Two weeks later

“So he’s back in the hospital today, huh?” Mike mused as he and Alex waited for their order of coffee. Alex nodded, unable to completely conceal her worry.

“Tonight,” she confirmed. “He’ll be re-admitted late this afternoon. The surgeon’s going to operate first thing tomorrow morning, and then it’ll be another week before the bandages come off.”

Mike grunted.

“Day of reckoning?”

“Effectively,” Alex murmured. Mike looked at her quizzically.

“What are you scared of?”

“Aside from the obvious?” she retorted. When he didn’t answer, she sighed and gave in. “What if, when they take off the bandages, he still can’t see? Or what if he can see, but his sight is impaired? What then?”

Mike shrugged.

“I hate dealing in ‘what ifs’, Alex. Let’s just wait and see what happens, and deal with it then. How’s it going with that lawyer, anyway?”

“Sam Denning? She’s good. She really wants to win it for Bobby. Apparently she’s refusing to take on any other new cases until she’s gotten what she calls a ‘suitable win’.”

“And that would be…?”

“Nearly everything in that bank account. And whatever she gets, it’s all going to Bobby. She went to see Maggie and Susan Coulter, and they were willing to have their names included in the lawsuit to give it extra clout, but they don’t want any money that might come out of it. They want it all to go to Bobby.”

“That’s pretty generous of them,” Mike commented.

“Well, Maggie has a pretty hefty trust fund put away for her, courtesy of her paternal grandfather. She doesn’t need the money. Bobby does. It’s as simple as that.”

“Mm,” Mike murmured. “It’s never as simple as that where money’s concerned. Especially that much money. I bet Matic is fighting it.”

“Yeah, but Sam is pretty confident she can get a good out of court settlement.”

“Is that what Bobby wants?”

Alex hesitated in answering, easily reading between the lines of Mike’s question.

“Yes… and no. I think that part of him hopes it does go to court, so that he can face at least one of the bastards. If it’s settled out of court, then that’s it. He’ll never get that chance.”

“He needs closure,” Mike murmured, and Alex nodded in wordless agreement. He looked at her questioningly as they left Starbucks. “How’s he been this week, anyway? I haven’t had much of a chance to swing by to see him.”

“He’s been okay,” Alex said. “That night out a couple of weeks ago really helped a lot. It made him realise that it is still possible for him to have fun, and forget about his problems for a little while. You know, he’s let Jo take him out every day since then, and he’s actually been enjoying it.”

“That’s great,” Mike enthused. “I’m glad to hear that. If the trivia night hadn’t worked, my next tactic would have been my foot up his ass.”

Alex chuckled. “It’d be your funeral. His hands might be incapacitated, but he can still pack a punch… so to speak… with his forearms.”

Mike smiled in mild amusement, quietly happy to have gotten even a small laugh out of his temporary partner.

“And not a peep from our resident psycho, Ms Wallace, either. This is a good thing.”

“Yeah,” Alex muttered, her features clouding over at the mention of the elusive killer. “I don’t know whether to be happy about that, or worried.”

“I know, never trust a lunatic.”

“Never trust Nicole Wallace,” Alex corrected him. Mike nodded.

“Look at it this way, Alex. She surfaced long enough to give Bobby a chance at giving his life a financial kick-start. If it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t be looking at a nice, healthy lawsuit payout.”

“That’s partly what worries me, Mike,” Alex explained. “The last thing Bobby needs is for her to get some twisted idea that he owes her. Like the captain said, he doesn’t.”

“We’re all keeping our eyes open, Alex. I don’t think she will show herself again, but if she does, we’ll nail her before she can get anywhere near Bobby. And in the meantime, it’s a good thing that he’s not thinking about her.”

Alex gave a derisive snort.

“Are you kidding me, Mike? Do you really think he’s not thinking about her? After the way she tormented him? Trust me, he’s thinking about her. Again, like Deakins said, we don’t close the book on her until she’s either dead or behind bars.”

Mike watched her with a small smile.

“Which would you prefer?”

Alex regarded him with a poker face, and he chuckled softly.

“Okay, sorry. Dumb question.”

“Can we change the subject, please?”

“Sure. So what are you doing tonight?”

It took Mike several seconds to realise Alex was no longer walking with him. Looking back, he found her standing frozen, staring at him with a mixture of disgust and disappointment.

“Bobby is going into the hospital tonight, Mike. How could you even ask that?”

Mike hesitated, and then walked back over to her, looking down at her with a serious, but sympathetic gaze.

“This isn’t like when he was in the ICU, Alex. He’ll be in overnight, operated on tomorrow morning, and probably home again tomorrow night. Simple, and straightforward. You aren’t going to be able to sit with him all night.”

“I didn’t say I expected to be able to,” Alex growled. “But I can’t believe you expect me to go out with you while Bobby’s in the hospital, waiting for an operation that may or may not give him back his sight…”

Her voice, which had steadily been rising in volume and pitch, was suddenly silenced when two hands abruptly descended onto her shoulders.

“Alex, chill,” Mike told her firmly when she finally looked up at him. “All I was suggesting was dinner, and maybe a few beers later on. Nothing fancy, just something to take the edge off the tension. We can head to the hospital as soon as we clock off, stay with Bobby until visiting hours are up, and then go get something to eat. Face it, Alex, you’ve been working yourself into a panic ever since Bobby’s doctor called a week ago to say that the surgery was being scheduled.”

She sighed softly as she followed Mike into the lift.

“I’m just scared, Mike. I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t work with Bobby anymore.”

“Okay… So, this isn’t about him anymore. It’s about you.”

He looked down just in time to see her blush a deep red. Smiling sympathetically, Mike squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

“It’s okay, Alex. I understand. I know what it’s like to lose a good partner, and I get that you’re scared that you might lose Bobby. But even if that turns out to be the case, you’re only going to lose him as a partner, nothing more. You’re still going to have him in your life. You’re still going to be his best friend.”

“I know,” she mumbled miserably. “I know you’re right. I just… I hate all the uncertainty.”

“Well… Look at it this way, Alex. Considering how close we came to losing him altogether, I would personally be thankful for however things work out, because at least he’s still with us.”

Alex sucked in a sharp breath as she made a valiant effort to control her emotions.

“Mike, I thank God every day that he’s still with us. Don’t ever think that I don’t.”

He squeezed her shoulder once more.

“I know you do, Alex. You saw him in his apartment, didn’t you? After his neighbour found him and called 911?”

She looked around at him as they sat down at their respective desks.

“Yes,” she answered finally, softly.

“Well, I know how he looked when I saw him in the hospital, so I guess I can understand your fears.”

“He was more than halfway dead, Mike. I’ve seen some awful things, but nothing compared to seeing Bobby like that… and knowing what had happened to him. Now, every time I look at him, I can’t stop thinking about how he looked when I saw him that night.”

Mike regarded her piercingly.

“You still haven’t talked to anyone, have you? Professionally speaking, I mean.”

Alex stiffened visibly, but Mike also couldn’t miss the way her cheeks flushed red yet again. He sighed softly.

“Alex, you know you need to talk to someone. You’re not doing yourself or Bobby any favours by holding out.”

Her gaze narrowed to pinpoints that all but threatened to impale Mike.

“Are you saying you’d tell Deakins?”

He didn’t flinch in the face of her hostility.

“Are you saying you’re not going to leave me any choice?”

For nearly a minute they stared at each other, caught in a stalemate. Then, finally, Mike’s gaze dropped fractionally in concession.

“Look, Alex, we’re adults, not kids in a schoolyard. I’m not going to tell on you. I just want you to get some help before it all gets to be too much for you. If it makes you feel any better, I’m talking from a purely selfish perspective. I like working with you, and I’d hate to see you stuck on desk duty because you were too damned stubborn to do the right thing by yourself. Hell, even Bobby isn’t being that pig-headed.”

Alex found herself smiling before she could stop herself. Finally, she nodded.

“Okay, Mike. I’ll call Dr Huang today. All right?”

Mike nodded, mollified by her reluctant compliance.

“All right.”

“Well, hon, I think that’s all you need.”

Bobby turned his head slightly in Jo’s direction, listening carefully to the sound of her voice from where he sat on his bed.

“Maybe we should go over it one more time…”

She laughed softly and sat down beside him, patting his hand reassuringly.

“Bobby, honey, you’re only going to be in the hospital overnight. You’ll be home again tomorrow night, and then you’ll be on countdown until those bandages finally come off for good. We’ve got your pyjamas and your toothbrush. That’s pretty much all you need, unless you’ve got a teddy bear hidden away here somewhere that you haven’t told me about.” He blushed furiously, but said nothing. Jo smiled, and slipped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him reassuringly. “There’s nothing to worry about, baby.”

“Easy for you to say,” he mumbled, and tried to turn away from her, but she refused to let him.

“I know it’s easy for me to say. But one of us has to try and keep a positive attitude. I know you’re scared, Bobby. I don’t blame you for that. But you need to find it in yourself to hope for the best.”

“I want to,” he told her softly. “I really do, Jo. But I… I am scared. I’m so damned scared of what will happen when the bandages come off. What if I can’t see?”

“We’ll face that reality if it comes about. Try not to anticipate what’s going to happen, Bobby.”

He turned his face back towards her, bemused.

“So let me see if I have this down. Keep a positive attitude that everything will be okay… but don’t anticipate what will happen.”

She released him and smacked him lightly across the shoulder, drawing a broad laugh from him that, in turn, got her laughing as well.

“Smart ass. Think you’re funny, don’t you?”

“Well, you’re laughing.”

Jo snorted, but couldn’t suppress the grin on her face or in her voice.

“You have a sharp sense of humour, Detective.”

“Not as sharp as Alex’s.”

“Yes, well, I think you’re a fast learner. C’mon, up you get. We have a few hours before you need to be at the hospital. There’s time for a walk.”

In stark contract to how he’d felt only a couple of weeks ago about going for walks, the thought of leaving the confines of Alex’s apartment for just a short while to experience the fresh air, the brisk wind and the warm sun on his face now lifted his spirits more than he had ever thought possible. He truly looked forward to getting outside now, and he knew in himself that was no small achievement.

He allowed Jo to lead him out of the bedroom and over to the closet to get both their coats. Before Jo had the chance to take them out of the closet, though, they were interrupted by the doorbell.

“Damn,” Jo muttered. “Who could that be?”

Frowning in annoyance, Jo led Bobby over to the table and sat him down before returning to the door. Upon opening it, she found herself face to face with a man of average height and immaculate, if otherwise ordinary appearance.

“Can I help you?” she asked, careful to hold the door at such an angle that he wouldn’t be able to see Bobby. Since his homecoming, there had been a steady stream of reporters turning up at the apartment building, seeking an interview with Bobby. Though most had been halted at the lobby by the vigilant doorman, there had been the occasional one who had slipped the net and made it to Alex’s door. This particular man didn’t especially look like a reporter to Jo, but she wasn’t taking any chances – especially not after the incident in the park two weeks ago.

The man pulled out an ID card and held it up for Jo to get a good look at. A quick perusal told Jo he was not a journalist, but rather a lawyer.

“My name is David Parker. You must be Ms Reilly, the home-care nurse employed to assist Detective Goren.”

She didn’t move, and her eyes narrowed with suspicion.

“What do you want, Mr Parker?”

“I’d like to speak to Detective Goren, if that’s possible.”

“About what?”

“About his brother, Ms Reilly.”

Where he sat at the table, Bobby felt his heart skip a beat or two. The last he had heard of his brother, Richie had been under intensive care in the high security ward at Bellevue, lost within the confines of his own sick mind. Beyond that, he’d heard nothing, and he cared even less.

“You want to talk to Detective Goren about his scumbag brother?” Jo growled. “The same brother that organised the attack that nearly killed him? Just what could you possibly want to talk to him about, Counsellor?”

“Please, Ms Reilly,” Parker pleaded with her. “I don’t want to cause Detective Goren any grief. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here now. But I’ve been assigned to Richard Goren’s case, and he demanded this. I don’t have a choice. Please, can I speak to the detective?”

“Just wait here,” Jo muttered. She closed the door, and then went over to Bobby.

“He’s a lawyer, Bobby. He wants to talk to you about Richie. It’s your call, honey. Just give the word, and I’ll send him packing.”

Bobby hesitated in answering. As little as he wanted anything to do with his brother, a small part of him was painfully curious about what Richie could want.

“Let him in,” Bobby told her finally. Jo watched him for a long moment, trying to work out in her own mind whether it was a good idea. As she had said, though, it was Bobby’s decision. If he wanted to let the lawyer in to talk to him, then it was not her place to gainsay him. Shaking her head ruefully, Jo let Parker into the apartment.

The lawyer took a couple of steps inside, and froze mid-step when his gaze fell on Bobby. His breath caught audibly in his throat for a second before he regained his composure.

“What did Richie tell you, Counsellor? That it wasn’t as bad as everyone was saying?” Bobby asked softly. “That my injuries were exaggerated?”

“No,” Parker answered, sitting down in the chair that Jo indicated to. “Everything he told me was accurate. I’m sorry… It’s just a shock to the system to actually see the… the… to see you.”

“This isn’t a social call, Mr Parker,” Jo said frostily. “We have a lot to do, and Bobby has more important things to concern himself with than his brother. Excuse me for not offering you anything to drink, but we’d both appreciate it if you’d get to the point of why you’re here, so you can leave and we can get on with our day.”

Parker nodded.

“Of course. Detective Goren, I’ll put this plainly. Richie wants to see you.”

Bobby sat frozen, his jaw visibly locked. After a long moment of silence, Parker tried again.

“Richie would very much like to see you, Detective Goren. I’ve spoken at length with his doctor, and he feels that it will be beneficial to Richie to have a visit from you.”

“His doctor thinks that,” Bobby said quietly.

“Yes,” Parker confirmed.

“Beneficial to Richie.”

“That’s right,” Parker agreed tentatively, suddenly sensing he’d over-stepped some invisible boundary.

Bobby let his breath out in a rush, suddenly hating that he couldn’t even do something as simple as clench his fists but also knowing that had he been able to do so, it probably would have resulted in one lawyer with a severely broken nose or jaw.

“Get out,” he said in a soft, threatening voice. Parker shifted uncomfortably, suddenly and acutely aware of his very tenuous position.

“Please, Detective Goren, just hear me out, and then I promise you that I’ll go. Your brother’s schizophrenia has been brought under control by a heavy course of medication. He’s alert and currently in a very reasonable state of mind, and one major result of the medication he’s on is his awareness of what he’s done to you.”

“He has no idea what he’s done to me,” Bobby said, a dangerous edge to his voice that Parker would have had to have been deaf not to hear. He hesitated, briefly contemplating the wisdom of bolting right then and there, before going on quietly.

“That may be so, Detective. You should know, though, that Richie understands that what he did hurt you very, very badly. I spoke with him just this morning, and I can assure you that he’s literally sick with guilt over it.”

“And you expect him to care?” Jo snapped. “Exactly what planet are you living on?”

Parker glanced at her, and then back to Bobby.

“Detective, I think your brother wants to tell you that he’s sorry.”

“And what makes you think I want to hear it?” Bobby asked hoarsely. Parker glowered at Bobby, suddenly aggravated that the conversation was not going at all to his liking.

“You have a schizophrenic mother who used to beat you when you were a child, and you don’t harbour a grudge against her for that. Are you really going to abandon your sick brother now for the same reasons?”

“You insensitive son of a bitch!” Jo burst out. “How dare you make that sort of comparison!”

Parker glanced at her in frustration, and then back to Bobby.

“Look, all I’m asking is would you be willing to go to Bellevue to see him? Just once, that’s all.”

“Look at me!” Bobby choked out. “I can’t see him, Counsellor. I literally can’t see him, and that’s his fault!”

“He says he never meant for that to happen, Detective…”

“Bullshit!” Bobby exploded. “He meant for it to happen. Whether or not it was planned, he meant for it to happen. He meant for me to hurt as badly as possible. He meant for me to die that night, and don’t you fucking tell me otherwise. Now get out, and tell my brother that as far as I’m concerned, he can rot in hell!”

Parker looked over at Jo, only to encounter an equally angry expression.

“You heard him, Counsellor,” she said, getting up and striding over to the door, opening it up wide in a decisive gesture. “Leave. Now.”

Shaking his head, Parker got up and headed for the door. He paused on his way out, pushing a business card into Jo’s hand.

“In case he changes his mind.”

Then he was gone.

“Son of a bitch,” she growled, looking down at the business card in disgust before shoving it into her jacket pocket. “Bobby…”

She looked around just in time to see him stumble back into his bedroom, pushing the door shut behind him. Sighing softly, Jo went after him.

She found Bobby lying on his side on his bed, barely visible tremors passing through his body. For nearly a minute, Jo stood indecisively by the bedside, trying to decide what action to take. Finally, she walked around to the other side of the bed and sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. She made no attempt to touch him, though, until she was sure that he was completely aware of her presence.

“Bobby, are you with me?”

“What… What does he want from me?” Bobby choked out. “He… He wanted me dead… He planned for me to be hurt like this… And now what? He wants me to forgive him? How can I? How can I forgive him, Jo?”

She shifted across and lay down carefully beside him, reaching over to stroke his forehead and cheek soothingly.

“I know, baby. I’m sorry I let that piece of scum lawyer in.”

“I used to love him, Jo,” Bobby whispered in between shuddering sobs. “I used to love Richie… I used to look up to him. There was a time when he looked out for me. Be… Before Dad left… One night, Dad came home drunk and mad… because he’d lost a lot of money on the horses… I got in his way somehow… and he started to beat me. Richie got between Dad and me… and he took the beating that was meant for me. He… He took it for me, and later on, he told me he’d always take care of me. He said… said we were brothers, and we owed it to each other to… to look after each other. We swore we’d always stick together… But he tried to have me killed… Jo, he swore he’d always take care of me, and then he tried to kill me… I can’t forgive him for that. I can’t ever forgive him for that…”

Jo slipped her arms around him as he dissolved into heart-wrenching sobs, barely aware of the tears that filled her own eyes.

“Let it out,” she whispered, barely able to keep her own voice even. “Let it all out, baby.”

She held him in comforting silence, waiting patiently as his sobs eased and finally faded away altogether, and his breathing evened out in a telltale sign that he’d given in to the emotional exhaustion. Then, only when she was sure he was asleep, Jo shifted quietly off the bed and slipped out of the room to make a phone call.

Elliot Stabler leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head and his eyes closed, enjoying a rare moment of quiet. It had been a rough week all round, and he was seriously looking forward to clocking off. Which, by his calculations, was another hour, tops.

“You lean back any further, and you’ll end up on your ass on the floor.”

Elliot smirked, and didn’t bother to open his eyes.

“Are you saying you won’t be there to catch me, Fin? I’m shattered.”

“Get over it. Where’s ’Liv?”

“Clocked off early. Something about meeting some of her friends for a girls’ night out. I wasn’t asking for details.”

Fin grinned as he dropped into Olivia’s vacant chair.

“But I bet you will after the fact.”

Elliot opened a single eye to look incredulously at his colleague.

“What, you think I have a death wish? I don’t interfere in secret women’s business, Fin. You ought to know better, to.”

“Oh, I do, but I figure it never hurts to ask.”

Elliot grunted as he let the chair drop back onto all four legs and stretched his arms out in front of him.

“You think so? Then you can go ahead and ask Olivia tomorrow.”

“Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime, Stabler.”

Elliot grinned and was about to push himself up to go in search of drinkable coffee when his desk phone rang. Frowning, he checked the caller ID before answering.

“That’s Alex Eames’ home number.”

“She’s still here talking with the doc, isn’t she?” Fin asked in confusion, and Elliot nodded.

“Yeah, she is. And Logan is still downstairs chatting up Beth at the front desk.” He hit the button, and at the same time put the call on speaker phone. “Stabler…”

Detective Stabler, this is Jo Reilly. You might not remember me, but I’m the home care nurse who has been looking after Detective Goren.

Elliot looked over at Fin in surprise.

“Sure, I remember you, Jo. What’s the problem?”

Well, I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought I ought to call someone, and your card was here. I couldn’t reach Alex and Mike, and Captain Deakins is apparently in a meeting all afternoon. I just didn’t know who else to call.

Elliot felt a chill race down his spine.

“Has something happened to Bobby?”

Oh, no… At least, not like that. I’m sorry, I’m not being very clear. The thing is, you know that Bobby’s brother is locked up in high security at Bellevue at the moment.

“Yeah, until a place becomes available out at Stanhope.”

Well, we had a visit a short while ago from a man called David Parker, who said he was Richie’s new lawyer.

Immediately, Elliot felt his mind kick into high gear as he ran through a dozen reasons why a lawyer representing Richard Goren would front up to see Bobby.

“What did he want?”

He wanted Bobby to go to Bellevue to visit Richie. Apparently Richie is on medication now, and he wants to see Bobby. The son of a bitch lawyer put a real guilt trip on him over it.

Elliot took a moment to draw in a calming breath before speaking again.

“Where is Bobby now?”

He pretty much cried himself to sleep. I haven’t seen him that distraught since he left the hospital. It was awful.

“Okay,” Elliot said quietly. “Alex and Mike and both here. They, uh … They’re in a meeting right now. I’ll let them know, and I’m also going to tell my captain what you’ve just told me, and then I’ll be right around.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then Jo spoke softly.

Thankyou, Detective.”

Elliot ended the call, and then stood up.

“Son of a bitch, what does he think he’s playing at?”

“They could be hoping to guilt Bobby into a reconciliation of sorts,” Fin mused as he followed Elliot to Cragen’s office. “Then he could try for an appeal, hoping to get a favourable testimony from Bobby.”

“If that’s what he’s thinking, then he’s dreaming,” Elliot growled. “Both Richie and his jerk-off lawyer. And they’ve totally underestimated how much this has shattered any sympathy Bobby had for Richie.”

“You really going around there?” Fin asked. Elliot paused, his hand up to knock on Cragen’s door.

“Yeah, I am. Why?”

Fin shook his head.

“No reason. You want me to find Logan, and tell him what’s happened?”

Elliot nodded.

“Yeah, do that.”

He watched Fin head back towards the stairs before rapping once on Cragen’s door and heading inside.

Jo opened the door nearly half an hour later to find not only Elliot standing there, but Mike as well.

“We didn’t tell Alex,” Mike explained as Jo ushered them in. “She was in with Dr Huang, and since it’s taken this long to get her to talk to someone…”

Jo nodded in understanding. “She would have dropped all that to come straight here.”

“Detective Tutuola is waiting for her to finish up,” Elliot told her. “He’ll bring her straight here as soon as she’s done.”

“Well, thankyou both for coming so quickly,” Jo said quietly. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”

“It’s okay,” Elliot reassured her. “I told Bobby any time, and I meant it. Is he still sleeping off the shock?”

“He’s awake now, but he’s still pretty upset. I just can’t believe that man had the gall to come here and make a demand like that! And with Bobby supposed to go back into the hospital tonight…”

Elliot’s expression darkened noticeably.

“That’s right. He’s having that operation on his eyes tomorrow, isn’t he?”

“Yes, and his doctor isn’t going to like it one bit if he’s distraught like this when he gets there.”

Elliot nodded. He understood what Jo meant. Bobby needed to be in a positive mood for the vital operation, otherwise it would put the entire procedure at risk of failure.

“All right. Let’s see what we can do about that.”

Bobby was sitting silently in the armchair by the window when Mike and Elliot entered the room.

“Hey, pal,” Mike said quietly. Bobby’s head turned slightly at the sound of his voice.


“Yeah, it’s me. Elliot’s here, too.”

“Jo called you?”

“Yeah, she called me direct,” Elliot confirmed. He walked around and sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the chair in which Bobby was sitting. “I grabbed Mike, and we both headed over straight away.”

“And if you’re wondering where Alex is,” Mike put in, “she was still talking with Dr Huang when we left. Fin was going to bring her over as soon as she finishes. Although, I kind of hope she takes a while longer. The sooner she gets here, the sooner she’ll kill me for leaving her behind.”

Bobby didn’t smile.

“Jo told you what happened?”

“She said a lawyer showed up here and asked you to go to Bellevue to visit Richie,” Elliot said simply. “She said you were pretty upset by it.”

Bobby was silent for a moment before speaking again.

“He called me a hypocrite.”

“A lawyer called you that?” Elliot asked incredulously.

“Not directly… but that’s what he was implying. He… He pretty much said that I had no business holding a grudge against Richie when I didn’t hold one against my mother.”

“There’s a big fucking difference between your mother and your brother,” Mike said vehemently.

“Is there?” Bobby asked softly. “They’re both sick. Is there really such a big difference? My… My mom used to beat me when I was a kid. She claimed she could see the demons inside me, and she was trying to beat them out of me. She’d beat me, and then she’d lock me in the closet… sometimes for hours at a time. She frightened the hell out of me, and I hated her for that. But I understood that she wasn’t in her right mind. Richie wasn’t in his right mind, either. The only difference is that Richie wasn’t diagnosed until now. So how can I forgive Mom… and turn my back on Richie?”

Mike and Elliot glanced at each other in silent concern, each one cursing the asshole lawyer who seemed to have successfully managed to mess up Bobby’s already fragile state of mind. Leaning in closer, Elliot spoke slowly, at the same time silently praying for God to give him the right words.

“Bobby, listen to me. Yeah, your mom and your brother both hurt you, and they were both sick when they did it, but there is a difference there, and it’s a big difference. The difference is the intent. Your mom hurt you, but you know she never really meant to hurt you. In her warped reality, she thought she was helping you. She didn’t realise that what she was doing was harming you. Her intent was good, even though the way she went about it was wrong. As for your brother, he didn’t have some warped idea that he was helping you. He knew he was hurting you, and he meant for that to happen. He intended to hurt you, Bobby. That’s where the difference is, and I know that you know that.”

“You don’t have any reason to feel guilty for being angry at Richie,” Mike said. “And God knows you don’t have to feel guilty for not wanting to face him again. If, how and when that happens should be entirely up to you, and not some asshole lawyer. You’re not the one in the wrong here, Bobby. You know that as well as we do.”

“I do know that,” Bobby admitted softly. “But… there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to accept it. There’s a big part of me that wants to give in to the guilt. I… I can’t stop myself from thinking that somehow it’s my fault.”

“What’s your fault?” Mike asked, frowning.

“Everything. Richie’s schizophrenia… The assault… Everything.”

“That really is bullshit,” Elliot growled. “Bobby, you can’t be held responsible for your brother, or for his actions.”

“Maybe not,” Bobby conceded, “but what if I’d agreed to act as a character witness for him that time, instead of turning my back on him? He might have gotten the help he needed then. And, he might have been diagnosed earlier. This… all this might not have happened.”

“You could be right,” Mike said. “In a perfect world, you would have testified for him and he would have gotten a suspended sentence, or maybe a community based order. He would have gotten the psychiatric help he needed, and everything would have been fine. Except, we don’t live in a perfect world. Odds are, even if you had testified, Richie would have gone on the same as he had, living in an escalating life of crime that, sooner or later, would have resulted in someone getting hurt. Then it wouldn’t have mattered whether you stood up for him or turned your back on him. He still would have ended up in prison, and probably he still would have blamed you for that. Truth is, Bobby, I can’t see a different ending for this no matter which way things could have gone years ago.”

“None of this is your fault,” Elliot insisted. “You damn well know it. Whether you want to accept it or not doesn’t change the facts, and the facts are that you aren’t responsible for what Richie’s done. So do yourself a big favour, and kick the guilt and the self-doubt into the next millennium.”

“It hurts,” Bobby whispered. “It hurts so damn much. And I feel like Richie is still trying to put the blame on me, even though he dug his own grave a long time ago.”

“He is trying to blame you,” Elliot agreed. “He probably will always try to blame you. Probably figures that if he puts enough of a guilt trip on you, then he’ll be able to sucker you into helping him out further down the track, if he appeals. The big question is, are you going to let him?”

Bobby drew in a long breath as Elliot’s words sank in.

“No,” he said finally, with a hint of determination in his voice that had long been missing. He sat forward slowly, not flinching when Elliot reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “No, I’m not.”

“Attaboy,” Mike murmured, stepping in to help as Bobby eased himself out of the chair. “Now, what can we do for you, pal?”

“Tell Jo to get out the coffee plunger. I need a really big, really strong cup of coffee.”

Alex arrived nearly an hour later to a surprising sight. Bobby was sitting at the dining table with Jo, Mike and Elliot, and the four were laughing and talking as though nothing was wrong.

“Well,” she said dryly, “and to think I thought something was actually wrong.”

“Hey, Alex,” Mike greeted her, throwing a sheepish smile in her direction. “Sorry about leaving you, but I just didn’t think it was such a hot idea to interrupt your session with Dr Huang.”

Alex walked around the table, pausing long enough to grasp Mike’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to make him wince.

“Don’t worry about it, Mike. We’ll settle up later, I guarantee it.”

Mike grimaced, and promptly decided he was in enough hot water without letting his mouth run away on him. He clamped his jaw shut and re-focused his attention on the coffee in front of him.

“And as for you,” Alex murmured as she came around to stand beside Bobby. She slipped an arm gently around his shoulders, hugging him to her. “How are you feeling? Fin gave me the details on the way over.”

“I’ll be okay,” he answered, a faint sigh escaping him as he took comfort from her embrace. “Thanks to Mike and Elliot, that is.”

She heard the truth in his words, and looked up to see genuine expressions of concern on Mike and Elliot’s faces. A relieved smile made its way onto her own face.

“Thankyou,” she told them softly.

“Like I said before,” Elliot answered, “anytime. Right now, though, I gotta get going.”

“Fin’s waiting for you downstairs,” Alex told him, and Mike nodded in gratitude.

“Thanks. Mike, can we give you a ride home?”

“Nah, it’s okay,” Mike answered. “I was planning on sticking around for a bit.”

Elliot nodded amiably.

“Okay. Bobby, Olivia and I will come by in the next day or two, if you like. And don’t worry about that lawyer. Our ADA is going to get in touch with him, and have a little chat with him about going through the proper channels. He won’t hassle you again.”

Bobby gave a small nod.

“Thanks, Elliot. Again.”

Elliot smiled.

“Hey, what are friends for? Catch you later, pal.”

“You don’t have to stay, Mike,” Bobby said to his fellow detective once Elliot had gone. “We’ll be heading to the hospital pretty soon, I guess…”

“I know,” Mike assured him. “Truth is, I figured I’d come to the hospital with you, and hang around for a while, at least until we get kicked out by the nurses. Then, I’m going to take these two ladies to dinner, because I know damn well that neither of them is likely to feed themselves otherwise.”

“Good,” Bobby agreed.

“So you really are okay?” Alex asked him anxiously as she helped herself to the coffee before sitting down.

“Yes, and no,” Bobby admitted. “I’m still angry that Richie had the nerve to send a lawyer here, but I’m feeling a bit better about the whole situation in general.” He paused, then added softly, “It wasn’t my fault.”

Alex glanced questioningly at Mike, but he only smiled.

“Right,” he confirmed. “None of it was.”

“What did I miss?” Alex asked tentatively. Bobby drew in an unsteady breath.

“It all still hurts as much as it did before, but Mike and Elliot put it into perspective for me. I mean, they helped me put how I feel about Richie into perspective. Before, I was still feeling guilty about Richie’s illness, even though I knew I didn’t have any reason to. Now, I know I don’t have to feel that way anymore.”

As she sat there, Alex felt a wash of relief crash down over her and before she knew it tears were filling her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. Leaning over, she slipped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him firmly.

“You’ve got no idea how glad I am to hear you say that, Bobby.”

He rested his forehead briefly against hers.

“I think I might have some idea. I… I know I have a long way to go, but the strange thing is, the visit from that lawyer actually helped. It pushed me into being…”

“Proactive?” Jo suggested when Bobby hesitated. He nodded in agreement.

“Yes… proactive in dealing with how I was feeling about Richie. I feel like I took a step forward today. It… It’s been a long while since I felt that way.”

Alex sighed and kissed him lightly on the top of his head.

“I’m glad for you, Bobby. I really am. I hope you keep feeling that way.”

He sighed again softly.

“So do I.”

Sitting further down the table, watching the scene before them with a relieved smile, Jo reached over and clasped her hand over Mike’s in a warm gesture.

“You did good, honey,” she murmured to him. Mike smiled faintly in response.

“Anything for a friend.”

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