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“I did everything that I was supposed to do. You know, I work hard, I got a good job, I never cheated on my wife- I’ve lost my kids. I’ve lost my children. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”

“But it did.”

Rebecca Hendrix’s words echoed through his memory as he sat staring at the bookshelf in his therapist’s office. He’d had that conversation almost twenty years ago yet the words rang in his head, reverberating through him like an alarm incorporated into a dream.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”

"But it did.”

Back then the thing that wasn’t supposed to happen this way was Kathy leaving him. Now the thing that wasn’t supposed to happen this way was Kathy’s death. Kathy’s death at the hands of the Wheatley family - a punishment for something Elliot had done that he wasn’t sure he fully understood.

He’d always been prepared to die first. To die on the job. To leave his family with his pension and neatly folded American flag fit for a shadow box. That was the way things were supposed to happen. The natural order of things. This - his wife dead and not from something senseless but understandable like cancer or even COVID, but dead from a pipe bomb placed by a vindictive woman and her sociopathic ex-husband - this was an aberration.

“You’re quiet today, Elliot,” Dr. Carpenter-Grey said as she stared at him with those clear blue eyes he found unnerving. They were too close in shade to Kathy’s, too able to see him for what he really was.

“Just thinking.”

“About what?”

I did everything that I was supposed to do.

“Choices. About how I thought I made the right ones…but they were all wrong.”

He had built his life around making what he thought was the right choice. Building block after building block of major life choices, each one manufactured by societal expectations and then carved to fit into the jagged spaces of his life by his strong moral compass. Life as a series of choices that bent him and broke him, melting his core until he could be poured like molten iron into the mold of a good man. A good man who would do what he was supposed to do, no matter the personal cost.

Doing what he was supposed to do meant marrying Kathy when he was 18 because he got her pregnant. Doing what he was supposed to do meant going home after getting Kathy pregnant with Eli. Doing what he was supposed to do meant…

“You were the most - single most - important person in my life and you just…disappeared.”

“Can you expand on that?"

He pulled his lower lip between his teeth as he thought carefully about his next words. “If I’d made different decisions Kathy and I would have gotten divorced years ago and she’d probably be living in Jersey with her new husband who I’d hate on principle. But she’d still be alive.” His voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes.

That had been happening a lot lately, vocal cracks and big wet eyes at inopportune times and…

“Elliot, tell us what you need.”

“I love you.”

“If I had just…” he blew air through his nose and shrugged. “I feel like God is punishing me. You know, I - I did the right thing. I never cheated on my wife. I chose her. I chose our family. Because that’s what you do - you make a vow and you honor it. You make a promise and you keep it. That’s what you’re supposed to do! That’s what I did! And none of it mattered.”

“You said you chose your family. Over what?” Dr. Carpenter-Grey’s eyes didn’t blink. He looked away.

Plot twist! There’s another woman…who’s the one true love of his life.”

“The job,” he said. The words tumbled from him too quickly, a betrayal of the truth, a tell he would have jumped on in an interrogation. “The job made it…the stress made me hard to live with.”

“Why would God punish you for choosing your wife and family over a stressful job?”

He stared down at his hands and spun his wedding ring around on his finger. He did it so often these days that he was developing a callus. “I don’t know.”

“Elliot. Remember what we discussed last week?”

He rolled his eyes and sighed an exasperated sigh.“That I need to be open or else this is going to take longer.”

“Yep. So, Elliot, why did you need to choose your wife?”

He fell silent and remained that way for so long he nearly forgot she expected him to start speaking. There was uncomfortable tension in the silence, like the moment between a car accident and the realization of what had happened.

“About fifteen years ago my partner and I caught this case,” he said. “Family annihilator, but we didn’t know that at the time. At first the case was a vic who had been murdered by her fiancé, who she thought was some CIA operative working counter terrorism. Turned out her man of mystery was actually an average Joe who lived out on Staten Island with his wife and three beautiful kids.

“We thought the wife killed the mistress, you know, she found out about the affair and she was pissed, her car was in Manhattan at the time, so we roll up to take her into custody and find the house dark. Dog tied up on the porch, front door unlocked. We go in and find the kids dead in their beds - each one of them with a bullet wound to the forehead. The wife was dead on the floor of the bedroom with the gun near her hand, and the husband was shot in the head but alive.”

He fell silent again as he adjusted himself in the plush chair. His eyes roamed the room but never landed on the therapist.

"Some cases stick with you. Perps get to you. Happens to all of us, you know? You deal with it and move on. That guy? He got to me. Before we knew what really happened, before we knew he was the perp and we still liked the wife for it, I remember looking at him as they loaded him into an ambulance and thinking that I felt sorry for the bastard. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose it all so quickly - lose your family, lose your children, lose your….lose the other woman.”

"I love them both….Is that so hard to believe? A man loving two women?”

He was sitting in the room but he felt far away, adrift in the past, the wreckage of all his self-righteous choices floating through the ether. When he spoke again his voice was small, disembodied.

“Living life like that…it’s like living in limbo, you know? You have this beautiful family with the woman you love, but then there’s this other woman and…and you love her, too. You don’t know why you can’t just be happy with what you have, why the wife and kids aren’t enough. And even though you keep your hands to yourself and you don’t cross those lines you still can’t… You don’t know what to do so you do nothing. Then one day it all falls apart and you have to choose. So you do, you make the right choice - you pick your wife, you pick the woman you married, because that’s what good men do.  And even though it feels like a part of you has been ripped out, at the end of the day you did the right thing. You did what you were supposed to do.”

"I did everything that I was supposed to do.”

“And then something bad happens and you think that if you’d made the so-called ‘wrong choice’ then none of it would have happened. If you’d just made a different choice then your children wouldn’t be motherless.” Elliot’s voice broke again and he looked to the ceiling to keep the tears welling in his eyes from cascading down the well-worn wet tracks on his cheeks.

"It wasn’t supposed to happen this way."

"But it did.”

He cleared his throat.

“Elliot, are you aware you were speaking in the second person?”

“Was I?” He asked, meeting her eyes for the first time in eons. She nodded. “What does that mean?”

“It means you’re trying to put distance between yourself and your emotions. Elliot, please understand that you are not responsible for Kathy’s death. You could have made hundreds of different decisions but at the end of the day, the only people responsible for her death are the ones that put the bomb in your car”

“Then why do I feel so guilty?”

“It sounds like there were some complicated issues in your marriage that could contribute to your feelings of guilt, but I am asking you to try to not make her death one of them.”

He leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “God, what a mess.”

“This other woman-“

“I can’t. Not today,” he said. He shook his head as he sat back up.

“That’s ok. You did a lot of great work today. You should be proud of yourself. Let’s end for the day, ok?”

He nodded because he didn’t trust himself to speak. Not now. Maybe not ever again.

Chapter Text

The paintbrush scraped softly along the old wood of the dresser. Aqua blue paint - the same color as the sea off the coast of Capri. Visiting the Amalfi coast, Pompeii, and Capri had been their big family trip after they’d been in Italy for a few years. All the kids came and they took the train from Rome to Naples, peering through the graffiti on the windows the whole way. Capri had been a favorite for everyone - it’s where he took the picture of Kathy that he kept on his desk. They were on the hotel’s patio, she wore no makeup, a floral dress, and a chunky pearl necklace he thought excessive but she called fashion. He snapped the picture just as the wind drew a strand of hair across her forehead.

She’d been so happy on that trip. He’d been happy. Or as close to it as he could manage.

“Thanks for helping me, Dad,” Kathleen said as she dipped her brush into the paint can sitting between the two of them. He was sitting on the floor of the house in Queens that Kathleen shared with three other people, carefully running the paintbrush along the legs of a dresser she’d picked up at a thrift store for way more than it was worth - in Elliot’s opinion, anyway. But, she liked it and painting it with her meant they had something to do together other than stare at each other over a table and remember that Kathy was dead.

“Any time, hon.” Elliot took a deep breath and then asked, “You hear from Dickie?”

“We texted a few days ago. He’s, ah…he’s still pretty pissed.”

“Yeah, well, what else is new?” Of all the Stabler children, Dickie was the one who ended up with Elliot’s temper and penchant for going off half cocked. He was also the one most likely to hold a grudge.

“It hasn’t been easy on any of us. He’s just…” Kathleen trailed off.

“Yeah.” Elliot knew his son was grieving. He also knew that the only thing the younger Stabler knew to do with that grief was channel it into anger. It was something Elliot understood too well - he had the bill to fix the holes he’d punched into the hotel room walls to prove it.

But, if Elliot was being honest, what Dickie was angry about was the thing Dickie had been angry about for a very long time.

How about you? Ever sleep with your partner, Detective?

He had been irritated that he had to pull his father out of an argument with Olivia and get him to the hospital when Kathy woke and it had gone downhill from there. Then the intervention happened and Dickie had stopped speaking to his father. He showed up at the arraignment for his mother, but he was jumping into an Uber as soon as the family cleared the throng of press on the courthouse steps.

Out of the corner of his eye Elliot could see Kathleen dutifully painting, focused, working, as if the task at hand would be enough to get her through. She was like Kathy in that way - a woman who knew how to endure. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, an action Elliot caught himself doing all the time. Maureen and Eli were so much like their mother, and Dickie and Elizabeth took after Elliot, but Kathleen? Kathleen was the perfect mix of the two of them.

“You got something to say?” He asked. It didn’t come out harsh, just open, matter of fact. Ever since she’d been diagnosed as bipolar, and everything that happened after, the relationship between father and daughter had morphed, changed. She wasn’t just his baby girl - she was an adult. And he respected the hell out of her for her dedication to her mental health and her unflinching dedication to living her life as openly and honestly as she could.

That part - the open, honest part - that was all Kathy. He was still working on it.

“It’s just…If I ask you this, I want the truth. Promise me you’ll be honest. Please.”

Elliot stopped painting and glanced at his daughter, his brush hovering near the dresser. A fat drop of blue paint fell and splattered onto the drop cloth covering the floor like the first raindrop from dark clouds. 

“I promise.

“Back when…when you were partners with Olivia…” Kathleen put her brush down and stared at her hands, picking spatters of blue paint off the skin around her nails. She was struggling to keep her composure and she chewed on her bottom lip. “Did you sleep with her?”

Kathleen’s eyes met his again - big blue eyes filled with tears. Earnest eyes. Eyes so ready to be betrayed by the first man she ever loved. Elliot felt his own eyes well up. He set his brush down.

“No,” he said in a whisper, the lump in his throat an insurmountable obstacle. Elliot grabbed her hand with both of his and held it tight. “I may have been a crappy husband, but I was faithful to your mother. I never cheated on her.”

“That’s what I told Dickie.” A tear slid down her cheek. “He never believed me.”

“He’s stubborn,” he said, his voice low. “He gets that from me. I don’t know how I can make him believe me. I know he’s angry, and I get it…I remember how angry I was at my father. He cheated on my mother constantly and I’d have to watch her cry, because he never tried to hide it. But I swore I would never be like that. I wasn’t going to do that to my family.”

Kathleen knotted her brows and cocked her head. “I’m not saying this to upset you, but…You did do that to us. That’s why Dickie is so mad. You never had to hear Mom crying on the phone to Aunt Carol because she was convinced you were sleeping with Olivia, or hear her slamming doors and cabinets because yet again you were out on some stakeout with her instead of home with us. But we did. We heard it all the time. And, ok, you never cheated on Mom. But…it didn’t have to be physical to be an affair.”

But it wasn’t your life, it isn’t your life. You’re living your father’s life all over again.

His blood turned icy in his veins. He had spent a lot of time lying awake in the top bunk of bunk beds he shared with his brother listening to his parents fight because Joe Stabler had come home again stinking of another woman’s perfume. Had his own children lived through a version of this, where the argument wasn’t about the actual evidence of cheating but the nagging suspicion that there was something more than professional courtesy taking root between her husband and his partner? Had his own children lived through a years-long one-sided argument he wasn’t around enough to have?

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”

"But it did.”

“Kathleen, I chose your mother. I chose our family.” 

Kathleen smiled a sad smile at her father, the same kind of tight-lipped smile he used to give her when she was naive and young and dealing with the disappointment of learning about the reality of an unjust world.

“You know what mom told me when you took the liaison job? That she thought you took it because somewhere deep down you were hoping it would bring you back to Olivia.”

The dark, hidden truth of her statement hit him square in the chest. He would never have allowed himself to consciously think something like that. But Kathy had known. She’d known his truth even as it hid itself from him. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. It was if he lost the capacity for language in the face of what she laid bare.

Kathleen picked up her brush and started working on the dresser again, a sure sign that she was done with the conversation for the day. She would continue on. Survive. Endure. If only Elliot could find it in himself to do the same.

“What do you want for dinner?” She asked, as if she hadn’t just broken the fragile reality he had lived in for the last 10 years - the reality where his wife didn’t realize that he never stopped loving his former partner.

But, plot twist…there’s someone else. Another woman. Who’s the one true love of his life.

Elliot shrugged and picked his brush back up. “Whatever.”

They continued painting in silence.