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“I love you.”

Her heart stopped, breath caught in her throat. This isn’t what Olivia came here for. She didn’t ask for this, not now. She’d dreamt of Elliot saying those very words to her for decades, but she didn’t want to hear them like this. Not with his children around, when he’s still mourning Kathy’s loss like a fresh wound, when all she wanted to do was convince him to get help.

This is not what she had in mind.

And then he’s fidgeting, awkwardly shifting his weight and clearing his throat and a part of her fears he’ll take it back, pretend he never said it.

“I love all of you,” he finally says, backing away from her. They weren’t even close, not really, but as he stepped away she could finally breathe again.

The rest of the conversation is awkward, stilted, and then Elliot is gone before she or any of his children can stop him. She stays behind for a while, promising Kathleen she can help in any way possible, knowing this won’t be the last time they will have to approach Elliot about his PTSD. She knows him too well, even after all this time, to think that this failed intervention will do anything but make him ignore his problem further.

But for him, his family? Olivia will do anything to help them, anything to keep them together just as she had throughout their partnership. And if that meant ramping down the emotions she could feel coursing through her to sit down with Kathleen and figure out a better way to approach Elliot about this? Well, Olivia always could compartmentalize with the best of them.

She leaves not too long after Elliot, wondering where he might have gone to. At one point, back when they were still partners, just the two of them against the world, she would know exactly where he’d gone. But now there were ten years worth of distance between them, emotional walls erected and reinforced.

In the back of her mind, a corner she didn’t often allow herself to get lost in much anymore, she hoped he’d be outside her building with a cup of coffee. Waiting for her. She knew it wasn’t likely, not anymore, but she couldn’t stop herself from holding her breath as she got closer to her building in anticipation. Whether it was relief or sadness that flowed through her when she saw he wasn’t there she wasn’t sure, but she let out a breath and stood on the sidewalk for a moment.

There was a lot for her to think about, a lot she still hadn’t processed yet from Elliot’s return, and just as he felt as if he were drowning, so did Olivia. But she couldn’t dwell on it, not for long. She had a child to take care of and she couldn’t let Elliot Stabler take over her thoughts.

Not while Noah was still awake, that is.

So she let out one last breath, plastering a smile to her face before entering her building. She could put the night behind her, ignore those three words from Elliot, and give her son the attention he deserved before she put him to bed.

Later that night, however, when Noah was comfortably asleep, Liv found herself in her own bed staring at the ceiling in silence. Elliot’s voice filtered through her mind, repeating himself over and over again. “I love you.”

He had told her he loves her and she hadn’t replied, not to that. She let him change the subject, move on, forget he’d said it in the first place.

But she would never forget. There had been times in their 12 years together that she wanted to hear him say those three words, that she wanted to experience what it was like for him to admit verbally what he felt for her. She knew he never would, never could, not with Kathy and his family depending on him. And she would never be the one to broach the subject, not when she worked so hard to ensure he kept his family in one piece.

Instead, Liv found comfort in the ways he told her he loved her without using the words, and she had done the same to him. It was enough then, enough for both of them.

Now that he’d said it, now that the words were out in the universe, nothing less would ever be enough for her again. Part of her wanted to call him, to tell him she loved him in return, but he had run off so quickly, insisting he felt like he was drowning, and she couldn’t push him. Not about this.

So she stared at the dark ceiling above her, let his voice run through her mind over and over again until she felt as if she were floating somewhere between her place and his, until she had run through every way she could have possibly responded to him.

And when her phone rang, she ignored it. And kept ignoring it. If she answered, she knew she would say something she wasn’t ready for, that Elliot wasn’t ready for. Hearing him use those three words was one thing, using them herself was another. He was still mourning Kathy, watching as his whole life fell apart in front of his eyes. Judging by his reaction when he realized what he’d said, Liv figured he didn’t mean to say it. Not really.

So when he called again, she grabbed her phone to silence it. She’d just gotten him back, she couldn’t run him off. Not like this. If he wanted to change the subject, move along like he’d never said anything, Liv would let him. This was his show now, she would follow his lead.

And if that meant one more compartmentalization? It’s the least she could do.