DISCLAIMER: Do I need them at this point? I really wish someone important from any of the shows were reading. It might give them some ideas-- I don't mind sharing.
PREVIOUSLY ON: Days & Nights: An old case came back to haunt Abbie as Tara Wheeling's rapist turned up dead, and newly-appointed SVU ADA Alexandra Cabot wanted some answers. Don Kirkendall, the proverbial bad penny, turned up in a place that left Jill with some guilty knowledge that both Jill's squad mates and IAB were interested to learn. Abbie met Jill's sons, which reminded her uncomfortably of unresolved issues in her own past; while seeing Abbie and Jill's connection made Diane mourn Bobby's passing anew and wonder if it wasn't time to do a little moving on herself. An unexpected opportunity gave Abbie the chance to leave everything behind. The conclusion of Series I.
SPOILERS: We've pretty much gone off the rails of canon by now. Everything that I spoil (not to mention, rewrite) aired ages ago, so I'm trusting ya'll know what you're getting into.
TIMELINE: Season 7 NYPD Blue, Season 10 Law & Order, Season 3 The West Wing
FANDOMS: Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue, The West Wing
FEEDBACK: Feedback welcome at: sbowers04@yahoo.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Traveling Miles
By Sharon Bowers


It was the hour of stillness, when a lingering silence demarcated the end of one more night and the break of a new day over the city. Jill Kirkendall had seen this hour more times than she could care to remember-- as a cop, a mother, a betrayed wife. These minutes had always been a benchmark of survival to her, of one more crisis passed. Now, curled around Abbie Carmichael and watching the other woman stir gently in their embrace, a peace most unlike anything Jill had ever known settled over her limbs, imbuing her soul with a tenderness at which she could only marvel.

She knew the moment would be over soon; Abbie would have to slip away into the unbirthed morning, and they would both have to don the personal and professional mantles that were theirs to bear. For this instant, however, Jill was nothing more than muscle and bone, skin and sinew, connected by intricate and gossamer threads of emotion to this extraordinary woman. Her eyes traced the shadow of the slender rise of Abbie's hips nestled securely against the more gracious curve of her own, while her fingers followed their shape over the cool smoothness of the sheet. She had never known, never imagined that the fit and tuck of two women together could be as seamless, as indisputably right, as that of a man and a woman. Not for the first time did she realize that meeting Abbie Carmichael had shattered just about everything she had ever thought she knew about anything-- most of all about herself.

From their first encounter, Jill had been driven by a desire to touch this woman, to offer succor to the haunting pain clouding the other woman's gaze. That impulse hadn't been a lie-- but, she had realized at the first brush of Abbie's lips against hers, neither had it been her sole one. They hadn't made love that night, but the recognition of the tenderness and passion that Abbie could offer her had sent Jill fleeing into the night, away from the glimmering light of possibility and back to the familiar shadows of her own past.

Don Kirkendall, her ex-husband, lived in those shadows. Though they had been divorced longer than they had been married, Don's volatile presence still flickered in and out of Jill's life-- both because of the two sons they shared and because, Jill knew, of her own need, the drive to give her children what she herself had been denied. When Don had shown up at her door only days after her encounter with Abbie, she had allowed him to step through the threshold and had nearly thrown away not only a chance for a future with Abbie but also her own freedom and her sons' lives. However, something— whether her long ingrained sense of self-preservation or something newer, like the haunting visage of Abbie's eyes closed in pleasure-- had called her away from the atramentous depths that beckoned with his touch.

All this had brought her to the miraculous and slightly bewildering place in which she now found herself, with Abbie Carmichael in her arms. The dark-haired attorney sighed and shifted again in her sleep, her body beginning to break through its slumber. Jill knew it wouldn't be much longer before the world was once again upon them. Still, she had this moment, this perfect instant of stillness; and she cherished it.

Nuzzling gently at the elegant conjoining of her lover's neck and shoulders, Jill could still detect faint traces of the sandalwood scent that always clung lightly to Abbie's skin, almost hidden now beneath the scents of warm sleep and the heavier musk of their lovemaking.

Moaning low in her throat at the first touch of lips upon the back of her neck, Abbie arched deeper into her lover's embrace. Brushing the sheet from the tangle of their bodies, Jill's hand settled into the concave smoothness of Abbie's hips and began a meandering trek up the dawning-light dappled expanse of the other woman's abdomen. Each time she touched Abbie was a revelation, and never the same one twice. Now her fingers pulsed with the desire to touch and explore this extraordinary woman and the depths of passion she had aroused within Jill.

"Something I can help you find, lady?" Abbie's husky contralto rippled through the silence.

"I think I'm doing just fine," Jill murmured quietly as her hands cupped the delicate firmness of her lover's breasts, corkscrewing the bemused chuckle in Abbie's throat into a purr.

"I'm never getting out of this bed if you keep doing that." This spoken on shaky breath.

"Who says I want you to?" She nipped the tender juncture at the base of Abbie's throat as the attorney deftly twisted around in their embrace. Faced with the luminous sienna of the dark-haired woman's eyes, Jill fought the soft whoosh of breath departing her body. "God, you're beautiful," she whispered, unable to not speak her heart in this moment.

The corner of Abbie's mouth began a slow curl; but instead of the wry grin she expected, Jill was blessed with the most heartbreakingly open smile she had ever seen. "I'm glad you think so."

"Hard not to, considering my view."

A duck of her head acknowledged the genetic gifts that had blessed Abbie with sharply chiseled cheekbones and a square cut jaw, framed by dark tumbling hair and pierced by intense umber eyes. Abbie Carmichael was a vision of angular beauty that turned more than one head, but it had never been the defining cusp of her relations with other people. In fact, Jill realized, this was the first time she had ever seen Abbie acknowledge what was, in fact, simple truth. "Still…" she hesitated, her lips finding Jill's and tangling softly before sliding away to warmer pulse points. "I'm glad it's you," she reiterated, snuggling into her lover's arms and sighing contentedly. "That you think so."

This then, Jill realized with a start, was the morning's revelation-- Abbie granting her unfettered access to the tenderness she kept so tightly wrapped away.

So many things remained as yet unexplored between them, including the aching sadness that Jill had sensed from the first moment they met. Time enough, she thought, for all that. Now there was only peace, and the breaking joy of knowing that Abbie felt safe in her arms. God only knew she felt the same.

"I should be going."

"Not yet," she urged. "It's still not light and the boys are dead to the world right now. Stay a little while longer." Let me touch you still… was unspoken, but evident in the roving of her hands over the breadth of Abbie's shoulders. She traced the length of the whip-steel strength of her lover's spine, smoothly dividing the planes of muscles and hesitating only at the sensitive dip in the small of her back. The skin prickled under her touch, and the slight buck of Abbie's hips in response urged her on. Smoothly, she rolled Abbie onto her back, slipping her own hands free to continue their quest.

"Jill…" A murmured protest from Abbie's lips was easily interpreted as encouragement, accompanied as it was by the tangle of her hands in Jill's cropped blond locks and the shift of her hips to settle the other woman comfortably between her legs.

"I know," she recognized the press of time even as her mouth sought the swollen tips of Abbie's breasts and her hands found purchase on narrow hips. "But I can't stop touching you." She smiled crookedly in a belated attempt to diffuse some of the wonder in her voice. "I don't know what I'm doing half the time, but I can't seem to stop."

"Thought you said you were doing fine," Abbie teased, pulling Jill's hands closer when they would have retreated.

"I guess that depends on how you think I'm doing."

"You have a question about that?" she parried lightly with a lilt of her head.

A sudden warmth suffused Jill's face, and she shrugged awkwardly and let her eyes roam over the shadowed room. "I just… I never imagined…"

"Hey you…" Abbie drew her lover's eyes even with her own once more. "Talk to me."

"I know that I'm not the most graceful… I mean… You…"

"I love making love with you, Jill." Plain spoken words attempted to capture a gaze that wouldn't meet hers.

"So that wasn't a howl of pain when…"

A raspy chuckle interrupted her. "I'm not saying that our timing is perfect yet. But…" she said, covering Jill's hand with hers. "Look at this." Abbie traced a delicate path across her own ribs as they both watched the rise of prickling skin in response. "Now...." A mischievous smile. "Feel this..." She guided Jill's hand downward, finally coming to rest at the juncture between her legs. "And that's just from waking up with you. If you honestly don't know what you're doing, I might not survive once you really get the hang of things." Gasping tightly as Jill explored the smooth slickness she found there, Abbie clasped Jill's wrist just as her fingers were about to slip inside. "As much as I want you to do what you're about to do..."

"You have to go."

"Unless you want Cohen and IAB interviewing us in here."

Though they were spoken lightly enough, the words were a stark reminder of the reality awaiting them once they left the sanctuary of these four walls. "It's gonna get ugly," Jill said somberly, wrapping her arms around her lover and holding on, as if the touch could ward off everything to come.

"Not if I can help it," Abbie promised.

Jill pulled back, studying the steady intensity of the lawyer's face. "This isn't your fight."

"The hell it isn't. I hooked Don up with Greg Mulroney. Harry Denby worked for Greg. Do you have any idea how many undercovers he could have jeopardized?"

"You know that's not what I'm talking about." Jill had pieced most of the story together from what John Munch had told her when she first arrived on the scene and what Diane Russell, her partner, hadn't. Combined with the way Kyle had hugged Abbie at bedtime and the way Frank had ignored his little brother, she had come to the conclusion that Kyle had confided something to Abbie-- something he was too afraid to tell his own mother-- and Abbie had acted on it.

"The boys are safe, Jill. Don is in jail. Nothing else matters."

"That why IAB is so hot to talk to all of us?"

"Because there's a dirty cop that they didn't know about. As for everybody else, Munch considers IAB rats between-meal-snacks and besides, he was acting on a tip from a DA's snitch. The rest of the squad-- Diane and the others-- were just backing a mate up." She placed her hand gently over Jill's lips to forestall any interruption. "I'm not gonna put those boys in anybody's line of fire. And you knowing about Don's flophouse is moot because Denby's dirty."


"You told me you weren't a wrong cop, Jill. Was that a lie?"

"No." Her answer was resolute.

"Then hold onto that. I promise you, the worst is over." With that, Abbie stole one more kiss before rolling reluctantly out of bed.

As she watched her lover's graceful frame gradually concealed beneath last night's jeans and T-shirt, Jill wondered if Abbie realized her worst fears did not concern herself. Abbie, the law and order DA herself, had torqued a lot of rules out of place in order to protect Jill and her sons; and more than anything, Jill was terrified someone was going to make her pay for it.

The world's fastest shower and a forgoing of her morning run-- something that her exhausted body didn't protest too vociferously-- got her to her office with only an hour standing between her and the interrogation waiting for her down at the 15th precinct. If the rumors she had heard about Leo Cohen still carrying a torch for his ex-lover were even remotely true, Abbie suspected that he would be only too willing not to pry too closely into the particulars of yesterday's events. On the other hand, if Jill had somebody at IAB looking to hurt her-- things could go much worse than she had led Jill to believe this morning. Already far too tired for the day just beginning, Abbie rubbed wearily at her eyes and groped for the steaming mug of coffee she had brought into the office with her.

"You look like you haven't slept in a week." Nora Lewin's observation was mild, delivered in the District Attorney's habitually kind tones. Nora's softspoken nature always disconcerted Abbie in a way that McCoy's bluster or Schiff's gruffness never had, not leastwise because she was never quite sure what her boss was thinking. She also had a sneaking suspicion that the older woman didn't quite approve of her; but that question, she surmised, was one best left unasked.

Startled, Abbie half-rose in her chair in deference, the antique courtesy reflexive on her part and acknowledged with a brief incline of Nora's head. "Morning, Nora." She managed an easy smile. "That bad? I should call Revlon and ask for my money back on that concealer."

The older woman absorbed the quip with a small tweak of her lips and a light rock back on her practical square-heeled pumps that were, even to Abbie's untrained fashion sense, not anywhere close to the height of fashion. Indeed, everything about Nora Lewin-- from the conservative dark-colored pantsuits that concealed her slightly plump frame to her sensible short strawberry blond hair and the glasses that dangled from a silver chain around her neck-- seemed one or two steps removed from the frenetic pace of what news hacks referred to as the Glamour Squad of the Manhattan District Attorney's office. Upon meeting Nora, Abbie had briefly wondered if her appointment had been meant to be a corrective to the rather high flying she and Jack had been doing. Certainly Lewin's nine-year tenure as a professor of ethics at Columbia's law school was a not-so-subtle message to the folks around the office that things were going to change. Thus far, however, Lewin had been content to just sit back and watch, rarely commenting when Jack ran things by her and-- more frustratingly to Abbie-- not doing anything about the professional purgatory to which Adam Schiff had sentenced her before his departure.

When it became obvious that her attempt at humor had failed as badly as she suspected it might, Abbie tried a more businesslike inquiry, "Is there something I can do for you?"

"You've been a busy woman the last couple of weeks. I haven't seen much of you around the office."

"Jack's had me running down a bunch of stuff." A bunch of worthless and pointless stuff, she wanted to add, but realized that given her mood today, she wasn't likely to be politic about anything. Not to mention that the running around she had been doing the last week had absolutely nothing to do with anything Jack McCoy would have her involved in. In fact, she didn't want to contemplate her immediate supervisor's face when confronted with the undoubtedly lengthy list of her recent transgressions.

Nora nodded, seeming to accept Abbie's answer at face value. "I'd like to hear about it. In fact, we haven't had much of a chance to talk about anything other than pressing matters at hand." She cocked her head in that vaguely peering and interested look that always unsettled Abbie-- as if her boss were trying to understand something more about her than Abbie was entirely comfortable with. "Have lunch with me today." Abbie's double-take was so comical Nora couldn't suppress a gentle laugh. "Not what you were expecting?"

"Lunch…" Abbie repeated, her mind racing with the eight million and one things she had to do today, beginning with the interrogation waiting for her at the 15th precinct and ending, she hoped, with a long talk with her lover about what had happened over the past weeks. In between there was the fallout from the Tara Wheeling case to deal with, an irritated ADA in the form of Alexandra Cabot to placate; and, hovering never very far from her thoughts, the job offer that Josh Lyman and Ainsley Hayes had presented. A command performance at lunch was the last thing she needed. "Nora…"

"The Riverside Club at 1:30," Nora preempted the begging off before it could even begin with a short confirming nod of her head, obviously not willing to entertain the possibility of refusal. "I'll leave your name with the maitre d'."

"You think it would help if I just injected this stuff directly into my veins?" Jill asked lightly as her partner, Diane Russell, entered the coffee room with a distracted air and a frown on her face.

Seeing the older woman, the lines around Diane's mouth relaxed into a smile. For someone whose previous day's activities had included finding her kidnapped son, standing down a rogue cop, and participating in the arrest of her ex-husband, Jill looked remarkably well-rested, despite her question.

"Long night?" she asked mildly.

"In any number of ways," Jill confirmed, pouring a second cup of coffee for Diane and handing it to her. "And not all of them too bad."

Diane couldn't hide a smile. "And how is Abbie this morning?"

Jill ducked her head, busying herself with pouring two packets of no-calorie sweetener into the dark sludge. "Pretty good, I think."

"You guys get some things worked out?"

"Well..." Jill leaned against the counter holding the coffee pot and supplies, a light flush creeping over the pale skin of her cheeks. "We didn't exactly talk much."

Diane couldn't stop the mild burble of delighted surprise from overflowing her throat. "I see," she managed.

"I know, I know... With everything that's going on, you'd think we'd stop and think rather than... well... doing what we're doing," Jill continued, studying her coffee intently as the flush darkened. "I just... Last night…" she sighed, shaking her head and bringing her gaze to finally meet her partner's. "It was like if we just held on to each other tight enough things would have to be okay."

Though the rosy shade of Jill's skin bespoke of them doing a bit more than just holding onto each other, Diane couldn't deny the new resolve she saw in the clear hazel of Jill Kirkendall's eyes. For as long as they had been partners, Jill had been generous with her concern and caring, but she had kept her heart and soul sheltered from everyone-- including the man she took to her bed and even Diane herself. Now, it seemed as though Jill were changing right before Diane's very eyes, all because Abbie Carmichael had found some way inside.

Diane had to admit that she had been more than astonished to learn that Abbie and Jill had struck up a relationship with a decidedly non-platonic potential, but the more she had thought about it and the more she had seen the two together-- the more it made complete and utter sense that these two women should have found each other. Both women's formidable exteriors concealed an ocean of past hurt and pain, and neither were exactly inclined to share it with others. Perhaps, Diane mused, words between the two lovers last night really would have been superfluous. She crossed the few steps separating them and placed her hand on Jill's arm. "Everything will be okay," she assured her partner, the articulation more for her own sake than Jill's. "And I think it's wonderful that she makes you feel that way."

Jill acknowledged Diane's words with a warm smile and covered the other woman's hand briefly with her own. "Wonderful for me, yes. But her? I mean, I don't want to jam her up with her office."

It was on the tip of Diane's tongue to ask, Any more than she's already jammed herself up? It had been all Jill had been able to do to manage her responsibilities as a mother and to the Job, while coping with Don's criminal mischief and becoming romantically involved with a woman for the first time; and Diane didn't think Jill knew how much the fallout from Stephanie Pruitt's memorial service had cost Abbie thus far. And she certainly didn't think Jill knew anything about the Justice Department being interested in Abbie's services.

Hell, she wouldn't have known about it if John Munch hadn't told her the rumors he had heard. If they proved true and if something didn't change soon over at the Manhattan DA's office, Diane honestly couldn't think of a reason in the world for Abbie not to jump at the chance.

Except, she realized, for the woman standing right here.

Giving Jill's arm another reassuring squeeze, she shook her head. "You're not jamming Abbie up. In fact, Jill, you're not jamming anybody up." Meaning herself and the other members of the 1-5 who had assisted yesterday in running Don Kirkendall and Harry Denby to ground.

"That remains to be seen," Jill murmured, unconvinced. "We're still got Cohen and IAB waiting for us."

"You think Leo Cohen's gonna want to see you hanging?"

"He might if he knew about Abbie and me," Jill replied, acknowledging Leo's still undimmed torch for her.

"Well, since I don't think either one of you are quite ready to take out an announcement in the Times..." she began.

"Saying what?" Abbie Carmichael queried, breezing through the doorway and slinging her leather attaché case carelessly across the table in the center of the room. She wore a black suit whose lines complemented and emphasized her slender waist and angular features. The only point of color in her ensemble was a shockingly blue silk shirt whose top few buttons were undone, revealing a small glimpse of golden skin. "Hey D," she said, a gleam in her sienna eyes that Diane recognized from their days together in Narcotics. Full Tilt Boogie the undercovers had called it, and for a moment Diane almost pitied Cohen and Martens. Almost immediately, however, and before Diane could begin to reply, her gaze slid away and fixed on the taller figure at her side. Immediately dark eyes warmed, softened, then pulsed with something that threatened to bring a blush to Diane's face, despite their innocent circumstances. "Hey you," Abbie said quietly. "Holding steady?"

"Steadier now," Jill admitted, an answering light in her eyes.

The connection-- only hinted at a few nights ago, when Diane had shared dinner at Jill's apartment with the other two women and Jill's sons-- was palpable between them now. With a start, Diane realized that her two best friends were already well on the way to falling in love.

Jack McCoy knocked once as his salt-and-pepper head popped thrown Nora Lewin's doorway. "You have a minute?" Though it was still quite early, Jack's shirtsleeves were rolled, his tie was slightly loosed, and the creases in his pants had already given up the day's fight. He was one of the best lawyers the District Attorney's office had even seen, Nora knew, but damn if the man didn't always look like he had just rolled out of bed.

She also knew that any number of women-- including a long string of assistant DA's, prior to his current one's arrival-- found this rumpled man-boy demeanor appealing, though she didn't find herself particularly moved by it. Certainly Abbie Carmichael hadn't.

From what Nora could tell, Jack and Abbie had taken the instant conflict that arises when Type A Personalities are put into the same room and escalated it to soon-to-be-legendary heights. Everyone had mistakenly assumed they had found some sort of equitable arrangement when they had bent and spindled a considerable portion of the Bill of Rights to put Assistant District Attorney Toni Ricci's murderers behind bars, but that understanding had proven fleeting. She wondered if Jack knew Carmichael's drive to put the men away had less to do with her burning desire to see Justice served and more to do with avenging an ex-lover's death. In fact, having watched the pair for the last two months, she wondered if Jack McCoy knew anything about Abbie Carmichael at all.

Her blandly pleasant expression revealed none of these thoughts to the EADA and she welcomed him into her office with a slight wave. "Always, Jack. What can I do for you?"

Rather than settle himself into one of the comfortable chairs in front of Nora's desk or hurl himself onto the leather couch-- the way, she knew, he used to with Adam Schiff-- McCoy remained framed by the doorway, leaning against the structure almost gingerly. "You familiar with the Special Vics Unit?"

"Ah..." she nodded, sipping at her tea."Alexandra Cabot used up all your answering machine tape too?" She smiled at his visible surprise before continuing. "Honestly, I didn't know Vassar girls used that kind of language."

He chuckled uncertainly, as if in spite of himself. "She, ah... was fairly upset."

"I would be too if what looked like a 6-4-3 ground ball turned into a two run triple." At his bewildered expression, she apologized. "My father had thirty years in the NY-Penn league. Old analogies die hard sometimes."

"Really?" He looked interested in something other than the immediate argument in front of them for the first time in their acquaintance. "What farm system?"

"Red Sox."

He waited as if for further elaboration, but when her expression made it clear none more was forthcoming, he shrugged. "So what's your take on it?"

Nora pursed her lips, considering the statement. "I think ultimately Carmichael got a good result-- she talked the suspect into giving up a statement." Then she grinned. "But siccing Theresa Conners on Cabot was just pure meanness."

"So we're backing Abbie." He didn't look happy at the prospect.

"You think she screwed up?"

"I think she didn't have any business stepping into the case." He chewed his lip, thoughts turning inward. "Regardless of the past," he finally added, almost to himself, and Nora realized there was at least one thing Jack knew about his assistant. "Tara Wheeling's rapist got a pass because we couldn't make the case."

"I saw that in the file. He said-she said."

McCoy nodded. "And then it turned ugly, according to the 5's."

"From what I understand Cabot invited Carmichael into the case. She can't really get upset when Carmichael takes over."

He grinned wryly. "That is sort of what Carmichael does."

"Not lately though."

He cocked his head inquiringly.

"Schiff had you keeping her on a pretty short leash."

McCoy snorted and shook his head. "For all the good that it's apparently done."

"You ever think that maybe it's made the situation worse?"

He opened his mouth as if to reply and then closed it again, shaking his head. "Obviously you have some point to make."

"So make it already?" she parried gently. "All right. I'll tell you what I've seen walking into this. I've seen Adam Schiff angry that one and perhaps two of his protégés let him down-- or at least what he saw as his legacy. And he decided to take it out on Abbie over that stupid memorial service." She pointed a knowing finger. "You, I can't do anything for. That's long done. But Abbie... maybe I can."

Leo Cohen and Abbie Carmichael stood at opposite ends of the coffee room, their postures mirroring one another, arms folded and brows furrowed-- but where Abbie leaned casually, almost languidly, against the metal lockers lining one wall, Leo's shoulders were hunched, his chin ducked as if holding himself in to keep from bursting out inappropriately. Not for the first time since the meeting began, Jill wondered at how she could have chosen two so disparate people as lovers. Both tall and lean with dark hair, but that was where the similarities ended: Abbie with the preternatural grace of a gifted athlete, comfortable above all in body and skin; Leo with the perpetual sneer of a smart kid who pretends he doesn't care that he will always be picked last in any sport.

Even if they hadn't already hated each other by reputation, they hated each other on sight.

Seated between them was Detective Sergeant Martens of the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, patiently sifting through the pages of neatly typed summaries of the previous day's events by all the participants. Though nobody in the squad liked Martens because of the very nature of his job, he had treated Bobby fairly when a dirty lieutenant tried to set him up for a murder he didn't commit and had done Sorenson a couple of solids since. Now Martens sighed heavily, running thickset fingers over his round face. His gaze swiveled to Abbie who returned the look mildly, unflinchingly. "Remind me again how you got involved in this?" he asked.

"Yes, Ms. Carmichael, remind us again," Leo echoed under his breath, irritable-- Jill assumed-- because when Jill had reached out, it hadn't been anywhere near his direction. Though they had broken up over a year ago, over just the sort of petulant display he was verging on now, Cohen hadn't ever quite given up the ghost of their relationship. With the determination of a boy who knows that if he can just jump a little higher he'll be able to snatch the prize on the top shelf, Leo had continued to pursue her, never realizing that whatever it was he thought was up there was already long gone.

Martens shot him an annoyed glance and returned his attention to Abbie. "You were saying, ADA Carmichael?"

"I worked Narcotics for four years prior to coming to the Manhattan office," she replied easily, obliquely reminding Cohen that while he still slogged through the precinct rotation, she was part of the Glamour Squad. "I have a lot of connections still over there."

"And you did what with those connections?" Martens prompted. "And why?"

A smile flickered briefly around the corners of Abbie's mouth as she pushed herself upright with a smooth motion and slipped her hands into her trouser pockets. Briefly, Jill wondered if everyone else was as mesmerized by the sheer physicality of this woman as she was. She knew attorneys, knew that in some ways Abbie was acting as if Martens was her jury and she was giving a summation, but the performativity of the action didn't make it any less effective to her eyes. "As Greg Mulroney already verified to you, I placed a call to him and told him I knew a perp who'd flip on the Peruvians he'd been working in exchange for WITSEC. As for why..." she shrugged gracefully. "I didn't think a good cop should go down just because she has terrible taste in ex-husbands."

"Just doing a professional solid for someone," Martens summarized, looking at her, a shadow of something-- not skepticism, but not quite belief-- dappling over his face. They had been talking for over two and a half hours, painstakingly reconstructing all the 5's and the events of yesterday without a break in the proceedings. And while it was all just a friendly conversation, as their location in the coffee room supposedly attested, any coffee that had been poured had long gone cold.

"Yeah, Martens," Diane snapped, shifting irritably in her chair beside Jill. "A professional solid. People on this side of the badge look out for each other."

Jill winced at the anger clear in Diane's voice, wondered again at why Cohen wanted to talk to all of them together, wondered even more why Martens was allowing it.

"Oh, I think everyone here knows how far you'd go to back your partner," Cohen muttered under his breath, but more than loud enough for everyone to hear.

Diane opened her mouth to reply, but Munch's smooth interjection thwarted her. "ADA Cohen, perhaps you and Detective Russell want to take this outside." He smiled lightly. "This room, I fear, isn't big enough to contain the fisticuffs that could erupt otherwise."

"Actually, that's a good idea," Martens concurred. "In fact, why doesn't everyone excuse themselves for a few moments, except Detective Kirkendall." His cloudy gray eyes met Jill's. "That is, if you don't mind."

Leo looked poised to object until he caught the forbidding expression on Martens face and apparently thought better of it. He did, however, wait until everyone else had filed out of the room before shooting one last imploring glance at the woman remaining in the room.

As the door closed once more, Marten exhaled heavily, running a hand through already too thin hair and standing to pour himself a cup of coffee. Jill watched him puttering around, mixing creams and sugars into his mug with an almost fussy delicacy that seemed alien in such a thick-bodied man. "You want some?"

"I'm pretty coffee'ed out," Jill demurred.

"Me too." He looked dejectedly at the mug in his hand.

"I think there're some juices in the fridge. Help yourself if you want some."

His eyes brightened, lightening to an almost blue. "Now that would hit the spot." He started rummaging through the refrigerator, emerging victoriously with two bottles of apple juice and one of orange. "You sure you don't want one?"

She shook her head again, leaning back in her chair and contemplating the Internal Affairs officer. "I'm good, thanks."

"My wife says I need more vitamins. She lays out those little Centrums for me in the morning, but I darn near choke every time I swallow them. At least this'll make her happy." He seemed content to make small talk as he drank his juice, seating himself comfortably across from Jill at the lunch table. Jill recognized the interrogation technique for what it was and was more than willing to let him set the pace for whatever was going to come next. Obviously he had heard everything he wanted to from the other parties involved. Now it was time to step up. "But wives are like that, aren't they? Partners, I guess, to be politically correct. I mean, it's always a two way street. Looking out for each other."

It was the wind up, Jill knew. She settled back, waiting for the pitch.

"What I'm getting at, Detective Kirkendall, is that you've got an awful lot of people looking out for you," he said finally, draining the last of his juice and opening the second bottle. "And that makes me curious."

"How so?"

"Do you know how thick your IAB file is?"

"I'm not a wrong cop, Lieutenant…"

Cold fear slithered down Jill's back. "I…" She knew she was visibly taken aback. "I wasn't aware I had one."

"You didn't until recently," he confirmed. "And that's why I'm so curious. Eight years you've been a cop and the word on you has always been there's no straighter arrow than Jill Kirkendall. You've done stand up work in every department you've been in-- from the street to CID to the 15th here. You fast-tracked a gold shield and were on your way to making first grade within five more years." He shook his head, as if unable to comprehend the reports before him. "And then, near as I can tell, a few months ago, your life took a nose dive into the bullshit."

"I'm not a wrong cop, Diane…"

His eyes fixed on hers and she did not back down from the challenge in them, nor did she open her mouth to defend herself. Letting Don back into her life had been the single worst decision she had ever made— she knew that. And if losing her career was the price she was going to have pay for it, then she didn't have much choice in the matter. But she certainly wasn't going to make excuses at this late date. And she was not going to drag anyone else down with her.

"Now you've got a skelly ex-husband muling dope for the Peruvians saying you helped him do it; a dirty undercover saying that your partner offered to come across for him if he'd leave you alone; and four cops, two ADAs and one lieutenant falling all over themselves to keep you in the clear, saying you had nothing to do with any of it."

"I'm not a wrong cop, Abbie…"

"That's a lot of 'saying,'" Jill remarked mildly.

"Yeah, the hell it is," Martens agreed. "But what I'm not hearing is what you're saying in all this."

"What do I say?"

"Yes, Detective Kirkendall. What do you say?"

Jill took a deep breath, squaring her broad shoulders. "I say, Detective Sergeant Martens, that I know how bad it looks. I say that I'm not a wrong cop. Now I guess the question is, are you gonna listen?"

Exiled to the squad room, Russell, Carmichael and Munch hovered in a protective cluster near Diane's desk, while Cohen couldn't seem to decide whom he wanted to glare at more-- Diane or Abbie. So he contented himself with bouncing nasty glances from one to the other, folding his arms tightly together. He paced a short, agitated route from the wall to where the others stood and back again. On his third trip, he finally confronted the group, "You're not helping her."

"Oh, and like you cracking wise about how far I'll go for Jill is?" Diane snapped back.

"Look, if you two really are going to fight, take it outside the squad so Fancy doesn't see it," Abbie interjected, wanting to rub her temples and perhaps chase away the ache that had been building for the last hours. "The lieutenant has enough on his mind as it is, I think."

"Thank you for that wise and wonderful advice, Counselor," Cohen snarked. "How the hell did you get invited to this little party anyway?"

"Here I was going to ask you that question," Abbie replied. "Shouldn't you be down at the 77th, harassing the working girls and pleading out misdemeanor stroll tickets?"

The barb hit home, and Cohen rocked back on his heels before rallying and bracing his hands on his hips, finally getting the fight he had been spoiling for since last night. "I got here because you and your posse—" The scornful toss of his head encompassed not just Munch and Diane, but also Sipowicz and Sorenson, who now gathered behind the others in a show of support. "Brought in a busted up perp who just happens to be the ex-husband of one of the squad, who also happens to be claiming that Jill muled as much dope if not more than him."

"Don Kirkendall is a junkie liar, Cohen, and you know it."

Cohen cocked his head and pointed at Diane. "That's what I'd expect her to say." The finger swiveled in her direction and Abbie fought the urge to smack it-- along with some sense-- upside the attorney's head. "You, I'm wondering how you came to that conclusion." He paused before adding snidely, "Considering you were just doing a professional solid for a good cop with lousy taste in ex-husbands."

"Quit blowing your hot air all over us, Cohen, it's stuffy in here as it is."

Leo ignored Sipowicz's baiting and continued to study Abbie intently. "I can't figure out how you of all people would be the first to find out that Kirkendall was going to try and snatch his kid. Unless I start listening to the junkie liar himself. Because it then makes entirely too much sense."

Abbie had never thought of Cohen as a particularly brilliant or powerful courtroom presence. He was a drone, efficient, thorough, and annoying in the extreme when carried away with his own sense of melodrama. The boy had a few too many episodes of Perry Mason under his belt when it came to summations; and, as a result, he wasn't about to let this moment go by. She saw Diane tensing beside her, felt the curious gazes of Sipowicz and Sorenson behind her.

"We could give a shit what Don Kirkendall has to say," Diane interrupted with a wave of her hand and an edge to her tone that Abbie knew would only provoke Cohen further.

"He's got a broken nose and facial lacerations to back up his side of the story, Russell. All Ms. Carmichael has there is an attitude."

"Kirkendall got the broken nose when I dragged his sorry ass down on the pavement while he was running for his life," Russell dismissed the statement contemptuously.

"That's right, Ms. Carmichael doesn't need to assault the perps. She has you to do it for her."

The pounding in Abbie's head was nearly unbearable now, and all she could think of was Jill and her lover's honorable nature and an IAB cop who might or might not choose to take advantage of it. Only one other time in her life had she been this powerless and out-of-control. But she wasn't a nineteen year old girl anymore whose sense of self had been raped away from her one night in a dorm room; and Leo Cohen damn sure wasn't her Daddy with the power of life and worth to grant to her over whom she chose to love. Shame and silence had run her out of Texas, kept her from truly reaching out for the first woman she had ever loved. She wouldn't let it stop her a second time.

Squaring her shoulders and stepping the two paces that brought her to within a hairsbreadth of Leo's body, her gaze roamed over his lanky form before finally fixing on dark chocolate eyes simmering with anger. "Make as many insinuations as you like, Cohen, I could give a good goddamn." She took a deep breath and pointed at the closed door of the lunch room. "The most important things in Jill Kirkendall's life are her sons and her shield, and the only thing I care about at this point is seeing that she walks out of here with both," she said, her voice calm and even despite the emotion she felt beginning to close her throat. The idea of Jill losing everything was almost unbearable to her, not after all her lover had done to try and protect her sons, to be the kind of cop that did justice to her gold shield. "And if you cared about her one tenth as much as you flap your gums about it, that would be the only thing on your mind too."

He had the grace to look abashed at her quiet condemnation, recognizing the truth of her words. He dropped his head and shook it briskly. "This is some kinda nuts," he muttered, almost as if to himself. His gaze swept across the floor and furniture, looking everywhere but at the woman in front of him. Finally his eyes found hers again, and Abbie could see the confusion swimming there. "I..."

His words were interrupted by the quiet snick of the lunch room door opening. Jill emerged, head high and standing tall, her face inscrutable. She met each of her squad mates' eyes in turn, finally finding Diane's and lingering there before turning to Abbie.

"It's over."

Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot bit back another growl of irritation and suppressed the urge to hurl the current implement of her torture across the room in retaliation. Though Abbie Carmichael's unavailability wasn't the telephone's fault, per se, she knew the solid thwacking sound of the casing slapping against the wall would be immensely satisfying-- albeit a poor substitute for the sound of it thwacking upside Carmichael's head. Still, however, she resisted. She had already left a string of angry, verging on the disrespectful, messages on the answering machines of Carmichael's immediate supervisors, but she seriously doubted it would do any good whatsoever. After all, Carmichael had been with the Glamour Squad for over three years-- did Alex seriously expect anybody to start reining her in now?

"What or should I say whom are you wishing to knock around a bit?" Came the low, throaty question, peppered with amusement, from behind her. "Hopefully not me."

Cabot whirled a bit too rapidly around in surprise, and she banged her knee on the inside corner of her desk. Flinching in pain and swallowing the litany of curses that threatened to fall from her lips, she managed to keep something of a professional expression on her face. She hoped.

The woman held her pose, draped along Alex's door frame for a moment longer, allowing Cabot time enough to recognize the vaguely Asian lines of the Bernard Chandran suit she wore, to notice how the drape and cut exaggerated her already exquisite slenderness, to see how its shade, only a bit darker than the sleek bob of her hair, sucked absolutely all the color out of the room and refocused all of it in a pair of the bluest eyes Alexandra Cabot had ever seen. The woman seemed to stretch like a sunning cat under Cabot's gaze, but her lazy smile revealed a more predatory nature in the gleam of her even, white teeth.

Theresa Conners was the last person in the world Cabot wanted to deal with right now. At least not until after she finished killing Abbie Carmichael. Then the woman's skills as a defense attorney might actually do Alex some good.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms. Conners?" she asked, easily enough to her own ears.

Theresa Conners' smile grew even wider, if possible, and a malevolent humor sparked in her eyes. "Thought I'd give you one last chance to come to your senses."

"And how's that, Counselor?"

"Drop the charges against Tara Wheeling. It's really in everyone's best interests. Especially the DA's office."

Cabot's jaw dropped a notch before she recovered her aplomb. "You've got to be kidding me." So much for aplomb.

Ms. Conners chuckled. "You sure you don't want to ask me if I'm out of my mind?"

"Consider it asked."

"He's a rapist."

"She murdered him."

Ms. Conners made a so what shrug with her shoulders, leaving her position in the doorway to saunter across the room to the one visitor's chair in Cabot's office, upon which she settled herself regally.

"In cold blood, I might add."

"Do you really think anybody's going to believe that when I get finished? And even if they do, do you think they're going to care?"

"You overestimate your talents, Ms. Conners."

This seemed to genuinely delight the attorney, for a broad smile broke the sharply chiseled lines of her face, revealing a pair of charming dimples and a fine spray of appealing lines around her eyes. "Carmichael said you were young. She didn't say a thing about you being stupid."

"That's because I'm not."

"Then foolhardy perhaps." Theresa Conners crossed a pair of shapely legs and shifted comfortably in what Alexandra knew was one of the hardest and most unforgiving chairs the DA's office had to offer. She had chosen it especially to discourage lingering visitors like this one. "And, unlike Ms. Carmichael, without the... shall we say... wherewithal to back it up."

A silent arch of Alex's brows framed the question.

"You and I both know that Abbie Carmichael's got the biggest pair of brass balls on either side of the Mason-Dixon," she elaborated nonchalantly.

Alex couldn't control the snort of laughter at the characterization. "You might be right about that."

"And they've gotten her though a number of situations that, by rights, she shouldn't have," Conners continued with equanimity.

"In my position, Abbie Carmichael wouldn't let Tara Wheeling walk, and you know it," Cabot shot back.

"You're absolutely right." Unexpectedly, Conners' eyes darkened to a dangerous shade of blue, almost but not quite the exact color of twilight. And with just about as many sinister implications. "She'd make a deal that would reflect all the fucked up circumstances that put that gun in that girl's hand. She wouldn't make Tara Wheeling pay for the cops' and the DA's sins."

Every muscle in Abbie Carmichael's body shook with the concurrent desire to enfold Jill in her arms and the need for circumspection given the number of eyes that were upon them. Behind Jill, she watched Martens slip out of the lunch room and duck into Lt. Fancy's office where the lieutenant rose to greet him with a brisk handshake. Her eyes returned to Jill's, and she shoved her hands in her trouser pockets to conceal their trembling.

Diane, however, had no such compunction about eyes, prying or no, as she stepped forward to clasp Jill's hands in her own. "Jill?"

The blond detective took a long, shuddering breath; and only on the uneven exhalation did Abbie realize that the interview had wrung Jill out as much as the rest of them. She had seemed so steadfast and composed during Martens' questions, ignoring the barbs that Leo tossed at her and Diane, not giving in to the anger that the other detectives had expressed on her behalf. Now, Abbie was reminded of the fragile woman with whom she had awakened this morning, whom she had held in her arms last night, and she ached to do so once more.

"Nothing's official yet, but... it looks like a 30 day rip, I'm suspended until the final report comes out, and I can forget about ever making first grade. Unless somebody up IAB's food chain makes noise about it, that is."

The normal sounds of the squad room seemed amplified in the silence that fell over the assembled detectives.

"That means you're going to be okay," Sipowicz summarized flatly, folding his arms across the slightly expanded girth of his chest and nodding.

A hesitant smile broke over Jill's face. "Yeah, Andy," she agreed. "It looks like it."

Not until it lifted did Abbie realize there had been a two-ton anvil sitting on her chest, keeping her from breathing, but in the suppressed whoop of joy from Diane's mouth and the encompassing hug she watched the other woman give Jill, Abbie Carmichael felt one corner of her world set to rights. Her hands still shook, but quite possibly the biggest grin of delight the state of New York had ever seen broke over her face as she watched the tension visibly ease out of her lover's long figure.

"Gotta love those happy endings," the words were murmured into her ear as Munch threw a companionable arm across Abbie's shoulders. "As improbable and syrupy as they are"

"You thinking there should have been another ending to this one, Munch?"

"Don't bristle quite so much, Ms. Carmichael. The porcupine look isn't particularly becoming on you," Munch tutted. "And to answer your question, no. I didn't want to see our dear Detective Kirkendall burned at the stake, no matter how well that Joan of Arc cut suits her." He paused a moment, and Abbie felt her defensiveness settle a little, even as her sense prickled with the knowledge that Munch had yet to deliver his punch line. "But I'm also very aware that I don't know everything to this whole story-- nor, I'd wager, does Detective Sergeant Martens. And that's not necessarily a bad thing."


They turned to face each other, oblivious to the jubilant celebrations around them. "You put a gun to a man's chest, Abbie," he said quietly, no judgment or condemnation in his words, just a gentle concern that pressed against already raw emotions.

"Your gun, Munch," she said curtly, the pain in her head-- fleetingly banished at the news that Jill would be okay-- returning and tunneling her vision.

"I never thought you'd pull the trigger."

"I didn't."

"You could have. More than that, you wanted to." His tone was plaintive, slightly bewildered. "I know..."

"What, Munch?" she growled, the tension of the day lashing viciously at him. "Other than the innumerable pornographic scenarios that I'm sure you've run in your head, what on earth, Munch, do you think you could possibly know about me?"

The color in Munch's normally pallid face flared, but he refused to rise to the baiting. "I know that what you feel for this woman is powerful. But more and more I'm coming to wonder if that's the only thing stoking this particular fire. And if it isn't, maybe you should look a little bit closer before you plunge headlong into whatever this is becoming for you." He touched her briefly on the shoulder, more conciliation than touché, then turned crisply on his heel and left.

Finally surrendering to the urge to run a weary and trembling hand against her aching temples, Abbie mentally pushed away Munch's departing words, not wanting to think about them or their implications. Feeling cool fingers wrap around her own and tug them away from her forehead, Abbie's gaze was returned once more to the warmth and compassion of Jill's eyes. Her lover smiled softly, cocking her head in inquiry. "Come talk to me," she said, tilting her chin in the direction of the locker room.

Wordlessly she allowed herself to be guided across the squad room and away from the others, ignoring both John's approving glance and Cohen's curious one. Only once the doors were safely shut and the locks snicked closed, did Abbie and Jill wrap their arms around each other, both hanging on for what might be dear life.

Abbie buried her face in Jill's shoulder, scenting the clean smell of shampoo and the faint cologne that marked the air around her. Her fingers were splayed wide across Jill's back, as if trying to encompass as much of this woman as she could, to absorb her strength and poise into her own fatigued limbs. Her mouth grazed the heat of Jill's neck, and then their lips were entwined in a kiss not of passion but of rejuvenation, of survival. Jill's hands were tangled in her hair, unknowingly easing the throbbing beneath her skull. "I'm so glad everything..."

Jill silenced her with a tender finger over her lips. "You made sure it would be." Another quick kiss. "Thank you so much."

Abbie shook her head in refusal of the gratitude, wanting instead the impossible-- more of this woman, more of her length twinned against her own, more of her skin warming her, enfolding her. She settled for another long embrace, mouths finding each other once more, before pulling away from Jill and taking the other woman's hands in her own. "You did it, Jill. Not me. You were never a wrong cop."

Jill ducked her head, warmth suffusing her features. The golden head remained bowed as the words fell softly from her lips. "Don made it so easy to believe the worst. To believe in the worst in me. But..." She lifted her head, hazel eyes shining with tears that would never fall. "I know that's not the truth. I'm not sure if the way you and Diane and the rest of the squad have believed in me is the truth either, but it's closer than his lies." She kissed Abbie one last time, with an aching tenderness that threatened to shatter whatever composure Abbie had left. "That's what I held onto."

"Cohen sure didn't waste any time beating feet outta here when Kirkendall and Carmichael went to powder their noses," Sipowicz observed, settling his bulk at his desk and watching Diane expectantly.

"Good," Diane replied curtly. "The last thing Jill needs is another go round with that jerk-off."

"Cohen wasn't a happy puppy about it either," Sorenson offered, watching his partner watch Diane.

Diane leaned back in her chair, her seat the apex of the triangle formed by the three desks nestled together. She was actually surprised that it had taken the partners this long to bring up the subject, considering everything they had witnessed the previous day. From the corner of her eye, she caught John Irvin's uneasy glance, knowing that he shared in the secret she wasn't sure was even a secret at all anymore. "Guys..."

"Look, Diane," Sorenson interjected. "We aren't trying to get up into Jill's business, but since we sorta ended up there anyway..."

"And Cohen is making it his business to see that the half the five boroughs end up there too," Diane remarked bitterly.

"Cohen's an asshole," Sipowicz replied. "But that's not the point. The point is he gonna try and put a hurting on Jill's IAB deal on account of Jill seems to have decided that she's a leg woman now and Cohen just don't measure up to her new standards." From behind Andy, John Irvin couldn't control his snort of laughter. Sipowicz swiveled in his chair, peering over his glasses at the PAA. "You want to add some cents here? Cause I'm thinking you might have a few loose in your pocket on the subject."

John's pale blue eyes widened, then he shook his head discreetly. "I think Detective Kirkendall's personal life is none of my business."

"Detective Kirkendall's personal life just dropped trou in front of the squad."

"It still doesn't make it any of my business," he held firm, then added pointedly. "Or yours."

"Did you not hear what I just said about Cohen?"

"ADA Cohen may be an... asshole," John said delicately. "But I don't think he's an idiot. I would think that spreading rumors about whatever he thinks is going on will only serve to make him look poorly."

"Cohen isn't exactly familiar with the route to the high road," Diane noted.

"True, but I think the comparisons resulting from his gossiping won't be flattering." He paused significantly and nodded his head. "If you gather my drift."

"So you think Cohen's gonna keep his trap shut because he doesn't want people to know he's an asshole and a sore loser?" Sipowicz asked bluntly.

John's nod was swift and vigorous, "Pretty much, yes."

Sipowicz chewed the comment over thoughtfully. "Sounds about as good a reason as I've heard for any of this."

Diane sighed in relief and shot John a grateful look, which the civilian aide acknowledged with an incline of his head, as Jill and Abbie emerged from the locker room. She noted that Sipowicz immediately committed himself to shuffling papers with unusual energy, while Sorenson studiously rearranged the office supplies on his desk. Neither man glanced towards the two women.

"Hell of a way to start the morning, isn't it?" she asked rhetorically, knowing that something was needed to fill the otherwise awkward silence that had fallen.

"Not one I'd wanna repeat ever again," Jill answered wryly. "I'm sure you guys agree." She hesitated a moment before touching Andy lightly on his shoulder to gather his attention and stepping into Sorenson's line of sight. "I know I haven't had a chance to say this before, but thank you guys for everything you did."

Both men look simultaneously touched and uncomfortable by the expression of gratitude. "Not a problem," Sorenson said awkwardly. "Same thing you would've done for us."

"That's what partners do," Andy added flatly, ending the conversation.

Jill bit back the smile she felt creeping around her mouth. "Then at least let me buy the first round next time."

"I don't think anyone here will have a problem with that," Sorenson agreed.

"And I'll get the second one," Abbie offered, moving around Jill and towards the door.

"Ah... the ever-elusive Ms. Carmichael..." Abbie's departure was interrupted as Theresa Conners strolled through the door of the detective's squad, stopping by John's desk and perching upon its corner comfortably. "You know, half your office can't seem to locate you." Her eyes drifted over Jill's lean figure appreciatively before moving to Diane, where a glimmer of recognition flashed briefly before disappearing. "At least you've got good taste in hideouts. And hideaway friends."

"Well now it's all shot to hell, I've got to go to work finding a new one, and they're never going to speak to me again," Abbie replied with a grin, though the hint of acid edge to her voice belied its easiness.

"It's true. Only the stout of heart for me."

"Don't she mean the stout of stomach?" Andy muttered under his breath to Sorenson.

"That too," the attorney replied blithely, her eyes swiveling towards Sipowicz and away, fixing on John. "You're cute. Is that an Alan Truong you're wearing?"

The PAA flushed under the relentless blue gaze, but he brightened at the compliment. "He's a little out of my price range. Though I love his colors."

Her eyes continued their roving appraisal. "Still, you put the look together well. I wish I could teach my assistant that. I keep telling him, 'Presentation, presentation, presentation.'" She nodded briskly to herself before pulling out a slim sliver case and flipping it open. "Here's my card. Give me a call. Maybe you can teach him something." With that, she folded her arms and snapped her attention back to Abbie, who was watching her with a bemused expression. "Don't you want to hear my good news?"

"You're leaving now?" Sorenson chirped up hopefully.

"In a moment, cherub." Her eyes never left Abbie's. "Man 1."

It took Abbie only a moment to parse her meaning. "You're calling that good news."

"Abbie, she's going to do the light end of a 2-to-8 year stretch-- out in less unless she turns miraculously into some mean-ass butch. I can even probably make sure she does her time down South if she wants to be near her family. I'm good, but even I can't turn this one into a walk."

"You managed it for Murtha. Couple of times now," Sipowicz baited.

She shot him a withering look. "Jimmy isn't stupid enough to hole up in a motel room with the murder weapon and wait for the ADA to come rescue him."

Sorenson glanced at his partner. "She has a point."

"Of course I do. Now if Ms. Carmichael here had had the forethought to call me before she started talking to my client, then it might be another story entirely."

"Because you're always thinking of new and inventive ways to destroy evidence, no doubt."

"You impugning my honor before the bar?"

"Yeah, Sorenson," Abbie replied laconically. "She's only been up before the Ethics board three or four times."

"Five, actually. And dismissed without prejudice each time," Theresa informed her with a grin. "You owe me."

Sorenson and Sipowicz shot each other a look, both mouthing "Owe her?" silently to the other.

Abbie snorted derisively. "Like hell I do."

"That's seriously up for debate. But I'll be sporting and let you take me out to dinner tonight to argue the point. Maxim's. 8:30. I'll make the reservations and you can pick up the check. Now I've got to go inform my client of the good news. It's not every day somebody takes the needle out of your arm." Slipping from her perch on John's desk, she glanced around the room again, blue eyes sweeping the assembled squad detectives up with her gaze. "Nice to meet you all. If there's any way I can ever harass or make your professional lives more difficult, don't hesitate to call."

With a wry expression, Jill watched the criminal attorney leave. "Certainly knows how to make an exit, doesn't she?"

"One of her specialties, I'm afraid," Abbie replied with mild chagrin, rubbing her eyes once more and wondering if her head would ever stop aching for more than five minute intervals. Her day wasn't even half over and it was just getting longer. And worse, judging from the expression-- a cross between genuine curiosity and mild ire-- on Jill's face.

"Do I even want to guess at the others?" Jill inquired ruefully.

"I do," Sorenson volunteered, his hand half-raising and a mischievous grin splitting his features.

Abbie chuckled at the hopeful tone in the young detective's voice. "Actually, Sorenson, it's probably best that you don't. Safer for everyone involved, especially you."

"Which is her way of sayin that she's out of your league, shrub," Sipowicz translated for his partner.

"I got that part, Andy."

"Just don't want there to be any question."

Abbie watched the two men with bemusement, before becoming aware that she was the object of her lover's scrutiny. An indefinable expression colored Jill's smile as she tucked her hands in her pockets. "Care to tell us about Ms. Conners' other specialties over lunch? Apparently, I've got some time on my hands for the next week or so."

"I'd love to, but I've got a command performance across town. I'm not sure if her timing is uncanny or just plain bad, but Lewin decided she wanted to do a little bonding at the Riverside Club over Romaine and croutons." The others winced in sympathy as she shrugged with as much casualness as she could manage. "Believe me, I'd rather be having a roast beef on whole wheat with you guys. As it is..." she glanced at her watch and bit back a growl of frustration. "I'm going to be late already." Instinctively, her hand reached out to brush Jill's arm, needing to reaffirm their connection amid all the cacophony surrounding them. "I'll call you later, okay?"

"About that rain check you're taking on lunch?" Diane teasingly prodded for her.

Abbie grinned, looking at her friend. "Yeah, that too." She sketched a light wave at the other detectives and slung the strap of her briefcase over her shoulder. "'Afternoon, guys."

Knowing she was letting her eyes linger too long in the direction where Abbie had departed, Jill leaned against the railing that nominally separated the bullpen from the waiting area and turned to her partner. "What about you, Diane? Roast beef on whole wheat sound good to you?"

"Pastrami on rye sounds better."

"I think we can find one of those. You guys coming?" She glanced at Sipowicz and Sorenson, who were so busy trading speculative looks that they almost missed the question.

"What? Err... no," Andy answered for the pair. "Lookin at Cohen all morning killed my appetite. You two go ahead."

"Want us to bring you back something?"

Sorenson looked ready to pipe up until he caught Andy's forbidding look. "Nah, I'm good. You two to ahead," he echoed his partner. "We've got the board. Keeping these city streets safe till you get back."

The two women grinned at the younger detective. "I guess that means John's in charge, huh?" Jill teased as they gathered their coats. "Thanks again, guys."

"No problem," Andy answered. "See you soon, Jill."

Sorenson waited until the women had descended the squad steps before turning to his partner. "I was hungry."

"You think any eating was going to get done at that lunch?"

"Which one?"

Sipowicz squinted irritably at his partner. "For a somebody who's supposed to have a lot of something on the ball, you don't catch much do you?"

"Not when I've got you to enlighten me."

"Carmichael's got a lot of women making up her social schedule. Her boss and this Conners character at the top of the list."

"What does this have to do with me not getting any lunch?"

"Did you see Jill's face when Conners told Carmichael she was taking her out to dinner?"

"Uh... no."

"That's what Diane and Jill are going to talk about over lunch."

"I... see?"

He pointed a knowing finger at Sorenson. "Just wait. We haven't heard the last of this."

"Sorry I'm late." Abbie was close to breathless despite the meandering trek the maitre d' took across the restaurant to present her at Nora's table with a flourish of his hand. Feeling particularly awkward as she slid into the seat proffered her, she pushed long hanks of dark hair out of her face and wondered irritably again why Nora had picked today of all days for lunch.

The pleased smile creasing the District Attorney's plump features, as if seeing Abbie were the most enjoyable thing she could imagine, only further unsettled her. "Don't worry about it, Abbie," she waved the apology away with a slight shake of her head. "It's not like your time is often your own on this job."

Abbie frowned, thinking that this morning really had been-- in a lot of ways-- her own. Or at least, her own doing. Nothing, not even a triple homicide involving the mayor, would have pulled her away from the 1-5 until things with IAB and Jill had been settled. Indeed, it was just blind luck that Martens had tired as quickly of the detective-go-round as he had. The Internal Affairs Bureau detective sergeant had moved up a few notches in Abbie's esteem, wading through the paper, ignoring Cohen and listening to the one person's voice-- Jill's-- who mattered the most. Leo Cohen, however, was another matter. He--


"I'm sorry. What?" she asked blankly, wincing inwardly as Nora's pleased smile reappeared. "Sorry," she apologized lamely. "Still gnawing over some stuff from the morning."

Nora didn't miss a beat. "Like the plea agreement Theresa Conners managed to work out for Tara Wheeling?"

She visibly jerked in her chair, the napkin she had been unfolding draping gracelessly across her lap. "News travels fast."

"I'm not completely oblivious to the goings-on in my office."

The remark carried more bite than Abbie had come to expect from the District Attorney, and she cocked her head curiously. "I don't think anybody believes that you are. I certainly don't."

"But perhaps I could be a little more interactive, preemptive, even."

Suddenly aware that the territory she was entering might be considered dangerous by some, Abbie demurred with a quick shake of her head. "That's not for me to say."

To her surprise, Nora threw her head back and laughed, the robust sound drawing more than one eye to their table. "Oh dear..." she said, catching her breath. "Don't tell me you've suddenly developed a sense of tact. Not when you're entire reputation is based on the complete lack of it. Honestly, Abbie," Nora continued, taking a long sip of the hot tea that Abbie hadn't noticed was in front of her. "You're chafing so much at the collar this office has on you, I'm amazed you haven't developed a rash."

"So that's what this is about," Abbie muttered, looking around for a waiter. A glass of her own would be nice, a prop to play with to gather her thoughts. If said glass happened to contain a stiff belt of bourbon... well, she wouldn't object to that either, but knew that even her apparently much-vaunted lack of tact wouldn't let her get away with drinking in the middle of the day. "You're here to rap my knuckles for mashing up Alex Cabot's case against Tara Wheeling."

Nora seemed to consider the remark a moment before pursing her lips and shaking her head briskly. "No. McCoy will take care of that, along with the nonsense involving Greg Mulroney, Leo Cohen and those detectives from the 1-5. No, I'm here to talk to you about something much more important, Abbie."

Blessing the waiter's fortuitous sense of timing, she ordered a glass of tea-- nearly a decade in this godforsaken Yankee stronghold still hadn't inured her sense of taste to their vile, unsweetened habits-- and glanced vainly at the menu, searching for any sign of something she recognized on its page whatsoever. "I'll have whatever the special is," she told the waiter curly, surrendering the battle.

"Club menu not up to your taste?" Nora asked after echoing her special of the day sentiments and watching their service disappear.

"You know me, Nora. I was hoping for a large slab of meat, a nice hunk of Velveeta and some hooch to wash it down with," she snapped, startling herself and seeing its surprised echo in the older woman's eyes.

A fatal silence threatened to overwhelm them until Nora covered one of Abbie's hands with her own. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

To her own astonishment, Abbie found herself briefly returning the pressure of Nora's fingers against her own before releasing them. "I hadn't realized you had until just now." Her lips twisted into a smirk. "But it's part of the image, isn't it? Cowboy Carmichael? I'm not sure why I have any reason to be surprised that you bought into it."

"I didn't say I bought into it. I said you built your reputation on it. I've watched you, watched how you've positioned yourself as something unique in the Manhattan District Attorney's office. And it's a tack that has brought you further and faster than most." She studied the younger woman intently, gathering the other woman's attention with a powerfully focused gaze. Abbie had the strangest sensation of being cradled, held within a gaze that was at once probing and at the same time kind and oddly benevolent. "But Abbie, you're on the verge of entering a completely different league now." Abbie wasn't even aware that the server had deposited her order in front of her until Nora pointed at her bowl with a spoon. "That soup's no good cold. You should eat."

"I'm not particularly hungry."

Nora considered the statement for a moment before calling their waiter back over with a short wave of her hand. "Could you ask Francois to prepare a couple of his infamous sandwiches for me? And some of that winter chili too?"

Abbie looked at her boss quizzically. "It's almost eighty degrees out there."

"You could use some thickening up. Besides, you've dropped weight in the last few weeks," Nora observed. "And you certainly don't need to drop any more." As if sensing Abbie's increasing discomfort, Nora resettled herself in her chair, her expression downshifting in its intensity. "But that's enough of that. I didn't invite you here to fatten you up."

"No?" Abbie managed a weak smile, oddly shaken by her boss' unsolicited kindness.

"Not that you couldn't use it, but no." The district attorney pushed her own soup out of the way and folded her hands together, resting her chin on top of them lightly. "Do you think the White House just steps in out of the blue and decides to tap someone on the shoulder?"

The moment settled thickly in Abbie's throat, cool liquid slithering around it as she swallowed hard. "You knew Josh Lyman and Ainsley Hayes were coming to see me." Not a question.

Nora's brows pulsed in acknowledgment. "I didn't think it would be this soon, but yes. There is a certain protocol for matters like this. I was consulted when your name entered consideration for the position."

Idly, Abbie pushed an emptied packet of sweetener around the table. "Do I even want to know what you said?"

"Most likely not. I'll be honest with you, Abbie, I don't think you're ready for this yet."

"I see." Two quiet words that didn't convey the sudden sense of failure pressing against her chest. Granted she hadn't exactly had the opportunity to show Lewin up close what she was capable of, but if nothing else, this conversation had told Abbie that the older woman had paid far more attention to the assistant district attorney than otherwise.

"I said yet, Abbie not never. And obviously Leo McGarrity disagrees with me, because he sent Josh and Ainsley anyway."

"So why am I here?"

Nora waited a beat, until Abbie's eyes were firmly fixed on her own. "Because when you're asked to serve your country, it's hard to say no. And I'm asking you to say no."

Disbelief scrawled itself across the younger woman's features.

"Abbie... I think you can be one of the most powerful political forces in the country someday, if you want it. Just not right now."

"Then when, Nora? How long should I wait?" Abbie snapped back, her frustration with the straits of the last few weeks getting the better of her tongue. "For Jack McCoy to drink himself into liver failure? Crack up on that hog of his? Or maybe I should just wait for you to get off your ass and let me do my job? Tell me why I should stay here when I'm being offered the opportunity to make a difference. Why are you so much more qualified to make a decision about my life than me?"

The District Attorney's features hardened. "Because you don't know who or what you are yet. Or what you're capable of. If nothing else, that little tirade of yours proves it. Do you think you could talk to the President of the United States that way?"

"So we're back to my lack of tact again."

"No, actually, we're back to your complete and utter lack of any sense of politics."

"I'm not a politician."

"The hell you aren't. You're just a bad one," Nora retorted. She opened her mouth as if to speak further, then visibly gathered herself and smiled wryly. "You also have an uncanny ability to make people cut through a lot of the political bullshit. And that's not a compliment. It just means you infuriate me faster than anyone I've ever known."

"I seem to have that effect on a lot of people."

"It's not exactly a constructive trait."

Abbie shrugged. "People don't like being told no."

"Neither do you."

"Never said I did." Both women shared a quiet chuckle at the admission, the grin turning rueful on Abbie's mouth. "Would I really be so bad at it? The job? The politics?"

Nora shook her head. "No. You wouldn't. But... those people... it's a tribe, Abbie. A little more sophisticated and convoluted than the gangs you've dealt with on the street... but a lot of the theory is the same. You'd get frustrated. Feel locked out. Probably eventually be locked out. Not because you couldn't do the job, but because you don't wear the colors or read the signs. It's a long way to fall, if you went and that happened, Abbie. A long way to come back from."

Resonance laced the older woman's words, and Abbie knew Nora wasn't just speaking abstractly. "So what are you suggesting I do? Other than respectfully decline, of course."

"You're so young, Abbie. Time is nothing but on your side in this case. A few years as an EADA or eventually even as a borough DA wouldn't hurt you. Teach you the signs and skills that might make the difference when you do go to the next level. And make no mistake, Abbie, I think you will make a difference, as you say, on a national scale."

"EADA? I can't imagine Jack going anywhere anytime soon."

"You're probably right about that. But I do know in the next two years, Isaiah Lowenstein is stepping down in Brooklyn. You transfer over there sometime soon, and when he does, I'd say you'd be a natural to fill his position. Certainly I'd lobby for it."

"Ah..." Abbie nodded, a certain bitter awareness dawning in her eyes. "And there endeth my first political lesson."


"Brooklyn. When was the last time Isaiah Lowenstein made the Metro section above the fold? Hell, when was the last time he made the Metro section at all? You want me to go into exile. Do my time in the trenches and maybe one day I'll ascend the political mount in the proper manner. Meanwhile, you've gotten rid of a very big embarrassment to the old boys and gotten Jack McCoy's head back into the game."

"You're casting my motives in a very sinister light."

"Well, I'd say it was probably a more accurate one than the altruistic ones you're touting." Nora's eyes broke contact briefly, but Abbie felt no bitter triumph in the admission implicit in the gesture, just a certain kind of sadness.

"Motives invariably reside somewhere in the middle, Abbie. And that, if any of this qualifies, is your first political lesson. The members of the Bartlett administration are no exception. Remember that."

"I'm waiting." By unspoken agreement, they had walked the block and a half to a small luncheonette, somewhat alliteratively named "Earl's Eatery," but which had the absolutely best pastrami on rye sandwiches Diane had ever tasted. For the length of the short walk she had held her tongue, watching with bemusement as a myriad of expressions had flickered over Jill's face. Only after they had both placed their orders did she breach the silence.

"For what?" Jill looked genuinely puzzled as she topped off her diet soda from the self-serve fountain.

"You to ask me about Conners and Abbie."

"Why's that?" she asked, not looking over her shoulder and leading a winding path to a table about to be claimed by a pair of radiocar uniforms. Diane watched in admiration as a silent arch of Jill's elegantly sculpted brow warned the beat cops off, leaving the two-top to them.

"So I can tell you upfront that I don't know," Diane resumed, once they had settled their lunches.

Jill looked at her a long moment, then shrugged. "Okay," she agreed, unstacking her sandwich and resettling all the components into a tidier pile before biting into it.

"That's it? That's all you're going to say?" Diane prodded when it became apparent that Jill was committed to her lunch.

Her partner finished chewing her mouthful, green eyes darkening as she considered the question. "She'll either tell me in her own time, or she won't."

"That's evolved of you." The words possessed a sardonic edge that she hadn't quite intended, and Diane winced as she watched Jill absorb the barb and consciously not react. "And I should probably be trying to eat my shoe instead of this pastrami."

Jill nodded her acceptance of the shorthand apology and shrugged one of her own. "I don't have much choice." She smiled ruefully. "Have you ever tried pushing Abbie for something? And did it ever work?"

"No. But I wasn't... " Diane admitted, before stopping short. "The situation was different."

"I'm sure it was." A little acid of her own, and Diane realized that sometimes payback-- while not necessarily being a bitch-- did sting sometimes. "Trying to crawl into every corner of her life, especially if she isn't ready and when I know I'm not, isn't going to do either of us any good." She shook her head, toying with her chips as if trying to discern some kind of meaning in the clusters of salt patterned on their surface. "Things have come so far and so fast between us, and I when step back and look at it-- I know it's too much too soon." Diane watched in rapt fascination as Jill methodically broke all the chips into tiny, nearly identically-sized pieces. "What the hell do I know about being with a woman? What the hell does she know about what it's like to raise two sons?" She laughed mirthlessly, "And those are just the two easy questions. But when I'm with her... Just even in the same room with her..." Her voice trailed away and an astonished look of wonder filled green eyes as they met Diane's. "It all seems to fall away. Like it never has with anyone before."

"Scares the shit out of you, huh?"

Jill nodded softly. "But I've got two children who are probably never going to see their father again-- and that's if we're all lucky. Both of them were lying to me for who knows how long, and I almost lost Frank. I still might, Diane. The way he looked at me last night, so angry with everything that's happened, with me for sending his father away."

"But you didn't..."

"Try telling that to a twelve year old boy, Diane. All he saw was me constantly pushing his father away. And his father playing the wounded hero."

"You could try tell.."

"Telling the boys the truth? That their father's the lowest sort of skel out there?" She shook her head. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't shatter the hope that I saw in their eyes." She swung her eyes away from Diane's, dropping her gaze once more to the table. "The hope that I had in my heart that he would change," she murmured so quietly that Diane had to strain to hear her. "That he had changed." Jill took a deep, shuddering breath, her voice growing stronger as she continued. "I haven't loved Don Kirkendall for a long time, Diane. But that didn't stop me from wanting my children to have a father-- their father. I hate that man for what he's done to those boys. How he's taken them away from me, even as his sorry ass rots in Riker's."

Unconsciously, Diane's hand had found Jill's twining their fingers in a silent show of support. "He hasn't taken them away from you, Jill. Those kids adore you, no matter how angry or confused they may be right now."

"Trying to make me feel better?"

Diane grinned sheepishly. "Well, yeah. But what I say also happens to be true. Anybody who's spent ten minutes around you and the boys can see that." She squeezed Jill's hand one last time before releasing it.

"I hope you're right. I just worry that it's gonna get worse before it gets better."

"Pushing Abbie away isn't going to help anything."

"I don't want to push Abbie away," Jill said impatiently, running a hand through her short-cropped locks. "In fact, I can't stop pulling her closer. I mean, good lord, Diane, I dragged her into the locker room in front of the squad, god and everyone just because after everything that happened this morning I needed her arms around me. Damn the fact that Leo was standing right there and Martens and Fancy were in his office, probably looking out through the blinds. Right now, that's not best for anyone. Not for Abbie, given her circumstances. And certainly not my sons." She blew out a frustrated breath. "So no matter how much I want to know why Theresa Conners can solicit Abbie's attentions at the drop of a hat, or what drove her so hard to try and make things right for Tara Wheeling, or even how it is she can make me believe everything is gonna be okay-- right now, I just can't ask those questions. Not if I want to keep any kind of grip on what's happening to me."

The rest of Abbie's day hadn't gone any better. Didn't look like it had any prospect of doing so either, she reluctantly realized. Early afternoon gave way to late as she studied the flat envelope bearing the seal of the Office of the New York District Attorney. Inside was a single sheet of paper that would change her life, but she hadn't been able to place it on Nora's desk or make the phone call that would set the wheels irrevocably in motion. Instead, she left it on her desk and made the short drive to the office out of which the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit worked.

She had never been officially assigned to Special Victims, rather ended up riding one of their cases by accident-- a serial rapist who had escalated into murder-- and had struck up an acquaintance with Olivia Benson as a result. As the two women had gotten to know each other, Benson had taken to calling Abbie in on cases, and she had become a de facto member of the Unit even as she worked a full caseload in Manhattan.

All that had changed with the arrival of Alexandra Cabot onto the scene. It wasn't Cabot's fault that she had come to the attention of the power mongers at the very moment Abbie was coming to their attention for a very different and much more negative reason. Nor was it her fault that the powers-that-be saw no downside in replacing an ambitious brunette attorney who had overstepped her place with an ambitious blonde attorney who hadn't. The word on Cabot was that she was green but good, and Abbie couldn't help but feel a little jealous. For all the grumbling and noise the detectives of the SVU had made when Alexandra had come on board, Abbie knew that had the other woman not been up to standard, Olivia Benson wouldn't have hesitated to open up the line to Abbie again.

And though the detective had phoned a number of times since the switch, the occasions prompting the call had always been social. Never professional.

Now Abbie stood in front of an office that hadn't ever really been hers, wondering why a part of her resented Cabot for her occupation of it anyway. Taking a deep breath, she stuck her head through the open door and offered the greeting ubiquitous to all ADAs. "Got a minute?"

A mild understatement, Abbie realized, would be to say that Cabot looked surprised to see her, though the expression was gone almost immediately and replaced by a far more impassive one. "Sure," the other woman replied civilly, though her tone wouldn't be out of place on the Arctic tundra. Some might say that it matched the look of the whole woman, Abbie thought to herself, taking a measure of Alexandra Cabot anew. But it would be a wrong, she realized. Or at the very least, simplistic.

"I came to eat some crow," she began abruptly. "Or least offer something short of my head on a platter."

She certainly had Cabot's attention now, as the other attorney inclined her head curiously. Blonde hair spilled gracefully to her shoulders and just beyond, and the smooth planes of her face were still as dark green eyes regarded her closely. "I'm listening."

"About Tara's case..."

"You were out of control at that motel, Carmichael."

Anger flared in her belly, but Abbie choked down on the hostile retort that sprang to her lips. Instead, she merely nodded in agreement, her eyes roaming the close confines of the office where she noticed that both of Cabot's degrees bore the imprimatur of universities and honors far more impressive than her own. Aware of the growing silence, she said, at length. "I told you yesterday I was sorry about that."

"You didn't tell me why, though."

She eyed the single chair in Cabot's office askance for a moment, before deciding to maintain her position leaning against the door frame instead. "I shouldn't have let Tara walk away that first time."

"You can't force someone to press charges."

"I could have convinced her to go forward."

"You rhetorical skills aside, Carmichael, what makes you think so?" Cabot asked skeptically.

"I could have told her that the silence..." Abbie shook her head, unable to find the words for which her soul was groping. "I should have been the person to say, 'I believe you,'" she finished, shrugging at the inadequacy of the statement.

"You did believe her." The shifting light in Alexandra Cabot's eyes spoke volumes about her own confusion and the amount of turmoil writ large on Abbie's face. "I don't understand," she said softly, standing and circling her desk to face Abbie directly. "Talk to me."

At some level, Alexandra had understood that circumstances had conspired to turn Tara Wheeling into a murderer, and so she had let the deal she had made with Theresa Conners reflect justice and not the letter of the law. If for no other reason than that, Abbie realized, this woman deserved the whole truth. The quiet request was more than that, however; it was an appeal to Abbie to share something of what drove her, to make Alexandra understand not just about the case but also about the woman standing in front of her. Such an overture had been rare in Abbie's experience, limited to a handful of people, including the woman with whom she was now falling in love, and the gesture was precious and too powerful to be ignored. "The silence," she said finally, some part of herself making the decision to respond to the entreaty in the other woman's eyes. "It eats you alive, I think, until you find a way to define yourself as something other than what you aren't allowed to say."

"Sweet Jesus..." Alexandra breathed, the sound barely audible, as realization began to cloud the clean lines of her features. "It happened to you, didn't it?"

"A long time ago," she affirmed. "I was just a kid, and bunch of men told me that it didn't happen. Worse, that what had happened to me didn't matter, that it was of no consequence to the world." She drew a long, steadying breath, matching Alexandra's eyes to her own. "I didn't put that idea in Tara Wheeling's head. But I also didn't tell her what did matter. I didn't tell her that it was so important to say the words out loud, to say them in a place where the everyone could hear her." Aware of the painful tightness in her shoulders, Abbie uncrossed her arms and tucked her hands in her pockets. "David Byers took her silence as proof that he could rape her again, and this time he took away her chance at a new life. She picked up that gun. Because of what I didn't say, a man is dead. And her life..." She gestured helplessly. "Am I making any sense here?"

A wry smile ghosted across the other woman's lips. "You are, sort of."

"Good to hear. Cause I'm not sure I understand all of it myself," Abbie replied, blowing out a deep breath and threading a slightly unsteady hand through her hair. "At any rate, that's why I was so out of control yesterday. And why, I suppose, it's a good thing they've got you riding SVU cases and not me."

"Not sure I'd agree with that," Alexandra offered mildly. "You mind an unsolicited opinion?"

"Could I stop you?"

"Absolutely," the other woman replied without hesitation. "Your personal life is none of my business."

"Sorry I dumped it in your office."

Cabot looked tempted to say something but bit her lip instead, chewing on it for a moment before she continued. "The only shoulders David Byers' death rests on are Tara Wheeling's. If you don't get anything else I ever say to you-- get that through your thick skull. I understand why you might think that you could have changed her mind about pressing charges, and you know what-- maybe you could have. But you know what else? That kind of what if doesn't matter one whit. It didn't go down that way, Abbie, and you can't beat yourself to a pulp thinking up a million and one alternate universes where things went sunlight and roses for Tara Wheeling. Because you know as well as I do, shouldacouldawoulda is the paved road to hell." Cabot threw her hands up in the air and paced a few steps away. "And that's all I have to say on the subject."

A wry grin fleetingly graced Abbie's lips. The blonde's words resonated with her, but they were things she had told herself a million times since David Byers' lifeless body had been discovered. Things she hadn't quite made herself believe yet. The conviction in Alexandra Cabot's voice, however, held a power that she couldn't deny. Watching the slender length of the woman, seeing the passion in her gaze, Abbie was suddenly and uncomfortably reminded of another woman with verdant eyes and fine-spun golden hair. She shifted uneasily in the doorway, the synaptic connections exponentially increasing in her sense memory until she could almost smell the heat of a Texas summer fifteen years gone by. "Yeah, well... I..." she started hesitantly, not sure what or if anything was going to come from her mouth. "Thanks," she said at length, the word not beginning to encompass the roil of conflicting impulses in her system. At a loss for anything else. "For the listen."

The eyes holding hers softened and warmed, becoming if anything more impossibly green. "Anytime." She waited until Abbie had turned to go, before saying softly. "I didn't mind." The other woman shifted back on her heels, bringing a dark gaze back to the blonde. A mild blush graced her cheeks as she shrugged. "Listening." Cabot shrugged lightly. "I liked it. Seeing something other than that Southern swagger of yours. And that you trusted me enough to tell me." This last added quietly, barely loud enough for Abbie to hear.

Feeling the heat rise in her own cheeks, Abbie shook her head and forced a reluctant chuckle. "Must be getting soft in my old age. I'll have to work on that."

Cabot seemed almost relieved to accept the shift in the terms and tone of her conversation. "You do that," she agreed, a laconic smile emerging. "Wouldn't want to ruin your reputation."

During his long tenure as Manhattan's District Attorney, Adam Schiff had ensconced himself in all the trappings of the office-- elegant mahogany desk and bookshelves, leather couches and chairs burnished with age and supple care, heavy-cut crystal decanters holding the finest single malt scotch on either side of the Atlantic-- and while Nora Lewin didn't exactly find all these things particularly appealing personally, she had changed very little of the decor. Time enough for all that, she had told herself, after her temporary appointment was over and she had won reelection in her own right. Then she could put her own imprimatur on the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Both literally and figuratively.

She could see the appeal of Schiff's taste, however, in the late evenings. When sunset-- though New York City was never truly dark-- had drifted over the city, and her office was warmed with the shaded glow of Tiffany lamps, her person warmed by the snifter of brandy in her hand.

"I think I might have made things worse today," she admitted mostly to herself, absently swirling the liquid in its glass and bringing its faintly intoxicating scent to her nostrils.

Jack McCoy eyed her askance from his position on the couch, much the same way he had been since she had invited him into her office and poured him a tumbler of scotch. He sipped it gingerly, as if expecting some sort of calamity to befall him should he be seen actually enjoying a drink with his boss. "Is that possible?"

"We had lunch today."

To her surprise, a wry grin spread over his rough features. "Hope you didn't make her eat the salad," he chuckled, slipping a little more comfortably down on the couch. Seeing Nora's inquiring gaze, he elaborated. "Right after Abbie came to this office, we were working a case, some case, I don't remember which, and I ordered lunch. Made the mistake assuming that like most skinny girls, she had to work to stay that way."


"Told me that she ate, she didn't graze-- right before she took my order of ribs and left me with the salad I'd gotten for her." He took a healthy swallow of the scotch, making an unconscious approving noise deep in his throat at the taste. "Should have known right then--"

"Then why didn't you?" She swiveled in her chair to face him squarely. "I mean, honestly, Jack. From what I hear, it seems like every time you two started finding some kind of common ground something happened to set you two back at each other's throats."

"Like her coming out all over the evening news?"

"I don't believe for a minute that you have a problem with gay people in this office," Nora replied, waving away the suggestion. "Your problem is with Abbie. Why?"

He considered the question, lost in the tumbling swirl of amber over ice as if contained answers he hadn't searched for, let alone found, yet. "I'm honestly not sure, Nora. I..."

A resonant contralto interrupted him. "Got a minute?"

As if their conversation manifested the woman herself, Abbie Carmichael leaned hesitantly in the door frame, her features darkened by the ambient lighting, her expression solemn and even more exhausted than it had been that morning. Nora's eyes drifted over the younger woman's lean frame, her gaze fixing immediately on the cream colored envelope held loosely in slender fingers. "I take it that's not a transfer request."

Abbie ducked her head, running her free hand through newly-unbound hair, and shook her head. "It isn't." Both women were aware of Jack half-rising from his spot on the couch, but it was Abbie who bade him to stay, cocking her head at him and smiling faintly. "You might as well stick around. This concerns you too." Abbie took a long, shuddering breath and squared her shoulders, finally entering Nora's office fully and crossing the short space that separated them. Placing the envelope softly on the District Attorney's desk, she brushed the bonded paper with the tips of her fingers as if uncertain she wanted to release it. Then she finally allowed her gaze to meet Nora's, smiling crookedly.

"You've talked to Josh Lyman already?"

A short nod. "About an hour ago. They want to make an announcement pretty soon."

"I can imagine they would." A wry smile of her own, tinged with a hint of bitterness and not a little regret. "You're going to be quite a catch for them."

"That's not what you were saying this morning."

"Then you weren't listening," she replied more sharply than she intended. Her features softening, she continued, "If anything I said this morning has pushed you into a decision--"

"It hasn't. And don't think that I took what you said lightly. I... I have to do this, Nora. Maybe you're right. Maybe I will fail." She shrugged lightly. "I don't know how far a fall it is, but I've climbed out of some pretty bad places. Certainly places that were hell and gone from the New York City District Attorney's office."

"I have no doubt in your abilities, Abbie. I never have. I just don't want things to be harder on you than they have to be."

"My daddy always said that nobody in our family ever let the hard things go by." She chuckled lightly. "Maybe if things don't work out, then I'll go back to Texas."

"I don't see you becoming a country lawyer." Nora's expression was a dubious, although she consciously tried to lighten her tone.

"Who knows? Maybe it's time I started thinking about going home someday. God knows I've been away long enough."

"Does somebody want to clue me in here?" Jack interjected, although Nora could see the burgeoning awareness cresting over his face.

Abbie's hesitant smile tightened as she regarded the man who hadn't been a mentor to her but who had still taught her so much, sometimes it seemed, in spite of himself. "You want me to say the words?" She shrugged lightly, as if the gesture and the statement weren't costing her as much as Nora knew it had to be. "I'm leaving, Jack."

His mouth dropped a notch at the confirmation, and his eyes pinned Nora to her chair. "That's your idea of helping? Running her out of the office?" he asked hoarsely, a surprising amount of venom lacing his tone.

Nora flushed under the harsh indictment, and Abbie startled uneasily. "Out of everyone here, Jack, I'd think the news would make you happy."

"That I'm losing the best ADA I've ever had? Hardly," he snorted. "I may not like you or the way you handle any number of things, but nobody has ever gotten better results."

Dark brows furrowed then parted, and-- to Nora's surprise-- the younger woman's expression relaxed, highlighting the classic planes of her face, a warm laugh rolling through the room. Not for the first time did Nora think how remarkably beautiful Abbie Carmichael was, saw the same awareness mirrored in the face of Jack McCoy as they both watched her stroll to the discreet bar in the corner of the office. "That compliment was so backhanded I almost feel insulted," Abbie remarked ruefully, pouring herself a healthy shot of scotch and settling herself into one of the leather winged chairs adjacent to the couch.

"That's kind of the story of your whole relationship, isn't it?" Nora asked quietly, rising from her seat behind the desk and joining Jack on the couch.

"Jack and I managed okay," Abbie replied dryly, glancing at the EADA. "Got the job done at least-- and done better than most ever have." She offered a wry salute with her glass, clinked it gently against Jack's as he raised his.

"Where are you going?"

"ONDCP." She ducked her head as she spoke, as if still not quite believing the words. "Well, sort of. I'll technically be working for Leo McGarrity."

Jack's eyes widened. "You're going to work for the President's Chief of Staff?"

"Err... yeah."

"Which means you'll be formulating and directing national policy on drugs and law enforcement."

"Well, not just me, but... yeah. Pretty much."

His eyes cut to Nora. "And your suggestion was to transfer her to Brooklyn?" He chuckled to himself a long moment before turning a somber gaze back to Abbie. "Adam Schiff once told me that when he looked at you, Abbie, he saw the future." He paused, as if gathering his thoughts. "Congratulations," he said with quiet sincerity. "This office is going to miss you."

From the time Jill had picked both Kyle and Frank up at school, her sons had been subdued. Frank's anger the most palpable thing in the car, while Kyle's distress more subtle but still clear to Jill's anxious eyes. They usually pleaded to play video games or watch television for just a little while before they went to their rooms to do homework before dinner, but today both boys had retreated to their rooms immediately, avoiding each other and their mother's worried gaze. For Jill's part she just sat at the kitchen table, desolately wondering how she was ever going to reach her sons again. There was still a piece of the bottle of wine Abbie had brought the other night, and she poured herself a glass now, mostly for the comfort of the memories of the woman it evoked rather than for its mind-numbing powers.

Though those wouldn't exactly be unwelcome either, she thought to herself, shivering despite the almost balmy evening. A few short days ago, this place had been filled with sound and life-- her sons rowdy happiness, the woman who was coming to claim such a special place in her life finding a way into Kyle's and Frank's too, her best friend standing by her.

Now it was all gone.

No, not gone, Jill realized, but shattered. Fragments of that night, the tantalizing glimpse of one potential future it offered, lay scatted about her. Diane was still by her side, but Kyle was retreating into fear, Frank into a rage that frightened her, and Abbie...

God, she wanted to feel those arms around her right now.

More than that, however, she wanted to feel the passion that Abbie evoked in her, wanted to look into depthless eyes and see that passion mirrored there. Wanted to be worthy of what she saw when Abbie looked at her.

Sitting alone in the twilight was not the way to do it, she recognized. And abandoning her sons to their fear and anger wasn't something she was going to do either. Finishing her wine, she washed out the glass and replaced it in the cupboard before walking down the short hallway to Frank's door.

Knocking softly, she pushed the door slightly open and stuck her head in. Jill's eyes traveled swiftly over the room, at the assorted sports posters-- Mark Maguire still holding pride of place, though he had lost his place as Frank's favorite long ago-- on the wall, at the still-zipped backpack slung at the foot of his desk, the pile of dirty clothes in the corner. In the center of the room, Frank was sprawled on his bed, tennis shoes scrunching up the comforter as he intently punched the buttons on his Gameboy in response to some unseen action on the screen. In his fierce concentration he hadn't heard his mother's knock, or else chose to ignore it.

"Hey you," she said softly, brows arching at his disregard of the house rule that said no video games until after dinner and homework had been completed. The one that said no shoes on the furniture had apparently slipped his mind as well. She briefly considered overlooking both the shoes and the game, but she hadn't spent twelve years raising her sons to have it all destroyed in a few days. "If you've already got your homework done, how about giving me a hand with dinner?" she suggested, keeping her tone light and looking significantly at the lack of schoolwork visible on his desk. When no response was forthcoming, she prompted. "Frank?"

The boy looked briefly up from his game, eyes flinching downward almost immediately to resume play.

Taking a long, steadying breath, Jill crossed the few steps to the bed and settled herself on the side. She took the Gameboy gently out of Frank's hands, silently relieved that he didn't try to hang on. Given her own frayed edges, that much defiance she didn't want to handle right now. "Have you done your homework, Frank?"

He shrugged a no, head still ducked, not meeting his mother's eyes.

"Since when do we play video games before our homework's done?"

He shrugged again, shoes scuffling against the comforter.

She put the toy down and began unlacing the high-tops with a light touch, hoping he wouldn't notice she was holding her breath. It was as much contact as he had allowed since the afternoon she had found him with Harry Denby, and she used the touch to soothe herself as much as to take the shoes off the bed. He watched her tug the sneakers from first one foot then the other, following the motion with his eyes as she set them carefully at the foot of the bed on the floor before. "That's probably more comfortable, huh?" she asked, letting her hands rest on his stockinged feet. He was growing so fast, and the feet that she had once been able to cup in one hand were now ungainly, like puppy's paws. He was going to be so tall, Jill knew-- neither she nor Don were exactly petite-- and she wondered what it would be like one day to look up at her son. He already seemed so far away.

"Frankie..." she said helplessly. Only when startled dark eyes met hers, did she realize she had spoken aloud. Seeing her own pain reflected back at her a thousand fold threatened to choke the life out of her, and tears walled up behind eyes that would not let themselves cry. "Come back to me, baby, please..." she whispered. "I miss you so much."

With a broken sob, Frank hurled himself into his mother's arms, rocking them both backwards with the force of it. Jill held on tightly, wrapping her arms around him and holding them both aloft, streaks of Frank's tears running down her bare neck, her own burying themselves in his hair.

As she left Nora Lewin's office, Abbie thought that the short walk down the hallway that separated the District Attorney's office from hers might quite possibly by the longest of her life. It didn't help matters at all that she had never been so bone tired in her entire life. Everything ached-- body, soul, heart-- and not just with the unexpectedly sharp pain of leaving the only professional home she had ever known.

And it really had been a home, she realized now, in spite of all the struggle and the growling and the bitching and the scrapping. She had earned her place at the New York City District Attorney's table, and now she was leaving, but on her own terms.

For what? To struggle and growl and bitch and scrap her way to a new seat at a new table? Part of her wanted to whimper and give up the battle before it had even started, even knowing that what she was working for was not only just a seat at the most important table in the world, but a chance to genuinely make the world-- not just her small insular one-- a better place.

"This world's all we've got. When you leave it, make sure it's a better place for you having been a part of it."

Her father's words, his voice that was never very far away from her thoughts these days, along with the fifteen years' cold memories of the only other home she had ever known.

"Can't go back, Abbiegirl," she said aloud to herself, unconsciously invoking the old nickname only her father had used. "Gotta move forward."

"Good advice," said a voice from the shadowed interior of her office.

Badly startled, Abbie couldn't stop the visible jolt to her limbic system, but she did manage to contain what would have undoubtedly been an undignified squeal of surprise as she stepped into the room. Flipping on the overhead light, she regarded the figure seated behind her desk archly. "What are you doing here, D?"

Diane Russell cast her own appraising glance over Abbie's lanky form. "You look like six shades of shit, Abs," she said flatly, crossing her arms.

"And here I was hoping it was only three," she remarked, finding her couch and flopping down ungracefully on it, flat on her back. "On the other hand, if I really do look that bad, maybe Theresa Conners will only torture me through drinks and not make me sit through a whole dinner."

"You really think that going to dinner with her is such a smart idea?"

"Better to pay this particular piper now," Abbie replied philosophically. "Before she convinces herself that I really do owe her and decides to take it out in trade on behalf of some of her more colorful clients."

"That's one way of looking at it. But see, I was thinking maybe you might want to go see to your lover. You know, the one the Job just suspended? The one whose ex-husband was just arrested and who is terrified her sons are never going to forgive her for everything that's happened? You know the one, right? Tall, beautiful blonde woman? The one you woke up with this morning."

Her ire piqued, Abbie propped herself up on both elbows to consider the woman at her desk. "You trying to give me relationship advice now, D?"

The look in Diane's brown eyes was not particularly warm as she shrugged dismissively. "Just pointing out what I think should be obvious."

Narrowing her eyes, Abbie swung her legs over the edge of the couch and sat up. "First off, things with Jill Kirkendall are never obvious. Second of all, it's none of your business-- even if Jill is your partner and best friend. And third, don't you think I want to be over there right now?" She rubbed her hands over her face wearily, more convinced that ever that she should just give up wearing makeup at all because by now there wasn't a trace of it anywhere to be found on her face. "There's so much I need to tell her, D. So much I want to tell her. But I can't just dump it all in her lap right now-- because as you so rightly point out, there's so much else going on in her life. Things that are more important. Christ, Diane..." Abbie stood and paced the office agitatedly. "I just want to go over there and..."

"Put your arms around her," Diane finished for her. "Ask her to put hers around you?"

Abbie nodded exhaustedly. "But we can't just keep doing that. Letting this thing between us just keep building and building. Not without saying some things that need to be said first. Otherwise it's gonna burn us both down."

Wordlessly, Diane came around the desk and wrapped Abbie in a long embrace, the detective's slender arms holding her more tightly than she remembered from the years gone by. She relaxed into the familiarity, a part of her simply shutting down and absorbing the comfort being offered without fear of reprisal or reciprocation being expected. She buried her head in the cinnamon fragrance of Diane's hair, found herself unsurprised to notice that she missed the bare skin at the nape of Jill's neck, the more subtle scent of her lover's skin it offered. "She wants to say those things too, Abbie," Diane whispered in her ear. The lawyer lifted her head, found her gaze fixed on Diane's as the other woman cupped her face in both hands. "She needs to hear them. Maybe now more than ever."

The trick to dining fashionably in New York was to stay one step ahead of the cattle, to be able to say, "Been there done that..." when everyone else was still asking, "Have you heard...?" It took skill, imagination and even a little daring to master the ability to see the moment just before it happened.

Theresa Conners' mother always said her side of the family had a touch of the Gypsy in them, a gift of prescience-- although she never used so grand a word-- "I can see things," she'd say instead. "You can too..." touching her little girl's solemn temple, as if it were a gift granted by the laying on of hands instead of a reason to explain why her daughter's crystal-cut blue eyes mirrored her own and not the shanty-Irish brown of her husband, Patrick. Later, when Theresa was old enough to know that listening to cracked door conversations was a good way to stay ahead of her father's ever-changing temperament, she'd hear her mother cursing that very thing, wondering aloud why of all the Irishmen in New-Fucking-York, she'd picked the one with brown eyes to marry.

Still, all in all, Theresa thought to herself on those nights where she allowed her thoughts to peek into the corner where she had tucked all shouting and the cuffs to the head and the thin food and the thinner dresses she'd worn, that bastard's brown eyes had motivated her to get out of the hellhole she had mockingly called "a childhood" in a way that no Black Irishman's eyes ever would have.

If her father could see her now-- which thank the Lord he couldn't because the son-of-a-bitch was rotting dead and buried over two decades now, never could hold his liquor and his blood even less after someone had shoved an eight inch knife in his belly-- he'd say that his Little Resie had New York by the balls.

Colorful way of putting it, Theresa granted, but not completely inaccurate. Penthouse suites and designer clothes by the closet-full. Politicians on speed dial and her name creeping up the list of "who to's" when power players needed to make that one allowed phone call.

Which was why she was here tonight. Maxim's was the au currant moment in New York's dining experience these days, and she was primely positioned to see and be seen in a sexy little Chanel number that was technically a bit too dressy for her ostensible purpose in having dinner with Abbie Carmichael.

To this point, her encounters with the Assistant District Attorney had been bump and run, but Jimmy Murtha-- her first powerful contact and the one who had, in more ways than one, started her on the road she was currently on-- loved to tell the story about Carmichael getting in the face of Nicodemo "Big Nicky" Ciancaglini, the de facto head of one of the City's bigger families.

"She kicked his boy Little Nicky's ass under the jail on those kiddie porn charges and then called the fat fucker a ball-less wonder who couldn't even teach his son how to commit a decent crime he could be proud of," Jimmy had crowed to a table full of his companions. "Dunno where that bitch is from, but she's got some Irish in her somewhere."

No, Theresa had wanted to tell him, she didn't. Her eyes were too brown.

She had been surprised when Carmichael had called her private line-- the one that only the baddest of the Irish Boys, like Jimmy, had. Although she supposed, she shouldn't have been. If there was one thing everyone on both sides of the courtroom knew, even more than the fact that Carmichael's nose was cleaner than the Sainted Mother's herself, was that Carmichael always did her homework.

She didn't know what had torqued at Carmichael's every-ready sense of outrage over Tara Wheeling's case-- stupid girl didn't have the sense to either keep her legs closed or a piece handy before the fact, not after-- but it never hurt to do a favor here and there, especially one that cost her absolutely nothing but half a day of her time. Especially when it was for a person who, if rumor had it correctly, would be playing on a much bigger stage before too much longer.

Theresa didn't know the details, but she'd heard that somebody in Washington was interested in Abbie Carmichael's services. Abbie had ridden outrider with the bangs in the Narcotics division for a goodly number of years and put a crimp, albeit usually temporary, in the pipelines more than once-- so it might very likely be some sort of Special Prosecutor gig down there. Didn't really effect Jimmy's business much-- he styled himself Old School, preferring the shy and the numbers, ran some cathouses on the side mostly for show. He took a piece of the candy action that ran through his neighborhoods, but kept his hands out of the dailies of the business. Still, drugs meant gangs, and Jimmy's name was always at the top of any OCB take-down list. Wouldn't hurt to have a little something-something in the bank if the day ever turned stormy.

As she watched a dark head weave through the crowds on the heels of the hostess, brown eyes watchful for things other than fashionista violations, Theresa realized this evening was going to turn out vastly different than she had planned.

"Looks like I'm going to be picking up the check tonight, after all," she said casually, unfurling her arms across the cushioned back of the discreetly prominent banquette where she had been seated. "Join me," she offered, motioning with a rake of her fingers.

Diane Russell demurred with a shake of her head, although her own fingers traced over the smooth metal of the chair beside her. "I'm just delivering Abbie Carmichael's regrets."

"Nonsense," Theresa parried, pulling the bottle of very good pinot grigio from its chilled resting place and pouring herself a glass. "If you were here to do only that, you wouldn't be wearing that dress." She gestured at the black silk against the detective's skin. "You wear the knock-off well," Theresa complimented her, cocking her head. "I wonder how you would look in real Armani." She measured her pause, waiting the exactly perfect moment for the follow-through. "Or even out of it." Russell flushed hotly, wild curls looking even darker against the rush of blood to her skin. "Oh do sit down, Di," she commanded. "People are starting to look at you, perhaps even wonder who you are. I could always enlighten them."

Theresa watched with satisfaction as Russell pulled the chair slightly away from the table and slipped into it. "I thought you recognized me."

"What kind of good Catholic girl would I be if I didn't recognize someone from the old neighborhood?" She poured a second glass of wine, centered it in front of the woman opposite her.

Diane pushed the glass out of the way without even looking at it. "Not interested."

"In the wine or in drinking with me? What kind of reunion is this going to be if we don't get sloppy drunk and sentimental about the old days?"

"I'm sure you're about as interested in remembering the old days as I am," Diane replied. "And I don't drink anymore."

"Not even screwtop Strawberry wine?" she asked softly, avid gaze absorbing every curve of Diane's face, every tick of memory reflected there. "Not even ten stories up on the rooftop of a shitty tenement four blocks, eight streets and a world away from where our families lived?" She leaned back again and noted with satisfaction that the pulse flaring in Diane's neck was really quite exciting. Old buttons were the easiest to push, she considered. At least until she could learn the new ones.

Dark eyes flashed violently, hinting at a temper she remembered the old man Russell having. Di had always been different, at least with her. Then again years changed, as did people; and she really wouldn't blame Di for getting in touch with her inner rage. After all, the girl really did have a lot to be angry about.

Back then, they both had.

Childhood roads traveled down between eyes brown and blue, till Diane was the first to crack-- breaking the link with a shake of her head. "Abbie's not coming."

"You said that already."

"And now I'm going."

"So soon?" she taunted, though her heart suddenly wasn't in it anymore. She noticed a fine tremor in her hand as she lifted her glass in what she hoped Diane would consider a mocking salute. "We'll have to catch up again sometime soon."

But Diane Russell was already gone.

The silence hadn't completely receded in the Kirkendall household, but it no longer threatened to overwhelm all of them. When merely the idea of having to make dinner seemed too exhausting to contemplate, Jill had taken the boys out to the tiny little Italian bistro that made the best deep-dish Old World pizza any of them had ever had. And when both Kyle and Frank had simultaneously curled their noses in horror at contemplating having anything other than meat, meat, cheese and some more meat on it, Jill had surrendered with no protest, glad to have them agreeing on anything, even if it was only a shared dislike of red peppers.

Sometimes, Jill had learned a long time ago, sometimes the best battle won is the one that isn't fought.

Homework done and baths accomplished, she had agreed to let them play video games for a little while before bed, although she noted that they were taking turns playing solitary games-- Kyle on the Gameboy while Frank was on the Playstation and then the reverse-- rather than sharing the console and attacking some outer space creatures together.

For her part, Jill was curled up on the couch, blankly looking at the same page of the book she thought she had started a month ago, although she couldn't for the life of her remember what the plot was. She briefly considered putting the book down or at least starting it over, deciding instead to just listen to the almost blessedly normal sounds of her sons and her life, and letting her eyes gently blur over the words.

When the quiet knock at their door came, she almost didn't hear it. Only when Kyle hesitantly prompted her, "Do you want me to get the door?" did she hear its faint repeat.

Shaking the lethargy away from her shoulders, she smiled at him. "That's okay, Chief. I'll get it." Ruffling Frank's hair as she walked by.

She saw the surprise that must have covered in her features echoed in the sheepish smile greeting her. "I should have called, I know." Umber eyes were ringed with a tiredness that equaled her own, and there were lines in her lover's face that she would have sworn weren't there six weeks ago; however, standing there in 501s faded with age and ripped at the knee and a simple black T-shirt, Abbie Carmichael was absolutely the most beautiful woman Jill had ever seen in her life. Her heart threatened to kick over its traces at the sight, thundering suddenly so hard she could feel it in fingertips that itched to brush the caramel skin on Abbie's arms. Moments reverberated, turned back in on one another before Jill realized she was just standing there stupidly, trying to breathe in Abbie's essence without touching her. Behind her, the whirring chirp of the Playstation stilled into the beeping rhythm of a game set to pause, and she knew Kyle and Frank were watching.

"No, it's okay. Come in," she managed, voice even hoarser than its usual low register. Sucking in a sudden breath as the palm of Abbie's hand grazed fleetingly across her stomach, belly roiling in pleasure despite the cloth barrier to separated skin from skin, Jill shut the door behind them. "Didn't expect to see you tonight."

"I wanted to see how you and the boys were doing." Aware of being the focus of two other pairs of eyes, one more reticent than the other, Abbie turned to Kyle and Frank and acknowledged their presence with a warm smile. "And I realized that I had forgotten to give these to ya'll the other night." She offered a heretofore unseen bag to Jill. "If it's all right with you," she added.

Jill smiled wryly, noticing how Frank's gaze was now more curious than resentful, she opened it, revealing two neatly folded football jerseys, one the blue and white number 19 of the old Baltimore Colts and the other the dark blue and orange number 40 of the Chicago Bears. She glanced at the other woman, silently prompting her for elaboration.

"This one is Johnny Unitas," she explained, pointing at the Colts jersey. "It's for Frank. The Bears one-- that's Gayle Sayers' number-- is for Kyle."

Jill glanced at the boys, barely able to suppress the urge to laugh at their pleading expressions. "Well, I suppose if they can tell me who Johnny Unitas and Gayle Sayers are, they can have the jerseys."

"We can look them up on the internet," Kyle chirped hesitantly.

Frank looked at his brother scornfully, "I know who Johnny Unitas is."

Abbie smirked at him. "But do you know how many passing records he held when he retired? And which ones still stand?"

"Uh...." He looked at his mother. "Can we look them up on the internet?"

At this, Jill surrendered to the urge, chuckling lightly at their eagerness. "You guys can spend an hour on the computer. But then it's time for bed."

The boys nearly tripped over each other in their rush to Frank's room until their mother's voice brought them both up so short they actually did tumble into one another. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Thank you, Abbie," they chorused, waiting until Jill released them with a nod.

Down the hallway she could hear the tinny sound of the dial-up modem, made a mental note of the time. The boys would stay on the web as long as she would let them; and though she'd had one of the Computer Squad techies come by and put some locking parameters on it that would keep the worst of what the World Wide Web could offer them at bay, she still wasn't crazy about the internet. Shaking off the stories about predators that were never too far from her thoughts when she thought about the computer age, she returned her attention to the woman beside her. "That was a quick dinner."

"Didn't go," Abbie said with a shrug. Seeing the questioning expression in Jill's eyes, she added, "Had someplace better to be."

The simple words warmed Jill far more than any elaborate declaration ever could, and she finally gave into the urge to lightly tangle her fingers with Abbie's. "Then sit and stay a while," she said quietly and led them to the couch.

"How're they doing?" Abbie asked, nodding towards the bedroom.

"Speaking. To me. To each other." She sighed quietly. "It's a start. I know there's a lot I've got to sort out with them, but I just didn't have the heart tonight. Maybe in a few days, when they get their legs back under them."

"They went to school today?"

Jill nodded in confirmation. "Their father has come and gone so many times that I didn't want to attach too much significance to this one. Although with any luck, the bastard's never coming back to hurt them again." She was aware of Abbie's hand squeezing hers in gentle support, selfishly wanted the indulgence of those long arms around her but knew it would have to wait until later. Without thinking, she brought their twined hands to her lips, ghosted a light kiss against her lover's skin and rubbed her cheek against the softness there. "Thank you for coming."

"I'm so tired, but I...." Abbie began then faltered, ducking her head and tugging their hands to her lap. "I really wanted to see you," she said quietly.

"You look dead on your feet."

The attorney snorted softly. "D called it six shades of shit."

Jill nudged Abbie's eyes towards hers with a gentle touch to her chin. "D's wrong," she contradicted. "Just looking at you... sometimes I think my breathing will never get right again."

Eyes flickering towards the hall way and then back again, Abbie leaned forward to capture Jill's lips in a brief, searing kiss. "I needed that," she admitted, a regretful look coloring her features as she pulled away again. "I need..."

"What, baby?"

"Just to be close, mostly." She hesitated, then continued, "There's so much I need to tell you, but... I can't do it all right now. Some of it. Other stuff.... I just don't know where to start. Even if there's a place to start."

Knowing that not even a closed door separated them from the boys but unable not to respond to the pain that laced her lover's words, Jill pulled Abbie into her arms and held on with all the strength she had. "Just tell me everything you want me to know. We'll sort through it all together."

Abbie laughed unsteadily, her voice thick. "Might take awhile."

"Even if you can't say it all tonight. Whenever you need to. I've got the time. We'll take it," Jill replied without hesitation, without letting Abbie go. She could feel light shudders running through the other woman's body, and it reminded her of the first time she had taken Abbie into her arms, when blind instinct whose proper name of desire had yet to be given and all she knew was that she wanted to know more, to know everything about this woman that she could possibly learn. Then, as now, she felt how heavily the weight of things unspoken rested upon Abbie Carmichael's shoulders. With a gentle entreaty, she asked Abbie to let her share some of that burden. "Talk to me."



Pulling Frank's door shut again softly, Jill padded down the darkened hallway and slipped into bed once more. Beside her, Abbie's dark hair fanned across the pale sheets, her skin luminous in the pouring moonlight as her body relaxed in a slumber as deep as her children's. They had talked through the evening into the long hours of the early morning, until dawn was far closer than either one had realized. In silent accord they retired to the bedroom, and Jill wasn't sure what she would have done had Abbie even suggested going home. She'd had a hard enough time letting the other woman out of her arms long enough to slip her jeans off and her T-shirt over her head. Only when Abbie was settled back against her, eyes almost immediately closing in sleep, did Jill allow herself to think about the ramifications what she had learned tonight.

Abbie was leaving New York.


When they had just found each other. And though Jill knew a shuttle arrived from and departed to Washington every hour on the hour, somehow the nation's capital seemed indescribably far away now. She couldn't imagine Abbie there. More accurately, she couldn't imagine Abbie anywhere but here in her arms, in her bed.

"Too much, too quick," she had told Diane earlier in the day. Now that she was confronted with the inescapable reality that things were going to, of necessity, proceed between them at a more measured pace, she hated the idea with a passion.

Sleepy arms reached for her, nuzzling close. "You're cold."

"Checked on the boys," she whispered in reply.

"They okay?"

"Out like lights," she assured her lover, breathing in the deep sleepscented smell of Abbie's skin. "You should be too."

"Not gonna lose you," Abbie murmured into the darkness, their legs twining together, her breasts soft beneath Jill's as she drew even closer.

"You promise?" The question on a breath, trusting that in her sleep Abbie wouldn't hear the hope invested in the two short words.

"Just wait..." Lips found hers with a sudden awareness and hunger absent moments ago in a kiss that shook the exhaustion from Jill's body and awakened another, more primal need. "You haven't seen anything yet..."

The End

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