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

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

"How'd you know that?"

"Would you believe I had super powers?"

"No."

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

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

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

"You look like one," he insisted.

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

"Like Leo?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Cowboys suck," Frank said scornfully.

"Frank!" Jill barked.

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

"You know football?" Frank asked dubiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Diane..."

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

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

"Screw Don."

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

"WITSEC..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank shoved his brother. "Did not."

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

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

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

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

"No," both boys chorused immediately.

"What did I say?" came the question.

"Bring you the ice cream!" they shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"All we saw was the Cherry Garcia."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No..." "C'mon, D..." came the instant protests from both women.

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

"Stay awhile..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I have a better idea."

"Yeah?"

"Let's go sit down."

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

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

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

"You said you had three of them?"

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

"So you were the handful in your family?"

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

"And the girls?"

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

"I have trouble seeing you doing that."

"I didn't," she admitted.

"Then what....?"

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

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

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

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

"Neither do you."

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

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

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

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

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

"Why?"

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

"You didn't create them."

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

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

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

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

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

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

her eyes, her skin.

"Abbie.."

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

Jill's head dropped. "After."

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

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

"Queer."

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

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

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

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

"How?"

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

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

"Then why didn't you stop it?"

"I did."

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

"That's not a fair question."

"Isn't it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The boys..."

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

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

"Wanna see my Sig?"

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

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

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

"Dirty Harry was from L.A."

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

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

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

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

"Both...."

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

Abbie drifted back to consciousness aware of a number of things. Foremost was the awkward angle of her neck, how it had fallen backwards onto the arm of the couch. The second was the bright glare of the lamp shining directly in her eyes because of her position. The third-- and most disturbing-- was a sudden awareness of a curious gaze fixed upon her.

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

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

"Your mom's sleeping."

"Yeah."

"She was pretty tired."

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

"You do?"

He nodded once.

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

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

"Why's that?"

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

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

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

"Does he come to your school too?"

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

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

"Is Frank?"

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

Not wanting even more to think about if he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"True."

"What did Jill say?"

"I didn't tell her."

Diane arched wordless brows in response.

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

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

"I..." she faltered.

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

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

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

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

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

"You think she's dirty."

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

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

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

"Then help me." Came the stark plea.

"What did you have in mind?"

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

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

"Somebody you trust?"

"Even better. Somebody you trust."

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

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

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

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

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

"Not exactly."

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

"I need a favor," Diane interrupted. "AbbieCneeds a favor," she amended.

"Then why isn't Abbie asking me?"

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

"I live for details."

"Not this time."

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

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

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

"MunchY" The urgency in her tone curbed his tongue.

"What do you need me to do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lt. Fancy agreed with the assessment."

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

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

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

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

"We owe her?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART III

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