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“Son of a bitch.” Cursed Nick as he jammed his finger against the door of their rental.

“Nick!” he heard his wife scold.

“Sorry.” He muttered, insincere. Their 8-month-old baby was hardly mature enough to understand a word of what he said, but Maria was adamant he might somehow be heard.

“How about you get the gift, I’ll get her out of her car seat and meet you in there?” his wife suggested.

He stared at her questionably, and she exhaled an exasperated chuckle, adding. “Come on. I know you’ve been itching to see your old friends. I’ll meet you there after I get her into the stroller.” She reached up to peck his lips, and he felt his shoulders relax already.

“You’re the best.”

“Don’t you forget it.”

The wedding gift was slightly heavy in his hands and embarrassingly enough, he didn’t even know the contents of the package. Maria had picked it out at the airport last night, and he’d been too preoccupied with diaper changing to even risk asking.

As he stepped into the restaurant, he spotted a table with other wrapped gifts and added their own to the collection. He took a once over at the guest list, immediately found the only name that could’ve motivated a long trip to New York, and he smiled, relieved to see confirmation of her presence.

Tugging the buttons of his blazer, he crossed the threshold and into the reception area, scanning the room for a familiar face. The hundred plus guest list wasn’t the only reminder of his disposition. Comfortably, he felt like an out outsider. His permanent Californian tan and short stubble might have expressed just as much.

From where he stood in the middle of reception, he caught sight of an extensive balcony outside with added guests. Searching, he gathered sight of Amanda Rollins and Sonny Carisi standing still in the far corner, mid conversation. It had been too long since he’d seen the old squad, but he was relieved to see the two getting on. Perhaps even more as he caught Amanda discretely place a hand against Carisi’s chest, keeping it there.

Partners.

It was a growing cliché at this point, and he was suddenly glad to know he managed to escape that one with Liv.

On the other end of the balcony, Olivia stood still, a relaxed smile on her face as she talked to three others next to her.

A pretty dark woman with short curly hair stood opposite, and next to her was a dark man dressed in an expensive looking suit. It was the second man that Nick found obtrusive, he stood at her side as if he belonged there, as if he knew this too. Tall and well-built, his piercing blue eyes held her in high regard and when the dark woman opposite them said something that made Olivia laugh, the man’s face changed to soft affection.

It wasn’t the first man Nick knew to be half-in-love with Olivia, but it was the way she interacted with him that made it more compelling. They stood too far apart to be a couple, but she shared a knowing smirk in the man’s direction that held a little longer than usual, and her eyes reflected an equal sense of fondness.

Nick hoped she’d found love, that she might have finally let someone in, relinquished some of her demons for someone else to carry, and he was brazenly grateful it wasn’t Brian fucking Cassidy, or some other guy who might barely be able to hold his own issues, in addition to hers. With good luck, this new guy looked promising.

Picking his foot up, he began to move in her direction and stopped when he caught her full attention. She stilled in her own familiarity and sucked in a breath so loud it caught the attention of the three others next to her. Her face split into a bright smile and Nick felt his own escape. The last time they’d seen each other had been a few years ago when she and Noah flew to California for a holiday, but she’d spent most of it on the coast and he didn’t get to see enough of her then or now.

The three others followed her line of sight. Nick’s attention travelled between hers and the blue steely gaze of the stranger next to her. The man lifted his shoulders, unexpectedly defensive and threatening as he stared between her and Nick.

Olivia all but said a few words as she excused herself, eyes never leaving Nick’s face, she walked away from them as if they were now lost to her. Nick might have felt a little guilty for her abrupt exit, if it weren’t for the way she so clearly strode in his direction, sure of where she was going and sure of what she had left behind.

“Nick Amaro.” She mused as he met her halfway.

“Olivia Benson.” He replied, eyes equally amused and mischievous.

He wrapped her up when she threw her arms around his shoulders. The sound ofan exasperated laugh escaped her mouth as he blindly turned them in a circle, arms warm, they moved on their feet until they stood back in place.

The movement attracted several curious eyes, but neither seemed to notice as they pulled back, taking each other in once more.

“You ass!” she chastised, “Nobody told me you were coming!”

He felt himself laugh again. Her face was full of both rage and joy, it was probably his best reaction yet.

“I’m sorry. I told Fin not to say anything.”

“I’m gonna kill him.”

“Don’t. He’s getting married today.”

She stilled, eyes landing on his stubble beard, she casually reached out to touch it for a warm second. “When did this happen?” she furrowed her brows.

“You don’t like it?”

“It makes you look old.”

“I am old.”

“Pffttt..” she rolled her eyes, and then her attention travelled behind his shoulder. “Maria and the baby here?”

“I’m doing good thanks. How are you?”

She grinned again, jabbing his chest with her finger, she chided – “You named your baby after me and I haven’t even met her yet. What were you thinking?”

“First of all, I told you, we like the name.”

She scolded him with her eyes.

Heartily amused, he added – “But obviously, we thought of you too.”

The mention of his wife reminded Nick of his train of thoughts the moment he spotted Olivia. Nick’s gaze travelled back to the group she had left behind and he locked eyes with the man responsible for his curiosity, surprised when he saw the man’s eyes still trained on her from behind.

Nick was experienced enough to know when another displayed an affliction of animosity, and this man was evidently no stranger to the emotion. Their eyes met for a cold moment, Nick did him a one over and the man did the same, no longer hostile, Nick could see his emotions for what they truly were.

Jealousy.

Unscathed of what the stranger might possibly think about him, Nick smirked at the mere idea of himself and Olivia as anything more than friends. His evident arrogance seemed to piss the stranger off even more.

He looked back at her, “Maria and Olivia are outside. Come with me?”

Her face softened at the mention of his daughter, confirmation that they did indeed share the same name. It hadn’t occurred to Nick how bizarre others might find this until now, mostly because she didn’t seem to mind when he told her over the phone months ago. The truth was, he genuinely loved the name, and his wife wanted something different, something modern but which people would always remember, so they settled with Olivia. It had only occurred to him days after her birth that she shared a name with his former partner, that he might need to tell her this in case she found it awkward, which she hadn’t. Not then and not now.

He guided older Olivia out of the room, hands wrapped around his arm, she idly chatted about Fin and the squad.

Absentmindedly, he could still feel the stranger’s laboured attention from behind as they exited the reception.

****

Elliot hated weddings. Even before Kathy’s death, he hated weddings. He could never sit for too long; the stretched time of common ceremonies always left him wishing he had skipped the first half, and the sickening soppiness of it all felt too foreign to his bones, but this one was different.

This time was different.

In a room full of cops, he wasn’t alone in his disposition. Despite the reality that most of them were probably here for the free bar, it was nice to catch up with old faces and new friends. To be reminded that he could be human and damaged and maybe even a little sentimental too.

His eyes searched the area for the only person in the world who could motivate him to do just about anything, this wedding being no exception. But nowhere in sight, he found himself disappointingly falling into step with Garland and Bell’s conversation.

“I never would’ve thought Fin might be one to show up to his own wedding, late.” Bell told them, amused.

“For a second time.” Elliot muttered.

From spending time with Olivia and her squad this last year, he’d learned that Bell and Fin were old friends, and so when he received the verbal invite to the second wedding, he was immediately relieved to hear his partner might have to endure it right with him.

It was minutes later when he caught Noah Benson darting across the threshold. Dressed in a nice beige colored suit, the little boy’s chestnut curls bounced as he stopped at a table and sat himself next to one of Rollin’s daughters.

Elliot tore his gaze away in search of his mother, found her a mere few feet away from her child. Of course.

She greeted Amanda’s kid, warm and comfortable, she wrapped the child up in her arms like she’d done it before, and then spoke to Noah as she handed them his iPad.

He’d always imagined that Olivia might make a wonderful mother but seeing it in full physicality never ceased to take his breath away. Just the mere image of her swollen and pregnant and more beautiful than the day before; it tightened a knot in his stomach that he wished she might one day loosen by telling him their story.

He imagines that day might come soon as he falls more and more, fruitlessly in love with her. Each waking moment they get to spend with each other is like coming up for air.

It’s been over a year since Kathy’s death, but he finally feels himself emerging to life again. Occasionally, he still catches himself living in denial of where his heart belongs, of its rightful owner, and each time he intakes a wave of Olivia’s perfume; or sees her radiating a delicate smile; or how she jumps at the chance to fight for a victim, it sends him closer to healing than either of them know.

He observes as she strides toward the balcony, steps into view and his throat dries at the sight of her. She’s a vision in a navy sheath dress and black stilettos. The dress accentuates her perfect hourglass figure, and her olive skin tone is enhanced by a new tan line to her skin. A beautiful diamond bracelet dangles against her wrist, and he makes a mental note of how diamonds compliment her in every department.

Her gaze lands on Bell and then travels to his own.

If he ever loses her again, if she ever decides to walk away like he once done, he thinks he’ll always have this moment to look back on.

Everything about her slows as she treads in their direction, heals glad against the ground, a ghost of a smirk tugs at her mouth as she notes his penetrating stare. He’s gaping and silent and all for her, and he wonders if she knows just how stunning she is, how unfair it is that she might actually outshine the bride in something as humble as a dark dress.

But then Bell’s voice brings him out of his reverie, and he feels like an idiot. “Captain Benson, nice of you to finally join us.”

There’s a subtle whiff of the expensive perfume that she wears, and he knows from tortured experience that he’ll be taking it home with him tonight.

Tugging a strand of hair behind her ear, Olivia chuckles, “Sorry. I was hoping we might arrive just in time for the ceremony.”

He follows her line of sight to the wedding processional.

“So, where’s the happy groom?”

“Not here yet.” Answered Elliot.

“You serious?”

They nodded.

She shook her head, “I swear, if they cancel this thing again, I’m putting him on desk duty for 6 weeks. I can’t bear to attend another wedding.”

He grins. Nobody finds her as funny as he does, this is something Bell had pointed out to him a few weeks ago, and although he ignored her, the raw truth of it still hasn’t left him.

Between the four of them, conversation travels comfortably between work and homelife. Garland’s had it rough this past year, and Olivia has been so unwaveringly loyal to her superior that there’s an added layer of layer of mutual respect between the two.

It makes him wonder how many other hearts she might have won in the force, too many to count on his fingers, he supposed.

The thought is fleeting, but he thinks some of it is answered when he watches her walk away and into the arms of another man. Vaguely, he can hear Garland and Bell continue their conversation, but it’s muffled by his blinding curiosity and growing craze.

The two of them twirl in each other’s arms like old friends or worse, like former lovers.

The man pulls away, stares at her as if he hasn’t seen her in decades. Olivia reaches out to touch his stubble beard.

Elliot just stares.

When she takes his arm and they exit the room, his curiosity is quickly replaced with blindingly jealousy. Elliot turns to face the harbor.

He hates weddings.

****

The balcony is nippy for May, and Elliot is trying to form an escape plan, even when the guests have found their seats and Fin is finally fucking here, he’s still imagining infinite excuses that might lead a polite exit.

His thoughts halt at once when he looks up and Olivia has reappeared again. Confidant and totally unaware, she walks across the aisle as if nobody stares. This might have to do with the baby that sits on her hip who has her unbridled attention.

The same stranger from before walks beside her, and a woman pushes a stroller behind them, but all that really matters is the unanticipated image of Olivia Benson holding a baby.

When they reach the front, Fin pulls the stranger into a brotherly hug. They’re loud and boastful when they part, and Olivia smiles at something that the stranger says. The baby reaches out to touch her earing, doesn’t pull.  

Its strangely intimate.

It’s a glimpse into a page of her world he hasn’t read yet.

If he ever wanted to see what she might look like with a small Noah Benson, this is probably as close as Elliot is ever going to get.

She doesn’t let the baby go. Not when Fin and Phoebe start their vows, not when Noah tries to bid for her attention, not even when the man offers to take the baby off her when it starts to wail amidst the vows. Chubby legs bounce on her lap and Olivia coos and dotes -

And then she lifts the child up and down above her head as if she’s as light as a feather, which she so clearly isn’t, because she’s just as overfed as Maureen was at that age.

But then the baby laughs so loud it distracts the ceremony and Olivia, unashamed and amused, coos the baby into silence. The man next to her finds this equally amusing as the rest of them.

Elliot observes it all from a far, and it’s hard not to because she’s so damn otherworldly in any setting, but with a baby tucked against her chest it adds a layer to her mystery. Any cop here has seldom ever seen Olivia this way, maternal, friendly, light-hearted, free. It’s the Olivia only her squad knows on weekends. It’s the Olivia Elliot knew for 12 years. It’s the Olivia he wants more of.

Gratefully, the ceremony is short and sweet and over as soon as it begins. The crowd disperses, Olivia along with it.

Later on, he finds Rollins and Carisi chatting with Bell and Garland, each carting a wine glass in hand.

“So, who’s the guy?” Ayanna initiates, motioning toward the man who has Noah Benson in fits of laughter.

Elliot tries his best to look away, but he just can’t…

Ayanna knows him well, knows where his thoughts have been for the last hour, knows that he’s been too detached to ask what has undoubtedly been weighing on all their minds.

“That’s Nick.” answered Amanda.

She had his full attention now.

– “Detective Amaro. He and I started with svu at the same time. He left five or so years ago.”

Something else hovered in her eye as she observed Nick from a far, but then she locked eyes with Carisi and blushed. Carisi blushing with her.

Christ.

Liv was right, these two were excruciating.

“He was Liv’s partner for… well not too long. But long enough.” Amanda explained, her steel gaze landing fleetingly on Elliot.  

“They hated each other at first or Liv hated him. You wouldn’t know it now, but they were always at each other’s throats –”

“Yeah.” Carisi agreed.

“Drove Cragen mad, but they got there in the end.” Amanda finished.

“Sounds familiar.” Bell muttered, sipping her drink. Elliot would have answered, had he not been entirely absorbed in the way Nick interacted with Noah Benson. Sat alone at a table, the two seemed to be at war over who could eat the most grapes in a timed minute, their faces stuffed. A few feet away, Liv stood with the wife and the baby, and when the wife pointed out what they were doing, she looked back, suddenly mortified, she yelled something out to Nick that made them stop what they were doing. Liv shook her head, scolding, she looked back at the wife and covered her face in embarrassment.

It would have been hilarious had Elliot not realized that he’d been staring for far too long.

“Nick and Amanda are Noah’s godparents.” Carisi explained, and Elliot realized he wasn’t the only one staring.

Married to the job.

That was Olivia. Her squad were both her friends and her family. She seemed to want for nothing else.

It made sense now. Since he had arrived, Elliot had been looking for Nick’s face in Noah Benson’s with very little luck. And neither Noah or Nick seemed to share a bond that mirrored a father and son, leaving Elliot still looking for an absent man that nobody seemed to talk about.

Nick was moving toward Liv now, holding a glass of red, he offered it to her, but she quietly declined. Her eyes for the baby.

Another song later, with no announcement of when reception might begin, they were interrupted. Nick Amaro stepped into their space, arms open and uncertain as he aimed to face a grounded Amanda.

“Hey Amanda.”

The stranger came across as confidant, perhaps even arrogant from different vantages points, but this guy was suddenly nervous as he approached her.

Elliot didn’t know why but he could take a good guess.

“Nick… hey.” Surprised, the blonde moved and the two shared a handshake that turned into an unmistakably awkward hug.

Nick was more confidant when he shook Carisi’s hand, and Elliot observed him up closer as Amanda proceeded to introduce the stranger to the rest of them. 

Lastly, she added – “And this is Elliot… I mean, detective Stabler.”

Nick’s hand had already been out by that point, but his polite smile dropped at the mention of Elliot’s name, and his hand vanished with it. Elliot dropped his own.

Holding his position firmly, Elliot kept his gaze steady and permanent. “Nice to meet you.”

Nick released a disbelieving breath. Undoubtedly, Nick detested him, and Elliot felt himself detesting him right back.

“Yea.” Nick responded, stepping back.  

“So...” Carisi saved what was undeniably, awkward silence. “You and Maria had another kid. Congratulations.”

Face still grim at the sight of Elliot, Nick softened at the mention of his family.

“Yeah. We thought it was about time we made a trip back to New York. It’s been a while, and Liv’s been pestering us all year. Also, can you believe this is Fin’s wedding?”

He motions to their surroundings. Intimate and warm, it is still rather elegant and unlike Fin or his wife. 

Liv’s been pestering us all year.

Elliot’s seen a photo of this man in her office. He betrayed himself that day when he allowed his thoughts to tangle in curiosity and paranoia without asking her about it. A portrait photo of the two of them, badges attached to their hips, her arm had been wrapped around his shoulder as they both smiled awkwardly for the camera, like they hadn’t seen one before. It was a platonic kind of pledge that emitted in their embrace, either in photo frame or real-life.

They were partners. Friends.

And nothing more.

Never in denial of what they had or didn’t have, Nick and Olivia were what she and Elliot had tried to be but failed at maintaining.

“They’re trying to make up for cancelling the first one.” Amanda muses with reference to Fin.  

Nick raises a suspicious brow, “Do I even want to know that story?”

She shakes her head,  

“I guess it’s a good thing. We wouldn’t have made it 8 months ago. Maria went into labor around the same time.”

From a short distance, Nick’s wife has finished giving the baby her bottle. Liv tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, folds her arms against her chest. She smiles as herself and the wife continue in warm conversation. So clearly unaware, Olivia is stunning against vibrant colors of a protruding orange sunset.

“What’s her name?” Amanda asked, eyes drifting once more to the baby.

“Olivia.”

Confused, a beat of silence sat between the six of them. Elliot blinked, Bell looked at him again for clarification, Garland too, and Amanda and Carisi just stared.

Realization soon dawned as the baby was handed back to Liv.

“Her name is Olivia.”

****

After the third and fourth speech, Elliot finds himself out on the balcony again. The advice given tonight details all that is gained in a marriage and never what might be lost. Elliot won’t be the one to remind them of this, these people and this squad, her squad, Fin’s squad. They know more about loss than most souls should bear in one lifetime. It drives Elliot into a spiral that he’s only recently learned how to command.

Its why, he thinks, the whiskey he sips tastes a little less like healing and more like another mistake. He puts it down just as he hears footfalls behind.

Nick Amaro approaches.

Elliot sighs. This is neither the place or time but he braces himself anyway. Shoulders rising, he leans against the railing, waits.

“Liv didn’t mention you were back again.”

“You talk with Liv often?”

“Every couple months over the phone.”

Elliot nodded.

“I’m sorry about your wife.”

“So, she told you about that.”

“No. Amanda did.”

It was no secret the blonde disliked him, albeit a little less each time they got to know each other more. Her fleeting animosity seemed to give him a glimpse into how she saw him, how he might slowly begin to win her over.  

Amaro’s animosity however was less fleeting, and definitively lasting. Unlike Amanda, Nick’s patience and tolerance was completely lost on Elliot. The two were utter strangers but even this didn’t seem to explain for the nature of their mutual animosity.

“You broke her, you know.”

Hard black eyes stared back at him.

“You broke her when you left. I felt like I was just there to extinguish whatever fire she caused… or worse, walked into. At first, I thought it was me she hated, but it wasn’t. It was herself. She hated herself. You did that to her.”

Elliot felt his eyes close briefly. An ordinary man might have stopped listening, or retaliated, or tried to justify his abandonment, but Elliot was far from ordinary at this point. He felt truly ill.

“She hated herself because of whatever hold you had over her.”

“Whatever hold I had over her.” he repeated, shaking his head. “I get it, I do. But whatever that was, however big or small. Hers is tenfold for me. Always has been.”

He knows this won’t even begin to explain his actions, but he’s not here to explain or to apologize.

The only person who deserves an apology is her but she’s sick of hearing it.

His feelings for her are evident in his use of a present tense, and the use of a past tense when both men aim to describe her feelings for him... It misplaces the sentimentality of his confession; turns it into a tragedy.

“I don’t really care about the details; whatever it is you had or have. The reality is she still cares, so let me just ask you this, are you here to stay or are you here to leave?”

Neither, he thought.

He was here to follow her. Wherever she went from hereon, he wanted to be right there, doing it all with her. The problem was, he supposed, Olivia Benson would undoubtedly find this unreasonable. Ridiculous. She didn’t want to be followed and she certainly didn’t need to be led.

But he wasn’t about to confess his doubts or his fears to Nick Amaro, so he answered, simply. “Stay. I’m here to stay.”

Nick sees his gaze flick to Olivia sitting at her table, follows it, “Good.. because I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you this but if you hurt her…”

“You’re not and I won’t.” Elliot growls.

-“if you hurt her, you should run for the hills. She’s ruthless when you’re her enemy.”

Elliot just stares at her, unflinching. From where she sits in the other room, Olivia raises a hand to scratch her forehead, and he wonders what she might be thinking.

“She means a lot to you.” Nick guesses, and his calculation is just as right as anybody else’s.

It was funny, he thought, that in each growing moment they had spent together in the last year, either on the job or in formal settings like this one, he learned more about himself in months than he did in all the years he’s spent breathing.

He learned that in every woman he locked eyes with since leaving the squad, it was hers he looked for. Always. Even when he loved Kathy and he truly did, he still looked for Olivia in every crowded room he walked into.

“No. She means everything to me.” Elliot heard himself answering.

Just then, he caught Liv’s head turn to scan the room, looking for someone. Her face transformed into sheer shock when she found him standing alone and unsupervised with Nick Amaro. Elliot imagined that this was likely scaring the shit out of her.

He looked back to his replacement.

“She got better – way better.” Nick added, “She grew into herself. Suffered a lot of other shit; but grew into someone better, someone more whole. I left before she became a lieutenant, but I could see it coming.”

Elliot just stared at him.

Weeks ago, when Wheatley had exposed some of her truth, when he was made to hear Olivia tear Wheatley to pieces, to watch her put some of hers together for the nature of the conversation. He’d learned all too much in such a short amount of time, and his mind exploded. Rage tenfold, Elliot found himself banging on his shrink’s door begging for some answers.

He thinks now he’s gotten a handle on it, but something like a knowing stare or a former partner of hers might show up out of the blue and he’s taken right back to it. To the name with four syllables.

“You were there… when Lewis… when she..”

Nick’s face clouded in darkness, like he hadn’t heard the name in too long. He looked away for the first time, bearing a hidden truth that Elliot could now see.

Yes, he was there. Yes, he saw everything.

“I sometimes I wish I wasn’t.”

“Right.” Elliot breathed, no stranger to shame, he still struggled to tolerate its presence.

“After it happened, when I’d get myself into a spiral of guilt, I used to think if her old partner were around, he would’ve known, would’ve seen all the clues.”

Elliot shook his head, “She said you looked after her.”

“We all did.”

“Said you treated her like a person, not a victim.”

“She deserved that and more.”

Elliot sucked in a breath. There were no words, none, to express his decided gratitude to this man, this stranger.

“That’s what you would have done, isn't it?” Nick asked.

Elliot paused, it wasn’t safe to tell anyone what he might have done. He opened his mouth to answer when they were interrupted. “What are you two doing?”

A dulcet voice sharply pierced the cool night air amidst them, breaking conversation. William Lewis deserved no more of their attention, especially hers, so he decided then and there that this would be the last time he would speak its name, whatever it was.

“Nothing.” He tells Olivia, trying to meet her without exposing the lie.

Incredulous, Olivia folds her arms against her chest as she nears, goosebumps lining her arms. It’s only nearing the beginning of summer and despite however long of knowing her, he still can’t fathom how some things don’t change, remarkably, her body temperature.

“Just trading horror stories.” Nick tells her.

“Liar.” She muses.

When Elliot catches her shiver as a gust of wind passes by, he yanks off his coat and throws it around her shoulders like a second habit. She thanks him, and subtly leans into his touch, shoulders brushing. Its delicate and indefinite but inviting all the same.

“So, you two finally met.” She looks between the two of them, searching, suspicious.

Elliot hums a response. Nick just stares.

“No punches thrown, no fight to untangle?”

“Relax Liv. Last time I checked, we’re adults.” Nick replied.

“Yeah right.” She muttered, unconvinced.

They were always at each other’s throats.

“You look happy.” Nick told her.

Elliot observed her carefully, waiting for her answer. Was she?

“I am.”

She leaned into his touch again and his heart pounded. Confidently, Elliot raised his hand to rest on the small of her back.

She didn’t look his way, but she didn’t withdraw either.
Nick cleared his throat. “Are the speeches over yet?”

“Done and dusted. I’m gonna take Noah home soon. It’s getting late and I’m really sensing a child-free party coming on.” 20 years ago, this would’ve been Elliot and she might have been the one to stay. Its bittersweet to think of the change; of their individual growth and the different paths they’ve both taken in divide, only to find themselves coupled and bound to one another once more.

“I can’t believe how grown Noah is. I can still remember when he was crawling around your apartment looking for things to chew on.”

“He still does that, only this time he can walk and knows exactly where to go.”

Nick chuckled and so did Elliot.

“Did you get any photos of him with Olivia?” Nick asked her.

“Too much to count for. I’ll send them to you in the morning.”

“Good. We’re still on for breakfast?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

Examining Elliot, Nick reached out to share a more cordial handshake. No longer hostile, they shared a common understanding, a common goal; to leave the woman with the gold badge unharmed, for the rest of her life.

“Elliot.” Nick nodded. Elliot returned the gesture, carefully observing as he then touched Olivia’s shoulder. She shared with him a knowing smile,

And then he was gone.

“What you two talk about?” Never giving up, she looked up at him.

“You, of course.”

She raised an incredulous brow. “Relax.” Elliot told her, “Nobody revealed any of your secrets.”

“It isn’t my secrets I’m worried about.”

This woman was very easily going to be the death of him, he thought.

“Stop worrying about me.” He spoke to her like he did with his children, tender. “Stop trying to protect me. I’m fine, Liv. It’s been a rough year, but I’m good. I’m getting there. We’re getting there.”

“I know you are.” She answered earnestly.

“Then why do you always look at me with so much… concern?”

Moving to face the balcony, she tucked his jacket against her skin and studied him, unsure, questioning, and… resigned.

She released a shuddering sigh.

“I don’t know how to be with you. I don’t know how to interact with you now that you are… better again.”

The last word slipped out cautiously, like she was afraid she might jinx the rawness of it.

Sucking in a breath, he felt himself tearing apart.

This was how she interacted with victims. She found them broken, patched them back up and sent them on their way. And like a caged animal, it had been weighing in his mind for weeks.

“Sometimes I look at you El, and I worry that we’re only tethered by memories.”

A blow to his stomach.

A shot to his chest.

He imagines this is what consequence feels like. His mistakes still catching up with him.

Elliot grips the balcony with his arm, hand whitening.

“My grief has taken up all the room in our relationship, hasn’t it?”

Her face softens, his hardens. He’s right.

“I let it get that way.” She whispers, gracious. “I wanted it that way.”

It was her own coping strategy, he surmised, her way of keeping him at arm’s length.

“How long have you known this?”

“Ever since you found out about Lewis.”

He swallows. She continues, “That day, when you walked me out of your squad room, I realized that you were going to be alright. Even with Kathy gone, the new job, knowing about Lewis… You didn’t need me anymore and I didn’t want to not be needed.”

“I’ll always need you, Liv.”

“That’s not what I mean,” She exhaled, softly, “Selfishly and unaware; I think a part of me wanted you to stay a victim and me to stay…”

She paused, unsure.

“Captain Benson.” He finished for her.

“Yeah.” She shook her head, eyes welling. “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. Look at me,” he grabbed her hands. “I see you, Olivia. I see all of you.”

I see you.

Her eyes profound, he thinks she sees him too. The real him, the new Elliot.

As he squeezed her hand, willing her to understand, he knew before he took his next breath that she was the one he would spend the rest of his life looking for but never find again. There were too many crowded rooms in the world for him to walk out of, disappointed.

Too many people he would always compare her too, and not enough shrinks to stop him from doing so.

“At least give us a chance. Make new memories.”

“And what if it doesn’t work? I can’t lose you again.”

“But what if it does? What if we’re great together.”

Elliot has made no secret in the last few months of where his heart belongs. He studies her as she does the same, takes in the way her forehead creases in consideration, thinking.

“You’ll never lose me. If it doesn’t… if we don’t...” he won’t even finish the sentence. “None of it matters. All I want is you to be happy. And I’m sorry in advance, but you’re stuck with me. Friend or nothing. For better or worse.”

There’s a ghost of a smile on his face as he remembers having said this almost two decades ago. And it might even be more funny because by some grace of god, he can see she remembers it too.

Partners. For better or worse. He means all of it.

Olivia stands silent for way too long.

And then a minor smile found her lips. “Would you do something for me?”

“Anything.”

“Shave the goatee, will you?”

He found her eyes landing once more on his new addition, trying but failing miserably to accept it.

He released a soft chuckle. “Why?”

A teasing smile, she told him, “I don’t want you to change but I also don’t want our first kiss to be with… that.”

He shuddered.

Their first kiss.

He damn wished he had gotten rid of it weeks ago if it meant –

She grazed his cheek with her palm, he leaned into the touch.

She wasn’t perfect, but neither was he. She confessed to wanting him to stay broken because that’s what was farmiliar to her, and he still found himself trying to protect her even when she so clearly didn’t need it. But that was therapy, he supposed. That was all another welcome trial to overcome.

“Let me take you and Noah home.” He told her, shifting closer, invading space.

“Yeah,” she shuddered, eyes suddenly all for him with a heart giving in. “Okay.”

Her fingers climbed up his arms, trembling lightly until they found his biceps. Her eyes lazily took in his lips and he could almost read her mind, like looking back at his own.

But instead of giving into what they both wanted, Elliot leaned over and pressed a kiss to the delicate shell of her left cheek – a thank you for what she had given him.

A promise for something better.