CHAPTER THREE

Bobby walked halfway up the stairs and leaned against the brick wall. He took a deep breath of the cool, clear air. The air was wonderfully sharp and fresh after the heat of the bar, and it swept away some of the fog in his mind. He wasn't sure how much of that fog came from the alcohol he'd consumed or from the emotional storm in his head. He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to quell an urge for a cigarette. "Smokes and booze," he thought. "Bad habits attract each other." He stared at the sky.

A commotion at the bar's entrance brought Bobby back to reality. He saw three men stumble through the door, followed by an angry Mike Logan and another man he recognized as Elliott Stabler from SVU. As angry as Logan looked, Stabler looked worse, almost ferocious. Bobby remembered that Stabler had a reputation for a bad temper. Bobby straightened.

"Hey," one of the three men shouted. "I thought cops were supposed to be welcome in this bar…"

"Not ignorant cops like you!" Logan shouted back.

"What's with you, Logan?" another member of the trio, one with messy dirty blonde hair said. "I can understand Stabler being soft because he's been with the sex crimes unit too long."

Stable, his blue eyes turning to ice, shoved the blonde man against the wall.

Bobby stepped down towards the group. He kept one eye on the two men Logan was trying to control and the other on two men who'd followed Logan and Stabler out of the bar. Bobby sensed that the two weren't on the side of his former squad mate. Bobby moved as quickly and quietly as he could to step between Logan's back and the new arrivals.

"Ok here, Logan?" Bobby asked in a controlled voice. It was designed to not only let Logan and Stabler know about Bobby's presence, but warn them and anyone else around of potential trouble. The two men standing just beyond the door hesitated as Bobby drew himself up to his full height. Bobby was glad he'd decided to wait a couple of days before getting a shave and a haircut. He saw the two men standing in front of Logan freeze, and the eyes of the man in Stabler's grip widened in fear.

Logan glanced back at Bobby, saw the two extra men, and turned back to the face the other two men. "Thanks, Goren," he said. "We're just encouraging these guys to go home. I don't think this is their kind of place."

"If you've got whack jobs like Goren here, I don't think it's a place for good cops," one of the guys in the doorway said.

Bobby tried not to react. The odds were still five to three, and he didn't want anyone to know the words had hit their target. Bobby felt almost exactly the way he did when he was eleven and facing what seemed to be every boy in the sixth grade making fun of his mother. That incident ended with Bobby holding an ice pack to his face, sitting in the principal's office, and trying not to cry. Bobby had a sinking feeling that this incident was going to end just as badly.

Stabler's eyes continued to bore holes in the man he jammed against the wall. "If Bobby Goren is your idea of a whack job," he said tightly. "Then there should be more whack jobs in the department."

"Like you, Stabler?" The other man in the doorway stepped closer to Logan, and Bobby moved to block him. "Stabler…That's some name for the least stable cop on the beat."

Logan kept his yes on the two men he faced. "Stabler at least has the brains not to blame a victim…Especially a fifteen year old…"

Rage rose in Bobby.

"Yea…I bet he was fifteen…" the man Stabler held sneered. "Those fags…"

Stabler jammed the man harder against the wall. The men facing Bobby and Logan moved forward. Bobby sensed that both Stabler and Logan were nearing the end of their patience, but he also saw doubt in the eyes of the two men he faced.

"You two didn't know what this argument was about, did you?" Bobby asked calmly. "It's not about who belongs in the bar…But what these other guys think about victims…"

"Damn, Grif," one of the men facing Bobby said. "Are you still an ignorant SOB? For God's sake, I've got two boys of my own at home."

"And the first murder case I handled was a thirteen year old boy murdered by his uncle who was trying to keep him quiet about the fact the creep had been molesting him since he was eight," the man's companion said. "Damn…Grif…I knew you could be stupid, but that stupid? And cruel?"

Tension seeped from the air.

"C'mon," Grif said, either too stupid or too drunk to leave things alone. "You know what these kids are like."

"You seem to know all about it," Bobby said, speaking before either Logan or Stabler exploded. "I don't know you…I'm pretty sure I don't want to know you…But it's pretty clear you don't have Detective Stabler's experience and knowledge…Or that of these two cops…"

"Hey," one of the men facing Logan said. "Don't put this on Grif…"

Bobby turned towards Logan. He was confident that the two men near him were no longer a threat. "And the two of you, where did you get your expertise in dealing with victims?"

One of the two men in the doorway turned. "I worked Vice for a while too," he said as he started to walk away.

"Then you know," Grif began.

"What I know," the man continued. "Is that the working girls…and the boys…were usually victims. You're an ignorant jerk, Grif. I just realized how much of one you are. You and your friends are on your own."

The two cops walked up the steps leading to the street and disappeared. Bobby, the weight on his chest a little less heavy, turned to face the three men Logan and Stabler held at bay. As he expected, now that the odds were even, the trio was far less belligerent.

"Now," Logan said quietly but ominously. "I think you guys should follow those cops and get out of here."

Stabler released Grif and stepped back from him. "Yea…Go find a bar with more ignorant jerks…"

Bobby stepped back as the three men skulked away. One of them muttered something about "whack jobs", and Bobby tried to pretend he hadn't heard.

"Hey," Logan said. "This "whack job"…" Logan nodded in Bobby's direction. "Has one of the best solve rates in the department. He's saved more civilian and cops' lives than the three of you have drunk beer. And he has a Medal of Honor…"

One of the three men's heads jerked up, and Stabler's eyes widened in surprise and admiration. Bobby reddened and stared at his feet.

"If he's a "whack job"," Logan continued. "We should have more like him." Logan stepped closer to Bobby. "Bobby Goren…And good cops like him…Are always welcome at this bar. You guys ever become good cops, you'll be welcome too."

Stabler still stood menacingly close to Grif, who appeared increasingly confused and disturbed by the turn of events.

"C'mon, Stabler," Logan said. "Let 'em go. They're not worth the trouble."

Stabler stepped away, and the three men scuttled up the steps like rats abandoning a ship.

"A few weeks with SVU would be good for those guys," Stabler said.

"I doubt," Bobby said quietly. "Any of them would be tough or good enough to handle any time with SVU."

"Thanks for showing up, Goren," Logan said. "Three to two we might've handled. But five to two…Even I'm not that dumb…"

"I wasn't too crazy about the five to three either," Bobby said.

"Sorry about that," Stabler said. "I saw red and got us all in a bad situation…It's just…"

"Guys like Clyde Griffin," Logan said. "Idiots and jerks. Never been out of the bag. Probably never wants out of it. He's just taking up space until he can retire. Although I doubt his liver will last long enough for him to do that. Kind of guy makes it hell for the rest of us. Or maybe, I should say the rest of you, since I'm among the relaxed and retired now."

"I…I don't understand cops like that," Bobby said.

"Yea…They seem to take the job to be big tough guys," Logan said. "Of course you don't understand them, Goren. You're one of the good guys. And Stabler."

"And just how are you so sure about that, Logan?" Stabler asked genially.

"Oh, experience," Logan said.

"Uh…Listen…Thanks, Goren," Stabler said. "The odds weren't good for us…I didn't realize those guys had followed us…"

"Not a problem." Bobby guessed that Stabler was trying to reconcile the rumors he'd heard about Bobby with the man who'd just talked his way out of a confrontation with five angry and probably drunken men.

"He's good at getting out of those kinda things," Logan said admiringly. "This wasn't nearly as bad as the thing he got out of in Brooklyn…"

Stabler looked interested, but Bobby shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another.

"C'mon," Logan said. "Let's go back in, and I'll tell Stabler about how Bobby Goren took on and disarmed four dirty prison guards with just his head and his mouth."

"It…It wasn't that big a deal," Bobby mumbled.

"Not that big a deal? Just saved two people's lives…And one of them was mine," Logan declared. "C'mon, Stabler…"

"You coming, Goren?" Stabler asked as he and Logan moved toward the bar's door.

"I…Uh…Thanks…But…I could use the air…" Bobby had familiar sense that he was a bull stumbling around a china shop.

"Hey…Goren…It's ok…" Logan grinned at Bobby. "You still have free drinks when you come back in…And don't go anywhere or Eames'll have your butt…And mine."

Bobby watched Logan and Stabler go into the bar. He felt the strange but familiar combination of hypersensitivity and peace that followed confrontations like the one he'd just experienced. He wondered if he'd be able to sleep at all tonight, if every sound would become a huge roar, or if he'd fall into a deep, dreamless sleep that would leave him as exhausted as if he hadn't had any sleep at all. He stared up at the sky.

"I'm nearly fifty years old," Bobby thought. "And I still can't figure out where I belong…Or if I belong anywhere…" He heard the crowd's roar as the bar's door opened, and he turned. He feared facing another cop with a chip on his shoulder, but he was almost as afraid of facing one offering him praise.

"So," Alex smiled up at him. "You're managing to stay out of trouble…"

"Uh…Yea…"

Alex frowned. She was slightly the better or worse for drink, but she still sensed Bobby's unease. She walked carefully up the steps.

"You ok there?" Bobby asked, ready to help her.

"Yea…Just need to watch my steps…You'll get me home, right?" She leaned against Bobby, and he smelled a pleasant combination of lavender and rum.

"People were wondering where you were…And they just weren't looking for a drink." Alex smiled. She took Bobby's right arm and pulled it around her. "It's a little cold," she said and snuggled close to him.

There was a growing storm in Bobby's head. "Uh…Eames…We're in a public place…I'm not sure…"

"Oh…Let's give them something to talk about…They do anyway…I'm not going to freeze just because of a bunch of gossips…"

"Eames…You've worked so hard…To get and keep a professional image…To get this far…And if anyone saw you…Us…Like this…"

"If they have any brains, they'll think I found a great way to keep warm," Alex answered. "But if you're worried, let's go back in. I promise I'll move on to soda or iced tea. But I would like to hang around a bit. I'm having a really good time. And…I thought you were too…"

"I…I was…Am…I…I just…I think too much…" Bobby thought this was the simplest explanation for everything that had happened. And there was a lot of truth in it.

Alex gently slipped from his arm. "Did somebody say something to you?"

"Yea," Bobby admitted. "But a lot more people…good people…have been saying really good things to me."

Alex frowned when Bobby confirmed her fears, but she smiled when he mentioned the "good people" and the "good things". "But you being you," she said thoughtfully. "You concentrated on the bad."

"You know, even with a few drinks in you, you think really well," Bobby said.

"Well, you know you should consider the sources of all those comments," Alex said.

"Yea," Bobby said after a beat. "I should…" He wrapped his arm around her. "Let's go back in…That is…If you don't mind being seen with me…"

"The only other cops I want to be seen with are in this bar," Alex said. "And none of them come close to you…"

"Ok…"

They walked into the bar with his arm around her shoulder and her arm around his middle.

END