DISCLAIMER: Don't own anything, let alone these two. Borrowed for entertainment purposes only and returned no worse for the wear.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a sequel to my story, The Awakening, which in turn is a sequel to The Good Earth, which was a response to Fewthistle's story, Look Homeward, Angel. The Awakening and The Good Earth can be found at http://community.livejournal.com/copper_n_steel/ . Because of the timing of these previous stories, the following takes place in December of 2006.
THANKS: Tiff, thank you for letting me read most of this over the phone to you, my love... I hope you enjoy the ending.
Rachel, thank you for understanding why this story, like all my others, is so late to your inbox.
CHALLENGE: Written for Passion & Perfection's Big 5000.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Meet Me in St. Louis
By DiNovia


Olivia Benson's nondescript sedan screeched to a stop near the black and whites, their lights flashing garishly in the night as a pair of uniform cops created a perimeter at the corner of West 170th and Fort Washington Avenue. Another bundled up uniform cop held her door open for her as she climbed out of the car.

"It's really starting to come down, eh, Detective?" he said, nodding to the heavy, wet snowflakes falling out of the ashy charcoal sky. It had been snowing on and off all day but in just the last hour the storm system seemed to have stalled right over the city, blanketing everything in a rapidly deepening coat of white.

"What have we got?" she asked, ignoring the round-faced young man's attempt at small talk. She headed to where she could see two blue clad CSIs holding a tarp over a huddled mass of navy blue that she could only assume was Melinda Warner.

"He's at it again, Liv," sighed the ME wearily, the familiarity of her voice somehow comforting to Olivia. "Female, Caucasian, stripped, raped, strangled and painted. The Red Cross Rapist."

"Dammit!" Olivia's stony gaze swept over the scene. Another woman left on a street corner for the whole world to see. Another woman brutalized, murdered and humiliated. Liv knelt near this victim's feet to get a better look at her. She was in her mid-40s, short, and heavy-set. A ruff of mostly-gray hair, no makeup, a few wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She'd likely had children judging from the faint stretch marks visible under the crude red cross covering her belly. She was victim number five. That they knew of, that is.

The Red Cross Rapist was one of those hot-and-cold cases; little activity spread over a long period of time. The sick bastard didn't come out to play very often. In fact, the last one had been in May: Alice Chin, mid-20s, Asian. Found at the corner of East 99th and Lex. She was a home health nurse who'd been working in Yonkers the day she disappeared. The last person who'd seen her alive was her night replacement, Trina Washington. She said that Alice lived in Mt. Vernon with a couple of roommates and had had no reason to go into the city that evening. When Alice failed to show up to work the next morning, Trina reported it to their supervisor, who ended up calling Alice's roommates when the young nurse didn't respond to multiple pages. Eventually the roommates reported Alice missing to the Mt. Vernon PD. Two days later, an early morning dog-walker spotted her body barely three blocks from Central Park East.

It was like that for all the others, too. Missing nurses turning up on street corners all over Manhattan with red crosses painted on their bodies, right over their navels. The paint was ordinary household matte wall paint and impossible to trace. The victims--beyond their professions, their genders, and their deaths--had practically nothing else in common. They ranged in age from 25 to 55. Two, now, were white; one was Asian; one was African-American; and one was Indian. Their financial backgrounds, where they lived, who they knew, where they worked--none of it overlapped. And not a single one of them had a speck of physical evidence on her body.

Olivia looked up, trying to get her bearings. There was heavy traffic activity and some bright lights a few blocks south.

"What's that?" she asked, standing to see if she could get a better angle on the building.

"Columbia Presbyterian," replied Melinda, not even glancing toward the hospital. She knew exactly where she was; she'd been there on business a few times before. "And before you ask, we've got a couple of guys down there asking if they're missing a nurse. You know they're going to come back empty handed, though."

The detective jammed her hands into the pockets of her bomber jacket and grunted in agreement. It hadn't been that easy so far; what made them think he'd be anything less than meticulous this time?

"Anything on the body?" she asked as Melinda finally stood up. The ME waved the crime scene photographer over and spoke to him briefly before stripping off her latex gloves and replacing them with fleece-lined leather.

"This one's as clean as the others," she said grimly. "No ID, no defensive wounds, no DNA on the body. A clear dump job. Though she's been dead less than twelve hours. Probably ten."

That was different. The others had been dead longer before being dumped; sometimes days. The killer had been in a hurry tonight.

"He's probably trying to get out of town," said Olivia darkly. "For the holidays."

Melinda nodded. "It pisses me off to think of this bastard sitting around a turkey dinner with family," she spat. "Smiling faces happy to see him... A tree with all the trimmings... And meanwhile he's left another family to mourn on this of all nights." Warner left the words unspoken but Olivia heard them all the same.

Christmas Eve.

The holiday had sneaked up on her; garish red and green decorations--not subtle before--suddenly seemed to explode throughout the city, backed by the ubiquitous holiday music loop tape. The most offensive versions of a tired list of secular holiday favorites followed her all over Manhattan these days and she was sure that she would find the same thing no matter where she might find herself, from Peoria to Ponchartrain.

It was a strange time of year for Olivia. Particularly this year.

Usually she'd be the Squad Scrooge; the one scowling at Cragen's order to dress up the place a little or the one standing apart at the inevitable station house gathering, avoiding Munch under the mistletoe and downing spiked Eggnog as if it were going out of style. The last to the party and the first to leave--even after her mother had died. Even more so then.

Worried she was becoming her mother--a sullen, angry drunk--she'd stayed only a few moments at last year's Christmas party, silently glowering at the new ADA. At the bright, tempting freshness of her unjaded smile. At her openness and her earnest offer of friendship and camaraderie. At the fact that she was alive.

Now she was dreading the holiday for an entirely different reason: she was separated from the owner of that beautiful, still-fresh smile. Casey Novak, her lover, was in Falls Church with her family. Unaware that she'd be in a relationship--because really, when was that ever the case?--Olivia had volunteered back in March for the dreaded Christmas shift. Usually that meant she'd be hanging out in the emptiness of the squad for three nights of unbridled boredom under harsh fluorescents draped in silver tinsel garlands older than she was. This year it meant she was lonely and sentimental and far away from the one she loved. And now the Red Cross Rapist was back.

Thrilling, she thought, her mouth twisting into a scowl. She looked once more down the street at the lights of Columbia Presbyterian twinkling in the snow before she turned back to the ME.

"Go home, Melinda," she said quietly.

Warner couldn't hide the relief she felt but she made a half-hearted offer to stay just the same. "Are you sure? I could--"

"Waiting a couple of days won't change anything, will it?"

"No. Like I said, she's as clean as the others. The COD is probably manual strangulation like the others, too."

Olivia looked away. "Then let me ID her first. She's probably got a family who's wondering where she is. So do you. Go be with them."

"Thanks, Liv," smiled Melinda, genuine gratitude shining in her dark eyes. She didn't want to miss yet another of Allie's Christmases. She'd be in high school soon enough and then her little girl's childhood would be a thing of the past. She'd missed too much already. "What about you?"

"I'll probably crash at the crib tonight. I want to start checking the missing persons reports."

The ME shook her head slightly, saddened by Liv's continuous solitude. Maybe she'd pack up some food for her and drop it by tomorrow. No one should be subjected to Chinese takeout on Christmas Day. "Try to squeeze some shuteye in there somewhere, okay? You know how Santa feels about staying up late. And hey, will the reindeer even be able to land that sleigh at the squad?" she chided, interjecting a little teasing to keep things light. Before she got into her van, she said "Merry Christmas, Liv."

"Yeah, Merry Christmas."

A couple of hours and a couple of bad cups of coffee later, Olivia still sat at her desk, poring over missing persons reports from all five boroughs. At least they were online now. There was a day, in the not-too-distant past, when a search like this would have meant phone calls and dusty dotmatrix reports from a printer whose sole purpose seemed to be jamming on command. She did not miss those days.

While she was reading a promising report of a missing mother of two from Astoria, her cell phone rang.

"Benson," she said curtly, picking it up on the half-ring. She'd been waiting for a callback from the 61st regarding a report she'd seen a few hours ago and she was hoping this was it.


Concern flooded through the connection but it was the voice itself that jarred Olivia from her caffeine-fueled single-mindedness.

"Casey?" The startled brunette blinked her dry eyes and looked up at the clock on the wall. "Honey? Are you okay? It's three am."

Casey Novak chuckled a little. "I could ask the same of you, you know, Detective. Something tells me you're sitting at your desk right now. Am I right?"

Olivia Benson smiled in spite of herself. That Casey knew her so well was extremely comforting somehow. She didn't dwell on how odd it felt.

"Yeah, you're right," she conceded. "But I have a good excuse: the Red Cross Rapist dumped another body on us tonight. I'm trying to ID her from missing persons reports but so far, no luck."

"The Red Cross Rapist? Oh my God, Liv! It must be chaos there! When was the last one--May? Honey, if I hurry, I can be there in--"

"Whoa, Casey! Down girl!" Olivia tipped her office chair back into a semi-reclined position and grinned unseen at the beautiful ADA. "It's not chaos here. Unless chaos is a lot more boring than I remember it. We haven't IDed her yet. Which means we haven't even notified the family. And since Melinda said this one was as clean as all the other vics, I made an executive decision and she's at home spending Christmas with her family instead of with a body at the morgue. Once we get the woman IDed, then it might be chaos. You'll probably be back by then. At the rate I'm going, anyway."

Silence hummed on the line for a second as Casey processed that information through three glasses of champagne. "Oh," she said, sounding a little confused. "Oh. So what're you doing again? Missing persons reports?"

"Pretty much, yeah." They were being ignored at the moment, though. In favor of someone infinitely more arresting to the detective. Liv rocked her chair back and forth as she chatted with her lover. "What are you doing up so late, Case? Shouldn't sugarplums be dancing in your head by now?" Casey could hear her smile all the way in Falls Church.

"We've been celebrating! Liv, she popped the question! They're getting married!"

Olivia sat upright so quickly Casey could hear her chair thunk. "Who popped the question? Casey, what are you talking about?"

The redhead giggled. "Julie did, Liv! After dinner we were all sitting around the tree, drinking eggnog and singing some carols--badly, I might add--and after we finished a horrible rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, she pulled out a little black box and asked Chris if he was ready to make an honest woman out of her yet! It was so romantic and so funny at the same time and--oh! The ring she got him! I mean I knew librarians made a few bucks but if I'd really known, maybe I'd've been a bookworm instead of a lawyer, you know?"

"Have you been drinking?" asked Olivia, laughing. God, how she wished she could be there right now, seeing all of this first hand. Sitting in Matt's warm living room with a fire crackling in the fireplace. The smell of turkey lingering in the air. Snow falling outside. Singing along to the radio. Had it really only been last month that she'd been dreading the trip to Falls Church? It seemed so long ago. A lifetime, even.

"We had some champagne after Chris said yes! Plus some eggnog spiked with Jameson's before that. Come to think of it, I'm a little warm." There was a rustle on the other end of the line and a small yelp and then Casey was back. "There! That sweater was too hot!"

A sudden image of Casey sitting on her bed with nothing on but a lacy bra in some outrageous color and a pair of jeans assailed Olivia's exhausted brain. An aching warmth spread throughout her body, coming to rest somewhere south of her bellybutton. She did her best to ignore it.

"I miss you," she blurted, still half-dazzled by the vision in her head.

Casey's breath caught. "I miss you, too," she said softly. "Everyone does. Daddy even said he's going to order you not to volunteer for Christmas next year."

"He doesn't have to worry. I've already told Cragen this is the last Christmas duty I'm doing for a while."

"Oh good."

Olivia looked out the dirty window of the squad room and saw that snow had begun to fall yet again. The silence of their longing stretched between them until Olivia's desk phone started ringing; a harsh jangling noise that was way too loud for the hour. The detective snatched the phone up and barked her name into it while still holding the cell to her other ear. She listened for a second then asked the caller to hold.

"Honey?" she said into her cell. "That's the 61st calling me back about their missing person. I've got to go."

"Okay, Liv," replied Casey, her voice almost too bright. "You'll call tomorrow night, right? When you have a chance, I mean."

"It's a date," answered the older woman, her smile genuine if a little sad. "I love you, Casey," she whispered.

"I love you, too," sighed the ADA, and the strained cheerfulness in her voice melted away to be replaced by sweet warmth and the comfort of certainty. "Merry Christmas, Olivia."

"Merry Christmas." She flipped her cell shut and grabbed the receiver of her desk phone. "Yeah, Tony, sorry to keep you waiting. I'm by myself here."

It wasn't the news she'd been hoping for. The 61st's missing person had turned up safe and sound, shacked up with a man who was not her husband. Olivia was back to square one.

"No, no, Tony. I figured it was something like that when I saw the tag at the bottom of the file. I just wanted to make sure...Yeah, I hope we find out who she is soon, too. Christmas is no time to be lost." She would have laughed at the hypocrisy of the words if she wasn't so goddamned tired. "Have a good night, Tony...Happy Holidays to you, too."

Olivia dropped the receiver back into its cradle and scrubbed her face with her hands. She looked at her cell lying next to her computer and thought briefly about calling Casey back. She just wanted to hear her again, even if it was only to hear her breathe. She decided it was too late and--besides that--too silly, and she glanced at the screen of her computer, considering whether or not she should call the 114th about their missing woman. Duty warred with exhaustion for a long moment before she reached over and hit the computer's sleep button. She'd compromise. She'd grab a few hours of sleep and then follow up with the lead in the morning. Part of her hoped it was the woman just so they could move on with the investigation and so her family could find some closure. Another part of her hoped that it wasn't the woman because that would mean that she'd have to go to someone's home on Christmas Day to tell them that a loved one had been murdered. That, by far, was the worst part of the job.

Downing the last of a cold cup of coffee, Olivia pushed her chair away from her desk, grabbed her cell, and headed back to the crib, hoping that the last person to use it had at least remembered to put an extra blanket on the bed. She wasn't at all prepared for what she found.

A tiny table in the corner of the room held a tinier Christmas tree and on it was a strand of the tiniest lights she'd ever seen, twinkling merrily in the semi-darkness. The bed was made up with a cheery wine-colored comforter and real pillows and neatly folded at the foot of the bed was a set of dark green towels. Next to the towels, Olivia found a pair of her flannel pajama bottoms--freshly laundered--and one of Casey's Sex Crimes baseball shirts. She brought the blue top to her face and breathed deeply, hoping beyond hope to catch Casey's scent still lingering in the fabric.

Next to the clothes was a little travel toiletries bag with a white envelope attached to it. The detective, grinning unapologetically, opened the bag first and found travel-sized bottles of her favorite shampoo and conditioner, a fresh bar of soap, two packets of gourmet hot cocoa powder, a razor, a new toothbrush and a little tube of toothpaste. She waited to open the envelope until she had changed clothes and was settled, warm and happy, in the crib's once-utilitarian bed.

She slid her thumb under the envelope's lightly gummed flap and pulled out a crisp, ivory card. On it, in Casey's animated hand, was written:


I can take a lot of things. I'm a pretty strong woman and I've seen a lot. But every time I thought about you crashing in here alone on Christmas, I would start to feel panicky and unhappy and that is simply unacceptable. So I decided to do something about it. I hope you don't get teased about it too much.

I love you. I can't wait to see you again.

Merry Christmas, love...


When Olivia woke up a little over three hours later to the sound of a phone ringing, she still had the card in her hand.

Ann Dalton from Astoria was actually 51 years old; not the mid-40s she'd looked to Olivia last night, blindly staring up at the falling snow. Ann was a night nurse at a surgical rehabilitation center in Brooklyn and had been reported missing by her husband of 31 years when she hadn't returned from work as expected. The cops at the 114th had only been mildly sympathetic when Lester Dalton had come in, telling the poor man that they couldn't make an official report until 24 hours had passed. They tried to assure him that she'd gone to see a sister or a friend and had forgotten to tell him; that she'd be back before the day was over. When Ann did not return as predicted, Lester and his two grown sons returned to the 114th to file an official missing person's report. That had been the morning of Christmas Eve.

Olivia dropped numbly into her desk chair. She didn't even take off her jacket. That house...

Ann and Lester Dalton's house had been so...homey. The tree with all those unopened presents underneath it; a holly wreath on the door; wide, red velvet ribbon wrapped around their mailbox post like a candy cane. She'd hated being there, having to tell those devastated men that Ann Dalton was never coming home again. She hated even more not having any answers for them. She promised them she wouldn't give up finding this monster that had taken their wife and mother. And between Lester Dalton's openly shed tears and the boys' furtive, angry swipes at their eyes meant to hide their own, Olivia could only think of Matt and Chris Novak; of how it would feel to tell them something as devastating.


Melinda Warner's soft voice caught Olivia before she could wander too far down that macabre mental pathway and returned her to the confines of the squad room. She looked at the ME in confusion.

"Warner? What are you doing here?"

Warner began setting plastic containers on every available surface of Olivia's desk. "My office called and said you'd IDed our victim," she explained. "I'm on my way to do the autopsy. But I wanted to drop this by first."

As if just noticing them, Olivia's befuddled eyes took in the containers. The ME popped two of them open and the most amazing aroma filled the room, catching a ride with some escaping steam.

"Dinner?" She'd meant the question to sound less haunted but she didn't have the emotional strength at the moment.

Melinda nodded, her dark curls bouncing with the movement. "A little of everything Duane, Allie, and I had this afternoon. Including the last slice of my Great Aunt Chessie's Chocolate Pecan Pie--because you've been a such a good girl this year." She said the last sternly but her plum-black eyes danced.

Olivia's sudden laughter startled both of them. When she was able to speak again, she raised one eyebrow and cocked a lopsided grin. "So...did you bring a fork or what?"

Warner produced an entire set of cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin. "Have a good dinner, Detective," she said, watching with pride as Liv dove into a steaming container of her special cranberry-walnut stuffing. "I'll let you know if I find anything on the body but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you."

"I won't," said Olivia around a mouthful of turkey and gravy. "And Melinda?"

The ME turned back, donning her gloves in preparation for the cold outside. "Yes?"

"This is great. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Olivia," she replied, inclining her head just a bit. She didn't know exactly what she'd been expecting but simple gratitude was definitely not it. She wondered at the small changes she'd been noticing in the usually moody woman of late and found herself hoping that they would last.

A long, long time, she thought as she headed out into the frigid night.

"No, Captain, it's not necessary," said Olivia, scraping the bottom of a container that had once held some sort of mixed berry cobbler with her borrowed fork. "Warner's doing the autopsy now but she won't be done for hours. And anyway, we know that she's not going to find anything. I called the vic's workplace but her supervisor said that the other nurse who left that morning--what was her name?" She lifted an empty food container and found her notepad. "Gloria Appleby. She's out of town with family until the 3rd. If Melinda finds anything that could be helpful, I'll call the supervisor back and ask her to get in touch with Gloria. Otherwise, we can wait until she gets back. This guy's not escalating. If anything, he's slowing down. It's been seven months since Alice Chin. We have some time."

"Well, let me know if Warner finds anything useful. Hell, let me know if she finds anything at all. That would be a change. In the meantime, I guess pull the files on all the previous vics for us to go over tomorrow. Maybe we'll get lucky and find something that overlaps. Have we done a map of the dump sites before?"

"Yeah. No pattern to them. Except that they've all been here in Manhattan."

"No pattern yet," said Cragen grumpily. "Go ahead and pull that again, too. It has to mean something that he's dumping them all here, even if it is that he's just a lazy sonofabitch. Add the new site and we'll see if anything jumps out at us. Maybe he's drawing a smiley face or something. You still planning to take the next few days off?"

"Well, I was, but if you need me--"

"No, Liv, you've done all the hard work. The three musketeers and I are just gonna sit around picking our noses because this bastard is too damned smart. You deserve the time off just for having to notify Ann Dalton's family on Christmas Day. Do you have plans?"

Olivia blinked, startled by the question. "I--uh--yeah. Nothing too special, but yeah, I have plans." She glanced out the window only to groan inwardly at the sight. It was snowing again. Fuck!

"Good. You should get away more. You work too damned hard. Anyway, don't stay too late, Olivia. Looks like the North Pole out there."

"Yeah, I won't," she agreed, knowing even as she said it that they'd find her in the crib in the morning. "See you tomorrow, Captain."

She dropped the phone back in its cradle and hurried to Cragen's office, turning on the TV he kept there. She flipped through a few channels until she found a local newscast sporting a tarted-up, bottle-blonde weathergirl.

"--four more inches today with no signs of stopping," she said, indicating a map of the five boroughs. "So far, both airports have been able to keep up with the snowfall and there have only been minimal delays at both LaGuardia and JFK. However, that could change later tonight as this system dumps another eight or nine inches on us. And we're just getting started, folks. There's another system behind it that could bring up to two feet of snow over the next few days. What a white Christmas we've gotten this year--"

Olivia turned the set off in disgust and trudged back to her desk, now littered with mostly empty food containers. She gathered a few of them up and began stacking them neatly to the side to be dealt with later. Great Aunt Chessie's Chocolate Pecan Pie was the only thing left and Olivia was saving that for a midnight snack. She got herself a cup of sludge from the pot she'd brewed that morning and sat down to her computer. First, she put in a request for the files on the last four victims of the Red Cross Rapist from Records. Then she put in a request for a wall map of Manhattan Island from TARU. She didn't think they'd cough up one of the shiny interactive ones for a case as hot-and-cold as this one but you never knew. It had been kind of slow lately.

Bored and at a loss for anything to do, Olivia glanced at the clock. It was almost 7pm and she wondered whether or not it was a good time to call Casey. They could be having dinner or something and she didn't want to interrupt...

Jesus, Benson, get a grip. She can always call back if she's busy!

She pressed a well-worn speed dial button on her cell and listened to the tinny rings on the other end. Casey didn't keep her waiting long.


"Hey, sweetheart. Is it a good time? Because if not, just call me back when you aren't busy--"

Casey cut in on Liv's rambling. "Liv, it's fine! I'm not busy at all. In fact, I'm at the house by myself. Dad, Chris, and Julie went to the movies."

"To the movies?" Olivia had done many a thing on a lonely Christmas Day but going to the movies hadn't been one of them. She wasn't much for showing off her loner condition in public places. Why bother when you could rent movies and order take out and enjoy both in the privacy of your own home? "Why didn't you go, Case? You okay?"

The young ADA smiled, pleased beyond reason that Olivia was worried about her. "I'm fine. They went to see that new Cate Blanchett movie...'Notes on a Scandal'? It's about a teacher having an affair with a 15 year old student. I told Daddy that this was my vacation and I wasn't going to see a movie that could just as easily be a case of mine. They said they'd go to whatever I wanted to see but I said I was waiting for a call from you anyway..."

Olivia snorted. "I can just hear Chris's response to that!"

Casey laughed. "If you're asking whether or not he made a smart ass remark like 'Well, now you two can have phone sex in peace!', the answer is yes, he did. He was safe, you see. He was on the way out the door and he'd already opened all his presents. I had no leverage."

"Oh, God!" Olivia hid her face behind one long-fingered hand, blushing slightly. "Did he really say that? Casey, don't take this the wrong way, but are you sure you're related to him?"

"Well, I grew up with Buttbrain, yes, but am I sure we share DNA? No, not at all. I think my mother found him in a box of bananas, like a tarantula, and felt sorry for him for some reason. Once she'd fed him, that was it--we were stuck with him."

Olivia chuckled. "Your mom was a soft touch," she accused.

"She had to be! She let him live, didn't she?" They both laughed again, then Casey changed the subject. "By the way, Chris loved the gift you got him, Liv. Everyone loved their gifts! You're really good at this Christmas thing!"

Olivia shrugged the compliment off. "It was nothing," she demurred. "Your family is easy to shop for."

"You spent too much, though, Olivia. My God, the Ivan Berryman print alone must have cost you hundreds! Daddy loved it. He's already put it up in his study, over his desk. Where did you even find something like that?"

Olivia, grinning happily, said nonchalantly, "I have my sources."

"And that box of yarn you got for Julie? I've never heard her squeal like that before! Handpainted Angora? She's already started knitting something with it."

"Tell her it should be something for herself! I don't want that yarn coming back to me as a sweater or something, okay?"

Casey laughed again. "Yeah, she said you'd probably say something like that. Don't worry. She said until she can figure out a way to knit you a Kevlar vest, you're only getting scarves and she figured you wouldn't wear one made of this yarn. It's so soft! It's like a box full of rainbow-painted kittens!"

"Without the hairballs and the claws," agreed Liv.

"But Chris's gift... He couldn't believe it when he opened it, Liv. He kept sitting there, saying 'How did she know?' I was just as shocked as he was which is the only reason he believed me when I told him I hadn't mentioned it to you. A letter from General George Pickett to a younger cousin before Gettysburg? How could you possibly--wait, don't tell me: you have your sources."

Olivia grinned. "Yep. And you know us detectives--we hate to give up our informants." A sort of preening pleasure in herself and her gift choices suffused Olivia. She had spent years being the curmudgeonly Scrooge; her generosity lavished on Elliot's kids and whatever kids Simone Bryce thought she could help. Now she knew--a little bit anyway--how it felt to be the other Scrooge; the one who thought it was perfectly normal to send a street child to buy a fatted goose. She had a sudden, inexplicable craving for hot cocoa with mini-marshmallows.

"And everyone loved what you got me, sweetheart. I still don't know why you sent gifts when we're supposed to be exchanging our gifts tomorrow. I didn't leave anything for you to open!"

"You left me the crib, Case. That was amazing." She raised one eyebrow suggestively, forgetting that the redhead couldn't see her. "Besides, now I'll have something extra to unwrap tomorrow." She'd sent two small gifts in Casey's suitcase: a leather document case made from reclaimed vintage English bridle leather, embossed with Casey's initials in 22k gold leaf, and a blackberry purple thigh-length silk slip with lace-up sides. The idea of those laces alone...

Suddenly, Olivia's little fantasy took a hard left turn. "Wait a minute... Casey, did you open both gifts in front of everyone?"

"Yep. My father says you have good taste in lingerie. I think Chris's exact words were 'Hubba hubba!'--"


"Relax, Olivia," laughed the attorney, interrupting the detective's coronary. "I can still read, even down here in Falls Church. The tag clearly said 'Open alone.' So I did. Just before you called, actually."

When she could breathe again, Olivia asked, "So does that mean you've tried it on? Does it fit okay?"

"It fits just beautifully, honey," replied Casey warmly. "If you were here right now, you could see for yourself. I still have it on."

"Oh, you do, do you?" Olivia's rust-brown eyes twinkled and she rose from her desk chair, heading for the crib. "Did you remember to pack your hands-free, Case? Because I think you're going to need it..."

It was a testament to how truly exhausted Olivia Benson was that she was able to sleep through such a thorough visual inspection by four pairs of very dubious eyes.

"What happened in here?" asked Don Cragen in a comical stage-whisper. His round eyes swiveled from the merely unlikely to the truly bizarre and back again.

"Man, it looks like a Christmas elf puked up all over the crib!" Fin grimaced even as some small part of him wondered if Liv would mind if he had one of the mini candy canes hanging from the tiny tree. Candy canes were one of the few redeeming parts of Christmas to the ex-narcotics detective.

"If Casey Novak is a Christmas elf, she's the tallest one on record," said Munch. There was no question in his mind who had engineered the transformation of the crib. Beyond the obvious reasons, it was the only possible explanation for why Olivia "Bah Humbug" Benson was sleeping comfortably amidst such holiday cheer.

Elliot, by turns pleased and incredulous, said nothing. He just grinned, shook his head, and sauntered back to his desk. Two bankers boxes sat on his desk; a mirror to the two sitting on Liv's. Each one bore the name of one of the Red Cross Rapist's previous victims. Not wanting to leave the comfort of his Christmas glow just yet--he, Kathy and the kids had celebrated the holiday in style this year--he avoided opening them for the moment and focused instead on the myriad Tupperware containers littering his partner's desk. When he realized what they were, his grin returned.

Jesus, Liv, you got it bad, he thought. Only love, he knew, could put the spirit of Christmas into Olivia Benson.

Just then , Fin and Cragen came in, each beating a hasty retreat to his respective desk. Fin offered only two words in explanation: "War path."

Olivia exploded into the squad behind them, savagely pulling a rust-colored Henley over her head to cover the tank top she'd slept in. She was presently considering herself lucky that she'd fallen asleep in her jeans. The last thing she wanted to do was parade half-naked in front of her four male colleagues. Particularly Munch.

"You really had too much egg nog, John!" she tossed over her shoulder. "Not everything is one of your crackpot conspiracy theories!"

Munch strolled into the squad laughing. "What? All I asked is 'Who are you and what have you done with Olivia Benson?' A perfectly reasonable inquiry under the circumstances." When she didn't respond, he added, "I am really going to have to insist upon a DNA swab."

Olivia ignored the salt-and-pepper-haired detective and headed for her desk...only to find it occupied by two bankers boxes. Frowning, she grabbed one of them and hauled it to Munch's desk. "What time is it, Elliot?" she asked hurriedly. "I left my watch in the crib."

Elliot glanced at his new watch, a gift from Kathleen. She was growing up so fast... "About eight-forty," he answered. "Why?"

Liv handed off the last box to Fin and immediately relaxed. "Good. Thanks." She dropped into her desk chair and began to fiddle with her computer.

"Hey," said her partner, his brows crowding low over his eyes in his patented deep-thought expression. "Wasn't Casey supposed to be flying in today?"

The sorrel-haired detective glanced sharply at Elliot. "What to you mean, 'wasn't'?"

"Well, JFK and LaGuardia are both snowed in. It's a mess out--"

"Did you drive today?" she interrupted. "In the Bronco?"

Elliot nodded slowly. "Yeah--" he began but Olivia shot out of her chair and ran toward the crib before he could continue.

"I need your keys!" she yelled just before she disappeared. The men could hear the sounds of hasty packing start in the back.

"My pod person theory doesn't seem so far-fetched now, does it?" asked Munch smugly as he met the startled looks of his colleagues.

Liv burst back into the squad, cutting off whatever smart-assed response Fin was obviously about to deliver. She wore her leather bomber jacket and that damnably-orange scarf she'd gotten at Thanksgiving and she carried a small duffel bag.

"I need your keys, Elliot," she repeated breathlessly, her hand out. "Please."

Elliot searched Olivia's bark-brown eyes and saw, staring steadily back at him, a new woman; one who was as determined, as intense, and as much a force of nature as she always had been, but tempered now by a new maturity and a sense of contentedness that only seemed to elevate her to new heights. He sighed--a sound tinted by shades of relief--and held out his keys.

"Thanks, El," said the younger detective as she kissed him quickly on the cheek. "We'll be back tomorrow. I promise." Then she darted out the door without a backward glance.

If the others had missed the changes in Olivia Benson before, the fact that she'd just voluntarily left the squad--to go on vacation--while there was an active case starting drove those changes home like clanging railroad spikes. They all quietly pondered the door she'd disappeared through as it gently swung to a stop.

"Well," said Cragen finally, blinking to break himself of his reverie. "I guess that just leaves us lonely mucks to get on with this investigation. Let's get to it."

"You losers might all be lonely," countered Elliot Stabler proudly, "but I have a beautiful wife and four kids waiting for me at home."

He was not surprised when the other three pelted him with ballpoint pens. It didn't stop him from grinning, though.

Olivia Benson had already called Casey Novak's cell phone three times by the time she'd breezed through the deserted Holland Tunnel. Each time, she'd gotten Casey's semi-professional voice mail greeting: "You have reached the voice mail of Casey Novak, Assistant District Attorney. I am unable to answer the phone at the moment, so please leave a detailed message, including case file number, at the tone and I will get back to you as soon as possible. If you are calling to gloat over the last softball game, please hang up now and I'll see to it those photos don't make it to your boss. You know who you are." Cute as it had been back during summer, Olivia now found the outdated message annoying. Especially since she couldn't get through to the woman who'd recorded it. She threw her phone onto the passenger seat in frustration and concentrated on getting into New Jersey without crashing Elliot's car.

The roads had been plowed and looked relatively safe, but Olivia couldn't tell when the snow might start falling again and she wanted to get out from under this horrible storm as quickly as possible. The sky above was slate blue with clouds that crowded low over the horizon and everything seemed so quiet on this Tuesday morning after Christmas. The world seemed asleep; blanketed under the deep, downy white of the snow to dream of future summers. The crunch of her tires over salted roads was the only sound she heard.

The New Yorker in Olivia could only see the snow as an inconvenience, though, and she scowled at it, breaking the spell of the silence. As she drove through Jersey City on her way to Intertate 95, Olivia passed a rusty Toyota Corolla with an "Army: Be All You Can Be" sticker in the back window and it gave her an idea.

She grabbed her cell off the passenger seat and jammed it into the hands-free setup Elliot had installed earlier in the year when Maureen had almost creamed their garage door while talking on her cell. She pressed a speed dial button she had never before used. The call was answered on the second ring.

"Detective Benson," said Matt Novak in his rich, deep baritone. "Merry Christmas!"

Olivia smiled in spite of herself. "Colonel Novak," she greeted warmly, not surprised in the least that he had caller ID on his phone. "Merry Christmas! I'm sorry I could't take you up on your invitation this year. That'll teach me to sign up in March for holiday duty."

"As long as it doesn't happen again, I'll forgo the court martial proceedings."

Olivia laughed at that. "Don't worry," she assured him. "I told the captain that the guys each have to do a Christmas rotation before I will do another one. That gives me three years to make it up to you. And to Casey."

Matt's laughter was immediate and boisterous. "Well, three years might just be long enough to assuage my bruised feelings. My daughter, on the other hand, seems to be made of sterner stuff than her old man. Not only has she not complained once, but she is your sole defender amongst us more sensitive types. Perhaps that is the benefit of dating an attorney..."

"I'll have to remember that for the future. Speaking of Casey, is she still there or has she left for the airport already? I can't seem to reach her on her cell."

"She left almost an hour ago, Olivia. And she probably can't hear her cell over the din there. She called a few minutes ago to tell me that her flight has been delayed indefinitely because of the closings in New York. She says Dulles is a madhouse."

"Why doesn't she just go back to your place and wait? It'll be hours before JFK gets themselves back on schedule. And that's only if it doesn't start snowing again."

"Olivia, you know Casey possibly better than I do. You and I both know she will wait in that airport until Doomsday before she gives up the chance of seeing the woman she loves on the day she promised. I told her that if there's been no progress by one this afternoon, I'm coming to get her. I'll drive her to New York myself before I let her spend all day in that place."

Olivia chuckled. "Great minds think alike, Matt. I borrowed my partner's car and I'm on my way there right now. I'll pick her up at the airport and take her home. If the weather gets bad on the way, we'll find a place to stop."

Matt's smile, had it been converted to light energy, probably could have been seen from outer space. "I see you're ahead of me, Detective. You would have made an excellent military officer."

Olivia shook her head briskly. "No way! I don't have the discipline for that."

"No one does. It's something we beat into you once we get our hands on you." Matt laughed jovially but Olivia knew he was only half-kidding. Still, she thought she was a little too likely to be the one disobeying direct orders and she liked the fact civilians weren't arrested for that. She was grateful that she had never seen herself taking that path away from the childhood made painful under Serena Benson's cruel hand.

"No, thank you," she replied. "I get beat up enough on the job. I'm not going to volunteer for it!"

"I knew you were a smart woman when I first met you," Matt said, mirth still threading his voice.

Olivia blushed in the privacy of her partner's car and ignored the compliment. "Listen, Matt," she began, changing the subject. "If Casey calls again, would you mind not telling her I'm on my way? I want to surprise her."

"Your secret's safe with me, Olivia." Matt suspected he'd gone too far with the unexpected compliment and did the honorable thing: he gave her a graceful out. "You be careful driving down here, okay? My little girl will be none too pleased if you end up in an accident."

"I will," replied the detective gratefully. "Tell Chris and Julie I said 'Merry Christmas!' And 'Congratulations!' too!"

"I will. I think Julie dragged the poor boy off to a stationery store to look at invitations. He's either in a coma from boredom right now or wishing he was."

"At least she's not knitting them!"

They laughed for a moment together and then said their goodbyes. Hours later, Olivia was still ruminating over the effortless nature of communication with Casey's father--wondering how or why such a thing could be possible--when her cell gave a familiar tweetle. She looked at the dashboard clock and grinned. She was only about an hour away now.

She pressed the answer button. "Casey? Hey honey, you at the airport?"

"I'm at an airport--yes--but not the right one!" Casey's voice was morose and sorrowful and she sounded more than frustrated. "My flight's been delayed indefinitely. I'm waiting to find out if there's even the remotest chance that I'll get out of here today but it's not looking good."

Liv could hear crowd sounds in the background, complete with the ubiquitous screaming baby. She tried to sound disappointed.

"Honey, don't worry about it. There's nothing you can do. It's probably the weather up here. It's really been snowing and--"

"But I am worried! I promised I'd be home today, Liv. You haven't even gotten to open a single Christmas present! It's not fair! Maybe I'll just take my dad up on his offer. He said he was going to pick me up and drive me to Manhattan himself but I don't want him to do that. Especially with gas the price it is. I don't know--"

Olivia cut the ADA off, attempting to steer her back to where she wanted her. Under no circumstances did she want Casey to call her father and take him up on his offer. "Honey, it's okay. Really. Go back home and spend an extra day with your family. JFK will be open tomorrow and I'll see you then. I'm fine. I'll get some take-out and watch movies or something. It'll be great."

"Are you sure?" asked the redhead dubiously.

"I'm sure," said Olivia gamely.

"Well, I still want to wait here for a little bit. Maybe they'll get something moving soon. It hasn't snowed there since last night; I checked." Casey sounded a little reassured, but not much. It was just enough.

Olivia played her last card. "Promise me if you don't hear something soon, you'll call your father and let him at least take you home. What if they never cancel the flight but just keep delaying it? You could be there all day, Casey. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be watching old movies back at Matt's house than crammed in an airport with a lot of frustrated strangers."

Casey's chuckle was almost lost to the din behind her. "Yeah, me too. Okay," she decided suddenly, "I'll give it two more hours and if nothing happens by then, I'll call Daddy and have him pick me up. Deal?"

Olivia grinned. Sometimes she worried she was too good at that. "Deal,"she said. "Call me when you know anything, okay?"

"I will. Have fun tonight watching movies! I love you."

"I love you, too," replied the detective. She pressed the off button victoriously and edged the borrowed Bronco up a few miles per hour. The sooner she could have Casey in the car and be on the way back to Manhattan, the better.

Olivia wanted nothing in the world more than she wanted Casey's beautiful, bare body next to hers in a familiar bed. Where they could wake up slowly and take their time making love again. Where they could drink their favorite coffee and maybe have brunch at that diner that did the awesome pumpkin pecan pancakes.

Where it just felt like home.

Nirali Murthy had a savage headache. An older woman--who had marinated herself in cheap perfume--had just spent ten minutes complaining to her about the back up in the security lines. The woman's brilliant argument had been that people traveling to the West Coast should have their own special line because it wasn't their fault that it had snowed in New York.

If the world worked that way, thought the TSA employee, we'd all live forever. Who would submit to death when birth was "not my fault"?

Nirali thought she could feel every single strand of her hair pulling against her scalp. Her tight, dark braid felt heavy and awkward--as if someone had tied a stone to its end. She glanced at her watch and frowned. She still had 90 minutes left in this wretched shift and then she could go home--

"Excuse me?"

Nirali scrutinized the taller woman in the bomber jacket and the Tandoori-colored scarf. "Yes, ma'am? How can I help you?"

The woman showed a badge. "I'm Detective Benson with the NYPD and I need to pick someone up at American Airlines Gate D14. If you could just--"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Unless you have a ticket or unless this is official NYPD business, I can't let you through." Nirali wasn't trying to be a bitch; she really wasn't. But she couldn't afford to lose her job because some cop's family was stuck waiting for a delayed flight. The regulations were very clear and people in this airport were too aware of their proximity to the seat of the government to let things slide.

Now it was the detective's turn to scrutinize the TSA employee and she did so with dangerously narrowed eyes. "Official NYPD business? Would it make a difference if she was a Manhattan District Attorney?" asked Olivia bombastically.

Nirali shook her head. "No. I'm sorry. Have you tired calling your party? You could have her meet you--"

Frustrated, Olivia raked her hand through her short hair and looked away, uncharacteristically close to tears and not wanting the younger woman to see that. "No! You don't understand. I had to work on Christmas and she went home. She was supposed to be back today but the airports are closed. I drove down here to get her. To take her home because I miss her. I wanted it to be a surprise..."

As the detective spoke, Nirali began to smile. Tonight, when she told this story to Beth while they snuggled on the couch, they would chuckle knowingly at the part where the butch New York cop drove four hours in the snow to pick up her lover because she couldn't wait one more day to see her. But Nirali knew enough about this woman--even in the little contact that they'd had--not to pursue the humor now. Detective Olivia Benson would not find her predicament the least bit amusing.

"Official police business only, Detective. That's the only way I can let you through."

Nirali waited. Would the beautiful detective with the strong features hear what she was truly saying?

Olivia searched the Indian woman's dark eyes, surprised by the twinkle she found in them, by the slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth. She forced herself to go back over what the TSA employee had said... "The only way I can let you through."

"Official police business?" she asked slowly. "Like...the apprehension of a dangerous fugitive?"

Nirali Murthy grinned. "That's as official as it gets, Detective. Follow me."

Ten minutes later, Olivia Benson was still wandering through the sea of humanity that was the D concourse of Dulles International Airport. She'd already been to Gate D14 twice and Casey was nowhere to be found. That wasn't entirely unexpected with seemingly the entire population of Manhattan jammed into one long hallway, though. Finding one redhead among them would be nearly as impossible as Finding Nemo.

Stuck for the moment, Olivia headed toward some windows behind a bank of pay phones to catch her breath. Crowds were one thing but this? This was like nothing she'd ever seen. As she came around the far end of the ersatz wall, hoping for a momentary respite, she heard a familiar voice.

Casey Novak was sitting on her suitcase with her cellphone held to her ear. She had her red locks pulled back into a ponytail and was wearing jeans and an emerald green sweater. Her winter coat was balled up behind her as a makeshift pillow and a duffel bag served as an ottoman for her feet. Leave it to the ADA to find the only place in the entire concourse where she could spread out and be comfortable.

"I want to wait another hour, Daddy...No, no New York flights have left yet but...Okay, one more hour and then you can come pick me up...Love you, too...Bye."

Casey dropped the cell in the pocket of her duffel and sighed noisily. She did not notice the hovering presence nearby.

""Ma'am, I'm going to need you to come with me." Olivia used her most serious professional voice and Casey looked up, clearly startled. Her features were filled with fear until she recognized her lover standing over her. She shot like a rocket up off the suitcase and into Olivia's waiting arms.

Casey Novak breathed in the earthen and leather scent of Olivia Benson greedily.

"Oh, my God! Liv!" She tightened her arms around the unexpected detective and her voice sounded muffled as she burrowed her face into Olivia's neck. "What are you doing here?" She pulled back, her features suddenly suffused with confusion. "Wait! I just talked to you an hour ago! You were in New York!"

Olivia smiled evilly. "Was I?"

Casey put two and two together and got conspiracy. She swatted Olivia's chest with the flat of her hand. "You! I can't believe you! What did you do--borrow Elliot's Bronco?" She thought for a few seconds and did the math. "Olivia, you would have had to left at nine o'clock this morning!"

"Did you think I would leave you stuck here if there was anything I could do about it?" The shorter detective nuzzled Casey's ear. "I missed you," she whispered softly.

Caught in the gravity of this particular moment, Casey and Olivia gazed at each other. It was as if the entire world had melted away. Their mouths were so close, they could each feel the other's humid breath. The moment stilled, poised in the silence and the kinetic potential, until Casey finally tipped her head and captured Olivia's lips in a soft, sweet kiss of longing.

"I love you," she whispered when they parted.

"I hope you still feel that way in about five minutes," said Olivia worriedly.

"What? Why?"

The detective ducked her head, embarrassed. "The only way I could get through security was to tell them I was on official police business..."

"So?" Casey didn't understand and Olivia was reluctant to explain.

"Remember that night when you joked about wanting me to cuff you?" she asked.

Casey grinned. She hadn't really been joking, but yes, she remembered.

"Well, you're about to get your wish. Only...not exactly the way you planned."

And five minutes later, when she finally understood what Olivia was driving at, Casey found even her limits tested. She was glad she'd packed her sunglasses but even happier that Olivia had brought that beautifully long scarf. Wrapped around her head, it concealed her identity better than she had hoped. With Olivia carrying her luggage and her winter coat strategically placed over the cuffs, Casey was reasonably sure she wouldn't be the lead story on the 9 o'clock news in Manhattan tonight.

As they walked back through the security corrals at the Departures entrance, a brunette TSA employee with dark eyes, olive skin and an impossibly long French braid grinned at them.

"You found your dangerous fugitive, eh, Detective?"

"Yep. And the NYPD thanks you for your cooperation." Olivia nodded from behind her own sunglasses the way she had seen David Caruso do on "CSI:Miami" the few times she'd watched it. She'd always thought the move to be overdone but now discovered its intrinsic value. Always give the public what it expects.

"Knock it off, Liv," hissed Casey from underneath her obscuring scarf. "Nobody is ever going to confuse you with Horatio Caine." Unseen, she grinned lasciviously and added a heartfelt and grateful, "Thank God."

Back at Casey's apartment after a long, joyful drive through snow-blanketed cities and towns made charming by their reunion, the ADA found herself once again in handcuffs. It had been her price for that little show earlier and Olivia was only too eager to pay it. They were hooked over one of the coat hooks on the back of her apartment door, holding her prisoner more than effectively while the brunette detective knelt before her.

Olivia leaned back on her calves for a moment and let her eyes feast on the sight of Casey, her honey-cream skin gilded by candlelight, stretched in a taut line above her. The young attorney's eyes were half-lidded and heavy with devotion as she gazed down at her lover and her nipples, so recently devoured by an ardent mouth, still stood at attention, raspberry pink in the flickering light. She took long, shuddering breaths that accentuated the sweet curve of her belly and waves of gooseflesh rolled over her. As the scrutiny continued, she dragged her teeth over her bottom lip; the alchemy of agony and ecstasy flushing her pale skin with ruby desire.

Olivia still had her jeans and tank top on. She left the jeans in deference to her current position but licked her lips before pulling the tank over her head and discarding it. Her own nipples, longing for the touch of her lover, tightened almost painfully but the detective ignored them for the moment. Instead, she leaned forward, both palms held flat before her, and stopped barely a centimeter from Casey's skin. She was so close that Casey could feel the heat of her presence but Olivia didn't touch her. Not yet.

Olivia drew her hands over Casey's body just like that, moving sensuously, sinuously as if the motion was part of a complex dance. Casey whimpered, wanting the touch, desperate for it. Wherever Olivia's strong hands passed, her skin burned. She felt wetness begin between her thighs and then the tingling ache of her charged sex filling with molten, liquid need.

"Touch me, Olivia," she breathed, her voice unsteady, halting. "P-please... I need you..." Her fingers closed and opened above her head, grasping for what they could not reach.

The touch, when it came--finally, blessedly--set Casey's skin aflame and she groaned, deeply relieved, deeply aroused. Soon Olivia's fingers and hands were joined by teeth and tongue, by cheeks and silky tresses until the younger woman was awash in sensation, her stance now precarious. She trembled from the crown of her head to the heartbreakingly beautiful arch of her instep.

Olivia breathed in the scent of her lover's arousal and her mouth watered instantly. Hungry for the taste of that tart honey-wine on her tongue, she draped one of Casey's impossibly long legs over her shoulder, braced her hands on the bare wood of the door, and leaned forward.

The cuffs protested loudly against the door as Casey arched into Olivia. The feel of the detective's hot mouth upon her, consuming her, was a torturous, breathless bliss. Her head twisted from side to side, her unbound hair now wild and untamed. She cried out with every one of Olivia's deep, lingual caresses and arched into them, offering herself--her whole self--up to the feast.

Delirious with need, Casey thrust her hips forward, grunting with the effort. She wanted more, needed more. The entire Universe had coalesced to that single point of fervent, white-hot desolation and she required the release that only Olivia could provide.

"Take me, Liv," she begged, her voice ragged with lust. "Sweet God, fuck me..."

Olivia immediately filled her lover, thrusting into her with three strong, corded fingers. Casey slammed her head back into the door so hard she heard ringing in her ears. "Yesssss..." she wailed, submitting completely to her wanton ravishment, to her powerful yearning until the coiling, twisting thread holding the Universe together snapped. Space and time both collapsed in on themselves, pulverizing whole worlds in the cosmic grind, reducing them to shimmering flecks of dust that twinkled and flickered until they burned out across the empty sky...

Made senseless by Casey's honey-wine, Olivia leaned against the redhead's heaving belly, listing to the side like a great vessel foundering in the fickle sea. When she could move again, she rose and gently unhooked Casey's limp arms, bringing them down where she could remove the cuffs with the key she'd secreted in the pocket of her jeans. She dropped them noisily to the floor and lifted the quiescent younger woman into her arms without a word.

Once Casey was safely in the bed, Olivia stripped the rest of her clothes off and she climbed in after her, molding her wiry frame to her lover's and pulling the blankets around them both. Casey turned and wrapped her lankier body around Olivia and pressed her face into the hollow of her throat.

"I love you," she whispered, her voice small.

Olivia pressed gentle kisses onto Casey's forehead and eyelids. "I love you, Casey," she soothed. "Sleep now." She sifted red silk between her fingers over and over. "Sleep now. We're home."

Casey whimpered softly then sighed. Soon, her breathing slowed, becoming deep and regular as she melted into sleep.

Olivia simply held her. As she looked out the single, small window into the dim light of the alley behind Casey's building, she saw that it was snowing again.

"We're home," she said again and she fell asleep watching lazy snowflakes drift past Casey's window on milky moonbeams...

Olivia awoke to the sensation of a block of ice being placed on her sternum.

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart," stage-whispered her lover, grinning beautifully in the icy winter's morning light when Olivia finally managed to lever her eyes open.

The block of ice was actually a small, wrapped box with a tiny silver bow on it and it was warming rather quickly.

"Merry Christmas, Casey," Olivia dutifully replied before succumbing to a jaw-cracking yawn. "What time is it?"

"Time for you to open gifts!" replied the younger redhead gleefully as she punctuated her declaration by bouncing the bed.

The detective accurately translated this answer to mean "Earlier than fuck!" and she groaned. "Can we at least have some coffee first?"

"Yours is on the table next to the bed. Now wake up so I can watch you open gifts! I've been waiting long enough."

Knowing she was well and truly caught, Olivia sighed and pushed herself into a sitting position, noticing with sudden interest that Casey was wearing the slip of blackberry silk she'd sent with her to her father's house.

"I want to unwrap you," she said, reaching for her lover. Casey swatted her hands away.

"No! Gifts first; sex later!"

Olivia rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But the actual order of events is coffee first, then gifts, then sex." She thought for a moment. "Then food--wait. Can the food come before the sex? I'm getting hungry."

Casey, surrounded by gaily-wrapped boxes, put her hands on her hips. "Oliviaaaaa!" she pouted.

The detective laughed. "Okay, okay! Just let me get my coffee. I have a feeling I'm going to need it." She grabbed the mug off the table and took a quick gulp of liquid fortification. "Now whatcha got for me first?"

Casey tossed thick red envelope at her. "Smart ass," she grumbled playfully. "I can't help it if I love Christmas."

Olivia leaned in for a kiss. "And I can't help it if I love you," she smiled as she carefully slid her thumb under the flap of the envelope. "Oooooh," she exclaimed appreciatively, her attention now entirely on the task at hand.

Ten minutes later Olivia sat amidst the paper ruins of so many lovingly-wrapped boxes, feeling a little overwhelmed. She couldn't remember when she had last received this many Christmas gifts at one time and she felt unworthy and yet pleased at the same time. Julie had sent a Best Buy gift card with a note that her favorite "Gadget Girl" should splurge, on her... Chris had sent a handsomely framed 5x7 of Casey taken at the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington DC with an accompanying note that said it had been taken on a crisp Autumn afternoon the week before she'd moved to New York to become Manhattan's youngest ever White Collar Crimes ADA. She was in profile, looking down to read the Constitution, and a gust of wind had whipped her longer hair into a banner streaming behind her; and it looked as if Justice, herself, had removed her blindfold to read that which she had sworn to protect... Matt had sent a five pound bag of the Private Reserve Kona they had shared back at Thanksgiving with a note that said he had arranged that a five pound bag would be sent every month for her entire squad to enjoy for as long as she worked with the 16th...

And if that wasn't enough, Casey's first gift to her had been a copy of an itinerary for a week-long vacation to Las Vegas arranged for the upcoming July 4th week. Another sheet of paper confirmed that the time off had already been approved by Cragen.

When Olivia looked up at her lover with shock, Casey shrugged and explained, "You seemed to have so much fun in DC when we were there, I though you should see more of this great big country. And I've never been to Vegas, so I thought we could discover it together."

Speechless, Olivia gathered the young woman into her arms, letting the strength of her embrace convey her amazement.

Finally, there were only two boxes left: one for Olivia and one for Casey. Shyly, they each opened their last present.

Olivia breached her gift's protective paper first and opened a tiny jewelry box to find not jewelry but a key. Puzzled at first, it only took Liv a second to realize that it was the key to Casey's apartment.

She blinked.

Casey watched nervously. "Is it okay?" she asked. Olivia lurched forward unexpectedly and caught Casey's lips in a deep, thorough kiss.

When she pulled back, she rested her forehead against her lover's and said, "It is amazing. Just like you."

"Oh," she said dazedly. "Good." Realizing she still had a half-opened box in her hands, she finished removing the shiny red paper and lifted the lid of a black jeweler's box. "Oh," she said again, but this time the word was filled with wonder. Tears rimed her jade-colored eyes and she lifted the necklace out of it's velvet nest with trembling fingers. At the end of a fine gold chain hung a small 22k gold replica of the NYPD detective's shield and in the center of that, over the place where the coat of arms would normally be, was a tiny, white, kite-shaped diamond. But Casey barely registered that. The most important part to her wasn't the diamond; it was the string of tiny, golden numbers underneath the shield itself. 44015. Olivia's badge number.

And what was there to say about that in the end, really?

After Olivia had fastened the delicate chain around Casey's neck and as they made love deeply and tenderly amongst the colorful Christmas trash and treasure, bare to each other's arms while nestled in this familiar bed, only their unspoken hopes could be heard.

Carry me safely in your heart, my love, and I will carry you safely in mine. Always...

The End

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