked him in, tousling his hair and kissing his forehead.

"'Night, Scout," whispered the detective. "Sweet dreams."

Casey took her turn saying goodnight to their son then stood, gazing down at him in the dim light of his room. She felt as if her whole body was one big July 4th sparkler, bright and popping with love, radiant and effervescent. Olivia walked up behind her and wrapped long arms around her middle.

"You're in an awfully good mood tonight, Counselor," she said, her voice low and husky with desire.

"Mmhmm," agreed Casey, covering Liv's arms with her own as she snuggled backwards into the warm embrace.

"Any particular reason? Or is this just a byproduct of the double chocolate cannoli you had for dessert?" Olivia began nibbling at Casey's neck which sent a shimmering shower of shivers down the redhead's spine.

"I may have a reason..." she gasped softly. "But you don't seem...very interested--mmm, God, Liv--in finding...it out..."

Pulling her mouth from Casey's throat, a somewhat contrite detective rested her chin on the shoulder nearest her.

"I'm sorry, Case." She took a deep, steadying breath, trying to bring her heartbeat back to its normal thrum. "Tell me. Why the good mood?"

Biting her lip in the near darkness, Casey entwined her fingers with her wife's and gently guided Liv's hands under the long, hunter green sweater she was wearing. She brought them to rest over her belly and shuddered at her lover's silken touch.

Looking down at J.P., she asked, "Are you ready for another one?"

Confused, Liv frowned slightly. "Another what?" Then, following Casey's emerald gaze, her own eyes widened with disbelief. "Casey?" She tightened her arms around the attorney. "Are you asking me if I'm ready for another baby?"

The younger woman nodded in the semi-darkness, her smile growing bigger every second. "I was going to tell you on Christmas Eve but I just couldn't wait..."

"Casey Francesca Benson." Olivia's voice was thick with emotion and barely audible. "Are you telling me--?"

"Eleven weeks. I saw Dr. Baird this morning and she says everything looks good so far. Perfectly normal in every way. I even scheduled the first ultrasound. For the day after Christmas."

When Casey didn't hear a response, she turned in the circle of Liv's arms. Yellow light from the hallway caught the edge of tears running down the detective's face and the younger woman quickly cupped her face in her hands.

"Oh, honey, don't cry." She brushed soft, tender kisses over Liv's mouth, her heart aching. "Don't cry."

Olivia kept her eyes shut fast and captured Casey's mouth in a deep and breathless kiss. "You're so beautiful," she whispered between nuzzles and butterfly touches. "I love you. God, I love you so much." With a strength born of love and dizzying joy, the detective lifted her wife into the air and moaned softly when she felt Casey's legs wrap around her waist. She looked up into eyes made a smoky jade by sudden passion.

"Take me to bed, Olivia," said Casey softly. She bit her lip for just a second then grinned. "Let's make this one out of love and laughter, like we made John Patrick."

Olivia turned without a word and carried the redhead down the hall to their bedroom, tumbling with her into their big bed and rolling with her until they came to a gentle stop, rust-brown eyes gazing down into eyes as green as the wings of a dragonfly. She scattered soft kisses over Casey's forehead, eyes and cheeks, tears still slipping down her face.

Casey brushed the glistening droplets away as fast as they fell. "Liv, honey, why are you crying?"

Olivia laughed through her tears. "Because just when I thought I'd used up all my answered prayers, God finds a way to sneak me another one." She dropped a sweet, chaste kiss on Casey's petal pink lips. "And I'm so damned happy."

"Me too," whispered the redhead as she pulled her wife into an embrace sweeter than wine and twice as intoxicating.

Together, giggling and delighting in one another deep into the night, Olivia and Casey Benson made sure that their second child knew she was held snugly in the cradle of their love...and would be for the rest of her life.


The Stabler Vacation Home

New Rochelle, NY

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

doink doink

The blonde stood at the front door of the beautiful clapboard ranch home and stared at the doorbell. The brunette who held her hand looked at her sideways.

"You're trembling," she said softly. "You're really scared, aren't you?"

Watery blue eyes darted in her direction and the blonde nodded, unable to bring herself to speak.

"Alex, you said these people were the only family you had left. That they love you." The brunette put her free arm around the attorney and drew her closer, sheltering her from the bitter November wind.

"I know, I know. And Olivia and I finally worked everything out. But...but I haven't seen some of the people in this house in over eleven years. A lot of them attended my funeral, for God's sake. I'm just--I don't--" She looked up at her lover with pleading eyes. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

"I think we've covered that."

Alex nodded and wiped her eyes with one gloved hand.

"I'm scared," she admitted.

The brunette gave her a gentle squeeze. "Don't be scared, Alex. I'm right here. We'll get through this together. Besides, if they really love you, then eleven years won't mean a thing. You'll just get more hugs...or pie...or something."

Alex Cabot laughed. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," groused the other woman goodnaturedly. "Just ring the damn doorbell before frostbite sets in."

Alex laughed again and pressed the doorbell. The inevitable ding-dong was followed by a discordant chorus of children's voices all shouting "I'll get it!" After several crashes and a muffled argument, the door opened to reveal a rag tag knot of kids ranging in age from pre-schooler to pre-teen. There were six of them and they blinked up at the two women, struck absolutely dumb.

Then one of them--the oldest boy, a devilish looking child with spiky blond hair and a devious grin--asked, "Who the heck are you?"

"Eric Jr.!" A horrified shout came from the back of the house. "That is not how we answer the door in your grandparents' house, young man!" A young woman wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and shooed the children away from the door. Looking up, her polite smile was hijacked by a look of shock.

"Oh my God. Alex Cabot."

Alex's features mirrored the woman's shock. "Maureen? Maureen Stabler?"

"Well, Maureen Grant now, but yes." She waved the two women in out of the cold. "Come in, come in. It's colder than Arthur Branch's heart out there." She looked up at the taller brunette. "And you are?"

"Oh God, where are my manners?" asked Alex as she handed several pale blue bakery boxes to Maureen. "Maureen Grant, this is my partner, Gina. Gina, this is Maureen Grant, nee Stabler. The last time I saw her she was about to turn seventeen, I think. She's Elliot's eldest daughter."

"Nice to meet you, Maureen," said Gina, sticking out her hand.

The younger woman gave the hand a sour look, snorted, then pulled the attorney and her partner into warm but one-armed hugs. "Welcome to the family, Gina," she said, winking. "The more, the merrier, as Dad always says. And believe me, we've got quite a motley crew congregating around the food now." She pointed to an overflowing set of coat racks. "You can hang your coats and things there if you can find a space for them," she laughed. "Then come on back to the kitchen. Everyone's waiting for you."

Maureen hadn't been kidding.

Alex--who was gripping Gina's hand like it was a lifeline--gaped at the sheer number of people who had invaded Elliot and Kathy's vacation home. Children darted to and fro, ducking under their parents' hors d'oeuvres plates with an agility born of youth. Parents and other adults hovered around the dining table, mingling and chatting. The size and shape of the room captured sound quite nicely so that there was a constant drone of voices that rose with the shrieks and wails of children or the admonishments of their parents but never quite fell.

"Don't let go of my hand," whispered Gina, leaning closer to Alex so she could be heard. "If we get separated in here, we'll never see each other again."

Alex laughed just loud enough to be heard by the 'lord of the manor', who was apparently in charge of the turkey...if you could believe his apron. It said, 'That turkey's getting roasted while this one's getting toasted.'

"Alex! Alexandra Cabot! Welcome to Thanksgiving in Hell!"

"Elliot!" Kathy Stabler swatted at her jovial husband with a spatula. She hurried around the counter, leaving her pan of stuffing for the moment, and engulfed Alex in a crushing hug. "Alex, it's so good to see you! We've missed you!" She kissed the stunned blonde on the cheek then turned to Gina. "And you must be Gina," she said, hugging the slender woman just as hard. "Welcome to the family!"

"And to think," smiled the brunette, "this morning I only had an elderly aunt in Tupelo. Now I appear to have a clan!"

"Kathy, thank you so much for having us. I can't tell you how much--"

"Oh stop! The more, the merrier, as Elliot always says."

"So we've heard," said Alex with a smirk. Her sky-blue eyes swept the gathering, looking for a familiar face. "Where's Olivia, Kathy? I'm sure I saw John Patrick at the door."

"You did. I bet she and Casey had to take Eliana for a diaper change. Katie's probably got them cornered in the guest bedroom upstairs, trading baby stories."

"Katie?" Alex's pale eyebrows dipped over her eyes in confusion.

"Kathleen? She's a new mother herself. Well, almost new. Tyler is eighteen months old now."

The attorney hid her face in her hands. "Oh God, I feel so old."

Kathy gave her a once over. "Yeah, right. Try that line on me again when you have four grandchildren," she groused. She turned to Gina and smiled brightly. "You have more family members to meet, I believe," she said, pointing the younger woman toward Fin Tutuola. "And you have to start eating. You two are already an hour behind everyone else."

Gina grinned and looked at Alex, who shook her head ever so slightly. "You go on, honey. I'll be right back." The blonde watched as Don Cragen and Odafin Tutuola absorbed her lover into their little crew of yammering cops then she turned back to Kathy. "Upstairs, you said?"

"Turn left at the top of the stairs and follow the squealing baby sounds," said the older woman sagely, walking with Alex part of the way back to the foyer. "And take it easy on Olivia, will you? She's been as nervous as a potato at an Irish wake all day."

Quirking one eyebrow at that statement, Alex found her way upstairs and--sure enough--the sounds of a very new baby could be heard clearly. She found Olivia and company right where Kathy'd said they'd be, however, there was no actual diaper changing going on. Rather, Casey was firmly ensconced in an upholstered gliding chair as she comforted her burbling four-month-old daughter. Olivia was sitting cross-legged on the bed playing with a toddler that Alex guessed was Tyler and a young woman, who could only be Elliot and Kathy's second oldest child, sat at the foot of the bed, relating a story about her son's first experiences with strained carrots.

"--and I actually considered trying to match paint to the stain but Brad said there was no way he was going to have dinner in an orange room every night."

"You can't blame a man for that," smiled the blonde attorney. Four pairs of eyes turned toward her.

"Oh my gosh! Ms. Cabot!" yelped Kathleen without thinking. Then she promptly blushed, feeling twelve all over again. "Somehow that sounded less idiotic in my head...the whole two nano-seconds it was there, that is."

Alex laughed. "I think you're old enough to call me 'Alex', Kathleen," she teased. "Especially if you're old enough to have such a handsome son."

Katie beamed. "Thanks!" She turned to gather the toddler in her arms. "Speaking of Tyler, it's about time for him to graze again. I swear, it's like having a billy goat rather than a child. At this age, everything goes right into his mouth." She rose to leave. "It's good to see you again, Alex," she said, stumbling over the name ever-so-slightly. "See you downstairs."

Alex watched the young woman go then glanced at the remaining two women. "Hello, Casey. Olivia."

Casey Benson immediately rose from her chair and pulled Alex into a loose hug. "I'm so glad you could come," she said, smiling sincerely. She glanced at her faintly shellshocked wife. "We both are," she added pointedly.

The redhead's tone jumpstarted the detective and she climbed up off the bed. "It's good to see you, Alex," she said softly as she gingerly wrapped her long arms around the taller blonde in a light hug. Whatever Olivia was expecting to feel, though, it never manifested.

Shocked, the brunette pulled away, a frankly delighted grin stealing across her features.

Nothing, she thought wonderingly. I've been worrying about this for a week and all I feel is a general affection for her, a sense of comfortable familiarity. Nothing more, nothing less. Thank God.

"It's good to see you, too, Olivia. Both of you," said Alex, smiling with her own sense of relief. She, too, had felt nothing more disturbing than a fleeting pang of loss when holding Olivia. "And it's good to finally meet the newest of the Benson women in person," she grinned, turning her attention to the tiny baby with cafe-au-lait skin, a dusting of auburn hair, and eyes the same clear green as the sea off the coast of Maine.

"Well," said the detective, her eyes sparkling with a mother's pride, "allow me. Alexandra Cabot, meet Eliana Olabisi Benson, my wife's most amazing accomplishment yet."

Casey blushed prettily. "Liv!" she protested. "Knock it off!" She turned to put Eliana in the other attorney's arms. "Don't listen to her, Alex. She's had too many spinach puffs or something. She's delirious."

Alex laughed. "I'd believe you, Casey, but this little darling is simply gorgeous. She's got your eyes...your mouth..."

"And Fin's nose, thank God," declared the redhead, putting her hands on her hips. "I was worried I was going to have to spring for rhinoplasty when she turned sixteen."

Olivia scowled and pulled her taller wife into her arms, kissing the anatomical item in question. "I love your nose," she retorted.

"You're biased."

"Okay, you two. I'm going to have to brush my teeth if this keeps up," scolded Alex. "Besides, I have an idea. Let's go frighten the hell out of my partner. If I take Eliana downstairs to show her off, you'll see a look cross her face that should be physically impossible."

"Alexandra Cabot, how fiendish of you," said Casey, one eyebrow raising in consideration of the plan. Then she grinned. "I like that in a woman. Let's go."

Two minutes later, both Benson women were thinking that Alex had been all too accurate in her description of Gina's response to seeing the blonde cooing at an infant. The brunette with shoulder-length curls and a pair of brown eyes so dark they were almost black had a look on her face that was easily a cross between fifteen different emotions, chief amongst them 'disbelief' and 'abject terror'.

"Alex, honey?" she squeaked. "Are you trying to tell me something?"

The attorney pondered the pros and cons of letting her lover squirm for a little longer but her decision was made for her by a bubble of laughter she just could no longer contain.

"You should see the look on your face," she giggled. "I'm sorry, honey. I couldn't resist."

Gina shook her head and grinned tolerantly at her girlfriend. "Very funny, Alex. I'll get you back, don't worry."

Two pale eyebrows raised over bright cerulean eyes. "Do I look worried?" she asked regally.

Shaking her head again, Gina turned to the two women who had followed Alex into the den. "You must be Olivia Benson," she said, greeting her lover's ex with a firm handshake. "And you must be Casey Benson," she added, turning to the EADA. "I've heard so much about you both."

"Is that so?" asked Casey, eyeing Alex with narrowed eyes. "Alex has been less than forthcoming about you, mystery woman. We only heard that she was bringing her girlfriend, Gina, and that she'd fit right in with 'you law enforcement types'."

Gina smiled shyly and blushed just a little. "She was right about that. I'm in the FBI now but I started my career in the DOT. Secret Service. I'm Gina Toscano and I was assigned to Alex when she was living in Louisiana. It's nice to meet you."

The sharp dingdingding of a fork against crystal forestalled the thousand questions Casey and Olivia both had for the FBI agent and they reluctantly turned to see Elliot standing on a chair in the archway between the den and the dining room.

"We're going to be eating here shortly, guys, but now that everyone's here, I just wanted to say welcome. Welcome to our ever growing family. Everyone here is a member, from Captain RipVanWinkle back there," he said, raising his glass to Don Cragen, "to little Eliana, who--by the way--was named for yours truly."

"Yeah, dream on, Elliot!" shouted Olivia, rolling her eyes. "We love our daughter, remember?"

Laughter rippled around the room and Elliot mock pouted. "Hey, let a guy hold onto his illusions, Liv."

More laughter washed through the crowd until Elliot again raised his glass.

"Anyway," he continued. "I just wanted to let everyone here know how much it means to Kathy and I that you could be here today to share this day of Thankgiving with us. So, before the Marine Corps shows up and takes away my vet status due to extreme mushiness, let me make a toast. To family!"

Everyone who had a glass raised it and thirty voices--young and old, loud and soft, black and white and every color inbetween--rang out with the answering toast.

"To family!"

Leaning into her lover, with Eliana Benson still cradled in her arms, Alexandra Cabot managed one single thought.

I'm home.

The End

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