Night and the City by Sharon Bowers

Fandom: NYPD Blue, Law & Order
Rating: PG-13. Hey, I figure if it's good enough for ER, it's good enough for me.
Summary: The Angst! The Trauma! The Oh-My-God-What-Do-I-Wear! And... a little something more.
Disclaimers: I don't think Mr. Bochco or Mr. Wolf would be too happy with me, but hey-- we won't tell them, huh? It's not like I'm getting paid.
Spoilers: General current season on Law & Order. Through "The Naked Are the Dead" on NYPD Blue.
Note: This is the fifth in the "Days and Nights" series and picks up a few hours after the Epilogue of "Days Like These." Continuity is kinda important.
Feedback: Don't be afraid to raise your hand if you don't understand something: sbowers@bellsouth.net

Night and the City

An almost-obscene work ethic had defined Abbie Carmichael from the day she first stepped foot in the New York District Attorney's office, so when she negatively replied to the question: "Hey Cowboy, you in for the meeting on the Halloran pre-trials tonight?" there were those who said the building shook.

It certainly sent Jack McCoy striding into her office, a look of pure astonishment overriding his usual weary nonchalance. "David misunderstood you. He thought you said you weren't coming to the meeting."

Pushing hanks of black hair away from her face and vaguely wishing she'd had time to have it cut before her evening plans, Carmichael shook her head placidly at her boss. A faint smile played around the corners of her mouth, threatening with each passing moment to break free from the confines of her iron control and become a foolish grin. Despite the disappointments of the morning-- when Tara Wheeling had walked away from the case that would have put her rapist away-- as the day progressed, Abbie hadn't been able to stop her mood from lightening at the thought of the evening to come.

A night away from everything-- every pressure of the job, every pain of losing a case, every tension from sparring with her boss-- spent instead with the one spectacular woman who had been occupying most of her waking and dreaming thoughts since they had first met.

Jill Kirkendall.

"Sorry, Jack. Count me out tonight."

He continued to stare at her.

"It's Friday night," she prompted him.

Blankness reflected from McCoy's glassy-gray eyes.

"Date night."

He blinked.

She only smiled at him and drummed her fingers impatiently on the desktop.

"You... have a date?" he guessed hesitantly.

"A hot one."

"You?"

"Yep."

"Have a date?"

"That would be what I just said."

"When did this happen?"

"When you weren't looking." Carmichael would have burst into laughter if the poor man hadn't looked so poleaxed.

He gestured to the ridiculously large bouquet of roses that dominated the tiny table in front of Carmichael's sofa. "Those?"

"Somebody else."

"You're a popular girl."

Christienne Turner, news anchor for WST, had sent the roses as a thank you for appearing on her show; and Abbie resolutely wasn't thinking about any other possible meaning. "That was work."

"This isn't," he said, confusion still coloring his voice.

"Nope," she confirmed.

"But..."

"Look, I hate to break up this lovely little heart-to-heart, but it's five o'clock."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, I have to go. Do girl stuff."

"Girl stuff?"

"I know it's a stretch to imagine, but work with me here," she burst out, exhausted by his thick-headedness. "I have to get ready, get nervous, have a glass of wine to calm my nerves, notice that my lipstick clashes with my dress, decide I hate what I'm wearing and then start the whole thing all over again." She moved easily around the confined space, efficiently packing into her briefcase some paperwork that she hoped she wouldn't have time to work on this weekend. McCoy still stood in the middle of her office, even as she detoured around him towards the door.

"You do that?"

"Which that is that?"

"Wear lipstick."

A devilish urge gripped her as she replied. "Only when you least expect it. See you Monday, boss."

And left him to his perplexity.

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

Jill Kirkendall was a daughter of this city. Born to its lights, bred to its rhythms-- Jill knew the city like her own heartbeat.

Yet, tonight, it felt different.

It could have been the long-awaited arrival of Spring in all its brief glory, the sun nudging its way over the skyline a little longer each night. The warm breezes that now buffeted her skin seemed to mellow out the most hair-trigger tempers and make them amenable to just about anything-- including arrest and incarceration. Even Andy had managed a chuckle this morning when John, a herald of the weather's turning in robin's egg blue and flannel gray, had burst through the door, grandly displaying his coatless arms. Later in the day the civilian aide had passed her a small bottle, discreetly patting her on the arm. "I know you don't usually favor cologne, but when I discovered this, I just couldn't resist. It's not floral at all, and I think it will suit your skin's natural essence beautifully."

There was something slightly hysterical about how her shift-mates had become co-conspirators in her evening's endeavor. Although only Diane knew the details, most everyone else had heard in some way or another that Jill had a date this evening, and they had all bent over backwards trying to get her out of the House a little early. Greg had done her a good turn, catching a carjack that would have kept her at least an hour just filling out the paperwork, and Andy-- with all the grace of a buffalo herd stampeding across the plain-- had reminded her the minute the clock struck five, "Hey, Kirkendall-- don't you have to go to that thing-- you know-- that you said you had to do? Shouldn't you go do it now?"

Lt. Fancy, with his graceful need-to-know-discretion had only noted her departure with a "Have a good night, Jill." And if he saw the unusual spring in her step, he only smiled softly and kept it to himself.

The boys would be waiting when she got home, but Russell and Sorenson were going to pick them up around six. That gave her almost two hours before she had to be at Abbie's apartment to join her for whatever the dark-haired attorney had planned.

Truth be told, her stomach hadn't stopped churning-- in a good way-- for the last two days. Although John had reassured her that it was "only a date," Jill couldn't help thinking that one way or another-- things were going to change irrevocably tonight.

She was greeted at her apartment door by the familiar sound of her sons' thwarting an imminent alien invasion as the PlayStation beeped and chortled its displeasure. Smiling at their cheers-- Kyle's higher pitched than Frank's newly deepened voice-- Jill walked down the short hallway to the living room.

And felt the churning in her stomach turn sour.

Sitting Indian-style on the floor and flanked by her sons, was her ex-husband, a video game controller in his hand.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded curtly and watched with a sinking heart as the harsh sound turned the smile on Frank's face to a sullen frown.

"Dad picked us up from school!" Kyle offered happily, either not noticing her tone or all-too-willing to overlook it. With his tow hair, lean frame, and hazel eyes; Kyle was slender genetic mirror of his mother-- while Frank had his father's dark hair and eyes, along with his height. At twelve, Frank was tall and broad shouldered, with the imposing bulk of a boy much older. Of late he had been using that bulk to get into a number of fights, and Jill was beginning to worry that her eldest son had also inherited his father's belligerence and temper along with his physical traits.

"I didn't think you'd mind," Don offered charmingly, knowing as well as she did that his words were a lie. They had played the game of hiding their acrimony from the boys for years, and Jill cursed herself now for her long-suffering complicity. "I thought I'd take you and the boys out tonight and celebrate."

"Dad got a promotion at work," Kyle told her, and a part of Jill's heart broke at the innocence in his eyes.

She swallowed the caustic retort on her lips about what a dope mule like him would have to do to get a promotion and managed to muster a tight smile for her sons. "That's great news, Don, but the boys have plans tonight."

"If you're already planning to take them somewhere, I'd be happy just to tag along." He smiled and ruffled Frank's hair. "I just want to spend some time with my boys. And you," he added softly, with just the right amount of entreaty in his brown eyes.

This particular performance had worked often in the past, but this time Jill saw easily through the false veil of his sincerity to the mechanics of his manipulation. He was acting as if their conversation of a few weeks ago-- where she had warned him that the Job had him up for a collar for carrying dope-- had never happened. She ignored the overture. "Actually, they're going to a Mets game. One of the detectives in the squad got the tickets from a friend of his."

"I'd rather go with Dad," Frank told her, his face shuttered and accusing as he glared at Jill.

"Your dad didn't go to the trouble of getting the tickets. Danny did," she reproved him gently. Frank had been excited enough about going until-- apparently-- just now. Don's appearances in his sons' lives were so sporadic, so filled with extremes that the boys had learned-- as she did early on in her marriage-- to ride the highs while they could and do their best to forget about the lows.

"Who's this Danny?" Don asked suspiciously, rising from his seat on the floor and approaching Jill.

"One of Mom's friends on the squad," Kyle answered before Jill could reply. She could see from her ex-husband's belligerent stance that he was ready to make an issue out of a man whose name he had never heard before, and the abrupt shift of his mood from euphoria to angry suspicion made her look closely at his eyes.

Sure enough his pupils were constricted, and there was a newly-formed network of blood vessels visible along the bridge of his nose. In addition to muling the dope, Jill realized that her ex had now taken to sampling the product. "Yeah," she shrugged casually, her mind racing to avoid the confrontation brewing. "Danny's got a thing for Diane, but she's not quite as sure. The ball game is sort of neutral territory for them to spend some time together. Diane knew the boys were fans, so Danny asked them to go."

Don's frame relaxed minutely, and Jill breathed a silent sigh of relief. She was one step closer to crossing the minefield of her ex-husband's mood. "So you're... uh... just having a night in?" He shifted subtly closer to her, bringing the piney scent of his cologne to her nostrils and the memories flooding to the forefront of her mind. He had worn the inexpensive aftershave for as long as Jill had known him; and now, looking at the ruined frame of her children's father, she could remember why she had loved him.

He had been full of dreams and promises, a light shining so brightly in his eyes Jill often thought she would be blinded by its brilliance. He had called her "princess" and "angel," and walked long snowy nights with her through the city. She had shown him her world when he was fresh off the road from Minnesota. "I don't have anything," he had told her. "I never have. I grew up in a shitty three room frame house in the middle of nowhere... But one day, Princess, you and me-- we're going to have it all."

"Having it all" for Jill meant a home, a family-- someplace safe to come to filled with laughter and love and friends.

"Having it all" for Don meant flashy clothes, endless nights in bars and dance clubs-- and all the money needed to keep the party going endlessly.

Their respective roads had begun to diverge almost as soon as they had merged, but even after all these years, Jill had yet to completely disentangle herself from Don's schemes. In the guise of the two people she loved more than anyone else on the planet, he still had the power to pull her back into everything she had tried to walk away from.

"You and me," he was saying. "We could go down to Fredo's, have some chianti and some pasta. Make an early night of it, if you want."

The speculative light in his eyes left no mistake about what he thought their early night would mean. "I can't, Don," she stopped him cold.

"You got a hot date?" His tone was light for the boys' benefit, but Jill could hear the menace lurking just under the surface.

"Actually, it's a Women in Law Enforcement thing," she lied, silently apologizing to Abbie for what she was saying, but knowing Don would find nothing remotely threatening-- or even interesting-- about the subject.

"Gonna sit around and complain about how bad you've all got it?" he smirked.

Over the years Jill had learned to take a lot from her ex-husband for the sake of the boys, but his mockery of her profession-- particularly when it was on the verge of throwing his mostly-useless ass in prison-- was not something she was willing to let slide. Placing her hands on her hips and not-so-subtly revealing the holstered Glock nestled on her side, she turned cold eyes on him. "I'd think you'd better be leaving now, Don."

"We haven't finished our game yet," Frank protested behind her.

"You can finish your game another day," she replied evenly. "You've got to get ready for tonight. Diane and Danny will be here any minute."

"Mom..."

Her gaze turned upon her eldest son, and her tone brooked no argument. "Now, Frank."

He dropped his head. "Yes, ma'am," he muttered. With a stony expression, he helped Kyle tidy up the pile of game disks and soda cans littering the coffee table and refused to meet his mother's eyes.

She waited until the boys said their goodbyes to Don and then walked her ex-husband out the door and down the steps. "You gotta lot of nerve showing up here like this," she told him once they were safely outside.

"I just wanted to see my boys," he proclaimed piously.

"Bullshit," she spat the expletive through clenched teeth. "Whatever game you're playing-- don't use the boys to do it. I've warned you all I can, Don. Now get the hell out of our lives."

"You don't mean that, Princess."

"The hell I don't."

He shifted cockily on his feet and folded his arms together. "How many times you said that to me?" His voice raised to a falsetto-- far higher than Jill's own resonant tones. "'Get out of my life, Don! Don't hurt the boys, Don! Stay away, Don!' Then a few months pass and you're pulling me into your bedroom like nothing ever happened. Face it, Jilly, you've never had it so good as when you had it from me."

A blazing image of Abbie Carmichael's face outlined by silvery moonlight and the intense feel of the other woman's legs twined about her own seared through Jill's memory. "Don't be so sure about that." The words were out before she even thought about it, and they shut him up far more effectively than any well-reasoned plea could have. She had hit him squarely in his pride, and by the darkening fury in his eyes Jill knew it hurt like hell. Seeing Russell's black Explorer pulling to the curb down the street, she quickly pressed her advantage. "Unless you want me to rethink dropping that dime, you'd better get lost. I've had about all I'm going to take from you."

"This isn't over," he warned.

"That's where you're wrong, Don. It finally is."

He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it abruptly-- recognizing Diane as she hurried across the street. Shaking his head angrily, he turned on his heel and strode rapidly away.

Jill closed her eyes and released a breath she didn't know she had been holding, startling softly when Diane's hand closed gently around her arm. "Tell me that wasn't who I think it was."

Kirkendall managed a weak smile. "In the flesh."

"Goddamn him."

"His timing's always been impeccable. Some kinda sixth sense, I guess. Every time I think my life is turning around, he shows back up and it turns to shit again." She ran an agitated hand through her cropped locks, furious with herself to realize that she was shaking.

"Don't do this, Jill." Russell's voice was low and ardent, and Kirkendall was surprised to find herself spun firmly in her partner's grasp and confronted by an urgent light glinting in Diane's dark eyes. "Don't run this head trip on yourself."

"Diane..."

Russell shook her partner's arms roughly. "He doesn't have a sixth sense, and he doesn't have the power to turn anything to shit in your life unless you let him."

Jill opened her mouth to retort that it wasn't that easy, then snapped it shut-- abruptly realizing that, in a way, it really was. Don's presence here tonight didn't change anything, except maybe to make her understand how truly remarkable the woman waiting for her across town was. In the few short weeks they had known each other, Abbie Carmichael had offered her nothing but honesty, friendship, and the extraordinary gift of the bond growing between them. She smiled wryly, relieved to feel her breathing become easy once more and her heartbeat resume its normal, steady pace. "You're right."

"And if you think..." Diane's double-take was almost comical. "What did you say?"

Jill hugged her partner briefly. "Thanks for looking out for me."

Russell returned the embrace tightly. "Anytime, partner, you know that."

A low, cat-calling whistle interrupted them, and two pairs of eyes turned upon the smiling form of Danny Sorenson, Andy's partner and Diane's would-be suitor. Soreneson held up his hands. "Don't let me stop you guys. I can see you were having a moment." Russell only shook her head, and Kirkendall snorted dismissively at Sorenson's playfulness, wondering if the young cop had any idea how true his comment was.

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

Abbie was halfway through her second shower of the day when the phone's insistent ring pulled her head around the curtain. She toyed briefly with the idea of just letting the machine pick up; but her good manners won out, and she snatched the phone from it cradle just before the mechanical voice warned her caller off. "Hello?" she said breathlessly, hoping that it wasn't Jill calling to cancel again. If it was, she reasoned, it was God's way of letting her know that this relationship really wasn't meant to be.

"What are you wearing?"

Had the caller's voice even remotely resembled Detective Kirkendall's memorable contralto, the question would have brought a smile to her face. As it was she just scowled at the receiver and rolled her eyes. "At the moment, Munch, nothing."

A muted thunk followed by a hasty scrabbling sound echoed tinnily through the wire. "Really? I thought you made reservations at Safino's," came the deadpan reply. "Have we had a change of plans?"

"Munch, is there a point to this call?"

"I just wanted to know what you were wearing."

"You know what I'm wearing," she replied. "You were with me when I bought it."

And what a shopping experience that had been. Somehow-- out of a combination of blind luck, bull-headed curiosity, and a complete disregard for even the pretense of discretion-- Detective John Munch, late of Baltimore homicide and currently of New York's Special Victims Unit, had cast himself as an odd fairy godmother to Carmichael's even odder Cinderella. It had started out simply enough with Munch overhearing Abbie's side of a phone conversation. Fifteen minutes and two Jack Daniel's later, he was offering to accompany her to Bergdorf's to find something "suitable" to wear on a date he had no reason to know nothing about. Together they had terrorized a number of sales clerks who would never be the same. Their afternoon had been an unexpectedly bright moment in a week that-- until tonight-- had left Abbie sore and bruised from fighting the good fight.

"So you're still going with the burgundy?"

"Yeessss..." she ground out.

"And the gold hoop earrings?"

"I'm hanging up now."

"Wait!"

"What is it, Munch? You looking to get a leg up on the newest pool?" The comment was harsher than the Special Victims Unit detective deserved; but Carmichael was already cat-nervous about the upcoming evening, and Munch really didn't know when to quit. She hoped he would understand.

"Actually, I was calling to wish you good luck," was the subdued response.

"Munch..." Abbie butted her head gently against the wall, then rubbed idily at the wet spot her hair left on the paint.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"Don't worry about it."

"I mean it, John. You've been... well, let's just say I've found a good friend someplace I never expected to. I appreciate it."

A silent pause while they both pondered the unexpected sentiment.

Then Munch snickered. "Just make sure when you tell me about tonight you don't leave out all the good parts."

"Use your imagination. I'm sure you already have, several times," she shot back and then chucked the phone into the receiver, rolling her eyes in amused dismay.

The ritual she followed getting ready for dinner wasn't too far off from the one she had taunted McCoy with-- the only exceptions being one glass of wine didn't even begin to put a dent in her nerves and she really didn't wear lipstick. So it couldn't possibly clash with her dress.

Which-- naturally-- she was having second thoughts about.

Staring at herself in the full-length mirror, she could only shake her head and wonder what the hell she had been thinking. Maybe she had let Munch's hormone haze cloud her good judgement. The deep burgundy-patterned dress clung to her lithe frame like a second skin, revealing curves even she'd had no idea were there. The fabric draped discreetly over her breasts, hinting at a heretofore non-existent cleavage, and swirled gently around her calves, which were accentuated by the two-inch pumps the sales-clerk had so thoughtfully suggested. Her hair was a tumble of sleek darkness brushing over her shoulders, far looser than she ever wore it in the office, and her eyes sparkled with unambiguous expectation for the night to come. The overall effect was subtle, but unmistakable; and it wasn't something anyone would wear on a casual date or to have dinner with a friend, no matter how formal the setting.

Abbie had no doubt that Jill would get the message, but the small matter remained of whether or not the reticent detective really wanted to deepen their already confusing entanglement.

Jill Kirkendall was a woman with responsibilities that oftentimes weighed heavily on her broad shoulders. Her children came first and foremost-- something that Abbie had conveniently allowed herself to forget in their few encounters. Then there was the Job, always hovering ominously on the horizon. It was touch-and-go how a cop's squad mates would react to something like this, and Carmichael held no illusions that if she and Jill were to get involved-- make that more involved than they already were-- that the news would ricochet from courthouse to station house and back in record time. Diane Russell would be unequivocally in Jill's corner, but who else? Carmichael barely knew the detectives from the 15th, and although they seemed good enough cops-- sometimes that simply wasn't good enough when it came to judging one of their own.

And what about her own career?

She and Toni Ricci had been fairly discreet, if only because the relationship itself didn't inspire either woman to the heights of operatic passion. Apparently, they hadn't flown completely under the gossips' radar either if Munch and his office pool stories were to be believed. Personally, she didn't think McCoy would give a good goddamn who she slept with-- although he'd probably run from the room screaming if he heard she was sleeping with anyone at all. Forget him sticking around long enough to discover her lover's gender. Politics, however, was a touchy business; and Adam Schiff hadn't been shy about putting her front and center on some pretty high-profile cases: the Pruitt murder being one of them. He might not react so kindly to hearing his prot�g� was a dyke. More precisely, he might not react kindly at all if his political detractors heard his prot�g� was a dyke. The difference was barely discernible, but of an importance too great to calculate.

Abruptly realizing that her ruminations were too downbeat for such a lovely evening, not to mention that she was fast running out of time, Abbie returned to the contemplation of her ensemble.

Half a dozen cocktail dresses currently hung in her closet, any one of which would be more appropriate, more subdued, more well... less. Maybe it would be best to change, save the burgundy for later. When she was more sure of herself, Jill, and their mutual intentions.

The doorbell rang.

Scratch that... Abbie thought, pulling a rueful face. Her last chance to be decorous just went screaming out the door, most likely to hang out with Munch and drink cheap beer.

Swigging the last of the merlot from her wineglass-- which in this case was a plastic To-go cup with the Longhorns logo emblazoned on it-- and casting a mental prayer to whatever mischevious gods held sway this particular evening, she flipped off the bedroom light and went to open the door.

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

Oh my god...

Abbie didn't know if she only thought those words or if they actually found a way to tumble out of her gaping mouth, for she was cognizant of nothing but the stunning vision in front of her. In the space of a few short hours, the normally conservative detective had transformed herself into a vision of noir glamour. The ivory, vintage 1940s ensemble had wide-legged pants accentuating Jill's height and poised carriage, and a buttoned suit jacket that drew Abbie's attention to a slender waist and a d�colletage concealed only by a simple camisole. The suit didn't expose a lot of skin, but the effect was singularly devastating to Abbie's awestruck glance.

"You look like a movie star," she murmured, smiling and stepping back to grant her date admittance into the apartment.

A low blush graced Jill's cheeks as she shook her head slightly. "That's what I should say about you," she replied, taking in Abbie's own figure with quietly astonished eyes.

A steady tension thrummed between them, fueled by nerves and something more. Through their clothes, each woman had chosen to reveal something heretofore concealed from public view-- the practical detective exposing a hidden passion for old-world glamour, while Abbie herself was beginning to rediscover a sensuality she thought she had buried long ago.

"You like?"

The question in Abbie's voice was sincere, and it was answered with a reassuring nod from the other woman. "It's beautiful." Jill's gaze roved over Abbie and then away again, fixing on her hands. "You're beautiful," she said softly, a slight tremor in her voice that didn't go unnoticed by either of them.

Gambling that honesty now would mean more to them both than all the smoothness in the world, Abbie took a deep breath. "Are you as absolutely terrified as I am right now?"

"It's just dinner," Jill hedged.

The attorney nodded slowly. "Yeah, you're right," she drawled, stepping forward and twining her fingers with Jill's, drawing their bodies close. Each mouth nipped the other's breath, and the pulse of Jill's hearbeat was solid beneath the insubstantial barrier of her clothing. The ivory silk was supple and smooth, like the detective's fair skin; and Abbie had no trouble imagining what the cool length of her bare flesh would feel like clasped against her own, darker form. "The only thing I can't figure, then, is why are we both shaking?"

"Is that you?" Jill's voice was a whisper. "Because I thought it was just me."

"Nope," Abbie confirmed. "It's us."

Jill swallowed hard. "Good to know."

"In fact, I think I'm shaking so bad that I couldn't hold a fork."

"Really?"

"Yeah," she affirmed, wrapping Jill's arms around her waist and clasping hers around the detective's neck. The fit between their bodies was instantaneous, chemistry obliterating what society and their own common sense wouldn't let them. "And that makes me sad because I made reservations at a really nice restaurant."

"What do you suggest we do about it?"

A lazy smile of promise and joy drifted across Abbie's face. "This." Her lips were not demanding, but neither were they hesitant as they brushed over Jill's. Surprise flickered across the detective's face, then her mouth responded to the gentle greeting and invitation. Their embrace tightened with the tender exploration until Abbie drew back, a mischievous light glimmering in her umber eyes. "Still nervous?"

"Not exactly," Jill admitted.

"Good. Now that the whole evening isn't leading up to something, we can just relax and enjoy ourselves."

"You believe in declaring your intentions early, Counselor?"

Abbie grinned wryly. "I figured since the dress did it for me already..."

"Well.... you might have a point there." Jill arched an admiring brow. "But I'm just glad you thought I was worth the effort."

"Absolutely," Abbie confirmed, brushing another fleeting kiss over her date's lips. The exquisite softness of Jill's mouth, so unexpected amidst the formidable sternness of the detective's everyday demeanor, threatened to undo her composure once more. She steadied herself on a shuddering breath.

"You okay?"

"Reservations," Abbie muttered. "We have reservations."

A small smile played over Jill's face. "You said that already."

"I'm reminding myself," Abbie confessed. "Because if we don't leave now..." her voice trailed off.

"Would it help if I said the cab was downstairs waiting?"

"Immensely."

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

Native New Yorkers always swear that no matter how bad the weather usually is, there are always three perfect days and nights that the heavens grant the great city. As she opened the cab door for Abbie, Jill cast a thankful glance skyward that this appeared to be one of them.

The lightweight cashmere coat Abbie had thrown over her dress hadn't diminished the attorney's beauty in the least, and Kirkendall watched with unconcealed amusement at the cabbie's instantaneous and awestuck obedience to Abbie's drawling instructions.

Only listening with half an ear to where they were going, Jill spent the short ride in contemplation of her dinner companion and the irrevocable steps they had taken closer together. Her mouth still ached with the phantom press of Abbie's lips, and her limbs sang with the snug fit of their bodies-- memories of the single night they had spent together mingling freely with the fresh touch of their embrace moments ago. So it was with some surprise when she found herself in front of Safino's, one of the more exclusive restaurants in the city. Frowning in consternation, she turned to Abbie who only grinned and said, "After you."

For some reason, "Carmichael, party of two," seemed to be the magic words, for the instant they were uttered, Jill and Abbie were led through the thronging crowd of over-coiffed and over-Armanied patrons and to a snug, but prominent corner of the restaurant. As they wound their way through the muted elegance of the dining room, Kirkendall was uncomfortably aware of the number of eyes-- some more discreet than others-- following their passage. She fought her detective's instinct to study her surroundings and the other patrons as though it were a crime scene, and instead sought to simply relax.

"Your server will be here shortly, ladies. May I send over a cocktail?" The host was attentive and alert without being fawning, yet his were a pair of the eyes that roved over both Abbie and Jill with a genuine appreciation for their striking and elegant combination of dark and light.

After their drinks were ordered, Jill turned to her date with a wry smile. "Now, I'm impressed."

"Don't be. Lorraine Fitzgerald recommended the place-- she knows the owners. And Adam Schiff's secretary made the reservations for me. So I probably seem more important to them than I really am."

"I suppose having the Manhattan DA's office make your calls does add a certain amount of cache to your reservations."

Abbie shrugged sheepishly. "Busted."

"And Lorraine Fitzgerald..." Her mind searched around for the familiar tug of the name. "Isn't she..."

"Stephanie Pruitt's lover," Abbie confirmed. "Yeah. We've stayed in touch. It's been really rough for her, especially with the press latching onto the case and gay activists turning Steph's murder into another Matthew Shepherd."

"I heard about the memorial service tomorrow."

"You going?"

Jill hesitated, then shook her head. She had given serious thought to going-- the grief etched onto Lorraine Fitzgerald's face in the aftermath of her lover's murder had haunted Jill, and the violinist had been in Kirkendall's thoughts often these last weeks. She and Diane had been the catching detectives in Stephanie Pruitt's murder; and, though the case had been solved quickly, Jill hadn't been able to completely let it go. She told herself it was because of her own involvement in the case-- but deep in her heart, she knew was the timbre of dedication she had heard in Lorraine's voice when she talked about Steph that resonated with her beyond mere empathy. Unknowingly, Lorraine Fitzgerald had forced Jill to confront her growing feelings for the woman beside her and realize that ultimately there was no difference between the budding connection she had with Abbie and those she had formed with the few men who had populated her own romantic landscape. "I hadn't planned on it," she confessed, worried about how Abbie would react to the news.

Carmichael nodded thoughtfully, sipping her Manhattan. "It's turned into a real zoo. Lorraine just wanted something to honor Steph's memory-- commemorate her loss to the people who meant a lot to her. But Equality Now and the Human Rights Campaign just won't let it go."

"I take it you're going."

"It seemed to be important to her, so I promised to." Jill arched an inquiring brow, and Abbie shrugged, spinning the tiny straw in her tumbler in counter-clockwise circle, while studying her date's expression. In the gentle ambient lighting, Jill seemed to shimmer like an otherworldly beacon, drawing her ever closer. "Her friends are dealing with their own grief-- Steph was important to all of them. Even if Lorraine were comfortable talking to them, her friends aren't ready to hear it. Not by a long shot.

"Murder's the ultimate invasion of the body, you know that. But when it happens to someone you've loved-- someone whose body you've made love to, whose geography you know intimately-- it's all the more violent. You close your eyes, and you can't help but see her skin-- not like you knew it, living and full of pleasure-- but torn up and empty, like some kind of butchered carcass that was never human." She took a deep draught of her drink, shaking off the painful memory of Toni and the horror that had befallen her. "I think when you lose someone like that, so senselessly, that part of the grieving process is about restoring your lover's humanity. If only in your own memory. How can she explain that to Steph's friends?"

Jill thoughtfully sipped her gin and tonic, both to give herself time to marshal her own thoughts and to give Abbie time to return to her. Considering her next words carefully, she sought Abbie's eyes with her own and waited until the attorney gazed patiently back at her. "Sounds like you're talking from experience."

Abbie opened her mouth as if to speak, but her glance broke from Jill's, and she shook her head slowly "It's not exactly charming dinner conversation."

"You don't have to charm me."

The attorney cocked a dark brow. "Then all the money I'm blowing tonight is wasted?"

Jill chuckled. "Not wasted. Just unnecessary. Appreciated, but still unnecessary." She leaned closer and grinned conspiratorially. "I already know you're charming."

"Why thank you, ma'am."

"I came here for something more than that." Though her comment was meant to be light-hearted, the admission had an edge of blunt honesty, startling them both. Jill felt herself color in the silence.

"I know," Abbie replied slowly. "Me too." She let the acknowledgement rest lightly between them for a moment before continuing. "So to answer your question: I lost someone who was once very... close. We worked narco together, but she moved to OCB and I went to homicide. The relationship only lasted a few months, and it was long over when she was... well, when she died." Though a year had passed since Toni's murder, Abbie still hadn't settled the matter in her heart. In her dreams, she still saw her ex-lover's throat slashed and torn open, her life's blood beating uselessly onto the threadbare carpet of the safe house. There were so many things she had never told Toni, secrets she hadn't been able to bring herself to reveal. Ultimately her reticence had ruined them, not just as lovers, but as close friends as well.

"She was murdered?" Jill asked, more to keep Abbie talking and not lose her to the faraway cast in her eyes.

"On the job. She was breaking this case against the Russian Mafiya. It was the kind of thing that makes ADA's careers around here, but it was more that that for her. You know how sometimes cases can bite into us and not let go? Well, that's what it was like on this one for her. She had this mother and son who had witnessed a hit, and they were actually willing to testify. That's where Jack and I came in. Somehow... I don't know how... it just became one huge clusterfuck. They found the safe house and killed the mother and Toni..."

"Oh my god," Jill murmured, bringing Abbie's eyes back to her.

"You knew her?"

"I know the case. I remember it really shook Leo up." She had also heard that the DA's office contorted more than a few suspects' constitutional rights to secure a confession and keep the boy from having to testify. Diane and her squadmates had done something similar to protect Jill's own son when he had witnessed a horrific murder not too long ago. Her respect rose yet another notch for the woman opposite her as she realized that Abbie would go the extra mile for justice and not stand on the letter of the law-- especially when it came to putting herself on the line. "So..." Jill began, half wondering how to ask, "Did you love her?"

Abbie's mouth opened, then closed. She polished off what was left of her drink and wondered where the damn waiter was. "Toni and I, we were...." She shrugged. "I wanted to."

"But?"

"But, no. Things in Narco are crazy, even in the best of times. Five years ago, the cartels were just beginning to discover the wonders of globalization. European money was financing coca plantations in Colombia. American markets were buying as many drugs as the South American dealers could supply and then asking for more. More money, bigger guns, better drugs. And there we were, a little pissant band of DAs and cops, trying to stop this tsunami with a Wal-mart umbrella. What was between Toni and me-- it was shelter from the storm. We'd snatch hours or half-days, if we were lucky, and just try forget. Sometimes we were so exhausted we couldn't make love, we'd just lie in each other's arms and rest. Talk about why the hell we got in this line of work to begin with."

"What did you tell her?"

"I didn't. That was part of the problem."

Before Jill had a chance to pursue the cryptic answer, they were interrupted by a discreetly melodious voice. "Hello, ladies. My name is David, and I'll be your server for the evening." He was young and darkly handsome, Jill noted absently, with the requisite polished looks of an out-of-work actor. A crisp, white apron was tied around his slender waist, and his dark tie was tucked neatly into his shirt. He smiled at them expectantly and a little apologetically. "I'm sorry I wasn't over sooner, but I trust you've had time to peruse our menu?"

"Actually, we hadn't even opened it," Jill replied.

"If you'd like more time..."

"Why don't you just tell us what the specials are?" Abbie suggested.

"Of course. The chef was feeling a little adventurous, and I think you'll be pleased with the results. First of all, we have an excellent red snapper, saut�ed with yellow tomato sauce and basil. Or we have a pan-seared pork filet. It's stuffed with a Mediterranean cheese and spinach mousse and glazed with a balsamic onion sauce. But if neither of those appeal, I'll be happy to make some recommendations from the menu."

Abbie glanced at Jill who shook her head minutely. "I don't think that will be necessary. Jill?"

"I'll have the snapper."

"Excellent." He turned to Abbie. "Ma'am?"

"I'll try the filet."

"Very good. Do you have a preference for the wine? We have some outstanding Chardonnays that would complement both meals."

"Whatever your wine master recommends."

"I'll bring that right over. Is there anything I can get you while your meals are being prepared?" He eyed their glasses. "Another cocktail, perhaps?"

Abbie demurred. "Just the wine."

"Yes ma'am." He beamed at them both and excused himself, leaving the women once more in contemplation of each other.

"Saved by the waiter," Jill murmured with a wry grin.

"I will have to compliment him on his timing," the attorney agreed.

"I'm sorry if this feels like an interrogation."

"Actually, an interrogation was exactly what I had in mind for this evening," Abbie admitted, with a sheepish grin. "Except I was going to be the one asking all the questions. But I guess you have the advantage, since you're a cop and I'm just a lawyer."

"Well, they say lawyers are never supposed to ask questions they don't know the answers to. That's what cops specialize in."

"Getting answers?"

"More or less."

"Is that why you became a cop? To get answers?"

"Now who's asking the questions?"

"My daddy always said turnabout is fair play."

"Ah... true enough. I guess the simple answer is that I needed to support my family and I wanted to help people."

"There are lots of professions that help people and aren't half as dangerous. Especially for a woman with two kids." So much of Jill Kirkendall was an enigma to Abbie, and she wanted more than anything to get behind the curtain of that half-smile and stoic demeanor. Diane had warned her that Jill wasn't one for confidences, but that was exactly what Abbie wanted-- had wanted since the first night their paths had crossed. "Why be a cop?"

Jill paused a moment to allow their server to open the Chardonnay and offer it for their approval. She sipped at her glass, enjoying the warm, rich feel of the wine on her tongue and slipping down her throat. Abbie gazed at her patiently, enjoying the view with evident pleasure; and the fresh flush of heat Jill felt had little to do with the alcohol. An entreating sensuality glimmered in Abbie's eyes, so different from the frank lust Jill was used to seeing in men's eyes, but it was tempered with a genuine interest in Jill-- who she was and what she wanted. "I didn't want to be a cop," she began haltingly. "Not at first. I went to school thinking maybe I'd be a teacher or something. Like I said, I wanted to help people. Families. Women. After college, I ended up as a case worker for the DSS. In Narcotics you were on one end of the war dealing with the suppliers and pushers-- I was on the other end, in the middle of all the wreckage that the drugs left. It was the early eighties, when crack first started showing up and AIDS was the plague that nobody knew how to stop.

"You were right when you called it a tsunami, everyone was getting swept under. And it wasn't just the drugs. It was fourteen year olds having babies because they didn't think they could get pregnant if they had sex standing up. It was fifteen year old gangbangers shooting each other in the street and mothers who couldn't work to put food on the table and take care of their kids. It was fathers who didn't know who their kids were and furthermore didn't care. It was a generation of children coming of age without parents or families or any sense of responsibility because no one cared enough to teach it to them. They ended up on my desk when things were already broken beyond repair, and all I could do was fill in a few blanks on a form and try to help them through the moment. Because God knows I couldn't help them in the long run.

"I lasted seven years, then I met a man who promised me the world and when I got pregnant I told myself it was love. And I think it was-- at least for a while. I had Frank and then Kyle two years later. But by that time I had also realized my husband was a bully and a thief and I was on the verge of becoming one of those cases that used to end up on my desk. If I was going to have a chance to raise my sons to become more than just some statistic, I had to do something. This time I wanted to be part of the solution-- not just one of the people that swept up afterwards."

And with those few unsparing sentences, Jill Kirkendall laid herself bare in a way that she hadn't ever before. If Abbie truly wanted to know who she was, they had to begin somewhere; and if not, well, their evening was most likely over before it even began. Her hand trembled as she lifted her wineglass to suddenly parched lips and drank deeply. "Sorry you asked?" Hesitantly her eyes sought Abbie's, and in the other woman's expression she saw a mixture of awe, admiration, and gratitude.

Abbie swallowed hard, wishing she had something more than words to express how precious she realized the gift Jill had just given her was. "Not on your life."

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

With a satisfied grin, Jill surveyed the remains of their dinner. By tacit agreement, they had allowed the serious tone of the earlier conversation to drift away, replaced by a lighthearted and mildly flirtatious banter. "That was absolutely the best thing I have ever eaten in my entire life."

"Don't let Mae hear you say something like that. She'll tan your hide," Abbie warned teasingly, referring to stout Southern matron who was one of the attorney's few friends. Mae, along with her husband Harold, ran a small diner where Abbie sought refuge when the days got too much for her, and she needed to hear the friendly sounds of home. Jill had only been to the diner once, the night she met the attorney; and though she had promised Mae she would come back, of late she just couldn't seem to find the time.

"You'll keep my secret?" Jill asked with a grin.

"For a price."

"Which might be?"

Abbie's brow furrowed in thought. "Hmm... I don't know. That's a pretty big secret, what have you got to offer?"

"Dessert?"

"Nah, they'll bring that anyway."

"I'll fix your parking tickets."

"Don't drive my car here in the city."

"My firstborn son?"

"Is that a good idea for someone who has to have a company come in and water her plants?"

Jill's hands lifted in mock surrender. "Then I guess I'm stuck."

"Well..." Abbie seemed to consider the situation. "There is something..." she said slowly.

"Which might be?"

"A few more hours of your time tonight." It was a gentle, but heartfelt, request; and the entreaty in Abbie's eyes couldn't be denied. Jill found herself nodding slowly.

"What did you have in mind?"

"The night we first met you said you had stopped in to listen to some music-- before you got shanghaied by a wayward ADA," she added with a wry smile. "I don't know much about jazz, but a friend told me about this place where they've got this trumpet player who can out-Chet-Baker Chet Baker. Now is that a good thing or no?"

"If it's true it's a very good thing," Jill admitted.

"They've got a 10 o'clock set if you're interested. I thought maybe we could check it out."

Jil leaned back in her chair, sipping the last of her wine and relaxing into the elegant embrace of her chair. The entire evening had been the antithesis of her daily life-- from the setting to the conversation to the company-- and she was loathe for it to end. Yet she was almost afraid for it to continue, for the very same reasons. Abbie Carmichael was carving a space for her in a life Jill believed she really had no place in; and despite what she had told Diane earlier, the specter of her ex-husband's crimes still loomed large in her fears.

Sensing her hesitation, Abbie leaned slightly forward. "If you're worried about the boys, I have my cell with me. They should be home from the game pretty soon, if not already-- you could call and check on them."

"I'm not worried about the boys. If anything I'm worried about poor Diane and Danny. I don't think they had any idea what they were signing on for," Jill chuckled.

"They a handful?"

"No more so than any other pair of boys that age. Kyle's usually a little on the quiet side, and Frank can have a temper sometimes, but they're good kids."

"Makes sense, they've got a great mother."

Jill's lips twisted into a rueful smile. "Not above shameless flattery are you?"

"No ma'am," Abbie gladly confessed. "Not if it will get me a little more time with you. It took us so long to get together this first time, who knows when I'll have the chance again?" She hesitated, "That is, unless our schedule conflicts were by design."

"I asked you out, remember?"

A warm flush darkened Abbie's features, and her gaze dropped to intently study the ornate patterns engraved on the silverware. "Sorry. Just ignore that little troll of insecurity. I don't know where she came from."

Jill shook her head in wonder. The woman she had seen in the few short weeks they had known each other was one of the most dynamic and confident people she had ever known. As an attorney, Carmichael had a brash assuredness that bordered on arrogance; while as a woman, Abbie had gently yet firmly pursued Jill with a grace and charm that often left the cynical detective breathless. Add to that classic features that Michaelangelo couldn't have sculpted more perfectly, and Jill was willing to bet that if she looked up the definition of the perfect woman in her pocket Webster's, Abbie Carmichael's picture would be the only explanation needed. "What in the world do you have to be insecure about?" she blurted.

"You might be surprised," was the soft reply.

Though she didn't know its source, Jill instantly comprehended the pain in her companion's eyes. "Tell me about it?"

Abbie shifted uneasily in her chair, knowing that the honesty she sought from Jill could only be reciprocated by her own. "Yeah, but..." she added with a small smile, "Not until I chase the waiter down for the check."

Moments later, their server reappeared trailing a tall, robust-looking man of above-average height and a slight bulk that was well-concealed by the sharply tailored lines of his suit. His dark hair was distinguished by traces of gray at the temples, and kindly brown eyes smiled at them from a tanned and lined face as he approached. "Ms. Carmichael?" A slightly Continental inflection burred his voice and marked him as an adopted son of the city.

Abbie and Jill exchanged apprehensive looks as she nodded slowly. Though her celebrity was only local thanks to the Pruitt case, Abbie was well-aware that it only took one crackpot to make life entirely too dangerous for her own good. "What can I do for you, Mr....?"

"Safino. Antonio Safino." He enfolded Abbie's hand with well-manicured fingers. "Lorriane told me you might be stopping by one night, and when I saw your name on the reservation list, I just had to speak to you. May I join you?"

"Of course, Mr. Safino. You have a lovely restaurant, and we'd be honored. This is my friend, Jill Kirkendall."

He clasped Jill's hand briefly in his own, nodding in greeting. "Please, call me Tonio. And tell me that dinner was satisfactory. I told the chef, he screws this meal up-- he's out!" Warmth glimmered in his expression as he regarded the two women opposite him.

Abbie chuckled. "I think you can tell your chef his job is safe. Dinner was lovely. I can't remember when I've enjoyed a meal more."

"Is there anything else I can get you? Some coffee perhaps?"

"Actually, we were just looking for the check..."

Tonio flung up dramatic hands. "Please, Ms. Carmichael, there's no check for you. Not in my restaurant."

"Mr. Safino..."

"Tonio-- please," he insisted gently.

"Tonio, that's a kind gesture, but completely unnecessary. Lorraine..."

He covered her hand with his own and leaned closer, speaking softly. "Lorraine is one of my oldest and dearest friends in the world. She's spoken to me of everything you've done for her since Sarah's... passing." A wave of depthless sorrow washed over his features, clouding an exuberance Abbie suspected was more akin to his natural state. "We've all been so helpless since it happened. This loss... it is almost unbearable to me. I cannot imagine what it has done to Lorraine, but she... she tells me that you've been so patient and kind. That you've helped her to remember Sarah as she was, and not as she died."

"If I've done anything, I only reminded Lorraine of everything she already knew," she protested, her face warming under both the kind benediction and Jill's intent gaze.

"Sometimes the things we forget the most easily are the ones we hold most dear." He smiled and patted her hand kindly. "Everyone always thought Sarah was the stronger of that pair-- they mistake Lorraine's profession for a personal delicacy. But in many ways, Sarah was the one who needed the most care. Her parents were jackals, unwilling to see how complete Lorraine made their daughter. All because of chromosomes. What did it matter to them that Lorraine adored Sarah beyond all reason? Stupid, that's what they were. Now they've lost their daughter, and they don't even have anyone to comfort them in their grief. In the end, Sarah was more our family than theirs. We have each other. We can celebrate her life, mourn her passing. Remember the light she brought into our lives."

"I wish I could have known her." In a way, however, Abbie felt she did. The hours she and Lorraine had spent together were filled with stories of the dead woman. She had learned all the details of the lovers' courtship, marked the milestones of their relationship, vicariously attended birthdays and holidays. All in the process of helping Lorraine reclaim her lover's memory from the brutalization Sarah's body had suffered at the hands of her killers.

A delighted grin creased Tonio's face. "Oh, she would have enjoyed you! And the jealousies you would have caused! They would have been competing to see who could befriend you faster. Then they would have both adopted you and brought you here to my restaurant. The matchmaking you would have gone through! They wouldn't have been satisfied until you were as disgustingly happy as they were..." His eyes flickered to Jill and glimmered mischievously. "But of course, you don't seem to be in need of their help, so perhaps you would have escaped their schemes."

Abbie's jaw ratcheted open in shock, and she strangled the bark of surprise that rose in her throat. "Tonio... no..." she fumbled, certain that Jill wouldn't want to be outed this way, if at all. "We're not... I mean..."

He frowned disapprovingly. "You wear a dress like this for only a friend? Perhaps it is rude of me to say, but such a waste!"

Abbie glanced over at Jill's muffled laughter, surprised to see the detective didn't look uncomfortable at all. "Actually, Tonio," Jill said, her amusement simmering unconcealed in her expression. "It's our first date."

"Of sorts," Abbie added hastily.

Two pairs of brows arched questioningly in her direction.

"Jill and I have known each other for a while...."

"And who was smart enough to come to their senses first? You make an elegantly lovely couple."

Cool fingers closed over Abbie's, sending a sharp jolt of astonishment-- and a little something else-- through the attorney's system. "To tell the truth, I asked her," Jill answered, leaning closer to her date. "I think if I had left it up to her, I would still be waiting."

"But... I... wha...." Abbie frowned at Jill's summation of how the last few weeks had played out between them. Only upon a second glance did she catch the amused light glimmering in the detective's eyes. "Ooh... you're gonna pay for that one."

Tonio had been watching their byplay with smiling enjoyment. Now he clapped his hands together delightedly. "Perhaps if I invite you again, you will tell me how you first made each other's acquaintance." He looked questioningly at Jill. "I know Ms. Carmichael is an attorney-- but surely such a beautiful woman cannot be a criminal?"

Jill chuckled and shook her head in reply. "I'm a police officer, but Abbie and I crossed paths personally before we did professionally."

"Jill is one of the detectives who caught Sarah's killers," Abbie informed their companion. "She and her partner are the ones who did the real work. I just stood in front of the cameras on this one."

Surprise flickered briefly in Tonio's eyes before they turned grave. "Then I owe you a debt of gratitude as well, Ms. Kirkendall. If those butchers had gone free..."

"I was only doing my job, Tonio. But in this case it was one I was happy to do. You don't owe me anything."

"Perhaps you will still allow me to share my hospitality with you on another occasion?"

"We'd be honored."

He clapped his hands together in delight. "Excellent! Now, if I cannot interest you in one of my chef's pastries, what plans do you have for the rest of this lovely evening. Something romantic, I hope? Because if you don't, I have some suggestions for you."

Abbie shot her date a helplessly apologetic glance, but Jill only smiled wryly and replied, "I think we've got it covered. Abbie's going to let me borrow her phone to check on my kids. Then I think there's a jazz club in our immediate future."

"Wonderful!" With practiced grace, Tonio rose from his seat and bowed slightly to both women. "Now I can end my evening in peace and leave you to yours." His face sobered briefly. "Thank you again, ladies. You cannot know how much you've done for my friends-- my family. Ciao."

Waiting until their host had returned to the kitchen, Abbie smiled ruefully at her companion. "That was interesting."

"You do seem to know how to make an impression. But I think I've already told you that."

"Hey! I wasn't making that impression alone, Miss-I-Asked-Her-Out. Now..." she continued, leaning down and fishing her cell phone out of her purse. "I think you wanted to borrow this."

"Thanks," Jill smiled softly, accepting the proffered item as they wound their way out of the crowded restaurant. "This will only take a second." However, when Jill heard Diane's harried and tense voice growl, "Kirkendall residence," she knew her evening was about to come to an abrupt end.

"Diane? Is everything okay?" she asked rhetorically.

"Jill!" The exclamation was filled with both surprise and poorly-concealed relief. "Hey! Everything's great here. What about your end?"

The faint echo of a retching sound and Sorensen's plaintive voice, "Diane? Uh... you know if Kirkendall has any stain remover?" interrupted any answer Jill might have thought about giving.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing! Promise. How's dinner going? You having fun? Why are you calling? I told you I had it all under control."

Dimly, in the background Sorenson beckoned again. "Diane?"

Jill could hear Diane covering the receiver with her hand, but it only muffled her partner's shout. "Work with me here, Danny. Tell Frank to hold the icepack on his nose. And get into the bathroom before Kyle upchucks on the carpet again."

Shaking her head, Jill pressed the end button and handed the phone to Abbie with a weary sigh. Sympathy and not a little disappointment glimmered in the dark eyes gazing back at her. "I guess we'll save the jazz club for another night, huh?" Night air swirled coolly about them, dramatically teasing the long hem of Abbie's coat and ruffling the tendrils of hair streaming down her back. A wry smile played over her features as she raised her hand to hail one of the dozens of passing cabs.

"There's blood and vomit involved-- I think I have to."

"Ouch. 'Course back home that just meant Sunday dinner was over and the football games were on." She nodded as a yellow cab pulled to the curb. "You want to take the first one?" Abbie bent to open the back door, but Jill placed a gently restraining hand on her arm.

"Share with me?" she asked quietly. "It will mean a few more minutes at least."

Abbie's face relaxed into a smile, and her fingers briefly clasped Jill's. "I'd love to."

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

The ride to Jill's apartment was far shorter than either woman wanted, and as the cab slowed in front of her building, a familiar heaviness settled in Abbie's chest.

"Walk me up?" Jill asked softly.

"How about to the door?" Abbie countered as they exited the cab. She told the driver to wait and turned back to the detective. "That way I can say good-bye to you properly." She twined their hands together and pressed a gentle kiss on Jill's palm. "Besides," she chuckled, allowing Jill to lead the way. "I don't think Diane's quite ready to see me in this dress."

It occurred to Jill to remark that hadn't Diane seen her in a lot less, but the thought sent a shiver down her spine. It wasn't something she wanted to consider, really. Not here, not now, and certainly not with Abbie's arms encircling her with a quiet strength and warmth that weren't really like anything she had ever known. With recessed stoop of her apartment building sheltering the women from the cabbie's prying eyes, Jill allowed herself to relax into the embrace. The tentative fear that had been their companion these last few weeks finally slipped away, and Jill parted her lips in eager welcome. Something incomprehensible about being kissed and kissed right meandered through Kirkendall's thoughts, but it was lost in the overwhelming taste and feel of Abbie in her mouth. Of its own accord, one hand tangled itself in Carmichael's thick locks, while the other gently caressed the chiseled lines of the attorney's face. "You are so very beautiful," she murmured at last.

"Only if you aren't standing where I currently am," Abbie rejoined.

"Then I kind of like my view."

"Likewise." They kissed for long moments more, until Abbie buried her face in the crook of Jill's shoulder with a quiet sigh. "It's a good thing we dropped you off first."

"Why's that?" Though by the tightness in the small of her back and the liquid feeling in her legs, Jill had more than a good idea of what her date was talking about.

"This way I can't just drag you upstairs to my place and kiss you senseless."

"Who says you haven't already?" A muted chuckle shook Abbie's body as Jill continued. "You think you've got it rough? I have to go upstairs and deal with whatever mayhem Diane and Danny have cooked up for my kids while acting like..." She trailed off, suddenly shy of the admission she had been on the verge of making.

"Acting like...?" Abbie echoed, nuzzling the graceful curve of Jill's neck and placing random kisses along the flaring pulse point she found there.

Jill suppressed a quiet moan at the sensation, her head falling away as she replied, "Acting like a beautiful woman hasn't just kissed me senseless." She gasped again as Abbie found a particularly delicate spot and drew her date in closer before capturing Abbie's face in her hands and reluctantly pulling her away. "You really have to stop that."

"Why?"

The streetlights cast a reckless gleam in Abbie's dark eyes, turning the sienna to gold; and for a moment, Jill was tempted to just chuck it all away-- let Diane and Danny deal with whatever catastrophe they had created and just take something for herself just this once. The passion that Abbie was inspiring in her was a door to another world, a place Jill hadn't ever seen or even contemplated belonging. It meant placing herself completely in someone else's hands; and that possibility, no matter that the hands were those of a woman Jill was coming to trust with secrets she hadn't shared with anyone-- including Diane-- was terrifying beyond anything she had ever known. "Be-- because," she stammered, closing her eyes and gathering the internal reserves that allowed her to do her job without breaking. "I have to go upstairs and check on my kids. And you..." She allowed herself to meet Abbie's gaze once more and was grateful to see the fire there was banked now.

"Have to go home and take a cold shower," Abbie finished for her, her eyes at once understanding and accepting.

The willingness with which Abbie seemed to take her cues from Jill threatened once more to snatch the detective's breath from her body. "Take one for me too, huh?"

Pressing a small kiss against Jill's forehead, Abbie wrapped her arms around her companion and drew her close. "I'm sorry if I pushed..."

"No!" Jill pulled back in surprise. "You didn't, you haven't... honestly. It's just so much..." She struggled for words, then surrendered, shaking her head. "I honestly didn't expect..."

A tendril of a smile caressed Abbie's lips. "I know. Me too. But all this is new to you, and I shouldn't..."

The consternation flashing over the other woman's features was plain to Jill, and she drew their eyes level, looking at her date solemnly. "Abbie-- what's new to me in all this isn't your gender."

A questioning brow arced in her direction. "It isn't?"

She rolled her eyes at the way Abbie drew out the words. "Well it is-- new that is, but that's not..." She blew out a frustrated breath, exasperated at her own inarticulateness. "You can see why they pay me to chase down the perps and not talk them to death. Trust me on this one, Abbie-- you're doing everything right."

"Then tell me when I can see you again."

Jill brought Abbie's hand to her mouth and pressed tiny kisses into each of the knuckles. "I'll call you this weekend. I'd call you tonight, except I'm not quite sure what's waiting for me up there. How does that sound?"

"It sounds perfect." Abbie leaned in and stole another quick kiss before reluctantly tugging herself away. "And I'm sure the cabbie will be delighted he doesn't have to wait any longer. You take care, okay?"

"I will. Goodnight, Abbie."

"Night."

Telling herself she only wanted to make sure Abbie got into the cab safely, she watched the other woman's graceful stride down the stairs and across the sidewalk. She sketched a small wave in the air when Abbie glanced her way once more as she opened the cab door. But even she couldn't convince herself it was for Abbie's safety as she watched the cab's tailights grow fainted in the distance. Chuckling at her own adolescent urges and turning towards the lobby door, she pulled out her keys.

*Clap clap clap clap*

At the echoing sound of a single pair of hands clapping together, Jill whirled around, her fingers instinctively interlacing with the keys and forming a wicked improvised pair of brass knuckles. If this guy had a gun, she was toast; but if he was looking for something more personal... she might just have a hell of a surprise for him.

"Damn, Jilly. Those Women in Law Enforcement meetings must be something. Wish you had done that when we were married. Hell, we might even still be together."

Shock, fear and-- most of all-- rage shot through Jill, stiffening her spine and turning the sensuous languor of arousal into a blazing jolt of fury. "What do you want, Don?" Her voice was deceptively placid, and that-- more than anything should have warned her ex-husband off-- but he simply continued on as if she hadn't spoken. The shadows cloaked most of her body from his view, and she used this advantage to slip the keys back into her purse and exchange it for the off-duty piece she usually carried. In the darkness, he couldn't see the dull gunmetal gray in her hands.

"Gotta say, though-- I kinda figured if you would ever give it up for a broad it would be for that skinny-assed bitch of a partner of yours. Then again, maybe you already have... but damn!" He whistled low in his throat. "That other one was a hell of a looker. You've got some damn good taste when it comes to women."

"Too bad that didn't hold true for men," Jill shot back acidly.

"Oh come on, Jilly, you gonna try and tell me I turned you queer?" he mocked.

"If anyone could've, Don, you'd be that man. But honestly-- it's an insult to her to even begin to compare the two of you."

"Well, maybe you'll get that chance," he remarked, shoving his hands in his pockets and stepping closer to her. He was still well out of arms' reach, and the combination of street and moon light reflecting off his white shirt gave her a perfect target. "I can just see you in family court. 'Now tell us, Detective Kirkendall, when exactly was it you started munching rugs? Was it before or after you started carrying a gun? Did that make you want something else between your legs besides what you were born with?' I'm sure Frank and Kyle will love to hear you compare us then."

"You threatening my boys?" Icy realization chilled the raging pulse in her veins. Frank and Kyle had always been two more pawns in their ever-escalating warfare, but he had always used her love for them against her-- never the boys themselves. Don was upping the ante on her, and she wasn't sure how far he was prepared to take it.

"They're our boys, Jilly," he corrected her. "You seem to be forgetting that."

"You're not a father to them. You never have been."

"Ask them that. Frank called me tonight after you left. Said you were all dressed up to go out and were dumping him and Kyle on your partner and that runt of a blond guy. What the hell are they hiring for cops these days?" He stepped closer, and Jill slipped the safety off the .38.

She couldn't see his pupils, but she was willing to bet they were constricted and bloodshot. Don's body seemed to quiver with ill-suppressed energy, as if he were trying to vibrate right out of his skin. She had dealt with Don drunk and enraged-- but she hadn't even dealt with him on coke-- if it was coke he was on and not something else. In her years on the force, Jill had been forced to put down more than one perp who thought they were Superman while under the influence. She had the scars to prove it, but the idea of having to take down her sons' father...

"It's a pretty big announcement." He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, oblivious to her thoughts. "Aside from your equally rug-munching partner-- how do you think ole' Andy and the rest of the squad will take it? You gonna let them watch? Hey! I'll bet Sipowicz will be happy to frag you on a bust. What's one more dyke detective off the force? I don't see Mayor Guiliani getting all bunged up about that."

"I don't give a fuck about the mayor or the squad."

"But you do care about the boys." He had her dead to rights there, and they both knew it. "Kyle's such a pussy he'll probably grow up queer anyway. He still wetting the bed?"

"Don..." Her voice was a low growl, warning him.

"But Frank's my boy. Always has been. You ready to lose him, Jilly? Cause I'll take one out of two. And just wait for Kyle to start hating you because you took away his father and his brother. I mean, come on, Jill. She's got legs-- I'll give you that-- but are you willing to give up your world for a piece of snatch?"

He was still far enough away to get a good sight, and now she stepped out of the shadows and brought the gun to bear on his chest. "That's a good question, Don, and I'll tell you what. I'll answer yours right after you answer mine. What's to keep me from just pulling this trigger and solving all of my problems? I've got two cops upstairs ready to back up any story I tell them and a whole squad of CSI that aren't gonna look anywhere I tell them not to. You've been a pain in my ass for more years than I can remember, Don, but don't you dare threaten my sons."

His eyes narrowed, and he seemed to be taking her measure anew. Maybe the drugs gave him a different kind of courage, or maybe he just knew her better than she ever feared, because he walked right up to the barrel of the gun-- his chest pressing softly against the metal-- and smiled at her. The same soft, gentle smile that always transformed his face, the smile that had made her fall in love with him a lifetime ago. "You're not ready to shoot me yet, Jilly. If you had been, you would have already done it. That's the difference between you and me. You still haven't gotten it yet. Those scruples of yours-- they won't let you won't harm a hair on my head; but believe me-- I won't hesitate to turn your life into a nuclear-fucking-wasteland if you cross me. You get it?"

He was right; they both knew it. Wearily, Jill lowered her gun, dropping her head. A brief vision of Abbie's eyes earlier that evening, suffused with a gleaming hunger for their connection yet tempered with a gentle concern for what was happening between them, flashed behind the closed lids of her eyes. She had danced on the edge of something truly extraordinary with Abbie Carmichael, yet the reality of her life and the choices she had made to bring her to this point dragged her back. A part of her silently cursed Abbie for showing her a glimpse of something she had known she couldn't have, but still Jill Kirkendall grieved for it, hungered for it in a way she had never hungered for anything ever before. Maybe in another life....

"What do you want from me, Don?" she asked dully, her eyes opening once more to the ugly banality of her existence.

He smiled at her again, moved his hand as if to caress her cheek, but she jerked herself away from his touch. Already feeling too dirty for even the hottest shower to cleanse her. "There's some narco asshole sniffing around. I want you to show me how to slip his tail."

She nodded briefly. "That all?"

He paused a moment, as if considering the slump of her shoulders, the weariness that he had etched into her features tonight. "One more thing. There are some... pastries... that my ma made."

"Pastries?" A pale brown arched skeptically.

"Yeah, pastries. I need you to drop them off for me." Digging the knife in-- in a way only he could. Making her an accomplice to his crimes without even lifting a finger. He grinned in satisfaction. "I'll bring them by the house tomorrow with the addresses. You'll take care of them for me?"

Like she had a choice-- if she didn't want to betray everything she believed in and everyone who believed in her. She wondered fleetingly if Diane would have pulled the trigger-- maybe, probably-- but Jill herself couldn't. Nor could she bring herself to confide her weakness, her fears to her partner and ask for help. No doubt Diane wouldn't judge her for all her mistakes, her folly-- but Jill was more than capable of judging herself, and finding herself guilty of crimes that had no name. So with an exhausted sigh, she nodded her head. "Sure, Don," she said at last. "Whatever."

Epilogue

Sunday Morning...

"Hello, I'm Christienne Turner and you're watching New York Now. Last night marked an extraordinary night in the city, and I'm not talking about the arrival of a new Broadway show. Over 50,000 people gathered in Central Park to mark the passing of not a rock star or a political figure, but a single woman-- brutally murdered for no other reason than her choice of people to love.

"Just a few short weeks ago, residents were astonished by the slaying of twenty-seven year old Sarah Pruitt by two men in an alleyway in the heart of New York's gay mecca. Pruitt, a successful investment broker, was on her way to meet some friends at a local lesbian bar when she was attacked and butchered by two men because she had rejected their advances. In a year where the nation has already been rocked by the homophobic murders of Matthew Shepherd, Billy Jack Gaither, and JR Warren; some are regarding Sarah Pruitt's murder as a call-- not to arms-- but awareness."

Abbie groaned as the tape cut away from Christienne Turner's caramel features to a clip of herself standing on the plywood platform, a bundle of microphones-- including one from Turner's WST apparently-- in front of her. She was wearing a white shirt and her favorite midlength leather jacket-- the one Diane was always so crazy about-- her faded jeans concealed by the podium. At the last minute Lorraine had asked her to speak, and carried away by the spirit of the crowd and her own energy-- inspired in part by her evening with Jill-- she had agreed. Now she groaned as she heard her own words played back to her.

"For far too long, too many of us have stepped back and watched from the sidelines as hate and ignorance have preyed upon those who don't fear, who don't hesitate, and who have refused to live their lives in the shadow of difference.

"I never knew Sarah Pruitt; and thanks to the men who murdered her, I'll never have that joy. I'll never witness firsthand the love that she and Lorraine shared. I'll never join in the friendships that grounded her as she walked the city streets. I'll never see the smile that I've seen only in pictures. But what Sarah did give me, even in death, was the resolve to help insure that never again would another soul be lost to those who would rather hate than love, kill than learn.

"I can't do it alone. Lorraine Fitzgerald can't do it alone. The HRC and Equality Now can't do it. Only if we join together-- each and every one of us. Gay, straight and everything in between-- only together-- do we stand a chance."

The tape cut abruptly back to Turner who regarded the camera with solemn, unblinking eyes. "Those were the words of Assistant District Attorney Abbie Carmichael, a political figure who has put her political agenda aside to speak from the heart. Were more political servants like her, perhaps Stephanie Pruitt would still be alive. But there are others who do not share Ms. Carmichael's view. Joining us today are..."

With an angry growl, Abbie snapped the TV off as, simultaneously, the phone began to ring. Groaning and burying her head in the pillows, she contemplated not answering it. That, however, would only be putting off the inevitable; and Abbie had never considered herself a procrastinator. Sighing deeply, she pulled the receiver from its cradle and snapped, "Carmichael..."

It was the first of too many phone calls for Abbie to count that day. And in the melee and damage control and angry voices shouting at her, she never realized that not a single call was from Jill Kirkendall.

FINIS

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