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Air swished through the apartment when the front door opened.

Elliot raised an eyebrow and his gesture was mirrored when he and Fin took in the sight of each other. “Didn’t expect to find you here,” said the Stabler.

“I didn’t think Olivia had invited you,” replied Tutuola.

The creases on the white man’s face deepened. “Invited me? For what?”

Sergeant Fin blinked. “What in the hell is wrong with you?” He stepped back, giving the other space. Grabbed Stabler’s arm, keeping him on the corridor. “It’s Noah’s birthday. At least pretend you remembered.”

Elliot ambled in. He recognized Amanda Rollins sitting on the couch, between her and ADA Sonny Carisi were three children. One of them the detective recognized as Noah. Behind the couch, but also on the video call with them was Phoebe Bakerman. Stabler didn’t recognize the voice of who they were talking to.

Olivia stood in the kitchen, organizing food on a plate, near her a man had his back to the door. He turned around, holding a plate filled with sandwiches. He entered Olivia’s personal space, tipped his head, and said something in her ear that made her grin.

Detective Stabler narrowed his eyes at the bearded figure.

“Liv, look what the cat dragged in!” Fin announced heading towards his fiancée.

Captain Benson and her companion turned to Elliot. Her shoulders tensed. “Elliot, hi.”

Amanda Rollins raised her eyes from the cellphone screen. “Nick, give me a second, will you? Carisi, hold the phone, please?” She was on her feet fast, her hands on her waist. “Detective Stabler,” she greeted, shot the bearded man a glance, the contact lingered.

Olivia strode towards the Organized Crimes investigator. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

Rollins moved closer to the bearded man.

“Was off on a mission, wanted to stop by,” Stabler said, facing Benson. “Sorry I forgot to bring a gift.”

She chewed on her bottom lip, crossed her arms. “It’s fine, I never told you when Noah’s birthday was.”

The stranger came out of the kitchen, stepped near the couch.

“Barba, what do you have on your face? the voice came from the cellphone. “It’s too early for Halloween.”

Green orbs found the cellphone screen. “ No ibas a creer los fantasmas que tenemos por aquí hoy.

Benson glanced over her shoulder to the stranger, he met her eyes.

“Olivia,...” he said.

No pasa nada ,” she answered.

“What did I miss?” questioned Stabler, crossing his arms.

The captain sighed, touched her waist with her hands. “You took everyone by surprise.”

He blinked. “Is it a bad time?”

“A bit late for that question, don’t you think?” shot Rollins, staring dead into Elliot’s face. “But I guess you’re too used to coming and going as you see fit.”

“Amanda,” tried Fin.

“What?” she spat.

“Mom?” Noah’s voice intervened.

Olivia turned. “Come here, sweet boy.”

The boy complied, he reached his mother’s side, studied Stabler from head to toe.

“Noah, this is Elliot Stabler, he was my partner, he’s an old friend of mine,” she said. “Elliot, this is Noah.”

“Hello.”

“Hi, Noah. Nice to meet you. Happy birthday.”

“Thank you. Did you work with mom and uncle Nick?”

Stabler frowned. “No, not really. I worked with your mom and your uncle Fin.”

Noah nodded. “Do you like ballet?”

Elliot shook his head. “Not really, why?”

“Nothing,” he tugged at his mother’s hand. 

Benson faced him. “Why won’t you help uncle Rafa with the sandwiches?”

He smiled, rushed towards the stranger.

“He seems to be a good kid,” said Stabler.

“He is,” Olivia said. “Come on, we’re having sandwiches.”

“Are you sure?” he questioned.

“You can leave awkwardly or you can meet everyone,” she said. “Your call.”

The group had gathered around the center table where a little feast sat for Noah’s birthday. The detective identified all as food for children. Cake, sandwiches, candies, snacks. Stabler joined them, sitting on the couch beside Fin and Phoebe.

Amanda and Carisi sat with the children on the floor, nearest to the table. Noah settled beside his “uncle Rafa”, Olivia lit up the candle on the cake and sat beside her boy.

The biggest of the blonde children near Amanda started the “Happy Birthday” song. Her smile wide to Noah. The little girl beside her fought to maintain her footing but clapped along with the others.

The moment lingered, it froze in time. But Elliot wasn’t a part of it. Olivia watched her son with something in her eyes that the detective recognized. Kathy used to observe their kids with the same gaze. “Uncle Rafa” smiled at the boy, yet it was the glance he gave Benson that made Stabler’s stomach turn.

Looks like someone wants to be a dad.

Amanda Rollins and ADA Carisi didn’t care about putting space between them, the attorney held a proud smile to the smallest child standing on her feet. It grew bigger when the infant grew tired and chose his chest to rest against, he kissed the top of her head.

Phoebe was distracted by the celebration, she held Fin’s hand. Gave it a squeeze that made him beam. She leaned against him.

Stabler shifted on his seat, swallowed. He had been caught up in a family gathering and he wasn’t part of it. He was an outsider. He could sense this with his children too, but recent events had changed that. Now the sensation was different. The Olivia Benson sitting across from him wasn’t the one he left behind. She had found a family of her own, in the little boy beside her, and on those who had gathered to celebrate him today.

She kissed the child’s cheek. “Make a wish, sweet boy,” her voice soft as he had never heard it.

Noah blew on the candle. 

The fire went out and Elliot sensed his time had gone with it. He didn’t belong here. A small smile appeared on his lips, bittersweet. Olivia deserved this, this happiness. Still, his chest felt empty.

He’d stay long enough to be polite, leave as soon as he could. They didn’t need him, the stranger.