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A Mere Point of Light

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When Alex hears the knock at her door, she parts the Venetian blinds in her second-floor bedroom and peers carefully around the edge of the window, straining to see the sidewalk.

She moves noiselessly down the stairs. Her house is well designed for a woman looking over her shoulder; there are no views of the stairwell from the front door, and she doesn’t want to alert this person to her presence, even though she’s pretty sure it’s just one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses she’s seen around the neighborhood lately. Noises at the door always fill her with a strange combination of apprehension and hope, although her adrenaline rush always embarrasses her a little. Velez’s guys would hardly knock on her door on a bright Saturday afternoon. They’ll come at night, surely, and if she’s lucky, she’ll just go to sleep one evening and never wake up. She doubts, though, that things will be so benign in the event.

Alex pads silently to the front door, checks the peephole. It’s Hanson, standing on her stoop in his dark suit and his sunglasses. What the hell is he doing here? And he’s holding his badge up.

Maybe. Oh God. Why else would he be here, in broad daylight, at her house, with his badge, his identification as a federal agent, for everyone to see?

Alex opens the door, and the sun blinds her for a moment before Hanson’s face resolves itself, all weather-beaten skin and craggy eyebrows.

“What are—” she asks but he says, “Miss Cabot,” and the air rushes into her lungs like she's a drowning woman pulled from the sea, and the knot in Alex’s stomach uncoils for the first time in two and a half years.

*

Alex jolts awake and looks out the window. She was hoping to get a seat on the left side of the plane, where she would be able to see Manhattan out the window, the concrete and steel and glass rising improbably from its sliver of land floating in the water. She was hoping to come in over the bridges, knitting the islands together, to the rest of the country, to all the other places in all the other states that Alex has studiously avoided calling home.

Instead, she’s sitting on the right, but at least it’s a window seat, and they’re flying low on the eastern approach to LaGuardia, and she can see Connecticut, Stamford and Greenwich, and they’re not far from landing now, maybe seven minutes, she figures. She’s always liked flying. She likes, especially, watching the scale change during takeoffs and landings, likes watching individual people disappear into cars and then roads and then buildings and then cities, likes to watch them reappear, human beings popping up again out of the net of their own creations, cast over the surface of the wide earth.

The plane shudders again, and the intercom pings as the light flashes, telling Alex to fasten her seatbelt. She sips water from the laughably small airline bottle, swallows against the mild nausea in her throat, thinks about relaxing the muscles of her stomach. And they’re very low now; she can see whitecaps on the water, and the shimmering, gossamer pattern of light playing off the profound blue of the sound. And this, just out her window, at near-eye level, this is the prison.

This is Rikers Island, and this is a much better seat than the one that could have showed her Manhattan, and how fortunate to be on this particular approach. Alex thinks about the people she could see in the jail if there were any windows, thinks about Elliot and Olivia, who could be inside in an interrogation room right now, trying to get a petty criminal to flip on a rapist, thinks about going back to New York, about destroying defense cases on cross, about fresh bagels and cups of unfathomably good deli coffee, about trying not to roll her eyes at Branch, about being able to walk down a street without checking in store windows for someone following her. When the plane touches down, she’s still grinning.

*

Hammond meets her at the gate, and he actually smiles, although it looks more like a scowl. “Miss Cabot,” he says gruffly. “Welcome back.”

She nods. “Thanks,” she says, and looks around. The Delta terminal at LaGuardia is every bit as dingy as she remembers, and none of the hundreds of people milling around in the gates looks at her twice, and her plane ticket said “CABOT ALEXAND,” and she thinks she might burst.

*

They sit in silence in the back seat of the Lincoln as the driver takes them through Queens. Alex stares at the skyline in front of her, its long uneven profile, and at the ugly industrial installations and the bridges in the distance. The sky is a hard-edged blue, and buildings, trees, telephone poles jut against it like they’ve been etched into glass. Seagulls wheel overhead, and pigeons roost in the highway bridges, and it’s grimy and gorgeously unattractive and altogether familiar.

And strange, too, she thinks. The last time Alex was here, she traveled on roads under cover of night, and she had tried to hide it but her fear was almost paralyzing, knowing she was coming back to a place that had once been hers but was now theirs. Knowing that she could die at any second and might not even know it was happening, and the features of things had seemed elongated like one of Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmares, distorted by her panic. Alex has lived with fear, learned fear, the way it colors things in her sight, the way it sticks to the roof of her mouth. The way it hangs on life, turns it all together like a piece of tape stuck to itself, connecting everything to everything else in one paranoid fantasy that she worried, sometimes, might actually be a yearning to get her death over with. Now, seeing things as they are again, it feels like she’s been asleep for years, like she’s waking from a dream of horrors to find things entirely ordinary, entirely mundane: cigarettes strewn along the shoulder of the road, the faint whiff of heating oil and garbage, the roar of jet engines overhead, the dull blue of the sky. It’s disconcerting.

Hammond clears his throat, and Alex pulls her eyes from the window with difficulty.

“Have you thought about where you’re living yet?” he asks, and Alex realizes she has no place to drive to, really. They’ve got her a place for a month or so, Hammond explains, in Midtown. If she wants it.

“Did you unfreeze my checking account?” she asks, and Hammond nods.

“The Carlyle, then.” Jesus, it’s good not to have to worry about money anymore. She feels different, almost like herself again, telling him she’ll live in the Carlyle while she sorts things out, instead of whatever frightfully dingy place the government can get in New York City for $150 a night. It’s not really that, though: she’s stayed in some pretty seedy places over the last few years. She’s just sick of being looked after, and she wants the freedom of spending outrageous amounts of her own money on a place where she wants to live for a while. It’s powerful, almost, and the feeling is so unfamiliar and so exhilarating that she sighs. She feels unbelievably light, like she could float away under the dome of the still, clear sky.

*

On Monday morning, she takes a cab from East 76th to the U.S. Marshals office on Pearl Street so she can sign the papers that restore her Social Security number, her trusts, her credit, the storage spaces that hold the few things that still belong to her.

“Miss Cabot?” Hammond says, and she jumps in her seat.

He smiles, a genuine one, and his face looks like it might crack. “I don’t have to tell you, Miss Cabot, that I don’t often get to see happy endings in my line of work.” She waits, and he says, “I’m glad you’re back.”

She smiles back and thanks him for keeping her, if not alive, at least safely in limbo.

*

Alex walks the two blocks to her appointment with Branch at One Hogan Place, her coat pulled tight against the wind. The city smells the same as ever: urine and the scouring freshness of wind, whiffs of Chanel No. 5 from women she passes, the cinnamon and sugar of roasted nuts. Hot dogs, from the kosher stand that’s in the same place as it always has been, off to the left of the main entrance, and when she walks inside, her cheeks sting from the sudden warmth.

“Alex,” Branch’s secretary says, in the outer office, where a nervous-looking woman and three men in cheap navy suits are sitting in a variety of uncomfortable chairs. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Thanks, Dot,” she says quietly. It’s strange and wonderful to be treated again like she’s someone people know, someone people might respect.

“He’s expecting you,” she says. “You can go on in.” Alex feels a little guilty about going in before these people, who are clearly waiting for an appointment, but Dot’s tone brooks no argument.

“Alexandra,” Branch drawls, as Alex closes the door behind her. “How have you been?”

Are you kidding me? Alex wants to say, but she just smiles and says, “I’ve been fine.” She bites off the urge to say “sir;” she’s never been much for that kind of thing, and anyway she doesn’t even work here anymore.

Branch sits behind his desk, tents his fingers, and fixes her with his beady eyes. “I have a job to offer you,” he says.

Alex wasn’t really expecting things to be this easy. “Oh?”

“We have a bureau chief position opening next month when Wilson goes to the U.S. Attorneys,” Branch says. “Supervising younger lawyers; you remember. I want you in that job.”

Damn. She hasn’t practiced law in years, and now this. Alex thinks for a moment about whether this is a good idea.

If she hadn’t been forced to take a few years off, would she still be working at her old job as SVU’s ADA anyway? She isn’t sure, but she’s spent almost three years in a wide variety of thankless, anonymous jobs, ones where they didn’t know about Alex’s real name or her real family or her real education or her real intelligence. She’s ready to get back in the game. Alex isn’t sure whether she entirely deserves this job, but she sure as hell wants it.

“Great,” she says, and smiles. “I’ll be ready.”

Branch blinks at her, but that’s his only indication of surprise. “Good…good,” he says, distractedly. “In the meantime, I have an assignment for you.” He pushes the intercom button on his phone. “Dot, would you send in the gentlemen?”

The cheap-suit guys file in, and their faces are so forgettable that they must work for something that prefers to remain anonymous. She’s learned to be a little nervous around these types.

“Alexandra,” Branch says, “these are Detective Halloran, from IAB, and Agents Bridges and Kovac, FBI.”

She nods at them, trying not to let her confusion show. “If you don’t mind hitting the ground running, IAB would like to borrow you for a little while,” Branch continues. Alex has no great love for IAB, an instinctive aversion honed to an active dislike by years of sleeping next to one of its frequent targets. “IAB is running a joint investigation with the federal government into your old unit, Alexandra. They’d like your help.”

Alex feels the familiar knot return to her stomach. Her old unit. Okay, SVU isn’t big, but it’s big enough, Cabot. This might not have anything to do with her: calm down.

The agent introduced as Bridges steps forward. Really, if she never sees a federal agent again, it’ll be too soon. “Several months ago,” he says, “we had something of a…problem. In the course of a kidnapping investigation, information came forward about weapons-grade anthrax taken from a laboratory in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina struck the city.”

Ah, that sounds familiar. “Yes,” Alex says, “I read about that.”

Bridges’ face darkens. “Yes, well, that’s the problem. That was classified information, and it was leaked to the press.”

Halloran sighs. “The reporter refused to reveal his source. He’s at Brooklyn Detention Center now, and we can’t get a damn thing out of him. But we’re almost certain the leak came from within SVU. Our interrogations haven’t turned up anything, even though we’ve bugged our two main suspects. You have old contacts with the unit, and we’d like you to investigate.”

Alex tries not to let her eyes widen. Suspects. Bugging. Oh, Christ. She remembers reading the article, after it had been picked up on the AP wire and reprinted in every crappy regional paper in the country. She’d thought, right away, that someone had leaked the story, and she’d examined it for details and potential suspects, thinking that the leak must have come from someone more concerned with public health—with children’s safety—than the law. But the AP hadn’t reported that this was an SVU case. And now that she knows that it was, she knows who it is. Who it has to be, the woman Alex had loved and been so afraid to tell her about it that she’d lost her, eventually, for what she’d thought had been for good.

She swallows, her old fear settling with easy familiarity back in her chest. “Your two main suspects. And those are?”

Halloran pulls a file out of his briefcase. “The primaries on the original case. A Detective Olivia Benson and her partner, Elliot Stabler.” Of course they’re the main suspects, and Jesus, Liv, what have you gotten yourself into this time? “You had a working relationship with them, no?”

Alex nods, mutely. Yeah, strictly professional, Detective Halloran, and she thinks about Olivia naked under her, about the lines of her arching back, Olivia’s hands on her breasts, Olivia’s mouth on her own, Olivia’s rare, shy smile, Olivia’s eyes fired with desire.

“We’d like you,” says Kovac, speaking for the first time, “to use those contacts to see what other information you can draw out of them. We’ve bugged their watches, but neither of them has said anything incriminating. We don’t have the manpower to tail them, and at this point it probably wouldn’t be effective anyway. You’re uniquely suited to gain their confidence, Ms. Cabot.”

Alex closes her eyes. Never mind how they got to their watches; she’s seen Olivia leave hers on her desk often enough; it wouldn’t be hard, really. But she’s supposed to use the fact that they missed her and cared about her to try to trap them. Her. Because it was her, it was obviously her. Elliot, with his wife and his kids, was always more cautious, more levelheaded. Olivia had nothing to lose and everything to prove. Alex’s head is spinning.

Investigate Olivia. Find whatever it is the rat squad needs to send her to federal prison. No, no no no no no no no no no. Alex, look at me, sweetie, stay with me, stay with me, you’re gonna be all right, it’s gonna be okay, Alex, Alex, look at me, look at me and everything was dark and her shoulder didn’t hurt but everything was so wet and it was so hard to breathe and “No,” she says—it’s a real effort to keep her voice steady—“no, I don’t think, I can’t do this.”

She looks at Branch to rescue her. “Look,” she says, “I mean, I used to work with them, I don’t know if I’m the best person for this job.”

Branch seems to think her argument as weak as she does. “IAB here seems to think that’s what makes you a good candidate for the job,” he drawls. “And I would appreciate it.”

In other words, she doesn’t have a choice if she ever wants to work here again.

Alex swallows the bile rising in her throat. “Okay,” she croaks. “Yeah. I’ll help.”

Halloran cracks a thin-lipped smile. “Excellent.”

*

Alex drops gracelessly into her hard-backed chair in a basement office at One Hogan Place. Branch had apologized for the temporary office, which has one grimy window just above sidewalk level, so that every time someone walks past, the light flickers. The walls are cinder block and the paint is peeling, but she’s glad to be out of the way. To be someplace where she can hide.

She stares at the files on her otherwise empty desk. Benson, O. Stabler, E. Zane, J.: the reporter unlucky enough to fall under Olivia’s spell this time. Did you sleep with him, Olivia? Is that how you got him to do your dirty work?

She forces herself to stop thinking that way. Maybe he was just conscientious and young enough and naïve enough to think he could make a difference. Alex wonders whether he regrets it, in prison.

These choices, though, they aren’t as simple as they seem. She wonders whether she regrets her own decision, and she knows, if she tells the hard truth to herself, that it wasn’t her passion for justice that forced her into Witness Protection, even though everyone else seems to think so. It was her temper, her arrogance, the way she thought she was so special that the rules didn’t apply to her, that she could play with fire and not get burned. Two and a half years gone and the best relationship she’s ever had, and her mother, and Velez is dead and won’t be poisoning any more children or killing any more cops, but someone else will take his place. Maybe she didn’t accomplish anything really, except destruction and the unbearable pain she caused the people who cared about her, but even so it’s hard to regret things, now that she’s back. She’d seen, though, what it did to Olivia, and her mother died thinking she had outlived her daughter, and if Alex regrets anything, it’s that.

She sighs and opens his file: no use in dwelling on what might or might not have been her truth. Undergrad at Northwestern, journalism degree at Medill only two years ago, worked with the law clinic on its death-penalty program: yeah, too young, too idealistic. She’d bet he doesn’t regret it at all. She can go talk to him, but she’s unlikely to get anything out of it.

Seems like a model prisoner, so far. Two days at Rikers during flooding in a wing of Brooklyn DC; since then, one cellmate, Garrison Nash, tax fraud. No problems, no issues, gets along fine with everyone. High profile, of course. She pinches the bridge of her nose.

Stabler, E. Alex glances through this one only cursorily, because she knows what she’ll find: citations for excellent service, a couple of reprimands, his wife and—whoa. Elliot’s divorced.

She looks up and stares at the peeling paint. So things have changed, maybe, for him, and it makes her sad because she and Elliot were never very close, but she remembers the way his eyes used to light up when he’d talk about Kathy, about his kids, and that’s a damn shame. It’s possible, maybe, that Elliot has unwound a little, become more daring, more likely to do something like leak classified information to the press. But she thinks about it, and she can’t really imagine him doing it, cloak-and-dagger style. Elliot backs his partner’s play, but he’s the more grounded of the two, the more willing to accept the limitations of his humanity, the more able to understand that some broken things can’t be pieced back together. She respected him for that, but Olivia was the one she loved, and her file is the only one left.

Benson, O. Every morning, for the past two and a half years, no matter who she was or where she was living, Alex has stopped into the small-town Starbucks of half a dozen anonymous cities and bought a copy of the New York Times. She trolled the Metro section like a woman with a secret addiction, and once in a while she was rewarded with a mention of Special Victims, even more rarely with a detective’s name: Elliot twice, Munch once, Olivia three times, Cragen five. But never a picture, never even a slip of an image, and in every photograph of cops in the Times she’s studied the profiles of background figures, studied the hands wrapped around service weapons or holding warrants in the foregrounds, and she’s never seen Olivia. There are no pictures in WITSEC, and so this file photo of Olivia, from years ago when she moved to the unit, this is the first time she’s looked at her in a year.

Alex can’t help smiling a little, but it’s short-lived, because as she reads further in the file she starts to see why the Feds were getting suspicious. Olivia was the primary on the case, and now she’s also the primary suspect. Notes on the margins of her file: Gets too close to cases.

Yeah, that’s Olivia, all right.

Alex sighs. Thank God for small favors: they didn’t think or manage to bug her until ten days after the reporter was arrested, and hopefully there’s nothing incriminating in the several hundred pages of transcribed conversations in the box next to her desk. She’s pretty sure she won’t even bother with Elliot’s.

*

Two days later, Alex hasn’t found anything at all suspicious. Just records of daily life in the bullpen: Cragen being annoyed, Olivia getting too close in ways that alarm Alex a little. Elliot seems a little angrier, a little more closed, than she remembers him, and from what she can tell he and Olivia seem to act a little strained around one another. Munch is quieter than he used to be, or at least he doesn’t talk around Olivia as much as he used to, and Fin doesn’t seem to be any different at all. There are new patrol officers in the one-six, and Alex reads Olivia talking to Elliot about their cases, reads Olivia talking to herself about their cases. That she remembers: Olivia pacing the living room of her apartment, late into the night sometimes, mumbling, until Alex got up and talked her into bed.

Olivia’s life is quiet after she leaves work. Alex wonders if she’s lonely, if Olivia has been as lonely as she has, these past few years. There are a few records of conversations in restaurants with people called “UNID. MALE,” and Alex’s stomach tightens as she reads through these, relaxes when she arrives at the end and it’s always, “BENSON: Thank you for dinner. Good night.”

Back to men, are we now, Olivia?

With her elbows propped on the table and her head in her hands, Alex tries to figure out what’s going on.

Olivia did it. That much, she’s sure of. The Feds think so, IAB thinks so, and Alex, well, Alex knows so. This has Olivia written all over it: her contempt for rules, her tendency to let her compassion outrun her thinking, to let justice get ahead of the law. Her special bond with child victims, the way she gets other people to do her bidding. Alex smiles a little at that; it’s not that Olivia manipulates people, exactly, but somehow it all turns out the same anyway.

So Olivia leaked classified information to the press. Everyone knows that, but no one has any proof. Either the reporter talks, or Olivia does: that’s the only way they’ll find out, and Alex assumes that they wouldn’t have asked her to get Olivia if they’d thought there was any chance at all with Jackson Zane.

She has to talk to Olivia without talking to her, has to get her to trust her enough to talk about the case without trusting her enough to actually say anything. She needs to get Olivia to talk about their old relationship, in order to gain IAB’s trust, without getting Olivia to say anything real about their old relationship. She needs to convince IAB and the Feds that she can run an impartial investigation without actually investigating anything. She needs to look for evidence without finding any. Most of all, above all, she needs to make sure Olivia doesn’t actually trust her, because if Olivia does trust her and then finds out how she’s been betrayed, she’ll never speak to her again. This is the only thing Alex knows for sure anymore.

Fuck.

*

She thinks about just walking into the one-six, and while it has a certain appeal, the prodigal daughter returning, she doesn’t want anyone to be startled into revealing more than they should. She frowns at the phone on her desk, because it’s certainly tapped, and then she figures that IAB knows that she’d know that, so she should go ahead and use it anyway, to reassure them that she doesn’t mind having them all over her ass.

She picks up and dials the number she’s let her fingers trace over phone pads across the country, wistfully, only this time she actually pushes the numbers, a little savagely, and when she hears the rings she imagines Olivia’s ugly phone in that depressing squad room, thinks about the transcript she’ll read tomorrow (BENSON: Benson. CABOT: Hi, Olivia, it’s Alex, I’m back in town, they tied up the loose ends in my case. Do you have lunch plans?), and she blames Velez for this. It’s not enough that he’d try to kill her, force her to live as a dead woman for two and a half years, but now to come back to life she has to betray the only person she’s ever really loved. Alex wishes she didn’t already know that life is unfair, because then she’d have an excuse to scream and break things. As it is, if she hadn’t learned that already from years in the district attorney’s office she sure as hell knows it now, and for right now she just has to concentrate on keeping her voice under control for the Feds.

There’s a click, and then the sound of promise, the sound of an open line. “Benson,” Olivia says crisply, and at the sound of her voice Alex almost forgets how to speak.

*

They eat near the precinct because it’s further away from Federal Plaza. Alex is pretty sure they’ll have a tail on her, at least at first, and hell if it’s her job to make their lives easier, so she takes the train uptown. She keeps an eye on the guy in the cheap blue suit who’s four people behind her in the line through the turnstile, and she smirks when he gets stuck in it.

Alex walks in the front door of Leanne’s and into the warm chaos she remembers, pies perched precariously on racks near the front doors and suits on lunch hour shoveling Greek salad into their faces, ties thrown over their shoulders. She smiles and looks down the left row to see Olivia, sitting at the table they always ate at when they came here and grinning like a fool.

She makes her way gingerly over the greasy floor, and Olivia stands to meet her and her grin becomes a smile, becomes tentative, careful. “Alex,” she says, “Alex,” like a prayer, and Alex needs to tell her somehow to be careful but all she can manage is “Liv, Liv” and she forces herself to turn her head so that her lips move the name against Olivia’s coat instead of Olivia’s neck and Olivia is hugging her so tightly she thinks her ribs might crack. And all of this, this looks professional, this looks like two women with a close working relationship who haven’t seen each other in years. She hopes.

*

They’re halfway through sharing a gigantic salad and a platter of spanakopita—she and Olivia used to argue, good-naturedly, over whether they’d get that or the tyropita, which Olivia has always been partial to—when Olivia frowns and leans forward, over the table. “Alex,” she whispers, “there’s a guy watching us.”

Fuck, Olivia. Fuck. Alex turns slightly and sees him right away, from the train, reading the Times in a not-very-inconspicuous way. And this isn’t funny, but it is a little bit, because if these people are this incompetent they don’t really deserve to find the answers they want and they certainly don’t deserve to get Olivia.

“I don’t see anyone,” she says. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”

“Look,” Olivia says, low-voiced in a way that sounds more like a growl, “just do me a favor and move in closer to the wall, all right? Are you sure the Feds got all of Velez’s people? Because I swear to God, Alex, if he reaches for anything that even looks like it might be a gun, I’m gonna kill him. I’m done.”

Alex looks at her carefully, and Olivia means it. The first thing Alex thinks is: please don’t let her shoot an agent in the middle of the diner. The second thing she thinks is: this is a good excuse to get them to stop tailing me, because it puts Olivia on edge. The third thing she thinks is: I’m helping that guy and his bosses try to put this woman in prison, and the first thing she thought about when she saw him was that I might be in danger and that she needed to protect me.

And that’s when Alex decides that there is no way in hell she’s going to help them find out anything about Olivia. No way in hell. And now she has to get Olivia to tell her just enough so that she can go find whatever evidence there is before the Feds do.

Okay. Olivia’s watch is bugged. She stares at it, trying to figure out how she can tell Olivia without saying anything and without pointing at anything that might tip off G-Man over there.

She puts her fork down. “You know,” she says, “I’m not really hungry anymore. Can we go to the station? I’d like to say hello.”

Olivia gives her a worried look. “You should really try to eat a little more,” she says, and she sounds concerned. “You’ve lost weight, I think. I mean. Are you sure you’re done?"

Alex smiles because Olivia can’t help herself with the worrying, and she says, “Yeah, I’m sure,” and Olivia leaves a twenty on the table and G-Man seems content to watch them from the window as they walk back toward the precinct. Alex can feel his eyes boring holes in her back all the way up the street.

*

The squad room goes quiet when they walk in. In the moment of silence before it all erupts, Alex has enough time to be profoundly grateful that none of her nightmares have come true. She used to lie awake nights thinking about what her return would be like, and sometimes thoughts of Cragen gone, of Munch retired, of Elliot transferred out or Fin shot or, God forbid, Olivia’s desk empty, kept her up into the small hours, grinding her face into her pillow because she was so homesick it felt wrong to breathe the very air. And this is still the same, the same, and it’s regrettably busy and still full of the same people and there is nothing written on their faces but something that looks simply like delight, and with Olivia’s hand at her elbow Alex wants to cry with the joy of being alive.

*

Ten minutes later the iced tea she drank at the diner hits her, and she looks at Cragen apologetically and says, “Look, I, uh, have to run for a second,” and jerks her head in the direction of the bathroom upstairs. He smiles, the lines of his kind face creasing around his eyes, and that’s when it hits her. She leans forward, snatches a Post-It note off the top of the stack he keeps on his desk, and takes a pen.

She tucks them into her breast pocket and waits until she’s in the stall to write, “Rats bugged watch. Zane. Burn this.”

She hears the door open, and Olivia calls, “Alex? Are you all right?” If anyone finds out about this, they’ll both do twenty years in federal prison, but other than that, yeah, Alex has been worse. She grins and emerges; Olivia is just bending over to check under the doors. “Are you afraid I have an eating disorder, Detective?” she asks as jauntily as she can, and she hands Olivia the note and then turns on the faucet to wash her hands so the noise will cover any gasp Olivia might make.

She watches in the mirror as Olivia’s mouth opens and shuts. She lathers her hands and Olivia turns to her, raises an eyebrow. Alex isn’t quite sure what she’s asking; could be anything from “Are you sure?” to “Are you in on this?” so she just nods. It seems like the truest answer to whatever question Olivia’s asking.

Olivia spins on her heel and stalks out of the bathroom. Alex closes her eyes. She doesn’t know how to read Olivia anymore, and one misstep could see her spending the entirety of her middle age under the supervision of one branch or another of the federal government, and really, this is getting ridiculous.

Back in the bullpen Olivia is looking around like she’s expecting to see ghosts in the corners of the room. Oh, fuck, Olivia, Alex thinks. Pull yourself together or this is going to be an absolute disaster.

The main thing, of course, is to act normal for Olivia’s watch. Alex strolls over, leans on Olivia’s desk the way she’s dreamed of doing for years now, every ordinary gesture become a gift, and asks Elliot how things are going.

As he leans back in his chair, hands behind his head, and favors her with a rare, genuine smile, Olivia shoots her a glare. “Elliot and I need to go interview a witness,” she says, her voice tight. “At Rikers.”

Elliot stares at her. “It can wait a few minutes, Liv,” he says. “Alex and I are just catching up.”

“No,” she says. “It really can’t wait. I’ll meet you in the sedan.”

Alex looks across to see Munch raise his eyebrows at Fin, who shrugs. Elliot frowns after his partner, then wipes his mouth in annoyance, picks up his coat. “I guess I’ll see you later then,” he says, and his eyes are kind as he leans forward and grabs her upper arm in a gesture Alex recognizes as something like a hug.

She sighs.

*

“And how are you dealing with the city? A lot of former witnesses have trouble with tall buildings, you know.”

Alex stares at the ceiling, feeling entirely ridiculous on this couch. She doesn’t need counseling. She’s not having trouble adjusting to her old identity; she’s having trouble adjusting to the feeling of betrayal. Every time she thinks about this she’s terrified that she won’t be able to make it work, that they’ll both end up in prison anyway and Olivia will never find out that Alex was actually trying to help her.

“Fine,” she says. “I’m doing fine with the buildings. I like tall buildings. I missed them.”

The therapist nods. Dr. Harper has short, severe red hair and savagely green eyes, but she’s friendly enough. Alex didn’t mind her, really, for the first half hour, but this is increasingly starting to feel like a waste of her time, and if Hammond hadn’t told her it was absolutely mandatory, she’d already be out the door.

“Have you talked with any of your old colleagues yet?” she asks, moving on, it seems, from the tall buildings. The patterns of her questions make no sense to Alex.

“Uh…yeah,” Alex says. “I, um, saw my boss, the district attorney, and I’ve seen my old squad. Earlier today. I had lunch, uh, with one of my old detectives.”

“And how was it?”

Alex’s right elbow itches. She rubs it, absently. How was it? It was weird, distant. She had been hoping, somewhere deep down, for a surprise reunion, maybe, walking into the squad room with a pair of sunglasses and taking them off dramatically in the middle of the place, waiting for tears to well up in Olivia’s eyes, for Olivia to throw her arms around her and declare her love for her in the middle of the bullpen. She feels a little stupid about it, but it was hard to amuse herself sometimes in her blank-walled government-furnished bedrooms, so why not.

“It was…okay,” she says.

“You and this detective, you were close?” asks Harper, and something at the end of her tone trembles for half a beat, and Alex closes her eyes. This isn’t therapy. This is an interrogation. Fucking Hammond told her to go to this doctor, and he owes the FBI a big favor on Velez, and Jesus Christ, Alex can’t tell where she is anymore.

She sighs, because it would have been nice to be able to tell a real therapist about Olivia, about how Alex has dreamed of her and used to love her and still does but how she’s not really sure things could work between them anymore because neither of them are the people they used to be, and anyway it’s not like that was an entirely functional relationship to begin with, and all this following her around is making her crazy.

“We had a good working relationship,” Alex says. Dangerous territory. She needs to think that you think she’s an actual therapist, so force her to act like one. Steer the conversation around to your childhood. “We, uh, our mothers, I guess, were both a little distant, so we kind of bonded over that.”

Her mother wasn’t distant. Alex’s mother was good and kind and beautiful and strong and she didn’t deserve to think she’d outlived her, and Alex hates herself for this.

Dr. Harper leans back in her chair with a small sigh. “Let’s talk about your mother, Alex.”

*

Alex orders angelhair pomodoro from room service and changes into an old pair of yoga pants. The pasta is decent, when it comes, and she takes it over to her south-facing window and stares out over the city. It’s winter and night falls early, and she watches the lit windows and the trails of taillights and the blinking warnings on airplane wings and thinks about Olivia.

Winter nights with Olivia were nice. They felt like home, and often Olivia would open up a little, as though in the wastes of January and February she allowed herself, sometimes, to look for shelter in another human being. On her days off she usually cooked, eggplant parmesan or pad Thai or thick, steaming soups she usually froze after dinner for the nights when she came home at two. Those nights didn’t happen as often in the winter, when victims and perps alike avoided the streets and the parks when they could. Simply being inside, together, was a refuge, and they watched the wind whip by the windows, scraps of trash swirling in the eddies of air between buildings, and shivered into each other. The early sunsets gave them an excuse to go to bed early, Alex’s mind racing with summations and briefs and questions until Olivia’s fingers, Olivia’s lips on her body emptied her mind of everything but need and of the love she never mentioned.

She picks at the last few short strands of pasta, tries to curl them around her fork, and gives up when she can’t get them to do anything but flip around and splash olive oil on her shirt. Why was Olivia acting so strangely? Alex supposes that after a few years, maybe she’d just assumed that Alex would be more interested in getting her career back on track than protecting her from the Feds. It was a smart thing to assume. Prudent. And yet Alex can’t help but feel a little hurt, maybe more so because she’s not sure Olivia was entirely wrong to think of her that way.

Anyway, Olivia should have known better than to act that strangely. She knew she was being bugged: Alex was very clear on that point. Instead she nearly dragged Elliot out to go to Rikers, of all places, and didn’t she understand—

Rikers. Rikers. The Feds have all of Zane’s conversations with visitors from federal prison. But Alex hasn’t seen anything from the two days he spent at Rikers before going back to Brooklyn DC. And if she knows Olivia, with her guilt and her need to make things right, she’d have visited him there.

Rikers. First thing in the morning. And she has to get there without the Feds knowing about it first.

*

In the morning Alex takes a cab to Queens Plaza and takes the Q101 express to Rikers. Alex has never been to the island before in a non-official capacity, and even though she’s technically authorized by the federal government, she feels like an interloper, like a criminal herself.

Taking the bus out to the prison doesn’t help that feeling. The bus is crowded and smells stale; it’s filled with sad-faced old men and young women with eyes too dull for their age, going to see sons and boyfriends and sisters. Alex feels out of place in her suit and her briefcase; it’s awkward, trying to blend into this crowd outside the prison, trying to seem professional enough inside the prison to pass for what she is.

She sighs. The water lapping at the bridge, as the bus trundles over the causeway, is gray and dirty, like dishwater, and the sun is a dull, angry disk hanging in the haze.

*

She flashes her badge at the desk in the main building and is rewarded with an attorney’s badge, one that lets her stride down to the records department and ask to speak to the shift manager, who seems too young for his job.

He licks his lips nervously. “I’m here,” she announces, “because I need to see telephone conversations between a prisoner who was here from November 11th to November 13th and any visitors he might have had.”

He stares at her. “You mean the tapes?”

“Yes.”

“Because we don’t keep the tapes. We retape them every three weeks or so.”

Good. “Are there transcriptions?”

His face brightens. “Yeah. Yeah, we have voice-recognition software that does that now, automatically, so we can keep a record for court in case something happens.” In case someone orders a murder or is found dead in a cell. “Before that it was too expensive to have people transcribe them by hand, so we’d just get rid of them when we used the tape again.”

She gives him her best professional smile. “Great. Are these transcripts arranged by name?”

He shakes his head. “Just the conversation. We record at random, just to monitor. It’s more of a deterrent. We figure, you know, they know we might be listening, so it tends to help us avoid problems.”

Alex allows herself the ghost of a frown as the click of her heels echoes off the tiled walls. “So I might not be able to find this particular inmate’s conversations.”

He shakes his head. “No, probably not. But on the other hand, you might.”

Which is fine: if she can’t find the records, neither can anyone else. While he’s unlocking the door, he suddenly turns to her and says, “Why are you looking for this conversation anyway?”

She tightens her face the way she’s seen dozens of federal agents do it over the years and says, tautly, “National security.”

That seems to work. Thank God for the Patriot Act, Alex tells herself, for what she’s pretty sure is the first time. He lets her in and tells her to make sure the door locks behind her, and suddenly Alex is alone in a small gray room. Its defining feature is paper. There are sheaves of it everywhere: sticking out of filing cabinets, stacked in boxes under desks, piled on the tops of tables.

It takes Alex ten minutes to find the four boxes holding conversations from November 2004. She thinks she’s looking for November 11th, probably, so she leaves the first box aside and starts pawing through conversations from the second box.

He wasn’t kidding: they’re not in any order at all. She sighs.

*

Three hours later, Alex has skimmed several hundred transcripts, nearly all of which begin with things like “Your case is coming along well” and “Say hi to Daddy, sweetheart!” She’d feel bad for some of these people, but she presses her lips together and fights down her pity. She’s a prosecutor; it’s not her job to feel bad for criminals.

“Hi, baby. I visited your mom yesterday—”

Toss.

“Hey, bro. You get the package I sent?”

Toss.

“You shouldn’t have come. They’ll be checking my visitors.”

This looks interesting. Alex pauses and skims down the page. The other person says, “I used my undercover alias, Rachel Martin.”

Fuck, Olivia. Everyone knows that’s your damn undercover alias, Alex thinks; she’s used it herself in court documents in at least a half dozen cases. So this must be the record she needs.

“Still risky.” That’s got to be Jackson Zane, the reporter. So he’s looking out for Olivia: she’s grateful, because it appears that Olivia can’t look out for herself very well these days.

“I had to see you. I want you to talk. I want you to tell them it was me.” No, Olivia, you don’t want that at all, really, because then they’ll send you to prison. For a long time.

“No, that anthrax is still out there. We both did the right thing.” This Alex can’t argue with.

“But I’m not in jail.”

“You don’t belong here. You were protecting those girls. Hell, the whole city. You did your job. And I’m doing mine.” Alex decides she likes Jackson Zane: he’s scrappy. A little too young, a little too green, a little too dramatic. But scrappy.

“You’re sitting in jail, Jackson. Give them my name and get back to work.” Shut up, Olivia.

“I give them your name, they win. There’s no freedom without free press…Now I chose to write this story. And I’ll take the consequences. Goodbye, Olivia. Don’t come back.” Fuck. He said her real name. Zane was smart enough to know they’d be checking his visitors; why didn’t he entertain the possibility that they’d also be listening to his conversations?

Provable facts: Olivia was here. The Feds can check the visitor logs and link her to her undercover alias, the alias everyone knows about and that anyone at SVU will have to testify was hers. She came as a civilian, so she was here for Jackson Zane. That much the Feds will know; that much Alex will tell them. But the smoking gun, the smoking gun is this sheet of paper. Tell them it was me…I give them your name, they win…Olivia. This is the only thing that can clinch a federal case against Olivia Benson.

Alex looks down at the paper. The law and everything she’s ever been taught requires her to turn this in, turn Olivia in, get her job back, get her career back on track. Settle down with a man she could pretend to love, for appearances’ sake, or just keep living alone, cold sheets at night, a woman on the rise. Years in Witness Protection, willing to die for her principles and the public safety: she could be looking at a serious political campaign in maybe as few as two or three years. Ferreting out the leak responsible for the anthrax panic: a commitment to total equality under the law. Her anti-corruption credentials would be unassailable. No one would be able to argue that Alex Cabot wasn’t relentless in her pursuit of justice.

It’s okay, sweetie. Stay with me. Stay with me. Stay with me, Alex. They’re coming right now. You’re gonna be okay. Alex, you’re gonna be okay. Look at me, you’re gonna be just fine.

We record at random. You probably won’t be able to find what you’re looking for.

*

On the way back to her basement office, Alex thinks about the long road from law to justice.

*

Bridges and Kovac are waiting stiffly in chairs outside her door. She raises an eyebrow, waves them in before her. They stand awkwardly in front of her desk while she sets down her briefcase, hangs her coat on the nail protruding from the frame of the window.

“So,” Bridges says. “Rikers.”

Don’t look alarmed. She nods. “I realized that Zane had been there for a few days just after he was found in contempt, and that you hadn’t seemed to notice.”

They exchange looks. It’s the first time Alex has ever seen a federal agent look sheepish, and it makes her smile.

“What did you find out?” Kovac asks.

“Detective Benson visited Zane on the eleventh of November,” she says. Take a deep breath: this is risky, but Olivia doesn’t trust you and Zane is just zealous enough to make this work.

Bridges looks positively elated. “What did they talk about?” he asks, eagerly.

Alex shrugs. “Unfortunately, conversations between prisoners and their visitors are only monitored at random, as a deterrent,” she says. “Jackson Zane hadn’t been there long enough to be informed of that policy, so there’s a possibility he may have slipped and said something incriminating. But that conversation wasn’t recorded, so we don’t have any way of knowing that.”

“Fuck,” Kovac mutters. “So we don’t know anything.”

“No, we don’t,” Alex says, and knows that in order to get them to stop investigating this case, she’s going to need to close the door on this once and for all. She hates relying on her knowledge of other people: one she knows only from transcribed conversations; one used to love her. She takes a deep breath: this is damn risky. “But they don’t know that.”

*

Jackson Zane is thinner in person than he was in his mug shot, but he looks healthy enough, and he steps into the interview room at 26 Federal Plaza with confidence.

“Mr. Zane,” Alex says, comfortably, for the benefit of the two agents and Halloran watching from outside the window. She hadn’t needed to convince them to let her run this interrogation herself; in fact, they’d insisted. Said an unfamiliar face would keep him off-kilter.

“My name is Alexandra Cabot,” Alex says, and she’s a little gratified to see his eyes widen a bit. “Please, have a seat.”

He does.

“Do you know why you’re here?” she asks.

He shrugs. “No.”

So he’s not someone who says more than absolutely necessary. Good.

“Do you know why you’re in prison, Mr. Zane?”

He smiles, the fading smile of someone who has lately noticed the scales shifting between justice and expediency. “Contempt of court, Ms. Cabot.”

She can’t help grinning a little, because she remembers arguing with Liz Donnelly between bars over Judge Petrovsky, running roughshod over the legal system. “That’s correct. On the afternoon of November 11th, were you visited at Rikers Island by Detective Olivia Benson of the NYPD?”

His eyes widen. Just tell the truth, Alex wills him.

He knows she knows already. He nods.

“Can you say that out loud?”

He swallows. “Yes.”

Okay. Now, please Christ, don’t believe me. “Are you aware that conversations between inmates and their visitors are recorded?”

He purses his lips. “At the time, I was not. I am now.”

“What did you and Detective Benson talk about?”

His eyes are wide and clear and sure. Alex takes a deep breath. “Um, we had gotten to know each other earlier in the case. She came by to see whether I was all right.”

Generalized and still truthful. Okay. This is the money shot. “Is that all?”

He stares at her. “Yes.”

“Was Detective Benson your source for the story you wrote in the New York Ledger about the anthrax scare entitled ‘Where’s the anthrax’?”

“It wasn’t a scare. It was a legitimate threat to the public health.”

“Was Detective Benson your source?”

“I won’t talk about my source.”

“Mr. Zane, we recorded your conversations.”

“Then why are you talking to me now?”

He’s smooth. Alex revises her opinion: she loves Jackson Zane. “Very well,” she says, even though if she were actually trying she might keep going. She threw this interrogation, and she knew it, and she hopes it’s not too obvious. In any case, he’s got the message: they have no evidence, they’re not going to find any evidence, and she’s doing her best to sound disappointed. She uses her hands to push herself up from the table. “Enjoy your stay in prison, Mr. Zane.”

He nods. She thinks she catches a wink as the marshals lead him out, and it’s a little reassuring.

One down. One to go.

*

“Detective Benson,” Alex says, as Olivia strides in. “Thanks for coming down.”

Olivia shoots her a glare that could melt ice. “So you’ve been working with the Feds.” She shakes her head. “Typical, Alex. Really typical. What did they do, offer you a job?”

Alex stares at her. She can’t tell whether Olivia is serious or not. She shrugs. “This isn’t about me.”

Olivia looks incredulous. “This has everything to do with you.”

“When you visited Jackson Zane in prison on the eleventh of November, 2005, what did you say to him?”

She blinks slowly. “What?”

“On November 11th, you visited Mr. Zane in custody at Rikers Island using your undercover alias, Rachel Martin.”

The corner of Olivia’s mouth twitches, which means she’s recognized her exact words from the tape. So she knows Alex found it, but Alex doesn’t know whether Olivia thinks she’s on her side or the Feds’. Three years ago she could read her face like a book, but it’s been too long, Olivia is softer and closed off from her, and she can’t see anything in her eyes anymore. She’s guarded, quiet. She seems shocked.

Olivia nods. “Yes.”

“Why did you use a false name, Detective?”

Olivia stares at a spot behind Alex’s left ear. “I didn’t want to create publicity. I thought if it got into the papers, my visit would create an appearance of impropriety.”

Throw her a softball so she knows what you’re doing. Give her some time. “Are you sure it was only an appearance, Detective?”

Olivia’s face is hard. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Detective Benson, what did you talk about with Mr. Zane?”

Fuck, Olivia, just be as general as you can. Alex wills her to please, please, just say the simplest lie she can think up.

“I was just saying hello. Seeing how he was doing, in prison.” Relax, Alex. Olivia’s spent years interrogating people: she knows how to handle herself. It’ll be all right.

“What did you talk about?”

“Uh, the food, I think, the beds, his cellmate, maybe. I don’t really remember.”

“Did you talk about the story he had written about a possible release of weapons-grade anthrax in New York City?”

Come on, Olivia. “No.”

“Do you have any idea how Jackson Zane might have gotten that information?”

Olivia stares at her, and Alex can see her thinking, but she can’t tell what Olivia’s thinking about. “Well, information isn’t always secure, Counselor. At SVU our priorities were on safeguarding the child victims, not maintaining the integrity of classified information. It’s always possible that someone could have left a report out in an unsecured area.”

“So the leak came from SVU.”

“It might have.”

Alex leans over the table. “Detective Benson, we have a recording of your conversation with Mr. Zane at Rikers Island.”

Olivia breathes slowly, and Alex can see her squaring her shoulders. This is a staring contest she wants very badly to lose. Please, Liv, please just trust me. Please.

“Did you or did you not tell Mr. Zane to release your name to federal investigators as the source of his information about the anthrax cases in New York City?”

Olivia’s eyes are wide, and Alex sees panic flash across her face, hopes it’s subtle enough that only an old lover could notice. Alex feels like something is sitting on her chest. She can’t breathe, and the air is thick and feral with tension and betrayal and fear and mistrust. Please, Olivia. I curled up in your arms, and I loved everything about it, even when Cragen called you at three in the morning and I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, worrying about you. We drank wine on your fire escape together, we loved together. You saved my life. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.

Olivia breathes. “No.”

Oh, God, thank you. Alex sits back in her chair, a blink she knows Olivia will be able to read that way. “No?”

“No, because I wasn’t his source.” Olivia’s mouth is set, and she’s gaining confidence. “If you do have a recorded conversation, Miss Cabot, all you’ll find is me asking Mr. Zane how he’s adjusting to prison. That was the extent of my relationship with him.”

Alex sighs. “Thank you, Detective.”

“Are we done here?”

She gestures toward the door in what she hopes looks like defeat. “You’re free to go.”

Olivia slams the door behind her. Alex stares at the ceiling. She’d done what they wanted her to, and Olivia might hate her but she’s safe, and Jackson Zane gets to make his stand as long as he wants, and the Feds will never find what they need.

Halloran walks in, trailed by the two agents. “Maybe it was accidental,” he says, and he sounds hopeful, like maybe he can close the damn case and get the Feds the hell out of his department.

Alex shrugs and tries to sound noncommittal, as though she doesn’t really care one way or another. “I’m leaning that way myself at this point, Detective.”

Kovac looks unconvinced, but the slope of Bridges’ shoulders is resigned. “You did what you could,” he says, kindly enough. “Detective Halloran here will brief the district attorney, but we have some paperwork to do.”

“Are you closing this, then?”

Kovac stares at the corner, Bridges shrugs, in an affirmative-looking way, and Halloran actually nods.

Alex smiles tightly. “In that case, I’d like to get back to the DA’s office.”

*

Branch doesn’t look particularly surprised to be informed that their investigation hadn’t turned up any proof of wrongdoing at Special Victims. After dismissing Halloran, he gives Alex a hard look. “So you didn’t find any evidence, Alexandra?”

“No.” Best to lie as little as possible.

“The Feds had a pretty strong circumstantial case. And you and Detective Benson were…close friends, right?”

Alex shrugs. “There was no smoking gun. And I’ve been gone for two and a half years. Friendships don’t always last through that kind of thing.” Alex isn’t sure, really, whether theirs has, let alone whether there’s any chance of ever finding anything more in each other, after all these years.

He nods, thoughtfully, and tells her she’s free until the first of the month. Alex can tell he’s not entirely satisfied, but she’s got her job back and Olivia is safe and unless he’s asking questions, she’s perfectly happy to let, as Branch himself would say, sleeping dogs lie.

*

Alex spends the rest of the day at the courthouse, sitting in the back, soaking it up. People v. Prestwick turns out to be a tax-fraud case, and she’s out the door as soon as she hears the prosecutor—a young guy from white collar, no one she recognizes—say “amortization.” In the next courtroom Jack McCoy is cross-examining the defendant in a murder trial, which is far more interesting. She lets her mind wander as she watches McCoy work the room, bushy eyebrows jumping as he grills his defendant with exactly the mix of incredulity and righteous anger she remembers. Alex doesn’t recognize his second chair, the back of her head glossy and dark; she'll have to ask Olivia what happened to Serena Southerlyn.

Olivia. Alex leans back against the bench and repeats the word over in her mind, like a prayer, like a mantra, not thinking, not even allowing herself to hope, just the word. Olivia. As though it can save her.

Lost in thought, she’s one of the first people out of the room when Ridenour adjourns for the evening. In the marble hallway, she allows herself a moment of pride. She would have, and almost did, and might well in the future, die for this place, for what it represents, and she’s smiling a bit dazedly when she hears a familiar, nasal voice over her shoulder.

She turns. “Alexandra,” Liz repeats, crisply, looking her up and down. “Back from the dead a second time, I see.”

Astonishing, Alex thinks, Liz Donnelly’s unique ability to make “Welcome home” sound like a dressing-down. She nods, neutrally, taking in Liz’s robes, her hair, which seems to have become possibly more frightening in the years since she’s last seen her. “And I see you’re on the bench. Congratulations.”

“Don’t think for a second I’m going to go easy on your charges,” Liz drawls, and Alex guesses she’s been talking to Branch. “Even if this does make you twice as good as Jesus Christ.”

Alex would like to throw her arms around Liz and say I can’t possibly tell you how happy I am to hear your voice again, but all that comes out is a smirk. “Perish the thought,” she says, and God, she’s missed this.

Liz actually grins. “It’s good to have you back, Cabot.”

She can’t hold down her own smile. “It’s good to be back. I’ll be seeing you in chambers, I imagine.”

Liz rolls her eyes. “Oh, I’d count on it.”

Alex’s phone rings as Liz clips down the hall, her robes billowing behind her making her look remarkably like a very large bird, blond-crested and predatory. “Cabot,” she says into the mouthpiece, her own name, and what a luxury.

*

Olivia is waiting for her at Camaje, the tiny restaurant on MacDougal where they’d eaten dinner the night of their first kiss. Alex isn’t sure, in the cab, whether she should read anything into the location and decides, instead, simply to enjoy herself in the company of the woman who knows her better than anyone.

Their table is next to the window, where they can watch the street, and Olivia has thoughtfully taken the chair that’s not backed up against a wall, probably guessing, correctly, that Alex is still a little nervous about open space.

She sits, and Olivia smiles at her. “The squad is getting together at ten for drinks,” she says. “O’Malley’s. I didn’t know if you’d want to join us, but I know everyone would love to see you. We, uh, didn’t really get a chance to talk much the other day.”

Alex smiles, a little sheepishly. “Yeah,” she says, “I’d like that very much.”

“You’ll have to let me know when we need to leave, then,” Olivia says, which is when Alex notices that she’s not wearing her watch.

She grimaces. “I guess, uh, they told you themselves, then?”

Olivia grins. “Yeah. In Cragen’s office this afternoon. Halloran, old rat bastard, and a couple of dicks from the Feds. Cragen almost stroked out, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that angry before. And Elliot. Well. Elliot.” She chuckles. “It was hard to pretend I was outraged too, because I was trying so hard not to laugh at the two of them. Anyway, we’ve been promised our watches back tomorrow, bug-free.” Her face darkens. “I’m lucky they were too stupid to bug me when they should have, but I can’t believe they’ve been listening to us for months now.” She looks at Alex from hooded eyes. “Did you, uh, have access to all that?”

Alex feels herself blush. “Yes.”

Olivia sighs. “Look, I’m not going to pretend I’m not sort of pissed about this whole thing, Alex.”

They’re interrupted by their waiter. As an appetizer, Olivia orders the goat cheese crostini they always used to eat, and he says, “Would you ladies like something to drink?”

Olivia looks at her quizzically. “Pinot grigio?”

“The more the better,” Alex says dryly, getting a chuckle out of the waiter, and when he leaves, she says, “Look, I know it was a total invasion of your privacy. And I’m sorry about that.”

“Why’d you agree to it, Alex?” Olivia’s eyes are dark and wounded.

Alex sighs, because she’s not exactly sure. “Well,” she says, “Branch offered me a job.”

Olivia raises her eyebrows and says nothing, and it’s more eloquent than a thousand accusations. “But that’s not really the reason,” Alex says quickly. “I was in his office after Hammond debriefed me, and, uh, he just sort of sprung all these agents on me, and they told me they were investigating you. And Elliot. But once I knew what it was about, I knew it was you.”

“You knew it was me,” Olivia repeats absently.

“And I thought, maybe, I could find some way to protect you. Because they knew it was you too, Olivia. You were the primary suspect. They just, they couldn’t find anything solid.”

“The guy in the diner?”

“Yeah.”

“Dammit, Alex." Her voice is thick. "That scared the hell out of me.”

Alex nods. “I know it did. And, uh, Olivia, I didn’t know how to thank you for that, really. I…had to act normal because you were bugged. But not too normal. Anyway I don’t know what normal even feels like, anymore, Olivia, and we. Us.”

Olivia nods, and her eyes are kind. “We’ll deal with that later,” she says, “when you’re ready. When I’m ready. This is all, this is. Look,” and she looks down at the table, like maybe things will be easier if she just steers things back in the other direction, “I really appreciate you telling me. The watch thing, I mean.”

“I was afraid you’d get spooked and let someone know. And then you were acting so strangely about going to Rikers and I was scared, Olivia, until I went home and I realized you were trying to give me a clue.”

Olivia frowns. “Actually, I wasn’t. I was just pissed.”

Alex looks at her, and the smile at the corner of Olivia’s mouth feels contagious, and Alex lets her lips curve until they’re both laughing. Olivia wipes her eyes. “So you went there.”

“Yes. I thought you were telling me about visiting him, and I thought there might be a record somewhere.”

“And there was. A transcript, I guess?”

“Yes.”

“You quoted it at me in the interrogation. To let me know you’d seen it. And Jesus, Alex, I had no idea what you were about to do.”

Alex lets her fingers creep within an inch of Olivia’s. “Look,” she says, and she doesn’t know how to say I loved you more than anything and you saved my life and how could you think that of me. “You, I missed you, I thought about New York all the time, and mostly I thought about you. And we had…a good thing, and you held my shoulder together, and that night when I got to come back. And I couldn’t. I just, I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Olivia’s looking at their hands on the table, their fingers outstretched but not touching, and she’s staring at the inch between them with a wistful smile of such profound yearning that looking at her face feels like much more of a violation than reading all of Olivia’s most private conversations. Alex feels like she’s profaning something sacred, and she can’t handle Olivia’s smile because it’s the saddest thing she’s ever seen, and she looks out the window so she can breathe. Oh, she thought this was going to be easy, and it’s the sharpness of reality back in her old life, the way things are exactly the same and entirely different, that’s going to kill her.

Olivia blinks, looks back up, and if her eyes are too bright Alex knows better than to say anything. “Anyway,” she says, “your interrogation skills have really gone downhill in the Program, Alex. How’d you get them to let you in there alone?” and she’s smiling a little now, teasing.

Alex, irrationally enough, bristles a little. “Well, excuse me if they’re not really necessary when you’re teaching. Or filling out insurance claims. Or counting money. Or making cappuccinos,” and she doesn’t realize she’s crying until Olivia reaches over the small table and very gently, with the pad of her thumb, wipes at Alex’s cheek.

“Hey,” she says softly. “I’m sorry, Alex. I was just kidding. And I know you were doing it to protect me.”

Alex wipes at her eyes angrily. “Yeah.”

“How did he look?”

“Zane? He looked okay. Thinner, I think, than the picture in his file.”

Olivia stares at the table. “I still feel bad about what happened to him.”

“He made a choice, Olivia.” Alex knows how empty those words are, how little they help, but they’re all she has. Olivia tried to make things as fair and as right as she could, and Alex tried to pick up the pieces, but neither of them managed to save the man at the center of it all, and Alex knows Olivia hates being helpless as much as she does.

Their waiter interrupts her thoughts with the wine and the crostini. “You ready to order?” he asks.

Olivia asks for a fennel salad and pumpkin soup, and Alex, who now that things have turned out mostly okay after all is suddenly very hungry, orders a pot pie and salad. Comfort food.

As he leaves, Alex leans over the table. “I just wanted to warn you,” she says, “that you’re paying for dinner.”

Olivia favors her with a small smile. “Why’s that?”

“The transcript. Of your conversation with Jackson Zane?”

Olivia raises an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, I couldn’t take it out of the prison because I was afraid IAB or the Feds would get suspicious and intercept me on the way back to the city. And I couldn’t shred it or anything. Obviously. So, I, uh.”

Olivia’s eyes are wide. “You didn’t.”

“I did. And no pinot grigio to wash it down.”

*

O’Malley’s is warm and run-down and as beautifully dirty and sketchy as she remembers, and they make their way toward the back table, where Elliot and Munch and Fin are sitting on high stools in high spirits.

“You have to catch up!” Elliot says, and if he’s still pissed from earlier she can’t tell. Olivia laughs and hits his shoulder. “Looks like it,” she says, and Fin is just grinning and it’s such a strange look on him that Alex’s own smile bubbles up in her like champagne.

“You guys want a refill on that?” Olivia asks, and Elliot pours the last of the beer into Fin’s glass and sloshes the sticky pitcher toward her. She grins and turns to Alex. “Would you like something besides this swill, Alex?”

Alex looks into Olivia’s eyes, dark and friendly and generous and kind, more open than she ever had a right to expect, and it reminds her of another time staring into Olivia’s eyes in a bar, and she says, “Guinness.”

Olivia blushes and turns away, and oh, God, she remembers, and Alex can’t remember being happy like this.

When she comes back to the table, Olivia sits next to Alex, not touching her, just there, and Munch pours the next round for the guys, but Olivia’s pint of Guinness matches Alex’s own. When they’re ready, Munch lifts his glass in the air. “To Alex Cabot!” he calls, loudly enough that most of the back section of the bar turns curiously. “The ADA so nice, she came back twice!”

Alex laughs because Munch is wonderfully corny and because the feeling of being wanted again, of being cared for by all these people who actually know her name, is comforting and exhilarating and everything right. Olivia’s laughing too, and she’s happy and gorgeous, and her eyes meet Alex’s as she lifts her glass to toast the homecoming Alex had almost given up hope of seeing. Alex stares into her eyes as they drain their pints, and she has to fight to keep herself from smiling, because she knows her Guinness will spill from the corners of her mouth otherwise, and Elliot will never let her hear the end of it. Olivia’s leg is warm next to hers under the table, and Munch’s bony elbow is digging into her side, and Elliot is grinning, and Fin is just shaking his head. Alex closes her eyes because all of this is overwhelming, and for a brief moment allows herself the luxury of thinking that in a world expansive enough to allow her not one, but two resurrections, in a world so generous that Olivia’s eyes look sparked with something like joy, maybe the rest of it can’t be so hard.