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hell was the journey

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Taunting him was a dangerous game, but she was fed up with sitting around waiting for Lewis to decide what to do with her. “There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of action.”

“It’s coming,” he promised.

She took a breath and swallowed down the terror that threatened to choke her. “I wonder if you’re not man enough to get it up for a real woman.”

She’d steeled herself for his reaction, but his fury threw electricity into the air of the room and in seconds he was moving. “Let’s get to the action.” Her goal had been to distract him, and she had her chance. This was it. Her hands grasped the cold metal above her head. If she was lucky, (which she doubted she would be… look at what had happened in the last four days) one hit would render him unconscious. At the very least she could disorient him long enough to grab the gun. For the cleaning lady, for her little girl, for the hell he had inflicted on Olivia, she threw her weight into wrenching the bar free from the headboard.

It didn’t budge.

The adrenaline racing through her blood stopped instantly, ice taking its place as her stomach dropped through to the floor. Before she could think or recover, get her knees up to try to kick Lewis back and try for another attempt, his weight was on her. It wasn’t the first time she’d felt his chest slide against hers, his hands pawing at her body. It was, though, the first time he had pinned her legs down, the first time his breathing was heavy in her ear and his jaw was set in a determined line.

Her brain caught up to what was happening, and her fight response triggered. Her legs thrashed against him and she wrenched at the bar that was supposed to be her salvation, but she’d lost the element of surprise she’d been counting on.

A bloodcurdling scream filled the room and she looked to the door, expecting to see the cleaning lady or the little girl, but there was no one. When she felt the rawness in her throat, she realized the scream had come from her. 

Lewis's taunt from earlier came to her mind. “Thinking about someone you’re never gonna see again? Someone who you would give anything to see just one more time.”

She knew it was an exercise in futility to call for him , but she couldn’t stop it. She’d choked back his name for two years, glared at anyone when they spoke it in front of her. There was no way he could hear her in this beach house that was beyond even God’s reach. She called for him anyway. 


Rafael Barba sat in a quiet vigil over Olivia’s sleeping form. The entire squad planned on taking turns at her side, no one wanting to leave her alone for very long, and he had volunteered to take the first shift. The others had been awake for over 36 hours searching for her, and they all desperately needed sleep.

The shadows under her closed eyes were stark against her sallow skin. The corner of a white bandage peeked out from below the neckline of her hospital gown, covering one of the many burns he knew she had. Beyond those, she had a concussion, cracked ribs, and a broken wrist. The doctors were also concerned that she didn’t seem to have had food or water in days. That paired with the sleeping-pill-pain killer-alcohol cocktail she’d been given meant she was staying at least one night for observation. She hadn’t put up a fight on that front, and it was just another confirmation that she was far, far from okay, and wouldn’t be close to it again any time soon. 

She hadn’t let anyone in the room while the doctor had performed the rape kit (and he wanted to retch at the thought of it even being necessary). Olivia was adamant that she hadn’t been raped, just that the threat was there. Barba had worked with her enough, had prosecuted enough sexual assault cases to know there was something she was holding back. Something she wasn’t telling them about what had happened in that beach house. He doubted she would tell the squad. He doubted she would ever tell anyone at all. 

He was pouring over statements from the various witnesses to Lewis’s four-day rampage: his lawyer-turned-girlfriend, Mrs. Mayer, the clerk at the hardware store. Each piece needed to snap together perfectly for him to win. Lewis was in another hospital’s ICU, unfortunately still taking in oxygen. If that continued, there would inevitably be a trial, and Barba was going to make damn sure Lewis remained a guest of the state until the day he died.

From the bed, he heard Liv’s breathing became shallow and labored, and he looked up from his notes to see a crease had formed between her brows. She whimpered softly, mumbling something that might have been “no”, or could just as easily have been a simple noise of despair. Either way, he recognized the nightmare. He sat up straighter and leaned closer to her.


Her head thrashed to the side and another breathy cry passed her cracked lips. He thought it sounded like “help,” and it cracked Barba’s heart clean in two.

“You’re safe, Liv, it’s over. Wake up, come on.” The last thing he wanted to do was grab her, but her breathing was coming faster and the beeping of the heart monitor indicated her pulse was rapidly increasing. She whimpered again, the same sound, and he caved. As gently as possible, Barba wrapped his fingers around her wrist and shook it, calling her name again with more force than before.

Olivia jerked awake, her eyes frantically scanning the room before settling on his. Recognition settled across her face as her breathing slowed. Her head fell back against the pillow. 

“Nightmare?” he asked, even though he already knew.

Liv nodded. “Did I…” she trailed off. She wet her lips with her tongue and cleared her throat. “Did I say anything while I was asleep? A name or… or anything else?” 

Her wide eyes were pleading, mortified of the answer. 

Barba shook his head. “Nothing that I was able to understand,” he answered honestly. 

She exhaled deeply, looking relieved.

He wasn’t sure why, but her question unsettled him. “Why, Liv? Did you think you said someone’s name? Did you say anything in the dream?”

“Just curious,” she said to the ceiling. 

Barba looked at her questioningly. “Is there someone you want us to call?” In the months since they’d met, he felt he had gotten pretty good at reading Olivia Benson. The set of her shoulders indicated she was fortifying the wall she’d built long before he ever met her. The flare of her nostrils said that soon her eyes would grow shiny with tears.

“Nobody that would take the call.”

Surely anyone she cared about this much would drop what they were doing and come back for her. How someone could resist the gravity of this woman was beyond him. In just seven months he was already acutely aware that he would do anything for her. He opened his mouth to protest.

“Just drop it. Please. They’re gone and not coming back.”

The finality in her tone was enough for him to desist. 

“Can I be alone for a bit?” she asked. “I’ve been surrounded by people all day and could use some space to just breathe.” 

Barba nodded and pushed himself from the chair. He gathered his things and intended to leave her be, but he couldn’t resist one final touch to her arm, softly at the elbow, just to convince himself that she was alive and in one piece… for the most part. “If you need any of us, all you have to do is call.”

She muttered her thanks and gave him a tight smile. As he turned to close the door behind him, he glanced back at her. She was staring at the ceiling again. A single tear tracked its way down her bruised cheek. 

The door closed with a soft click, but he didn’t let go of the handle. His mind raced as he tried to figure out what to do. He would do anything to ease the suffering Liv was enduring. He felt like the answer was just within reach but she didn’t want to reach out and grasp it. 

“Everything okay?”

Barba jumped at the sound of Captain Cragen’s voice over his shoulder. SVU’s commanding officer stood with Fin at his side, both with mutual looks of concern. He nodded hesitantly. “Yeah. Yeah she’s resting, I’m just thinking.”

“About how you’d like to wring Lewis’s neck?” Fin didn’t make any effort to disguise the deep, all-consuming hatred he felt toward the man in question. 

Barba gave him a wry look. “I didn’t hear that. And no, it was something Liv said just now. She woke up from a nightmare and the first thing she asked was if she had said someone’s name.”

“Did she?” Cragen asked.

“She was saying something, but she was mumbling so I couldn’t quite make anything out.” Barba hesitated and weighed the choices in front of him. On one hand, he wanted to honor Liv’s desire to be left alone in regard to whoever she was thinking about. Clearly their absence was a deep, lingering wound and she had put in a glorious effort hiding how much it affected her still. The mask had cracked and he’d seen the tender vulnerability she wanted so desperately to hide. Exposing it further felt like an invasion of privacy. On the other hand, the two men in front of him knew her better. Maybe they knew this person, or how she would react if they reappeared. If they believed it was better to drop the subject, he trusted that the conversation would remain between the three of them. “But, I asked if there was someone she wanted us to call and she didn’t give me a straight answer.”

“What does that mean?” Fin asked.

“She said ‘nobody that would take the call.’ She seemed pretty upset and asked me to leave. I didn’t want to upset her more so I let it go,” Barba explained. 

Fin and Cragen shared a look between the two of them. Cragen took a breath and turned back to Barba. “When she was mumbling, what could you make out?”

“It sounded like… ‘help?’ Or maybe ‘hell?’ Honestly, it just sounded like she was saying the letter L over and over.”

Fin shifted his stance and tilted his head at Cragen expectantly. Cragen, for his part, ignored his detective’s expectant stare that was boring a hole in the side of his head. He stood with his hands in his pockets and fixed his eyes on the floor, as if he watched it long enough he would have the answer to whatever riddle he was puzzling out. 

After a minute, he nodded in Fin’s direction.

“Find him,” he said softly. Fin took off down the hallway. “Take John with you, I don’t need anyone showing up with a broken nose!” Cragen called over his shoulder. The detective raised his hand in acknowledgement and kept his pace.

Barba stood with a furrowed brow at Fin’s retreating back before turning back to Cragen, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

“Elliot Stabler, Liv’s old partner. She called him El,” he explained.

“They were close?” 

Cragen let out a humorless chuckle and nodded. “Oh yeah. They worked together for thirteen years. If I’d had any hair when they were paired together, the stress of what those two put me through would have made it fall out. They were both stubborn, reckless, with a flagrant disregard for protocol, and probably the best pair of detectives I’ve ever seen. He retired after a shooting at the precinct. IAB cleared him, but he couldn’t forgive himself. He hasn’t spoken to her since that day, two years ago.” He shook his head, his eyes falling on Liv’s door. “Losing him gutted her.”

And it made sense. Liv was so guarded, and he had heard about how slow she’d been to trust Rollins and Amaro. They’d both been with SVU for around two years. If she’d just lost her partner, someone that she’d trusted implicitly for more than a decade, it would make sense that she wouldn’t want two newbies turning up, taking his love. It amazed him that let anyone new in at all. 

“You think she’d want to see him after all that?” Barba asked. Liv had put herself back together after that abandonment. It was possible she would still be holding onto some resentment. She’d probably shove Stabler away even if he did come back. 

“You asked her if she wanted anyone when she was thinking about him. Did she say anything else?”

Barba shook his head. “Mostly just what I said, ‘not anyone that would take the call’ and then when I tried to ask if she was sure, she said to drop it and that he wasn’t coming back.”

“Sounds to me like she’s afraid that she’ll ask him to come and he’ll refuse,” Cragen sighed.

“And if he does show up? What if she gives him a black eye and tells him to go to hell?”

A flicker of a smile crossed the captain’s face. “That’s about what he deserves. I’d rather give her the option to do that, rather than make the choice for her, though.”

Fin rushed from the hospital as quickly as he could. As he reached his parked car, he pulled out his phone to call Munch. His old partner picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, everything okay?” he asked as a greeting, concern lacing his tone.

Fin cut to the point. “We’re tracking Stabler down, Cragen’s orders.”

A weighted silence hung on the line. “Does Liv know?”

“No, and we’re not telling her we’re looking either. I’ll fill you in later, right now just met me at their house in Queens.” he hung up unceremoniously and tossed the phone into the passenger seat. 

The drive from the Staten Island hospital to Queens gave Fin plenty of time to ruminate on everything he wanted to say to Elliot when they found him. Part of him wanted to scream at the man for not showing up on his own. The news coverage on Liv’s disappearance had been wall to wall for the last two days, there was no way he hadn’t seen it. He also knew that if Stabler had walked into the precinct, bull headed and self righteous, and demanded to know what was being done to find her, Fin would have dragged him out by the collar and thrown him into the street himself. 

Fin had watched the two of them for eleven years. He’d seen how Liv gave Elliot so many parts of herself without expecting anything in return. He’d seen the clearly defined boundaries that shaped their relationship and how she spread herself thin to fill the corners. He’d seen how, once those boundaries were taken away, she’d been left floundering, trying to hold the shape she once did without anything keeping her steady. He’d watched her grieve when she succumbed to the knowledge that she would never be that version of herself again, and she would have to forge another. 

Maybe it was a good thing Cragen sent a chaperone. 

He pulled up to the Stabler house to find Munch waiting for him on the sidewalk. “Mail’s been checked, and I saw the car so someone must be around,” he nodded in the direction of the house. 

They walked in tandem up the sidewalk. Fin thought it somewhat ironic- two police officers showing up to deliver news to a loved one. That’s what Stabler used to be at least. Munch knocked on the door, but they were met with silence on the other side. 

“More radio silence. You think he knows it’s us?” Munch quipped. 

Fin rolled his eyes and raised his fist to pound on the door. “Elliot, open the door,” he yelled. 

“You keep that racket up and I’ll call the police!”

The two men looked over to see an older woman, probably in her late 70s standing on the porch next door. 

“No need for that ma’am, we’re already here,” Munch called, and they both showed her their badges. She relaxed then, and crossed her arms over the kittens printed on her sweater. They stepped off the Stabler’s porch and approached hers. “Maybe you can help us, Miss?”

Her tone changed immediately. “Oh, you’re too kind, officer. What’s going on? Are they in trouble?” she asked, almost gleefully. Fin fought to keep his expression neutral. 

“We’re looking for an old colleague of ours, Elliot Stabler. He and Kathy still live here, right?” Munch asked. Batty old ladies were more his area of expertise.

The lady gave a hmph of derision. “Kathy does. They divorced, oh about eight months ago. Should have happened a while ago if you ask me but,” she tsked, “what can you do? I tried to talk to her but she would always say “Edith, I gotta try for my kids.’ When he retired she was so happy for a while but he was so gloomy. Not that he was all that pleasant before, but he just brought her down, you know?”

Munch glanced over his shoulder at Fin before turning back to Edith. “You wouldn’t happen to have a good number for him, would you? The one we have is disconnected.”

She scoffed. “Oh no, he was never fond of me. Thought I was too nosy, but really, when they were yelling so loud half the block could hear them? It’s not my fault. And really, I was just looking out for Kathy and their youngest.” Fin watched a thought flit across her face. “Is she alright?”

Her concern sounded hollow, considering she’d just been broadcasting the downfall of her neighbor’s marriage to complete strangers. “No ma’am, nothing like that. It’s more of a personal reason we need to talk to him,” Fin said. 

“What about Kathy?” Munch asked. “Do you have a number for her?”

Edith’s eyes brightened. “Oh yes, she left one. She and the kids went to Florida for a couple weeks to see her parents. The year they’ve all had, they deserve a chance to get away. Now, she appreciates having a watchful eye on their house while they’re out of town, always so sweet. She seems much happier these days. Losing 170 pounds will do that for you, though.” She chuckled at her own joke.

“The number?” Fin asked, raising his eyebrow. 

“Right. Just a second, I have it on a note on the fridge,” she said and shuffled back inside.

“Divorced, huh,” Munch hummed after the screen door shut. 

Fin glanced over at him. “Not our business. Not why we’re here. Liv, remember?”

Munch nodded. 

Edith re-emerged from her house with a small piece of paper in her grasp. “There you are officers. Do you need anything else?” she asked, passing the paper to Munch.

Fin eyed the paper she handed them, the number written with a purple pen on stationary (more damn kittens), already adding it into his contact list. 

“You’ve been very helpful, Edith. We are in your debt,” Munch smiled. 

Edith went back inside with a grin. Probably calling her friend Gladys or something two blocks over and tell her all about how the police had been banging on her neighbor’s door , Fin thought. They walked back to Fin’s car, wanting as much distance between them and curious ears as possible. 

Once they were far enough away, Fin dialed the number and put the phone on speaker. When the ringing went on, he briefly acknowledged that it was approaching 9 pm and felt a prick of apprehension that nobody would pick up.


The woman’s voice on the other end of the phone came through harried, as if she’d rushed to pick up before it went to voicemail.

“Kathy? It’s Fin and John from SVU,” Fin explained. 

“Oh,” she exclaimed softly, “hi. It’s been, well it’s been a while.”

“Your neighbor Edith told us that a lot’s happened recently,” Munch chimed in, his light tone bringing levity to the awkward conversation.

“That woman, why am I not surprised,” Kathy grumbled. 

Munch chuckled. Evidently Kathy wasn’t as appreciative of her neighbor’s hovering as Edith would like to believe. “I know under the circumstances it feels weird to ask, but we’re trying to track down Elliot. Do you have his number, or an address?”

“Why can’t Olivia give it to you?” Kathy asked, indignantly. 

Munch’s eyebrows shot up as he met Fin’s eyes. “None of us have spoken to him in two years, Kathy. Not since he left the department.”

The silence that followed hung like lead. Fin tapped the screen to check that Kathy hadn’t hung up, but the call time kept counting up. 

“He was telling the truth the whole time,” she finally said, more a whisper to herself than anything else. She inhaled deeply and spoke up. “I can give you his new number, but he won’t be able to see it for a while. He works private security now, and he’s in Europe for a couple weeks.”

Fin didn’t want to wait weeks. He may not be the guy’s biggest fan, but if Stabler was able to help Liv get through the hell she was going through, he’d keep his mouth shut for the most part. 

Munch seemed to be of the same line of thinking. “You have to have an emergency number though, right? What if something happened to one of the kids, how would you get in touch with him?”

“I mean I do but, it’s really only supposed to be for emergencies,” Kathy said hesitantly. 

Fin had enough. “Please, Kathy, we understand we’re asking a lot of you. Edith said you’re out of town so you haven’t seen the news. Liv is hurt. A psychopath kidnapped her and spent four days torturing her and she’s a mess right now. We think Elliot could help.”

“She asked for him?” Kathy’s voice wavered.

“She doesn’t feel like she can, so we’re doing it for her. I get you’ve probably resented her for a while and we’re not asking you to just let all that go. Right now, she’s a victim. She’s a person in need, and you have the ability to help her, just a little,” Fin pleaded. He wanted to add that if she made them wait for Elliot to return, he’d probably be livid at her for keeping him away longer than necessary, but decided against it. Emotional manipulation didn’t seem like the best way to get through to her. 

They waited, and then-


Munch hurriedly scribbled the number on the back of the paper Edith had given them. “Thank you. Thank you, Kathy,” he said, sincerity seeping through every word. 

“Tell her we’ll be praying for her,” she said simply, and then the screen showed the call ended.

Munch shrugged. “I’m pleasantly surprised that wasn’t worse.”

Fin rolled his eyes and typed in the new number from Kathy.

An ocean away, a phone rang.


Chapter Text

Elliot Stabler had tried to force himself to return to the 16th precinct, to give the members of his squad the courtesy of saying goodbye. To shake his captain’s hand and thank him for the last fifteen years. To talk to Olivia.

He couldn’t do it.

After the shooting, she had called him constantly. She’d texted, even sent an email every now and then. Every time his phone pinged with a notification from her, he could feel her tugging on the tether that connected them, the one that no one was ever really able to define, least of all them. She was a siren calling him back.

But he’d killed a child. Jenna Fox was barely younger than the twins. They could have gone to the same school or played on the same sports teams. And he was the one who ended her life. Her high school would leave an empty chair where she should have sat at her graduation. In place of a diploma she got a bullet fired from his gun. Nothing could erase that. He’d made his confession, said all the prayers as instructed, prayed for Jenna’s soul, then done it all over again for good measure, but the guilt remained. He knew he would have to leave the NYPD. He had shot Jenna to protect the other people in the squad room. To protect her. His silence was self-imposed penance for the crime even IAB had deemed a good shooting.

He killed a child to save Olivia’s life. And he lost her all the same.

Without her there to push him back into the waiting arms of his wife, his marriage crumbled. He’d appreciated her for it infinitely early in their partnership, but after the separation, after Eli, things changed. Right before Kathy had told him she was pregnant, he’d started to consider the possibility that things could be different with Olivia. He’d thought she’d been on the same page. When he told her about Eli at the courthouse, she looked at him as if he’d pulled the ground out from underneath her. After she’d absorbed what he said, she stepped immediately back into the role of the supportive partner. But it hadn’t been the same. The what-if had lingered for both of them.

Kathy could sense it too, and after one too many fights where Liv’s name came up, another accusation of something he wasn’t even doing, she’d thrown him out for good. He’d moved into a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan, gotten a job at a private security firm one of his old Marine buddies, David, ran, and tried to stop himself from thinking too often about his old partner.

Which is how he found himself in a hotel room in Warsaw, Poland. Some businessman with more money than sense had hired David’s company to provide an additional layer of security around his family while they toured Europe. A graduation present for their eldest son. Elliot had jumped at the chance. Kathy was taking the kids to Florida to see her parents anyway, and it paid well. Exhausting, but it would be worth it in the end. Weeks on end putting up with entitled rich kids made him grateful that he and Kathy had at least managed to raise their children to be respectful.

Well, that was mostly to Kathy’s credit, if he was honest.

It was after 1 am when he finally managed to crawl into his merciful bed at the hotel. The legal drinking age across most of Europe was 18, and he suspected that was part of why the kid had asked for this trip. Elliot had dragged him out of clubs in two other countries, and this night made it three. If it wasn’t such a well-paying job, he would have walked out after the first beer the snide brat had thrown in his face.

A shrill ring pierced the quiet blackness of the room and pulled him awake. He dug his fingers into his eyes to rub the sleep from them and fumbled for the phone on his nightstand. The light from the screen blinded him as it insultingly declared it was 3:07 am and he’d only been asleep for two hours. With a frustrated groan he briefly considered declining the call before recognizing the area code and his stomach dropped. New York. He didn’t have a call scheduled with the kids for a couple days, and his supervisors were mindful of time zones. Something was wrong.

“Stabler,” he answered. The other end was quiet. “Hello?”

“You’re a difficult man to track down, you know. Less experienced detectives might have abandoned the case.” John Munch’s voice echoed from the past, out of place in the small Warsaw hotel room, and all Elliot could think was no.


Why was Munch calling him? There had to be a reason. He’d have to have put in effort to get this number.

“Abandoning things is more your area of expertise though, isn’t it Stabler?”

Elliot shook his head. God, no. “Fin? What’s going on, what happened?”

Munch’s voice came back over the line. “There will be plenty of time for Fin to tear into you later. It’s Olivia. She’s hurt.”

Elliot sat up straight as cold dread washed over him. He had known. He’d known the second Munch had spoken why they were calling but he had refused to believe it until the words were out there. Only one thing, one person, could have inspired such desperation and urgency

“How bad?” His voice was choked from lack of oxygen. She had to be okay. God, please let her be okay. He would never breathe again if she wasn’t.

Neither of the other men spoke, and Elliot could picture the look they were sharing between them thousands of miles away.

His mind reeled at the implication of what they had said and the silence that followed. She could have been shot or stabbed on the job. It could be as innocuous a car accident. He recalled elevator conversations about blood types and kidneys. Did she need surgery? Had she thought to tell anyone else her blood type?

“John, how bad?” his voice rose to a near shout with urgency.

“She’ll survive, but…” Fin hesitated. “Look she’s been put through the wringer. She could use all the support we can get her right now.”

Elliot’s feet touched the floor before his mind caught up to the fact he was moving. “Okay, I’m… I’m in Poland right now. Give me fifteen minutes, I have to make a call but I’m on the first flight out. I’ll call you back soon.” He flipped on the room light and began throwing the few belongings he carried into his suitcase.

“Fin will pick you up at the airport,” Munch said. Fin’s noise of protest was cut off by the call disconnecting.

Instantly, Elliot was pulling up David’s number in his phone. His friend answered on the second ring.

“Hey, Elliot. It’s a bit late over there, isn’t it?” he joked.

“I need you to pull me out,” he said without preamble. “Actually scratch that, I’m calling to give you a heads up that I’m leaving. I have to get back to New York now.” He stuffed his clothes into the far corners of the suitcase with one hand. They would be wrinkled later, but he’d deal with it after he got back home.

David’s tone became concerned. “Okay, I’ll authorize it and let the client know we’re sending someone new. Are Kathy and the kids okay?” He wasn’t Elliot’s boss in the moment, just a man worried about what could have inspired such an emergency in one of his oldest friends.

Elliot checked the sink in the bathroom, tossing his toothbrush and razor into the small black toiletries bag he used. “Yeah, they’re all okay. It’s my old partner. I just got a call from the guys at my old squad telling me she was hurt somehow. They didn’t say what happened, but-” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Dave, she’s in such bad shape that they called me out of the blue after two years of no contact. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“This the partner you told me about? The one you said you got too close to?”

After his marriage to Kathy had imploded, David had been Elliot’s confidant through the dark twists his mind took during the divorce. He’d listened to Elliot’s drunken ramblings about how he’d walked away from his partner in a last ditch effort to save his crumbling marriage and lost both women anyway.

“Yeah, that’s her. And after what I did she probably hates me. I’ll probably fly all the way there only for her to tell me to turn around and get back on another plane, and I’ll deserve it. But after everything Olivia did for me, for my kids, I can’t just stay gone, you know? Not right now,” he exited the bathroom in a flurry and tossed the toiletry bag into his suitcase.

“Hold on, you said her name’s Olivia?” David paused. In all their conversations, Elliot had never mentioned her name. Speaking it aloud would’ve cut too deep. “Her last name isn’t Benson, is it?” he asked warily.

Elliot’s hand stilled on the zipper of his suitcase. “...yeah it is. Why, do you know anything?”

David cursed under his breath. “It’s been all over the news here. She was missing for four days, something about her being abducted by a guy her unit was tracking. Sounded like the guy was pretty sick. I had no idea she was your old partner, man, I’d have called you days ago.”

Elliot felt as if his head was being held underwater. The drone of his friend’s voice, the night traffic on the street below, the room’s air conditioner, all were drowned out by the rushing of blood through his ears. Olivia had been kidnapped by a perp she was chasing. Olivia, who worked SVU. Olivia, who hunted rapists. Olivia, taken and held by one for four days.

The back of his throat burned.

“Elliot? You still there?”

He cleared his throat and shook his head. “Yeah, yeah I’m here. I’m just about finished here, you think you can get me on the first flight out?”

“Already done, everything is on your phone. Just give your hotel key to the front desk, we’ll take care of everything else.”

He muttered a quick ‘thank you’ to his friend before leaving the hotel in a flurry.

Despite the obnoxious hour, Elliot was able to find a taxi with relative ease. Once he was in the car, he pulled up the browser on his phone and searched Olivia’s name. He intended to get the full story from Munch and Fin, but he couldn’t stand the thought that complete strangers knew more about what she had been through than him.

The headlines from the major news sites scrolled in a banner on the search results page.

Live Updates: NYPD Detective Alive Following Abduction

Suspect in NYPD Detective’s Abduction in Critical Condition

Days-long Search for Detective Olivia Benson Concluded

Elliot clicked on the first result and scrolled to the bottom of the page to read from the beginning.

May 23rd, 2013- 10:14 am
Detective Olivia Benson is discovered missing by members of her unit. She was last seen late afternoon on May 21st at a bodega near her apartment. Police name their prime suspect as William Lewis, who was recently released following a mistrial for rape charges.

His mind reeled. First of all, how could no one notice she was gone for two days? And secondly, how had this guy managed to get anywhere near her? Elliot scrolled up through each update, pausing to read the linked articles for each stage of the search for Olivia. All this time, she’d been going through hell and what had he been doing? Tailing a drunk teenager.

His phone lit up with David notifying him of his flight information just as he was dropped off at the airport’s international terminal. He had to put his phone away while he went through security. It allowed him more time alone with his thoughts, and his anger started to turn outward. As soon as he was through and waiting at his gate he re-dialed the number for John and Fin.

“Got your flight information yet?” Fin asked as a greeting.

“Four days? He had her for four days and you just now thought to call?” Elliot asked irately.

“Hold up, you’re the one who went no-contact,” Fin said defensively.

Elliot scoffed. “This is different!” he practically yelled. A woman on a nearby bench shushed him, gesturing with a raised eyebrow to a sleeping child using her lap as a pillow. Elliot nodded apologetically and stood to pace further from the gate.

“This is different,” he repeated through clenched teeth. “Something like this happens, you should know I’d be there. I’d knock down doors or check leads. I’d do anything to find her.”

“And how do you suppose we should know that, hm?” Evidently Fin didn’t have a mother with a sleeping child in his vicinity, because his voice rose with each word. “Did you write up some handy flow-chart for us to use in case ‘something like this’ happened? What, did it get lost in the mail? Carrier pigeon get sucked into a plane engine? You wanna know what Liv told our ADA when he asked if there was anyone else she wanted us to get for her? She said ‘not anyone that would pick up if she called.’ That’s not our fault. You did that entirely on your own, Stabler.”

“She didn’t ask for me, then?”

“Why would she ask for someone that walked away?”

Elliot’s shoulders slumped and he braced himself against the wall. He felt as if his chest was caving in. Fin was right. He’d done that. To her, of all people. She felt like she couldn’t ask for him, even if she wanted him there, and the gravity of his choice to walk away hit him harder than it ever had.

His eyes stung but he forced the gathering tears to stay put. “You’re right. You’re right and I’m sorry.” He sighed and glanced at the digital clock hanging over the gate. “I have a little less than an hour before they’ll let us board. Tell me everything. I’ve read a little, but I gotta know more about what I’m walking into.”

“We’re still piecing everything together,” Munch said, and Elliot was surprised to hear him. “It was four days, and they were at multiple locations so it’s gonna take some time. Liv hasn’t said much and we’re not pushing her right now. She’ll give her statement after the hospital releases her, probably tomorrow.”

“You telling me you were there the whole time? Listening to Fin tear me a new one?” Elliot asked.

Munch hummed. “You telling me you didn’t deserve it?”

Elliot nodded even though he knew they couldn’t see him. Munch wasn’t wrong. “Tell me what you do know then.”

“From what we can tell, after the judge declared a mistrial and let this guy out, he went to her apartment. She got home and he was already inside,” Fin began.

And so Elliot listened. He was quiet while Fin detailed the extent of the damage in Liv’s apartment. He heard about cigarette butts on the floor and keys in a frying pan. He hadn’t known she even owned a frying pan, and the thought would have made him laugh under different circumstances. He heard about broken frames and duct tape on chairs and vodka bottles on the floor. It was her mother’s drink of choice. Liv tried to avoid it.

“Why did nobody check on her when she didn’t come into work the next day?” Elliot asked the question that had been burning in his mind.

“Cap told her to stay home for two days. Lewis going free really got to her,” Munch said.

“Well who’s her partner now? Why didn’t anyone call her?” He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that nobody knew that anything was wrong. Unbidden, he remembered one of their old cases, back in ‘99. Gretchen Quinn, the single woman who lived in Olivia’s building who had nobody they could notify of what happened. If she’d died in her apartment, no one would have noticed for weeks.

“She doesn’t have that kind of relationship with Nick, man,” Fin said. “And before you say anything, he’s beating himself up over it more than you ever could.”

Of course she didn’t have that kind of relationship with her new partner. That was something he would have done. He would have taken her home and made her blink her lights. He would have realized the guy was fixated on her and insisted on walking her to her door. He would have called to check on her. He would have noticed. They could have gotten to her sooner if only he hadn’t run away from what he felt for her.

Unaware that guilt was eating Elliot alive on the other end of the phone, Munch continued telling him about the chase they went on once they realized she was gone. He told how they locked down the city and followed Lewis’s trail of bodies until there were no more to follow.

“We had their location narrowed down to Long Island but frankly, I don’t think we’d have found her any time soon except she managed to get free and call us,” he said finally.

Elliot’s head rose from where it had been cradled in his hands. “She was the one that called?”

Pride hung from Fin’s every word. “Nick and I got there and Lewis was on the ground. He’d taken a hell of a beating,” he hesitated, and his tone sobered. “Liv was sitting on the floor just staring at him, like she wasn’t all the way there. I’d never seen her like that, and I hope I don’t ever see it again. There was a gun and a metal bar on the floor next to her that was covered in blood, probably Lewis’s. We’re still waiting on the lab results to know for sure. She was holding her service weapon. It was like she was waiting for him to move so she could shoot him.”

“And Lewis, where is he now?” Elliot asked.

Please say hell, he begged, knowing he’d probably have to confess that once he made it back to his priest in New York. The news update he’d seen in the taxi had said he was still alive, but that could have changed. A not-so-quiet part of Elliot wanted to change it himself. He added that to the list of things he’d have to confess.

“Critical condition,” Munch answered. “Still touch and go on whether he’s going to make it or not.”

An electronic voice came over the intercom announcing first in Polish, then in English, that Elliot’s flight would begin boarding soon.

“Did he…” Elliot took a deep breath. “Did he rape her?”

“She swears he didn’t,” Fin said. “They did a rape kit just so they have it for evidence and it came up negative. But we all know those don’t always tell the whole story. And they’re only accurate to 72 hours.”

Three days. He had her for four.

Still, Elliot chose to believe Olivia. He expected people would doubt her, would think there was no way she hadn’t been, and that she must be lying to protect herself. She didn’t need that. She needed someone to hear her and believe the parts of her story she was willing to share. He could do that.

The intercom announced his boarding group. “I gotta go. I’m supposed to get to JFK around 12:30 your time. Fin, you still the one I’m looking for at the gate?” He stood and collected his carry-on bag.
“Yeah, I’ll be there. See you tomorrow.”
After Elliot found his seat on the plane, he sent a text first to David to thank him for helping him out, and Kathy to let her know what was going on before turning his phone off and stashing it in the backpack between his feet. It was a long flight, and he wanted to get as much sleep as possible while he could.
Try as he might, the only thing he could focus on was the unimaginable terror Olivia must have endured. And yet despite it all, she had stared down a monster. She’d saved herself and he’d never felt more grateful for anything than he was in that moment. He closed his eyes and forced himself to remember that she was alive and whole and breathing and he was getting closer to her by the second. It felt, somehow, that she was just beyond his fingertips, and across an ocean he felt her eyes boring into his soul, begging him to come back.
I’m coming, Liv. He thought. Maybe God would carry the message to her and she’d know he was on the way. Maybe it would give her a little bit of peace until he could be at her side. Until he was back where he belonged.

Chapter Text

Olivia sat in the captain’s office, feeling very much like a fish in an aquarium. The blinds were partially closed, but she caught multiple people glancing in her direction. She’d come to the end of her statement, starting from entering her apartment to calling the precinct for them to come get her.

“Why didn’t you use the gun?” the other detective asked. 

She wasn’t SVU, since the brass saw it as too much of a conflict of interest. She was good, though, Olivia thought. She was thorough, asked the necessary questions, but did it with kindness in her voice. Olivia didn’t sense any sort of accusation, even if internally she felt she probably deserved some of it. 

“I made a judgment call,” she answered simply.

The other woman nodded that it was sufficient for her to say they were finished. Olivia looked out the window of the office, vaguely hearing the detective tell Captain Cragen she had what she needed, that she would give everything to the DA and they would be in touch. 

She watched the people on the other side of the glass moving through the office. Outside this room, everything seemed like it was business as usual. Phones rang, keyboard keys clacked, coffee was poured and spilled. The world went on, and for a second she forgot that she wasn’t here as a detective, but as a victim giving her statement. How many thousands of these had Olivia been present for? How many hands had she held as people recounted the worst moments of their lives?

“Is there anyone you want me to call for you?” “Not anyone that would answer if I called”

The deep, aching pain that she’d been trying to tamp down since the hospital reared its head with a vengeance. She missed Elliot. God help her, she missed him more than she ever had. From the moment she first looked down the barrel of Lewis’s gun at her apartment to the last blow she delivered with that iron bar, she had wanted him. She spent every second begging, praying to any higher power in the universe that would deign to listen to her that he would somehow know to come back for her. On the fourth day, she stepped out of that house, blinking at the sunlight half convinced Elliot would be on the other side of the door.

He wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t. Instead she helped herself to the ambulance, leaning against Nick’s slender frame, but forcing herself to remain standing when all she really wanted was to collapse. It crept in again, that desire, and she wondered if she reached out, tugged on the thread that had once bound them if he would come back.

She imagined him so clearly, urgently bursting into the squad room, hesitant as he looked around for someone familiar. It was like the beach house all over again, her mind conjuring images of him returning as a way to protect her from the trauma she’d been through.

She imagined him moving toward Nick and Amanda and blinked, shaking her head to make him go away. 

When she looked out the window again, he was still there.

Fin turned on the sirens.

“Munch texted a few minutes ago. He’s with Cragen giving her statement. He said he’d try to let Cap know you’re on the way,” he’d said as Elliot slid into the passenger seat of the NYPD sedan at the JFK terminal.

The air between the two men was thick with tension as they flew through the familiar streets on the way to the new precinct building that Elliot had only worked out of for a year. When the weight of the silence got to be too much, he spoke.

“I didn’t want to leave, Fin, you have to know that. I felt like I had to,” he said simply.

Fin scoffed. “That’s not the problem and you know it. You had to leave the force, we got that. Still coulda said something. To any of us.”

“I talked to Cragen,” Elliot said weakly.

“That’s not what I meant.” Fin was silent, and Elliot couldn’t think of anything else he could say. That wasn’t true, exactly. He had plenty to say, but Fin wasn’t the one who needed to hear it.

“You didn’t even reach out after you got divorced?” Fin asked finally.

“What would I even say? That I left to try to salvage a dying marriage and it ended up dying anyway? That leaving Liv was the hardest thing I’d ever done and would she please talk to me again even after everything I’d put her through over the years?” Elliot rambled. 

“Wouldn’t’ve been a bad place to start,” Fin said. They had entered Manhattan and were getting close to their destination. 

Closer to her.

“I just felt like so much time had passed, I didn’t know where to start.”

Fin hummed in thought. “Well you better figure it out soon, Stabler, we’re here.” The car slowed as they approached the precinct. Elliot counted three news vans parked on the full street, and a gaggle of reporters in front of the building. They had to be waiting for Olivia to leave, hoping to harass her with questions or snap a picture of her. The press had always bothered him in their desperate hunt to milk every ounce of tragedy from a story as possible, but this was infuriating. 

“I’m gonna have to circle around to park, you get out and head in,” Fin said, obviously as irritated at the nuisance as Elliot was.

He practically jumped from the moving car as Fin slowed the car to a crawl to let him out. He jogged up to the building, shouldering his way through reporters and photographers, rougher than was technically necessary. 

Once inside, he passed through the updated security that had been added after Jenna snuck a gun through. 

“Stabler,” a voice said incredulously, and he met the eyes of Sergeant Roberts, who had been monitoring the precinct’s entrance since Elliot could remember.

Elliot gave the man a cursory nod. “She still up there?” he asked.

Roberts nodded, and Elliot continued on to the elevator. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a few people whispering and pointing fingers in his direction but he didn’t pay them any attention.

The elevator ride was the longest and shortest of his life. He willed it to go faster so he could set eyes on Olivia. He willed it to go slower so he had more time to catch his breath before he was thrown into her orbit once again. 

The doors gave a quiet ding as they opened and his stomach rocketed into his throat. Emerging from the hallway into the main area of the bullpen, he cast a quick glance around the room, but didn’t see anyone he recognized. He caught sight of two people, a dark haired man and a blonde woman, standing near the desks in the center of the room with badges on their hips. They had to be detectives, so they had to know Liv. 

“Excuse me,” he said. They turned their attention on him with polite interest he recognized was reserved for people that came into the unit needing help. “I’m looking for detective Benson? Sergeant Roberts downstairs said she was still here.”

The man straightened to his full height and his eyes hardened at the sound of Olivia’s name. His hands rested on his hips and his stance widened in anticipation of a fight. Elliot shoved down the instinct to mirror him. He wasn’t there to get into a pissing match with anyone.

The woman raised an eyebrow and looked him up and down. “That depends,” she said, a tinge of acid carried on her southern drawl. “Who are you?”

Elliot wasn’t bothered in the slightest; these people didn’t know him and had no reason to trust him especially after what Liv had just gone through. In fact he felt a wave of gratitude to the two strangers. He was protective of Liv, too, and he appreciated that there were people here that had her back when he’d failed her so miserably. He opened his mouth to answer “My name is-“


His head whipped around instinctively, called more by the sound of her voice than the call of his own name. The air was sucked from his chest, and he felt broken and entirely healed at the sight of her standing in the open doorway to Cragen’s office.

Bruises mottled her face, and butterfly bandages held together a cut on her forehead. Hearing what had been done to her was agony enough, but seeing the evidence of it on her skin was like pouring gasoline on the inferno of his rage. And yet, she was there. In an instant, two years of grief had been lifted from him. God , he prayed, please let those years have been enough. Please let his debt for killing Jenna be paid. He couldn’t walk away from her again, not after this. If that meant he was destined for hell, at least he could have heaven now at her side.

He was fixated on her, and distantly registered that he had stepped around the two detectives. He could hear more whispers from people in the room but he tuned them out. He took two steps toward her and waited to see what she would do. She approached him in a daze, and he was cautiously optimistic considering she hadn’t merely walked back into the Captain’s office and slammed the door in his face.

Her hand that wasn’t in a sling whipped out and struck him directly across the cheek. The slap stung and the noise it made echoed through the precinct. He made no move to run his own hand over his cheek to soothe the burn. He deserved her anger, and she deserved for him to feel it. 

No one moved, no one breathed. 

The precinct’s occupants faded to mere specters watching the former partners with their unspoken communication. For more than a decade, Benson and Stabler had been twin pillars carrying the unit. They were the giants that shouldered burdens that broke most people, and kept coming back for more. Their boundary pushing antics had become the stuff of legends, their closure rate stellar, and their fights catastrophic for anyone or anything that got in their way. There was no telling what was about to happen.

“I deserved that,” Elliot said simply.

“The hell you did,” she snapped. “Two years, Elliot? For all I knew you could have been dead. Do you have any idea…?”

“I know.”

“Do you?” she asked, her eyebrows arched.

“I’ll leave if you want me to,” he said.

“You’re good at that,” her tongue was a knife, and biting fury clung to her words. Still, he could read the torrential agony in her eyes, and behind it, hid desperate hope. It had been far, far too long since he’d looked into them. He never wanted to look away. He held her stare, hoping she could read him as easily as she once did and simply know.

The speed with which she wrapped her good arm around his shoulders threw off his balance and forced him to take a step back as she launched herself into his arms. Every ounce of anxiety and desperation seeped from his body and he felt as if his heart started beating again for the first time since he’d gotten that call in Poland. He wrapped one arm around her waist and his other hand anchored at the base of her neck. She exhaled a shaky breath and sank into him. 

“I’m really glad you’re back,” she whispered, her voice thick. A single wet drop fell onto the collar of his shirt.

He thought about an abandoned church hallway, tears dried to salt on her cheeks and blood turning to crust under her fingernails from her futile attempt to save Sonya’s life. He’d thought at the time that that was what relief felt like, knowing that it could have been her dead on cold bathroom tiles and it wasn’t. How foolish he had been.

“I should have come back sooner.” She sighed and buried her nose deeper into the crook of his neck. “And don’t even try telling me you’re fine,” he added, pressing his cheek into her hair. He could feel her heart beating steadily against his.

He lost track of how long they held onto each other in the middle of the squad room. She smelled different than he remembered, like cottony antiseptic shampoo that was handed out at the hospital instead of the lavender and vanilla fragrance she’d always used. He’d only been afforded the opportunity to hold her like this twice before, but she fit against him just as well. He was mindful of the injuries that lurked beneath the fabric of her clothes and avoided crushing her against him like he so desperately wanted to. Her hands were warm at his back and he focused on the heat of her alive and safe against him.

Behind her, someone cleared their throat and Liv pulled back from the embrace. She turned to look at someone over her shoulder and Elliot followed her eyes to see Brian Cassidy watching them with reserve.

Elliot broke the silence first. 

“Cassidy, long time no see.” He extended one of his hands to his old colleague, the other arm still wrapped around Liv’s waist.

“Could say the same for you,” Cassidy said. He eyed Elliot’s hand for a few seconds, apparently contemplating whether he should accept it or not before reaching out himself. “Where’ve you been hanging around these days?”

“Private security takes me all over. I’ve been in Europe the last couple weeks. I was in Poland this morning when Fin and Munch called.”

Cassidy hummed. “So you’ll take their call?”

“Bri-” Olivia interjected. The use of the nickname was jarring and Elliot felt the pieces click into place. His hand dropped from Liv’s waist.

Still, he didn’t plan on letting the snub go unanswered. “I know I have a lot of explaining to do, believe me. But I don’t owe any of it to you.”

Cassidy’s eyes narrowed before nodding in grudging understanding. “I’m sure you saw the press gathering outside. I’m getting Liv out of here before it gets to be too much.” He turned to Liv. “The department got you a hotel room, want me to take you?” he asked.

“Maybe I should just go with you,” she said hesitantly.

Cassidy nodded, a smug grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“I have a new number, Liv. I’ll have Fin give it to you. I’m around whenever you want,” Elliot told her. 

She muttered a soft ‘thank you,’ and followed Cassidy toward the elevator. She kept her eyes forward, tuning out the stares of everyone else in the precinct. Cassidy tried to place a possessive hand on her arm, but she shrugged it off. 

Elliot stared after them as they disappeared down the hall. Of course she’d moved on. Not that they’d been involved romantically (they told everyone), but he hadn’t been around to scare off anyone that came sniffing in her direction. And she deserved to be happy.

Fin came around the corner, gesturing with his thumb behind him. “You didn’t see her?”

“I saw her. Didn’t tell me to leave, but she asked Cassidy to take her home. How long has that been going on, by the way?” Elliot asked. 

The dark haired man Elliot didn’t know laughed dryly. “Over a year.” Clearly he wasn’t a fan of the relationship. Elliot couldn’t say he disagreed.

“And you are?”

“Nick Amaro. Liv’s partner,” he said, extending his hand.

Elliot bristled at the title Amaro had identified himself with. He’d lost any claim he had to the title, though, so he figured the least he could do was shake the man’s hand. 

“Elliot Stabler,” he said, even though he guessed he knew that. “Fin told me you’re beating yourself up over this. It wasn’t your fault.”

The blonde woman spoke up. “I keep telling him that. Amanda Rollins,” she said, and Elliot shook her hand as well. 

“Worlds colliding, that’s for sure,” Cragen said. He must have been hovering by his office door for the entire exchange, and he gestured with his head for Elliot to follow him into his office. Elliot was suddenly sheepish, feeling very much like a dog walking home with its tail between his legs as he did as he was told. 

He shut the door behind him, his head hung. “Captain.” This was the reunion he’d been dreading most after Olivia. The man in front of him had been his mentor, and leaving the unit had felt like letting him down. He’d been a disappointment to his own father, and he’d become a disappointment to the man he’d looked up to for years.

“What do you know about what happened?” Cragen asked, not wanting to waste time on niceties.

“Fin and Munch gave me the rundown, said there’s still a lot you don’t know. I’d like to hear the rest from Liv, though,” Elliot said.

“She just finished giving her statement, so we’ll be able to piece things together more with that,” Cragen paused. “I sat in. I’ll warn you now, when and if she does talk to you about what she went through, it is going to break your heart.”

Elliot watched as the older man’s eyes grew wet. His former captain turned around, gathering himself and Elliot averted his eyes. He’d never seen Cragen get emotional over a case, but this was unlike anything they’d dealt with in the past. Liv was family.

Eventually he turned back around to face him. “You know I care about you, Elliot, but she’s my priority at the moment. Whatever she needs, she gets.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said sincerely.

Cragen nodded. “I know you’re probably exhausted. Why don’t you go get some sleep, be ready for when Liv reaches out.”

“You really think she will?” Sure, Olivia hadn’t immediately told him to go to hell. She had allowed him to touch her, to briefly hold her, but she’d also been shocked by his reappearance. She could still tell him to walk his ass back on another plane back to Europe and never come near her again. 

“I can’t imagine a situation where she wouldn’t,” Cragen said.

Elliot prayed he was right. “Fin told me that you told them to find me. Thank you, sir. It means a lot that you’d trust me.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” Cragen said, though there was no bite to his words. He held out his hand and Elliot knew it was a dismissal. He took his hand, and Cragen pulled him into a short-lived hug. “It’s good to see you again, son.”

Elliot wanted to tell him that he was back, for good, but he knew everyone would be hesitant to believe it, especially Olivia. Words were hollow. He’d let his actions speak for him.

“Ah, the prodigal son returns,” Munch called as he left Cragen’s office. 

Elliot smiled. “Where have you been hiding? Thought you were giving Cap a heads up.”

“What can I say, I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee today. I was up late last night tracking you down,” he joked. Elliot shook his head. “You want a ride back to wherever you’re sleeping these days?”

Elliot sighed, the weight of the last twelve hours taking over him. “That’d be great, actually. Promise not to drive too crazy though, Fin nearly killed us.”

“You got here in time, didn’t you?” Fin said. 

The ease with which they’d fallen back into their banter was startling. The only one missing was Liv.

He said goodbye to Fin and the other two detectives he’d met and followed Munch down to where Fin had parked the squad car. Sitting in the passenger seat with the knowledge that he was on his way to sleep, Elliot felt sleep pulling at his eyes. He dozed against the window and came to when the car rolled to a stop outside his building.

He was in the process of taking off his seatbelt when Munch spoke. “You’re sticking around this time, right?” 

Elliot looked up to see Munch staring at him over his glasses, and he was reminded that it hadn’t just been Liv that he’d walked away from.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he promised. 

Chapter Text

Olivia ran on autopilot as Brian led her out of SVU. She registered that they passed Fin in the hallway but kept her eyes forward, putting on a stoic face to keep anyone from knowing just how much she was crumbling behind the wall she’d built. 

As the elevator doors opened on the ground floor, she could make out the shadows of the press lingering on the other side of the door. It would be a miserable trek through the press of bodies to wherever Brian had parked his car. She prepared herself to be jostled, holding her injured arm closer to her body for protection already.

“Detective Benson,” Sergeant Roberts called out. He grabbed a ring of keys as he gestured for a uni to take his place at the desk. “There’s a car parked out the back for you. Less people out there, ya know?”

She relaxed infinitesimally, grateful for the gesture from her fellow officers. She gave Roberts a watery smile as Brian took the keys he’d extended to them. 

“I’ll bring it back tomorrow,” he promised. 

Roberts shook his head. “No rush. Just take care of our girl here.”

They started to walk to the hall that led to the back entrance, but the sergeant stuck his hand out to stop them. 

“Some of us down here saw Elliot when he first came in.”

Olivia sighed. She wasn’t surprised.

“Yeah. It was… good, seeing him,” she said, because there wasn’t anything else she could think of to say. It was more than good, but hashing out how she felt about Elliot coming back for her wasn’t something she wanted to do with Roberts, and not with her boyfriend standing expectantly at her side.

Somehow, she felt like the sergeant understood. He gave her a polite nod and a see you later before going back to his desk. 

When she turned to walk down the hall, Brian was eyeing her carefully, gauging her reaction to the mention of Elliot. It grated on her. 

The car ride to his apartment was silent. 

In the past, whenever she went over to his place, Brian would always unlock the door and hold it open for her to walk in first. When they got to his door, he did just that and Olivia thought nothing of it until she tried to step over the threshold and found she couldn’t move her feet. Her breath became shallow and she felt her heart rate picking up.

Brian, to his credit, caught up before she did and entered first. He walked deeper into the apartment as she slid her shoes off by the front door. He did it so casually and she appreciated him for it. Logically, Olivia knew that there was no one there but them. Her brain knew it, but her nervous system didn’t, and that was going to be a problem for a while.

Brian emerged from the bedroom and traipsed back to the front door to hang up his keys. Olivia brushed past him toward the living room, trying to decide what she wanted to do. Weeks stretched out before her where she couldn’t go to work even if she wanted to and she didn’t know what to do to begin it. On one hand, the hospital had given her a mountain of paperwork she needed to look through: discharge papers, directions for caring for the burns that mottled her skin, prescriptions that would have to be picked up some time tomorrow, pamphlets about dealing with trauma, a list of recommended therapists. On the other hand, she was exhausted and wondered if she’d have any more luck sleeping during the day than she had at night. 

“So Stabler is back, huh?”

She groaned internally. Sleeping it is.

“I guess, yeah,” she said.

“You wanna talk about it?” Brian asked.

Clearly not as much as everyone else does , she thought bitterly. 

“There’s not much to talk about, Brian.” He opened his mouth to say something, but she’d had enough. “Right now I just want to try to get some sleep,” she snapped. 

He tilted his head at her, but he merely gave a weary sigh instead of saying whatever was on his mind. “You haven’t had much to eat today. Do you want me to make you something?” he asked.

She felt guilty instantly. He was trying to help her, take care of her, and she’d bit his head off. It wasn’t his fault she was thrown off guard by Elliot coming back. None of this was his fault. 

Well… maybe if he hadn’t canceled on you … 

She shook the thought away. It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t fair. 

“I appreciate it, but I’m not hungry. Later, yeah?”

Without waiting for his answer, she crossed to the bedroom and shut the door with a click behind her. She took the sling off her wrist and crawled into the bed, not bothering to change out of her clothes. 

She was setting an alarm on her phone to go off in a few hours (she was feeling optimistic about how much sleep she’d get) when a text came through from Fin. 

I’ll still kick his ass if you tell me to.

There was a number below it and she smiled to herself. Fin and Elliot’s relationship had been a rocky one on multiple occasions, but she knew there was still a genuine affection between them. You couldn’t see the things they saw together and not form a sense of camaraderie. 

She saved the number as a new contact and set the phone on the nightstand. 

Laying on her back, her eyes fixed on the blades of the ceiling fan going round and round, she could feel her fingers twitching to grab the phone back and text him immediately. Elliot had really come back. He’d come back for her, when she needed him most. 

Since the moment Olivia had seen him through the window, it felt like she’d been in a trance, and she began to worry that she’d hallucinated him after all. What if she went to sleep now and woke up in a universe where he didn’t come back? No, that couldn’t happen- he was real. She’d felt him, firm and steady, and real under her fingers, pressed her nose into his neck, her cheek to his shoulder. She’d felt the loss of warmth when he’d dropped his hand from her waist. He had held her like that exactly twice before, but she would know how he felt against her regardless. For thirteen years she’d walked in step with him, been an extension of him the way he’d been of her. He was real, and it was just about the only thing she knew for sure at the moment. 

Unbidden, a worse thought came to her mind and tendrils of anxiety crept up her skin. 

He could still leave again. 

Sure he’d said he was going to stay, but he’d made promises before and broken every one of them- for better or worse and all that other pretty nonsense she’d clung to for over a decade. He’d left once before, when she hadn’t been broken and traumatized beyond belief, when she hadn’t been in a relationship, when she hadn’t given up that maybe one day he’d love her back. He had more reasons to leave and fewer to stay this time, and that was the thought that made up her mind. If Elliot left again, it would tear her apart. she’d simply have to leave first this time. 

Olivia didn’t get much sleep. Any time she slipped into a slightly deeper level of unconsciousness, her body would jolt her awake, warning her of a danger that it hadn’t realized was no longer near. Brian checked in a couple times, cracking the door just enough to peek in, but she feigned sleep every time. 

She did, however, break down and eat. When she’d emerged from his bedroom, the hopeful look in his eyes at getting her to eat softened her. Even though she still had no appetite, the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth when she lied and said she was hungry was enough to convince her she did the right thing. If it would put him at ease, if it made him feel more comfortable, she could do it. She could force herself to eat, and sleep during the night, and do the whole therapy thing.

She could talk to him about how she was handling everything, despite the fact that she wanted someone else.

The promises she made to herself during the day, though, meant nothing to the night, and she woke herself up with her screaming.

She shot up in bed, her tank top stuck to her skin with cold sweat. Her lungs fought to take in air around the sobs that wracked her body. 

“Hey, Liv, you’re safe. It’s okay,” Brian rubbed at her back, taking care not to scrape against one of the many burns that littered her skin. “Do you wanna tell me about it?”

She thought about it briefly. She’d dreamt that she was back in her apartment tied to the chair, Lewis throwing around the same taunts and threats. They’d heard a key in the lock, and when the door opened it was Elliot on the other end, who paused when he saw the gun to her head.

You always needed me to come to the rescue, didn’t you? he’d said. And then he’d walked back out.

She decided that Brian didn’t need to know. It’d only upset him. She shook her head.

“Do you… wanna talk to anyone else?” he asked hesitantly. His question told her she’d called out for Elliot. 

“No.” Olivia gathered herself, stole a pillow that wasn’t damp with sweat and crawled out from under the covers. “I won’t be able to get back to sleep. Gonna sit up for a while. You need to rest, I’ll be fine.”

She crawled under a throw blanket on the couch, dim blue light from the infomercials on the TV filling the room, and tried to ignore the guilt gnawing at her stomach. She could tell that Brian was trying to help her, and she’d dreamt about Elliot coming to save her. She’d been unimaginably relieved when he’d shown up, and it crushed her soul when dream-Elliot had left. She wondered what it said about her that she felt those emotions stronger about a dream than she did when it was her boyfriend that occupied that role in reality.

“Do you want any breakfast?” Brian asked the next morning. She’d feigned sleep on the couch again when he’d come out of the bedroom, but they both knew she hadn’t gotten any more rest after her nightmare. 

“I’m not hungry,” she mumbled into the glass of water he’d practically shoved into her hands.

Brian signed. “You gotta eat, Liv.”

“I just don’t feel like it, okay?” she snapped.

He scrubbed a hand across his face. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been hovering, I just want to help. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it, Liv.”

I need for you to have shown up that night. The traitorous, nagging voice snuck up on her again. She took a deep breath and forced the anger down. She knew he was already feeling guilty and she didn’t want to add to that. He already had enough to deal with, she wouldn’t put that on him too.

He wanted to make up for not being there when she needed help. She could extend an olive branch. 

She crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back against the counter. “The pharmacy should be opening soon. The hospital gave me a couple prescriptions to fill and I don’t feel like going out right now, would you go get them for me?”

Brain’s face softened, and she could see a spark light in the corner of his eyes. “Yeah, yeah absolutely, I can do that.” He glanced at the clock over the stove. “If I go now I can be there when they open, get back sooner,” he said, mostly to himself. 

This was good, she thought. He felt useful, and she was able to get some space to breathe. He snagged his keys from the hook by the front door before turning back. 

“Call me if you need anything, yeah?” he asked.

She nodded. “Will do. I’m probably going to make a couple calls, see about some of these therapists the hospital recommended.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll be back as soon as possible, Liv,” he said gently. He brushed his fingers through her hair, moving it away from her face so he could press a kiss to her forehead. She stood frozen, her fingers with a white knuckle grip on the kitchen counter. She could feel panic clawing at her throat, but she shoved it down and forced herself to smile at him when he looked over his shoulder at her on the way out the door.

As soon as the deadbolt flipped, she let her back slide down the cabinets to rest her head in her hands. Flashes of Lewis came unbidden- him pulling her along by her hair, tugging on it to force her head back as alcohol poured past her lips, when he ran his fingers through it gently but the threat of pain not far behind. She focused on a chip in the tile between her feet, counting as she breathed to calm herself through the onslaught.

When her heart rate returned to normal, she forced herself to her feet. She braced herself against the counter and stared at her hands, ordering them to stop shaking.

When that didn’t work, she pulled her phone from her pocket.

A voice was screaming at her to call Elliot, but she shoved it down. She couldn’t call him. She wouldn’t give in like that. Even if she wanted to, he’d just been on a fifteen hour flight and had to be exhausted. He probably wouldn’t even pick up. He’d probably be too busy catching up with his kids, his wife. She could handle this. It was just one panic attack. She furiously wiped a tear from her cheek. He’d want her to call. He’d probably be hurt if he ever found out that she considered calling him and decided not to. It’s a good thing she didn’t plan for him to ever find out. 

She had to do something though, because she was crawling out of her skin. Her eyes fell on the scissors in the butcher block on the counter. Without thinking too long about it, she snatched them and darted to the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

She hadn’t been able to look at herself in a mirror, not since the beach house. She’d barely recognized herself, and had her first hint in that moment that the person she’d been prior to those four days was dead and gone. When she got to Brian’s bathroom, she forced herself to look again.

The dried blood had been cleared from her face, her hair no longer caked with sweat and grime and alcohol. Behind her eyes, the desperate, semi-crazed look she’d seen the last time had been replaced. The person staring back was screaming in agony, begging to find the person she used to be. Olivia was haunted by the ghost of herself.

William Lewis’s face flashed across her eyes, another ghost over her shoulder. 

She brought the scissors up to her hair. Each snip of the blades felt a little like cutting him away, like dragging him out of her. She was dirty all over, polluted by his presence, and if she could cut away small parts of herself, she could remove him as well. She couldn’t cut away her thighs, her waist, her breasts, or anywhere else he had touched, but she could cut away her hair, and that was something.

When Olivia was satisfied that the demon had been sufficiently excised, the scissors slipped from her fingers and landed with a clatter in the sink on a nest made of her hair.

She must have lost track of how long she stood there staring at the results, at the haunted woman staring back at her, because before she knew it she heard Brian’s key in the lock coming back. 

“Liv, you doing okay?” he called. His footsteps paused in front of the door and Olivia realized how this was going to look when she emerged. Deciding it was better to get it over with, she took a breath and reached for the doorknob. 

When his eyes landed on the scene in the bathroom, Brian’s breath stuttered in his chest and Olivia chewed on the inside of her lip. He was going to freak out, she knew it. Might as well pack what little she had now and go to the hotel. This was going to push him over the edge and it was all her fault. 

Instead of backing away though, he slid in behind her and grabbed the scissors. “It’s a little uneven here in the back. Can I get it for you?”

Too shocked to say anything, she nodded. 

When his fingers slid into her hair this time, she expected it. They only glided across the frayed ends rather than along her scalp and she was able to tamp down the anxiety that caused her heart to speed up.

“Have you talked to Stabler at all?” Brian asked, a small clip of her hair falling to the floor.

Her eyes snapped to meet his in the mirror at the sound of Elliot’s name. “No,” she said simply, her voice ragged from her panic attack earlier.

He hummed. “Maybe you should.” Another lock of hair tumbled to the ground.

“Seriously?” she scoffed.

Brian set the scissors on the edge of the sink. “Look I know I was kind of a dick to him before, but… he knows you.” He looked at the floor. “Plus I know how much you missed him,” he mumbled.

Olivia turned to face him head on. “You’re not going to turn this into something it’s not?”

When he looked back at her, she regretted her snap judgment. His eyes were cautious, insecure, and she realized how much it was taking out of him to even make the suggestion.

“I want you to do whatever you need to do to get better, Liv. If he helps in any way, I can live with it,” he promised. She believed him.

“I’ll think about it, Bri.”

Chapter Text

Olivia held out for one more night before her resolve broke. 

After a restless couple hours plagued by the same nightmares on repeat, she’d relocated to the couch. She sat cross legged, a throw blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and forced herself to pick at a bagel she’d found in the kitchen. Her appetite was trying to come back, but it was still a struggle. 

She stared at her phone on the coffee table, its black screen daring her to make the call, to reach out somehow. Eventually she couldn’t take it anymore and opened up a new text to Elliot.

Hey, it’s Liv. Are you awake?

Stupid, stupid question, she berated herself. It was approaching 3 in the morning, of course he wasn’t going to be awake. It was ridiculous to even try at this time of night. She could try again in the morning, or better yet pretend it never happened. 

She shook her head at her own absurdity and was just about to toss her phone back to the coffee table when a message came through.

I am.

It was a simple response, but her breath stuttered in her chest. She chewed on the inside of her lip to quell the pressure building behind her eyes, confused as to why she was so emotional, until it hit her. It was the first time he’d texted her back in two years.

Her fingers hovered over the screen, unsure what to ask for. She reached out, it was up to her to say what she wanted. Before she got a chance, though, three little dots appeared to tell her he was typing.

Do you want me to call?

She considered it for a second.

No, Brian is asleep. I don’t want to wake him up.

It was only partially true. She knew that if she heard Elliot’s voice, it would bring everything crashing in on her and she couldn’t handle that in the middle of the night. It was an invitation for him to come further back into her life. Part of her wanted that, but the part that was bitter and jaded wanted to keep him at arm’s length for as long as possible. 

She also felt guilty. Brian was her boyfriend, and he cared about her - maybe even loved her. He’d spent the last three days taking care of her, talking her through her panic attack, making sure she stayed on top of the pain meds the hospital had given her. She should seek comfort in him, not the ex-partner that had broken her heart when he abandoned her. Her married ex-partner, who was probably aggravating his wife with how late he was up talking to her. 

I had nightmares after Jenna. Got really used to late night TV, was Elliot’s response. Everyone usually thinks about the infomercials, but sometimes you’ll catch a MASH marathon or something and it’s not so bad.

She sighed in relief, thankful that he hadn’t pushed, hadn’t asked for more than she wanted to give. He’d opened up to her , just a tiny crack. His vulnerability with her made it feel like she could share hers with him like they’d done in the past. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. After Elliot left, she’d thought over everything they went through together, all the stolen glances, all the times she knew he felt the connection between them that she did. With him gone, abandoning her like it was easy, nothing, she figured he must not have felt it at all. It was all in her head, a fantasy she made up to justify how she felt about her married partner. And yet, two years of no contact, and he still managed to know just what to say to her. He read between the lines of a text and stepped back into the role of the one she knew best and wanted most. 

She snagged the remote from the side table next to her and turned on the TV, making sure the volume was turned down so it wouldn’t disturb Brian. She flipped through the channel guide, barely registering what was on the screen until she noticed… a MASH marathon. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. 

She sent a text to Elliot. You’ll never guess what show is having a marathon right now

Imagine that he answered. 

She smiled, and turned her attention back to the tv, watching some sort of prank war unfold, but curiosity gnawed at her until she couldn’t resist it anymore. 

We both know why I’m awake. Why are you up so late? she asked him. 

The three dots popped up, then disappeared. Three times they did that and she started to doubt herself. Maybe he didn’t want to share his life with her again. Maybe she was starting to imagine things between them again. She was about to tell him to forget that she said anything when the grey chat bubble appeared. Same as you. 

Her brow furrowed. Was it Jenna? Do you want to talk about it?

His response came quickly. I’m okay, don’t worry about me.

She tried not to feel like he was shutting her out again. The urge to go to him, comfort him, have his back was still there for her. It didn’t matter that she was the one that just went through hell. If he needed someone, she would take on that burden, just like she’d done for thirteen years. 

Idly, Olivia thought about the characters on the show and how their relationships reminded her of SVU. They saw so much more than anyone should have to, dealt with horror and all the gruesome things people could do to each other. They were connected by what they went through, bonds forged under fire, and anyone that wasn’t a part of it couldn’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of them. 

Maybe to some extent Brian got it. But not like Elliot. 

Thank you for this. I’m not really sure what I’m feeling about anything right now, but this helped a little. 

Whatever you need, Liv, I’m here. 

She scoffed a little. It was a mantra that had been repeated to her dozens of times over the last few days. Mostly by Brian, but she didn’t want to say anything to Elliot about that. You and everyone else. 

I’ll break you out for a few hours, just let me know when. 

Damn him and how well he could read her. 

She thought about his offer. The anxiety of her ordeal with Lewis, Elliot’s sudden reappearance, it was all so much and Olivia felt very much like the walls were closing in around her. It was suffocating. It reminded her of being in the trunk of the car. 

Maybe. I'm just not sure right now. 

Her fingers trembled as she typed it out. 

I understand. But the offer is there, just name the day. 

A new episode started and she realized with surprise that her eyelids were heavy- for days she hadn't been able to get back to sleep after a nightmare woke her. She shifted on the couch so she was laid on her side, her head resting on a throw pillow. Her arm felt like lead when she raised it to send a text. 

If I stop answering it’s because I fell asleep. Nothing personal. 

She closed her eyes and allowed the low drone of voices from the television to lull her into a light but restful sleep. In the morning, with the sun streaming through the blinds to land across her eyes, she woke up to two texts.

If I bore you to sleep I’ll count it as a win. 

The second was sent twenty minutes after it. 

Sweet dreams, Liv. 

“Hello, Detective, I’m Dr. Lindstrom.”

The therapist she’d settled on seemed like a decent enough man. He’d worked closely with law enforcement officers-he came recommended by the department itself- and had a specialization with PTSD. And if he reminded her vaguely of a cartoon turtle, she could keep that thought to herself as long as he helped her. 

She settled herself against the couch while Lindstrom took the chair across from her. He was relaxed, and it put her at ease as well. He didn’t have a notepad or a pen in his hands. It made her feel like it was a test she needed to pass in order to get her job back. 

“I’m familiar with what brings you in today, so we’ll just start where you feel comfortable. Is there anything you’d like to discuss?” he asked. 

Olivia took a breath, and forced the words out, glossing over the events of four days again . She wondered when she would be finished, when she would never again have to tell the story of what she endured. When she could let it rest. 

“And when he was finally subdued, he was handcuffed, he kept taunting me,” she said. “Like he knew every raw nerve.” It was a thorn under her skin, how Lewis had known what to say to irritate her. How he’d known the violent tendencies she feared in herself. She’d talked about Elliot and that was on her for exposing the tender underbelly of her feelings for him. But the fact that he’d been so quick to see through her was… unsettling.

“You were in a very vulnerable state. It almost seems as if you’re blaming yourself,” Lindstrom said. 

“I know better,” Olivia snapped. She realized after she said it that it could be interpreted in different ways. Did she mean she knew better than to blame herself? Or that she knew better than to have let her guard down and allow herself to be so exposed, so vulnerable as he’d said. Maybe it was both. “But he still got to me.” 

Lindstrom tilted his head at her with a questioning raise of his eyebrow. “Got to you?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” she said, the second softer, a breathy exhale. “But not the way you think.” She met his eyes across the room, insistent that he understand that Lewis hadn’t gotten that far. He hadn’t gotten the chance to rape her. All the things he did, he hadn’t done that. 

“What you went through was still incredibly violent. Just because you weren’t raped doesn’t diminish all the other ways you feel like you were violated.”

She looked down at her hands, crossed protectively over her chest. She’d taken her injured wrist out of the sling they’d given her, but the cast would be there for a while longer. 

“What about a support system?” Lindstrom asked. “Who do you feel you can rely on at this point in time?”

She cleared her throat. “I have my squad. They’ve all made it clear I can ask if I need anything.”

“And at home?”

“I’m staying with my boyfriend right now,” she said, doing her best to sound as confident as possible about the arrangement. “I can’t go back to my apartment, so I’m looking for a new place.”

“So your friends at work, your boyfriend. Is there anyone else? Any family you can call?”

Olivia chewed on the inside of her lip. Opening up about her family history was an ordeal she didn’t want to get into. 

“SVU is my family. But actually…” she hesitated. “My old partner came back. Elliot.”

Olivia heard the way her voice changed when she said his name. Evidently Lindstrom did too. 

“Where was he?” 

“Europe, apparently. He retired a couple years ago after- after a rough case. We hadn’t spoken in two years. It was… hard for me when he left but I got used to it,” she shrugged, and forced the corners of her mouth into a tiny smile she hoped was more convincing than it felt. “Fin and Munch, two of the guys from work, they tracked him down.”

She had to remember to thank them for putting in that effort. They had to know what it meant to her. 

“He got on the first flight here,” she added, a sense of wonder clinging to her voice. 

Lindstrom hummed. “How are you feeling about that?” She almost laughed at the stereotypical shrink question. 

“Umm, confused? I guess? He was my partner for thirteen years. He knew everything about me, and suddenly he just vanished. I was angry for a while afterwards. I didn’t think I’d see him again, but now he’s here and I want to trust him again,” she said insistently. 

“But you don’t know if you can?” Olivia nodded. “Have you talked to him at all?”

“I texted him the other night. I woke up from a nightmare.”

“Did talking to him help.”

She allowed herself to smile just a little bit at the thought. She’d been able to get back to sleep after a horrific nightmare. She’d felt comfortable enough to let her guard down and he wasn’t even actually there. 

“A little, I guess,” she concedes. 

He paused in thought, and Olivia wished he would just spit out whatever he was thinking. 

“At this stage of recovery, it’s important that you listen to what your body is telling you,” he said, finally. 

“I don’t think I know what you mean.” The thought of anything regarding Elliot and her body had been pushed out of her mind, daily, for years. It was off limits. Forever out of her reach. 

Lindstrom grinned, as if he’d read her mind. “Think of it this way. You get a headache, your body could be telling you it needs water. You catch the flu and are so exhausted you can’t get out of bed, it’s telling you that you need rest to recover. Basically, if talking to Elliot helps, it’s a good indication there is something that relationship holds for you that can help you as you heal from this.”

It wasn’t anything she didn’t already know. She knew Elliot had always been her shield, her protector, her safe place. She knew when she was handcuffed in that beach house that he was the one person who could pull her back from the precipice. Hearing it from the lips of a medical professional that maybe she just needed him was a different story. 

“What if he leaves again?” she asked, her voice small, fear clogging her throat. Great, she thought. Here she was, first session, and already exposing the abandonment issues. 

Lindstrom waited for her to meet his eyes to give her an encouraging smile “What if he stays?”

Chapter Text

After Munch dropped him off at his apartment, Elliot collapsed- exhausted, and still wearing his jeans- onto his bed. He managed a quick text to David letting him know he was stateside again before falling into a deep, deep slumber. 

He’d jerked awake hours later covered in a cold sweat from a nightmare where he’d been too late getting to Liv. He’d found her body, a shadow laughing from the corner at the scream that had ripped from his throat. He’d checked his phone, hoping that she might’ve reached out, but there was nothing. It was ironic, he thought. Two years prior, he’d had a notification from her every time he looked and wanted her to stop, just so it would be easier to pretend he was doing the right thing by leaving. Now, when he desperately wanted to hear from her, there was nothing. It felt like divine punishment. 

He didn’t get back to sleep that night, or the night after when the same thing happened.

Two days after seeing her, he finally decided it was high time to unpack his suitcase. While sorting through the crumpled up fabric for a missing sock, his phone rang on the nightstand and his heart jumped into his throat, hoping it was Liv. He swallowed the tingle of disappointment he felt when it was Kathleen.

“Hey, honey. How’re you liking Florida?” he asked, forcing himself to be cheerful for the sake of his kid.

“We’re good here, Dad. Mom just told us what happened to Olivia, is she okay?” Kathleen’s concerned voice answered.

“Physically she’s going to make a full recovery,” he said slowly.

“So you’ve seen her?”

“Briefly, a couple days ago. She’d given her statement and was heading out just as I got to the precinct.

Kathleen hummed. “How’d that go?” Of all his children, Kathleen was the most vocal about her opinion on his choice to leave without telling Liv. The bond between the two of them was different than the one Liv had with his other kids, even Eli. He couldn’t put his finger on why, but he was glad for it anyway.

“Well the first thing she did was slap me across the face, but I deserved that,” he said, and Kathleen chuckled. “She hugged me right after though, and I told her I’d be around if she wanted to talk.”

“And that was days ago?”

Elliot sighed. “She’s got a lot to work through, Katie.”

“I know just… God this is so unbelievable. I mean you never expect something like this to happen to someone you know, but Liv is the last person I’d think of. She’s so strong and dependable. Hard to believe she’d ever need anyone for anything.”

He thought that was probably exactly what Liv would want people to think- that she was invincible, infallible, impervious. She put on a good show to everyone around her. He knew better.

“If I talk to her I’ll let you know you asked about her. I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to her,” he offered.

“What do you mean if you talk to her?” Kathleen sounded appalled.

“I’m leaving it up to her. I’ll be there if she wants me to be, but I’m not going to force anything on her that she isn’t ready for.”

He could practically hear his daughter roll her eyes. “And what if she’s waiting for you to reach out first? I remember how often she called you those months and you never answered, how do you know she isn’t expecting the same treatment if she calls you now?”

It was a thought he hadn’t considered. Before he could formulate a response though, Kathleen interrupted. “Hey I gotta go, Grandma is taking me, Mo, and Lizzie to lunch. I’ll talk to you soon though, Dad. Get some sleep, I can tell you need it. And think about calling her, okay?”

“I will, honey. You girls go have fun, tell everyone I said hi and I love them,” he smiled. 

“Love you too, Dad.”

He was awake. Again.

In the dream he’d been trying to get to her, could see her, hear her calling him for help as Lewis held her captive, but no matter how fast he ran, he couldn’t get any closer. Only when the gun to her head had gone off had he been able to catch her as she fell.

The TV was on, but he wasn’t watching it. His phone was clutched in his hand as he mulled over his conversation with Kathleen, wondering if part of the reason the dreams wouldn’t leave him alone was because he hadn’t talked to Olivia. If he could just know she was okay, have some reminder that she was alive, the dreams about her dying would stop.

Somehow, miraculously, his phone lit up.

Hey, it’s Liv. Are you awake?

He sighed in relief. Three in the morning was becoming a pattern for them- it’s the time he got the call from Fin and Munch that had brought him back, and it was the time when she’d texted him for the first time in years. Something that felt like exhilaration bubbled up at the fact that she’d called herself Liv. Pretty much everyone called her by the nickname these days, but he’d been the first and for a while the only one who used it. She may have done it unintentionally, but it felt like she was letting him in, just barely. He wasn’t at arm’s length with her and it was everything he’d wanted.

I am. He answered simply. Saying he was just about to text her might make it seem like he was pushing her boundaries, and that was the last thing he wanted.

He knew she was typing by the three dots that showed up, but then they vanished. When they didn’t appear again, he took a chance. 

Do you want me to call?

No, Brian is asleep. I don’t want to wake him up.  

It was so typical for her to look out for everyone else. If she’d been unable to sleep, and he was almost positive of that, then Cassidy would likely have been awake with her too. He had no idea how long they’d been together or what their relationship was like, but he remembered Cassidy had been a decent guy, if not a little immature. 

She was struggling, that much was obvious, and he didn’t want to make her feel like she was a burden. He started a text multiple times but couldn’t think of anything to say and it frustrated him because he’d never not known what to say to her in the past. He glanced up at the TV, noticing a new episode was just starting on the show he’d randomly picked, and it dawned on him. 

I had nightmares after Jenna. Got really used to late night TV. Everyone usually thinks about the infomercials, but sometimes you’ll catch a MASH marathon or something and it’s not so bad.

A bit of himself, something to tell her she wasn’t isolated and completely alone. 

You’ll never guess what show is having a marathon right now.

He smiled. Imagine that, he told her, and settled in. Sitting there, watching the same show, reminded him of being in the car with her on stakeouts. They didn’t always talk, just sat in companionable silence waiting for something to happen. After thirteen years, words weren’t necessary.

We both know why I’m awake. Why are you up so late? she asked.

Same as you, he said simply. 

When she answered, Was it Jenna? Do you want to talk about it? he realized what he’d done. He berated himself for letting on that he was anything other than perfectly fine. He knew her, knew she would worry about him and try to put her needs second to anyone else’s, even though she should be the priority. She didn’t need to know that he’d spent every single night since he got that call losing her over and over again. 

I’m okay, don’t worry about me, was his immediate response. 

They lapsed into another round of silence for a while, until she said Thank you for this. I’m not really sure what I’m feeling about anything right now, but this helped a little.

It broke his heart a little, that she was so confused. He knew it was the trauma, that she’d get clarity the further she got from the assault, but he hated that she had to go through it at all. 

Whatever you need, Liv, I’m here.

You and everyone else.

He sensed the indignance in her text, and he knew it had to do with her being so fiercely independent. She hated having to rely on anyone, and with people reminding her that she could reach out, it must feel like everyone expected her to crumble at any moment. 

I’ll break you out for a few hours, just let me know when, he offered.

Maybe. I’m just not sure right now, she answered. 

Maybe it was hubris that had spurred him to make the offer in the first place. For so long they’d been part of the squad and they all cared about and trusted each other, but the two of them were their own unit. He had a place all his own in her life, and he still felt like it was his to reclaim. He’d have to keep that in check around her.

I understand. But the offer is there, just name the day.

He knew, when she said she didn’t know how she felt about a lot of things, that he was one of them. He added it to the list of things he’d have to atone for, adding to her burden. He really should go to confession or something soon.

If I stop answering it’s because I fell asleep. Nothing personal. Her text came just as the next episode was starting up.

If I bore you to sleep I’ll count it as a win. And he would. Any rest she could possibly get was very much needed. 

He waited until the episode was reaching the end with no response to her before he sent another text.

Sweet dreams, Liv.

He hoped they were. He lingered on the couch for a while longer until he felt himself dozing off while sitting upright and then carried himself back to his room. Sleep finally claimed him not long after his head hit the pillow, and for once the nightmares stayed dormant.

It had been two days, and she hadn’t reached out to him since that night where she fell asleep on the phone with him. The desperation to know how she was sinking back into his bones. 

The shower he took was doing very little in terms of helping him wake up. He intentionally made it colder than he preferred, hoping the icy water would jump start his brain. All it succeeded in doing was making him go from tired, to cold and tired. 

Eventually he gave up trying. The knobs squeaked as he turned off the water and stepped out into the cool bathroom. From his bedroom, he heard the phone start to ring and he groaned. 

It can go to voicemail he grumbled, but something tugged in his gut, urging him to catch it before then. When he saw the screen, saw it lit up with her name, a jolt of electricity shot through him. He fumbled and almost dropped the phone, his hands still wet from the shower, in his haste to answer it

“Liv?” he asked, wondering if she could tell just how breathless he was. 

“Hey.” Her voice was tight, hesitant. 

“You okay?” he asked. He knew that she’d changed in the years he’d been gone, but he liked to think he could still read her. Could still tell when something was bothering her. 

The line was quiet except for her breathing until finally… “I didn’t think you were gonna pick up there for a second,” she admitted. 

He could tell she was trying to play it off as a joke, but he knew. He closed his eyes. Of course she would think that. It was exactly what she’d come to expect from him, and even though he knew that he was back, wasn’t going anywhere ever again, she wouldn’t know that just yet. Getting Liv to trust anyone was hard-won, but once earned she was fiercely loyal. He’d broken the part of her that trusted him implicitly. 

“Sorry. Just getting out of the shower.” He didn’t mean it to sound like an excuse, just an explanation. He needed her to know it wasn’t intentional, he hadn’t meant to worry her. 

“Hmm, a likely story,” she said. Actually joking, this time. “Hey umm. I had my first therapy session today.”

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He knew she was only going so the department would give her back her badge, but he was immeasurably proud of her that after everything Lewis did to her, she was even willing to try to get her job back. “Yeah? How’d it go?”

“Good, I guess. I think I’m going to like him.”

“I’m glad, I hope it stays that way.”

Liv was quiet. He imagined she was biting the inner part of her lip or picking at her nails, debating whether or not she should say whatever it is she was thinking. 

“I was actually wondering if you,” she paused, cleared her throat, “if you’d be willing to meet me for coffee? Or something?”

The little smile that he’d had grew into a full, beaming grin and he knew he probably looked like a fool, but he didn’t care. Liv was talking to him, had asked him to meet her. She was allowing him a foothold back into her life and it was the happiest he’d been in close to two years. 

“I’d like that, Liv.” This time he knew he sounded breathless, that she could hear the relief and awe that clung to his words, but it was okay. She deserved to know how much she mattered to him. “Just name the time and place.”

“There’s this café I like to go to, with a park nearby. I’ll send you the address. Can it be tomorrow? I think getting my head shrunk wore me out.” She sounded hesitant, as if he wouldn’t jump through any hoop or bend over backwards to meet any request she made. 

“Absolutely. I’ll see you tomorrow,” he assured her. After a quickly muttered goodbye the line went dead. Her urgency to get off the phone didn’t bother him. Joy was ballooning in his chest and it felt like he was floating. 

Chapter Text

Olivia considered canceling on Elliot no less than four times. Fortunately, Amanda had been able to go back to her apartment for her and grab a mix of clothes from her drawers so she didn’t have to rely on the limited stock she left at Brian’s. She hadn’t realized how the majority of her shirts showed off a decent amount of her chest until she wanted nothing more than to hide it. 

Her hair was another matter. It was still a little uneven in some places after the impromptu hack job she’d done on it but she wasn’t quite ready to go anywhere to have it done professionally. She considered, for about ten seconds, trying to curl it to hide the choppy layers before she realized that meant she’d have hot metal near her skin and just the thought had her grasping the edge of the sink and breathing deeply to calm herself down. So that was out of the question. She’d just have to hope Elliot didn’t notice.

She scoffed at the thought. It didn’t matter what Elliot thought of her hair. It didn’t matter what he thought about the clothes she’d picked out. She was getting coffee with a friend (if she could even call him that these days, which was a gut wrenching thing to her), not going on a first date.

So she forced herself out of the apartment and to walk the three blocks to the café she’d asked him to meet her at. He was already there, leaning against the brick, glancing at the people approaching. She considered running one last time, turning around and leaving him to wait without an explanation, but then his eyes met hers and lit up into the most brilliant shade of blue and she knew she wouldn’t be able to walk away from him.

“Hey,” she greeted awkwardly.

He gave her a cautious smile as he opened the door for her. “It’s good to see you,” he said. She pretended that she didn’t notice the way his eyes lingered on her hair and fought the urge to tug on the ends self consciously. He didn’t comment on it, which she appreciated.

Neither of them spoke anymore except when placing their orders at the counter. Elliot paid and handed her her drink. 

“You wanna sit inside or…” he trailed off.

“Let’s walk a bit.” She’d been inside for most of the last week. It would be nice to get out a little, feel the spring air. Remind herself that the world wasn’t always as cruel as she’d come to know it was.

The park she led him through was fairly small, but it was pretty nonetheless, with a walking trail she’d traversed a couple times. There was a small playground in the center where there were children playing and shade trees along the sidewalk. She sipped her coffee as he fell into step beside her, wondering which one of them would break the uncomfortable tension. She hated being uncomfortable around him.

In the end, it was Elliot that spoke first. 

“Liv, I owe you a hell of an apology,” he started.

She knew that was coming. “Elliot you don’t have to-”

“Yes, I do. I owe you an explanation, and I feel like we need to get this out of the way,” he insisted. His eyes practically pleaded with her to let him do this, to let him fix what he’d broken. If that was even possible.

“Okay,” she relented. “Are you sorry for leaving? Or for not giving me the courtesy of a goodbye?” The first she could understand. The other not so much.


Olivia sighed. “You just… disappeared.” She shook her head, trying to will the tears gathering in her eyes away. They were barely at the beginning of this conversation and it already felt like more than she could handle. “You were the single most important person in my life and one day you were just gone. It felt like you died, Elliot. I mourned you.” 

“I understand the feeling,” he said, and she rolled her eyes. How could he possibly think that? How could he weigh their relationship and even think to call it an even partnership? He’d had so many people in his life and she only had him.

“Do you, though?” she asked, annoyance seeping into her voice. She saw Elliot watching her from the corner of her eye, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “You have a family. Other people you could talk to. Kathy… I was just your work partner but you were my best friend. Losing you felt like losing a part of myself.”

It was an accusation and a confession all in one. It was more vulnerability than she’d intended to give him, give anyone for that matter, and she hated him for bringing it out of her so easily.

“I think you underestimate how much I care about you,” he started, and she shook her head again. There was no way, absolutely no way, he cared as much as he claimed and still left her. “And that’s my fault, for making you feel inadequate. But Liv, you mean the world to me.”

“If that’s true, why did you feel like you had to leave without telling me? Why sever all contact?” she fought against the quiver of her voice.

Elliot mulled over her question, took a drink of his coffee. “It’s complicated,” he said finally. She almost laughed at the response that was so them. Complicated was a pretty good word. “I think part of it was that IAB cleared me, technically, but wanted to push me out anyway. I felt like sticking around would only drag out the inevitable and I didn’t want to pull you down with me.”

It wasn’t the answer she wanted, and she pushed him on it. 

“That’s why you left. And as upsetting as that was, I get it, even if you should know I’d’ve gone down with you and done it gladly. But why no contact?” she pressed him. She wondered if, like her, he felt like this was an interrogation.

He hesitated again, and the anticipation had her fingers itching to strangle him out of frustration, pull the answer out of him in any way she could. She’d spent months begging him to talk to her and years wondering why it hadn’t been enough, why she hadn’t been enough. The only answer she could come up with was that somehow, she’d done something wrong. That she’d created some fantasy version of them in her head where they were a team, where they supported each other unconditionally, where they understood each other. That it had never been real. If she was right she needed to hear it, directly from him, even if it caused the last tenuous shred of hope inside her to wither away and die.

“It’s tied up in the guilt I feel about Jenna. I’m not… Liv I wanna tell you but I’m not ready yet. Will you trust me that I will? Eventually?”

It nearly stopped her in her tracks and her mind reeled, trying to deduce what the two things could possibly have to do with each other.

“That’s hard for me,” she admitted. Trusting him, believing that he’d tell her anything. “But I can try,” she relented.

She heard Elliot exhale and realized he’d been anxiously waiting for her answer. It relaxed her slightly, knowing this conversation was making him feel even a fraction of the insecurity she was experiencing. After everything, he deserved it.

“Will you tell me about the last two years? What’ve I missed?” he asked hopefully. 

She liked that he wanted to hear about her life- it made her consider the possibility that he was going to stick around. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me about your new partner. Amaro, I think it was?”

“Nick, yeah. He used to work narcotics. He was Army, same as his wife. Ex-wife, but that’s pretty recent. His daughter Zara is eight, she’s precious and his whole world,” she gushed. She caught Elliot smiling at her, the way he always did when she talked about children. “He’s smart, dedicated. I’m kind of surprised he’s stayed as long as he did. Not because he can’t handle it, but umm. When he started I treated him pretty badly.”

Maybe one day she’d tell him about how Cragen had made her pack up his desk to make room for Nick, how each token of him that went into the box felt like it took a piece of her with it.

Elliot cleared his throat. “Once you got past that, though. Did you and he ever…” he trailed off.

The question was a little insulting, if she was honest. “No, I never felt that way about him,” she said indignantly. “Plus he was married until recently and you know me better than that.” It was very pointed, and he caught on that he should drop it.

“Right, right. Sorry,” he said quickly. “Is uh- is Cassidy the only relationship you’ve had, then?”

Olivia groaned internally. Typical Elliot, always hovering over her dating life. She wondered if the reason she’d been able to have such a long, stable relationship with Brian was because Elliot wasn’t around to snuff it out in its infancy.

“Technically yes, and no.” She didn’t really know why she was telling him, since it was none of his business.

Elliot stared at her, waiting for an elaboration and she took a drink to give herself some time. 

“There was someone, an ADA. We hadn’t disclosed yet when he was offered a major promotion. It would’ve been a conflict of interest and he wouldn’t have been able to take the job so it kind of just… Ended. So it never happened but-”

“It happened. I’m sorry to hear that Liv.”

Looking back, she realized her relationship with David Haden felt like a rebound, which was ridiculous considering she and Elliot had been strictly partners and nothing more. 

Nothing more? Yeah right.

She shook her head. “Brian popped back up a little over a year later in an SVU investigation, undercover for Vice. He punched Nick in the face when they first met and it’s been rocky between them ever since.” Elliot chuckled next to her. “He got shot during the investigation and it was terrifying,” she admitted, shuddering a little at the memory, the blood, how pale he’d been. “I kissed him when he woke up and we’ve been dating ever since. Just over a year.”

“How’s he been holding up?” Elliot asked. Olivia gave him a questioning look. He sounded sincere, like he really cared about Brian’s wellbeing. It wasn’t something he usually extended to the men she dated. “I know this has probably been hard on him too. You’ve been staying with him, right? He been taking care of you, making sure you eat, take any meds?”

“You make him sound like a nurse,” she laughed at the image. “He has. It’s been a little annoying, honestly, but I know he’s doing it because he cares and wants to feel useful. So I’ve been putting up with it.”

“The offer still stands, any time you want a break let me know and I’ll meet you somewhere,” he said. That sounded more like the Elliot she knew. She wondered how Kathy would feel knowing he was so eager to spend time alone with her.

“I’ve been thinking about suggesting he see someone too. We both know how hard things can be on a victim’s loved ones and they kind of get cast aside in the aftermath,” she trailed off, realization hitting her of what she’d just admitted, that she was a victim. “That’s still such a hard thing to comprehend.”

Her fingers picked at the edge of the plastic lid on her cup. Elliot sighed next to her, his voice gentle and soothing when he spoke.

“You’re gonna get through this, Liv. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known,” he assured.

“What if I don’t though?” she voiced one of her greatest fears, one she hadn’t expressed yet in therapy. “What if they never let me back? What if I already worked my last day at SVU and didn’t even know it?” 

“You’ll go back when you’re ready. I have faith in you.”

She chuckled dryly. “Faith’s never really been my strong suit.”

“I got enough for both of us,” Elliot said. He sounded almost reverent, like he actually believed in miracles and that she would be deserving of one. For half a second she believed it too. “You started therapy, how’d that go?” he changed the subject.

“Good, I think. He’s worked with a lot of cops and people who’ve suffered trauma so he knows what he’s doing,” she nodded.

Elliot hummed. “That’s nice, but personally. Did you like him as a person? Just because he knows his stuff doesn’t mean you’ll get along with him.

Olivia thought for a minute over the one session she’d been to. She’d been uncomfortable at first, but toward the end of the session she’d started to unwind. “Yeah, yeah I think I’ll like him. When did you get to be such an expert in shrinks?” she asked jokingly.

“Started seeing one after Kathy kicked me out again. Thought it might help salvage things, I dunno,” he said it so casually, and Olivia felt like her stomach dropped through her feet onto the concrete below. Her feet were rooted to the spot, but he didn’t notice and kept walking like the world hadn’t just shifted on its axis.

“Didn’t work, but I still see her every now and then when I feel like I might need it.” He finally realized she wasn’t behind him and turned questioningly. “Liv?”

She stared at him, mouth agape. “Kathy kicked you out?”

He held up his left hand, noticeably missing a gold band and she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before. “Been divorced eight months.”

“Elliot I’m so sorry,” she said breathlessly. “Why didn’t you call me, I could’ve talked to her or something. I would’ve helped however I could. Are you okay?”

“Liv, Liv,” he put his hand on her shoulder and tilted his head so she would meet his eyes. “There was nothing for you to do. She’s happier, and that’s all I want for her. She put up with a lot over the years, she deserves it. 

“What happened?” Olivia asked, still trying to comprehend that he was divorced. Not just separated, divorced. That it was final. She started down the walking path again and he fell into step alongside her.

Elliot shrugged. “I think we got married so young and we grew into different people. Me being gone so often for the job hid all the issues we had, but once that wasn’t there anymore we just couldn't ignore it.”

“And the kids?”

“I think the twins probably took it the hardest. Mo saw it coming, Kathleen too. Dickie lashed out for a while, Lizzie internalized everything. That’s what hurt the most, I hated seeing them feeling like that,” he said shamefully. 

“And Eli?” she asked, cautiously. She had to ask about the little boy she’d helped deliver.

“He’s so young, it’s all he’s ever really known,” Elliot shrugged. “It was an adjustment at first. He’d want Kathy but he’d be at my place or vice versa. But he’s a great kid and so smart. Too smart for his own good, and he knows it too. We’re gonna be in trouble with that one.” His voice was lighter, pride overcoming him talking about his youngest. 

Olivia smiled encouragingly. “Is he in school?”

“Pre-K, but he’ll start kindergarten in September. It’s strange. The twins are in college and we’re starting all over. I feel like I’m too old to be doing this,” he chuckled.

“Not too old, though,” Olivia said, trying to mask the defensiveness in her tone. She knew it was probably way too late for her, but she still wanted a child, still held out hope that it would be possible. 

Elliot must have read the tightness at the corner of her downturned eyes, the set of her shoulders. “Kathy’s the rockstar, she could do it no problem. I’m the issue.”

“You’re a great father, Elliot.”

“Doesn’t feel like it some days, but I appreciate you saying it,” his shoulder brushed against hers as he said it.

They walked in silence for a while, but unlike the beginning of their walk, this was more comfortable. A soft breeze lifted her hair and carried with it the sound of kids on the playground. She felt the anxiety held at bay and wanted to attribute it to the beautiful day, but she knew that was only a miniscule fraction of why. The nature of Elliot’s presence had always acted as a balm for her soul, soothing, healing. It was nice to feel that again.

“You said you were in private security now?” she asked.

“Yeah, I am. Friend of mine from the Marines started his own company, asked me to come on board. Dave’s a good guy, I owe him a lot.”

There was more to the story, she could tell. Maybe she’d ask about that later.

“Where all have you been?” Olivia was curious. She’d traveled a bit of course- her trip with Brian, her cross-country trek hunting down untested rape kits, the undercover stint in Oregon- but she’d never had much down time to explore. She wondered if Elliot had gotten the chance.

“All over the States. California, Florida, Virginia mostly. Portland was… strange I’ll tell you that.” She chuckled at the memory of her time there, picturing how out of place Elliot Stabler would be. 

“Not as weird as Austin though. Literally, they have a slogan about Keep Austin Weird,” he continued, and a real, honest laugh burst from her. It was startling, unexpected, but she decided not to question it and allow herself the brief moment of joy.

The look on Elliot’s face was reminiscent of the one he’d worn when she’d come back from Oregon- something like shock and relief coloring his features, even though he’d seen her just a few days ago. 

“I got to see the south of Spain. Italy was… unreal. I think you would love it there. I didn’t get a chance to see the Vatican, though. I was there for work, and the family I was with wasn’t Catholic so they didn’t see the point in going.”

“Maybe you’ll get a chance to go back one day,” she said.

“I’d love to,” he said wistfully. 

They’d made a full lap around the perimeter of the park and she started to realize how tired she was. She’d have to keep some kind of exercise routine in her time off or her stamina would slack off.

“C’mon, let’s get you home,” Elliot nodded toward the entrance they’d come through. His hand unconsciously fell to her back and she tensed slightly at the contact. She wasn’t upset, it didn’t make her uncomfortable. Quite the opposite really.

They stepped out onto the sidewalk and the noise of the city hit her in full force. She tossed her empty coffee cup into a trash can and Elliot did the same.

“Thank you for this. It was nice getting out for a bit,” she said. She saw a cab approaching and hailed it before he could offer to drive her back to Brian’s. She needed time to herself before she saw her boyfriend again, time to sort through all the new information that had been dumped on her.

“Like I said, any time. Actually I was wondering,” he started, right as the cab pulled up next to them. “Kathy has the kids in Florida for vacation, but next weekend is mine with Eli. We usually go to the park if the weather is nice. I’d like it if you came with us.”

She opened the car door and hesitated before turning back to him. “I don’t know, Elliot. I’m not sure I’m the best person for a child to be around at the moment.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Eli. She loved the boy so much, and she didn’t want to bring the dark cloud she felt hovering over her head into his little world.

“At least think about it? No pressure whatsoever,” he asked, his hands shoved into his pockets as if he was a shy teenager asking a girl to prom.

She chewed on the inside of her lip, debating. It wouldn’t hurt to think about it. 

“I can do that,” she promised. Without another word she climbed into the back of the cab and rattled off Brian’s address. As they pulled away, she twisted around in her seat to look out the back window. She met his eyes and gave him a small wave of her hand which he returned. She stared as the cab drove down the block, wanting to see if he would break their eye contact first.

He watched her drive away, only disappearing when her cab turned the corner.

Chapter Text

Eli arrived with the weekend, and Elliot still had not heard from Olivia. 

He tried to tamp down his disappointment, but it gnawed at his gut as he buzzed Kathy into his apartment building and waited for them in the hallway. When Eli rounded the corner and saw his father, a beaming smile broke out across his face and he dropped Kathy’s hand to run straight into his father’s arms. 

“Hey, buddy, how are you? I missed you,” Elliot smiled as he swept his youngest up in a hug, exuberant giggles sounding in his ears. 

“I missed you too, Daddy.” 

“Hey, El,” Kathy greeted. He pulled her into a one armed hug and kissed her temple. It was done without thought, something that lingered, a familiarity borne of a nearly thirty year marriage. “Can we talk for a second?” she asked. 

He nodded, and stepped back into the apartment. He dropped Eli’s shoulders back as he did so he hung upside down and carried him by his ankles as they walked inside. Kathy gave him an unamused look as he did it, but Eli was having a blast if his laugh was any indication. 

As soon as their son’s feet were firmly planted on the floor, he took off into the spare room Elliot had set up for him to pull out his toys, leaving his parents in the kitchen.

“How is Olivia doing?” Kathy asked once Eli was out of earshot. 

Elliot shrugged. He pulled two glasses from the cabinet and filled them with water from the fridge. “Okay, considering the circumstances. We met for coffee the other day but we’ve mostly texted.” 

He pressed one of the glasses into her hands. “I can’t imagine what she must be going through,” Kathy shuddered. She took a drink and pursed her lips in the way Elliot knew meant she had something she wanted to say. He waited. 

“Elliot, I owe you an apology,” she said, finally. It was one of the last things he expected, because if anyone should be sorry for something in their relationship it was him. He opened his mouth to tell her exactly that, but she cut him off. 

“I accused you of being in contact with her. I accused you of having an affair. I threw it in your face during so many arguments,” she closed her eyes and he knew she was reliving all of them, same as him, “and none of it ever happened. I used Olivia, and the fact you were lying to me about her, as an excuse to end our marriage and the whole time you were telling me the truth. I know it doesn’t change anything, but regardless, I need you to know that I’m sorry.”

He stared at her, realizing just how heavy her shoulders were, how much grief and regret she must have been carrying ever since she’d found out about what had happened to Liv.

“Thank you, Kath. It’s nice to hear you believe me. And honestly,” he sighed. “I didn’t really give you any proof that you were wrong to feel the way you did.”

“You did have feelings for her, didn’t you?” She phrased it as a question, but they both knew it wasn’t really. He could hear a sort of desperation in her, a need to be proven right, to know that she wasn’t crazy.

His throat was dry and he gulped at the water in front of him. “I did. I still do, honestly. It’s why I never blamed you for how you felt. You were never completely wrong about that. You gotta know I never, never, cheated on you. Liv never would’ve let it happen either,” he insisted. 

“I believe you.”

“And I would have stayed, Kathy. I would have woken up every single day and chosen you. ‘Forsaking all others,’ I would’ve done that. I tried to do that,” he promised.

“You did,” she interrupted. “And it made you miserable.”

It was the longest, most open conversation they’d had in years. It reminded him of all the reasons he’d fallen in love with her in the first place. At seventeen years old he thought he knew everything, and he’d known with every fiber of his being that the beautiful, bright eyed blonde girl in his homeroom was everything he could ever want. He’d promised her the world, done his best to give it to her, but thirty years later he can’t help feeling like he’d failed to deliver.

“I still feel like I let you down,” his voice shook with regret. 

Kathy thought about something for a moment. “Elliot, I think you should know I’m seeing someone.” It settled like lead in his stomach. For so long she has been his , and he knew it made him a possessive son of a bitch, but the idea of letting go of that was hard to swallow. “His name is Matt, he’s a guidance counselor at Eli’s school. We’ve gone on a few dates. He walks me to my door to make sure I get in safely. He texts to see how my day is going or just because he wanted to. I feel heard and understood and I haven’t felt that in so long. I’m happy.” She shrugged with a shy smile as if she was trying to downplay what she felt, to take his emotions into consideration when she so clearly wanted to revel in her newfound joy, and he kicked himself for making her feel like she had to. 

“You deserve to be. And I’m happy for you,” he said sincerely. 

She sighed in relief, all hesitation evaporating in the blink of an eye. “You and I got married so young. We were still kids ourselves when we had Maureen, and we essentially grew up together. But that also meant we got married before we got a chance to figure out who we were. With Matt I feel seen for who I am, and I want that for you too. And if it’s with Olivia, it’ll be hard for me at first, but I’ll get past it.”

Elliot chuckled. “Got a long way to go before we get to that point, don’t worry.”

Kathy looked down at the glass between her hands, her elbows rested on the counter in front of her. “I spent so long being angry at you, resenting her. I used to wish, pray , that you both would get what you deserved and I can’t help but wonder…” her voice clogged with guilt. “I can’t help but wonder if this is what came of it.”

Elliot vehemently shook his head. “No. What happened to Liv isn’t your fault, not even remotely.”

Kathy wiped at the corner of her eye. “If she makes you happy, I’m not going to stand in the way. I won’t hold it against you.”

“Yeah, well. She’s actually seeing someone right now,” he sighed. 

“Hmm. It’s kind of funny if you think about it,” she chuckled, and he gave her a questioning look. “The whole time you’ve known each other, it’s been you that was unavailable. Now it’s the other way around.”

It was kind of funny if he thought about it. Elliot smiled and nudged her shoulder with his. “Maybe this is you getting what you wanted, with us getting what we deserved.” 

Kathy returned his smile. “Maybe you’re right,” she straightened from where she’d been leaning on the counter and grabbed her purse. “Don’t give up on her. Much as I hated it when we were married, there’s some connection between you two that can’t be replaced. I’m sure it’ll work out.”

He watched her as she gathered her things and went to the other room to say goodbye to Eli. He thought about what she’d said, about feeling seen for who she was, and it was then- watching her kiss the top of their son’s head and telling him to behave, the smiles on their faces exact mirrors of each other- that he realized what she meant. She astounded him and he loved her. As the mother of his children, as a friend, for the space she had occupied in his life, and for allowing him to exist in hers, but the bond he had with Liv wasn’t one that was replicable, and it was beyond comprehension. Kathy was ready to move on, and he was ready to do the same. 

Olivia’s text came through a couple hours later while he was eating dinner with Eli. 

I was wondering if that invitation to the park still stands?

He set his slice of pizza down on his plate and wiped his hands on a napkin. 

“Hey bud, I want you to meet my friend Olivia. I invited her to the park with us tomorrow.” 

“Okay,” was Eli’s simple response, his little sock covered feet swinging back and forth under his chair as he licked pizza sauce off his fingers. 

Elliot handed him a napkin with a pointed look. Eli gave him a sly grin, but cleaned his hands with it anyway. 

For you? Always. Want us to pick you up or meet you there? he texted Liv back.

Her answer took a while to come back, but eventually I’ll send you the address and meet you out front came through. It was the answer he’d wanted, becasue meant he got to spend more time with her.

We’ll be there at 10 .

Olivia stood near Brian’s building the next morning anxiously checking her phone. She’d been out front since 9:50, wanting to be sure they didn’t have to wait for her, and a glance at her phone told her it was 10:01. She told herself not to worry too much, that Elliot had to wrangle a little boy and that delays were to be expected. She shifted uneasily and looked up just in time to see a familiar car pull up next to the curb and Elliot wave at her from the driver’s seat.

“Eli, this is my friend Olivia,” Elliot said as she climbed into the passenger side. 

She turned around to look at Eli before she buckled her seatbelt. “Hi, Eli. You can call me Liv, pretty much everyone does.” 

She knew that all of Elliot’s kids would have changed in the two years since she’d seen them, but Eli was the one in whom the changes were most noticeable. The last she’d seen him, he was still a toddler, with curly blonde hair and chubby cheeks. Now though, he was a kid . His hair had darkened as he’d gotten older and was cut shorter. His limbs were long and she could tell he was tall for his age. The pudgy baby fat on his cheeks had fallen away. A little part of her heart cracked open that she’d missed so much of it.

“Hi. My dad says you’re coming with us to the park.” The toes of Eli’s shoes tapped against each other and he fidgeted with the toy car in his hands.

“I am. Is that alright?” She felt the need to ask, needing to make sure he didn’t feel like any of his dad’s attention was drawn elsewhere or that someone was trying to steal the time he got to spend with him.

“Yeah, okay,” the little boy shrugged, and Olivia smiled as she faced forward to buckle in.

Her knee bounced up and down and she halfway considered changing her mind and going back to Brian’s apartment. That wasn’t what she wanted though. She wanted to be outside, to start reacclimating herself to the world, the city she loved. She wanted to spend time with Elliot, too. They were down the block before anyone spoke again, and to her surprise it was Eli. 

“So Liv,” he started. Her name sounded like Wiv when he said it, and it brought a smile to her face. “Where did you meet my dad?”

She looked over her shoulder. “We used to work together.”

“At the security place? Do you know my uncle David?” That must be the Dave that Elliot had mentioned when they met for coffee, his friend from the Marines.

“Before that, when he was a police officer,” she answered.

His eyes widened. “My dad was a police officer? For a long time or a short time?”

“Twenty five years,” she told him. “We only worked together for thirteen years though.”

“Woah,” Eli’s voice was full of wonder. “That’s a long time. I’m five years old, and twenty five and thirteen are both way more than five.”

“I think my kid just called us old,” Elliot teased, smirking at her as he drove.

She grinned back at him across the center console. “Nah, I think he called you old.”

The joking, the banter, it all came back so easily even after so much time. She had to remind herself to be cautious, to not fall back into old habits no matter how tempting they were.

Eli piped up again from the back seat as they were pulling up next to the curb at the park. “Liv, do you know how to play soccer?”

“A little. I haven’t played in a while though, do you wanna help me?” 

He nodded enthusiastically and his hands flew to unbuckle himself from the seat. 

“Eli, slow down,” Elliot called out as he popped the trunk and hurried to catch up to his son. Olivia met them at the back of the car just as Elliot emerged with the soccer ball.

Eli’s eyes landed on her wrist brace, seeming to notice it for the first time. “Liv, how did you hurt your arm?”

Elliot tried to shush him, but she waved him off and crouched down so she was at eye level with Eli. “Remember how I said I’m a police officer?” Eli nodded. “Well, sometimes it’s dangerous, and police officers can get hurt. That’s what happened to me.”

“A bad guy broke your arm?”

He’d done much more than that, but of course that was the only injury Eli was still able to see. She no longer had to wear the sling, just the brace. Her bruises had faded almost entirely, the burns that dotted her chest were scabbed over and turning pink around the edges as they turned to scars. And those were just relics of the physical abuse she’d endured. 

“He did,” she nodded sadly. “But I caught him. And he’s in jail now so he can’t hurt anybody anymore.” It was a half truth. Lewis was still in critical care but the doctors expected him to pull through, which churned her stomach. Knowing him, what he did to her was probably going to end up at a trial to be hashed out in front of a dozen strangers. But Eli didn’t need to know that. 

The little boy looked back at her wrist, his eyebrows furrowed in concern, and she wanted to smooth out the tiny crease it created on his forehead.

“You know what though,” she said with a conspiratorial smile, “My legs are just fine, and last I checked that’s all you need for soccer, right?”

The crease disappeared as Eli’s face lit up. He grabbed his ball from Elliot and took off toward the park. She forced a deep breath into her lungs and shook off the shadow that tried to envelop her. 

“You okay?” Elliot asked, nudging her with his elbow.

“Yeah, I’m fine. He’s got questions, it’s best to answer them,” she assured. 

“Liv come play!” Eli called, waving his arm in a high arc over his head, as if he thought she’d lost sight of him. She cast one reassuring look at Elliot and jogged to meet up with Eli in the open, grassy area between two trees he’d claimed.

As she played with Eli, chasing his ball back and forth between the two of them, Olivia felt lighter than she had in a while. Since Lewis, she’d felt like she was constantly on the verge of drowning, just barely managing to keep her head above water. She was worried something would happen and she’d slip beneath the surface, afraid if it happened, she wouldn’t be able to save herself. But in the late spring warmth, the sunlight on her skin and Eli’s giggles melting the ice in her veins, she felt like someone had tossed her a life vest. 

After a while, when Eli begged to play on the jungle gym she had to call a timeout for how tired she was. A stitch was forming in her side and she was breathless from all the running, and laughing as well. Elliot instantly appeared at her side and swept Eli up into his arms.

“How about you and I go play and we let Liv sit for a bit,” he said, and it clicked for her. Elliot was the one that had given her that life vest. She squeezed his arm in silent thanks and traipsed over to the bench he’d been sitting on before he could see the tears gathering at her revelation.

“Would you mind if I sat here?”

Olivia glanced up at a younger woman standing next to her with a rather large pregnant belly. 

“Of course, please,” she said as she slid over to make more room for her.

The woman settled herself in gratefully. “Which one is yours?” she nodded toward the playground.

“I’m just here with a friend,” she said, shaking her head. “What about you, though?”

The woman pointed proudly to a little girl in a blue dress with dark red hair. “That’s her,” she said, absolutely beaming with joy. “Have you come here before? I feel like I’ve seen you around.”

“Liv, watch me!” Eli called out.

He waited for her to nod at him, and a wide smile spread across her face as he went all the way across the monkey bars. Elliot stood off to the side ready to catch him if he slipped, but otherwise letting Eli do it all himself. He made it to the other side and dropped down, landing with a flourish and looked back at Olivia, his eyes eagerly searching for her reaction.

“Good job Eli, you did so good!” she exclaimed.

Eli turned a wide smile at Elliot who gave him a high five and leaned down to whisper something to his son whose face lit up in excitement before he ran toward her.

“And that’s your friend, I take it?” the woman on the bench asked as she raised a teasing eyebrow at Olivia. She knew what it looked like, but she didn’t feel like correcting her.

“You would be right.”

“Liv guess what!” Eli interrupted, crashing into her.


“Daddy says we’re gonna go get lunch and ice cream, are you coming with us?” He jumped up and down, his hands resting on her knees as he did.

Elliot had caught up with them and she gave him a questioning look, silently asking if it was okay. He shrugged and looked back at her expectantly, leaving the decision up to her. His eyes sparkled the same hopeful blue of his son and she didn’t know how she could ever tell them no. 

“Okay, I’ll come.”

Eli cheered as she stood, jumping and grabbing her arm to hang off of it, which wouldn’t have bothered her except he grabbed her injured arm. She let out a pained gasp just as Elliot called out “Eli!” 

“Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” Eli rushed to say. He gently touched the brace and hugged her arm, his cheek pressed against it.

“I’m alright, buddy, just be a little more attentive, okay?” she cautioned. 

The woman Olivia had been talking to was still watching them from the bench, and Eli seemed to just realize that they weren’t alone. 

“Liv is a police officer. She was chasing a bad guy and he hurt her arm. But he’s in jail now,” he explained. 

She smiled back at him. “Well, we’re very lucky that your friend Liv is looking out for us.” She turned her eyes back to Olivia and her smile dimmed a bit as recognition filled her eyes. “I knew you looked familiar,” she mumbled. 

Olivia couldn’t tell if she was talking to herself or expected an answer. Regardless, she cleared her throat and turned back to Eli with a forced smile on her face. 

“C’mon bub, let’s see what your dad is buying us for lunch,” she nudged him with the injured arm he was still holding onto, and he hurried to her other side to grasp her other hand. They started the walk back to the car, Eli skipping along, oblivious to the turmoil churning inside her while Elliot fell into step behind them. 

She stood next to the trunk as he helped Eli into his car seat, making sure he buckled himself properly to give her a minute to gather herself. She figured it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for someone to recognize her-after all her face had been everywhere for two days during the search for her. It made her uncomfortable, though, that a stranger could look at her and instantly know one of the most intimate, traumatic things that had ever happened to her. 

When Eli was settled in the car, Elliot came around to face her, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and looking at her warily, like she was about to bolt at any second. “You still wanna come? If you need to go home we can drop you off no problem.”

She shook her head. “I told Eli I would go with you guys.”

“You’re allowed to change your mind,” he insisted. 

Something about the cautious, gentle way he was speaking aggravated her. He was too patient, too soft. She wasn’t used to it and she really didn’t like that he was treating her so differently than he used to. 

“Elliot, I'm okay. I don’t need to be babied or watched over every second,” she snapped. “Can you just… trust me when I say I’ll ask for help if I need it?”

His eyes flickered across her face and he was silent for a while. “You don’t wanna be babied? Okay.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest and shifted his feet so he was firmly squaring off with her. “Frankly? Your track record on asking for help when you need it? Sucks. But, I will promise not to hover as long as you promise that you will let someone know you need help before it gets to a breaking point.”

He was infuriating. And yet, it was a breath of fresh air. It felt like having her partner back- challenging her, calling her out when he questioned something she’d done, but still having her back and supporting her wholeheartedly. 

“You act like you need to handle everything all the time. Don’t.” He didn’t say anything else, merely backed away and let her have a minute while he got back into the car. When she got the quivering of her lip under control and the burning behind her eyes subsided, she climbed back in beside him.

Liv had been silent the whole drive to the diner, and Elliot spent the time kicking himself for being inconsiderate. He hadn’t thought about the fact that being in public meant she could be recognized, only that he’d wanted to spend time with her, and hoped having Eli around would be a good thing for her. And then, he feared he’d overstepped and spoken too harshly to her. It had been barely two weeks since she’d escaped Lewis, and he’d barged back into her life. She didn’t need him wreaking even more havoc than he already had just by reappearing. 

Despite the fact she was ignoring him, once they were seated, though, she jumped back into conversation with Eli. She asked if he was on a soccer team yet (he was), what was most excited for in kindergarten (going on the big kid playground), and if he knew his numbers and letters already (he recited the alphabet in a rushed yell, prompting a reminder from Elliot to be calm and a giggle from Liv).

“So I hear you just got back from Florida. Did you have fun?” she asked. They’d finished lunch and each had a small dish of ice cream in front of them.

Eli nodded at the same time he tried to take a bite of ice cream and ended up with a bit of chocolate smeared on his chin. “Uh-huh! Nana and Papa took us to the beach and I got to see the ocean. I was a little bit scared of sharks, but I didn’t see any,” he said seriously.

“That’s lucky. Did you drive to Florida, or did you get there on a plane?”

“We went on a airplane! It was the first time I ever went on one. I saw out the window and all the people and buildings looked like ants,” he pinched his fingers together to emphasize. “Have you ever been on a airplane?”

“I have, actually. I went on one when I went to the Dominican Republic, and to Oregon.”

Elliot’s breath caught and Liv’s eyes flickered up to his. They’d never talked about her stint undercover or what drove her there, ever. It was a sore spot for both of them, and when she’d returned they’d both clung so desperately to their partnership that they hadn’t wanted to jeopardize that by dissecting the reasons she’d gone.

The tension between them pulled tighter until she turned her attention back to Eli. “Did you do anything else in Florida, other than the beach?”

“We went to a aquarium. They did have sharks there, but they were behind glass so they couldn’t hurt us and I wasn’t scared of those sharks.” He set his spoon down and picked up the bowl to lick the last bits of melted ice cream from the bottom. Elliot wanted to remind him of his manners, but the affection he saw in Liv’s eyes was enough to dissuade him. 

On their way out of the diner, he hung back and watched Eli scamper up to Liv’s side and grab her hand unprompted. She smiled down at him and swung their joined hands between them, and Elliot felt his throat tighten. She’d always been good with kids, but seeing her with Eli, with his child, was different. 

“Okay buddy, we gotta take Liv home,” he said when they arrived at the car.

Eli’s shoulders slumped dramatically. “Awww, why?” His voice hitched higher in disappointment.

“She has things she needs to do today, for one. And second, it’s getting to be quiet time for you,” Elliot explained.

Eli huffed and dropped his head. “Okay,” he mumbled. “Can she come over again later?”

Elliot looked up at Liv, knowing that ultimately it was her decision. He may not have been her favorite person at the moment, but he hoped any fondness she had for Eli would be extended to him. 

“Probably not today, Eli,” Liv said. She crouched down to his eye level. “But I’ll talk with your dad and we’ll figure out a time for us to hang out again soon okay? I promise.”

Eli’s shoulders still hung sadly as he mumbled “okay” and climbed in the car. He brooded silently in the back seat as Elliot drove them back to Cassidy’s apartment.

“He gets that from you,” Liv said quietly, gesturing to the grumpy five year old in the back seat. Elliot glanced in the rear view mirror at his son, whose arms were crossed over his lap as he looked out the window, his bottom lip sticking out as he pouted. 

He chuckled as they pulled up to the front of the building, glad that she was back to reading him. “Hey,” he said to catch her attention as she reached for the door handle. “Text me when you get in?”

“It’s the middle of the day, Elliot. I’ll be okay,” she said. 

“I know you’ll be fine just… humor me? Please?” he asked. 

He’d thought about the White case when he’d first heard about Lewis, wondering why no one thought to check on her, drove her home and had her blink her lights. It was supposed to be his job and he’d let her down. He didn’t plan on doing it again. 

“Stubborn as always,” she mumbled, but smiled as she said it. The glimmer in her eyes told him she was remembering the same case. 

He waited for the “here” text from her before pulling away from the sidewalk and taking Eli back to his apartment. The rest of the day passed like normal, with Eli playing quietly in the spare bedroom until dinner and a bath afterwards. 

After two books at bedtime, he noticed Eli wasn’t engaged in the story like he usually was. 

“What’s going on in your head, Eli?” he asked, making sure to keep his tone light as he gently tapped his son on the forehead, eliciting a giggle. 

“Why did we wait to leave until Liv got to her apartment?” Eli asked, his smile still lingering despite the seriousness of his tone. 

“I wanted to be sure she was safe,” Elliot told him simply as he tucked the blanket up around Eli’s shoulders.


Elliot shrugged. “Because I care about her.” Truly, his feelings for her went far, far deeper than that.

“Did we wait because she got hurt?” Eli pressed, and Elliot sighed. His son was not one to stop asking questions when he wanted to know something and he had a knack for knowing when someone was holding something back from him. 

“You’re too smart, kid.”

Eli smiled. “I know.” Elliot had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing at his son’s precociousness. 

“But yes, you’re right. It was scary for me when I found out she got hurt and I don’t want to feel like that again.” The answer seemed to satisfy Eli’s questions for the moment and he nestled further into his bed and clutched his stuffed dragon to his chest. Elliot trailed his hand over his son’s hair. “Do you know that I love you?”

“Yeah,” Eli mumbled.

“Do you know you’re very important to me?”

“Yeah.” Eli’s eyes closed.

“Do you know that nothing will ever change that?”


With the last quiet mumble Elliot knew he was mostly asleep already, and he stood from where he’d been sitting on the edge of the bed, turned on the night light, and softly closed the door behind him. In the living room he sank down into the corner of the couch with an exhausted huff and started sorting through the backlog of emails he had for work. He’d have to start back eventually, but he knew David would be understanding considering the circumstances. As he caught up, a text notification from Liv came through.

I meant what I said. I’ll let you know if I need help.

Evidently their conversation by the car earlier had been on her mind as much as it had been on his. He racked his brain for a suitable text back, but worried it wouldn’t translate properly through text. He called her instead. She answered on the first ring.


“I never said you had to talk to me, Liv.”

He could imagine the crease between her eyebrows when she asked “Huh?”

“Your text just now. I didn’t mean that I had to be the person you asked for help. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like for it to be me. But I know I have no right to assume it would be, and you have other people you’re close to now.” He was thinking of Cassidy specifically, but it was a sour pill to acknowledge that he was no longer the most important man in her life, even if that was his own fault.

She exhaled deeply, and there was relief in her voice. “I want to trust you, Elliot,” she practically whispered into the phone. “You have no idea how much I want to trust you, but if I let you in? Now? And you leave again?”

“I’m not going anywhere, Liv.” He’d said it before, and he’d say it again as many times as she needed to hear it.

“I used to believe that,” she said sadly.

“I know, and that’s my fault. It’s going to take time to prove to you I mean it when I say I’m staying, but I will. I’m not leaving you, Liv, never again. Not unless you order me to leave,” he promised.

Chapter Text

In the weeks that followed their day at the park, Elliot made every effort to show up for Olivia. The park she took him to that first day became “their park” and the concrete sidewalk became well accustomed to their footsteps. Eli finished up preschool and enthusiastically informed Liv one afternoon that it meant he got to spend more time with her. When Elliot’s worried eyes flitted to her face, he saw the wariness carefully masked behind her genuine smile. But still, she didn’t seem to be able to deny his youngest anything.

There were more weekends at the park with Eli and late night text conversations when nightmares kept her awake. He told her about Kathleen’s internship as she finished up getting her degree in social work. She found out Maureen was still dating her boyfriend Carl and Elliot suspected a certain conversation between the two of them was coming soon.

She went to her therapy sessions and started taking a self defense class. The latter was mostly for her peace of mind-she had plenty of training on how to protect herself as a police officer, but he wasn’t going to try talking her out of it. If it made her feel better, made her feel stronger and more capable, then it was worth it.

“I went to my old apartment this morning,” she told him one hot day in mid-July. Her shoulders were hunched and her knee bounced anxiously.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Strange,” she sighed. “I lived there for so long, you know? A lot happened to me while I was there.” He knew she didn’t just mean the ordeal with Lewis. That was the apartment she’d been in when they first met, the one he drove her home to on a thousand different occasions, be it a hard case or her mother’s funeral, or just because he wanted a few more minutes with her all to himself. Where he’d stolen sips of her orange juice, where he’d put her back to bed when she was sick. 

She made a choking noise in the back of her throat. “But it was still trashed, ruined. The chair he had me duct taped to was just sitting there in the middle of the room and I couldn’t…” she trailed off. 

He took a chance and put his hand over her bouncing leg. Her fidget slowed, and eventually stopped when he gave it a reassuring squeeze. She huffed out a deep exhale and shook her head. 

“I couldn’t stay. I made Brian go back in and grab one box out of the closet but other than that I left everything else behind.”

He’d never known Liv to be the sentimental type. She didn’t feel the need to hold onto physical things that no longer served her, and he chalked it up to her childhood. No father in the picture, her mother being… well, Serena , and no grandparents to tell her family history, it made sense that she didn’t want to hold onto the past. But the things she’d surrounded herself with in adulthood- the decorative artwork she’d hung up, the throw pillows she’d picked out, that ridiculous grey blanket with sleeves he’d seen her in when she was sick- it was all something she’d picked for herself. She’d made her own little life, created her own comfort when she’d been so isolated, and it had all been wrenched away. It wasn’t the possessions she’d lost so much as what they stood for. He could spend the rest of his life listing the sins of William Lewis, but in Elliot’s mind, stealing Olivia’s home was one of the most grievous.

“Moving in with Cassidy, then? Permanently?” he asked as he reluctantly pulled his hand away from her.

The nod of her head felt like someone kneed him in the gut. “Yeah. We’re talking about looking for somewhere new together. Make it feel like we’re on more of an even footing, you know?”

“I’m happy for you,” he told her, even though it wasn’t entirely true. The side-eyed look she tossed his way hinted that she didn’t believe him either.

“There’s more,” she said with a soft smile and tiny shrug of her shoulders. “I umm, I got cleared to go back to work.” 

Joy filled his lungs and he exhaled a short laugh. “Liv, that's wonderful! When’s your first day?” 

“The 29th.” There was a light in her eyes, and the corners of her mouth pulled back into a wider smile. “Cragen probably knows by now, but you’re the first person I’ve told.”

And that news settled with smug satisfaction over him, the knowledge that the two months they’d been talking again had earned him a place as one of her confidants. 

“Are we doing something the night before, some kind of send off for you, or…” He wanted to celebrate this for her, show her that all her hard work hadn’t gone unnoticed and that it was important. That people still had faith in her. 

She shook her head as she laughed. “I want to go in clear-headed, so no. Plus, I don’t wanna make too big a deal of it. I kind of just want to wake up and go in like it’s any other day.”

Pretending an assault never happened was practically a guarantee that the trauma would rear its head at the worst time, and he was nervous that was what she was trying to do. But, he knew her and what drove her. Liv wanted to put this behind her so she could prove it didn’t define her, that Lewis hadn’t broken her. If she went in like it was a normal day, it was her way of showing he had no hold over her. Elliot could only stand aside and allow her to make her choices, and be there if she needed someone to catch her. 

The sight of her squad standing around her desk as she walked back into the precinct nearly brought tears to her eyes. She made a joke about cake and shrugged off Rollins’ rushed apology and almost settled in her desk when the courier arrived. 

“Olivia Benson?”

“That’s me,” she answered hesitantly. It didn’t make sense for her to be getting deliveries again. She’d barely set her things on her desk. 

“Delivery for you,” he said and handed her a narrow box with a silver ribbon wrapped around it. Nestled in the white tissue paper is a single yellow rose. She pulled out the card that was tucked inside, a smile tugging at her lips when she read the ‘Semper Fi’ scrawled across it. 

The last time she’d gotten that message, it had been a goodbye. It had further cemented the idea that he wasn’t coming back. She found herself missing the badge that had accompanied the last one, clipped to the bottom of her gun. But it was languishing away somewhere in an evidence box and the chances of getting it back were slim. And anyways, she’d held onto it as a way to keep him close, a way to keep a part of him on the streets with her. He was back now, and she was starting to think he was going to stick around. She didn’t need a token to remember him by. Not when she had him.

She laid the flower across her desk, right above her keyboard, and sent him a text. 

It’s beautiful. Thank you.

She settled in and worked on filling out paperwork when he replied. Have a good day, Liv.

With that, she got back to work, hopeful and optimistic of what the day would hold.

Elliot spent the morning in a meeting with David ironing out the details of how he’d return to work. He insisted that, at least for a little while longer, he would only take jobs that allowed him to stay in the city. William Lewis had survived, which meant a trial was on the horizon, and Elliot would make sure he was there for Liv every step of the way. 

“How’s Olivia doing?” David asked as Elliot stood up to leave.

“Actually, she started back to work today. She’s excited, but I think a little nervous too, not that she’d let anyone know. She’s gonna do great though,” he said, full of pride. His phone rang from his pocket and he smiled when he saw her name on the screen. “Speaking of Liv… hey, how’s it going?” he asked, answering the phone.

“Cragen kicked me out,” she said as a greeting, absolutely pissed 

“He did what?” Elliot was right there with her in anger. He was seconds away from calling his old captain himself and asking what the hell he was thinking.

“He sent me home, said I’ve done enough today,” she raged, and Elliot relaxed slightly. She hadn’t been permanently forced out of SVU or the department. Everything she’d done in the last two months hadn’t been for nothing. It was fixable, even though he could tell she didn’t see it that way. “I was only there for four hours, Elliot. I mostly did paperwork about getting back full time. I didn’t talk to a victim, I didn’t handle any evidence, nothin. It’s infuriating.”

Elliot met David’s eyes and gestured with his head toward the door. His friend nodded and silently told him they’d talk more later. 

“He’s probably just trying to ease you back into things,” Elliot assured, giving his full attention back to Liv.

“I’ve already said I don’t need to be coddled. I don’t want special treatment, I just want things to go back to normal.” 

She was still agitated, but he could tell she was slightly more calm, spiraling a little less. He thought about her going back to Cassidy’s apartment and stewing in her silent frustration for the rest of the day. It wouldn’t do her any good.

“Where’s Cassidy?” he asked, even though it pained him. She had always pushed him to talk to Kathy, so the least he could do was be supportive of her relationship.

“Work,” she huffed. 

He wanted to see her. “Tell you what, I’m done with my one meeting for the day. Let me buy you lunch and you can vent all you want,” he offered.

“You’ve been paying for a lot of my meals lately, Stabler.” 

“No different than how it was for thirteen years, Liv,” he teased, and he heard her laugh on the other end of the line. “Plus I make a lot more money than you do now.”

He’d given up counting how many hot dog carts they’d stopped at, how many bodegas they’d picked up snacks from during stakeouts, how many cups of coffee he’d brought her over the years. He did remember, though, that he’d loved every single instance. He’d always believed that sharing a meal with someone brought a new level of intimacy between them. With Liv, it had been their own type of communion.

“I guess you have a point there. Where are you taking me?” she asked.

He arrived at the elevator and hit the button to head down. “The usual place?” Their usual diner, across the street from the old precinct.

“Be there in 20,” she agreed.

Later at the diner, she sat with her elbow braced on the table, her head leaning against her hand while she used the other to stab at her salad. Her mouth was turned down into a dejected frown.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. She seemed to have moved past anger and gone straight into brooding. 

“Like people don’t trust me anymore,” she mumbled. 

He knew how much it meant to her that people respected her and believed her capable of doing her job. She’d told him once that if he couldn’t trust his partner it was time to get a new one, and he’d thrown it at her again after Gitano. He regretted it later after seeing how her eyes had widened, shocked and dismayed. As a woman, working in SVU, and especially now that she was a survivor, there would be even more eyes watching her. 

“If Cragen didn’t trust you, he wouldn’t have agreed to let you back at all,” he said. 

Liv grumbled. “I guess.”

He knew she wasn’t convinced. “Hey,” he caught her attention, annoyed brown eyes flashing up to his. “From his point of view, he sent you home to a monster, unprotected. You, who he looks at as his daughter. There was a whole string of people that let you down, and he feels like he was the start of it.”

“I don’t blame him, or anyone else,” she insisted.

“I know that, but I also know that doesn’t stop people from blaming themselves. I don’t think Cragen is doubting you, Liv. I think he’s doubting his ability to let you out in the field. To let you out of his sight.” Elliot understood the need to protect her, perhaps better than most. He’d watched her back for thirteen years, and loved her for most of them. Keeping her safe was as necessary for him as breathing. 

“You’re too insightful,” she mumbled, but she stopped pushing her food around the plate and took a bite. 

“I’m also a father. I understand where he’s coming from,” he shrugged. She reached across the table to steal a couple fries off his plate. He faked offense, but angled his plate so she could reach them easier.

“Speaking of the kids, how are things going with them?” she asked.

He nodded, having just taken a huge bite and she smiled as she waited for him. “Good all around. Kathleen starts her new job next week. Twins are registered for classes next semester and Eli is enjoying having more free time. He’s been asking about you,” she practically glowed as she ate a bite of tomato. “And… can you keep a secret?” It was a pointless question- he was going to tell her anyway. 

She knew it too. “That depends.”

“Carl talked to me and Kathy. He’s gonna propose.”

Liv’s eyes widened. “That’s fantastic! Do you know when?”

"Pretty soon. Their anniversary is the first week of August so I'm guessing then."

“How are you handling that?” she smirked. She was incredibly familiar with how protective he was of all his children. But his time in SVU had made the watchfulness he had over his daughters just… different.

“It’s a piece of cake,” he said sarcastically and she laughed. “How do you think I’m handling it?”

“Well, you obviously gave your blessing, so that’s progress for you,” she smiled.

“Thank you for noticing,” he nodded as if she’d just given him the greatest compliment he’d ever received. And when he dropped her off at Cassidy’s apartment after lunch, she seemed lighter.

After the disastrous interrogation, Cragen had forced her away, to take a walk. It was quickly becoming evident to her that maybe this had been a waste of time. She’d gone off on a victim, for God’s sake, someone that it was her job to protect, to defend, to advocate for. A hateful voice in her head told her she should just march back down from the roof and hand in her papers now. Coming back was obviously a mistake. Lewis had succeeded in ruining her. 

“This was supposed to be an easy case. It was just a lost kid,” she reasoned, her knuckles white as she clenched tightly to her phone. The only thing she’d wanted to do when she first stepped outside was call Elliot, and it had been an unimaginable relief to realize that she could

“I’m sorry you’re feeling like this, Liv,” he said. The rumble in his tone, the cadence of his accent, it had soothed her for years, lulling her into a sense of security that she knew without a doubt wasn’t a false one because he’d be there. It wrapped around her on the roof and she knew calling him had been the right choice. Brian would try, would ask what he could do to help, but Elliot didn’t have to ask. He simply knew.

A sob forced its way from her chest before she could stop it. “I wish you were here,” she told him. “I mean I know you’re here, but it’s not the same.”

“I know what you mean,” he said softly, and she could hear the regret he carried.

She leaned forward and the hand not holding her phone tangled in her hair. “What if I wasn’t ready to come back? What if I was wrong to even try?” 

“It wasn’t.” He said it with such conviction that for a second she almost believed it herself.

She tried to force the gathering tears back, but they spilled over the edge before she could contain them. Elliot believed in her so much, and it felt unfair that he could have that kind of faith when she couldn’t. As much as she tried to believe, and she tried so goddamn hard, she just couldn’t. Her Fearlessness necklace was in an evidence box next to Elliot’s courtesy badge, likely never to be seen again, and the loss of it served as a reminder of all the things Lewis had taken. She’d worn that necklace as a shield, part of her armor, a badge of honor, and it was gone. Along with her home and her confidence and her sense of security and her morality. And now possibly her job. When she’d left work that day she’d been an experienced detective and he’d reduced her to the pathetic, miserable crying wreck sitting on the roof of the precinct. That was her legacy.

“This doesn’t define you, Liv,” Elliot said, as if he’d read her thoughts, calling to her through the blackness of her self-hatred. “I know right now you’re feeling like nothing is going right and that this was pointless. But you are so strong, Liv, stronger than any of us ever were.”

“I feel like I’m barely hanging on,” she whispered, her voice shaking.

“I know. But someday you’re gonna get past this point where you’re just managing to survive. You’re going to thrive, Olivia, and I can’t wait to see it.” 

She couldn’t think of a suitable response, so she sat speechless trying to accept what he’d said. How she could do it, she wasn’t sure, but with Elliot back she almost felt like she would find a way. 

The tears dried on her cheeks as they sat in companionable silence on opposite ends of the city. 

“I should get back,” she muttered eventually.

“Yeah, you should,” Elliot said back. It sounded like he was smiling. 

She hung up and took a deep breath. Planted her feet, and stood up.

Chapter Text

The weight of a thousand bricks sat on her chest. No matter how slowly, how deeply she tried to inhale it felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world. Her lungs screamed for air she simply couldn’t provide. 

Her hands shook too much for her to trust herself to hold her phone. She sat sideways on the couch with her legs crossed after dialing his number and putting it on speaker, trying to breathe despite it feeling like the walls were closing in around her.

“Liv? Are you there, what’s wrong?” Elliot sounded panicked, and she realized that he’d been calling her name with no answer. 

“I thought I’d be okay. I should be okay,” she mumbled, her head hung in her hands. This was stupid. It was more than two months after Lewis. She was back at work and had closed two cases. She should be better than this by now. “I’m sorry, Elliot, I shouldn’t have called.”

She reached forward to hang up. 

“No no no, Liv?” he called urgently and her fingers hovered over the screen. “Hey," he said gently, "talk to me,” he pleaded.

She sniffled. “Brian’s at work.”

“Okay?” he said, confused but encouragingly. 

“He was supposed to be off tonight but they roped him into a double,” she said, and once she started the floodgates opened up. “He hasn’t been working a lot of nights and they were understanding about it at first but it’s been weeks , it’s been long enough, and he can’t talk them out of it this time or get someone to cover and I told him I’d be okay when he called but now I’m not and I-”

“Slow down, Liv, you gotta breathe,” he said and she almost laughed at him because what the hell did he think she’d been trying to do? God, he could be insufferable. “How can I help?”

She tried another deep inhale just for his benefit and it was marginally easier than before. “Can you come over?” she asked cautiously. She wanted him there but worried it was too much to ask. He’d started back at work so he could be on a job. He could have Eli, or be on a date for all she knew- even though just thinking about it made her chest tighten. “If you can, that is, just for a little. If not I’ll be alright.”

“I’m on my way, Liv. Maybe ten minutes out. I can stay on the line if you want, or I can text when I’m out front so you know it’s me?”

She let out a shaky exhale. “Text is fine.” It would give her time to try to compose herself, get her breathing under control. She hated feeling so raw, so exposed to anyone. Even Brian hadn’t seen her so vulnerable; she’d saved most of her breakdowns for behind the closed door of her therapist’s office or when she shut herself in the bathroom to shower. With any luck by the time Elliot arrived she’d be settled enough that she could laugh it off and send him home.

He might have said something more, but she didn’t hear it. She hung up the phone and raked her fingers across her scalp, praying that ten minutes was enough.

He texted her when I arrived out front so he wasn’t too surprised when the door flew open seconds later. What did surprise him was how she practically crashed into him and the veracity with which she clung to him in the open doorway, much the way she had when he'd first seen her at the precinct. Her arms rested over his shoulders and he could feel her warm breath on his neck, shaky still. 

“I got you, Liv. You’re safe, okay? Let’s get inside,” he soothed. He walked her backwards a few steps, careful not to step on her bare toes as he maneuvered them across the threshold so he could close the door and lock it.

Elliot considered having her sit back on the couch but that would involve breaking the connection between them, and he wanted to hold onto it a little longer. From the moment he’d gotten her call and heard the distraught waver in her voice, he’d thought of nothing else than climbing through the phone and pulling her into his arms. If that hadn’t been what she wanted when he arrived he would have dealt with it, but he wasn’t going to complain that she’d been the one to reach for him first. 

His hands absentmindedly traced a pattern up and down her back over the soft t-shirt she wore, only stopping to squeeze at her shoulders, her waist. Gradually, the tightly fisted fabric of his shirt in her fingers loosened. Without his realizing, her shirt had risen higher and on one pass of his hands his fingers landed on the bare skin of her lower back. It hit him like an electric current and judging by the sharp intake of breath from her, she felt it too, but she didn’t pull back immediately. 

Eventually, though, she did, and he felt the loss of her warmth against him instantly. 

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, her eyes fixed on his chest rather than his face. He tilted her chin up with his finger. 

“Nothing to be sorry for. You let Cassidy know I was coming?” He was an interloper in the man’s apartment after all. Only polite to let him know.

Liv shook her head, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “I didn’t even think about that. God, how inconsiderate of me.”

He didn’t like the self-deprecating tone of her voice. “Just text him now. If he gets pissed, it’ll be at me and not you but I don’t see him doing that,” Elliot reasoned. Cassidy, for all his faults, had been supportive of her recovery in whatever way she needed. He’d gained a new respect for the man because of it.

Liv nodded and turned back to the couch where she must have left her phone. He followed after her and settled next to her while she finished typing out her text. The way she was sitting, sideways with her knees bent toward him, allowed him the perfect opportunity to reach across and untuck her feet from underneath her and pull her legs across his lap.

She faltered momentarily, looking up from her phone to give him a look that plainly said what do you think you’re doing , but she didn’t pull away. His thumb swiped across her ankle and she looked back down with a sigh. When she finished the text, she set her phone in her lap and rested her left arm on the back of the couch, her eyes fluttering closed. 

Neither of them spoke for quite a while, and he allowed himself to revel in the quiet intimacy between them. Before, he’d never been able to be this physically close to her unless they were undercover and each brush of his hand across the skin of her ankles, her calves, was a new part of her that he wanted to explore. With her eyes closed he was able to study her, note how the map of her face had changed since he’d left without fear of her catching him- the new fine lines around her mouth, the crinkles by her eyes, the constellation of freckles that showed up every summer. If he could, he would spend all night on the couch, reveling in her proximity, but he knew he should at least ask about what triggered her panic attack.

“Is this the first time you’ve been alone at night?” he asked finally, keeping his voice soft so as not to startle her. 

Her eyes cracked open and she shook her head. “No, I have before, but those have been planned. This was the first time it was a surprise.”

“So you couldn’t prepare for it,” he nodded, because it did make sense. 

“Partially. Also…” she trailed off, picking at the corner of her thumbnail in her lap. “That first night, when I got home and Lewis was there? Brian was supposed to come over.”

Elliot’s hand stilled on her leg.

“He called to tell me he wouldn’t make it over. I was… tied to that chair in the living room. Lewis heard the message first. Played me the voicemail Brian left saying he was forced to take a double and he was canceling our plans. He looked at me and,” she shuddered, and he could see the force of the memory threatening to pull her back under. He squeezed her ankle, trying to ground her in the present, with him. “And we both knew that nobody was coming. That he had time. I wasn’t really, truly afraid until that moment.”

“Does Cassidy know all of this?” Elliot asked. It seemed only right to ask. Liv cared for the guy, possibly even loved him (the thought of which made his throat feel like sandpaper). Plus, he was sitting on the man’s couch with his girlfriend’s legs thrown over his lap. Asking if she confided in him was the least he could do.

“No. Elliot, he left SVU because he couldn’t handle the victims and now he’s living with one. Part of me wants to just call it quits and leave, spare him from having to do this anymore. He feels guilty enough, I can’t put this on him. What if he gets distracted at work, he could lose his job or get hurt.” 

The reasons she laid out seemed to make sense and he understood where she was coming from but frankly he didn’t care about Cassidy’s wellbeing. He cared about hers.

“Liv, you’re hurting now,” he said insistently.

“You know what I mean,” she rolled her eyes. “I just. I don’t know if I can trust him with this. I trust you. Please just let me?”

He had to bite the inside of his lip to fight off the grin trying to work its way onto his face. “I can do that.”

Part of him wanted to feel guilty for how he felt in the moment. He was glad she trusted him, but beyond that he was selfishly so very happy that she was giving this part of herself to him and not Cassidy. He loved her beyond reason and he was free to do so now that he was divorced. But she never got between him and Kathy, not once, even when they were separated, so he owed her the same. Privately though, he’d be a covetous son of a bitch and ask for forgiveness later. 

“I think I’ve also been so on edge recently, with the Mechad Carter case and the rapes leading up to it,” Liv said. 

He was familiar with both. “White, professional women in their 40s attacked on the upper west side, where you lived most of your life, I can see why,” he nodded.

“I attacked a guy in the street a few days ago.”

It didn’t sound like something she’d do and it made him pause. “What, unprompted? Just out of nowhere?”

“I mean he approached me, was catcalling me,” she shrugged. “I just panicked and hit him. Knocked him to the ground and walked off.”

That sounded more like her. 

“Maybe he’ll think twice before he harasses a woman on the street again,” he reasoned, not really understanding what was wrong. 

Liv rolled her eyes. “Elliot, he wasn’t a threat.”

“You didn’t know that.”

“You sound like my shrink.”

“Good, that means we’re both right,” he said, and despite the fact that she was just arguing with him, she chuckled. “You’re still healing, Liv. You’re gonna have setbacks. There’s no race, no competition to win at recovery.”

She looked down at her hands and messed with her thumbnail again. “I just feel like I should be further along in all of it than this,” she mumbled.

“Two and a half months after everything you went through and you’re back at work, helping victims, being Badass Benson.” He didn’t want to push his luck by touching her more than he already had, but he needed her to see his eyes. He reached across the space between them and tilted her chin up. “I am in awe of you. I hope you know that.”

Her cheeks reddened and his hand dropped as she turned her face away. “It doesn't feel like I deserve that.”

“Tough, you’re getting it anyway. You’re doing a good job, Liv.”

“Do you think we could’ve done anything different? Prevented Mechad Carter from getting killed?” she asked. He’d heard about this too, that the NYPD had put a target on the backs of every young black male that was walking the upper west side at night. That even they had thought he was the rapist they’d been hunting. It was a load of crap.

“Short of being there and stopping her from shooting him? No.”

Liv sighed. “You know what she said to Rollins? She said that if they were back home, she’d be getting a medal. After killing a teenage boy, that’s what she was thinking about.”

“You can’t control what she thinks or says, Liv,” he reasoned. “She is gonna live with the consequences. Kathy won’t watch her show anymore, Lizzie says a ton of people are boycotting her restaurants. She might’ve escaped justice, but she’s gonna suffer for it.”

“Small consolation for Mechad’s parents,” she scoffed, and he couldn’t say he disagreed with her. 

“You think they’ll file a civil suit?”

“Maybe. I can see Reverend Curtis mentioning it once they move past the grief a little more,” she said, and he hummed in reply. 

They lapsed into another silence. In his time at SVU he’d seen so many parents lose children but this one felt different, had a different weight to it. In the worst times when he’d contemplated what it would feel like he’d known he would do whatever it took to bring the person to justice. In his worst nightmares, he’d never know. He couldn’t imagine knowing who murdered one of his children, knowing the last face they’d ever seen, and for the court to tell them that no crime had been committed. 

“Oh hey, I haven’t had a chance to tell you yet,” he smiled and shifted so he could pull his phone from his back pocket. Liv took the opportunity to pull her legs back to herself and he knew the moment of intimacy between them had passed. “Maureen said yes.”

Liv’s face lit up and she clapped her hands together. “That’s fantastic! I’m assuming you have pictures?” she pointed at his phone and he held it out to her so she could flip through the album from Maureen’s engagement. Carl had brought her to Central Park, Kathleen waiting in the wings to take pictures. 

“Oh Elliot, she looks so happy. I’m so excited for her,” Liv said and he caught sight of tears gathering in her eyes. It struck him that she’d known Maureen since she was only fourteen. She’d been there for all his kids when they were growing up, and when he left it wasn’t just him that she’d lost. He really had monumentally screwed up and it was a testament to her capacity for compassion and forgiveness that she had allowed him back into her life.

“They’re looking at a spring wedding, probably around early April so make sure your calendar is clear. You’re definitely coming,” he insisted. 

She flipped back a couple pictures to one she’d lingered on before. It had to be her favorite of the bunch. “Wouldn’t miss it,” she said as she handed his phone back. 

“Good. When was the last time you ate?” he asked. 

She looked at him sheepishly and he knew it must not have been recently. “I’m ordering take out, you find a movie or something to watch,” he stood, gesturing toward the TV. “Want your usual?” he asked, the phone already in his hand ready to dial. 

By the time he returned to the couch, she’d selected some police procedural show and he raised a questioning eyebrow at her, because hadn’t they both seen enough of that in real life to last a lifetime? Later though, he decided he didn’t mind. Because when she held a container of lo mein in one hand and pointed her chopsticks at the screen with the other, complaining about how unrealistic something was with a tiny bit of sauce clinging to the corner of her mouth, he figured it was worth it. If he got to see her like that, frustrated but still lighthearted, laidback and content, he’d let her pick the show every day for the rest of his life. 

Chapter Text

The morning air bit into Olivia’s skin as she stood and waited for Elliot outside the coffee shop she’d started to think of as their spot. Once the sun climbed higher she knew it would warm up, but it wasn’t quite there yet to fight off the shiver that crept up her spine. She should have thought to bring a jacket.

September had rolled in and kids were getting ready for the school year to start, including little Eli. He had very proudly strutted around Elliot’s living room in his school uniform and Spiderman backpack, insisting that she simply had to see what it looked like. The backpack had practically swallowed him and she almost cried at the sight of it- the baby she’d cradled grown up and going to school, but still so small it didn’t seem like it should be possible. 

“Hey, Liv!” he called as he came around the corner. “Sorry I’m late. The move go okay?” he asked as she passed him the coffee she’d picked up for him already. They started down the street toward the park, another part of the routine they’d picked up in the last few months. 

It was something she’d debated quite a lot about, actually. Before she started back at SVU she’d been questioning a lot of things, including her relationship with Brian, and confided that with Dr. Lindstrom. He’d cautioned her to really think about if she wanted to make such a big step forward with their relationship after her previous hesitance, but she was insistent. There had been a disconnect between them ever since Lewis, and she blamed some of it on the fact that she hadn’t been able to stand Brian touching her for the first six weeks. Once they’d started having sex again though, it seemed to start fusing their broken pieces back together, and she hoped that by living together it would help patch it up even more. 

“Yeah, we’re getting settled in,” she smiled at Elliot. She may have opened up to him about some of her trauma, but talking about her sex life with him would probably push it a bit too far. 

“Cassidy need any help lifting furniture?” Elliot teased.

She laughed at him and bumped his arm with hers. “Between the two of us we’ve got it handled. I appreciate it though.”

“Lemme know if that changes. Do you have any kind of deck or patio area?” he asked.

“No, why?” she gave him a questioning look.

Elliot shrugged. “Something my mom always does for a housewarming gift- windchimes. She says the happy sounds are supposed to ward off evil spirits”

“You don’t have to do that,” she reasoned. Truthfully, she didn’t know how she felt about Elliot of all people giving them a housewarming gift. It felt like he would be giving some kind of blessing, well-wishes for them as they moved forward. And she wanted that, it was the whole reason she was moving in with Brian, but something about Elliot wanting her and Brian to be lucky together as a couple didn’t sit right, and she didn’t want to look too closely at why that was.

“I’ll think of something else,” he smiled.

Olivia shook her head. “You don’t need to think of anything. Just sit tight until we can get everyone together for a dinner party. That’s all I want.”

“If you insist,” he said. She smiled, pleased that she’d won that battle. “Hey, that’s new,” Elliot nodded, his eyes on her chest and she realized she’d been fiddling with the necklace Dr. Lindstrom had given her. 

“Oh, yeah. I had another just like it, but… it’s in evidence. My therapist gave me this one at our last session.”

That necklace, one she’d worn like a second badge. The Fearlessness label was one she carried with pride, until that had been stolen from her. She liked to think that Lindstrom giving her this was symbolic in a way, of him helping her reclaim that part of herself. She could be fearless again.

“It looks good,” Elliot smiled. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but his phone chimed from his pocket. “Damn, work meeting got moved up, I gotta run,” he said apologetically and she laughed a little at the irony. Here he was, no longer a cop, and still having to cut personal time short because of his job.

“Go to your boring work meeting, I’ll talk to you later,” she told him as he started off in the direction they’d come from. “We’re still going to the park with Eli this weekend right?” she asked.

“Of course. I’ll talk to you later, Liv!” he called, his hand raised to wave goodbye. 

She sighed and continued on the sidewalk path around the park, intending to finish one lap around the perimeter before heading into the precinct. The weather was starting to warm up as the sun came up. Strangely, though, the rest of her walk felt gloomier.

She should have expected everything to go to hell the moment she set eyes on Tucker at SVU. Anytime he came across her path, it was either a headache or downright excruciating, and this case had barreled straight into excruciating territory. 

What started as uninvestigated rapes had escalated to her sitting in the car with Nick as she listened to her boyfriend and an escort doing… whatever it was, she didn’t really think she wanted to know. She wanted to be mad at him, would have been furious if circumstances were different, but as it was, he was undercover and needed to sell it. It didn’t mean she had to like it. 

It was also hard to be mad at him when he’d very nearly ended up with a bullet in his head- from a fellow cop no less. 

“So you banged him a few times and now you’re trying to prove you’re okay with him doing other chicks?” Maybe part of her felt sorry for officer Quinn, but it was drowned out by the part of her absolutely repulsed by her. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Quinn insisted, but all of Olivia’s years as a detective told her the woman was hiding something. She was covering West’s ass like she did in the field, but Olivia needed her to give it up.

Maybe it was time to switch tactics. 

“Okay. Let me ask you a question,” she said moving to sit down. “When’s the last time you had a boyfriend? Or even went on a date?” Quinn’s face fell, and Olivia knew she had her. “What you gotta be forty right, little more? Probably wondering if you’ll ever have a family, or if riding around with him for the next ten years will be enough for you.”

She watched as Quinn shifted in her chair, pressed down by the weight of reality that fell on her shoulders. A voice in Olivia’s head whispered that she’d chosen her words well, even if they hit a little too closely for her, too. 

“He looked out for me,” Quinn finally said, defensively. Olivia felt her blood pressure rising because of course her partner looked out for her, it was part of his job. It didn’t give her an excuse to cover up the fact he had raped multiple women. 

Nick must have sensed she was heated. “How?” he cut in. “Off the record.”

“My first year on I was using. Little coke. I got hit with a random drug test.”

“And what, he got you urine?” Nick asked.

Quinn sounds proud. “Never said another word about it.” As if it was justified. As if that meant he cared for her, that he was a good partner. As if she owed him.

“And you think that means that he loves you?” Olivia couldn’t take it any more. “He was holding that against you,” she said emphatically, pleading for Quinn to see the truth. “He knew that you felt that way about him. And he was using that too.”

Against her will, Olivia remembers that in her own way, she was in a similar situation once with Simon. She had really thought her brother could be a rapist and she’d helped him run, sent him money. He had latched onto her, picked up on how desperate she was for a family, to belong somewhere, and he’d used it against her. In the end he was innocent, but after everything she’d done for him, he still didn’t contact her for years afterward. Only when he needed something did she hear from her baby brother.

“I mean what did you think? That he was gonna leave his wife and his kid for you?” she asked Quinn, shaking thoughts of Simon free but it only brought Elliot’s face to her mind. She never imagined Elliot would leave Kathy, especially not for her. Why would he, when she had nothing to offer him compared to years of stability, comfort, love, and the children he and Kathy had created together. She wouldn’t have wanted him to leave them either, but she would be lying if she said she hadn’t maybe hoped a little, while they were separated, that maybe he would say or do something. But he hadn’t, and Eli came along and she loved that boy more than she thought possible and wouldn’t trade him.

“A coke head?” she said, trying to move away from the parallel to her and Elliot but her voice caught in her throat nonetheless. Quinn’s eyes watered and Olivia knew blow after blow was landing in the woman’s mind, ripping her to shreds from the inside out. “You spent the last five years sitting in that car hoping that one day he’d look over at you and suddenly realize that you were the woman he couldn’t live without.”

There was Elliot again, but she couldn’t let him into this interrogation. It wasn’t about him, about them. It was about the victims. 

“What was it he told Cassidy?” Nick asked, flipping through his notes. “Girls like Quinny, you throw them a couple crumbs. They’re so grateful they’ll do anything.”

“No, he didn’t say that,” Quinn denied, her voice shaking, and Olivia watched the glass house she’d constructed around herself shatter. The utter conviction that her partner would never do that, could never do that to her was one she knew. She’d hidden herself in the same interrogation room after Elliot left as her own world broke. 

“Yeah he did. And worse,” Olivia said. “It’s not gonna happen. It was never gonna happen. I’m sorry,” and to her own surprise, the apology was sincere.

Later at her desk, her mind reeled with the news that Munch was retiring. It hit hard and she wanted to cry for more changes. He was part of SVU, had been there so long it felt like the walls had been constructed around him. She didn’t know how things would function without him. 

Then again, she hadn’t known how things would function without Elliot. The world had kept turning, though.

She just hated change. 

“You wanna talk about what you said in there?” Nick asked, dropping into the chair across from her.

“What do you mean?” She didn’t look up from the paperwork in front of her. At least some things needed to be finished before she could leave. Brian had already been sent home and all she wanted was to go be with him, to reassure herself he was okay. She really didn’t have time for whatever cryptic games Nick decided to play.

“Quinn and her partner,” he said and that was enough for her eyes to dart up to his. “Sounded like you could relate.”

Maybe… maybe she could. But Nick didn’t need to know that. 

“That’s the point of interrogation, we’re supposed to make them think we relate so we get them to open up to us.”

Nick hummed. “I’m just saying, if you changed your mind about Cassidy recently, none of us would blame you. I definitely wouldn’t have any complaints, which I’m guessing you know,” he said, trying to lighten the mood with a joke. 

She wasn’t having it. She knew they didn’t get along but Brian had nearly died, for God’s sake. She narrowed her eyes at him, enough that the grin on his face slipped just a little, and looked back down at her paperwork. She thought the subject was effectively dropped, until-

“You talk to Stabler a lot?”

Her hand dropped heavily onto her desk. “I'm not going to break up with Brian just because Elliot and I are speaking again.”

Nick put his hands up in surrender. “I know, I know. I’m just saying, from what we heard on the tape-”

“Do not go there.”

“-you’d have a valid reason,” he finished, undeterred. 

She glared across the space between them. “You and I both know undercover work can put you in difficult situations. Brian did what he had to do to make it home alive. I know what you’re getting at, and it isn’t any of your business.” She signed her name one last time and closed the file she’d been working on. She had to get away from this conversation and fast, had to push away all the things stirring inside her at what Nick was saying, his allusions to Elliot. 

Her jacket was on, her bag over her shoulder as she walked away but apparently Nick couldn’t avoid one last parting shot. “I saw how he looked at you that day he showed up,” he said, just barely loud enough for her to hear, but enough for it to stop her in her tracks. “Saw how you held onto him, heard what people said after both of you left. It’s not a secret, Liv.”

She stood for a moment remembering the utter relief she’d felt that first day, the overwhelming sense that things were right again, her eyes lingering on the space where they’d stood for the first time again and faced each other. The only instances she could remember where she’d felt that safe since that day were also occasions when Elliot had been around. But that couldn’t be right. Brian had soothed her through dozens of nightmares, had dropped her off at appointments, had made sure she ate when all she wanted to do was curl in on herself and let the world go on without her. 

But Elliot had done those things too. When Brian didn’t wake up, she called Elliot to talk her down. He took her to appointments when Brian couldn’t, before she felt comfortable going on her own. He came up with excuses to get her outside- usually involving Eli and some manner of food.

“Drop it, Nick. My personal life isn’t your concern,” she said without turning around before walking out of the precinct.

She sat next to Brian on the couch later, his hand running over her shoulder as she pressed her ear against his chest. The sound of his heart thumping, the steady rise and fall of his chest, all reassurances that he was still here, still alive. He had come so close to not making it home and she needed the quiet, the reminder that he was okay.

“Are we good?” he asked, and she sighed against his chest.

“Yeah,” she mumbled.

“You sure? Cuz I swear nothing happened, it was just a show for West and Quinn-”

She groaned. “Stop talking.” Sitting in that car with Nick, hearing Brian with the escort, she’d thought of a thousand things she’d wanted to say to him when the case was over. They’d been on the tip of her tongue, but when she’d seen him with two guns pointed at his head they’d all turned to ash in her mouth. None of it mattered and she’d already forgiven it.

“I heard you in the interrogation room with her ya know,” he said.

If she wasn’t so relieved he was alive she’d shoot him herself. “Oh my God, Bri-” she almost added not you too but caught herself before it slipped out. 

“I’m just saying it sounded a bit familiar,” he reasoned. He didn’t sound angry or defensive, which she counted as a positive. “And with Stabler being back…” he trailed off and suddenly it all clicked. He felt like he had to prove himself. The extra hours he’d been putting in, the shifts he’d taken, jumping into an IAB investigation willingly because it could help him get his badge back, all so they could be on the same level again. His blind determinism almost got him killed because she had inadvertently made him feel like he wasn’t important enough.

She tilted her head up to look him in the eye, her fingers running along the line of his jaw. “Has anyone ever told you, for once in your life, just stop talking?” she asked softly. She made sure to keep her voice light, joking, so he could know she wasn’t serious.

“Every day,” he chuckled. “Usually my girlfriend.”

“You should listen to her,” she hummed and pressed her lips to his. He seemed hesitant to return it, and she pulled back to meet his eyes. “I’m here. With you . And I’m very happy you’re okay.” She leaned in to kiss him again, and this time he kissed her back. “Please, please, let’s just be here like this,” she could hear the pleading tone in her voice and she knew he could too. 

The corners of his mouth turned up in a contented smile. “Okay,” he said before leaning in to kiss her again and Olivia resolved she would try harder to make this work with him, to reconnect with him. Elliot was her friend, but he couldn’t be more than that to her. Not again. Not when she had someone here holding her, who cared for her, who hadn’t abandoned her. 

Later, when she led Brian to their bedroom and kissed him with fervor, she did it with the intent of banishing Elliot from his thoughts. And when his weight settled on top of her and he grazed his lips across her collarbone, she forced herself to let go of any vestiges of her old partner from her mind.

Chapter Text

When Elliot stepped into the bar from outside, he noted the stark difference in temperature. Late September meant it was getting cold once the sun went down, but the number of people crowded inside warmed him instantly. There was laughter and soft music all around, but there was an air of melancholy too, the end of an era as John Munch finally retired from the NYPD. 

Elliot caught sight of Liv standing with Cassidy across the room but hesitated to approach her immediately. For the last couple weeks she’d been dodging his calls, taking longer to reply to texts. She’d skipped their weekly meet up for morning coffee and their walk around the park. It felt like a knife in his stomach and beyond anything he was mostly afraid that he’d done something to offend her and put distance between them. 

“Hey, Stabler, how have you been?”

His eyes lingered on Liv for a second longer, drinking in the sight of her with her head thrown back in a laugh he couldn’t hear, before he turned to greet Rollins. 

“Not too bad. Been staying decently busy with security jobs around town and a kindergartener,” he answered. 

“Liv says your oldest is engaged now. She showed me the pictures you sent her.”

He couldn’t hold back from smiling, both at Maureen’s joy and the thought of Liv bringing pictures of his kids to work. “Yeah, Maureen is ecstatic. I feel like I haven’t gotten to know you much, do you have any family?” he asked. Rollins was part of Liv’s team, the family she’d built when he left, and he wanted to know her. Liv had told him the basics, that she was from Georgia, she’d joined SVU right after he left. That she was smart and dedicated but sometimes it seemed like she was still trying to find her footing after some personal issues she’d had in the past, but that she needn’t worry. 

“Eh, my family is complicated, we’re not super close. Just me and my dog Frannie right now,” she shrugged. The smile on her face didn’t reach her eyes. He could tell there was more to the story. He didn’t think she would respond well to him pushing her for answers, even though he got the feeling that her ghosts looked a lot like his.

Olivia’s laugh rang out across the room and it was futile resisting the urge to look up at her. Her hair was styled straight, swept slightly across her face, and he was jealous of Cassidy for being able to twist one of the silky strands around his fingers whenever he wanted. “It’s good to see her smile like that. I missed it,” he said, trying to keep the wistfulness out of his voice.

“Cassidy says she doesn’t really talk about how she’s doing. I asked him, right before you got here actually, and his exact words were ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Rollins mused. “I hope her shrink is helping.”

“He is. Makes her feel safe,” Elliot said and glanced back at her. “Everyone at SVU does too. She knows you guys have her back. Liv’s always been pretty private so don’t take it personally that she hasn’t talked to you much.” 

Rollins didn’t say anything, just blinked at him a couple times, her mouth hanging slightly open. 

“What?” he asked. 

“Nothin’” she shook her head. She nodded toward the front of the room where people were gathering on the tiny stage where Munch had already seated himself and Elliot chuckled at the bright white suit the man was wearing. “Speeches are about to start, better find a seat.

By some stroke of luck, Elliot found a seat had been reserved for him at the front with the rest of the squad. It warmed him, the idea that he was still afforded a place with these people, even though he’d never worked with some of them. Like part of him still belonged there, that he’d left a mark on SVU that carried on even though he’d left.

Amaro slid over as Elliot approached, letting him take the seat directly next to Liv. She smiled at him as he sat down and he could tell that even though it was genuine, that she was happy to see him, that something was off. 

“How have you been?” he asked, because none of the other questions he had for her seemed appropriate for the setting. Asking why she had been avoiding him or if he’d done something wrong could only cause her to shut down even more. 

“Pretty good, you?” It was clipped and he wished he could pull her to some corner and drag what was bothering her from her lips. 

“Good,” he answered instead. It was the most awkward exchange between them since she’d come back from Oregon and he hated it. They were spared the tension by someone Elliot didn’t recognize coming up to the front and talking about Munch’s days in Baltimore. 

As more people came to the front and the wine in her glass dwindled, she seemed to relax next to him. She stopped shifting uncomfortably when his arm accidentally brushed against hers or he reached for his drink. 

When it was Liv’s turn, she reached beneath her chair and grabbed a small book from her purse. She trailed her hand along Cassidy’s shoulder as she stood and Elliot forced himself to look away. 

“So this is actually my diary from my very first day at SVU,” she said when she reached the podium. She read the entry about meeting Cassidy and Munch and paused, just for a second, unnoticeable by anyone but him. She glanced up to meet his eyes, and he knew she was thinking about their first day together too. 

She continued to read and he heard laughter from the others in the room at something she’d written all those years before, but he didn’t catch the joke. He was too preoccupied thinking about that day in March ‘98 when he’d walked into the precinct to find her, already sitting in the desk across from his as if she owned it. Shoulder length hair and a boxy suit that swallowed her whole and burning eyes that dared him to question whether she belonged. 

He couldn’t resist nudging her arm when she got back to her seat. “What’d you write about me in there?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she teased, a smile curling at her lips. 

Her phone chimed not long after and her brow furrowed in concern. She leaned back in her chair to get Nick’s attention and whispered to him that they needed to go. 

Elliot noticed she was distracted while gathering her things, with the diary sitting right on the table. He didn’t actually intend to steal and read it- he wouldn’t violate her privacy like that- but he knew if he reached for it he would grab her attention. 

He watched her from the corner of his eye as his hand moved slowly across the table, intending for her to notice. Just as his fingers reached over and lifted the cover of the book her hand shot out and slammed it shut. When he met her eyes she was smiling at him. 

“You are a child,” she said as she wrenched the book away without a fight from him. She pulled it back and thumped him on the back of the head with it. She leaned down to kiss Cassidy goodbye. Elliot looked away.

It was a case, clearly, but it had to be significant for her to be hurrying the way she was, pulling Nick away with her. Elliot knew that tone, the set of her shoulders, and he wanted to chase after her, step into whatever fire she was about to find herself in but he knew it wasn’t his place anymore. Her jacket lay discarded on the back of her chair in her haste, and he caught Nick’s attention as he passed to hand it off to him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Mother Theresa of SVU is leaving. Was it something I said?” Munch asked from the podium.

“No John, it’s everything you said,” she teased over her shoulder as she and Nick worked their way through the chuckling crowd.

“Well I haven’t even gotten to the Cassidy jokes yet,” Munch called from the podium. “You know I see you two together, I think you both could do better.”

It was a joke, they all knew it. Liv rolled her eyes good-naturedly on her way out, but it struck some tender part of Elliot and Cassidy’s fist clenched where it sat on the table. Rollins moved over so there wasn’t an empty chair between them anymore and he found it easy to laugh with her through the rest of Munch’s speech. Cassidy remained stoically where he was and Elliot caught the other man watching him a couple of times. He got the impression Cassidy was only staying to keep up appearances. As soon as Munch finished speaking he was off, claiming some appointment he had to get to. 

“Guess that joke about Liv being able to do better didn’t land all that well,” Rollins said, passing off a beer to Elliot and Fin, nodding at Cassidy’s retreating back.

Fin shrugged. “Not that much of a surprise,” he said simply before taking a drink, but his eyes landed meaningfully on Elliot over the bottle. 

“Liv’s relationship is her business,” Elliot said with a shake of her head. “I think we can all agree that Cassidy’s helped her a lot since Lewis. If he’s her choice we don’t get to say anything about it.”

Fin looked at him as if he’d grown a second head and Elliot couldn’t blame him. Fin had been there through most of their partnership. He’d seen everything with Porter and Moss, all the nameless, faceless men who’d never gotten past a first date, and known enough to joke about watching Liv’s back instead of her backside. No, Fin wasn’t blind. Hearing Elliot defend Liv’s choice of who she dated had to be like stepping into some alternate reality.

Rollins’ eyes flickered between the two of them and she started to speak before her phone rang. “Hey, it’s Nick, says they need us on this,” she nudged Fin. 

The two of them gathered their things with a quick goodbye, and Elliot was left to his own devices. Munch was to the side entertaining some old friends and Cragen had made his way out not long after Cassidy- whether it was because of the case they’d evidently caught or because he needed to get away from a bar, Elliot didn’t know. In any case he finished the beer in his hand before making his way out onto the street, hands shoved in the pockets of his jacket. 

Olivia had to excuse herself to the bathroom after the conversation with Nicole. She braced herself with her hands on either side of the porcelain sink, watching a steady stream of water pour from the faucet. Tears threatened to gather as she fought back the onslaught coming at her. 

Sarah, attacked twice by two different men. The tension that hung in the air when Amanda brought up how being assaulted a second time caused a victim to blame themself. 

Nicole, finding out she’d been raped months after it happened. That one stung. She’d dedicated her life to tracking down rapists and bringing peace of mind to their victims. Telling Nicole what had happened felt a lot like Olivia was the one turning her into a victim. It went against everything she thought was right. 

This case on its own was bad enough, but the flashbacks to Harris and Lewis were becoming more and more tangible and she’d just needed a break. Just five minutes to herself to breathe, to ground herself in the present before they went after this son of a bitch. Sarah had watched Wedmore go free. Olivia refused to let Cameron Tyler slip through their fingers too. 

She grabbed a paper towel and ran it under the cold water before pressing it to the heated skin of her cheeks, forehead, and neck. With a final glance in the mirror to make sure her hair and makeup still looked put together, she turned off the water and tossed the paper towel on her way out of the bathroom. Her face was down as she entered the bullpen so she didn’t immediately notice the person waiting for her at her desk.


Her head jerked up to see Kathleen Stabler smiling at her. She’d spoken with the girl in passing a few times since Elliot came back, but only briefly. She was so busy with school and more recently helping Maureen with wedding planning that they hadn’t had time to really talk. 

“Hi, Kathleen. What’s up, are you okay?” she asked, because she had to. It didn’t seem like Kathleen was hurt or in trouble, but she had also never just dropped by the precinct in the past even when her father worked there. 

“Yeah, yeah I’m fine,” Kathleen assured her, and Olivia exhaled. “I’m here to see you actually. I would’ve called but I didn’t know if you had changed your number or if you still had mine,” she rambled before shaking her head. “Anyway, we’re all getting together the Saturday before Dad’s birthday to celebrate. We wanted to see if you’d come.”

“Oh, honey that’s very thoughtful but-” Olivia started before Kathleen interrupted. 

“Dad mentioned you were seeing someone, you should bring him with you,” she said brightly. 

Olivia knew that would be absolutely out of the realm of possibility, but she wasn’t going to crush Kathleen’s hopes by admitting that. 

“I feel like I’d be imposing on your kids’ time with your dad,” she said instead. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Elliot’s kids. She still felt guilty for how she’d been spending more time with him than with Brian. She’d tried to put up boundaries, tried to put distance between them, but it felt like part of her was suffocating from lack of oxygen. 

“Absolutely not, we all want you to come if you can,” Kathleen insisted. “It’s a casual day at Grandma’s house. I know you know the address. Carl and Uncle David will be there too, they wanna meet you.”

Olivia laughed. “This is just a whole event, isn’t it?” Kathleen gave her a wide-eyed pleading look, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and she couldn't find it in herself to turn the girl down. “I’ll try to make it,” she sighed.

“Yes!” Kathleen exclaimed. “I’m serious about bringing your boyfriend, we all want to interrogate him.”

Olivia smiled, knowing already that Brian would turn down the invitation. “We’ll see on that one, but I’ll definitely try to make it. Let me see your phone, I’ll add my number,” she said, and Kathleen handed her phone over without hesitation. “Give it to the others too, you can all call me at any time. Day or night, I mean it.”

When she gave the device back, she saw Kathleen squint at her phone in what looked like disapproval. Before she could ask what was wrong, Kathleen tapped the screen and changed her contact name from ‘Olivia Benson’ to just ‘Liv’ before sliding her phone back into her jacket pocket. 

“See you later, Liv,” Kathleen said. She was on her way out when she paused and turned back to wrap her arms around Olivia’s shoulders. “It’s nice having you around again,” she whispered. 

Olivia didn’t know what to say to that, so she simply hugged her back. 

He didn’t have to look through the peephole to know Olivia was on the other side of the door.

It swung open and he was met with the sight of her, head hung low, hand braced on the doorframe, and her shoulders struggling to hold up the weight of the last few days. When she looked up at him, her eyes were rimmed with red- from exhaustion or tears or both he wasn’t sure- and despite it all he couldn’t help but think she was so goddamn beautiful. 

“C’mon,” he nodded and stepped to the side to allow her in.

She settled herself on the couch and he heard a tiny sniffle from his place in the kitchen. He filled a glass with ice and water before setting it in front of her and settling himself next to her, body angled in her direction. 

“Our vic, Sarah. I met her for the first time almost two years ago,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. He waited, knowing she wasn’t finished but also she needed to do this on her own time. “She’d been raped in her apartment. She was consistent with her story the whole way through. We had DNA. We had video of him going to her apartment.” She became more emphatic as she went on, righteous indignation building in her, and he knew what was coming before she said it. 

“The defense was able to create enough doubt that he was able to walk. Sarah moved boroughs to get away, tried changing what she could to prevent it from happening again…” Olivia trailed off. 

“She was raped again,” he sighed. 

“Yeah. At first she thought it was the same guy. He works a few blocks from her new apartment for God’s sake and she just couldn’t believe she’d run into a rapist again. It wasn’t him though. This guy, he’d done it to a friend of hers a couple months ago too.” She seemed to notice the water in front of her because she reached for it and took a drink. “This was just a hard one,” she said. 

“Because you’d worked with her before?”

She nodded. “That. And it hit close to home. A second assault by a second man, I know how it feels.”

A chill crept up his spine and he fought against the urge to touch her. “You and I know the stats on revictimization,” he said. 

He knew, he knew , what she was talking about, but he didn’t want to push her. Not once had she opened up to him, disclosed even the tiniest sliver of information about what had happened at Sealview. It was more than curiosity that ate at him. It was an unencumbered need to know but he forced it into submission. She may have provided an opening, but he wasn’t a detective anymore and this wasn’t an interrogation. 

“That’s what I told her. That these guys have a sick sense for it. Lewis said… that he could smell a victim.” She choked on his name a bit, her jaw clenched, before she looked up at him with watery eyes. “And he was right,” she admitted. “I told Sarah about me. Not details, just that it’s happened twice. I think it helped a bit, knowing that I’d been where she is.”

He watched her, waiting. Her hand slid up into her hair, elbow resting on her knee. She blinked slowly and nodded almost imperceptibly and it was the permission he’d been waiting for. 

“Harris. The basement.”

She must have known it was coming, but her breath caught in her chest nonetheless. “He didn’t rape me, but he came really close. If Fin had gotten to me even ten seconds later…” she shuddered. Elliot didn’t think Fin would be too keen if he showed up out of nowhere and hugged the man, but he wanted to nonetheless. He was beyond relieved that someone had shown up to protect Liv when he couldn’t, and unimaginably grateful. It was a debt he’d never be able to repay. 

“I appreciate you telling me,” he said. “Sarah, she’s got a lot of healing to do.”

“Yeah she does, but she’s on the right track. I told her after the first time, when the charges didn’t stick, that healing begins when someone bears witness. I believe her about both,” she said, picking at a loose thread in the seat of the couch cushion. 

“You know the same is true for you, Liv.”

“I’m working on it,” she said, stubbornly refusing to look up at him. “I’ve got a handle on Harris for the most part. Lewis is another story.”

“It’s also an entirely different situation.”

Her voice was tight, so soft it was almost a whisper. “I know.”

His hand reached out in the space between them and tilted her chin up, and when she looked up he saw the doubt in her eyes. The uncertainty must have been plaguing her, and he realized that was what brought her to his door. After weeks of little contact and avoidance, she’d sought him out for reassurance that he was all too willing to provide. 

“You’re good at your job, Liv. What happened to you, it doesn’t hinder you,” he insisted. 

She smiled, but it was a wry one, with none of the spark in her eyes he loved, none of the brightness that she gave so easily to others that she’d spent most of her life without. “Makes me better with the victims, that’s for sure.”

His fingers still lingered on her jaw, and he felt them tighten. “Don’t talk like that,” he said, shaking his head.

“It’s true though.”

“I don’t like you thinking like that. You were always the best with victims, even before Harris. And you’ve grown in spite of what happened to you, not because of it,” he said. Fresh tears gathered in her eyes as she glanced up at the ceiling. Her hand came up to his, squeezing it briefly before she dropped it and tilted her head away from him. He mourned the loss of contact. 

“I just wish I could talk to Brian about this. I should be able to do that, he’s my boyfriend,” she said, and it sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

Suddenly everything made sense- the skipped coffee dates, the unanswered texts, the calls sent to voicemail. She’d been distancing herself from him because of how close they were getting. He wondered what had brought it on, the change in her toward him. Had Cassidy had said something about how much time they’d been spending together? Someone at SVU? 

“If I’ve overstepped at all let me know and I swear I’ll back off,” he promised.

She shook her head. “That’s the thing, you haven’t. It’s just so easy to talk to you. I took your advice, you know.” Elliot felt his brow furrow in confusion. “I told Brian what triggered that panic attack a few weeks ago when he didn’t come home and why. He got all quiet afterward, shied away from me. It’s like he forgot that I’m still in some ways a victim. I can see that he wants me to talk to him like I do with you. But then when I do, it hurts him. And I don’t want to hurt him.”

He wanted to touch her again, to press his fingers into the base of her neck like he used to when he wanted to reassure her, but she’d just told him that she was worried about the boundaries they had with each other and he didn’t want to upset her more.

“I wish I knew how to help you with this,” he said softly.

The pressure of trying to heal from what Lewis had done was more than anyone should have to shoulder alone, but she was also trying to balance the emotions of another. Typical Liv, taking on the whole world, thinking she could solve everything if she just worked more, pushed herself harder. And it just kept piling on because she carried it so well, hid the fact that she was aching to lay anything down, and Elliot was worried one day he would look at her and see a crack. Already he could see a fracture trying to form. He wanted nothing more than to take part of her burden. 

“We’ll figure something out,” she shrugged. The silence settled between them, just this side of uncomfortable until she remembered something and brightened. “Oh, Cragen asked me to take the sergeant’s exam.”

He couldn’t control the smile that overtook his face. “That’s fantastic. You’re going to do it right?”

“Am I ready for it?” she asked warily.

Part of him was concerned that with everything she had going on personally, everything she’d just told him about, that she didn’t need the added responsibility of a command. But if there was one thing Liv thrived at, it was SVU. There was no other person for the job, and he was so unspeakably proud of her.

“Cragen wouldn’t have asked if he doubted you,” he said.

“It’s gonna be strange though. I’ve been a detective for fifteen years. It’s who I was when we were partners, it’s how I identified myself for so long.” The idea of moving on seems to stall her for a moment, nostalgia crossing her face as she must be thinking of all the years they walked together. “I always thought if one of us was going to move up it would’ve been you.”

He can’t help but laugh. “Nah, they never woulda promoted me. All those excessive force complaints? The amount of times Tucker was on my ass? Outta the two of us, it was always gonna be you.”

“I would have stayed a detective for the rest of my life if it meant being your partner,” she admitted.

“Guess it’s a good thing I retired then.”

Her mouth fell open and she stared at him with wide eyes. “Don’t say it like that. Like you were holding me back.” She shook her head and in the purse of her lips he saw two years of grief, abandonment, and he wanted to take it all back in a heartbeat. “You leaving wasn’t a good thing for me, Elliot.”

“I’m sorry. I should’ve thought-”

“It’s okay,” she said with a wave of her hand. 

It wasn’t really, but he’d let her assuage his guilt, at least for a little while. 

“Seriously Liv, I’m so proud of you,” he nudged her arm and she smiled, a faint bit of pink gathering on her cheeks. “You know when you pass, you’ll have that whole rank thing going on. Being able to boss people around? Kinda hot.”

She went from pink to red in a second and he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t endearing. She let out a breathy laugh and hid her face in her palm. “Shut up.”

“Yes sergeant,” he smirked.

The throw pillow that whacked him in the face came out of nowhere. 

“You’re ridiculous,” she laughed. 

Maybe flirting with her while she was so conflicted about their relationship wasn’t a good idea. Maybe it made him a selfish asshole or a bad friend for not being supportive of her and Cassidy the way she’d been for his marriage.

Maybe all those things were true. And maybe he didn’t really care.

Chapter Text

When Olivia stepped out of the cab at the beach house she was greeted with the wind whipping her hair as it came in off the water. The temperature was hovering in the 60s, but being near the ocean made it feel colder and she was thankful for the light green cardigan she’d thrown on to go with her jeans and white t-shirt just before leaving the apartment. 

She’d told Brian he’d been invited but he declined, claiming he had plans with some of the guys at work. She’d be lying if she said she was disappointed he was absent. This way, she wouldn’t have to watch her facial expressions around him.

Elliot’s car was already there with two others she didn’t recognize and she assumed that meant some of his kids were inside already. The thought caused her feet to slow their progress and she reconsidered for the hundredth time her presence. It was supposed to be a day for Elliot to be with his family, and she’d always felt like an interloper around them. It wasn’t intentional, and he’d always done his best to include her, make her feel welcome. But something about seeing everything she’d grown up without made her simultaneously ache to be there and want to run from what could never be hers. 

She was still rooted to the spot when the front door swung open and Elliot stepped outside. Her shoulders tensed up, one of her feet turning back toward her car, but then his eyes lit up when they fell on her, the most striking blue she thought she’d ever seen and she knew she wasn’t going anywhere. 

“You made it,” he smiled as he came down the front steps. After Kathleen’s visit to the precinct she’d texted him to let him know about the invitation and he had assured her that she was more than welcome.

“I did,” she nodded. “You sure it’s okay I’m here? I wouldn’t want to intrude on time with your kids.”

“I want you here,” he said and her heart stuttered in her chest at the sentiment. His eyes widened and he cleared his throat, seeming to realize what he’d said. “Eli is excited to see you, and Kathleen hasn’t stopped talking about it since you told her you were coming.” 

The kids were a perfect buffer. Maybe she should feel a little guilty about using them as a deflection, but telling anyone who asked that she’d known them since they were little was the perfect way to wave off any deeper inquiries about her relationship with their father. 

There was one hang up that concerned her.

“Last time I saw Dickie he wasn’t too happy with me.”

“That was years ago, Liv. Plus he was mostly mad at me back then, he just targeted you to get to me. He’s okay,” Elliot promised. 

She took a steadying breath and nodded, satisfied for the time that she wasn’t intruding. Over his shoulder she noticed movement, and glanced up to see Bernie Stabler standing in the doorway.

“Elliot I told you to take someone with you if you needed help carrying everything,” she said as she shuffled onto the porch and then, “Oh Olivia, it’s so wonderful to see you again!” she exclaimed, moving quickly down the front steps to fling her arms around Olivia’s shoulders. 

Elliot stood off to the side, his brow furrowed in confusion at the warm greeting between the two women. Olivia saw the question forming on the tip of his tongue and shook her head. His mom pulled back and her hands landed on Olivia’s cheeks. 

“I heard about what happened. How have you been? Are you feeling alright?” she asked, her eyes flickering over Olivia’s face, arms, neck, scanning for any sign of long healed injuries. 

“Mama,” Elliot scolded, sounding exasperated. If she had to guess, she’d say they had a conversation about what topics to not bring up, and Lewis had been at the top of the list. 

“It’s okay,” she said to him. Bernie didn’t make her feel like she was under a microscope or being asked out of morbid curiosity. It felt like a parent worrying over the wellbeing of their child, genuinely concerned that nothing was still hurting them. Olivia didn’t have a lot of experience with that, but she guessed this was how it felt. “Thank you, Bernie. I’m doing much better. Therapy is helping, and I think Eli’s laugh could cure just about anything.”

Bernie’s eyes scanned her face again. Whatever she saw must have assured her because her hands slid over Olivia’s shoulders and gave her a final squeeze before falling away. “Well I’m glad for that.”

“Is there anything I can help with?” Olivia asked. With the bus full of people that were coming, she couldn’t imagine the preparation Bernie would’ve had to do to cram everyone into her house. 

“No, dear, you come in and sit down. The rest of the kids should be here soon, they can help,” she waved her hands as she walked back to the front door. “What’s the point of having an army of children if you can’t put them to work, right?” she called over her shoulder. 

Olivia caught sight of Elliot standing near the back of his car and he waved her over. “Came out to grab stuff from the car. Give me a hand carrying it in?” He’d planned on getting it himself, if Bernie’s comment as she walked outside was anything to go by, but Olivia’s response in any social situation where she was mildly uncomfortable was always to see what she could do. It was something he knew about her, and she smiled at him in thanks. 

The back of his car was loaded with drinks and bags of paper plates, cups, and napkins. She wondered how he’d planned on getting it all inside on his own without making multiple trips but then she saw him piling four different kinds of soda into his arms and she figured he probably would have found a way. 

She looped the plastic bags over her arms and reached for the juice he’d added to the top of his pile (brought for Eli, if she had to guess), but he shook his head and stepped out of her reach. “I got it. Close the trunk?”

She did as he asked and followed him up to the house. Her eyes lingered on the strong lines of his arms, the flex of his shoulders underneath his shirt. When she realized he had actually added muscle since he left the NYPD was when she shook her head to force the thought from her mind and sped up so she was in front of him. Opening the door with her free hand was the justification but getting him out of her line of sight was the motive.

“Olivia, he’s a big boy, and I told you not to worry about doing anything,” Bernie scolded from the kitchen. 

“I can carry things in from the car, Bernie,” she said while she settled her bags onto the counter. Elliot was already stashing everything in the fridge and a smile passed between them. When she turned toward the living room to see who else was there, Lizzie was already close at hand with a beaming smile. 

“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said and Olivia extended her arm to pull the girl into a hug. 

Over the top of Lizzie’s head she caught sight of Dickie lingering with his hands in his pockets. He looked about as uncertain as Olivia had been outside. “It’s so good to see you both again. I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance before now,” she said. His shoulders relaxed and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. 

“We understand, Liv,” he said. 

The other adults in the room stepped forward, and Olivia knew the man’s name before he told her.

“David Foster, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said, extending his hand to shake hers. He was taller even than Elliot with close cropped light brown hair. He had smile lines around his eyes. 

“Elliot’s friend from the Marines, you work together,” she said.

He laughed, a deep, warm rumble that filled the room. “Technically he works for me, but yes. I’ve heard so much about you, Olivia.”

“Call me Liv, everyone else here does,” she smiled. 

The woman standing next to him cleared her throat. David smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “This is my wife, Valentina,” he said. 

“Call me Val, everyone else here does,” the woman winked. She was petite, but had a spark in her deep brown eyes that spoke of a fire in her that Olivia knew she was going to like. 

The front door flung open and the tornado that was Eli Stabler rushed inside, sneakers pounding on the hardwood floor. “Liv! You’re here!” he cried and rushed directly to her. His head shoved into her stomach and she was glad there was a counter behind her that prevented her from falling over. 

“Hey, little man. How are you?” she asked, crouching down to his eye level.

“Good. Look!” He reached a finger into his mouth and tilted his head down so she could see one of his bottom teeth wiggling.

She smiled brightly. He was getting so big. “That’s exciting. Is that your first loose tooth?”

“Yep. Mommy says when it comes out, we leave it out for the tooth fairy to come while I’m asleep and then she takes the tooth and leaves a dollar behind!” his eyes were round with excitement.

“A whole dollar! The tooth fairy only gave me a quarter when I was a kid. Your teeth must be more valuable than mine were.”

Eli shrugged, his mouth turned into a frown. “Well, maybe you didn’t brush good?” he wondered.

The adults around them chuckled and he looked around at them with confusion.

“You know what Eli, you’re probably right,” Olivia assured him.

“Okay Bub, you’ve said hello to Liv, let other people have a turn,” Kathleen called. Olivia glanced up and realized she must have come in just after Eli, along with Maureen and a man she assumed was her fiancé Carl standing behind her. 

She hugged Kathleen first, the young woman squeezing her extra tight and whispering that she was so happy she made it, before moving to say hi to Maureen. It had been so long since she’d seen her, and not once since Elliot had come back, long enough that she hardly recognized her. Those eyes, though, Olivia would recognize them anywhere. 

“Maureen it is so good to see you,” she said and hugged her quickly. 

From the corner of her eye she saw Elliot steering Eli into the living room, urging him to say hi to everyone else. 

“Glad you could make it, Liv. Not that you had a choice, Kathleen and Eli would have dragged you here if you hadn’t come on your own,” Maureen joked. “This is Carl by the way, I’m sure you guessed. Carl, this is Liv, she was dad’s partner when he was a cop.”

“Your reputation precedes you,” Carl said and reached to shake her hand. 

Olivia laughed. “So I’ve been told. And congratulations to you both. I’m so happy for you,” she said. 

Maureen’s face lit up and she bounced on her toes a little. “Thank you! I actually brought our Save the Date card for you.” 

She pulled a cream colored envelope from her purse and excitedly passed it on. The card itself was the size of a postcard with one of their engagement photos across it, the looping script to the side stating the date as March 29th. 

“Elliot said April at first, you guys anxious to get it over with?” she teased. 

“The venue we wanted was booked all through April, May, and June,” Carl shrugged and his arm slid over Maureen’s shoulders. “Figured this was close enough and I’m too impatient to wait until July,” he said with a smile, keeping his eyes on his fiancée. 

“It’ll be perfect. I’ll put in for the weekend off,” Olivia said. 

“Is work going okay?” Maureen asked. 

Gone was the lightness in her voice when they had been talking about her wedding, and Olivia wished the tightness would go away. She didn’t blame Maureen for being curious, didn’t blame her for the way she looked uncomfortable. Elliot had done everything in his power to shield his children from the brutality, the cruelty of their job, and Maureen wasn’t used to talking to survivors. She cared enough to ask about Olivia’s well-being though, and it was a nice thought. 

She couldn’t help the look she cast across the room though, searching to make sure Elliot was nearby. The tension in her chest eased when she found him talking with David and Val, comforted by the mere sight of him. Almost as if he felt her gaze, he glanced up and met her eyes. 

“Yeah, work is okay,” she said to Maureen. “Munch retired and Cragen is on his way there too. He asked me to take the sergeants exam, and I’m just waiting to see if I passed or not.”

“Of course you passed, Liv,” Elliot said. His hand landed on her shoulder to give her a reassuring squeeze, and she sank, just a little, into his touch. “The question is how high up on the scores you were.” 

Dickie and Lizzie appeared to pull Maureen and Carl away and Olivia let out a sigh. Elliot’s hand slid down to her elbow and tugged on it just enough to get her attention.

“I’m okay, just got a little heavy there for a second,” she whispered. She could feel her eyes getting a little glassy and she gave him a tight smile. Over a decade as his partner meant she could see the protest forming on his lips. “They’re curious. Plus I’ll have to talk about it at the trial anyway.” 

He still didn’t look convinced. 

“I’m fine, Elliot. I’ll tell you if I’m not, remember?” she reminded him of the promise she’d made all those months ago after that day at the park with Eli. Technically, she said she would tell someone, but over time she’d come to accept that the person she wanted to go to most of all was him. 

His eyes flickered over her face one more time, and he nodded subtly. “I’m around if you need anything,” he whispered before stepping back to join the crowd in the living room.

Olivia rubbed her hands over her thighs and hovered in the kitchen for a moment longer. Bernie was humming to herself softly as she moved around, an array of food spread all around her. 

“Bernie, please let me do something,” she pleaded softly, coming up next to the older woman’s elbow. She started to shake her head and good-naturedly shrug off the request, but looked up in time to see the desperation on Olivia’s face. 

“Oh alright, I guess the vegetables could be cut up,” she acquiesced and gestured with her head to the pile of fresh vegetables on the counter. 

Olivia sighed gratefully and started chopping up a cucumber. 

With the rest of the crowd either in the living room or having moved outside, the tight ball of anxiety that had formed in her chest started to release. Bernie’s tittering and humming continued, and Olivia found it soothing. 

“If you don’t mind me asking, last I knew you and Elliot weren’t really speaking. What happened?” she asked. 

“He hit rock bottom is what happened.”

Olivia’s hand stalled, the knife hovering above the cutting board. She’d had hints from Elliot of course about what he’d experienced after he left and it wasn’t a very pretty picture. That his divorce had come after Kathy threw him out, that he’d started seeing a therapist, plus the fact that there was something about why he left in the first place that he wouldn’t tell her even after all these months. She wanted to know so badly, wanted to find all the darkest parts of him that he tried to hide and bring light if she could. Finding out from his mother felt like a violation, though. 

Bernie pressed on anyway. “Just over two years ago he showed up here late, and I could tell something was wrong. I could tell he’d been drinking. Not that he was falling all over the place,” she rushed to say. “Just a little unsteady on his feet, mumbling about how he was sorry, that he felt like he had to. Didn’t make a whole lotta sense to me at the time.”

Olivia took in a shaky breath and crossed her arms over her chest, having an idea what he had been talking about. She turned her back to the counter and leaned against it. 

“I made him stay here in the guest room and the next morning I got him to tell me. He’d put in his papers and when he got home and told Kathy he was quitting she was elated. She saw it as this great opportunity. To her it was a new beginning for them, for their marriage, but it was one of the worst days of his life. So he left and wound up here.”

Olivia recalled that first night in her apartment the knowledge that he’d abandoned her- just like everyone else- weighing on her like a wet blanket. She recalled a full bottle of wine and aching sobs that caught in her chest and desperation to call him one last time. Maybe he’ll pick up now that he’s made a decision she had wondered. If not, I can hear his voice just once more. She hadn’t called. Instead she convinced herself that it was better to put him behind her. A clean break. He would be happier and that’s what she wanted for him. The knowledge that also tried to drown the sorrow in alcohol and shared her misery even miles apart created a knot in her stomach. 

“Why come here?” she asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but why not get a hotel or something?”

“I wondered that myself. I think in that moment he wanted comfort and compassion. Kathy couldn’t give him that, and he was bound and determined he could never speak to you again. Some strange idea of penance and guilt,” Bernie scoffed. 

“So he came to his mother,” Olivia nodded. Her relationship with her own mother had always been stilted and plagued by broken things- promises, bottles, hearts. Despite it all, she still found herself missing her mother sometimes. Occasionally, she’d tug out one of Serena’s throw blankets and bury her nose in it, convinced beyond all sense of logic that she could still smell her floral perfume clinging to it. 

“I wasn’t the best mother I could’ve been when he was growing up, but I did love him,” Bernie said. “He tried to leave immediately, but I showed him I was taking the pills. Still hate the way they make me feel but they let me be more present for my son, my grandkids. And I know Elliot appreciates the effort, so I do it for him.”

Olivia turned and continued chopping the vegetables. “When did you start taking them?”

“About four months after Kathleen got diagnosed.”

“You we’re taking them that whole time without him knowing?” Olivia asked. 

“Well I had to be sure before I waltzed in and uprooted his life again,” Bernie said incredulously. Olivia suspected there was more to it and that she’d actually been afraid of Elliot’s rejection, but she just hummed in response. 

“He seems to be doing better now,” Olivia said. 

Bernie chuckled and nudged her with her elbow. “You sure help with that.” Olivia raised a disbelieving eyebrow which just made Bernie laugh more. “I’m serious. Sure he was getting up, going to work, spending time with the kids and he was doing alright, but there was something missing. Some spark I used to see in him that wasn’t there. It’s back now. You give him a sense of… oh what’s the word. Purpose? Direction?”

“Stability,” Olivia said. The conversation with Kathy in the park all those years before echoed in her ears. She had been convinced that Olivia was the solution, that Elliot couldn’t move on until he knew that she would still be there. 

Kathy had been wrong. Their divorce had been finalized in her absence. It was all the proof anyone needed that Elliot didn’t need her as much as anyone thought. 

“That’s it,” Bernie said, oblivious to the cloud hanging over Olivia’s head. “I can’t tell you what it means as a mother that he has that.”

Olivia stood thinking about everything Bernie had said and as much as she tried, she wasn’t able to ground it in reality. If Elliot relied on her so much why would he leave? If he was so distraught when he left SVU, why wouldn’t he talk to her? Why would he keep all of it from her for months? 

“Liv, come outside with us!” Kathleen waved from the back door 

Bernie nodded at her with a wink and Olivia set the knife down to follow Kathleen and Eli outside onto the sand. 

She made sure to spend time with each of the kids. She asked Kathleen about grad school and deflected her questions about Brian and why he hadn’t come along. The twins were in their third year of college and midterms were on the horizon. Eli enthusiastically told her all about kindergarten and the new friends he’d made and the big slide on the playground he wasn’t scared of at all. Maureen’s new job was going well and she was excited that everything seemed to be falling into place. 

Throughout it all, she caught Elliot keeping a watchful eye to make sure she didn’t get overwhelmed. The casual touches from him- her elbow, the small of her back, the tickle of his breath as he whispered a joke in her ear- lingered even hours later and she was infinitely grateful once again that she did not have to keep herself in check around Brian. She didn’t think she would’ve been able to stop herself from reacting every time she felt Elliot’s skin come in contact with hers. 

It was later, after dinner outside and playing with Eli and so much laughter that she broke away again to sit on the patio with just David and Val. She hadn’t really had much time to get to talk with them separate from the horde of people that were piled into the house, and she wanted to make an effort. Elliot had told her about David’s presence during and after his divorce and how he’d been more than understanding when Elliot had jumped on a plane in the middle of a job to come running to her side. 

“I’m glad I finally got to meet you both. Kathleen didn’t mention you were coming when I talked to her,” Olivia said, looking over at Val.

“I had a work meeting scheduled so I wasn’t planning on it at first. Then David told me you’d be here,” Val smirked. “The way Elliot talks about you? I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

She could feel heat creeping up her neck and she wondered what exactly Elliot had told them. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get Brian to come with me,” she said in the hope that the subtle reference to him would distract from whatever David and Val were thinking about her and Elliot. 

“Your boyfriend, you’d you two meet?” David asked. He leaned back in his chair, his arm draping across the back of Val’s.

“Work, actually. He was at SVU when I got there, but he transferred out early 2000. We lost touch for a while but met up again on a case last year. Been together ever since.”

“What’s he like? He a good guy?” Val asked.

Olivia smiled. “Yeah, he is. He’s been great through everything that happened last spring,” she said truthfully, and both of them nodded in understanding. “He has a tough exterior and comes off as an ass when you first meet him, but he’s got a soft heart underneath it all.”

“Sounds like someone else we know,” Val said, nodding her head in the direction of the beach. 

Olivia followed her eyes to see Elliot, crouched down and showing Eli how to put together a fire. She knew even from a distance the soft tone he was using to speak to his youngest, saw him gesturing while he explained how to do everything safely. She felt herself smile despite the pang in her chest. He’d always been incredible with children, and if anyone was made to be a father, it was Elliot. At this stage of her life, she seriously doubted she’d ever have a child of her own, but if she had the choice she’d want her kid to have a father exactly like him. 

She wouldn’t trade Eli for the world. But if she was honest, she at one point had gone over so many ‘what-ifs’... 

“What about you two, how’d you meet?” she asked, pulling her attention away from the beach.

Val hummed as she hurriedly set her drink down. “So picture this-”

“Here we go,” David said. His eyes rolled fondly at his wife. 

“You be quiet, I love this story,” she scolded, swatting his chest with the back of her hand.

“She loves this story,” he said to Olivia.

“So I was 25, I’d just moved from Ohio to Jersey. It was my first time living without my mom and I knew nobody at all except for my step-sister,” Val started. 

Olivia nodded, wondering what had prompted the move, what had made Val make such a big move on her own at such a young age. She was fascinated by the other woman, and she wanted to know more about her story. 

“My sister has this great idea for how to introduce me to people. She worked for the dispatcher and she says to me ‘you gotta meet this guy.” He’s a police officer she knows through work. She’s got a crush on this guy’s partner who’s his best friend and is trying to do like a double date situation. She sets it all up where we’re gonna meet them in this parking lot while they’re on duty,” Val tells her. She spoke with her hands, and David subtly moved her glass away from her excited gesturing. 

“Can you tell she loves telling this?” David asked. His fingers ran a lazy pattern up and down Val’s arm.

Anyway ,” Val said with a pointed look at her husband. “The guys are already there when we pull in, and my sister parks a few places away from them. The guy she has a crush on is driving, he rolls his window down, yells ‘oh, you can get closer than that!’ and pulls their squad car around so that it’s right next to ours. I’m talking less than a foot between our cars,” she said, holding her hands up for emphasis. “Well the way the cars are, their driver’s window ends up right next to mine. I look over and see this guy,” she points at David with her thumb,” sitting there with this bright beaming smile and think ‘oh, I’m in trouble.’”

It took Olivia a few seconds to process what Val said, but when she did she sat straighter in her chair. “Way, so you’re the one her sister had a crush on?” she asked David. 

“Yup,” he smiled.

“How’d that go over?”

Val shrugged. “She got over it pretty quickly. His partner not so much,” she said.

That caused a crease to form between David’s eyebrows and he meets Olivia’s questioning look. “He didn’t like that I spent so much free time with her. Couple months in he said ‘You gotta make a choice man. Me or the girl,’” he said a little sadly. He looked over at Val, deep adoration written clearly across his face. “It wasn’t really a choice.”

Val squeezed her husband’s knee under the table and for the second time since they sat down Olivia felt her heart twist in her chest. When she was younger she’d thought about finding a love like the one she saw in front of her, dreamed of finding someone who would choose her over anyone else, who would mean it when they promised to stay with her. She didn’t think what she had with Brian fell into the category of Great Love, but she contended herself with the knowledge that it was comfortable. Not everyone got the kind of love people wrote books about, and she’d long given up on the fantasy of finding it herself. 

Still, she couldn’t help feeling just a little bit lonely. 

“Olivia seems to be having a good time,” his mother said, coming up from where she and Eli had been splashing each other in the ocean. He glanced over her shoulder to make sure someone was keeping an eye on his youngest and noted Maureen and Carl helping him hunt for seashells. 

“Yeah, it’s nice to see her smiling so much,” he agreed. The fire he’d built with Eli was slowly growing and it would be big enough soon for them to pull out the marshmallows.

“Have you heard anything about the trial?” his mom asked.

Elliot sighed and glanced up toward the house. Liv was sitting with David and Val, engrossed in whatever it was Val was saying that had her hands waving around excitedly. When he stood up, his knees popped in protest of the crouched position he’d been in. He put his back to the house so Liv wouldn’t look up and see any kind of negative emotion on his face and get concerned. 

“He’s using as many appeals as he can,” Elliot said, dusting sand off his hands. “Burying the system in motions, wasting the DA’s time and the judge’s. He’s dragging it out, knows it’s putting her through hell.”

Liv carried it well, taking each blow in stride and refusing to let anyone see the frustration when the trial got pushed further back. Every day that it was extended meant another day she had to live with a blade over her neck and he hated it for her. 

“It’ll be over eventually, and then he’ll be in prison,” she said. His hands fell to his hips and he kicked at the sand. Elliot wondered what it must be like having that kind of faith in the justice system. His mom watched his face and tilted her head to look at his eyes. “He is going to prison, right?”

“Regardless of what happens at trial, that man is not walking free,” he said, his voice dark and dangerous. 

“Elliot-” his mom cautioned, but he was having none of it.

“Mama you didn’t see her. When I finally got to her, she’d already had a chance to get cleaned up and she was still hurt so bad,” his voice quivered. “And then the nightmares and panic attacks she had to deal with after?”

The rage he was so familiar with burned inside his chest, a creature determined to hunt down anyone who harmed the people he loved and make them pay. He did a pretty decent job of hiding it from Liv, but he’d caught himself a few times in the gym going a little too hard at a punching bag he imagined was William Lewis.

“When are you going to tell her you’re in love with her?” his mom asked. She was shorter than he was, but he still looked up at her through his lashes as he bit the inside of his lip. “You’re not really subtle about it Elliot, but I’m also your mother and I know you,” she laughed.

“She’s dating someone,” he said, knowing it was exactly like the I’m married line he used to throw out when people asked about her while they were partners.


He sighed. “And it’s not fair for me to barge in and screw that up for her. If she’s happy, it’s my job to support her and make sure it stays that way.”

Telling her that he was in love with her, had been in love with her for years , would only add to the confusion she was already feeling. And if he knew one thing with absolute certainty, it was that Olivia Benson deserved happiness. He’d do whatever it took to insure that she had it, even if the idea of it being with someone else caused a hot knife to slide through his belly.

“Don’t wait too long,” his mom said as she walked back up to the house. “I’m going to grab the marshmallows,” she called over her shoulder, loud enough for all of the kids scattered all across the beach to hear. 

Lizzie, Kathleen, and Dickie started jogging from where they’d been tossing a frisbee. Eli hollered “marshmallows!” and jumped in the air, two little fists raised above his head. Maureen caught his attention and together they washed sand off their hands in the water, probably figuring he wouldn’t want to go into the house and truly wash his hands. 

David and Val had to leave not long after. Val all but insisted on hugging Liv goodbye. She must have whispered something in her ear because Liv’s eyes flickered over to him and he thought he saw a tinge of red on her cheeks. 

The fire died as the sky darkened and the breeze coming in from the water felt more and more like a bite. Next to him, Liv crossed her arms over her chest with a shiver and he unconsciously took a step closer to her. She didn’t pull away, but he wasn’t sure if that was because she appreciated the warmth or because she liked having him being so near.

As Maureen and Carl said their goodbyes, Elliot caught sight of Eli subtly rubbing at his eyes and moved to grab his youngest and head home.

“C’mon, bud. You and I gotta get back to the city.”

“No!” Eli shrieked and scurried away from his father’s reaching hands. 

Elliot sighed. “Eli-”

“I wanna stay here!”

“Buddy it is already past your bedtime,” he tried to reason. 

Eli stamped his little foot on the sand, pouting so deeply that his lips pursed out and his eyebrows were in a deep furrow. “I’m not tired!” he shrieked.

A loud yawn came from his left and he glanced over to see Liv with her arms stretched high over her head. “It’s a good thing you’re not tired, Eli, because I am. I was awake all last night and I don’t have a car here with me to get home. Can you take me?”

Eli eyed her with suspicion. “Seriously?”

“Only if it’s okay with your dad, of course,” she nodded and turned to give Elliot an expectant look. 

He pretended to consider it. “I suppose, if Eli is okay with it.”

All hesitation about getting in the car was gone as Eli scrambled to grab Liv’s hand and lead her to their car. 

“Elliot you better hurry up, I’m falling asleep on my feet. I might not make it to the car” she called over her shoulder. 

He gave his mom a kiss on the cheek and swiftly said goodnight to Kathleen and the twins to jog up to the house and grab his keys and Liv’s wallet from inside. As he did, exaggerated snoring noises came from Liv and Eli’s answering giggles as he urged her to keep walking filtered into all the tiny spaces of his heart.

Fifteen minutes into their drive, Eli was asleep in his car seat, his neck tilted at some unnatural angle that made Elliot wince and rub at his own neck just from looking at it. Liv sat next to him, a content smile on her face as she looked out the window.

“What did my mom mean, that it was nice to see you again?” he asked softly. It had been bothering him all day. Maybe in the past he would have brushed it off as some delusional figment of his mother’s mind, but something about the way the two women had talked made him think it was more.

“It’s nothing,” she shrugged.

“When did you meet my mom?” he asked again, more insistent. “Liv?”

She sighed, probably realizing he wasn’t going to drop the subject. “Around the time Kathleen was arrested. I may have come out here and convinced her to talk to Kathleen at Riker’s. Your mom managed to get through to Kathleen and convince her to get help.”

He was speechless, thinking about how lost, how listless he’d been during that time, how many mistakes he had made just trying to protect his child. With no concrete explanation as to what had changed his daughter’s mind, he had settled on the fact that his prayers had been answered and a miracle had been granted. He should have known, really, that the miracle had been Olivia all along.

“First you save Kathy and Eli, then Kathleen,” he said, his throat tight. 

“I didn’t save Kathleen. She’s the one that stuck with her treatment and has made a life for herself. She did that all on her own,” Liv said vehemently. It was just like her really, to leave peace where there once was chaos and deny that she’d done anything at all.

“Olivia Benson, you astound me.” He wondered if she could hear it, the awe, the reverence he felt when he thought about her, about the magnitude of what she had done for his family. Every time he thought he’d reached the depths of how much someone could love, she proved him wrong. 

The lights they passed on the road hit her face and made it easier to see the shadows under her eyes. Her elbow braced against the window and her head fell into her hand. He suspected she was telling the truth when she’d told Eli she hadn’t slept the night before.

“I did what anyone would do, Elliot,” she said, slowly, barely above a whisper.

He let her rest on the remainder of the drive to her apartment. She stirred when the car rolled to a stop at the curb and he took a chance to reach across the center console to touch the back of her hand.

“Thank you, Liv. For coming tonight, for helping with Eli. For Kathleen. I can’t even begin to-“

“It was nothing, really,” she said and gathered her things to get out of the car. “Happy Birthday, Elliot.” He wanted to say something, find some way to get her to stay longer but he couldn’t think of any justification for it, and she slipped quietly out of the car and disappeared safely into her building. 

Eli didn’t wake up when they arrived back at his apartment and Elliot couldn’t bring himself to make him get out and walk. As he carried him inside, he caught sight of them in a mirror and his heart clenched when he realized how tall his youngest had gotten. 

Once inside he slipped Eli’s shoes off and settled him under his covers. 

“Daddy? Is Liv coming to my birthday too?” Eli asked and Elliot was surprised he had any capacity for consciousness. 

“We can ask her in the morning,” he promised, certain she would accept since it was Eli. “Do you know that I love you?”


“Do you know that you’re very important to me?”


“Do you know that nothing will ever change that?”


It was something Elliot had started doing when Eli was a toddler. His father had been a difficult man and just because Elliot knew Joe Stabler loved him didn’t mean he always felt it. He was trying to go the other direction with his kids, and he regretted every single time he’d failed to do that with them. 

Laying in the darkness of his room his eyes ached but he couldn’t stop his mind from spinning. He’d spent the day with the people loved most and it had been more than he could ever ask for and still he couldn’t shake the hope that maybe next year, Liv wouldn’t be there as a friend. Maybe next year he’d be allowed to wrap his arms around her waist and press his lips behind her ear. 

He drifted off, picturing her blissfully content smile, creating a reality where he was the reason for it.

Chapter Text

Elliot’s old house in Queens looked much the same as Olivia’s cab turns down the block. The same paint color, the same shutters, the same car in the driveway. After he left, she thought about showing up at his front door, demanding to know what the hell his problem was that he couldn’t just talk to her. She never did, and it feels oddly comforting that it’s so familiar. So many things in her life changed in two years, and she likes thinking that at least some things remained constant.

She saw Eli running around in the front yard throwing a kite in the air as the car pulled up to the curb. An older woman was with him, her grey hair pulled back in a severe bun, her shoulders hunched against the slight chill. 

“Liv!” Eli shouted, the kite abandoned as he sprinted toward her. His arms flung around her shoulders when she crouched down. 

“Hi, sweet boy,” she said and held the blue gift bag she’d brought with her to the side to avoid it being crushed. Much like her windpipe was being crushed by Eli’s shoulder. “Ease up, kid,” she laughed and pulled back to look at him. 

How was that tiny baby in the ambulance six years old?

“Liv, this is my Nana. She’s my mom’s mom,” he said, quickly pointing to the other woman. 

Olivia’s knees protested as she stood up straight. “Olivia Benson, it’s nice to meet you,” she said, extending her hand to Kathy’s mom. 

The silence between them lingered long enough that Olivia almost pulled her hand back. The woman, whose name she still did not know, stared at her with eyes the color of ice and hard as steel. 

“Patricia Murphy,” she said finally, and shook Olivia’s hand. Not a single bit if her demeanor relaxed and Olivia got the feeling that she only spoke to her because it was the polite thing to do. 

For what it was worth, Eli wasn’t fazed by the tension between the adults.

“We’re playing kites, wanna see?” he asked exuberantly, and it was hard to be deterred around him when he was so happy. 

“Sure, show me how you do it,” she said and let him lead her back into the yard. 

He ran to his kite and tossed it up in the air to try to catch the wind. He wasn’t able to throw it very high and his legs didn’t move fast enough to truly get it going. Still, he giggled every time it stayed in the air for three seconds and it was so contagious Olivia couldn’t fight the smile on her face, even when Patricia came to stand next to her. 

The next throw managed to catch a gust of wind at the perfect time and the kite hovered for the longest length of time yet before it quivered and dove nose first into the ground. Eli whipped around to look at the two women 

Did you see that?” His eyes were wide with surprise. 

“We did, you’re doing so good!” Olivia called. Eli jumped once with his fist in the air and ran to grab the kite from where it fell. “He’s got so much energy, I wish I could bottle it,” she said to Patricia. 

“Most boys do at that age,” was the gruff response. 

Unease settled in Olivia’s stomach and she could not figure out what she’d said or done that could cause this woman to be so displeased she had spoken to her. In any case, she could tell her presence was not wanted. 

“Hey, Eli, I’m gonna head inside and see if Mommy needs anything,” she called. He waved once and continued playing. Patricia didn’t acknowledge her departure in the slightest. 

A note taped to the screen door instructed her to come in, but she still moved slowly to open the door, her interaction with Kathy’s mother making her second guess her decision to come. 

Fortunately, Elliot was coming down the stairs right as she opened the door. “You made it!” 

“Eli asked me to come,” she shrugged. 

He smiled at her knowingly. “I think Kathy’s in the kitchen. She’ll be happy to see you,” he nodded in that direction and squeezed her elbow before heading to the other side of the house. Olivia wondered when they’d become so comfortable with casual touches. 

She passed a table in the living room that already had a couple gifts on it. Just as Olivia paused to set her bag with the rest of them, Kathy hurried around the corner. She stopped short when she saw her. 

“Liv,” she said simply and hugged her. “Thank you so much for coming.”

The anxiety she’d been feeling since meeting Kathy’s mother abated slightly. Eli and his parents were happy to see her. That should be enough. 

“Thank you for having me over,” she answered and pulled back. “Do you need anything?”

Kathy chuckled and shook her head. “Elliot warned me you’d try to help.”

Behind Olivia the front door swung open and a man hollered “Incoming!” Eli ran inside under the man’s arm as he held the door open and three more kids ran in behind him. The stampede of little sneakers went up the stairs with Eli shouting for everyone to follow him. The man holding the door stepped inside, giving a fond shake of his head as he stared after them.

“Hey, Kath,” he greeted as he approached and dropped a kiss to her cheek. 

Kathy gestured to Olivia. “Matt, this is Liv, she’s-”

“Elliot’s former partner, of course. Glad to have you,” he said and unwrapped his arm from around Kathy’s shoulders to shake her hand. 

Olivia smiled politely. “Nice to meet you, finally.”

“Matt’s a counselor at Eli’s school,” Kathy said.

“Met her in the pick-up line, funny enough,” he teased and Kathy rolled her eyes fondly.

Watching the two of them enamored with each other reminded Olivia of the day at the beach with David and Val. It was strange to see Kathy with someone other than Elliot, with another man’s arm around her waist. And yet, something about the two of them together seemed like it was right. Like it made sense.

“What do you need, Kath?” Matt asked softly.

“You and Liv both with the helping,” she shook her head and looked around in thought for a moment. “Just keep an eye on everyone I guess,” she finally shrugged, glancing between the two of them.

Gradually, Eli’s friends from his class filtered in, and Olivia found herself lingering to the side with both Elliot and Matt, but mostly the latter. She found out he was originally from Connecticut and still went back regularly to see his father. His mother had died a few years back to cancer and she told him she understood his loss. At one point, he whispered that he was hanging back because even though he desperately wanted a future with Kathy, Elliot was Eli’s father and he believed that Elliot should get to do these kinds of things for his child. That was when Olivia decided she liked him. 

It was chaotic and she wondered how Kathy handled all of the kids so gracefully. Clearly she had practice, having raised enough of her own, but a dozen at once was still impressive. Patricia hung by Kathy’s side through it all, and Olivia caught her looking at her more than once with a sour expression. Once the kids were all full of pizza, Kathy asked Elliot, Matt, and Olivia if they would go to the backyard with them and make sure nobody got hurt while she cleaned up a little. 

While at the door herding all the kids out, Olivia paused, thinking that Kathy had been doing so much of the work for Eli’s party. She could probably use a break or just to spend time with her son. She caught Matt’s attention. “I’m gonna check and see if Kathy wants to swap so she can come out with the kids,” she said with a nod just as the last kid ran outside.

“She’ll probably say no, but she’ll appreciate it,” he smiled. 

The back door latched and without the shouts of excited children, she could hear raised voices in the kitchen. Olivia crept closer, curious what Kathy and her mother had to argue about.

“-simply cannot believe you’d let that woman into your house,” Patricia’s voice carried down the hall, and Olivia’s steps faltered.


Olivia wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the rest of the conversation, but her feet were rooted to the carpet and she found she had no choice.

“Mother stop. I told you I was wrong,” Kathy insisted, exasperated. Someone started running water in the sink, and Olivia felt marginally better that Kathy wasn’t feeding into her mother’s anger.

“So now you believe him that they didn’t have an affair?” Patricia asked, aghast. “Even if he’s telling the truth-”

“He is!

“Even so, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings for her.”

Olivia heard the water stop running and something splash in the sink, like it had been tossed in. “Elliot’s feelings are not Olivia’s responsibility,” Kathy snapped. “For thirteen years, she made sure my husband came home alive. She got Kathleen help when she was beyond my reach. And need I remind you, we’re only here today because six years ago, she saved Eli’s life. My life. Would it kill you to show her the bare minimum of respect?”

Patricia scoffed. “Respect? To the self righteous tramp who stuck her nose where it didn’t belong and wrecked my daughter’s marriage?”

Olivia had heard enough. More than enough. 

She stepped backwards, quietly, and snuck out the door back to the yard.

The shouts of the kids barely reached her, tossed in turmoil. It was one thing for people at work to think she and Elliot were having an affair but some of the people closest to him? Kathy had clearly thought so at one point otherwise her mother wouldn’t have said the things she did. Months before, that first day walking around the park with Elliot, he had said he and Kathy had simply grown into different people. He’d said nothing about Kathy’s suspicions about them, nothing about any lingering bitterness. From what she heard in the kitchen, it didn’t sound like Kathy still had any resentment toward her but saying it to her mother and believing it were two different things.

And that comment about Elliot having feelings for her…

She felt like she was being suffocated. She had to leave.

Elliot was in the yard with Eli helping him and his friends with some kind of game they were setting up. Good, she could get both goodbyes out of the way at once. 

“Hey, Eli,” she said as she approached. Twin sets of blue eyes looked happily up at her, but Elliot’s quickly changed when he realized something was off. “I have to go buddy, but I’ll see you later.”

“Awwww why?” he asked, disappointed. 

“I gotta go catch a bad guy,” she lied easily enough and ruffled his hair. 

Eli hung his head and mumbled “okay.” It was pitiful and broke her heart a little, almost enough to change her mind. 

“I’ll talk to you later,” she said to Elliot, who was still watching her with concern. “Tell Kathy I said goodbye.” 

She used the side gate to circle around to the front of the house so she could avoid going back inside.

In the back of the cab, she leaned her head into her hand and stared out the window. Manhattan got closer and for the life of her she couldn't figure out why she’d just… left. Why she hadn’t stood up for herself, made her presence known somehow, made Kathy’s mother as uncomfortable as she’d made Olivia. She wasn’t the kind of person to let someone walk all over her, so why had she let some stranger do it? She hadn’t even been able to tell Kathy goodbye or thank her for letting her be there. 

Her phone chimed with a text and she groaned at first, thinking it was Elliot. When she saw Fin’s name though, she relaxed. Maybe she hadn’t lied to Eli after all.

Why does Stabler think we caught a case?

Or not.

I told him we had one, she sent back. 

Lying to leave a kid’s birthday party isn’t your style, what happened?  

Damn him for being so perceptive.

I don’t wanna talk about it.  

Olivia hoped he would get the hint with that and drop the subject, and fortunately he did because her phone didn’t ring again. When she got back to Manhattan and stepped into her empty apartment she couldn’t decide if the silence was welcome or suffocating.

She probably shouldn’t have been surprised when Elliot texted her a couple hours later. 

You still at the precinct?

Olivia hesitated. If she had to guess, she’d say he was planning on coming to see her and she wondered if she had time to make it to the precinct and pretend to be working. If she did that she’d have to hope no one would accidentally rat her out to Elliot and she really didn’t want to explain why she lied to his son. 

No, I’m home.

The expected knock came fifteen minutes later. 

She planned on shrugging him off, pretending she was tired, something, but she opened the door to his shy grin and a Tupperware container extended to her. 

“You left before cake. Eli wanted to make sure you got some,” he explained as he passed it off to her. 

Shame settled like a ball of iron in her chest as she looked down at the container in her hand. Sweet Eli was so happy to see her and she’d let him down. He sent Elliot to make her feel included when he had no reason to. It was her own fault for lying, for leaving. For thinking she had any right to show up in the first place. She bit the inside of her lip in an attempt to keep it from quivering. Elliot’s eyes narrowed, and Olivia knew she was unsuccessful. She stepped back and beckoned for him to come inside, latching the door quietly behind him. 

“Fin said you texted him after I left,” she said while he slid his jacket off to hang by the door.

“Yeah, you seemed like something was bothering you when you left. Wanted to make sure you were gonna be okay,” he shrugged. 

Olivia shook her head, a tiny smile tugging at her lips. “You know Fin isn’t my partner, right?” Elliot had only met Nick a couple of times. There wasn’t animosity really, not the way Nick and Brian butted heads, but she knew Elliot had a hard time seeing someone else as her partner, even if it wasn’t something she’d had much of a choice in.

“I’m sure Amaro is great, but… I just trust Fin more,” Elliot said, his voice filled with uncertainty as he reached around her to lock the door.

Olivia hummed and brushed past him into the apartment. “What did Fin tell you?” she asked, knowing the answer was probably a big fat ‘nothing.’ There were few things she knew with absolute certainty, and one of them was that Fin would protect her secrets. Sealview had done more than enough to prove that to her and she knew he wouldn’t rat her out to Elliot now.

“Not much. Tough case?” Elliot asked. 

The Tupperware container was placed on the counter, and Olivia’s fingers ran idly along the edge of the lid. “No.” She answered honestly because she knew he would detect the lie. She hoped he would get annoyed with her avoidance and just go. Instead, he stood expectantly in her living room, waiting for her, until finally she sighed. “At Eli’s party, I overheard Kathy’s mom say something to her about me being there. I made up a case so I could duck out.”

“What’d Pat say?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. 

In their years as partners, she’d come to expect his protectiveness to rear its head every now and then, and she appreciated it for the most part. It was an indication that he’d cared for her, even if it wasn’t necessarily the same way she cared for him. Still, she had grown accustomed to the warmth that would spread through her knowing that someone had her back, consequences be damned. Now, though, it was greeted only by a cold slice of guilt because what right did she have to sow discord between him and his family? 

None. She didn’t have a place among them to begin with, and a few outings with Eli and one day at the beach didn’t change that.

“It’s not a big deal, Elliot,” she tried to convince him to drop it, but he wasn’t having it.

“What did she say, Liv?” he said slowly, as he took a step forward, enunciating every word.

Their eyes locked and silently faced off, brown eyes pleading with unyielding blue, an exercise of futility, until finally she quaked under the weight of his stare. 

“She believes you and I were… together. While you and Kathy were married,” she sighed. “And she was pretty vocal about how she didn’t like me being there.”

“Kathy let that happen?” he asked, clearly irritated by the idea.

Olivia shook her head quickly. “She tried to shut it down,” she defended and Elliot’s shoulders relaxed a miniscule amount. “But I mean, it’s her mom. I didn’t want to hang around and cause any issues. It wouldn’t have been fair to Eli.”

“Yeah, Patricia Murphy is a very hard woman. She was never my biggest fan,” he said, trying to make a joke. Olivia caught onto the insecurity in his voice, though, and she wondered what it must have been like. Him, the son of a disgraced cop and a mentally unstable mother, who had told her once he was a solid B student. Kathy’s mother oozed refinement and intolerance for anything less than exceptional. It must have shocked her beyond thought when her daughter got pregnant in high school, and Elliot definitely didn’t seem like the type of person she would have chosen for her daughter. Still, he was faithful and he took responsibility, twice, first with Maureen and then with Eli. He did the honorable thing by Kathy and still it wasn’t enough for her mother. No amount of fancy clothes or pearls or retirement homes on the beach in Florida could buy that kind of devotion, and still she’d made it clear to him that he wasn’t good enough.

Olivia decided right then that Patricia could fuck off.

“I’ll talk to Kathy,” Elliot promised, but she shook her head.

“Don’t, Elliot. It’s not worth it,” she said. I’m not worth it , she meant.

He may have worn her down to get her to tell him what was bothering her, but she wouldn’t be swayed this time.

“I won’t mention it to Kathy, but if she says anything around me I’m not gonna let it slide, Liv,” he relented.

And what did it say about her, that a part of her wanted him to stand between her and his ex-mother-in-law? That part of her whispered to let it all go and simply succumb to the comfort that came with being shielded by him?

She merely sighed and pulled the Tupperware container across the counter toward her. “Did the rest of Eli’s party go well?” she asked as she pulled a fork from the drawer. 

“Yeah, it did. He was very excited about the dinosaur Legos you got him. Already asked me if you could come over and build them with him,” Elliot smiled. 

The idea of it was so… domestic. She pictured it in her mind, herself and Eli using the coffee table in Elliot’s living room building together. Eli reminding her that they had to go in a specific order and that the “structions” told them what to do. It was warm and comfortable and all the things she wanted but would probably never get to have.

“I’d love to,” she said instead and took a bite of cake.

Next to her elbow, her phone screen lit up with an email notification and her stomach dropped when she saw the subject line. 

Her sergeants exam results were in.

“It’s my results,” she said. The fork fell from her fingers and clattered on the countertop. 

“Sergeants exam?” Elliot asked excitedly and she nodded. The bite of cake had turned to sawdust in her mouth. “You got it, Liv,” he assured. 

Olivia forced herself to swallow and picked up her phone with trembling fingers and opened her email. She didn’t know what she would do if she’d failed. Cragen had put all his hope on her, Brian was confident she would excel, and Elliot- Elliot was so sure that she passed he was telling his kids as if it was a done deal. But what if she hadn’t? What if she let everyone down, what if she hadn’t been good enough, what if she didn’t live up to their expectations-

“I passed,” she said softly, mildly in shock. But there was no denying the large CONGRATULATIONS in the first line of the message, the score, her ranking.

Elliot clasped her wrist. “You passed?” he grinned.

“I passed!” she laughed and she finally looked up at him.

Before she knew what was happening, he swept her up into a hug that lifted her feet off the floor to spin her around once. It was sudden and surprising but not unwelcome. His breath puffed against her ear when he laughed and she decided she’d earned a little bit of joy for all her hard work. It didn’t last even ten seconds, but when her feet were once again firmly planted on the floor, she didn’t pull away from him completely. 

“Congratulations, sergeant,” he said, almost reverently. Pride glittered in his eyes and she felt dizzy all of a sudden. 

She told herself it was a side effect from when he spun her around.

“It says I was 48th out of 8000,” she said, glancing down at the email again to make sure she’d read that right and she was really in the top 1% of the score.

“I knew you could do it. When are we celebrating?” he asked and she could already see him jumping into making plans, figuring out what they could do or where they would go. It felt good, having someone invested that way.

“Hold off on that just for a little,” she laughed. “I think I want to get the squad together, tell everyone at once. Keep it a secret for me?”

“Whatever you want,” he promised softly. Excitement and wonder were rolling off him in waves and it was overwhelming that it was directed at her. Both of them were giddy and elated and she couldn’t think of a single person she’d rather share the moment with. 

A key slid into the lock on the front door and Olivia’s stomach dropped. Last she knew, Brian was on the night rotation so she hadn’t been expecting him to come home. But there he was, shuffling in the door, calling her name, footsteps slowing when he realized she wasn’t alone.

“Hey, Cassidy, good to see you,” Elliot said genuinely.

“Stabler,” Brian said gruffly. His eyes flashed from Elliot to Olivia and she had to remind herself that there was nothing going on. She had no reason to feel guilty for having her closest friend standing in her kitchen

“Liv had to leave the party early so I brought her some cake,” Elliot explained. He looked so relaxed, a polite smile on his face, either oblivious to the axe hanging over all their heads or very good at pretending it wasn’t there. He glanced back to meet her eyes and nodded at Brian with a raised eyebrow.

“I just got the email about the sergeant’s exam. I passed,” she told him and when Brian smiled and moved to hug her it didn’t feel the same as when Elliot had done it.

“That’s fantastic, Liv,” he said and kissed her just a second longer than strictly necessary. “She always was the smartest of all of us,” he added, glancing over her shoulder at Elliot. It was the least hostile thing he’d done since walking in the front door. 

“Too bad she knew it, too,” Elliot teased and she rolled her eyes at both of them. “Liv, I better head out, got a meeting with David tomorrow morning,” he said walking toward the door. He called “See you both later,” over his shoulder before latching it behind him. 

The silence that remained behind hung heavy in the apartment.

The axe slipped lower.

Chapter Text

Olivia wished she could rewind the clock, go back to a week before when her squad had all been gathered in her apartment over dinner celebrating her news of the sergeant’s exam (met with overwhelming excitement and joy for her) and Brian’s promotion (slightly less enthused because it was with IAB, but even he was less than pleased with that posting).

Now, though, Nick was tossing out smug comments and, in Olivia’s mind at least, possibly overstepping the boundaries of what a coworker would do. Amanda didn’t pull any punches either, and things were reaching a boiling point. 

After Nick walked away, hands up in surrender following yet another spat, Olivia found herself cautiously approaching Amanda, hoping to smooth things over or lighten the tension just a little. 

“Amanda I think he’s just trying to look out for you,” she said.

“He’s got a funny way of showing it,” Amanda snapped defensively, dejectedly, almost disappointed. 

Olivia could empathize with her to an extent- it never felt good to have someone tell you what you needed or what was best for you. Then again, when people circle the wagons to shield you, it can feel a lot like they’re doing it to keep you in than to keep the monsters out. Especially to someone who has never had people protect them before.

Olivia leaned over the desk, trying to make eye contact but also to keep her voice low so she didn’t make Amanda feel like there was any more unwanted attention on her. “Amanda I’ve been where you are, okay. Certain victims, they push buttons, okay? You get caught up, you lose perspective.” 

Amanda’s eyes hardened while Olivia spoke and she hung up the phone. She crossed her arms in front of her and curled her lip defiantly. “This isn’t about my sister,” she insisted. 

“You went through a lot with her. Have you talked to anyone about it?” Olivia asked cautiously. 

“Yeah, actually. In meetings,” Amanda sneered. 

God, Olivia thought, of course she’s feeling attacked. We’re investigating her support system. While she fully believed anonymous groups were great resources, they were no substitute for professional help though. Since Lewis happened and she’d started seeing Lindstrom, Olivia had come to realize that. 

“I meant a therapist.”

“Oh, I don't have to pay for someone to listen to my problems,” Amanda said indignantly and stood up quickly to walk away. 

Olivia stayed rooted to the spot, frozen with her hands on the desk. Logic told her that Amanda was defensive, that she couldn't tell who was on her side and who was against her so she preemptively lashed out at everyone, but the comment still stung, as if she’d been slapped across the face.

“What?” Amanda said, and Olivia glanced over her shoulder to see Elliot had walked in at some point while they’d been talking. She didn’t know when he’d arrived, but the hard set of his shoulders and the crease in his forehead told her that he’d heard Amanda’s last comment at least.

“Are we gonna have a problem?” he asked.

Amanda scoffed. “Not unless you don’t get outta my way.” 

The contrast between the two of them was almost funny. Amanda was petite, slim, and golden where Elliot was tall and shadowed, from the color of his hair to the black leather jacket to the dark wash jeans. His shoulders wide, inches taller than her even with her heeled boots, clearly the more physically imposing of the two of them, and yet anybody watching knew Amanda would be the one to swing first. 

They both knew it too. 

“I like you, Rollins,” Elliot finally said, but it wasn’t pleasant or complimentary in the slightest. It was a warning. 

They stared at each other for a few seconds longer until finally Elliot moved half a step to the side. Amanda took the opportunity to storm out like she’d intended before he got in front of her. Her shoulder collided with his as she went, but Elliot let her go with barely a backwards glance. 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Olivia sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “She’s having a rough go of it right now.” 

“That was still uncalled for,” Elliot said. He glanced over his shoulder and moved a step closer into her space. “You okay?” he asked delicately. 

Every cop they knew was hesitant to talk about therapy, some notion held over from the old days where it was a sign of weakness and came with the fear that you’d lose your gun if anyone found out. Things had changed, fortunately, and Olivia hadn’t worried about that for years, not until Lewis came along and tore the structure of her life down to its foundation. Still, it wasn’t the thought of losing her job that scared her as much as the thought of people thinking she was fragile and vulnerable. 

And Elliot knew all of that, knew how Amanda’s comment had felt like a punch to her gut, knew that maybe she needed half a second to take a deep breath without people watching her, and had put himself between her and the rest of the precinct to give her just that. 

“I’m okay,” she promised. “What’s up?”

“Wanted to bring you something to eat,” he gestured to the bag in his hand she hadn’t noticed before. “And to remind you of Thanksgiving this Thursday.”

“Oh, right.” She scrubbed her hand over her eyes when she realized she had completely lost track of the days. Between working first Lena’s rape and then Gene’s murder, plus the emotional strain Amanda was under, approaching holidays got swept to the side.

Not to mention the added prep she’d been doing with Barba for Lewis’s trial, whenever they quit stalling and it finally happened. 

“I just don’t know if we’ll have this trial wrapped up,” Olivia said regretfully. 

“We understand. If you get a chance though, Kathy asked if you wanted to bring Cassidy along,” Elliot offered.

That was another thing. Ever since the night she got her results on the sergeant’s exam, it had been more than just walking on eggshells between them- rusty nails was more like it- and it exhausted her with how careful she was being around him. The nightmares had become much less frequent, and on the off chance she had one Brian was there more often than not. He comforted her when she was able to get back to sleep and knew her routine when she wasn’t. Ever since he’d almost died undercover, she’d consciously made the choice to talk to Brian first, which Elliot even encouraged her to do, not that Brian would believe that. She felt like she was doing everything right, and none of it was good enough.

Olivia knew what Brian expected of her; he was waiting for the day she broke up with him so she could run off and be with Elliot. She felt him pulling away, knew he was putting distance between them so it hurt less when they finally shattered. It felt like he was leaving, every day, without actually leaving and she wanted him to just make up his damn mind and go because then she could get started on healing from yet another person walking out on her. And she was just stubborn enough that she wouldn't do it for him, couldn’t give him the satisfaction of thinking he was right all along.

Maybe that wasn’t healthy, but she just… wanted to be happy. Brian was comfortable, and she believed she could be happy with him if he would just let her. 

“I’ll ask him,” Olivia said. “Don’t hold your breath though.”

Elliot watched her carefully. “He’s not an afterthought, you know.”

“I know.”

Olivia wished she could get Brian to see that, too. Every time they invited him he always seemed to have something else going on (usually work, and she was starting to wonder if he wasn’t picking up extra shifts intentionally). No matter how often she tried to explain it to him, he just didn’t understand why she liked being around the Stablers.

It was easy to forget sometimes that they weren’t her family, that she didn’t fit in among the crowd of blue eyed children. Even though being around them was a reminder of all the things she’d wanted growing up, it wasn’t a painful reminder. It was like she’d finally found a place where she belonged, where she could be shielded and safe and supported. She didn’t feel that way when it was just her and Brian. She ached for more, for a child of her own that she could nurture and protect the way she hadn’t been herself. Her 46th birthday coming up was a bitter occasion on that front. Another year gone, and she’d just about given up that it would ever be a dream realized. 

“You wanna stay and keep me company for a bit?” she asked, reaching for the bag he’d brought with him. 

“Only if you let me steal your extra egg roll,” he grinned. 

They ended up settling in the precinct’s kitchen area, and Olivia didn’t realize how hungry she actually was until they sat down. Elliot filled her in on how his mom and the kids were doing. Maureen had found her dress for her wedding. He hadn’t seen it in person yet, but she caught him swiping at the corner of his eye just from looking at the pictures on his phone.

After a while they lapsed into a comfortable silence, and without conversation her mind wandered back to Amanda and how the case was weighing on her. Olivia worried that if things fell apart, and she had a feeling they might, Amanda would fall back into bad habits. She had no way of knowing for sure, of course, but she’d come to trust her intuition in the last fifteen years, and something gnawed at her gut telling her that Lena couldn’t be trusted, and Nick’s tone earlier suggested Nate was suspicious too.

“I can hear you thinking, Liv,” Elliot pulled her from her thoughts. “Rollins, what she said, it’s still bothering you isn’t it?”

“Kind of?” she shrugged. Elliot raised an eyebrow and waited for her to elaborate. “I just don’t know what to do. She’s a good detective, but she has… personal things, in her past that have caused her to slip up before and I’m worried it’s gonna happen again. I want to help her, be there for her. But if I keep trying to be a safety net, I’m worried I’ll do more harm than good.” Elliot started to say something, but she thought of something else. “And, now I’m technically her superior so what does that say about me if I don’t address what she said? How are people going to respect me?”

Elliot waited for her to finish, his chin rested on his hand. The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile and she could practically hear him asking are you done?

“What?” she asked bluntly. 

“You remember one of our early cases, the war criminal rapist who was killed by two of his victims?”

“They took a pretty memorable souvenir with them, Elliot, of course I remember,” she scoffed. “What does that have to do with Rollins?”

He cleared his throat. “I distinctly remember Cragen telling you that you’d used your get out of jail free card on that case. There was only one in the pack. You remember that too?”

She had been terrified after that, afraid that she’d screwed up her golden opportunity. The goal post in her mind by which she measured her success as a cop was SVU, and for a few weeks after that case she kept expecting the captain to appear over her shoulder and tell her she’d messed up again and that she was done. Being forced from the unit would have crushed her.

“Yes,” she mumbled.

“And how many times did he let things slide for you after that?” Elliot asked gently.

Innumerable. In all honesty she probably should have lost more than her spot at SVU, she should have lost her badge. On more than one occasion she probably should have ended up in jail. And yet here she was, over a decade in and being promoted because her captain had known when to push her and when to let her flail a little bit. 

“You’ve made your point,” she said. 

“Have I?”

God he was stubborn, and too smug when he knew he was right. Insufferable, really.

“Cragen went to bat for me, for us ,” she emphasized with a glare, because she refused to let him ignore that pretty much every time she had ended up in hot water he was right there with her, “because he saw we were good cops. He saw the potential in us. If he hung us out to dry, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

“Do you see that in Rollins?” he asked. 

Olivia glanced away in thought. Amanda had come so far from where she’d been when she started, just a wide eyed detective in the big city, running on dreams and hopes and a little bit of desperation to escape her past. Olivia had been so closed off when Amanda joined SVU but she’d stuck around, weathered the aftermath of Elliot’s departure with grace, and somehow carved out a little corner for herself in the unit, and even more miraculously, in Olivia’s circle of people she trusted. If she could do all that in just two years, what could she do in ten?

“I do. She’s gone through a lot, Elliot, and I know she’s trying. I think she’s capable of doing so much good,” Olivia said. 

“Don’t cut her loose just yet, Liv,” he said. It sounded almost like he was pleading with her. “I get the feeling she wouldn’t land on her feet.”

Chapter Text

The only thing Olivia could think about on the drive home from the courthouse was that she should have killed him. 

Should have hit him just a little harder, just a few more times, should have waited a few more minutes before calling her squad. If she had, then the walls wouldn’t be closing in around her. She might be able to breathe instead of feeling a monster made of horror and despair clawing at the walls of her chest, tightening her throat to the point where each breath was a battle.

Lewis had looked so smug in that courtroom- as he should, considering what he had against her. She should have known he’d find any way he could to keep torturing her. Pleading guilty to something he didn’t do was another manipulation tactic, another move to try weaseling his way through the legal system. Olivia didn't know what his endgame could be, and that terrified her. 

Brian sat on the couch as she entered the apartment, and she was grateful because it meant she wouldn’t be alone. 

“Hey,” he said when he saw her and leaned forward and muted the TV. “How did everything go today?” He had offered to come with her for support. Elliot too. She turned both of them down, saying she felt like she needed to go alone. It was asinine now that she thought about it, the hyper-independence probably something she should bring up in her next therapy session. 

She leaned against the wall separating the entryway from the living room and crossed her arms over her chest. “It was okay. Lewis offered to make a deal,” she said. 

Brian looked at her in shock for a moment. “That’s great news, Liv.”

Olivia scoffed. “He offered to plead guilty to rape and sodomy, Brian.” She thought that would be the end of the discussion, but she was wrong. 

“It’s a guilty plea. You wouldn’t have to testify,” he said. It was the same thing Barba had said when he first told her about the offer and she rolled her eyes because she knew that, damn it. That wasn’t the point. 

“No I’d just have to sit there and listen while he gets to describe in graphic detail all the things he wanted to do to me but never got the chance to,” she said furiously. “I’m not going to let him plead guilty to something he isn’t guilty of.”

“Do you hear how that sounds like you’re protecting him?” Brian asked and she almost laughed at the absurdity of it. If anything she was protecting herself. “Why do you even care?”

“Just forget it, it’s not happening,” she said and pushed herself off the wall, starting down the hall to the bedroom. A long, hot shower sounded fantastic, anything to scrub the itchy, slimy feeling from her skin that had been lingering since Lewis made eye contact with her in the courtroom. 

“Can we talk about it at least?” Brian called over his shoulder. 

“There’s nothing for us to talk about. It’s my decision and I’m saying no.”

“Why mention it then?” he asked defensively. 

She rounded on him. In the back of her mind she knew some of this was misplaced anger, transferred from Lewis and the situation onto the nearest subject, but she didn’t particularly care at the moment. 

“Because we’re in a relationship? Because you’ve been here for all of this up until now and have practically begged me to open up to you more? I pulled a gun on you last week and you’ve still supported me through everything. I thought you would support me in this.” She was shouting by the end of it, and she cursed the tears gathering in her eyes. 

Regret lined his face as he stood from the couch to fold her into his arms. The fight drained out of her and she was tired. Just so tired. Lewis had very nearly torn her apart when he took her, and she hated that he still might do just that.

Brian’s pressed a kiss to her temple and she sighed into the crook of his neck. “I’m sorry, Liv. You’re right, it’s your decision. I just want to spare you going through a trial. I want to protect you. You see that, right?”

She nodded and mumbled “I know” into his shirt, letting him sway with her back and forth to soothe her. The residual frustration lingered, and she swallowed the barb she wanted to throw at him about how he should have protected her earlier. He was here now, misguided attempts aside, and she needed to focus on that.

Her sleep that night could barely be called as much, and rather than toss and turn and fight monsters in her dreams, she carried herself to the couch to read through her grand jury testimony. Lewis couldn’t walk because of her mistake, because she didn’t make sure he was dead. She had to keep him caged, had to ensure the only place he ever walked free again was in her nightmares.

The following day was her weekly meet-up with Elliot (multiple times she’d had to stop herself from calling them coffee dates or lunch dates). It was much too cold to walk through the park these days with the bitter wind and grey, half-melted slush, so they’d taken up residence in a diner near his apartment. The coffee was passable, the food decent, and the corner booth she’d started to think of as theirs was secluded enough to afford privacy from any nosy patrons that could listen in. 

“Lewis offered to plead guilty to rape and sodomy,” Olivia blurted out shortly after their food arrived. She’d been on edge since they sat down, and he must have realized from the wringing of her hands and her less-than-stellar listening skills that something was weighing on her. 

Elliot’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You’re not gonna let him, are you?” he asked, tossing a french fry in his mouth, and she breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t say it with accusation, in fact it was hardly a question at all. It was just him, with his ingrained knowledge of her and how she thought, making a statement he knew already to be true. 

She shook her head. “I’m not. Brian thinks I should, though.”

His hand fell to the table with a thump and he stared at her, stunned. “He knows Lewis would allocute, right?”

“I don’t think he’s thought that far ahead. He just doesn’t want it to go to trial.” She reached for her glass of water to try to wash away the dry, clogged feeling in her throat.

“Well maybe he should start thinking further ahead,” Elliot said, exasperated. In the months since his return, she had never seen him this frustrated with Brian and she idly thought that it was familiar. Reminded her a bit of Andy Eckerson or Kurt Moss or Dean Porter.

Any amusement she felt though, was mitigated by how irate Elliot was. 

“Has he thought about how this would let Lewis live out whatever fantasies he had? It would mean that legally, that’s what happened and the justice system and everyone else would believe Lewis over you. Has he thought about how that could affect your job? What if he decides years from now that he wants to appeal and say the guilty plea was coerced?” he rambled, and she could practically see the anger rolling off him in waves. 

A woman with grey hair and too much time on her hands two tables away stopped her fiddling with the page of her book she was on, and her eyes flickered briefly toward them before she caught Olivia glaring at her.

She reached across the table, resting her hand over his clenched fist to get him to pause. He was spewing out all the thoughts she herself had already run through in her mind, and she didn’t want him to continue to spiral over the possible consequences of a decision she’d already made. Still, it reminded her that they still knew each other better than anyone else, and she was grateful that he supported her without needing to beg him for it.The contrast between Elliot’s reaction and Brians to the proposed plea deal was stark, and she tried her best not to pit the two of them against each other.

The touch of her hand acted as a bucket of water, and his building outrage was doused almost instantly. He inhaled deeply and uncurled his hand so he could lace their fingers together. Her thumb ran along his and after a moment, he finally met her eyes. He nodded and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze before pulling back.

“So how have things been treating you at work, sergeant?” he asked, forcing his voice to be conversational and light despite the turmoil she could still see rolling in his eyes.

“Not too bad. Cragen is still in charge, so I still get to go out in the field. I know Munch liked being behind the desk once he made sergeant but I don’t know if I could do that,” she said. 

Elliot chuckled. “Munch was also a dinosaur. You most certainly are not.”

Olivia felt a swell of warmth bloom across her cheeks and tried to cover it with a bite of her salad. Elliot was too focused on his own food and didn’t seem to notice the redness on her cheeks, for which she was thankful. 

They finished eating soon after and gathered their things to leave after Elliot scribbled his signature on the receipt. Try as she might, the juxtaposition between Brian and Elliot was weighing on her and she wondered if maybe there was a reason Brian wouldn’t mind if she took the deal. What if, she wondered, it wasn’t a big deal because he thought she was hiding aspects of what Lewis had done to her.

“You believe me, don’t you?” she asked. Elliot took her coat from her hands and held it open for her. 

“About what?”

“That he didn’t rape me,” she mumbled, quiet enough for only him to hear her. Elliot’s hands paused on her shoulders. “I can see it sometimes, on people’s faces. They think something happened, and I’m not saying he didn’t come close but it didn’t happen ,” she insisted.

Elliot squeezed her arms just above her elbows and turned her around to face him. “Whatever you tell me happened, that’s what I’m going to believe.”

She bit her lip in an effort to hold back the tears trying to gather in her eyes. “That’s a very diplomatic answer, Stabler,” she said. 

He smiled, eyes glimmering to say “I know” and gestured for them to head out. When they exited the diner they were headed in different directions, but Elliot snagged her arm and pulled her back. 

“It’s almost over, Liv. We’ve got you,” he reassured her.

She didn’t sleep at all the night before the trial began and her stomach was a rolling knot as she waited outside the courtroom. All those years, all those trials where she’d sat with victims and encouraged them to go through with this, and here she was on the other side of it. The magnitude of what she was about to go through hit her like a brick wall. The anxiety was going to eat her alive, she was sure of it, and she fought the urge to run from the building. Lewis waited, and she sat with dreadful anticipation of the hell he would bring with him when she endured his cross examination. 

“Hey Liv,” Elliot’s voice called to her through the fog and she lifted her head to see him strolling toward her. “Where’s Cassidy?”

“He couldn’t get off work today,” she said as he settled next to her.

There was also, she thought, the fact that she hadn’t wanted him to hear all the gruesome details of what her team had found. He’d hear enough from her later, and that alone was petrifying. Elliot looked like he wanted to say something, but he settled instead for squeezing the back of her neck. There was something about the gesture, probably related to pressure points, that had always been able to soothe her. Maybe it was just him. 

“Looking strong, Olivia,” Fin said. The rest of her squad approached along with him and she was thankful that they all showed up, even if they couldn’t stay. 

“You all came,” Olivia stood up, Elliot with her. His hand released the back of her neck and slid down the length of her spine before falling away.

“We got your back,” Amanda said. Ever since Lena’s case she had been withdrawn and hesitant, so it meant even more that she’d come along with everyone else.

Barba stepped out of the courtroom and let out an exasperated sigh when he saw the circle that had gathered. “What are you people doing here? You know you can’t watch the trial, you’re all witnesses.”

“We’re here for moral support,” Cragen piped up. Except for Elliot, they’d all have to leave eventually to be sequestered.

“Counselor, don’t mess this one up,” Fin warned. 

Barba was one of the most dedicated ADAs they’d ever worked with, and Olivia personally knew how much work he’d gone through to get them to this point. He cared deeply, fought hard for all their cases, but this one was personal. She wondered if there had ever been talk of handing the trial to someone else because of it, but if there was she knew he would have put his foot down and refused, because she never heard a whisper about it.

“I was gonna tell you the same thing. Remember why we’re here,” Barba said meaningfully, with a glance around the circle. 

Everyone dispersed and with them went a little bit of the confidence Olivia had bolstered with her chosen family all standing around her. Elliot remained, though, steadfast as always.

Olivia took a deep breath and steeled herself for his departure. “I’m okay, Elliot. You can go inside,” she started, but he was shaking his head before she finished speaking.

“I can stay with you,” he offered.

“No, no I um-” she hesitated. “I feel like being alone at the moment. I promise if that changes I’ll come find you. Okay?”

He looked doubtful, but nodded slowly. “Okay. Oh he, I almost forgot,” he said and reached into his jacket pocket. “Eli drew something for you.”

She smiled when she unfolded the paper. A person, who she could only assume was herself from the shoulder length brown hair and blue uniform, stood with her arms raised. There was green grass at her feet and a giant yellow and orange sun in the top corner with a blue stripe running across the top. He’d signed ELI in all capital letters to the side.

“He said you’re cheering because you wn and beat the bad guy again,” Elliot explained. That alone was enough to make her cry, but her eyes fell on the other names scattered around the page.

Maureen. Kathleen. Dickie. Lizzie.

“That your idea?” she asked, her thumb tapping against Kathleen’s signature.

“Nope. Lizzie said that was all Eli.”

One traitorous tear slipped down her cheek and she folded the paper back to tuck it into the pocket of her blazer. “Tell them I said thank you.”

Elliot caught the tear on her cheek with the back of his fingers. His jaw was set in a hard line and she could tell he wanted to pull her into a hug. She wanted it too, more than she probably should, but she also knew if she permitted it she would crumble, and that couldn’t happen. She had to stay strong until she testified at least.

She gestured to the door. “Go on. I’ll see you later.”

Reluctantly, he pulled away. At the threshold he lingered and glanced back one more time before slipping through and out of sight.

Elliot settled a couple rows back in the seats. It was for the best, he thought, if he wasn’t too close to Lewis when he arrived. 

When the man limped into the courtroom, Elliot masked a grin of satisfaction. He didn’t look very imposing now, despite his height, and that was all down to Olivia. It could also work against them though if he garnered sympathy from the jury. Lewis looked around the room when he got to his seat. He seemed so normal, but years at SVU had taught him that even the most seemingly harmless people could inflict unspeakable damage. When his gaze passed over Elliot, it felt as if cold water had been poured down his back. 

Cragen testified first, then Fin, and hearing from Liv that her apartment was destroyed was one thing but Fin’s account made it all the more real. The pictures Barba showed to accompany it unsettled him even more. It was akin to seeing the aftermath of a bomb. He knew that place, knew where that knife belonged in the block on her counter, knew where that plant had stood near the window. Half of a broken picture frame lay on the floor, and he recognized it as one of the two of them from the early years of their partnership.

“I’ll never forget the smell of burnt flesh,” Fin said, and Jesus how badly had this man burned her that the stench lingered for two days?

Lewis played the pitiful, broken victim just as Elliot thought he might, and he wanted to wring the man’s neck. If he thought what Liv had done was bad, it was nothing compared to what Elliot wanted to do to him. The man preened around and unfortunately wasn’t a bumbling idiot when it came to defending himself. Likely a skill he picked up from the numerous run-ins he’d had with the law.

“The lab that processed this crime scene, was that the same lab that contaminated the DNA in my prior case?” Lewis asked.

“Yes. And we told CSU and the lab techs that this time there could be no mistakes,” Fin answered firmly. 

“Did you,” Lewis scoffed. “In other words you made sure the lab knew that an NYPD detective had been assaulted. And I was your only suspect,” he finished and turned to go back to his chair. 

Just as he was about to sit down, he seemed to feel the weight of Elliot’s glare because he glanced up and made eye contact. Elliot saw nothing behind Lewis’s eyes. There was nothing good or explicitly malicious. They were simply hollow. It was haunting, but Elliot refused to look away first. Liv had stared down this piece of scum when she had been brutalized; he could do it from across a courtroom.

Lewis broke first and sat down slowly but his head turned halfway around, probably confused about the stranger that looked at him with such hate.

From Rollins, he heard what the other woman, Mrs. Mayer, had gone through. It was horrific, and the knowledge that Liv had seen all of it, had been helpless to protect another woman, tormented him almost as much as he knew it must torment her. 

And then Lewis went on to lay the groundwork for his bogus defense that he was being framed by the NYPD and it was so absurd Elliot almost laughed. How the hell would he explain Liv’s injuries with that? How would he justify his own? Barba seemed to think so too but the judge was evidently being lenient.

“Answer the question, Detective Rollins.”

“What question?” she asked, and despite how she’d treated Liv in the past Elliot appreciated her now. Rollins hated this man, that much was evident, but she kept herself composed and professional to the jury. Liv was right - she was good at what she did. “Did I concoct a plot to frame you? No I did not,” she said defiantly. 

When Rollins stepped down, she glanced up at Elliot and he nodded at her, just a miniscule thing to convey that he thought she did well, that they were good and he didn’t resent her for anything. He caught Lewis side-eying him on the way back to his chair and watched him scribble something on a notepad when he sat back down. 

While Rollins held back a bit on the rage she felt toward Lewis, Amaro made no such effort. It was more than understandable since he’d been given the task of detailing the murder of the Suffolk county officer who had pulled him over. Even though he wasn’t part of their department, he was still a brother in blue, and every cop past and present took his murder personally. The suggestion that Liv had been the one to kill him was repulsive.

Even more so was Lewis’s insinuation that she had been flirtatious or responded to him sexually because she wanted him.

“Why, in your opinion, when your partner was questioning me about rape, did she sexualize the interrogation?” Lewis asked, and Amaro looked like he wanted to fly out of his seat and give him a few more injuries to whine about. 

“It’s a technique to find a way to connect to the suspect,” Amaro tried to explain for the jury’s benefit. 

“We’ll I would say it worked,” Lewis said. 

Elliot’s mouth turned up in a sneer as his fist clenched. At the same time, Barba slammed his pen on the table.

“Withdrawn,” Lewis said with smug contempt in anticipation of the objection.

The rage burning in Amaro’s eyes was familiar, and when he made eye contact with Elliot, it was with mutual understanding of their desire to make the man hurt. Few people had ever protected Liv the way Elliot had, a fact which killed him, but Amaro was up there. 

Elliot glanced toward Lewis who quickly looked away. When he leaned over and whispered something to the woman next to him, Elliot felt a knot form in his stomach. 

Mrs. Mayer backed out. 

Not that Olivia didn’t understand, but that meant it was her turn sooner than she’d expected. Fin had practically dragged her to the restaurant the night before with everyone else but all she could do was sit despondently, her stomach churning too much to have the slightest hope of keeping anything down. Mrs. Mayer was able to back down. The trial for her rape was a different jurisdiction and if Lewis was sentenced to life in prison in Manhattan, she would never have to face him again. 

She had told Brian at the last minute to stay away; the idea of him hearing all the details of what she went through was too much, but when Lewis declined to cross-examine her the first time he had insisted on coming the second time. Part of her thought it was some petty jealousy on his part since she’d allowed Elliot to hear everything, wanted him to hear everything. She couldn’t give Brian a sufficient explanation why she was okay with Elliot being there and not him, not without admitting to her boyfriend that vulnerability and intimacy were just easier with Elliot, so she had relented. 

Since everyone in her squad was a witness, none of them were allowed in. There was a wall of officers lining the back wall to show support, but she knew none of them. She was thankful that Brian and Elliot sat next to each other, right behind Barba, so she could see every friendly face that she was allowed to have with one quick glance. 

Olivia half expected she would combust when she swore in- again- knowing for the second time she would not be keeping that oath. It was a wonder God hadn’t struck her down already. 

She tugged on the edges of her blazer as she sat, and heard the folded up picture from Eli rustle from inside her pocket. It was a reminder that there were still good things in the world, that beyond the walls of this room there were five kids she loved beyond reason who were thinking about her and anticipated her return. 

Behind Barba, she saw Elliot lean forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on top of his folded hands. He looked as if he was fouled to jump at the slightest provocation. Guarded, protective of her even from a distance. Burning blue stared at her, flickered to Lewis, and back and she knew. “He’s not going to hurt you. I won’t allow it.”

One more time. She could face Lewis one last time. 

He made his opening move, and Olivia prayed she could withstand the storm. She felt she was doing a good job until-

“When we spent time together you said you didn’t want to talk about your father. Why was that?”

Barba was out of his seat “Objection-”

“Cause he’s none of your business!” she yelled. Barba gave her a cautionary look, Elliot’s top lip was curled in disgust, and she composed herself to give the judge an entreating “ your honor .”

“I’ll ask you to confine your questioning to her professional experience and the four days at issue,” the judge said seriously, and she was momentarily relieved. 

“Well I was just getting to that,” Lewis said, and her stomach dropped at the malice in his voice. “Also your honor, due to this witness’s increasing aggression I would like to ask the four for permission to treat her as a hostile witness.”

Olivia barely heard the back and forth between them, could only dread what kind of nightmares Lewis could dredge up by whatever he planned on doing next. She looked at Barba in despair and he stared back with equal measure because there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Lewis went on and God was it too much to ask for him to stop calling her ‘Miss Benson?’ It was a slap on the cheek compared to everything else he’d done to her. She knew it, knew he was trying to emphasize her single status for the jury but she had earned her rank. She’d worked damn hard to become a detective and soon would move up even more. It was a petty grievance, but it dug under her skin like a stubborn splinter.

“So we drank together, we took drugs together, we played with each other sexually, you gave me your gun-“

“You took my gun,” she interjected. 

“You forced me to tie you up but we never had sex together, did we?” he asked. 

“No,” she said, and a little bit of stubborn pride swelled up in her chest. He hadn’t gotten to do what he wanted. She’d stopped him before he got the chance. “We did not have sex.” 

“So it was more of a flirtation?” Lewis shrugged. “More of a courtship?”

He twisted it to sound so innocent, so harmless, and she hated him. So much. 

“Objection,” Barba stood. “Your honor, I know you’re giving this man latitude but he has crossed over. He is using this trial to humiliate and retraumatize Detective Benson.”

“Sustained. Proceed Mr. Lewis.”

“Didn’t you attempt to seduce me by trying to excite me with sexual stories from past cases?” He asked and Olivia thought that must sound horrible to anyone that wasn’t in that room. Especially coming right after the way he spun how he had touched her as “playing,” as if it wasn’t horrific, as if the thought of his hands on her skin didn’t make her recoil in disgust even now months later. 

“It was a tactic to stay alive,” Olivia said, her voice hoarse. 

“Was it also a tactic when you told me I was the best you’ve ever seen? That you knew how to get me off?”

Her stomach churned and she knew she had to get out of there, and quick. The back of her neck felt hot, the scars on her chest itched and the only thing that halted her from just getting up and running, oddly enough, was when Lewis started yelling. 

“Wasn’t I handcuffed? Didn’t you beat me? Didn’t you send the housekeeper and her daughter home, tell them not to call the police?” Lewis stood near the jury and the rage in his eyes gave some of them pause. She saw a few shared looks between them and it was an opportunity.

Barba leaned forward in his chair, his mouth opened. Olivia shook her head. Barely, just enough for him to see, and she hoped he understood the silent message she was trying to convey that she could take this.

“I was trying to save their lives,” she said.

“You were trying to be alone with me!” Lewis yelled. “You came into the bedroom, started talking to me about your romantic fantasies about your ex-partner, how he would have known what to do with me.”

Olivia felt like her chair had been pulled out from underneath her. She refused to look back at Elliot or Brian. She’d told Brian essentially nothing, and she’d only really told Elliot what had happened, not what was said. She never wanted either of them to find out that when she thought she was going to die, she hadn’t thought of Brian. If she kept quiet, if she didn’t glance back at either of them, maybe Lewis wouldn’t figure out the significance of the spectators. 

“He’s here, isn’t he? Watching you portray yourself as some helpless victim,” he swung around, his finger pointed in Elliot’s direction, and her eyes widened in shock. She wanted to scream. He had taken so many pieces of her, he didn’t get to have Elliot too. “Sitting next to your boyfriend, how nice,” he said, voice dripping with fake sweetness. “Does he know how you feel about your former partner? Or do you let them both do you at the same time?” Lewis yelled.

Barba was on his feet in an instant. “Objection!”

“Sustained. Watch yourself Mr. Lewis.”

How had he found out about Elliot? How had he figured out who he was, how important he was? Asking him to come to the trial was a mistake- not because of what the jury had heard but because now Lewis could use Elliot against her. She should have protected him better, could have protected him better if only she hadn’t been so pitifully reliant on him. 

Lewis amped up again, more enraged than before as he railed against what she had done to him. Her breathing came faster and terror filled her. 

“I did what I had to do to subdue you,” she said softly. 

“Broken ribs, ruptured spleen, crushed my kneecap…” he listed.

“I did what I had to do to subdue you,” she repeated.

“I died in that ambulance four times. Did you know that?”

One for each day he had her , she thought. If only one of them had been permanent.

“I did what I had to do to subdue you.” It was a mantra at that point. If she repeated it enough times maybe she could convince herself that it was true.

She chanced to look up in Elliot’s direction. He was on the edge of his seat, his own eyes swinging wildly between her and Barba in disbelief. 

“I have a limp now. I’ve lost my hearing, I am partially blind. Did you or did you not brutally beat me within an inch of my life-” he was beyond the point of anger, beyond rage, his face red and bulging right in front of hers. Olivia wanted to pull away from him, wanted to be anywhere at that moment but staring into this man’s face as he slammed his hand on the witness stand. “-while I was lying helpless, handcuffed to the bed?!”

She’d never thought it was actually possible for people to foam at the mouth, but the spit dripping down his chin proved her wrong. Then again, Olivia wasn’t entirely convinced Lewis was really human. 

“You had broken free of your restraints,” she said softly. Again. “And I did what I had to do to subdue you.”

Lewis was so close she could see the wicked glint in his eyes, could make out each fine line on his face, could see skin at the edge of the scar around his eye stretched tight. 

“You and I both know that’s a lie,” his tongue flicked out and traced along the edge of his lip. “We know so much about each other don’t we? We shared a bond those four days, didn't we?”

No, ” she breathed. 

“A bond that nobody else can understand but I understand what you’re going through, I know,” he said, his breath hot in her face. “If you admit that you’re lying about beating me the floodgates open up don’t they? And then everything that you have said could be a lie.” 

The very air around him breeded pollution, decay. Olivia wanted him away from her, could barely stand another second.  

“Your honor, objection ,” Barba said and she realized he must have said it before. 

“Sustained. Mr. Lewis-“

“Withdrawn your honor. Nothing further,” he said and stepped back. 

It felt like every muscle in her body trembled as she  stood. He was finished and so was she and she just had to make it down the center aisle of the courtroom to be free. She was hot all over and the hallway promised cool air and a chance to breathe. 

Her feet hesitated when she stepped down, heavy with the knowledge that she’d have to walk past Lewis one more time. The proximity of it taunted her but she tried to keep her eyes on the door. She just had to make it there and she would be okay.

She would be okay, she just had to-

Lewis’s hand reached in Olivia’s direction as she passed and her mind took her back to that first night in her apartment. The gun in her face, the burn of her own house key against her skin, tape against her chapped lips.

Adrenaline and panic raced through her and she flinched, hard, away from him as quickly as she could. Her hip collided with the corner of Barba’s table and he shot out of his chair to grasp her arm. 

Lewis’s fist closed around the pen on the edge of the table. 

Her breath came in fast, sharp pants. Barba steered her by her elbows further up the aisle but her eyes stayed fixed on Lewis. A murmur ran through the crowd of people watching and she heard the jury shifting in their seats behind her but Olivia didn’t dare turn her back on Lewis. Not while he looked at her with sinister hatred, not when his eyes swept down the length of her body and she knew he was thinking of where he could add a few more scars. 

Somehow she made it through the wooden divide that separated the stage from the spectators; she was sure that was more Barba’s doing than her own. A warm hand settled at her back as Brian pulled her closer to him. 

Elliot stepped between her and Lewis, his back to her. Olivia couldn’t see his face, but she did see the way Lewis’s eyes narrowed on Elliot as a cold sneer slid across his face. She hated it, hated the way dread filled her again when she remembered that Lewis knew the most important thing about her. 

Brian tugged her further away and she was forced to turn around. Elliot followed behind them and she was grateful for each step that carried her further from William Lewis, because it meant Elliot was nowhere near him either. 

Elliot’s phone pressed against his ear as he stalked toward the bar where Liv told him to meet her. Cassidy had taken her home after her testimony, tried to get her to take a nap, maybe eat something, but it had been a fruitless effort. 

“I think we made up some ground today,” he said to Kathy. Technically it was his weekend to have Eli, but with the trial he’d been uncertain if Liv would want him around. If she decided she did, he didn’t want to have to worry about last minute childcare for his son. Kathy had been exceedingly understanding and agreed to trade weekends with him. “This guy is… Kath, he’s something else. I dunno how to describe it and if I could I don’t know if I would. He lost his temper today, went off on Liv while she was on the stand.”

“Is she okay?” Kathy asked, her voice hushed with concern. 

“She held it together while she was up there,” Elliot said. Truthfully she’d done marvelously well looking into the face of her assailant, spit and rage flying at her face, and God he loved her so damn much. Loved her strength and her courage, loved the way she refused to yield to darkness even when he could see it clawing at her very soul. “Barba is good though, and he cares about Liv. I'm sure he’s got a plan. I just hope when Lewis gets up on the stand, Barba crucifies him.”

After what happened earlier, he damn well better. The next time Elliot saw him he had a few things to say about how things had gone down in that courtroom. 

“Good,” Kathy said indignantly. Her voice softened when she said “Oh, Eli wants to talk to you.”

A few seconds later his son’s little voice came over the line. “Hi, daddy.”

“Hey, buddy,” Elliot said lightly. 

“Where’s Liv? Did she beat the bad guy yet? Did you show her my picture?” he asked in rapid succession.

Elliot chuckled. “I showed her the picture, she loves it. She didn’t beat him yet, but I think she’s gonna win,” he told Eli. 

Eli scoffed and Elliot practically heard him roll his eyes. “Duh, the good guys always win,” he said as if it was that simple, that obvious, and Elliot realized that the phrase child-like faith extended beyond the walls of a church.

“Of course,” he smiled and glanced at his watch. “Do you know that I love you?”


“Do you know that you’re very important to me?”


“Do you know that nothing will ever change that?”

“Good,” he said. “Time to head to bed, buddy. I’ll see you soon.”

Kathy took the phone back to say a quick goodbye and said to let her know if he or Liv needed anything. He shoved his phone into the pocket of his jeans just as he entered the bar and caught sight of Liv. She was talking to Barba, her back to the door, Amaro pacing next to them. 

Elliot’s blood boiled as he started toward them. 

“The hell was that?” he asked, his strides long as they carried him across the room, fixated on Barba. 

“Elliot-“ Liv’s voice called to him softly. Her hand landed at his elbow and pulled him out of Barba’s face, but it had no effect on the rage ringing in his ears, and he shook her off. 

“Why didn’t you step in? Why didn’t you stop him from doing that?” his raised voice was drawing attention from some of the other patrons but he didn’t care. It was this man’s job to protect her in that courtroom. Instead he’d practically thrown her into a pit with her hands tied, left abandoned to fight off a feral beast with a butter knife. Liv deserved better than that. 

“It was a calculated move,” Barba said, unfazed, and Elliot wanted to wipe that look off his face. “The jury saw his true colors. They saw him attack Liv, they saw that stunt he pulled with the pen. They didn’t like it. We repaired a lot of the damage.”

It was one thing to give Lewis just enough rope to hang himself with, but he had been angry enough that Elliot wasn’t sure Lewis wouldn’t try to hurt Olivia again, in front of all those people. Barba had put her safety at risk, and that wasn’t something Elliot thought he’d forget anytime soon. 

“You let him take it too far,” Elliot said.

“I told him to,” Liv said, grabbing his arm again. He whirled around to look at her, not sure he heard right. “When Lewis started getting angry, I looked over and shook my head so he’d let it go on.”

Elliot blinked at her and prayed for the day Liv would just… stop. Stop acting like she could take on the full scope of the world’s evil, stop laying herself bare in sacrifice for everyone else. She wanted Lewis in prison and he Jesus, he understood that but did she have to torment herself to make it happen? Elliot had watched Lewis’s fingers itching to wrap around her throat, watched him summon every demon he could think of to throw at her. And yes, Liv had defeated most of them already, but she shouldn’t have to withstand it all over again. Someone should see her and help her, because she sure as hell wouldn’t do it herself. 

Liv took a drink from the wine glass in front of her. “I don’t know what good it did. The jury knows I lied and that forewoman? He’s playing her,” she said, dejected. 

“So what?” Amaro piped up. “Barba‘s gonna tear him apart.”

Liv shook her head. “Don’t chance it, take the deal,” she said and Elliot’s heart stopped. “He wants to allocute about raping me? He’s already humiliated me, what’s a few more hours.”

He’d never seen her so hopeless, looking very much like she believed it was already over, that everything had been ruined, that he was going to walk. 

“We’re not gonna let you do that, Liv,” Elliot said. He meant what he said to his mom on the beach that day. William Lewis would never live another day of freedom- he just wasn’t about to say that in front of an attorney. 

“What happened to it being my choice?” she turned on him. She was annoyed, but not angry, and he knew he was on the right track. “What about when you said you would believe whatever I say happened?”

“This isn’t about believing you or not,” he insisted. She rolled her eyes and turned to take another drink. “Liv, at the start of this, the deal was so you wouldn’t have to testify. You’ve done that. Don’t let him take this from you now.”

Liv sat silently chewing on the inside of her lip. Barba and Amaro watched the two of them warily. 

“I know you know I’m right,” Elliot said with finality. 

“How do you figure that?” she snapped, but there was barely any bite behind it. 

Elliot grinned. “You haven’t slapped me for assuming I can dictate your choices. Haven’t stormed out of here calling me a son of a bitch.”

She still looked unconvinced and Barba leaned forward. “Liv I have a bulletproof answer tree. A hundred questions. No matter which way he answers on the stand tomorrow, he’ll end up in jail for the rest of his natural life,” he said confidently. 

Olivia looked from Barba to Amaro. Finally her eyes landed on him, and he gave her the most reassuring look. 

After what felt like an eternity, she nodded. 

Lewis hadn’t taken the stand. 

Instead he eviscerated her during closing arguments, humiliated her once again, laid her raw for anyone to see. It was all lies, but that made two of them, didn’t it? Neither one told the truth and she could only hope, pray to a God she was convinced had abandoned her long ago, that they would deem his lie to be worse than hers.

Nick and Elliot sat to her left, Brian to her right. Amanda, Cragen, and Fin sat in the row immediately behind them, and she did her best to draw comfort from the fact that she was surrounded by people that cared about her. 

The jury wanted it on the record that they didn’t approve of her conduct and her stomach dropped as she anticipated the worst.

“On attempted murder, we find the defendant not guilty,” the forewoman read.

“Shoot me,” she’d said in her apartment.

“That’s the endgame, sweetheart,” he’d promised. “We got a lot of shock and awe to go before we do that”

“On attempted rape, we find the defendant not guilty,” the forewoman continued.

“You don’t get to say ‘no’ anymore.”

“One move, lights out. I’ll do you cold.”

Her hands felt clammy and the flashbacks assaulted her. She wanted to run, wanted to hide herself from the world and never show her face again. After all she’d gone through, after facing Lewis down again, it still wasn’t enough. It was pitiful of her to think it, she knew victims didn’t always get justice, but she’d thought maybe she’d earned a little bit of cosmic favor, made up a little bit for the sin of her existence, that the universe could grant her this one reprieve. 

“I gotta get out of here,” Olivia mumbled. 

She moved to get up and run but Brian grasped her elbow while Elliot squeezed her hand and coaxed her back into her seat. 

“On assaulting a police officer, we find the defendant guilty,” she read.

A deep, shuddering exhale escaped from Olivia’s chest. Even if it was just the assault charge, it was more than they’d had before, more than what some of his other victims got. It put him in jail for a little while at least. 

“On kidnapping, we find the defendant guilty,” the forewoman finished, and then Lewis was led away. He glared at her as they shuffled him back to Riker’s and she knew they were thinking the same thing as their eyes locked. Neither of them had walked away unscathed, neither of them had won. 

The crowd of law enforcement that had piled into the courtroom celebrated quietly around her but she barely paid attention to it. Everyone seemed to be declaring it her victory, but it felt like stolen valor. She should feel relief. She should feel vindicated. Instead she just felt hollow.

“Liv, you coming?” Brian asked. 

Everyone seemed ready to go and move forward, but she felt stuck, unsure where to go from here. The last seven months of her life had been moving toward this day and now that it was done she was listless.

“Yeah, um. Gimme a minute?” she asked uncertainly and glanced around the gathered circle. Everyone nodded in solemn understanding, but she felt Elliot’s gaze burning a hole between her shoulder blades as she walked away. 

Too many people were in the hallways, but there was a stairwell down the back in case of a fire. It was rarely used and she counted on it being vacant as she worked her way to it. She felt like she was swimming upstream against the jostling crowd leaving the courtroom until finally she was alone. The metal click of the latch slid into place and the murmur of voices quieted. 

Olivia walked down the stairs, further from the door and settled on one of the bottom steps. Her fingers carded through her hair and she tried to slow her breathing, tried to pull herself together, until she realized it was no use. All the emotions she’d been holding at bay rushed in at once and she was too tired to try fighting it all back.

A sob wracked her body, and she couldn’t contain it anymore. The tears came, and away from the watchful eyes of the jury or her squad or her boyfriend she didn’t try to wipe them away. She allowed them to fall, allowed her body to purge itself. Her fingers wrapped around the bannister and she leaned her head against the cool metal. Her other hand grasped the pendant around her neck. “ Fearlessness .” 

Yeah, right.

Above her, the door creaked open and she quieted her sobs, praying that whoever it was would go up, away from her, but when footsteps approached her on the stairs she relaxed. The weight of the footfall, the gait of each step told her it was Elliot, and she didn’t have to hide anything from him.

He settled two steps behind her, close enough that she could sense his presence but not so close to intrude on her personal space, should she need the distance.

She didn’t want it.

Olivia reached blindly behind her and tugged gently on his pant leg to urge him forward. He slid down to the step directly behind her and rested his legs on the outside of hers. Even then, his hands stayed light as they ran up and down her upper arms. 

She breathed out a shaky exhale. “They didn’t believe me. They found him not guilty of attempted rape, El. ‘One move and it’s lights out, I’ll do you cold,’ he said that to me,” she said, and felt Elliot’s breath catch in his throat. “He crawled on top of me, multiple times, and they didn’t believe me when I said that I didn’t want that.” Another sob tore its way from her throat and she pressed her forehead harder into the metal banister hoping the sting would give her some distraction. 

“C’mere,” Elliot muttered and pulled her back firmly against his chest. His right arm slid over her shoulder and crossed the length of her torso to wrap around her waist. Her fingers grasped at the firm muscle of his bicep and she turned her face against the warmth of him rather than cold, unforgiving steel. 

His other hand rested on her head, fingers gently sliding through the strands of her hair. She felt his lips press against the back of her head and she wanted to weep again, because why did it feel like they only touched when something traumatic had happened?

Eli’s birth, Sonya’s death, the day in the precinct when he came back. And now the first time he kissed her, she was sobbing in a stairwell so full of grief, anger, relief, and a thousand other emotions she couldn’t name or hold, that there was no place to put the tiny thing that sparked in her at the touch of his lips against her skin. 

Instead she allowed him to hold her tighter, both in his arms and with the press of his thighs against hers, and rock her slowly while the tears abated. She wondered if he clung to her out of the same desperation with which she reached for him. 

“I wish I could take this away for you,” Elliot muttered into her hair. “I just want to fix it and make it right.”

They both knew he couldn’t do that, but she knew he would dwell on it anyway. 

Her breath stuttered in her chest. “I feel like I should have more of a sense of closure. There’s a part of me that still feels like there’s something else I need to do. Like it isn’t over,” she said. “Maybe that’s because they didn’t convict on all charges… I don’t know,” she added with a shrug. 

Elliot’s hold on her relaxed his hold on her and Olivia fought against her desire to pull him back. She shouldn’t want his touch this badly, shouldn’t feel like she was seconds away from falling apart if he wasn’t cradling her within the confines of his body. 

“Remember a few months ago when you told me about Sarah?” Elliot asked. It had been so long and they’d talked about so much since then, she was surprised he even remembered. “You mentioned what you said to her at her first trial. Healing begins when someone bears witness.”

He shifted behind her and turned her shoulder so she would meet his eyes. They were glassy, slightly red around the edges, and it broke her heart that caring about her could hurt him so much. 

“I believe you,” he said, with such conviction and determination she shied away from it because she had lied . She didn’t deserve that level of trust, from him or anyone else. “Cassidy believes you. Fin, Cragen, Rollins, Amaro, Barba, they all believe you. The worst is over, Liv. Now you just gotta keep working on the healing. And we’ll all be there every step of the way.”

His eyes promised safety and healing. They spoke of boundless hope, unparalleled devotion. Something that made her wonder if it was possibly more, something huge and monstrous that she knew the name for but didn’t dare to think for fear of summoning it. When she stepped into the stairwell, she’d thought of it as a cavern in which she could expel the darkness before going back to everyone else. She’d expected solitude and maybe a little bit of loneliness but she realized that as long as Elliot was around she’d never have to feel that again. 

She squeezed his hand and leaned her forehead against his cheek. “Thank you, El,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Elliot trudged down the hallway to Liv’s apartment and only hesitated briefly outside her door. He was there on her request, after all, but he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the man she’d sent him to speak to. Finally, after having to knock twice, the door swung open. 

“Stabler, hey,” Amaro said, politely confused. Elliot had a key to the apartment, and Amaro knew that. “Liv isn’t here right now.”

“I know, I’m here for you,” Elliot said simply. “Grab your coat, let’s go.” 

Amaro scoffed “‘Scuse me?”

“We’re taking a walk,” Elliot told him. As uncertain as he was around Amaro, he did his best to come off confident, assured. He was doing this for Liv. She'd said she was worried about her partner, that she thought he needed more help than what she could give. She was afraid that Amaro was drifting beyond her reach and thought Elliot might be able to pull him back. “C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink,” he said, exuding as much finality as he could into his tone. 

He could tell Amaro was feeling defensive, and who wouldn’t after all he’d been through over the last couple days? He’d shot a kid, been subjected to an IAB investigation, and forced from his home after his family was threatened. It was enough to make anyone resistant to help, especially from someone they weren’t familiar with. 

After a moment, Amaro sighed and snatched his coat from the hook by the door. “One drink,” he mumbled and followed Elliot down the hall. 

The walk to the bar around the corner was silent and awkward. The place was pretty desolate, even for a Tuesday evening. They got their drinks and sat in more stilted silence. Elliot wasn’t completely sure how to begin the conversation, but fortunately he was spared the decision. 

“Liv put you up to this?” Amaro asked. He was slightly confrontational, maybe expecting some kind of lecture, but that wasn’t why Elliot had brought him here. 

“She said you could use a friend,” he answered, and Amaro rolled his eyes. Sure they had met, been cordial with each other, but Liv was the only thing that connected them. Calling Elliot a friend was a stretch of even the wildest imagination. “Fine, how about she thought talking to someone with no interest in the department or this case could do you some good?” Elliot offered instead. 

Amaro rolled his eyes. “So like a shrink, but not. That makes me feel great,” he said sarcastically, “especially since she’s my sergeant.”

Elliot knew not to take it personally that Amaro didn’t want to share. He knew nothing of the man’s youth, but if it was anything like his own, he’d been taught not to show weakness. Crying was for women to do, and men had to be tough, internalize everything, never let on that something had bothered you, never talk about it. Elliot’s father had tried to beat that into his head, and days like this made him grateful that he’d failed. 

“Look, whatever you tell me, it won't get back to Liv. I swear,” Elliot promised. “What’s going through your head right now?” he pressed. 

Amaro took a sip from his beer and chewed on the inside of his lip. Elliot could tell he wanted to talk, knew from twenty five years on the job what it looked like and how to get answers from someone in an interrogation. He settled for waiting Amaro out. 

“It was a good shot,” he said finally, weighed down by grief and regret. “That video makes it look bad, I know, but I sincerely believed there were shots coming at us and that he had a gun.”

“But?” Elliot prodded. 

Amaro sighed. “But there’s still a paralyzed kid and a traumatized community. People threatening my family.”

Elliot hummed; it was about what he figured. He understood the guilt that was eating Amaro alive, and that had to be why Liv had asked him to speak to her partner. He inhaled deeply and took a sip of his drink. 

He had spent so many therapy sessions working toward being able to talk about Jenna. It wasn’t quite so suffocating now, and he thought he owed this to her. It was his responsibility to keep her memory alive, to make sure people knew her name. 

“Did Liv ever tell you about our last case together?” he finally asked quietly. 

“No offense, but I can’t remember her saying a single thing about you,” Amaro said. “But I heard people talk. Fin told me a couple things.”

It wasn’t as if Elliot wasn’t already aware of how much his abrupt departure had affected her, but it still felt like a knee to his gut. Knowing that he had screwed up so badly that she just wouldn’t talk about thirteen years of her life was a crippling feeling. 

A voice in his head whispered “Imagine how she felt.” Stunted, abandoned, unwanted. Unloved. Truthfully it was the exact opposite, but he’d done a shit job of showing that. Thank God for Fin. Thank God someone had her back when he didn’t. Thank God they had tracked him down after Lewis. If walking away had hurt her that much, he couldn’t imagine what she would have felt if he hadn’t come back when he did. 

Elliot cleared his throat. “Jenna had a gun, we knew that. She’d already killed three people, we knew that. Two people were hurt, including an officer, and she was about to start shooting again. It was a good shot,” he listed off. It was a similar account to what he had given to IAB just hours after the shooting. “And yet, she was a kid, and I killed her. It’s something I have to live with.”

“How’d you know it was time to walk away?” Amaro asked quietly.

Elliot sighed. The thought of telling someone else before he told Liv didn’t sit quite right. She deserved to know the truth, and deserved to hear it first. But he also knew that whatever was going on in Amaro’s head, he needed to know this too so he could reconcile his actions with the truth. 

“I told you that nothing you say’ll go back to Liv. You’ll do the same for me?” Elliot asked.

Amaro’s brow furrowed in confusion, but he nodded. 

Elliot stared at the bottle in his hands. “Everyone knows I stopped Jenna because she was shooting. One of the people she killed was a nun, Sister Peg. Amazing woman, I wish you coulda met her,” he said, nostalgic suddenly for the days when he would see her on the street handing out condoms to prostitutes or working in a soup kitchen. She deserved so much more than what had happened to her in the end. Amaro looked at him curiously, and he made a mental note to talk about Sister Peg more often too. 

“The thing is, Jenna never intentionally aimed at her. Only the cage and the three men inside” he continued. “While she was shooting, Liv and I were yelling for her, trying to get her to stop. Jenna swung wide, squeezed the trigger, I think from the adrenaline, and Sister Peg caught a bullet straight through the heart. Liv was standing right next to her when she was hit. Not even two feet to the right and…

Remembering that moment caused him to take a shaky breath and he clenched his hand around his beer to stop the tremors in his hand. All he’d known in those few seconds was that there had been a gunshot, and glass shattering behind him. He’d known that Liv had called out, and he’d seen her collapsing to the floor. For three seconds, all of his nightmares coalesced into an unforgiving reality until he realized that the blood he was seeing wasn’t hers. 

He shook off the demons clawing at the corner of his mind. “Jenna was about to start firing again at one of the guys in the cage and Liv was crouched next to Sister Peg trying to help her. She wasn’t shielded at all, she didn’t have her weapon drawn, and all I could think was ‘ not her ,’” Elliot said, and Amaro’s face shifted with a dawning realization, but not surprise. “I didn’t kill Jenna to protect that perp, or the precinct, or my partner. I did it to protect the woman I love. And that was how I knew I had to walk away. Jenna Fox was not the first child to die because of my feelings for Liv, but I had to make sure that she was the last,” he finished.

“I’m guessing Liv doesn’t know about any of this,” Amaro said.

Elliot shook his head. “No. I told her I felt guilty for shooting Jenna, that I didn’t want to drag her down, and that’s all true. But she doesn’t know that part.”

“Well. She won’t hear it from me.”

“Thank you,” Elliot said sincerely before shifting back to the reason for their conversation in the first place. “You, though, need to ask yourself- do you wanna quit? Are you done with it all, are you doubting the reason you took that shot? You gotta think about that, and if you don’t think you can protect this city, your squad, your partner , to the best of your ability, it’s time to step away.”

He knew Amaro caught his emphasis on ‘partner,’ knew he understood the reason behind it now. Sure, Elliot had told Liv he would talk to Amaro and see if he could help him, but he wasn’t entirely altruistic in his motivation. Help another officer work through something traumatic? Sure. Do a favor for his former partner? Absolutely. Ensure to the best of his ability that the woman he loved was safe? No question.

Amaro stared at the bar top in thought, finally saying “I’m not done yet.”

“Okay. This is the part where I tell you that you gotta get a handle on yourself,” Elliot nodded. Amaro looked up defensively and opened his mouth to argue, and Elliot held his hand up. “I know, believe me I know, how it feels for someone to threaten your child, I’ve been there. Going after kids with a bat in the street won’t help you, and it’ll make it harder to come back to the job which you just told me you still want,” he added pointedly. “Help Liv to help you. She’s in your corner on this, man.”

Amaro groaned but seemed to accept what Elliot said. 

“Does it ever go away?” he asked softly. “I know I made the best decision I could at the time but I still feel eaten up with guilt over that boy.” 

Amaro looked much like a kid himself at that second, vulnerable and apologetic, wanting someone to tell him that he was going to be okay, that the mistake he’d made wouldn’t define him. Elliot couldn’t give him absolution, but he could offer a bit of reassurance. 

“It’ll never leave you. It gets easier to live with, but you’ll probably still think about him. A lot. You just have to remind yourself that he survived, and that’s something. You probably hate the idea, but think about seeing a therapist,” Elliot suggested. Amaro chuckled a little, lifted his beer to take a sip, and Elliot knew that was probably the last thing he’d end up doing. Still, they had come a long way since they first sat down, and Elliot couldn’t resist poking fun at Liv’s new partner. “Might help with the anger issues I’ve heard about too,” he teased and bumped his elbow against Amaro’s as he took a drink of his own. 

Amaro raised his eyebrows at him, shocked for a moment at the familiarity, before a mirthful grin spread across his face. “Yeah, from what I hear, you’re one to talk about anger issues.”

“Yeah, I may have flown off the handle once or twice,” Elliot laughed. “Woulda been more but half of Liv’s job was reigning me in. ‘Poster boy for rage’ she called me once, and she wasn’t wrong. Ironically, she said that right after she kicked the crap outta this guy in interrogation. Me and Cragen had to pull her off him.”

“Liv? Our Liv?” Amaro asked in disbelief, and a little part of him melted at her being referred to as our Liv. It reminded him that she had people that surrounded her, people that wanted her safe and happy. 

“Oh yeah. Took a bit more to get her to that point, but she could get there,” he mused, lost in thought and a slow smile spreading on his face.

Amaro was quiet for a moment, taking him in. “You’re still in love with her.”

Elliot held back from rolling his eyes. He didn't understand how someone could love Olivia Benson at one point and then just… stop. How was it possible for her to be a person that someone used to love? How were they not wholly consumed by it, by her? Loving her was the greatest thing he’d ever done, aside from his children, and anyone who couldn’t say the same hadn’t loved her in the first place. 

“Without a doubt,” he nodded and glanced over. “You gonna give me a hard time like you do Cassity? I deserve it.”

Amaro’s eyes narrowed and he paused like he was weighing the options. “The first time I met Cassidy he punched me in the face, and he’s never bought me a drink,” he started. “You, however, have bought me a drink,” he raised the bottle in his hand, “and you have yet to punch me in the face. So you have a little bit of a leg up.”

A laugh passed between them before Amaro became serious again. 

“I want to root for you, but don’t make it harder for me. Make no mistake, I am on Liv’s side,” he said. He pointed his finger onto the bar between them to emphasize what he said. 

Elliot was grateful. This is what Liv deserved, to have someone looking out for her, someone guarding her heart. Amaro was more a brother to her in that moment than Simon ever had been. 

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. After what I did, being back in her life is more than I deserve,” he said. It mollified Amaro for the time being and they finished their drinks in comfortable silence, a stark comparison to when they first sat down. 

Olivia probably shouldn’t feel like the ground had fallen out from under her. They’d all known for months that Cragen was retiring soon, but having him leave before he hit mandatory wasn’t something she’d imagined. 

He said he’d stayed to make sure Nick’s situation was handled, but that had come up so suddenly, and he had to have been planning this for a while. Months, probably. Lewis’s trial had only concluded three days before the shooting. 

He’d stayed for her. 

“Word of advice?” Cragen asked. 

Most of the things in his office had been cleared out, the files parsed around, miscellaneous office supplies back in a closet for other people to snag if they needed them. He had a single box of personal effects on the desk. It was a lonely image- forty some years with the NYPD and all he had to take with him was one box. 

“Oh please,” Olivia said with a watery smile and moved to sit on the edge of his desk. It would soon be hers, she realized, and it suddenly seemed five times larger. 

“I gave my whole life to the NYPD and forgot to live my own. Me and Eileen, it’s a Hail Mary. It’s a shot at happiness. You know people used to say this to me all the time and I never understood what it meant. But take care of yourself. You deserve it. You deserve to be happy,” he said sincerely and Olivia bit the inside of her lip to stop the tremor. Cragen clasped one of her hands in his and held her eyes with his. “Even if it’s not with Cassidy,” he added softly. 

Olivia’s eyes widened and she sighed, pulling her hand back. “Cap, not you too.”

Dr. Lindstrom had been questioning her about her reticence to break off their relationship. Kathy’s mother had made her thoughts well known at Eli’s party. Even Brian had asked her questions about Elliot, and no matter how often she assured him that there was nothing going on besides them being friends he still found excuses to be at work, to cancel plans, to avoid spending time with Elliot at all. 

“I’ve been around for the entire Benson/Stabler saga,” Cragen said. “I’ve seen it all, Liv. Scolded everyone that put money into the betting pool-“

“There’s a betting pool?”

“You’re surprised?” he grinned, and she rolled her eyes. No, she wasn’t really. If she’d been an outsider to their relationship she probably would have assumed the same. “Only reason I didn’t get in on it was because I was your superior and it’d be inappropriate.”

She wondered who was the keeper of the pool and who had contributed. Fin had to be involved somehow; she might have to twist his arm to get those answers. 

A ghost of a smile lingered on her face before turning sad. “Yeah, well. He’s been back eight months and hasn’t said anything or tried to make a move.” It shouldn’t hurt her so much to think that, but it did. 

“Elliot was married for years and you supported them at great personal cost despite how you felt about him,” Cragen said and she looked back up at him, surprised at how bluntly he’d stated it. God, had she really been that obvious? “Maybe he feels like he has to return the favor, even things up a bit.”

“Or maybe, he never saw me that way and never will,” Olivia said. It was the closest she’d ever come to admitting that she had loved him and it felt like a knife to the chest. The idea of losing him before she ever had him should not feel this way, not when she’d already dealt with it once before. She’d forced herself to pack him away in a little box when he left and she’d healed. Put him behind her. Elliot could be her friend, could be the person she trusted most, but she could not allow him to hold her heart ever again. 

Cragen shook his head. “Olivia, I care about you. I think of you as my daughter. You are incredibly smart and intuitive. And completely oblivious to the hold you have on that man.”

With that he gathered his things and moved toward the door, stopping to tell her to “do something with the place,” and then he was gone. 

Cragen had told her that “nothing changes except what has to,” and she mulled that over as she sat in the empty room. She wondered if one of the things that had to change was her relationship with Brian. Could they work through the issues they’d run into? Could they maybe compromise more? An uncomfortable thought crept in that Brian’s biggest issue was likely how close she was to Elliot and if he would ask her to sacrifice any part of that relationship. 

She didn’t think he would. They both knew what the outcome would be.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Elliot nudged Liv’s arm with his elbow. “What are you thinking about?”

Something was bothering her. Something with substance, and teeth that were eating her alive slowly. He noticed it the moment she stepped into the coffee shop, saw it sitting heavy like an ill omen on her shoulders. Walking around the park was her idea, so restless the cold wasn’t a deterrent. Her mouth formed a thin line and she bit the inside of her lip as if to keep the words from bursting out. 

“Talk to me,” he prodded. 

She picked at the lid of her coffee and sighed, her breath a thick white cloud against the bitter air.  

“I bought a pregnancy test the other day,” she said. 

His steps faltered for a second before he caught himself. It was a strange feeling that came over him- hope grew in his chest the same time a rock settled in his stomach. He knew, perhaps better than most people, how much Liv wanted to be a mother. He could picture the hopeful look on her face when she bought the test, could practically feel the hope he knew she must have been tamping down in the store because she didn’t believe something so wonderful could happen for her after everything she’d gone through. He wondered if she’d been one of those people who stared at the test on the counter or if she’d been too anxious and left the room. He believed every baby was precious, a miracle, but Olivia’s baby? That child would be even more precious, more miraculous, and he loved them already. He’d broken so many promises to her when he left, but he would keep the one he’d made years ago; he would support her every step of the way. 

In spite of all that, he was jealous without any reason to be. The selfish, possessive part of him that wanted her screamed in outrage that he wasn’t the one to give her this. Another man would hold her hand at doctors appointments. Another man would rub her aching feet after a long day. Another man would watch her body change and grow with the satisfaction of knowing he was the reason for it.

But he wanted this for her- so badly. If Brian Cassidy was the man who gave her the one thing she always wanted, the thing he’d been too much of a coward to give her himself, Elliot would just have to suck it up. 

“Yeah?” he said simply, not wanting to let on how much she had affected him. 

“It was negative.”

The image he’d built in his mind- her with a beaming smile holding a miniature version of herself, a child with their mother’s soulful brown eyes that already had him wrapped around their little finger, came crashing down. All that was left was a void left by a child that never existed. As disappointed as he was, he knew that she felt immeasurably worse.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he told her, because there wasn’t anything else he could say. She let out a wry, disbelieving laugh and looked in the opposite direction. Her feet carried her a few steps away from him, but he wrapped his hand around hers and pulled her back into his side. “Really, Liv, I am.”

He counted it as a victory that she didn't pull away.

“I dunno. With everything that’s happened… Lewis, the trial, becoming sergeant, everything with Nick recently… maybe it’s for the best,” she shrugged. “I mean I’m about to be forty six in a couple weeks so I’m not exactly young. Maybe I just need to let it go.”

Every justification was one she’d already come up with to convince herself that it was okay to give up this dream and his heart shattered for her. No matter how many ways she tried to rationalize it, he knew this was something she couldn’t just pack up into a neat little box and hide on a shelf in a back closet. 

“Could you look into adoption again?” he asked. “You’re not single anymore, you’re more steady at work. You’ve got a support system. I’ll watch the kid anytime you need, and I know for a fact Katie would if I couldn’t-”

“Brian doesn’t want kids,” she cut him off. “At all.”

She tugged her arm free from his grasp and walked ahead to throw her empty cup away in a trash can. Elliot watched her go, a little surprised and a lot confused. This was something so important to her and he didn’t know her as the type to compromise on the big things. 

“How do you feel about that?” he asked, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jacket. 

“It’s not like I can change how he feels,” she huffed indignantly. 

Elliot wanted to grab her by the arms and shake her, ask what about how you feel? She was so used to setting herself on fire to keep everyone else warm, and he wanted to show her that it was okay to put the matches down. It was okay to be selfish every now and then.

Instead, he approached her slowly, head down and with his hands still in his pockets. The toe of his shoe brushed against hers and she stubbornly kept her eyes away from his face. 

“Liv, you know I don’t wanna push you about your relationship. But that’s a pretty big thing to disagree on,” he said cautiously. 

“If I was ten years younger, sure. But I don’t want to be alone forever and starting over now? I don’t wanna have to explain everything to someone new,” she said, and it stung, just a little. In her hypothetical future relationship, she hadn’t considered the fact that she might already know the person she was with. She wouldn’t have to explain her trauma to him because he’d already been there. She wouldn't have to lay out everything with Lewis because he’d heard it all. It felt a bit like she was rejecting him before he even had a chance to make any kind of move. 

Then again, it was her feelings that mattered. Liv may never see him that way, and it wasn’t her responsibility to cushion any blows to his ego. 

“Plus there’s no guarantee even then that I’d get to be a mom and I don’t want to screw up now,” she continued, oblivious to his inner turmoil. “Brian’s been good to me. He’s helped me through a lot. I can let this go.”

Her voice wavered and it sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as him. 

Just then her phone rang and she shook her head like she was trying to clear the conversation from the air. 

“Benson,” she answered on the second ring and listened intently to whoever was on the other end. She sniffled a little, something that could have easily been blamed on the biting cold if not for the glassy redness in her eyes. “Copy that, I’ll head over now.”

“Caught a case?” he nodded to her phone as she slid it back into her pocket. 

“Yeah, missing kid so it’s all hands on deck. I’ll talk to you later, El,” she said and hurried off. 

He watched her go and wondered when it would finally be her turn.

Olivia spent the entire commute home wondering why she felt so heavy. They had found Nicky alive. They’d recovered three girls and a baby boy alive- traumatized, but alive. Five children saved and two child pornographers behind bars should equate to a victory, but she couldn’t figure out why she felt like she had lost. 

Realization dawned on her as soon as her key slid into the lock on her door and she paused. She could hear the TV going which meant Brian was home, but the thought didn’t make her happy, relieved, excited to sink into his embrace after the day she’d had. She wondered at what point she’d stopped feeling lonely when he was gone and started being disappointed when he was around.

The key turned in the lock and it sounded like an ending. 

“Liv, that you?” Brian called from the living room. She hovered in the entryway, moving slowly as she set her keys down, hung up her coat, slid off her boots still damp from the city slush. 

“It’s me,” she answered. There really was nobody else it could be; Elliot had the only other spare key, a fact she knew had needled under Brian’s skin more than he’d let on. 

He shifted forward when she came into the living room, noticing something was off. 

“What’s wrong? Bad case?” he asked, and the genuine concern in his voice broke her heart a little, knowing she was very likely about to break his.

Olivia slowly sat down on the couch next to him and ran her hands over her thighs. “I think we should talk. I’ve been thinking about us, where we’re going…” she trailed off cautiously.

Recognition settled across his face and he sighed.

When she thought about the state of their relationship, she imagined a little glass ball in her hands. Over time, little shards had broken off but still she tried so hard to keep it together, still tried to force it to remain a sphere. Eventually, all that remained was a formless mass with no structure, no integrity. Just pieces of splintered glass in her hands that cut and bit against tender skin. Holding onto it was taking more effort, hurting her more, than simply letting it go. 

“You and I found each other at the darkest, lowest points of our lives.You got shot, demoted, I got… hurt. You got me through that,” she pulled his hand into her lap, tracing over the lines of it. “Maybe that’s all it was supposed to be. Maybe, there’s something even more right for each of us. I know I still think about having a family,” she finished softly, looking up at him. 

Brian stared at their joined hands for a moment, his thumb running over the back of her fingers. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

She nodded. “I know. Like you said, we’ve been out of sync for a while.”

“Yeah,” Brian pulled his hand away. “Since about the time Stabler came back,” he said ruefully. 

Olivia was caught off guard and her breath stuttered in her chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He sighed and ran his hand over his face. “You didn’t want me there after the trial, but you let him be there,” he said. 

Everyone had noticed, of course, when she came back from the stairwell with Elliot at her side. A couple looks had passed between her squad, but nobody had said anything to her. Brian hadn’t said anything either and she’d assumed it was because he’d just understood. 


“You were okay with the kids discussion until you talked to him,” he continued over her. 

“I wasn’t okay with it,” she snapped, voice raised, and it was enough for Brian to pause his rambling. Olivia shrugged and felt tears gathering in her eyes. “I wasn’t,” she repeated, softly. “It’s still something I want  very much and sacrificing that? I don’t think I have it in me.”

Her mind went back to that sweet baby boy in a drawer- unnamed, unclaimed, unloved. Something had shifted in her the moment she picked him up, the second her skin touched his. That feeling? That was what she would be sacrificing if she stayed with someone who didn’t want the same things she did. It wasn’t fair to Brian for her to hold out hope he would change his mind. It wasn’t fair to herself. 

“Well he’s got you covered there,” he rolled his eyes and stood from the couch, grabbed the empty beer bottle he had left on the coffee table and walked to the kitchen. 

Olivia managed to turn a groan into a sigh at the last second. She closed her eyes against the forming headache and took a breath, regretting that she had told him about her conversation with Elliot. It would have been easier if she just hadn’t mentioned it at all. She added that thought to the list of reasons she knew it was time to walk away.

“This isn’t about Elliot,” she said steadily.

“Like hell it’s not. Liv, you thought you were pregnant and when you found out you weren’t you talked to him and not me. We’re supposed to be in this together, the two of us.” Brian’s hands rested on the counter and he sounded more hurt than anything.

Guilt gnawed at her stomach. She had tried so hard to avoid this, to keep everyone comfortable, and Brian had still ended up getting hurt regardless. “I talked to Elliot because I felt like you didn’t want to have the conversation,” she told him, and squared her shoulders. “I want to be a mom. If you can’t be with me on this…”

“Well we all know Stabler’s the type of guy that wants kids. How many is he up to now, twelve?” 

As hard as Olivia was trying to keep a level head, he was making it so difficult. “If I have to do it on my own I will. I talked to Elliot because we had a conversation years ago about how I wanted kids, I felt like I could confide in him.”

“See that’s what I’m talking about, Liv, it goes beyond this one thing,” Brian huffed. “You discuss our relationship with him-”

“Not really,” she cut him off, irritated, with a shake of her head. “And on the rare occasion I do, it’s because he’s my friend. If I was talking to Amanda would you have this much of an issue with it?”

“That’s different,” Brian rolled his eyes. 

“Because Elliot is a man?” she asked, frustrated, with a tilt of her head.

“Because he’s in love with you!” 

The exclamation rang in the air between them, and Olivia could only stare at Brian with an open mouth in disbelief. 

Elliot loving her was… unfathomable. It was the darkest hope of her heart for over a decade, and when it was put in front of her like that, like it was so blatantly obvious, she wanted to turn her face away from it. 

If he had fallen in love with her only since he’d been back, it meant there was something wrong with her before, some flaw that kept that from happening for the entirety of their partnership. His marriage wasn’t an excuse- he’d been separated for close to two years in the middle, and he hadn’t said anything during that time. It would mean he loved her now that she’d been broken. It meant he loved her now that there wasn’t an alternative choice, now that she was a consolation prize.

Of course, it could be that he had loved her before, and that he’d walked away from her anyway. Olivia didn’t know which scenario she hated more. 

“You’re being ridiculous,” she mumbled. Deflection, she knew how to do that.

“Am I?” Brian challenged. 

Yes, ” she hissed. 

“Have you talked to him about Lewis?” 

“You’re bringing him up now?” her voice rose in disbelief. Of all the blows he could have delivered her, she would not have thought he would bring that up. “Elliot was my partner for thirteen years. He is my best friend. I am going to talk to him about personal things.”

Brian scoffed and hung his head, hands still firmly braced on the counter. She hadn’t moved from her spot on the couch. 

“You know, Liv, you come home from work every day to me, but lately it doesn’t feel like you’re actually here. I’m starting to understand how Stabler’s wife felt all those years.”

The unspoken accusation stung like a slap across the face. 

“Elliot never cheated on Kathy,” she said, her jaw tight. “And I never cheated on you.” If she could have burned him up on the spot with her eyes, she probably would have. The accusation wasn’t unfamiliar, and in the past it would have rolled right off her back. She’d heard it whispered behind her back by their colleagues or asked outright by perps or witnesses. Coming from her boyfriend, it was a different story. 

Brian seemed to realize how furious she was and his shoulders relaxed. “Yeah. But they still ended up divorced. And look where we are,” he said, resigned. 

The tears Olivia felt gathering in her eyes seemed like an insult and she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes to try holding them back. This was her decision. She was the one who chose to end their relationship, she shouldn’t have the right to cry over it. 

“Liv,” Brian said softly and she looked up to see he’d returned to the couch. He settled next to her and reached across the space between them to twirl a strand of her hair around his finger. “You’re the love of my life, but I know I’m not yours. And I wouldn’t want to hold you back from what you want. Whether that’s a kid or Stabler or both.”

Olivia was too worn out to fight with him over Elliot anymore, so she said nothing. He wouldn’t believe her anyway. A whisper in the back of her mind said that she wouldn’t believe herself either, but she shoved it aside. 

“You were never gonna bare your soul to me, were you?” Brian asked. Olivia shook her head, not trusting her voice not to shake if she spoke. She didn’t know how to be vulnerable with him, didn’t know how to allow him to see the darkest, most broken parts of her when she’d already given the fragments away to another. He nodded morosely, already expecting the answer.  “I’ll be back some time tomorrow during the day to get my stuff out of here.”

He stood, and her hand darted out to grab his wrist. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice clogged.

“Don’t be,” Brian said, kinder than she deserved. “Even when he was gone, it felt like I was fighting his ghost and that was hard enough. Him being back, I never stood a chance.”

Her fingers were still wrapped around his wrist and she squeezed. “I do care about you, Brian. Very much,” she insisted, because it was true. She couldn’t imagine where she would be if not for his steady support and comfort in the months since Lewis. 

“I know. It’s why you’re too good for me. For either of us, really,” he said with as lighthearted a laugh as he could muster. Brian leaned down, one hand on the back of the couch behind her and pressed his lips to her forehead in a lingering kiss, and her eyes drifted closed. “Don’t let him forget it,” he whispered as he pulled away. 

Olivia kept her eyes closed until his footsteps retreated and the door shut behind him. When she opened them again, the apartment was empty. She thought about getting up and pouring a glass of wine, but felt too numb for that at the moment. Instead, she slumped into the corner of the couch with her knees drawn up to her chest. 

“You shouldn’t call Elliot,” she berated herself. She wanted to, more than she should. She wanted him to come over and listen and laugh with her about what Brian had said about the two of them. She wanted him to tell her that it was okay to feel sad even though she broke up with Brian. 

Calling Elliot was her first instinct, but doing that would only give credence to everything Brian had said and if she was nothing if not stubborn. Instead she sat alone trying to untangle the web of emotions she’d woven for herself. 

She wasn’t angry or depressed or lonely. 

Maybe, she thought, there was a little remorse. She knew she made the right decision, of course, for both their sakes. If they had stayed together and she gave up having kids, she knew she would grow to resent Brian. Plus, asking him to understand her relationship with Elliot was impossible; she herself had trouble delineating where he ended and she began. But she still wished that she could’ve been everything Brian needed and wanted. This man who cared for her, told her he loved her as she told him to leave. She wished she loved him the way he deserved, and was sorry she couldn't do that. 

Beyond that, she was relieved. There would be no more walking on eggshells, no more feeling like she was sneaking behind her boyfriend’s back when she spent time with Elliot and his family. And yes, she was guilty for how relieved she felt, but ultimately it circled back to this being the right decision.

She curled further into the couch, deciding she would allow herself to feel all these things, already dreading the moment when everyone found out about her newly single status. It was about to get infinitely more difficult to deny there was anything between her and Elliot and Olivia knew it. All she could do was prepare for the onslaught of questions she knew awaited her and hope she had the fortitude to stand against it. 

Chapter Text

The crowd at the promotion ceremony was pressed shoulder to shoulder, but Elliot didn’t care. He sat between Amaro and Fin and only half paid attention to the people giving speeches leading up to Liv’s walk across that stage, more focused on the back of her head and thinking about the green detective she’d once been.

When those being sworn in stood and recited their oath, he could pick out her voice among the crowd. It carried back to him, not because she was speaking louder than anyone else. His ears were just trained to hear her, to seek her out, to find her anywhere. 

Elliot noticed Rollins’ leg bouncing incessantly as she fidgeted with the water bottle she’d brought with her. It had been two months since their encounter at SVU and she had greeted him stiffly when he’d slid into the seat they’d saved for him. Despite the cold shoulder, he still cared.

He nudged Fin’s arm with his elbow to catch his attention and nodded in Rollin’s direction. Fin eyed her for a moment and the furrow of his brow showed concern. Olivia had been his partner, but he knew Fin well enough to know Rollins seemed off to him.

“Jumping around so much, how much caffeine you got in there?” he asked, his voice hushed since they’d started reading off names.

Rollins gave him a chagrined smile and set the bottle down. “Sorry,” she muttered and leaned closer to Amaro. “Hey, how was DC? You and Maria?”

Elliot had stayed in contact with him since their conversation at the bar and knew Nick was trying to work things out with his ex, hoping it would help put everything in his life back to rights. 

Amaro shrugged. “One day at a time, you know the drill. Hey, anyone hear from Cassidy if he’s coming?” he asked, looking between the four of them.

Elliot blinked at him in confusion. “Liv didn’t tell you?” The confused looks he got told him that no, she very much had not told them, and that confused him even more. “They broke up, ‘bout a week and a half ago.”

Rollins and Amaro glanced at each other in shock. Fin nodded to himself, unsurprised. 

“No, she hasn’t said anything,” Amaro said. 

“You think she’s so upset that she didn’t tell us?” Rollins asked. 

Fin chuckled. “Nah, that’s not it.” He didn’t elaborate anymore, which Elliot could tell frustrated the other two, but he glanced over at Elliot with smug understanding. That single look told Elliot everything he needed to know about Liv’s reasons for keeping quiet. 

“We got a call,” Amaro murmured. 

While Fin and Rollins rushed out, he watched Amaro’s shoulders slump in disappointment. Elliot had always felt miserable on desk duty. Useless. 

“Chin up, man. It’s not forever,” Elliot nudged his arm. 

Just then, Liv’s name was called from the stage and for a minute, Elliot forgot all about Amaro and his job woes. All that mattered was Olivia striding up to receive her certificate, the excited salute she gave, the barely contained smile she cast around the crowd until she met his eyes. If he had been thinking ahead, he would have had a camera ready, but he knew that no photo would ever be able to properly capture the pure joy in her eyes. She was radiant, and he was so goddamn proud of her he felt like his heart was about to come out of his chest. 

Across the crowd he saw whispers being passed around among the polite applause, nodding to the stage, to her, no doubt saying “That’s the one who…” It irked him, knowing that half of them were admiring her and the other half doubted her already. As if she was hindered, as if she was any less capable. Liv would prove all the naysayers wrong, she always did, but it didn’t stop him from being defensive on her behalf.

In a few minutes they’d wrap everything up. She’d meet him and Nick and they’d congratulate her for the hundredth time because she deserved to know how amazing she was. They’d have to leave and run off to handle whatever case it was that had come up and the plan he had to take her to lunch would have to be scrapped but he didn’t mind. All he cared about was her- strong, graceful, resilient, beautiful her

Manny and Avery’s case was wrapped up, but it still hung heavy in Olivia’s mind as she rolled, exhausted, out of bed and went through the motions of getting ready. It was, technically, the first case where she was SVU’s commanding officer and it had felt like a trial by fire. Her phone ringing on her nightstand jarred her from her morning routine and she would have been more frustrated at the interruption if it was anyone other than Elliot.

“Do you know what time it is?” she asked as a greeting and she heard him chuckle on the other end of the line.

“Good morning to you, too.”

“You’re way too cheerful for 5:30 in the morning, Stabler,” she grumbled.

“Yeah, well, it’s the day you were born so it’s always gonna be a good day. And I wanted to be the first person to wish you a happy birthday,” he said and she had to pause and count the days. 

With the urgency of the case she must have lost track of time. That realization led to the next- that it had been four days since she’d seen Elliot which was unusual for them. When he’d first come back it had been sporadic, maybe just a day here or there, then once a week, then twice. Since she broke up with Brian, they’d talked on the phone nearly every single night and it was nice . Sometimes Olivia wondered if he was trying to make up for their lost two years; she could count on one hand the number of times he hadn’t picked up when she called.

She also recognized that those four days had been too long and she missed him more than she probably should. 

“I have 45 of these that say it’s not necessarily a guaranteed good day,” she mused. There were years her mother didn’t acknowledge the day at all. Even worse were the ones when she did. The first year after Elliot left had been the worst in a while.

Celebrating herself had never felt right, but he’d always made it tolerable. 

“Well we’re going to make sure this year is one of the good ones. I know you hate anything big, but I’m done at noon today and the kids all asked to see you. Come over tonight, I’ll make you dinner,” he said. 

Part of her wanted to agree immediately but she held back anyway. It felt too familiar, too much like family and domesticity. Nick and Fin had given her enough of a hard time after they found out about Brian, what would they say if they found out she’d spent her birthday with Elliot and all his kids?

“I don’t know, El. Between the case we just finished and taking over SVU-”

“Oh about that, I already made sure with Fin that you have the evening off. They won’t call you in unless the city is on fire,” he said and she heard the smirk he was wearing. Still, she hesitated, until- 

“I also have a very exuberant six year old that has a present for you.”

The prospect of seeing Eli was too much to resist. And really, she meant to properly thank all of them for the picture they’d signed before the trial. One day it would make its way into a scrapbook or a frame, but for the time being it stayed in her nightstand drawer, tucked away until the nights when the darkness reared its head and she needed a reminder that there were things worth looking forward to. That on the horizon were victories and blue skies and yellow suns in the corner of the page.

“I’ll be there. For the six year old, of course,” Olivia said finally. 

“I knew that would get you,” he teased, and she rolled her eyes before hanging up to finish getting ready for the day.

“I get to sit next to Liv,” Lizzie announced, just before everyone sat down. 

Olivia had tried to help do something, but every single offer was shut down. Elliot and Maureen didn’t let her help cook (a good thing, if she was being honest). Dickie waved her off when she tried to help set the table. The only person that accepted any form of assistance was Eli who was constructing a car made out of Legos on the coffee table. Even then, all she did was hand him pieces as he told her all about school and the Valentine’s Day party they were planning in his classroom and how he’d had so much fun at the hockey game he went to with Elliot and Dickie, the tickets her gift to all of them for Christmas, because even if she hadn’t feel like celebrating the holiday with Lewis’s trial coming up, she hadn’t been able to ignore the family that she still sometimes thought of as her own.

“What if I wanted to sit next to Liv?” Kathleen frowned. 

“You guys know I can sit next to two people, right?” Olivia called from her spot on the living room floor, laughing to herself about the absurdity of the disagreement between people old enough to drink. It was sweet, she thought. Reminded her that they were all still so young, the inner child not completely wrung out of them yet.

“Yeah, Dad and someone else. ‘Someone else’ being me,” Lizzie said, directing the last comment at Kathleen with a challenge.

Olivia felt warmth rush to her cheeks and looked over to where Elliot was working in the kitchen. He was smiling softly, cutting up vegetables for a salad. “I see Liv all the time. You kids figure it out amongst yourselves,” he said. 

She ended up seated between Lizzie and Eli with Kathleen across from her, between Dickie and Maureen, with Elliot at the head of the table. Dinner was wonderful, a fact she teased Elliot about, to which he replied that since it was her birthday he’d let it slide. The conversation with the kids came as easy as breathing and she couldn’t believe she almost passed up the opportunity to see them. So what if it was familial? That’s what they were to her, anyway. 

Maureen pulled out her phone to share the newest pictures of her dress from her most recent fitting and just like every time before it nearly brought tears to her eyes to see her all grown up. 

“Oh, it’s beautiful. I love it,” Olivia said, zooming in to try to pick out more of the fine details. 

Maureen was beaming. “I really love the back so I’m trying to figure out what to do with my hair so I don’t hide it too much. If you swipe over there’s a few things I saved for ideas,” she said.

On the other side of the table, Olivia caught the way Dickie sighed. It must have been a lament he’d heard from his sister multiple times, but the sigh was quiet, to himself so as not to hurt Maureen’s feelings. She grinned at him, swiping through Maureen’s camera roll and the dozen pictures of hairstyles she had saved, and Dickie caught her eyes. He smiled, turned his attention back to his plate, and Olivia thought that that little moment was the perfect indication of how far they’d come since that day in the interrogation room.

“You’ll be gorgeous no matter what,” she told Maureen and passed her phone back to her. 

“You are coming, right?” Maureen asked cautiously. “I mean I know with your job your schedule is crazy and Brian’s too. I understand if you can’t come, or if you have to leave,” she hurried to say. 

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Olivia promised. “As for Brian we um. We actually broke up.”

Kathleen’s eyebrows shot up and her head turned quickly in Elliot’s direction. Maureen dug her elbow into her sister’s side. “Liv, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known.”

Olivia waved her off. “It’s pretty recent, and I’m fine. We wanted different things. It’s for the best really.”

“It still has to be an adjustment though,” Lizzie said. 

“A bit, yeah. I’m okay, though. Promise.”

She’d only spent eight months living with Brian, less than five of them at her current apartment, but somehow it seemed bigger without him. In the past, breakups used to leave her feeling like a piece of her was missing, only for a little while until it grew back. This time around, she didn’t really feel that way. 

Brian would say it was because Elliot had already taken his place before they broke up, so there was no loss she had to heal from, but she didn’t want to think about how every day they both spent single was making it more difficult to ignore.

Eli sat up on his knees on the chair and leaned closer to Elliot. “Can I give Liv my present now?” he tried to whisper 

Elliot smiled at her over his son’s head and it made her heart stutter in her chest. He whispered back just as loudly. “Yeah go get it.”

Eli scampered off to his room with heavy feet before coming back with a purple gift bag swinging from his hands. “Open it, open it, open it,” he said quickly. 

“I don’t know, it looks so pretty right now. What if I wanted to take it home like this?” Olivia teased.

Eli groaned and rolled his eyes, but was still smiling at her. “Liv, you have to open it,” he said.

“If you say so,” she sighed and reached into the bag to pull out the frame inside. He’d made her another picture, and she wondered if he’d made much of a mess doing it. Eli’s handprints, different colors of paint, all together to make up a bunch of flowers. It was the kind of thing he would have loved doing because it meant he got to intentionally put paint on his hands. “Eli, this is beautiful, I love it.” 

“It’s for you to take to your work. Daddy said you got a new office and needed decorations for it,” he explained. 

“It’s perfect,” she said and ran her fingers through his hair. “Thank you so much.”

The kids started filtering out not much later. Work and school and wedding planning had them all busy, but she was thankful that they’d all made time to see her. Elliot refused to let her help clean up, again, but Eli convinced her (not that it took much effort on his part) to help him get ready for bed. It turned out that was mostly making sure he put on clean underwear and didn’t empty the whole tube of toothpaste into the sink. 

She latched his bedroom door softly behind her just as Elliot finished wiping down the counter. 

“He talked you into reading a second book didn’t he?” Elliot smiled at her.

“Yeah. A second book, sure” she said lightly in a tone that very clearly told him there had been more than two. It was only three, and really, what was she supposed to do when he looked up at her with those sweet blue eyes and said ‘I wish you could read me books all the time.’

Elliot chuckled and moved toward where she had seated herself on the couch. It was getting late, but she had missed the time she spent with just him. It was her birthday, she should get to spend it however she wanted. 

“One more present,” he said as he reached into the drawer of the end table next to the couch. “Sorry it’s not wrapped.”

He pulled out a narrow box, a navy blue velvet one that screamed “jewelry” and anxiety crept in. The gesture was too close to couple-y for comfort and she wanted to refuse on principle because they didn’t do things like this. They exchanged practical gifts, like the coffee mug she gave him one year after the one he used every day was knocked off his desk in a scuffle with a perp or the soft, extra thick hoodie he gave her for Christmas one year. Never anything like this. 

“El, you didn’t have to-”

“I wanted to,” he said lightly and settled next to her on the couch. His elbow rested on the back as he turned to watch her. Olivia looked between him and the box in her hands, biting the inside of her cheek. Elliot’s eyes softened. “Open it.”

She only hesitated a second longer before she cautiously pried open the lid of the box.

Inside was a simple gold bracelet, a chain with a small plate in the middle. Stamped on the plate were the numbers 6313 , his old badge number. Her thumb brushed lightly over the numbers and Olivia felt her chest get tight, unsure how to feel. It reminded her a little like a teenage girl with her boyfriend’s name on her necklace and she was overwhelmed with the thought. 

“I know that… with Lewis you lost the courtesy badge I sent you,” Elliot said softly. “I wanted you to have something else with my badge number, so it was like I was still out there with you. Feel like I’m still protecting you, I guess.” 

Elliot fidgeted next to her, and Olivia glanced up to see that he was watching her cautiously. He was nervous , she realized, and for some reason that helped sweep aside her own hesitation. This wasn’t him trying to stake a claim on her or make any grand confession about feelings. It was just… him trying to keep being her partner, in his own way, and she found it endearing. 

“Help me put it on?” she asked and held the box out to him. 

Elliot’s shoulders relaxed and he inched just a little bit closer to her. 

“It’s funny,” she said, as he settled the bracelet around her left wrist. The metal was a cold contrast to the warmth of his fingers which were a flame against her delicate skin. “I remember thinking months ago, even before I left the hospital, about how I’d lost the badge. That it was evidence. It was like the last little thing I had of you was gone.” 

The grief she’d felt, the desperation and hopelessness that had plagued her in the immediate aftermath of Lewis snuck back up and tried to sink its claws in, but it had no chance of taking hold of her. Not when Elliot was right in front of her. 

“Except it wasn’t. You came back.” She smiled down at their hands, his thick fingers managing the delicate clasp of the bracelet with an ease she guessed came with being a father who helped three little girls put on jewelry. “You came back for me.”

Elliot sighed and brushed his fingers down the side of her arm. “I think… Part of me thinks I was always supposed to. Just wish it didn’t have to happen the way it did.” He refused to meet her eyes, instead watching the path his hand made on its journey over her skin. The shiver that passed over her, the goosebumps that rose, well. Those she blamed on the chill night air creeping in from outside. 

“Hey,” she whispered, pulling him back from his wandering thoughts of regret and self-loathing. One day she would get him to stop blaming himself for Lewis. One day he would forgive himself for the way he walked away. “He’s in prison, and you’re here,” she said and stopped his wandering hand to lace his fingers with hers. “You’re here, and that’s all I wanted.”

They sat on his couch in silence, her thumb stroking the back of his hand as her mind wandered. Laying in that hospital bed, Rafael waking her up from that nightmare, it all seemed so distant. The aching loneliness in her chest from that day was long gone and she was so, so grateful to Fin and John for bringing Elliot back to her.

The day came to a close and Olivia found herself thinking about what he’d said, about making this one of the better birthdays she’d had, and that he had succeeded. She stared at the bracelet on her wrist, the numbers stamped in it, and thought it had actually been the perfect gift. His mug that had been broken. It had the Marines logo on it. She replaced it with one with all five of the kids' names on it. The Christmas he gave her that hoodie, New York had been in the middle of a cold snap and the heat had gone out at her apartment. 

She grounded him, reminded him of the things he stood for and why he tried so hard, and he protected her. It was just the way things worked between them. She couldn’t explain it, couldn’t figure out why she gave him that latitude. But it was nice to know someone cared about her safety, that he cared about her safety, so she let it go, figuring she could sort it all out later. 

Chapter Text

Eli’s picture was placed behind her desk the very next day. The day after that, Olivia brought in the framed photo of her and Elliot. 

He’d asked her, before giving it to her for Christmas. She’d told him offhandedly that it had been one of the casualties of her old apartment, that Lewis had used it to taunt her. Had held it up to her face and asked who he was, if this was her boyfriend, if this was the one from the voicemail that had left her alone. Elliot had offered to replace it but wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t cause any flashbacks before he did. 

“He tried to use you against me,” she’d told him. “All it did was give me hope. Make me want to fight him harder.”

Lined up next to each other, the picture and the artwork, anyone who didn’t know better would guess that she had brought in tokens of her husband and child, something to brighten her space, give herself something to focus on when the deepest evils of her job wandered in. 

She’d never had anything like it on her desk, just the solitary picture of her and her mother. In the past she would have kept all traces of her personal life a secret, wouldn’t want some creep wandering by and catching a glimpse of family. Lewis in her apartment had been bad enough, she couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if he’d had something that personal, that sacred, to use against her. Now, though, she had the office and a little bit more privacy. The only people that came in here were the squad or the occasional victim. She could allow traces of Eli into her work life. 

“Have a minute for lunch?” 

Elliot stood in the doorway of her office ( her office , that was still so strange to think about) holding a bag from their favorite deli. 

“I guess I could find the time,” she smiled. 

They settled on the couch, food spread out between them, trading half sandwiches like they always did, picking from each other’s chips. He’d been coming in for this kind of thing recently, like he could tell that the stress and pressure were preventing her from eating regularly, and she appreciated it. No matter how many times she looked up to see Elliot in her doorway, it never got old. For two years she’d looked for him in every crowded street, around every corner, and he’d never appeared. Being able to count on him again was more than she’d ever thought possible. 

Still, try as she might, Olivia couldn’t shake the tightness from her smile as he told her about Lizzie’s latest school project that had her wanting to drop out for the seventh time.

“Something’s bothering you. Wanna talk about it?” Elliot asked suddenly.  

It surprised her that she did, actually. Verbal communication had never been their strong suit, but going to therapy had opened both of them up to the idea that sometimes it wasn’t healthy to keep everything bottled up. 

“The case we just wrapped up,” she told him. 

“Comedian guy, I saw it on the news,” Elliot nodded. “You got him though, right?”

“We did, but… Barba said something to me and I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said and took a sip from the iced tea Elliot had brought her. “It was my first time testifying since Lewis and he thinks I was trying to make a statement or something. That my ego got in the way. That I never should have brought him the case to begin with…” she trailed off with a shake of her head. “I don’t know, maybe my judgement was clouded.”

Barba had said something to the effect, mostly in reference to himself, but since their argument at the courthouse she hasn’t been able to let it go, and cold doubt had settled over her. 

“Hey,” Elliot pulled her back from the spiral she’d been starting on with a warm hand on her knee. “You did the right thing,” he assured her. 

She knew that, even if it didn’t really feel like it. 

“I’m glad I pushed for this case, I am. I just don’t know if maybe there wasn’t a grain of truth to what he said. Maybe I do need to slow down and be more careful. The risk paid off this time but what if next time it doesn’t?”

Elliot listened to her and she wondered why she’d ever shied away from sharing with him like this. “What if next time a victim doesn’t get justice, all because I made a bad call?” 

“That’s the way things go sometimes, Liv. You know that,” he said. His hand still rested on her knee and his thumb ran back and forth. “The next time something comes up, you’ll make whatever call feels right. All you can do is try your best. But honestly? There’s not much you can’t do when you put your mind to it.”

Olivia wished she could have this encouragement all the time. It would be nice, she thought, to have someone to come home to that would understand her job. What it gave her, what it took away. Someone to know when to listen as she vented her frustration and when to offer encouragement. For a while she thought she’d found that with Brian. 

She tried to picture this unknown man, but he just looked like Elliot. 

She smiled her thanks and squeezed his hand. “So what were you saying about Lizzie’s school project?” 

Elliot grinned and stole a sip of her tea before picking up the story he’d been telling. The action wasn’t out of the ordinary, really, but she found herself thinking about it later. How his lips had been wrapped around the same straw she had used, that she’d finished the tea later after he left. A kiss by proxy. 

“‘S’that a date?” Nick asked out of the blue one day. 

They were elbow deep in a case involving football players at Hudson, pouring over evidence and at first she thought he had found something. 

“Where?” she looked around the table they had set up, evidence sprawled out across it, trying to figure out what he saw. 

“That,” he pointed at her wrist. “The numbers, 6313, what is that?”

Fin stood at the other end of the table, but his head swung around so fast she was shocked it didn’t fly off. Olivia felt her face grow hot under his knowing gaze. 

Nick stared at her expectantly and she knew she had to come up with something. “Oh. No it’s uh. It’s not a date,” she said elusively, hoping that both of them would catch the hint and drop it. 

“Why do you have a bracelet with Elliot’s old badge number, Liv?” Fin called, smirking as he inched closer to them. It was only for the sake of their fourteen year friendship that she didn’t kill him on the spot. Or fire him. Or both. 

Nick’s eyes widened as he looked from Fin (whose grin was growing by the second), to her, to the bracelet she’d worn every day since Elliot had put it on her wrist. 

“Because Elliot gave it to me,” she shrugged, trying to minimize it.

“Right, right, that makes sense,” Fin said. He was directly across from her now and he leaned over, his elbows resting on the table. “But why are you wearing it?”

“Because when someone gives you something it’s polite to wear it,” she said and raised an eyebrow at him.

Fin nodded sarcastically, mumbling “right, yeah.” He glanced at Nick and she really didn’t like the conspiring look that passed between the two of them. 

Nick turned so his back was facing the table and leaned against it, arms crossed over his chest. 

“The thing is, you’ve been wearing it for a while now,” Nick said thoughtfully. “Every day. And if you were just being polite about it, I would think you’d only wear it when you were seeing Stabler. Maybe that’s just me though,” he added.  

“Unless, you have been seeing him every day?” Fin chimed in. 

Damn the hole she’d dug herself into. Stuck between the two of them, the proverbial rock and a hard place, she wondered if she shouldn’t maybe try sending them into interrogation together more often. They made a very effective pair. 

“I have the ability to make both your lives very difficult,” she threatened, but there was barely any heat behind it. 

They grinned at each other one more time before turning back to the task at hand, and aside from the occasional knowing look toward her, they let it drop. 

A couple days later, the case wrapped up, she sat in her office and ran her thumb over the numbers on her wrist, smiling to herself. Having Fin and Nick teasing her about Elliot felt… well it felt like something siblings would do. She never had that growing up, never knew what it was like to have an older brother watching out for her and willing to scare off any boys that weren’t worth her time (and there were a lot of them that weren’t worth it). Even when Elliot came along, the protectiveness he extended to her was tinged with a bit of possessiveness; there was always a bit of jealousy when he was scaring off the boys that, looking back, she knew still weren’t worth her time. 

A knock pulled her from her musings and she looked up at Nick, hovering at the door. He gave her a knowing smile and her fingers fell reluctantly from her bracelet. 

“I’m heading out, just seeing if you need anything,” he said. 

She shook her head. “No, I’m wrapping up here myself. See you tomorrow.”

“See ya,” he said, knuckles rapping one more time against the door frame. “And hey, I’m happy for you,” he added. 

“Please,” she scoffed. “The second anything happened between me and Elliot, you’d start giving him a hard time just like you did Brian.”

To her surprise, Nick chuckled. 

“What’s so funny?”

“Well first of all, I didn’t bring up Stabler. You did,” he said, and Olivia blushed. “Second, I didn’t like Cassidy even before you two got together. And third… People talk about the dynamic between you two. Like you were this unstoppable force, practically the same person. Like you shared a brain. Kinda wish I got to see it,” he shrugged. “But then you go and say something that’s almost identical to something he said two months ago. You still think alike.”

It threw her off guard. If Elliot asked Nick about how he’d react if they started dating then… Was it something he’d thought about?

Unbidden, a flash of something that felt a lot like want coursed through her, but she tamped it down. She’d been through that before. Felt the brutal consequences of hope, colder than the stone wall at her back when he’d told her Kathy was pregnant. Elliot hadn’t chosen her then, had left after Jenna died when things got hard. She had no inclination that he would choose her this time. 

“Night, Liv,” Nick mumbled, seeming to recognize the storm he’d unintentionally tossed her into. 


Something was up with Rollins. 

Olivia couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew. Her detective had been vacillating between being moody and withdrawn to bubbly, outgoing, energetic. Maybe she was having issues with her family- God knew her sister always brought trouble. Maybe she was in a relationship she hadn’t mentioned and it was hitting rough spots.

That option had its merits, but then why would she be blatantly flirting with Nick? Unless…

“Those two, I wish they’d just get a room already,” she huffed, coming out of her office. 

Rollins was in one of her good moods, and the smiles both of them wore? It would raise anyones suspicions.

Fin laughed at her in disbelief. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you say that.” 

Before she could ask whether that was because she was their superior officer or if he was making a pointed reference to her and Elliot, the man himself chose that moment to stroll into the precinct. 

“Hey, we were just talking about you,” Fin called. 

“Yeah?” Elliot asked, looking between the two of them; Olivia, annoyed, and Fin, having the time of his life. 

The air around them was silent, save for a phone ringing somewhere, and stretched just a second too long into awkward territory. 

“Rollins and Amaro seemed to be in good moods today,” Elliot said. She knew he was trying to dispel any tension but it was one of the least effective things to say. Fin must have thought so too because he chuckled and glanced back in her direction. 

“Okay, you?” she pointed at Fin and then waved at his desk. “Work on those DD5s, at last count I’m missing four. El, in here,” she pointed back into her office. 

She threw one last glare in Fin’s direction before shutting her door and turning her attention to Elliot. He stood near her desk, fiddling with her name plate. Now that they were alone, she could feel the tension radiating off him, and it unsettled her. 

“What’s up?” she asked. 

“Maureen sent me,” he said and shoved his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. “She’s… anxious, trying to finalize a seating chart and earlier she kind of mentioned that you and I were going together ,” he said slowly and Olivia felt her stomach do a little flip. “I told her that we hadn’t actually discussed it and she got… irate.”

She has to bite back a grin at the image that conjured. Poor Maureen, only three weeks out from her wedding, high strung and probably sleep deprived as hell, flying off the handle because her father couldn’t even manage to sort out who he was going with. 

“Okay,” Olivia prompted, and felt her shoulders relax. She knew where the conversation was going, but her old insecurities when it came to him liked to rear their heads at any given chance. They whispered in her ear that she was so foolishly wrong. That she couldn’t be vulnerable, couldn't let on that she would very much like to go with him. It would make him pull back, make him leave again. 

“I told her I’d ask just to appease her even though it honestly doesn’t really change anything on her seating chart she’s worked so much on. I guess I just figured we’d both be there, and we’d probably spend a significant amount of time together anyway so I didn’t see the point in asking you, but Maureen disagrees,” Elliot rambled. He shifted back and forth uneasily, his shoulders tense, and she realized big, strong Elliot Stabler was nervous . Just as nervous as she was. 

Her voice was low as she took a step closer to him. “And what exactly are you asking me?” 

Elliot exhaled shakily and gave her a pleading look, but Olivia refused to go easy on him. Every day, she realized they were barreling toward a fork in the road and they would either have to play out this thing between them or move on. It terrified her, but if there was any chance of more he would have to put in the effort to prove he wanted this. 

Plus, Maureen deserved justice for her frazzled nerves. Elliot could sweat a little. 

“Will you come to my daughter’s wedding? With me. As my date,” he asked, cautiously, and she wanted to laugh a little at the thought. When had she ever been good at denying him anything?

“An unusual venue for a first date, don’t you think?” she teased and stepped further into his space. Her fingers itched to reach out and touch him, and she folded her arms across her chest to resist the temptation. 

The anxiety in Elliot’s eyes melted away, taken over by something deeper, slower. Hope, desire, it was all there reflected back at her in stunning blue. When she’d moved closer she’d done it with the intent to disarm him, but instead she found herself thrown off balance. 

“I mean, we’ll both be dressed nicely,” he said. His voice was a deep rumble, and not for the first time she wondered what it would sound like if she rested her head against his chest. “There will be candles, flowers. Dinner, which I am paying for, and you won’t have to stand while you eat this time.”

Olivia smiled at the memory, a hot dog cart and brisk wind, back before the towers fell and the world went to shit. If someone had told her then that she would find herself in the position she was now, with a single Elliot asking her on an actual date, she would have laughed in their face and probably had them committed. 

“I’m gonna ask you to dance at least twice,” Elliot added. 

A tiny laugh escaped her, barely more than an exhale, and Elliot’s eyes flickered down her face to land on her lips, pulled up in a smile. Olivia swayed closer to him, drawn by the undeniable gravity of his presence before she recovered and pulled back. 

“I’ve had worse,” Olivia shrugged, trying very hard to play casual when really her heart was beating a mile a minute in her chest. It was a wonder Elliot didn’t hear it. 

“Is that a yes?” he asked. 


Elliot’s smile could have lit the whole damn city.

Chapter Text

Olivia intended to ignore her phone ringing, but Elliot was persistent. 

She was off work for a couple days, trying to unwind from Jimmy Mac and his ridiculous articles and the digging he’d done into her personal life, into everything with Lewis. Add on the issues with Rollins and how short staffed they were and the brass breathing down her neck, expecting her to fail, and she was over it. She just wanted one day. 

When the ringtone started again for the third time, she snatched it up, paused the show on the tv and answered with a huff. 


“I know it’s your day off but I desperately need a favor and I will owe you big time,” he rushed to say. 

She groaned, already mentally preparing herself to get up off the couch. “Depends on how big the favor is.”

“Can you pick up Eli from a sleepover and bring him to his suit fitting? I was supposed to take him so Kathy picked up an extra shift at the hospital. And then, because I’m a moron, I scheduled a work meeting.”

At least he’s self aware , she thought, and smiled.

“You can relax, I’ll go get him,” Olivia said as she stood. “Send me the address for where he’s at and where I’m going.”

“You are a saint, Olivia Benson,” Elliot said, and she laughed. 

“You owe me, though. I’m putting on a bra for this, Stabler, I hope you know that,” she said, and was immediately grateful that he couldn’t see her cheeks getting red. Ever since he’d asked her to be his date at the wedding they’d become more and more comfortable around each other. Teasing, flirting- it was easy to forget that this wasn’t something they’d ever done, at least not as often or as openly. 

Elliot’s voice was heavier when he spoke again. “Trust me, that's all I’m going to be thinking about now.”

“Okay, that’s enough. Bye, El.” She hung up quickly and got herself dressed presentably enough to cart a six year old across the city. 

When her cab pulled up in front of a home in Queens a few blocks from the Stabler house, Eli was already on the porch, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He gasped when she stepped out, asking the driver to wait, and darted across the yard to meet her. 

“Hi Liv!” 

He’d gotten better at pronouncing his L sounds, and she lamented the fact that someday very soon she wouldn’t be “ Wiv ” anymore. 

“Hey, Bub, how’s it going? Did you have fun?” She asked, ruffling his hair. 

“Uh-huh,” he nodded vigorously. “I didn’t know you were getting me!”

A woman she presumed was his friend’s mom walked up behind Eli and handed Olivia his backpack, abandoned on the porch in his excitement to see her. 

She smiled her thanks at the woman and held out her hand for Eli to guide him back to the car. 

“Yeah, your dad got tied up at work so I’m taking you to get your suit for Mo’s wedding. He texted me that he’s meeting us there,” she told him. 

Eli groaned dramatically as he got in the cab. “Mommy says I have to wear a tie.”

“Only for a couple hours,” Olivia chuckled. “And you’ll get to match daddy and Dickie. You’ll look like a big kid.”


“Of course!” she promised. “Now, tell me about your sleepover, what did you do?”

Eli filled the drive with stories, everything from what kind of pizza they had to the plot of the movie they had watched. She listened to every bit of it. 

The entire Stabler clan was meeting them at the bridal boutique except for Kathy and Olivia knew she had to be feeling a little disappointed. She knew all of their kids meant the world to Kathy and Elliot, but the bond between Kathy and Maureen was different. Maureen was the first baby that had made her a mother, the little girl she’d raised from the time she was still a kid herself, the one who looked the most like her. 

Maureen was already back getting changed when Olivia and Eli arrived and he was quickly led back by a kind older woman. Lizzie, Dickie, and lastly Kathleen all gradually arrived and were rotated through like a well oiled machine by the people at the shop. 

The glass door burst open and it was a wonder the little bell above it didn’t fly off when Elliot rushed in. He cast his eyes around quickly and sighed when they landed on her. 

“My hero.” His hands grabbed her upper arms and she laughed, rolling her eyes at how dramatic he was. “No, I'm serious,” he said emphatically. “I don’t know which one would have actually killed me, Maureen or Kathy.”

Olivia pretended to give it some thought and nodded. “Kathy,” she said seriously. “Then they would’ve called me, had me bring you back, just for Maureen to kill you again.”

Elliot laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling, the blue shining, and Olivia felt like it was all just for her. 

“Sir, are you the father of the bride?” one of the attendants asked, a different one than the woman who went with Eli. 

“Yes, sorry,” Elliot said, remembering why he was there all of a sudden and followed the attendant quickly. 

When he returned a few minutes later he was in a suit that fit him much, much , better than the ones he used to wear while they were partners. Since he’d come back it had been mostly Henleys, jeans, leather jackets, and Olivia did appreciate the casual, relaxed version of the man. But there was something about him in a tailored suit that made her stomach clench and her heart stop for a second. 

He had his hands in his pockets as he approached her with a shy grin. 

“Not bad for a man closing in on fifty,” she said, trying to hide how much of an effect it had on her. 

“You and the old jokes. I’m barely a year older than you,” he said indignantly. 

Olivia brushed a bit of imaginary lint from his shoulder- the prospect of touching him was too tempting to resist. 

“You look very nice, El,” she smiled. Over his shoulder, she caught sight of the attendant who had taken him back watching him appreciatively, apparently oblivious to Olivia’s existence. She was slender, her blonde hair was pulled up into a ponytail, and probably around ten years younger. The warmth that had formed in her stomach when she’d first seen him turned to a coiled, snarling beast and Olivia had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping at the woman to ask what she wanted. 

Elliot was an attractive man, Olivia knew that. She had known it for years, seen all sorts of women try to throw themselves in his path. If he wanted to spend time with an attractive woman, he was well within his rights to do so. God knew he deserved it after everything he’d gone through. Deserved a nice, simple life with a decent woman who loved him. Someone without scars or demons or cursed genes who was bound to screw everything up, tarnish every shred of goodness he had. 

“Okay, Mo is finally finished,” Kathleen announced with a dramatic roll of her eyes. She was a good sister, a steadfast maid of honor, but anyone with eyes knew she was one non-emergent emergency away from strangling Maureen. 

“Hang on, let me get a video for your mom,” Olivia said as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Okay, ready.”

Maureen stepped out of the hallway and Olivia could not believe the elegant young woman before her was the child she’d known for years. Simply put, she was stunning. The dress she chose was elegant, a little bit of delicate lace at the top and a skirt not too full. It was modest enough for the church (and to prevent Elliot from having a heart attack) but not too much. It was so perfectly Maureen. 

“Sissy, you look so pretty,” Eli said, and the ladies of the shop awed over how sweet he was. 

“Thank you, Eli,” Maureen chuckled and glanced shyly over at Elliot. “Dad? You’re quiet.”

Olivia turned the camera to her left to zoom in on his face. For the most part, he looked stoic, unphased, but she saw that little twitch in his nose he did when he was emotional and fighting back tears. He slowly walked over to Maureen and kissed her cheek. 

“You’re beautiful, honey,” he said. 

Maureen sniffled a little and wiped at the corner of her eye with a smile. Elliot turned around and caught sight of Olivia’s phone trained on them and pointed at her. 

“Liv you better not show that to anybody,” he threatened, though there was no heat behind it. 

“It’s just for Kathy!” she insisted, hands out in surrender. 

“Uh-huh,” he said doubtfully. The thought to show it to any of the guys at work honestly had not crossed her mind until that moment. It was tempting, but even as she considered it she knew she wouldn’t follow through. 

“Everyone get together, I’ll take a picture for your mom,” she told everyone and waved so they’d all center around Maureen. 

Olivia got several shots of the group; Eli only made silly faces during half of them which was practically a miracle. After everyone was changed back into their street clothes she stood with Maureen as she looked through them all trying to find her favorites, laughing at a couple of Eli’s faces in them. 

“Thank you. For keeping my mom in mind,” Maureen said, and handed Olivia her phone back. 

“Of course, sweetie. This is a big deal.”

Maureen hesitated. “I know… I know that things haven’t always been easy between you two. And now that they’re divorced you and Dad are…” she trailed off and Olivia followed her eyes to where Elliot was standing with the blonde from before. 

From across the store, Olivia couldn’t hear the conversation but she could tell the woman was laying it on thick. That feeling she didn’t want to label as jealousy rolled in her stomach again. Until Elliot looked up and saw Maureen and Olivia watching him. The polite smile he had for the other woman softened to something deeper, something more , and he politely excused himself to the woman whose name Olivia didn’t care to learn. 

“Anyway, thank you,” Maureen said, and Olivia had momentarily forgotten that they were in the middle of a conversation themselves. “It means a lot. To me and the others.”

“What means a lot to you?” Elliot asked. 

For a moment, his hand rested at the small of Olivia’s back and she had to stop herself from sinking into his touch. It was so warm, so comforting, even in just the brief second that it was there. All her thoughts flew away, and she was grateful that Maureen had kept her composure. 

“The fact that Liv decided to keep you around. You’re much less moody these days,” Maureen teased. She quickly pressed a kiss to her affronted father’s cheek and grabbed her purse as she headed out the door, tossing a “love you” over her shoulder. 

“My kids think I’m old, and an ass,” he said and looked at Olivia as if she was going to start throwing out reasons why they were wrong. 

“C’mon old man, your youngest is in need of a nap,” she patted his shoulder. 

As soon as Eli had gotten changed back into his normal clothes, he’d started acting out. Not enough to cause significant damage, but he’d been darting around the store between racks of dresses, not paying attention to where people were, and shrieking when anyone tried to contain him. Presently, he was laying on the couch with his feet over the back of it, knocking the heels of his sneakers against the brick wall. 

“I think you’re right,” Elliot mumbled. He crept over to the couch and scooped Eli up, tossing him over his shoulder in one smooth motion. Not for the first time, Olivia thought that Eli’s giggles could cure just about any disease. 

While they were all in the car (because of course Elliot offered to drive her home), Olivia’s phone chimed with a text from a friend of hers that worked in family court. Her heart sank when she read it, and Elliot looked over at her heavy sigh. 

“You gotta go in?” he asked, already preparing to switch lanes to get her to the precinct. 

“No, not that,” Olivia said. A glance over her shoulder told her that Eli had given up fighting sleep and she could speak freely. “Do you remember the baby boy I told you about a couple months ago?”

“The one you found in a drawer. They find his parents yet?”

Olivia shook her head remorsefully. “No. They have a hearing for him in a couple days, apparently he got sick in his foster home and the foster parents let it go untreated.”

“You thinking they neglected him?” A crease formed on his brow, and despite the circumstances Olivia couldn’t help the sad smile that tugged at her lips. Protective of a child he had never met, had never even seen a picture of. It was very characteristic of him. 

“I don’t know yet. I’m sure they’ll mention it during the hearing. It’s just… so frustrating, you know? Here’s this beautiful little boy who nobody wants to claim, who has been perfectly healthy until recently. He deserves a good family, but it seems like no one wants to claim him,” she said, and had to quickly look out the window to keep Elliot from seeing the tears gathering in her eyes. 

Years after that first rejection, the sting hadn’t gone away. How many more people were out there like her, who wanted to have kids but were told they weren’t good enough? Instead of finding a home, this little boy was shuffled around and fallen by the wayside when it was very likely that someone would take him in a heartbeat if given the chance. 

Olivia would take him in a heartbeat. 

She wanted to find his parents too, wanted him to have a home and a family and wanted to look them in the eye and ask how the hell he ended up in that hotel. It’s what kept her checking to see if the DNA had turned up any hits, kept her going to all his hearings. There was a magnetism about this baby boy she couldn’t understand, but she knew she needed to protect him. 

“He’ll find a home, Liv,” Elliot assured her. She glanced back over at him, and the softness in his eyes told her that he knew what she was thinking. 

“It’s just… he doesn’t even have a name , El,” she said. The most basic thing about a person, something that was inherently theirs, one of the most fundamental parts of their humanity, and this baby didn’t have one. “I don’t want him to grow up alone.”

Elliot reached across the center console to clasp her hand. “He won’t. You won’t let that happen.” He squeezed her fingers and she felt some of his faith in her seep into her skin. “That baby is so lucky and he doesn’t even know it yet.”

Chapter Text

The reception hall was beautiful, and Olivia understood why Maureen and Carl had wanted it so badly. They were high above the city, surrounded by windows on all sides. She hadn’t ventured out on the terrace yet because of the rain, but if it let up she was prepared to walk around for some fresh air. 

Across the room, Elliot had Maureen on the dance floor, a Springsteen song playing over the speakers. Whatever they were talking about had tears gathering in both their eyes. Olivia watched them from the bar with a soft smile as she waited for her drink. 

“Please tell me you’re on the bride’s side,” a man’s voice said.

Her attention was pulled away from Elliot and Maureen to the newcomer, a man with a loosened tie, a slightly crumpled shirt, and disheveled sandy brown hair. His watery green eyes looked at her expectantly and she realized he had spoken to her.

“I’m sorry?” she said, confused.

“Well if you were from the groom’s side then there’s a chance we’re related somehow, and that would be very disappointing,” he said.

His eyes dipped a little lower on Olivia’s chest than she liked. Actually, any bit of attention from this man was uncomfortable. 

“I’m a family friend, known Maureen since she was fifteen,” she said simply. 

The song came to an end and Olivia hoped that meant Elliot would be seeking her out soon. As much as she could handle herself, she’d like to avoid confrontation as much as possible, and she got the feeling that a male presence would be the only thing capable of warding this stranger off.

My nephew sure got lucky with that one,” the man said and shoved his hand into her space. “Theodore, everyone calls me Teddy. Lemme buy you a drink.”

“Oh that’s not necessary,” Olivia waved him off. 

She was standing at a bar for goodness sake; clearly she could pay for her own drink.

“It’d be my pleasure,” Teddy insisted. “What’re you drinking? You strike me as the kind of woman that enjoys martinis,” he said, full of unwarranted confidence. 

At just the suggestion, her stomach rolled and her throat locked up. For a second she was back in that car with him , with his dirty fingers latched to her hair and forcing her to drink. God damn William Lewis for showing up again, today of all days. 

“No, actually, I don’t do vodka,” she said simply, and looked around the room again wondering where the hell Elliot had gone. The bartender chose that moment to set her glass of red wine in front of her and she gave him an appreciative smile. “Wine is good,” she told Teddy, but she didn’t take a drink. The wine wouldn’t burn the way vodka did, she knew that, but her body repelled against the idea of any sort of alcohol at the moment. 

“C’mon, let loose a little, it’s a celebration!” he pressed, sliding over another couple inches into her space. 

Olivia was about five seconds away from lighting into him with all the indignation of an NYPD sergeant when a friendly voice called through the crowd. 

“Liv, there you are!”

It wasn’t the voice she wanted, but a welcome one nonetheless. 

“David, hi,” she smiled. 

They hadn’t had a chance to meet since Elliot’s birthday, and Olivia regretted it. David and Val had been kind and warm, the exact kind of people she’d always hoped Elliot would have in his life. It seemed the universe had granted her a favor and brought David back just when she needed him. 

“I lost track of you there for a second,” he said. “David Foster, nice to meet you,” he tossed over his shoulder at Teddy, but paid the man barely any attention which Liv could see was throwing him off. “Liv, I hate to burst in but can I steal you? Gotta get one dance in before Stabler has you all to himself the rest of the night.”

The use of Elliot’s last name seemed targeted back at Teddy, a giant Back Off sign. Normally she’d resent the idea, but with Elliot it had never bothered her. 

“I suppose I can do that,” she said lightly, and took David’s offered hand. 

They made a detour to her table (the one she was sharing with Elliot, Kathy, Matt, and Carl’s parents, and damn if that didn’t do something to her) just long enough for her to set her wine glass down, and before she knew it David had her on the dance floor. 

His hand fell at a modest place on her waist when he pulled her closer, a picture of respectability. 

“You are a godsend,” Olivia muttered. She cast a glance around the room, still looking for Elliot, but contented herself with the knowledge that David was probably her second best option at the moment. 

“Just making sure Elliot doesn’t get arrested for assault at his daughter’s wedding,” David chuckled. 

“I’m sure Maureen appreciates it. And I do too,” she said. “Thank you.”

David shrugged. “Elliot would do the same for Val,” he said. The comparison should have felt wrong, but somehow it didn’t. “You’re here together, right?”

“We are, yes,” she said, but rushed to add “Just as friends though.”

The corner of David’s mouth pulled up in a disbelieving grin. “You sure about that?” he asked, and Olivia’s brow furrowed when she paused to really think about it. 

Elliot hadn’t specified when he asked her that it would be as friends, and she hadn’t added the caveat herself. The realization came that she had unintentionally stumbled into an actual date. With Elliot.  

The revelation wasn’t entirely unwelcome. He was her friend, and she had loved him once, years before, but she didn’t know how she’d let her guard down so much that she’d fallen into this trap again. 

No, that wasn’t right. Trapped was the wrong word. Elliot had never made her feel restricted or suffocated, never forced her to do anything against her will. She was free to leave all this behind if she truly wanted, and she knew he would let her go. Habit, that was better. The banter, the lunches at her office, the casual touches that made her knees feel like water, all of it was a habit. One she could break if she tried hard enough. 

David cleared his throat. “Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but I need to tell you something, and please don’t take this the wrong way. Elliot is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I’m looking out for him.”

“Go ahead,” she nodded. 

“I’ve told him that if he screws up with you I’ll knock him upside the head, but Liv? Don’t hurt him,” David said, a pleading note in his voice. 

She smiled. “Or else?”

“Or else,” he repeated, seriously. Her smile wavered. “He’s in love with you, ya know. And I’d bet money that you’re in love with him.

Olivia looked away from his face, unable to meet his eyes after such a declaration. “David, I really think you’re misreading things.”

“I’m not so sure,” he insisted. “Look, you might not want to admit it to him, or yourself, but there’s something there. And I think after everything you’ve both gone through, you deserve to see if there’s something there”

The silence that hung in the air between them was weighted, with David’s declaration and Olivia’s denials that she couldn’t force off the tip of her tongue. 

“You stealing my partner, Dave?”

Elliot’s voice was a beacon and Olivia quickly turned to find him. The tension in her shoulders melted away at the sight of him and the warmth in his smile spread through her chest. Her eyes flickered back to David, silently begging him to not tell what they’d been speaking about, and fortunately he understood. 

“Just wanted a chat,” he grinned. They stopped dancing, but he didn’t release her just yet. “And you’ve been preoccupied.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m back now, step aside,” Elliot teased and waved his hand like his friend was an annoying fly. He immediately grabbed her hand that David had just dropped, and the placement of his hand was lower on her waist than David’s had been. 

He also tugged her much further into his space, and she shivered at the close contact. 

“Pleasure talking with you, Liv,” David said as he stepped back. 

Olivia bit the inside of her lip and watched him walk back toward his table. Val saw him approaching; the smile on his face must have given him away about something, because her hands fell to her hips and her mouth formed a tight line. It looked to Olivia like she was about to scold her husband, but he quickly pressed a kiss to her mouth and sat down. Val rolled her eyes and sat next to him with a shake of her head. 

“What’d he say?” Elliot’s voice rumbled in her ear. His back had been to his friends and he hadn’t seen the exchange, for which she was thankful. 

“Just catching up.” Elliot didn’t look entirely convinced and she scrambled to find something else to add. “Said he thinks of you as his best friend. I said there’s probably a lot of embarrassing Elliot Stabler stories he’s got locked away.” It wasn’t a total lie. 

“You two together are dangerous for me,” he laughed.

Olivia relaxed. “You all done with pictures and your father of the bride duties for now?”

“Should be. God there were so many pictures,” he groaned, and it caused her to laugh. “I’m serious! We had to get group shots, then some with Mo by herself, then with me and then with Kathy. Then some with me and Kathy. Then her with all the kids, then each of them with her individually, then just the girls and just the boys. And that doesn’t include Carl’s family. I thought it’d never end.”

“Well, if you didn’t have twenty seven kids it wouldn’t have taken so long,” she said. 

Elliot gave her a deadpan look. “You’re very funny.”

“Thank you.”

“Team up with Dave, take this comedy routine on the road. You could make a lot of money off making fun of me,” he cracked a smile. 

Olivia rolled her eyes and gently smacked his shoulder. “Be nice to him. He rescued me from Carl’s pushy Uncle Teddy at the bar,” she scolded. 

All mirth vanished from Elliot’s face, replaced with concern and a little indignation. “Hmm. You alright?” he asked. 

“You know me, I had it handled,” she shrugged. “Just nice I didn’t have to bust out my gun.”

“You coulda come found me,” Elliot insisted. If she wasn’t mistaken, he sounded a little disappointed that she hadn’t sought him out. 

Part of her wanted to be frustrated that he wanted that from her, as if she couldn’t take care of herself, as if she hadn’t done it for years before him or the years after him. But she liked the idea that he wanted to look out for her. She’d spent so many years trying to not be anyone's problem that having someone volunteer for the job was surprising but not unwelcome. 

“It’s Mo’s wedding. You should focus on being with your family,” she said. 

Elliot ducked his head a little closer to hers. “That includes you too, ya know,” he whispered. The sentiment caused a little ache in her chest. Elliot had always, always, been her family. But she had never been his. Him saying it now was probably the closest she’d ever come to having the thing she wanted most. “Fortunately, Maureen seems too wrapped up in her new husband to mind much,” he gestured over her shoulder, and Olivia turned to see Maureen and Carl at the head table with eyes only for each other, lost in their own world. “So you have my undivided attention for the rest of the evening.”

Elliot’s stomach chose that exact moment to growl and Olivia couldn’t contain the full laugh that burst from her chest. 

“Let’s get some food in you, Stabler. Since you’re paying for it and all,” she said. 

Elliot didn’t drop her hand as they wove their way through the tables and when she glanced behind her, he was watching her with uninhibited admiration. Like he’d follow her anywhere and do it gladly. 

Kathy saw them approaching, her hand trailing across Matt’s shoulders as she stood to greet them with a smile and only then did Olivia try to pull her hand from Elliot’s. He only clasped it tighter. 

“Liv, I feel like we haven’t gotten to talk to you at all today,” Kathy said and surprised her by pulling her into a friendly hug. 

“You’ve been busy, and that’s what receptions are for,” she waved off the concern. “It really was a beautiful ceremony.”

Kathy chuckled and grinned at Elliot. “Yeah. This one only cried twice.”

Elliot made a noise of discontent and looked at his ex wife as if she’d betrayed him. “Says the woman who cried through the whole thing.”

“I’m her mother, I’m allowed,” Kathy said. 

“Here, El. Sit down and eat before you wither away,” Olivia urged, pushing on his shoulder. She and Kathy shared a look between them, one that conveyed the mutual fondness they held for the man who was, at one point, the single most important person in both their lives. 

For Olivia, he still was, and she was grateful that Kathy no longer begrudged her that. 

The next few hours were some of the lightest she’d felt in… years, if she was honest. It was safe, and happy. Bright, full of laughter. She danced with Matt once so that Kathy and Elliot could. Dickie stole her away and used the time to thank her for everything she’d done for him and his siblings over the years. 

Once, Eli came up as they were seated and loudly proclaimed they needed to watch his new dance move he just made up, which was really just some flailing of his arms that ended in a donkey kick. 

Olivia chuckled along with Elliot and absently said “Eli, I just love you.”

Before she could catch herself he’d said “love you too” and ran off to play with some kids who were probably cousins. 

The evening wore on and people started filtering out after congratulating Maureen and Carl. Eli said goodnight to his parents, Matt, and Olivia before going to stay with Kathy’s parents at their hotel for the night. Olivia hugged him tight and kissed the top of his head, whispered again that she loved him because it was the truth and the sky hadn’t fallen the first time. 

She watched Eli scamper back to where Patricia was waiting for him, a deep scowl on her face directed solely at Olivia. She looked away quickly, determined not to make waves on Maureen’s day, until she felt Elliot’s arm come to rest on the back of her chair. His jaw was set in a determined line when he narrowed his eyes at his former mother in law, practically daring her to say something about Olivia or where was seated. 

Mercifully, Patricia left without another word. 

When the announcement came that the last song was about to be played, Matt pulled Kathy to her feet instantly and Elliot tried to do the same to Olivia. 

“What if I’m tired of dancing?” she asked, even though she wasn’t. But she’d given in too easily to him every time before, and she wanted him to prove how much he wanted this dance. How much he wanted her. 

“Stand on my feet, I’ll do all the work,” he shrugged. His thumb ran over her wrist and caught the bracelet she still wore every day, a fact she knew he’d caught onto. Every time he noticed it, a quiet smile would spread across his face. “I think Uncle Teddy is still around, you wanna take your chances with him?”

Olivia rolled her eyes and stood. She’d caught sight of the man a couple times since the bar; fortunately between David’s interruption and Elliot being glued to her side, he seemed to have taken the hint, but anything could happen. 

The song was slow and so was Elliot when he pulled her into his arms. This time, there was not an inch of space to be found between them. If she wanted to look in his eyes she’d have to turn her head uncomfortably, so instead she rested her chin on his shoulder. Elliot rested their entwined hands against his chest and she felt his heart pounding against her fingers. 

It wasn’t the first time she’d been this close to him, but it was certainly the most intimate. The solid wall of his chest, the scent of his cologne, the warmth of him, it nearly overwhelmed her. 

“They look happy,” she said, watching Maureen and Carl over his shoulder. 

“Yeah, they do,” Elliot agreed, and she idly wondered how he knew who she was talking about. “Kathy’s next,” he added after a moment with a tinge of melancholy. 

“Seriously? How do you know?”

“They’ve been together for a year. Kathy told me that Matt is it for her. And he talked to me a couple of weeks ago. Wanted to give me a heads up as a courtesy, seeing as he’d be Eli’s step father. Make sure I know that he doesn’t want to do anything to compromise that relationship,” he said. 

Olivia’s heart swelled a little on his behalf. Elliot cherished his children, and his relationship with them was sacrosanct. The fact that he understood Kathy and Matt so much, that he was willing to let another man step into that role for his kids… it was beyond anything she’d ever expected from him. 

“I’m glad Matt did that,” she said simply. 

“Yeah, makes it easier to like him,” Elliot chuckled. 

Olivia could tell there was something else weighing on him, something he was wondering if he should even say. 

“I can hear you thinking,” she told him. 

Elliot sighed, shook his head. “For years I thought I’d be the only husband Kathy ever had. It’s weird to think that won’t be the case. That she’s really moving on and…”

“And you’re not?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” The confession was a puff of air against her ear. 

She couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so she simply hummed in agreement. The same belief, that he and Kathy would always be a unit, had plagued her for years, save for those two in the middle of their partnership when she thought maybe there was a chance. Elliot was meant to be married, that she was sure of, and it was as only a matter of time before he realized that, if he hadn’t already. “What about you? Ever think about doing it again?” she asked and instantly regretted it. 

“Maybe,” he said. Like he really had considered it. She tried to picture it- a wedding like this one, Elliot dancing with a woman in white. Herself, standing on the sidelines as always. She had just gotten him back, had grown accustomed to having him all to herself, and she hated the idea of having to give him back to another woman. If it was what he wanted, though, she would wish him well because he deserved to be happy. She would stand against anything, even her own selfishness, to ensure he got that. 

“Only if she’s the right one,” he added. 

“She’d have to be a hell of a woman to be able to put up with you,” Olivia teased. 

If possible, he pulled her even closer, their cheeks pressed together and she felt the warmth of his hand splayed across her entire lower back. “The best,” he said. 

Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the song, some slow, sappy song about love with swelling string music that Olivia thought was from a movie. It was one giant cliche and yet, she couldn’t help resonating with parts of it. Whatever the case, it was an excuse to be close to Elliot, for him to simply hold her. 

Olivia felt someone watching them and glanced up, over Elliot’s shoulder, to meet David’s eyes. He grinned when she caught him, mouthed “you love him,” and turned his attention back to Val. 

She wanted to laugh at the absurdity. Of course she loved Elliot- the distinction was if she was in love with him. Years ago there would have been no hesitation, but that was before. Before he left, before Brian. Before Lewis. 

She’d loved him in the before. She forced herself to stop and move on in the after. And now? Now they were in some liminal space that she couldn’t easily label and that frightened her. Loving him again could be so effortless. Whether it was the comfort of returning to a hometown after college or the grave misstep of relapse, she had no way of knowing. He had the power to hurt or heal her in equal measure and likely didn’t even know it. 

But then, Elliot exhaled against her cheek, his thumb traced across the fingers he held so closely, and she wondered how anything that felt this right could ever lead her astray. 

The setting sun threw golden light through the panoramic windows and it felt like some kind of sign. Olivia pressed her nose into the crook of Elliot’s neck and allowed herself a shred of optimism. 

Chapter Text

The Monday after Maureen’s wedding felt like a new beginning. The sun shone brighter, the mood in the city seemed lighter. Elliot had danced with Olivia, held her close, felt her sigh and relax into his chest. He spent the weekend dwelling in possibility, with nothing standing against him and everything he could ever hope for so close he could practically feel it on his fingertips. 

Thirty six hours. He got thirty six hours. 

“El, I need you to come get me,” Olivia said breathlessly when he answered her call. 

Dread settled in his gut at the terror he heard in her voice. “What’s going on?”

“Lewis is out.” Her voice was tight, choked, and for a second he didn’t think he heard her right. “He broke out. I don’t know how, but he called me just now, video call. He was driving, in nurse’s scrubs. He said he missed me.”

Every detail felt like a knife to his chest and suddenly nothing else mattered. Not the brunch he was supposed to meet Kathy for with Carl’s parents, not the meeting David had him down for in the afternoon with a potential client, not the evening event he was supposed to work. The only thing he cared about was getting to Olivia. 

“Where are you?” he asked, already on his feet. It felt a lot like that first night in the hotel in Poland, when he got the call from Fin and Munch. His body moved before his mind caught up, instinct driving him to act. Like they were back in the field together, ensuring the others safety. 

“Coffee cart outside the courthouse.”

She was in public, that was good. Lewis ambushed people in their homes, he was too much of a coward to try to grab her when there were people around. 

“Do not move, I’m coming to you. Hang up, call Fin and let him know what’s going on, then call me right back,” he told her, trying to keep his words short and direct. God only knew how her mind was handling everything with a nightmare come to life. “It’s gonna be okay, we’re not gonna let him get to you,” he promised gently. 

He wasn’t going to let Lewis get to her. 

It was normally a twenty minute drive across Manhattan to the courthouse, but he made it in fifteen. He was in the car when she called back, but she didn’t say much; not that he blamed her. He filled the space with updates on where he was and assurances that everything would be alright. He’d always been told to never make promises to victims or their families he couldn’t keep, but this was one he refused to break. 

When he finally turned the last corner and he set eyes on her, the knot in his chest eased and he let himself take a breath for the first time in what felt like an eternity. 

“Liv!” he called. 

Her head jerked up at the sound of his voice and relief flooded her face despite the turmoil he saw in her eyes. There wasn’t a single instance where he’d ever seen her so shaken and he hated it. 

Liv settled in the passenger seat and he pulled away from the curb before she was fully buckled in. Now that she was within his line of sight, the next step was getting her somewhere secure. His car was one thing, but the walls of SVU were ideal. There, she was surrounded; by stone and iron and her brothers in blue. A squad that was loyal to her and would not hesitate to put a bullet between Lewis’s eyes if he even dared to come close. 

Elliot’s fingers itched for a gun he didn’t carry anymore. 

“Talked to Fin,” Liv said abruptly when they were about halfway to the precinct. It was the steadiest thing he’d heard from her since that first call. “Said they’d just heard about Lewis’s escape. He’d just picked up his phone to call me.”

She sighed, a tremulous thing that he felt in his own chest, and he decided that if he couldn’t hold a weapon he could at least hold her. He threaded his fingers through hers across the center console, prayed that it helped calm her as much as the physical contact grounded him. 

The 1-6 came into view and with it was the bustle of officers and a couple reporters gathering outside. Thinking about the media storm about to open up over the NYPD’s head made him momentarily relieved that he wasn’t part of it. Until he noticed how Liv’s shoulders tensed, her grip on his fingers tightened, and he remembered that she was at the center of it all. The department could be a hell of an umbrella for its officers when it felt like it, but public perception could easily turn the tide and the brass could abandon her to the deluge without a backwards glance. 

“We’ll catch him, Liv,” Elliot said. He didn’t bother telling her not to worry; it was a pointless request and they both would’ve known it. He dropped her hand, reluctantly, so he could get out of the car, but Liv spoke up and made him pause. 

“You can’t catch him, El. You’re not on the job anymore,” she said. 

“Wouldn’t be the first time we worked off the book,” he shrugged as he reached for the door handle, with a little bit of a grin. He meant it to be lighthearted, to encourage her that he would have her back just like when they were partners. 

Liv’s hand shot back out and grasped his wrist in a vice. Her eyes were wide with urgency when he looked back at her, confused. 

“Lewis took my home, my sense of security, my confidence in my ability to do my job,” she listed, and it only confused him more because he knew all those things. All the work she’d put in over the last months had built those things back up, and he’d be damned if she lost them again. That’s what he was trying to assure her, and he couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t hearing him. 

“He saw you at the trial. He knows what you look like and how important you are to me. He wants to destroy me, Elliot, and he’d use you to do it,” Liv added, and his eyes softened with dawning realization. The fear in her eyes, the tremble in her voice, it wasn’t for herself. It was for him. “You can’t go after him. I won’t let him take you too.”

Despite the nightmare they were living in, the uncertainty of it all, he couldn’t help the warmth that spread through him knowing that she cared so much. There was hope, he thought, that maybe she could love him back if she didn’t already. He wouldn’t ask her now, wouldn’t even think of bringing it up, but the flicker of possibility was back. They just had to make it to the other side of this and maybe they could talk.

Instead, Elliot simply lifted their hands to his lips to kiss the back of hers, a silent promise that he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d stay safe, for her sake. 

Liv seemed to understand, because with one final squeeze of his fingers she let go, set her shoulders, and stepped out of the car. 

They retraced the path she’d taken all those months ago with Cassidy on the way out, after she’d given her statement, after Elliot had held her for the first time in years. Now, though, it was his hand steady at her back to guide her through the precinct, to remind her that she wasn’t alone, that he was there. 

A step behind her, where he always should have been, he followed her into chaos. 

The inane flirting going on between Olivia’s security detail would have made her want to tear her hair out, if she wasn’t already nauseous from the last day. Dr. Cole, dead. The attorney, dead. Lewis had raped a teenage girl, and every second of torture those women had endured weighed on her conscious. He might as well have written her name in blood every place he’d been. 

The coerced statement she’d made, despite Murphy’s protests and Elliot urging her to slow down, seemed to have bought Amelia a few hours. Not enough, though, if the picture on her phone was any indication. 

Her leg bounced subconsciously under the table as she scanned her surroundings to figure out the best way to slip her detail. They were too wrapped up in each other, so she stood a solid chance. She tried taking a sip from the drink in front of her to bolster her courage, even as the alcohol settled in her stomach she knew it wouldn’t work. The warmth it provided was hollow comfort and amounted to nothing when her blood still ran cold from taking Lauren’s statement. 

Elliot’s hand clasped her knee and she startled a little. That was another thing , she thought. There was no way to sneak away from the detail without also getting away from him. And that would be much, much more difficult. Steadfast at her side from the moment they’d stepped out of that car, he was a shadow that set her mind at ease. His presence was the one thing she’d known she could count on, and now she couldn’t help but resent it a little. Running away would be so much easier if it didn’t mean running from him.

“You're safe here, Liv,” Elliot mumbled only loud enough for her to hear. She bit the inside of her cheek to hold back the sob that wanted to break through. Of course he thought that’s what she was worried about- he had no reason not to. He couldn’t know that as they sat together at a table in a hotel bar, she was figuring out the best way to run into danger. 

For all she knew she might not see morning, and Elliot had no idea. 

Just then his phone rang and she caught sight of Kathy’s name on the screen. 

“Probably Eli calling to say goodnight,” he said. 

Olivia glanced across the table. The two other officers didn’t even spare them a glance, and she knew it was the only opportunity she would get. 

“You should take it,” she said, and he looked at her with uncertainty. “Keep his routine. I’ll be okay,” she assured him. The lie felt like acid on her tongue. 

Elliot squeezed her shoulder as he stood, mumbled be right back, and stepped into the quieter lobby to speak with his son. 

It was more of a goodbye than she’d gotten the last time, but it still didn’t feel good enough. Olivia wanted her life back, wanted everything to go back to the way it was Saturday night when Lewis was locked away and she’d been wrapped up in Elliot. She wanted to get up the next morning and go do her job, to confer with Fin about Rollins and Amaro’s relationship. She just wanted everything to be simple and easy, and the unfairness of it all stung behind her eyes but she couldn’t cry. If she cried she would jeopardize her escape. 

“I need to use the restroom,” she announced once Elliot was out of view. The other two seemed to have forgotten she was there until she spoke, which worked perfectly for her. 

In the bathroom, alone at last, she ran her hands through her hair and steadying breaths. There was still time to go back to the table and pretend this never happened. If these two detectives were worth anything, someone would be waiting for her on the other side of the bathroom door anyway. 

They weren’t, of course, and she glanced down the hall to see they were once again wrapped up in each other. It seemed like a sign that she should run while she could. The universe telling her that it was time, clearing her way for her. 

And yet, a voice in her head that sounded a lot like Elliot begged her to stop, to turn around, go back to that table. It urged her to think this through, find an alternative. Her foot angled in the direction of the hotel bar, but just as she was about to take a step, she remembered Amelia’s tormented little face in that picture, and she knew she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t abandon that little girl.

Amelia needed her, and she wouldn’t let her down. Lauren Cole had already lost her mother to Lewis, and that was Olivia’s fault. She wouldn’t cost her a sister too. 

In seconds she reached the end of the hall and threw open the door to the street. Cold night air lashed against her face and she cast a glance at the building- her plan was ruined if Elliot had stepped outside. Olivia could just barely make out his form in the hotel lobby, phone to his ear, that soft smile on his face reserved for his youngest. 

Flagging down the car and forcing the driver out was easy enough. The hard part was looking up, seeing Elliot had disappeared, and knowing that the odds were high she’d looked her last. 

The hotel disappeared behind her along with the driver frantically waving to get someone’s attention. Every second carried her further from Elliot, from safety. She wondered when the two had become synonymous again in her mind. 

In the grand scheme of things, it would all work out. She had no children who relied on her, no parents that would have to bury her, and she hadn’t seen Simon in years. Her squad would mourn, of course. The NYPD would go dark for a day, but then the calendar would turn and life would go on. The impact of her loss was nothing compared to the devastating wake Amelia’s would leave, and Olivia refused to tell her father that they’d done everything they could knowing it wasn’t the case. 

Even Elliot had a family- friends outside of her, children that were his whole world. She could never hold a candle to that. Their relationship had always shaken out that way and after he left it had hurt, knowing that he was likely doing fine while she floundered. Now, it gave her comfort. He would be angry for a while, at her and himself, would try to shoulder the blame for letting her get away, but he had a good support system. He would be okay. 

Her phone rang in the seat next to her and Elliot’s name flashed in front of her eyes, almost as if she’d summoned him. He must have figured out she was gone. Tears pooled in her eyes; it took every ounce of willpower she had to decline the call. She’d made up her mind and she couldn’t turn back now. This was possibly Amelia’s only chance. 

A text from Lewis came through with an address in Red Hook and nothing else. Elliot’s name appeared on the screen a second time and her chin quivered when she declined the call a second time. This time though, she knew where she was going, and she silenced the phone and threw it in the backseat. 

Olivia’s chest ached with the need to talk to him, to say goodbye, because that was very likely what this was, but she knew that all it would take was hearing him say her name for her resolve to crumble. 

“If I heard your voice, I wouldn’t have been able to leave.”  

Elliot had said that to her, months ago, to explain why he’d never called. All that time she hated the explanation, thought it couldn’t have been good enough, because after everything they were to each other, how could he just walk away? 

But now she understood. Dear God, she understood. 

Chapter Text

When he didn’t immediately see Liv at the table the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. 

Elliot tried to talk himself down. She could easily be at the bar getting another drink or something, but even as he told himself that he knew something was off. 

“Where is she?” he asked when he got close enough to her security detail. 

They both looked up, irritated, and the female detective he hadn’t bothered to learn the name of answered with a simple “Bathroom.”

“And you didn’t go with her?” he asked incredulously. 

She rolled her eyes. “She asked for privacy. Figured she could use a minute, I know how I’d feel.”

That was all well and good and normally he was all for respecting Liv’s boundaries and honoring her wishes, but in this instance someone was just going to have to violate her privacy for the sake of her safety. 

“How long has she been back there?” He pointed toward the hall with the bathrooms and didn’t wait for an answer. A young woman was walking out of the restroom with her toddler. “Excuse me,” he said frantically, and she clutched the child closer as he did. He must have seemed crazy from her perspective but manners were the last thing on his mind. If Lewis had found a way to get to her while his back was turned he would never forgive himself. “Was there anyone else in there with you just now?”

The woman shook her head warily. “No, just us.”

Elliot cursed as dread seeped into his bones. He fought the urge to hit something.

“How did Lewis get past us?” the female detective wondered aloud. Elliot didn’t bother to say anything. He was wondering how these two could be so stupid to let the person they were supposed to protect go anywhere alone. It didn’t matter at this point how it had happened just that it did and he had to find them both. Get to Liv, wring Lewis’s neck.

A commotion in the lobby drew his attention and he followed it to find a man yelling about calling the police on some crazy lady who just stole his car. 

“Hey, hey,” he called and grabbed the man roughly by the shoulder. “The woman, short brown hair? Wearing like a light brown sweater?”

“Yeah, that’s her,” the man said, irritated, and shoved Elliot’s hand away. 

His blood ran cold and damn it, Liv . What was she thinking, running off half-cocked and not waiting for any kind of backup? 

“Which way did she go? Which way?” he yelled, already running out the door even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to catch her. 

Elliot had a white knuckle grip on his phone as he searched up and down the street, praying to see any sign of her. It was stupid, really. He didn’t know what the man’s car looked like, hadn’t even clearly heard him say where she went. 

The line only rang three times before going to voicemail. “Damn it, Olivia, what are you doing? God just… just turn around. Please.” His voice cracked with desperation but he didn’t care. 

“Murphy wants us back at SVU,” one of the detectives said. Elliot barely noticed, he was too busy calling her again. When it went to voicemail a second time he fought the urge to yell. Raging against the people that let her run off wasn’t going to solve anything, wasn’t going to bring her back.  

He cut off that line of thinking. It made it sound too much like she was gone permanently, and he refused to think of Olivia being dead. That? That was incomprehensible. 

Everything was a flurry of activity when Elliot stormed back into the precinct. A veritable hoard of people were trying to trace Liv’s phone, using traffic cameras to follow her through the city. He thought it was chaotic before, but with two people to track instead of one it seemed to have increased ten-fold. 

Amaro caught his eyes as he walked in, mumbled something to Rollins, and moved to meet him. Over his shoulder, Elliot could see Rollins eying him warily. She wasn’t alone; it felt like every oppressive eye in the room was on him. He was aware that his reputation for anger and impulsivity preceded him, knew that where Liv was concerned all bets were off. At the moment, though, he didn’t feel like punching a wall or locker or any person except Lewis. At the moment, he was worried he would break, and if that happened he really didn’t want the entire NYPD to see it. 

“What the hell happened, man?” Amaro asked, quietly. 

Elliot pinched the bridge of his nose, cast a glare at the security detail as they walked into the CO’s office with their tails between their legs. 

“I dunno. Eli called to say goodnight. She told me to take it, I stepped out, she told them ,” he seethed, and pointed at the office, “she needed to use the bathroom and slipped out the back. How do you lose someone it’s your whole job to protect?” 

Not for the first time, Elliot turned his anger inward. He’d thought about reaching out to David to get her private security, but decided against it because he’d known she would’ve hated the idea. At best, she would’ve rolled her eyes and told him he was overreacting, that he had control issues. That just because he wasn’t the one watching her back anymore didn’t mean everyone that took on the role in his absence was utterly incompetent. 

He scoffed. Apparently he wasn’t too far off the mark with that one. 

“You’ve called her?” Amaro asked. 

“Yeah about fifty times, she’s not picking up,” Elliot said, frustrated. 

Amaro sighed and they stood in miserable silence. Her two partners, the two men who should have protected Liv the most, and the two that had failed her most of all. They both knew it. 

“We’re gonna find her,” Nick said, sounding as if he was trying to convince Elliot as much as himself. 

“Yeah, before or after he kills her?” Elliot’s raised voice drew the attention of the bystanders (not that they ever stopped watching him) and he immediately dug his fingers into his eyes to try purging the image that came to mind. “He’s using that little girl as bait. That’s the only thing that could get her to leave.”

“We all know the lengths she would go to for a victim. We’ll save them both,” Nick assured him. 

Elliot wanted to tell him he didn’t know the half of it. Nick wasn’t there when Liv evacuated an apartment building and ended up hospitalized, when she put her job on the line to cover up a murder. When she went undercover at Sealview. She would rake herself over hot coals, give someone the beating heart from her chest, sacrifice herself to a monster if that’s what it took, and she’d do it for every victim every time, with no regard for her own life or safety. It spoke volumes about how she saw herself in comparison to everyone around her, and Elliot hated himself for contributing to that mentality. 

That’s what he’d done; he loved her and abandoned her anyway, sent a message that she wasn’t enough and just ingrained even deeper the belief that she wasn’t worth the effort, that people didn’t need her, when it couldn’t be further from the truth. She was so, so necessary for him to even keep breathing but she didn’t believe it and that was on him. All the months he’d been back he’d kept a distance to be respectful instead of fighting for her, too afraid to screw up, to admit that he’d made the worst mistake of his life when he allowed his own guilt to win out over his love for her. 

Liv didn’t know that she was the air in his lungs and the blood in his veins. She’d taken that belief with her to face down William Lewis and Elliot couldn’t rid himself of the idea that he’d inadvertently handed her the final nail in her own coffin. 

Elliot forced himself to take a deep breath and pressed his thumb and index finger into his eyes. He turned around to face Nick, knowing his eyes were glassy and red. “What are we gonna do?” he asked. He’d never felt so helpless in all his life, not even when he was in a helicopter, not knowing whether or not his wife and baby were going to make it. At least then, Kathy had assured him that Liv was there taking care of them. Then, he knew that they were all together. Liv was alone now, God only knew where, and there was no helicopter waiting to take him straight to her. 

“I’m not sure yet. Let’s go find out,” Nick said. 

They had an address.

It was an industrial area, they had no idea what Lewis was doing there or even where he could be hiding, but they had an address, knew where Liv had gone when she’d left that hotel bar, and it was more than they’d had two hours ago. 

When Murphy told the squad to move, Elliot didn’t hesitate to move with them; it was just instinctual.

“You can’t ride along on this, Stabler,” Murphy called as Elliot fell into step with everyone else. “You’re a civilian and the loved one of a victim.”

Elliot bristled at the suggestion, even though he knew whatever was happening would no doubt leave Liv with even more trauma she’d have to work through. “If you don’t bring me with you, I’ll go on my own,” he said. 

“I could have you locked in an interrogation room.”

“I’d get someone to let me out,” Elliot challenged.

Someone would do it. Maybe some rookie he could intimidate. Maybe one of the unit veterans who knew him, knew them as a team. Murphy, reliable and trustworthy as he seemed, was new. An outsider. Loyalty ran deep at SVU, and despite the way he left, there were still people hanging around that could be convinced. 

Murphy seemed to know it too, and hesitated only for a moment. “You stay with the car,” he said, pointing a finger at Elliot. “You’re not a cop. Any evidence we may recover can’t have you anywhere near it. Do I make myself clear?”

Elliot nodded once before turning on his heel and marching out.

The drive to Red Hook wasn’t fast enough. He knew, logically, that they were going as fast as they could but the caravan of sedans slowed them down, even if all of them were going the same place with the sirens on. But as soon as they found  a lead on where she was last, he felt as if his heart was pounding out of his chest, pulling him in her direction. 

But of course she was gone by the time they got there. 

Murphy himself hung back with Elliot to keep him from rushing toward her car, from throwing the doors open in his search for her. He caught sight of Fin and Amaro sharing an anxious look just before they threw open the trunk. Their shoulders sagged, Nick ran a hand over his forehead, and violent fear closed Elliot’s throat until they waved him forward and he saw for himself the trunk was empty. 

“Her vest was thrown over there. No sign of her gun, it’s safe to assume he has it,” Nick said. 

They expected it of course, but knowing with absolute certainty that Liv was unarmed and unprotected, with a man whose sole mission it was to destroy her in every way imaginable turned Elliot’s stomach. 

“I got something,” Rollins called. She withdrew from the back seat, Liv’s phone clutched in her hand. “Looks like the ringer is off.”

“She didn’t want to hear us calling her,” Nick mumbled. 

“Any clue in there to where Lewis took ‘er?” Fin asked.

Rollins shook her head. “Not that I can see. Just this address, a bunch of missed calls, unopened voicemails,” she trailed off, her eyes flitting to Elliot and back down to the phone. 

Rage and self hatred burned insid his chest, a monster that threatened to rip straight through him and destroy anything in its sight. He stalked away from her squad and tried to rein it in- blowing up at every setback wasn’t going to help her. 

The door to the squad car they’d brought was open, and he slammed it shut on his way past it. He counted it as a victory that he didn’t put his fist through the glass. 

“She hadn’t heard him,” he thought as he settled against the trunk of the car. Every frantic message, every desperate plea that he’d lobbed at her, she’d stubbornly ignored. It was stupid to think that he could reach her, persuade her to change her mind. Once Liv decided to do something that was it. Done. As aggravating as it was, he’d always admired her for it, for the fire she carried in her heart and the steel in her bones. What he hated most was that the last thing he’d said to her was “be right back” and that was all she knew. 

Forty eight hours ago, they were at Maureen’s wedding. He was holding her against him and she’d not only allowed it but welcomed it, sank into him and pressed her nose into the crook of his neck. There was hope and possibility and a sun bright on the horizon. It had all gone up in flames. Instead of holding her , soft and warm, everything was turning to ash around him. Slipping through his fingers, clogging his nose, suffocating him from the inside out. 

Lewis could be torturing her again, could have crossed that final line and raped her, and Elliot had no way of knowing. He wanted to yell, wanted to get his hands on Lewis and make sure he never hurt Liv or anyone else ever again. He wanted to run to wherever she was, pull her into his arms, and never let her out of his sight again. At that moment, though, he could do none of those things. They didn’t know where either of them were or what was happening to her. All Elliot had was wild, frenetic energy terror telling  him to move and no direction to focus it; he was paralyzed.

“We’re gonna find her, El.” Since the trial Liv had been calling him that more and more, but Fin was never one to use it lightly to begin with. 

“Everyone keeps saying that, but we don’t know for sure,” Elliot said. 

“She fought him off before,” Fin reasoned.

“He has a little girl now.”

“Luisa was at the beach house,” Fin reminded him. “She’s gonna find a way out of this.”

Elliot pressed his fingers into his eyes to try to stop the burning behind them. “I shouldn’t have left her.”

“This ain’t your fault.”

“I shouldn’t have left her,” Elliot repeated, louder. 

“You were talking to your kid,” Fin said.

Elliot shook his head. “Not just last night. Three years ago. I should have come back after the shooting. I’d’ve still been her partner, he woudln’t have gotten to her the first time, and if he did he’d be dead now and she wouldn’t be in danger again.”

“That’s a lotta ifs, man,” Fin said.

“Yeah, well,” Elliot shrugged.

Neither of them moved or said anything, just stared off in the distance. Watching officers searching for any indication of where Lewis went, watching the sun come up with no idea if Liv was still alive to see it.

Fin’s hand landed on his shoulder. “I’m scared too,” he admitted, and that alone was more comfort than any of the platitudes or promises people had been making ever since she disappeared.

“I can’t…” Elliot’s voice cracked. “I can’t lose her.”

“Nothing we say is gonna reassure you, is it?” Technically it was a question, but it didn’t sound like one. 

Elliot shook his head. “You know a few months ago, right after I came back, Liv told me she didn’t feel like she’d ever be able to come back to SVU after what happened to her. I told her I believed she could, that if she couldn’t have faith in that it was okay because I had enough for both of us.” He looked over at Fin, and the burning in his eyes got worse. “I’m starting to lose faith, Fin.”

It terrified him that it was possible. God and the church had guided him for years, informed every single decision he’d made, and was the foundation of every aspect of his life. Losing that would be almost as catastrophic as losing Olivia. 

“You were her partner all those years, put your life in her hands. Just trust her again. Have faith in her to make it out of this.” Behind them, Rollins’ voice cut through the air, calling out that they’d found something. Fin turned back to him and nodded in the direction she was pointing. “Let’s get our girl,” he said.

By some miracle they found the building Lewis had taken her to. No one bothered to tell him, probably something with tire tracks, but it didn’t really matter because they pulled up, sirens going and a helicopter above them and finally, there was a direction Elliot could run in. 

“Liv!” he yelled and started toward the granary before Murphy stepped in front of him. 

“Our agreement was that you stay with the car,” he said shortly. 

Elliot was tempted to blow past him anyway. He had technically agreed to that, but now they were so close and it slipped his mind why he’d done it at all. The woman he loved was right in front of him and God only knew what Lewis was doing to her.

“The longer I stand here arguing with you, the more time she’s in there with him alone,” Murphy said. It hit like a slap across the face, and Elliot deflated. “I will handcuff you to this car if I have to-”

Elliot cut him off. “No, no. Go,” he said with resignation, even though it killed him. He should be one of the people going after her. 

He watched her squad split off into different groups and charge toward the building with ESU behind them. A few officers stayed outside, likely charged with babysitting him and making sure he didn’t do anything reckless. 

“We’re coming for you, Liv,” he mumbled. “Just hang on a little longer.”

The radio in the car crackled to life. “Testing, testing. This is William Lewis here, with Sergeant Benson. We’re playing Russian Roulette” his voice trickled like poison over all of them. Elliot froze, as did everyone else standing around him. “I’m sliding the gun across the table to her now. There’s three chambers left. One bullet.”

It was easy enough to do the math; at some point Liv had held a loaded gun to her head and pulled the trigger. She’d done it to protect Amelia, was about to do it again and there was nothing he could do to stop it. 

She’s alive, he had to remind himself. This very second, she is alive. If we can take it one second at a time, she’ll be okay.

“Two chambers left. One bullet,” Lewis said over the radio.

A sound somewhere between a sigh and a sob ripped through Elliot’s chest and he rounded on one of the ESU guys who stayed behind. “They’re still on the first level, why the hell haven’t they gone further up?” 

“They have to clear it one at a time, you know that,” the officer said. 

“What I know is that he wouldn’t stop at the first level. He’d want as much distance as possible,” he insisted. None of them seemed to be listening and it filled him with desperation. “They have to go up, they’re running out of time.”

A single gunshot echoed from the building and rent the morning air in two. Time stood still.

The only thing he heard was his heartbeat pounding in his ears as he sank against the car, his knees suddenly turning to water. It was over. One way or another it was over, and he stood helplessly, uselessly, waiting for someone else to tell him the new direction of his life. 

The images in his mind were a cruel assault- pictures of Liv on the dirty floor, her body bent and broken and surrounded by a growing field of red. Her life seeping slowly out onto cement and taking him with it. 

She couldn’t be dead , he reasoned. He would know if she were dead. Surely all the color would seep from the world, the sky would darken, something . He would feel it, if the tether that tied the two of them together, the thing that held him to the Earth, went slack, with no one on the other end to keep him in place. He would feel it if he was drifting aimlessly. 

Wouldn’t he?

Chapter Text

The area Lewis brought her to was mostly industrial, but still secluded enough and with enough places to hide to fit his usual M.O. It made Olivia’s skin crawl, thinking of what he could have possibly done to Amelia, what he planned to do to her. He wouldn’t have the time that he usually wanted, not with the manhunt for her likely already amping up, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t inflict more torture. 

Adrenaline coursed through her blood as she stood from the car on shaky legs, searching the shadows for Lewis. The darkness pressed in, the air felt thin, and Olivia felt very much like she’d just walked into the lion’s den. For her, though, the chances of God coming to her rescue were essentially zero. 

Despite the fear, there was a hint of satisfaction that he had brought her across the river. The first time it had been to Long Island, and now Brooklyn. Except for that first night in her old apartment, he’d never faced her in Manhattan. It was almost as if he needed her removed from it, away from her home, her turf, to stand a chance. She felt a twinge of regret that she probably wouldn’t set foot there ever again. 

“Put your hands in the air, Olivia.” 

She slowly turned in the direction of his voice, hands held out at her sides. The gun Lewis pointed at her brought her back to her apartment, to that first bite of terror. She didn’t want him to know how much it got to her, so she steadied her breathing as much as possible. 

Lewis threw her up against the car hard enough to force a pained grunt past her lips and yanked the clip from her hair. It fell back around her shoulders and she couldn’t fight the shudder that ran through her when he pressed his face into it, ran his hands up her body when he tugged off her vest. Her gun was wrenched from its holster, thrown along with her vest somewhere beyond her sight and just like that she was defenseless. 

“No phone?” Lewis mumbled against her neck while his hands raked over her thighs. 

“Tossed it in the back seat.”

Lewis glanced over her shoulder into the car and shrugged. “You won’t be needing it anyway. The radio however,” he mumbled as he pulled it from the front of her pants, “this I’ll keep. That way they can hear you scream.”

“Where’s the girl, Lewis?” Olivia asked. 

Instead of answering, he stared at her with smug contempt and grabbed her arm. “Let’s go for a drive,” he said, and shoved her roughly. Toward what she couldn’t tell, just that devastation waited when she got there. 

The cool air coming off the water whipped against her face when Lewis pulled her from the car. It took her back, momentarily, to that day at the beach for Elliot’s birthday, when she’d been perfectly content, like she was wrapped in a warm blanket that felt too much like family. There has been a sense of belonging, as if it was her home, that those people were hers . To protect, to cherish, to love.

And then, Lewis’s hand caressed her face, tugged at her hair. Her stomach revolted against his clammy touch and any happy memory was violently thrown off. 

“What’s the matter? You’re not having flashbacks are you?” he taunted when she writhed away from him. 

She wasn’t. Not really, at least. Sure, the idea of him touching her again made her sick, but she wasn’t crippled with fear, wasn’t reliving everything he’d done those first four days. Still, he rambled on. 

“You’re in your bed at night. Wake up in a cold sweat thinking I’m there with a gun to your head.”

She flinched against the cold steel at the back of her neck, even though she knew he wouldn’t pull the trigger. Not yet. It was too easy. 

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, grateful that her voice was steady. 

Lewis hummed in disbelief. “Nothing to be ashamed of, Olivia. All my girls go through it.”

God she hated that. The possessive tone, the implication that she was one of “his girls” as if she belonged to him. It wasn’t true. 

“I am an agent of change,” he said, and she rolled her eyes. “I alter the trajectory of people's lives. They might have hopes and dreams but they run into me and life as they knew it is gone. Well you know.”

He kept talking, but Olivia was too busy thinking about the second part of what he’d said to care. Much as she didn’t want to admit it, her life had changed because of what he’d done to her. But not the way he thought. 

It had brought Elliot back. Sure, he’d told her that he always intended to return, that he didn’t plan on leaving her behind forever, but that call from Fin and John had expedited it. Maybe that was a silver lining, one of those positive things she’d looked for in the immediate aftermath. The last year had been hard, but she’d had Elliot throughout all of it. 

“You know, whatever you think you did to me,” she said, stopped, turned around to face Lewis. “Whatever effect you think you had on me? That’s in your head.”

He glowered at her, tried to burn a hole through her head, but she stared at him unwaveringly. “No dreams about me then?” he said. The grip of his hand on her elbow hurt as he steered her further into the building.

“No,” she lied. 

There had been so many she’d lost count. Before she went back to work, around the trial, that one with the metronome right before they found baby boy Doe and she broke up with Brian. But they’d gotten fewer and farther between, enough so that she hadn’t had a single one in weeks. 

“Who else you got in your life? That cop boyfriend? I mean he’s gotta be out of the picture by now, there’s no chemistry there,” Lewis mused, his voice dripping with pity as if he was really lamenting the state of her romantic relationships. “Even at the trial, the few times he did come, you were looking at me, not him. Or have you dumped him by now for your old partner?”

The jab at Elliot stoked her anger. “You’re the one who’s obsessed, Lewis, not me.”

“I saw him, looking like he’d kill me if he got half a chance. What’s his name, by the way?” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken at all. “I’m surprised he let you out of his sight, considering how protective he is. I wonder how he’s feeling right about now. Knowing you ran away from him to come be with me.” 

His voice dropped low and Olivia felt his hot breath on the back of her neck, spreading like foul poison across her skin. A burning built behind her eyes just thinking about it. For thirteen years, her life revolved around having Elliot’s back, making sure he was safe and whole. Even at their worst moments, when they’d thrown words like knives at each other across the bullpen, she’d never intended to wound him like this.

“You don’t get to talk about him,” she mumbled. 

Lewis chuckled and pressed himself against her, his hand wrapped around her waist to keep her from squirming away again. “I seem to recall you saying that before. I wonder what he’s gonna do when he sees you dead. Maybe I’ll wait until he gets here and do it in front of him.”

Every single cell in her body revolted against the idea. Lewis couldn’t get close to Elliot. That was part of why she’d come here; to protect Amelia of course, but also to ensure that Lewis’s hunt for her didn’t bring Elliot into the line of fire. 

“He’s not on the job. They won’t let him in here.” Olivia didn’t know if she was trying to convince Lewis or herself. 

“They will if I tell them to. If I say I’ll kill you if they don’t send him in.”

Even if they brought Elliot with them all the way out here, there was no way Murphy would let him in, Olivia knew that with absolute certainty. No matter how much Elliot would push, no matter how enraged he got, Murphy wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t send a civilian into harm’s way, even if that civilian was former military and NYPD. But if Elliot heard that threat, he was just reckless enough to break away from the group to come after her on his own, and she couldn’t have that. She knew Lewis’s ploy, knew he would probably kill Elliot first just to make her watch helplessly while her own heart bleed out in front of her.

An idea started to form in the back of her mind. “If you kill me in front of him, you give me what I want,” she said. 

His eyes narrowed. “You want him to see you die?”

Olivia shook her head. “At that house. You told me I was thinking about someone I wanted to see-“

“I figured it was him,” Lewis grinned, and it made her skin crawl. 

“If he comes in here, then he’s the last thing I see before I die,” she said, with all the courage she could muster. “And I’m okay with that.” 

As “okay” as she could be, at least. It was a selfish desire, really. Hard as she tried on the drive from the hotel, she hadn’t quite been able to make peace with the knowledge that she’d already seen Elliot for the last time. Once more would never be enough, though. 

“Now where’s the girl, Lewis. Take me to her, that was our agreement,” she said. 

He glared at her down his nose and shoved her shoulder with the gun. “Upstairs.”

Amelia’s scared little face waited for her at the top of the stairs. What horrors this child had seen, Olivia knew all too well, but she was mercifully alive with few physical injuries. Olivia ached to hug her, but the handcuffs made it impossible so all she could do was make promises that she may not end up being able to keep. 

“I’m going to give you a choice, Olivia,” Lewis said from behind her. “I can do you, let her watch. Or I can cut her down, do her, let you watch. I’m fine either way.”

It wasn’t anything she didn’t expect, but it still settled like a rock in her stomach because honestly, it wasn’t a choice at all. And Lewis knew it. 

It was a twisted thought, but she’d wondered periodically over her life what her response would be if she ever found herself about to be raped. She knew all of them, had taken enough victim statements to know that every situation varied, reassured hundreds, even thousands of people, that whatever response they’d had was the right one because it had kept them alive. She doubted very much that someone would ever tell her the same.

Her handcuffs clicked tightly around her wrist, a rope around the other. Lewis wrapped duct tape around her ankles to keep her tied to the table.

She wrestled against him at first; his revolting hands pawed at her breasts, over her hips, her neck. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, telling her to pull against her restraints, to yank her face away from his. Her heart pounded viciously, a drum against her ribs telling her she needed to get away. The grip he held on her jaw kept her from biting down when he shoved his tongue into her mouth and she wanted it to stop. Just stop. 

Fight and flight didn’t work, and so she had the answer to her question. She chose freeze.

The effect it had on Lewis was near instantaneous. His hand slowed their path over her body, over the scars he’d inflicted trying to get her to react, but she refused to move. Cold metal bit into her palms from her grip on the table and she could feel his saliva drying on her skin. Her eyes were trained on the wall across the room, her mind focused on the cracks in the wall and nothing else; she wouldn’t pollute the happy memories she had by bringing them into this space. 

“You just gonna stand here, play possum?” Lewis grumbled. “You know what? New game. My rules, not yours. This is gonna be more fun.”

He freed one of her hands and moved away. The air rushed back into her lungs until she realized he held a revolver in his hands. He emptied the bullets save for one, held it to his head and watched her with a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Death is not something to be afraid of, Olivia.”

“You’re going to hell, Lewis.”

She’d never been one for religion. Sometimes it was easier to believe in God than others, but she supposed that came with trusting in something you couldn’t see or touch. The broken women and children she’d spent sixteen years working with though, made her doubt that whatever God existed was listening, or even good. For all they knew, he was a sadistic mastermind who’d created people only so they could suffer. There were moments in her youth where she thought her very existence was proof of that. 

But if Lewis lost this game? Maybe she’d have to admit that God could be merciful. If there was any bit of divine justice, there was a hell waiting for him.

“Am I?” he said, and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked, an empty chamber.

The gun clanged against the table in front of her; metal against metal ringing in her ears with a sense of finality.

“Pick up the gun, put it to your pretty head,” Lewis leered at her. 

“They’re coming for you,” she said confidently. The sun had risen higher in the sky, people would be coming into work. Someone had to have found her car and reported it, which meant they would find his sooner or later. If she delayed long enough, maybe she could delay his escape after she was dead.

His hand cracked against her face. “Pull the trigger or I’ll shoot you in the head,” he yelled. “Do it, Olivia.” The threat didn’t make a whole lot of sense. What did it matter if she pulled the trigger or he did? What was one more body on his ledger? He didn’t have the balls to rape her, but evidently he couldn’t even kill her on his own either. 

Lewis swung his gun around to Amelia with a knowing grin, and all the resistance drained out of her, every ounce of hesitation gone. The barrel of the gun fell against her temple, her unsteady breath shook her shoulders, her pulse racing against imminent danger that she was steering herself directly into. 

It wasn’t that she was afraid of death, just that she had so many things left unfinished and wasn’t ready to go yet. She wanted to keep leading her squad, keep fighting to get justice for their victims. She wanted shitty precinct coffee and teasing Fin about his love of jelly donuts. She wanted to watch things play out between Nick and Amanda while she wondered if Cragen ever felt a similar interest in his detective’s personal relationships.

A soft sob escaped her throat and she flinched hard against the barrel of the gun, but the hammer just clicked into place. Another empty chamber. 

Lewis tugged the gun from her hand just as she remembered what Cragen had told her, before he left, about the betting pool. He had wondered the same things she did about his detectives. What a pity she’d never get to commiserate with him about it. She’d never get to tell him that he was right all along. 

Again, Elliot’s face came to mind. It was cruel, she thought, that she couldn’t get him out of her mind. Not that she’d had much success in the years he’d been gone, but why was it that when she was about to die, she kept getting reminded of the one person made her want to stay more than anything. He would shoulder the burden of her loss all on his own, she knew that much, and she wished there was a way to tell him she was sorry for all the grief she’d caused him. 

“You’re thinking about your old partner again, aren’t you?” Lewis taunted, his voice dripping with malicious glee. “Does your boyfriend know how you feel about him? That both times we’ve been together you’ve been thinking of someone else?” His eyes widened with fake shock. “Did he figure out you’re in love with your partner? Is that why you broke up?”

“Just pull the damn trigger, Lewis,” Olivia snapped. Hearing David suggest it at the wedding was one thing, but Lewis? He was a monster, he was the worst kind of demon crawled directly from hell itself. He did not get any answers from her about her feelings for Elliot, didn’t get to know that she had been in love with him before he left, didn’t get to know that she loved him even now.

She froze.

Lewis paced, oblivious to the thoughts racing through her mind. Unaware of the new storm he’d let loose on her as the realization dawned.

“You know what’s ironic about your little confession?” he said. “Even if you tell people I shot myself, they’re not gonna believe you now. They’re gonna believe that you shot me in cold blood execution style,” he said. 

Olivia was sure that some part of her cared about that, cared about her job and public perception. When he raised the gun to his head though, all she wanted was for him to die and damn the consequences, because she needed to talk to Elliot.

There was a little more hesitation when Lewis pulled the trigger than there was the first time, but it was empty yet again. 

The sound of a helicopter drew both their eyes up at the same time the sound of the sirens reached their ears. For a second, Olivia thought she heard Elliot’s voice among them. It was so faint, though, that she shook her head. Her mind had to have conjured it, some desperate attempt to comfort her in the moments leading up to her death. There were only three chambers left, and two of them were hers. 

“Friends are here. Let’s make it interesting for them,” Lewis said and reached for the radio he’d taken from her. “Testing, testing. This is William Lewis here with Sergeant Benson. We’re playing Russian Roulette.” Again, the scrape of metal against metal set her teeth on edge. “I’m sliding the gun across the table to her now. There’s three chambers left. One bullet.”

Lewis gestured with his gun to the revolver. “Pick it up.”

Elliot’s face swam before her, and Olivia thought how pitiful it was that she was about to die without telling him that she loved him. It was just like her, she thought, to have been given the chance to be happy only to waste time because she felt like it was too good to be real. Almost very time he’d ever held her, one of them had been with someone else, and she ached that now she would never again get the chance like she had at Maureen’s wedding. She’d never get to kiss him and taste morning coffee on his lips or wine from a dinner with just the two of them. She wanted late nights where she pressed her love into every inch of his skin, early mornings with his weight on top of her, where she didn’t feel suffocated, but safe . She wanted Christmas mornings with Eli waking them up, wanted to meet the kids she knew Maureen and Carl planned to have. She wanted , and it was all going to end in devastation. 

All those months she stayed with Brian when deep down she knew what she wanted. The weeks since they broke up where she told herself she couldn’t give into Elliot’s gravity, couldn’t allow herself to fall again, couldn’t prove any of the rumors right. She spent so long denying that she loved him and for what? It had never been a matter of falling for him again , she realized, because she’d never stopped in the first place. All she had to do was let him catch her, and she’d denied them both the chance.

She nearly pulled the gun away from her head, but Amelia whimpered and Olivia couldn’t do it. She’d had her chance, to live, to grow, to make mistakes. Amelia deserved that chance too. No matter how much she ached for the chance to see Elliot again, she wouldn’t pay for it with Amelia’s life.

Lewis shushed the girl, pointed his gun at her chest again. “Pull the trigger Olivia or I will. Do it now, they’re coming,” he said urgently. 

He needed that, didn’t he, for her to be the cause of her own demise? He had no control over her. There was no way he could inflict any kind of lasting pain on her himself, so he had to lead her to the cliff and force her to jump.

She flinched when the gun against her temple clicked again. A surprised smile crossed her face when Lewis wrenched it away from her despite the tears she felt trying to force themselves from her eyes. Relief tightened her throat. Maybe God had heard her this time. Maybe the blackness hanging above her would be blown away with a gunshot and she’d see blue.

“Two chambers left, one bullet,” Lewis said into the radio. He dropped it and turned back to her, the gun already against his head. “You know how lucky I am,” he grinned despite the unease she saw in his eyes. For someone who insisted death wasn’t something to fear, he sure seemed to be bothered by the possibility.

“Look away, Amelia,” Olivia said, and Amelia listened. Her eyes closed tight, her face turned into her arm. Olivia, though, kept her eyes trained on Lewis. She needed to see. Needed to know he was dead with absolute certainty. The gun had to go off.

When it clicked for the last time, she could have sworn it sounded different than the previous four. It was a cell door slamming shut, a heavy door closing her off from the possibility of deliverance. It was the toll of a funeral bell.

“Game over,” Lewis hissed. “Say goodbye, Olivia.”

There were no footsteps pounding on the stairs; no one was coming. Her lungs surged in her chest, taking in air as fast as they could as if that could keep her alive. The shot would draw her squad, Lewis would be taken into custody or killed, Amelia would be safe. It was worth it, in the end. 

“I love you, Elliot” she thought. Repeated it in her head over and over. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

They’d always had a way of anticipating each other’s next moves, reading their thoughts. Maybe if she said it in her head enough times, the message would find its way to him after she was dead. 

“This is the last thing you’re gonna think about before you die,” Lewis taunted. The gun brushed through her hair, ghosted along the base of her skull. “The last thing you’re gonna see,” his breath wafted across her face. She wanted to close her eyes against it but couldn't seem to do it, couldn't lose the last precious moments of sunlight she was ever going to get for the sake of Lewis's revolting breath. 

The shot went off, and she saw red.

Chapter Text

Thick silence hung in the air after the gunshot. It echoed off the buildings, reverberated through Elliot’s skull, and settled deep in his bones. 

Seconds marched on and the image his mind had conjured, the one of Liv on a dirty floor, started to come into sharper focus, as if it was trying to solidify itself into reality. 

The radio crackled to life and a different voice spoke. “We’ve got them! Lewis is dead. Sergeant Benson and the girl are unhurt.”

All the tension he’d been carrying snapped and his knees buckled beneath him. Only the hood of the car at his back kept him upright, kept him from collapsing into the dirt. She was alive . Whatever had happened in that building, whatever happened next, none of it mattered. Liv was still breathing, soon she would walk out that door, and once she was home, once she was safe, they would talk. He was going to make sure of it. 

It seemed like ages before they saw movement at the door and people started pouring out. More would swarm in eventually to gather evidence and investigate how Lewis died- a waste of time and resources where Elliot was concerned. Just let the bastard rot and be done with it. He caught sight of Fin and Rollins leading a little girl with puffy eyes and a red nose to one of the squad cars, but he barely registered them before Olivia was there, standing on her own legs with Amaro at her side. 

“Liv!” he called and rushed forward to meet them, no need to stay with the car now that the danger had passed. 

Her wide eyes found his in an instant and she exhaled a shaky breath. Renewed panic swept over him when he got closer. The sight of blood across her face was entirely too reminiscent of the thoughts he’d been having for the last few hours. 

“I thought they said she wasn't hurt,” he snapped and turned a cold glare on Amaro, but didn’t linger long. His hand swept along her hairline looking for broken skin, but aside from a red welt on her cheek she looked unharmed. 

“It’s not hers,” Amaro said, unphased by Elliot’s tone. 

Lewis. When that gun went off he had to have been standing close to her. Whether he shot himself or Liv did, it was a sickening realization. 

Elliot turned his attention back to her. “Liv? You okay?” A stupid question, really. She was trembling and he could see tears trying to gather in her eyes, but he just needed to hear her voice. 

One of her hands released the blanket that had been wrapped around her shoulders and brushed lightly over his cheek. “Blue,” she mumbled, dazed, almost as if she couldn’t believe he was there. 

His brow furrowed in confusion, and Amaro shrugged. Elliot figured she was just in shock, and he couldn’t blame her. 

His fingers tangled loosely with hers and he brushed a kiss over her knuckles. “Here, there are some tissues in the car, we can get you cleaned up,” he said gently. 

“We can’t,” Amaro cut in. “Blood spatter is evidence.”

“Find someone to take pictures now,” he said shortly.

“Murphy’s insisting we do this right and CSU will take at least an hour to get here.”

Liv groaned between them. “It’s in my mouth.”

Elliot’s jaw tightened, all frustration at Amaro evaporating. “Then we’ll get you to the hospital. They can get what they need, make sure you’re okay.” He glanced over her head at Amaro who finally nodded in agreement. One of his hands grasped Liv’s arm, the other slid around her waist, and finally Amaro passed her over into his care. Liv exhaled heavily, allowed Elliot to support some of her weight, and that feeling of her, warm and solid and clutched tightly against his chest, was what finally calmed the frantic pounding of his heart. 

There would be time for his anger to show itself later, time to yell and stomp and ask her if she had any idea what she’d almost done, what wreckage she almost caused. Oh, he was furious, but right then Liv did not need his rage. This woman wore barbed wire as armor and it made her untouchable, no matter what role she occupied, be it leader, guardian, saint, or angel. That nobility left her on the frontlines, the world at her back, and no one able to see her face when she cracked. If no one saw tears they would go on thinking she was invincible but she wasn’t. Liv was grace and courage and grit and love and strength personified but at the end of the day she was just that- a person. She needed someone to remember that and care for her accordingly. And that’s what he intended to do.

Olivia felt like she was watching herself from outside her body. The nurses worked around her- collected skin from her fingernails, checked her hands for gunshot residue, took what seemed like a thousand pictures of her face from every angle. At some point after they’d sat her down the tears had started, a steady stream she wasn’t able to stop. She must have made quite the sight- red swollen eyes, drippy nose, and someone else’s blood across her face. 

Elliot was her shadow, silent sentry in the corner of the room through it all. Occasionally she would glance up, just to remind herself that he was really there, not a ghost her mind had conjured up as a way to cope with her latest trauma. He’d be at her side if he could, but the nurse in charge had snapped at him to stay out of their way and it was only the threat of being kicked out of the room completely that had made him back down. His arms were crossed over his chest, his shoulders straight as he watched everyone’s movement. Whenever she flinched his scowl grew deeper, his fingers twitched, and she knew his patience was wearing thin. 

“Can that be cleaned off her face now?” Elliot growled. 

Lewis’s blood had long since dried to a crust that made her skin itch, but she could still taste the copper of it in her mouth. She wasn’t sure if that was just in her head or not, but either way she intended to go home and brush her teeth until she knew every trace of him was gone. 

Olivia registered Elliot’s presence, no longer in the corner but in front of her where she sat on the exam table, and she realized she must have spaced out. 

“Can I?” he asked softly, his eyes flickering between hers, and raised a wet towel. 

She opened her mouth to tell him it was okay, that she was capable of cleaning her own face, but her tongue refused to form the words and she found herself nodding instead. 

The tenderness of his touch belied his strength, and her eyes fluttered closed as she leaned into it. This was what she had ached for that day at the beach house. She’d wanted her partner, unwavering at her side. It had been deja vu earlier; a blanket thrown over her shoulders, Nick guiding her outside into the blinding sun. Instead of a gravel driveway lined with trees, she’d been met with a dirt road and industrial buildings. 

And Elliot. They couldn’t change the fact that he’d been absent at the beach house, but his presence now felt a little like reaching through time to soothe the hollow ache she’d felt then, a balm to her soul. 

He set the towel aside and brushed his thumbs over her now clean cheeks. The adrenaline coursing through her blood insisted that danger was still near, and she was half convinced she’d actually died a couple hours ago, but under the weight of his fingers, that insecurity started to disappear. 

Lewis was dead and she was alive. Elliot was with her, and she loved him. 

It didn’t feel like a grand revelation. More like something obvious she’d brushed against a few times but didn’t want to look at directly. She already knew its shape and texture, so when she finally acknowledged it was there, it didn’t overwhelm her like she’d thought it would. 

She could feel the words bubbling up her throat, fighting to make themselves known. Before they could fully form though, Murphy walked in to tell her a lot of things, but they all essentially boiled down to her keeping her mouth shut and finding a lawyer. 

And then she was dismissed, free to go until she needed to make yet another statement to IAB about Lewis. It felt like they were forgetting something. That hesitation kept her seated until Elliot gently tugged on her hand. 

“Let’s get you home, Liv.”

Her apartment still didn’t quite feel like home the way her old place had, but it was still a welcome sight. 

Her dishes from a couple days prior were still in the sink, tossed in with the intention to wash them when she got home from work. Mail sat unopened, the last clothes she’d slept in were laid across her bed. All of it were vestiges of yet another “before.” Before Lewis had gotten to her again, before she’d almost died.

Olivia tossed the clothes on her bed into her laundry hamper and pulled out new. Soft leggings, t-shirt, and the grey hoodie from the back of her closet that she used to pass back and forth with Elliot. When she finished she came back out to find Elliot still there, like she knew he would be. He moved through her kitchen easily, probably searching for something she could eat. She’d gotten better about keeping food around, but she hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store in a couple weeks, and she could tell he was struggling to find something.

The domesticity of it shook her to the core. Six hours ago she thought she was dead. Six hours ago she was thinking about Elliot finding out she was gone, seeing her body, having to explain to Eli why they would never see her again. Elliot carrying her coffin. And now he stood in front of her, shutting her cabinets with slightly more force than necessary. It was surreal, and in that moment the only thing she wanted was for him to hold her. 

“Are we going to talk about it?” Elliot asked gruffly, his back still to her.

She bristled at his tone. It wasn’t that she wasn’t planning on talking to him about what had happened, but the assumption that she would. Like he was the keeper of her trauma. 

“Just because I unloaded on you about the first time doesn’t mean I owe you anything now,” she said. 

“I couldn’t care less about what happened in there, I care about what led you there in the first place.” Elliot abandoned his search through her kitchen and finally turned to look at her. 

“You should know the answer to that,” she insisted. “He had a little girl, I had to save her.”

“And you didn’t bring backup because he said he’d kill her. I know what he threatened you with but why would you listen to him? He could have killed her anyway,” Elliot’s voice rose just a little, not loud, but enough that she could tell he was trying to conceal his anger.

“He wouldn’t have killed her,” Olivia said. “I know him, I know how he thinks. As long as I followed his rules, she’d be okay.”

“Damn it Liv, you are so cavalier with your own life,” he snapped. “You want to save everyone no matter the cost to yourself and you won’t accept that sometimes you might need someone to save you.”

She scoffed then and smiled without humor. “Funny. I seem to remember you saying the exact opposite once.”

Gitano was a low blow and she knew it, but she watched with satisfaction when it landed, the way Elliot’s eyes closed tightly and he exhaled deeply. 

“Asking for help doesn’t make you weak,” he said after a moment. 

“And I suppose you’re the one I’m supposed to ask? You’re not my partner anymore, Elliot, and we both know whose fault that is,” Olivia said. She didn’t realize until it had slipped out how much his leaving still bothered her.

“You think I don’t know that?” Elliot was well and truly angry but she didn’t care. “You don’t think I’ve spent every day for the last year thinking about how things could have been different, how they would have been different, if I’d just stuck around?”

“Why are you yelling?”

“I’m furious at you, why do you think?” he asked. His voice shook, and that little waver was a lightbulb going off. The sturdy way he held her the first day in the precinct and on the stairs after the trial, the bracelet he gave her for her birthday that still sat on her wrist. Their dance at Maureen’s wedding and “Maybe, only if she’s the right one” and the terror in his eyes earlier when he saw her covered in blood.

“You go out of your way to save everyone else no matter the cost, no matter how dangerous it is,” Elliot continued, oblivious to what was going on in her head. “For once in your life, can you try not to make yourself a martyr? For once can you just be a little selfish?

Olivia’s feet acted on their own accord and carried her across the short distance between them. Her hand landed on either side of Elliot’s face and she crushed her lips to his in a bruising kiss. Neither of them breathed for a second, and even though she had initiated it she was too stunned, too overwhelmed by the fact that after nearly sixteen years she finally knew what it was like to kiss the man she loved. 

Elliot was the first to recover. His fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of her neck and she gasped softly at the gentle tug. The soft sound elicited a groan from him and he took the chance to slide his tongue past her lips and kiss her back in earnest. His hand that wasn’t cradling her head slid up the length of her spine and flattened against her back to pull her closer. Part of her wanted to laugh because of course the first time she kissed him would be during a fight. Of course it would be a clash of tongue and teeth and urgent fingers gripping at each other's skin. 

He spun them around so her back was pressed against the counter, and Olivia wrapped her arms around his waist to pull his hips into hers. She wanted him. God she wanted him , everything he had to offer in exchange for everything she had to give. She idly wondered how much longer she could kiss him before she had to come up for air and decided it didn’t matter. 

Through all the joy, a dark voice in her head whispered the words of her mother, that everyone leaves eventually, and reminded her that he was still hiding something about why he’d left before. Olivia desperately wanted to push it away. Wanted to cling to Elliot and allow herself to be held by the man who’d held her heart for far longer than he should have. But he’d carried it away before, across an ocean, and she didn’t think she’d survive being separated from it again.

Elliot tried to chase her lips as she pulled away, but stopped the second her hand came to rest on his cheek. He rested his forehead against hers, lingering in her space while they both caught their breaths. 

“Liv, I walked away and will spend the rest of my life making that up to you,” he said, his thumb brushing reverently over her cheekbone. “But you can’t keep running into situations where you think you’re going to die. I lived without you for two years. I cannot do that again.”

She wanted to believe the promise he was making, really she did, but she needed to know. 

“El do you remember right after you came back, you told me that there was another reason you left and didn’t call me? That you weren’t ready to tell me but you would eventually?” she asked, and felt his breath still, his thumb stopping its movement across her cheek. “I need you to tell me now. Please.”

A look of defeat flickered across his face, and his hesitation shoved a sliver of dread into her heart. 

“When I shot Jenna-”

“It was a good shot,” she interrupted.

“I know, but my motivation was flawed. I did it to protect you, Liv. Not because you were my partner… because I was in love with you,” he confessed. 

Hearing it out loud was everything she’d wanted to hear for years. She felt like flying because it wasn’t one sided, she hadn’t been imagining things, it was real. But the admission still settled like a stone in her stomach. 

“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said with a shake of her head. 

“I don’t know how I could be any clearer.” He seemed to be confused and that angered her more. 

When Brian had told her Elliot loved her, she couldn’t decide which was worse- if he’d fallen in love with her since coming back or if he loved her before and left anyway. She never considered he left because of it, and the truth was the worst of them all. 

She dropped her hand from his face and nudged him backwards, away from her. “You left because you loved me? Explain that,” she demanded. 

“I felt like…” Elliot started, sighed. “Jenna was dead, another child was dead, because of how I felt about you and I didn’t think I could have both. Leaving destroyed me, but it was the only way I thought I’d be able to make up for killing her.”

“So you decided that I would be the price you paid for your guilt,” Olivia said, defeated. “You loved me and you punished me for it.”

All at once he seemed to realize how it looked from where she stood. His eyes softened and he tried to reach for her, a pleading “Liv” falling from his lips, but it was too late. 

“I can’t do this,” she said and pushed his hand away. “Not when I can’t know you’re not going to leave again.” Her vision started to blur and she closed her eyes, brushed past him to try putting some space between them. It was too tempting to fall into him, to seek out the comfort that only he could provide, except this time it was him that caused the hurt.

“You’re not hearing me. Liv, ” he followed, clutched her arm and spun her around so he could see her face. “Why do you think I’m so angry that you slipped the detail? I love you,” he said insistently. A traitorous tear slipped out and he brushed it away. “I never stopped. Liv, I’m not going anywhere.”

“You’re not hearing me, ” she said, her voice choked. “That promise means nothing. You loved me before and you left anyway, I can’t trust you won’t do it again.”

“Olivia,” he pleaded.

“I think you should go.”

No, ” he shook his head.

“This isn’t some test, Elliot, I mean it,” she said firmly. It was the last thing she wanted, to be separated from him. The whole time that Lewis had her, she’d thought about just sitting with Elliot in safety, of his soothing presence that was a balm to her soul, but that couldn’t happen now that she knew the truth. She couldn’t accept that comfort, couldn’t get used to it, without knowing it would be there tomorrow. “You told me before that you wouldn’t walk away unless I told you to go. That’s what I’m doing,” she added with finality. 

He hovered a moment longer and then nodded in resignation, brushed past her and whispered “Lock the door behind me,” in her ear as he went. 

Olivia wanted to wait until the door shut behind him to look back, but it hadn’t worked for Orpheus or Lot’s wife, and it certainly didn’t work for her. Elliot’s eyes were anguished when they met hers, but he dutifully stepped across the threshold like she said she wanted, and the latch clicked behind him. 

Once there was a barrier between them, when she was less likely to fling herself into his arms and beg him to stay, she approached the door. She stood on her toes to look through the peephole and found Elliot still there, his eyes downcast. For a moment she waited, wondering if he was debating if he should come back inside and demand they talk more. 

Then she realized he was staring at the doorknob, waiting for her to lock it. Her fingers found the deadbolt and she flipped it with a resounding click. On the other side of the door, Elliot nodded once and looked up. She could have sworn their eyes met through the door as he whispered “Goodnight, Liv.”

He turned to walk down the hallway, this man that ensured she was safe even while she was hurting him, and then he was gone. 

The polished wood was cold against her back as she slid down the door, unable to walk back into the apartment. Her arms braced against her knees and she wondered how everything could have gone so miserably wrong. 

She could still feel the ghost of his touch- her waist, her neck, her lips. In the kitchen, the trail of fire he’d etched on her skin had been pleasant, welcome, comforting. He’d taken all of that with him out the door, and in his absence all she could do was endure the cold agony she’d forced upon them both.

Chapter Text

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since she’d last seen or spoken to Elliot. 

The grand jury had declined to indict her, for what reason she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful nonetheless. She’d gone to the morgue to see Lewis’s body, to see his face still and pale and cold and know that he would never hurt her or another person ever again. 

And it had been three weeks since she’d seen Elliot. 

She sat at her desk, the one she’d had to reclaim in the bullpen since Murphy took over her office, while the jury deliberated the shit storm that was Frank Maddox’s case. A couple unis walked past, lowered their voices as they sped up their steps, and she mused that it was a lot like the first time, with people scared to approach her or mention him around her. Amanda and Nick had even started avoiding talking to her except when necessary, trying to keep away from the dark cloud that followed her these days. It wasn’t that she was trying to keep people out or that she wanted to be left alone, but with how she’d been acting, she doubted anyone would believe that if she tried to explain it.

Fin rolled across the floor to pull his chair up next to hers, and for a moment a sliver of sunlight broke through the clouds; he’d never been afraid of her moods. 

“You talk to Elliot recently?” he asked. 

She sighed heavily, and the clouds were back. 

“Didn’t know the two of you were so close these days,” she said.

Fin shrugged. “Am I not allowed to talk to him?”

“I never said that.”

Fin hummed and they sat in silence, the only sound the scratch of her pen as she finished out a DD5. 

“So have you?” Fin asked again and Olivia dropped her pen to glare at him. 

“No. We got into a fight after he took me home from the hospital and we haven’t talked since.” 

Fin nodded like that was what he expected to hear. “Was the fight about how angry he was at you?”

Among other things, but Olivia wasn’t about to go telling Fin about how Elliot told her he loved her and why that made her suddenly not trust him. “You seem to have all the information you need so I don’t know why you’re asking.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty pissed at you too. But you’re still talking to me,” Fin said, gesturing between them. 

“That’s different,” Olivia rolled her eyes.

“Yeah I gathered that,” he grinned. The hint wasn’t subtle, they both knew it, and it earned him another glare. “You know how he gets, when you’re in danger?” he asked. 

She thought about Gitano, about Rojas with his gun to her head at the airport. About the time he’d put a security detail on her without her knowledge and him driving across half the city to make sure Richard White wouldn’t get his hands on her. 

“Liv, I’ve never seen him like he was that day,” Fin continued while she just stared at her hands. “He was frantic, blaming himself for you getting away. He let me see him cry.”

Her head snapped up at that, because that was something Elliot just didn’t do. She’d only seen it a couple times in all the years she’d known him and the fact that he’d allowed someone else to see it was… a lot. 

“I know you haven’t been sleeping well,” Fin said, which she couldn’t deny. “Whether that’s because of Lewis or this fight you’ve got going on with Elliot, it’s not good for you. And I think you know that both of those problems have the same solution.”

He didn’t wait for her to respond before rolling his chair back to his own desk and leaving her to mull everything over. It was true she hadn’t slept well in weeks; the thoughts about Elliot and their fight and how much she missed him kept her awake, and when she did manage to fall asleep the nightmares came for her like a thief in the night. 

Olivia pressed her forehead into her hand. When Fin spoke about it, the past three weeks seemed ridiculous. Elliot told her that he loved her, and despite what he’d told her she was still in love with him. The easy solution sat right in front of her, but it still seemed too complicated. Nothing in this life had ever been simple for her, so why would it start now?

It had been three weeks. Since he’d seen Liv, since he’d held her, kissed her, since she’d thrown him out of her apartment. Three miserable weeks where every day he woke up thinking he couldn’t miss her more only to be proven wrong the next morning.

“So what’s on your mind, Elliot?”

He’d finally broken down and asked David to come meet him at a bar. Drinking alone seemed too lonely, and he’d learned three years ago that keeping alcohol at his house would only exacerbate his problems. 

“Can’t I just have a drink with my best friend?” he asked, set his drink down on the bar in front of him. 

“You could, but I don’t see Liv around anywhere,” David joked. The sound of her name made Elliot flinch. “Ah, so she is what’s on your mind then. Is she doing alright?”

“Dunno. Haven’t talked to her,” Elliot shrugged. 

“Since when?”

“We got in a fight that night after we got her home. I told her I was angry at her for slipping her security detail,” Elliot said. 

David scoffed. “Can’t believe they were even that dumb.”

Elliot smiled a little. It wasn’t the least bit funny, but David agreeing with him about the incompetence of the two detectives made him feel a bit more justified in his anger at them. 

“I told her how badly she’d scared me, that I couldn’t lose her. She kissed me and then told me to leave,” he said. It was a gross understatement because so much more had been said, mostly by him.

“About time,” David mused. Elliot gave him a confused look, and he shrugged. “I told her at the wedding I think she’s in love with you.”

“Dave, what the hell,” Elliot groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You can’t just say things like that to her, she gets freaked out and runs when things get serious.”

“You think that’s why she’s been avoiding you for weeks?” David asked, his voice tinged with guilt. 

Elliot sighed. “No. I did this all on my own.”

It could explain it, in part. A fragile bit of hope fluttered in his chest at the idea that maybe she did love him after all before he realized that just made what he’d done worse. If she felt at all for him the way he did for her… He had to go talk to her, had to find a way to fix this. She was just stubborn enough to avoid him forever, to try to cut him out of her life despite how miserable they both were. As much as he ached to have her, to be with her, to have the chance to kiss her again the way he wanted, he’d give it all up just to know she was okay. And to be sure of that he needed to talk to her.

His phone chimed from his pocket, and it was as if he’d summoned her. 

“We need to talk. Come over tonight?” the text read and he exhaled deeply. It was a chance, more than he deserved, but he wasn’t going to squander it.

“Maybe I didn’t mess it up completely, though,” Elliot said, showing David the text.

A slow smile spread across his friend’s face as he read. “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with her,” he said. “Don’t screw this up, man. I’ll have to kick your ass.”

“I don’t plan on it.”

The silence between them when Olivia let Elliot into her apartment that night was uncomfortably heavy, reminiscent of that first conversation in the park. So much hung in the air between them, be it her trauma, his confession, and the words she wanted to say but couldn’t bring herself to speak. When she looked around the room was reminded of the way he’d kissed her, and when she looked at him she was reminded why she’d told him to leave. She settled instead for focusing on the wine glass in her hands. 

“Are you doing okay?” Elliot asked, his voice low but still it seemed to echo in the room. He stood near the couch, his hands shoved in his pockets like he was trying not to reach for her. 

“Why wouldn’t I be? Lewis is dead, I’m not charged with murder, and I still have my job. Everything worked itself out,” she answered flatly and took a sip from her wine glass. 

Elliot narrowed his eyes, crossed his arms. “Is that how you want to play this? Deflecting, pretending like it isn’t affecting you at all?”

She rolled her eyes. “What do you want me to do, cry over the fact that he’s dead?” 

“I want you to find a coping mechanism because running away isn’t healthy, Olivia,” he said seriously. 

For being her given name, people rarely called her Olivia anymore. Always Liv , always the nickname he’d given her, so much that the only person that called her by her full name with any regularity was, ironically, him. It was meaningful when he used it, more serious, and she understood what he was saying, really she did, but bitterness had its claws in her skin and she wasn’t ready to let go just yet. 

“I have a coping mechanism,” she answered with a sardonic grin and gestured with the wine glass in her hand. It was only her first of the night so it was more deflection than anything. 

Damn him for being right. 

“How’d that work out for your mother?” 

Olivia’s mouth dropped open in surprise. Damn him for that too. 

“Screw you,” she hissed. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?” The glass in her hand was set roughly on the counter and another flash of anger shot through her at the satisfied look on his face. “You want me to talk to you? Tell you all about what it felt like to have Lewis touch me again? How I accepted the fact that I was going to die and now I’m living in the aftermath of that and trying to cope with everything that brought up?”

“Everything” of course, being the realization that she loved him, but she couldn’t very well admit that when she was yelling. One romantic development happening during a heated outburst was enough. If she ever told him she loved him, if she ever got to kiss him again (and damn it, she very much wanted to), it wouldn’t be done in anger. He deserved more than that. 

Elliot closed the space between them cautiously. “I want you to talk to someone you trust, someone who makes you feel safe. Not just your therapist,” he added with a shake of his head. 

That was supposed to be him . He was the one she counted on when all else failed, the person she knew would have her back, always. Until his ridiculous confession that gave her hope and crushed her all at once. Olivia did her best to hold back the tears gathering in her eyes but they slipped out anyway. Elliot inhaled sharply at the sight and shifted on his feet but still he did not touch her. 

“For once can you just be a little selfish?” he’d asked her, right before she’d kissed him, and with him standing in front of her, she couldn’t bring herself to turn him away again, not when she wanted him so desperately. Vulnerability had never been her strong suit. It went back to her mother, who had told her that people would take any opportunity to hurt others, to hurt her . Time and time again, the people in Olivia’s life had proven her mother right, including Serena herself. 

Until Elliot. 

“I trust you. You’re the one who makes me feel safe,” she said, with her heart in her throat. “But I feel like that shouldn’t be the case right now and I hate that, El. I hate it so much. I want to be able to trust you. Without hesitation, without waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

His eyes closed tightly and she practically felt in her own chest the way her words landed like a knife in his. This mental anguish they were both in was her fault, and she hated that most of all. The fear and doubt churned like a hurricane in her chest but when she reached out a trembling hand to lightly press her fingers against his stomach, it quieted. She wanted him to comfort her, and clearly he wanted to give it, and the solution was easy. 

Touching him had been a signal and she breathed a sigh of relief when he heard it without question. Gentle hands swept across her cheeks. Elliot took half a step forward into her space and she leaned forward, sank down into the warmth only he could provide as he folded her into his arms. 

“I got you, Liv,” his voice was rough against her ear. “ I got you . Please let me prove it. Please don’t shut me out. 

There was no lock on a door, no alarm system, no weapon in her hand that could give her the overwhelming sense of security she felt in that instant, and she couldn’t remember a time she’d ever felt so protected. Elliot would never let anyone touch her again, and god help the person that managed to slip through the cracks, because he would raise hell in retaliation.

She burrowed further into his chest, pressed her nose into the crook of his neck and clasped her arms behind his waist. Exhaustion, both mental and physical, took hold and she allowed herself the relief of surrender. Elliot took her weight just like she knew he would, supported her as he rocked back and forth, soothed his hand over her back. 

“Come sit down,” he urged, and led her around the back of her couch. He released her only long enough to settle next to her but even that momentary loss of contact left her feeling unmoored. In seconds, though, he was back, and she folded herself into his side, her arm across his waist and bent knees laid over his.  

They lapsed into silence, her shaky breaths abating as the tears on her face dried to salt. Elliot’s cheek rested against her forehead, and he just… held her. It was the simplest of things, sitting next to him and feeling the firm presence of his body against hers but she marveled at it all the same. 

“He taunted me with you,” she mumbled. 

Elliot’s fingers stilled against her hair and she felt the steady rise and fall of his chest falter. 

“This second time?” he asked. 

“No. Well yes, there too. But I meant the first time. At the beach house.” She’d never told anyone about it, about what Lewis had said to her. He’d brought it up at the trial, that she mentioned Elliot would know what to do with him, but never, not once, had anyone heard about what he’d told her. 

“Liv you don’t have to talk about that-”

“I want to,” she cut in, lifting her head to look in his eyes. “I think I need to. Someone that’s not my therapist, like you said.” Elliot still looked hesitant, cautious. Not the way Brian used to, like he’d be upset by what he heard or that he wasn’t sure he wanted to listen. Elliot’s hesitation stemmed from concern for her, on whether she was ready to tell him what had happened. “I want to tell you , El.”

That seemed to convince him because the tension in his shoulders abated. “Whatever you want, Liv. I’m here,” he said softly. It sounded like more of a promise than just listening to her talk about Lewis. 

Olivia inhaled a steadying breath and settled back against his chest. “He said-” she started before her throat closed up on instinct. For months she’d hidden from everyone in her life, so long that her tongue felt heavy in her mouth and refused to form the words. Elliot waited, carded his fingers through her hair, and Olivia thought about one of those first few days when Brian had done the same. It triggered a panic attack then, but with Elliot it soothed her.

“Lewis had me handcuffed to that bed. He was using some kind of knife to cut my pants.” She shivered at the memory, and Elliot’s grip tightened on her arm. “He said there was someone I was thinking about, that I was never going to see again. Someone I’d give anything to see just one last time. He told me to put him out of my mind because I wasn’t going to make it out of there alive.”

Elliot pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You made it out, Liv. You’re here and he’s not,” he assured her, still so close she could feel his lips moving against her skin. 

“I was thinking about you,” she said unnecessarily. “I wanted you so much but I knew you weren’t coming. You weren’t looking over your shoulder, you weren’t coming to the rescue, so I had to do it myself,” her voice quaked.

“I never should have said that,” he sighed, and tilted her chin up to meet his eyes again. “You did wonderfully, Liv. I’m sorry I wasn’t there, but I am so proud of you. And so, so grateful that you’re alive for me to tell you all this

Olivia chewed on the inside of her cheek and tried to decide if she should tell him everything. He sat here, holding her and telling her how proud he was that she’d made it out, but he didn’t know the full truth. What if it changed things? What if he saw her differently? She wanted everything with him, but wouldn’t be able to live with herself if it wasn’t grounded in truth. 

“Elliot I lied on the stand,” she rushed to say, before she could talk herself out of it. “Lewis never broke free and lunged at me. I beat him while he was handcuffed and defenseless.”

“I know,” he said, and her eyes widened. “C’mon Liv, I know you better than anyone.”

“Does anyone else know?” she asked. If anyone on the brass got wind of it they could take her shield, make an example out of her, show how they’re trying to crack down on police brutality. 

Elliot shrugged. “Your squad might suspect it, but they’re all on your side with this. And even if they did know, they wouldn’t care either.”

“But I care, Elliot,” she pulled away from him and sat up straight on the couch. “Lewis… got in my head and twisted me all up and I lashed out. He made me like… like him,” she said, disgusted at herself for what she’d done.

“Half my genes are drunk, the other half are violent and cruel.”

Her whole life she’d been afraid of herself, terrified of the possibility that lurked in her blood. She carried so much of her father, even before she knew his name; she was tall, dark where her mother was light. She felt compelled to seek out adrenaline, things that would cause her pulse to pound in her ears, and her mother resented that. Olivia had spent years dreading the day something inside her would snap and the demon she’d come from would rear its head. All Lewis had done was draw it out. 

She withdrew from Elliot further and sat with her knees on her elbows, face buried in her hands instead. 

“Liv,” Elliot said. He tried to nudge her hand aside so he could see her face but she pulled away sharply. “Olivia, look at me.” When she still didn’t look up, he shifted next to her and rested one hand on her knee and traced the other up and down the length of her spine. “Do you think I’m like Lewis and your father?”

His question jarred her from the whirlpool of self-hatred she’d stumbled into and she looked up at him sharply in abject horror, because he couldn’t be serious. Elliot was kind where they were cruel. He was driven by a need to protect people and nothing infuriated him more than when someone harmed a woman or child. She knew his anger got the better of him at times, but it was always followed by guilt because it reminded him of his own father, but even Joseph Stabler was nothing like Joseph Hollister and he couldn’t be serious , but there he sat, bright blue eyes staring expectantly waiting for an answer. 

“El you are nothing like them,” she said roughly, disgusted that anyone could try to draw the comparison. Even him.

He took the opportunity afforded by her shock to lace their fingers together. “I would have killed him, Olivia. Damn the consequences, damn me to hell for it, I don’t care. The only way Lewis would have left that floor is in a bag. So I’ll ask you again. Do you think that makes me like him?”

No .”

“Then why do you think that about yourself?” he asked gently.

Her voice trembled when she said “It’s different,” but Elliot was already shaking his head.

“No, it’s not. You’re blaming yourself for how you reacted as a victim with Lewis and connecting it to something you’ve blamed yourself for your entire life. Neither define you, and I’m not gonna let you torture yourself with it.”

Hours later Elliot still sat with her on her couch. They’d ordered takeout, settled into a comfortable silence as they ate. It felt like a miracle that he’d allowed her back into her space. 

“I’m still mad at you, Liv,” he admitted. She looked down at what remained of her food, before setting it aside, chagrined. “Do you have any idea… Just please don’t do that again. I couldn’t take it.”

“You would have been okay,” she mumbled. “There are so many people who love you, who would have supported you.”

None of them were her, though. There was not a single person alive who could help him cope with her death. He reached for her hand, ran his thumb across the back of her fingers. “I have so many things to make up for, and that’s one of them. Losing you would be catastrophic, and it’s my fault you don’t believe that. And I’m sorry…” he hesitated, not sure how she would take it if he brought up the last time he’d been in her apartment. But she deserved to hear it. “I’m sorry I didn’t consider how it would sound to you, when I told you why I left. It was a stupid reason then and I know it now. One day I hope you can forgive me for it.”

She eyed him for a moment and then tentatively slid across the couch toward him. One of her hands hesitantly settled against the back of his neck and his breath caught in the back of his throat.

“I already have,” she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed as she pressed her forehead into his. 

While her eyes were closed, his were wide open. He drank in the sight of her, soft, open, vulnerable against him. There was a smattering of freckles on her cheeks, so small he hadn’t noticed until that moment.

“Liv,” he breathed against her.

Her eyes opened and he fell into the warm, deep brown. She lingered, her hands feather light where they rested against his skin. He read the question on her face- if this was okay, if he wanted her like this, as if the answer could be anything but a desperate yes. Slowly, he raised his hand to rest against her cheek and he realized she was waiting for him to move.

“Whatever you want, Liv, I’ll give you. But I need you to tell me,” he said.

The first time she kissed him could have been adrenaline, could have been a spur of the moment decision spawned by near-death, and not indicative of how she felt. He needed to hear it. 

She took a deep breath and closed the minimal distance between them to gently press her lips against his. It was soft, delicate, and ended much sooner than he would have liked. 

When she pulled away, he was reminded of the Creation story. God sculpted clay, breathed life into it, and made Man. Surely, he thought, surely this is how Adam felt when he came into existence- bombarded with sight and sound, face to face with divinity, the breath of heaven itself fanning across his face. He didn’t think he’d truly lived until this moment.

“I just want you,” she exhaled. 

It was all he needed to hear. His fingers slid over the back of her neck, his thumb tracing along the line of her jaw to coax her mouth open. Her tongue met his in a languid slide and he was blissfully drunk on the taste of her. 

It could have been seconds or hours that he kissed her; he lost all sense of time, wrapped up in her scent and the softness of her skin. He broke the kiss only to trail a line of them across her jawline, ending just below her ear, and she shivered at the feeling.

“That should have been our first kiss,” he breathed against her skin.

“I like the one we had,” she mused.

He pulled back to meet her eyes with a look of disbelief. “I was angry and scared and you were trying to avoid dealing with your trauma.”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “You angry, me avoiding feelings. It’s very on par for how we handle things. It was very us.

He chuckled, rolled his eyes. “I suppose. But I much prefer kissing you when I’m happy.”

“Are you happy right now?” she asked shyly.

Truthfully, “happy” didn’t begin to cover it, but he nodded anyway. “More than I could ever say.”

“Good,” Liv said. “Me too.”

She leaned in, nudged his nose with hers in silent request and he would never deny her. He wanted to kiss her endlessly, until the sun burned out and the stars went dark.

I just want you echoed in his mind and he wondered what he’d done to be granted this miracle. To have the woman he loved with the entirety of his soul beneath his fingers, pulling him further into her, encouraging him to lean further into her. That it was Olivia kissing him, Olivia’s hands on his shoulders, Olivia’s hair in his fingers, was incomprehensible. 

Her kisses turned heated, hungry, and one of her thighs slid over his so she was straddling his lap. A groan rumbled in his chest and he rocked his hips against hers, swallowing her gasp with his lips. She pressed further into him, her arms fully wrapped around his neck, like she couldn’t get close enough, and he understood the feeling; if he could, he would crack his chest open and draw her inside. 

“Liv we should slow down,” Elliot mumbled against her lips, even as he ran his hands over her thighs.

“Is that what you want?” she asked.

He couldn’t tell her he wanted to stop because it would be a lie, and he was determined to never lie or keep anything from her ever again. “I planned on taking this slow, Liv. Taking you on a date first at least.”

“You have taken me on a date, remember?” she said, and he smiled at the memory of her at Maureen’s wedding. “And it’s been sixteen years, El. How much slower do you want to go?”

He chuckled and pressed a feather light kiss just below her ear, the same place he had earlier. A breathy “please” rolled across his cheek and settled into his bones, and how could he deny her anything, especially something he wanted just as desperately?

“Not here. Not the first time,” he said. 

Just as the thought formed in his mind to pick her up and carry her, she slid off his lap and tugged him to his feet. His free hand slid around her waist to haul her against his chest and he kissed her again. She leaned heavily against him and he felt a surge of satisfaction that he was evidently capable of making Olivia Benson weak in the knees. With her fingers laced through his, she led him down the short hallway to her bedroom, glancing over shoulder as if she needed to assure herself he hadn’t vanished.

The door closed softly behind them and the outside world became muffled, as if the universe had narrowed to just four walls and the two of them.

“Come here,” she whispered from where she stood next to her bed. One of her hands reached across the space between them, open, inviting, eager, just like the look in her eyes. It was only a moment later that he had crossed the room to meet her, hands delving into her hair to tilt her chin up and lower his mouth over hers.

Her fingers moved quickly to undo the buttons or his shirt and he released her only long enough to shrug it off. He grabbed her by the waist and slid his fingers under the hem of her t-shirt. 

“El… I have scars,” she muttered.

“I know,” he said. He thought he might feel one right where his hand rested against her hip. 

“They’re not pretty-”

“You are,” he cut in, pressed a soft kiss to the tip of her nose. “I don’t care about your scars, Liv. I promise they are the last thing on my mind right now.”

Her eyes drifted closed and she nodded to herself before grabbing the bottom or her shirt and pulling over her head. He watched every inch of her skin as it was revealed to him. The dip of her waist, the curve of her breasts, every inch of skin golden in the waning light of the sun that filtered through her curtains. He’d only seen her this bare once before and even that time she had been wearing a bra, unlike now. Then, he had forced himself to look away, avoided touching her as best he could to try to protect a modicum of her privacy. This time, his hands slid over her waist, down the center of her chest, over her breasts, memorizing every inch of her. He wanted to discover every part of her. 

“Little different than last time,” she mumbled, and he knew she was thinking of that undercover op, the same as him. 

His fingers ran over one of the raised marks on her chest, one he assumed was a cigarette burn. “I mean it, Liv. You’re beautiful, and I want you just as you are.”

Uncertainty lingered in her eyes, and Elliot couldn’t have that. 

“Lay down.” He urged her back to lay on her bed, and her hair fanned out against the pillow like a halo.

Liv tugged on the back of his neck to pull him into a heated kiss. When he moved to leave a line of kisses across her collarbone she immediately reached for the button of his jeans, but he stopped her hands. 

“I’m not in a hurry, Liv. I’ll still be here tomorrow,” he said, and kissed her breastbone. “I want to savor this. You.”

Her head fell back against the pillow and he continued his slow exploration of her, with his hands and lips gliding across every inch of her skin he could find; her breasts, her stomach, her thighs after he slid her leggings off. Every touch was a promise, a vow that he wasn’t going anywhere. Olivia was all curves and muscle. She’d changed a little over the years but he’d always, always, wanted her like this, and this version of her might be his favorite; it was the way she looked when she allowed him to touch her for the first time. 

She had a birthmark on her thigh, freckles on her arms, and he touched every one. When he wasn’t kissing her skin, he was kissing her lips. He wanted to be the light in her eyes, the song in her laugh. He wanted to etch his name into her soul the way hers was branded into his.

Her hands weren’t idle though, pulling at his shoulders, grasping his waist, his cheek. For a while she allowed him his slow exploration, seeming to need the heated assurances just as much as he wanted to give them. He avoided touching her where they both wanted him most until finally he slid his fingers between her legs and she let out a moan that awakened something in him, something raw and primal, and he simply couldn’t wait any longer. She became more firm with him, tugging at the button of his jeans and mumbling that she needed him.

Elliot sat up only long enough to shuck off the remainder of his clothes before he was back, settling into the cradle of her thighs. 

“Liv,” he whispered, his forehead pressed against hers, silently asking if she was sure, if she wanted this. There was no clothing between them and he could feel the heat of her core against his erection but if she had any doubt at all they would stop.

“Elliot,” she sighed, and her hands landed on his hips to urge him forward. “Please.”

It was all the encouragement he needed, and he reached down to guide himself to her center until he sank forward, a slow gradual joining until he couldn’t have been any deeper inside her if he tried. 

“Move,” she urged, and rocked her hips against his. 

He met her, unhurriedly, like the ebb and flow of the tide against the shore. Gentle, steady, deep, over and over. Liv’s hands and lips traversed his skin leaving a trail of goosebumps in their wake. He kissed her neck again, in that spot he’d figured out was one of her favorites, and the breathy moan that she let out sent another wave of arousal through his blood. 

A bit of wetness touched his cheek and he looked up at her sharply to meet her watery eyes. 

“Am I hurting you?” he asked and moved to pull out of her, but she wrapped her legs fully around his waist and locked her ankles behind his back with a furious shake of her head. 

“No, you’re not. I promise you’re not, just… just kiss me.”

Elliot did as she asked and she sighed into it. He kept his eyes on her face to make sure that she was okay when he resumed the steady pace from before. One of her hands reached for his to lace their fingers together, and she pulled their joined hands down to rest next to her head. The hand, he noticed, that she wore his bracelet on, the familiar numbers glinting up at him. 

Her nod, the encouraging smile she gave him let him know she was just as attuned to him as he was to her, and it made his heart swell in his chest. This was what he’d always known they could be; the wordless communication, the effortless trust, all the years spent yearning for each other but never touching, had all led to this. 

She was the beginning and end of everything and he was wholly, unabashedly, unreservedly hers. 

“Liv,” he groaned, a warning. He could feel his release lingering on a knife’s edge but he was determined to see her come undone.

“I’m with you,” she nodded furiously, her brow furrowed as soft moans fanned across his cheeks. 

Her breath in his ear, the vise grip of her hand, the fluttering of her body, warm and wet around his, all grew together into one crescendo until her back arched and thrust her chest further into his and her release triggered his own and he felt like he was flying. White spots danced across his vision and the only thing that grounded him to earth was her hand in his, relaxing as they both came down from the high. 

When he once again became aware of their surroundings, he realized that most of his weight was settled on top of her and she’d given no indication that she wanted to move anytime soon. 

“Gotta get up, Liv,” he said. 

She groaned and mumbled “don’t wanna.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want you getting a UTI,” he said and rolled off her to stand next to her bed. “C’mon, baby.”

Liv glared halfheartedly at the pet name but took his offered hand anyway and pulled herself to her feet. He stole a kiss as she passed, turned to watch her walk away, and grinned without shame when she caught him looking. She was beautiful and sexy and his - at least he hoped. 

While she was gone, he tugged his boxers back on and snooped around a little. While he’d been to her apartment multiple times and spent a significant amount of time there, he’d never ventured this far. A half empty bottle of perfume sat on the dresser and when he sniffed it he recognized it as what she’d worn to the wedding. She had a row of well worn classic books on a shelf near the window, the margins of them annotated in an unfamiliar, tidy handwriting.

“Those were my mother’s,” Liv said from behind him. "Somehow Lewis missed them in the rampage around my apartment."

Elliot closed the copy of My Ántonia in his hands and gently put it back where he’d found it. Liv reached into one of the dresser drawers and pulled out a clean t-shirt, leaving her discarded one on the floor as she tugged the fresh one over her head. It looked like a standard issue NYPD shirt, but the sneaky grin on her face and the way it hung loosely on her shoulders told him it was one she’d stolen from him. His shirt, his badge number, the beginnings of a hickey he'd left on her neck... none of it was helping the possessive instinct he had when it came to her. 

“Will you stay?” she asked.

“As long as you want me,” he said, and the content smile she gave him warmed him down to his bones. 

The hour wasn’t late, but they were both exhausted. He’d noticed the shadows under her eyes when she’d greeted him at the door, wondered if she’d been sleeping as miserably as he had. He settled in behind her, wrapped one arm around her waist to cup her cheek and tilt her chin up so he could kiss her. She hummed contentedly when he pulled away and he nuzzled at the crook of her neck. 

“I love you, Liv,” he whispered into her hair, without any expectation of hearing it back; he just needed to say it, needed her to know. She didn’t say anything, just nestled further back against his chest with a gentle sigh.

He drifted off to sleep not much later. For the first time in three weeks, he didn’t dread the morning.

Chapter Text

The morning sun peeked through the blinds across Olivia’s face and she fought as it pulled her toward consciousness. If she lingered just below waking, she could convince herself it had all been real, not a fever dream conjured by alcohol, sleep deprivation, and loneliness.

Her head rose, fell, and she blinked awake to find that her pillow was Elliot’s bare chest. One of his arms was wrapped around her shoulders hugging her tight against him, the other raised over his head. Every now and then a breath would catch in the back of his throat and he’d snore, just a little, and she filed that away to hold onto for when she needed to tease him about something. 

The warmth of his bare skin against hers was cloying, tempted her to go back to sleep or at least wake him up again so they could while away the morning wrapped up in each other. After that first time, they’d woken up in the middle of the night and she’d taken him inside her again, straddling his waist and reveling in the way it felt to be so connected to him. He’d watched her move above him like a penitent at the altar, like she was something holy and miraculous. It had never felt like that before, not with anyone. They hadn’t bothered to redress after that, and it would be so easy to wake him up with her hands or her mouth, but she couldn’t. Not today.

Extricating herself from him felt like removing one of her limbs and the air of her bedroom was icy in comparison to the cocoon of sheets that she’d left behind. 

“Come back to bed,” Elliot grumbled. He turned on his side, toward the dip in the mattress she’d just vacated.

“I can’t, El. We have an internet sting operation today and I’ve been prepping for it for weeks. I can’t be late,” Olivia said, disappointed. She leaned across her bed to kiss him and only realized her mistake after he’d tugged her down by her waist, her surprised gasp turning into a laugh as he rolled her underneath him. 

“Isn’t Murphy still in charge? Let him handle it,” Elliot said. It was a good idea, made even more convincing by the kisses he trailed along her collarbone and up the side of her neck.

“This started before Murphy, and he’s having me take point on it.” Elliot’s lips slanted over hers, his hand cupped her cheek, and this was going to be one of those days she hated her job. “I gotta get up and take a shower,” she sighed. 

Elliot sighed and pulled back, tugging on her hand for her to sit up. “I could take a shower with you. Save water, help the environment,” he offered, even as he started picking up his clothes from where they’d scattered across her floor. 

“Something tells me that helping the environment isn’t what you have in mind,” she grinned.

“Yeah, yeah. Go get ready without me,” Elliot said lightly.

Once in the bathroom she turned the shower on to let it warm up and took stock of her appearance while she waited. Her hair was mussed and tangled in a couple places from Elliot’s fingers carding through it. A tinge of red colored her cheeks and kiss-swollen lips seemed to be fixed in a permanent smile. 

She noticed something on her neck, a smudge or a shadow, and her eyes widened when she realized it wasn’t going away. 

“Elliot Joseph Stabler!” she called. 

His heavy footsteps announced his arrival. “Full name, huh.”

She rounded on him in disbelief and he leaned against the doorway to the bathroom, fully dressed with shoes and everything, looking at her expectantly. 

“What the hell is this?” she gestured at her neck, at the mark he’d left behind on her. It was small and not too dark, she could probably hide it with makeup and her hair, but still. 

Elliot had the audacity to grin. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like you gave me a hickey the day I have a major operation to facilitate,” she deadpanned.

He eyed it with faux sincerity, tilted her head to the side with his fingers light on her jaw. The brush of his jeans against the sensitive skin of her bare thighs reminded her of how vulnerable she was at the moment- naked, in her bathroom with no means to escape, and Elliot’s hand close to her neck- but she found that it didn’t terrify her the way it probably should have. 

“It could be worse,” Elliot hummed, oblivious to the thoughts running through her mind. His eyes flickered back to hers with a mischievous glint. “Hey, I have a meeting with David this afternoon. You can give me one, even things out.

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so it can be even more obvious that you got laid,” she scoffed. 

More obvious?”

“Yeah. You’ve got this…” she gestured vaguely with her hand around his face, his chest, “glow.”

“Would you like me to not glow?” Elliot asked, jokingly, but with a serious note at the end. 

Olivia inhaled deeply. This was the hard part- trying to find balance between the two of them, the compromise, the serious conversations about what they were and where they wanted to go. It had never worked out for her before, had been the downfall of every single relationship, and she dreaded the idea of it being the end of this one.

None of those others had been Elliot, though. Maybe that was the trouble all along. 

“I want you to talk to Kathy and the kids first, before we get too far in,” she said. 


“I know how close you are with David, and I know he’ll probably figure out that something is up but it would just make me feel better if your family was told about it first,” she said in a rush. 

“Hey,” Elliot said softly, his hand catching hers. “It’s not a problem. I promise.”

Olivia sighed, relieved that it had been that easy. She didn’t expect Kathy or any of the kids to be angry at her or hold any resentment, but she needed the air clear, needed them to all know that she wasn’t trying to sneak in like a thief in the night and steal Elliot away from them. 

“Thank you,” she sighed.

Elliot brushed his thumb over her cheek one more time. “Coffee is started, should be ready when you get done.” He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Go save the world. Be safe, call me when you can.”

“I will,” she promised.

After he left, before she got in the shower, she took another look at the mark on her neck, traced her fingers over it, and decided that it really could have been worse. And having proof of them on her skin wasn’t the worst idea.

Most days Olivia believed in the overall good of the justice system. Most days she believed in due process and the rights of individuals. When a victim didn’t get the justice they deserved, it rankled her, dug under her skin like a stubborn splinter that she couldn’t grab, but she knew healing was still possible. She’d seen it, lived it, and she would go forward with the knowledge that in time, the universe would right itself. 

This was not one of those days. 

What good was the justice system when it only worked after the fact? Hell, what was the point of the whole damn NYPD if they could only swoop in after someone had become a victim? Why did she even do this damn job if she couldn’t prevent someone from becoming a victim in the first place?

Night was closing in fast and she should go back to her apartment. Another hearing for Baby Boy Doe had shown up on the court docket for the following morning and she thought to ask about visiting the baby, wherever he was being moved to this time. 

She should go back to her apartment, but she didn’t really want to. 

“Hey, Liv,” Elliot answered the phone softly with a smile in his voice. 

“Hey. I know it’s late but can I come see you?” she asked hesitantly. Their relationship being more was so new, she didn’t really know where the lines were, didn’t know if dropping in unannounced was okay, if unexpected late night calls were allowed or if she needed to text first or only if Eli wasn’t over that night. 

“Of course. Wanna come to my place? I’ve got Eli.”

“Even better,” she said. That boy, that precious little boy that Olivia loved so much. Seeing him, being able to hold him, it might knit back together the frayed ends of her nerves after seeing those pictures Simon Wilkes had created. 

The cold concrete of his front stoop wore through her pants to bite at the skin of her thighs. It reminded her of a different time, a different stoop, when she thought there might be a chance to have back then what she had now. A smile tugged at her lips when she thought of it. 

Gravel crunched under tires when Elliot’s car pulled up to the curb and her smile grew. Her two favorite people in the world. 

“He’s exhausted,” Elliot said, nodding to the back of the car when he emerged from the driver’s side. 

And he wasn’t lying. Eli had managed to extricate himself from his car seat and wander toward the door but he was unsteady on his feet, his eyes barely cracked open.

“Wiv,” he mumbled, a happy, surprised sound that went straight to her heart, and he swayed into her arms without hesitation.

“I can get him, Liv,” Elliot offered, but she shook her head. 

“No, let me. Please,” she said, and hoisted Eli up. His arms hung loosely over her shoulders and he hummed softly when he cuddled further into her neck. 

Elliot’s eyes narrowed in concern, and something in her tone must have alerted him this was more than a casual visit. All he did for the moment though was gently press his hand against the small of her back and close the car door, for which she was grateful. Any heavy conversation could wait until Eli was safely tucked in.

She insisted on carrying him, but he was still getting heavy. Not so much that she couldn’t hold him, but enough that she was glad Elliot’s building had an elevator. There was no way she would be able to make it to the fourth floor without running the risk of dropping Eli. The doors slid shut behind them and Elliot leaned around her to press the button for his floor. 

The quiet that closed around them was a solace. Elliot stood behind her and with his hands on her arms encouraged her to rest her weight against his chest. Her eyes fluttered closed when he pressed a kiss to the back of her head. She was surrounded, Eli in front of her and Elliot behind, and the peace and warmth they provided was incomparable. It was broken too soon when the doors slid open, but the trek down the hall was short and they were in Elliot’s apartment soon enough. 

“Does he need to brush his teeth?” she gestured to Eli who hadn’t stirred since the car.

Elliot shook his head. “Nah, one night won’t hurt, and he can barely stand up. Just take his shoes off and lay him down.”

In Eli’s room, she stepped over scattered toys and was grateful for her shoes to protect from stray Legos. He inhaled sharply when she laid him down and Olivia briefly saw confusion in his eyes when he opened them with a pout, but he settled easily on his back when she ran a soothing hand over his cheek. She tugged off his shoes, brought his stuffed dragon from the foot of his bed next to his cheek, and flipped on the nightlight next to his head. 

She needed to let him rest, but she also needed just another moment to sit and watch him. All the years she’d sent Elliot home to his kids after a hard day, she’d longed to be able to do the same. The innocence of a child, of this child, reminded her why she did a job that sometimes felt like she was fighting a wildfire with a water gun. She hoped Elliot and Kathy wouldn’t mind if she borrowed Eli every now and then, just in case she needed it. 

After a minute or two she stood and kissed Eli’s forehead, stole one more look from the door, and softly shut it behind her. 

She met Elliot in the kitchen where he was waiting for her. “Want me to make you some tea, or does this call for something stronger?” he asked. 

Rather than answering, Olivia silently crossed to where he stood and wrapped her arms around his waist. She sighed into the crook of his neck and burrowed as close to him as possible.

Elliot’s arms came around her. “That kinda case, huh?” 

She nodded. One of Elliot’s hands kneaded at the base of her skull, his cheek pressed against her temple, and it was everything she wanted. He didn’t say anything. Just waited for her to talk if she wanted to while he swayed with her, soothed her. 

“This guy built a soundproof torture chamber in his basement and talks in online chat rooms about wanting to torture and kill a little boy,” she mumbled, and Elliot sighed deeply. “But he hasn’t kidnapped or harmed anyone. Just takes pictures at the playground across the street from his house and photoshops tortured kids into that chamber.”

“And you can’t do anything because technically none of it is illegal,” Elliot said, sounding just as defeated as she felt. 

“We just have to wait for a kid to go missing. Or hope he doesn’t buy one from Central America or something.” Wilkes had been all too prepared with that idea and it scared her.

“I’m sorry, Liv.” Elliot pulled away just slightly, enough that he could look in her eyes, his fingers running lightly up and down her arms. “I’m glad to see you though. I missed you.”

She smiled, rolled her eyes. “It’s been like three days.”


“We’ve talked every day for the last week.”

“Not the same and you know it,” Elliot grumbled.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Olivia admitted. His eyebrows shot up in surprise and before he could make some comment about how “she’s never said that to him before” or whatever, she leaned in and kissed him. “I missed you too,” she said when she pulled back.

Elliot didn’t let her get away for very long before he kissed her again. His thumb traced over her cheekbone, his lips soft against hers, and again she wondered when this had become her life- to trade kisses in the kitchen with the man she loved, his son in the other room, content simply to be with him and secure in the knowledge that he wanted her too. The words formed on her tongue and she thought that this seemed like a good moment to say them.

“Have you talked to Kathy and the kids?” she asked instead, internally shaking her head at herself. 

“Kathy and the older four, yes. They were… unsurprised to say the least,” he chuckled, and Olivia wasn’t sure if she wanted to know what Kathleen had said, because out of all of them she was the most likely to have prompted that reaction from her father. “Only kid left to tell is Eli. If you stay we can tell him together tomorrow morning.”

It was a tempting offer, but she wondered if it was too soon. If Eli wasn’t over, or if he was older, she wouldn’t hesitate as much. Still, the thought of waking up next to Elliot again warmed her from the inside out.

“I didn’t bring anything to sleep in,” she said. 

“Who said anything about you sleeping in clothes,” Elliot teased. When he kissed her it was deeper, more heated than the others and it sent a wave of heat straight to her belly. 

“I don’t have anything for tomorrow either,” she said between kisses.

“Change at the precinct, I know you have clean clothes there,” he suggested. 

Olivia shook her head. “There’s a court hearing tomorrow for Baby Boy Doe. Plus I don’t want anyone to see me in the same clothes two days in a row, they’ll know something is up.”

She wasn’t entirely unconvinced Fin hadn’t sussed it out already; she’d left work, grumpy, after he told her to talk to Elliot, and come back the next day no longer snapping at anyone that breathed in her direction. That glow she’d pointed out in Elliot about must have been contagious.

“Would that be a bad thing?” Elliot asked cautiously, dropping their banter. 

“It wouldn’t be bad,” she said. 

He hesitated, his thumbs tapping against her hips. “Are you worried? About me, that I’ll change my mind, or… you changing your mind?”

Her chest ached at his uncertainty, at the fear he was trying so hard to conceal. Elliot had spent months proving that he wasn’t going anywhere, had promised her over and over again that one night they’d been able to spend wrapped up in each other, all with no guarantee from her that she wouldn’t walk away from him .

“No,” she said seriously, her hands coming up to frame his face. His eyes closed at the touch and he turned his head to kiss the palm of her hand. “It’s nothing like that, El, I just… My squad has seen so much of me in the last year. Crime scene photos, PTSD, the trial. They’ve read the reports from my rape kit for God’s sake. You know how much I don’t like being vulnerable and I haven’t had much choice recently.” She wrapped her arms fully around his neck and pressed herself against him as close as possible. “I’ll tell them. Soon. I just want you, this, to stay here for a little while longer,” she promised.

Elliot nudged her nose with his. “Not too much longer though, okay?”

“Nah, I won’t keep you a secret for too long. Waited long enough to have you,” she said and rested her forehead against his.

Olivia hoped he understood what she was saying, since evidently her tongue didn’t want to form the words properly. She’d wanted him for so long, carried that torch in secret through every storm, and now that the sky was clear, she refused to hide it much longer. One of her hands rested against the back of his neck, her fingers tracing lightly over the base of his skull almost the same way he’d done for her earlier.

“Stay,” he whispered, all teasing gone. 

“What about Eli?” she asked. It only felt right to check in about the child that would be in the next room.

“Liv, if I only ever had sex while there were no kids at my house, I’d have one kid,” he said, the lightness back, and she chuckled. “Or you can just stay here to sleep and I’ll keep my hands to myself,” he offered.

Olivia decided that she’d tormented him, both of them enough, and her hands slid down his chest to his belt to tug his hips closer to hers. She kissed him with promise, a heated slide of her tongue against his when he groaned against her mouth.

“I’m stealing some of your clothes to change into after,” she said. Eli probably wouldn’t question much, but if he woke up from a nightmare and she was naked in his father’s bed she would probably die of mortification. “And I’m leaving early enough in the morning to go home and change.”

Elliot smiled and stooped to easily pick her up and her legs wrapped around his waist.

“Works for me.

Chapter Text

Naturally, everything went to hell after Olivia let her guard down.

The morning she woke up at Elliot’s apartment had been joyful and overwhelming and just perfect. There were pancakes with Eli and teasing smiles with Elliot. When Elliot told Eli that the two of them were together now, a couple, like Kathy and Matt, he’d looked at his father in confusion and said “I thought Liv was already your girlfriend.”

But then of course, was the hearing where baby boy Doe was removed from his fourth foster home in four months and ordered to be taken back to a facility. Olivia knew they tried their best but there was no way he was getting the kind of care and attention an infant needed, not with the number of children the state had to care for. 

Then, Nick wound up in jail. When she got the chance she planned on tearing him a new one for flying off the handle on Wilkes the way he had.

And then there was Ellie Porter. The girl was a victim, and Olivia tried to keep that in mind, but she was also a criminal,  in a lot of trouble, and refusing the help they’d offered. Maybe her new lawyer could talk some sense into her.

“Rollins, meet Trevor Langan, he’s a high-priced mouthpiece for lowlifes,” she gestured at the attorney. 

Fin leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. Dealing with public defenders was one thing, but working against attorneys like Langan was another ball game entirely. 

“And you, once,” Langan said casually. “How soon we forget. It’s nice to see you, detective.” His tone was… softer than she was used to, and he had barely stopped looking at her since he’d walked into the squad room. She shifted uncertainly on her feet, and all she could think about was Elliot. 

“It’s actually sergeant now,” she corrected. “So what, you caught a pro bono?”

Langan shrugged. “Do a few of ‘em a year. Keeps me an honest lawyer.”

“An oxymoron,” Murphy interjected. Olivia couldn’t figure out if he was displeased about Langan’s presence or the way he seemed to be flirting with her.

Sensing the hostility, Langan turned back to her. “Lotta changes around here,” he said. A new squad room, a new CO, a new sergeant. Elliot’s absence. The Olivia Benson from years before would have been terrified if she knew this was what her future held, all familiarity stripped away from her unit, wouldn’t have believed it if someone told her she would be happy despite all of it. 

“And you, you’re doing okay? With… everything?” Langan asked hesitantly. She shouldn’t be surprised; her face had been plastered all over the city. Twice. Still, it made her uncomfortable. If Langan had seen her, others had too, and some of them would try to find a way to use it against her on the stand.

She nodded politely and mumbled “yeah” before Murphy led Langan down the hall to where Ellie was waiting in an interrogation room.

Amanda watched him go, very relaxed as she leaned back in her chair, and waited until he was out of earshot before looking at Olivia expectantly. “He’s tall,” she commented.

“Like that’s a skill set,” Olivia said.

“You two have history?” Amanda asked.

Maybe in another life Olivia would have considered it. Langan was attractive, sure, and if their conversation was anything to go by he was at least slightly interested. Fin and Amanda both watched her expectantly. One of them thought she’d been single for months and could use a casual fling after everything she’d gone through, and an attractive man had just flirted with her in front of her whole squad. The other was suspicious of her roundabout dismissal of Langan and was waiting for her to just come out and admit that she was seeing someone. A very specific someone.

“I don’t date lawyers,” Olivia said. It was a weak excuse- she knew it and Fin knew it.

“Since when?” Amanda asked.

Fin shook his head and looked back down at the papers sprawled across his desk with a grin.

When Elliot saw Liv’s name light up his screen, he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that she’d caught a hard case and lost a victim. Amaro had spent days in jail and was facing professional repercussions. Work was chaos for her, and he wanted nothing more than to give her a little bit of peace. 

“Hey, Liv, what’s up?”

“El, I need your help,” she breathed in a rush, and it set his nerves on edge immediately. 

“What is it, what’s going on?” he stood from his couch and started searching frantically for his shoes. 

“I… so Judge Linden… El I said I would take him,” she said. Her mind must be going a thousand miles an hour because none of it made sense to him. 


“The baby, Baby boy Doe. His mom, she was the victim we lost and she didn’t know who his father is and her parents are dead,” she said all in one breath. “The judge asked if I wanted to be a foster mother to him and I said yes.”

Elliot’s heart stuttered in his chest. Liv, with a baby. Liv as a mother. He remembered, years ago, when someone had deemed her an unfit parent and denied her the opportunity to adopt without knowing her. He’d wanted to find out who had made that decision and lay out for them all the reasons they were so egregiously mistaken. And now, it seemed, someone had seen the truth in her. Someone had noticed the care she had for this baby, a stranger without a name. 

“You’re serious?” he asked. 

“His name is Noah,” she said, her voice full of wonder and disbelief. He heard a baby coo through the phone and he almost cried at the sound of it. 

“I’m gonna call Kathy,” Elliot said. “See if we have anything of Eli’s still laying around. Did they give you a bed for him or anything?” he asked. 

“I have a bag of diapers and some clothes, half of which are too small. God, this is insane, what was I even thinking?” she said, mostly to herself, self doubt coloring her tone. 

He couldn’t have that. 

“We’ve got this, Liv. Hang tight, I’ll be there soon,” he promised. 

A rushed phone call to Kathy and a trek across the city to Queens and back later, he stood in front of her door. Elliot knocked and shuffled the duffel bag of clothes he’d grabbed higher onto his shoulder right as the door swung open and suddenly breathing was a foreign concept. 

If he wasn’t already in love with her, he would have fallen at that moment. She was absolutely radiant- a tentative, hopeful smile across her face that he never wanted to see fade, and a baby on her hip. He’d seen her with children before, dozens of times. Seen the gentle way she cradled them, guarded, protected, but always with the knowledge she’d have to surrender them eventually. Now, though, it was different. This baby was hers , and he intended to do whatever it took to ensure he wasn’t ripped away from her. 

Elliot had held her back before, with Calvin. He would rather die than have to do that again. 

“Hi,” she said softly. 

“Hey,” he said. They both stood there silently and he drank in the sight of her. “This is Noah?”

“Yeah, yeah come in,” she ushered him inside. 

He leaned the Pack and Play against the wall by her front door, intent on getting his hands free so he could hold Noah. 

“Let me take something for you.” Liv reached for the bag on his shoulder but Elliot turned so it was slightly out of her reach. 

“Only if you let me take something from you,” he said and smiled at the little boy in her arms. Bright, round eyes stared back at him curiously, a tiny fist curled around the collar of Liv’s shirt.

She nodded and passed Noah into his waiting arms, slid the bag off his shoulder before stepping back and watching the two of them. 

“Hey, little man. I’m Elliot,” he said softly, and instinctively fell into an easy rocking pattern like he’d done when his own kids were babies. Noah’s hair was soft under his touch, his cheeks perfectly round. He was beautiful, a little miracle just like Elliot knew Liv’s child would be, and he loved him already. “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”

Liv watched them wistfully and what a pair they must have made, standing in her living room just smiling at each other. It occurred to him that this moment, this apartment with these two people, was probably the safest Noah had ever been in his life. 

He pressed a kiss to the side of Noah’s head and shifted to hand him back to Liv. “Here. I borrowed a Pack and Play from Kathy, I’ll get it set up for you. It’ll work until we can get to the store for a crib. Where do you want it?”

“I guess in my room,” she shrugged. “I’m going to have to find a bigger place once he gets older but it’ll work for now.” Elliot smiled internally, that she was thinking so far into the future. It meant she had hope, that part of her believed this could be permanent. God, he wanted this to be permanent. 

“The duffel bag has clothes. They’ve been in storage a while so you might want to wash them,” he told her, and kissed the side of her head like he’d done with Noah. “Be right back.”

When he emerged from her bedroom she was in the kitchen, one arm holding onto Noah while the other readied a bottle. Noah would be old enough to start trying solid food soon, but he’d probably still want a bottle for a while. 

“Here,” he mumbled and placed a hand on her hip to slide in next to her. 

“I got it, El.”

“Liv I’m here, let me-”

“I appreciate it but…” she turned around and met his eyes. “Let me do it. Please.”

He wanted nothing more than to stay and help somehow, prove that he was there to support her. He wanted to. Wanted to be there, with her and Noah for as long as possible. To stay, prove to her that what they had was solid and that he was in this with her. But she looked at him with such conviction and determination that he stepped back and allowed her space.

He stood aside and watched her move with ease through the kitchen with her baby and again he thought of those people who thought she wasn’t “prime parent material.” She was graceful, even in the mundane task of feeding her child, and he realized why she’d insisted on doing this herself. For him, it was something he’d done a thousand times, just another aspect of daily life. For her, though, it was brand new. The mundane for him was a miracle for her.

“What?” Liv’s voice pulled him from the daze he’d been lingering in. She looked at him expectantly, the bottle in her hand mid-shake.

“You’re beautiful,” he told her. 

Liv’s cheeks reddened, her eyes flickered away from his for a moment before she turned back to him with a grin. “Of course you’d think a woman with a baby is beautiful.”

“Not just any woman. You. Being a mother,” he said. Liv looked away again, down at Noah who was fussing while reaching for the bottle in her hand. Warmth bloomed in his chest at the sight; he’d only ever felt this way before watching Kathy with their kids, and he forced himself to keep his emotions in check. It was a strange new boundary they’d have to navigate, because just now, Noah was her son, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t one day be theirs , and he liked the thought of that very much. It would take work, but Olivia and Noah were worth it.

He’d wasted too much time and they’d probably lost the chance for her to carry a child that was half of him and half of her. They might not be able to have that, but maybe they could have this. It was already more than he ever deserved.

Two hours later, she’d finally gotten Noah fed and rocked to sleep. The poor kid had fought against it so hard, being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. It had to be terrifying for him, and she’d kept that all in her mind as he’d screamed in her ear and arched his back to try squirming out of her arms. 

Elliot had offered to help, but she’d refused. Noah was her child. Not legally, and only for one day, but if she had any say in the matter he was never going back to that facility, never going to any other foster home. She was the one responsible for him, and she couldn’t rely on Elliot forever. For all his talk about them going to the store for a crib and being there to help, she may end up doing this alone, and she needed to get used to it. No matter how much the sight of him cradling Noah had warmed her heart. It felt like the culmination of everything, like this was where all the pain and heartache had led her, but she knew all too well how quickly that could change. 

She softly closed her bedroom door behind her and shuffled down the hallway. Elliot stood in front of her sink, a row of cleaned bottles lined up along the counter. 

“Okay, he is finally asleep,” she whispered.

Elliot smiled, turned the faucet off, and set the last bottle next to the others to dry. “You excited to wake up in a couple hours to do it all over again?”

Despite the melancholy in her heart she smiled. “I can’t wait.” Truly, she couldn’t. Being a mother, having a child of her own, was something she’d wanted for so long. After Brian, after that negative pregnancy test, she’d all but given up hope that it could ever happen and then the universe had dropped this baby boy into her lap. 

“I’m so happy for you, Liv,” Elliot said. “I know this is everything you’ve ever wanted.”

He was half right. She’d never wanted anything the way she wanted to be a mom. But she’d also never wanted anything the way she wanted him , and that made what she needed to say next even harder. 

“I know this changes things. Between us.” She crossed her arms over her stomach, readied herself for the blow. 

“You’re right,” he said. It felt like a knife in her stomach. 

“And I understand if you want us to slow down. Maybe take a step back.” The words caught in her throat. 

Elliot’s brow furrowed and he leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you… want to take a step back?” 

Every cell in her body rebelled; it was the last thing she wanted. “It’s just that Noah has to come first now,” she said, hoping that would be enough explanation, but he just nodded seriously. 

“Yeah, he does.”

Grief, regret, it all sat like a knot in her stomach, weighed her down like nothing else ever had. For over a decade, Elliot had been her greatest longing, her deepest wish, and losing him after she’d come so close was the worst pain she’d ever felt. But she’d known months ago that she would never be able to sacrifice that part of herself that longed for a child, and she couldn’t give it up now. Not even for him.

“I know you didn’t really sign up for this when we… when we started this. Things have changed, so it makes sense to slow down and re-evaluate everything,” she said. 

“Is that what you want?” Elliot’s voice shook. He’d asked her that a lot recently- made promises that she knew he meant at the time, but she wouldn’t hold him to now. Not when the circumstances had changed so drastically. His arms were still crossed across his chest, his fingers clenched into fists like he was straining not to reach for her. It was a good thing. If he touched her, she’d crumble.

She brought her own arms up protectively across her chest. “It’s probably for the best.”

Elliot shook his head with an exasperated sigh. “Is that-” he said firmly, closed the gap between them and brought his hands up to cradle her face, “what you want?”

It was the final straw, just like she knew it would be, and her vision blurred.

“Elliot, you… you already have five kids.” Every word was agony, a shard of glass working its way down into her chest.

“Yeah, I’m aware,” he said lightly. “I’d have five more with you if that’s what you wanted.”

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I,” Elliot insisted, his eyes burning bright and blue and terrified that she would order him away again. “Olivia, I knew you wanted kids, that this was a possibility. Granted, this isn’t how I imagined it, but I’m guessing you didn’t anticipate this either. I want to be here. Please let me be here.” His voice ended in a hoarse, desperate whisper. 

He wasn’t taking the opportunity to leave; on the contrary, he was fighting to stay with her. It went against everything she’d ever known, ever believed. 

Olivia tried to turn away, hide her face and the tears gathering in her eyes, but Elliot only clung to her tighter. “Hey, what’s wrong? Talk to me,” he pleaded.

She unwound her arms from herself and slowly sank into his chest, her hands around his waist. Slowly, he drew her in closer, and she could sense his confusion; one second she’d been on the brink of forcing him to leave, the next she was clinging to him, crying into the crook of his neck. 

“This isn’t real,” she whispered.

“What isn’t?”

“This. None of it.” She looked up at Elliot and watched the realization spread across his face. “I don’t get to have this. The guy, the baby, none of it.”

He pressed his forehead against hers, his eyes closed and his breath warm across her cheeks. “It is real, Liv. I promise.” The knot that had tied itself inside her, the one made of all her worst fears combined, started to loosen as he held her. It unwound, changed, until it was something else, something more. It was peace and light and joy and-

“I love you.”

Elliot pulled back, his eyes widened, and it was only then she realized that the words had come from her. 

“Yeah?” he asked with a disbelieving smile, his thumb stroking across her cheekbone.


She barely got the word out before Elliot leaned in and kissed her. “I love you too,” he mumbled when he pulled away, but she didn’t let him get far before she tugged him back, and when he kissed her it felt like coming home. 

“You swear you’re not going anywhere?” she asked, just one last time because she had to. 

“You just told me you love me,” Elliot said with an incredulous smile. His eyes swept over her face like he couldn’t get enough of her. “Like hell am I ever walking away after that. You’re stuck with me now, Benson.”

Olivia felt her heart move into her throat, thinking of the drastic difference a single year could make. It began with a nightmare. It ended with Elliot’s arms around her and the realization that he didn’t love her by halves, that she wasn’t alone in the depths of what she felt for him because he was right there with her. 

All that she’d suffered, all that she’d endured, it had brought them here. It brought them this.