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Collateral Damage

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Christmas is coming, and he promised mami he would stay in the city, promised her he would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve because he has never really believed in heaven or hell or god or the devil but he has, always, believed in mami, and she is old now, and grey, and he doesn't know how many chances he has left to make her happy, and he will not lose this one.

So he stays, after the Wheatley debacle ends in a mistrial. He stays, walks down familiar sidewalks, spends some time in the office space he rented for the trial, which is still his for another week. The wheels of justice are grinding to a halt as Christmas looms; there are fewer emails to answer, and everyone keeps saying after the holidays. We'll get to it after the holidays. It feels a lifetime away, after the holidays, and the life he is living now has grown still and quiet.

He looks at his phone and thinks of calling her, but something stays his hand. Though he will not admit it to himself, he knows what that something is; it is grief. I feel betrayed by you, she told him, but it is Rafael who feels betrayed by her, and he doesn't know how to reconcile it, that they can both believe themselves to be the victim in this series of events. It is the concept of contributory negligence in action, he supposes; sometimes even the victim must bear a piece of the blame. Sometimes the victim has the last clear chance to stop, and doesn't.

Did he have the last clear chance? Could he have avoided all this hurt? Maybe, maybe, he thinks, looking at her name shining up at him from the screen of his phone, a button next to it that will call her, if he will only press it.

He doesn't press it.

Yes, he supposes, he could have slammed on the brakes. But if he had, it would not have been him colliding with her; it would have been someone else, someone who would have hurt her worse. Maybe not worse; he thinks of her face in the bar, thinks of I don't know how I'll ever get over it. The way that he has hurt her - and it is a way he never expected, a hurt he never anticipated, one he does not fully understand, even now - is personal, and visceral. The way someone else would have hurt her, that would have been personal, too, but the ramifications of it would have been professional. Rafael has salvaged her honor and shattered their friendship and he isn't sure, may not ever be sure, which one matters more to him.

But she had her part to play in this fiasco, he thinks sullenly. She is the one who chose not to hear him. She is the one who chose another man, another friendship, over him. And it's a petty and dark and uncomfortable truth to sit with, the knowledge that his heart is smarting because she chose someone else. He doesn't like how it makes him feel about himself, but the truth remains. For years they supported one another, backed one another's play, bickered like teenagers but always, always went to bat for one another, and this time she stepped away from him. This time she pulled back. Did not hear him, when he argued passionately in defense of the rights of the accused, when he railed against police corruption - and that stings, oh that stings, because always before she was the first to leap into that fray but now she sits in the big chair and her hands are blackened with a patina of corruption that was never there before, or perhaps he simply never saw it. She did not hear him when he earnestly pled his case, when he told her outright he had chosen to defend Wheatley in no small part to protect herWhere is my friend, he wanted to shout at her, standing in her office, where is my Liv, and what have you done with her?

Because this woman, the one he sees every time he closes his eyes, the one who looked at him from the back of the courtroom baleful and unforgiving, she is not his Liv. She is hard in a way he has not ever known her to be. She is flashing eyes and uncompromising anger. She is the ramrod, unwavering defense of a man who is, by all accounts, a danger to himself and everyone around him. It is as if the very foundations of the earth have cracked beneath his feet, and he is left off-kilter, scrambling for purchase on a cliff too sheer to grasp.

But he wants, still, to call her. To reach out to this woman who is Liv and yet is not, to take her by the shoulders, to shake her until some reason for this madness falls out. Even if that reason is simply that she loves Stabler; she has always been blinded by love, and if that is what this is, he wants to hear her say it. Wants to hear her confess that she knows the way the state railroaded Wheatley was wrong, but that she supported it for the sake of a man she loves. If that love will be the thing that ends Rafael's friendship with this woman once and for all, he wants to hear her own it. And yet there is a part of him that desperately does not want to hear it, does not want to believe that Liv could be so easily led astray, that she could lose all of herself, as she seems to have done, for the sake of a man who does not deserve her. She is meant for more than that, he thinks, more than spending the last quarter century in love with a man who was married to someone else, a man who is not half so good as she is, a man who spurned her love and poured his affections out on Angela fucking Wheatley of all people, while Liv just stood there, pitiful and small and unloved. Why she continues to give Stabler so much of herself when he has treated her heart so cavalierly Rafael does not understand, and he thinks he does not want to understand. He wants to believe she is stronger than that.

It's three days before he makes a move. Three days of languishing in a reflective sort of melancholy that does not suit him, that leaves him so ill-tempered that mami has started urging him to go to the priest. He hasn't made confession since he was in high school, and he doesn't intend to start now. What he seeks is not penance. It is not even vengeance for his broken heart. What he wants is not absolution for the sin of having a conscience, or the sin of loving his friend. No, what he wants is answers, and he will have them.

And so he goes, not to the familiar halls of the 1-6, haunted by ghosts of perps and friends and times gone by. Instead he goes to the utilitarian headquarters of the OCCB taskforce that Stabler now calls home. The inside of the building is cavernous, security sparse. Non-existent, at first glance, but Rafael knows that Stabler's team includes a first-rate hacker, and he is certain his arrival has been recorded and marked, that there are eyes watching him from some hidden corner within this warehouse. He doesn't care. Let them see, he thinks. He's got nothing to hide.

The corridor opens up into a workspace, and it is occupied by two people. The first is a young woman sitting in a sort of loft, a wall of computer monitors blocking her face from view. The second is him, Stabler, sitting behind a desk with his feet propped up on the edge of it. Stabler has discarded his jacket and tie, sits there in a white Oxford unfastened at the throat, revealing his thick, boxer's neck and a silver chain around it that must surely, Rafael thinks, play host to a cross. Stabler's sleeves are rolled back to his elbows, and his heavy forearms are shifting effortlessly as he tosses a rubber ball in the air, catches it, tosses it again. The man is a behemoth; he's a head taller than Liv, who is taller than Rafael himself, and Stabler's broad frame is heavy with muscle. That combined with the thick black ink of the tattoo on his forearm makes him look like a brawler, and Rafael has always been small and cunning and disinterested in the machismo powerplays of the more physical crowd. He is not intimidated by Stabler, but the man does have a history of violence, and he is unpredictable. That makes him a problem, even if Rafael refuses to call him a threat.

"Detective Stabler!" he calls out.

Stabler does not jump, does not startle, does not cast his head back on his shoulders and stare at Rafael in shock. He throws the ball one last time, catches it one last time, and then easily swings his feet to the floor.

"Counselor," Stabler responds before he's even turned around. "Jet," he adds, "give us the room?"

The girl is already moving; she gathers a laptop and a big plastic cup full of ice coffee, and makes her exit as quickly as she can, shooting Rafael a dark look as she goes. So this one, too, is on Stabler's side. He doesn't think he's ever felt so alone, even when he was on trial himself.

"You lost, counselor?" Stabler asks, rising slowly to his feet. When he unfurls himself to his full height he looks every inch the former Marine. A jarhead, a roughneck, a man who thinks with his fists, that's what he looks like. Rafael is undeterred.

"You don't like me," he says, deciding to get right to the point. "And I don't necessarily blame you for that. But you and I have something in common."

Stabler leans back against his desk, crosses his arms over his chest. There is a thoughtful, curious look in his bright blue eyes. Most detectives, in Rafael's experience, are curious. Most of them love a riddle, and can't help but ask questions. It's in their natures. Cops and reporters, they're driven by a need to know. To uncover the truth, to solve the mystery. Rafael has read Stabler's jacket cover to cover, and he knows that given the man's impressive closure rate he must be clever; all those cases weren't closed by brute force alone. And Stabler had outsmarted Rafael in the courtroom, anticipating Rafael's strategy, faking a breakdown on the stand just so he could have a chance to rattle Wheatley in private, Liv working at Stabler's behest to bring Angela in just to complete Wheatley's unraveling. That was a masterful piece of theater; Stabler must be smart, he thinks, and he must have a flair for the dramatic. These are things he keeps in mind as he faces the man now.

"What's that?" Stabler asks. His voice is all Queens, despite the fancy Italian suits. But then Rafael enjoys a bespoke suit himself, and he's all Bronx. We're all just products of our environment, aren't we? Stabler was raised Catholic by a former Marine, a former cop. Maybe he never had a chance to be anything other than what he is.

"We both care about her," he says. He doesn't specify which her. He knows he doesn't need to.

Stabler's face goes dark at once. While he'd been leaning back against the desk, watching Rafael closely, he'd appeared relaxed, at ease on his home turf, but one mention of Liv and his back is up and he is ready for a fight. As if he means to protect her, as if he means to own her, and Rafael wants to laugh in his face because how, how could Stabler think he had any claim over her, when he's the one who left her alone for a fucking decade? Rafael left her, too, but he tries not to think about that. About her hand in his, standing in front of the courthouse, about the sensation of her fingers sliding out of his grip, and himself left untethered.

"You got a funny way of showing it," Stabler says. "You say you care about her? How could you do this to her?"

For a moment Rafael is quiet, considering the question, and its implications. It seems that Stabler believes, as Liv does, that Rafael has wronged her. Wronged her. It is not her wife who died, it is not Liv who spearheaded the campaign to bring Wheatley down, it is not Liv who was painted as a bully and a thug by Rafael's defense of the man. All of those things were done to Stabler, and yet they both behave as if what has been done to him has been done to her. As if they are the same. But how can they be? Rafael asks himself now. How can Liv, who is the kindest, warmest, most compassionate, most righteous woman he has ever known, Liv, who fights so hard for justice, who will not tolerate violence in her detectives, who gives all of herself to others, be the same as a man who killed six people before he departed the NYPD in disgrace, a man who is known for roughing up suspects, a man Rafael watched with his own eyes go after some punk kid like he meant to tear his head off right then, nevermind that the cameras were rolling and there was a Captain in the interrogation room? They can't be, they can't be the same, and yet. Liv has shown Rafael a side to herself he did not even know existed, and he is shaken, wondering just how much she's been hiding from him, wondering if he ever knew her at all.

"I took this case for two reasons," Rafael tells him. "The first is that I believe the law should not be used to carry out the personal vendettas of the NYPD-" at this Stabler's lips pull back almost into a snarl, but Rafael barrels on, undeterred - "and the second is her. I did this for her. You think she took a beating in my cross? Do you have any idea what someone else in my shoes would have done to her?"

There are things lurking in Liv's past that, if brought to light, would have eviscerated her on the stand. Would have called her credibility into question, not just in the course of that trial, but forever. Any attorney worth a damn would have been able to rip her to pieces; one stroll through both their jackets, and it's all laid out in black and white. How during her time with Stabler Liv's file was filled with excessive force complaints and reprimands, and not a damn one after he left. How she is only reckless when he is in the room, how she lets him run roughshod over her squad's cases, how she comes when he calls, how close she is to his family, how she is a beautiful woman who has never settled down, who has not one single relationship, not one single connection, that has lasted longer than her relationship with Stabler. Those are just some of the facts that would have been available to anyone who defended Wheatley, and Rafael didn't use a damn one of them.

"She's done nothing wrong," Stabler says.

"She publicly confessed to perjury, you think someone else wouldn't have used that?" Rafael snaps. He expects Stabler to defend her, but he doesn't. His expression goes strangely confused, as if this is somehow news to him, that Liv stood in front of a bevy of cameras in her uniform and confessed, on the record, to lying about her attack on William Lewis. Oh, the brass spun it, afterwards, insisted that she had only confessed to buy the poor kidnapped girl some time, but Rafael knows what the brass do not. Rafael knows that William Lewis was handcuffed when Liv damn near killed him, and he knows that she lied about it. He didn't use that against her, either.

"She took charge of an investigation she had no business being anywhere close to, just because it was you. And besides, everybody knows…"

He lets the accusation land, gives Stabler a dark, knowing look.

Everybody knows.

Though he's been licking his wounds upstate for a while he is not without connections, and he has heard the whispers. Phone calls from Dominick Carisi, texts from old friends in the DA's office. Just like the old days, the old timers say grimly, knowingly. I don't know what's gotten into her, Carisi says, sadly, apprehensively. Jack McCoy himself mentioned it, in passing. Elliot Stabler, he'd mused on the phone with Rafael late one night; the prodigal son returns. I imagine Captain Benson is rattled. Everybody knows what Rafael did not know until he saw the pair of them together in the squadroom; there is something, between them. Something, something dark, and binding. Something more than friendship, something less wholesome than family. All that time spent together, and her so goddamn beautiful, and him so goddamn reckless, and his marriage broke up, for a time, while he was with Liv, and everybody knows.

"There's nothing to know," Stabler says, tightly.

It's frustrating, the man's dogged insistence that there is nothing between him and Liv, nothing of import, nothing more than the friendship that is to be expected of old partners. Rafael has seen Liv with a partner, watched her running side by side with Nick Amaro for years, but when Nick crossed the line Liv did not give him carte blanche, the way she has done with Stabler. When Nick crossed the line Liv held him accountable, even when it put a strain on her relationship. Rafael has seen Liv with her very first partner, a retired cop named Patrick Griffin who'd tried to use his connection to her to manipulate the system, and she'd not been swayed then. Her mentor, her friend, had begged her to turn a blind eye for his sake, and she didn't, but for Stabler she has. She has granted him such grace as Rafael has never seen her give to anyone, and yet here Stabler stands, insisting there's nothing to know.

"Right," Rafael says. They're as stubborn as each other, Stabler and Liv, and he knows that he will get no further with that particular line of questioning.

"Why are you here, counselor?" Stabler asks. "You're her friend. You care about her so much, why didn't you go to her?"

That is a question Rafael does not want to answer. Not to him, not to this man who is so possessive of Liv, who is so goddamn arrogant already. The truth is he has come here in part to deliver a warning, and in part because his relationship with Liv is fractured, and he knows she does not want to see him. If he admits that now, though, Stabler will think that he has won. That he has successfully driven off a competitor for Liv's affections, that she remains his, and his alone, all her care, all her goodness reserved for him. It has been agony for Rafael, watching Liv devoting so much of herself to the man in front of him, and he tried, he really did try when he crossed her path in the bar just to make her see, but she was unaffected by his attempts to defend her. Liv feels what other people feel, feels it deeply, takes their hurt and the grief and their rage and swallows it until she is burning alive with it, and Stabler, Stabler is so much there is no room in Liv's belly left over for Liv herself. Where does she go, when she needs someone to unburden herself to? Who can she turn to? Not to this man, Rafael thinks. Surely, not to this man.

"Liv knows why I took this case," he says instead. "She understands."

It is a bald face lie; she knows, but she does not understand. It occurs to Rafael to wonder, then, seeing the way Stabler's keen eyes bore into his face, if Liv has spoken to Stabler of him. Of their friendship, the things they have been through together, the day Noah was taken and Rafael held her in her office. Occurs to him to wonder if he has overplayed his hand, if Stabler knows just how deeply Liv is hurting, now, on account of Rafael. If Stabler knows he's a liar.

But she must not have told him, because Stabler doesn't go in for the kill. Doesn't protest, doesn't tell him how Liv has poured out her grief at Stabler's feet. And that, Rafael thinks, must mean she hasn't. Must mean that he was right, that she is taking care of Stabler and he is not returning the favor.

"I came to see you," Rafael continues. "I wanted to talk to you."

"Man to man," Stabler says.

"Man to man," Rafael agrees, though it makes him feel foolish to say it out loud. There is nothing he will say to Stabler that he would not say to Liv, no sacred brotherhood that binds them on account of them both having a penis. And yet, Stabler has hit on the truth; they are both men who love the same woman, in their own way, and that means there are things that Rafael has to say to him that are best delivered in private.

"That woman, she is the best of women," he says. This is why he's come, to deliver this warning. "She is the best and bravest of all of us. I have seen her claw her way back from hell itself-"

It is his intention to defend her, defend her honor; if Liv will not demand Stabler treat her better then Rafael will make the demand on her behalf, but Stabler's brow has furrowed with worry, with confusion, and he cuts Rafael off midstream.

"What are you talking about, hell?" Stabler demands. "What the fuck does that mean?"

"You've gotta be joking," Rafael says roughly, incredulously. Everybody knows. Everybody knows what Liv has been through. It was splashed all over the papers, her face on the evening news. It is whispered about in the halls of power, even now. They call her broken, and unbreakable. When she walks by people fall silent, half out of respect and half out of fear. There is darkness lurking in her past, and she is tainted by that darkness. By a man who took her not once but twice, a man she swears did not rape her but Rafael has never quite known what to believe on that score. She proved to him that she was capable of lying during the trial, and part of him wonders if the beating wasn't the only thing she lied about. He saw the crime scene photos; he still has nightmares about them, sometimes. About what was done to her, about the things he knows and the things he doesn't.

"Barba," Stabler says his name fiercely, almost pleading.

He really doesn't know.

"Jesus," Rafael says. It affirms his suspicions, in a way. Liv has been there to provide for Stabler's every need, and the man has done fuck all to support her. It proves other suspicions false, though.

"I thought you were sleeping with her," Rafael says before he can stop himself.

"Excuse me?"

"Everybody thinks you're sleeping with her. But you're not, are you?" Rafael ignores Stabler's sudden moral outrage, the words tumbling out of him as the realization dawns. "You're not, because if you'd seen her naked you wouldn't have to ask me."

The second the words leave his mouth he regrets them. Stabler's face turns purple, apoplectic with rage, and it is a violation of the highest order, a violation of her trust in him, a violation of the decorum of friendship and respect, and he knows that, but holy shit. Stabler doesn't know. Doesn't know what she's been through. Doesn't know the grief and the horror that so changed the course of her life. What else doesn't he know? And how, how, can he claim to care for her, and not fucking know?

"Don't you dare talk about her that way," Stabler says.

"I shouldn't have said it," Rafael agrees quickly, mostly because he doesn't want Stabler to hit him. He shouldn't have said it because Liv should not be treated so crassly, but there is a vengeful part of him that is crowing in glee. He has rattled Stabler; he knows something about Liv, owns a piece of her heart, that Stabler does not. It is him who has the upper hand, now.

"But don't you see?" It is time to make his point, and then it will be time to leave. "She has risked everything for you. You walked out on her and you weren't there when she needed you and when you came back she still opened her heart to you, and you don't even know what happened to her? My god, did you ever even ask? She is the best of women," he says it again, because it is true, and because he needs Stabler to hear him, "and she has given you the gift of her heart and this is how you treat her? God only knows why, but she trusts you. She's chosen you. And this is how you repay her." Repays her with hurt, casting her aside in favor of someone else, never stopping to think about what she's been through; Liv deserves better than that, and Stabler needs to hear it.

Stabler looks like a man who's just been slapped in the face. His cheeks, his neck, the tips of his ears are red with rage, but there is hurt in his eyes. Hurt. As if what has been done to her has been done to him. As if he feels her pain, even when he does not understand it. As if he knows what he has done, the grievous sin he has committed, in not giving back to her all the love she has given to him. Will it be enough? Rafael wonders. Will this confrontation be enough to set Stabler on the path to treating Liv the way she deserves? Will he go to her, after, contrite, and ask her all the questions he should have asked her months ago? Will he fall at her feet, and beg her forgiveness? Will he one day be granted the privilege of tracing her scars with his fingertips? What has Rafael let loose on this day, and will it be enough to make up for the pain he has caused her? He doesn't know, not really, and he thinks he may not ever know.

"What makes you think she had a choice?" Stabler asks him then, his voice low, and ragged. "What exactly do you think she was choosing between?"

There is an accusation in the question, and it is a fair one. Rafael feels as if Liv has chosen Stabler over him, and Stabler sees that, now. This conversation began with Rafael confessing to caring for her, and by now Stabler must have seen just how deep that care runs. That he cares so much he sought out a man he does not like, a man he does not trust, just to plead for grace on her behalf. Rafael has lost something, and Stabler has won it, and he knows.

"She chose you over herself," he says. "She has built a life of righteousness and dedication and you came back and she was willing to risk all of it, for you. Her beliefs, her values, her friends -" me, he thinks but does not say - "she chose you. Don't make her regret it. Don't you dare hurt her again."

That is all he wanted to say, really. He came here today to warn Stabler, to remind him that what he does with Liv is not done in the dark, that there is a universe of people who love her, who will defend her, who will seek vengeance on her behalf. He wants Stabler to know that if he hurts her even one more time, there will be hell to pay, and there will be people to call him to account for it.

"I won't," Stabler says. "She…" he starts to speak, but falters. Faced with the prospect of stating outright just what that woman means to him he is at a loss for words, but Rafael can see it in his face. There must be something about Stabler, something Rafael has not seen, that makes Liv care for him so much. There must be something, some secret he does not know, some moment not written in the pages of their jackets or court transcripts, that makes her believe the man is worth all this strife. It's just that Rafael doesn't know what that something is.

"You were her friend," Stabler says when he finds his voice again. "And you were there for things I missed. And it's good to know she had somebody in her corner when I couldn't be."

Is it? Rafael thinks. Is Stabler really so gracious as this, really so relieved to know that someone else took his place? Somehow he doesn't think so. Somehow he doesn't think this is simple gratitude, and Stabler proves him right in a moment.

"But you only know a part of her."

There it is, he thinks. He has been waiting for Stabler to throw one last grenade his way. It is not unexpected, this accusation that Rafael doesn't know her. It is, he thinks, not even entirely inaccurate. It's a realization he's been grappling with since he set foot in the city, before the trial even began. All those years, she only ever showed him most of herself. Most, but not all. And Stabler, he thinks he has all of her. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn't know about Lewis, but maybe there are more important things he knows, things Rafael can only guess at.

"She doesn't need you to fight her battles. You think I've been a shit friend and she's just been letting me walk all over her? She's already called me out for it. She's stood up for herself, she doesn't need you to do it for her."

That surprises him. Makes him wonder if that confrontation came before or after his conversation with her in the bar, if it was Rafael himself who inspired her to call Stabler to task for his disregard, or if she'd done it already, if she didn't need him to tell her what she already knew.

"You think I don't know she is the best of women?" he throws Rafael's words back in his teeth. "I've known it from the day I met her. You don't have any idea." And Stabler's right; Rafael doesn't have any idea. He doesn't know what it looked like, the day they met. Doesn't know who they were then. He's never even seen photographs of Liv from that long ago. He wonders if he'd recognize her.

"That woman turned my life upside down. Olivia is…she is the most important thing in my world, next to my kids. You don't have to worry about her, counselor. I've got her back."

"Good," Rafael says. It's all he can say, really. It is good, that the man Liv has chosen has chosen her as well. It is good, that he will support her. It is good, that he knows just how goddamn lucky he is. But there is a piece of Rafael's heart that doubts, still. He has seen them together and he does not like what he has seen, does not like the ways Stabler's Olivia differs from Rafael's Liv. He does not like the distance that has grown up between himself and a woman he used to count his own best friend. He does not like feeling himself an outsider in her life, when he used to be such an integral part of it. Things change, he knows this, but Stabler wanders back into her life after ten years and they are right back in the thick of their old camaraderie, and he wonders why that relationship has not changed, when the state of affairs between himself and Liv is so different now. Maybe it's a question better left unanswered.

If he lingers any longer he is certain he will say something that he will regret, and so he turns away from Stabler, then. Turns away, and leaves the man standing alone by his desk, arms crossed over his chest.

As he steps out into the sunshine of a disturbingly warm December day, his steps feel lighter, somehow. Mami thought he needed to see a priest, but this, he thinks, was better. An assurance has been given to him; Liv will be looked after. That's all he wanted, really. If he cannot take care of her himself he needs to know that someone else will. And in a few weeks he will call her, again. He will give her time to calm down, give her life time to settle, give Stabler time to make his amends and ask his questions, give them all some space from the Wheatley trial, and he will entreat her to let him back into her heart. He will not ask forgiveness, because he does not believe he has done wrong, but he will seek reconciliation. The Liv he knew would give it to him; they have hurt one another before, and come through the hurt intact, and he can only hope that they will do so again. There is a new year coming, and he hopes it will bring brighter things, for both of them.

It is that strange liminal space between Christmas and New Years Eve, when the kids are off school and most people with 9-5s are coasting and the courts are slow and the lawyers are on vacation, and Olivia is sitting in her office, going through a mountain of paperwork. Everyone else is taking things easy, but the holidays see an increase in DV cases and drunken assaults, and the squad is busy. She left her apartment at 6 a.m., Noah sleeping soundly, the artificial tree in the corner of her living room taunting her, reminding her that when she gets home she will still have work to do, but it is work she will do gladly, because the tree brings her son joy, and if she packs it away carefully now it will do so again next year. This year they spent Christmas Eve at Elliot's home, surrounded by his family, and idly she wonders what their next Christmas will look like. There are things she wants, but they feel like too much to hope for, and she is cautious with her optimism. To speak a dream aloud is to ensure it never comes true; this is a lesson she has learned time and time again.

Around 8:00 a.m. there is a knock on her door, and she looks up to find Elliot standing in the doorway, holding two cups of coffee in his hands. He is dressed casually, for once, in blue jeans and a grey hoodie and it can't be, she thinks, it can't be the same hoodie she remembers but she wants it to be.

"Hey," she says, and he takes that as an invitation to enter, steps through the door and then closes it behind him, crossing the space to her desk, holding out one of the coffees to her.

"Hey," he says.

"What's this for?" she asks, though she takes the coffee gratefully. The travel mug she brought with her this morning is already empty, and she is ready for another dose of caffeine.

Elliot shrugs, but the tips of his ears are pink. There is a sweetness in him, a sweetness she remembers from the old days, a sweetness that he used to only let show briefly but which appears more often now, when they are alone together. He smiles at her, bright and hopeful, and he blushes, sometimes, when they get too close, and it makes her heart feel soft, and warm.

"It's cold out," he says, shrugging. It isn't, not really. Everyone agrees this is the warmest December they can remember, and they worry about it. He's just making excuses, and she sees through his attempt at once. He is here because he wants to be, because he wants to see her, and that makes her smile.

He settles himself down on the couch on the other side of her office, stretches his long legs out in front of him and sighs, and she likes this, the sight of Elliot comfortable in her space. This office used to be Cragen's, and they spent so much time here together, and she wonders what the Captain would think, if he could see them now. She hopes he'd be happy for them, happy they found their way back to one another.

"Barba came to see me," Elliot tells her, and some of that good feeling fades away. She has not spoken to Rafa since the trial; Eli went missing and then it was Christmas and she hasn't had time to sit down and really consider how she feels, now that the trial is over. What Rafa has done, defending Wheatley so ardently, it damn near killed Eli, who is so dear to her, and part of her is furious. But Rafael doesn't know, she reminds herself. He doesn't know what he has done. Doesn't understand what Wheatley has done. Rafael has reacted to the facts on the page but he does not have the ability to read between the lines, and there is so much she has kept from him, and part of her knows it's not fair, to blame him for not knowing what she has not told him. It stings, though, his betrayal. It stings that he would not hear her, when she tried to explain what Wheatley has done, that her word was not enough to sway him. But then her word alone has never been enough; Rafa is a servant of the law, and he needs more than one woman's word and she understands that, she does, but…shit. What a mess.

"El-" she says, but he just gives her that look, the one that says he has more to say, and she goes quiet, listening.

"I know he was your friend," Elliot says. "I know you were close and I know you're angry with him now."

They haven't talked about it much, the betrayal Olivia feels. They haven't talked about it, not because she feels like she can't talk to Elliot, but because she does not want to talk about this. Elliot understands that. He knows she'll tell him when she's ready, and she knows that's the reason he hasn't asked about it, before now. It is not that he does not care. Lack of care has never been his problem.

"I am angry with him," she says, because she is. She is; Rafa should have known better, she thinks. He should have seen the name Stabler and known what this case meant to her and he should have left it alone, let someone else bloody her up on the stand and stood by her afterwards, the way a friend would do. But he did not know, and she is starting to realize that maybe that's her fault. When she thinks about it, she can't remember mentioning Elliot to Rafa, not even once. Maybe, she thinks, maybe he really didn't understand how this would wound her. He did not intend to hurt her, and intent matters, in her world. It always has.

Elliot frowns.

"I don't want you to lose anything on account of me," he says slowly, and she loves him for it. For his concern for her, for the way he defends her friendships, for the way he has sought her out, trying to make sure he is not the cause of a rift between her and her friend. And he is, but he isn't; Rafael and Olivia have done this to themselves, and it's up to them to work it out.

"It's not the first time he and I have disagreed," she tells him, thinking of that day in his office when he realized she was sleeping with Tucker, and got her booted out of SVU because of it. Their friendship has survived disagreements before; it will survive this one, too, she tells herself. In the new year she will call him. With a clear head she will reach out to her friend and she will not apologize for her anger and she will not seek forgiveness but she will let him know she does not hate him. Could not hate him. She is hurt, but losing him forever will hurt her worse.

"We'll be ok," she tells him, because she wants to believe it.

"Good," he says, and it sounds like he means it. "You have so many people who love you, Olivia," he continues, and he says it in a tone of wonder, as if it is a revelation, as if it makes him happy, makes him proud of her, to know that she is not alone, and the thought that he is proud of her makes her feel warm all over. "You've built a good life here, and I don't wanna wreck it."

Sometimes he sees himself the way everybody else does. A bull in a china shop, breaking everything he touches. Sometimes he believes that he will never be good enough, and Olivia knows this, because she knows him. She also knows that he is, that he is so good, that he is faithful and compassionate and gentle when he needs to be. She has watched him with his children, with other people's children, for years now. She has seen him stand up and take responsibility for his mistakes, seen him sacrifice his own desires in the name of doing his duty. So many people have been suspicious of her decision to let him back into her life, but none of them see what she does. That he is here because she wants him to be. Because she wants him, Elliot, imperfect and beautiful in his own way.

"The only way you could wreck it is if you leave," she tells him. It is the truth; his return has sent her life into a tailspin, but they have moved to firmer ground in recent days, and she is better for it. There is light, and hope, and peace in her heart now such that she has not felt since the day he left her. She is whole, with him beside her. This thing between them, that they have decided to call friendship but which they both know is love, this thing between them makes her better. He is the only person who has ever seen all of her, and he does not flinch when he looks at her, and when she looks at him she feels home. The life she has built is better with him in it, and she knows that now, and cannot bear to lose it.

"I won't," he swears to her. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm home now, Liv."

He is home, and so is she, and she offers him a smile, and takes a sip of her coffee, and they sit together on a December morning, their hearts slowly healing. Together.