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Yes, 'SVU' fans! After over 20 years, Stabler said *those* 3 words to Benson

Since it came in the middle of an emotional intervention, we have a lot of questions.
/ Source: TODAY

"Law & Order: SVU" fans got to hear three critical words that some have been waiting decades to hear said between former detective partners Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson.

"I love you."

The whole family was on hand for the intervention, including Benson (Mariska Hargitay).
The whole family was on hand for the intervention, including Benson (Mariska Hargitay).@lawandordertv / Twitter

Yep, after over 22 years of knowing each other, Stabler actually came out and said it while talking to her on "L&O: Organized Crime" on Thursday. Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, and Stabler, played by Christopher Meloni, were first paired up on "SVU" when the show premiered in 1999.

That said, it was not exactly a romantic setting when it happened. For those just catching up, here's the scene, which the show tweeted out immediately after the episode ended:

"This isn't an easy conversation for Stabler," read the tweet, along with the video.

Right, so let's rewind a bit: Stabler's daughter Kathleen had asked Benson to be on hand for an intervention with her dad, who's also a new widower. She emphasized all of his kids would be there, and told Benson, "It won't work unless you're part of it."

Stabler, as fans know, was never the most ... well, stable of characters, and since coming back to New York City to work on the organized crime unit in the wake of his wife's death, he's been even more on edge. In just a couple of episodes he's gotten seriously beaten up, snapped at everyone around him, kept secrets, told Benson to back all the way off, and in Thursday's episode was so distracted he caused a car accident, with his young son in the car. (Everybody was OK.)

Sounds like an intervention was definitely necessary.

Is this the face of a man (Christopher Meloni, Stabler) in love?
Is this the face of a man (Christopher Meloni, Stabler) in love?@lawandordertv / Twitter

But then came that scene. Caught off guard, Stabler at first seemed a bit conciliatory, then got twitchy, then hid behind the "talk to my superior officer" mode when Benson stepped up to let him know everyone was concerned. He was throwing everything out there to get them to leave him alone.

And then came: "I love you." Said, it appeared, to his ex-partner, confidant and friend of decades.

Benson (Hargitay) has no idea what to do with this information.
Benson (Hargitay) has no idea what to do with this information.@lawandordertv / Twitter

The beat on Benson's face — bemused, mostly, but not exactly shutting the words out — was priceless.

Fans, unsurprisingly, went bananas:

But then Stabler reacted, seeming to hear what he'd said, and followed it up by shaking his head, tearing up and adding, "I love all of you ... I don't think I can to do this." And after a little more discussion, he blamed them all for being a "weight" that was dragging him down ... and hightailed it out of there.

Now, that wasn't all we learned about Stabler and Benson Thursday; he repeatedly left messages on her phone, and she appeared not to want to pick up. But wasn't it actually an admission of amor? Are these two people about to fall into a romance?

Image: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Meloni and Benson on "Law and Order: SVU" in 1999.Jessica Burstein / NBC

Love affairs among characters in the "L&O"-verse aren't unheard of; on the mothership Claire Kincaid and Jack McCoy engaged in an almost-entirely-off-camera affair pairing for years. But it's not usually part of the show's DNA to let things get too squishy between even its leads. So ... we're gonna have to consider this a wait and see action for right now.

Not that big fans aren't hoping! Even Hargitay retweeted this amazing compilation of images featuring Stabler and Benson through the years:

The hashtag read simply: #elliotlovesolivia.

And no matter how the show decides to spin things going forward, we'll always have that.