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Water Under The Bridge

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William Lewis smiled in satisfaction at the sound that was made when he smacked Detective Olivia Benson across the face. As she fell to the floor there was a wet sort of thud and when he pulled her back up in the chair he’d tied her to he could see that the fall had broken skin and there was now a steady stream of blood flowing down her hairline.

It pissed him off that she really wasn’t paying attention to him, though. Not when her eyes kept drifting to the closed bedroom door where her daughter was sleeping. The kid could sleep through a lot. She’d certainly slept through her mother being pistol whipped and the apartment being torn apart. He hadn’t really been looking for anything in particular, but he did have fun going through her things while she was out cold. The things people kept had always had a kind of fascination for him.

The kid didn’t concern him. She was too young to be of much interest to him and even if she’d been old enough to identify him there was little doubt that once the alarm was sounded that Detective Benson was missing her whole squad would know who was responsible.

But now Olivia was awake and she wasn’t paying attention to him. That wouldn’t do.

“Oh, I see,” he said to her as she struggled against her bonds and tried to speak through the duct tape that covered her mouth. “You want to see your daughter - what’s her name again? Hope?” He smacked his lips together. “Such a sweet name for such a sweet little girl.” He stood up fully and grabbed her by the hair, forcing her to gaze at him. “I’m not a monster. I would never try to separate a mother and her child.”

Then he released her and he gloried in the panicked sounds she made as he walked to the closed bedroom door and opened it wide to walk through.

“Well, hello, Hope,” he said to the little girl sitting in her crib. “She looks just like you,” he called over his shoulder, loud enough for her to hear him clearly. “Aren’t you a little cutie.” He reached in and lifted her up into his arms and carried her back out and smiled when he heard her squeal of delight when she saw her mother. The little girl reached for her automatically but he held her in place against him. “Ah, ah, ah, I’m afraid mommy is a bit too busy to hold you right now,” he cooed to the baby. “But that’s okay - Uncle Billy can hold you for a bit.”

Olivia was fighting against her bonds and it only made him happier to see the distress he was causing - even if it still felt like it wasn’t enough.

“Uh-oh,” he said in a sing-song voice, “I think someone has a wet diaper.”

And the mother’s body went completely still and that was it . . . that was the level of fear he wanted to see from her.

“Don’t worry, mommy,” he told her, “Uncle Billy is an old hand at changing dirty diapers.” He whistled as he walked over to the baby bag he’d spotted earlier and set out everything so he could change her diaper. He set up shop right in front of her on the carpet so that she had a perfect view of everything. The whole time she was struggling to free herself and it kept him smiling, kept him whistling and happy.

“You know I never thought about having kids of my own,” he shook his head as he got out the wipes. “Never figured myself for the type. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Not if I had a little girl as sweet as this one.”

The tears coursed down Olivia’s face by the time he finished with the diaper and he held the baby up for her inspection. “All done, mommy.” Once more he held the baby against him and stood up in front of her. “Now, I am going to take the tape off your mouth and I think we both know that you are going to behave yourself, right?”

With wide eyes she nodded her head and he was satisfied when she kept her word. But she still bitched about it.

“Just put her back in her crib. Please, I’ll do whatever you tell me, just -”

He couldn’t help himself so he backhanded her. Without the gun in his hand it didn’t make quite the noise he liked hearing, but it was enough to whet his appetite. It did start the kid crying though.

“Please,” she whispered.

“You know,” he said casually as he bounced the baby in his arms. “The youngest I ever had was maybe about twelve -” he thought for a moment, “I don’t know maybe eleven. I didn’t exactly ask before things got started.”

A steady flow of tears coursed down her face, washing away her makeup and leaving her a pathetic looking mess. It was a vast difference from the defiant look she’d given him earlier in the night. He kind of missed that look. He kind of missed the fight.

“How’s about your mommy and I have a little talk, hey, sweetheart?” he cooed to the baby. “Now, Olivia,” he began, “how about we come to a little agreement, hmm? Now, you and me, we’re gonna take a little trip together.” She opened her mouth to protest but he placed a finger on her lips to quiet her. She was much too docile right now. It didn’t suit her. “We can take little Hope with us or we can leave her here and what happens happens.”

“Leave her,” she says desperately. “Leave her here and I’ll go wherever you want. I’ll do whatever you want.”

It was what he wanted to hear but he still said, “Oh, I think we both know that you’re going to do whatever I want either way.”

“You know, I’m a little surprised with you,” he continued on, “here I thought you were a good mother. But you’d rather let little Hope here die of thirst rather than let me hold her? I’m a little offended. Tell me, Olivia, how long do you think it will be before someone comes to check on you? How long do you think a baby can survive without food and water?” He tsked at her and put on a long face. “But I’ll do you a favor, how about that. How about I make her one last bottle before you and I take off - we’ll see how long that lasts her.”

When another fat tear dropped down her cheek he licked it off.

Chapter Text

Morgan Valenzuela worried her hands together in between her husband’s knocks on Olivia’s front door. Inside the apartment she could hear little Hope Benson crying her lungs out and it damn near broke her heart.

The walls between their apartments were thin and she’d heard the baby crying for a solid three hours. One hour in and she had come and knocked on her neighbor’s door to see if she wanted help. As far as she knew Hope wasn’t colicky, but it was possible she had an earache or worse and she knew that Liv would be at her wit’s end trying to console the little girl.

But when she’d knocked on her door there hadn’t been an answer, so she’d gone back to her own apartment and as the hours passed her worry grew.

“What if she fell and hit her head? What if -”

“I’m sure she’s fine, it’s just a baby crying,” her husband tried to reason with her when he got home, but she could see the lines of worry crease his face when he heard Hope crying, too.

“Look, just - let’s just call someone.”

“Call who? It’s a crying baby, I’m sure the police have better things to do.”

“She’s a cop - they take care of their own,” she argued. “Let’s just call her captain - just . . . Jose, if nothing’s wrong then it’s just embarrassment for me for making a fuss over nothing. But if something is wrong -” she trailed off and let her worst fears cross over to her husband who gave up arguing with her.

“Fine, do you know what precinct she works at?”

A few blocks away Detective Amanda Rollins was getting ready to leave for the night. It was nearly two AM and she was dead tired but she hadn’t wanted to leave. There was something to find on that lucky bastard. She just knew there was. The hours had passed as she’d poured over file after file and come up with nothing. And she’d tried damn near every variation of the name William Lewis she could think of. They just wouldn’t have anything until his fingerprints went into the system. And who knew how long that could take. By the time his hands healed he could be gone in the wind and out of their grasp. How many other Alice Parkers would there be before someone stopped him?

As Amanda shrugged her coat on her desk phone rang and she warred within herself at whether or not to answer it. Instinct won out and she picked up, answering with a brisk, “This is Rollins.”

A woman was on the other line, she could hear the worry in her tone and it put her on edge immediately. “This is Morgan Valenzuela - I’m trying . . . well, I’m trying to reach Olivia Benson. I - there’s something wrong.”

“I can put you through to her voicemail but she’s out for the next few days, ma’am.”

“I just . . . I’m her neighbor. I live next door to her. It’s Hope, she’s been crying for hours and when my husband and I knocked there was no answer. Please, it’s been hours.”

Something like a lead weight fell into the pit of Amanda’s stomach and she felt her gut churn in dread.

“She isn’t answering the door. I know Olivia, she would never -”

“No, she wouldn’t,” Amanda said, cutting her off. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

With a goodbye, she hung up the phone and grabbed her car keys. Liv would never leave her baby crying for hours. Not in a million years.

She was there in less than four minutes and double parked her car with the siren on for good measure. What use were the toys if you couldn’t take advantage of them every now and then?

Upon reaching Liv’s door she could hear the faint wail of Hope crying. The pitiful cries tore at her heartstrings and with a pounding fist she banged on the door.

“Liv, it’s Rollins, open up.” She barely waited a minute before she lifted her foot into the air and kicked at the weakest part of the door. It broke open and she let out a curse at the pain that shot through her leg. But that didn’t matter, not when she saw the absolute wreckage that was Liv’s apartment - blood stained the rug and furniture was turned upside down and the drawers and cabinets had been pulled out and emptied. “Christ Almighty,” she said before the sound of Hope’s wailing moved her feet to run to her bedroom.

With relief and a bit of a broken heart she opened the door to find the little girl red faced and teary eyed. When she saw Amanda she reached up for her and so she picked her up and took her into her arms, cuddling her close and thanking god that despite the carnage outside the room at least the little girl was safe.

“What the hell happened here?” she asked and the only sound she heard was Hope’s crying in response.

Miles away from Manhattan in Queens it was with a trace of boredom that Elliot Stabler flipped through the channels on his television absentmindedly. He couldn’t sleep and it felt like the third night in a row that had happened. Something was gnawing at him - nagging at the back part of his brain and it wouldn’t leave him alone. He could feel it in his heart.

So when his old captain’s number popped up on his screen he wasn’t that surprised and despite not having spoken to the man in two years he answered.

“Captain,” he said, wanting him to get straight to the point. Liv, it had to be about Liv.

“It’s Hope,” Cragen said without preamble. “She’s okay, but you need to come down to the station.”

“Hope?” he asked. “Who’s Hope?”

A long silence was his answer.

Chapter Text

Olivia felt William Lewis’s ribcage crunch beneath her boot with satisfaction when she kicked him, putting all of her strength into it. He’d made a mistake in leaving her in the trunk of the Lincoln for so long. Long enough for her to sober up and get her wits about her. He’d left her in that trunk for hours and the whole time she’d been thinking of her daughter. Thinking about Hope. Hope who was in her crib, hungry and thirsty and crying for her. She refused to let her down. She refused to allow her child to be hurt and scared.

It gave her the strength to fight through the haze of a concussion and the fog of whatever the fuck Lewis had forced down her throat. It gave her the determination to use a jagged piece of metal to free her legs, even if it left her pants torn and her legs cut and bloody.

It was hell maneuvering out of the trunk with her hands duct taped behind her back, but she managed to do it before Lewis could get up and as he was on his hands and knees trying to shake off her kick she lifted her boot up and stomped on his head. The crack of his skull was little satisfaction, but it was enough to assure her that he was down. For now.

She looked about her and saw that she was in the suburbs. As swiftly as she could she limped her way to the nearest house’s front door and, because her hands were taped, in lieu of knocking she turned away from the door and pounded on it with her foot.

It opened quickly and a surprised looking older man was in front of her.

“Jesus Christ,” he said even as he was already pulling the tape off her mouth. “Mary, grab the scissors. Ma’am, are you okay? Ma’am-”

“Quick, I need you to free my hands. Please, hurry.”

Rather than wait for Mary to bring the scissors he pulled out a pocket knife and made quick work of the duct tape around her wrists. “Mary, call the police. Call 911!” But Liv didn’t have time for that. As soon as her hands were free she was sprinting back down the driveway to Lewis who was once more making an attempt to get up.

Without thinking she tackled him down to the ground and reached for the gun she knew was tucked in the back of his waistband. She could feel her fingers close around it and just as she was about to move it to Lewis’s temple she felt him fighting her for it.

Between the tremors from the adrenaline and the fatigue of being with her hands behind her back for the better part of the night it was hard work to keep hold of it - to keep Lewis from grabbing it back from her.

And then the trigger was pulled and with shock Olivia realized that it was all over. Faintly, in the distance, she could hear sirens.

***

Elliot didn’t think that the first time he met his daughter that it would be with her in Brian Cassidy’s arms. Of course, he didn’t know that he had another daughter to meet in the first place.

She looked just like her mother. That was his first thought.

His second thought was how absolutely pissed off he was with Olivia for not telling him about their daughter.

And his third thought was worry for that very same woman who had been kidnapped and was now at the mercy of a murdering rapist. Cragen hadn’t told him much. Just that Liv was missing and their main suspect was a psychopath. His heart had frozen in his chest and it lit a fire under his ass like nothing else had in the past two years.

“She’s okay,” Cassidy assured him and for a wild moment Elliot thought he was talking about Liv but then his mind cleared and he could see that he was referring to the baby in his arms. “She was a little dehydrated and hungry, but they guessed she’d only been by herself for maybe about five or six hours.” He guessed that she was a little more than a year old. It was hard to tell exactly with her curled up against his shoulder, but as he did the math the timing worked out about right.

Liv, he wanted to scream. Where the fuck is Olivia?

“Has there been any news?” he asked as calmly as he could so he didn’t frighten the baby - even as his eyes devoured the sight of his daughter. His daughter. His daughter with Olivia. His daughter who he hadn’t known existed an hour ago. His daughter who had been locked in a room by herself for hours on end while her mother was being kidnapped and . . . God, he didn’t think he could handle the hundreds of thoughts flickering through his mind of what might be happening to her right now.

They needed to be out there. He needed to be out there looking for her.

Before Cassidy could respond Cragen was striding out of his office calling out, “Amaro, we got a hit - get your ass to Long Island - Bellpoint. She’s alive. Lewis is dead. I want you there before IAB.”

“I’m riding shotgun,” said a blonde woman who followed out the man who must have been Amaro.

“Captain,” Elliot said in a rush when Cragen noticed him there. “Liv is okay? Where is she? How is she? Let’s go get her. You’re sure she’s okay?”

“Seems like it,” he answered and he could hear Cassidy give a sigh of relief behind him. “I just spoke with her on the phone - Lewis kept her in the trunk of his car all night and most of the morning. She got the drop on him when he tried to move her. She was a bit cagey about her injuries, but they’re taking her to the hospital.” Turning to Cassidy he assured him, “She shot him. Lewis is dead.” He looked over at Hope and added, “She’s pretty desperate to see her daughter, Brian. I’d get her to her as soon as possible. I’ll give you the details.”

“Captain -” Elliot said, but before he could say more Cragen interrupted.

“Elliot, my office, now.” And then he turned on his heel and was already striding away.

He turned back to Cassidy who was still holding his daughter. Hope. Cragen said her name was Hope. It was a war inside of him of whether or not he could leave her. His daughter.

“I got her, we’re good friends,” Cassidy said in answer to the question he hadn’t asked. “Aren’t we, slugger?” And the baby did look content in his arms so he followed his old captain into his office and closed the door behind him.

“Liv is okay?” he asked again, just to be certain.

“On her way to the hospital right now - pretty desperate to see her daughter. But she was relieved that Rollins had gotten to her so quickly.”

“Good. That’s good.” He would need the details of that soon, though.

“Look, I didn’t know that Liv hadn’t told you about Hope,” he said as he sat down with a heavy air of fatigue setting into his shoulders.

“No, she never mentioned that,” he said through gritted teeth. Now that he knew Liv was okay the anger was starting to come back. No, he couldn’t be mad right now. Not when he still needed to set eyes on Liv to make sure she really was okay.

Cragen studied him for a long moment before asking, “Did you give her a chance to tell you?”

And Elliot flushed at the memory of all the times that he’d seen Liv trying to call him and he’d sent her call to voicemail, only to delete the messages she’d left without listening. Because he couldn’t handle it. Because after all their time together - because after everything they’d shared - he couldn’t find the strength inside himself to say goodbye to her. Now, as he looked out of Cragen’s office window and saw his daughter again he could see how much that weakness had cost him.

“What happened, Captain?” he asked quietly. “From the beginning.” He sat down in the chair opposite him, but positioned himself so that he could still see the little girl. The little girl who looked so much like Olivia that it made his heart ache.

Cragen shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. “You left,” he said simply. “I was the one who had to tell her you’d put in your papers and now as far as I know the two of you didn’t keep in touch. A few months after you left she disclosed to me that she was pregnant.” He gave him a weary look and Elliot was reminded that while he’d always considered him as a father figure, well, Liv was the one who was like the daughter Cragen had never had. Always had been, from the very beginning. “I didn’t ask questions and she never spoke about Hope’s father - but then she didn’t really have to.” He took a framed picture that was on his desk and held it out for Elliot to see.

He took it in his hands and saw that it was a photo of Cragen holding Hope at what must have been her first birthday party. They were standing in front of a cake and she’d smashed the frosting with her hands and was in the process of wiping it on his face. How many other sweet moments like this had he missed with her? Moments that had been stolen from him.

“When you didn’t show up at the hospital when she was born - I’m gonna be honest, I thought the worst of you.” Elliot felt shame wash over him that Cragen thought so little of him that he believed he wouldn’t acknowledge his own child. “What with you being such a good Catholic and all.”

It was a different level of shame that he felt at that remark. Because he had been a married man with a family and he’d gotten another woman pregnant. Had gotten her pregnant and then hadn’t spoken to her again - had ignored her phone calls and attempts to get a hold of him.

“I didn’t know,” he said quietly.

“I can see that now,” he said with a deep sigh. “And now I can see how big a mistake I made in calling you down here.”

Elliot’s head shot up at that and he placed the photo back on Cragen’s desk. “I have a right to know I have a child.”

“That’s not my choice to make, Elliot.”

“It wasn’t Olivia’s, either. I have a right to know,” he repeated. And his gaze once more turned to the little girl a few yards away from him.

“Maybe,” Cragen conceded. “I get the feeling there will be hell to pay when Liv finds out, though.” He gave him a meaningful look. “And when Kathy finds out.”

Elliot tore his eyes away from Hope and looked at his old captain with sad eyes. “Kathy died.” At his surprised look he explained, “Cancer. Breast cancer. They caught it too late. By then there wasn’t much they could do except make her as comfortable as possible.”

Realization dawned on Cragen’s face and he nodded and said, “I’m sorry to hear that, son.”

Chapter Text

Elliot had never hated hospitals per se, but after watching Kathy die a slow and painful death he had grown to loathe the antiseptic smell and the featureless walls that surrounded him. But right now his mind was on other things. It was on the woman who was being examined down the hall and it was on the little girl who was once again being held by Cassidy. He was right, the two of them seemed to know each other well.

But then that’s what happened when you dated a kid’s mother.

He had no right to be jealous. He knew that. And at the moment there were plenty of other things to occupy his mind. So he pushed that aside and asked, “Can I hold her?”

Cassidy didn’t even hesitate to put her in his arms and he was grateful for it. But the gratefulness quickly faded when Hope began crying at the shift of person carrying her and she reached out her arms and whined to be back with him.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he said to her, but she wasn’t looking at him. For the first time he saw her eyes, even filled with tears he could see that despite looking like Liv she had inherited his eyes. And there was something about the shape of her nose that reminded him of Elizabeth. He could see himself in her, too. “How are you doing, Hope?” he asked, trying to pull her attention away, hoping that she would stop crying and be comfortable with him.

“Hope?” he heard a loud cry from across the hallway and saw Liv practically running through the hospital to her daughter. “Hope, my baby,” she said as she reached them and scooped her out of Elliot’s arms, not even sparing him a glance as she rained kisses over her. “Are you okay, baby?” she held her close to her and tears fell from her face as she was reunited with the little girl.

“She wasn’t hurt,” Cassidy told her as he stood and placed a hand on her back to reassure her. “She was only alone for a few hours. The neighbors heard her crying and called Rollins.”

“Morgan,” Liv said with relief and gratitude. “Oh, thank god,” she rocked the baby in her arms, swaying side to side and for the first time seemed to notice Elliot standing there. “Oh,” she said in surprise and he didn’t know how to feel about her immediately taking a step back from him and putting a protective arm at Hope’s back.

Elliot couldn’t even muster up any gladness to see her. His eyes devoured her as he inspected her from head to toe. Her wrist was in a cast and had been put in a sling that was dangling unused across her chest. There was a pretty bad cut near her hairline and her jawline was covered in bruises. He could also see some bandages peeking out of the neckline of the scrubs she was wearing. But she was alive and she was lucid. And he was aching to pull her and Hope into his arms and promise that he would never let anyone hurt them ever again.

And he was also pissed.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said as she looked at him for the first time in two years and without another word she turned on her heel and began walking back to the hospital room she’d just exited with Cassidy following her.

“You need to make time for this, Olivia,” he said as he chased after her only to be stopped by a man - the same man that Cragen had referred to as Amaro. But she just ignored him and went back into her room.

“You’re not going in there,” Amaro said as he put a hand in front of him in a stance like a bodyguard.

“That’s my daughter in there,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I don’t care if you’re the Second Coming, she said not right now.” This had to be the new partner. He could recognize the loyalty Liv inspired inside of him.

“I deserve answers, Olivia.” And then the room door closed and she was cut off from view and he was left on the outside.

“Look,” said Amaro in a reasonable tone that Elliot immediately loathed, “I get it. Trust me - I get what this is like for you. But you need to take it easy. Now, Liv has been through a lot right now and she needs to be with Hope. You saw how banged up she was.” Elliot’s lips went into a tight line. No, it had not escaped his notice that Liv was not in a good state. And his hands itched to resurrect the bastard that had done that to her just so he could kill him all over again. But he couldn’t let Hope be taken away from him. Not when he had just found her.

“You’ll get your chance, alright?” Amaro assured him. “Just not right now.”

And how could he argue with the man’s gentle reasoning. The fact was that between Amaro and Cassidy he didn’t stand a chance of going against Liv’s wishes. So he nodded his head in agreement and defeat and gave one last long look at the closed door before he turned around and walked away.

It was three days before he was able to get in contact with her. Her partner was loyal, he could admit that much. But he was tenacious and finally she gave in to the inevitable when he’d tracked her down to Cassidy’s apartment.

“Look, you can come in and see her,” she said when she opened the apartment door to him and he could see the dark circles under eyes and the bruises on her jaw had turned ugly shades of green and purple - it inspired a healthy amount of forgiveness inside of him. “Just - I don’t have the energy to argue with you right now.”

With a nod of his head he agreed to her terms and walked into the apartment.

It was very obviously a bachelor’s apartment, but it was currently strewn with baby toys and there was a well loved stuffed rabbit in the corner and a high seat with a dusting of crumbs on top of it.

“Brian is at work,” she said by way of explanation. “Hope is asleep, but I was just about to wake her.”

“Don’t they say that you shouldn’t wake sleeping babies?” He should have known better than to question her parenting when she shot him an irritated glare.

“If we don’t keep her on a strict nap schedule then everything falls out of place. And I’m sure you of all people know what it’s like to deal with a baby at three AM who won’t fall asleep.”

“Fair enough,” he said, noting the way she’d said ‘we’. Just how close was Cassidy to his daughter? Was he more than just Hope’s mom’s boyfriend? She was old enough to say a few words - his stomach churned at the thought of his daughter referring to another man as dada.

A few minutes later Olivia emerged from the bedroom with a grumpy Hope in her arms, she was obviously not happy about her nap being interrupted, but his eyes drank her in and he couldn’t help but think that she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, even with red cheeks and sleepy eyes.

Her dark hair was long for such a little girl and was held together with a lopsided bow that was coming out, her cheeks were round but despite that she still had Liv’s jawline and the shape of her eyes was like Liv. He would bet his paycheck that she had Liv’s smile, too.

But she also had his blue eyes. And Lizzie’s nose. And from the looks of it maybe a bit of Maureen’s stubbornness.

And she was his. His and Olivia’s. No matter how things had turned out, no matter how much he’d screwed up, she was his and Liv’s. And that alone was a miracle.

Not that his kids saw it that way. Eli was excited at the idea of a little sister - excited about being a big brother. His older kids were a little less forgiving. They had all done the math and it wasn’t that difficult for them to realize that Hope had been conceived while Kathy had still been alive. And it was as if all those years of Kathy’s suspicions of him and Liv - suspicions that the children had been privy to - had been proved correct.

“How old is she?” he asked. His hands itched to hold her, but he didn’t want to create a crying jag. It broke his heart a little bit that she hadn’t been happy about him holding her in the hospital - he was determined to go at her pace and let her become comfortable with him before he pushed her too hard. Because there was no doubt in his mind that he would be a part of his daughter’s life from now on.

He was still trying to wrap his mind around it, to be honest. He and Liv had a child together.

“She turned one in February.” She graced him with a tired smile and added, “Her birthday is Valentine’s Day.”

A wave of tenderness spread through him - it seemed appropriate that the love he’d shared with Liv would be memorialized in such a sweet way. Hope should not exist. If he had been a better man she would not be here. For the first time in his life Elliot was thankful that he was a poor sinner - his weaknesses had led to the little girl resting in her mother’s arms and that in itself was a miracle.

“You named her Hope,” he said simply. It fit her just like her birthday did. And it said a lot about Olivia, too. He had left her. He had left her all by herself and pregnant with his child. And she’d chosen to love that child and she had named her Hope. That was just the sort of woman she was. And thinking about all the love she gave her he was grateful that she was the mother of this child.

Liv shrugged and said, “That’s what she was for me.” With a sigh she sat down on the opposite side of the couch from him. “We’ve seen so many awful things, Elliot. The job and everything - I was going to name her Evelyn - but then they put her in my arms and . . .”

“And she was Hope,” he finished for her.

“Yeah,” she said with a soft sigh as she held her closer. A serious look came over her face and she said, “You have no idea what it was like to see that monster holding her.”

It made his hands curl into fists and he had to remind himself that William Lewis was dead and he would never touch Hope ever again. And he would never touch Liv again either.

“I’m glad you’re okay. I’m glad he’s dead, too. You did the right thing.”

“I know,” she said with a nod. “There’s no such thing as an easy kill, but I will never regret pulling the trigger.” After a moment of contemplative silence she seemed to make a decision and asked, “Do you want to feed her?”

“Yes,” he said eagerly. In less than a minute Hope was sitting in her cleaned highchair and Elliot sat in front of her with a spoonful of pureed peaches. She was a little more amenable to him while he had food in his hands. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said to her in a soft voice and was rewarded with a smile that stole his heart.

Yes, for all her Stabler features she was Liv’s daughter.

Chapter Text

Fighting for the right to go back to work after a month of time off had led to a huge argument with Cragen. IAB had cleared it - it was a good shooting, but Liv’s captain wanted to insist that she take some more time to recover.

Recover from what? So she’d been branded with a cigarette and wire hanger a couple of times and knocked about for a few hours. Aside from that she’d just been locked in a car overnight. She wasn’t about to admit to the nightmares she kept having of that monster holding her child in his arms. She wasn’t about to admit that she’d had a hard time letting Hope out of her sight.

The month off had been good for the two of them despite everything else. It was like having a second maternity leave and it wasn’t like she didn’t have the vacation time to cover it. And after the stress of their move into their new apartment with Brian it had been a slight relief to just enjoy the extra time with her daughter. But enough was enough. It was time for life to go back to normal. If she was ever going to be sane again then she needed to learn to let Hope go back to daycare and she needed to stop panicking over it every moment of the day. They all needed normal again.

Well, a somewhat normal life she thought as she looked over at Elliot who was sitting on the sofa in her apartment waiting for Brian to come back from the store with her daughter. Their daughter. She had to keep reminding herself that Hope was Elliot’s daughter, too.

Not that she’d forgotten that fact in the two years that he’d been gone. Everytime she looked at her daughter she was reminded of who exactly her father was. Nevermind the eyes, those ears of hers were a dead giveaway to her parentage.

“I’m sure they just got caught up at the store,” she assured him as he sat there brooding in silence. His brows were knitted together and his arms were crossed over his chest - he looked for all the world like a little boy who was on the verge of a tantrum. It made her smile a little that he had grown to love her so quickly - Hope was an exceptional child in her opinion, but it was still gratifying to see Elliot’s love blossoming so effortlessly. “Hope likes to pick out the fruit and vegetables herself . . . it’s a whole process.” She didn’t want to admit that she was getting a little anxious about Hope not being at home. If there was a single person in the world she trusted with her daughter then it was Brian. And he’d been right, she needed to learn how to let her go by taking baby steps.

Usually Elliot smiled when she shared little anecdotes like that, but this time he didn’t. If anything his frown seemed to deepen. Finally he stood and walked towards the kitchen bar so he was closer to her as she washed dishes. Having Elliot around should have been awkward, it really should have been. But whatever had happened between the two of them it was all prefaced by over a decade of friendship. Elliot had been her friend and partner. Things hadn’t changed so much between them that she’d forgotten that, either.

There was also the fact that not so long ago he had been her lover, too. She hadn’t forgotten that either. Elliot had always been a complicated figure in her life. It wasn’t just his looming yet comforting presence by her side - it had been a little too easy to love him, too. Now he was back in her life, but he wasn’t her partner, he wasn’t her lover and she didn’t think they qualified as friends now. This man in front of her had taken up her life and filled in the lonely crevasses and cracks and then he’d left. It was complicated. Elliot being back in her life was complicated. For her daughter’s sake she tried to make the best of the situation.

“This is for you,” Elliot said as he pulled out a check from the inside of his jacket pocket, “for Hope. Things that she needs: diapers, clothes - anything you feel she needs.” Elliot seemed a little nervous, but there was also a stubborn set to his jaw. She could still see him well enough to see that he was furious. Maybe part of that fury was directed at her but she would hazard a guess that he was furious with himself as well. He hadn’t been there.

Elliot had missed her pregnancy, he had missed Hope’s birth, her first year of life . . . and he hadn’t been there to protect her when a psychopath had held his daughter in his arms and casually threatened her life. Liv knew that was eating him up inside. The saving grace was that Lewis was dead and would never touch her ever again.

With a deep sigh she looked down at the check he’d placed on the counter next to her and was a little surprised at all the zeros she was looking at. Security work paid well, but she didn’t think it paid that well.

“Elliot, that’s not really-”

“There’s back payment in that,” he clarified as he cut her off. “For the past year. I know that raising a child isn’t cheap. I have a set up with my job, it’s going to start automatically coming out of my paychecks, so keep an eye out in the mail.”

“I can pay for my daughter’s food and clothes,” she said.

Our daughter’s food and clothes.” A deep breath escaped him and she already knew this was an argument she wasn’t going to win. But she had to at least try. “She’s my responsibility, too.”

“You have five children to take care of-”

“Six,” he said, cutting her off again. “I have six children.”

She winced a little at the correction. Right. He had six children now. “I just mean that you shouldn’t stretch yourself so thin. I got this.”

But he shook his head. “This isn’t a debate, Liv. She’s my daughter. I will be taking care of her.”

She finally nodded her head in concession, but secretly she hated it. Not because she didn’t appreciate the gesture. Having a child was expensive. And if nothing else she could put the money into Hope’s college fund. But the more she conceded to Elliot having a role in Hope’s life . . . well, the more she had to concede to Elliot having a role as her father. And she was used to having Hope all to herself.

From the moment she’d held the positive pregnancy test in her hand to the day that Elliot had found out about her - it had been the two of them. She didn’t have to answer to anyone about the choices that she made or take anyone else’s opinion into consideration. Hope was her daughter. Period.

Parts of it had been heartbreakingly lonely however. Feeling Hope kick in her belly for the first time and having no one there to share it with had been terrible. Going to her prenatal appointments alone and wishing with her whole heart that Elliot was there to watch Hope wiggling around on the ultrasound monitor or hearing her heartbeat for the first time was enough to make her want to cry. Her pregnancy had been a time of joy and heartbreak in equal parts.

Things after Hope’s birth had been a little better. Nick had been a great, if unexpected, birth coach during labor. She had actually taken her first steps in Cragen’s office. And Amanda had been there to witness the first time Hope had turned to her and called her mama. Her squad was her family and Hope’s family.

But they weren’t her father.

Even when Brian had come into her life Liv knew that there was a vast difference between mommy’s boyfriend and having a dad.

Now everything was different. And to her surprise she wasn’t sure she liked it.

Of course, there had been Brian. Brian who had been so willing to help out with the 2AM feedings and was determined to turn Hope into a baseball fan and who, no matter if he’d worked a double shift, always had the energy to play with her for a while. But Brian wasn’t her father. It wasn’t the same. She took a small measure of comfort in knowing that if things between her and Brian ever went south then she could just take her daughter and leave.

That wasn’t an option with Elliot. Elliot wasn’t going to fade into the background and show up only twice a year for birthdays and Christmas; she didn’t really want him to, truth be told. But maybe it had been part of the reason why, aside from making a few phone calls, she hadn’t tried too hard to let him know he had another daughter. Sure, there was a touch of resentment in there for the way he’d left her behind so easily. But now, knowing that Kathy had been dying of cancer, it wasn’t something she could really hold over his head. It wasn’t something she wanted to hold against him. She loved her daughter too much to hold that much bitterness inside of her heart at her father.

“And we should probably talk about custody,” he said, this time his tone was softer. Softer but firm and it was an effort not to immediately say no.

Her heart clenched in her chest at the thought of Hope being away from her for long periods of time. It was one thing for Brian to take her with him to the store. It was one thing to drop her off at daycare. But to go a whole day without her baby? To not put her to sleep or see her smiling face first thing in the morning? Coming off the heels of the whole Lewis fiasco it was too much to ask of her right now.

“I’m not saying no, Elliot,” she finally said when she thought her voice wouldn’t come out shaky. “I know that as her father you have rights. But she doesn’t-”

“She doesn’t know me.” And she was starting to get a little irritated at the way he kept interrupting her. “I know, I’m working on changing that.” Truly he had been, too. She shouldn’t have been surprised at the way he now showed up at least every other day if not more often to see Hope - even when it was just for a half hour to feed her dinner or help get her ready in the morning. But it had been a surprise. It was surprising how natural it was to see him with their daughter.

“I know you are,” she said gently. With a deep sigh she placed her hands on the kitchen counter and leaned her weight onto it. “But it wasn’t that long ago that a psychopath was threatening her life. I’ve been off work this past month - aside from a few outings with Brian she hasn’t been out of my sight for very long.”

And at the mention of Brian’s name his jaw clenched tight. Oh. That’s what the sour face was about. She should have seen that. Elliot always had had a problem with jealousy.

“Don’t do that, Elliot. Don’t - Brain is a good man. And he’s been there for us. He loves her.” Maybe it was the wrong thing to say because his mood didn’t lift.

“I love her. She’s my daughter. If you had told me-”

“Yes, I get it. If I’d told you then we wouldn’t be in this position.” She couldn’t help the touch of resentment that crept into her tone, no matter how hard she tried to bite it back. “Little hard to tell you when you refused to answer my calls.”

To her satisfaction he did look a little shamefaced at that. “Kathy -”

“Kathy was sick,” she said with a nod. “I get that. And that’s why you did what you did. And I have reasons for doing what I did. Why don’t we just agree that we both made some hard choices and leave it at that?”

He nodded his head in agreement, looking slightly relieved. He didn’t want to be at odds with her, either. Or course that could be because their power dynamic had shifted in her favor. She was Hope’s mother and her primary caregiver and had been her whole life. Her daughter loved her and smiled for her and ran into her arms when she saw her. Whereas Hope was shy with Elliot. She didn’t want to be held by him if Liv or Brian was there and when he would try to play with her she would become hopelessly coy. It had only been a few weeks, it would change with time, but for now, it was what it was.

With relief she heard the jingle of house keys and then the front door was opened as Brian came through the door carrying Hope and a bag of groceries.

“Mama,” Hope squealed as soon as she saw Liv and she felt her heart swell with love at the sound. And she felt a little guilty too as she felt Elliot’s eyes on her as Brian set her down and Hope toddled to her as fast as her chubby legs allowed.

“Wanna say hi to Elliot?” she asked her daughter as she swung her up and onto her hip while Brian walked into the kitchen and gave her a quick kiss before putting the bags on the counter to start putting the groceries away.

She turned to face Elliot and saw a look of hurt on his face. Dad. Fuck. She should have said, ‘Say hi to daddy.’

At least Hope turned to him and gave him a smile, even as she clung tight to Liv.

“Come on, why don’t we go play with your toys with . . . with . . . “ but she couldn’t say it. “Let’s all go play with your toys.”

As she began to walk out of the kitchen with Hope the little girl turned in her arms and stretched out her hands for Brian and to Liv’s horror said, “Dada,” with a loud cry.

All three adults froze in place and you could have heard a pin drop. After a long moment of silence Brain was the first to recover and as he took Hope from Liv said, “Hey, little slugger, come to Brian - how about we go play while mama finishes with the groceries, huh?”

As he walked into the living room she expected Elliot to follow them, but instead he stood where he was, his body rigid and his face a mask of resentment. He was livid and she really couldn’t blame him for it. It was hard to imagine the amount of pain he was in at hearing his daughter call another man by the title that was rightfully his.

When she finally worked up the nerve to look him in the eyes he said to her in a monotone voice, “We need to figure out a custody arrangement.”

And Liv winced because she knew he was right.

Chapter Text

It didn’t matter that Hope was the last in a long string of children he’d fathered. It was like having a child for the first time when he saw her laugh and squeal in delight as he pushed her gently in the swing.

Over the past few weeks he’d drunk Hope in like a man dying of thirst and he never got tired of it. It was strange, too. Different. Instead of seeing his and Kathy’s features combined in various ways he saw his daughter and was immediately reminded of Olivia. He and Liv had created this little girl and she was his little miracle. In the blink of an eye she had turned his life completely upside down and he wouldn’t trade her for the world. But it still wasn’t easy. And it was nothing like life had been with his other children.

Liv had finally begun allowing him to take Hope for outings alone and he wasn’t sure which one of them loved it more - him or Hope. The park was as good a place to start as anywhere. And he wanted her to associate him with happy memories. Liv never needed to know just how much ice cream and chocolate he was giving her while they were out of sight of her watchful eye. God knows she gave him enough flack when he showed up at her apartment with yet another new dress or a new toy or some new gift. Although he didn’t think he’d imagined Liv’s tears when he’d brought over pictures of her siblings for her to keep with her.

The bribery was working, too. He didn’t mind admitting that it had made Hope go to his arms a little bit easier when she saw him now. And every time he saw her he couldn’t get enough. The truth was he had taken his other children’s presence for granted. After a long day at work he would go home and be met with their faces- their little arms reaching around for hugs and their faces filled with tears that needed to be wiped and their pleading for him to read them just one more story before bed. With his other children he could get up at any time in the night and go check on them. But he didn’t have that luxury with Hope and it made his time with her all the more precious.

In time he knew that they would get there. And it had given him a chance to set up a room for her. Dickey had helped him paint the walls and set up the crib and dresser. Of course his face had been a stony mask of resentment the whole time, but evidently it wasn’t enough to keep him from wanting to make room in his life for his little sister. He was grateful for that much at least.

Life was complicated. His children were not happy with him. The fact that he had cheated on their beloved mother had created a chasm between them that they would not soon forgive him for. But they also had good hearts and they had all been willing to make room in their lives for their newest sister.

“Daddy, let me push,” Eli asked with a tug on his shirt. Eli had been his saving grace in all this mess. The one child of his that wasn’t full of resentment or wariness. Elliot was just his dad and Hope was just his sister and he accepted it all with the grace that only a little boy could give. “I want to push her. I’m her big brother,” he said proudly.

“Okay, but be gentle alright. Don’t push the swing too hard,” he warned as he stepped aside to make room. He didn’t need to worry though. Eli had taken to Hope as well as could be expected. After Kathy’s death he’d tried to make life as good as he could for him. He had stopped working so much overtime, stopped going home and immediately falling into a comatose sleep. Kathy’s death had forced him to confront his role as a father. Now he was all Eli had and every choice and decision he made had to revolve around that knowledge. There was no longer another person to catch the ball before he could drop it.

Life was lonely without Kathy. And if he was honest with himself life had been lonely without Liv, too. During the two years they’d been apart he’d spent countless moments thinking of her - wondering how she was doing, what she was doing, who she was doing it with. So many times he’d warred within himself over whether or not he should contact her. Apologize. Explain to her why he had done what he’d done.

But he’d kept his silence and only in hindsight could he realize how huge a mistake that had been. Maybe he’d made up for his infidelity to his wife by taking care of her so devotedly while she’d been sick. Maybe he’d made his penance. But if his penance involved living without his daughter then he would have preferred to live with the guilt of what he’d done.

The way things had worked out had been a little too convenient if he thought about it pragmatically. He’d slept with Liv and then had run away before there were any consequences to be made aware of. He’d ignored her phone calls and told himself the only heart that was being broken was his own. And even Kathy getting sick had provided him with the perfect excuse to stay away from Olivia. It had also provided him with the perfect way to atone for his guilt. He’d gone with her to every doctor’s appointment, had learned how to put in an IV, learned what medication she needed and when she had to take it, he had changed her, fed her, spent hours brushing her hair and bathing her and when the end had come he had held her hand during that, too.

All while his daughter was across town growing up without him.

There was no way to know what the fallout would have been if he’d found out that Liv was pregnant with his child. Despite his many faults he knew himself well enough to know that he would have acknowledged her - would have been there, manned up. Even if it meant Kathy’s anger and disappointment and hurt. Even if it made his grown children hate him. Nothing in the world would have prevented him from being a father to his daughter.

Nothing except his own stupid, selfish choices.

Loving Olivia had been wonderful and dreadful at the same time. Just being near her was enough to soothe his soul. Having her as part of his life was enough for him. Until the night that it wasn’t enough - and they had given in to what they had both wanted so desperately.

Then he’d ruined so many lives by sneaking out like a thief in the night.

Now he was working on making up for that. He wasn’t sure he would ever wholly be able to make it up to Olivia. He couldn’t go back in time and hold her hand while she gave birth, he couldn’t argue about what name to pick out or get up for middle of the night feedings. He couldn’t stop William Lewis from threatening Hope’s life and he couldn’t go back in time and shoot the bastard himself. His hands still curled into fists when he thought of the man and more than one night he’d woken in a cold sweat at the memory of Liv beaten black and blue and the flesh he knew had been burned and . . .

But there was the future still. And there was also the present. His mom had once told him that they called it the present because it was a gift we needed to appreciate. A trite idea maybe, but one that he intended to keep in mind. He would not take his daughter’s presence in his life for granted.

And he wouldn’t take Olivia for granted again, either.

Maybe the two of them weren’t meant to be. She had moved on and that was her right. He had hurt her. He had broken her heart. He had left her all alone. But he still loved her. He still cared for her. And now she was the mother of his child and that . . . that was a miracle too. Here was this sweet girl that she had chosen to keep - a little girl with his eyes and her smile. Olivia could have made the choice to have an abortion, maybe a lot of women would have when faced with carrying a married man’s child. But she hadn’t. And he would never stop being grateful to her for that choice. Maybe the argument could be made that she was a mother to Hope because she had no other choice, but he knew that wasn’t true. Keeping Hope had been a conscious and considerate thought on her part, she didn’t need to tell him that for him to know it was true. Olivia had had a difficult choice in front of her and despite everything she had decided to see Hope as her little miracle as well. He hadn’t thought it would be possible to love her more than he already did but it had happened. Every time he saw her holding Hope - feeding her, cuddling her, playing with her, covering her in kisses - every moment just made his heart ache with an unbridled love that he could do nothing about.

It was no less than he deserved that he now had to watch her take all of her love and give it to someone else. That was something he had to learn to live with.

Of course, just because Brian had won Liv’s heart didn’t mean he was going to roll over without a fight over his daughter’s affections. Maybe Brian was a good man and maybe he had stepped up when he didn’t have to. But Elliot was here now and he was determined to make it crystal clear that he was Hope’s dad.

Hearing her call Brian dada had been one of the worst moments of his life. One of the most painful. It was painful to look at someone you loved with all your heart and see her turn to another man for the love and protection that you should be giving. Maybe jealousy was an ugly emotion but it was a damn good motivator.

He would wade through all the crap in his life to be with his child.

Elizabeth on the other hand.

He looked over at the park bench where she was sitting staring at them in silence. Not in a million years would she take her anger out on Hope. She had been doting any time the little girl was around her. Elliot however was far from being her favorite person at the moment. It didn’t stop her from agreeing to come to the park with them though.

Finally she got up and walked towards them. “Dad, I have to go. I need to get back to the dorms, I have a test to study for.”

“Alright,” he said and he moved to give her a hug goodbye but she sidestepped away from him and went to Eli to ruffle his hair.

“I’ll see you later, Eli,” and to his relief she turned to Hope and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, Hope. Say bye bye to sissy.” And despite Lizzie’s anger he couldn’t help but smile when Hope waved a chubby hand at her. Then without so much as a glance at Elliot she turned on her heel and walked in the direction of the subway. After a moment of watching her walk away he turned to his two youngest.

“Okay, kids, I think it’s about time we took Hope back to her mama.”

Eli groaned in disappointment begging for five more minutes, but he looked at his watch and saw that they were running late as it was. Olivia could be particular about Hope’s schedules and he was still at her mercy when it came to how much time he was allowed to see his daughter. He couldn’t take that for granted. She had seemed willing enough to work out some sort of custody arrangement but, now, every time he brought it up there was always an excuse for why she was unable to meet with the lawyers that week.

He wanted to trust her. He really did. But she had kept him from knowing his daughter for over a year and that wasn’t something he could forgive easily. Of course, he also couldn’t forgive himself easily.

“Alright, princess,” Elliot said as he picked his daughter up out of the swing, “ready to go with dada?” He looked at her expectantly - hoping for her to babble out the word he was so desperate to hear from her, but she just smacked her lips together and blew out a spit bubble. “Dada? Can you say dada? . . . It’s okay, we’ll keep working on it.”

To his relief, Liv didn’t notice that he was late dropping Hope off. But she did seem a little agitated, restless in a way he hadn’t seen her in a long time.

“What’s up with you?” he asked when he’d set Eli and Hope on the playmat to play while the adults talked.

She blew out a deep breath of air and it looked like she was getting ready to face the firing squad. “There’s just . . . we’re helping IAB on a case.”

“Yeah, I can see how that would make anyone anxious.”

“No,” she shook her head, “it’s not about that. Brian is going UC - I just have a bad feeling about it. But,” she chewed on her lip for a moment before she seemed to settle on a decision, “Amaro and I are taking point, we’re his backup if something goes wrong. I can’t believe Tucker approved it but he did.”

“Okay,” he said, feeling like he was missing something. Cassidy had done UC work for years, he knew that much. The man could hold his own. So what was she so nervous about?

“The thing is - I’ll be on stakeout tomorrow night.” She waited for him to catch her drift but he just looked at her blankly. “And Brian will be UC.” Her eyes drifted to Hope who was playing on the living room floor with Eli who was trying to show her how to build a tower out of her blocks. “I need someone to watch Hope. I usually have Lucy look after her, she nannies for us, but I thought . . . well, I thought you might like to take her . . . overnight.”

Her voice was uncertain and he could sympathize, he really could. But once he understood her he couldn’t stop the smile from lighting his face. It was ridiculous that he would be so excited to have his daughter overnight. It was frustrating that it was such a huge issue in the first place. But baby steps. They were taking baby steps.

“Yeah,” he finally answered, “yeah, I’d love that.”

Chapter Text

Olivia hesitated for the briefest moment before reaching up a hand to knock on the front door of Elliot’s house. It was late. Very late. And she shouldn’t be intruding on his time with Hope - she needed to learn to respect that he was her father and he was entitled to have her, too. But on nights like these - on nights when she woke up in a cold sweat with the smell of burned flesh lingering in her nostrils and the image of Lewis holding her baby - her sweet innocent baby - well, nights like that nothing in hell or earth was going to keep her from her daughter.

So when no one answered the door she took a deep breath and gave another knock, louder this time. From the looks of the house everyone was asleep. Hope would be asleep. Eli and Elliot would be sleeping. But the longer she went without laying her eyes on her daughter the more time panic had to seep into her very bones. She just wanted to look at her. She just needed to touch her chubby cheek and make sure she was okay.

She knocked again and breathed out a sigh of relief when a light turned on in the living room. There was the sound of shuffling footsteps and then a face peeking out behind the curtain over the front door’s window. Not exactly the face she was expecting, but she didn’t have time to be worried about that.

“Kathleen, can you let me in?”

Kathleen gave her a long look and it was such a foreign expression to see come over her face. She would never in a million years tell Elliot but Kathleen had always been her favorite of the Stabler children and for a brief moment she’d forgotten that the Stablers had a very good reason to dislike her now. Hate her even.

Still Kathleen opened the door and let Olivia inside.

“Thank you. I’m sorry for coming so late I just -”

But Kathleen put her hand up to stop her from talking. “Don’t,” she said, “Just don’t. Hope is upstairs. Second door on the right. I’ll tell dad you’re here.” And then she was walking away from her, her back ramrod straight despite the sleep Liv knew she’d interrupted.

With a deep sigh Olivia followed her upstairs but they parted ways when Liv came to Hope’s room and relief filled her as she saw her daughter safe and asleep in bed. Her hair was a halo of wild curls around her head and she had kicked her blanket off her. With shaky hands Liv reached for it and tucked her back in, making sure to place her stuffed rabbit within arm’s reach for when she woke up.

“Liv,” Elliot asked from the doorway and when she turned to him she had to immediately look away again because he was in the process of putting on a t-shirt and before he could she’d gotten an eyeful of the expanse of his chest and stomach. It was an image burned on her mind but it was not one that she let herself indulge in very often. Two years was a long time to still be hung up on someone. And those two years had been busy ones at that. Filled with joy and terror. She didn’t have time for attraction to her old partner to resurface.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in a sleep filled voice as he approached the crib to stand by her side and look over Hope. “Everything okay?”

She found that words wouldn’t come out so she just nodded her head as she looked at her daughter but she couldn’t control the tear that slipped down her cheek. Or the ones that followed it.

“I just get so scared sometimes, El,” she finally whispered in a shaky breath as he stood beside her. “There’s just so much ugliness out there.”

If anyone would understand it was Elliot. Hadn’t he stood by her side all those years - fighting the same fight against evil, banishing the same monsters. Elliot wouldn’t judge her. Her own fears were his as well.

“There’s beauty, too, Liv,” he said gently, softly.

She couldn’t be sure who initiated it but in the space of a heartbeat she was in his arms and her muffled sobs were soaking his shirt as he patted her back and whispered nonsensical words into her hair. If you took away their night together she could count on one hand the number of times they’d touched each other like this. Their attraction to one another had always been too strong to allow innocent touches to be innocent touches.

“Tell me what happened,” he said and she could feel his heartbeat and his warm breath on her neck and she let his arms lull her into a sense of security.

“I just . . .” she began to say but had to stop and take a shaky breath, “I keep thinking of Lewis.” She could feel Elliot tense in her arms and she used it as an excuse to pull away from him as she tried to dry her eyes on her sleeve. “El, you don’t know what it was like. To see him holding her. Fuck, he changed her diaper right in front of me.” To his credit he didn’t react the way she thought he might, which would be with a fist through the wall. “He was making jokes about -” but she couldn’t finish the sentence. It was too awful to put into his mind. So she held onto it and kept him safe from exactly what Lewis had said to her about their daughter.

“I’m so sorry that you had to go through that,” he said when she pulled away from him and his hands gripped the side of the crib until his knuckles turned white. “I should have been there.” And she could hear the self-loathing in his voice. She heard it and she understood it, but that didn’t mean that she agreed with it. “I should have been there to protect her.” Despite the harshness of the words she didn’t detect any lingering bitterness in them, just regret for what was gone. If anything he seemed more angry with himself than her.

“He killed the men,” she said softly because Hope was still asleep in front of them. “As quickly as he could - he never spared the men.” A shudder ran through her at the idea of how quickly Lewis could have dispatched Elliot if he’d been there. “El, he got the drop on me. I didn’t even know he was there until it was too late to do anything about it. If you’d been there chances are you would be dead.”

He shook his head against her words. “I could have prevented it. I would have known. I would have known that something was wrong - that something was off.”

“Because you’re such a better cop than me? Because your instincts are so much better?” she asked with an arched brow, but she wasn’t affronted. She only wanted to point out the error in his thinking. Elliot thought he would have been a hero riding in on his white horse. But Liv could only see one more person that she loved in harm’s way.

“You know I don’t mean it like that.”

“No, I know that. We don’t know what would have happened,” she said with a deep sigh and she reached out her hand again to run it down the side of Hope’s cheek. The baby let out a gurgle and shifted in her sleep while they held their breath. Part of Liv almost wanted her to open her eyes and look at her so she would have the excuse to pick her up and hold her close to her heart, but she resisted the urge. It was enough to be here and see with her own eyes that she was safe. Of course she was safe, Elliot was here.

“This room is beautiful,” she said when the silence between them grew loud. And it really was. The walls had been painted a soft yellow and he’d gone with a Noah’s Ark theme - it was sweet, especially the little touches, like the blanket that she suspected was handmade by Bernie. Or the framed watercolor of an elephant over the changing table. If memory served her right Maureen was talented with a paintbrush. And of course there were the pictures. Over Hope’s crib hung family photos. Elliot holding Hope in his arms at the park. Dickey with Hope riding on his shoulders. A picture with all the Stabler girls smiling at the camera - their matching eyes making it clear that they were sisters.

A fresh wave of regret rolled over Olivia. She had almost denied her daughter this life, this family. How much of it was her fault? She wasn’t entirely to blame - she wasn’t so self-flagellating that she didn’t hold Elliot responsible, too. But as she took in the evidence of Hope having such a loving family - more than a single mother who worked too much - she couldn’t help but be glad that her daughter now had what she had always dreamed of: a family.

Elliot deftly sidestepped her compliment and attempt at changing the subject and said, “I promise I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to her - to either of you.”

Despite the fear still weighing heavy on her she felt the corners of her mouth lift into a knowing smile. “You can’t make promises like that. Or you can’t keep them anyway. I haven’t been a parent for very long, but I’ve had Hope long enough to know that you can’t keep all of your promises.”

“Then I promise I’m not leaving.”

“I know that,” she said. And it was true. She knew that this time he wouldn’t be leaving. Because of Hope. She and Elliot had always had a close bond. From the moment Cragen had assigned them to their first case together it had been immediate friendship. And that friendship had formed something deeper. They were partners. Partners in duty. Partners in crime. Partners for better or for worse. Until he’d left. Then overnight they had become nothing.

But now Hope stood between them. In her mind there was a clear vision of Hope standing between them with her arms extended so that she was holding each of her parents’ hands. No matter what happened between them now there would always be Hope pulling them back together again.

Their eyes met over the crib as their daughter lay sleeping peacefully and she wasn’t certain who moved first but when their lips touched it felt like home. Elliot’s lips on hers felt like the stars aligning and for the briefest of moments she gave in to the warm sensation of love that he filled her with. Her love for him was no longer a raging tsunami, it was a gentle breeze on a peaceful day.

And just as quickly as it had started she was pulling away from him.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he moved back with a frown on his face. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s fine,” she said with a shrug. It was just a momentary lapse in judgement. She had been scared and he had been sweet and the overwhelming love she felt for her daughter seemed to be pouring out of her and encompassing him all over again. Elliot always had been dangerous to her heart. “But, you know, I’m with Brian and -”

“Yeah,” he said as he cleared his throat, “yeah, I get it. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she repeated.

A deep exhale escaped him and she knew what he was going to say before he began to speak. Part of her wanted to stop him, tell him it wasn’t necessary. But a larger part of her was curious - and part of her thought that maybe he needed to get it off his chest. “I never apologized to you. For how I left. I . . . Liv, I was wrong. It was wrong of me not to say goodbye. And after everything we went through - after the way you had my back all those years - it was wrong of me to ignore your phone calls. And I’m not just saying that because I would have found out about Hope sooner. It was wrong of me to sleep with you and then just . . . leave. I hurt you. I can’t undo that, I wish I could. And I just want you to know that I’m sorry.”

It was enough for her to hear it. From the beginning it had been obvious that Elliot had regrets towards her but hearing him say it out loud was a bit of balm on an aching heart.

She bit her lip in contemplation at what she was going to say next. Part of her still hesitated at conceding so much of Hope to him. But when she thought of her own childhood - when she looked at the literal pictures on the wall - then the choice became easy. “I’ve been thinking. I - well, when Hope was born I was . . . a little angry with you. And I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t . . . Hope’s birth certificate is empty where your name should be. I need to fix that. But I was wondering - I thought you might like it if I added your last name to her name on the birth certificate, too, while I was at it?”

A goofy smile came over his face and she couldn’t help but smile back. “Hope Stabler?”

“How about Hope Benson-Stabler? Let’s not push it too far,” she teased.

“No, no, I like the sound of that. That’s perfect.”

“I updated my will, too. I don’t . . . I just don’t want there to be an issue for you if something were to happen to me.”

“You want me to have her if something happens to you?”

“Elliot,” she said patiently, “you’re her father.”

Chapter Text

The door creaked on its hinge when he entered the room and Brian thought, That’s one thing I need to fix before I leave.

His and Liv’s breakup really wasn’t a surprise to him. After all, he’d never been able to look into the future and see their lives intertwining for forever. He’d never been able to picture them growing old together. He loved her - in many ways he thought that she very well could be the love of his life, time would tell. But that didn’t mean saying goodbye wasn’t the right choice.

He just hated that it also meant saying goodbye to Hope.

Because, fuck, he loved that little girl with his whole heart. When he looked at her he was reminded that despite everything - despite the ugliness and the brutality and the chaos of the world - there were some things in life that were beautiful and innocent and worth cherishing. Liv had named her well.

The thing was, he wasn’t the sort of man to pull the wool over his own eyes. He’d grown up with a single mom, too. Boyfriends came and went. Some of them treated him good, some not so good and some just flat out ignored him. And when it was time to go they left and they didn’t come back. There was Thierry who had taught him how to hock a loogie, much to his mom’s disgust. Andy who barely spoke three words to him but who would let him sit and watch the game on TV with him and had bought him his first baseball glove. And he even remembered Dan who had only been around for a few weeks but during those few weeks had taught him long division. Then they’d left and it was him and mom alone; alone but together.

Now it was his time to go and the only thing keeping him from leaving was the little girl playing in her playpen.

Hope gave a squeal of excitement when she saw him and he picked her up and sat her down on his lap as he sat down on the playmat. Babies all smelled the same, like baby powder and shampoo and he drank her in because he didn’t know when, or if, he’d ever get the chance to again.

“Hey, slugger,” he said to her and she clambered over him so that she was facing him and immediately began to pull at his nose. It was a habit that she’d become a little too fond of. “It’s long enough already, isn’t it, without you making it bigger?”

“Buh, buh, buh,” was her only answer and he figured it was as close to his name as she could manage. That had taken a few weeks to teach her after the awkwardness of hearing her call him dada in front of Stabler. It wasn’t that he’d minded - after all that was practically what he had been. Hadn’t he changed diapers and dried tears and watched so much Sesame Street that he’d begun having nightmares about Elmo? But it hadn’t just been that. Anyone could do those things. Hired babysitters could do those things.

But it was him who ran to her when Rollins had called to tell him that Liv was missing and Hope was alone. He’d held her after nightmares and rocked her until she’d felt safe enough to fall back to sleep. And when that three year old little prick had pushed her down at the playground he was the one who had almost started a fist fight with the kid’s dad about needing to teach his boy some manners.

Yeah, in many ways he felt like dada had been a title he’d earned, even as briefly as he’d worn that crown.

“It’s time to say goodbye, little girl,” he said in a soft voice, the voice he reserved especially for her. “But, hey, I don’t want you to think that just because me and your mom are done that it means you and me are done, okay?” But she’d discovered her hand and was more interested in chewing on her fingers than paying attention to him.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be there for your first day of school or when you lose your first tooth. I’m not gonna lie to you and say that I will be. That’s not how these things work out.” He pulled her deeper into his arms and felt a rush of contentment when she rested her whole body against him and leaned her head on his shoulder. “Your mama is gonna take care of you and so is your dad.”

It would have been easy to blame all of this on Elliot and his reappearance but Brian knew the truth. What went on between him and Liv was between him and Liv. They could have withstood Stabler and the long shadow he cast. But at the end of the day neither one was willing to put up the fight that might keep them together. And that was okay. Sometimes it was better to walk away than to force something to work that just didn’t want to. They had their good times and that’s what he would be taking with him.

But it was all he was taking with him. That and the love he felt for the little girl in his arms.

“But,” he said as tears came to his eyes and his voice got a little shaky, “I don’t want you to think that it means that I don’t love you, okay? I don’t care if it’s five minutes, five months, five years or five decades - you need me and I’m there. You need help with your long division or getting rid of a boyfriend, I want you to call me. And since your parents are such sticklers I’m gonna say that if you ever have too much to drink and need a ride home from a party you can call me then, too. I’ll drop everything to go get you and bring you home and I won’t rat you out either.” He placed a tender kiss on the top of her brown curls and hugged her a little bit tighter until she began to squirm in his arms and he let her go when she moved off him and toddled over to her stuffed rabbit.

He remembered buying her that toy. It was when he’d only just started seeing Liv seriously. Before that it had been a series of booty calls that had suddenly taken a serious turn and when they’d decided that he should officially meet her daughter he hadn’t wanted to come empty handed. So he’d brought flowers for the mom and the stuffed rabbit for the daughter. It was a little bizarre that he could feel so much pride about giving her something that she loved so much and he couldn’t help but hope that it would be the sort of toy that she kept even when she got too old for such things.

“Hey, Hope,” he said as he wiped away the last tear on his face, “you’re still my number one girl, okay? Because Stabler has, like, eight daughters, but you’re the only little girl I’m ever gonna have.”

He leaned over and gave her one last kiss on the top of her head before leaving. “I love you, slugger.”

When he exited the room he didn’t even need to look over to know that Liv was there in the hallway, listening the whole time.

“Would you really not tell me if she got drunk?” she asked with an arched brow.

He just shrugged and gave her a half smile. “Just make sure to put my number in her phone when you finally buy her one.”

Liv returned his smile but when it morphed into a look of sadness he pulled her into his arms for probably the last time, too.

“I love you, too.”

She didn’t ask him to stay and she didn’t cry; he liked that about her. When he’d told her that he thought he should move out she hadn’t fought him on it - she’d just asked if he was sure that that was what he really wanted. It wasn’t what he wanted. It’s just what he knew should happen.

“I love you, too,” she whispered against his neck.

“And that goes for you, too,” he pulled away from her and said, “if you’re ever too drunk and you need a ride home you feel free to call me.”

With a solemn expression on her face she promised, “I will keep your number in my phone.”

Chapter Text

“Look, either you work things out with Stabler or I’m going to lock the two of you in a closet until the air is cleared,” Fin said with a huff of annoyance.

Olivia nearly choked on her coffee. “Excuse me, what?”

“That false innocent look doesn’t suit you, Sarge.”

There wasn’t a whole lot that she could say to contradict Fin. Maybe she could hide her feelings for Elliot from the rest of her squad but Fin had been there from almost the beginning. And he had been there for the aftermath, too.

“He left,” she said simply. Despite her determination to get over it, even now it still caused a pang of hurt inside of her chest. She had loved Elliot. They had shared something rare and beautiful and special. And he’d left without even a goodbye.

And then she had moved on. Hadn’t she?

“He came back,” Fin said softly.

At that she let out a rough sigh, “Yeah, because of Hope.”

But he shook his head, “For you, too.”

She gave him a long and disbelieving look but he stood his ground.

“Hope was an excuse to come back. But trust me - as someone who has dealt with his own baby mama - what Elliot feels for you, that hasn’t disappeared. The two of you can pretend all you want but it’s obvious that something more is up with you both.”

Hearing his words caused a small flush to come over her. It was true that her feelings for Elliot hadn’t gone away. Yes, she had loved Brian, she really had. And if things had been a little different she could have been happy with him forever. But Elliot was back and it was . . . complicated. And complicated was an understatement.

“Hope is -”

“Hope is his daughter and he’s crazy about her. Anyone with eyes can see that.” He shrugged and added, “Just like he’s crazy about you - and everyone can see that, too. Now, how do you feel?”

She opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. How did she feel? She felt like he had broken her heart. She felt like he had shattered it to pieces. And her saving grace was Hope who hadn’t had time for her to sit there feeling sorry for herself.

“He left, Fin,” she repeated in a low whisper.

“He came back.”

He came back. Those words kept echoing in Olivia’s head for the rest of the day and into the evening as she waited for Elliot to drop off Hope. And at this point she wasn’t sure which one of them she was more impatient to see. He left but he came back.

When his soft knock sounded on her door she opened it to him in a queasy sort of anticipation.

“We need to talk,” she blurted out before he could step over the threshold.

His eyebrows rose and he shifted Hope in his arms. Hope who was asleep and drooling on his shoulder.

After a brief moment of staring she moved to the side to let him in and with quiet footsteps he took Hope to her bedroom to lay her down to sleep. When he came back into the living room it was with a grim look of uncertainty on his face.

“What’s going on?” he asked as he sat down on her couch.

She did her best to search for the words that she could say to him that might bridge the gap that existed between the two of them, but came up empty.

At her silence his expression became concerned.

“Everything is okay with Hope, right?”

“Yeah,” she said quickly with a nod of her head. “This is about us. You and me.”

A look of realization came over him and he leaned forward so that he was staring at her intently as he rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed his hands together in a nervous gesture.

“Let me go first, yeah?” he asked. When she nodded he said, “I love you.” He said it so simply, so honestly, that it took her a moment to process it.

Was she surprised? No. Not really. What she and Elliot had shared had been special, different - their waters had run deep and true and time and hurt and guilt hadn’t erased it. It hadn’t erased any of it.

“You left,” she said and her voice was so low that she wasn’t sure at first if he had heard her or not.

But he looked down and said clearly, “I know.” Part of her expected to hear the familiar refrain of “Kathy was sick.” But he didn’t say it. When he looked back up at her his eyes were misted over. “I left you. And if we’re honest then I have to admit that me leaving wasn’t about Kathy and it wasn’t about Jenna and it wasn’t about the job. I left.”

There was a moment of validation that Liv felt at hearing that. She hadn’t been imagining things. He wasn’t trying to hide the truth anymore. Fin was right. They had desperately needed to talk about this.

“I love you,” he repeated. “I’ve loved you for a long time. I never intended to do anything about it. I was never going to act on it.” She closed her eyes at his words because the pain of it was a little overwhelming. “I convinced myself that it was one sided. I told myself that the only person whose heart was at stake was my own.” His voice had taken on an uneven cadence but it was clear and it cut to the heart of the matter. “Until the day that I couldn’t deny it any more. You and me -” he cleared his throat and she opened her eyes to look at him again. “You and me were always going to happen.” He gave a little half shrug. “I can see that now. We were inevitable.”

“Because Hope -”

“This isn’t about Hope,” he interrupted with a furrowed brow. “She’s ours and I love her with my whole heart. But this is about you and me, right now.” Slowly he stood up and walked towards her. Part of her wanted to turn and run away. Part of her wanted to tell him that this whole conversation was a bad idea. But part of her was desperate to hear him say I love you again. “What we had together wasn’t wrong and it wasn’t a mistake and I don’t regret it. And I’m not just saying that because Hope was the result.” He was close enough to reach out and touch, but like they had for the majority of their relationship they held back from taking that last step towards each other. “We were inevitable, Liv.”

“You left.” She hated the waver in her voice. She hated the way the tears came to her eyes.

“I came back,” he said in an echo of Fin’s earlier words.

“Hope -” she began to say.

“Hope was an excuse.” His voice was firm and left little room for argument. “I left. That’s true. I can’t change that. But I came back to you. I was always going to come back to you.” Finally he did reach out and touch her. He placed his hands on her arms and squeezed gently before he pulled her towards him. She took a step forward and then they were in each other’s space, breathing each other’s air. Elliot was filling her lungs and taking up the space he’d left in her heart when he’d gone away. He leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers and his voice was so soft when he said, “I fought it because I thought it was the right thing to do but in the end the only thing that feels right is being with you.” His eyes closed and he took the last step forward and she was fully in his arms and they were pressed chest to chest and he burrowed his face into her neck and she rested her own head against his shoulder. She rested in the arms she had longed for for so long.

There was a brief war inside of her but it didn’t take long for her to realize that she was tired of fighting it. She had fought against it for thirteen years and she was tired of it.

“I love you, too,” she said, loud and clear.

He pulled away from her and her arms itched for him to move back but when he tilted his head towards her she met him halfway and this time when their lips touched she came to realize just how right Elliot was. They were inevitable. This was always going to happen. Elliot was always going to come back to her.

One of his hands moved to cup the back of her head and pull her in to make the kiss even deeper and she gave herself over to the emotions he created inside of her. Giving into Elliot felt right in a way that nothing else ever had before. But she needed to make one thing clear before they continued.

So she pulled away from him and at his look of confusion she slid her own hand up to the back of his neck and said firmly, “Don’t leave again.”

“I wo-” he began to say but she had already pulled him back down to her so that they were kissing again and it left little room for any more words.

It would have been so very easy to stay there in her living room kissing him for forever but the inevitable cry of their daughter in the next room pulled them apart like nothing else could have. With a soft smile she said, “I’ll get her.” But before she could go very far the piercing sound of Hope calling out, “Daddy,” filled the air and she was grateful to witness the pure joy and wonder that took over Elliot’s face before he nearly tripped over her as he ran to Hope.

Liv could only stand there laughing and shaking her head at him.

He wasn’t going anywhere.

Chapter Text

“You’re as stubborn as your father.” That’s what Maureen’s mom always used to tell her. Personally, she thought that Richard could take that title, but it was always her that her mom singled out as taking after her dad.

But looking at her dad with Olivia and seeing them with Hope through the restaurant window . . . she didn’t want to be stubborn.

They’d had an affair. Her dad had cheated on her mom, while she was sick, with his work partner. A work partner that her mom had jokingly called his work wife. A work partner who had been a friend of the family and who they had trusted and loved.

Part of her was burning with rage over it. Her feelings always had run a little hot - maybe they weren’t as explosive as Kathleen’s but her anger knew no bounds. Where Kathleen was more likely to forgive in the end, Maureen preferred to hold a grudge.

But she didn’t want to be stubborn. Not with this.

Why did it have to hurt so much, though? Her mom was dead. It was a sad truth that no amount of wishing could undo. And her dad was still alive. And her dad was happy. In a way that she’d never really seen him before.

If she wanted to be petulant she could think, “Well of course he’s happier with his new girlfriend and their new baby and he loves the two of them more than he ever loved you and your mom.” She could tell herself that and then her anger would simmer until it boiled over.

But she didn’t want to be stubborn.

“Why the hell is she here?” she heard Elizabeth say at her side as she also looked through the window. They had all agreed to meet their dad and two youngest siblings for Sunday brunch but he hadn’t mentioned that Liv would be with them. Everyone knew they were dating now, but still . . . a heads up would have been nice.

“She’s dad’s girlfriend,” Maureen said and she tried to keep her tone as even as possible.

“So?” Richard said. “Why does that mean I have to be around her? She’s a sl-”

“Don’t,” Maureen warned, “Don’t even go there. She’s Hope’s mom.”

His face softened a little at that. Maybe the Stabler kids didn’t agree on much, but one thing was certain and it was that they all adored their youngest sister. To say it was a shock to learn of her existence was an understatement and some days she still couldn’t quite get over it. But the moment she’d met Hope she’d fallen in love with her brown curls and her chubby legs and the eyes that looked so much like her own.

“Maybe she’s Hope’s mom but she’s not our mom. This is supposed to be a family meal. She doesn’t belong here,” Kathleen said. Of all of them she’d expected Kathleen to be the one that would forgive them the easiest but she was still holding onto her anger, too.

With a sigh Maureen realized that if her family was going to have any peace at all then she would have to be the one to lead them to it. Maybe their dad they could forgive in time, just because they loved him so much and, really, he was the only parent they had left. And Eli adored Liv - not even her anger would spoil that for him. And, of course, there was Hope.

“Guys,” Maureen turned to address her brother and sisters. “She’s not going anywhere. Whether we like it or not, she’s part of the family now.”

“We don’t even know if it’s going to last,” Elizabeth said with a touch of hope in her voice.

“Yeah, we do,” she answered. “We all know that it’s going to last. None of us is stupid enough to think that we could split them up by being brats.”

“So what? So she’s here. Doesn’t mean I have to be nice to her.”

“Yes, it does,” she said. When she looked through the restaurant window again she saw Liv pick up Hope and sit her on her lap as she gave her raspberries on her cheek to make her laugh. It was enough to bring out the tiniest of smiles from Maureen. “If not for dad’s sake then for Hope’s sake.” She turned back to her siblings and in her best “I’m the oldest so I know what’s best” voice she said, “This isn’t about us, this is about Hope. Hope deserves a family that gets along. I can’t force you to behave but I’m not going to freeze Liv out just because she and dad made a mistake.”

“A mistake?” Richard asked incredulously. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” she said back as she met his eyes. Hope’s eyes. “I don’t want my baby sister to ever have to wonder why I hate her mom. I’m not doing that to her.”

“So what? We just forgive and forget? Just like that?”

“Yeah,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. “Just like that. We can’t change it. And if we could change it, we wouldn’t.”

“Mom would -”

“Mom’s not here.” The very words caused tears to spring to her eyes but she quickly blinked them away. “But dad is. Our family is never going to go back to what it used to be. But I think we all need to move forward. I’m not saying you need to be best friends with her, but you can at least be civil.”

The three of them looked mutinous for a moment, but then one by one they relented underneath her stubborn glare. Maybe sometimes it did come in handy.

“Fine,” Richard was the first to crack. “I’ll be civil.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“Whatever.”

“Okay,” Maureen said with a nod of her head as she opened the restaurant door to usher them all inside. “Let’s eat.”

***

Brunch had gone so much better than Olivia had expected it to go.

The repercussions of sleeping with a married man had reverberated out into the universe and come back around to her. Sure, it had worked out incredibly well for her, all things considered. She had a beautiful daughter to show for it and, assuming things went as well as she expected them to, she had Elliot by her side.

What she hadn’t quite taken into account at the time was the lives that she was hurting in the process. In some ways she was glad that Kathy had never found out the truth about her and Elliot and Hope. But there were certain truths that could not be hidden from Elliot’s children. And it broke her heart to see their faces lined with mistrust when they looked at her.

So, yes, the fact that they’d said hello to her and goodbye to her and occasionally included her in their conversations around brunch was better than she’d expected. At first she had demurred from going to the restaurant with Elliot and the kids but he had insisted. She was family now he’d said, for better or worse. And she was Hope’s mother.

Hope. Her sweet little baby girl who looked so much like her sisters.

In all honesty, even if they had been rude and ignored her she still would have put up with it. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her daughter.

Before Elliot had come back into her life she had given everything to her daughter that it was possible for a mother to give her child. She loved her, cared for her, gave her all the attention and care that she’d longed for as a child, herself. But the one thing she couldn’t give her daughter was a family.

She’d told herself that that was okay. Plenty of families consisted of just two people. There was nothing wrong with being raised by a single parent. Hell, she’d been raised by a single mother. It wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t the end of the world.

It wasn’t until lately, after seeing her daughter with her siblings, that it came into full force view exactly what she’d denied her daughter when she’d stopped trying to contact Elliot. If she had realized it sooner she would have put her pride aside and shown up at his doorstep with his child. Hell, she would have shown up at his doorstep with a pregnant belly and to hell with anyone’s anger. They could be angry with her all day long if they needed to. But they were too loving, too caring, to ever hold it against Hope. They were better people than she’d realized.

As she looked into Hope’s bedroom that night and saw Elliot sitting in the rocking chair slowly lulling her to sleep, she couldn’t help but regret that she’d kept her daughter from knowing her father for so long, too. Siblings were wonderful. Siblings were great and there was a bond there that she’d never fully appreciated. But Elliot - a father - that was something she had willfully deprived her daughter of and the thought was enough to fill her with guilt over it.

Elliot was a wonderful father. She’d known that from the first moment she’d seen him with his children. And when Hope was born she knew, she knew in her heart, that Elliot would love her at first sight and that, to him, there would be no difference between her and his children from his marriage.

And in her heart she knew that not even Kathy would have been able to keep him from her.

But she shook her head to clear it of those thoughts.

Yes, brunch had gone better than she’d expected. It wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t quite forgiven. But it was a start.

Just like she and Elliot were at the beginning of that unnamable thing that they shared. It was impossible to look at him and not love him. She didn’t even want to try to fight it anymore.

And lucky her, he returned the feelings. It wasn’t perfect. Jesus Christ, nothing about being with Elliot was easy. He was stubborn and incalcitrant and he could be unbearable and goddamn did he enjoy pouting like a child. And it was particularly annoying when he used his years of experience being a parent to try to win arguments when they disagreed about Hope.

But he was hers. And he was Hope’s and nothing was going to change that. Not if she had her way.

She gave one last look at the pair and smiled softly at the image.

Things had worked out better than she ever could have anticipated. For all the hell of the journey she wouldn’t change the outcome for the whole wide world.

***

Every day Elliot found new things to fall in love with. Between Liv and Hope his heart had swollen to double its size and it didn’t look like there would be any relief anytime soon on that front, either.

Which was just fine by him.

Hope’s eyes were growing sleepy but she was fighting it. That was just fine by him, too; he didn’t mind the extra time it took to put her to sleep. He cherished those moments with her. He couldn’t get enough of her.

Never in a million years would he say that he loved her more than her siblings. He didn’t. But there was a difference. There was a huge difference.

The difference lay in the soft brown hair that was a wild mess of curls on the best days. The difference was in the smile that was a mirror of her mother’s that bloomed on her face when she saw him. The difference was in the time he’d missed. The difference was in the knowledge that he’d come so very close to losing her. Worse than losing her. He’d come so close to never having her at all.

He could choose to be bitter about the time he’d been denied. But at the slightest hint of anger the shame would rush through him, reminding him that it was his fault in the first place. He could make every excuse in the book but at the end of the day the blame lay on his shoulders. He was the one who’d walked away, after all. Even if he hadn’t fully realized just what it was he was leaving behind.

But there was no more room in his heart for anger or regret or blame. All that space in his heart was spent on the child in his arms and her mother who was somewhere in the apartment, getting ready for bed herself.

If he lived to be a hundred years old he would continue to cherish both of them in ways that he had never cherished anyone before. Because he’d come so damn close to losing both of them. He’d come so close to never having them in the first place.

Regret was in the past where it belonged. His future was resting in the hands of the little girl who had finally drifted off to sleep in his arms while he slowly rocked her. The night was young but the light outside had faded and he knew there were things waiting for his attention, but the idea of giving up his daughter, even to something as simple as sleep, could wait. He would hold her close for just a little bit longer.

The truth was he’d already missed out on so much that he would happily spend the rest of his life giving her a few extra moments. He would take those moments in his hand and cherish them. So, despite her deep and even breathing and her shut eyes and the slight smile on her face that he knew meant she was dreaming, he decided that he would hold her for just a while longer. He didn’t want to miss any more than he had to.