Plausible Deniability

Rated FRT
Spoilers for Red Ball and other eps in Season 16
Disclaimer to Wolf & Co., for they own Law & Order and the characters herein. I own the writing.

For LJer lherelenfeline, winning bidder in my LiveJournal Queensland Flood Relief Fic Challenge Auction. This is for you.

Copyright 2011 Cassatt

"The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it."
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180)

September, 2005

The police car with full siren blast careened through traffic near the park; the car angled left in front of oncoming cars and just before it landed on the sidewalk the driver hit the brakes. Ed Green braced with his feet, wincing from a jolt of pain in his pectoral, behind the scar on his chest. He jumped out of the car and called to the uniformed officer on the sidewalk, "Yo, man, where's the sergeant?"

The uni pointed to a clump of people ten yards away. "Over there."

Ed veered in that direction and continued his hard stride.

"Hey," the uni said as Ed passed, "I thought you were riding a desk--"

"I'm done with that."

He was done with it. Even if Lieutenant Van Buren was crystal clear that she was not entirely certain that he could be done with it, that he should be done with it. The two of them had the same conversation every week: how was he feeling; what was the state of his rehab; Dr. Skoda had said this or that to Lieu about the state of his psyche. Ed had been losing patience even before he returned and was tied to a desk, so to sit in the House with his fellow detectives coming and going was tortuous. It was nothing more than a test of will, according to his best friend. Each day he concluded his friend was full of it. Then, thirty minutes ago, Lieu had called Ed to her office and without preamble told him a patrol car was waiting to take him to the park, and Joe, because they had a red ball: a young girl named Jennifer Clark was in a car that had been car jacked in broad daylight outside a busy park, her mother dragged alongside until she could no longer hold on. It was a child kidnapping. And now Ed was covering the New York pavement as fast as his long legs could take him, straight into the thick of it. He was never going back to desk duty. Not if he could damn well help it.

Four hours later, Ed was chasing the missing girl's estranged father through a lumber warehouse. He did not know why Jimmy Clark ran; he did not care. His lungs were heaving, his chest as tight as the metal strapping on the cardboard barrels he was flying past. He felt a brief urge to stop before his body did it for him, but kept going, careening around another corner. Joe cut off Clark and slammed him to the ground, then yanked him to his feet, pinning him against a stack of planks while Ed tried in vain to catch his breath.

"I didn't do nothin'!" Clark said, his eyes wide with panic.

"You run pretty fast for somebody who didn't do nothin'!" Ed forced out of heaving lungs, shoving a finger in the guy's face, wanting to poke him in the eye, or punch him in the jaw, or something. He was burning up from overheating, and anger. He still couldn't catch his breath. "Two o'clock today, where were you?!"

"Right here! I been here since noon."

Joe said, "And your boss will vouch for that?"

"Check my timecard!"

Ed let the stack of wood support him while Joe asked Clark if he knew why they were there. When the man answered, "a drunk driving warrant," Ed's anger dissipated enough to feel an iota of pity. Sure enough, Mr. Clark didn't know his daughter had been kidnapped, didn't recognize the kidnapper in the bodega's security camera photo, and all Ed had to show for searing his beat-up lungs was a ruled-out lead and an upset father. Why the hell did these guys always run first and talk later? He wiped his face and neck of sweat as he and Joe walked to the car.

"Jesus," Joe said, "are you okay? You looked like you were gonna faint on me back there...."

Ed glared at him over the hood while opening the car door. "I can handle it."

"Course you can, course you can," Joe said. He got into the car.

Ed knew insincerity when he heard it. Fontana might have good cop instincts, but he was a damned lousy liar.

Fourteen hours later -- with only an hour nap at the House -- Ed and Joe had their main suspect, Dwight Jacobs, in custody. The police had broken down the guy's door at six a.m. and grabbed him out of a sound sleep. He was immediately defiant, and more than cocky-- he was coldly arrogant. Ed had the opportunity to stare into his eyes for a full thirty seconds; he recognized the emptiness he saw. Jacobs was a sociopath. So, even though the police had found bloody child's clothing in his apartment, plus an identifiable and identified security camera photo of Jacobs carrying Jennifer Carter down the sidewalk with a hand over her mouth, the man sitting in the two-seven's IR acted like he was the one in complete control.

Ed and Joe started in on him, desperate to find the girl. He asked for a lawyer. Joe ignored the request until Lieu stopped the interrogation with ADA Alexandra Borgia on her heels, prompting yet another snark-laced comment from Joe to Lieu which at least she ignored this time, to Ed's relief. He had already been forced to placate Joe during an earlier argument between the man and their lieutenant, and frankly Ed was tired of being stuck in the middle. He had been back at Joe's side for less than twenty-four hours, and he was already primed to pop him one. Between Joe's repeated statements that Jennifer Clark was probably dead, and his inability to respect Van Buren, Ed felt like he was getting battered from all directions. He was exhausted.

Three hours later, there was a call into the two-seven: Harbor Police had found a body wrapped in black plastic at the East River; Ed and Joe were sent to see if it was their kidnapped girl. On the way, Joe made a "these cases never end well" comment one time too many for Ed, and the two of them got into an argument which of course led nowhere, with Joe claiming that he knew better about how "these cases" ended nine and a half times out of ten because he had so many more years on the job than Ed did, and Ed rebutting with pointless arguments said solely to try to shut up Fontana because he could not take it anymore. Ed got out of the car firm in his newfound conviction that he was the only detective in Homicide who still believed that Jennifer Clark could be found alive. He had long ago made the conscious choice never to give up hope until hope was proved false. He could not keep going without it.

The black plastic-wrapped body was on the East River's pebbled bank. It didn't look like a child. Ed used his pen to lift the torn plastic off a shoulder and his pulse screamed in fury as he saw the chiseled arm of a mannequin. "Oh, you've gotta be kidding me!" He stood and hurled the pen into the river with force. "Some sick son of a bitch!" He stomped back to the car with the Harbor cop working hard to keep up with him, needlessly apologizing since he is not supposed to touch any body until Homicide does, when Ed heard two other unis laughing. He spun on his heels. "You think that's funny?!"

Fontana immediately got between him and the two men, yelling at them to beat it, and turned to face Ed. "Hey, look," Joe said, "as far as we know, that kid is still out there. Am I right?"

Ed honestly could not believe his partner would say that, to his face, like he was the one keeping the investigation together, like he was the one trying to think of new leads, like he actually believed the case wouldn't end badly. Ed let Joe see -- in his full-bore glare -- that he did not buy one bit of his fake optimism. It was either that, or punch him. His anger was not that all-encompassing that he would risk going back to a desk. He was still in control of his fate. Nobody else.

Ed got his vindication four hours later, when they finally had proof that five year old Jennifer Clark was alive. The trap on Mrs. Clark's phone caught the child's call to her mother, pleading to come home. The detectives and the prosecutors converged on Mrs. Clark's apartment to listen to the recording, and talk about what to do next. The call had come in from a prepaid cell; their options were limited. It was six o'clock when Ed and Joe left Mrs. Clark's side, heading for a pizza joint - they were to bring food back to the House, enough for everyone working the case.

Joe placed the order and paid by peeling off two hundred-dollar bills from the roll in his pants pocket. Ed watched from a table against the wall. Even after being around Fontana for a year, he still had no idea where the man got so much cash. Gambling? Not that Ed knew about, not per his own connections. Trafficking? Ed thought that would be too risky, even for Joe. Bribes? He didn't think so, but there were times when it felt possible.

"Hey, Ed, want a drink while we wait?" Joe called from the counter.

"Coke. Large." He needed more caffeine. After thirty hours straight with nothing but naps here and there, he was feeling it. Not that he would admit it. He had seen Lieu out of the corner of his eye, evaluating him, looking to see if he should be pulled off and sent home. She wasn't as obvious as his mother, but they were uncannily similar in approach. Assume first, ask questions second. He watched Joe schmooze the young woman behind the counter. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.

There was one thing he could admit, to himself at least, in this private minute. Back in Mrs. Clark's apartment, seeing Jack McCoy for the first time in two months his body threw him a signal that was wholly unexpected. His pulse had quickened. It was true that he had not expected to see Jack since they had been dealing strictly with Alex Borgia, Jack's second chair. She and Fontana had each other on speed dial, now. It was true that Ed's personal relationship with Jack had changed somewhat since he had been shot. Jack visited him in the hospital. Jack came by every week while he was recuperating at his mother's house. They watched Yankees games. They played chess. Jack even stayed for dinner. Ed had begun thinking of their visits as high points in his otherwise unending routine of rehab and rest. Then the visits suddenly stopped. True, he was feeling much better by that time, and his return to desk duty had been mapped out by that time, and Skoda had pared down their counseling to every two weeks by that time, but-- that didn't mean Jack should simply stop coming. And then Ed saw him an hour ago, face to face, in the midst of an intensely stressful situation, and he heard Jack say comforting words to Mrs. Clark in a voice that Ed had heard himself months before. And his pulse had quickened a second time since Jack had entered the apartment.

"Hey, Ed," Joe said, next to him. Ed opened his eyes. "We're up." Joe thumbed to the counter where two stacks of pizza boxes waited.

"Yeah, okay," Ed said, standing. He stretched his shoulders back; his left pectoral complained with a sharp twinge. The doctors had told him to expect that to continue for a long time to come. He was already sick of it.

Twenty-four hours later, Joe and Ed sat in an unmarked alongside two patrol cars in the precinct's parking lot, in the dark, waiting for a phone call. Joe tapped his cell on the steering wheel. Ed gnawed the pad on his thumb. Joe checked his watch. Ed almost did the same, but he knew it had been only a minute since he last checked.

Joe made a noise deep in his throat. "What in god's name is takin' so long?"

"Jurisprudence," Ed said.

"Yeah, their version of the old-fashioned interrogation," Joe said in a snide tone. "But they're giving away the courthouse, and we would've left him with a broken finger or two."

Neither of them knew the specifics of the deal between the kidnapper, Dwight Jacobs, and the DA's office, only that it should force Jacobs to give them Jennifer's location, which was what everyone wanted. Lieu had intimated that it was a sweet deal for Jacobs. All parties were in an evening court session letting the system do its thing. The cell phone rang; Joe answered it before it rang twice. Jennifer was being held in Jacob's mother's garage in Queens. Joe started the car as Ed radioed the address to the others. All three cars sped out of the lot toward the bridge, sirens and lights on full blast.

"Get me a crowbar!" Ed yelled. "It's okay, Jenny," he said to the locked trunk in front of him. Someone handed him the tool; he popped the padlock. Jennifer Clark was curled on her side in a white nightgown. He lifted her out, and she began to cry; he told her he was taking her to her mommy, his throat closing around soothing words as he hugged her close and walked as fast as he could out of that damned garage. He heard Joe on the phone to Borgia, "We got 'er." Sometimes these kind of cases did end well.

Ed pulled off his holster and badge and dropped them on the dresser. He undressed, contemplating a shower, and what food he had in the apartment, and whether he should simply strip and fall into bed and deal with filling his stomach whenever he woke up again. But, his chest hurt, and the pain was starting to radiate through his shoulder so he knew if he didn't stand under hot water now he would pay tomorrow. He headed to the bathroom. He would order in some Thai fried rice from down the block. He would have a beer. He might turn on the computer for an hour, but he would resolutely stay away from the poker sites. He would stay away from them. He would. Most definitely. He would stay away.

Jack McCoy sat in Thomas Paine Park, the small park across the street from the courthouse and adjacent to Foley Square, and opened the brown bag lunch he had bought from his favorite kebab vendor. It was Friday, after one of the toughest Thursdays of his career - a day that had ended with an expectation that he would probably be unemployed soon. He was, instead, still on the job. The benches around him were filling up with lawyers, and clerks, some sitting alone, some in tandem with a coworker. The park's lone homeless person was asleep on the grass next to a tree, his few bags of possessions tied to each wrist, a pillow of filthy clothing under his head. The man was there more often than not, always ignored, usually asleep, quiet even when awake. Jack often wondered where he spent his nights, and where he went when the temperature dropped like it would soon. Today it was merely cooler than it had been, a welcome break from the September heat.

Jack opened the magazine he had brought and took a bite of lamb inside soft pita. Tzatziki sauce dripped out, missing his thigh by an inch.

"Man, that looks good," a familiar voice said to his right. Jack turned. Ed Green was standing there, hands in pants' pockets in a pose of relaxation, a touch of a smile on his face.

"Ed," Jack said.

"Jack," Ed said. He paused, then pointed to the bench. "Can I..?"

Jack nodded and tried to find a reasonable explanation why Ed was here, as the other man sat, crossed his legs, and folded his hands together on a thigh. Jack's brain did not come up with anything, reasonable or otherwise. He closed his magazine. "What can I do for you?" he said, and took another bite, wiping his mouth of yet more escaping tzatziki.

"I heard a rumor," Ed said. "About Dwight Jacobs, last night. And about you. I figured it was best to come to the source--" He shrugged one shoulder. "--if you're willing to tell me. Of course."

"What was the rumor?" It wasn't a surprise that the news would have spread fast enough to hit Homicide South within hours, but Jack needed to know how much he was being asked to divulge. And he wanted to finish his lunch while it was still warm. He ate.

Ed's eyebrows knitted. "That you're going to lose your job over a plea bargain you made with Jacobs. That that piece of scum expected to get a walk. And you gave it to him." He uncrossed his legs and shifted until he was facing Jack. "I know he's in for twenty-five, which either means that the rumor is false, or the walk part of it is, or there was some legal maneuvering. Whatever-- Jacobs is gone." He studied Jack for a long moment. "What I want to know is whether or not you're goin'."

Ed had a familiar look on his face, one that Jack last saw a few months back when there was talk amongst the doctors that Ed might not ever be cleared to work the streets. So much younger, like he was a boy confronting a new school with new cliques and unknown teachers. Jack took a long draw of lemonade. "I'm still in the DA's office."

There was a pause, and Ed's look didn't alter at all. "You mean you'll still be working capital cases? Homicide? Or is Mr. Branch moving you--"

"No, no, sorry... I'm still in the same position."

Ed's face relaxed as he nodded once, eyebrows returning to normal; he sat further back against the bench. He glanced at the courthouse steps across the street for a moment. "So, was Jacobs gonna get a walk? Is that why he told us where Jenny was?"

Jack did not want to discuss the legal ins and outs of everything he had gone through the day before, even for Ed, even if Jack had complete confidence that the man could understand it all. He might not attend law school like his fill-in, Detective Falco, but Ed Green had never kept himself ignorant or drawn a hard line between the police and the prosecutors. "We made a deal with him, and, yes, for time served. The judge refused to accept the plea bargain. In the interest of justice. And I still have my job."

"Mr. Branch didn't want you to make the deal," Ed said.

"No," Jack admitted. Arthur had declared that the office would not "negotiate with terrorists" no matter what.

"I see."

Jack shrugged. "You know-- you were there in Mrs. Clark's apartment. How could I tell her that we wouldn't do what ever we could to get her daughter back? We had no choice."

"Jenny and Mrs. Clark, not to mention Mr. Clark, would agree with you."

"And you?" He did and he didn't want to know what Ed thought.

"Me? Well...." Ed paused, picking a piece of invisible lint off his pant leg. "Since it isn't acceptable to beat the crap out of suspects like Jacobs to make them talk, I agree that you had no choice. But it seems there should be a way to force them to give it up, and stay within the bounds of the law. Seems like."

"The law is sometimes entirely inadequate. This was one of those times. Jacobs is a psychopath. At least now he won't be out of prison until he's in his sixties."

"That's why you make the big bucks," Ed said, smiling a small smile, a familiar smile.

"Not that big," Jack said. He felt a laugh bubble up from deep inside and swallowed it. It was good to have Ed Green back on active duty for more reasons than Jack allowed himself to think much less feel, but, at its simplest, their working relationship was one of mutual respect and camaraderie. He had missed it.

"So," Ed said, "Alex let it slip that you eat here every Friday."

"I do. Weather permitting. Schedule permitting. Some judges like half days on Fridays during a trial, to give the jury a break."

Ed's cell phone rang; he answered, and it sounded as if it was a call to duty. A shooting, a body, the next case starting when the whirlwind of the last had barely settled. He hung up and stood, said his good-byes and left, his long stride taking him out of the park to wave down a cab in the span of a minute, maybe two. Jack watched him leave. Two months ago, he had made the conscious choice to stop spending personal time with Ed Green. After all, Jack was a man who had complete control over his life. Two months ago, Ed was healthier; he was preparing to come back to the force; he had his friends and family around him. Two months ago, Jack worked hard to adjust his attitude, because he had begun to consider the weekly visits to Mrs. Green's home a highlight in his otherwise mundane life. Spending time with Ed had begun to feel important. Far too important to let it continue.

Jack opened his magazine again, took a sip of lemonade, and forced himself to concentrate on world events. The war in Iraq. Extraordinary rendition. The Guantanamo Bay detention case due before the Supreme Court in a month. The distraction worked for a full fifteen minutes.

A week later, Ed made up a story for Fontana about needing to meet his brother downtown, in order to have a lunch hour to himself. He had mixed feelings about lying to his partner, but the guilt was mild and easily dismissed as unimportant. Ed still tended to compare his relationship with Fontana with the partnership he had had with Lennie, and it was usually found wanting. He would never have lied to Lennie. He would have told him he was taking himself to lunch, alone, and Lennie would have said "see ya" and that would have been that.

Ed got out of a cab at Centre and Worth and crossed the street to enter Thomas Paine Park. From a distance, he searched the benches for a familiar head of gray hair. He didn't see Jack anywhere. It was just twelve-thirty, though, and the Friday before it had been nearly one o'clock when he had found him, so maybe it was early, yet. Ed found a seat in the center of the park and took his sandwich and drink out of the paper bag he had carried in one hand, set down the portable chess set he had carried in the other. His presence was intended to be a surprise to the other man, the chess set an added bonus. They would not have time to complete a game, but that was part of Ed's plan. He would have to return next week to finish the contest. This was all a calculated risk, an idea he had last weekend, because.... Well, because. Ultimately, it might prove stupid; he might feel a fool; Jack might look at him as an intruder.... Etcetera.

He ate his lunch while watching the courthouse steps and the District Attorney's office on the nearby corner.

Jack checked his watch as he left the courthouse; it was one-thirty. He said good-bye to Alex at the top of the stairs-- she was going back to the office to chat online with a friend while she ate. It had been another intense week of legal wrangling, not to mention the newly-strained relationship he had with his boss. Jack was communicating with Branch as necessary, but not much beyond that. It was merely for reasons of self-preservation. Jack was tired. He needed some peace.

He happened to look across the street toward the park before walking to the sandwich shop. His pulse quickened as he thought he saw a familiar form leaving, on the other side of the Foley Square monument. Jack stopped, and looked more carefully. It was Ed. He watched as the man pitched a brown paper bag in a trash can before continuing on toward the interior of Manhattan. Disappointment kicked Jack's heart with shocking intensity. Ed was too far away to hail, and was moving with purpose, head down, looking at the sidewalk more than the people he passed. The body language was uncharacteristic. Jack did not know how to judge it.

Ed walked rather than take a cab back to the precinct. Who cared that it was a further distance than he had time to cover, no matter how fast he covered it. He was acutely disappointed, and more disappointed than he had any right to feel in his own opinion of himself, the situation, the past years, whatever. And, what did that say about his life? Surprising someone with his presence and the possibility of playing chess was so earth-shatteringly important that now, because it hadn't happened, his day officially sucked. He could feel depression creeping in like the sonuvabitch it was.

November, 2005

The night after Thanksgiving Jack was on a frigid march up North Halsted in the center of Chicago's Boystown, with a sharp wind cutting across the city, through him, and toward the lake three blocks to his east. His shins and face were freezing. It was not the first time he wondered why his childhood home felt so much colder than Manhattan, irrelevant of their respective, measurable temperatures. All of his Chicago relatives were snug inside his sister Kate's house, watching a movie. It was Jack's privilege of being eldest and an out-of-town visitor that all he had told them was that he would be out for the night. He had owned a key to Kate's house since she bought the place twenty-five years before. He had hopes he would use the key sometime in the early morning hours, the next day.

His family could assume what they wished. He was heading to a Boystown sports bar he had first found in the mid-1980s, when the area was becoming a gay destination but had not yet reached Mayoral Proclamation status. The bar was unpretentious, filled with regular men of all ages and occupations, some looking for hookups, some looking for a pool game, or a darts competition. The last time Jack had visited, there were relatively few half-naked circuit-party types - young men who looked to him like they were barely out of high school. Who could be his grandsons.

Jack wanted a hookup. A game of pool or darts would be fine along the way. But, this was his twice a year -- minimum -- search for blistering, sweaty sex with a man. It was not a "down low" thing - he knew he was bisexual, had known he was bisexual since college, at least, and he was not ashamed. It was his private business, and his professional life in New York gave him no opportunity for anonymity. Here in Chicago, being anonymous was a freedom he relished. He counted on it.

The bar was louder than before; there was a celebration going on, probably a birthday. Jack took a minute to look over the main room as he unzipped his parka and pulled off gloves. It seemed promising. Butterflies fluttered in the pit of his stomach. He made his way to the bar and ordered two fingers of Glenlivet from a bearded bartender wearing a plaid flannel shirt and piercings in his eyebrow and lip. Two men left, a few stools down; Jack took one of the vacant seats and draped his coat over his lap.

He sipped the scotch and almost sighed with pleasure as the warmth hit and spread. He smiled to himself. He needed this; he had been looking forward to it since he boarded the jet that took him across the country. Yes, it was always terrific to see his family, and catch up with them, and talk about the occasional good times they had as kids. But, he had had a rough couple of months at work, and he needed more than a family visit. Discovering that his assassination was planned (and almost successfully carried out) was terrifying. Not entirely surprising -- he had always half-expected something like it over the years -- all the same, once he was on the hit list, and under armed police protection, he was scared 24 / 7. It was not a feeling he was at all accustomed to as an adult. He had not shared that recent history over turkey dinner with his siblings. Then Anita Van Buren's friend killed herself after a boyfriend burned her face with acid. The case against the boyfriend had blown up in their collective faces earlier this week. Jack had never been so glad to get out of Manhattan. And here he was. He smiled to himself again, taking another swallow of scotch. He swung around on the stool to check out the possibilities.

There was a man, maybe ten years younger than he, near the front windows who met his glance. Light hair, clean-shaven, wire-rimmed glasses, he seemed in good shape. He wore a gray Bears sweatshirt and jeans. Jack smiled at him, but kept his eyes moving. A man with dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin, wearing a maroon turtleneck sweater nodded at him and seemed more than interested by his concentrated gaze, but he was probably way under six feet, and Jack liked men who were at least close to his height. It was early; he had time to be picky. He looked toward the dart boards, to his left. His heart slammed into his ribs. Tall man, dark skin, close-cropped hair, goatee and 'stache was in profile, talking with three others. It was Ed. The light was behind the man, and he was mostly in shadow, but-- The man turned toward him. It was not Ed. Of course it wasn't. Ed was a thousand miles away with his own family, or out with friends, or doing any number of things that Jack was trying not to imagine, and had been trying not to imagine on a weekly basis for the past two months. This man who wasn't Ed was now meeting Jack's unintended stare, and gave a little nod of interest, and even smiled. Jack was fixated. He did look very much like Ed -- the same shape of face, hairline, and nose -- but without that certain something that set Ed apart, in Jack's mind. This guy didn't have Ed's eyes, that displayed every emotion, or his incandescent smile. Still... This guy was interested. And he was walking Jack's way. Jack decided to at least meet him, and chat for a few minutes, just to see. What could it hurt?

Midnight found Jack in the man's bathroom, putting his clothes back on as quietly as he could since the man was asleep in the next room. His name was Murray; he was a high school mathematics teacher in Northbrook; he was funny, smart and a good conversationalist. He was also an adept sexual partner. If Jack were completely honest, Murray was an excellent sexual partner. However, Jack felt no urge to be honest about anything he had just experienced in the past two hours. He pulled on his sweater and took a last look at himself in the mirror, to make sure his hair was okay. It wasn't. He retrieved the comb he kept in his parka and ran it through sweat-dampened hair, fixing the part. He avoided looking into his eyes' reflection.

He needed to call a cab in order to get to the train station - he was not about to walk and take a bus at such an hour, besides the last train left the Loop for the northwest suburbs in an hour. He was desperate not to wake Murray. The bar was two blocks away; he could call from there. Jack found some note paper in the pristine, modern kitchen; he left Murray a note on the island, and included his cell phone number out of habit, and gratitude. As far as Murray knew, Jack was a lawyer who worked in Manhattan doing unspecified things for and around people in trouble with the police.

The condo was a sleek and modern renovation in a typical 1920s Chicago apartment building. Murray lived on the top floor; Jack walked down the central staircase three flights to the street. Cold hit him like a slap in the face. He pulled up his hood and hurried to the bar.

Once Jack was finally on the train, he went to the single seats on the upper tier so he might find some privacy. The car was nearly empty anyway. The train rumbled out of the station and slowly picked up speed; it would take nearly forty minutes to reach his destination. Jack was suddenly bone-tired, so he used his hood as padding between his head and the frigid window, and closed his eyes, sure he could keep himself awake. The past three hours came flooding back, unbidden, forcing him to face honestly what he had done. He probably should not have gone home with Murray in the first place. It was as if he was a teenager and had the chance to get away with something illicit. Murray was enthusiastic, and a nice guy, and at the time Jack did think he was responding to Murray himself, and not Sort-Of-Ed-Murray. But, then they were seriously getting into the give and take of sex and Jack found himself imagining this was Ed, and the more he imagined that and kept his eyes off of Murray's face, the easier it was to imagine it was Ed, and the more charged Jack became... and he went with it. All of it. Let himself pretend this was Ed all of the way to the end, and it was one of the most sexually intense experiences he had had in the prior five years, at least.

What an awful thing to do to a decent guy like Murray. Jack always thought he was better than someone who would take advantage of a situation like that. A situation so personal. He may participate in casual sex on occasion, but he never acted irresponsibly. And not only had he treated Murray like shit, but what about Ed? As if it wasn't bad enough before. Now, it had the potential to be excruciating.

Thanksgiving weekend for Ed had started out as a nice break from a highly stressful month at work. The family gathering at his mother's house was large, and loud, and joyous. There were only a few job-related questions thrown his way -- the usual quantity -- but given that the job had almost killed him eight months before his elders probed a little more deeply this time. He appreciated their worry, but sometimes it felt like they used the shooting to judge him more harshly than ever. There was nothing he could do except take a walk around his mother's block as often as possible. Thank goodness her dog provided him with an alibi. By Saturday afternoon, the nice break from work had descended to dysfunctional family dynamics and Ed begged off another dinner get-together with a tale of personal commitment to some needy friends.

Ed's friends were all with their own families -- biological or otherwise -- or off on skiing or romantic vacations in the snow. Saturday evening, Ed was free to do anything he wanted. He could go to one of his favorite bars; he could take himself to a movie; he could stay in his apartment and play online poker. But, he was tired of playing online, and he certainly did not want to take a two hour trip to card clubs in either Connecticut or Atlantic City. He did sit at the computer, but solely to bring up his email - he had saved one from a friend about an underground poker club on the east side, supposedly a decent place to find some action.

Ed double-checked the building's address with the note in his coat pocket; the building looked like any other medium-sized commercial building. This was the right one. He called the club's number and received further directions - which floor, which door, what name would display on the directory. When he got off the elevator on the seventh floor he took the left corridor until he found the nondescript door, the only one with light showing behind it. Ed supposed the Yang Chu Import-Export Company down the hallway did not do much trading on Saturday nights. He wondered if they wondered why the door he stood at was minimally active during normal business hours. Ed knocked.

A man with a good fifty pounds and two inches of height on Ed opened the door. He asked Ed for the password of the day. Ed gave it. He was allowed inside, asked for his identification, and asked if he would submit to a physical search for weapons. He had been warned that this particular club was security conscious but he had not expected a pat-down; he was carrying his personal piece in a clip-on on the side of his waist. There were two obvious options: stay and give them more identification to explain the piece, or go. The security guard was beginning to stare hard at him as a long minute ticked by. Ed relented, and displayed both his badge and his gun, assuring the other man he only wanted to play some poker, but he was not giving up his weapon to anyone, period. The man left for a back room, and after what Ed assumed was some discussion with the owners, he was allowed in. He went to the cage and paid his buy in - $5000, which was high for him, but he had a good feeling about tonight so he had taken some money out of his checking account to round out his poker fund. If his good feeling panned out, there would be little to no negative consequence to his monthly budget.

Two hours after he arrived, Ed sat in the bar sipping a beer and taking a break from the play. He was barely breaking even, and whereas that was usually a good thing, he was beginning to feel frustrated enough that he was making rash, borderline desperate decisions. Rash decision-making was not a successful Texas hold 'em strategy. There was a computer in the bar which was constantly logged in to a poker site so players could pass some time with more routine play. Ed was tempted. However, once on a site it was far too easy to stay there and never venture back to the tables.

Lennie once told him that every time he went into a bar its unique smells momentarily made him crave a drink. Since it was part and parcel of the job that they went into bars, looking for information, Lennie had been confronted with this craving on an almost weekly basis. Ed didn't know how he had managed. Lennie said the smell was a particular combination of stale beer soaked into the flooring; a hint of cigarettes, cigars, and a hundred different perfumes; a layer of grease on the walls from years of fried foods; and the odor of despair. Ed always thought Len was projecting the last. When Ed had walked through the door to this card club, he was hit with a certain combination of odors that he had not smelled in years; he would be hard-pressed to declare it offensive. Old cigar and cigarette smoke usually made him yearn for a lungful of rain-laced wind. In a poker game? It got his blood racing, because it meant the situation was as it should be. Same for the smell of sweat, of adrenaline, of fear. And that was no projection on his part. He knew what fear smelled like. It smelled like the young guy who was playing the high stakes table Ed had just left.

Ed left a tip on the bar, stood, adjusted the holster under his sport coat, and told himself it was time to return to that table. His luck had to turn.

Ed walked out of the building still buttoning his black wool overcoat. He pulled on leather gloves and turned the coat's collar up against the bitter cold. Began his walk toward Park Avenue where he hoped to catch a cab. It was one a.m. In earlier years he would have stayed at the club until at least three or four in the morning, but his mother expected him to join her for church later. They went as a family so few times a year that Ed did not begrudge the required gesture.

"Hey, man!" a voice called from behind.

Ed's instincts kicked in; he quickly pulled off his right glove and unbuttoned his coat enough to rest a hand on his holster. He was carrying more hundreds than he had arrived with. Men had been shot for less. He turned. The man from the poker game approached. Ed waited, but didn't move his hand away.

"Hey," the man repeated. He had no overcoat, no gloves, and his face was already pink from the cold. "Listen... dude.... About the tickets?"

Ed sighed to himself. "Yeah?"

"Look, I'll give you the money for 'em, I promise, just give me somewheres I can meet you later today, okay?" The man grabbed Ed's free arm. Ed shook him off. "Hey, I don't mean nothin' untoward, but you gotta understand I have to have those tickets back! I--"

"Lost them fair and square," Ed said. "You didn't have to put them in, you could've folded and you're the one who insisted. The house bent over backwards to let you do it. You lost." Ed shrugged. "It's not my problem."

"You don't understand!"

Ed shook his head; he wanted to go home. "What don't I understand?"

"They're not mine!"

"What the hell, man? You stole them?" Ed had a brief vision of arresting this guy and then explaining to Lieu how he came to do that--

"No! I didn't steal 'em. They--" The man cleared his throat. "They, um, belong to my boss. I only have them to give to out-of-town clients, you know, to impress them with the city and all that crap? Sitting near the floor, that always gets 'em. You know?"

Ed did know. First tier Knicks basketball tickets -- three of them for five upcoming games -- were not only impressive but worth a fair chunk of change. He had already made plans for who he'd ask to accompany him. "What's your point?"

"Like I said, just meet me later today and I'll pay you for 'em. If you don't, I'll be in real deep shit! Probably lose my job!"

Ed felt slightly bad for the guy, but he had won them, and that's how the game was played. If a person couldn't handle themselves they shouldn't be playing no-limit high stakes. Still, looking at this man, he saw the naked panic on his face and he could not flat-out tell him he was completely fucked. He couldn't do it. After agreeing to meet him at a specified place later that day, Ed walked away, vowing that if the guy did not show up with cash in hand he would do no further negotiating. He looked over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. The man was nowhere around.

"We'll ask for a continuance," Jack said, shutting the file in front of him and handing it to Alex, next to his desk. "Prepare a--" The door to his office flew open. Ed marched in wearing a wide smile. Jack's heartbeat reacted with a hard thud.

"We got it!" Ed said. "We got him! On tape." He placed a small tape recorder on the table.

"Corley?" Alex said.

Jack was surprised. He had been skeptical that someone as intelligent as Jason Corley would fall for a trap like Lieutenant Van Buren had planned. The guy had balls of steel. Corley not only threw acid in his girlfriend's face, but then sent labels from lye containers to her mother as a threat intended for her sister Callie. Sent through the mail leaving no DNA on the stamps or envelopes, and containing no notes. The labels were enough, and they had done the trick. Corley felt invincible, but he wasn't stupid, and his current girlfriend was a reluctant informer. "It worked?" Jack said. "The girlfriend got him to confess?"

Ed's grin didn't waver as his finger hovered over the recorder's buttons. "Better. Callie showed up and threw a cup of vinegar in his face. The dude freaked out, and-- Just listen." He pushed Play.

Jack listened, and as he heard Corley yell at Callie that he was going to do to her what he had done to her "bitch sister," Ed's infectious grin spread to him, and Alex. They had him dead to rights. He looked at Ed and held the eye lock, though it felt like he was heading to the edge of a cliff. "Good job," he said. "All of you. He's booked?"

Ed nodded and kept the eye contact. "Yeah. Lieu plans to take Callie's statement, then take her home. Joe's getting the girlfriend's statement. I thought you would want to hear this ASAP."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Neither of them seemed inclined to break the glance; Jack found he did not mind, even if the more rational part of his brain knew the cliff was getting closer and closer with each passing second.

"Well...," Ed said.

"Yes," Jack replied, forcing himself to look away for a brief moment. It seemed that Ed did not feel the same compunction. "So," Jack continued, "tell the lieutenant that this should do it."

"Okay. And will Mr. Branch make a deal with Corley?"

That was a question he suspected Ed knew the answer to already. "Yes. But I'm not willing to go less than twenty-five to life."

Ed smiled one of his incandescent ones. "Lieu will like that." He removed the mini-cassette from the player and handed it to Jack across the desk. Jack took it, acutely aware of a tingle in his fingertips from the almost-contact. Ed lifted a hand, showing his palm. "I guess I'd better get back to the House."

Alex said, "Thank you, Detective. How was Callie when you left?"

"If you're asking in case she has to testify, she'll be fine. She was not at all scared, or, or-- anything. I think she's got more guts than her mom ever gave her credit for."

Alex nodded. After another long glance at Jack, and another good-bye, Ed finally left. Jack watched him walk down the hallway for five seconds until he was out of sight. He decided that he must have already jumped off the cliff, and it was a long way down, because he felt bereft now that Ed was no longer standing in his office. But, honestly, it hadn't been too bad, seeing him for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend. It helped. Ed was not Murray, and only vaguely reminded him of Murray. In Jack's mind they were now separated, with knifelike finality. Ed was the man Jack longed for, for a hundred different reasons, and ultimately one. Murray was not. It was simple. And, intensely complicated.

Ed waited for an elevator car to arrive on the tenth floor. Well, that had been interesting. If Ed didn't know better, he would have taken that prolonged eye contact to indicate a certain level of interest from Jack. Since he did know better, he was probably projecting. Skoda had taught him more than he ever wanted to know about the process of projection, and now he couldn't get it out of his head. He recognized it in probably many more places than it actually existed. Skoda would call that projection, and the mental image of Skoda sitting back in his chair, reading glasses down his nose, giving him a wry half-smile as he delivered that pronouncement made Ed chuckle out loud. He heard footsteps and glanced over his shoulder; he saw a woman staring at him as she walked up the corridor. He pretended he was coughing, just in case she worked closely with Alex, or Jack. He had a reputation to maintain, and cool did not equate with laughing out loud at one's own joke. He imagined himself throwing cool out the window with abandon, and marching into Jack's office, declaring his interest, and undying admiration. If that wouldn't shock the other man out of his self-assuredness, what would? It would probably put a priceless look on Jack's face, an image which brought up another chuckle that Ed could not contain. The elevator arrived, and thank god nobody was in it. He could only deal with embarrassment in his imagination, and even there he abandoned any scenario that resulted in total humiliation. Like marching into Jack's office to declare anything personal.

December 2005

Ed paid for two beers and a large order of nachos, picked up the cardboard tray, and turned from the counter to see a tall man with bright silver hair wearing a familiar parka walking away from him, toward the pay phones and bathrooms. It seemed an improbable coincidence that Jack would be here in Madison Square Garden, in this food court, at the exact same time that Ed was. But, that looked like Jack. Ed followed. He saw the other man in profile as he used a pay phone. It was Jack. Ed decided to wait some yards away, and then at least say "hi," because he couldn't very well ignore a lucky chance like this one. The phone call was brief. Jack did not look pleased as he hung up. Ed stepped forward, and was given a small bonus for his trouble - Jack smiled to see him. It did things to Ed's stomach.

"Ed," Jack said, "this calls for a cliché."

"Jack," Ed said. "Yeah, it does."

Jack looked at Ed's tray. "So, you're here with someone? Too bad - I was going to ask you to join me. My friend isn't coming, and I've got his ticket. It's my ticket. I've got season tickets. Two seats." He shrugged, and smiled again. "At least the game's good so far."

Ed's luck had just doubled, and that did something to his insides, too. "Well, how about you join me, instead? I've got three seats and only two are filled, and mine might be better seats than yours." He smiled. "They're first tier. Court side. On the end, but still...."

"Court side? How the hell did you get those?"

There was no way he would tell this man he had won the seats in a poker game. He ignored any quick pang of guilt he might be feeling. "A friend got them from the corporation he works for. Comp tickets. You know. So-- Whaddya say? Three quarters left? It's just me and Stephen - you remember him, you met him last summer once, at my mom's?" He immediately regretted saying that, because Jack's cheekbones were flushing pink, and the two of them had never mentioned their hanging out time over the summer, and he could be such an idiot--

"Of course, I remember Stephen. Nice guy. Ruthless chess player," Jack said, showing a much smaller smile this time, but, still, a smile. "How can I say No? The last time I had court side seats for a pro basketball game was when I was in high school. Long time ago."

Ed felt pure, sweet relief. "Great," he said, and meant it. "You want something to drink? Eat?" Jack nodded, so back into the hungry crowd they went. Ed didn't mind. It gave him ten more minutes to be in this man's company, to chat like friends, to let his imagination run a little. Simply for fun. He needed it.

Jack followed Ed to the comp seats, his adrenaline kicking in for no other reason than to be there, on the floor of The Garden, where the crowd sounds were louder, and the players a helluva lot bigger. That was the sole reason, not the present company. He saw Stephen midway down the row - his curly brown hair was longer than six months before, the blond streaks throughout even brighter, though maybe that was due to bright stadium lights. Jack seemed to recall Stephen had larger black glasses than the slim ones he had on. They looked good on him. Ed said something in Stephen's ear, a long something, and then Stephen looked past Ed, to him, and smiled broadly and nodded. He nodded in return and made his way down the row. It still struck him as odd that Ed and Stephen had three seats. If he remembered correctly, Stephen worked as a sewer for a Broadway costume designer, not for a large corporation. So, who had gotten the tickets in the first place? And why did Ed hesitate before answering the question? Jack was directed to sit between Ed and Stephen, and as he got settled, Stephen said he was happy to see him again and it was obvious from the beer smell, and pink rims around his blue eyes that Stephen was already a few drinks ahead. Jack planned to have only one beer, so he could retain control. This situation, an unexpected treat, was fraught with risk.

By the end of the third quarter, Jack was relaxed from his single beer, feeling more than comfortable to sit with one shoulder rubbing Ed's, letting the buzz from such close contact move through him with a warm charge. He was grateful the Knicks were putting on a good show since it served as nearly complete distraction. The game was close; the physicality of the teams when they were under the basket was almost brutal to see. Jack could smell their sweat. The only downside was small, but persistent. Stephen was drunk. He was a clingy drunk, and when he got excited he would pat Jack's thigh; sometimes he grabbed it. Jack continued to remove the man's hand from his leg; Stephen continued to lean into him; Ed continued to tell him to knock it off. It was not constant, and, on one particular level, it was interesting. Jack had not picked up that Stephen was gay during the summer, so it seemed that his own gaydar must be incredibly rusty, because now that this was going on there was no doubt the guy was gay. This wasn't simply drunken behavior. Stephen was flirting with him, saying a few suggestive things in Jack's ear whenever Ed's attention was drawn elsewhere. And for some reason unknown to himself, Jack was finding it rather hilarious. It was probably the utter irony. And the beer. And Ed's shoulder rubbing his.

"Damn it, Steve, where's your key?" Ed was fishing in his friend's jacket pocket at the same time he was propping him up by the waist. A pack of gum, a wallet, various and sundry pieces of paper, but no set of keys.

"There," Stephen said.

"No. It's not," Ed said, letting his frustration show.

"Let me try this pocket," Jack said from the Stephen's other side. Stephen was hanging on each of their shoulders; Ed was supporting most of his weight. Jack reached into the jacket pocket closest to him, and Stephen muttered something, then laughed. Ed risked a glance at Jack - the man was grinning. Ed finally heard the jangle of keys. "Eureka," Jack said, and keyed the apartment door.

"Reeka, reeka," Stephen said as they dragged him inside. "I a'reeka of beer, huh? Huh, Eddie? Betcha I do. You always smell so-o-o good, dude...."

"Yeah, Steve, whatever," Ed muttered. He wanted to get his friend into bed so he would shut the hell up before he mortified Ed even further. It was bad enough the guy was so drunk he needed help getting home, and Jack was the one helping, but he kept talking and even though he had promised Ed he would keep quiet about certain things, that promise was shakier and shakier with each passing minute. "Come on. You're goin' to bed. Now."

"Eddie, Eddie--"

"Shut it," Ed said. He stifled an urge to clamp a hand over Stephen's mouth. He kept moving through the apartment to the bedroom. "You need to use the head?"


Jack chuckled. "I hope he doesn't need us to hold him up, during."

Stephen beamed at Jack. "I mos' definitely need help."

"No," Ed said, wishing he had a gag at hand. "I'll go in with you, in case. But the aim is up to you."

Jack laughed for a good three seconds, and when they got to the bathroom door he pulled Stephen off of him, waited until the man was balanced, and let go. "I'll make sure the bed is ready," Jack said.

"Jack," Ed said.

"I don't mind." Since Jack was still smiling, and it looked sincere, Ed thanked him and focused his attention on getting his friend to the toilet and out of the room again without major incident. The only argument they had was about washing hands and drinking a glass of water. Ed won both, but had to catch a falling Stephen when the guy turned around too fast reaching for a towel. Eventually, he and Stephen made it to the bedroom, and that was when Ed lost all control over the situation.

Stephen was being undressed by both Ed and Jack, when the man whom Ed thought should be passed out by now reached up and ruffled Jack's hair, saying, "You're so right, Eddie - it's fabulous!" The comment seemed to go right over Jack's head, thank god, but it was then followed by a blatant come-on: "Aw, Jack, why won't you stay here with me, huh?" Ed wanted to slap him.

"You're not my type," Jack said, pulling the man's arm from a stubborn sleeve.

"No?" Stephen said. "Why not?"

"I'm sorry to break this to you, but you're not tall enough." Jack smiled.

"Not fair," Stephen muttered.

Jack finished and stood back. Ed was still working on his part of the shirt and trying to understand what Jack had meant by the remark, and the one immediately before it. Not his type? But, he meant Steve was too short?

"Eddie," Stephen said in a quiet voice; his eyes were closed.

Ed finished, tossed the shirt on the far side of the bed, and sat on the edge. "What else do you need, bro?" Poor guy, he was going to be in for it in the morning.

Stephen grabbed Ed's forearm. "Please, stay here? Until I'm out? I just...."

Ed patted Stephen's hand. "I know. I'll stay. Don't worry."

"BFF Eddie."

"Yeah, you too."

"Oh... Felix?"

"I'll take care of him."

Steve let go. "Behind the couch, pro'ly." He rolled onto his side, but his breathing didn't change. Ed stood, and turned toward the doorway. Jack was standing there, hands in his pockets. Ed felt exposed, and a little embarrassed, and a million other things that he didn't have time for right then. He walked past Jack, ignoring their close proximity with every ounce of willpower he still had. Jack followed him into the living room.

"Felix?" Jack said.

"The cat. He'll come out now that things are quieter. Look, Jack--"

"You don't need to explain anything--"

"I think I do." He lowered his voice. "Steve broke up with his boyfriend a couple of days ago." In actuality, Rod the asshole had broken up with Steve, but Jack didn't need to know that much. "He's having a hard time with it. To state the obvious. He usually doesn't drink quite that much." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Felix inching his way out from behind the couch. Ed called to him. Felix came slowly, but as soon as he got close enough the big orange tabby rubbed himself on Ed's shin, pushing his face into the side seam of Ed's jeans, over and over. Ed picked him up and slung him on his shoulder like a toddler, stroking him hard, like he liked it. Felix purred. Ed looked at Jack. The man was grinning. "Jack, meet Felix. Felix, this is Jack. You like cats?"

"Sure," Jack said, and reached out to pet, but Felix had to sniff Jack's hand before he allowed the man to touch him. Jack showed more patience than Ed would have expected. Felix's purrs increased in decibel level as soon as Jack was stroking his head. Jack chuckled. "He's also a flirt, isn't he?"

Ed nearly laughed out loud, but stopped himself. He felt close to the edge. "Like father, like son," Ed said instead. "I'd better take care of his food and stuff, clean his box. Eh, Felix? How 'bout you lie down with Stevie - he could use the company." He took the cat to the bedroom and set him on the bed. Felix immediately walked up to Stephen's head, sniffed his hair, started purring again, and curled up against the man's stomach, and thighs. Stephen stirred enough to slowly scratch Felix's chin. Ed sighed. Maybe he should get himself a cat.

In the living room, Jack was perusing bookshelves. He turned when Ed got close.


Jack held up his hand. "I had a good time tonight. The game was good. Seats were great. Company was very enjoyable. No apologies."

From what Ed could tell, the other man was on the level. Not that he had ever known Jack to lie, so how could he really tell, but... He had never known Jack to lie. "Well, then, thank you for helping. Can I give you cab fare home, at least?"

"Not necessary. And, you're welcome. We've all been where Steve is. I have, anyway. It's hellish. That said, I hope he doesn't keep drinking like this. I don't know him very well, but he always struck me as a smart guy. I'd hate to see him go down a no-win road."

"Me, too. But, I honestly don't think he will. That's not Steve's style." Ed made an instantaneous decision. "I've got tickets for a few more games - same seats. Do you want to join me?"

Jack smiled, and Ed's pulse responded. "Yes. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Ed smiled, too, and made another instantaneous decision to relax, and go with whatever happened from this point forward. It was only a few basketball games, maybe a meal or two around them. If Jack did imply what Ed thought he had implied during his friend's drunken proposition, then, what the hell, Ed might stand a chance. After all, Jack didn't say that his type was much older, did he?

Jack left soon after they made plans for the next Knicks game. And, sure enough, Ed's bet had paid off again. Jack offered to buy them dinner beforehand with the money he would make selling his own season tickets. Ed would have another couple of hours in Jack's company, and sitting across a dinner table from him was in many ways better than sitting next to him at a basketball game. He could watch the man's face, gauge his every expression, look for telltale signs that he honestly did stand a chance. Ed should not have been so harsh on Stephen earlier - even if the other man had no idea how close his BFF had come to stuffing a sock in his mouth, Ed still needed to apologize. Stephen had given Ed the opportunity to see what was behind Jack McCoy's professional facade in a way that Ed never could have done on his own. Stephen deserved something fabulous in return. Ed had been on a lucky streak lately at the tables; he could afford a present. Stephen had been lusting after a high-end sewing machine that had billions of functions with descriptions that bored Ed to tears. Perfect. He grinned to himself as he headed to the kitchen, and an empty cat food bowl.

Jack walked up Stephen's street, pulling his knit cap further down over his ears as he went. Cab or subway, whichever he ran across first, he'd take. It was intensely cold. He barely felt it. His mind was occupied. The evening had been more enlightening than he ever could have imagined. He still could not quite evaluate everything that had happened in terms of the Ed Green he had known up until tonight. Whether or not a man has a gay friend does not in and of itself indicate his own preferences, of course, but there was a comfort level between Ed and Stephen that did not fit Jack's vision of a straight-cop-and-gay-best-friend paradigm. If that paradigm even existed. Then there was the matter of Jack's hair and Ed's apparent comment about same. "Eddie" thought it was "fabulous." Jack could not imagine that word coming out of Ed's mouth with anything less than a touch of sarcasm, so perhaps that was Stephen's take, alone. Still, Jack had sensed Ed's tension at that moment. The man was sometimes effortless to read. So-- Ed thought he was attractive? Jack rolled that around in his mind for a long moment. It was unimaginable five hours earlier, and now.... it was sinking in. True, having Stephen fawning over him had been a huge ego stroke, and Jack would admit to anyone who asked that he had needed that, especially tonight. But, his ego was not so overly hyped that he was misreading the hair message. Of that he was certain. On the other hand, a straight man can find another man attractive. And on the other hand, the look on Ed's face when they finalized plans for their next... engagement was utterly charming - like the man had just received something precious. It did something profound to Jack's insides.

He had to be careful; he knew it, and he hated it, however, it was the truth. The danger wasn't with exposure in regard to his job, or position, or reputation. He knew now he could trust Ed, no matter how much he let Ed see. The danger existed because of him, and him alone. At this point in his life he sincerely longed to be in love again; he longed for someone to come home to, someone to care whether or not he'd had a bad day. Or a good one. Someone to turn his life upside-down. Tonight, after seeing the softer side of Ed -- a private side he had not witnessed since the man returned to active duty -- Jack knew his feelings were a step beyond intense, bone-deep want. He remembered this Ed. Gentle, sweet, caring Ed. He had spent time with him during the summer. This was the dangerous Ed.

January, 2006

The line outside the Birdland Jazz Club stretched down the sidewalk. People waiting to get into the seven-thirty show huddled in pairs and foursomes. Jack was meeting Ed for a celebration of Jack's birthday, two days previous. Ed had asked; Jack had accepted. It was not a date, per se - they were friends celebrating a birthday, like friends do. But, no matter how many times in the past week he had repeated to himself that this was not a date, here he was, with butterflies fluttering their damned wings against his stomach the closer he got to the club. It was getting harder and harder to stick to his resolve to be careful, to avoid getting too close to Ed. He and Ed had been to a few more Knicks games, and had dinners together -- with Stephen and without -- and exchanged Christmas cards, and he had even taken the risk of mentioning the one year anniversary of Lennie's death. Because it had appeared to him that Ed was struggling the day before the anniversary, and the day itself. The man was more on edge than usual, more preoccupied. He thought Ed had responded well to the condolence; they had even talked briefly, in private, in his office, about Lennie and what they each missed about him. Jack had spoken honestly - he and Lennie were often at odds, but he respected him. Lennie Briscoe had been a good cop, and an honorable man. In his own way, irreplaceable.

From a block away as Jack approached the line outside Birdland he could pick out Ed as easily as if there were only five feet between them. It wasn't due to Ed's height, though he was a head taller than the surrounding people. It certainly wasn't his skin tone. Jack focused on him like Ed was on stage and Jack was the spotlight. Ed was focused on his cell phone, probably texting, but for some reason he looked up, and saw Jack, and smiled, and waved before again concentrating on his text message. By the time Jack reached his side, Ed had finished; the phone was put away. The butterflies increased their effort.

After quick "hi"s, Ed offered a soul shake, and when their gloved hands clasped, Ed pulled Jack into an unexpected man hug. He was momentarily startled, but then felt Ed's other hand on his upper back, and his face was hovering over Ed's leather-clad shoulder and he breathed in the heady scent of leather, and after shave, or cologne, and Ed's back felt strong under his own hand and he didn't want to move away, but instead wanted to turn his face to Ed's, and... give in. There was a sudden moment of awkward when they each seemed to realize that the embrace was too long for coworkers and friends. They pulled back simultaneously. Jack felt his cheeks burn. He was grateful the lighting was low, and it was cold enough to color his Irish skin no matter the embarrassment. Ed did not appear embarrassed, or sheepish - he looked serious, and Jack could have sworn the man's mind was assessing each minute detail in front of him.

Ed also looked damned fine in a beige turtleneck sweater, jeans, and black leather jacket. If they were on a date? Jack would be inordinately proud to be seen with him.

"How are things going in your office this week?" Ed said. "I heard Loomis's father hired Rebecca Shane."

Jack didn't necessarily want to talk shop, but he couldn't stand there and stare at Ed all evening. "He did," Jack said. "And she's earning her pay - we were served with a motion today for an affirmative defense."

"What - pleading insanity because he tried to stab himself?"

"Close. His ADD medication made him do it."

Ed's eyebrows shot up, then fell and he shook his head. "That's nuts. He killed Alex Garcia for a cheat sheet, to save his grades, and he expects people to believe it was all because of some drug? A prescription drug?"

Jack nodded. "That's about the size of it."

The line started to move. Ed made a sound deep in his throat. "I feel bad for Mr. Garcia," Ed said. "He's gonna have to sit through a trial hearing about poor Greg Loomis and his ADD, and his expensive doctors...."

"And Rebecca Shane," Jack said, letting his disgust show. The woman was a publicity seeking defense attorney of the worst kind. "A Court TV favorite. Drama instead of substance."

"At least this time she won't be on TV," Ed said. "That probably won't tone her down any, though, will it?"

"No, probably not. I don't understand why some lawyers choose to participate in a televised trial. I've never had any ambition to prosecute someone in front of cameras. I had to do it once. That was enough."

Ed made a sour face. "I know I wouldn't want to testify on TV." They were almost to the door; Ed pulled off gloves and retrieved two tickets from his wallet. Jack was surprised to see what looked like a few hundred dollars in twenties. He looked away before Ed noticed his glance. "On the other hand," Ed said with a small smile, "if it was on Court TV I'd have a chance to watch it, which I rarely get the opportunity to do. I'd like that."

And, just like that, Jack slid into risky territory, for no other reason than Ed smiled at the thought of watching him prosecute a case. For a fleeting moment, that's what he thought Ed meant. An intoxicating moment. A moment he savored, as he let his imagination run, until, with reluctance, he dismissed the interpretation as foolhardy and irrelevant.

They reached the door and Ed gave over their tickets; Jack pulled off his left glove to receive a hand stamp - under the ticket stand's lamp it was visible as a circle with two birds facing in opposite directions. They were shown to their seats, a table for two next to a low wall to the left of the stage; it was covered with a white tablecloth, and held a candle that the waitress lit when she dropped off menus. An intimate setting.

"Order whatever you want, Jack," Ed said. "Their specialty is Creole, and anything Louisiana-style."

Jack smiled. "I heard that looziana - you are your mother's son, after all."

Ed tried hard to hide his pleasure, because Jack had not only teased him with a hefty amount of warmth so much so that one could consider it borderline flirting, but because Jack had just made a reference to a long conversation they had had last summer with Ed's mother. About her background, and about how Ed had worked very hard to distance himself from his maternal Southern roots, and by the end of that afternoon he had come to certain conclusions: He needed to embrace those maternal genes of his because they were all about strength; his momma deserved better from him; he wanted more afternoons like that one.

"I am," Ed said, "and proud of it. So, let's start with a crab cake appetizer. May not be fresh crab, but, okay?"

Jack agreed, and put his reading glasses back on, and as he studied the menu, Ed watched him over the top of his own. He could not entirely figure out where Jack was coming from. He could not entirely figure out why he himself was acting so hesitantly. It had been almost a full month since that first basketball game together, and Ed had had ample opportunity to make his intentions known, and... He continued to hesitate. Maybe it was his current unlucky streak - it began just before Christmas, and was getting under his skin, and rattling his composure. He had always believed that a man made his own luck, to some degree. Luck was a function of attitude - if a man carried himself as a winner then the cards would come his way. The cards were not coming Ed's way. Lennie's anniversary loomed up smack in the middle of the streak, and that had rattled Ed even further. Because what kind of luck had Len had? He retired and died a year later, without the chance to enjoy the retirement he -- of all people -- eminently deserved. And Jack... damn, the guy had practically dragged Ed into his office and forced him to talk about Lennie, and he did. They did. It had helped in more ways than he would ever admit to anyone but himself, when he evaluated them in the quiet minutes before falling asleep. The minutes when he replayed all of their interactions over a day, or a week, or more. The minutes when things felt so clear, and so muddled.

The more time they spent together the harder it was. When Jack had walked up to him in line Ed wanted to take him by the shoulders and push him against the wall and kiss him deep, and slow, and hot. Just to get it over with. Now, sitting across from the man who looked far too good in a white shirt and steel gray sweater that complimented his coloring, butterflies danced in Ed's stomach. He knew he wanted far too much--

"I'm ready," Jack said, taking off glasses, meeting his eyes.

"Good," Ed replied, scanning the menu to make sure they still served a veggie burger. They did. He gestured to the waitress; she came and took their order. They placed a dessert order at the same time since food would be served during the concert. Ed excused himself a few seconds after she left so he could request a birthday candle in Jack's cheesecake, and get an assurance that the staff would not sing "Happy Birthday" during a break between songs. Walking back to the table gave him one more opportunity to Jack-watch. The man seemed relaxed; that gray sweater was striking, and Ed had never before seen it. Maybe Jack had received it as a birthday present. Ed felt a twinge of jealousy. As if he had that right. Which he did not.

The tables around them were filled, food was being served, the house lights were still up since the trio had not yet come on-stage. Crab cakes and drinks arrived. Jack had scotch, neat; Ed had the same. Ed decided this was the best time to give Jack his birthday present, before the room darkened to candlelight and the ambient glow from the stage lighting. He reached into his jacket's breast pocket, his pulse pounding. In his mind, this was a perfect gift - classy, understated, utilitarian, and would look fantastic on the wearer. The money to pay for it was taken from a fund he would need to replenish, but that didn't matter. Money was always replaceable. The next hand he played could fix everything.

He handed the flat, rectangular box across the table. "Happy Birthday, Jack."

Jack looked honestly surprised. "I thought dinner and the concert was my present." He took the box, and smiled. Ed's pulse responded. "Thank you," Jack said. He set the gift on the table.

"Aren't you going to open it?"

"Now? Here?"

"Why not?" Ed said.

Jack shrugged. A flush moved across his cheeks.

Ed felt a flutter in his stomach. Jack wanted privacy to open his present. But-- "It's okay, Jack, nobody's paying any attention...."

Jack picked up the box with a nod, and untied the ribbon, carefully pulled off the paper and set the leather case on the table. He lifted the hinged lid. His eyes widened and the flush returned. "Jesus, Ed...," he said quietly. Jack removed the watch from its case, put on his glasses, and studied it closely, turning it over, studying the casing.

Ed thought his heart was going to stop right on the spot if he did not learn in the next two seconds whether or not Jack liked it. The man kept studying every square inch, the brushed stainless case, the brown leather strap. Finally, Jack looked up, and smiled.

"Thank you. It's incredibly handsome - it's also incredibly overwhelming. I don't know what to say."

Ed relaxed, and grinned outright. "You don't need to say anything else. I'm glad you like it."

"I do, I do. Looks like I'll need to learn how to make it work...." He was studying it again.

Ed picked up the box and lifted the insert, pulled out the instructions. "It's all in here, don't worry." He put the paper back in its place.

The waitress arrived with their main courses - pulled pork sandwich for Jack; veggie burger for Ed. She noticed the watch as Jack placed it back in the case, and his specs on the table. "Sweet time piece," she said, flashing Jack a smile. "Happy Birthday."

"Thank you," he said.

"Are you somebody? I've seen you... Somewhere. Haven't I?"

Jack shook his head. "Not likely."

"I think I have. It'll come to me." She refilled their water glasses. "By the time I bring dessert--" She stared at Jack for a long moment, then smiled again. "Court TV, right?"

Jack's mouth opened and shut. Ed laughed; he couldn't stop it, and thankfully within a second Jack was laughing along with him. Ed told the waitress, "No," and left it at that, and she walked away with a perplexed look on her face, occasionally glancing over her shoulder as she served some people nearby. Ed felt a touch on the back of his hand; he turned his attention away from the other table and to his own companion. Jack covered Ed's hand and gave a brief squeeze. Ed's heart leapt.

"Thank you, Ed," Jack said.

"You're welcome," he said.

Jack let go, and they dug into their dinner, and the house lights dimmed, and the show began, and all the while the back of Ed's hand smoldered, and his pulse soared, and his mind wandered to when he would make a move, and where, and how.

"I'm house-sitting at my mom's this weekend," Ed said. "Would you like to come over tomorrow afternoon? Play some chess, or watch a movie...." He shrugged, but Jack could see from the man's body language that this was anything but a casual suggestion. The evening had been fun and excruciating in equal measure, and he knew if he spent Sunday afternoon in Ed's company it would be the same, but-- he could not pull up any inclination to say No.

"A chess rematch?" Jack said.

"Yeah. I believe... if I remember right... I won the last one." He lifted his eyebrows and gave Jack a little smirk, and it was just flirty enough that Jack felt a fleeting urge to kiss the smirk right off his face. The two of them were standing on the sidewalk, however. And, he was clinging to his resolve.

"You did," Jack said with a nod. "Okay. You're on."

Once again he was treated to full-bore Ed happiness, and as they walked toward the subway Jack thought about his resolve, and whether or not it made any sense, and decided to review all consequences in detail before he went to sleep. Maybe it was time for a reevaluation.

Jack placed his new watch case on the coffee table and hung his coat in the closet. He wanted to look at the watch carefully, in better lighting, because unless he was mistaken it had the earmarks of an expensive piece of work. He turned on the lamp next to the couch, put on his glasses, and took out the watch and the paper insert. It was a gorgeous machine. The works were cased in brushed stainless steel; the round watch face was also silver, with three dials: around the edge minutes were denoted by simple hash marks; a smaller dial displayed hours in roman numerals; and a smaller dial still displayed seconds. The strap was good quality brown leather with gray top stitching. He did not recognize the maker: Ebel, though the name sounded somewhat familiar. The insert gave his suspicions some credence. Ebel was a Swiss company, specializing in "quality time pieces." Goodness, the crystal was "scratch resistant sapphire."

He went to the computer and entered the maker and model number into a search engine. His heartbeat jumped as he read the results. The watch was priced around thirty-five hundred dollars. One website sold it for a thousand less. His pulse was pounding. What the hell? It was, on the one hand, flattering to know that Ed had spent that kind of money on him, but it was also uncomfortable to know Ed had spent that kind of money. It wasn't right. Ed was a cop, for god's sake. How could he afford it? Jack remembered the cash in Ed's wallet. Who carried that amount as spending money?

Jack shut down his computer. Maybe Ed got the watch secondhand. Maybe he found it in a pawn shop. Maybe-- No, he wouldn't buy something black market. Or on a street corner. Ed was a cop, and proud of being a cop. He wouldn't jeopardize that. Besides, there was the watch case, and the paper insert from Ebel.

Jack headed to the bedroom. He did not know what to think, but he spent the next fifteen minutes trying. Before falling asleep the only conclusions he drew were that Ed truly was interested in him as more than a friend; and he needed more information before making any decisions, about anything.

Jack stomped snow off of his shoes before ringing the doorbell to Mrs. Green's brownstone. He had had a nice stroll through lightly falling snow - it was sticking but there wasn't more than a quarter inch on the sidewalks. He caught a faint scent of wood smoke over the usual city smells. Lucky them, whoever had a fire going on a lazy Sunday afternoon. He took a deep breath, and pushed the doorbell. Though he had fully prepared on the blocks-long walk from the subway, reviewing questions and scenarios, he felt a slight buzz of nerves. Ed opened the door. Jack's heartbeat skipped. The man, as usual, looked good. Blue vee-necked sweater and jeans. Radiant smile. Damn.

"Hey," Ed said, standing aside. "Come on in." Just then Mrs. Green's black miniature poodle came running up, barking her greeting, stubby tail wagging in furious delight. Ed scooped her up with one hand and held her against his chest. "You remember Cleo."

"I do," Jack said as he scratched her head. Cleo remembered him; she licked his hand, continued to wag her tail. For reasons Jack never understood, the dog seemed fond of him - she had often slept on the couch next to him while he visited recuperating Ed. It was not bothersome, but it made little sense. He was not a "dog person," and as an adult he had never owned a pet.

Ed set Cleo on the floor; she commenced sniffing Jack's shoes and pant legs. "Let me hang up your coat," Ed said.

Jack took it off, and his scarf, stuffing the latter into a sleeve. "It's damp."

Ed nodded and after a minute had coat on hanger, and was hanging it on the top of the closet door. Jack had not moved from the foyer. Cleo was still concentrating on his lower extremities. Ed turned around and took a step toward him, looking directly into his eyes, and another step, and Jack's instincts kicked in and his pulse began to thrum in the pit of his stomach and he didn't know whether to stand his ground or walk into the living room, when in one more step Ed cupped Jack's face, and kissed him, with a slow, deliberate, heated kiss, and he couldn't stop himself from responding; it was that hot, and that sweet, and had all his nerve endings shooting at once. It was everything he had imagined, and it was so much better - not like Murray's kiss. His heartbeat pounded. This was Ed. Jack clutched him closer and Ed let out a noise from deep in his throat and deepened the kiss in a rush, and as Ed invaded his mouth he tasted coffee, and cinnamon, and it was nearly too much, his legs were losing strength, his hands grabbed the back of Ed's sweater searching for skin--

A force knocked his right knee from the side and he nearly stumbled; their kissing stopped; he looked down and Cleo was about to jump at his leg again. She barked. He had let go of Ed. He felt bereft, and vaguely shocked at what he had allowed to happen. Thrilled at what he had allowed to happen. Jesus. He and Ed.... He could suddenly imagine with absolute clarity what being in bed with this man would feel like. Jesus.

He focused on Ed, standing now two feet away. He looked as stunned as Jack felt. "Ed...," he said, then realized he had nothing to add.

Ed scooped up Cleo again. "Come on into the living room," Ed said in a husky voice, before walking out of the foyer.

The living room fireplace blaze was the source of the wood smoke he had noticed outside; the chess set was already out on the coffee table; falling snow was visible through the tall, front windows. Ed asked him if he wanted coffee. Jack did, though he was no longer cold from his walk and he felt plenty wired. He wanted to throw Ed on the couch and dive after him, and he wanted to ignore what had happened, and he wanted to remember his original information-gathering mission, and he wanted to simply hang out with this man, and play some tough chess, and relax into the afternoon. He followed Ed to the kitchen, standing back while coffee was poured into a mug. Cleo drank from a water bowl on the other side of the room. Just as Ed handed him the coffee, his cell phone rang. He answered; Jack added sugar from the bowl nearby.

"--yeah, I guess," Ed said into the phone.

Jack wanted cream; he went to the refrigerator. There was a personal check held to the door by a miniature bagel magnet. Not wanting to pry, he glanced at it only briefly before opening the refrigerator. It was a check to Ed from his mother. Jack closed the door and looked again. It was for two thousand dollars and on the note line was written "#2." Maybe he had been a prosecutor for too long, because his investigative instincts were pinging. Questions about money, again. Of course it was none of his business, except-- He could so easily get seriously involved with Ed. There was very little stopping him, now. Stopping them.

"--Okay. See you in twenty," Ed said. He closed the phone and shoved it into his pocket with force. "I'm sorry, Jack, but Steve is on his way over here. He's having issues today." He shrugged; his lips were set in a tight line; his face tense.

Jack finished lightening his coffee and put the cream away. "No problem." He smiled at Ed, hoping to show him he meant it. Ed relaxed. Jack's smile felt more honest as he suggested they start their match, at least, see how far they got. Ed nodded. Cleo followed them out of the kitchen, curling up in the middle of the couch as if she knew her role: Keep them two feet apart, and concentrating on the chess board.

From where Jack sat he could see the front foyer, but he could not hear everything Ed and Steve said to each other. It was obvious from their body language that the muttered conversation was strained. Rather than appear like he was eavesdropping, Jack picked up a National Geographic from a side table and leafed through it, glancing over the top of it to the foyer. Watching as Ed became exasperated with his friend. Watching Ed, period. Even frustrated, the man was hot - he shoved hands on his hips and shoulder muscles beneath the lightweight sweater flexed, and butterflies hit Jack's stomach.

Both men suddenly turned and walked out of Jack's view, down the hallway toward the back of the house where the kitchen was. There were no voices heard. There was a noise Jack couldn't identify, a long pause, and then what sounded like a pen dropping into a pen holder, like a ceramic cup. Jack pictured the kitchen. Mrs. Green had a small desk-like counter where the phone was located, and there was a pen cup, and paper. Then it sounded as if Ed said something and Steve answered. After a minute or two, they came through the dining room and joined Jack. They were each smiling, though Steve's seemed normal, Ed's forced.

"Hey, Jack," Steve said. "Who's winning?" He pulled off a messenger bag and coat and flung them into a nearby easy chair. Ed said nothing; he sat at the other end of the couch and stroked Cleo's back. She had awoken, hearing Steve's voice, and was quivering with excitement, her short tail wagging.

"Hi," Jack said. "Who's winning? Nobody. We just started about ten minutes ago. How are you?"

Steve stuck out a hand and rocked it a few times. "Comme çi comme ça. I saw Rod the asshole last night with his new boyfriend. I didn't pour a beer over his head. Rod, not the boyfriend. He seems all right. The boyfriend, not Rod. Kind of young. I hear he's a student at CCNY, studying tech something, wants to work in computer gaming, probably make a million dollars the year he gets out and then he can support Rod in the manner to which he aspires." Steve looked at Ed. Ed stared daggers at Steve.

Jack felt like an outsider. He didn't like it. After returning the magazine to the side table, he stood, said, "Excuse me," and took the remains of his coffee to the kitchen. He washed the mug, found a glass in a cabinet and filled it with cold water from the refrigerator door dispenser. The personal check from Ed's mother was gone. A hand touched his shoulder, startling him. It was Ed. He turned around.

"I'm sorry," Ed said, taking Jack's free hand; his fingers were warm, the contact distracting. "Steve is--" He shrugged.

Jack shook his head. "Lonely? It's okay."

"I wanted to spend the afternoon... just with you."

"Look-- why don't we have a tournament?" Jack squeezed Ed's hand. "Like last summer? Maybe I'll even win this time."

"Or not."

He wanted to feel reckless, to act as if he had zero reservations, and he needed to respond to the blatant cockiness on Ed's face. He set down the glass and this time he was the aggressor; he grabbed the back of Ed's head and kissed him hard and deep, and Ed moaned, and pushed against him until Jack was wedged between a hot Ed and the cool refrigerator, and they went at each other until Jack was drowning in it all. In them. In what was between them. They slowed down by mutual consent, and that was almost worse because of its sweetness, and lethargy, and for the first time since Jack had walked through the door he regretted that he had to return home in a few hours. He wanted to remain, and drown some more.

Ed finished cleaning up the last of the kitchen mess that the impromptu chess tournament had necessitated when he heard Cleo barking in the front hall. A key turned in the lock. His mother was home. After wiping his hands on the towel, he went to greet her, see if she needed any help bringing luggage up the front steps. He should have known that she could talk anyone into anything, including a New York City cab driver - the guy had carried a suitcase all of the way to the front door. Ed took it from him while his mother paid a hefty tip.

"Do you want this upstairs, Mom?" She nodded; he did as she wished, with Cleo on his heels, then running back downstairs to check on his mother, then back up the stairs to Ed who had reached the second floor and was almost to the master bedroom. He left the suitcase on the bed and proceeded to the guest room to pack. Cleo was sitting at the railing, looking down to the foyer, tail brushing the hardwood floor. Ed heard his mother on the stairs. Cleo barked. He was in his room, putting stuff in his duffle.

"Ed, honey, did you have a nice weekend?" said his mother from the doorway.

"Yes, I did." He looked up; she was unbuttoning a maroon cardigan. "How was Uncle Roger's party last night?" Cleo raced in and jumped on the bed, right for Ed's hand which she licked as if she had not seen him in days.

"It was nice...." And she told him the latest family news and drama while he finished packing. Eventually he closed the duffle and she ran out of stories to tell. "So," she said, "I assume you found the check I left for you?"

"Yes, thank you," he said, "but I had to use it to pay Steve--"

"Edward." She crossed her arms.

"Don't worry about it, Mom, I owed him from a while ago, and it turns out that he needed it this weekend--"

"What are you going to do?"

"I'll be okay. I've got a little time, yet, before the rent is due." He gave her a smile of reassurance. He had at least a week, and a few hundred he could use to play some smaller level games. Maybe online rather than the club. Work his way up.

"Don't you dare use a credit card," his mother said with a shake of her head. "You come to me before you get a cash advance. Promise me."

"I promise," he said with complete sincerity. There really would be no problem with his luck now; it had to be nothing but good. He had just had a spectacular weekend, and was riding a high of adrenaline, and lust, and Jack, and dare he even think it something far deeper and more profound than he had felt in way too many years. The man said he wanted to take it slow, and Ed could do that. He would do that. If Jack wanted it, he would comply.

It was Jack's lunch hour on Monday and rather than eating he was in a cab traveling up 8th Avenue toward 47th Street. His morning had been packed arguing before Judge Kuperman, and helping Alex with another motion from Rebecca Shane in the Loomis case, but during quiet moments his mind continued to obsess over a personal concern until, in frustration, he tracked down Steve and asked to meet. The man might not help. It was still worth a shot.

The cab dropped him off in front of the theater where Steve worked; as Jack was paying he heard his name. Steve held one of the theater's doors open, waving him in. There was rehearsal going on, but Steve claimed the most private, quiet place to talk was in the theater itself, in the upstairs balcony. As he followed the other man up the carpeted stairs, Jack briefly wondered if Steve had assumed "privacy" meant a place to make out. He was not in the mood for joking around. They entered the balcony; Steve led him to the back row. House lights were on but only lit the stage and front section of the main floor seats; the balcony was mostly in shadow. Voices drifted up from below: actors on-stage, people in the seats, crew members on ladders hanging drapes on scenery windows.

Jack removed his coat and sat. "Thank you for meeting me," he said.

"Not a problem." Steve cleaned his glasses on his denim shirt. "I've spent the morning doing machine embroidery on an understudy's blouse. It's mind numbing and I forgot to charge my iPod. At least this is a break...." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.

"I hope you'll still have time for lunch."

"I will; there's a good deli across the street." Steve turned in his seat and tucked one leg under. "But you said on the phone you wanted to talk about something important. You're not here to discuss lunch options."

"No, I'm not," Jack said. And, now that he was here he was having second thoughts.

Steve sighed. "I could make this hard for you, but, damn it, Jack, you're a nice guy. I like you." He grinned. "No, not in that way--"

"Good. Because I think you're a nice guy, too. However-- I called impulsively. It's not fair to put you in a position to divulge things to me. This isn't my office." He reached for the parka on the seat next to him; Steve stopped him by grabbing his arm.

"Ed is my best friend," Steve said. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to enable him by keeping secrets from you; that is, assuming that he hasn't already said something to you. Explained, or just told you what he's been up to."

Jack's heart sank. "Enable him? So-- He is gambling again."

Steve nodded. "So-- he hasn't let on. How did you figure it out? I'm asking because I want to know exactly how out of control it's gotten. He doesn't tell me every little detail."

"Clues here and there. Some things just didn't add up. And he bought me what looks like a very expensive gift." Jack leaned back in his seat, suddenly too tired to move. Son of a bitch.

Steve was staring at him, his arms folded. "An expensive gift? How expensive?"

"I don't know, because I don't know if he bought it new. But prices from online jewelers range from twenty-five hundred to thirty-five hundred."

"God damn it, Ed! You--" Steve's mouth clamped tight; he looked out to the stage.

Jack waited for him to calm down - he had questions, though he wasn't interested in what particularly pissed off Ed's best friend about the watch. He could guess. He didn't know what he was going to do about it. Eventually, Steve focused on him.

"There's a part of me...," Steve said, "a part of me that wants to tell you what a great guy Ed is. He is. He's pulled me through more crap... and never, ever walked away. What do you do when someone like that has this part of them that is just... broken. I don't want you to judge him, Jack. I--" He shook his head.

Jack gave his knee a brief squeeze. "You don't need to defend him to me, okay?"

"Okay," Steve said in a low voice.

"How long as he been gambling? I mean, when did it start up again, this time? I know he had some serious problems with it a few years ago, but I understood he had stopped."

Steve took off his glasses again and rubbed his eyes. He sighed. "Let me see if I can put it all chronologically--"


"It's been over the past year, but off and on. Certain events seemed to trigger it. I'm sure there's some deep psychological reasons underneath it, but by now I'm not so sure I give a shit what they are. I'm scared." Steve cleared his throat, and outlined, event by event, the back and forth of Ed's gambling.

Jack listened to the recitation, detached, like he was standing in the aisle watching Steve deliver a speech. Not sitting next to him, hearing information that held the power to crush his dreams. Ed's gambling started immediately after Lennie died, stopped when he himself nearly died from the shooting, started again a few weeks after his return to active duty, and then kicked way up a notch on Thanksgiving weekend. That was when Ed tried an underground poker club, where the stakes were higher, the payoffs bigger, the downward spirals more dangerous.

Thanksgiving weekend. Jack felt his cheeks burn, surprised that his Chicago hookup still did that to him. He assumed Ed had spent the time with his extended family, not in some dive poker room. The visual was depressing. He wanted to yank Ed out of there, a notion that gave him a touch of comfort - perhaps he was not willing to give up on Ed, on them. But, why Thanksgiving weekend? He asked Steve.

Steve looked at him strangely. "You don't remember what happened last fall? Before Thanksgiving?"

He remembered Van Buren's friend's daughter, the unfortunate young woman who killed herself. He remembered details surrounding that, and the problems they had because of Anita's emotional involvement, a fine line he had walked between supporting her and being angry with her. There must have been fallout around the precinct.

Steve said in a low voice, "You were nearly shot."

Jack's stomach dropped. The hit list?

"Ed went nuts. Fucking nuts. And with Fontana, and-- Just the whole thing."

"But, I was ultimately okay. Admittedly, I never want to go through that again, but by Thanksgiving I was okay. Why would that ... drive Ed to riskier behavior?"

"It's always after the fact," Steve said. "Something scares him and he responds by doing something scary. I don't get it. And now-- Now he's--"

"I don't think you should tell me any more," Jack said with a touch of force, showing his palm. "It's none of my business. It's not."

"Of course it's your business, Jack. You're the one getting involved with him, you're the one he'll listen to--"

"Wait a minute - you think that I can somehow fix this situation? You couldn't be more mistaken." Jack shook his head. "No."

Steve grabbed his forearm. "Please. Ed needs help. He needs an intervention. I can't do it with just me and his friends. He needs someone he's emotionally invested in--"

"Ed loves you, and I'm sure loves his friends. And how about his mother, or his siblings? He absolutely listens to his mom." Jack covered Steve's hand with his own. "It's way too complicated to bring me into it. Shit, it's complicated enough as it is, given our professional relationship. I'm sorry, but no." This was the one thing he was sure of. The only thing.

He suggested to Steve that Mrs. Green could talk to Skoda, since he was the last doctor of record. If Dr. Skoda was hesitant, he would consider intervening on Steve's behalf, but he doubted it would be necessary. Should Skoda feel the urge to put a report into Ed's service record, well, it was not as if there was never an indication that Ed Green had problems with gambling, so there could be no long-term fallout. Jack doubted Skoda would do that; this would be private assistance. And, no enabling meant no enabling.

Ed sat in Lieu's office with Fontana, eating lunch that Fontana had paid for. When the delivery boy had arrived at the bullpen's doorway, Ed took the box and left his partner to pull more bills off of the roll in his pocket. Maybe it had not been the most subtle move on Ed's part but it was certainly effective. It saved him nearly thirty bucks. Well worth the potential snark from Joe. The three of them were ostensibly having a working lunch, but Ed's brain was not engaged, and each time he forced himself to focus, by the time he had swallowed a new bite of smoked turkey on wheat his mind had wandered off-topic again.

He was worried. He hated feeling worried. During online poker last night, the best he had done was to break even, and that certainly would not pay the rent. His expectations had been high; his attitude had been perfect; the cards should have come his way. They did not. If his luck continued like this he would have to borrow more money from his mother, and be beholden to her, and he hated that, too. He had to find enough cash to get back to the club.

He was supposed to be thinking about solutions, reviewing lines of inquiry he and Joe made at the end of last week. Joe wanted to push Borgia to get them a search warrant when she had already said they did not have probable cause, but they only had as much as they had and how the hell were they supposed to proceed, and Lieu said she would talk to McCoy to see if she could convince him to at least try, and Ed had the uncomfortable feeling that maybe his glance darting back and forth between Joe and Lieu was a sure giveaway that the mention of Jack had peaked his interest.

It certainly did not help his focus any. Because, he had awoken that morning to thoughts of his future, of the potential he held in his hand to develop something with Jack. Something lasting. Something real. He couldn't say he had envisioned the outcome when he had decided to kiss him. What would actually happen between them. Sure, he had assumed they might kiss for a bit, feel each other out, see how it went -- sparks or no sparks, positive response or a push-away -- since a man never knew what to expect upon first contact, no matter previous positive signals. He had not envisioned getting rocked back on his heels. Not like that.

Jack would -- given the chance -- definitively change Ed's life, and he wanted most of the changes he could imagine. Jack was different than anyone Ed had known in his circle, in the community... pretty much anywhere. He was unique. This would not be like the last time.

"Ed." Lieu's slow drawl interrupted his reverie. "What do you think of your partner's point of view?"

In general, or in this specific instance? Ed wanted to ask. "It's cool," he said.

"As I predicted, Lieutenant," Fontana said with a smirk.

Lieu waved a hand toward her doorway. "Fine. Go. Do."

Ed followed Joe to their desks, wondering what the hell he had just agreed to, and how he was going to find out before it was too late to make any necessary alterations.

It was an hour after official office hours were over in the DA's office; Jack was at his desk staring at papers strewn across the surface. His eyes were tired. His mind was tired. There were still hours left in his day.

"Hey, Jack," a man's voice came from his doorway. Paul Henderson from the Rackets Division, two floors below, stood with a coat in one hand and a hard-sided briefcase in the other. "Can I interrupt?"

Jack waved him in. He had spoken with the man earlier, when he'd returned from his talk with Stephen and got his question answered, so the fact that he was here for no obvious reason was probably not good. His face showed he was deadly serious. "What's up?" Jack said carefully.

"You know that poker club you were asking about? Why were you looking into it?"

"Like I said, it may or may not be important in relation to a case we're working on. Why are you asking?"

"So, you don't have anything in the works regarding the place?"

If they kept this up much longer, Jack would probably throw something. Or yell. "What are you getting at, Paul?"

"I don't want to step on your toes; I know you've got clout here, and, frankly, I don't. Look-- my boss and Vice are going to raid some underground poker clubs they think are funneling money to the Marchettis. One of those clubs is the place you asked me about. So, if you've got some need for something in there, you're going to have to work around us, because the raid is planned for this week. It is a 24/7 place, but we figure midweek will be slow...."

Paul Henderson continued to explain what his department in conjunction with the NYPD Vice squad had planned for Ed's new favorite poker venue, while Jack waited impatiently for the man to finish so he could push him out of his office.

Jack prepared for Ed's arrival by securing the three doors to his office, even if most of the people on this floor were long gone; it would not do to be interrupted. There was a slim chance that Ed might want to get something to eat when they finished talking. Jack would like that. Maybe the conversation would lead to more openness between them - that was supposed to be the hallmark of a stable relationship, at least according to one or two of the women he had been seriously involved with. Maybe men could aim for the same goal. Maybe not.

There was a knock on his door. He let in a serious Ed, greeting him with only a man hug because of where they were, but each of them lingered during the clinch. Jack squeezed Ed's shoulder before stepping back. He pulled out one of the chairs at the table. The couch was not appropriate, not for this, and not ever in this office. Couches were for home, for being close, for relaxing. "Have a seat, Ed. Like I said on the phone, we need to talk."

Ed draped an overcoat on the back of the wooden chair before sitting. "Okay," he said.

Jack sat down next to him, turning the chair so they faced each other. Even given their respective heights, their knees were still a few inches apart. Jack kept the distance. Ed's eyes were fixed on him. Still serious. "There's no easy way to say this, Ed. So, I'll just come right out and say it. I know you've been gambling again, and there's something--"

"What do you mean, you know I've been gambling again?" Ed's eyebrows were near his hairline, his body suddenly rigid.

Jack continued without answering; he needed Ed to hear the information. "I have it on good authority that the club you've been going to is about to be raided. You have to stay away from there."

Ed's hands were clenched into fists, on his thighs. "Who told you I've been gambling?!"

"... Nobody." Ed stared at him. Jack relented. "Steve. But, it wasn't--"

"What the hell are you doin' talkin' to him? This is none of your damned business!"

That cut him. Profoundly. "It's not?! I thought we were-- involved. If we're involved then you are my business. Clearly I must be somewhat mistaken, because you didn't let on that this was even part of your life. Did you have any timetable for telling me?"

"When I was good and ready! But on my terms, since it's my business! What haven't you told me about, huh? I'm sure there's lots of things!" Ed's eyes were burning, but his glance darted around, meeting Jack's and ricocheting off of it again.

"We're not discussing me, Ed, we're discussing your use of this poker club and the dangers inherent in that. And the fact that you haven't told me about it!"

Ed shook his head. "It's not dangerous. And it's not illegal. It's just a little poker, that's all!"

"Just a little poker?!" Jack slapped the table in frustration. "It's illegal if there's a profit being made, and that profit is going directly to organized crime! What has gotten into you? Vice and the DA's office are going to raid that place this week-- do you want to get caught there? You'll destroy your career!"

Ed stood so quickly the chair shot out behind him. "Well, it's my career to destroy, isn't it?! What do you care?!"

"For god's sake, how can you ask me that?" Jack stood and tried to grab Ed's forearm, but the man jerked away; the rejection hit his gut like a sledgehammer. "Ed. How-- I care what happens to you. I care a lot."

"You care so much that you go behind my back?! Thanks!" Ed's eyes were darting again.

"I didn't think you'd tell me if I asked," Jack said, frustrated, and sick of being attacked. "You hadn't up until last night, and you had plenty of opportunities."

Ed picked up his coat, shaking his head. "Yeah, well, that about sums it up, doesn't it?" He strode hard toward the door.


Ed paused briefly, and looked over his shoulder. "There's no point, Jack. I'm done with this." He walked out.

Jack looked at the closed door, warring impulses screaming inside of him. Follow Ed; let him go; follow him; let him go.... The decision was made by default as he continued to stand in the silent office, eventually hearing the faint sound of the elevator doors opening, and closing again.

Ed was done with it. The whole, fucking thing. He didn't take that kind of shit from his closest friends, much less a man with whom he-- A man who-- He slapped the wall of the elevator with an open palm. The pain pierced his composure; he could feel his stomach in knots, his head pounding. The elevator finally reached the ground floor, and Ed raced out of the building and kept going in the general direction of his apartment, not thinking about what to do with the rest of his evening, not thinking about dinner, not thinking about how long it would take him should he keep walking instead of hopping the subway or hailing a cab. Not thinking.

The following morning, the dull light of a January day brought him to consciousness, and in that moment he lost the ability to control his brain. He saw Jack's face, right before he had stormed away. The man looked stricken. As if he cared. I care about what happens to you... I care a lot. Well, maybe he did. That did not necessarily mean a damned thing.

February, 2006

Jack folded the written note and tucked it inside his briefcase pocket, next to the Ebel watch box now wrapped in brown paper. There were two options for returning the watch to Ed -- the Post Office, or a delivery service -- neither of which felt safe enough to trust a three thousand dollar watch to. In Jack's opinion, once he insured the package for its value chances were slim it would actually arrive at its destination. Since it was the middle of the morning, there was one other option - hand deliver it to Ed's apartment. The man would be at work; Jack could talk his way inside the door at least, leave it on the nearest surface with another note, explaining why he had gained entrance.

Jack had attempted to talk to Ed in the few weeks since the conversation, and had been soundly rebuffed each time. Not with hostility -- which was small consolation -- but without the possibility to discuss the rebuff, or anything beyond that. As time went on, Jack assumed he was learning to live with it. He had certainly been through heartache enough times to know various coping mechanisms, some that worked better than others for him. He was not thinking about the future, instead concentrating on each day, each case that came up before them, each bit of evidence and how to use it, putting his mind directly on work and only work. If at some point he was forced to actually see Ed, he would deal with that, too. The stab in his chest whenever he saw his name on a report was lessening, though still noticeable, and jarring.

The Greg Loomis trial started tomorrow, and Jack was well aware he would need all of his concentration to win against Rebecca Shane and the Loomis bank account. And, every night, when he walked in his door, he saw a stunningly beautiful, expensive watch that represented enough distractingly bad things that he wanted it gone. True, it also represented one exciting, delicious, potentially life-altering weekend and a genuinely loving gesture from a man who-- each time it all flooded back, and each time he had to stop the thoughts, and swallow the feelings, because he simply could not do it any longer. Jack had to return the watch. Besides, it was not right to keep it. Ed could more than likely use the money, too, if he sold it, or returned it. Jack picked up his briefcase, told Alex he would be gone for a couple of hours, offered to pick up some lunch, and left.

It was as easy to convince Ed's building manager to let him in as Jack had expected. Flashing his ADA badge had done the trick - the middle-aged woman assumed he was leaving something official. She thought highly of her detective tenant, and told Jack some of the reasons why as they went up the stairs, and he could only agree with her -- Ed was a fine man -- though it hurt to do so.

She keyed Ed's front door and left Jack to it, waiting for him in the hallway, assuring him she would not do this for anyone, but she had seen him on the news and knew he was "for real." The description bothered him, but he did not know why until an hour later when it occurred to him that his life had slipped back into a familiar, false reality, where Jack the man, not the lawyer, was ignored almost entirely. However, he had duties and responsibilities to the people of New York County; they did not care if his heart was broken. He could not care, either.

The flat was bright from large windows overlooking the street two stories below; comfortable, modern furniture, a wall of books, and even a few plants gave it a homey feel. He would have enjoyed spending time here with Ed, doing the things-- He shut his eyes and took a deep breath; he left the watch and his previously written note on the kitchen counter, adding another, shorter note to explain. As he walked out with the manager, he hoped for the best possible outcome - that Ed wouldn't be too angry, or too hurt, but that he might understand the reasons why Jack returned his gift. Some day. Jack held no illusions.

Ed saw the package on his kitchen counter and knew immediately what it was, why it was there, and he even imagined what the notes might say to such an extent that he nearly left the room without touching anything. "Coward," he muttered. He read the smaller of the two pieces of paper, and discovered that Jack himself had been standing in this exact spot, and even if there was a part of him that felt irritated the man had breached his privacy, he was surprised that a larger part of him felt only depressed by the thought. He had never had the chance to invite Jack here, himself. This was as close as they would ever come to occupying his home together. Hours apart. He opened the folded printer paper, and perched on a nearby stool to read the letter.

Most of it was as he had imagined. But, Jack also took the opportunity presented to apologize for one or two things. To wish Ed "nothing but the best." To say good-bye, in essence. Ed folded the letter and placed it carefully on the counter. The emotional wallop washed over him in a wave, and for the first time he did not try to control it. His throat closed. His eyes stung from unshed tears. He stayed where he was.

It had been a week since the day Ed had received the watch - a date that became a fixed point in time; four days since the watch, five days since the watch, one week. Before the watch sat on his dresser he was still vacillating between giving in and standing up for himself. Hours here and there when he let himself feel guilty. Maybe he should have done this differently, or that. There weren't many of those times, and they didn't last long. After the watch was placed on the dresser, that was the end of all speculation and what-ifs. There were no more options.

The Loomis case, coincidentally, was also tried in the post-watch week, and now it was before the jury, and Ed wanted that kid to go down as badly as he had ever wanted any conviction. Loomis garroted a classmate because the guy wouldn't help him make an A. It was indescribably awful. And infuriating. In the post-watch week he had put in long hours working one of their current cases: a double homicide in an insurance company. Fontana continued to feel him out -- to ask why he was suddenly so gung-ho to work until nine each night -- but Ed had far too many years of practice hiding his personal motivations from colleagues to open up now.

He climbed the stoop of Steve's building and buzzed his apartment. Steve let him in; Ed headed to the elevator. His friend wanted to talk. Ed was willing, but honestly he would prefer to go home and have a beer, settle in for the late-winter's evening.

Steve opened the door and gave him a hug there in the hallway, which was unusual, and Ed's instincts kicked in -- something was wrong -- but he followed his friend into the apartment and into the living room, and his heart lurched. One glance told him everything - this was a fucking intervention. His mother, brother, and sister were there. Two of his closest friends besides Steve. And Dr. Skoda, who stood, and came to him, held out his hand which Ed -- half numb with shock and anger -- took.

"Ed," Dr. Skoda said, shaking his hand slowly, then he covered it with his other hand so Ed couldn't pull away. "Please? Have a seat. We want to talk to you." Skoda let go.

He knew he had a choice, he honestly knew it, and standing there a huge part of him wanted to turn tail and stomp out because he did not need any damned intervention. But, he hadn't spoken much with anyone in the last week so they could not possibly know what he was thinking, or what he had decided, or how he felt. He knew he did not need their help, and there was only one way to prove it to them. He sat on the couch between his mother and Steve.

"Thank you," his mother whispered to him.

"It's okay, Mom," he said, and smiled. Or tried to. His face was tight.

Dr. Skoda took charge, explaining that the people who loved him were worried because it appeared to them that his gambling was affecting his life in a negative way. It was also affecting theirs. He asked Ed if he would please listen to what they had to say. Ed actually did not want to hear what they had to say; he could imagine it and the very idea was humiliating.

"Eddie," Steve said as he clutched Ed's knee, "please?"

Ed nodded. Now that he was on the couch, he felt trapped, as if he no longer had any choices. His pulse, which had not slowed much, was giving him the beginnings of a pounding headache.

The first letter was read by Raul, a man Ed had known since he made detective. At one time Raul accompanied Ed to Atlantic City on weekends; his passion had been blackjack. Raul reminded Ed what a mess they had been, years ago, and how they had changed things for the better, and how disappointed he was when Ed asked him in November to start the whole thing again. Raul felt disrespected. His comments cut. Ed disagreed with him on a number of points, but the less he said in response the quicker he could go home.

His little sister Gwendolyn was next, and her letter focused on money Ed had borrowed which she did not begrudge but could not afford. She was hurt, too. His brother Theodore was angry. Ed tuned him out - he had heard it before.

Steve handed him a legal-sized envelope. His name was handwritten in familiar, gut-twisting script. Jack.

"This is to open in private," Steve said. "Jack accepts that it'll be your decision, alone, whether or not you read it." Steve clutched his knee again, and squeezed once before letting go. Ed held the envelope gingerly; he did not have a response, and so as not to keep staring at his name, he folded the letter and slipped it into his jacket's breast pocket.

Steve's letter was long, and for the first time Ed felt the discomforting sensation of guilt creeping up his spine as he listened to Steve's description of the extent to which he loved Ed, and treasured their long friendship and the trust they had built up between them, and how Ed had damaged that trust when he borrowed money but did not use it for rent, as he had claimed. Steve was hurt; he was angry; he was scared. Ed wanted to reassure his best friend so he need not be scared, but Steve was continuing. His letter ended with a plea that Ed get some professional help.

"I don't need professional help," Ed said. "I'm fine. I decided this week to cut back on poker, you know, just twice a month--"

Steve made a loud sound of disgust. "Ed, that is bullshit--"

"Steve," Skoda said, cutting him off with a raised hand. Steve glared a little but settled back into the couch in acquiescence. "Mrs. Green, why don't you read now."

Ed's heartbeat skittered. He listened to his mother say, in essence, what everyone else had said, except her words held more emotion, and were more difficult to hear. Eventually, she delved into the heart of her issues with Ed's compulsive gambling. He cringed at the term.

"Edward, I pray every day that you will stop being so cruel to yourself. I am afraid that you are ruining your life, and I do not understand why you would devalue it so completely, by estranging your friends, your family, spending your time and your hard-earned money that way." She glanced up briefly; her large eyes were red-rimmed. Ed had not noticed when he first saw her that she had been crying. His throat closed. "You almost died," she continued. "My dear, strong son, I almost lost you. You fought your way through that horror like the man you are. I don't understand why you don't accept the gift God has given you - a chance to live a rich, full, love-filled life. Please. I will pay for you to see someone, Dr. Skoda or whomever you want, I'll pay for six months of counseling. Please, Edward." She swallowed hard, but did not lose her composure. She folded her letter neatly and held it on her lap.

Ed had to leave the room. He stood, and cleared his throat. "I need a few." He walked toward Steve's bedroom, but was also moving toward the front door, and heard some indistinguishable protests. He paused, turned, and forced out of a thickening throat, "I am not leaving. I'm going to Steve's room. I'll close the door behind me. I'll be back when I'm ready to be back." He kept walking.

The bedroom door was closed when he reached it, probably because the cat was inside, safely ensconced away from the crowd. He slipped in. A bedside lamp was the only light in the room; Felix was asleep on the bed but perked up at the intrusion. Ed said his name; Felix stood and stretched while Ed sat on the edge of the bed. The cat purred and rubbed his face on Ed's arm, and hand; Ed obliged, petting him distractedly. Now that he was here, away from everyone, he did not know what to do. He briefly contemplated going down the fire escape.

He dropped back onto the bed, with his feet on the floor, and closed his eyes. His jacket fell open and the folded envelope from Jack rubbed against his chest, through his dress shirt. He loosened his tie. This was a private moment, and what the hell, he might as well read all of the ways he had screwed up his budding romance with Jack McCoy, and hurt him, and angered him, even though he knew every last one of them already. He opened the letter. Felix settled himself against Ed's side, and that one small gesture of unconditional love nearly tore him apart. "You're a good bud, Felix," Ed said in a low voice.

He started to read.

Dear Ed,

First off, I did not know until after I returned your watch that this intervention was in the works for a date immediately following that action of mine. I might have waited, so you didn't feel I was piling on. I'm not. Second, the reason I'm not there is because our interactions are complicated enough without me putting myself in the middle of a situation that is, I think, better left private, between you and your family. My decision had nothing to do with Dr. Skoda's presence, or his and my professional and personal relationship. You can tell him anything you wish about me, about you and me -- he is 100% trustworthy.

If I was standing in front of you at this moment, I would tell you this: You are a fine man. You made some mistakes with me, some errors in judgment. You were not honest with me. You tainted the trust that we were building between us. The relationship we were building. Like I tried to convey to you, in my office, I care a great deal about you. I hope that you take the help your family is offering.


He did not know what to make of it, only that it cut him in two. He felt slightly nauseated. Jack did not say anything at all about feeling hurt, or angry, or-- anything. Other than he cared. A great deal. What did that mean, exactly?

Ed did not know what to do. Everyone was waiting for him to make a decision, and what he wanted, what he really, honestly wanted, was to hop on a boat to the Bahamas and never look back. To run. On the lam from his own life. There was a knock on the door. He sighed, but called, "Come in," while sitting upright. Felix complained, then curled up in his original spot next to Steve's pillow. Dr. Skoda walked in.

"Can we talk for a minute or two, Ed?"

Ed nodded. Skoda pulled a chair from near the window, dragging it around the bed, in front of Ed, and sat. Felix watched but didn't move. Ed was still holding Jack's letter; he returned it to its envelope and the envelope to his pocket.

Skoda leaned forward, elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. "I think there's a piece of information that you're missing. From me. It might, or it might not, make a difference. I don't work for the DA's office any more. And I don't work for the department any more. I'm strictly in private practice, and have been since a month before you returned to active duty. So, even aside from the medical canon of ethics, and confidentiality," he said with a slight grin, "there is a firm wall between my office and your professional environment."

"Okay, thanks," Ed said.

"I take it you haven't decided."


"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Find me a boat to the Bahamas?"

Skoda chuckled. "I see." He gave Ed a long look, then sighed. "I can't make the decision for you, but neither can anyone out there. Neither can the man who wrote you that letter." He pointed at Ed's chest. "But, they were honest with you, brutally honest, and I know that's hard to hear. You either accept what they've told you as having at least a kernel of truth, or you can dismiss all of it, and carry on as you've been doing." He shrugged. "You have a problem, Ed. And, I know you as a pretty determined guy. I have no doubt that we can fix this. If you want to."

There was one thing he knew he wanted. Not to feel like he did, like he had no control over what happened to him, or why, or how. Like he was constantly trying to keep a million tiny ducks in some sort of working array when they were running all over the place. He trusted Emil Skoda's integrity and skills. "You have no doubt?" Ed asked him.

"None. It will be hard, of course."

"Of course," Ed said, knowing he had no concept of what "hard" meant in this context. He inhaled air to the bottom of his healed lungs, and exhaled slowly. "Okay. I agree. I want to do this." He felt both relieved and terrified.

"Okay, then," Dr. Skoda replied with a smile. He pulled out a PDA from his breast pocket and turned it on. "Let's meet tomorrow, um, five-thirty?"

Jack walked out of the courthouse and into the dark, cold evening, gratified that the jury had looked beyond the flash and nonsense put forth by Greg Loomis's defense. The young man was found guilty. It was the correct verdict, and it solidified Jack's occasionally wavering faith in juries. Sometimes, they got it right.

"You know," Rebecca Shane's voice came from behind him, "it isn't very often that I have the displeasure of having to say to the opposing counsel 'congratulations.'"

He paused at the head of the steps for her, then headed down. "We're threadbare, but we get the job done." He smirked, and knew it, and enjoyed every millisecond. It was sweet.

"Impressively. You know, our firm is thinking of expanding. Have you ever considered private practice?"

"Considered and dismissed it a long time ago; I've accepted my place in the world."

"I suppose that's a virtue," she said, "although I personally can't see it."

"You and the Loomis family," he said.

She wondered aloud if Loomis senior had put less pressure on Greg would he have been a plumber, and content with that, and Jack made an offhand comment in response, because honestly, he was fed up with Greg Loomis's sob stories. She shrugged, and motioned to the car at the curb, with driver waiting. "My limo," she said. She paused at the car door and gave him a single, vaguely regal nod. "Good night, Mr. McCoy. It's been a pleasure."

He watched her leave. She certainly had chutzpah, he would give her that. The job offer had been a unique touch. He tried to picture himself riding to and from work in a limo - while it might be nice to be pampered, every once in a while, he would hate being insulated from the city, sitting behind darkened windows in a near-silent environment. He would work in an office that spent way too much money on furnishings, was way too removed from the real world, and staffed with attorneys who were way too sure they could spin any fiction into fact for the right price. What an horrific existence.

"Jack!" came a man's voice from behind. He turned around to see Steve, almost upon him.

"Steve. What are you doing here?"

"I know the verdict came in a little while ago, 'cause I was with Ed when he got the call--"

Ed. Jack heard Steve's congratulations, but-- "Was this the night?" he said.

"Yes," Steve said. "And Ed agreed. He's going to work with Dr. Skoda."

Jack was flooded with a deep sense of relief, a greater sense of relief than expected, given his non-relationship with Ed. He had thought he was simply in a sort of limbo by this point, close to equilibrium. Apparently, not. "That's terrific news," he said.

"It is! It is. I'm gonna try not to get my hopes up too high, but still...." Steve smiled. "Your Dr. Skoda was great."

"My Dr. Skoda?" Jack said with an answering smile. "Not hardly."

"Anyway-- I promise, this is the last you'll hear from me on the topic of Ed and his compulsive gambling. I know you said you only wanted to hear things directly from Ed, but I thought you would want to know what happened. Given, well, things the way they are, I wasn't sure he would say anything to you..." Steve finished with a slight shrug.

Jack nodded. "Thank you for telling me." It stung to acknowledge that Steve was more than likely correct. Ed would probably never say a damned thing to him about something so personal. Ever again. Still, this was good news, and the second of his evening, and for now he was going back to the office, have a finger of scotch, clean off his desk, and go home. And ignore the sliver of hope he felt somewhere deep inside. It was entirely immaterial.

March, 2006

"It's not projection," Ed stated. Skoda quirked his mouth and was about to say something, but Ed continued, "I don't think it is. Is it?"

"It certainly could be. It's possible that you're taking your own judgments and putting them onto your friends. That's projection. Isn't it?"

Ed sighed in frustration, and looked out the windows to an overcast sky. It was supposed to be sunny today; maybe the sun would come out by lunchtime.

"Ed." Ed turned his attention back to the room. Skoda took off his glasses. "Why is it important to you whether or not you're projecting? We spent some time talking about it, last summer, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a habit of yours, no more than any of the rest of us. It's a completely human response."

Ed was not so sure of that. If everyone's head was doing the trips that his was, to the extent that his was, nobody would be getting anything done, anywhere. "Okay," he said, to agree. "So...."

"So, let's-- Here. Let's look at the people around you as if they were part of a case you're working on--"

Ed chuckled, and said, "I should play detective?"

"Why not?"

"Well, it seems kinda, I don't know, dumb?"

Skoda smiled. "Dumb can be a good thing. Alter your perspective. You are stuck, right now, because you're making assumptions about the people around you. People you care about. They are angry with you; they're judgmental; they're unsupportive. They don't love you." He waited for Ed's response, but Ed was unable to say anything because his throat was too tight. He nodded. "So," Skoda continued. "Let's rely on your detective skills. Every day you're expected to judge the people you interview as being truthful or as liars. You're good at your job. Why not try, even for just a minute or two, to judge your friends as you're talking to them? Pretend you are on the job."

Which would automatically assume that Ed talked to them, each, to actually have the opportunity to evaluate them. At the moment, he was spending very little time with anyone, other than Fontana, or Lieu, or the rest of the squad. And at the moment, Joe was-- never mind. He focused on Skoda. He could have a point, and it wasn't as if he didn't believe him, ever. But, there was so much more that he wasn't sharing with the man who was supposed to help him. "I'm not strictly heterosexual," he said.

Skoda paused a beat, but barely flinched or showed any sign of a reaction. "Is this something you keep hidden from your friends?"

"No! No. They all know. Work doesn't. Of course. My family does. Sort of."

"Sort of meaning they don't want to talk about it?"

"Sort of meaning that they think I'm bi. Not gay."

"And that would be more palatable to them? If there was a chance you could end up with a woman, good, that kind of thing?"

Ed sighed. "They've known me to date girls when I was younger. I have dated a few women as an adult. So, yeah, they like that picture...."

Skoda crossed his legs, tipping back slightly; the chair leather squeaked. "And you believe yourself to be bisexual? You know where you fit on the Kinsey scale?"

Ed had to think for a moment, to remember the last time he and Raul had looked at it, years before. "I'd probably be about a 5."

Skoda's eyebrows lifted briefly. "That's rather close to the high end of 'gay.' What if you looked at it in terms of emotional response? Which gender do you fall in love with?"

"Men," he said without analyzing the question at all, but then had to look away for a long moment, because... he had always told himself that he could fall in love with a woman, some day, when he was older, maybe, and get married and have a kid or two. He could do what was expected of him. Some day. But, that wasn't fucking true... was it. Steve would kill him - he'd been saying this all along, and Ed had always refused to believe it. He looked up. "Men," he repeated, firmly. His throat tightened, again, but he smiled with relief.

"Okay," Skoda said with an answering smile. "Thank you for telling me. For trusting me, Ed."

Ed kept smiling. Maybe this would work, after all.

At a card table set up in front of the Triumph of the Human Spirit monument in Foley Square, Jack signed the petition protesting the things going on at Guantanamo Bay. The young woman across the table thanked him and handed over a flyer with details of upcoming protests. There was no way he could attend, a disappointment he never got used to. He handed the list back to her without explanation; she looked disappointed, too. His stomach growled, and he left for one of the nearby benches to sit in the sun and eat his sandwich and maybe read something unrelated to work or politics.

As he ate and read -- a book his sister had recommended, set in World War II -- he found he had read the same paragraph three times and still did not know what the hell it said. Perhaps the story was not for him; perhaps he needed to give it another chapter before passing judgment. He shoved the book into his briefcase and people-watched while he finished his lunch. There was a steady line at the Gitmo protest table. His heartbeat skittered. Ed was there. Jack watched as the man chatted up the young woman, and signed the petition, and took a flyer, folded it, and put it into the breast pocket of his overcoat. Then he turned around and looked over the surrounding pavement and benches. Their eyes met. Jack felt it in his solar plexus. Ed lifted a hand and came directly toward him. They had not spoken in weeks. Alex was doing all of the communication between their offices by tacit approval and/or subtle manipulation on his part. He knew it couldn't last, but the reprieve was necessary. He wondered if Ed was there to talk about the accusations of torture being levied against Fontana which, just that morning, his office had dealt with in judge's chambers.

Ed now stood in front of him. "Can I join you?"

"Sure," Jack said moving his briefcase between his hip and the armrest.

Ed sat, almost carefully, and rested against the back of the bench but did relax.

"What can I do for you?" Jack did not want any prolonged silences, because to be in Ed's presence again, in close proximity, was already more strenuous than he could have imagined. Ed looked good, like he always did, and memories of their one day of necking were flooding back, unbidden, now unburied, forcing Jack to make a conscious effort to stay right where he was, and not walk away. Forcing him to stop focusing on Ed's mouth.

"Jack, I came so I could tell you a couple of things." Ed's hands were working together, then settled as he massaged one palm with a thumb. "I accepted the offer from Dr. Skoda, to help me. I've been seeing him for a few weeks."

"And how is that going?"

Ed's eyes narrowed. "You knew already, didn't you?"

Jack's heartbeat began to pound. But, he hadn't done anything wrong. "Steve told me. The night of the intervention--"


"Just a minute, Ed." Jack reached out and held his forearm, briefly. "Let me finish. Steve came to me, to let me know the outcome, that's all. I told him I didn't want to hear anything third hand - details of that evening, future reports, anything. He's respected that."

Ed was breathing hard, but did not appear ready to bolt. He turned his head toward the monument for a full minute, finally looked at Jack again. "Okay. I understand." He paused. "So, the other thing I need to tell you is that I've been talking to Dr. Skoda about you. You and me. This morning, in his office. I know you said in your letter you'd be okay with that, but I thought you should know."

He nodded, as something else came to him, unbidden: he desperately wanted to know what Ed was saying about him. About them. It was not because he was worried about how he would come off, in Emil's esteem, or how Emil might judge the entire situation. He wanted to know what Ed thought. What Ed felt.

"Okay, so," Ed said abruptly, "I'd better get back to the House." He stood.

"Wait." Jack didn't want him to go. Ed perched on the edge of the seat. "I still don't have a problem with you talking about me to Emil. Don't worry."

Ed shrugged. "Okay. I won't." He swallowed noticeably. "Thank you."

Jack nodded again. "Can I ask you something work-related?"

Ed nodded, but didn't relax.

"This business with Fontana, and Mitchell Lowell's accusations of being shoved into a toilet bowl over and over - do you have any personal knowledge of what happened? Anything Detective Fontana told you? Anything you observed?"

Ed rolled his eyes slightly and sighed, shaking his head. "No personal knowledge. Joe told me Lowell gave up the location of the girl immediately, as soon as he cuffed him. I never saw Lowell so I can't say whether or not he was drenched."

"Does it seem likely Fontana would do something like this?"

Ed stood and faced Jack. "If he did it, it might not surprise me, or it might, depending. But, he's my partner. You know what that means." He sighed aloud. "I've gotta go. See 'ya around." He turned and walked off in the direction he had come.

Jack was not surprised by Ed's non-answer, but, he had not missed the veiled implication that Fontana had a tendency to get very close to the line, if not occasionally cross it. He replayed their conversation from the beginning, and had another of his notoriously-too-late realizations regarding the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Of the romantic kind. He had never given Ed any positive response to the mere fact that Ed chose to come to him, and share important information. To let Jack know that he was in therapy, working on his compulsive gambling issues, his personal issues. As if it was Jack's business. And what had Jack said in response? Virtually nothing. Jack looked across the park but Ed was long gone. He cursed under his breath. He shook his head. He had missed his chance.

A weekend and almost an entire Monday passed before Ed heard what he had been yearning to hear the prior Friday, next to Foley Square and the man he could not get out of his mind. His phone rang as he was heading down the precinct stairway, five steps from the front door. The number was ID'd, "DA - Jack," which shocked the hell out of him, but as he put the phone to his ear, a part of him thought maybe Alex Borgia was at Jack's desk, using his phone. He answered his usual, "Green," to hedge his bets.

"Ed, this is Jack," Jack said needlessly, as if Ed wouldn't recognize his voice. He did not continue.

"What can I do for you?" Ed said. If Jack could act formal like that on Friday, so could he. Ed pushed open one of the double, glass-paned doors into the dark evening and headed down the front stoop, passing unis heading up.

"About last Friday, in the-- you--" The rest was garbled.

"Just a sec, Jack, you're cutting out...," Ed said, as he hit the sidewalk and moved away from the door, to stand up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the building, one hand over his free ear. "Say that again?"

"Last Friday, when you found me in the park, and told me what you're doing, I neglected to tell you how much I appreciated it. I imagine that took a good deal of courage, Ed. And... well, thank you. That's all."

Ed closed his eyes to the hubbub around him. Jack had used that sincere voice of his, the low voice, the one he had used when they were on his mother's couch together. "I-- I wanted you to hear it from me. You deserve that much." He could not say "you're welcome."

There was a pause, then Jack said, "So, how is it going?"

"The therapy? It's going okay, I think. It's, um, hard," he admitted.

There was another pause, longer than the first. "I have faith you can do this."

That hit him in the chest, and he was glad he was as hidden as possible in a public place, standing in reflected light from upper windows, and the street, a hand between his face and the cops around him. "Thanks, Jack."

"Any time." Another pause. "Good luck, Ed."

"Thanks," he said, trying to think of something that would keep the other man on the phone, but there was nothing, really, that made sense.

"Bye," Jack said, still in his low, gravely voice.

"Bye," he said. The connection ended. Ed closed his phone and slipped it back into his breast pocket. He turned so his back was against the fence, letting the iron support him, hands in his overcoat pockets, watching but not seeing the unis and the detectives coming and going from the precinct house to the parking lot across the street. He saw Jack in his office, with the night-lit city outside his large window, and lamp lit warmth inside. If things had played out differently last month, their relationship, by now, might have reached the point that he would be going to the DA's office to pick up Jack for dinner. Maybe later they would be in one of their beds, writhing together, focusing their energies on each other, forgetting their jobs for an hour or two. If things had gone differently. If he had not blown it so completely.

Jack sat on his leather couch and undid his tie, unbuttoned his collar. He needed a drink. The phone call had been worse than expected, mostly due to his frustrating inability to act normally around Ed. He missed that. The normalcy, whatever that had morphed into between the two of them. Just a simple conversation -- well, perhaps not so simple -- but.... It hurt, even now. He wondered where Ed was, exactly, and what he was thinking, right now, exactly, and whether he might be thinking about Jack, too, until he heard Branch's plodding footsteps coming into his office. He covered his eyes with the heels of his hands, and rubbed away emotions he assumed could be too easily read. He breathed deeply and prepared himself for a work conversation. Not simple, either. About Detective Fontana, and torture.

April 13, 2006

Steve handed Ed a beer out of the refrigerator, held his own bottle in the crook of his arm, picked up the bowl of chips with one hand and the jar of salsa with the other, and was about grab some paper towels off the counter with two fingers when Ed stopped his hand in mid-swipe. "Can I help?" Ed said with a touch of snark. He picked up the paper towels.

"Just tryin' to be a good host," Steve muttered, leading them into the living room.

"For fuck's sake, Stevie," Ed said, trying to rein in his frustration, "you don't play host with me." He stopped following for a moment. Maybe this had been a bad idea. He needed to talk to a friend, not an acquaintance, and lately it felt like Steve was devolving into the latter, no longer intimate like the former.

Steve put his things on the coffee table and returned, took the beer bottle away from Ed; he was about to protest when Steve laced his fingers between Ed's with a warm smile, pulled Ed to the couch and unexpectedly levered him lightly onto the cushions. "Please, have a seat, Edward." He plopped himself two feet away.

"That's more like it," Ed said.

Steve sighed loudly, turning his head to look at Ed, handing him the beer. "You're right. I don't like this. I want my friend back." His voice dropped. "That's my problem - I want you to be the Ed who had his shit together, before all of this started again. I can't have that right now--"

"How do you know? We've barely talked. You don't have all of the facts, you don't know how I am, now, or what I'm doing, specifically, to get my shit together as you so eloquently put it...." He shrugged, and opened his beer. He tossed the cap on the coffee table; it skidded off and rolled across the area rug. Felix flew off a nearby chair and played with it. Ed smiled. He looked at Steve. The man had tears in his eyes. "Aw, don't Steve, come on," he said gently. "I'm not mad--"

"No, you're hurt, and you're absolutely right to be--"

"Don't go beatin' yourself up. I was the one who screwed up, and took advantage of you. Look--" He twisted around to grab his sport jacket, retrieving a folded piece of paper from the inside pocket. He handed it to Steve. "This is for you, from me, and though I'm supposed to be with you while you read it, we'll do that later. It's a list of the things I did to you and to our friendship, and my apologies. So-- I'm the one who did damage. You're just tryin' to deal. I know that. But now? Let's just talk. I'll tell you anything you want to know."

Steve wiped his eyes. He slipped Ed's amends list between his tee shirt and his vintage cardigan, saying, "Yes, I know there are no inside pockets in a sixties golf sweater, but I'm knitting a square to make one - I think it'll work well enough to hold the basics." He looked at Ed for a prolonged moment. "Thanks, Ed, for this, and... yeah, we'll read it later, after we catch up." Steve inhaled audibly, and exhaled more slowly; he chewed his lower lip. "I can ask you anything?" Ed nodded, and took a swig. "Okay," Steve said, "when was the last time you played poker?"

"Two days after the intervention. I also haven't placed any bets on anything."


"Really. I won't lie - it hasn't been easy, but Dr. Skoda and I are working on a way to remove the charge from gambling. You know, the adrenaline rush, the excitement."

Steve placed the bowl of tortilla chips on the couch between them, and looked at him through narrowed eyes. "You mean like sticking an electrode on you, like reparative therapy?"

"Ugh, no. It's sorta like--" Ed could not think of something comparable. "Like, I don't know, learning to ignore the desire? I'm somehow retraining my brain, at least that's what Dr. Skoda intends, and eventually, when I come in contact with anything connected to gambling it won't pull me in because I won't remember that it gave me a good feeling. It'll be neutral. At least that's what he believes will happen."

"Do you believe it?"

Ed sipped his beer, to give him a moment to think. He wanted to reassure Steve that all would be great from now on, but he could hear Skoda in his head and his 'honesty' refrain. And that he did believe in. "I don't know, yet. I believe that Dr. Skoda believes it, and I do feel less out of control about gambling. I don't-- I don't feel the urge. Right now." He sighed. "This is gonna be long term, Steve. I'll have to watch myself. You know me...."

Steve grinned. "Yeah, I do. Self-analysis isn't exactly your strongest quality." He paused, and said with a serious look, "Or-- I should say, it wasn't. It still could be, Ed. You've managed harder things, much harder things, seems to me."

"You mean my, um, recovery?" He never knew what to call it in conversation. 'My shooting' sounded so horrible.

"Yeah, that," Steve said.

The guy was in line with Skoda. Ed had not died when the doctors said he could have, and maybe should have. After he had been shoved down into a hellhole, unable to breathe well, or even walk well, he had not remained down. He had clawed his way back. Some days it had felt like inch by impossible inch. Skoda told him to think on that, not dwell on it, but use it to his advantage. He was trying.

Steve pulled out his letter. "And, it seems that the GA group is working?" He put the letter back inside his sweater.

Ed shrugged. "It's okay. Yeah, it helps. I'm not sure I'd be as well off as I am now if that was all I was doing."

Steve said, his voice soft, and intense, "I'm so proud of you. I am. I'm sorry I haven't been around much, for you, the past couple of months. I-- I wasn't sure I should be...."

Ed held up a hand. "It's okay, man. That's then. This is now."

Steve's mouth quirked. "Sounds positively spiritual. And, I get your point. And - did you hear what I said? I am fuckin' proud of you."

"I did. Thank you. Hey, I'm tryin' - I'm also not that great taking compliments, though I sure as hell want 'em." He grinned, and Steve grinned back at him, and damn, it felt good. Not many people knew him as well as this man, and he needed him on his side. One thing he had learned in Skoda's office - he could not keep going on his own, even if this was an intensely personal journey, and nobody else's responsibility. He had relationships to repair.

"So," Steve said around a bite of tortilla chip and salsa, "what about Jack?"

Ed answered by eating a chip, too, washing it down with a swallow of beer. Steve was staring at him, pointedly, and he sighed to see it. "Okay, what about Jack?"

"Prospects for you two making another start?"

'Honesty' was not easy when the topic was the man he could not stop thinking about, remembering, or imagining. He picked at his bottle's label with a thumbnail for something to concentrate on while formulating an answer. Jack was-- He was, according to some, perhaps including the man himself, off-limits. "Another start? Not likely." He met his friend's glance. "Dr. Skoda thinks it could be a bad thing to have a gay relationship right now, to be seriously involved. Especially with Jack. That's even assuming that Jack would be interested. I fucked that up pretty good, don't forget...."

"A gay relationship? Seriously involved? You?" Steve's eyes widened. "Have you made some other personal revelations in therapy? Something I should know about?"

"Oh, yeah," Ed feigned, "didn't I tell you? I'm gay, like, you know, all gay. Not really bi in the true sense of the word. Not gonna fall in love with a woman any time soon. Well, ever - for real, anyway." He and Skoda had delved more thoroughly into Ed's history. He was sure the change of self-identity was correct.

Steve pumped his fist with force and said "Yes!" so loudly that Felix was startled. "Thank you, Dr. Skoda," Steve said to himself. He held up his beer bottle, and Ed obliged, knocking his against it. Steve said, "May you have a long and happy and gay love life, Eddie." Ed nodded, and they drank. "But.... Shall we return to the main topic? Jack? Why is the good Skoda-man so against the two of you? Is this personal on his part? Like he knows something that would make a relationship between the two of you unworkable?"

"I don't get the feeling that it's personal at all," Ed said with a shake of his head. Skoda had been completely open and cool with all of the stuff they had delved into regarding Jack, and what had happened between the two of them, so Ed could only assume that Skoda already knew Jack was bisexual. "It's a matter of where I am, and how--" He had to pause and swallow down his emotions before he could continue. "How much I want something to develop between us. And, damnit, Steve, I want it. If I could, I would let go of any ounce of pride I had left in regard to that man and go down on my knees and beg his forgiveness and ask for another chance. And when the hell have I ever said that about anyone?" He swallowed hard, again. "Dr. Skoda wants me to be absolutely certain that I'm not... Shifting my need for excitement, and adrenaline, from gambling and onto Jack. He has a point."

"Or.... Maybe you just happened to fall in love with Jack at the same time that this stuff reached critical mass. Maybe the two things are separate."

"Maybe they are. But for right now, I need to be sure. And, it's probably all irrelevant anyway. Jack is not likely to give me another shot. He's in the middle of a tough court battle right now, too, so it's not the time to try." Ed had plans, however, to give Jack his own amends list and apology the next day, and talk to him, briefly. Steve asked him about the situation, and they finished their beers and most of the chips throughout Ed's recitation of what was going on in the courthouse, One Hogan Place, and a Congressional Representative's office. The death of an NYPD detective had brought a Representative's political operative -- Eric Lund, a man of Machiavellian evil -- in Jack's sights. Jack had the skills and the balls to take him down, and Ed did not mind the chance to talk about said skills, and all of the intangible qualities that made Jack -- in Ed's mind -- a great man. There was no pretense to be had, with Steve. Ed relished the freedom to speak, and feel, and desire.

April 14, 2006

Jack was in a holding pattern, in every sense of that phrase, as he awaited the judge's ruling on his supposed prosecutorial misconduct. The judge had declared he would render his decision tomorrow morning, which meant Jack had fifteen hours to live through, not knowing if his career was, in essence, over. The fact that neither he nor the office had done anything wrong would not matter if the judge ruled against him. A prosecutor's good reputation was paramount to do the job effectively. A half hour ago, he had listened to Arthur not-so-subtly say that he did not like Jack's odds. The office could not afford for Jack to lose. Eric Lund had set this smoke screen in motion, somehow planting an email on a computer the DA's office had impounded - an email that miraculously exonerated Lund and implicated Jack in misconduct. It was typical Lund dirty political tricks; it was definitely his handiwork. And Arthur had asked Jack to seriously consider dropping the charges against Lund, before the judge's ruling, to save reputations. Eric Lund, who had outed an undercover police detective for political reasons, causing her murder. Then Arthur backed off and stated it was Jack's decision. Like hell it was. Jack had left Arthur's office and kept going, twice walking a circuit of the tenth floor, stopping only at the water cooler, before settling down behind his desk. He needed to eat dinner. His stomach was in knots.

There was a rap on his open door; he looked up to see Ed standing there. His pulse reacted as it did every time he unexpectedly saw the man, and however much he wished his damned heartbeat would remain steady, he suspected this would be the norm for the near future, at least. Months? A year? What could he do? "Come on in, Ed," he said.

Ed entered and walked directly to the chair closest to his desk, sat, and pulled a legal-sized envelope out of the breast pocket of his overcoat. "I have something personal for you. You don't have to read it now - I know you're really busy. But--" He stopped talking; his mouth tightened so that his lips nearly disappeared. Jack dragged his attention upward. Ed's eyes, in the depths of which Jack swore he could read nearly every emotion, his eyes were... pleading. Pleading for what? To what? "But," Ed suddenly continued, "if you would, please, promise me that you'll read it - it's my description of everything I did to hurt you, and to-- to hurt any chance we might have had. It's important that you read it." He slowly handed it across the desk.

If Jack's heartbeat had revved up upon seeing Ed, now it was fully pounding. He took the envelope, of course; read his name written in neat, block letters - not at all Ed's usual scrawl; and placed it on the blotter, covered it with one hand. "Of course," he said, "I promise I'll read it, Ed. At home. In private." Ed nodded; his shoulders relaxed an inch. "Can I ask - does this mean that you're in an anonymous program?"

"I am, and this is also something that Dr. Skoda felt was important," Ed said in a low voice.

"How are you doing?" Jack sincerely wanted to know - no matter what else, he still cared profoundly -- maybe too intensely -- about Ed, and it seemed like he was doing much better, and that was supposed to be all Jack cared about. How Ed was doing. Not how he himself was doing without the possibility of Ed, ever.

"I'm doing good," Ed said, and cleared his throat. "I haven't gone near a card game since right after the intervention, or anything else, and that's getting a little easier the more work I do with Dr. Skoda, and, overall, I feel pretty good. About that part of my life."

Jack felt relief move through him - no gambling, no hedging the truth. "Ed, that's wonderful to hear. Seems like you're doing everything you can, and that doesn't surprise me. Good for you."

Ed smiled, and it was one of his sweet ones, and though Jack knew he was responsible, the knowledge only made a lump thicken his throat. His words were meager praise; Ed's actions had been supremely important. Jack wanted the power and the right to make Ed smile widely, and joyously, with words expressing his sincerest, and deepest emotions. He wanted the same from Ed.

"And how are you doing, Jack?"

Jack shrugged, and forced out, "I've had better days."

Ed nodded, and Jack could swear the man looked disappointed, but, in what-- Jack was not sure. Did he want something personal? Jack could have said his personal life was work, and his personal, personal life was for all intents and purposes nonexistent, because he could not bring himself to enter the dating fray, not right now, not when he knew he was hung up and, apparently, unable to let go. But, what good--

Ed said, the low voice back again, "I'm still working to find the connection between Lund and the TPA kids who had access to that computer." He paused, then leaned forward, his tone intense. "I have no intention of giving up, Jack; I'll work through the night if that's what it takes. That sonuvabitch is not gonna to ruin your career. We all know there's a connection, somehow. I'll find it." He stood, and moved away from the chair; Jack followed, and was around the desk before Ed had gone two steps. He grabbed his arm; Ed turned.

"Thank you," Jack said. Ed's glance dropped to where Jack's hand was still on his forearm but he did not pull away. With reluctance, Jack let go. "I-- I appreciate it, Ed."

Ed held out his hand for a soul shake, and Jack took it, and butterflies hit his stomach at the skin to skin contact, and he could not look into Ed's eyes, but instead watched their hands, the movements that slowed, until they ended, and Ed's hand was pulling back from his, exactly as if it was simply one more soul shake in years of them. Jack looked up, and Ed's face said it all. It was not simply one more. He felt it, too. Still.

"Good luck, tomorrow, Jack," Ed said quietly.

"Good luck tonight, Ed."

Ed nodded and left. Jack watched him walk down the hallway, and the spark of hope sitting somewhere deep inside of him glowed, like an ember rinsed by a breath of air.

April 15, 2006

Ten minutes to nine the next morning found Jack walking up the courthouse steps; when he reached the top, he saw Lund and his attorney, yards ahead. Lund saw him, and ignoring his attorney's pull to walk away he turned around.

"I'm impressed, McCoy," Lund said in his usual, supercilious tone. "I didn't think you had the spine to take this all the way to a ruling."

Jack wasn't intimidated. "I still plan to take this all the way to a verdict," he stated.

The lawyer shook his head and pulled again; Lund went, but, said over his shoulder, "It's your career...."

"Jack," Alex's voice came from behind him. Jack turned. Alex was grinning. "Fontana and Green," she said breathlessly, "they've got something on one of the TPAs."

Jack walked with her toward the courthouse door. "I can buy us an hour," he said with an answering grin. Good god, Ed had done as promised. He had saved Jack's ass. Thank you, Ed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2006

Ed walked slowly through Alex Borgia's small, one bedroom apartment with Joe at his side; they found a broken French door to her bedroom; pictures skewed; the contents of her briefcase strewn across the living room carpet; couch cushions upended; and blood on the bedroom carpet. Duct tape under the bed. Ed directed CSU to enter and do their job, watched while Joe pointed out the pertinent areas to pick apart first, and called Van Buren to report. It was as they had expected when they got the call from the first officers on the scene, who had been sent because Alex had not shown up for her morning court appearance and was not answering her phone. All indications were that ADA Alexandra Borgia had been abducted. Her cell phone was found on the bedroom floor. Her briefcase with its contents on the living room floor.

Ed refused to voice aloud what he knew Joe was thinking, and what he expected Lieu to say when she arrived - the perps here in Alex's apartment were the same thugs who had, so far, broken into two residences and duct taped the mouths and wrists of everyone they found, then taped a plastic bag over each victim and left them to choke to death, slowly, over the course of three to four minutes. Ed refused to imagine Alex meeting the same fate. He refused to imagine what Jack must be feeling, as he awaited word on what the police had found. If this was the work of the same two men, Alex was targeted specifically because of her connection to the prior cases, and Ed knew that Jack knew the worst imaginable outcome was a definite possibility.

Lieu arrived, and Ed and Joe walked her through the crime scene, relaying what they had learned from people in the building and Alex's immediate neighbor. Alex was last seen at ten o'clock the night before; the neighbor heard "some noises" coming through the wall around midnight.

Lieu stood in the living room and put hands on her hips. "Well," she said, "she's still alive until we know otherwise." Ed nodded in agreement, and looked at Joe, who did not respond at all. Lieu studied the room from where she stood, and shook her head. "I gotta call McCoy," she said, her tone and manner resigned.

Ed stared at the paperwork splayed at his feet, could pick out his own signature, and Joe's, and one page with the distinctive J and M signed with a flourish by the man whose world was about to tilt harshly on its axis.

Three hours later, Ed and Joe had the name of a man who might know where the suspects were -- "Ricky" and "Vincent" -- a bartender named Morley on Avenue A. They raced to alphabet city, but discovered Morley had fled after cashing his paycheck two days before. As they got out of the car back at the two-seven, Jack was walking up the sidewalk. It was the first time Ed had seen him since this horror had started yesterday with the discovery of the second family of victims. Jack looked terrible, his face taut, and lined with stress. When they met him at the door, he greeted them with a clipped, "Detectives," and entered, taking the stairs at a fast pace. Ed and Joe followed; Ed heard Joe breathing heavily by the time they reached Homicide's floor.

Ed caught up with Jack, and told him what they had discovered about Morley and that they were still looking for him, as the three of them took the short hallway into the squad room. Jack stopped, and with a sinking heart Ed recognized the angry look on his face, though the man was not meeting his eyes.

Jack said, with force, "I don't want any resources pulled away from the search for Alex."

Ed did not know how to respond; they were doing what they were supposed to do - find the men they believed responsible, who might be holding Alex. They had no proof it was them, but, it was their only lead.

Joe said, "There was nothing of any forensic value found in her apartment; there isn't a single eye witness to the abduction."

Ed tried to explain that they had people working every angle they could think of to find Ricky and Vincent - narcotics squads were talking to the CIs; they had feelers out on the street, but-- He ran out of placating information. Their eyes locked. The raw fear in Jack's tore at Ed; there was nothing he could say or do to take it away. Jack's expression softened for the briefest of moments when Lieu interrupted, calling him to her office. Without a word, he went. Ed watched, frustrated, and hurt - he felt he was being blamed for not yet finding Alex, like Jack was silently screaming at him to do something more. Why couldn't Jack see that he was doing everything possible?

"Well, he's not makin' it any easier," Joe said in a low voice.

"Lay off him," Ed said. "What the hell do you expect?"

Fontana held up his hands and shrugged. Ed swore under his breath and walked out of the bullpen, straight to the john, the sink, and cold water that he splashed on his face. What the hell did he expect, for that matter?

Four hours later, Ed and Joe were in Jack's office, discussing the man they believed to be the mastermind behind the brutal, ruthless home invasion robberies, the murders, and Alex's kidnapping. A federal DEA agent named Almonte. They had no hard evidence against him. As Fontana said, he made all the right moves, and no stupid mistakes. It was obvious to Ed, and maybe his partner, that with each hour that passed, and each non-update, Jack moved closer to the line between fear and outright panic. He wanted Agent Almonte arrested. Ed tried as calmly and gently as he could to talk Jack out of it, to no avail. They arrested him. The three of them attempted to interrogate him, to give up Ricky and Vincent, but Almonte arrogantly informed them that he was untouchable. Ed agreed with him, depressing as that was. Jack seemed ready to string the guy up. Joe, to hit him.

It was while they were in the interrogation room that Lieu pulled Jack, Ed, and Joe out, and told them the worst possible news - a car was found in a remote site. There was blood on the rear bumper. Ed was standing next to Jack. The man twitched, like he had been sucker punched. Jack looked to him. Ed's urge was to put his arm around him, but he could only return the glance, briefly, before leaving to open a hopefully-empty car trunk.

One hour later, Ed waited twenty yards from the back of the car, watching the path between the line of police and ME vehicles and a chain link fence. He wavered between nausea and exhaustion, as if the past ten hours had sucked out everything that sustained him. A familiar head of silver hair came into view, and Ed's heartbeat started to thud. His throat thickened. Jack and Lieutenant Van Buren came up the path, side by side, and when they were close enough, Ed stepped in front of Jack and tried to hold him back by the shoulder. "Jack, she got beat up pretty bad," he said, pleading with his voice alone since there were so many people around. Jack avoided his restraint and squeezed by, stating, "I want to see her." Ed couldn't hold him back, physically, so he reluctantly followed with hands in his coat pockets so he would not touch Jack, or pull him away.

Ed stood next to Joe, who had not moved from his spot by the open trunk. Joe began a recitation of what the ME had surmised, but stopped after the basics; Ed said nothing because he felt that was the right thing to do. Leave the man in peace. Alex was dead. Jack stood looking down at her, and Ed could see the enormous amount of self-control it took for the man to keep his emotions in check. After a long minute, Jack turned without saying a word and walked off. Ed watched him go, wishing he could follow.

It was nine o'clock at night when Jack keyed his apartment's door. He tossed his things on the end of the couch and went straight to the Glenlivet in the kitchen cabinet. The usual two fingers became three. He cut off a chunk of French bread he happened to have and took it and his glass to the living room. It was not good to drink on an empty stomach. Arthur had offered to buy him dinner, but after their conversation and Arthur's request that Jack be the one to talk to Alex's parents -- not her boss, Arthur Branch, DA, because he apparently could not come up with anything to tell them, about "what kind of a job she'd been doing" -- Jack did not particularly want to sit across the table from him and attempt further conversation. The talk they had had, about Alex, and how she died, and where the case stood -- decidedly nowhere -- had been enough for Jack. He had reached, and surpassed, his endurance limit. He knew that. With absolute clarity.

He sat on the couch, and mindlessly ate bites of bread, and sipped scotch, and tried to ignore the picture in his mind's eye of Alex bound and gagged and bloody in the trunk of that car. Ignore what he knew of how she died and how terrified she must have been. He gulped the remainder of the drink in one swallow. Across the room, the red message light on his answering machine blinked. He had not turned on a lamp in here; or closed the curtains; or-- he looked to the front door. Or, made certain all of his locks were set. The killers were free to come knocking on his door, too. He would need to be careful. Another hit list. He felt nothing at the prospect other than perhaps an iota of rightness, after all, it was his fault Alex was dead. He should have taken the case away from her. Arthur said Alex would have fought him "tooth and nail," and he was probably right, but-- He should have at least tried. Nothing could mitigate his responsibility.

He heaved himself upright to close the curtains, and turn on the light, and set each of his locks carefully and securely. At the desk, he hit the playback button on the telephone. Ed's warm, gentle voice was completely unexpected; it did something profoundly simple: it cracked a tiny fissure in his numb shell. Jack sat in the desk chair and hit the playback button again, because he had missed most of what Ed actually said. In the voice he had used in Jack's office that afternoon. The voice that got under his skin.

"Hey Jack. I didn't want to leave this on a machine, but... since you're not home... I hope you get this tonight. I am really sorry about Alex, Jack.... I know how hard it is to deal with something like this, and-- And if you want to talk, or have a drink, or just be somewhere other than your apartment, you're welcome to come over. Or call. Any hour. Anything. Okay? Okay, so.... I'll, um, see you tomorrow.... Bye."

Jack's throat closed. Overwhelming loneliness warred with overwhelming grief. He wanted to call Ed; he wanted to knock on his door; he wanted to believe there was more to Ed's message than the words, and maybe there was. He wanted. He did not want to feel like he did, right now, in this moment. Right now. When it felt like one wrong move, one shift, and he would be swallowed whole. He did not erase the message, and did not question why. He turned off the lights, and left the room.

Wednesday, April 27, 2006

Jack found Lieutenant Van Buren in the squad room at ten o'clock in the morning. He had slept soundly, surprisingly, and it seemed he was on slightly more settled ground today, and even had a small appetite. He was anxious to be updated on the police progress. He needed to focus. Anita told him that the car had been stolen and wiped clean of prints; CSU was working on other possible forensic evidence, but, there was nothing, yet. They entered her office.

"Agent Almonte?" Jack said.

Anita circled her desk to the business side. "His apartment's clean. He knows better than to keep anything incriminating."

Frustrated, Jack demanded that she put a fresh team of detectives to searching the apartment again, but she told him that she had everyone working on this, vacations and regular days off were canceled - all available personnel were on the streets, looking. Jack knew her well enough after all of these years to read her sincerity. He was disappointed. "And you're still coming up empty," he said in resignation. He sat in her guest chair, deflated, not certain what to do next.

Ed suddenly appeared at the door, his overcoat in one hand; he was a little out of breath. He glanced at Jack. Anita asked him if he had found anything new on Ricky or Vincent. Ed released a profound sigh. "There are no nicknames or MO hits in the databases."

"These two lowlifes," Anita said, "had to make a mistake somewhere."

Ed glanced at Jack again. "Fontana is running down a lead on the engagement ring stolen in the Andreas homicides, so...."

"All right," Anita said, "let me know if something pops."

Ed nodded, and continued to glance Jack's way as he backed out the door, as if he wanted to say something. Jack watched him go out of the corner of his eye. He wished they could have a minute of privacy; there was obviously no way to ask for it, here. Anita interrupted, and after a few more exchanges, she removed her glasses and held them in her hands. "Jack, I'm so sorry," she said, and the emotion behind her words nearly brought him back to the gulf. He could not respond; he was afraid his voice would crack. He stayed in Anita's office talking blessed inconsequentials for a minute or two, until he felt he could stand, and continue with his day.

Ed was at his desk, on the laptop, but his eyes lifted from the screen the moment Jack left Anita's office. They made eye contact and held it, and Jack felt no urge to stop it; on the contrary, his only urge was to relax into it. To remember. He reached Ed's side, and rested a hand on the man's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. Ed was still looking at him, and responded with a slight nod. Neither of them said a word. Jack let go, and left.

Friday, April 29, 2006

In the three days since Alex's death, Jack had traveled to the end of one of the longest limbs of his career. Arthur Branch had told him, three days ago, "Do what you gotta do," and what Jack had to do was drastic, but, within the bounds of the law as long as he had a presiding judge's sanction and participation. He, and Judge Bookman, were creating a sham prosecution of Agent Almonte, in order to get him to divulge the whereabouts -- and give evidence against -- Ricky and Vincent, the psychopathic bind and torture killers. Just this morning, Jack had convened a Grand Jury which heard faked testimony created specifically to get a murder indictment against Almonte. Arthur was furious when he found out what was going on. Jack did not care. Still, the tension inside One Hogan Place was thick; it was getting to him - he had not slept much for the past two nights; in the small hours of the morning, he was beginning to imagine noises in the hallway outside of his apartment, noises that forced him out of bed to look through his peephole. He was exhausted. And, he was lying to almost everyone. Only he, the judge, one witness, and Arthur knew the truth. He had never realized how exhausting lying on this scale actually was. At times, he found himself wondering how Ed had managed all of those months.

The police were closing in on the identities of Ricky and Vincent, having raided an apartment where they believed the men stayed, and dusted for prints. Ed called him, said they had good news, so Jack stopped there on his way to Almonte's faked arraignment. Ed smiled when Jack walked into the squad room, and seemed pleased with himself, and Jack tried to muster something of a smile in return. Fontana asked him if he wanted some coffee, which was a surprise - the man rarely tossed social niceties Jack's way. Jack declined.

Ed had two folders in his hand. "We got two hits off the prints in that apartment we raided." He handed a folder to Jack; there was the usual 8x10 mug shot clipped to the front. "Ricky Robinson, 27 years old, priors for possession with intent to sell." He handed over the second folder. "Vincent Mikulski, 31 years old, burglary, armed robbery, assault; this one's spent half his life locked up in some kind of jail."

Fontana said, "Mikulski's the one with the sadistic streak."

Jack expected to feel something, seeing the faces of Alex's killers, but they looked like any other hoodlums: beefed up, tattooed, shaved heads, cold expressions. "Any leads at their last known addresses, former associates--"

"No, No," Fontana said quickly, "nothing so far; what's goin' on with Almonte?"

"I charged him with murder." Jack handed the folders back to Ed.

Ed's eyebrows shot up. "Wow - how'd you do that?"

"I'll handle the legal end, Detective, just find these men." He could not hold the eye contact with Ed; he did not miss the look of hurt that crossed the man's face. It could not be helped. He left.

Okay, that stung. Ed had no idea what had happened to the rapport it felt like they were rebuilding, or the more personal communications it felt like they were trying earlier in the week, but-- Jack's rebuff hurt. Deeply. He tossed the perp's jackets on his desk with force. Joe was muttering to himself as he got settled at his desk. Ed did not want to hear it. He walked out of the bullpen simply because he had to move and he might as well take ten during a stomp around the block. He headed down the stairway. It was frustrating as hell that Jack would not accept that he was doing his best and his best was pretty damned good, and it was frustrating that he wouldn't talk, and it was frustrating that there was not a goddamned thing Ed could do for him like this. It was not as if Ed had no idea what Jack was going through - he did; his buddy from Academy days had been murdered on the job a few years back and nothing, nothing compared to losing someone to murder. He was probably in the most uniquely qualified position of anyone to help him. Even aside from how he felt about him. What he would do for him. He hit the bottom of the stairs and pushed open the door and walked down to the street. He turned right and started to march. He would walk off his burning frustration, and keep his eyes on the goal - to get through this, to find the evil bastards who had killed a smart, passionate, good woman like Alexandra Borgia. She deserved his best. So did Jack. Maybe a day would come when the man would see it.

Saturday, April 30, 2006

Ed came home after another long day, made all the more exhausting by the futility of his and Joe's efforts. The killers were still on the loose, and everyone was still on edge because of it. Van Buren had ordered them to cut the day shorter than ten or twelve hours, to go home, get some R and R, and not return until ten o'clock Sunday morning. Ed had not argued with her; he was fried. He went straight to the bedroom, stripped, and stepped into a hot shower for nearly twenty minutes. Most of which was spent leaning against the shower wall so the heat could soak into his chest and shoulder muscles, which were bothering him again after at least a month's reprieve. Maybe he should make an appointment with the massage therapist.

When he pulled back the shower curtain to get out, his new cat was sitting on the bathroom rug, watching. Ed smiled to see him, happy that the little guy was getting braver as the days went on. Seven days ago, Ed would not have seen him until he had been home for a couple of hours. They were making progress. He had adopted the black and white tuxedo two weeks before - the adult cat had been surrendered to the SPCA by a family who said the animal was "unmanageable." Ed had taken one look at him and decided he was the one. Steve thought he should look further to make sure, but Ed was sure, though he could not explain why. Something in the cat's face, or the way he talked to Ed in the shelter, or the fact that he had been dumped there by humans who were supposed to love him. Ed suspected they might be simpatico.

While Ed dried off, the cat -- who still had no name because Ed hated his old one and had not yet found the right one -- sniffed his feet and shins. A drop of water hit the cat in the head, and he jumped back, but did not bolt. "Good boy," Ed said. "Bet you're hungry for dinner." The cat meowed. "Me, too," Ed replied. They left the bathroom together, and Ed threw on some jeans and a gray NYPD sweatshirt; he had no plans to go out. He took his gun with him from the bedroom; there was no reason to take chances, given the MO of the killers: get into a victim's apartment and leave nobody alive. He fed the cat and watched him eat for a minute or two. He was already used to having him around; he did not begrudge the responsibility in the least. It was too bad that the second week he lived with Ed he was being left alone for such long stretches, but, on the other hand, maybe having a quiet apartment all to himself was a luxury the poor guy had not known. He had gone from a family of kids and a dog to a noisy shelter, so maybe this was close to heaven for him. Ed knew he was sleeping on the pet blanket he had bought, that he left on his own bed. He was most definitely not "unmanageable" - he was a sweetheart.

Ed cobbled together dinner of leftover Chinese and an apple and a beer from a nearly empty fridge. He ate his on the living room couch, pretending not to notice the cat had joined him; staying a foot away, he curled up after giving himself a thorough face cleanse. Ed petted him, and, oh yeah, the cat purred and stretched out, and for some reason it made Ed's throat close. "You like that, don'tcha," he said quietly. The cat opened his eyes halfway and gazed at Ed, as he continued to pet him gently, scratch his cheeks. "I think we'll be friends, that's what I think. So, one, you need a name. Two...." He paused. "This week has been fucked." He sighed, and his throat closed again. "So fucked," he whispered. He dropped his head on the back of the couch and shut his eyes, and tried to breathe away tears that were threatening. It felt like everything was bubbling up at once -- Alex, Jack, his own impotence, loneliness, even Lennie -- and he did not want to lose control, because if he did he had no idea what he would end up doing. Skoda would tell him to breathe, to pick something familiar to occupy his time in the short run, take it step by step. He ran through his mental list of options and decided on a movie.

He gently pulled himself off of the couch so as not to spook the cat and went to his DVD collection. There was a knock on his door, and he immediately went into high alert. Nobody had buzzed him from the stoop. He wasn't expecting anyone. His neighbors across the hall were on a cruise. He picked up his gun, and, holding it with both hands, peered through the peephole. His heartbeat stopped, then pounded. Jack. The man looked at the carpet, then down the hall toward the elevator. Ed unlocked the three locks on his door and opened it, sticking the gun in the back of his waistband.

"Hey, Jack," Ed said.

Jack carried a leather overnight bag in one hand, the other was in a front pocket of his jeans, and if Ed were completely honest, he looked bad. Drawn, pale, worse than yesterday. "Ed," Jack said, his voice rough and low, "can I come in?"

"Of course, I'm sorry," Ed said, opening his door wide. He glanced over his shoulder to the couch to see if he needed to worry about the cat getting out. But, the cat had retreated to a spot under one of his easy chairs, peering out with saucer eyes.

"Am I interrupting something?" Jack said as he entered, setting the bag by the door. "Do you have company?"

Since the living room was obviously empty, Ed was confused for a moment, then realized what he meant. "No," he said, closing the door and re-securing the locks. "Just checking to make sure my cat wasn't heading for the open door."

Jack's eyebrows lifted. "A cat? When did that happen?"

Ed would have preferred to talk about more pertinent things, on the other hand, he did not mind talking about his new friend. "Two weeks ago." He pointed under the chair. "That's him. Got him from the SPCA. He's still a little shy." He smiled. "He's better than he was. About a week ago he would have been under the bed by now. Can I take your coat?" He held out a hand, hoping that Jack would oblige - to give up the coat meant he wanted to stay a while.

Jack shrugged off his parka; he wore a short sleeve blue polo shirt. Wordlessly he handed Ed the coat, and Ed hung it up in his tiny hall closet. Returning to the living room area, he pulled his gun out from behind him and set it again on the side table. He looked up to find Jack watching, his eyes firmly on the firearm. "What's up, Jack," he asked, keeping his voice gentle. He did not want the man to balk, or bolt, or do anything but stay, and talk.

"Mrs. DeNunzio let me in, she happened to be leaving. You thought my knock might be trouble?" His hands went back into the pockets.

Ed shrugged. "I did. Better cautious than-- not. You know. Though Lieu told me you refused police protection."

Jack bit his bottom lip, glanced toward the cat, then back to Ed. "It didn't make sense that they'd be crazy enough to come after me. But-- I might have been wrong--"

"Did something happen?" Ed's heartbeat started pounding again. "What--"

"No. No, Ed." Jack lifted his right hand, then shoved it back into the jeans. "I didn't mean that. But, I don't think I can stay in my apartment tonight. I can't sleep. I keep thinking there's someone in the hallway. So, would you mind if I stayed here?"

Ed did not hesitate. "I wouldn't mind at all. Of course you can stay here." He avoided the subject of where, exactly, they would each be sleeping, except that as he looked at Jack closely, he could see how exhausted the man actually was. The bed was far more comfortable; when the hour came, he would offer it. Or insist. He could deal with the couch. It would put him in the living room by the front door, so it was the right strategic move, as well. "Can I ask, when was the last time you slept through the night?"

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't know, to be truthful. A few nights ago maybe." He tipped his head to one side, as if he couldn't look Ed straight in the eye. "Thank you, for letting me take you up on your offer. From earlier in the week. I considered a hotel, but that seemed even worse." He glanced at the Glock on the table. "A little personal police protection is probably all I need."

"I'm happy to do that for you," Ed said, the words not nearly genuine enough to express how thrilled he was to be asked. "Don't worry." He saw Jack's shoulders relax as the man gave a slight nod. Ed realized they were still standing in the middle of the living room; he had not offered anything, or made Jack welcome. He asked him to sit on the couch, to relax, and offered a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. Jack sat, and requested a beer. Ed studied him again. "Have you eaten anything, you know, for dinner?"

Jack shook his head. "I'm not hungry."

Ed perched on the edge of the couch, next to him. "Look.... I know what you're goin' through. But, you have to at least eat something a few times a day. I probably sound like my mom, but, hell, I can drag her over here and she can impart her southern words of wisdom herself. Trouble is, she was right when I was havin' a hard time after my friend was killed. She's right, now."

Jack smiled a wan smile. "Your momma's always right," he said softly.

"Yeah. So-- I've got shit here, because I haven't been home much lately, but we can order anything." He checked his watch, it was not yet eight o'clock; the neighborhood grocery was still open, and still delivering. He went to the kitchen for the phone number, called in an order for foodstuffs, including breakfast, and offered a hefty tip if they could get it here as soon as possible. There were pretzels in the cabinet; he brought them back with two beers.

Jack was resting his head against the back of the couch, his legs stretched out in front, crossed at the ankles. He was watching the cat, who had found something interesting near the television cabinet. Ed hoped it was something inanimate. He handed Jack the beer and a small bowl of pretzels.

"So," Jack said, "what's his name?" He ate one pretzel.

Ed sat sideways, so he could keep Jack in view. Sappy, he knew, but-- "No name, yet. His prior owners -- who I think treated him like garbage -- gave him the name, Astaire, because of the tux coloring. What the hell kind of name is that for a cat? I need to find something simple, but dignified."

"How 'bout someone from literature?" Jack said, pointing to Ed's wall of bookshelves. "A writer you admire?"

"I hadn't thought of that. Good idea." He reached into the bowl on Jack's lap for a pretzel, noticing out of the corner of his eye Jack watching his hand. His pulse skipped. Jack's cheeks washed pink. He bit off half the pretzel, and the cat walked straight to him, meowed, and sat, his eyes pinned to the remaining bit of pretzel. "What, you think you like these?" He held it out; the cat sniffed carefully and licked his lips. "Pretzels? Hey, little dude, whatever...." He broke off a small piece and tossed it onto the hardwood floor five feet away. The cat took off and started batting the food around. Ed assumed he would eat it eventually. Within a few seconds, he did. Damn. Pretzels.

"Ed, I need to tell you something," Jack said.

"Okay," Ed answered, suddenly worried by the serious look on the other man's face.

"Yesterday, in the precinct - I'm sorry I couldn't answer your question, about Almonte. I had a legitimate reason for denying it. But, I've thought about it today, and I can trust you with the truth. In strictest confidence. You can't tell anyone, especially Fontana. It's your choice if you can live with that. Only for a few days, probably."

Ed might live to regret it, when his partner discovered that Ed kept something vital about this case to himself, but the mere fact that Jack was both apologizing and wanting to share with him a level of confidential information felt-- amazing. Jack said he trusted him. Ed was so emotionally wound up that to hear those words out of this man's mouth made his eyes sting. He said he was fine with those conditions.

As Ed listened to Jack's tale of the falsified indictment of Agent Almonte, he was both impressed and shocked by the man's actions. It was not as if he had never seen Jack push the envelope, and he had certainly heard a number of detectives characterize the EADA as "full of himself," or "a hotshot." Lennie had mentioned something during one of his angry treatises on Jack McCoy that Jack was brought before the ABA Disciplinary Committee and "skated," but Ed had no idea what specifically Jack had done. Ed had always ignored most of what he heard. If he and a partner handed Jack a murderer, Ed wanted him put away, and if that meant legal machinations, so be it. Jack was good at those machinations. But this? Create an entire indictment out of a lie, Grand Jury and all?

"What's gonna happen when it all comes out?" Ed said.

Jack shrugged. "By then we'll hopefully have the information we need to find Ricky and Vincent, and then they'll turn on Almonte, and we can convict all three of them."

Ed could see one troubling aspect to it, but he was loathe to say anything.

Jack studied him closely. "What?"

"Well.... Okay. So, as of yesterday, Almonte is in Rikers, and there's no way that Ricky and Vincent don't know that. Either from connections they've got in Rikers, from Almonte himself, or from the papers - assuming they know how to read which is doubtful. The media in general. They're gonna figure that Almonte might be giving them up. They still want information on where Andreas is, and since he's still alive we know Alex didn't tell them." He paused, because Jack's face was tensing up as he stared down at nothing. Finally, Jack met his eyes again. "So, Ricky and Vincent are amoral, and desperate. They failed to get anything out of the DA's office, but if given the chance, they're gonna try to get Almonte. Or-- come after you."

"I'm right to be worried," Jack said, as if he had not entirely believed it until that moment.

Ed nodded, and wanted to offer his services for the rest of the weekend, other than while he was at work tomorrow, but-- that might be overstepping. He would plaster himself to Jack's side if the man would let him.

"I suppose," Jack said slowly, "that if worse came to worse, I could drop the charges on Almonte...."

"And release him," Ed agreed, "so he could lead us to his pals." Or, Ed thought, his pals would take Almonte out, or the other way around.

The front door buzzer rang. Ed answered it, letting the grocery delivery service into the building. He picked up his gun, readied it, and looked through the peephole, waiting. A long two minutes later, a teenager he recognized knocked; Ed hid the gun in his waistband again and let the kid in. As soon as he was through the door, Ed locked it behind him and left for the bedroom to get his wallet. He heard Jack get up while walking down the hallway. The cat was running ahead of him; he jumped on the bed, turned to watch the doorway, and settled on his haunches. Ed retrieved money; when he returned Jack had the bags of groceries on the counter and was unpacking. The sight did something profound to him. It was so damned domestic. He paid the delivery kid, tipped him, and checked the peephole again before letting him out and locking up securely. He contemplated calling Lieu at home to talk about putting a car on his building. He contemplated how to talk to Jack into more serious police protection, at least for the nights, when the cover of darkness leant Ricky and Vincent safe passage to enter apartment buildings. What about Sunday night, tomorrow? Or Monday night, if necessary?

Ed entered the open kitchen. "Let me finish, Jack," he said, trying to keep his voice light. "I'll make you something. You can sit. You look dea--" He was about to say 'dead on your feet.'

"I'm not dead, yet, Ed." Jack sat on one of the kitchen stools, and while Ed finished storing food and made a turkey on wheat sandwich, Jack chatted about things other than imminent threats to life, asking about Steve, about his family, about which authors could be possible sources for a cat's name, and Ed found himself relaxing, and as he relaxed into almost a comfort zone he felt deep yearnings come to the fore, that this would be his life. Their life. Impossible wishes on a good day, ultimately pointless ones since he was not supposed to even try to make them reality.

He cut up an apple, filled Jack's plate and said, "Come on," intending to put the man back on the comfortable couch. Jack sat; they picked out a movie; Ed put it into the DVD player, and left for the bedroom, to change the sheets and prepare his space for a guest. The cat showed Ed a new game, diving under the top sheet Ed was trying to lay out, and though the animal's joy eased a spot of tension in the back of Ed's neck, the task had to be finished. He shoved up his sweatshirt sleeves to the elbows, and without thinking, he picked up the cat, realizing as he did that he had not yet made an attempt to do so out of respect for the newness of their relationship. Rather than struggle, the cat instantly went limp so Ed took the chance and held him to his chest, and the purrs were loud, and long, and as he petted him and felt the warm, soft fur on his arm, and the fast-beating heart against his hand the moment nearly did him in. He was right to get this little dude. He needed this. He kissed the top of his head; the cat did not flinch. They walked back to the living room; Ed hoped he could deposit him with Jack and the cat might stay.

Jack's empty plate was resting on his thigh; his head was resting on the back of the couch. He was listing to the right, supported by the arm rest; his eyes were closed, but Ed could not tell if he was asleep. Ed perched on the edge of the cushion to Jack's left and, still holding the cat, he moved the plate to the coffee table with his free hand. Jack did not move. Ed set the cat down between him and the back of the couch; he stroked his fur a few times until the cat seemed settled. The movie soundtrack was suddenly loud; Ed spun around, picked up the remote and turned off the film and the television. The cat moved to the other end of the couch, curled up, and purred, but Ed watched him over his left shoulder to be sure he was set, and within thirty seconds the cat's eyes closed. Good boy.

Ed made a move to stand, but Jack grabbed his forearm, his left hand cool on Ed's skin. In near disbelief, he watched that pale hand travel slowly down his own dark arm until it covered his hand, where Jack left it, his thumb tracing light circles on Ed's skin. Butterflies were dancing in the pit of his stomach with each circle traced. He glanced behind him. Jack was looking at him, as if trying to gauge a reaction he was not yet seeing, as if it were crucially important. Ed's heartbeat began to pound. He squeezed Jack's fingers for a long moment, and shifted further back on the seat, turning to face him. Jack sat up and forward. Ed's brain was dashing at lightening speed through all of the arguments of why he should get up, now; why this was bad; why staying uninvolved on any level with Jack was good; why.... the arguments petered out when Jack touched his face, and lightly cupped his cheek, and trailed fingers across the side of his neck. Ed did what came naturally, what he could not resist doing; he touched in return, running a hand up Jack's arm, feeling the warm skin, eventually the shirt sleeve, and Jack's strong shoulder. He could not help himself when Jack pulled gently on the back of his neck, and moved in; he moved, too, and they kissed a tender, achingly slow kiss, lips moving languidly together. He could feel every single cell where their lips met, and each beat of his heart, and back muscles flexing under his fingers, and his chest constricting from every single emotion he had bottled up for months.

Jack pulled him in closer, and their slow, tender kisses became heated, and harder, until Ed could hold back no longer, and he pulled, too, and deepened their kisses in a rush of passion, and pain, and as he and Jack sank into the back of the couch, he succumbed completely. Touched where he wanted. Kissed Jack as he wanted. Tasted him. Soaked up Jack's essence. It was familiar, and it was new, and it was everything he had missed.

He was reeling, but he found the willpower to stop pushing, before he could not stop at all. He knew Jack was exhausted. He knew Jack was hurting. He knew enough to bring them back to center, because he knew what he did not want. To feel used.

He pulled away enough to look at Jack's face, and what he saw took him aback. Jack's hazel eyes were wet, and he wore a soft smile. Ed had never seen the man with tears in his eyes; the urge to make them go away was overwhelming.

Jack said, his voice low and gravely, "Don't misunderstand, Ed - I didn't do that so I could use you for some need borne by grief. I'm not here for comfort sex. Hell, I don't think I have the energy. I want to get through a night without worry for my safety, and I trust you to give me that." He shook his head. "But, that has nothing to do with this. Because this--" He pointed back and forth between them. "--this is still there; it's still real. For me. Honestly there."

Ed said through a thickening throat, "For me, too, Jack." He could not deny it; he could not lie to this man, not ever again. "I--" He paused, once more hearing Skoda's words of warning in his head, fervently wishing the dialogue would stop its playback.

Jack took Ed's hands in his. "I'd like to try again," Jack said, "start over, see where this could lead." He waited.

"I want the same thing," Ed said, "have wanted it--" Skoda's mellow voice started, but he forced it to stop by focusing solely on Jack's face, the hollows deepened by grief; his fathomless dark hazel eyes; the thick, silver hair Ed loved to touch. He nodded, half to himself. He could do this. "Yeah. I'd like to give us a chance." He swallowed, hard. "I would like to be given a second chance."

"Consider it given, Ed," Jack said without hesitation.

Ed had to breathe deeply and slowly before he could thank Jack, before he could kiss him again, before he could say again how sorry he was for the past, before he could absorb what had just happened in the blink of an eye, before he could tuck the man into bed and let him sleep long, and peacefully.

Ed turned the page quietly, grateful the book was old and hardcover with a worn spine and pages softened from age. He was sitting in bed, reading by the glow of a book light, because Jack had insisted he sleep in the bedroom, with him, and not on the couch. Whether he wanted Ed there because he felt safer, or for emotional comfort after his week of horror, or for more personal reasons, so they would sleep together and get over that hurdle - Ed did not ask, and did not care. His gun was under the pillow. His cat was on his lap, another hurdle unexpectedly crossed. His ... potential boyfriend was sound asleep, next to him. If Ed spent as much time watching the man sleep as he did reading, nobody knew except the cat, who spent as much time watching him as sleeping. His life had changed, and in the past hour he had reached a conclusion: He knew without a doubt that he was not looking to Jack for a jolt of adrenaline, or excitement, though he would undoubtedly find both. He could not explain it. But, he knew it for the truth. And, as Dr. Skoda said, that was all that mattered.

Sunday, May 1, 2006

The note was next to what looked like a high-end coffee maker, which was next to a banana and a bag of bagels. Jack found a mug and poured a hot cup of coffee out of the thermal pot, and since it was likely brewed two hours before hot was impressive. It was ten-thirty. Jack had slept for almost eleven hours. He felt groggy; he felt good. After adding sugar and lightening his coffee, he returned to the bedroom for his glasses so he could read Ed's note. The cat was curled up, still, on the foot of the bed. He seemed like a decent cat, all in all, and Jack took the chance before leaving to scratch his head. The cat stretched out his front legs but did not appear to wake up. Sweet guy. What had Ed called him? Little dude. Jack smiled.

The note was about said cat, and it was about Jack, and it was about Ed, and about them. The cat now had a name: Christopher. For Christopher Isherwood. His needs were met, but if Jack and he interacted would he please call him by his name, to reinforce. Jack assumed that this side of Ed -- animal behaviorist Ed -- must be due to Steve's influence. Jack was to stay there tonight, and if the perps were still at large tomorrow, then tomorrow night as well. If he needed to go back to his place for any reason, he was instructed to call Ed, and Ed would arrange transportation with protection. Jack smiled again. Though he could very easily be miffed at receiving directives from a man who, professionally speaking, worked for him, not the other way around -- and he would never tell this to another living soul -- he rather liked relinquishing responsibility in the short term. He was still exhausted on so many levels. His day stretched out before him; there was work he could do, but he chose to forego it.

For now it would be breakfast, the newspaper, some coffee. He would think about Ed. How strangely comfortable it felt to sleep next to him. Even though Jack awoke a few times during the night, Ed's solid presence helped him fall back under. Once he woke up and Ed's arm was resting on his waist, and his guard was far enough down to feel a vulnerable ache of longing, and pain, deep inside. Tears had welled up. He had inched closer until Ed was warm against his back, and fell into a heavy sleep.

He would think about the risk he took on the couch last night, taken for one clear-cut, ultimately simple reason - he had been too tired and worn down to keep up the struggle. He had to know one way or the other what Ed felt, and thought. What Ed wanted. He would think about how well the risk had paid off, and how much he wanted from Ed, and how relieved he was, and how... happy. His childhood priest might say it was wrong to feel happiness in the midst of a grieving period, to fluctuate between the two extremes of happiness and sadness. His childhood priest was old school - pay a penance for feeling the "wrong" thing at the "wrong" time. Of course there could be no judgment placed on Jack's state of mind, no guilt; he knew that. Jack's aunt recited one of the Psalms when Jack's cousin, her son, died in Vietnam: "Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy...." In grief, one must gaze toward the future, she would say.

Well, today, he was happy. Truth be told, he was thrilled, and excited, and filled with thoughts of the future, of possibilities. Given everything? The mere fact that he held in the palm of his hand a possibly extraordinary relationship with a fine man was enough. He was a lucky man. He knew it.

Monday, May 2, 2006

Branch met Jack outside the back entrance of the courthouse for a status update, which Jack did not want to give; his boss was losing patience with the scheme. Jack had failed to coerce Almonte into a phony plea bargain for the location of Ricky and Vincent. It was unclear whether or not Almonte was really so arrogant to believe that he would eventually walk out of jail free and clear, or whether he had something else planned, like arranging for Ricky and Vincent to kill the phony witness, Andreas, and assure his release. Jack told Arthur the failed deal was only the first step. Arthur was more than skeptical. Jack told him they hoped to lure Almonte to make a phone call - the Department of Corrections had given the man a cell phone, and were in the process of subtly convincing him it was a completely safe, private method of communication. They lied. Everything would be recorded. The tap on the jailhouse phone had not worked - Almonte avoided it. Perhaps the cell phone would prove fruitful. It was wait and see. Arthur was only mildly appeased.

Jack had been thinking about the night ahead since Ed picked him up at the office - his own private bodyguard, an arrangement nobody in the DA's office gave a second thought to, it seemed. Down the elevator, into the parking garage, driving into traffic, arriving at his own apartment to take care of business, like mail, and clothes, then driving to Ed's apartment all the while carrying on a pleasant, chatty conversation, Jack had been thinking about the night ahead. His skin felt like a million electrical charges were dancing across its surface; his pulse kept speeding up, then slowing to normal, only to repeat the cycle five minutes later. He did not have it in him to sleep the night with Ed and not make something happen, not force the issue... he simply could not do it. He wanted Ed, fiercely, passionately, and he knew Ed was holding back out of respect for him, and his physical and emotional state. But, there was no need to hold back - Jack felt like himself again, or close enough thereto.

They entered Ed's apartment and Jack went directly to the bedroom to leave his overnight bag in its place; he hung his suit coat in Ed's closet and his parka in the hall closet. Those tasks done, he entered the open kitchen and waited while Ed fed Christopher, gave him a hug, and set him at the food dish. Christopher took a moment to come up to Jack and rub his leg a few times; Jack obliged by stroking him from head to tail; that greeting accomplished, Christopher settled in front of his dinner and ate.

Ed smiled at Jack. "I think he thinks you're his, too."

Jack smiled in return, and nodded. Ed was right - Christopher had adopted him by the time their Sunday afternoon together came to a close. It was unexpectedly sweet. If Jack had ever thought Ed would get a pet, he certainly would not have considered the pet would attach itself to him. When he had allowed himself to consider a life with Ed, it was only the two of them. When he had allowed himself to consider that life for more than a few brief seconds at a time. Ed was getting a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Jack loosened his tie, unbuttoned the top couple of buttons on his shirt, his cuffs, rolled them up. His heartbeat was pounding in his ears. Butterflies were dancing in his stomach. He was done waiting.

Ed drank two gulps of water. He finally met Jack's eyes, and from all indications he realized what was on Jack's mind, because the stare shifted from mild to heated in a heartbeat. Without losing eye contact, he put the bottle on the counter. Jack remembered that look, that look, from months before, in another kitchen, when, like now, Jack had taken things into his own hands. He moved, clutched the back of Ed's neck, and kissed him, hard, and slow, and deep, and Ed made that sound, that sound, and wrapped his long arms around Jack, pulling them together so tightly their belt buckles chinked. Slow kisses instantly changed to hungry kisses, and deeper kisses, and a tighter clinch, until they had to stop to catch their breath, and it gave Jack the chance to drag Ed to the bedroom, because there were too many layers of shirts and ties and belts and buttons and zippers between them. He wanted skin, beautiful, brown skin, as much as possible, as quickly as possible. He was done waiting.

In the first moment of full body skin to skin contact Jack honestly thought he might implode from the totality of sensation. All of those electrical charges dashing across his skin converged where he touched Ed. Where Ed's lips moved across his neck. Where Ed's hands traveled as they rolled, and writhed together. Where his hands touched all he could possibly reach, and explore. Where their legs wrapped around each other. Where their pelvises thrust together. Where everything he had bottled up, and Ed had bottled up, burst forth in sublime friction, and sweat, and intensity. All he had ever imagined about being in bed with Ed did not come close to reality. Reality was hotter, and more tender, and harder, and sweeter. It was transformative. It was, he knew, as they collapsed into sleep, more loving than he could have imagined.

Tuesday, May 3, 2006

Ed was sitting in an unmarked on Centre Street holding a walkie talkie; Joe was at the wheel, drumming his fingers on it like he always did when they were stuck, waiting, anticipating. Almonte was being released, because the court's supervising judge had decreed that Jack and Judge Bookman's plan was nothing more than entrapment and unworthy of the judicial system. Ed had heard the entire story from Jack in a personal phone call two hours before. The two judges threw Jack a bone, a way to keep Almonte in jail on a lesser charge hoping they could find more direct evidence to sustain a murder charge. Jack decided to let Almonte go, and see what happened. Ed liked the idea, even if he still had reservations about the ultimate outcome. The difficult part for him had come an hour after he hung up, when Lieutenant Van Buren gathered the squad and told them the plan - follow Almonte with tight surveillance and the backup of ten units. Joe said a few pointed things about the DA's office, and how they had screwed up by arresting Almonte without evidence, and on and on all of the way to the parking lot and into their assigned car. Ed did not respond other than with body language, a shrug here, and half-nod there. It was not easy to tune out his partner once he got going.

Ed kept his eyes on the doors at the base of the courthouse. Lieu checked in with them on the walkie talkie. Ed told her they were in position. One of the garage doors rolled up and Almonte walked out, glanced around briefly, and got into a waiting cab.

"Here we go," Ed said. Into the walkie talkie, he said, "Subject is getting into taxi heading north on Centre Street."

Fontana waited a beat, then pulled out from the curb.

"All right," Lieu said, "Stay close but don't spook him. We're set at Almonte's building." She was in a surveillance van across from his front door.

They followed the taxi for blocks, and as they turned a corner, Lieu reported that Almonte had entered his building. She sent the rest of the cars to East Houston, a block away. Ed and Joe pulled to the curb, on Almonte's side of the street. "We're in position, Lieu," Ed told her. The tension in the car was palpable; Joe was back to drumming on the steering wheel. "We stay on this guy long enough," Ed said to Joe merely to cut the silence, "he should lead us to Ricky and Vincent...." Joe nodded, his eyes dead ahead.

A skateboarder cruised down the middle of the eerily quiet street; there were no pedestrians other than those at the head of the block, near Houston. Ed saw Almonte come out, holding what looked like a gym bag from their distance. "Subject exiting building," Lieu said. Ed watched the man fuss with his leather jacket, eventually zipping it up. "All units," Lieu said, her voice taut with tension, "subject is now armed."

Ed's pulse started thrumming. He knew it. Almonte was heading off to kill Ricky and Vincent, or Andreas, the man posing as a witness. Ed and Joe saw Almonte cross the street on the diagonal. "All cars," Ed said, "subject is heading to Houston."

Joe started the car. "If he jumps on the subway, we're screwed," he stated in frustration. Almonte was still walking; they pulled out slowly to follow.

Suddenly, a beat up late model brown Ford sedan came around the corner, slowed as it got close to Almonte. Ed's instincts screamed. A sawed-off shotgun poked out an open window, went off, and Almonte was sent reeling back against a building, where he slumped to the ground. Ed yelled into the walkie talkie, "Subject down! Repeat: subject down! In pursuit of a brown Ford! Go! Go!" he yelled at Joe, as the Ford went careening around the corner. They followed, tires squealing, as patrol cars gave their positions, two of them pulling into the head of the next block to cut off the exit. As Ed and Joe flew around another corner, they heard the screech of brakes and then tires squealing - ahead of them the brown Ford was trying to do a three point turn around in front of the patrol cars. The Ford backed up and was lateral, across the street directly ahead of them. "Hold on," Joe said. Ed braced himself with his feet and his arm. Fontana broad sided the Ford, crushing the driver's door and back door. Ed jumped out, gun drawn, surrounded by unis pouring out of the two cruisers and others behind them.

Joe ran ahead, around the Ford's front bumper, Ed went the other way. Ricky and Vincent were crawling out of the passenger door, landing on the street. "Get down!" Joe yelled at them. "Get down!"

"Down! Down!" Ed yelled at Vincent, at his feet, "Hands! Hands!" He had his gun pointed at a bloody, beat up Vincent splayed on the street as two unis ran up and sat on the guy, cuffing him. Ed almost wished he would resist, for a split second, a millisecond, he wished Vincent would resist, so he could shoot. He kept his gun pointed and, out of breath, said into the walkie talkie, "We got two under, Lieu - how's Almonte?"

"He's DOA. Is everybody okay?"

Ed shrugged, his pulse still flying, and let out a short sigh. "Everybody that matters."

Thirty minutes later, after the two suspects were hauled away, and while Fontana was explaining to Van Buren in the middle of the street how he came to smash the front end of an unmarked, Ed stood next to a building and called Jack. He knew the lieutenant had already told Jack that they had Ricky and Vincent, and there was not much more Ed could say to the man other than the ordeal was over. The men had killed eight people, including Alexandra Borgia, and topped it off by taking out their partner, DEA Agent Almonte, their ninth and final victim. Ed wanted to hear Jack's voice. He was bone-tired, and would probably ache in places he had not ached since his shooting, at the same time, he desperately wanted to see Jack, to do something entirely normal and routine as going out to a late dinner. Jack agreed, in his low, warm voice, and Ed told him, right there on the streets, well out of earshot of anyone, that he needed to spend the night with him even though Jack was not in danger, even though they had made no plans, even though Ed was a man who prided himself on self-assurance, and strength. He needed Jack tonight. Jack agreed without hesitation.

As they said their good byes, Ed was loathe to hang up. Admitting that to himself caused no negative reaction. He did not feel out of control; he did not feel lost; he felt nothing but a healthy dose of need and a deep sense of want. Of desire. He wanted to be in Jack's sphere again, to wake up beside him again, to have Jack's face be the last thing he saw before he went to work. Like this morning. After last night.... Last night had been extraordinary, and that word had never been a part of Ed's vocabulary of sex. But, it was the most apt description he could think of. The only word that applied. The experience had been so much more than the physical act of burning hot, exceptional sex. He did not yet want to find a word that described the depth of what he felt, in bed with Jack. Or put a name to what he felt. Not yet. This relationship could be the best thing that had ever happened to him. He was a lucky man, in luck's most positive, and life-changing sense. He knew it.

He slipped the phone back into his breast pocket, turned away from the wall, and crossed the New York pavement as easily as his long legs ever carried him, straight toward what was beginning to sound like his partner's imminent transfer from the two-seven's Homicide Unit, if Fontana kept going in that tone. Ed sighed, and shook his head. Joe needed backup. It was Ed's job to give it to him. He braced himself, and walked into the thick of it.


Season 16 Episodes used/referenced/etc. in this story:
Ep. 1: Red Ball
Ep. 9: Criminal Law
Ep. 10: Acid
Ep. 14: Magnet
Ep. 18: Thinking Makes It So
Ep. 20: Kingmaker
Ep. 22: Invaders

Author's Note: As the winning auction bidder, lherelenfeline was given the opportunity to request a particular plot or storyline. His request: a story in which Ed never left the NYPD like he did in canon.

Email me with feedback at cassatt2222 %*at*% earthlink %*dot*% net

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