Appearances by L&O:SVU characters. Slight spoilers for "In The Dark." Warnings for language and brief, non-graphic adult themes.

At the risk of spoiling things, despite appearances, this is not a death story.

Special thanks to nohbrat for the quick beta. This story is finished, so hopefully new chapters will be posted in a timely manner, real life permitting.

Disclaimer: This is an amateur work of fiction, written purely for fun and is not intended to breach any copyrights dealing with the television production "Law & Order: Criminal Intent".

--

Prologue: Death

noun
1 : a permanent cessation of all vital functions : the end of life
2 : the cause or occasion of loss of life
3 : the state of being dead

--

It was the bitter bite of the frigid waters that brought him fully conscious. With it came a pain unlike anything he'd ever known. It cut through him with the force of a thousand tiny daggers, dragging every vestige of warmth from him in its wake. Confused, he didn't fight at first, but as awareness sharpened with the icy cold, a flash of panic-induced adrenaline shot through his limbs, and he flailed against the black molasses that sucked at him, pulling him lower into its inky blackness.

Gravity ceased to operate. There was no other explanation, because he was falling up. Wasn't he? If he could have drawn a breath, he might have laughed. Funny how bizarre life became when you were dying. Funny. At least he'd go out laughing. But he'd still be dead, and oh, God, he didn't want to die!

Fight, he commanded his arms, and they weakly obeyed. His legs, on the other hand, were deaf to his pleas, hanging limply below... above?... him. And always there was the crushing pain. The bone-deep cold. The burning of lungs that wanted nothing more than to suck in a breath of air that wasn't there. How long could a man hold his breath? He didn't want to have to find out. Not now. Not like this. Take a breath, and die. Don't take a breath, and die. Was there no third option?

Whoever said drowning was like falling asleep had clearly never drowned. Because it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. His arms, legs, the sheer agony that was his lungs... and his head... God, his head had long since exploded and was probably lying on the river floor somewhere.

And, then, oh God, there it was... the light. The one he'd only heard about, read about. The one he'd hoped to never actually witness -- at least not for another forty, fifty years. So it wasn't the inky, frigid waters of the river that were sucking at him like molasses, it was the inky dark, frigid, black "tunnel" -- the one which led to the light that any sane man would fight to avoid for as long as possible.

And God he didn't want to die. Not now, not today, and certainly not like this. This hurt, goddammit! Another minute, and his lungs would surely explode, joining his already shattered head beneath him... above him?

Mentally sighing -- because he couldn't very well actually sigh -- he ignored the agony that was his arms and flailed his way toward the damned light. No point prolonging the inevitable.

And then it hit him, with a force that would have shattered his poor aching head, had it not already been shattered and scattered -- he was going to die! And it was with both sadness and relief that he realized that it was true what they said, all knowledge did come with death.

--

Chapter 1: Grief

noun
1: deep and poignant distress caused by bereavement
2: a cause of such suffering
3: an unfortunate outcome

--

There was no relief on the other side. Alex knew this because with each step toward full consciousness that her body made, the agony grew until she groaned with the enormity of it. The sound, small though it was, reverberated through her brain, bouncing around until it finally ended up roiling miserably through her viscera.

"Good Lord, did anyone get the number of the truck that hit me?" she said, but what came out of her mouth was a whispered, "... tru'k...hit..." The roughness of her voice was startling. It screeched like a door badly in need of a little lubricant.

"Alex...?"

Her features twisted. She knew the voice, but trying to place it only made her head pound harder, so she shelved the idea. Opening her eyes would likely do the same, she decided. She made no attempt to test the theory, but was content to simply lay perfectly still and hope it all would just go away.

Even that small wish was too much. Mere seconds later, the summons sounded again, this time followed by a soft touch on her arm. "Alex... you awake, baby girl?"

Baby girl? Mystery solved. There was only one person who'd ever called her that. "Dad?" Damn squeaky voice.

"That's right, baby girl. It's Dad." There was no mistaking the relief in his voice. "You with me? Can you open your eyes?"

Alex thought about trying, for all of two seconds. It would hurt, and she was hurting enough without adding anything more to it. "Nuh..." she grunted, hoping he could interpret the negative in the sound. The touch on her arm tightened briefly in what she interpreted as understanding.

"'s okay," her dad replied, his voice betraying only a slight disappointment. "It's okay, just rest."

Rest. Yes, a very good idea. Alex quit trying to decipher the myriad messages her body was broadcasting. There would be time and, hopefully, energy for that later. Right now she wanted nothing more than to find the door she'd come through and slip back to the other side where sleep waited. Her father's gentle voice guided her to it and through, and within seconds, she was sleeping.

When she awoke again, her head felt more or less normal, though she still felt like a truck had not only hit her, but had then backed up to get her again.

She weighed the risk of opening her eyes and decided to give it a shot, saying a silent prayer that the action wouldn't inflate her head once again to Hindenburg proportions. A slight splitting of eyelids without an ensuing explosion gave her hope, and she risked opening one eye fully, followed a few seconds later by the other.

Hospital, she deduced, letting her eyes take in as much as they could without moving. The location explained the various aches and pains that were vying for attention. The fuzzy subtly of their attempts told her she was very likely on some kind of pain killers.

"Pain killers..." she muttered with a humorless snort. Pain reducers would be a more accurate term. It was like taking a teaspoon of water out of a five gallon bucket. It might be less water, but it was still a hell of a lot.

"You need something for the pain, baby girl?"

Alex rolled her head carefully toward the voice. "Dad..."

Her father smiled, the expression not quite reaching his eyes. "Yeah, baby. How do you feel? The nurse was just here putting something in your IV for pain. If it's not working, I can call her back..." He made to move away, and Alex felt a sudden, overwhelming need for him to stay.

"No... please, Dad... don't go."

He turned back, his smile fading to a frown of concern. "It's okay, Alex. I'm not leaving. I was just going to call the nurse. They wanted to know when you woke up anyway."

She lifted the hand nearest him, and he caught it between both of his, holding it gently. "Not... not yet, please. I'm okay. Really."

John quirked a bushy, white eyebrow in disbelief, but didn't call her on the bluff, for which she was grateful. "Okay" might be stretching the truth to the breaking point, but it was a relative term anyhow. "Really, Dad, I'm okay for now. I just... some water would be nice."

John released her hand and turned away. A moment later, he held a bent straw to her lips. Alex sucked gratefully at it. The icy fluid that slid down her throat was sheer bliss. "Better?"

Alex risked a short nod, aborting the attempt when a wave of dizziness forced her to close her eyes. "Yeah, much," she elaborated while she waited for the vertigo to pass.

"Alex..." John began, taking her hand once more, "don't lie to me. How do you really feel? Do you need the doctor?"

She opened her eyes again, meeting her father's. Deciding on a shortened version of the truth, and hoping it would satisfy him, she replied, "Like I've been ten rounds with that damned proverbial truck. You know the one -- it hits and runs, then hits again. I think I must have met it more than once."

John lifted one corner of his mouth in a half-hearted smile. His gaze dropped, and he shifted his stance, moving slightly away from the bed, though he didn't release his hold on her hand.

"Dad..." she waited until he lifted his gaze, "What happened? Why am I here?"

John started to shift his gaze away again, but Alex tugged on his hand, stopping him. He took a deep breath that sounded as though he were trying to suck in all the air in the room. Leave me some, she wanted to tell him, but one look at his much-too-serious expression and the lame joke died a rightful death unspoken..

John took his time answering, which set her internal alarms to screaming. Whatever he had to tell her, it was bad enough to spook him, and that spooked her. Had she been shot? She did a quick survey of her pain, but none of it was centralized enough for a gun shot wound. She was more sore than hurt, as though she'd gone a couple dozen rounds with an Olympic boxer, or fallen head first down a garbage shoot... from the fiftieth floor.

Alex's focus turned inward, searching for something in her memory that would support either theory. Had she and Bobby been out on a case? Had some perp gotten violent? What was her last memory?

Bobby...

"Oh, God, Bobby..." Alex turned panicked eyes up in time to see moisture gather in her father's eyes. He never cried. Never. "Bobby?" She sat up, ignoring the vertigo that made her vision swim, as well as the tight pull of pain across her ribs. "Dad, please, tell me. Is he okay? What happened? Where is he?"

"Shh... Alex... settle down. You're going to pull your IV out, and then they really will sedate you." His hands pushed gently at her shoulders. "Shh... It's all right, baby, calm down."

Alex didn't want to calm down, she wanted answers, but she was clear-headed enough to know that she wouldn't get them unless she did as she was told. She forced her panic to the background and let her dad push her back into the pillows, She clung frantically to his hand, not willing to give up the comforting contact. Once she was settled, she turned fear-filled eyes to him. "Dad, please, I have to know. What happened? Where's Bobby?"

John once again took a deep breath, followed by another one, then stepped in closer to her, bending slightly to meet her gaze as he spoke. "You were attacked, baby. Tied up and-and beaten. You were hurt badly."

Alex took stock of her pain once more, but it still didn't seem so bad. She'd felt far worse on more than one occasion.

As though reading her thoughts, he added, "You're on some pretty heavy duty pain killers. It's keeping the worst of it at bay."

Still, it couldn't be too terrible; she was alive, awake and in pretty much one piece, so why was her dad so upset? So shaken that he had come to tears just moments before? "Bobby?" God, it had to be Bobby! They must have been together. They were, weren't they? She tried once more to remember, and groaned in frustration when the memory wouldn't come.

John didn't answer. Alex tightened her grip on his hand, her eyes begging for a denial. No, she waited for him to say, Bobby isn't dead. He's outside, waiting to come in and see you. He's fine.

But he didn't speak. No denial was issued. He didn't say a word one way or another, and for Alex, that said plenty. His damning silence said it all. A sob tore loose from somewhere deep inside her. She released her father's hand at last and covered her face, only peripherally aware of the swelling and bruising her fingers touched there. Her father's arms wrapped carefully around her, pulling her head to his shoulder.

Long after her tears ran dry and she was left with nothing but sloppy, wet hiccups while her father rubbed her back and shushed her, she continued to wail in internal, silent screams. When even that was silenced by exhaustion, she fell asleep.

--

"Alex?"

Alex ignored the gentle summons. She was awake, but she didn't want to be. She wanted to be asleep, where there was no pain, in the body or in the heart. And if her traitorous body wouldn't allow that, then she wanted, at the very least, to be left the hell alone.

Besides, she didn't know this voice. Did she? It might have been vaguely familiar, but she wasn't concerned enough to even attempt to place it. What did it matter? What did anything matter. Bobby was dead.

Bobby was dead, she was hurt and no one would even tell her how that had come to be. Granted, the only people she'd spoken to were her father and brother, but all they'd tell her was that there'd be time enough to talk about it after she'd rested.

All she really knew was that Bobby was dead. She sobbed aloud before she could stop herself.

"Alex?" The voice could not be ignored this time, laden as it was with compassion, understanding and a gentle insistence.

Alex opened her eyes to find her vision blurred from unshed tears. She blinked a couple of times and it cleared, the blurred figure standing over her focusing into the image of a woman she knew, though not well. Olivia Benson. Alex had worked with her before, but not since she'd been with Vice, and that was too long ago, the friendship too casual for Olivia to be here now in the role of friend. Which only left...

Oh, God! Alex sobbed again and was unable to stop the tears. Olivia's face twisted in a grimace of compassion. She punched the control on the bed rail that raised the head of the bed, lowered the rail and sat on the edge of the mattress, gently pulling Alex into a careful embrace.

Alex had to know, had to hear the words, despite what they would mean. She could deal with the repercussions later, but right now, right this minute, she had to hear it. "Was.." She stopped, swallowed the bile that rose in her throat with the words. "Was I... raped?"

Olivia didn't answer straight away, and for Alex that was answer enough. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment her vision danced. Rape... it was terrible, horrible to even contemplate, but it wasn't the end of the world. She could survive it. She could deal with it. At least she was alive... not like... oh, God!

Alex pushed herself back from Olivia, a bizarre, misplaced sense of calm washing over her.

Olivia grabbed a box of tissues from the bedside table and pulled a few out the top, handing them over to Alex. Alex accepted them with a watery, "Thank you," wiped at her eyes and blew her nose. "Tell me, Olivia. I need to hear it from you." Alex looked up, meeting the taller woman's eyes. "I was raped, wasn't I?" She shook her head. "Of course, I was. You're an SVU detective. You investigate rapes, so--" She cut herself off, recognizing that she was rambling and on the verge of incoherence. "I was raped... wasn't I?"

Olivia glanced over her shoulder briefly, and Alex became aware of someone standing behind the other woman, just out of her line of vision. When Olivia looked back at Alex, her expression had softened. "We think so, yes."

Alex latched onto the words like a Chihuahua on a mailman's ankle. "You think so? Think?" Maybe it was a mistake. Please, God, let it be a mistake!

"We can't be sure," Olivia said. "The rape kit didn't really turn up anything, and there were no fluids, but there were signs of relatively recent intercourse."

"Intercourse?" Alex laughed before she could stop herself, the sound very close to the razor-edge of hysteria. "That might be because I had intercourse yester-" She broke off, not sure exactly how long she'd been in the hospital, but certain it was more than a matter of hours. "I was with someone recently," she finished. "And I'd prefer not to give you a name, unless you can convince me it's important to your investigation." But to Alex's surprise, Olivia only looked slightly relieved. "What? There's more, isn't there?"

Olivia glanced over her shoulder again, then stood, taking a step back from the bed. "We can talk about that later, when you're feeling more like yourself."

"No, please. Olivia, I have to know. I need to know what happened, what's going on. Everyone is walking on egg shells around me. I wasn't raped, you know that now, so it's something else. There's something you're keeping from me."

Olivia looked at her for several long, silent moments, then nodded once, as though to herself. "Just because you weren't raped, doesn't mean that the attack wasn't sexually motivated." She stepped back to the bedside and rested her hand on Alex's forearm, softly, barely touching her. Alex's eyes were drawn to the point of contact. She was surprised to see a mottling of dark bruising beneath Olivia's hand. Beaten, her dad had said. She'd not stopped to wonder what she looked like.

"You were found only partially dressed, Alex. We think... " Olivia stopped, and appeared to be searching for words. "We think that, at the very least, your attacker planned to rape you. It's possible that something stopped him. Or maybe he..." She stopped again.

"Maybe he regained enough control to stop himself short of the deed." The flat, emotionless voice came from behind Olivia. A balding, sharp featured man stepped forward, into Alex's line of vision.

Alex didn't miss the pointed look thrown the man's way by Olivia before the other woman turned back to Alex. "This is Elliott Stabler, my partner."

Partner. A flash of face filled Alex's memory. "Bobby!" She cried out, pressing her hand to her mouth as a flood of emotion threatened her already tentative control. Whispering around her hand, she asked, "He's dead, isn't he? My dad wouldn't say, but I could tell. He froze up when I asked about him, and he wouldn't deny it."

"We're not sure, but it... it looks like it. I'm sorry, Alex."

Hope latched onto her heart with a grappling hook. "But you're not sure." It wasn't a question.

"Alex, don't..." Olivia began.

"You said it yourself," Alex said. "You're not sure."

"She also said it looks like it," Stabler pointed out.

Frustration was giving birth to a full blown migraine behind Alex's eyes. She pinched at the bridge of her nose. "Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?! I may have been raped, I may not. I may have been sexually molested, I may not. My partner may be dead, he may not." She opened her eyes, forcing a calmer tone. "Just tell me what you do know. Please! I can't stand the confusion -- the not knowing. Whatever the truth is, it can't be as bad as what my imagination is filling in the gaps with."

Olivia sat down on the bed's edge once more. "I wish that were true, Alex."

Before she could say any more, her partner cleared his throat, drawing both women's attention. "We need to ask you a couple of questions if you're up to it."

Alex wanted to strangle him for the interruption, but the more disciplined side of her, the detective side, knew it was procedure. They needed to know what she knew, before her memories were tainted by what she'd be told. She nodded.

"What's the last thing you remember?" Stabler asked, pulling a small notepad and pen from his jacket pocket.

Alex's gaze turned inward. What did she remember? Her date, a concert... and what followed, she almost smiled, but the gravity of the situation stopped her. That was Thursday night. Friday... Friday was harder. "Friday morning," she said at last. "I remember getting to the station early, before Bobby. I finished up some reports while I waited for him." She frowned. "That's really the last clear memory I have." She looked up. "What day is this?"

"It's Tuesday."

Alex looked at Olivia, horror-struck. "Tuesday?! I've lost five days?"

"Well, you were pretty much unconscious for three of them," Stabler said, smiling kindly, his features softening. "You were found Saturday morning. You didn't start waking up until Monday -- yesterday. That's when they moved you out of ICU. You've only been really aware today."

Alex glanced toward the window. The light filtering in through the open blinds was dim, with a glow of red. Dusk.

She looked back at the SVU detectives. "So... concussion?" That would explain the headache from hell.

"Partly," Olivia answered. "You did take a few pretty nasty blows to the head." She hesitated. "You also had Rohypnol in your system."

Alex let her head fall back against the pillows and closed her eyes. It just kept getting worse and worse. She deliberately detached herself from the emotional roller coaster car she was strapped into, letting the cop side of her take over. She'd deal with the emotions later, after she had all the facts. "What-" Her voice cracked. She stopped and started over again. "What aren't you telling me?" There was more. There had to be, because they thought Bobby was dead. There had to be a reason why they thought that, and even though it was the last thing she wanted to hear, she had to know what they knew. "What did you find at the... at the crime scene?" She braced herself for the answer.

"Blood," Stabler answered. "Yours and Detective Goran's."

"Bobby's hurt?" Because he wasn't dead. He couldn't be. "How bad?"

Stabler repressed a sigh, and Alex knew he was growing frustrated at her refusal to accept what they'd yet to prove to her. Good, she decided. Let him get frustrated, because he damned sure deserved to feel exactly what she was feeling. If they'd just come out with it and actually tell her something...!

"Probably not too bad, there wasn't much of his blood."

Not at all relieved, considering the hard tone the news was delivered with, Alex prompted, "What else?"

"Fingerprints. Again, only yours and Goren's."

"The perp wore gloves," Alex stated what seemed obvious to her. "He's careful, smart, but no one is ever perfect. He had to leave something behind."

"He did," Stabler continued, his expression growing as hard as his tone. "We also found some of Goren's clothes. His jacket, shoes, tie... belt."

Alex's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Why would his clothes..."

"Maybe he was undressing," Stabler said.

The penny dropped. The hard tone and expression, the pitying looks, the tiptoeing around the truth. "Oh my God! You think... you think... that Bobby...! God! No! You're wrong! Oh, God, you are SO wrong it's funny." To prove her point a short, somewhat hysterical bark of laughter burst from her. "He would never, could never hurt anyone, much less me. He doesn't have it in him. He's not like that. I know him. He could never do... what you're suggesting. Never. He would die first."

And there, that deafening echo in her ears -- that? Was the other shoe hitting the floor beside that previously dropped penny. That Bobby would die first was exactly what they were suggesting. Stabler had almost said as much just scant minutes ago, though Alex had not had the presence of mind to decipher the damning comment at the time. Maybe he regained enough control to stop himself short of the deed.

"No!" She shook her head adamantly, determined that they would hear her and understand how ludicrous what they were thinking was. "NO! Bobby didn't... Bobby did not do this. He couldn't. He would never! How could you even suggest it, even think he could...? And based on what? This flimsy, purely circumstantial evidence? No judge in his right mind would so much as issue you a warrant based on what you've told me. Hell, they would laugh at you for even asking for one." Her voice rose with every word. How could they think such a thing? Of Bobby? Did they not know him at all? He was the last person on the planet she would ever suspect of violence against anyone, much less her. He just didn't have it in him.

Olivia laid a hand on Alex's arm. "That's not all, Alex. There's more..."

Alex shook her head. "No, Olivia, I don't care. It doesn't matter what you've got, what lousy circumstantial evidence you've scraped up in an effort to pin this on Bobby. You're wrong. You're mistaken." She laughed, the sound more like a mad bark of a wild dog than anything humor-laden. "You don't know Bobby--"

Olivia's grip on her arm tightened. Alex winced as she pressed against the bruises there, but she welcomed the pain. It was a cold dose of reality in the surreal hallucination that the past few minutes had become.

"Alex, listen, we haven't tried and convicted your partner," Olivia said, her voice soft enough that Alex had to focus to catch the words. "We're merely looking at the evidence we have in a realistic manner. You know we have to be open to all possibilities, no matter how distasteful they might be."

"But you're wrong, Olivia. I don't care what evidence you have, you don't know him like I do."

"Can you really say you know him?" Stabler asked.

Alex shot him a glare that she hoped he could read, though after a few seconds she decided he couldn't or he'd be curled up in a nearby corner, slowly dying in a most painful way. "I know Robert Goren as well as anyone does," she hissed at him.

Stabler swallowed hard before continuing, and Alex allowed herself the briefest moment of satisfaction, knowing that, at the very least, he was uncomfortable, even if he wasn't smart enough to just shut up and leave the room. "Well, as far as our investigation has shown us, that isn't saying all that much."

"Elliot," Olivia shot a look toward her partner, "just stop, please. You're not making this any easier."

"You're investigating him?!" Alex shot a wide-eyed look at Olivia. "Based on what? That he was at the scene? That his blood was there? That some of his clothes were there? All that tells me is that he was abducted and hurt, too, by the same attacker I was. Don't you think your time might be better spent out there looking for him? For whoever did this to the both of us? There must be some other evidence -- evidence that there was someone else there -- that... that someone else did this." Her gaze turned pleading, begging Olivia for something that she couldn't express with words.

Olivia's expression softened, saddened, and Alex knew that what she was about to say was only going to make it look worse for Bobby. She wasn't wrong.

"There's more. There was skin and blood under the fingernails of your left hand. You fought back against your attacker, you didn't go down easy. Alex, the blood and skin were both Goren's."

"That... that... there could be an explanation for that." She searched her muddled brain for a quick one to stop this line of information before it could go any further, but she couldn't come up with one. "We don't know what happened. There might well be a perfectly logical explanation."

"We're open to suggestions," Stabler said.

"I need to ask you something," Olivia continued, ignoring her partner. "About a coffee cup we found in the trash at the station. The cup came from a coffee shop near there. We were told you and Goren often got coffee for each other from this shop."

"It's convenient," Alex stated simply, thrown by the abrupt shift in subjects. "And we avoid the stuff in the break room if we have a choice."

"Do you remember getting coffee from there Friday afternoon?"

Alex frowned, searching her Swiss-cheese brain for the appropriate memory. "Not specifically, but it's likely I would have."

"Or Goren could have gotten it for you," Stabler pointed out. "That's likely, too, isn't it? I mean, you're upstairs working on reports or whatever, busy, and being a gentleman, Goren might have thought it nice to bring you a cup of the good stuff. That wouldn't be a far fetched idea, would it?"

Alex's frown deepened. "You already know that we sometimes bought each other coffee. Olivia just said as much. Clearly, you've already talked to the other guys in the squad room."

"Yes, we have," Stabler verified. "And more than one remembers Bobby bringing you coffee on Friday afternoon."

"That's not unusual," Alex repeated. "I thought we'd established that. Where are you going with this?"

"Alex, we found traces of Rohypnol in your cup, and there were only three sets of prints on it. The kid who was working the counter at the coffee shop on Friday afternoon, yours and Goren's."

Alex was shaking her head before Olivia even finished. "That doesn't prove anything... only that Bobby brought me the coffee. The drugs could have been put in there at any time -- anyone at the station could have had access to that cup." She took a quick, ragged breath. "Do you know how many people come in and out of the squad room on any given day? Especially on a Friday afternoon. Everyone's trying to get things wrapped up for the weekend -- it's a mad house around there."

Olivia patted Alex's hand and stood. She smiled down at her, but the gesture didn't reach her eyes. "You may be right, Alex. Like I said, we haven't tried and convicted anyone yet."

"If Goren is innocent," Stabler said, his tone surprisingly soft, "the investigation will prove it. I promise you that."

"We'll send in your dad," Olivia said.

Alex waited until the door closed behind them, then curled onto her side, suddenly aware of the myriad aches and pains vying for attention. She squeezed her eyes shut and resisted the urge to throw her hands over her ears and hum to block out the world. It'd be useless anyhow; she couldn't so easily drown out the thoughts rampaging through her head.

The door opened with a snick, a second later closing with the same soft sound. She didn't open her eyes or turn over, but said in a quiet, small voice, "They think Bobby did this, Dad."

The edge of the mattress dipped down and a hand came to rest on her back. "I know, baby girl."

Alex opened her eyes, but still didn't turn. "Do you believe it? Do you think he could have hurt me?" She was afraid of his answer, but had to know.

For a long moment, there was only silence. If he couldn't immediately deny that he believed such an outrageous claim, then Alex dearly hoped the delay was so that he could give the question serious thought. Finally, he said, "I don't know Bobby as well as you do, Alex, but I know him well enough to like him. He's a good and decent man. Gentle and kind."

Alex rolled in the bed to face him, wincing at the pain that shot through her with the movement. "But...?" She'd heard the unspoken qualifier.

John dropped his gaze to where his hand rested on her arm. "You know Bobby hasn't really been himself lately. You said so yourself just last week. You were asking my advice on how to get him to open up to you about whatever was eating at him."

"He was depressed, Dad, not... not violent." Alex couldn't believe what she was hearing. "He has a lot to deal with. And yes, he can be withdrawn and even secretive, but there's been so much pain in his personal life. He has so much that he's ashamed of, right or wrong. You just don't know--"

"I know about his mother, sweetheart."

"What... How?" Alex was sure she hadn't said anything. It wasn't her secret to tell.

John shrugged. "Word gets around."

"People are talking about it, you mean." Alex couldn't keep the bitterness from her tone. She hated the idea of something so personal, so private being the topic around the water cooler. "Especially now." And she realized it was the truth. The fact that Bobby was the chief suspect in her attack had to be known. It must be making the gossip rounds even now. She buried her face in her hands. "God, Dad, how many of them are happy about this? How many have just been waiting for something like this to pin on him? They'll be so quick to condemn him, to believe the worst."

John, gently pulled her hands away and waited until she looked up, meeting his eyes. "I think you're underestimating your colleagues, Alex. Yeah, sure, there are always a rotten few who are sick enough to enjoy something like this. My guess is they're just jealous of Bobby's record and reputation. He's more than a little smart, in case you haven't noticed." He smiled, but Alex didn't feel much like returning it. "Those people don't matter, sweetheart, unless you let them. The vast majority of people know there are extenuating circumstances--"

"His so-called questionable mental state, you mean."

"His... situation. They know he's had a lot to deal with, both professionally and personally, and they understand that he would never hurt anyone if he was himself."

"But they don't believe he was himself." Alex pinched the bridge of her nose.

Again, John gently pulled her hand away from her face. "Don't do that, sweetheart, you're only hurting yourself."

Alex looked at him, confused.

"Your face," he said by way of explanation. He glanced around the room. "I'd show you, but I don't see a mirror. Let's just say, you could pass for Mike Tyson's twin sister right now."

Alex reached a hand up and gently ran her fingers over her features, surprised to find they didn't feel at all like her own. There was clearly a lot of swelling. The bruising must be spectacular.

She dropped her hand and laid her head back with a deep sigh.

"Get some rest, baby. I'll be right here when you wake up. I'm not going anywhere."

Alex closed her eyes, too worn out to argue, but she wasn't ready to sleep just yet. Her swirling-out-of-control thoughts wouldn't let her even if she tried, she was sure. She felt her dad rise and then heard chair legs scrape the floor. She opened her eyes again as a thought came to her. "Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"Olivia said they think Bobby is dead. Why did she say "think"? They didn't find..." She couldn't bring herself to say the words.

Her father, though, had no such reluctance. "His body? No, they didn't."

"Then why do they think he's dead?"

He pursed his lips and sucked in a noisy breath through his nose. "Alex... " He let the breath out in a huff. "Alex, you have to know that Bobby wasn't himself. You said yourself he would never hurt you if he was."

"Dad, just tell me, please," Alex begged, not sure she wanted him to comply.

"There's a 911 call."

"Bobby?"

"Yeah." He didn't immediately continue.

"Dad, please..."

"He was almost incoherent."

"You heard the tape?"

John nodded. "He apologized over and over. He begged forgiveness. Said he didn't mean to do it. Couldn't stop himself. The 911 operator had trouble getting anything intelligible from him, then Bobby got silent. He didn't hang up, but he wouldn't answer the operator... and there was a loud splash in the background..." He stopped, his expression growing even sadder. "They found a bloody handprint on the railing of the pier, and on the pier they found Bobby's cell phone, still open."

Alex stared at her dad in stunned silence. Where were the tears now? Now that she had verification, now that she had the damning evidence staring her in the face? Where was the heart-breaking agony of grief? There was nothing. She was numb.

Pulling the thin white hospital blanket up to her chin, Alex rolled away from her father and closed her eyes, praying for the blackness of sleep to take everything away.

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