Olivia moves on autopilot. With Lucy out the door, Olivia turns the deadbolt, chains the door. Her mind carefully blank, she moves to the kitchen, opens the dishwasher and uses all her concentration to put the dishes away quietly. The task done, she makes her way to her work bag, lifting out a set of files, intent on paperwork.
Staring at the manila folders in her hands, considering the laptop still stowed in the bag, she feels weary. The paperwork seems overwhelming, although in truth it is lighter than an average night. She doesn’t want to focus her eyes on anything, but is afraid a lack of focus will allow her mind to wander.
I love you
Work. She needs to work. But even as she sits down her brain skitters back. The look on his face as he said it. The infinite moment before he even realized. The stammered backtrack. It all kept looping through her brain, try as she might to shut it off.
He didn’t mean it. He did...but he didn’t. Not really. Not like that . Of course they cared about each other. Of course, even after a decade apart, he has this ability to read her, she feels that same click with him she always had, a key in a lock, a piece in a puzzle. So yes, calling him her best friend had always been inadequate. And yes, what they had was more than fondness.
But still. They didn’t use words like that. It skated too close for comfort. After all, he was married. They were partners. Expressing a deep emotion for someone could be misconstrued in a romantic fashion. And that’s not what they were. She had spent thirteen years convincing herself of that party line. Then a decade denying he had even meant all that much to begin with.
So he didn’t mean it like that . Her brain conjures up the look on his face as the words leave his lips. Her stomach clenches, her skin feels too hot, the mere memory a denial of her entire narrative. She decides a glass of wine is most definitely in order.
Olivia’s in the kitchen uncorking the bottle when her phone starts buzzing. Her eyes land on the screen and her heart stutters at the sight of his name. Before she can think her finger is hovering over the green button but just before she hits it she pauses. What is she going to say if she answers? What is he going to say?
The more honest part of her brain recognizes that his sudden reappearance has caused her carefully constructed world to fall off its axis. She had been doing a fair job of pretending otherwise, in spite of the letter, in spite of his ‘you mean the world to me’. And even though pretty much everyone else, Fin, Amanda, even Garland, could see through the charade, Olivia didn’t care. She had long come to believe in fake it till you make it.
But since those three little words she is quickly realizing the illusion of normalcy is over. And she isn’t ready in the least to confront what that means.
She pulls her hand away from the phone and resumes uncorking the wine bottle.
For the rest of the evening, she keeps her wine consumption to one glass. She finishes all her paperwork, answers a half dozen emails, and ignores multiple phone calls from him.
As she gets ready for bed she considers listening to the growing heap of voicemails, but again, afraid of his words, she decides instead to go to bed. She tosses and turns for a while and when the phone rings yet again, she engages her Do Not Disturb.
When she forces herself out of bed the next morning, uncertain she even managed a solid hour of sleep, she sees that the missed calls and voicemails have only grown.
By the time she’s reached work, she has listened to his voicemails and before she can second guess herself, sent him a text.
I need some time
She puts the phone away because she knows he’ll respond to that, and that it won’t be a message of acceptance.
She’s grateful when Kat needs her right away and she proceeds to silence his hourly calls as they come in.
By lunch, Fin is leaning in her doorway. “Why is Stabler texting me about you?” His face has the patina of innocence, but she knows this ruse. Fin had always been pretty damn blunt about his interpretation of her relationship with Elliot. And unlike all the whispers behind their backs, Fin had always had the decency to just tell it as he saw it. Of course, every indication she’d ever received from him always came off as encouragement. She had never directly asked him, but by now she suspected it had a lot to do with his own former partner, now fiancé. Still, his encouragement always brought up a dangerous line of thought and she could never allow that.
Olivia rolls her eyes. “I’m not answering his calls. Just tell him I’ll get back to him when I can.” She attempts to wave Fin off, but of course that doesn’t work.
Instead he walks in and closes the door. “Why aren’t you answering him?”
Olivia stares Fin down, but he just smirks, crosses his arms and waits. He’s known her too long for her to pull The Captain on him when it comes to something personal. Olivia gives up, slides her glasses off and leans back in her chair. Fin takes it as an invitation and slides into the seat across from her.
She takes a deep breath. “He’s not dealing and I can’t hold his hand through this. If he gets help…” Olivia shrugs.
“Sounds great in theory, Liv. But this is Stabler and I don’t think 10 years has changed him that much.”
She scoffs in agreement and presses a finger between her brows, fighting off other thoughts. Not that it stops Fin from noticing.
“What else happened.”
“Why do you assume anything else happened?” she shoots back, but she can’t meet his eye.
Fin takes a breath and nods. “Look, I get it’s none of my business. But I’m still gonna say a couple things because I’ve known the two of you pretty much forever.” He waits until Olivia nods slightly. “I know what I see between the two of you.”
“There’s nothing-” Olivia attempts to interject and stops at the raised eyebrows on Fin’s face. Her mouth snaps closed.
“Like I said, I see. And I have some experience myself. But honestly, it’s the years I did nothing that I regret and not the chances I took.” They look at each other for a moment in silence.
“It’s not that simple,” Liv whispers.
“Is it ever?” Fin shrugs, before getting to his feet and leaving without another word.
Despite Fin’s words, Olivia knows she still isn’t ready to talk to Elliot, let alone follow through on whatever Fin’s hints were pointing at. But, ready or not, there was Elliot.
She looks up at the knock on her office door and can’t quite decide if she wants to throw something at him or smile. She settles on a sigh and waves him in. He shuts the door before he takes a seat and looks at her expectantly.
“What part of ‘I need some time’ sounded like an invitation to stop by?” she scowls.
“Did you listen to my messages?” he matches her tone.
“I know you think you’ve found something-” Olivia starts.
“I did find something and I need help.” Elliot interrupts.
“Yeah, you do need help. We tried to tell you that last night and I’m not inclined to encourage whatever you think you’ve got going until you finally agree to do something for yourself first.”
Elliot pushes back, nearly jumping to his feet, agitatedly pacing the length of her office. “I can’t- Solving this is what’s going to help me!” he grinds out.
It’s so much easier to slip back into cop mode than it is to try to be his friend. She gets up, her hands out in front of her, her de-escalation tactics kicking in without a thought. “Hey, let’s take a breath.” She rounds the desk, approaching him slowly and he closes the distance with one large stride. He’s not more than 3 inches away from her, close enough that the rapid rise and fall of his chest radiates heat towards her. Up close she sees how red his eyes are, how weary he looks. They stare at each other for a long moment, his breathing regulating as he relaxes into her nearness.
“Liv….what I said last night…” Elliot starts.
“No.” Olivia’s eyes drill into his. “Just….no….” She doesn’t know what would be worse, hearing him take it back; saying he didn’t mean it like that ; telling her he meant it exactly like that . All of the options are terrifying and terrible. So instead she steps back, putting the distance back between them. She stands behind her desk chair, bracing herself against it and looks anywhere but at him as she says “Just go home.”
He hesitates and Olivia isn’t sure if he means to argue about the case, or about what she wouldn’t allow him to say. But instead he scrubs his hand over his face, turns on his heel and leaves silently.
Elliot’s still riled up when he reaches the ground floor, pacing outside the precinct as he decides what to do. He wants to go back upstairs and insist that she talk to him. Turns out some things have changed in a decade - 13 years of never quite saying the things he wanted to say had left him with a lot of regrets.
He knows it was bonkers to tell her he loved her, even if the kids hadn’t been there. But even as he backtracked, he knew it was the truth. Hell, he’d known it was the truth sometime around their 5th case, when she’d looked up at him across their desks, smirked and his stomach had plummeted through the floor. Their time as partners from that moment on was filled with all the things he said instead of saying the one thing he meant most.
He should have done a lot of things differently. He knows that. He’s known that for a long time. He should have done something when he and Kathy separated. He should have not done something with Kathy when he really wanted Olivia. He should have stayed 10 years ago or left 20 years ago. But any way you cut it, it’s been his mistakes over and over.
And he felt guilty. Because he’d done so many wrong things, but it was Kathy that paid for it. And if he had just done any one single thing right ages ago, she’d still be alive and he wouldn’t be drowning.
He spends the next three days wanting to call Liv. Over and over he’ll pick up the phone, then reconsider. He’s very aware that she hasn’t reached out, and he knows he owes her some penance for the weeks of phone calls and messages he dodged from her.
He had been cowardly. There really wasn’t anything redeemable to be found in it. What he had told her was true - if he’d heard her voice he would never have left. But in a lot of ways that was just an excuse. Once his papers were in, he had still decided not to pick up the phone.
He had even gone to the precinct one afternoon and stood across the street and watched her leave the building. He had every intention of calling out to her, but even yards away he could see the devastation on her face and he couldn’t confront it. For weeks after that he kept reaching for the phone when she’d call before he’d wuss out again. And when the calls stopped, he figured it served him right.
So he decides it’s only fair to respect her wishes, just this once, no matter how stupid they seem. And he buries himself in the case of his wife’s murder because he knows that’s the other penance he must do.
Without Eli in the hotel he can feel himself sinking further. He knows obsession is taking hold and at least part of him knows that Liv and the kids were right from the start, but it’s not until he snaps at Ayanna and she tells him to get his shit together that it becomes obvious how badly he’s doing.
Alone in the hotel, wide awake at 2am, it fully sinks in that nothing is working. If he has any hope of solving this case he needs to figure out how to sleep again. If he ever wants to sleep again, he needs to see Liv.