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You don't know there's a trampoline in the room, you're not gonna dust the ceiling for prints

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He is promises broken like seashells, sharp enough to cut through the thick, fleshy parts of her, the places where it's all skin and muscle and nerves so it bleeds forever and hurts worse than anything before it. He doesn't see it, when he trips over pinned in confessions in the busy hall. She doesn't see it, when her face falls and her fists clench around nothing and she's his friend.

He's seemingly indestructible, hard and helplessly cruel, shattered into pieces that cut her when she isn't looking. He tells her, finally, and she's his partner so his confession was too late the morning after it happened when he didn't say anything.

Elliot looks away, and she bites her lip, her eyes narrowed the way she looks at suspects when they just aren't talking. She brings him coffee and he can't meet her eye.

This isn't how it starts; this is how it ends.

He can't meet her eye and she has questions she won't ask and he won't answer and she's his friend.

 

    i.

It's one of those cases that keeps them all there too long. Keeps them flipping through files and answering calls and racking their brains until there's nothing left but coffee strong enough to stand on its own, swishing and swirling like ocean waves in empty, rumbling stomachs. There are stale donuts on someone's desk, take-out menus that they can't stand the sight of one more day and they don't realize they need food.

They walk in death and hurt, everyday. Every day they wade through pain like no person should know and sometimes they never find the answers—the closure, the one fact hidden in a city of millions of them—to make it worth it.

Olivia crouches down when the victim walks in. She's six years old and blonde, even has pigtails to complete the cliché. "Hello, Sarah," Olivia says softly, and it takes a while to remember she can be this soft. It slips her mind when she's got a gun strapped to her side and Elliot half a step away. It slips everyone's mind. "How are you today?"

Sarah isn't fine. She's six, with pigtails and pink capris, because this isn't the seventies and no little girl walks around in dresses all the time, her arm is broken, in a pink cast, and she's got twelve stitches in her cheek from a knife that CSU can't find anything on. Long after the stitches are gone and the cast is off they'll still be there. She isn't fine, and some days it's impossible not to wonder if any of the little girls ever are again, but she says she is, under her breath, quiet enough that no one else can hear.

"I'm glad," Olivia answers, and smiles too brightly, more brightly than she means it. "We need you to look at some pictures for us, okay?"

Another mother starts crying, and it's the same thing all over again. They don't have lunch, or dinner, or breakfast or a good reason to go home at night. The pictures are useless and it's no surprise.

 

    ii.

She spills coffee over an open file from '96 and it's a wonder that it doesn't eat through the paper, the desk, the floor. The coffee tastes enough like battery acid that it's always a wonder when it doesn't chew through everything. She swears loud enough to wake up Fin, who was snoring at his desk, crime scene photos from the 80s spread out in front of him.

There's something in that that could make anyone's stomach turn, the way they're so used to it now that they can sleep over it. That they can sleep at all.

Olivia's shirt is wrinkled, and she mops up coffee with tissues from an almost empty box on her desk until her fingers are stained with it. Stained dark like it'll never come out.

Elliot watches, his chin cupped in his palm, elbow propped on his desk like that's the only thing keeping him sitting and maybe, maybe it is. His eyes are half-closed, heavy and tired. Munch is out in a bunk in the back and that's not the worst idea ever, maybe, but Fin is packing up his shit and muttering about going home where there's a real shower, but it buzzes, half heard, through Elliot's ears.

"Fuck," Olivia, mutters, and, "'night, Fin," absently, like an afterthought. Her eyes are dark because her make-up is smeared, and she doesn't wear it often enough that they notice when she does. Her fingertips are damp with coffee stains when they press into her eyes, and he'd suggest that she get some sleep but he knows her better. They know each other better. Her mouth is raw, from her teeth and her worry and too many hours in this place where the stacks of paper and the walls are closing in.

"Fuck," she says again, and she's a cop in New York City so it's not unusual, but it is. Makes her mouth look dirty or something. Makes her sound like a girl for once. Like she's seventeen in a short skirt with a drink in her hand looking to impress the older men. She drops her hands to curl her fingers around the curling, dampened pages of the file, around nothing, around what she keeps uselessly hoping is something.

And he thinks, well, he thinks maybe and he thinks that it's funny, but mostly he thinks that it's stupid, really. It's stupid that Kathy gave him that choice, because he's an old man now, he's tired and broken and old and this wasn't a choice, it just was.

Olivia bites her bottom lip, and her fingernails are short, blunt and they scrape along the edge of a photograph of a girl. "Elliot," she says, and she sounds breathless, like she's just emerging from a marathon. "I think this one's him."

 

    iii.

He's stupid, sometimes. Rash and stupid, when his blood is boiling because some bastard scum who gets off on—

The skin on his knuckles is raw, broken and there's a thin sheen of blood clotting there and her fingers are shaking, just a little bit, just slightly, when she sits a cup of coffee down on the corner of his desk. She doesn't say anything, just keeps her jaw clenched a little too tight and sits on the corner of his desk when she pours a styrofoam cup of ice into a plastic bag. She looks, maybe, as pissed off as his mother always did when he came home with his hands like this. And maybe she looks as scared as he doubts she ever really is, when they grab her like that.

She's got a gun strapped to her side all the time, and she's a better shot than Elliot, and he knows that. But she goes through files and interviews girls who've been raped and bloodied up, and she lives with all this pain everyday and she cares more than will ever be healthy for any cop, especially one here, to care.

And sometimes it's hard to walk out of here at night without feeling invincible. Some days it's hard to walk out of here at all. Cragen is in with IAB, because the motherfucker filed a complaint and Olivia has bruises on her arm hidden by the sleeve of her jacket. She doesn't make a fuss about being able to take care of herself though, she just ties the top of the grocery sack with ice and slaps it on his knuckles.

It's not forgiveness because he doesn't need it. They've got the bastard on assaulting a police officer if nothing else, so they've got time now that they didn't before.

There are five open cases on the right side of his desk and ten cold ones on the left of hers and if they can connect them all to this bastard then maybe, if they're lucky, they'll actually be able to sleep tonight.

 

    iv.

His name is Paul Canton, and he's got a live-in girlfriend named Tina, with make-up caked around her eye and the sickening green-yellow of an old bruise showing through. Nothing, she says, there's nothing, he didn't do it, he wouldn't do it, never, it's nothing.

Her little girl is four, with dark curls and big eyes, and she's got two more years if she's lucky, because some women don't see what they don't want to.

She gives them nothing, but Olivia walks out of there with her lip curling around her teeth, angry like she wasn't before. So maybe she gave them more than she meant to.

 

    v.

"I don't care what he says," Elliot, well, doesn't shout exactly because his job has been hanging by a thread before so he knows when screaming isn't going to help, but it's something very, very close to that. The captain's door is closed and the IAB officer is a bitch in high heels and a pinstriped suit that barely closes in the front. She's something straight out of a porn movie and that's probably the only thing that's kept people from hating her out of her job. His fingertips are pressed tight, bloodless, into the back of the chair he's supposed to be sitting in and the room seems too small.

"Detective Stabler," she says, her voice too fucking prim and polite, like if it weren't for her tits she'd be a librarian, "I understand that you and Detective Benson have been together for—"

"He grabbed my partner. I did what any other officer in this city would do."

"You don't think she could have taken care of herself?"

"I don't think that's the issue," Cragen interrupts, "Detective Benson has never not been able to do her job, and no one in this department will thank you for implying otherwise."

"I wasn't—"

"Are we done here," Elliot asks, looking over her head at Cragen. "We've got an interview with the suspect's mother across town and if we're not there on time there's a chance she'll bolt."

"Don't think this won't go on your record, Detective," the bitch sneers, sniffing all haughty like she's never been disregarded before. "And you can only have so many more marks against you."

She leaves before Elliot can, her ass swaying with every step and through the open door he can see Munch stop to watch her walk away. "You need to nail this guy," Cragen says, and it's nothing Elliot didn't already know.

 

    vi.

The mother is Annette Canton, in her late sixties with her hair just graying and wrinkles around her eyes that get deeper the longer they talk. She makes Olivia tea that smells like cinnamon and apples, an edge of spice that follows Olivia around for the rest of the day. The sofa sinks down almost to the floor when he sits on it.

"You have to understand," Mrs. Canton whispers, softly, into the curve of her own teacup, her fingers wrapped tight around blue and white china like she's leaching the heat from it so it'll give her the nerve to finish. "Paul didn't have the best childhood. It was rough. When he was a baby his daddy was killed and—"

It's nothing they haven't heard a thousand times before. Olivia leans forward in her seat, her tea cradled between her palms, her fingers almost laced over it and her eyes wide and soft, like she understands, and the old ladies never don't love her when she looks like that. She twists her wrist a little bit, so the bruise this lady's poor, misunderstood son gave her is peeking out from under her sleeve. It's dark against her skin, and she's pale from too many days kept shut up in dark rooms at the precinct looking through dust covered files and photographs.

Mrs. Canton's eyes lower, drop and fill with tears, like she can see her baby's fingerprints all over it. Like she can she her baby's fingerprints all over all of it. "You want to know about the sealed record from when he was a minor, right?" she asks, her mouth pinched and her shoulders straight.

They didn't know about a sealed record at all, but Olivia is good at faking. On the edge of her seat and this is going to be good. This might not be it, but it'll be close. You don't spend this many years doing the job without knowing when you're close. Olivia nods, still smiling softly, coaxing the response she wants just like she does with little girls, harmless so she doesn't scare them away. "If you—"

"There was a girl lived down the street from us at the time, a pretty little then all knees and elbows, always had her hair in braids. One night when she was seven she didn't come home from school on time, now the whole neighborhood was looking for her, searching high and low, there was a cop who lived on the corner that called in a favor when she wasn't home by dinnertime. Paul was fifteen, and I don't know how it was I didn't notice him not being home either, guess I was just caught up in the rush of looking for Emily. Guess you know how it's going to go. Andy, the cop, found 'em both holed up in the basement at the elementary school, there were pictures everywhere of Emily crying as he carried her out. Paul made a deal with the DA, so he pled guilty and spent six months in a halfway house for kidnapping. He said it was all a mistake, you know, said he was just keeping her company and didn't realize the time."

"Did you believe him?"

"At the time," Mrs. Canton sighs, she's got the faraway look that every parent they've ever interviewed who knew has had. "But then his six months were up and I'd had to move while he was in there. I don't know how long it was, after that, maybe a year? I was putting his laundry in his room and found clippings of Emily poking out from under his bed. He was always more… angry, after that. And the way he'd watch the girls play sometimes… I kept an eye on him though, it wasn't easy working all the time, keeping food on the table, but until the day he moved out I can say for certain that he never went near any other little girls."

 

    vii.

She flips through the pages of another case in the passenger's seat while he drives, and every time she turns the page the bruise on her arm peeks out again and again and this time she doesn't even notice. He's worked with her long enough to know when she's doing something on purpose.

Olivia is too good to be this clumsy when she's just looking for a response. She's had too much practice to be this obvious.

"How did we miss it?" she asks and bites her lip like that'll make the answer come to her quicker, and he doesn't know, but her bruise flashes again, hard, dark purple with the edges sharp against her skin, and he's got his fingers gripping the wheel too tightly and the urge to do something stupid again.

 

    viii.

It's easier to trace him than it should be, they go through the addresses on his DMV record and old case files. It's too easy, in the hard way that makes his stomach twist still, no matter how long he's been at this, because for every address there's a little girl, and only half of them made it out alive.

They line up pictures all across the board and the path is pretty fucking clear.

There are four victims they can interview before the day is up if they time it right. If traffic is slightly less of a bitch than it usually is. One of them is sixteen and doesn't want to talk, and they don't press her. The second has a scar that runs along her collarbone that stands out sharp, harsh against her dark skin and all she remembers is passing out and that hasn't changed since she was seven at all. The third is at soccer practice, she's twelve and she still flinches when people get close to her.

Number four is the kicker though, she's ten years-old with a puckered scar that runs the length of her palm that she's more than happy to show them. Her features are set, determined, strong and really fucking stubborn. Her mother stands beside her with a smile, her arms crossed in front of her, and it's always been clear to him where girls get their strength. One way or another.

Olivia doesn't use the voice she usually does with kids. They've got six mug shots in a plastic sleeve and she hands them over and the kid probably watches too much TV because she doesn't need to be told what to do. "This one," she says, and points at Paul Canton. And that's really all they need.

 

    ix.

He hangs up the phone with a sort of satisfied click that makes him want to smile in a grim, gallows humor sort of way. Olivia walks into the squad room with lunch from the deli, and he didn't bother to give her an order, and she didn't bother to ask.

That's a bonus to working with someone this long, because she knows without having to be told what it is that he wants.

He thinks it's a little weird when he thinks about it, because he can't tell you how Kathy takes her coffee in the morning, but he could walk into any place in a three block radius and order for Olivia without thinking.

She hands him his sandwich and he nods, and figures it could probably all be melting down to predictability. They've got that in spades with the things they can control. "He'll be here in a couple of hours," Elliot says, around a mouthful of turkey and swiss. "The bastard has his bail hearing first thing in the morning, so we can't wait."

"Why would we want to?" she asks, and sometimes the best thing in his life is having someone who knows exactly how it is.

 

    x.

Huang stands behind the window for a long time, and Elliot and Olivia just wait. This is one time they don't mind waiting, it's always more fun to let him sweat it out, staring at pictures of little girls they've got taped up to an old chalkboard they wheeled in just before setting him down and walking out so he had no choice but to look.

And he's sweating like a pig, his eyes there and away again, wrists cuffed and fists clenched around nothing on top of the table. With any luck he knows they're watching.

"He's angry," Huang says, finally, his fingertips resting on the dirty ledge of the window through. "The longer he looks at the pictures… Elliot, how did he react when you hit him?"

"Started crying," Olivia answers for him, her mouth curving in a smile that isn't friendly at all. Isn't much of anything. "He was a real tough guy."

"But he was angry with you?"

Olivia snorts, keeps her hands behind her back, leaning against the wall, and says, "No, I'm sure he grabbed me because he thought it would be funny."

"You should go in and talk to him." Huang looks away from the window slowly, his head turning toward them before his eyes follow, like he can't stand to look away. There's something about psychologists and watching people shut up along in small rooms that just never fails to creep him out. And Huang does it too, like it's too fascinating to look away. "Alone," he says, when Olivia moves and Elliot follows her.

It's the dumbest idea he's ever heard.

 

    xi.

"Don't," she says, with a smile, "bother getting up." She paces in front of the chalkboard of pictures just because she can and Paul Canton is chained to his chair. "I'm sure you remember me, I'm Detective Benson, my partner's the one who did that to your face."

"He won't get away with it."

"Get away with what, Paul? He was just doing his job."

"Listen, you can't—I don't have to talk to you, and I want my lawyer."

"That's fine," Elliot says, slamming the door behind him. "We'll get your lawyer for you right away." He smiles as he tapes up an 8x10 of Emily Portland from a newspaper article Mrs. Canton handed over to them. "I'm sure he'll be here in a few hours at the most."

"You can't—"

"Funny thing is, Paul?" Elliot says, and does a damn good job of keeping his tone even, as he spreads his palm out on the table, fingers fanned out and knuckles bruised. "We can."

"I didn't—"

"I'm sorry, we can't speak to you until your attorney arrives," Olivia says, and her sleeves are down, so there's not a hint of a bruise on her. She's got her spine straight and her mouth set and her gun at her hip and sometimes there's nothing about her that doesn't bleed strength.

"I don't need my fucking attorney. I didn't touch Emily," Paul shouts, thin blond hair matting to his forehead with sweat and he's red-faced with anger. "I never touched her."

"Come on, Paul, not even your mom believes that. They found her with you, you were caught red handed with that little girl and who knows…"

"I didn't! I never touched her and she just didn't say. She's just a bitch, they all are. They're liars, they deserve what they got! Every day they stood there, just mocking me, just laughing at me, just waiting until they could send me back to that place! I was just protecting myself!"

"So you did it?" Olivia says, her lips red and her face flushed, and her hand slams down palm-flat on the table where Elliot's had just been. "So you raped them? Cut them? Killed them?"

"I was just protecting myself! I did what I had to before they sent me back there," Paul Canton shouts, and there are tears at the corners of his tightly closed eyes, he's shaking like he's so pissed off he can't stand it and the horrible thing is that Elliot's seen enough to know when they're getting off on an insanity plea. "You don't understand. They were after me."

"The oldest one was eight, Paul, I've been in this job a long time, you know how many eight year-olds I've come across that were plotting to bring anyone down?"

"You don't understand," he cries. "You don't understand. I never touched Emily."

The really sickening thing is that Elliot thinks it might be true.

 

    xii.

"You're off the case," Cragen says, and sounds a lot more pissed off than he usually does. This is another one of those Elliot and Olivia Fucked Up moments, and Elliot could swear he prepared the speeches before hand. "Both of you. Nothing he said is admissible, and you should both know better by know. When he said he wanted an attorney—"

"Come on, Captain, it's not our fault that he kept talking after that."

"No, but you're still off the case. We've got evidence on him without it, enough that we don't need it, and I'm not going to let anything else get thrown out of court. Go home and get some sleep, I'll see you both in the morning."

 

    xiii.

Olivia doesn't drink often. She still drinks like it's an indulgence (comes from growing up where it was a way of life) so it's rare but she doesn't usually bother with anything mixed when she doesn't have to. Nothing frozen or blended or blue. She orders scotch and swallows it like doesn't burn: she's always been tougher than he thinks, and he thinks she's. Well, it's obvious what he thinks.

Sometimes they leave work and this is all they can do. She's got an empty apartment and he's got a house he can't fit into with all the people shoved in so tight. And this is better anyway, to get it out of the way before he has to go home and argue with Kathy about how she won't turn the lamp off and he's never there until he has to leave again.

His stomach is churning, and he's having what she's having just because he can.

It's quiet here, surprisingly, and the lights are low so they don't have to look at anything if they don't want to. The bar is this deep, dark, rich wood, and it's cupped with metal that shines enough so he can watch her reflection, the way she wets her lips before she takes a drink, the way her fingers tap on her chin, the way she sighs.

This isn't the way it's supposed to be, and he knows it. She probably knows it too, but she's not saying anything at all. Her eyes are lowered, lashes dark across her cheeks and this isn't how it's supposed to go at all.

 

    xiv.

They slip out through a door in the back, and Elliot doesn't know whose idea it was or which one of them followed the other. She leans back against the brick, which is probably dirtier than a frat boy's bathroom floor, with neon in the distance making her skin look yellow and the dark making her eyes look black.

"Elliot," she says, and there's a rush of traffic on the street so he can't really hear her and he probably doesn't want to, but he steps closer anyway. "Did this used to be easier?"

He shakes his head because he can't do anything else, his head is swimming a little bit and he hasn't slept in just enough hours to make the alcohol really fuck with him. But it's the truth too, because this was never easier, none of it was. It's been harder some days though, so maybe that's good for something. Maybe.

They got the bad guy anyway. He's off the streets for a while at least. That's gotta count from something at the end of the day just to make it worth the knowing.

She leans her head back against the wall behind her, and it's filthy because everything in this city is, dark alleys are not exempt in the least, and there's a dumpster that's overflowing what seems like right next to her. She leans her head back at looks up at the sliver of sky that can be seen between the cracks of the rooftops of buildings, where the jutting edges fade out to sky that doesn't do anything but reflect the lights. New York is a bubble you can't get out of, and she swallows hard like she's drowning, and he watches her throat and the way it moves like there's something stuck there, and she looks like maybe she could cry and he's pretty sure that would be the worst thing ever.

They've seen too much though, too many dead kids and pregnant twelve-year-olds and little girls trying to be brave. The pedophiles always have a reason; it doesn't stop the rest of the world from being sick at the results. She said she was too emotional and he got sent home for not being emotional enough and now he can't stand to be there and he's pretty sure she can't stand to be here.

And he's got an answer, he does, but it's trapped by the way her name is stuck in the back of his throat so he settles for putting his hand on her shoulder.

Olivia laughs, turns her head so it brushes across the back of his knuckles and she's— Her mouth is raw-wet-red and she hasn't had enough to drink. He hasn't had enough to drink for this to be okay. She laughs, and it sounds shaky, it trembles with her, her hair is soft against the back of his hand when she's just like that. Tilted that way, bent in toward him. Like something he never got the point of, not really, like poetry, and he's wearing his wedding ring when he kisses her.

 

    xv.

Her mouth is hot, burns like alcohol and flows just as well. Slick-slippery, red and he never thought about this because he shouldn't. Her fingernails are a blunt-sharp press against the back of his neck, and he never thought about this because he wouldn't.

He cups her jaw in one hand, his thumb pressing against the open corner of her mouth, kisses her like he's drowning, maybe, like he's the one who can't get air and it's not that far off. He can't breathe at all and he shouldn't be doing this, but her fingertips are shaking, cold and scared against the top of his spine and he can't stop, won't stop, it's not always that different.

"Liv," he says, finally, against his fingers, against her cheekbone, "Christ," he says, and thinks it should probably lead to an apology. An explanation. Something. It should lead to something. "Christ," he repeats, under his breath but they're close enough she can hear it anyway. She shivers and he presses his mouth back to hers, his thumbpad hooks under the thick width of her belt, scrapes leather as his knuckle scrapes the skin of her belly and makes her shiver all over again.

She shifts, or he does maybe, probably it's him, and he ends up pressing her against the brick just to touch, elbow to wrist against the wall next to her head holding his weight and it's stupid because the yellow from the neon catches his wedding ring and he doesn't notice it at all. She gasps, and her hand slips under his jacket to press against his side and he thinks for one frantic, stilling moment that she's going to push him away and he'd deserve it and she's probably going to want a transfer and he'll have to work with Munch and then he'll become a murderer and what is wrong with him, but she clenches her fingers into a fist of his shirt and just holds for a second until she pulls and he can't be still any longer. He's been still for six years.

His elbow slips, and he catches himself with his palm and scrapes it hard and God, he's too old for this shit. But Olivia arches up into him, mouth parting from his in a gasp, and he'll be damned if he's the one that says it. He settles the palm of his other hand on the curve of her thigh, holds on tight, right there, her pants wrinkling in his grip.

And if it's all gonna go to shit then this is a damn fine way to go.

 

    xvi.

Afterwards she's quiet, as he kisses her again before she ducks into a cab, just lightly, just a dry slide of his lips against her mouth, against her cheek when she pulls away too soon. He closes the door for her, and through a brain fuzzy with getting and alcohol he thinks that was a terrible goodbye. The cab smelled liked piss, and he watches it drive away, until it turns the corner at a red light, and isn't up to regret just yet.

He's still wearing his wedding ring and he thinks he might be sick.

 

    xvii.

In the morning she brings him coffee, because that's what she always does. It's not forgiveness because he doesn't need it. It's not anything, really, except habit.

They've got habits—between the two of them they've got a shitload—that they fall into easily. He's got a headache that won't quit and he thinks maybe his life is falling apart. She brings him coffee and he passes her a jelly donut on a paper napkin and they open the files on their desks.

"Do you think," she asks, with jelly on the corner of her mouth, "that we could find Emily?"

Falling apart is definitely the right term for his life, and he just goes on like it's every other day.

 

    xviii.

He tells her in the hallway because he has to, he can't meet her eye because he can't explain why.

Her eyes flash something dangerous, and her teeth clamp down on her bottom lip like she's got something she isn't going to say, but she wants to and that's the thing. She's got questions and he doesn't have any answers. He doesn't have anything. He's broken down to habits involving coffee and no sleep and throwing himself head first into work because there's nothing else he'd rather do. It's like a memory of a life, except the only thing that's really different is that when he goes home at night he can sleep.

She raises her hand to press her fingers against his arm to offer comfort, friendship, understanding. Something. She touches his arm and the bruise on hers is yellow, like her skin under really fucking awful neon signs, and she says she's sorry and he can't decide if that's just another way of offering empty comfort or not.

And he can't look at her, really, because he can't make himself apologize.