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Don’t you dare.

She’s not actually thinking it in so many words, but the meaning behind the only thought she can formulate right now—“no”—is there all the same. The question is whether it’s intended for him, or the universe at large. Both of whom should know better than to do this to her.

She’s lost so much already.

“Captain.” A gentle voice is trying to reach her.

Nodding mechanically, she bends down to where he is instead. Their fingers are still woven together. She brushes her cheek against his own and closes her eyes, breathing him in before she’s made to stand.

“I love you,” she whispers, damned if she’s going to let that half-crazed declaration remain unanswered. He probably can’t hear her anymore, but she needs him to know.

“I love you. I love you.”

 


 

You were my lesson I had to learn
I was your fortress you had to burn

~ madonna, “the power of good-bye”

 

Carry me home
Bear my weight on your shoulders
Carry me home
Nothing else matters
Carry me home
Bear my weight on your shoulders
Carry me home and don’t let go

~ jorja smith, “carry me home”

Chapter Text

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

~ olivia benson, law & order: special victims unit

 


 

On top of everything that had come out in the meeting with Angela, Richard Wheatley’s stupid smirk is still playing on a loop in Elliot’s head as he climbs the stairs to her apartment. Maybe he should have just shot the son of a bitch on the train when he had the chance. Wouldn’t he have been surprised.

There’s someone else.

He’s tried calling her, tried texting her, and her lack of response has left him with no other choice. Hopefully, she’ll understand.

The unfamiliar door is in front of him now, and he hears movement inside. His blood is thrumming. Blowing out a stream of air, he knocks three times.

“Liv? Liv, it’s me.”

The sounds fall silent. Elliot’s head drops while he waits. “Liv, let me in. Please.” He licks his lips in agitation, then pounds harder. “Liv? Liv.” Squinting at the blank surface, panic floods him in an instant.

“Liv! I’m coming in,” he calls out in warning, and moves to kick the door in when it swings open.

She doesn’t look like she understands.

“What the hell, Elliot?”

“Hey,” he greets, exhaling at the sight of her. “I’m sorry, I . . . Can I come in?”

Olivia doesn’t say yes but steps aside for him to enter, still looking at him sideways. She wonders if he flashed his badge at someone to get in downstairs.

Probably, she decides.

Closing the door behind him, Olivia turns back to face Elliot. His eyes are flickering around the apartment, taking it all in. She notices there are fresh red marks on the bridge of his nose and his cheek.

“What’s this about, Elliot?”

“Um, yeah. I’m sorry for the surprise visit. I got your—I tried calling, but. It’s about Wheatley.”

“Wheatley?”

Elliot cranes his neck. “Noah home?”

“No.”

When she doesn’t elaborate, he nods a few more times than is necessary and rubs absently at his arm. The self-soothing gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by Olivia, who’s still waiting. She raises her eyebrows at him, shrugging for effect.

“Yeah, so. I, uh, I just got done meeting with Wheatley, and . . . I don’t like some of the things he was saying. And I already know what you’re gonna say, but . . . I’d like to put a detail on you until things calm down.”

An incongruous smile lapses across Olivia’s face. “Oh, my God,” she breathes.

“I’m serious, Liv.”

“Did he do that to you?” she asks, gesturing vaguely.

He blinks back at her. For all the progress he’s made in recent weeks, his face has taken on that same horrible, desperate look that is still so foreign to her.

“Elliot . . .” She sighs. “I know you’re going through a tough time right now. But this is not OK.”

“You don’t understand.”

“And I’m willing to listen. But I really don’t want you showing up here like this.”

Elliot’s eyebrows lift as he frowns. “I really don’t give a shit.”

“Ha,” she scoffs, “big surprise there.”

“Come on, Olivia.” His face instantly puckers. “Don’t. OK? Just don’t.”

“What do you want me to say, Elliot? You can’t just barge into my home unannounced and expect me to be OK with it.”

“I’m not here to—Wheatley’s in custody, but he’s still, he’s trying to get to me. And now he . . . You’re not safe, all right? You’re just gonna have to trust me on this.”

“Did he threaten me or Noah?”

“Specifically? No.”

Olivia folds her arms, matching his current posture. “OK. So, if you’re not going to tell me what he actually said, can you tell me why he would be targeting me over you?”

“I don’t know, Liv! He’s nutty as fuck! The point is now he knows about you, and I—”

“What?”

“Wheatley.”

“Wheatley knows what?”

“He knows, all right? He, he—” Elliot flusters, and her heart clenches like it has so many times since he’s come back. “I just . . . I need to make sure you’re safe, OK? That’s all.”

“Elliot, you haven’t—” Olivia stops herself, pressing her lips together.

He waits, studies her. “Haven’t what? Been there for you in ten years, why start now?”

Olivia’s head shakes as she continues to look at the floor. Well, at least the ability to read each other’s thoughts is still there.

“Like I said,” she treads carefully, “I know you’re dealing with a lot lately. And whatever this is that Wheatley has you all worked up over . . . I know part of you is thinking about Kathy. And you have to know that wasn’t your fault.”

Elliot’s eyes remain steely, appraising. “Do I?”

“Elliot, nothing you could have done would have prevented what happened to Kathy. I know how hard that is for you to accept right now—believe me,” Olivia’s eyes slip closed, “I know. But it’s the truth. And the sooner you can accept it, the sooner—”

“The sooner I’ll be able to forget about her?”

Now it’s her turn to scrutinize him. “You know I would never say that, Elliot,” she tells him purposefully.

His mouth twists, and a heavy silence settles between them. It’s Elliot who finally breaks it.

“I know what happened to you,” he informs her. “While I was away.”

Olivia freezes, not unlike her reaction to another recent, wholly unexpected revelation of his. “OK,” she manages, the response belying her racing mind.

“And maybe I’m not supposed to know,” he rambles on, “but I kind of found out by accident, and I just . . . There’s nothing I can say, you know? I get that. But I’m sorry, Liv. I wasn’t there when you needed me most.”

The shock of having this conversation now, out of nowhere, reaches a new level when she sees that he is crying—or, at least, he appears to be crying, without even realizing it. One after another, tears are running down his face while he just stands there looking back at her. Olivia has never seen anyone cry like this before, let alone Elliot, and the visual is so unnerving that she has half a mind to march over and shake him, just to make him stop.

“Elliot,” she replies instead.

“I’d like to say if I had to do it all over again, I would have done it differently,” he continues. “That I wouldn’t have left the way I did. And maybe you want me to say that, you know, maybe you don’t. But I honestly can’t say one way or the other. I can’t say I would have done anything differently. At the end of the day, I had to.” He shrugs helplessly, knowing it’s not close to being a sufficient explanation, but it’s all he has to offer. “Had to.”

“I know,” she says, even though she doesn’t know, can’t begin to understand Elliot’s reasoning for how he chose to handle things back then. The letter they have yet to properly discuss had gone a ways in answering some of it, but there are still so many unresolved questions for her, so much to work out between the two of them.

Seemingly back with her now, Elliot lets out a long breath and gapes up at the ceiling. Olivia braces herself for what she has to say next.

“Lucky for me, I had people who looked out for me back then. The truth is,” she tells him, “I haven’t needed you in a while.”

Elliot’s head falls, along with his face. He blinks at her wetly.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely appreciate your concern, OK, because I do. And I promise you that I will stay vigilant here. And let you know the minute I notice anything out of the ordinary. Deal?”

He gives a slow nod. “I’m gonna hold you to that.”

Briefly, Olivia thinks of how Elliot was after Gitano killed Ryan—how he’d yelled at her in front of everyone at the precinct. She’s known it all along, perhaps, but it’s so much clearer now. He wasn’t angry with what she did or didn’t do; he was terrified that she’d gotten hurt, and on his watch to boot.

“I know you will,” she says. Then, for clarity: “So, no protective detail for now.”

“No protective detail for now,” he echoes.

“I appreciate you actually asking this time, though,” she adds, a glint in her eye.

Elliot smirks. “Yeah. Well, I know how stubborn you are.”

“Me,” Olivia deadpans. “I’m stubborn?”

“Yeah, you heard me,” her partner says, his accent coming out.

Elliot turns then, surveying the place she calls home once more. “I’m glad you haven’t needed me in a while, Liv.” He smiles at her, eyes shimmering again, and nods for emphasis. Perhaps he’s convincing himself.

Olivia smiles back, fighting to keep her own emotions in check. “Thank you.”

As he moves towards the door, she reaches for his hand.

Grab onto us.

Elliot looks down at the contact, and he interlaces his fingers with hers.

Well, Olivia thinks. This is new.

His face is old, though—familiar and unfamiliar at once, and as she takes in the sight of his downcast features, the top of his bruised cheek, a surge of affection washes over her.

Beneath her quiet watch, Elliot happens to be savoring this moment himself. He slides his thumb around her wrist and skims over her pulse, tracing down into the center of her palm.

“Check in with you tomorrow?” he asks, meeting her eyes.

“Yeah,” she assures him. “We’ll talk then.”

 


 

Your sorry eyes, they cut through bone
They make it hard to leave you alone
Leave you here wearing your wounds
Waving your guns at somebody new

~ beck, “lost cause”

 

Am I supposed to feel something
Was I supposed to let you win
Why do these things keep happening
To me

I see these spirits hovering
They’re forcing me, they’re pressuring
The life I lived has now caved in
On me

~ fractures, “twisted”

Chapter Text

“You made this mess, baby boy. You’re gonna clean it up.”

~ richard wheatley, law & order: organized crime

 


 

Harsh daylight is filtering into the room where Richard Wheatley’s lawyer, defense attorney Athena Davis, is waiting for him. He takes the seat across from her, eyes tracing the far windows that separate him from the street.

“The arraignment has been scheduled for June 1,” she informs him, opening up her portfolio on the table between them.

“Good. Also, I’ve asked Richie to join us today.”

Athena looks up in the direction of the door. “Oh?”

“You’ll still meet with him separately the morning of the arraignment, if you could just go over the kinds of things he can expect until then. I want to reassure him, you know. He’s scared.”

“With all due respect, Richard, he should be scared. He’s looking at accessory to the murder of a cop.”

“Yeah.” Wheatley cocks his head to the side as he rolls his shoulders. “Let’s not discuss any particulars with him until they’re settled. Where are we with the U.S. Attorney’s Office?”

“I haven’t formally reached out yet, but it’s definitely an option worth exploring. If you want to go that way.”

“Mmm.” Richard’s lips purse. “And just for my own knowledge, I’m assuming our conversation here is protected today?”

“That’s my understanding,” Athena hedges.

“OK.”

Richie enters the room then. Wheatley rises, greeting him with a smile.

“My man.” He puts his hands on Richie’s shoulders. “How you holding up?”

“All right.” Richie takes the vacated chair. “Cops paid me a visit last night.”

“Oh yeah?” Wheatley crosses his arms. “Who was it? Detective Stabler?”

“Stabler, and that woman.”

His father frowns. “What woman?”

“Bell, I think?”

“Sergeant Bell.”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t talk to them, right?”

“No, I . . .” Richie looks away, uncomfortable.

“Richie?” Wheatley’s head dips. “You didn’t talk to them, right?”

“No.”

Just cried like a little bitch, Richie thinks miserably to himself.

“They tried to get you to, though, huh?” Wheatley clucks his tongue. “Well. I don’t want you to worry. Athena and I are still going over our options here, but turns out I may be able to help out with some federal cases.”

Richie glances between them. “And what—that’ll get the charges against you dropped?”

Wheatley smirks. “I mean, I’m hoping? Unfortunately, this Detective Stabler is gonna be a problem.” He crosses over to the wall behind Richie, peering out into the hallway before turning back around. “After Stabler met with you last night, he met with your mother and me.”

Shifting sideways in his chair, Richie regards him curiously.

“Now, obviously, I’ve done my research on the guy. I brought someone up from his past just to mess with him.” Wheatley shakes his head, frowning deeply. “Nothing. I mean, I could tell he was surprised, but he played it cool. None of these famous outbursts I’m told he used to pull, anyway.”

Richie considers this, thinking back to his own experience of Detective Stabler. How he’d restrained Sergeant Bell when they came to his cell to talk to him about Gina. Just your typical good cop, bad cop, no doubt. Following their unseen altercation in the subway yesterday, his father was the one who’d spit out the mouthful of blood. Not Stabler.

“So, who was it?” Richie asks.

“Who?”

“The person from his past.”

“Oh, he’s got this partner from back in the day. By all accounts, they were very close. Even by partner standards. She’s the captain of that unit now, actually.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. I don’t know,” Richard equivocates, seemingly bored all of a sudden. “What I do know is, with nothing else for this guy to focus on besides what happened to his wife—understandably,” he amends, his fingers spreading for some unseen audience, “he’s going to continue to be a problem for us.”

Richie nods thoughtfully.

“Stabler just needs to get his mind elsewhere, is all. But don’t count ol’ Dad out yet, huh?” Wheatley’s easy charm is back as he claps a hand down on his son’s shoulder. “Athena?” His lawyer meets his waiting gaze.

“I leave you in very capable hands,” Wheatley tells Richie, and moves to meet the guard at the door.

Richie’s eyes lift to Athena, thoughts swirling for later.


»»««


Fin and Phoebe may not have gotten married, but their choice in last-minute venue was definitely a good one, Olivia thinks as she stands beneath the party lights on the patio of The Hudson. She’s still thinking about Garland, and the unsettling news he’d just told her at the bar.

Whatever they try, I’m not gonna go quietly.

Sipping at her wine, she spots Elliot approaching from the opposite direction. Nearly three months later, sometimes it still catches Olivia off guard that Elliot is here—that he’s back in New York, and she can actually see and talk to him in person, when this was not a reality for the past ten years of her life. She moves to bridge the distance between them, brow raised.

Elliot’s own expression is rueful, and Olivia realizes he took her greeting in a way she didn’t intend. “Hey. You’re a little late,” she plays along, while his arms lift in apology.

“Yeah. I was looking at apartments,” he explains. Together, they walk towards the outer edge of the patio overlooking the river.

“In the city?” Olivia processes this out loud.

“Yeah, it’s . . . it’s time.”

She nods like she understands, the repercussions spinning as they reach a quiet spot at the railing. “Good,” she half exhales.

“So, did I miss the whole thing?” he asks.

“Actually, uh, they’re celebrating their last-minute decision not to get married,” she informs him.

Elliot’s mouth opens and promptly closes again. “Good for them,” he says finally.

Already, Olivia thinks, he seems much better again.

His eyes travel the length of her. “You look lovely, by the way,” he remarks, like this is a completely normal thing for him to say.

“Oh, well, thank you.” She feels herself frown, and clears her throat. “Punctuality aside? I’m sure Fin is glad you came. I know this must be a little weird for you, being here with everyone like this.”

Everyone, Elliot repeats to himself, as he regards the people around them—everyone who was already, or who ended up becoming, part of his partner’s life over the last ten years.

I should have been here with you, he does not say.

Olivia studies his profile. “I’m kind of looking forward to all the questions I’m going to get, you showing up here like this,” she says, trying to draw him back.

“What?” Elliot makes a face. “I’ve known Fin a hell of a lot longer than most of these people, I bet.” Olivia purses her lips, and he sees the immediate relief there.

“But yeah,” he admits. “It is a little weird.”

“Anything new with Wheatley? Or should I not ask.”

Elliot exhales, loudly. “Arraignment’s on Tuesday. I think the kids are gonna come.”

“Oh, wow. That will be good to get behind you, at least.”

“Hey, I’m gonna go say hi to the not-so-married couple,” Elliot abruptly announces, and Olivia wonders that he didn’t stop over to see them first, on his way in. He points to the wine in her hand. “You good?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

He nods and heads off to where Fin and Phoebe are both chatting with someone. On the way, he’s intercepted by someone they both knew from the 1-6 who has since retired. Elliot smiles warmly as he grasps him by the arm, his mouth moving to form words she cannot hear.

I know what happened to you. While I was away.

It hadn’t struck her then—she’d been too busy processing the first part of his statement at the time—but Elliot’s use of “away” jumps out at her now. Like his leaving had been some temporary sojourn, not the gaping void she’d been forced to live with, day in and day out. Something that had felt very lasting, and very permanent.

While you were gone, Elliot, she finds herself mentally correcting him. You know what happened to me while you were gone.

Olivia still has no idea how he learned of Lewis. And she is curious to find out, but she supposes at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much. The fact is, now he knows.

Elliot is still catching up with their friend, and he glances over in her direction. She starts to smile, but his attention is already elsewhere, scanning his surroundings as he talks. Almost like he’s doing a sweep.

Ah.

Old habits die hard, Olivia thinks, and she takes a generous sip of wine. Perhaps this apartment is just Elliot’s way of keeping an eye on her?

Way to be self-involved, Olivia, she admonishes herself just as quickly.

And yet . . . she thinks back to how Elliot threw himself on top of her in the car two months ago, when Felix Tinga was killed. The act itself didn’t surprise her, but that was also well before Wheatley had said—well, whatever it is he’d said to make Elliot show up at her door looking the way he did. As if he hadn’t been put through enough already. Olivia suddenly decides she would very much like the chance to meet this Richard Wheatley.

He knows, all right?

Olivia gives an absent shake of the head as Elliot’s frantic voice plays back in her mind. Wheatley knows what, exactly? Knows what she and Elliot are to each other? Well, then he’s clearly got one up on both of them, seeing as they’ve been trying to figure that out for a while now.

A waiter is passing by. She holds up her glass. “Oh, hi—whenever you get a chance, can I get a refill? And one more for my friend.”

“Of course. I’ll be right back with those.”

Looking out to the black swath of trees that line the other side of the river in Hudson Park, Olivia waits for his return.


»»««


Elliot makes his way over to Fin and Phoebe, trying to stifle the feeling that he really doesn’t belong here. He spares a quick glance back at Olivia, who remains in the spot where he left her. Even now, Elliot finds himself struck in odd moments that he and Liv are in the same city again, let alone the same time zone, capable of physically seeing and talking to each other whenever they want. Fin and Phoebe both smile as he approaches.

“Congratulations?” Elliot’s hands do a seesaw motion in front of him, like he’s balancing imaginary scales.

Fin chuckles appreciatively while they greet each other. “Hey. Thanks, man. Glad you could make it.”

Elliot smiles at Phoebe, extending his hand to her. “Hi. I’m Elliot.”

“Phoebe,” she returns, her eyes crinkling as she smiles back.

She looks happy, Elliot decides, and tries not to think of Kathy.

“You guys got a good crowd here,” he says.

“Yeah, not too bad for last-minute.” Fin’s chin jerks in the direction of Olivia. “Glad to see you two mending some fences?”

Elliot follows his gaze. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “Me too.”

“How you doing, man?” Fin’s expression turns sober, and Elliot fidgets under the sudden scrutiny.

“Better. Thanks. It’s, uh . . . I’m getting there, you know?”

“That’s good,” Fin nods.

Elliot frowns, plowing ahead with something he hadn’t planned on saying till now. “Hey, Fin. I want to thank you for, uh, for being there. For Liv, all these years.”

Fin raises his eyebrows. “Goin’ soft on me now, Stabler?”

“Ha, no. I just . . . I shoulda checked in, you know? I shoulda stayed in touch. After Jenna . . .” His face closes, the trauma of that day still fresh somehow ten years later.

“Hey. Like I said before, man, I get it.”

Elliot nods dumbly.

“And look, I mean, someone had to pick up the slack around here,” Fin says, earning a small smile from Elliot.

“Yeah. Well, I mean it, Fin. I’ll always be grateful.” Another guest is hovering nearby, giving Elliot his out. “OK. Well, I’ll let you guys go. Thank you both for inviting me.”

“All right, man. Good to see you.”

Elliot ambles out of the circle. A drink is definitely in order, and Olivia probably needs one at this point as well. He arches his head to see if she’s moved, but she’s still waiting for him, looking out over the water. He pauses to allow himself this unimpeded view of her, Fin’s words coming back to him from the night the two of them had dinner.

Liv moved on. It took her a minute, but she moved on.

Maybe he’s self-centered as hell, but Elliot can’t stop thinking about this firsthand account of Liv’s reaction to his departure. How long had it taken for her to “move on” after he left? Did friends move on from each other, even?

He turns to the bar and sees that it’s crowded. Deciding to check in with Liv first, he starts making his way back to her.

In spite of everything, Elliot reflects, she’s still here. Olivia survived unimaginable horrors in the years they spent apart—the years they lost, he tries not to let himself think about—and the fact she’s letting him anywhere near her is probably a miracle in and of itself.

Sometimes when he looks at her, unbidden thoughts of what she endured at the hands of that monster, and the mental images that accompany them, all but paralyze him. Once or twice she’s caught him lost in one of these moments, and he’s had to play it off—had to pretend like another piece of his soul didn’t just die, like one has every day since he’d come to learn the name William Lewis.

He wasn’t there for her then, and yet here she is for him now. The fact she went out of her way to help his kids, even after he’d told her to leave him alone. How he made an even bigger mess of things and said “I love you” in front of them. In front of Liv, he muses. He was in a state that night, for sure, but the memory still makes him wince. It’s like that Frank Sinatra song his father used to play:

And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “I love you”

They’ve deftly avoided the subject since then, but Liv still probably thinks he’s nuts. Kathy hasn’t even been gone three months yet. It’s too soon to be . . . well, too soon for anything when it comes to Olivia. Unconsciously, Elliot begins fiddling with his wedding ring as he moves through the crowd.

The truth is, he doesn’t want, nor does he expect, anything from Olivia. Mainly, he just doesn’t want her to hate him.

Finally, he has a clear path to her. She’s facing away from him, holding her glass of wine. Her dress is long-sleeved, but it’s still a bit chilly tonight, especially for the end of May. He spots an extra glass on the railing in front of her and smiles. So, the drink is sorted.

Now he’s just gotta figure out which one of these coats is hers.


»»««


Olivia sees Elliot, on his way back, reroute himself to weave between the nearby tables. He’s inspecting the few coats that are still draped on chairs, his hand ghosting over some of them. When he reaches hers, he pauses and looks up at her. He points at it, questioning her with his face. She nods, then chuckles to herself when he flashes the thumbs up sign.

On what has to be Fin’s approved wedding playlist, “Still Water (Love)” by the Four Tops is playing. Olivia lets her eyes wander to the music and lands on Fin and Phoebe with Garland, Kat, and Céline. They’re all laughing at something, and the sheer happiness and serenity of the tableau is enough to make her wish there were more days like this, for everyone.

“Here you go,” Elliot says, coat in hand.

“Thank you,” she says, turning while he drapes it over her shoulders. “And, I got this for you.” She hands him the glass of wine.

“Thank you.” He looks over at Fin and Phoebe. “They’re a good-looking couple. How’d they meet?”

“She’s a cop. His first partner.” Elliot’s eyes go to hers, their own shared history passing silently between them. Together, they face the river, and his glass lifts towards hers.

“To partners,” Olivia toasts, meeting Elliot’s glass with her own.


»»««


He did show up late, so it’s hardly a surprise when the night is already drawing to an end, but Elliot is still not quite ready for it to be over.

Neither, for that matter, is Olivia. Despite the occasional furtive glance she’s noticed steal over her head, Elliot seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, and she’s grateful to be able to spend some time with him that isn’t fraught with the kinds of things they’ve both had to deal with in recent months. He’s laughing now at her recollection of just how terrible he’d looked on one of the first all-nighters she could remember spending at the 1-6, his smile so wide it creases his cheeks.

“Those were the days,” Olivia muses, casting her gaze south past the George Washington Bridge as if their past selves are still down there somewhere, kicking ass and taking names.

“Yeah,” Elliot agrees, watching a tendril of Olivia’s hair flutter in the breeze. “I’ve missed—this,” he says, faltering the moment she turns back to him.

I’ve missed you, his brain supplies helpfully, and he’s at once reminded of his eleventh-grade history teacher and the mantra she used to say:

No guts, no glory.

Olivia is giving him an amused look, but eventually she nods. “Me too,” she replies.

“All right, folks, this is gonna be our last song of the night,” the DJ announces, making them both look up. “On behalf of Phoebe and Fin, we want to thank you all for spending your evening with us. Good night.” A song that sounds like something you’d hear in a dance hall from yesteryear, with doo-wop-like vocals and a slow, lilting beat, begins to play.

“So. What do you say?” Elliot’s voice floats out to her.

Olivia turns in his direction, and Elliot Stabler says the second craziest thing he’s said all night.

“Want to dance?”

“Oh—” she tries to hide her surprise, “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. We may not get the chance again.”

Olivia frowns at his words. “Going somewhere, Stabler?”

“What? No. No, I just meant . . . who knows when the next decent-size gathering will be, right?”

Her chin lifts in acknowledgment, but damn if the fleeting look he’d seen cross her face just now wasn’t legitimately—rattled, on some level. Clearly, he has more than a ways to go in earning Liv’s trust back, in reassuring her that he’s not going to just up and leave again.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s see that you get all sorts of questions about tonight.”

She looks at him in wonder, and he actually takes her by the hand then. As they make their way to the dance floor, she feels his fingers involuntarily squeeze around hers.

Dancing with Elliot Stabler, Olivia says to herself, as if she needs the reminder of where they are headed. It’s strange they haven’t, honestly, between the various charity balls and any number of undercover stints where this might have been required over the years, but the fact remains they haven’t.

Her next thought is that she’s still too sober for this, but they’ve already reached their destination, and they turn to face each other. Elliot’s smile at her is impish, which has an immediate calming effect on her. His other hand comes to rest on her waist, as hers goes to his shoulder. They’re the perfect height for this, Olivia thinks, absurdly, while she finds her step to the song.

Wanna be around, girl

Wanna be around, girl

Ooh, wanna be around

It sounds like an R&B classic from the sixties, but Elliot has never heard it before. He squints. “This an old song?”

Christ, he thinks to himself. Could he be any more awkward if he tried?

But Olivia’s eyes are also narrowed in thought, looking up as if to place it. “I’ve never heard it before, so, probably new?”

“Hmm.”

“I also haven’t been listening to much of anything since Noah,” she admits. “Well. You know how it goes.”

Elliot gives a soft laugh while, privately, he marvels at the thought of Liv as a mother—something she’s wanted for so long, and now has at last.

“Yeah,” he says, even softer. “I do.”

As they dance, Olivia relaxes into him more, her hand drifting back to rest on his shoulder blade. He smells the same as he always has, from the countless times he’d lean over her, tie dangling, to look at something in the squad room with her, to the time he held her outside of JFK, to the unthinkable night Kathy died, and he cried on her shoulder. While they may never have done this before, the overwhelming familiarity of him is enough to make her forget what Garland was saying to her about being forced out; forget what’s waiting for her with the Howard case when she gets back. For now, she just wants to forget.

“I like it,” Elliot murmurs, his face hovering just above hers.

Out of sight, Olivia smiles. “I do, too.”

Carisi and Rollins are two couples over, and Olivia’s heart lifts at the sight of them. She shares a knowing look with Carisi, whose eyes are literally twinkling. When it’s Amanda’s turn to face her, they offer each other matching conspiratorial smiles. Suddenly Olivia feels like she’s back in middle school again, gaping at her friends while she dances with a boy.

From the other direction, Elliot is watching Fin and Phoebe when Fin catches his eye. If he’s surprised to see the two of them there, he doesn’t show it. He winks at Elliot, the dimple on his face spreading before he turns away.

I’m really glad you’re back.

I should’ve come back sooner.

Memories hover in the space where Elliot now holds Olivia, the scent of her perfume just the same as he’d remembered it. Whether she grasps—or will ever grasp—the sense of peace he’s always found in her, Elliot cannot say. All he knows is she’s been holding him up for so long, it’s only fair he return the favor.

A strong breeze lifts off the river, and the string lights above them wobble and bounce.

“I’m still mad at you,” she says quietly. There’s no context, nothing that prompted the comment whatsoever, yet over her shoulder, Elliot smiles.

“I know,” he tells her.


»»««


The restaurant staff is breaking down tables by the time they bid Fin and Phoebe farewell.

“Walk you to your car?” Elliot asks, turning to Olivia.

She looks at him. “I don’t really have a say in the matter, do I?”

Elliot shakes his head, his lips turning down at the corners. “Not even a little bit.”

“Ugh,” she relents, rolling her eyes. “Fine. After you.”

They make their way back through the restaurant and emerge outside again to walk down to where she’d found a spot on the street.

“Well,” he says, as they reach her car. “It was a really nice night.” Unfailingly clever as always.

Olivia turns, her eyes gleaming in the low light. “It really was,” she agrees, never anything but gracious.

No guts, no glory.

“Let me know when you get home?”

“I actually have to stop at the DA’s office first, but yeah.” Olivia nods. “Will do.”

He nods back, and, before he can debate it another second, kisses her on the cheek.

Olivia barely has time to register the soft press of his nose when she realizes he’s already pulled away. In all their hellos and good-byes over the years, somehow, they’d never done this before, either. Their eyes meet.

“Bye,” they say together, and neither can help but smile—utterly defenseless in the face of so much hope.

 


 

Turn back
Leave all you had
Forgive, I’ll forget
’Cause what we need is what we once had
Time won’t stand still
Just say you will
’Cause I need you there

~ kaleo, “i want more”

 

Last time we were low
You left to go in the world
That got in the way of our plans
You were forced to leave, I was forced to understand
I can’t stop missing you
I tried to run away from the truth

~ lydia beyene, “my love”