Disclaimer: I do not own Law and Order: SVU. It belongs to a genius named Dick Wolf. No profit is being made from this story.

Chirp. Chirp. Tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet. Chirp.

A blue eye peeped open briefly before shutting quickly, its owner sinking tiredly back into the oblivion of exhaustion.

Tweet-tweet-tweet. Chirp. Chirp-chirp.

The eye opened again, this time joined by its twin, and peered blearily across the room to see bright sunlight streaming through the thin bedroom curtains.

Elliot Stabler moaned and flipped over to face the wall, snuggling deeper under the covers.

The bird symphony began a second rendition. He yanked his pillow out from under his head and shoved it over his face, pressing it hard against his ears to drown out the distraction.

The high-pitched sounds penetrated through the material, and after a minute he gave up. Growling, he flung the pillow across the room and sat up. Turning his head to look at the clock on the nightstand, he blurrily focused on the red numbers. 6:15.

The alarm was set for 6:30. No use trying to go back to sleep. Sighing heavily, Elliot slid away from the wall and put his feet to the floor, dropping his head wearily in his hands.

It couldn't be morning yet. There was no way. He had gone to bed only four hours ago.

He loved his job. He wouldn't trade it for anything, not even something that paid more. But sometimes, the hours sucked. Really sucked. So much that it made him have to fight the urge to do something crazy.

Like sleep in.

A muffled ringing caught his attention, and he looked around for his cell phone. The jeans and t-shirt he had worn last night were lying in a heap on the floor, next to the tennis shoes that he hadn't bothered to untie before flinging off. Poking under the balled-up denim, he uncovered his phone.

"Stabler," he said hoarsely, flipping it open.

"Morning," the equally-groggy voice of Olivia Benson greeted. "What time did you get to bed last night?"

"2:45," he answered, yawning hugely. "You?"

She scoffed. "1:15."

Olivia cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder and stretched widely, stepping up onto her tip toes. She finished running the tap and set the pot of water on the stove.

"Cap tell you to call me?" Elliot asked wryly, amusement creeping into his voice. He stood up and padded into the bathroom.

She grinned. "Yeah," she admitted, turning the burner on. Reaching up into the cabinet above the stove, she pulled down a box of assorted oatmeal packets and rifled through it absently. "He said that if I didn't, you'd most likely unplug the alarm clock and try to call in sick."

She heard water running on his end as she lifted out a peach-flavored packet and put the box back.

"That's not fair," Elliot said, wiping his face with a towel and struggling to keep the phone from slipping off of his shoulder. "I haven't done that in a long time."

"Oh, yeah," she retorted, ripping open the package and dumping the contents into the pot. "You did that last month, Elliot."

He rolled his eyes and went back into the bedroom, opening the closet door. He chose a shirt without really looking and tossed it on the bed. "You been stalking me?" he cracked. He heard her laugh and sighed. "I really hate these cases."

She grimaced sympathetically and moved away from the stove. "I know," she said softly. "We all do."

For the past two days, the Special Victims Unit had been working themselves to the bone trying to bust a child pornography ring. A video store owner in Manhattan had contacted them after receiving a video in the after-hours drop box that didn't belong to the store. It was a homemade cassette that featured children performing sexual acts on each other while men's voices cheered in the background.

The squad had gotten the customer's address and obtained a warrant to search the man's home. They had arrested him after finding at least two dozen similar tapes, but he had refused to tell them who or where the children in the videos were. He had gotten a lawyer before they even had a chance to work on him.

What started out as a frustrating roadblock turned into a nightmare. Two hours after taking the man into custody, a child's body was found in a dumpster by a pair of garbage men. It was confirmed from the tapes that he was one of the children in the videos.

No matter what they did, the man refused to talk. He wouldn't tell them who the boy was. All he would say was that there was going to be plenty more if they didn't let him go right away.

He hadn't been kidding. Thirty minutes later, while the man was still in their custody, the body of a young girl was found beside the Long Island Expressway.

But even with this new discovery, the DA had told them that they had to let the man go free because they couldn't prove that he had anything to do with the deaths of either child. Captain Cragen had been absolutely livid, insisting that they had enough evidence to pin the guy to both of the murders, or at the very least, as an accessory to them.

The DA had been adamant, however, and they had no choice but to obey his orders. The guy had laughed at them when he walked out of the squad room, and it had taken all of Elliot's self-control not to pounce and beat the living shit out of him. They all knew he was the cause of this, but because their job was to uphold the law, they couldn't do anything without evidence.

What followed was an order from Cragen to do whatever it took to get the man legally held accountable, which in other words translated into a marathon of searches through missing children's archives and pedophiles rap sheets. Elliot, Olivia, Munch, and Fin had literally spent an entire day pouring through the mass amounts of files, and had only gotten maybe seven hours of sleep between the four of them.

The next day was nothing but a repeat of the first. Tempers were on edge and exhaustion was evident in everyone's attitudes. The captain began to send them home two at a time once the hour began to get later. By the time Olivia and Elliot's turn had come, it was past midnight.

He had no idea how he'd done it, but Elliot had somehow managed to stay coherent enough to make the hour-long drive back to Queens. As soon as he walked in the door, he had gone upstairs and flopped straight into bed.

"I really hope we get a break in the case," she continued, stirring the oatmeal with a spoon. "God knows how many other kids he has stashed out there somewhere."

The idea made Elliot physically sick. No matter how many years he worked on putting pedophiles away, each one still left him angry and saddened. He suspected it would always be that way. Some cops were able to harden themselves after a while and not let emotions break through their tough shells. Elliot wasn't one of them, and neither were any of his colleagues.

"I'll see you in a bit, Liv," he said, choosing not to comment on her statement. "I've got to jump in the shower."

"Ok," she said. She stirred the oatmeal one last time and picked up the pot, placing it on a cool burner. "Your turn for Starbucks?"

"Hell yes," he answered. "I'm stopping on my way in. Mocha Frapaccino?"

She smiled. "Of course," she said matter-of-factly. "And a blueberry scone."

His eyebrows shot up in amusement. "What am I, your waiter now?" he teased. "You better tip well."

She snorted. "Depends on how good of a job you do."

He laughed out loud. "Screw you," he chuckled. "Bye."

"Bye," she laughed, hanging up.

Thirty minutes later, Elliot was walking out of Starbucks balancing two cardboard containers of coffee and a bag of pastries. His phone rang as he reached his truck. Setting the items on the roof of the Explorer, he reached for it as he unlocked the door.

"Stabler," he said, reaching up to take the containers off.

"How you doing, you scumbag?" the caller asked coolly.

He almost dropped the coffee when he recognizing the voice. "Mother of God!" he cried excitedly, sliding the containers into the empty seat next to him. "Jesse Fox?"

His friend laughed. "No, it's Bill fucking Clinton," he cracked in amusement.

Elliot had met Jesse when he was in the Marines, and the two had become best friends. They were assigned to the same platoon and each had a different reason for being there- Elliot was trying to support a new family and Jesse had joined to spite his father, who he wasn't on good terms with.

Both of them were young and scared shitless, not having any clue what to do or expect. Elliot had buried his fear inside, coming off as quiet and even shy at times, whereas Jesse had covered his up with cockiness and brash openness. Their personalities were nothing alike, and yet they had clicked instantly.

After their stint ended, they had parted ways- Elliot was going home to New York, and Jesse was off to California, chasing a dream to be a pilot. Elliot had taken him to the airport, and after the plane took off he had gotten into his car and broken down. It was the first time in his life that he had ever cried over the loss of a friend.

After serving as best man in he and Kathy's wedding, Jesse had gone to Washington to apply for a position in the Air Force academy. They had attempted to keep in touch via letters and an occasional phone call, but each had become so busy that communications tapered off.

"You dirtball!" Elliot said affectionately, starting the ignition. "How the hell you been, man?"

"Not too bad," Jesse replied, grinning. "I served another five years in the Marines a few years after our stint, and after that I got a job training fighter pilots."

"That's great!" Elliot said enthusiastically.

"Yeah," he agreed. "How about you? You still in the service?"

"Nah," Elliot answered. "I actually became a cop…been one for almost 15 years now."

"No shit!" Jesse said. "I can't picture you as a cop…you were always so quiet when we were younger."

Elliot laughed out loud. "Well, things have changed a little," he said. "I've got a file full of disciplinary slips to prove it!"

Jesse laughed too. "Hey, alright!" he said. "See, I told you we'd get you to cross over to the dark side, Choir Boy."

The nickname warmed Elliot's insides as memories long forgotten came flooding back. He had been dubbed "Choir Boy" by his platoon after they had found out about how he'd gone to Catholic school his entire life. When he told them about conceiving Maureen out of wedlock, they had feigned shock and threatened to write a letter to the Church telling the Pope to come kick his ass.

"So…not to sound like a jackass," Elliot said, turning onto the Manhattan exit. "But I haven't heard from you in, like…a decade. What do you want?"

"Way to not sound like a jackass, you jackass," Jesse said lightly.

Elliot smiled, hearing the laughter in his voice and knowing he wasn't mad.

"Me and a bunch of guys I work with just finished training a huge batch of academy rookies for their first takeoff, and the Commander was so impressed that he gave us a two-week window of vacation time as a reward," Jesse explained. "We're planning on heading to the North Shore in Hawaii….we need one more in order to get this vacation package from the insurance company, and I was wondering if you'd be interested."

Elliot was unable to stop the thrill from shooting through his body at the thought of two weeks in the sun and sand. But his brain immediately caught up.

There's no way I can take a vacation right now. Who knows when we'll get a break in this case? Even if we got this one wrapped, there will be another one…there's always another rapist, another pedophile.

"Fuck, Jess," he said, unable to keep the disappointment from his voice. "That would be so damn excellent. But I can't leave work…there's too much going on right now. I'm sorry."

There was silence for a minute. "Shit, Elliot," Jesse said, his own voice dejected. "Me, too, man. I was really looking forward to seeing you again."

The two men lapsed into quiet. Elliot felt horrible. "Well…that's alright," Jesse said finally. "We can catch up another time, then."

"Sure," Elliot said quietly. "I'd like that."

"I'll call you when we get back," he continued, trying to sound upbeat for his friend's sake. "We can make plans to get together."

"That would be great," Elliot answered. He pulled into the precinct parking lot. "Listen, I'm sorry, Jesse…I have to go. Thanks for calling… it was really good to hear from you."

"Same here," Jesse replied. "Keep in touch, huh?"

"You can count on it," he said. "Bye."

"Bye."

The call disconnected. Elliot sighed and leaned his head back against the seat. After a minute, he opened the door and collected the bags and containers before locking the truck.

A few minutes ago, his stomach was growling in anticipation of the sweet smell coming from the paper bag he was holding. Now, his appetite was completely gone. He knew that it wasn't rational to be angry…he chose this job and knew that sacrifices came with the territory. But it still didn't take away the raw ache of disappointment that had settled deep inside his chest.

Sighing heavily, he entered the precinct and headed for the elevators.

Olivia looked up anxiously when she heard the doors open and all but pounced on her partner as he walked inside.

"Geez, Liv!" he said in surprise, quickly handing her the bag she was grabbing at before he dropped it. She rifled through it quickly and pulled out her scone, shoving the bag back at him and walking back to their desk.

Elliot put a hurt look on his face and pretended to be put out. "Good morning to you, too," he pouted playfully, coming to the desk as well.

She grinned through a huge bite of blueberry pastry. "Mmmgig," she attempted to say with her mouth full. She laughed and clapped a hand over her mouth to catch the food from spraying everywhere.

He rolled his eyes and removed their coffees from the tray.

Olivia swallowed. "Morning," she repeated more clearly. "Thanks." She indicated the pastry appreciatively and smiled again.

Digging through the bag, he pulled out a bagel for himself and set in on a napkin before setting it and the trays beside the coffee pot for the others.

Munch walked in as he was heading back for his desk. He noticed the refreshments immediately and walked over to inspect them. "What'd you get?" he asked, starting to pull out the pastries.

Olivia took a huge sip of the cold coffee drink to wash down the scone.

"Black coffee for you," Elliot answered, sticking a straw in his caramel macchiato and taking a sip. "And two sesame bagels with cream cheese."

John looked at him in shock as he was pulling the items out of the bag. "Ok," he said slowly. "Who are you, and where is the real Elliot Stabler?"

He smirked and cut his eyes at his colleague as Munch lifted out his coffee. Setting it down, he poked through the bag again and looked around the cardboard trays. "Hey, where's the Hazelnut creamer?"

"They charged extra for it," Elliot said. "Seventy-five cents a shot...give me a break."

"Never mind," John said, scooping up his breakfast and heading for his own desk. "He's the real Elliot Stabler."

Olivia laughed, almost choking on her coffee. Her partner shot her a dirty look. "Fine," he vowed. "See if I ever do anything nice for you guys again, you ungrateful brats."

"Hey, now…" Fin came in and caught the last of his sentence. He raised his eyebrows at Elliot. "That's not fair…don't judge us by out worst specimens."

"Hey!" Olivia cried, tossing a balled-up napkin at him. "Who are you calling 'worst specimens'?"

"You, obviously," Fin said, cracking a grin. He noticed then that they all had breakfast. "Hey, what's with this? Share the wealth."

"Why would we share with you?" his partner interjected, swallowing. "You just insulted us."

"No," he corrected. "Elliot just insulted you…I was simply stating the obvious."

Elliot laughed. "Bag's by the coffee machine," he said. "Blueberry muffin and green tea, right?"

"God bless you," Fin said, making a beeline for it.

Taking another bite of his bagel, Elliot looked through his inbox to see if any more files had appeared since he had last checked. Nope. The same ones were still there, waiting for him to keep procrastinating over.

"Hate to break up the breakfast club," Cragen boomed, stepping out from his office when he saw that everyone had arrived. "CSU found another victim this morning." He dropped a file down on Elliot's desk. "A little girl."

The caramel beverage swirled in his stomach. Elliot dropped the bagel and shoved it to the side, his appetite completely squelched. "Lovely," he muttered, getting to his feet.

Olivia shoved the last bite into her mouth and quickly wiped her hands on the napkin before standing as well.

"You two," Cragen continued, addressing Munch and Fin. "Warner has the autopsy reports done on our first boy."

Munch sighed as he stood. "Another glorious beginning to another glorious day chasing down the sick freaks of New York," he said cynically. "And they wonder why the city is so unfriendly."

Fin rolled his eyes, leading the way out the door.

"That makes three kids in less than 72 hours," Olivia said, getting up from her crouched position next to the body. She looked at Elliot grimly. "He's starting to get cocky."

Elliot couldn't bring himself to look at the little girl any longer, and turned an angry glare down the alley instead. "He's gloating," he said through clenched teeth. "We caught him once and couldn't hold him…it's his way of rubbing it in our faces."

Olivia didn't speak as she watched her partner walk away. She knew all too well that it was better to just let him stew when he got like this. Elliot had a tendency to turn his anger inside into fury and lash out at the first thing that crossed his path. She didn't feel like adding the fuel to his fire today.

"Cause of death was a broken neck," Melinda Warner said to the two men. "Tissue damage and massive internal hemorrhaging indicate that he was sodomized pre-mortem."

"Bastard," Fin swore angrily. "Rapes the kid and breaks his neck so he can't scream."

Munch was gazing at the body of the African-American boy. "Any way to tell how long he was dead before the guy dumped him?" he asked softly.

She sighed heavily, pulling off her protective cap and shaking her hair loose. "Judging from the exposure and condition of the body," she said grimly. "I'd guess anywhere from 12-24 hours."

The two detectives stared silently at the limp form as she covered it again.

Cragen looked at Fin and John as they came back into the squad room. Elliot and Olivia had arrived back a half-hour before, and he knew by their expressions that they hadn't found any evidence with the body. He turned anxiously toward them, hoping that they'd had better luck.

"Anything?" he asked.

"Kid was raped," Fin said. "Warner said that the time of death was anything between 12 hours and a day before we found him. No trace of semen or hair to use as a sample."

"We don't need one," Elliot burst out angrily from his chair. "We'd be idiots to think it's not this same bastard." He looked at the captain, shaking his head. "How many more innocent kids have to die before the DA will become convinced?"

"It doesn't matter," Olivia said, shaking her head angrily. "We need to catch the guy again before we can convict him…and he's making sure we know he's not going down easy."

"Alright," Cragen said, before Elliot could say something else. "All we can do is concentrate on bringing him down. So, let's go over what we have so far."

Olivia picked up her notepad and flipped through it. "Victim number one, found at 11 am Tuesday morning in a dumpster."

"Victim number two, found at 1 pm Tuesday afternoon beside the L.I.E," Fin said, picking up where she left off.

"And this morning's victim," the captain concluded. He paused, thinking. "Did any of the other children show any sign of sexual force?"

Fin narrowed his eyes. "No," he said, flipping through his notes. "The first one was killed by blunt force trauma to the head, the second from strangulation. No wounds or indication of rape in either one."

"So he's escalated from kiddie porn to rape homicide," Cragen said. "This guy's getting ballsy."

The phone ringing from inside the office interrupted what he began to say next. He turned toward the door.

"I'd like to cut his balls off," he heard Elliot say threateningly as he stepped inside. "That ought to send a message."

"Cragen," he answered, picking up the receiver.

"I just can't believe that no one has seen this guy since we cut him loose," Olivia said in irritation. "There had to be at least 50 detectives in here Tuesday who looked straight at him."

"Looks like you got your wish," Cragen said grimly, stepping out into the room again.

Elliot whipped around immediately. "We got a sighting?"

He nodded contritely, and it was then that the four noticed the look of defeat on his face. "CSU just found his body in a ditch by the expressway," he said.

The detectives' expressions went from shocked to moroseness.

Cragen shook his head angrily and sighed sadly. "Guy committed suicide."

Two hours later, the captain was startled by the squad room doors banging open loudly. Looking up from his work, he saw Elliot stalk into the room, followed a minute later by the other three.

"That's just great," Elliot said angrily, going over to the coffeepot. He filled a cup and slammed the pot down. "Forget about the children who the guy murdered. Forget about the families who had their kids dumped like trash on the side of the road. The guy's dead; case closed."

Shaking his head, he went over to his chair and slammed himself down into it. The captain looked at Olivia questioningly.

"His lawyer talked to the DA," she said bitterly. "He's dismissing the case on the grounds that we no longer have probable cause to investigate now that the guy is dead."

Cragen was stunned. "Are you serious?" he asked in disbelief.

"Great country we live in, isn't it?" Munch asked angrily. "Three dead children aren't enough to get an arrest, but one dead pedophile is enough to throw out the case."

The captain looked at his team. They were all angry, frustrated, and saddened, and had every right to be. Times like these were what made the job seem worthless.

"I'm sorry, guys," he said.

No one replied.

Elliot gulped a sip of the hot liquid, burning the back of his throat. "It isn't right," he said softly. "A boy was killed while we had the guy in custody…in custody! There could be a whole team of people out there murdering more kids right now, and we can't do a damn thing about it."

He took another gulp and angrily heaved the half-full cup at the trash can. The coffee splattered against the side of the plastic loudly, but he made no effort to clean it up.

Cragen sighed. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "There's no use dwelling over this…it will only make it worse. It's out of our hands."

He stopped, looking each of them over for a response to his words. They all looked so depressed that it worried him.

"We've still got rapists out there," he said. "We've got no choice guys….we have to move on."

Olivia shook her head angrily and snatched a folder from her inbox, sighing in defeat.

"Yeah, move on," Munch said, scoffing, as he stood. "There are plenty of other kids out there being mutilated and tortured to make up for these." He stalked over to the file cabinet and began rifling through it roughly.

The captain watched him for a minute sympathetically, eyeing his partner next.

"Sure," he said bitterly, noticing the look. "Nothing like another rapist to get the spirits up."

Cragen was surprised at his words; Fin was usually the most easygoing out of the group.

Pursing his lips, he then allowed his gaze to wander to Elliot. The angry little outbursts so far had been surprisingly mild for him…he was always the one that Cragen worried about during cases like this.

The man's temper and hot-headedness had set him on a road to destruction, and each time Don found himself wondering if the case they were working on would be the one to send him over the edge. He hadn't fired a detective in over thirteen years- he would rather get fired himself. But if he had to be truthful, he knew that if things kept up the way they were, Elliot Stabler was going to be the one in the most danger of losing his job.

Cragen was doing everything humanly possible to keep that from happening, including being too lenient on issues that he knew deserved punishment. But he knew Elliot for the man he was outside of being a cop, and that man was golden. So golden that, if he had to, Cragen would go to the end of the earth to keep from being hurt.

He watched Elliot sigh and get to his feet. He walked out of the squad room without a word.

Elliot walked to the end of the hall and pulled out his cell phone. He dialed a number and leaned against the wall, sighing and scrubbing his eyes. His insides were wound so tight that he was afraid his ribs were going to snap.

"Hey," he said wearily, when Jesse picked up. "Is that offer still good?"