Standoff by Sharon Bowers

Rating: R
Spoilers
: General season Law & Order, through "Brothers Under Arms" on NYPD Blue
Summary
: Don's in the wind; Jill's running scared; and Abbie is at her wits' end. Something has to give.
Disclaimers
: 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.
Author's Note
: The world in which all this action takes place is the same world where Jed (The West Wing) Bartlett is president.
Previously on Days & Nights
: Old ghosts were stirred for Abbie when rape victim Tara Wheeling refused to press charges against her attacker. She then came out in front of fifty thousand people, and the DA's office didn't take it well at all. When the Narcotics squad snatched Jill's ex-husband, Don, up; Fancy and Abbie scrambled to keep him from blowing the whistle on Jill to secure a walk for himself. Diane came clean with Jill about how Don got into the Witness Protection Program, but still kept the nature of her past with Abbie concealed. Jill made a decision about what she wanted from Abbie.

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

Standoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You think he did it?"

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

"She refuse to press charges?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'd call it an execution."

There really wasn't any other term for it.

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

------------------

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

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

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

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

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

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

wordlessly let them through the growing and curious crowd of onlookers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Little after hours romance?" Munch echoed.

"Only one glass," Alex offered.

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

"Television's the great equalizer."

"Why not take her back to his place?"

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

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

"Somebody in the office?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I did."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We rode the first..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

------------------

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

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

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

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

"Detective Munch sends his regrets."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Something like that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What else did he do?"

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

"She mentioned that."

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

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

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

------------------

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

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

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

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

"Told him to keep it for damages."

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

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

"She threw something at them?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't think so either."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jill looked at her skeptically.

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

------------------

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

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

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

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

"How is she?"

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

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

"You know about that?" she interrupted incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

"You think she would walk away?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"By whom and what for?"

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

"The Justice Department..?"

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

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

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

------------------

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

"That sick?"

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

"Eww..."

"Lovely mental image."

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

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

"Keith said it was retaliation."

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

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

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

"Looks pretty much like it."

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

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

"Any luck finding her?"

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

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

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

"They seen her at all?"

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

"She never told them about the rape?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"'Fraid not, Lieutenant," Alex smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not in this lifetime."

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

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

"Now that was just plain mean."

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

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

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

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

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

"I wish," Jill replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---------------------------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes."

"And Leo McGarry works directly for the President."

"Yes, again."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stop!" Lyman held up a placating hand.

"You asked."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART II

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