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Collateral Damage

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Prologue

2014

She stumbles on him by chance. Or maybe it's fate. One of the two.

She wasn't even supposed visit Attica that day. She was taking the place of Rollins whose dog ate a sock and needed a vet. Later, she'll find out that he was only transferred to that prison two days prior. Growled catcalls and grabby hands reach out from behind the bars as she walks the length of corridor. She knows how to deal with it. She learnt years before and by now it's become habit.

Olivia keeps her eyes high and ahead, her footfalls brisk and unhesitant, trained to the middle of the walkway. As she approaches the gate though, her feet do hesitate. Because her eyes land on an arm, propped on a cell, a hand, grasping the steel bar. She'd know that hand anywhere. She'd know that arm anywhere. She'd know that tattoo anywhere. Her steps slow as she approaches the cell – then halt altogether. His head is shaved and his chin has grown a bushy salt and pepper goatee. He wears a prison uniform, stripped to the waist, a tight white tank covering an upper body she could identify blindfolded and half-asleep.

Her breath hitches and her eyes blink. From behind the bars, he winks at her.

"Hey there, gorgeous. What you starin' at?"

He faces her, weaving both arms through the rails of his cell, eyes glinting with well-feigned menace under which she can detect…what? Sorrow? Entreaty? Regret? Amusement, even. Affection. Her gaze falters, dropping momentarily before returning to his. The arms that breach the barrier between them are beefier than they used to be. But the eyes glaring out at her are the same. Exactly the same.

His mouth tugs up in one corner and he beckons to her with one hand. "You wanna piece of me, darlin'? Come a little closer and you'll get it..."

In the background, his cellmate drops down from his bunk and lumbers closer, hoping to get in a little harassment as well. Eyes fixed in place, she doesn't see him so much as sense him. But the other inmate breaks her focus enough that she steps back, unaware that she'd even drifted forward, away from the safety of middle ground. Olivia blinks again, shakes herself internally then turns and continues on her path. With her partner's voice adding to the cacophony of explicit howls, all ending in sweetheart and honey and baby and worse, she leaves the cell behind, she exits the long corridor. Numerous gates slam at her back, jolting each individual vertebrae of her spine as she doubles and redoubles the distance between herself and the prison that houses Elliot Stabler.

 

Part One

2014

She returns to Attica two days later, having thought of nothing else. Waiting in the airless interview room, stomach churning in relentless loops, Olivia fidgets with the medallion round her neck. She hasn't worn it in years. Not since David Haden entered her life, told her he wasn't going anywhere then abruptly departed again. She never lost track of the trinket but at some point she decided it was time to let it go. Let him go. That morning though, her fingers fished it out of the silver case in which she'd hidden it from herself. It felt heavy round her neck, haunting. Lying on her chest as she drove out to the prison, it felt like a burden she was unaccustomed to breathing under.

Olivia lifts her hands, is about to unsnap and pocket the memento when the door scrapes open and Elliot appears. Her hands drop. Her stomach lurches. She faces him then nods to the corrections officer at his side. The C.O. nods back and leaves them, sealing the steel door shut behind him. The air in the room stills and neither of them moves a muscle, each of them waiting for the other to be the first to speak. On the journey there, she thought of a dozen or more things to say to him but now all of them instantly desert her lips.

"You shouldn't be here," he says eventually.

"I'm not here," she replies. "Rachel Martin is here. To see…" she looks down at the illegally obtained file in her hands, though not because she needs a reminder, "Trevor MacLeod."

"Well…" Elliot shuffles to the table in his chains and takes a seat, "you shouldn't stay."

Olivia doesn't take the seat opposite. "This won't take long."

He shrugs, glancing round the room. "So what d'you want?"

Her head turns away, her eyes rolling and her lips releasing a bitter laugh. "Jeez…"

Elliot lifts his cuffed hands onto the tabletop, leaning forward on his elbows. "You're gonna slap me, aren't you?"

She turns back, jaw set and gaze narrowed. "Can you think of one reason I shouldn't?"

"Believe me," he mumbles, examining his raw knuckles, "I'm getting slapped around plenty in here."

Something ancient and habitual in her softens. She takes a single step forward then two steps to the side, examining the fresh abrasion on his cheekbone. "Are you at least trying to stay out of trouble?"

He meets her gaze, blue eyes emitting a muted twinkle. "Trouble might find me sometimes…"

She draws in a breath, nodding vaguely. "You got a decent handler?"

His mouth shrugs. "She's alright."

"And you got everything you need in here?"

"All the best amenities."

"Is there anything…" she takes two steps back to her original position, gestures with the file in her hand, "you want me to pass on to…anyone?"

Elliot sits a little straighter, giving an upwards nod with his head. "D'you get my message?" he murmurs after a pause.

Olivia pauses in reply. Then she lifts a hand to her blouse, pulling it down to reveal the medallion. "You mean this?"

"It wasn't easy…" he starts to say but then doesn't elaborate.

She's unsure whether he means that it wasn't easy to get a message to her from where he was or whether it wasn't easy leaving like he did. He doesn't say anything more though so she just turns away, muttering under her breath, "Nothing ever was..." She leaves the with us of her sentence unvoiced.

There's a strained silence as she turns her back, pacing in a slow circle. Behind her, Elliot slides his butt sideways on the bench, shifting closer to where she stands.

"So how're you?" he asks.

She faces him, eyes welling and throat constricting as she answers, "I'm fine."

He rises. "Liv—"

She holds up a hand. "No names. The walls have ears."

He frowns at her. "You were the one that arranged this little meet."

"I just…" she glances down, inhales to gather herself, "wanted to make sure you were okay."

"I'm…" he takes an overlong pause, shrugs a shoulder, "…okay."

"Well then." Her eyes remain locked with his another moment. Then Olivia lifts the file at her side, letting it drop back against her thigh with a mild slap. "Good luck, I guess."

His eyes track her as she moves to the door, they watch her fist rise to knock. "Wait—"

Starting after her, chains rattling, he catches her at the door. Her hand halts in mid-air then very slowly lowers. She turns to him and for a moment, Elliot seems to be at a complete loss for words, either finding nothing to say or having too much to say. In the end, he just reaches for her hand, holds it in his then gives it a parting squeeze.

Olivia swallows, glancing down at their joined hands. Dragging hers free, she uses it to signal the guard with an authoritative rap. "…Bye, Elliot," she whispers before the door is hauled open, allowing her to leave without glancing back.



1998

"Stabler! Get your ass down here!"

Elliot leaned over the railing to see his captain standing in the squadroom below, a slim brunette at his side. Everything about her yelled cop, including her sensible suit, her forthright gaze and the badge at her hip.

His hand whacked the railing as he turned to the stairs. "Oh jeez, another one?"

"This one's different," Cragen said, watching his reluctant descent.

Elliot halted at the foot of the staircase. "How?"

His captain gave a cheery tip of his head. "Well, this one's your last shot."

"This one is Olivia." The brunette stuck out her hand, generous lips stretching into a wide smile. "Benson, hi—"

"Uh huh," Elliot was already trailing his superior across the squadroom. "Look, Captain, I'm good working this on my own."

Cragen strode on, effortlessly navigating the maze of messy desks and messier detectives. "Stabler, I have taken it as a personal challenge to find someone who can stand being your partner for more than a month. If I can achieve that, I can retire happy."

Munch appeared on the threshold of the interview room. "Do I hear talk of retirement? Say it ain't so, oh captain my captain."

Cragen stopped, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at Stabler who was similarly being trailed by the squad's new addition. "Let's just see how Stabler gets on with Benson. No need for premature mourning."

"Or celebration," Cassidy added from over Munch's shoulder.

"Well, if Benson can put a stop to the game of musical chairs Stabler's been playing since Alphonse left us—" their boss turned and nodded at the cluttered desk and unoccupied chair by the bank of lockers, "—then maybe I can get some peace and actually start contemplating my future."

"You mean workin' on your handicap in plaid golf shorts?" Munch quipped.

"And one of those cute little hats—!" Cassidy added with a grin.

Olivia sidled closer to Elliot, casting him a wary frown. "How many partners have you had?"

"Six," Munch answered for him. "In as many months."

"It—" Elliot headed for his desk, walking backwards and lifting his voice over the din, "come on! – it wasn't that many."

"Shall I count them for you?" the older detective offered, eyebrows raised over his frames. "Wallace. Hoffenberger. Richards—"

"Don't forget the hot one. Cassie," his partner chimed in before lunging forward with an outstretched hand. "How you doin'? Brain Cassidy."

Olivia shook his hand. "Hi."

"I believe there were three hot ones," Munch continued, moving deeper into the buzzing squadroom, "in Cassidy's indiscriminate opinion, anyway."

Still standing by his office door, Cragen spread his arms, demanding loudly, "Is anyone doing any work today?"

"I am," Elliot answered from his desk, eyes on his computer and hands wrapped round a sandwich. A slice of tomato slid out as he took a bite, spilling dressing down his shirtfront. "…crap."

Munch extended a hand to Olivia, leaning in to muse, "Dare I say that none of the so-called hot ones were quite as lovely as you, Miss Benson?"

She smiled and took his hand, maintaining her hold as she replied, "You can say it once but call me Miss on the job and your balls will end up in a sling."

Munch drew back, shooting an impressed look first at Cragen and then at Elliot's turned back. "She's a good one."

Giving her partner a pat on the back, Brian headed for the door. "Lucky you, Stabler."

"Shuddup," he answered without looking up.

Munch patted his shoulder as well, following his partner out. "Try not to screw it up this time."

"Get outta here!" Elliot replied, throwing a balled up napkin after the smirking twosome.

Standing in the middle of the squadroom, Olivia watched the other detectives head out. She glanced toward her new captain's office to see that he too had disappeared. Stepping out of the way of two unis who seemed to know their way around, she murmured a muted apology. Then, taking her bag off her shoulder and shedding her jacket, she stepped closer to Detective Stabler's desk.

"S'that my desk?" she asked, pointing to the one opposite, the one drowning in dust and piled high with bulging files and half-emptied boxes.

"Yeah," he muttered, mouth munching and eyes on his computer screen. "It's a bit of a mess."

"So I see." She dropped her bag and blazer onto the chair which seemed close to collapsing with rust. Then she began sorting through the files, slotting them into their appropriate boxes.

Eventually, Elliot looked up. "You want a hand with that?"

"Nah, don't put yourself out."

He drew in a breath, elbow propped on the desktop and thumb pressed against his lips. "What's your name again?"

She heaved one box to the floor then straightened. "Olivia."

"Right. Benson."

She paused, hands on hips. "You can call me Liv. Lots of people do."

"Yeah…" he rose from his seat, moving to a nearby cabinet, "we'll see."

"Didn't catch your name," she murmured, hands sifting files but eyes on his back.

"Stabler."

"I meant your first name."

"Elliot." He pulled a file from the cabinet then approached her, free hand extended. "People call me Elliot. Or Stabler." After she shook it, he moved back to his chair, adding with a shrug, "Or more often, scumbag…up to you."

Olivia shifted a second box to the floor, studying him over the diminishing chaos. "So what'd you do to piss off six partners?"

"Nothin'." Elliot grinned and picked up his sandwich, licking some mustard off one knuckle. "Just acted like my regular, charming self."

"Lemme guess," she muttered dryly, "You slept with the hot ones."

He frowned at her, swallowed his mouthful then answered, "Not one of 'em. Why? You in the habit of knocking boots with your partners?"

"Well, my last partner was a woman—"

"Still—"

"But no. I keep my sex life out of the workplace."

He lifted his left hand, flipped it front and back to show her the gold wedding band on his fourth finger. "You and me both."

Olivia pursed her lips and nodded. "There's mustard on it," she told him, eyes drifting downwards, "and…on your tie, incidentally."

"Shit…" Elliot licked the inside of the ring then lifted his tie and sucked it clean.

Olivia hid a smile as she lifted the last box into her arms. "So where can I store this stuff?"

Cragen approached, pointing through the double doors behind her. "You'll find the Records Room through there and to your right."

"Thanks."

"…So?" he asked when she was out of earshot.

"So what?" Elliot grunted in response.

"First impressions?"

"Green."

"We all were once."

"What's with the smile?"

"Smiling's not a crime."

"She does it too much."

Cragen shrugged. "Maybe it'll grow on you."

"Eh, it won't last." Elliot rose, returning his file to the filing cabinet. Facing Cragen, he cast a glance in the direction his new partner had headed, "In this unit? I give her…a week. Maybe two."

Cragen seemed to be suppressing a smile. "I think she may surprise you."

"Nothing surprises me."

"Do yourself a favor," he told him more sternly, "and give this one a chance."

Elliot held both hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay…but what if it doesn't work out? What then?"

Cragen took a step back as Olivia reapproached her new desk. "What if it does?"



2014

She's standing behind her new desk when a change occurs in the squadroom. Olivia looks up, spotting him through the glass – his charging form, his probing gaze. The early sighting gives her roughly three and a half seconds to prepare for his arrival, for his indignation, for his familiar, fiery temper. Arriving on the threshold and laying eyes on her, he stops dead and opens his mouth. But she gets in before him, murmuring a dry:

"Ah. Thought I might get a visit from you."

From the doorway, Elliot radiates rage. "Tell me this isn't personal."

She tilts her head and steeples her fingers on the edge of the desk. "Of course it's personal. I looked after my team. I got justice for my victims. I closed my case."

"And scuttled my mission."

She shrugs and takes a seat. "Collateral damage."

He enters the office that used to belong to their captain, facing her across the broad wooden desk. "Did it even occur to you what might happen to me when the other inmates found out I was an undercover cop?"

Olivia shoots him a censorious look. "You've been outta the game too long, Stabler."

"Don't last-name me, Sergeant."

"I gave the warden a heads-up," she tells him, maintaining a deliberately impervious expression. "She assured me you'd be taken care of."

"If by taken care of you mean thrown out on my ass then, yeah."

"Thought you'd be happy…" she leans down to open a low drawer, pulling out a stack of files, "to be back with your family."

"Well, that's the point, isn't it?" Elliot huffs and drops into one of the chairs facing her desk. "This operation cost me three years with my family, three years of watching Eli grow up…all for nothing—" he interrupts his own train of thought, telling her with more urgency, "You know I missed Kathleen's graduation? Kathy's 50th? Three years of knowing they were all going on without me, of knowing you…" he stalls as her eyes lift to his, "were out here thinking I was some kind of deserter, of knowing you were being held and hurt by that psychopath—"

He breaks off and Olivia can't check her response. Her heart halts and her breath sticks in her throat. Her nostrils flare, teeth grit and eyes almost water. She looks down, lips pressed tightly together. When she looks up again, she doesn't trust her voice but her eyes ask the question.

"News travels fast behind bars," he explains quietly.

She gets to her feet, one hand gesturing broadly. "Well, why'd you put yourself in there then? I mean, what the fuck do you care about exotic animals anyway?"

"It was the only gig I could get after the shooting, an offer I couldn't refuse. I was looking at a demotion, probably a transfer, anger management—"

"I know," she interrupts, voice soft but firm. "I stood up for you, I fought for you."

He gazes up at her, gives a half-shake of his head. "I knew you would." Elliot takes a breath before going on, voice drained of its previous fury, "They said SVU had got to me, they said I was a danger to my peers…my partner."

"And I suppose a phone call was out of the question."

"There wasn't time."

"Fin said you—" she hesitates, picks up the stack of files and heads for the couch, "you didn't want me to…talk you out of leaving."

"Like I had a choice."

"If you had—"

Elliot falls momentarily silent. Then, in a low voice, he confesses to her back, "You woulda been my only reason for staying."

She turns round, eyes starting to narrow and brow beginning to crumple. "So Cragen knew about this? I mean, he must've, right? And he never said a word…he left without ever telling me."

He gives a weak shrug. "He couldn't. Need to know."

Olivia shakes her head, dropping the files onto the couch with a thwack. "The crap that phrase covers up…" She pulls the lid off a box sitting there and starts rummaging through it.

Her former partner rises, advancing slowly so as not to spook her. He moves to stand beside her, both of them facing the window looking out on the squadroom that for a short time served as their home. Sliding his hands into his pockets, he rocks on his heels and inspects the new inhabitants.

"So which one's yours?" he asks, nodding to where Rollins and Amaro are fixing themselves a mid-morning coffee. "The pretty one or…the other pretty one?"

She points the corner of a file at Nick. "Amaro."

"He my replacement?"

Olivia nods. "He's put in three years." She pulls out a bunch of folders, adds them to the other pile. "Came in here all pumped up from knocking heads together in Warrants…"

He turns to face her. "Uh huh..."

Olivia glances up at him as she extracts another armful of red tape. "He's a good cop, a good man…"

"S'that right?"

She faces him, files hugged to her chest. "Mm. A family man. A Catholic. And occasionally a reckless, thoughtless, stubborn sonovabitch." She rolls her eyes and heads back to her desk. "I felt right at home with him."

"So you…got on?"

"Not right away."

Elliot follows her back across the office. "Well, if I recall you called me a stubborn sonovabitch every day for about a year when we were first paired up."

"You were a stubborn sonovabitch," she mumbles, sorting the files.

Elliot shrugs and chances a grin. "Some things never change."

Olivia looks up, takes a beat. "And some do."

"So I see…" he muses, reaching for the portrait of a brown-haired baby on her desk. "Who's this?"

Olivia takes the frame from his hands and puts it back on the desk. "None of your business."

"She yours?"

"He."

"Well, he's a cutie."

"Yeah—" She abruptly abandons what she's doing and heads for the door.

"He got a name?" Elliot asks, eyes trailing her.

"I've got work to do." She leans out door, yelling across the squadroom, "Fin—!"

About to exit with his partner, Fin calls back, "Just heading out."

Olivia grabs her coat and strides towards them. "Park it, Rollins. I've got this."

Rollins shrugs and returns to her desk, gaze fixed on the man following her boss. Fin sends a nod over Olivia's shoulder to his old colleague.

"Hey, Stabler, how you doin', man?"

"Good to see you, Fin."

"Nice goatee."

Elliot strokes his beard. "Thank you."

"Let's go," Olivia interjects, slipping on her coat and turning to Fin.

Elliot reaches for her elbow. "Liv—"

But when she turns to look at him, her eyes are cold and her face closed. "I'm sure you can remember your way out," she murmurs before walking away with Fin, her stride long and sure.

Elliot exhales, the hand that reached for her dropping back to his side. The routine squadroom buzz that momentarily dulled reverts to normal. Rollins reclaims her coffee and takes a gulp. Carisi stares out from the media room, looking curious but lost. Nick heads for his desk, pulling out his chair.

"You can wait," he tells Elliot, pointing at her office, "but by the look on her face…I doubt she'll be back. Not any time soon."

Elliot turns to him, eyes narrowed. "Thanks, kid, but I think I know her a little better than you do."

"Good," he replies swiftly. "That's good. Then you know the damage you did when you walked outta here without a word."

His eyes narrow further then blink, his chin jutting out beneath his beard.

Nick nods once and takes his seat. "You do now."

Elliot glances over at Rollins who redirects her gaze into her coffee cup. Then, with a lingering look at the duo of desks that used to belong to him and his partner, he leaves.



1998

"So." Elliot shifted in the cramped car seat, settling in for a long night of surveillance. "Tell me your life story, Benson."

Olivia didn't lower the binoculars from her eyes. "No, thank you."

Her partner smirked and reached for the coffee cup on the console. "You don't like me very much, do you?"

"That's not true."

"No?"

"No, I don't like you at all."

"That's a shame." He unpeeled the lid on the coffee, blew on it then took a sip. "Cos it's been three months now. A new record for me."

Olivia dropped the binoculars to her lap but didn't take her eyes off the blackened lot. "Congratulations..."

"I figure you might be sticking round for a while so I was thinking…"

She turned to look at him. "…What?"

He gave a shrug, returning her sidelong look in the near pitch black. "Maybe we could shake hands and start over?"

Olivia studied him a moment. Then shifted in her seat to face him. "Only if you don't last-name me anymore."

"Fine." He held out his hand.

"Fine." She shook it.

Elliot leant back in his seat with a sigh. "So tell me your life story, Olivia."

She nodded at him. "You first."

"'Kay." He dug a hand under his butt, pulling out his wallet and showing her the collection of photos inside. "Kathy," he said, pointing to the first one.

Olivia lent closer and nodded. "Uh huh…"

"Kathleen." He went on, flicking the plastic sheaf over, "Maureen. Elizabeth – Lizzie. And Richard – Dickie."

"Twins?"

"Twins."

"Well…" his partner drew back and looked at him, "that's a really nice life."

Elliot nodded, returning the wallet to his pocket. "Yep." Then he resumed sipping his coffee. "How 'bout you? Married? Kids?"

But Olivia had already turned away, her gaze moving back to their target. She leaned forward in her seat, brows furrowed.

Elliot did the same. "What is it?"

She lifted the binoculars. "I think we've got movement…"

He followed her gaze, squinting into the darkness. A moment later, they were both exiting the car and running stealthily in the direction of the abandoned lot, each falling into place at the other's side.


Part Two

2014

Olivia exits the elevator with a bag on each shoulder and a sleeping child in her arms. Her work bag is stuffed with unread files and unfinished forms. The bag on the opposite shoulder holds all of Noah's essentials – his toys, books, wipes and formula. One of the hands wrapped round his increasingly heavy body also lugs a shopping bag with the basic ingredients for her dinner. She didn't dare put anything down while she rode the elevator for fear of rousing an exhausted Noah or not being able to reassemble her current state of balance beneath her burdens. So by the time the doors slide open, one bag is strangling her fingertips of all blood while another is close to sliding off her. Noah slumbers on though, his shallow, soft breathing in her ear.

Olivia shuffles off the elevator and heads down the hushed corridor. Turning the corner though, she sees a rumpled form stationed at her door. One leg is splayed out flat, the other propped up in a pair of faded jeans. His arms are folded over his chest which rises and falls in a steady rhythm. His head is tipped back, his lips parted and his eyes closed as he snoozes against her door. Her slow, laboured shuffle doesn't halt. Partly because all she wants is to get inside, lower Noah to his crib, drop everything else and pour herself a drink. And partly because, following two surprising appearances, she's getting a little more used to her old partner gate-crashing her new life, however fledgling it may be.

Reaching her doorway, Olivia stares down at him a second. Then she sticks out a foot, nudging his butt with enough force to satisfy her more vindictive impulses.

Elliot grunts and rouses. "Well, that's just petty..."

"You're blocking my door," she says without a hint of apology.

"You weren't answering your phone," he explains, running a hand over his face and scrubbing at his sleepy eyes.

Her free hand slips into her pocket for her keys. "Call it payback."

He looks up at her, blinking himself awake. Then scrambles to his feet, muttering, "Lemme give you a hand—" He reaches for her work bag just as it slides off her shoulder. Lifting it back on, Elliot then puts out his hands to receive the still dozing Noah.

But Olivia turns to her door with her burdens, sifting through her keys to find the one she needs. "I'm fine," she says just as her fingers fumble and the keys drop to the floor.

Elliot bends to retrieve them. "Ah, how I've missed those two words falling from your lips," he murmurs before fitting the key into the lock and shoving the door open.

Olivia says nothing, merely shooting him a look as she steps inside. Having learnt fast how to do the mommy juggle, she sheds two bags on the couch and another on the kitchen counter while making a beeline for Noah's new room. Focused on her young charge, she doesn't invite her partner in. But she hears his footsteps enter behind her and senses his eyes taking in every detail of her new home.

Wandering slowly through the white and beige space, Elliot recognizes the odd knickknack from Olivia's old residence and her familiar, relaxed style. The living area is an uncharacteristic mess though, strewn with toys, blankets, cushions, clothes, newspapers and children's books. It's the kind of mess he recalls, the kind of mess that occurs when a family is adjusting to a new addition. Smiling slightly, he moves to a bookshelf, eyes honing in on a collection of photographs. At the front, there is a photograph of Olivia in a black dress with Munch in a white suit. Next to it is a photo of her with Calvin in Central Park – the young man's height competes with hers, though his face has retained its youth. Also at the forefront is one of her and Cassidy in a sports bar. She has an arm slung around his shoulders while he loosely clutches a beer. He faces her, nose pressed to her cheek as her mouth and eyes erupt with laughter. Behind these more recent snapshots of her life are two he recalls seeing daily.

The one of Olivia and her mother sat on her desk for years. Elliot had only met Serena Benson once and, like her daughter, there was a steel beneath her discernible beauty and intelligence. It gave both women an initial aura of coldness – though Elliot knew he was one of the lucky few to glimpse the warmth beneath Olivia Benson's habitual chill. Another photograph from that time lurks at the back of the shelf. This one used to enjoy pride of place on Captain Cragen's desk. In it, the two of them are larking about with their boss in front of an assembly of flags – Cragen puffs out his chest while he and Olivia throw mock salutes at his side. In these pictures, Olivia is achingly young, her smile wide and easy, her eyes less guarded and her hair bobbed and dark. It simultaneously feels like an aeon ago and just yesterday. But he remembers her like that. In excruciating detail. He remembers because – he knows now – that's when he first began falling in love with her.



1998

Olivia winced as she took off her jacket.

"You okay?" Elliot took hold of the collar with one hand, carefully drawing it down and off her arms.

She smiled as he handed it back to her. "I'm fine."

The perp had wrenched her arm pretty bad. She'd been in the process of cuffing him when the oversized skinhead had decided to make a last ditch attempt at freedom. Struggling free, he'd used the only weapon on hand, flinging a bucket of dirty dishwater at the two of them before ducking out the back door. Munch and Jeffries were waiting in the alley though, guns drawn. Of course none of it would have happened if Elliot hadn't first riled their perp up with insults and accusations. Then he wouldn't have responded by running. He wouldn't have surprised Elliot around a blind corner, pouncing on him and putting him in an intractable headlock. Before he even knew what had hit him, his partner was there, ordering the dirtbag to let him go. It took a little negotiating but eventually, he was released, dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. His head was still spinning and his throat wheezing when the perp yanked at Olivia's restraining hands and fled.

Elliot opened his locker, glancing sideways at her. "Thanks for havin' my back."

She shrugged and turned to hers. "'Course. We're partners." She took a fresh shirt from the locker and dumped it on the bench, her eyes making fleeting contact with his. "For better or worse, right?"

"That was definitely worse," he mumbled, unfastening the buttons at his wrists.

She tugged the tails of her soaked shirt out of the waistband of her pants. "Well, you don't exactly bring out the mild side in most people."

His mouth curled up in one corner. "I'll take that as a compliment."

She humphed and turned her back to him. "You would."

Elliot turned his back as well, fingers moving to the buttons of his shirtfront. But a moment later, the cool, isolated silence of the locker room made him turn his head her way and note, "You were good in there."

"You mean 'for a woman'," she responded dryly.

"No, not 'for a woman'. Just sayin'…" he peeled off his wet shirt, mopped his chest with it then reached into his locker for his back-up, "that was some nice negotiating…good police work."

Olivia turned back, her soiled shirt replaced but her face exhibiting an expression of mild confusion. "I'll…take that as a compliment…?"

"You should," he nodded, turning back too. "It's meant as one."

She nodded in reply, gaze flicking briefly to the ink on his shoulder before dropping to her hands as they began tucking her shirt beneath her belt. "So, what's with the tat?"

Elliot glanced at his tattooed limb then shook out his shirt. "Got it when I was seventeen, when I found out about my first kid."

"Maureen?"

"Maureen."

"And what's it mean to you?"

He turned the shoulder towards her. "It's Jesus."

"I…" she rolled her eyes, head tipping to one side, "I realize it's Jesus, I mean— what does he symbolize…for you."

Elliot slipped his shirt on, started rolling up the sleeves. "Sacrifice."

Her head bobbed slowly. "That's what you live your life by?"

He gave a shrug of simplicity. "What else is there?"

"And the, ah…" she turned back to her locker, waving a finger at the ink on his inner arm, "what's that one? US Marines?"

Elliot lifted the arm, fisting his hand and showing her the Eagle, Globe and Anchor marking his skin. "Semper fi, partner, semper fi."

Retrieving her bag, Olivia elbowed her locker shut then faced him again with furrowed brows. "Which means what again?"

He paused, fingers working on the final buttons of his shirt. "Always faithful," he answered eventually, voice quiet.

She nodded once, averting her eyes. "Ah."

A short silence took over. An older pair of partners entered, chuckling and chatting and heading for their respective lockers. Olivia lifted her bag onto her shoulder while Elliot collected his things and closed his locker. Then, turning to her with an expectant expression, he asked:

"So you buyin' me a drink or what?"

Olivia shook her head and headed for the door. "You and your silver tongue."



2014

Olivia re-appears, running a hand through her short, dark hair and moving slowly to the kitchen counter. A baby monitor is strapped to her hip and her voice is hushed as she tells him, "Now's really not a good time."

Elliot puts down the photo he was studying and heads over to her. "Neither was earlier apparently. Nice job ditchin' me."

Taking a cereal box from her shopping bag, she ducks to put it in a cabinet then rises, eyes narrowed. "How'd you find me anyway?"

He smirks at her across the sleek countertop. "Hey, I may only be a lowly detective but I still know how to track down someone. Even someone who doesn't want to be found."

She turns away, opening another cabinet and putting away several jars of baby food. "So you still have a shield then?"

"For now. No thanks to you."

"Wasn't expecting any thanks."

Elliot pauses then says in a lower voice. "I saw Cassidy's name on the lease."

Olivia casts him a blank look. Elliot lifts his brows in disbelief.

"Really, Liv? Cassidy?"

She shrugs a shoulder, continues putting away her groceries. "He's a good guy."

"Good enough for someone," he mumbles, planting his palms on the counter. "Not for you."

"Well, didn't work out anyway. How could it?"

"Meaning?"

She stalls before speaking the truth – but only for a moment. She's not interested in playing games with him and she's long past the stage of needing to hide. In fact, right now, the truth feels like her deadliest weapon. "Brian was only ever a substitute. You knew that at the start. So did I – on some level...And now," she slots a bottle of orange juice into the fridge door then swings it shut, "…so does he."



2013

She nestled against his chest, listening to his steady heartbeat and drinking in his spicy man smell. She knew Brian was eager to move them to the bedroom, to christen their new bed – he had been for some time. But she still wasn't ready, even after months of therapy. And especially after witnessing what she had that night between her questionable boyfriend and yet another sex-worker. Instead, Olivia closed her eyes and wrapped an arm around his body, blocking out everything but his breath. His voice interrupted her quietude though, rumbling in his chest, under her ear:

"You know…I heard what you said in interrogation."

She didn't open her eyes, replying in a playful, drowsy tone, "Didn't I tell you to shut up?"

Brian took a breath, pausing but pressing on, "You were talkin' about Elliot. Weren't you?"

"I…" she shifted against him, adjusting her head on his chest and screwing her eyes closed tighter, "was saying whatever I needed to to get her to open up. Clearly, she was attached to her partner if she was arranging assaults for him, standing guard while he committed rape." She inhaled, shrugging weakly, "We needed her confession to nail him so I…said what I had to to get it."

"Or maybe you were projecting."

"Projecting? Bri—"

He sat up straighter, withdrawing his arm from around her and stretching it over the back of the couch. "But that's not how it was."

Roused from her comfy position, Olivia blinked at him in confusion. "How what was?"

He looked down at her, eyes tapering and head slanting sideways. "I watched you two together. Remember? And even way back then Stabler was as head over heels for you as you were for him. Why d'you think I got outta there?"

She drew back into a sitting position, told him in a soft, simple voice, "Elliot…is long gone. He's not on my mind."

"Then why'd I find a box of his stuff when I was unpacking?" Brian pointed to the bookcase surrounded by half-unpacked cardboard boxes. "Right there. His ID. His notebooks. His goddamn mug, Liv. A photo of him with one of his forty-seven kids…"

She darted a look at the box, ducked her head. "It's nothing." Lifting her gaze back to his, she insisted, "I'm with you now."

He leant forward, tone, gaze and body all becoming more urgent. "But a part of you will always be with him, belong to him."

Olivia retreated into the cushions, eyes and face turning away. "I owe El a lot—"

"D'you sleep with him?" he interrupted, the question abrupt but condemnation free.

She hesitated, releasing a heavy sigh. "Why do you want to know?"

"I'll take that as a yes," he muttered bitterly.

"Hey, come on…" She reached for his hand, held it in hers.

Brian budged closer, turning his hand over and grasping hers tight. "No, look…I just— I need you to tell me that all this…" he glanced round to indicate their new abode, their new arrangement, their sudden, increased commitment, "it's not just…a reaction to everything that's happened to you…recently."

"That's not—" her brows furrowed and eyes closed in fleeting pain, "I'm different now. I want something different. Something new."

"But do you want me?"

Olivia opened her mouth. Leaning in, she forced her eyes to twinkle and her lips to smile in an effort to get them back to the light-hearted, if strained, banter of minutes before. "Well, you're the other name on the lease, aren't you?"

Brian just held her hand and her gaze and said, "I love you, Olivia."

"I know..." She lifted her free hand, stroked his face. "And I…care about you. Very much. You know that."

He nodded, drew her hand away from his cheek then got up from the couch. "Yeah. I know."

She watched him go, slumping down into the new couch, surrounded by new cushions and new walls and new light fixtures. She felt like hurling one of the immaculate new cushions at the unmarked box by the bookshelf. But she didn't. Olivia just rose, walked into the kitchen and poured herself a generous glass of red wine. Then she sipped it slowly as she gazed out her new window at her new view of the darkened city.



2014

Olivia's ears prick and eyes turn at the slightest stirring sound from Noah. For a moment, both of them freeze, their face-off momentarily halted. Each holds their breath, waiting to see whether the faint whimper will transform into a full-blown wail. It does. Noah's sobs escalate, simultaneously echoing down the hallway and though the baby monitor at her hip. Olivia instantly re-abandons her partner, heading out of the kitchen and down the hall. This time, Elliot follows.

When he enters the tiny room, newly decked out in ducks and boats and the letters of the alphabet, Olivia is reaching over the rails of a white cot, lifting a ruddy-faced and bawling Noah from his pale blue blankets. She leans back, cooing softly as she settles him against her body, her breast, her heart. She pulls a white, muslin cloth from the cot and throws it over her shoulder, giving him something to nuzzle into. Noah is inconsolable though, hiccupping and blubbering in her ear, one tiny hand grasping a chunk of her hair. Olivia's hand goes to his back, patting gently and rhythmically as her body begins to bob in place.

Back to the doorframe, Elliot watches the small, unfamiliar tableau, something inside his chest snapping then expanding. His eyes are glued, watching her pace and circle and bob and pat, all while whispering under her breath to the distressed little boy in her capable arms. It's not like he never knew this aspect of his partner existed. It always has – he saw it in her compassion and concern for victims, both young and old. But seeing it directed at a child in her care, a child of her own in this everyday kind of way is something of a revelation for his eyes, for his brain, for the heart that's been so long without her. His eyes shadow her in the dim light, studying how the slowly rotating stars from a bedlight glide over her well-known form, insisting that he see the woman he's known for over fifteen years in a whole new light.

He watches her wander to the window and draw back a sheer, white curtain, peering out and murmuring about it being so very, very late and time for all little children to be fast asleep. Then she turns, her eyes falling on him and immediately cooling, hardening. Elliot averts his fixed gaze, adjusting his spine against the doorframe and quietly clearing his throat.

"Not sure…" he says, returning to their conversation, "I'm not sure Cassidy's the devoted daddy type, anyway." He waves a hand at her, the edge of his mouth tugging upwards, "And you've always been a natural at this."

Changing direction, Olivia bobs on a different trajectory, shakes her head. "Not tonight apparently…"

Elliot smiles, folding his arms over his chest. "Babies are like suspects. They can sense the tension in a room."

"You would know…" she mutters, turning on her heel and continuing her pace-bob-pat cycle.

Elliot hesitates before pushing away from the door. "Here— give him to me."

Olivia stops and stares at him over Noah's brown-haired babyhead, her arms wrapped protectively around his tense little body.

"Trust me," he says with a small nod of assurance. "I have the touch."

She eyes him another moment, then drops her guarded gaze and acquiesces, handing over the tired, squealing child. Elliot takes the muslin cloth as well and Noah grabs onto it, pressing it to his wet, open mouth. One of Olivia's hands goes with him, lying flat on his back as Elliot lifts him into his larger arms. Then, withdrawing her hand, she watches her partner's more experienced touch. He doesn't know to bob as Noah seems to like, although sometimes she suspects her new-mommy bobbing becomes more anxious than soothing. Instead, Elliot is like a rock beneath the little boy. Solid. Safe. Huge. Warm. A world of boundless protection. His voice when it murmurs in the baby's ear is deeper, an underlying command to his tender sleep now, little man, sleep

Noah squirms, squawks once then settles, his high-pitched cries gradually dwindling to mere gurgles and snuffles. One little fist beats aimlessly against Elliot's chest then scores his hairy chin, his aged lips. Elliot gives the tiny fingers a kiss then glances over at Olivia to find her eyes aren't full of relief or thanks or love. Instead, they brim with pain, with panic, with supplication and sorrow.

"Please…" she murmurs, her voice choked and tears gripping her eyelashes. The stars continue to rotate round the room, drifting slowly across her face. There's enough light that he can see her tortured expression yet it's also low enough that she feels safe in whispering in a desperately unstable voice:

"Please don't do this to me. I'm trying to build something new here. I'm…trying to have a life, one in which I can finally…thrive. This is my family, Elliot. It may not look like much compared to yours but it's mine. Please…— please don't come in here and ruin that."

Elliot takes a step forward, a deep, sad frown on his face and her child quiet in his arms. "I don't want to ruin anything for you. Nobody deserves this more than you do."



2000

Elliot cradled the nameless ICU baby whose case had fallen onto their desks early that morning. His little face was still blue from birth and his body barely bigger than Elliot's palm. He had been swaddled and re-swaddled though, molding him into a sturdy, warm, living lump. Only a tuft of dark hair and a brand new pair of glutinous eyes peeked out at them. Elliot glanced at his partner, noting her soft, conflicted expression. Then he rocked the baby her way, asking quietly:

"You want…?"

"I'm…not used to…" she said but still held her hands out to receive him.

"Support the head," he murmured, shifting one of her hands beneath the baby's soft, furry skull.

"'Kay…" she juggled him against her, her shoulders hunched and an uncertain smile on her face. "God," she glanced up at her partner, her smile increasing, "so tiny..."

"Mother's milk will fatten him up," he mused, eyes on the baby.

Olivia looked down again, poking a finger into the bundle and stroking his cheek. "When we find her for him."

He sighed but nodded. "We will."

She began to sway in place, lulling the baby to back sleep. "Did you always know," she asked a moment later, voice hushed, "that you wanted kids?"

Elliot tipped his head, gave a low chuckle. "Happened a little earlier than planned but yeah…always wanted 'em." He paused, gaze lifting to her face. "How about you? You gonna do it? One day? Have one of your own?"

Olivia kept her eyes on the unknown baby's face. "I dunno," she answered with a slight stammer, "With my history, it's…"

"None of that matters, Olivia." He smiled softly, watching the baby boy open his toothless mouth and release a wide yawn. "All that matters is the love."

She nodded vaguely, bobbing a few times as the baby squirmed in his swaddling. "Shh-shh-shh…"

"And look…" he added, leaning closer to watch the baby settle, the beginnings of a wail subsiding, "You've definitely got the touch."

She looked up, brows raised. "The touch?"

"Can't be taught," he told her with an authoritative dip of his chin. "You've either got it or you don't."

"I see…" Olivia gave a throaty chuckle that was cut short as the nurse entered to reclaim Baby Doe. She handed him over, watched as his swaddled, fragile form was placed in the sterile hospital cot. Then, reassuming the stanch demeanor of her profession, Olivia faced her partner and asked with her eyes if he was ready to track down the mother of their young victim.



2014

Elliot finds her in the adjacent bedroom. Her jacket is thrown across the foot of the bed, her badge and gun both gone, presumably secured. She's sitting on the bed, scrunching up one leg of her pants to unzip her boot then tug it off. His gaze quickly flits around the room, finding no sign of a second inhabitant. There are no happy couple photos, no mangy man-slippers, none of those crappy spy novels Cassidy used to love. Olivia straightens, throwing away her first boot and flicking her hair out of her face.

"He's asleep," Elliot says, stranded on yet another of her thresholds without knowing if he's welcome to enter.

Olivia just nods and bends to take off her other boot, scrunching up her pant leg, tugging at the boot then shoving her pants down again.

"You look exhausted," he says when she straightens a second time.

"Didn't I always?" she mutters without meeting his eyes.

Elliot steps over the threshold, heads for the bed. "You know the best thing about prison?"

"The charming company?"

He sits beside her, turns to look her. "Ten pm? Lights out."

There's a miniscule moment in which she isn't moving away from him, in which she almost allows the heated pull that still exists when they're in a room together, on a bed together, within reach of each other. Elliot is immensely relieved that it's still there, that it hasn't expired in his absence. It means something – though he's not sure what. If nothing else, it gives him hope – though he's not any surer of what it is he hopes for. Olivia looks at him with a creased brow, her mind making some sort of deeply private calculation. After several long seconds, she gives a slow nod and says:

"You should go."

She leaves the bed and heads for the door. But Elliot stays put.

"Where?" he demands, something of a challenge to the query.

Olivia doesn't turn around. "Home. To bed. To Kathy."

"Why? So you and I can both lie awake thinking about all the things we want to say to each other?"

She stops on the threshold, turns. Placing one hand on the doorframe, Olivia considers him for a long moment. "I have nothing to say to you," she says eventually before walking out of the frame and away from him.



2001

He'd knocked and called repeatedly. He could hear the phone ring through her resolutely closed door. He could hear her answering machine pick up, her brisk outgoing message followed by a beep then his own incoming message recording as she presumably ignored him. He knew she was in there, though she hadn't let him drive her home. She'd kept her distance at the crime scene, avoiding his concerned gaze while the E.M.T. checked her out. And she'd kept her distance at the stationhouse, disallowing his defensive interjections as she gave her initial statement. She'd told him to leave her alone and apparently she'd meant it, though the vehemence with which she'd addressed him had shocked him. He'd had to chase her, catch her elbow in order to offer her a lift home. Olivia had just stared at him with blank, cold eyes and told him she had nothing to say to him. She'd yanked her elbow free and walked away, abandoning him in the grim aftermath of Eric Plummer's shooting.

They'd been partners nearly three years and, while the beginning may have been bumpy, he now considered them a tight, well-functioning unit. More than just partners, Elliot considered them friends. This was definitely not the first case to knock Olivia sideways but it was the first to impact their partnership, to shake its core stability. And to expose to him that – beneath the intoxicating loyalty and friendship she undoubtedly extended to him – Olivia retained a tenaciously protected singularity. Unlike his life, in which he was never alone, even when he wanted to be, loneliness was her norm. Isolation, her home base. And if pushed to her limit as this case had done, she'd always revert to her default state of aloneness. She'd discount those years of trust and allegiance and interdependence. She'd reject his efforts to protect her or console her or support her. And instead, she'd tackle her demons alone. She would rather risk her life, career and freedom than rely on any one person in her sparsely populated life.

Elliot didn't know how to break through that sort of intensely ingrained independence. Not when it was so integral to who she was and all she'd survived. So he'd quit knocking and quit calling. He'd turned away from her door and headed out into the pouring rain, intending to go home. His inherent stubbornness had intervened though, the only response he could conceive of to her instinctive self-sufficiency. Instead of heading for his car, he'd headed across the street to a cluttered bodega. He'd bought a six-pack of beer and a massive packet of pretzels then headed back to his partner's building. She still wouldn't answer his knock but he didn't expect her to. So Elliot parked himself outside her door in anticipation of the moment she decided she was ready to let him in.

Two beers later, the door swung open. Leaning against it, Elliot nearly fell backwards, landing on his back at her feet. But he caught himself, one hand grasping the molding while the other focused on not spilling his beer on her carpet.

His partner glared down at him. "I thought you left."

"I came back," he replied, showing her the six-pack. "With beer."

She braced one hand on the doorframe and one on the door. "What part of me not answering the door or phone do you not get, you stubborn—"

"Yeah, yeah—" Elliot cut off the familiar accusation, scrambling to his feet and ducking under her arm. "Mind if I use the bathroom? I downed two already."

He didn't wait for permission and Olivia didn't give it. In fact, she was still waiting by the open door when he returned from emptying his bladder. She held the door for him, clearly communicating her desire for his departure, for her continued solitude. But Elliot faced her on the threshold, running an eye over her white singlet, her thin sweater, her lycra leggings and worn sneakers.

"So now you're going running in the rain? What's that supposed to be? Your penance?"

She crossed her arms over her chest. "Don't you think I deserve some?"

He shuffled closer, lowered his voice. "You can't let Plummer do this to you. It's exactly what he wants."

Her eyes met his, giving him that same cold, hard look she'd directed at him at the crime scene. "He doesn't want anything, Elliot, he's dead. I shot him. An innocent man—"

"A killer," he interjected insistently. "Who goaded you into taking that shot. It was suicide by cop."

She shook her head, disconnected eye contact and tried to close the door on him. "Leave me alone. I've got nothing to—"

"Look—" he stopped the door with one hand, bent his head towards hers, "you did your job—"

"No," she insisted, eyes back on his and brows deeply furrowed, "I messed up."

"You're human," he told her quietly, shoulders giving a sad shrug. "Even the best of us are."

She turned away, hiding her eyes, her face from his view. One hand lifted to her lips, fingers pressing against them to stem her tears. Elliot quickly bent to retrieve what was left of his six-pack plus the giant bag of pretzels. Salt, to replace what she'd cried out.

He held out a bottle to her. "Beer?"

She laughed wetly, weakly.

He offered her the pretzel bag. "Pretzel?"

"…Fine." She grabbed the bag and waved him in. "But I don't wanna talk about it."

"Good," he muttered, swinging the door shut and trailing her to the couch, "cos I'm not a counsellor."

She threw the pretzels onto the coffee table and dropped down into the cushions. Elliot took a sip of his beer then sat, easing back into the cushions and turning his head toward her. Olivia squirmed under his gaze then muttered, her voice betraying the aftereffects of her tears:

"Well, don't say nothing either. Just…talk about something else. Anything…" she closed her eyes, ran a hand through her cropped hair, making it stand on end, "I don't wanna think about it anymore…"

Elliot bobbed his head a few times, turning his attention away from her and around the room. Leaning forward, he tabled his drink and located an old newspaper amidst the coffee table chaos. He snapped it open, leafed through it then shot her a sidelong look. "Let's see what the Mets are up to…"

Olivia gave a dim smile then lent forward to claim his beer. She took a sip, then another and another as he began reading aloud, inserting his own mumbled commentary, lamenting over the state of New York's resident teams. As he went on, his partner drew closer, peering over his arm at the paper's headlines and pictures. Toeing off her shoes, she propped her socked feet on the coffee table. Elliot licked his finger, turned the page and moved on to the Knicks. From the corner of his eye he could see her body slacken, one hand cradling his beer against her chest and her head falling back against the cushions. She didn't say anything to contribute, she just listened, the sound of her breath even and deep under the constant hiss of the rain.

Elliot didn't pause in his sport report, not even when her head shifted, dropping onto his shoulder. He stayed right where he was, did exactly what he was doing. His breath may have picked up a little and his heart may have cracked when a single, silent tear rolled out of one eye and landed on his jacket. But Olivia kept her eyes on the paper so Elliot followed her lead and did the same, never ceasing until he had reviewed the entire weekend sports section from two months before.

 

Part Three

2014

Returning to the living room, Olivia begins tidying the accumulated mess, plumping and re-positioning the cushions, rescuing toys from the rug, folding a baby blanket into careless squares. Really, she's just moving things about, buying herself time. She knows Elliot will join her and insist on continuing a conversation that's been stealthily looming for three years. Maybe longer. She knows that by showing him her anger, she's revealing her hurt. She knows that by running away, she's somehow tipping her hand. Involuntarily communicating to him that – despite the three year gap, despite the changes in his face and body, despite everything she's faced and survived without him – nothing's really changed. She's as indebted to, as infatuated with, as reliant on and as head over heels in love with Elliot Stabler as she ever was.

She tried to disconnect herself from him, move on from him. For three years, she pretended they were finished, even though there never was a decisive or discernible period put on their association. In truth, she's just been treading water, waiting for this day, the inevitable day he'd re-enter her life. She should have been preparing herself – if she had, by now she may have been ready to face him. But she's not. She's reeling and reacting and running and she knows he isn't going to leave until they find some sort of resolution. Because she knows him. And she knows that he knows her. Better than anyone. Unlike any other man in her life, Elliot figured out years before exactly when to leave her to her self-imposed seclusion and when to confront her and never let up, employing all the blunt persistence and impudent honesty with which she first fell in love. In anticipation of that characteristically Stabler tactic, she confronts him the second he enters the room, muttering an impatient and huffy:

"So? What d'you want then?"

Elliot is taken back but recovers. "A drink would be nice."

She waves a hand at the kitchen. "Brian left some beers in the fridge, that Irish crap that men love. Help yourself."

He walks to the fridge, opens it and pulls out a beer. "You joining me?"

"No. Thanks." She plucks up a newspaper and folds it. But when her partner moves closer, picking up a book of nursery rhymes, she holds up a hand and takes a step back. "Don't help me. Just…tell me what you want."

Again, he's taken back. But this time, he doesn't recover as easily. Elliot shifts on the spot, gestures weakly with his beer then tells her in a low, faltering voice, "Not to…lose you. I guess."

"Lose me?" She kneels at the coffee table, arranging her outdated newspapers and baby magazines into a pile. "You never had me."

"I did once." He draws closer, taking a seat on the couch. "I had you as a friend, a partner…a lover."

She looks up at him, pausing before murmuring dimly, "Ancient history." Olivia gives the ends of the magazines an orderly rap on the table, voice reverting to its usual imperviousness as she adds, "And you made your choice. I accepted that. Doesn't mean I have to live with it for the rest of my life."

"But I do?"

"You said vows."

"So did we. For better or worse."

She humphs, muttering under her breath as she rises, "Still waiting for the better to happen…"

"Oh, come on…" Elliot leans back into the couch cushions, lips curling up into a coaxing smile, "we weren't all bad. We stuck by each other, had some laughs." He takes a sip of his beer, eyes glinting up at her. "And the sex…I hope you're not counting that as part of the worse."

Her head shakes slowly, her brow creased with consternation. "It was excruciating. Having that after all those years….seven years of being invisible to you—"

"You were never—"

"—to finally have you see me, touch me. To be able to touch you, look at you, all of you. To…be with you knowing there was a time limit on it—" She draws her lower lip between her teeth, raking it back and forth in an effort to control the words spilling from her tongue. "It was like...living with a ticking time bomb, always hoping for more time, wondering if, when—. Just waiting for your guilt to set in, for some crisis to send you running home again. Back to safety, back to sacrifice, back to Kathy and the kids."

Elliot leans forward, eyes on her face and smile failing. "That's why you broke it off? That's why you disappeared on me?"

Olivia scoops up a teddy bear then spreads her arms. "Well, I was right, wasn't I?"

"Maybe if you hadn't run, you wouldn't have been right." He gets up from the couch and moves towards her, face lined with frustration and incredulity. "Maybe I wouldn't have kissed Dani Beck in the exact same spot I kissed you. Maybe I wouldn't have ended up in Kathy's bed if you had just trusted me a little, talked to me. D'you ever think of that?"

"What would be the point of that?" She flings the teddy in the direction of a plastic bucket, muttering in a resigned tone, "What would be the point of wondering and second-guessing and obsessing over what might have been? I spent a decade doing it and where'd it get me?"

"Still here," he insists, putting all his irritation into stabbing a finger at the floor. "Still talking about it. About us. About what was, what coulda been, or shoulda been. What's that tell you?"

She quits tidying and looks about at the mess, hands on hips. "That both of us are gluttons for punishment?"

He releases an exhausted, wretched laugh, dropping his head and wagging it at the floor. "Maybe. I don't know…" One hand runs over his head and down his face, two fingers smoothing over his ragged goatee. His eyes when he looks up at her are red-rimmed, lost and absolutely spent. "I just know…I can't…let you go. I know I should, I know I have no rights here. And believe me – I've tried. But I can't."

There's a short silence in which neither of them speaks but neither of them looks away. Their eyes remain locked despite the chasm of misunderstanding between them. Olivia's chest rises and falls in rapid breaths, incited by the conflict, the confrontation, the passion he always brought out in her. Holding her gaze, Elliot lifts an arm, stretching it toward the door.

"Tell me to go." He shuffles closer, his other arm spreading. "Tell me to go, Liv. If you really want me out of your life…I'll respect that. I owe you that much."

Olivia is silent a moment, eyeing him across the room. Then her head begins to shake back and forth. "God…" she swipes a hand over her forehead, releases an infuriated breath, "what a sneaky, underhand, fucking screwed-up thing to do."

He frowns. "What?"

"This!" Her hand darts out to indicate him. "Everything! Every word you just said."

"Right back atcha," he mutters, tipping his beer at her then lifting it to his lips, "Scuttling my mission…"

She scoops up a toy giraffe and lobs it into the plastic bucket. "You're lucky I didn't write you up for challenging a superior officer."

"My guess is I'm out of a job anyway." He one-handedly shoots a baby alien from the couch cushions into the bucket. "Again."

"Well, my squadroom's full," she mumbles, casting him a cautionary glance.

He sips his beer and smiles. "Your squadroom…."

She doesn't smile back. "What?"

He pauses momentarily, takes another sip of beer then jerks his head upwards. "Hey."

Olivia continues her tidy-up. "What…?"

"Got any pics?"

"What?"

"Of the ceremony."

She rolls her eyes but points to a bureau by the window.

Abandoning his beer, Elliot heads over and picks up the photo of her in full dress uniform, accepting her certificate of promotion. "Wow…look at that…Olivia Benson…" He lifts his gaze from the frame to her. "I'm proud of you."

She picks up his beer from the coffee table and takes a thoughtful sip, swirling it in her mouth before swallowing. "I'm still…finding my way with it, with…everything. Being the boss, being a mom…"

His head bobs. "So couldn't we just find our way with this too?"

Her spine stiffens. "And if I've moved on?"

"After thirteen years together?"

"After three years apart."

"We've been apart before." He replaces the photo on the bureau then turns back to her. "You deserted me on more than one occasion."

"That was…" she turns away, head shaking, "very different."

"How?"

She wanders to the couch, perching on the arm with his beer dangling from her fingertips. "Elliot…" she opens her mouth with hesitation, only finding the words as she's speaking them, "my whole life is divided in two – before the day you left and after." She looks up, meets his gaze with direct eyes. "There's only one other day I can say that about. And just like the day my mom told me where I came from…" her head shakes again, one hand lifting to press against her chest, "it changed who I was. It changed…who she was to me, who we were to each other. You can never be…who you once were to me."

Elliot ventures closer, perching on the opposite arm of the couch. "So what if I was someone different? Something more?"

"Then we're right back where we always were." She leaves a pointed pause and does not shirk his gaze as she says, "What about your wife?"

"Are you asking me to leave Kathy—"

"No—" Olivia rises, walking away from him but pointing back at him with the hand holding his beer. "I'd never do that, you know I'd never do that." She stops, shakes her head and sips her beer, "That's never what I wanted or…expected."

"Then you're asking me to leave you. To forget everything, to go on with my life while you go on with yours. Separately."

"I don't see another alternative. Not if we both want to be happy."

His eyes blink at her then narrow. "You were never this all-or-nothing before."

"Well…" she peers down the neck of the bottle then mumbles, "guess I'd never truly had nothing before."

"You've never had all either." He leaves the couch and moves closer, his voice low and rough and compelling. "And you never will. Because Cassidy can't give it to you. You said it yourself – he was a substitute. For me. You wanted me, you always did. Me, Olivia, and no one else." He's standing in front of her, much too close, lips hovering near her forehead, her temples, her eyes and ears. "And I—I wanted you. No one else. Since the day I set eyes on you, I knew…" his hands twitch, so close to her hips and her waist and the paradise between her legs, "…there was something here, something fated. Unavoidable. That's why neither of us can walk away." He's standing in front of her— Elliot is standing in front of her at long last and the pull between them is back, convincing her, convincing him, coaxing both their bodies into letting their minds hand over control. "We're connected," he whispers, so close that she feels his breath on her face. "And it doesn't matter what we do…we'll always be connected."

Olivia breathes in and holds it, gaze dipping to his mouth then away. She grasps the slippery beer bottle in her hand, holding it so tightly that it nearly slips from her fingers to the floor. "I don't believe in fate," she rasps, turning and walking to the kitchen.

"No, you didn't believe in us. In me."

"El—"

"And maybe I couldn't offer you everything back then but I'm offering now." He follows her into the kitchen, addresses her turned, tensed back. "But this time, you gotta do the same, Liv. You can't just run out on me cos you think you know me better than I know myself."

"I do know you better than you know yourself," she says, dumping the rest of his beer down the drain.

"Except when it comes to how I feel about you. You never understood that." He steps closer, turning her by her shoulders to face him. "You never let me love you because you never thought you deserved that love."

"I don't," she answers stoically. "Your love doesn't belong to me."

He smiles sadly, runs his palms down her arms. "I know it would be so much more convenient for both of us if that were true. But it's not and you know it. I didn't choose this any more than you did. But…I belong with you. I know that now. How much longer is it gonna take for you to realize that—"

"I belong with you." She's finishing his sentence, realizing its truth and stating the obvious all at once.

Elliot smiles slightly in response. "Yeah."

"I belong with you," she repeats, voice cracking with certainty.

He nods. "I know."

She gulps, tears beginning to well in her eyes. "I love you."

"I know that too." He pulls her in and wraps her up, murmuring in her ear, "I love you too."

Her arms wrap round him, holding on tight. And her body sags, releasing itself into him as her eyes close over and her head falls to his shoulder. "I love you…"

"I love you…" He presses her against him, inhales her scent and kisses her hair.

Her hands draw back, forming fists and beating against his back just once. "Where have you been? ?" she demands, half crying, half laughing.

Elliot doesn't open his eyes. He just burrows in closer and answers, "Everywhere but where I wanted to be."

 

Part Four

2014

His hands slide from her spread thighs up to her undulating hips, never losing contact with her body. "Don't move..."

She frowns down at him, hair damp against her temples and neck. "What is it?"

"Just for a second," he murmurs, eyes closing over then opening back onto her. "Just…stay."

Olivia halts the rhythm of her hips and sits still on him. "Something wrong?"

Elliot smiles in the dark quiet of her bedroom. "Nothing." Absolutely nothing is wrong. Everything's the opposite of wrong. He glides his palms up her sides, grazing the sides of her breasts, then returns them to her hips. "I just want to be here for a moment. Right…" he flexes his hips, feeling himself embedded within her as deeply as he's ever been, "here…"



2005

They had to be drunk that first time. Elliot had only been separated a matter of weeks. And though their partnership had continued on relatively unaffected, beneath it, each of them was waiting. Waiting for the other, for the right moment, for the requisite courage it was going to take to cross that line after so many years of careful restraint. In the end, it was Dutch courage that edged them over that formidable line and into a whole new relationship.

They'd been flirting all night, using the alcohol as an excuse, as a cue. A signal to the other that now was not the time for professionalism or moderation. Now was the time for their more reckless selves to rise to the surface. It was in that spirit that Elliot offered her a ride home. After all, he was a free man, a single man for the first time in too many years for his sloshed brain to calculate. He definitely didn't have anywhere he needed to be. And his partner had been matching him drink for drink, which, considering her smaller frame and empty stomach, had left her considerably worse off than he was. She stumbled slightly when she slid down from her stool, her eyes unfocused and her lips emitting a lilting giggle. Elliot caught her wrist then continued their dangerously flirtatious discussion.

"You never told me you had a tattoo."

She shrugged, heading for the rear exit. "You never asked."

Elliot trailed her down the red-lit hallway, feet clumsy on the ends of his legs. "You gonna show it to me?"

"Eh, it's small, it's nothing..." She waved a hand and swerved out of the way of a wilting indoor palm.

He caught her elbow, halting her under the low-hanging red light and amid the pathetic potted plants. "I showed you mine," he pointed out, voice low and rumbly.

Olivia gave a lax snort then bent to remove her shoe. "Hang on…." She hopped once then put a hand on his shoulder, balancing herself as she peeled down her sock to show him the ink on the dint below her ankle joint.

Elliot bent to get a closer look, squinting at the small crowned heart flanked by two hands. The tattoo was simple, probably cheap and slightly faded from the rubbing of her shoes. But something about it fascinated him. He looked up at her face, framed by short blonde waves that fell forward against her cheekbones. "It's like a Claddagh ring. The hands mean…?"

"Friendship," she filled in when he faltered and frowned, "The crown means—"

"Loyalty," he nodded in remembrance. "And the heart means…"

He knew exactly what it meant but he didn't say it. He wanted to hear her say it. Olivia didn't avert her eyes when she all but whispered:

"Love."

The finally voiced word hung for a moment in the red light and cigarette smoke, in the heated atmosphere about their bent bodies and too-close faces. The only reason the moment broke was that she wobbled in place, losing her balance.

Smiling as he straightened, her hand still using him as a base, Elliot watched her pull up her sock and slip on her shoe. "And what's that mean to you?" he mused with a humorous little inflection.

She tossed her hair back then continued on to the exit. "Absolutely nothing."

Elliot followed, both of them leaning an elbow against the door. "No?"

She met his gaze as they shoved it open, her eyes shining with laughter. "No."

Out in the parking lot, the air was cooler, cleaner, the smoke and noise of the bar a mere memory. The crisp air sobered them slightly, the wind hitting their faces and making their jackets fly. The gravel underfoot crunched as they strolled, for once in no hurry to get where they were going.

"So why get it?" Elliot asked, his voice lower in the riverside still.

Olivia glanced up at the night sky. "Ah…I was young, drunk and in love."

"A dangerous combination."

"You're telling me."

Reaching the car, he turned to face her, hands shoved in pockets. "So the guy…was he Irish or something?"

She shook her head, facing him with a bemused, amused expression. "Like, Italian-American, I think."

He nodded. Then took one hand from his pocket and placed it on the car. The move boxed her in slightly, testing whether the proximity of his body was welcome. "I'm Irish," he murmured, leaning infinitesimally closer. "Well, my name, my, ah…"

Olivia swallowed, gaze dipping to his lips. "I know…"

She eased back against the car, silently giving him permission to advance. So Elliot lifted his other hand, slowly placing it on the sedan, boxing her in with both arms. He shuffled closer, faced her fully. Olivia tipped up her chin, one hand reaching out to loosely grasp his jacket. The wind picked up, blowing her hair back from her face and making her eyes glisten. Something about her face made him stop though. Its familiarity was daunting to him, the idea of the change he was instigating. And its beauty was daunting, its maturity. The last woman he'd made any sort of move on was Kathy and she was just a girl. An inexperienced, infatuated teen. Olivia was a woman – a mature, experienced, world-wise woman. One who he suspected was deeply sensual, boldly sexual in her private life. It made him want to kiss her with every atom of his being. And it also made him hesitate, terrified to kiss her. He inched in, eyes on her lips. But in the end, he couldn't do it. He couldn't close that final distance, he couldn't make that final move. It felt like a farce, a cruel joke – after all those years of wanting to be in this exact situation, aching for the freedom he now had – to be unable to follow through.

His head dipped down to hers, eyes screwing desperately shut. "Wanna kiss you," he muttered in a barely audible rush of breath.

"So kiss me," she whispered back and then her mouth was on his, warm and wet and open.

Her face was angled upwards, her lower lip nudging between his as both her hands tugged him closer by his clothes. Elliot's hesitation instantly evaporated. His body fell against hers, pressing her back into cool stability of the car. The arms that boxed her in began to shake, trembling with want, only satisfied by dropping to find her hips, her waist, hands slipping inside her jacket to find her warmth. It was immediate and intense, the heat that rose between them, stoked by so many years of affection and danger and conflict and understanding and proximity and withholding. Once freed from its cage, it came out so unreservedly, so desperately, as furiously desiring in her as it was in him. They progressed so swiftly from kissing to panting against each other's mouths that it shocked him. They went from grabbing at each other's clothes to loosening them, slipping inside them. From making out like teenagers without homes to go to, they moved on to practically humping against the car. His arousal was intense, his hardness pressing into the warm juncture of her legs. It was probably that part of his anatomy that prompted him to fumblingly open the back door of the car and usher her in. Olivia pulled him forward by his shirt, causing him to bump his forehead on the roof. She muttered an apology, laughed breathily then backed onto the seat, drawing him down on top of her. Her legs immediately parted, inviting him in and Elliot found himself thrusting against her as he kissed her face, her neck, what he could get to of her breasts. His feet dangled outside the car door, not allowing him much traction but the bliss of feeling her body under him, of drinking in her sounds and smells, of kissing her wherever he damn well wanted made him not care about such logistics or such indignity.

Olivia clearly did. Her hands were inside his jacket, clawing at his lower back, coaxing him into the cradle of her hips. Her head was tipped back against the seat, her chest rising and falling heavily when she gasped three words that stopped his heart.

"We should stop."

He pulled back and looked at her, feeling tangled and exposed and idiotic.

She gave a small smile, stroked his spine with one hand. "I mean, we should stop and take this…somewhere else."

Elliot began breathing again, the air leaving his lungs in a relieved puff. He smiled down at her then rumbled, "Your place or mine?"

"Whichever's closest," she said, her smile brightening, widening.

He wagged his head, adjusted himself on top of her. "God, when you smile…"

Olivia said nothing. She just pushed him off her, scrambled out of the car and asked if he was alright to drive. His head seemed to have miraculously cleared itself of the effects of alcohol. Although a whole slew of new sensations now assaulted his abruptly awakened body. Luckily, none of them would impede his ability to drive them to the closest possible bed.



2009

They might have slipped up once or twice – or more than once or twice – during their last few years of partnership. It happened three times, to be exact. Three separate, unplanned instances in which they couldn't resist revisiting the year-long affair they'd engaged in during Elliot's separation.

The first time, he'd found her at her mother's gravesite after a case which saw an alcoholic killer walk free due to the drunken conduct of their ADA. After Sonya Paxton's teary apology, Olivia left the squadroom without a word. Elliot knew where she was going and hesitated only a moment before following. She hadn't allowed him to come to her mother's funeral or the reception that followed it. Two years into their partnership, Olivia had barely talked about her mother's death. But in the years that followed, often when it was just the two of them, she'd drop telling comments or mention her mother with sadness in her eyes. That's when Elliot understood that the loneliness she insisted on maintaining was more of a habit than a choice.

He'd never seen a lonelier sight than that of his partner standing at her mother's grave, laying a solitary bouquet of roses on the headstone. Elliot was determined that, this time, company would be waiting on the other side of her grief. Watching her approach, he straightened against the car door, unfolded his arms, took off and pocketed his sunglasses. He knew she would feel vulnerable, perhaps angry at his intrusion into her private pain. That was the reaction he expected and was bracing himself to meet. He wasn't expecting her to walk right up to him, straight into his arms, accepting everything he wanted to give. But Olivia did. He wrapped her up, sheltered her from the wind, kissed her windswept hair and told her he'd drive her home.

They didn't drink, not after the disastrous effect they had just seen it have on Dalton Rindell and Sonya Paxton. So he was stone-cold sober when he kissed her on her couch. And she was stone-cold sober when she kissed him back. It meant they had nothing to blame their indiscretion on. It also meant that everything was as clear as crystal and in razor-sharp focus. Every sensation was utterly unadulterated and doubly potent after three years of denying themselves such contact, such comfort, such closeness. They didn't move into the bedroom. They just shed their clothes in the living room and stretched out on the couch. They made love achingly slow, limbs wrapped round each other, bodies pressed tightly together and eyes never once disconnecting. When Olivia began to cry out, muffled, panting, anticipatory cries that bathed his face in her breath, Elliot slowed their pace even more, delaying her climax until he could follow her over the edge, both of them coming with such intensity that for several seconds neither could manage to pull in a breath.



2005

"Is this a good idea?" he asked as their bodies made themselves more comfortable on the couch.

Olivia shook her head and pulled off his shirt. "Probably not."

"D'you wanna stop?" he panted, shaking the sleeve off one trapped wrist.

She lifted her head off the cushion and kissed him. "Definitely not."

They didn't end up making it to the bed that first time. But at least they made it back to her apartment. And her couch was much more comfortable than the back of a police-issue sedan they'd spent way too many hours in. They made it to the bed for their second round. The third took place in the kitchen, amidst the empty containers that had provided them with a restoring midnight snack. The fourth time, they were so spent, so sleepy that they were barely conscious. It was leisurely and tender and blissful, neither of them straining towards orgasm as he moved inside her.

They fell asleep joined, their climax postponed until morning.



2010

The second time they slipped up was shortly after Calvin Arliss was wrenched from Olivia's arms. Elliot had been watching her since that awful night, looking for signs, waiting for her to crack. Six days later, she did.

She was the instigator that time. It was her mouth that found his, her hands that drew him close, that rid his body of his clothes. He'd tried to resist – he'd prayed to God for the strength to resist. But he never was much good at refusing a woman he loved. Particularly not one he loved as much as Olivia. So Elliot found himself back in her bed, breath and limbs entwined with hers. The décor of the room had changed. As had her body, over the years. Her curves had increased, growing rounder and softer as his partner just grew harder and tougher. Her hair was longer and darker and her eyes were now bordered by delicate, fine lines. But nothing else had changed. The chemistry was still there, the heat as intense as it ever was, if not more so. There was a desperation to that encounter though – like Olivia was trying to prove something or outrun something, while he was just trying to keep up. To do whatever he could to console her, to please her, to be who she needed him to be for at least that moment.

Usually, Olivia had sex with her eyes wide open – both figuratively and literally. She was bold in bed, reaching for what she craved, unafraid to tell her partner her needs or to fall apart when she had them met. Usually, her eyes on his were the most potent aspect of their love-making. But, in this instance, that was absent. She was absent, or part of her was. Later, he'd wonder if it was guilt that drove her to look away, to close her eyes on him, to ask him to fuck her from behind, her gaze on the rumpled sheets and his hands on her straining hips. Later, he'd feel like he'd failed two women at once. Elliot never stopped to ponder though why he didn't feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. The guilt was undoubtedly there – but it was muted. Like something in him had always assumed that the love affair between him and his partner was not and perhaps never would be entirely finished.



2005

He was grinning uncontrollably when he stepped into the shower and joined her under the spray. "So what happened to that policy on keeping your sex life out of the workplace?"

"Hey." His saturated partner stabbed his chest with one finger. "This doesn't enter the squadroom, okay? Cos if it does, I'll—"

"You'll what?" He ignored the resolute finger pressed to his chest, leaning in to kiss the downward turn of her mouth. "Ditch me? Request another partner?"

Olivia turned her back on him, letting the water run over her head. "Don't think I won't."

Elliot reached around her, taking the soap from the shower caddy and scrubbing it over his chest. He was much more intent on her though than on any effort at cleanliness. Putting the soap back, he pressed his lathered chest to her turned back, hoping to claim her attention as well as some of the shower spray. "Does that mean this wasn't a one-time only thing?"

She turned, short hair slicked to her head and water dripping off her eye lashes. Olivia stepped on his toes as she moved in close, a suggestive smile curving her lips and her arms encircling his neck. "What do you think?"

Elliot swooped in and kissed her, hard and fast, his hands spinning her and pinning her to the slippery white tile. Olivia gave an oomph as her body landed. But she didn't break the kiss, utterly unfazed by the force of his passion. Her hands wove over and around his head, neck and face while his descended to stroke her back, butt and legs. He drew one thigh up round his hip, pressing himself into her wet, welcoming warmth. Deepening the kiss, he let his tongue and teeth graze her lips as the water continued cascading down his back. He eventually withdrew but not very far, mere millimeters between his face and hers as he muttered:

"Do you know how fucking long I've wanted to do that?"

The knee he held nudged his hip and two capable hands shoved his chest. In a single second, Olivia had reversed their position, planting his back against the tile before slithering her dripping body up his.

"Yeah," she murmured, hands gripping his biceps. "I do."

Elliot grinned wider. And let her kiss him again.



2011

The last time they slipped up and slept together was after Sonya Paxton's funeral. Her horrific death had affected both of them deeply – Olivia because of Sonya's similarity to her mother and Elliot because it could have been her. It could have been his partner whose throat was slashed, just as it nearly was years before in that train station with Victor Gitano. Only this time, he wasn't there to protect her, to assure himself that she was still alive and breathing. He'd failed her and his punishment for such abject failure was her rushing right into his arms with tears on her cheeks and her wounded soul bared. He supposed that such an enormous expression of trust and vulnerability from a woman whose trust was not easily earned or whose vulnerability was not often exposed was probably more a reward for all the times that he was there. All the times that he persisted in the face of her censorship and concealment. All the times he did prove worthy of such hard-won faith, such precious reliance.

They stood elbow to elbow at the funeral, dressed in their well-worn blacks with wet grass sticking to their shoes. Like all the other mourners, they were huddled under a black umbrella, trying to evade the slanting rain, trying to ignore the chill in their bones. All around them, tears flowed freely for a life cut short but none afflicted their eyes. Their faces were like stone through the bible verses and prayers for peace, through the praising of the dead and dropping of earth on the casket. Afterwards, they shook hands with colleagues, family members and an impressive array of victims who had come to pay their respects. Both of them tried not to imagine various victims murmuring sombre tributes at their gravesites sometime in the not too distant future. Instead, they made their way through the throng, steadily but swiftly, with polite nods and firm handshakes. Walking up a slippery knoll, they silently agreed to skip the wake.

The loss of a life was a decent excuse for the reaffirming act of love. Though in truth, they didn't need an excuse. And neither could be wholly blamed as the instigator this time. Both of them initiated it, wanted it, needed it. Perhaps the funeral affected them more than they thought because there was something undeniably savoring about their coming together. Both seemed to want to prolong the encounter, putting off its pinnacle for as long as humanly possible. They made love in every way they knew how and a few they'd never discovered. Elliot stood with his black shirt open and his black pants dropped, the grass still wet on his shoes, as Olivia sat on the bed and took him into her mouth. She drew him out, made him hard, teased and taunted him without giving him release. He returned the favor by kissing down her body as he urged her back on the bed, as he pushed her black dress up her body. She sat back against the headboard, her legs spread as he lay on his stomach with his face and tongue buried in her familiar, salty heat.

After he made her wet, made her come once, he pulled her down the bed by her ankles and entered her in missionary position. That's not where they stayed though. Once they'd taken all the pleasure they could in how that position allowed their bodies to press against each other, to drag over each other's skin and muscles and curves and angles, Elliot pulled back. He flipped her onto her side, folding one leg over the other before entering her again. After that, Olivia moved onto her stomach, one hand reaching behind her to pull him down on top of her. It curled around his head, keeping his face anchored in the crook of her shoulder. She came in that position, her inner walls clenching around him as her own fingers massaged her clitoris. Elliot held back on his orgasm, not yet ready for them to finish. From there, he pulled her up onto her hands and knees. After a while in that position, when Olivia had regained her strength and awareness, she drew back, rising onto her haunches and sitting down on him, over and over and over again as he thrust up and pulled back beneath her. One hand held onto her hip and another stole around to cup her breasts, to pinch her nipples, to circle her clit. She came again, this time much harder. And as much as he wanted to prolong the act, Elliot couldn't help but come along with her.

A period of drowsy recovery time followed, untainted by regret or guilt or worry. But then Olivia uttered the phrase she always uttered after each of their slips into sex. Something in her would almost instantly shut down, insisting on pushing him away. She'd tell him what they'd done was a mistake, that it could never happen again, that it wouldn't ever happen again. Then she'd ask him to leave. In a quiet, firm voice. Go, she'd say, every single time. Please, she'd say. Just go.



2014

His hand runs up her arm, pensively slow and infinitely gentle, his thumb stopping to circle each round, puckered scar. His voice is quiet in the darkened bedroom. "How'd you survive?"

Olivia pulls in a breath, eyes drifting briefly shut. "Sometimes I'm not sure I did."

The hand continues moving up her arm, inventorying the wounds Lewis inflicted on her as well as revisiting some she incurred long before her recent terrorisation. His fingertips trace the ridge of her shoulder, sending a shiver down her naked spine. Then his thumb nudges her chin up, exposing the now invisible slash Gitano left in her neck. The injury threatened to take her from him – and did, in a much more roundabout way than that particular psychopath intended. Because that was the case that broke them, that exposed the extent of their attachment. That was the case in which their private entanglement collided with their professional commitment, sending Olivia into perpetual retreat.

"I prayed for you," he murmurs, thumb tracing the healed spot on her neck.

Her brows twitch. "You did?"

His head nods on the pillow. "On my knees. Morning, noon and night. For…a month? I didn't know…I—" Elliot's eyes drop to the scars on her chest and his hand follows his gaze, gliding with rueful tenderness down to her sternum. "I couldn't— …it was the only thing I could think to do."

Olivia breathes again, her chest filling and releasing under his flattened palm. "Looks like it worked."

His eyes flick up to hers. "Did it?"

There's anger and blame in his eyes but it's not directed at her. It's not even directed at the dead man who brutalized her. It's directed at the God he's tried so sincerely to serve. He's not sure he can ever see the scars she now sports as blessings bestowed on her by a higher power. He prayed for more than simple survival, he wanted more for her than that. He still does.

"I did anything I could," she says, haltingly answering his earlier question. "I…begged him, pleaded for my life." Her hands lift to grasp the one at her breast. "I…tried to seduce him, goaded him into raping me."

Elliot's body braces, his eyes taper and lips part.

"He didn't," she assures him pre-emptively. "I swear to you." She looks down at the hand she holds then admits, "And…I thought of you."

His eyes close over. "Don't say that."

Her thumb stokes the back of his hand. "It's true. It helped." She places his hand back on her body, presses it to her heart. "You helped me. Without even knowing it."

His eyes open again, to look up at her. Not at her scars but at her. Her silhouette in the dark. Her straight spine. Her full breasts. Her healed neck. Her dark eyes. Her. Then all of a sudden, he rises from his prone position, arms weaving about her. "Never again," he whispers, lightly kissing her face. "Never, ever, ever again…"

He adjusts himself beneath her, feels himself re-harden inside her. Olivia liquefies, releasing a moan of sweet frustration. Her arms snake around him and her hips want to move. He can't deny her body anything – not after all it's been through – and he certainly doesn't want to deny her this. His hands slide down to cup her ass as he begins moving again beneath her. Her head falls back in relief, in pleasure and her hips re-start their rocking motion, spurring him on. Their pace increases steeply, their breaths beginning to pant in perfect unison. Elliot leans in, kissing the invisible scar on her neck and the visible scars on her breasts. He bends to run his tongue up her breast, over her nipple. He nips it with his teeth, gives a tug in that way she used to love and apparently still does. Her orgasm comes in strong, slow waves that spread and extend, racking and arching her beautiful body. In the end, she slumps forward, still moving faintly, either to draw out her own orgasm or in order to seek his. Her mouth is open on his shoulder, her teeth biting into his flesh. The bite of her teeth and of her nails on his skin, the tightness of her tunnel and the closeness of her soft, sweaty body is all it takes, all he ever needed. Elliot pushes into her a few more times then comes with a euphoric cry of release.

He doesn't expect what happens after. But then he never did. He's still half asleep, eyes just cracking open when Olivia appears in the doorway of the adjacent bathroom. She's dressed in a floor-length robe, a toothbrush stuck in her mouth as she scrubs her teeth with a quick, efficient air.

"That shouldn't have happened," she tells him through the foam.

Elliot rises onto one elbow. "…Liv."

She retreats into the bathroom, coming back when she has rinsed her mouth. "You should go."

He scoots to the edge of the bed, plants his feet on the floor. "Olivia."

"Please." She heads for the door when she hears a perfectly timed snuffle from Noah's room. "Just go."

 

Part Five

2014

A week later, Olivia enters her office to find a large envelope sitting in the middle of her desk. It's clearly been placed for maximum visibility, its serious yellow length demanding her immediate attention. Picking up the unidentified packet, she turns it over and over in her hands then calls to a conveniently passing uni.

"Hey. Officer Keane."

The sandy-haired officer sticks her head through her door. "Yes, Sarge?"

Olivia holds up the envelope. "Did you see who dropped this off?"

"Yes, Sarge," she replies in that typical rat-a-tat police manner, "Said she was a friend of yours."

Her brows lift. "A woman dropped it off?

"Young woman. Blonde hair. Seemed to know the place."

"She give you a name?"

"No, ma'am."

"'Kay." She gives the younger officer a nod of dismissal. "Thanks."

The uni moves on and Olivia heads over to close the door, opening the envelope on her way back to her desk. Inside are a clutch of photocopies with a post-it note stuck to the top page. The post-it reads simply For Olivia, underneath which is a fluidly penned K. She peels the note off and scans the papers underneath. They contain all the legalese required for the dissolution of a marriage and at the bottom of each page is her ex-partner's signature. Beside it, each time, is his ex-wife's. They didn't sign just once but several times. She flips through the pages, each time finding both signatures, neither of them scrawled in hast, but both very carefully transcribed.

Kathy's signature is dated 2006. Elliot's is dated 2007, a full seven years earlier.



2008

Her comment about his cuteness as a carrot had him stumped. He stood on the threshold of the courtroom for several seconds, attempting to decode it. Elliot didn't like mysteries – that's why he became a detective, to rid the world of them. By the time he'd formed a half-decent hypothesis regarding the curious carrot comment though, his partner was gone. He had to jog to catch up with her, doing so on the crowded courthouse steps.

"You did this," he said, falling into step beside her.

Olivia still wore that tiny, secretive smile. "Did what?"

"I don't know," he said, eyes on her face as they descended the stone steps. "But you fixed this. Somehow." After a few more steps, he stopped her, one hand on the bend of her elbow. "How? How did you…what did you…?"

"You're not the only one who can keep secrets," was her enigmatic reply.

His head shook in bemusement, in awe. "I couldn't fix this. Kathy couldn't…the lawyers, judges…"

She gave a little shrug. "Sometimes you just need someone objective."

His bemusement faded, his mouth tugging downward and his eyes tapering. There was the tiniest trace of reproach in his voice when he asked, "How many times are you gonna rescue my family?"

Olivia glanced up the steps to where Kathy and Kathleen were shaking hands with her attorney. "I can't imagine who you'd be without them," she said before returning her gaze to his.

Elliot paused, looking over her shoulder at nothing. He wasn't going to say it – however true it might be, it was a little too telling to admit to the woman who once shared his bed. But he figured he owed her that much – that little. So, despite the fact that he didn't know precisely what he owed her for, Elliot met her eyes, replying in a sad, slow voice, "I can't imagine…who I'd be without you."

His partner's smile momentarily wavered. "Go." She tossed her head, broke eye contact. "Be with your family."

"Liv—"

He stepped after her as she stepped away. He wanted her to stop using that infernal word – that unending, inhuman go. He wanted her to cease with her relentless determination to banish him, to divorce herself from him in any context other than the amicably professional. He wanted to draw her back up the steps, into the embrace of his family. He wanted Kathleen's and Kathy's thanks to join his own. He wanted her to have the acknowledgment she deserved. But Olivia just turned and continued down the steps, throwing him a look over her shoulder.

"Go," she urged again. "I'll see you later."

Before he could do or say anything more to halt her, his daughter came flying past, her shoes tapping on the stone and blonde hair bobbing in her wake. Kathy joined him halfway down the flight of steps and both of them watched their daughter run up to Olivia, speak to her then throw her arms around her. Olivia hugged her back then pulled away and spoke to her in what looked like a quiet, steady voice.

"Your partner certainly goes above and beyond," his ex-wife commented, standing a chilly distance away.

Elliot nodded absently, mind reverting to wondering about carrots, wondering how it was possible— if it was possible for two of the most important women in his life to have found each other. For them to have conspired behind his back, despite his efforts to keep them separate and unknown to each other.

"'Course you realize," Kathy went on, her voice both hard and easy, "that at some point you're going to have to choose."

Elliot cast her a sideways look. "…Between?"

"Your work and your family." She nodded at Kathleen and Olivia. "Your kids, Elliot, and your partner."

He frowned at her. "Does it have to be a choice?"

A surprised look flitted across Kathy's face. But the question remained unanswered, unaddressed. Because their daughter returned and the three of them headed for the parking garage, weaving their way through the harried Manhattan street traffic. Elliot couldn't help glancing back though, catching a glimpse of his partner as she strode away in the opposite direction. He felt like he was being pulled in two directions at once – a feeling he was acutely accustomed to. Maybe his wife was right, maybe eventually he'd have to choose. Maybe he already had. If life was simply a matter of choice though, then maybe, sometime in the future, he'd get another chance to choose a life for himself that wouldn't constantly tear him in two.



2014

Elliot's daughter picks up on the first ring, sounding unsurprised by the call. "Olivia."

Olivia nods into the receiver. "Kathleen. Hi."

She cuts straight to the issue, a smile in her voice as she asks, "You got my message?"

"I did…" She looks down at the opened envelope on her desk, at the divorce papers and the succinct post-it note. "Although I'm not sure I know what it means."

"It means my mom and dad never remarried."

There's a pause and her voice fades briefly away. Olivia hears a car horn and muffled voices then the background noise silences and Kathleen continues on:

"They tried to get the divorce overturned or something but the church was weird about it, told them they'd have to jump through all these hoops, do counseling, blah-blah-blah. They thought about having a secular ceremony, not a shotgun wedding this time, but one of those recommitment things celebrities do when their relationship's in trouble…"

A door squeaks open and Kathleen mumbles something to someone.

"But?" Olivia prompts.

Her voice returns, full-strength and straightforward. "Never happened. They struck a deal instead."

She frowns, unsure of her right to such information. "What…kind of deal?"

"They agreed that my dad would stay and help out until Eli went to school. Then they'd reassess, maybe share custody."

Olivia nods and sinks into her seat. She vaguely remembers Elliot mentioning something about Eli's schooling on one of the last cases they worked together. If Kathleen is correct, then his and Kathy's agreement had been due for revision shortly after she and Elliot were forced to part ways. "Why're you telling me this?"

"Because it's okay." Kathleen's voice softens and Olivia can hear her smile again. "We're okay, all of us. Our family…we came to terms with all this a long time ago. It's only Dad who doesn't get that."

"You've…spoken with him."

"After he…visited you."

Olivia shifts back in her seat, her head bowed and the phone at her ear. "Eli…" she says after a short silence, "needs his father."

"And he'll have him," Kathleen replies easily. "Look, my dad wasn't always there when I was growing up – he was always at work, he was always with you. And there was a time when I was really angry about that, angry with him. But the truth is, he was a great dad. He did his best and when he was there, he was really there." She halts, gives a little chuckle. "And hey, I turned out alright. You know, apart from the whole going off the deep end and being charged with theft bit…"

In her office, Olivia just shakes her head. "Kathleen…"

But much like her father, Kathleen simply presses determinedly on. "So Rich is on a tour with the Marines right now but I talked to Maureen and Liz and they totally understand. I think even Mom gets it."

Olivia isn't sure she gets it. "Gets what?"

"I know you cops have got this code of honor thing going on but I'm just saying that…there's no need for you two to turn yourselves into collateral damage, not for the sake of something that doesn't even exist anymore."

Olivia gazes out her office window at the desk that once belonged to her partner, remembering the photo that used to sit on it, the smile Elliot sported when holding his last born child. "I know how important family is to your dad, Kathleen."

"Yeah, it is. But there's also nothing wrong with taking a second chance when it's offered to you." Kathleen pauses then adds lightly, "I did."

To this, Olivia has no reply. She's always believed in second chances. For certain people anyway. Maybe she could be – should be – one of them. Maybe Elliot deserves that much too. She doesn't say so and Kathleen seems to have said all she wished to. Olivia glances again at the divorce papers on her desk, her mind cautiously approaching an understanding of what the younger woman meant by them. On the other end of the line, Kathleen says she has to go, that she's due back at work. Olivia can hear the strength in her voice, beneath the lightness. She can hear how Elliot's daughter has taken her second chance and run with it, making her life what it should have been but probably wouldn't have been without her intervention years before.

They both say simple, warm, halting goodbyes. Then Olivia slowly hangs up the phone.



2009

It was Kathleen who let slip about Olivia's involvement in her case, in his family mess. Months after her court appearance, his daughter casually mentioned the clandestine meeting his partner arranged between her and her grandmother. Then she promptly clammed up. Despite his continued questioning, Kathleen refused to divulge details about what was revealed and how much his partner overheard. Months after that, his mother confirmed an acquaintance with his long-time colleague when he and Olivia were called to Bellevue during a routine canvas.

Bernie had been wearing only her painting smock and a ratty pair of slippers when she was discovered trying on underpants in the lingerie section of Macy's. Olivia accompanied him to the hospital ward without a word but offered to wait outside while he visited his mother. Elliot nearly insisted that she come in with him – he wanted to observe the two of them together, to discern just how much they knew about each other. Before he could insist though, Bernie's voice floated over to where they stood, huddled on the threshold with a beleaguered city doctor.

"Olivia…dear…"

Olivia stepped inside the cheerless room, it's dull, green walls lined with eight beds, a drugged up body strapped to all but one. Elliot followed, watching his partner take the withered hand that was outstretched despite the restraint round its wrist. Even in her sedated state, his mother clearly recognized his partner, was comfortable on first name basis with her.

"Thank you for coming," she slurred, looking frail and tiny in her bed, "I'm so glad he isn't hiding us from each other anymore."

Olivia smiled and replied in her softest possible voice, "How're you feeling, Mrs Stabler?"

To this Bernie gave a shush, reminding her of her shortened first name. Elliot suspected this wasn't the first time his mother had delivered such a kindly reprimand and would've given anything to be a fly on the wall during that conversation. Olivia just nodded and stepped aside, casting a glance over her shoulder at him.

Elliot shuffled closer. "Hey, Mama, how you doin'?"

"And there's my boy," his mother murmured, sluggish eyes drifting closed and open, closed and open. "My boy in the box, my jack-in-a-box…"

"It's Elliot," he told her, standing tall, "not Jack."

"I know," Bernie chuckled, "I know my own son…"

She waved a hand at her bedside where a booklet of plastic sleeves lay open on a rickety tray table. Her glasses sat on top of the tattered book, its pages open to a photo of a young boy dressed as a bright orange carrot. Elliot sighed. She loved that goddamn photo, loved telling people how she'd made him that stupid costume. He glanced at his partner who blinked away the tiniest of smiles.

"When're you gonna bust out of your box?" his mother was mumbling, her head tossing on the pillow, "when're you gonna escape your father's life…?"

"Mom. Mom—" he took her hand, spoke to her in a simple, slightly too-loud voice. "You gotta stop worrying about me and concentrate on getting better, okay?"

Bernie opened her eyes, looking almost lucid. "I'm perfectly fine, Elliot. I just got a little confused. It's you who—" she dropped his hand and wiggled her fingers at Olivia, "my dear— you'll tell him, won't you?" She lifted out of her bed, straining to make contact with his partner.

Elliot placed his hands on her shoulders, urging her back in the bed. But Olivia laid a gentle hand on his arm, easing him out of the way.

"Tell him what, Bernie?"

"You need to tell him," his mother insisted, pulling against her restraints. "I know you know. And he'll listen to you. You see?"

Olivia stroked her straining arm. "What is it I need to tell him?"

"That there's nothing wrong…" Bernie drooped back against the mattress as Olivia leant down, her head angled intently and one hand stroking her arm in a soothing, repetitive motion, "That there's nothing wrong with leading an unconventional life."

Olivia smiled softly. "Of course not." She gave an assuring nod then whispered, "I'll tell him, I'll convince him. Don't you worry."

His mother blinked up at her, eyes wide and desperate. "So you'll….you'll let him out of his box?"

Her smile faltered but she gave another nod. "Sure I will."

Bernie closed her eyes, releasing a long, relieved sigh. She muttered a few thank yous under her breath then continued babbling about her boy, her poor little box boy who'd been stuck in his box for such a very long time and couldn't breathe in there, couldn't grow in there, couldn't do anything that he wanted in there. Before long, she'd drifted away from them, her grip on the hospital sheets loosening and the drugs in her system stopping her tongue.



2014

Nick taps on the door before stepping inside. "Boss?"

Olivia pulls in a breath, her head jolting up. "Yeah. Come in…" She rouses herself from her reverie, shoving the Stabler's divorce papers back in their envelope then dropping them in a drawer.

Nick approaches warily, eyes skating over her face. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." She glances up, gives a short nod. "What's up?"

Not buying the evasion, her partner takes a seat. "What's going on, Liv?"

Her mouth opens, her eyes wander and her head shakes. She has no clue what to say to him, where to start or even if she wants to. She doesn't have to figure it out though because apparently Nick has been watching, gathering clues and piecing them together. She doubts it took very much deduction on his part to arrive at the truth.

"It's Elliot, right?" He leans back in his chair, spreads his hands in a simple gesture. "He's still in love with you."

Olivia doesn't know how to answer. So she doesn't.

Nick pauses then asks in a quieter voice. "You still love him?"

Again, she's got no reply. She rises instead of giving one, slowly pacing round the desk. It doesn't feel right, facing him across its official expanse. Not just because part of her still thinks of the desk as Donald Cragen's but because this man has served as her partner. He's been her challenger and champion, her motivator and protector. She owes him much, trusts him utterly and considers him an equal, not a subordinate.

"Can I ask you something?" she says, taking the seat beside him. "Something…personal?"

Nick shifts to face her, dips his chin. "'Course…"

She frowns, tucks some hair behind her ear then asks, "How's your family?"

He gives a half-humph, half-chuckle. "Which one?"

Olivia tilts her head. "Both, I guess."

"Good, actually. Good…" His head bobs as he considers his scattered family. "It's…not typical. Or easy but…it's working."

"Do you regret…any of it?"

"I only regret the years I missed out on. You know? I love Zara and Gilberto. Cynthia and I are on good terms now. And…I'm working on things with Maria…" He stops, strokes his jaw before adding in an intimate, thoughtful tone, "I guess the one thing I got from that whole mess is that sometimes things fall apart for a reason."

"So they can be put back together in a different order?" Olivia asks after a short silence.

Her partner nods. "Pretty much, yeah."



1998

Elliot was already at his desk when she arrived early that morning. He watched as she shed her coat and scarf, as she shook the snowflakes from her hair. He waited for her to open her locker, secure her weapon and retrieve her yellow legal pad. He didn't open his mouth until she'd taken the seat opposite him. Then he broke the silence, saying in a voice that was both quiet and forthright:

"Found this on my desk." One finger was planted, pointing down at the folder she'd left for him. "Case file of Serena Benson. Raped, March 8th,1967."

Olivia nodded, tightly controlling her voice as she added, "Nine months before I was born." Her eyes fell to the file in front of him and her voice faltered as she went on. "I…didn't know how to— I thought you should know…why this last case," she lifted her head to meet his gaze, "it rattled me a bit."

Elliot's head gave a few slow bobs. "I could tell..."

Her cheeks flushed and head re-ducked. "Yeah..."

She hated that she'd allowed herself to get so rattled. She hated that she'd allowed him to see her so rattled. It made her feel weak, exposed. Unprofessional and uncontrolled. Especially in the face of his experience, his stability, his formidable control. She felt like she'd been trying to prove herself to him for months. She felt exhausted by the attempt. And she felt like she'd failed, that she'd proved his tacit misgivings about her right. That, even though they'd built a certain level of rapport and reliance, Elliot Stabler deserved a stronger partner than she could ever be. Her new partner surprised her though when he rose from his desk, moving around his to hers, approaching with caution and gently laying her mother's case file on her desktop.

Propping a thigh on a corner of her desk, he hunkered in close. And when he spoke again his voice was low and lenient. "I can see why."

Olivia inhaled, straightening her spine. "It's not gonna interfere," she assured him. "I'm here to work."

Elliot nodded. "Fair enough." But didn't retreat right away. "Thanks for telling me," he said in the same soft, intimate tone. "And if you ever need to talk…"

She nodded then scooted closer to her desk, giving him the cue that their conversation was concluded. Her partner withdrew, heading for the squadroom's kitchenette. Olivia sniffed, shook back her hair and placed her mother's file in a locked drawer. Elliot returned a minute later, silently placing a mug of hot tea on her desk blotter. It had taken awhile but he'd finally remembered that she preferred tea first thing in the morning, not coffee. That she liked the teabag left in to steep and only a token splash of milk.

Olivia looked up as he headed for his own desk, coffee in hand. "Elliot."

Elliot stopped and turned back.

"Don't…" she said, head shaking, "Don't tell the others. Okay?"

He nodded once. "You have my word."



2014

Olivia flashes her badge at the guards on duty then takes the elevator three floors up. Elliot's been working out of the One-Two, tying up the loose ends of the undercover mission she ruined while awaiting his long-term fate. She doesn't actually expect him to be there, she's hoping to just place the envelope on his desk and leave. It's their preferred way of communicating. Whenever they have something important to communicate, at least. That's why her heart stopped when she was handed that plain package containing his gold medallion and his two-word goodbye several months after his devastating departure.

Cowardly though it may be, her plan is to maintain that whisper-thin thread of unspoken communication that weaves back through their years together. When she enters the unfamiliar bullpen though, her old partner is stationed at a tiny, cluttered desk at the foot of a well-worn staircase. The desk has clearly been crammed into an inconvenient nook in order to accommodate him following his unforeseen release from prison. People keep bumping the back of his chair as they pass but Elliot doesn't notice. Nor does he look up as she approaches. His eyes are on a file, his sleeves rolled up, a pencil between his lips and a frown creasing his brow. She moves slowly but with purpose, coming to a stop at his desk. Then she places the envelope she holds on the dossier he's examining, interrupting his apparent absorption.

Elliot lifts his head, stares up at her a moment. Then he scoots his chair backwards, "Hey—"

"Open it," she says, holding his gaze.

He looks like he wants to say something but complies with her command instead. He picks up the envelope, tears it open and pours a key out onto his palm.

"I'll be home round eight," Olivia tells him.

His eyes return to hers, his fingers close around the key. "I'll be there."



2006

Arriving late on the Red Eye, she headed straight for the precinct, rather than home. She wasn't due to make an appearance but she wanted to see her partner, to check how he was getting on with his cold case. Her cab got stuck in traffic though and, by the time she arrived, Elliot was gone. Olivia was about to head out again when she noticed that her desk lamp had been left on, highlighting a small envelope in the center of her desk. She moved closer, dropped her bag to the floor. Then, standing at her desk in the deserted squadroom, she opened it. Inside was an address and a key. Olivia smiled and took a cab directly there.

The key stuck in the door but with a sharp shove from her shoulder, it allowed her entry. She wandered through the darkened apartment, taking in what she could see of the design and décor, or absence of. Heading down a squat hall to the only light still on, Olivia entered a bedroom with cracked and peeling walls to find her shirtless partner, propped up in bed with a book. A rusty old fan spun sluggishly in one corner as he flipped idly though the sunnily covered Divorce for Dummies. He'd just been killing time though, or so it seemed, because the book lowered onto his lap the second she appeared.

"You found the key?"

Olivia dropped her bag at the door and crawled across the bed to peck his lips. "I did."

"And you found the place." He shifted under the sheets, setting his book aside. "So what do you think of my new digs?"

She glanced about, pulling her rumpled shirt over her head. "Pretty grim, El."

Elliot smirked as he watched her disrobe. "Less grim now."

She sat on the edge of the bed to remove her boots, scrunching up each leg of her jeans, unzipping each boot then tossing it away with a satisfied sigh. Elliot budged closer, removing her gun and securing it with his in a shonky bedside drawer. His hands proceeded to her belt buckle while his lips dropped to her neck.

"How was L.A.?" he murmured against her skin.

"Hot," she replied, throwing away her second boot. She let him undo her belt and unzip her jeans, lifting her butt off the bed so he could push the sticky denim down her legs.

"What took so long?" he asked, sucking at her earlobe and watching her feet kick off the jeans.

She huffed tiredly. "There were…complications." Olivia turned to him with a smile, one leg folded flat on the bed. "Why? You miss me?"

Elliot smiled back and countered with, "You miss me?"

Neither query was answered because they both leaned in, initiating a deeper kiss than her opening peck. Without breaking it, Elliot peeled off her underwear and drew her body up onto the mattress. Olivia flung back the sheet and rid him of his briefs. Easing back on the new bed in his new apartment, his arms wound round her upper body while her legs wound round his lower body.

It was the first night they spent in his new apartment but the last they would spend together. It was the last time they'd make love for very a long time. The last time they'd sleep together and wake together. And the last time they wouldn't have to miss each other. The following morning, they caught Victor Gitano's case. In its aftermath, Olivia requested a new partner and a new assignment. Shortly afterwards, she disappeared undercover and the relationship they'd secretly maintained for more than a year was over.



2014

It's much later than eight when he lets himself in. Elliot leaves his wallet and keys on the bookcase, secures his weapon in the kitchen. Following the light down the corridor, he first ducks into Noah's room. Olivia's young son sleeps peacefully, stars of light gliding around his walls and the baby alien keeping watch from one corner of his crib. Elliot kisses two fingers and places them on the little boy's rising and falling chest. Then he sneaks next door.

Olivia is already in bed, curled on one side with her back to him. The lamps either side of the bed are still on but she's out cold, he can tell. One arm looks like it was propped beneath her head but has since collapsed under the weight of her exhaustion. The other lies over an abandoned book, its open pages turned face down into the bedding. Elliot smiles and creeps closer. She's reading Eat Pray Love ten years after the rest of the world did. He seems to recall her starting it three years ago, before he was forced into a jail cell and a new identity. At the rate she's going, she probably hasn't even left Italy yet.

He sheds his jacket and toes off one shoe. Toeing the other off, he unbuttons and discards his shirt. Elliot drops his pants, takes his socks off with them. Then he climbs into bed and scoots in close, pressing his front to her back and breathing her in. Olivia rouses but doesn't open her eyes, stroking his arms as they wrap around her. He kisses her ear, whispers in it:

"Sorry I took so long."

Olivia inhales deeply then replies on her exhale, "You're here now."

After several moments of breath and still, she rolls over to face him, eyes still closed and lax arms snaking round him. Behind her, Eat Pray Love slides silently to the floor. Olivia settles against him and Elliot shifts onto his back, taking her warm, weighty body with him.

He kisses her temple, smooths some hair out of her face. "Hey."

She takes a moment to answer. "…Hm…?"

His eyes skate around her new bedroom, taking in every detail, liking how his voice sounds within its brand new walls. "Gotta tell you something."

Olivia gives a throaty grumble. "Can't it wait 'til morning?"

"No." He places a series of kisses along her hairline. "It's very important."

"What?" she croaks, eyes still closed despite his coaxing.

Elliot runs a hand over her hair, fingertips combing through the ends of the dark strands. "I love your hair like this. Reminds me of when I met you."

Olivia smiles in her sleep. "I've got something to tell you too."

He smiles down at her. "What's that?"

From her snuggle against his chest, she tilts her head up, opening her eyes halfway. "You better shave that beard off or I'm never kissing you again."

"I'll do it first thing in the morning," he whispers before leaning in to kiss her.

Olivia allows the kiss but pulls back when he tries to deepen it, mumbling groggily about pash-rash. Elliot hesitates a moment then flings off the covers and heads for the bathroom in his briefs. Olivia props herself up on an elbow, blinking a few times as she asks:

"Where you going?"

Elliot flicks the bathroom light on then braces both hands against the door frame. "You better have one of those lady razors in here cos I'm doing it now. Then I'm coming back for my goodnight kiss."

"Just a goodnight kiss," she calls as he disappears into the bathroom, "or…?"

Her only answer is a chuckle and the sound of rummaging. She calls out again, telling him to check the second drawer. Then Olivia flops back in her new bed, back flat to the mattress and eyes staring at the ceiling. Her breath is even and deep as she listens to the faint hiss of the blade against his skin and the swish of it being rinsed in her sink. He finishes by using the toothbrush she purchased for him, returning to the bed with a fresh face and minty breath.

He crawls onto the bed, holds himself over her on all fours. "Better?"

She reaches up, stokes his face, his chin, her returned partner. "Much."

He leans down and kisses her, his lips soft and cool and unhurried.

Olivia still can't help whispering an uncertain, "El?"

He continues his kiss. "Mm?"

"Been thinking…." she murmurs, one hand descending his body.

"Don't," he sighs, resting his forehead against hers.

Her eyes rake over his closed eyes, his smooth jaw, his familiar, if aged, face. "This is all…such a mess, so many people involved." She swallows and voices the question that's been plaguing her for much longer than just that night. "What if…What if it doesn't work out?"

Elliot kisses her forehead, her nose, her lips. "What if it does?"



1999

Elliot poked his head inside Cragen's door. "You wanted to see me?"

Putting down his phone, Cragen rose and headed round his desk. "Just wanted to check how you're getting on with Benson."

Elliot glanced over his shoulder at his partner who stood by their desks, chatting with a delivery boy. He watched her flash the poor kid a smile, causing his face to turn beet-red. Elliot bobbed his head. "Ah, alright…yeah."

Cragen slid his hands into his pockets, contemplating the younger man. "Well, she hasn't requested a change of partner or precinct so that's definitely an improvement." He glanced over Elliot's shoulder at the squad's relative newbie. "Think it'll work out long-term?"

Elliot just shrugged. "Guess we'll have to wait and see."

Behind him, Olivia's voice called out over the constant clamor of the squadroom. "Elliot! Lunch."

He turned to see her unpacking a large brown paper bag, doling out boxes of salad and bags of bread and cans of soda, dividing them onto each of their desks. Elliot gave his captain a nod then returned to his desk and his partner and his lunch. Cragen wandered closer to the door, observing them from afar. He watched them bicker jokingly about who'd get the coke and who'd get the sprite. Then he watched them sit, passing fragments of food across their desktops. Apparently, they'd figured out that Elliot loved extra bacon bits in his salad while Olivia loved the thick-cut slices of cucumber.

Cragen couldn't help an inner surge of satisfaction. His instincts had served him well there, he'd done a good thing putting them together. A not uncomplicated thing – he could see that a mile off. So many years as an investigator meant he couldn't help but see it, even if he didn't want to, even if it felt like a slight invasion of his colleagues' privacy. But ultimately, he was convinced that, notwithstanding any personal complications, he'd done a good thing, created a solid partnership. One that would prove productive and prosperous. One that would serve the city, his unit and their victims with exceptional dedication and integrity. One that undoubtedly would last. And one that would prove pivotal to two people he was just beginning to view as the son and daughter he never had.

Returning to his desk, Cragen opened a drawer and took out a photo frame. Olivia had gifted him the photo to commemorate her first few months at SVU, to thank him for his support and faith. Cragen was not generally one for personal touches, not in his professional domain. But God knew, in their line of work, they all needed something to smile about. And the photo of him with Olivia and her new partner, both of them mock saluting him, made Cragen smile. He had already decided to re-gift the photo to her when one of them moved on – whenever he retired or she left the Special Victims Unit. Despite her partner's initial skepticism, Cragen believed that the latter eventuality was a long way off. Olivia had quickly become a staple of his department and absolutely indispensable to her partner. Since her arrival, her brilliant but often difficult counterpart had become more grounded, more consistent, more content. Cragen didn't doubt that Olivia Benson would be with them for a long while yet, steadily inhabiting the desk opposite Elliot Stabler's.

Placing the photo on his desktop, their captain smiled. He'd created many a partnership in his time. But each day he was becoming more convinced that Benson and Stabler would be his greatest success.

 

Epilogue

2015

Olivia is neatening their perpetually messy living room when there's a knock at the door. She glances at the clock on the bookshelf, calls out come in then turns when she hears Kathy's footsteps in the entryway. Elliot's ex enters in black heels and a black coat and a black dress, her grey-blonde hair falling in soft waves about her face.

"Hey," she greets, tone slightly weary. "How was he?"

"Perfect." Olivia straightens, hugging a collection of Noah's soft toys to her chest. "How was your date?"

Kathy smiles and shrugs. "Not perfect but…."

"No man is?" Olivia finishes for her.

She laughs softly. "Exactly."

Dumping her son's toys on the couch, Olivia jabs a thumb over her shoulder. "The boys are lying down. I'll just go get them."

Kathy nods and Olivia pads down the hall in bare feet, entering her bedroom to see Elliot, Noah and Eli fast asleep. Elliot lies between the two boys, all three of them turned on the same side, like a row of sleeping soldiers. Olivia stalls, watching them a moment before waking them. Then, with a small, quiet smile on her face, she creeps closer to the bed and rouses Eli. Stretching a hand over him, she shakes Elliot's shoulder, his blue eyes opening to find hers in the low early evening light.

Eli whinges sleepily when she tells him it's time to go so Olivia lifts him up into her arms, holding the eight-year-old against her chest. His limbs flop and wrap around her and again, she finds herself stopping to process the moment. To recall holding him in an ambulance the minute he was born, praying that his mother would survive, that his father would forgive her if she didn't. On the other side of the bed, Elliot drags himself upright then effortlessly lifts her son into his arms. Noah's breath doesn't so much as hitch as the two of them head back into the living room with their dozy children.

Elliot greets his ex-wife with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. "Hey, Kath."

"Hey." She kisses him back, runs a hand down Noah's back. "How was your weekend?"

Elliot answers on a wide yawn. "Great…"

"Looks like you wore 'em out," she says with a smile.

"They wore each other out," Olivia mutters, hoisting Eli a little higher on her body.

"And us," Elliot adds with a glance at his other half.

Kathy shakes her head, one hand still on Noah's back. "Noah's getting so big, Liv."

Olivia smiles at her adopted son, eyes glowing and voice soft as she muses, "Yeah, he's growing up."

The voices rouse Eli, who opens his eyes and looks around for his mom.

Kathy steps closer, dusting Eli's blonde hair back from his brow. "And there's my sleepy boy."

"Mom's here," Olivia murmurs, lowering him to the floor and to his feet. "Ready to go home?"

Eli blinks up at his mother, tells her in a croaky voice, "We went to Coney Island."

"Sounds like fun," Kathy says, eyes wide.

"Me and dad went in a Dodge 'Ems car. And Olivia let me have two hot dogs."

Kathy glances at Olivia, her eyes smiling. "Really? Two?"

"Two halves," Elliot clarifies.

Olivia returns the smile and points to where she has gathered Eli's things and set them by the bookshelf. "His bag's just over there."

Kathy nods and collects his belongings, telling Eli, "Okay, say goodbye to Dad and Noah and give Olivia a hug."

Elliot squats so that his son can put his arms around him. Then Eli shuffles around until he can see Noah's face, giving him a clumsy, wet kiss.

Elliot cups his son's face with his free hand. "I'll see you on Wednesday after school, okay?"

Eli nods, one blonde curl falling in his eyes. "Is Noah coming to soccer practice?"

"No, just you and me this time, okay?"

Olivia retrieves a spongy soccer ball from the couch and hands it to him. "But maybe you can show Noah your moves next time?"

"'Kay…" Eli sniffs blearily, placated if not entirely pleased.

He turns to Olivia and gives her a hug then takes his mother's hand as she heads for the door. A moment later the door clicks shut and Elliot and Olivia are left alone in the middle of their apartment, in the middle of the mess. The space hasn't changed much in the past six months, despite their dramatic change in circumstance. Elliot brought little with him from his old life, wishing instead to start anew. The bookshelf boasts two major changes though. The photo of their younger selves with the captain who saw their potential has been brought the forefront. Beside it is a picture of them at a black-tie dinner celebrating Elliot's exit from the police force. On another shelf, in a bigger frame are the final adoption papers signed by Olivia that granted her permanent status as Noah's mother. It was a job she inherited unexpectedly and one which she initially performed with great anxiety. The formalization of the adoption and the backup of her long-time partner have eased that anxiety though, helping her create for Noah a life that was stable, warm and happy. In the process, she's created a life for herself in which she can finally, entirely and lastingly thrive.

Taking her rapidly growing boy from her partner's arms, she watches his little forehead crease as he wakes. "Okay, I'm going to give this one a bath. You mind starting dinner?"

Elliot shrugs and casts a look at the kitchen. "Not as long as you don't mind another night of Pasta a la Stabler."

She smiles, bobbing a whingey Noah on her hip. "I love Pasta a la Stabler."

"Ah, you say that now…" he muses with a doubtful tip of his head.

"I'll always say it," she replies, voice quiet enough that it draws his gaze.

When their eyes meet, Elliot smiles then leans in to give her a soft, lingering kiss.

It's as close as she's come to saying vows, maybe as close as they'll ever come. Maybe they already said their vows, many years before. Or maybe they never needed to. Maybe no woman or man could ever tear asunder what fate had brought together. Not once or twice but three separate times. Fate first brought them together when they were young, green and idiotically blind. They were brought together a second time after a tentative stint as lovers and a painful, protracted separation. Eight years later, fate orchestrated another meeting between two people who were far from young and green, though still a little blind.

It seemed that fate had further plans for them and much more faith in them than they themselves had ever had. Despite everything – all their distance and denial, all their rationalization and professionalism – something intimate, irrational and utterly undeniable had survived. And despite the damage done by those years of silent deprivation and by those unendurable stints of separation, something still waited for them over the final crest. Something simple and vast. Something ordinary, quiet and momentous.

A life.

The End/Beginning.

For the rest of my SVU fic, go here.