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This time when she came to see him she brought her own beer. A six pack, tucked under her arm, and a duffel bag thrown over her shoulder, because the last time she'd fallen asleep on his couch and woken up at 3 am with a mouth like sandpaper, and this time she meant to sleep like a normal human, and brush her goddamn teeth before she made her way back to Jersey.

He'd gotten himself a place, a little first floor garden unit in a converted warehouse in Long Island City, and she smiled to herself as she walked up to the door. It was good to know he was settled somewhere, good to know he'd brought Eli home, moved mama in with him. Anne Marie would have taken mama, really should would have, but Elliot had always been mama's favorite, and he'd always been the only one who could handle her, who could keep her calm, the only one she ever really tried to please, and everybody kinda knew it and nobody ever wanted to talk about why. Maybe it was just 'cause he was the oldest but sometimes Anne Marie looked at him and wondered if maybe mama didn't see a piece of herself in him, and sometimes she wondered what that meant.

She knocked on the door and then stepped back, wondering who'd answer. Eli was back home, and mama lived with them, and maybe Katie, too; she wasn't clear on that part. Every time she called mama on the phone she heard Katie's voice in the background, but she couldn't get a straight answer on whether Katie was living there, or whether she was just spending as much time as she could looking after her father. Either way Anne Marie figured it was a good thing; Elliot needed all the help he could get, and a man needed his family around to help him, to keep him grounded, to remind him what mattered in case he forgot.

On the other side of the door she could hear the floorboards creaking, the sound of footfalls drawing closer, and the knob turned, and she grinned, reflexively, looking forward to seeing the shocked expression on Elliot's face when he opened the door and found her standing there waiting for him, but it was Anne Marie who was shocked because it wasn't Elliot opening the door. It wasn't Elliot, or mama, or Eli, or Katie; it was a woman she'd never seen before.

"Oh!" Anne Marie said, embarrassed. "Sorry, I uh, I must have the wrong apartment."

Jesus, this was mortifying. Mama had given her the address and she glanced down at her phone, double checking the text just to make sure she'd read it right. According to her phone she was in the right place, but mama got confused, sometimes. Maybe this was one of those times.

"That's ok," the woman said. Her voice was low, and warm, and kind, and she wasn't slamming the door in Anne Marie's face or shouting at her for the interruption, and it was nice, to see a stranger who wasn't scowling, to know that the whole world wasn't mean. "Who are you looking for?" she asked helpfully. Probably she knew her neighbors and figured she could point Anne Marie in the right direction instead of just leaving her to muddle through on her own.

"My brother," Anne Marie answered. "Elliot Stabler. I'll call him, I-"

It was the woman's turn to look surprised, and uncomfortable, and she cut Anne Marie off before she had a chance to finish her thought.

"You're in the right place," she said. "This is him. He's not home right now, though."



This was his apartment, where he lived with his son and his mother and maybe his daughter and a strange woman was answering the door when he wasn't home, and that woman looked like she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole and Anne Marie couldn't blame her because she kinda felt the same. Knowing that she was in the right place, now, knowing that this woman was somehow connected to Elliot, she allowed herself to look, really look, at the stranger for the first time. She was about as old as Anne Marie herself, and a little taller. She was, Anne Marie had to admit, striking to look at, had the kind of face that made a person stop and take a second look. There were wrinkles pressed into the tender skin around her eyes, but she had a soft, pretty mouth and a proud jaw and those eyes, big and dark and tired, they were hard to look away from. The woman was wearing blue jeans with a white button down straining across her breasts, untucked and somehow chic looking. She had a body worth envying, warm and curvy, somehow more desirable for lacking the leanness of youth, and her dark hair fell in gentle waves around her face, thick and shiny, in a way that made Anne Marie feel suddenly self-conscious of her own messy blonde ponytail.

Who the fuck is she? Anne Marie wondered.

"He'll be back soon," the woman said quickly. "If you want to wait." She took a step back, graciously inviting Anne Marie into Elliot's home, and shit that felt weird, being welcomed into the place where Elliot lived by a woman who wasn't Kathy. Maybe Anne Marie should have just left, and for a second she considered it, but she'd come all this way and mama was inside and so was Eli, and she had just as much as right - maybe more - to be there as this woman did.

"Yeah, that'd be good," she said, and stepped into the apartment.

"Your mom's asleep," the woman told her, marching in a straight line from the door into the open living area of the apartment. The place was stylish and modern in a way she hadn't expected from Elliot, all exposed brick and heavy beams, but it was nicely decorated, and it was clean, and it was a home. Eli's cleats by the front door, mama's scarf draped over the back of the couch, toys in the corner Mo's boys must have left here. It beat the hell out of that hotel suite, and there was no evidence he'd put his fist through any of the walls here - not that he could have if he tried, but still. It looked nice. It looked like healing.

"And the boys are playing xbox in Eli's room," the woman continued. The boys? Annie thought. Maybe Dickie had come by to spend some time with his little brother, or maybe Mo's kids were here, keeping their favorite uncle company. It was a nice thought. "I could go get Eli, if you want," the woman said, already turning towards the back of the apartment and a few closed doors.

"Who are you?" Anne Marie blurted before she could stop herself, and the woman turned back to her with a pained expression on her face.

"Sorry, I should have said. I'm Olivia," she held out her hand for a shake, and Anne Marie took it, trying not to show just how shaken she was by that revelation.

"Olivia," she repeated faintly. "You're his partner."

Olivia, she knew, was Liv. The Liv. If I saw Liv's face I wasn't gonna come back. The woman Elliot cared for, the one Kathy hadn't trusted her husband to be alone with, the woman Elliot had worked with for so long, the first one to suggest he might have PTSD, the reason Elliot had come back from Rome, the reason he figured Kathy was dead, this was her. Standing right there in front of Anne Marie, with her dark hair and her dark eyes and her graceful hips, comfortable and barefoot in Elliot's home, alone in Elliot's home with his family like somehow she belonged there.

There was a part of Anne Marie's heart that wanted to hate her. Wanted to hate her for turning Elliot's attention away from Kathy, wanted to hate her for standing in the place where Kathy should have been, while Kathy was in the ground. Wanted to hate her for proving Jenny right, for proving that Elliot hadn't been as good as Anne Marie always thought he was, because he could insist he'd never touched Liv all he wanted to but he'd cared for her so much that Kathy had been afraid of it and Jesus, was Liv the reason they'd gotten the divorce in the first place? The reason he'd left the NYPD, the reason everything fell apart? And if she was, Anne Marie thought she had no fucking right to stand here among the ruins of the family she'd wrecked with her own two hands. 

"I was," Olivia said. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

While Anne Marie's heart was screaming Olivia remained calm and polite, kind, even, and god Anne Marie hated that. How could she stand there, and be kind, after everything? Did she think she'd finally won something? Had she been waiting, for years, to get Kathy out of the way, to get Elliot all to herself? Was this warmth just an act, hiding something bitter and possessive? In the back of her mind Anne Marie was aware she was being childish, the part of her that was grown up and understood that life was messy at war with the part of her that wanted things to be simple, the part of her that wanted to believe her brother was a good man grappling with the part of her that just wanted someone to blame. Pettiness won out, in the short term.

"Anne Marie," she said. "Figures he didn't tell you about us, since he never told us anything about you."

That seemed to throw Olivia off balance, just a little. She swept her thumb across her brow, smoothed it across her skin and brushed her hair back from her face. Jesus, did she have to be so fucking pretty?

"You want something to drink?" Olivia asked. "Water, or beer?"

"Beer'd be good," Anne Marie said.

It would be good; it would give her something to do with her hands, give her an excuse to stand around talking to - interrogating - Olivia instead of going to see her nephews like she probably should have done. Olivia led her into the kitchen, and the way she looked in those jeans, at her age, Anne Marie thought that should have been a crime all by itself. Was that what swayed Elliot? She wondered. Was it just that his partner was a fucking knockout, was it just that he'd been forced to spend so much time in close proximity with a beautiful woman that he couldn't help but want her? No, she thought, she knew it couldn't just be that he wanted to fuck her, because he'd said I wouldn't have come back the same. Because just one look at Olivia would have been enough to turn his whole life upside down, and he'd known it, and Kathy'd known it, and that, she thought, was a hell of a lot more than just lust.

In the kitchen Olivia got them both beers out of the fridge, and then they squared off against one another, Olivia leaning back against the counter and Anne Marie leaning against the island, just looking at one another, waiting for the match to begin, waiting to see who'd throw the first punch.

It was Olivia.

"I didn't know," she said. "That he hadn't told you about me. I met your mother years ago, and the way she talked, I thought…I thought you knew."

Knew what?

"When was this?" Anne Marie wondered. Olivia had met mama? Years before? Elliot keeping secrets was one thing, but mama keeping them was something else. Mama talked all the time, constantly, about everything and everyone. How could she have met Elliot's stunning partner and never mentioned it?

"Back when Kathleen was in trouble."

Olivia said it like Anne Marie should know what that meant, but she didn't. There was an unreal quality to the conversation, something confusing and contradictory, the world that Olivia inhabited slamming into the world where Anne Marie lived, and their edges didn't match up and she didn't know what Olivia knew and Olivia didn't know what she knew and the only person who could straddle that divide was Elliot, and he was nowhere to be found.

"When was Kathleen in trouble?" Anne Marie asked through clenched teeth. What the fuck did trouble mean? It was a euphemism that could encompass all manner of sins. Of all Elliot's kids Anne Marie had always been closest to Maureen, and she didn't know that much about Katie's life, about what she got up to, just knew that Katie was the only one of Elliot's kids who'd come to check up on mama with any regularity, and she'd always loved Katie for it.

"Jesus," Olivia said, very softly. "I'm not sure it's my place to say. I didn't…I thought you knew. But it's Kathleen's business. I'm sorry, just…I'm sorry."

Begrudging as she might have been, Anne Marie had to respect her for that. For saying it's Kathleen's business, for not speaking out of turn, for refusing to share secrets she felt she had no right to. For not mentioning Elliot, for not needing to, for preserving Kathleen's privacy for Kathleen's own sake.

"Olivia?" a thin, reedy voice called from over Anne Marie's shoulder, and she turned to find her mother standing unsteadily by the edge of the island, wearing mismatched pajamas and a heavy robe. Mama's eyes weren't too clear; she must have been having a bad day, Anne Marie realized. That's what they called it, when Mama wasn't really there, in her head, when she was tired and grouchy and barely had enough energy to move from one room to the other. A bad day. Mama never even looked at Anne Marie, but she saw Olivia, and knew her, and Olivia rushed to her at once, wrapped her arm around mama's waist like she was trying to hold her up.

"Where's Elliot?" Mama demanded.

"He's at work," Olivia said, and her voice was low and soothing. "But he'll be home soon. Are you hungry? I could make you something to eat."

"Don't wanna eat," Mama grumbled. She had that look on her face like she was getting ready for a fight, and she still hadn't noticed Anne Marie.

"Why don't I make you some tea?" Olivia said. "Here, why don't you sit, and I'll bring it to you."

Carefully Olivia led mama back to the sofa, the pair of them talking softly together, and it sounded like mama was mad about something but she let Olivia take charge of her, let Olivia help her settle onto the sofa and cover her lap with a blanket before returning to the kitchen and reaching for the tea kettle. It was so easily done, Olivia's care so easily given, so easily accepted, like the two of them Olivia and Bernie, were around each other all the time, like they were used to each other, and that grated, a little, because Anne Marie had never seen Olivia's face before today and here Olivia was, taking care of her mother. 

"She's not doing well, is she," Anne Marie said. It wasn't really a question. Olivia sighed, but didn't contradict her.

"She has good days and bad," she said. "Today's a bad day. Eli was off school all last week, but after everything that happened before Christmas Elliot didn't want to leave them alone together. The girls have been helping as much as they can, but I told him I'd take the Saturday shift."

It took every ounce of self-restraint Anne Marie possessed not to scream. What had happened before Christmas? Was Olivia just talking about the trial, about the man who'd killed Kathy going free? That seemed like just one thing, it didn't seem like everything. Once again, Olivia knew something Anne Marie didn't, and Elliot had told Olivia, told her things he hadn't even shared with his own sister, let her come and watch over his mother and his son when he'd never even called Anne Marie.

"I would have come," she said. "If I knew he needed help I would have come."

With the kettle slowly heating up Olivia turned back around to face her, and her eyes were warm, and sad.

"I'm sure," she said. "And I'm sure he knows that. He's just…he's not very good at asking for help."

"He asked you."

Olivia smiled sadly. "He didn't, actually. He was just talking, and when I realized he needed help I came here myself. We'll all be dead before he ever asks."

And damn it but she sounded fond of him when she said it. Sounded like she understood that about him, like she accepted it, like she liked it, like she knew him, and cared about him anyway. She's been helping me, even when I didn't want it, that's what Elliot had told Anne Marie about Olivia, and now here Olivia stood, helping. It was getting harder not to like her.

From down the hall there came the sound of a door opening, and then the scuffle of feet, and then a little boy Anne Marie had never seen before in her life was skidding into view. He looked no younger than eight but no older than ten, with a mop of curly dark hair and big blue eyes, and a sweet little face, and Olivia smiled when she saw him.

"Mama, where are the cheetos?" he asked Olivia, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

The boys are playing xbox. Jesus. She'd brought her own kid and he was hanging out with Eli. It was so fucking domestic, so fucking normal, and so fucking bizarre all at the same time, and Anne Marie didn't quite know what to make of it. Less than a year since Kathy died, and Elliot was playing happy families with a stranger. Surely, she thought, surely it wasn't supposed to be like this. Surely grief ought to linger like a miasma, surely a man couldn't just fall into step with someone else so soon after such a cleaving. And even if he was looking for someone else, how could he have chosen her? He'd talked about it, a little bit, his decision to leave and how he'd not seen his Liv again, after. hurt her, he'd said. I walked out on her. I left her alone, for all these years. How could a man go so long without someone he cared for, and then just open his heart to her again like no time at all had passed? How could she let him, if he'd hurt her? What the fuck kind of relationship was that, Anne Marie wondered, that could live so long with nothing to sustain it?

"Right here, sweet boy," Olivia said, and she went to the pantry in the corner of the kitchen like she knew her way around the place, like she'd spent enough time there to know where everything was, and fetched down a bag of cheetos and passed them off to her son. The kid glanced at Anne Marie once, curiously, and Olivia noticed it.

"Noah, this is Uncle Elliot's sister, Anne Marie. Can you say hello?"

Uncle Elliot. Good lord.

"Hi," he said, shyly, clutching his prize to his chest. Shit, that kid was cute, and his eyes were bright, and blue, just like -

No, she thought. No fucking way. But Olivia wasn't wearing a wedding ring and she was hanging out in Elliot's home on a Saturday and her son seemed comfortable there, and the questions began rocketing around Anne Marie's brain so loudly she could hardly think.

"Nice to meet you, Noah," Anne Marie said.

Olivia ran her hand over her son's hair once, gently, and then he scampered off, and the kettle began to beep, announcing that it was ready.

"He's sweet," Anne Marie said, watching Olivia turn her attention back to the tea. "He looks just like you."

That made Olivia sigh, which wasn't at all the response Anne Marie was expecting. Olivia was quiet for a moment, like maybe she was waiting for something, pouring the tea into a mug and dunking a bag inside it to steep and keeping her back turned. Noah must have made his way back to Eli's room because Anne Marie could clearly hear the sound of the door closing, and only then did Olivia speak.

"Everyone says that," she said. "But actually, he's adopted."

So not Elliot's kid, then. That was good to know. Each new piece of information she gleaned about Olivia only made Anne Marie desperate to know more. About who she was, about where she'd come from. Made Anne Marie want to know if this woman was as kind as she seemed, if she was good for Elliot, or if there were secrets lurking behind her dark eyes, secrets that made her a threat to the tentative peace Elliot's family had found.

"Be right back," Olivia said softly, and then she walked away, carrying the tea into the living room, and Anne Marie just watched her. Watched her hips swaying, watched the proud set of her shoulders, watched her bend, and speak to mama, watched her place the mug on the side table, watched her touch mama's shoulder gently, watched her walking back, quiet and steady.

"She's sleeping again," Olivia said. "I'm sorry she's not having a better day, I'm sure you wanted to talk to her."

"It's all right," Anne Marie said, and it really it was, because she was supposed to talk to mama, supposed to take care of her, but mama always made her frustrated and sad and maybe it was best that she was sleeping, anyway.

"You seem…comfortable here," she continued then, watching Olivia pick her beer back up, watching her take a long drink. "You spend a lot of time here?"

If pressed she could pretend she hadn't meant it like it sounded, could say she was only trying to ask how Elliot was doing, only asking how much help he'd needed recently and whether he was getting it, but truth was she'd asked exactly the question she wanted to know the answer to. What she wanted to know was just how much time Elliot and Olivia were spending together, and just what the fuck it all meant. And Olivia, Olivia was a cop, and she tilted her head to the side, watching Anne Marie thoughtfully, and shit, Anne Marie thought. She knows.

"He's my friend," Olivia said. Best friend, Elliot had called her. Even now, after everything…she's still my best friend. That word everything kept cropping up, masking over a whole host of sins and griefs and rights and wrongs, and Anne Marie wanted to peel it back, pick it apart, wanted to know what the fuck it really meant.

"We've been through a lot together. We look after each other."

"What does that mean, been through a lot?" It was impertinent, and it was certainly bad manners, but Anne Marie was tired of dancing around. The answering expression on Olivia's face was somehow approving, like she appreciated the forthrightness.

"We were partners for a long time. We saw a lot of things that no one should ever have to see. Got hurt. Kept each other alive. My mom died and he was there for me. He and Kathy split up and I was there for him. He stood up for me when I needed it and I helped him when he needed it."

What the fuck kind of help had Elliot needed, Anne Marie wondered, that he should get it from her, and not from his family?

"Anyway," she said. "I'm sure you didn't come here to talk to me. I can go get Eli, you should see your nephew."

It was the polite thing to do. The grown-up, responsible, keep-the-peace thing to do, to deflect Anne Marie's attention away from the interloper in her brother's home, away from the woman who kept his secrets, to point her back towards family, towards something more wholesome than innuendo and questions. But it wasn't Eli Anne Marie had come to see.

"I actually came to see Elliot," Anne Marie confessed. "Last time I saw him he wasn't doing too good, and he didn't come to Jersey for Christmas, and I've been worried about him, after the trial. I still can't believe the guy got off. That defense attorney oughta be shot," she added. She figured Olivia would agree with that. She was a cop, after all. Didn't all cops hate defense attorneys? Didn't they all want the bad guys to go away? Especially guys like that, guys who hurt people they cared about?

"He was just doing his job," Olivia said, very quietly. Every word out of her mouth left Anne Marie feeling like she was walking a tight rope without a net; so far Olivia hadn't responded the way she'd expected, not once, and she felt herself in danger of falling into a hole so deep she'd never climb back out of it with her pride intact. "He…he's a good man."

She said it like she knew him. The defense attorney. Like she knew him, like he mattered to her, and that didn't make any fucking sense at all.

"A guy who represents scumbag murderers and helps the man who killed my sister go free is a good man?"

"It's…complicated," Olivia said. "He thought he was doing the right thing. Maybe he was, I don't know. How much do you know about what happened?"

Not enough, apparently, Anne Marie thought sullenly. Truth was, she didn't know anything. Just knew what Elliot had told her, that night months ago when she'd showed up at his door. That some mobster had been gunning for him, and took out his wife by mistake, a mistake that never would have been possible if Elliot didn't care about his Olivia so goddamn much. If Olivia hadn't mattered to him it would have been Elliot dead in that explosion, and it was a relief that felt like guilt, looking at this woman now, knowing that Olivia was the reason Kathy was dead and the reason Elliot was alive both at the same time.

"Elliot told me this Wheatley guy has mob connections. That he was trying to kill Elliot, but got Kathy by mistake."

Olivia frowned.

"That's…that's not exactly what happened," she said slowly. "That's what we thought at first, but a lot more information has come out in the last few months. It's…it's hard to know where to place the blame, right now."

What the fuck does that mean? Anne Marie wondered, but before she could ask Olivia's phone started to ring. Olivia fished it out of her pocket reflexively, answered the call and held the phone up to her ear without even pausing to check the name on the caller ID. All these fucking interruptions were starting to grate on Anne Marie's nerves.

"Benson," Olivia said, and then her face softened. "Hey." The switch from professional to personal happened fast; whoever was calling her, it wasn't about work. Olivia listened for a minute, flexing her fingers around her beer.

"Yeah, everything's good here," she said. It must have been Elliot, Anne Marie realized, calling to check in on his family. "Bernie's asleep and the kids are behaving themselves….El, you should know, your sister's here."

El. Kathy used to call him El, sometimes. Anne Marie couldn't help but wonder who'd done it first, Kathy or Olivia. Which one of them had laid claim to him, and which one he answered to.

"No, it's fine…yes…yeah, Chinese'd be good. The place with the…yeah. And get the…yeah. Noah likes the…yeah. All right. Thanks, El."

So Elliot was gonna pick up their dinner on his way home, and she didn't even have to tell him her order, or her kid's, because he knew it all already. Would Elliot feel this out of place, Anne Marie wondered, if he walked into her kitchen? If he was standing in the middle of her life, with her kids and her husband, talking to her friends, would he feel this much like an outsider? Would he feel like he didn't know her at all? Was she keeping secrets from him, same as he had done to her? Truth was Anne Marie didn't have any secrets, not any as explosive as Elliot's, but she couldn't help thinking, then, how strange it was, to be a sibling as a grownup, to look at someone and think she ought to know everything about them just because she used to, and to realize instead that life had moved on, and drawn them far apart from one another, left them strangers bound by memory and by blood, duty calling them back to one another in moments of calamity but the little things, the day-to-day things, kept hidden from one another.

"He'll be home soon," Olivia said, tucking her phone back in her pocket. "He's picking up dinner for everybody. He says he's gonna get you sesame chicken. That ok?"

"Yeah, that's good."

They'd decided, then, Elliot and Olivia together, that Anne Marie was gonna stay for supper. Decided it the way a married couple would, talking battle strategies and figuring out how to feed the people they loved. Decided it easily, decided it without disagreement, decided it like they had to make decisions like that all the time. Maybe they did.

"This is really fucking weird," Anne Marie confessed, and Olivia laughed, a little wry, not disagreeing.

"Yeah," Olivia agreed. And then, "I'm sorry," again. She kept fucking apologizing. "Elliot never told me anything about his siblings. He didn't tell me anything about your mom, either, I'd known him over a decade before I ever found out…anything about her. And that used to make me crazy, because he knew all about my mom. I didn't understand it back then, why he wouldn't just talk about it."

"But you understand it now?" That was implied, Anne Marie thought, in the way Olivia said back then, and it made her curious.

"Yeah," she said. "Elliot, he…he carries the whole world on his shoulders. He blames himself for everything, even the shit that's not his fault. And I know why."

Because he's the oldest, Anne Marie thought. Because he always has. Because he was the one putting himself between daddy and the younger kids, he was the one mama hurt most, he was the one trying to protect everybody else. It had always been that way, with him and Anne Marie and Jenny and the boys. He held everybody together, until he left, and then it was her job. Her turn to try to keep the peace, to try to keep the little ones safe. And shit, Anne Marie didn't talk about her childhood much, either.

"He said what happened to Kathy is his fault," she admitted. He said it was because of you, she thought, but she didn't say that out loud; despite her best efforts, she was starting to like Olivia, and she didn't want to hurt her.

"Maybe it is," Olivia said, and Anne Marie looked up at her sharply, taken aback by the utter lack of deflection, by the way Olivia didn't even try to save Elliot from that burden.

"We all make choices," Olivia said heavily. "There have been moments in my life when I thought…there have been times when I've done things I shouldn't have, or haven't done things I should have. There are people who got hurt because of the job I do. There are things that never would have happened, if I'd just been somewhere else. If Elliot hadn't taken the liaison job, if he hadn't wanted to come home, he'd never have been on Wheatley's radar. And he blames himself for that. Maybe he always will. That's just something we have to live with."

"I don't know how you can."

How could she be so calm? How could she just accept it? That people got hurt, that people died, because of choices she'd made, choices Elliot had made? How could she just shrug, and accept the weight of that guilt? Why wasn't she railing, insisting that the only person responsible for killing Kathy was the one who'd planted the bomb? Just how fucking complicated was this?

"I don't sleep much," Olivia confessed. "Sometimes I just stand in Noah's room and watch him sleep. I want to make the world safe for him but he's been in danger before, because of me." The way she said it was chilling in its acceptance. Anne Marie thought about her kids, remembered them at Noah's age, small and sweet and innocent, and tried to imagine, just for a second, how it would feel, to know they were in danger on account of her. Every parent wanted to protect their child, to keep them safe, to watch them grow up happy and well, and how, how could somebody live with knowing they'd done the opposite?

"I just have to pray that at the end of the day, the ledger balances," she continued. "I just have to hope that the good I've done outweighs the bad. And Elliot's the same. It's why he came back. It's why he does this job, it's why he couldn't stop. We've got…we've got to make it all mean something."

Penance, she thought. Olivia was saying that the job was their penance, their attempt to make up for all the bad shit they'd done, all the bad shit that had happened on account of their choices. They were gonna keep paying the price until they couldn't, anymore. Jesus.

"I know how this looks, me being here," Olivia said then. "I know it's gotta be hard to see. You don't know me. But I need you to know…we're just friends, me and Elliot. I respected Kathy. I cared about her. She was my friend, too. I'm grieving for her, too."

Then you're a bigger person than me, Anne Marie thought. All this, Elliot and Olivia's lives all wrapped up in one another, Elliot as good as saying he'd have chosen Liv over his wife if he'd given himself a chance to think about it, made it seem like whatever Olivia was to him was a hell of a lot more than a friend, and now here she stood, talking about how much she'd respected his wife. The wife who'd kept him apart from her, the wife who wouldn't let him be alone with her.

"I was there the day Eli was born," Olivia said. "I was driving the car."

Jesus Christ. The fucking accident; Elliot had been tight lipped about that, too, when he made his phone calls to let everybody know he had another son. Just said that Kathy had been in a car accident on her way to the doctor's but mother and baby were both doing fine and the asshole who t-boned them was gonna get ripped to shreds in court. Anne Marie had always thought - hell, everyone had always thought - Kathy was driving herself. But then here Olivia stood, watching her sadly, telling her otherwise.

"I was so fucking scared," she confessed. "I had Elliot's whole life in that car. It would have destroyed him, losing either one of them. He couldn't have taken it."

And that was probably true, because he'd lost Kathy thirteen years later, and it had ripped him apart.

"I was in the back of that ambulance with her and she started to code and the medic handed me this little baby and all I could do was sit there and hold him and pray I wasn't watching his mother die. We were closer after that, me and Kathy. I think that's when she knew…she knew I'd do anything for her family."

Including, it went without saying, not fucking her husband. Hand to god, I never did anything. I never touched her. Maybe that was true. Maybe it was still true; maybe he still hadn't. Because Kathy was gone and Olivia was still insisting they were just friends, and maybe that's all they'd ever be, just friends who needed each other too goddamn much. What kind of burden that must be, Anne Marie thought, to take such responsibility for someone who wasn't family, who might not ever be.

"I'm sorry." Anne Marie figured it was her turn to apologize. "I'm sure this is awkward for you."

"It's ok," Olivia offered a little smile, a smile that looked like she meant it. "If I ever had the chance to meet one of my brother's friends, I'd want to hear what they had to say, too."

"You have a brother?" Maybe it was something they shared in common, Anne Marie thought. Maybe they could both bitch about their stupid big brothers, and come to like one another better because of it. Or maybe not, because Olivia's smile faded, and she shook her head.

"My brother died, last year."

"I'm so sorry," Anne Marie said, and meant it, because losing a brother, that must be, she thought, like losing a limb. Like having part of oneself ripped away, and not knowing how to move on without it. If it had been Elliot dead, and not Kathy, she was pretty sure a piece of her heart would have gone into the ground with him.

"I'm glad you can be here for Elliot now," Olivia told her. "My brother and I, we never got the chance to make things right. I'll spend the rest of my life thinking about the last conversation we had and wishing it could have been different. It's good that you and Elliot can talk, now."

There was so much fucking grief in the world, Anne Marie thought. So much pain, so many losses. There seemed to be more of it now than ever before, and maybe that was true, maybe it was covid and everything else that had happened over the last few years, or maybe the world had always been full of sadness, and learning how to see it was just part of getting older. There was sadness in Elliot's eyes, now, that had not been there when he was young, and there was sadness in Olivia's, too, a sorrow Anne Marie couldn't name, and maybe didn't want to, and there was sadness in Anne Marie's heart, and they shared that sadness in common. They were just two women, made tired and sad by the passage of time and the loss of people they loved, sharing a beer and maybe finding solidarity with one another, and maybe that was all right. Maybe they could be friends, too. After all, they were both standing in that kitchen because they cared about the same man, because that care compelled them to go to him, even when he was being stubborn, to look after him, even when he didn't want looking after. That's what you do, she thought, for the people you love.

"I wondered about you," Anne Marie told her. "I came to visit him last year, not long after the…accident. He mentioned you. He said you were taking care of him. He said you thought he had PTSD."

"He did," Olivia said seriously. "He does. It doesn't just…go away."

"I guess you'd know, being a cop."

Olivia looked away, shifted a little uneasily on her feet, and Anne Marie just watched her, wondering.

"I know because I have it," she said, and Anne Marie's heart sank in her chest like a stone in deep water. This woman, beautiful and self-assured, kind and warm, this woman with her sweet kid, this woman who made tea for mama like she'd done it a million times before and would do it a million times in the future, she had PTSD. Just like Elliot, and Anne Marie knew what Elliot had been through, but Jesus, what had happened to her?

"Some things…there are some things no one should see," Olivia said slowly, like she'd heard the question Anne Marie hadn't asked. "There are some things no one should have to go through. And it changes you, from the inside out. I didn't want…I didn't want him to lose himself. I still worry that he will. But he's out of the woods, for now. That's all we can ask for."

"What about you? You out of the woods?"

"Most days," Olivia said with a sad little smile. "Actually, to tell you the truth, I…I feel more myself now that he's back than I have for years. I'm here because I'm selfish, really. I just want him to stay."

Because he'd hurt her, when he left, and now he was back and their kids were playing together and they were gonna have supper together and Olivia had her best friend in her life again and didn't want him to leave, that's why she was here. Anne Marie knew a thing or two about that, about watching Elliot walking away and wishing like anything he'd just come back. That sense of abandonment, and the fear of feeling it again, it never really went away. It was why she'd come to him that night months before; yeah she wanted to help him, but mostly she wanted to help him because she didn't want to lose him. Because she needed him. And Olivia, she needed him, too, and here they both were, trying to hold him together, and themselves in the process, because they both just wanted him to stay.

And there was part of Anne Marie's heart that felt more like herself when he was around, too. She didn't know what they were like together, Elliot and Olivia, didn't know what they meant to each other, not really, but she knew how it felt, to need somebody. To have somebody who knew her, and understood her, and made her feel safe, and Elliot was that person for both of them, and maybe, she thought, maybe it didn't matter, all the things she didn't know, might not ever know, all the dark, unpleasant truths that bound them, all the secrets Olivia kept hidden. Maybe all that mattered was that they cared, and that they were trying.

"Anyway," Olivia said, a little uncomfortably. "That's…that's why I'm here. But since you're here, will you…will you tell me a little bit about yourself? I want to get to know Elliot's sister."

It was elegantly done, the shift to a safer topic of conversation. Olivia listened intently, and asked all the right questions, asked about Anne Marie's school and her husband and her kids, laughed politely when Anne Marie tried to make a joke. Jesus, she was damn near perfect, that Olivia, kind and unassuming, and it was weird, really fucking weird, to talk to her about normal shit knowing she carried thoughts of life and death and guilt and grief within her heart. But maybe, Anne Marie thought, maybe everybody did, because she remembered the weight of her own father's fist and she remembered the way her heart had shattered when she found out Kathy was dead and she knew the world was a little darker now than it had been before, and that she carried that darkness within her.

Eventually, about the time the beers ran out and she was thinking about getting a second one, Elliot made his way home. He came straight into the kitchen with his hands full of take-out, stopped short at the corner of the island when he caught sight of Olivia and Anne Marie standing there.

"Hey," he said, his eyes flickering back and forth between them like he was trying to get a read on the situation, trying to figure out if they were getting along or if they'd started a fire he was gonna have to put out.

"Hey," Olivia said, and she went to him at once, took some of the bags out of his hands and helped sit them on the island.

They moved together easily, Elliot and Olivia, unpacking their supper, hands shifting in and around one another's even though Elliot's eyes were on Anne Marie the whole time. Olivia bent and stretched over the island, reaching for a pile of napkins in the center of the table, and when she did the collar of her white blouse parted, and Anne Marie could see the faint outline of scars on the smooth, soft skin of her chest, and she swallowed hard and looked away, feeling like she'd just intruded on something private, like she'd just heard a secret she had no right to claim, her heart sinking in her chest. Maybe she didn't want to know why Olivia had PTSD, after all.

"You hungry, Annie?" Elliot asked her, because of course he did, because even when he was feeling awkward and unsteady he was always looking out for her.

"Yeah, I could eat," she answered.

"I'll get the boys." Olivia shot Elliot a knowing look, like she was telling him that she'd volunteered to go on purpose. Like she was giving him a gift, and telling him not to fuck it up, and then she was drifting away down the corridor, disappearing out of sight.

"She's nice," Anne Marie said to her brother the second Olivia was out of earshot.

She's nice, Elliot had told her months before. She's just…she's tough. She's real tough. Tougher than me, I think. Having met the woman now, Anne Marie couldn't help but agree. There was a quiet strength, in Olivia, in the way she faced the world unflinching, in the way she acknowledged the darkness of that world, and kept moving through it anyway. And Jesus, Olivia was nice, because she was here, taking care of Elliot's family, because she'd welcomed Anne Marie, and had been kind to her, even when Anne Marie hadn't started off so kind herself.

"She's been through a lot," Elliot said softly. "And she's still here. She's still helping me. God only knows why."

"She loves you."

That was the only thing that could explain it, Anne Marie thought. Olivia's willingness to step in, even when Elliot wouldn't ask for help, the gentle way she treated his family, that was love. Love was what made people take care of one another, even when it was hard. Love was why Anne Marie had come here, love for her brother, concern for him, and love was present in the food on the table, and love was in that room down the hall where Elliot's son was playing with Olivia's, where two families had come together into something that worked. Maybe it wasn't a romantic love, maybe it wasn't about hands and mouths and want, or maybe it was, but either way, it was love, still.

"God only knows why," he said, and it surprised her, just a little, that he didn't disagree. "The things I've done…I don't deserve her."

"But you love her, too."

He looked at her then, a long, thoughtful, heartbroken sort of look. Like he knew the answer but just wasn't sure he wanted to give it. Like he knew the answer, and was trying to determine whether or not he could trust her with it.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. I think I always have. I think I always will."

Anne Marie didn't know what his always looked like. Didn't know the challenges they'd faced together, didn't know about the things he'd done, about the red in his ledger he thought Olivia shouldn't have forgiven him for, that she had forgiven him for anyway. She didn't know where the scars on Olivia's chest had come from, or why Olivia had been there, years before, to meet their mother and take care of Kathleen. She didn't know what had happened before Christmas, and she didn't understand why Kathy was dead, and she didn't know, really, anything about what Elliot and Olivia were to one another. But she knew that there was love, in that place. That there was love in the cup of tea Olivia had left on the table beside the sofa where Bernie slept. There was love in the carton of sesame chicken Elliot slid across the island to her, and there was love in the cheeto dust on the boys' fingertips when Olivia led them back into the kitchen. There was love, when Anne Marie hugged Eli and he clung to her a beat longer than she expected him to, and there was love in Noah's little face when Elliot offered to teach him how to use the chopsticks. There was love in Olivia's eyes when she watched them together, and in her tentative smile when she pulled another beer out of the fridge and handed it to Anne Marie. There was love in forgiveness, and there was love in hope, and maybe, maybe that was the only thing that mattered, in the end.