“They’ll never let you in. You know that, right?”
“There is no them.”
“Don’t be a fool. As long as they’re alive there’s a them.”
He tosses back the rest of his bourbon and studies the man next to him. He looks tired.
“So, what? What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that unless you’re a fool, you’ll get up right now and walk away. Forget you ever met Olivia Benson, or Elliot Stabler. You’ll never get any closer than you are right now. They won’t allow it.”
“There’s no room for anyone else in their world. Their bond is sacrosanct, the ground they share is hallowed. Oh, they’ll let you stick around for a little while; let you think that you’re getting close, that there’s hope. But the moment you get too close to that inner circle of theirs, you’re done. But you already know that, or you wouldn’t be here. What happened? Let me guess: you asked her for something more permanent than midnight phone calls and once a week dinners, and she broke up with you, didn’t she?”
He doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to. The other man chuckles with the driest, most biting approximation of a laugh that he’s ever heard.
“Yeah. Of course she did. Because everything else is theirs - his - and God help anyone who tries to get too close.”
“No. No, they’d never cross that line. Especially Olivia.”
“You know the great things about lines, man? They fade; they can be redrawn. The only real lines are between them and everyone else.”
O N E
Everyone hits on Olivia.
It’s just one of those things that happens, like cloud cover on a rainy day or blooming flowers in spring. It happens so often that no one bats an eye when it does, least of all Liv.
The years have changed her tactics, her responsibilities, even her title - but they haven’t changed this.
“Jesus, you’re a tall drink of water, aren’t ya, doll?” Their perp leers at Olivia as she props herself against the far wall and stares back, stone-faced. “I’m feeling a little thirsty, maybe you wanna help me out with that?”
“The only thing I’m interested in helping you with is shutting the hell up,” Liv deadpans.
The guy at the table grins and cuts his eyes to Elliot. “Smart mouth. I like that.” He turns his eyes back to Liv. “What else can you do with that mouth?”
Outside the interrogation room, Amanda and Fin share a look. “I hate the creepy ones,” Amanda grouses.
Elliot has been doing this for a lot of years. He’s heard some variation of comments just like these aimed at Liv countless times, so he supposes he’s used to it - but he’s never liked it. Still, he’s better at keeping his temper these days and he’s only here as a courtesy. He’s only here because his case and one of SVU’s current cases have overlapped and Liv is too gracious to claim precedence and shut him out.
The last time she’d let him in this interrogation room Elliot had broken his promise to her. He’d put her in a bad position, and he’s determined not to let that happen again. That’s the only reason she’s in here with him: because he has given her reason not to trust him, and he knows he’s a bastard but he can’t let that stand. He’ll show her that he can be trusted again.
“I have an idea,” Elliot says icily. “How about you start telling us about your relationship with Cassidy Wells?”
“No idea who that is. I’m more interested in a relationship with your woman here.”
The perp, Nate Enzo, leans forward in his chair and stretches out a hand like he’s going to reach for Liv.
Without so much as a twitch, Liv stares at his hand and warns, “Put that hand away, Enzo, before I take it away.”
“Ooh, a fighter. My favorite.”
Elliot almost misses it: Liv has some of the darkest eyes he’s ever seen, but the shadow that passes over them now is haunting. For the span of a heartbeat she disappears into her head. The smallest twitch of her chin is the only physical indication that she gives that the words have struck a hidden chord somewhere. Elliot can’t see the chord, but he can feel the vibrations of it as if he’s a tuning fork that has just been struck.
Behind the glass, Amanda shifts uneasily on her feet. Next to her, Fin’s shoulders tense and straighten.
“If he makes a move,” Amanda starts.
Fin doesn’t look away from the scene in the interrogation room. “If he so much as twitches Elliot will put him down like a rabid dog.”
“You sure about that?”
In interrogation, Elliot crosses to the same side of the table that Enzo is on and leans casually against the table. He starts rolling up his sleeves with slow, calculated movements.
“You start telling me what I want to know, Enzo, or things are going to start going very poorly for you.”
Nate Enzo turns his head and sizes Elliot up. He makes a tsking against his teeth and leans forward a little more to put more weight on his feet. “Hmm, protecting your woman, Detective?”
“Cassidy Wells, Enzo. Who is she to you?”
“Never heard of her. Word on the street is she’s one of those two-bit hookers. You have experience with those, Detective? Your woman over there is cold as ice. All looks, no love, huh? I might be able to warm her up though, what do you say?”
Enzo shoots out of his chair; Elliot pushes so hard off the table that it skitters across the room. The other man has one arm out to reach for Liv, who sidesteps quickly as Elliot snatches that arm out of the air and uses the momentum to swing him around and shove Nate Enzo face first into the ground. He hits the ground so hard there’s an audible crack - his cheekbone, probably - and the door to interrogation crashes open as Fin and Amanda rush in.
“Get him outta here, before I break something else,” Elliot snaps.
Fin is bodily hauling their perp off the floor while Elliot turns to face Olivia.
“That bastard broke my face!”
“Yeah, you’re lucky he got to you first,” Fin taunts. “She would have eaten you alive.”
“You okay?” Elliot asks quietly as he approaches.
Olivia can’t hear him. She is stuck somewhere in her head with a beast who had wanted her to fight, who had lost interest in her the second she’d made it clear that she would not; she’s listening to her own broken voice in an endless loop.
My old partner, he’d know what to do ... He’d break your arms, break your legs, break your face.
That bastard broke my face!
Elliot is the only other person on Earth that Olivia knows as well as she knows herself. He is the only person that has collected all of the scattered pieces of her and held them with careful hands even when they cut him; even when they cut her. That’s what they were to each other - maybe even still are: a repository of all the pieces of themselves that don’t seem to fit with anyone else. Sometimes, they give each other the pieces and sometimes they take them, but the end result has always been that they have more of each other than they do of anyone else.
Than they have of themselves, maybe.
So, it shouldn’t strike her the way it does. That man had lunged for Olivia in Elliot’s presence and in a single, smooth motion Elliot had done exactly what Olivia had promised someone else he would do if he were there.
… Break your face.
That bastard broke my face!
Of course she knew - knows him well enough to know what he would have done in that moment. To know what he would - what he will do for her. Elliot had been across the ocean when Lewis got his hands on her, but he had been with her the whole time. Even in her most angry moments Olivia has never succeeded in excising him from her life, from her heart. She has so many pieces of him that she could piece him together again, a familiar mosaic that she has cut herself on one too many times.
Somehow, Lewis had known. He’d taunted Olivia about Elliot without knowing his name or even his face, and even then she’d been unable to relinquish even a single aching piece of him.
She comes back to the present all at once. There’s no jarring crash into the here and now to mark a panic attack; her heart is beating too quickly, but her breathing is normal and her senses don’t feel overloaded. Not a panic attack, then, just a moment of …. What?
“I’m fine, El.” She says it reflexively, but it’s not untrue.
One look at Elliot’s face tells her that he’s seen something that he’s not going to let go of, however, and he’s not looking at her the way everyone else did in those early days after Lewis but he is looking at her … well, like he understands that she’s just returned from somewhere.
She shakes her head once. A decade separates them and some things have changed, but Elliot is still Elliot and she knows how he can be.
Without a word but knowing that he’ll follow her, Olivia makes a beeline for her office. At least if they’re going to have any kind of conversation about this they’re going to do it in private, behind closed doors.
When they get to her office she doesn’t stand behind her desk. She crosses to the other side of the room and turns to face him as he’s closing the door.
“Wanna tell me what that was?” Elliot asks. His words are even but dangerous.
Olivia sighs. “Not really.”
He doesn’t like that answer. He tightens in on himself for a minute and his mouth flattens out into a thin line, but he doesn’t say anything.
The fact that they aren’t yelling at each other is still new to Olivia. It’s one of the more noticeable signs that Elliot has changed in their years apart. Before, they would have gone at each other right in the middle of the precinct. They’d never been shy about hollering at each other from opposite ends of the hallway, or arguing in the middle of the bullpen. But they are not who they once were, individually or together, and it should be but the sting of that is bittersweet.
“Don’t tell me I’m imagining it,” he warns her. He’s agitated and his voice is louder than normal, but he’s not actually yelling. “One second you were there and the next you disappeared inside your head, Liv. I saw it.”
“If you’d shut your mouth for ten seconds and let me speak, you’d know I wasn’t going to say that at all.”
Her tone is biting but collected. They are on opposite sides of Olivia’s office and he’s been pacing in the area in front of her desk, but her words bring him up short.
“I was remembering something,” she explains carefully. They still haven’t talked about Lewis and Olivia knows that now is not the time to do so. “It’s not a pleasant memory.”
She’s leaning against the window to the conference-slash-interrogation room next door. Elliot takes a step toward her and pauses. Olivia can see the gears turning in his head.
“Can we … will you …” His hands are moving restlessly as he speaks, or tries to, and even though so much has changed this hasn’t.
Olivia pushes herself off the wall and takes a few steps toward him. “No. Not yet. One day, Elliot, we’ll have that conversation. But not now.”
Whatever this conversation is, it will be ugly. Elliot can see it in her face, in the way she’s watching him now, like saying anything too specific will set fire to the wick of his rage and burn them all to ash. He runs a hand over his face.
Olivia has moved further into his space, so Elliot gives in to the desire that has dogged his steps since they left interrogation - for years, actually, across oceans and country borders. He reaches out to grasp her biceps gently and the knowledge that it’s her beneath his hands soothes him.
She is tense under his hands for a long moment and Elliot thinks, this is what we are now, and then the steel of her relents and bends under his touch. She sags forward slightly, a release of tension, and Elliot steps forward until her forehead comes to rest against his chest.
Olivia breathes deeply and lets it out in a long, quiet sigh. It’s been a long day, Elliot knows, but it’s more than that. It’s been a long decade. He drops his chin into her hair and focuses on the soft scratch of it against his skin. She smells fresh and feminine.
Elliot knows the moment is over seconds before it ends. Olivia’s muscles tense and telegraph her intention to move, so he lifts his chin and drops his hands to let her go. She does lift her head, but she doesn’t immediately move.
A thumb runs over her brow and then she says, “I’m going to stop letting you in my interrogation room, Detective.”
Elliot grins at her. “Protect and serve, Captain.”
She tries to glare at him but there’s a whisper of a smile on her lips, and then she’s moving to gather her stuff from her desk.
“It’s late, and I’m exhausted.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Elliot tells her even though they both knew the moment she mentioned it that he was going to do exactly that.
Amanda is doing her best not to stare. Honestly. She keeps forcing her attention back to her computer and the stacks of paperwork on her desk, but …
Fin slaps a file down on his desk and then takes up a perch on the edge of Amanda’s desk. He doesn’t even bother to pretend: he crosses his arms and stares straight at Liv’s office. Behind the glass of the window he can see Liv and Elliot facing off from opposite sides of the room. He can’t make out the words, but he knows they’re arguing.
“How long they been at it?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“Any idea what it’s about?”
Fin and Amanda are quiet. Amanda turns her chair to face Fin but figures if Fin can stare, then she won’t be the only one who gets in trouble if they get caught and turns her gaze to the Captain’s office.
As they watch, Elliot moves further into the middle of the room. He’s talking with his hands; Liv shakes her head and pushes herself off the wall. They’re separated by so many feet, and walls, and glass, but Amanda can feel the tension between them all the way out here.
“They always fight like this?” Amanda asks.
In the other room, Elliot runs a hand over his face; Liv takes a few more steps forward to bring her further into his personal space.
“They always do everything like this,” Fin says, unbothered.
Elliot finally reaches out with both arms and wraps his hands around Olivia’s biceps. For just a moment the tension holds, and then the sharp lines of her body relax and she sags forward slightly. Even from out here she looks tired.
Elliot takes a step forward, and then another; Olivia’s head falls forward until her forehead comes to rest against his chest. Her hair is loose and hides her face. Elliot drops his chin against her hair.
Amanda turns her gaze to Fin. She feels like she’s watching something private, something that she has no right to see. Fin is looking at a phone she didn’t even see him produce.
“Is that why he left?” Amanda asks the question quietly. It’s late and the bullpen is empty aside from her and Fin, but she doesn’t want to be overhead.
“No one knows. Not even Liv.”
Amanda’s eyes snap back to the Captain’s window in shock. They’re still just standing there like that, as if there is no world outside the space they share.
“He just … left her?”
Amanda tries to imagine that. She tries to imagine spending twelve years with Carisi, working side by side, seeing what they see every day, saving each other over and over … just to have him disappear one day without a word.
“How did she forgive him? I don’t know if I would.”
“It’s Elliot,” Fin says as if that explains everything. Maybe it does.
Olivia lifts her head. Elliot lets his arms drop as if he knows that the moment is over, but Olivia doesn’t step away. She runs her thumb over her eyebrow the way she does when she’s tired, or frustrated, and then pushes her hair behind her ear. She stares at Elliot for a minute and then must say something funny because Elliot’s face breaks into a grin. Amanda can see the barest hint of an answering smile on Olivia’s face before she turns and heads for her desk.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Fin whispers to her as the door to Olivia’s office opens. “He pulls a stunt like that again and I’ll make sure no one finds the body.”
Olivia smiles at them as she approaches. Elliot is right behind her and Amanda catches the slightest movement as his hand falls away from her back.
“What are you two still doing here? Go home.”
“Just finished my fives,” Amanda explains with a nod to the paperwork on her desk.
“I’m already gone,” Fin says.
“Good. Have a good night, you two, and I’ll see you bright and early Monday morning.”
Amanda watches Olivia and Elliot fall into step as they make their way side by side out of the bullpen. Stabler has only been back for a matter of months after being gone for a decade, but Amanda thinks she can see them as they were all those years ago. Dynamic, intense, undeniable; as likely to run at each other as away. Olivia had been so angry when Amanda had first met her all those years ago, and now she knows that anger was hiding something even worse: a broken heart.
“He leaves again,” Amanda tells Fin, “and I’ll help you.”
She learns to let him go in the liminal spaces: the interior of the squad car in the middle of a long stakeout; hospital hallways as she waits, alone, to take victim statements; the empty squadroom after dark when the light from her desk lamp illuminates the now empty desk that used to be his.
Transitions, she thinks. Life is full of them and no matter how she fights them there comes a day when she looks back and realizes that the changes have happened anyway.
Life after Elliot is bittersweet. There is a hole in her life - in her heart - and people are like water: any empty space must be filled and equilibrium maintained. She is resistant to change at first, a wounded animal backed into a corner and fighting like hell to protect what she hasn’t yet realized is only an echo; but the nightmares come for her anyway, and then she has Noah.
Brick by painful brick they build something new. So much of the foundation has been built on Elliot, though, that it’s impossible for Olivia to excise him. Noah acts out, and Cragen has been on her ass, and she won’t admit it but God, she misses Elliot and everywhere she looks is somewhere he should be --.
His mini shield; his Marine medallion; two words on a small yellow Post-It, Semper Fi. Olivia has never been a Marine, but she knows that it’s a rally cry and a call to arms. It’s a thread that connects those that have stared down the devil in protection of something greater.
But it’s also always faithful, and a promise of steadfast loyalty, and Olivia wears that medallion around her neck and wonders why he has left so many pieces of himself with her … and if she’ll ever know how many pieces of herself he has taken with him. Some days, it feels like she is more of him than she is herself.
Hope is heavy, Olivia, Dr. Lindstrom tells her in one of their sessions years later. It has weight. Her mind immediately goes to that small gold medallion, the mini shield on the butt of her gun, and not for the first time she wants to march down to evidence lockup and take back those pieces of herself. Of him. But she remembers the weight of that little piece of gold against her chest and, as much as she longs for that tangible reminder of it, she knows that weight isn’t gone.
She can feel it in the dark places like a sliver of light under the door, and even though she lets him go there are places in her that only he can fill.
Elliot shines through the fissures that mark her fault lines.
But she has Noah, and even though it’s only the two of them together they learn to be a family. It’s not what she expected, or how she expected, but with Noah she finds wonder in the world again.
T W O
They’re standing next to each other in silence. It’s not uncomfortable, per se, but there’s a heaviness to it. Their relationship has been a little bit of everything through the years: antagonistic, understanding, cautious, even friendly. Just like with everyone else now, however, there’s a sizeable gap between then and this moment. Still, Elliot knows that Fin has something to say. He’s just not going to be the one to bring it up.
Olivia is standing near the long table they’ve set up just outside her office. It’s covered in one of those thick vinyl tablecloths and laid out with disposable cups, plasticware, and a cake. It’s Olivia’s birthday - the first one that Elliot has been here to celebrate in too long.
She’s smiling as Carisi animatedly tells a story. They’re all smiling, Carisi and Amanda and Olivia, and there’s more levity in this room right now than there will be again any time soon.
Elliot is here because Fin had invited him. “Liv doesn’t know,” he said on the phone, “Amanda has set it all up. I’m sure she’d like to see you.”
Maybe that’s the reason Elliot knows that Fin has something he wants to say now.
“Time’s been good to her,” Elliot muses softly. “She looks good. Happy.”
“She is,” Fin agrees. “But she could be happier.”
Elliot waits. Olivia chuckles and shakes her head at something; her hair, dark again, swishes around her face and she pushes a chunk of it behind one ear. He’s watched her make that same motion so many times that it’s as familiar to him as her smile.
“Cragen made her pack up your desk. Her face … it was like you died, man. I’ve never seen her locked down so tight. She was either angry as a hellcat, ready to throwdown at a moment’s notice, or quiet as the grave.”
“Why you telling me this, Fin?”
“Because I was there, Stabler. She survived it - even learned to really open herself up, eventually - but I don’t know if she ever gave up hope that you’d come back.”
“And here I am.” Elliot finally looks at Fin. He knows that the other man isn’t lying or exaggerating, but the truth of what’s he telling Elliot is in his face.
“You turn out to be something she has to survive a second time, Elliot, and I’ll make sure you don’t. I don’t care how many kids you have.”
Fin moves away to join the others. Elliot takes a drink out of his red plastic cup and studies the group of them. He wasn’t there, but he can picture that Liv. Beautiful, but angry and unleashing that dagger tongue on anyone who so much as looks at her wrong. Elliot has always had the quicker temper - quicker to incite, quicker to show - but Olivia’s is no less volatile once it’s triggered. He’s always thought that she has the sharper tongue, and he’s been on the receiving end of it enough to consider himself a fair judge.
It’s a testament to what they have and who they are to each other that he’s even standing here in this moment at all. Olivia is surgical about cutting people out of her life (out of her heart) once they have betrayed her. It’s not his ego that tells Elliot that his betrayal is the one that outstrips all others: it’s the aftermath, the shockwaves and tremors that are still finding him, ten years later.
It’s knowing that after everything they were to each other, he is something that she has survived; something untrustworthy, that must be guarded against. It’s the way that they all watch and warn him that in his absence, Olivia Benson has won herself an army of loved ones that will not hesitate to cut him down at a moment’s notice.
Elliot isn’t surprised. She’s a force of nature, awesome and terrifying and undeniable. There is no way to know Olivia without being affected by her - no way to stay in her orbit without succumbing to the pull of her gravity. Elliot should know: he’s been caught in her gravity for more than twenty years, and even with an ocean between them he’s always felt the pull of her.
It’s why he’s come back, and why he won’t be driven away again despite who tries or how ardently that insidious little voice in the back of his head tells that he has disrupted the life she’s built, and that she’s been better off without him.
He’ll do the work. He’ll show her that he can be trusted again, that he can be her refuge from the vagaries of life. Elliot doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him. He doesn’t care how long it takes, or how hard she makes him work for it. All he cares about is Liv.
They’ve done so much living in their time apart. Good, bad, everything in between - it’s not so much the quality that’s staggering as it is the quantity. When Olivia is with him now it’s like she’s remembering a song that she’s forgotten she loved, but it only comes back to her in fragments. A sliver of a melody, a line of lyrics she can’t finish …
Well, that’s not entirely true. She’s never forgotten. She’s moved on, learned to live with it, let it go … but she’s never forgotten.
Unfinished. That’s what they are, and Olivia feels it now in odd moments. The foundation is there, and whole, but whatever they were building is just frozen in a time ten years past. The walls are there but some of the bricks are missing, and Olivia isn’t sure now if they were meant to block people out, or them in.
Elliot has a lot going on and Olivia isn’t about to add to his load. She tries to help, or does her best to do what he asks and stays away, and reminds herself that they both are and are not the same people they once were.
Just like then, life goes on. Olivia has work and she has Noah, and there is nothing she can do for Elliot that she hasn’t already done. She can’t do the work of healing for him, as she well knows, but neither can she just “stay away” as everyone is so keen to warn her.
Instead, she just waits. Does her best to draw new boundary lines for them both even though it’s the first time in their history that they’ve never really had any. His wife is dead and they’re not partners - don’t even work in the same precinct - and everything is both new and old. The dichotomy of it all makes her head hurt if she thinks about it too long.
It’s Elliot who begins to build again, in earnest. He’s already started, really, had started almost as soon as he’d returned. The unresolved pain of his departure and the shock of his return had muddied the waters, though, so Olivia doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing until much later.
He starts by apologizing in the hospital waiting room, and by giving her that letter, and listening to her when she pleads with him to slow down and take care of himself … they’ve forgotten how to do this, how to build things together, so Olivia doesn’t see it for what it is at first.
Then, Elliot stops by one day. Olivia is having a hell of a time and she has her forehead braced on her hands so she can take a moment and remind herself that this day is coming to an end and then she’ll get to go home and spend time with her son.
“Hey,” a familiar voice says.
Her head pops up in surprise. Elliot is standing in her doorway. He really does look great in those fancy Italian suits he favors these days, and then she realizes that there’s something in the way that he’s smiling at her.
“Never seen you with glasses,” he answers easily. “They look good on you.”
Olivia huffs out a chuckle and slips the offending accessory of her face. She sets them down on her desk as Elliot moves further into her office and takes a seat in the chair across from her.
“Everything okay?” Olivia asks.
“Yeah, everything’s … everything’s good. Or, you know, as good as it can be. I was in the neighborhood. A lead, but it didn’t pan out. Thought I’d stop by.”
Olivia studies him for a minute and then gives him a little smile. Truth or not, it’s a kind gesture and it’s nice to see him. He looks good, still, like he’s eating and getting consistent sleep and listening to her - finally.
“How are the kids?”
“Good. Eli is home with me again.”
“That’s great, El,” Olivia says warmly. She knows that Elliot has rented an apartment in the city and he’s given her the address, but she’s never been there. An old habit, maybe, or a practical consideration in case something happens. She didn’t ask.
She doesn’t get to say anything else. Her phone rings and she smiles apologetically before answering it.
Elliot knows that she’s swamped, so he smiles understandingly at her and rises to his feet as she’s hanging up the phone.
“Hey, it’s me. You never have to apologize to me. I’ll let you get back to it.”
Olivia watches him as he moves to her doorway. There’s a calmness in him right now that she appreciates, and his comment about her not needing to apologize had been … Well, for a moment it’s like she has her partner back.
“Liv?” Elliot says when he’s almost out the door. He’s half-turned to look at her. “Eat something. It’ll help with the headache.”
She can’t help it: Olivia scoffs in dry humor. Elliot Stabler telling her to take care of herself, go figure. The corner of Elliot’s mouth quirks up in a way that tells her the irony isn’t lost on him either.
Ten minutes after Elliot leaves a delivery man shows up in the squadroom asking for Olivia. The order has been paid for, he says, and when Olivia opens the bag she finds her favorite cold cut sandwich from the deli around the corner and a chef’s salad.
They may be unfinished but their foundation is solid and the walls are still standing, and whatever they were building then doesn’t matter as much as what they can build now.
She’s afraid to trust, afraid to hope, afraid to lose again - but Elliot is a stubborn bastard and once he’s started building, not even her reticence makes him stop.
This is how they start again.
He lets himself hold onto her in holy places: in the middle of the Vatican museum when he’s searching for Kathy and Eli, who have moved too far ahead of him, and the crowd parts in time for him to see her studying a row of marble busts; he lights a candle in St. Peter’s basilica and prays fervently to keep her safe, let her be happy; in the privacy of his heart as he stares out over that fifteenth century palazzo, lamplit against the encroaching darkness of nightfall, and imagines how she’d smile to see the beauty of it.
He is a man in pieces, but he’s lived his life in halves for years. Half at home, half at work; half a husband, half a father; half with Kathy, and half with --.
In Rome, Elliot dedicates himself to learning how to be whole. He’ll never be truly successful because so much of him remains somewhere else, with someone else, but he owes it to Kathy and Eli to try. Owes it to Liv, too, in a way. So he chooses work that doesn’t carve pieces out of him and he takes his family to museums and he teaches himself how to be present in a life that he’s never dreamed of having.
He doesn’t bring her up and whenever Kathy asks him he swears that he hasn’t spoken to her since the day he left. Elliot knows that his wife doesn’t believe him. He doesn’t blame her: what kind of cold hearted asshole walks away from thirteen years without a word?
Elliot knows the answer, but it’s not one he can give. Not to Kathy. The way he catches her looking at him in quiet moments makes him think that maybe she doesn’t need him to tell her - maybe she already knows.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to talk to Liv. In fact, there are still moments all these years later where he wants nothing more than to hear her voice. Age has brought with it a certain self-awareness, however, and despite the spatial and temporal distance that separates them now Elliot knows that if he hears her voice he will go home.
He’s already started that journey. Taking the role as the international liaison with NYPD is an in and Elliot can tell himself every lie in the book, but he knows why he accepted it.
So does Kathy.
All roads lead to Rome. Elliot has heard that phrase dozens of times. Kathy had even joked about it not long after they’d first arrived, her eyes shining and a bright smile on her face as she looked at him and then Eli and said, “Well, I guess all roads really do lead to Rome.”
But Elliot knows it’s not true.
He has wandered for years, for lifetimes, for too long. He is missing pieces of himself, and a man can only live in pieces for so long. All of his roads lead to the same place and he doesn’t know what will happen when he gets there, but he knows that he must go.
All his roads lead home.
T H R E E
They never actually call it a date.
There’s no mistaking it for anything else, and Olivia understands in that fundamental way that they have of connecting with one another what he’s asking, but the word date is never used. She doesn’t know if it’s because the title is unnecessary, or if it’s just been so long since Elliot actually went on a date that he feels foolish calling it that.
They’re standing on the sidewalk next to her car when it happens. Elliot has stopped by again - he’s made something of a habit of that and that’s not lost on Olivia - and offered to walk her to her car when she’d finally been ready to leave for the evening. It’s chivalrous and protective by turns; they don’t bring it up, but Elliot has a new and deep seated need to be the first one to the car.
They’re studying each other in the glow of the streetlights when Elliot surprises her.
“Have dinner with me?”
Olivia’s lips part but she can’t immediately form an answer. Elliot does a good job of hiding his nerves, but she has known him too well for too long to miss the signs.
She wants to ask him if he’s sure. She wants to clarify what he means because they’ve had dinner so many times - but this is different. The way he’s looking at her is different. Well, that’s not entirely true. He’s looked at her like this before, so often in fact that there was a time when she would have said it was normal.
The difference now is the intent. It’s that his words and his expression are in agreement rather than at odds.
Rebuilding, Olivia thinks.
“Yes,” she says, “but only if you promise that we’re not going to that awful Mexican place on fifty-ninth again.”
Elliot laughs, quiet but sincere, and Olivia smiles in response. She’s missed this - missed him.
“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you? I told you, Jeffries swore that it was the best Mexican food she’d ever had.”
“Yeah, well, she lied.”
But life has always been on the wrong side of Murphy’s Law for them, and two nights before their intended dinner Olivia is bodily shoved off of a sidewalk by a young teen fleeing the scene of his petty theft. It’s nothing more than bad luck - she’s stopping at the bodega on her way home - but she doesn’t see it coming and even though she’s fallen both farther and harder, the result is a broken ankle.
The injury hurts, but it pisses Olivia off more. Crutches are a pain in the ass and she can’t do her job effectively without the full use and mobility of both of her feet. She’s going to be stuck on strictly office duty for the next six weeks and that’s really the icing on the cake. Yes, she’s a captain now and the majority of her time is spent in the precinct, but she’s always been able to go into the field when necessary. She needs to be there for her team if they need her.
Elliot laughs at her when she calls to tell him.
“Wow,” Olivia deadpans. “Sounds like someone needs another round of sensitivity training.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he says quickly. “More than twenty years of chasing perps and this is how you break your ankle?”
“Don’t you dare …”
“Getting old, Captain?”
“... Make an age joke,” Olivia finishes.
Elliot won’t hear about rescheduling. Olivia had made arrangements for Noah to stay with Amanda for the evening; Elliot offers to take Noah to Amanda’s for her, but Olivia decides it’ll be easier just to ask Amanda to pick him up.
The other woman only teases her a little about her plans for the evening when she comes to get Noah.
“Excited for your date?” Amanda asks, and Olivia just glares at her.
The truth is, Olivia doesn’t have an answer. This isn’t a date in the traditional sense which has less to do with her recent injury and more to do with the fact that it’s Elliot. Will she feel awkward? Will it be strange to see him in her space and know why he’s here?
Or has ten years been long enough to give them a soft reset?
Elliot takes one long, appraising look at her balancing on her crutches when she opens the door. He has a paper bag full of groceries in one arm and it’s the first time Olivia realizes that he means to cook for her.
“Come on,” he tells her once she’s backed up enough to let him in. “Pretty sure you’re supposed to stay off that ankle.”
Olivia huffs. She hasn’t forgotten what Elliot’s care and concern looks like, but it’s almost overwhelming to be faced with it again after so long without it.
She manages to hobble back to the couch where the foam pillow she’s using to elevate her ankle is waiting. Elliot sets the bag down on her counter and then moves to take her crutches from her and set them aside. He offers her his hands to counterbalance with as she lowers herself into a seated position; they’re warm and a little rough.
“Thank you. There’s red wine in the fridge.”
Olivia gets settled as Elliot moves into the kitchen and pauses to ask about the wineglasses. He pours her a glass and brings it to her with a small smile.
“Don’t spill,” he tells her, and Olivia rolls her eyes.
Olivia turns as much as she can so that she’s partly pressed into the back of the couch and has a better view of Elliot as he unpacks what he’s brought. Fresh vegetables, chicken breast, chopped peanuts … and, from the bottom of the bag, a six-pack of his favorite beer.
Olivia props an elbow onto the arm of her couch and tilts her head to the side until it’s resting on her open palm.
The beer is reassuring. She recognizes it from before and it soothes something in her to see it now. He’s different - they’re different - yet not. Some things have stayed the same.
Olivia answers when Elliot asks where everything is and smiles to herself at the incongruity of the moment. Elliot Stabler is back in her life, and now he’s in her kitchen … making them dinner … for their date.
He chooses that moment to raise his eyes and catch her watching him. One corner of his mouth turns up in a smile, and for several heartbeats they just stay like that, watching each other across the counter and the back of the couch.
“You look happy.” Elliot’s voice is quiet.
“I am,” Olivia answers just as quietly.
He wants to say something else but decides against it. It’s hard to know where the line is between too much and just enough, and the last thing he wants to do is jeopardize the fragile balance they’ve found.
Olivia doesn’t press him, so Elliot figures that he’s made the right decision and goes back to making dinner.
He’s chopping vegetables when Olivia asks, “So, what’s for dinner?”
“Honey garlic chicken stir fry. Hope you still like Asian food.”
“You know I do.” It’s an answer, but it’s also a reassurance.
She knows that Elliot gets the message because he looks up at her again and replies, “Yeah, I guess I do.”
Elliot opens a beer and soon the apartment is filled with the delicious smells of cooking food. It’s hard to carry on a conversation when they’re in separate rooms and the act of cooking requires Elliot to have his back to her, so Olivia satisfies herself with studying the broad lines of his back. He’s dressed down in a solid blue button up that she hasn’t failed to notice makes his eyes brighter, and he’s rolled his sleeves up in the course of task. He’s more visibly muscular now; his hair is closely shorn.
How have the years finally found them in this place? It should be impossible. Olivia had let go of this particular possibility so long ago that seeing it unfolding now before her is like a pipe dream. They’ve never been these people, but now she can admit that it’s because they weren’t free to be and not for a lack of desire.
Can they be these people now? Do they really want to be?
Elliot plates their food and places it in front of the barstools on the other side of the counter. He comes to take her wineglass from her and put it in front of her plate and then returns to help her to her feet.
“You want the crutches?”
“Why when I can just use you?”
“I think this is the slowest I’ve ever seen you move,” Elliot teases as she leans into him and hobbles her way to the stools.
“Is this how you woo all of your dates?” It’s out of her mouth before Olivia can consider the wisdom of her words.
Elliot grins and doesn’t miss a beat. “Only the ones I wanna see again.”
The food tastes as good as it smells. They sit a little too close, just like they always have, and it doesn’t take long before the sound of cooking food is replaced by that of conversation. It’s not stilted, but there’s a moment where they really find their rhythm and then the conversation takes off.
It’s catching up and relearning each other all at once. They have had innumerable conversations through the years, but never like this. Their topics aren’t constrained to work, or kids, or any of those safe and surface level things that they were always so careful to stay with.
The problem with that is that they’re also likely to find themselves unexpectedly in the middle of a conversation that they didn’t intend to have.
During the course of their conversation they’ve turned into each other until their knees are touching. Olivia has just told him about Noah’s first steps: she’s smiling and her hair is tucked behind her ear, and the time he’s spent without this hits Elliot like an anvil to the chest.
“God, I’ve missed you,” he blurts.
Her smile falters and that shadow he hates passes over her eyes. His abandonment is still painful and he hasn’t meant to bring it up. The hand of hers that is closest to him is resting flat on her thigh and Elliot reaches for it instinctively.
“I’m sorry, Liv. For everything.”
For a long moment he thinks he’s ruined the evening. She’s looking at their hands and not at him, and Elliot won’t blame her if she throws his hand back in his face.
Instead, she turns her hand over so that they’re palm to palm and squeezes his hand reassuringly.
“I know, El.”
She doesn’t immediately let go and neither does he. Olivia studies their clasped hands again: it’s new but not weird the way she’s feared it might be. In fact, the butterflies that she’s been trying to deny for most of the evening are in a frenzy.
“Come on,” Elliot finally says. “Back to the couch.”
“I’m not an invalid, El.”
“Never said you were. You suck at resting though, and I know you won’t do enough of it, so as long as I’m here I’m going to make sure you that you do.”
“You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?”
“So you’ve told me.”
Olivia resettles herself on the couch and Elliot cleans up their meal. He’s made enough to ensure there’s leftovers, which he has to ask for a container for, and then tucks that away in the fridge. He smiles at the fullness of the fridge - he remembers a time when it’d been bare. Still, he feels better knowing that there’s enough stir fry to last her and Noah another two nights. The less she has to cook the less time she’ll have to spend on her feet.
When he’s done, he finds that Olivia has turned on a movie. Her couch isn’t huge and having to have her leg propped up means that there’s no space for him to sit. Elliot is about to lower himself onto the floor in front of the couch when Olivia stops him.
“Not a chance. You’re too old to sit on the floor.”
“Old?” he parrots. “Is this how you woo all of your dates?”
Olivia smiles. “Only the ones I wanna see again. There’s plenty of room, El, if you don’t mind being used.”
Elliot raises one eyebrow and Olivia is grateful that she doesn’t blush easily. She ignores the look and pulls herself up at the waist to make room for Elliot behind her. When he’s settled he lays his arm along the back of the couch and Olivia lowers herself slowly - nervously, though she hopes he doesn’t know that - back until she’s resting against his chest.
“Good?” Elliot asks when she’s stopped moving.
“Mm hmm.” she hums.
And it is good. Elliot is a solid wall behind her and she can feel the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. It’s comforting. Ten years of heartbreaking absence and now here they are, cuddled up on her couch watching a movie.
“What are we watching?”
The rumble of his voice is nice and Olivia lets her eyes close. It’s not like he can see her.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
“Jesus, they really went with something that rolls off the tongue, didn’t they?”
Olivia chuckles and settles further into the cushions, finally relaxing enough to let her head fall back onto his chest. She hasn’t been taking the pain medication the doctor prescribed her because it makes her tired, so she knows the tiredness she’s feeling now is just a result of the good meal and late hour.
She should probably warn Elliot that she’s going to fall asleep on him, but when she speaks that’s not what she says.
“This is nice.”
Elliot drops a kiss against the top of her head. It’s a small thing that should be monumental: technically, it’s the first time he’s kissed her. But Olivia is relaxed and comfortable, and it feels so domestic that she just sighs.
“Yeah, it is,” he agrees quietly.
Not ten minutes later, Olivia is asleep against him. Elliot pulls the throw blanket on the back of the couch over her and settles in to watch the movie.
It’s the first moment of peace he’s known in far too long.
Elliot wakes Olivia when the movie ends and insists she goes to bed. “If I can’t sit on the floor you can’t sleep on the couch,” he tells her, and hands her the crutches so that she can follow him to the door and lock it behind him.
When Olivia is making breakfast the next morning she finds the rest of his beer in the fridge, a silent announcement that he intends to return.
Olivia absolutely cannot control the dawning terror that opens a black hole in the pit of her stomach and threatens to devour her.
It’s irrational to feel this way. She feels it anyway. It’s a little harder to breathe; her heart has to work a little to hard to keep beating.
It’s not panic, but it could be. It’s dread, and doubt, and ten years of total silence and loss.
“Liv,” Elliot says softly.
Her trepidation must show on her face. How could it not when it’s so overwhelming?
“Undercover,” she forces herself to say. To keep her tone even and controlled. She clears her throat. “How long?”
“The plan is just a few days.”
She can hear the unspoken caveat at the end of his words. Just a few days, but. She’s been doing this job too long not to know, not to understand that undercover ops are dangerous for too many reasons to name. No contact, no backup, little to no control. How many undercover ops have started just like that - just a few days - and stretched into weeks, into months and years?
Olivia needs to think. She needs to work through this, rationally - with her head, and not her anxious, easily wounded heart.
“Have you told the kids? What about Eli?”
“They know. Eli is going to stay with Maureen while I’m under. I’ve told them that I’ll be out of contact. I told them to call you if they need anything; I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.”
Olivia is belatedly aware that she’s pressing the side of her hand into sternum. She turns away from Elliot, who is standing in the space just behind her couch, and forces herself to focus on something outside the window.
“It’s not the same, Liv.”
She closes her eyes. She doesn’t have to ask him what he means, just like he doesn’t have to ask why her reaction has been so visceral.
“I know,” she manages to say, because it’s not. He’s come to her - in person - to tell her what’s happening and what to expect. He’s communicating his absence this time, learning from his mistakes.
She can hear the muted shuffle of his feet over the carpet as he moves into the space behind her.
“You shouldn’t be on your feet.” It’s soft, tender; intimate.
Olivia makes a sound that’s half scoff, half chuckle, but still barely there. She closes her eyes. She’s four weeks into this broken ankle; four weeks into this tentative new something between them that’s fragile and inescapable by turns.
Elliot’s hands come up to rest on her arms just below her shoulders. He waits a beat and then takes another step closer until she can feel the brush of his chest against her back. His hands slide down her arms and in toward her middle, until they’re wrapped around her stomach just below her own folded arms and holding her securely against him. Another beat, and his chin comes to rest on her shoulder.
They stand like that for a long moment. It’s quiet in her apartment except for the distant sound of Noah playing in his room. That sound has always been reassuring, but right now it can only do so much.
“I’m coming back, Olivia.”
There it is: the wound, the stark fear that has rendered her nearly mute in the wake of Elliot’s announcement of his next assignment. She’s facing another stretch of silence, another string of days where she doesn’t know where he is and he can’t reach out.
She lets out a heavy breath and lets her head tilt to the side until it rests softly against his, his cheek and the tip of his nose pressed into the skin of her own cheek.
“It’s not the same.”
“I know,” she agrees, because she does.
“I’m coming home,” he reiterates with a firm but aching tenderness.
“I know,” she repeats.
Olivia doesn’t ask where home is - she can’t face that admission right now, can’t let herself hope and hold onto it the way she wants to. It’s not the same and she’s not this woman, the anxious lover of an officer going into the dark and dangerous unknown. She’s a captain, damn it, a seasoned veteran of the NYPD who has done undercover work herself.
Besides, they’re not even lovers. Not really; not yet.
I am not this woman, Olivia tells herself … except that she is, and maybe that’s okay. Elliot knows who she is and what she can do, what’s she done, and been through. He knows her, and he understands. Doesn’t think less of her for being afraid.
Olivia wants to stay in this moment forever. Elliot is warm and solid behind her; his arms are heavy and comforting around her waist. But she knows that he has to leave soon to prepare and be debriefed. Already their time is running out.
She turns to face him without leaving the comfort of his arms, which loosen to accommodate her movement and then tighten again when they’re face to face. Olivia brings a hand to rest against his chest while her other hand curls around the back of his arm, just above his elbow. She wants to tell him to be careful, to be alert, to be cautious. She doesn’t. There’s no anticipating what happens undercover. The situations are dynamic and constantly evolving, and Elliot is a good cop. He’s quick on his feet and observant. He’ll get the job done.
Instead of speaking, Olivia raises her chin and lifts her eyes. She kisses him, tentatively at first: a simple brush of the lips, then another, and then Elliot is angling his head just so and pressing forward with more urgency and passion.
She doesn’t register the moment that his arms leaver her waist and his hands move to frame her face, but when they finally separate they are warm and rough against her cheeks. Olivia keeps her eyes closed in an effort to prolong the moment, to fold it like fading paper and tuck it into the safety of her heart.
In his pocket, Elliot’s phone chimes. A message rather than a call, but the effect is the same. With great reluctance they let each other go and Olivia watches as Elliot takes a deep breath and straightens his shoulders.
Once more unto the breach, Olivia thinks.
“Stay off that ankle,” he tells her as he makes his way to the door.
God, there’s so much she wants to say but it’s all jumbled, stuck in her throat like a boulder that she can hardly breathe around.
“El,” she calls as he’s opening the door. She has to say something. When he looks back his eyes are clear, and blue, and bright. “As soon as you can.”
“As soon as I can,” he affirms.
It’s the closest thing to a promise that she can ask for, and that he can give.
Two days after Olivia is finally freed of the boot that’s been supporting her ankle, she drives Noah over to Amanda’s house to have a sleepover. He loves spending time with Jesse and Aunt Amanda and Uncle Sonny, who is two steps away from being a permanent fixture at Amanda’s at this point.
She’s grateful to be driving again. To be able to function fully on her own, without impediments and work arounds. She’s worried about lingering pain but her ankle doesn’t so much as twinge.
Olivia visits with them for a while, laughing at the kids as they set to tearing apart the place in earnest and smirking at her friends as they work to navigate the chaos. They look happy together; Amanda’s smiles are a little freer, a little brighter, and Olivia is happy to see it.
Amanda asks her to stay for dinner. Olivia declines; she’s anxious and working hard not to be, but she’s tired and not feeling up to continuing the charade. She wants to go home and have a glass of wine.
Just a few days has turned into two weeks, and the resulting anxiety is an exhausting bedfellow. No matter how determined she is or hard she tries not to, her mind insists on going back to all of those unanswered phone calls that heralded a decade of silence. Hours of carrying his ghost with her like an anchor around her heart.
Only this time she knows why he’s absent. She doesn’t know if he’s okay or where he is, but at least she knows that he hasn’t disappeared on the wind.
When Olivia has said her goodbyes and hugged Noah and extracted his promise to behave, she leaves the sound of laughter behind her and drives home.
Her apartment is quiet and empty without her son. She never loves these nights, but there is a certain relief in being alone tonight. Her thoughts are melancholy. Olivia changes out of her work clothes and into something more comfortable - an oversized t-shirt and soft leggings - and pours herself a glass of wine.
She turns on the television and flips listlessly through the channels. She’s not particularly interested in anything that’s on, but she eventually settles on what she thinks is a comedy.
The knock on the door damn near scares the wits out of her. Olivia doesn’t startle easily, but between the effort of keeping her fears at bay and trying to follow the movie, the unexpected noise makes her flinch.
Her heart leaps painfully. Please, she prays as she sets down her glass and moves to the door.
A quick glance through the peephole has her swinging the door open, throat closing with emotion as she comes face to face with Elliot for the first time in two weeks.
He’s in a Henley, unbuttoned at the top so she can see the cross he wears. He looks a little tired but unharmed.
It’s all she has time to say. He surges through the open door and across the threshold, practically colliding with her as he grabs her face and kisses her as if the fate of the world depends on it.
The force of it sets Olivia back on her heels. It’s impossible to tell if she’s pulling or Elliot is driving, but he doesn’t let go of her face or her lips for even a second. The suddenness of it is nothing against the desire. She makes an unnamable noise in the back of her throat and kisses him with abandon. Years of thoughts and moments and emotions have led them here, and the inevitable release of tension is nearly impossible to breathe through.
There’s nothing but them. The warm velvet of tongues that slide against one another, the careful pressure of Elliot’s hands against her face and then tangling in her hair.
Finally, Elliot is pulling away just enough to meet her eyes. She expects him to look wild, maybe, a little uncertain and unmoored, but he doesn’t. He looks … intense, but centered.
“I came straight here,” he explains quietly.
Olivia has just enough brain power to say, “The door is still open.”
Her voice is huskier than she expects. The way Elliot looks at her makes something low in her stomach coil, but he turns dutifully and closes and locks the door. Olivia watches him come back to her. Her tongue darts out to wet her lips; it’s an unconscious move, but she sees the way it draws Elliot’s eyes back down.
Two weeks; ten years; and thirteen years before that.
Elliot is already reaching for her. This collision isn’t as sudden, but it’s no less passionate. Olivia is incapable of waiting another moment; she’s unwilling to give up even an inch of contact as she presses herself against the solid plane of Elliot’s body. Her hands slip under the hem of his shirt and his muscles tense beneath her hand as she runs her fingers over his lower back. She curls her fingers and scrapes her nails over those muscles experimentally, does it again because she likes the deep, rumbling noise that it brings out of him.
Elliot half drives, half guides her away from the door. Muscle memory tells her that they’re headed for her bed, but she doesn’t care. She’ll take him right here on the floor as long as it doesn’t require another second of separation.
“Noah.” It’s a question, or it’s meant to be one, but Elliot’s hands are under her shirt and sliding up her sides.
“Sleepover,” she manages to grind out.
The next thing she knows Elliot is pulling her shirt up and over her head, insistent but careful, the last of their roadblocks mercifully removed. She’s less careful removing his. There are too many barriers between them, too much distance and silence and yearning.
She’s been afraid for weeks that he wouldn’t come back, that something had gone wrong and he’s either dead or waiting to be rescued, but he’s finally here. He’s safe and alive in her hands, and that’s all Olivia wants to focus on.
Elliot’s cheek slides against hers as his teeth close delicately over her earlobe. He tugs once and then lets go in favor of pressing hot, open mouthed kisses down the column of her throat, Olivia’s head dropping to the other side to give him better access.
She gasps in surprise when his hand cups her breast. They’re already heavy with her arousal and the pressure of it is exquisite. She arches into his hand and then he’s undone the clasp and lets go to discard her bra. The wet heat of his mouth as it closes over her nipple makes her moan; he pinches the other nipple between his thumb and forefinger and Olivia shivers against him.
Elliot drags his mouth away from her breast but continues to knead the other one as he pushes her back until her legs are pressed against the bed. Olivia thinks she might fall, but Elliot holds her against him as he lowers them to the mattress. She doesn’t have time to form a thought before he’s kissing a line up her sternum, his hands ghosting over the skin of her stomach on their way to divesting her of her leggings.
Olivia has to hook the waistband with one foot when they’re low enough and kick them off the rest of the way because Elliot is too intent on suckling his way up her torso to stop and pull them off the rest of the way.
Elliot is bracing himself on his arms above her as he moves, and Olivia has had enough of distance so she hooks a leg behind his knees and pulls him forward, into her, until his chest is brushing against her pebbled nipples and she’s arching up to meet him as he crushes his lips to hers again.
His hands are everywhere, teasing her sides with feathery brushes and scraping slides even as she’s reaching to unbutton his pants.
“God,” Elliot rasps, suddenly pulling his mouth away to breathe heavily in her ear as Olivia’s hand brushes against his erection. He balances on one arm so he can help her remove his pants, but that’s not enough. She’s determined, impatient, and there’s hardly enough time to breathe before he is naked and hard in her hand.
Olivia watches the way his face contorts with pleasure as she strokes him slowly, experimentally, watches the way he fights to control himself even as he’s pushing harder into her hand.
If time isn’t linear, then they’ve always been here in this moment, safe and waiting for the rest of the world to sort itself out and catch up. Every fight, every separation, every lingering glance has existed for the culmination of this moment that has always been waiting for them.
But Elliot is not waiting. He steadies himself enough on his feet to grab her underwear with both hands and rips - actually rips it - right off of her.
“I liked those,” she tells him breathlessly, trying and failing to sound annoyed.
“I’ll buy you more,” he replies, and then she catches her breath on a wild moan as he presses the palm of his hand against her clit and slides a finger into her wetness.
Olivia can hear him telling her how beautiful she is, but she can’t focus on his words as she grinds against his hand, as his other hand reaches up to pinch her nipple in retaliation for the way she tightens her hand around him and strokes. It’s all sensation and desire, a need more than twenty years in the making.
It’s been years since she’s had sex and she’s ready to come apart in his hand right then, but she’s determined not to. Not this time; not their first time.
“Elliot,” she commands with a rasp.
And he knows because he always know, because the ways that they understand each other go beyond words. She registers the loss of his hand, but then she’s guiding him to her entrance with a sure hand. Elliot pauses. He’s waiting for her to look at him and when she does, Olivia sees it all: the love, the desire, the layers upon layers of history and meaning and intent.
She sees Elliot, the man she’s loved for longer than she’s been able to express. The man who loved her, and left, and came back.
“Come home, El.”
And he does in one steady motion, filling and stretching her as she tips her head back and gasps at the sudden fullness of him. Elliot waits like he’s going to give her time to adjust, but Olivia lifts her hips and thrusts and then there’s nothing but the soft murmur of their voices as Olivia calls out to a God she’s never been certain she believes in until right now. Elliot is in her ear telling her how beautiful she is, how he’s thought of her every day since he’s left, how unbelievably good she feels around him.
“Jesus, El,” she says, and then her orgasm crests and breaks over her like a wave, so powerful that she doesn’t immediately realize that she’s brought Elliot with her over the edge.
They lay there and simply breathe together for long minutes afterward. Elliot is pinning her against the mattress, his weight and warmth a welcome pressure against her. Olivia’s eyes are closed; she hums lightly and runs her fingers idly over his back.
When Elliot shifts Olivia drops her arms and lets him pull out and away. Her room isn’t cold, but the air is definitely cooler without him blanketing her. He doesn’t go far, though, just rolls onto his back and then holds an arm out so she can turn into his side and pillow her head on his chest. They’re laying the wrong way on the bed, but he manages to grab and tug enough of her comforter over to drape part of it across them.
Her eyes are closed when she speaks. “El?”
“I love you, too.”
F O R E V E R
The sky outside the window is the pale gray of pre-dawn. The sun will be rising soon and stretching long fingers of resplendent light through the curtains and across the room. It’ll be a new day. Not yet, though; this moment feels hidden, or stolen, a secret scribbled into the margins of the pages of the life they’re building.
Olivia is asleep. She’s on her stomach, both arms bent above her head and tucked underneath her pillow. Her hair is a chestnut cloud against her pillow, and it hits Elliot again just how in love he is - just how arduous the journey to this moment has been.
Elliot reaches out and drags languid fingers over the curve of her shoulder. He follows the line of her shoulder blade to her spine and down until he hits the line of her tank top. He traces the barrier, first to one side, then the other, and back up to her far shoulder. She favors sleeping in matching pajama sets, but the more nights that Elliot spends with her now the more common it’s becoming for her to forgo them in favor of long t-shirts, or tank tops, or - Elliot’s favorite - his t-shirts.
The only thing that could be better would be finally convincing her to sleep naked, but Elliot knows that the logistics of her life make that unrealistic. Noah is likely to appear at any time: first thing in the morning because he’s awake and wants breakfast, or the middle of the night because he’s had a nightmare.
Olivia’s skin is soft and warm beneath Elliot’s fingers. He can feel the slight rise and fall of her breathing. It’s slow, and even, and he feels like he could drown in the peace of this moment. The shadows in Liv’s room are shrinking and the gray is bleeding into the first hints of gold; this is his haven. Not just this room, though he feels safe here too, but this woman - this silken expanse of skin, the solid bones beneath that are as much steel as anything else … the indomitable heart that bleeds, and breaks, and loves anyway.
Elliot is on his side facing Olivia, but her head is turned away from him. He pushes himself up onto one elbow and leans forward to press a soft kiss to the curve of her shoulder. Then another kiss against her shoulder blade, and he can feel her breathing change under his lips, but he presses another kiss over her spine.
A quiet hum; the murmur of soft skin against soft sheets as her arms pull lazily out from under the pillow. Elliot holds himself away enough to let her turn until she’s on her back. Olivia still has her eyes closed, so he resumes his ministrations and presses a kiss to the scar that is barely visible under the line of her shirt on the swell of her right breast.
He has thrown himself on the altar of Olivia’s pain and resiliency so often that he struggles to remember any other. He can’t erase the scars, can’t undo the mistakes and transgressions of his past - their past - but he has devoted himself to the healing of them. Not on the surface because the healing there is long past, but underneath. The memories will never fade, not really, but he will devote the rest of his time on this earth to pressing love and devotion into what hatred tried to leave behind.
A lazy hand comes to rest against the back of Elliot’s head. She scrapes her nails through his shorn hair and lets her hand slide down his neck and over his shoulder as he raises his head and kisses a line up her sternum, then her neck, and finally closes his lips over hers.
“Morning,” Liv whispers against his lips.
Elliot smiles. “Not quite.”
He lowers himself carefully until the top half of his body is draped over her chest. Most of his weight is braced on his forearms as they rest on either side of Olivia’s head; he waits for the deep sigh that signals her comfort. She has never told him to do this or given an indication that it’s necessary, but Elliot knows. He knows it in the way he knows her: instinctively, by heart.
When Olivia sighs, Elliot drops his head next to hers. Their cheeks brush and come to rest against each other as he breathes in the fresh scent of her hair.
“Please tell me it’s Saturday,” she whispers against his ear.
It’s Olivia’s turn to trace mindless patterns against the bare skin of Elliot’s shoulder. They lay like that for long moments, quiet breaths puffing against one another’s ears as the day blossoms outside the window.
There’s intimacy, and then there’s whatever this is that he shares with Olivia. This connection exists on levels that Elliot can’t see, can’t name, can’t understand; it demands, and nurtures, and sustains. A decade of pain and silence have wounded and weakened it, but this bond they share has all of Olivia’s resiliency and Elliot’s stubborn faith. Elliot has shot their relationship all to hell, but here in the aftermath they have learned to fill the empty spaces with all the love they’ve never been at liberty to share.
He wants to tell her over and over how he has loved her for decades; how he has lived lifetimes at her side even in the long years of their separation. Especially then, when all he’d had was the echo of a life he’d abandoned yet could not leave. Elliot had left to preserve what he could of his family and knew that there was nowhere in the world he could go where Olivia Benson would not go with him.
“I love you.”
Elliot lifts his head and locks his eyes on Olivia’s face. Her eyes are open now. They’re dark, the darkest brown that he’s ever seen, and they study him with that quiet intensity he’s known for years.
“I love you, too,” Elliot says softly.
She does not need to ask to know where his thoughts had taken him. Olivia does this, sometimes: sees the winding paths his feet start to tread, and the inevitable spiral into guilt and regret that will follow, and cuts it off at the pass. They are call and response, a shout and an echo; the final, everlasting completion of a circle decades in the making.
Outside Olivia’s bedroom, the sudden clatter of a cupboard alerts them to the fact that Noah is awake. Elliot chuckles quietly and glances at the clock on Olivia’s bedside table.
“Six-thirty. Does he ever sleep in?”
Olivia smiles. “I’m starting to think not. What time do you pick up Eli?”
“Hmm, then I guess it’s your turn to make breakfast.”
Olivia lets him lift himself off of her and rolls to her side to watch him as he stands and pulls on a tank top and sweats. She closes her eyes again; Elliot opens the bedroom door and disappears into the apartment. She can hear the murmur of his voice as he greets Noah.
For nearly half of her life they have been unfinished; incomplete. They’ve drawn and redrawn their lines in the sand so many times, demarcated who they are and what they mean to each other until finding themselves here, once and for all.
Until all the lines they’ve drawn have finally just closed in on them, invisible circles that were meant to keep them apart but have only ever drawn them together.
Until the only circles left are small, and golden, and wrapped around their fingers.