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A Picture's Worth Three Little Words

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Olivia can’t believe Elliot’s here. It’s been months, and every time she sees him, speaks to him, thinks of him, she’s shocked all over again. After all, it’s not every day you realize you’d been living your life around some yawning hole inside your chest you thought you’d somehow patched up—and the only thing that even reminded you that vast emptiness never truly left you is because it’s finally been filled in by the person who holds the keys to every little piece of yourself you’d lost in the first place.

Sometimes, she has to remind herself to breathe. It’s like everything she knew in this world, even things as simple as inhaling and exhaling, has to be relearned. Shamefully enough, she’s pretty sure she’s scared Noah on more than one occasion, when “El” would show up on her phone’s screen, and she’d be worried that this was it. That he was leaving again, just telling her this time. Bread crumbs.

But no, now he’s here . In her space, for no apparent reason other than just to catch up?

She loves Noah, but she was really looking forward to having a true day off while he’s away at a ridiculously expensive dance convention after her squad unexpectedly closed a particularly rough case. Stupidly, she told Elliot she had no plans, whatsoever, this weekend…Olivia specifically mentioned how much she couldn’t wait to just rest.

So, he…just…showed…up. 

Admittedly, it was nice, at first, having him here. He brought her a coffee. It was sweet, the way he handed it over like it was a peace offering of some sort—and maybe it might have been—but then, she had to run to her room to get her phone, check a text Noah sent her about being really excited about his afternoon class with some choreographer whose name she’s supposed to know means something…and…there was Elliot. Still in her space. 

Whatever this thing with Elliot being here is now, it’s definitely the opposite of the relaxation and calm Olivia needed this weekend. Or maybe she forgot what “rest” really meant in Elliot’s absence, too. It’s hard to say. It’s probably some fucked up mixture of both. 

What she really didn’t anticipate, in the two minutes— tops —it took her to grab her phone and see Noah’s text—was looking up to find El having wandered off and found the one thing she didn’t want him to see: a picture of the two of them, so young and naive, mixed in with all her other family photos.

“Family,” of course, being just her and Noah. The two of them, against the world. 

“Those two really made a cute couple, huh, Liv?” He asks it so casually, like it doesn’t rock her to her very core. Like him seeing that he’s still her family, even after he abandoned her 10 years ago and having the audacity to comment on how “cute” (what the fuck?) they were together isn’t enough to take her back to that awful moment when Cragen gave her the news.

“I used to think so, yeah,” she mutters. She didn’t mean for Elliot to hear her, but of course he did. He’s always managed to do that—hear her, even when he shouldn’t have even been listening. Even when she was only thinking .

Elliot whirls around to face her, thinks he knows he’s messed up but doesn’t really grasp how much at first. He’s about to try to reassure Olivia, to say something— anything —when he realizes something is definitely very, very wrong.

Liv just stands there, frozen, not even aware of her surroundings enough to know that Elliot’s rushed over to her side, tried three times to reach out to her but stopped himself every single one of them, and has no idea what to do. He’s at a loss, something he thought he’d never feel when it came to his Olivia.

This must be what drowning feels like. 

Just bringing up the past has transported Olivia back in time. It’s 10 years ago, and she’s having a breakdown. It’s two years after that, and she’s managed to escape Hell on Earth, and she’s devastated all over again that Elliot is just...not...there. Maybe she’ll always be this bloodied, wounded thing, some part of her taunts as time and place are collapsing all around her. 

Now, it’s more than 20 years ago. Elliot’s sharing a glass of orange juice with her, invading her space like he was always meant to fit there (he was). Over a decade later, and they’re skin to skin, putting on a show to stay alive...and every fiber of her being is screaming, “yes. This. Right here. This is right. If only it was real.”

Olivia can’t find her grasp on the present because it’s just too much. Memory after memory attacks her, confessions on a stoop, coffee on a stakeout, casual promises in elevators...All of it is screaming at her that “yes, this is right,” but some cynical, dark part of her reminds her he left. It always comes down to that.  

All those younger versions of herself were already so in love, and the bastard had to have known it before even she did. Olivia wants to be angry, but all she feels is a debilitating emptiness she thought she’d already worked through.

She guesses there are some losses you just can’t get over, even when all signs point to the one true love of your life finally just showing up again out of nowhere like he never left. 

Speaking of…Is that Elliot calling for her? Now? 

“Liv. Liv . You with me? Where did you just go?”

“What? Nowhere. I’m fine,” she says, knowing he won’t believe a word.

He gives her that look of his—she’s pretty sure she catalogued it as Elliot’s “I see right through you” face—and she hates him for leaving all over again. He shouldn’t be able to see right through her , when she obviously never meant anything to him at all. He left.

…Elliot picks up on that emotion right away, too.

“Liv. Is it too much, me being here? I’m sorry. I just…”

“You just what , Elliot? Thought you’d show up for a casual visit on a Saturday, pretend to want to go over some work when we don’t even work together anymore—pretty sure you made that decision for ‘us,’ by the way—and wedge yourself back into my life? Yes. It’s too much. Everything with you has always been too much , and I can’t lose that again. You don’t know…You don’t…I’m not your Liv anymore. That person died years ago, when you didn’t even show up after…”

She catches herself before it’s too late. There is no fucking way she’s having that conversation right now, not with him grinning like an idiot at that almost infantile version of herself just seconds ago. Absolutely the fuck not.

“You know what? Nevermind.”

Something dark and dangerous emerges behind Olivia’s eyes, and Elliot realizes she’s right. He has no idea what that look is, who is looking back at him. But that’s not how it’s been lately. 

No, lately, Liv’s been...everything, actually. The only bright, warm thing left in his entire world. He wonders if this is what it’s like to suddenly see the sun again after coming out of the deepest darkest cave. 

He thought they were making progress, the way they shared those smitten (at least his were, and he thought…) looks during the Purple Magic case, the way she held his hand and didn’t let go until she absolutely had to, the way she looked at him at Fin’s wedding. That’s the woman he knew, so fierce, yet so soft. This is something else entirely.

“Look, Liv.” 
“Look, El.”

They’re both on the same wavelength enough to spit their words out at the exact same time, with the exact same rush, and there are those stupid grins. The barely-perceptible lift of Olivia’s eyebrow is Elliot’s cue. She wants him to go first.

“Liv, I just want us to be friends.”

Before she even has a chance to breathe, the words are out of her mouth, “funny. That’s the last thing I want us to be.”

Elliot’s heart stops. This, he thinks, is the worst outcome. She doesn’t even want their friendship back, doesn’t want to try, doesn’t care to let him get to know what caused that dark, caged thing that just tried to escape her before she willed it back down.

The last time Olivia saw Elliot look this haunted, his wife was dying. It takes her a minute to backtrack, to play the conversation back in her mind, to realize what’s happening.

“No, El. Oh, God. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“It’s OK, Olivia,” he says, fidgeting with his now-bare ring finger, “you’re right. I don’t deserve you.”

He turns to leave, but she has to stop him. She’s going to hate herself for such a rash decision, for taking such a huge risk after what he did to her 10 years ago, but she can’t stop herself. She’s never been able to stop herself from loving him, from wanting him by her side in everything. It’s about time she gave up lying to herself and lying to him.

Her voice is quiet now, almost breathless, and Elliot swears now he’s been transported back in time over 20 years. 

“El. I didn’t mean it like that. Tell me again.” 

She stops talking for a minute, looks into his eyes and has a whole conversation…something along the lines of “I can’t lose you again, but I know I’ve already lost myself again. It’s you. It’s always been you. I’m tired of fighting this.”

Elliot clears his throat. “Liv, I wish I could go back. Kick my own ass. Tell that version of myself that all the duty in the world means nothing in the face of finding someone like you. That version of you, this version of you...Hell. I don’t care. Any version of you. There’s no me without you.”

Olivia hears Elliot talking in circles around what she knows damned well they’re both feeling, have always felt, but that he probably thinks she’ll shoot him for if she hears it. Part of her thinks that’s the way to go. But the other part just wants

He places his hand on top of hers where it’s nervously fidgeting with the lid of the coffee he brought over, his tentative gift to her that warmed her from the inside out before everything suddenly got so out of control.

“El. Tell me again. If you meant what you said that night, tell me again.”

“Tell you wh—…oh. Liv. I meant it. How can you doubt that I meant it?” He laughs at himself, bitterly, almost the same exact way he did that night with the kids there and hearing those three words he really shouldn’t have let escape him at such a terrible time.

“Tell. Me. Again .”

“I love you.” It comes out of his mouth, simple, confident. Three tiny words that have the power to split open two people's entire worlds. This time, there's no question who it's for, no "all of you" meant to cover up a confession no one was ready for.

Olivia has that same shocked look on her face she wore after the first time Elliot bared his soul in the only confessional that mattered, even though she specifically told him to say it. There was his Liv, he muses, always so perfect in every way, except for the part where she never seemed to believe that she deserved the world.

It takes her a minute to force her frozen, shocked, body to move. But when she does, she just collapses against his chest. Broad arms immediately envelop her, holding on with just the right amount of pressure: She's safe, protected, but she can still get away if she needs to. Nothing's keeping her here but her own need; she always has a choice. It’s like coming home.

As he buries his face in her hair, he feels her hand, trapped between them, reach up to his heart. And she just nods while she holds her palm there, her whole world underneath it…Elliot knows that’s all she can do, but he gets the message: “I love you, too, El. I always did. Always will. Always.”

It’s when the ringing in his ears, from thinking he really had fucked it up forever, finally stops that he hears the barest of whispers between the sobs she’s trying to hide from him.

“Please just…Just don’t go anywhere. Don’t leave me again. Please…”

"Never," he assures her over and over again, "I'm right here."