DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By D.S.

A thick manilla folder landed with a thump on the ADA's desk, and she looked up, startled. She hadn't heard anyone come in. Or maybe she had, and it just didn't register. Her eyes shifted to the name on the file, which she could read easily even at its awkward angle.

Benson, O.

"No," she snapped.

Alex returned her attention to the brief she was writing – "writing" in that, after twenty minutes, seven words had been scribbled across her legal pad. The rudeness probably wasn't advisable, considering that the man standing before her was her boss's boss, but if Branch took offense, she didn't care. Alex didn't care about a lot of things these days.

The silence dragged on until she finally felt compelled to add, "That isn't an SVU case."

"It's an SVU mess."


"Your unit, your problem," Branch drawled.

"No!" It was dangerously close to a shout. "And you know why."

"Why don't you tell me?"

"Because I don't believe it," she said.

"Yes, you do," Branch corrected. "You just don't want to believe it."

"I have known Olivia Benson for five years. I've worked with her side by side. She saved my life." It's OK, Sweetie . . . Stay with me . . . Alex . . . Alex . . . . Alex . . . . "I –" How could she convey the depth of her feelings without really conveying them? "I owe her. I will not do this to her."

"Would you rather be a witness?" Branch asked. "'Miss Cabot, please explain to the jury why SVU Detective Stabler testified in the Stott trial last month instead of Detective Benson.'"

Alex didn't reply.

Branch's mock interrogation continued. "'Did you send these e-mails, Miss Cabot?'" Opening the file to draw out some 8½ by 11 printouts, he began to read. "'Liv, you've missed three appointments in a row. Are you trying to tell me something?' 'Liv, I need the paperwork on Walker ASAP. Petrovsky is going to exclude your report if I don't produce it by Friday. Can Elliot help?' 'Olivia, what the hell is going on? You won't return my calls. You won't reply to my e-mails. Please don't make me get Cragen involved.'" His paternalistic tone grated on the assistant district attorney. "Do you want those to come in, Alexandra?"

Alex laid the engraved Montblanc – a gift from Olivia, shyly handed to her after their first trial together – on her pad and gave up any pretense of working. She just wanted Branch and everyone else to leave her alone. But he wasn't through with her.

"'Did you tell a colleague, Miss Cabot, that Detective Benson was 'going squirrelly' on you?'"

Ah. That was one she had an answer to. "I said because she was working too hard," Alex clarified.

"Except that she wasn't." Branch thumbed through a stack of time sheets. "No overtime for six weeks. 36 hours." Another page. "32 hours. 25 hours."

"I saw her working late," Alex said. "Sometimes all night."

"And you didn't see her when she didn't come in." With a frown, Branch flipped the file closed. "I know that you consider Benson a friend, but she has a problem. She needs help."

Alex considered his words. "Are you authorizing a deal?"

"This isn't a witch hunt," Branch replied. "She was a good cop."

That gave Alex a chance to expound on an important point. "Yes, she was. This wasn't really her fault–"

The DA held up a hand to end the soapbox. "I've been a prosecutor for 28 years, Alexandra. I've heard it all before."

"This isn't an excuse." Alex's temper flared. "The NYPD created this situation."

"And for the next defendant, it's an abusive parent, or inadequate foster care. You've never confused the behavior with the reason, Alexandra. Detective Benson made her own choices. The New York City Police Department does not need another scandal. It took us years to get over the Dirty Thirty."

Oh, please, Alex almost scoffed. The Dirty Thirty? That answered any question about Branch's objectivity on this case. Anyone who would compare Olivia Benson to three dozen cops who stole evidence, sold drugs, and perjured themselves obviously could not be open minded. Hundreds of convictions had been overturned in the wake of that scandal. It might have taken some scrambling by other SVU detectives and Alex, and the tolerance of a few sympathetic judges, but no SVU cases had been tanked because of Olivia's – because of Olivia.

Bracing his hands against the arms of the chair, Branch rose, signaling that the meeting was coming to an end. "You know the range," he said. "Just stay within it."

"It's a wide range," she warned, wanting to be clear on the scope of her authority. As sick as the whole thing made her, maybe there was one last thing she could do for Olivia.

Branch nodded. "Up to you."

The sudden cessation of noise was far more distracting than the noise itself. Three detectives and a handful of uniformed officers tracked the ADA's entrance, watching her stride toward Elliot's desk and set her briefcase on the floor beside it. Somehow it didn't seem right to just drop it casually on his desktop as she normally would. And Olivia's desk . . . .

She glanced at the fake wooden surface that had been stripped of its in-box, its loosely stacked case files, the photograph of Olivia and her mother and all other signs of its former occupant. If she opened one of the drawers, it would be depressingly empty, too. Alex would never again perch casually on the corner of the desk, swinging a leg mildly as she chatted with the beautiful detective. Never stand a little too close to Olivia as the detective leaned against the edge, enjoying the banter that, when they were alone, had become increasingly flirtatious.

No, Olivia's desk wasn't an option, either.

The squad room remained unnaturally quiet. At this moment, Alex truly hated her job. Did they think she was happy to be prosecuting someone that they – that she – knew and loved? Why couldn't they let her into their circle of grief? She was hurting, too. "I didn't ask for this assignment," she said to everyone glaring at her.

No one responded.

"Would you rather have someone who's out for Olivia's blood?" she tried again. "I care about her."

Still nothing.

"This is ridiculous," Alex declared. "I haven't gotten the silent treatment since seventh grade. We're adults. We have to work together." The last remark was directed at John Munch. When he wordlessly shifted his gaze to a stack of LUDs, she turned to Odafin Tutuola, who suddenly decided to re-read a witness statement that she could see had already been highlighted. That left Elliot Stabler. He at least had the decency to look her in the eye, but that was it. No words of forgiveness from him. "Before you crucify me, why don't you think about how you let this happen," she shot out at all three of them.

Alex grabbed her briefcase and stalked toward the interview room. She hadn't wanted to be anywhere near that room when the woman in question was brought in. Even though she could imagine Olivia in her loose-fitting detainee grays – and she did imagine it, often – Alex had hoped to avoid seeing her before they took the handcuffs off. As painful as that would be, though, it was no less frustrating to stand in the outer room absorbing the misdirected hostility of Olivia's friends.

Olivia's friends. At one time, Alex had thought them her friends as well. Now she knew better. When the two women were thrown into this predicament, SVU personnel had lined up solidly behind Olivia. The ADA was anathema now. The enemy.

Her parting comment had been designed to sting more than anything, but as she sat stiffly in the thinly padded fold-up chair, arms crossed protectively across her chest, she decided it was true. Why didn't Olivia's friends – her partner – do anything to prevent this? They were just as much to blame – more to blame – than she was. Even as creative as Alex was, she could only come up with enough excuses to see Olivia a few times a week. They saw her every day. They knew something was happening, and did nothing. Damn them. Damn it, Olivia.

She had learned not to bring up the case with her own colleagues. Had they always been this cynical? Why couldn't they see that Olivia was a victim here? It was so easy for them to dismiss her as just another cop fallen from grace. From the way they talked, it was to be expected. The question wasn't whether a detective would burn out or snap or succumb to corruption, but rather when.

This was Olivia Benson they were talking about, she argued over lunch. "You know Olivia, Martin. And so do you." She pointed at Peter Wellton, who had prosecuted a few SVU cases back when the unit used to rotate ADAs ("for their sanity," the standing joke went).

"Exactly." Wellton stuffed two squares of cheese ravioli into his mouth. "I'm surprised she lasted this long." Alex's dismay at that statement must have been easy to read, and he was happy to enlighten her. "Benson takes everything personally. Takes the job home with her."

Alex nudged her untouched soup bowl away. "So she's a dedicated police officer–"

"Was," Scott Richards interjected.

She shot a furious glance at him. "Is a dedicated police officer," she repeated to Wellton. "And that's wrong, how?"

"She can't let go. Can't get the broken kids and the girls in the ditch out of her head." He wiped at his lips with a napkin. "One time I asked her if she had plans for Saturday night–"

Did you hit on her, you dick? Alex couldn't prevent the uncharitable thought.

"And she says yeah, she's gonna go sit in on visitation with some kid and his father. That was Benson's idea of spare time."

And still was. Alex knew that, when Olivia had time, the doorbell rang at the home of at least one rape victim a week. Sometimes she didn't get past the doorway, but most of the time she was welcomed. The ADA accepted an invitation to join her a few times – spending time with Olivia was spending time with Olivia – but it seemed obvious that the women didn't feel quite as comfortable with the attorney sitting there, even foregoing her usual tailored suit and blouse for jeans and sweater. Afterwards, Alex could tell that those visits were cathartic for her friend. How dare Wellton cheapen them.

"What does that have to do with anything?" she asked. Her tone was becoming a little sharp, she recognized, but she couldn't help it. She'd had just about enough of these pricks.

"Think about it, Alex: SVU, the shittiest division. You've got live vics. You've got basket cases who can't i.d. their rapists but don't understand why you haven't caught them yet." Wellton ticked examples off on his fingers. "You've got kids who get the hell beat out of them and then get sent back to their parents."

As if I don't know that. As if I don't deal with all that, too.

"Then you've got someone whose brain won't shut down," Wellton resumed after another bite. "She gets herself into a situation where she has to smoke some crack, and all of a sudden her brain doesn't hurt any more. Game over."

Something else her fellow ADAs all agreed on: Going easy on Olivia Benson would send the wrong message. "Everyone can find someone to blame, Alex," Richards lectured her. "We prosecute the conduct, not the cause. That was the first thing you taught me when I joined the DA's office."

That was different.

"Benson made decisions," he went on, unrelenting. "She stole, she lied, she covered up. She's gotta see jail time."

That was the last time Alex accepted their invitation to lunch, or anyone else's in the DA's office. Eventually, the conversation always managed to end up in the same place: Too bad about Benson. What's happening with Benson? Don't put your career at risk for a cokehead.

Alex had no interest in listening to any more of their garbage. None of her colleagues knew Olivia like she did. None of them understood. They could all go to hell.

The knob on the door leading into the secure area turned, and her stomach churned. She hadn't seen Olivia since before the arrest. She hadn't handled the arraignment, either, giving her the vain hope that Branch would leave her out of this. Alex had even toyed with taking a leave of absence so that she could spend time with Olivia privately. So much for that idea.

First across the threshold was Marcus Stoddardt, the man who, just six months earlier, Olivia had dismissed as a "sleazeball lawyer for sleazeball cops." Funny how priorities change. Two days after Olivia's arrest, Stoddardt's reputation as a dirty cop's best friend had earned him another client. Is that what it takes to win you, Liv – a good win-loss record?

Behind Stoddardt trailed the woman who held her heart. Alex studied her closely. No bruises or scrapes. That eased one worry, for now at least. ADA Cabot would never have insisted on remand, notwithstanding the feeble justification Peterson offered up after the fact.

No ties to the community. The words resonated in her head for days. Was that true?

Did Olivia have no ties to someone with whom she'd shared the highs and lows of a passionate pursuit for five years? With whom she went to lunch or dinner or a quick coffee every few days, not even pretending any more that they had considered asking others to join them? With whom she commiserated once in a while about lousy dates, sometimes joking that they should cut out the middle men next time and just go out together?

If Olivia didn't have ties, Alex certainly did, and they were to the woman who had wrapped comforting arms around her after she'd doomed a woman to be gang raped at Rikers, and who had forgiven the ADA for tricking her into an illegal search, later talking Alex out of her apartment and into the sunshine during the first weekend of her month-long suspension.

Stoddardt drew out a chair, and Olivia deposited herself gracelessly into it. She raised her hands toward the corrections officer, who silently unlocked the cuffs. Alex watched as her friend – her closest friend, even if the other woman never knew it – rubbed absently at the insides of her wrists.

After a moment of awkward silence, Olivia took a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet Alex's gaze. So this wasn't easy for her either. For some reason, that made Alex feel a little better. "Branch send you here to clean up the mess?" Olivia asked sarcastically.

Not funny, Liv. "He sent someone who cares," Alex replied.

"Uh huh." Olivia's nod was skeptical.

"Olivia." Alex leaned forward on the table. "You know I do. That's the only reason I would make an offer like this: Three years probation and a drug treatment program."

She thought she saw a flicker of surprise cross Olivia's face. That's right, Liv. It's a ridiculous deal. Alex knew she was risking a media crusade ("Slap On the Wrist for ADA Friend?"), but it was a small price to pay.

"No jail time?" Olivia asked. "Getting sentimental on me, Alex?"

Why did Olivia seem so shocked? Do you really not know how I feel about you? "It's on record that you were forced to use cocaine three times in your undercover assignment on Phelps," she said. "I can sell that this wasn't your fault."

That elicited a wry smile, but not the toothy grin that set Alex's heart on fire. "You can sell that, can you?" Olivia turned her attention to Stoddardt, who spoke for the first time.

"She'll be decertified," he said.

Alex nodded. "Of course."

"'Of course,'" Olivia repeated.

"For Christ's sake, Liv, what do you expect? Yes, you'll be decertified, but–"

"No government work, no private license, no gun." It wasn't clear whether Olivia was asking her or telling her. "What do you expect me to do, Alex? Bag groceries?"

What the hell? "I expect you to stay out of prison!" Alex raised her voice. "I'm doing you a favor, Olivia."

"By taking away my career?"

"I didn't do that, Olivia – you managed that all on your own. You take eighty thousand dollars from a crime scene to support your drug habit, and you're blaming me?" Alex wanted to scream her frustration. "Olivia, you will be convicted. This isn't a close call."

"I've heard that before," Olivia said. "Gail Kent, maybe?"

Color rose in Alex's cheeks. That was a cheap shot. The Kent case was one of the low points of the year, a hard loss that she and Olivia had spent hours trying to forget in a corner of the nearest bar where they wouldn't be surrounded by cops. "Maybe I just needed a better witness," she lashed out.

She didn't know if Olivia heard her juvenile taunt; the prisoner and her lawyer had their heads together. She wished she knew what Stoddardt was saying to make Olivia nod like that. It had been a long time since the other woman had shown that kind of confidence in her.

"My client will take her chances with a jury," Stoddardt said.

No! You stupid – "Liv . . . ." Alex struggled with what to say. Olivia truly had no chance at trial. ADA Cabot had won many cases on far less. "I am offering you better than you could ever hope for at trial – why won't you listen?" What kind of advice was that idiot giving her? "Let me talk to her alone." Alex regretted the slip even before Stoddardt started laughing.

"Right," he chuckled. Mercifully, he didn't humiliate her further for the pathetic plea.

For the first time, she noticed a familiar expression on Olivia's face. "Alex." Her Olivia was back – for just a moment. "I don't know what I'd do if I weren't a cop. I can't give it up without a fight."

And I don't want to give you up. Alex wished desperately that it was just the two of them in that room. "Please believe me, Liv. I'm trying to help you." There was so much more that she wanted to say, but this wasn't the time. After another extended silence, she moved on to another subject. "I can get you released on OR," she began.

Olivia snorted. "And just when I'm finally getting a love life."

That shut Alex up. Love life?

The brunette leaned forward with another smirk. "What do I have to do to get out of here?"

"Nothing." Alex hated having to say this. "Just daily testing."

"Don't trust me, Alex?"

"It's not a matter of trust," the ADA dodged. But no, she didn't.

"Liv!" Alex hurried to catch the detective just as she inserted the card key into the front door of her apartment building. As always, she was striking in her dark leather jacket and close-fitting jeans.

"Alex?" Olivia looked around as if she half expected someone to jump out at them. "What are you doing here?"

"We need to talk."

"You can't talk to me without Stoddardt."

"You can waive that right," Alex pointed out.

"Well, I don't."

"What?" That was unexpected. "Olivia, just give me five minutes. What's happened to us?"

"Gee, Alex, I don't know," came the flippant reply. "You're prosecuting me for a felony and trying to destroy my career. I don't know why we're not feeling so buddy-buddy right now."

"I'm actually trying to save you, Olivia." The attorney nearly growled in her frustration. Most defendants had a hard time seeing things objectively, but Olivia Benson was experienced enough to know better, Alex had hoped, to be a little more realistic. Instead, she would have to rely on her lawyer for sound advice, and that wasn't happening here. "Olivia, you need to think this through. Stoddardt doesn't have your best interests in mind–"

"I really don't want to hear a bunch of sniping about him, Alex. He's done a good job so far." Olivia turned to insert the key card again. The conversation apparently was over as far as she was concerned.

"No, he hasn't." Alex would have to talk fast. "Not with you. I made you an offer that any other attorney would have jumped at. Stoddardt is using you to build his reputation."

"He already has a reputation, and as much as you hate it, Alex, you have to admit that he's earned it." Olivia was clearly irritated with this conversation. "Besides, if I'm really going down, what does he get out of not dealing me? A loss doesn't do him any good."

"Sure it does," Alex replied. She had given this a lot of thought. "It's a win-win for him, Olivia. Everyone knows that you're–" She caught herself too late.

"Go on," Olivia snapped. "Everyone knows that I'm guilty."

Damn! She'd probably just blown whatever chance she had at changing Olivia's mind. Seeing that Olivia was waiting for her next words, Alex plunged ahead. "Everyone knows that it's a tough case against you. If Stoddardt pulls off a miracle, he's the Midas lawyer. If he loses, he's willing to take hard cases to trial."

Olivia was still staring at her. "So far I don't see the problem, Alex. Sounds like what a lawyer ought to do."

Alex took a step toward her, but Olivia matched it with a step backward.

"Look, you do your job and he'll do his. I'm no expert, but I think it might be a conflict of interest to have the prosecutor also acting as defense counsel."

"I'm not here as a prosecutor," Alex said. "Don't you know why I'm here?" She wouldn't do this if she weren't desperate, but she was desperate. "Olivia, if you haven't figured it out after all these years–"

"I don't need a lecture from you, Alex," Olivia interrupted. "You're disappointed. You expected better. Save it. Things don't always work out the way we plan." The glass door opened and closed, and she was gone.

Alex sighed. No, they didn't.

She stared at the two small red pills resting in the palm of her hand. Why bother? Nothing stilled the incessant brain activity that kept her staring at the ceiling or the walls night after night. Life without Olivia. All her fantasies, all her daydreams . . . . Even when Olivia got out – and Alex would lobby for the earliest possible date – their friendship would be over.

The next morning, she checked her makeup carefully. It didn't completely obscure the dark circles under her eyes, but it would do from a distance. It wasn't like she spent much time around other people these days.

Skipping breakfast again got her to the office an hour early, although there really wasn't much point. She had postponed or begged favors or stalled on her other pendings so that she could devote her attention to the one and only case that mattered right now. But how many times did she really need to review her direct examination outline of the FBI videographer? Six prosecution witnesses, six outlines already written. Two defense witnesses, two lists of questions sketched out. Fourteen exhibits, fourteen foundations ready to be laid. Cheat sheets on evidentiary objections that Stoddardt might hit her with? Check.

That left three gaping holes in her trial preparation that she could not put off any more:

Her opening statement. What the evidence would show. The big picture. A widely circulated study a few years earlier had concluded that most jurors made up their mind after the opening statement. Alex didn't buy it, not in criminal cases, at least, where she'd seen too many tears in the jury box after poignant testimony or gruesome photos over the years, but it was still a crucial piece.

Her summation. What the evidence had shown, what the jury should do about it, and why they should do it. Alex's mentor in her first year as an ADA had taught her to outline her summations before trial began. That way, he emphasized, she would never learn the hard way that she had overlooked some minor piece of testimony that knocked out one of her counts. In this case, the summation would be important for another reason: sending a carefully worded message to the jury.

And the final task she had been avoiding: Cross-examination questions for the defendant. Stoddardt had been vague about whether he planned to put Olivia on the stand, and Alex thought he might take the chance. Juries did love Olivia Benson.

Sometimes too much . . . . Smiling for the first time in weeks, Alex thought back to the morning last summer when she stopped at Olivia's desk just as the detective was turning someone down for a date.

How effective would Olivia be on the stand, though, if she didn't have the power of moral superiority behind her? It would be hard to maintain that wide-eyed visage against a withering cross-examination. "Are you telling us that's not you on the video, Ms. Benson? How many women your height with short brown hair were running around the warehouse in SVU jackets that night? . . . The money in this bag was from a prostitution operation involving minors, wasn't it? So you took money that had been earned by the rape of young girls and used it to finance your drug habit?"

Alex pulled out her center drawer to retrieve a pen. Her eyes fell immediately to the Montblanc, untouched since Branch's visit to her office. Alex Cabot, Prosecutor Extraordinaire. What a waste. A beautiful piece of workmanship that would never be used again.

On the Saturday morning before trial, Alex's neighbor carried a heavy box from her coffee table to the back seat of her car and, to her amazement, did not ask her out afterward. Was her mood that obvious? she wondered. Or did she just look that bad?

Get over yourself, Cabot. Maybe he'd found someone.

That thought stayed with her for the first few miles of her trip. For years now, Alex had occasionally said those words to herself. "I've found someone." And she truly believed that she had. Unfortunately, the someone that Alex had found had not found Alex.

Alex would rather have taken her red dress off the hanger to meet Olivia for dinner, not a defense attorney whose favorite topic of conversation was himself. She hadn't minded being called out of bed in the middle of the night to meet Olivia at the station, but why couldn't that have been followed with the suggestion of a nightcap, or an offer to see Alex home after getting what they needed from the judge?

Because Olivia wasn't interested in a nightcap with you, or seeing you home. Instead, she had thanked Alex and returned to her desk, free to start tracking down another lead in her crusade against – irony, thy name is Olivia – a couple of dirty cops.

As she pulled into the driveway, it occurred to Alex that she should have called first. It was a little presumptuous to assume that the woman would have nothing better to do than hang around the house in case her daughter happened to arrive unannounced. But when she reached the front door, it was unlocked. Her mother was here somewhere.

Alex dropped her bag onto the carpet, and then, the lure too strong, she took the stairs to the second floor and opened a door off to her right. Her old bed was made, a puffy yellow comforter laid invitingly across the top. Slipping off her shoes, she crawled between the sheets and curled up.

When she emerged an hour later, the elder Cabot was sipping something from a mug in the dining room, her blonde-with-a-touch-of-gray hair a few inches shorter than the last time Alex had been up here.

Mrs. Cabot studied her daughter with undisguised concern. "Are you all right?"

Alex shrugged.

"Is it a case?"

Another noncommital response.

"Do you want some lime sherbet?"

Alex almost smiled. In years past, that question had never failed to draw her out of whatever funk she'd settled herself into. Not this time, though. The thought of putting anything into her stomach caused almost physical pain. "No," she said quietly.

"Do you want me to leave you alone?"

No, not really. But she didn't want to talk about it, either. Alex wasn't sure why she had come up here.

"I was planning to do some writing for the Junior League newsletter. Did you bring work with you?"

Alex nodded.

"Do you want to do your work with me here at the table?"

Tears filled her eyes, and Alex nodded again.

In a silence broken only by the scratching of a cheap Bic pen and the keystrokes of a laptop computer, Alex wrote a speech asking twelve men and women to send the woman she loved to prison.

For once, Alex had nothing to say to the scandal mongers who lurked on the courthouse steps. Leave us alone! she wanted to shout at them. Yesterday's trial preview in the Ledger had grossly sensationalized the charges but, except for a vague, "I think you have some of your facts wrong," she brushed past the reporters without comment.

It was a short trial.

Through IAB's lab technician, jurors heard about the morning when Detective Benson was surprised at the SVU squad room with a supervised drug test, and the seven thousand two hundred and forty one nanograms per milliliter of cocaine that was detected in her bloodstream. It took only a few minutes to elicit similar testimony from the medical director at central booking where Olivia was processed a few hours later.

Through an uncommunicative Elliot Stabler, Alex dragged out the fact that his partner had missed work several times in the past two months without notice, which was out of the ordinary for her. And yes, she might have forgotten to follow up with a couple of witnesses in a couple of cases. And maybe he had remarked that she seemed a little distracted at times (but they all were at times, he volunteered). And yes, she had failed to meet him at the squad room the morning that she was scheduled to testify in Stott (but he went in her place, so no big deal, right?). And yes, she had become separated from the others for several minutes during the warehouse raid, returning to the rendezvous point with two duffel bags.

While Stoddardt let Elliot prattle on about his partner's distinguished service and dedication to the job, Alex fumed silently at the prosecution table. In an embarrassing sidebar conference, she had been forced to have Judge Lawson declare her own detective an adverse witness based upon his repeated non-responsiveness to her questions. In spite of his efforts, Elliot's attitude wasn't actually helping Olivia. His interruptions and desperate justifications just came across as one partner covering for another, especially when, on redirect, he could offer only silence to her final question: "Detective Stabler, what possible law enforcement purpose could be served by stealing cash from a crime scene and using it to buy drugs for personal use?"

Over the lunch break, Alex browsed for something beneath the fake glass counter that wouldn't turn her stomach, but there was no such thing. Sipping a small grape juice at a table for one, she let herself think about life after tomorrow. It was obvious from Elliot's demeanor, and from the angry response to her edict banning SVU detectives from showing support for Olivia by attending the trial, that she would have to request a transfer when this was over. Not only would Olivia be gone from her life, but Elliot, Munch, Fin, and Cragen as well. Suddenly even the juice was making her sick. She rose and tossed the half-full cup into the trash.

Before adjourning for the day, jurors watched a slightly grainy – but unmistakable – image of Detective Benson peering into three leather duffel bags at a cocaine and prostitution bust and then, after a quick check of her surroundings, prying up a couple of boards from a packing crate and stuffing one of the bags inside. Another image of her returning later that night to retrieve it was memorialized by the hidden video camera that, unknown to New York's finest, had been installed four months earlier by FBI agents working on an ivory smuggling operation.

Tomorrow would not be any more pleasant. First up would be Cragen describing the warehouse raid, including the sordid details of how the targets had earned their ill-gotten cash. Following the captain would be Tyron Moore, the drug dealer who had supplied Olivia with crack five times over a two-month period, and who had extracted from the ADA six months off his sentence in exchange for testifying against her friend. The last nail in Olivia's coffin.

"Marc!" Alex hastened to catch up to Olivia's attorney. "Marc. My offer is still on the table."

"Worried, Alex?"

"There's nothing to worry about here except someone that I care about."

He marched ahead, ignoring her.

"Marc, if you could look past your damn ego for one minute – you know this is best for her." Grabbing his arm, she yanked him to a stop.

"Well, let's see," he replied smugly. "I won my last four cases. Detective Benson tells me that you went two and two."

Fuck you, Olivia. She had only agreed to try Carlos Benvenido because Olivia couldn't stand the thought of turning him loose. Alex had warned her all along that they didn't have enough for a conviction. To throw that in her face . . . . "Not all of my cases are slam dunk, Marc," she retorted. "This one is."

She wasn't bluffing. Stoddardt's weak cross hadn't put a dent in her case. Nor had his co-called expert, whose discourse on false-positive drug tests had not held up ("So there can be false positives, Dr. Ashton. Tell me: What are the odds of two false positives taken by two different law enforcement agencies on the same morning?") Nor his video analyst. ("Oh, I think we all agree that we aren't watching high-definition TV, Mr. Romney. But this is better quality than the typical convenience store surveillance footage that you make your living analyzing, isn't it? . . . True, video can be manipulated, but you didn't actually find any evidence that an FBI videographer took the time to frame a New York city police officer whom he'd never met before, did you?")

A few mercies could still be shown to Olivia, and Alex showed them. Normally with a case this strong, the ADA would have forced jurors to make a tough decision: Class C felony or cut the defendant loose. This time she allowed what she hoped was an appealing alternative, a Class A misdemeanor that the jury could use to reward someone who had given the city more than a decade of faithful service before stumbling. Alex suppressed a brief twinge of guilt at the double standard she was applying. To hell with fairness; she could not live with the thought of hearing the words "indeterminate sentence of up to 15 years" uttered by the judge.

In her summation, Alex characterized the events as a tragedy set in motion by Detective Benson's dedication to her job. Nevertheless, she admonished jurors, the defendant knew what she was doing when she took the money, and knew what she was doing when she used it to buy illegal drugs. The law demanded that there be consequences for such misconduct. Go for the Official Misconduct, she practically begged them.

She spent the first few hours waiting on the worn bench outside the courtroom. When her watch told her it was well past lunch time, she wandered into the cafeteria for a sandwich that she didn't eat but which used up a few minutes as she stood in line. After three hours, the restless ADA headed back to her office.

"No, John, if the jury had come in I would have told you," she said as she returned from a time-killing trip to the supply room. Alex nearly flipped the phone shut to end the call, the third from SVU in the last hour. "I don't know," she replied to Munch's next question. "They're obviously disagreeing about something, probably which of the charges to bring in. Look, I'll let you know when we hear something. I need to go."

She didn't really need to be anywhere, of course, but these calls were pointless and painful. She checked the battery on her cell phone again and wandered outside toward the green area a few blocks away.

When the phone rang, she quickly grabbed it from her pocket and checked the I.D. Branch. With a sigh, she pressed the send button. "They're still out." This time she did hang up. There was nothing more to say.

Six hours and thirty-two minutes after the jury began its deliberations, the foreman rose to deliver its verdict. Official misconduct please, Alex prayed. Not one of the felonies.

"On the count of burglary in the second degree, we find the defendant not guilty."

Alex held her breath. One down.

"On the count of possession of stolen property in the second degree, we find the defendant not guilty."

Thank God. The prosecutor tried not to let her relief show. She could agree to the minimum on the official misconduct. With time off, Olivia would be out in--

"On the count of official misconduct, we find the defendant not guilty."

What? Not guilty? That was impossible!

No, the ADA stuttered, she did not care to poll the jury. Not guilty?

At the other table, Stoddardt hugged his client, who seemed as jubilant with the verdict as the ADA was bewildered. Alex supposed she should be packing up, but . . . . How could she explain this to Branch? Would he accuse her of throwing the trial? Had she thrown it? Alex retraced the evidence. No, she had tried a good case. She had convinced the judge to toss out Stoddardt's ridiculous justification defense. But had she gone too far in blaming the undercover work for Olivia's problems?

By the time she looked over again, Olivia and her attorney had slipped out without a word. Alex knew she should be getting up, should be letting people know, but she remained, slumped in the seat with her mind racing, until long after she was the only one left.

Finally, she knew she could not delay any longer. She needed to tell SVU before someone heard it on the radio. Post-trial reports were a task that Alex usually looked forward to. Sometimes she wanted to brag, to soak in the compliments of her detectives, especially Olivia. When the news wasn't good, she appreciated the comfort of an understanding arm around her shoulder. Today she wanted neither. This visit was strictly informational.

She rounded the corner and – oh, God, why didn't I think? There was Olivia, surrounded by her grinning colleagues, one hand resting on Fin's arm, the other accepting a handshake from her Captain.

If she hadn't frozen midstride, perhaps she could have backed out without being noticed. As it was, she stood motionless, unable to move for a few seconds too long. Almost as one, the detectives noticed her presence and turned to look at her.

"Alex!" Olivia's smile seemed sincere.

The attorney spun on her heel and retreated as fast as she could go without the further humiliation of actually running away. She heard her name called again, this time by Elliot, but by then . . .

Something wasn't right. Dizzy. A few yards down the hall, spots appeared before her eyes. She couldn't move, couldn't keep her eyes open. She slumped to the floor.

"Get an EMT." It was Olivia's voice. "Alex, can you hear me?"

And then she was being lifted. Floating toward . . . Where? Somewhere soft.

"What have you done to yourself?" Again the caring tones of her former friend. "Jesus, she's nothing but skin and bones," the voice said despairingly.

"She didn't have much to spare to begin with." Elliot.

Alex opened her eyes slowly, partly to forestall another round of dizziness that threatened, partly because she didn't want to see what she might see.

Worried, watery brown eyes met hers. Gentle fingers stroked an errant lock of blonde hair from her forehead.

Olivia. Alex's brain shut down again, and she closed her eyes.

"No visitors." Even though the woman spoke quietly, Alex could hear the anger in her tone.

While an unfamiliar male voice mumbled a reply, Alex opened her eyes. A hospital room?

"I don't care what the duty nurse says. It's what I'm saying."

Alex turned her head to see Olivia standing in the doorway of her room, facing the unknown visitor, her hands placed in a deceptively casual way on each side of the threshold, which also happened to prevent whoever it was from coming in.

"Oh, just peachy," Olivia was saying now. "Except for being dehydrated, exhausted, and starving herself to death." The tone was sheer ice.

The reply again was inaudible.

"I don't want to hear it, Alvarez." Olivia shifted her body slightly, and now Alex could hear the conversation more clearly. She could also see the man with whom Olivia was speaking, a balding man about the detective's height sporting an expensive gray suit and blue and white striped tie. Neither of the two appeared to have noticed that she was awake.

"Your behavior is unprofessional, Detective Benson."

Olivia laughed bitterly. "Like I give a damn. I told you, Alvarez. I told you."

"You told me you didn't like it. You didn't tell me Cabot was a flake."

"Don't go there."

"I hear from everyone that this Cabot is a hardass, then she freaks out and almost fucks the whole thing up."

"Alvarez, I mean it. Shut the fuck up."

"Well, Christ, Benson, how's she any better than him? What do you think Branch is going to make of that little drama outside your place?"

In a flash, Olivia's arms came down and she shot forward through the doorway. A moment later, Alex heard a crash.

"Hey – hey – hey!" Elliot Stabler's raised voice carried into the room. "Whoa!" More sounds of a scuffle followed, and then Elliot's curt order, "Olivia, back off."

Without thinking, Alex called out. "Olivia?"

A concerned brunette, hair slightly askew, quickly stepped into the room. "Alex?"

Behind her, an infuriated bureacrat appeared. "That's it, Benson. I'm going to Philson with this."

Philson? IAB?

Olivia whirled around to face him, but before she could respond, her partner intervened. "You do that, Lieutenant," Elliot said calmly. "I'm sure Olivia can find something to keep her busy while you're over there. By the way, that Post reporter's still downstairs, Liv. Want me to go get him?"

"Gee, Elliot, that sounds kind of fun," Olivia replied. "I have learned lots of interesting things lately." She challenged Alvarez with her glare. "You leave Alex out of this, or I show and tell."

That Olivia's threat was real was easy to tell. Without another word, Alvarez turned and stormed out.

"I'll make sure he finds the exit without getting his head stuffed into a trash can," Elliot said.

"Don't try too hard."

And then the women were alone.

"What's going on, Olivia?"

Olivia crossed the room to the bed. "I'm sorry, Alex." She leaned over, a look so caring on her face that Alex's heart lurched. "Stoddardt was arrested after the trial."


"Bribing three of the jurors. They've all been under surveillance since the names were drawn."

The first part of the scheme was surprisingly elaborate. When the jury pool names were released, Stoddardt's people arranged "accidental" meetings with as many of them as possible, feeling out those whose attitudes and finances might lead to a mutually beneficial arrangement. Of those who ended up on the panel, two jurors received twenty thousand dollars, with a third pocketing $25,000 ("must have had a better agent," Olivia quipped).

Once the trial began, the process was simple enough. Film of the deliberations showed three jurors adamant almost from the beginning that the prosecution simply had not proved its case. The video, they insisted, didn't matter. Neither did the other testimony. The prosecution just hadn't persuaded them. From that point, the outcome was set: If a quarter of the jury, three presumably reasonable strangers, remained utterly unconvinced, how could remaining jurors find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

If she was vindicated, a grateful Olivia Benson had agreed to "help" Stoddardt out in a few things. Nothing major – not initially, anyway. Maybe just the courtesy of a heads up on investigations into some of his less public but more lucrative clients. Over time, though, the cops under Stoddardt's thumb inevitably sank much deeper. IAB had uncovered warnings of impending raids, arrests, and wiretap applications. Olivia's currency was to be the illegal sex trade.

"So, this whole thing . . . ?" This whole nightmare . . .

"A setup." She reached for Alex's hand.

"You never used cocaine on the Phelps case?"

"No, that was real. That's what gave IAB the idea. When they got my report, they hit Cragen up."

"Cragen," Alex repeated. "So everyone knew? Elliot, Munch, Fin?"

She already knew the answer, but Olivia confirmed softly, "Yeah."



"Everyone but me."

"I'm sorry, Alex. I told Alvarez to cut you in, but he didn't think you could pull it off." She shook her head fondly. "And then you threw out that crazy deal: no prison time. I thought Alvarez was going to stroke out. He was sure his two-month operation was down the toilet."

'Then she almost fucks it up.'

"Luckily, Stoddardt's even more arrogant than an ADA." Olivia seemed uncertain as to whether her teasing was welcome. When Alex didn't respond, she continued, "His clients really wanted someone in SVU. He told me not to take the deal."

"You knew better?" You knew what I was trying to do for you?

The question drew an affectionate frown. "Give me some credit, Alex. I – it meant a lot to me." Stepping closer to the bed, Olivia leaned in and spoke quietly. "Listen, outside my apartment . . . ."

"You were wired?"

Olivia nodded. "Yeah. And we weren't sure if Stoddardt had someone on me. Otherwise . . . ." She seemed to brace herself to say something. "Alex, I want–"

"Trash successfully taken out." Elliot reappeared in the doorway, but stopped just inside the room when he saw the two women deep in conversation. "Uh – I thought I might go check out the cafeteria. You guys want anything?"

From the undisguised flash of interest it wasn't hard to see that Olivia was hungry.

"Go ahead," Alex encouraged her.

"I'm OK. Really."

"Get your partner something to eat," Alex directed Detective Stabler. "I'll stick with my liquid diet." She indicated the IV dripping into her arm. "So," she said when they were alone again, "everyone's been having a good laugh at me."

"Oh, God, no, Alex." Olivia looked horrified at the suggestion. "It's been terrible. I talked to the guys last week; they were – No one wanted to do this to you." She clasped Alex's hand between hers. "We were told . . . This was pretty big, Alex. You remember last fall when the 2-2 lost a couple of their guys over on Spring Street?" At the attorney's nod, she continued, "The perps knew they were coming."


"Yeah. You helped take down a three-time, Counselor." Olivia let her gaze run over Alex's face and throat and down to her forearms. "I just wish you hadn't almost killed yourself."

"I was worried about you."

"I know," Olivia sighed. "I didn't realize how bad it was getting, or I never would have . . . ."

That was enough of the detective's guilt trip. "So, did I really ruin your love life by getting you out of Singer?" Alex asked.

That earned her the patented Benson smile. "Nah. I'm setting my sights much higher."

"How high?"

"All the way to the top." Olivia kissed each of the fingers wrapped around her palm. "When you're feeling better, I'll tell you all about it." She caressed Alex's cheek with the back of her right hand. "You're getting some color back. That stuff must be hitting the spot." She gestured toward the IV line.

"Yeah, it's delicious."

"Well, that's what happens when brilliant attorneys can't figure out how to feed themselves," Olivia said. "The doc says we can get out of here when you've sucked that all down. You just need someone to stay with you tonight, and to follow their delicious menu for the next couple of weeks." She reached back and drew a folded piece of paper from her back pocket. "I'll drop you at your place and then hit the store. By the time we get through with this, you'll never want to eat out again."

"Don't be silly," Alex objected. "You don't have time to babysit me for two weeks."

"Are you kidding? I've racked up so much overtime that I might make more than you do this year."

Alex responded in a serious tone, "That would be sick and wrong."

"Of course," Olivia agreed. "All we do is dodge fists and bullets on a regular basis, but you attorneys risk paper cuts every day."

"That's right," Alex said. "And I want you to know that I was willing to take a paper cut for you on this case, Detective."

"I know." Olivia pressed her lips to Alex's fingers again. "I know." A mischievous grin crossed her face, breaking the tension. "Although you were pretty hard on me in that closing, Counselor: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, send this scumsucking degenerate to the slammer.'"

"Nothing you didn't deserve."

The brunette's expression transformed again. "You know, there's something kind of sexy about a woman who'll send you to prison . . . ."

"You just keep that in mind, Detective. Next time I ask you to dinner, I would advise you to say yes."

"Oh, I will." Olivia smiled. "You won't be able to get rid of me."

"That's part of your punishment," Alex said. "For your conduct, Ms. Benson, you are sentenced to an indeterminate period of up to 15 years in the custody of Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot."

"I'll have to appeal that decision," Olivia declared.

Alex arched an eyebrow.

"Yeah," Olivia said, holding her gaze. "I think I deserve life."

"I'll consider time added for good behavior," Alex replied. "Beginning now. I need a big strong detective to press the call button and hand me my clothes." It was time to start Olivia's sentence.

The End

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