DISCLAIMER: Do I need them at this point? I really wish someone important from any of the shows were reading. It might give them some ideas-- I don't mind sharing.
PREVIOUSLY ON: Days & Nights: Old ghosts were stirred for Abbie when rape victim Tara Wheeling refused to press charges against her attacker. She then came out in front of fifty thousand people, and the DA's office didn't take it well at all. When the Narcotics squad snatched Jill's ex-husband, Don, up; Fancy and Abbie scrambled to keep him from blowing the whistle on Jill to secure a walk for himself. Diane came clean with Jill about how Don got into the Witness Protection Program, but still kept the nature of her past with Abbie concealed. Jill made a decision about what she wanted from Abbie. Sequel to "Twenty-Four Seven."
FANDOMS: Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue, The West Wing
FEEDBACK: Feedback welcome at: sbowers04@yahoo.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By Sharon Bowers


Spring seemed to have vanished with one scorching blow of the sun's rays. Breezes dissipated and newly blooming flowers wilted, as overnight the weather became the kind that got people killed. Tempers flared, patience evaporated; and in a city of millions of naked souls, there were a few less as each day passed.

Abbie Carmichael certainly understood the impulse, seeing as how she spent most of her time these days gritting her teeth and standing by helplessly while her personal and professional worlds seemed hell-bent on imploding. Don Kirkendall had slipped into the wind over two weeks ago; yet his presence still seemed to hover, to Abbie's less than poetic sensibilities, around the broad shoulders of his ex-wife and Abbie's current lover, NYPD detective Jill Kirkendall.

She had been the one to break the news to Jill, and though it wasn't a case of killing the messenger-- she had been forced to watch her lover retreat behind the wary circumspection that had been Jill's only defense against the machinations of her ex-husband. Abbie understood the need for emotional cover-- she had been hiding herself for longer than she cared to admit-- but watching it happen to someone for whom she felt so powerfully, feeling herself shut out from the first person she had allowed herself to reach out to so long, was a little more than she wanted to bear.

A sharp rap at her door jerked Abbie's hamster wheel of frustration to a halt, and she pushed down a familiar sense of irritation as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot-- newly assigned to what had been Abbie's Special Victims Unit stomping grounds-- poked her head in the door. Though she was only a few years younger than Abbie, Cabot was still Johnny-come-new-girl-on-the-spot in the Manhattan DA's unit. Her slow but steady ascent though the DA's ranks, however, had been kicked up a few gear notches by what cynical watchers considered Carmichael's spectacular crash-and-burn.

Two weeks ago at a memorial vigil for murder victim Stephanie Pruitt, Abbie Carmichael had finally opened the door of her own closeted life and called for everyone to stop standing on the sidelines when it came to hate crimes. With the media's usual flair, her passionate words were soon spun into headlines and sound bites that positioned her as criticizing not only her superiors at the District Attorney's office but also the New York City Police Department as well. Needless to say, neither version-- spun or served raw-- had tasted well to Abbie's boss, Adam Schiff, who had yanked her from her leading role as riding DA for the SVU. Though Schiff had unexpectedly stepped down from his position, so far his replacement, Nora Lewin, hadn't seemed inclined to change anything.

Which left Abbie cooling her heels in a professional Purgatory of sorts, sweeping up after her immediate supervisor, Jack McCoy, and watching Alex Cabot ride cases that should have been hers.

Alexandra pushed the door open the rest of the way and leaned tentatively in the frame, almost as if she were hesitant to cross the threshold. Though Abbie herself had been cordial enough about the abrupt transition of her cases to Alex's care, she had heard along the grapevine that some of her colleagues in the SVU hadn't been quite so gracious.

"What can I do for you, Ms. Cabot?"

"Tell me about David Byers," the attorney said without preamble.

Abbie frowned at the abrupt request, but nonetheless chased the name along the pathways of her memory until she remembered the adman's slick smugness. "Tara..." she murmured almost to herself before pulling her eyes back to Alex."Date rape case," she said briskly, pushing away memories from her own past that she didn't have time to indulge. "A he-said-she-said chorus that we couldn't find corroborating evidence on."

"You think he did it?"

"I know he did it," Abbie replied grimly. "But the sonofabitch was too oily for it to stick. And his vic-- Tara Wheeling-- just wants to get on with her life."

"She refuse to press charges?"

Biting back an irritated sigh, Abbie shook her head. "Yeah. Look just read the case file. Cause all the information's in there. Or talk to Munch, he worked it."

"Just want to get your feel for what might have gone down between them."

"You thinking about opening it back up?" Abbie inquired mildly, the subtext of you think you can do what I couldn't? barely coloring her voice.

Cabot must have heard it, Abbie realized, for the blonde woman flushed lightly. "David Byers turned up dead this morning."

"I'm assuming by means other than natural." Abbie drawled, thoughts racing to where the police would turn for their most likely suspect. She cast a fervent prayer that Tara Wheeling was safely tucked away in Atlanta where she'd said she was moving.

"What would you call a .38 to the head?"

"I'd call it an execution."

There really wasn't any other term for it.

"Me too," Alex agreed curtly. "Munch is already at the scene. I'd appreciate it if you'd come down too."

The ride to Byers' office building was mercifully brief, but still far too long for Alex Cabot's comfort. She had only been with the New York District Attorney's Office for a short while, yet she had read the book on Abbie Carmichael. What she had learned had impressed the hell out of her then, and even more so now that she had fallen out of grace with the mercurial political powers that be. Circumstances were such that now, however, she'd never be able to tell the dark-haired attorney that.

Alex was well-aware that being pulled from the general pool of prosecutors and handed a plum like the Special Victims Unit was far more than someone of her experience should deserve, but the combination of her Ivy League background and her upper class Boston upbringing had apparently convinced most of the SVU detectives that she thought it was nothing more than her just due. Part of the problem, she knew, was that Carmichael-- like most of the detectives in the unit-- had worked her ass off to get where she was. Through general prosecution and the boys' club of the Narcotics Unit-- not to mention the grueling pace of Manhattan Homicide-- the Texan had distinguished herself with a conviction rate consistently in the high nineties and an unparalleled devotion to the work. Had Alex been standing outside of the situation, she wouldn't have begrudged the detectives their resentment.

Alex wasn't standing outside, however; she was in the middle of a damn situation that she hadn't created but wasn't for the life of her about to throw away. Abbie Carmichael, John Munch and the rest of the SVU detectives be damned.

She smoothly pulled the department Towncar to the curb; but even before the car had come to a complete stop, Abbie was opening the door, exiting with a supple grace and sliding her badge over her neck in a practiced move. Alex followed somewhat more awkwardly, juggling her badge, the Towncar keys and her briefcase.

"You won't need that," Abbie said bemusedly, nodding at the leather attaché case. "Don't think Byers is exactly in any shape to give a depo."

Flushing again in spite of herself, Cabot tossed the case back into the Towncar and hurriedly rounded to the front of the building where Abbie was waiting. They nodded to the uniformed men at the entrance who wordlessly let them through the growing and curious crowd of onlookers.

David Byers' seventeenth floor office wasn't as crowded as the street below, but it was close. Technicians covered every available surface of Byers' office with dusting power, raising dozens of prints and hoping that at least one set of them would hold the key to his killer's identity. The rapid-fire flash of the CSU's cameras documented each angle of the account executive's final repose and added a surreal edge to the bright sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office. Abbie sketched a quick wave to the assembled crew, standing well out of range of their work, and observed the remains of the man she was convinced had raped Tara Wheeling and gotten away with it.

Surprise covered what was left of his features. Clearly, death was the last thing that David Byers had believed was coming to pay him a visit. "You have a time of death?" she asked the unit tech kneeling next to the body. From the condition of his body-- full rigor had set in-- not to mention his state of dress-- sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, tie loosened-- Abbie was betting sometime last night.

"'Bout six hours." The voice came from behind her, and she turned to see the unsmiling visage of SVU Detective John Munch. Clad in his habitual black suit and skinny black tie, Munch looked like an emaciated, middle-aged Men in Black recruit. Given his penchant for conspiracy theories, should the need for such an alien police force ever arise, most people in the department were convinced Munch would be the first to volunteer. "I heard CNN was looking for new anchors and thought you had given us up for primetime," he greeted Abbie with a minuscule twitch of his eyebrows. "Good to know that the real prosecutors haven't completely forsaken us." This last was said with a brief cut of his eyes at Alex, who absorbed the mild barb with nary a flicker.

"Munch." Abbie's tone bore a mild reproach in her acknowledgment, and Alex fought the urge to bristle. She didn't need Carmichael rapping the SVU detectives on the knuckles for their attitudes toward her. That could only make things worse.

Deciding to simply ignore it all, Alex asked instead. "Three o'clock in the morning?"

"No, Counselor, it's nine am. You might want to look at that lovely timepiece on your wrist. Movado, isn't it?"

"You said TOD was six hours ago. What the hell was he doing here at three in the morning?"

Glancing once more at the casual dishabille of Byers' office, not to mention the bottle of Absolut and the glass on the low coffee table in front of the leather couch, Abbie speculated. "I'd hazard a guess he wasn't early-birding it."

"Little after hours romance?" Munch echoed.

"Only one glass," Alex offered.

"Any killer who had watched an episode of CSI would know to take their glass with them. Damn criminals think they know everything about forensics now."

"Television's the great equalizer."

"Why not take her back to his place?"

"Somebody there he doesn't want to know?"

"Byers lives alone," Abbie disagreed. "Unless that's changed in the four weeks since he raped Tara."

"Somebody in the office?"

"Possibly." Abbie glanced around the Crime Scene staff working around them. "Who caught the case?"

"Two dicks from the 1-5. I think they're canvassing."

Alex couldn't help but notice the skip-start of Abbie's glance at Munch's information. "Who?" she asked with a casually concealed interest that piqued Alex's own curiosity.

"Your friend Russell and her partner, what's her name... the stacked blonde."

Alex wasn't sure, but she thought Carmichael's glare should have, by rights, melted the smoky lenses of Munch's glasses. That apparently it had no effect on the detective further bolstered his claims to have had extraterrestrial encounters. "What'd I say?" he asked innocently, as Carmichael pushed past him with a roll of her eyes.

"One day," Alex heard Abbie mutter to him sotto voce, "You're gonna push the wrong button at the wrong time with me."

"I live but to hope," he answered unrepentantly, with a grin too fleeting to be documented for evidentiary purposes.

Alex trailed behind them, trying to make some sense of the rhythm of familiarity in their exchanges, which were hardly tinged with the frustration she often felt in dealing with Munch. His sardonic humor frequently set her teeth on edge and his continual assumption that prosecutors by-and-largely just undid all of his hard police work pushed her to the limits of her professionalism. Somehow Abbie Carmichael either was capable of ignoring all that or had earned the detective's respect in a way that was currently inscrutable to Cabot's keen glance. Either way, despite Munch's ribbing, he seemed to have a certain amount of regard for the dark-haired prosecutor that he certainly didn't have for Alex herself.

"D..." Abbie's Southern drawl rippled the letter into at least three syllables to Alex's Yankee-bred ears, and she watched a slender woman with reams of wild curls hovering around her shoulders look away from the huddle of plain clothes detectives where she was standing. A brief smile flickered over the detective's face, softening angular features into a welcome that bespoke of a closer relationship than Alex herself had with any police officer. She tucked her hands into her blazer pockets-- a reflexive gesture that kept detectives from contaminating crime scenes-- and strolled over to the newly arrived threesome.

"Hey, Abs." She smiled again in greeting. "Tell me you're back covering the House."

Carmichael arched a sardonic brow. "Little too warm to be that cold a day in Hell. I got here by accident." She jerked a thumb in Alex's direction, startling her from her observations. "Alex Cabot-- SVU prosecutor-- this is Diane Russell, plainclothes 1-5."

"Nice to meet you," Alex offered a hand which was taken after only the briefest of pauses.

"What's SVU doing down here?" Russell asked guilelessly. "Thought this was a homicide?"

"Don't tease the animals," Abbie chided. "Besides, that line might have worked if ya'll hadn't already called Munch."

"And as always, the cavalry is here," he interjected.

All three women rolled their eyes and ignored the interruption. "Who made the connection?"

"I did."

Alex hadn't seen the woman, obviously Russell's partner judging from Munch's description, approaching from behind. Short cropped locks, the natural color of spun wheat, capped slanting cheekbones, a squared jaw and hazel eyes that tended more towards the green than her own. The detective carried herself with the easy grace of one very aware of her physical surroundings, and she towered over her partner's more compact frame, though both women were slender and obviously fit. Had it not been for the woman's wary stance and the hollowed out circles under her eyes, worse than most she had seen but certainly not uncommon for the cops she knew, Alex would never have pegged her a detective. However, the badge clipped to her belt and the 9mm holstered on her hip-- not to mention her obvious familiarity of the trappings of a crime scene-- told her otherwise.

"Remembered you describing the case, the guy's name must've stuck in my head," the detective was explaining to Carmichael, who was watching the other woman with the same alert interest and feigned casualness that Alex had noticed when Munch first mentioned the two detectives. "BCI would have made the connection when we got back to the House, but I figured it wouldn't hurt any to get you guys' input first off."

"Input?" Alex found herself asking, and echoing Munch's own deeper tone.

"This isn't a sex crime, Ms. Cabot." This from the blonde's partner, Russell. "Garden variety, regular homicide."

"Who was involved in a rape investigation less than a month ago," Cabot replied acerbically. "And whose victim is the most likely suspect."

"True, but neither fact makes this a case for the SVU."

"We rode the first..."

"Due respect, but Abbie rode the first case," Russell corrected her bluntly. "And Jill and I--" She pointed at herself and her partner. "Caught this one. I'm not sure where you come into this play at all."

Munch just rocked on his heels, barely disguised glee at the territorial fight brewing reflected in his eyes.

"Can we please not start pissing on each other in the middle of a crime scene?" Jill interjected. "Rather than have our Lts and EADAs start whipping it out to see which one is longer, let's just all agree to work it together." Sharp eyes pinned Russell, Munch and Alex in turn only hesitating, Cabot realized in fascination, when they got to Abbie. A moment of recognition having nothing to do with the case or issue at hand passed between them, shutting the other three participants of the debate out and leaving only a single thread of gaze spanning them.

The gossamer band of connection broke in the swift blink of their eyes, but Alex was left with the sense of having witnessed something that was greater than simply just this investigation. Carmichael nodded curtly and raked long fingers through her loose hair. "Works for me." The others nodded their impromptu agreement, milling around at a sudden loss in the silence. "Munch, why don't you take Cabot and talk to the guy who found Byers. Russell, Kirkendall and I will pay a visit to some of Byers' office buddies."

"Same ones as last go?" Munch asked with a tilt of his head.

"Unless you can think of a better place to start. None of them were too fond of ole Davie over there. They might be a bit more forthcoming now that he's no longer gracing them with his live presence."

Janie Turner, Y&R copywriter and David Byers' erstwhile friend greeted Abbie with an enthusiastic, "Dude, you rocked at the memorial service!"

Abbie cringed slightly at Turner's exuberant tone, still not quite comfortable with either her sudden notoriety or its cause. She'd brought Russell and Kirkendall along on the re-interview because she thought Turner, who was queer herself, might relate to the female detectives better than she had to Munch's glowering version of heterosexuality. On the other hand, she hadn't thought through her own discomfort with the subject, much less considered any Jill might be feeling herself.

Jill's face was inscrutable as the copywriter ushered the three of them into the cramped confines of her cubbyhole office, and Abbie couldn't help but wonder if her lover had felt the same warm jolt of energy she had when their eyes locked over Alex Cabot's head. The morning after their first night together had brought news of Don's flight from protective custody, and Jill hadn't wanted to be separated from her two sons while her ex-husband was on the loose. Abbie knew that Jill believed that her sons' father wasn't above bringing harm to his own flesh and blood, and she trusted her lover's instinct. That trust, however, didn't make the last two weeks any less unbearable from Abbie's perspective, dragging the two women apart when they most wanted to be together. They had managed to grab a few hurried lunches together, where Jill had kept her updated on the progression of the DA's office's investigation into Don's disappearance along with the efforts of the plainclothes cop, Denby, who had let Don walk. The growing intimacy between them, however, had stilled; and Abbie knew they were on the verge of letting it all slip from their grasp.

All of this rumbled ominously in the background of Abbie's thoughts while she introduced Janie to Jill and Diane. As she had expected, Janie greeted the two female detectives with an appreciation and openness that Munch hadn't received. Exchanging wry expressions of their own, Diane and Abbie sat down while Jill leaned nonchalantly against the now-closed door of Janie's office, positioning herself behind her partner and the attorney and casually crossing her arms. Abbie could feel the stir of air behind her in the cramped confines as Jill settled herself. "Like your new partners."

"Detective Munch sends his regrets."

"S'All right," Janie grinned recklessly. "I always liked blondes better."

"I'll keep that in mind," Abbie muttered, unable to keep a slight irony out of her voice. "For the next time I talk to you."

"No offense, intended, Ms. Carmichael, but I'd just as soon not ever have to talk to you again." She paused, then added, "At least in a professional sense."

"Thought you liked blondes," Diane interjected, picking up on Abbie's intention in bringing them. A woman who was flirting and bantering with people she wanted to impress was much more likely to give them useful information than a witness being formally questioned by two detectives and a district attorney.

Janie spread her hands helplessly. "What can I say? I'm a people person."

"What's Donna have to say about all this?" Abbie asked with a mild grin, referring to the art director who had been Janie's lover the last time they met.

"Donna's like the tide. Comes and goes."

"And when she's gone you're free to wander on the beach?"

"Something like that."

"Donna like to wander anywhere in particular herself?" Diane inquired lightly.

"If you're thinking in Davie's direction, forget it. She may have monogamy issues, but her sexuality isn't up for debate," Janie said flatly, running a hand through her already spiky black hair and sending the few licks that hadn't yet defied gravity skyward. "Besides, Davie could forget nailing anything in this agency ever again after what he did to Tara."

"You didn't sound so convinced the last time we talked."

"I'm not talking about the rape, although the way I figured it, he wouldn't have done what he did afterwards if he hadn't. The bastard."

"Why don't you fill Detectives Russell and Kirkendall on everything that happened after Tara pressed charges," Abbie said carefully, realizing with a sinking heart that something even more than she had suspected had run Tara out of New York.

"Wasn't enough that the bastard started rumors about how she had pressed charges because he had told her that he didn't want another go round with her. That she was basically a lousy lay. Wasn't enough that he convinced the partners that it was best to keep Tara out of the production presentations to clients. Or that he sent his asshole minion Keith to tell her that people were talking and it wasn't good for the agency."

"What else did he do?"

"You know that she landed that job at McCann-Erikson? Dream fucking job if you'd ask me-- I would have taken it the minute it was offered six years ago. Fuck New York."

"She mentioned that."

"Yeah, well, turns out that Keith went to college with the ACD down there and put a bug in his ear about how unstable Tara was. That the only reason she was taking the McE position was because Y&R was on the verge of firing her."

"That sonofabitch..." Abbie muttered under her breath, watching Janie nod in emphatic agreement.

"Exactly. Needless to say, the job evaporated and Y&R wouldn't take her back. He wasn't happy to rape her once. He had to do it again-- only this time to her career."

"Somebody needs to find Tara Wheeling fast," Munch grimly stated the obvious as the quintet reassembled in the conference room they had commandeered. As far as meeting rooms in the agency went, it wasn't exactly opulent; but it did boast a mahogany inlaid conference table, ergonomically plush chairs that soothed Abbie's already aching back, and a coffee maker to which all five had liberally helped themselves.

"Y&R Human Resources didn't have a forwarding address, but they did give us Tara's old emergency contact numbers," Diane informed them. "We're having the Atlanta PD contact them in person."

"And the super at her old building says that he hasn't seen her since she moved the last of her things out three weeks ago," Jill added, stirring a packet of Equal into her coffee.

"She didn't give him an address to forward her deposit check to?" Alex asked.

"Told him to keep it for damages."

"Munch and I were there the day she was moving out and the place looked fine," Abbie interjected, puzzled. "What damages?"

"That's what I asked. He said she had smashed the mirrors in the bathroom. Told him it was an accident. Must have been one hell of an accident, considering they were wall-mounted."

"She threw something at them?"

Munch pursed his lips. "The Freudian implications of that kind self-immolation are too painfully obvious to mention."

"But she's not the dead one," Alex disagreed. "David Byers is."

"Aren't we jumping to conclusions here?" Abbie felt compelled to object. "Lots of people didn't like David Byers."

"But none of them had their lives fucked beyond repair like Tara Wheeling. Come on, Counselor, if it were you, wouldn't you want to put a bullet through his head?"

Abbie blanched at the inadvertent resonance of Munch's question. He had no way of knowing that fourteen years ago, she had been where Tara Wheeling was now. Broken and alone, violated in spirit and in body. Threatened, bullied, and cowed into a submission that tormented her even to this day. Like Tara, she had tried to speak out against her violation; and like the old men here at Y&R, the ones at the University of Texas had acted to protect their own young-- those who would grow up to bear their mantle one day. "Yes," she finally answered his question; aware of the painful silence that had fallen, the eyes of the woman she was beginning to love on her. Biting her tongue, she didn't add, "But I didn't..." knowing nonetheless that was a conversation for another time and for Jill's ears alone.

"Well, she's got to be somewhere," Alex added, the keen expression in her eyes clueing Abbie into her awareness of some of the undercurrents in the room. "And unless she's the kind of girl to keep wads of twenties stuff under her mattress, her credit cards might be the best place to check."

"Munch and I can get on that," Diane volunteered. "That is, if you'll give me a ride?"

Munch looked at her blankly. "They not trusting you girls with the unmarkeds these days?"

"Jill and Abbie were going to pay Byers' friend, Keith, a visit," Diane explained smoothly. "He's called in sick the last couple of days, so maybe they can get to him before he hears the news. Though I doubt that by now. Still, it'd be nice to see the look on his face if he hasn't."

Abbie fought the impulse of her brows to lift in question. This was the first she'd heard of the plan. She shot a quick look at Jill, whose expression was still damnably inscrutable to her.

Munch shrugged in agreement, not apparently having a problem with the mix in partnering. He'd always said he considered Carmichael more cop than lawyer; indeed he trusted her with the legwork on a pre-arrest investigation in a way that he didn't trust most cops. "A little interdepartmental cooperation never hurt anybody, I suppose. Though it may be a first." He looked at Alex. "Counselor, will you do the honors on the warrants for Ms. Wheeling's financials?"

"Absolutely. I'll start making the calls when I get back to the car."

"Sounds like a plan." Abbie glanced at Jill, who nodded her agreement. "We'll check in at the House when we finish talking to Keith and see where we go from there."

Diane led the exit from the conference room and somehow, by design or accident, Abbie and Jill found themselves alone in the suddenly quiet space. From the hesitant expression on visible on her lover's face, Abbie realized that Diane's plan had been a solo one-- Jill was as completely in the dark about it as Abbie had been. Awkwardness conflicted with the urge to reach out for the tall woman standing so close to her. The latter impulse won as Abbie found her hand brushing against Jill's as tentatively as if they had never opened their bodies to one another. "Sorry about the sudden partner switch."

Jill shrugged diffidently. "You did the first interview. Makes sense."

"Somehow I don't think that's why D did it."

"I don't think so either."

Abbie waited, but when no further elaboration appeared to be forthcoming, she asked, "Would you rather I get a ride from a radio car and do the interview myself? You can hook up with D and Munch at the station."

"I don't have a problem with doing the interview with you, Abbie." Jill's spine stiffened almost imperceptibly; and she stepped back a pace, breaking Abbie's touch. Her expression was a bland as it had been all morning, offering no recognition of anything between them even now that they were alone.

"Then you mind telling me what your problem is?" The question came out harsher than she had intended, and she pushed an exasperated hand through her hair.

"Abbie... please don't." The recognition was there at last, breaking over the aristocratic planes of Jill's face, warming her eyes and easing the tension that had been present all morning. "Cause if you can't keep it separate, then I can't."

"I can keep it separate without pretending that nothing, not even friendship, exists."

"But I can't." Jill shook her head, dropping her eyes. "Not right now. Everything that's happened-- Don and the boys, you-- I have to turn it all off if I'm going to do the Job right now. Because otherwise, I'll just go crazy worrying about everything that's out of my control and not be any good to anybody."

"You don't have to do all your worrying alone, you know. Diane and I are here," she reminded the other woman mildly. "I've got every loose investigator in the DA's office looking for Don and your squad is putting the screws to that asshole Denby. We're gonna find him, Jill. And then we're going to put the bastard so far under the WITSEC program that he's never gonna be able to reach out and hurt you or the boys again."

The quiet vehemence in Abbie's voice drew Jill's gaze back to her own. What she saw there shattered what reserve she had left. "I miss you so much," she whispered quietly.

Abbie's hand found Jill's, entwining and warming her lover's cool fingers with her own. "Then see me tonight."

"I can't." She shook her head. "I can't leave the boys. Not with him... out there."

"Then invite me over. Didn't you say that you had a little balcony off your apartment? Weather's perfect for some steaks on the grill," Abbie countered, consciously lightening her tone. "Invite Diane and that boy, Danny, too. Anybody you want. You can have a squad full of cops and the best shot in Texas looking out for your boys."

Jill looked at her skeptically.

"People want to be there for you, Jill. Let them. Let me."

In the unmarked detectives' car, John Munch eyed Diane Russell with an appraising eye. She was certainly a remarkably beautiful woman, but the expression in her darkly brown eyes told of edges upon which the unaware could slice themselves open. He tended to give women like her, like Abbie Carmichael, a wide berth, preferring to receive minimal psychic damage in his personal relationships. Still, they made for interesting conversationalists, normally; and he suspected that Detective Russell wasn't any different. "Financial bird-dogging aside, you really wanted to partner up with me for my roguish charm, right? It's okay. You can admit it. I'll tell no one."

Something-- either the beginnings of a smile or of Russell bearing her teeth at him-- parted the woman's lips. "Not to interrupt your barge trip down the Nile, but if I wanted roguish charm I would have paired up with Abbie."

He snickered; remembering Diane's turning up at Smitty's shortly after all the shan hit the fit for the ADA. "That's right, you and Carmichael are good friends, aren't you?" he asked, delicately keeping all traces of innuendo out of his voice. He had no doubt but the very-competent seeming Russell could flatten him if she took a notion, and getting beaten up by a girl was not high on Munch's list of priorities.

"We go back, yes," Russell replied warily, her expression more protective to Munch's glance than worried.

"How is she?"

The earnest question took Diane by surprise, and she regarded him with more suspicion-- if possible-- than before.

"My prurient interest in her date with your partner aside..."

"You know about that?" she interrupted incredulously.

"Who do you think helped her pick out that dress?" And dear Lord what a dress it was. Blood red, cut to all the right places and molded to all the even better ones, Abbie Carmichael had been a walking inducement to cardiac arrest. That Jill Kirkendall had survived without succumbing marked her as a very formidable woman in Munch's book. "But like I said..."

"Your prurient interest in Abbie's personal life aside..."

"Right. How is she suffering all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?"

"I'm assuming you're talking about all the shit the DA's office has dumped on her?"

"That would be correct, yes." Sensing Russell's hesitation, he elaborated. "I have a great amount of respect for our dear ADA Carmichael. She's a woman who doesn't suffer fools and sycophantic drones consumed by ambition easily. She's a rare breed, and I'd hate to lose her. There are too many fools in the DA's office as it is."

"You think she would walk away?"

"You know Abbie Carmichael better than I do. What do you think?"

"I think this is killing her," Diane admitted candidly. "But the DA's office is more to her than a way into a cushy private practice. Doing the Job right is everything to her."

"Norah Lewin is not exactly letting her these days."

"She's only going to hurt her own office if she keeps it up. And Lewin doesn't strike me as a particularly stupid woman."

"Nor me, but there are other places Abbie could be a prosecutor."

Diane examined him shrewdly. "You want to tell me what you're hinting at?"

"I'm not sure," he shrugged. "But I have some friends who have some friends who say that Abbie's name has come up in a couple of conversations. Some inquiries have been made about her."

"By whom and what for?"

"Near as I can tell, the Justice Department. Who, if you ask me, could stand to add a few triple-digit IQs to their ranks."

"The Justice Department..?"

"So obviously she hasn't said anything to you. Then again, there could be nothing to tell."

"You don't think that's the case, though."

"I honestly don't know. But could you blame her if she took the next opportunity that came her way?"

"Well, either Byers' buddy Keith was really as sick as he seemed or he deserved some kind of Camille-honorary-sickbed-acting award for his performance," Abbie informed the others flatly once she and Jill had returned to the 15th precinct. They had gathered in Lt. Fancy's office to brief him on the situation and regroup. Somehow the afternoon had gone the way of the morning and all of them bore the rumpled traces of dogged footwork and missed lunches as day gave way to evening. "Even if the guy had a motive, there was no way in hell he got up at three in the morning, went to Manhattan, put a bullet in his best friend's head, and went back home."

"That sick?"

"Let's put it this way, if he was the guy, there would have been a trail of very aromatic evidence from his crib to Byers' office," Jill informed them dryly.


"Lovely mental image."

"Other than that, you come up with anything useful?" Fancy asked.

"Abbie and I pushed him pretty hard, boss. He did confirm what we had heard from Janie Turner and a few others, though. He placed the call to his friend at McCann-Erikson that got the job offer revoked."

"Keith said it was retaliation."

"For what?" Alex asked incredulously. "Having the temerity to file rape charges against him?"

"Not just that. Y&R had informed Byers it would be a good idea if he resigned, for the good of client relations. Apparently, word had gotten around and some clients whose agency contacts were women had requested not to deal with Byers any more. Byers had a month to transition his clients to other account executives. Then he was outta there."

"So he queered the deal with McCann-Erikson."

"Looks pretty much like it."

"We have anything that doesn't point to Tara Wheeling?"

Abbie grimaced and shook her head. "As much as I hate to say it, no."

"Any luck finding her?"

"Warrants just came through," Alex spoke up. "We've served the banks and are starting to run that now. If she's used her credit or ATM cards in the last thirty days, we'll know it shortly."

"She's probably beating feet out of town," Diane observed. "We've sent out her picture to Port Authority, train stations, bus depots and airports."

"And we've got Atlanta sitting on her parents' and sister's houses."

"They seen her at all?"

"Uniforms that talked to her down there said they seemed genuinely confused," Munch replied. "Told them Tara called about a week and a half after she had said she was coming to Atlanta and said the Y&R had made a counteroffer and that she was staying in New York."

"She never told them about the rape?"

"Didn't sound like it. Just let them think she was finally accepting the other agency's offer."

"Dammit," Abbie swore gently, rubbing her face wearily. "If I'd followed up... Maybe we could have seen this coming."

"Seen what? She had a job and a support system set up for herself in Atlanta," Munch contradicted her. "As well as somebody could be handling things, she seemed to be."

"Well, in this case, seemed to be wasn't good enough," Carmichael shot back acidly.

"When they start making prescience a job requirement at the ADA's office, then you can beat yourself off. You had no way of knowing Byers would..."

"Rape her again?" Abbie finished for him. "That's how Janie Turner described it, and as near as I can tell, she's dead right."

"It would seem that Ms. Wheeling has gotten a last word of sorts," Munch observed.

"One that she's going to be paying for the rest of her life."

"Okay, people..." Fancy interrupted them. "Let the 4-to-12 finish chasing down the credit check. It's already past swing and I don't have any money for authorizing overtime. If she's already run, it'll take till morning to get the other departments on board. And if she hasn't... she's obviously not going anywhere." He glanced at Abbie and Alex. "Unless the DA's office is picking up the bill for today."

"'Fraid not, Lieutenant," Alex smiled.

"Then you don't have any objections to my squad signing over to the swing?"

"As long as we find Tara Wheeling, I don't care who does it."

Abbie bit her lip, wanting to ask to be informed when they found Tara, but knowing that she was already in for her own heaping helping of shit for being out of the office all day. McCoy no doubt had had to write up his own motion rebuttals and would be irked about it. Though McCoy had professed to be on her side during the whole memorial service fall out, he hadn't been able to conceal a certain amount of satisfaction as his headstrong ADA had been reigned in, quite against her will. The EADA was just this side of burning out what passion he had left for the job, and Abbie knew her own undimmed flame stood in reproach to his own badly failing ideals. And while he was still able to turn the hellfire and brimstone on for the courtroom, it seemed as though with each case he was one step quicker to making a deal that would put someone away, even if it wasn't the right person, even if the punishment came nowhere close to fitting the crime.

"Ms. Carmichael?" Fancy's resonant tenor interrupted her musings. "That okay with you?"

"Absolutely, Lieutenant. But if it's okay with you and your people, I'd like to be updated if anything breaks," she found herself requesting, in spite of her resolve to the contrary. "I'll have my cell on all night."

"No problem," Fancy answered with a brisk nod. "Just leave your number with dispatch. The rest of you, have a good night."

They filed out of his office and milled about the squad room. Abbie glanced around for Jill, but she and Diane were briefing the portly detective Sipowicz and his partner, Danny-- along with two other detectives, a tall beautiful African-American man and his partner, whom she didn't know. Munch followed her gaze and leaned in conspiratorially. "Can I offer you a ride back or are you finding your own way home?"

"What have I told you about me and buttons, Munch?" she asked, her wry tone relieving the question of any irritation.

"Keep trying and maybe I'll press the right one?" he asked hopefully.

"Not in this lifetime."

"Sure, crush me with your juggernaut of homosexuality. At least I know I never stood a chance."

"Not even if I was straight," Abbie informed him pleasantly.

"Now that was just plain mean."

"Abbie? You ready?" Alex called impatiently from the intake desk.

Five heads turned in her direction, and Abbie suppressed the urge to swear under her breath. There really wasn't a graceful way out of this one. "Sure, give me just a minute," she ground out.

Munch chortled softly as she crossed the few steps that separated her from the detectives of the 1-5. "Detective Kirkendall, if you want my notes for the Keith Evans interview, just give me a call at my office. And PAA Irvin has my cell if you can't reach me there," she said briskly, hoping that Jill wouldn't use her unfortunately abrupt departure as an excuse not to see her tonight.

"Got it," Jill answered with the same damnably unruffled expression Abbie knew she herself wore. "Thanks, Ms. Carmichael, I will." This with a wink so swift that Abbie was half convinced she had imagined it, but it was enough to give her hope that maybe she might get to see her lover again tonight.

As the SVU detective and the two attorneys departed, Jill and Diane finished briefing Danny and Andy on the case thus far. "Nobody else worth taking a look at?" Danny asked when they were done.

"I wish," Jill replied.

"Guy rapes her and she's the one gonna end up doing time," Sipowicz snorted derisively. "Sometimes the world makes a lotta sense."

Diane only nodded laconically instead of speaking, not really wanting to get the notoriously volatile detective off on a roll. While she had better coping mechanisms than most in dealing with Andy-- after all, he, along with her now-dead husband Bobby, had been her partner in the years before Jill had joined the squad-- the last thing in the world she wanted was to end the day with one of Andy's tirades. Truthfully, what she wanted was something that wasn't humanly possible-- which was to go home to Bobby, run a hot bath and climb into it with him. Though the passage of the last year had dulled the worst of the ache, there wasn't a night that she didn't go to sleep wanting to hold him or a morning she didn't wake up missing him.

Pressing down the sudden wave of loneliness washing through her chest, she caught Jill looking at her, a worried expression darkening her hazel eyes. Her partner waited until they were in the locker room to ask the obvious question. "You okay?" Jill rubbed a hand familiarly over Diane's shoulders, and Diane realized again how lucky she was to have this woman for a friend and a partner. Indeed, Jill had been as strong an anchor for her as Bobby had been, albeit in a very different way. A steady hand, a true heart-- Jill hadn't hesitated to reach out to Diane when Bobby was letting go. To her own surprise, Diane had found herself accepting Jill's help in a way she hadn't been able to accept anyone else's. She turned to Jill's voice in the dead of night when she couldn't sleep, to Jill's arms when she needed to cry, to Jill's judgment when she wanted a drink so bad she thought she would die. Through it all, Jill had never let her down.

She had been somewhat shocked and more than a little hurt when she realized that Jill hadn't done the same in her own time of crisis. Don Kirkendall had been nothing but a bundle of bad memories for Jill from the time Diane had first met her. The rueful blonde had frequently used her past with her ex-husband as an example of everything not to do in a relationship. Jill's getting tangled up with him again after so many years had thrown Diane badly-- it didn't make sense to the fundamental truth of who she knew Jill Kirkendall to be. Somehow, she realized later, Jill's reinvolvement with Don was connected to meeting Abbie Carmichael and all the unfamiliar emotions the district attorney had stirred up. By the time Diane sorted through most of the pieces and learned of the powerful attraction between Jill and her old friend, it was almost too late. Don's illicit schemes were on the verge of implicating Jill with IAB, and Jill was trying to push Abbie away to keep her from becoming embroiled in Don's latest power play. Don's arrest and Abbie's influence had gotten the two-bit drug-mule a deal with the Witness Protection Program, where he would be out of Jill's life forever. Unfortunately, Don had slipped into the wind, and despite the best efforts of the 1-5 and the DA's investigative unit, they hadn't found him yet. Diane didn't think Jill had gotten more than an hour's worth of sleep since that one night she spent with Abbie, and she knew her friend was at her wits' end over the whole situation.

"Hey?" Jill's cool hands cupped Diane's cheeks and brought their eyes level. "Where did you go?"

It was on the tip of Diane's tongue to ask Jill the same question. Emotionally, Jill had withdrawn since the night she spent with Abbie and the news of Don's flight. She missed her friend and her partner and worried about her now more than ever. She had never seen Jill as vulnerable as she had been while sorting through the confusion of her budding relationship with Abbie; and if Diane knew her partner at all, she knew how at sea Jill was with being out of control. She wanted nothing more than to be the same kind of unequivocal anchor for Jill that the other woman had been for her. Instead, however, she merely asked, "You want to grab some dinner?"

"I was actually going to ask you the same thing." Jill dropped her hands and stuffed them into her pockets in an uncharacteristically shy gesture. "Abbie's coming over for dinner and wanted to know if you could join us."

A surprised brow arched skyward, and Diane couldn't smother the broad grin that creased her face at the implication of Jill's words. "I don't want to get in the way of any quality time."

"The boys are going to be there, so the more the merrier." Jill paused, then let loose a smile of her own, bringing radiance to her face that awed Diane. Sometimes she really forgot how devastatingly beautiful her partner was. "But... yeah... to say that I'm looking forward to spending some time again with her is... kind of an understatement."

Abbie was expecting Jack McCoy to be sitting in her office when she made it back to the Manhattan District Attorney's office. What she was not expecting, however, were the two people who were-- a man in his mid-thirties with a wickedly receding shock of curly brown hair and a rumpled air about him that would give Jack's a run for his money; and a woman dressed to a professional-T in a dark suit Abbie pegged as designer and not off-the-rack, her long blonde hair a shining neatly down her back. The man leapt up from his chair as the ADA pushed the door to her office open with a low growl, sorting through the stacks of pink message slips that had piled up in her absence all day.

"Where have you been?" he was asking, walking forward and looking like he was going to offer her his hand then shoving them into his pockets all at the same time. "Any longer and we were going to have to send for takeout while we waited." This last was said with a calculated little-boy smile that he apparently thought was more charming than it was in actuality.

Abbie's brow furrowed. "Did we have an appointment?" She was pretty sure her schedule was clear, because her schedule had been pretty damn clear ever since she had been jerked off of everything but the most mundane and routine of tasks. "Do I know you? And if I don't, who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing in my office?" With a couple of long strides she covered the short distance to her desk, tossing the message slips casually across it and throwing herself down in her chair. She was already tired and frustrated by being part of the wheel of justice that, barring new evidence, looked like it was going to jail Tara Wheeling. Her patience would not tolerate going ten rounds with a total stranger.

"Umm... No. No. Josh Lyman and Ainsley Hayes. Trying to offer you a job."

Leaning back in her chair, Abbie guessed this wasn't a pitch she would hear every day. Seeing the still-seated woman beside Josh Lyman roll her eyes and shake her head almost imperceptibly, Abbie quirked a dark brow in her direction and asked, "That true?"

"Forgive Josh and blame it on the low blood sugar."

"Hey, I skipped lunch to make it up here and I'm due back for a floor vote in three hours. I don't have time to waste on New York ADAs who don't come to the office when they should." Lyman was glaring at the woman, who seemed entirely too young for the clothes she was wearing, as if Abbie wasn't even in the room. "She's lucky she showed up when she did, cause I was about to leave."

"No doubt only to come back later," Abbie interjected dryly. "Where do I know your name from?"

"C-SPAN," the woman, Ainsley, said wryly. "If you're bored enough to watch."

"Let's try this again," Abbie decided, not liking at all the schizophrenic direction the conversation seemed to be taking.

"I'm Ainsley Hayes," the woman reintroduced herself, standing and offering Abbie a slender hand. Abbie shook it carefully, impressed by the firmness of its grip. "This is Josh Lyman." She poked Josh in the shoulder. "Josh, shake Ms. Carmichael's hand."

"Do I get a cookie afterward?" Josh muttered darkly, obeying nonetheless.

"Only if you're good for the rest of the trip."

Josh narrowed his eyes but ignored the quip in favor of explaining to Abbie. "I'm the Deputy Chief of Staff for the White House. Ms. Hayes here is with the Justice Department. We were hoping for a few minutes of your time."

"Well, Mr. Lyman, to be honest, you'dve stood a better chance of getting it had you phoned ahead. Spared yourself all this waiting around."

"True enough, but people tend to get curious when the White House and the Justice Department start calling for someone."

"Well, since you said you were here to offer me a job, I'm assuming I'm not under investigation."

"Not that kind, no. But yes, we're here because we think you'd been an asset to the federal judicial system."

Abbie pinged a couple of glances between the two. Now that she got a good look at Hayes, she recognized the woman from the Sunday morning policy wonk shows. She was the White House's token Republican, some kind of expert in Constitutional law, who had gotten a whole lot of exposure shucking and jiving while trying to explain how Jed Bartlett's nondisclosure of his MS wasn't illegal and unethical. Lyman's face wasn't familiar, but his position as Deputy Chief of Staff was. "You work for Leo McGarry," she said.


"And Leo McGarry works directly for the President."

"Yes, again."

"So I'm assuming you're not here to offer me a run of the mill prosecutor's slot."

He smiled thinly. "You'd be right about that."

A silence settled between the trio. Abbie waited until it became more than apparent that Lyman wasn't going to break it before asking, "You want to enlighten me?"

"Tell me what you know about the Office of National Drug Control Policy," he commanded instead.

"Just what they tell me. It's a tripartite system-- prevention, treatment and disruption. The lion's share of money goes to military disruption at the 'source'-- the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. It started as an excuse for defense contractors and lobbyists to justify their billion dollar toys in a post-Cold War society and somehow nobody has figured that out yet. Even your President Bartlett. What is it? $731 million for that versus barely half that for prevention-- Just Say No anybody? And we all know how well that works-- versus $169 million for substance abuse treatment. And I won't even talk about the piss poor $50 million given to Federal Drug Prosecutions-- the overwhelming majority of that going to the Southwest, when you've got only three INS and a maybe a dozen DEA agents covering the Carolinas and Georgia which is where the bulk drugs are coming in these days." She paused to look at the stymied expression of the two people sitting opposite her. "You want me to go on?"

"So what would you do differently?" Ainsley asked.

"Pardoning my language, Ms. Hayes, but fuck the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. You're always going to have a source; I don't care what the ONDCP says. You kill Escobar, you get the Calis. You break down the Calis you get the Peruvians-- it never stops. You take a lot of that $731 million and direct it towards domestic operations in the US. All over the US, not just the Southwest. You make it hard for the dealers to sell their stuff, and they'll start looking to sell something that's a bit easier to push. Like rats and cockroaches, you keep shining the light on them until finally they can't hide anymore. Then you take some more of that $731 million and you direct it towards providing substance abuse treatment for all classes of people. Over 64% of addicts relapse within their first six months-- over 80% within their first year. The rates are even higher when you get into the inner city detox centers. You get people off the drugs; you remove some of the impetus-- particularly in terms of petty crimes like larceny and prostitution-- to commit crimes. Over 50% of the women in prison are in there for drug-related offenses, most of which are related to states' "three strike" rules concerning drugs. Then you..."

"Stop!" Lyman held up a placating hand.

"You asked."

"I know... it's just... how would you like a chance to convince the President of the United States?"

"This where we get to the 'job' part of this conversation?"

"The President is convinced that a change in the US's drug policy is needed."

"You mean he wants to fuck the Andean Counterdrug Initiative too?"

Josh shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Pretty much, yeah. Although I'm not quite sure how receptive Congress would be to that particular phrasing. What it comes down to is this-- you'd be working in the West Wing itself to formulate a new strategy for dealing with drugs as an issue. You'd be helping to make policy, Ms. Carmichael. You'd be helping to shape the future."

In spite of herself, Abbie sucked in a deep breath at Josh Lyman's words. Those words were something a girl from a pissant West Texas town never expected to hear, an opportunity that she never expected to have. Yet, she found herself saying, "Can I think about it?"

They stared at her dumbly for a moment, before Ainsley spoke up. "You want a chance to think about it?"

"Yes," Abbie replied evenly. "Besides, aren't you a Republican in a Democratic administration? And you're asking me that question?"

"Yeah," Josh echoed wonderingly, looking at Ainsley. "What's up with that?"

Ainsley shot him a withering glare before returning her attention to Abbie. "I understand, Ms. Carmichael, believe me I do. And believe me too when I say that I honestly believe you would be nothing but an asset to this administration and that no one would be here offering you anything if everyone in the West Wing didn't feel the same." She rose smoothly and offered her hand to Abbie once more. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, and I look forward to seeing you in Washington." Treating her acceptance of the position as mere formality.

Hearing a cue that not even the deaf could miss, Josh too rose to his feet and extended a hand to Abbie. "A pleasure, Ms. Carmichael. Here's my card. Please call me as soon as you've reached a decision."

Abbie returned the shake and accepted the card, examining its Presidential Seal with no small wonder. LBJ had been a god in her part of the world when she was growing up, and now she was being offered an opportunity to serve as few others had been. Fleetingly she wondered what her father would say-- if he'd be proud of the honor or scornful of the source-- then crushed the traitorous thought with concerted effort. "I appreciate it, Mr. Lyman. And you have no idea how honored I am by your consideration."

"Just don't take too long, Ms. Carmichael."

"I understand. And thank you again for your patience."

Ainsley was already waiting by the door; and as Josh wandered over to join her, he looked around the cluttered confines of her office. "Respectfully, Ms. Carmichael... but... I've heard about some of the things that have happened to you lately. Given that, how can you hesitate?"

Abbie smiled briefly at his frankness and shrugged her shoulders. "So that I know I'm not doing it because of everything that's happened to me lately."

"Starting to worry that you were going to be a no show--" Diane opened the door to Jill's apartment, a shit-eating grin spreading rampantly over her face. "Jill left a message on your voice mail over an hour ago. I hope you come bearing steaks."

Abbie returned Diane's smile with what she hoped was an enthusiastic one of her own; but judging from the furrow that creased her old friend's smooth brow, she suspected she wasn't as successful as she might have hoped. Josh Lyman was offering a very real chance to change the direction of the country's struggle with drugs. On the other hand, he was asking her to do it in an administration that might not care very much for the point of view of someone who had once described herself as a "shit-kicking conservative." And that was the least of the complications she could see looming over the horizon. Another one was the woman into whose apartment she was walking and the very powerful feelings she felt growing between them.

Shaking her head to gather her thoughts and focus on the pleasurable evening that stretched out before her, she grinned again at Diane, this time more successfully. "Even better. New York strip-- which, pardoning you Yankees, has about as much to do with New York as I do-- some Gulf shrimp and some crab meat for a cream sauce so good it will make you cry. Hope ya'll like surf and turf."

"S'Okay." The diffident voice belonged to a slender youth appearing behind Diane with tow hair and inquisitive hazel eyes that were shining mirrors of his mother's. Around him was a gentle air of someone who has seen horrible things but who hasn't understood their depths nor had been corrupted by them. It jarred Abbie until she remembered Jill telling her about the murder her youngest son had witnessed and the lengths to which the 15th squad had gone to protect him. "Who are you?" he asked, interrupting her thoughts, a steady gaze never leaving hers.

"I'm Abbie," she replied simply. "You must be Kyle."

"How'd you know that?"

"Would you believe I had super powers?"


"Okay, busted," she confessed. "I'm a friend of your mom's."

Another head, about four inches taller than his brother's, popped up side Kyle. His eyes were dark with suspicion, and he had none of the younger boy's gentle air. "You a cop?" he asked without preamble.

"Nope," Abbie responded, guessing this was Jill's other son, Frank. His stance was belligerent, even in repose; and he bore a striking resemblance to his father, whom Abbie had seen only in the mug shots she had surreptitiously requested from the 27th.

"You look like one," he insisted.

"I'm not. But close. I'm a lawyer with the DA's office."

"Like Leo?"

It was a simple question, but Abbie sensed something loaded in its intent. Jill had told her that her sons had been well-aware of her past relationship with ADA Leo Cohen, but Abbie was pretty damn certain she hadn't shared the same information with them about her relationship with Abbie. At least not yet.

So Frank couldn't be implying what it sounded like he was.

To err on the safe side, Abbie carefully replied. "Sort of. Leo works in a different part of the DA's office than I do." To let him know she was talking strictly about work. "He's a pretty nice guy," she continued, remembering what Jill had said about her sons' liking the other man.

"Mom said he was an asshole," Kyle piped up, while Diane's snort of agreement was poorly and belatedly concealed.

"Where is your mom?" Abbie asked, a note of desperation creeping into her voice. Diane certainly wasn't helping any, and she suspected that the detective was too busy being entertained by the whole scene to be of much use to her.

"Trying to get the damn grill lit," answered the woman in question, emerging from the shadows and wiping her hands on an old towel. She looped long arms around her sons' shoulders, a casual gesture both maternal and full of love, her pride in and devotion to them unmistakable. This was an incarnation of Jill she had only glimpsed in the stories she had told about her children; and Abbie knew without a shadow of doubt, her sons were the most precious part of her life. Everything in her life would take a backseat to them, to making sure they were safe and whole. With a gentle prodding that reminded Abbie of her own mother's less than subtle reminders about manners, she asked her newly-arrived guest, "Has anybody offered to help you with the groceries yet?"

Kyle leapt two steps entirely too big for his stride forward, trying awkwardly to wrestle a bag from Abbie's grasp. With an easy maneuver, she switched arms and deposited the lighter bag, filled with bread and fresh vegetables, into his waiting arms. No way was she risking the steaks and, more importantly, the Pinot Noir she had picked up for their dinner. "I've got this one, Frank," she said to the older boy, watching Jill frown at his lack of motion. "Could you show me where the kitchen is?"

"It's that way. C'mon." He jerked his head towards the short hall down which Kyle had disappeared and slipped out from under his mother's arm without another word.

As she trailed behind him, she felt the light brush of Jill's fingertips down her spine, the still-unfamiliar shock of warmth at the touch raising tiny goose bumps along her bare arms. "You look great," Jill murmured low into her ear, intensifying a shiver in Abbie that had nothing to do with the blast of cool air she encountered from the refrigerator. Like the others, she had taken the time to change into street clothes, choosing a white sleeveless shirt, ancient button-flys and a pair of worn boots whose leather was supple and creased with age. The clothes reminded her of home, of family and the kinds of memories she wanted to try to create one day for herself. Maybe even with this woman. It was why she had chosen them; but looking Jill, she felt the urge to apologize for her disarray. Though the detective was as casually disheveled as Abbie herself was-- in worn khakis that hugged her long legs snugly and an oversized Oxford frayed at the tails and rolled up over her elbows-- an air of elegance nonetheless hovered over her that Abbie always found disconcerting and not a little humbling.

Aware of Diane watching them all with a mildly bemused expression, she concentrated instead on storing the food without dropping it all, so unbalanced was Jill's nearness making her. "How many people were you planning on cooking for?" her old friend inquired the question with deceptive benigness and not a little humor as she studied the stream of food emerging from Abbie's grocery sacks.

"I'm from Texas, D. Too much is not enough when it comes to food."

"Maybe all those cookouts with the Dallas Cowboys have clouded your judgment," Jill teased, referring to the picture of Troy Aikman in Abbie's office and the story behind it.

"You know the Dallas Cowboys?" Childlike skepticism, a wanting to believe but not sure he wasn't being shined on, suffused Kyle's voice.

"Not all of them," Abbie replied easily. "But a good many."

"How did you meet them?" Frank interrupted, doubt clear in his voice.

"I come from a town where about the closest you can get to God is to win the state football championship. Some of the boys I know went on to play for the Cowboys and we all hung out together when I lived down there," she elaborated. "I could get you some autographed stuff, if you want," she added, figuring that since bribery-- albeit on a vastly smaller scale-- had worked on her brothers when they were all younger, it wouldn't hurt to try it on Jill's sons.

"The Cowboys suck," Frank said scornfully.

"Frank!" Jill barked.

So much for that plan. "Boy's right," Abbie interrupted with a wave of her hand. "Team hasn't been the same since Jimmie Johnson left. When Troy retired last season they juggled three quarterbacks because that pantywaist Campo couldn't decide who to start. But things are getting better. They let Leaf go, decided to start Quincy Carter all season and hired a new offensive coordinator. The only place they can go, really, after two years of 5-and-11, is up."

"You know football?" Frank asked dubiously.

"Honey, my daddy is a football coach. The first thing I learned how to do after walk was throw a perfect spiral."

Jill's oldest son looked on the verge of asking her to prove it, when his mother swatted him gently on the behind. "Why don't you and Kyle go finish your homework before dinner?"

"But I want to hear about the Cowboys," Kyle protested.

"After dinner." She shot a grin at her lover. "I'm sure Abbie will tell you all about them."

The boys grumbled lightly, but Abbie noticed they were quick to obey her. Whatever fears Jill might have about Frank growing to hate her, it was clear he respected his mother and equally plain that Kyle adored her. "They're good boys," she commented as they trouped out of the kitchen with the awkward clatter typical of most boys their age. Despite their clumsiness however, they made only a fraction of the noise that Abbie and her brothers had generated just when moving through space.

"With an unknown capacity for interrogation, apparently," Jill observed, studying Abbie with a rueful smile.

"What do you mean?"

"They managed to get you to volunteer more about your past in one conversation than I have in how many weeks?"

Jill was right, Abbie realized with a start. Their time together had been so precious-- not to mention fleeting and consumed by the tumult of the here-and-now-- that Abbie hadn't given much thought to sharing her painful past with Jill. In their tumbling adolescence, however, Frank and Kyle reminded her of her brothers and the times before things turned bad. "Guess we just hadn't gotten around to it yet," she demurred.

"Uh-huh," Jill replied skeptically. "Diane, how much of this was news to you?"

Diane looked startled, drawn back from someplace Abbie suspected that had very little to do with football or pre-teen boys. "Most of it," she admitted with a small smile. "Except for the part about Abbie knowing more about Cowboy football than the coaches."

"Can I help it if I'm a product of my environment?"

"Absolutely not. And I counted on it every year I was in Narco to clean up in the squad pool. I expect to return to my winning ways again this season after a five year drought." Her words were a simple reclaiming of the friendship that hadn't died in spite of the passage of time and a lot of pain. Abbie nodded in acceptance, seeing Jill absorb Diane's words with a small pulse of wordless expression.

"I'll have to make sure I brush up on my stats then," Abbie rejoined, stuffing the last of the groceries into the refrigerator and closing the door. "Now..." she rubbed her hands together."Let's see how that grill is coming."

"I'm thinking that Abbie has herself two new fans in the Kirkendall household," Diane remarked wryly, surveying the wreckage of the dinner table.

"You do, huh?" Jill asked with a grin of her own.

"I'm pretty sure she was on her way anyway, but I think what put her over the edge was pulling out the croutons from everybody's salads to show how the Patriots' defense shut down the Rams' passing game in the Super Bowl."

"I still can't believe she did that."

"Be grateful she only used the ones without much dressing on them."

After the last shrimp had been devoured, Jill and Diane had banished the not-altogether-unwilling Abbie to the living room with Frank and Kyle where she was currently showing them some more undoubtedly complicated defensive maneuvers on the boys' Playstation.

The two detectives worked in companionable silence, clearing away the last of the dishes and loading them into the dishwasher. "You want me to run this?" Diane asked, tucking away the boys' milk glasses into the last two open spaces on the top shelf.

"Nah," Jill replied with a wave of her hand. "I'll set it before I leave for work in the morning. It gets so hot in here otherwise."

Diane nodded in agreement, shutting the appliance drawer with a thoughtful expression. The evening had been one of the most pleasant she could remember and certainly the least lonely. All three women had made a conscious decision to put the tension of the day's hunt for David Byers' killer away and just concentrate on the pleasure they took from each other's company. While Diane knew that her presence was undoubtedly welcome, watching Abbie and Jill-- the shy glances, the intense awareness of each other-- she felt the absence of the same all the more acutely.

"You okay?" Came the gentle question from closer than she had expected.

Diane looked into hazel eyes softened with the kind of concern that she had come to depend on so much and couldn't help the answering surge of warmth in her own expression. "You two are good together," she said quietly, putting away the ache in her own heart with a small smile. "And you're gonna be great. I can tell."

A moment's pause, then a faint blush suffused Jill's fair features as she realized what her partner was saying. "I... I hope you're right," she confessed. "But that's not exactly answering my question."

Diane opened her mouth to reply, then closed it and shrugged helplessly, unable to explain the sadness and the joy that mingled so easily together in everything she felt tonight.

"You miss him so much, don't you?"

Reading her mind, as ever, and Diane found herself enveloped by the familiar warmth of Jill's embrace. Relaxing into the hug, she managed a slight nod. "He would have loved being here tonight." Keeping their arms loosely entwined, she leveled her gaze on the lean figure of her partner. "He had such respect for you, Jill. Always. And it would have done his heart so good to have seen this. Seen the way she looks at you." She laughed unsteadily to clear the tears beginning to mist her vision. "He would have given you total hell about it. But he would have loved to have seen you happy. Just like I do."


"I know, I know... you are Abbie are just starting out, but Jill... listen to me. I let so much time slip away with Bobby. Thinking things over when I already knew the answers to in my heart. We lost so much time... Don't let things go, Jill."

"I hear what you're saying, Diane," her partner interrupted quietly. "Believe me, I do." She paced a few short steps away from the other woman and turned, running an elegant hand through her hair. "But I can't just think about what I feel or what I might want. I have the boys to think about. And Abbie. I can't just drag her into a situation like this. Don's out there..."

"Screw Don."

"I don't have that luxury," she reminded Diane curtly. "As much as I'd like to forget he was ever born, the fact of the matter is, as long as that man draws breath he will not stop trying to reach out to me."


"How long do you think Don Kirkendall will last in the Program? Some podunk town where he's supposed to be an insurance salesman or a used car dealer? That's the kind of town he was born in, D, the kind of town he ran from as soon as he was old enough. He wanted to be Johnny Handsome in the big city-- and he still does. If he hadn't walked out on Denby two weeks ago, he would've walked out somewhere else down the road. That's what he's best at."

Lines of strain etched Jill's face, drawing the skin tautly about her eyes, and her cheeks were faintly hollowed in the evening light. Away from the preoccupation of their day-to-day casework, the toll the whole situation was taking on her partner was glaringly evident to Diane. "You don't think it's ever going to be over, do you?" she asked perceptively. "That's why you're backing away from Abbie."

"If I were backing away from Abbie, she wouldn't be here right now," Jill corrected her dryly. "If I could... If I had any sense." She gestured lamely. "I tried. Didn't take. To answer your other question, no. Until he gets himself killed, it will never be over."

A round of ragged cheers from the living room interrupted the thoughts racing across the darkened hazel of Jill's eyes, and Diane could see her pushing them away, compartmentalizing them in her damnably efficient manner and minimizing their wounding potential. Diane didn't envy Abbie Carmichael the goal she had set before herself-- that of capturing this woman's elusive heart-- but she had a sneaking suspicion that if anybody could accomplish this daunting task, it would be her old friend.

Kyle came bounding into the kitchen, holding victorious arms aloft. "I did it, Mom! I beat Frank."

Frank was fast on his heels. "Only because she helped you."

"Just for the first half. After that, she played for you, doofus."

Frank shoved his brother. "Did not."

"Oh yeah? You never would have thought of bringing your free safeties into the flat to cut off the dump pass to my tight ends."

Diane and Jill exchanged worried glances. "She's already got them talking like her," Diane mused beneath the cacophony of the boys' argument.

"Took Kyle a month to say hello to Leo," Jill replied, equally quietly, with the hint of a smile blossoming over her lips.

"Hey!" Abbie roared from behind them. "Did I say go yell the play by play at your mother?"

"No," both boys chorused immediately.

"What did I say?" came the question.

"Bring you the ice cream!" they shouted.

Frank broke left for the bowls while Kyle headed straight down the center for the ice cream, splitting between his mother and her partner neatly. He pulled the Cherry Garcia from the refrigerator and spun towards Frank, catching his mother's eye with a sheepish grin. "Um... I'm sorry," he asked meekly. "Can Frank and I have some ice cream?"

Jill's face assumed the stern mask she used for particularly juvenile delinquents, while beside her Diane marveled at the instantaneous transformation. "You and Frank may have a small bowl of ice cream, and then you two need to get your baths."

"You're going first!" Frank told his younger brother, clearly angling for some alone-time with their new guest.

"Did you finish your geometry homework?" Jill asked, without missing a beat.

Tell-tale pause. "Yes, ma'am."

"You're going to show it to me then?"

"Well...." he hedged. "It's not perfect."

"Why don't you go make it so while Kyle gets his bath. Then you can get yours."

Clearly thwarted, Frank could only reply, "Yes, ma'am." And trot after his brother.

Moments later, a grinning Abbie reappeared in the kitchen, a small pink smear of ice cream on one cheek. "Free at least," she remarked, pulling out a kitchen chair and sprawling comfortably at the table where Jill and Diane now sat.

"We were beginning to think we'd need to call the H&R team," Diane remarked.

"Nah. The only thing adolescent males are more susceptible to than 40-yard pass plays are ice cream and teenaged girls. Three brothers taught me that."

"All we saw was the Cherry Garcia."

"VH1 is having an All-Access Britney Spears marathon. I turned it on and slipped out when they were mesmerized." Jill's jaw dropped briefly, and Abbie held up a placating hand. "Just kidding, Mom. That was my next maneuver should the ice cream fail. Fortunately, I wasn't forced to fall back, and the boys are safely ensconced in their rooms. I'll save the Britney for next time." She caught the bounce of glances between the partners and paused a beat. "That is, if I'm invited a next time."

"Oh, I think if I didn't, Frank and Kyle would."

Abbie grinned ruefully. "Maybe... but I'm hoping an appeal to their love of all things pigskin won't be necessary."

Jill made her wait a heartbeat too long, until Diane could see the slightest bit of hesitation creep into Abbie's graceful features. "I don't think it will be either," Jill finally relented, smiling brilliantly and entwining her fingers with Abbie's in a tender gesture.

Diane could hear the faint hitch in her friend's breathing, knew how much the touch meant to her, felt it echoed in her own empty palm.

"Good to know," Abbie murmured quietly and brought Jill's hand to her lips, brushing the lightest of kisses over the skin there. "Does that mean I can open the wine now?" she asked with a wicked gleam in her eye that dispelled any hint of embarrassment before it had a thought of breaking over Jill's features.

"You may," Jill acceded with a regal nod of her head. "The wineglasses are in the cabinet over the sink."

"D, you want your Coke in a glass or just the bottle? You know how long I had to shop around for the little 6oz packs up here? You Yankees live like heathens, drinking your soda pop out of a can."

Diane snickered at Abbie's down home litany, wondering if the attorney was aware that her drawl was emerging with a vengeance. Shaking her head, she stood up from her chair, stretching her arms and feeling the reassuring pop of all her joints. "Actually, I think it's about time I excused myself."

"Stay..." "C'mon, D..." came the instant protests from both women.

She held up placating hands. "I am stuffed to the gills and about to fall asleep where I sit. Besides, we've got a hellaciously long day ahead of us tomorrow, and I don't know about you, but I am not looking forward to it. You two should take advantage of the quiet while you can." Waving Jill back to her seat when she went to rise, Diane shook her head, "Don't get up, I can see myself out."

"Stay awhile..."

"No can do, partner." She stopped long enough to brush a quick kiss over Abbie's cheek and was gone before either woman could object further.

"Was it something I said?" Abbie muttered under her breath, watching the departing figure of her friend with a worried air.

Jill stood and emptied the distance between them, running a hand along the length of Abbie's back. "I think she was just feeling third-wheelish. Missing Bobby."

"Oh geeze..." Abbie smacked herself in the forehead. "I didn't think..."

"Don't...." Jill captured the injuring hand and drew it around her own waist. "She had a great time tonight. She told me so. But it does seem that watching us together reminds us of her and Bobby."

It took a moment for the significance of what Jill was saying to sink in, and a meandering smile spread over the detective's face watching the realization hit her lover. "That's a good thing, isn't it?" Abbie murmured with quiet wonder, slipping her other arm around Jill so that the other woman was completely in her embrace. She knew she should be worried about the two curious adolescent males just down the hallway, but the inviting light in Jill's eyes and the comfortable fit of their bodies washed any thought of tension from her mind.

"I'd say so," Jill agreed, a husky resonance entering her voice. She tilted her head up slightly and captured Abbie's mouth with her own, a tender greeting and reunion for two very battered souls. Languid moments whiled away in a kiss whose dizzying sweetness rocked Abbie to her very core. Pressing her forehead against Jill's, she shook her head in quiet wonder. "You do that again and you may have to hold me up."

"I have a better idea."


"Let's go sit down."

Abbie had only taken a moment to wrestle the cork free of the wine bottle before trailing after Jill into the living room. There, the two women settled circumspectly at either ends of the couch, but allowed their legs to drift towards each other and tangle loosely. Jill watched Abbie study the play of the city lights reflected through the room's open blinds, felt suddenly shy in the quiet. "Thank you for your patience with the boys," she ventured hesitantly.

A musing smile drifted over Abbie's face, tinged with a mild sadness that Jill couldn't identify. "I like them. And trust me, they don't even come close to the havoc my brothers and I used to wreak."

"You said you had three of them?"

"Yup. All younger. Plus an older sister. My daddy used to say that mom wimped out before giving him the six-man for the family basketball team. She said he should thank his lucky stars she didn't decide to stop after me."

"So you were the handful in your family?"

"We all were, except Bobby. He was usually up in his room with a book. Everybody else pretty much scattered whenever possible. Staying in the house was not something any of us took to easily. Of course, Abilene is about the size of a half-dozen of good sized city blocks in New York, so there was a limit to the kinds of no good we could get up to. Stealing our daddies' six packs and going to the reservoir were about it. When they got older, some of the boys would try to sneak into the skin clubs off the highway."

"And the girls?"

Abbie shrugged diffidently. "Wait for the boys to come home."

"I have trouble seeing you doing that."

"I didn't," she admitted.

"Then what....?"

"I got the hell out of there." Something shut down in Abbie's sienna eyes with the statement, catching Jill off guard. Impulsively she reached across the distance between them, linking their free hands to keep her lover in the moment.

"I don't mean to stir things up," she said softly.

"You didn't," Abbie replied a bit too automatically. She must have seen the flatness of her tone register in Jill's gaze, for she sighed heavily and shook her head. "I mean... I'm sorry. You really didn't. It was just a long time ago."

"You don't talk about your past much."

"Neither do you."

"Isn't my present more than crazy enough? What with two sons and a skelly ex-husband on the lam."

"You have a point," Abbie conceded wryly, pouring another glass of wine. "But I'd still like to know. We haven't had much time for just... talk."

Jill inclined her head in agreement and offered her own glass when Abbie gestured with the bottle. "I told you before, my mother passed," she remarked. "And I never knew who my father was. I have a younger sister in Queens who has four kids and a husband only slightly less deadbeat than mine was. The difference is, I walked and Shelley hasn't. Can't," she shrugged. "Won't... I don't know anymore. I stopped passing judgment on bad relationships a long time ago when I realized just how terrible mine was. Anyway... I think Tommy-- that's her husband-- is up to some things he'd rather a gold shield not know about. So after I went on the Job, Shel and I didn't talk so much. She calls sometimes, when she's short for the month and Tommy's off on a bender somewhere. And I try to help when I can. It's not enough... It's never enough," she admitted, dropping her head and studying the subtle color variations in the red wine in her glass. Nurtured by the perception and compassion in Abbie's eyes, she felt safer than she had in years, aware that Abbie would treat her words, her emotions as reverently as she had treated her body those two long weeks ago. Suddenly aching for a more visceral connection to the woman beside her, she edged closer to the circling warmth of Abbie offered. "The things we do to each other in the name of love," she murmured, thinking about Shelley and Tommy and Don.

"Do you think I'm going to hurt you like that?" Abbie asked soberly, enfolding Jill into her arms and nuzzling at the fine blonde hair crowning Jill's head. "Hurt the boys?"

Jill allowed herself to revel in the strength of the woman holding her for a moment before shaking her head. "No..." she answered, lifting her head to trace the aquiline features of Abbie's face with her gaze. "I think you'd break yourself in half before you let that happen," she admitted. "That scares the hell out of me."


"Because...." On the tip of her tongue was the admission that she didn't know if she could do the same in return. If left with the choice between her boys and Abbie there would be no hesitation on her part; Kyle and Frank were her blood, her life. "Circumstances right now..."

"You didn't create them."

"I married the man who's causing them, Abbie. And I..." Here she faltered, knowing that her next words were necessary, but afraid of their effect on the woman who held her so closely. "I brought him back into my life."

"He's the boys' father. Of course you let him back in your life."

"No," Jill clarified. "I mean... yes, he's the boys' father, but that's not what I meant."

The reassuring motion of Abbie's hand against her hair stilled. "What did you mean?"

"A couple of months ago, Don turned up again. Making all kinds of promises like usual. But this time, flashing more money than I know somebody like him could come by honestly. I knew he was on some kind of con... at least some part of me did. I've been a cop too long not to..." She shifted in their embrace, drawing her knees up on the couch, her shins running along the length of Abbie's thigh. She stole what comfort she could from the touch, not knowing how much longer it would last given what she was about to say. "But..." Jill blew out a heavy breath and shook her head, knowing that looking for a way to ease into the confession would only make things worse. "I slept with him, Abbie. With Don."

Her lover's stillness was unnatural, and in the eternal moments that passed, Jill realized that she had never seen Abbie not in some sort of motion, such was her vibrancy. Now the life seemed drained out of her eyes, her skin.


"A few months ago before we met? Or a few months ago after we met?" Came the inevitable question.

Jill's head dropped. "After."

"So you slept with him because of me." Not a question nor an accusation, but more a weary exhalation of pain, fear and lost hope.

"No..." Jill sensed Abbie's intention, and before the other woman could flee, Jill cupped the back of Abbie's neck in her hand and drew a strong jaw towards her. "No..." she repeated emphatically, knowing in a very real sense what she said now would determine what-- if any-- future she had with Abbie Carmichael. "I slept with him because of me. Because the night I met you I saw something I never thought I could be."


"Free," she corrected. "Respected. In one night, you showed me everything I've never had in a lover and everything that could be-- should be-- between two people." She laughed mirthlessly. "And you weren't even trying. You were hurt and tired and alone and just wanted to not feel any of those things for a while. You weren't intending to change anybody's life."

Dark eyes stared back at her. "Did I?"

"Yes," the detective answered without hesitation. "But Abbie... there was so much standing between us. There still is and you know it. The very least of it is that I don't know how one woman is supposed to be with another one. So I thought it would be easier if I just tried to forget."

"I knew you had been seeing him," Abbie said after a silence whose weight pressed painfully down on Jill's shoulders.


"Diane. Before she knew there was anything between you and me." She chuckled softly, a mirthless tone coloring her voice. "It just never occurred to me that you were sleeping with him."

"Slept," Jill corrected gently. "Just the once. I knew it was a mistake."

"Then why didn't you stop it?"

"I did."

"Because of what you felt for me or because Diane told you Narcotics had him up for a collar?" A shrewd light glittered in the facets of the attorney's dark eyes.

"That's not a fair question."

"Isn't it?"

"I..." Jill began, then stopped, shaking her head. "Yes, it is. But I don't have an answer. At least not the absolute kind you're looking for. I don't live a black-and-white life, Abbie. I didn't think you did either."

"In other words, you won't tell me that I'm second choice, but you can't tell me that I'm not."

Jill captured Abbie's face more firmly in her palm and stroked the smooth curve of skin with her thumb, hoping to communicate through touch where the few words she could find were so obviously failing. "That's not what I'm saying at all. Don't you get it? You're the only choice. You've been the only choice since the minute you walked into my life. And everything between then and now has been about that." Seeing that the austere lines of Abbie's face hadn't relaxed in the least, Jill growled quietly in frustration, tangling her fingers in the attorney's dark locks and pulling her recklessly closer. Her mouth found Abbie's, tongue tracing an intent path across the other woman's lips, parting them and stroking inside. Every stymied impulse of desire and need Jill had experienced over the last weeks poured into her kiss, the urge to connect with Abbie overwhelming her.

Abbie's pulse stutter-stepped, then slammed powerfully against the fragile confines of the artery and skin beneath Jill's fingertips as the attorney brought her own hands to Jill's face, deepening the kiss and answering Jill's want with a kindred one. Long legs stretched over the length of the couch, twining and completing the connection. The long moments of their kiss synchronized thought, word and deed, and a Cheshire grin drifted over Abbie's face when their mouths finally separated. "So you're saying you kinda like me?"

"Kinda, yeah." Jill rolled her eyes and smiled wryly, feathering lazy kisses wherever her lips met skin. "That okay?" She felt, rather than saw, Abbie's answering nod. "Good," she replied, satisfied that at least, they'd hurdled one of the too-many obstacles that stood between them. Burying her head in the crook of Abbie's shoulder, she inhaled deeply the scents of sunshine and coriander, noticed the slight hint of smoky mesquite from the grill embedded in the cotton of her lover's shirt. "I'm sorry," she murmured into the silence. "I'm so tired." Her sons and the wine glass on the table momentarily forgotten, she succumbed to the overriding desire to just rest in this woman's arms.

Abbie's fingers had resumed their meandering path over the broad expanse of Jill's back, chasing out little coils of tensions where she encountered them. "When was the last time you slept?"

"I caught an hour or so last night." She waved at the worn easy chair and ottoman situated catty-corner to where they lay on the couch.

"Doesn't seem like the most comfortable choice in your house," Abbie observed.

"My bedroom's too far away from the easiest points of entry. Kept thinking I was hearing something. And I was afraid if I stretched out on the couch..."

Abbie tightened her hold and offered light kisses that sent tremors through Jill's limbic system. "He's not coming back."

"You don't know him, Abbie. He won't just..."

"Shh...." the attorney soothed her."Tell you what... just close your eyes for a minute. Rest some."

"The boys..."

"Are probably asleep by now. I wore their asses out." Abbie promised, "I'll stay just long enough for you to catch a catnap. You won't have to worry about Don."

"You really that crack shot you were bragging about?" Jill asked through a yawn, her eyelids already begging to droop.

"Wanna see my Sig?"

"Sig?" she inquired sleepily. "Woulda pegged you for a .44 Magnum kind of girl."

"You think I'm that much of a cliché?"

"You're the one who keeps going on about being from Texas."

"Dirty Harry was from L.A."

"If you're any example, I'm sure he got his attitude from West Texas."

Abbie's chuckle was a low growl rumbling through Jill's hearing. "You might be right about that."

"'M always right..." Jill mumbled, sleep taking a firmer hold.

"That a mom-thing or a cop-thing?"


Abbie drifted back to consciousness aware of a number of things. Foremost was the awkward angle of her neck, how it had fallen backwards onto the arm of the couch. The second was the bright glare of the

lamp shining directly in her eyes because of her position. The third-- and most disturbing-- was a sudden awareness of a curious gaze fixed upon her.

Jill's body was sprawled comfortably along hers, her even breathing and the heavy weight of her limbs the tell-tale signs of a sound sleep. Careful to control the pulse of adrenaline in her system so as not to awaken her, Abbie pried one eye open to regard the twelve-year old in front of her. "Hey," she said softly.

"Hey," he replied uncertainly, rubbing a small hand in sleep-thickened eyes. Instead of pajamas, Kyle wore a pair of gray sweatpants and a laundry-faded Mets T-shirt. His bare toes scrunched nervously in the piles of the carpet as he regarded the woman holding his mother in her arms.

"Your mom's sleeping."


"She was pretty tired."

"I know." Hazel eyes observed her unwaveringly, then his shoulders twitched as if in decision. "I hear her sometimes, at night. Out here."

"You do?"

He nodded once.

"Is it okay if I look out for your mom tonight? Let her get some sleep?" she asked, gambling that Kyle was more aware of things and, consequently, more worried about his mother than Jill knew.

He nodded again, and then turned to go. Abbie exhaled a muted sigh of relief that hitched short when Kyle turned back around. "Don't let Frank see you," he said, with a furtive glance down the hallway, towards the boys' bedrooms.

"Why's that?"

Solemn eyes rounded, "He'll tell dad."

Abbie was certain the sudden thundering of her blood would awaken the woman curled into her, but Jill remained somnolently oblivious. "Does Frank... talk to your dad a lot?"

Kyle shrugged diffidently and scuffed his toes deeper into the carpet. "Sometimes. He comes to Frank's school and talks to him on the playground. Frank told me."

"Does he come to your school too?"

The boy shook his head. "He says they're going away. They don't want a crybaby like me along." The conviction in the young boy's words was heartbreaking, the rejection clear in his eyes; but Abbie couldn't detect any malice in him. Simple and uncomprehending sorrow and pain at losing his brother, at never really having had a father, were all that reflected in his clean cut features. For whatever reason—whether the need for release or something more, like the way his mother slept so trustingly in her arms—Kyle had decided to confide in her. "He's in trouble, isn't he?"

"Your dad?" Abbie asked needlessly, before replying. "Yeah."

"Is Frank?"

"No, honey. Not that I know of." Not wanting to think about what it might mean that the boy hadn't told Jill about seeing his father.

Not wanting even more to think about if he had.

Dawn had found Abbie Carmichael regarding the sullen break of day over New York with a cup of coffee in her hands and a gnawing worry that only grew with each passing moment. Mindful of Kyle's warning, she had let Jill sleep as long as she dared before waking her lover and slipping away to her own apartment where sleep was as elusive as it had been at Jill's. Not that Abbie had been trying particularly hard, what with the continual pacing and endless streams of coffee. The three am phone call alerting her to Tara Wheeling's whereabouts had helped whittle away the hours between the time she left Jill's apartment and the moment when she could put their intelligence on Tara into play. She had dialed the first six digits of Diane's number more times than she could remember, but each time had stopped short, figuring that at least one of them should approach both situations with something close to a good night's sleep.

Wanting to weep with relief the minute she saw the wild head of dark curls emerge through the squad room entrance, she rose to her feet in a graceful movement that belied to her exhaustion. "Come with me," she said without preamble, hooking Diane's arm with her own and tugging her towards the coffee room. Once there, however, Abbie found that she didn't have the words. She just looked at the detective with helpless exhaustion, worry and not a little terror.

"You gonna tell me what's bothering you or are you just going to keep flexing your jaw like Montgomery Cliff?" Diane regarded her old friend warily, studying the tense hunch of the taller woman's shoulders and the thready tremor of her hands.

"I think we've got a big-assed problem on our hands," she finally blurted, pouring another cup of coffee that she didn't really need.

"I'm assuming this has nothing to do with Tara Wheeling or David Byers."

Abbie shook her head and handed Diane a black mug with the chalk outline of a body on its side. "I wish." Briefly she recounted the conversation she had with Kyle in the wee hours of the morning, finishing with a resigned shrug. "Of course, Frank could have been lying to Kyle. Those two don't have the strongest fraternal bond I've ever seen."

"If you thought that you wouldn't be telling me about it now."


"What did Jill say?"

"I didn't tell her."

Diane arched wordless brows in response.

"Oh come on, D!" Abbie exclaimed. "You know as well as I do, the minute Jill hears about this the first thing she's gonna do is confront Frank. The second is to hie herself down to that school—which will completely blow any chance we have of taking Don without a fuss."

Fingering the edges of her coffee cup, Diane looked at Abbie shrewdly. "That the only reason?"

"I..." she faltered.

"Jill's pretty good at keeping secrets," Diane observed.

"Obviously the thought's crossed your mind too."

"If she already knows.... picking up Don's gonna do her a lot of damage."

"And if she doesn't, we're gonna let him snatch her boy and not do anything?"

"You don't have the juice to contain this."

"You think she's dirty."

"No, I don't," Diane replied curtly. "I think if she knows, she's protecting her sons, Abbie. I think she will draw her last dying breath doing that. And that's what you're afraid of. Some kind of throw down coming between her and Don. You're trying to get in the middle of it because you think you can keep it from happening."

"I'm not going to watch her get burned for this or by this."

"I don't want her hurt any more than you do."

"Then help me." Came the stark plea.

"What did you have in mind?"

"Can we get somebody on Frank's school? Somebody Don won't recognize? At least that way we can see for sure if Kyle's telling the truth. You know somebody who would do you a solid without too much background?"

Diane hesitated a moment, her thoughts racing visibly. "Yeah…" she said at length. "Yeah I do."

"Somebody you trust?"

"Even better. Somebody you trust."

Abbie opened her mouth to ask whom; but at that moment, the lanky frame of Detective John Munch opened the coffee room door. "You ladies thinking of joining us anytime soon? Cabot's got the goods on Ms. Wheeling's credit cards."

Abbie nodded distractedly. "We'll be right there, Munch."

"It's okay, Abbie. You go." Diane waved her towards the squad room. "I'm just going to get Munch here a cup of coffee."

Realization dawned on Carmichael's face as confusion clouded the SVU detective's. "Okay," she nodded. "See you out there." She brushed by Munch, stopping to give him a brief squeeze on the arm and pulling the door shut behind her.

"You about to make all my dreams come true?" he inquired mildly, taking note of the silent exchange between the two women."

"Not exactly."

"Somehow I was afraid you were going to say that," he mock sighed.

"I need a favor," Diane interrupted. "Abbie— needs a favor," she amended.

"Then why isn't Abbie asking me?"

"Cause I am. Look— I need to know upfront if you'll do it without details."

"I live for details."

"Not this time."

"Are you trying to make me not want to do this?"

"I'm trying to keep you out of as much potential shit as I can in this situation."

"Ah— Danger, intrigue and beautiful women. My three favorite things."

"Munch…" The urgency in her tone curbed his tongue.

"What do you need me to do?"

"We've been sitting on the motel since about four," Sorenson told them, running a weary hand through the peach fuzz of blond hair covering his head. A vestige of his time in the Marines, the supershort buzz did nothing to make his slightly cherubic features seem any more worldly wise. The look in his eyes, however, did nothing else-- telling anyone who cared to look closely that his was a person that, no matter how young, had already seen far too much. His blue Oxford was rumpled and his tie long ago history, but he recounted the last three hours with succinct precision while his partner stood back and nodded in agreement. "Door jockey says the Do Not Disturb's been on the door since he came on last night about nine."

"I don't get it," Jill said, puzzled. "Why isn't she running?"

"Cause she's waiting for us to come get her," Abbie replied grimly.

"We don't know if she's still alive for us to get," Alex disagreed.

"She didn't do herself," Sorenson's partner, Andy, interjected, "Danny here got next to the window, confirmed movement. She's holed up in there, watching the Discovery Channel, near as we can tell."

Alex Cabot's brow furrowed, taking in the wary detectives and the worry lines etched into Abbie Carmichael's face. "Detectives... if we know she's in there and know she's alive... why isn't Tara Wheeling already in custody?" she asked, her voice deceptively quiet.

Sorenson and Sipowicz exchanged uneasy glances. "We..." the younger detective began."We ah... that is..."

"Detectives Sorenson and Sipowicz were instructed to confirm Ms. Wheeling's presence and maintain surveillance until further notice," Abbie answered for them.

Noting the relief flooding both cops' faces, Cabot swung her gaze to Abbie. "On whose authority?"

"Mine," Abbie answered bluntly. "1-5 dispatch called me at approximately three-thirty this morning and I gave Detective Sipowicz the instruction to confer with the night shift desk clerk and then take up this position." Though her answer was crisp and precise, Abbie was well-aware of how thin was the line she was treading. She had gotten the call minutes after leaving Jill and her decision to keep Tara on legal ice had been a snap one. The only thing going through her head was that the very least she could do for the two women occupying both her personal and professional worlds was give them both a little peace, a little time to breathe.

"Since when do you have the authority to determine NYPD tactics?"

"Lt. Fancy agreed with the assessment."

"After you no doubt persuaded him of the wisdom of your position. Ms. Carmichael, this woman should already be in custody. She should have been in custody hours ago."

"We need to talk to her, not go in with guns blazing."

"Talk? To a woman who is the prime-- no, the only-- suspect in a brutal execution-style murder. I think the proper term is interrogate. Preferably in custody, where she can have benefit of council if she so chooses."

"She's not a trigger woman for the Gambino family, Cabot. We owe her a chance to explain."

"We owe her?"

"I owe her." There it was. The truth that had been haunting Abbie since the last time she had laid eyes on Tara Wheeling. She had failed the young woman in so many ways, not least of which was in the prosecution of her rapist. Abbie knew now that she should have stepped up then and told Tara of her own pain, of the haunted nights that still lurked close even after these long years, let her know that it wouldn't ever go away, not as long as she kept her silence. Even if David Byers had been acquitted of all charges, Tara would have at least had the chance to stand up in court and say, "I was raped. And this man is responsible."

Alexandra Cabot's face was pale with barely concealed rage, her eyes sparking indignantly; and Abbie knew that she was about to be on the well-earned end of a tirade. Sure enough, Cabot didn't disappoint. "Let me tell you what, Ms. Carmichael... you do not get to use the District Attorney's office to pay your debts," she barked. "This woman is to be put in custody and any explaining she's going to do will be in that venue." She looked at the four detectives expectantly.

Sorenson and Sipowicz shifted uneasily under the blonde attorney's glare, but looked disinclined to act; while Kirkendall looked deeply disturbed. The blonde detective's gaze was fixed and steady on Abbie, as if she were searching for some hidden truth that none of the others could see. Only Russell's jaw had a belligerent set to it. "Due respect, Ms. Cabot..."

"Detective, have you noticed that every time you say that to me something insulting is quick to follow?"

"That very well may be. As far as I'm concerned this is Ms. Carmichael's play. Our l-t signed off on it, and that's good enough for me. If she wants to talk to Tara Wheeling here, we should let her do it."

As if only now noticing the SVU detective's absence through his silence, Cabot looked around. "Where's Detective Munch?"

"Following up another lead," Diane replied smoothly. "Look, we know she's here. We know she's alive. Why escalate things? Why kick in a door if we don't need to? Abbie talking to her is probably the best shot we have and getting her to surrender."

"You're trying to leave me no choice but to do just that," Alex remarked bitterly. "I don't like being painted into a corner. And I don't like being cut out of an investigation."

"Your objections are duly noted," Abbie interrupted with an angry bark as the tension building since the early morning darkness finally broke. Cabot could throw her rule-breaking at her as hard and as fast as she wanted, but Abbie couldn't stand to be responsible for another minute of destroying this girl's life. The DA's office wasn't exactly inclined to back her up these days anyway, and she didn't have a whole lot to lose there. "You can have Lewin and McCoy tear me as many new assholes as you deem necessary. I could give a flying fuck anymore. Just get out of my way."

The fury in Carmichael's words made the stark lines of her face stand out in sharp relief, the exhaustion plainly visible; and all of them knew that this formidable woman was at her breaking point. After a moment's internal debate, Alex acceded with a nod of her head. "This one's on you, Ms. Carmichael."

"Like it could ever have been anything else," Abbie shot back, turning to make her way across the pockmarked asphalt parking lot to the long row of motel door's whose facade had seen better days. She had taken only a few strides before she felt a familiar tug on her arm.

"Are you out of your mind?" Jill hissed low in her ear, positioning herself with her back to the others and blocking Abbie from everyone's view. "You are not a cop. You are not a hostage negotiator. And you are not going through that door."

The sleep had done her lover a world of good, Abbie noted silently. The circles under her eyes weren't nearly as prominent and a warmer flush of health seemed to replace the eerie pale that had covered her skin of late. Instinctively, Jill had gripped her by the shoulders, and the intimacy of the touch made her wish that they were someplace more private, where she could just collapse in the other woman's arms and tell her everything. Why Tara Wheeling was so important and how utterly she had failed her. Time enough for that later, she told herself. When all this was over and, more importantly, when Don Kirkendall was back in custody and Jill could put the heaviest of her own burdens down.

"Jill, you know as well as I do if an H&R team goes in there, this girl's gonna end up dead. Whether by her own hand or somebody else's. I can..." She shook her head, pulling Jill's eyes into her own and allowing her to touch, if only by sight, some of the pain she carried. "I can't take that on my conscience. Maybe that's selfish of me and it's damned unethical, I know... but... I just can't."

"Can you tell me at least why you waited?"

She summoned a flicker of a smile. "Because I wanted to let her sleep."

John Munch sat parked beside the benches across from PS 185 mentally counting down the hours until some squirrelly teacher dropped a dime on him, suspecting him of being something other than the fine upholder of all things good and true and American that he was. Absently he fingered the two photos in his hand, one a snapshot of Jill Kirkendall and her two sons, the other a departmental mug shot of Material Witness #4601923 Donald James Kirkendall.

Just because he hadn't pushed Diane Russell for the details didn't mean he wasn't interested in them or that he was going to go into anything blind. A couple of discreet phone calls and a good gossip or two later, he had a handle on the situation-- and it wasn't the most appealing tale he had ever heard. Fairly obviously, he concluded, Carmichael and Russell were afraid that Kirkendall's skelly ex was in touch with his oldest son. The one thing he didn't know was whether or not Detective Kirkendall was aware of her partners'-- in both senses, he assumed-- concerns. The worry that Carmichael and Russell were trying to cover for her nagged at him, but Jill Kirkendall's so-clean-it-squeaked reputation, not to mention Abbie's obvious feelings for the woman were two sterling pounds in her favor.

That left him sitting in a department issued Towncar waiting to have his cover blown by overzealous pedagogues. He fiddled with the radio dial, dispensing with one of Rush Limbaugh's more outrageous-- even to him-- rants and continued to scan the streets around him. No matter how high the esteem in which he held Abbie Carmichael, or the vague latent desire he no harbored to hit on Diane Russell, he had no intention of sitting on this school all day. Even in this day and age, he couldn't believe that New York schools would have completely dispensed with the idea of recess— if Don Kirkendall were going to see his boy, it would be then.

"Great," he muttered to himself. "That only leaves another three hours before I get to see the inside of any restroom facility."

Foot traffic on the street had thinned out after the flurry of kids being walked to and dropped off at the front of the school's entrance, so the loping approach of a husky man in his early forties was easy to track. Though the thick shock of dark hair had been covered by a half-assed red-blonde rinse, Munch had no trouble making Don Kirkendall from the photo in his hand. He watched Kirkendall push through the school's front doors with a growing sense of trepidation that only increased as he watched the same man exit shortly thereafter with a boy who was unmistakably Jill Kirkendall's oldest son. Muttering imprecations in about a dozen obscure dialects, Munch pulled out his cell phone and impatiently punched the number Russell had left him. Climbing out of the car while urging the other detective to answer, he pursued the rapidly-retreating pair on foot, hoping that what he was almost certain was happening really wasn't.

The door, in its more optimistic days, had been painted a robin's egg blue. She assumed the numbers marking it had once been gold. Sun, time and its sheer passage had worn both away to a faded suggestion of something that really had never been. She rapped once, twice, her knuckles echoing hollowly off its metal construction. "Tara? It's Abbie Carmichael."

The door opened more swiftly than she though it would, and the movement's abruptness chased away the last few seconds she had been counting on to figure out what she could possibly say to Tara Wheeling.

"I knew you would come," the young woman said quietly. Already a physically small woman, in the weeks since the rape, Tara had lost so much weight that she seemed more a child than a woman. The soft chestnut hair that had so beautifully framed her face now hung limply in hanks, and her brown eyes

were ringed with weariness and lost hope. "I don't know how, but I knew."

"You could have made it a bit easier for me, Tara," Abbie replied, trying to keep her tone light and the horror of what was happening to this undeserving woman from her voice. "It doesn't have to be this way."

"I think by now, it can't be any other way," she answered simply, turning away from the door and curling up on the bed next to a .38 whose gray metal dully reflected what lamplight that the floor to ceiling curtains hadn't absorbed.

The room was an unremarkable place, even by no-tell motel standards. Mustard-colored walls vaguely clashed with the green and gold comforter on the bed and the non-descript beige carpets. A lingering smell of mildew and age-- things more fanciful people might think of as the odors of despair-- was masked by the institutional aromas of by-the-gallon-air-fresheners and laundry detergent. This was a place of endings, she realized instinctively; Tara Wheeling had not chosen it by accident.

Abbie eased into the room, shutting the door behind her, knowing even as she did so that the movement would infuriate both her lover and her partner. Concern for her own physical safety wasn't even a factor. Tara Wheeling wasn't going to harm her. Indeed Abbie was more concerned about the opposite-- how her words had and might further shatter this broken woman before her.

"We need to talk, Tara, about what you're going to tell the police."

"What's to tell?" she said vaguely. "I killed him. Walked right up to his head while he laughed. Said to take my best shot because it wouldn't matter. He would always land on his feet. That somebody like me would always end up on her back."

"He was taunting you. Provoking you." Abbie echoed, mind frantically trying to frame a story which she could sell to some judge, any judge, as involuntary manslaughter or even temporary insanity. "You wanted him to call McCann-Erikson back and tell them the truth."

A gaze glassy with resignation and not a little irritation swung towards her. "I wanted him to land on his back," she corrected Abbie patiently.

"Tara..." Abbie almost sobbed the word in frustration. "Let me help you."

"By telling the same sort of lies that he did?"

"I…" Abbie started, then faltered. "Why did you think I'd come?" she asked instead.

"It happened to you, didn't it?"

"Tara…" Their eyes met, locked. Sienna and knowing, both scorched with the pain of having had something essential taken from them without their consent. For almost fifteen years Abbie had been running, not from acceptance of her violation, but from speaking of it. "Yes," she said into the weighted silence, acknowledging the past with a lift of her chin. "Let me help you, Tara. If for no other reason than that. Let me try."

Watching the motel door close, Jill made an instinctive half-step towards it, only to have the motion intercepted by her partner. "It's her play, Jill. Let her make it," Diane counseled, though her eyes glittered with as much concern as Jill's.

"She doesn't know how to make a play like this, D," Jill disagreed roughly. "That girl's at the end of her rope, and Abbie's getting between her and snapping the last of it." She shook her head, angry with herself for letting her lover walk though that door. "Abbie said she didn't want that girl's death on her conscience, but you and I both know that somebody doesn't come to a place like this if they want it to end any other way." Heedless of the other two detectives and the district attorney standing behind them, Jill added hoarsely, unable to stop herself, "I'm not going to lose her, Diane. Not after all this."

Something had changed, Jill realized as the words left her mouth. Letting Abbie in, letting Abbie hold her last night and watch over the boys had permanently altered something fundamental within her. While a part of her recoiled at being so weak and leaving herself open to the kind of pain that such honesty could bring, another part-- newly born, to be sure, but still strong even in its rawness-- wouldn't let her speak anything other than the truth. She could only trust that Diane would see that she needed her partner now as much as Diane had ever needed her.

Clearly reading the panic and fear in the older woman's eyes, Diane took Jill's hands in hers and centered them both with a deep breath. "You're not going to lose her, partner," Diane assured her, her own expression reflecting back a devotion to their friendship and promising a bedrock of support that wouldn't crumble, no matter how much weight Jill rested upon it. "That girl doesn't have murder in her. Not real murder."

"Tell that to David Byers," Jill retorted bitterly.

"David Byers raped away her life. Abbie knows a thing or two about that."

She saw Diane instantly regret her words and narrowed her own eyes in response. "What do you mean?" Diane and Abbie had their own past together, their own secrets, that she respected-- aware that there were some things she'd be better off not knowing. If there was something driving Abbie towards what could very well be a suicide run, however, she'd damn best know about it now.

"I just know that you need to let her do this. Let her help Tara as best she can."

The answer told her nothing and at the same time confirmed Jill's worst fears.

"That's not the most reassuring thing I've ever said, I know," Diane began, but was interrupted by the insistent bleat of her cell phone. Yanking it out of her blazer in a graceless gesture, she flipped it on, her eyes widening as she took in the seven digit caller ID. "Russell," she answered curtly. As she listened to the other end of the conversation, worry and fear dappled her face. "We're on our way." Snapping the phone shut, she took Jill's arm. "We have to go."

"Are you nuts?" Jill asked incredulously, not moving. "You think I'm leaving Abbie right now?"

Diane hesitated, her expression both regretful and resigned, knowing there was neither the time nor anything in the world she could do to soften the blow she was about to deliver. "It's Don," she said flatly. "He's got Frank."

The car hadn't even completely come to a halt before Jill was throwing the door open and hurling herself from its confines. "I know this place," she said over her shoulder, heading towards the scrummy tenement steps and not caring if her partner would follow or not. Truth be told, it would be best if she didn't; what had been coming between Don and herself had been coming a long time. Her ex-husband would never be content with walking away, especially if he regarded it as being beaten. She knew he would never see WITSEC as an escape, but rather an exile-- a keeping from him things that should be rightfully his. No matter that he had thrown both her and the boys away at every possible turn.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Diane was fast on her heels, faster still to take firm hold of Jill's arm. "What are you planning? To go kicking in doors until you find the right one? Think Jill."

"Third floor, end of the hall. Last apartment on the right. The roaches and the rats would give any H&R team a run for their money," she rapped out with brief precision, watching the color drain out of her partner's face. "I told you," she confirmed dully, willing herself not to drop her gaze and confirm her guilt. "I know this place."

Diane's eyes were bleaker than Jill had ever seen them, her skin washed of the vitality and life that she counted on. Jill knew with a sinking heart that her partner was losing more faith in her with every moment than ticked by. "You've known… all this time?"

"No," Jill snapped, hating having to defend herself even though she knew given the circumstances, she was lucky Diane had been steadfast for so long. "It was before… He wanted me to deliver some… cannolis."

"Cannolis?" The voice wasn't Diane's, even though she watched her partner's lips form the same word with the same questioning tilt of her head. John Munch's stark frame loomed behind Diane in the sunlight, casting a shadow as long as Jill's suspicions were growing.

"Detective Munch?"

"Good of you to join us, Detective Kirkendall. Although, given the circumstances, I'd appreciate the courtesy of being able to call you Jill. He's been in there for about forty-five minutes. You guys made good time. Any word on Wheeling?"

Jill raked frustrated fingers through her hair and folded her arms tightly. "I want an explanation."

"The same could be said of your stalwart partner here," he replied, with altogether too much blitheness for Jill's taste. "Not to mention your girlfriend. The limbs they are willing to venture out upon on your behalf are extraordinary. I hope you appreciate that."


"Allow me," Much interrupted before Diane could draw a breath. "Like Old Yeller, I have been dispatched to stand guard over your eldest son. Unlike said canine, however, I have no desire to end today's adventure shot in the head. So you better finish giving me the scoop on your ex-husband. His snatching your boy come as any kind of interruption to the regular broadcast? Because judging just from what I've seen, I'm thinking it probably didn't."

Two pairs of dark eyes-- one cynical, one exhausted but still hopeful-- studied her with unflinching regard. She knew she owed these people the truth, no matter that it might cost her their respect—and in Diane's case, so much more. "No, it didn't. Not entirely," she said at last.

"But you said you didn't know where he'd been holed up?" Diane interjected.

"I didn't," Jill confirmed. "I didn't think he'd be so stupid a mope to come back to the place he'd been operating from before he got snatched up. At the very least, I figured the Job would have it put up."

"Denby said they did," Diane agreed. The two partners studied each other a moment, both minds trailing down the same path. "Denby let him walk," the brunette detective said, a moment before Jill echoed the sentiment.


"Our problem just got exponentially bigger," Diane explained. "The cop who was sitting on Don when he went into the wind…"

"Let him walk?"

"Looking like it."

"Ah shit." Much looked as discomfited as Diane had ever seen the SVU detective appear in their brief acquaintance. "I hate dirty cops. I hate even more having to mop up after them."

Jill studied the lanky figure carefully. "You don't have to, Munch. I appreciate you trying to look after my boy—for whatever reason you did. And however this falls out, I'll always owe you more than I can say. But this isn't your mess to mop. This could get you hurt. That gun to the head. Old Yeller you aren't."

"Wouldn't be exactly gallant of me to flee the scene at this point."

"This isn't Gone with the Wind."

"True. Too many tenements for that. However, I always suspected that Scarlett had a thing for Miss Melly. Would have made the story far more interesting if she had. Besides, I happen to think that Ms. Carmichael would make a stunning Rhett Butler, but since she can't be here right now, I'll do my modest best to stand in her stead."


"Is how we found out that Frank might be in contact with your ex. Detective Russell here suggested that I might sit on Frank's school to see what was in fact true and what was the fanciful imaginings of a boy looking for attention. I had no idea that things were going to turn out this way. Neither, I suspect, did Detective Russell or Ms. Carmichael."

A weighted silence fell between the three veteran detectives as they all mentally reviewed the tactical situation. Diane was the first to break the silence. "Jill, let me get an H&R team into position. We can get Frank out of there."

Jill shook her head roughly. "The roof's too steep for snipers. You'd never get a clear shot."

Diane's expression—and Munch's curious one—told Jill that how she'd come by this knowledge was best left unspoken. "Then let's wait and take him in the street," her partner counter-offered, ignoring the statement's background.

"You think I'm gonna wait that long?" Jill exploded. "Give him god knows how much time to do god knows what to my boy?"

"Pardon me," Munch interjected. "But Frank is Don's son as well. Surely he wouldn't…"

"Hurt his own flesh and blood?" Jill snorted derisively. "You've never had the pleasure of meeting my ex-husband for the coked up skel that he is."

"Coke?" Diane echoed, almost without her own volition.

"Last time I saw him, yeah. To the gills. That night Abbie and I went out." Jill pinched the bridge of her nose tightly and rubbed her eyes. "But before then, too. I just didn't want to admit it."

"When you came here?" Diane prodded gently. "To pick up the… cannolis?"

She nodded hesitantly. "He wanted me to do drugs with him. But I wouldn't. Even though…" She looked helplessly at her partner. "You know how it was with me…" She trailed off, remembering vividly her own confusion over Abbie and the feelings that the attorney stirred within her. Meeting Abbie Carmichael had been unlike anything she had ever known. With one simple night—that had been anything but simple in the scheme of her life—Abbie had shown her a universe of possibility for what a lover could be. And then proceeded, in the days and weeks to follow, to expand that universe, creating world upon world of tenderness and caring, desire and arousal within Jill. Now she hungered for more—not of the possibility— but of the very reality that Abbie had brought to her doorstep just last night. "When I wouldn't…" she shrugged lamely. "He started threatening the boys."

"Oh baby…" Instinctively, Diane reached for her partner, engulfing her larger frame and holding on tightly. Jill's body responded to the comfort, absorbing the succor she was being offered, no longer fearing it. She buried her face in her partner's wild, dark curls for a long moment, before becoming aware of uncomfortable shuffle of Munch's loafers.


"I have to go in there," Jill murmured, her words for Diane alone.

"No." A single word. Just as low, just as ardent.

Jill broke away, not escaping Diane's embrace, but stepping back so she could look her partner in the eye. "I have to do this."


"Remember how you said earlier today that this was Abbie's play?"

"Abbie wasn't walking into a situation with a drugged out loser bearing a personal grudge against you."

"Situation? Abbie?" Munch piped up, only to be ignored by both women.

"This is my play, Diane. He's expecting me."

"All the more reason to sit here and wait him out."

"I won't do that."

"Unless you want me to cuff you to this fucking car you will."

Jill used her height advantage to loom over her partner in a way that heretofore she had only done with particularly recalcitrant skels. She could see the darkening menace of her hazel eyes register with her partner, see the other woman flinch in spite of her resolve. Seeing that brief instant of fear in Diane's eyes, she immediately backed down, pleading instead. "I have to do this, Diane."

"I can't let you…"

"He wouldn't have done this if he hadn't expected me to follow."

"Okay… I'll give you that. But there's no way you could have logically known that he would have done it today and by now. Frank isn't due home from school for hours. He's gonna know that we've been sitting on him."

"All the better."

"Excuse me?"

"He'll think that I've got the 1-5 waiting out here for him."

"And that makes you think you can walk him out?"

"He wants to walk out, Diane. He wants to win. Me showing up here is him winning. At least in part. Him getting to strut away while the rest of you watch is icing."

"You think it's gonna be that easy?"

"No," Jill replied, bluntly, pulling out her service weapon and sliding the clip free. "In fact, I'm gonna make it even harder."

"This is ridiculous," Alex Cabot said, ostensibly to the two detectives standing beside her who didn't particularly appear to be listening.

"We should call an H&R team."

"You wanna get your DA buddy shot, you go right ahead and do that," Sipowicz barked out, belying his disinterested pose and turning finally to face her.

"He speaks," Alex muttered cynically. "Call me an idiot… but isn't the fact that an ADA is in an enclosed space with a suspected murderer who is known to be armed sort of the situation that this team specializes in?"

Sipowicz glanced briefly at his partner. "She did say to call her that," the partner, Sorenson, agreed.

"Look… Ms. Whatever Your Name Is ADA. While I don't hold truck with a lot of the inhabitants of your office—your Leo Cohen-types not being what you might call sterling examples of personhoods-- Ms. Carmichael seems to be a bit more, what we cops like to call on-the-ball-than most. She seems to think she can handle the situation."

"Wouldn't the fact that she hasn't come back out yet seem to give lie to that statement?"

"Wouldn't the fact that we haven't heard gunshot seem not to?" Sorenson rebutted.

"So you're going wait until she's dead to make a move?"

"I'm gonna wait until…" Sipowicz's retort was silenced as the faded blue door opened and two women emerged, both looking somewhat haggard and more than a bit the worse for wear. Alex watched both Sipowicz and Sorenson tense until they saw the gun loosely held in Abbie Carmichael's hand. Abbie's other arm was draped carefully around Tara Wheeling's waist, as if supporting the other woman as they crossed an unfathomable distance. At warning shake of Carmichael's head, they waited until the two women had traversed the unevenly paved surface of the parking lot.

"Ms Wheeling would like to make a statement in the presence of her attorney," Abbie said exhaustedly. "She's willingly surrendering herself to Detectives Sorenson and Sipowicz, but won't speak until then."

"You representing perps now, Carmichael?" Alex couldn't help but snipe.

Abbie ignored her, directing her comments to Sipowicz. "Her attorney is Teresa Connors. Ms. Wheeling has her card and has already placed a call to her. She'll be waiting when we get to the 1-5."

Under Alex Cabot's fierce glare, Tara Wheeling didn't seem anything close to a woman capable of putting a gun to a man's head and cold-bloodedly pulling the trigger. On the other hand, Alex was more than aware of Teresa Connors' association with mob figures and underworld crime. In her tenure at the DA's office, Alex had learned two things about the hard-nosed attorney: if Connors was defending a client, he was most likely guilty and he was mostly likely going to get off.

Alex's heart sank a bit with each realization, and a part of Cabot wondered what in the world Abbie could have over the mob attorney. She knew that Carmichael had been up against several varieties of organized crime—both foreign and domestic. The stories they told about what Carmichael and McCoy had done to the Russian Mafia types who had executed the hit on Carmichael's ex were legendary. Given all her time in narcotics, it wasn't surprising that she had run into Teresa Connors from time to time; and knowing Carmichael, she wasn't even unduly surprised that Connors had ended up the one indebted. Some of her confusion and anger must have been bleeding through to what she had hoped was a professionally bland expression, for Carmichael was looking at her with eyes so raw and unguarded that a part of Alex wanted to apologize for intruding upon something that was so obviously larger than this one woman and this one case.

As Sipowicz took Tara Wheeling into official custody, cuffing the young woman's wrists loosely in front of her body, Abbie ran almost imperceptibly shaking hands through her hair. "I know…" Carmichael started, still gazing resolutely at the other ADA before hesitating and exhaling exhaustedly. "This doesn't make any sense to you, I know," she began again, shaking her head. "And I'm sorry, Alex… So sorry to put you in the middle of all this. You're right, you know, the DA's office isn't a place that I should be able to use to pay my debts. And I don't have any excuse… but I'm asking you to cut me—to cut Tara— some slack. Don't take everything I deserve out on her." Glancing around her once more, this time as if surfacing from a darkened room to a new level of awareness, Carmichael looked around. "Where are D and…" she hesitated. "Where are Detectives Russell and Kirkendall?"

"They uh…" Sorenson said after an eyeball-rolling exchange with his partner during which the young man obviously lost the argument. He blew out a frustrated breath and scratched his scalp through almost non-existent hair. "They uh… got another call."

"Does that call have to do with anything that Detective Munch was following up on?" Carmichael asked, although Alex could clearly see the tightening of Abbie's features and the wariness in her voice.

"It might have been," he conceded.

"You get a 20 on them?"

He shook his head curtly. "But Diane…" He glanced uneasily at Alex, and the ADA couldn't help but bristle at the wariness with which they treated her. Dammit, they were all supposed to be on the same side, but Carmichael and the two women detectives—Russell and Kirkendall were running something that apparently everyone, including Munch, except her, knew about. The exclusion made her itch and her eyes narrow as she focused on the blond detective. He saw the shift in her intensity and blanched, worrying the scuffs in the parking lot with his Hush Puppies. "Detective Russell got the call on her cell."

"Mother…" Abbie swore under her breath, eyes rapidly cycling from Sorenson to Tara to Cabot and back again. Something about Abbie Carmichael ignited in that instant, the substance of which Alex had never seen. They always said that Carmichael was blessed or cursed with the fiery sword of the righteous, but Cabot was willing to wager that no one in the District Attorney's office had ever seen the expression on her face right now. Something near and dear to this woman was being threatened, and Alex wasn't about to be the thing that got between her and a resolution. In astonishment, she watched Abbie bend her head close to Tara, her murmur barely loud enough for the Alex to hear. "Don't say a word until Teresa gets there. Promise me." She waited for the girl's hesitant nod before continuing. "Andy and Danny here are going to take good care of you until I can get back to the 1-5, okay? I know I promised to be with you the whole time, but there's something…" She chewed her lip painfully.

"There's someone else who needs you," Tara replied simply.

Abbie nodded with relief visible to even Alex. Once more she wondered what it was about this seemingly innocent young woman that had driven her to murder and Abbie Carmichael to jeopardize her career to protect her. "Yeah," she said. "Something like that."

"Then go."

Carmichael hesitated a long moment, then nodded and looked at Sipowicz. "You two keep good care of her," she said, indicating himself and Sorenson.

"We will," he assured her. "You keep care of…" He glanced at Cabot. "That other thing."

She managed a quick smile. "I will."

Leaving them all without a backward glance.

"It's me," Jill said, without even knocking on the door. The hallway's stench exceeded the recollection of her sense memory, and she fought down the gag threatening to knock the steadiness from her voice. For the first time in decades, she cast a fervent prayer towards a God that she believed had abandoned her and her sister years ago. Praying for her boy. For his safety, his wholeness. Even knowing all the while that no matter how this turned out, Frank would carry the knowledge of day with him forever. "I love you, Frankie," she murmured to herself, wishing for his forgiveness in the same breath.

She had left her partner on the sidewalk outside, caught between cursing her and following fast after her, the clip of her Glock 17 in Diane's hand, even as the weapon was holstered loosely by her side. She wouldn't hesitate to draw it on her ex-husband, but she'd be damned if she'd empty a clip into her son's father right in front of his eyes. And she didn't trust herself not to, given the chance and the circumstances. It was really that simple. For a moment she reflected back to that night, a few short weeks ago, when she had pressed the muzzle of her fully-loaded off-duty piece into Don's chest. He had dared her to pull the trigger, and she had backed down—all the while knowing that had she chosen otherwise, both Danny and Diane, who had been waiting upstairs with her sons, would have backed her self-defense statement all the way.

Jill Kirkendall, however, had been called many things. But a dirty cop had never been one of them.

Things at that point had gone from bad to worse with him. Don took her refusal to murder him in cold blood as capitulation and believed that it signaled the same in other areas. But she didn't want his drugs or his sex or the oblivion that both could have provided. Now, given the way things were shaking out, and even though she was more than prepared to give up her life for Frank's… she found herself with a few regrets of her own.

Abbie Carmichael was at the top of that list, and the attorney's clear-cut chiseled features were hovering too close behind Jill's eyes to allow any easy self-delusions at this point. The woman who held her in her arms last night, the woman who had given her respite from all the chaos surrounding her in a way that no one else ever had, was the promise of tomorrow. It was a promise she had desperately hoped would be fulfilled in its own time, but nonetheless—everything Abbie was and could be to her now took a backseat to what now faced her.

"Don…" she said into the thin plywood. "I know you're in there…"

The door jerked open to an unfamiliar face, one that didn't belong to her husband, but he greeted her with all the excitement of a long lost lover. "Why Jill… So glad to see you could join us…"

"You. Let. Her. Go. In. There." Each word ground out of Abbie's mouth as she fought to retain what little self-control she had left. With Tara Wheeling was safely in custody and Alex Cabot dismissed with as yet-to-be-determined ramifications for her career, a quick phone call to Munch had brought her to a scene that she couldn't have conjured up in even her wildest nightmares.

"Funny," Diane snapped back, "You sound exactly like she did when you were going through Tara Wheeling's door."

"I wasn't walking through a door to a man who had a jones just to cause me pain."

"Now you sound just like Detective Russell did trying to keep Jill through her ex's door," Munch added helpfully, but thought better of saying anything more when faced with the two women's glares.

"I can't believe…" Abbie started, only to be interrupted by Diane's ardent voice.

"It was her play, Abs. Just like Tara Wheeling was yours."

"The circumstances were hardly the same."

"True," the detective admitted with a weary shake of her head. "She wasn't holding your son hostage."

"If Kyle's telling the truth, there's no hostage situation," Abbie countered.

"You don't think that man means to do Frank harm, snatching him up the way he did?"

"He wants to scare her."

Diane leveled her with a darkly furious stare. "Jill once told me that he'd fuck over anyone she loved just to see her bleed. You wanna tell me there's someone she loves more than her son?"

Abbie locked eyes with her old friend before shaking her head, backing down. "And if he puts hands to that boy, you don't think she's going to kill him for it? You want murder on her head?"

"I wouldn't call it murder. I don't think anyone standing here would, but regardless…" Diane held up the full clip to Jill's Glock. "It's not going to play out that way."

Icy realization doused Abbie into painful awareness. "She's not planning on coming out of there."

Diane shook her head roughly in disagreement. "She thinks she can talk him outside."

"Have you taken complete leave of your senses, Diane?" Abbie roared, the words rowling out of her throat and waves of anger emanating from her body. "What in the Good Lord's name possessed you to let her walk in there with an empty 9mm and a man who wants her dead if she won't bend to his will?"

"Diane did threaten to cuff her to the car," Munch muttered.

Abbie whipped her head around and stared at him with a rage that caused the older man to blanch. "Unless you have something helpful to suggest, Munch, I suggest you shut the fuck up."

"You want a helpful suggestion?" he snapped back. "Calm yourself-- both of you-- and see what we can do in situ, because there's nothing anyone can do to change the current circumstances. She's in there and she's unarmed, and believe me when I tell you that she was going in there regardless of whether or not she had to do it with Detective Russell attached to one leg and me attached to the other."

Abbie drew a long, shuddering breath, knowing Munch was right and hating every helpless second of it. Blindly she ran her hand down Diane's arm, snagging the detective's fingers and entwining them with her own. "We'll get her out of there, D. We have to."

Diane nodded bleakly, her own pain rendering her mute.

"Jill said that the angle of the roof was too steep to get snipers a clear shot, but…" Munch began.

"H&R is out," Abbie interrupted him with a shake of her head.

"Why so?"

"You think that IAB is going to believe for a second that Jill didn't know where he was the whole time? Especially given that we had a plainclothes on the QT sitting on Frank's school because we had inside dope he might pop there? I couldn't even sell that to the idiots on the OJ jury. She'll be cooked with the NYPD, and they may damn well decide to press criminal charges. Dirty cops make a lot of ADA's careers these days, and with the Narco tie-ins… she'd be a sitting duck. Nothing I or anyone else could do to stop it."

"Regardless of her guilt or innocence?"

"Whether or not Jill participated in any crimes, she did have guilty knowledge that could have helped IAB do their job. We've shaded the truth as much as we can. Now we can't expect the department to come gallivanting to the rescue without ponying up to the consequences."

"Then what do you suggest?"

"Sorenson and Sipowicz are pretty tight with you and Jill, aren't they?" At Diane's nod, Abbie continued. "They should have taken Tara through booking by now, and I've got an attorney waiting for her. Teresa Connors isn't going to let anyone have a go at her until she's billed and drilled Tara's story to the ground. They can be our back-up, provided Jill really is serious about being able to get him out. Five good cops and an ADA's word usually beats a skel every time."

"You hooked Tara Wheeling up with the biggest mob lawyer in New York?" Munch blurted, momentarily distracted by the news.

"She's the best criminal attorney I know," Abbie shot back.

"Yeah, if you're Tony Soprano."

"Stick to the relevant, Munch," the attorney warned. "In this instance, Teresa Connors' credentials aren't on that list."

"Err…" the SVU detective hesitated. "In that case, there's one other thing."

"Are you about to tell me this situation is even worse than I think?"

"In short. Yes." Abbie's prodding eyebrows forced the words out of him. "The cop who was supposed to have this place up… we think he's the one who let ex-Mr. Kirkendall walk."

Abbie swung an astonished gaze to Diane. "He flipped an undercover?"

"From what I know about Harry Denby, it probably wasn't that hard a job," Diane answered laconically. "Everything I hear is that he's halfway to filthy as it is."

"So Jill's in there with her twelve year old son, a dirty cop, and her ex-husband who wants to see her broken." At Diane and Munch's answering nods, Abbie Carmichael did something she hadn't done in two long decades.

She bowed her head and prayed.

The man beckoned Jill into the begrimed apartment with a mocking, sweeping gesture, as if opening the door to the Chelsea Hotel. "I don't think we've been formally introduced. I'm Harry Denby, of the NYPD— soon to be retired, of course."

Jill's jaw dropped a notch as comprehension dawned, and she realized that all the rules had just changed. Suddenly leaving that single bullet in the chamber when she handed the clip to her partner didn't seem so much like a game of Russian Roulette with her conscience, but rather the only chance she might have to save her and her son's lives. "You let him walk."

"Let's just say that I found it to my advantage to casually advert my eyes at an opportune moment. Your ex-husband has some lovely connections of the Peruvian variety who have generously agreed to donate to my retirement fund should I make Don unavailable for trial."

She snorted dismissively. "Are you crazy? They'll slit your throat, then cut off your hands and head and toss you in a dumpster once they're finished with Don."

"Quite a dire end you're predicting for me there," he said, with a negligent and overly dramatic toss of his head. Diane had told her that he had the haphazard charm of a drunken bull in a china shop who was randomly quoting Shakespeare as he pawed what little merchandise he didn't break. Now Jill could see what her partner meant. A thick shock of black hair fell lazily over one eye and would have been somewhat the better for a good wash. Indeed, all of Harry Denby looked like a thirty minute shower wouldn't even begin to wash the sheen of sweat, grit, and simple street dirt off his skin. His pupils were constricted to pinpricks awash in deep brown eyes, and what white showed was criss-crossed with a network of red. Each word he spoke was punctuated by a sniffle, and he casually wiped the back of his nose with the uncaring of habit. Harry Denby, Jill realized, was on a bender of epic proportions; the only trouble was, she didn't know if this could work in her favor or not. Breaking off her ruminations, Jill watched Denby eyeing her askance, as if trying to determine whether or not she would play along with him, and she wondered how much of this was part of a quest on Denby's part for suicide by cop. "I would…. Love… to get a look at your crystal balls," he taunted, staring at her chest.

"Not much of a hard prediction, Denby," Jill replied indifferently, ignoring his leer. "These guys don't fuck around." She paused, then added. "Or fuck up."

"Unlike yours truly."

"You hooked up with Don Kirkendall, didn't you?" she baited him, hoping that Don could hear.

"Not an amicable parting between you two, I'm guessing."

"Nothing Don Kirkendall's ever touched that hasn't turned to pure shit."

"A rather harsh indictment of the man you promised to love, honor and obey till death to you part."

"You bucking for a talk show gig, Denby?"

"Merely trying to understand the motivations of all the players."

"And yours?" she prodded. "Oh, that's right. You're all about the suicide run." She swiftly crossed the

few steps separating them, pulling her Glock from its holster at her side and pressing it against his temple. "I can make that a short trip for you, Denby," she breathed into his ear, while her free hand searched the waistband of his pants and pulled out a .38. "Kind of a pansy piece," she mocked him, concealing the Smith & Wesson in the small of her back. "Would have figured you for the overcompensating type."

"What can I say?" he shrugged lazily. "I am what I am."

"You break out into that Popeye the Sailor Man song, I really will cap you."

"You mean you aren't going to? Detective, I'm so disappointed."

"Where's Don?"

"You haven't figured out by now that he's not here?"

Feeling the first shivers of apprehension coursing through her spine, Jill shook her head. "I got a precinct full of cops outside that say different."

"The squad detectives are even more stupid than I thought." He shook his head in bemused disappointment. "Such a shame, too. I had such high hopes for Diane—Detective Russell," he clarified disingenuously. "But then, you two are close, aren't you? It's amazing what one partner will do for another. If I'd had a partner that I had been as…" he paused delicately, "Close… to as you are to Diane, then maybe I would still be upholding the thin blue line instead of straying from it."

"You were going to tell me where Don was?" she prodded, pressing the gun a bit more tightly into his temple and ignoring the bait.

"Ow," he winced, bending a little at the pressure against his skull. "You know there's really no need for this kind of brutality."

"Brutality would be if I beat where Don was outta you. I'm as gentle as a lamb right now. That could change," she warned. "Where is he? Where is my son?"

"Well..." he looked over Jill's shoulder towards the doorway behind her. "I don't have an exact 20 on your ex. But your son… well, he's the little guy watching his mother put a gun to my head."

"You get Tara all settled?" Abbie asked as Sipowicz and Sorenson tumbled out of the department issued Towncar.

"As settled as one can be in the pokey," Sorenson informed her. "And let me tell you, that Teresa Connors is a piece of work. She's got Cabot so tied up in knots, she doesn't know whether to shit or go blind. Excusin' my language."

"It was a beautiful site to behold," Andy agreed. "Not that we like mob lawyers," he added.

"But given the lesser of two evils," Danny nodded his agreement.

"In this particular instance..."

"Guys…" Abbie interrupted.

"The devil you know," Andy said.


"Instead of taking my chances with the deep blue sea," the younger cop parried.

"Jill is trapped in a building with Don, her son and maybe Harry Denby, carrying a Glock with no clip…" Diane burst out, interrupting the banter between the two men.

"Don't you have anything positive to say at all?" Danny looked disbelievingly at her.

"Well, she may have a round in the chamber."

"Comic relief is not what we need at the moment," Abbie barked.

The two other detectives sobered suddenly. "What do you need?"

"You two to back us up."

"Us?" Danny queried. "You suddenly start packing?"

"I'd be surprised if it was a new thing," Andy couldn't help but mutter under his breath.

Abbie shot him a withering look. "Are you in or out? Cause if you're out, I need to call in a few favors."

"Jill don't need no overly tense ADA doing her favors," Andy disagreed. "We take care of our own."

"Good. Then this is what I need you to do…"

"Um…" Munch ventured, then literally tugged at Abbie's sleeve to get her attention. "I hate to throw yet another wrench in the already monkeyed works, but… isn't that Don Kirkendall coming down the street?"

The three other detectives and the ADA looked in the direction Munch's chin was lifted, just in time for them to catch site of Don Kirkendall ambling down the street towards them, oblivious—until that moment—of any scrutiny. Five sets of eyes fixed on him with a hungry intensity, stutter-stepping them all into momentarily paralysis. The moment teetered precariously on the edge of eternity, until Diane was the first to break its thrall. Starting from a dead stop into close to a full sprint, Diane tore towards her partner's ex-husband and the bane of all their existences for these long weeks. Already backing away, Don spun full on his heels and began to run in the opposite direction, four furious NYPD detectives and one outraged District Attorney hot on his heels. Diane reached him first, his much bulkier frame far slower than her lithe one. A strangled cry of anger and frustration poured from Diane's throat as she hurled herself into the air, bringing him down in a sprawling heap. Sipowicz and Sorenson were right behind her, service weapons and cuffs at the ready.

"I thought you said he was in the building?" Diane shouted over her shoulder at the lanky SVU detective.

"You ever hear of back doors?" Kirkendall sneered, and was rewarded by the abrupt introduction of his nose into the pavement.

"Did I fucking say anything to you, asshole?" Diane shouted hoarsely, grinding the muzzle of her gun into his flesh.

He yelped slightly in pain as Diane caught him by the hair and dragged his face up to meet Abbie's. His eyes widened in recognition. "You fucking dyke," he spat. "You think getting a goon squad to run me down is going to make you hers? Huh?" he taunted. "Where is she right now? Right where I knew she would be. Waiting up there for me."

Both Diane and Abbie were vividly aware of the confused exchange of glances between Sipowicz and Sorenson, but both men mercifully let the subject go for now.

"I'd say that kidnapping a cop's son and then waiting for her to show up at your hidey hole is not a smart way of doing business, Don," Abbie replied evenly. "In fact, I'd say it was fucking stupid."

"Who said anything about kidnapping?" he protested. "She knew right where we were, didn't she?" He must have seen the flicker of doubt in Abbie's eyes, for he pressed his advantage. "Just like she's always known. Just like I knew she'd come. She'll always come for me, dyke. Always." The derision in his eyes twisted the words into their most salacious meaning. "I bet you can't say the same."

"Arrest this asshole," she said curtly to Sipowicz and Sorenson, unwilling to let him taunt her any longer, unwilling to let her doubts loom any larger in her thoughts. "And make sure he understands his right to remain silent," she emphasized, before needlessly clarifying, "Gag the bastard if you have to."

"Don't want to hear the truth?" he continued to taunt, until Sorenson took Diane's position behind him and reintroduced his nose to the pavement.

"You have the right to remain—" Thwack "Silent." Thwack "Got it?" Danny pulled his head back, letting the blood run freely over the other man's face. "You want me to show you what silent means again?"

"No.." he gagged on the blood running into his mouth. "I got it."

"Smart boy," Danny approved. "Now come with us." He looked at Diane and Abbie questioningly. "You want we should go ahead and run him to the House?" His shellacked expression read strongly of confusion, but also of unwavering support for his precinct partners and the trust they had put in this new ADA.

Diane shook her head. "Just sit on him out here for a minute." The rest of the sentence: we may need you for more backup went unspoken.

Andy nodded his agreement. "Hey, Stretch..." he motioned towards Munch. "Sit on this asshole for a minute while we go up and get our partner?"

Munch eyed the motley collection of law enforcement officers and their prisoner thoughtfully and nodded his agreement. "Delighted to." Seeing Diane jerk her heads towards the building in which Jill had disappeared, he looked at Abbie. "And perhaps Ms. Carmichael should keep me company."

Abbie shook her head vehemently. "No way." Every fiber of her being ached to make sure her lover was already. Now that they had Don in custody, each moment that passed without Jill's reemergence only increased the frenetic beat of her heart. Had Jill gone in there and discovered Don gone and Frank safe, none of them would still be standing there. Something had gone terribly wrong-- the unspoken truth hovered over all of them-- and Abbie wasn't about to wait one more minute.


"You want me standing out here with him?" Abbie cocked her chin in Don's direction. "Fine. Munch, can I borrow your service weapon?"

Don Kirkendall only smirked at the question until he saw Munch withdraw the police-issue Glock and hand it to the attorney. He started shaking his head frantically and backing away when he saw her handle the weapon familiarly and level it easily at his chest.

She glanced calmly at Diane, who was staring at her in wide-eyed disbelief. "You really want to leave me alone here with him?"

Diane knew in spite of Abbie's implacably cool exterior, she was dying on the inside each second Jill was away from her. She knew because she felt much the same way. "You trying to half-step over that line, Abbie? Make this right in your head?"

"I want him to stop hurting her. And I want her out of that building. I'm going to accomplish one of those two goals in the next five minutes. You get to pick which one it is."

"You can't make using a gun on a handcuffed man right."

The words echoed resonantly in Abbie's head, lingering in the air and reminding her of a night and the rain and a time when they were hers said to the woman saying them to her now. They were as right then as they were now, and she nodded her recognition with a weary sigh. Lowering the gun, she took a last look at the man who had thrown away the love of such an extraordinary woman. "You're an asshole, Kirkendall," she muttered to him, bringing her hand up in a sweeping arc and backhanding him in a powerful blow that sent blood, snot and already loosened cartilage splashing over Munch's black suit. "I'm going to get Jill."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Munch said, looking away from the newly-created mess on his clothing and towards the tenement doorway. Abbie swiveled in the direction of his glance and saw three forms emerging from the shadows. A medium-built man in his late thirties with his hands behind his head came first; followed by the lean, familiar shape of her lover and the smaller form of her eldest son. Late afternoon sunlight poured over the golden cap of Jill's hair, highlighting every spun silk strand and tracing the elegant planes of her face. She looked exhausted and pushed to her limits, but there was a triumphant expression in her hazel as she recognized the man in cuffs and the group of detectives surrounding them. Handing Harry Denby wordlessly off to Sorenson and Sipowicz, she didn't waste so much as a breath or a glance on her ex-husband. Instead her arms found their way about her son and her gaze to Abbie's face.

"Let's go home."



"They down?" Abbie asked quietly as Jill emerged from the short hallway between her sons' rooms. She had no idea how many hours had passed between the moment her heart had finally started beating again and now-- all of them a blur of official inquiry and demand until Leo Cohen had finally thrown up his hands in surrender and said, "Be here at seven-- all of you," leveling his eyes at the five detectives and the other assistant district attorney. "We'll sort this out then."

Together they had gathered Frank from the upstairs "crib" where the detectives' frequently caught up on sorely-missed sleep and Kyle from the home of a soccer teammate and wearily made their way to Jill's apartment. Abbie had left Jill's side only long enough to run down to Mae's diner and pick up generous helpings of roast beef, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and a few stray vegetables that snuck their way into the Styrofoam containers. Fed and bathed, the excitement of the day had finally proven too much for the boys, who crawled into bed with uncomplaining obedience.

She waited in the living room while Jill spent a long time just studying the shape of her sons' faces, imprinting their features at this moment, knowing that a part of their childhood had irrevocably ended for them today.

Jill rubbed her eyes, red-rimmed with exhaustion and unshed tears and nodded. She stood awkwardly in the living room, as if on an alien planet-- the things of her home and life suddenly unfamiliar. Her gaze became cloudy and unfocused, and for a minute Abbie was afraid the other woman was going to pass out. Then cloudy green cleared and fixed on Abbie with unwavering purpose. "Come here," she said hoarsely, holding out her hand.

Wordlessly, Abbie complied, rising from the couch in a gracefully fluid motion and enfolding her lover in a tight embrace.

Jill buried her face in the dark length of Abbie's hair, inhaling the growingly familiar sent of sandalwood and the mild tang of sweat on her skin. She drew a shuddering breath, brushing lips over the delicate curl of an ear, whispering softly, "Come to bed."

Abbie pulled back slightly, still holding the other woman close. "The boys?"

"The boys are asleep. And I..." she hesitated, ducking her head away from the confession. "I need you, Abbie." Resting her head again in the comfort of her lover's shoulder. "Please..." her voice trailed away, rendering the plea almost inaudible.

Abbie's breath snagged its path in her throat, and her heart squeezed powerfully within the confines of her chest. She could no more deny Jill the succor of her touch than she could the pulse of her own life. Cupping the other woman's head in her hands, she drew their gazes level, she fulfilled the prophecy of Jill's words the night before-- promising silently to break herself before she would ever hurt this magnificent person in her arms. Her lips found Jill's, parting breathlessly and inviting Jill's to do the same. Faint traces of the honey and whiskey toddy Abbie had made for her lingered on Jill's tongue as it sought entrance into Abbie's mouth.

She granted this gentle invasion with one of her own, feeling the kiss deepen and shift into something more intense and urgent. Her fingers tangled in the fine strands of Jill's cropped hair while Jill's own hands curled around the graceful curve of Abbie's torso, loosening the silk blouse from its tuck into her trousers. Her abdomen flexed and roiled uncontrollably at first touch of Jill's fingers on her bare flesh, and a low groan rippled into their unending kiss. The reality of what was about to happen seared itself into Abbie's consciousness as those same fingers sought the rounded smoothness of her breasts. "Jill..." she managed, grateful that her lover seemed to comprehend the meaning of the word when they started moving out of the living room.

Trousers, shoes, shirts and undergarments were all surrendered to the brief stretch of carpet between the bedroom doorway and the bed itself. Abbie shuddered as Jill turned in her embrace to pull back the coverlet with an impatient tug of her arm, and they tumbled like that-- back to front-- onto the welcoming surface. Abbie nuzzled the delicate patch of skin at the base of Jill's neck, her tongue feathering lightly over the goosebumps her touch had raised.

"See you..." Jill murmured incoherently, legs tangling and back arching; and Abbie freed her long enough to settle once more in their embrace. Hazel eyes focused on sienna, need flaring between them as she brought Abbie's hand to her center and her own to Abbie. "Touch you..."

There would be time enough, Abbie knew instinctively, for the kind of patience and reverence she wanted to lavish on Jill's body. The first time they had made love had proven that. Now was about reconnection, a grounding to the earth, to web of devotion that was beginning to weave between them. Still, she gasped at the thick evidence of Jill's need for her. The easy track of Jill's hand along the path between her legs needlessly provided proof of her own desire; and she arced into the touch, slipping her leg over Jill's hip and offering herself to the woman in her arms.

Jill moaned in response, her mouth never leaving Abbie's, delivering a series of kisses that spiraled their passion still higher. Hips and hands found a rhythm as old as the centuries, yet was singularly unique in this permutation. She was surrounded by Jill, her scent her sweat her breath her essence even as she felt herself encompassing Jill. An obdurous not of frustration, but completion. A keening and a calling.

A coming home.

The End

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