DISCLAIMER: The characters in the story belong to NBC Television, Dick Wolf and whoever else has a vested interest in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. No money is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended.
THANKS: To my beta readers Phil, Mac and Jeanne. Their diligence made this a much more pleasant story for everyone to read. They picked up all the missing letters and words I dropped since Pink & Fluffy the brain cells continually outdistanced Pink & Fluffy the typing fingers. I appreciate it. :-) And to SueG who continually answered questions about New York City and the Hamptons – thanks, hon.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is a continuation of my first Law & Order: SVU fan fiction, Until the revised version. You might want to read that one first; s'up to you. It fills in the plot holes left by SVU/Conviction and will give you a little background for this one. This story will not follow cannon of either season seven (and beyond) of SVU or the short-lived season of Conviction. Considering what they did to Alex Cabot's character on that show, it's probably a good thing. The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.
SONG NOTE: Though credit in the story is given to Alex, words and music to the first song used belong to Richard Marx – the second belongs to Josh Groban. No copyright infringement is intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Live Like You Were Dying
By D


Part 15


Chapter XXIX

Three days passed – three days where Alex didn't move from Olivia's side except when her mother or Kathy forced her to lay on the couch briefly or take a quick shower. Three days watching Olivia breathe steadily in and out, unmoving. Three days learning the hard way what it meant to be a police officer's wife and praying it was the only time she would ever experience this part of cop life.

Alex had met Dr. Richmond early that first morning – Hi, I'm Dr. Virginia Richmond, and yes, my parents did indeed exercise a warped sense of humor when they named me – she said by way of introduction. Alex found she liked Dr. Richmond very much, and the woman was never too busy to answer questions or soothe whatever concerns Alex had about Olivia's care and treatment. Better, she had no underlying issues with them as a soon-to-be-wed couple and that made it easier on Alex.

Elizabeth had collected clean clothing for Alex as she had promised and at Alex's request, had also brought along their diaries. Alex spent hours every day reading to Olivia from them, knowing that the sound of her voice was important to Liv's recovery and determined to do her part.

Kathy spent a number of hours with them as well, understanding better than most Alex's need for silent support though there were any number of other visitors as well – some more surprising than others. Arthur and his wife stopped by; Lena Petrovsky and her husband; Liz Donnelly, Jack McCoy and a number of officers and detectives Alex wasn't personally acquainted with and a lot of them she was. Their most surprising visitor was Abbie Carmichael, who showed up at the hospital on Saturday evening with Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green.

They made small talk for a few moments, then Elliot excused himself to speak to the two detectives, correctly surmising they had something of interest to share. By a quirk of fate, Kathy and Elizabeth had left a short time earlier to pick up some dinner for them, and that left Abbie and Alex alone with Olivia.

"How is she?" Abbie's voice husky and her Southern twang more in evidence than ever before.

"The doctors are optimistic, but she's going to have to remain in the coma for several days."

"And how are you?"

"I'm all right," Alex replied almost too quickly. Abbie just raise an eyebrow at her response.

"C'mon, Alex... this is me you're talking to. We may have been rivals, but we were also friends. And I haven't been gone so long I don't remember how special Liv is or how much you wanted her even way back when. Don't try to deny it, Cabot. I live in a town full of politicians – I know how to read these things and I've learned to have a long, long memory for secrets like this."

"God, Abbie... what do you want me to say?! I'm terrified of losing her, all right? Is that what you wanted to hear me say??" There was a noticeable elevation in Liv's vital signs and both Abbie and Alex turned and looked at Olivia. Abbie wrapped an arm around Alex's shoulders.

"Shh... I'm sorry, Alex. I shouldn't have pushed so hard. Obviously Liv is very in touch with your emotions. I just don't want you to hide behind that Cabot façade you're so good at, all right?"

"I won't, Abbie. Besides, when did you become a psychiatrist?"

"Living in DC qualifies me – they're all head cases."

Alex chuckled and rested her head on Abbie's shoulder and it was quiet for a number of minutes before Alex sat back up and looked into Abbie's eyes, knowing she couldn't lie this close. "So why are you really here, Abbie? Oh, I know you and Liv were really good friends once upon a time, but it's not like you've been in touch recently... at least not since I returned. So what's the real story?"

"You're too damn smart for your own good, Cabot. I'm here to deal with Robert Claiborne and Nicholas Rivera."

Alex held up her hands. "I don't want to know – not right now. Maybe when Liv is awake and doing better, but not right now."

Whatever response Abbie was going to make was lost in Elizabeth's return. Instead she said, "I need to go for now. The detectives should be done explaining the situation to Elliot. But I'll be back to see you both before I leave." Then she disappeared out the door, leaving a flummoxed Alex and Elizabeth to regard each other soberly, wondering what the hell was really going on.

On the fourth morning, Dr. Richmond came in the room with a smile on her face – it made Alex instantly suspicious. Virginia placed a calming hand on her arm. "Alex, relax. I'm here to take Olivia out of her coma. I'm very pleased with her progress and how well she's healing. It's time to bring her back to you. Now," the doctor went on more seriously, "you need to understand that she is going to be in some rather intense pain and she may be a little disoriented for a while – it's perfectly natural. You just keep doing whatever you've been doing because it seems to be helping."

Alex nodded watched as Dr. Richmond slid into place across from her and began removing one set of IV tubing from Olivia's arm. "It could take a little time before she actually wakes up. I'm just removing the medicine we were using to keep her in a coma. Depends on her metabolism as to how quickly the remainder of it cycles through her system."

Alex nodded again, but didn't take her eyes off of Olivia's face. She didn't want to miss the moment Liv woke up – because despite the reassurances of two doctors and numerous friends and colleagues, Alex wasn't completely confident of Liv's recovery and wouldn't be until she was safely out of the hospital and home again. So she watched and waited. And Elizabeth watched and waited from the other side of the door, knowing Alex needed to greet Olivia's return in private.

Some time passed before brown eyes fluttered open, only to slam shut immediately. Alex took her cue and flipped the lights off before moving to stand at Olivia's side once more, gently tangling her fingers through the matted brown hair.

"Liv... sweetheart – open your eyes. Let me see you."

Olivia tried to speak, but her voice came out as a whispered croak. Alex rubbed some of the ice chips the nurse had left over Liv's lips, then spooned them into her mouth when they parted. "'Lex?" blinking again and looking up blearily into bloodshot blue eyes. "Hurts...."

"I know, baby... I'm sorry. It's going to hurt for some time to come. But I am so, so glad to see you again. Welcome back."

"Wha'... how...." she closed her eyes as thinking became too difficult and Alex soothed her tenderly, stroking her face and speaking in low tones.

"Shh," she admonished. "It doesn't matter now. The important thing is you're back with us and we're going to focus on getting you well. I promise you'll get the whole story soon."

Olivia nodded, a bare motion Alex was aware of only because one hand was resting on Liv's face. "Love...."

Alex leaned down and kissed Olivia's lips, then her eyelids before resting her forehead against Liv's. "Oh sweetheart... I love you too – so much. Now you rest a little bit. I'll be right here when you wake up." Olivia nodded again and her breathing quickly evened out in the healing rhythm of sleep.

Only when she was sure Olivia was asleep again did Alex move away from her – only then did she curl up on the couch that had been her only source of rest in the four nights she'd stayed in this room and cry. Alex never even heard her mother come in; she tried to pull away and hide her tears when she wrapped Alex in a hug. But Elizabeth held onto her and Alex eventually relaxed into her touch and cried away days and nights of terror, pain and frustration. It was a healing catharsis.

"Thank you," she said raspily as her tears abated. Elizabeth kissed the top of her head.

"I know it wasn't always true, and I wasn't always there for you like I should have been Alexandra, but I'm glad I can be a real mother to you now. She's going to be all right, you know. I've never met a stronger woman than she is, except for possibly yourself."

"I don't feel very strong right now."

"I'm sure – it's been a very long few days for both of you. But it's going to get better... you'll see. You have a new apartment to finish decorating together and a wedding to plan... a honeymoon to take. And that is just the beginning. You have the rest of your lives to spend together. Maybe you're just hitting the bumps early to get them out of the way."

"God, I hope so. We'll end up black and blue otherwise."

Elizabeth chuckled. "Are you feeling any better?"

Alex cocked her head. "Actually, yes," she said with a note of surprise in her voice.

"Well then... I have some phone calls to make and you have a nap to take – no arguments, Alexandra. On the off chance Olivia wakes again before you do, I will awaken you. Otherwise, you'll do as your mother says this time, please."

Alex closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "Actually, that sounds great. I can't remember the last time I was this exhausted. You'll be right here?"

"I won't leave the room... I promise." Elizabeth slid out from under Alex and laid her down, picking her feet up and tucking her into the makeshift bed. "Now go to sleep. I don't want Olivia upset at me for not taking care of you properly.

"Night mom," Alex said drowsily as her eyes fluttered closed. Elizabeth watched her fondly as her breathing slowed and deepened. Then she moved to the chair beside the bed and picked up the phone, dialing Elliot first.

"Thanks, Elizabeth... bye." He hung up the phone and turned to his expectantly waiting detective friends. "Well, Liv woke up very briefly this morning. Alex was the only one in the room with her at the time, but Elizabeth talked to the doctor for a while. They expect her to make a full recovery and if things continue to go well she should only be in the hospital another week or so."

"I don't envy the one who has to explain that to Liv... we know how much she enjoys being 'cooped up' in the hospital."

"Who's telling her about Claiborne?"

"Abbie volunteered," Elliot replied, leaning back in his chair. "But I promised her I'd go with her. I can't believe they let that little shit cut a deal."

"Me either, though I don't 'spect it'll help his sorry ass none."

"You know something?" Munch asked, turning his head toward Fin.

"Nothin' definite, but Claiborne broke the code – on both sides. Code breakers don't live long in prison... even in solitary. Rivera will have him put down and it'll be traced back to a government agency – mark it, my man."

Elliot held up his hand. "Don't need to, Fin. You say so, I believe you. I just hope they make him suffer like a sonovabitch before they finally kill him."

"Not to worry... word on the street is Rivera is big on pain and suffering. Makes folks more compliant and easier to keep in order."

"Hey, did we ever get anything on those rape/murders... on the street, I mean? We know there is no physical evidence against anyone."

"Nothing but rumor, and now there won't be that even. Rivera will drop off the scope til the heat dies down and by the time he resurfaces, the rumors will be gone and the DEA will be hunting new game."

"So no matter what Claiborne says or does at this point...."

"He's a dead man. It's just watching how he goes down and who he takes with him."

The phone rang a second time and Munch picked it up. "All right... I'll tell him. Bye, Ms Carmichael." Elliot and Fin both raised an eyebrow in his direction and waited. "Claiborne's dead," he said without ceremony. "Guards found him hung by the neck in his cell this morning. Apparently, he hung himself."


"I'm not buying it. It's a little too convenient."

"You think Rivera had it done somehow?"

Munch nodded. "Yep. I figure Claiborne was his last loose end. Now he's gone by apparent suicide – Rivera comes out of all this smelling like a rose. Because we all know whatever evidence Claiborne might have been able to offer died with him."

"Did Carmichael offer any reason why the director was so boss about hangin' Claiborne out to dry? I got the feelin' it was whacked."

Elliot shrugged. "Best she could figure was a combination of things. Apparently, Claiborne was very deep into the illegal side of Rivera's business – drugs, gun running, you name it – as part of the organization. That would have been all right if he hadn't been lying to the director and Hammond about it. Rivera has evidence that proves beyond a doubt that Claiborne was the top dog of the entire illegal organization and that he was using Rivera's honest business concerns to front for him and launder his dirty money. He wanted to do the same with Alex's name and connections."

"Well, I'm glad he's dead. He was a skank and not good for our favorite bureau chief. She and Liv fit."

"True that," Fin agreed. "Though I'm bettin' Liv's gonna be pissed she missed makin' him suffer for what he did to her and Alex."

"Maybe," Elliot agreed, "but I imagine she is gonna be so focused on Alex it won't be more than a passing thought. Speaking of...." turning to look at Munch, "what's the deal with the wedding? This gonna push it back?"

Munch shook his head and lifted his palms. "I dunno... I don't know. Elizabeth and I haven't had a chance to talk about it. I guess it'll depend on Liv and Alex and how Liv's recovery goes. The arrangements are very simple so they don't need to decide for a couple more weeks."

"You sure you wouldn't rather be a wedding planner, Munch? You seem to have the knack."

"Maybe when I retire, my friend. It's gotta beat being a bar owner – especially if it's a cop bar."

Fin held up his hand. "Don't start," he commanded. "We've got work to do." He looked at Elliot. "You gonna go see Liv?"

He checked his watch. "I need to call Abbie first. Then yeah. Alex needs to know what is going on even if Liv isn't awake."

"Stabler, my office," Cragen called out across the precinct. Munch and Fin exchanged glances and turned back to their work. Elliot stepped into Cragen's office and closed the door before sitting down at the captain's insistence.

"What's up, Cap?"

"I want you to work with Agent Hammond to collect all the evidence from Rivera's house."

"Cap? Doesn't that fall under narcotics?"

"Usually, yes... but you're looking for evidence on those fifteen rape/murders as well as that body in Brooklyn that targeted Olivia. I'm not too concerned about the rest, but I would like to close those... especially the Brooklyn murder. That one was personal."

"All right, Cap... when? I need to call Abbie and go over to the hospital." Cragen shook his head.

"No... this is a priority. This has to be done first. Carmichael will stick around as long as is necessary, and Olivia will probably sleep for the next day or two. I talked to the doctor just a few minutes ago. I know she and Alex need to know what is going on, but this is more important."

Elliot grit his teeth. "I don't think so, Cap. I think they deserve to know the truth now. They've earned the right to some answers."

"I'm not disagreeing with you, detective. I'm just saying they are going to have to wait. You and Carmichael can go to the hospital as soon as you are done helping Agent Hammond. Now get on it, detective – find that evidence and get it back here as quickly as possible. That's an order."

"Sir, yes sir," Elliot mocked before rising and opening the door, not surprised to find Agent Jack Hammond standing in the doorway.

"You ready, Detective Stabler?" Elliot brushed by him to snatch his jacket from the back of his chair.

"Let's go," he said on his way out the door. Hammond sighed and followed slowly. He had a feeling it was going to be a long day.

Alex blinked opened her eyes slowly, realizing almost immediately that she was no longer alone in the room with Olivia and starting violently when she recognized who the visitor was. Nicholas Rivera held out his hands in a conciliatory gesture, but otherwise didn't move, sitting comfortably relaxed in the chair that had been brought in for Elizabeth's use. Alex scrubbed her face, trying to jumpstart her brain to what was going on. Rivera waited patiently for her to look at him again, his hands folding in his lap. Alex cleared her throat.

"Mr. Rivera? Is there something I can help you with?" feeling the surrealness of the entire situation.

Rivera smiled gently. "Not at all, Ms Cabot. I just wanted to be sure you and your detective were going to be all right and to insure that you know that as far as I am concerned, you and I were equally used and fooled by the same evil man. I sincerely hope this will be the last time our paths cross."

"So do I... no offence."

He nodded, satisfied, and rose from the chair. "None taken, but in that case, Ms Cabot, I will take my leave of you. First, however, allow me to wish you and your companion much happiness together." He didn't offer her his hand, which Alex was secretly thankful for, not sure that she should accept it. She watched him walk out the door, wondering what had happened while she'd been asleep. Then she noticed the brown eyes looking back sleepily at her and nothing else mattered.

"Hey, beautiful... how do you feel?" crossing to stand by the bed, offering Liv some ice chips.

Olivia blinked. "Sore... tired... confused... grungy," taking several breaths between words.

Alex smiled and combed her fingers through dirty hair. "Well, I might be able to help with the confused and grungy parts, but I'm afraid you're going to be sore and tired for a little bit longer. Let's get the nurse in here and...." A hand on her arm caused Alex to stop talking and look back into Olivia's dark eyes. "What, sweetheart?"

"Was that Nicholas Rivera in here?"

"Yes, but don't ask why; I'm not sure I know yet. As soon as I get a chance to process it, I'll let you know. But I think it is good for us – you and me. Now let me see if we can get a nurse in here so we can clean you up."

Olivia smiled weakly. "Only if you're doing the cleaning."

Alex smiled and kissed her forehead. "Absolutely," pressing the call button. Almost immediately a nurse arrived, followed by the doctor and Elizabeth. Dr. Richmond nodded her agreement to Alex's request and Elizabeth stepped back out of the room, not wanting Olivia to be uncomfortable with her presence while she was being examined. Alex chanced to wonder where she'd gone that Nicholas Rivera had been given the opportunity to come in, then turned her attention back to Olivia as the doctor started checking Liv from top to bottom and several spots in between.

The nurse returned with two basins of warm water and disappeared again to retrieve the rest of her supplies. Then she took a position opposite of the doctor, forcing Alex to move to Olivia's head. Neither Alex or Liv minded the move though – it allowed them to focus on each other and for Olivia that was a blessing. Dr. Richmond and the nurse worked in tandem while checking the incision and the various nicks and scrapes Olivia had acquired and removing most of the extraneous equipment she was still attached to.

When Virginia was satisfied, she nodded to the nurse who left and then turned to the two women whose attention remained on each other. She cleared her throat delicately and two sets of eyes turned her direction. Dr. Richmond smiled at them.

"Well, everything looks very good; I'm extremely pleased with your progress and healing, detective. Tomorrow we will get you up and start you walking. I will order a soft foods diet for you until I think you're ready for more solid food... at least another day or two."

"How soon can I go home?" Liv asked, her voice rough and raspy.

Dr. Richmond smiled. Alex had warned her about Olivia's lack of love for hospitals and doctors – not that it was unusual for police officers especially to feel that way. "That depends on you, detective. The sooner you're able to walk around without pain and keep down solid food, the quicker I can release you to go home. However," placing a hand on Olivia's shoulder before she could move more than an inch, "we'll start that regimen tomorrow. I want you to rest a little more, eat a little food, take baby steps. You'll get there, detective; we just want you to do so with as little residual issue as possible."

Olivia sighed and nodded.

"Good," Virginia agreed. "Now... I think Ms Cabot asked to give you a bath, so I'll leave you to it." She turned to Alex. "Hit the call button if you need help or when you get finished so Elizabeth knows it's safe to come in again." She walked to the door and paused. "I want to make sure she's all right as well. She came out of your room fairly quickly." Then the doctor left and Alex and Olivia exchanged glances before Alex moved to help Liv situate herself.

"God, that hurts," Liv groaned as she shifted.

"We don't have to do this now, Liv."

"No, Alex. I wanna be clean. Actually, I'd like to take a shower."

"Maybe tomorrow," Alex soothed. "I think Dr. Richmond would have mentioned if that was an option. Besides, you wouldn't deny me the opportunity to be your nurse would you?" smiling seductively at Olivia and blinking big blue eyes.

"That's not very fair," Olivia pouted. "I was prepared to argue with you."

Alex gave her a full grin before pulling the pillow from behind Olivia's head and wetting it in preparation to shampoo it. "Now you know my real secret of success," soaping her hands and running them through Liv's dark locks. Olivia moaned in sincere appreciation of Alex's skill.

"That feels wonderful," she said, closing her eyes in relief and simply abandoning herself to the pleasure of Alex's gentle touch. "Thank you for being here, Alex. No one has ever taken care of me and made me feel like you do."

"Nowhere else I'd rather be, detective," carefully rinsing all the soap from Liv's hair and wrapping it in a towel. "And the feeling is definitely mutual. Let me know if I start hurting you, all right?"

It was a little awkward, but Alex managed quite well, all things considered, and Olivia felt much better than she had. Then Alex pushed the call button and waited for the parade of people she expected to wander in. She wasn't disappointed.

Two nurses came in to provide Olivia with fresh sheets and a third carried a tray that held chicken broth, mashed potatoes and jello. Liv grimaced in Alex's direction. The nurses moved and shifted Olivia around until she was biting her lip and sweating viciously before they were done making the bed. Alex wiped her face tenderly, then grabbed the comb Elizabeth had brought, hoping to distract her from the renewed pain she found herself in. Elizabeth stood to one side once the nurses left and helped her breathe, holding her hand and forcing Liv to focus on her counting.

Finally, Alex was done and Olivia was as relaxed as she was going to be. Then Elizabeth looked at Alex with one hand on her hip. "Would you like to tell me who the man was who had me escorted out of this room a little while ago?"

"Nicholas Rivera," she responded dryly. "Would you like to tell me why you went?"

"Because it was better to walk out of here under my own power on the pretext of getting coffee than it was to make a scene that could have gotten all of us hurt. He was quite the gentleman in asking, but it was made clear to me that my presence would not be tolerated either."

"You made the right decision – it was just a little disconcerting to wake up with him in the room."

"Is everything okay?" The question came from Elizabeth, but Alex turned to look at Olivia. Elizabeth stepped to the couch, out of immediate sight but not out of hearing.

"I think so. He said all debts had been settled between us. I think that chapter of my life is finally closed."

"Good," Liv said as firmly as she could manage. "It'll be nice to officially start our life together with a clean slate."

"Very clean," Alex agreed. "I'm more convinced now than ever that you and Janet are right... about my job situation. I'm going to take some time off – see if I can find something that fits me... with the person I am now. There is a lot of adjusting... and readjusting... I need to do – things that got pushed to the side in my haste to come home and jump right back into a persona I'm not sure is mine anymore. I think I just need a little time to be Alex – figure out who that really is."

Olivia squeezed her hand. "Take all the time you need, sweetheart. I'm not going anywhere."

"Except home with me as soon as I can get you out of here. Because if there is one sure thing I know about Alex, it's that she and Olivia belong together. Now eat up. You heard what Dr. Richmond said. And I've got serious plans for you when we get you out of here."

It took a little while, but there was nothing left when Olivia finally declared herself finished.


Chapter XXX

Visiting hours were almost over when a light knocking sounded outside the room. Alex and Olivia looked at one another just as the door opened and Abbie stuck her head in before pushing the door wider to allow both her and Elliot entrance to Liv's room. Liv blinked before allowing a wide grin to cross her face. Abbie took it as an invitation and crossed to gingerly wrap Olivia up in a hug.

"You're looking a little better than the last time I saw you," Abbie commented, dropping a kiss on the top of Liv's dark head. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired... really sore. What are you doing here?"

"Somebody had to deal with the Claiborne situation. I volunteered when I heard what had happened to you. Had to find out what happened to my best girl, didn't I?" ignoring Alex's glare. "Didn't anyone teach you to how to duck?"

"Yeah... Elliot," cutting her eyes in her partner's direction. Abbie laughed and Elliot pushed her out of the way to stand at Olivia's side.

"Don't you blame me for your lack of coordination," kissing her forehead like he was taking her temperature. "I taught you better than that. Not my fault you're too damned slow."

"Be nice to me, Elliot. I'm hurt." Olivia shifted and grimaced. "And these beds aren't helping a whole lot. I'll be so glad to get outta here."

"Any idea when that might be?"

"At least a few more days. The doc wants to be sure there aren't any complications."

"Good," Elliot agreed. "We want you back well."

"So why are you two really here?" after a brief pause. "Because if it was just to visit, you would have come earlier," Alex pointed out as she tried to make Olivia more comfortable.

"Actually, we'd have been here earlier if the cap hadn't sent me out with Hammond to collect evidence against Claiborne and see if there was anything the DEA could use to catch Rivera."


"Well, we've got evidence to tie Claiborne to those fifteen rape/murders that happened across the boroughs as well as the murder that was aimed at you."


Abbie took over. "Robert Claiborne was found dead in his cell this morning... an apparent suicide. Closer examination showed his suicide was aided by one or more persons. There were a number of bruises on his torso and Warner did a rush on the tox screen once she found them – Claiborne had some sort of acid injected into his veins."

"How in the hell...?"

Abbie held up her hand to Alex and shrugged her shoulders. "Homicide is investigating, but I don't expect a lot to come of it. The general feeling is Claiborne got the kind of justice he deserved."

"What about Rivera?"

"He's clean – there wasn't one shred of evidence in Claiborne's possession to show that Rivera is anything other than the honest businessman he purports himself to be. Claiborne managed to completely screw the DEA's case against Rivera; they will be years trying to recover from this debacle. The only one they can charge for anything at the moment is their own dead agent."

"Well, that explains why Rivera made the comment he did about our paths never crossing again."

Elliot straightened and Abbie couldn't stop the look of consternation that crossed her face as realization of what Alex meant dawned on her. "Rivera was here?"

"Yes... he stopped by earlier today. He basically indicated that things were square between us. I for one am happy to let him go just to have a semblance of normality in my life again."

"You don't mean that," Abbie accused. "What happened to the crusading Alex Cabot I remember?"

Alex's eyes flamed and Abbie forced herself not to take a step back. "She spent three years in witness protection! Nearly losing everyone and everything that means anything to you tends to change your outlook!" Alex would have continued but Olivia reached up and twined their hands together, forcing Alex's attention solely on her.

Without losing Alex's gaze, Olivia answered Abbie. "It doesn't matter, Abbie. The Feds will get him or they won't. He's not our fight."

"You're serious." Abbie said flatly.

"We paid our dues already! No more!" Alex said heatedly. "If you don't like it, Carmichael, you can go to hell!"

Abbie held up her hands and moved around the bed to put an arm around Alex's thin shoulders. "I live there, Alex, remember? I'm in Washington, DC making deals with the devil... how much closer can I get?" wincing when her levity didn't even garner her a twinkle. "I'm sorry, Alex... you're absolutely right. Rivera really isn't your problem. I've just never known you to walk away from something like this before." She looked into blue eyes and understood with sudden clarity just how much they had aged. "I guess being away took more out of you than I realized."

"I'm sorry, too, Abbie," rubbing her eyes but refusing to relax again. "I'm just a little tired."

"C'mon, Cabot... let me tuck you in before Elliot and I leave." Abbie drew Alex over to the couch and eased her down. Elliot stepped closer to the bed, pulling Olivia's attention away from Alex.

"You gonna be all right, Liv?"

She focused on Alex once more, watching as she allowed Abbie to tuck her in. Then she looked back at Elliot. "I hope so, El. This has been real hard on her. Can we be sure it's finally over?"

"As sure as we can be of anything, Liv. Cabot attracts attention and Rivera doesn't want that. He has nothing to lose by walking away now. His power base is weak, but with Claiborne gone and his organization gone underground, he has all the time he needs to build things back up. If the DEA is good, they'll catch him before he gets that strong. If they don't, it's not our issue."

"You ever think we've gotten too jaded to keep doing this job?" shifting and wincing with the movement.

"Some days... yeah, I do – especially on days when we have to deal with everybody else's shit. We have enough of our own." He pulled the cover up and tucked her in, much like Abbie had done for Alex. "For what it's worth... I think we're done dealing with DEA shit for a while. Hammond has been called back to Washington, and with a little luck, we won't hear from him if he comes back. Now," smoothing her hair back, "close your eyes and go to sleep. I know it's gonna be a while before you are healed enough to hit the streets again, but the sooner you get started, the better."

"Yes, dad," Olivia smirked at him though her eyes remained closed. Abbie had already crossed to the door, dimming the lights and waiting for Elliot to join her. As Stabler turned to go, Olivia caught his hand. He gently squeezed hers and waited. She opened her eyes briefly. "Thanks, El," was all she said.

"Anytime, partner." Then he and Abbie escaped out the door and down the corridor before anyone could question their presence in the hospital at this late hour.

The next few days went swiftly for Olivia and Alex. Olivia was up as often as she could manage, determined to prove to Dr. Richmond that she was ready to be released. On Friday, at Liv's behest Alex went back to work, wanting to tie up her loose ends and give Arthur her notice. While she was gone, Arthur came to the hospital to talk to Olivia.

The authoritative knock made Olivia's eyebrow arch; usually she got a light tap followed by a head being poked into her room. When no head followed, her second brow climbed into her hairline and she called out, "Come in?" Only then did Arthur Branch open the door and step into the room, looking around before settling his gaze on Olivia who was casually dressed in NYPD PT gear. She was sweating and appeared tired.

"Detective Benson... is now a good time?"

Olivia tried to straighten and grimaced when she moved wrong. Instead, she gestured to the couch. "Please, have a seat; what can I do for you?"

He sat. "First of all, my name is Arthur, Olivia. I thought we had settled that between us before, but I've noticed you try to avoid addressing me at all costs. I'd like it if you felt you could call me by my name."

"All right... Arthur."

He slapped his knees. "Good... now that we have that settled... again – how are you doing?"

Olivia blinked, feeling discomfited. "Um... a little better, actually. Ready to go home."

Branch smiled. "I think everyone feels that way when they're stuck here. It's not like room service at the Ritz."

Liv nodded, feeling more awkward by the second. Arthur Branch was still not a real part of her circle of friends and even though they were theoretically on the same side of the law, there had been many instances when his side and her side clashed. And unlike Alex, who made it a point not to be strictly tied to the social class she'd been born into, Arthur Branch lived in those same circles as part of who he was and the job he did.

"I'm sorry, det... Olivia. It isn't my intention to make you uncomfortable. I'm here, aside from legitimate concern for you, because I am deeply troubled about Alexandra." He looked at Olivia, but her skill at waiting was developed from years of stakeouts. Branch realized he could wait for days if she didn't want to make a comment, so he continued speaking.

"You know why she was originally offered the position of Bureau Chief just as you are aware that particular reason no longer exists. I think you should also understand that she would have been offered something similar had she come back home without strings. She's a damn fine lawyer and someone I was always glad to have as part of my team."

"But...?" Liv prompted. "C'mon, Mister... I'm sorry – Arthur. You and I have been through this before; you're talking to the wrong person." She knew her next session of physical therapy was coming soon and she was hoping to rest a little before that happened. Branch took the hint.

"I don't think I am, Olivia... not in this case. Her heart isn't in it – not anymore. I've watched, waiting to see that spark... that fire and passion for the law that she used to have, but I haven't found it. Maybe if I had put her back in SVU or major cases... I don't know. Don't get me wrong – she's been great with those kids; performed miracles with a few of them. But it's obvious to me at least that it isn't where she wants to be."

"What do you want me to tell you? Arthur, no matter what else, this is Alex's business – not yours until she comes to you with it unless it is affecting her job performance, and not mine unless she's at risk."

He clasped his hands together and leaned on his knuckles. "Olivia, can I tell you a secret?" He looked at her steadily and waited for her nod before he continued. "I may have to go back to Washington in the not too distant future. Some issues have arisen that will possibly require my attention for an extended period of time, and I was hoping to appoint Alexandra in my place."

Olivia's eyes widened. Before Velez, Alex would have jumped at the chance to be the district attorney, even for a brief tenure. Now, however....

"What about Jack McCoy?"

"Jack has other ambitions and frankly, as selfish as it's going to sound, appointing Alexandra Cabot - with her good looks, social standing and 'hero appeal' – will bring much better press than putting in someone like Jack McCoy. Technically, she is a step above Jack in the DA's office so that puts her in line for this particular job first, regardless of her relative youth."

Olivia ran a hand through her hair. Of all things she'd been expecting, this kind of news wasn't even in her top hundred. "When will you know if you're needed in Washington?"

Branch shrugged. "It could be weeks; it could be months; it could be never. It depends on how the situation down there plays out."

"One piece of advice... wait until you know you have to go and when before you talk to Alex, all right?"

Arthur held her gaze for a long moment before nodding his head and standing. "Is there anything I can do for you, Olivia?"

"Unless you can talk the doc into letting me out of here early...."

"I don't think so," he replied candidly. "I want Alexandra on my side and somehow I think that would land both of us in the doghouse. But if you like, I'll bring real food over for you later. God knows there's only so much hospital food even an iron stomach can tolerate and I need to talk to Alexandra anyway. I actually expected to find her here."

"I sent her to work. I'm supposed to be in therapy three times today and she needed the distraction. She's been cooped up here for a week."

"I'll come by later then. I hope you're out of here soon, Olivia."

"Thanks, Arthur... me too," closing her eyes as the door shut behind him. She hoped Alex caught him at the office before they both left for the day. That was her last conscious thought until she felt the physical therapist shaking her awake for her next PT session.

Elliot poked his nose in Liv's room a short time later, frowning when he found it empty. He stopped a passing nurse who looked at her watch before answering. "Oh, Ms Benson's in therapy. It'll probably be another fifteen or twenty minutes before she's done, but you're welcome to wait, detective."

Elliot nodded and went into the room, taking a seat on the couch and stretching out with a sigh. It had been a hell of a long week in what had been a hell of a long couple of months since Alex had come back into their lives. He closed his eyes. In some ways he couldn't believe Alex had only been back what amounted to a few weeks and in others it felt like she had been back forever.

"Oof!" he grunted as something hit him in the gut. His eyes popped open, then he glared at his smirking partner, rubbing the spot she had poked. "What the hell'd you do that for?"

"I'm in therapy busting my ass while you sleep on the job and you ask me why you're getting abused?" She eased onto the bed and blew out a breath when she was settled. "God, I'm tired of this hurting." Olivia slapped the bed. "This shouldn't be taking so long."

Elliot sat up, but remained where he was – allowing her some space to process what he was about to share. "Liv, be glad you're around to hurt. We lost you once."

"Twice," she corrected quietly. "Once on the ride over and once here. I remember."

Stabler's eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. "Do you?" He leaned forward. "What was it like?"

She shook her head. "Not something I can talk about yet, El... sorry," her eyes full of pain and regret.

He shrugged, covering up the hurt he felt at her inability to confide in him. "It's all right, Liv. I'm just glad you decided to stick around here with the rest of us. Oh," went on hurriedly before she could hear the tremor in his voice, "IAB cleared the shooting. You'll be able to return to work as soon as the doc clears you."

"Good... I'm hoping that will be two weeks – three tops."

"More like four to six, detective," Dr. Richmond said from the open doorway. "I don't think you understand the massive amount of trauma your body underwent from not only the gunshot wound, but also the surgery to repair the damage. We're not running a race here, Ms Benson; it's going to take time."

"But doc," she whined, causing Elliot to cover his mouth with his hand to hide his grin. "Six weeks?? What I am going to do for six weeks?"

"I'm sure we can come up with something, detective," Alex purred from the door. "I can think of any number of possibilities."

Olivia's eyes grew round as the look in Alex's eyes and the tone of her voice led her right down the garden path. She glanced at the doctor without actually breaking eye contact with Alex. "Are you sure six weeks will be enough, doc?" she croaked. Virginia and Elliot burst into laughter; Alex grinned widely and Olivia flushed, though she couldn't stop her smile either.

"I'm going to miss you girls when you leave here."

"Leave?" Liv perked up. "Does that mean I will be getting out of here soon?"

"How does tomorrow sound?"

"Not as good as today, but I'll take it," Olivia said with a grin. "Thanks, doc."

"Don't thank me," Richmond said. "You're the one that's done all the work, and there's going to be a whole list of instructions and do's & don'ts you will need to follow once you go home."

"Doesn't matter, doc. It still means I get to go home and live."

"I like that attitude, detective. Now if I could just clear the room," giving Elliot a significant glance, "I'd like to take a look at how you're healing."

Elliot scrambled to his feet and muttered, "I'll wait outside," before closing the door behind him. Alex crossed to the couch and dropped the briefcase and suit jacket she'd picked up at their apartment earlier. Then she walked back over to Olivia's bedside, running her hand through silky brown hair and kissing her forehead.

"How was your day?" distracting Liv from what the doctor was doing.

"Exhausting," Liv replied honestly. "I don't remember chasing down perps being as hard as this physical therapy is. But I'm getting there. I just wish the scar wasn't so ugly."

"I think it's beautiful, sweetheart – just like you. It means you are still here with me and that makes it a perfect part of you as far as I am concerned."

"Kinda like yours do for me," Olivia agreed. She looked up when Dr. Richmond tapped her belly.

"I'm very pleased with your progress and in time the scar will fade to something much less prominent. If it bothers you," having overheard Liv's complaint, "I can recommend a plastic surgeon that will make it nearly invisible. But that will need to wait until the original damage has healed. Otherwise, you have one more round of therapy before you go and then I'll release you in the morning. You'll still need to come in for therapy and check-ups and for now I am going to keep you listed as off-duty for the next six weeks. If that changes, well... we can talk about it if and when the time comes."

"Thank you, Dr. Richmond," Alex said. "What you and Dr. Timmons did for us...."

"We did our jobs, much as the detective was doing when she got hurt. However, what you have done to Zachary Timmons is beyond price and we all thank you for that."

"Excuse me?" Olivia said, looking from one to another. "Who is Dr. Timmons and what did we do?"

"Dr. Timmons was the trauma surgeon who put you back together," Alex answered quietly with a hand on Liv's shoulder, "but I don't know what we did to him. That night is something of a blur for me still."

"You opened his eyes a little and made him think out of the box. I'm not saying the man isn't still a homophobe, but at least he's had something to think about beyond the stereotypes." She patted Olivia's leg. "However, that is neither here nor there at the moment and I'm pretty sure your detective friend would probably like to come back in. I'll leave detailed instructions with the nurses for your care and therapy at home and write up the order for your discharge along with how to reach me if there is any further problem, all right?" They nodded. "Okay... well, good luck to you both," she added before walking out the door.

Surprisingly, Elliot didn't immediately come in and Alex walked over and stuck her head out the door. "He's not here," she said. "He must have gone to get some coffee or something."

"That's all right," Liv said, reaching out a hand and gently tugging Alex towards her. "That means we have time for a private hello," pulling until Alex hitched up her skirt slightly and sat on the bed. They looked at one another a moment before Olivia tangled her hands into what had been neatly blonde tresses and brought their lips together for a passionate kiss. Only a throat clearing separated them, and still it was a slow, drawn-out parting that left them both breathless.

They both blinked and looked up, expecting to find Elliot, but instead saw Arthur Branch – envelope in one hand and laden restaurant bag in the other. "May I come in, ladies? I promise not to stay long." They motioned him into the room and Alex accepted the bag he offered while gesturing him to a seat on the couch. He held up the envelope. "I suppose you know why I'm here."

"You're not going to change my mind, Arthur. I need to do this. I've got to find out who Alex Cabot is now. My life hasn't been my own for the last three years and it crossed into the ridiculous when I finally came home for good... and except for what has happened between me and Olivia, it seems like everything has totally been beyond my control. I need to get some of that back."

"And quitting your job as Bureau Chief accomplishes that how?"

"It will let me take a step or two back to really look at things – find out if this is really what I want to do with my life anymore. I told you before I was having trouble coming to terms with all this. Now that my business with the DEA is finished, I want to take some time for me... and Olivia... so we can decide what we'd like in our future together."

"I have an option I'd like to put on the table." Arthur watched as Alex looked directly at Olivia, waiting for a sign before she turned back to him and nodded. "I would like you to take a leave of absence instead of resigning. That way the door is open if and when you decide you're still a prosecuting attorney. It's still in you, Alexandra – it always will be. And it could be, sooner or later, that you'll find that spark and drive that once made you tell me not to get too comfortable in the District Attorney's chair."

"You didn't," Liv stated flatly, drawing two sets of eyes to her. Arthur chuckled and nodded.

"She certainly did... on the day I was introduced to her by her uncle and my friend Judge William Franklin. She was his law clerk that summer and she looked me dead in the eye when she said it. I knew then I wanted her on my side for sure."

"I was young," muttered Alex.

"You still are," Arthur assured her, "relatively speaking. But you are also warmer, more compassionate and human than the Ice Princess I first assigned to SVU six years ago. And those were hard changes to make, but they were good ones. All I'm asking is that you don't throw away the dream behind those changes. Take a leave of absence while you're thinking."

"You realize that I still might never come back to the prosecutor's office."

"Even for the chair?"

"Even then. I just don't know right now, Arthur. I want to take Olivia and go home and just live for a while - go to Hawaii or New Zealand or just walking in Central Park; climb Kilimanjaro or Everest or even Pike's Peak; sit in our living room watching bad television or the rain fall outside the windows or roast marshmallows in the fireplace. I may never get past that."

"You won't," Arthur said solemnly. "When you really love your partner, you want to do all those things. But you will also eventually reach a place when you will need more, and when you do, I'd like there to still be a place for you in my office. Who knows – maybe you'll be ready for the chair when it is ready for a new District Attorney."

She smiled. There was a very good reason this man was so successful at his job and even she was not immune to his charm and charisma. "All right, Arthur. You win. I'll take a leave of absence *with* the understanding that it is indefinite."

Branch slapped the envelope with his palm. "Good enough. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go and let you two eat in peace. I promised the good detective real food earlier and this should fill the bill nicely. I'll have my secretary type up a new letter and you can stop by and sign it sometime Monday." Alex nodded and rose with him as he stood and moved to the door. "I'm glad you're doing better, Olivia. You're one of the good guys." Then he was gone and Alex and Olivia were left looking at each other as the scent of Italian food wafted throughout the room.

Part 16

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