Actions

Work Header

Here in the Silence

Chapter Text

Kathleen is angry with her, of that Maureen is quite sure. And honestly that’s fair enough. If their positions were reversed, Maureen would be angry as well. The drive out to Newark is just such an unholy pain.

It’s not like she’d planned to push off the airport pick up duty on to Kathleen. She just hadn’t fought particularly hard to get out of her conflicting responsibility.

If she’d been called into work, she’s sure her sister would be far less annoyed, but even Maureen can admit that her excuse is a fairly thin one. When her son had showed up at the front door with three friends in tow, she could have easily said no, told them to go home, and dragged Logan off to Newark with her to pick up her mom and brother.

But she hadn’t, because the drive to Newark is such an unholy pain and she’d been looking for any excuse to get out of it.

So now Kathleen is stuck with the drive, and is ranting at her through the phone as she makes it – though they both know that there’s no real venom in her anger, and that all will be forgiven once Maureen has paid for her gas and bought her a fancy coffee for her troubles. It’s a trade-off that they’ve done countless times, and at this point Kathleen’s rant is more out of habit than anything else.

“Are mom and Eli staying with you again, or am I taking them to a hotel?” Kathleen’s question interrupts Maureen’s attempt to hear whether the roughhousing in her basement has gotten too out of hand.

“They’re staying here,” she responds, deciding that the noise is within the normal range of children playing, “Dave’s just finished the basement, so there’s plenty of room for them both.”

“Dad’s not coming, is he?” Kathleen’s voice is tinny and interspersed with traffic noise, but Maureen can still hear the misplaced hopefulness in her sister’s tone.

She sighs. Their father hasn’t stepped foot in New York since the day they’d left for Rome, some ten years ago now.

“No, not as far as I’ve heard.”

There’s silence but for car horns before Kathleen speaks again, obviously disappointed. “Yeah, guess I should have figured.”

Maureen understands why their father has decided to exile himself – perhaps far better than he’d care for her to – but is still annoyed with him for it. They all miss him, but none more than Kathleen. Her middle sister has had such a rough go of it, and has worked so hard to build a good life for herself. Maureen is angry that their father isn’t here to see all the progress she’s made – that she is now a thriving and accomplished adult, in spite of her challenges.

She shakes her head and tries to put the thought away. It won’t do anyone any good right now.

“I’ll bug mom about it when she gets here,” Maureen promises, “and if that doesn’t work, I still say we should do Italy this summer. Really take advantage of his hospitality, lord knows we’ve earned it.”

Kathleen laughs on the other end of the line and Maureen smiles.

“While you’re at it, see if he’ll pay for the airfare,” Kathleen laughs, “court appointed therapist only pays so much.”

Maureen chuckles at their running joke. She knows full well that her sister does alright for herself in private practice, but they both like to needle their therapy averse father with the fact that three out of his four grown children now have careers in mental health.

She hears a crash from the basement, followed by total silence, and sighs. “Alright Katie, I’ve got to go, the kids are destroying things.”

She hears Kathleen’s laughter again before she ends the call, and is reasonably sure she’s been forgiven for making her sister drive to New Jersey.

--

The four boys look so guilty and penitent that she almost considers just waving the whole thing off.

Almost.

The bookshelf is knocked over, and books are spilled across the entirety of the basement – all fixable, if tedious. The hole in the drywall will be a much bigger pain to deal with, but it’s hardly the first time her accident-prone son and his goofy friends have brought chaos and destruction into her home. She’s never been one to yell or blow these things out of proportion, but Maureen does fully intend to let them stew for a bit and then give her best ‘not angry, just disappointed’ lecture – and perhaps inform their parents if that’s lost its impact.

Judging by their already down turned faces, and the fact that not even Logan can meet her eyes, she’s fairly confident that all they’ll need is a lecture. And of course, she’ll make them clean up the books themselves.

Before starting in on the lecture, she takes stock of the four – making sure nobody has injured themselves in the mishap – and realizes that she doesn’t recognize one of the boys. There’s Logan – of course – and two of the usual suspects, Darren Chen and Ryan Villanueva, but she’s never seen the fourth boy before in her life.

Cursing her inattentiveness, she zeroes in on the new boy. Slightly taller than the other three, he’s got a mop of dark, curly hair and a deep tan. What she notices most about him, however, is that he seems to be bleeding from a cut on his forehead.

“Oh damnit,” she mutters, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You, boy I don’t know, come with me. The rest of you, start cleaning up these books.”

She ushers the new boy up into the kitchen and has him sit on a stool while she digs out the well-used first aid kit.

“What’s your name?” she asks, running the tap to wet a cloth.

“James,” the boy practically whispers, seeming nervous. She makes a point to soften her tone.

“And do your parents know you’re here, James?”

She turns to face him with the wet cloth in time to see the boy shrug, seeming unsure. “I got dropped off at Darren’s, but I didn’t call my mom when we came here.”

Maureen nods. Darren’s house is only one block over, so she doubts this boy’s mother has sent out a search party, but they still ought to call her – especially now that her son is bleeding in Maureen’s kitchen.

“Okay, well why don’t we give her a call, huh? Do you have her number?”

The boy nods. “Yeah, but she’s at work. I don’t want to bother her.”

Maureen has started cleaning the blood off the boy’s forehead and frowns at how deep the cut seems to go. They will definitely need to call his mother, work or not.

She knows better than to tell a child this though, and only shrugs. “Well, I know I would want to know where my kid was, even if it meant being bothered at work. I can phone her if you’d prefer?”

“Sure,” he shrugs, wincing as she continues to dab at his forehead, “or I could call Lucy, she was supposed to pick me up from Darren’s.”

Maureen has no idea at all who Lucy is, but given that she’s now quite sure that this boy will need stitches, she’d really rather speak to one of his parents.

“Ok,” she starts, “how about we try your mom, and if she’s busy then we’ll call Lucy?”

The boy nods, wincing as he does so.

“Does your head hurt?” Maureen asks.

He nods again, effectively making up her mind. They will be calling his mother.

Chapter Text

The number that James has given her for his mother rings out, and Maureen is just about to call whoever Lucy is when Kathleen comes traipsing through her front door, followed by their mother, Eli, and all of their luggage.

Damn it. In the aftermath of Logan’s usual chaos, she had entirely forgotten that she was expecting guests.

Kathleen is visibly surprised to find Maureen cleaning blood off of a strange boy on her kitchen counter – she'd had him sit there to get a better look at his cut – with her phone pinned between her shoulder and ear, but her mother looks amused.

“Hey Mo,” she greets her daughter casually, “need any help there?”

Maureen can’t help but laugh. Of course her mother, jetlagged and freshly off a trans-Atlantic flight, falls easily back into the chaos of life with children.

“Yeah,” she says, thankful for the sudden appearance of somebody with a nursing background, “would you come look at this cut? I can’t tell if it’s just a bad angle or if I should be taking James for stitches.”

James, clearly opposed to the latter option, whimpers. Maureen wishes she could reassure him, but isn’t at all confident in her diagnostic abilities.

“Hmm,” her mother hums, dropping her bag and walking into the kitchen to take a look, “I’d say go to the hospital just to be safe. It would probably be okay without, but you want to be extra careful since it’s on his face. Did he hit his head?”

Maureen turns to look at James. She’s still not entirely sure of the order of events.

“I dunno,” he shrugs, “I think a book hit me.”

Her mother nods. “Probably best to have him checked out then.”

James looks like he’s about to cry, and Maureen feels badly for him. The poor boy is in pain and surrounded by an increasing number of strangers, with the unappealing possibility of stitches looming.

“Alright James,” she says, “I can’t get a hold of your mom, so I’m going to call Lucy. Is she an aunt? A babysitter?”

“Babysitter,” he mumbles.

“Okay,” she nods, “how about you hold this cloth on your head and go lay down on the couch while I call her.”

James nods and she helps him down off the counter and directs him into the living room, before trying his mother’s number once more, for good measure.

To her surprise, somebody picks up this time.

“Hello?”

The voice startles her, and Maureen scrambles for what to say, not having expected anyone to answer. “Er, hi. This is Logan Gallagher’s mom. Your son James is at my house, and he’s had a small accident. It doesn’t seem too serious, but there’s a possibility he might need a few stitches.”

There’s a brief silence, and then; “I’m on my way, what’s the address?”

--

When Maureen opens the door, she feels as if she’s seeing a ghost. Judging by the speed at which the other woman’s face pales, she isn’t the only one.

She gapes for a moment, before shaking her head and reorienting herself. Sure enough, Olivia Benson is standing at her front door. Her hair is longer, and she’s older than when Maureen last saw her, but it’s definitely her.

“Olivia?”

This seems to snap the other woman out of her surprise, because she blinks, clears her throat, and responds. “Maureen, hi. Can’t say you were who I was expecting.”

Everything seems to click all at once for Maureen – Olivia Benson isn’t randomly at her door after more than a decade for no reason; she’s here for James. She is – presumably – James' mother. The more she looks at the woman in front of her, the more she realizes just how much she looks like the boy sitting in her living room.

Right – the boy sitting in her living room.

“Come in,” she steps aside and waves in her father’s old partner, “James is just in the living room. I’m sure he’ll be relieved to see you.”

--

Olivia follows Maureen into the house, and with every second that passes, everything around her feels more and more surreal. It would be one thing to run into Maureen – or any of the Stabler kids, really – out on the street, but she is now in the woman’s home. Her son is in the woman’s home. Her son, who has no idea who the Stablers are generally, never mind what they are to him.

Her son, who is currently lying on Maureen’s couch, with Kathy Stabler fussing around him.

Olivia is fairly sure she’s had this nightmare before. Nevertheless, she pushes away her own immense discomfort and makes her way over to her son, choosing to mostly ignore the Stablers and focus on James.

“Hey baby,” she says, wincing when she sees the cut on his head, “how’s your head?”

Kathy has, mercifully, stepped back and out of the way, and she kneels next to the couch so she can inspect her son’s forehead.

“Hurts,” he mumbles.

“Yeah, I bet,” she nods. “How about you go get your shoes and we’ll go get it looked at, huh?”

James sits up and leans towards her, speaking so quietly that even she can barely hear him. “I don’t want to get stitches.” His voices wavers in a way that she knows means he’s trying not to cry, and her heart aches.

“I know baby,” she pushes his hair away from his face, “but you might need them. I promise they don’t hurt too much though, okay?”

He nods, though she can see his lip trembling.

“Go get your shoes, okay? I’ll be right there.”

Once James has left the living room in search of his shoes, Olivia stands up and takes in the rest of the room. Maureen and Kathleen are both there, each looking varying degrees of startled, Eli – or at least she assumes the boy is Eli, he’s grown so much since she last saw him – is sitting in the corner, looking mightily confused, and Kathy Stabler is staring right at her, positively dumbfounded.

“It’s uh,” she clears her throat again, “it’s been a while guys.”

Chapter Text

Later – long after Olivia and James had left, and both Eli and their mother had turned in for the night – Maureen sat in the living room with Kathleen, absently running her finger along the rim of her wine glass.

“Do you think he’s...” Kathleen starts, but hesitates, trailing off instead.

“Dad’s?” Maureen finishes the thought. “I don’t know.”

“His eyes,” Kathleen points out, “his eyes are just like dad’s. Just like ours.”

Maureen takes a sip of her wine. “Lots of people have blue eyes, Katie.”

Kathleen nods, sipping from her own cup of tea. “Yeah, but this is Olivia’s kid. He looks just like her – except for his eyes.”

“Yeah,” Maureen nods.

“And he’s what, nine? Ten? The timeline works out.”

“It does,” Maureen nods again, “but do you really think dad could have a kid out there and just- not be involved? I mean, for all his other faults, he would never abandon his own kid.”

Kathleen doesn’t respond, only swirls the dregs of her tea, so Maureen continues.

“And no way mom would stay with him if he’d knocked Olivia up.”

Kathleen abandons her tea on the side table and draws her legs up under herself. “What if he doesn’t know?”

It’s certainly something Maureen had considered, but it just doesn’t fit with what she knows of Olivia. Sure, she doesn’t know the woman that well, but it just seems wrong.

“Come on Mo,” Kathleen continues, “you remember how it was when mom and dad separated before. I don’t think they would have gotten back together without Olivia. I think,” she pauses, “I think she’d keep it to herself if she thought it would save their marriage.”

Maureen doesn’t know what to think. She is about to tell Kathleen as much when their mother appears at the entrance to the living room.

“You girls still up? It’s late,” she pauses, checking her wristwatch, “at least I think it is – I haven’t changed my watch over yet.”

“It is,” Maureen confirms.

“Mom-” Kathleen starts, before a sharp look from Maureen effectively shuts her up.

Their mother only sighs, wrapping her housecoat tighter around herself and sitting down on the couch next to Kathleen.

“I have no idea if James is your father’s,” she states matter-of-factly, startling both sisters.

“I didn’t-” Kathleen starts again, but is this time interrupted by their mother.

“It’s what we’re all wondering, Katie,” she says, seeming surprisingly unbothered.

They sit in silence for a moment, before Kathleen breaks it.

“Why did you guys leave New York?”

It is a question that none of the older Stabler children have ever received a straight answer about, and Maureen has made her peace with the fact that they’d only ever really be able to guess. She has her own theories, but has never been bold enough to ask outright. Bold is more Kathleen’s thing, and, in that moment, she finds she’s thankful for it.

Her mother sighs, tucking her hair behind her ears and pulling her own legs up under herself, mirroring Kathleen. She seems to be steeling herself for something, and Maureen realizes that she may actually answer the question.

“We couldn’t stay,” she sighs. “Your dad couldn’t stay,” she clarifies, “I honestly don’t know what would have happened if he’d stayed.”

“You don’t mean...” Kathleen trails off again.

Her mother takes a fortifying breath. “Yes Katie, I do. I think if he’d stayed in New York, he would have stayed on the job,” she pauses, “and I think – eventually – he would’ve eaten his gun.”

Maureen flinches at the crass description, and the matter-of-fact way her mother relays her suspicions. It is a suspicion that Maureen has long shared, but Kathleen seems surprised. For all that she is genuinely an expert on the subject, her middle sister still has trouble believing that things had really gotten as bad as they had, when their parents had left.

“He couldn’t have just retired, but stayed in New York?” Kathleen asks. “He’s hardly the first cop to retire under duress.”

Their mother picks up Maureen’s wine glass from where it had been sitting on the coffee table and takes a large mouthful.

“He could have, but he wouldn’t have.”

“Why?” Maureen asks quietly, already having guessed at the answer.

“You know why, Maureen,” her mother says with a sad smile.

--

Only once they’ve returned from the emergency room and she’s put James to bed does Olivia allow herself to begin to freak out.

Ten years without a word from Elliot. A lifetime – their son’s entire existence. And suddenly she’s in a room with three of his other children and his wife. No warning, no heads up, just jarring and sudden and overwhelming.

It had taken every ounce of control she possessed not to haul James over her shoulder and bolt from Maureen Stabler’s home. Maureen Gallagher now, she supposes. If she was still Maureen Stabler, Olivia might have had at least a moment to prepare herself for what she was walking into.

She pours herself a big glass of wine and curls into the corner of her sectional, trying to make some kind of sense of what she’ll do now.

She’d told James about his father, in a general sort of way, from the time he was small. If he’d asked, she would have told him everything – in as child-friendly a way as she was able. But he’d never asked. Never seemed all that bothered about the man who’d helped bring him into the world. She had always known that she’d eventually have to have the awkward conversation with her son about the circumstances of his conception, but she’d figured she still had a few years at least.

Now though... Well, she wasn’t sure at all what she’d do now.

The way Kathy had looked at her that afternoon left little doubt in her mind that the other woman at least suspected. James looked enough like his father – and enough like Eli, Olivia now realized – that there was no way Kathy didn’t at least suspect.

And if Kathy suspected, then it was only a matter of time before Elliot knew.

If he didn’t already, the bitter, broken-hearted part of her piped up.

When she’d realized she was pregnant, she had tried desperately to get in contact with Elliot. Whatever other issues they had, no matter how angry she was with him for disappearing without a word, she would never hide this from him – would never lie about his child. And while letting him know in a voicemail had hardly been her first choice, she had already tried everything short of taking out an ad in the paper – without any luck.

She wanted to believe that he just didn’t know – had never got the message – and that was why she’d never heard a peep from him. But she couldn’t be sure, and that had eaten at her over the years – the idea that he knew she’d had his kid and had decided to continue on ignoring her.

Feeling the sting of tears burning her eyes, Olivia took a fortifying gulp of her wine.

She didn’t allow herself to think about Elliot for precisely this reason; because it would consume her, this feeling of pain and emptiness and abandonment. It would take her over entirely, and that wasn’t fair to James – or to herself. So she kept all thoughts of Elliot locked in an airtight box in the back of her head – still there, but not able to hurt anyone.

Now though, she recognized that she was going to have to open that box. There was no way she was going to be able to avoid the Stablers, if only because at least informing Maureen that James was fine after today’s accident was the polite, decent thing to do.

And Maureen wasn’t stupid. Olivia imagined that the other woman had likely already put all the pieces together and come up with the only plausible answer, the truth, that James was her father’s child – her brother.

Olivia takes another gulp of her wine before setting it on the table.

What the fuck is she going to do now.

Chapter Text

Kathleen is out shopping with Eli and their mother when Maureen finds the box. She is tidying the basement and reorganizing the books that the boys had haphazardly arranged on the righted shelf, and the bright green tape wrapped around it catches her eye.

With last night’s conversation still swirling in her mind, she’s surprised that she hadn’t thought about it earlier, really.

When her parents had left for Italy, they had given away or sold most of their things, but had left a few things they couldn’t quite part with for Maureen to store. Only four or five small boxes in total, they had been stored away in an unused corner of her basement for the last decade, out of sight and out of mind. Now, with everything that had come up yesterday, Maureen found herself curious as to the contents of the boxes. She wondered if they’d hold any answers that her mother may have skirted around.

Against her own better judgement, Maureen pulls the first box out and sets it on the coffee table, opening it quickly with her keys – before she can talk herself out of it. More than likely, she reasons, it would just be family photos and mementoes, though it still felt intrusive to go digging through her parents’ things.

Her suspicions prove correct, and she lets out a sigh of relief – it was just old photos and Lizzie’s birth certificate. She sets the birth certificate aside to give to her sister, and is just about to close the box back up when she notices an old cell phone jammed in the fold of the box, wrapped in a charging cord.

Carefully removing the phone, she feels an impending sense of dread. It was her father’s old phone; she was sure of it. She is only mildly surprised that it lit up when she plugged the charger in.

Taking a deep breath, Maureen repacks the box and puts it back where she’d found it, leaving the old phone to charge and retreating back up to the kitchen.

“Hey, something wrong?”

Dave is sitting at the kitchen island, eating a sandwich and scrolling through his phone. She hadn’t realized he was home.

“No,” she hesitates, “not really. Just found something in an old box.”

Her husband cocks an eyebrow at her, but says nothing. He knows better than to push her.

“It’s just,” she pushes her hair out of her face, trying to occupy her hands, “have you ever suspected something, made your peace with it, and then – when it’s actually confirmed – regretted sticking your nose where you have no right to?”

Dave puts down his sandwich and observes her for a moment before speaking. “You talking about your folks?”

She just nods, pleased to not have to explain further.

“What did you find?”

“It’s my dad’s old phone, from before they left.”

“And it works?” He seems surprised.

She shrugs. “Seems to. It’s charging in the basement.”

He looks pensive for a moment, and his words are careful when he speaks again. “Mo, you don’t have to look at it. You’re not responsible for your parents – not then, and not now.”

Maureen braces herself against the counter. “I know,” she nods, “but there’s a question that needs to be answered, and I think I’m the only one who can really handle it at the moment.”

Dave cocks his head at her, confused. “What’s the question?”

“Whether or not my dad’s got another kid, with another woman.”

Her husband’s eyebrows jump into his hairline. The version of her father that he knows – the intensely Catholic, utterly devoted family man – is totally at odds with this new information.

Maureen is decidedly less shocked. She had been there through the era of Olivia Benson, and she has always believed that her father had stayed with her mother mostly out of duty – that he had long loved his partner more than his wife.

--

Maureen is thankful that the phone finishes charging while Kathleen and her mother are still out. While she doesn’t necessarily want to go digging through it, she feels a certain duty to do so, and is glad that she will not have an audience.

Dave sits with her as she powers up the device, silent, with his hand resting on her back for support. The is so very thankful for him.

She is unsurprised by the notification that pops up, declaring ‘45 New Messages’, and takes a deep breath before clicking through to play them.

El, it’s me,” the voice is Olivia’s, “I’m outside your place. Hurry up or I’m drinking your coffee. Damnit Fin,” she speaks away from the mouthpiece, “do I touch the radio in your car?

The message clicks off, and Maureen huffs out a laugh. This seems to be from before everything went to shit, then.

The next message is less lighthearted, but still unremarkable.

El, it’s me. Call me when you get this.

Click.

The next message is a man’s voice.

Yo, Stabler, what the hell’s going on? Call me.

Click.

Maureen takes a deep breath, and Dave squeezes her shoulder. She knows it’s only likely to get worse.

Elliot,” it’s Olivia again, and her voice puts a knot in Maureen’s stomach, “I know things are rough for you right now, but please call me.

The next ten or so messages continue in that vein. They are a mix of Olivia and a man who doesn’t identify himself – and whose voice Maureen doesn’t recognize. The tone is more and more desperate as they go on. Maureen swallows hard, but continues.

El, I don’t know if you’re screening calls or if you’ve just disappeared off the face of the earth, but I need to talk to you. Please, it’s important.” Olivia sounds as if she’s about to start crying, and Maureen feels very much as though she’s violating the woman’s privacy as she clicks through to the next message.

Stabler, if you’re not going to call Liv back, I swear to God, I'll track you down and beat your dumb ass myself.

Click.

The anonymous man’s anger vaguely surprises Maureen, but she finds it a welcome reprieve from Olivia’s increasingly distraught pleas.

Look man,” it’s the man again, “Liv’s pregnant. She hasn’t said as much, but I know you’re involved somehow. If you won’t get in touch, don’t think I won’t go through your wife.

Click.

Maureen’s stomach drops. She’d suspected – part of her had known from the moment she’d seen Olivia on her doorstep – but having it all but confirmed is something else entirely. She feels numb, but is still unable to stop listening to the messages.

There is a significant time jump from the man’s last message to the next one – a jump of about nine months, Maureen realizes.

Elliot, it’s me,” Olivia, this time, “I know Fin called you, though I have no idea if you got the message.” She sounds exhausted, Maureen thinks. “I didn’t want to do this over voicemail, but here we are.” She pauses, taking a hiccupping breath. “You’ve got a son. His name is James. He looks just like you,” Olivia starts crying, and Maureen has to force herself not to exit the message, “I hate that he looks just like you.

Click.

Maureen exits the voicemail function, unable to listen to any more. She has her confirmation; James is her father’s child – her brother. She blows out a harsh breath and leans into Dave’s side, completely numb.

Chapter Text

When the initial shock wears off, Maureen’s first instinct is to call her father and yell. To demand he get on a flight right that instant and sort all this out.

She is halfway through dialling his number when she realizes this is probably not the best course.

For all that she now knows – or thinks she knows – there is a whole lot more that she doesn’t. While her father doesn’t seem to have received these messages, there’s no saying that Olivia – or the angry man she now realizes is Fin Tutuola – didn’t get in touch with him some other way. It’s a painful thought – that her father may well know about this boy, and still choose to do nothing – but it isn’t one that she can yet entirely rule out.

She deletes the number she had begun to dial, and instead navigates to her call history. The phone rings twice before Olivia picks up, sounding resigned.

“Hi Maureen.”

She isn’t surprised that the other woman knows that it’s her.

“Hi Olivia,” she greets, quietly, “how’s James?” Even with the veritable bomb that has just been dropped on all their lives, Maureen recognizes that at the center of it all is a child – a child who not even twenty-four hours ago had been bleeding profusely in her own kitchen.

“Three stitches,” Olivia responds, “he’s now hoping for a cool scar.”

Maureen laughs lightly, pleased that at least the boy hasn’t been traumatized, before returning to the reason for her call.

“Can we meet?”

There is a pause, in which Maureen imagines she hears Olivia take a deep breath, but the woman’s voice is calm when she replies.

“Yeah. Do you know Delia’s, in Steinway?”

Maureen doesn’t recognize the name, but Steinway is both close enough to be convenient, and far enough away that she knows she won’t run into Kathleen or her mother, so she is perfectly happy to look it up.

“No, but I’ll figure it out. Are you free today?” She knows it’s probably asking a lot – that Olivia undoubtedly has a very busy schedule – but Maureen doesn’t think she’ll be able to focus properly on anything until she’s had her questions answered.

Olivia seems unsurprised by the request, though, and agrees easily, suggesting that they meet for a late lunch.

Maureen can’t imagine she’ll be able to eat anything at all.

--

Delia’s is a small, charming diner that faces out onto a leafy residential street, and Maureen slides into a booth against the back wall, facing the door. She is nearly forty minutes early, but she had been so restless at home that she figured she’d be better off fidgeting over a cup of coffee while she waited, rather than running the risk that Kathleen and her mother would return from their shopping and notice how out of sorts she was. She had sworn Dave to secrecy about where she had gone.

She’s already read through the menu three times and finished nearly four cups of coffee when Olivia arrives, right on time.

They chat idly while the older woman orders her own coffee, sticking to comparatively safe topics – Logan, Dave, and the fact that Olivia is now a Captain. When her drink has arrived and they have well and truly run out of small-talk, Maureen braces herself and asks the question that has been running through her head all morning.

“Does he know?”

“James?” Olivia asks, “Or your father?”

Maureen is relieved that there will be no denials, no beating around the bush. She hadn’t expected it from Olivia – who has always seemed inclined to face uncomfortable topics head on – but she is relieved nonetheless.

“Either,” she shrugs. “Both.”

“James knows the basics,” Olivia confirms. “And I have no idea at all what your father knows. I’ve tried to get in touch over the years, but I’ve never heard anything back.”

Maureen’s stomach twists itself further into knots. If those messages hadn’t been the extent of it, then there was every chance that her dad already knew. The thought of it made her nauseous.

“Maureen,” Olivia interrupts her spiralling thoughts, “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.”

“The wrong impression?” Maureen asks, confused. Surely there was only one takeaway here.

“About your dad and I,” Olivia clarifies, taking a sip of her coffee. “We were definitely too close – probably kind of co-dependent – but there was never any torrid affair. We only crossed that line once, and it was–” she takes a deep breath, “a mistake. An immediately regretted mistake.”

That hadn’t been what Maureen was expecting. She had always kind of assumed – even before she’d had any idea about James – that Olivia and her dad had been carrying on some kind of affair. If not physically, then certainly emotionally. But the expression on Olivia’s face right now suggests that she may have been mistaken. The woman looks... kind of wrecked about it, honestly.

“I wouldn’t judge you if you had been,” she says, quietly. “Having an affair, that is.”

Olivia looks stunned, and hurt, and something else Maureen can’t quite identify, but she pushes on anyways.

“He was in love with you,” she shrugs, “anyone paying attention could see that. And while I’m not saying that I condone being unfaithful, I do recognize that these things aren’t always so cut and dry.”

Olivia holds up her hand, looking pained. “Maureen,” she interjects, “whatever your father and I may or may not have felt for each other doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Maureen wants to argue, wants to lay out all the ways that both Olivia and her dad have been so immensely stupid over the years when it comes to their relationship with each other, but she knows that this is neither the time nor the place – and that ultimately, it’s not really any of her business, no matter how much she wants to mix in and meddle. So she lets it drop for the moment, though she doesn’t rule out interfering in the future if she needs to.

“How old is James?” She asks instead, and Olivia seems relieved.

“He’ll be ten in November,” she smiles.

Maureen nods, and then laughs as she does the math.

“We were pregnant at the same time,” she explains in response to Olivia’s bemused expression. “Logan is ten next January.”

Olivia’s mouth forms a startled ‘O’. “That’s,” she pauses, “weird to think about.”

Maureen laughs again, feeling some of the apprehension she’d had melt away in spite of herself.

“Maureen, I hate to even ask...” Olivia trails off, gripping her mug and looking deeply uncomfortable.

Maureen understands exactly what it is she’s working up the nerve to ask, and heads Olivia off.

“He’s in Italy. Working for some private security firm. They left right after he retired; all but fled the country. Mom and Eli visit, but he’s never actually been back since.”

Olivia nods, the pained expression returning to her face.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Maureen quirks an eyebrow, confused. “What on earth for?”

Olivia half shrugs. “Sometimes it feels like it’s my fault that he took off the way he did,” she sighs, “after we-” she briefly hesitates, but visibly forces herself to continue. “Well, after, I never heard from him again. Heard a few days later from our old Captain that he’d put his papers in, and that was that. It always felt like our,” she pauses again, “error in judgement” - the words are bitter and forced - “was the last straw. I’m sorry that you guys had to bear the brunt of that.”

Olivia gives another half-hearted shrug, but Maureen is horrified.

“Olivia,” she tries to catch the other woman’s gaze, needs to make her understand, “my father is a grown man. Whatever piss-poor choices he’s made, he’s made them for himself. This is not on you.”

“I know,” Olivia sighs, “logically I know that. It’s just not a feeling I’ve totally been able to shake.”

Suddenly, Maureen is furious. Not at Olivia, but at her father. Her father who ran off without a word after falling into bed with his partner, who has apparently never deigned to answer what Maureen is now sure have been repeated attempts to contact him, who has not even stepped foot in the United States for more than a decade, in what she’s quite sure has been an attempt to avoid Olivia – or memories of Olivia. Never mind that she and her siblings have needed him, that she’s been married and had a child while he’s been away, that his own son has never met him, and Olivia seems to have blamed herself for everything that’s happened in the interim.

Jesus,” she breathes out, “what a fucking mess he’s made.”

--

When she gets home from lunch with Olivia, Dave is sitting in the living room with Eli and Logan, playing some video game, and Kathleen and her mother are sitting at the kitchen island with tea.

It’s all so mundane and normal, and Maureen can almost forget – for a moment – that she has just come from a meeting that will more than likely blow up any trace of this domestic normalcy. The whole drive home from Delia’s, she had fretted over how exactly she’d bring up what she’d learned with her mom – because she had to tell her mom, there was no way she could keep something like this from her.

Everyone looks so relaxed, though, and Maureen decides that now is not the time. She will have to break this news, but it doesn’t have to be now.

“Hey Mo,” her mother greets her, smiling, “have a good workout?”

She turns her head to glare at Dave, and he looks sheepish. Her husband is a terrible liar, and she hasn’t stepped foot in a gym in about ten years.

Kathleen laughs from the kitchen, and she knows she’s caught.

“How’s Olivia?” her sister asks, chuckling.

She is trying to find an appropriate response when Logan butts in. “Why were you with James’ mom?”

That throws her, because there’s no reason that Logan should know James’ mom. She’s not aware of them having met before – hell, before yesterday, she’d had no idea who James was.

“You know James’ mom?” she asks her son, who just rolls his eyes.

“Yeah,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “she comes to our soccer games all the time. She’s a cop like grandpa.”

Ah, well, that explains how her son knows James, at least. Soccer. It also explains why she had never met the boy before – soccer is Dave’s thing. He takes Logan to games and practices, because they always seem to line up with her busiest work days, despite her best efforts. She idly wonders how much sooner this would have all come out if she hadn’t been promoted at the beginning of the year.

“I see,” she nods. “Well, James’ mom and I had lunch.”

Logan scrunches his face up, obviously confused.

“Why?”

And there it is, the question that everyone in the room seems so keen on. The question that she refuses to answer honestly in front of either her son or Eli.

“I wanted to see how James was doing after your little misadventure yesterday,” she says to her son, who has the decency to look embarrassed. “He only had to have a few stitches, so he was lucky. Maybe you’ll keep that in mind for next time, huh? Stitches hurt, bud.”

Logan looks suitably chastised, so she musses his hair and smiles to let him know she’s not really mad.

“How about you and Dad and Eli go down and measure the hole in the drywall so you can go to the hardware store.”

Logan lights up – for some reason she has never understood, her son loves going to the hardware store – and she shoos the three of them off towards the basement, with Eli grumbling about how he hadn’t actually done anything to damage the drywall.

Kathleen is looking at her expectantly when she takes her seat at the kitchen island, and her mother is staring into her teacup. Maureen really does not want to have this conversation.

Chapter Text

Olivia stays rooted to her seat long after Maureen has left the diner, trying to gather her composure enough that her son won’t notice how shook up she is when she meets him and Lucy at the park down the road.

She had known from the outset that meeting Maureen would bring up all kinds of feelings that she’d long tried to repress, but even going into it with her eyes wide open hadn’t lessened the continuous gut punch that was coffee with Elliot’s daughter.

When Maureen had told her that Elliot was in love with her, though, Olivia had been quite sure she was going to have a panic attack.

Because whatever Elliot may have felt for her, Olivia was certain it wasn’t love. Attraction? Sure. Affection? Probably. But not love.

Or – her traitorous brain supplied – even on the extremely unlikely chance that there had been love involved, he certainly hadn’t loved her enough. Not enough to stay. Not even enough to do her the courtesy of saying goodbye.

She took a shaky breath and wiped up an errant drop of coffee from the table. Nothing good would come of dwelling on this, and she needed to get herself together if she didn’t want to thoroughly freak James out.

Her phone starts ringing in her purse, and she absently hopes that it’s work. She could really use the distraction.

Her luck is never that good though, and it is Maureen’s number flashing across her screen instead of Fin or Amanda’s. She takes another deep breath.

“Hello?”

There is silence on the other end, and Olivia hopes very much that this is just an accidental pocket dial. Once again though, her luck does not hold, and she is dismayed to hear Kathy Stabler’s voice come through the line.

“Hi Olivia,” her voice is quiet, uncertain, “it’s Kathy.”

Olivia could scream, but she is a grown woman in a public place, and she suppresses the urge.

“Hi Kathy,” she says instead.

--

Olivia’s waitress gives her a series of sympathetic looks as she waits for Kathy Stabler. She’s quite sure she looks like the nervous wreck that she is, and the young woman has taken pity on her, bringing a pot of chamomile tea out to replace Olivia’s coffee without even being asked.

Meeting up with Maureen had made her anxious, but the conversation that she’s sure she’s about to have with Kathy has genuinely featured in her nightmares. By the time the other woman sits down across from her, Olivia is ready to jump out of her own skin – or the bathroom window, given the opportunity.

Kathy looks much the same as she did the last time Olivia saw her. Slightly tanner, slightly blonder, slightly older, but still pretty and petite and put together. Olivia is suddenly very aware of the bags under her own eyes, and the coffee she has spilled on her t-shirt.

“I take it you’ve spoken to Maureen,” Olivia says as a greeting.

Kathy nods, seemingly just as unsure of what to do with herself as Olivia.

“I’m sorry Kathy,” she sighs, “it really did only happen the once. Not that that’s an excuse.”

“No,” Kathy shakes her head, “that’s not,” she pauses, “it’s fine, honestly.”

Olivia is sure she looks like a fool with her mouth hanging open, but she cannot have just heard the other woman correctly.

Kathy gives her a wry smile. “Look, I can’t say that I’m thrilled you slept with my husband,” - Olivia winces - “but I’m not surprised, and I’m not angry. It actually explains a fair bit, if I’m honest.”

Unable to formulate as coherent a response as she might have preferred, Olivia is only able to stutter out a: “I don’t understand.”

Because she doesn’t. Understand, that is. Whenever she’s pictured this moment, this is not how it’s gone. Kathy has not been calm, or understanding, or smiling. Is Kathy honestly smiling?

“Olivia,” the other woman starts, “Elliot and I have been married for a very long time. And for most of that time, we haven’t been in love.” She shrugs. “Don’t get me wrong, we care about each other, but it’s never been some grand love story. The kids are the only real reason that we’re still together. We’re happy enough now, but if it weren’t for Eli, we’d still be divorced,” Kathy sighs. “Sometimes I think everyone would have been better off if we’d stayed divorced, but I can’t regret how things have turned out, because it’s how we got Eli.”

Olivia isn’t sure what to say to that at all. It’s not what she’d expected. She’d pushed so hard, all those years ago, for Kathy and Elliot to reconcile – to give their kids a family. And she’d figured that it had all turned out for the best, that they were happy and in love. She had always felt so guilty about the feelings she’d long harboured for Elliot, on the assumption that he was completely and irrevocably Kathy’s. And it seemed she’d been mistaken.

Kathy gives her a sad smile.

“If I'd known, I never would have let him run like he did.”

Olivia is dumbfounded. She’s not totally sure that this isn’t some anxiety induced hallucination. But then Kathy has reached across the table and is gripping her hand, and she’s solid and warm, and somehow this is actually happening.

--

Apparently time has gotten away from her while she’s been talking to Kathy, because before Olivia can fully comprehend what’s happening, James is pushing himself into the booth beside her, Lucy trailing behind and scolding him for interrupting.

“Mom,” he chides her, “you were supposed to meet us like half an hour ago.”

Lucy is apologizing, but Olivia just waves her off, thanking her for waiting as long as she had and promising to see her on Monday, before turning back to her son.

“I’m sorry I didn’t let you know I’d be late, but it’s rude to interrupt James.”

Taking notice of the other person in the booth, James immediately blushes scarlet. She’s not quite sure where her son got his shy streak from, but it effectively shuts him up. She only gets a murmured “sorry” before he goes quiet.

Kathy – too – seems unable to speak, and Olivia doesn’t blame her. Aside from James’ darker complexion and curlier hair, he looks remarkably like Eli.

“James,” she prompts her son, “this is Kathy. She’s Mrs. Gallaghers mom.”

“Logan’s grandma?” James asks, still barely speaking above a whisper.

This seems to snap Kathy out of her stupor, and the other woman is nodding and smiling.

“Yeah,” she answers, “I’m Logan’s grandma. We met yesterday, but your head was hurting and there were lots of people around. Are you feeling better today?”

Kathy is so kind to her son, and while Olivia shouldn’t be surprised about this, it puts a lump in her throat nonetheless. It’s been such an emotionally charged 24 hours, so she blames it on that.

James just nods in response, pushing himself further into Olivia’s side.

“Do you want to go get a drink, baby?” she asks her son, “They have the root beer you like.”

James nods again, and Olivia shoos him off towards the counter to get his drink.

Kathy is watching him as he goes. “He looks so much like Eli,” she remarks.

“Yeah,” Olivia nods, “I hadn’t noticed it until yesterday. Eli was so little the last time I saw him.”

“He’s almost thirteen now, if you can believe it,” Kathy smiles.

It’s surreal, Olivia thinks, sitting in a restaurant with Elliot’s wife, talking about their children – Elliot's children, the both of them.

“James is shy,” Kathy interrupts her musing, “he probably gets that from Elliot.”

Olivia must look as surprised as she feels, because Kathy chuckles lightly.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but Elliot was a super shy kid. Barely said a sentence to anyone that wasn’t directed at his shoes until he was about sixteen.”

Olivia laughs, and is about to ask a follow up question when James scoots back into the booth with his root beer. He looks at Kathy with a quizzical expression.

“You know my dad?”

Olivia’s laughter dies in her throat.

Chapter Text

James had seemed to accept Kathy’s brief, if slightly panicked, confirmation that she did in fact know his father at face value, and hadn’t asked her any more about it. Olivia knows her son though, and prepares herself for his inevitable questions while they walk home. She had moved to Queens shortly after he’d been born, not terribly keen on the idea of raising a child in the chaos of Manhattan, and they now live only a few blocks from Delia’s. She hadn’t consciously been trying to feel closer to Elliot when she’d done it, but over the years she’s wondered if he had played a role in her choice.

They haven’t even been through the door five minutes – Olivia is still putting away her keys – when James begins his questions. He might be shy with others, but he’s also always been far too curious for his own good.

“Mom, who was that lady?”

Olivia sighs, straightening up the shoe rack he’d knocked askew and steeling herself for this conversation. She knows that she won’t be able to put it off any longer.

“Come sit down, James,” she directs her son to the couch.

He follows easily, but looks confused. It is rare that she doesn’t immediately answer his questions.

“You remember how I told you that your dad has other kids, right?”

He nods, pulling a throw pillow into his lap and wrapping his arms around it.

“Well, Kathy is their mom. She was married to your dad,” Olivia pauses, “is married to your dad.”

The confused look on her son’s face makes Olivia’s heart ache, but she waits him out.

“Logan’s grandma is my dad’s wife?”

“Yeah, baby,” Olivia nods.

“But,” James pauses, “you’re my mom. And you’re not his wife.”

God, everything about this hurts. The look on her son’s face, the confused tone of his voice – the actual words. Olivia has been dreading this conversation since James was born.

“That’s right,” she nods again.

“Is that why he’s never come to see me?”

Olivia forces her emotions into check at the waver in James’ voice – the way he won’t meet her eyes when he asks the question – and wraps an arm around her son’s shoulders.

“I don’t know,” she admits, not willing to lie to her son about this, no matter how much she might want to.

“Is he ashamed of me?”

James’ voice is so small, and Olivia immediately pulls him into a tight hug. The fact that he doesn’t pull away or whine that she’s being embarrassing gives away just how much this must be bothering him. He’s never really asked about his father before, and Olivia has the sinking feeling that this might be why. Because he thinks he is something to be ashamed of.

“No,” she says, as forcefully as she can manage. “Whatever reason your dad has for being gone, I promise it has nothing to do with you.” She can’t really know that for sure, but she is willing to bend the truth on this if need be. If nothing else, Elliot loves his children, and she thinks – hopes – that his paternal instinct would extend to James as well. And given Kathy’s genuine surprise at James’ existence, Olivia has begun to suspect that Elliot has no idea at all about their son. He’s not nearly clever enough to have been able to lie to his wife for so long – not successfully, anyways.

“I don’t know why he’s been away all this time,” she continues, “but any issue your dad may have, it’s with me, not you.”

James looks up at her with that same sad, confused look, and Olivia could kill Elliot Stabler in that moment.

“Because you guys had sex when he was married to Logan’s grandma?”

That surprises her, and Olivia blinks stupidly at her son, trying to find something – anything – to say in response.

James just rolls his eyes. “I know how people make babies, Mom. I’m almost ten.”

Olivia can’t help the startled laugh that escapes her. Of course he does.

“Right,” she sputters, “my mistake.”

Her son rolls his eyes again, but still doesn’t completely pull away from the hug that she knows she’s more or less trapped him in.

“Well,” she starts, “that’s part of it – that he was married when we made you.” James grimaces. “But it’s not the whole story.”

“Then what is?” James looks curious again instead of just sad, and Olivia realizes that she probably should have told him all of this sooner.

Well, not all of it. She has no plans to ever tell him about Jenna Fox, the traumatized girl whose death had indirectly led to James’ conception. No, she would still keep her description child friendly.

“You know that your dad and I worked together, right?”

James nods. She’s told him the basic facts before, but now she’s going to have to fill them in a bit.

“Well, we were friends too,” she continues, “best friends, even. Your dad was the most important person in my life before I had you.”

“What happened?” James’ voice is small and sad again, and Olivia can’t help brushing a kiss across his forehead, though she’s careful to avoid his still angry stitches.

“Sometimes,” she sighs, “sometimes it’s easy to confuse different kinds of love.”

Her son looks confused, and Olivia knows she’ll have to be more specific.

“I fell in love with your dad – the kind of love where you want to get married and have kids and grow old together – even though I knew he was already married.” She huffs out a breath, forcing herself to continue, “I didn’t mean to, but love isn’t something you can always control.”

“And did he love you?” Damn, her kid really knows how to go for the emotional jugular.

Olivia has to take a moment to form an appropriate response.

“Yes,” she finally allows, “but not in the same way. He loved me the way you love a friend.”

“Then how come you had sex?” he asks, to Olivia’s genuine horror. “Mrs. Gutierrez says that only husbands and wives have sex.”

Making a mental note to have a stern chat about more inclusive sex-ed with her son’s homeroom teacher, Olivia again tries to figure out how exactly to explain this to a nine-year-old.

“Well, Mrs. Gutierrez is wrong about that,” she states, emphatically. “Plenty of adults who aren’t married have sex. And there’s not anything wrong with that as long as everyone agrees to it and is having a good time.”

James furrows his brow. “Ew,” he mutters, “why would you have sex if you don’t have to?”

Olivia can’t help but laugh. This is rapidly turning into another conversation entirely, and while she knows that she will soon need to correct her son’s misconceptions on the topic, for now she needs to steer back to where they’d started.

“The short answer is that it feels good,” she explains, drawing another grimace from James, “but that’s a conversation for another day.” He looks relieved, so she continues on. “Why your dad and I had sex is complicated, and it’s not something you need to worry about – but ultimately I’m glad that we did, because it’s how I got you.”

“Gross,” James mutters, though Olivia notes that he has a small smile on his face and has tightened his own grip on her.

“Yeah,” she smiles, “gross.”

She lets herself enjoy just sitting cuddled with her son – who is now old enough that he rarely tolerates it – while also working herself up to the question she knows she needs to ask him.

“Would you want to meet your dad?” she finally manages.

She feels more than sees James’ shrug, but she waits him out.

“I dunno,” he mumbles into her shoulder, “what if he doesn’t like me?”

Olivia can feel tears sting her eyes at the uncertainty in his voice. She had always made sure that James knew that he was loved, and wanted, and very much the best thing that had ever happened to her – despite his father’s absence – and she couldn’t bear the thought that he doubted any of it.

“I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about baby, you’re very likeable,” she hopes that her son can’t hear the waver in her voice. “And I’ll smack anyone who says different,” she jokes, drawing a tiny laugh from James.

“Can I think about it for a bit?” he asks, and she nods, before realizing he can’t actually see her from his spot pressed into her side.

“Of course,” she says, “you can take as much time as you need.”

Chapter Text

“What do you want to do?” Maureen asks her.

Kathy pushes her knuckles into her temples, trying to stave off the tension headache that she’s had building all day. She knows what she wants to do, but she would also very much like to avoid the prison system, and so she knows that it’s not what she will do.

“I want to call a lawyer,” is what she says instead. Because a divorce is the most mature, productive option she can think of in the moment. And if she does end up wringing Elliot’s neck, well, the lawyer will still be of use.

Maureen just nods, obviously unsurprised. Kathleen, who has been lingering in the kitchen and pacing, wraps an arm around her shoulders. “I can call dad and yell if you want,” she offers.

Kathy laughs, wrapping an arm around her daughter. “Don’t you dare,” she huffs, “it’s the only thing I’ve been looking forward to all afternoon. As your mother, I claim dibs on yelling.”

Both her daughters laugh in response, and Kathy allows herself a small smile. “I’m not going back to Italy,” she declares, drawing raised eyebrows from Kathleen and a bemused look from Maureen. “Don’t get me wrong,” she continues, “I’ve enjoyed it there. But it’s not home, and I don’t like how far away we are from family. I’ve been trying to talk your dad into coming back so Eli can start middle school here, but now I’m just going to do what I want and he can deal with it.”

Maureen smiles. “And Eli’s on board?”

Kathy nods. “He misses you guys. It’ll be a bit of an adjustment, but I don’t see him having an issue with it.”

“What about James?” Kathleen asks, tentatively, obviously trying to tread lightly around the subject.

Kathy shrugs. “I don’t imagine he’ll have any issue with us staying in New York.”

Both girls roll their eyes and Kathy smirks at her daughters. She knows – of course – what Kathleen meant, but still isn’t entirely sure how they’re going to handle this.

“We’ll figure something out,” she says. “It’s not his fault that his dad’s such an ass.”

--

“Hullo?”

Elliot’s voice is groggy and confused, and Kathy finds it perversely satisfying. It’s about three in the morning in Rome, and while she knows she could have waited until a more decent hour to make this call, she’d decided not to do him the courtesy. Maybe it was petty of her, but under the circumstances she doesn’t think anyone would begrudge her her pettiness.

“Elliot, it’s me.”

“Kathy?” his voice is more alert now, “Is everything alright? Did something happen?”

She sighs, because something has happened, and nothing is alright, but she reassures him anyways – she might be petty, but she’s never been cruel.

“Nobody’s hurt Elliot, everyone’s okay,” she hears his exhale of breath over the line, “I needed to ask you a question.”

“Okay,” he replies, obviously confused.

She pushes ahead. “When we first got to Rome, I got a call from Fin, from your old precinct. Do you remember that?”

“Kathy, it’s three in the morning. This couldn’t wait?”

“No, Elliot,” she bites out, “it can’t.”

“O-kay...” he says, stretching out the word. She doesn’t wait for him to continue.

“Fin called me up out of nowhere and said he needed to speak to you. That you were dodging everyone’s calls – that it was important. He sounded so serious on the phone that it freaked me out; do you remember that?”

Elliot hesitates. “Vaguely,” he finally allows.

Kathy huffs. She knows damn well that he remembers.

“Did you ever call him back?”

Another – longer – hesitation from Elliot.

“No,” he admits, “I didn’t.”

“Yeah,” she sighs, “I figured as much.”

“Kathy,” he questions, obviously confused, “what’s going on?”

“I really wish you would have called him Elliot,” she sighs again, “it would have saved everyone a whole lot of trouble.”

“Kathy,” he grinds out, “what happened? What the hell is going on?”

“You need to come back to New York, Elliot.”

“Kathy, what the hell?” She can hear just how frustrated he is now, but doesn’t much care.

“Look Elliot, it’s not my place. If you want to know, you’ll have to get your stubborn ass on a plane.”

There’s no response from Elliot, and she finds she doesn’t want to wait for one.

“Forward me the flight info and I’ll send Richard to get you at Newark.”

She hangs up before he can attempt a response.

--

The moment he hears the dial tone, Elliot is up out of bed and scrambling to pack a bag. He has no idea at all what’s happened, but there was something in the tone of Kathy’s voice that has him properly worried.

Should he call Fin? He remembers exactly the call that Kathy was referring to, but can’t imagine what has made her bring it up after all these years. He’d always figured that Fin had been calling to chew him out over the cowardly way he’d left, but that can’t have been it if it’s shaken his wife so deeply after so much time has passed.

As he packs his bag, Elliot honestly does consider phoning his old colleague. He knows he’d get a hell of a telling off from the other man – and he knows he’d deserve it – but whatever it is that’s happened is clearly something that Fin had been privy to.

Ultimately, what stops him from reaching out is the simple fact that he no longer has the man’s number. It’s been more than ten years, and he’d made no particular effort to keep tabs on his old co-workers. Hell, he’d made a concerted effort not to keep tabs on them.

Instead, he phones Maureen. He feels bad for involving his oldest daughter, but whatever this is has rattled Kathy so badly that she’s bound to know what’s happening. He knows it’s not fair to her, but he’s been rousted out of bed so suddenly and mysteriously. It will eat him alive if he has to spend ten hours in a cramped airplane seat wondering just what the hell is going on.

When she answers, her voice is clipped, and he knows that – whatever this is – Maureen is angry about it.

“Hi Dad.”

“Maureen, what the hell is going on?”

There is a long pause on the other end of the line, then a harsh sigh.

“Just get on the plane, Dad. I shouldn’t be the one explaining this.”

“Jesus Christ!” he bursts out, unable to stop it, “If you shouldn’t be explaining it, and it’s not your mom’s place to say, then who the fuck should I be asking?!”

There is silence from Maureen, and Elliot immediately regrets his outburst. He’s been working on this – gotten a lot better at dealing with his temper – but this whole mystery situation has put him on edge. Still, that’s not his daughter’s fault.

“Sorry,” he takes a deep breath, “sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled. I just don’t know what’s going on, and I’m freaking out a bit.”

Another long pause from Maureen, and then a harsh breath. “When’s the last time you spoke to Olivia?”

Elliot’s heart drops into his stomach. Liv? Jesus, has something happened to Liv? Has he somehow gone ten years without knowing that something’s happened to Liv?

He feels like he’s going to throw up, and drops down heavily onto the edge of his bed.

Chapter Text

Maureen hadn’t told him much, except that he had to speak to Liv. Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate. She’d told him that he’d fucked up badly, that she was ashamed of him, that he was a sorry excuse for a man.

He’d known all these things, of course, but hearing them from his daughter had still been painful.

And he hadn’t dared to pry any more after she’d told him off with such steel in her voice. So now he was crammed into a middle seat, between an elderly woman and an unwashed twenty-something backpacker, following the little digital airplane on his screen so intently that he was sure he’d have a permanent imprint when he closed his eyes.

Whatever was going on, all he knew was that it had to do with Liv. The possibilities were endless, and largely horrifying, so he was trying to stop obsessing over them. Before boarding his flight, he’d made the mistake of googling her name, as a last-ditch attempt to figure something out, and had come across what he could only describe as his worst nightmare come to life.

He’d gotten through less than half of an old New York Post article detailing her abduction, before having to bolt to the men’s room to throw up the rushed breakfast of coffee and crackers that he’d bought at a magazine stand. He hadn’t finished the article – couldn't bear to know any more details while he was still so far away and unable to do anything at all.

But now, staring at the flight map obsessively, Elliot can’t help but fixate on the fact that she hadn’t been abducted until several years after he’d left. That couldn’t have been what Fin was calling about when they’d first arrived in Rome. Surely she hadn’t suffered some other horrifying trauma while he’d been away?

Over the last decade, he’d made a concerted effort to not think about Olivia. He hadn’t ever been successful – of course – but he’d made the effort. After what had happened with Jenna Fox, he’d known that he had to make a decision between the job and keeping his family – there had been no way around it. The job had been destroying him day-by-day, and he’d been taking it home with him and destroying his family in turn. He knew that he’d fucked up a fair bit with his first four kids, but when he’d come home the night that he’d shot Jenna, and Eli had flinched and run off to his room, Elliot knew something had to change.

And if it had just been a choice between the job and his family, he would have turned in his papers years ago and never looked back.

But there was Liv.

Somewhere along the line, Liv had become the most important person in his life, and if he didn’t have the job, he had no good reason to go on seeing her. He was ashamed of himself about it, but there was no denying the truth. He had become the idiot who’d fallen in love with his partner, and time and time again he’d put her before everything else; before the job, before Kathy, and even – to his immense and overwhelming shame – occasionally before his own children. And, in the traumatized and overwrought state he’d been in after the shooting, he’d convinced himself that it had to be an all-or-nothing situation. The job or his family. Liv or his family.

He’d chosen his family. But in the years that had followed his choice, he’d begun to realize that it didn’t have to be such a black-and-white thing.

Of course, by then he’d made his bed, and – as always – his own tendency towards intense Catholic guilt had convinced him that he’d just have to lie in it.

He knows it’s stupid – has known for some time – but once so much time had passed, he’d figured it was best to just leave it alone. That it wouldn’t do anyone any good to go picking at scabs.

Then, of course, there was the last time he’d seen Liv. He’d been wrecked about shooting Jenna, he’d gone home and seen what he’d done to his family, and he’d been determined to make it right. But he had been weak and sad and knew this would be his last chance to ever have anything even resembling what he wanted with Liv. The night they’d spent together was both one of his most treasured memories and greatest shames. He was quite sure she’d never forgive him for it – and he couldn’t blame her.

He’d done what he thought at the time was the right thing and – in his usual way – had fucked it all up beyond repair.

--

Dickie – Richard, he reminds himself – is waiting for him at baggage claim. He looks sleep rumpled and confused, and Elliot is relieved that he isn’t the only one.

“Hey Dad,” his oldest son greets him with a tired smile.

“Hey Rich,” he smiles back, “hope you weren’t dragged out of bed for this. I could have taken a cab.”

Richard rolls his eyes, but he’s still smiling. Elliot is relieved that at least one of his kids doesn’t seem to be mad at him.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m on call, so I’d be up anyways.”

Elliot had always assumed that Richard would take after him and go into police work, but after four years in the Marines – which he’d hated – his son had decided on social work instead, taking after Maureen rather than Elliot. He’d been surprised, but ultimately happy for Richard – he's happier than he ever was in the service, and he has a much healthier work-life balance than Elliot ever did.

“Besides,” his son smirks, “I don’t think mom or Maureen trusted you to show up on your own.”

Elliot scratches the back of his head and shrugs – that's fair, he hasn’t been back to New York even once since he’d left.

Likely sensing his discomfort, Richard changes the subject. “You have any checked bags, or nah?”

“No, just this,” Elliot holds up his hand luggage. “Didn’t have much warning.”

“Right,” Richard nods, “I guess you don’t have much more of an idea of why you’ve been summoned than I do?”

“Not in the slightest,” Elliot confirms, though that isn’t strictly true. He knows that it’s somehow related to Liv, but has no intention of telling his son that.

“Alright, let’s go then. My parking’s about to expire.”

The ride into Queens is comfortable enough, though Elliot is increasingly nervous as they get closer to Maureen’s neighbourhood. Everything is more or less as he’d remembered, but every once and a while he notices something that has changed so completely that it throws him. He can almost pretend that it hasn’t been a decade since he’s been home, but not quite.

“Dad,” Richard interrupts Elliot’s thoughts, “you should probably prepare yourself for the fact that mom and Maureen are,” he pauses for a moment, “very upset. Though I’m not entirely sure why.”

“Yeah,” Elliot nods, “I got that over the phone. I’ve spent the trip over wracking my brain for why, but I’m afraid there’s too many options to choose from.”

Richard huffs out a laugh.

“Is it just them?” Elliot asks, “Or are the rest of you upset as well?”

His son is quiet for a moment, looking pensive before he responds, choosing his words carefully.

“Look, I’m not going to pretend that I’m impressed with the way you handled leaving, or the fact that you’ve never so much as visited,” he shrugs, “but I’m not really upset about it anymore. I get why you couldn’t stay – even if I do think you could’ve visited.”

Elliot swallows hard. He knows that he’s earned his older children's resentment on this, and doesn’t blame them for it. He hadn’t exactly been expecting to have to face it head on when he’d been woken up this morning, but he knows it's been a long time coming.

“I know Rich,” he admits, “and I’m sorry.”

Richard nods. “Thanks Dad. I get the feeling that whatever this is, though, it isn’t just that you left.”

Elliot nods.

--

He notices the tension the moment he steps through Maureen’s front door, and braces himself for what will surely be a very long day.

It is a surprise, then, when Kathleen practically tackles him in a hug as he’s taking off his shoes.

“Oof,” he breathes out, “hey Katie.”

“Hey Dad,” she mumbles into his shoulder, “good to see you.”

He pulls away to look at her, and is surprised to see that she’s smiling. It may not be the most enthusiastic smile, but it’s a smile nonetheless, and it makes Elliot happy. Whatever else is going on, he has missed his kids, and it’s always good to see them. They’ve come to visit him in Rome on several occasions, but there’s something different about being here with them in Queens, and he regrets that he hasn’t made more of an effort.

“Good to see you too,” he pulls her back into the hug, before asking: “you know what’s going on?”

When Kathleen pulls away to look at him again, there is an odd look on her face. “Yeah,” she nods, looking almost sad, “you fucked up, Dad. Bad.”

Before Elliot can ask his daughter what the hell she means by that, Maureen has appeared in the doorway – and if Kathleen looked odd, Maureen looks downright pissed. Given that she is perhaps the most level-headed of his children, Elliot knows that – whatever this is – it is very, very bad.

“Come on Dad,” Maureen grinds out, pointing into the living room. Elliot knows that it’s pointless to argue, or ask for any information, so he follows her without a word.

If he’d thought Maureen was angry, it is nothing compared to the expression on Kathy’s face. Even in thirty-some years of fights, Elliot has never seen Kathy look the way she does now, and – for the first time since he touched down in New York – he is genuinely frightened. He cannot think of anything he might have done that could have inspired this look from his wife. He cannot imagine even his worst transgressions drawing the cold fury that Kathy is currently directing at him.

“Kathy,” he croaks, “what’s going on?”

“Sit down.” Her voice is even harder than her expression, and Elliot swallows roughly. He recognizes that it is an order, not a request, and uneasily lowers himself into Maureen’s armchair. Kathleen, Maureen, and Richard have all disappeared, and he is alone with this furious version of his wife – a woman he hardly recognizes.

“Kath?” he tries again, stupidly.

“Shut up, Elliot,” is her only response.

He shuts up.

She fixes her cold stare on him – silently – for a good two minutes before she speaks, and he feels very much like a bug under a microscope – a bug that is about to be stepped on. He is almost relieved when she breaks the silence, even though her voice has lost none of its hard edge.

“Do you know why I’ve stayed with you all these years, Elliot?”

The question is very much not what he had been expecting, and he falters, only managing a shrug.

Her scowl deepens. “Because our kids needed a father, Elliot. And despite your other issues, you were mostly a good one.”

Now he really has no idea where she’s going with this.

“Thanks?” he stutters out. Her furious expression tells him it was the wrong move.

“Shut up, Elliot,” she repeats. “I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.”

He nods. What else can he do?

“You knocked me up when we were teenagers, and you did the right thing,” she states. “If you hadn’t, no way we would have stayed together – I think we both know that.”

Elliot nods again, but knows better than to interject. She’s right, of course. Neither of them have ever come out and said it before, but they both know it’s the truth.

“And - for the most part – we've had a decent marriage,” she continues. “Not perfect – God, nowhere close – but decent.”

He nods yet again, beginning to feel a bit like a bobblehead.

“But we’re not in love,” she says, flatly, with no real emotion of any kind, “we haven’t been since we were probably eighteen.”

Elliot feels like he should say something, but he has been specifically and repeatedly told to shut up, so he doesn’t.

“It’s hardly every little girl’s dream,” she continues, “but it’s mostly worked for us. We’ve focused on the kids, and it’s not like we don’t care about each other, so it’s fine. It’s worked.” She pauses. “But, while I thought we had a comfortable and functional – if utilitarian – marriage, you were just using it as a cop out, weren’t you? A way to hide – something to hide behind.”

“What?” He can’t help his response this time. “Kathy, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Olivia,” she says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m talking about Olivia.”

Elliot’s stomach clenches unpleasantly. Oh.

Chapter Text

“The hell’s going on?” Richard asks, leaning against the fridge. Maureen is surprised that this is the first time he’s asking, but then he’s been on-call all week, and she knows that she’d woken him up when she’d phoned about picking their dad up. He’d done it without question, but now he looks concerned.

Maureen sighs. “Dad’s got another kid.” She figures there is no use in beating around the bush on this.

“What?” Richard’s eyes are wide. “Mom can’t possibly be pregnant again?”

Kathleen laughs, and Maureen rolls her eyes. Apparently, her brother has had even less sleep than she’d realized, because he’s usually much sharper than this.

“No pinhead,” Kathleen interjects, “he already has another kid, he’s not having one.”

For a moment, Richard looks completely baffled, but Maureen sees the exact moment that his brain catches up. He visibly deflates.

Oh,” he murmurs, “I see. How long?”

It is a testament to just how obvious their father’s feelings had long been that he doesn’t immediately ask who. All things considered, Maureen thinks he looks far less surprised than he ought to – almost as if he’d been expecting it.

“The boy’s almost ten.” Maureen replies. Richard only nods.

“That’s why he took off then?”

“I’m not sure,” Maureen shrugs. “He took off around the same time, but I still don’t know whether or not he knew.”

“Come on,” Kathleen interjects again, “he can’t possibly have known. He wouldn’t have left his kid.” She says it emphatically, but looks unsure.

Richard is now digging around in the pantry, but he turns to shoot his sister a look. “Come on Katie, you know he wasn’t right when he left. It’s entirely possible that he knew.”

Kathleen looks so uncomfortable with the idea that Maureen feels bad, but she can’t stand up for their dad on this. He really might have known. And even if he hadn’t, it wasn’t like Olivia hadn’t tried her best to let him know. No, even if he was ignorant, that was on him entirely.

“How’s Mom doing?” Richard’s question pulls Maureen from her thoughts.

“As good as can be expected, I guess,” she shrugs. “I think they’ll split up for good now, though.”

“Makes sense,” Richard nods. “They should have called it quits years ago.”

Maureen grimaces, but her brother just shrugs. They all know he’s right.

“And Detective Benson?” He asks, around a mouthful of potato chips. Even after all this time, Maureen knows that her brother still harbours a bit of resentment towards Olivia. She doesn’t think it’s a conscious thing, more a holdover from his teenage years – but it’s still lingering in the background. She's not sure he even notices it, but she does.

“It’s Captain Benson now, actually,” Maureen half smirks.

“Damn,” Richard’s eyebrows raise, “maybe Dad did her a favour, taking off like that.”

Maureen shoots him a look. “Seriously, Dickie?”

She only uses his childhood nickname when she thinks he’s being childish, and Richard has the good sense to look sheepish.

“That’s not what I meant,” he says, apologetic. “Just that she seems to have done well for herself, without him.”

“She has,” Maureen nods, “but I think the way he left really fucked her up. She couldn’t even say his name, when I talked to her.”

Richards winces, and she knows that he regrets his flippancy.

“What’s the kid like?” He changes the subject.

“I’ve only met him the once,” Maureen shrugs. “Seems normal enough though. Mom says he’s shy.”

Richard’s eyebrows raise again. “Mom’s met him?”

“Long story,” Maureen waves him off. To her surprise, he doesn’t pry any more – only continues eating her potato chips.

“Do you think she’s killed him in there?” Kathleen pipes up, gesturing towards the living room.

Maureen shrugs again, but peers around the corner to check anyways. Her mother is sitting, straight backed, on the couch, arms crossed over her chest and jaw set – not moving, not speaking, just staring. Her father, for his part, looks immensely uncomfortable, but she can tell that he hasn’t yet been told the reason that he’s there. She knows that – if he doesn’t yet know about James – the news will break him. And he doesn’t yet look broken.

Her mother notices her spying though, and shoots her a look. Maureen quickly retreats into the kitchen, not wanting to be caught in the crossfire of her wrath.

“Maureen,” she hears her mother calling from the living room, and cringes. Both her siblings give her sympathetic looks before she steps out of the kitchen.

“Yeah, Mom?” She asks, feeling very much like a child about to be scolded – despite the fact that she is a grown woman and they are in her home.

“Go get your father’s cell phone,” her mother instructs, not even looking at Maureen as she does so. Her dad looks so confused that she almost feels bad, but really, he’s had this coming for about a decade.

--

When Maureen brings the cell phone to their parents, Kathleen follows her, and motions for Richard to do the same. She has heard the messages, and she cannot in good conscience leave her father to listen to them with only Maureen and her mother. She understands their anger – is angry herself – but as a therapist, and as someone who cares about her dad, she knows that they will destroy him – and she will not allow him to be destroyed surrounded only by their anger.

She also cannot fully bring herself to believe that her dad already knows about James. For all that she is well aware that he isn’t perfect, she knows in her gut – in her heart – that he could not have ignored his own son for this long. The only real reason her parents are still married, she knows, is for their children, and Kathleen cannot reconcile to herself the idea that such an ingrained part of who her father is can have changed so dramatically.

So she stands in the living room while Maureen hands their dad the phone, as a silent support – there if she’s needed.

“Is this mine?” He asks, obviously confused.

Everyone but Richard nods. He is the only one who has not heard the messages, aside from their father.

“Listen to the voicemail,” her mom orders. Her voice is hard, but Kathleen can tell that she is sad, even through her anger.

Her dad looks up at her – probably sensing that she is the friendliest face in the room at that moment – and she nods.

Kathleen is thankful that he brings the phone to his ear instead of putting it on speaker, because she doesn’t think she could handle hearing the messages again. She can still hear some of them playing in her own head, unable to shake the desperate, pleading sadness in Olivia’s voice – Olivia, who she has always privately considered to be the toughest person she’s ever met.

She can see her dad’s reactions though, even to the first few messages, and she steels herself for what will surely happen when he gets to the later ones. This is probably – she now realizes – the first time he has heard Olivia’s voice since he left. Kathleen is now all but certain that he has no idea at all about James – the way he’s reacting confirms to her that this is the first he has heard of any of this.

It is obvious when he gets to the relevant message, because all the colour drains from his face and he lurches forward, dropping his head hard into his hands. He’d obviously had no idea.

--

Elliot feels as if his world is collapsing in on him. He can’t breathe, his vision is blurring around the edges, and all he can hear is the blood thundering in his ears.

Liv had been pregnant.

He had a son. They had a son. His and Liv’s son. Somewhere out there, there was a boy that was half Liv’s, half his.

Jesus.

He can’t breathe. It is everything that he’d always privately – shamefully – wished for. And he’s been gone. He’s missed it – all of it. He has never hated himself so completely in his entire life.

Through the fog of his shock, and panic, and self-loathing, Elliot is aware that people are speaking around him. His kids. Kathy. He can’t understand a word. He wants to die.

But no. He has to see Liv.

He stands up so abruptly that he sways on his feet, and Richard steps forward to steady him, looking worried.

“Dad?” He sounds concerned, wary. But Elliot shakes him off.

“I can’t,” he stutters, “I have to-” he trails off. Anything he says will only come out incoherent, he’s sure. It doesn’t matter. He has to go. He has to see Liv – make this right.

He is frantic, shaking, and desperately looking for his keys. He has to go.

Kathleen’s hand on his back startles him, but she’s calm, and guiding him to the door. He shouldn’t drive anyways, in this state. Kathleen will drive him.

--

Kathleen is glad that they’re all in the room when he listens to the messages, because he falls apart so completely, so abruptly, that none of them could have managed it alone.

He is swaying on his feet, mumbling incoherently about his keys, and she directs Richard to steady him while she leads him outside. She knows that he is only cooperating because he thinks she is going to take him to Olivia – that much she had been able to make out – but she leads him onto the front step instead, Richard guiding him to sit and then standing back in case he’s needed.

“Dad,” she says, as calmly and firmly as she can muster, “look at me.”

His eyes are frantic when he looks up, and Kathleen doesn’t think that she’s ever seen her father look quite so lost. She’s quite sure that he’s having a panic attack, and is vaguely worried about a full on break down.

“Take a deep breath,” she prompts. He tries, but it’s shallow and gasping. She takes his hands and prompts him to try again. It goes marginally better, and Kathleen takes it as a win.

“What colour is my shirt?” She asks.

He looks confused, but stutters out an answer anyways. “Green.”

“Good,” she nods, squeezing his hands, “what about Richard’s? What colour is Richard’s shirt?”

“Black,” he rasps.

She nods again. “Can you squeeze my hands, Dad?”

His grip is weak, but he’s clearly trying.

“Now stop squeezing,” she prompts.

He does.

“Now try another breath,” she directs him.

His breath is close enough to normal that Kathleen is no longer immediately concerned that he will pass out, and she lets go of one of his hands and sits next to him on Maureen’s front step.

“I didn’t know,” he says, and his voice is so broken that Kathleen has to blink back her own tears.

“I know, Dad,” she whispers.

He begins to say something else, but starts crying instead, and Kathleen wraps an arm around him – she knows that there’s not much she can do other than sit with him while he cries.

Chapter Text

When he has settled down a bit, Kathleen packs her dad into her car and drives him to her own apartment. It is the middle of the afternoon, and he can hardly stay on Maureen’s front step all day – if only because, eventually, Dave will come back with Eli and Logan. And she can’t let either of them see her father like this.

He is completely silent the whole way to her place, and she vaguely regrets not asking Richard to come with them. Not because she thinks he’ll lash out, but because she isn’t entirely sure he’ll be able to get himself up the stairs to her building. Whereas his first reaction had been unrestrained panic, her father has now fallen into what almost looks like a catatonic state.

Thankfully, her worries prove unfounded, and he follows her mechanically up the three flights of stairs to her door. She directs him to the couch and he sits, still wordless.

“Want something to drink?” She asks.

No response. He is just staring straight ahead, unblinking. It’s a bit disconcerting.

“Dad,” she prompts him, finally drawing his attention. “When was the last time you ate or drank anything?”

He shrugs. “Rome.”

Kathleen nods, having expected as much – though she’d hoped that he’d at least eaten something on the plane. She makes a detour into the kitchen to get him a glass of water, and puts it directly into his hand when she returns. She knows that he’d only ignore it if she’d put it on the table.

“Drink,” she instructs. Thankfully, he listens to her, emptying the glass in one go. She stands to refill it for him, and sits across from him when she returns.

“Have you seen her?” He rasps.

“Yeah,” Kathleen nods, “but only briefly. Mom and Maureen talked to her though.”

He nods, looking pained. “And the kid? James?”

Kathleen nods again. “He looks just like her.” She whispers.

He buries his face in his hands, and Kathleen can hear him take in a ragged breath.

“What do I do?” he asks. “How do I fix this?”

Kathleen takes a deep breath, knowing he won’t like her answer. “I don’t think you can, Dad. But now that you know, you can do better. You can stay.”

--

Olivia hangs up the phone and lets out a harsh breath, bracing herself against her desk.

Elliot’s back in New York. Elliot knows about James.

According to Maureen, his reaction had suggested that it was the first he’d ever heard about it, so she supposes that she should be relieved. But the lead ball in her stomach that had showed up when she’d first run into the Stablers is still very much there, and relieved is the last thing that Olivia feels.

When Maureen had phoned her the previous evening to tell her that Elliot was coming back, Olivia had honestly felt like the bottom of her stomach had dropped out. Never mind that she’d been prepared for it – expecting it, even. Kathy had been perfectly upfront when they’d met up, telling Olivia that she planned to call Elliot back to New York and chew him out – and she’d been considerate enough to ask if Olivia wanted to join; if she wanted to be the one to tell Elliot about his son.

The prospect of telling Elliot in person, though, was entirely too much for her at the moment, and when Kathy had suggested just letting him listen to her old messages, Olivia had jumped on the idea. She feels a bit guilty about it, because she hadn’t wanted to tell him over voicemail to begin with, but seeing him would be too much. After all these years, she just can’t bring herself to see Elliot face-to-face if he doesn’t know about James. She doesn’t want to see his face when he finds out, and if that makes her weak, well, she figures she’s earned it.

“Yo, Liv, I’ve got a question.” Fin wanders into her office holding a file, effectively cutting off her spiral. They’d caught a case early that morning, and Olivia had never been so grateful for the distraction in her life.

“Yeah?” she asks, though her voice sounds alien to her.

Fin clearly notices, because he furrows his brow and takes her in – like a detective, rather than a friend. “What’s up with you?”

She shakes her head and blows out a breath, well aware that he will not let this drop. “Elliot’s back,” she admits.

“Shit,” he breathes out, dropping into the chair across from her desk, “the fuck’s made him finally show his face?”

Olivia allows herself a small smile at Fin’s longstanding animosity towards Elliot on her behalf.

“I ran into Kathy,” she explains. “Everything came out pretty quick after that.”

Fin nods. “Fun weekend,” he mutters.

Olivia can’t help a startled laugh. “Tell me about it,” she rolls her eyes.

“You know,” Fin muses, “my offer to beat his ass still stands.”

Olivia rolls her eyes again. She appreciates the sentiment, but figures it probably isn’t the most mature response.

“You’re a police Sergeant,” she chides, though Fin only shrugs in response, seeming perfectly unbothered. She appreciates him all the more.

“How’s James doing?” he asks, after a moment of silence.

“Okay,” Olivia sighs. “I think, anyways. He’s worried about meeting him; thinks Elliot won’t like him.”

Fin scowls. “If he doesn’t, I really will beat Stabler’s ass – and you won’t be able to stop me.”

“You’d have to get in line,” she mutters. She appreciates how protective Fin is of her son, but if Elliot so much as looks at James funny, she’s quite sure she’d pistol-whip him herself. Not that she honestly believes it’ll come to that.

“And how are you with all this?”

Olivia pinches the bridge of her nose. Fin had been there for all the ugly fallout of Elliot’s departure, and he knows full well how she’d felt about her old partner – how she still feels about him, despite the years that have passed and her very best efforts.

“Not great,” she admits. “Part of me kind of hoped I'd just never see him again, even though I know that’s not fair to James.”

She can tell that Fin is appraising her, before he finally responds. “You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to, Liv.”

Olivia scoffs. “He’s James’ father.”

“Yeah,” Fin nods, “but plenty of people work out custody through a proxy.”

Olivia’s stomach drops. The idea of sharing custody with Elliot makes her nauseous, even though she knows it’s a real possibility.

“We’re nowhere close to talking custody arrangements,” she snaps. “He’s been gone James’ whole life – they’re total strangers. No way I’m even letting him into a room with James without talking to him first.”

Fin smirks, and she realizes he’d been prying to see where she stood.

“Besides,” she adds, casually, “he’s not even listed on James’ birth certificate. It could take months to get that sorted out.”

At that, Fin laughs, before giving her a look that Olivia knows is trouble.

“So you’re going to see him again,” he states, still smirking. “The real question is, then, are you going to cold-cock him with your gun, or fall into bed together?”

Olivia shoots him the most venomous look she can manage. “Get out of my office.”

He does as he’s told, laughing the whole way back into the bullpen.

--

When her phone rings as she’s taking off her makeup before bed, Olivia assumes that it’s case related. There had been a delay in getting a search-warrant that Amanda had needed, and she’d told Carisi to call her the moment it came through, regardless of the time.

She is surprised, then, to hear Elliot’s voice over the line, and she has to steady herself against the sink.

“Liv,” he all but whispers, “I’m sorry for calling so late.”

Fuck.

She walks into her bedroom on unsteady legs, trying to get herself together a bit before she responds. Hearing his voice for the first time in a decade has thrown her.

“About ten years late,” she finally bites out.

“Yeah,” he rasps, “I know. I’m sorry.”

“What do you want, Elliot?”

“I just,” he hesitates, “I need to see you.”

She drops down onto her bed. “I don’t give a fuck what you need, Elliot,” she seethes.

“Liv-” he tries again, but she cuts him off.

“You want to meet, Elliot? Fine, we’ll meet. But don’t Liv me. You’ve got no right.”

She hears his exhale. “Right,” he responds, “sorry.”

“I’ll text you a time and place,” she tells him. “Is this your number?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine. Goodbye, Elliot.”

She hangs up before he can say anything else and tosses her phone onto the nightstand, before rolling over and burying her face in her pillow – not bothering to undress or finish taking her makeup off.

Chapter Text

She instructs Elliot to meet her at a deli near the precinct the next day. It’s close enough to work that it’s convenient for her, and it’s not a place that she especially likes, so she doesn’t care if they end up making a scene. She hopes they won’t make a scene, but Olivia is a realist. This is Elliot, and it’s been ten years. There will probably be a scene.

Besides, the thought of him having to drive all the way from Queens for a shitty sandwich makes her smile.

The day drags on though, and she is so caught up in worrying about lunch with Elliot that Fin does the bulk of her job for her. She does feel bad – and she hates that Elliot still affects her like this after all this time – but she knows that she wouldn’t be much use to anyone as a Captain at the moment anyways.

Olivia is wrapped up in her own thoughts so much that she physically startles when Amanda clears her throat in the doorway to her office.

“Sorry boss,” the younger woman apologizes, but Olivia waves her off.

“No, it’s fine. My fault. What did you need?”

“Nothing,” Amanda shrugs, “just wondering if you wanted a coffee while I’m out.”

Clearly, Fin has let on that something is up with her today, because everyone has been tiptoeing around her like she’s about to break apart at any second. It’s sweet, she supposes, but she doesn’t like the implication that her personal life is falling apart. It is, of course, but she doesn’t want her squad to know that. Or to pity her for it.

“No, I’m good,” she replies, checking her watch. She’s been checking her watch all day.

“You need to be somewhere?” Amanda asks, failing to hide her curiosity. Apparently Fin hadn’t given out all the details.

“I’m meeting someone for lunch,” she explains. “And I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”

“Your old partner?”

Olivia rolls her eyes. Fin is such a gossip.

“Yeah,” she confirms. “I’m going to head out, but can I ask you a favour?”

“Of course,” Amanda nods.

“Have Kat look through the witness statement from the Dawson case, I think something’s a bit off there.” Amanda nods again, but Olivia isn’t finished. “And tell Sergeant Tutuola to mind his own damn business.”

--

Elliot is early. Between the jetlag and the fact that his life had turned itself upside down in a matter of hours, he hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d spent most of the morning pacing Kathleen’s apartment, until she’d finally gotten so annoyed that she’d given him her car keys and told him to just go already.

So he’d driven into Manhattan long before he was due to meet Olivia, and, after finding a parking spot, wandered aimlessly through Central Park for another few hours.

He still couldn’t quite wrap his head around the fact that he and Olivia had a child together. Though, he supposed, together wasn’t quite an accurate description. She’d done everything herself – he'd left her to do everything herself. He was trying not to let his self-loathing overwhelm him, but it was hard for it not to. He’d failed her. He’d failed her spectacularly. Her and everyone else.

Elliot shook his head. He’d arrived at the deli some ten minutes ago, and he was trying to get his head right – even just a bit – before she showed up. He wanted to do her the favour of at least not being a total wreck for this conversation – it is his own fault that he’s missed so much, and he knows that she is unlikely to be sympathetic. Hell, he’d consider it a win if she didn’t punch him square in the face the moment she walked in.

When she does – finally – arrive, Elliot sees her before she notices him. He is grateful for that, because it allows him a moment to just look at her, before he has to fully face her well-deserved anger. And fuck, she’s just as gorgeous as she was the last time he saw her – maybe more so. Her hair is long again, the way he’d always liked it, and she looks put-together and professional in her blazer and slacks. He doesn’t know how he’s managed to go ten years without seeing her face. God, he wants to wrap his arms around her and never let go.

But then she spots him, and her eyes are narrowed and cold, her gaze harder than he’s ever seen it – and he knows that, if he tried to hug her – touch her in any way – she’d most probably drop him on the spot.

He has stood up – stupidly – to greet her, and he drops back into his seat when she slides in across from him, scowling.

“Hey,” he greets, unsure what else to say after so much time. Her scowl only deepens, and he clears his throat, if only to break up the ensuing silence.

“You, uh,” he starts, trying again, “you want something to eat?”

She scoffs. “The food here is terrible.”

Elliot just nods. That’s fair enough. He’d ordered a plate of fries just to have something to do with his hands, and she’s right, they’re not good.

“Kathleen says you’re a Captain,” he tries. She looks – if possible – even more unimpressed.

“That really what you want to talk about, Elliot? My career?”

“No,” he admits.

“Spit it out then.” Her voice is hard, unyielding. He knew she would be angry, but still wasn’t fully able to prepare himself for it.

“I’m sorry, Liv-” she cuts him off with a glare. “Olivia,” he corrects himself. “I’m so fucking sorry.”

“Your apologies don’t mean shit, Elliot,” she spits, but her voice is rough. “I needed you, and you were gone. I tried every way I knew how to reach you, and nothing. I needed you,” she repeats, her voice breaking, “every day for the last ten years, I’ve needed you. And what’s worse is that I’ve wanted you, missed you. Do you know how fucked up that is, to still miss someone everyday who left you without a word? To hate yourself for it, and wonder what the fuck is so wrong with you that you still want the person who hurt you more than anyone else?”

Her voice is raw and hoarse, and Elliot can feel that he’s crying, but he can think of nothing that will make this better. He knows – she has already told him – that his apologies are worthless.

“Liv-” he starts again, the nickname coming out before he can stop it. But she looks so furious, and so broken, that he cuts himself off. “If I had known,” he rasps, “no way I would have – could have – left. I would have been there, for everything – I swear. If I had known-”

She cuts him off.

“Elliot, stop.” He stops. “It doesn’t matter what you would have done if you’d known,” her voice is shaking, but she continues, “it doesn’t matter. Because you didn’t know. And that’s not what happened. You weren’t there. I never heard from you again, even after years of trying to get ahold of you. You took off and didn’t look back – didn't even say goodbye. You’re a stranger to your own son.” She heaves out a sigh. “So it doesn’t matter what you would have done, because that’s not what you did.”

Elliot swallows thickly. She’s right – of course, she’s right.

“What can I do?” he whispers, “What can I do to fix this?”

“Nothing,” she says, dragging her hand down her face, “there’s nothing you can do to fix this, Elliot. It’s done.”

He can feel something inside of him break at the finality of her words, but he just manages to keep it together – outwardly, at least. He can tell that she is also working to keep as much of her composure as she can manage, and so he just sits silently for a moment – taking a deep breath, and allowing her to do the same.

“Can I,” he clears his throat, speaking as steadily as he’s able, “can I meet him?”

Olivia looks vaguely distraught, and he feels bad for pushing that point so quickly, but it’s all he’s been able to think about since he found out. Their son.

“I don’t know, Elliot,” she sighs.

“Olivia-” he’s pleading, and he knows he has no right, but he can’t help it. They have a son.

She holds up her hand to stop him. “I’m not saying no,” she clarifies, “but it’s not just my decision. James has a say in this, and he’s not ready for it.” Elliot’s heart sinks, but she continues. “Until a few days ago, he didn’t even know it was an option to meet his father – he needs time to get used to it, and I won’t push him.”

Elliot nods. He might not like it, but it’s more than fair.

“And honestly,” she continues, voice hard again, “I’m not comfortable with you meeting him if you’re just going to take off again. He deserves better.”

“I know,” Elliot admits. “Liv- Olivia,” he corrects again, “I’m not going anywhere.”

She very obviously doesn’t believe him, and he can’t blame her.

“Really?” she bites out, “So you’re just going to abandon your life in Italy just like that?”

He flounders, because he honestly hadn’t considered the logistics of it all. He probably will have to leave everything in Italy, but he hasn’t even begun to work out how exactly he’ll do it.

She just nods, visibly unimpressed. “Yeah,” she grinds out, “that’s what I figured. How about this, Elliot,” she crosses her arms, “you go deal with all your shit, and if you can prove that you’re willing and able to stick around and be a stable part of James’ life, then you can meet him.”

“I will,” he promises, “I can. I want to.”

Her glare has not softened, and Olivia just gives him another curt nod. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Chapter Text

She is fussing with the bandage covering James’ stitches – to his eternal chagrin – when Olivia notices Maureen heading in her direction.

“Ow, Mom!” James exclaims. In her momentary distraction, she has pushed down rather too hard on the bandage.

“Sorry, sorry,” she apologizes, flattening down the last edge. “Remember,” she tells her son, “no heading the ball, and if it starts to hurt, you come right off, okay?”

“I know, Mom.” James rolls his eyes at her, and Olivia huffs out a small laugh.

“Alright, go play then,” she shoos him off.

It hadn’t occurred to her that taking James to soccer would have the underlying threat of running into the Stablers, but so far Olivia can only see Maureen, and she holds out hope that this is not a family excursion.

“Hey, Olivia,” the younger woman greets her, nervously and with a small wave.

“Hi Maureen,” Olivia tries to smile, but it’s been a very long, fraught day, and she is anxious that Maureen may not be alone.

Seeming to sense her anxiety, Maureen sits on the bench next to her and speaks. “It’s just me,” she reassures, “well, and Logan and Dave – and Eli – but nobody else who knows what’s going on. Definitely no Dad – even he knows better.”

Olivia breathes a sigh of relief. “I’m surprised we haven’t run into each other at one of these games before.”

Maureen winces a bit. “Yeah, that’s on me,” she says, “I’m usually at work right now.” She pauses. “Actually, I’m supposed to be at work right now, but I was hoping to run into you.”

Olivia raises an eyebrow. After the day she’s had, she can’t help but worry that whatever Maureen wants to say to her will just make everything so much worse.

“It’s nothing bad,” she reassures, clearly having read Olivia’s anxiety. “At least, I don’t think so.”

“O-kay,” Olivia stretches the word out.

“It’s just,” Maureen sighs, “we just wanted you to know – me and Kathleen and Richard – that if it was something that you’d be interested in, we’d like to get to know James. Only if he wants to, and only if you’re okay with it, of course, but we just wanted to let you know that it’s an open offer.”

Olivia swallows around the lump in her throat. Since his father has never been around, she has always felt guilty that she hasn’t been able to give James a bigger family. She knows that blood isn’t everything, and that he has plenty of people in his life who love and care for him, but it has always been a bit of a sore spot for her that he doesn’t have any siblings – or, at least, that he doesn’t know any of his siblings.

“That’s really nice, Maureen,” she smiles. “I’ll talk to him about it. Thank you.”

“Of course,” she says. “Besides, six is such a nice even number.”

Olivia can’t help her laughter, and Maureen is laughing along with her when Eli appears at their side.

“Mo,” he whines, “I’m bored.”

Maureen just rolls her eyes. “You didn’t have to come, Eli. I warned you there wouldn’t be much to do.”

The boy shrugs. “Yeah, but Mom’s in a weird mood and I wanted to get out of the house.”

Olivia is wondering if there is any way she can politely excuse herself from this interaction, when Eli turns towards her.

“You look really familiar,” he says. “I think there’s pictures of you at our house.”

It is such an abrupt change in topic, that Olivia is completely at a loss for what to say. Thankfully Maureen intercedes on her behalf.

“Olivia used to work with Dad,” she explains.

“Oh!” Eli lights up. “You were there when I was born!”

“Yeah,” Olivia confirms, though her voice is strangled. Eli doesn’t seem to notice at all.

“Cool!” He exclaims, before briefly looking confused. “What are you doing here?” He asks.

“Eli, don’t be rude,” Maureen chastises. “Olivia’s son is on Logan’s soccer team. He was at the house the other day, remember?”

“Ooh,” Eli nods, “right. Did he have to get stitches?”

Olivia’s head is swimming, and she can only manage nodding silently. This day has been entirely too much.

“Eli,” Maureen says, “do you want to go get something from the concession? I think they have popcorn.”

Easily taking his sister up on her offer, Eli waits to be given spending money before taking off toward the snack bar.

“Sorry,” Maureen winces, “he’s a bit stir crazy today. He’s only just getting over the jetlag.”

Olivia nods again. “He doesn’t know, does he?” She asks, worried.

“No,” Maureen confirms. “We figured it was best to let him get used to the idea of moving back to New York before we sprung a long-lost brother on him.”

Olivia is stunned. “They’re moving back to New York?”

Clearly noticing her shock, Maureen winces again, but nods. “Yeah. Mom and Eli, anyways. No idea about Dad. Sorry,” she apologizes, “that’s probably not the most sensitive way I could have delivered the news.”

“No,” Olivia shakes her head, “that’s fine. Just a surprise, is all.”

Maureen is about to say something in reply, when James comes running up to them, accompanied by one of the coaches and looking thoroughly put out.

“Hey Olivia,” the coach greets her, “it looks like James’ stitches have opened up again. He says he’s fine, but he can’t play if he’s bleeding.”

Noticing that her son is, in fact, bleeding again, Olivia sighs and collects her purse.

“Come on, James,” she directs, “let’s go see if we can get that taken care of. Maureen,” she addresses the other woman, “you have my number, right?” Upon receiving a confirmation, Olivia thanks the coach and marshals her still complaining son towards the car. It has been a very long day.

--

Ultimately, James doesn’t need any more stitches. He is sent home from the emergency room with nothing more than a butterfly bandage and an admonishment not to play sports until his cut has fully healed. He complains the whole way home about having missed the game, but Olivia is just relieved that he hasn’t injured himself any worse – and mad at herself for having given in to his whining about wanting to play in the first place.

She snaps at him to be quiet halfway through the drive home, and immediately feels bad. It’s not her son’s fault that she’s had such a shitty day. Still, she takes the rest of the ride home to settle herself a bit, knowing that she cannot take this out on James.

“I’m sorry I snapped,” she finally apologizes, when they are sitting on the sofa with dinner. She has only just barely managed to get her own emotions under control.

James just shrugs. “S’okay,” he mumbles, though his eyes are still downcast. Olivia feels even worse.

“No,” she sighs, “it’s not. I’ve had a bad day, but it’s not fair for me to take it out on you.”

Her son just nods, looking up at her with a quizzical look. “What happened?” He asks.

“Just work, baby,” she lies. He nods again, taking her words at face value. He knows not to pry about her job – that she will never tell him the details.

“Wanna watch Blue Planet?” He asks instead, and Olivia smiles. Whenever James has a bad day, nature documentaries are – for some reason – his go to, and it is sweet that he so obviously wants to make her feel better.

“Sure,” she smiles. “But no sharks.” James just laughs at her and turns on the TV, and Olivia feels herself relaxing ever so slightly.

--

Once James has gone to bed, Olivia’s dark mood returns. While her son – and David Attenborough – had provided a pleasant distraction, she is now once again alone with her thoughts.

And while she is still so angry with Elliot – furious, really – over the course of the day, her anger has slid into the background and been replaced by a pressing, overwhelming loneliness. Because – at one time – after a day as spectacularly bad as the one she’s just had, Elliot would have been who she would have gone to. And, obviously, she cannot do that now. Hasn’t been able to do that for a while. But seeing him today had just reminded her of how they used to be – the current tattered remnants of their once close relationship only highlighting to her how integral a part of her life he had once been. And that was gone now – lost to her, probably forever.

Sure, she has people in her life now; friends, colleagues, her son – but it isn’t the same. Nothing has managed, even after all this time, to fill the hole that Elliot had left. She has dated – intermittently – over the years, but nothing had ever stuck. She’d never wanted anything to stick, if she’s honest with herself. Ed Tucker had come closest – had been the only man she’d ever introduced to James – but even then, she’d known, deep down, that it wouldn’t last. His request for her to retire with him had only hastened their inevitable parting. His death had still devastated her, of course, and she’d loved him in a way – but it wasn’t the same, and she knew it.

The less said about Brian Cassidy, the better. While Olivia could appreciate that he’d grown up a fair bit since they’d first met, their more recent relationship had consisted of casual sex and not much else. She’d appreciated his ability to distract her and get her out of her own head a bit after Lewis, but she’d hardly been torn up when they’d parted company.

Now, well, she supposes she could call Fin. But while she appreciates his easy company and steady support, it is not what she needs at the moment. Much as she hates herself for it – wishes desperately that it weren’t the case – who she wants in that moment is Elliot. It’s pathetic, she knows, and she has no intention of doing anything at all about it, but it’s the truth.

She hates that she’d even brought it up with him that day – how much she’d missed him; how much she still missed him. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d just started talking, and the words had come out before she could stop them. Stupid. She should have just hit him and walked out, been done with the whole thing.

But that wasn’t fair to James. If nothing else, Elliot was a good father – and he seemed to be interested in having a relationship with their son. James deserved to have a relationship with his father – to know that he wasn’t some shameful secret.

Olivia scowled, closing the door to her fridge harder than she’d intended after retrieving her bottle of wine.

That was assuming Elliot would follow through. After ten years of radio silence from the man, she was hardly holding her breath. Sure, the Elliot she’d known a decade ago would have done everything in his power to make this right – but then, she’d thought that the Elliot she’d known then would never leave her without a word. Clearly, she hadn’t known him nearly as well as she’d thought.

Chapter Text

Against his own better judgement, Elliot finds himself lingering by the coffee cart that he knows Fin frequents – or, used to frequent, at least – the very next day. He knows – he knows – that it’s a bad idea, that it’s a good way to get himself punched, but he can’t help himself. He has so many questions about the decade he has missed, and he knows it wouldn’t be fair to ask Olivia – that she would well and truly kill him if he tried – so he has decided to ask Fin. The odds of actually getting some answers are ever so slightly better with Fin. And his curiosity is killing him – he can’t help it.

“Oh, what the fuck?” He hears Fin’s familiar voice as the other man approaches him. He is with a blonde woman that Elliot doesn’t recognize, and it occurs to him to be relieved that it isn’t Liv.

And, before he can fully come to grips with the situation, Fin has sucker punched him. Hard. Elliot is quite sure that his nose is broken, but he has no intention of complaining or hitting back. He’d more than deserved it. It’s almost a relief.

“Hey, Fin,” he greets, holding his nose.

The blonde woman looks alarmed, and the coffee vendor has started shouting at them to get away from his cart, but Elliot just waves them both off. The punch had been warranted.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face here, Stabler,” Fin spits.

“Yeah,” Elliot nods, swiping some napkins from the vendor, “I know. Want to hit me again?”

Fin snorts, looking like he’s seriously considering it, before shaking his head. “Nah,” he replies, “a lot less satisfying when you’re expecting it.”

“Wait,” the blonde interjects, “this is Olivia’s old partner?”

“Mhmm,” Fin nods, “the very same.” He turns to the woman. “Not a word about this to Liv, Amanda, understand?”

The woman – Amanda – nods, though she still looks confused.

Fin turns back to him. “What do you want?”

“Can I buy you a coffee?” Elliot asks. “Catch up a bit?”

“If you want to pump me for information, you’ll have to buy me a hell of a lot more than coffee, Stabler.”

Elliot nods. That’s fair.

--

True to his word, Fin has brought them to a steakhouse about a half hour from the precinct – and ordered a very large lunch. Elliot assumes he will be footing the bill.

“What’s he like?” Elliot finally asks, as the other man is tucking into his baked potato.

“Who?” Fin asks, “James?”

“Unless I’ve got another kid out there I don’t know about.”

Fin just smirks at him. “Wouldn’t put it past you.”

Elliot huffs and shakes his head. He’s hardly going to tell Fin that the entire list of women who could have ever conceivably been pregnant with his kids is composed of just Liv and Kathy. Unless James has a twin, it simply isn’t possible.

“He’s a sweet kid,” Fin finally answers. “Takes after Liv more than you, thank God.”

Elliot smiles. That is a good thing.

“Maureen says he plays soccer?” He hates that it’s a question – that he doesn’t know something so basic about his own son.

“Yeah,” Fin nods. “He’s pretty good, too. None of us were expecting that. He crashed out of baseball so hard that Liv didn’t want to put him in sports again, but he likes it.”

Elliot has so many questions that It's hard to pick just one. “Crashed out of baseball?” is what he finally settles on.

Fin nods, laughing. “Hated it so much that he’d just sit in the outfield by himself. Liv tried to make him finish out the season, but he ended up getting hit by a bat about two games shy. Goose egg the size of my fist,” he holds up his hand. “Course Liv was hysterical about it – first time the kid had got properly hurt. I’m still not sure he didn’t do it on purpose,” Fin smiles. “The boy hates baseball.”

Elliot laughs, but it hurts. Not that James hates baseball – he couldn’t care less about that – but just how much he has missed of his son’s childhood.

“Do you-” Elliot starts, hating that he has to even ask this, “do you have a picture?”

Fin gives him an odd sort of look, before obviously taking pity on him and reaching into his jacket for his phone. “I’m sure I’ve got one on here somewhere,” he looks through the device, “just don’t go looking through my camera roll if you know what’s good for you.”

Elliot grimaces. He has no desire at all to do so.

“Here,” Fin hands him the phone, “I think that’s the most recent one of him I’ve got.”

Elliot takes the phone from Fin, and suddenly he can barely breathe for the lump in his throat. God, he looks so much like Liv. James is holding up some kind of lizard for the camera, positively beaming, and Elliot cannot stop staring. Everything about the boy – his smile, his face, his unruly hair – is Liv. Except his eyes. Elliot’s own eyes are staring up at him from the photo. All his children have blue eyes – both he and Kathy do, so it was basically a given – but James’ eyes are not just blue, they are his. Exactly the same as his own. He can feel his vision going blurry, and he shuts his eyes, trying not to start crying in a restaurant for the second time in as many days.

“Can you-” he clears his throat, “can you send this to me?” He knows that Fin has no good reason to agree, but Elliot is desperate at this point.

Obviously sensing this, Fin again takes pity on him. “Yeah,” he nods, “but not a word to Liv.”

Elliot barks out a watery laugh. “No worries there, she’s not exactly taking my calls at the moment.”

Fin nods, and Elliot feels his phone buzz in his pocket. How the hell did Fin have his number?

“I’ve got my ways,” the other man smirks, having seemingly read Elliot’s mind.

Elliot just laughs, shaking his head, before sobering again. He has one more pressing question – one that he isn’t sure he wants the answer to.

“How is Liv?”

Fin puts down his fork and considers Elliot for a moment, blowing a breath out his nose.

“She’s a survivor,” he states, simply.

“Yeah,” Elliot nods, voice hoarse, “she is. I, uh, I saw the article in the Post. She alright?” There is so much more he wants to ask, wants to demand answers about, but he knows that it’s fifty-fifty whether Fin will even answer this general question.

“Like I said,” Fin responds, “she’s a survivor. Anything more than that, you’ll have to ask her yourself.”

Elliot nods again. That had been a bit of a long shot anyways.

“And, uh-” he can feel his face heating, “is there anyone, you know, in her life?”

Fin starts laughing so abruptly that he nearly spits out his drink, and Elliot knows that his ears have definitely gone red.

“Seriously?” he laughs.

Elliot just shrugs.

“Nah,” Fin shakes his head. “Liv doesn’t really date. James and the job are her whole life, man. There was a guy, a while ago, who things got kind of serious with – but you’ll have to ask her about it, because she’d have my head if I told you.”

Elliot picks at his meal absently. He knows he has no right whatsoever to be jealous, and that he really ought to be happy that she’d moved on and been happy with someone, but there is still a small, dark part of him that feels possessive. He shakes it off as best he can and shoves a roll into his mouth.

“Honestly though,” Fin is appraising him again, “leave that alone, man. It fucked her up when you left – more than she’ll ever admit to anyone – and I don’t know that she ever really got over it. She’s made a nice life for herself though, and I really will bury you if you come in now and wreck it.”

Elliot nods. Much as he might not want to hear it, he knows Fin is right. He has no right to expect anything from Olivia after all this time, and he’ll just have to make his peace with that. What stings more than anything else, though, is the idea that he is now someone that she has to be protected from – the thought makes him physically nauseous, and he folds his napkin over his plate.

--

When Fin comes back from his lunch with Elliot, Amanda corners him before he’s even gotten to his desk. He’d been expecting it, but had at least hoped to be able to put his things away before he explained himself to her. Because there was no way that she was going to let his midday assault – no matter how justified – go without a discussion.

“Let’s do this somewhere else,” he heads her off, nodding towards the break room. She follows easily, but once they have shut the door behind themselves, she is in full on interrogation mode.

“What the hell was that?” she demands. “Do you know how much trouble you could be in if someone recorded that?”

Fin scratches his head and shrugs. He’s aware of that, of course, but in the moment, the cost-benefit analysis had swung in favour of hitting Stabler – consequences be damned. He still doesn’t regret it.

“Relax, Amanda,” he tells her. “Stabler’s not going to make a problem, and it’s not like I was in uniform.”

She deflates ever so slightly, but keeps her probing gaze on him. He will have to cough up some sort of answer, he knows, but he can hardly tell her the whole truth. The identity of James’ father has always been something Olivia has kept very close to the chest. He knows – of course – and he’s quite sure Munch and Cragen had known, but to everyone else, the topic has always been strictly off limits. Even ignoring Olivia’s own feelings about Elliot and the way he had left, the fact that he had been her partner – her married partner – could still easily be used against her if it were to come to light that he’d fathered her child.

“That was Olivia’s old partner?” Amanda asks.

Fin nods. This, at least, provides an explanation for the punch that he can legitimately give her. The topic of Olivia’s old partner is one that even the newest hires know is to be avoided. He knows that there has been all kinds of speculation about it over the years, and everybody knows not to bring it up with Olivia herself, so it has become something of an urban legend over time. Olivia’s old partner: the one who left, the one who no one dares mention.

“Yeah,” he confirms, “that was Stabler. He deserved that hit, and more.”

Amanda seems to accept his explanation, but still looks uncomfortable. “What’s he doing back, after all this time?”

This, Fin really cannot tell her, and so he just shrugs. “Jury’s still out on that.”

Chapter Text

Elliot is surprised by the speed at which Kathy has had divorce papers drawn up, but then, she had always been the organized one between them. He signs them promptly – it is the least he can do for her.

“Kathy, I’m sorry. About everything.”

She nods. Her anger seems to have settled a bit, and now his wife – ex-wife, he supposes – just looks tired.

“I know, Elliot,” she admits. “I just wish you could have been honest about this, ten years ago.”

He swallows. “Kathy, I didn’t know ten years ago.”

She shoots him a look, and he falters. “Not about James,” she clarifies, “about Olivia. I wish you would have just told me you were in love with Olivia. We could have had an amicable divorce and saved ourselves the European tour.”

He nods, considering her words. “Are we not going to have an amicable divorce?”

She laughs – the first laugh he’s heard from her in a while – at his obvious nervousness. “Elliot, much as I’d love to jerk you around for a while, I don’t have the energy. Let’s just get this done and move on with our lives.”

He nods again, relieved. “I appreciate that,” he tells her. “I know I don’t deserve it.”

“No,” she agrees, “you don’t. But I do.”

--

Eli takes the news of the impending divorce better than Elliot had expected. The fact that his son seems unsurprised makes Elliot wonder just who he and Kathy had thought they were fooling. They had been happy, the three of them, in Rome, but when he looks back, he can see that he and Kathy hadn’t really been a couple. They had been friends – companions – who happened to share a child.

Eli’s biggest concern is whether or not Elliot will be joining them back in New York. The boy is excited about the move in a way that makes Elliot feel guilty – he hadn’t realized just how much his son had missed New York, missed his siblings. Yet another thing he has royally fucked up – though this time he can at least comfort himself with the fact that he has given Eli the benefit of a second language.

He knows that he will come back to New York – he cannot think of doing anything else – but the logistics are still something he is trying to work out. He has a job that pays well, they have an apartment that needs to be cleaned out, and disentangling all of that will take time. Elliot is impatient – has always been impatient – but he knows that he can’t just uproot everything at the drop of a hat – not again. It certainly hadn’t worked out the first time.

So he sits down with Kathy and talks through their options. It is probably the first honest conversation they have had in years. Ultimately, it is decided that they will go back to Italy – the three of them – and pack up their life. What he does after that, she tells him, is entirely his own business, but she wants to give Eli the sense of closure that they’d neglected when they’d first left New York. He agrees with her on that, at least.

What he’ll do about his job is another question entirely. His NYPD pension is enough to survive on, but he and Kathy have been trying to save for Eli’s college, and now there’s James to consider as well. He knows that Liv would never ask him for money – would probably baulk at the idea of asking him for anything right now – but he’s missed so much, and offering to contribute financially is really the least he can do. And he wants to. Elliot has never resented spending money on his children, and he’s certainly not about to start now.

He texts Liv to tell her that he’s going back to Italy to sort his things out, but that he’ll be back. All he gets back is an “ok,” but he considers it progress. She hadn’t told him to leave and never come back, at least.

--

The flight back to Italy is awkward, to say the least. He and Eli and Kathy fly back together, and the tension is palpable. Kathy isn’t thrilled to be stuck in his presence for the ten-hour flight – plus transit time on either end – and Elliot himself is antsy. He doesn’t want to be leaving New York right now, even briefly.

Eli, for his part, is largely oblivious to his parents’ discomfort – or, at least, he is acting as if he is. He has barely looked up from his video game since they left Maureen’s, and while Elliot would usually scold him for this, right now it is to his own benefit. They have not yet told Eli about James, and both Elliot and Kathy are hoping to keep a lid on that particular can of worms until they’ve at least gotten back to Rome. Ideally, Kathy has decided, they should wait until he has settled back into life in New York a bit, and gotten used to the upcoming divorce. Elliot agrees with her – wants to make this transition as smooth as possible for Eli – but he also knows that they may not be able to wait as long to tell him as they might prefer. The fact that Elliot has been obsessively checking his phone for any word from Liv – and is unable to stop himself from looking at the one photo he has of James – makes him worry that he may accidentally tip off his son that something is going on.

“Dad?” Eli prods his shoulder, startling Elliot.

“Yeah?”

“Can you move?” He asks. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Elliot unbuckles his seatbelt and pulls himself into the aisle, allowing his son to exit, dropping back down once Eli has passed.

Once Eli is out of ear-shot, Kathy looks over at him. “You good?” She asks.

Elliot sighs. “Am I being too obvious?”

Kathy shrugs, still scrutinizing him. “You look like you’re about to fidget out of your seat – you’re worse than Eli.”

Dragging a hand down his face, Elliot nods. “Sorry,” he says, “I’ll try to tone it down a bit.”

Kathy snorts, and it startles Elliot. He raises an eyebrow.

“Just tell me what’s wrong,” she rolls her eyes, “then maybe you’ll settle down and I can catch a nap without worrying you’ll piss off the guy behind you with your restless tapping.”

Taking note of just how much he actually is bouncing his leg, Elliot makes a concerted effort to still himself.

“I’m fine,” he sighs. “You shouldn’t have to worry about it.”

She just shoots him a look, and Elliot sighs again. She’s persistent, he’ll give her that.

“Fin gave me a photo of James,” he tells her. “It’s all I can think about. He’s a whole person, and I’ve missed so much of his life.”

Kathy nods, a look of understanding passing over her face.

“And I know that’s on me,” Elliot continues. “I know it is. But now that I know he’s out there, it’s all I can think about.”

Kathy sighs. “Look, Elliot, as much as you deserve to feel guilty about this, at some point you’ll have to stop beating yourself up about it so much. Get to know the kid, work on being his dad, and see where it goes. There’s nothing you can do about what you’ve missed.”

Elliot swallows hard. “Yeah,” he nods. “You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” Kathy rolls her eyes. “Now stop fidgeting so I can sleep.”

Elliot huffs out a laugh. If nothing else, Kathy certainly deserves to nap in peace.

--

Elliot is sitting at the kitchen table, on his laptop, when Eli wanders sleepily into the room. They have been back in Rome for two days, and Elliot still can’t sleep at night.

“You okay, bud?” He asks his son. “It’s late.”

Eli nods, yawning. “Yeah, just getting a glass of water.”

Elliot watches his son dig a glass out from one of the moving boxes and fill it, marvelling at just how big he has gotten. It feels like just yesterday that Eli had made his dramatic entrance into the world.

“You okay, Dad?” Eli is looking at him with a strange expression.

“Yeah,” Elliot nods, “just a bit jetlagged.”

Instead of moving to return to his own room, Eli sits down in the chair across from Elliot. “Why did you come to New York, Dad? You’ve never come with us before.”

Elliot takes a deep breath. He’s not sure what exactly he should tell his son.

“Well,” he starts, hesitantly, “it’s been too long since I was there, Eli. I should have gone to visit sooner.” It’s not really an answer to the question, but it’s as good as Elliot is able to do in that moment.

Eli is apparently not satisfied, though, because he follows up. “Did something happen?”

Elliot sighs, considering his options here. Kathy will probably kill him for it, but he’s inclined to tell his son the truth – at least, part of the truth.

“Yeah,” he admits, “something happened. Something I should have been in New York for a long time ago.”

Eli furrows his brow. “Something bad?” He asks.

“No,” Elliot shakes his head, though it’s far more complicated than that. “Nothing bad. Just something that I didn’t know about, that I should have.”

“Is that why you and Mom are getting divorced?” he asks, and Elliot pauses for a long moment.

“No,” he finally answers. Because, while it may have been the trigger, his and Kathy’s divorce is not down to having found out about James. “Your mom and I just realized that we’re better off as friends than as a couple.”

It is far too generous, Elliot knows, to describe his current relationship with Kathy as “friends,” but Eli is still a child. And, before the previous week, it really would have been an accurate statement. They had been friends. He hopes that – one day, in the future – they can be again. Perhaps it’s foolish and unrealistic of him, but he really does want that.

Eli has a curious look on his face, though, and Elliot knows that this conversation is not yet over. “What’s the matter?” He asks his son.

Eli shrugs, looking hesitant, and Elliot waits him out.

“I-” he starts, but falters. “I heard Maureen talking on the phone, in New York. She was talking to Olivia – your old partner from work. I don’t understand what she was saying, though. It didn’t make sense.”

Elliot’s stomach clenches unpleasantly. Apparently, they will be having this conversation. “What didn’t make sense?” He asks.

“Mo said that you knew about James,” he says. “But why wouldn’t you know about Olivia’s kid?”

Elliot scratches his face, sighing. “Well, it’s been a really long time since I’ve talked to Olivia. I didn’t know that she had a kid.”

Eli looks startled by that. “But Mom says that you were best friends, why hadn’t you talked to her?”

Fuck, if that isn’t the question he’s been asking himself for the last week.

“It’s complicated, bud,” Elliot sighs.

Eli rolls his eyes. Everyone is rolling their eyes at him lately, Elliot thinks.

“I’m not a little kid,” he huffs.

And no, Elliot supposes that Eli is not a little kid anymore. He’s nearly a teenager. But it is very late, and Kathy really will kill him if he springs this conversation on their son right now, so Elliot makes a decision.

“No,” he agrees, “you’re not. But it’s late, and we’re both still jetlagged – how about we talk about this more in the morning?”

Eli clearly wants to argue, but he must sense that Elliot is nearing the end of his patience, because he nods instead.

“Okay,” he mutters, “but I'll hold you to that.”

Elliot nods in return, and Eli finally retreats down the hallway to his bedroom. In the morning, he will have to rip off that bandage, but for now, Elliot decides to be relieved to have dodged the bullet for a few more hours.

--

When Elliot wakes up the next morning – after about three non-consecutive hours of sleep – he has the vague hope that Eli has forgotten about last night’s conversation. He is quickly disabused of that notion when he sees his son watching him from over his bowl of cereal. Elliot has slept on the couch in the living room, and Eli has clearly been waiting for him to wake up.

Making his way into the kitchen, Elliot tries to think of what exactly he will tell his son. Kathy is making her own breakfast, and she looks annoyed, so he assumes that Eli has apprised her of their late-night talk – though she has ample reason to be annoyed with him aside from just that.

“You’re on your own with this one,” she half-smirks at him, confirming his assessment. Though he knows that, realistically, she will jump in if he starts to flounder.

He fixes himself a cup of coffee and sits down across from Eli. Best to just get this over with.

“Alright,” he sighs, “what did you want to know?”

Chapter Text

Elliot is floundering, and, contrary to his earlier assumption, Kathy has not jumped in to help him. He supposes he deserves that, but he doesn’t think he’s ever had such a difficult conversation with Eli before. Since leaving New York, he has been a much more present, engaged father to Eli than he’d ever been to his four oldest children, and they have consequently always had a much easier relationship. Now, though, his son is looking at him with such confusion, disappointment, and – he thinks – contempt that Elliot is physically squirming in his chair.

“So, wait,” Eli tilts his head, “Olivia was your best friend, and you never said goodbye to her?”

Elliot nods. He has not even gotten to the worst part of the story yet, and already his son looks mad. That doesn’t bode well.

“Why not?” he asks.

“Well-” Elliot starts, but Eli interrupts him.

Don’t say it’s complicated.”

Elliot clams up. That is exactly what he had been about to say. He thinks he can hear Kathy chuckling in the other room.

“I thought – incorrectly, obviously – that I was doing her a favour,” he explains. “And,” he sighs, “I knew that if she’d asked me to stay, I wouldn’t have been able to say no.”

He and Kathy had explained – briefly, and long ago – to Eli why they had initially decided to leave New York, and Elliot hopes that his son will accept his explanation now. Luck does not appear to be on his side though, because Eli is scowling.

“So?” he says. “I still don’t get why we couldn’t have just stayed.”

Elliot sighs. This is not going well.

“We probably could have,” he admits. “That was my mistake.” Eli nods, still scowling, and Elliot continues. “It wasn’t my only mistake either.”

Eli tilts his head. “What did you do?” The accusatory tone of his voice is jarring.

Elliot takes a deep breath. Best to just rip the band-aid right off.

“When we left, Liv was pregnant. With my baby. James is my son – your half-brother.”

“What?!” Eli’s spoon has clattered to the table, and Elliot is vaguely aware that Kathy has re-entered the kitchen at the sound of their son’s shout.

Elliot winces. “Yeah. That’s why I came back to New York.”

Eli is gaping at him, mouth open and eyes wide. Kathy slides into the seat next to Elliot, and reaches across the table to take their son’s hand.

“Eli, honey, are you alright?” she asks.

Closing his mouth, Eli glares at Elliot with such anger that he shrinks under his son’s gaze.

“Why didn’t you just leave him, so we could have stayed at home?” Eli’s voice is tearful and he has directed his question at Kathy, who – perhaps for the first time – looks at a complete loss for words.

“Honey-” she tries, but Eli yanks his hand from her grasp and storms off down the hallway.

“Well,” she mutters, “that could have gone better.”

--

Kathy is the one to go check on Eli, and when she returns to the kitchen table, she looks exhausted.

“He’s mad,” she tells Elliot, rubbing her temples. “At both of us.”

“Both of us?” Elliot asks, genuinely surprised. “What the hell did you do?”

Kathy sighs. “Nothing,” she says. “Apparently that’s the problem.”

Elliot quirks an eyebrow, and she sighs again.

“I hadn’t realized how upset he’s been about leaving New York, all these years,” she admits. “He thinks that if you’d just talked to Olivia, and I’d just left you, then we could have stayed,” she sighs yet again. “And he’s right.”

Elliot nods. He feels terrible. Eli is the only one of his children who he hadn’t felt like he’d failed miserably, and apparently, he’d been mistaken.

“Christ Kathy, I’m sorry.”

She only nods, looking pensive. “Do you regret it?” She asks.

“Yes,” Elliot answers, without thinking, but pauses. “And no. I regret how it happened, and that I fucked everything up so spectacularly afterwards,” - Kathy smirks at the description, obviously agreeing - “but I don’t regret that it happened.”

Kathy nods again, sipping her coffee. “You’re still in love with her,” she states, holding up her hand when Elliot goes to argue. “Come on Elliot, what’s the point in lying about it now?”

He shrugs. “Yeah,” he admits. “I am. But that ship’s sailed, and I’ll just have to deal with it.”

“You know,” she says, appraising him, “I don’t think it’s sailed quite as far as you think it has.”

Elliot scoffs. “Kathy, it’s been ten years. I got her pregnant and abandoned her. There’s no coming back from that.”

Kathy shrugs. “Maybe not, but if you don’t at least try to fix things then you’ve wasted ten years of all our lives for no good reason.”

“Thanks,” he mutters, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

She stands to clear Eli’s cereal, and takes the opportunity to smack him across the forehead with the sticky, milk-covered spoon that the boy had left behind. Wonderful, he thinks to himself as milk drips into his eyes, truly a fitting end to that particular conversation.

Chapter Text

Elliot has been texting her on a regular basis since they met for lunch. It has been about two weeks, and almost every day, Olivia has a message from him. They are generally casual, and informative – letting her know of his progress packing up his life in Italy, mostly – and he is clearly making an effort to let her know he intends to stick around this time.

Still, she rarely responds. If he asks an especially important question, she’ll give him a word or two in reply, but nothing beyond that. And she steadfastly refuses to answer any of his questions that are unrelated to James. He has a right to know the basics about their son, but she maintains a strict boundary around her own life. She ignores all his calls, and he eventually takes the hint on that front – though he continues to text her.

James, for his part, has begun to ask her questions about Elliot, and she knows that her son is gearing up towards being ready to meet his father. She’s happy about this, in a way, but – despite knowing that it is a positive step for James – she is also dreading it. Because it will mean spending more time with Elliot. James is so shy, and this is such a big deal, that Olivia knows that it is unavoidable that she will have to be there – and that she will have to be calm and civil with Elliot, for their son’s benefit. She is far too protective of James to let him meet Elliot for the first time without her, but the prospect of having to be in the man’s company is genuinely beginning to distress her.

When Elliot texts to let her know that he will be back in New York later that week, Olivia has to lock herself in her office to panic in privacy. She had – mostly – been able to manage when he had briefly been in town a few weeks prior; when there was still the possibility that he might well take off again and not come back. But now that there is a date on his return, and the possibility of Elliot being back in her life is beginning to look more and more like a certainty, Olivia is struggling.

She calls Dr. Lindstrom and makes an appointment to see him – for the first time in nearly five years – because she knows that she cannot let on to James just how much his father’s reappearance has shaken her. She wants her son to have the best chance at a healthy relationship with Elliot, and Olivia doesn’t want her own baggage to stand in the way of that. Lindstrom is obviously surprised to hear from her, but when she explains the reason for her call, he agrees to fit her in the very next day.

--

“So, Olivia,” Dr. Lindstrom observes her, “you said on the phone that your old partner is back from abroad. How are you dealing with that?”

Olivia blows out a breath. Obviously not well, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.

“It’s been hard,” she admits. “I’m still so angry with him, and I want to tell him to just get lost and never come back, but that’s not fair to James.”

Lindstrom gives her a quizzical look, his pen stilling on his paper. “Your son?” he asks, confused. “Why would that not be fair to your son?”

It is not until that moment that Olivia realizes that she has never actually told Lindstrom that Elliot is James’ father. He had come up in their sessions before, right after William Lewis abducted her, but she had only ever admitted to her therapist that she had held out hope that her old partner might come to her rescue – she had never disclosed the relationship that Elliot had to her son.

She sighs, digging her knuckles into her temples. “Elliot is James’ father,” she admits, finally.

To his credit, Dr. Lindstrom only momentarily looks startled, before quickly schooling his expression back to neutral. “Oh,” he says. “I see.”

“Yeah,” Olivia nods. “It’s complicated.”

“Evidently,” Lindstrom replies. “I take it that Elliot has not been present in James’ life until now?” He frames it as a question, but they both already know the answer.

“No,” Olivia confirms. “He hasn’t. I tried to get in touch with him – when I was pregnant, and a few times when James was younger – but he apparently had no idea.”

Lindstrom observes her. “Do you doubt that? That Elliot didn’t know?”

“Not really,” she shrugs. “He seemed torn up about it when I saw him again, and I don’t think he would have been able to stay away if he’d known – he's got a thing about kids.”

Lindstrom writes something on his pad, before looking back up at Olivia. “But you didn’t think you’d ever see him again,” he says. It isn’t a question.

“No,” she shakes her head. Lindstrom returns to his note taking.

“You say that it wouldn’t be fair to James if you asked Elliot to leave,” he says. “But is that what you want – for Elliot to leave?”

Olivia shrugs again. That’s the question she’s been wrangling with since she’d walked out of the deli after meeting with him. On one hand, she wanted him to go far enough away that she’d never have to think about him ever again – and to stay gone this time. But on the other hand, the idea of Elliot disappearing again was enough to send her into a panic attack. She knew – logically – that the first option wasn’t really much of an option – that no matter how thoroughly he disappeared, she would always continue to think about him. She’d never really stopped, no matter how humiliating that was for her to admit to herself.

“No,” she finally admits. “I don’t think I could handle him leaving again. I think it would ruin me.”

Lindstrom doesn’t seem surprised, but then, Olivia thinks, it is his job to seem unsurprised.

“When we spoke about Elliot previously, you referred to him only as your partner,” Lindstrom states. “Was that the extent of your relationship? Or was there a romantic aspect?”

Olivia blows out a hard breath. She knows she needs to talk this through, and that Lindstrom won’t judge her about it, but even the idea of saying the words out loud is so fucking humiliating.

“I was in love with him,” she forces out. “And he was married. James was conceived in a moment of weakness for us both, and then I never heard from Elliot again.”

Lindstrom nods, taking copious notes. “And now?” He asks.

Well, if that isn’t the whole problem.

“Now-” Olivia pauses, taking a deep breath. “Now I don’t know. I want to hate him for being gone all this time – a part of me does hate him for it – but even after ten years, there’s another part of me that still just wants him. And that’s stupid, and pathetic, and embarrassing, but it’s still there – and I hate myself for it.”

Lindstrom is looking at her now, no longer taking notes. “Olivia,” he takes his glasses off, “whatever it is that you feel for Elliot – even the things you might wish you didn’t - it is no reason to self-flagellate. It is one thing to be embarrassed about feelings that you think you should no longer have, but they are not a character flaw.”

Olivia nods, though she privately disagrees.

“What is the worst-case scenario for you, right now?” Lindstrom redirects. Olivia appreciates that he is not pressing the subject of her self-hatred.

“I just-” she sighs, “I just don’t want James to get attached to Elliot, only for him to leave again.”

Lindstrom nods, but his gaze is unsettling. “That’s the worst case for James,” he says. “What’s the worst case for you, Olivia?”

Olivia sighs. Elliot’s actions hurting her son is the worst case for her, but she knows what Lindstrom is getting at.

“That he’ll leave,” she finally admits. “That I’ll let myself trust Elliot again, and he’ll leave. Again.”

Lindstrom nods. “And what do you think would happen, if Elliot left again?”

“I don’t know,” she says, around the lump in her throat. “I don’t think I could deal with it – not again.”

“I think that you could,” Lindstrom emphasises, “but it seems unlikely to me that you will have to. You said that Elliot has a thing about kids?”

Olivia nods, blinking hard against tears that she will not allow to fall.

“Based only on that,” he continues, “it seems to me that – at the very least – Elliot will not leave again without a word. A child is a powerful motivation to stay.”

“Yeah,” she croaks. “I guess.”

“Whether or not you ever choose to trust Elliot again – on a personal level – is entirely your decision, Olivia. But, for the sake of your son, I think that you should work towards at least not not trusting him. Does that make sense?”

Olivia only nods again in response, though Lindstrom isn’t finished.

“You cannot guard yourself completely against hurt, here,” he tells her. “Whether or not Elliot leaves again is his own decision, and it seems to me that, even if you never trust him again, you would be hurt if he did so. There’s no way around that, Olivia. I think it’s important that you acknowledge that, and – once things have settled a bit with your son – you discuss it with Elliot.” Lindstrom must notice her stricken expression, because he gives her a slight smile and assures her; “I’m not saying that you have to, just that it might be beneficial. And of course, I am happy to talk this through with you, or to serve as a neutral person to listen to you vent, whenever you feel the need – I can almost always schedule an appointment on short notice if you need it.”

“Thanks,” she rasps. “I’ll probably take you up on that.”

--

When she picks James up from school, he is so quiet that Olivia immediately knows something is going on with him. Her son might be shy, but almost never with her. Generally, he has launched into some long-winded story about his day before he has even fully closed the door to the car. So, when they have driven five blocks in total silence, Olivia is quite sure that he has something on his mind.

“Hey, you alright?” She asks, catching his eye in the rear-view mirror.

“Yeah,” he nods, still quiet.

“Want to talk about it?” She hears him sigh in response, and she is momentarily concerned that something has happened.

“Do you think my dad wants to meet me?” He asks, and Olivia sighs in relief. Much as the idea of James meeting Elliot makes her anxious, it is at least a familiar anxiety. She is just glad that nothing bad has happened.

“Yeah, baby, I do,” she tells him, honestly. Elliot has been texting her incessantly about it, asking about James’ interests and where the best place to meet for the first time might be. If her feelings about Elliot weren’t so complicated at the moment, she’d think it was sweet.

“And,” James hesitates, “are you okay if I want to meet him?”

Olivia’s heart clenches at the uncertainty in his voice. “Of course, baby,” she reassures. “I want you to know your dad.”

“Okay,” he nods, seeming much lighter than when he’d gotten into the car, though still nervous. “I think I want to meet him.”

“Alright,” she tells him, forcing a smile, “I’ll work out the details.”

Chapter Text

Though Olivia herself is nervous about the day she and her son are about to spend with Elliot, she pushes it aside easily enough in order to support James as best she can. Because he is well and truly freaking out about it. He had emptied his drawers looking for the right thing to wear, practically hyperventilated in the car as she’d been pulling out into traffic, and now – standing in front of the Queens Zoo – he has her hand crushed in a death grip. She takes this as a sign of just how nervous he must be, because normally any attempt by her to hold his hand – especially in public – would be deemed a horrifying embarrassment. Not only has he not immediately yanked his hand from her grasp, but he had been the one to reach for it in the first place, so she knows that keeping James calm will be her first priority for the day.

They have been waiting for about five minutes when his grip starts to cut off her circulation, and Olivia turns to her son. “James,” she catches his attention, “take a deep breath, okay? Everything’s going to be alright.”

He nods, though he doesn’t actually take the deep breath she had suggested.

“If it gets to be too much for you, you just have to tell me, and we can leave,” she reminds him.

“Okay,” he nods again.

Olivia is about to make another attempt at having him take a deep breath when she spots Elliot approaching through the crowd. They are not actually due to meet for another fifteen minutes, but she assumes that Elliot – like James – is anxious about the meeting. She smiles to herself a bit at that.

“There he is,” she points, “in the green shirt.” James immediately jerks his hand free from hers, looking horrified by the idea that Elliot might see him holding hands with his mother. Olivia can’t help a small laugh at his reaction, in spite of the seriousness of the moment.

“Hey,” Elliot gives a little wave as he approaches them, and Olivia notes that he looks just as nervous as she feels.

“Hey,” she replies, awkwardly returning his wave. “James,” she turns to her son, “this is Elliot – your dad.”

“Hi,” James whispers, shrinking into her side.

“Hey,” Elliot repeats, though this time it is softer, and he is smiling. “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”

--

Sometime around the lemur exhibit, James relaxes a bit. He is still quiet, but he isn’t stuck quite as firmly to Olivia’s side, and he has even started to string together a few words when speaking to Elliot. It is a good start, Olivia thinks. She knows that she shouldn’t be surprised that Elliot is good with children, after all the time that she’s known him, but seeing him smiling and chatting with their son – seemingly unphased by his shyness – has put a lump in her throat anyways.

While the two of them are occupied with the lemurs, Olivia takes a moment to properly observe Elliot. When she’d met him for lunch, it had been such a shock to her system just seeing him again that she hadn’t really taken him in. He’s aged well, she thinks. He’s got a bit less hair, and isn’t quite as bulky as he’d once been, but he looks calm now – in a way that she never would have previously associated with Elliot. She supposes that retirement has suited him. He smiles easily, talking to James, and he’s dressed so casually – in dark jeans and a Jets t-shirt – that the two of them look as if they’ve always been father and son. It hurts – because it is what Olivia has always wanted – but she can’t help smiling at the two of them together.

The employee at the entrance to the zoo had given them a family ticket without any prompting, and Olivia supposes that they would look like a family from the outside. Elliot, standing with James and laughing at the lemurs, and Olivia standing back, watching the two of them fondly. She doesn’t allow herself to linger on those thoughts too much though, because she has sworn to herself that today she will focus only on James, and how he is dealing with meeting his father for the first time – not on her own long abandoned wishes for a life and a family with Elliot.

--

Elliot is overwhelmed. There is no way around that fact. He’d shown up early, hoping to have a moment to collect himself a bit before meeting his son, but Olivia and James had already been there – probably having had the same idea. Seeing Olivia again, on its own, had been overwhelming – she was tan, and beautiful, and dressed so casually for a weekend day out that it threw him a bit – but seeing her standing there with their son had very nearly ruined him. He hadn’t even considered how much it would ache to see Olivia as a mother – something she’d wanted so much, for so long – knowing how much he’d missed. She was clearly very protective of James, and he obviously felt safest with her. Both of those observations made Elliot feel soft, warm things that he would never speak aloud.

And then there was James himself. Seeing photos of the boy hadn’t prepared Elliot nearly enough for what it would actually be like to meet him – to see him up close, in person. To have his own eyes looking at him so warily, from a face that looked so much like Liv’s. It was unlike anything that Elliot had ever experienced before, and only years of reigning in his emotions as a police officer had prevented him from pulling the boy into a hug and weeping. Well, that and the fact that he didn’t want to immediately terrify the poor kid.

Both Kathy and Olivia had warned him about how shy James was, but Elliot wasn’t nearly as phased by that as he knew they both thought he would be. He himself had been a painfully shy kid, and – while it had been a long time since then – he still remembered what it was like. Still remembered the way that adults had treated him like he was stupid, or gotten angry and demanded that he speak the fuck up. And he remembered the way that he’d wished they would have treated him instead – that was his model for how he would interact with James. Because he wanted to get off on the right foot – knew just how important that would be to eventually having a closer relationship with his son. And he desperately wanted that.

So, he talks to James about soccer, and school, and the zoo animals that they pass; keeping it light and never pressuring the boy for answers if he doesn’t want to give them. And eventually James starts to talk, to answer his questions, even to ask some of his own. Elliot honestly thinks that he’s never felt so happy.

They have made it about halfway through the zoo, and are contemplating stopping in the café for lunch, when James stops to use the bathroom and Elliot is left alone with Olivia for the first time that day.

“He’s great, Liv,” he all but croaks out.

“Yeah,” she nods, smiling faintly, “he is.”

“You’ve done such a good job,” he says, before faltering. “Not that I ever thought you wouldn’t, but-” he trails off, shrugging helplessly. He is surprised when she just huffs out a laugh.

“Gee,” she rolls her eyes, “thanks, Elliot.”

“Sorry,” he winces, but she waves him off.

“It’s fine,” she shrugs. “He seems to like you.”

“Yeah?” He asks, unable to stop to stupid grin that he knows has taken over his face.

“Yeah,” she nods. “He’s talking to you, and he’s not stuck to my side. That’s about as good as it gets with him, at first.”

The soft, warm feeling has lodged itself firmly back in Elliot’s chest, and he knows that he’s smiling like a fool.

--

Over lunch, Elliot pushes his coleslaw onto to Olivia’s plate – in some deeply ingrained habit from years ago – and is about to kick himself for his moment of absolute idiocy, when James’ laughter startles him. It is the first time he has heard the boy properly laugh, and it is a wonderful surprise. Olivia is grimacing though, looking vaguely nauseous, and Elliot quickly finds himself confused.

James must notice because – after stealing the coleslaw for himself – he explains; “Mom can’t eat coleslaw; it makes her sick.”

Elliot quirks an eyebrow. That’s certainly new. Back in the day, whenever they would eat somewhere that served it, Olivia would inevitably steal his coleslaw. It was where the muscle memory habit of giving it to her had come from.

“Yeah,” she confirms. “I had an especially bad experience with it when I was pregnant with James, and haven’t been able to look at it since.”

“Oh,” he says, stupidly. Yet another thing that he has missed.

“She also can’t eat hot mustard, tuna salad, and bratwurst,” James pipes up, interrupting Elliot’s thoughts.

“This wasn’t all one meal, I hope?” He tries, aiming for levity – for James’ sake. He cannot let himself think about having missed Olivia’s pregnancy.

Olivia grimaces again. “No,” she replies, “all separate. I was sick a lot when I was pregnant.”

Elliot honestly doesn’t know what to say to that. He wants to immediately – and profusely – apologize for having missed it, but he knows that it is not a conversation they should be having in front of James.

“Oh,” is again all he manages.

Olivia shrugs, obviously wanting to avoid that conversation as well. “Aside from the coleslaw, I can’t say that it’s much of a loss.”

“Bratwurst is gross,” James agrees, making a face, and it breaks the tension.

--

“So?” Olivia asks, as they are driving home. “How was that?

“Good,” James smiles. “He’s funny.”

Olivia laughs, because ‘funny’ is not a word that she would have ever used to describe Elliot Stabler, but James is right – he had been funny. He’d been funny, and friendly, and laid-back, and the whole day had felt a bit like whiplash, because – while things had certainly been awkward and charged when they’d been alone – the three of them out together for a day at the zoo had just felt so normal. She tries not to think about that too much.

“Yeah,” she says instead, “he is, huh?”

James nods, looking momentarily nervous, before he asks; “Do you think he would want to come to my soccer game?”

She smiles at her son, nodding, because she’s quite sure that Elliot would accept an invitation to do anything with James. “Yeah, baby, I think he would.”

“Can you ask him?” He asks, shy again.

“Of course,” she nods. “But you know you can’t play until your stitches have closed all the way.”

Mom-” he tries, obviously intending to argue, but Olivia cuts him off with a look.

“No,” she scolds. “I won’t hear any argument on that, James. If I have to take you back to the ER about this, people are going to start wondering just what kind of mother I am.”

“Fine,” he sighs, still pouting. “But once my stitches are closed, you’ll ask Elliot if he wants to come to my game?”

“Of course,” she tells him. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to be invited.”

James nods again, looking pensive. “What do I call him?” He asks. “Dad? Elliot? Something else?”

“You can call him whatever you like, baby,” she replies. “If you want to call him Dad, you can, but he won’t be offended if you’re not ready to. Just Elliot is fine too.”

“Can I change my mind?” He asks. “Like, if I want to call him Dad later?”

“Yes, of course. As long as you’re polite, you can call him whatever you want.”

Apparently satisfied with this, James turns to look out the window, leaving Olivia alone with her thoughts. The idea of her son calling Elliot ‘Dad’ has made her stomach do a weird little flip, and she’s not quite sure how she feels about it. Elliot is James’ father, of course, and she wants for them to be close – to be comfortable with each other. But there is a part of her that still feels the need to protect her son from Elliot, to be sure that he doesn’t get too attached, too quickly, or set himself up for heartbreak if Elliot ultimately decides not to stick around. She knows that there’s no real way for her to control either of those things – how close James feels to Elliot, or Elliot’s decision to stay – but it’s not a strictly logical thought.

Then, of course, there is the way that James calling Elliot ‘Dad’ would make her feel. She can’t allow herself the thoughts of what it would be like for the three of them to be a family – not yet, and perhaps not ever. She needs time still, to fully set up a mental barrier between the reality of Elliot, as James’ father, playing an active role in their son’s life, and her own foolish desires for a life and a family with Elliot – because, no matter how thoroughly Olivia thought she’d repressed them, they have reared their head with a vengeance today, despite all logic. Yet another thing she’ll have to discuss with Dr. Lindstrom.

She mostly shakes it off, though, as she drives them home, choosing instead to just be happy that James has had such a good first meeting with his father. Her own feelings don’t matter nearly as much as that, and she allows herself a smile at the happy look on her son’s face as he watches the traffic go by.

Chapter Text

By the time James’ next soccer game comes along – and his stitches have fully healed – they have met up with Elliot four more times. Each time, it has been casual – lunch, a movie, and two trips to the park – and Olivia is happy to see that James is beginning to warm up to Elliot. Every time they have seen him, their son has been less wary, and more talkative – and Elliot has been just as friendly, just as patient, and always looks excited to see them. To see James, Olivia reminds herself. Still, she and Elliot have yet to have anything even resembling a serious conversation, and she knows that they’ll have to.

This is even further emphasized when Elliot arrives at the game with Maureen and Logan, and Olivia realizes that she has yet to explain the whole extended family situation to James in any great detail. Thankfully, her son seems unphased; just excited to see Elliot, and his friend – though he does seem the slightest bit confused that they have arrived together. She has no idea at all what has been explained to Logan, but he seems entirely unconcerned, and so she decides not to worry about it. What Maureen tells her kid is her own business.

“Hey Liv,” Elliot greets her, once James and Logan have run off to warm up. She gives him a perfunctory glare at the nickname, and he winces. He’s been having a hard time kicking that particular habit.

“Hey,” she greets him anyways. No sense being snippy when James could easily overhear. She doesn’t want to let on to her son just how difficult Elliot’s return is for her – he is so excited to finally have his father around, and it wouldn’t be fair of her to dampen that. This is something she has been trying to work through with Dr. Lindstrom, with limited success. She knows that she’ll have to talk to Elliot about it – probably sooner rather than later.

Maureen and her husband are standing nearby, warily observing her and Elliot, and Olivia gives them a smile and a wave. She really does like the both of them, and a conversation with Maureen sounds far preferable to dealing with Elliot at the moment. She could use the buffer.

“Hey guys,” she says, and they seem to relax, moving closer.

“Hey Olivia,” Maureen smiles. “I see James has finally had his stitches out?”

“Yeah,” she nods. “And not a moment too soon – I was worried he’d pull them out himself, the way he was complaining.”

Maureen laughs. “Not a fan, huh?”

“No,” Olivia shakes her head. “Though I think it was more about playing soccer than the actual stitches. He’s been pestering me about it since they opened up last time.”

“A little jock, is he?” Maureen asks.

“Not really,” Olivia shrugs. “He hated baseball, and I honestly thought soccer would be a phase – he only asked to play after the World Cup was on. But he likes it, and he’s making friends, so-” she trails off, shrugging again.

“Fair enough,” Maureen’s husband chimes in. “Soccer was our way of redirecting Logan from wanting to play football, so we’re just hoping it holds his interest.”

“What’s wrong with football?” Elliot interjects. Maureen shoots him a glare.

“Come on, Dad, Logan’s nine – he doesn’t need the head trauma just yet.”

“I played football,” he shrugs, “and I’m fine.”

“Agree to disagree,” Olivia mutters. Elliot shoots her a smirk in response, and it’s so familiar – so Elliot – that it feels like no time has passed at all. Like it is ten years previous and they are alone in the bullpen, him directing that infuriating smirk at her, and her trying to convince herself that she is unaffected by it – despite the way her stomach flips and the way she just feels hot.

The whistle blows, though, and Olivia shakes herself out of the feeling – because time has passed, and they are not who they were ten years ago, individually or together.

--

Maureen and Dave have wandered off to the concession stand, and Olivia decides that now is the time to bring up with Elliot the conversation that they have been avoiding.

“Elliot?” She grabs his attention from where it had been, focused on James – who seems to be goofing off on the bench.

“Yeah?”

She sighs, and his eyebrow ticks up. “We need to talk,” she tells him.

“Now?” He asks, looking surprised.

“No,” she huffs, “not now. James hardly needs to see that.” He has the good sense to look sheepish – and a little concerned.

“You gonna hit me?” He asks, only half-joking, she can tell.

“No,” she sighs. “Though honestly, you might prefer it to what I have to say.”

Now he really does look concerned. “Liv-” she glares, and he corrects himself quickly, “Olivia. Are you still going to let me see James?” There’s a tinge of desperation in his voice, and she quickly nods.

“Of course, Elliot,” she reassures. “I would never- I want the two of you to have a relationship.” Elliot visibly relaxes, and she takes it as a good sign – that he is so invested in knowing their son. “I want to talk about what happened with us, about why you left – about the last ten years.”

Elliot nods, obviously having resigned himself to the necessity of such an uncomfortable conversation. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s probably a good idea. About time I explained myself, huh?”

“Yeah,” she nods, voice hard. “It’s long overdue.”

--

The game goes well; James’ team wins, he does not injure himself any further, and he is clearly thrilled that Elliot has come to watch. When he begs Olivia to go over to Logan’s afterwards – and Maureen seems amenable to it – she supposes that it is a stroke of luck, that she and Elliot will finally be able to have their much-needed conversation. Much as she is dreading it, she knows that it needs to be done.

Which is how Olivia finds herself sitting with Elliot at her kitchen table, clutching her glass of water while he looks about ready to jump out the window. They have mutually agreed that it is best not to have this particular conversation in public, knowing that it is unlikely to end well.

“You know, Elliot,” she finally starts, “I’ve gone over it probably thousands of times in my head – why you left. And ultimately, I get it” she sighs. “Really, I do. I might not agree, or like it, but I get it. What I don’t get is why you couldn’t say goodbye – how you couldn’t say goodbye.”

Elliot looks as if he’s been punched, and if Olivia weren’t so unbelievably anxious, she thinks that she’d find that satisfying.

“Liv,” he croaks. She doesn’t correct him this time, can’t bring herself to interrupt. “As soon as I’d done it, I knew it was a mistake.”

“Sure doesn’t seem like it,” she retorts. He’d had plenty of time to correct his mistakes, and hadn’t done so.

“I know,” he nods, “and I’ve got no good explanation for that. I can tell you what was going through my head, but you’re not gonna like it – hell, I can barely stand myself for it.”

“Tell me.” She demands, and he nods again.

“I knew-” he sighs, faltering. “I knew that if you’d asked me to stay, I wouldn’t have been able to say no. The job was killing me – had been for a while – and I knew I had to walk away. But if you’d asked me to stay – hell, if I’d heard your voice – I would have stayed until I destroyed everything in my path. I’d already started to.”

Now, Olivia is the one who feels as if she’s been punched. “Jesus, Elliot,” she spits. “Give me some fucking credit, would you? You think I would have made you stay, if I’d known how you felt?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “I know you wouldn’t have. I would have just done it – to see you, to keep you in my life,” he sighs. “I’d gotten it in my head that the job was the only way to have you-”

Have me?” She interrupts, indignant, and he winces.

“Poor choice of words,” he apologizes. “I just- Working with you was the only way that I could keep all the rules I’d made for myself in line and still see you – still be a part of your life.”

“What rules?” She asks. Years ago, this would have been something that they skirted around as if their lives depended on it, but now Olivia needs to know. She refuses to leave anything out anymore.

He shrugs. “What I’d convinced myself I needed to do to keep my marriage, my family. Because what I wanted, and what I’d promised – they were totally different things. And I couldn’t be that guy Liv, it wasn’t fair to Kathy, or the kids, or you.”

Fearing that she’ll break her glass if she grips it any tighter, Olivia takes a moment to flex her fingers, taking a deep breath as she does so.

“In what world does doing right by your family lead to you taking off on me without a word?”

“I told you you wouldn’t like it,” he says, voice pained. “As soon as I’d gotten my head right again after Jenna, I knew how badly I’d fucked up, Liv – I did. But by then, six months had gone by, and I didn’t know how to reach out – couldn't possibly begin to explain myself.”

“I would have forgiven you,” she whispers. “If you’d called after six months, I would have forgiven you. I would have yelled a bit, sure, but I would have just been so fucking happy to hear from you. But now,” she sighs, “now it’s been ten years, Elliot. And I don’t know if I can ever forgive you.”

Again, Elliot looks as if he’s been punched, and – this time – Olivia does find it satisfying. She tries to hold onto that feeling of satisfaction to keep herself from crying. It’s a losing battle, but she tries.

“I’m so sorry, Liv,” he rasps, tears shining in his eyes.

“I know,” she nods. “But it’s not enough.”

He nods, swiping at his eyes. Taking a deep breath, Olivia stands to refill her glass, trying to center herself a bit. She knew this would be rough, but it feels like someone – Elliot, her mind supplies – has reached into her chest and carelessly mangled her heart.

“Elliot, I’ve got to know,” she sighs, sitting back down, “what was that night for you?”

“What?” He hadn’t been expecting the question, clearly.

“Come on, don’t play dumb. You know what I mean. Was it a grief-stricken mistake? A goodbye fuck? Something you needed to get out of your system?”

“Christ, Liv, no. Stop. Don’t even say that.”

She shrugs. “Well, then what was it?”

Elliot blows out a hard breath. “Everything,” he finally says, voice strained. “That night was everything, Liv. Everything I’d wanted for thirteen years but couldn’t have. Everything I’d been thinking about every time we said goodnight. Everything that I’ve thought about for the last decade.” He catches her eyes with such an intensity that it startles her. “That night was everything to me, Liv.”

She swallows, not quite able to take a breath. That hadn’t been at all what she’d been expecting.

Chapter Text

When Olivia drops her head into her hands, shaking, Elliot almost – almost – regrets having told her the truth. But then, they are in this mess in the first place because he hadn’t been honest with her. Besides, Olivia is already furious with him – and has confirmed that she will continue to let him see James – so it’s not like he has anything to lose in telling her. Any regret he has is down to how poorly she seems to be reacting to his confession – it obviously isn’t what she’d wanted to hear. He’s glad that they aren’t in public, because he’s quite sure that he’s about to similarly break down.

“Liv?” He tries, still unable to shake the nickname.

“Give me a minute, Elliot.” She doesn’t raise her head when she speaks to him, and he drags his hand down his face, trying to collect his thoughts. Of all the ways he had ever imagined telling Liv how he felt about her, this has to be the worst possible outcome.

He stands up and wanders into the living room, figuring she probably wants a bit of space from him, and unable to watch as she figures out how exactly she’s going to respond to his words. Her place is nice, he thinks – far homier than the apartment she’d had when he last saw her. He’d been a bit surprised to learn that she was living in Queens, but it makes sense. She probably pays about as much for this much roomier place as she did for the shoebox she’d rented in Manhattan. There are little pieces of her – and James – scattered throughout the apartment, and it makes him smile, despite the lead weight that’s been sitting on his chest since they walked through the door.

A photo on the bookshelf catches his eye, and Elliot – unable to help himself – picks it up. It is Olivia, holding a much younger James – he looks maybe a month old – surrounded by Fin, Melinda Warner, Cragen, Munch, and a few faces he doesn’t recognize. They are in a church, he realizes. Any progress he’d made in getting himself together crumbles at the realization that this must be James’ baptism.

“He screamed that entire day,” Olivia says, appearing in the doorway behind him. “Whoever took that photo caught the only five minutes we were able to settle him down.”

Elliot smiles, still unable to tear his eyes away from the photo. “You had him baptized?”

“Yeah,” Olivia nods, tightly. “I knew it would be important to you, and I’m not too bothered about it either way, so I figured I might as well. It’s not like I’ve raised him Catholic, though.”

Elliot only nods, the lump in his throat preventing any comprehensible speech. The idea that Olivia had even considered his feelings on the matter, after he’d left without a word, is almost too much for him to bear.

“Thank you,” he finally manages. She just gives him a curt nod, crossing her arms over her chest. He puts the photo back on the bookshelf, knowing he won’t be able to stop looking at it otherwise.

“Elliot,” she says, the strain back in her voice, “if that night meant so much to you, why was it the last time I heard anything from you?”

He sighs, dropping down onto her couch. He’s been asking himself that question for the last ten years, and has yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. His silence is obviously bugging her though, because she shoots him a pointed look. She might as well be saying hurry up and spit it out.

“Because I freaked out,” he admits. “I was fucked up about the shooting, and it pulled down any of the restraint I’d had for the last thirteen years, and when I realized what I’d done – and what it meant – I freaked out. And I ran – like a coward.”

“I don’t believe you,” she says, and he goggles at her.

“You don’t believe I freaked out?”

“No,” she shakes her head. “That I believe. I don’t believe that it really meant all that much to you. You say you’d been thinking about it the whole time we were partners, but Elliot, you had a hell of a lot of chances to act on it before then.” He goes to interrupt, but she puts up a hand to silence him. “And don’t say it was because of your marriage. You and Kathy were separated almost two years, there was nothing stopping you then. I think-” she takes a deep breath, obviously pained by whatever she is about to say. “I think that you’ve convinced yourself that it meant more to you than it did, because you feel bad – you feel guilty. You can’t think of yourself as the guy who fucks his partner and runs off – so you've convinced yourself it was some noble act of sacrifice.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” He spits, unable to contain his anger. Because yeah, he fucked up – monumentally – but whatever other sins he may genuinely be on the hook for, the insinuation that she meant anything less than everything to him is too much.

“Come on Elliot,” she bites out, “I’m a big girl – the truth isn’t going to break me.”

His head is spinning. Because he has just told her the truth – perhaps for the first time since they’ve known each other. Maybe, he thinks, she just doesn’t want to hear it.

--

She knows it isn’t fair, what she is telling him, because – on some level – she does know that he cared about her – cares about her. But she has spent nearly the last quarter century making her peace with the knowledge that what she feels for Elliot does not line up with what Elliot has ever felt for her. The idea that, all this time, he has wanted the same thing – it is just too much. She can’t reconcile the thought with the years that she has spent feeling guilty for wanting so much.

“You want the truth?” He asks her, angry, and continues before she can answer him. “Here’s the truth Liv: I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you for most of the time we’ve known each other. I didn’t do shit about it, because I was married, and then because I didn’t want to fuck up our partnership – hell, maybe just because I was being a coward – but don’t stand there and say that night didn’t mean anything to me – that you didn’t mean anything to me. Because that’s bullshit, and I think you know it.”

He has moved up into her personal space over the course of his little monologue, and now Olivia is hyperaware of the fact that she can feel his breath on her face. It is too much. He is too close. She plants her hand on his chest, fully intending to push him away, but his heart is racing beneath her palm, and she just holds it there instead, trying to catch her breath.

“Elliot, please don’t.” She begs, voice ragged.

“Don’t what, Liv?” He asks, barely speaking above a whisper now.

“Just,” she drops her hand from his chest, taking a step back, “don’t.”

The look on his face is so pained that she feels a bit bad, and she realizes that – much as the thought makes her want to burst into tears on the spot – he is telling the truth. The realization adds a whole other level of hurt to what has already been the most painful thing she’s done in years, and Olivia isn’t sure whether she wants to kiss him or slap him clean across the face – though she knows that she will do neither. Because it is almost worse, that he’d loved her. It adds salt into the stinging wound of his abandonment – that he’d loved her and still left. Before, she could at least rationalize their night together as a mistake made in a moment of grief – one that he had felt the need to escape from to save his marriage. But now, well, if he’d loved her and left without a word anyways, then what the hell does that say about her?

“Elliot, I need you to leave.”

“Liv?” He looks so stricken, so confused, and she wants to take it back – but it’s the truth. She cannot deal with this – deal with him – right now. It’s too much.

“Look,” she says, “I’ll keep in touch about James, but I can’t do this with you. It’s too much – it hurts too much.”

“Liv, I’m sorry,” he says, increasingly desperate. “Please.”

“You’ll always be James’ dad,” she tells him, voice wavering. “And we’ll be as civil as we can. But, Elliot, I can’t do this with you. Please leave.”

He very obviously wants to argue, but he must see just how perilously she’s holding on, because he just nods and turns, heading towards the door.

“Liv,” he says, pausing at her front door. “I’m sticking around this time. I know you don’t believe it – you have every right not to – but I am. And I want to prove to you that you can trust me again – even if it’s only to be James’ dad.”

When the door finally shuts behind him, Olivia drops down onto the couch and presses her eyes shut as tightly as she’s able to. She’d been wrong – apparently the truth really had been enough to break her.

Chapter Text

He is able to control himself until he steps outside Olivia’s building and remembers that he hadn’t actually driven himself there. The thought of trying to get a cab is what ultimately pushes Elliot over the edge, and he can’t stop himself from lashing out, taking a swinging kick at a trash can. He immediately regrets it, because there is something solid inside the bin, and he’s quite sure he’s broken a toe.

Cursing a blue streak, he hobbles his way to the nearest bodega, intent on – at the very least – getting some ibuprofen. If he wanders into the liquor section while he’s there, then so be it.

Anger at his own stupidity, the pain in his foot, and the thought of drinking himself into a nice stupor is all that stops Elliot from collapsing into a heap on the sidewalk. He cannot believe he has just allowed himself to run his own stupid mouth so spectacularly. Telling Liv that he loves her – now, after having been gone ten years – was insane, and he knows it. He hadn’t intended to let any of that slip out, but when she’d described the night they’d spent together as a goodbye fuck, he’d lost it – hadn't been able to control himself. He’d needed her to understand, in that moment, that she could never be something so cheap and meaningless – not to him, not ever. He really shouldn’t be surprised that she’d kicked him out, but the finality in her words has really fucking spooked him, and he honestly feels like he might hurl.

The search for a cab proves fruitless, and he still doesn’t really get Uber, so he calls Maureen. He’d left his house keys at her place anyways, so Elliot hopes that his oldest daughter will take pity on him and come pick him up.

She sounds exasperated when she picks up the phone, and he doesn’t especially like his chances.

“Hey Mo,” he greets her, “can I ask you a favour?”

“You know,” she says, “there’s nothing wrong with Uber.”

“I know,” he sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But my keys are at your place, and it seems like an expensive trip.”

“Fine,” his daughter huffs, though he thinks she sounds amused. “I have to drop James off anyways. I’m assuming you’re still at Olivia’s?”

“Nearby,” he mutters, hoping she won’t call him on the difference. His daughter is perceptive though, and of course she notices.

“What did you do?” She sounds exasperated again, but not angry, so he takes it as a win.

“I said something stupid,” he admits.

“Dad,” she sighs. He can almost hear the eye roll.

“I know, Mo. Believe me, I regretted it the second it came out of my mouth.”

“Should I be bringing James back?” She asks. “Or should I be checking if Olivia wants him to spend the night? Just what kind of stupid were you?”

Elliot blows out a hard breath. “I don’t know, Mo. Maybe you should call her.”

Maureen sighs again, and Elliot feels so incredibly stupid. He knew better – he knows better – and he’d still opened his fucking mouth. Thirteen years they’d been partners, and he’d kept it to himself, but now – at the worst possible moment – he'd just had to blurt out his stupid fucking feelings.

“Alright,” Maureen finally replies. “I’ll call Olivia and then I’ll come get you. Are you okay to see James? Because either he’ll be in the car with me, or he’ll be at the house. Can you keep it together in front of him?”

“Yeah,” Elliot croaks, “I’ll make it work.”

--

When Maureen shows up, she is alone. Elliot’s stomach drops at the knowledge that Olivia is apparently not okay to have James come home, because of what he’d said to her. He drops himself into the passenger seat, cradling the paper bag full of scotch that he’d bought, and Maureen raises her eyebrows at him, but says nothing.

“You talk to Liv?” He asks. Maureen takes a deep breath, putting the car into gear.

“Yeah,” she finally says. “What the fuck did you say to her, Dad?”

Elliot smacks his head hard against the headrest. “Told her I love her.” He admits.

Jesus,” Maureen breathes. “Why? What the actual fuck possessed you to do that?”

“It just came out,” Elliot admits, wincing. “I didn’t mean to, but before I was even aware of it, I’d told her I loved her, and she was throwing me out. Can’t say I blame her.”

“Christ,” Maureen shakes her head. “If I were Liv, I’d have thrown you out the window.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “How’d she seem, when you talked to her?”

Even though she is driving, Maureen turns to shoot Elliot a look. “Not fucking great, Dad. Not fucking great.”

Elliot blows out another breath. “Did you always have such a filthy mouth?” He asks, trying not to focus on how much he has fucked things up with Liv.

Maureen snorts. “Just where do you think I got it?” She laughs.

Elliot shrugs, scratching his face. “Probably not your mom, huh?”

Maureen laughs again. They both know that she has picked this particular trait up from him.

“How’s James?” He asks. He really hopes that he hasn’t inadvertently put the boy in an uncomfortable situation.

“Good,” Maureen nods. “Him and Logan were both thrilled to be having a sleepover. He doesn’t seem to have picked up that anything unusual’s going on.”

Elliot lets out a relieved sigh. That’s something, at least.

“Dad?” Maureen’s voice is tentative, and it puts Elliot on edge. “How much does James know?”

“About what, exactly?” He asks. “I know Liv’s told him the basics, but beyond that I’m not totally sure.”

“Yeah,” Maureen nods, “he knows everything you’d expect him to know. But,” she hesitates, “he said something at dinner today that threw me a bit.”

“Oh?” Elliot is suddenly – unreasonably – curious.

“We were talking about soccer,” she says, still hesitant, “Logan was saying that one of the coaches always smells like cigarettes, and that it makes him sneeze.” Elliot nods, not quite sure where is daughter is going with this. “And James said – totally nonchalant – that his mom can’t be around Coach Todd because cigarettes give her nightmares. Because the man who kidnapped her smoked a lot of cigarettes.”

Elliot feels like he’s been sucker punched again. Winded, and nauseous, and raw.

“He said it like it was so normal,” Maureen continues, her voice small. “I didn’t- I had no idea anything had happened to Olivia. Did you know?”

“No,” Elliot shakes his head. “I looked her up before I first came back from Rome, and I found out then. Don’t know the details though,” he sighs. “Couldn’t finish the article.”

Maureen nods. “I did.” She stutters out. “Finish the article, I mean. It was bad, Dad. It was really, really bad.”

Elliot tries to swallow around the lump in his throat, but finds that he can’t. He tries for a deep breath, but it’s shaky and gasping. Tears are prickling behind his eyes, and he cracks open his bottle of scotch, taking a swig in an effort to stop himself from sobbing in his daughter’s front seat. Maureen, mercifully, says nothing about it.

--

Elliot gets himself more or less together by the time they arrive at Maureen’s, only because he knows that James and Logan are likely to still be awake. He had only taken a few mouthfuls of scotch, and he isn’t even approaching inebriated, but when he catches his reflection in the window, he is shocked by just how rough he looks. Pale and old, with red-rimmed eyes. He finds himself praying that the kids have already turned in for the night, however unlikely it might be.

Of course, the moment he steps through the door, he is disabused of that notion. Logan, ever an endless ball of energy, comes careening down the front hallway, finally crashing into Elliot with a ‘thud’ and an excited “Grandpa!”

Maureen’s son, from the moment he was able to speak, has always been able to interact with anyone – about anything – and do it with a level of enthusiasm that genuinely baffles Elliot. He figures that the boy must get it from Dave, because even the most animated of the Stablers are far more reserved. Logan’s open enthusiasm is in direct contrast to James, who has appeared at the end of the hallway, and is giving Elliot a small wave and a shy smile – making no move to rush him as his grandson had. He thinks that the two of them make a good pair, Logan seeming to bring James out of his shell a bit, and James holding back some of Logan’s seemingly irrepressible impulsiveness.

“Hey guys,” he smiles.

“Grandpa, we’re watching Iron Man,” Logan tells him. “You wanna watch with us?”

Elliot hesitates, because sitting with James and Logan and watching a mindless movie sounds exactly like what he would like to do with the remainder of his evening - but he knows that Olivia would be unlikely to appreciate him springing himself on James without her present.

“Not tonight, bud,” he responds. “I’ve got some stuff I need to finish for work.” That’s not even really a lie, because he still has a whole stack of insurance forms to go through for his new job. A colleague in Rome had pulled some strings for him, and now Elliot is working a close-protection job in Manhattan. The clientele is largely ultra-wealthy and equally annoying, but he’s just thankful to have the work.

Logan is pouting at him, though, and even James looks disappointed, and Elliot very nearly gives in to them. It is only the knowledge that Olivia would be upset that stops him from parking himself on Maureen’s couch with them and not moving.

“Maybe another weekend, huh?” He placates, and Logan – at least – seems satisfied. James is still a much harder read for him.

He is collecting his keys from Maureen’s kitchen counter, when James’ voice startles him. He hadn’t heard the boy follow him in.

“Is my mom okay?” James seems to be uncomfortable even asking the question, but he has caught Elliot’s gaze and is refusing to break eye contact. “She sounded weird on the phone.”

Elliot scratches the back of his head, honestly unsure of what to tell the boy. Clearly, Olivia is not okay, and James seems to be a perceptive kid – Elliot imagines that he will notice if he is being lied to.

“Yeah,” he hedges. “I think she’s just a bit stressed out, bud.” James is still watching him, warily, and Elliot feels the need to continue. “Things are complicated with us – me and your mom – and I think she just needs a minute to catch her breath a bit.”

James nods, twisting one of Maureen’s cloth napkins in his hands. “I don’t want you to hurt her,” he finally grits out, quietly. “It’s not fair.”

Elliot’s stomach drops. Jesus. “No,” he rasps. “It’s not. And I’m doing my best.”

It is truly a bizarre sensation, Elliot thinks, to have your own eyes looking up at you with such a wary, quasi-accusatory gaze.

“Did you love her?” James asks, and Elliot has to steady himself on the counter. Christ, but he needs a drink.

“That’s-” he trails off.

“Complicated?” James completes the thought, giving him a look that is so Liv that it leaves Elliot reeling.

“Yeah,” he croaks out. “Complicated.”

James nods, still twisting the napkin. Elliot isn’t sure that he hasn’t ripped it. “She loved you.” He finally says, and Elliot honestly thinks he might start crying right there in Maureen’s kitchen. This day has wrecked him, completely.

Chapter Text

Since their disastrous attempt at talking to each other, Elliot has given her space, as requested. They see each other on outings with James, but make sure never to be alone together – and James, seemingly having picked up on the tension, has taken to making sure that there is always somebody with her besides just Elliot if he has to leave a room. Olivia feels guiltiest about this – that her son has decided that he has to play the role of protector. She’s told him – repeatedly – that she is fine, and that there is no reason for him to worry about her, but James is stubborn. It is a trait, she supposes, that he has picked up from both his parents.

James is also, gradually, seeming more comfortable with Elliot, and Olivia hopes that soon he will be ready to spend time with his father without her. Because – even though he is respecting her boundaries – spending any amount of time with Elliot is still painful and exhausting. He is more than living up to his promise to stick around and be there for James, but still, seeing him so comfortably step into the role of being James’ father has been especially hard, and she often finds herself wanting to wring his neck when she sees them together – the reminder that it has not always been this way too painful to think about at any length. She knows that it isn’t a strictly rational thought, but Dr. Lindstrom has assured her that it is a perfectly normal response. The whole situation is just hard, and Olivia often finds herself relieved that James is so close to Maureen’s son, because Elliot’s oldest daughter is excellent at running interference. Yet another thing she feels guilty about – using Maureen to avoid dealing with Elliot.

And so, over the next few months, Olivia throws herself into work with even more intensity than usual. She talks to Dr. Lindstrom about the issues she’s having with Elliot’s return, but otherwise she pushes all thoughts of him back into the locked box at the back of her head. It helps, a bit, and she’s able to see him for short periods without wanting to cry, or hit him, or pull him into her arms – so, all things considered, she takes it as a victory.

With the exception of an occasional knowing look from Fin, everyone around her seems to have gotten the message that the topic of Elliot is very much off-limits, and Olivia is grateful for it. The last thing she needs is for her personal life to come barging into the office with her, and the separation of the two allows her to focus on work completely, choosing to ignore the disaster in her own head.

So, when she is lightly stabbed in an altercation with a suspect, Olivia is horrified to realize that she will have to call Elliot. Fin has taken the week off to go upstate with Phoebe, Amanda is in Brooklyn on a stakeout, and she doesn’t even consider calling Lucy – who is with James. Because her son absolutely does not need to see her like this. She has – for the last half-hour – been badgering the ER doctor to just let her call a cab and be on her way, but he has stood firm that she needs to have someone sign her out. Apparently, the combination of heavy-duty pain killers and mild-to-moderate blood loss makes her a liability, and she is not to leave unescorted. Really, Olivia thinks, the whole thing is ridiculous. She has been injured far worse without such fanfare, but the man is insistent.

She briefly considers calling Maureen – with whom she has struck up something of a friendship – but feels bad about the idea of making her drive from Queens. She has a busy job and a family, and it would be an inconvenience at best. Elliot, however, is working in Manhattan, and Olivia has no such aversion to inconveniencing him. Besides, her blouse is crusty with blood, and she just wants to take a shower and go to sleep, so if briefly dealing with Elliot is the price to pay for that to happen – well, she’s willing to make that sacrifice. The drugs have also probably dulled her resistance to the idea of seeing him, she is vaguely aware.

When Elliot comes barrelling through the flimsy curtain separating her from the rest of the ER, Olivia has such a sense of déjà vu that it makes her laugh out loud. He has the exact same look on his face that he’d had every other time he’d had to meet her in a hospital waiting room during their partnership. Alarmed, agitated, and vaguely frantic. She knows that her laughter is probably not appreciated, but, well, the drugs have well and truly kicked in.

“Liv!” He exclaims, rushing to her side and taking a catalogue of her injuries.

She rolls her eyes. “No need for all that, Elliot. I’m fine.”

“You were stabbed.” He grits out, clearly worried.

“Lightly stabbed,” she corrects. He is obviously unconcerned with the difference.

“Jesus, Liv,” he huffs. “You can’t be lightly stabbed. You’re either stabbed or you’re not – it's a black and white deal.”

She rolls her eyes again, finding his indignance amusing rather than infuriating. Must be the drugs.

“Just sign me out so I can leave, would you?”

“Fine,” he nods. “You got another shirt?”

“No,” she looks down at her shirt – it really is covered in blood. “I’ll be fine for the ride home.”

“You absolutely will not,” he shoots back. “Also, I’m pretty sure that’s evidence. Let me go get you something from the nurse’s station.”

She just leans back onto her gurney, deciding not to argue with him about this. The shirt is uncomfortable, and – he's right – it probably is evidence. When Elliot returns with an oversized grey t-shirt, the room has begun to spin a bit – and though it isn’t entirely unpleasant, Olivia isn’t sure she’ll be able to manage changing her shirt alone. She’s starting to see the doctor’s wisdom in having someone come pick her up.

“Need help?” He asks, more than likely having noticed her unsteadiness.

“Yeah,” she admits. “Just make sure I don’t topple over; I think I can do the rest.”

He looks skeptical – and she doesn’t entirely blame him – but agrees, holding out the t-shirt and standing close to the gurney, ready to catch her. It turns out to have been a good choice, because as soon as Olivia looks down to undo her buttons, she begins to pitch forward.

“Alright, alright,” he steadies her. “How about you just sit up straight and I’ll do this?”

She just nods – feeling as though she will well and truly fall over if she tries again – and he steps further into her space, starting on her shirt buttons. Only when he pauses and lets out a shaky breath does she realize that he has not seen her in any state of undress since William Lewis scarred her.

“El, not now,” she says, momentarily sobered. He just nods silently, finishing ridding her of the ruined shirt without meeting her eyes. When he does, finally, look up at her, his gaze is intense, and she is very aware of the fact that she is essentially topless. If she had anything to hold in front of herself – or the ability to properly lift her arms – she would do so.

“Here,” he whispers, handing her the t-shirt. His hand and the fabric have blurred together, and Olivia knows that – once again – she will need his help with it.

“El, can you?”

He nods again, and his eyes seem to have taken on a glossy shine. She wonders if the drugs are making her imagine it.

She is surprised at just how gentle he is while helping her into the shirt. Of course, she knows that he’s capable of gentleness – has experienced it from him before – but the way that his hands slide across the bare skin of her back still makes her shiver, and she is vaguely aware that she has missed his touch.

Shaking herself out of those particular thoughts, Olivia moves to stand once the shirt is on and winces. Something is pressing into her recently sutured wound, and it hurts.

“Liv?” His concern is obvious, and mildly embarrassing – as she has just realized that the source of her pain is, in fact, her bra. She’s quite sure that if she doesn’t take it off, it will reopen the sutures.

“Elliot,” she sits back down, blowing out a breath. “I need you take my bra off.”

His face is a cartoonish impression of a deer in headlights, and – even with the pain – Olivia can’t stop the laugh that escapes her.

“Your-” he hesitates, “bra?”

“Yes, Elliot,” she confirms. “My bra. Surely you’re familiar with the concept.”

He huffs out a small laugh, but pauses, looking as if he’s not quite sure how to approach her.

“Just reach up the back of my shirt,” she rolls her eyes. “I’d do it myself, but I don’t think I can bend that way at the moment.”

“Right,” he nods, and then his hands are on her skin again and she has to clamp her eyes shut at the sensation.

Thankfully, he makes a quick job of it, and before she has even fully gotten used to the feeling of him touching her, he is again standing awkwardly in front of her – now holding her bra. She realizes, with a tinge of disappointment, that she probably won’t be able to get the blood out of it. She hadn’t actually been aware that she’d been bleeding all that much.

“Just leave it,” she sighs. “I don’t see that coming out.”

Elliot nods again, dropping the bra into a trash can and helping her stand up. “You, uh-” he pauses, “you want my jacket?”

Olivia shoots him a look, because it is the middle of July, and approaching ninety degrees outside. The fact that he is still wearing his suit jacket is absurd to her. But then she looks down at herself and realizes that the shirt she’s been given is quite thin, and her lack of bra is more apparent than she really cares for.

“Yeah,” she sighs. “Sorry in advance if I bleed on it,” she tells him. “But I’ll tell you right now, I won’t be covering your dry-cleaning.”

That draws a laugh from him, and he covers her with his jacket, not removing his arm from around her as they make their way towards the exit. She doesn’t shrug it off, rationalizing that her balance really isn’t all that good – she certainly doesn’t need to be falling on her face in addition to her stitches.

--

Elliot isn’t sure just how many painkillers Olivia has been given, but the fact that she’d let him take off her bra – asked him to take off her bra – suggests that the answer is probably a lot. She’s been steadfastly ignoring him since their disastrous conversation some two months ago, so he’s pretty sure this new openness is down to narcotics. Whatever the reason, he is unreasonably happy to be spending any time with her at all. He very much wishes that she hadn’t been stabbed in order for it to happen, but he’ll take what he can get.

She mostly naps on the drive back to Queens, and when they arrive at her place, she is dopey and sleepy and adorable. He doesn’t tell her this, because he values the structural integrity of his face, but it’s pretty much all he can think about. Well, that, and the memories that taking off her bra had provoked. And – on a much less pleasant front – the questions that had sprung to mind upon seeing the scars littering her chest and stomach. He had looked away when he’d realized what they must be from – not wanting to violate her privacy any further – but the sight of them had put a lead weight in his stomach.

And, he thinks, she’d called him El for the first time in more than a decade – twice – and he’d physically had to stop himself from pulling her into his arms, because it was all too much. He knows that this, too, is likely down to her pharmaceutically lowered inhibitions, but hearing it had still put a lump in his throat. Jesus, when did he get so soft?

“El,” she slurs – that’s three times – “I’m thirsty.”

He chuckles, because she’s so unbelievably stoned. “Alright,” he tells her. “Let’s get you inside and get you something to drink.”

She’s mostly able to keep herself upright, but Elliot is ever so slightly concerned about the way that Olivia leans into him as they make their way up to her place. He enjoys the excuse to be touching her, of course, but the fact that she hasn’t fought him tooth and nail about it suggests that she really must be in pain.

“Liv,” he prompts her, once they’ve reached her door. “You got keys?” If she doesn’t, they’ve really made this whole trip for nothing. He doesn’t imagine that she’d love the idea of him kicking in her door.

“Mhmm,” she nods, digging through her purse. He finds that he’s taking more of her weight as she does so, and it occurs to him to be ready to catch her – there's a real possibility that she might just drop.

He is relieved when she not only finds her keys, but unlocks and opens the door - all while managing to stay mostly upright - and he quickly directs her into the living room and onto the couch.

“I’ll get you a glass of water,” he says, already moving into the kitchen. “You have any more pills you need to take?”

He is momentarily concerned when she doesn’t respond, but when he returns with the water, he discovers that she’s fallen back asleep.

“Liv,” he sets the glass of water down on the table and gently touches her shoulder. “Come on, if you want to sleep, you should do it in bed. Sleeping out here’s only going to fuck up your back and get blood on the couch.”

She grunts and tries to push him away, opening one eye to attempt a glare.

“Come on,” he tries again. Then, realizing that she’s unlikely to move on her own, he loops one arm around her shoulders and slides the other under her knees, lifting her easily off the couch.

“Elliot!” She shouts, startled. “What are you doing?”

“Taking you to bed, dopey.” He makes a guess at which door leads to her bedroom, and is relieved when it becomes obvious that he’s guessed correctly.

“I can walk,” she grouses. He can’t help but laugh.

“Yeah, well you weren’t. Figured this was easier than arguing with you about it.” She just huffs in response, but Elliot can’t help noticing that she’s resting her head against his shoulder.

“Here we go,” he sets her down gently, moving to pull the covers back so she can get in. She gives him an odd look, but kicks her shoes off and climbs under the blankets nonetheless. “Need anything else?” He asks.

“Water,” she says, voice small.

He nods and goes to fetch her glass from the living room. When he returns, she is tossing her slacks towards the laundry basket, and her face goes pink when she sees him.

“They’re covered in city dirt and not that comfortable to sleep in,” she shrugs.

“I believe you.” He hands her the water, shrugging. She still has the same odd look on her face, and Elliot figures that she’s probably about ready for him to be out of her way, so her voice surprises him as he’s turning to leave.

“El?” She sounds almost nervous.

“Yeah, Liv?”

“Stay?”

That really does surprise him, because he’d assumed that she would want to be rid of him as soon as possible. But she’s drugged up, and in pain, and it’s not like he could ever say no to her anyways.

“Course,” he nods, kicking off his own shoes and tentatively sitting down on the bed next to her – on top of the covers. He is even more surprised when she leans into his side, using him very much like a pillow, but she has fallen back asleep before he can formulate any intelligent response.

Chapter Text

When Olivia wakes up, she is aware of only two things: that her shoulder hurts very much, and that her pillow – for some reason – smells like Elliot. And is moving.

She jerks upright, startled, and immediately regrets it, her shoulder protesting violently.

“Son of a bitch!” She gasps, pressing her palm into her shoulder in an attempt to make it stop.

“Liv? You alright?”

Olivia is horrified to realize that her pillow didn’t just smell like Elliot, but was in fact Elliot. She slams her eyes shut, trying to block out his presence – why the fuck is he in her bed? – and breathe through the pain in her shoulder. Everything comes more or less screaming back to her then; the stabbing, Elliot picking her up from the hospital, her embarrassing plea for him to stay.

The bed shifts beneath her, and then there is a glass of water being pressed into her free hand. When she opens her eyes, Elliot is looking at her, bleary eyed but concerned, and handing her a large pill.

“Take this,” he instructs, voice still rough from sleep. “I should have had you take it before you fell asleep, but I wasn’t sure what they’d given you at the ER.”

Olivia silently swallows the pill, and downs the glass of water for good measure. She can already tell that she’s dehydrated. “Thanks,” she groans.

He sits there, just watching her as she tries to gather herself, making no move to get up – and Olivia simultaneously wants to tell him to leave and to just fall back asleep on him. Ultimately, she does neither, choosing instead to lean back against the headboard and try to ignore him while she focuses on her breathing. Her shoulder really does hurt like a bitch.

“You good?” He asks her, tentatively.

And despite the fact that ‘good’ is nowhere near the word that she’d use to describe her current state, Olivia nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Not the worst I’ve been stabbed.” Because it’s not.

“Oh good,” he snorts. “That’s reassuring.”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh come on, I was hurt plenty worse when we were partners. I was only lightly stabbed.”

“I swear to God, Liv,” he huffs. “If you say ‘lightly stabbed’ one more time, I’m going to lose it. That’s not a real thing.”

Despite the pain in her shoulder, and the awkwardness of Elliot in her bed, Olivia can’t help but laugh. “Barely a flesh wound,” she tells him, smirking.

He turns to her, raising an eyebrow. “Are you forgetting about the bra I had to throw out?” He asks. “Or the shirt that looked like something out of a slasher movie?”

She shrugs, regretting it immediately, and winces. “The whole thing’s a bit fuzzy, if I’m honest.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “That’s probably the blood loss. Or all the painkillers they gave you. You know, for your ‘light stabbing.’” He puts air quotes around the last two words, and Olivia huffs out a laugh.

“Point made.” She concedes. “Now, go away so I can take a shower.”

He gives her a wary look, and Olivia prepares herself for an argument, but he finally nods. “Alright,” he says. “But I’ll be in the living room if you need anything, and you have to keep the door open.” She goggles at him, intending to argue, but he just gives her a stern look. “Liv, you almost faceplanted on dry land like six times, just from the car to the door. No way I’m leaving you to knock yourself out in the shower.”

She scowls, but she knows that he’s right. She’s probably still a bit of a danger to herself.

“Fine,” she mutters. “But you will stay out here unless I’m unconscious or bleeding from the head.”

“Or if I hear a crash,” he adds.

“Fine,” she scowls again. He looks far too pleased with himself.

--

It is only once she is in the shower, with the water running, that Olivia realizes how poorly she’s thought this through. Undressing had been a trial in itself, and now she is naked, in pain, and freezing, because she can’t properly reach the tap to turn on the hot water. Getting out of the shower is similarly not an option, because now that the floor is wet, she will have to grab the rail to avoid falling – and she can’t reach the rail either.

So, her options seem to be: standing under the freezing water until she develops hypothermia, or calling Elliot to help her. The choice takes her longer than it probably should.

“Elliot?” She finally calls, half hoping that he can’t hear her.

“Yeah?” His voice is coming from closer than she would have expected, and she rolls her eyes. Of course he’s not actually in the living room.

“Would you come in here? I can’t reach the hot water.”

Before she fully has time to prepare herself, he has appeared beside her and pulled back the curtain.

“Jesus, Elliot!” She startles. “I just need you to turn the damn tap on, not jump in here with me.”

“Sorry, sorry.” He has the good sense to look sheepish, at least, and he pulls the curtain closed again, reaching for the tap. “Tell me when the temperature’s good?”

She nods, even though he cannot see her, and she knows that – were she any less freezing, or in any less pain – she would be mortified that he has just seen her naked. Of course, she thinks, he’s seen her naked before. But that had been a decade ago; before James, before William Lewis, and without the yellowing bruise and unattractive suture line that currently decorates her torso.

“That’s good,” she tells him, once the water has warmed up enough. She doesn’t hear him leaving though, and Olivia is quite sure that he is standing just on the other side of the curtain. “Elliot,” she sighs. “You can leave now.”

There is silence from him, and then: “Liv, are you sure? You can’t even reach the tap.”

She scowls, but has to admit that he has a point. She can’t reach the tap. She also can’t reach much of anything else. Not the soap or shampoo, not her own hair, not the rail to get back out of the shower. She blows out a frustrated breath. If she wasn’t so caked in blood and grime, she would give up on the shower entirely. But she has gotten this far already, and it seems like a waste to put in so much work just to be wet and freezing for no good reason. More than likely, she realizes, Elliot will also have to help her dry off – so if she’s going to be humiliated either way, she might as well be clean.

“Fine,” she huffs. “But I swear to God, Elliot, your eyes better be above my shoulders the whole fucking time. Don’t think I won’t knock your teeth out.”

It’s an empty threat, because she cannot actually reach his teeth at the moment, but when Elliot pulls back the curtain again, his eyes are very pointedly directed at her face.

“Soap,” she tells him. He goes to reach for it, but hesitates. She raises an eyebrow.

“These are my only clean work clothes,” he explains.

“Fine,” she nods, sighing. “Take them off then. But you’re keeping your shorts on – you can dry them here if you need to.”

Elliot nods and strips off quickly. Olivia knows that, strictly speaking, the polite thing to do here would be to avert her eyes – but that is not what she does. He has already seen her naked today, and she refuses to be the only one feeling so completely exposed. Besides, she’s curious – and she can feel the painkiller starting to kick in. She knows that they’ll need to get this done quickly, though, because she very much does not want to be so uninhibited while she is naked in the shower with Elliot.

She startles when he does finally hand her the bar of soap, and tries to refocus her mind on the task at hand – showering, and not looking at Elliot.

“Which one of these shampoos do you want?” He asks, while she is doing her best to clean the dried blood from around her stitches.

“The one without the Star Wars characters on it, Elliot.”

“Oh,” he says. “Right. I guess that’s James’.”

She rolls her eyes, even though he can’t see it from where he’s standing behind her. “Of course it’s James’. The purple bottle is mine.”

When she feels Elliot’s hands begin to lather shampoo into her hair, Olivia startles so hard that the bar of soap shoots out of her grasp. “What the hell are you doing?” She yelps.

“Can you reach?” He asks, obviously knowing the answer already. The smug bastard.

“No,” she grinds out. She tries to scowl – would turn around to glare at him if she didn’t think she’d fall – but nobody’s actually done this for her before, and it feels nice. Gritting her teeth, Olivia reminds herself that this is just because she’s injured – she and Elliot do not do this. “Just be quick.” She snaps.

Mercifully – unfortunately, her mind supplies – he is quick, and he has rinsed out her hair before she is entirely ready for the experience to be over.

“You done?” He asks, and Olivia feels her face flame. Because, in her surprise, she has dropped her soap. It is such a bad joke just waiting to happen, but it’s the truth, and she still has dried blood to wash off her chest.

“Soap.” She grits out, horrified by what she knows will have to happen. He will have to bend down to get it, and his face will be in the absolute last place that she wants it to be.

He hesitates, clearly coming to the same conclusion. “Um-” he stutters. “You sure you need it?”

She shuts her eyes tight, trying desperately to take a deep breath. “Yes,” she finally admits. “The shampoo stings like a bitch on the stitches, and I need to get the blood off.”

Thankfully, he is quick in retrieving the soap, and he makes no comment whatsoever, just hands it back to her silently. His hand does linger over hers, but she refuses to acknowledge the way her stomach flips at the feeling. Because really, she is a grown woman, and that is some teenage nonsense. She just grits her teeth and focuses on getting rid of the last of the blood.

“Alright,” she says, once she’s cleaned off as much as she’s able. “Let’s get this over with.”

He reaches to turn off the water, and Olivia tries not to flinch as his chest presses flush against her back – and she resolutely ignores the fact that he’s very much pressed up against her bare ass.

“Eyes up, Stabler,” she reminds him, when he steps out of the shower and extends his hand to her. He rolls his eyes, but she’s pleased to note that they do stay focused well above her shoulders. She appreciates that – as much as he is, and always has been, a stubborn ass – he is respecting her privacy as much as he’s able to under the circumstances.

“Here,” he wraps a towel around her, covering her up effectively while he rummages through her cabinets.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” She asks. He turns to look at her, giving her an exasperated look.

“I’m getting you some bandages,” he says. “Or do you want those stitches to get all gross?”

It’s a fair enough point, and so she bites back the retort she had planned, making an attempt to wrap a second towel around her head instead. It goes poorly, and Olivia gasps as her stitches pull unpleasantly.

“Stop that.” Elliot chides her. “It’s bad enough that you showered with those, don’t rip them open too.”

She attempts a glare, but is fairly sure that the fact that she is wearing just a towel undercuts some of the effect. This is all but confirmed when Elliot just smirks and throws the second towel over her head, drying her hair like he would a small child’s.

“Hey!” She protests. He just shushes her, and – if she weren’t injured and in a state of undress – Olivia would punch him. Or shove him. Kick him. Really just find any way to get back at him for having shushed her.

When he pulls the towel away from her head, she is fully ready to verbally eviscerate him, but the look on his face makes her stop in her tracks, the words dying in her throat. Because he is looking at her with a soft fondness that she has never seen on Elliot’s face. Not directed at anyone. Certainly not at her.

“El?” She asks, internally cursing having slipped up with the nickname again.

He swallows hard – she can see up close the way his Adam’s apple bobs – and his eyes flick quickly between her eyes and mouth, before he shakes his head and his eyes refocus on her stitches. “Did they give you any kind of ointment for these?”

“No,” she shakes her head, wondering if she’d imagined the look in his eyes. Maybe it was the painkillers.

Chapter Text

Elliot knows that he needs to focus – or, rather, he needs to refocus. Because Olivia is obviously in a great deal of pain, and the last thing she needs is for him to be leering at her. He tries to keep his attention firmly on finding bandages, inspecting her stitches, and – when the time comes to help her get dressed again – scrutinizing the contents of her bookshelf. But it’s a struggle, because no matter how much he knows that he has no right to look – that she will absolutely, justifiably smack him if his eyes even start to wander – she is right there, and she is beautiful, and she is completely naked.

He’s quite sure that standing in the shower with her has to have been some sort of creative punishment, drawn up by a vengeful God, with him specifically in mind. Because he has been thinking about it – dreaming about it – for more than twenty years at this point. But in all his dreams, she is uninjured, and relaxed, and receptive – she wants him there with her, in his dreams.

The reality, of course, is very different. Because Olivia had only called him into the bathroom in the first place under duress, and his presence in the shower with her was very obviously not her preference. He feels guilty about that, but there really hadn’t been any way around it – it had been a practical necessity.

So he’d kept his eyes up, focused on the task at hand, and tried – desperately – to block out the fact that he could see the bare expanse of her skin in his peripheral vision. He’d miscalculated when turning the water off though, and it was a goddamned miracle that he hadn’t moaned embarrassingly when he’d found himself fully pressed up against her. He knows that it is a moment that he will revisit later, when he is alone, regardless of the stinging shame that he feels – because his own sense of shame has never stopped his thoughts of Olivia. After more than two decades, he can’t imagine it’s about to start.

“You need socks?” He asks her, as she tries – without success – to tie up her hair.

“No,” she blows out a frustrated breath. “But would you put my hair up? It’s going to bug me.”

He nods, and takes the elastic that she’s been fumbling with from her. Only once he’s started does Elliot realize just how fucking intimate the whole thing is – pulling her hair out of her face and into a rough ponytail. He knows that he’s probably done a shit job – it's been some time since he’s had any reason to help anyone with their hair – but he’d spent years physically holding himself back from even just brushing stray hairs out of her face, so he’s a bit overwhelmed. The same thing had happened in the shower; he hadn’t realized just how much shampooing her hair would feel like something that lovers did. Definitely not ex-partners with a relationship that could – at best – currently be described as ‘tenuous’.

“El?” She prompts, and he realizes that he’s just kind of holding her head in his hands. Like an idiot.

“Sorry,” he clears his throat, stepping back. “Need anything else? Food?”

Her stomach rumbles then, and she blushes, but it breaks the tension effectively. “Yeah,” she nods. “Food’s probably a good call.”

“Come on then,” he calls, heading into the kitchen. “You have anything here? Or is it still just takeout menus and Hungry Man dinners?”

“Hey,” she gives him an indignant look over the kitchen island. “I’ll have you know that I’m a perfectly passable cook.”

“High praise,” he smirks. He easily ducks the takeout cup that she throws at him, but she is smiling still, so he doesn’t think it was done with any real malice. That, at least, is an improvement.

“Ass,” she huffs. “There’s pasta in the fridge that can be heated up. You’re welcome to have some.”

He heats up pasta for the both of them – because he is absolutely going to stay as long as she’ll have him there – and slides her portion across the island. She pauses, though, not sitting down, and he’s momentarily worried that she will rescind his invitation to stay.

“You mind eating on the couch?” She asks instead. “I don’t fully trust myself to stay upright on this stool.”

He barks out a relieved laugh, because eating on the couch with her honestly sounds like a perfect morning. And, if he’s honest, he’s not super confident in her ability to stay upright either. She is already swaying on her feet, and he makes a note to check the strength of her prescription.

“No worries,” he nods, grabbing her bowl and nudging her towards the couch. “Go sit down before you fall.”

“I’m not going to fall,” she rolls her eyes. But she still makes quick work of sitting down, so he guesses that she agrees with his assessment.

They eat in comfortable silence, and once they’ve finished, Elliot notices that Olivia is once again leaning on him. He’s not about to point it out, because he knows she’d probably stop if he did, but it makes him smile.

“Hey, Liv?” He asks, a thought popping to mind. “Where’s James?” Because he has been here since the previous evening, and James has been noticeably absent the whole time.

“Lucy’s,” she murmurs. “He stays there sometimes when I have to work late. Didn’t want him to see me like this.”

Elliot nods. That makes sense – he imagines that being a police Captain comes with many unexpected late nights.

“It freaks him out,” she continues. “Whenever I get hurt. So, when you see him, you will not use the word ‘stabbed’. I usually just say that there was an altercation.”

“How much do you get hurt at work, Liv?” He asks, concerned now. “I thought Captain was mostly paperwork and politics.”

“It is,” she nods. “I really don’t get hurt all that much, but ever since Lewis, James is-” she pauses, “sensitive. He’s scared I won’t come home.”

Elliot’s heart sinks at both the mention of her ordeal and their son’s reaction to it, and he is unable to stop himself from wrapping an arm around her. The painkillers must have really kicked it, he thinks, because she doesn’t pull away – she actually curls in closer to him.

“How old was he?” Elliot asks, knowing that there is no good answer.

“Three.” She whispers.

Jesus.” He breathes out, eyes stinging. “Fuck, Liv. I can’t-” he stutters, trying to force his tears back. “I’m sorry. I should have been there.”

“It’s okay,” she says, picking at a loose string on his shirt.

“It’s not,” he insists. “Christ, Liv, it’s not fucking okay.”

She shrugs against him. “No,” she agrees. “But I’m okay, now. Mostly.”

“I know it doesn’t help anything,” he sighs, “but if I’d known, I would have been here.”

She is silent for a moment, still picking at the thread on his shirt, and then she says something that finally breaks Elliot’s tenuous grip on his composure. “I wanted you to come,” her voice is small, brittle. “The whole time he had me, I prayed that you’d come.”

And Elliot just loses it, choking out a sob and pulling her as close to him as he can manage.

--

She hadn’t expected it, Elliot’s breakdown. Or, at least, she hadn’t expected it like this. Because his go-to has always been anger. If he’d shouted, or broken something, Olivia wouldn’t have been at all surprised, but the fact that he has started crying and pulled her into his arms is a genuine shock. Because she has no frame of reference for this. It is completely new. This has never been how they’ve done things.

But then, they are not the same people they had been – not entirely. The Elliot of a decade ago would be fuming, trembling with barely repressed rage – and the Olivia of a decade ago would be watching him at a distance, not wanting to overstep her role. The lines have shifted now, though, and this new version of Elliot is just holding her tightly, his face buried in the crook of her neck. And it is all that Olivia wants, in that moment – to be in his arms. Once the loaded atmosphere has settled a bit, she knows that she’ll probably blame it on the painkillers, but this has – truthfully – been what Olivia has wanted for some time. More than twenty years.

“How can you even stand to look at me?” He asks, finally, breaking the silence. His voice is thick with tears and, even though she is still angry with him, it breaks her heart a bit.

She takes as deep a breath as she can manage, moving to smooth her hand over his side, in an attempt at comfort – because he will not like her answer. “Sometimes I can’t,” she admits. “Sometimes it’s too much, seeing you, and knowing everything you’ve been gone for.”

He is shaking, and she can feel the wetness of his tears on her neck, but she continues. “You were the most - the single most - important person in my life, Elliot. I have never loved anyone the way that I loved you – not before, and not since.” It is easier to say the words when she cannot see his face – does not have to see his reaction. “And no one has ever hurt me the way that you hurt me. Until William Lewis abducted me, I’d always held out hope that you’d come back. But when my face was all over the news and I didn’t hear a word from you, I gave up – I couldn’t think about you without remembering how much I’d needed you, and how you hadn’t come.” She takes a shuddering breath. “It never got easier – your being gone – but the giving up helped. Now, I’m just trying to get my head around the fact that you’re back; not when I needed you most, but out of nowhere. And so, sometimes I can’t stand to look at you, or be around you – because it just reminds me of when you were gone.”

Olivia hadn’t intended to share any of that with him, but – even if it is mostly down to her lower inhibitions – she is glad that she has. Because it is all true, and – if he really does want to be a part of her life as he has said he does – he needs to hear it. She cannot hold all of the hurt alone anymore; it just isn’t sustainable.

He doesn’t say anything, just keeps holding her, but she can feel that he is still crying. And Olivia finds that she feels badly for him. Because she knows that if he had known, he would have been there. Much as she has long hated him – or tried to hate him – as a defense mechanism against her own pain, she knows that, at the base of things, he is still Elliot. Still the man she had trusted with her life every day for thirteen years. Still the man she’d loved. And while she can’t defend his decision to up and leave without a goodbye, she knows that – however much she personally disagrees – he had done it for what he’d thought at the time were the right reasons. The fact that it had gone so spectacularly wrong was not entirely within his control, no matter how much she has sometimes wished to lay the blame squarely on him. Sure, he is responsible for his own bad choices, but the crueler twists of fate have been beyond both of their control.

And so, despite what her sober second thought might have thought about it, Olivia presses a kiss to his temple. “It’s not okay, El,” she says, “but what Lewis did to me is not your fault.”

“It is,” he insists, voice ragged, into the skin of her clavicle. “If I’d been here, Liv, I would have killed him. I wouldn’t have let him lay a hand on you.”

She just smiles sadly, tracing her fingers along his ribs. “There was nothing you could have done, El. He’d taken me before anyone even knew I was missing.”

I would have known.” He croaks.

If they were having any other conversation, she would laugh at his stubborn vehemence. Instead, she presses another kiss to his temple. Just because she can – because she wants to.

“You wouldn’t have,” she shakes her head. “It took less than an hour, between when I left the precinct and when I was due to pick up James. He grabbed me right off the street; I didn’t even know it had happened until I woke up taped to a chair.”

Elliot’s grip on her tightens, and her stitches protest a bit at the movement, but Olivia has no intention of moving. Her stitches can open right back up for all she cares, she’s staying put.

Chapter Text

Once Elliot is able to get himself back together a bit, he remembers Olivia’s stitches. Shit, but he’s probably hurting her.

“Sorry,” he rasps, loosening his grip on her. “Are you alright? I totally forgot about your shoulder.”

“I’m fine,” she says, not moving to disentangle herself from him. She doesn’t seem keen to look at him, and he can hardly blame her. He presses the heel of his palm into his eyes in an attempt to dry them, but the angle is weird, and it’s not like she can see him anyways.

“Liv,” he says, “you don’t have to tell me any of this if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” she whispers, into his chest. He’s relieved, in a way. Because as much as hearing it makes him feel sick and angry, and drives home just how badly he’s failed her, he wants to know. He needs to know.

“How-” he pauses. “How long?”

She obviously knows what he means, and Elliot is unbelievably thankful that he doesn’t have to say the words ‘how long did he have you’.

“Four days,” she responds, still speaking into his chest.

“Jesus.” He tries to control his breathing, doesn’t want her to have to deal with his emotions while she relays this story. “Did he-” Elliot sucks in a breath, not able to force the words out. “Were you-” He trails off again – hates that he’s even asking the question. But he both can’t spit it out, and can’t stop himself.

“Rape kit said no,” she says, again understanding his ineloquent stuttering. “I was out a lot, so I can’t be totally sure, but I’d like to think I would have noticed – at least after the fact. He came close, though, at the end.”

Elliot breathes through his nose, trying to tamp down the overwhelming anger that is surging through him. Even if she hadn’t been raped, the idea of anyone harming Olivia – in any way – makes his blood boil, makes him want to throttle something.

“And the scars,” he forces himself to continue. “That’s from him?”

“Yeah,” she nods. “Cigarettes, mostly. Then my keys, after he’d run out. And a coat hanger.”

Fuck.” He slams his hand down hard onto the arm of her couch, unable to restrain himself. It is not what she needs – his anger – and he hurries to pull himself together, but the way that her voice is empty of all emotion lets Elliot know just how much this still affects her – and it wrecks him just a bit more.

“Where is he?” He bites out, and it sounds like a threat. Hell, it is a threat.

“Dead.” She says, running her hand over his stomach, smoothing down a wrinkle in his shirt. “In an unmarked grave at Rikers.”

“Good,” he spits. Though even that seems too good for the bastard. He takes another deep breath, reminding himself that the last thing that Olivia deserves right now is him going off. “Where was James?” He asks, because the question has been swirling in his mind, a horrible spectre on what is already a nightmare. It’s bad enough that something so horrific had happened to Olivia in his absence, but if their son had been in any way involved, Elliot thinks that he might just eat his gun.

“With Fin,” she says, and Elliot lets out a shaky breath. Thank God. “He didn’t know that anything bad had happened until I got back,” she continues. “Fin told him that I had a work trip,” she lets out a small laugh, despite the seriousness of the topic, “but when I came home beaten all to hell, he freaked right out. Barely left my side for months after,” she sighs. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s messed him up – if maybe I’m the reason he’s so painfully shy.”

“James isn’t messed up,” he insists. “I was a shy kid; he probably gets that from me. You’re a wonderful mother.”

He feels her shrug against him, and – despite himself – curls his finger under her chin so that she’s looking at him. She looks just as startled that he’s done it as he feels, blinking up at him.

“Liv, I’m serious,” he says. “That kid couldn’t ask for a better mom. You haven’t messed him up.”

“Everyone messes their kids up somehow,” she shrugs. She says it casually, but he can tell that this is something that she beats herself up about. He won’t press it, right now, but he files the information away for later.

“Liv, I’m going to ask you something, and you’re going to laugh, but I want you to know that I’m being serious.”

She raises an eyebrow at him, clearly wary. “Okay.”

“What would you think about doing couples therapy? You and me, I mean.”

“We’re not a couple,” she points out, blinking owlishly and gawking at him.

“No,” he agrees. “But we’ve got a kid together. And our relationship is-” he pauses, “complicated.”

The way that she’s looking at him is unsettling, and Elliot feels ridiculous for even having brought it up.

“Who are you, and what the hell have you done with Elliot Stabler?” She finally asks, looking bemused.

He huffs out a laugh. “I know,” he admits. “You can blame Kathleen for this. She’s been badgering me to see someone for years, and when I got back, I finally took her up on it. Honestly, it’s helped some.”

She gives him a little smile, and Elliot has the stupid urge to kiss her. He restrains himself, but barely. “Look at you, growing up.” She laughs. He can’t help but join her.

--

Just when she’d thought Elliot couldn’t surprise her any further, he’s gone and offered couples therapy. The crying was one thing – reasonable under the circumstances – but Elliot Stabler voluntarily bringing up therapy? That was something out of the Twilight Zone. If it weren’t for the fact that he is very obviously – in every other way – Elliot, Olivia would wonder if this was some sort of body snatcher situation. Apparently she is not the only one who has changed in the last decade.

“You’re serious?” She asks, still not fully believing it.

“Yeah,” he nods, looking embarrassed and even kind of shy. That’s new too.

“Alright,” she agrees. “It’s probably best that we get on top of our issues a bit before James starts to really notice.”

He nods again, but looks pensive. It seems like there is something that he really wants to say, but he’s biting his tongue.

“El?” She prompts, and he shakes himself out of whatever it was that he’d been stuck on.

“Good,” he says, obviously redirecting. “That’s good. I can tell he’s been walking on eggshells a bit around the both of us lately.”

Olivia winces. She really had been trying to keep a lid on her own feelings around James, but she obviously hasn’t been as successful as she’d thought, if even Elliot has noticed. Though perhaps she’s not being fair to him; he had always been more perceptive than anyone had given him credit for, and he seems to have matured in the last decade. His willingness to see a therapist is evidence enough of that.

Now that the loaded atmosphere has settled a bit, Olivia is suddenly very aware that she has essentially wrapped herself around him, and she can feel her face flame at the realization. It was one thing to be wrapped in his arms when she told him about Lewis. But now that they are talking about something more mundane and he is looking at her all soft, it’s too much, and she pulls away from him, reaching for her glass of water.

“You should probably go to work, Elliot,” she tells him, and he briefly looks as if she’s slapped him.

“I called in,” he says. “Figured you’d probably need a bit of help today.”

“Oh,” she pauses, taking a sip of her water. “Thanks, I guess.” She doesn’t really know what else to say to that. Because he’s right, she probably could use the help. But the idea of spending the day alone with Elliot, after the conversation they have just had, is vaguely mortifying. She doesn’t regret having opened up to him, but she had kind of figured that he’d leave soon after – she really hadn’t planned for the awkward aftermath. Hell, she’d told him she loved him, and now they had a whole day stretching out in front of them. Maybe she could nap a few hours away.

“Want to watch TV or something?” He asks, looking similarly uncomfortable. Clearly, neither of them has fully thought this through.

“Sure,” she nods. “Remote’s on the side table.”

--

They settle into a quiet day at home together, and while it is definitely awkward – this is not something they have ever really done – it's also kind of nice. Olivia finds herself thinking about what it might be like if this were just a normal day off; her and Elliot watching bad TV together, eating leftovers, and talking about nothing of any real substance. Again, she is aware that her painkillers have undoubtedly played a role in her musings, but these are thoughts that she has always had – lingering below the surface, far too dangerous to acknowledge.

It’s nice, though – just spending time with Elliot. She knows that they have many more difficult conversations ahead of them, and nothing is even close to fixed between them yet, but in the moment, she finds that she’s not thinking about that – doesn't want to be considering it. Because she has missed him. She’s missed him in the big, earth-shattering ways that hurt to even ponder, but she’s also missed the little things – this easy comfort that they’d always had. Sitting on her couch with Elliot, doped up on painkillers and watching truly awful television is the most genuinely comfortable that Olivia has felt in years.

At some point, she falls asleep on him again, and when she wakes, she pretends not to notice the way that she has curled herself around him yet again – and that his hand is skating up and down the expanse of her back, leaving goosebumps in its wake, even through her t-shirt.

Olivia is so relaxed, in fact, that she forgets altogether when James is due home from day camp, and his and Lucy’s arrival startles her from her half-asleep state propped up against Elliot. She tries to scramble away from him – because this will surely confuse their son – but the painkillers and her recent nap have made her sluggish, and she and Elliot are still mostly entangled when James rounds the corner.

“Hey Mom,” he greets, smiling, before he falters – obviously noticing Elliot. “Hey Elliot.” James looks warily at Elliot, then back at her, eyebrows furrowed. “Did something happen?”

Of course, Olivia thinks. Of course, James would immediately know that something was up. Because she and Elliot have not been able to comfortably be in a room together in months, and now they are wrapped around each other on the living room couch. She sees a vague sort of panic developing in her son’s eyes, and she quickly smiles at him, hoping to cut off any worries he might have.

“No, baby, everything’s okay,” she soothes, waving James over to her. “I just had a little accident at work, and Elliot’s helping me out today because the pills they gave me make me a bit clumsy.” Elliot snorts out a laugh, and she shoots him a glare, before turning back to James, smoothing his hair out of his face.

“Did you get hurt?” James asks, still looking anxious.

“Just a bit,” she shrugs, trying not to wince when the movement irritates her stitches. “Nothing serious.”

James’ eyes again dart between her and Elliot, and he still doesn’t look terribly convinced.

“Your mom’s good,” Elliot confirms. “But the painkillers have made her a hazard to herself and others, so I’m just here to make sure she doesn’t make a huge mess of the place or start a fire or anything.”

“Hey!” Olivia objects, though she knows that his description is not far off the truth. This seems to reassure James, though, and he visibly relaxes, even giving her a small, amused smile.

“Mom, are you high?” He asks, snickering, which draws laughter from Elliot. Olivia just rolls her eyes and sinks back into the couch cushions. She’s quite sure that she won’t be allowed to live this down, but at least James doesn’t seem anxious anymore. She’ll take the win on that front.

Chapter Text

Since their conversation about William Lewis, something seems to have shifted back into place between her and Elliot, Olivia thinks. It’s still hard, sometimes, to be around him, and she knows that forgiving him is still a ways off – but now she can actually see the possibility of forgiving him, in time. That in itself is a big improvement.

Still, their first appointment with the therapist that Kathleen had recommended has been giving her a low-grade anxiety attack for the past few days. She knows that it’s necessary, that it’s a good first step in trying to improve their relationship, but the idea of opening up all the wounds of his abandonment again – in front of both Elliot and a total stranger – makes Olivia physically uncomfortable. As much as she’s long joked with Elliot about his therapy aversion, she knows that she herself is not much better. Sure, she’s comfortable with Lindstrom now, but that had taken time, and she knows that it’ll take her a minute to get used to this new person as well.

The therapist – Dr. Gallardi – is an older woman with a severe grey bob, and her office is so compulsively neat that Olivia is concerned she will knock something over and make a mess. Still, she has an oddly calming presence, and after a few deep breaths, Olivia finds her anxiety ratcheting down a bit. Just a bit, but it’s enough for now.

“Alright guys,” Dr. Gallardi starts, looking between the two of them, “if you had to give me a rough overview of your relationship, how would you describe it?”

Olivia looks over at Elliot, and he just shrugs, indicating that she can speak if she’d like to. She huffs out a breath and tries to gather her thoughts a bit – of course she’d have to start.

“Maybe that was too open ended,” Dr. Gallardi smiles. “Elliot, how did the two of you meet?”

Olivia lets out a small sigh of relief that the task has been delegated to Elliot.

“We were partners, at work,” he answers.

“You were detectives, yes?”

They both nod, and the doctor makes a note on her pad.

“How long were you partners for?”

“About thirteen years,” Olivia answers. “With a few breaks.”

Dr. Gallardi cocks an eyebrow, and Olivia knows she should elaborate.

“Temporary assignments, advanced trainings, that kind of thing.”

“So you’ve known each other for quite a while then; thirteen years is a significant amount of time.”

Elliot clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “We’ve known each other about twenty-three years, actually. We met in ‘98.”

“Oh,” Gallardi looks briefly surprised. “Would you care to elaborate, Elliot?”

“Yeah,” he nods, clearing his throat again. Olivia can tell that he’s uncomfortable, but she has no intention whatsoever of helping him out on this. He can struggle. “That’s, uh, kind of the reason we’re here,” he says. “About ten years ago, something happened at work, and I left. Retired. And, uh-” he pauses, looking pained. “I didn’t keep in touch. I should have – it's probably the shittiest thing I’ve ever done – but I didn’t. Just took off without a goodbye.”

“I see,” Dr. Gallardi nods again, still taking notes.

“I was pregnant at the time,” Olivia interjects, finding the way that Elliot cringes perversely satisfying. “With his kid.”

“Ah. Yes, well, that would complicate things – wouldn't it?” Both she and Elliot nod in response, unsure of what else to say. “So, you were colleagues for thirteen years,” Dr. Gallardi continues. “Did you have a sexual relationship for all of that time?”

“No,” Olivia answers, firmly. “He was married. We only slept together the once. It was a mistake.”

“It wasn’t a mistake,” Elliot interjects, surprising Olivia.

“What do you mean it wasn’t a mistake?” She asks, incredulous. “You were married, Elliot. Eli wasn’t even three. You were fucked up about Jenna – it was a grief response. I can’t regret it, because I got James in the deal, but it was a mistake.”

“That’s all true,” Elliot nods. “And I regret the way it happened. But it wasn’t a mistake, Liv.”

Before Olivia can even begin to formulate a response, Dr. Gallardi interjects. “Alright, I’m clearly missing a few steps here guys,” she says. “If I’m understanding correctly, there was a traumatic incident at work that spurred your one and only sexual encounter, and Olivia, you became pregnant as a result?”

“Yeah,” she nods.

“Okay,” Dr. Gallardi taps her pen against her paper, nodding. “Elliot, is your contention that it wasn’t a mistake related to James, the child that resulted?”

“Yes and no,” Elliot grinds out, seeming frustrated.

“Can you explain that for me?”

Elliot lets out a hard breath, dragging his hand down his face, and Olivia finds it a bit comforting that he’s just as uncomfortable as she is.

“She’s not going to like my answer,” Elliot sighs, and it puts Olivia on edge.

“That’s okay,” Dr. Gallardi responds. “That’s why people come to therapy. I want you to be honest, Elliot.”

“I was in love with her,” he shrugs. Olivia’s heart jumps into her throat at the casual way he says it – he has deliberately been avoiding bringing it up since their last disastrous attempt to talk things through, and hearing the words again has set her heart beating at an alarming speed.

“So a sexual relationship was something that you had wanted?” Olivia cringes at the clinical way that Dr. Gallardi says it, but Elliot just shrugs again.

“Yeah,” he nods. “Not just a sexual relationship, but yeah.”

“Olivia,” Dr. Gallardi turns to her, “you seem startled. Was this something you were aware of?”

“I-” she clears her throat. “He’s told me that once before, but I didn’t know at the time.”

“You seem doubtful,” Dr. Gallardi observes.

“I don’t know,” Olivia shrugs. “I find it kind of hard to believe.”

Elliot makes a strangled sort of noise to her left, and when she looks over at him, he seems to be restraining himself. She has no idea if it’s from shouting, or from insisting again that he loves her, and she doesn’t especially want to find out. She doesn’t think she could deal with either at the moment.

--

“How’s the couples therapy going?” Kathleen asks him, popping a french fry into her mouth. They make a point to meet for lunch at least once a week, and Elliot could kick himself for just how long he’s been gone, because all his children have turned into really interesting people.

“Okay,” he shrugs. “It’s still therapy, but I like the woman you suggested.”

Kathleen nods. “Yeah, she’s good. Used to be an Army shrink.”

Elliot chuckles. “I could see that. You could eat off any surface in that office.”

“She’d disembowel you on the spot,” Kathleen snorts. “But it’s helping? You and Olivia, I mean.”

“It’s-” Elliot hesitates. “I think it will help. It’s still awkward though. I’ve got a lot to make up for, and she’s still mad. Plus, I can’t seem to shut up about my fucking feelings – I've told her I love her more in the last two months than in the last twenty-three years.”

Kathleen chokes on her soda, spluttering and sending ginger ale across the table.

“Lovely, Katie,” Elliot laughs, handing her a napkin.

“Jesus, Dad,” she mutters. “Give the poor woman a minute. You’ve been gone ten years.”

“I know,” Elliot winces. “Believe me, I know. The first time, it just slipped out, and then Dr. Gallardi asked me about it, and told me to be honest. So I was.” He shrugs. “She doesn’t believe me, though.”

“Dr. Gallardi?”

“No,” Elliot clarifies. “Liv.”

Kathleen nods. “Can you blame her?”

“No,” Elliot shrugs. “I get why she doesn’t. And I really don’t mean to keep bringing it up – I don’t want to make her any more uncomfortable. It’s just-” he pauses. “It’s at the root of it all – my feelings for Liv. The way I walked out, all the shit decisions I’ve made, it’s all tied in to my trying to deal with the way I felt about Liv. The guilt I had about having the feelings in the first place.”

Kathleen studies him for a moment. “Sounds like the therapy’s helped you, at least.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “It has. Thank you for pushing, Katie. It’s not fair that you had to, but I want you to know that I appreciate it.”

His daughter looks so pleased that it makes Elliot feel both warm inside and so incredibly ashamed. He’s the parent here, it shouldn’t have been down to Kathleen to push him to be better.

“I’m glad it’s helping,” she smiles. “You seem happier, Dad.”

“I am,” he nods. “Things are still complicated, but I’m glad everything’s out in the open. I don’t want to do secrets anymore.”

Kathleen beams at him, and Elliot thinks that everything’s been worth it, to see his daughter looking at him like this.

--

“So, we’re going to start with something a bit different today.” The vaguely amused look on Dr. Gallardi’s face makes Elliot nervous, and he can tell without even looking at Olivia that she feels the same. “I want each of you to tell me – to tell each other – something that the other doesn’t know about you. One serious thing, and one lighthearted thing.”

Elliot looks over at Olivia, warily, and finds that she looks equally skeptical. She’s probably worried that he’s going to profess his love again, judging by the pinched look on her face.

“I know it seems silly, but humor me.” Dr. Gallardi still has that infuriating smile on her face, and the last thing that Elliot wants to do is humor her. But he will, because he wants this to work.

“Uh,” he clears his throat, “I can go first, if you want.”

Dr. Gallardi beams, but Olivia is starting to look genuinely frightened. He wishes she’d give him a bit more credit.

“When we were living in Rome, Kathy made me take a baking class with her. She was a disaster at it, but I, uh, I actually liked it. Wasn’t bad at it, either. I make a decent tiramisu.”

Olivia looks startled, but she has an amused little smile on her face, and Elliot is glad that he started with something lighthearted. She smiles so infrequently around him now, and he loves her smile. He also still hasn’t quite decided what serious thing he will share.

“You bake?” She asks, laughing lightly. Elliot gives her a shrug and a smile in response.

“I’ve got all kinds of layers, Benson.” He jokes, and she lets out a little snort, seeming to surprise even herself.

“Very good,” Dr. Gallardi smiles. “Olivia, would you like to share something lighthearted, or would you like Elliot to continue to his serious thing?” The panicked look is back on Olivia’s face, and Elliot’s heart sinks a bit.

“Um, I’ll go,” she stutters, before pausing for a moment. Finally, looking chagrined, she admits: “I’m afraid of geese. And swans. Really any large bird with an unnaturally long neck. They just-” she huffs out a breath. “They freak me out. They’re so stupid looking, but they’re vicious.”

Elliot wants to laugh. He wants to laugh so badly. Because how is Olivia Benson – genuinely one of the toughest people he’s ever met – afraid of birds? He’d never known that, in all the time they’d known one another – and judging by the pink tinge her cheeks have taken on, she’d never intended to tell him.

“You can laugh, Elliot.” She rolls her eyes. “I know you want to.”

“I wouldn’t,” he says. Though, he is laughing even as he says it, so he doubts that she’s buying it. She is, however, laughing a bit herself – so he’ll take it as a win.

When their laughter peters out, Elliot is all too aware that he will now have to share something serious. Everything that he can think of is likely to upset her, and – while he knows that it’s a necessary part of therapy – all he wants is for her to keep laughing. Dr. Gallardi seems to sense his hesitance.

“Would you like to continue, Elliot?”

He nods. He needs to do this – it’s important. Still, it doesn’t mean he has to like it. He’s decided on a serious thing to share, but he knows that Olivia really won’t like it – knows that it’s only likely to hurt her. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but he’s committed to being honest, and this is a secret that he cannot keep from her.

“When Kathy and I separated – the first time – I spent months trying to work up the nerve to ask you out.” He cringes a bit at just how juvenile he sounds, but continues anyways. “I had a whole stupid plan of where I’d take you and everything, but I ended up chickening out, worried about how it might affect work. Then everything happened with Gitano, and things went all to hell anyways. It’s stupid, and it probably would have blown up in my face, but I’ve always regretted not asking. At least so that you’d know that my feelings aren’t new, and aren’t a whim, and aren’t going to go away.”

Jesus, Elliot thinks, he’s just basically fucking told her that he loves her again. Suddenly, after more than twenty years of keeping it to himself, he is unable to shut his big stupid mouth. And, when he looks over at Olivia, he’s unsurprised to find that she looks vaguely nauseous. Excellent. Really well done, asshole. God, he’s like some unstoppable idiot, running his mouth.

“Olivia,” Dr. Gallardi prompts. “Would you like to carry on?”

She just nods and squares her jaw, and it is so Liv that it makes his heart hurt a bit.

“I didn’t realize that I was pregnant with James until I was almost four months along,” she states, voice painfully neutral. “I’d put the missed periods and bouts of vomiting down to stress, or poor diet, or bodega sushi – predictable consequences of my own actions, you know? I only actually found out when I was at the ER getting checked out for something else. I thought the doctor was playing a sick joke.”

Now Elliot’s the one who feels nauseous. Of all the many, many regrets he has, the fact that he had missed Liv being pregnant comes in near the top of the list. And even though it was a decade ago, and everything has obviously turned out fine, he is still – somehow – so insanely worried about everything that could have gone wrong. What had she been at the ER for when she’d found out? Had she been working the whole time she was pregnant? Chasing perps? Getting into scuffles?

“Elliot,” Dr. Gallardi interrupts his spiral. “Are you still with us?”

“Yeah,” he rasps. “Sorry. I just-” he drags a hand down his face. “Was everything okay? With James? With you? With the pregnancy?”

“Yeah,” Olivia nods. “He came a bit early, and I was sick a lot, but otherwise everything was normal.”

“Jesus, Liv. I hate that I missed that. I’m so fucking sorry that I missed that.”

She nods. “I’m sorry you missed it too, Elliot. I wanted so badly for you to be there.” Her voice is brittle when she speaks, and it puts the lump back in Elliot’s throat.

They’ve mostly avoided talking about her pregnancy, thus far, and while Elliot isn’t surprised at the pit it puts in his stomach, the intensity of the feeling still floors him a bit. With Kathy, he had always been able to comfort himself with the fact that – despite all the other issues they had – he had been there for her while she’d been pregnant, and he’d done his absolute best to be a good father once the kids were born. It had long been the one redeeming quality in himself that he’d focused on, while he’d been busy falling in love with a woman who was not his wife. He hadn’t loved Kathy the way he ought to have, but he’d been there for their kids. With Olivia, it was very much the opposite. He loved her in a way that had been entirely forbidden – completely inappropriate, but all-encompassing – and he’d failed to be there for her or for their child. The guilt is suffocating, and Elliot can barely breath for the burning in his throat. As much as he is working to move forward – to be better – he still hates himself for this, and doesn’t know that he’ll ever stop.

Chapter Text

She is avoiding Elliot again. It’s not completely intentional, and it lacks the aggression with which she had previously been avoiding him, but Olivia feels badly about it anyways. Still, she is terrified that he will tell her that he loves her. Again.

It’s not even that she doesn’t believe him about it, exactly. She believes that he believes that he loves her. But there are two big sticking points that she can’t ignore. The first is that, even though he had known her – perhaps better than anyone else – the mere idea of there being anything between them had always been absolutely off the table. So, she thinks, he’d idealized her – put her up on a pedestal because he’d wanted her but could never have her. And any idea of ‘love’ that came out of that wouldn’t really be accurate. He’d loved the idea of her, but not the reality – because it could never be a reality. That was a fragile enough base as it was, but then ten years had passed. And even if he had loved her, she was no longer the same person – whoever the woman that he professed to love had been, Olivia knows that she is no longer that person.

So, she is resistant to his declarations, because she knows that nothing will come of it. With time, the reality of her – of who she is now, and who she has always been – will dawn on him, and the charm of the idea of her will wear off. And she can’t allow herself to feel any sort of hope about his feelings, because she is aware of this reality – has always been the more pragmatic of the two of them, despite appearances. She knows that, in the past, she has been guilty of looking at Elliot through rose colored glasses as well, but his decade long absence has been a jarring reality check on that front. She still harbours her own shameful, ill-considered feelings for him – despite everything – but she is no longer so naïve to think that anything could actually come out of it. Not when it wouldn’t just be her own heart on the line, but James’ as well. Because while she has always had something of a masochistic streak when it comes to Elliot, she refuses to do anything that could hurt their son.

Still, Olivia feels a bit as though she has whiplash. Because not even three months ago, she had been certain that Elliot had seen her as nothing more than a friend and partner. Hell, before they’d slept together, she hadn’t been entirely sure that he’d seen her as a woman. And now, a decade later and out of nowhere, he’s telling her that he loves her, that he’d loved her most of the time they’d known each other – that he’d been planning on asking her out, at one point; had a fixed plan for a date, even. She can’t help but wonder a bit – even though she does believe him – if he’s telling the truth. Because surely she’s a good enough detective to have noticed those signs? Repressed as he’d always been, Elliot had never been good at hiding his feelings from her. But then, maybe she just hadn’t wanted to see it – hadn't wanted to face the pain of knowing that they both wanted something that they could never have.

It’s where they seem to be now though – both wanting something that isn’t ever going to work – and it really fucking hurts, so Olivia finds it increasingly believable that she’d just blocked out any sign of Elliot’s feelings for her, all those years ago. Hell, she’d be doing it now if she could, but he has become infuriatingly upfront lately.

All hopes of avoiding Elliot indefinitely crumble around her over the lunch hour, though, when Olivia receives a call from Maureen. Apparently, Dave’s family has a summer house on the Jersey Shore, and – now that everyone is back in New York permanently – Maureen has decided that they are going to have a family vacation. It is sweet of her, Olivia decides, that she has thought to include James – and she knows that her son will be thrilled by the idea of a beach vacation. The problem is that, in order for James to feel at all comfortable around so many people that he barely knows, Olivia will also have to be there. She is willing to do this for her son, because she knows that it’s important – but she is decidedly less than thrilled. Frankly – as much as she loves them all – Olivia would rather take a swim in the Gowanus with an open wound than vacation with the Stablers.

--

Eli is sulking at the kitchen table, and Kathleen decides that it is long past time for her to talk a bit of sense into her youngest brother – well, second youngest brother, she supposes. She’d driven up to the shore with Eli and their mother, and her brother had been sullen the whole trip. It’s unlike him, but she knows that he’s having a hard time adjusting. Still, much as she understands his angst about the situation, enough is enough, and she wants them to at least have a nice vacation. After that, Eli can sulk as much as he wants.

“Shove over,” she instructs him, dropping herself into the chair next to him. He barely looks up at her. “Look Eli,” she sighs. “I get that you’re still upset, and that’s fair enough, but pouting your way through a beach trip isn’t going to help anything.”

“I’m not pouting,” he insists, still very much pouting.

“Alright,” she shrugs. “Sulking, whining, moping – pick your descriptor.” Eli scowls at her, but Kathleen is undeterred. “All I’m saying is that you can be mad at Mom and Dad and still have a fun time on vacation. When was the last time you were at the beach?”

Eli shrugs. “Dunno. We went a few times in Italy.”

“Yeah,” Kathleen rolls her eyes. “But that’s Italy. This is New York – well, New Jersey. The whole family’s coming. I know you’ve missed that.”

“Yeah,” Eli admits, reluctantly.

“Then enjoy it,” she tells him. “You can be mad again in the city. Besides, you’ll probably be able to talk Mom and Dad into buying you lots of junk food and souvenirs since they feel so guilty.”

Clearly, she has hit on something with that, because Eli suddenly looks more animated than he has all day.

“You think they’d let me ride a Jet Ski?” He asks. Kathleen can’t help but laugh.

“I think you could probably guilt them into it, yeah.”

“Alright,” he nods, but hesitates. “Are Olivia and James coming?”

“They are,” Kathleen nods. “And you’re going to be polite to the both of them, because this isn’t their fault any more than it’s mine or yours.”

Eli looks vaguely affronted, and Kathleen prepares herself for an argument – but that isn’t what comes. “I know that,” he says, rolling his eyes. “It’s just going to be awkward. Dad gets all weird around Olivia.”

Kathleen can’t help her laughter. Eli probably hasn’t been around their father and Olivia more than a handful of times – that he can remember, anyways – and still he has managed to pick up on the tension. It must be some sort of rite of passage for the Stabler kids – noticing the loaded relationship that the two of them have always had. She certainly remembers when she first noticed.

“Yeah,” she nods. “He does, doesn’t he? Always has, actually.”

“Really?” Eli looks surprised.

Kathleen nods again. “Longer than you’ve been alive, they’ve been weird around each other.”

“Is it because they,” Eli grimaces, “love each other?”

Kathleen finds herself laughing again, pleased that this conversation seems to be going better than she’d expected, and amused by the look of abject horror on Eli’s face.

“Basically, yeah.” She nods.

“Ugh, gross,” Eli scowls. “Dad’s way too old to be in love.”

Kathleen smirks. “If it helps, he was much younger when it started.”

The face that Eli makes suggests that it very much does not help.

--

Kathleen isn’t sure of exactly how wealthy Dave’s family is, but judging by the sheer number of bedrooms in their beach house, she’s guessing that the answer is quite. Dave has always been super down to earth, so she never would have guessed, but when she finds herself in an honest to God wine cellar, she wonders what exactly his parents had done for a living. She wanders the wine cellar for a minute, vaguely disappointed that she no longer drinks – because some of these bottles look fancy – but eventually finds that the ‘old money’ vibes are giving her the creeps, and heads back upstairs to see if anyone else has arrived yet.

Richard had driven up with their father, and the two of them are putting things in the fridge and bickering amongst themselves, while Eli has settled himself into one of the armchairs with his video game. She’s not entirely sure where Maureen and Dave have wandered off to, but Logan is running up and down one of the hallways in his swim trunks – obviously impatient to go to the beach – and she has to catch him under the arms when he trips over a backpack left leaning against the staircase. The kid really has no self-preservation instincts.

“Logan, watch where you’re going!” Ah, there’s Maureen, appearing on the opposite staircase to scold her son. Kathleen used to wonder why they’d stopped after one kid, but she gets it now.

“Mom,” he whines. “Let’s go! I want to go swimming!”

“You’re going to have to be a whole lot more patient, bud, we just got here,” Maureen chides.

“Hey Mo,” Kathleen greets her sister. “Are Lizzie and Paula here yet?”

“I have no idea,” Maureen replies, looking ever so slightly frazzled. “Also, do you know if we’re still playing along with the roommates thing, or no?”

Kathleen laughs. After nearly five years of bringing the woman to family functions, she’s not quite sure who Liz thinks she’s kidding when she calls Paula her ‘roommate’, but they’ve all agreed to let her tell them in her own time. Apparently Maureen is growing impatient waiting her out though, and Kathleen can’t entirely blame her – it’s been five years, after all.

“As far as I know,” she shrugs. Maureen rolls her eyes and starts walking into the kitchen.

“Honestly,” she scoffs. “They share a bed when they visit. She can’t possibly think we’re that stupid – or that closed minded.”

“Oh, leave your sister alone, Maureen,” their mother scolds, hauling a cooler through the back door. “If she’s not ready, she’s not ready.”

Maureen rolls her eyes again, but lets it drop for now. Kathleen knows very well that they are not done with this conversation, but she has the vague hope that maybe Olivia’s presence will distract her oldest sister from trying to coax her youngest out of the closet.

“What time are James and Olivia getting here?” She asks. She had been surprised when her mother – of all people – had suggested inviting Olivia, but it does make sense when she considers just how shy James is.

There is a clatter from the kitchen before she gets an answer, though, and her father is suddenly standing in the doorway, holding a frozen ribeye.

“Wait,” he says, looking confused. “Liv’s coming?”

Kathleen’s mouth drops open, and she looks over at her mother, who has a supremely amused smirk on her face.

“I emailed you about it, Elliot.” Her mother shrugs.

It is a well-known fact that her father never checks his email.

Chapter Text

James’ obvious excitement is the only reason that Olivia hasn’t already turned the car around and just given up on the whole weekend. Because if it were just up to her, there is no way that she would be driving up to the Jersey Shore – in horrendous rush hour traffic – to spend her very limited time off with Elliot and his entire family. It is a testament to just how much she loves her son that she had even considered it – never mind that she’d agreed.

“Mom, do you think we’ll have s’mores?” James asks from the back seat, looking so hopeful that Olivia thinks she’d give him just about anything in that moment.

“I think we could make it happen, yeah,” she agrees. James beams at her in the rear-view mirror, and she can’t help but smile back, despite her dread about their destination.

“Logan says they have a fire pit on the beach!”

Olivia nods. Maureen had given her a general run down on the beach house, and if it weren’t for the awkward social aspect, she thinks that she’d really be looking forward to this trip.

“Well, then I think it’s a pretty safe bet on the s’mores, bud.”

“Are you going to come swimming?” He asks, smile still fixed on his face, though a bit more tentative. He knows that she doesn’t swim, but never fails to try and convince her to, despite that.

“No,” she shakes her head. “You know I don’t swim, James.”

Can you swim?” He teases. They have had this conversation before, and, for some reason, her son is determined to force her into the water. Olivia isn’t entirely sure what that’s about, but he never takes it past good-natured teasing, so she allows it – for now.

“Of course I can swim,” she rolls her eyes. “I just don’t like to. The water is cold and dirty, and I’d rather just read my book on the beach.”

James just huffs and shakes his head at her, but he lets it drop. Olivia hopes that the presence of other people willing to go into the water with him will distract her son from this particular hang-up though, because she has no desire at all to explain her reasoning to the Stablers.

While Olivia has never been especially self-conscious about her body, the prospect of the entire Jersey Shore seeing the marks that William Lewis had left on her is not one that she cares for at all. Clearly, he had not taken her ability to choose a bathing suit into consideration when he’d been putting his cigarettes out on her, because there is not a neck-line high enough to cover the scars. James has seen them, of course, and has never found them at all remarkable – she has had them for as long as her son can remember, and he considers them to be perfectly mundane at this point. But the Stablers would certainly notice, and the last thing that Olivia wants is their pity – so she has brought an old button down with her to wear as a cover up, and has no intention whatsoever of taking it off. She can broil in the sun for all she cares, but she refuses to have the William Lewis conversation on this trip – it will surely be awkward enough without any help from her trauma.

--

When they pull up in the driveway of the beach house, Olivia is momentarily stunned. Maureen had told her it was big, but it’s the Jersey Shore, and she’d expected something considerably more understated. Clearly, that had been an error on her part, because the house is positively massive. It is at least three stories, with a wraparound porch that seems to encircle the whole main floor, and a wooden deck that creeps down onto the beach before fading into the sand.

“Whoa.” James murmurs, looking up at the house as he climbs out of the back seat.

There are four cars already in the driveway, and Olivia guesses that they are the last to arrive. Though a woman that she doesn’t recognize is pulling bags from the trunk of the car nearest her, so perhaps not by much.

“Oh, hi!” The woman turns and notices them, smiling. “You must be Olivia!”

Feeling bad that she has no idea at all who this woman is, Olivia offers her what she hopes is a friendly smile. “Hi,” she waves, debating what the politest way to ask who the hell she is might be, when Lizzie comes strolling out of the porch and breaks into a beaming smile.

“Olivia!” She calls. “Hi!”

Thankful to see a face that she recognizes, Olivia smiles and waves back, though she is startled when the younger woman pulls her into a hug.

“Hey Lizzie,” she greets her, hugging back. “Or do you prefer Elizabeth now? I know Richard is no fan of ‘Dickie’ anymore.”

The younger woman laughs, shaking her head as she pulls out of the hug and allowing Olivia to get a proper look at her. The last time she’d seen Elliot’s youngest daughter, she’d still been a teenager, and she is now – undeniably – a grown woman. It’s a bit jarring, really.

“Just Liz is fine,” she laughs. “Elizabeth sounds horrifically formal.”

Olivia nods, and, noticing James beginning to attach himself to her side, puts an arm around her son’s shoulders.

“This is James,” she gestures, trying to sound casual. Liz is the last of the Stablers that James has yet to officially meet, and she wants to get it out of the way so that her son may actually loosen up a bit. Despite his excitement over the trip, she knows that he has been nervous about meeting the last of his siblings. He’s still half convinced that none of them will like him, and Olivia is working on dispelling that for him.

“Hey, James,” Liz smiles, waving at him. “Nice to meet you.”

“Hi,” James manages, still very much stuck to Olivia. It’s a start, she figures.

“Oh!” Liz exclaims, seeming to remember something. “This is Paula,” she gestures toward the woman Olivia hadn’t recognized, who is now pulling a cooler from the back seat of their car. “My-” she pauses, looking conflicted, before continuing. “Roommate.”

Olivia notices Paula roll her eyes, and wonders for a moment what that’s about, but ultimately decides that it’s none of her business, choosing to simply smile and wave again.

“Nice to meet you,” she calls. The other woman just hikes the cooler up onto her hip and calls out a “you too” as she heads into the house. Interesting. Though, Olivia reminds herself, still very much none of her business.

“Don’t mind her,” Liz waves off. “The drive from DC makes her cranky.”

Olivia just nods, determined not to push it. “How is DC?” She asks instead. “Maureen says you’re working for a newspaper?”

She lets Liz tell her all about her job as the two of them unpack her car, deciding that maybe this trip won’t be a total nightmare. If nothing else, she does like Elliot’s kids.

--

Despite her determination to power through the trip, Olivia very nearly turns right around to pack up the car when she walks through the front door and is immediately met with a veritable wall of Stablers. She’d known what she was getting herself into, but the reality of it is still a bit much.

Kathleen and Richard are chopping vegetables at the kitchen island, Eli is helping Paula put away food from the cooler, Maureen and Dave are bickering about something in the foyer, and Kathy is leaning against the counter with a glass of wine, chatting intermittently with everyone. Elliot is noticeably absent.

Olivia already feels incredibly out of place.

“Hey, Olivia,” Richard greets her, looking up from his chopping and smiling. That makes her feel a bit better, because he has been the wariest of her – though she doesn’t think it’s been intentional – and if he seems pleased to see her, that’s surely a good sign.

“Hey guys,” she nods, trying to steer James through the door.

“Here, let me take that.” Maureen has appeared at her side, reaching for James’ bag, and she happily hands it over. “James,” the other woman directs at her son, “Logan’s outside with, er, Elliot,” she stutters. “He’s been bugging me all day about when you were going to get here, so I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

James looks up at her, asking for permission to go out onto the beach, and Olivia nods. She jams his hat onto his head before he can take off, and then he’s straight out the door.

“Sorry,” Maureen says. “I’m not really sure what he calls my dad.”

“So far just Elliot.” Olivia nods. “I’ve decided not to push either way.”

“Good call,” Kathleen agrees, from her spot in the kitchen. “I’m sure it’s driving Dad nuts, too, so there’s a side benefit.” A chorus of chuckles meets Kathleen’s statement, and Olivia feels herself relax a bit. The Stablers really don’t seem all that bothered that she’s here.

“Olivia,” Kathy calls. “There’s about a dozen bedrooms still up for grabs, so just take your pick. I think they’re all on the second floor?” She looks over to Dave, clearly unsure.

“Yeah,” he nods. “There’s a master suite up on the third, but I think a raccoon died in the vent, so we’re all avoiding it.”

“Good to know,” Olivia grimaces. Much as a lingering raccoon carcass seems the appropriate ambiance for this weekend, she thinks that she’ll stick to the second floor.

Once she has dropped her and James’ things in one of the empty – and raccoon free – bedrooms, Olivia makes her way back down to the kitchen. Though she might prefer to avoid everyone for a while, she still has her sense of decorum.

“Wine?” Kathy asks, the very moment she has stepped through the kitchen doorway. She nods, having never been so grateful to Kathy Stabler in her life.

“Olivia, do you eat meat?” Richard asks, now pulling what appear to be steaks out of the fridge.

“I’ll eat just about anything,” she nods, accepting the glass of wine that Kathy has handed her. There really is no easing in to this situation – she is very suddenly in the midst of a busy family vacation. And – much as it does make her uncomfortable – it is also exactly what she had wished for as a small child. Perhaps not under these exact circumstances, but still, it’s actually kind of nice. If it weren’t for the lingering threat of Elliot appearing through the door at any minute, Olivia thinks that she might actually enjoy the domestic chaos.

--

“Are you meddling?” Kathleen asks her mother, as they sit on the porch sipping iced tea, having been unceremoniously kicked out of the kitchen by Richard and Maureen.

Kathy raises an eyebrow, affecting what Kathleen is sure she thinks is an innocent look. “What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean,” she snorts.

“I just want to have a nice family vacation,” her mother shrugs. “And, at this point, Olivia and James are family. Is that so wrong?”

“No,” she agrees, scrutinizing her mother over her glass. “But why not tell Dad they were coming?”

“Hey, if your father and Olivia aren’t talking to each other, that’s hardly my problem.”

If it weren’t for the amused smirk that has yet to leave her mother’s face, Kathleen would almost believe that she was being sincere.

“True,” she agrees again. “You have a scheming look about you though, and it’s weirding me out.”

At that, her mother bursts into laughter. “Katie, I’m not scheming,” she laughs. “You make it sound so sinister. I just think they both need to get their heads out of their asses and have a conversation, that’s all.”

“They’re doing therapy,” Kathleen points out. “I think that means they’re probably talking.”

“Yeah, but that’s therapy,” her mother scoffs. “It’s all serious and clinical. And while I’m sure that’s important, it’s not likely to make them realize that they still like each other.”

It’s Kathleen’s turn to scoff. “Mom, he’s told her he loves her about a dozen times at this point, I think they’re aware.”

“Yeah,” Kathy snorts. “And he’s an idiot for that. But that’s love; I’m talking about liking each other. You know, where you have a nice time in someone else’s company. They need to just chill out a bit, because it’s getting really painful to be around them and I’m done with it.”

Kathleen considers her mother, not at all used to this relaxed and blasé version of her. Clearly the dissolution of her parents’ marriage of duty has been freeing, and she’s happy to see the effects.

“That’s not a bad point,” she admits. Her mother just smirks.

“Either that or they need to just bang it out – you know, release the tension.”

Kathleen deeply regrets having taken a sip of her iced tea, because it is now making an exit through her nose. She cannot believe that her mother has just uttered the words bang it out.

Chapter Text

Olivia has been avoiding him from the moment she arrived. And while Elliot can hardly blame her, he feels bad that this is how she’s spending her vacation. He’s not sure just what Kathy thinks she’s doing with this obvious set-up, but it’s putting him on edge. Liv has very obviously only agreed to come for James’ benefit and – while he loves her all the more for that – she deserves to relax a bit too. So, once dinner is finished and everyone is busy with tidying up, he corners her alone. It’s counterintuitive, but ultimately, he has his reasons.

“Liv, can I talk to you?” She looks so panicked that it makes his heart sink, and he rushes to clarify. “I just want to-” he hesitates. “Call a truce, I guess.”

“A truce?” She asks, still wary.

“Yeah,” he nods. “Or, like, a moratorium – on serious topics.”

“Go on,” she prompts.

“You’re on vacation,” he shrugs. “There’s no need for us to talk about our issues, or my feelings, or anything like that. Let’s just- I dunno, go to the beach, make sandcastles, talk about what a dump New Jersey is – whatever it is that people do on vacation.”

She huffs out a laugh. “Talk about what a dump New Jersey is?”

“I dunno,” he shrugs, again. “I couldn’t think of a better example. All I’m saying is that you deserve to relax, and I’m not here to try and mess that up for you.”

“Alright,” Olivia nods, though she still looks wary. “I’m going to need some ground rules, though.”

“Sure,” he agrees. “What were you thinking?”

“How about, if it’s something we’ve talked about with Dr. Gallardi, it’s off limits.”

“Fair enough,” he nods.

“And you will not, under any circumstances, tell me you love me.”

Elliot huffs out a laugh. That’s more than fair. “You have a deal.”

“Alright,” she nods. “Shake on it?”

Elliot laughs again, but shakes her hand. He’s glad to see that she looks amused about it. That has to be a step in the right direction.

--

The moratorium on serious topics was a good idea, she’ll give Elliot that. Without the lingering fear that he is going to say something completely inappropriate for a beach vacation, Olivia has started to allow herself to enjoy her time off. Despite all her reservations, she is having a nice time. Elliot’s kids are good company, Kathy has been shockingly friendly to her – she doesn’t even seem to be faking it – and James is having the time of his life. She had woken up that morning – for the first time in her life – to a huge family breakfast. And despite the fact that she felt very much like an interloper, the Stablers hadn’t made her feel at all out of place. It was... unsettling, but very nice.

Even if she had been having a terrible time, though, seeing just how happy James is would have made it worth it. Because, while she has taken him on vacation before, it has always been just the two of them. And while she knows that there is nothing wrong with that, there is just something different about having so many people around. He, Logan, and Eli had camped out in the porch overnight, and all day the three of them have been running back and forth from the house to the water together. There have been a few points throughout the day that Olivia has had to blink away tears, because she has always wanted to give James this – a big family, a mass of people who love him – and she hadn’t thought it would ever really happen.

And then there’s Elliot. When she’s not constantly afraid that he’s going to say something devastating, she finds herself enjoying his company. Remembering why they’d gotten along so well in the first place. Because it hadn’t always been painful longing and sexual tension – before that, they had honestly been friends. Olivia finds herself remembering why that had been – because he’s funny, and clever, and just overall a good time to be around. Those are not words she would have always thought to ascribe to Elliot Stabler, but it’s the truth. When he’s not breaking her heart, he’s good company.

She does, still, find herself more aware of his body than she would strictly prefer, though. Because damn it if the last decade hasn’t been good to him. He had always been in startlingly good shape, but now, without the weight of the job, he seems less worn. He’s older, sure, but there’s a lightness about him that she’s never seen before, and fuck if it isn’t attractive. Olivia rues the fact that the years have not been similarly kind to her. She’s never been one to be all that self-conscious – and she still isn’t - but she’s also aware that she’s not twenty anymore. Or thirty. Or forty. And while she generally can’t be all that bothered about ageing, for some reason she is very conscious of the years that have passed when she is around Elliot. Her younger self would be howling with laughter at the fact that she is currently sat out on the beach – in hundred-degree weather and full sun – wearing a baggy button-down shirt over her bathing suit.

In her mind, Olivia rationalizes her choice of beach wear as down to the scarring that now litters her torso – and that is true – but it is also down to the fact that she feels – foolishly, shamefully – unattractive in front of Elliot. Despite the fact that, in their years as partners, he had seen her beaten, bloodied, and in varying states of undress more times than she can count, and had never batted an eye. And while she knows that, objectively, she’s in good shape and attractive enough – she's certainly never had trouble getting dates when she’s wanted them – Olivia still finds the idea of Elliot seeing her as she is now, rather than how she’d been a decade ago, to be oddly mortifying. It’s adolescent, and very unlike her, but she just can’t shake the feeling off.

Thankfully, Maureen has chosen to similarly cover up – though in her case it is because the mere suggestion of sun sends her skin peeling – and so Olivia’s self-conscious modesty does not stand out. In fact, Maureen had seemed relieved to not be the only one hiding from the sun, and Olivia hadn’t corrected the misunderstanding.

“Mo, you look like a nun!” Eli laughs, walking back from the snack bar with a popsicle. When Olivia turns to look at Maureen, she has to suppress her laughter, because the other woman does look a bit like a nun, with her long kaftan, sun bonnet, and a liberal coating of sun screen than has turned her face ghostly pale.

“Better a nun than a lobster,” Maureen shrugs, perfectly unbothered by her brother’s teasing.

“How is it that you burn so easily, and yet the rest of your family seems totally fine with just a normal amount of sunscreen?” Dave asks, chuckling at his wife.

“You laugh now,” Maureen chides. “But in ten years when you’re all leathery and I’ve aged gracefully, you won’t find this so funny.”

“Mo, it is a bit excessive.” Kathy laughs, looking over the top of her book at her eldest daughter. And damn it if Olivia isn’t just the slightest bit jealous of Kathy, who – even after having five children – still looks about the same as she ever had. For two people with such pale, Irish genes, Olivia isn’t quite sure how Elliot and Kathy both manage to look the same at fifty-something as they had at thirty-something.

“When you all have melanoma, you’ll be begging to know where I bought this bonnet,” Maureen shrugs. This time, Olivia cannot suppress her laughter.

“Olivia agrees with me,” Maureen states. “She’s dressed appropriately for the sun.” Maureen looks over at her. “Though you’re going to burn your legs if you’re not careful.” She points out.

This draws laughter from the rest of the Stablers – all of whom are apparently used to Maureen’s absolute refusal to risk a sunburn – though it also pulls the attention onto Olivia.

“I don’t really burn,” she shrugs. “But, you know, better safe than sorry.”

“What do you mean, you don’t burn?” Maureen asks. “Everyone burns.”

“I don’t.” Paula pipes up, smirking. By the look on Maureen’s face, Olivia can tell that this is a conversation they have had before. In fact, she’s quite sure that everyone likes to bug the palest Stabler about this.

“You can insist all you like that “Puerto Ricans don’t burn,” but I assure you that they do.” Maureen rebuts, with air quotes. “No matter how dark someone’s skin is, it can still burn – you just won’t see it.”

Paula just laughs, and Liz gives them both an amused eye roll.

“I will go to my grave insisting that Puerto Ricans don’t burn, Maureen,” Paula chuckles. “Olivia, back me up on this.”

“Oh,” Olivia says, startled. “I really have no idea.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Paula cringes. “I shouldn’t have assumed. What is your background?”

Olivia freezes, momentarily. Because that’s not a question that she’s got any good answer for, and she hadn’t expected it. Christ, but she needs to say something, before it gets awkward – Paula obviously had no idea this would be such a loaded question. For most people, it wouldn’t be.

“Not totally sure,” Olivia shrugs. “I’m guessing miscellaneous European though.”

There is a brief, awkward silence, before Kathleen speaks. “Yeah, well James is lucky that he seems to have gotten your ‘miscellaneous European’ instead of Dad’s pale Irish.”

“Hey,” Elliot interjects, indignant. “I’m not that pale. I’m sure Maureen gets it from your mother.”

“Oh please,” Kathy snorts. “You peeled for two weeks when you came back from Kuwait. I’m surprised you didn’t get a medical discharge from the Corps; you were so pitiful.”

Elliot scowls, but has no retort, and the group’s laughter is now very much directed at him.

--

From the moment Eli had brought up the Jet Skis, Olivia knew she had a problem on her hands. The look on James’ face now all but confirms her fears on the matter – he wants to go out on them too, desperately. And as much as she doesn’t want to crush her son’s hopes about this, she also has no intention whatsoever of taking James out on a Jet Ski. It’s not even that they’re unsafe – though she does think that they’re unsafe – but Olivia knows that she will have to take her over-shirt off if she is going in or near the water. And that’s just not going to happen.

James has turned on his most effective puppy dog eyes though, and she feels especially bad that she’s about to disappoint him on this. Because, as much as he could – in theory – just go with one of the other adults, she knows that he is not comfortable enough with any of them – except perhaps Elliot – to do so. And Elliot will almost definitely be taking Eli, the ringleader of the whole Jet Ski idea.

“No,” Olivia shakes her head, before James can even ask the question.

Mom,” he whines, dragging the word out. “Please? Logan and Eli are going.”

“You need a grown-up,” she tells him. “And I’m definitely not getting on one of those death traps.”

“I can take him,” Elliot offers, looking over at her from his own towel. “Eli can go with Rich – he didn’t seem thrilled about being dragged along with his dad anyways.”

Olivia is working on her rebuttal when Richard pipes up. “Dad, I’ve been drinking, I can’t take Eli.”

“Well somebody’s taking Eli!” Eli himself calls from where he is standing with Logan and Dave – both of whom are practically vibrating with excitement over the Jet Skis.

“What,” Kathleen butts in, “is this reserved for the guys or something? I’ll take Eli.”

“Yes!” Eli pumps his fist, drawing laughter from the group.

Elliot and James are both looking at her now in a way that Olivia knows she will not be able to say no to, and she sighs. “Fine, but if anything happens to him, Elliot, you owe me a kid.”

The moment it has left her mouth, Olivia knows exactly how it sounds, and she can feel her face heat. She hopes very much that it will just look as if she’s been in the sun too long, but when Kathy and Maureen burst into laughter behind her, she knows that she is well and truly blushing.

“That’s optimistic of you Liv,” Elliot smirks. “But I think we’re maybe a bit too old for that.”

“That is not what I meant, and you know it,” she grits out, scowling. Jesus, she wishes the sand would swallow her right about now. “Just make sure he doesn’t fall off, would you?”

Elliot gives her a goofy little salute and takes off down the sand with James, who is still positively beaming. Her son’s happiness is the only thing that stops Olivia from screaming into her towel – well that, and the presence of so many other people.

--

When everyone has come back from Jet Skiing, Olivia notices that Elliot has the biggest, stupidest grin on his face. At first, she assumes that it’s Jet Ski related – he really can be a big kid sometimes – but when an hour has passed, and it still hasn’t gone away, she starts to feel vaguely nervous. Because what the hell can have put such a huge and lasting smile on Elliot’s face? She’s never seen him do this before, and it’s weird.

“Who put a quarter in you?” She asks, when he drops down on the towel next to hers, beer in hand.

“What do you mean?” He replies, still with that goofy grin.

“Your face,” she says. “It’s doing a weird thing.”

Elliot barks out a laugh, drawing looks from a few of his kids. “What? Smiling?”

“Yeah,” she nods. “It’s freaking me out, El.”

He doesn’t reply, just continues to smile at her, and Olivia finds she has to look away from him.

“James said something to me.” He finally tells her. And Olivia’s stomach drops. Because what the fuck has James said to make Elliot smile like this? Surely it hadn’t had anything to do with her? She tries to keep a lid on her feelings in front of James, but the kid is observant, and she’s sure that he picks up on more than she’d care for.

“Oh?” She asks, tentative.

Elliot nods. “I’m trying not to make a big deal of it,” he says. “But I guess I’m not doing a great job, huh?”

“No, you’re not.” She tells him. “And make a big deal of what, exactly? What did James say to you?”

Elliot takes a quick look around them – probably looking to see if James is in ear shot, Olivia realizes – before he speaks. “He called me Dad.” Elliot beams. And oh. Between the look of absolute joy on Elliot’s face, and the implications of what he has just said, Olivia feels like all the air has been stolen from her lungs.

“That’s wonderful, El.” She manages, though she knows her voice isn’t entirely steady. Because this feels like a big step – and it’s one that she’s not sure she’s ready for. In fact, she’s quite sure that she’s not.

Chapter Text

Elliot doesn’t think that he has ever been so happy. Hell, if you’d asked him at any point in the last decade, he would have scoffed at the very idea that such happiness was possible. It’s not like he had been miserable, exactly, but whatever happiness he’d had before seems just so fucking narrow and pale compared to the day he is having now.

It’s all simple things, too. A day at the beach with all his kids, Kathy teasing him without the biting undercurrent that had characterized much of their marriage, the sight of Liv in a ball cap and an old shirt that he’s half convinced was his at some point. It had already been one of the best days he can ever remember having, and then James had called him Dad for the first time – and Elliot knows that he will never forget today.

He doesn’t even think it had been a conscious thing, really. Every time that James has addressed him since, he has called him Elliot again, but in the moment – when he had been spinning their Jet Ski to try and splash Dave and Logan, while James clung to his life jacket and shrieked with laughter – he'd called him Dad, and Elliot had very nearly pitched them both forward into the water, he’d been so surprised. Honestly, he’s not even sure that James had noticed he’d done it, and the thought that it had been an instinctual thing puts such a stupid grin on Elliot’s face that all his kids – and Liv – point out that he’s being weird.

And then there’s Liv. Jesus, he’s trying not to be pervy, but there have been at least half a dozen times – after lunch alone – that he’s had to flip onto his stomach to avoid making an absolute spectacle of himself. He’s quite sure that he’s burned his back, but he refuses to be the gross old man visibly pitching a tent at a public beach. Not to mention that he is surrounded by all his children, and that Liv herself would hardly appreciate it. Honestly, Elliot’s glad that she’s kept that stupid shirt on, because he really doesn’t know what he’d do if he could see any more of her skin. He’s a grown man – a grandfather for God’s sakes – but even just the sight of her legs – tan, and long, and bare – has made him feel all of fifteen years old again. It’s vaguely embarrassing, and he hopes desperately that no one else has noticed his preoccupation, but he’s really not all that surprised. Because he has always been so insanely attracted to her, and now that he doesn’t have his marriage to hide behind, the feeling seems to have intensified ten-fold.

The only thing that really helps him keep himself in check is the knowledge that Liv does not need – or want – him staring at her. He has agreed to keep things light, to keep his feelings to himself, and he knows that leering probably crosses that line. He reminds himself of this every time he feels his eyes lingering just a bit too long.

“Elliot, you’re staring.” Apparently, he is not being nearly as subtle as he’d thought, though, because Kathy has noticed without even looking up from her book.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” he says. She snorts and levels a disbelieving look at him.

“Oh, please,” she laughs. “I’ve seen that look enough from you to know exactly what’s happening here.”

“What look is this?” He asks. Because honestly, he’d thought he was doing a good job hiding it. Just how obvious has he been?

“I’ve always called it your “trying not to eye-fuck Olivia” look.” She shrugs, flipping the page of her book.

His mouth drops open. “You’ve always called it that? Just how long have I been doing this?”

“Give or take twenty years,” she shrugs, again. “I figured you knew.”

Elliot buries his face in his towel while Kathy laughs. He’d honestly thought he’d been subtler.

--

When the sun goes down and the temperature drops, Logan and Eli badger Elliot about a fire so persistently that he finally agrees to build one – even agrees that they will all eat their dinner out by the fire. James is far less vocal about it, but Elliot can tell that he, too, is pleased with the decision. Frankly, Elliot had been planning to make a fire anyways, but this way the kids feel as if they’ve had some sort of victory, and he hopes that this will translate into less badgering to let them camp out on the beach tonight. Because that’s just not going to happen.

Once the fire is built and everyone has settled in with their food, Elliot realizes that Liv isn’t anywhere to be seen. He hasn’t seen her for a good half-hour at this point, and – while he knows that she’s probably fine, and that he shouldn’t bother her – he goes looking for her anyways.

Ultimately, he finds her on the second floor, looking out the window in the back sunroom. She has put on a pair of shorts, but otherwise she is still dressed as she had been at the beach, minus the ball-cap. She is silhouetted in the last of the evening light, and he wants so badly to pull her into his arms, but he knows that would be unwelcome, and instead he clears his throat, intent on not startling her.

“Hey,” he says, quietly. She startles a bit despite his efforts, and Elliot momentarily feels bad, but then she shoots him a small smile.

“Hey,” she nods, looking back out the window.

“Food’s ready.” He tells her.

“Thanks,” she nods again, still turned away from him. He knows that he should leave her alone – that she likely just needs a moment to herself, away from everyone – but something seems off, and he approaches her instead, leaning up against the edge of the wall where it meets the window pane.

“You good, Liv?”

She turns to look at him, and the look on her face is one that he can’t decipher. Years ago, he had known all her looks – knew exactly how to react to any given situation with her – but time has erased some of that familiarity, and now Elliot is puzzled. Though the vaguely glassy look in her eyes doesn’t bode especially well.

“It’s stupid,” she says. Frankly, Elliot is just relieved that he hasn’t been blown off with an “I’m fine.”

“You hear half the shit that comes out of my mouth, right?”

She gives him a watery laugh and turns to face him. “Only half?” She jokes, though her voice is weak.

“What’s wrong?” He asks, just barely stopping himself from reaching for her.

“I’ve never been on a family vacation before,” she shrugs. “It’s nice, but it’s-” she pauses. “A lot.”

Completely unable to stop himself, Elliot reaches out and slings his arm around her shoulders, pulling her into his side. It’s friendly – an innocent enough gesture that she would have allowed even when they’d been partners – but he still lets out a little sigh of relief when she doesn’t push him away. She just sounded so sad, and there was no way he could do nothing.

“It is a lot,” he nods. “And I’m sorry if Kathy or Maureen harangued you into this weekend.”

She gives him a weak laugh, and he pretends not to notice that she is brushing tears from her face.

“Everyone’s really glad you’re here though, Liv,” he tells her. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

“I’m glad I came,” she admits. “I’ve never seen James so happy.”

Elliot smiles, because she’s right, James has had a smile on his face whenever he’s seen him. “Are you happy?” He asks. It’s maybe too personal a question – probably breaks their moratorium on serious topics – but he’s desperately curious.

“I’m-” she pauses. “Getting there.”

He nods. Realistically, that’s probably the best that he’ll get from her on this, but it’s good enough for now.

“Liv?”

“Yeah?”

“Is that shirt mine?”

Obviously surprised by the abrupt change in topic, she turns to face him, pulling away from him a bit and letting his arm drop. “It absolutely is not.” She laughs, startled. “Elliot, why the hell would I have one of your shirts? Where would I even have gotten it?”

“I dunno,” he shrugs. “But I swear that’s mine. Let me see.” He steps behind her, keen on checking out the tag, but she ducks away from his grasp, laughing.

“You’ve lost your mind,” she laughs. “I have no idea where I got this shirt, but I can guarantee that it’s not yours.”

“Is there a little bullseye drawn on the label?” He asks. He used to mark the shirts that he kept at the office, after Munch picked up the habit of just wearing whatever he found around the bullpen, during his second or third divorce.

Olivia narrows her eyes at him. “How the hell did you know that?”

“That’s mine,” he laughs. “It’s the spare shirt I used to keep at work.”

“Absolutely not,” she declares, peeling the shirt off to inspect the label. And Jesus, suddenly he regrets asking, because she’s standing there in just her shorts and bathing suit top and he absolutely should not be staring at her.

“Liv,” he grits out. But she doesn’t pay him any mind, because she is now inspecting the label of the shirt.

“Jesus Christ,” she huffs. “Of course I’ve been wearing your fucking work shirt the last ten years. Isn't that just vintage Benson.”

“Liv,” he grits out again. “Put that back on.”

She finally looks back at him, clearly confused. But then she must misread the look on his face, because her expression hardens and she juts her chin out.

“What,” she spits. “Can’t stand to look at me?”

“You can’t be serious,” he chokes out, voice strangled. Because fuck all he wants to do is look at her. Touch her. The only thing keeping any shred of restraint alive in him is that fact that she clearly doesn’t want that.

She is pulling the shirt back on though, expression hard, and refusing to meet his eyes. And what the actual fuck? Because he gets why she wouldn’t want him leering at her, but the look on her face is something else entirely. She looks almost embarrassed. And that just doesn’t add up. In the twenty some years he has known her, he has seen Liv in every imaginable state of undress – including barely a month ago when she’d been stabbed – and she has never been anything even approaching self-conscious. But then, he remembers her absolute insistence that he not look at her – not touch her – when she’d had her stitches, and while – at the time – he'd put it down to her being angry with him and working to re-establish a boundary, he now realizes that may not have been the whole story.

“Liv, wait.” He grabs her by the arm before she can make her escape, and he’s genuinely shocked to see that there are tears on her face. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Elliot, drop it.” Her voice is wavering and she’s still not meeting his eyes, instead focusing on a spot somewhere off to his left.

“No,” he says. “I won’t drop it. What’s going on?”

She blows out a hard breath, and finally looks up at him. And Jesus, she looks furious. Maybe he should have just dropped it.

“You want to know what’s going on?” She spits. “Fine. Here, this is what’s going on.” And then she’s taking off the shirt again, and Elliot feels like he’s got whiplash – he really has no idea what the fuck’s happening. But then she pulls down the neckline of her bathing suit and his heart sinks into his stomach. This is about William Lewis. Fuck. Of course she would feel self-conscious. God, he’s such an idiot.

“Liv-” he starts, intent on reassuring her, but she interrupts him.

“No, Elliot,” she grinds out. “You wanted to look? Look.”

And so he does. He figures that this may be the one time he ever has her permission to basically stare at her chest; and while he wishes more than anything that it wasn’t because of the trauma that she obviously still carries, he’s not going to waste the chance to look at her. What he notices first, before any of her scars even enter his field of vision, is that the skin on her chest is a few shades lighter than her face and arms. He supposes that makes sense – she had been wearing that shirt all day in the sun. The scar from her stabbing is still red and raised – lightly stabbed his ass – and he can’t help lifting his hand to run his thumb along it. He notices the way her breath hitches, but doesn’t lower his hand. The older scars that litter her chest are lighter, less angry, and he thinks that – from a distance – he wouldn’t even notice they were there. They don’t form any particular pattern, but he can tell what caused each one – the ridges of her keys still prominent, even after the wounds have healed. He slides his thumb down from the stab wound and across the ridges of key marks and cigarette butts, stopping only when his hand hits the edge of her bathing suit. There is a particularly nasty looking scar that disappears under the material, and he hooks a finger under the lycra, moving it just enough to expose what he now realizes is the mark of a coat hanger, long and slim, but still raised after the years that have passed.

Before he can think better of it, Elliot dips his head and presses a kiss to the raised mark, and he can feel the way that Liv’s heart is thundering in her chest. He drags his lips along the length of the scar and, just as it occurs to him that he should probably stop, he feels her hand come up to rest at the base of his skull. Not wanting to push his luck too much more, he lets go of the edge of her bathing suit, letting it slide back over the scar, and curls his arm around her instead, resting his hand at the small of her back. He straightens up, lifting his head until he is again at eye level with her.

“That what the shirt’s about?” He asks, voice hoarse. “The scars?”

She just nods, but she’s looking at him now, at least. He still can’t decipher the look on her face. He wonders if she’d let him kiss her.

He must be quiet too long though, because she tilts her head at him. “El?” He’s never been as good at hiding his feelings as he might like, and she has called him on it every time he has looked at her like this lately. Every time, he has changed the subject, intent on not making her uncomfortable. But he doesn’t want to do that this time – he needs her to know that her scars change absolutely nothing for him.

“I promised I wouldn’t tell you I love you again.” He says, quietly. “I need you to tell me whether or not to keep that promise, Liv, because I’m hanging on by a thread here.”

“Don’t.” She whispers, and he raises an eyebrow, because that could go either way. “Don’t keep the promise.” She clarifies.

He had intended just to tell her again how much he loves her, but the way that she is looking at him snaps the last of his already thin restraint, and before he even fully realizes what he’s doing, Elliot has pressed his lips to hers, sliding his free hand up to rest at the back of her neck. She presses forward into him immediately, and fuck how has he gone a decade without kissing her. She is still warm from being in the sun all day, and her arms snake up and around his shoulders, her nails scraping at the nape of his neck, and Elliot can’t help the groan that escapes him. He has just swept his tongue into her mouth, pressing her up against the picture window, when a startled voice from the doorway interrupts, like a bucket of ice water.

“Jesus! Fuck, sorry!”

Liv immediately wrenches herself away from him, flushed, with her hand pressed over her mouth, and Elliot has to remind himself that he loves his daughter – because in that moment, he thinks he could strangle her.

Chapter Text

Later – when she is thinking more clearly – Olivia knows that she will be grateful that Liz had interrupted them. Will be relieved that things were brought to a screeching halt before Elliot was fucking her up against what she now realizes is a very large window. Because – if she’s honest with herself – that's where things had been heading, and she had been fully on board.

In the moment. She had been fully on board in the moment.

With a minute to settle down and catch her breath, though, she knows that it’s best that they’ve stopped. Beyond the obvious – that anyone could easily walk in at any time – she also knows that doing this with Elliot is very much a bad idea. No matter how much she wants to just immediately pick up where they’d been interrupted, Olivia knows that that is not the responsible, adult choice here. What she wants is almost never the responsible, adult choice.

“El,” she rasps out, clutching at the front of her shirt, trying to right it. “We can’t- We shouldn’t- That was-” She’s flailing and stuttering, and is almost relieved when he interrupts her.

Don’t say it was a mistake.” The way he’s looking at her is dark, and intense, and Olivia feels hot all over. God, she has to get into a more populated area. She cannot be alone with him right now, not if she’s going to have any chance at all of keeping her clothes on.

“It was-” she hesitates. “An emotional reaction. My fault, really. I misunderstood. Overreacted.”

“No,” he all but growls. “That wasn’t anybody’s fault. That was ten years coming, Liv. Hell, twenty-three years, if you want to split hairs with me.”

“El, please, let’s not do this now.” She’s aware that she’s begging, but really, she can’t do this right now. At the very least, somebody is bound to come looking for them – she can’t imagine that Liz has been all that subtle about how she’d found them.

He yields, though. She can see the exact moment that he gives in to her, and she deflates with relief. “Fine,” he nods. “But we will talk about this.”

Olivia nods, even though she is already thinking of ways to weasel out of that particular conversation. Still, even as she is psyching herself up to go back downstairs and face what is surely going to be a very awkward dinner, she can’t help the way that her eyes drift to his mouth. She has the sinking feeling that they have broken some kind of seal – that now that they both know just how good things can be between them, they won’t be able to restrain themselves any longer. She isn’t sure if the thought horrifies or arouses her.

--

When she’d finally put herself together enough to join everyone for dinner, Elliot had not come with her. She isn’t entirely sure where he’s gone, but Olivia resolves not to think about it. Not to think about the fact that they could be very much alone in a house full of bedrooms with doors that lock. She tries – with limited success – to shake herself out of those thoughts as she makes herself a plate.

“Er, hey, Olivia,” Liz approaches her, clearly uncomfortable. “I just wanted to apologize again for... before.”

Trying to smother her embarrassment at the fact that Elliot’s daughter had walked in on them, Olivia just continues piling salad onto her plate.

“Don’t worry about it, Liz, really,” she shakes her head. “It’s for the best, honestly. Well,” she stutters, “maybe not for you, I guess. Sorry about that, by the way. Can’t imagine that was anything you needed to see.”

To Olivia’s genuine surprise, Liz just bursts into laughter at her awkward stammering.

“Oh please,” she waves, “you guys were still fully dressed – it's all good.”

Olivia feels her face flame again. Because clearly they are both aware that – had Liz walked in any later – she and Elliot would not still have been fully dressed. God, how mortifying.

“And I haven’t told anyone, just so you know.” Liz tells her. “It’s not my place, and you just know that Mo and Mom would be unbearable about it.”

Olivia groans, burying her face in her free hand. “I appreciate that, Liz. Really. It’s not-” she huffs out a breath. “We’re not, you know, involved or anything. It was just a lapse in judgement.”

When she looks up, she finds that Liz is observing her in an unsettling kind of way. One that reminds Olivia far too much of the woman’s father. “I don’t think that’s true, Olivia.” Liz says. “And I don’t think that you do either.”

“I-” she tries, but has no good response. She studies the breadsticks instead.

“Look,” Liz sighs. “I’m really not trying to meddle – that’s more Maureen’s thing – but I do know something about trying to avoid feelings you don’t think you should have. And you’ve got all the signs, Olivia.”

Olivia raises an eyebrow, surprised that Liz has opened this particular conversational door. She’d been under the impression that this was a subject that went very much unacknowledged.

“You sure you want to have this conversation?” She asks, giving the younger woman an out if she wants it.

“Not really,” Liz shrugs. “But I figure you and I probably have more in common on this than you’d think.”

Observing Elliot’s youngest daughter, Olivia thinks that – in a roundabout sort of way – Liz might be right. Out of all Elliot’s kids, Liz had always been the most closed off, the least likely to engage with her emotions in any way that Olivia had ever noticed. When Richard had acted out or thrown adolescent tantrums, Liz had always been in the background rolling her eyes. She – like Olivia – had always seemed to prefer to deal with facts, rather than feelings. Perhaps, Olivia thinks now, the two of them had just been repressing feelings they didn’t want to admit to having the whole time.

“Yeah,” Olivia nods, finally. “You’re probably right. How long have you two been together, by the way?” Her change of topic is anything but subtle, but Olivia desperately wants to be talking about something – anything – besides the embarrassing reality of the last hour.

“Five years in December,” Liz smirks, obviously noticing the clumsy nonsequitur.

Olivia’s eyebrows raise. “Wow,” she says. “And do you-” she pauses, considering her words. “Do you think that your family still doesn’t know?”

“Oh, no,” Liz laughs. “They absolutely know. We’ve done a terrible job of hiding anything. We meant to tell them – officially – years ago, but then Paula’s parents reacted badly, and I guess we got cold feet about it. Now so much time has passed that we’ve just sort of fallen into this holding pattern. Sound familiar?” She smirks.

“It does not,” Olivia tries. Liz only laughs again.

“Oh come on,” she prods. “We’re just roommates sounds a whole lot like we’re just partners, doesn’t it?”

Unable to come up with any suitable response, Olivia settles for chucking a bread stick at Liz. Like a mature adult.

--

Clearly, Liz had made good on her word not to mention the scene she’d walked in on to anyone, because Olivia spends a perfectly average dinner around the fire with the Stablers. Elliot doesn’t rejoin them, but she chooses to see that as a blessing, because she is still fixating on their kiss, and she’s quite sure that she’d give everything away if he were anywhere in the vicinity. She can still feel the ghost of his lips on her skin, and the last thing that she needs is to be horny and pining in front of all his kids – in front of James. The thought is horrifying and serves as an effective bucket of ice water.

James, however, doesn’t notice that anything at all is off with her. He is completely engrossed in a conversation with Paula, and Olivia has to do a double-take at the sight; because – of everyone there – she is the one that he knows the least, and James looks totally comfortable. She’ll have to ask Paula what her trick is later, because she has spent almost the last nine years trying to figure out how to get James comfortable around new people.

“She’s good with kids,” Kathleen says, dropping into the chair beside Olivia.

“Huh?” Olivia could kick herself for the ineloquent response, but her mouth is full of salad and she hadn’t noticed Kathleen approaching.

“Paula,” Kathleen clarifies. “She sticks her foot in her mouth a lot with adults, but she’s great with kids.”

“I’m impressed, honestly,” Olivia smiles. “The fact that he hasn’t attached himself to me all weekend is unprecedented. I love him to pieces, but at some point he’s got to start talking to new people.”

Kathleen laughs, picking the olives out of her own salad. “I think having Logan around helps. The kid never shuts up, and after a while it’s got to rub off a bit, right?”

“Whatever it is, I’m not going to mess with it.” Olivia shrugs. “I like her though, Paula.”

“Yeah,” Kathleen nods. “She’s cool. Definitely a step up from Liz’s last boyfriend.” She pauses, appearing to think about something. “Only boyfriend, actually – as far as I know.”

Olivia raises an eyebrow. While Liz had openly admitted that she knew that the rest of the family knew about her and Paula, Olivia still feels a bit odd talking about it. She has no idea where the boundaries are here, and doesn’t want to overstep. Seeming to sense her discomfort about it, Kathleen changes the topic.

“Dad’s in the rec room doing stress push-ups; you have any idea what that’s about?”

Suddenly, all Olivia wants to do is examine the intricacies of Liz and Paula’s relationship. She hopes very much that the darkness has obscured the blush that she knows has risen up her face.

“There’s a rec room?” Is what she says in lieu of a real answer, and Kathleen just laughs. Olivia wonders when exactly the balance of power here shifted – she remembers when Elliot’s kids were just children, and now they’re asking her uncomfortable questions about her personal life left right and center.

--

After dinner, everyone settles in to watch a movie – not that Olivia pays it any attention. She has seen this particular Transformers more times that any grown adult ought to have, and she’s perfectly happy to ignore it and let her thoughts wander. Well, ‘perfectly happy’ is perhaps a stretch. It would be more accurate to say that she is unable to stop her thoughts from wandering, and she’s glad that there’s a movie on as a distraction so that the others are less likely to notice how completely she is not paying attention.

Elliot has finally rejoined the group, and while she’s glad that he’s not still off doing stress push-ups – or God knows what else – she is now also completely unable to tear her thoughts away from their interrupted kiss. Or, rather, where their interrupted kiss had been going. She considers that maybe it’s just been too long since she’s been with anyone – maybe she just needs to get laid – but the thought of anyone other than Elliot seems off-putting, and she’s not even going to think about the implications of that at the moment. Maybe she just needs to invest in a high-quality vibrator. Yeah, she thinks, that seems like a much smarter plan.

But then Elliot stretches himself across the table to reach his drink, and Olivia knows that she could find the most satisfying vibrator on the face of the earth, but she’d still be thinking about him the whole time she used it. And damn it if that isn’t the whole problem. Because she should still be mad at him – she is still mad at him, though the intensity of the feeling has dropped considerably. Apparently, though, her lingering anger has decided to take a back seat to her now wildly overactive libido.

She knows, now, that she will eventually forgive him. Things will never be perfect, and the years that he has been gone will always hurt, but Olivia can feel herself moving closer to forgiveness every day. And maybe that is what has spurred this renewed need to just have him – the knowledge that he is keeping his word, and that she will ultimately forgive him. Or maybe it’s just that she has always wanted him, and every reason that she couldn’t have him is quickly melting away. Because now he is divorced, they are no longer partners, and even his ex-wife seems to be pushing for them to be together. Seriously, when had that happened?

But she still has her lingering doubts about his feelings. He seems sincere – he is sincere – but she cannot allow herself to fall so hard for him again only for him to discover that the reality of her is not what he’d thought. She has to draw a hard line there, because she knows that it would destroy her. But, she supposes, that’s not to say that they couldn’t just fall into bed together. Would it be her best thought-out plan? No. But it is obviously something that they both want. And really, it might be good to just get it out of their systems – to take some of the overwrought fantasy out of the equation. Maybe, once they’ve cut some of the longstanding tension, things will look a bit clearer between them. And, she thinks, if Elliot is going to fall out of love with the idea of her, she might as well allow herself to give in to the temptation – just this one time. Once he has gotten over it, then she’ll regather her dignity and shell out for the vibrator.

Chapter Text

Elliot isn’t sure exactly how, but he makes it through the entirety of two Transformers movies without letting on just how fucking restless he is. If he had his way, he and Liv would have disappeared off to a room with a lock together and skipped dinner entirely. Well, he had skipped dinner, but he’d used the time to take a very cold shower. He would have much rather talked things through with Liv and then locked them both in one of their bedrooms until early the next morning. That’s probably far too presumptuous, but – given the option – it would have been his strong preference.

More realistically, he knows that they need to talk about this new development. He’d been under the impression that she wanted him to back off on anything romantic – and she might still, he knows – but the way she had responded when he’d kissed her makes Elliot wonder. Because it had been immediate and intense. And she had all but asked him to tell her he loved her beforehand. Now, maybe some of that had been down to the intensity of the moment, but he knows that they still need to talk about it. Even though he has tried not to, he has already gotten his stupid hopes up about what this might mean. That Liv might be open to the idea of them, at least a bit. And, as much as he absolutely wants to just drag her off to bed, he wants them more – wants so much more than just sex with her.

But, God, he really wants sex with her, too. He’s glad for the movie, because it distracts him just enough that he’s not fully picturing bending Olivia over any available surface.

When the movie ends, and everyone has gone off to bed, Elliot realizes that he won’t be able to wait to talk to Olivia. He’s already ready to jump out of his own skin from impatience, and the series of push-ups he’d forced himself through to calm down had done very little to help. If nothing else, he doesn’t want to spend the remainder of the trip on edge and snapping at everyone. Best to just rip the bandage off. The worst that can happen is that Olivia will either refuse to talk to him, or she’ll double down on her claim that it was a mistake. Either way, at least he’ll know.

He is surprised then, when he steps out of his room, intent on going looking for her, that Olivia is at his door, hand raised to knock. They both startle, clearly not having expected to suddenly be face-to-face.

“Hey,” he says. “I was just going to come look for you.”

She has an odd look on her face, and Elliot braces himself for bad news, but then she’s surged forward, and she’s kissing him, and his mind goes blank.

He’s not sure if he’d momentarily blacked out from shock or what, but the next thing that Elliot knows, he has Olivia pressed up against the open door, slamming it back into the wall. They’ve probably damaged the drywall, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Her arms are looped around his neck, and he’s got her hips in a death grip, and Jesus, he can’t breathe, but he doesn’t want to stop kissing her. He never wants to stop kissing her.

They do, eventually, have to break for air though, and he slides his arms around her, pulling her tight against him and resting his forehead against hers. He wants to remember this moment; the way she is breathing hard against him, the feeling of her fingers dragging along the back of his neck, the fact that she smells like sunscreen, and campfire, and summer. It’s perfect.

“El,” she gasps. “This is just- Just for tonight.”

He freezes, stomach dropping, and it feels like someone has backed into him with their car. “What?” He asks, voice rough. She is still pressed up against him – and the door – and neither of them make a move to separate, but Elliot feels as if they are suddenly very far apart.

“I don’t want you to think this is more than it is,” she says, still breathing hard.

“More than it is? Liv, I can’t do just one night with you. Because whatever this is,” he gestures between them, backing up from her just a bit. “It’s more than a one-night thing.”

The look on her face is so pained, and Elliot really wishes that he could get a better read on her.

“What’s going on?” He asks. Because clearly there is something at play here that he’s not privy to.

She sighs, pressing her eyes shut and dropping her forehead onto his shoulder before she speaks. “Elliot, you need to get this out of your system. And honestly, I probably do too.”

What the actual fuck. Every time she has said the words ‘get this out of your system’ he has felt like throttling something. The fact that she keeps saying it, though, suggests that she may actually think that. He’d thought it had been a throwaway comment, but when he looks back, he feels like such a fucking idiot that he could cry. Olivia honestly believes that she is something he needs to ‘get out of his system’ - believes that he is somehow capable of that.

“Liv, no.” He whispers, tightening his grip on her, afraid that she might just bolt. “I don’t know where you got that idea – that's probably on me – but you need to understand that ‘getting this out of my system’ isn’t even a possibility. I’m in love with you – that's not going away.”

“You keep saying that,” she mumbles, into his shoulder. “But Elliot, it’s been ten years. At this point you’re in love with the idea of me – of who I was. I’m not the same person as I was a decade ago, and neither are you.”

Oh.

“Liv, look at me.” She tilts her head up to meet his eyes, and the uncertainty that he sees on her face kills him a bit. “Go out with me.”

“What?” She all but yelps, clearly startled.

“Look, I can try to convince you about my feelings until I’m blue in the face, but I know you, and I know you won’t just take my word for it. So go out with me – let's get to know each other again.”

“Elliot-” she starts, but trails off, clearly wary.

“You think I don’t really know you anymore, or that I only love the idea of you, or whatever. And I know that the second bit’s bullshit, but if you need proof, then go out with me – let me prove it. I already know that I’ll love you all the same, but you might just decide that you can’t stand me anymore, so really, I’m the only one with anything to lose.”

She looks so shocked – so incredulous – that Elliot almost wants to laugh. If it didn’t feel like his entire future hinged on her answer, he thinks that he might.

“So, what?” she asks. “You want us to date?”

“Well, yeah.” He shrugs. “You’re right, it has been ten years. And while that doesn’t change how I feel about you, we are both different now. You’re worried that I won’t love who you are now, and while I don’t agree with you on that, I do see where you’re coming from. Let me prove you wrong.”

He’s almost pleased that he’s managed to render Olivia speechless.

“We can’t date, Elliot,” she scoffs, finally.

“Why not?”

“Well,” she’s clearly fumbling for a suitable response, and he realizes that he may actually convince her. “What about James?”

“Well, I’d hardly intended to bring him with us.”

Olivia rolls her eyes, but she still hasn’t pulled away from him, so Elliot likes his chances here. “Obviously not,” she says. “My point is that it wouldn’t be fair to him if we tried something and it went badly.”

“Ok,” Elliot nods. That’s fair enough. “But I’ve got to ask, Liv, do you think things between us are going well right now?”

She shrugs, not meeting his eyes again. “I mean, they’ve been worse.”

“Shining praise.” He laughs. “Look, Liv,” he continues. “If you’re not into it, or not ready, that’s fine - I won’t push. But I think that you want this just as much as I do.” Elliot’s not sure on that, but he’s putting all his chips on the table, and it doesn’t feel like the moment to hold back. “We can do this at whatever speed you want to, Liv. If you need to go slow, we’ll go slow. But I think we owe it to ourselves to at least give it a try – don't you?”

He hopes, more than anything, that he’s swayed her at least a little. But she still has that unreadable expression on her face, and it’s making him increasingly nervous. Maybe he’s pushing too hard. He’s promised not to push – more times than he can count now – but he hasn’t really been keeping his word. Elliot knows, better than anyone probably realizes, that he’s got a tendency to shoot himself in the foot when it comes to Liv. He always goes in with the best of intentions, but then his feelings take over and he fucks it all up, one way or another.

“If I say yes,” Olivia starts, and his heart jumps into his throat. “Will you stop talking and fuck me already?”

Elliot chokes on his own saliva, because dear God he can’t count the number of times he’s fantasized about her saying that. It has to be well into the thousands. Which makes what he knows he has to do even harder.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he chokes out, “but I think we should wait.”

Olivia’s eyebrows fly into her hairline, and Elliot wants to take it all back, but he stands firm.

“Liv, I want to. I’m sure you can tell how much I want to.” He presses himself into her so that she cannot possibly misunderstand him. “But when I do, finally, fuck you already, it won’t be at my son-in-law's beach house, surrounded by half a dozen people who could interrupt at any minute, with only a few doors between us and my ex-wife – and our son.” The almost horrified look on her face suggests that she agrees with him, and he continues, dropping his head so that he is speaking very much into her ear, barely above a low whisper. “When this finally happens, we’re going to be alone. You’ll get a babysitter, we’ll have a nice dinner, and at the end of the night, I’m going to fuck you until you’re so loud that the neighbours complain.”

She groans and tightens her grip on him, and Elliot very nearly loses the last shreds of his composure, but then he can feel her nodding against him, and she’s speaking. “Alright,” she agrees, her voice throaty and deep in a way that shoots straight to his groin. “We’ll go out. But you’re going to have to let me go right now unless you want to be having a very awkward conversation with everyone over breakfast.”

Only once they have disentangled themselves and she has left is Elliot able to emerge enough from the fog of his arousal to realize that she had, in fact, agreed to go out with him – to give them a chance. The thought puts a stupid grin on his face as he heads into the en suite bathroom for his second freezing shower of the night.

Chapter Text

She tries to convince herself that she’d agreed to go out with Elliot in the hopes that he’d just give in and take her right there up against the wall. And that had definitely been a part of it – she still can’t quite believe his restraint – but Olivia knows that she’d be kidding herself if she really thought it was just about sex. Because, while sex with Elliot would be amazing – she remembers exactly how it had been the last time – the idea of just going out with him, as more than friends or partners, has put butterflies in her stomach in a way that she hasn’t experienced in years. She’s trying not to overreact, not to get her hopes up, but it’s pretty much a lost cause at this point.

As much as a part of her wants to just call the whole thing off, Olivia knows that she’s already in far deeper than she would care for. Because suddenly it is all she wants – to just be out with Elliot, with no rules, or reasons why they can’t. It’s what she has always wanted, really, and now that it is on the precipice of becoming reality, Olivia knows that – perhaps against her better judgement – she’s not going to do anything to stop it. Because Elliot isn’t married, they don’t work together, and they both very obviously want this. There are surely other reasons that she could find for why this is a bad idea – James chief among them – but she’s not going to. She’s going to be selfish, for once. She has spent years wanting him, and it has always been painful. And now, for maybe the first time ever, it isn’t painful. She doesn’t have the pit of dread and longing in her stomach that has always accompanied her thoughts of Elliot.

Now – well, now she feels a strange kind of hope. It’s a tentative thing – still a bit wary – but it’s definitely hope. She wants to just sit in a nice restaurant with Elliot and have dinner, wants him to hold her hand in the street, wants to piss off her neighbours to high hell with their inevitable lovemaking. She wants all of the things that she has never fully allowed herself to want before. And it’s scary – because there are still so many things that could go wrong – but for the moment, Olivia is choosing to ignore that. Very little about her relationship with Elliot lately has just made her happy, and so – for now – she's ignoring everything that could go wrong and just allowing herself that tentative hope.

Still, she does wonder about just how much these butterflies in her stomach are related to the fact that – not fifteen minutes previously – she had been pressed up against Elliot so tightly that it was all she could do to stop herself from fully grinding into him like a horny teenager. In the course of a recent case, Olivia had learned the term ‘post-nut clarity’ - and while she had thought at the time that it was crass and tasteless, she can’t help but wonder – still – if she and Elliot aren’t just making decisions with their libidos. Well, more her than Elliot – which is shocking in itself. Because Elliot had stopped it – insisted that they wait.

Checking to make sure that her door is locked, Olivia decides to test the theory. If she still wants to go out with Elliot once she’s taken care of the persistent ache between her legs, she’ll just let herself enjoy the butterflies.

--

When Olivia comes down for breakfast the next morning, the only other people in the kitchen are Elliot and Logan. Elliot is flipping pancakes while his grandson chatters away at him, and – when he looks up and smiles at her – Olivia feels all of sixteen years old. Because the butterflies have not gone away, despite her late-night attempt to dislodge them.

“Morning,” Elliot smiles. He is infuriatingly handsome like this, relaxed and domestic, standing in his pyjamas making breakfast. “Coffee should be ready in a few minutes.”

She just nods, not really sure how to interact with him like this. Thankfully, any awkward attempt at nonchalance from her is swiftly cut off by Logan, who is spinning on his stool.

“Morning Captain Benson!” He calls. Olivia isn’t entirely sure why Maureen’s son has started calling her ‘Captain Benson’ all of a sudden, but she figures that it’s one of those weird kid things that will taper off with time.

“Good morning, Logan,” she laughs. “Be careful, you’re going to spin yourself right off that chair.”

Elliot laughs and shakes his head. “I’ve told him that about five times so far, but if he hurls, I’ve decided that’s Maureen’s problem.”

“Oh yeah?” Olivia chuckles. “The perks of being the grandparent and not the parent?”

“Something like that.” Elliot nods. “How’d you sleep?”

Olivia hates that she can feel a blush rising up her cheeks, and she knows that there’s no way that Elliot hasn’t noticed, if his little smirk is any indication.

“Good,” she nods. “You?”

“Good.” His smile is almost wolfish, and she’s suddenly very glad for Logan’s presence. If the boy weren’t there, she would be far too tempted to push Elliot up against the counter and just let the pancakes burn. Well, she’s already tempted to do that, but she has no desire to scar Maureen’s son.

“Logan, knock that off!” Olivia lets out a small sigh of relief as Maureen herself walks into the kitchen, scolding her son and yawning.

“Grandpa’s making pancakes,” Logan informs his mother. Maureen just nods, still obviously not quite awake.

“That’s great bud, but if you fall off that chair you won’t get any. It’ll be a hospital vending machine breakfast for you.”

Logan shrugs, not seeming especially concerned. “They have chocolate chips.”

Maureen rolls her eyes and sits down on the stool next to Olivia. “Alright, fine, but just shush until I’ve had my coffee, would you?”

“Coffee’s almost ready,” Elliot repeats, smirking at Maureen.

“Oh, don’t look so smug, Dad,” she rolls her eyes. “The only reason you’re so chipper this morning is because you almost did Olivia in the hall last night.”

Olivia chokes on the piece of strawberry in her mouth, and Maureen thumps her between the shoulders, smirking now.

“You’re paying for the drywall, by the way.” She adds.

“That’s fair.” Elliot nods, pouring coffee and seeming shockingly unaffected. Olivia is mortified.

“He did not do me in the hall.” She insists, horrified.

“Well no, thank God,” Maureen laughs. “I said almost. You guys were not nearly as quiet as you think you were.”

Olivia is quite sure that she’s as red as the bowl of strawberries in front of her, and she is immensely relieved when Elliot shoos Logan out of the room to go watch TV. “Did everyone hear us?” She asks, afraid of what the answer will be.

“No,” Maureen chuckles, sipping her coffee. “I think Dave and I were the only unfortunate souls.”

“Oh God,” Olivia buries her face in her hands. Prior to this weekend, she had gone her whole adult life without being caught in the act, and now two of Elliot’s children have walked in on them on the verge of fucking. She doesn’t think she’s ever been so embarrassed, and Elliot still seems so infuriatingly unbothered.

“What will I have to give you so that you don’t go blabbing this to your mother?” Elliot asks his daughter.

“That’s a good question,” Maureen smirks. “Give me a minute to wake up a bit and I’ll get back to you.”

Elliot just nods and starts transferring the pancakes onto plates. Olivia has no idea at all how he’s so calm – if it weren’t for James, she would be fleeing back to the city immediately.

--

The final day of their vacation is uneventful. Apparently, whatever agreement Elliot has made with Maureen, it is enough for her to agree to keep her gossip to herself. Olivia doesn’t entirely want to know what he’d offered her, but she is enjoying the result nonetheless.

They spend most of their last day at the shore at the pier, and – while a day spent in the hot sun among crowds of tourists might not have been Olivia’s first choice – she does enjoy that the crowds take all the attention off of her and instead direct the focus to not losing anybody. Eli has already wandered off half-a-dozen times and – if it weren’t for Elliot and Kathy’s genuine worry for his whereabouts – Olivia would be amused. Each time, they have inevitably found him in the arcade or in one of the lines for the rickety amusement park rides that line the pier. To her immense relief, James has no such interest in either the carnival rides or wandering off on his own. He has, once again, attached himself to her side, and has refused all invitations from Logan and Eli to go on rollercoasters with them. Olivia is relieved, because, while the Jet Ski was borderline, she will not – and would never – permit her son to get on such a deathtrap. Maybe that makes her the obsessive mother, but she refuses to budge on this.

She does, however, give James twenty dollars and send him off with Richard and Kathleen to play arcade games – or buy junk food, or souvenirs, or whatever it is he wants to do with the money. She trusts Elliot’s kids not to let her son buy one of the frighteningly realistic looking BB guns hanging from the ceiling of the arcade, and she is otherwise willing to let James waste twenty dollars on whatever might catch his eye.

“Have you seen Eli?” Elliot appears beside her, looking thoroughly exasperated.

“Isn’t that him over there, playing air-hockey?” She points to the far corner, where Eli and Paula are bent over the table-top game.

Elliot lets out a breath. “Kathy, he’s fine!” He calls, shaking his head as Kathy comes walking into the arcade. She looks pissed, and Olivia can’t blame her. “He’s got to knock that off,” Elliot huffs. “I’m about ready to scream at him in front of all these people.”

“I’ll scream at him later,” Kathy rolls her eyes. “Let him have a nice day for now, we’ll scare him about the dangers of kidnapping when we get home.”

“Does he do that a lot?” Olivia asks. “Take off, I mean.”

“It’s a new habit,” Kathy says. “And not one that I care for.”

“I can shout now, if you want.” Elliot offers. Kathy just shakes her head.

“Leave him,” she says. “You embarrassing him in public isn’t going to help anything, as satisfying as it might be.”

“Kathleen says he’s having a hard time adjusting?” Olivia feels badly, as if she is partly responsible for Eli’s recent difficulties.

“He’s twelve,” Kathy shrugs. “It was going to be something. I think once school starts again, he’ll settle down a bit – he's always done better with structure.”

Olivia just nods. It makes sense, but she still feels bad about it – still feels vaguely at fault.

Kathy wanders over to the air-hockey table – likely to keep a closer eye on Eli – and Elliot leans on the counter next to her, bumping his shoulder with hers. “Not your fault.” He says. Olivia turns her head to look at him, lifting an eyebrow. “Seriously, Liv,” he continues. “He’s twelve, he’s going to be a little shit sometimes. He’s happy to be back here, just a bit pissed at me and Kathy still – that's not on you.”

“I know,” Olivia shrugs. “Logically, anyways, I know that. I just feel bad.”

“Don’t.” He replies, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world. “If anything, you’ve done him a favour.”

Olivia scoffs, doing a quick scan of the arcade, out of habit.

“I’m serious.” Elliot presses. “Kathy and I were unhappy, and he was starting to notice. Apparently the whole ‘stay together for the kids’ thing doesn’t age well,” he shrugs. “At least this way he can have his teenage rebellion closer to home, where there’s people to run to when his parents are just the worst. And Kathy and I can stand each other enough to be a team on dealing with him, too. Don’t know if that would have been the case if things had fallen apart on their own in Rome. So really, Liv, you did him a favour.”

“Don’t know how much of that is me doing him a favour,” she shakes her head, chuckling lightly. “But I see your point.”

She can feel him looking at her, and she keeps her gaze pointedly fixed on anything – and everything – else.

“You free this week?” He asks, and the abrupt change of topic is enough for her to turn and look at him.

“Eager, huh?” She teases. Elliot laughs, but he has that dark look in his eyes that makes something flip low in her stomach.

“Very.” He nods, not even bothering to deny it.

Olivia swallows hard, and directs her attention back to the arcade. If she keeps looking at him, she’s absolutely going to kiss him and blow any chance they have at discretion right out of the water.

“Alright,” she agrees. “I think I can find room for you in my busy schedule.”

Elliot just laughs again, but it is not lost on her that he has crowded further into her space and made no movement whatsoever to hide it. She can feel the hard line of his body pressed up against her side, and she is already mentally rearranging all her meetings for the next week.

Chapter Text

Once they are back in the city, the heat that – at the beach – had been welcome, begins to feel oppressive. They have been home not even an hour, and Olivia has already relaxed her long-standing ‘shirts must be worn in common areas’ rule – and James has parked himself in front of the air conditioner wearing only his shorts. Once she has put away her things, Olivia has every intention of joining him.

The call that she gets from Fin, then, as she is sorting their laundry, is exceedingly unwelcome. One of their more high-profile cases has dissolved into something of a shambles, and Olivia knows that she will not be able to avoid going in to the office. At least, she comforts herself, the precinct has central air.

Lucy, however, is out of town until the next day, and while Olivia briefly considers just bringing James with her to work, she ultimately decides against it. The idea of having her son anywhere near her job – even after all these years – still makes her deeply uncomfortable, despite the fact that she knows he could easily entertain himself in her office, away from any case related materials.

With limited child care options on such short notice, she decides to take a chance on calling Elliot. He is likely to have gotten home already, and James likes spending time with him, so it really shouldn’t be such a dilemma, but as she had driven back into the city, Olivia had started to panic just a bit at the prospect of their rapidly approaching date. Like the heat, the idea of dating Elliot had seemed appealing at the beach, but as the city began to loom around her again, her anxiety had kicked right back in. It was still something she wanted – embarrassingly so – but as they’d returned to the city, and the reality of day-to-day life, her mind had begun to bring up all the things she’d been ignoring while they’d been on vacation – all the things that could go wrong, everything that she could lose. Because – as contentious as things with Elliot had been – they were now getting along well enough that it wasn’t really affecting James, and if they were to attempt a relationship and fail, Olivia knows that their son would bear the consequences. It seems irresponsible, then, to risk it, and she finds herself wondering at the wisdom of it all. Maybe it’s best to just be vaguely miserable in service of giving James stability.

When Elliot picks up the phone, though, Olivia knows that she will go through with making the potentially irresponsible choice. Because his voice puts a warm feeling in her chest and a stupid smile on her face, and if this is how she reacts to just hearing his voice, she can’t imagine how she would be able to smother her feelings for Elliot in person. She loves her son, but this may be a sacrifice that she’s unable to make – hell, it might even be a sacrifice that’s not entirely in his best interest. After all, if she and Elliot are able to make it work, wouldn’t that ultimately provide James with more stability?

“Liv?” Apparently, she has mused on that for too long though, because Elliot has noticed her prolonged silence.

“Hey, sorry. Are you free?”

“Who’s eager now?” He teases, and she can hear the smirk in his voice. She rolls her eyes, tossing a shirt into her laundry hamper.

“I got called in to work, El. I was wondering if you’d be able to watch James.”

“Oh,” he says. “Well, while I’m disappointed this isn’t you impatient to get me into bed, I’m always happy to spend time with James. You want to bring him by here, or want me to come by your place?”

“You have AC?” She asks, ignoring his teasing about her impatience. She doesn’t want to let on just how impatient she actually is to get him into bed, but she has the feeling that he knows – she'd hardly been subtle the other night.

“Yeah,” he confirms. “But it’s not the best, if I’m honest.”

“Ok,” she nods. “Then come by here. Ours is alright, and I feel bad dragging James back into the hot car.”

“Alright, I’ll see you in like fifteen.” Elliot replies.

Once she has hung up the phone, Olivia realizes that – if she is going to be at all presentable for work – she will have to fit in a shower before Elliot arrives. She quickly fills James in on the change of plans for the day, and then flees into the bathroom, hoping beyond all measure that she is not wearing only a towel when Elliot shows up.

Olivia’s luck has never been great though, and – sure enough – when she emerges from the bathroom, intent on darting straight into her room to change, Elliot is standing in the entryway, chatting with James. She hadn’t even heard the doorbell, and she is kicking herself for not having brought a change of clothes with her to the bathroom.

“Did you at least check the peep-hole?” She asks her son, ignoring Elliot for the moment in case she needs to scold James about answering the door to strangers.

“Yeah,” James nods. “I even asked who it was.”

Olivia nods. That, at least, is something. She doesn’t think that she could deal with having to deliver that particular lecture again – not while she is in nothing but a towel and Elliot is staring at her with that look in his eyes that makes her want to jump him. No, she scolds herself. Now is very much not the moment for that.

“Alright,” she nods again. “El, there’s food in the fridge and you have my number if you need anything. James,” she turns to her son. “You know the deal. I don’t know how late I’ll be, but regular bedtime and no TV after nine. And you can sleep in my room with the air on if it gets too hot, okay?”

James, very used to her sudden absences, just nods and wanders into the living room to be closer to the air conditioner. Elliot is still looking at her in a way that she knows is dangerous.

“I’m going to go get dressed,” she says, breaking the loaded silence. Elliot only nods, eyes still very much on her, and she turns to make her way down the hall. She swears that she can feel his gaze lingering on her ass, even through the towel.

--

Ultimately, the issue with the case takes even longer than Olivia had anticipated, and it is approaching midnight when she finally leaves the precinct. She had been hopeful that the late hour would mean that the heat had dissipated a bit, but, again, her luck isn’t that good, and it is still sweltering when she steps out into the street.

Cursing her decision to pursue a career requiring professional attire, Olivia unlocks her car as she strips off her blazer, making a futile attempt at fanning herself with her blouse. The inside of the car is still, somehow, several degrees hotter than outside – even in the pitch black – and she rolls down all the windows, hoping the drive will provide some kind of breeze. The smell of hot garbage that will accompany any breeze isn’t ideal, but she’s picking her battles here.

Driving home, she has a strange sense of déjà vu while crossing the Queensboro Bridge. Years ago, when she and Elliot had first been partners, and New York had been in the clutches of a similar heatwave, she’d driven him home over the bridge when his car had died. He had bitched the whole way there about the heat, and vowed to pick up and move somewhere cold. She had not yet fallen for him then, but they had been friends, and she’d joked that he was getting old – that he just couldn’t handle the weather the way he used to. He had gotten all broody about it, staring out at the water while they were stuck in traffic, but when they’d finally gotten to his place, he’d told her that he was starting to feel old – starting to wonder just what exactly he’d done with his life other than work and his kids. Even then, she’d noticed that his marriage had not listed among his supposed accomplishments. Before getting out of the car, he’d brushed it off as just being irritable from the heat, but it had been a rare moment of vulnerability from him, and she still remembers it all these years later. Soon after, she had begun to notice her thoughts of Elliot straying away from the strictly professional, and Olivia wonders now if that conversation had anything to do with it.

When she does, finally, get home, all Olivia wants to do is strip off her work clothes and take a very cold shower – or have a very cold drink. Or both, ideally. She knows that Elliot is still somewhere in her apartment, though, and she restrains herself from divesting herself of her pantsuit the moment she walks through the door.

“Liv? That you?” His voice is coming from the living room, and she pops her head around the corner. What she finds there, though, makes her immediately wish she hadn’t done so. Because Elliot is sprawled out on her couch in nothing but his boxer shorts, fanning himself with a magazine.

“Jesus,” she chokes out. “Elliot, for the love of God, put some clothes on.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he apologizes, standing up and heading for his shirt, which she can see hung over the back of a chair. “James is in bed and I figured you’d text when you were on your way.”

Olivia is relieved, at least, to see that he seems a bit pink in the cheeks – though that could be down to temperature rather than embarrassment. Aside from being found half-naked in her living room, he really doesn’t have anything to be embarrassed about. From her spot in the doorway, she can’t help but ogle him a bit while he pulls on his shirt. Part of her wishes that he’d just keep it off, but she knows she ought to ignore that particular thought – they are trying to be mature about this, after all.

When he turns to face her again, he must notice the way she’s looking at him, though, because he has that infuriating smirk on his face again. “You look hot.” He says, not dropping the smirk even a little.

“It’s a thousand degrees outside, Elliot,” she rolls her eyes. “Of course I’m hot.”

“Well, yeah,” he tilts his head at her, looking sincere instead of lascivious now. “You’re in a suit, Liv, you must be dying.”

“I am,” she agrees. “I was going to go take a freezing shower, but honestly, I haven’t got the energy.”

“Go change,” he directs her. “I’ll get you something to drink and turn the air up.”

Olivia changes quickly, and while she momentarily considers the wisdom of her preferred outfit – a loose tank top and small sleep shorts – ultimately keeping cool takes precedence over any attempt at modesty. At this point, Elliot has seen the worst of it, and doesn’t seem terribly bothered, so she’s certainly not going to sweat for his benefit. Besides, he’d been in just his underwear when she got home, so some turnabout is surely fair play.

When she returns to the living room, Elliot has kept his word – the air conditioner is blasting and he is holding out a glass to her.

“What’s this?” She asks, mystified by the bright green color of whatever he’s just given her. There had been nothing approaching that color in her fridge.

“Gatorade.” He smiles. “Water’s great, but you’re pissing away all your electrolytes.”

“Delightful,” she grimaces, but drinks it anyways. “Did you guys go shopping?”

“Just to the bodega up the street.” He shrugs. “There’s popsicles in the freezer too, if you want any.”

If she hadn’t already made herself comfortable in front of the air conditioner, Olivia thinks that she really would like a popsicle, but she has no intention at all of getting up. Hell, she’ll probably sleep in front of the damn thing.

“Liv?”

“Yeah?” She doesn’t even turn to look at him.

“You want me to bring you a popsicle?”

That gets her attention, and she turns to find Elliot with an amused smile on his face. She just nods, and he laughs, making his way back to the kitchen. When he returns with her popsicle, he drops himself down on the couch beside her and stretches out again, his arm resting on the top of the couch, brushing her shoulders. Even though it’s so hot, and they are both sweaty and sticky, Olivia finds that she doesn’t mind how close he is. In fact, she has to focus solely on the popsicle so that she doesn’t just turn and straddle him. Despite the heat, and her own exhaustion, the urge is still there. But they’d agreed to wait, and she does genuinely think it was the right call, so she restrains herself.

“I should go.” Elliot says, though he makes no move to get up. When she turns her head to look at him, Olivia finds that he’s eating his own popsicle and tilting his head at her.

“You’re welcome to stay,” she offers, shrugging, even though she knows it’s probably not the best idea. The way that he’s looking at her all but confirms just how bad an idea it is, but she cannot bring herself to rescind the offer.

“No,” he shakes his head, though his expression does not match his words. “I told you I’d do this right, and I’m going to. Plus, I think there’s a genuine risk of heat exhaustion if I stay any longer – we're not as young as we used to be, Liv.”

Olivia smacks him, but laughs, because – really – he's got a point. If she were to have her way with him right now, at the very least, they would both be dangerously dehydrated.

“Alright, old man,” she laughs. “Get out of here then, before you’ve fucked up my electrolytes. Because this Gatorade is disgusting and I’m not drinking any more of it.”

Elliot barks out a laugh, but then he surprises her, tilting his head and leaning towards her. He is only millimetres from her lips when he murmurs: “Mind if I kiss you goodnight?” She doesn’t answer him, as such, but instead closes the minimal distance between them. It is still strange to her, that she is allowed to kiss Elliot, but his lips are surprisingly soft, and he tastes like artificial grape, and Olivia has the offhand thought that she’d like to kiss him goodnight every night.

Chapter Text

If somebody had told her, six months ago, that she would be stood in front of her closet, agonizing over what to wear on a date with Elliot, Olivia would have laughed and promptly smacked them across the face. She can’t entirely believe, even now, that it is happening – but thoughts of the improbability of the whole thing have taken a backseat, for the moment, because she has absolutely nothing to wear.

Her life, over the last decade, has largely boiled down to work and her son; so, while she has plenty of office wear, and lots of beat-up casual wear, Olivia has only just realized that she owns basically nothing that is appropriate to wear on a date. And anything that she does have that might fit the bill would be far too warm to wear in the still raging heatwave.

Shopping is out of the question though, because they are going out tonight, and she still has a whole list of things she needs to get taken care of beforehand – so she has resorted to digging through the back of her closet in the vague hope that something acceptable will present itself. Her standards aren’t even particularly high at this point; all she really needs is something that is not a pant suit, does not have holes or stains on it, and will not cause her to pass out in the heat. It shouldn’t be all that difficult, but she’s not having any luck, and Olivia makes a mental note to refresh her wardrobe in the very near future.

Ultimately, she finds a sundress that she thinks she’ll be able to make work. She doesn’t recognize it, or remember buying it, but it fits and it’s weather appropriate and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to do any better on short notice. She rolls her eyes at herself as she gets dressed, though, because she’d spent most of the week obsessing over what bra to wear, but hadn’t thought at all about what would go on top of it.

“You look nice,” Lucy tells her as she walks out into the living room, still trying to fasten the clasp on an earring. “Hot date?”

“Dinner with a friend.” Olivia lies, because James is in the room, and she and Elliot have agreed not to say anything to him until they are surer of where things stand between them. If this is just unresolved sexual tension that they need to get out of their systems, there’s really no point in telling James anything at all.

“Elliot?” James asks, from his spot on the couch.

“Yeah, baby,” she nods. “Elliot.”

“Is Elliot your friend?” He asks, looking mildly confused.

“Well, yeah,” she tells him, and it’s not entirely a lie. “Before you were born, Elliot and I were friends for a long time.”

“But you-” James pauses, grimacing. “Had sex.” Olivia notices that Lucy is trying to smother her laughter, out of the corner of her eye.

“We did,” she agrees. “And you should be grateful for that, too. You wouldn’t be here to question my dinner plans if Elliot and I hadn’t had sex.” James suddenly looks as if he’s bit into a lemon, and Lucy loses the battle to control her laughter. “But long before we had sex, Elliot and I were good friends – and we’re trying to be again.”

“Alright,” James nods, though he still looks vaguely nauseated. “But you better not accidentally give me a brother or sister.”

The look of abject horror on her son’s face, combined with Lucy’s poorly restrained laughter from the kitchen, makes Olivia laugh, even as she moves to reassure him. “No risk of that, don’t worry.”

Though he still looks somewhat skeptical, she has apparently reassured James enough, because he does not ask any follow up questions, instead turning his attention back to the television. Olivia takes the opportunity to escape back into the kitchen. While she has no intention of telling her son, she knows that she at least needs to let Lucy know that she is likely to spend the night elsewhere. The plan had already been for Lucy to stay overnight with James, on the chance that Olivia might be called back into work, but she knows that it’s only polite to inform her sitter that she is unlikely to be returning until morning. It feels a bit presumptuous on her part, but Elliot had been perfectly clear about his intentions for the evening, and lord knows she has no objections.

“Hey,” she says, leaning up against the counter while Lucy pours herself a glass of juice. “I just wanted to let you know that I probably won’t be home until late – or early, as the case may be.”

Lucy raises an eyebrow, smirking. “Dinner with a friend indeed,” she chuckles. Olivia can feel herself blushing.

“Yeah,” she shrugs, fidgeting with a button on her dress and lowering her voice. “It’s very new, and we’re not saying anything to anyone until things are a bit-” she pauses, searching for the right word. “Clearer.”

“Makes sense,” Lucy nods. “This is James’ dad, right?”

“Yeah,” Olivia nods. “It’s complicated, and I just don’t want to involve James until there’s something to involve him in – everything could still blow up spectacularly, so there’s no use in getting his hopes up.”

“I won’t say anything about it,” Lucy agrees, easily. “But Liv?”

“Yeah?”

“Have a nice time,” she smiles. “I can’t remember a time you’ve been so excited about a date – you seem happy.”

Olivia can feel that she’s blushing, because she’s absolutely been trying not to be so obvious about this, but she still can’t help but smile.

--

Elliot picks her up, but they’ve agreed that he’ll wait outside in the car. Partly because it’s so hot, and she doesn’t want him to have to turn the AC off and back on again, but mostly because they both know that they won’t be able to keep up the ‘dinner with a friend’ façade, and neither of them wants to have a difficult conversation with James.

It turns out to have been a good idea, because what Olivia had intended to be a quick peck on the lips as a greeting very quickly devolves into Elliot pressing her up against his car, her fists bunched in the material of his shirt. A wolf-whistle from a passing group of teenagers is ultimately what breaks them apart, and Olivia has never been so relieved for her forethought in not greeting him in front of James.

“You look nice.” Elliot says, smiling, his cheeks a bit pink. Once again, Olivia wonders to herself how it is that this man, who she has known most of her adult life, somehow manages to make her feel like she is all of sixteen years old.

“Thanks,” she says. “So do you.” Because, dear God, he looks good. He’s wearing light coloured pants and a white t-shirt, and it occurs to her that she’s glad that he’s similarly casually dressed, because she really would have been shit out of luck in the wardrobe department if he’d had anything fancy planned. She finds that she prefers the casual look on him though, because his shirt stretches tightly across his chest in a way that she very much likes. She’s still mostly pressed up against him, but Olivia guesses that his pants are similarly form-fitting, and she’s very much looking forward to finding out for sure.

They make easy small talk the whole drive, and when they arrive at the restaurant, Olivia again feels a strange sense of déjà vu.

“I think I’ve been here before.” She says, as they take their seats at a table on the patio, which is tucked away in a sort of back garden.

“You have,” he confirms, smiling. “We have.”

“We have?” She tilts her head. “When?”

“Shit, years ago.” He laughs. “We caught a case nearby, the perp took off running down the street, and only stopped when he clotheslined himself on the two-for-one pitchers promo sign outside.”

Olivia laughs, suddenly remembering exactly the case he is talking about. The guy had needed a fair number of stitches, and after they’d sent him off in the ambulance, they’d stopped in for lunch.

“I remember that,” she nods. “They comped our meal because they were afraid the guy was going to sue.”

“Yeah,” Elliot laughs. “And you kept saying you thought the place was nice, that it would be a perfect spot for a date, and it was too bad you were stuck wasting it on a work day.”

Olivia feels her jaw drop a bit, because how the hell does he remember that? She’d only remembered it herself once he’d said it, but he’d clearly been holding on to the information.

“I can’t believe you remember that.”

Elliot shrugs, and this time he definitely does look embarrassed. “I may have been working up the nerve to ask you out at the time.”

“That was fifteen years ago, El.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “Guess I lucked out that this place is still open.”

Olivia finds that she has a lump in her throat at the idea that Elliot has – somehow, after fifteen years – remembered that she had once casually mentioned liking this place. It’s the kind of sentimental gesture that she wouldn’t have expected from him, and she’s honestly a bit overwhelmed.

“Look, Liv,” he says, taking her hand across the table. “I’m really trying not to come on too strong here, but I’m just so fucking happy that we’re finally doing this. I know that we’ve still got shit to work on, but it just feels kind of surreal to be here with you like this.”

She nods, swallowing hard. Because it’s as if he’s taken the words out of her mouth. “I honestly didn’t think we’d ever get to have this, El.”

“I know,” he says, squeezing her hand. “Me neither. And there’s a lot of things about how we got here that I’d do differently if I had the chance, but I wouldn’t change where we are now for anything.”

“When did you become such a soft touch?” She jokes, trying to blink away tears. Elliot laughs, giving her a soft smile that she is only just starting to get used to seeing on his face.

“Beats the fuck out of me.” He shrugs, and it breaks any lingering tension.

--

This is, Olivia thinks, genuinely the best date that she can remember having been on. She had been correct, all those years ago; the restaurant they are in really is the perfect spot for a date. The food is fantastic, the space is a perfect mix of casual and intimate, and – this time – they are not on the clock. And it’s Elliot. For all that they have never actually done this together before, it feels natural to be out with him. Conversation is easy, they steal food off of each other’s plates – though they had always done that – and, when they’ve finished eating, Olivia is surprised to discover that the restaurant has live music on. They don’t stay for long – they are both increasingly anxious to get to the next, undressed, portion of the evening – but they stand at the bar through a few songs, and it’s just so nice. She leans into his side without realizing, he steals sips of her drink, and Olivia revels in just being able to casually touch him – just because she wants to.

It is precisely that ability to casually touch each other, though, that fully cements that it’s time for them to leave. Because he is standing behind her, arms wrapped around her middle, pressing little kisses to a spot behind her ear that he has discovered that she likes, and Olivia has to remind herself that she is a police Captain, because she very much wants to fuck him right up against the bar, crowd be damned.

“El,” she turns in his arms. “We need to go.”

“Hmm?”

Damn him, he’s going to make her say it. Well, fine, two can play at that game. She snakes her arm around him to rest at his lower back, dragging her fingers across the strip of bare skin over the waist of his pants, and presses a kiss to the base of his throat.

“If you don’t take me home,” she nips at the skin of his clavicle. “We’re both going to catch public indecency charges.” She nips at him again. “Because you’re going to fuck me in the next twenty minutes, and I don’t care if we’re here or at your place.”

That gets him moving, though not exactly in the way that she’d expected, and he tightens his grip on her, pulling her flush against him so that she can feel that he’s already hard, pressed into her thigh. When he kisses her, it’s hard and intense, and – for a moment – Olivia is genuinely concerned that he will just bend her over the bar top – and that she will let him. But then he pulls away, finding her hand with his, and nods.

“Let’s get out of here.” He groans, tugging her along with him towards the door.

Thank God, Olivia thinks. Because her common sense has deserted her, and she really was just about to let him fuck her in front of all those people.

Chapter Text

It takes them longer than it strictly should to get to his car, because neither of them can keep their hands to themselves, and, not only is it distracting, but it makes it difficult to walk in a straight line. Only after Elliot accidentally steers her right into a parking meter while trying to sneak his hand into the back of her dress, does Olivia pause to take a breath and control herself just a bit. They need to focus up a little, because – as much as she knows that she would absolutely just fuck him in an alleyway – they have both been waiting a decade for this, and a quickie up against his parked car is not really what either of them wants.

Olivia can’t help but notice just how different it is this time, though. The last time they had gone to bed together, it had been under a cloud of grief and despair, and – while it had been objectively very good sex – it had felt like an ending, even then. Elliot had been destroyed, she had been desperate to help him, to keep him – to prove that it was worth it to stick around – and ultimately, he had destroyed her in the process. This, though – Elliot's hands on her in the middle of a busy sidewalk, and the perfect combination of his darkened eyes and his dopey smile – this feels like a beginning.

Once they do, finally, make it to the car, Olivia manages to keep her hands mostly to herself only through sheer force of will; because – if they are to die in a fiery car crash – she would rather that nobody has to explain to her son that his parents have perished in a sex-related mishap. Still, she rests her hand at the nape of Elliot’s neck as he drives, and doesn’t exactly complain when his hand ends up on her thigh. If he moves it any higher, she tells herself that she’ll bat it away, but thankfully he seems similarly invested in delivering them to their destination alive, and his hand doesn’t wander – though his finger does trace little circles on her skin that have her about ready to just take her chances with the fiery crash.

The trip up to his apartment is a bit of a blur, though Olivia is fairly certain that they have scandalized the elderly couple unfortunate enough to share their elevator. Without the lingering threat of being smeared across the Parkway, neither of them has been able to keep their hands off of each other, and – if she were any less singularly focused – Olivia is quite sure that she’d be mortified by the fact that Elliot’s hand is very much up her dress, and she is in the process of giving him a hickey.

By the time they reach his door, her dress is halfway open, his tongue is in her mouth, and the last of her restraint has well and truly snapped.

“El,” she groans. “Inside. This doorknob is digging in to my ass.”

His laugh rumbles against her neck, and suddenly he’s grabbed her ass and lifted her. She doesn’t have time to protest, though, because he does – finally – get the door open, and move them both bodily into his apartment.

She has no idea if the door has even closed behind them, but at this point, Olivia could not care less. He has put her back down, but his hands haven’t left their spot on her ass, and she uses his moment of distraction to yank his shirt up and over his head. Of course, she hasn’t entirely thought the movement through, and the shirt gets stuck around his neck when he refuses to pull his lips away from hers.

“Elliot,” she laughs, against his mouth. “Move so I can take this off.”

He pulls back and lets her finish divesting him of his shirt, but when she catches his eye once she’s tossed it off to the side, Olivia finds that he’s looking at her with an intensity that she’d hadn’t expected.

“What?” She asks, voice barely above a whisper.

“Nothing.” He shakes his head, but the look remains. “I just... wanna remember this, y’know?”

Olivia swallows hard, her pulse thundering in her ears. The way that he’s looking at her and the rough tone of his voice have shifted the mood from desperate, horny, and debauched, towards something that still scares her just a bit. He’s looking at her like he wants her – not just now, in his bed, but always. Hell, that’s how she wants him – when she’s honest with herself – but now that it’s being offered to her, the reality of the situation is overwhelming.

“Don’t freak out.” He says, still with that low rumbling voice.

“I’m not.” She shakes her head, though even she doesn’t fully believe the words.

“We can stop.” He offers, and she knows that he’s sincere, despite the fact that she can all but feel him throbbing against her hip.

“I don’t want to stop.” She tells him. Because she doesn’t. She’s scared out of her mind by what all of this will mean – what it already means – but dear God, she does not want to stop.

“Ok,” he nods. “How about we move this to the bedroom, then. I don’t want to fuck you up against my mail table.” He pauses. “Well, not the first time.”

Olivia can’t help but laugh. For all that he has just stood her up on an emotional precipice, the teasing look in Elliot’s eyes never fails to comfort her, because it is just so familiar – so Elliot. And no matter how much he terrifies her lately, with his sudden need to be open about his feelings, she has always felt safe with Elliot – that, at least, hasn’t changed in a decade.

In his bedroom, Olivia once again can’t help but compare with the last time they’d done this. He’d shown up at her door, red-eyed and broken, and they’d barely said a word. She remembers having invited him in and asking him if he was alright, and then he’d been kissing her. It had been hard and desperate; before they’d even made it to the bedroom, they’d both been crying. He’d looked at her as if it were the last time he’d get the chance, and she knows, now, that he’d already decided to leave her. In her weaker, lonelier moments, Olivia has replayed details of how he’d touched her – the way that his hands had felt on her body, finally, after years of wondering and wanting. It had been both everything and nothing at all like she’d imagined. At first, it had been rough – almost angry – but by the time they were racing towards the finish line, Elliot’s frantic desperation had turned into something else. She hadn’t been able to place it at the time, but now she realizes that he hadn’t wanted it to be over – he'd wanted to prolong the experience, because he knew that they wouldn’t get another chance. When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been wrapped around her still, clinging to her – and then, in the morning, he’d been gone, and she hadn’t heard a word from him again until she’d unwittingly stumbled into Maureen’s living room, some ten years later.

Now, though, they are so very far away from that devastating night. This is not a desperate, grief-stricken goodbye. Elliot is smiling, pressing little kisses along her clavicle – taking his time – and Olivia has the thought that the Elliot of a decade ago had been wrong – they would get another chance to be together like this. The thought makes her smile, and some of the fear that had popped up when he’d looked at her so earnestly fades away.

“El,” she groans, tugging his head up so that he’s at eye level with her. “As much as I want you to keep doing that, I need you to take your pants off. Now.”

His wolfish grin is back, and Olivia barely has a moment to admire it before he has backed her up into the edge of his bed and sent them both tumbling down onto the mattress. Clearly he’s thought this through though, because he doesn’t land on her, but instead presses a hard kiss to her lips before pushing himself up again and stripping off his pants in one – surprisingly graceful – movement. If she weren’t so focused on just how prominent his erection is in his grey briefs, Olivia thinks that she’d be impressed.

“Better?” He asks, giving her a cocky smirk that she will never – under any circumstances – admit to finding so unbelievably arousing.

“Still too many clothes.” She hates the way that her voice has taken on a breathy quality, very much without her permission, but really, he is still wearing too many clothes.

“I agree,” he nods, but makes no move to take his shorts off, instead kneeling on the bed between her spread legs. “How is it that you’re basically still fully dressed?”

Olivia just shrugs, unable to form any response at all, and shifts so that she can slide her arms free of her dress. Judging by the expression on Elliot’s face, the time spent agonizing over her choice of bra had been worth it. He lets out a little noise that is almost a growl, and then he’s on top of her again, and Olivia can hardly breathe. It’s not even that he’s crushing her – because she’s vaguely aware that he’s being careful not to – but he is very suddenly all that she is aware of. The heat of his bare skin up against her, his mouth slanted over hers, the faint taste of the drink he’d stolen from her at the bar on his breath. She is again overwhelmed, but this time in the best possible way.

She needs to get the rest of her clothes off though. Never mind the thought she’d put into her undergarments; they need to go. Ideally, he will remove them for her, but at this point, Olivia is willing to awkwardly wiggle herself out of them beneath him if that’s what has to happen to feel his bare skin against hers again.

He seems to pick up the hint, though, when she moves her hand from its spot on his back to deal with her bra, and he quickly pulls back and reaches around to unfasten the clasp himself. Olivia thinks that the look on his face is worth it to deal with the few extra seconds that it takes him to figure out the mechanism, and – while she momentarily considers teasing him for his lack of finesse – once he tosses the bra off into a corner, it feels as if he is about to devour her, and her quip gets caught in her throat. Shit, she has never wanted anyone the way that she wants him right now.

When he dips his head down to press kisses across her chest, it occurs to Olivia just how long it has been since she’s been with a man. Because – while what he’s doing does feel nice – she can’t remember ever having reacted so strongly to what is – essentially – still within the realm of teenage groping. They are both still in their underwear, and Olivia is increasingly aware that – if Elliot keeps doing what he’s doing – she will be coming before he has even really touched her.

“El,” she groans. “Please.”

He obviously understands, because he stops teasing her and instead peels off her dress completely, bringing her panties with it. She appreciates the efficiency and everything, but she’s frustrated by the continued presence of his briefs.

“Off.” She orders, pushing at his waistband. The cocky smirk that she expects from him doesn’t materialize this time, and Elliot’s face is a mix of dazed and aroused that Olivia is sure that she’ll revisit in the future – more than likely late at night and alone in bed.

His shorts do – finally – come off though, and, while Olivia wants to just spend a moment admiring him like this, her patience has deserted her entirely. If he is not inside her in the next thirty seconds, she has every intention of sweeping his knee and flipping them.

Ultimately, she doesn’t need to take the initiative, because he quickly settles himself between her legs, pressed up against her, and Olivia can’t help but notice how attractive the flush that has taken over his chest is, even as she is lifting her hips to get him to move.

“Liv,” he husks. “You good?”

She wants to scream – because she is very obviously good – but, even through the fog of arousal, she does appreciate that he’s checking in. Still, she’s done waiting.

“I’m good,” she groans. “But I need you to fuck me, El. Right now. Or I swear to God, I’m throwing you out – I don’t care that this is your place.” She lifts her hips again to drive her point home, guiding the tip of him inside of her and drawing a string of curses from him. It gets him moving though, and he presses into her fully, drawing a strangled gasp from Olivia as the air is pushed from her lungs.

“Oh my God,” she gasps, bunching her fists around the sheets. He’s not too big, and she’d been more than ready, but it still takes her a moment to adjust to him. She’s not sure that it’s entirely a physical thing either – part of it may just be that it’s Elliot. And she’s been thinking about this for a decade, never really believing that it would happen.

He keeps still for a moment – whether for her benefit or his, Olivia isn’t sure – pressing kisses to her neck and jaw while she gets her bearings a bit, before he starts moving – slowly – when she rolls her hips against him. As much as she would stay here like this with him forever if she could, Olivia knows that this will be over quicker than either of them might prefer. Because she has been ready to go from the moment he pressed her up against his car when he’d picked her up, and – if his erection pressed against her then had been any indication – so had he. And, unlike last time, they now both know that this will not be the last time – that they will have plenty of opportunities to take their time with each other. It is that thought that allows Olivia to let go and just enjoy being with Elliot like this, no matter how brief the actual sex might ultimately be. Because his bare skin is pressed flush against hers, his cock is buried inside of her, he’s alternating kissing her and murmuring a mixture of endearments and profanities, and it is everything that she has wanted for the past twenty years.

So, instead of obsessing over everything that could possibly go wrong, Olivia just enjoys it. She runs her hands over every inch of his skin that she can reach, hooks her leg around his hip to bring him closer to her, and doesn’t even think to moderate her volume when he starts properly pounding into her.

She can tell when he starts to lose control, though, because his hips lose any sense of rhythm and the only words out of his mouth are ‘fuck’ and her name; and she’s relieved – because she’d been trying to hold out for him and was rapidly losing that battle.

“Liv,” he grunts. “I’m close.”

“Thank God,” she gasps, feeling herself starting to lose control, not at all of her own volition. She’d intended to wait for him, but that’s just not possible anymore.

Jesus.” He groans, obviously noticing her coming apart around him. Hell, she’s clinging to him and has started crying out his name – she's hardly being subtle.

Olivia has enough presence of mind, though, to know that she wants to see him, and she forces her eyes back open even as her orgasm destroys all other logical thought. His eyes are dark and his jaw is clenched, and she realizes that he’s holding himself back. She’s not having that at all.

“El,” she gasps. “Let go for me.”

And he does. Fuck, does he ever. As if her permission has snapped something in him, Elliot drives himself into her one, two, three more times and comes with a shouted ‘Jesus, fuck, Liv.’ Something about the angle sets her off again, too, and Olivia buries her face in his shoulder as he leans into her and a second orgasm rolls through her.

When Olivia is finally able to see more than just black spots, she notices that Elliot is looking at her all earnestly again, even through the sweaty, dopey, just fucked look that she’s sure they both share.

“What?” She asks, still breathless.

“Nothing,” he smiles. “You’re just nice to look at.”

Olivia laughs, looping her arms around his neck and holding him in place when he tries to shift off of her. He’s crushing her a bit, and they will have to move soon, but – for now – she’s not ready to let him go.

Chapter Text

Elliot has never been one to lay awake chatting after sex. Maybe it’s just that he and Kathy had never had much to say to each other, but it’s not ever been something that he’s enjoyed. It is a surprise to him, then, that not only can he not fall asleep, but that he doesn’t actually want to. He’d be perfectly content to just lay in bed talking all night if Olivia would let him. It’s out of character for him, he thinks, but – when he really considers it – it does make sense that it would be different with Liv. He’s wanted for so long to be with her, and while sex has certainly been a big part of that, Elliot finds that he’s equally happy to just hold her and talk about nothing of any importance. He can’t quite believe that they’re here, still – that she’s even allowed him back into her life, never mind back into bed with her – and he has every intention of savouring it, even if that does make him the kind of sentimental sap that he’d always scoffed at. Hell, maybe he’d just been jealous, because he could do nothing else but lie in bed with Liv for the rest of his life and Elliot thinks he’d die happy.

He does, however, notice that Liv seems to be fighting to keep herself awake.

“You can sleep, you know.” He says, still unable to wipe the stupid smile off his face. Because not only is Liv naked and curled around him, but she’s adorable when she’s sleepy like this. He’s not about to tell her that, but still, he notices.

“M’fine,” she slurs, shaking her head and shifting against him. “Don’t wanna sleep.”

“You sure?” He laughs. “Because you’re about halfway there already.”

Olivia just shakes her head again and tightens her grip on him. “I’m awake.” She protests, even as Elliot can see that her eyes have slipped closed. He decides not to fight her on it – somehow, even if she is half-asleep, he knows that it’s an argument he won’t win.

“El?” She murmurs, against his shoulder.

“Yeah?”

“Stay?”

The way that she asks – as if there were actually a possibility that he wouldn’t - puts a lump in Elliot’s throat; because he very suddenly realizes why she is fighting sleep. The last time they’d slept together, she’d woken up the next morning and he’d been gone. It’s something that he still hates himself for, even now, but he’d known then that if he hadn’t left when she’d still been sleeping, he wouldn’t have left at all. And while – with the benefit of hindsight – he wishes that he hadn’t, at the time it had seemed like his only viable option. He’d kick himself if his legs weren’t so entangled with Liv’s.

“I’m not going anywhere, Liv.” He tells her. Even if they weren’t at his place, Elliot knows that he wouldn’t be able to leave her – not for anything. If she’ll let him, he plans on sticking around until he’s dead and buried.

“Promise?” She must really be tired, because he knows that – under any other circumstance – Liv would be appalled at the vulnerability in her voice. As much as he hates himself for the fact that she feels the need to ask the question at all, Elliot can’t help the soft feeling that he gets knowing that – however unconsciously – she feels comfortable enough with him to be vulnerable. Although, realistically, he knows that’s probably down to exhaustion more than anything else.

“Promise,” he confirms. “You’re stuck with me, Liv.”

She lets out a soft laugh, but settles herself closer to him still. “Good.” She whispers. Elliot thinks that he’s never loved her more.

--

He does – eventually – fall asleep, but Elliot is awake first the next morning; around six, if the light from the window is any measure. Liv is still fast asleep, and, at some point during the night, she has arranged herself so that she’s using him like a pillow. Elliot has no complaints, even if a good deal of her hair has ended up in his mouth in the process.

Moving her hair out of the way, he presses a kiss to her forehead. He knows that he probably should wake her up – surely, she has to be at work today – but can’t quite bring himself to. He has spent years desperately wanting to be exactly where he is right now, and he’s willing to take the blame for making her late to work if it means that they can stay here like this a bit longer. Ideally, of course, she would wake up on her own and decide to forgo the office and instead stay in bed with him all day – but Elliot is enough of a realist to know that’s unlikely to happen. One of the things that he’s always loved about her is just how committed to her job she is, how seriously she takes the responsibility of SVU. Shit, maybe he should wake her up – she might just kill him otherwise.

“Liv,” he tries, speaking softly against the top of her head. She doesn’t budge. “Liv, wake up.” He tries again, a bit louder, running his hand up and down her forearm. She lets out an annoyed grumble, but still doesn’t move to wake up, instead burying her face in his chest – or, trying to.

In trying to ignore his attempts to wake her, though, Olivia has pressed herself against him in a way that forces Elliot to take a deep breath. Apparently, she has not been sleeping quite as deeply as he’d thought, either, and he curses when she wraps her hand around him. When had her hand even ended up there?

“Liv, what’re you doing?” He groans, even though he knows full well. He had been trying to do the decent thing and wake her up for work, but his resolve is quickly slipping on that front. When she laughs sleepily against his chest, it shatters altogether. She is sleepy and adorable, but she’s also got her hand wrapped around his cock, and Elliot is only a human man, after all.

“I can stop.” She says, affecting an innocent tone that they both know is bull. Instead of answering, he rolls them so that she’s underneath him again, and – as much as she’s still half asleep – the look of mischief on her face makes him so inexplicably happy.

“Let’s not be hasty,” he murmurs, kissing her. She laughs against his mouth, and Elliot can’t help smiling into the kiss.

Before they can get any further, though, her phone starts buzzing on the side table, and Elliot groans, knowing that any plans he might have had to talk her into a day in bed have well and truly evaporated.

He moves to let her answer the phone, but doesn’t fully pull away from her while she takes the call. He knows that – strictly speaking – he should feel guilty for distracting her on what is clearly a work call, but he doesn’t. While she speaks with whoever is on the other end of the line, he takes the opportunity to press a line of kisses across her clavicle and down towards her chest. She bats his head away when he tries to flick at her nipple, but he just grins up at her and takes a detour. He knows she’d properly smack him if she wanted him to stop, but he’d also discovered the previous night that her nipples are especially sensitive, so he’s willing to change his plans in the service of her not sounding completely unprofessional on the phone.

Still, she’s beautiful, and naked, and Liv, and he gets a bit carried away, ultimately ending up with his face between her legs.

“No, I’m fine,” she says into her phone. To Elliot’s genuine surprise, though, she pushes his head back down to where it had been as she says it. “On my way.” She tosses her phone back onto the side table as she ends the call, and groans when he drags his tongue over her. “Jesus, El,” she moans. “Are you trying to get me fired?”

He laughs against her, and is about to point out that she is, in fact, the boss now, but she holds his head so that he can’t move.

“Never mind,” she breathes. “Just keep doing that. They’ll deal with it if I’m late.”

Elliot laughs against her again – because he is amused, and because she seems to like it – but quickly gets back to the task at hand. He’s never actually done this for her before, and he no longer gives a single fuck if she’s late for work – he's going to take his damn time.

--

Ultimately, Elliot himself is late for work. He had forgotten completely that he was covering a shift for somebody, and an irate phone call from his boss had come in while Liv was getting dressed – while he had been trying to distract Liv from getting dressed.

Which is how he finds himself sitting in an SUV in Midtown, with a guy he’s never worked with before, feeling very much like a lovesick teenager. He has never been this person – this guy who gets all giddy and lovestruck. But then, he supposes, he’d only ever been with Kathy. And while they’d briefly done the starry-eyed thing as teenagers, that had come to an abrupt and screeching halt when they’d discovered she was pregnant. After that it had been scrambling to get married, running off to the recruitment office, and then thirty some years of being bound by duty rather than love. Not to say that they hadn’t had any good times, but Elliot had never felt like this with Kathy, even when they’d been young. He had never spent his work day distracted and thinking about her, or been unable to stop checking his watch because he needed to see her, or obsessed over whether it would be clingy to text her. When he and Kathy had first separated, before Eli, he’d gone on a few casual dates – though none that had ever made it to the bedroom – and he’d similarly never felt this way about any of those women. No, Elliot is quite sure that the way he is feeling is something totally unique to Liv.

“Hey,” his partner for the day – something Rodriguez – snaps at him. “You paying any attention?”

Elliot shakes himself out of his distraction a bit, because he is at work, and he does need the job. “Yeah, yeah, sorry. I’m good.”

The younger man gives him a skeptical look, before turning back to watch the building they’re waiting in front of. “Whatever you say man,” he shakes his head. “But you’ve got to pull your collar up or something, cause you’ve got a hickey, and it’s unprofessional as hell.”

Elliot’s hand flies up to his neck. Damn it. He’d totally forgotten about that when he’d been rushing out the door that morning. But, as much as he is embarrassed to be caught out by Rodriguez, the memory of how he’d gotten the hickey makes him smile like an idiot. He can tell that his co-worker is equally unimpressed by his lovestruck idiot routine as he had been by the hickey, but Elliot couldn’t care less if he tried. He now has an excuse to text Liv without seeming quite as desperate as he really is.

I owe you a prominently placed hickey, he types, ignoring the glare that Rodriguez is levelling at him. Liv replies almost instantly, and he – honest to God – feels giddy about it. Never mind that he is a father of six – a grandfather, even – and he has started receiving AARP magazines in the mail, Elliot has never felt giddy before in his life.

Looking forward to it, is her reply, and the stupid, face-splitting grin doesn’t leave him all day, despite Rodriguez’s mood and the especially snotty client they have for the afternoon.

Chapter Text

Olivia has never been anything approaching a prude. She enjoys sex, and she’s had her fair share, but she has never before had as much – or as frequent – sex as she and Elliot are currently having. Never. Not with anyone, even during the honeymoon stage of a relationship. She guesses that it has something to do with the twenty some years they’d spent lusting after each other, but Olivia is kind of startled by it all the same. She’d always assumed that she’d be having less sex as she got older, not more – though obviously she’d failed to take Elliot into account. This week alone, she has already thrown out her ‘no sex at work’ rule, and her ‘no sex when James is at home’ rule, and her ‘don’t feel me up while I’m driving’ rule. She can’t currently think of any of her so-called rules of propriety that she wouldn’t be willing to bend for Elliot.

It’s not like he’s been pushing her about it, either. She’s been initiating just as much as he has, and she’d been an especially enthusiastic participant in their midday tryst up against her office filing cabinet. The blinds had been drawn – of course – but she’s not entirely sure that they’d been fooling anyone. The comment Fin had made about her rumpled blazer had all but confirmed that for her, and Olivia would have been mortified if she hadn’t been just so fucking satisfied.

Still, they are trying to keep their new relationship – is it a relationship, she wonders, or are they just fucking each other's brains out? – quiet. They have yet to say anything to James, and Olivia is hoping to avoid discussing it for a little while yet. Hell, they still haven’t really said much of anything to each other. Elliot had alluded, on their first date, but they have yet to put any sort of definition on whatever it is that they’re doing. Although, Olivia knows that he wants to talk about it. She’s the one who’s hesitant, who’s putting off the conversation until they have at least gotten a bit of the lust out of their systems.

At this point, though, almost a month and a half in, Olivia isn’t sure when exactly they’ll get the lust out of their systems. With every other man she’s ever dated, she’d be over it by now, but she is still very far from over it with Elliot. If he were to walk into her office right then, she’d happily draw the blinds and take him on her desk.

She shakes her head, because that is not a thought she needs to be entertaining right now. Something work related really needs to come up now, otherwise she’s quite sure she’ll be texting him to drop by on his lunch break, and she’d promised herself that they’d at least keep it out of the precinct.

Her phone buzzes on her desk, and Olivia is both disappointed and relieved that Elliot’s name is not flashing across her screen.

“Benson,” she answers, not having recognized the number.

“Hey, Olivia, it’s Liz. Stabler.”

“Liz, hi!” She has no idea at all why Elliot’s youngest daughter is phoning her, but she’s always happy to hear from the woman. Especially since – by the tone of her voice – it doesn’t sound like the call is about anything bad. “How are you?”

“Good!” She exclaims, clearly excited about something. “Great! How are you?”

Olivia laughs. “I’m good,” she says. “Though clearly not as good as you. What’s up?”

“I think I’m getting married,” Liz says, laughing. Olivia’s eyebrows raise, a smile stretching across her face.

“You think?” She laughs.

“Well, I’m pretty sure,” Liz replies, and Olivia imagines that she can hear the smile in the other woman’s voice. “Paula’s only condition was that we finally officially tell my family, and I’m making those calls today, so I think it’ll be for sure soon.”

“Wow, well, congratulations Liz,” Olivia smiles. She’s thrilled for the two of them, of course, but the fact that Elliot’s youngest daughter is getting married makes her feel older than she really cares for.

“Thanks!” Liz says. “We were hoping that you and James would come to the wedding – if you wanted to, of course.”

“Of course,” she agrees. “I still can’t believe you’re old enough to be married, but we’ll absolutely be there.”

“Great!” Liz exclaims. “It’s in two weeks!”

“Wait,” Olivia feels her eyebrows raise again. “What?”

“Yeah,” Liz laughs. “We didn’t want to wait, and neither of us really want anything big or fancy, so we figured we might as well just do it.”

Scanning through her calendar, Olivia resolves to move a few things around to be able to make it work. Honestly, she’d much rather go to Liz’s wedding than deal with Frank from Building Services anyway. “Well, I admire your spontaneity,” she chuckles. “Just give me the date when you know and I’ll make it work.”

“Perfect,” Liz says. “We should know for sure by tomorrow, so I can text you, if that works?”

“That works, yeah,” Olivia nods.

“And-” Liz hesitates. “I don’t know whether or not you need a plus-one, but you can have one if you’d like.”

“Oh,” Olivia is kind of surprised by the offer. “No, that’s fine, Liz. It’ll just be me and James.” She thinks she can hear a sigh of relief from the other woman.

“Probably for the best,” Liz chuckles. “Much as it’s entertaining to watch Dad in one of his jealous rages, I don’t really need it at my wedding.”

“No,” Olivia laughs, uncomfortably. “Probably not. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure he’s on his best behaviour.”

Liz laughs heartily at that. “Glad to hear it.”

They wrap up the call, and – while Olivia is beyond thrilled for Liz – she knows that a wedding is very likely to push up the timeline on her and Elliot having the ‘what are we doing?’ conversation. She’s considerably less thrilled about that.

--

When she next sees Elliot – over her lunch break, though in public instead of in her office – Olivia doesn’t mention her conversation with Liz. She’s not entirely sure of who has been told what, and she has no desire at all to accidentally go blurting out what’s not hers to share. It ends up being a bit of a moot point, though, because Elliot tells her the news himself just after they’ve ordered their lunch.

“Wanna come to a wedding with me?” He asks her, smiling. She thinks that she’d say yes to just about anything with him looking at her like he is, but she holds back.

“Who’s getting married?” She asks, even though she already knows.

“Liz and Paula,” he smiles. “But you knew that.”

“I did,” she nods. “Just didn’t want to make you jealous – obviously your kids like me better than you,” she jokes. Elliot just laughs, clearly not offended in the least. The lightness that he has about him now never fails to make her happy.

“Smart kids,” he says, smirking at her. “You’re dodging the question though.”

“What question was that?” She asks, still dodging, because she very clearly remembers.

“If you wanted to go with me to the wedding.”

“Right,” she nods. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, El.”

“And why not?” He tilts his head at her, still smiling for some reason.

“Well, all your kids will be there, we still haven’t told anyone that we’re-” she pauses. “Seeing each other – it would be confusing for James.”

Elliot nods, and Olivia has the vague hope that he’ll let it drop, but – even as she has the thought – she knows better.

“Going to a wedding together isn’t the same thing as announcing that we’re together,” he says. “We’ve been to weddings before.”

“We have?” She asks. “When have we been to a wedding together?”

“Munch’s fourth wedding,” he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Olivia rolls her eyes.

“Elliot,” she says, exasperated. “In no way is that the same thing. That was a wedding that we both attended. You brought Kathy.”

He shrugs. “Still, all I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be a big thing. We can drive up to DC with James, sit together during the ceremony, maybe dance a bit. It would hardly announce to the world that we’re-” he falters, gesturing between them but not finding any more words.

Olivia knows, now, that they will have to have this conversation far sooner than she’d care for. Hell, they might be about to have it now.

“Seeing each other?” She tries, hoping that he’ll accept it, even though she knows it’s a bit of a cop-out.

“If that’s how you want to define it,” he nods.

Against her better judgement, Olivia takes a deep breath and powers through her rising anxiety about where the conversation is headed. “How would you define it, El?”

The look that he’s giving her makes Olivia squirm a bit in her seat, but she forces herself to wait him out instead of taking the question back.

“I think-” he pauses. “I think that this is maybe a conversation we should have with Dr. Gallardi.” Her heart drops into her stomach, but Elliot continues. “You know how I feel about you, Liv – you know where I want this to go. But you need time, and I get that – I just don’t want to push too hard and fuck this up, and I feel like I’m on the verge of doing that right now.”

She swallows hard. Yeah, he’s probably got a point. She is still a bit hesitant, and – while there is a part of her that just wants Elliot to tell her he loves her again and that he wants to do this thing for real – she's not quite ready for any big declarations.

“That’s-” she starts, but pauses, voice rough. “Thank you, El. I know this is probably frustrating for you.” He’s shaking his head at her, smiling, and Olivia is confused by the response.

“Nah,” he says, smiling and reaching for her hands across the table. “I’ve got everything I want. I’m happy to wait however long you need.”

Olivia hates that she can feel tears prickling behind her eyes at his words, but it is what it is. Somehow, even though he’s now seen all of her flaws up close, Elliot still seems to want to stick around – to stay with her. She hadn’t really expected it, but the way that he’s looking at her right now leaves little room for doubt.

Chapter Text

“So,” Dr. Gallardi looks between her and Elliot, amused. “The two of you have been engaging in a sexual relationship for the past month or so?” Olivia feels very much as if she’s a child brought before her school principal, even though their therapist looks as if she’s about to start laughing.

“I mean,” Elliot shrugs. “Not just sexual. We go on dates and stuff too.”

Olivia nods when Dr. Gallardi looks to her for confirmation, and the older woman makes a note on her pad.

“You didn’t feel that was relevant to bring up in the sessions we’ve had in the past month?”

Olivia looks over at Elliot, hoping that he’ll have an answer, but he seems just as uncomfortable as she is. They both just shrug, kind of sheepishly. Dr. Gallardi chuckles and makes another note.

“Of course,” she continues, “that’s entirely your own business. Neither of you are obligated to share anything with me that you’re uncomfortable with; but it does seem like a fairly significant development. Last I was aware, the two of you were avoiding the topic of romance, and you, Elliot, were having trouble with oversharing.”

“Yeah,” Elliot nods.

“Alright,” Dr. Gallardi clicks her pen, considering them both. “How is this new development going, then?”

She and Elliot share another look, and he gestures for her to speak. Olivia knows that, as the one having more trouble adjusting to the new dynamic, he’s giving her the opportunity to speak first out of kindness, but it still kind of feels like he’s throwing her under the proverbial bus.

“Good,” she starts. “Mostly good. Everything is, um-” she pauses, blushing at the prospect of going into any detail about their sex life, even though she has no reason to be embarrassed. “Good.” She cringes, knowing that she’ll probably have to elaborate a bit, but not quite sure how to do so.

“Okay,” Dr. Gallardi nods. “The fact that you’ve brought it up at all, though, suggests to me that there is perhaps some difficulty, along with the good.”

“Yeah,” Olivia nods. “I’m just-” she huffs out a breath, frustrated that she can’t find the words to articulate what she wants to say. “I’m scared, still,” she finally admits.

“Scared of what?” Dr. Gallardi asks. The question is more than fair, but Olivia had hoped all the same that she wouldn’t ask it. This time, she can’t come up with anything close to an answer, though, and Olivia just flails her hands a bit, shrugging and feeling like an idiot.

“I think,” Elliot cuts in, to her great relief, “we’re just having a bit of trouble defining the relationship. There’s not really a playbook for what we’re doing. I mean, we’ve known each other – and had feelings for each other – forever, but until two months ago, we’d never even been on a date. We did things a little backwards, I guess.” He shrugs.

“Understandable,” Dr. Gallardi nods, still taking notes. “The two of you have certainly taken a-” she hesitates, briefly, “non-traditional path. It makes sense that there would be some difficulty in deciding how to move forward. How about this,” she continues, reaching into a folder on her side table and pulling out blank papers. “I want each of you to rip a sheet of paper in half. On one piece of paper, I want you to write what scares you most about this new phase of your relationship, and on the other, I want you to write where you’d like the relationship to go.”

She hands them each paper and pens, and Olivia feels a spike of panic. “Um, are these to read out loud?”

“Ideally, yes,” Dr. Gallardi nods. “Though if the prospect of verbalizing it is too much, you can simply trade papers when you’ve finished writing.”

Olivia can feel herself starting to break out in a cold sweat. The answers to each of those questions are ones that she already knows – that isn’t the problem – but she still has the, entirely irrational, fear that Elliot will judge her responses, or that they won’t line up with his own. It’s not a strictly logical thought, because he has made his feelings on the matter perfectly clear, but then, the way that she’s starting to panic isn’t a strictly logical response.

“Liv,” he prompts, laying his hand over her arm. “It’s all good. Just be honest.”

She swallows hard and nods, finding his touch more comforting than she’d admit to anyone. She can see out of the corner of her eye that Dr. Gallardi is taking copious notes.

Answering the questions themselves poses no real difficulty. Olivia knows all too well what it is that scares her most about this – the prospect that he will leave – and, when she allows herself to be honest, she knows exactly what she ultimately wants with him, too. Everything. A life, a family. And that terrifies her as well, because there is still a part of her that doesn’t entirely trust him. On a conscious level, she does trust him – he has shown that he is keeping his word. But unconsciously, there is still a part of her that doubts – that is half-convinced that he will take off again without a word. She can’t entirely reconcile the two, but each is as true as the other. She trusts him completely with her life, with their child; but she is still not able to fully trust him with her heart. Never mind that it already belongs to him entirely, she still holds on to the illusion that she is in control. Because if she is in control, she cannot be so completely destroyed if the malevolent voice in the back of her mind is right, and he does, in fact, leave again.

So she keeps it simple. On one piece of paper, Olivia writes ‘you’ll leave’ and on the other she writes ‘forever.’ She scrawls each out quickly, before she can obsess about it too much, but the order in which she does so seems like a bit of a slap in the face, because she has just written out her greatest fear: ‘you’ll leave forever.’ She folds each piece of paper, though, and slides them onto the table between her and Elliot, not able to look at him while she does so. She is aware that he has dropped his papers beside hers, but she takes a moment to breathe before she picks them up – she had been so anxious about her own answers that she hadn’t even considered what he might write.

“Would you prefer to read your papers aloud, or to yourselves?” Dr. Gallardi asks.

“I can just say mine,” Elliot replies, which genuinely surprises Olivia. “I want to say mine.”

“Of course, Elliot,” Dr. Gallardi nods. “As long as you’re okay with that, Olivia?”

Olivia just nods in response. She doesn’t trust her voice. She’d picked up the slips of paper that Elliot had given her, but she hasn’t looked at them yet – she isn’t sure whether it would be easier to read the words or hear him say them, but if he wants to tell her himself, she’s not about to stop him. It’s about time that she faces this head on, anyways – his feelings, what he wants for them.

“I’ll do the fear first,” he says, and she can tell that he’s nervous. She has no idea at all what his biggest fear about them might be, and Olivia finds that she’s curious. She’s spent so much time fixating on her own fears, and she’s a bit ashamed to realize that she hasn’t given much thought to whether he might have any. “I’m scared-” he clears his throat. “I’m scared that I’m going to do something – push too hard, or ask for too much – and you’ll decide that this isn’t worth it, and ask me to leave. Or ask me to just be there for James, and to leave you alone.”

Olivia’s heart clenches hard in her chest. The idea that she would ask him to leave is, to her, unfathomable. She has been constantly afraid, since he reappeared in her life, that he will leave of his own volition – she’s certainly not about to send him along on his way. But then, she supposes that she has been pushing him away a bit – especially at first – in an effort to protect herself, so she can see where he’s coming from.

“El,” she whispers, deciding to put herself out on a limb a bit. “I wouldn’t. That’s not what I want.”

He’s facing her now, and fuck, she almost can’t stand how vulnerable he looks.

“What do you want, Liv?” He asks, voice rough. Olivia appreciates that Dr. Gallardi is letting them deviate from the exercise a bit, because, she realizes, she needs him to know this.

“Everything,” she admits. “I want everything with you, El.”

His smile is beaming and immediate, and Olivia suddenly feels like such an idiot for not having told him sooner. “Yeah?” He asks, excited, and pleased, and adorable.

“Yeah,” she nods, smiling back at him.

“Well,” Dr. Gallardi interjects – Olivia had forgotten for a moment that she was in the room – “that seems like as good a jumping off point as any for you to share what you want for the future, Elliot.”

“Yeah,” Elliot chuckles, still smiling. “Guess so, huh?” Olivia can’t help but notice that he seems a bit nervous, but she tries not to freak herself out about it. Best to just let him speak. “I mean, Liv, you about said it,” he says, scratching his chin. “I’d marry you tomorrow if you’d let me, but I know we’re not there yet.”

He cringes a bit after he’s said it, and Olivia knows that this is one of the things that he thinks will freak her out. And, while he’s not totally wrong – the idea of marriage is a bit frightening, and it’s definitely too soon – it is also something that she really wants. Not immediately, of course, but knowing that it’s something that he thinks about puts a warm feeling in her chest right alongside the ever-present ball of anxiety.

“We’re not,” she agrees. “But, y’know, someday – I hope.” She’s embarrassed to admit that she’s even thought about it – it feels way too vulnerable – but he’s putting himself out there for her, and she really doesn’t want him to feel like he has to censor his feelings around her. As much as it overwhelms her sometimes – hell, a lot of the time – she does like that he’s become so open about how he feels. It wasn’t something they’d ever been allowed to do – even acknowledge their feelings for each other – so, while it’s new and kind of scary, Olivia also can’t imagine going back to how it had been before. She wouldn’t want to – doesn't know if she even could at this point.

Any embarrassment she may have felt at her admission evaporates completely when Elliot reaches over the table between them and grabs her hand, again with that beaming smile.

“Olivia,” Dr. Gallardi interjects. “Would you like to share your responses, or would you prefer Elliot read them?”

“Oh-” Olivia hesitates. She’d forgotten, for a moment, what exactly it was that they were doing. Honestly, though, the idea of sharing her answers doesn’t seem quite so intimidating now, having heard Elliot’s – and having basically already admitted to wanting forever with him. “Right,” she nods. “I guess I can share them.” Elliot still hasn’t let go of her hand, and – even though he’s making no move to do so – she tightens her grip. “I don’t think my fear will be much of a surprise,” she shrugs. “But I’m afraid that you’ll leave, for good this time.”

The look on Elliot’s face when she says it is so pained, and Olivia can see that he’s restraining himself from immediately insisting that he wouldn’t. She knows – intellectually – that he wouldn’t, and he knows that she knows; there’s no need to beat a dead horse about it. But it’s a fear, not a logical thought, and it’s not like she can control it, no matter how many times he insists – no matter how much his behaviour shows that he’s telling her the truth.

“Liv-” he starts, but pauses. The look on his face hurts, because Olivia knows just how much he beats himself up about what he’s done – everything that he’s missed – and even though this is her fear, she finds that she just wants to hug him. Because, really, it’s a fear that they share – she's afraid that he’ll leave, and he’s afraid that she’ll make him leave, but ultimately, the effect is the same. They both want him here, desperately.

“I know, El,” she says, squeezing his hand. He doesn’t have to find the words, because she knows what he would have said.

He nods, and then surprises her, pulling their joined hands up to his mouth and pressing a kiss across her knuckles. It’s such a tender gesture – one she hadn’t expected from him – and it makes her stomach do a little flip.

“And the future?” He asks, with that same earnest look that had scared her so much the first time they’d gone to bed together since he’d been back. It doesn’t scare her so much now, but Olivia can’t quite find her voice under the intensity of his gaze, and instead she slides her second slip of paper across the table to him.

When he unfolds it – which takes him a second, because he has stubbornly refused to drop her hand – Elliot's face lights up in a way that takes Olivia’s breath away, because she has never seen it before. She had thought she was getting used to the dopey grins that he’s been giving her lately, but those all pale in comparison to the way that he is looking at her now – as if she is the living embodiment of everything he’s ever wanted. She’s startled, for a moment, when he lurches forward in his chair, but then he’s kissing her, and she can feel him smiling into the kiss, and Olivia forgets all about Dr. Gallardi sitting across from them, the ball of anxiety in her chest, and all her lingering doubts. This is something that they both want, and she’s done trying to fight it – twenty-three years is long enough.

Chapter Text

“What are you wearing?” Olivia asks her son, startled – bordering on horrified.

“Shorts?” James looks entirely confused by the question, which is fair enough, because Olivia has blurted it out immediately upon his entering the room, and it has nothing at all to do with what they’d been talking about. But despite the fact that it is mid-September, his shorts are not what she is taking issue with.

“No,” she shakes her head. “The hat. Where did you get that?”

Because, despite her own longstanding attempt to make her son a Yankees fan, he is currently wearing a bright blue Mets cap, the lurid orange logo shining up at her in what Olivia considers to be the ultimate display of poor taste. It is not something that she bought for him – of that, she is certain – and it’s not like he has his own money, so she has no idea at all where it’s come from.

“Oh,” James beams. “Elliot gave it to me.” Olivia has noticed, lately, that whenever James refers to Elliot in conversation, he uses his name, but when he is addressing him directly, he’s begun to fairly consistently call him ‘Dad.’ It’s sweet, she thinks, that he seems to be moving towards thinking of Elliot as his dad, instead of a relative stranger with whom his mother has a difficult history – even if it’s not necessarily a linear process. That’s not what she’s focused on now, though. Because Elliot has bought their son a hideous travesty to put on his head, and she could slap him for it. But she can’t let that on to James, who is clearly pleased to have a gift from his father.

“I see,” she nods, trying to un-pinch her face. “I thought you were a Yankees fan?”

James screws up his face a bit, and Olivia has the sense that she won’t be getting a win here. “Mom,” he grumbles. “Baseball is boring. It’s just a hat – I like these colours better.”

Olivia nods, making a concerted effort to keep her expression neutral. There’s no point in arguing with her son about this, she knows, because he has never shown any interest at all in baseball, and she doesn’t want to make this a loyalty thing between her and Elliot – not while he and James are still getting used to each other.

“Fair enough,” she allows. “But go put on long pants; it’s chilly out.”

James rolls his eyes at her, but runs back to his room anyways, presumably to change. They were due to pick up Elliot for the drive to DC about twenty minutes ago, but between James’ inability to find his one pair of dress shoes and an unexpected call from Fin about a case, they are now very much running behind schedule. The wedding isn’t until the next day, so it’s not like they’ll actually be missing anything – other than, perhaps, their hotel check-in – but Olivia still feels the need to hurry them along. She’s already kicking herself a bit for sending James to change – it's chilly, but not actually that cold; if she’d let him wear the shorts, maybe it would have just taught him to wear long pants in the future. She’s kidding herself there, she knows, but either way, it’s not like he’ll freeze.

“James,” she calls, “never mind, let’s just go!”

“I’m almost done!” He shouts back, and Olivia uses the spare moment to gather all their bags and double check that they aren’t about to leave anything important behind. When James comes jogging back into the room – wearing jeans now, though still with that fucking Mets cap on – Olivia quickly ushers him out into the hallway so that they can’t find anything else that will delay them. Even as they are making their way to the car, though, she is planning exactly how she’ll pay Elliot back for gifting their son such a horrible eye-sore.

--

When they do – finally – make it to Elliot’s apartment, he is waiting out on the stoop, and he smirks at her when she gets out of the car to help him put his stuff in the trunk. She tells James it’s because the mechanism is broken – which is true – but mostly Olivia just wants a moment out of her son’s earshot to tell Elliot off about the hat.

“I just wanted to let you know that I will not be putting out on this trip,” she tells him, reaching for his bag. It is obviously not the greeting Elliot had been expecting, and he gapes at her for a moment.

“Um, what?”

“No sex,” she clarifies. “Strictly a no-go.”

“Why?” His eyebrows are all scrunched together, and if she weren’t so annoyed, Olivia thinks it might be attractive.

“Take a quick look at the monstrosity on our son’s head, and ask me that again.”

Elliot peers around her shoulder, before turning back to her with a proud little smirk on his face. Damn him.

“Kid’s got good taste,” he shrugs, propping himself up against the side of her car and discretely resting his hand on her hip, below the line of the window. Part of her wants to bat his hand away, but it’s also been a few days since she’s seen him, and Olivia can already feel her ‘no sex’ resolution beginning to slip away from her.

“I love him and everything,” she says, “but no, he does not. I blame you entirely for this.”

Elliot laughs, and, by the way that his eyes dart to her lips, she can tell that he’s restraining himself. She really should have known better than to start bickering with him in James’ field of vision, because, since they have been together, it always – always – ends in sex. But they’re in public, and James is now tapping on the window, so Olivia snaps herself out of it. They’re already late.

“Let’s go,” she says, gesturing to the car. “We’ll talk about this later.” She can tell, from his increasingly wicked smirk, that Elliot knows just as well as she does that her ‘no sex’ proclamation is unlikely to hold.

--

They are about two hours into the drive to DC when Elliot lays his hand over hers on the gearshift, and Olivia nearly causes a wreck on the I-95.

“Stop it,” she scolds him, checking in the rear-view mirror to make sure James is still asleep.

“Liv, it’s not like I’m trying to feel you up,” he says, mercifully keeping his voice low.

She shoots him a quick look, before directing her attention back to traffic. “You better not,” she warns. “I’d leave you by the side of the highway, even if we are on the way to your daughter’s wedding.”

“Give me a bit of credit here,” he chuckles, before sobering. “James is asleep, Liv. And I still think we should tell him; I don’t want to keep this a secret.”

Olivia sighs. Since their appointment with Dr. Gallardi, they have agreed that they are – in fact – in a relationship, and Elliot has become increasingly antsy to tell people. Her reluctance to do so, for once, has nothing at all to do with either of them, and is exclusively down to timing.

“El, we’re not keeping it a secret – it's just not the right time to tell people.”

“Why not?”

“Because all everyone should be focused on, at Liz’s wedding, is Liz’s wedding,” she tells him. It seems perfectly straightforward to her, but he obviously hadn’t considered it, because his mouth makes a little ‘O’ and he looks vaguely sheepish.

“That’s-” he pauses, scratching the back of his head. “I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a good point.”

She just laughs and shakes her head at him. Of course he hadn’t thought of it. For all that he’s grown up over the years, he’s still Elliot, and he’s still got an impulsive streak a mile wide.

“That’s why you have me,” she smirks. “To have all the clever thoughts you miss.” He laughs again, fuller this time, and lifts his arm to lay across the top of her seat, his hand settling on her head rest. She knows that she should probably make him move it, but it’s borderline, and he’s not actually touching her, so she leaves it alone; it’s a nice little comfortable, domestic thing, and she can’t bring herself to make him stop.

“I still say we could have shared a hotel room though,” he says. Olivia, again, takes her eyes off the road to level a glare at him.

“We absolutely could not have,” she tells him, emphatic. “If for no other reason than I refuse to scar James.”

“Scar him with what?” Elliot smirks. “I thought sex was a strict no-go.”

“It will be if you don’t keep your voice down,” she chides, again checking the rear-view to make sure James is asleep. When she’s satisfied that he is, Olivia turns to glance at Elliot and finds him giving her a look that is entirely inappropriate in the presence of their son. “And don’t look at me like that,” she reprimands him. “James is nine, but he’s not stupid.”

“See,” Elliot laughs, “this is why I’m impatient to tell him, Liv. There’s only so much control I have over the way that I look at you.”

“Yeah, well I hope you’ve got a handle on that this weekend, El, because two of your kids have already walked in on us, and I’m not looking to add to the list.”

Elliot laughs again, but doesn’t get a chance to respond, because James has woken up in the back seat.

“Where are we?” He asks, groggy and rubbing his eyes.

“New Jersey,” Olivia answers. The way that James grimaces, ever so slightly, amuses her.

“Are we going to stop for lunch?” He yawns.

Olivia rolls her eyes. “We ate breakfast right before we left, how are you hungry already?”

James only shrugs, but Elliot is looking at her now too, and Olivia gets the feeling that she’s about to be outnumbered on this. “I am kind of hungry, Liv,” he interjects.

“There’s granola bars in my purse,” she says, knowing neither of them is likely to be satisfied with that.

Mom,” James whines, confirming her hunch, “you’ve had those forever – they're melted and gross.”

“Fine,” Olivia sighs, ignoring the smug look that she’s sure Elliot’s giving her. “We’ll stop. But I’m not paying for lunch.”

“My treat then,” Elliot smiles. “James, how do you feel about McDonald’s?”

Despite her reluctance to stop for lunch – and the fact that she knows she’ll have to restrain James from eating his weight in chicken nuggets – Olivia has already made a note of which exit will take them to McDonald’s.

--

In the end, they’re only an hour later than they’d planned to be, and Elliot declares it a victory. Olivia doesn’t entirely agree, but she knows that it isn’t worth fighting him about it. They still have plenty of time to shower and change before they’re expected at what Liz has dubbed her ‘not a rehearsal dinner, dinner’, so she’s decided to let it go. While they are at the check-in desk, though, Kathleen comes careening into the lobby, making a beeline towards them.

“Olivia! Thank God!” She exclaims, with a mildly panicked look on her face. “You speak Spanish, right?”

“Um, yes.” Olivia is confused both by the question and by the urgency with which it has been asked, and she gets the sense that her plans to shower and relax before dinner may be changing.

“I need you to come translate for us,” Kathleen says, ignoring Elliot’s presence entirely. “Paula and her mother are in a shouting match, and we don’t want to bug Liz about it unless we need to.”

“Oh, sure,” she nods. She’d been under the impression that Paula and her parents were not on the best of terms, and she’s now beginning to understand Kathleen’s urgency. “El, would you check me in?” She checks, briefly, to make sure that Elliot has agreed, before turning to James. “Stay with your dad, okay? I’ll be right back.” James is, per usual, unconcerned by her sudden departure, but Olivia does notice the pleased smile on Elliot’s face when she calls him James’ dad, right before she takes off after Kathleen towards the elevators.

“I didn’t realize Paula’s parents would be here,” she says, following Elliot’s daughter into the elevator.

“Just her mom,” Kathleen grimaces. “Apparently she’s decided to get on board, but they’ve been screaming at each other the last half-hour, so I’m not really sure how well that’s going.”

Olivia winces. “Do you have any idea what it’s about?”

“No,” Kathleen shakes her head. “It devolved into Spanish pretty quickly, and I took French at school, so I’m useless here. Liz speaks some, but we don’t want to bother her unless we absolutely have to.”

“What about Maureen and Richard?” She asks. Surely at least one of the Stabler children was made to take high school Spanish.

“Rich isn’t here yet,” Kathleen rolls her eyes, “and Maureen made Kevin Garcia take her Spanish finals, so she’s worse than useless.”

Olivia laughs, always having assumed that Maureen was the most studious of Elliot’s children. It immediately becomes obvious when they are approaching Paula’s room, though, because Olivia can hear shouting from halfway down the hall. The fact that Maureen and Kathy are hovering around the doorway is another dead giveaway.

“Oh, Olivia, thank God!” Never in her life did Olivia imagine that Kathy Stabler would ever be so happy to see her, but then, it’s been a weird year all around, so this is hardly the most shocking development.

“Hey guys,” she greets them. “Any background at all on this?”

Maureen shakes her head. “I came to ask Paula about the DJ, and they were already like this.”

Olivia nods, leaning up as close to the door as she dares. They are being loud enough that it’s not strictly necessary, but the door and the wall do muffle the sound a bit, and she doesn’t want to contribute to any misunderstandings. What she hears, though, is not at all what she’d expected. While the tone and the volume point towards drama, the actual conversation seems fairly benign.

“They’re-” she pauses, making sure she’s hearing correctly. “Arguing about flower arrangements.”

“What?” Kathy asks, obviously surprised.

Olivia takes a moment to listen carefully again, and is able to distinctly make out the phrase: “I don’t care that you’re a lesbian, but the bluebells are a step too far.”

“Her mom doesn’t agree with the choice of flowers,” she shrugs.

“That’s it?” Maureen is clearly just as shocked, though Kathleen has begun to laugh. Kathy just looks perplexed.

“I mean, I’ve missed a lot of the conversation,” Olivia shrugs. “But that’s what they’re arguing about right now.”

“Oh,” Kathy says. “Well, I don’t care for the flowers either, but I’m not about to start screaming about it.”

That earns a snort from Kathleen, who raises an eyebrow at her mother. “Please,” she laughs, “you just about had a stroke when Liz told you she wasn’t wearing white.”

“It’s a wedding,” Kathy huffs. “A white dress doesn’t feel like too much to ask.” Both Maureen and Kathleen roll their eyes hard, and Olivia gets the sense that this isn’t the first time they’re having this conversation.

“Yes, Mom,” Maureen nods. “We all know your thoughts about this. Come on then,” she gestures towards the elevators. “If they’re not fighting about anything big, let’s leave them alone. I need to take a shower, and one of you needs to call Rich and tell him to hurry his ass up.”

“I’ll leave that to you,” Kathleen says, to her mother. “I have a few things to bug Dad about, anyways.” Then she turns to Olivia. “He’s staying with you, yeah?”

“What?” Olivia startles, her voice coming out a few octaves higher than normal. “No, no, he’s got his own room.”

Kathleen gives her a look that Olivia chooses not to analyze, before nodding. “Alright, I’ll give him a call.” Kathy and Maureen split off from them at the elevator, heading to a different floor, and Olivia hopes that Kathleen will let the topic drop, but of course she doesn’t. “You guys aren’t fooling anyone, you know that, right?”

Olivia just gives a half-hearted shrug, not bothering to confirm or deny anything.

--

When he’s finished checking both he and Liv into their rooms, Elliot turns and finds James observing him with a strange look on his face.

“You good?” He asks his son, because really, James had eaten a slightly concerning amount of chicken nuggets.

“Yeah,” the boy nods, though he’s still giving Elliot an odd look.

“You sure?”

James nods again, and looks as if he’s going to say something, but stops himself. Elliot decides to let it go, as they make their way to the elevator. Maybe he’s just tired from the drive.

“You know,” James starts, once they’ve boarded the elevator, “you’re not a very good liar.”

“What?” Elliot is stunned. He has no idea at all what’s prompted that particular comment – he’s not aware of having lied to James about anything recently. The boy just shrugs.

“You and Mom think you’re being so sneaky,” he shakes his head, and Elliot’s stomach drops a bit. “But you sleep over in her room, and you guys kiss all the time when you think I’m not looking.”

“Oh,” he stutters. Shit. He’d really thought they’d been subtler.

“Are you embarrassed of her?” Elliot’s eyebrows jump high up his forehead at the question, and he has half a mind to hit the emergency stop button on the elevator.

“Absolutely not,” he replies, not bothering to deny anything. Clearly, James has already figured enough out to make it a waste of breath. “We just wanted to be sure we were in a good place before we told everyone.”

James gives him another of those intense, probing looks that remind him so much of Liv. “It’s not because she’s your mistress?”

“What?!” His voice has jumped a few octaves out of surprise, but Elliot ignores it. He has no idea where the hell James would have gotten that idea, but he has every intention of dispelling it. “Your mother is not my mistress,” he says, emphatically.

“Well, you were married when I was born,” James points out. Jesus, Elliot thinks, this kid really does know how to find the hard topics.

“Yeah,” he confirms. “I was. But your mom wasn’t – and isn’t – my mistress.”

The elevator doors open on their floor, and Elliot has the desperate hope that James will abandon this line of questioning, but, realistically, he knows better – he really is Liv’s son in this regard, shyness or no.

“How’s that work?” He asks, confirming Elliot’s suspicions.

“What do you mean?”

“If you were married, but you and my mom had sex, then how come she’s not your mistress? Isn’t that what a mistress is – someone you cheat on your wife with?”

Dear God, Elliot wants out of this conversation. He has no idea how in the world is he meant to explain his infidelity to his nine-year-old son – the product of that infidelity.

“Well, yeah,” he starts, awkwardly. “Technically, yes, that is what a mistress is. But usually, it means that you’re having a whole separate relationship that you’re hiding. Your mom and I never did that – we were friends who had sex one time.”

James grimaces. “But you were married.”

“I was,” Elliot nods. “And I’m not proud of that, but I don’t regret it either.”

“Why not?” James asks, tilting his head at Elliot.

“Well, that’s complicated,” Elliot tries, but the exasperated look James is giving him tells him that it won’t be enough. “I can’t regret it, because otherwise you wouldn’t have been born – that alone makes it all worth it. But also, I was in love with your mom then – like I am now. It doesn’t make it right that I cheated, but it’s part of what makes it complicated.”

Elliot lets them into his room, dropping his bag at the foot of one bed and gesturing for James to do the same. He knows that James will probably ultimately stay in Liv’s room, but he has no idea how long she’ll be with Kathleen, and they might as well be comfortable for this conversation.

“So, you were in love with her, and she was in love with you, but neither of you did anything about it?” James asks, launching himself onto the free bed.

“Pretty much,” Elliot nods.

“Well, that’s stupid.”

“Yeah,” Elliot nods, again. “It was.”

“What about now?” He asks, giving Elliot a piercing look.

Elliot knows that he should probably wait for Liv to have this conversation, but he really doesn’t see any way of postponing it that will leave him with any credibility in James’ eyes. He has the feeling that he’s hanging by a thread on that front already. “Well,” he takes a deep breath. “Now we’re doing something about it.”

James is silent for a moment, though he’s still giving Elliot that unnerving look. “Okay,” he finally nods. “But she’s really happy, so you better not leave again.”

Elliot swallows. He recognizes the statement for what it is – a threat. The fact that it has come from a nine-year-old with ketchup smeared across the side of his chin does nothing to diminish the impact, either, and Elliot nods, solemn. “I’m not going anywhere,” he confirms. “Not again. Not ever.”

Chapter Text

“Don’t be mad.”

Elliot knows – immediately – that he should have chosen any other way of greeting Liv upon her return from wherever Kathleen had dragged her off to. She had been smiling, looking vaguely amused, as she’d walked into his hotel room; and now she looks about ready to bolt – or smack him.

“What did you do?”

There is no question that he has done something objectionable, and – even though that’s not entirely the case – Elliot can still feel himself cringing. He has now all but ensured that she will – in fact – be mad.

“James knows about us,” he admits. It’s probably best to just rip the band aid off – get it out in the open right off the bat instead of letting her stew on the possibilities.

“Elliot, what the fuck?” Her voice is eerily monotone when she speaks, and it occurs to Elliot that he’s never really dealt with Liv the overprotective mother before. She looks murderous, and he’s genuinely a bit scared.

“I didn’t tell him,” Elliot rushes to clarify. “We just haven’t been quite as discrete as we’ve thought. He figured it out himself.” Her expression softens, minutely, and he thinks that she looks more concerned than furious now.

He takes a chance and steps closer to her, reaching out to rest his hand on her arm, and when she doesn’t immediately flinch away or smack him, Elliot takes a bigger risk and wraps his free arm around her, pulling her against him. She just sighs and leans into him, and he’s never been so relieved – she's not pushing him away.

“God, we’ve fucked this up,” she sighs, pressing her forehead into his shoulder. “I wanted to talk to him about it first – make sure he’s alright with the idea instead of just springing it on him.”

Elliot nods. They’ve talked at length about how they should tell James that they’re together, and this had not been on either of their lists of acceptable ways to do it.

“I know,” he says, pressing a kiss to her temple. “But he didn’t seem all that bothered, if it helps. Mostly just kind of grossed out about seeing us kissing.”

“He’s seen us kissing?” Olivia’s head pops up so quickly that Elliot barely has time to move out of the way.

“Yeah,” he nods. “His exact words about it were: ‘you’re old and it’s gross – maybe check to make sure you’re alone first.’”

Olivia drops her head back onto his shoulder, but he’s pretty sure that she’s laughing now.

“Just for that, I’m going to start kissing you in very public places now,” she chuckles. “Maybe that’ll teach him to call me old.”

Elliot lets out a surprised bark of laughter. Now that the initial shock of James’ discovery has worn off a bit, he’s glad that Olivia seems not to be freaking out. He is also a bit giddy at the idea that they will soon – openly – be a regular couple, horrifying their son with public displays of affection.

“Where is James, by the way?” She asks.

“Dave took him and Logan down to the little arcade just off the lobby.”

“How did he seem? Aside from horrified by his ancient parents, of course.”

Elliot laughs again. “He seemed fine, Liv. I told him you and I would answer any questions he might have together later, but he was more concerned about not missing dinner.”

“Of course he was,” Liv chuckles, rolling her eyes, before sobering. “I still feel bad though, El. This isn’t how I wanted him to find out.”

“I know,” he nods. “Me neither. But he didn’t seem traumatized, and we’ll talk to him properly in a bit to make sure.”

She just nods, leaning further into him and wrapping her arms around his middle. Even with the relative seriousness of the moment, Elliot can’t help but notice that they are completely alone in a very nicely appointed hotel room, and they have nowhere to be for at least another two hours.

“Liv?”

“Hmm?”

“Any updates on the status of your sex embargo?”

This time, she really does smack him.

--

Liz’s ‘not a rehearsal dinner, dinner’ is a casual affair. It’s just the Stablers – plus Paula, her mother, and Olivia – crammed into a large corner booth of the hotel restaurant. Nothing fancy, but – in Olivia’s opinion – all the better for it. She’s grateful for the opportunity to reacclimatize herself to the chaotic environment that seems to surround Elliot’s family. Paula’s mother – despite her composed and almost severe exterior – seems similarly overwhelmed. Olivia is jammed in between the woman – she thinks her name is Pilar, but it had been loud when they’d been introduced – and Elliot, and she has been craning her neck to try and keep an eye on James all through dinner.

“He’s fine,” Elliot tells her, in between bites of his chicken. Olivia rolls her eyes. Of course, Elliot is supremely unconcerned that their son has discovered their relationship. She’s still a bit anxious about the whole thing, and the fact that they hadn’t been able to talk to James before dinner has only exacerbated that anxiety.

“I know he’s fine,” she mutters, trying to keep her voice down. “I just wish we’d had a chance to talk to him before dinner.”

“We’ll talk to him after dinner,” Elliot placates.

“Yeah,” she nods. “But I would have liked the chance to remind him to be discrete – it is still Liz’s wedding, after all.”

Elliot turns to look at her, his eyebrows furrowed. “You want him to keep his mouth shut?”

Shit. No, that’s not what she’d meant – not exactly. Despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly obvious that they’re doing a piss poor job of keeping anything a secret, Olivia still has the lingering fear that an open confirmation that they’re together will be poorly received by Elliot’s family. But really, she could have phrased that better, because she has never been one to make her son keep secrets for her, and she’s certainly not about to start.

“No,” she shakes her head. “That’s not what I meant. I just want this weekend to be about Liz and Paula, that’s all.”

Elliot’s still giving her a questioning look, though, and it occurs to Olivia that she’s hurt his feelings. He looks uncertain in a way that she’s only seen on him a few times – mostly since they’ve been dating, or together, or whatever it is that they’ve been doing these last few months.

“El,” she rests her hand on his knee under the table, “that’s not what I meant. I want to tell people; I just don’t want to pull focus.”

He nods, but the hurt look on his face doesn’t entirely go away. Olivia feels like an ass, but there isn’t much she can do about that right now, shoved in between him and Paula’s mother.

“Olivia,” Paula’s voice pulls her out of her thoughts. “You went to Siena College, right?”

Not having been expecting the question, Olivia blinks at Paula a bit owlishly before nodding, confused how in the world she had known that.

“I did,” she confirms.

“My brother Michael did too,” Paula smiles. “He would have been here today, but his flight was delayed. He’ll probably get in around midnight.”

Paula’s mother tuts beside her, but Olivia just nods, happy to have a neutral topic of conversation to focus on.

“Where’s he coming in from?” She asks, keeping her attention focused on Paula in an attempt to block out the expression on Elliot’s face.

“San Francisco.”

“Oakland,” Paula’s mother corrects, drawing eye rolls from both Paula and Liz.

“Ma, the airport’s in San Francisco.”

“Yes, but Michael lives in Oakland.” Olivia can see Maureen – who is seated beside Liz – attempting to stifle her laughter at the exchange. Apparently, Paula’s mother is rigid about more than just flower arrangements.

“Fine,” Paula rolls her eyes again. “Let’s just say ‘the Bay Area’ and change the topic, shall we?”

“Do you have just the one brother?” Olivia asks, though – as soon as the words have left her mouth – she wonders if she’s wading into dangerous waters. Paula’s family seems to be a bit of a sore subject. Before she can take the question back, though – or redirect – Paula is answering.

“No, I’ve got three,” she laughs. “Anthony and David are driving down from New York, but I knew even before I invited them that they’d be late.”

Paula’s mother tuts again and says something in rapid-fire Spanish that Olivia can’t decipher, even sitting next to the woman. By the renewed eye-rolling from Paula, she guesses that it isn’t flattering.

“Ma, English,” Paula chides. Her mother just sends an eye-roll back at her, and Olivia has to press her lips together hard so that she doesn’t laugh. The family seems to have a very particular style of communicating, and – between that and the Stablers – she can only imagine that the actual wedding will be something of a mess. Or – at least – the party afterwards will be; she thinks everyone will probably be able to manage their best behaviour for the duration of the ceremony. She hopes.

Perhaps, though, Olivia thinks, the general family chaos will serve as enough of a distraction that she can let go of some of her anxiety about she and Elliot stealing focus from Liz, and allow herself to just relax and enjoy being at a wedding with him. She can’t remember the last time she had a date to a wedding, and the romantic in her – that she normally strives to keep buried – recognizes that, at the very least, she wants to dance with him without worrying what other people will think. Though, she thinks, if the look Elliot had been giving her a moment ago is any indication, she may owe him an apology first.

--

Elliot has stayed down in the restaurant to speak to Liz about something, and Olivia finds herself alone in the elevator with James, who is roundly annoyed that she has not let him immediately run off to the arcade with Logan again. He’s never been one to pitch much of a fit about anything, but he’s scowling at the emergency phone panel, and Olivia has the vague premonition that his teen years will be trying.

“James?” She tries, knowing that – whether he’s in a mood or not – they do need to have a conversation.

“What?” He scowls, still not meeting her eyes.

“Hey, tone,” she warns. He looks up at her – the slightest bit sheepish – but just crosses his arms in response. “I wanted to talk to you about the conversation you had with Elliot earlier.”

“Oh,” he leans back against the railing. His expression has shifted from annoyed to nervous, and Olivia thinks that’s probably not the best sign.

“I’m sorry that you found about Elliot and I the way that you did; that wasn’t the plan.”

James nods, but doesn’t say anything in response, and Olivia can feel her own anxiety ratcheting back up.

“How do you feel about it?” She asks, not entirely sure she wants the answer.

“I dunno,” James shrugs. “Are you guys together together, or are you just going to date and break up?”

“I guess we’re together together,” she says, though it feels like an incomplete answer.

“You guess?” James asks, looking up at her now, all traces of his previous attitude having disappeared.

“Well, you never really know how things are going to happen until they happen – but this isn’t just a casual thing, if that’s what you mean.”

James is giving her an unnerving look now, and she very suddenly understands what Elliot had meant when he’d said that their son reminds him too much of her sometimes. If this is a look that James has picked up from her, Olivia feels very bad for Elliot.

“Seems like you’re avoiding the question,” James shrugs again. “If you’re in love with him, and he’s in love with you, then I don’t see what the big problem is.”

Olivia stands, frozen, gaping at her son. Since when is her nine-year-old the voice of reason?

“Well,” she stutters, “there isn’t any problem.” James raises an eyebrow. Seriously, what the fuck is up with this kid today?

“Okay,” he nods. “Then just say you’re together. Everybody already knows, anyway.”

“What?” Olivia is aware that her mouth is likely hanging open. “They do?”

“Well, yeah,” James nods, looking at her as though she’s just said something immensely stupid. “You guys are doing a really bad job of hiding it.”

“Oh,” Olivia sighs, feeling stupider by the minute. If everybody already knows she and Elliot are a couple, then all she’s done by insisting they hide it is hurt Elliot’s feelings. Shit, maybe she’s the asshole here.

“You are in love with each other, right?” James asks, still giving her that fucking look.

“Yes,” Olivia admits. Though, it occurs to her, she’s never actually said the words out loud – not to Elliot, not in the present tense anyways. She’d told him – after her stabbing – that she’d loved him, but she hasn’t actually let him know that she still does, despite the frequency with which he’s professed his own feelings. Okay, she’s definitely the asshole here.

“Then just be a couple,” James shrugs. “I don’t see why it has to be a big secret; you’re not his mistress or anything.”

Again, Olivia finds herself gaping stupidly at her son. When the elevator doors open, he just shakes his head at her and walks off down the hall to their room, and it takes her until the elevator doors begin to close to shake herself out of it and follow him. Christ, but she’s being an idiot.

Chapter Text

Once James has settled in to watch the kind of trashy TV that she only allows when they stay in hotels, Olivia makes her way down the hall to Elliot’s room. She’s not sure if he’s back yet, but he hasn’t responded to any of her texts, and what she has to say to him, she doesn’t want to say over text anyways – or in front of James, regardless of whether he knows about them or not.

He looks wary when he answers the door, and Olivia feels even worse. Jesus, she’s fucking up left and right today.

“Hey,” she smiles at him. “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” he nods, stepping back to let her through. His expression hasn’t changed though, and Olivia knows she needs to fix this.

“El, I’m sorry,” she says, trying to catch his gaze. He’s ducked his head down and his eyes seem to be focused on the mini bar instead of her. That’s not a great sign.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” he shrugs. “I get that I’ve been pushing.”

She shakes her head, grabbing him by the bicep and steering him to sit on one of the beds with her. “No, you haven’t. Or-” she pauses. “If you have been pushing, it’s been warranted. There’s no reason not to tell people – I’m just nervous, is all.”

He finally looks up at her, and the look in his eyes kills her a bit, it’s so uncertain. “Why?” He asks. “What are you nervous about, Liv?”

“It’s stupid,” she sighs, shrugging.

“Tell me anyways,” he says, tucking a flyway strand of hair behind her ear, almost absentmindedly.

She shrugs again. “It’s one thing for people to think that we’re together – people have thought that for years – but once we confirm it and it’s out in the open, I just worry that- I dunno,” she sighs. “I worry that people will think that-” she pauses again, trying to work out how to phrase what she’s thinking. “That I’m your mistress or something. That this is the reason that you and Kathy got divorced, or that I’ve broken up your family.”

“Liv, nobody thinks that,” he tells her. Logically, she knows he’s right, but it’s something she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about.

“I know,” she nods. “And now that I’ve said it out loud, I feel a bit ridiculous. But when it was just us who knew, it felt safe. Having everybody know just feels like opening up a part of myself to the world that I always thought would stay hidden – even if it was badly hidden, in hindsight.”

By the way that he’s tilting his head at her and furrowing his brow, Olivia can tell that Elliot hasn’t understood much of what she’s just said. She’ll just have to be more straightforward, then.

“Elliot, I’ve loved you more than twenty years, but I’ve always loved you quietly – secretly. I couldn’t even tell you, and I definitely couldn’t ever tell your kids, or Kathy – Jesus, can you imagine? Now, you’re asking me to do that – to come out and tell the world something that I always thought would be a secret I took to my grave. And I want to – it's time – but it’s also scary. So, I guess I’m freaking out about it a bit, and I’m sorry if that’s come off as me not wanting to tell people, or being ashamed of you, or anything like that. Because that’s not it. I do want to tell people, I’m just scared.”

Elliot looks dumbfounded, and just sits blinking at her for a moment, before: “You telling me you love me, Liv?”

“Yeah,” she nods. “That was my very roundabout way of telling you I love you, El. Because I do. I love you so much.”

He’s giving her that dopey, beaming smile again, and Olivia suddenly feels as though all is right in the world. She’s more than willing to open up the private, long-hidden part of her that’s loved him quietly all these years if he will just keep looking at her like that.

“I love you too,” he smiles. “So much. But then, you knew that – I haven’t been able to shut up about it.”

Olivia can’t help her laughter, and she presses a quick kiss to his lips, nodding. “I do know that,” she says, kissing him again. “And I’m withdrawing my objection to you telling me all the time, because I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing you say it.”

Elliot grins at her again, pushing her hair out of her face and leaving his hand cradling her head. Olivia recognizes that they are moving into dangerous territory, given that she’s left James alone in her room, only intending to be gone ten minutes.

“I love you,” Elliot murmurs, before leaning in to capture her lips with his. God, she can hardly breathe when he kisses her like this. His hands are everywhere – in her hair, on her face, skating down her back and sides – and she’s flat on her back underneath him before she’s even aware that he’s moved. It is only the knowledge that she’d told James she’d be back soon that keeps Olivia from fully giving in to him and shimmying out of her pants, hoping the neighbours don’t mind the noise.

“El,” she groans. “We can’t. I told James I’d be ten minutes – he'll be nervous if I’m late.”

Elliot stills above her, and she knows that – if it were anything other than their son expecting her back – he'd be telling her to just stay and deal with the consequences later. Instead he nods, pressing a quick kiss to her lips and rolling off of her, standing up and holding out his hand to help her up.

“You’d better get back then,” he smiles, not dropping her hand.

“Come with me?” She hadn’t intended to say that out loud, but really, James already knows they’re a couple; surely it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Elliot stayed the night with them?

“You sure?” He asks, tilting his head at her.

“Yeah,” she nods. “As long as you bring pyjamas and don’t try to feel me up, I don’t see why it would be a problem.”

Elliot laughs, pulling her in close to him and sliding his arms around her, resting his hands very much on her ass.

“What did I just say?” She laughs.

He presses a quick kiss to her lips, still laughing. “Just getting it out of my system,” he shrugs. Olivia swats at him half-heartedly, but she really doesn’t mind. As long as he doesn’t do it in front of James, Elliot can grab her ass all he likes.

--

James looks up only briefly when they return to the room, and he doesn’t seem at all surprised that Elliot is with her. Jesus, they really haven’t been fooling anyone.

“What’re we watching?” Elliot asks, dropping down onto her bed and climbing under the covers as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. He has already changed into pyjamas, so she has no reason at all to scold him for it, and the domesticity of the whole thing throws Olivia a bit – but in the best way.

“First 48,” James mumbles. That is decidedly not what he had been watching when she’d left.

“Absolutely not.” She shakes her head.

“Come on-” James starts, but cuts himself off when he sees the look on her face. She’s not usually strict about what he watches, but Olivia has a firm ‘no murder shows’ rule. She thinks that’s more than fair – he is still only nine.

“Change it,” she tells him, firmly. He huffs a bit, but ultimately switches the channel to some home renovation show.

Olivia ducks into the bathroom to quickly change and brush her teeth, and when she returns, she finds James and Elliot laughing about something on TV. She has no idea at all what’s prompted their amusement, but the visual chokes her up a bit and she internally chastises herself for having gone soft. James just looks so comfortable with Elliot, and it’s everything that she’s wanted for her son – since before he was born, really.

Elliot notices her standing frozen in the doorway though, and raises an eyebrow at her. “You good, Liv?”

She shakes herself out of it and nods, climbing under the covers with Elliot and trying not to blush at the way that James is watching them with an amused look. They are doing nothing at all inappropriate, and she knows that she’ll have to get used to people seeing her and Elliot doing couple things, but – really – James doesn’t have to look so smug about it.

“So, you guys are a couple then?” He asks, smirking in a way that is far more Elliot than Olivia is strictly comfortable with.

“Yes,” she nods. “But we’re not making any big announcement about it; it’s Liz’s day, and – as you’ve so helpfully pointed out – we've been doing a bad job keeping the secret anyways.”

She can feel Elliot’s rumbling laugh from where he’s pressed up against her side, and James just snorts from his own bed, turning back to pay attention to the TV again.

“Kathleen’s going to be so mad,” he says, shaking his head.

“What? Why?” Olivia is shocked by the comment – there has been nothing at all in her interactions with Kathleen to suggest that Elliot’s middle daughter would take issue with her and Elliot being together.

“She owes Rich and Maureen like fifty bucks,” James shrugs. “She said you guys wouldn’t admit it until we got back to New York.”

Elliot is very clearly trying to smother his laughter, but Olivia’s jaw has dropped open. Elliot’s kids have been betting on them? She supposes she ought to find that reassuring.

“Just how much money is riding on this?” Elliot asks. James shrugs again.

“I dunno,” he says. “But I think Maureen’s won – everybody but Rich owes her at least ten dollars.”

“Who exactly is involved in this racket?” Olivia asks her son, curling into Elliot’s side and not bothering to hide it.

“Everyone,” James says, looking as if she’s just asked him a profoundly stupid question.

“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” She asks.

“I dunno, everyone,” James shrugs. “Maureen, Kathleen, Rich, Liz, Paula, Kathy, Uncle Fin. Eli tried to join, but his mom wouldn’t let him.”

Olivia isn’t sure at all how to react to that. She’s fairly sure she should be embarrassed, but, at the moment, all she feels is shocked – and amused. Elliot is clearly leaning more towards amused, because he has lost the battle to control his laughter entirely, and he’s shaking enough that it’s beginning to jostle her. Olivia just huffs and smacks him, but it only makes him laugh harder.

“It’s not funny,” she grumbles, even though she knows that it is funny – she's just not able to laugh about it yet.

Chapter Text

For an event that’s been planned on about a week’s notice, Olivia thinks that Liz’s wedding is shockingly well organized. The ceremony is being held in a small, United church about two blocks from their hotel, and while Paula’s mother had complained the whole walk over that it wasn’t a Catholic church – she had been sure she would have been able to convince someone called Father Raul to perform the ceremony, with force if necessary – Olivia thinks that it’s really quite perfect.

As soon as they arrive, Elliot disappears into the back room of the church to meet Liz, and Olivia finds seats for herself and James in a row with Kathleen and one of Paula’s brothers – though she can’t really tell the three of them apart.

“Hey Liv,” Kathleen greets her, smiling. “You look nice. You too James; very dapper.” James turns a bit pink, but thanks Kathleen nonetheless, and Olivia considers it progress.

“How did they put this all together so quickly?” She asks, genuinely baffled. If she had a week to plan a wedding, Olivia is quite sure it would be little more than a courthouse affair. Kathleen just shrugs.

“I have to assume it was Paula’s doing, because Liz isn’t nearly organized enough to have pulled this off. She’s a bit scatterbrained socially, but she can get shit done on a timeline – I'd guess she gets it from her mom, but I’d never say that to her face.” Olivia laughs out loud, because she can easily imagine the sort of reaction that would get from Paula. “Besides,” Kathleen continues. “She works for some high-powered Senator, so I’d imagine she’s called in all kinds of favors.”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Paula’s brother – whether Michael, Anthony or David, Olivia has no idea – butts in. Kathleen nods, looking pleased that her guess has proven correct.

“Well, whatever it is, everything looks lovely,” Olivia says, looking around the church.

“Giving you ideas?” Kathleen smirks.

Olivia scoffs and shakes her head. “I’m not getting married any time soon.” She had hoped to cut the conversation off there, but James chooses an inopportune moment to find his voice.

“They admitted it last night though, so you owe Maureen like fifty bucks.”

“James!” She scolds, but her son looks entirely unrepentant, and Kathleen is unable to contain her own amusement.

“Oh, come on Olivia,” she chuckles. “Nobody’s surprised. Although I would have very much appreciated it if you could have waited another week to confirm it – Maureen's going to be insufferable about this.”

“Insufferable about what?” Maureen herself asks, filing into their pew with Dave and Logan in tow. Olivia is vaguely mortified, but there’s no backing out of it now.

“Apparently you’re owed some money,” she tells Elliot’s oldest daughter, unwilling to elaborate any further.

“Aha!” Maureen exclaims, clearly needing no elaboration. “I knew it! Weddings bring something out in people, Katie, I’ve always said that. I’ll accept my payment either in cash or by e-transfer – no cheques please.”

Kathleen just rolls her eyes at her sister’s theatrics, and even James looks amused, so Olivia can’t find it in herself to be all that embarrassed – even if she had intended for people to find out less... publicly.

“I feel like I should get some kind of finder’s fee,” James says, shocking Olivia a bit, but drawing laughter from the others.

“We’ll discuss terms at the reception, James,” Maureen nods. Olivia just looks up at the ceiling, fully aware that there’s really nothing she can do here, and not wanting her son to see that she’s amused, despite her attempts to be stern.

--

The ceremony itself is beautiful, though Olivia wonders to herself just when she had become someone who cries at weddings. Elliot and Kathy walk Liz up the aisle – all three of them beaming – and Paula is accompanied by her mother and one of her brothers – Maureen informs Olivia that it’s David. Despite her rather severe presentation – and earlier gripes about the church – even Pilar is smiling brightly as she walks with her daughter to the altar.

They haven’t written their own vows – ‘thank God,’ Maureen had said, when informed of this – and so the formalities take very little time at all. The whole thing is upbeat and happy, each of the brides bursting into laughter at one point or another, and the gathered crowd applauds raucously when the officiant declares them married, one of Paula’s brothers wolf-whistling from beside Kathleen.

Despite the jovial atmosphere, Olivia still finds herself making use of her handkerchief – drawing dramatic eye-rolling from James – though she is relieved to see that she’s not alone there. Both Maureen and Kathleen were sniffling along beside her, and as they make their way out of the church, she can hear Logan ribbing his father about his own lack of dry eyes.

“Oh shush,” Maureen chides her son, poking him in the shoulder. “Leave your dad alone, or I’ll be sure to make an even bigger spectacle at your wedding.” Logan grimaces, but drops the subject, and Olivia levels a look at James to let him know that those rules apply to him as well. Truthfully, she can’t even begin to imagine how she’d hold it together at James’ wedding, should he have one.

She is saved from pondering that any further by Elliot’s arrival, beaming at all of them and sweeping each of his daughters into hugs before he picks up James and Logan – one under each arm – and spins them briefly, despite the fact that they’re probably too big for that sort of thing. Apparently, the ceremony has filled him with a joyful sort of energy that he needs to get out. The boys don’t seem to mind though, and it’s obviously amusing to the rest of the gathered adults. Olivia briefly thinks to warn him that he’ll put his back out, but she doesn’t want to be a wet-blanket, so she just laughs and shakes her head instead.

When he’s put the boys down, Elliot turns and wraps his arms around Olivia next, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. She freezes momentarily, but he’s really not doing anything inappropriate – and the cat is well and truly out of the bag at this point – so she just laughs and hooks an arm around his middle, deciding to relax.

“You’re going to put your back out,” she warns him, smiling fondly. Both his daughters are snickering in the background, but Elliot just shrugs, mood clearly unaffected.

“Didn’t seem to worry you so much when I was-”

“Elliot!” She yelps, not sure what’s about to come out of his mouth, and not willing to find out. The girls’ snickering has now turned into full blown laughter.

“I was going to say ‘when I was lugging your bags up to the hotel,’” he smirks. “But glad to know where your head’s at.” Olivia is quite sure that her face has gone crimson, and she momentarily considers hiding behind her purse.

“Alright,” she clears her throat, determined to push ahead. “Off to the reception then?”

Even though the laughter follows them all the way back to the hotel, Olivia finds that she’s more relieved than she is embarrassed. Clearly, at least Maureen and Kathleen have no issue with their relationship.

--

Just as she had been at the ceremony, Olivia is impressed by just how nice the reception is, for having been planned on such short notice. It’s all very elegant and understated, but Olivia’s been to enough weddings to know that it would have taken a lot of work. There is an honest-to-God ice sculpture by the head table – that can’t have come cheap.

She’s distracted from her ice sculpture musings though, by Elliot’s hand, lingering low on her back as they make their way to sit down. She tries not to think about it – it's not like they’re doing anything wrong – but Olivia realizes that he hasn’t actually stopped touching her since they’d left the ceremony. Nothing inappropriate, but at least one of his hands has been on her since he’d pulled her into a hug in the church foyer. She kind of hates how much she’s enjoying it, because she knows exactly how smug he would be about it.

“We’re over here,” he says, directing them to a table just to the left of the ice sculpture. Pilar, Kathy, and two of Paula’s brothers are already seated, and Olivia briefly feels uncomfortable that she’s been put at the family table, but Kathy looks up and smiles at them both, and she decides to just get over herself. Elliot is the father of the bride, and she is – she supposes, technically – his date. It wouldn’t make any sense for her to be off sitting with Liz’s college friends.

“Where’s James?” Kathy asks, once she and Elliot have sat down.

“Last I saw, him and Logan were badgering Maureen about something,” Elliot shrugs. Olivia just laughs and shakes her head – she knows full well that her son had been trying to weasel his finder’s fee out of Maureen. She’s honestly a bit surprised that he’s been so persistent, but she’s decided to take it as a sign that he’s getting comfortable with the Stablers.

Kathy nods. “Just a heads up,” she says, grimacing a bit. “My mother’s decided to make an appearance tonight, despite not having RSVPed.”

Elliot’s face takes on such a dark expression that it makes Olivia nervous. She’s never heard much of anything about Kathy’s family, and she’s beginning to suspect that there’s probably a good reason for that.

“I still don’t understand why Liz even invited her,” Elliot scowls.

“Beats the hell out of me,” Kathy shrugs, somewhat helplessly. “It certainly wasn’t my suggestion.”

“Not a ray of sunshine, I take it?” One of Paula’s brothers asks. Kathy grimaces again.

“Not exactly,” she confirms. “If I see her, I’ll try to run interference,” Kathy continues. “But I apologize in advance for whatever horrifying thing she might say to any of you.”

“Does she...” Elliot trails off.

“No,” Kathy shakes her head. “I haven’t spoken to her in about a year. As far as she knows, we’re still married and living in Rome. Hence my offer to run interference.”

Olivia can’t help but notice that Elliot’s tightened his grip on her hand, and she suddenly feels very nervous. She doesn’t particularly care if Kathy’s mother is nasty to her – she's had more than enough practice there – but, if the woman is anything like Elliot’s sudden shift in demeanour suggests, the idea of having her around James is not something she cares for at all.

“Hey,” Elliot squeezes her hand, apparently having guessed at her thought process. “He’s with Maureen – she won’t let anything happen.”

Olivia nods. While there is a part of her that will always be far more protective of her son than is strictly necessary, she does, honestly, trust that Maureen – that any of Elliot’s kids – will take care of him.

“If she steps out of line with any of the kids, I’ll put her on a bus back to Queens myself,” Kathy says, emphatic. Olivia decides that that’s good enough, but she still finds herself craning her neck to find James and Maureen in the crowd.

Chapter Text

While everyone had been on their best behaviour at the ceremony, Olivia’s prediction of a chaotic reception is ultimately proven correct.

Paula’s brothers are rowdy – hilarious, but rowdy – and she had really underestimated the number of cousins that the Stabler kids have. She really shouldn’t have – given Elliot and Kathy’s very Catholic approach to birth control, it’s hardly surprising that their siblings would have done the same.

Which is how Olivia finds herself surrounded by a mass of very blonde, very Irish strangers. None of them seem to have any real idea of who she is – which is by far her preference – but they’re all chatty, and friendly, and so very very rowdy.

Elliot had disappeared some ten minutes previously to get them drinks, but Olivia is unsurprised that he’s been waylaid, and she’s been having a surprisingly pleasant conversation with Pilar while she waits for him. Paula’s mother, too, is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Stablers.

They are chatting easily about just how lovely the ceremony had been, despite the short notice, when Olivia hears a conversation across the table that makes her blood run cold.

“I didn’t realize Maureen had another kid.” The man who’s speaking is tall and blond, and looks a great deal like Kathy.

“I don’t think she does,” his companion replies. “Maybe she brought a friend to distract Logan.”

“Nah,” he shakes his head. “They look way too much alike – he's related somehow.”

Olivia is fairly certain they’re talking about James, and her suspicions are proven correct when the older woman sitting next to the couple pipes up.

“That’s Elliot’s little bastard,” she says, shaking her head. “I have no idea at all why he’s here – it’s not proper.”

Olivia isn’t quite sure whether she’s mortified or enraged, but before she can make up her mind, Pilar has spoken up.

“What a horrible thing to say about a child,” she scolds. “You ought to be ashamed.”

The young couple sitting opposite them are visibly squirming in their seats, but the older woman looks to be digging in for a fight. Olivia very much wants to make a hasty exit – she has no desire to make a scene at Liz’s wedding – but Pilar is just staring straight back at the woman, daring her to say another word.

“You ought to mind your own damn business,” she throws back, either missing or disregarding the hard look in Pilar’s eyes. The couple beside her look positively mortified now.

“I could say the same to you,” Pilar rebuts, prim as ever. “Who my daughter has chosen to invite to her wedding is not any of your concern. Though I am now questioning Elizabeth’s judgement in having invited you.”

The woman scowls, and it occurs to Olivia that this is – more than likely – Kathy's mother. She looks to be winding up for what Olivia is sure will be a scathing rebuttal, but before either of them can say anything more, Kathy has appeared at the table, a vaguely alarmed look on her face.

“Is everything alright here?” She asks, eyes lingering on the older woman warily.

“It most certainly is not, Katherine!” Olivia doesn’t think she’s ever heard anybody call Kathy Katherine before. “Why you thought to allow Elliot to bring that-” she pauses, face pinched, “boy here, I have no idea. Honestly, was a lesbian wedding not shameful enough? Did you really have to include Elliot’s bastard child?”

This time, Olivia is furious. She’s now all but certain that she’s about to shout at Kathy’s mother in front of a room full of strangers, because nobody – nobody – speaks about her son that way.

Kathy beats her to the punch, though.

“Mother,” she spits. “Come with me, right now.” The woman looks ready to argue, but Kathy just catches her under the arm and hauls her to her feet. Everyone at the table looks as surprised as Olivia feels, but Kathy just turns back to shoot them an apologetic look as she drags her mother from the reception hall.

--

The moment she’d seen her grandmother enter the reception hall, Maureen had ushered James and Logan in the opposite direction, and she hasn’t left them alone since. If either of them are finding her behaviour odd, they haven’t mentioned it, and she has no intention at all of leaving them, even if they do protest. She’d far prefer that Logan be embarrassed by her than have to deal with the inevitable fallout from whatever hateful nonsense her mother’s mother is likely to spew.

What the ever-loving fuck had possessed Liz to invite their most unpleasant relative to her wedding?

Scanning the room, Maureen finds Kathleen at the buffet table, and herds the boys along with her to intercept her sister. They’re briefly confused, but easily mollified with the promise of food.

“Katie, a word?” She says, keeping her voice down and a placid smile plastered to her face. Kathleen raises an eyebrow, but nods. “What is Gran doing here? Has Liz lost her goddamned mind?”

“Gran is here?” Kathleen’s eyebrows raise further. “Isn’t she worried she’ll burst into flames if she gets within twenty feet of a lesbian?”

Maureen snorts, despite the relative seriousness of the situation. Their grandmother really is one of the most horrifically homophobic people she’s ever met – one of the most generally judgemental, unpleasant people she’s ever known, honestly. She hasn’t spoken to the woman in probably five years, and really isn’t looking to break her streak.

“Probably,” Maureen nods. “And while she’s always been a sucker for a buffet, I don’t see her making the trip from Queens and risking her eternal damnation for some crab cakes.”

“The crab cakes are fantastic,” Kathleen points out. “But you’re probably right. Why do you think she’s here, then?”

“I have no idea,” Maureen shrugs. “She wasn’t at the ceremony, and it’s too late to object; so your guess is as good as mine.”

“Did Liz invite her?” Kathleen asks. “Or is she gate crashing?”

Maureen considers that for a moment. She really can’t imagine Liz wanting their grandmother at her wedding, but taking a bus from Queens just to crash a wedding out of spite seems like more effort than Mary Delaney has ever put into anything in her life. Any further pondering on that question is interrupted, though, when she sees her own mother dragging their Gran out of the hall by her elbow.

“Well,” Kathleen says, answering her own question, “my vote might be leaning towards gate crashing.”

“Stay with the boys,” Maureen tells her sister. “I’m going to go eavesdrop.”

--

It takes her no time at all to find her mother and grandmother, as they have struck up a shouting match in the hotel lobby, seemingly unconcerned about being overheard. Maureen quickly informs the front desk clerk that there is no cause for alarm, and then moves towards the pair, keen on – at the very least – directing them to somewhere more private.

“Mom,” she says, carefully, “Gran, this is maybe not the place for this.”

“Oh, do butt out, Maureen,” her grandmother snarks. Clearly, in the five years they have been estranged, the woman hasn’t mellowed.

“Mother, you will not speak to any of my children that way,” her mother states, in a tone that brooks no argument. “Maureen is right – we're making a scene.”

“A scene?” Her Gran scoffs. “Really Katherine, as if that carnival of sin isn’t scene enough.”

Carnival of sin? Jesus, apparently her Gran’s slipped even further off her rocker than Maureen had thought.

“That’s enough,” her mother snaps. “I have no idea why you’re here, but you aren’t welcome. I’m going to call you a cab, and you’re going to leave. Whether that’s with or without force is entirely up to you.”

Maureen has never heard her mother’s voice so hard before, and honestly, she’s impressed. Over the years, her Gran has gone from rigid, but fairly reasonable, to the sort of vehement, closed-minded hatred that gives people of faith a bad name. Up until now, they’ve all just sat back and left her be, but today she’s crossed a line, and Maureen has no doubt at all that her mother would use force in having the older woman removed. Part of her kind of wants to see that – though she knows that it’s not her most mature impulse.

“Fine,” her Gran sniffs. “If you want to condemn yourself to hellfire, I’m not about to stop you.”

“Oh shut up,” her mother retorts, rolling her eyes. “If you want to be a miserable old bitch, fine, but don’t bring hellfire into this. Even you must know that’s a reach.”

Perhaps, Maureen thinks, she will get her immature wish for a physical confrontation, because she’d be willing to bet money that her Gran is thinking about taking a swing. She’s elderly and arthritic, so it probably wouldn’t amount to much, but it’s still very much on the table.

“An unnatural stain on the institution of marriage,” her Gran holds up a finger. “A second divorce,” a second finger goes up. “A little bastard born in sin,” a third finger. “And you, Katherine, in the middle of it all – celebrating it. Spitting in the face of decency – in the face of God. Hellfire is practically inevitable.”

The slap that echoes through the lobby startles Maureen, because – despite her brief wish for a confrontation – she didn’t actually think that one would materialize. She certainly hadn’t expected her mother to be the aggressor – though she does think the slap had been more than earned.

“Okay,” she butts in, needing to deescalate this before it spirals any further. “Gran, it’s time for you to leave.” She grabs her grandmother by the arm, taking her chance while the older woman is momentarily stunned. She’s lucky enough that there are taxis waiting just outside the doors of the hotel, and she quickly gets her protesting grandmother situated in the back seat of one, directing the driver to take her to the train station. She has no idea at all if her Gran had taken the train, but she’s a grown woman, and she’ll figure something out.

When Maureen returns to the hotel lobby, she’s surprised to find her mother standing just where she’d left her, but with a small, pleased smile on her face.

“Mom?” She asks, tentative. “You alright?”

“I’m wonderful, Maureen,” she says, still smiling. “I’ve wanted to do that for years.”

Maureen can’t help her startled laugh. For all that her grandmother has always been unpleasant, her mother has always advocated patience in regards to the woman. She’d been ever the level-headed peacemaker, and seeing her now, so obviously pleased at having used force – however minimal, and deserved – is a bit odd. Honestly though, Maureen is happy for her. She can’t imagine it had been easy growing up with Mary Delaney as a mother, and, despite the poor optics of slapping an old lady in a hotel lobby, it had probably been kind of empowering.

“Let’s go back in and get some food,” her mother smiles. “Kathleen was going on about the crab cakes, and I’ll be damned if I miss out on them because of that miserable old bitch.”

Maureen is so pleased for her mother – and so amused by how this has all played out – that she doesn’t notice James peering out at the lobby from behind a potted plant.

Chapter Text

Richard had forgotten just how much most of his extended family enjoys having a drink. Or several drinks. Many, many drinks. He’s no teetotaler – enjoys a drink at the end of a long day just as much as anyone – but good Lord, he’s not twenty anymore. He’s escaped into a disused hallway off the lobby in an effort to preserve his liver, bottle of water in tow, and is just hoping his cousin Sean hasn’t followed him.

As of now, he’s just pleasantly tipsy, but if Sean has his way, they’ll both be in serious pain tomorrow morning. Tomorrow he’s promised to drive Liz and Paula to the airport, and then he has to make his way back to New York for work – he really doesn’t want to be hungover for any of that. Besides, Richard feels no need to make a spectacle of himself in front of his entire extended family tonight. He’s done that before, and Maureen still has the photographs, so he’s perfectly happy to hide away from the party for a bit to regroup.

He startles a bit though, when he comes around a corner and very nearly trips over James’ legs.

“Jesus,” he flinches. “You’re going to break my back, kid.”

“Sorry,” James murmurs, mouth full of something or other. When he looks closer, Richard notices that the boy is holding a napkin full of crab cakes – that makes him smile.

“Don’t worry about it,” he reassures. “What are you doing out here?” Because really, shouldn’t someone be watching him?

“It’s loud in there,” James shrugs. “And Logan had too much cake, so he’s throwing up. I didn’t feel like I needed to be there for that.”

Richard snorts. He is entirely unsurprised that Maureen’s son has overdone it on the desserts – it's certainly not the first time. Still, much as he doesn’t know James all that well, something does seem to be off with him.

“Mind if I join you?” He asks, lowering himself to the floor even as he asks the question. James just nods, still munching on his crab cake.

Only once he’s sat down, does Richard realize that he has no idea how to talk to James. They’ve never really been alone together, and his half-brother still isn’t nearly as comfortable with him as he seems to be with Maureen and Kathleen. For all that he’s not bad with children, Richard still doesn’t know exactly how to interact with this child, specifically.

“You, uh,” he stammers, “you alright?”

“Uh huh,” James nods. Richard isn’t terribly convinced, but that clumsy attempt at a question had been his big swing in terms of interacting with the boy.

They sit in awkward silence for a few moments, before James breaks it, asking: “Do you like your grandparents?”

Richard blinks a bit stupidly. That hadn’t been what he was expecting. Like, at all.

“Um,” he falters. “I guess. Though it’s just my Gram and Gran left – both my parents’ dads died a long time ago. Why?”

James shrugs. “Dunno. I don’t have any – I wasn’t sure what they’re supposed to be like.”

Ignoring for the moment the little bolt of sadness that hits him at James’ tone, Richard has a sudden – unpleasant – realization.

“Did my Gran say something nasty to you? Because, if she did, that’s just how she is – it has nothing to do with you.”

“No,” James shakes his head. “She didn’t say anything to me, but she and your mom were yelling at each other.”

Richard grimaces. “Yeah,” he sighs. “Gran’s not a very nice person. I have no idea at all why she’s here – I think Liz only invited her to be polite; assumed she wouldn’t come.”

“Kathleen thinks she was gatecrashing,” James says, pulling another crab cake out from his napkin. “But she’s gone now – Maureen put her in a taxi after your mom slapped her.”

“What?” Richard gapes. “Mom slapped Gran?”

“Mhmm,” James nods, still eating. Richard is shocked that his mother would hit anyone – never mind her own mother – but he’s more surprised that he hadn’t heard about it. If Maureen knows, then normally everyone knows. Come to think about it, he’s not entirely sure how James knows this, since it’s obviously not common knowledge.

“How’d you know that?”

James shrugs, turning his head down, and – if Richard isn’t mistaken – turning a bit pink. Interesting.

“I was just going to the bathroom,” he says. “I didn’t mean to see them.”

Richard just nods. He’s hardly going to chew the kid out for seeing something he shouldn’t have. Though, he gets the sense that James probably knows a whole lot more than he strictly should.

“Gran’s always been kind of unpleasant,” he says, not pressing the issue. “But she’s gotten really nasty as she’s gotten older – sometimes that happens. What about your mom’s parents?” He doesn’t mean to pry, really, but James had mentioned not having grandparents, and Richard wonders what exactly the deal is with Olivia’s family.

“They died a long time ago,” James shrugs. “They don’t sound like they were very good people, though. She said that her mom was drunk and cruel, and her dad was a monster.” Suddenly James’ face takes on a vaguely panicked look. “But I’m not supposed to know that,” he says, eyes wide. “I wasn’t supposed to hear. You can’t tell her that I told you that!”

“Hey, it’s alright,” Richard reassures. “I won’t say anything. Scout’s honour.” He holds up his hand, but the confused look on James’ face seems to indicate that he was never a boy scout. “It just means I promise,” he clarifies.

James just nods, nervously picking at his napkin.

“How many crab cakes you got there?” Richard asks, changing the subject without much finesse. He can feel an acidic sort of guilt eating away at him now that he has this new information. Clearly, there is a whole lot that he’s never known about Olivia, and – even though he’d been just a kid when he’d resented her the most – he now realizes that she had, more than likely, always been very much alone. Now that he’s an adult, with a better understanding of the situation – of most things in general – he'd very much like to go and give his teenage self a slap.

He settles for sitting in a quiet hallway with James, sharing the rest of the crab cakes and trying to make more of an effort to get to know the boy.

--

The moment that he and James re-enter the reception hall, Richard remembers exactly why he’d stepped out in the first place. If James’ grimace is any indication, they are in agreement that it’s far too loud – though, he supposes, the boy had eaten rather a lot of crab, so it could just be indigestion. He’s saved from considering that any further when Kathleen comes jogging over to them, looking uncharacteristically frazzled.

“Oh, thank God,” she huffs. “James, I thought your mom was going to murder me. Where did you go? I turned away for a second and you’d disappeared.”

“Sorry,” James shrugs, looking sheepish. “It was too loud and I didn’t want to watch Logan barf.”

Richard tries – and mostly fails – to conceal his laughter. He knows Kathleen must have been worried, but really, he can’t fault James’ logic there. Apparently his sister agrees, though, because she huffs out a small laugh of her own.

“Okay, that’s fair,” she nods. “But next time let me know, alright? I saw my violent death flash before my eyes when I imagined telling your mother I'd lost you.”

Richard doesn’t even try to conceal his laughter this time. Olivia would absolutely murder anyone who lost her son, and he’s quite sure she’d get away with it.

“James,” he says. “Why don’t you go see if you can find Eli – I know he was bored, and that almost always leads to trouble.” James just nods, looking around the hall now. “But stay in here, or tell someone where you’re going, okay?” He adds, not looking to be the architect of his own violent death.

“And no more crab cakes!” Kathleen calls after him. Richard just shakes his head and chuckles – his sister has no idea that she’s far too late with that warning.

“Katie,” he turns back to her. “How much do you know about Olivia’s family?”

Kathleen blinks at him for a moment, but doesn’t rush to answer the question. He doesn’t like the increasingly uncomfortable look on her face at all.

“Some,” she hedges.

“Care to elaborate?” He pushes.

“Why the sudden interest?” She asks, in a less-than-subtle evasion.

“Something James said,” he shrugs, trying to play it off as casual interest. Really, he thinks that he’d give his left arm to know the full story – apparently nosiness is a genetic trait that has not been limited to Maureen.

“What did he say?” Kathleen asks. Jesus, but she’s not making this easy.

“Something about his grandparents,” Richard admits. “That his grandmother was drunk and cruel, and his grandfather was a monster.”

“Oh,” Kathleen sighs. “What brought that up?”

Richard huffs. “He saw Mom slap Gran,” he tells her. “But you’re dodging the question.”

Kathleen’s eyebrows jump. “Mom slapped Gran?”

“Katie,” he sighs, frustrated. His pleasant buzz has well and truly worn off, and now he’s just tired.

“There’s a reason you don’t know anything about Olivia’s family, Rich,” she finally relents. “I don’t even really know anything about them – just what I’ve pieced together over the years through eavesdropping and guesswork. But, from what I’ve been able to put together, James’ description sounds about right.”

“What do you mean?” He asks.

“You really want to do this right now, Rich?”

“Yeah, Katie, I do,” he snaps. She just sighs.

“Fine,” she allows, briefly glancing around to be sure they won’t be overheard. They’re tucked away in a corner, and everyone else is singularly focused on having a good time, so she apparently deems it safe, and continues. “Her mom was raped,” she shrugs, voice flat. “Abortion wasn’t legal, and so she had Olivia, but – from what I gather – it sounds like she spent the rest of her life angry, bitter, and drunk. Maybe she loved Olivia – I really couldn’t say – but she sure didn’t treat her well. She died when Olivia and Dad were first partners – fell down drunk and hit her head.”

Richard can feel his head spinning a bit unpleasantly, and he pulls out a nearby chair and sits down, taking a deep breath. “Jesus,” he mutters.

“I warned you,” Kathleen shrugs again.

“You did,” he nods, feeling vaguely nauseous.

“And you pushed,” she points out.

“I did,” he nods again. Maybe he’s eaten too many crab cakes.

“I’m surprised that she would have told James any of that, though,” Kathleen muses. “She’s pretty militant about keeping the darkness to herself – she and Dad have that in common.”

“She doesn’t know that he knows,” Richard admits. “I think he notices a lot more than people think.”

Kathleen nods. “I believe that. It was just them for a long time – Dad says he’s protective of her.”

There is a physical pain in his chest, and Richard rubs his fist over it. More than likely, it’s just heartburn from all he’s had to eat and drink tonight, but it feels apropos for this conversation. For all that he knows, intellectually, that Olivia and James were more or less alone for the last decade, he hadn’t fully appreciated the implications of that. He’s always had a big family – taken it for granted that that was just the way of the world – and he’s ashamed to admit that he hadn’t considered all the ways that not having that would affect someone, despite what he does for a living.

“It really was just them, huh?” He asks, though the question is mostly rhetorical. Kathleen just nods, silent, and Richard can feel guilt gnawing away at his stomach lining. Because he’d been relieved, a decade ago, when his father had fled the city and refused to even speak Olivia’s name. He’d felt vindicated, even – like the barrier to his family’s happiness had been dismantled. It had felt like things were finally shifting back to how they ought to have always been – just his parents, his family, without the complication of the woman that it seemed like his father loved more than any of them.

Except now, his father loves this woman openly, and things are better than they ever have been. Both his parents are happier, his father doesn’t love any of them any less, and they are all – finally – in one place together. And Richard feels foolish and ashamed, because it had never been a zero-sum game like he’d always assumed. They’ve not lost anything at all.

“I was happy,” he admits, quietly. “When Mom and Dad left, I was happy. It felt like we’d won – like I’d won. I knew it would hurt Olivia, and I was happy about it.”

Kathleen just watches him, not saying anything, but she doesn’t seem entirely surprised.

“What kind of person does that make me?” He asks, not expecting an answer. “That I knew how much it would hurt her – how much she cared about Dad – and I was happy about it.”

“I don’t know, Rich,” Kathleen sighs. “How do you feel about it now?”

“Horrible,” he admits. “Nauseous.”

She nods, still not speaking.

“Jesus, Katie,” he huffs. “I was happy about it, and look what happened. That kid knows more than any nine-year-old ought to – he guards Liv because he thinks we’re going to hurt her, and maybe he’s not wrong.”

“Rich, take a breath,” she tells him, resting her hand on his shoulder. He takes the advice.

“I just-” he pauses. “I feel like a real piece of shit.”

“I know,” Kathleen nods. “And sometimes you are,” she gives him a little smirk. “But Rich, you were a kid.”

“For some of it, sure,” he nods. “But Katie, when they left, I was a grown man. I get what you’re trying to say, but that’s the part I can’t quite square with myself – that I was grown, and I knew better, and I still felt happy about it. I was happy that it would hurt Olivia – I felt good about it. That’s the part that fucks me up, because now I’m looking at the aftermath of it all, and I can see just how destructive it was – Dad leaving. And I was happy about it.”

Kathleen is just giving him a sad look now, and Richard almost wishes he’d kept his mouth shut. Almost.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Rich,” she says. “I guess that’s just something you’re going to have to live with.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “I know. I just feel like shit about it.”

Really, Richard is having a hard time thinking of anything that he feels worse about, at the moment. What sort of man does it make him that he’d reveled in the pain of someone who’s never been anything but kind to him?