Part 2:

The Mariano case was going to be a problem.

She didn't need to go through the entire file to see exactly what that problem was. Alex Cabot had handled enough cases before and after she started working as the Bureau Chief, enough to feel things instinctively when a case was about to go down the unpleasant road, and the evidence for this case, so far, was distinctly pointing down that direction. The question was whether her less experienced ADAs could see it as well.

She was about to find out, because Brian Peluso, just in time, knocked on the door frame of her open office. "You wanted to see me?"

Alex took off her glasses and looked up from the file. "Yes, Brian. Come in and sit down."

The sitting down part signaled that this might be a long talk, which Brian seemingly understood. He strode in and closed the door behind him.

"You're Jim's second on the Mariano case?" she asked.

"I am," Brian answered as he sat down on the chair across her desk. "Is there a problem?"

"Nope. Just give me a debrief on the case."

It was a strange request - she could have just as easily asked her Deputy District Attorney who was leading the case to summarize for her. She knew Brian saw that one through because he raised his eyebrow before sitting straight up and starting to recount the case.

"Jake Mariano, a 16-year-old member of the fringe gang called BS, killed a member of another gang in a drive-by shooting taken place last month. An off-duty cop caught him when he was attempting to get rid of the murder weapon into the sewer several blocks away from where the shooting took place. He confessed right after, in the hope of being treated as a minor at the trial."

"Any problem with the case, in your opinion?"

He looked straight in her eyes. "Yes. The kid didn't do it."

Ah-ha. Peluso saw it, too, then. Alex closed the file in front of her and handed it to him. "Good."

Apparently that really wasn't what he expected. "Good?" "Good, as in, I agree with you. Jim's going to take a backseat and you are going to take the lead on this one. Get Jessica as your second. If you need a hand with paperwork, take Potter and show him the ropes. Any scheduling issues?"

"Nothing I can foresee right now, no," Brian answered easily, but he was sharp enough to catch on pretty fast. "Is there any other problem with the case? Is Steele having workload issues?"

"Nope."

Brian leaned against the chair. "Ah."

It was her turn to ask. "Ah?"

"Ah. As in, this is going to be a test. For me."

He saw through that, too. Even better. "Maybe. But it's not the kind where you pass or fail. You're the next in line after Jim in this team, and we think it's about time you start practicing heading high profile cases and giving out press conferences."

Brian looked momentarily taken aback. "And Steele approves?"

"He was the one with the suggestion that we should start grooming you. I happen to agree with him."

Now she did, at least. Brian had the seniority. Jessica Rossi was next, and while she came on pretty strong with her cases, she occasionally got too involved with them to be objective. Billy Desmond, while ambitious and aggressive, still required years of experience. Brian had the experience and good sense to stay right on the case, and just proved himself to be sharp enough with good instinct.

And they needed somebody. Jim, who had been the leader in the ADA team, took on the deputy role after Randolph was killed, so they needed to establish another senior leader in the ADA team for the future.

She gave Brian enough hints for him to understand the importance of the assignment, but she made sure that she wasn't giving him too much pressure. He accepted with seeming ease.

"Any issues, anything at all, that you want to discuss, you can bring it up to Jim or me."

"Got it." Brian nodded and took it as his cue to leave.

"Brian, one more thing."

"Yes?"

"I want you to see a therapist before the end of this week."

Brian paused for a second and turned around to face her again. "That was an interesting segue," he said, finally, obviously trying to sound amused but was anything but. "What, does giving press conferences these days actually require psych evaluation?"

"That doesn't sound like a half bad idea actually, but no, we would like you to go through an evaluative session for post-traumatic stress syndrome."

That did it. Brian's expression went completely flat. "I'm fine."

"Sure, I believe you." She smiled. "So go do the session."

Brian visibly restrained himself and countered, "Have I shown any indication I was suffering from PTS?"

"No, but if it was that easy to tell, would we even need a session to determine if one has it?"

"I thought it was that easy to tell. For the record, the ruckus this morning? I was just trying to get myself a cup of coffee, not planning to shoot anyone from the nearest clock tower."

Alex responded to the joke with a quick smile but gave away nothing than that. "You took the blunt of the heat from the hostage situation at the court house. We want to make sure that you are as fine as you think you are."

"I didn't take the blunt of the heat. If you remember, I wasn't the only one who had to face a gun that day. Potter, Finny..." Brian paused and looked away. "No matter, because we are still all intact. More importantly, it's over. Do you see any difference in us?"

She tilted her head. "If you ask me, no. You all seem remarkably fine."

"Then why bring it up again when people are finally ready to forget about it?"

"These are valid points, and you can certainly continue to argue this with me to prove that one of my ADAs is indeed a good attorney, but see," Cabot smiled, wide, "the fact that I'm the boss means that you are going to see this doc on Thursday, at 2."

She pushed a business card across the desk. He stared at it with the 'Aw shucks' look for a second before taking it.

"Boss's order, huh?" He gave her a wry grin.

"You're catching on. Why do you think I took this job if it didn't come with any perks?"

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

The victim's crime scene photos told him next to nothing. The same with the autopsy report. The police reports had other speculations but nothing conclusive. The hard fact was that the kid had confessed and was about to face a trial. But, still, something didn't fit, and Brian had thought he was the only one who suspected the kid wasn't the one who had actually pulled the trigger.

But, no. Cabot and Steele were, too, convinced that the kid hadn't committed the crime.

And Brian was to lead the case.

Well, he'd better get started, then. He loosened his tie and reached to grab his third Red Bull that day.

It was not a bad test, really. When he thought about it, the only direction he could take this was simple yet tricky. He suspected that the kid was taking a fall for someone. Even though Jake Mariano had a pretty good motive, others would have had better ones - except, of course, nothing had turned up at the investigation stage and before the arrest. His job was to find who really was responsible for murder by pushing this case toward the right direction, by pushing it the right way. Looking through the files, he found a few holes he wanted to poke.

He was up for this challenge, he was pretty sure, but what he wasn't sure was in the business card currently stuck in his notepad that he was trying hard to ignore.

In a way, he had been lucky - lucky for more than one reason, of course. He knew about violence, so he didn't freeze in front of it. And while others probably hadn't known just what they could wish out of the hostage situation, he had. He had only one goal, only one focus - he wanted her safe. He had wanted everyone to be safe, even Wade, but the bottom line, he just wanted Chris to be safe. And she was.

He could still feel her tremble, in that frail and precious moment when she had fallen into his arms on the courthouse stairways. He could still feel her tears on his shoulder.

He dropped his pen and stared at his hand. Goddammit. She was safe. She was right next door, working on her cases and drinking copious amount of coffee.

The image almost made him smile, and his hand stopped trembling.

He picked up his pen again.

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

Nick Potter looked up from the file and said, "The name of the gang is BS? Seriously? Is it an abbreviation of something?"

Jess flipped through the file. Why a drive-by shooting was suddenly worth three ADAs was a mystery to her. Then she looked at Nick and thought, okay, so maybe Nick didn't count as a full ADA just yet. A half, maybe. Still, even two and a half ADAs tied up to a case meant a big case at this point, and from what she could tell, this didn't seem to require too much work. "As far as we know," she answered, "it's always just been called BS."

"What an unfortunate choice for a supposedly scary gang. I mean, it's just begging for it, isn't it?"

Jess rolled her eyes. "Are you willing to give the heart to heart talk to gun-trotting teenagers to let them know exactly what kind of wrong connotations the name 'BS' has?"

"You might actually get a chance to do exactly that," Brian said, stretching in his chair. "Nick, you get to interview the witnesses, including the gang members. Jess, take the off-duty cop who caught Mariano."

She and Nick turned to Brian. Jess nodded and started writing down on her notepad while Nick scrambled to grab his. "Anything specific we're looking for?" Nick asked, looking slightly off his game, which, of course, was expected.

Brian leaned forward. "You read the file. What do you think?"

Nick tried to hide the deer in the headlight look by blinking; he wasn't very successful. "Uh, are we supposed to see who might be able to testify against him?"

Brian shook his head. "We're not at that stage yet."

"Then, are we looking for, I don't know, motive?"

"Already have it. The kid's confession states that they were in rival gangs for years, and this was yet another manifestation of their turf war."

"Really? But nothing's happened the last year or so. The report doesn't mention any other incident."

Not bad, Jess thought. There was still hope for Nick. Something did seem amiss, though. If there were not even looking for ways to obtain testimony but doing the background check now, this meant... It suddenly came to Jess. "We don't think the kid did it, do we?" she asked Brian.

"Nope."

"Does this mean--"

"Yep," said Brian.

She must've sighed pretty loudly, because Nick was staring at her. "Uh, what does that mean?"

"That means we think there's more than it meets the eye and it is possible that we have a chance to apprehend more than a scared 16-year-old kid who might be guilty only of stupidity of joining a gang in the first place, not of murder."

Nick looked even more confused than ever. "But that...that's a good thing, isn't it?"

"In theory. But the direct result of that implication? We have to do more research. And even more paperwork." She turned to Brian. "So, who's doing what?"

"You talk to the police and the detective in charge of the case and see what they left out from the reports, see if we can rule out anything else. Nick, you're checking the background and history. That's it for now, and we can regroup tomorrow about this time. Anything else?" Brian asked.

"Uh, this is not necessarily related to this case, but," Nick started, looking a bit hesitant, "what's going to happen to Wade, do you know? I haven't heard anything about it since."

Suddenly, the room fell into silence. "Another team is handling it," Brian answered finally. Nick looked puzzled for a second, and frowned. "Does that mean we're pressing charges?"

"For shooting up the court house and taking a courtroom full of hostages? What do you think? Even if we understand reasoning behind the situation, it's not something we can overlook." Brian didn't look too happy about it, either, but it was just how it was.

Nick looked so completely miserable that Jess had to take a pity on him. "He should be able to get away with a minimal sentence. We can see to it."

"Okay," Nick said. He didn't look entirely convinced.

For a second, Jess thought back to what Nick had told her, on that damned day in the courthouse, but quickly pushed away the thought. It really didn't have any room for them, and thankfully, Nick hadn't shown any sign of bringing it up again.

Brian put an end to the dampened mood by standing up and shooing them out. "Get going. I want your interview reports by tomorrow."

"I've got a deposition at four," Jess said. "I'll talk to the cop tomorrow morning."

"Do that, then. Potter, see if you can get them to talk, as many of them as possible. And careful out there today, okay? Not a good place to be around."

"Uh, you want me to go interview them now?"

"What, you've got something else?"

"I might have --"

"Shelve it. This is a murder trial, and this comes first."

"Uh, um. Okay. Sure. All right."

Jess and Nick packed their things as they got up to leave Brian's office. When Jess was about to wonder if it was possible for Nick to be having a heart attack right now based purely on his anxiety level, Brian called out, "I'll meet you at the parking lot at 4."

Nick whipped around. "What?"

"For the interviews." Brian was barely containing laughter. "Don't worry, man. I'm tagging along."

Nick did such a bad job at hiding his relief from his expression as he left, muttering, "Oh thank God."

Jess shook her head at Brian. "You're a cruel, cruel guy."

"Hey, I try."

Just when Jess was about to leave, Chris poked her head in, a clipboard across her chest and looking generally adorable as she usually did. "Hey, are you guys done?"

"Just about," Brian said, brightening up instantly. Jess almost rolled her eyes. "What's up?"

Chris began to fidget a little, which Jess recognized as her standard nervous gesture. "Ah, well, do you feel like grabbing dinner, maybe? I mean, with me. Tonight?" Chris seemed to have realized that Jess was in the room just as the words were spilling out. She hastened to add, "Both of you."

If there was anything Jessica Rossi knew with absolute certainty, it was never to be a third wheel under any given circumstances. She smiled amiably. "Nope, got somewhere to be."

When both of them looked at Brian, however, his expression wasn't as bright. He looked down and made a show of collecting his folders. "Not, uh, not tonight. There's these interviews I have to do with Potter."

"Tomorrow night, then?"

If it was actually possible, Brian was avoiding looking at Chris, as if looking at her hurt him. "It's...it's not a good time right now."

"Oh." Chris' smile faltered, but only briefly. Chris picked up her cheerfulness again quite admirably with, "That's all right, then. Anyway, I'll see you tomorrow."

All right, what just happened? Jess stared at Brian, who was sorting through his files like nothing had happened, but his shoulders were stiff, his jaw set.

Jess closed the door as soon as Chris was out of earshoot and turned to Brian. "What was that?" she demanded.

Brian gathered his files without looking up. "What was what?"

"You sure are taking your sweet time, aren't you? Either that, you're balking out. Which begs the question - why?"

"Again, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"If you're worried about being a guy who's cutting in, don't worry. The coast is crystal clear."

Brian finally looked up, looking exasperated. "Are we even in the same conversation here?"

All right, now she really wanted to kick him. "She broke up with Doctor Lucas right after the incident, you idiot. You think she'd ask you out while stringing another guy along?"

This finally registered. Brian looked, frankly, a little lost. "She...Chris broke up with Doctor Lucas? Why?"

Oh my god, Jess thought. The denseness of the male species just never ceased to astonish. "Are you seriously telling me you don't know why?"

Brian looked even more stiff, almost angry, which was pretty much unlike him. "She shouldn't have. She said it, you said it, practically everyone said he's this amazing guy."

"What, you want to date him instead? That's why you haven't asked her out yet?"

Brian put down the files, frowned, then straightened up. Then he looked her straight in the eyes and asked, "Who am I?"

Jess blinked. "What?"

"Who am I, Rossi?" She was beginning to suspect maybe he completely lost it, but he set his jaw, hard. "Brian Peluso, that's me. I haven't changed. You've known me for years. Would you let your sister date me?"

She said automatically, "I'd break her legs first."

Brian did a little 'See what I mean?' gesture, complete with a self-deprecating smile, then went back to collecting his files. "With that, your Honor, the prosecution rest the case."

"But my sister isn't Christina Finn."

His hand, reaching for a folder, stopped in mid-air. He closed his eyes, then a moment later continued to pack, all without turning to face her. "You make it sound like it means something."

"It kinda does, Peluso. She's Chris." And around Chris, Brian Peluso was a different guy. Which probably was the only reason she approved of this pairing.

Although, she was the one to talk, was she? She glanced outside, at Jim's office, and almost sighed. It was never easy.

"I don't know exactly what you're afraid of," she began, as carefully as she could, "but you're a brave guy. I think you already proved that."

"Probably not brave enough," Brian said, looking away. "Look, if that...that incident hasn't happened, I would have never said anything. And now..."

And now, he was deathly afraid of hurting her. This was her second epiphany of the day, and this was even less funny. The problem was that maybe she understood where Brian was coming from. This time, Jess did sigh. "Look, if it makes you feel better, I'll leave you with this thought. If you break her heart, then I'll break your legs."

That almost brought out a smile onto his face. "I'm to be comforted by that thought?"

"Oh yes," she said as she turned to leave his office. "At least I didn't say anything about the rest of your faculties."

Passing by Jim's office, she was almost tempted to do something stupid. Like maybe seeing if he was available tonight. Almost, but no, because she saw him talking to Cabot heatedly about something in the office.

Oh God, the denseness of the male species was right.

Jess turned away and headed to Chris' office. She had a feeling that her friend might need a dinner companion tonight.