The death of a co-worker causes McCoy to do some serious soul-searching, and leads him toward a potentially life-changing decision.

Taking Stock
By Karen Howard-Joly

With his work week so hectic at the New York County District Attorney's Office, Executive ADA Jack McCoy had forgotten what day it was -- not that it mattered. Lately, one day seemed to blend into the next. They were all filled with the same, endless depositions, briefs, motions, hearings, plea-bargains, and greasy take-out food. No, the work and the food never changed, only the faces of the accused. The merry-go-round world of justice slowed for no one.
"Jack?" Abbie Carmichael poked her head into his office after a quick knock.
"What's up?" asked the weary McCoy, reclining comfortably on his chocolate brown sofa. He'd been scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, but stopped when he heard her rap on the door. He glanced at his wristwatch. Eight-thirty. He'd been working since just before eight and Abbie was the third person to knock since then. It looked to be another one of those days.
"We just got this A Felony from Charlie O'Connor's office." She waived the thick legal folder she was carrying. "I was wondering if you had a minute to take a look at it." Abbie walked to the sofa and, as Jack swung his legs to the floor, took a seat at the opposite end.
"Why are we getting it?" he asked with a trace of annoyance. "Can't O'Connor handle his load?"
Abbie's eyes widened in surprise. McCoy waited for the news he obviously hadn't heard yet.
"Uh, Jack..." She hesitated a moment. "Charlie O'Connor died yesterday. Heart attack. I thought you knew."
McCoy was momentarily stunned. Charlie O'Connor...dead? He'd just seen Charlie -- what was today? Friday? Hell, he'd just seen him on Wednesday at the courthouse. O'Connor was prosecuting a case in Trial Part 47 and Jack had been in Part 49 for a motion hearing on evidence. O'Connor, one of McCoy's more efficient ADA's, therefore one of the more overworked, had greeted the Executive Assistant warmly. They'd made small talk, and McCoy had gone on his way afterward with a smile on his face. Charlie had that effect on everyone. As busy as he was, he always took the time to look you in the eye, ask about the wife, the kids, the significant other, or, as in Jack's case, razz you about getting a life outside of work. He had done just that on Wednesday.
"Hey, McCoy, I hear you're puttin' in so much time that Schiff is makin' you pay rent and utilities on that office of yours. You interested in sub-letting your place on the west side? I think I might have a renter for ya.."
Jack had laughed, told Charlie that he wasn't that much of a workaholic, but the affable guy wouldn't let up on him.
"Honestly, Jack. You've been around here, what, almost thirty years? How many times you take a real vacation; eat dinner five nights a week somewhere other than Hogan Place; spend evenings with a person who loves you for something more than your conviction rate? Hell...some of us figure you've secretly taken orders and joined the priesthood. There hasn't been any good 'Guess who McCoy's sleeping with now' scuttlebutt around here in years. You've gotta take a breath, buddy. This job'll kill ya."
Had he imagined it? Nah, that's what Charlie had said: This job'll kill ya.
"Jack?" Abbie's voice snapped him back to the present. "You okay?"
McCoy took a deep breath and sighed, "Yeah, I was just thinkin'." He shook his head in disbelief. "God, Abbie, I saw him on Wednesday. He looked fine. He was giving me a bad time about working too much. Ironic, huh?"
Abbie sighed, too, her dark brown eyes never leaving his. "Maybe not so ironic," she said quietly, her husky voice betraying concern. "Maybe Charlie was right."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he growled, raising an eyebrow as he glared back at her. He knew darn good and well what she meant; he was just daring her to voice it aloud.
"Face it, Jack," she began candidly. "You work even harder than Charlie O'Connor ever did. Hell, I'm stressed out with the load I have; I've never understood how you do it. I figure it's only a matter of time before something gives. You can't just keep pushing yourself the way you do without consequences." She let out a sigh and leaned forward, her expression clearly indicating the ball was in his court.
"Don't hold back, Abbie," he said sarcastically, "Tell me how ya really feel." He pushed himself up from the sofa and turned to face her, smiling. "Since you've already got me with one foot in the grave, why don't I call up Charlie's funeral home and see if they've got a two-for-one deal going."
"Not funny, Jack," she said seriously. "I don't think Charlie's widow or his kids are laughing right now." Unconsciously smoothing her suit skirt, she stood and held out the file. He accepted it and thumbed quickly through the voluminous pages.
"Well, I guess that's one thing I don't have to worry about, huh?" he said, not looking up from the folder. It was McCoy's turn to be frank. "The wife and kids, I mean. Nothin' messy at this end. Unless, of course you plan to contest my motorcycle. I was going to will it to Lennie Briscoe. Figure it might add some spice to his life." He could tell from her glare that he was pissing her off, but he didn't really care. He didn't need this crap right now, and if he made Abbie mad enough, she'd be out the door in a second.
"You really are a pain in the ass, ya know?" she fired at him, her eyes blazing. God, he loved that Texas temper! It rivaled his Irish one.
"I try," he admitted, his dark eyes dancing as they looked up and held hers.
"You succeed," she seethed. She'd had enough. Turning her back on him, she marched her slender, tweed-clad figure out his door. One nice thing, Jack noted. She's not a door slammer like Jamie was.
"Damn," he swore aloud softly and shook his head. "That was way too easy. Just when you expect the Alamo, she gets contrary." He walked to his desk and tossed the file on top of the mess of folders already there. Staring at the seemingly bottomless stack, he ran a hand through his already disheveled hair, suddenly overwhelmed.
O'Connor's words echoed in his mind. This job'll kill ya.. Jack felt something he'd rarely known in his almost thirty years as a prosecutor -- a sense of hopelessness. What did it all matter anyway? The pile of work, those numbered case files that represented hours upon hours of a person's time, In the end, what the hell did it matter? What had it gotten Charlie O'Connor? Biting his lower lip, he contemplated Abbie's words about the O'Connor family.
"Shit," he sighed and reached across his desk for the phone. He dialed the motor pool and arranged for a car. Grabbing his suit jacket from the back of his leather chair, he quickly dialed his administrative assistant and told her he'd be out of the office, "for a couple of hours, if anyone's looking for me." McCoy took one last, long look at the mess of work on his desk and headed out the door.

Thirty minutes later, as he stood outside the door to the O'Connor brownstone, Jack was struck by the notion that he had never before considered the lives his people led outside the office of the District Attorney. He'd always pictured them as colleagues, hard workers, part of a team, but never anything beyond that. He was almost frightened to ring the doorbell. He knew he had to do it - had to make this appearance in the capacity of his position as Executive ADA, but the uneasiness he felt almost made him want to get back in the car and drive away. He wasn't any good at this, never had been. Small talk with strangers under adverse conditions made him ill at ease. Now, put a glass of scotch in his hand and that was different.
"Gotta do it," he muttered under his breath. Consciously throwing his shoulders back and straightening his tie, he gave in to duty and pushed the lighted doorbell.
Almost immediately, the door swung open and Jack was greeted by an attractive middle-aged brunette whose gracious smile somewhat eased his discomfort.
"Yes?" she asked sweetly. "May I help you?"
"I'm, uh, sorry to come unannounced," he began. "I'm Jack McCoy...from the DA's office..."
"Oh!" she exclaimed brightly. "You worked with my brother. Come in, please; come in." She waved Jack into the tiny entry hall and motioned for him to follow her. The aroma of either freshly baked cookies or cake tickled his nose. "Beth and the kids are in the living room with Father Nolan; I'm sure they'll welcome the interruption." At this, she winked Jack's way. He smiled back and wondered silently if every blood relation to Charlie O'Connor had his same devilish personality.
As they entered the small, but neat and tastefully decorated living room, McCoy took in the scene. Charlie's wife, Beth, sat comfortably in a mauve colored wingback chair. Her two children, one boy, one girl, (they looked to be in their early teens) were seated to her left on a matching sofa. The priest, sitting to the children's left in a leather armchair, was speaking to Mrs. O'Connor and didn't see Jack or his escort approach.
"Really, Beth, I don't understand why you refuse to have Charlie buried in a Catholic ceremony. He grew up at St. Mark's." Father Nolan's distress was clearly evident in both his voice and his gestures as he spoke.
"Father, we've been through this already," said an exasperated Mrs. O'Connor. "And I'm not going to discuss it now in front of the children..." she paused as she noticed her sister-in-law and Jack. "Oh, Sarah, I didn't hear the doorbell." She stood, as did the priest. The kids looked curiously at Jack.
"Beth, this is..." Sarah, reached somewhere in her mind for his name and grabbed it. "Jack...Jack McCoy. He worked with Charlie."
Beth smiled and chuckled at her sister-in-law's innocent error. "Sarah, he didn't just work with Charlie," she said, extending her hand to McCoy. "This is Charlie's boss; or at least the one who was responsible for chewing Charlie's butt when he messed up." As she shook Jack's hand firmly, she added, "It's nice to finally meet you, Mr. McCoy. Thank you so much for coming by."
"It's a pleasure, Mrs. O'Connor," said Jack seriously. "I only wish it were under better circumstances. And, it's Jack...please." He glanced at the priest.
"Oh!" exclaimed Beth O'Connor. "Where're my manners? Mr. McC...Jack...this is Father Nolan from St. Mark's. And..." she gestured towards the sofa. "These are my children -- C.J. and Katie."
"Father," Jack nodded as he shook the priest's hand. Looking over at the kids, he acknowledged them both. "C.J.,'s nice to meet you. I'm really sorry about your dad." Both nodded their understanding. The girl, Jack noticed, wiped back a tear.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. McCoy," said the priest a bit coolly. "Please, take my chair. I believe Mrs. O'Connor and I are destined to finish this conversation at a later time." Conceding temporary defeat, Father Nolan turned to Beth O'Connor.
"Please reconsider, Beth," he held his hand up as she opened her mouth to protest. "No, don't give me an answer yet. I'm not through debating this with you. I'll show myself out." With that, the priest departed.
Sarah, standing to Jack's left, broke the temporary silence. "C.J., Katie, how about some of my fresh chocolate chip cookies and a glass of cold milk?" she enticed. The youngsters looked to their mother expectantly.
"Go on," she ordered. "But don't eat too many." They quickly retreated with Sarah to the kitchen.
Beth gestured towards the sofa and the leather chair. "Take your pick, Jack," she offered.
McCoy chose the chair and, as he sat, stated, "They really never change, do they?"
"Children?" asked Beth as she settled back into the mauve chair.
"Priests," replied Jack, grinning slightly. "New York, Chicago, and probably everywhere else; they always recite the same lines, play the same parts."
"You're Catholic," she observed.
"Raised," he offered, then sighed. "Right down to parochial school and confession once a week, I'm afraid. Until I turned sixteen."
"And then?" asked Beth.
"I wised up," he smiled warmly. "Couldn't quit school, but I quit confession and Sundays."
"And your parents didn't object?" She sounded dubious.
"Oh, sure." Jack continued to smile, but his tone turned serious. "My mother cried and my old man beat the crap outta me. Didn't change anything, though. I refused to give my time to something I couldn't believe in."
Beth nodded. "Sounds a lot like Charlie's take on the church." Tears welled in her azure blue eyes, but she wiped them quickly away. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "It's just that I am so frustrated. Charlie always said that he didn't want a big fuss made over him when he died. He wanted things kept simple. I'm trying to hold to that, but this Father Nolan won't back off." She stopped abruptly. "What am I doing? You don't need to be bothered with this, Mr. McCoy. I shouldn't even have mentioned it."
"My fault," confessed Jack. "I was the one who got us on the subject of priests. You sure I couldn't have a little talk with the good Father for ya? I've been known to be persuasive." He smiled.
"Oh, Charlie's told me all about your 'persuasive' manner," she laughed. "One time he sat in on a summation of yours. He was late coming home for dinner and I was so pissed -- sorry -- angry with him. Told him I didn't care, didn't wanna hear his excuses. Then he launches into this kinda play-by-play of your closing argument. Honestly, he must've had it word for word. Had the kids and me totally mesmerized for ten minutes. Impressed us all." She swiped at the tears that now flowed freely down her cheeks. "He was one of your biggest fans, Jack."
McCoy swallowed the lump in his own throat. For a few minutes there, he'd thought this wasn't going to be so tough after all. It wasn't the first time he'd been wrong about something. Looking into Beth O'Connor's teary eyes, he spoke quietly. "I ran into Charlie on Wednesday. We were both on business at the courthouse. He was his usual, affable self -- giving me holy hell about my own hectic work schedule and lack of social life -- typical Charlie. As we went on our way, I thought about how much I respected and envied him. He took pride in the job he did; he did it well -- and he had a loving family to go home to every evening." He paused and surveyed the room, his gaze coming back to Beth. "I can see my envy wasn't misplaced."
She smiled appreciatively and nodded. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"No," he said, rising from the leather chair. "It's I who need to thank you for seeing me today. I know you've got plenty of things on your mind and I don't want to impose any longer than I already have."
Standing as well, Beth commented, "You haven't imposed at all. It was very kind of you to stop by."
They slowly walked through the living room and down the short hallway. Stopping at the front door, Jack turned back to Charlie's widow and spoke sincerely, "If there is anything you or your family need, just call me. I mean that."
"Thank you, Mr. McCoy..." she laughed as his expression corrected her in mid sentence. "Jack. I may do that if Father Nolan doesn't back off. I got the impression that he was a bit intimidated when you showed up. Maybe he'll think twice about hounding me anymore." She opened the door for him.
"Maybe," agreed Jack. "Which reminds me; other than the priest's protests, are things going okay with the funeral arrangements?"
"Yes; the funeral's planned for Monday," she answered. "We need to allow time for the rest of Charlie's brothers and sisters to get here -- all five of them. Sarah's been a big help, especially with the kids. She keeps 'em laughing with her humor -- and, since that was such a big part of Charlie, we're all hanging in there." She paused and the tears began to flow once more. "God," she shook her head, smiling. "I miss him so much!"
Thinking of Claire Kincaid for the first time in quite a while, Jack could sympathize with Beth. "I know what you're going through." He glanced out the open door and noticed the sky beginning to gray, surely the threat of an impending thunderstorm. "Small consolation, I know, but it will get easier with time." He looked away from the sky and back to Beth.
"I'm sure it will," she answered, then brightened. "We'll be okay."
"You will," he agreed. Jack stepped out onto the front steps. He turned and offered one parting piece of advice. "Don't let the good Father push you into something you don't want. And again, call me if you need anything."
"Thank you." She shook his hand warmly and added, "For everything."
Jack gave her a little nod and headed back to the car. As he walked, thunder rumbled in the distance, but that wasn't nearly as unsettling as the thoughts bouncing around in his head.
He'd just left a home where two things definitely abided: love and warmth. Charlie O'Connor, alive or dead, was one lucky man. His widow seemed confident and strong. With the presence of Charlie's sister and the pending arrival of the others, the support of family and friends seemed secure. Yeah, Beth O'Connor was right; they were gonna be just fine. Charlie's legacy held a promising future.
But, how about Jack McCoy's? If he were to die today, what did he have to show for over a half-century of living?
Climbing into the motor pool's silver Taurus, he began taking a mental inventory of his world. There wasn't much to take stock of. He could count what he'd once had and lost: one wife (ex), one daughter (estranged). He should've known that marriage would be a mistake for him, should've realized that one's past has ways of posing danger to one's future. But, he was in love and, as with every other aspect of his life back then, passionately so. Marriage seemed a reasonable move. They worked together, loved together, why not live together?
Though unconventional in many ways, Jack was a traditionalist when it came to matrimony; he wouldn't have dreamed of "shacking up." Having fallen away from his Catholic upbringing, he adamantly refused any involvement of the church. His bride concurred, much to her parents' dismay. The ceremony was civil, a jurist friend of Adam Schiff's presiding. Only a few acquaintances from the DA's office attended, along with the bride's disproving parents.
The term "wedded bliss" hadn't meant a thing to him prior to marriage; all that changed after the "I do's." Jack couldn't believe how incredibly happy and content he felt. He had inherited the best of both worlds: he had his beloved law by day and his loving wife by both day and night, since she was his assistant in the DA's office. Then, six months into this fairy tale, she announced she was expecting. He was going to be a father.
Suddenly, he was filled with an overriding sense of fear. Monsters from his past assailed his thoughts, and doubt became his constant companion. For, when he heard the word "father," the only images his mind could conjure up were those that dealt with pain, humiliation, terror, and despair. They were images of his own father, of the brutal treatment he'd so often received at his hands, of the years of abuse the man heaped upon his mother. He was terrified that he would become what his father had been. How could he not? Didn't people compare him to his old man? Wasn't he as much a perfectionist, as driven? The thought was more than he could bear -- that his father's propensity to violence might have been passed down to him along with everything else.
Not wanting to subject either wife or child to the kinds of horror he had known, he did the only thing he felt he could; he began sabotaging the relationship. Retreating into his own world, he pushed her away, forcing her to resent him, and to finally regret the day they had married. By the time his daughter was born, their passion lay waste, love nothing more than a memory, the marriage held together merely by a legal document on file with the New York County clerk. By the time their child had cut her first tooth, Jack had his own apartment, was paying a hefty sum of alimony and child support, and was dining alone. He also had a new assistant.
Rain had begun to pound against the windshield, diverting him from his thoughts long enough to turn on the wipers. Fighting back a burning in his eyes and throat, he clenched his jaw and concentrated on the increasing traffic around him. The years between divorce and the present held almost too much pain for him to continue, but he couldn't get certain memories out of his head.
He had voluntarily abdicated having any say in his daughter's upbringing. Today, he barely knew her, yet he loved her deeply. Why else would he have given her up? It was a question he knew he might never be able to answer adequately -- for anyone. He thought about Charlie O'Connor's kids. He couldn't look at anyone else's family without feeling a bit empty inside -- and feeling alone -- terribly alone.
Back then, he had plenty of answers to the loneliness. Almost all of them dealt with his work. Jack had always loved his job; after the divorce, he threw himself into it full force. Driven to make a name for himself in the DA's office, he begged for every difficult, cockeyed case he could. He quickly proved himself worthy, compiling a conviction record, no matter what cases he was assigned, that dazzled his superiors. He never disguised the fact that his eyes were firmly set on major felony prosecution. He made it there in record time.
As he drove the Taurus into the Hogan Place parking structure, he thought about his first days working the "big show." He survived on sheer energy. He found the rush of working homicide and attempted murder cases so powerful, rarely did he sleep more than five hours a night. Instead, he chose to arrive early and work until everyone in the building had gone for the evening. After all, he had nothing better to occupy his time, nor did he desire it. Once, he overheard two assistants speculating on his seeming lack of close friends. They came to the conclusion that McCoy's best friend wasn't human at all; rather, it was a copy of the Criminal Code. They surmised that he probably slept with it, ate with it and, occasionally, took it for drinks and dancing. Smiling sadly to himself as he remembered, Jack realized that they hadn't been too far from wrong.
He was never one for having many close friends. After all, the closer they were, the more they found out about the skeletons in your family closet, about how the bruises landed on your arms, about how you got that black eye. No, his childhood cured him of the need for close friends. Yet, as he began to focus on the present, he realized that just as time always healed the bruises -- the exterior ones at least -- it also had a way of placing special people in the just the right places, at just the right moments -- people who made the world a little less lonely, a little less depressing. Like now, for instance.
There were only three people who Jack felt he could count on if he were in need: Adam Schiff, Lennie Briscoe, and Abbie Carmichael. Of the three, he knew Adam the best. They'd been friends from the time Adam first took a chance and hired him -- almost thirty years ago. In matters of law and procedure, Adam had always been Jack's mentor, his sounding board, his conscience. McCoy knew that many thought Schiff to be a father-figure to him. Perhaps he was. Even so, though Jack loved and respected the man, there were still things, very personal things, he had never shared with Adam. Just like there were things you never told your parents.
Lennie Briscoe's friendship had been born of two men's guilt -- guilt over Claire's death. Only casual acquaintances up until then, the two having contact mostly in their capacities as cop and prosecutor, each blamed himself for the circumstances surrounding the accident that took her life. They had played the "if only" game. Lennie's mantra consisted of, "If only I hadn't walked in that bar and started drinking," while Jack tortured himself with, "If only I hadn't walked out of that bar without her." Added to Jack's burden were the last words he'd spoken about her before she died. Thinking she'd stood him up at the bar that night, a very inebriated Jack decided to take a cab home. Barely able to stand unassisted, he had turned to a then sober Lennie proclaiming, "And to hell with her." God, how he hated himself for that moment of drunken idiocy. How could he have said that about the woman he loved? Her death left an ache inside that still resurfaced from time to time, an ache he knew he'd never truly be rid of.
So, the "if only" game began, first individually, then turning into after-work meetings over club soda until both came to the realization that all the "if only's" in the world wouldn't bring her back. Their meetings gradually ended, but both men came away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for the other. Jack knew Lennie Briscoe as a friend and person he could trust, but, as with Adam, he dared not bare his soul completely to him.
Then, there was Abbie. They'd worked together for over a year, but the gorgeous Texan could still be an enigma to him. She could be confiding and warm one minute, aloof and cold the next. He figured the latter was an act, used by Abbie as a defense against feeling too much -- an act he was all too familiar with himself. Those feelings were very evident in the way she pursued cases. And people called him a pit bull! My God, Abbie made him look like a basset hound. Once she sank her teeth into an indictment she rarely let go.
That wasn't to say she couldn't show compassion. This she saved for the victims of those they prosecuted, saved for the likes of Billy Woodson, who'd had his throat cut to keep him from testifying against Russian mobsters. Jack was the only person who knew of her frequent visits to the boy as he lay healing and alone in the hospital. No, she didn't demonstrate it often, but Abbie did have a softer side.
You wouldn't have thought that at all in the beginning. The two of them got off to a rough start during her first days in the office. Once they had established the ground rules, though, (his ground rules) things took off. She brought a freshness with her that energized Jack.
No offense to Jamie Ross, but the previous two years had been tedious. So often they had not seen eye to eye on things. Though this kept him on his toes, it also wore him out. But, that wasn't all.
In retrospect, Jack could finally admit to himself that he had been suffering from depression over Claire's death. There were mornings when, upon waking from a night of restless sleep, he desired nothing more than to pull the covers over his head and shut out the day. He never did; but, for the better part of those two years, his world lay mostly colored in dull, drab shades of gray. Every scrap of energy he had, which wasn't much, went into fooling his colleagues into thinking he was fine. It worked; no one bothered him; no one took him aside for a little "heart to heart" -- not even Adam, the only one who might have guessed.
Rock bottom had to have been the day the Disciplinary Committee hauled him in for unethical conduct regarding that DUI murder trial. Full exoneration didn't mean a thing to Jack; the fact that he was even there threatened to crush what little spirit for the law he had left.
Then came Abbie -- the Texas Tornado. Before he'd had the chance to lay eyes on her, she was blowing through Hogan Place, at least at a Category Five, issuing warrants, badgering judges and being an otherwise pain in the butt. He should have known what was coming that first day in her office -- when he had to practically leap her oversized packing boxes just to get through the door and to her desk. Abbie wasn't about to take the easy road -- ever -- and she could make life difficult for anyone or anything in her path. Jack liked that.
Her passion and enthusiasm for the job rekindled a flame in him he thought extinguished. The stale old law had a new, fresh scent; where once he saw nothing but gray, vivid color began to emerge, brightening his world. Abbie was young, energetic, playful -- and she made him laugh. He realized that, for a while, he had almost forgotten how.
As Jack drove through growing pools of rainwater, he shook his head and smiled to himself, remembering that day on the courthouse steps, after a successful verdict had been rendered in their first case together. They had been at odds throughout the trial, and, not having the energy to wrangle with each other over sentencing recommendations, both agreed to just leave it to the discretion of the judge. Then, Abbie reminded him that they had until the end of the week to contest the return of a disturbed little boy to the custody of his adoptive parents. Knowing it was a battle neither of them felt it necessary to fight, he had offered Abbie his hand in a conciliatory gesture, asking, "Can you and I agree that we're both too busy?"
She'd grabbed his hand, turned it palm up and quickly slapped him five, saying, "Deal!" then marched away. Jack had stood there, shaking his head, bemused. He'd gotten the sense then that life with Abigail Carmichael was going to be anything but dull. He'd been correct. They had seen their share of wild, thought-provoking and patience-testing cases. They'd had their battles over charges, ethics, plea bargains, and take-out orders, but through it all, Abbie had proven to be a hard worker, a staunch ally, and a loyal friend. He might not understand her totally -- yet -- but he couldn't complain.
Finally pulling into the parking garage at Hogan Place, Jack found an open space between two other Taurus pool cars. He locked the door, walked over to the attendant he knew only as "Dave," and handed in the key. He was still thinking about Abbie as he entered an elevator car and pushed his floor.
He realized from her statement earlier that morning that he hadn't been imagining her scrutinizing him more of late. He supposed he should feel flattered at her concern, but he felt like a bug under a magnifying glass. So, he thought, she thinks I've been working too hard. Well, maybe she's right.
As the car climbed to his floor, he considered all the awful luck they'd been having in major cases this year. Of course, the high point had been the convictions of the Russian mobsters, but since then -- Jack shook his head as he thought about the losses and weak pleas they had endured over the past few months. Losing wasn't the worst part to him. What bothered him most was that the crimes they were seeing were becoming more and more heinous. They'd seen everything from mass murder in Central Park to a ten year-old sociopath's killing of a six year-old boy, to a teenager whose father bought him his murder weapon of choice over the Internet, to a young woman involved in the murder and rape of her own sister. One of the hardest for him, however, was the Bower case. A mentally disabled man, Harvey Bower, had killed his girlfriend, Karen Brewster, not because he was angry, or deranged; he killed her because she asked him to and his love for her was so great, he could not deny her her wish. That case had about pushed Jack over the edge. For months now, he found himself unable to sustain a good night's sleep -- couldn't, in fact, remember when he'd last slept even five hours in a night. The depravity with which he was forced to come into contact was taking its toll.
As the elevator doors slid open, everything came rushing at him: his abusive childhood; his past failures as a husband and father; the loss of Claire Kincaid; his lack of a life outside the District Attorney's Office; the disdain with which he now viewed his once precious justice system; the burden he felt every day as he walked into Hogan Place; his loneliness -- especially the loneliness. And, he thought of Charlie O'Connor. Before he hit the threshold of his office, Jack McCoy had made a decision. His hand already on the brass doorknob, he stopped, turned abruptly and strode down the hallway to the office of Abbie Carmichael.

"You're sure?" Abbie asked a few minutes later, her dark brown eyes almost burning through him with their intensity. She sat at the front of her big mahogany desk, her slender legs, dangling from beneath her long skirt. Her fingers loosely gripped the edge of the desk on either side of her.
"Yep; never been more sure of anything in my whole life." Jack paused for a moment, then added, "And that's saying quite a lot."
She smiled, but it was a smile mixed with melancholy. "I guess I'm having a hard time believing that it's only a temporary leave. There's a part of me that doesn't believe you'll come back." She unconsciously brushed back her loose bangs with a sweep of her hand. "And -- I'd really hate that, Jack. I would. What's Adam say?"
He leaned back in her overstuffed armchair and stretched. "Haven't told him yet," Jack yawned. "Came to you first because you're the one it's going to impact the most. Adam'll be okay with it. Hell, he's been after me for years to take a vacation. I rarely have. In fact," he closed his eyes and thought. "Nope. I just tried to remember the last time I actually took a vacation -- I mean a real vacation -- and I can't."
"Why now?" Abbie thought she knew the answer, but she needed to hear it from him.
"Lots of reasons. You got me thinking this morning." He stopped as he noticed her raise an eyebrow and glare at him. "Okay, okay," he held up his hands in surrender without her having uttered a word. "I'm sorry I deliberately pissed you off. You were right. I was just trying to deny it to myself, is all.
"Charlie's death really was a wake-up call. Especially after visiting his house and seeing all that he's left behind. God, Abbie -- I have nothing to show for almost sixty years of living. Charlie -- he did okay."
Abbie perked up at his self-evaluation and protested, "But Jack, you do have things to show for your life. You have a daughter..."
"Who doesn't speak to me," he interrupted.
"Who probably hasn't heard from her father in ages. The phone isn't just for receiving calls," she reminded him. He grinned sheepishly, obviously feeling guilty. Abbie continued. "And, you've certainly made a name for yourself in this office."
"Yeah," countered Jack. "They'll probably name a freakin' washroom after me when I croak."
"Stop it, Jack." Abbie was in lecture mode; he knew better than to push his luck. "Whether you admit it or not, you're an integral part of Hogan Place -- second only to Adam. I think about all I've learned from you in the past couple of years. Nobody in this building knows the law the way you do -- or knows how to use it, push it -- bend it..." she wiggled her eyebrows at him and he laughed. "And we'd all be less than what we are without you."
He was truly touched by her words.
"Abbie..." he began, but she waved him to silence.
"I'm not finished. I have a question for you."
"Fire away." He sat up a bit straighter in the comfortable chair.
"When you first came in here, you said that all the negative hits we've been taking lately, combined with the hideous nature of the crimes has taken its toll on you and is driving you into this self-imposed exile..."
"Wish I'd expressed it that well," he interjected. "Can I steal that quote when I talk to Adam?"
She shot him an impatient look and continued, "What I wanna know is this: what will bring you back?"
He didn't even have to think about an answer. It was out of his mouth almost before she dotted the question mark.
"You," he answered softly.
It was Abbie's turn to be touched -- and speechless.
"Kiddo," he went on to explain, conviction in his voice. "You've brought me the most joy I've felt in this place in years. This oppressiveness I've been feeling -- well, it has nothing to do with you. I think I just need some time to sharpen things up again, to sort through the files in my head and rediscover those ones that made me want to be a prosecuting attorney in the first place.
"But -- back to what I started to say. The thing that will bring me back is the promise of your being right here -- doing the same things you're doing now, being the same Abbie you've always been. The only reason I've been able to sustain it this far over the past two years is because of you. I thought you knew that..." he looked at her questioningly. "No?"
"No," she whispered, shaking her head.
"Well, I guess you know now," he grinned, his soft brown eyes sparkling. "So -- don't change a thing. And don't go getting another job while I'm gone." He pushed himself lazily out of the chair.
Abbie hopped off her desk and stood facing him, a smile spreading across her face. "Don't worry, McCoy. My dad always says that I'm too doggone stubborn to change anything about myself. And -- as far as getting another job -- I can't afford the time to look; I think you're leaving me enough to keep me busy for a year, let alone one month."
He stepped forward and gave her a quick hug. "'Atta girl," he said brightly, stepping back -- but not without noticing how nice it felt to touch her, if ever so briefly. He could tell from the color in her gorgeous cheeks that the discovery was reciprocal. Both of them cleared their throats at the same time -- then smiled self-consciously.
Jack began backing towards her door. "I -- uh," he gestured in the direction of Adam's office. "I guess I'd better go break the news to Adam."
"Right." Nodding, Abbie swallowed, clearing her throat once more. "Uh, Jack? It's not like you're going into hiding or anything..."
"Of course not; I'll keep in touch. Promise." He stopped in the doorway and thought for a moment. " about I take you to lunch later. After Adam. I'll tell ya the idea I've been kicking around. I'd like your opinion. Sound okay?"
"Sure. I'd like that." She nodded.
"Right. I'll, uh, stop back in then -- as soon as..." he paused. He was truly flustered, not able to get his mind back on track.
"Adam," she reminded him, smiling.
"Adam," he repeated. "Yeah. I'll be back."
As Jack closed her door, Abbie listened to his footsteps moving down the hallway. Sighing deeply, she said quietly, "I think we're both counting on that."

whaddya think?