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Virtually In Love

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“Did I seriously shave my legs for this?” Olivia muttered incredulously as she and Amanda stepped into the massive hotel ballroom and came face-to-face with a seemingly endless row of booths.

There was no other word to describe them: booths that looked just like the ones they used for confessionals in Catholic churches. Ones where people shared their deepest, darkest secrets. Enclosed on all sides and looking ominously like they belonged in the year 2100 - or 1800, depending on one’s imagination.

Flowers and wine… is what I thought I would find…” Amanda crooned in a haltingly thick Southern accent, eliciting a quizzical stare from her confused friend. “Don’t tell me you’ve never listened to Deana Carter, Liv.”

“No, I’m allergic to country music, and seriously - what kind of sci-fi universe are we in? Didn’t you say this was a speed-dating event?” She shifted uncomfortably in her only cocktail dress - now a little too tight after shrinking in the dryer - and 4-inch heels, borrowed from Amanda (when she ever had the time to wear those, Olivia wondered), and looked around the room skeptically.

“It is a speed-dating event, Liv. With a mature twist.” When Olivia’s defeated sulk didn’t disappear from her face, Amanda grew more insistent. “Come on, you’ve broken up with Tucker for a while and this could be fun! And if you don’t like anyone you meet, you can always pass. Low-stakes, you know.”

“Honestly, I don’t even know how we’re going to meet anyone when we’re sitting in these ridiculous-looking booths. You sure you don’t want to bail?” She looked hopefully at the door, where the last few participants were filing into the venue.

“Come on, Liv,” Amanda whined. “Just give it a shot. Keep an open mind. Who knows - the one could be waiting in one of these sci-fi booths.”

“Can’t decide if this is sci-fi or a confessional…” she muttered, as a well-dressed attendant ushered her into one of the booths before she could get another word in. The door shut behind her and she found herself bathed in a soft, warm glow, courtesy of a small mood lamp in the corner.

What kind of sadist invented this mash-up of a confessional booth and prison phone booth?

Walls on all four sides. An armchair. Clunky headphones that wouldn’t look out of place in the CSU lab. This was worse than a confessional booth. Whose twisted idea of romance is this?

With nothing else to do, Olivia made herself comfortable in the armchair and kicked off her stilettos. She turned her eyes to the lone iPad, its screen flashing the title of the event and a brief introductory write-up:

Dating with Depth.

“Slow” speed dating for the technological age.

Welcome to this evening’s event. Tonight you’ll be immersed in a one-of-a-kind romantic experience. Be prepared to slow down, dig deep and maybe… find The One.

You are currently seated in one of our proprietary Conversation Booths. These soundproof booths remove all forms of distraction and leave just the promise of romantic connection.

We promise a radical, revolutionary dating experience. Tonight, appearance doesn’t matter. You won’t get to see the person you’re talking to. Touch them. Even hear them (thanks to our game-changing voice distortion technology). No theatrics, no carefully-constructed facades - we’re all about emotional vulnerability. Your five senses aren’t going to help you here… but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a true soul mate.

In place of those we have 36 questions, devised by psychologist Arthur Aron, designed specially for building intimacy between couples - questions that will dig deep and help you truly open your hearts to each other. Questions that will challenge you; dig into the deepest recesses of your souls. This isn’t the door to a one-night fling. This is the door to forever.

All instructions will be disseminated to you via this iPad. Put the headphones on. The introductory briefing will commence in…

30 seconds.

Olivia looked anxiously at the door handle - she still had time to dash out of this claustrophobic booth and onto the Manhattan streets, where she’d happily take the smell of sewer water and day-old trash over the confines of… whatever this was. She’d read about the 36 questions in the Times a few years back - not like she spent much time perusing the Modern Love column, but any article with a headline like that was bound to catch her eye. Could just a few questions really spark a romantic connection between two strangers?

This is the door to forever. She wasn’t sure if she bought it… or wanted to.

20 seconds.

She seized the opportunity to inspect her surroundings more closely. Maybe, just maybe, this was kind of nice. She could have sworn that this ballroom had at least 50 booths installed in it, but she could barely hear a thing, even without the headphones on; it was like she was the only person in the room. The iPad felt heavy in her hands, and she tried pressing the Home button out of curiosity, but the app refused to close.

10 seconds.

Olivia reached for the headset and placed it over her ears, feeling the plush leather envelope them. God, I hope these were sanitised before the event, she thought, but put those thoughts out of her mind before she got carried away thinking about hygiene.

5 seconds.

Be prepared to slow down, dig deep and maybe… find The One, she re-read. Dig deep? She felt a shudder run up and down her spine. Did she want to confide in a stranger?

Lilting jazz music filled her ears and she realised - she was staying after all. Even if she didn’t find a man she liked, she’d at least have one heck of a story to tell the squad tomorrow.

[INTRODUCTORY BRIEFING]

Welcome to the Dating with Depth Valentine’s Day event. We couldn’t be happier to have you with us tonight.

Tonight, you’ll be meeting with a number of randomly-assigned people, depending on which package you signed up for, each for half an hour. Watch your iPad closely - on it you’ll see the conversation prompts and a timer that’ll show you how much time you have for each question.

Olivia winced. First these prison booth-like contraptions, and now conversations that ran on a timer? This was artificial to no end, and she didn’t like the sound of it at all.

At the end of each conversation, you’ll be given the choice to MATCH with your conversation partner or PASS on them. Should you feel uncomfortable at any time during the conversation and wish to stop, you can hit the ABORT button or ask for attendance from a staff member. At the end of the event, the partners you have MATCHED with, if any, will be revealed.

The ABORT button appeared at the bottom left corner of the screen and Olivia heaved a quiet sigh of relief. At least there was a way out if this got too out of hand for her. She thought she’d seen everything in her line of work, but apparently she hadn’t learned about this scarily intense form of “slow” speed dating. (What a stupid term for it.)

There are a few ground rules for today. Please do not provide your name or any identifying information to your conversation partner until you have matched - that is, you both have given consent.

These questions can delve into intensely emotional territory, and our Conversation Booths and anonymity of our events are meant to facilitate honest, revealing conversation. Our activities are built on mutual respect, and participants are free to share as much or as little as they wish.

Okay, she could live with that.

Take a couple of minutes to get yourselves ready… and then, we shall begin.

A countdown clock for three minutes flashed on the screen and Olivia’s heart raced with anxiety. It’d felt like she just sat down in this chair, and now they were hitting the ground running? She could barely wrap her head around this dystopian hell. For how much they were preaching about authenticity, it certainly was the least authentic dating context she’d ever been in.

But maybe, she was excited too. No one was going to know who she was; where she worked; all her emotional baggage. She wouldn’t see them. It was just her, whatever voice came through these headphones, and this iPad.

Perhaps, if she wanted to “dig deep” like they’d said, this was the perfect place to do just that. No consequences - if she didn’t want them.

She took a sip from the wine glass on the side table (A thoughtful touch, she noted), cleared her throat, and watched as the screen gave way to the first conversation prompt of the evening.

“Hello? Can you hear me?” a voice, filtered and slightly distorted, came through her headphones. They sure weren’t joking with this voice distortion technology - the voice sounded distant, hollow, artificial; she had to remind herself that it was a real person on the other end of the line.

“Yes, I can hear you.”

And so her evening of virtual love began.


[MATCH #1]

No luck for her.

Maybe she could chalk it up to first-match jitters, but Match #1 had the personality of a stale graham cracker - monosyllabic answers, stilted conversation. Perfectly decent, at least from what she could glean, but there was no fire in him; no passion.

[9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful? 4 MINUTES]

Crickets from him.

“Can you hear me?” she’d asked multiple times, wondering if a spotty Internet connection was responsible for the silence, but he’d heard her loud and clear. Clearly, he just didn’t want to talk. Why he’d come to a speed dating event built on conversation, she didn’t know, and didn’t want to wonder.

[15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life? 4 MINUTES]

More crickets. Olivia had expected the discussion to be warmer, or more light-hearted, but the silence on the other end of the line only made the robotic-sounding voice she was hearing in bursts seem even more impersonal.

[20. What does friendship mean to you? 6 MINUTES]

Nope, she couldn’t possibly date someone who wasn’t at least loyal to his friends.

Maybe it’d all gone downhill when she’d casually mentioned that she was a detective. She wasn’t surprised. Police work had a way of weeding out many categories of people she’d never date. The rest of the questions passed by in a blur, most of them answered superficially or untruthfully, and there was only one button she wanted to press.

[PASS. The system has registered your preference. Your next match will be assigned to you in five minutes.]

[MATCH #2]

[5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? 2 MINUTES]

“Myself? In the shower this morning. Walking on Sunshine - instant classic. To someone else? Probably also this morning - the same song to my 4-year old son,” she beamed.

“You have a son?” Match #2 immediately interjected. Shit, she cursed. She knew instantly from his combative tone that he didn’t like the sound of that.

“Yeah, it’s just me and him at home,” she stammered, not wanting to explain the whole Noah origin story to a stranger she’d met two minutes ago.

“Look, I’m sorry to be blunt, but I’d prefer not to date mothers. I don’t like children and they’re not…”

She made her decision in a split-second.

[ABORT. The conversation has ended. Your next match will be assigned to you when the next round commences.]

I don’t know how much I like this, Olivia thought, as her unexpected break began, the countdown clock ominously ticking away. Maybe it reminded her too much of manning the SVU tip-line - weird voices, cryptic words, the feeling that she never truly knew who was talking to her. Some “door to forever” this was, when she hadn’t even gotten close to the level of emotional intimacy she’d desired with either of her matches - ironic, considering how this Conversation Booth was the safest place she’d been in in ages. What was the point of a safe space like this one if she didn’t have a person she could bare her soul to?

Hopefully, the third time’s the charm.


[MATCH #3]

“Hello, can you hear me?” she repeated for the third and final time that night.

“Yes, I can hear you,” he replied. “I guess this is one upside of using all this fancy technology - everyone has the same opening line for their conversation,” he noted; Olivia could almost hear the smirk in his (computerised) voice.

This already is going so much better than the other two matches.

“This - the technology - is kind of… weird… isn’t it?” she wondered out loud.

“If you mean a complete fucking dystopian nightmare, then I agree completely.” Something out the way that rolled off his tongue so effortlessly made her laugh - genuinely - for the first time that night. “But we’re both here, aren’t we? And… I actually kind of like this.”

Honesty. Something she wanted in a man. Something she hadn’t yet seen that evening.

“Me, too. It’s different, isn’t it? Let’s see what they throw at us this time.”

[Your 30 minutes starts NOW.]

Suddenly, Olivia felt a little pool of anticipation forming in her stomach. Maybe she’d really gotten lucky with Match #3. The wine she’d sipped was starting to get to her head, and she knew it’d given her the liquid courage to truly bare her soul to whoever it was on the other end of the line. What did he look like? If she could see him right now, would she be falling hard? Visions filled her head as the first question flashed across the iPad screen.

[2. Would you like to be famous? In what way? 4 MINUTES]

Okay, this one’s good, Olivia thought. Light-hearted enough that she could keep it casual if things felt awkward, but with enough potential to really kick-start something deep between them. “How about you go first?”

“Well, let’s just say that my job is kind of public. I’m in the news sometimes,” he admitted. Journalist, maybe? A local figure? “It’s just part and parcel of the work I do. I don’t know if I like it, honestly. I mean… my industry’s all about advocacy and people and I want to keep up the good fight, and the media is the best way to get the word out. But sometimes, it’s a lot to handle…”

That was not the answer she was expecting - the depth, the vulnerability. But god, why did she know exactly how that felt?

Often all it took was a feature in the Ledger to help them crack a case; they’d found numerous suspects and people of interest this way. But “SVU DETECTIVE KIDNAPPED AND TORTURED BY SERIAL KILLER-RAPIST WILLIAM LEWIS” was not a headline she wanted to think about or see ever again - her trauma splashed out all over the morning and evening news, and again when he’d escaped and forced her to make that fucking press conference…

“That’s so uncanny,” she replied in genuine awe. I’m in the same boat. Fighting for people, fighting for what’s right.” She took extra care not to divulge her job, knowing the effect it’d had on Match #1, and she didn’t want to lose the only match she thought she had any chemistry with. “It’s a double-edged sword, right? All that pressure to uphold the principles of my job, but…”

“Being the face of what’s ‘good’ and ‘right’ is a lot,” he added thoughtfully.

Fuck, it was like he was completing her thoughts.

“I used to crave media attention. Recognition for my work, all that jazz. But then I started working in a different borough and moved to a new office and met new colleagues who made me realise fame really isn’t what it looks like. Nothing but a fancy illusion that can break your heart at the end of the day. Now I just keep my head down and do my job, and tell myself that’s enough.”

“I’m with you on that one. The press… they can be monsters, and we can’t do anything about that. So I try to stay out of it. And I have a young son now, and I just don’t want him to be part of all this. I just want to be a good mom.”

Please don’t ABORT on me again, she prayed silently. Dating was hard enough with a boisterous toddler in tow.

To her surprise, he didn’t. “That’s amazing,” he remarked sincerely. “Sounds like you really love your son. How old is he?”

“Four. He’s growing up fast.”

“He sounds adorable.” He hadn’t probed about Noah’s parentage, which she knew was a sign that he was far more accepting than Match #2. “I don’t have any kids myself, but maybe some time in the future. My mom’s a teacher and I’m always going to her school to help out on Career Day.”

Well, this is going swimmingly, she thought, as the next question flashed on the screen. Charming, thoughtful, likes kids. Olivia silently prayed that this conversation wouldn’t go south.

[30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself? 4 MINUTES]

“Wow, here’s the “digging deep” I guess they wanted us to do,” she muttered. The questions she’d gotten with Matches #1 and #2 certainly hadn’t been as sombre as this one. She chewed on her lip nervously and stared at the black text on the screen.

This was a test. The question she needed to figure out if Match #3 was as great as he seemed. She couldn’t help but think of Brian and Ed - one extremely volatile; the other extremely private, but they had one thing in common: she didn’t think she’d ever seen either of them cry, them usually preferring kickboxing or a trip to the shooting range to deal with their emotions. Maybe it was time she found someone who’d be, at the very least, a little more willing to let his guard down in front of her...

“In front of another person?” he started. “I think it was when I attended a funeral for work. I didn’t know the deceased that well… but hearing the eulogies and being in that chapel really tore me up. Usually it’s hard for me to cry in front of other people. The tears just won’t flow. I guess it’s part of my job - I can’t get emotional easily, so I’ve had a lot of practice holding back my tears.”

“That makes two of us,” Olivia replied, although she certainly felt like it was harder to keep a lid on her emotions the longer she stayed in this job. The stress about Noah only gave her more reasons to cry. But she’d done her absolute best to hold back her tears when they were on the precipice of flowing. There were only a handful of people she’d feel comfortable shedding tears in front of - Fin, Dr. Lindstrom, maybe even Barba, although she hadn’t had a full-blown meltdown in front of him yet.

“But alone? Maybe some time back I found out that my best friend was seeing someone else. Thought I stood a chance with her; that she loved me the same way I loved her. I was so happy for her… I still am, but it still stung. You?” he admitted candidly. More honesty. She liked it.

What happened after that? Olivia guessed that things hadn’t worked out with this “best friend”, since Match #3 was attending this very event. But she didn’t want to probe - at least not until they’d talked further. Why would he attend an event like this anyway if he still had feelings for her? Olivia had to remind herself that this was a stranger she’d just started talking to - maybe this’d happened a long time ago. Before she could get too distracted, however, the ticking timer reminded her that time was of the essence. She didn’t want to leave him hanging, especially after he’d just shared something that intimate with her.

“I think the last person I cried in front of was my son, when I was having this awful, awful day and got so frustrated that I was taking care of him all by myself. I guess I couldn’t help myself. He makes me so happy and I couldn’t ask for more, but I just lost it that day. And then I cried even more because I felt like a bad mom.”

“I’m sure you’re not a bad mom,” he said quietly. “You were just tired.” Olivia couldn’t help but smile. God, Match #3 was slowly working his way into her heart - she felt like an excited teenager all over again. Excited… and chatty.

“Crying by myself… probably when I broke up with my boyfriend some time back and didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. Loneliness, I guess.” Crumpled on the floor of her bathroom, wondering how the hell she’d ever find someone to date again after breaking up with Ed… that wasn’t a night she wanted to re-live. “But hey, that’s a typical break-up for you.”

“That sounded rough,” he replied sympathetically, his concern audible even over the computerised distortion. “I hope things are better now.”

“Same on your end. You know, I’ve not met many guys who’d admit to me like that that they’ve cried. Whether in front of others or privately.” Brian? Ed? Even David Haden? They’d never admit to crying - not even in front of her. She’d always assumed they were just her type, but something about the plain honesty with which Match #3’d admitted his tears made her want to rethink that assumption.

“Is that a good or bad thing?” he asked nervously.

“It’s a good thing, don’t worry,” she smiled, although she knew full well that he couldn’t see her. At least her smile would be audible in her voice… however it sounded with the software. “Takes courage to admit that.”

“Five years ago I’d probably never be this frank. That new job I told you about... it really changed how I think about work. I mean, I work with people, damn it, I want to feel things when I work. It’s so much better than bottling everything up under the guise of “professionalism”. Frankly, it’s liberating.”

“Well, I’m happy for you.” She wanted to ask what he did for a living, but decided that she was content keeping things a little enigmatic.

“Thanks. Crazy how much of a difference a few new friendships can make in your life.”

“Tell me about it,” she mused, as she contemplated all the new faces that had made their way into her squadroom in the years after Elliot left - new faces that had become her friends.

Olivia would have continued the discussion, but forced herself to concentrate on the new question that had just popped up on the screen.

[16. What do you value most in a friendship? 6 MINUTES]

“That’s a perfect follow-up to what we were just talking about,” she noted.

“Creepy. Like this machine is pushing all the right buttons between us,” he chuckled. “You want to go first?” he offered.

“Sure.” Olivia took a sip of her wine and mulled over the question. “I guess loyalty is a big thing for me. People who’ll have my back and I have theirs. People who aren’t going to say goodbye to me without a word and disappear.” She winced thinking about Elliot’s departure - it’d been years now, and other than Kathy’s annual Christmas card, he’d basically exited her life without a word. But she didn’t want to get too deep into that on a supposedly romantic night like this one - it was too melancholic, even for this “dating with depth” BS, so she quickly moved on.

“And friends who make me a better person without actively trying to make me a better person, you know? People who push me and make me become a better version of myself not because they think I’m broken, but just because. And me doing the same for them. I think I’m lucky to work with people like that, for the most part.”

“Well, I don’t think people who see you as “broken” are truly your friends. You certainly don’t sound broken to me, from what I’ve heard so far.”

“I don’t blame them, honestly, I’ve been through some hell, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon,” she sighed. “But I’m not going to bore you with the details.”

“We have time, and look, we’re basically strangers; I’m not going to judge. I’ll listen to whatever you want to say. It sounds like you want to get something off your chest.”

How is this stranger making me feel so comfortable? Olivia’s ears were ringing - why was it like she’d known him for years? Something in his tone was eerily familiar yet distant; familiar enough to make her feel safe, distant enough that she felt she could speak her mind without it coming back to haunt her later.

She inhaled deeply and laced her fingers together nervously. “I worry my friends look at me and see a broken person. My mother was an alcoholic, my father was… a very twisted and horrible man, and let’s just say that life has gotten really rough for me sometimes. A couple of years ago I got into a really rough situation at work that put attention on me in the worst way possible. Everyone was so supportive, but… it still was rough.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat that formed thinking of Lewis, of Elliot’s departure, of Amaro’s departure, of Cragen and Munch retiring… “And people keep leaving, things keep changing, and sometimes, I stop and think about all that’s changed and I can’t help but feel really sad. I know my friends have my back and want me to be happy, but sometimes I can’t help but think that they look at me and wish they could fix things for me somehow. I don’t want that.”

“What do you want from them?”

“Maybe I just want them to be there. When the world feels like it’s going to shit, sometimes all I want is for things to feel just a little normal, if you get what I mean? I don’t want them to see my past and my scars. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I wish they’d just accept that it’s part of my life and that it’s shaped who I am, of course, but I’m not broken. It’s just… me.”

“I get what you mean. Sometimes I feel the same, although for a slightly different reason.”

“What’s it like for you?” she asked, eager to divert attention away from herself.

“Growing up was rough for me too. We weren’t a happy family; my dad was an alcoholic and abusive, my mom barely held it together at home. So I spent all my childhood and high school years working my ass off, and then got a scholarship to a great college, and then got a job I really like - but sometimes I still feel like I don't belong. Even though I’ve been in this job for twenty years. Maybe a part of me is still terrified that they don’t truly accept me, like they’ll come to work one day and realise that I’m a fraud. And it’s hard for me to be completely honest with them when I’m still scared that they’ll look at me differently because of where I came from. So maybe I just want friends who understand and accept those parts of me, but whom I also know aren’t going to look at me differently. Like what you said. We’re not broken. It’s just who we are.”

Olivia was stunned - two crappy matches and suddenly she’d lucked out with someone who had enough in common with her to actually come close to understanding her sob story of a life? She thanked her lucky stars that this weird speed-dating event had resulted in at least one good conversation. “I guess we’re looking for the exact same thing, then.”

“I’ve got one friend at work - she’s probably the closest to that friend for me. We’ve never really, um, talked much about my life but I know she isn’t the kind to judge. She’s the one who really changed things for me when I started this new job. It’s… been a little rough between us in the last year because so much has happened at work and she’s got some stuff going on in her life, but honestly, I’m lucky to have her around.”

She couldn’t help but think about Rafael. Things had been rough between them ever since the police shooting grand jury and the time he’d investigated her and Ed - maybe it was time they cleared the air and started acting like real friends again. Of course she had her squad, but something about his friendship just felt especially right to her.

“It’s scary how much we have in common,” Olivia replied. “I’ve got a work friend like that too. At first I was really suspicious of him because he just seemed to be in control of every damn thing he did, but then we got closer and I grew to really respect him. He challenges me all the time; makes me think and work better. But I know he’s not judging me or doing it because he thinks I’m incompetent - frankly, that’s made all the difference.”

“God, we’re in such similar situations, it’s almost creepy,” he replied in awe. “What are the odds?”

“Maybe there’s some complicated algorithm working behind the scenes to match us. Did they hit some kind of “trauma” filter to bring us together?” she said with a dry laugh.

“I never thought I’d talk about something like this at a speed dating event. Not exactly the side to myself I’d show to people I know, let alone a romantic interest.”

“Well, that makes two of us. I don’t think I’ve ever talked much about this in real life,” she added.

“Maybe we should have this conversation with our friends after this. But I can already guess that it’s going to be so much harder when we’re out of these booths.”

Olivia noticed the 15-second warning flashing at the corner of the screen. “You think they’re going to throw any more questions like these at us?”

“Honestly, with the way this is going, I won’t even be surprised.”

[14. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why? 5 MINUTES]

“God, that’s grim,” she remarked. Of course she’d thought about her own mortality countless times (although admittedly, less so in more recent years when being CO kept her largely to her office - a far cry from the days she and Elliot dodged car accidents and even bombs), but never if she would change anything about her life.

“Deep. But you’re right, it’s grim,” he echoed. “Have you ever thought about this?”

“Let’s just say… I work in a job that comes with some safety risks. So danger is part and parcel of my life now, and I’ve accepted it… I think,” she hesitated.

He must’ve picked up on that, because his follow-up question punched her in the gut. “You have a young son, don’t you? So did he change anything for you?”

“Definitely. He made me slow down; made me think more carefully before I do anything risky. But sometimes I still fear that I’ll say goodbye to him one morning and not make it back to kiss him goodnight in the evening,” she confessed, while wiping the tears that were welling in her eyes. So far she’d protected Noah from the horrors of her job, but would there come a day when she couldn’t do that? On the days she’d experienced close shaves, she didn’t even want to entertain the possibility that she’d return to New York in a body bag.

“Have you ever thought of leaving your job because of him?”

A shudder ran up and down her spine. She knew that this had crossed the minds of everyone in her squad, including her own, but it was different to hear this point-blank, from a stranger, especially when she couldn’t even see him. But without the pressure of someone else looking her in the eye, expectantly waiting for her response, courage grew in her belly and helped her find the words to say it out loud.

“Honestly? I can’t. I can’t leave this job. It’s all I’ve known since I left college, and as shitty as it makes me feel sometimes, I know I’m doing it because there’s still work that needs to be done and people I need to fight for. Maybe I’d shuffle things around; make sure I’m doing less hands-on stuff. But quit? I can’t.”

“That makes two of us, because I don’t think I could leave this job either. Not unless I’m made to, but even then, I don’t think I can stay away from it for long. But would you change anything else in your life?”

Olivia leaned back in the armchair and tapped her fingers against the edge of the iPad. God, where do I even begin? She had Noah to think about, obviously, transferring command to Fin, making sure the squad room wouldn’t burn down, saying goodbye to all her old and retired friends… but none of them were a fundamental change to her lifestyle.

“I’d try to get closure, perhaps. I keep thinking that I’ve forgiven my parents and gotten over all the emotional baggage I’ve been carrying, but I don’t really know if I truly have. Maybe I’d spend some time on that. And on a happier note, I really think I need to tell the people in my life how important they are to me. I don’t tell them that enough, and it really tears me up sometimes. Hopefully they know how much I appreciate their support, but sometimes I push people away far too much,” she remarked remorsefully. “Just a reflex.”

“What’s stopping you from telling them now?” he asked, tone non-judgmental.

“Gosh, you’re really sounding like my therapist,” she blurted out. Oddly, this was shaping up just like a therapy session with Dr. Lindstrom - except without the unspoken pressure of having to look someone in the eye while she was baring her soul to them. “Not in a bad way, of course,” she quickly added. “Ever considered doing this for a living?”

“What makes you think I’m not already doing this for a living?” he teased gently. “But no, I’m not a therapist. I’m just…” he hesitated slightly, “a stranger here to listen to whatever my Match #3 wants to tell me.”

“It’s just not me to talk to my friends like that. Perhaps I’m scared of looking like - or becoming an emotional wreck - if I walk up to someone and suddenly tell them how grateful I am for them. I guess I’m so used to going about things alone that I’ve forgotten how to sit back and be appreciative for a bit.”

“Oh, I get where you’re coming from. I’d be such a wreck if I did that. I’ve built up all this work armour that I bet my colleagues would think I’m possessed if I suddenly went up to them and complimented them.”

“How about you? What would you change about your life?”

“Spend more time with my mom, for sure. She’s been through hell; I just want to make sure she’s okay even though it feels like so long ago now. And what you said about closure really got me. Even now I can’t talk to her about my dad because it’s so painful, you know? He’s dead, but I’m still so, so angry at him for everything he did. Maybe I need to find some closure of my own… Finally get that therapy my best friend says works so well for her.”

“I guess we’re not travelling the world or going skydiving, then.”

“Skydiving? Absolutely not. No one tell anyone I work with, but I’m terrified of heights. And how could I leave New York? I’ve lived here all my life. Maybe I’ll finally visit Ellen’s Stardust Diner.”

Olivia wrinkled her nose at his mention of the Times Square tourist trap. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. The skydiving, not that a lifelong New Yorker wants to visit Ellen’s.”

“We’ve both been through some shit - surely we can reward ourselves with some overpriced, mediocre diner food and show tunes once in a while,” he retorted; again, she could almost hear the smirk in his voice; a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“God, how is time passing so fast?!” Olivia said incredulously as the timer flashed again. That was 5 whole minutes? She almost wished time wasn’t passing so quickly. Somehow, they were talking like they’d known each other for months.

[4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you? 5 MINUTES]

“Sleep,” they both chimed in at the exact same time, which elicited some laughter from both of them. After a series of sombre questions and even more sombre responses, Olivia was relieved to hear laughter - as robotic and filtered as it sounded - on the other end of the line, and even more so when she realised that she was laughing too.

“Well, it looks like we’re both getting late starts to our perfect days,” he quipped. “I don’t know how you do it. You’ve got a son and your job sounds intense. I’m single, childless, and still perpetually sleep-deprived.”

“Coffee and adrenaline keep me standing up throughout the day. And who can forget a healthy dose of stress? Just when I think work is done for the day, I have a new fire to fight somewhere. Not literally, but you get what I mean.”

“I don’t know where I’d be without my Cuban blends. I even have my own coffee station in my office now.” That made her think of Rafael’s office coffee station, which sounded like an idea she wanted to copy now that she officially had her own office. “So we’re in bed until… I don’t know, ten? What after?” She blushed a little hearing his phrasing - had he just implied they’d be in bed together? She didn’t even know what he looked like! (Although the idea of waking up next to someone did sound like something she wanted, especially after Ed had left.)

“Just a relaxed day with my son and not feeling like the world is falling down. I don’t care where we go. No fires to fight at work, no drama. You? Other than Ellen’s Stardust Diner, of course,” she added sarcastically.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Honestly, I haven’t had a real vacation for too long. Maybe a good cup of coffee, a trip to the Met or Guggenheim, a good steak in the evening. No distractions or last-minute calls from work. I get enough of those on a daily basis. I’d give anything for a good night’s sleep.”

“Sounds like we’re both looking to escape from work, huh,” she remarked. “Honestly, I’d give so much not to feel stressed for just one day. Maybe my blood pressure would ease up a little if I stopped fretting about every single thing and let go of all this emotional baggage I’m carrying. Emotional baggage that I wish I didn’t have.”

“Believe me, I want the exact same thing too. It’s like you’re reading my mind. You know… maybe my perfect day doesn’t even have to be a vacation day. I just want to show up at work one day and feel like I’m enough. Not proving a point, not feeling like I’m just performing something that isn’t me. Knowing that I’ve worked hard to make it here and stop letting this chip on my goddamn shoulder keep me down. I swear it’s what gets me so stressed; just as much as the actual work does.”

Olivia didn’t know why tears were springing to her eyes. “I swear, it’s like you’re reading my mind. Sometimes I don’t want to prove I’m strong; I just want to be strong. And to actually truly believe that I’m not my parents, and that I’ve made my own life and am my own person. And maybe, just maybe, I just want to be vulnerable, and cry, and let all these emotions out without worrying that everyone’s going to see me as some broken person or damaged goods.” She wiped her cheek with her palm. “Sorry for making things so sad and dark. I know this isn’t exactly “speed dating” material.”

“Hey, it’s perfectly fine. It’s actually… kinda nice talking about stuff like that. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation this honest with anyone in a long time. Even my own mother. This booth really is making me chatty.”

She ran her fingers over the wire that connected her headphones to the iPad and sighed. “It’s weird, isn’t it? All these fancy gadgets and technology that are dictating how we’re talking right now, and yet we’re being more honest with each other than we’d ever be in real life?”

“Maybe this would be my perfect day. Minus the booths or this absurd time limit. To talk to someone, like this - no judgment, completely honest.”

“You know what? I’d actually like that too.”

Maybe it’ll happen if we click Match on each other, Olivia couldn’t help but think. 24 minutes. She had 6 minutes to go before making that decision. Did she want to reveal her identity - and find out his - after all they’d shared? Or were they better off going their separate ways, never finding out who they’d bared their souls to, secrets nothing more than a whisper in the wind?

There wasn’t time to think about that, however, because the screen flashed rapidly with a new warning.

[Second last question!]

Holy fuck, already? Olivia checked the timer - there truly were only 6 minutes to go.

[31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already. 2 MINUTES]

“Bold of them to assume that we like each other,” he laughed softly.

“Very bold, indeed.” She leaned back in the armchair and fiddled with the headphones, revelling in how warm he made her feel, especially after that emotional exchange they’d just had. She liked this man almost an embarrassing amount, even though they’d been talking for barely over 20 minutes. Holy crap, this “dating with depth” thing actually was working…

“You’re… strong. Passionate. You’ve got a sense of humour. Even with everything you’ve been through. Your job sounds like a lot, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.” God, the way the words were spilling out of her mouth - she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d complimented someone who wasn’t Noah in this way.

She wondered how he was reacting to that. What did his eyes look like when he smiled? Did he believe her, a stranger he’d never met? Was he sitting in his armchair, legs crossed like hers were? Had he finished his wine, or was he more of a whiskey person?

“Wow. That’s way more than just “something”... but thank you,” he replied sincerely, barely hiding his awe. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard about myself in a while.”

“Well, I’m glad I could be that person for you.”

“Well… I think you’re incredibly kind, for saying all that. And… I really respect you. You’re smart. Tough. Empathetic. I’m sure we’d be friends in real life, if we knew each other. I know that doesn’t mean much given that we don’t know each other, but I’m pretty picky about my friends...”

A bold statement to make, considering they’d been talking for barely 30 - 26, to be precise - minutes, but somehow, Olivia knew that it was true.

“Wouldn’t that be nice.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” he echoed.

Olivia’s breath caught. The cadence of that phrase… where had she heard it before?

[Last question!]

Damn, last question already? It’d felt like no time had passed since Match #3 and her were connected.

[29. Share an embarrassing moment in your life. 4 MINUTES]

Thank God for a light-hearted question to end things off. Olivia wasn’t sure if she’d be able to take it if their conversation ended on a sad note. How had she gone from her raging cynicism about this “slow” speed dating event… to actually feeling sad that she was about to disconnect from Match #3?

Something about Match #3 was eating away at her, but she quickly turned her attention back to the question. Make it count.

He laughed heartily reading that question. “Imagine a high school in the Bronx. 11th grade. I’m riding high, living big… and I fall head over heels for a girl in my English class. We’re studying Shakespeare and she loves it and I make it my mission to charm her socks off by memorising a monologue from Hamlet and performing it in front of the whole school at our talent show… and I get on stage and forget everything. Every. Single. Line. I thought I was going to pursue acting in college, but after that, no fucking way. Lauren Sullivan never found out that she completely changed my life.”

Olivia’s ears perked up. Lauren Sullivan.

No, it couldn’t be.

The winter afternoon. 60 Centre Street. Coffees in hand. His coat sleeve against her torso; green eyes suddenly gentle and sentimental.

11th grade. Lauren Sullivan. She could have massacred my entire family. I would've looked the other way.

No, it absolutely couldn’t be.

High school in the Bronx. Shakespeare. Lauren Sullivan. “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

Match #3 was Rafael Barba. The ADA, Rafael Barba. It had to be him. Olivia’s head spun. She’d been talking to a colleague - her closest friend - all this time?

“Hello? Are you still there?” The voice distortion software was doing its work. It didn’t sound anything like Rafael Barba, but it was him. She had to tell herself that.

She jolted back to reality thinking of him - her friend - in a booth somewhere else in this room, still clad in one of his suits from work, cross-legged. Had his mother put him up to this? Rita Calhoun, maybe? “Yes, sorry,” she barely managed. “That’s hilarious!”

Keep it cool, Olivia. This will be over soon…

“Well, as for me… I brought my son to school in the snow last winter, and slipped and fell on some ice and sprained my ankle in front of 15 other moms. Told my colleagues that I’d fallen while jogging, but really - I literally tripped while standing still on the sidewalk,” she blushed. Rafael certainly knew that she’d sprained her ankle, but would he catch on to this?

[30 seconds left]

“Wow, this timer really doesn’t give up, does it,” he laughed, although his voice immediately softened as the seconds continued to tick by mercilessly. “It was nice talking to you. You were the best match I’ve had all day. I mean it.”

“Thank you. You were my best match, too.”

“Take care of yourself.” He said it with a hint of nervousness, like he was afraid he’d never see her again. Except that he absolutely would see her again - at work the next day.

“You too.”

Should I say something? Tell him right now that it’s Olivia Benson on the line?

She didn’t have time to think it over, because the timer flashed 5… 4… 3…

Silence.

[Match #3 has disconnected.]

She removed her headphones, bathing in the silence of the booth once more.

[You have 2 MINUTES to decide whether to PASS or MATCH.]

Olivia stared at the flashing buttons on the screen. She wasn’t just passing on or matching with Match #3. She was passing on or matching with Rafael Barba.

It had to be him.

The media attention. He’d stopped being so fame-hungry after transferring to Manhattan SVU. The transition had been slow, but she’d seen it with her own eyes. No longer did he walk right towards the herds of reporters outside 60 Centre Street - because he’d be standing next to her, watching from the top of the stairs, contemplating if justice had been served.

Crying because his best friend had started dating someone else. That afternoon, in his office, when she’d destroyed him revealing that she was dating Ed Tucker. She’d never forget the pain and betrayal in his piercing green eyes.

Lauren Sullivan. The giveaway clue that’d shattered everything - the safety of the Conversation Booth; the anonymity of the conversation.

The pieces continued to fall into place as the seconds ticked away. The stressful jobs; the desire to do good even though it sometimes killed them inside. They’d both had rough childhoods; had trouble opening up to others although the two of them somehow just got each other. Even the non-judgmental, patient way he’d listened to her - thinking she was a complete stranger - now felt deeply familiar. The fact that they’d connected so easily wasn’t surprising in the slightest; they really did understand each other.

And now she had a big decision to make.

[You have 30 seconds left.]

Olivia rapidly replayed the exchange between them in her head, feeling a bead of cold sweat form on her forehead. There were so many reasons she wanted to hit the Match button right away.

Conversation between them flowed like water. This evening had proven it yet again. They made each other feel at ease, even when neither of them had realised it was the other. They’d gone through the whole conversation clearly feeling sparks fly, all the while thinking that they were strangers.

He challenged her to be better at her job; she made him better at his. They respected each other. They treasured each other’s friendship.

He knew her like no one else did, even in the relatively short time they’d known each other. She’d trust him with her deepest, darkest secrets, and his with her. And it was more than just knowing information about the other - it was something deeper than that. Almost like two halves of the same soul.

Had it taken this artificial hellscape of a night for her to realise that she had a genuine connection with someone who’d been standing right in front of her all along?

She’d fallen in love with him without even knowing it was him. That had to mean something.

[You have 10 seconds left.]

The buttons flashed ominously and Olivia’s finger suddenly felt heavy lingering over the screen. If she clicked the Match button, she was taking a step in their relationship that they’d never be able to reverse. They’d never be able to pretend that this soul-bearing conversation had never happened. They were going to have to face it - and god, what effect would that have on their work? She didn’t even have the slightest of clues.

[You have 5 seconds left.]

She had to make a decision.

[3, 2…]

She reached out and pressed.


Rafael exhaled loudly exiting that tiny Conversation Booth, and eagerly stretched his arms and stiff shoulders as a staff member ushered him to the separate room where he’d hopefully meet Match #3. He nervously straightened his jacket and shirt, hoping they hadn’t become too crumpled after two hours in that armchair, and ran a hand through his now-tousled hair. Maybe his mother would finally shut up and stop sending him to these events if he could show her he could actually find a decent match. “Slow” speed dating? What kind of stupid description was that, anyway? Anyone with a high school diploma would know it’s an oxymoron, he thought.

But something about Match #3 was so goddamn familiar, and he couldn’t quite put a finger on it, which only fanned the flames of his curiosity.

She worked in a job that sometimes put her in the public eye; something about advocacy and doing right. Maybe a fellow attorney? God, he certainly hoped not.

She’d had a difficult childhood, just like him. They’d risen above their circumstances.

Something in the way her voice changed when he mentioned Lauren Sullivan’s name made his hair stand on end. Over 500 people at his high school had seen the talent show unfold in real time; he’d told even more people about the ordeal later in life. It could be anyone, really, but something continued to nag at him.

Did he know this woman?

He watched anxiously as the staff member looked at her iPad for his matches. “Congratulations, Mr. Barba. You have been paired successfully with Match #3. She’s waiting behind that door,” she smiled.

So Match #3 did want to see him as well - thank God. He knew perfectly well that he’d have to let it go and move on if the match didn’t materialise, but after that conversation - easily the best he’d had that day - he didn’t know how he’d deal with it if he left without finding out who she was. And now he was about to see her for the first time.

Rafael walked towards the door, his footsteps suddenly feeling like lead. What would await him when he flung that door open? Who the heck was this mysterious Match #3 - a complete stranger who made him feel completely at home; completely at ease? Someone who felt deeply familiar to him even though they’d talked for just half an hour?

He pressed his palm to the door handle, took a deep breath and pushed.

Oh my -

Right before him, brunette hair perfectly coiffed and black cocktail dress hugging every curve, was the smiling face of Olivia Benson, brown eyes alive with a knowing twinkle.

Lauren Sullivan. She’d remembered that cold winter morning. She’d realised it was him.

She’d pressed Match on him. He’d pressed Match on her.

“Let’s get out of this… complete fucking dystopian nightmare?” she suggested with a sly grin.

“Gladly,” he smiled, taking her hand in his.


Olivia and Rafael walked down 5th Avenue, leaving the dystopian ballroom far behind, bodies huddled for warmth and protection against the blustery winter air. She let him take her gloved hand in his, feeling his fingers wrap around hers protectively; feeling his warm breath against her cheek, gentle and intimate.

Almost 5 years of working together, endless hours hunched over the same paperwork and countless looks exchanged - and it was here that they’d finally found each other.

A whole evening of artifice, but they both knew one thing: this was real.

This connection; their hands linked - this was real.

And this was just the beginning.

[MATCH successful.]