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fight with yourself (and your thoughts in the night)

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She dreams about him, sometimes. 

It’s not something she’s proud of, or wants to do, and it’s been happening less, the longer he’s been gone. It’s not like it’s a big deal; she doesn’t tell Lindstrom about it, not when he asks her to talk about her dreams in detail after… well, everything, to log them in a journal like case reports that detail all the freakish back alleys of her own mind. 

It’s just that Olivia dreams about Elliot sometimes, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, even though she’s started making a conscious effort to forget the angles and lines and planes of his face. Not that it’s working.

Olivia will find herself, on occasion, counting the fault lines that demarcate her life, sectioning it into manageable pieces. The day she found out about her father. The day she became a cop. The day her mother died. Finding Simon. Lewis. Finding Noah. 

Elliot.

There's Olivia before Elliot, and Olivia after. She's made it a habit not to think too much about the in-between.

Elliot brackets thirteen years of her life, neat and tidy like a set of parentheses. She meets him when she’s green and bright-eyed; he leaves her a decade later, hardened and world-weary. Between that there’s too much history to count — Sealview, Gitano, Oregon, Rojas, Eli, Jenna Fox and everything else — but she works for years to contain it and seal it up and tuck the memory box of them away in a corner of her heart.

When he left her, he did it without so much as a word, went radio silent as if he expected her to somehow forget he’d existed in the first place. As if he expected her not to care. 

She was jumpy, those first few days and weeks, constantly on edge. Every ping of her texts or knock on her apartment door or ring of her phone in the night could be Elliot, her brain told her, over and over, until she couldn’t take it anymore, until the false hope threatened to break her clean in two. Eventually, she settled into her new reality; she packed up his desk, begrudgingly admitted Nick might know something about police work, tried to integrate herself into a new team. 

She stuck Elliot’s mini-badge onto the butt of her gun even though she ripped the note he’d attached it to into tiny shreds, cardstock confetti that covered her desk. 

Olivia forced herself to move on, to accept the inevitable, to focus not on the utter betrayal that was her partner of over a decade — her best friend — dropping off the face of the earth, but rather on the squad she still had, on the work, on helping victims and catching perps. 

But delusion will only take you so far. Reality is bound to catch up at some point. 

The first time she dreams about him after he leaves, she slaps dream-Elliot straight across the face, hard. She doesn’t remember what made him appear in the first place, or what happened after, but when she startles awake and her alarm clock tells her it’s quarter past three, all Olivia knows is that it felt good, to finally get that out of her system. 

Cathartic, even. 

It doesn’t exactly put a smile on her face, but she does feel a little bit lighter that day when she goes into work and finds Nick sitting at the desk next to hers in the squad room, not Elliot. He’s talking about a dance recital Zara had that weekend, all tiny white tights and slippers and pink leotards; Olivia asks to see pictures and doesn’t miss the way he brightens at the request, fishing his phone out of his pocket with a grin. 

Over time, it becomes easier — starting again. She’d allowed Elliot to permeate every corner of her life in the decade and change he’d been in it, trusted him more than anyone else. She doubts she’ll ever let someone get that close again, let one single person take up all the focus. She tried it once, and look where that got her. 

But it doesn’t mean she has to be alone. She’s got Fin, and Munch, and Cragen too. Amanda, Nick, Cassidy, Barba.

Her life is full of people — who are there for her, who support her, who care. It’s a foreign feeling and a comfort all the same, and some days, when she’s having drinks after work with Fin and Amanda, or eating takeout at their desks with Nick late at night, case files spread out before them, she thinks that maybe, all these people put together, in all their different ways, might just be enough to fill the gaping hole in the centre of her heart. 

It’s the dreams, though, that betray her. 

Olivia still wakes up in the dead of night with the image of Elliot seared into the backs of her eyelids. Elliot, with Gitano’s gun to his head. Elliot, shirtless and pressed up against her bra-clad chest. Elliot, his strong arms around her in the hallway of the church where Sonya Paxton took her last breath. Elliot, holding Jenna Fox’s bloody body in the middle of the squad room as everything around him just faded away. 

He’s as vivid in her mind’s eye as if he’d never left, as if she were right back there beside him, reliving it all in full technicolour. 

She jolts awake every time, head pounding, breathing heavy, and it takes a few seconds before she adjusts back to reality — to her bedroom, to the dark, to the feeling of her bedsheets against her skin. 

Breathe in for four, breathe out for four.  

“God damn it, Elliot,” Olivia whispers into the blackness of her apartment. “Just, damn it.”

/

She and Elliot were always too close, but it took him leaving for Olivia to realize the full extent of it. When they were partners, it felt natural, as easy as breathing, to be there at his side come hell or high water. To finish each other’s thoughts and sentences, to speak in a language no one else could understand.

But with perspective, and with the pain of his departure still fresh like a barely scabbed-over wound, it’s easy to see just how intense (and probably borderline unhealthy) their bond had really been. It’s not like she didn’t have the inkling at least once before, when Gitano had them in that warehouse and she’d seen the terror and the sorrow in Elliot’s eyes.

Elliot had taken it out on her, this she realizes with hindsight on her side. He hadn’t really meant any of what he’d said (or maybe he had, and she’s deluding herself now, remembering the better parts of Elliot and forgetting the worse) but it felt like a gut-punch all the same, like an ultimatum. Like she’d let him down, in some unforgivable way. 

I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be looking over my shoulder making sure you’re okay.

I need to know that you can do your job and not wait for me to come to the rescue.

So Olivia ran. To Computer Crimes, to perps that didn’t wield physical weapons, or shoot little kids in bus terminals. She ran away from Elliot, but then she came back.

And Oregon… Well, Oregon wasn’t entirely her choice. That was mostly Dana Lewis, but Olivia agreed to it faster than she probably should have, got on a plane and flew across the country and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared off the face of the earth. She knew it would be temporary, but she needed to know what it’d do to her, to be away from Elliot, to be alone for the first time in eight years. 

(And wasn’t that an odd revelation, realizing that she wasn’t alone anymore. That she had someone in her life who was a constant, even when they were at each other’s throats. Who was solid, and dependable, and so unlike everyone who’d come before him.)

Turns out, she couldn’t shake him, no matter how hard she tried. The bastard was stubborn enough to haunt her from a thousand miles away. Waking up in a hospital in the middle of nowhere and muttering his name in her sleep like some lovesick teenager? Not one of Olivia’s prouder moments.

Leaving was hard, but coming back might have been even harder. There was a pretty blonde sitting at her desk, laughing with Elliot, all long limbs and wavy hair and toothy grins. Olivia felt something clench in her gut at the sight of them, something ugly and dark, and she hightailed it out of the office faster than she could blink.

Those first few cases post-Oregon, it felt like they were just a few degrees off-kilter, careful with one another in ways they hadn’t ever been.

Getting their rhythm back took a while, and by the time they ended up on Elliot’s stoop at ten to five in the morning, knees bumping together, and Olivia admitted to the crux of it all — that Elliot was the longest relationship she’d ever had with a man, the only one who’d put up with her (and even back then, she’d known somehow that he’d keep the record) — she’d resolved to make sure nothing could ever break them apart. 

Well. 

At least she’d held up her end of the bargain.

/

Clara Mercer’s father was a stranger who raped her mother at a bus stop. 

Clara Mercer’s mother, understandably, couldn’t deal with the pain, with the constant reminder of the worst night of her life, living right there in her own apartment, in need of love and attention and care she couldn’t bring herself to give. But what Olivia cannot understand, will not understand, is how that led Clara Mercer’s mother to beat her four-year-old daughter and leave her for dead under an overpass. 

The case shakes everyone on the squad; no one can handle the children, especially when they’re this young. It’s an old adage in SVU, one that Nick and Amanda are quickly learning firsthand. 

“How could a mother do this to her child?” Nick asks, after, when Clara Mercer’s mother is sitting in a cell in Rikers and he and Olivia are filling out the last of their paperwork. “How could she hate her own daughter?”

Olivia glances up from her notes and takes in his expression, the bloodshot eyes and worry lines on his face, the way he keeps shaking his head like it’s unfathomable. Nick scrubs a hand across his jaw and huffs out a breath, pushes his chair back and starts pacing. 

“I just—” he starts, and then stops himself. He turns and leans back against his desk, hands deep in his pockets, eyes trained on the tips of his shoes. “Her own daughter.” The anguish in his voice is palpable, and Olivia knows that his mind’s eye is filled with images of Zara, glimpses of her life flashing by in snatches, like a zoetrope spinning madly on. 

Olivia sets her pen down and leans back in her chair. She looks at Nick, who’s still bright and hopeful in a way that she envies, sometimes, who doesn’t know how unjust, how sick the world can be — just how much destruction one act of cruelty can leave in its wake.

“I don’t know,” Olivia says, and the lie slips off her tongue with an ease that’s unexpected but also not. She doesn’t actually know, is the thing. Doesn’t have the precise answer for what made Clara Mercer’s mother beat her daughter or what pushed Serena Benson to drown her sorrows in Stolichnaya six nights a week. 

Was it just their rapists, or was there something else, too, lingering under the surface? Violent or addictive behaviours that would have otherwise lain dormant, exposed on the nights that would change two women’s lives, forever? 

They’re questions that Olivia is not sure she wants the answers to. And it’s a part of herself, stitched into the very fabric of her soul, that she doesn’t want Nick to know about. Not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever.

“Does it ever get easier?” he asks, despondent and desperate and utterly wrecked. 

Olivia meets her partner’s eyes as she sits up straighter in her chair. She takes a breath before she shakes her head. “No. No, it doesn’t.” 

That night, Olivia falls into a fitful sleep close to two-thirty, tossing and turning until she’s in the passenger seat of the old sedan with Elliot right next to her. They’re on a nondescript corner of a nondescript block in a nondescript part of Manhattan, the sunlight is waning and there’s a breeze filtering in through the half-open driver’s seat window. 

Elliot’s balancing a paper coffee cup on his left knee; his head is tipped to the side so that he can look her in the eye. “Cruelty is cruelty, Olivia,” he says, voice soft, “no matter the circumstances.” 

Olivia sighs and leans back against the headrest. “I know that. In my head, I know that, but—”  

Elliot reaches his right hand over the centre console and places it on the juncture of her neck and shoulder, squeezing gently. The warmth of his touch bleeds through the fabric of her coat and spreads across her back. She wants to melt into it, wants to hold on to the feeling forever. “No buts,” Elliot says. “That mother beat her little girl, and she made a choice to do it.”

Olivia nods. “I know.”

“Liv, the same goes for your mom too,” Elliot says, because he understands, because he’s innately aware of all the nooks and crannies her thoughts are getting lost in tonight, all the well-worn excuses and rationalizations that filled her teenage years, that tried to justify the vodka, and the screaming, and the bottles shattering against the kitchen walls. 

He understands, and Olivia knows this is only a dream, but the relief of it still washes over her like a tidal wave, blankets her in a sense of security she hasn’t felt since she finally accepted she’d never see him again. She doesn’t have to explain herself to Elliot, because he already knows her better than she knows herself some days.

“Yeah.” 

Olivia can’t tell when the tears started pricking at the corners of her eyes, but she feels them now, sliding down her cheeks as she takes a shuddering breath. Elliot’s still got a hand on her shoulder, and he’s started rubbing small circles over her back, comforting, like he would with a child. “El, she was four years old,” Olivia eventually manages, her voice raw and broken. “She was just a baby.” 

“She was.” There’s a sad sort of finality to Elliot’s words, a resignation, an acceptance. They slip into silence then, and it’s comfortable, safe, sitting in the sedan next to him, looking out at the passerby and watching the sun set over the tops of the high-rises.

It’s the kind of silence she could doze off in, Olivia thinks, if she weren’t already dreaming. 

/

They fuck in her dreams, sometimes. 

She should be more embarrassed about it than she is, but the odds of her ever seeing Elliot again are slim to none (not in the least because she’s not sure she’d ever give him the time of day if he did reappear) and besides, the bastard owes her something, after all these years. 

If that’s dreams where he maps out every freckle and scar and curve on her body with his tongue, paints masterpieces on her skin until she’s writhing beneath him, buries himself inside her to the hilt and makes her finally feel full, well then so be it. 

It’s not like he’s ever going to know about it, after all. 

Olivia realizes that’s a piss-poor justification for her lack of guilt when she wakes up, flushed and panting, when she lays in bed and clings to the fleeting remnants of the dream, chasing her own high and wishing, secretly, that it were Elliot pushing her over the edge, not her own hand.

But Elliot is god-knows-where, so all those thoughts that she fought so hard to repress for thirteen damn years, to push down whenever she caught a glimpse of him in the low light of the squad room, or by the lockers, or when he was rolling up his shirtsleeves in interrogation, aren’t all that forbidden anymore. 

In her mind’s eye, he looks the same way in between her legs as when he prays: his eyes slip shut and his features relax, and he loses himself in it.

So the dreams, and the mornings spent moaning his name? 

They’re a quiet indulgence, a private little sin. Not one worth punishing herself for. 

/

Olivia doesn’t bother keeping track of how many times she’s asked dream-Elliot why he left. 

Asked him how he justified excising himself from her life entirely, without an explanation. How he threw away thirteen years of trust and friendship and synchronicity like they were disposable. Like she was disposable. 

She never does end up getting an answer. 

They’ll be standing across from one another, in her dreams, or sitting next to each other on a park bench, or hunched over a faceless body, and Olivia will turn to Elliot, the question fully formed and right there on the tip of her tongue until — 

She’ll wake up suddenly, alone in a bed that’s too big and too cold, and sleep will elude her for the rest of the night. She’ll let out a frustrated groan and try not to check her alarm clock and burrow further beneath her covers in the hope that if she just tries hard enough, she’ll fall asleep again. 

It’s not like Olivia hasn’t asked herself the question often enough in her waking hours. Hasn’t turned a million different options over in her mind, a million different reasons that all boil down to one thing: Elliot Stabler had a choice to make, and he left her in the process. 

By the end of it, she could see the way Elliot’s nerves were beginning to fray around the edges. He’d put in nearly two decades at SVU, a unit with an average two-year turnaround rate, and the toll it’d taken on him was evident. Anyone would balk at the horrors they face each day, at the cruelty and the depravity, but a cradle Catholic father of five children? It was a testament to his strength that he’d lasted this long. 

She doesn’t begrudge his leaving, per se, his decision to step away from the unit and focus on Kathy and the kids and being the father he’d always wanted to be (Elliot is the best father Olivia has ever known, but she saw the regret and disappointment flit over his face every time the job interfered with time he could have spent with his children) — present and unburdened. 

What she doesn’t understand, what countless dreams and hours spent thinking and worrying and obsessing over his leaving have never been able to explain, is why he had to do it like this, like some thief in the night. Like he was ashamed of it. Ashamed of her.

And that’s the crux of it all, isn’t it?

Olivia isn’t his family. Elliot’s got a wife and five children, and for all the encyclopaedic knowledge she possesses of this man (and he of her), she was just his partner, someone who existed in the margins of his life. His best friend, maybe, if she’s being generous. Nothing more, nothing less. 

There were no sacred vows to bind them, no common blood coursing through their veins. Their connection was ephemeral, bound by a specific space and a specific time, fragile and precious like a single strand of silk. 

And, of course, every thread that’s strung too tight is bound to one day break.

/

After Lewis, after Olivia learns the meaning of sheer and utter terror firsthand, everyone naturally, and correctly, assumes that she’ll end up with nightmares. 

But what Lindstrom, and Brian, and her whole squad get wrong? It’s that the worst nightmares aren’t about Lewis at all.

She wakes up in the middle of the night on a shout, drenched in cold sweat, disoriented and heaving. Next to her, Brian is whispering, Breathe, Liv, and You’re okay, I’m right here and every other placating thing he can think of. 

It’s only when she calms down marginally that he dares touch her, that he places his palm on her shoulder or squeezes her hand and walks her down from the ledge, patient and gentle. In these moments, he’s everything she never expected from this man, who’s rough around the edges and hardly ever thinks before he speaks and puts his foot in his mouth at least twice a day. 

Brian doesn’t ask her what she dreams about; besides, she’d never tell him. It’s not like he can’t guess, though. He was there at the trial, every step of the way. Olivia knows he read her file at some point, too, saw every grisly detail of her statement, of the crime scene photos, of the hospital reports. 

He knows she avoids vodka, and can’t take pills some days, that the sight of duct tape makes her flinch. He knows the map of the scars that litter her body — the cigarette burns, the coat hanger, the house key he’d branded her with, white hot and glistening. But they don’t talk about it, they just let Lewis and what he did to her exist quietly in the space between them. 

It suits Olivia just fine. 

She doesn’t want to talk about it, about seeing his face above her, feeling his breath on her skin. It’s hard enough to confide in Lindstrom, to write down what Lewis does to her in her sleep, how sometimes he goes further, turns sicker. She’s glad Brian doesn’t push. 

It’s not just Lewis, though.

Reliving the terror he inflicted is torturous, but it’s nothing compared to the other dreams, the ones she doesn’t mention to Lindstrom, the ones she never writes down.

The ones where Elliot bursts through the bedroom door at the beach house, guns blazing, and he’s a foot away from the bed, his weapon trained on Lewis’ chest — and then he disappears into dust. The ones where Lewis shoots Elliot in the head. The ones where Elliot doesn’t save her, but stands at the bedside instead, taunting her, egging Lewis on.

The ones where Elliot takes one look at her, bound and gagged and desperate, and leaves.  

Those are the dreams where she jolts awake screaming, where the panic takes hours to subside. They leave her gasping for breath and utterly unmoored, lost out in a sea of her own fear. When Lewis had her, all Olivia wanted was for Elliot to knock down that damn door and rescue her, to run in and shoot the bastard and save her, like he’d done countless times before. 

He didn’t, though, and Olivia saved herself. She beat him bloody, and walked away from the carnage, from her own fury. She did what she’d wanted Elliot to do, and she did it alone, because if there’s one thing life has taught her, it’s that when it comes down to it, the only person who’ll really ever save you is yourself.

Olivia sometimes wonders if Elliot even knows. The kidnapping and torture of an NYPD Detective was bound to end up splashed all over the news; there were countless front page headlines and A Block broadcast packages devoted to her “ordeal.” The trial, too, had turned into a public spectacle, a feeding frenzy and a constant reminder of humanity’s sick obsession with pain and anguish. 

She doesn’t think he could have missed it, if he was still in the tri-state. But where else would Elliot be? Olivia can’t picture him anywhere other than the city; he’s a New Yorker through and through. But that has to mean he did see it, and he chose not to react. 

And that, that might be the worst thing of all. 

A few months after the case is well and truly closed, after IAB dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts, an officer asks Olivia if there’s anything she wants to retrieve from the evidence locker, any personal effects she’d like back. 

She thinks of Elliot’s mini-badge on the butt of her old gun, of the constant reminder of her former partner that she’d kept holstered to her side. Olivia takes a second, runs her fingers through her still-short hair, and eventually shakes her head. “No, but thank you,” she tells the officer, and finds she really means it.

The last part of Elliot will stay buried in the evidence locker, forever, right next to the proof of the worst days of her life.

/

Noah comes into Olivia’s life, and her whole world shifts on its axis. 

This little boy, with his big brown eyes and his rosy cheeks, fills up all the empty spaces in her heart and Olivia is convinced she could burst with the love she feels for him. Parenthood is a dream she gave up on long ago, after dead-end meetings with adoption agencies and Calvin, sweet Calvin, who will always have a place in her heart.

But Noah? Noah is a revelation. 

Olivia didn’t think she was capable of loving someone like this, of unflinching, unfailing devotion to another human being. She and Noah are the same, in so many ways, children of rapist fathers and addict mothers, but they found each other by chance, her and this sweet little boy, and Olivia vows to make sure that his childhood looks nothing like her own.

The first night she takes Noah home, and lays him down in the new crib she bought, that Nick and Fin assembled that afternoon, it hits Olivia like a tidal wave. This is her family.  

He might not be her blood but that couldn’t matter less. He’s hers, and she is his mother and she knows, right that instant, that she will run to the ends of the earth for this child, will die for him, and do it gladly.

Over the years, Noah grows and turns into his own little person, who loves elephants and dancing and watching cartoons with his mom on the couch. Olivia starts to see herself in him, little flashes, like when he tilts his head to the side when he thinks, or declares that his favourite ice cream flavour is strawberry. 

And it might be Team Mom and Noah, in their little house, but there are so many more people who are part of their family: Aunt Amanda, and Jesse and Billie, Uncle Sonny, Uncle Fin and Uncle Rafa too. 

Uncle Munch comes to visit, sometimes, and Uncle Don sends postcards every Christmas, of him and his wife and her grandkids, and Olivia sticks them up on the fridge next to Noah’s latest art project.

It nearly bowls her over, every once in a while, that she’s a mother now, that she has a son. After so many years spent yearning for something she thought she'd never have, the enormity of it, the privilege of it, isn’t lost on her, not for a second.

She kisses Noah goodnight every evening after tucking Eddie the Elephant into bed with him, turns out the light and eventually makes her way to her own bed, where sleep takes her quickly. 

She’s in the interview room at the old station house, this time, and it surprises her. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” dream-Elliot says from across the table, but there’s a smile on his face. 

“I guess not.” Olivia dreams about him less and less, now that she has Noah, and she wonders if that’s the reason for it. If her newfound family has managed to finally fill the hole Elliot left in her chest.

“You have a son,” Elliot says, and the pride in his voice puts a lump in her throat. 

“I do. His name is Noah.”

“He’s beautiful.” Elliot reaches across the table and takes Olivia’s hand in his, squeezes it once, twice. “I’m so happy for you, Liv.”

Olivia lets out a watery chuckle. “I’m happy too. Really fucking happy.”

“Motherhood suits you.”

“It’s hard, Elliot, harder than anything I’ve ever done. And I’ve only got one. But, God, the feeling of it? Of knowing that kid is yours and he loves you and needs you? It’s indescribable.”

Elliot nods, and there’s a knowing look in his eye. He’s done this five times over, but that feeling, this Olivia knows now with certainty, never fades. “Better than your wildest dreams, Benson?” he asks, and Olivia grins. 

“Yeah.”

/

The night Kathy Stabler’s car gets blown up is like a waking nightmare.

It all unfolds in slow-motion: the call comes through, and the street is chaos, lights and sirens and a wrecked car and then there’s one word that pierces through the cacophony of it all. Suddenly, everything around her grinds to a screeching halt.

“Liv!”

Olivia almost doesn’t turn, because she must be dreaming, this cannot be happening, this isn’t real. But then she sees him, not twenty feet away. Elliot is right there, in the middle of Manhattan, and he is looking at her like she’s a crime scene, like it’s unbelievable to him, too, that they are once again sharing the same pavement. 

Fucking hell. 

As soon as she says his name, the world starts spinning again, dizzyingly fast, and then it turns out Kathy was in the car and they have to get to the hospital and every single thing about this is absolutely, unequivocally, surreal. 

There is no time — no time to think, no time to let it sink in that Elliot Stabler is back, in the flesh, standing next to her in a hospital hallway. It’s all too much, suddenly, painful like someone took a knife to her chest, carved out her heart and held it up for the world to see. Here it is, beating far too fast even outside her body: the physical proof that ten years later, this man still holds her heart in his hands and she’s powerless to do anything about it.

She is dying by inches, looking at him, at the new lines on his face and the terror in his eyes. Elliot Stabler is back in Manhattan, and his wife was nearly blown to smithereens, and none of it, not one iota of the past few hours, feels real. 

/

Elliot has nightmares. They’re less frequent, now, a few months after Kathy’s death. He and Eli got a place in the city, two bedrooms and a view of the skyline; Elliot tells her his son still hasn’t gotten over it, how bright and restless New York is at night. 

Olivia smiles, thinking of Eli in Rome, growing up with ancient architecture right there in his backyard. It’s gotten easier, with time, picturing what Elliot’s life looked like in the decade he was gone, asking about it, hearing stories. The relief of it is palpable. 

They’ve been talking for months now, the two of them, since he’s been back. First about Wheatley, about Kathy’s case, about Elliot’s kids, about the fact that he punched a hole clean through the drywall in his hotel room. Their conversations were triage, in those few weeks, a verbal tourniquet to make sure they stopped the bleeding, pressed down hard on the wound and refused to let it turn fatal. 

It’s never really been about words for them, though. 

For Elliot and Olivia, communication has always looked more like fleeting glances and raised brows, shrugged shoulders and elbows brushing against one another as they walked. It’s no different, now, despite a decade and an ocean between them; she can still read his face like an open book, and she knows he’s reading hers in return. 

Maybe he doesn’t know all the facts about Olivia anymore, but he still knows every facet of her soul, and that scares her, now, more than she ever thought it would.

Ten years. The weight of it sits heavy in the air between them every time they meet. There is so much left to talk about, so much left to grieve, but she finds herself frozen, when she looks at him, terrified that one wrong move will make it all crumble and he’ll disappear right before her eyes, an apparition that was never there to begin with.

They share their first conversations in hallways, on rooftops, in parking structures. Fleeting moments carved out of the chaos that their lives have become (have always been, really). Pretty soon, they’re talking in her office at the one-six, or at the diner on the corner, and she’s a few minutes late, one time, caught up in a case, but when she slides into the second booth from the door there’s already a club sandwich on rye sitting on the formica tabletop, next to a cup of coffee with just a splash of milk. 

Elliot smiles at her from across the table as he takes a bite of his reuben, and turns his plate so that his fries are easier for her to reach. 

It’s a shock and a relief in equal measure, and suddenly she’s thirty-five again and her hair is six inches shorter and Elliot’s fielding calls from Munch about new developments in their case, and fuck, if that isn’t a sucker-punch to the gut that Olivia wasn’t expecting.

The smallest gestures are what really scare Olivia shitless, the ones that signal the slip-slide back into the synchronicity they once shared. She wants nothing more than to succumb to the safety of it, the familiarity, but there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty, of fear, lacing their every interaction. 

What if he just… leaves again? What if none of this is real? What if she’s dreaming? 

But then he goes and says things, things like Liv, you mean the world to me, and You’re a great mom, and three little words blurted out at the intervention that she won’t even let herself think about. 

And it’s just enough proof to anchor her back to the present, to show her that maybe, this is real, and this is something worth taking risks for. God knows she’s always thought everything was worth it, for this man.

So. 

So Elliot has nightmares, and he’s got a shrink and Olivia never thought she’d live to see the day where Elliot Stabler voluntarily went to therapy. It’s just another testament to how much has changed — how much they’ve changed.

Cragen once told her that nothing changes except what has to, and sure, Olivia could have done with a whole hell of a lot less heartbreak and destruction over the past ten years, for her and Elliot both, but in the grand scheme of things? She got Noah, and she’s a captain now, and Elliot gave Kathy ten good years, and Eli grew up with a dad who didn’t spend more time at the station house than he did at home.

“I’m so fucking proud of you, Liv,” Elliot says one night when they’re sitting on her sofa. She’s got a glass of wine and he’s nursing a beer and Olivia’s legs are tucked under her as she leans back into the armrest. Elliot’s on the other side, feet propped up on her coffee table, his left arm stretched out across the back of the couch. There’s plenty of space between them, still, but it’s comfortable and safe. “You know that, right?”

There’s an intensity in Elliot’s voice, in his eyes, in the way he holds himself, like he needs her to understand this, more than anything else. He was always her biggest cheerleader, back then, and Olivia finds herself smiling at his words now. 

“I—” he starts, hesitating for a second, because yes, they’ve talked about things, and he’s apologized for how he left a million times, and she’s told him she’s trying so damn hard to trust him again, but this thing between them is still fragile and delicate and neither of them wants it to break. 

“There were nights, in Rome, and on assignments, where I’d be sitting at home or in some shitty hotel or in a car on a stakeout and I’d, ah, I’d think about you. About the life you might be living. If you found someone, had a kid, made Sergeant. If you were happy.” Elliot huffs out a chuckle, quiet and raw, and he runs a hand over his head. “But, God, Olivia, knowing that you’ve got all this? A kid, and a family,” and Elliot’s eyes are misty now, because he knows what that means to her, that she built herself a family from scratch, and they may not be her blood but they are precious to her, “and your own damn squad. It’s all I dreamed of, for you.”

She feels her own eyes prick with unshed tears, and her smile grows even wider. Olivia leans over and gives Elliot’s forearm a squeeze. “You trying to say you dreamed about me, Stabler?” she quips, to lighten the mood and because if she doesn’t, she’s pretty sure she’ll end up crying, and she doesn’t want that, not tonight. 

Elliot laughs in earnest, then, and she can’t miss how he relaxes further into the couch cushions and throws her one of his trademark grins, like he’s grateful for the tone shift too. “And what would you say if I did, Benson?” he volleys back, and it’s as easy as breathing, still, playing with him like this. 

“Hmm.” She pauses for dramatic effect and then leans just a little bit closer, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I might just have to say that I dreamed about you too.”

/

Ten years have left behind a minefield of trauma, of stories Olivia would rather forget. 

Elliot has made it clear that he’s here to stay, for good, and she wants to believe that, wants to trust that he won’t ever let her go again. He’s been working his way back into her life, now, piece by piece, always on her terms. She’s more grateful for it than he’ll ever know.

But she’s got to give him something in return, so she tells him things, like how she found Noah, how he saved her. How it took her months to accept Nick as a partner. How she moved in with Cassidy, once, how it turned out Ed Tucker was so much more than an asshole in a suit.

And Elliot listens with rapt attention, like every new detail shared about the last ten years of her life is precious to him. 

Eventually, Olivia realizes she can’t keep avoiding the Lewis conversation forever. Least of all because there’s still occasional chatter, when it comes to her, from officers and detectives in other precincts and units who don’t know her, but have heard of her, of the pretty detective who got taken by a psychopath, and who might’ve turned a little psycho herself, when he had her. 

Normally, Olivia doesn’t let it get to her, but she doesn’t want that to be how she and Elliot start talking about it, from idle office gossip with half the context missing. 

She doesn’t even know if he knows, if he’s simply oblivious or he’s keeping quiet until she broaches the issue. She’s not sure which would be worse. 

Olivia brings the case file home with her that night, unsure if she’ll be able to talk about what he did to her, or if she’ll just hand it to Elliot, to read for himself. Both their kids are having sleepovers — Noah’s with a friend from dance and Eli’s staying with Rich after they go to a ball game — and it’s become a bit of a routine, to invite Elliot to hers and sit on her couch on nights like this, sharing a glass of wine and conversation. 

It’s new, but she likes it, the closeness for closeness’ sake, without the need to justify it. 

“There’s a reason,” she says, “why I could guess, about the nightmares.” Talking about how he struggled (still struggles) after Kathy’s death is easier now, since Elliot’s accepted his new reality, and seen the work he put in pay off firsthand. It’s funny, Olivia thinks: Some people get matching friendship bracelets, she and Elliot have his and hers complex PTSD. “I get them too.”

“What happened to you, Liv?” Elliot asks, leaning forward so he can place a hand on her knee, like he needs the physical reminder that she’s there, that she’s alive. 

So he doesn’t know, has no idea at all that she walked into hell twice and made it back out again. The relief of it loosens something deep in her chest. 

“We caught this case,” she says. “Sick bastard who flashed women in the park.”

By the time she’s done, Olivia feels utterly drained, depleted like a half-deflated balloon. Elliot’s jaw is tense and his eyes are indigo, dark with rage and grief. She hates that she put it there, but she knows, deep down, that he needed to know this, that she needed to tell him. 

“Olivia,” he rasps, voice brittle and raw, “If I had known—”

“Don’t. Don’t play what if with me, not now.”

Elliot nods, and she can see that it’s killing him, to swallow down all the regrets, the things he could have done if he were there. But there’s no changing the past, this she learned a long time ago. Instead, she takes his hand and squeezes. 

“I’m okay, El. Really. Not every single day, but most days. I promise.”

Elliot sags forward at that, and she catches him easily, and somehow, they end up with their arms around one another, curled into a corner of her sofa. Olivia doesn’t have the energy to question it, but Elliot seems to need the contact, the reassurance, just as much as she does, so she just melts into it and holds him tight.

/

The first time he kisses her, she feels like she’s flying. 

He cooked dinner for her tonight, at his and Eli’s new apartment, some pasta thing he learned to make in Rome. Noah’s with Amanda and the girls, and Eli’s off with friends of his own, so it’s just the two of them, sitting far too close on the barstools by his kitchen counter. 

“Thank you for dinner, El,” she says when she’s finished the last dregs of her wine. “It’s not often that someone…”

She stops and shakes her head, gets up to start stacking their plates. It’s the least she can do, now, to repay the favour. “Not often that someone, what, Liv?” Elliot presses, catching her forearm with his hand, gentle, but insistent. 

She shrugs her shoulders, tries to play it off. “I’m a single mom, Stabler, and I’m single. There haven’t been many people around to cook me meals.”

Elliot gets up then, steps into her space. The warmth of his body washes over her, and it takes all of her composure not to melt into him, right then and there. He’s got her bracketed in between the kitchen counter and the solid bulk of his chest, and she should really get herself out of this situation, head for the dishwasher, but her feet stay firmly planted on the ground. 

“Well,” Elliot says, voice low in a way she’s only rarely heard. The rumble of it sends a shiver down her spine. Damn it. “If there’s anyone who deserves it, it’s you. And I’m so glad I get to be the one to do it.”

Olivia can’t help the flush, hot and entirely immature, that spreads across her face at his words. But god, if the thought of Elliot being like this, soft and domestic just for her, doesn’t make her stomach flip. 

“I’m glad, too,” she tells him, before she can stop herself, and it must’ve been the right thing to say, because the smile on his face is like the sun. 

“Yeah?” He sounds shy, all of a sudden, and a little bit hopeful, too.

She ducks her head. “Yeah.”

The next thing Olivia feels is the rough pads of Elliot’s fingers cupping her jaw and tipping her face up so she has to look at him. His eyes are wide and brilliantly blue, and she thinks she could get lost in them, forever. They flick to her lips and back up again and God, this is really happening, isn’t it? 

“Liv, can I?” 

Not a split second passes after the Yes leaves her mouth before Elliot’s lips are on hers, one of his hands still cupping her jaw. The other is on her back, holding her close, and Olivia is scrabbling for purchase in the fabric of his shirt to keep herself from drowning.

Nothing, nothing, has ever felt like this. She never expected to kiss Elliot, but she’s thought about the hypothetical often enough to guess it would be good. This, though? This is something else entirely, hot and desperate, but certain, too. There’s a rightness to it, when his tongue parts her lips and she groans into his mouth, when he moulds himself against her body and they’re flush, angles and planes and curves fitting perfectly together.

Kissing Elliot feels like home. 

They break apart for air eventually, foreheads resting together, both trying to recall the mechanics of breathing. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that for,” Elliot rasps, and he catches her lips in another kiss, tender and slow.

This time, Olivia does let herself sag into his chest, lets him hold her up for just a few seconds while she presses a smile into his pec. “I’m really glad you did,” she mumbles into the fabric of his shirt, and she feels more than hears the low rumble of his laughter. 

Elliot’s hands travel lower, then, slipping under the hem of her blouse and stroking the soft skin they find there, leaving goosebumps in their wake. It shoots through her like lightning, and then they’re moving again, frantic, hands reaching and lips crashing together and they stumble back toward his bedroom, achingly in sync.

This has been twenty-three years in the making, and fuck, Olivia wants to commit every single second of it — every touch and whisper and kiss of it — to memory in full technicolour. Their clothes now mark a trail from the kitchen to his bedroom, where Elliot is sucking a mark into the skin above her right hip. “Fuck me,” she says, on a shout, and Elliot looks up with a shit-eating grin on his face. 

“That’s generally the plan, yeah,” he replies, and Olivia jabs him in the back with her heel. 

“Asshole,” she mutters, but she’s grinning now too, and she reaches down and hauls him up the length of her body so she can kiss him again. She never wants to stop. Elliot meets her lips, and then he’s above her and next to her and below her and surrounding her and she has never been this overwhelmed with emotion in her whole life. 

Finally, fucking finally, he guides himself into her, agonizingly slow, and Olivia’s whole world stops for just a second and shifts on its axis one more time.

Then he’s moving inside her, and Olivia is sunk. “So much better,” she stutters out on an exhale, involuntary, struggling to form a coherent sentence. All she can focus on is the way Elliot feels, the way he’s everywhere.

“Better than what?” He bends down to nip at her earlobe and the combination of his breath on her neck and the way his voice has turned to gravel sends a shiver down her spine, electric. 

Her answer is lost on a groan as he shifts and the change in angle pulls him in even deeper. “Jesus, El.”

“Better than what, Olivia?” he asks again, moving his lips to her clavicle and biting down gently, and oh, fuck him. How is he still talking right now? “Say it.” He stills his movements, then, tips her chin up with his free hand and meets her eyes, a challenge in his gaze. 

She tries to get around it, to force them back into a rhythm with her own hips alone, but the smug bastard has her pinned and he’s not letting up. Of course he isn't. 

Olivia screws her eyes shut, as if it’ll make what she’s about to confess to marginally less embarrassing. “Better than,” she whispers, and she can feel the heat spreading from her cheeks, down across her chest, “better than what I dreamed.”

She cracks open one eye and then another and she could laugh at the expression on Elliot’s face if it didn’t also do something to her insides, molten and liquid already. There’s a glint in his eye, dark and possessive and pleased, and he dips down to capture her lips roughly between his own. “Good,” he murmurs, in between kisses, and if he wasn’t already taking her breath away, this would surely bowl her over. “It’s better for me, too.”

/

She still dreams about him, sometimes. 

Only now, when she wakes up, he’s right there next to her, his solid body wrapped around hers, his breath warm on her neck, the steady rise and fall of his chest soothing under her cheek. 

In Japan, there’s a practice called kintsugi, Olivia learned from a history channel documentary she was half-watching once, on a night when she knew she wouldn’t sleep. The repair of broken pottery with gold. One by one, the shattered pieces of ceramic are put back together, and each new seam is lined with a gleaming lacquer. 

The end result highlights the fissures in the pot, or bowl, or vase, and it’s beautiful. The breakage and repair become part of the history of the object, rather than something to be disguised or smoothed over. 

She thinks about golden fissures now, as she lies next to Elliot in the half-dark of her bedroom. They didn’t close the curtains all the way tonight, both too boneless to move, and there’s a sliver of moonlight streaming in, pooling around their bodies. In the low light, Olivia maps out the topography of Elliot’s chest, the ridges and bumps and scars. 

She recognizes some of them from thirteen years spent dodging bullets at his side, but others are older, remnants of his childhood, of the Marines. There are a few new ones too, from jobs gone wrong overseas; she’s traced them all with her fingers and her lips, committed them to memory. 

He’s done the same for her, charted out the scar tissue that mars her own skin, raised and puckering, with a reverence that overwhelmed her at first, an adoration she couldn’t quite fathom. For years, Olivia struggled with the ways that her body had changed, how it was forever a reminder of the battles she’d endured. 

With time, she’s come to accept the scars, learned to live with them, to understand, intellectually, that they’re proof of her survival. But Elliot… Elliot looks at her, scars and all, and tells her she’s the most beautiful person he’s ever seen with the same unflinching conviction he uses when he prays.

It feels like a blessing. 

In the moonlight’s hazy silver glow, Olivia can almost imagine what their scars would look like dipped in gold, precious and sacred, living proof that they were both broken, once, but they put themselves back together again. 

Olivia exhales and burrows herself further into Elliot, smiling into his chest as he instinctively pulls her closer in his sleep. He smells like pine and laundry detergent and them, and it’s here, in the circle of his arms, where she falls back asleep again, because she knows that as much as the dream was just that, a dream, this isn’t. 

This is real, and it’s forever.