DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and all characters are property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
THANKS: As ever, to Xander and Gail for helping me in so many ways to finish this trilogy, and to Lost for last minute edits. Thank you also to the fans of this storyline, who have waited patiently to read it. TWOPers: Olivia takes.it.personally, just for you.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILER: Loss, reference to Closure I & II.
SERIES: Sequel to Spark and Hybrid.

By Harriet

Though Olivia was awake, the sound of the cellphone buzzing on the nightstand still gave her a little jolt. Quickly she grabbed it, rolled out of bed and padded into the other room to let Alex sleep.


"Hey Liv, sorry to wake you."

"I'm up, what is it?"

"Found a body near the steps of the Williamsburg Bridge, beaten, raped, both wrists slashed."

Instantly the MO of a familiar killer popped into her brain. This was the third inside a few months, and her stomach rolled as her mind reached for the names of the victims. Denise Flynn, and Jenny Slater before her. "Shit."

"Looks like our guy."

"Okay, be right there."

"You'll beat me, and Liv, don't rip the officer a new one, but there's been a contamination."

"For Christ's sake--"

"He's a rookie. Didn't know what he stumbled on till he lost his dinner."

"Tell me it's not as bad as it sounds."

"It's not. He missed the body."

Olivia sighed. "I guess that's something. See you."

She left the phone on the kitchen counter and crept back into the bedroom, picking up the jeans, shirt and underthings she'd left on a chair for situations like this. It was a hell of a lot quieter than trying to find an outfit in the dark -- she'd woken Alex a number of times already in the few months they'd lived together.

Five minutes later she clipped on her holster and cuffs, ready to walk out the door.

"Liv," she heard from across the room.

She winced, glancing toward the human sized lump on the bed. "Sorry, sweetie, I tried to be quiet."

Though Alex's voice was muffled slightly by a pillow, Olivia heard her clearly. "You weren't really going to walk out of here without kissing me goodbye, were you?"

Yes. I didn't want to wake you. "Of course not."

"Thought so. Come here."

Olivia sat at the side of the bed and bent down for a quick peck. Instead, Alex snaked her arms around Olivia's neck and whispered, "They can wait an extra thirty seconds, can't they?" Then her mouth was against Olivia's, soft and pliant, as fingers ruffled through Olivia's hair.

Olivia tilted her head, inhaling Alex's sleepy scent as their tongues played lightly together. She sighed into Alex's mouth, wishing she could stay wrapped around her till morning broke. It was difficult to pull away, but she managed, adding a few closing touches to Alex's cheek and eyelids. "You always make it so hard for me to leave."

"That's the idea. Wouldn't want you to go out and find someone better."

With a disbelieving smile, Olivia replied, "As if that were possible."

"Can't be too careful," Alex said, adding a final kiss.

Olivia glanced quickly at the bedside clock. "I gotta go. You have court today?"

"Bright and early." Her eyes were unfocused and adoring. "Be safe. I love you."

"Love you too."

"Call me if you need me," Alex said as her head fell back to the pillow.

Olivia just smiled, and blew a kiss on her way out.

Endless hours later, Olivia's head swam, her blood sugar off kilter from too much coffee and too many donuts. The third Krispy Kreme had sent her over the edge, and it was easiest to blame the buyer. "Fin, next time, just get one box of donuts, okay?"

"Thought I was doin' you a favor. What time did you roll out this morning?"

"God, 2 something?"

"I've got an apple from yesterday. Want it?"

"Yeah." Just what I need-- more sugar. The phone rang, and she grabbed it before the first ring ended. "SVU, Benson."

"Afternoon, Detective." Alex's voice was smooth as honey along the line.

"Hey," she said gently, turning away from the desk with a smile she tried to hide.

"Cabot's on the phone if anyone has to talk to her," Fin announced to the squad room.

"Shut it, Odafin," Olivia said to him before tilting her chin back down.

"They teasing you, babe?" Alex asked.

"So what else is new." Each week the guys found new ways to torture her, but the first was the worst. The day she'd returned to work after Alex's welcome home party, the Cindy Adams piece in the paper had, as promised, been her desk's new décor, wrapped around every inch of the desk, including the insides of the drawers. Since then, their pranks hadn't been so elaborate, but she wondered how they were finding ridiculous images of Alex to slip into the silver frame she kept on her desk.

"Tell me no new pictures have shown up of me eating a hot dog."

With a grin, Olivia replied, "Not lately." That one had even made Olivia laugh-- Alex had piled way too many condiments on, and could barely fit the thing in her mouth. "How are you?"

"Not bad. The case is going well-- Ridenour's on his best behavior, and Harrison's got nothing. Should wrap Friday, and if the jury takes more than an hour to come in I'll eat my hat. How about you?"

Olivia shrugged. "No fibers yet-- Warner thinks he's using flexicuffs to bind the hands. But we did find the tip of an exacto knife in this one." Munch was rechecking the careers of family and friends of the first victim for anyone with an interest in graphics, architecture or woodworking. It was slim, but they'd worked with less.

"That's great. Sounds like it could be a break."

"Maybe." Liv didn't want to get her hopes up, but her gut was telling her it was the right direction.

"Okay, I'll leave you to it. Just wanted to tell you, I'm meeting Mom and Gerald at Nice Matin at 8. It's at 79th and Amsterdam if you're free."

God, real food. "Sounds great. I'll try."

"See you soon. And don't worry, you don't have to tell me you love me over the phone with Fin breathing down your neck."

With a laugh, she replied, "But I do. I'll let you know about dinner."

"Okay." Olivia heard the sound of a kiss, and Alex hung up.

"Way to keep the romance alive, Liv. Instead of sweet nothings, you whisper crime scene details to your girl."

"Hey, I don't hear any sweet nothings being whispered into your phone these days."

"That's 'cause I get some privacy and use my cell phone." Fin ate half a stale donut as he leaned back in his chair, an open file in his hands.

As Olivia continued to reread the three-month-old report on Jenny Slater, Elliot strode in, armed with paper bags that smelled suspiciously of French fries. Embarrassed at the rush of saliva triggered by the scent, she tried not to look too interested. "Anything in there for me?"

"Maybe," Elliot said, catching her eye.

"Please, please, pretty please," she said, getting up to investigate his purchases. Without waiting for his affirmative reply, she simply removed the pastrami sandwich and fries that were going to be hers come hell or highwater. She tore into lunch with aplomb, while Fin sighed behind her.

"It's a wonder you and Cabot have lasted this long. Has she seen you eat?"

Olivia almost choked. I'd best leave that one alone.

Olivia's eyelids scraped like sandpaper as she opened her eyes. An afternoon spent canvassing the neighborhood had yielded nothing, and neither had the questioning of Bailey Stuart's friends and family that evening.



"So this is our guy's third, right?"

"Uh huh." He kept his eyes on one of the crime scene photos.

Leaning back in her seat, Olivia balanced a pen on the tip of her finger. "Serials start close to home, usually the first vic is a known quantity. What if Bailey wasn't the third? What if she was the fourth, or fifth?"

"I don't remember running across anything like this--"

"What if the first was ruled a suicide?"

Elliot looked at her, his face a motionless sheet of glass. "Say he got started smaller, with someone he knew. A girlfriend, a family member, someone he worked with." Seconds passed before he spoke again. "We should pull the suicides involving cutting, see if anything looks fishy."

Olivia felt that tingle in her gut. "He means business-- the cuts have to be vertical, not horizontal. That should narrow it down." She rubbed her eyes. "He wanted to make sure the vic couldn't get help from anyone ever again."

Elliot was nodding; he'd caught her enthusiasm. "Worth a shot. Think we should go back a year? More?"

"He's only been active sixteen weeks. Let's go with a year just to be safe." But if we find anything, I bet it's within six months, probably less. She listened as Elliot picked up the phone to get the records pulled.

As Olivia drifted in her thoughts of the case, Elliot's voice shook her out of her stupor. "Did you remember to call the wife earlier?"

With a small snort, Olivia replied, "Of course. Said she'd leave me a doggie bag in the fridge for when I got home." If I get home. She'd gotten used to Elliot's referring to Alex as "the wife;" it felt kind of nice, when it came right down to it.

"Nice work."

"Kathy expecting you home anytime soon?"

"I told her I'd see her next week if I was lucky."

After a few more minutes skimming the files of each of the victims, Olivia said, "Okay, these women have good jobs. They're intelligent, intellectual. One, assistant professor at Columbia. Two, documentary filmmaker. Three, sous chef. Where did he meet them? They lived all over the city."

Munch pointed out the apartments of the three women. "Jenny lived in Midtown, here, on 50th. She was found in Battery Park. Denise had a place on East 66th, she was found in the Financial District, in broad daylight at the entrance of an alley." He drew an imaginary line. "Which brings us to Bailey Stuart, found at the bridge. She lived in Chelsea, 10th Avenue. What do they do in their time off?"

"Nothing specific enough to say exactly where they met the guy," Fin said. "They liked movies, they went to the theatre. That describes half of New York, not to mention most of Pennsylvania and New Jersey's over-65 population."

Olivia shook her head. "Maybe they all hit the same theatre-- there might be tickets or something lying around. That could be a record."

"I went through every inch of Jenny Slater's apartment," Munch said. "Believe me, anything dated within two weeks of the murder, I grabbed. I don't remember any movie tickets or Playbills that would fit."

"It has to be something," Olivia insisted. "Something drives this guy to take these women. He chooses them for a reason. It can't just be a crime of opportunity. He makes the opportunity."

"You're starting to sound like Huang," Fin cracked.

"Well we could use him right now," Olivia shot back. "Where is he?"

"Finishing a conference in Albany. He'll be in at 7 tomorrow," Cragen said as he approached the group. "Please tell me you've got something to go on. I've got media banging down the door. The chief's looking to set up a task force based out of this squad."

Olivia lifted her chin and said, "We're thinking Jenny Slater might not have been the first victim. We requested records of all the successful suicide attempts in the last year involving slashed wrists."

Cragen bobbed his head. "Good." He pointed at Munch and Fin. "You two, keep at it. Liv and Elliot, you've been working since 2AM. This one isn't going to solve itself, and it's not going to happen tonight. I need you engaged and alert. Come back at 7 and we'll start fresh with Huang."

"But Cap, it's only--" Olivia looked at her watch. "12:30." Shit. So much for a late supper.

"Home, Olivia," Cragen said. "See you in a few hours."

"The records won't be in till the morning, Olivia, and as much as we'd like to, we can't exactly go knocking on doors in the middle of the night." Munch added. "Fin and I will finish rechecking the interviews tonight."

Olivia expelled a heavy breath, feeling the weight of her eyelids pressing down. "Okay."

Munch smiled. "As a trade for my gesture of good will, you can regale me with torrid tales of your continuing affair with our luscious Miss Cabot."

"Not a chance." Olivia's feet landed hard on the floor. "But thanks anyway."

Munch sighed. "I tried, guys. Sorry."

Olivia unlocked the door and slipped inside, expecting the apartment to be dark. Instead, she saw light spilling out onto the floor from Alex's office, compounded by the dim oven bulb in the kitchen.

"Hey," Olivia said, poking her head into the office.

"Evening, stranger," Alex said, tilting back in her ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair. Her hair was in a messy bun, a pencil stuck through it to hold it in place. Tortoise shell glasses had slipped too far down her nose, and blue eyes watched Olivia steadily from over the rims.

"I'm sorry again for missing dinner." Olivia stepped inside and planted a kiss on soft lips. "Got sucked into interviews. How was it?"

"Delicious." Tilting her head, Alex's face was passive as her neck cracked noisily. Olivia winced. "You hungry?"

"Yeah. Anything good leftover?"

"Mm-hmm. If you want to get a shower, I can warm it up for you."

Olivia shook her head. "I can do it. I just need to wash off a little," she said, not wanting to put Alex out. It was bad enough she'd missed another meal; she didn't want Alex making her dinner at nearly one in the morning. "Besides, don't you have court again in the morning?"

"Ridenour must have an appointment with his personal trainer in the morning. I'm not due till 10:30."

Olivia slumped against the bathroom door. "God, that sounds like heaven."

A few minutes later as she toweled off, Olivia noticed the distinctive scent of red meat wafting through the open bathroom door. Her stomach rumbled violently, leaving her almost in pain as she pulled on her boxers and tank. She spent a few seconds towel drying her hair before stepping out into the main room.

"I told you I'd make it," Olivia said.

Alex glanced over her shoulder, shadows barely hiding her expression in the low light. "Are you implying that reheating food in the microwave is too challenging for my culinary skills, Detective?"

With a gentle smile, Olivia replied, "You already brought me dinner. That's above and beyond the call of duty."

Handing her a plate, Alex shook her head. "It's not enough, as far as I'm concerned. If I'd known you were at the station earlier, I'd have dropped it off. Even if I had to listen to the boys complain about how I never bring them dinner too."

Olivia stared incongruous site of a hamburger and potatoes on a china plate. What's the point of having china if it sits in the cupboard till I'm dead? Alex would say whenever Olivia wanted to use the everyday dishes. Olivia had taken to hand washing every plate just in case. "What is this?"

"A burger with rosemary and aioli, and garlic potatoes." Saliva rushed into Olivia's mouth. "And a Harp." Alex handed her an open bottle of lager before walking with the plate to the coffee table.

After a long pull from the beer, which went down cool and warm at the same time, Olivia groaned, "God, I don't deserve you."

Alex smiled. "Yes you do. Now sit."

Olivia obeyed, and didn't say a thing when Alex laid the plate on her lap and sat at the other end of the couch. She lifted Olivia's feet to her lap and started to rub one of them.

"Hey," Olivia said, pulling her foot back. "What are you doing?"

"Taking care of you."

"I don't need you to rub my feet, Alex. This is perfect."

Alex took Olivia's foot back into her hands. "What if I want to take care of you for once?" She dug her thumb in a line leading from heel to toes, and Olivia caught her breath at the pleasurable pain. "You rub my feet all the time but I never get to return the favor."

Olivia tried to relax her shoulders and enjoy the sensation, but it was difficult. Instead of protesting again, she took a bite of the burger. The flavor burst on her tongue perfectly; even the bread was crispy, exactly the way she liked it. Even after only one bite, it was as though a little of the tension drained away from her body. "Alex," Olivia said.

"Hmm?" Alex replied, concentrating on her task.

"This is unbelievably good."

Alex looked at her out of the corner of her eye. "I put the bun in the toaster oven."

Glancing down at her food again, embarrassed at the effort Alex had put into bringing her supper, she simply said, "Thanks."

Olivia was halfway through the meal when Alex switched feet, and a tiny frown line appeared at the side of her mouth, which Olivia took to mean she was wrestling with something in her mind. "What is it?"

Stopping her massage, Alex looked over at her. She took a breath, and said, "You don't have to be entirely self-sufficient, you know."

Wishing she hadn't just taken a bite, Olivia had to wait to respond. "What do you mean?"

One finger traced a vein along the top of Olivia's foot. "I want to do things for you, and you don't always make it easy. You do so much for me, and I want to give back."

"You give plenty, Alex." Her simple presence alone was a balm.

 Alex shook her head, stroking the lines of Olivia's ankle, and up her calf. Alex continued to press and knead at the tight muscles, sending tendrils of warmth up through limbs too often ignored. Minutes passed as Olivia finished her late meal, and her eyes began to droop before she could make it through the whole burger.

When her head dropped forward for a split second, Alex took the plate from its resting place on her chest. "Bed, Liv. Come on."

Eyes barely open, Olivia brushed her teeth before joining Alex under the covers.

Alex turned the bedside lamp out and set the alarm for 6:30 as Olivia groaned at the idea of waking up in barely five hours.

"Come here," Alex said, her voice low.

Olivia slid over and turned on her side as Alex's body pressed to hers from behind. "Close your eyes," Alex whispered before kissing her neck, exhaling humid breath against her skin. One hand descended to rest on her belly possessively, and in moments, Olivia was asleep.

"Got another one," Fin said.

They'd read and reread dozens of files that morning, searching for anything that might resemble their killer's MO. Three had already been ruled out, but Olivia kept the folders in a small pile on her desk just in case.

Fin took his feet off the desk and leaned in. "Might be nothing, but check this out. Leanna MacGuire, age 28, suicide in the bathroom of her one bedroom in the West Village. BAC was almost twice the legal limit, and she had marijuana in her system."

Olivia blinked. "So she wouldn't exactly be at full capacity if someone she knew attacked her. Any evidence of a struggle?"

"Shit," Fin said, still reading. "She had a gash on the side of her head, but the coroner figured it was because she'd fallen against the sink or the floor after she made the second cut."

"So she wasn't in the bathtub?" Elliot asked.

"Nope, on the floor."

"How about sexual assault?"

"Fluids present, but the boyfriend said they'd had sex an hour or so before she did it." Fin grimaced. "Said he blamed himself, that he should've seen it coming."

"Maybe he did see it coming," Olivia said, grabbing her badge. "I want to talk to him."

"Wait a sec, Liv," Elliot interrupted. "If this girl offed herself, he's not gonna want to rehash it. Fin, who is this guy? And who was Leanna?"

"Let's see... she worked at the Guggenheim--"

The hairs on the back of Olivia's neck stood up.

"-- a year and a half, first in the museum store, then at the resource center while she was getting her masters. Wanted to be a tour guide, and according to everyone she worked with, she was a sure thing." He skimmed lower on the page. "'Had a way with people,' one guy said. No history of depression, except... the boyfriend said she'd felt 'lost and alone,' and that she was 'prone to mood swings, like she might be bipolar.'"

"Convenient," Olivia said.

After flipping another two pages, Fin added, "No one else had any idea she was suicidal."

Elliot frowned. "And the family?

"No parents, but her sister didn't believe it." Fin closed the file. "That's common enough. Family members don't want to think they didn't see the signs."

"Where'd the boyfriend work?" Olivia asked.

"Day trader downtown, making bank."

"Maybe we should talk to the sister first," Elliot said.

Olivia shook her head. "I say we go to the boyfriend. We can't afford to waste any time on this."

"Sister lives upstate. Got a phone number." Fin handed the file to Olivia.

Elliot leaned forward and reached out for the folder. "Let's call and see what we get."

Her stomach churning, Olivia gritted her teeth. "Elliot--"

"I'll make you a deal, Liv. If the sister's not at home, we go find this guy," he glanced down at the papers, "Paul Hanson. How's that?"

With a deep breath, Olivia nodded.

Her cellphone vibrated on her belt. Grabbing it quickly, she allowed herself a smile at the picture of Alex appearing on the tiny display. "Hey," she said, getting up from the desk and moving to a quieter area of the bullpen.

"How's the hunt?" Alex asked, her voice as clear as if she were standing only a few feet away.

"Pretty good. I think--" Olivia paused, afraid she'd jinx it if she said anything aloud. "We're talking to a few people."

"Gee, thank you so much for that detailed update, Detective. It gives me a great idea of where you are with this case that just got me a good reaming by my charming superior."

Olivia winced at her tone, even though she could sense the smile on Alex's lips. "Sorry. I... I don't want to get ahead of myself."

"It's okay, Liv. But I can hear it in your voice, babe. You're onto something."

"We don't have evidence yet to support what I'm thinking--"

"But you can feel it," Alex said, as though finishing Olivia's thought. "That's why you're a great cop, Liv." She paused, and Olivia waited. "Just make sure when you come to me for a search warrant you're going on more than instinct."

Olivia snorted. "Yes, ma'am, counselor." She glanced over at Fin, who was watching Elliot speak intently into the phone. "How're you?"

"Peachy. For some reason, Harrison is letting Pendler take the stand tomorrow. I'm going to eat him alive."

Nodding, Olivia kept one eye on Elliot. "Really?"

"Yep. Pendler's got it in his head he'll convince the jury he didn't molest those students because he's so damned sympathetic and non-threatening. If he wasn't such an asshole I'd feel sorry for him."

"He's guilty," Olivia said vaguely, certain she was missing something important the way Elliot was nodding to Fin.

"He sure is, and the jury knows it. Anyway, I can tell you're in the middle of something. Just wanted to tell you I love you."

That snapped Olivia's attention back to the phone. "Alex," she said, "I love you too. Really."

"Get the bad guy, babe. Call me if you need me."

"Sure. Good luck today."

"Thanks." Olivia heard a kiss blown over the line before the phone clicked off.

She took a last look at the thumbnail image of a laughing Alex on her phone. With that, she returned to Elliot's desk to catch up on what she'd missed.

Olivia took a deep breath as they approached the entrance of the museum. Further digging that afternoon had revealed that Leanna MacGuire's boyfriend, Paul Hanson, had conveniently left his job as a day trader for a position at the Guggenheim's Visitor Services. Apparently he'd always been an artist, and after Leanna's death, decided to dedicate himself to his work in her memory. The Guggenheim took him on, and Olivia assumed it was at least in part because of his apparent devotion to Leanna.

Gabrielle MacGuire, Leanna's older sister, was certain Leanna hadn't committed suicide, but she'd had nothing to go on to accuse Paul of committing a crime. The police officers handling the case had been appropriately sympathetic, but beyond an autopsy, no further investigation into her death had taken place. Paul's assertions of Leanna's depression made sure of that.

Inside the building, Olivia gazed up at the ceiling, as she did each time she entered. The spectacular stairway and circular skylight stunned her no matter how often she visited, less often than she'd have liked. At the information desk, she and Elliot were greeted by a smiling college aged woman, who frowned at their badges.

"Hi there," Olivia said, keeping her voice as soothing as possible. "We're looking for Paul Hanson. Is he here?"

"Yes," the girl replied. Glancing around, her gaze stopped on a young man with fashionably long hair and a dark jacket. He was deep in conversation with a beautiful blonde woman with curling hair flowing down her back in a wave. "That's him over there."

Elliot started forward, and Olivia followed, until Paul noticed them striding toward him. Olivia had her badge in hand and held it up, as did Elliot. For a moment Paul was motionless, like a deer spotting a hunter. The very moment he bolted, Olivia took off after him, Elliot right on her heels. He sprinted out the door and shot north, and noticing his uneven gait, Olivia knew she had him even if he headed into the park. Why do they always run?

Paul smashed into a few unsuspecting shoppers overloaded with bags, and although they went sprawling, Paul kept running. Elliot was right with Olivia, calling for Munch to come around at 90th, but they wouldn't need him.

Five more steps and I've got him. Come on. Olivia's lungs burned, and with a burst of energy, she took a flying leap and tackled her target. They went down hard, skidding a few feet along the concrete. Elliot was there a heartbeat later, coming down with a knee in Paul's back. "Why'd you run, Hanson? We only want to talk to you."

"Fuck off. I want a lawyer!" Paul shouted.

Getting to her feet, Olivia sneered at the tear she'd gotten in the knee of her black pants. Shit, Alex loved these jeans. "That's funny. We haven't charged you with anything."

"Fuck you!"

Olivia looked at Elliot, doing her best to catch her breath. "I think our young friend here would rather not talk to us. What's your take?"

As Olivia inhaled a mouthful of lo mein, she grinned at the sight of Alex strolling in, warrant in hand. "It's a first: Seligman came through. He didn't even put me down. Sometimes being dead for a few years can actually improve a relationship."

"Very funny," Olivia said, admiring the few inches of leg revealed when Alex sat on the desk. "Is the entire apartment covered?"

"Yep." She dropped the warrant on the desk. "Has he said anything else?"

"No, but his father's on his way from Connecticut. Get this-- his mother was a painter. She killed herself in their house when Paul was 14. Guess who found the body."

"Jesus." Alex leaned down and allowed Olivia to feed her a bite of her meal with chopsticks. "Thanks, that's good."

Noting the hungry look that remained in Alex's eyes, Olivia said, "Want the rest?"

After only a moment of hesitation, Alex replied, "Aren't you hungry?"

"I've had enough. Didn't you have dinner?"

Alex shrugged. "I forgot. I'm still catching up on paperwork, and I didn't realize the time till I heard from you."

Olivia stopped mid-chew. She eyed Alex's figure, imagining the slim lines of her body where they curved and sloped beneath her clothes. "You're supposed to be getting three full meals a day, Counselor." With that, she handed the half finished container to her lover.

"Hey, I've put on weight since I've been back."

"Four pounds."

Alex laughed. "How would you know?"

"I pay attention. Besides, I know exactly where every new pound makes its home." Their eyes met, a small spark arcing between them. Alex licked her lips before lifting the chopsticks back to her mouth. Olivia glanced around nonchalantly before trailing one fingernail up the silk stocking covering Alex's calf. "If we get lucky at Hanson's I'll be done by ten."

"Then you might get lucky twice in one day, Detective."

Olivia felt heat creep down her chest, and she crossed her legs. She was incredibly grateful that Elliot chose that moment to return to the bullpen, soda in hand. After clearing her throat, she called out, "Elliot, we have a warrant. Ready?"

"Yeah. Hey, Alex. How you doing?"

"Just fine, Elliot, thanks. You?"

"Pretty good. You want to ride along?"

"Love to. As long as you don't mind if I eat in the car."

Half an hour later, Olivia carefully examined the items on Paul Hanson's dresser. So far they hadn't found out much aside from the fact that the guy was a neat freak. She eyed a small box with shamrocks on the top, and with gloved hands, opened it. Her heart skipped a few beats as her brain registered what she was seeing. "Elliot, what are the dates we have for the three vics?" She knew the dates, but needed confirmation.

"Hold on..." She heard her partner shuffle through a pad of paper looking for the details. "June 12th, August 14th, and September 12th."

"We got him."


"Museum tickets. One to MoMA from June 12th, the Whitney August 14th, and the Met September 12th." She slipped the tickets carefully into an evidence bag, praying they'd have prints from each of the victims and not just Hanson himself.

Alex stepped up behind her. "They always keep trophies. I'll never understand."

Olivia shrugged. "He wants to remember."

"It's evidence that could tie him to each of the women. He knows that."

"Alex, you've met enough killers to know their arrogance. Honestly, it was just chance that we got this far."

"Chance my ass, Benson. You broke this case, and don't you forget it." Alex took a deep breath. "That said, without prints, it's circumstantial. The dates aren't enough."

"Detectives!" A voice called out from the other room. "Got a stash of flex cuffs in the hall closet."

"That's a plus," Olivia said.

"You have got to be fucking kidding," Elliot crowed, pulling a plastic bag from inside a hamper in the bedroom closet. He peered into the bag, and lifted a shirtsleeve high enough for Olivia to see the brown stains. "Blood."

"Guess he forgot to take the garbage out."

Olivia slowed as she turned onto 3rd street, glancing at Alex as she dozed in the seat next to her. Her heart swelled, as it so often did lately, even months into their relationship. Each day felt new, and each night she was grateful that she hadn't blown it. Alex had yet to give her a hard time when the phone rang at odd hours, when she was called away in the middle of dinner, when she paced the floor for hours going over details of a case. It had taken some getting used to, having another body in her personal space so much of the time, but three months in, it felt right. The evenings when Alex worked late, Olivia found herself bored. Lonely. Restless. Then she'd hear the sound of familiar footsteps coming down the hall, followed by a key turning in the lock, and everything was okay again. She played it off to Alex, not wanting her to feel smothered, since Alex tended to enjoy her alone time.

But being by herself in the bedroom with Alex in the adjoining office was different from being alone in the apartment altogether.

Olivia found a parking space barely large enough to fit in at the end of the block; the fourth time she put the car in reverse, Alex woke up. "We home?" she breathed, glancing around.

"Almost," Olivia replied, hoping she hadn't tapped the car behind her. A few more inches and she cut the ignition. "Okay, now we're home."

As they walked the block, Olivia put her arm around Alex's shoulder, kissing her temple. "It's good to get in at a reasonable hour for a change."

"I know. I've missed you."

That surprised Olivia. "You have? You didn't say anything."

"I didn't want to make you feel badly. I know you've had a lot on your mind with this case."

Olivia squeezed Alex's shoulder. "You're a lot on my mind too, you know."

"I hope so." Alex shrugged. "But now that you're on the right track, I'll expect you home earlier, detective. At least tomorrow." They climbed the stairs together as Alex's hand trailed up the banister. "Are you off this weekend?"

"Finally. Will you be busy?"

"Shouldn't be. Pendler's the last witness in the case tomorrow, we should be wrapped up by late afternoon. Then I'm all yours."

"Mm, maybe we should do something special. Go somewhere for the weekend, the beach, or upstate. An early birthday trip."

Alex sighed. "I know you wanted to go to Rome now, Liv, but Branch has been --"

"You don't have to explain, sweetie," Olivia interrupted. "Maybe at Christmas. Your mom and Gerald can come too. If you want."

With a smile, Alex unlocked the door. "You want to go on vacation with my mother? Should I be jealous?"

"Nah, Gerald would kick my ass. I hear he took first place in a recent fencing tournament."

"You mean the one in 1967," Alex quipped.

"Yeah, that's it." Olivia hung her coat on the rack, and took Alex's as well. "I wouldn't want to keep you from your mom over the holidays. You haven't been able to be together for the last two, so..."

"That's sweet of you, Liv. So sweet of you, in fact, that I think you deserve a treat." When Olivia turned around, Alex had her blouse already unbuttoned.

Olivia swallowed. "I thought you were tired."

"That's what the disco nap was for."

"Disco nap?" Olivia snorted. "You plan on dancing all night?"

"Mm hmm," Alex hummed, leaning her elbows back against the kitchen counter.

Olivia's heart sped up at the sight of pale skin hidden only by a thin layer of silk. Alex crossed her ankles as she stood, and the slit in the side of her skirt showed an expanse of leg just this side of propriety. "What are you up for tonight, counselor?"

"Anything you like."

"I might need to frisk you, you could be carrying a deadly weapon under that skirt."

"Oh I am, detective," Alex replied smugly. "You'll have to look very closely."

With that, Olivia moved forward, catching Alex in her arms for a kiss. Olivia inhaled sharply. How long has it been? Five days? Alex squeezed her ass, and Olivia's tongue snaked out to tangle with Alex's. That's four days too long. Long minutes passed, and the blood pounded in Olivia's ears as their hips began to rock in tandem. When Alex moaned, quickly Olivia pulled back, eyeing a swollen mouth before turning her lover around to face the counter. She leaned close, covering Alex's hands with her own and pressing them to the countertop. Using her knee, she nudged Alex's legs further apart, trailing her hands up the soft skin of her arms, down her body, all the way to her knees. Slowly, can't rush this, she eased the skirt's fabric up, sighing in pleasure when she caught the bare skin peeking out above the stockings and matching garters.

"These new?" Olivia said, flicking open one clip after another as Alex gasped beneath her touch.

"Yes," Alex said, her hips pressing back against Olivia.

"Buy 'em for someone special?"

As she looked over her shoulder, Alex's eyebrow lifted. "What do you think?"

"I think maybe you've got something going with Ridenour on the side." Olivia played her nails up the backs of Alex's thighs, gratified when she felt her knees sag.

"No," Alex breathed, "he prefers Trevor. Besides, I'm too busy with Petrovsky to be able to take on another judge. She demands a lot of extra attention."

Olivia laughed aloud, her hands finally dipping into Alex's panties. "You're terrible," she whispered into Alex's ear.

"I'm terrible, huh," Alex panted. Her muscles flexed as she hunched over. "You're the one who brought up Ridenour just when I was getting started."

With a long lick to the back of Alex's arched neck, Olivia replied, "Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll get you more than started."

She pushed the scrap of material down, and Alex let it slide to the floor before kicking it free and leaning over again. Olivia went at Alex from both sides, her left hand around the front, the other skimming sensitive flesh behind. Only seconds later Alex bucked, hissing at the intimate touch. Fingers slid through wetness, and as Olivia slid inside with one hand, she pressed her other index finger purposefully against her rear channel.

Alex's body undulated slowly, and Olivia could see that her eyes were shut tightly, brow furrowed in concentration. Her lips were slack, breath coming in short bursts as she pushed on both of Olivia's hands. It was unbearably sexy, and Olivia bent her knees, pressing the seam of her jeans against Alex's flesh. The pleasure was diffused, heat spreading through her own body as Alex writhed, slender fingers grasping against the counter without purchase.

Olivia slid another digit inside and leaned down to bite whatever skin she could reach, raking her teeth across a delicate shoulder blade, and over the gentle arch of her spine. Alex continued to mumble incoherently, interspersing a few yeses here and there. At her plea of, "More," Olivia twisted her left hand deeper. Dipping down into the abundant moisture, Olivia gathered what seemed like enough natural lubricant to ease her way inside from behind. Alex always enjoyed the dual sensation, and although it wasn't a constant in their lovemaking, Olivia knew that tonight it would be most welcome. She eased her right index finger in, very gently, and felt the instantaneous impact as both sets of muscles clamped down. Alex's climax thundered closer, and Olivia let her ride it out, simply curling her fingers when she felt the crush begin.

When the most intense waves passed, Alex's upper body collapsed, her back shuddering as she caught her breath. "Jesus, Liv," she muttered as she leaned her forehead on the counter.

Olivia carefully extracted her fingers, letting Alex's skirt fall back into place as if nothing had ever happened. Quickly she washed her hands at the sink, not two feet from where Alex still rested. When she was finished, Alex stood up, her eyes dark and intent.

"You, up here, now," Alex growled.

A pulse throbbed between Olivia's legs. She threw the damp dishtowel on the floor, unbuckled her belt in record time, and shoved her pants down almost to her knees before hopping up on the counter. Alex attacked, but Olivia's jeans hampered her progress. She pushed at them, but Olivia still wore high boots that the pants would never go over.

"Forget them," Olivia panted, trying to spread her knees farther apart.

Alex started laughing as she shoved at the fabric, which set Olivia to giggling, until Alex finally gave in and dipped down to bring Olivia's legs over her shoulders.

"Much better," she said, looking up into Olivia's eyes through long lashes.

Olivia swallowed, her eyes falling shut when she felt the first caress of Alex's lips. She groaned, and each muscle in her body seemed to tense as she arched and fell backwards. It was slightly uncomfortable; the laminate was chilly and hard, but as soon Alex's tongue slid inside, everything else flew out of her mind.  

Reaching out, she ran her hands through impossibly soft hair, massaging Alex's scalp with her fingertips. She thought she heard Alex's heels go skittering across the linoleum, and caught her breath as she was pushed back a few more inches on the counter. Alex lifted her legs higher, holding tightly to her hips. Although Olivia's head had dropped off the edge, she wasn't afraid of falling.

Until Alex shoved forward again.

Olivia's shoulders slipped off the counter entirely, and she was sure she was about to go flying, despite her impending orgasm. "Shit," she yelped, flexing her abdominals, but it was too late. Alex clawed at her legs as she slid, and suddenly Olivia was hanging halfway to the floor, the counter's edge acting as a fulcrum. Her eyes were wide when she gazed up at Alex, who looked as if she was going to break out into hysterics at any moment. "I need some help?"

Alex did manage to pull her back, and only burst into laughter when Olivia was returned to safety. Her face glistened with wetness as she cracked up, and Olivia wondered if she'd ever get around to coming. She snorted, finally giving in to the ridiculousness of the situation.

"I'm sorry, babe," Alex said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes with the back of her wrist.  "I didn't realize..."

Olivia sat up, resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to get much further, and certainly not on the countertop. She got down and began to roll her jeans back up. "It's okay, maybe la--"

"What're you doing? I'm not done yet." Alex had her jeans back down around her knees in seconds, and effectively knocked Olivia to the floor simply by pushing her over. "First things first; these boots have got to go." She knelt at Olivia's feet and yanked off the thickly soled boots by the heels.

Chuckling, Olivia crab walked backwards. "Can I at least get on the carpet? This floor is freezing." She reached the soft carpeting and sprawled out.

"That's far enough, detective. You've waited too long as it is," Alex purred, her smile growing ever more seductive. She crawled on her hands and knees to straddle Olivia's waist. Alex lifted the sweater Olivia wore over her head and flicked her bra open with one hand.

Olivia raised her eyebrows at the move. "You've been practicing."

She preened at the compliment. "All those lonely nights when you were working late, and I had nothing better to do..."

"While I was out making the world a safer place," Olivia rebutted, only half joking.

"I know, Liv," Alex replied, perhaps sensing her uncertainty.  "And I love you for it." Her hair hung in her face as she pressed her lips to Olivia's, tenderness pouring from the touch.

Olivia touched Alex's cheek. "I love you too." She reached down to remove the silken camisole Alex still wore. "I want to feel you," she whispered.

Alex rolled off her and shucked her skirt and the rest of her underthings before climbing back atop Olivia. "Better?"

Running her hands up Alex's thighs, Olivia replied, "Much." She drew circles across Alex's skin, simply enjoying the closeness, less focused on reaching a goal than she had been moments earlier. With Alex the pressure of proving a certain level of prowess to a lover was absent; Alex seemed receptive to anything, everything Olivia did. Although Olivia didn't say much, or ask for much in their sex life, Alex made explicit requests that occasionally made Olivia blush just thinking about them. Coming out of hiding seemed to free any reservations she may have had about sex, and the shyness that Olivia had sensed in her at first was well and truly gone.

"Tell me what you want," Alex said, running the ends of her hair across Olivia's breasts.

Arching her back, Olivia replied, "Just you." Anything, as long as it's your hands, your mouth...

Considering the wait Olivia had already endured, Alex took her sweet time, kissing and caressing what felt like every inch of her body before moving between her legs. Olivia was in a haze, drifting blissfully with each passing second. When Alex's mouth reached her clitoris, it only took a few sweeps of her tongue before Olivia finally fell over the edge, her orgasm lasting far longer than usual.

She lay still, heart pounding in the aftermath. Alex kissed her way up Olivia's body, coming to rest with her head over her heart. Olivia wanted to say something, but her mouth was dry, her mind devoid of any thought.

Alex was quiet for a minute, until she glanced up at Olivia, her chin propped atop her hands. "You okay?"

Olivia nodded weakly.

With a little laugh, Alex asked, "Are you sure?"

Her motor functions kicked in, and Olivia lifted an arm behind her head. "Uh huh," she croaked.

"Incoherence. My favorite." She inched up and kissed Olivia lightly. "Should we make our way to bed? You look tired."

Olivia cleared her throat. "I wonder why." She sat up on her elbows. "Bed would be good."

Alex was careful not to elbow anything important as she got up, and held out a hand to Olivia. "Come on before you pass out on the floor."  When Olivia began to pick up the articles of clothing strewn all over the place, Alex waved a hand. "Leave them, I'll get them later."

"'Kay." Naked, Olivia padded into the bedroom, and found she didn't even have the energy to brush her teeth. Considering how full of fire she'd been a short while ago, it was strange. Falling back on the bed, she caught Alex's eye. "I think you've fucked the life out of me."

"That was the plan. Go to sleep." Alex's hand rested lightly on Olivia's forehead before she dipped down for a long, albeit chaste kiss. "See you in the morning."

"See you. Love you," Olivia muttered.

"Love you too."

Alex left the room, and Olivia turned on to her side, adjusting the pillow just so. To the sounds of Alex moving quietly around the apartment, Olivia dropped off with a smile on her face.

Olivia unclipped the cell from her belt to check who kept settling off the vibration during her interview with Hanson. The two missed calls were both from Alex; one before lunch, one after two, probably as she was heading back into court. She was sorry to have missed them, but she hadn't wanted to leave Hanson alone to gather his wits for a moment, and it had paid off-- he'd copped while Olivia was right in his face. She wondered if he'd panicked at her proximity, but regardless, he'd been charged with four murders and would be heading for Riker's shortly.

Glancing at her watch, Olivia figured Alex was still in court, so she held off on calling in favor of checking messages. The first was Alex simply checking in about Hanson, and Olivia couldn't wait to tell her the good news. The second was slightly odd, to Olivia's ear. With her voice higher pitched than usual, Alex's message said, "Hey, Liv. I wanted to call you to, uh, well, if you wouldn't mind calling me back when you get this, that would be really nice. I'd love to speak with you. It's not important, everything's fine. I'll ah... talk to you soon. Love you." The message ended, and Olivia frowned.

"What's up?" Elliot asked. "Thought she'd be thrilled to hear about Hanson."

"I know," Olivia said. "I haven't talked to her about it yet-- I picked up a weird voicemail. She sounded... weird."

"Okay. Call her. Find out what's making her sound... weird," Elliot echoed with a grin.

Olivia hit the #1 on the speed dial, and was disappointed when it went straight to voicemail. "She must still be in court, the phone's off." A few seconds passed as she listened to Alex's answering message. "Hey, it's me. I'm returning your call-- you sounded funny. Call me when you get this."

Hanging up, Olivia sat back down at her desk across from Elliot and started putting together some paperwork so she wouldn't fall behind.

An hour or so later, Fin strolled into the bullpen with Munch hot on his heels. "Liv, I thought you'd be down at Hogan Place already," he said, dropping his keys on the desk.

"Huh?" she grunted, swimming up from the haze of files she'd gotten lost in.

"Didn't you hear?"

"Hear what?" Liv replied, sitting up straighter. Fin and Munch locked eyes for a second, and Olivia was instantly out of her seat. "What?" she demanded.

"She's fine," were the first words out of Fin's mouth, and Olivia felt heat flood down her legs as her knees turned to water. Gripping the side of the desk, she waited for Fin to continue, too terrified to speak. "That perv you brought in a while back, Pendler I think, he and Cabot got into a scuffle when he was getting off the stand. She knocked him for a loop, or that's the word in the smoker's lounge." He meant the steps of the courthouse; that was the location where most of the legal secretaries and lawyers went for their smoke breaks.

"Scuffle?" Olivia croaked.

Munch interrupted. "Here's what my dear partner is leaving out, because you deserve to know what happened. Court reconvenes after lunch, and Alex cuts the perp off at the knees on the stand. He's mortified, and when he's heading back to his chair, he jumps her. She elbows him in the face, the guards pull him off her, and Ridenour declares a mistrial. End of story. She's fine, no damage done." Munch shook his head. "Our girl's got cojones, I heard she really clocked him one."

Olivia stumbled backwards, her thighs bumping against the desk as she fell against it. She heard Elliot mutter, "Shit," and he stood. "Come on, we're going," Elliot said.

"No," Olivia said. "I'll go alone."

"Fuck that, Liv. I'm driving. Get your shit."

Unwilling to waste time arguing, Olivia hooked her badge on her belt and grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair. On the way down the steps, she tried Alex's cell again, still without success. This time she left a message. "Alex!" she barked, and deliberately tried to calm herself. "What the hell is going on? Did Pendler hurt you? I'm gonna rip his fucking face off. Are you okay? Call me as soon as you can. I'm coming to your office. Call me." She chased after Elliot as he ran to the car.

Less than fifteen minutes later, he dropped her at entrance to One Hogan Place and Olivia raced inside, flashing her badge at security without stopping. They knew her, obviously, and she assumed they knew why she was there considering no one made a move to question her. Bypassing the elevator, she took the steps three at a time, throwing open the door and tearing down the hall to Alex's old office. Without knocking, she practically fell through the partially open door, only to find Alex with a cell to her ear as the phone on her belt began to ring.

"Jesus," Olivia cried, running at Alex and wrapping her in a frantic embrace, trying desperately to calm the shakes that had been running through her body as though she were going through some kind of withdrawal. Gritting her teeth, she held the sobs that wanted to escape her throat inside, gripping Alex's shoulders tighter than she should have.

"Babe, I tried to reach you, I'm sorry. I didn't want to leave you a message--"

Olivia pulled back, her temper flaring quickly as relief sank in. "Why not? I almost swallowed my tongue when, of all people, Fin told me what happened."

Shaking her head, Alex stroked Olivia's cheek calmly. "It wasn't a big deal--"

"No big deal? Some perv jumps you and it's not a big deal?"

"Olivia, please calm down. I'm fine."

Olivia swallowed, sliding her hands down to Alex's biceps and forearms as if to confirm they were still in working order. "What did you say that set him off? You know as well as anyone what these asswipes do to women who piss them off." She threaded her fingers with Alex's, surprised when Alex pulled her hands away.

Alex tilted her head. "Excuse me?" Her mouth pursed in that way that drove Olivia nuts. It eloquently expressed, Did you say what I think you just said?

"You had plenty of evidence to convict Pendler without emasculating him. What were you thinking?"

Nodding her head slightly, Alex said, "Gee, I'm sorry I didn't go over each of my questions for the defendant with you personally, detective. I didn't realize I'm not intelligent enough to do my job effectively. Next time I'll be sure to run every single issue by you before I set foot in front of a jury." Alex walked back to her desk and sat in her chair, looking unruffled as ever.

"Don't, Alex. We both know what happened last time you went too far with a witness."

Alex looked up, her gaze steady. "You mean getting shot and shipped off to Nebraska for two years."

"Yeah, that's what I mean." Leaning over the desk, Olivia looked her in the eyes. "Are you trying to get killed? Do you really want to martyr yourself for the cause? Because once was enough for me."

At Alex's flinch, Olivia rubbed her eyes with one hand, exhaling slowly. How can she do these things? Doesn't she know how fragile she is? How easily she could be hurt? Or killed? "Listen, Alex, I only want you to think before you go after these guys--"

Alex stood to interrupt. "You mean Pendler? A man who molested at least 18 young girls, probably countless others, over the past twenty years? Tell me, Liv. Would you have gone easy on him? Don't you think he deserved to be confronted openly in front of a jury of his peers? I'd like to see him drawn and quartered in public, but since that's no longer a legal form of punishment, it's my job to make it clear to the jury who exactly Arthur Pendler is." Sneering, she glanced across the room, as if remembering. "He was so sure he'd get off. He didn't have a chance before, but now I plan on making sure he pays for hurting those girls for the rest of his days."

"So your life is worth trading to put him away?"

Incredulous, Alex let her mouth drop open. "Olivia, I was never in danger. The whole thing lasted five seconds."

"What if he'd had a knife?"

"In one of the most secure buildings in the entire city? You're being ridiculous."

"Come on, Alex. You can't pull stuff like this anymore. You never know--"

"That's right, Liv. I never know, and neither do you. Get used to it, because this is how things are. In fact, it's how things were before, but you weren't paying as close attention." Alex sat back down in her chair, steadying her shaking hands on the desk. "I suggest you walk out of here and leave me alone for a few minutes before I say something I regret."

Olivia tried to push down the anger that bubbled up. "You're throwing me out?"

"Call it whatever you like. Come back when your head's on straight."

"My head is on straight, counselor. You're the one who needs help." Olivia slammed the door on her way out, wincing when she heard the glass shudder in the frame. She strode down the hall furiously, heart racing to the beat of her steps. Why is she putting herself in danger? Fool. I should have been there to protect her. Since she won't watch her own back, someone has to. When she looked up, she realized she'd gone the wrong direction, away from the elevators. Turning around, she headed back down the hallway, only to be stopped in her tracks by Liz Donnelly, who seemed to come out of nowhere. "Benson, get in here."

"I'm sorry, Donnelly, I have to--"

"It's not a request." Liz disappeared into her office. Olivia huffed with irritation, and stepped inside. Liz pointed to a chair as she seated herself, and Olivia obeyed. "'Martyr yourself for the cause'? Really Olivia, that was a low blow."

Her spine stiffened. "What, do you have Alex's office bugged?"

Liz chuckled, the sound menacing to Olivia's ears. "I think half the building heard you, detective. Bitching out your lover after she was attacked wasn't the best way of comforting her, you must realize."

"She deliberately provoked him--"

"You mean she asked for it," Liz countered.

Olivia's breath left her body. "That's not what I meant."

"Sure it is. You think it's her fault that Pendler attacked her, because she was a tough, confident, challenging woman; the personification of everything he hates and fears. So, simply for being herself, she was assaulted. Was that the crux of your conversation? I heard the martyr bit, but the rest just sounded like a lot of hot air." Liz leaned back in her chair, her fingers steepled together.

"This is none of your business."

"So, the answer is yes," Liz finished. "Listen up, detective. I don't see you running around the squad room blaming the victims of violent crime for being attacked, so I suggest you discontinue the practice in your personal life. Alex is the pride and joy of this building, and if you complete your attempt at self-sabotage, we're all going to be paying for it."

Olivia frowned. "What the hell does that mean?" Self-sabotage?

"I mean every day, Alex Cabot walks into this building with a smile on her face. You think it's because she's looking forward to punishing rapists? Because she had a really good bagel with her morning coffee?" Liz narrowed her eyes. "Maybe. But I'd put money on the fact it's because she's happy for the first time in her life, and although it's beyond my comprehension, especially at the moment, you're the reason why."

Unable to find words to contradict Liz's assumptions, Olivia felt her anger draining away. Had she really been so blind?

"You heard the news, you got scared, you took it out on the one person who didn't deserve it. Don't shoot yourself in the foot, Benson. Get back over there and pray you didn't fuck it up. I wouldn't give you a second chance, but then again, Cabot's a lot softer than I am. Obviously." Liz looked down at a sheaf of papers on her desk and started flipping through it. "You're excused."

Olivia remained still, staring at the top of Liz's head.

"Get out, detective, I've got work to do."

Clearing her throat, Olivia stood, barely noticing when she tripped over the corner of the Chinese rug covering Liz's floor. In the hall, Elliot came toward her, his brow creased in concern. "What's up? Is Alex in there?"

Olivia shook her head. "I--uh, no. She's, she's in her office."

"Liv, talk to me."

Exhaling, Olivia leaned against the wall. "I messed up, El." He nodded calmly, but didn't speak. "I don't know what happened, I got so mad, and Alex could have, she could've been killed--"

"Got mad about what?"

"She didn't take care of herself!" Olivia shouted before covering her mouth with a shaking hand. Elliot came closer, but Olivia turned away from him. "Don't. I'm fine. I need to talk to her."

"Hey, come on--" Elliot placed a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off and continued down the hall. When she reached 208, she heard Elliot call out, "I'll wait for you downstairs."

She nodded in the affirmative, and knocked lightly. Fear gripped her briefly -- would Alex reject her? But when the door opened, Alex stood there, waiting.

Softly, Olivia breathed, "I'm sorry."

Alex held a hand out, and Olivia took it as she went through the door. She fell against Alex, arms wrapped tightly around her waist. Beneath her hands, Alex's spine, the bones of her shoulders, they felt so frail, so breakable. Olivia buried her mouth against a sweet-smelling neck, recognizing faint traces of perfume, lotion, sweat. She nibbled an ear before whispering, "I'm glad you're okay."

Slender fingers trailed up the back of Olivia's neck and into her hair. "I really am, Liv. I wouldn't lie to you."

Pressing her lips to Alex's temple, Olivia replied, "I know." I was scared. Terrified. What if I lost you? But Olivia didn't voice her fears, instead, trying to ignore them. They would fade with time. Right? "I overreacted. It's not your fault."

"Thank you, Liv. I didn't mean to frighten you." Alex pulled back a few inches. "You weren't picking up your cell. What was going on?"

Olivia blinked, trying to shift gears into work mode. "Uh-- Hanson. We were talking to him, and uh, he confessed. We've got him for four murders."

"Is he being transported to Riker's?"


"So you won't have to worry about him over the weekend, then."


" I know we talked about going somewhere, but let's stay home this time. Would that be okay with you?"

"Absolutely. I don't mind staying in." In truth, Olivia was relieved. She wanted Alex at home, in her arms, where she could keep track of her at every moment.

"Maybe in a few weeks we could hit Fire Island-- you know, have a big gay weekend. Go to dinner, see a drag show, just be. I've been so busy these last few months, and you're hardly home. I wouldn't mind a couple of days away."

Olivia smiled. "A big gay weekend. Sounds like fun."

"Great. I'll make a call-- there's an ADA in white collar who owes me a favor. He and his partner bought a place last month. Maybe we could go in October."

With a gentle nod, Olivia exhaled. "I'd like that."

Alex looked into Olivia's eyes. "We'll talk later about what happened here today, okay, babe?"

Olivia shrugged it off. "If you want. I'm just glad you're all right."

"I know."

"Don't stay late."

"I'm out of here at 5, Liz's orders."

"I'll meet you at home then, probably at 6. I'll make dinner."

"Can I pick up anything at the store?"

"Naw, I'll get what I need on the way. You in the mood for shrimp?"

"When am I not in the mood for shrimp?" Alex asked with a half grin. "See you when you get home. And thank you for running over here to rescue me."

"Even though you didn't need rescuing. And I acted like an ass."

"I don't mind the sentiment, and I happen to like your ass."

"Very funny." They kissed a final time, and Olivia headed out, muttering to herself over how her afternoon had disintegrated into yelling at Alex, then getting yelled at by Donnelly. What a shitty day. She found Elliot on the steps, reading an out of date NY Post. "Hey," she said.

Glancing up, he folded the paper and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "Everything okay?"

"Pretty much." Olivia didn't want to go into details; although Alex had forgiven her, her equilibrium still felt off kilter.

"What's that mean?"

"It means I'm out of the doghouse. But I'd better stop for flowers after I pick up stuff to make a very nice dinner."

"Ahh," he said. As they approached the car, Elliot tossed the keys to Olivia. "You can't be there every second, Liv. I know how hard it is to let go--"

Olivia cut him off as she slid into the driver's seat. "I know."

"Do you?" he asked.

Olivia paused for a moment before starting the car.  "I'll figure it out."

Olivia hefted her paper bag a little higher as she reached for her keys. She could hear music coming from behind the door, some kind of 70s R&B, and after a moment, she recognized the voice of Al Green. Pushing open the door with her elbow, she searched the room with her eyes, surprised when she didn't spot Alex. "Hey," she called out, afraid to frighten her if she was concentrating too hard on the music.

"Hey," Alex called out from another room.

After a quick stop to leave the perishables in the refrigerator, Olivia made her way through the main room, registering the faint scent of bleach masked by citrus. The bathroom door was open, revealing Alex, clad in a tight white tank and boxers, cleaning the bathtub. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, smiling brightly when she saw Olivia. "Hi. You're home."

"I am," Olivia said, enjoying the way the tank emphasized Alex's slim waist. "What are you doing?"

Alex tilted her head. "And they call you a detective. How'd you get that shield?"

Olivia laughed. "I mean, why are you doing what you're doing?"

"You cook, I clean. That seems like an even trade. Now leave me be and make me shrimp. I'll be done shortly."

"Yes, ma'am," Olivia saluted. "Do me a favor?"


"Don't change for dinner."

Alex looked down at her attire, shorts stained with bleach, shirt slightly askew. "You're not serious."

"Oh, but I am," Olivia said, waving as she headed for the kitchen.

Olivia was nearly finished cooking when she heard the shower start; five minutes later, Alex emerged from the bathroom, smelling of cleaning agents and peach shower gel. She was back in her shorts and tank, Olivia was happy to see. "Sit, dinner's ready."

Alex sat at the table and asked, "Can't I at least help you bring it over?"

"Nope. Just sit there and look pretty."

"Ha ha," Alex said, and Olivia caught her smirk as she lay a napkin across her lap.

Olivia carried a steaming plate of shrimp and pasta to the table, followed by salad and two glasses of chilled white wine.

"Smells fantastic. What are we having?" Alex asked.

"Mediterranean-- a little shrimp, a little feta, wine, garlic, more wine..."

"And capers!" Alex exclaimed. "My favorite."

"I know," Olivia said, pleased that her choices had gone over well.

"Mm," Alex hummed. "Thank you, Liv." Her smile was sweet, and Olivia inhaled deeply at the sight.

"Welcome," she said, feeling strangely shy.

The only sounds for a few minutes were that of Alex's moans of delight as she dug into the meal. Olivia was satisfied with the final result, but next time, she thought she might add more lemon and a little less feta. When Alex's inhalation of her meal began to slow, Olivia thought it might be okay to start asking questions. "So..." she began.

Alex looked up as two strands of pasta slowly inched toward her mouth. She chewed for a moment, and swallowed before saying, "You want to know what happened."

Olivia exhaled in relief. She nodded.

Before she started, Alex took a sip of wine and wiped her mouth carefully with her napkin. "Okay. Pendler takes the stand. He answers Harrison's questions, 'Did you know these girls well?' 'Yes, I did. I was their track coach.' 'Did you ever enter the locker room unannounced?' 'No, never. Before and after meets, prior to the girls getting undressed were the only times I set foot in the locker room.' Blah, blah, blah," Alex said, shoveling a mouthful of salad into her mouth. "So I get up there and really go after him. How did one of his 'girls' end up with a sample of his DNA inside her? 'Gee, I really don't know. I honestly believe it was a lab error.' Right. I asked why his marriage ended, and wasn't it because he couldn't get it up with a female over 16 years old?"

Olivia accidentally inhaled as she swallowed, almost sending some pasta down the wrong pipe. Fortunately, the timing was off, and after a few short coughs, she was able to drink a mouthful of water. "Go on," she croaked, and Alex continued.

"Well naturally, he wasn't happy with that. He also wasn't happy with the fact that his smarmy little grin didn't affect me in the least. Honestly, Liv, sometimes I wonder how these men get away with all they do. It seems so obvious."

"You know what to look for."

"I suppose," Alex admitted, spearing and devouring a shrimp. "Regardless, I ended up accusing him, of feeling up young women who couldn't defend themselves, and poor Harrison jumped out of his chair well after the fact and objected. I withdrew my comment before Ridenour could blow a gasket." Olivia shook her head. "I asked details of the situation with Melissa, he lied on the stand, and I caught him. He got flustered, and to make a long story short, whatever was left of his credibility went down the tubes. I dismissed him, and two seconds later, he tackled me, and we went sliding across the floor. Olivia, it was the most unbelievable stunt I've ever seen, and I've seen some crazy stuff. Remember when Elliot was on the stand, and during his testimony the perp waved his flag in court?"

Olivia chucked. "Oh yeah. That was even before your time."

"Well I heard about it, and this was crazier. Anyhow, he didn't have my arms locked, so I brought my arm forward and jerked back--" Alex demonstrated her elbow shooting backwards. "I make contact, and there's this awful crunching sound, and then the guards are on both of us, pulling him off me. The jury's yelling, Ridenour's banging that stupid gavel, and Pendler... he's screaming bloody murder."

"What happened?"

"I broke his nose. Apparently, even flying blind, my aim is true. That's why I wasn't wearing my jacket at the office. It's at the cleaners. I doubt they'll be able to get the blood out."

Jesus. Maybe I should have asked more questions earlier. "Alex Cabot. You broke a perv's nose."

Alex preened. "I did."

"I'm so proud."

"I knew you would be," Alex replied, her eyes softening. "So Pendler's yelling, bleeding all over the place, and they drag him away. Harrison doesn't know what to do, so he asks for a mistrial. Ridenour looks my way, and of course, I'm thrilled. Now the evidence that he threw out last week comes back into play. I'm going for 25 to life. And I'll get it."

Olivia recognized the arrogance Liz valued so highly in Alex. "I bet you will. Are you filing assault charges?"

"Nah. I just want to nail the bastard. He's done a lot worse."

Watching Alex's calm face, she asked, "Were you scared?"

Alex thought about it, sipping at her glass of wine. "You know, I wasn't really. It stunned me; and when it was over, I was shaky. My adrenaline spiked, like I'd downed two Red Bulls in ten minutes. The crash was... unpleasant."

Olivia knew exactly what she was talking about. "Yeah."

"But scared? No. I don't underestimate his level of depravity, but not once have I ever felt personally threatened by him. And neither have you."

Shaking her head, Olivia replied, "No. I haven't."

"Liv, I know you were upset today. You really lost it, and you scared me in those two minutes more than Pendler ever did. What happened?"

Olivia looked down at her empty plate, disappointed she had nothing to focus her attention on. It was a difficult question, and one that Olivia didn't want to spend time thinking about. "Maybe I flashed back to Zapata."

Narrowing her gaze, Alex said, "Really."

"It's a natural reaction when a loved one is in danger. What if you heard I'd been shot?"

Olivia cringed when she saw Alex's already pale cheeks go white.

"Well I wouldn't blame you." Alex's voice was flat.

That same sensation of being caught in a trap came back, exactly as it had when Liz accused her of the same thing. "I know you wouldn't." Olivia felt more than simple guilt for her reaction; she felt humiliated. "For a woman who's always yelling about not blaming the vic, I sure pulled a 180 today, huh," she admitted.

Alex nodded.

"It's different when it's close." Gathering her courage, she met Alex's eyes. "I messed up. Please forgive me?"

Lips pursed, Alex stood up from the table and crossed to the other side. She straddled Olivia, making herself comfortable and draping her long arms around Olivia's shoulders. "I do forgive you, babe. But I want something in return."

Tensing, Olivia tried to hide it by sliding her hands up Alex's thighs. "What?"

"When you're worried about something, or afraid, or hell, even angry, please tell me. Sometimes... you get quiet. I hear you, pacing in the other room in the middle of the night."

A knot formed in Olivia's stomach. She hadn't realized Alex had noticed. "Usually I'm thinking about work."

The corners of Alex's mouth turned down, and she traced a finger around Olivia's lips. "I know, honey. That's why I worry. You take your cases so personally."

"What kind of a human being would I be if I didn't?" It was an honest question, one she'd asked herself over the years. She couldn't imagine reacting another way when confronted with the evil she faced every day.

"I don't know, Liv. But you can share things with me, more than you could if I wasn't involved in your work. I know what you see. I understand."

Pressing her lips together, Olivia was tempted to contradict Alex. Olivia knew she was being unfair; Alex saw the effects of violence, dealt with them almost as much as she did. But it didn't feel the same. The idea of telling Alex things, articulating... "I'll try," Olivia said, the words catching in her throat.

"I'm not expecting miracles, Benson. Just open your mouth once in a while. I like being needed."

Olivia pulled back a few inches. "I do need you, Alex, all the time."

Alex lifted her shoulders and leaned in. "I believe you." Their lips touched, a chaste kiss, and Alex's face relaxed a bit as she sat back.

Blue eyes blinked, and Olivia frowned at an unusual movement she detected. "Are you wearing contacts?"

"Yeah. My glasses came off when Pendler knocked me down, and a guard stepped on them."

"Not the black ones," Olivia whined.

"Yep. I'm stuck with tortoise till I can get them replaced. I popped my old contacts in to clean."

"Now I really want to kill the guy."

Munch tossed a pen onto Olivia's desk. "Benson, what are you doing for The Dish's birthday? I'm still waiting for my invitation."

"We were going to have a party at this restaurant uptown that she loves, but when I called to reserve the place, they'd closed for three weeks of renovations. She was so disappointed, she said she just wanted to do something quiet." Olivia shrugged. "I thought I could take her somewhere nice."

John stared at her. "You were going to have a big blowout at a restaurant uptown, and instead you're taking her to dinner?"

"Yeah?" Olivia started to get nervous.

"Jesus Christ, Benson, how long have you two been together?"

It took seconds to calculate. "Three months, two weeks and a day."

"Have you never done this before?"

"Done what?"

"Properly courted a woman? For crying out loud, just because she's in your bed doesn't mean she's going to stay there. She wanted a party, you gotta throw her a party."

With a frown, Olivia argued, "But she said--"

"Doesn't matter. She was probably hungry, or annoyed, or experiencing the joys of PMS. What were her exact words?'"

"Um, I think... hold on. She said, 'I don't want to have to try and find someplace else. Don't worry about it. Let's do something small.'"

"Oh-livia. When's the date?"

"It's Sunday, but we were going to celebrate Saturday night."

"Okay, give me a list of places she likes to go. I'll make some calls."

"Wait a second, I'm taking advice from a man five times divorced?"

"Learn from my mistakes, Grasshopper. Make that list. And I'm only helping because one day I expect to hear details of hot lesbian sex as a reward for my kindness."

"Not a chance, Munch."

"Hope springs eternal."

Olivia spent a few minutes thinking of places Alex had enjoyed over the past few months. On a whim, she added O'Malley's to the list; Alex had come out to the bar with the group on a number of nights, and she'd always said how much she enjoyed being with everyone on those occasions. "It makes me feel like I have friends," she'd told Olivia. "A lot of people fell off the map while I was gone."

But what had really happened was that friends came out of the woodwork at the beginning, when Alex first returned, and then they'd faded back out of sight. Olivia couldn't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to maintain contact with Alex-- she shined so brightly, was so kind, and beautiful, and warm, that she expected people to be clamoring for her attention. That hadn't happened. Perhaps it was fear, or simple stupidity that kept them away, but whatever it was bothered Alex, and therefore it bothered Olivia too.

She'd imagined an intimate dinner with only the two of them would be nice, a way to make her feel important, loved. But the more she thought about a party, the more she thought John might be right. Alex needed to make connections, and since Olivia wasn't the most social person on the planet, this was a good opportunity. "Hey, Munch," she said.

"Yeah," he replied.

"Thanks." She handed him a short list of restaurants, which he took with a nod.

"No problem." He glanced at the piece of paper. "Wait a second, O'Malley's?"

"She likes it there."

"Huh," John gaped. "Who knew Cabot liked to go slumming?"

"She hooked up with me, that ought to tell you something," Olivia quipped.

"Benson, you might live downtown, but you're still a classy broad," he replied, turning toward his computer and firing up a search engine.

"Gee, thanks, John. I feel so loved."

Cragen called out from his open door, "Olivia, where's Elliot?"

"Bathroom," she replied.

"When he's back, I need to see you two." Cragen kicked the door shut.

"Uh oh." Cragen had that look on his face-- one Olivia had come to dread.

Munch agreed. "You've either got a humdinger coming your way, or you did something to really piss him off."

"I don't know which is worse." Elliot strode back into the bullpen, and Olivia crossed to him before he could sit back down. "Cap needs to see us."

"I didn't do it," he said, hands up.

"Me neither. Come on."

Inside Cragen's office, the Captain sighed. "We've been called into to a triple-homicide suicide. I want you two handling it." Olivia swallowed, meeting Elliot's eyes in silent communication. "The 1-3 got a call an hour ago, a young boy came home to his apartment in Alphabet City to three dead siblings and a mother with her head splattered all over the kitchen wall."

Olivia's stomach fell. "Jesus."

"Apparently the boy was late coming home from school, and the mom couldn't wait any longer to off herself after she smothered the other three."

The room was silent as Olivia stared at the wall behind Cragen's head. "Where is he now?" she managed to say, impressed at the evenness of her tone.

"He's at the 1-3, but you two, work the scene and then pick him up. I want to know everything-- is the father in the picture, did the mother have a history of depression, was there prior abuse reported." Cragen rubbed the deepening lines on his forehead.

"Why us," Elliot asked, his voice low.

"Captain Jansen asked for you by name, Liv. Remember the 13-year-old raped in Chinatown and left for dead? Bethany Snow, I think he said."

"Yeah, I remember." Blonde, small, pretty girl, and Olivia sat with her during the kit, and held her hand for hours afterward as she eased the story out of her. Another lost innocent.

"Jansen remembered too. They need all the details they can get out of this boy, and you and Elliot are the best. Take it as a compliment, but I wish like hell I hadn't picked up the phone."

As Olivia stood in the kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment, she tried to ignore the overpowering stench of copper and ripened fruit. Three brown bananas sat on top of a small microwave, and Olivia wondered why the mother hadn't simply thrown them out.

"Overripe bananas are good for homemade baby food," Elliot said, apparently noticing where Olivia's eyes had gone.

"Oh," she said, glancing at the blood spatter on the cupboards under the sink.

M.E. Warner came back into the kitchen. "All three were asphyxiated; Mom probably used the pillow I found at the end of the couch. The kids have been dead about three hours, but the mother, less than two."

Elliot checked his notepad. "The neighbor heard a shot around 2:45, but she didn't report it. Thought it was a backfire."

Melinda glanced down at the body. "I wish she had-- at least the boy wouldn't have walked in on this." There were small, bloody footprints across the kitchen floor, leading to the main room. Apparently Enzo had come in, found his mother and brothers and sister, and called 911. After that, he hadn't said a word.

"I'll take the bedroom," Olivia said, and Elliot followed her out of the kitchen.

Cragen was pacing the squad room when Olivia descended the stairs from the crib. She'd left Enzo with George, although the boy still wasn't speaking. He'd held Olivia's hand once in the car, but beyond that nothing else had happened.

"Is he talking?" Cragen asked.

Olivia shook her head. "Sorry, Cap."

"Okay, both of you, let's hear the details."

Elliot retrieved a notebook from his pocket, and Olivia followed suit. "Elsa Donato, aged 37, worked at the Tompkins Square Branch of the public library. Husband deceased, killed eighteen months ago in a wreck on his way home from a business trip in Albany. No financial problems so far; Elsa lived off the insurance money and her salary as a part-time librarian. We're still trying to contact friends and other family, but there aren't many to choose from."

Cragen slumped, leaning back against Olivia's desk. "No family?"

"Elsa was an only child, parents dead. We put in a call to Robert Donato's sister, but haven't gotten a call back. She lives in Oregon."

"Dump the phones. Maybe Elsa was in contact with her, or some other family member. I would really like to keep this kid out of the system."

"Understood, Cap," Elliot replied.

Olivia continued, "No records of abuse; the most I could get from one of Enzo's teachers was that last month, he wore the same clothes to school every day for two weeks. When one of them asked if there was a problem, Enzo said no. The clothes weren't dirty-- he was washing them out in the sink every night. His shirt was still wet the day the teacher finally said something."

"Was the mother on medication?"

Olivia said, "Had a full bottle of lithium, but the prescription was dated two months ago. I doubt she took any."

"O-kay then. So we've got a depressed, possibly bi-polar mother who lost a husband and killed three of her kids. Why? And why spare Enzo?"

After a glance at Elliot, Olivia answered, "Mom left a note. 'I'm sorry, I couldn't wait.' That's all we know."

"Please tell me the press hasn't gotten wind of that," Cragen said.

Elliot said, "Not that we can tell. Asked everyone at the scene to keep their mouths shut. This is going to be hard enough on the kid as it is."

"How is he?" Cragen asked.

"The same," Olivia replied. "The docs checked him out at Bellevue, and physically, he's fine. Huang is talking to him now. I want to look in on them in a few minutes."

"Do what you can. Elliot, try that sister again. Keep me posted."

Olivia headed back up the stairs to the crib, where George sat quietly with Enzo. Only eight years old, the boy was already handsome, with wide eyes and an unruly mop of dark hair that fell in waves across his forehead. How could anyone do this to him? He turned his head sharply towards Olivia when he heard her come up the stairs. "Hey, Enzo."

"Hi Olivia," George said. "Enzo and I were just talking about baseball. He had a cap in his school bag-- the Pittsburgh Pirates."

"Wow, Enzo, I love the Pirates," Olivia said, sitting near the boy on a miniature bench. She wondered if Elsa was originally from Pennsylvania. "Have you ever seen them play?" Hazel eyes continued to bore into Olivia's, and she wished she could hear his silent communication. "Enzo, you're not in any trouble. You're here so we can help. A bad thing happened today, and all we want is to make sure that you're all right, as much as you can be."

Enzo nodded, almost imperceptibly.

"Good. Is there anything you can talk to me about? Your school, your mom, your dad--"

"My dad's dead."

The sound of Enzo's voice was unexpected. "That's right."

"He died when I was in kindergarten."

Where the hell do I go from here? "And what grade are you in now?"


Olivia could sense George watching the two of them intently-- he hardly moved an inch in his seat.

"I know this is hard, Enzo, but can I ask you about your mom?"

The boy blinked, and the length of his eyelashes distracted Olivia for a moment. "My dad died, and she stopped… she slept a lot."

"Do you mean she didn't get out of bed?"


"What happened to your brothers and sister when your mom went to work?"

"She took them to Kim's."

Olivia nodded encouragingly. "Who's Kim?"

"The lady that took care of them. She lives down the street, but she went to Capeatteras this week so Mom had to stay home."

"Kim went to Cape Hatteras?"


"Thanks, Enzo, that's going to be a big help to me."

The boy moved a few inches closer to Olivia. He took a deep breath. "My mom is gone."

Reaching out, Olivia waited to see if Enzo would take her hand. He did. "Yeah."

"Seth and Adam and Shay too. I think my mom hurt them."

Olivia swallowed. "We're trying to find out what happened."

"I wish I was dead too."

Oh God, help me. "No, Enzo," she said, dipping her head lower. "I'm glad you're here with me. Can I tell you something? It's really important." His hazel eyes looked up, pleading for mercy. "It's not your fault."

Enzo took a big breath, and it hitched in his chest. "But I was late. I had to get the fruit for Shay, but the old guy at the store didn't have peaches. I had to go down to another store and I got lost." Tears finally welled up in his eyes. "Mom was prob'ly mad."

Rubbing the small hand between hers, Olivia replied in her softest voice, "Honey, your mom was sad a lot, wasn't she?" At his nod, she said, "I don't think she was mad at you at all."

"But I couldn't find the peaches. I had to get home by 2:30, she said, and I didn't."

"Did she tell you every day to be home by 2:30, or just today?" Olivia asked, the dread growing in her belly.

"Just today. She told me this morning, and I was late."

Shit. "Thank you for telling me, Enzo. I know it's hard."

The boy sobbed once. "She was all bloody."

Olivia opened her arms, and he fell against her. She cooed comforting sounds in his ear and looked up at George. His eyes were filled with compassion as he nodded to her. "Good," he whispered.

Olivia didn't feel good at all.

Olivia's head fell forward, and the motion woke her out of a doze. Next to her, Enzo slept fitfully, surrounded by pillows, clutching a huge teddy bear that had been held by countless other children over the years. She'd sat up with him half the night; he hadn't wanted to sleep, or be alone, or have the lights off, so Olivia stayed.

A late-evening message had been all the contact she'd had with Alex since saying goodbye almost 24 hours before. She'd called home and left a voicemail, not bothering with her cell. She ached for the comfort of Alex's arms around her, the low voice in her ear, the sweetness of her touch, but Enzo... He wouldn't know that sort of comfort anytime soon, of being held by someone who loved him.

Earlier, George had spoken to Enzo, and they'd found that Elsa's depression had grown worse over the past months, and that it was likely she'd planned the deaths of her children well in advance. They would probably never know why she didn't wait for Enzo to arrive home before killing herself.

Olivia would have to learn to live without an explanation. So would Enzo.

His small body thrashed in the bed, and Olivia reached out a hand, pushing back the hair on his damp forehead. Enzo opened his eyes, and Olivia looked down at him. "I'm here."

"I had a bad dream." He wiped tears from his eyes. "There was a monster. He chased me and tried to eat me."

"I'll protect you. There are no monsters here."

He nodded, and closed his eyes, while Olivia pulled her sweatshirt off. Maybe the cold would help her stay awake.  

Christina Rubin, neè Donato, was on her way to New York City from Oregon. The plane was in the air; Olivia had scheduled a car to pick her up in a few short hours to bring her to the station. She would take custody of Enzo as the boy's only living blood relative.

At the moment, Enzo sat quietly, watching Olivia draw a picture of the trees, birds and fountains in the park. Although she would have typically been embarrassed by her less than stellar skills, the fact that they kept Enzo engaged in something other than his own grief was fine with her.

He rubbed his eyes. "Will my aunt like me?"

Olivia looked up. "Have you never met her before?"

"I think so, but it was before my dad... died. She came here this one time, at Thanksgiving. I don't remember what she looks like."

"Enzo, I talked to your aunt Christina, and she wanted to come here as soon as she heard you needed help. You might not remember her, but I think she remembers you, and that she'll like you just fine." Christina's mood in a twenty minute conversation had vacillated between hysterical grief, complete calm, and the odd numbness Olivia had seen so often in the families of victims. She had not hesitated to claim her nephew, which allowed Olivia a modicum of relief. Putting the boy into the hands of social services would have made an already impossible situation worse.

"Will I be able to take my fish? And my Spiderman pillow?"

Olivia swallowed. "You know, I can have someone go to your house and pack some things. I'll make sure your fish and your pillow will be on the list."

Enzo nodded.

"Is there anything else you want?"

Olivia wrote a list as the boy rattled off a few items, simple things like a wool Steelers beanie, a pair of sneakers, baseball cards. As Olivia scribbled, she glanced up when Enzo stopped. The scent of coffee filled her nostrils, and when she looked over her shoulder, an elegant hand held out a steaming venti cup from Starbucks. Alex's blue eyes watched her from behind the tortoise shell frames Olivia had complained about earlier.

"It's espresso, with a shot of caramel," Alex said as Olivia automatically reached out for it. Alex sat in one of the tiny chairs at the small desk, her knees pressed primly together. "Hi Enzo. My name is Alex. I'm Olivia's friend. I wanted to say hi."

"Hi," he replied, shyly looking down at his hands.

Alex looked over at her. "Elliot said you were up here."

"We're making a list of things for Enzo to get for when Aunt Christina gets here." Enzo nodded, but didn't look up. Olivia turned to Alex to tell her everything was fine, but she was met with an expression so sympathetic, so full of kindness that it was too much. Olivia quickly moved her eyes back down to her list and choked back the desire to grab Alex and not let go. Instead, she finished, "She's coming in a few hours. I can call you later."

A hand pressed between Olivia's shoulder blades, and Olivia gritted her teeth against the pleasure of the warm touch. "Okay. I'll wait." She stood from the chair, her left knee cracking loud enough for Olivia to wince. "Bye, Enzo. Bye, Liv."

"Bye," Enzo said softly, and Olivia didn't say anything. It was easier that way. She lifted the cup of coffee and inhaled once before setting it aside and returning to her list.

The bullpen was silent and dark, the only light coming from the lamp on Olivia's desk. She was hunched over, squinting at a report of an unsolved string of rapes in the Washington Heights area that she revisited every few months. As much as she tried to concentrate, she was having trouble reading more than one or two paragraphs at a time, though she knew all the words by heart. Instead, Enzo's face as he walked away with Christina Donato hung in her memory.

She blinked, and focused again on the page in front of her.

Time passed, her attention only broken by Frank as he emptied the trash cans into his enormous bin. They'd greeted one another by name, as so often happened when Olivia worked late, and he never questioned her presence. Never asked why she wasn't home with her family at such a late hour, and she never asked him the same.

Her eyes had glazed over by the time she heard footsteps coming down the hall. Sneakers, she thought-- Elliot? She habitually wiped beneath her eyes at mascara that had been worn away nearly a day before, and sat back in her chair when she saw Alex leaning against the doorframe. She wore her long coat, yoga pants and those overpriced Puma sneakers that wouldn't last two miles on a real track. "Hey," she said, her voice low.

Instead of being pleased, Olivia was irrationally annoyed at Alex's sudden appearance. She pushed the feeling away, trying to keep her face neutral. "What are you doing here so late?" were the only words Olivia could think to utter.

Alex's pale eyebrow lifted. "You're not serious, are you?" She walked into the bullpen and made herself at home at Elliot's desk, switching on the lamp and putting her feet up.

"You should be asleep. It's after midnight."

"Olivia," Alex said.


Alex appeared to think for a moment. "Have you had supper?"

"Jesus, is food all you ever think about?" It seemed that way sometimes. She was always asking Olivia if she'd eaten, what she'd had, was it any good. "I am an adult, you know. I can feed myself."

Instead of snapping back, Alex simply nodded, her face as serene as ever. "Yes, I know."

The response only inflamed Olivia's frustration. "I had something a while ago," she said, turning back to her file. "I need to work on this. I'll see you tomorrow."

"No, Liv, I want you to come home."

Olivia raised her eyes. "I'm working. I can't."

"You can work at home if you need to. You can even leave the light on next to the bed if you want." That was something typically outlawed in their room: no working in bed unless it was a dire emergency. The bed was for other activities; sleeping, snuggling, making love, watching movies, eating ice cream. Home things. Things Olivia didn't want to face tonight.

"Alex, I'm going to have to be back here at 6 anyway--"

"Did you catch a new case?" Alex asked quickly.

Caught off guard, Olivia replied, "No, but--"

"I wasn't aware of anything requiring your immediate attention. I understand your docket's looking pretty clear tomorrow."

She's been talking to Elliot. Or Cragen. "You must have heard wrong. All open cases require attention." Alex sighed. She cracked her neck, and the sound raised Olivia's hackles. "God, you're going to break your neck one of these days."

"Tell me what happened with Enzo."

Immediately his face flashed through Olivia's memory, and it was almost as if she could still feel the clammy grasp of his hand in her own. She shook her head. "There's nothing to tell. I'm sure you've heard the whole sordid story from Elliot, or the grapevine, or whomever. You don't need to hear it again."

"He's gone now, isn't he."

"Yes, he left." Olivia slammed her file folder shut, disappointed at the pathetic pfft sound it made-- she wished she had a door to slam instead.

"How are you?"

She wants to play therapist. "Don't you mean to ask, 'How does that make you feel?' Dr. Cabot? Have you been taking classes from Huang?"

Alex's face never shifted expression.

Finally, Olivia barked, "Christ, what is with you? Leave it alone. I'm fine. Enzo left. End of story."

"Then why are you still here? Denying yourself pleasure and comfort isn't going to help Enzo." Olivia glanced up sharply. "Torturing yourself won't hurt anyone but you, Liv, and the rest of us who have to live with you."

Olivia stood, her chair sliding away with the momentum of her movement. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"Really?" Alex said, sitting up a little. "Let me guess-- you didn't sleep last night. You skipped dinner, and probably breakfast, except for a stale donut that Fin brought in yesterday. Maybe lunch was a happy meal with Enzo, which you didn't finish because he didn't either. You've had a six-pack of Mountain Dew from the machine out there, because it has the most caffeine, and you don't even like it. Enzo is spending the night in a hotel room with an aunt he doesn't know, probably not sleeping well, if at all. He's thinking about his mother's face, and the blood on the floor, and the way his brother's face was so blue--"

"Shut up!" Olivia bellowed. "You don't know anything about it! That boy had a piece of his childhood stolen away almost two years ago, and yesterday he lost it altogether. Do you know what it does to a child to experience something like that?" Olivia wiped her hand across the desk and files flew into the air. "It destroys. He's never going to be normal, because his mother wouldn't take her fucking lithium. He had a whole family, and now he has no one."

"He has Christina--"

"He doesn't even know her! You didn't see his face. He held my hand-- he was afraid to go with her. I threw him at Christina because she's a blood relative, but how often do we send kids to families who don't treat them well? I told her he's going to need counseling, but will she listen? Enzo could end up in the system anyway if she decides she can't handle the stress of taking on a child who's going to be fucked in the head for the rest of his life."

"Liv, you don't know--"

Olivia laughed bitterly. "I do know. He needs help, he needs--" Olivia stopped. She didn't know what he needed, other than his family back. Whole and undamaged. A dream that would never come true.

"You can't save them all," Alex whispered. "Sometimes one has to be enough."

Tears sprang to Olivia's eyes, and she choked them back angrily. "I didn't save him. It was a fluke--if he'd gotten home earlier, he'd be dead too. His mother planned it. She wanted to kill them all."

Alex's lips opened, and Olivia heard her long exhalation of breath.

"He couldn't find the peaches for his baby sister, so he ran late. For some reason, his mom didn't want to wait, so she blew her head off and left one behind... I keep thinking, what was going through her mind? Did she think about how she'd look to her son? About what he'd have to deal with when he saw the bodies of his family all over the goddamned living room?" Olivia inhaled a ragged breath. "Who could do this?" Anger roared up from deep within, at impossible circumstances, at a mother who remained entirely out of reach. It churned inside, and bile rose in her throat. She wanted to punish someone, but there was no one at all. Only herself. She picked up a wooden chair and bashed it into the corner of the room, once, twice, and again until it was in pieces on the floor.

When she looked down, her hands held what was left of the chair in two sections that had split apart, and she stared at them. It was like seeing something out of a dream, something that made no sense.

Olivia didn't know how long she stood there as the wave of anger and grief subsided. She looked around to see Alex gathering the pieces of broken wood and carefully setting them in a trash can. Gingerly she approached Olivia, who watched in a haze as she took the pieces from Olivia's hands and set them with the other splintered wood. She moved close, and her lips were warm against Olivia's cool cheek. Her hands were just as warm as they ran along Olivia's forearms, rubbing heat into chilled skin.

"Okay, Liv," she said. "Let's get your coat."

"No," Olivia said automatically, "I need--"

"You need to come home with me. We're going now." Alex led her across the room to the lockers, where she retrieved Olivia's leather jacket and slid it across her shoulders. "It's chilly out, and it rained earlier. I'll run you a bath and make some tea." Hand under Olivia's elbow, Alex steered her to the door, only stopping to turn the desk lamps off.

"I don't know..." Olivia couldn't finish the thought. She was so tired.

"It's okay, babe."

On the street, Alex hailed a taxi, and they huddled together in the back seat. It was damp and cold, and Alex blew warm air onto Olivia's clasped hands. Again, Olivia thought of Enzo, in his aunt's hotel room, afraid and alone. Wetness flooded her eyes, and she melted against Alex's shoulder, finally letting the tears fall.

Olivia leaned against Alex in the elevator. She couldn't remember ever being so tired, not for ages. The cab ride home was a blur, as was the trip from the street into the building. She followed Alex into the hallway, and watched her unlock the door. Inside, scents of cinnamon and sugar met her nose, from the potpourri Alex set out on a weekly basis. When they'd first begun living together the smells were cloying to Olivia-- too sweet, too heavy. But now, they reminded her of home, and Alex.

"Shh," Alex breathed, removing Olivia's jacket as well as her own.

"I'm cold," Olivia said. Her hands were frigid, her nose running as though she'd been out in freezing weather.

"Come on," Alex said, leading her further into the dark apartment. In the bathroom, Alex ran water in the tub, checking the temperature for a ridiculously long time before plugging the drain and adding a few salts. "This will make you feel better," she said, and began to strip away the clothes that Olivia had worn for two days straight.

"I can do it," Olivia said, brushing Alex's hands away.

"Hey," Alex said, tilting Olivia's chin in her direction. "I know you can."

Olivia blinked.

"Let me, okay?" She pulled Olivia's sweatshirt off, and unbuckled her belt and jeans, sliding them to the floor. "I don't want you to go to sleep hungry," she continued, pulling the rest of Olivia's clothes off piece by piece, "so I'm going to heat something up and bring it to you." With that, she helped Olivia into the tub, staying close as Olivia settled into the hot, fragrant water. "Back in a minute."

Staring at the wall, Olivia tried to empty her mind, as she'd counseled Alex so many times in the past. Just think of the water. Nothing else. Her eyes drifted shut, until at some point later Alex returned with a plate and two mugs in hand.

"It's pad thai, and I made some chamomile," Alex said. "I don't know if they'll go together, but I'm out of decaf chai, so this is the best I could do."

Olivia shrugged, the water shifting with her movement. She sat up slightly in the tub and accepted the mug, sipping slowly. The taste was familiar; Alex had brewed it occasionally since the weather had turned cold. It was soothing, and after a moment, Alex took the mug back and balanced the plate on the rim of the tub. She held one end, while Olivia took the offered fork and scooped up a mouthful of noodles. After only one bite, the sense of well-being that came from having food in her stomach was overwhelming. She gulped down a second mouthful, hardly chewing this time.

"Hey, hey," Alex said, "slow down. It's not going anywhere."

Breathing in, Olivia finished chewing and swallowing what was left in her mouth before she continued to eat. "No chopsticks tonight," she murmured, skewing a piece of tofu on the end of the fork.

"No need. I know you're adept. Tonight I want you to eat, and relax, and let everything go."

Olivia did exactly that-- as the food settled in her belly, she felt the remaining tension leaving her body, and even when she thought of Enzo, it wasn't as awful as before. Soon, she'd had her fill, and left the fork on the plate before leaning back into the tub's cooling water.

Without asking, Alex flicked the hot water tap on, filling the tub a little higher while she sipped her own cup of tea. As Alex sat on the low stool, holding the mug in her delicate hands, Olivia felt an inkling of what her lover had gone through that evening.

Olivia had trouble forming words, though, so instead, she kept her eyes pinned to Alex, who watched her just as intently in return. She drank her tea sporadically, recognizing the taste of honey Alex had drizzled in the mug. As the minutes passed, her eyes became heavier, and soon, Alex took the cup from her hands, and began to run a sudsy washcloth across her skin.

"What are you--"

"Cleaning you up," Alex replied. "I'll only be a moment." She wasn't kidding; two minutes later, Alex was finished, and she rinsed Olivia as best she could with the slightly soapy bathwater. "That'll do. Ready to get out?"

Bobbing her head, Olivia stood, the water sluicing from her body in sheets. Her muscles were warm and soft, and her head seemed fuzzy. The bathwater drained away, and Alex produced a thick towel out of what seemed like thin air. She helped Olivia from the tub and patted her skin dry, adding a kiss here and there for good measure.

She wrapped the towel around Olivia and brought her into the bedroom. A clean tank and pair of underwear were laid out on the bed, and Olivia slid the panties up her legs as Alex held the shirt open for her. With an embarrassed smile, Olivia held her arms up, and Alex pulled the cotton down into place, smoothing the lines down her chest and waist. "There," she said, looking satisfied with her work. "In."

As Olivia slipped beneath the sheets, she asked, "What about you?"

"Five minutes and I'll join you."


Turning on her side, Olivia listened to the sound of Alex putting the dishes in the sink, and then flicking the taps open again as she started the shower. To the soothing sound of water falling in the other room, Olivia dropped off into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

When morning came, Olivia was alone in bed, a fact for which she was extremely grateful. She sat up and looked around at the bedroom, and the notion that it was cleaner with two people living in it than it had ever been with one occurred to her. When she was on her own, a perpetual layer of dust rested on all her furniture, the tv, the bookshelves. Olivia reached out and ran a finger across the nightstand: not a speck of dirt was detectable on her skin. I don't know how she does it.

Alex. Last night...

Embarrassment set in, and Olivia buried her head in her hands. Not only had she lost it, she'd broken a chair against a wall and yelled at Alex over something she had nothing to do with. She doesn't deserve this--

"Morning, gorgeous," Alex said perkily, peeking around the corner. "I heard you mumbling and wanted to interrupt before you beat yourself into a pulp."


"Liv, no apologies, please. Don't ruin my memory of last night. This week is the first time you've let me take care of you, and I'll treasure it." She sat on the bed as Olivia leaned her cheek on one knee. "How are you?"

Olivia snorted. "Aside from feeling like a fool, I'm better. Thanks." She met Alex's eyes, which shined with unshed tears.

"You're welcome." She leaned in for a kiss. "It'll get easier, I promise."

"What?" Olivia asked.

"Leaning on me. And someday, you might even come to me when you need help-- a shoulder to cry on, or someone to keep you company."

Although Alex had mentioned her desire to be needed in the past, the fact hadn't really computed in Olivia's head. Olivia wanted to be tough, and infallible, and entirely self-sufficient. But last night, and now this morning... Maybe letting another person see her bad side wouldn't always end in disaster. "I'll try," Olivia said.

"That's all I want." She kissed Olivia firmly. Flopping down onto the bed, she encouraged Olivia to do the same. "You're going in late today, by the way."

"Excuse me?"

"I spoke to Don this morning, and he doesn't want to see you before ten."

Olivia glanced at the clock-- it was a little after eight. "I should go in--"

"When he heard you were at work till 1:30 last night, he insisted."

Relaxing back against the pillow, Olivia slid her leg out to bump Alex's. "And what little bird told him that?"

Alex hesitated. "The same little bird who got a call from Elliot around eleven last night, making sure I knew the score."

Turning over, Olivia frowned. "He called you?"

"He was worried."

"I suppose you're going to tell me I shouldn't be mad at him for interfering."

"Exactly. And you have no idea how hard it was for me to wait two hours before coming to see you. I wanted to give you a chance to come home."

Shaking her head, Olivia said softly, "I wouldn't have."

Alex ran a finger down Olivia's nose. "I know."

"I... I was angry, but in cases like Enzo's, there's no--" Olivia struggled to continue.

"No perp whose ass you can kick all over an observation room," Alex offered.

"Yeah. We were too late."

"You can't take the blame, Liv. You were there for Enzo when he needed someone. That's the best thing you could have done."

"I guess," Olivia breathed, closing her eyes. "I'm afraid for him."

"He's not alone, no matter what you think. His life has changed, but you've seen people survive tragedies like his. Would you rather he had died?"

"No!" Olivia barked. "Of course not."

Alex nodded. "His aunt will do everything she can. Elliot told me a little about her--they talked quite a bit while you were still in with Enzo."

"I didn't like handing him off that way."

"I bet you'd have brought him home if you could've."

"No," Olivia replied automatically, but then thought seriously about Alex's statement. "Maybe I wanted to. A little."

"You do seem to specialize in lost souls. And I speak from experience."

Olivia smiled. "You were never lost, Alex."

"Maybe temporarily misplaced." Alex smirked. "But not so lost anymore." She moved into Olivia's arms, smelling of vanilla coffee beans and fresh bread.

"I broke that chair." She didn't want to see the look in Alex's eyes when she brought the subject up.

"Mm-hmm," Alex murmured.

"I didn't mean to scare you."

"Olivia, I know how you see yourself--aggressive, tough, occasionally menacing..." Olivia smiled at Alex's tone. "But never once have I seen anything threatening directed my way. I'm more scared for you. The way you beat yourself down, overwork yourself... it can be painful to watch. I hate seeing you unhappy."

"I'm not unhappy. But sometimes I feel... empty. Like I have nothing left to give. Maybe my well is running dry."

"Or you just need a little time for it to replenish. It's been a tough few weeks, and Enzo was the capper. I know every case is important to you Liv, but the ones with children, those are the ones that you hold inside." Alex tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I know you keep in touch with some of them. Or at least check on them when you can."

"Yeah," Olivia said. It wasn't a secret, but she wondered how Alex had found out.

As if she'd heard what Olivia was thinking, Alex said, "I called the bullpen a few weeks ago, and Munch said you were having coffee with Harper Anderson."

"You remember her," Olivia said, and Alex nodded. "I didn't know if I should stay in touch-- it's likely she's involved in Kenneth Cleary's death, at least peripherally. But something about her... We go to the shooting range every few months-- that's what Munch meant when he said we were out for coffee."

"How is she?"

"Good, I think. It's been four years. She's a crisis counselor now. The strange thing is that I think she and Meredith Cleary might be... together. Harper's never spelled it out, but Meredith picked her up at the range the last couple of times we were there."

Alex blinked, clearly surprised. "Wow."

"I know." Olivia had often wondered if the crime she imagined them committing together had bonded them for life in some way. "If they murdered him, I don't think either of them regrets it." I'm not sure I would either.

"I wish I hadn't put Mrs. Cleary on the stand, for Harper's sake." Alex's mouth hardened into a firm line. "But whatever happened, he got what he deserved."

Olivia met Alex's eyes. It was a silent understanding, one that they'd never speak of, but it was there nonetheless.

"Will you have something to eat? I made you breakfast," Alex finally said.

"Sure." Thank goodness Alex had fed her the night before, because her stomach felt empty enough as it was.

In the kitchen, Alex presented her favorite chocolate croissants and muffins from Balthazar, and set out a bowl of fresh fruit. Olivia took one bite of a croissant, and warm chocolate oozed out. "Oh my god," Olivia groaned, her taste buds constricting with the intense flavor.

"Georg took them right out of the oven for me, and insisted I keep them warm till we ate."

Olivia inhaled her breakfast, eating far more than she would on an average morning, while Alex looked on with a satisfied smile. As Olivia licked chocolate from her thumb, she watched Alex daintily pop a slice of banana into her mouth with a grin. "Thank you, Alex."

Alex leaned close. "You're welcome, babe. I love you."

They kissed.

At work that day, Elliot was careful around her; kind, courteous, and completely inoffensive. It was unsettling, but Olivia didn't want to call him on it-- she still felt raw, even after talking things out with Alex. It was as though her nerves were exposed to the world, and Elliot could sense it.

Sometime after lunch, she couldn't take it anymore. "El," she said, across the desk.


"I know you called Alex last night." She stalled for a moment, uncertain how to proceed. She decided to keep it simple. "Thanks."

He seemed to release a breath. "Sure. Thought you could use some company down here."

Olivia nodded, and looking down before a blush could color her cheeks, she continued filling out the DD-5 she'd been working on.

Glancing around, she suspected Frank had made a second trip through the squad room after she and Alex had departed the previous night. There had been no evidence of her breakdown when she'd arrived at work, and if anyone noticed the absence of the wooden chair that used to sit near the coat rack, they didn't say a word.

Enzo's aunt called late in the afternoon, assuring Olivia they'd landed in Oregon safely. She'd even handed the phone over to the boy, and he and Olivia had exchanged a few quiet words.

"Hey, Enzo. I guess you got there okay, huh?"

"Yeah," he said. "I'm going to live in a house. Aunt Christina said it's a townhouse. She said it's like an apartment with lots of floors."

"That sounds like a good place to live."

"I brought Wilson with me in a bag. Aunt Christina says I can keep him, and maybe get other fish too. She has a dog. I'm going to meet him soon."

"I'm glad." There was a silence over the line, as Olivia listened to the small boy's breath. "You know, Enzo, you can call me anytime you like, day or night. If you want to talk, about anything. School, or home, or... anything."

Olivia waited for a response. After a long moment, Enzo replied. "Okay."

She exhaled. "Good. Is it all right if I call you once in a while?"

"Yeah," the boy replied, with something close to enthusiasm. "Aunt Christina said it was okay."

"Great. You take care then. I'll talk to you soon."

"'Kay. Bye, Olivia."

He handed the phone back to his aunt. "Detective?" Christina said, her voice thin and reedy over the line.

"I'm here."

"You... I don't know how to thank you. You were a godsend, really."

Olivia swallowed, and answered with the rote reply. "I was just doing my job."

Christina released a choked laugh. "You're wrong, Detective." As if Christina was leaning closer into the phone, her voice was muffled when she said, "I hope some day you realize how much you did for Enzo. And for us. I'm not sure how..." Emotion crept into the woman's voice. "We won't forget."

Tears stung Olivia's eyes. "I won't either," she replied.

"We'll call you."

"Great," Olivia replied, blinking rapidly to hold back the wetness that threatened to spill over. "Bye."

She heard Christina echo her farewell and hung up the phone quickly. Her breath came fast, and all she wanted to do was bury herself in paperwork. Feeling Elliot's eyes on her, she nodded to him, gesturing with her hand that it was okay. Before she could ignore the impulse, she unsnapped the cellphone from her belt and got up from the desk, heading for the crib. Pressing #1 on the speed dial, the sound of a ringing phone met her ears.

Alex picked up on the second ring. "Cabot."

Sighing in relief, Olivia sagged against the railing. She barely found her voice. "Alex," she said.

"What is it?" Alex sounded terrified. "Honey?"

Olivia opened her mouth wide, trying to loosen the muscles that twitched in her jaw. "I spoke to Enzo." In her mind's eye, Olivia could imagine Alex sitting back down at her desk in relief, realizing the call wasn't to report bad news.

Alex's voice softened considerably. "How is he?"

Sitting on the couch, flipping through the drawings Enzo had left behind, Olivia told her every detail.

A while later, Olivia crept down the stairs, hoping no one had noticed her absence. Elliot was still at his desk, as were Munch and Fin. It had been an oddly quiet day, and Olivia was careful not to think too much about it, lest she jinx it.

The three men remained silent as Olivia retook her seat, and she leaned back in her chair. "Everything cool?" Fin finally asked, keeping his eyes pinned to the paperwork on his desk.

"Yeah," Olivia replied.

"Nice," Fin said, satisfied.

Olivia met Elliot's eyes. His half smile both comforted and irked her. "You'll figure it out yet, partner," he said.

She huffed to herself, and went back to work.

"Okay, listen," Munch began. "I made some calls, and while Max Fish said they could take a private party, they were too damned trendy for me to be willing to commit. So I went with O'Malley's, but how about this-- we bring in dinner from somewhere else. I talked to Sean, and he went for it. You know he's not about to turn down a party for an up and comer like Cabot, even if he was slightly insulted that corned beef and cabbage wasn't quite what we had in mind."

Olivia raised her eyebrows. "Wow," she said. "Okay."

Munch stared at her. "Okay?" he questioned. "That's it? You're not going to argue?"

"No. That sounds great."

"Huh," he responded. Glancing at Fin, he said, "If only women were always so easy. I think the Elephant caters. Let me get back to you."

Munch shuffled off, and Olivia was left at the desk. "If you ever get married, you won't need to hire a wedding planner," Fin said.

Olivia gulped. "Married?" She laughed nervously. "It's not legal in this state, you know."

"Not yet."

Blinking, Olivia watched Munch as he made conversation with some restaurateur over the phone. "Yeah," she said absently. I'll keep that in mind.

By Friday evening, the plans were set. Olivia knew very little of how things had been arranged, but she was thrilled not to have to deal with the details. They were to arrive at O'Malley's Saturday evening at 7, when the soiree would already be in full swing. Olivia had yet to really surprise Alex with anything; the last party held in Alex's honor had been in Nebraska, and Alex had known about it ahead of time. This one Olivia hoped would knock Alex's socks off, even if it was small and a little unsophisticated.

On the way home, Olivia zipped uptown, and with her heart pounding, entered Cartier on Fifth Avenue. She'd already laid down her credit card for Alex's birthday present, considering she'd had it engraved, but now, picking it up was making her so nervous she imagined sweat beading on her forehead. The man she'd spoken to when making the decision, Nathan, was on the floor speaking to another couple, but he smiled when she caught his eye, and held up one finger. Olivia tried to calm herself; it wasn't as though she was buying a ring, or asking Alex to marry her. But... it felt like she was.

Nathan appeared at her side moments later, laying a hand against Olivia's shoulder blade. Although typically Olivia would have flinched at such familiarity from someone she'd simply bought something from, she felt more relieved than anything. A sigh left her chest, and Nathan smiled.


Olivia nodded wordlessly. He disappeared for a moment, and Olivia lingered, gazing at the rings beneath the glass. She felt out of place in the store, glancing around at the wealthy individuals and couples inspecting jewelry. It was the same feeling she'd had the first time she'd come in, but Nathan had been kind, and continued to be of assistance each successive time she entered and left empty-handed. But the fourth time, after long minutes spent gazing at the item in question, Olivia had pulled the worn wallet from her inside jacket pocket and handed over her Visa card. "Okay," she'd said, pointing. "That one."

Nathan had smiled, as if he'd known her choice all along.

When he appeared with the box, butterflies materialized in Olivia's stomach. What if she doesn't like it? What if she changes her mind about us? Why did I blow a month's salary? Looking at the closed box, Olivia felt panic setting in. As her mind raced, Nathan reached out and laid a hand on her forearm. "Miss Benson," he said, in his clipped New England accent, "She's going to love it. Mark my words. I have never had a dissatisfied customer, and I've been here nine years."

Olivia met his eyes and swallowed her fear. She nodded. When Nathan slid the box toward her, Olivia reached out and opened the lid. At the sight, she grinned. It was just what she wanted; slim, delicate, full of meaning. Caressing the gold as it lay in velvet, she breathed, "It's perfect."

Nathan nodded his approval. "I always ask our customers to let us know how the gift is received, but I'll be honest; in your case, I would really enjoy hearing how it goes. Next time you come uptown, please drop in. Especially if your partner is with you--I'd very much like to see it where it belongs."

"Sure," Olivia said. "I'd like that." Slipping the box inside her pocket, she exhaled and shook Nathan's hand gratefully. "I promise." The word partner echoed in her mind as she walked down Fifth, and she didn't notice she'd passed her subway stop till she'd gone an extra half block.

"Have you seen my black sleeveless top?" Alex called from the bedroom.

Olivia looked up from the half-finished crossword from the previous Sunday. "Which one?" Alex had about eight black sleeveless tops, ranging from worn out wifebeaters to Dolce & Gabbana tanks that cost hundreds of dollars.

"The shiny one, I want to wear it tonight."

That rang a bell. It was a favorite of Olivia's, and she'd had it dry-cleaned herself. "It should be with my cleaning stuff, on the left side of the closet."

A few seconds passed. "Got it." Alex emerged holding the top and a sleek pair of trousers against her waist. "I'll be overdressed for O'Malley's, but I want to look nice."

Olivia smiled. "You could wear anything in that closet and you'll look beautiful," she said. "But I love that outfit." And Alex knew it. The last time she'd worn those pants on an evening out, Olivia hadn't been able to keep her hands off Alex's ass all night.

Alex's smug look settled across her features, and Olivia was happy to have put it there. She was dressed already, and a bit nervous about the evening. It was nearly seven, and she was trying not to rush Alex, but she was getting antsy. Fortunately, Alex glided out of the bedroom only minutes later, fastening small gold hoops in her ears. She pulled the newspaper out of Olivia's hand without preamble and sat in her lap, lifting her feet to hang over the arm of the couch. A kiss landed on Olivia's cheek. "Love you," Alex said.

"Where'd that come from?" Olivia asked.

Alex shrugged in her arms. "Don't know. I'm happy. When I..." She paused, nosing in closer to press her lips to Olivia's neck. "When I used to think about my birthday, in Nebraska, it was... difficult. I missed you, Mom, my friends, the city, all of it. It was like a physical pain sometimes. But now I wake up, and I roll over into your arms, and it's as if those years were all a bad dream. This was exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday."

"On the couch?" Olivia quipped, feeling a pang in her heart at Alex's words, longing to make her smile.

It worked, and Alex's lips curved up. "No, silly. With you. Doing whatever we liked. Having dinner at a bar where I know the bartender, and maybe we'll run into some friends. We can eat too much and drink too much and stumble home drunk and make love all night. Tomorrow I'll wake up and be 34, and the best part is that you'll be there, and you'll call me by my real name."

Olivia's breath caught in her chest. Alex had spoken less and less of her time away as the days progressed, but the memories of loss were still potent to both of them. Olivia pulled Alex closer, inhaling shakily as Alex's knees came in, seeming to wrap around her. "Alex," Olivia whispered, and she felt the heat of Alex's breath on her skin.

They sat that way for a few minutes, and Olivia forgot the time, forgot that she was on a schedule, that there were fifty people waiting for her to arrive with the guest of honor. All that mattered was that they were together, and that they loved each other completely. Her fears over the gift she'd bought vanished. There were other things she was planning on giving Alex-- books, tickets to a new Broadway show Alex had expressed interest in, a few of her favorite films on DVD. But it felt like the right time to give her the thing that meant most to her. Waiting till tomorrow... was no longer an option.

With Alex still in her arms, Olivia leaned over and snagged her leather coat off the back of the couch. "Hmm?" Alex said, lifting her head up an inch.

"I know the real day is tomorrow, but I want you to have something. I don't want to wait." From the inside pocket, she pulled the box, wrapped in a shiny gold ribbon.

Alex blinked madly, clearly noting the Cartier writing on the red box. "Liv," she whispered. "It's too much."

Olivia laughed nervously. "You haven't even seen it. Here. Happy early birthday." She watched as Alex swallowed visibly, and pulled at the delicate ribbon. Alex smoothed her fingers over the top of the box, prolonging the anticipation. With a deep breath, she lifted the lid, and her mouth dropped open.

The gold bracelet was nestled comfortably in the velvet, a tiny screwdriver fastened to the bottom of the box with a thick piece of thread. Alex looked at it, and Olivia wondered if she'd have to explain the significance until she saw the sheen of tears form in Alex's eyes. "Olivia," she said softly, reaching out to caress the gold without making a move to lift the bracelet out of its resting place.

"Will you wear it?" Olivia asked.

Alex looked up. She nodded. "Yes."

With that, Olivia pulled both the bracelet and screwdriver from the box, waiting for Alex to hold out her arm. She did, and carefully, Olivia fastened the gold bangle onto her left wrist, sliding in the screw that would keep the bracelet on her wrist indefinitely. She'd bought the smallest size, knowing Alex's slender wrist demanded it. Gently she screwed the tiny piece of gold in place, and when she was done, she nodded in satisfaction. She took Alex's hand and held her arm out to admire the gift. "It looks beautiful."

"Olivia," Alex said, gazing at the gift as if in disbelief. "It's too much."

"Well, it's engraved, so it's too late now," Olivia said quickly, hoping Alex wasn't disappointed.

At those words, Alex sat up higher and pulled her wrist up to her eyes. "What?" she exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me?" She twisted the gold band around her wrist till she came to the writing on the opposite end of the traditional Cartier engraving. Olivia's stomach turned as Alex read the two words she'd had carved into the bracelet: "Per sempre." The simple words an Italian girl with dark, knowing eyes had said to her months ago in Rome, before Alex had returned, before Olivia had known what it was to be truly happy. Always, she thought.

Her mouth twisting, Alex threw her arms around Olivia's neck and clung tightly, trailing hot tears onto Olivia's skin. Olivia could do nothing but hold her, and wait for the storm to pass. She kissed Alex's throat, and collarbone, and eventually her lips as they came together tenderly. Their kisses were salty and sweet, and Alex pressed their foreheads together when she pulled away.

"Liv," Alex said again, "this is the most precious thing I've ever received in my life."

Olivia thought back to a conversation they'd had a few weeks before. "Better than the bike you got when you were eight?"

"Better than the bike, by leaps and bounds," Alex said, catching Olivia's gaze and holding it.

I did good. Thank God . "I'm glad," Olivia said simply. "I love you."

Alex kissed her again. "Love you too."

Olivia sniffed, wiping at the tears that wanted to escape her own eyes. With a great sigh, she asked, "What do you say, ready to go out and have some fun?"

Alex released a laugh, the tension broken. "Sure you don't want to stay in?" she asked, sliding a hand up Olivia's shirt to cup her breast.

For a moment, she was tempted. "Later," she finally said. "I promise."

Soon they were strolling down Broadway, arm in arm, as Alex held out her left hand to admire her gift. "This means you're stuck with me," Alex said, tilting her head thoughtfully.

"That was the idea," Olivia replied with a laugh.

Alex sighed. "This is the best night."

Olivia smirked. She hoped what awaited Alex would exceed her expectations.

When they came to O'Malley's, it was 7:15, and Alex was glancing over Olivia's shoulder at something across the road when they entered the bar. "Hey, isn't that the girl who came to pick up Fin last week?" she asked, before the entire establishment exploded with, "SURPRISE!"

Olivia watched as Alex recoiled in shock, hand flying to her chest, mouth dropping open. Her eyes were saucers, and as she looked around, a smile formed, and she began to laugh as people clapped noisily. "Oh my God," she shouted over the din, looking over at Olivia with a disbelieving expression. "Oh my God," she repeated.

Amanda Cabot came forward with a gentle smile as Gerald looked on. Although Olivia had expected her to look out of place in the bar, she fit in as well as everyone else. "Happy birthday, darling," she said as she embraced Alex in a warm hug.

Olivia couldn't wipe the grin from her face, pumping a triumphant fist in the air when she met Munch's eye. "Come 'ere," she said, and John stepped up and accepted Olivia's embrace. "Thank you so much, John." The energy of the bar, and the people in it, surrounded her with good feelings, and it was breathtaking. "This is perfect."

John held her tightly for a moment before whispering in her ear, "You deserve it." He kissed her cheek and patted her shoulder before more people came forward to surround her. Elliot was there, and she nearly jumped into his arms, swept up in the excitement. Kathy embraced the both of them, and Olivia wrapped an arm around her neck and pulled her in.

"Did she like it?" Elliot said, his brow furrowed. Olivia had begged Elliot to come with her on one of her visits to Cartier, and he'd heartily approved of the choice of bracelets. He'd been almost as nervous as Olivia when she'd laid down her credit card to buy the thing.

"Yep," Olivia said. "She's wearing it."

"Fuck, yeah!" he said. "I told you!"

Unable to wipe the smile off her face, Olivia said, "I know, partner. You were right. I think she really likes it."

Kathy laid a hand on Olivia's shoulder. "Trust me, Olivia, she loves it."

Olivia watched as a look passed between Elliot and Kathy, and for a moment, she could sense their connection of so many years. It reassured her, and she could only hope to spend so many years being with Alex.

God, I've turned into a giant mushball.

One eye trained on Alex, Olivia picked through the diverse menu selection Munch had brought in. Some of the wait staff stood behind the tables and explained what was there-- seared salmon, Caribbean jerk chicken, various salads and a number of side dishes. Olivia wanted to try them all, so she filled a plate with a little of everything before finding a seat at the bar.

Alex was always so good at parties, making all the guests feel as if they were the most important people present, and that if they hadn't made it, the evening would've been a disaster. A group of ADAs Olivia only knew vaguely had clustered around her, and Olivia decided she'd wait a little longer before throwing a plate of food in her hands. She already had a glass of wine, naturally, and though they'd had a late lunch, Alex hadn't eaten much.

"Hello, darling," a voice said just at Olivia's left.

"Hi Amanda," Olivia said to Alex's mother. "Thanks for coming."

"Oh, you know I wouldn't miss it. I haven't been downtown in quite some time, so it's rather refreshing. And I'll admit, the food is remarkable for a bar. However did you find this place?"

Olivia laughed. "Detective Munch organized everything, and he had the food brought in from another restaurant."

"Excellent choice. I'll have to have a chat with the good detective. I'd like to find out more about the little haunts in the neighborhood. I'm rather sick of the same restaurants all the time. I need some variety."

"There are lots of places down here. Come for dinner next week, we'll all go out."

"Lovely. Gerald, would you get me another drink, darling?" Amanda asked, and Gerald gracefully nodded.

"For you, Olivia?" Gerald asked, gesturing toward Olivia's nearly empty glass.

"I'm not sure--"

"Come now, Olivia, you should enjoy the evening. I know you're always the responsible one of the pair of you-- it's time you relax and let your hair down. Yes, Gerald, bring the girl another, pinot gris, is it?"

Olivia nodded helplessly, and Gerald headed for the nearest bartender.

"Alexandra hides her wild streak from the general populace very well, and I'm glad you're around to take care of her. God knows some of the parties she attended in college were enough to make my hair stand on end." Amanda looked across the room at Alex as she laughed at something someone said. "It's nice to know you're watching out for my daughter."

With an embarrassed shrug, Olivia replied, "Thanks."

"And I see the Menotte bracelet that magically appeared on her wrist-- it wasn't there when we met for lunch this week."

Olivia blushed, and was glad for the dim lighting of the bar. "No, um, it's new."

"It's lovely, dear." Amanda reached over to tuck a lock of hair behind Olivia's ear. "I couldn't be more pleased."

Swallowing her nerves, Olivia said, "I wanted to get her something that would tell her how I felt."

"Oh, Olivia, she knows, very well how much you love her." Pinning Olivia with the intense Cabot gaze, Amanda continued, "You deserve to be loved in return, and I couldn't be more grateful that you and my daughter found each other. You're an ideal addition to the family."

Olivia froze.

"Don't look so terrified, my dear. You are part of the family, whether you like it or not. And I hope you can finagle having this Thanksgiving off, because you'll be integral to the celebration." Narrowing her eyes, Mrs. Cabot said, "I expect you've worked the last few Thanksgivings, and Christmases as well."

"Yes, Ma'am." Stunned by Amanda's words, Olivia fell back on propriety.

"Well no longer. I may have a word with your Captain, if that would help--"

"No, no," Olivia assured her, knowing she'd never hear the end of it if her ersatz mother-in-law was hitting up the Captain for days off. "I'll put in for time. It's not for two months, so I should be okay."

"See to it. Ah, thank you, Gerald. Perfect timing."

Olivia echoed Amanda's thank you as she took her fresh drink, and Gerald nudged Olivia's arm. "Stunning bracelet, ol' chap. You've excellent taste."

Olivia grinned. Gerald seemed as much a part of the family as she was, and Olivia was extremely fond of him and his sharp wit. "I could say the same for you. Is that a new ring on your finger, Madam Cabot?"

"Oh, stop," Amanda said dramatically, waving her hand at Olivia with the sparkling sapphire on it. "This little bauble?"

"That's a helluva bauble," Olivia said, taking a closer look at the sizable stone.

"Just something I picked up in Times Square from a man on the street," Gerald said off-handedly.

"Ri-ight," Olivia drawled.

A hand landed on Olivia's shoulder, and she turned to see Munch standing over her. "Listen, Liv, Fin's done something... Well, don't go nuts, okay?"

"What?" Olivia stood up straighter.

"Just... play along."

Amanda's eyebrow lifted. "What's this?"

"Mrs. Cabot, I apologize in advance for whatever you may witness over the next ten minutes."

"What?" Olivia demanded.

There was a commotion across the room, as a uniformed officer, hat firmly in place, strode through the crowd. "Alexandra Cabot, excuse me, I need ADA Cabot," the officer called out in a strong voice. Olivia frowned and stepped forward, but Munch pulled her back.

Alex turned, wine glass in hand. "That's me, is there a problem?"

"Move it, hey you, out of the way. Clear some space, people," the officer said, and Olivia realized it was a woman. But her uniform looked... odd.

"Miss Cabot," the officer said, taking the glass from Alex's hand and giving it to someone else, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to place you under arrest." From nowhere, the woman produced handcuffs, and she slapped them shut on one of Alex's wrists in seconds.

"What?" Olivia yelped for a third time.

Fin shoved a chair behind Alex, and the officer pushed her down and fastened the other cuff to the armrest. "I'm arresting you for being so. Damned. Hot." The woman yanked her hat off, and long, wavy brown hair flew out in every direction as she shook it out seductively.

Music started to blare, and Olivia groaned as she recognized the opening strains of a Joe Cocker song that reeked of sex. "Oh God," Olivia turned to Amanda, who held a hand over her mouth in what Olivia suspected was... glee?

"A stripper. How absolutely charming," Amanda said. "Gerald, sit. I don't want to miss this."

Olivia shouted Fin's name repeatedly over the explosion of catcalls and hoots as the woman slowly began to unbutton her top. Alex was blushing violently, eyes squinting in mortification.

Fin glanced over at Olivia as he clapped along to the music, and Olivia pointed to him. "You," she mouthed, "are dead," drawing a finger across her neck in slow motion.

"You're just jealous," Fin bellowed.

Someone handed Alex's glass back to her, and with her free hand, she downed it in one swallow. She sat back as far as she could in the chair as a shirt landed across her shoulder. Frantically she looked for Olivia, who could only stare mutely as the woman undulated like a snake in her line of sight. When their eyes finally met, and Olivia burst out laughing at Alex's predicament. She held out her hands and nodded. "Go for it!" she yelled, and Alex seemed to relax, the tension draining from her face.

In a split second, the strange looking pants were gone; no wonder they'd looked so odd to Olivia. Velcro. I might have to look into that. As the stripper slithered around Alex, never touching her, but getting mighty close, Alex's expression shifted from embarrassment to laughter to amazement-- clearly the woman was an accomplished dancer, not to mention extremely flexible.

When the song was nearly over, the woman's body was damp with perspiration, and Olivia wondered if that was a line of sweat trickling down Alex's hairline. She hid a grin as the dancer pressed a lipstick stained kiss next to Alex's mouth before whispering in her ear. Alex nodded, and the song ended. The bar burst into huge applause, and the shouts were deafening to Olivia's ears. Still clad only in her very revealing bikini top and the shortest hot pants Olivia had ever seen, the woman made a round of the bar, collecting tips in her police cap from drooling gentlemen and ladies. Olivia blinked twice when she saw Amanda tuck what appeared to be a fifty-dollar bill into a sizeable bra cup, much to the dancer's delight.

When the woman arrived at Olivia's side, she tilted her head. "You must be Cabot's other half," she said in a voice soft as honey, very unlike her "officer" voice from a few minutes prior.

"Uh-huh," Olivia said, eyes wide. She dropped a twenty in the hat.

From somewhere Olivia couldn't see, the woman retrieved a business card and slowly tucked it into Olivia's back pocket. "I do, ah, private parties. Call me if you two are ever in need of any special services."

Olivia cleared her throat. "Sure," she said.

Moments later, Olivia was able to catch her breath before swallowing far too much wine in one gulp. She glanced over at Alex, who'd been disengaged from her handcuffs when Olivia wasn't looking. Her face was red and she definitely looked embarrassed, but there was a twinkle in her eye that Olivia hadn't seen in quite some time.

Munch whispered in Olivia's ear, "How dead are we?"

Olivia pursed her lips. "You'll have to wait and see," she grumbled, but in her heart, she thought this stunt was just the sort of ridiculous thing that let Alex know her importance to the squad. She was one of the team, and because of this, she was subject to all the razzing and jokes that the rest of them had to put up with. "You might survive an extra week or two if you buy her another glass of wine."

"Coming right up." Munch disappeared into the crowd as Elliot stuck an elbow into Olivia's side.

"You jealous?" he asked, tilting a beer bottle back to down the last of it.

Olivia smirked, still aware of the business card burning a hole in her back pocket. "Nope."

"Come on, Liv, that stripper was pretty hot. And flexible--"

"El, you're about to dig yourself a hole you may never get out of."

Elliot looked thoughtful. "Maybe you're right."

Olivia watched as Alex made her way through the crowd to join her at the bar just as Munch handed her a fresh glass of wine. She nodded at him, and pressed her warm cheek to Olivia's. "Hey," she said, kissing her cheek.

"Hey, birthday girl. Nice lap dance."

"It was... an experience," Alex stated, tactfully. "Brandi was very sweet."

"Oh, God, her name was Brandi? I should have known," Elliot quipped.

Olivia hardly heard his words-- there was that look in Alex's eye, the one that said she wanted to be kissed, thoroughly. Looking briefly over her shoulder in search of Amanda and Gerald (because making out in front of Alex's mother was just not going to happen,) she smiled. She'd had enough wine to make her skirt the line of propriety, and she hoped Elliot wouldn't mind. Blinking slowly, she saw Alex's smile grow as she leaned in, and their lips met in a wet kiss that went on and on.

The noise level around them dropped, and when Olivia pulled back, she hoped there wasn't a line of saliva still connecting their lips. Elliot looked stunned, and he rotated his head and shoulders quickly, shaking them loose. "Right. I gotta find Kathy."

Munch and Fin were watching them closely, and Fin wore his familiar satisfied canary expression. He waved a camera at them, and Olivia shrugged. Worse things have happened than someone taking a picture of us kissing.

Alex simply leaned in and held her before whispering, "This is my favorite birthday ever."

Olivia grinned.

The wine continued to flow, and Olivia was actually relieved when Amanda and Gerald made themselves scarce sometime after 10. The party had thinned to manageable levels by then; mostly close friends from the squad and One Hogan Place remained. Liz Donnelly and Arthur Branch had dropped by, as had Lena Petrovsky, none of whom had been witness to Alex's "arrest", fortunately. But Olivia was sure Alex would hear about it from all parties when she saw them next, since word traveled around their circles like wildfire. Alex's longtime friend Liz Olivet had put in an appearance as well, and even from their brief conversations, she was someone Olivia wanted to get to know better.

Melinda Warner and her husband seemed to be in for the long haul, since their two children were staying at Warner's sister-in-law's for the night. "I wouldn't have missed this, are you kidding?" she'd said when Olivia expressed surprise that she was sticking around. "I never paid too much attention to Alex the first time around. I liked her, but I thought she was just another ambitious ADA at the beginning. By the time I realized otherwise, it was too late." Melinda had sipped at her dirty martini. "Won't happen again."

By the time Elliot and Kathy said their goodbyes, Olivia was feeling no pain, and she suspected Alex wasn't either. "Bye, partner," Elliot said, and Olivia gave him a full bear hug, squeezing tight.

"Thanks for being here, El," she said, fighting a swell of emotion in her belly.

Elliot laughed. "G'night, Liv. Take care, and don't forget the cardinal rule: drink lots of water," he said.

"Aw, shut up," she replied, punching him on the shoulder lightly. She and Alex both hugged Kathy goodbye, and waved as they left.

Their circle grew progressively smaller, but by midnight, Olivia was feeling the affects of the hour and the alcohol. Alex looked sleepy, but happy, and they held hands while sitting at the bar among a circle of friends. Diet Coke had become the drink of choice, and when Alex's head landed on Olivia's shoulder, she thought the evening had come to an appropriate end.

"Ready to hit the hay, counselor?" she asked softly.

"Long as you're with me," Alex replied, squeezing Olivia's leg.

As Alex got ready to go, Olivia gathered the presents piled in a corner. Sean, the manager of the bar, helped her pack them into a few small bags. His cheeks were ruddy, and he'd been as much a part of the celebration as any of them. "You know, a while back I asked that partner o' yours why you were always with your mates rather than at home with your man," Sean said, his accent faint to Olivia's ears. "I'm glad you've got someone now who suits ye," he finished with a nod of his head.

"Thanks, Sean," Olivia said. If we can win over a 57 year old Catholic Irishman, the rest of the world can't be far behind, can it? "I mean it. This was a great night."

"Anytime, luv, anytime."

With the gift bags over an arm, Olivia made her way to the door. Kisses and hugs were exchanged, and Olivia and Alex agreed to share a cab with Melinda and her husband Michael, who didn't live downtown but wanted to see the pair home, just in case.

Michael sat in the front seat, and he took a picture of the three women in the back of the cab right before they made it to the apartment on 3rd. Once they arrived, Olivia helped Alex out of the car and hugged Michael as he got in the back. "Thanks for coming, Michael. I'm so glad you and Melinda made it out tonight."

"Absolutely. And listen, we'd love to have you and Alex for dinner soon. When you're not all on call, that is," he said with a gentle smile. Olivia knew he was an understanding husband, considering he and Melinda were going on ten years of marriage and they seemed more in love than ever.

"That would be great, Michael, thanks." She leaned in the window and held Melinda's hand for a moment. "Thanks, Doc," she said, while she wrapped an arm around Alex's waist.

"You bet," Melinda said. "See you Monday. And happy birthday Alex."

"Thanks, Melinda," Alex replied with an adorable wave.

Once inside, Alex sipped at a glass of water and held out her arm, shaking it. "My bracelet was all the rage," she said. "Melinda was jealous. So was Kathy."

A warm feeling settled in Olivia's stomach. "I'm glad they liked it. And that you like it."

"You know what it means," Alex said, a slight slur to her words.

"That I'm committed to you, and by wearing it, you are to me," Olivia answered.

"Mm-hmm." Alex moved closer. "Does it mean I can have my way with you whenever I want to?" she asked, the blue in her eyes almost obliterated by dark pupils.

As if it hasn't always been that way. "Uh-huh."

"You up for it?"

"I am if you are."

"Race you to the bedroom."

Alex lay amid a pile of wrapping paper, clad in a Nebraska Lancers shirt and not much else. She'd already cracked open one of the books Olivia had given her, and she reclined on the bed, nibbling on grapes and sipping at her second mimosa of the morning.

She is spoiled rotten.

"What?" Alex asked, looking immensely pleased with herself.

"Nothing," Olivia said, going back to her crossword.

Reaching down to one of the boxes at the foot of the bed, Alex brought out a pair of sneakers. "I love my new shoes."

"These you can actually wear outdoors," Olivia joked. "Want to try them out later today?"

"As long as we run slowly. Very."

"How's your head?"

"Better after this," Alex said, tilting her head toward the glass in her hand. "And the amazing breakfast. Thank you."

"I thought French toast might help the both of us today," Olivia replied, running her hand through her hair. She wasn't hungover, but she was definitely not running at peak efficiency.

Alex looked down at her bracelet again before going back to reading her book, and Olivia smiled.

Before long, the phone interrupted their quiet morning, and Olivia expected it to be Amanda. The area code on the caller ID rang a bell, but she didn't immediately recognize it. "Hello?"

"Hey, baby, it's MJ!"

Olivia's breath caught, but her first instinct was to turn away from Alex, hiding her surprise. "Hey there," she said, trying to stay calm.

"She right there with you?" MJ said, her musical accent still as lovely as ever.

"Yeah. Let me hand the phone over, and I'll talk to you in a bit,"

"Thanks sweetheart. I can't wait to hear how you're doin'. Buster says hi, by the way." She heard him yell "Hi" in the background.

"Hi back. Here you go."

She handed the phone to Alex, who mouthed, 'Who is it?' Olivia simply shrugged.

"Hello?" Alex's face broke open in a huge smile, and she whooped in elation when she recognized the voice on the other end. Wrapping paper went flying, and Olivia laughed at her excitement. She thought she might lose her hearing in one ear from the high pitched squeals Alex was emitting, and she was sure she could hear similar sounds coming even over the phone line, all the way from Nebraska. If there was one thing that could turn Alex into the ultimate "girl," it was a phone call from MJ. Energy bounced from one to the other, even over the phone, till Olivia hardly recognized Alex's voice. It was comical, as was whatever MJ was saying since Alex was laughing hysterically in response.

Shaking her head, Olivia picked up the syrupy plates left on the nightstand and took them into the kitchen to wash. Quickly she cleaned up, and once she set the plates and pans out to dry, she looked around, pleased with her efforts. The apartment looked presentable in case anyone stopped in to visit, as long as they didn't set foot in the bedroom. Not that they were expecting visitors; everyone Olivia had really wanted to attend Alex's party had been there, so the main rush of good wishes was probably over.

She doubted Alex would even notice. She seemed to want to relax, and Olivia was glad to share it with her for the very first time.

"Olivia, come 'ere," she heard Alex call from the bedroom. "MJ wants to talk to you." Olivia hung the dishtowel on the rack, drying her hands on it before heading into the bedroom.

"I'm here," Olivia said.

"She wants to know what you gave me for my birthday," Alex said, deliberately holding out her left arm to hand Olivia the phone.

"Oh really," Olivia replied. She put the phone up to her ear and said, "Hello?"

As she listened to MJ crowing over the line, she watched as Alex held open her arms. Olivia fell into her embrace and settled against her shoulder, pressing a gentle kiss to the scars that remained. She looked up once, meeting Alex's melting blue gaze, before she laid her head down and exhaled a sigh of contented relief.


Olivia waited, swinging one leg as she leaned against the railing. She'd been here a little longer than expected, but then again, maybe there had been a line. Wrapping her coat tighter around her body, she snuggled into the thick scarf wrapped firmly around her neck. It wasn't freezing, but it was a far cry from the fireplace-warmed room she and Alex had left only a short time before.

Spying blonde hair, she recognized Alex striding toward her, tall and slim, a regal presence amidst the crowd of people milling through the streets. She looked self-satisfied, that ever-present smug expression tilting her lips up just so. Her new coat flattered her figure, but of course Olivia couldn't think of anything that didn't flatter Alex's frame. At that thought, Olivia wondered when exactly their honeymoon period would end, because it had been going on for quite some time. As she approached, she held a hand out.

"Here you go, chocolate and lemon. It's good."

Olivia looked at her. "You licked my cone?"

Alex's eyebrow lifted. "You make it sound so dirty."

With a suggestive look of her own, Olivia replied, "No, I'll save the dirty stuff for later. Although this morning--"

"Oh, stop, just eat." Alex settled on the railing next to Olivia and started in on her dessert.

Olivia leaned in and had a lick of Alex's, without protest. "What is that, some kind of liqueur?"

"Cinnamon and amaretto," Alex replied.

"It's a little early for alcohol, don't you think?"

"It's a little early for gelato, but I don't hear you complaining."

Olivia nodded. You're right about that. "I think we should have ice cream for breakfast every day."

"Long as you don't mind if I'm fat and happy."

"I'll take you any way I can get you."

For a few moments longer, they enjoyed their ice cream, till Alex stood and turned to Olivia. "Mind if we walk? I want to get some pictures of that giant hand, you know the one I mean."

"Yeah, I know the one." Olivia had quite a few pictures of it already, but these would be far more memorable than the last ones she'd taken. "Come on."

As they turned to leave, Olivia reached into her pocket and pulled out a penny. With her thumb, she flicked it high in the air and watched it land in the fountain, settling into the clear blue depths with a satisfying plop. They'd be back later, tonight perhaps, to take care of some business long overdue. Sliding her arm into the crook of Alex's elbow, she asked, "Ready?"


The End

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