The cold truth of it was, Olivia sometimes wondered why she continued doing what she did. Their latest case had ended on a tragic note, and there likely wouldn't be any form of real justice for the confused and grieving family members. She'd worn her badge more or less with pride over the decades she'd been part of the force, clipped it to her belt each morning as a part of her identity to the outside world.
It'd been her one constant, even from the days when she was a beat cop learning the ropes, all the way to now – now being that she had a nameplate on her desk that read Captain Olivia Benson, and the shape of the shield on her badge commanded a level of respect when she'd walk into a room.
She'd finished as much of the paperwork on their case as she could, though they were still waiting for the medical examiner's report for her to finalize it, and she was hoping the rest of the night would be clear for her to spend a little time with her guys.
Tomorrow was Valentine's Day, and it'd be the first Valentine's in years where she'd have someone to celebrate with – Elliot had managed to score them reservations weeks ago at a nice restaurant they'd been wanting to try, but with how she was feeling after this latest case, all she honestly wanted to do was curl up at home with a bowl of microwave Campbell's soup and watch movies all night with Noah and Elliot.
The difference between Elliot and the other guys she'd dated over the years was that he understood. Not only the police part, not only the knowledge of all the evil that lurked on the streets that they worked to uncover and bring to justice, but everything. He'd been like her, once, and he still remembered.
He rose to greet her as her key turned in the lock. Not quite two years had passed since he came back, and not quite a year since they'd realized that trying to be simply friends was never going to work, and yet, it still shook her slightly to see him in his gray sweatpants and a rust-colored Henley, a bottle of beer – thankfully, on a coaster – open next to the couch, as the Knicks game played on the TV. "Hey there," he said, pulling her into a hug. "Long day at the office, huh?"
"You could say that," she muttered, burying her face into his chest, hearing his heart beat steady and true underneath her ear. "Neither of them made it." Hearing the rhythmic thump thump of his heart soothed some tortured part of her soul.
"Oh, Liv," he said, drawing his arms around her even closer. "I know how hard you were fighting for them."
Her eyes brimmed with more tears, as she looked up at him. "Why do we do it? Why do we keep fighting?" It was a rhetorical question, but if anyone could supply the answer, it was the man who was holding her upright against him, his lips pressed against her hair.
"We can't let the bastards win." Simple, declarative. Truth. And she knew he was right, because of course he was. Anyone who knew the intricacies of the Special Victims Unit the way he did would know that there were plenty of bastards to take down, but that victory could ultimately be declared, one hard-fought battle at a time. "And if the bastards are winning, then the war isn't over yet."
She grinned, despite herself. "I needed to hear that."
"I'll tell you as many times as you need to hear it, in order to believe it." He traced scattered concentric circles up and down her back, holding her closely to him. "They're so lucky to have you. I'm so lucky to have you."
It was these moments like this, when he got unexpectedly emotional with her, that she'd never quite figured out. The Elliot she'd known as her partner wasn't exactly a man prone to spilling his emotions; he wore them on his sleeve, almost to a fault, but putting them into words was never his strongest suit. Time had elapsed, though, and some of that time and tragedy had worn away at some of his sharper edges, and she suspected that them finally being able to be open about their feelings for each other and act on them also helped. A little.
"'m lucky to have you too," she murmured, as she allowed herself to surrender to his soothing touch, him holding her against him as they rocked together in a companionable silence.
The next morning, a delivery boy was almost entirely disguised behind the lavish, elaborate bouquet of roses that greeted her as she walked into the precinct. "I have a delivery for a Captain Benson?" His voice was muffled, slightly, behind the sheer abundance of flowers.
"That'd be me," she said, taking the arrangement from his outstretched arms, and he sagged with relief as she shifted the weight onto herself.
Amanda looked up from her desk and smiled, as she stroked the petals of her own roses. "Looks like our guys thought similar," she said, admiring the bouquet Carisi had surprised her with only a little while before. "They're beautiful, Liv."
"Yeah, they really are, aren't they? Yours are too." She spied a small, slender card buried inside the flowers, and she took it out. Lunch today on our roof? Love always, El, it read.
She took out her phone, typed out a short response, and sent it to Elliot, before returning to her actual work: you're on for lunch.
Over the course of the morning, as her squad volleyed calls and maintained the balance of the giant stacks of paperwork that inevitably crept up on their desks over the course of a long case, Olivia worked on her own paperwork and putting together statistics that she knew McGrath would want for their next meeting. Better to be proactive rather than reactive, especially with him, she muttered, scanning the databases for the historical trends in their unit's response time.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw what seemed to be a familiar figure, but only from a distance; she must be seeing things, because there was no reason why John Munch of all people would be back in the bullpen after all these years. And as soon as she looked up to make sure she wasn't entirely crazy, the only person around was Amanda, lost in gazing at her flowers.
Minutes of staring cross-eyed at the numbers – numbers that only held real meaning when ascribed one by someone else, almost meaningless on their own – turned into a couple hours, without her realizing, and it wasn't until she heard a light tapping at her door that she stirred herself from the delirium. "Hey there, pretty lady," Elliot said. "Someone's working hard, hate to interrupt you."
"Oh, please," she said, sliding her reading glasses off her nose – never failing to notice how his own eyes lit up when she did so, there was something about those glasses that did it for him – and setting them on the desk, before practically launching herself across the small office into his arms. Meeting him with a tender kiss, she grinned, blushing slightly. "You're the best interruption."
The tips of his ears turned red, one of those telltale signs that she'd never allowed herself to notice before with him, but couldn't miss now. "I try," he said, with a slightly amused chuckle. "Gotta say though, if I ever expected one of us to end up with Cragen's old digs, always thought it'd be you."
"Yeah, well, I always thought you'd be right here with me." She still missed the way they fed off each other in investigations and interrogations, baiting each other into coming across leads and angles that broke their cases wide open and led to their impressive closure rate. Fin was great, truly, and she couldn't ask for a better number two in many regards – but there would always be something special about the spark between her and Elliot, one that they were now chasing in their personal lives.
He took her hand in his and squeezed. "Still standing right here, Captain," he said, his voice dropping an octave on her title, and his eyes clouding over slightly.
"Not here, if that's what you're thinking about, Detective," she said, laughing as she squeezed his hand back. "The rest of my team is –" she looked out into the squad room, only seeing Velasco grumbling as he typed at his computer, "- I don't know where, but point is, they're somewhere, and I don't want them to walk in on us. Again." It'd only taken one time of Amanda innocently walking in on her hands caressing Elliot's bare back for her to put a stop to most of their office shenanigans.
"Lunch is waiting, anyway." He was serious again, looking at her in that way that always slightly disarmed her. Like she was the only woman in the world.
"Show me the way." And she trusted him, God, she trusted him, and despite the fact she knew exactly where she was going, she wanted him to be by her side when she got there.
"So, I might have put together a little surprise for you," Elliot said, as they made their way up the roof access stairs, their hands still entwined and locked together. "It's not just lunch."
"Tell me you're not proposing."
"When I propose," and his words made her think that he'd already put a great deal of thought into the details of how he'd propose, maybe even had a ring tucked in his sock drawer at home, "it's going to only be about you and me. Today is about everyone else who loves you too." He opened the door to the roof, and a small crowd of smiling faces looked at her, before bursting into an excited cheer.
It took a moment for her to focus, to make out who was all on the roof – there was Elliot, of course, and Noah – who should have been in school – and Amanda and Dominick, and their two little girls, and Fin. But it wasn't only them, Cragen and Munch were off to the side; they'd obviously interrupted one of Munch's conspiracy spirals, because he looked as though he'd been cut off mid-sentence. And there were three people she didn't quite recognize, not at first glance: a young Hispanic woman, her long hair in a high ponytail, and a young couple, around the same age. The woman was pregnant, and the man's arms were wrapped around her waist in a loving embrace.
It took a moment, but if she rewound time for a moment – everything else melted away, and the man became a boy, a boy who needed love and a family – and she knew who it had to be standing in front of her. "Calvin?" she asked, feeling tears well up in her eyes. Before Noah, he'd been the best chance she'd ever had at being a mother, and she still felt the occasional ache and sting of the loss of what could have been.
"Yes, ma'am," he said warmly, breaking away from the woman he was with and coming over to Olivia for a hug. "I finished my stint with the Marines six months ago, still re-adjusting to civilian life."
"Semper fi, Marine," Elliot said, saluting him, which he returned in kind.
"This is my fiancée, Lexie," Calvin said, motioning to the pregnant woman he'd been standing with. "She's going to have a little girl in two months, and we've already decided we're going to name her Olivia. After you, of course, Captain Benson. I'm sure she's not going to be the only little Olivia around here named in your honor."
"You did so much for my Calvin when he needed help, and he's never forgotten about you," Lexie said, embracing Olivia in an awkward side-hug. "All he's ever talked about is how you were the first adult who really believed in him and thought he could be something more than the son of an addict. And when Detective Stabler here reached out to us, well, I knew I had to come meet you myself."
Olivia spun around to face Elliot. "You put this all together?" she asked, almost incredulous, though as she thought about it more, the facts added up. They'd spent a lot of time reminiscing about old cases, victims and survivors they still remembered all these years later, and he'd obviously used her recollections to assemble some form of the troops.
"All I did was ask them to write a letter about what you meant to them," Elliot said, a sheepish smile blooming across his face. "But, uh, a few people wanted to tell you in person. Because you might know how much you mean to me, but this is the impact you've had on everyone you've helped."
Amanda cleared her throat. "That's right, Liv, I mean, without you and this team? I don't know if I would have ever been so lucky to find a guy like Dominick, who loves me and my girls no matter what." She patted her stomach and exchanged a quick glance with Dominick. "And my girls wouldn't have their godmother. You really think I want my sister takin' care of these two if something were to happen to me and Dominick?"
"I'm touched," she said, putting her hand over her heart as Billie and Jesse each mobbed one of her legs and looked at her with those sweet smiles that she knew would one day be identical to their mother's grin. "Shouldn't you girls be in school?"
"Yeah, but Mama said this was important, and Da – Uncle Sonny will take us back after lunch." Jesse exclaimed. "You're the bestest godmother ever, Auntie Liv!" She held out a crayon drawing of three figures: one with brown hair and a big smile, and two smaller ones with blonde hair. Giant loopy hearts were scattered over the page.
She wanted to correct the little girl's grammar, but she didn't have the heart – not when she wasn't used to being called the "bestest" anything. At that age, Noah had been going through a difficult stage of figuring out where his boundaries were and how his hard-working mother, who was rarely around, fit into them. But Amanda's girls didn't see that part of her, and she secretly relished the attention.
"I will treasure this drawing, Jesse," she said, grinning at the lopsided curl that served as her counterpart's smile. "You could be an artist one day, you know."
"I wanna be a dancer, like Noah!" she said, breaking off from the group to perform nearly-perfect pirouettes across the rooftop. "You'll see!" They could hear her voice call out from across the roof, and Amanda ran over to observe and make sure her daughter didn't hurt herself.
"I ain't got a lot of time for this shit, and Velasco might burn down the precinct with that fire hazard of a coffeemaker if I leave him alone down there too much longer," Fin said with a laugh, "but I had to come show some love to the sister I never had. You know I always got your back, Cap."
"And I always got yours too, Fin." Ever since the day they'd met, they'd been an unlikely duo, but one of the things in her life she'd never had reason to question was Fin's loyalty and devotion to those he considered part of his crew. "You know that."
He nodded, and then Munch pulled him away. "Sorry, I must catch up with my old partner," Munch said, a maniacal glint in his eye. "I suppose old bets have to be settled, but you'll always be the heart of this team, Olivia. Even a hardened cynic like myself can see you give people something to believe in. Hope, maybe. I could never, but that's why we need you."
"And we need people like you for a reality check every now and then," she said. "Go, settle up with Fin."
"Bets made in 2000 aren't subject to inflation!" She heard Munch shout as he and Fin walked away.
"$100 then isn't the same thing as $100 now, and you know it!"
Noah ambled over to Olivia, as she caught her breath from laughing. "You've always supported me, Mom, and loved me no matter what I said or did." He scratched the back of his neck, the way he'd watched Elliot do a thousand times, and the fact that Noah was picking up on a few of Elliot's mannerisms made her heart flutter in unpredictable patterns. "I could have been just another kid to you, just another case, but you never gave up on me. I never said thank you. Not enough."
"You're a lucky kid, Noah, to be raised as a Benson," Calvin said, clapping his hand on Noah's shoulder. "Maybe in another life, we could have been brothers."
"That would have been so cool," Noah said, his face brightening up. "Elliot's kids are great, except they're all so much older than me that it's more like I'm their kid. Except Eli, but he's always moping around playing video games."
As Noah and Calvin splintered off from the group to bond as brothers-that-could-have-been, their excited shouts echoing across the rooftop, Olivia turned back to the other unfamiliar face. Again, time seemed to melt away, and the confident young woman in front of her became a scared little girl, clinging to life under a pile of dirt. "Maria?"
"You can call me Officer Recinos when I graduate from the Academy in a couple weeks," the young woman replied, beaming. "After what you did for me, mi madre called you a saint, and wanted to have you recognized. Unfortunately, the Vatican doesn't take applications for living sainthood, or so she was told. But I decided I wanted to be like you when I grew up, helping people like me. That maybe I could be the ray of hope for someone else, like you were for me." She threw her arms around Olivia, murmuring phrases of gratitude and relief in a mixture of Spanish and English.
Olivia choked up, tears brimming at the corners of her eyes. "I always hoped you turned out alright," she said. "I never forgot about you, Maria." Knowing that it was her sheer determination that had kept this girl alive, believing against all logic and sense that there was a real girl out there who really needed their help – this was it. "If you ever need a letter of recommendation, or if you want a place here at the 16th, it's yours. All you have to do is ask, and I'll make it happen for you."
"I might have to take you up on that," Maria said. After everything that Olivia knew Maria had been through in her young life, her early years, it was so nice to see the easy smile slip across her face and the confidence with which she moved. No one could escape their past, not even them, but a bad past didn't have to mean a bad future.
Everyone on this roof – and so many others – had been given a second, third – or more – chance, thanks, in part, to her. The waves of gratitude were enough to bowl her over where she stood, and she walked over to the edge. From way up here, where they were far above the streets they'd sworn to protect, it'd always felt like she could think so much more clearly.
"You've done well for yourself, Captain," Cragen said, coming up behind her. He eased back against the railing and looked at her. There were a lot more lines and wrinkles on his face than the last time they'd seen each other, but he would always unmistakably be the one man that had served as a paternal figure in her life. "I'm honored to call you that."
"You don't know how much that means to hear, especially from you." She watched as the group of people – the group she'd helped to bond together – mingled and talked, snacking on the catered spread of deli sandwiches someone had brought in and she hadn't had a chance to check out yet.
Elliot and Carisi were off to one side, their hands gesticulating wildly, and she could only imagine what kind of stories were being regaled; Noah and Calvin were clearly bonding over something, with their conspiratorial whispers. Amanda and Lexie were deep in conversation, and Munch had pulled out his wallet and slipped a few bills to Fin with a nudge and a shake of his head.
This wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for you, Olivia. All of these people are here because of you. Because they love you.
"I always knew you could do it," Cragen said. "And for every one of us on this roof, there's a hundred people down there that could tell similar stories of how you've changed their lives for the better. You came in on their worst days and saved them."
The tears began to fall more freely now, no longer brimming along her eyelids, and she swiped at them with the pads of her fingers, thankful for the quick swipes of waterproof mascara she'd applied that morning before work. "I could have helped so many more, though."
"You've done so much more than most people would ever dream of doing," Cragen said, softly. "You think the good ol' boys who trained me back when I was a rookie would have been able to scrape together even an elevator's worth of civilians that'd have anything good to say about them?"
She snorted. "Probably not, no."
"And that's what makes you so unique, Benson. I saw it from the day you walked into Special Victims that first day. Special victims deserve a special detective – or captain – on their side, and Manhattan's been lucky to have you as theirs. I should know. You're in my old office. Or should I say, our office."
"Always yours, as far as I'm concerned."
"I can't think of anyone I'd rather share it with."
The two exchanged knowing smiles and brisk nods of the head, before Olivia meandered her way back into the crowd. Elliot took the opportunity to pause his lively conversation with Carisi and Munch, and walked over to join her. "We all know how special Captain Benson is," Elliot said. "But there's a lot of people who couldn't be here today who wanted to tell her too. This is our gift to you, Olivia."
He handed her a shiny gift-wrapped box, and when she tore off the paper, there was a thick, professionally-bound book inside. Oohs and ahhs filtered from the crowd, as she turned the cover to face them. Thank You, Captain Benson, the printed inscription on the cover stated. "You didn't have to do this for me," she said, covering her mouth in shock as she flipped through the first few pages.
There were letters from each of the Stabler children, and Bernie too: Thank you for always being there for my boy, even when he was stubborn. You are a blessing to us all, Olivia, Bernie's spidery scrawl read. Kathleen thanked her for being a kind listener, and for helping when she'd needed help; Maureen, for keeping their family intact as long as she had.
But it wasn't only the Stablers who had contributed letters, because she recognized many of the names from long-ago cases: Lauren and Amelia Cole, the young sisters Lewis had terrorized, writing because of you, we were able to put our lives back together. Seeing you, we saw what survival looks like, and we knew we could do it too.
And there was a letter from Rebecca Clifford – though it was signed Rebecca Sanger – saying one bad man destroyed my family, but you and Detective Stabler reminded me that all it takes is one good person to save what's left. I have a husband now, and a little boy named Ryan, for the uncle he never got to meet. I miss my family every day, but I wouldn't have the opportunity to have what I have now if it wasn't for what you did. I wish there were more people like you, Captain Benson, people who care. The world would be a much better place.
The book was impossibly thick, and there were more letters than she could think to read at the moment, including some from the people standing around her, but a familiar handwriting caught her eye as she scanned through the pages. I wish I could have been there today to celebrate you in person, but thank you, Liv. You've made me a better person, simply by being in my life, and I will never again take your friendship or loyalty for granted. You make people realize who they really are. Thank you. It cannot be said often enough. It was signed your friend, Rafa.
"We'll have to call him and take him out to dinner when he gets back in town," Olivia murmured, tracing her finger over the L in Liv. Though the damage had been done, it turned out their friendship hadn't been mortally wounded after all. Bruised and battered, but not over; time healed some wounds, long conversations that sometimes involved Elliot healed others.
She knew this book was going to be something she'd cherish for a long time, but she flipped to the back, and Elliot's distinctive, lazy scrawl stood out on the very back page. She'd seen it every day for over twelve years, on post-it notes and DD5s, in the margins of calendars and in their notes; she knew it almost better than she knew her own.
I promise, Olivia, I wrote this letter myself. Every word is mine. Might not be pretty, not like you, but it's all me.
Forget about the parallel universes. It's you and me, here, in this one. In reality. You really wake up next to me every morning, and fall asleep next to me every night. It's all I've ever wanted with you. To love you, and to be loved by you. I know it hasn't been easy to get here, but we're here. Together. Always.
You bring out the best in me. In everyone, really. But especially in me. You have this way of allowing people to see the best versions of themselves. Not only that, but you make them want to be that best version. There's nothing you're trying to do. Nothing fancy or special. It's who you are, Olivia Benson. The woman I love. To feel your love in return is more than I could ever ask for.
I'm a lucky man to know you, to be loved by you. One day, I'll ask you to be my wife. That day isn't today. Take this as my promise that I will ask.
It's been a long time coming. Too long. Our story isn't over yet. Not by a long shot.
Semper fi, Olivia.
She turned to Elliot, and whispered in his ear, "when you ask, I'll say yes," and matching grins broke out across both their faces.
And as his arm wrapped around her waist, and the conversations filtered along the roof, with light and laughter filling the air, she knew one thing was for certain: Olivia Benson, you are loved.