DISCLAIMER: The characters in the story are the creation of Dick Wolf and I'm using them without permission for entertainment and not for profit. The story is my own as are any errors that may have slipped past my beta readers.
SPOILERS: Set after Alex comes out of witness protection, so there may be some spoilers for those who have not seen the show (or L&O) to that point. I've taken some literary license with Elliot's marital situation and Olivia's educational background, among other things, so fair warning to the keepers of the Canon. Oh, and this is my first L&O story, so your patience is appreciated and feedback of all kinds is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Open to Persuasion
By Allie



Two weeks later, the size of the team working on the Johnson Child Abuse Ring case, as the press had dubbed it, had swelled to almost three times the size of the regular SVU squad. The lead detectives on the case were still Benson and Stabler, but only because Cragen had almost given himself a stroke, so vigorous had been his defense of their seniority on the case when a foursome from the Major Case squad had been seconded to the investigation.

It was one of the most disturbing cases that Benson had ever worked on, not because of the brutality of the acts committed against the children involved, but because of the casual way the perpetrators of the crimes had viewed those acts. She had interviewed a lot of revolting, chilling and downright frightening characters in her years as a detective, especially in the seven she'd spent in SVU, but something about the "ordinariness" of these people kept her up at night.

Ten of the fifteen people they knew to be involved had been arrested, including De Leon, the Johnsons, six of the twelve people in the videos and the two hit-men. One of them had since died.

De Leon had agreed to plead guilty to charges related to profiting from the exploitation of the six children whose parents had agreed to cooperate. He'd also surrendered all the information he'd had on the hit men and on the Johnsons in order to secure the deal. The hit men quickly rolled on the man who had hired them in order to avoid the death penalty when physical evidence linked them to two previously unsolved murders of illegal immigrants and, after George Huang pronounced them ready, both Perez kids picked them out of separate line-ups.

The hit men's employer, Winston Stopford III, who happened to own a turkey-processing plant in Arkansas, had immediately surrendered to save his family further embarrassment, but he'd hanged himself in his holding cell before SVU detectives could fly down to interview him.

He had been one of the people in the videos and cross-checking his phone records with airline records on the days he'd flown to La Guardia to visit the house in Rye, had led detectives to three other men who had been in videos with him and the children. Meticulous detective work by the rapidly expanding SVU squad had led to the implication of yet another two men who had been filmed with those three.

The interrogations of those five men had made Olivia consider, as she did at least once a year, asking for a transfer out of SVU. Those interviews were the reason she now sat on the sofa in her darkened living room clutching an untouched tumbler of whiskey and reliving the first interview. The guy's name was Wentworth, James Henry Wentworth, although he went by Jimmy. His lawyer was Trevor Langan and even if Olivia and her partner hadn't once interrupted a date that Alex had had with Langan, she'd have despised him on principle.

Langan's three thousand dollar suit and thousand dollar shoes had looked obscene in the dingy interview room at Rikers, but he hadn't seemed to notice. "My client is prepared to cooperate with the police, but he would like some assurance that that will be taken into consideration by the District Attorney's Office."

Alexandra Cabot, whose suits probably matched Trevor's in price, but who managed to look merely aloof rather than obscene against the backdrop of grime, had crossed her arms over her chest and replied coolly, "That depends on what your client has to say and whether his cooperation leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone not already in police custody for these crimes."

"Assuming it does, do we have a deal on leniency?" Trevor smiled ingratiatingly at Alex, making Olivia's lips press together in annoyance – a small change in her expression that only Alex noticed.

Alex inclined her head slightly to indicate assent and Trevor directed his client to speak. "Go ahead, Jimmy. Answer whatever questions Miss Cabot and Detective Benson have for you with regard to the other people in those videos with you."

"I also have some questions about the videos themselves and how your client came to be in them," Olivia had felt the need to elaborate on their expectations.

Wentworth had looked to Langan, who'd shrugged. "This doesn't mean that my client will be surrendering any of his Fifth Amendment rights."

Alex had made a sound of exasperation. "Then we have nothing to talk about and Mr. Wentworth can take his chances with a New York jury…" Alex uncrossed her arms and started to put a file in her briefcase.

"Ok!" Trevor had conceded quickly. He'd nodded again at Wentworth, who'd looked anxiously at Olivia.

"Why did you go to the Johnson's home in Rye on July 27th of last year?" Olivia had asked the question more for the benefit of the recordings they'd been making than to elicit unknown information.

"I'd been in contact with some… acquaintances of Arnold Johnson's for many years. We had similar… interests." His voice was soft and melodic. In other circumstances, Olivia might have described it as gentle. "He told me that Arnold had made arrangements for us to meet some people for recreation."

Anger had flared in Olivia's eyes, but her tone of voice hadn't changed and her face had remained expressionless. "By 'people' you mean 'children' and by 'recreation' you mean 'sex', is that right?"

Wentworth had glanced nervously at Langan, who'd nodded again. "Yes."

Olivia had said nothing and, as criminals often did, Wentworth had felt a need to fill in the silence. "You people look at me as though I'm a monster, but that's because you refuse to accept the fact that children are sexual beings and your denial of that fact does them a disservice."

"Just answer the questions, Jimmy," Langan had quickly interrupted.

"So," Olivia had reiterated, "you went to Arnold Johnson's house because an acquaintance told you that Mr. Johnson could make arrangements for you to have sex with children."


"And what did you have to do in return for this service, Jimmy?"

"My family owns a paper mill in Pennsylvania. I would arrange for a work permit to be issued in the name of two people and then the company would sponsor them for permanent residence. The names on the work permit would be provided to me by the acquaintance who made the introduction to Arnold."

"We need a name, Mr. Wentworth," Alex had interjected.

Wentworth had picked at his cuticles as his gaze slid past Olivia's to Trevor and he'd been looking at his lawyer when he'd answered. "Winston Stopford".

Olivia's face had betrayed a hint of anger. "Did you share this arrangement with anyone else? Any other people who had similar interests?"

"My longtime friend Daniel Horton accompanied me on my trip to New York. But you already know that, because you arrested him."

"Did you pass on your knowledge of Mr. Johnson to any other people who did not accompany you on that trip? Did you post it on any web sites?"

"Detective, it was not my intention exploit these children. I would never expose them to people who were not like-minded and might be abusive or violent. We spent time getting to know them and making them comfortable with us before we engaged them in intimate activity."

The smug tone with which he'd delivered the statements had made Alex feel nauseated and she'd noticed that Olivia's knuckles were white, although her body had appeared to be relaxed as she'd sat in the chair opposite Wentworth and asked without inflection. "And can you describe that intimate activity please, Jimmy? We'll need to document it for our files."

Trevor had opened his mouth to argue, but Alex had silenced him with a piercing blue glare. Wentworth, already lost in salacious memories, missed the interaction between the lawyers, but Olivia, her senses alert with rage, adrenaline and disgust, was acutely aware of it and she made a mental note to thank Alex.

That was the critical moment in an interrogation, when the suspect was about to commit to audiotape information which would keep him away from potential victims for a long time. She was adept at injecting a hint of near-empathy into her questions to draw the incriminating information out of sleazebags like Wentworth. He probably hadn't even noticed her familiar use of his name, only the fact that she'd seemed to want him to share his intimate memories with her.

As the numbers on the little digital recorder had changed and as the backup recorder in Olivia's jacket had turned, Wentworth had literally licked his lips and recounted in minute detail his sexual abuse of five children, even going so far as to explain why he preferred girls to boys, since his two visits to the house in Rye had involved children of both sexes. As he'd been speaking, all Olivia could think of were the fear, degradation, pain and mental and physical trauma that the children he was talking about had endured. Her eyes had turned bleak as she'd wondered if they would, or could, ever completely recover from the scenes that Wentworth had been describing.

Carried away by his subject, he'd obviously forgotten that the police had not known about the second visit to Rye. He'd been so distracted by remembered lust that he'd absently provided the date of that visit when prompted by Olivia. As he'd spoken, his face had flushed with arousal and she hadn't needed to have him stand up to know that he'd had an erection as he'd sat at the table.

She sipped the whiskey in her hand as the mental image made bile rise in her throat.

The interview had yielded no new names and no new leads beyond another date for which to cross-reference flight information and phone records, since Wentworth had claimed not to know the identity of a woman who appeared briefly in one video with him and a small boy.

Olivia had stayed in the shower for forty-five minutes that night, without ever feeling as though the filth of that interview had been washed from her.

"The work permit was your ticket to play, but was Arnold Johnson paid for the use of his property, Jimmy?" Olivia had asked as Jimmy's recounting of events wound down.

For the first time, Wentworth had looked vaguely discomfited. "We, the people who visited his home, agreed to let him use images of our lovemaking, and share them with other… enlightened people, for a modest fee."

"So Johnson made videos of you engaged in sex with children and sold them?"

"It does sound tawdry, but he was providing a valuable service and deserved compensation. We didn't think it was right to pay him directly."

Alex's stoic mask had slipped and her mouth had dropped open in shock at the audacity and obscenity of that statement. She'd closed it when Olivia, ever the professional despite the clenched fists, had asked quietly, "Was that the reason you wore the mask? Because you were aware that a video of your… intimacy," she deliberately used Wentworth's word, "was being made for sale on the Internet?"

"Jimmy," Trevor had seen the trap a second or two too late. Alex liked to think it was because he, too, had been stunned by the statement about his client's views of what was right and wrong.

"Yes," Wentworth had confirmed, his eyes locked with those of the detective. "It wasn't that we were doing anything wrong, merely a matter of privacy."

"And you didn't think the children needed similar privacy?" Olivia had tried to sound fascinated and managed to sound curious, but it was better than disgusted and it kept Wentworth talking.

"Those of us who are enlightened enough to see the beauty of that special love between adults and children, well, we understand that the key to that beauty is being able to look into their angelic faces as…" He'd once again wandered off on an explicit rant, but this time he was describing his own participation in the production of child pornography for onward sale on the Internet. Olivia had kept herself in that chair by reminding herself that every word he spoke would add to his prison term.

As he'd been led out of the interrogation room in shackles, Trevor had looked at Alex, who'd looked pale, even though her face had been carefully expressionless. "So, what are you offering?"

"Twenty-five to life, with no possibility of parole," she'd said coldly and started to walk away.

"I thought you said you'd consider a deal!"

Olivia put a hand on his arm as he'd started after Alex. "We got nothing new from him, Langan. No new names, no information that could possibly lead to an arrest. The only thing he gave us was the chance to be his audience as he relived a masturbation fantasy. You should be ashamed of yourself for subjecting Alex… for subjecting us to that."

"What about Winston Stopford?"

"He's dead. Killed himself in custody." She'd sneered openly at him. "I thought lawyers never asked a question unless they already knew the answer."

Another gulp of whiskey was burning its way down Olivia's throat when a rectangle of light shone from the bedroom indicating that Alex had turned on a lamp. A minute or two later, Alex padded out of the bedroom with a duvet wrapped around her shoulders and trailing on the floor. She looked at Olivia in the dim light, noticing the unbuttoned jeans and open shirt as well as the whiskey.

She sat as close as she could to the dark-haired woman and asked rhetorically, "Couldn't sleep, huh?"

Olivia sat back against the back of the sofa, allowing some of her weight to fall against that of her lover. "I did for a while… maybe an hour."

"I managed three. But it's twice as much as I've been able to achieve at any one time since that day at Rikers." Olivia could hear a smile creep into her voice as she added, "Should I be advertising the somnolence induced by making love with you? We'd have female insomniacs lining up… I could be your agent."

Olivia put an arm around her. "Believe it or not, that pure hour I got with no nightmares, was more than I was starting to think I'd get until this case was over. Mostly it's been snatches of sleep – fifteen, twenty minutes, or an hour or two that are dominated by terrors, so that I'm more tired when I wake up than I was before I went to sleep."

"Does that help?" Alex indicated the whiskey.

"I've only had a little bit of it, but I don't expect it to, no. It just gets the taste of… it… out of my mouth." As she said it, Olivia knew the statement made no sense. "It," the darkness that lingered after the worst days on the job, had no taste that could be defined in any logical way.

To her surprise, Alex nodded. "When I first moved to SVU, I became a compulsive tooth-brusher… I mean seven, eight times a day when I hadn't had anything to eat. People thought I had a weak bladder because I was in the ladies' room so much – and there was a rumor that I was bulimic. I notice you have showers that last almost an hour, even when I'm not in there to distract you."

"I'm not even sure why this case is so bad."

"I think it's because of the banality of their brand of evil." Alex replied quietly, as though she'd given the matter much consideration.

Insomnia will do that to you, Olivia thought. She turned her head to look at Alex, who grabbed the glass from her and took a wincing swallow before continuing to speak.

"I've prosecuted a lot of pedophiles. Many of them have convinced themselves that their actions are not selfish or harmful to children. Many view themselves as victims – and it's true that there are clear patterns of unbroken cycles of abuse through generations. But this group of men – and those two unidentified women – they… they believe, even after seeing the terror in their victims' eyes, that they're doing nothing wrong. To them those children are sexualized but something slightly less than human. I'd been wondering if it was because those children are of a different race, but the two little girls with the gray eyes and pale skin… they were in more videos than any of the other kids, so victims that looked like them, certainly didn't make them reconsider their crimes."

She was saying much of what Olivia had been thinking in a continuous, mind-numbing loop for more than a week, so the detective said nothing. Instead, she tightened her arm around Alex's slender shoulders and waited for her to continue.

"Those people don't come from underprivileged backgrounds where they were left to their own devices. Every one we've arrested so far came from an intact family – yet they chose victims from intact families. They knew that what they were doing was against the law, so they planned meticulously and spared no expense in the execution of their plans. They were… businesslike."

"And," Olivia added, "they were all functioning, productive members of society by any traditional standard we might want to apply."

"Most went to church regularly and all but two were married," Alex added in agreement.

"But only the turkey guy, Stopford, had children."

Alex shook her head. "But they're so… cold, so unfeeling about the plight of their victims, I can't persuade myself that they avoided having children because they didn't want to prey on their own flesh and blood."

Olivia took the glass from Alex and had another sip of whiskey. "Quite frankly, I don't want to delve deeply enough into their sick minds to sort out that particular puzzle."

Neither woman spoke for several minutes and then Alex voiced the thought that bothered them the most. "And I firmly believe that the part of that ring we're bringing to justice is just the tip of the iceberg. I think we unraveled part of the operation on the eastern seaboard, but the M.O. is too sophisticated and too many other parts of the country have big immigrant populations to prey on, to make this a unique case. Pedophiles love to share their successes – the Internet hosts a plethora of forums for precisely that purpose. The fact that, despite video evidence, some of them got away means that they are experts at covering their tracks. That sort of expertise comes from experience, not beginners' luck."

"I know," Olivia said, shocked that her voice cracked when she spoke.

Alex rested her head on Olivia's shoulder and, just when Olivia thought the ADA might have fallen asleep, the blond woman spoke again in an unsteady voice. "I can't do this any more, Liv."



"Do what?" Olivia had gone rigid with fear. Sip Scotch with me and help me face my demons at 2:47 a.m.? Work with me on SVU cases almost every day without either of us betraying the heat that drives us to practically rip each other's clothes off and have hot sweaty sex within minutes of our being alone on the few occasions we've tried to date like normal people? Look at me in a way that makes me believe in fairy tales and happily ever after? What is it that you can't do any more, Alex?

"SVU." She lifted her head and looked at Olivia. Her eyes looked dark and haunted; pupils dilated so that they drowned the blue irises in pools of agony. Agony for people she could not help. "I used to be able to. I used to compartmentalize my mind and segregate the horrors of the victims' lives from the relative safety of my own. I used to look at them with empathy from a… respectful distance. I'd like to think I didn't minimize the unrelenting, undeserved wretchedness of the situations they found themselves in, but I think I must have, in order to make it… comprehensible in a way that could be considered in the context of the law.

"But getting shot; becoming a victim…" She stopped and considered that for a while and her breath hitched on a suppressed sob. "Not feeling, or for that matter being, safe from the person who would abuse his power and destroy me… that seems to have broken down all the barriers between the compartments that enabled me to do my job without endangering my soul." Tears welled in Olivia's eyes, but she could offer no comfort. She faced the truth of Alex's words almost daily. "Now I feel the fear, I understand the helplessness, I know how… unjust it is. I still want to fight for justice, I just don't think I can do it for the most vulnerable people in society. I can't do it any more for the people who need it the most and I hate myself for that."

Olivia twisted on the sofa and pulled Alex, duvet and all, fully into her arms and she rocked her. "You've done it better, and for longer, than anyone could have asked of you, Alex. You've saved more than your fair share and society will never be able to repay the debt it already owes you for what you've been through." The dam broke and Alex sobbed as though her heart were breaking. It was something Olivia had never witnessed before from the self-sufficient woman she'd come to know and her own tears spilled down her cheeks. "Let it go," she encouraged softly as she continued to rock Alex. Eventually the tears stopped and Olivia realized that Alex had fallen asleep.

Alex woke up three hours later and attempted to roll over and stretch. The movement caused her to land on the floor with a thump. Her eyes flew open and looked into the disoriented and then amused eyes of Detective Olivia Benson, who was partially covered by a duvet, while Alex half-lay naked on the living room floor. "Good morning, counselor," Olivia said with a sleepy, teasing grin.

Alex tried to glare at her, but amusement got the better of her and she chuckled. "Good morning, detective." Unable to resist, she got back on the sofa, stretching out on top of Olivia and tucking her face into the curve of Olivia's neck. "I'm not sure what I did to deserve you, but I'm very happy I did it. Thank you."

"I didn't do anything."

"Yes, you did. You gave me… peace, about the decision I needed to make."

"You didn't need my permission or agreement, Alex. Everything I said was true – my saying it didn't make it true."

"I'm going to tell Branch that I want this to be my last SVU case. It will probably take a year or more to get the suspects we have now to trial, anyway…" She didn't dare add that they might manage to track down even more, because neither woman wanted to think about the fact that they might not.

"It will be a mixed blessing not having you visit the squad on a regular basis."

Alex raised her head. "What? You won't miss me unreservedly?"

"I was going to ask you if you'd mind not wearing the tight skirts to work. They make me uncomfortable, because all I want to do is slide them up your thighs and slip my fingers into your panties…"

"I'll stop wearing them when you stop wearing those tight jeans."

"They're not tight, they're snug. Tight would be uncomfortable and I need to be comfortable."

"Semantics. I see your ass in them and all I want to do is drag them down your legs and kneel in front of you to eat you."

Olivia chuckled, but she felt the stirrings of arousal. She knew she'd remember the conversation the next time Alex visited the squad room. "Wouldn't that get the boys talking!"

"Hmmm," Alex replied distractedly.

"What're you thinking?" Olivia probed.

"I'm rethinking my first impulse when I look at your tight jeans. I think the kneel-down-and-eat-you fantasy happens when you walk towards me… I think seeing your ass makes me want to do something completely different."

"You've got a bit of a fixation with that, you know."

"Least of my psychological problems," Alex dismissed with a grin. "Don't change the subject. I think the winning fantasy is to pull those tight jeans down to your ankles so that your feet are trapped in them and then bend you over your desk."

Olivia moved restlessly under Alex's weight, betraying her arousal. Alex lifted her head and grinned smugly into Olivia's eyes. "I love that I can turn you on just by wanting you."

"You're banned from the squad until you clean up your mind, Assistant District Attorney Cabot."

"Well, then, I guess I'll just have to live out my fantasies while I'm here in your apartment…" she decided, covering the detective's mouth with her own.

When the clock alarmed in the bedroom twenty minutes later, neither woman made any move to turn it off. And when Olivia got to work, she hoped that her colleagues attributed her wet hair and flushed cheeks to the freezing rain and wintry wind that continued to plague the city. Because the truth, that she'd been having unbelievable sex with their ADA twenty-five minutes before she'd walked through the door, leaving no time for niceties like hairdryers after her shower, was definitely more information than she wanted them to have about her personal life.

"We got two more," Cragen greeted the assembled detectives and a few high-fives were exchanged. "The money trail tied them into the ring and Philadelphia PD is bringing them in now. It's going to get ugly because they're old money with old-money lawyers behind them. I've left a message for Cabot – we have to get moving on extradition before they have time to marshal their resources." He almost smiled. "Oh, and speaking of resources, Branch has pulled a few strings and called in a few favors and Abbie Carmichael will be coming up from DC to pitch in."

Olivia smiled at the news and only half-listened as Cragen doled out assignments and picked up updates. She liked Abbie. Even though she found some of Abbie's social views to be somewhat conservative, she'd always been drawn to the beautiful ADA in a way that made her wonder about her feelings for women. Maybe she just had a thing for ADA's. She smiled to herself at the thought.

"So you gonna tell me who it is?"

"What?" Olivia genuinely had no idea what Elliot was talking about.

"Come on, Olivia, it's been like two months!" he hissed, leaning close to his partner. "Somebody is putting that smile on your face and I think it's time you told me who it is. I'm your partner and one of your best friends; I deserve to know."

"You ever consider that you might be wrong? That maybe I'm just smiling because of the number of bad guys we're taking down for a change?" She got up and walked past him to the coffee machine. The coffee in the squad room was nasty, but it wasn't as though she'd had time for a proper cup before work. Not that she was complaining…

To her surprise, Elliot took her arm and steered her to an observation room attached to an empty interrogation room. "See? There's that smile again. And then there are these." He took the coffee mug from her and turned her wrists over to expose faint, faded bruises. "If there hadn't been a huge fucking hickey on your neck the same day you came in with these, I would have said you were being abused…"

"I never had a…"

"Don't even try it, Benson. It was last week Tuesday. You were wearing the navy turtleneck, but it was hot in the squad and you didn't even realize you were running your finger under the edge of the collar. My eyes just about popped out of my head. And when you pushed up your sleeves, I saw those." He nodded toward the bruises on her wrists.

"Ok, fine. I'm seeing someone, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet. It's too… new."

"Not too new for handcuffs…"

"See? That's why I won't tell you. I won't let what we have become fodder for locker room humor around here."

"All right, all right. At least tell me, are you happy? Is it serious?"

"Yes and… yes, for me, anyway."

"Male or female?"

Olivia sighed. "Why does it matter?"

Elliot shifted uncomfortably. "Would it be sexist of me to be more comfortable with you playing bondage games with a woman?"

Olivia flushed. "I don't want you thinking about it at all – never mind being comfortable with it!"

"You know what I mean. The work we do. I want to know you're safe."

Olivia relented. "I'm safe, Elliot. I've never trusted anyone this much and you know I don't trust easily."

His eyes locked with hers, as though trying to divine the contents of her soul. Eventually he sighed. "Ok. But as soon as you're ready, you have to bring her to dinner with me and Kathy, so I can give her the once over and ask her her intentions. I need to decide for myself that she's worthy."

"So you've decided it's a 'her'?"

"You've dated a lot of guys since I've known you, Liv. I've never known you to use the word "trust" before. Something's different, more open, about you, with this relationship." He looked away. "You know I try to be a good Catholic and bring my kids up to be good Catholics, but I've learned a lot in the last few years… and I think one thing I've learned is that human beings do the most awful things to each other, so when people find real, pure love in this world, it's not for me to decide that God wouldn't bless it… The church has changed its view on too many things over the centuries for me to condemn something that makes you smile that way, on the basis that I've been taught it isn't as beautiful and special as it seems to be."

Elliot didn't make speeches and as he awkwardly stumbled through what he had to say, Olivia felt tears sting her eyes. She hugged him impulsively, even though she knew that her reaction would confirm his suspicions.

"I love you, Elliot," she said softly, before leaving a stunned Elliot staring at the closed door as she left her coffee behind and ran out of the room.



A wet New York spring had starting to roll into a humid early summer as the Johnson case slowly progressed toward the first trial. The detectives and ADA's whose names had become connected with it were becoming minor celebrities in the New York press.

Tempers were beginning to fray as New York County began a jurisdictional battle with the US Attorney's office over prosecution of the suspects. It wasn't often that such a big case attracted such positive publicity about the evidence that the prosecutors were rumored to have against the suspects, so there were a lot of politicians wanting to line themselves up to receive credit for what they perceived as pending success. The only reason Arthur Branch was winning the battle so far was that Alex Cabot seemed to have an unbelievable knack for getting the men they tracked down to plead guilty.

"Do you think it's because so many of them have backgrounds like hers?" Elliot speculated.

"I think it's because she's good at her job." Olivia shrugged to disguise a small, proud smile. "I know that when I'm in the room with her and their lawyers, I completely believe that she'll get convictions on the most serious charges. Ever since Langan caved on Wentworth, word's gone through the legal community that the cases are air-tight and she works the fact that the earlier ones have copped pleas, so they don't know what their buddies have told the DA about them."

"A domino effect," Elliot smiled. Then he grew serious. "Too bad Johnson thinks he can get away with it." Arnold and Maria Johnson were among the few suspects who refused to plea bargain and were holding out for a jury trial.

"I guess he thinks that, since he didn't actually rape any children, he's going to come off better in court than the rest of them."

"Hi detectives." Alex Cabot's distinctive voice interrupted their speculation.

"We were just talking about you," Elliot offered her a wide smile.

Alex raised an eyebrow, but chose not to ask what they'd been saying. "So tell us, Counselor," Olivia tipped her head to the side, "why does that sleazebag Johnson think he can beat the system?"

Alex leaned against Olivia's desk and folded her arms. "I got some interesting documents from his defense team this morning. I think Mr. Johnson's case is going to be predicated upon his services having been irrelevant to the crimes."

Olivia pushed her chair back so she could look at Alex's face because she couldn't believe she was serious. "His wife was the one who took the kids from their parents. Their services were critical to the crimes. The crimes depended on their services." She didn't know how many ways she could say the same thing. It was so obvious, that she couldn't believe Alex was entertaining a theory contrary to that simple fact.

Alex put a document down on the desk and the two detectives stared at it. "It's a motion to sever the cases. He's throwing Maria to the wolves and planning to claim that all he did was profit after the fact."

"What about the recruitment company?" Elliot asked.

"They were both signing officers. He's claiming ignorance." She stood up. "I'd better update Don," she said, walking towards Cragen's office. "Oh, and by the way, he's playing the race card. His position is that he doesn't speak Spanish, so he has no idea what those terrible Hispanics cooked up amongst themselves to abuse each other's children. His version of the story is that every telephone call made to his house by De Leon was to Maria."

Olivia and Elliot stared at each other. The more they thought about it, the more they realized what an ingenious strategy it was. The best witness against Johnson would have been Maria, but he would claim spousal privilege. Not only that, but despite the fact that everyone who had gathered for work outside the bodega knew about "Mr. Johnson", nobody had ever met him and all financial links were to the jointly-owned company. Olivia wondered if Arnold had deliberately run things that way so that he could abandon his wife and escape the most serious charges if they got caught. She had never heard of anything so cynical, even after all those years in SVU.

"Benson, Stabler, get in here!"

The detectives reluctantly followed the sound of Cragen's voice. As soon as they were in the office, Cragen addressed the ADA. "Alex, what do we need to find to prove that Johnson was as culpable as his wife in these crimes?"

"Establishing the timelines of the crimes will help. The recruitment effort was the first stage and Johnson's name came up repeatedly, but only as hearsay. Find me someone, apart from De Leon, who actually spoke to him." She stared unblinkingly at them because she knew that phone records had linked the Johnsons to Stopford the turkey-processing magnate. "Someone who isn't dead," she said coolly.

She turned her attention to Cragen. "I don't think I need to tell you that if he wins the motion to sever, I will have to plead him out on the lesser charges. Apart from the recruitment angle, there is no evidence that applies exclusively to him and numerous witnesses who dealt only with Maria."

After she'd left and Elliot and Olivia had drifted back to their desks, Elliot scowled at his partner and said, "You know, I'm really glad you got over your crush on her and found somebody special, because that is one cold-hearted woman."

Despite the negative twist the case had just taken, Olivia stared at him in stunned silence for a split second and then burst out laughing.

"What's funny?"

"There's someone you and Kathy need to meet. We're going away this weekend to her cousins' place, but how about the following Saturday?"

"That's Fin's engagement party, remember?" Then his eyebrow went up. "Why don't you bring her as your date – then the whole squad can meet her?"

"Why don't I come by myself and bring her out to meet you and Kathy next time we all have a day off at the same time?"

Elliot was looking as though he wanted to continue the discussion, but Olivia's phone rang. "Benson."

She listened for a few minutes and then she smiled. "Sure. There've been a few things…"

She covered the receiver with her hand. "Hey Elliot? Can you meet Abbie this evening to go over some of the details of the case? Alex is working on the motion to sever, so she's stuck with the extradition from Philly."

"I can't Liv. The twins are in a school play and I'll probably miss the first act as it is." He looked apologetic.

She waved off his concern. "I'm afraid I'm all you're gonna get, Abbie. My partner has a prior engagement."

She looked surprised and then said, "Sure, I'll see you there," before hanging up with a thoughtful look on her face.

"What?" Elliot asked.

"I think Assistant US Attorney Carmichael just flirted with me."

"Maybe it's some kind of scientific phenomenon, like you've started giving off lesbian pheromones since you began to, you know…"

"Not another word, Stabler!" Olivia warned, although she really didn't need to, because Elliot was laughing too hard to finish the sentence.

Four hours later, Abbie and Olivia were sitting at a conference table in Jack McCoy's office since the man himself had long left the premises for hearth and home. Having worked with Alex, she was prepared for the meticulous attention to detail that Carmichael put into the document, but she was glad when Abbie said, "That's it. I think this is bulletproof," and pushed her chair back from the table.

"You going down to Philly tonight?" Olivia asked, glancing at her watch – it was nine-thirty.

"Taking the five-fifteen Amtrak tomorrow morning. I'll be there by seven-thirty." She gathered up the documents and put them into her brief case. "Want to grab a drink?"

Olivia stretched and shrugged into her blazer. "Sure. But I need to walk to get the kinks out first."

"Why don't we head towards Wall Street and go to the Bull and Bear. Lots of bankers, but few lawyers, no cops and no court house journalists."

"Sounds good," Olivia agreed.

They chatted easily as they walked and Olivia smiled at the attention they got from men who passed them. Abbie Carmichael probably attracted attention wherever she went – she was literally a head-turner. Munch had once remarked that she looked like an underwear model and when Olivia had rolled her eyes in disbelief that there was such a "look" he'd explained: tall and slim, but not thin because some curves are essential. But two things are also necessary: great legs and a look that can be interpreted as innocent or decadent, depending on the fantasy of the person looking.

"You got that theory from looking at how many Victoria's Secret catalogues?"

"A lot," Munch was unapologetic. "Oh and my second ex-wife also received the Fredericks of Hollywood catalogue. They still think we're married."

"You forgot one thing," Fin had added, obviously having overheard the conversation. "They have to have long hair. Lingerie models have long hair, or if it's short, it's thick and wild."

"You agree with this? Odafin, I'm shocked."

"I'm a guy," Fin had shrugged. "Carmichael has that innocent dimpled cheek and cleft chin look, but with those big eyes that make you wonder what's going on in her head."

"Why wouldn't you just assume that what was going on in her head was related to work?"

"Exactly whose fantasy would that be?" Munch asked. "Look, Olivia, I'm just saying that Carmichael has the look that fits the profile…"

Olivia hadn't understood the male perspective, but she realized that the things that drew her to Abbie, the sultry, raspy voice, quick mind and dry humor, also came in a great package of long, graceful limbs, smooth skin and a pretty face with beautiful dark eyes. And the men who were risking whiplash as they walked down the street knew nothing about the voice or the mind, so maybe the guys had been right about the "look".

The bar was quiet, with terra cotta walls and indirect lighting that managed to be subdued while still allowing people sitting in booths to clearly see their companions' faces. It wasn't crowded, but that wasn't surprising for ten o'clock on a weeknight.

"So, I hear Tutuola's planning to tie the knot for the second time," Abbie said, sipping her third Cosmopolitan.

"Yeah. It's going to be a quiet ceremony on a beach in the British Virgin Islands, so he's having an engagement party so that his friends in New York can celebrate with him before they leave."

"He invited me, but at the time I didn't think I'd be in New York long enough to attend. Now…"

"You should come. The last party Fin had was an unbelievable amount of fun. The theme of this one is "Old School Throwdown" so we're expecting a retro 80's theme. Thankfully, since it's Fin, that's more likely to be LL Cool J than Duran Duran."

"You like hip hop?" Abbie raised an eyebrow.

Olivia shrugged. "I did a lot of clubbing in the 80's. D-Mob, Two Tons of Fun, Gwen Guthrie, Dhar Braxton, Jocelyn Brown, Madonna… before she became Madonna. DJ's like Jellybean Benitez… there was a lot more early hip hop to be found than there was Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, or anybody else who was popular on MTV. You've gotta remember MTV was all pop-rock in those days."

"Who knew? Olivia Benson, retro dance music snob. Did you have big hair in the 80's?"

Olivia grinned. "Which one of us is from Texas again?"

"The higher the hair the closer to the Lord. Us Texan wimmin have always respected big hair."

"You probably did your clubbing in the 90's."

"I was too busy studying and having sex. I've never been big on dancing. Feed me and f… bed me, that was my credo. I hope Fin has good food at his party."

"I can believe it," Olivia said in amusement having watched the amount of food Abbie had put away when they'd ordered in Chinese takeout earlier.

"What are you saying? That you've noticed my horniness or my voracious appetite for food."

"I uh… I was talking about food." Olivia said, once again getting the feeling that she was being flirted with.

"Too bad," Abbie said with a grin. "So are you straight, immune to my charms or spoken for? And just for the record, I don't believe the first two for a second."

Olivia had to laugh at Abbie's confidence and sense of humor. But then being drop-dead gorgeous would give a woman a lot to be confident about. Her keen intelligence, humor and successful career probably didn't hurt. "Funny thing, because I certainly believed the first one until earlier this year."

"So who's the lucky woman who welcomed you to the sisterhood?"

"I'm not at liberty to say, since you… might be acquainted."

"You're sleeping with one of my exes?" Abbie's eyes were wide. "Not that some of them weren't amazing, in addition to being great in the sack."

"Actually, I don't think she's your ex, but now that we've had this conversation, I think I'll have to ask her."

"Hmm…" Abbie said, obviously running down a mental list of women she knew who might be potential lovers for Olivia.

Olivia threw some bills on the table. "Come on, Carmichael, it's after eleven and you have an early train. Let's get out of here."

Abbie added to the money on the table and said, "I suppose so. But thanks for coming out with me tonight, Olivia. I had a blast. And you've given me a very pleasant puzzle to consider on my journey home tonight. I'm sure I'll have it figured out by tomorrow."

"Good luck," Olivia said with a smile.

Abbie hailed a cab and offered to drop Olivia off at her apartment, but Olivia decided to take the subway home instead. "You're nuts," Abbie decided as she gave Olivia a brief kiss on the cheek before ducking into the cab.

When Olivia got home, Alex was sitting at her dining table with her head on her folded arms and her glasses askew, fast asleep. The detective gently took off the glasses and stared at the woman who owned her heart. Alex had obviously decided to get some last-minute work done before going to sleep, so she was dressed for bed in tank top and panties and her skin was cool, from the night air that came through the living room windows, which were wide open.

Olivia got ready for bed before waking the ADA. "Alex. Sweetheart."

Alex blinked and looked slightly confused before remembering where she was and why. "Hi Liv. What time is it? When did you get home?"

"Midnight and twenty minutes ago."

Alex stood up and stretched the kink in her neck. "Gimme a hug," she demanded sleepily and Olivia was happy to comply.

"This is a nice surprise," she remarked, burying her face in Alex's neck.

"I had a shitty day and I wanted to redeem it by seeing you before I went to sleep."

"Didn't quite make it, did you?" Olivia teased, kissing the tip of Alex's nose.

"You had a long day. I hope it wasn't a bad one."

"No, the end of it was fun, actually. Went out for drinks with Abbie after she finished up her work on the extradition."

To her surprise, Alex scowled.

"What?" Olivia asked. "I thought you liked her."

"I do like her and I love working with her. She has a great legal mind and she's strikingly beautiful, so it's not like looking up from my paperwork and seeing McCoy or Branch…"


"But, she has a thing for you, so I don't like her taking you out for drinks…"

Olivia laughed, which made Alex pull away from her and stalk off to the bedroom. Olivia ran after her. "Sweetie, she knows I'm taken. I told her. But we work together and get along really well, so we'll probably be sharing meals and drinks every now and then as I do with all the people I work closely with."

Alex was sitting on the edge of the bed looking unhappy. "Am I turning into a jealous shrew? Oh my god, I think I am."

"We really need this weekend away, don't we?"

"I'm not sure how much time we'll have alone, though. Brian and Julie have two children who are used to having my undivided attention when I visit." Then apropos of nothing she added. "You know, Abbie is supposed to be really, really good in bed."

"How did…?" Olivia couldn't say that she was particularly happy that Alex was privy to this information.

Her expression caused a huge smile to spread across Alex's face. "Oh, thank god. That expression on your face reflects everything that raced through my mind when I heard you'd been out drinking with Abbie. I'm so glad she has the power to make you feel insecure, too. Just for the record, I did not sleep with her, but Serena did and she told me about it one night when we were both kind of tipsy."

"Is the New York County District Attorney's office as much of a den of lesbianism as this conversation is leading me to believe?"

Alex shrugged. "We certainly have our theories about Liz."

"Liz?" Olivia's head was starting to spin. "I need some sleep."

"Sleep?" Alex looked skeptically at Olivia. "You have just spent the evening drinking cocktails with a stunning woman who wants to fuck you and you think I'm going to let you go to sleep before I remind you of exactly why you'll be saying no to Abbie Carmichael for the foreseeable future…?"

Olivia quite liked the idea of Alex's competitive instincts being aroused in that particular context. "Did I mention that she'll be coming to Fin's engagement party?"



"Well, I'm glad to see you get along as well with healthy kids as with ones who've been victimized," Alex said, smiling at Olivia.

She was wearing sunglasses, but Olivia knew that the blond woman was staring at her body. The weather had turned unexpectedly warm, so they had both borrowed shorts from Julie and were lounging in the back yard as Brian worked the barbecue grill and the twins scampered up and down to an elaborate tree house. Julie was at least six inches shorter than either of them, so the shorts were not as modest on the two guests as they would have been on the hostess. "It's adults I usually have a problem with," Olivia replied, taking a sip of her beer and adjusting the rolled-up hem of her t-shirt to reveal more smooth belly as she settled back into the chair.

"You're getting along well with Julie and Brian," Alex pointed out. She forced herself to stop ogling the detective and lie back on her own deck chair with a copy of the New York Times Review of Books that had arrived with Julie's Saturday paper. Brian and Julie were both writers, although Julie had been a journalist until she'd had the twins and she'd started teaching at the beginning of the school year when they'd started first grade in Connecticut.

"They're the exception."

"They are rather nice. But then again, they're Cabots."

"I don't know about that… The jury's still out on some of the cousins who were at dinner last night and I actively dislike your cousin Susan. She's a snob."

"You baited her! You think I didn't hear that conversation on the patio?" Olivia grinned, apparently unrepentant. "You told her you'd dropped out of high school, you suddenly forgot basic rules of grammar and you implied that you were a security guard at the mall."

"I was just fleshing out all the stereotypes I could see lurking in her eyes when she heard the word "cop". Scratch what I said earlier… Your cousin Susan was kind of fun."

Alex glared at her, but the effect was lost behind the sunglasses she wore. Olivia chuckled. Then Alex remembered more about the evening. "Olivia, I'm really sorry about the whole family dinner thing. If I'd known…"

"Stop apologizing. If you'd known, what? You'd have stayed away this weekend and disappointed the kids? Asked Brian and Julie to cancel the invitations and cause them embarrassment? If you weren't ready to come out to half of your relatives, then I'm sorry you had to deal with that on the one weekend you'll have off in the next month or two, but there's no need for you to apologize to me."

"I want to kiss you, but you're too far away." Alex was sensibly lying in the shade of the maple tree that provided a platform for the tree house and Olivia was just out of reach, having ignored the explicit advice of the American Medical Association and smoothed on sun block before stretching out to toast herself in the early summer sun.

"And it would make Cassie and Jacob say 'ewww', anyway, which kind of ruins the romantic moment."

It was Alex's turn to chuckle. She put down the newspaper and turned on her side to look at Olivia, deliberately taking off her sunglasses so Olivia could see her eyes. "Liv, do you want kids? Have you ever wanted kids?"

Olivia thought about the question for a while and then shook her head. "The thought never entered my mind in my twenties, because my life was just so full and I was never in a serious relationship. When I made detective, my friends suddenly seemed to start having kids and the question came up a few times, but I just said I wasn't ready. Then I started in SVU…" The silence stretched and Olivia's expression became guarded. Alex suspected she was thinking about one particular case whose horror had had an impact on how she viewed having children. "And I decided that I couldn't handle the pressure of being completely responsible for people who are so vulnerable…" Her lips twisted in a cynical smile. "That decision ended the relationship I was in at the time." She shook her head. "Just as well."

She turned to face Alex. "I have considered adopting an older kid. But I'm not even home long enough to take care of a goldfish. What about you?"

Alex shook her head. "No. Considered it when I was with Meredith because she really wanted them – but that was in my early twenties and after she died, well…" Olivia remembered the story of Alex's first love and regretted asking the question, but Alex seemed to deal with the memories better this time.

The ADA was quiet for a while before she continued thoughtfully, "Brian really thought Cassie and Jacob would change my mind – they're the closest things an only child could have to a niece and nephew and I took six months off just before I started at the DA's office to help take care of them." She ignored Olivia's look of surprise. Not many people could adjust to the mental image of the self-contained ADA changing diapers and cleaning up baby snot and vomit. "Julie was a career woman and Brian's her second husband, so he was worried that she'd be overwhelmed by two babies at once. He was thrilled when I volunteered." She smiled at Olivia's stunned expression. "Let me qualify that. They were living in a fantastic house on an acre of land in St.Lucia, five minutes' drive from a two-mile beach and with a pool deep enough for a diving board."

"Ah," Olivia said.

"I knew what I was getting into at the DA's office, so I thought six months in the tropics beforehand…"

"And at the end of it, you didn't want kids."

"At the beginning of it, I didn't want children. And then Brian supplied two children that I could use as an excuse to go to animated films that are inappropriate for a woman my age…"


"I dragged them along to Shrek II because I couldn't wait for the DVD. They didn't get half of the jokes… I'm telling you, that film was wasted on four-year olds."

"Can I get anyone a drink?" Julie asked, from the back patio.

Olivia looked down at her beer bottle which was almost empty. "Yes, please, I'll have another."

"Me, too," Alex and Brian said at the same time.

"Separated at birth. They even look like twins," Julie joked as she went in to get the drinks before joining the two women on the deck chairs that had been set up on the lawn. "How's that coming, Bri? The rest of the food is ready and we're wasting away here."

Julie's accent had a lilt to it that somehow made the teasing remark even funnier. "Alex says you guys lived in St.Lucia. Is that where you're from?"

Julie sipped her lemonade and sighed in appreciation. "My parents are American, but I was born in Aberdeen and we moved to Trinidad when I was four."

"Scotland?" Olivia was fascinated.

"Oil company brat," Julie explained. "Then in my teens we moved to St.Lucia because my dad was working on a storage and transfer station there, so it was the last tropical place I lived before going to uni in England. Brian hates winter, so when he decided that it would be better for his writing if we lived somewhere warm, friends of mine told us about the house in St.Lucia that was going for a song – relatively speaking."

"So the twins were born there?"

"No. When we found out I was carrying twins, Brian went all cave-man on me and insisted we find the best hospital in the US blah blah blah. They were born in Boston of all places. Two big, healthy buggers weighing almost six pounds each, who could have been born in that tree house without a problem."

Brian had been walking over to them during the story and asked. "Who're you calling a cave man?"

Julie turned her face up to his for a kiss. "You. And just so you know, I'm not going to Boston to have this one…" She stopped short, realizing what she'd said. She looked nervously at the tree house, but the twins were out of earshot.

Alex jumped up and went over to hug her and Brian. "Congratulations! That's fantastic news."

"The twins don't know yet," Brian said unnecessarily. "We're going to tell them when Julie starts to show. This wasn't exactly part of the plan, but we're pleased nonetheless."

Olivia added her congratulations and then asked, "Are you having twins again?"

Julie looked horrified. "God, I hope not! I'm forty-one years old." She looked at Alex. "Do you remember those late-night feedings? They were on an alternate clock, one twin every hour and a half. That would kill me at my age. And the slave I had to help me at the time is now some high-flying ADA."

"Not to mention the fact that you now live in Westport, which is not as exciting a destination as St.Lucia." Alex agreed.

"We only live in Westport during the school year," Brian pointed out.

"It's not twins!" Julie hissed, thinking that they were both missing the point and Olivia laughed. Shortly after that, the twins were called down to wash up for lunch and the rest of the afternoon passed in a lazy haze.

As the day cooled, a soccer game was set up with Olivia as the neutral goalie and Alex and Brian each taking a twin to form a two-person team, while Julie went indoors to start getting the evening meal together.

The evening was equally relaxed, with more laughter than Olivia could remember sharing with anyone for a long time. Brian and Julie's home was so far removed from the world of SVU, that Olivia began to understand Elliot's willingness to commute so far each day in order to keep distance between his two worlds.

Just as the adults were about to retire for the night, Brian gave Alex copies of the twins' school photos, each signed, "To Auntie Alex, with love" in a childish scrawl. Alex was visibly moved and was still staring at the photos as Olivia climbed into bed. She also looked slightly haunted. "Sweetie, is something wrong?" Olivia asked.

Alex shook her head, but Olivia knew it was a lie, so she shifted across and swung her legs over the side of the bed so that she was sitting next to Alex who was still staring at the photos. Olivia looked at them again. They were beautiful children, with sun-streaked sandy hair, golden tanned skin and big brown eyes they'd inherited from Julie. Despite having their mother's coloring, they looked more like Brian and were obviously going to be much taller than Julie's five-three. "Tell me what's bothering you, Alex." Olivia wondered what memory or images of which case the sight of those beautiful, innocent faces had triggered. She thought it might even have something to do with Alex's mother who, by all accounts, had adored the twins.

Alex shook her head stubbornly and Olivia could see her schooling her features into a neutral expression, as she often did at work. "No," she protested, lifting her hand to Alex's face and gently turning it so their eyes could meet. "Don't shut me out."

Anger seemed to flare in Alex's eyes. She wasn't used to having to share her thoughts. "I was thinking," she said calmly, "that our kids would look like them." And with that, she pulled away from Olivia and walked into the bathroom.

Olivia felt as though she'd been punched in the gut. Unbidden images came into her head and stole her breath away. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to concentrate on something else. And then she became aware of the sound of Alex brushing her teeth. The sound infuriated her.

She followed Alex into the en-suite bathroom. Alex was patting her lips with a towel. She looked completely unaffected by what she'd said, even though Olivia knew that that was a lie. She hated that Alex could so completely mask her emotions and felt a need to force her to react to the feelings that ran so fiercely between them. The two women had never spoken of love, beyond the physical act, and there'd been no promises made, but Olivia suddenly wanted, needed, acknowledgment that Alex felt something as overwhelming as the emotions that gripped her.

"Tell me, Alex," she said through gritted teeth, her eyes blazing with anger.

"Tell you what?"

The cool question was the last straw. Olivia pushed Alex against the wall and pinned her there with her body. One hand tangled in Alex's hair so that she could not turn her head and was forced to maintain eye contact with Olivia and the other flattened against Alex's belly as her thigh pressed between Alex's legs.

Alex didn't fight. She just allowed Olivia to dominate her physically. She almost seemed to passively welcome it. "Tell me… If you could, would you have my baby?"

"Yes," Alex said with a small smirk that was betrayed by the tears that swam in her blue eyes. "You know I would, Olivia," she added calmly. "You know it and that knowledge shakes you, and scares you, as much as it does me."

Olivia growled and covered Alex's mouth with her own. She wanted her to stop talking. What she was saying was insane. What they were feeling was insane. She plunged her tongue into Alex's mouth and Alex lifted her arms for the first time, wrapping them around Olivia to hold her close as she slowly, gently stroked her back, in counterpoint to the near violence of the kiss. Olivia was older, but she felt as though Alex was the wise one, Alex was the one who understood the insanity of their relationship.

Olivia pulled back suddenly and stared at the blonde. "I'm sorry," she said in a voice that sounded raspy and disused.

Alex knew she was talking about the fact that she'd been rough. "You think I don't understand?"

Olivia considered the question carefully and then she responded honestly, "I know you do."

Alex stared at her, at the vulnerability in those wide brown eyes and the swollen lips that trembled as she stared back. "Sometimes," Alex said quietly, "sometimes when I look at you… you're so beautiful… that it makes me wonder if there's been some cosmic mistake and someone, somewhere, is going to realize I don't deserve you." Olivia's fingers tightened in Alex's hair as the soft contralto voice and the tender words raised goose bumps on her skin. The action wasn't intended to control the woman being held, but to steady the woman holding her.

"Do you know what I want, Liv?" Alex asked, lowering her lashes so that all she could see was Olivia's mouth as she waited for the response.

"Yes," she answered hoarsely, as she lowered her mouth to the side of Alex's neck sucking hot, smooth skin before scraping her teeth along the younger woman's shoulder. Alex gasped because it felt so good and she gasped because it hurt. The room grew silent, except for soft moans and murmurs of appreciation as Olivia roughly divested Alex of her nightgown and panties, while covering her skin with rough caresses of her hands, hot, open-mouthed kisses and gentle bites. She was marking Alex's skin and neither of them cared. When she pushed Alex against the wall for the second time that night and thrust two fingers into her, Alex bit Olivia's lip and Olivia made a sound of pain and satisfaction. After that things became decidedly louder in the Cabots' guest bathroom, although the only damage done was to the porcelain glass that had been next to the sink before Olivia practically lifted Alex onto the small pedestal and kneeled so Alex could drape one long leg over her shoulder.

The next morning, Alex was up first. She had a quick shower and then surveyed the evidence of the previous night's activity on her body. There would be no shorts or tank tops worn that day, so she hoped it was going to be cooler than the day before. She'd just finished pulling on her panties when she all but panicked, ran into the bedroom and said urgently, "Olivia, you have to get up."

Olivia opened one sleepy brown eye and closed it again. "I'm too old for you. Get a younger woman. I absolutely, positively can not have sex right now. I'm asleep."

"Seriously. We have a problem."

Olivia rolled over and then struggled into a sitting position, momentarily distracting Alex as the sheet slid down her body revealing a faint love bite on her right breast and scratch marks on her shoulders. "What's the problem?" Olivia's raspy morning voice brought Alex back to the subject at hand, although she was now fighting a strong urge to drop the whole thing and get back into bed with her luscious detective.

"I heard Brian singing in the shower."

Olivia froze in the act of rubbing her eyes. "Tell me you didn't just wake me up to tell me that your cousin sings in the shower."

"I mean I heard him as clearly as if he'd been in the same bathroom as I was!" And when Olivia continued to stare blankly at her, she added, "The two bathrooms must share a vent or something, so that sound travels from one to the other without any interference! That means that if Julie or Brian visited their bathroom last night while we were…" She stopped talking as Olivia finally caught her meaning and burst out laughing.

"You find that funny?"

Olivia got out of bed. "Now that your mention it, no. I can't believe you woke me up. I need to pee, but then I'm going to try to fall asleep again." She used the toilet and squinted at her reflection as she washed her hands, then decided to brush her teeth. When she went back into the bedroom, Alex was still standing there in her panties looking undecided about what to do with the information she now had about the ventilation ducts in her cousin's house. Olivia started to have second thoughts about going back to sleep and her earlier pronouncement regarding sex.

Before she could verbalize her change of heart, there was a knock on the door. "Auntie Alex, can we come in?"

"May we" another voice said in a stage whisper.

"Just a minute," Alex replied, grabbing her discarded nightgown from the floor, since it was the closest garment to hand.

Olivia chuckled. Yet another reason not to have kids, however well-behaved and cute those two might be. "I'll be in the shower if they ask," she said, taking some clothes out of her bag and ducking into the bathroom.

When she came out, Julie was calling the twins down to breakfast. Alex stayed to get dressed and Olivia went down with them. After getting assurances from Olivia that the children hadn't woken her and Alex up, Julie immediately started trying to get information from her about their relationship and Olivia deftly and repeatedly guided the conversation in other directions, eventually prompting Brian to say, "Julie, I think you've finally met your match." He grinned at Olivia. "Maybe it's her journalistic background, but I always tell her that the government wouldn't need to torture terror suspects if they just got her to interrogate them."

"Maybe you should consider becoming a cop," Olivia suggested, an idea which seemed to fire the twins' imagination and the subject was permanently changed.

"Where's Olivia," Alex asked, shortly after she entered the kitchen. "And where's Brian?"

"Pour yourself a cup of coffee." Julie invited. "Brian's writing and Olivia's in the back yard with the kids. They were playing wiffle ball, but then the neighbor's three came over, so I don't know what they're doing. Nobody's come in crying yet, so I'm not concerned. You want pancakes?"

Alex wandered over to the window and looked out into the back yard. Olivia and two children she didn't know were at one end of the lawn and the twins and a third child were at the other end. Every now and then someone would break formation and head for the other side and someone would give chase. There was some yelling going on, but everyone seemed to be laughing and having fun. Alex wandered out onto the patio with her breakfast to watch and her little cousins and Olivia waved at her, but made no attempt to leave the game and join her.

"They're playing 'running bases'" Julie explained. "It's a macho version of tag." She smiled at Alex. "She's really good with kids."

"Many of the victims she sees are kids. She knows how to talk to them so they feel respected and safe. It's a gift." Alex's eyes followed Olivia as she high-fived her teammates.

"I've never seen you this much in love." Julie had brought out a stainless steel coffee pot and she automatically refilled Alex's mug.

"I've never been this much in love," Alex admitted, avoiding the smaller woman's gaze. She wasn't comfortable talking about her personal life, but she knew that if she didn't humor Julie for at least a few minutes, Julie would not let the matter drop. "I never believed it was possible – at least not for me."

"And you work together?"

"Not for much longer. I've told the DA that I've had enough. I'm burned out. By all logic, she should be, too. I suppose she's just better than I am at keeping up emotional boundaries between her work and personal lives."

"Does she keep any boundaries with you?"

"None," Alex replied starkly. And some days that makes me feel incredibly safe and others it terrifies me.

"I'm happy for you, Alex. You deserve that kind of love."

Except we've never mentioned the word.

Julie disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a pitcher and a stack of multicolored plastic glasses. "Anybody want fruit punch?" she asked and suddenly the game was abandoned, although a dark-haired little girl held onto Olivia's hand and pulled her back toward the house with the fruit-punch fans.

Olivia escaped when her new friend got distracted by a tussle over who got the red glass. She sat next to Alex and stole one of the strawberries from her pancakes. "Having fun?" Alex asked.

Olivia leaned close to her. "I'd have had more fun in bed with you, but it's a nice substitute for my morning run and I learned some new knock-knock jokes that I can share with you on the ride back to the city." She stole another strawberry. "Speaking of which, what time do you figure we have to head back. I'm catching from 11 p.m., so I should try to get some sleep before then, but I also know you have another motion hearing in the morning."

"How about never? Is never too late to go back?" She pushed her plate away, suddenly losing her appetite. Olivia said nothing and eventually Alex muttered. "Sorry."

"Me, too. Sorry we have to leave and go back to the ugliness of that case and all the cases that don't stop coming in just because that one won't go away."

She was about to ask Alex whether her successful defeat of the motion to sever the Johnsons' cases had left her any closer to a guilty plea from either of them, when Cassie came bounding up. "Auntie Alex, will you come and visit us in St.Lucia this summer?"

"I don't know, Cass, I'm in the middle of a big case and the bad guys refuse to give up and say they're guilty, so I might be stuck here for the next few months."

"But will you come if they give up?" She turned to Olivia. "Auntie Liv, can you make them give up?" Alex gasped when she followed that up with, "Can you shoot them? You have a gun, don't you?"

"Sweetie, I have a gun, but it's to prevent them from hurting people, not to punish them if I think they've done something bad."

"But what if you know they've done something bad?"

"Then Auntie Alex tells a judge and jury what they've done and they get punished by the legal system."

"So why won't they listen to Auntie Alex this time?" The question came from Jacob, and Alex and Olivia realized they had a small audience.

"It's not that they won't listen, it's that it can take quite a long time to present everything to a judge and jury," Alex explained and Olivia smiled at her formal phrasing. Alex never talked down to her young cousins.

"A whole summer?" Olivia's dark-haired pre-fruit punch friend looked incredulous.

"Sometimes longer," Alex confirmed.

"Sometimes it takes as long as all of elementary school," Olivia elaborated.

They digested this information for a while and then Cassie delivered the summation for the five-to-eight-year old crowd. "I think they should let Auntie Liv shoot them instead and then we could all go to St.Lucia."

Alex and Olivia had to fight back laughter as Julie walked out with cookies and a change of subject. "That girl is going to be a hell of a prosecutor when she grows up," Alex pronounced.

They eventually decided to take their leave at noon. In the six days that followed, Olivia wouldn't be able to recall a single instance of unrestrained laughter and she wondered if there was only so much to be had and they'd been too greedy during that magical and ridiculously ordinary weekend away.



Monday had been brutal and it wasn't over yet. Olivia had been called to a domestic dispute just after midnight, where a woman claimed that her husband had attempted to strangle her after raping her. Spousal rape was always difficult to prove, but the purple finger marks around the woman's windpipe, her bruises and the fact that one eye had swollen shut would probably be enough to get him to cop to attempted murder or at least assault.

Olivia didn't kid herself that he would do much time in prison, but his wife would be safe from him for a few months at the very least, since the squalid state of their apartment made it unlikely that he'd make bail.

She'd gone home to have a shower just before six, then taken the subway to the squad room to write and file her initial report, a task she'd barely started before her phone had rung. The body of a child had been found in a dumpster behind a restaurant on 49th and 10th.

As she'd ducked under the crime scene tape and stepped around dark puddles unrelated to the thin, chilly rain that crept under her collar, she'd tried and failed to recapture the images of warmth and sunshine from the previous two days, mainly because of the dual olfactory assault of rotting garbage and human urine that dominated her senses. Judging by the smell, the dumpster had been in use during the unseasonable heat of Saturday, but she hadn't complained because anything was better than the smell of human decomposition, especially when that human was six years old.

The body hadn't looked quite real. It had been broken, like an abandoned toy, with limbs flung at odd angles, one leg covered by a pile of melted fruit and discolored cream that might have been the remnants of a discarded batch of dessert. He'd had dark hair and his face had looked brownish purple, which indicated that blood had collected there after death.

She'd climbed down from the step ladder kindly provided by the restaurant. "Lividity indicates he was moved. Who found him and when last was this dumpster checked?"

A uniformed officer, who'd looked about sixteen, had checked his notes. "The uh… manager said they used it last night, but nobody looked inside – they just dumped all the kitchen scraps and stuff over the side. Today is pickup day, so they knew it was almost full and Danny Dawson – that's the kid over there - decided to have a look to see if there was room for that stuff," he'd indicated four black plastic bags, "and that's when he saw him."

"Who has access to this area?"

"It's open to the street through there and they have a problem with bums, uhm homeless people, coming and sleeping in the back doorway sometimes. Not to mention pissing… relieving themselves against the back wall of the restaurant." That explained the smell. Olivia had not been thrilled to hear that the general public had access to the site of a body dump, but she hadn't said anything because the baby patrol officer wouldn't have understood.

CSU had arrived and were taking photos, the flash bulbs momentarily highlighting the drizzle and the puffs of breath from the assembled cops, investigators and shell-shocked restaurant workers. The sun had shown no sign of breaking through the low cloud, which meant the temperature had been unlikely to rise above the chilly 57 where it had hovered just before dawn.

"Welcome to spring in New York City," Medical Examiner Melinda Warner had muttered as she'd joined Olivia next to the dumpster. "Who's my new client?"

"No name yet. When you give me a basic description and time of death, I'll run it against the database of missing and exploited children, but he looks to be between four and seven and lividity indicates he was dumped – probably during dinner hour last night. So we're looking at a gutsy perp or one who knew the routine of the restaurant. Anything you can give me on T.O.D. or distinguishing features will help – and of course I'll need cause of death, rape kit and any evidence of abuse."

Warner had grimaced. "I'll make this one a priority. It really makes me angry that someone could choose to leave the remains of a child in a place that smells like this."

Olivia had nodded her head stiffly in angry agreement. "But then, when we consider what was done to the child beforehand, it fits, doesn't it?"

"I'll call you as soon as I have something useful," Warner had assured her, before pulling on gloves and making her way up the ladder.

It had taken Olivia the better part of an hour to interview witnesses and coordinate the necessary canvassing of the neighborhood by uniformed officers. Hopefully someone had seen the perp or noticed his vehicle at the mouth of the alley.

When she'd returned to the squad room, it had been a hive of activity. Munch and Tutuola were tag-teaming a peeping tom who was suspected of having assaulted a high school student, although the girl had managed to escape before he'd raped her; Green and Kramer had been in Cragen's office and the other members of the Johnson task force all seemed to be talking at once as information was swapped and loose ends tied up on the cases that were ready for trial or plea.

Warner had been as good as her word and Olivia had soon had enough information to begin her search for the identity of the boy, whose age the M.E. had fixed at six. The same age as Jacob and Cassie. Olivia had shaken off the thought and gone on with her job.

It was just after 4:00 when Abbie Carmichael came into the squad room, shrugging out of a soaked trench coat and taking the ponytail holder out of her wet hair. The noise level in the room fell noticeably as the predominantly male occupants took appreciative note of her smooth, rain-slick skin and long, spiked eyelashes, her tanned slender neck and the supermodel body in the tailored suit.

"That's Texas-style rain out there," she said in her smoky voice. "I'm completely wet." Elliot imagined that many of his fellow red-blooded male officers had to suppress groans at the images that immediately sprang to mind.

Abbie was oblivious to their interest, much to Olivia's amusement. The dark-haired attorney turned to Olivia's partner without preamble. "Elliot, I emailed you part of the transcript from a deposition on the Draper case. Unless I'm mistaken, there's a discrepancy and she's shading her story to protect her husband, but the information on your DD-5 can be taken either way. Can you take another look at both and let me know?"

"Sure." Elliot thought that Draper was a slam dunk and he'd have to plead out eventually, but he understood that rich people's lawyers always had to give the appearance that they were earning their exorbitant fees. That he now had half an hour of reading to do, a half-hour that could have been spent helping Olivia with the six-year old John Doe case, was beside the point.

"Olivia, I had to come down here anyway to hear what Kramer's and Green's witness had to say, but there's something a lot better I need to share: Larsen and Beckwith, the two suspects we extradited from Pennsylvania, have both indicated through their lawyers that they will be pleading guilty, so we've got a great result on that front."

"Congratulations, Abbie." Olivia was delighted. It meant that all the early hard work had simplified things in the long run.

"I couldn't have done it without you – as I think you know. You were amazing, Liv. I might be able to get away at a decent hour. You want to go out and celebrate?"

Olivia surveyed the work on her desk, but she'd also been working for the last 15 hours. "I should be able to get away by six. Where did you have in mind?"

"Same place as last time, I think. That ok with you?"

"See you there." Abbie picked up her soggy coat and Olivia added. "And Abbie, try to remember your umbrella next time you leave your office in a rainstorm."

"Thanks, Detective," Abbie said with mock sarcasm. "Elliot, I look forward to your reply on Draper.

Elliot waited until Abbie had been gone for several minutes before starting the conversation that he suspected would annoy his partner. He wheeled his chair over to her, but didn't bother to lower his voice. "So, Liv, are you and Carmichael uh…?"

"Co-workers? Yes. Friends? Yes."

"So she's not… you know?"

Olivia rolled her eyes and ignored him.

"I mean," he continued, undeterred, eliciting a smirk from Munch and an interested look from Fin, both of whom could overhear the exchange, "about the time you started coming in to work late with that…" if he said 'just-been-fucked' she decided that she'd shoot him, "relaxed look on your face, she agreed to take a temporary assignment back in New York."

"Elliot…" It was a word of warning.

"Come, on, Olivia, admit it. She's an AUSA on the fast track and she agrees to come back and work on an SVU case, on which you just happen to be lead detective… She walks into the squad and all but undresses you with her eyes before arranging to meet you at your usual place for drinks."

"He's got a strong case, Olivia," Munch opined, earning himself a brown-eyed glare.

"You have an active imagination, Elliot. Abbie was certainly not undressing me with her eyes and we don't have a usual place. There's a bar that we both know the location of and we're meeting to have a drink. The same kind of drink I have with all of you and I'm certainly not sleeping with any of you!"

"That doesn't explain why she took the job, though," Elliot persisted.

Olivia snapped. "For fuck's sake, Elliot, the Johnson case is being touted as one of the crimes of the century. Twenty people arrested so far in six states with national headlines. It's high-profile and would be a notch in the US Attorney's belt if his people could grab some credit, so why wouldn't he send us one of his hot-shots – especially one who looks and sounds good in the press? Abbie Carmichael is in New York for professional reasons, not because of me. And I am not sleeping with her! Now, do I need to take out a full page ad in the fucking New York Times?"

"Well, it certainly wouldn't hurt." The comment came from Alexandra Cabot, who had entered the squad room unnoticed while Olivia had been having her tantrum.

Olivia groaned. She couldn't tell from Alex's carefully expressionless face whether she was upset that Abbie and Olivia had apparently given the males in the Unit some reason to suspect that they were involved, or just being ironic and teasing Olivia about her co-workers' interest in her sex life. "Ignore them. Elliot just needs to start watching porn like other normal men."

"Can I have a word in private?" Alex's voice sounded strained and Olivia frowned. The detective hoped that Elliot's nonsense hadn't hurt Alex or made her feel insecure.

"Sure." Olivia stood up. "Cragen's at a meeting with Branch and the US Attorney. I'm sure he wouldn't mind if we used his office for a few minutes."

As soon as the door had closed behind them, Alex said abruptly. "I know the reason for the meeting Don's currently attending. It's about me."

Olivia was confused. "Is something wrong? Did you step over some imaginary political line?"

Alex sighed. "Let's sit," she invited.

When they were settled in Cragen's visitors' chairs, she continued speaking without looking at Olivia. "You know I told Arthur that I no longer wanted to work on SVU cases?" Olivia nodded. "He didn't appear to have any reservations about my decision. He merely expressed gratitude that I'd chosen to 'get back in the trenches,' as he put it, following my stint in a more senior role. He even thanked me for making my request effective after Maria and Arnold Johnsons' trial, if the case should go that far."

"What does that have to do with Lowney?" Theodore Lowney was the USA for the District of Columbia. "And why do you look as though something bad has happened?" Olivia felt a cold feeling creeping into her gut.

"Apparently, Theodore has been complaining to Arthur about the extended secondment of AUSA Carmichael, in between their negotiations surrounding proper ascription of credit for interim successes." She was choosing her words carefully, which didn't help Olivia's gut. "They both acknowledged that Arthur owes Theodore, so Arthur decided to make what he considered to be a personal and professional sacrifice and recommend me to fill a vacant position on the USA's staff."

"Arthur recommended you for a job as AUSA?"

"He did more than recommend me, he managed to get me an exclusive offer and the title would be Senior AUSA."

"That's the same title Abbie got after working her ass off for four years. Wow!" Olivia couldn't help being impressed and proud of "her" ADA. Then she remembered that Alex wasn't looking thrilled at the prospect of moving to a bigger playing field with her current boss's blessing. She paled as she realized what the problem was. "Which district? Somewhere on the west coast?"

"It's based in DC, with responsibility for coordinating cases in New York and Florida. Most of the cases will be investigated by DEA and Homeland Security." It was Olivia's turn to avoid eye contact as the words sank in. "I'd be in New York for one week a month at most."

"You're in New York every day of every month and we average one night together every ten days or so," Olivia said unnecessarily. "But I understand, Alex. It's a wonderful opportunity. You might even get the chance to argue cases before the US Supreme Court. Congratulations." Unable to stay still any longer, Olivia stood up and walked over to the far wall, staring at the map of Manhattan with the NYPD precincts delineated in pastel colors.

"That's it? Congratulations?"

"It's everything you could want as the next step in your career. Why wouldn't I congratulate you?" The question was asked of the map.

"You don't care that we'd be seeing each other less?"

Less, if at all. There were no promises between us, but I didn't think we'd be saying good-bye this soon. "Of course I care!" Olivia turned around to glare angrily at her, but Alex caught the glint of tears in the detective's brown eyes. "But come on, Alex, this is the opportunity of a career and I have no right… I don't want… my feelings to be an issue for you – well, apart from the part of me that's very, very proud of you and what you've achieved by getting the appointment." Olivia was proud of the conviction in her voice, despite the tightness and pain clawing at her throat.

"Liv… I…"

"Thanks for coming down here to tell me in person, Alex. I mean it. I appreciate your making sure I didn't hear about it through the grapevine." She turned away from the pained expression on Alex's face. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need some air." She stalked out of the office and grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair, oblivious to curious looks from Elliot, Munch and Fin.

As she was thrusting her arms through the sleeves her phone rang. She hesitated and then picked up the receiver. "Benson." Her voice sounded alien.

She listened for a while and then said, "No, Abbie, that's fine. In fact I can leave right away." She tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder and gathered a few personal items, shoving them into her bag. "I'll meet you there. You can go ahead and order my first drink."

Ignoring the rest of the squad as well as Alex, who had emerged from the office in time to hear her side of the conversation, Olivia slung her bag over her shoulder and walked out of the room.

Part 18

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