Olivia Benson was having a bad day when the phone on her desk rang. Actually, it had been a bad week, a miserable month and if she cared to admit it to herself, a rotten six months. Work had not been the same since her partner, Elliot Stabler, had walked off the job without so much as a good-bye.

She understood the reasons why he'd left, but not why he felt he needed to shut her out of his life. They'd been together for twelve long years and while they'd had their ups and downs, she'd thought they were friends as well as partners. More than friends, in some respects, but never lovers as so many people had accused them of being over the years. There had always been a bit of a spark between them, a chemistry that made the job more interesting, but Elliot was married and well, they were partners. Mixing business with pleasure didn't add up in this line of work when distractions could cost you your life.

Maybe they weren't as close as she thought, since Elliot hadn't even bothered to tell her he was putting in his papers. She'd had to hear that gem from their boss, Captain Cragen and it was a moment she never wanted to relive again. She'd felt totally betrayed and alone when the Captain had taken her into his office and given her the news. How could Elliot do that to her? Ignore all of her calls for weeks and then just quit without so much as giving her a heads up? Screw him.

Or maybe it was because they were too close that he hadn't been able to talk to her. Fin, one of the other detectives in their unit told her he was probably afraid she'd try to talk him out of it, but she'd seen the pity in Fin's eyes and wondered if he was just blowing smoke up her ass to make her feel better. He and his partner John had a tempestuous relationship, but she doubted either of them would quit on the other without warning.

Either way, Elliot was gone and now work seemed like just that: work. She'd always loved her job, despite the heartbreak she saw on a daily basis. Knowing that what she was doing made a difference helped her get through the ugliness of the cases. Now that Elliot was gone she was forced to admit that part of the appeal of the job had been working with him as her partner. After so many years together, he was the closest thing to family she had. As she used to point out to him when he tried to give her advice, he was the longest male relationship of her life. Or at least he had been, until he'd left NYPD—and her.

Going to work was no longer something she looked forward to. Adjusting to the two new detectives who'd been hired—wouldn't Elliot get a kick out of knowing it had taken two people to replace him?—was just more effort that she wanted to put in. She dreaded getting out of bed in the mornings and left as soon as she could when the work day was over.

When the phone rang, she was in the middle of showing one of the new people, for at least the fourth time, how to fill out the end-of-the- month statistical forms required by 1PP. Glad to have a break, she snatched up the receiver.


"Can you meet me in the coffee shop on the corner in ten minutes?" The arrogant voice on the other end didn't bother with a greeting or introduction, but jumped right to the point, as was his custom.

"Porter. What is this about?" She hadn't spoken to the obnoxious Federal agent in almost a year, since their paths had last crossed on a kidnapping case back when Elliot was still with the department.

"I'll fill you in when you get there," he snapped, impatient as always.

"We're not working any cases together." She commented, loving the opportunity to get a rise out of him.

"And we never will if you don't get your ass down to the coffee shop." The line went dead and Olivia replaced the receiver with a laugh. If he thinks he can just snap his fingers and I'll come running….

"Who was that?" asked Amanda Rollins in the soft southern drawl that drove Olivia crazy. She wondered sometimes if the woman hadn't really been born in NJ but affected the Georgia twang to stand out. It was the kind of snarky comment she would have shared with Elliot over coffee, but he, of course, wasn't around to share anything with.

Olivia eyed Rollins. She was a competent enough detective, but she'd had just about enough of her fawning and ass kissing. Rollins wanted to follow in her footsteps and Olivia…well, she just wanted to be left alone. She looked at the computer screen in front of her and made a snap decision.

"Um, that was a contact," she said vaguely, pushing back her chair and standing up. "I need to go out for a few minutes. We'll have to finish this later."

"Want me to come with you?" The younger woman was already hurrying to her desk to grab her coat. Olivia was tempted to pick up her stapler and fling it at the back of her overachieving head.

"No, this is something I need to do alone." She logged off her computer, reached for her own coat and was perversely happy to see the look of disappointment on Amanda's pretty face. God, I'm turning into a bitch.

"What should I tell the Captain if he asks where you went?"

Olivia turned and fixed her with a hard glare. Damned if I'm going to account for my whereabouts to this little twit! "If the Captain needs me, he can call my cell."

As she headed out of the precinct, she felt a twinge of shame at her treatment of her new sidekick, but only a small one. The girl—and that's how Olivia secretly thought of her, even though Rollins was in her early thirties—was a thorn in her side and it felt good to be getting away from her and heading toward a known quantity—even if it was Agent Dean Porter of the FBI. As much as she found Porter annoying, she felt a little frisson of excitement as she wondered what he wanted. In the past, he'd been her liaison when she was undercover on a case to find a violent fringe group in the eco-terrorism movement in Oregon. They'd also worked together, along with Elliot, on several joint cases with NYPD and the FBI. They'd fought over jurisdiction and had entirely different approaches to solving cases—but it had always been exciting to work with him. Right now, she could use a little excitement in her life.

As she entered the coffee shop, she saw Porter sitting in a corner table in the back—of course he would pick the most isolated table- along with another man. From the back, the man looked familiar, almost like… she felt a jolt in the pit of her stomach as the second man, seeing Porter's nod of recognition, turned to watch her approach. It was Elliot.

"Liv," he said, standing up and turning to her with a wide smile on his face. Behind the smile, his blue eyes were cautious, apprehensive, unsure of his welcome. She walked up to him and shoved at his chest with both hands, pushing him up against the back of his chair. Her face was a tight mask of anger.

"Glad to see you're still alive, partner," she said, almost hissing the last word. "Did you forget how to use a telephone?"

"Liv," he said again, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "I'm sorry, but…"

"You're sorry?" Her voice was too loud for the small café and people were turning to look at them but she didn't care. She hadn't realized just how angry she was until her ex-partner was standing here in front of her, looking a bit thinner, a bit grayer around the temples—but healthy and well. "Twelve years together and you can't even pick up a phone and give me a head's up that you're quitting? I didn't deserve even that much consideration?

"Benson…" Now Porter was half out of his seat as if he thought he might have to intervene like a teacher breaking up a schoolyard fight. That made her even angrier. What was Dean even doing here with Elliot? The two men hated each other and exchanged verbal potshots at every opportunity. Were they ganging up on her? She fixed him with a glare and he sat back down abruptly.

"Sit down and we'll talk," said Elliot, pulling out a chair for her. Suddenly, her anger was gone and she just felt…numb. She sank down into the chair and looked from one man to the other.

"What are you two even doing here together?" She asked. "You can't stand each other."

The two exchanged a glance that was almost conspiratorial. What the hell is going on?

"We're here to make you an offer," said Dean cautiously, as if expecting her to lunge across the table to slap him if he said too much. "Will you hear us out?"

Olivia felt like she'd entered another plane of reality, but she nodded, out of curiosity, if nothing else. This ought to be good.

There was an uneasy silence as the three of them sat around the small table, Olivia glaring, Elliot looking nervous and Porter unsure where to begin. Just as the awkwardness was beginning to border on downright discomfort, the FBI agent started speaking.

"I offered Stabler a job a few weeks ago," he began. Olivia had never seen him so clumsy. Porter didn't usually mince words or give a damn who he offended. Now he seemed to be choosing every word that left his mouth with utmost care, as if they had the potential potency of a nuclear bomb. Given her angry reaction, she supposed she couldn't blame him.

She looked at Elliot, who affirmed Porter's statement with a small nod, then returned his gaze to the surface of the table.

"So?" she asked, trying her best to sound disinterested and detached. "What has that got to do with me?"

Now Elliot looked up and met her gaze with those blue eyes that had always, always, mesmerized. When he looked at her like that, he could talk her into anything but she didn't want to be talked into anything today. She was too angry. Breaking eye contact, she looked down at his hands. Large, strong, rough, a plain gold band on the ring finger of his left hand, just as it always had been, as long as she had known him, the ring that said "off limits" as clearly as if it were speaking the words.

"I told Porter I wouldn't take the job unless he hired you too." Elliot said. Her eyes flew back up to his face. What is he saying?

"You…what?" she stammered. So much for detached, Benson.

He gave a soft, low chuckle. She wanted to kick him under the table. "I told him I wouldn't work for the agency unless you were there too."

Now she turned to look at Dean, her head spinning. For the past six months, she'd been under the assumption that Elliot left because he no longer wanted to work with her. Now he was saying he'd only work withher? This was too much to process, so she turned to Dean for a different perspective. What did the FBI want with two NYPD detectives? Even though they were both law enforcement agencies, they were often on opposite sides of the fence when it came to handling cases.

"I've been promoted to cover a large service area," Porter explained. "I won't be in the New York office all of the time. I was given permission to hire more people and," he paused, turning to look at Elliot, who raised his eyebrows in an amused expression. "even though Stabler and I have not always seen eye to eye in the past…" Olivia gave an audible snort at this blatant understatement. A faint red began to stain Porter's cheeks; it was evidently an effort for him to be this diplomatic. "…I respect his abilities and I knew he was…available." Another irony, but Olivia managed to stay in control this time, although she couldn't resist throwing Elliot a glance. He was back to staring the table. "The bottom line is, Stabler says he'll only come as a package deal with you. So—are you interested in working for the FBI, Olivia? I need two good people who can run point on cases when I'm busy elsewhere. I think you two would be perfect."

Now Olivia turned back to Elliot, a look of disdain and amusement on her face. "You can't pick up the phone to call me for six months, but you'll only work with me? What's up with that, Stabler?" Her tone was icy and it was clear that she was throwing down a challenge.

Dean stood up abruptly. "It's clear that you two have some things to talk about." He said, reaching for the coat on the back of his chair. "If you're interested, Olivia, give me a call and we can set up a time when the two of you can come to my office and we'll talk details. " He seemed anxious to make his exit before they started brawling in front of him, but paused on his way to the door.

"I do think you'd be an asset for the FBI, Benson." He said in an unusually gentle-for-him voice. "I didn't think of you immediately because you're still working for NYPD. But once Stabler suggested you two as partners, it made sense. You two were one of the best teams I've ever worked with. I'd be comfortable leaving you two in charge. After, of course," and his next statement sounded more like the haughty Porter they'd known for years "you have some training to get up to speed on FBI policies and procedures."

Olivia nodded in acknowledgement, not sure what to say. Had Dean Porter just given her a compliment? Maybe hell is freezing over.

Dean left and the awkward silence that had enveloped the table before suddenly seemed like a pleasant interlude compared to what fell over them now.

"So, Stabler," Olivia said, leaning forward and putting her face as close as she could get to his with the table between them. "Start talking. You got some "splaining to do."