“So, tell me about him.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Olivia drained the last of her glass of wine and went to pour more from the bottle in front of her. This blind date she’d agreed to, with someone whose brother worked with Carisi, had ended with her in a fancy black dress at a very posh Italian restaurant all alone; her date stood her up, claiming bird flu, of all things.
The house red, however, was far more than acceptable, and somewhere along the course of the evening, this woman had introduced herself and invited Olivia to join her at her table, so she didn’t have to sit alone. Gillian, Olivia seemed to remember her name was. Apparently, Gillian’s husband was running behind meeting her for a late dinner while they were out of town on business, but the two women ordered wine and appetizers for themselves, and she’d reassured her that her husband would be there as soon as he could.
“You’ve been drinking enough of that wine to refill an entire vineyard, and I know it’s not because your date – Ian, you said – didn’t show.” The other woman’s voice was soft, yet firm and authoritative, and she seemed to be a fairly empathetic person. “If you don’t want to talk about it -”
Olivia fidgeted with the stem of her wine glass and let out an audible sigh. “If only you knew.”
She wasn’t used to being challenged like this; most of the people in her life accepted her words at face value and moved on. “Have you ever been in love with someone you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it, and then circumstances change, and now you could?” The delightful warm buzz of the wine had loosened her lips, and she sipped at her now-full glass. “I mean – he’s my best friend, and I worked with him for years, for crying out loud. He’s my old partner, and still is, in some ways.”
“Would you believe me if I told you I knew exactly how you felt?” Gillian took a drink from her own glass of chardonnay, and smiled. “You’re not the only one who spent years figuring out your complicated emotions and feelings toward an important man in your life.”
“Figure them out? Yeah, eventually, but it took me a long time to admit it, even to myself, let alone to him.” Gillian passed the breadstick basket to Olivia; Olivia gratefully took out a long, slender breadstick and dragged it through a puddle of marinara sauce. “He was my best friend, work partner – we even started the Lightman Group together – really, he was the single most important person in my life, it seemed like. Besides my husband at the time, of course, but after Alec had his relapse and we divorced, yeah, definitely the most important person.”
Funny, this woman’s words echoed so cleanly across Olivia’s own experience, almost as if she’d lived out another version of what her life could be like, with a few details changed. “What changed?” Her breadstick laid discarded by the side of her plate, almost forgotten.
“It was after one of those long, grueling cases – you said you were a police captain, right? You know the kind I’m talking about. The ones where you wonder if you’re ever going to see the sun rise again in the morning when it’s all over.”
Olivia nodded. “All too well.”
“He’d gone home to his daughter, and I’d stayed at the office until late, trying to get my head screwed back on straight before I went home. But when I left, I didn’t go to my house; I went to his.” Gillian looked wistful, as if she was remembering the night in question with fondness. “When he opened the door, I kissed him. Somehow, that felt like all that needed to be said.”
A man who seemed to be Gillian’s husband came over to the table and picked up her hand in his, placing a gentle kiss on the tips of her fingers. “Sorry it’s taken me so long to get here, love; it took me quite a while to find a taxi driver in Manhattan that knew where this place was.”
“You’re here, that’s what matters,” Gillian said; her lips parted in a broad smile as she looked at her husband. “Cal, dear, this is my new friend, Olivia Benson. Olivia, this is my husband, Cal Lightman.”
“Of the Lightman Group, I take it,” Olivia said, extending her hand to shake his.
“Foster-Lightman Group, now,” he said, grinning as he shook her hand; when he sat down, he slung his arm comfortably behind Gillian’s shoulders and gave her a light squeeze on the top of her arm. “Enchanté, Ms. Benson.”
Gillian leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially to Olivia, “He asked me to marry him, so I asked him to change the name of our company to include me.”
“So, what do you do for a living, Olivia?” Her name sounded like a lilting song out of his mouth, with his British accent. “You could be an actress, you know, in the movies. You have a classic beauty to you, like the actresses of old Hollywood.”
Gillian almost choked on her wine, and Olivia laughed. “Far from it, actually, I’m a captain with the NYPD. Manhattan Special Victims Unit. Gillian here has been telling me all about your work with microexpressions and the contracts you have with the federal government.”
“She seemed fascinated by it,” Gillian countered, as she eased into Cal’s generous touch; they looked entirely at ease with each other. “We also discussed the fact that her blind date claimed he’d contracted a case of bird flu, and that she probably loves her former partner.”
“I never said loves.”
“No, you said in love with.” A beat, a pause, and then, “maybe you want to deny your feelings for him, whoever he is.”
“I’m not denying anything.” Frustration mounted. She loved Elliot – loves Elliot – has always loved him, from the moment they first met to the present day, and in some form or fashion, has loved him for every day in-between. Articulating the depth of that feeling, especially to someone she only just met an hour before, was nearly impossible.
“You’re talking to two of the most experienced readers of microexpressions in the entire country. When you started talking about this former partner of yours, you bit the corner of your lip, if only for a second, but it wasn’t enough to disguise the smile that wanted to form. Your eyes had a sparkle in them I hadn’t seen all evening.”
“It’s incredibly obvious looking at you, love, clear as can be,” Cal said. “When Gillian here mentioned him again, your whole body lightened, as if the thought of him relaxes you. Your shoulders aren’t as rigid, and your nostrils flared slightly, which indicates attraction. You were thinking of him, weren’t you?”
Olivia shook her head in amazement. With these two around, they could almost be a human lie detector machine. She idly wondered how admissible their testimony would be in a court of law, given their status as experts in the field. “What if I am? What, then? I’ve known him for almost more of my life than I haven’t, and his wife just died back in the spring, and he has his son, Eli – I’ve just gotten him back in my life, and I don’t want to risk losing him again.”
Gillian reached across the table and gave a sympathetic pat on the back of Olivia’s hand; the other woman’s touch was warm and inviting, much like how other people had described hers in the past. “Do you think he loves you?”
“He told me he did, in front of all his children. But he’s never mentioned it again, and maybe it’s the PTSD from his wife’s death making him think –“ She swirled the wine in her glass and tried her best to keep a straight face; with her luck, though, she’d be spelling out every last one of her insecurities without even realizing it. “I – shit, this wine is making me talkative.”
“It’s okay.” And when Gillian said it, with such sincerity, she wanted to believe it. “Cal told his daughter that he loved me before I ever heard it from him. Sometimes the truth comes out when you least expect it to, but that doesn’t make what’s said any less true.”
“If I’d known Gill would be so receptive to having a grumpy curmudgeon like me in her bed, I’d have made a move a lot sooner,” Cal said. He swallowed a gulp of wine and pressed a loose, sloppy kiss to the side of Gillian’s cheek. They whispered something soft to each other, unintended for anyone to hear but them.
She saw the way the two of them looked at each other, like even though she was sitting across the table from them, that they were the only two people in the universe. She saw the reverence in his eyes, and adoration in hers – you didn’t have to be one of the top microexpression experts in the country to see that. And she wondered, was this how Elliot looked at her, when she wasn’t looking?
If it’s so obvious, why haven’t I seen it before now?
“I know you’re scared, Olivia,” Gillian said. Her hand fell below the surface of the table, probably to linger by Cal’s side. “But take it from me, someone who’s been there before. Your love for him is written all over your face. Admitting my feelings for Cal was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“Besides agreeing to marry me.” His smile was persistent, as if he was saying I really can’t believe she actually said yes, and that we’re here right now, and I get to call this woman my wife.
“I still say that’s a natural progression of events.”
Olivia looked between the two; she was increasingly feeling like a distinct third wheel, and she had somewhere to be that wasn’t here. She reached into her purse. “Here’s my card,” she said, scrawling her cell number across the top in ballpoint pen and handing it to Cal, “and that’s my personal cell number. If you ever get back to New York, give me a call. Maybe Elliot and I can meet you for drinks somewhere.”
She threw enough cash down on the table to cover the bottle of house red she’d drained, and smiled at them. “I hate to be a killjoy, but I think I have someone I need to have a long-awaited conversation with, and it can’t wait any longer.”
After Olivia said her goodbyes to Cal and Gillian and waltzed off into the night to find an unoccupied taxi, Cal turned to Gillian. “Elliot, eh? He’s one lucky bastard. But I’m do believe I’m luckier.”
“Mmmm, I think you’re right,” Gillian said, cupping his chin in her hands to plant a delicate, soft kiss on the corner of his lips. “Much luckier, and if you play your cards right –“
“You know I always play to win with you. She does realize bird flu is incredibly rare in humans, right, especially in the United States?"
"Sometimes, for someone who claims to know all about honesty, you can't tell an incredibly bad lie when you're presented with one. It's all going to work out for the best though," she said, claiming his lips with hers and letting their dinner go untouched for just a moment longer.
The taxi ride to Elliot’s new apartment felt like it stretched on endlessly through the night, and Olivia watched as crowds meandered down the sidewalks and streets, enjoying what would probably be one of the last truly pleasant nights before the winter chill set in.
She knew exactly how to get to his apartment, and she followed one of his neighbors in, holding the door open for him and anxiously counting the seconds until she could make her way to his door. The elevator was impossibly slow, but eventually – she made it, and she fumbled in her purse, before realizing that her copy of his spare key was on her dresser at home. She hadn’t anticipated Elliot to be the night’s endgame, after all, but maybe she should have known that the circles of her life would always draw her back here to him.
So, she knocked on his door, and bounced back and forth on her heels while she waited.
“Olivia?” His voice was husky with sleep as he opened the door; low-slung flannel pajama pants hung to his body, and of course he wouldn’t be wearing a shirt. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” She closed the distance between them with an insistent press of her lips to his, and she heard him let out a short groan under his breath, before he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into the apartment with a tiny, surprised squeak. “For once, everything’s right,” she whispered, her voice soft against his mouth; anything further she could have said, any words of explanation, he swallowed with sighs of utter contentment. His hands threaded through her hair, pulling her ever closer, ever tighter, ever nearer to him.
And all she could think was: thank God for the bird flu and perceptive new friends.