CHAPTER TITLE: "Aftermath"

PAIRINGS: None specified.

SEASON: Late Season Four. Alex Cabot is still around and the Stabler marriage is still, well..stable-ish.

RATING: M

WARNINGS: Angst mother load, grab the waders.

SUMMARY: Physically, emotionally, or metaphorically speaking the question remains the same: Re-build with what's left, or admit defeat and just wipe the slate clean?

DISCLAIMERS: See Chapter 1

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Last one, and now you're done with me :D Hooray you're all saying, hehe. Thanks so much for keeping with me through this. Guys've been my bread and butter.

"Aftermath"

Saturday Jan 25th
11:20 am
Apartment of Olivia Benson

Jimmy Hendrix blared from a CD player in one corner of the small living room as Olivia went to town in her kitchen. She hadn't done dishes in at least six days and when she'd gone to make a sandwich for lunch around ten, she'd realized she didn't have any clean ones left. It wasn't easy, cleaning dishes with only one fully functional arm, but at least it gave her something to do other than think.

It was nearing eleven-thirty when she thought she heard something at her door. Quickly grabbing the remote for the player she turned the volume down and stood still, listening.

"Detective Benson?" Came a male voice from the other side. She'd thought so. "It's Professor Oakins.."

Olivia put the remote down and picked up a small dishtowel to dry her hands. "One second!" She called and then quickly dried off the glass 8 by 8 dish she'd just washed. The professor lived just down the hall and when she'd come home from the Stablers his wife'd brought her a small pan of lasagna. He'd called last night and asked if he could pick up the pan this morning after he returned from an errand. She tossed the towel on the counter and strode to the door.

"Sorry it took so long," she said with a smile as she undid the chain and pulled open her door. "I've been..." The smile froze on her face as she looked past the middle-aged man and saw who was standing in the hall behind him. Damn Captain Cragen... She looked away and handed the blond man his pan. "I've been busy. Thanks again for the lasagna," she said sincerely. "Be sure to thank Melanie for me."

"Will do. You take care of that arm, now." He acknowledged both her and the man he'd let come through the front doors with him with a smile and then moved down the hall to his own apartment.

"Didn't think I'd get in any other way." Elliot shrugged casually after the professor had gone in and closed his door. He was pretty sure had he been left to his own devices that Olivia wouldn't even under duress open her door if he'd been the only one standing on the other side of it. Getting in the doors downstairs wouldn't have been a problem even had Jim Oakins not shown up - Elliot had the door code to her building for the same reason Olivia had a spare key to his home.

Furious but unable to get out of the situation that'd he'd just thrust her into, Olivia turned away and went back to her kitchen without a word. She left the door open, hoping he'd get the hint, close it himself, and just go away.

Elliot moved into the apartment and closed the door quietly behind him. He didn't move any farther in, though, and instead stood right where he was. Several minutes passed in a thick, awkward silence.

"Did you want something?" She asked curtly as she started the water again and began rinsing the dishes she'd already washed. "Cragen send you too?" Porcelain clinked as she set plates in the drainer.

"We need to talk."

"We don't need to do anything."

"Okaaay," Elliot breathed a sigh. "I need to talk," he amended.

"About what?" The tone of her voice betrayed that she had absolutely no interest in participating in whatever it was he wanted to discuss.

"You. Us. Work." She was still not looking at him.

"Work is no longer my problem. Didn't you hear?" She said sardonically and with a facetious smile. "I quit yesterday." She pulled the plug on the soapy water.

Elliot watched her, not saying a thing. Cragen had told him what had happened as well as Olivia's reaction to it. While he was just as infuriated with the circumstances he knew how deeply his partner felt things - she was taking it much harder, much more personally, than anyone else and he knew it was only going to compound everything else he had to try to correct today.

"So that's it, huh?" He said after a good five minutes of nothingness. "Just like that. You quit." Elliot hadn't moved from the door.

"That's what I said," Olivia confirmed from the kitchen as she loudly put the last of her dishes in the drainer to air dry. "You want it in writing? Read it? You don't seem to do too well when you have to listen with something other than your hormones, maybe your eyes'll be a little more objective."

Okay, he'd fully deserved that. Benson: 1, Stabler: 0. He logged it away and forged ahead. "Okay. Fine." Stabler shrugged and crossed his hands in front of his legs as he stood watching her. "You quit. I quit."

"Whatever." With an irritated shake of her head she tossed the dishtowel on the cutting board counter and sidestepped around the small island. She headed for her bedroom. She was tired of fighting. She was tired of hurting. She was just tired.

"No, you're right," he called after her. "I quit. Let's both just toss out everything we stand for and call it a night. See if New York's still standin' in the morning."

"I didn't let you in so you could use flippancy to get some kind of psychological upper hand here, Elliot," she said wearily from the other side of the room, walking backwards. She nodded at her apartment door. "You know the door codes, you can let yourself out. Now get the hell out of my apartment." And she turned back around to make her escape so she could disassemble in privacy.

Screw this. Elliot knew if she got into her bedroom and closed that door that they would never recover from this and he would lose her for good in more ways than one. Wrong was made right, right here, right now.

"You quit, I quit. Neither of us leaves without the other!"

The phrase snapped across the living room and caught Olivia square in its high beams. She stopped where she was in the doorway of her bedroom, frozen just at the threshold, her back to the rest of her apartment. Her right hand reached out, gripping the door frame as though she'd suddenly become unsteady on her feet.

Which she just had.

Several seconds passed with neither detective moving or saying anything while the CD continued to play from the corner. Then Olivia bent her head and a soft breath sounded through the still apartment. She didn't turn around.

"You heard."

The statement of realization was quiet, her low voice subdued and now void of the angry and bitter tones of just minutes ago. It was the signal Elliot had been waiting for and he finally moved away from her front door and crossed the living room slowly, stopping at the end of the sofa.

"I heard."

"How much?"

Pause. Lay it all on her now or hand her the sugar coating and let her guess... Elliot briefly considered lying. Then thought better. No more lies. Olivia didn't need to be coddled, she needed him to be honest. He needed him to be honest. "We said some pretty horrible things, Fin."

"So all of it."

Elliot nodded though her back was turned. "Yeah."

Seconds passed. Olivia's head leaned to the right and rested against the door frame just above her hand as she all but whispered, "I didn't know how to tell you."

To him it looked as though that doorway was the only thing holding her up. He felt like he could use one himself right about now. "You tried. I didn't want to hear it."

There was no response.

Elliot felt uncomfortable in his own skin. He was standing less than six feet from Olivia, and yet he was light years away from his partner. He should be doing something other than just standing here looking at her back. But what? He was certain the moment he so much as reached out a hand he'd be struck down with some biblical proportioned lightning bolt. This was her emotional Ground Zero.

Holy ground.

And he did not belong here.

Very gradually a new sound began to replace the oppressive silence that had blanketed the apartment and the fact that she was trying to conceal what was happening reopened the tear that had formed during the standoff. Elliot felt sick. Each quiet sniff ripped it closer to his heart.

"Liv.."

"I'm sorry."

Guilt grabbed both sides of the tear and wrenched hard and fast in opposite directions. With two words, his soul had been rent. "What?"

Silence.

Suddenly Elliot was angry. Furious. What the hell gave her the right to feel she had to apologize to him? This part was supposed to be his self-whipping, goddammit, and she'd just upstaged him. Benson: 2, Stabler: -10. He took a few steps towards her. His voice was low and shook. "Olivia Benson, I don't ever want to hear those words leave your mouth again."

"Then what do you want, Elliot?" Tears were thick in her voice, clogging her throat and blurring the defeated articulation of her words. She still had not turned around. "I have nothing left to give. To the 16th, to you... Nothing."

Anger vanished as quickly as it'd come and the rush of sadness that replaced it left Elliot queasy. He bridged the gap between himself and her back. "I don't want you to give a thing," he said quietly. "I want you to be selfish. I want you to yell at me," he went on. "Scream, bitch, throw things, eat something unhealthy... I want you to do whatever it is you want to do right this second. Hell, I grew up Catholic, they tell us to turn the other cheek. I'll do that and you can smack that one too if you need. But I never want you to apologize to me again."

Sniff. "One of us has to say the words." Her hand moved from the door frame to wipe at her nose.

"Then let 'em come from me." A surge of emotion swelled inside him before he could stop it and his voice cracked and pitched as he added, "Cause I don't think we're gonna make it through this one if they don't." He was suddenly wiping at his own nose. He didn't want to get emotional. He didn't want her to see him get emotional.

He was blinking back embarrassment as Olivia's stance shifted and a moment later fear gripped him as she finally slowly turned around. Her face was tear streaked and the curiosity, the raw vulnerability in her eyes that replaced the loathing he'd expected to see there stripped him of his need to retain dignity.

"I..." His control stuttered again. "God, Olivia. I'm so sorry," he croaked out, things finally breaking down to the core reason he'd come here this day. He averted his eyes, swiping at them quickly; 'sorry' didn't even cover it. "The words, they just came. They came and I knew what they were I just..." Elliot shrugged helplessly and looked away. "I couldn't stop them. I didn't--"

"Want to?"

He looked back; she was staring at the floor again. "Know how."

The small apartment again was filled only with the sounds of quiet sniffing and Jimmy Hendrix still playing from the corner. After a couple of minutes with no response from Olivia, Elliot moved back a few feet and slowly dropped onto her couch. His forearms rested on his knees as he stared at a book on the cushion of the chair kitty corner of him. A few minutes later he caught movement in front of him as she crossed past the coffee table. There was a quiet creaking as she cautiously sat on the other end of the sofa. He couldn't look that way.

"I..." Elliot cleared his throat. Composure was coming back. "I'm taking the evaluations."

"Yeah, well they did--"

"Never get the chance to force them like they said they were going to," Stabler cut her off quietly. "Standoff interrupted that. Cap ripped them a new one a couple days ago for what they did. Wednesday actually. Bought a little time. I went to 'em yesterday. First appointment's Tuesday. Technically it's all voluntary so...no admin leave."

More minutes passed and he felt more than saw Olivia wipe her eyes. "We can't go back."

Elliot took a slow breath, shook his head. "No. We can't."

"You don't want to.." It wasn't a question.

He paused. "No." He finally dared to look left. She was staring at him, the despair in her eyes unbridled and making them bright. A tiny, bitter smile twitched one side of his lips as he averted his gaze slightly off hers. "I don't like the person that exists back there, Liv. I don't want to be him again. Ever."

She kept staring at him as she shook her head slightly and said, quietly, "I can't forget. Forgive, maybe. Not forget. I can only give so much right now."

Elliot's nod was nearly imperceptible. He didn't expect, nor did he feel he deserved, even that much. He was contemplative for a few minutes before asking, "So where does this leave us?"

The pregnant pause was hers this time as she continued to stare at him. And then she surprised him with a simple statement that sent him rocking. "We're partners, Elliot."

Their eyes met for the first time in days and the charge that jumped through the gaze left them locked. "And where do we go from that?" Elliot asked not able to get his voice up to the decibel level he wanted it without waterworks.

"Wherever partners take each other." A small, sad smile lit her lips and braving to cross the cushion that separated them like some emotional Berlin Wall, Olivia reached her right hand out and closed her fingers around his left. "This one will be there for hers through his evaluations, if he'll stick around for her during hers."

Elliot looked down at their hands, his mind going back to how she'd squeezed his this same way in the ambulance on Tuesday. His eyes moved back up to hers. "That's a hefty commitment. His'll take a while," Sniff. "...he's pretty screwed up right now."

Olivia's reply was soft. "So is she."

Elliot swallowed hard, forcing back the thickness that congested his throat. "Can they make it through it?"

Two hands squeezed tightly as one partner answered the other.

"We'll ask them next week."

Conversation stopped and a spent calm descended over the two drained and weary detectives, filling the apartment with a sense of tenuous resolution.

Jimmy Hendrix played on.

(One week later)
Saturday Feb 1st
4:45 pm
Precinct

Elliot turned off his lamp as Windows shut down and his computer went into hibernation. "Not going to be here too much later are you?" He asked the person sitting at the desk in front of his.

Olivia looked up from what she was doing. "Nah. I won't be long." She tapped the end of her pen down on the file she had open. "There's just a few things on this Ingram case I want to go over before I call it a weekend."

The squad room was somewhat deserted. Fin and John had already gone home and, bar Cragen, she and Elliot were the only ones left. Benson looked at her watch. "You're going to be late. Didn't you say your reservations were at six?"

"They were. Changed 'em last night to seven so Maureen'd be home to watch the twins." He pulled his coat on. "Want me to bring a doggie bag over later?" He knew she loved Greek so he just had to rub it in.

She flung her pen his direction at the stupid grin on his face and shook her head. "Get out of here," she said with chuckle and a smile of her own. She reached across her desk to swipe a pen out of the mug on his. "Tell Kathy hi."

"Yup. Don't work too hard," he called over his shoulder.

"Night," she called back as he disappeared out the door and down the hall.

True to her word, it wasn't too much later that Olivia was turning off her own lamp. Her watch was just ticking past a quarter after five as she pulled her coat over her shoulders and stood to get her gloves from her locker.

"Finally calling it, huh?"

Olivia turned. Cragen was standing near her desk. She nodded with a smile and shut her locker. "Yeah. Hot date with my bathtub tonight. Don't want to make him wait."

Don chuckled then took a good long look at his beleaguered detective. "How're you doing?" He asked with feeling as she came back to her desk to get her keys. She'd had him worried last week. He was still worried. He would always worry.

She knew by the look in his eyes that his question went beyond the casual implications that question usually carried. She took a minute to think then offered another small smile. "I've got a ways, Captain," she replied honestly.

He nodded and then gave her good arm a tender squeeze. "You'll get there."

She was quiet a moment, then offered a small smile. "I hope so." Both sides, for the moment, were satisfied. She adjusted her coat. "Any news on the murder weapon with Morin and Stewart?"

"Not yet. But we've got Queens and Chester looking now too." He added firmly, "We'll find it, Olivia."

She nodded and Cragen moved to go back to his office. "Captain." Olivia stopped him and he turned around. "Have you seen Warner? I saw her come in about an hour ago but I didn't see where she got to and I haven't been able to reach her on her mobile."

Don paused, looking uncomfortable, shifty, as though he had a secret he either didn't want to tell or wasn't allowed to.

Olivia frowned. "What's wrong?"

xxx

Dark orange early evening light was filtering through crevices between buildings whose occupants were starting to leave for the night. It fell on charred structural framing and slipped easily through splintered window frames. At one time light had to be invited in. Now it had free reign and it dappled over ruined furniture, played across stainless steel that no longer looked like metal. During some point in history, fire was universally associated with light, energy, warmth. Life. In the last lunar cycle, the members of Manhattan Special Victims, of Manhattan PD as a whole, had been introduced to the exact opposite incarnation of that archaic Christian imagery. There was nothing Christ-like about the beast that had ravaged this building and torn their beliefs apart. Its creator had not fallen from grace. It'd never been there in the first place.

Olivia's shoes crunched first over the snow on the parking lot, and then mounds of charcoal that used to be bookshelves as she picked her way slowly through the remains of the county coroner building. A solitary figure could be seen in the middle of the wreckage. The retreating daylight filtered through her full dark hair as she stood still, examining the damage. A car was idling on the side of the road near-by. Benson approached warily. Unsure of whether or not her presence had been acknowledged and processed, she spoke quietly so as not to startle the other woman.

"Hey."

Warner turned but did not return the cautious smile. "Hey." She turned back around and, mindful of the knee still in its metal brace, bent over to sift through the stale and now decaying debris around her.

Olivia shrugged one shoulder, trying to wiggle a little deeper into her wool coat. The sky was clear and quiet but it was still the dead of winter so the air was bitter and cold and stung bare skin like a slap. The cold leaked through the gaps between buttons and the fact that one arm wasn't in a sleeve somehow made it seem she was much colder. She shivered.

"Captain squealed on you," she said by way of explaining her intrusion into the devastation. Cragen had been reluctant to spill Warner's whereabouts but Olivia had pressed. She'd wanted to find the other woman before she left for the weekend.

She watched the doctor's precarious balance as the woman, still bent at the waist, picked up what looked like a book whose leather cover crumbled in her fingers. Nearly a full minute passed. "Melinda, you shouldn't be out here," Benson said gently with a soft shake of her head.

"Neither should you," came the non-confrontational reply.

"Both my legs still work properly."

"Your arm's in a sling." Warner straightened and tossed the ruined tome aside. She brushed her gloved hands and, after stabilizing herself, finally turned to face her friend. "Your counterbalance is off."

"Your leg's in a brace," Olivia countered with a jerk of her head at that leg. "Your regular balance is gone."

A moment passed and then both women chuckled softly.

"Quite a pair aren't we?" Warner mused. "One limb out of four trussed up, out here in the freezing cold arguing about whose balance is better, and digging through..." She trailed off and made a sweeping gesture around her body with her arm. "...through this." A quiet breath left her lips and trailed away from her face in a cloud of white.

Olivia bent her head. "Melinda I..." It took her a moment to find something suitable to say. And it didn't work. She shook her head and looked back up, a defeated shrug lifting one shoulder. "I don't know what to say. I'm--"

"Don't." Warner held up a hand. "Don't apologize. You were here."

"Your life was in this building."

"And I still have it," she replied. "That life. Papers, Olivia. Certificates and plaques. Books I probably should have thrown out after I graduated. I'm alive. You and Fin got out alive." She shrugged slightly. "I consider it a pretty generous trade-off."

Benson bent her head. "Not everyone got that lucky."

Warner paused here. Olivia waited for emotion, and it came, just not like she'd expected. "No. But I believe it was instant. I don't grieve for Dante. Neither should you. Considering where he is now, the ones we should feel sorry for are ourselves." Something caught her eye and she grunted and stooped to pull a rectangular and crusty item out from under the melted and disfigured carcass of a plastic chair. A small smile spread across her dark features. It was the kind of expression Olivia had come to associate solely with her. Unassuming and wise. Gentle, quiet.

And stronger than steel.

What Melinda Warner dealt with was ten-fold times more taxing than what her counterparts did. Olivia had Elliot to lean on when they arrived on a scene. If it was a tough one they faced it together and helped each other through any repercussions. They only speculated causes and conditions...Warner saw the whole story. She reconstructed it. She had to see in the most gruesome detail the last moments of a human being's life. If they died violently she had to re-live the circumstances behind every injury, listen to silent stories of torture and pain. She was the first person privy to and intimate with the nature, the evil, behind the deaths that cried for her expertise to justify. She no longer had an Elliot Stabler to help her shoulder that kind of emotional overload when she met with it. That person had been taken from her.

Olivia suddenly felt a deep sadness sweep through her, making her chest tight and leaving her full of a bone-deep shame. In nearly five years of working alongside her she had seriously underestimated the woman before her. Grossly underappreciated what she did every day. She'd never gotten it. And Elliot had once told her he thought her strong? No. She was looking at strength - and there wasn't a mirror in sight.

"How can you not be angry?" Olivia asked incredulously, the whisper of her voice betraying that emotion was not far behind. "Insanely angry? Part of our lives have been destroyed. By people we just expect to have our backs. You get your knee blown out, Dante's dead, your building burns to the ground. Because of a cop, for God's sake. Cases we've spent months on get tossed, perps walk, department's facing a lawsuit.. How..." She stopped and sniffed, glad she could lie and blame the threatening runniness on the icy air. "How do we reconcile with that? With ourselves?" She shook her head and looked away. "We missed so many signals."

"We're not superheroes, Olivia."

Olivia let out a short, sharp almost derisive laugh and wiped her nose with a tissue she'd dug from her coat pocket. " 'You can't pick the vic'. That's what Captain Cragen told me when I was green. Couldn't pick the victims that came through the department." She stuffed the tissue back in its pocket. "The department was the victim this time, Melinda. Us. So how do you stand there," she waved a hand at Warner, "in the middle of your gutted out office and spout off this rhetoric about fairness? I mean, I'm looking at you holding this fried picture frame and thinking 'How can she do that?' Our own damn infrastructure failed us, failed the population we're sworn to protect. How can you be ready to be out there saving New York City again?"

There was a poignant pause. Warner stared at the ruined picture frame in her hands a moment, then looked at the somewhat broken and world-weary detective in front of her. She closed the space between them and, lifting the woman's good arm, placed the frame in that hand.

"Because somebody has to."

With a gentle smile and a compassionate squeeze of Olivia's elbow she turned, limping noticeably, and carefully picked her way back towards the curb.

Olivia's eyes followed her for a second, then she looked down at the blackened frame she'd been given. She was jolted and thought left her. Kodak photo paper was brown and curled at the edges but, like the young body pulled from the soggy remains of Marcus Cain's home in Chaumont what felt like so many weeks ago, glass had protected the majority of the picture from flame.

A year ago the precinct had been snowed in. It was Munch's birthday that day. They'd had an hour or so respite from casework, so in a pitch for levity to the situation they'd emptied the vending machines in the break room and stuck toothpicks in the nasty pink frosting of unwrapped Grandma's Cookies stacked six high. Fin had one arm around Warner's shoulders, the other around an annoyed looking John's. Elliot had Olivia wrapped from behind, back to chest and holding her wrists to keep her in front of the camera. Alex was trying to stop the cookie-cake from toppling on its side on the desk and Captain Cragen was pointing at the camera with his mouth open, mid direction giving as the flash had gone off and Huang had sealed the image in time. Every one of them was smiling.

The warmth suddenly surging in Benson's chest scattered the cold depression that had been fogging her heart in anger and the air around her, inside her, didn't seem quite so chilled. Tears trailed down one cheek and glinted fire in the continually failing light and she looked back up, watching Warner's retreating silhouette. Her stricken expression was mingled with one of a deep respect as the doctor's husband helped her into the passenger seat and the car pulled away from the curb.

xxx

-Epilogue-

The precinct is quiet. Many of the building's main lights are off and the hallways are mostly deserted. Elevators are still. The phones do not ring. Another night has replaced day in New York, the precinct waits for its graveyard shift to clock in, and the Manhattan Special Victims Unit squad room is void of the men and woman that comprise it. The desks look the same as they did the day the current members of the team were assigned.

Except for one.

On one there is a rectangular 3x5 picture frame that was not there two months ago sitting near the top of the desk next to the pen holder. Dimmed after-hours lighting plays over the frame, creating a soft glare across brushed sterling silver. A captain, four detectives, a medical examiner and an assistant district attorney smile from their respective poses in front of a profiler cameraman that is hidden from view. The edges of the photograph itself are brown and curled, but glass has been replaced, photo paper carefully cleaned, and the memory again properly preserved.

What no one but the self-appointed curator of this picture knows is there, however, is the message that has since been carefully written in ink on the back of the delicate paper.

"Because somebody has to."

It's a simple phrase. But simplicity struck a cord in the core of a woman who had forfeited perspective to anger and abandoned purpose for despair, restoring both qualities to sharp focus and holding them in pristine condition.

She created her own drive years ago when she made the decision to become a cop and had joined the squad.

But this has become her mantra.

In her own heart or aloud to lift the heart of another, her resolve is the same...

It will not be the last time these words are spoken.

End Story

A/N - Many, many thanks to everyone who's reviewed (you know who you are:D ), to those who emailed asking after me when I went AWOL, to kukrae for nudging me after every chapter to continue and write the next one, and my friend Tammy for plugging little ideas into me when Stabler gave me the snub :) Cheers to another good ride, thanks to you all, and here's hoping maybe I get the gumption again to write something else.